Author Archive: jb

Elton’s Test Tube

Elton John’s first album, Empty Sky, was released in the UK in 1969, and it bombed. First released in the States in 1975, less than three months after Greatest Hits, at the very beginning of Elton’s most epic year, it rose to #6 in an 18-week chart run. When it reached the top 10 in February, it was one of four Elton albums on the Billboard 200along with Greatest Hits, Caribou and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. And it is not remotely as good as any of the others. Elton himself has said as much, calling it “naive” while at the same time feeling quite nostalgic about the circumstances under which it was made. But knowing what we do about Elton, and about the long arc of his career, it’s fairly interesting to listen to just the same. The whole album is here. While you listen, I’ll break it down song by song.

The album opens with the title song, which is like nothing else Elton John would ever do. It’s apparently something he’d had in his back pocket since his days with Bluesology, a stretched-out jam that owes more than a little to the Rolling Stones. It has one of the stronger lyrics on the album, mostly because Bernie Taupin doesn’t try too hard. But that would not be the case for too long. The next track, “Val-hala,” lays the Viking references on thick and gets some of them wrong (no, Bernie, their ships were not called “galleons”), but Elton’s melody and the song’s arrangement are lovely enough so that it doesn’t matter.

“Western Ford Gateway” is probably the earliest example of Bernie’s fascination with cowboy mythology and the American West, while “Hymn 2000″ is the earliest example of his ability to write poetic nonsense:

She chose the soft centre
And took it to bed with her mother
And the ideal confusion was just an illusion
To gain further news of her brother

“Hymn 2000″ is redeemed a little by the line about “collecting submarine numbers on the main street of the sea,” which isn’t much more meaningful but has more art in it.

On the album’s rockers, young Elton sounds like Elton in his prime, but on the ballads, such as “Lady What’s Tomorrow,” he sings in a soft, nasal tone that’s almost as hard to abide as the rasp his voice has become today. “Lady What’s Tomorrow” is pretty, though. “Sails” is pretty too—as in “pretty much a disaster.” The hook is built on the leaden lines “While the seagulls were screaming / Lucy was eating.” The image of Lucy and her lunch is supposed to represent . . . something. It wouldn’t matter if the song were more compelling, but it just sits there for 3:45 and never really goes anywhere.

There are two songs on Empty Sky that would have made fine singles. “The Scaffold” might be Elton’s first great melody, although once again, he sings it in a way that listeners in 1975 would have found odd. “Skyline Pigeon” would become the album’s most famous song, but not until Elton befriended Ryan White, the famous young AIDS patient, in the late 80s. The 1969 original is magnificent, with Elton on harpsichord and organ, and without the soft nasal vocal.

The 1975 release of the album closes the way it opened—with something utterly unlike anything else in Elton’s future catalog. “Gulliver” is a solid song spoiled by gimmickry—it abruptly cuts to a cheesy instrumental called “Hay Chewed,” which gives way to a montage of clips from all the songs on the album. It was different, if not a particularly good idea. The deluxe CD reissue adds four songs Elton released on singles. “Lady Samantha” is the most famous; “It’s Me That You Need” is a pretty obvious bid for a hit single, if not by Elton, than by whomever his music publisher could sell it to. The others, “All Across the Havens” and “Just Like Strange Rain” are nothing special. In fact, the covers of famous pop songs Elton was recording anonymously at the same time for British “as seen on TV” compilation albums (eventually released in a couple of different configurations, including Chartbusters Go Pop!) are more compelling.

Heard in 1969, Empty Sky would have marked Elton John as a talent to watch. In 1975 it provided—as it does today—a fascinating glimpse of the ingredients of his fame, all mixed up in the test tube before they were poured out.

Python Forever

(Pictured, L to R: Jeff Beck, Robert Plant, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin; the Pythons’ rock-star friends helped fund Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and George Harrison famously founded Handmade Films so the group could make Life of Brian.)

The five surviving members of Monty Python concluded a run of shows at London’s O2 Arena yesterday with a worldwide live broadcast. What follows is a reboot of some stuff I wrote about them in 2009.

