Holy Moses, I have been removed

I’ve written before about how music — a certain song, a certain album, a certain artist — has a way of instantly taking you back in time to when you first heard it.  Sometimes you can recall exactly where you were, who you were with, what you were doing.  And if you hear that song or album today, even 20, 30, 40 years later, a wellspring of emotions and memories comes flooding up.

This can be a bad thing, of course.  I’ll never enjoy “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes because it was playing on the car radio in June 1981 the evening my then-girlfriend broke up with me.   No matter how much I might have admired the lyrics or production or catchy melody, I can’t get past the miserable memory of having been dumped while it was playing in the background.

57f8912fbfeb70f48c6ffdbe6042d5d4But I want to focus on an occasion when music brings back fond memories of positive times.  For me, the year was 1971, and the artist was Elton John.

For nearly every American music fan, Elton emerged pretty much overnight in January-February of that year when “Your Song” barreled up the US Top 40 charts and stayed in the Top Ten for a month.  I was enthralled by the song — a gorgeous piano melody, embellished with strings and a light bass/drums accompaniment, and a strikingly original voice from this new British artist.

At that time, I was 15 and had been an avid album collector for nearly two years.  Typically, when I heard a song that grabbed me, I would dash to my favorite record store and buy not just the single but the album, because I was eager to know if the artist had other songs worth hearing.

On the strength of “Your Song,” I put my money down for the LP entitled simply “Elton fa1cf8246f4e74aed9e27cb9e2f88835John,” and what I discovered simply knocked me out.  Instead of “more of the same,” the other nine songs exhibited an extraordinary synthesis of orchestrally arranged literary story-songs and funky Americana tunes that sounded like a hybrid of British chamber music and piano-driven Leon Russell tracks.

The album stayed glued to my turntable for weeks, even months, on end.  How astounding that the same record could include rollicking, upbeat rock (“Take Me to the Pilot” and “The Cage”),  delicate madrigals (“Sixty Years On,” “First Episode at Hienton,” “The Greatest Discovery”), countryish Jagger parodies (“No Shoestrings on Louise”) and invigorating gospel (“Border Song”).  What an exhilarating ride.

I took note of three names on the album credits — Lyricist Bernie Taupin, Producer Gus Dudgeon and Arranger Paul Buckmaster — who I soon came to realize were integral to elton-1970-titlethe Elton John Experience.  The enigmatic words, the dynamic violin/cello backing, and the grand production values all played roles every bit as important as Elton’s stunning melodies, riveting piano work and one-of-a-kind vocal acrobatics, and a gripping bass-and-drums accompaniment.

As Dudgeon explained in a 1995 interview, “The challenge we made for ourselves was to marry a big orchestra with a rock and roll section and make it work, and not have one of them lose out to the other.  We were thrilled with the result, particularly on the final track, ‘The King Must Die.'”

It’s interesting to note that these recordings weren’t meant to be an official debut of Elton John the performer.  Says Dudgeon, “That first album [Elton John] wasn’t really made to launch Elton as an artist; it was really made as a very glamorous series of demos for other people to record his songs. It was kind of like the American songwriter Jimmy Webb making an album and everyone rushes in to cover all of the songs on it. That was kind of the plan behind it.”

Still, it became Elton’s entrée, and that was certainly fine with me.

This kind of musical discovery might normally keep a listener like me happy for at least a year or two.  But only a month later, in late February, I walked into the same record store and found another, newer Elton John album called “Tumbleweed Connection.”  How could this be?

R-1560475-1327649760.jpegTurns out the first album had been recorded a full year earlier, in January 1970, and released in April, but we Yanks hadn’t learned of it for nine months.  Meanwhile, Elton and his crew had returned to the studio with a new batch of songs in the summer of 1970 and released them in October.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  “Tumbleweed” was a concept album of sorts, with more Bernie Taupin lyrics that painted a nostalgic picture of the American West, a few country elements like harmonica and pedal steel guitar in the mix, and Buckmaster’s forceful strings and Dudgeon’s producing skills.  And, of course, Elton’s riveting vocals and piano.

