Archive for the ‘Ultimate Jukebox’ Category

Did They Think He Wouldn’t Play It?

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

I felt kind of sorry for Maynard Ferguson. It was a spring evening in 1977, maybe April but more likely May, and Ferguson and his band were on stage at the Prom Center in St. Paul. And after every number, fans in the crowd were calling out “‘Gonna Fly Now’!” as they urged Ferguson and his band to perform his current Minnesota hit.

Now, I didn’t really know Ferguson’s catalog beyond “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from ‘Rocky’)” that night. I imagine that if the single hadn’t been getting some pretty good airplay on Minnesota stations, I wouldn’t have made the trek to the Twin Cities for the show. But I was interested in hearing the rest of the show. I wanted to learn what else Ferguson and his band had to offer. And I was enjoying what I heard.

I knew, of course, that Ferguson and his mates would eventually play “Gonna Fly Now.” As I noted, the record had been getting plenty of airplay in Minnesota. That made the state one of the few markets in which Ferguson’s version of the movie theme outperformed the original from the movie soundtrack by Bill Conti; nationally, both versions entered the Billboard Hot 100 during late April of 1977. Conti’s version went to No. 1 during the first week of July, and Ferguson’s version peaked at No. 28 in late June.

The night of Ferguson’s concert, that peak was still more than a month away, but in Minnesota, we’d been hearing Ferguson’s version of the song on the radio for some time. The Academy Awards were handed out on March 28 that year, and I recall huddling later that week with a member of the music faculty at St. Cloud State, dissecting Best Song nominees “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)” by Barbara Streisand and Paul Williams (which won the Oscar) and Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.” (I didn’t yet have Conti’s version, either on 45 or on LP, so I brought along Ferguson’s LP for the comparison.)  Our verdict? Conti’s composition was more exciting musically, but its lyrics – by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins – were painfully lame.

That comparison might be interesting, but the main point of the tale is that by late March/early April, I’d heard Ferguson’s version on the radio enough that I’d already sought out the album. Had that been on St. Cloud’s WJON? On KDWB from the Twin Cities? From another local station? I don’t know, but by the time I was at the Prom Center later that spring, the record had already been a hit for the trumpeter in Minnesota. So as I sat with a bunch of other St. Cloud students – all of whom knew Ferguson’s work better than I did – I groaned internally as the listeners at the fringes called for “Gonna Fly Now.”

Did they think he wasn’t going to play it?

Of course, he did, near the end of the show, and those who’d come only for the hit were satisfied. Many of those who’d come for the broader range of Ferguson’s catalog were relieved, like one of the St. Cloud folks who was in our group. “Well, that’s over,” he murmured to me as the applause for “Gonna Fly Now” faded away. A little while later, I came away from the show with a broader appreciation of Ferguson’s music and the thought that I should delve deeper into his catalog.

It took me a long time to get to that, and I have to acknowledge that I’ve only dug a little bit into the late trumpeter’s work in the past few years. I enjoy it, and I respect the man’s abilities. But jazz is never going to be my music of choice; it’s more like a place I visit now and then, enjoying the differing customs and strange sights but aware all the time that when I leave, it will be good to be back home in my homeland of blues, rock, folk and R&B.

Of course, Ferguson’s “Gonna Fly Now” isn’t jazz. It’s pop, as was a lot of his work in the 1970s, a fact that dismayed many of his long-time listeners. His earlier work and some of his later work is far more based in jazz, and some of it can be challenging listening. If some listeners were pulled into those challenges because of Ferguson’s pop work, well, that’s all right. And pop though it may be, Ferguson’s version of “Gonna Fly Now” shows off the man’s tremendous range and dynamics. That’s why it’s here in the Ultimate Jukebox:

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 28
“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals, Atlantic 2537 [1968]
“Suavecito” by Malo, Warner Bros. 7559 [1972]
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, MCA 40258 [1974]
“Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac from Fleetwood Mac [1975]
“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Maynard Ferguson, Columbia 10468 [1977]
“Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn from Marc Cohn [1991]

The Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” falls for me into a loose category of utopian pop-rock songs, a late Sixties swath of pop music that includes – just to name two other hits – the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and Friend & Lover’s ”Reach Out In The Darkness.” What’s always struck me about those songs is their naiveté, their seeming belief that the task of reordering our lives and the world around us requires only an act of will. In other words, to quote Paul McCartney and Badfinger from another context, “If you want it, you can get it.” Simplistic? Yes, but it’s a wish/desire/hope that remains with us today in such homilies as “Be the change you want to be.” There is, I suppose, something to that, as the world can change one person at a time, but the cynic in me chuckles and then reaches for the sports section. So does that invalidate “People Got To Be Free” for me? Not at all. It’s a great record, and it’s good to be reminded at times that we should aim for better. And the Rascals perform the hell out of it, which was good enough for the record to go to No. 1 for five weeks during the late summer of 1968.

The light and airy sounds of Malo’s “Suavecito” put me on my bicycle during one of those Saturday evenings rides that were a constant for me during the summer of 1972. I wrote about those rides once before, and I can only guess that I heard Malo’s record from the loudspeakers as I sat in the bleachers at the municipal swimming pool, taking a break from my ride and nibbling on a Frozen Milkshake. There’s a longer version on the group’s self-titled album from that same year, but it gets to the point too slowly and contains less of the single’s restrained energy. I’d forgotten for years about Malo and “Suavecito,” but sometime during the 1990s, I found Malo and the group’s second album, Dos, during my crate-digging days; hearing the long version of the song reminded me of how much I liked the single as it went to No. 18 during the early summer of 1972, and when I began to collect digital music about ten years ago, the single version of “Suavecito” was pretty high on my list of wants.

I don’t have a lot to say about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” except to note two things about the record that went to No. 8 in 1974: First, the ambiguous second verse that seems to have defended Alabama Governor George Wallace doesn’t actually do so, according to a 1975 interview with the late Ronnie Van Zant, co-writer of the song. Second, I think the current Alabama license plate is just perfect:

Stevie Nicks has written a good number of great songs. She’s also written a few that tend to get lost in her personal “Rhiannon” mythology. (And that latter group does not include “Rhiannon” itself.) But to my mind, her best song is “Landslide” from the 1975 album Fleetwood Mac, the album that presented to the world Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham as the new members of the revamped Mac. Even without the subtext of Nicks’ and Buckingham’s failing relationship – a failure displayed, of course, in full light of day on 1977’s Rumours – the chorus to “Landslide” is poignant:

Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
’Cause I’ve built my life around you,
But time makes you bolder, even children get older,
And I’m getting older too.

Writing a song that name-checks prominent people and places isn’t easy. Writing a good song that does that is immensely difficult, as such efforts can easily devolve into what seems like parody. That’s what made Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis” so remarkable when it came out in 1991. Cohn piles up the references: W.C. Handy, Beale Street, Elvis Presley, Union Avenue, Graceland, the Jungle Room, Al Green, and Muriel at the Hollywood Cafe (in Robinsonville, Mississippi). And they all work. The record went to No. 13 during the summer of 1991.

Still Powerful

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

A while back, on one of those Facebook memes that friends send through occasionally, I was asked to list the twenty essential songs/records for my desert island. I don’t recall everything I listed and then sent out to other friends, but I do recall the top two: “Cherish” by the Association and “We” by Shawn Phillips.

I got a note from my friend, the Half-Hearted Dude, who blogs at Any Major Dude With Half A Heart and who stops by here and leaves an occasional note. He said – and I’m paraphrasing here, as the note has been consigned to the ether and to whatever files Facebook keeps on its registrants –  that when he saw that I had responded, he figured that “Cherish” and “We” would show up somewhere on my list, and their presence in the top two spots was not at all surprising.

Well, I guess it shouldn’t have been startling. I’ve written about “Cherish” several times during the life of this blog, calling it at least once the best single ever released. And although I’ve written about “We” far less often – and do not recall exactly what I said about it – I know that I’ve never hidden my high regard for Shawn Phillips’ 1972 recording. In it, one can hear many virtues: strong melody; inventive, coherent and cohesive lyrics; a sparkling backing track; and the conciseness of a record that gets all that done in 3:43 (and I’ll acknowledge, as a fan of Phillips, that concision wasn’t always present on his other 1970s albums).

Then add to those virtues Phillips’ remarkable vocal, especially the portion where his scat singing takes him into the stratosphere (starting at 2:38 into the song), and you’ve got a record that for me, at least, comes very close to the top of the all-time list.

But wait, as the hawkers on television say, there’s more!

Faces, the album that is home to “We,” was released in 1972. The album got to No. 57 on the Billboard chart, and “We,” its lone charting single, got to No. 89 in the Billboard Hot 100 during the last week of January 1973. What’s always puzzled me, then, is how the single showed up on the jukebox in St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center during the early autumn of 1974, twenty-one months after it spent three weeks in the Hot 100. Was it re-released? Did the jukebox jobber goof? I don’t know, but whatever the reason for its late appearance, the record was welcome. I dropped a lot of quarters into the machine that autumn, and “We” was one of the preferred records for me and a couple of other folks at The Table, the diverse and sometimes odd collection of people with whom I spent my free time.

