Posts Tagged ‘Alan Parsons Project’

‘Dance Into May!’

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

Here’s a piece that ran here ten years ago. I’ve edited it just a bit. Happy May Day!*

It’s May Day again

No one has left a May Basket at my door this morning. I’m not surprised: How long has it been since anyone actually left a May Basket anywhere? I suppose there might be places where that sweet custom lingers, but that’s not here.

I do recall spending hours with construction paper, blunt scissors and schoolroom glue at Lincoln Elementary School, painstakingly putting together May Baskets with my classmates. I was not an artistic child. My skills were such that my baskets – year after year – were lopsided creatures with little gaps and clots of dried white glue all over. And the May Baskets I made over the years never got left on anyone’s doorstep.

May Day has long been marked as International Workers Day, but on this May Day I do not know of any workers who will march in solidarity today. In Europe, certainly (and perhaps in other places as well), there will be such marches. I do wonder how relevant those marches and those marchers are in these times. How lively is the international labor movement these days? Probably not all that lively, and these may be days when a more vital labor movement would be useful, as societies and priorities are being reordered.

As to specifically celebrating May Day, though, I recall the days of the Soviet Union: May Day was one of the two days a year when there were massive parades across the expanse of Moscow’s Red Square, past the Kremlin and Lenin’s Tomb. It would have been a spectacle to see, of course. One thing the Soviet Union could do well was put on a parade.

Looking further back into May Day history, Wikipedia tells me that the “earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian [times], with the festival of Flora the Roman Goddess of flowers, [and] the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane.” May Day, in pagan times, the account continues, marked the beginning of summer.

Current celebrations still abound in the land of about half of my ancestors, according to Wikipedia: “In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of Pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of maypoles, and young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air. Motto: ‘Tanz in den Mai!’ (‘Dance into May!’). In the Rhineland, a region in the western part of Germany, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. On leap years, it is the responsibility of the females to place the maypole, though the males are still allowed and encouraged to do so.”

Well, there is no dancing here today, at least not around maypoles (possibly around the kitchen if I am bored while waiting for the toaster). If I look real hard in the refrigerator, I might find a bottle of Mai Bock from one of the area’s breweries. That would be cause enough to celebrate.

Happy May Day!

A Six-Pack For May Day
“First of May” by the Bee Gees, Atco 5567 (1969)
“For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” by Glenn Yarbrough, from For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her (1967)
“May Be A Price To Pay” by the Alan Parsons Project from The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980)
“Mayfly” by Jade from Fly on Strangewings (1970)
“Hills of May” by Julie Felix from Clotho’s Web (1972)
“King of May” by Natalie Merchant from Ophelia (1998)

I imagine I’m cheating a little bit with two of those. But to be honest, I thought I’d have to cut more corners than I did. I was surprised to find four songs in my files with the name of the month in their titles.

How could I not play the Bee Gees’ track? It was, I think, the only single pulled from the Gibb brothers’ sprawling album Odessa, but it didn’t do so well on the chart: It spent three weeks in the Top 40, rising only to No. 37. Clearly out of style in its own time, what with the simple and nostalgic lyrics, the sweet, ornate production and the voice of a singer seemingly struggling not to weep, it’s a song that has, I think, aged better than a lot of the singles that surrounded it at the time. Still, I think “First of May” is better heard as a part of Odessa than as a single.

Speaking of out of style at the time, in 1967 Glenn Yarbrough’s honeyed voice was clearly not what record buyers were listening for. His For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her was a brave (some might say desperate, but I wouldn’t agree) attempt to update his sources of material, if not his vocal and background approaches: Writers whose songs appear on the album include Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, Buffy Ste. Marie, Phil Ochs, the team of Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley and, of course, Paul Simon, who wrote the enigmatic and beautiful title track. I don’t think the new approach boosted Yarbrough’s sales much – at least one single was released to little effect in Canada and the UK; I don’t know about the U.S. – but the record enchanted at least one young listener in the Midwest. The album remains a favorite of mine, and Yarbrough’s delicate reading of the title song is one of the highlights.

