Tag Archives: Eric Clapton

Reflections On BB King: The Legend Is Gone

When I was in High School I got into Blues music thanks to one caring English teacher and a bunch of 1960’s blues rockers. I was listening to Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds, and Eric Clapton pretty heavily my senior year. Near the end of my last semester, I was assigned a research paper by my honors English teacher.  She suggested I write about the blues after she found out I was really into Clapton. This was probably the first time I ever considered writing about music, which looking back on it was pretty big moment for me.  Anyway, I went to the library and checked out a couple of dusty tomes on the history of blues music and over the course of writing that paper (which earned me an “A”) I feel in love with the blues. I’ve been hooked ever since.

bb-king

That’s how I first got into BB King. I picked up a copy of his greatest hits and by the time I had successfully digested that, his album with Eric Clapton, RIDING WITH THE KING, came out. RIDING WITH THE KING is a fantastic record and a brilliant primer for someone just getting into the blues, which was perfect for me. In a few short weeks I knew RIDING WITH THE KING top to bottom, I must have played it a hundred times.

BB King, who was pretty much always touring, was scheduled to play in Kansas City (where I was living at the time) and I knew I had to go. My dad and my sisters came with me, and it was a concert I’ll never forget. It was a drizzly evening and unfortunately the show was outside. The seats were wet but it luckily didn’t rain on us too much while we waited for the show to begin. John Haitt opened for BB King, he was promoting his album THE TIKI BAR IS OPEN, and we were all impressed with him.  My sister Amber was particularly smitten with Haitt, which looking back on it is pretty amusing since she was into bands like Hanson and The Backstreet Boys up until that point.

Man, what a great show. Thanks for the memories, BB.

Man, what a great show. Thanks for the memories, BB.

I remember BB King sitting on a wooden stool during his performance. He balanced Lucille upon his knee, like a grandfather tenderly holding his grandchild. He was old, and clearly not in the best health, but his voice was still strong and his guitar playing was still exceptional. After playing for about an hour, he took a short break then came back and played a few more songs. And then he was done. There was no encore, which I thought was strange, but not unexpected considering BB’s age.  Everything about that concert felt historic and important, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

I’d read a few weeks ago that BB King was very sick and that he was essentially broke. Initially I was upset to learn that such a respected, successfully musician had no money, but upon further reflection I realized that this cemented BB King’s place in the pantheon of great bluesmen. To die penniless is almost as important as song writing when it comes to the blues. BB King’s health had been poor since I was a child, so the fact that he lived (and played) as long as he did is kind of a miracle. I know that 89 years isn’t nearly long enough, but that’s what we got from BB King and I’m grateful.

bb-king-1950s

The topic of BB’s death came up today and someone asked me “why was that guy such a big deal?” I’m paraphrasing, but that was basically the question. I didn’t really have a very good answer at the time, mostly because I’m terrible at thinking, but after giving it some thought I think I know why BB King was so important. BB King was the most famous blues musician alive. He was an ambassador of an entire genre of music, how many other artists do you know that fit that description? BB King was a mentor to generations of artists and his influence is still felt today in the world of blues and rock music. He transcended age, race, socioeconomic status, everything. Today marks the end of an era, not just the music world but in the popular culture at large.

Rest in peace, BB King.

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ROCK ‘N READ: THE WRECKING CREW

Kent Hartman’s book The Wrecking Crew is one of those books I’d heard a lot about and had been meaning to read for a long time.  Well, I finally got off my duff and read it, and I’m glad I did.  The book is about the dirty little secret of 1960’s music industry wherein a group of ultra-talent studio musicians secretly played on a great majority of rock ‘n roll records.  This group, known as The Wrecking Crew, was not credited on the liner notes of the records they played. Thus, the public was none the wiser that it wasn’t their favorite band playing on their records.

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The Monkees are a well-known example of a band that used The Wrecking Crew.  People perhaps unfairly give The Monkees a hard time because they weren’t playing their own instruments.  Well it turns out, there was a lot of that going around in the 1960’s.   Bands you might not expect, like The Byrds, used The Wrecking Crew.  Record labels had two motivations for using The Wrecking Crew over the actual bands, although really both reasons just come down to money.

