Of course, one of those albums was Bat Out Of Hell, which burst onto the scene when I was in college. The album was a collaboration between Meat Loaf and composer Jim Steinman, and it was an immediate sensation that quickly entered the rotation of albums played on the stereo system in my college apartment. It was not a standard rock album of that era and didn’t really fall easily into any established category, and it was filled with great songs like Bat Out Of Hell and Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad and You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth. The real killer track, though, was Paradise By The Dashboard Light–the hilarious recollection of an older married couple about their night, long ago, when they went parking by the lake as high schoolers. The song had a great, urgent beat, and it featured a fiery singing duel between Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley. They both sang the hell out of it, and even crappy singers like me sang along. The song was so good that I promptly went out and bought Ellen Foley’s debut album, and it was great, too.
My college friends and I weren’t alone in our love of the Bat Out Of Hell. The album has sold more than 50 million copies and remains one of the ten top selling albums of all time. And, I suspect, Paradise By The Dashboard Light has found resonance with each new generation that has heard its timeless tale of love and lust.
Rest in peace, Meat Loaf, and thank you for your stellar contribution to my college music playlist. College wouldn’t have been the same without you.
One of the tough things about getting older is seeing your childhood heroes fall by the wayside. For example, it was hard to read that Michael Nesmith, one of the Monkees, died yesterday at age 78. Michael Nesmith was the “smart Monkee” who always wore a stocking cap with the ball on top; he was the favorite of the cerebral kids. Davy Jones and Peter Tork have already gone to the great beyond, so Nesmith’s death means that Mickey Dolenz, who was my favorite Monkee, is the only surviving member of the group. That just doesn’t seem possible. After all, the Monkees’ theme song said they they were the young generation, and they had something to say. So how can they be dying of old age causes like heart failure?
The Monkees were an interesting phenomenon, and in some ways a precursor for a lot of what has happened in popular culture. They were the original “fake group”–put together to be on a Beatles-knockoff TV show and also serve as the faux front band for music produced by studio musicians. As a kid, I didn’t understand how weird and groundbreaking this was: the Monkees had a TV show that I thought was funny, they drove around in a cool car, and I liked their records. (We faithfully bought all of them.) And the first record said on the back that each of the Monkees played specific instruments and sang, and you could hear their voices on the records. That had to be true, right?
Later I realized that the Monkees were in fact different from groups like the Beatles, because the Beatles actually wrote their own songs and played their own instruments and were accomplished musicians. But the realization that the Monkees were faking it didn’t change my appreciation of the Monkees’ records. We played their songs when I was in college, and I still listen to them. In fact, in recognition of Michael Nesmith’s passing, we listened to some of the Monkees’ songs last night at a gathering with friends and enjoyed them.
The difference between the Monkees and the other fakes that followed was that the creators of the Monkees didn’t scrimp; they got real songwriters (like Neil Diamond, who wrote the classic Monkees’ hit I’m A Believer) and real musicians to play the instruments, and also experimented with some cutting edge sounds that fit right in with where popular music was going at the time. My all-time favorite Monkees tune, Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day, is a good example of how bringing all of that together created something really good.
After the Monkees heyday ended, Michael Nesmith went on to have an interesting career and helped to usher in the era of MTV and music videos, but of course he was always identified with the Monkees, as his New York Times obituary linked above reflects. He seemed to be at peace with his role in the popular culture of the ’60s. Those of us who enjoyed the Monkees TV show and still love the music wish him well.
On Saturday we had the pleasure of watching the Austin Symphony Orchestra perform in a program that included a beautiful choral selection from Mozart and ended with a bravura rendition of Beethoven’s titanic Ninth Symphony. After the last, moving notes were sounded the crowd leapt to its feet and gave the performers (who included Julianne Webner on the lead oboe) a richly deserved and prolonged standing ovation. In fact, it was probably one of the longest and most genuine standing ovations I’ve ever experienced, as everyone in the audience clapped furiously until their hands hurt and their arms grew tired.
After the performance, I thought about the concept of applause. The concert had been such a wonderful experience, shared by both the performers and the audience. Imagine how different the experience would have felt if, after the concert ended, the audience had simply quietly filed out of the auditorium without any reaction, while the musicians gathered their scores and packed away their instruments! Fortunately for us all, the basic human urge to show appreciation for such a fine performance and to participate directly in the shared experience is irresistible. The impulse to clap like crazy and cheer loudly under such circumstances seems to come from deep within.
That’s why I suspect that, although some people date the concept of applause back to the ancient Greeks, I suspect the history of applause is much, much older. I imagine it probably dates back to the first performances of music, dance, epic poetry, or plays around a campfire by fellow members of the tribe. The notion of making positive noises to express approval is intuitive; it bridges the gap between performer and audience and establishes a connection and a feedback loop of encouragement and support. And since every audience member has hands and mouths, clapping and cheering were pretty much inevitable.
