There are lovely soundscapes to discover

I’m a big fan of “lost classics” here at Hack’s Back Pages.  These are songs that are generally buried deep on an album somewhere, rarely get airplay but bring back great memories upon rediscovery.

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For many readers, they are discovering a song here for the very first time.  For me personally, I sometimes find that when I look up a song by an artist I know, I learn of another album the artist released a few years later (or earlier) that I’d been unfamiliar with.  I give it a listen, and maybe I find it’s full of not-very-good songs.  But sure enough, there’s one hiding in there that really tickles my fancy.  That’s not a “lost classic,” exactly; it’s more of a “diamond in the rough.”

This week’s collection of tracks, my 15th, is a cross section of both — songs I believe are worthy of your attention.  You might have heard these somewhere before, or you may be hearing them here for the first time.  When its comes to rock/pop music, it really doesn’t matter.  I enjoy this opportunity to open up my readers’ ears to great songs.  It’s a challenge, because tunes that appeal to me may not always appeal to you, but I’m predicting you’ll be giving most of them a grade of B or better.

And here we go:

“Let’s Get the Show on the Road,” Michael Stanley, 1974

jqnxx8st.j31My Cleveland friends are intimately familiar with this fabulous tune, but those from other parts of the country are probably in for a real treat.  Stanley is a homegrown Cleveland guy who should have hit it big with his Michael Stanley Band (1975-1988) but for reasons unknown, the stars just weren’t aligned in their favor.  I could recommend a dozen, two dozen great songs by MSB, and maybe someday I’ll do a piece focusing on just them.  But here, I’m going to focus on his signature track from his 1974 solo LP, “Friends and Legends,” recorded with Joe Walsh, Joe Vitale, Kenny Passerelli, Paul Harris and Joe Lala providing the backing music, and sax legend David Sanborn virtually carrying the tune with his amazing tenor sax work.  Sadly, it never made any impact on the charts, chiefly because this all-star band couldn’t tour behind it (which led Stanley to form his own band the following year).  SUCH an amazing song!

“Brooklyn Kids,” Pete Townshend, 1987

41BKR2421PL._SL500_Like Springsteen, Van Morrison and other prolific songwriters, Townshend often wrote, demo’ed and recorded twice as many songs as he needed for The Who albums he was working on over the years.  Some of them became tracks on his official solo LPs while others sat on a shelf in his home studio collecting dust.  Truly incredible, I’d say, that a song as dramatic and beautiful as “Brooklyn Kids,” written around the time of the “Quadrophenia” sessions, languished for 15 years before it finally saw the light of day.  In 1983, Townshend finally satisfied fans who had long requested these forgotten gems when he released the double album “Scoop,” which also included a few alternate versions of Who songs.  A second collection in 1987, appropriately titled “Another Scoop,” finally served up “Brooklyn Kids,” and we’re all the better for it.

“Mystic Traveler,” Dave Mason, 1977

Dave-Mason-Let-It-Flow-album-cover-on-BoomerSwag-DL-800x800Mason was a founding member of Traffic who couldn’t seem to coexist with fellow songwriter Steve Winwood, causing him to depart from and return to the lineup several times.  He embarked on a solo career in 1970 with the brilliant album “Alone Together,” which is overflowing with classic British rock songs but didn’t sell all that well.  Once he landed on the Columbia label a few years later, he got more recognition and flirted a few times with chart success, especially on the #12 hit “We Just Disagree” from 1977’s solid LP “Let It Flow.”  Hiding on that great album is the soaring, beautiful “Mystic Traveler,” a fine addition to any “diamond in the rough” playlist.

“Bootleg,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

B000000XCA.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_John Fogerty honestly admits that he alienated the other members of Creedence early in the band’s career by insisting that he write, arrange and produce all their albums.  “The others wanted to contribute their own songs and have more say, but I firmly believed I knew what was best,” Fogerty has said.  “I had these songs that would tie together this whole feel and image of what was later called “swamp rock,” beginning with ‘Born on the Bayou’ and ‘Proud Mary.’  So that’s what happened.”  Indeed, 1969’s “Bayou Country” set the mold for the Creedence sound on its five consecutive million-selling LPs, released in rapid fire in the next three years.  I’ve always been fond of the short (2:58) but sweet “Bootleg” with Fogerty’s unmistakable vocals, guitar and hook.