The members of Python first met in 1966 and appeared on a couple of British TV shows, but they also have roots in radio: John Cleese appeared on the long-running BBC Radio show I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, where Graham Chapman was a writer; some of the other Pythons also appeared on or wrote for radio shows in the mid-to-late 60s. Python’s radio roots are never clearer than on the series of record albums they released.  So here’s my list of the Top 5 Python albums.

(Late edit: it occurs to me that Cleese and Chapman would have met at Cambridge University in 1963; the six Pythons would have all met one another by sometime in ’66.)

5. Monty Python’s Previous Record (1972). This album was their first to contain sketches that never appeared on TV, and one that came from an unusual TV source. “The Tale of Happy Valley” is based on a sketch first produced for Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus, two editions of which aired on German and Austrian TV in 1972. The Pythons wrote all-new material for both shows, performing the first one in phonetic German but having the second one dubbed. The material was not seen in the States until some of it surfaced during the 1982 American shows that resulted in the movie Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (and pieces of it were included in this month’s reunion shows).

4. Another Monty Python Record (1971). Python’s earliest albums often modified TV sketches to work without accompanying visuals, and a friend of mine adored this album for years before she ever saw the TV sketches. Highlights: theater-of-the-mind on “Royal Festival Hall” and a version of “The Piranha Brothers” that’s better than the one seen on the TV show.

3. Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album (1980). This album is the source of several of the songs featured in the reunion show—the album is mostly musical and contains only a couple of sketches. The group performed one of them, “Four Yorkshiremen,” at the reunion show, and it was a staple of the live shows they performed in the 70s. It actually dates back to At Last the 1948 Show, a 1967 TV program featuring Cleese and Chapman.

2. Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973). If, as George Harrison is supposed to have said, the Pythons carried the spirit of the Beatles into the 1970s, Matching Tie and Handkerchief is their Revolver—the material is significantly more ambitious than their earlier material. With no track listing, it was meant to surprise listeners, and it did. Original vinyl pressings included a set of concentric grooves on side two, meaning that it contained two different programs depending on where you dropped the needle. (Listen to medieval agriculture collide with mid-70s British pop music on “The Background to History.”)

1. The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). If Matching Tie and Handkerchief was Python’s Revolver, then this is their Sgt. Pepper, if by Sgt. Pepper we mean the group’s single greatest recorded achievement. The album is a fully realized comedic whole, with new sketch material linking clips from the film. Some of the new material is among the funniest stuff they ever made. (Opening segment here; others available at YouTube.)

If, as seems likely with all of the members in their 70s now, the 2014 reunion marks the end of Python’s career, the group will remain eternally ripe for discovery by new generations of fans. In that way, they’re also very much like the Beatles. The best tribute to Python’s innovation, and to the difficulty in describing precisely what they did, is also Beatle-derived. Both groups’ success resulted in the coining of new adjectives: “Beatlesque” and “Pythonesque.” Apply them to something today, and everyone knows what you mean.

Listening to Buffalo

(Pictured: just another day in America’s bicentennial year.)

One day recently I decided it might be interesting to compare two radio surveys from the same city for the same week. I picked WKBW and WYSL in Buffalo, New York, and I chose a week in July 1976 because of course I did. The project got a little bigger than I planned—I ended up with an Excel spreadsheet tracking the chart action on both stations plus the Billboard Hot 100 for the whole month.

And I intend to use it, on the flip.

Continue reading →

Moon Walk

Forty-five years ago this morning, Apollo 11 took off for the moon. (The farther in time we get from the mission, the more surreal it seems, that we actually went so far with technology so primitive compared to what we’ve got now—the cell phone in your pocket has vastly more computing power than all of NASA had in 1969.) Apollo 11 left footprints in more places than the moon. Shortly after the flight, references to Apollo 11 started turning up in pop songs.