I love going to live musical performances and live sporting events, and part of what makes them so enjoyable is the chance to participate in cheering and applauding. To whoever first beat their hands together and shouted with pleasure, at the dawn of human history, I salute you. In fact, I applaud you.
Recently I was embroiled in an earth-shakingly important discussion. The topic was which TV show theme song was better: The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island? We weren’t debating whether they were the best theme songs in TV history. (That exalted designation must certainly be reserved for the theme song to Mission: Impossible.) Instead, we were engaged in a careful comparative analysis of these two theme songs, both of which tell a story that sets the context for the TV show itself.
I would have thought that this was an easy call. In my view, the uplifting tale of a happy, hard-working rustic who discovers oil on his property thanks to an errant rifle shot at some furry woodlands creature and then moves to Beverly Hills–all told to the accompaniment of some rollicking pickin’ music–is clearly superior to the improbable story of seven passengers on a boat who, thanks to an undetected storm, find themselves cast away on an unknown island within boat ride distance from southern California. But to my astonishment, other participants in the conversation, after giving the matter the serious consideration it deserves, voted for the Gilligan’s Island theme over The Beverly Hillbillies.
That conclusion is just wrong on many levels, so let’s set the record straight. The Beverly Hillbillies music–The Ballad of Jed Clampett, performed by Flatt & Scruggs, with its banjo-picking frenzy as the Clampetts drive into Beverly Hills–blows the forgettable Gilligan’s Island tune out of the water. The Ballad of Jed Clampett, which was released in 1962, hit number 1 on the Billboard country music chart, was on the charts for 20 weeks, and even rose to number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island was never released as a single, so far as I can tell. Musically, it’s like arguing about whether the Beatles are better than the Four Freshmen.
And the lyrics for The Beverly Hillbillies are better, too, telling a classically American Horatio Alger-type story in which the “kinfolk” offered supportive advice to the upwardly mobile Clampetts. It includes some great rhymes, too, like “Jed” and “fed” and “food” and “crude.” Gilligan’s Island, on the other hand, featured the annoying repetition of “a three-hour tour” and made clear that the show’s characters were caricatures defined by their circumstances (“the millionaire and his wife,” “the movie star,” and “the rest”) rather than giving us the kind of rich context we learned about the Clampett clan.
And the key test is which song you’re less likely to forget in your dotage. For me, that’s undoubtedly The Ballad of Jed Clampett.
When you’re in the middle seat of an early morning Southwest flight, seated at the back of the plane, it’s impossible not to think of the line from a ‘70s classic by Stealers Wheel, Stuck In The Middle With You:
“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
Stealers Wheel was a Scottish rock band with really bad ‘70s haircuts, in case you’re interested.
One of the many bad things about getting older is seeing the familiar figures of your youth fall by the wayside. It happened again this week, with the passing of George Frayne IV—better known as “Commander Cody,” the leader of the great, undefinable, genre-crossing group Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.
Everyone’s high school and college years has a unique soundtrack, because music always seemed to be playing during that time period and was such an important part of the whole experience. Commander Cody was definitely part of my soundtrack. I’m pretty sure the first Commander Cody song I heard was Hot Rod Lincoln, when it hit the charts during high school. What a great record! No song was better calculated to appeal to the car-crazy sensibilities of high school boys, and the Commander’s high-speed rendition and deadpan, gravel-voiced delivery of the lyrics put the song right up there with Radar Love as one of the great highway driving songs of that era.
In college, the Commander’s music was always on our turntable, and songs like Lost in the Ozone, Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette, and Rock That Boogie were staples that were played so often they remain permanently ingrained on my brain cells. Lost in the Ozone became a kind of catchphrase with my college roommate, and if something strange happened you could bet we would respond by crooning a few bars of that song’s refrain.
How do you adequately thank someone who helped to make your college years what they were? You can’t, of course, but I will say thank you anyway, and just wish the Commander a speedy, ozone-free journey to whatever comes next.
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Beethoven. Like many of the other composer giants, he was remarkably prolific, and it seems like there are always new pieces to listen to and new areas of his genius to discover.
I’ve grown to love the five Beethoven piano concertos, which feature solo piano flourishes seamlessly blended with music produced by the power of a full orchestra. I particularly enjoy the first and fifth of the concertos, where the orchestral pieces are stirring and aspirational and the piano solos are exquisite. They have to be among the most beautiful pieces of music written by anyone, anywhere.
