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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The drummer of a generation of hits

Arguably the greatest success story of the 1960s rock music era belonged to a man most people don’t recognize by name.

Certainly not by his given name — Harold Belsky — nor even by his professional name — Hal Blaine.

Hal-BlaineAASince his death last week at age 90, you may have learned his name by reading any of the multiple articles, in print and online, that cataloged his extraordinary accomplishments.  He has been recognized in his industry (and now, increasingly, by the public at large) as an unparalleled titan among that breed of musician that worked diligently behind the scenes, in the proverbial shadows.  In the recording studios of Los Angeles, he played the drums in thousands of recording sessions between roughly 1960 and 1980, anonymously providing the backbeat for the hits of many hundreds of popular singers.

Name a hit single from the Sixties, and it’s very likely he was working the drum kit on the recording.  The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda”?  Yep.  Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”?  Sure.  Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”?  Check.  Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender”?  You bet.  The Mamas and The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”?  Uh-huh.  The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”?  One of his best.

It’s truly unbelievable, the pervasiveness of Blaine’s work during that period.  His skillful drum work can be heard (and, sometimes, barely heard, when called for) on records by a broad cross section of American musical artists, from The Fifth Dimension to The Byrds, from The Partridge Family to Elvis Presley, from The Grassroots to Neil Diamond, from Barbra Streisand to Jan and Dean.

It’s estimated that Blaine played on more than 6,000 songs, 150 of which became Top Ten hits on the Billboard charts, and 40 of which reached Number One.

Here’s an especially remarkable fact:  Blaine’s drums were featured on six consecutive Record of the Year Grammy winners — “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass (1966), “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (1967), “Up, Up and Away” by The Fifth Dimension (1968), “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (1969), “Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)” by The Fifth Dimension (1970) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel (1971).

How did this happen?  How could one drummer end up manning the skins on so many hit records?  To comprehend this, you have to understand how the record-making process worked during that era:

An artist’s manager and/or record label rep would learn of a song, usually as a demo tape submitted by a songwriter, and wanted their artist to record it and release it.  (This often had to happen quickly, before someone else beat them to it.)  Studio time would be booked, and a producer would be hired to oversee the recording session.

The producer was usually the guy holding all the cards.  It was up to him to decide the arrangement, the tempo and, most important, the musicians to use in order to get the best recording in the most efficient use of time.  This usually meant hiring guitarists, bass players, keyboard players and drummers who were known for their ability to intuitively 0420_wrecking-crew-HalBlaine_LateSixtiesknow exactly what was called for in a given song or recording.

In Los Angeles studios between roughly 1962 and 1972, that meant the producer wanted Hal Blaine on the drums.  There was, quite simply, no question about it.  Whether you wanted a snappy 4/4-time backbeat, a syncopated jazz touch, or just some subtle brush work, there was no one easier to work with, no one better qualified.

How did Blaine feel about this?  Last year, as he was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys for his extraordinary body of work, he said, “I felt at the time as If I had fallen into a vat of chocolate.  It was a wonderful, wonderful thing to be asked to play drums for so many different singers and bands.  I was truly living my dream.”

Blaine was, by all accounts, the unofficial ringleader of an unofficial group of LA-based studio musicians who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew.  Several dozen top-notch players could justly claim informal membership in this confederation, but the core group consisted of Blaine (drums), Carol Kaye (bass), Larry Knechtel (keyboards, bass), Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Glen Campbell (guitar), Steve Douglas (sax), Earl Palmer (drums), Mike Rubini (keyboards), Joe Osborn (bass), Louie Shelton (guitar), Jim Gordon (drums), Leon Russell (keyboards), Billy Strange (guitar) and Jack Nitzsche (arranger/conductor).

There had been an older version of The Wrecking Crew in the 1940s and 1950s — a more buttoned-down group of studio musicians who liked the nickname “The First-Call Gang.”  They were, indeed, the first ones called when a top performing artist wanted to record a new song or album.  These were typically the “easy listening” singers who offered the more standard, strings-laden torch songs of those days — Vic Damone, Pattie Page, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como.

The studio pros who provided musical backing then were “the blue-blazer-and-necktie, wrecking crewby-the-book, time-clock-punching men who had cut their teeth playing on Big Band records, movie soundtracks and early TV shows,” as writer Kent Hartman put it in “The Wrecking Crew,” his authoritative 2012 book.  “They loathed everything about rock and roll.  To them, this new music was appallingly primitive, and most refused to play it.  In their minds, their careers had been built on decorum and sophistication, not on wearing T-shirts and blue jeans to work while bashing out what they felt were simplistic three-chord rhythm patterns over and over.  ‘That kind of thing is surely going to wreck the business,’ they would say.”

Blaine, known for his easygoing manner and infectious sense of humor, chuckled when he heard this. “They think we’re wrecking the industry?  Well, okay then, we’ll call ourselves The Wrecking Crew!”

They worked tirelessly, sometimes up to eight sessions a day.  They recorded movie and TV theme songs and film soundtracks, and played the music for some TV commercials as well.  Mostly, though, they recorded lots and lots of hit singles, and lesser-known album tracks, for the era’s biggest stars.