—The most timely was probably the Dickie Goodman cut-in record “Luna Trip,” which spent a couple of weeks on the Hot 100 in September 1969, reaching #95. Like most Goodman hits, the clips used for the cut-ins provide a good summary of the big hits of the moment.

—On The Ballad of Easy Rider, which was being recorded during the Apollo 11 summer, the Byrds did “Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins,” a brief throwaway that nevertheless would have felt highly meaningful when the album came out that fall.

—Late in 1969, Joe Simon cut “Moon Walk (Parts 1 and 2).” It was recorded in Nashville with several of the city’s top studio cats and produced by influential DJ John R (Richbourg). It’s incredibly damn funky, although its connection to the Apollo mission is fairly tenuous at first—Joe tells his lady he can’t stop loving her while saying she’s got him doing the moon walk, whatever that means. Only later do things get a bit more explicit, when Joe explains the step and finally says, “Here come some rocks / A little of that moon dust  / Put it in your bag / Walk home with me now.” “Moon Walk” reached #54 on the Hot 100 in an eight-week run starting in January 1970.

—Also in 1969, a Belgian group called the Tenderfoot Kids recorded a song called “Apollo 11,” one of several singles they made in 1969 and 1970. The Internet knows precious little about it, and neither do I. I can’t make out much of the lyric, although the last of it seems to include an airport PA announcement of some sort. If the YouTuber who posted it is accurate, it reads (translated to English), “All those passengers to the space flight number one, please go to gate number12 for immediate embarkation.” Whoever the Tenderfoot Kids were, they must have listened to their share of Cream records, because “Apollo 11″ sounds just like it should be one. It didn’t chart in the States, and may never have been released here.

—Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull used lunar module pilot Michael Collins as a metaphor for loneliness in “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me,” which appeared on Benefit, released in 1970: “It’s on my mind I’m left behind / When I should have been walking with you.”

—The best of the Apollo-themed songs was written by John Stewart (of Kingston Trio/Bombs Away Dream Babies fame) and first recorded by Reg Lindsay, an Australian country singer. (When I mentioned this song a few years ago, I said erroneously that Lindsay wrote it, because this is not a very good blog, really.) By the end of the 60s, Lindsay was dividing his time between Oz and Nashville, where he appeared several times at the Grand Ole Opry. His 1971 version of Stewart’s “Armstrong” was his first radio hit in Australia. In 1974, Lobo covered “Armstrong” for his album Just a Singer. It’s a touching song about the way the whole world stopped to watch the moon walk—which it did.

Etched Into History

In the summer of 2004, I found myself with a lot to say about music. But the blog I had at the time, the Daily Aneurysm, was focused on politics and current events, and music didn’t really fit there. So, 10 years ago today, I established this blog. For a while, I kept both of them going, writing at the other place one or more times a day and here one or two times a week. But by 2006, I was sufficiently fatigued by news and politics that I gave up the Daily Aneurysm and made this my main blog. It’s been my Internet home ever since. Our anniversary tradition is to present a list of my favorite posts since the last anniversary, so here we go, with each one annotated Twitter-style, in no particular order. (To find favorite posts from other years, click here.)

—We traveled in time to the “semi-sex orgy” that rocked Milwaukee three weeks before Woodstock, and went back to a rock festival we had visited previously.

—A reader took us along on his epic journey to a different rock festival.

—We looked into the search-engine phrases that bring people to this lightly trafficked corner of the Internet.

—In 1980, I briefly pondered quitting school in favor of a radio job, which I probably should have done but eventually did not.

—We cranked up the most unlikely shredding in the history of rock guitar.

—We got acquainted with a former researcher for American Top 40 and learned about the show from the inside (part 1 here, part 2 here).

—The shades of the past crowded around us, and made us weep.

—A genuinely un-hip 70s TV hero got caught up in the disco craze, while one of his contemporaries proved to be a little more with it.

—One of country music’s hippest heroes got caught up in TV, to his eventual disdain, during what proved to be a very fertile era for rock on TV.

—We heard the alternate-universe version of a song that became part of one of rock’s most beloved recordings.

—And then we did it again.