The Alan Parsons Project track “May Be A Price To Pay” is the opener to The Turn Of A Friendly Card, the symphonic (and occasionally overbearing) art-rock project released in 1980. Most folks, I think, would only recognize it as the home of two singles: “Games People Play” went to No. 16 in early 1981, and the lush “Time” went to No. 15 later that year. The album itself was in the Top 40 for about five months beginning in November 1980 and peaked at No. 13. That success paved the way for the group’s 1982 album, Eye In The Sky, which peaked at No. 7 in 1982, with its title track becoming a No. 3 hit. As overwhelming as The Turn Of A Friendly Card can be, I think it’s Parsons’ best work.

I don’t know a lot about Jade; I came across the trio’s only album – rereleased on CD with a couple of bonus tracks in 2003 – in my early adventures in the world of music blogs. All-Music Guide points out the obvious: Jade sounded – right down to singer Marian Segal’s work – very much like early Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny. That’s a niche that a lot of British groups were trying to fill at the time, and Jade filled it long enough to release one album. “Mayfly” had more of a countryish feel than does the album as a whole.

According to AMG, “Julie Felix isn’t too well-known in her native United States, but since 1964 she’s been a major British folk music star and has been compared over there with Joan Baez.” Well, that seems a stretch to me, based on Clotho’s Web, the album from which “Hills of May” comes. The album is pleasant but has never blown me away.

One album that did blow me away when I first heard it in, oh, 1999, was Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia. Supposedly a song cycle that traces the character of Ophelia through the ages, the CD was filled with lush and melancholy songs, some of which were almost eerie. Repeated listening only made the CD seem better, if a bit more depressing. It’s a haunting piece of work, and “King of May” is pretty typical of the entire CD.

*The information at Wikipedia may have altered over these past ten years. If this were a newspaper piece, I’d check. But it’s a blog post and not a very important one, either, so I’m leaving that stuff as it was ten years ago.

Another Performer At That Intersection

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

I don’t know Rosanne Cash’s work all that well. I’ve got a couple of her albums on vinyl and have found a couple of CDs of her recent work, too. I’m still absorbing the work she did on last year’s acclaimed CD, The List, a collection based on a list of one hundred essential American songs her famous father gave her when she was eighteen. In other words, I’ve listened to a fair amount of her music, but I’m no expert, just a fan.

And as I write that, I realize that I’m still absorbing the album that I’ve long thought – from my admittedly limited view – to be Cash’s best: King’s Record Shop from 1987. In a few years, The List may challenge for the top spot in Cash’s catalog, but I think that – as good as last year’s release was (and it was very good indeed) – the best that The List can do for some time is wrestle King’s Record Shop to a draw.

Now, perhaps I think that because King’s Record Shop was the first album by Rosanne Cash I really heard. Before that, I’d likely heard bits and pieces of her work here and there, but I don’t know that I’d considered Cash as someone to take seriously. And – as is true in the case of quite a few performers – it was Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul that persuaded me to listen more closely to Rosanne Cash, when he listed her song “Runaway Train” at No. 590 in his 1989 listing of the top 1,001 singles.

So what did I find when I tracked down King’s Record Shop? Looking back – with the aid of a little bit of listening again last evening – I found a performer and songwriter at that interesting intersection of country, rock, blues and folk, a place where I’ve been pleased to find a fair number of other performers in the past twenty years, maybe chief among them Darden Smith.

My blogging friend Paco Malo once cited in the comments to one of my posts the description given by Levon Helm of The Band of the music he listened to and played growing up in Arkansas. Having lost those comments, I’m paraphrasing, but Helm basically said the music at home was some country, some blues, some gospel, some folk, and they called it rock ’n’ roll. And that was true enough, meaning that Cash and Smith and others at that intersection aren’t creating something new. My point, though, is that for many years as rock, pop and even country music evolved, some of those influences were forgotten or at least at times ignored in mainstream genres. And when I picked up King’s Record Shop not long after reading Marsh’s book, it was, if not quite a revelation, then at least a refreshing reminder of some of the major strains of American popular music.