The first reason a separate band was used due to simple logistics.  Bands out on tour would have to stop touring in order to venture back into the studio and record.  The Wrecking Crew acted as the recording band, while the band the band’s public face remained on the road.  Secondly, The Wrecking Crew, and musicians like them, were used because a majority of rockers couldn’t play their instruments very well.  At the time, record companies looked down on rock music, and didn’t understand it.  They treated rock recordings like they did jazz or classical music and thought the recordings should be perfect.  Hence, The Wrecking Crew was brought in.

Hartman’s book focuses on a handful of Wrecking Crew musicians, chiefly the more famous members like drummer Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell, and Glen Campbell.  I was really surprised to find out that Glen “Rhinestone Cowboy” Campbell was a highly respected guitarist prior to hitting it big with his solo career.  I knew he’d essentially joined The Beach Boys touring band, but I had no idea he played on most of the top hits for the 1960’s.  The Wrecking Crew were all over the radio, playing on hits by diverse acts such as The Mamas & The Papas, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Sonny & Cher, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Byrds.

It’s unnerving how the Wrecking Crew, while highly paid, weren’t credited for playing on the records they worked on.  Had I been writing about music at the time (as a fan), I would have foolishly thought The Monkees were playing their own instruments.  As I read the book, I kept waiting for the public to find out and become outraged, but that never happened.  Instead, what ended up happening was that as rock evolved a more authentic, rough sound was prized making the technically superior Wrecking Crew unneeded.   The Beatles also had something to do with the demise of the practice of studio musicians subbing for the actual band.  After the Fab Four hit it big, most bands wanted to write and play your own instruments.

The Wrecking Crew is an interesting read but I found the structure of the book somewhat clumsy. Rather use a straight chronological framework Hartman jumps back and forth through time.  The chapters themselves follow a chronology, but within each one Hartman tends of pick a player and give us his back story, which often gives us information we either already know or will be told again in another chapter.  It’s a little nit-pick, but I guess I would have preferred one chapter where we just got everyone’s backstory out-of-the-way, then moved on with the various recordings.  Also, the Wrecking Crew was a pretty large group of people, but the book really only focuses on a few, which was a little disappointing.  I realize not everyone is going to be as interested in the Wrecking Crew’s trumpet players than say, their drummers, but I would have liked a little more diversity in the band members as the book is mainly about guitarists and drummers.

I found it interesting how collaborative the recording process was as time and again members of the Wrecking Crew wound up actually contributing to the writing of songs as well as playing.  I was really surprised when this happened in the chapter devoted to the recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER album.  I still can’t believe that such talented, famous artists would allow regular working-musicians to tinker with their albums.  But time and again Hartman shows us that The Wrecking Crew were more than just musicians, they were the best hired guns in the business.

The book recounts some really interesting nuggets of rock trivia, and is chock-full of juicy insider tidbits.  Most of the really interesting chapters revolve around producer Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, two titans of the studio who really used The Wrecking Crew to their full potential.  The Wrecking Crew is brimming with really interesting anecdotes.  Some of my favorite from the book are:

  • Leon Russell getting pulled over in his new Cadillac by the LAPD and being told to get a “real” job (he was making way more than the cop).
  • Phil Spector’s bodyguards using hand signals to let an angry musician know that Phil had a gun in the studio.                                                                    
  • Unsure how to end “Layla” Eric Clapton overheard drummer Jim Gordon noodling on the piano and decided to use the drummer’s mini-composition to close out the song.  Gordon later when nuts and murdered his mom—that’s write, the guy playing piano at the end of “Layla” stabbed his mother to death.

I highly recommend The Wrecking Crew to anyone with even a passing interest in early rock music and the music business of the 1960’s. The book’s a nice, quick read and would make a great gift for any music fan.

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George Harrison’s Final Masterpiece: BRAINWASHED

I still can’t believe that George Harrison has been dead for 10 years. It seems like only yesterday we lost him. Of all The Beatles, I think George has the strongest, and more overlooked solo material. Paul and John always stole the limelight while they were together and in their solo careers they continued to overshadow poor George, which is a shame because he had a bunch of really sublime songs.  His first solo record, the first solo record from any Beatle, ALL THINGS MUST PASS is stupendous work that is probably one of the finest rock albums of all time.