The song’s lyrics, of course, tell of how two – a “he” and a “she” – can make a “we,” and I was dreaming about that same process that autumn. Those dreams left abruptly, as friends and long-time readers likely recall. And I don’t think I heard “We” again for almost nine years. I imagine I could have sought out the album, as I did for a few records that marked that autumn. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t until the spring of 1983, when I chanced on Faces at a flea market in Monticello, that I heard “We” again. If anything, it had become more powerful in its absence. Over the years, I’ve increased the quality of my copy of the album, finding a better vinyl version in 1997 and then finding a rare CD copy in 2007. But no matter the format or quality, “We” remains one of the most emotionally potent songs in my entire universe of music.

Its potency is not tied, as some might guess, to the young woman who might have been the other half of that “he and she make we” equation. (At least not entirely.) It’s linked, rather, to a time before things changed, to a vague memory, a moment when all of us at The Table were listening to Shawn Phillips’ voice soar through the basement snack bar where we gathered, all of us – for that moment – looking at things beyond the range of our vision and finding bits of our own dreams expressed in Phillips’ words and music.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 27
“San Francisco Girls (Return Of The Native)” by Fever Tree from Fever Tree [1968]
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” by Aretha Franklin, Atlantic 2486 [1968]
“Vehicle” by the Ides of March, Warner Bros. 7378 [1970]
“We” by Shawn Phillips from Faces [1972]
“Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by the Bee Gees from Main Course [1975]
“Four Strong Winds” by Neil Young from Comes A Time [1978]

The myth of San Francisco circa 1967 and 1968 was grist for the mills of who knows how many songwriters and performers, with the best-known result probably being John Phillips’ “San Francisco  (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” which was a No. 4 hit for Scott McKenzie during the singular summer of 1967. Fever Tree, a relatively forgotten band that offered an odd mix of psychedelic tunes, soft ballads and cover versions of others’ hits, didn’t get its San Francisco tune out until June of 1968, when “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” spent three weeks at No. 91. Despite the group’s eclectic style and despite the lack of attention given the single, I think that “San Francisco Girls” is just as evocative of what was happening in that California city as McKenzie’s record, especially in its opening, with the harpsichord eventually joined by tympani and organ for the hushed opening verse:

Out there it’s summertime
Milk and honey days
Oh, San Francisco girls with
San Francisco ways.

From there, the song takes off in a rushed, fuzz-laden gallop, and the rest of the tale isn’t quite as interesting. But those first few moments pull me in every time.

I don’t have much to say about Aretha Franklin and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” I mean, she’s Aretha, and the record was one of her forty-five Top 40 hits (covering a span of years from 1961 to 1998). Add that “Since You’ve Been Gone” went to No. 5 in the early spring of 1968 (and was No. 1 for three weeks on the R&B chart), and all you need to do after that is listen.

There was a discussion not long ago at the blog AM, then FM about how the lyrics to “Vehicle,” the Ides of March hit from 1970, might play today, what with the “friendly stranger in the black sedan” inviting the object of his interest into his car: “I got pictures, got candy. I’m a lovable man, and I can take you to the nearest star.” I’d guess – as did Jeff at AM, then FM – that what was heard as a (lame) come-on forty years ago would come off today as really creepy: This dude is exactly the kind of guy parents have been warning kids about for years! So times have changed, and the guy in the car would have needed to find a new way to get the attention of a pretty young thing. But as he long as he brings those horns along, he’ll do okay, as the horn chart was at least partly the reason that “Vehicle” went to No. 2 during the spring of 1970.

The Bee Gees’ long career had, as I see it, three distinct segments. Call them acts, if you want. Act One was the group’s early work as a kind of Down Under Beatles, running – as far as hits in the U.S. were concerned – from 1967 into 1969. Act Two was the split in the group and then the tentative music after the reunion, with that segment running from 1970 to 1972. Then, in 1975, started Act Three, during which the Bee Gees were for a while the world’s most popular group, throwing off hits for themselves and producing them for others as if there were nothing hard about it at all. The first portion of that third act was the 1975 album Main Course, which telegraphed the disco triumph to come in its first two hits, “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights on Broadway,” which went to No. 1 and No. 7, respectively. My favorite from the album, though, is the third hit, “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” which went to No. 12 during the early months of 1976. Why that record? It’s no secret that I like a good ballad, and to me, “Fanny” is one of the best. And it comes from a time in my life that held at least two good things: my college internship and the pleasant (and unfamiliar) dilemma of having to decide between two very nice young women.

“Four Strong Winds,” Ian Tyson’s song of retreat from love to the Alberta prairie, has been recorded by hundreds of folks since he wrote it as the title tune to the second album he and his then-wife released as Ian & Sylvia. I have to admit that I wasn’t all that familiar with the song until I heard Neil Young’s 1978 version on the radio one day. Young’s cover of “Four Strong Winds” was released as a single but only got to No. 61. Nevertheless, hearing the tune inspired me to run down to the local record outlet and grab a copy of Comes A Time, which has only turned out to be my favorite Neil Young album. And the tune marks the only appearance of Neil Young in my mythical jukebox.

(Parenthetical comment added January 2, 2013.)

‘Down-town! Down-town!’

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Every so often, a record makes its way up the charts and touches something in the public that makes it not just a hit record but a pop culture sensation. Even those who do not listen to pop music become aware of it, and the record might even become a tag line that sums up an era – or at least a portion of an era.

Two of the more prominent such records I can recall span a good-sized length of time and a huge distance on the quality meter: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles in 1964 (No. 1 for seven weeks) and “Macarena (bayside boys mix)” by Los Del Rio in 1996 (No. 1 for fourteen weeks). Others that come to mind – and this will be a brief list created after minimal research, so it will necessarily be incomplete; readers are invited to leave their own suggestions in a comment – include:

“The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Fess Parker Bill Hayes, No. 1 for five weeks in 1955 (backed by the power of the Disney television show and one of the largest [and possibly earliest] marketing blitzes of tie-in merchandise in the United States).

“Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley, No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1956.

“The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley, No. 1 for six weeks in 1958.

“The Twist” by Chubby Checker, No. 1 for one week in 1960 and for two weeks in 1962.

“Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobbie Gentry, No. 1 for four weeks in 1967.

“American Pie, Parts I and II” by Don McLean, No. 1 for four weeks in 1972. (I wonder how many deejays played the split 45 – which I recall hearing on the air at least once – and how many went for the album track.)

“Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” by Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando, No. 1 for four weeks in 1973. (This might be the most influential pop song of all time, given the reflexive reaction these days to mount displays of yellow ribbons for someone who is lost or gone away.)

“Convoy” by C. W. McCall, No. 1 for one week in 1976.

After that, except for “Macarena,” I’m not at all sure, given my tenuous connection to pop culture – especially pop music – during many of the years that followed. As I said, I would welcome suggestions.

So what brought that somewhat slender list to the fore today? It seems to me that the first entry in today’s selection from the Ultimate Jukebox might belong on that list. It was one of those records that seemed omnipresent at the time it was out, and it seemed at the time that everyone knew the record: the young folks who listened to Top 40 radio, the young folks who didn’t (and I, of course, was one of those) and the older folks who didn’t listen to Top 40. The record? “Downtown” by Petula Clark.

“Downtown” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 87 during the week of December 19, 1964, then skipped to No. 41. It went to No. 12 in the first week of 1965 and then to No. 5 and to No. 4 before spending the last two weeks of January at No. 1. That’s not the quickest rise ever (I recall writing about “Let It Be” and its massive leap), but it has to rank up there pretty well.

And everyone seemed to like it. It was a bouncy bit of pop sung well and produced well. (The 1992 edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide said the record had “a mild Phil Spector-ish production,” which nails it pretty well.) It wasn’t rock, by any long stretch of the imagination (despite the voters for the Grammys who honored the record as the Best Rock and Roll Recording of 1965). And it had one hell of a hook, with its “Down-town!” (Without digging around, it strikes me that songwriter Tony Hatch came up with the shortest hook possible; or can a hook be just one note?)

Anyway, while perhaps not as influential on pop culture as some of the records in the list above, “Downtown” seemed to be everywhere as 1964 ended and 1965 began. Here’s a video, probably from around that time, of Petula Clark lip-synching the song.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 26
“Downtown” by Petula Clark, Warner Bros. 5494 [1964]
“Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & The Drells, Atlantic 2478 [1968]
“Handbags & Gladrags” by Rod Stewart from The Rod Stewart Album [1969]
“Travelin’ Band” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fantasy 637 [1970]
“Highway 49” by Howlin’ Wolf from The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions [1970]
“Thunder & Lightning” by Chi Coltrane, Columbia 45640 [1972]

I mentioned when I started this project that there was still one record I was uncertain about including and that I’d make that decision during Week 38 when I present the final six records in the jukebox. Actually, there’s another record whose place I’ve debated over the past few months: “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & The Drells. Sometimes when it pops up in company with the other songs on my Zen player it seems flat and blah and utterly out of place. Other times, it seems vibrant and creative and indispensible as Archie Bell calls his players out and brings them into the mix. Obviously, this week it seems the latter, and now I can quit dithering about it and just enjoy a record that was No. 1 for two weeks in the spring of 1968.