“Oh Atlanta,” Little Feat, 1974

Little_Feat_-_Feats_Don't_Fail_Me_NowThe story goes that Little Feat was formed because Frank Zappa, after hearing band member Lowell George play his song “Willin’,” kicked him out, saying he was too talented not to have his own band.  George teamed up with keyboard talent Billy Payne and founded Little Feat in 1970 as a wildly eclectic Southern California group offering strains of country, blues and R&B.  When their first two LPs didn’t sell, half the lineup left and were replaced by Kenny Gradney and Paul Barrére, who brought a New Orleans-style funk to the mix.  Beginning with 1973’s “Dixie Chicken,” Little Feat established a solid reputation as a Southern-fried blues boogie band.  A fine examples of their oeuvre was “Oh Atlanta,” from the 1974 album “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now.”

“Sookie, Sookie,” Steppenwolf, 1968

220px-SteppenwolfAlbumSinger John Kay hailed from Ontario, Canada, and from the ashes of his band Sparrow came the mighty Steppenwolf, one of the late ’60s more successful rock bands.  Everyone knows them for their ubiquitous biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” and the psychedelic rock classic “Magic Carpet Ride,” but I urge you to look a little deeper on their albums.  You’ll find many other memorable tracks like “The Pusher” (memorialized in the 1969 counterculture film “Easy Rider”), “Desperation,” “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam” and an irresistible guitar/organ song called “Sookie, Sookie,” written by Don “Chain of Fools” Covay and legendary Stax Records guitar hero Steve Cropper.

“Lifetime Piling Up,” Talking Heads, 1987/1992

1163553-1I admit the stark New Wave sound that New Yorker David Byrne came up with on his early Talking Heads records wasn’t really my cup of tea when they first arrived in 1977.  But I warmed to them by the early ’80s when I saw and heard the extraordinary “Stop Making Sense” concert film, directed by the great Jonathan Demme.  I’ve since become a Talking Heads devotee, and I often listen to the excellent 2-CD package “Sand in the Vaseline,” a 1992 collection of hits and outtakes from throughout their 15-year career.  One hidden track on it is “Lifetime Piling Up,” a discarded tune from the 1988 “Naked” album sessions that Byrne tweaked, cleaned up and re-recorded for the ’92 collection.  Great song!

“Later,” Cat Stevens, 1973

619dN3eR65L._SL1200_Following his phenomenal success on 1970’s “Tea for the Tillerman,” 1971’s “Teaser and the Firecat” and 1972’s “Catch Bull at Four,” Cat Stevens moved to Brazil in 1973 as a tax exile.  During that period, he came up with “Foreigner,” a departure from those LPs in several respects.  He incorporated a more R&B feel to the new compositions, using new backing musicians and producing the album himself.  Half the album was devoted to a complex, piano-oriented opus called “Foreigner Suite,” which was performed and broadcast on ABC that year in an unusual quadrophonic simulcast.  The album’s single, “The Hurt,” stalled at #31, a commercial disappointment after his previous Top Ten hits.   Tucked into this challenging album is another piano-driven gem called “Later,” which features black female vocalists and a soulful rhythm.

“Where Are You,” Burton Cummings, 1980

7577657fcdcc40149ebe27a421542595Cummings was the driving force behind much of the success of The Guess Who, Canada’s most commercially successful rock band on the US charts.  He and Randy Bachman shared songwriting duties as the band rose to fame in 1969-70, but then Bachman left to form Brave Belt and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.  Cumming’s superb, distinctive vocals kept The Guess Who’s hits coming for another five years, ending when he chose to try a solo career.  After initial success — “Stand Tall,” a #10 hit — his popularity dissipated, despite a string of seven albums from 1976-1990.  Buried on his mostly forgettable 1980 LP “Woman Love” (with a truly awful album cover), Cummings came up with a soulful beauty called “Where Are You.”  Why this wasn’t released as a single is a mystery to me.