Now, suddenly, I had more Elton material to enjoy:  quiet pieces like “Come Down in Time” and “Talking Old Soldiers,” refreshing countryish tunes like “Amoreena” and “Country Comfort” and instant classics like “Where to Now, St. Peter?” and “Burn Down the Mission.”  Life was, indeed, great.

But wait.  Now it’s March.  I’m back in the record store and, on a garish pink album cover, the name “Elton John” appears.  What?!  This time, it’s a soundtrack LP, released 3defec0df797ccdf460bf542a5f29309--just-friends-true-friendson another label, for an obscure French film called “Friends.”  At this point, I’m so crazy about anything Elton that I buy it and take it home.

I find that it’s like most soundtrack albums — a lot of mostly tedious film score — but sure enough, there are four or five “diamonds in the rough”:  the rock/funk of “Can I Put You On” and “Honey Roll,” but more important, the gorgeous melodies of “Michelle’s Song,” “Seasons” and “Friends.”  These are great Elton-Bernie compositions, again produced by Dudgeon and laden with Buckmaster strings, every bit as appealing to me as the best of the first two LPs.

Now comes the emotional connection.

It was at this time in that same calendar year that I found myself falling hard for a girl who I had met in January.  We quickly learned that we shared the same love for all three of these first Elton John albums, and we listened to them together incessantly as our relationship evolved.

We wandered into a record store in early May and were both stunned to see yet another new Elton John LP in the racks.  This was a live album called “11-17-70,” which captured an incendiary performance he had given at a New York record studio in front of about 100 fans for a live radio broadcast on November 17, 1970.  Elton, accompanied by his bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, wowed the small crowd with stretched-11-17-70out renditions of six songs from his repertoire, giving us a solid hint of what he might sound like if we were lucky enough to ever see him in concert.

Dudgeon recalls, “This concert tape was being bootlegged like mad, so (record company mogul) Dick James rang me up and said, ‘Look, if I send you a tape of this broadcast, do you think there is an album in there?’ So I managed to find about 40 solid minutes, and he said, “Go ahead and mix it and we’ll put it out as an album.’ We did, and it was ultimately one of four albums that were put out in barely a year, which was just ridiculous, completely unheard of.”

These four Elton John albums will be indelibly etched in my mind as the soundtrack to my first important romantic relationship.  We lived and breathed these albums together.  Interestingly, it was the “Friends” soundtrack that elicits the sharpest memories, for we had the opportunity to see that slight little foreign film together at a local art film moviehouse that fall.  The video images and the audio reveries combined to create a vivid picture that I can still see today.

How does music do that?  It’s magic, really.  Just last week, I heard on SiriusXM Radio’s “Deep Tracks” channel the live version of “Take Me to the Pilot,” and damned if it didn’t take me right back to the autumn of 1971, hanging out and listening to those great old Elton albums.

MI0002207495One other important part of this collection of early Elton memories is his strong December 1971 LP, “Madman Across the Water,” which includes more epic productions like “Tiny Dancer” (which enjoyed new life after being prominently featured in the 2000 film “Almost Famous”), “Levon” and the amazing title track.  All of these utilize the same signature Buckmaster string arrangements and Dudgeon production qualities.  Dudgeon is quoted as saying, “That orchestral riff on the outro of ‘Levon’ is the greatest arrangement I’ve ever heard.”

As everyone knows, Elton John went on to become one of the most successful musical personalities of the past half-century.  He has sold more than 300 millions albums, a preposterous achievement.  He has given us 30 studio albums, of which half reached the Top 20 and five went to #1.  There are 30 Top Ten Elton John singles, numerous compilations, collaborations, even a Disney film soundtrack (“The Lion King”).  His remake of “Candle in the Wind” in honor of Lady Diana’s 1997 death is the best-selling single in Billboard history.