For the second week in a row, Rod Stewart shows up here, this time with “Handbags & Gladrags,” another one of those songs that I collect in as many versions as I can find. Written by Michael D’Abo (who was the lead singer for Manfred Mann as well as having a respected solo career), the plaintive song gets probably its best reading as an album track on Stewart’s first album (titled An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down in Britain). The album had no hit singles in the U.S., and that’s always baffled me; the inclusion of “Handbags & Gladrags” on Stewart’s first anthology, Sing It Again Rod, has always made me wonder if the track was released as a single in the U.K. (and if it was released here and utterly tanked). Whatever the case, the track is another bit of sweet testimony as to how good Stewart once was.

CCR’s “Travelin’ Band” peaked at No. 2 in early March of 1970. The record lasts only two minutes and seven seconds, but into those 127 seconds, John Fogerty and his bandmates pack in plenty of potent reminders of Little Richard and the rest of the artists he had to have listened to during his youth in California. As it happens, I’m not the only person to hear Little Richard in “Travelin’ Man.” According to The Billboard Book of No. 2 Singles, Arco Industries, which owned the copyright to Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly,” filed suit against Fogerty for what it said was his use of the song. The Billboard book cites CCR bassist Stu Cook as saying in Bad Moon Rising: “The song is a direct rip-off of Little Richard’s style . . . I always thought it sounded more like ‘Long Tall Sally.’ Of course, Little Richard wasn’t above quoting himself, either.” The suit was settled, Cook is quoted as saying, when CCR’s label, Fantasy, bought the Little Richard tune from Venice Music.

A while back, on one of those evenings when my pal Rob and I were sifting through the mp3 collection for something he could use in one of his classes, I clicked on Howlin’ Wolf’s reading of “Highway 49” from his London sessions in May 1970. As Eric Clapton’s incendiary intro rang out, Rob stared and blurted, “That’s not blues, that’s rock ’n’ roll!” Actually, it’s both, merged in a way that points out how difficult it can be to sort genres when performances get close to the edges. Given the Wolf’s vocal performance, it would be hard to argue that “Highway 49” is not blues. Given the instrumental backing of the track, it would be hard to argue against rock. So the best thing to do, I think, is to quit worrying about labels and just enjoy the Wolf as he and his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin work with one of the best collections of rock musicians ever brought together as a backing band: Clapton on lead guitar, Bill Wyman on bass, Charlie Watts on percussion and Jeffrey M. Carp on harmonica. (Steve Winwood played keyboards, but according to the notes in the CD reissue, his parts were added later in Chicago.)

One of the first albums I ripped from vinyl and shared through the first version of this blog was Chi Coltrane’s self-titled debut album, anchored by her only hit single, “Thunder and Lightning.” The rest of the album was fairly good, but none of the songs matched up against that single, which turned out to be Coltrane’s only hit. I’d liked “Thunder and Lightning” a fair amount when it was on the radio, so after I posted that first album I dug around online and found two more of the Wisconsin-born singer’s albums, 1973’s Let It Ride and Road to Tomorrow from 1977. Let It Ride features a cover of “Hallelujah,” first recorded by the Clique in 1969 and later a minor hit for Sweathog in 1971, but otherwise the two albums are pretty blah. That’s okay. There remains “Thunder and Lightning,” which went to No. 17 during the autumn of 1972.

‘I’m Shinin’ Like A New Dime’

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

By the time 1989 rolled around, a casual fan might have thought – hell, I did think – that even though he was still recording, the creative portion of Rod Stewart’s career was done, leaving behind four superb albums and a lot of work that was both difficult and painful to listen to. As brilliant as his work with Faces had been, his early solo work was better, with The Rod Stewart Album, Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells A Story and Never A Dull Moment following one after the other during the years from 1969 through 1972.

And there were some hits in those albums: “Maggie May” was inescapable during the autumn of 1971, perching at No. 1 for five weeks. That was undoubtedly Stewart’s biggest hit, but there were others, as measured by making the Billboard Hot 100: “(I Know) I’m Losing You” (credited to Rod Stewart & Faces), “You Wear It Well,” a cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “Angel,” “Cut Across Shorty,” “Reason To Believe” and “Twisting the Night Away.” And all of them were good listening.

And then, for me, Rod Stewart disappeared and some artless lookalike with a similar voice and horrible taste took his place. There are those who will argue the merits of the Tom Dowd-produced pair of Atlantic Crossing and Night on the Town, but I found both albums too slick by far, and with the puzzling success of the latter’s hit single, “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” – it spent the last seven weeks of 1976 and the first week of 1977 at No. 1 – I bailed on Rod Stewart for the rest of the 1970s and nearly all of the 1980s, never seeking out his music, wincing when I saw him perform on television and hitting the buttons on the car radio to change stations whenever I heard his voice coming from the speakers.

And then, one evening in late 1989, as I sat reading with the radio in the corner playing low, I heard an immediately haunting introduction of woodwinds and strings over piano. I stopped reading, and then Rod Stewart sang: “Outside, another yellow moon has punched a hole in the night time mist. I climb through the window and down to the street. I’m shinin’ like a new dime.”

The record blew me away, and I spent several fruitless weeks trying to find it on vinyl. It was, of course, a cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” and Stewart’s savvy reading of the tune was the best thing he’d done in about seventeen years. (He’d had nineteen Top 40 hits in the intervening years, when I was paying no attention.) Others seemed to like the record as well: It reached No. 3 in the Top 40, and went to No. 1 for one week on the Adult Contemporary chart and for two weeks on the Mainstream Rock chart. And in doing so, it fulfilled its commercial purpose, which was to draw attention to the release of Stewart’s sixty-four song Storyteller anthology, released in December of 1989.

From there, of course, Stewart continued to release albums and have hits, none of which grabbed me too much, and after the turn of the century, he devoted much of his effort to four albums of songs from what he calls “The Great American Songbook,” covering tunes like “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Thanks for the Memory.” He’s also released one album covering classic rock songs. For my purposes, he’s become irrelevant again. But I can still listen to those four great albums from long ago and to that one incandescent single from 1989 that reminded me how great Rod Stewart could be.

A note: My pal jb at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ recommended in a post this week the 1985 collaboration between Stewart and Jeff Beck on the Impressions’ 1965 hit “People Get Ready.” The track, from Beck’s album, Flash, reached No. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100 and went to No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock chart. Being disconnected from a lot of stuff – including music – in 1985, I missed it. Go watch the video at jb’s place and you’ll know why I wish I hadn’t. Great find, jb!

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 25
“Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett, Atlantic 2365 [1966]
“Green River” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fantasy 625 [1969]
“Hallelujah” by Sweathog, Columbia 45492 [1971]
“La Grange” by ZZ Top, London 203 [1974]
“Take It To The Limit” by the Eagles, Asylum 45293 [1976]
“Downtown Train” by Rod Stewart, Warner Bros. 22685 [1988]

Is “Mustang Sally” the quintessential Wilson Pickett hit? It’s a tough question to ask about a performer who had thirty-two records in the Billboard Hot 100 – sixteen of them in the Top 40 – between 1965 and 1972, as well as thirty-six hits on the R&B chart, a run that ended in 1987. I suppose one could choose between the two Top Ten hits – “Land Of 1000 Dances” went to No. 6 in 1966 and “Funky Broadway went to No. 8 a year later – but there’s something about the insistent beat underneath “Mustang Sally” that continues to pull me in, almost forty-four years after Pickett covered Sir Mac Rice’s 1965 hit. (Rice’s version went to No. 15 on the R&B chart.) And once the beat pulls me in, the rest of it – the sax honking underneath, the organ dancing above, the horn accents, Pickett’s gritty vocal, and above all the story of Sally who just wants to ride – gets me bobbing my head for a good chunk of the day.

“Green River” wasn’t the first Top Ten hit for Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Proud Mary” and “Bad Moon Rising” predated “Green River by six and three months, respectively – but it should have been. I’ve always heard “Green River” as the band’s statement of purpose, telling its listeners that even in the confused and shattered times of 1969, there was a place where things remained as they should:

Old Cody Junior took me over,
Said, “You’re gonna find the world is smold’rin’.
And if you get lost, come on home to Green River.

John Fogerty’s memories of bullfrogs, dragonflies and a barefoot girl dancin’ in the moonlight went to No. 2 for one week in September 1969.

I’ve written about Sweathog and “Hallelujah” a couple of times before, once calling the band kind of a Steppenwolf Light, and then wondering later if that was fair. I’m still not sure if that assessment is fair or not, but I can say this, for whatever conclusions it might inspire: There are no records by Steppenwolf in the Ultimate Jukebox, and Sweathog’s lone hit – it topped out at No. 33 during the last week of 1971 – is here. From the clanking introduction with its gospel piano and percussion through the workmanlike vocal and jubilant choruses, Sweathog’s single hit is fun. It doesn’t tap any major memories; it’s more of a dimly recalled artifact that it would have been nice to hear more often long ago. And that’s reason enough for it to be here.