In some cases, their involvement was meant to be kept secret.  The Beach Boys, for example, had played their own instruments on their earliest records (1961-1963), which had basic, simple arrangements.  But once Brian Wilson heard what producer Phil Spector was accomplishing with studio musicians on his “Wall of Sound” recording process on tracks like The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” he wanted Beach Boys tracks to have that same degree of professionalism.  On Wilson’s Hal_Blaine_48f722b0b749dmore sophisticated compositions like “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” he brought in Blaine and his compatriots to substitute for his Beach Boys cohorts in the studio, and the listening public was none the wiser.

“Hal Blaine was such a great musician and friend that I can’t put it into words,” Wilson said the other day in a tweet that included an old photo of him and Blaine sitting at the piano. “Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success.  He was the greatest drummer ever.”

Blaine had wanted to be a professional drummer since he was a boy.  With every musical act that passed through his Massachusetts home town, young Hal would position himself close to the bandstand so as to watch every movement the drummer made.  These were typically Big Band drummers — Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Dave Tough — and they were his heroes, the coolest “hepcats” around.

In his late teens, Blaine learned drums in Chicago from the great Roy Knapp, who had taught Krupa and others, and in his early ’20s, Blaine played in Chicago strip clubs and with small jazz combos, eventually touring and recording with Count Basie’s outfit, Pattie Page and teen idol Tommy Sands.  Unlike his jazz drummer counterparts, Blaine took a liking to rock and roll, not only because the studio sessions proved lucrative but because he enjoyed it and understood the kind of drumming parts the producers were looking for.

Blaine’s acumen was not in showiness but in capability.  “I was never a soloist, I was an accompanist,” he told Modern Drummer magazine in 2005.  “That was my forte.  I never had Buddy Rich chops.  I never cottoned to the Ginger Baker drum solos.”

He always seemed to know what a song needed, and sometimes he stumbled on to it by happenstance.  One of his signature moments — the attention-grabbing “on the four” solo (bum-ba-bum-BOOM) that launched the 1963 Phil Spector-produced hit “Be My Baby” — halblaine550kjhredcame about when he accidentally missed a beat while the song was being recorded and improvised by only playing the beat on the fourth note.

“And I continued to do that,” Blaine recalled.  “Phil (Spector) might have said, ‘Hey, do that again.’  Somebody loved it, in any event.  It was just one of those things that sometimes happens.”

Another iconic contribution Blaine made was during the recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” in 1969.  “I was going for what I later called a ‘cannonball-like’ sound, something to bruise the song, which I felt was too sweet, too much like a lullaby. The producer, Roy Halee, heard it and had an idea.  He set me up with my kit in an empty elevator shaft.  When the music got to the ‘Lie-la-lie’ part, I hit the drums as hard as I could.”  The resulting effect was indeed like a gunshot, a cannonball blast.

By the 1970s, producers began losing some of their authority as rock bands rightly insisted that the group’s members should be the ones to play the guitar, bass, keyboard and drum parts on their records.  There would still be the prominent singers (Streisand, The Carpenters, John Denver) who needed studio musicians to provide the professional instrumental backup on their records, but by the 1980s, demand for studio musicians dwindled.  The advent of electronic drum machines and other techno options made guys like Blaine all but obsolete.

the-wrecking-crew-film-poster-images-movie-one-sheets-bHe continued to appear occasionally at symposiums and workshops, and on TV talk shows, well into his ’80s.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 with four other Wrecking Crew partners, and he was prominently featured in the 2008 documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” directed by Denny Tedesco (son of Tommy Tedesco), and in Hartman’s 2012 book.

But I keep coming back to the head-shaking list of songs on which Blaine is listed as drummer.  “Mr. Tambourine Man” (The Byrds).  “These Boots Are Made For Walking” (Nancy Sinatra).  “Half-Breed” (Cher).  “You’re the One” (The Vogues).  “Secret Agent Man” and “Poor Side of Town” (Johnny Rivers).  “Johnny Angel” (Shelley Fabares).  “Another Saturday Night” (Sam Cooke).  “Windy” and “Along Comes Mary” (The Association).  “Wedding Bell Blues” and “One Less Bell to Answer” (The Fifth Dimension).  “River Deep, Mountain High” (Ike and Tina Turner).  “Love Will Keep Us Together” (The Captain and Tennille).  “Let’s Live for Today” (The Grassroots).  “If I Were a Carpenter” (Bobby Darin).  “MacArthur Park” (Richard Harris).  “Ventura Highway” (America).  “Dizzy” (Tommy Roe).  “Annie’s Song” (John Denver).  “This Diamond Ring” (Gary Lewis and The Playboys).  “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” (Glen Campbell).  “Kicks” (Paul Revere and The Raiders).  “The Way We Were” (Barbra Streisand).  “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” (Jan and Dean).  “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “Top of the World” (The Carpenters).  “Monday Monday” and “I Saw Her Again” (The Mamas and The Papas).  “Everybody Loves Somebody” (Dean Martin).  “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Song Sung Blue” (Neil Diamond).

Are you kidding me?!

Blaine himself always loved to tell the story about the day he met Bruce Gary, drummer for the late ’70s British pop band The Knack (“My Sharona”).  “He was telling me how much he loved American pop songs of the 1960s, and he had started researching who the different drummers were on the various records.  He told me he was almost disappointed when he discovered that a dozen of his favorite drummers were me!”