But for me, things started going south in late 1972, around the same time my girlfriend Elton-Johnmoved out of state and we went our separate ways.  I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that Elton started writing what I felt was more disposable commercial stuff at that same time (“Honky Cat,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “The Bitch is Back”).  These songs and others like it may have thrilled the masses and sold millions of copies, but they didn’t do much for me.  I just couldn’t connect to them emotionally, and I can’t deny that a huge reason for that is the overly flamboyant Liberace-like persona he chose to adopt at that point.  It was just too much, too far removed from the Elton John I fell for in early 1971.

Oh sure, I still enjoyed isolated 1970s Elton John songs like “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” and albums like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”  And years down the road, I fully appreciated high-quality work like 1989’s “Sacrifice,” 1992’s “Emily,” 2006’s “Postcards From Richard Nixon” and 2013’s “Home Again.”

But for the most part, his music would never again reach me the way his early work did.

And I guess that’s my point.  Certain songs, certain albums, certain times in an artist’s career can have a way of making a greater impact on us because of what’s going on in our lives at the time we hear and experience them.  That’s just the way it is.

Here’s to you, Sir Elton.  Thank you for making an importance difference in my life at a very impressionable time.

And may all my readers be fortunate enough to have similar life-changing experiences with other songs, albums, and artists.  Something tells me you probably already have.

 

 

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Jammin’ in the name of the Lord

“This is my message to you:  Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right…” — Bob Marley

*************

Insistent yet gentle offbeat rhythms.  Lyrics of overwhelming positivity and confident pursuit of justice.  Fiercely defiant, yet warmly exhilarating.

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of reggae music.  Or, as any Jamaican bus driver will tell you: “It’s island music, mon.”

3340414-reggae-wallpapersReggae, born in Jamaica in the ’60s, blends a tantalizing hybrid of ska, mento and calypso musical strains with a powerful lyrical message that focuses on social criticism and political consciousness, and the need for positivity, eternal love, joy and peace.  It’s most readily distinguished by its rhythmic emphasis on the offbeat, or backbeat (the second and fourth beat), instead of the downbeat (first and third beat), which characterizes most pop music styles.

Much more than many musical genres, reggae also has strong ties to religion, specifically Rastafarianism, a religious and social movement (they prefer “a way of life”) founded by Afro-Jamaicans in 1930s Jamaica primarily as a rejection of British colonialism.  Its beliefs include the healing powers of copious cannabis use and hypnotic, rhythmic music “to achieve the spiritual balance necessary for a satisfying existence.”

Hmmm.  Not exactly mainstream thinking in America at that time, although fringe audiences in isolated regions around the world took to it enthusiastically — both the music and the message.

Reggae first found favor outside Jamaica in the mid-’70s in England, where West Indian communities in and around London helped expose music lovers to the genre there.  Indeed, major British pop stars like Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton developed an interest in the island rhythms from hearing it performed by Jamaican musicians in the clubs of London.

Here in the United States, the acceptance and assimilation of reggae into the popular music market seems to have had a peculiar off-and-on history throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

johnny-nash-hold-me-tight-festival-3Its first appearance here, it’s generally agreed, came when an American-born artist — Johnny Nash, a Houston-based pop singer-songwriter — took his version of Jamaica’s indigenous music to #5 on the U.S. charts in 1968 with the catchy “Hold Me Tight.”  But if record companies were expecting to then cash in on a flood of reggae songs and bands, it didn’t happen.  (At least not yet.)

True, The Beatles, always savvy and forward-looking in their musical development, took a shot at reggae during sessions that same summer for “The White Album.”  McCartney explains:  “I had a friend named Jimmy who was a Nigerian conga player, and he was a happy happy guy all the time, like a philosopher to me, because he had all these great expressions about life.  One of them was ‘obladi, oblada, life goes on, bra…’  I told him I loved it and was going to use it in a fun little song I was writing that used a rhythmic approach I was starting to hear from Jamaican bands in the London clubs at the time.  Wonderful vibe, this music called reggae.  So that’s what ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ was, our rudimentary attempt at reggae.  I don’t know if we quite got it, but we had a blast trying.” But it wasn’t a single, just one of 30 album tracks, so it didn’t achieve widespread popularity until nearly a decade later.