“Be Free,” Loggins and Messina, 1974

logginsmotherlodeJim Messina had intended to be Kenny Loggins’ producer, offering guidance and maybe a few guitar parts for Loggins’ 1971 debut album.  Instead, Messina’s contributions — half the songs, most of the arrangements and multiple guitar, bass, and vocals — were so substantial that the album was entitled “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In,” and they then decided to make a go of it as a working duo for the next five years.  Much of the engaging music they recorded together featured a pair of outstanding backing musicians (Al Garth and Jon Clarke on saxes, woodwinds, strings and percussion, and backing vocals), and the evidence of their value to the musical mix is never clearer than on the tour de force “Be Free,” a Messina song from L&M’s superb 1974 LP, “Mother Lode.”

“Alabama Rain,” Jim Croce, 1973

6ed186873ff352a28335a47cfb63d34bWhen I hear the music of Croce, I hear only sadness and “what could have been.”  He was only 30 when he died in a plane crash in 1973 enroute to his next tour date.  Ironically, three days earlier, just as his hard-won fame was materializing, he released a new album and single called, agonizingly enough, “I Got a Name.”  What a punch in the gut for his fans.  On the previous LP, 1972’s “Life and Times,” you’ll find one of Croce’s finest hidden moments, a perfect little song called “Alabama Rain” that has its own romantic “what used to be” story.

“Skyline Pigeon,” Elton John, 1969/1973

Elton John - Empty Sky-FrontIn the formative days of the songwriting partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, the duo’s hit-or-miss ratio was more erratic.  Their first official album, 1969’s “Empty Sky,” has only a few songs that stand the rest of time.  One of them, “Skyline Pigeon,” was written on harpischord almost as a hymn, with lyrics that reveal a longing for the freedom to pursue truer dreams and ambitions.  In 1972, John re-recorded the song with his band (bassist Dee Murray, drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone) during the sessions for “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player,” and the result is far more satisfying, and as good as anything on that LP.  It was relegated to the B-side of the “Daniel” single in 1973, and didn’t appear on an album until a career anthology in the ’90s.

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Those were the days, my friend

Time once again for another dive deep into the archives of the rock music of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, scanning through thousands of albums in search of those wonderful nuggets we’ve forgotten about or have never been exposed to before.

This is the Lucky 13th installment of my periodic efforts to uncover and breathe new life into these neglected pearls, these lost classics of a wonderful era when music seemed to mean more…to me, at least.  Maybe to you as well.

The Spotify playlist at the end is available so you can hear these tracks as you read a little about each one.  Please send me your suggestions for other favorites I should shine a light on in my next visit to Santa’s gift bag of lost classics.

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“Fresh Air,” Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1970

61KnyCgsn9LMuch of the music of the 1960s San Francisco scene strikes me as dated, pretentious and raggedly produced; still, it has a certain innocence and naive enthusiasm that can’t be denied.  Sadly, only the music of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead gets any kind of exposure any more.  Gone are the days when early FM progressive radio was fond of treating us to the likes of Moby Grape, It’s a Beautiful Day, Country Joe and The Fish and Cold Blood now and then.  My favorite practitioner of that proud hippie genre was Quicksilver Messenger Service, whose trippy jam music featured the talents of Dino Valenti, John Cipollina, Nicky Hopkins and David Freiberg.  Albums like “Happy Trails,” “Shady Grove” and “Just for Love” offered quaint yet bold forays into a sort of folk/psychedelia mix.  Their finest moment, I think, was “Fresh Air,” with its gentle tempo and flute.  Takes me back to a simpler time.

“Living on a Thin Line,” The Kinks, 1984

R-2533153-1472769794-8698.jpegRay Davies was the composing wunderkind who came up with more than 300 songs that kept The Kinks churning out new albums almost every year for 30 years (1964-1994).  Davies handled all the lead vocals and acoustic guitar, and prowled the front of the stage in tour after tour, serving as both the visual centerpiece and spokesperson for the group through robust and lean times alike.  An ongoing dynamic in the group’s chemistry was the difficult rivalry and tempestuous relationship between Ray and his younger brother Dave, the group’s brilliant lead guitarist.  It’s a miracle the group was able to stay together mostly intact through three decades, as Dave struggled to get his songs onto the band’s records.  On 1984’s great “Word of Mouth” LP, the best cut is Dave’s “Livin’ on a Thin Line,” which was later used an episode of The Sopranos to illustrate the fine line Tony Soprano walked between his mob family and his real family.