La Grange, Texas, is a burg of less than five thousand folks lying about midway between Austin and Houston, and I would imagine that, like its not-too-distant cousin of China Grove, La Grange has had its share of visitors coming to town over the past thirty-some years with their car stereos blasting as they cross the city limits. The song, of course, would be ZZ Top’s superb boogie with indistinct lyrics, “La Grange.” Since I’ve never understood the lyrics to the song, and the LP The Best of ZZ Top doesn’t have a lyric sheet, I thought I’d clarify things for myself and perhaps provide a public service for others by putting the lyrics in this post. I found the lyrics at sing365.com, and I’ve made a revision or three based on my own listening this morning:

Rumor spreadin’ ’round in that Texas town
’Bout that shack outside La Grange.
(And you know what I’m talkin’ about.)
Just let me know if you wanna go
To that home out on the range.
They gotta lotta nice girls, ah!

Have mercy.
A-heh, how, how, how. A-heh!
A-how, how, how.

Well, I hear it’s fine if you got the time
And the ten to get yourself in.
A-hmm, hmm.
And I hear it’s tight most ev’ry night,
But now I might be mistaken.
Hmm, hmm, hmm.

“La Grange” just missed being ZZ Top’s first Top 40 hit, peaking at No. 41 during the last week of June 1974; the band’s string of eight Top 40 hits began during the summer of 1975 with “Tush,” which went to No. 20.

“Take It To The Limit” is the only record by the Eagles to make my final two-hundred and twenty-eight. Now, I enjoy the Eagles’ music just fine when it pops up on random. But back then, during the years from 1972 through 1981 when the band had sixteen Top 40 singles, I could take the Eagles or leave them. And although I enjoyed most of the singles when they came my way, I never sought the group’s music out. I didn’t add any Eagles LPs to the shelves until 1988, when I picked up Their Greatest Hits; I’ve added a few others since then. This is not to knock the group, but the music of Glenn Frey, Don Henley et al. almost never grabbed me. So why “Take It To The Limit,” which went to No. 4 in early 1976? Because more than a decade later, the song surfaced in my life as a talisman, encouraging me do everything I could to make some major and necessary changes. And that makes the song good for a smile:

Of ‘Miracles’ and Miracles

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Five of the six songs in this week’s installment of the Ultimate Jukebox take me places, which is probably not a surprise, as those five fall temporally into what I imagine could be called my “sweet spot,” after the place on a baseball player’s bat that makes the ball soar. My sweet spot is the years 1970 through 1975, a time when music was just about the most important thing in my life. And if there were events and people that were more important during those years, then their passages through my life were marked by records.

The sixth record in this set, which is actually the oldest, has no real time or place associations for me, as it came out when I was five years old and I didn’t hear it until I was much older than that. It’s a great record, or it wouldn’t be here, but my connection to it is less visceral.

What intrigued me about the other five records when I first looked at the random selection for this week was that, even though they do come from a relatively brief span of time, hearing them now puts me in five different places. One of them puts me in the shelter of my bedroom, listening to my old RCA radio on an early spring day. Another puts me in one of the trap houses at the gun club that I mentioned in my most recent post, with the same RCA radio keeping me company as I earn part of my sixty dollars.

By the time the third of the five records in question was released, I’d just started my second year of college, and the tune places me in Atwood Center, which is a little odd, as I didn’t start spending a lot of time there until a bit later than that. And then the fourth record drops me down in one of the strangest places any record puts me: It’s a sticky summer evening, and I’m with Rick and our occasional pal Gary, standing in line at the Dairy Queen. (There are in fact, two records that put me in that moment, and I can only assume that we heard them from a radio or from speakers in the ceiling as we waited in line; the other Dairy Queen record did not make it into the Ultimate Jukebox.)

In a little bit, I’ll untangle any mysteries about which of those four records puts me where. But before I do, I’ll look at the fifth of those records, which is probably the most powerful in its association with its time. The very first, almost tentative strains of Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” whirl me back to the autumn of 1975, a season I’ve written about many times before. The place is the tree-lined wide sidewalk between Centennial Hall and Stewart Hall on the campus of St. Cloud State. I’m heading from Centennial, where I work at the periodicals counter, to Stewart, where the mass communications department has its offices and where most of my classes take place. To my immediate left is Atwood Center, where my friends and I gather at The Table.

It must be October, as the leaves on the trees are yellow. (That makes sense, as the single – an edit of the album track – entered the Top 40 in late September and hung around for thirteen weeks, peaking at No. 3.) And I’m thinking as I walk – and as I did numerous times during that autumn – that miracles do happen. I was alive, I had good friends and I liked my classes. I hadn’t yet found the romantic miracle that Marty Balin was singing about, but in time, I hoped, that would come. For the moment, I was thriving, and that was miracle enough.

There are plenty of passionate listeners and critics who over the years have derided Grace Slick, Marty Balin and company for selling out at one time or another in pursuit of hit records. Did that happen with Red Octopus in 1975? Or later, with Earth or Nuclear Furniture? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I liked the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers, and I didn’t care much for some of the rest of the Airplane’s catalog. I liked Red Octopus and didn’t care much for a lot of the stuff that followed (though for sentimental reasons, “Sara” from 1986 can tug at me).

So what does all that have to do with the price of cookies in Tonga? I’m not entirely sure, but I think what I’m nibbling at is the weight of expectations and demand that a storied past can put on performers.  No, Red Octopus did not sound like Surrealistic Pillow, but then, 1975 did not sound like, or feel like, 1967. I do think that as Starship, the performers we’re talking about here lost their ways and ended up producing boring records. But the problem to me was that the records were boring, not that the records didn’t sound like 1967 or 1969 or whatever year one might have in mind. And I think that over the years, lots of people have carped at Red Octopus because it didn’t sound like classic Airplane.

Well, how could it? The times had changed, and so had the group. And I think Red Octopus holds up pretty well as an album: There are a couple of clinkers, yes, but there is also a cluster of good tracks and, of course, one genuine miracle.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 24
“Rave On” by Buddy Holly, Coral 61985 [1958]
“Reflections of My Life” by Marmalade, London 20058 [1970]
“Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, Columbia 45154 [1970]
“You’re Still A Young Man” by Tower of Power from Bump City [1972]
“Diamond Girl” by Seals & Crofts from Diamond Girl [1973]
“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship from Red Octopus [1975]

A friend of mine and I once talked about putting together a book and website about the history of rock music using the metaphor of a forest. The story of rock, we thought, would stem from the performers we were calling the Five Big Trees. It was a horribly simplistic idea, and I think I knew that at the time, which may be why the project never went anywhere. To begin, any reasonable forest of rock ’n’ roll would of course have more than five big trees. But one of the things we got right was naming Buddy Holly as one of those big trees. First, the music he released in his tragically short career remains interesting and vital today. It should also be noted that he pretty much invented the idea of a group that not only wrote its own songs but also had a great deal of influence over the production of its records in the studio. “Rave On” was one of Holly’s lesser hits – it went to No. 37 in the summer of 1958 – but to me, it holds all of the virtues of Holly’s music: a good beat, cogent lyrics, a strong melody and that idiosyncratic hiccup:

Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life” is the song that puts me in my room with my radio. I remember sitting up on my bed reading when these simple and melancholy chords came out of the speaker, followed by drums, a liquid bass line and some of the saddest lyrics I’d ever heard. A Scottish group, Marmalade released albums through the 1970s and on into the ’80s, but until a couple of years ago, I don’t know that I’d ever heard anything by the band but its one hit. “Reflections of My Life” went to No. 10 in the spring of 1970 and, beyond the trigger of memory, still sounds interesting today. (I find it odd that All-Music Guide begins its entry with the statement: “Marmalade is . . . best remembered today for one record, their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’.” That’s not the universe I live in; is it that way for anyone else?)

I’ve written about Pacific Gas & Electric’s single “Are You Ready” a couple of times: I noted that hearing it in my bunker was one of the indelible memories of working at the trap shoot in 1970, and I detailed the difficulty of finding the short version of the song, which was evidently issued only as a disk jockey release. (Thanks again, Yah Shure!) The long version was interesting the first couple of times I heard it, but it just doesn’t do anything for me anymore.  The short version, the one I heard coming out of my radio, still kicks:

The horn section for Tower of Power is renowned not only for its work on the group’s albums but also for its session and guest work. And it’s always amazing when listening to Tower of Power’s work to hear how well that horn section is integrated into an R&B/funk context. (My first hearing of that integration sometime in the early 1970s wouldn’t have been such a surprise, of course, if I’d ever really listened to James Brown.) I’m not sure that “You’re Still A Young Man” contains the best work that the TOP horns ever did, but the song’s opening cascade of horns is to me one of the classic moments in the group’s history. The record earned TOP the first of its three hits, going to No. 29 in the late summer of 1972. And all I can figure is that I heard the record at least once on the jukebox at Atwood Center, because when those horns start their intro, there I am.