—We read the morning paper on November 22, 1963, hours before that day was etched forever into history.

—We corrected a widely misremembered piece of Beatles trivia, and elaborated on what we found.

—And then we corrected another bit of trivia people often get wrong.

—We read the comments on our posts to find people defending Dan Fogelberg (and then we tried defending him ourselves).

—We listened to a record that could only have hit in the 70s and two other oddities, one recorded by an unknown who eventually became a star in a different field, and the other by someone who would become one of the most famous people in human history.

—We met a legend, and heard from several others in their prime.

And for a 10th consecutive year, we grossly overused the editorial “we.”

Many thanks to all of you who still bother to come here regularly. I am grateful for your attention, your contributions, and your friendship. Don’t forget that this blog has a companion Tumblr site, which I encourage you to visit, because it includes stuff that never gets mentioned here that is along the same lines as the stuff that does get mentioned here, in addition to all of the posts that appear here.

Photographs and Memories

(Pictured: Mike, Casey, and Kerri Kasem in 2005.)

It’s only within the last 20 years or so that the average funeral has included a display of photographs and memories from the life of the departed. It’s a way to bring life back into the midst of death—a way to remember the loved one as the vibrant living creature they were, instead of the shell in the box at the front of the room. Surely a tribute to Casey Kasem, who leaves a trail of nearly 50 years on television, radio, movies, and even on the stage, would positively glow with memories of those triumphs. But the tribute show Premiere Radio Networks produced in his honor, weirdly enough, did not. Not really.

The two-hour show, hosted by Casey’s son Mike, now a radio jock in Singapore, and his daughter Kerri, until recently co-host of a syndicated radio show with Nikki Sixx, was offered to Premiere affiliates over the last couple of weeks, and we listened to it in the car while traveling this past weekend. It contained plenty of memories of Casey—what it was like to grow up with somebody famous, about his career as a cartoon voice, his quiet political activism, that he was a vegan and a baseball fan. It contained plenty of music, some thematically linked to the content of the show (a Paul McCartney song after the veganism story, for example), or songs that Casey especially liked (Faith Hill’s “This Kiss”). It was heavy on music from the 80s and 90s, with only a couple of 70s songs included—a reasonable decision given the need for the show to thread a path appropriate for both the oldies stations and adult contemporary stations that air the reruns.

What the show didn’t contain enough of, however, was Casey himself. He wasn’t heard often, and when he was, the clips were almost always from his last years on the air—maybe for legal reasons—after his vibrant voice had been thickened by age, and he sounded worn out. Apart from the first long-distance dedication, broadcast in 1978, listeners to the tribute show got little of the man in his prime. Surely it would have been possible to snip even a quick intro or outro from an old broadcast for most of the songs, but the choice was made not to do so.

There were some bits that were relatively new to me, and probably to most people. One was “Letter from Elaina,” which I’d heard of several years ago but didn’t actually hear until earlier this year. In 1964, on the air in Los Angeles, Casey received a letter from a girl who had met George Harrison after a Beatles show. Fifty years later, it doesn’t sound like anything special, but he recorded it with music behind it, and it bubbled under the Hot 100 for a couple of weeks in October. Listener letters eventually became a feature of Casey’s radio shows (and on his local TV shows in Los Angeles), and when AT40 expanded from three hours to four in 1978, the need to fill time gave birth to the Long Distance Dedication. A story I never heard before involved Casey’s struggles as a young actor sometime in the 1950s, how he had been assured he had won a particular part, only to never receive a callback. Telling the story at a banquet years later, Casey was interrupted by one of the people at his table, who leaned in to say he knew why Casey hadn’t gotten the part—he had. The other actor was Edward Asner. A clip from a Michael Bublé concert, in which he described what it was like to hear Casey announce his song “Home” as a #1 hit, included Bublé’s impression of Casey, which was pretty good.

By the end of the show, as at any funeral, I found myself thinking fondly of the departed, and wishing I could spend some more time with him. Fortunately, I had a couple of old AT40 shows in the CD bag.


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