“Letting Go,” Paul McCartney, 1975

41k46g055mLMcCartney has written so many sing-songy ditties of little consequence that we sometimes forget he was capable of “letting go” with some serious rockers on occasion.  His “Venus and Mars” album was regarded by many as a worthy successor to his 1973 magnum opus “Band on the Run,” and his last before he went south for the remainder of Wings’ career.  Despite the success he achieved with dreck like “My Love” and “Silly Love Songs,” I have always favored the deeper tracks when McCartney showed he could crank it up several notches and produce something worthy of the exemplary Beatle he once was.  The bass line, the guitar work, the vocals, even the horn charts all combine majestically on “Letting Go.”

“If That’s What It Takes,” George Harrison, 1987

george-harrison-cloud-nineAs another former Beatle, Harrison had a different problem than McCartney did.  He simply wasn’t as prolific a songwriter, and he ultimately didn’t really want to do what had to be done to be a perennial player in the music business.  After the explosion of great material on his solo debut “All Things Must Pass,” it became pretty clear the well was going to run dry quickly, and that’s just what happened as the ’70s dragged on.  It wasn’t until 1987 when Harrison had generated enough quality material to come up with a consistently fine record, the engaging “Cloud Nine,” which was helped by the efforts of Jeff Lynne, Eric Clapton and others.  Most listeners only heard the so-so remake of the ’50s hit “Got My Mind Set on You,” but there are another four or five excellent tracks worthy of your attention:  “Fish on the Sand,” “Wreck of the Hesperus,” The Beatles tribute “When We Was Fab,” and especially the shimmering “If That’s What It Takes.”

“Fakin’ It,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1967

Unknown-31Most of the early Simon and Garfunkel catalog (singles as well as album tracks) was dominated by sadness, isolation and delicate guitar melodies.  By 1967, Simon and producer Roy Halee began branching out, experimenting with more challenging arrangements and story-songs that took on a higher sophistication.  Eventually, this would give us masterpieces like “America” and “The Boxer,” but first came the 1967 minor hit single “Fakin’ It.”  The lyrics continued Simon’s introspective approach, as the narrator bemoans the fact that he’s not being honest but is, in fact, faking it as he proceeds through life.  The S&G harmonies are tighter and more impressive than ever, as the arrangement hits us with horns, hand claps and even a short spoken section as a customer enters a tailor shop and says cheerfully, “Good morning, Mr. Leitch, have you had a busy day?”

“Tightrope,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1975

ELO_A_New_World_RecordJeff Lynne and his Electric Light Orchestra had attempted to wed rock songs with “light orchestra” instruments in the manner of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” since about 1971, but their albums hadn’t found much success in their native UK nor in the US.  A few singles started gaining airplay and decent chart positions (“Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” “Strange Magic”) but it wasn’t until 1976 and the release of “A New World Record” that ELO had their major breakthrough, reaching the Top Five in both countries.  The radio played mostly “Telephone Line,” “Livin’ Thing” and the remake of The Move’s “Do Ya,” but I have always been partial to the LP’s leadoff track, “Tightrope,” with its classical/progressive intro, rollicking beat and vivacious use of strings, all of which recalls the best Moody Blues music.

“Trapped,” Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, 1985

220px-WearetheworldsingleBy the mid-1980s, Springsteen had developed from a hungry Jersey street rat to an arena-filling superstar, selling millions of copies of albums and singles alike.  Behind that image, though, he still loved just sitting around listening to obscure songs from the ’50s and ’60s, looking for diamonds in the rough that he might polish up and tackle in one of his live shows.  One of those was a song he found on the B-side of a single by Jamaica reggae musician Jimmy Cliff.  It was called “Trapped,” and its lyrics spoke of the powerlessness of a person living in a land where the privileged few thrive at the expense of the many.  Springsteen and The E Street Band converted it from an uptempo, perky reggae song into a rock powerhouse during his “Born in the USA” tour.  A live recording of “Trapped” was donated to the “We Are the World” charity album, and although it received more airplay at the time than any other track besides the title song, you don’t hear it enough anymore…