James Seals and Dash Crofts first hit the charts in 1972, after fourteen years of playing together either in bands or as a duo. And for a time, the duo was so successful that it’s hard to say whether their sound fit the times or whether it in some ways defined the times. I know that for several years back then, every nightspot I went to that offered live music regularly booked singer-songwriter duos with guitars and tight harmonies. And Seals & Crofts’ early hits were – and still are – great records: melodic, with great hooks and good lyrics (though those lyrics could get over-wrought; the best example might be “Hummingbird”). Two of their singles will show up in this project; today’s selection, “Diamond Girl,” is the record that puts me in line at the Dairy Queen during the summer of 1973, waiting for a frozen treat and preparing to leave home. Whatever the reason for the song staying with me, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The single – an edit of the album track – went to No. 6 that summer.

It Can Still Make Me Smile

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

According to the eighth edition of the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits – which covers the years from 1955 through 2003 – the group Chicago had thirty-five Top 40 hits, with twenty of those reaching the Top Ten. According to that same volume, Chicago was the nineteenth most successful act of those years from 1955 through 2003.

(The top five? Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Elton John, Madonna and Stevie Wonder.)

My shelves are stocked with plenty of the group’s records – thirteen of them, ranging from 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority through 1982’s Chicago 16. A few of those are duplicated on CD and in the mp3 files, and a few other Chicago albums exist here only as mp3s. But I listen purposely to very little of all that music these days. If something pops up on random on the RealPlayer, that’s fine. On the rare occasion that I pop a Chicago CD into the player, it’s almost always Chicago Transit Authority or its two follow-ups, Chicago and Chicago III. And I skip a lot of the tracks on those albums.

But there was a time during the years 1970 to about 1973 when I thought that Chicago’s music was just about the best thing this side of a lobster dinner. I loved Chicago – the silver album often called “Chicago II” – and played all four sides frequently. A little later on, I bought and liked most of Chicago Transit Authority and played that one a little less often than the follow-up but still with some frequency. I did not own Chicago III, but a college pal did, and I taped his copy and enjoyed it, too.

The group performed at St. Cloud State during the spring of 1970; I got there late because of an orchestra concert, but Rick had somehow managed to save me a place. I didn’t recognize everything the guys played; I owned Chicago but I’d heard only portions of Chicago Transit Authority. Even so, it was a great show. Sometime around 10:30 or so, the band started an encore; forty-five minutes later, that encore was still underway when Rick and I had to leave to meet our parental curfews. (I was a high school junior and he was a sophomore; half past eleven was pretty late for a school night in 1970.)

That show still ranks pretty high on my list of concerts I’ve attended, probably in the top five.

And then, my fascination with Chicago went away. It took some time, of course, but I think the first blow was the release in 1971 of Chicago IV: Live at Carnegie Hall, a bloated four-record set of what to my ears were ragged and mediocre performances. (I didn’t buy it until years later; Rick bought it when it came out and we listened to it at his place, and I remember our looking at each other and shaking our heads as the shabby record played.)  Chicago V came out in 1972, and then, once a year, the group dropped another album onto the table, VI, VII and VIII into 1975. And I didn’t buy any of them. (At least not when they came out; as I said above, I have a good number of Chicago LPs, but most of those came home in the 1990s, when I was buying a lot of everything, and for the most part, they’ve stayed on the shelves after being played once.)

I heard the hits, of course: “Saturday In The Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Just You ’N’ Me,” “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” and on and on. None of them grabbed me at all. I thought as I heard them that the band had lost any sense of direction beyond the goal of another Top 40 hit. The inventive arrangements, the interplay of the horns with the other instruments and with each other, the drive and fire I’d heard in the first three albums – all of that was gone. And I gave up on Chicago. I’ve listened to very little of what the group has done in the years since.

And as the band – in my eyes, anyway – got fat and happy, I occasionally thought about the pledge that the members of Chicago had made in the notes to their second album: “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution . . . and the revolution in all of its forms.” I don’t know if I ever took those words seriously, but I have to assume the band did when they were printed inside the record jacket. Did the members of Chicago keep that promise? I’ve realized over the years that it’s not my place to decide, and I wonder if I would want to be called to account for promises I made when I was in my mid-twenties. But then again, I never put any of those promises on a record jacket almost certain to be seen by millions of people.

All of this may seem a bit disjointed, but I’ve never put my thoughts about Chicago into any kind of order before, and as I’ve been writing, I’ve begun to think that I may revisit the group’s output to see if it was better than I think it was. And I realize as well that my early passion for the group might have kept me from making critical judgments. I think now that those first three albums could have used an editor: Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago and Chicago III would likely have been better as single-record albums than the double albums they were. (Fodder for some posts down the road, perhaps.)

Even with all that, the band in its early years provided some transcendent moments: The first that comes to mind is the nearly side-long “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon,” from which were pulled the wedding standard “Colour My World” and the group’s first hit single, “Make Me Smile.” Then there’s “Beginnings,” with its glorious horns, great vocals and the long percussion fade out.

And finally, there is that first hit single, an edit of “Make Me Smile” that never fails to do just that, no matter where I am when it comes out of the speakers. When I first heard it as it headed to No. 9 during the spring of 1970, I thought to myself that I’d never heard anything like it. And forty years later, with the record as familiar as the grey in my beard, I still feel the same way.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 23
“Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King, Atco 6185 [1961]
“Make Me Smile” by Chicago, Columbia 45127 [1970]
“Statesboro Blues” by the Allman Brothers Band from Live at Fillmore East [1971]
“Stop Breaking Down” by the Rolling Stones from Exile on Main St [1972]
“In A Daydream” by the Freddy Jones Band from Waiting For The Night [1993]
“Twilight” by Danko/Fjeld/Andersen from Ridin’ On The Blinds [1994]

Looking for a version of “Spanish Harlem” to celebrate, I imagine that lots of folks would choose Aretha Franklin’s imaginative 1971 cover, which went to No. 2. But there’s something I prefer about Ben E. King’s original, which went to No. 10 in early 1961. Maybe it’s the tropical lilt brought out by the marimba during the introduction and throughout the record, maybe it’s the baion bass provided by producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Leiber co-wrote the song with Phil Spector), maybe it’s King’s hushed, almost serene vocal, or maybe it’s the saxophone solo. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it makes Spanish Harlem into a place I wish I’d seen through the eyes of all of those involved.

There’s little doubt, I would think, that the Allman Brothers Band album Live at Fillmore East is one of the greatest live albums ever, showing a ground-breaking band at the peak of its existence. (Looking at the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time published in 2003 by Rolling Stone, the only live album placed ahead of Live at Fillmore East is James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, which certainly makes sense.) And the Allmans’ opening number – presented on the album with the laconic introduction intact – was a fiery interpretation of Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” I won’t say that “Statesboro Blues” was the best performance on the album; I might give that accolade to the long versions of “Whipping Post” or “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” but it still strikes me as ballsy to open a show with a song that you’ve not already released, a song that might not be all that familiar to the audience. And then, in the terms of a jukebox, which is what we’re theoretically discussing here, “Statesboro Blues,” allows the band to put on display all its stellar attributes – a tough and supple rhythm section, superb lead guitar work, great bluesy vocals and more – in the concise running time of just more than four minutes.

Amid all the hoopla about its re-release a few weeks ago, I realized that it took me a long time to appreciate the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. I’d thought the singles, “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” were murky and indistinct when I heard them during the spring and summer of 1972, and I thought I’d give the album a pass. A year later, a friend of mine was clearing space on his record shelves and handed me his copy of Exile. I was glad to have it, but at the time, I wouldn’t have put it on my list of essential listens. I’m not exactly sure when the album got on to that figurative list, but it was sometime during the mid-1990s when I spent a few weeks listening to Exile on Main St back-to-back-to-back with the Robert Johnson box set and some 1950s recordings by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And the track that has always jumped up as my favorite – the first of two Rolling Stones recordings in the Ultimate Jukebox – is the cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down.” (A note on the title of the album, which I’ve long offered incorrectly as Exile on Main Street: The LP jacket has it as Exile on Main St, while my CD copy adds a period to make it Exile on Main St. Finally correcting myself this morning, I went with the original presentation from the vinyl.)

I learned about the Freddy Jones Band when the group’s music showed up from time to time during the 1990s on the Minneapolis station Cities 97. In those pre-CD player days, I found on quiet evenings that I could get lost in the band’s “In A Daydream,” which comes from the group’s 1993 album Waiting for the Night. Later on, when I picked up that CD and another by the group, I found a number of other songs that have the same effect. But “In A Daydream” remains my favorite among them and can still pull me away to somewhere else. And there are far worse ways to spend an evening.

The Band recorded at least two versions of “Twilight,” one of Robbie Robertson’s most elegiac songs in a career filled with elegies. There was the sprightly version released on the 1976 anthology Best of The Band with Rick Danko handling the lead vocal. Then there’s a slower version that opens with Levon Helm singing the chorus before Danko handles the verses; that one showed up as a bonus track on the Islands CD and might be the version released as a single on Capitol 4316. (Does anyone out there know which version was the single?) The slower take is better than the version on The Best of The Band. But it’s Danko who recorded the best available version of the song during his work in Norway with Eric Andersen and Norwegian performer Jonas Fjeld. That version, on the trio’s second CD, Ridin’ on the Blinds, is closer in tempo to the faster of the two versions by The Band, but it has a sorrowful, reflective quality that the earlier versions seem to have missed. And along with the Norwegian musicians that back the titular trio, “Twilight” also has keyboard parts supplied by Danko’s former Band-mate Garth Hudson.