Now, all that was twenty years ago or so. But King’s Record Shop – along with some of Cash’s other early work (Interiors comes to mind) – remains to my ears as vital and fresh as her more recent work, including The List. And the heart of King’s Record Shop remains “Runaway Train.” The song was written by John Stewart, and Cash’s recording of it peaked at No. 1 on the country charts.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 17
“Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley, RCA Victor 47-9764 [1969]
“My Impersonal Life” by Blue Rose, Epic 10811 [1972]
“China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers, Warner Bros. 7728 [1973]
“#9 Dream” by John Lennon, Apple 1878 [1975]
“Time” by the Alan Parsons Project from The Turn of a Friendly Card [1981]
“Runaway Train” by Rosanne Cash, Columbia 07988 [1987]

A while back, I picked up Suspicious Minds, a two-disc collection of the work Elvis Presley did at American Studios in Memphis in early 1969, the sessions that resulted in Presley’s three greatest singles – “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain” and “In the Ghetto” – as well as a wealth of other great material. And I was going to comb through the booklet that came with the collection to find a quote or some other tidbit to use here this morning. But the booklet is printed in small white type on black and is for practical purpose unreadable without using a magnifying glass. I have one of those, but I also have better ways to invest my time. So I’ll just say that “Suspicious Minds” – which went to No. 1 in the autumn of 1969 – is to me the best thing Presley ever recorded during his long and erratic career. That’s a hefty statement to make about someone who had 114 records in the Top 40, but to my ears, the body of work from those Memphis sessions was better – in most cases, far better – than anything Presley had done since the Sun sessions during the mid-1950s. And “Suspicious Minds” was the best of all.

“My Impersonal Life” is likely better known for the cover version done by Three Dog Night. The Blue Rose version – the song was written by Terry Furlong of Blue Rose – came to my attention through a CBS compilation called The Music People, one of those classic collections record labels used to sell cheaply to promote new artists and albums. From there, I found Blue Rose’s self-titled 1972 album, and after I ripped and posted that album – this was almost three years ago – I found myself connecting with Dave Thomson, who’d played bass and guitar for the group. Dave has since passed on, and when “My Impersonal Life” pops up these days, I find myself thinking about connections found and lost and the multiple layers of life and the sheer impermanence of things. And then I hear the first line of the chorus – “Be still and know that everything’s all right” – and I’m okay.

It’s become a cliché, I suppose, to call the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” one of the great road trip songs of all time. But it’s still true. If I’m not driving when the song pops up on the player, I wish I were. And if I’m out running errands and the record – which went to No. 15 during the autumn of 1973 – comes on the radio, I generally keep moving until it’s over, even if I have to drive around the block an extra time. I should note that sometime during one of our visits to Texas, the Texas Gal and I will likely go to the little town of China Grove just east of San Antonio with the CD player blaring as we cross the town line. Not like that hasn’t been done a million times since 1973, but I’ve never done it.

The dreamy and mystical soundscape of John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” still captures me, more than thirty-five years after its release. I’m not sure what it all means, but it doesn’t really matter. Evidently Lennon wasn’t sure what it all meant, either: Wikipedia says that, according to May Pang, Lennon’s companion at the time, “the phrase repeated in the chorus, ‘Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé’, came to Lennon in a dream and has no specific meaning. Lennon then wrote and arranged the song around his dream”. Pang, by the way, provides the whispered female vocals on the record, which went to No. 9 in early 1975.

I don’t know a lot of the work of Alan Parsons, either solo or as the leader of the Alan Parsons Project, which is just another example of the world containing too much music to know. But I recall getting lost in “Time” when it came out of the radio speakers during the summer of 1981 on its way to No. 15. It’s a record that’s perhaps pretty and sentimental to excess – and I perhaps have a weakness for things pretty and sentimental – but it seemed at the time so much better than the music that surrounded it on the radio. (The records that bracketed “Time” when it peaked at No. 15 in July 1981 were “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie and “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” by the Carpenters.) And I still like it almost thirty years later.