Is there anybody going to listen to my story?

To tell a story in a compelling way is an art; to do it to a melody is a wondrous thing.

For probably a thousand years or more, great stories of myth, legend and history have been told in song.  In the past century, the country, folk and blues genres have told hundreds and hundreds of tales of heartbreak, tales of war and famine, tales of love and tradition.  These story-songs had characters, a plot, and a message, much like a well-crafted short story in literature.

Not surprisingly, these ballads tended to last five or six minutes or longer, which largely prevented them from making the pop charts, where the average song lasted no more than three minutes, which is hardly enough time for the lyrics to say much of anything beyond “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” or “I want to hold your hand.”

Still, some songwriters  — country, pop, rock — through the decades have shown a fine talent for telling riveting stories in a succinct enough way that they ended up as chart successes, with a beginning, middle and end, even if they went a little beyond the conventional song length.  I’ve selected a handful of tracks that offer a healthy cross section of story-songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Some topped the singles charts, some were far more obscure tracks by major artists, but all are fascinating stories set to song.

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“Taxi,” Harry Chapin, 1972  

81Gd3K9ctQL._SL1416_Great story-songs paint an aural picture, a visual place where we can understand what’s going on with the lead characters.  In the case of this remembrance from Chapin’s real past, there’s Harry, the taxi driver, and Sue, the wealthy lady who was once his lover.  They meet again by chance when she hails his cab, and they share an uneasy moment.  “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly…”  Neither one achieved their dreams, evidently, but as they part, he appears to be content just driving a cab, while she seems unhappy in whatever wealthy enclave she ended up.  Chapin’s debut single reached #24 on the pop charts in the fall of 1972.

“Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf, 1977

meatloafThe entire “Bat Out of Hell” album was worthy material for a Broadway stage play, with multiple stories about the exploits of numerous characters conjured up by lyricist Jim Steinman for his pal, Mr. Loaf, to sing.  None was more cinematic than “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” the vivid story of a teenage boy hoping to seduce his girlfriend.  They volley back and forth until she asks for his undying love in exchange for a night of passion (“What’s it gonna be, boy, yes or no?”  “Let me sleep on it”).  It’s still acted out all these years later by boomer men and women at bars and parties across America.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Temptations, 1972  

MI0000383010Motown artists were known for short, punchy dance tunes, but they weren’t opposed to taking a stab at the story-song.  The Temptations hit it big with this urban tale of a family who struggled to move on after their deadbeat father flew the coop and then died (“on the Third of September, a day I’ll always remember”).  It was originally recorded as an epic 12-minute track with multiple instrumental passages (including a nearly 4:00 introduction), and even the Top 40 version clocked in at nearly seven minutes.  The vocal group’s final #1 single set the tone for many more soul records that told stories over the next decade.

“Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1973

Front Cover copyThis song goes on and on with thirty (30!) triplets that tell the amusing story of a hippie from California who’s stuck in Mississippi with a flat tire and has to do some fast talking to avoid a beating from a gang of rough rednecks.  Standard country fare, perhaps, but it ended up on the mainstream Top 40 at #9 in the summer of 1973.  It helped expand the appeal of country rock beyond the confines of the Deep South, with numerous country-rock groups hitting the Top Ten over the next several years.

“Rocky Raccoon,” Beatles, 1968

beatles_1478685cBy the time of the “White Album,” the Beatles had tried just about everything in the way of song structure, so it was only a matter of time before they (actually Paul McCartney) came up with a story-song.  “Rocky Raccoon,” with an arrangement dominated by acoustic guitar and jangly piano, is basically a country-western yarn with McCartney front and center singing about South Dakota rivals Rocky and Dan, and the object of their competing affections, a girl named Magill (“who called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”).

“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash, 1969

51nB9lgIE-L._SX300_QL70_The late great Johnny Cash was deeply rooted in country music but periodically crossed over into the pop music scene, most notably with his #2 hit “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969.  The tune tells the story of a boy whose father left his family but not before naming his son Sue to make him strong and defiant in the face of adversity.  The boy hated the name, naturally, and eventually learned why his father had done this, but vowed to name his own son “Bill, or George, or any damn thing but Sue!”

“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin, 1971

thIn 1969, songwriter Kris Kristofferson wrote this poignant story of two drifters (male and female) trying to make something of their hardscrabble lives.  It was first recorded by Roger Miller (a #12 hit on the country charts), then by Kristofferson himself, and then Gordon Lightfoot, and in those versions Bobby (Bobbi?) was the woman.  But then it was recorded by Janis Joplin in 1970 only a few days before her death, and Bobby became the male character.  Her version went to #1 on the pop charts in the spring of 1971 and remains the definitive rendition.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1976

wreckitlCanada’s folk hero had been recording and touring for more than ten years when he scored his biggest chart success with his ode to the sunken freighter.  It resonated with Americans and Canadians alike, especially those who lived near the Great Lakes and know all about the ferocious storms that have laid claim to dozens of vessels through the years.  It’s a great story artfully told but, frankly, one of Lightfoot’s more boring songs, featuring only three chords stretched out over seven verses.