(I noticed something odd while researching “Twilight” this morning. Most listings at All-Music Guide credit the piece to Robertson alone, but some links also give writing credit to Wynton Marsalis and Michael Mason. Does anyone out there know the story behind that?)

Amended slightly since first being posted.

‘You Never Give Me Your Money’

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

In April, after I wrote about being a Beatles fan during the confusing year of 1970, regular reader and commenter porky recommended a book: He told me that You Never Give Me Your Money, Peter Doggett’s examination of the Beatles during and after their break-up, would be released here in the U.S. in June. (He got his own copy, he said in his note here, during a December vacation in England, lucky man.)

My copy arrived last week, and I’ve found it hard to set aside. The tales of bitterness and anger among the four men who’d created some of the world’s best pop-rock are – even forty years after the fact – saddening and frustrating. Beyond the personal hurts of what was, in effect, a four-person divorce, Doggett also chronicles the details of the tangled hodge-podge of Beatles’ business interest, which made sorting those things out daunting as well.

The book seems impeccably researched, calling on a wide range of interviews and reviews of documents and publications; what impresses me most is that not only am I being reminded of what happened (I’m up to about late 1972), but Doggett fills the gaps other chroniclers seem to have left over the years in letting us know not only what happened (and in some cases of urban legend, what didn’t happen), but how the four ex-Beatles and those around them felt about the things that took place.

As I said, it can make for sad reading. As I go through the tales of bitterness and anger and the thousands of rumors of Beatle reunions, I also reflect on something I read long ago in the first volume I ever owned of the Rolling Stone Record Guide. John Swenson, one of the editors of the guide, wrote:

“In retrospect, the group’s much-lamented decision to call it quits as the Seventies began was entirely appropriate; the collected work does not leave you with the impression that there were unfinished statements. There is a perfectly resolute and logical progression of ideas from Meet the Beatles to Abbey Road. They did it all, they did it right, and then they went their separate ways.”

Swenson wrote that in 1976 or so, when a reunion of the four – however unlikely – was possible, implying, as I read it, that a reunion was unnecessary and would probably be ill-advised. All these years later, with a reunion having been impossible for almost thirty years, Swenson’s main point remains valid: The music stands on its own as a complete story.

As sad and as frustrating as You Never Give Me Your Money can be, it’s also compelling, and I’ll make quick work of it. Leavening the sadness and frustration as I read is the knowledge that the music is still there. For many years, the Beatles were my favorite group, and their body of work keeps them very close to the top of my list still today. And two of their recordings made it through my winnowing and are included in my Ultimate Jukebox.

The first is a track from Revolver that I wrote about last December, detailing the high school courtship that found me leaving the song’s lyrics in the locker of my romantic interest. I’ve seen comments from Paul McCartney and John Lennon that “Got To Get You Into My Life” – McCartney’s creation entirely – was influenced, especially in its use of horns, by the Motown sound. That makes sense. I’ve also seen vague references to an interview with McCartney – one I’ve never read, I don’t think – in which he said the song was written about his need for marijuana. That’s possible, I suppose, but I got the impression somewhere – I must have read it, but it would have been long ago soon after I discovered the Beatles – that McCartney wrote the song soon after meeting Jane Asher, who for a few years was his girlfriend.

Whatever the source, “Got To Get You Into My Life” from the 1966 album Revolver is still a great record:

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 22
“Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin, Atco 6147 [1959]
“Got To Get You Into My Life” by the Beatles from Revolver [1966]
“The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel, Columbia 44785 [1969]
“Let It Rain” by Eric Clapton from Eric Clapton [1970]
“Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by the Dramatics, Volt 4058 [1971]
“Arms of Mary” by Chilliwack from Light From the Valley [1978]

Bobby Darin never seemed to know what kind of singer he wanted to be. Or it might be more fair to say that the record companies for whom he recorded had no clue what to do with him. From the silliness of “Splish Splash” in 1958 (silly or not, it went to No. 3 and was No. 1 for two weeks on the R&B chart) through his folk-rock period in the mid-1960s (with Top 40 singles in1966 and 1967), Darin wandered through changes of style after style. Among the things that didn’t change, however, were his great voice and his superb sense of timing. I’m not sure if it’s his best performance, but my favorite performance of Darin’s is “Mack the Knife,” a tune pulled from the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill production, The Threepenny Opera. Adding some Las Vegas/Rat Pack swing to the tune – which is crushingly staid in the versions of the opera I’ve seen – Darin swaggers his way through “Mack the Knife,” famously name-checking opera character Lucy Brown and Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife and star of several stagings of the opera. Darin’s version of “Mack the Knife” was No. 1 for nine weeks in late 1959.

I suppose there’s little argument about which record was the best thing that Simon & Garfunkel ever did. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is an extraordinary song and record. But as much as I’ve loved it over the years, I found myself uneasy sliding it in among the other records in this mythical jukebox. As well as looking for good records, I guess I was also looking for flow, for a collection of songs that would make interesting combinations and patterns as the tunes played. And I decided as I considered the work of Simon & Garfunkel that “Bridge” just brings a little too much weight along with it, stopping the show. So I opted for “The Boxer,” which comes from the same album and was actually the first single released from Bridge Over Troubled Water. (It went to No. 7 in the spring of 1969.) And “The Boxer” was a better choice for my purposes. For the past few months, my pocket mp3 player has been loaded only with the tunes from the Ultimate Jukebox, and after hearing it pop up in several contexts, I’ve concluded that “The Boxer” is a better fit for what I was seeking than its towering neighbor. Beyond that, I like the story, seemingly told as it is from the shadows, and I love the long “lie-la-lie” ending.

Speaking of extended endings, Eric Clapton’s lengthy and compelling solo at the end of “Let It Rain” was one of my earliest exposures to Clapton as guitarist. I might have heard some of his work with the Yardbirds, and I know I heard some of Cream’s stuff, but those hearings would have come in the days before I paid much attention to who was actually doing the playing. When I finally got to that point – sometime between late 1971 and the summer of 1972 – Clapton was one of the first musicians I began to explore, along with his friends who helped record “Let It Rain” and the rest of his first solo album: Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett (she co-wrote “Let It Rain” with Clapton) and the group of friends that included Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Jim Price, Bobby Keys, Leon Russell and all the rest. “Let It Rain” wasn’t released as a single in 1970 when Eric Clapton came out, but when Polydor released the anthology Clapton At His Best in 1972, the label also released “Let It Rain” as a single (it may have been an edit of the album track; I don’t know). The record somehow missed the Top 40, peaking at No. 48.

It took nine years and a few personnel changes for the Dramatics to get from their formation in Detroit in 1962 to the recording of their first album, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get in 1971. All the work seemed worth it, I imagine, when the record was a hit. The album went to No. 20 on the Billboard 200 and to No. 5 on the R&B album chart. At the same time, the album threw off three hit singles: “In The Rain” went to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 1 on the R&B chart; “Get Up and Get Down” went to No. 78 on the Hot 100 and to No. 16 on the R&B chart; and “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” went to No. 9 on the Hot 100 and to No. 3 on the R&B chart. Of the three, the sweet and pretty “In The Rain” did a little better, but “Whatcha See” has a groove that can’t be refused. So I won’t try.

I have ten versions of the song “Arms of Mary” right now, and I’ll collect more as I find them. It’s one of those songs that grabs hold of me – it’s a song of memoir and memory, after all – and I knew one version of it would end up in this list. The original, by the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver, off of 1975’s Reach For The Sky, is nice enough, and managed to get to No. 85 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the spare folky accompaniment is somehow wanting. As a result, I prefer the slightly tougher version from the Canadian group Chilliwack. The track comes from the album Lights From The Valley, and the Mushroom label released the song as a single, as well. I imagine it might have done well in Canada, but all I know is that it didn’t make the Hot 100. Well, the other thing I’m sure of is that it should have been a hit.

One Part Bliss, Two Parts Agony

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

What is it that qualifies a record for my Ultimate Jukebox?

Well, it’s not universal acclaim, for there are few records that would qualify under so stringent a rule. I’d hazard that a few Beatles records might. (The 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide noted that “not liking the Beatles is as perverse as not liking the sun.”) I do have two records by the Beatles among the songs I’ll be featuring here, but they are, I guess, quirky picks and thus might not find unanimous support. And if Beatles records aren’t unanimous choices, I don’t know what records might be.

Obviously, the records highlighted here are songs that move me one way or another: Some of them make me want to dance (a sight not often granted to non-family members, which is good for the welfare of all). Some of them astound me musically. Some take me to other places and times, both good and ill, and some remind me that there were times when folks were making great music in many places before I was aware of it or even before I was born. And some of them tug on my emotions, bitter and sweet alike.