I’m evidently not alone in this sentiment, because there are many recordings of the five piano concertos. One of the great things about my IDAGIO app is that it allows me to listen to different recordings of the same compositions and thereby pick up on differences in how different musicians and conductors interpret the pieces. As someone who has never played an instrument, I’m always surprised at how the same piece can be played in different ways.
I think my favorite recording of the Beethoven piano concertos—so far, at least—is the one shown above, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano and Otto Klemperer (the father of Werner Klemperer, Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes) conducting. Barenboim plays the piano pieces flawlessly and with feeling, and Klemperer’s conducting gives the orchestral sections a real pop. It’s an old recording—Klemperer died in 1973–but it has stood the test of time.
Most hotel artwork is pretty generic, but this piece by artist Paul Villinski in the lobby of the Van Zandt Hotel in Austin is pretty cool. Those birds flying from the old Victoria are made of all kinds of old, reshaped records—including one by Townes Van Zandt.
Bangor International Airport continues to encourage 20 seconds of hand-washing, but also offers helpful guidance about how to determine when you’ve hit the 20 seconds above the sink by identifying song snippets that need that time period to be properly sung. And the song options cover the generational and musical taste spectrum, with rock and pop songs from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and a country and what I believe to be a rap/hip-hop option. (Not being familiar with Lil Nas X, I’m guessing that is the right genre.)
There’s a risk in encouraging song singing, because someone could burst into off-key crooning in a public restroom. But I chose Toto’s Africa and sang it in my head as I lathered and rinsed, including holding the note on “had” as happened in the original version. And I learned something in the process: I always thought the lyrics were “I felt the rain down in Africa,” and “I bless the rains down in Africa” definitely gives the song a different meaning (although I’m not sure exactly what).
When I was done and had dried my hands, satisfied that I had fully complied with the 20-second instruction, I mentally sang the rest of Africa—as best I remembered it—then mentally sang Rosanna for good measure.
Today I turn 64. It’s a memorable birthday, thanks to a Beatles song from the Sgt. Pepper album. Ever since I first heard it, When I’m 64 has established a kind of old-age milestone–one that I’ve now reached.
As other people of this age have recently remarked to me, when Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote When I’m 64 that age was viewed as pretty darned old. It was not only “many years from now,” the character in the song speaks of needing to be fed. I haven’t quite reached that point, fortunately. (At the same time, the character in the song is somehow able to stay out until a quarter to three–long past my bedtime–so he is both feeble and capable of partying into the wee hours, which is a pretty impressive combination.)
I’m not much for birthdays, but thanks to the Beatles, 64 is one I’ll remember. It therefore joins my 10th birthday, when my parents threw a fun “bowling birthday party” for me and my friends at Riviera Lanes in Akron, Ohio, and my 30th birthday, when Kish and I had a big party at the Grandview Cafe, as memorable birthdays. I don’t have any distinct memories of the big “milestone” birthdays, like 13, or 18, or 21, or any of the decade-marking birthdays.
Does anyone know of any songs about turning 65, or 70?
If you’re a Beatles fan, Amazon Prime offers a lot of ways to scratch that Fab Four itch. Over the weekend we watched an interesting two-part documentary called Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney. The film, made in 2008, traces the greatest rock music songwriting partnership in history from the beginning to the end, using archival clips from shows and Beatles appearances mixed in with interviews with journalists, writers, musicians, and friends of Lennon and McCartney who talk about the development of the duo’s songwriting abilities and the significance of some of the musical innovations, chord structures, and lyrical devices in the songs themselves. The first part of the film takes us from 1957 to 1965, after the issuance of Rubber Soul and the Beatles’ decision to stop touring, and the second part goes from 1966 to the end in 1970.
Here’s the thing about the Beatles: you don’t need to be an expert in songwriting, or even know how to play an instrument or read music, to know that their songs are great. In effect, every Beatles fan is an expert in their own right, so when the people interviewed on the film start to critique a specific song or debate which Beatles album was the greatest–this group settles on Rubber Soul, by the way–the viewer is just as engaged as the participants in the debate. I may defer to the experts on the technical stuff about key changes and other musical arcana, but I’m perfectly capable of questioning their judgments about the worth of songs and albums, because the whole point of music is to appeal to the listener. I also can remember when the prevailing consensus was that the greatest Beatles album was Revolver . . . then Sgt. Pepper . . . then A Hard Day’s Night, and there are always people like me who think Abbey Road has to be right up there, too. The fact that people are still debating this question, decades later, just shows how extraordinary the Beatles output really was. And any documentary about the Lennon-McCartney songs inevitably is going to skip over incredibly great songs, as this one does with Ticket To Ride, Let It Be, I Feel Fine and many others.