R-532201-1371131732-1351.jpegSo reggae went back into hiding for a few years until the great Paul Simon, always curious about “world music” and intriguing new rhythms, visited Kingston in 1971 to record his new song “Mother and Child Reunion.”  He admired reggae artists like Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker and wanted to explore the music further at its source, using Jamaican musicians who instinctively knew the way it should be played.  He invited Cliff’s backing group to accompany him on the recording, and the result was also a #5 hit that put reggae back in the public eye.

MI0001597709The attention Cliff gained from that connection helped him later that year when he released “The Harder They Come,” the soundtrack album to the movie of the same name (in which he also starred).  The film, a crudely made crime drama, was largely ignored but later became a favorite with the midnight-movie crowd.

Then, in the fall of 1972, a reggae song finally reached #1 on the charts here (and in Canada) when Nash returned with “I Can See Clearly Now,” the most popular song in the U.S. for four straight weeks.  A year later, Clapton took the plunge that inadvertently brought reggae to an entirely new level in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Recalled the guitarist, “We were in Miami cutting the album that became ‘461 Ocean Boulevard.’  One day, guitarist George Terry came in with an album called ‘Burnin” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, a band I’d never heard of.  When he played it, I was mesmerized.  George especially liked the track ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and kept saying to me, ‘You should cut this, we could make it sound great.’  But it was hard-core reggae and I wasn’t sure we could do it justice.  We did a version of it anyway, and although I didn’t say so at the time, I wasn’t that enamored with it.  Ska, bluebeat and reggae were familiar to me, but it was still quite new to American musicians, and they weren’t as finicky as I was about the way it should be played — not that I really knew myself how to maxresdefault-8play it.  I just knew we weren’t doing it right.

“When we got to the end of the sessions, and started to collate the songs we had, I told them I didn’t think ‘Sheriff’ should be included, as it didn’t do the Wailers’ version justice.  But everyone said, ‘No, no, honestly, this is a hit.’ And sure enough, when the album was released and the record company chose it as a single, to my utter astonishment, it went straight to Number One.  Though I didn’t meet Bob Marley until much later, he did call me up when the single came out and seemed pretty happy with it.  I tried to ask him what the song was about, but I couldn’t understand much of his reply.  I was just relieved that he liked what we had done with it.”

Marley had been a tireless devotee and champion of reggae throughout its early years of development, when his fellow Wailers (including Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), along with Toots and The Maytals, were the true pioneers of the genre.  It was Marley, through his songwriting, singing and relentless performing, who caught the eye and ear of Chris Blackwell, founder of the seminal Island Records and a native Jamaican himself.

In Marley, Blackwell recognised the elements needed to snare the rock audience: “Rock music was always rebel music at heart, and so was reggae.  I felt that demonstrating that similarity would really be the way to break Jamaican music in the U.S.  But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in, it was clear to me that he really was that image.”

marleyHe signed Marley to a lucrative contract in 1973, let him loose in his studios in the Bahamas and England, and sat back and waited.  The debut LP, “Catch a Fire,” marked the first time a reggae band had access to a state-of-the-art studio and were accorded the same care as their rock ‘n’ roll peers.  Blackwell, hoping to create “more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a rudimentary reggae rhythm,” restructured Marley’s arrangements and supervised the mixing and overdubbing.

While the album and its immediate follow-up, “Burnin’,” didn’t do much on the charts, but the songs were getting better, and the rock critics and savvy listeners (especially in the UK) caught on.  When Marley made his debut live appearance in London in 1975 (and the concert was later released as the “Live!” LP), he had become a major sensation there, with his iconic “No Woman, No Cry” climbing to #8 on the UK charts.

Marley had been complimentary of the efforts of Nash and Simon to expose American audiences to the world of reggae, and he publicly endorsed Clapton’s version of “Sheriff,” but he remained determined in the belief that only Jamaicans could play reggae as intended.