After his triumphant first release George put out a bunch of really strong, but mostly ignored records in the 1970’s and then slowed his output to only 3 records in the 1980’s. There were two awesome Traveling Wilbury records and 1987’s CLOUD NINE, the nothing. When George died in 2001 after a long battle with cancer, my first thought was a selfish one: no more George Harrison songs. Thankfully, George was hard at work on a new record right up till his death. He finished most of the recording and left detailed notes behind so that Jeffy Lynne and his son Dhani Harrison could finish the record.

brainwashed

Posthumous releases are, quiet frankly, pretty shitty normally. Think about it: you’re dying are you really going to do your best work? But amazingly BRAINWASHED turned out to not only be a good record, but one of George’s best. In fact, I’d say it’s nearly tied with ALL THINGS MUST PASSED.  And the only reason ALL THINGS edges it out in my mind is because it’s a double album and thus, has more songs.

So what makes BRAINWASHED so good? For starters, the songwriting. Harrison learned songwriting from arguably the two greatest songwriters of all time so of course he was going to be able to write a good song. Besides being immediately accessible and catchy, the songs on BRAINWASHED all have a very down-to-earth feel. While not a concept album, the album’s songs all tend to be about assessing one’s life. That shouldn’t come as any big surprise considering that Harrison was knocking on death’s door. But whereas my death-album would be a series of pathetic screams of “Dear God not me!” George not only puts on a brave face, but appears beautifully serene in the face of his end. Entire books could be written about Harrison’s spirituality, and while I’ve heard many people question just exactly what he believed (and how strongly he believed it) there’s no arguing that whatever he let into his heart gave him a tremendous amount of strength and comfort. How do I know? It’s all here, persevered forever on BRAINWASHED.

The album opens with the playfully philosophical “Any Road” which points out that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. It’s a great song to open the album; its footloose and breezy attitude encourages the listen to embark on an adventure, any adventure. “Looking For My Life” is the first in a series of songs where George turns inward and examines his life. It’s a song about being through the wringer and separated from God but not really knowing it until things get rough. All of the problems raised by “Looking For My Life” are immediately answered in the very next song, “The Rising Sun.” Through spiritual re-birth and the actual re-birth of the day George found the answer to his problems. “The Rising Sun” is such a beautiful, hope-filled song I can’t believe it was penned by a man who knew he wouldn’t live to see many more sunrises. And don’t get me started on that slide guitar, has there ever been a more beautiful sound than George playing slide guitar? It’s Harrison’s signature guitar tone and on “The Rising Sun” in particular it’s used to great effect.

glowing inner light

The album’s single, “Stuck Inside A Cloud,” is ironically the records biggest downer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song, but it’s a depressing final single.   “Stuck Inside A Cloud” seems to be about a lasting, incurable depression brought about (or perhaps causing?) a break-up. I think it might also be a metaphor for how disconnected we all are.

One of the most interesting songs, especially when I first heard BRAINWASHED was “Run So Far.” I had a strange bit of déjà vu where I was able to predict all the lyrics. I thought I was going insane until I was finally able to figure out where it was I’d heard the song before: Eric Clapton’s 1989 solo effort JOUNREYMAN. George wrote the song and gave it to his friend/wife-stealer and then waited a decade to record it himself. I must say, I like George’s version better, but only for the same reason I always prefer Dylan’s version of his songs: it’s always better to hear it from the author.

There’s a nice bit of whimsy near the end with a cover of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” on which George plays the ukulele. I smile every time I hear this song, mostly because I know that had a very special place in George’s heart. He and John Lennon famously bonded over the ukulele. George’s choice in instrument adds a jaunty-nautical feel to the song. It’s probably my favorite version of this song.

The album concludes with “Brainwashed,” George’s final ode to God, whom he loved so dearly. Of all the songs on BRAINWASHED, “Brainwashed” feels the most like a Traveling Wilburys song. I’m not sure if it’s the songs humor (his grandma was brainwashed while working for the mob?) or the excessive Jeff Lynne production, but until the song transforms into the prayer “Namah Parvait” it could have easily fit on the Wilburys VOLUME 3.

George began his solo career with a phenomenal album and he thankfully was able to finish his solo career with a phenomenal album.  I’ve read that BRAINWASHED was a bit of a disappointment commercially, which is a real shame and one of the reasons I decided to write this post.  If you like The Beatles, rainy day music, hope in a hopeless world, ukuleles, top-notch songwriting, strong hooks, slide guitar, and Eastern chanting you owe it to yourself to check out BRAINWASHED.