“Tops,” The Rolling Stones, 1981

416GN7QFE3LThe heart of The Rolling Stones through the years has been the sometimes fragile partnership of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who wrote the bulk of the group’s repertoire.  In 1980, the duo were in the midst of significant friction for the first time, so producer Chris Kimsey dug into the vaults and found nearly a dozen tracks in various stages of completion that could be cobbled together to make a new album, which turned out to be their last US #1 LP, “Tattoo You,” released in August 1981.  The rocking “Start Me Up” and acoustic “Waiting on a Friend” were both huge hits, but there were also several other gems.  “Tops” was actually begun nearly ten years earlier during the 1972-1973 “Goats Heads Soup” sessions, when Mick Taylor was still playing guitar in the group.  Jagger’s vocals, recorded in 1981, bring this track and its slow, loping tempo to a zenith.

“For a Dancer,” Jackson Browne, 1974

late500Although his biggest commercial success came with 1977’s “Running on Empty” LP and a few hit singles that followed, Jackson Browne’s best songs, in my opinion, came early on in his career.  He was still a teenager when he was getting noticed for wise-beyond-his-years compositions like “These Days,” “Rock Me On the Water” and “For Everyman.”  Indeed, I’ve found his lyrics to be his greatest strength, better than his song crafting in most cases.  So many fine pieces in his repertoire, up to and including his underrated 2014 LP, “Standing in the Breach,” but for me, you just can’t beat the extraordinary songs from 1974’s “Late for the Sky.”  His paean to Joni Mitchell, “Fountain of Sorrow,” is widely praised, but less heralded is “For a Dancer,” a poignant tribute to a dancer friend who perished in a house fire.  It concludes, “In the end, there’s one dance you do alone,” referring to life itself being a sort of dance.

“Heaven Knows,” Robert Plant, 1988

R-892041-1180521070.jpegWhile Led Zeppelin’s musical maestro Jimmy Page chose to mostly withdraw from the music scene in the aftermath of the supergroup’s disbanding in 1980, vocalist Robert Plant went the other route.  He assembled a new band, released five albums in seven years, and toured almost continually.  In fact, he’s still at it in the new millennium, collaborating with old and new musical partners, with mostly favorable results.  In 1988, his album “Now and Zen” went triple platinum, and radio program directors were inexorably drawn to “Tall Cool One” because of its use of multiple samples from Zeppelin tracks.  My overwhelming favorite, though, is the album’s opener, “Heaven Knows,” a marvelously dreamy rocker with Plant singing in his most melodious range.  If the guitar parts sound like Zeppelin, that’s because Page showed up to contribute on the track.

“Be Cool,” Joni Mitchell, 1982

xwildBy the time the 1980s arrived, Mitchell had been through several sea changes in her career:  Canadian prairie folksinger, Lady of Laurel Canyon during the era of Woodstock, LA-slick commercial artist on “Court and Spark” and “Miles of Aisles.”  Her late-’70s move into jazz territory was met first with keen interest and then with outright disdain by many in her audience.  Her return to more pop-rock material with 1982’s “Wild Things Run Fast” was a welcome development to her long-time fans, but the music scene had changed so much that her work was largely ignored by radio, which was a shame.  The LP is full of great, accessible music and lyrics, with equal touches of rock, pop, folk and jazz.  Joni said she had been inspired by the latest work of The Police, Steely Dan and The Talking Heads, and the deep track “Be Cool” sounds most like Steely Dan.

“On the Road to Find Out,” Cat Stevens, 1970

375795_433916706672668_144784144_n-1-300x294The nearly three decades Cat Stevens spent in self-imposed exile from the pop music scene made many of his fans appreciate his early music all that much more.  Listening to his best three LPs, and his recent live performances of those great songs, has given me a stark reminder of what a brilliant talent he was and still is.  I don’t begrudge anyone their passions, be they spiritual or whatever, but to deny the world and one’s self the beauty of music like “Tea for the Tillerman,” “Teaser and the Firecat” and “Catch Bull at Four” strikes me as indefensible.  “Tillerman” in particular is one of the best albums of the entire 1970s singer-songwriter genre, and not just the better-known tracks like “Wild World” and “Father and Son.”  Check out “On the Road to Find Out,” which has such deep lyrics about everyman’s life search, put to a delightful melody.  Revel in this stuff!