“Cherish” by the Association is one of the latter. It’s also a record that I once acclaimed as the perfect single or as near as one can get to a perfect single or something like that. And I still think it’s that good. So did a lot of people: Written by Association member Terry Kirkman and produced by the legendary Curt Boettcher, the record spent three weeks at No. 1 during the early autumn of 1966.

And “Cherish” is one of those relatively rare pre-1969 pop/rock records that broke through to me at the time of its release, during the years before I became an active Top 40 listener. Romantic that I was even at the age of thirteen, I’d had crushes, but I recall thinking as I sorted out the record’s lyrics that “Cherish” was describing something several magnitudes greater, a kind of worshipful enchantment that I thought – admittedly vaguely; I was thirteen – must be one part bliss and two parts agony at the same time.

When I finally got my own futile chance to truly cherish someone a few years later, I learned I was right. Even so, or maybe because of the formative memory, “Cherish” remains atop my all-time list:

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 21
“Yakety Yak” by the Coasters, Atco 6116 [1958]
“Cherish” by the Association, Valiant 747 [1966]
“Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company, Columbia 44626 [1968]
“Going Up The Country” by Canned Heat, Liberty 56077 [1968]
“Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, Reprise 0885 [1970]
“Dreams” by the Cranberries from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? [1993]

“Yakety Yak” was one of the little playlets that writers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller put together for the Coasters and other R&B groups during the mid- to late 1950s. The genius of the song is having the tale told almost entirely from the father’s perspective; as I hear it, “Yakety Yak” is the only thing the kid gets to say. And that’s trumped every time by Dad’s “Don’t talk back!” Add to that a stellar saxophone solo by the great King Curtis, and it’s no wonder that “Yakety Yak” was a No. 1 hit, reaching that spot for a week on the Top 100 chart of the time, and topping that era’s R&B chart for seven weeks.

“Piece of My Heart,” which is almost entirely linked to Janis Joplin these days, was originally recorded by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister. Franklin’s R&B/soul version of the song did fairly well, making it to the Top Ten of the R&B chart and to No. 62 on the pop chart. Then Joplin and her backing band of the time, Big Brother & The Holding Company, got hold of the song and drenched it in acid. By the time Joplin and her band were done, the song was hers, though I think one can hear echoes of Franklin’s performance in Joplin’s work. The record was released as a single and went to No. 12 during the autumn of 1968.

When those of us of a certain age hear the opening riff to Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country,” most of us, I’d wager, see the opening sequence to the 1970 documentary Woodstock, which tells the tale of the legendary three-day music festival of the previous summer. The use of the blues ’n’ boogie band’s anthem for the film was a brilliant idea, benefitting both film and band. Now, Canned Heat was hardly unknown at the time, as “On The Road Again” had gone to No. 16 in the autumn of 1968 and “Going Up The Country” had reached No. 11 as 1968 turned into 1969, but I’m sure that the group became far more visible as a result. In another vein, I still have fun demonstrating to music-attuned visitors the opening riff on the quills from Henry Thomas’ 1928 recording of “Bull Doze Blues,” clearly the source of the opening flute riff of “Going Up The Country.”

When my mind wanders to the topic of my favorite one-hit wonders, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” usually floats to the top of the pool fairly quickly. I like too many one-hit wonders to be able to sort out an utter favorite, but Greenbaum’s fuzz-drenched single – which went to No. 3 in the spring of 1970 – would certainly be one of the finalists. I’ve seen it lumped in at times with other hit songs of its era that actively promoted religion (see “Put Your Hand In The Hand” by Ocean, as an example), but I don’t think “Spirit In The Sky” is quite as clear in its theology. Not that it matters when the guitar solo hits.

The shimmering and jangly “Dreams” remains an enigma to me. It’s not the lyrics, which tell a pretty straight-forward tale. Nor is it the music, per se. What still puzzles me is Dolores Riordan’s odd keening. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. But it’s such an odd sound – I like odd sounds, sometimes – that I sometimes wonder at the popularity of the Cranberries during the 1990s.  When I first heard the Cranberries sometime around 1993 – almost certainly on Minneapolis’ Cities 97 – I was intrigued but I figured I’d be part of a minority. If so, it was a substantial minority, as the Cranberries did quite well: The group’s debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, was a Top 20 album and “Dreams” made it to No. 42 in the Billboard Hot 100. After that, the three succeeding albums went to No. 6, No. 4 and No. 13 before 2001’s Wake Up And Smell The Coffee reached only No. 46. That’s a pretty good run; I won’t say “Dreams” is the best the group did in that run, but it is the track I like the best.

The Baton Twirler & The Red Army

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

One of the things about music that fascinates me is my reactions to pieces I’ve long loved. When one of those songs cycles randomly through the mp3 player in the kitchen or shows up on the radio while I’m driving down St. Germain, what are the first thoughts, the first images that come to mind?

Mostly, those long-loved songs bring back people, times and places that are also cherished. Sometimes, the connections between the record and the memory images are harder to figure out. I wrote a while back about “Desiderata,” the spoken-word record that was a hit for Les Crane in 1971 and how its strains take me back to a corridor as it existed in 1971 just outside the bookstore at St. Cloud State. Ever since I wrote about that, I’ve pondered at odd moments why that is, what – if anything – that juxtaposition means. And I still sit clueless.

Another record, one I like much more than I like “Desiderata,” presents me with an odd collage of images. Whenever I hear its percussive introduction and its swelling harmonies, I see in my mind – jarringly – Soviet tanks and troops entering Prague, Czechoslovakia, in August 1968, crushing the liberalization of government and life there, a period now known as the Prague Spring.

And after a split-second of that, the strains of “Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues bring to mind something far more normal: the image in memory of a young woman, one who was a baton twirler for the marching band and so much more, walking between classes at South Junior High, looking for something she’s unable to find in front of her. If only she’d turn around, I often thought during that summer of 1968, the summer between freshman and sophomore years, the summer when “Turn Around, Look At Me” went to No. 7.

With its strings piled on top of horns and its lush vocals (ending with what a musician friend of mine used to call “an MGM climax”), “Turn Around, Look At Me” is a beautiful record that is not at all of its time, 1968. Listening to it this morning, I pegged it as being far more appropriate for the years 1957-62, perhaps recorded by one of those male vocal groups with a number in its name: the Four Freshmen, the Four Lads, the Four Dorks. But that displacement in style and time probably worked for the record among the listening public. The week “Turn Around, Look At Me” reached its peak at No. 7, the other songs in the Top Ten were:

“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals
“Hello, I Love You” by the Doors
“Classical Gas” by Mason Williams
“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf
“Light My Fire” by José Feliciano
“Stoned Soul Picnic” by the 5th Dimension
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
“Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela
“Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan

That’s a great bunch of songs, but the nearest things to the lush pop of the Vogues there are the Latin-tinged cover of “Light My Fire” and Mason Williams’ instrumental, and neither of those are really in the same block. I don’t have any idea how “Turn Around, Look At Me” did on the chart that’s now called Adult Contemporary, but while the record was still in the Top 40, Reprise released another Vogues’ single, “My Special Angel,” and that one spent one week two weeks atop the AC chart (and peaked, like its predecessor, at No. 7 in the Top 40). So I’m guessing that “Turn Around, Look At Me” did pretty well on the AC chart, as lush as it was.

And for me, the lushness of the Vogues’ pop was certainly one of the attractions of “Turn Around, Look At Me.” Rock music was not yet my thing, and it was nice to hear something easy to listen to coming from the radio, and it was even nicer that the record spoke to my life. As the summer faded and the school year began, I still hoped that the baton twirler might figuratively turn around. She didn’t. The time wasn’t right (although it never would be in her case), and I knew that even as I hoped for a different outcome.

So the song slid from the charts and quit coming out of the radio, but sometime during August, I must have heard the song at least once very close to the time when international news reporters were giving us the lowdown on what was happening in Prague and elsewhere in Czechoslovakia. Because for some forty-two years, when the first strains of that lovely song reach my ears, it seems as if I have to fight my way through the Red Army to get to the sweet object of my hope. And how’s that for a romantic notion?

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Juke Box, No. 20
“Quarter to Three” by Gary U.S. Bonds, Legrand 1008 [1961]
“Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers, Columbia 44414 [1968]
‘Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues, Reprise 0686 [1968]
“Treat Her Like A Lady” by the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, United Artists 50721
[1971]
“One Fine Morning” by Lighthouse, Evolution 1048 [1971]
“Galileo” by the Indigo Girls from Rites of Passage [1992]

Because of – as I understand it – a record label’s promotional hi-jinks, “Quarter to Three” and the hit that preceded it, “New Orleans,” were credited to one U.S. Bonds rather than to Gary Bonds, which is the singer’s real name. Although the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits lists him as “Gary Bonds (U.S.),” over the years, it’s become commonplace to simply call the performer, as I have, “Gary U.S. Bonds.” Whatever name you call him, his body of work is a good one, and “Quarter to Three,” especially, is a great and infectious party song, one that spent two weeks at No. 1 during the summer of 1961.