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George Harrison & “My Sweet Lord”

In many ways, I can’t think of two people more apart than John Lennon and George Harrison.  During their brief time together as members of The Beatles, it was pretty obvious who the genius songwriter was.  Lennon’s work and tragic murder have (ironically) deified him as rock god. George was always known as “the quiet one.”  And though he did start to come out of his shell towards the end of The Beatles life-span, it wasn’t until he went it alone as a solo artist that George Harrison became, in my opinion, John Lennon’s equal.  Growing up, the first solo-Beatle music I listen to was Paul McCartney and then John Lennon’s solo work.  I never considered Ringo or George’s solo output until I heard a super-catchy, awesome song on the radio one summer afternoon.  It sounded like a lost Beatles track, something off of ABBEY ROAD.  I was able to jot down most of the chorus on a scrap of paper and the next time I got online (dial-up) I was able to do a search. I found out the song I’d heard was “What Is Life?” by George Harrison.  The song comes from George’s landmark solo (double) album ALL THINGS MUST PASS.  That’s a fitting title for an album recorded after the end of one of pop music’s greatest bands.

ALL THINGS MUST PASS is an achingly beautiful record, through and through.  Eric Clapton, Billy “The Fifth Beatle” Preston, and Ringo all played a part in it’s recording–but ALL THINGS MUST PASS is George’s record.  Whereas Paul’s solo music is pretty bubblegum and John’s solo stuff was angry and political (see “Woman is the Nigger of the World”), George Harrison’s solo work is very down-to-earth and deeply personal.  Somewhere between Paul’s commercial cash grab and Lennon’s brash antiestablishmentarianism–lies the music of George Harrison.

The crown jewel of ALL THINGS MUST PASS is a song called “My Sweet Lord.”  This song is a stark contrast to the work of Paul McCartney & Wings.  And it’s 1,000 miles away from John Lennon’s classic “Imagine.”  A deeply spiritual (but not religious) man, Harrison’s song is a devotional ode to his creator.  As an apathetic agnostic, I find myself filled to the brim with envy every time I hear it, the sentiment is so pure and simple.  In fact, the song reminds me a lot of the numerous Medieval poems I had to read in my British Literature classes back in my college days.  Listening to “My Sweet Lord” and then “Imagine” is pretty crazy/disconcerting.  How were these two men from the same planet, let alone in the same band?  I don’t think Lennon or Harrison were “lying” in either case, I think that they were just able to put their differences aside and be friends despite their wildly different world views.

That said, if I had to live in the world of one of those songs, I’d pick “My Sweet Lord” everyday (and twice on Sunday, pun intended).  The song was instantly popular, despite the fact that George didn’t initially have it released as a single.  It wasn’t until radio stations played the crap out of it that public demand led to the song being issued as single in 1971.  “My Sweet Lord” was also the first single by an ex-Beatle to reach #1.  A remarkable feat, one that would come at a heavy price–the increased scrutiny lead to lawsuit.  The song “My Sweet Lord” is fairly similar to a song written by Ronnie Mack called “He’s So Fine.”  Yes, George Harrison may have (subconsciously) used a song made popular by the girl-group The Chiffon’s to write one of the greatest love-letters to God.  The court battle (Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music) was lengthy and George lost, but  in the end we all won because “My Sweet Lord” is a beautiful song and the world is a better place that it exists.

Stripped down acoustic guitar, harmonized slide guitars, George’s distinctive voice, and the sublime lyrical marriage of eastern and western religious chants.  It’s a perfect song, through and through.

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Classic Albums Revisited: MY AIM IS TRUE

Elvis Costello is one of those guys whose rep has suffered a bit as he’s aged. Kids today only know his as the “dude with the funny glasses.” Many more equate him to Phil Collins or Eric Clapton–a boring “adult-contemporary” singer-songwriter (Clapton’s last decade and a half of output as a bluesman has murdered his rock GOD status…what a shame). But in the beginning, before the duets with Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello was punk.
Punk!?

His aim is still true.

Not really the word many would us to describe Mr. Costello, but after re-listening to his first three (mega-classic) albums, that’s the word that kept springing into my head. Oh sure, there’s a lot of organ…but the attitude, snide delivery, and sheer velocity of the songs on MY AIM IS TRUE is pretty damn punk.