Two observations made on the film stuck with me. One was the constant theme sounded by Klaus Voorman, who knew the Beatles well in the early Hamburg days. He pointed out that the Beatles always were different personalities, and it is perfectly natural that a time came when they wanted to pursue their own lives and go their own ways. Who can doubt the truth of that observation about the human condition–or question that the normal arc of development and change in people’s lives is only going to be exaggerated when you are at the absolute center of the cultural universe, as the Beatles were? It makes you understand that it isn’t surprising that the group ended, but that it’s wonderful that it stayed together for as long as it did.
The other observation was about the Beatles’ willingness to do countless takes of a difficult song–I think the particular song being discussed was Happiness Is A Warm Gun–and what that must have necessarily meant for the dynamics within the group. The point was that the group wouldn’t do more than 80 takes to get a song just right if they really couldn’t stand each other and were being pulled apart by internal dissension. That’s a compelling thought to keep in mind as you listen to the Beatles’ later songs, all the way up through Abbey Road, the last album that they recorded, which has some of the most memorable music of all, with Paul, for example, singing his heart out in the background vocals on Something and the great, tight rhythm section work on side two. Even at the end, the Beatles were pros who cared about each others’ songs and worked hard to produce the best music they could. That’s not a bad legacy.
The other day I was listening to some vintage rock on my morning walk, and a true classic showed up in the mix — My Generation by The Who. The song is arguably the greatest youth anthem ever recorded, and is especially memorable for two reasons: the line “hope I die before I get old,” and Roger Daltrey’s ferocious stutter on some of the words in the lyrics, like “f-f-f-fade away” and “s-s-s-say.” The credit for the lyric goes to Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitarist who wrote the song, but . . . why the terrific stutter?
Apparently it was the product of one of those happy accidents that make for rock music legend. Daltrey recently explained that Townshend had originally written the song so that the “f” sound on “fade” would be held for a while, but when Daltrey performed it on one of the early takes of the track, he stuttered. He corrected that on the next take, but the group decided the stutter worked better in conveying the song’s aggressive message about frustrated and disaffected youth — and it does.
In the link above, The Stuttering Foundation declares My Generation as the most famous song with stuttering vocals, although Bachman Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet also gets a mention. And Daltrey’s stuttering got attention at the time, too: the BBC originally banned the song from its airwaves because it was deemed offensive to people who stutter. That decision was later reversed, and My Generation ultimately reached number 2 in Great Britain. The song didn’t do much in the United States when it was released in 1965, however, and didn’t even make the Top 40. Only later did people start to recognize the powerful message of the song, and now My Generation is generally viewed as one of the greatest rock songs ever.
The stutter really gives the song a punch — although these days I focus more on that “hope I die before I get old” line.
The other day I was listening to the essential Sirius XM Holiday Pops channel when a version of O Holy Night was played. It’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and it was one of Mom’s favorites, too. She loved the Mario Lanza version, with the tenor using his great voice to hit some of the high notes that make the tune so stirring and powerful.
But the message of the song is powerful and stirring, too. Particularly the third verse that goes:
Truly he taught us to love one another:
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
For Christmas carols, that’s about as political a message as you are going to get — but of course the notion of ending human bondage and instilling brotherhood for all fits neatly with the entire redemptive thrust of the Christmas story. The verse got me to wondering, though: when was O Holy Night written, and was its author an abolitionist?
It’s not hard to imagine church congregations of the North belting out the song with relish during the holiday seasons in an era when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted and adopted by the states, and the horrors of slavery in America finally ended, once and for all. And who knows? Music can have a powerful influence, and the song may have helped to create the political climate that allowed those momentous events to happen. For that reason alone, O Holy Night might be the most historically significant Christmas carol in the holiday playlist.
The holiday season, for me, is in large part a music season. This year, I’m getting my Christmas musical fix from Sirius XM’s Holiday Pops channel.
Sirius offers a bunch of different holiday music options that cater to different musical tastes. There’s a country-oriented channel and an upbeat rock channel, for example. The Holiday Pops channel gives the season a classical music flavor. At any given moment, you might hear some selections from The Nutcracker or Handel’s Messiah, a choral rendition of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, a pretty French carol from the 1700s that you’ve never heard before, or It Came Upon A Midnight Clear played on a harp. What you won’t hear is Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. (You won’t hear Bing Crosby, either, but sacrifices must be made to avoid Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.)
Every Christmas, my musical tastes seem to shift a bit. Some years, I’m focused on jazz interpretations of the holiday classics; other years I can’t get enough of the ’40s and ’50s swing era versions. That’s one of the great things about the music: it’s capable of being adapted to pretty much any style and played on pretty much any instrument from a banjo to an organ to a full orchestra, and sung by everyone from a single performer to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This year, I’m definitely in a classical and choral frame of mind.
Wherever you are on the musical spectrum this year, I hope you are enjoying the music.