He told Britain’s Uncut magazine in 1976, “The real reggae must come from Jamaica. Others can go anywhere and play funk and soul, but reggae — too hard.  Must have a bond with it.  Reggae has to be inside you.”

By the release of “Rastaman Vibration” later that year, Marley’s music had broken through to the U.S. market.  While its single, “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” stalled at #51 on the fd16-bw-bob-marley-billboard-1548pop charts, the album soared to #8 and the 1977 followup “Exodus” (with the FM hits “Jammin’,” “Waiting in Vain” and “Three Little Birds”) was a respectable #20.

In the UK, “Exodus” stayed on the charts for an astonishing 56 consecutive weeks.  Reggae’s boom there existed concurrently with the burgeoning punk movement, which shared that same rebellious streak.  But the message in reggae’s lyrics offered a more lasting form of rebellion — the one-two punch of hope and truth, which ultimately won out over punk’s dead-end nihilism.  It’s why reggae’s popularity has grown exponentially in recent decades while punk, frankly, isn’t much more than a glorified footnote (even more so in the U.S.).

The Police evolved from their punk/New Wave beginnings in 1977 to become international superstars in 1983, but reggae definitely played a pivotal role in their repertoire, from hits like “Roxanne” to deeper tracks like “Walking on the Moon” and 1981’s mantra-like “One World (Is Enough For All of Us).” As drummer Stewart Copeland put it, “We plundered reggae mercilessly.”

stevie-wonder-master-blaster-reggae-reggaetoday-okIn America, Motown/funk superstar Stevie Wonder was so taken by reggae in general, and Marley in particular, that he wrote a tribute to him in 1980 called “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” which became a #5 hit in the US and #2 in England.  Marley and Wonder even performed several shows together that summer.

While many of Marley’s most cherished songs preach love and serenity, his final efforts — 1979’s “Survival” and 1980’s “Uprising” — adopted far more militant tones, as he felt compelled to speak out more against the social injustices he saw on the rise as the ’80s began.  Just glance at the changing mood in the song titles:  Instead of “One Love” and “Positive Vibration,” we have “Africa Unite,” “So Much Trouble in the World,” “Zimbabwe,” “Ambush in the Night,” “Real Situation,” “Redemption Song.”

Jamaica was rocked to the core when Marley succumbed to cancer in 1981 at only 36 years old.  More than three decades later, Marley is still regarded as a figurehead and near-deity among the Jamaican people, and the spread of reggae worldwide is due in large part to his impact.  Several of his 11 children have picked up the Marley mantle ziggy_marley_australian_toursince then, most notably Ziggy in the late ’80s (particularly “Tomorrow People” in 1988) and Damien in the ’90s, perpetuating and growing the reach and influence of reggae music as their father intended.

In the Eighties, acts like Blondie kept reggae prominently in the picture with their #1 cover version of The Paragon’s “The Tide is High,” and Culture Club contributed reggae-flavored hits like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” which was more an amalgam of multiple styles that included reggae.   As Boy George remarked, “In the the ’70s, we had glam rock, but we also had reggae and ska happening at around the same time.  I just took all those influences I had as a kid and threw them together, and somehow it worked.”

Some purists regarded these and other non-Jamaican acts UB40 as “weaker, pastel versions” of true reggae — one critic called it “reggae that wouldn’t frighten white people” — and truth be told, they’re probably right on.  And still others never liked reggae to begin with.  Morrissey, the iconoclast who served as frontman for The Smiths, one of England’s most popular bands of the ’80s, summarized his feelings this way:  “Reggae is vile.”

Me, I enjoy a little reggae now and then, but usually only if I’m sitting by the pool or on the beach.  To my ears, it has a certain sameness to it that gets old after a short while.  But damn, it’s fun, it’s soothing, it gently gets under your skin, in a good way.  Take a listen to the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below for a healthy cross-section of reggae’s earliest hits and timeless anthems.  Or, if you prefer, you certainly can’t go wrong anytime you play Marley’s incredible “Legends” CD compilation, which has now sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.