“American Pie,” Don McLean, 1972

don-mclean-american-pie--albumcoverproject.comNot so much a story as a historical treatise, “American Pie” took listeners on a journey, told in enigmatic language, through the evolution of rock and roll from its birth in 1955 to 1971, when the song was written.  It has earned a place as one of rock’s true anthems, with its veiled references to icons like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Byrds and The Rolling Stones, and events like Woodstock and Altamont, and how they changed both popular music and popular culture.

“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, 1967  

Bobbie-gentry-Ode-toThis sleepy, sultry number about a fictional Deep South tragedy would’ve worked perfectly in the soundtrack to “In the Heat of the Night,” the Oscar-winning movie from the same year.  As it is, the song was a big #1 hit on the pop charts for then-newcomer Gentry, who wrote it with sensitive, descriptive lyrics.  It tells the tale of a rural Mississippi family’s reaction to news of the suicide of local boy Billie Jo MacAllister at the Tallahatchie Bridge, the subsequent passing of the family patriarch, and the effects of the two deaths.

“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie, 1967  

alices-restaurant-1Perhaps the longest story in popular music (and subsequently made into a feature film), “Alice’s Restaurant” is an 18-minute rambling account (apparently true) of what happened to songwriter Guthrie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one Thanksgiving Day during the Vietnam War protest years.  It’s mostly comic and whimsical in the telling, although the underlying message is one of sadness and disbelief at the folly and absurdity of war as well as the justice system’s overreach.

“Same Old Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg, 1981

dan-fogelberg-same-old-lang-syneThis tale tugs at the heartstrings, as many Fogelberg songs do.  The narrator runs into his old girlfriend in the grocery store on Christmas Eve, and they end up drinking a six-pack in her car while recalling the good old times…but they say their goodbyes and, presumably, never cross paths again.  It struck a chord with many people who recall past flings and relationships, and Fogelberg deftly weaved in a few bars of “Auld Lang Syne” as the song concludes.  It reached #9 on the charts and still gets plenty of airplay during the Yuletide season.

“Take the Money and Run,” Steve Miller Band, 1976

cd-cover“This is the the story ’bout Billy Joe and Bobby Sue…”  For his hugely successful LP “Fly Like an Eagle” in 1976, Steve Miller came up with this tale of two young outlaws on the run from their various crimes, kind of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.  It reached #11 as the first of three hits from the album that year.  Film director Quentin Tarantino has said he modeled the depraved murderers in his movie “Natural Born Killers” after the felonious couple Miller described in the song.

“Jack and Diane,” John Cougar Mellencamp, 1982

John_cougar-jack_diane_s“Little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane…”  John Mellencamp was still Johnny Cougar when he wrote this commercial story-song about another down-and-out  couple who just didn’t have what it took to succeed in life.  Allegedly based on the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp sexed it up a bit and gave it a more contemporary bent for the ’80s audience.  With a catchy guitar riff and stutter-stop rhythm, it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 1982, and still gets a ton of exposure today.

“Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young, 1975

ZumaThis 11-minute opus, found on Young’s sprawling “Zuma” album, tells the story of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish warrior who fought the native Aztecs to conquer Mexico for Spain in the 16th Century.  Young had been reading historical biographies during this period of his life and was moved to write about Cortes and his exploits.  The turmoil of the many battles won and lost is symbolically represented in the fiery guitar solo that dominates the track.

“Incident on 57th Street,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973

The-Wild-The-Innocent--th-017Like Dylan, The Boss has written many story-songs over the years, but perhaps none as dramatic as “Incident on 57th Street,” an under-the-radar saga from his “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” in late 1973.  It tells the tragic tale of Johnny and Jane, a couple who live in a New Jersey walk-up with a minimalist view of New York City, and how they try to make do in a rough-and-tumble world in which Johnny feels an undeniable need to prove his manhood in the streets.

“Shooting Star,” Bad Company, 1975

Bad Company Straight ShooterWriting a story-song was not the exclusive domain of American composers — witness this minor classic by British rockers Bad Company.  Found on their “Straight Shooter” LP, “Shooting Star” tells the story of Johnny, the kid who is inspired by The Beatles to become a rock star, has a hit single, becomes famous, and then dies as a victim of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle.  Singer Paul Rodgers has said this is among his favorites in the Bad Company repertoire.

“Blaze of Glory,” Joe Jackson, 1989

220px-JoeJacksonBlazeOfGloryThis one, from Jackson’s extraordinary but underrated 1989 song-cycle “Blaze of Glory,” tells the story of a young musician named Johnny (so many Johnnys in these songs!) who made it big, but then “the ride started to go too fast and Johnny conveniently died.” Jackson, a New Wave iconoclast who was only briefly a mainstream artist (1982’s “Steppin’ Out” in particular), has produced some incredible work in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, even though no one has seemed to notice.

“Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976

Bob_Dylan_-_DesireDylan has written so many story-songs through the years that I could do an entire column just on his work.  Perhaps his most notable is the one about real-life boxer Reuben “Hurricane” Carter, who, though far from a saint, got unjustly caught up in a homicide rap, and Dylan was sufficiently outraged to write this lengthy piece that told Carter’s story.  It’s a sordid tale of institutional racism at its worst, and Dylan is almost libelously specific in his accusations about the prosecutor and his questionable testifying witnesses.

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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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