Prior to MY AIM IS TRUE, Elvis Costello was Declean MacManus. He worked a lame office job (for the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden no less!) and he dreamed of being a rock star. No one was buying Costello as a rock star. He was this thin, pasty, awkward looking Englishman. His voice was…unusual. But he could write a good tune, so in 1976 Stiff Records hired him as a songwriter. They wanted him to write songs for their prima-donna Dave Edmonds. Edmonds, however, had to be convinced that he needed to record Costello’s songs. So, the label had Costello record his songs, with backing band Clover, in order to give Edmonds an idea of how the songs would sound.

The backing band went onto become The News (of Huey Lewis and The News fame) and Elvis Costello’s career was launched. The songs turned out so well, that the label decided to release them with Elvis as the star.

Recorded over a stretch of 1976, in about twenty-four hours, MY AIM IS TRUE is a breezy, blast of English pop. And I mean “blast”: most of these songs clock in around 2 minutes. That said, even though these songs are short, they’ve all well-constructed. Prime example, the doo-wop backing vocals and sharp hand claps on “Welcome to the Working Week.” The song is literally over in the time it takes for most songs to reach the first chorus. And yet this is a whole, complete thought. Amazing.

Costello, looking dapper (read: like Buddy Holly).

There’s a surprising amount of Biblical references on the record. “Miracle Man,” “Blame it On Cain” (where Costello blames his problems on Cain, even though it’s not really his fault), and “Waiting for the End of the World.” The first time I heard this record my mind just sorta glossed over all these allusions, but they’re there.

Love and it’s opposite emotion, anger also pop up frequently on MY AIM IS TRUE. The chilling “I’m Not Angry” encompasses both. My favorite track, “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes,” which is both bleak and strangely comforting (and features some of my favorite Costello lyrics). It’s so snarky, it’s downright magical. This song features one of the most brutally honest/realistic depictions of the relationship between man and woman:

“Oh, I said “I’m so happy, I could die.”
She said “Drop dead”, then left with another guy.
That’s what you get if you go chasing after vengeance.
Ever since you got me punctured this has been my sentence.”

What guy hasn’t had that happen to him. Who hasn’t been so utterly rejected? Costello distills this experience, and makes it rock ‘n roll. Fucking brilliant.

“Less Than Zero” is another great snarky track, and marks one of the earliest manifestations of Costello’s (understandable) fear of Nazism/Fascism (which pops up again and again in Costello’s early work).

You want punk? Nothing’s more punk than:

“Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won’t detect it, so your father won’t know
They think that I’ve got no respect but
Everything is less than zero.”

or how about:

“A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor
Mr. Oswald said he had an understanding with the law
He said he heard about a couple living in the USA
He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet”

Of course, not discussion of MY AIM IS TRUE is complete without talking about “Alison.” Next to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” “Alison” is his most famous songs. It’s a quiet, love song (of sorts) about a lost love who’s gotten married to someone else. It’s sad and soulful.

“Alison”
Oh it’s so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl.
And with the way you look I understand
that you were not impressed.
But I heard you let that little friend of mine
take off your party dress.
I’m not going to get too sentimental
like those other sticky valentines,
’cause I don’t know if you are loving some body.
I only know it isn’t mine.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.

Well I see you’ve got a husband now.
Did he leave your pretty fingers lying
in the wedding cake?
You used to hold him right in your hand.
Bet he took all he could take.
Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
’cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

This song stands out like a sore thumb on MY AIM IS TRUE. Every time I listen to it, all the way through, it feels too much like a single. I can understand why, even to this day, people love it…but compared to the wit and irony of the rest of the record, “Alison” comes like a splash of cold water to the face. It’s refreshingly different, but also a little startling. This guy sings, kinda ironically–almost like he’s winking at you…then BAM! smack dab in the middle of MY AIM IS TRUE there’s this moment where his defenses lower a bit, and you’re kinda embarrassed–for him, because you know you’re seeing something unguarded, that you’re not supposed to be seeing. So, even though it’s an okay song by itself, “Alison” is one of the greatest songs (in my opinion) in the context of the album as a whole.

Go dust off MY AIM IS TRUE, it’ll surprise you how modern it still sounds.

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