With “Time Has Come Today,” the Chambers Brothers added psychedelia to their menu of blues, gospel and R&B. This was one of those records that could not be ignored as it came out of the radio, even if the listener were more attuned to other styles. In other words, as “Time Has Come Today” entered the room, it demanded attention, right from the “tick-tock” of the percussion and the lightly spoken “cuckoo!” On the album – The Time Has Come, released in 1967 – the track ran a little longer than eleven minutes; the single edit released in the autumn of 1968 spent nine weeks in the Top 40 and peaked at No. 11.

I wrote a brief bit about the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose about a year ago, and those words still hold true: “The Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose had two Top Ten hits, and what great records they were! ‘Treat Her Like A Lady’ was the first of them, riding that chugging guitar, superb hook and gospelish call-and-response all the way to No. 3. ‘Too Late To Turn Back Now,’ which went to No. 2 during the summer of 1972, was also a good record, but it was smoother and somehow less demanding. If forced to choose, I’d give the decision to ‘Treat Her Like A Lady’ on points, but both sounded great coming out of the car radio. (The group had two other Top 40 hits, ‘Don’t Ever Be Lonely (A Poor Little Fool Like Me)’ and ‘I’m Never Gonna Be Alone Anymore,’ neither of which reached the Top Twenty.)” “Treat Her Like A Lady” peaked at No. 3 in July of 1971.

Percussive and jazzy, with a great horn chart, Lighthouse’s “One Fine Morning” probably should have done better than No. 24, which is where the single spent two weeks during November of 1971. But better singles have performed less well, and the charts – and record bins – were crowded with horn bands in those days: Chicago, BST, Mom’s Apple Pie, Chase, the Ides of March and more. And Lighthouse was from Canada, which might have limited the group’s appeal here in the U.S. But it’s still a great tune: “We’ll fly to the east! We’ll fly to the west! There’s no place we can’t call our own.”

“Galileo,” the Indigo Girls’ meditation on reincarnation, came along at an awkward time for me as a collector. By 1992, when the Indigo Girls released Rites of Passage, I was happily using my growing LP collection to make about one mix-tape a week for friends. But almost no new music was being released on vinyl, and I was still a few years away from having a CD player. So when I heard “Galileo” on the radio, I knew, first, that it was a song I wanted to include on mixes, and second, unless I bought a CD player or ran into some sort of miracle, I’d have to live without it. And I went without for a few years. I eventually got a CD player, and began collecting lots of new music I’d gone without, but at the same time, I kept on buying vinyl. And in late 1999, I found a white-labeled promo album in one of the bins at Cheapo’s. The label was blank and the white jacket had only a sticker that asked three questions, the first of which was: “What artist has been nominated for 4 Grammy awards, won 2, sold over 3 million records and doesn’t get played on very many commercial radio stations?” There was a toll-free phone number listed for those who wanted answers. But what interested me more than the sticker with the questions was the little scrawl on the other side of the front cover: “Indigo Girls, Rites of Passage.” So I bought it, and after I figured out which track was “Galileo,” the song began to show up on my mix-tapes. Eleven years later, and eighteen years after I first heard the song, it remains a favorite of mine, partly for the thoughtful and sometimes witty lyric, partly for the guest spot on the chorus from Jackson Browne and partly because miracles – even small ones – should be embraced.

We’re Halfway Home

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

This is the nineteenth segment, out of a planned thirty-eight, in which I’m exploring the records that would belong in what I call my Ultimate Jukebox. That means we’re halfway home. And I find it entirely fitting that one of the two songs that sparked this idea comes along this week by happenstance.

Last October, I wrote, in a meditation on autumn (and specifically on the autumn of 1975):

If there is a shining season during the years I spent on the campus of St. Cloud State, it is the autumn of 1975. . . .  It was a golden time, one that seems more rich in memory with each passing year. But there were concrete reasons for that sense of goodness: Hope and renewal found me for the first time in a year. . . . My smile returned. And all around me – my home, my car, the student union, downtown bars and everywhere else – music was a friend once more, instead of a reminder of loss.”

Among the six songs I offered that day were selections from Jefferson Starship and Orleans, and as I wrote about those six, I said: “I think two of them would make my all-time jukebox (a mental exercise at this point, but perhaps the basis for a series of posts in the future): ‘Miracles’ and ‘Dance With Me.’”

Well, both of those did make the final list. “Miracles” will come along in a few weeks, but this week’s six selections are anchored by Orleans’ “Dance With Me.” As you likely know, it’s a sweet love song, written by the group’s John Hall and his wife, Johanna, and produced and performed nicely. In one sense, that’s all there is to say for it: It’s a nice tune and a nice record, and it spent eleven weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 6.

But for me – as some songs are for everyone who loves music, I imagine (or at least hope) – “Dance With Me” is magic. In memory, it seems like I heard it everywhere I went during that sweet autumn as I figuratively danced through my classes and my work and my free time. As that quarter began – and the record began its time in the Top 40 – there was no special person to whom I could extend the invitation to dance; by the time the record was about to fall out of the Top 40 in early November, there was.

And almost thirty-five years later, after changes upon changes, there’s still someone to invite to the dance, as “Dance With Me” is also one of the Texas Gal’s favorite records.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 19
“Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass, Checker 1120 [1965]
“Summer Wind” by Frank Sinatra, Reprise 05090 [1966]
“Anyday” by Derek & the Dominos from Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs [1970]
“Dance With Me” by Orleans, Asylum 45261 [1975]
“(Don’t) Fear the Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult from Agents of Fortune [1976]
“Wall of Death” by Richard & Linda Thompson from Shoot Out The Lights [1982]

The most accurate description, for me, of Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me” comes – as is so often the case – from Dave Marsh, who called the record the “[b]est non-Aretha Aretha ever,” noting that the sound was not surprising, as Bass’ mother was gospel music star Martha Bass, who got her own start with the Clara Ward Singers, who traveled with Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father. In any case, “Rescue Me” is a fine slice of mid-Sixties R&B from the Chess studios in Chicago. The record went to No. 4 during the autumn of 1965 and was No. 1 for four weeks on the R&B chart.

Even though the record pre-dates the time when I gave full attention to the Top 40, I’m certain I heard Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” during 1966, when it went to No. 25 (and spent one week at the top of the Adult Contemporary chart). I imagine that if nothing else, I heard it late one evening as our household was turning in for the night: For about twenty minutes as we got ready for bed, Dad would turn on the transistor radio on his bedside table. The radio – which Dad had appropriated from my sister, although she didn’t seem to care – was almost always tuned to KFAM, the station on the west side of town, and our twenty minutes of music at bedtime was very definitely middle of the road, not like that rock and roll that the station nearest us, WJON, played. (I wonder now if KFAM’s format might have been called adult contemporary?) In any case, I’m certain that my faint memory of having heard “Summer Wind” comes from one of those evenings during the autumn of 1966. So why does it show up here? Because it’s a good record with a subtle performance by Sinatra, and it reminds me of my dad.

I love “Layla.” I have since I first heard it in 1970, and I dug it more when it was re-released as a single in 1972. But its familiarity worked against it when I was sorting through titles to list here. The burning riff that opens “Layla” would certainly wake up the denizens of any coffeehouse in which I installed my hypothetical jukebox, but I think that after that opening burst, folks would think, “Oh, yeah, ‘Layla,’” and push the music into the background. My choice from the Layla album is instead “Anyday,” which has almost as arresting an opening and, I’m thinking, wouldn’t be quite as familiar nor as easily dismissed. Even if I’m wrong about that, “Anyday” is a tremendous piece of rock, with the descending bass line that always intrigues me and great vocals by both Eric Clapton and co-writer Bobby Whitlock.

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” which went to No. 12 during the autumn of 1976, is pretty much all I really know about Blue Öyster Cult. I’ve got the Agents of Fortune LP and I have mp3s of some of the group’s other stuff, but it all tends to get lost in the (literal) shuffle. That just puts the group’s work onto a (long) list of music I need to pay more attention to, and the list gets longer every week. But the loping, looping introduction to “Reaper” commands my attention whenever it pops up on the computer or on the Zen player, and the “la-la-la-la-la” refrain remains chilling. According to Wikipedia, writer Donald Roeser – better known as Buck Dharma – says the song is not, as is often supposed, about death but about eternal love. That may be what he thinks, but I know how it feels to me, and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” feels like an invitation to step through a door I’ve seen once and am not nearly ready to see again.

“Wall of Death,” the closing song on Richard and Linda Thompson’s grim and tense 1982 masterpiece, Shoot Out The Lights, is, if one would believe the lyrics, about an amusement park ride. Given the real-life circumstances of the recording sessions – from what I’ve read, the Thompsons’ marriage was crumbling rapidly at the time – one can find all sorts of metaphors in the song. I’m reminded as I write of Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 single “Tunnel of Love,” which also used an amusement park ride as a metaphor for the circumstances of his failing marriage to Julianne Phillips. Somehow “Wall of Death” seems darker than that, though: “On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me. On the Wall Of Death it’s the nearest to being free. . . . You can waste your time on the other rides. This is the nearest to being alive. Oh, let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death.”  Or it just could be Richard Thompson’s voice, which has a much more somber cast. Either way, it’s an arresting song: