Saturday, February 17, 2018

The worst Number One hits ever

Ever get a REALLY bad song stuck in your head for no known reason? This has been happening more and more often to me lately. First noticed it awhile back when I was in the shower and suddenly Melanie's "Brand New Key" popped into my head, ghod knows why. I don't mind if songs suddenly occur to me -- but I'd like them to be songs I LIKE. Who's programming my brain?
Then other songs I liked even LESS started hitting me at odd moments, so I figured I'd do some research on this odd medical phenomenon. I dug out Joel Whitburn's reliable TOP POP HITS compendium of BILLBOARD chart data, and thought I'd scribble down what seemed to me the worst Number One hits ever. Here's what I came up with, in chronological order....
* "Monday Monday," The Mamas and the Papas (1966). Even songwriter John Phillips didn't know what it was about....
* "Sunshine Superman," Donovan (1966).
* "All You Need is Love," Beatles (1967).
* "Ode to Billy Joe," Bobbie Gentry (1967).
* "One Bad Apple," Osmonds (1971).
* "Brand New Key," Melanie (1971).
* "My Ding-a-Ling," Chuck Berry (1972). Never underestimate the power of a really bad and stupid dirty joke. Repeated endlessly.
* "My Love," Paul McCartney and Wings (1973).
* "Bennie and the Jets," Elton John (1974). Made worse by radio overplay. See below.
* "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (1974). Who?
* "The Night Chicago Died," Paper Lace (1974). Who?
* "You're Having My Baby," Paul Anka (1974). '74 really wasn't that great a music year....
* "Fallin' in Love," Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds (1975). Absolutely flat mainstream pop. Coulda been an insurance commercial.
* "Let's Do it Again," Staples Singers (1975). Yeah, they were pretty great. But not here.
* "Disco Lady," Johnnie Taylor (1976). See Chuck Berry. Too bad, because Taylor's "Who's Makin' Love?" is a classic.
* "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart," Elton John and Kiki Dee (1976). In the Bottom 10 among the worst things Elton ever did. I never thought "Philadelphia Freedom" was so great, either.
* "You Light Up My Life," Debbie Boone (1977).
* "My Sharona," The Knack (1979).
* "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," Rupert Holmes (1979). Who? Ever hear Rupert's "Nearsighted"? Best thing Barry Manilow never did.
* 1981. Almost all of 1981's Number One hits were total crap. "Physical." "Bette Davis Eyes." The only exceptions were Blondie's "Rapture" (worth it just as comedy), one barely tolerable REO smash, and two OK songs by Hall and Oates. Otherwise, right down there with 1974 for bad music years.
* "I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston (1992). Still being used to clear birds off of airport runways. Check out writer Dolly Parton's gorgeous original version instead.

Sports of sorts

What I've been reading lately....
* James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales: THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN: INSIDE THE WORLD OF ESPN (2011) -- A 750-page "oral history" of sports network ESPN, from its founding up to a few years ago. I skimmed over their tales of corporate struggles, but you'd never guess there could be such wild stories and such controversy involved with a cable TV channel that just broadcasts sports and sports talk. It's all here -- from Keith Olbermann's departure to Mike Patrick's "retirement" to Hannah Storm's wardrobe choices, and it's all great, hilarious stuff. As an oral history, the book tries to track down and interview everyone who ever worked for or appeared on-camera for ESPN, and though I've sometimes disliked this format for a book, this one puts you right inside the studio. You feel like you know these people. Which led me to re-read....
* Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller: LIVE FROM NEW YORK: AN UNCENSORED HISTORY OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (2002/2003) -- I remember reading this a few years back and feeling mildly disappointed that the book wasn't big enough, that somehow it didn't do justice to the great comedy show that's been rolling since the mid-'70s and keeps coming back from the dead. But maybe that was just my uneasiness with the "oral history" format. This 2003 version (600 pages) includes some new interviews -- but of course, they're not set aside in a new spot; you have to re-read and find them. I had a great time, this time around. Although Eddie Murphy isn't interviewed anywhere in here, LOTS of other SNL veterans are, and there's some great backstage gossip. And controversy, too. A great way to blow off a few hours, if you were ever a fan.
* Rick Reilly: THE LIFE OF REILLY (2003) -- This is a best-of from when Reilly was writing the back-page column for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. My only serious disappointment was they didn't include Reilly's coverage of the 1986 U.S. Open -- a golf piece so hysterically funny I still laugh 'til I cry whenever I re-read it. Who knew you could make golf so funny? (This piece was brought to my attention by my old Air Force boss and writing coach Gary Pomeroy, who was always looking for funny stuff and taught me that the one place you could break the rules in a military newspaper was on the sports page. As a result, I went looking for my own funny golf stories -- and then just funny stories, period.) They also left out Reilly's column "Nobody Loves a Blit," a classic about REALLY stupid team nicknames.
But the stuff that IS here is pretty great -- especially the pieces about how taking part in sports or just being a sports fan helps hold people together. Some of this stuff will tear you up. Which leads me to....
* The annual BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING, series editor Glenn Stout (2005, 2007-2010). Amazing what you can find at Goodwill. After reading Reilly and remembering the way I got sucked into the YEAR'S BEST MUSIC WRITING series awhile back, I tried these. And man, was it worth it. Each volume assembles the best sports writing the editors can find each year, from national magazines down to local newspapers and Internet blogs. There's a lot of writing here about repetitive brain injuries to football players (before the NFL finally agreed there might be some brain damage involved with concussions), and about broken-down old players who gave their bodies for a few minutes of excitement for fans on the football field. There are lots of stories about drug- and steroid-abuse by players who then spiraled further downhill -- and about athletes who were able to come back from that. There are many stories about how sports holds people together -- one of the best is about a woman college basketball star who suffered a quadruple amputation ... and how her recovery helped hold her teammates together. There are amazing and moving stories of achievement and sacrifice here, superb and deeply human writing. The funny pieces are a real hoot. Overall, the stories are better and more human -- I hate to admit this -- than almost any in the BEST MUSIC WRITING series.
* Robert Young Pelton: THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS PLACES (Fifth Edition, 2003) -- I read an earlier edition of this a few years back and thought it was kind of thin and stupid. Not this one. In more than 1,000 pages, Pelton and the MDP staff look at dozens of global hotspots and tell you everything from getting there and getting out safely, how to exchange money, whether to drink the water, and how to place bribes in the right places. And they do it all with a grim but hilarious sense of humor. It also helps that one of the most dangerous places they go into detail about is the good old USA. I'm sure there's a newer edition out there....

Friday, February 16, 2018

Strange Music "before you die" list, Part One

In line with my last post, here's an attempt to do a "must hear before you die" list of songs by some of my favorite Strange Music artists -- with a few surprises thrown in.
The idea here is to try to sum-up an artist's career by listing a handful (or less) of signature songs that show the artist at their best or most characteristic, without which modern reality wouldn't be what it is. Whatever that is. A sort of definition, if you like.
I still think this whole "must hear before you die" premise is silly, but it does start some interesting thought processes. Onward, then.
* Amazing Blondel -- Fantasia Lindum suite, Seascape, Landscape.
* Argent -- Hold Your Head Up, Dance in the Smoke.
* Barclay James Harvest -- Hymn, Spirit on the Water, Poor Man's Moody Blues, Ring of Changes.
* Beach Boys (after 1965) -- Surf's Up, 'Til I Die, God Only Knows.
* Brewer and Shipley -- Witchi-Tai-To.
* Kate Bush -- The Man With the Child in His Eyes, This Woman's Work, Empty Bullring, Under the Ivy.
* Camel -- Sasquatch, Manic, Echoes, Breathless, Rhayader, Rhayader Goes to Town, Never Let Go.
* Can -- Father Cannot Yell, Uphill, Mother Upduff.
* Caravan -- The Dog The Dog He's at it Again, All the Way (With John Wayne's Single-Handed Liberation of Paris), For Richard (live), Dissociation, Memory Lain/Hugh/Headloss.
* Clannad -- The Wild Cry, Journey's End, In Fortune's Hand.
* Sandy Denny -- Listen Listen, The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.
* Dixie Dregs -- Hereafter, Night Meets Light.
* Nick Drake -- Northern Sky, Pink Moon.
* Emerson, Lake and Palmer -- Fanfare for the Common Man, From the Beginning, Lucky Man, Karn Evil 9 (First Impression, Part One).
* Enya -- Storms in Africa.
* Fairport Convention -- Come All Ye, I'll Keep it With Mine.
* Genesis (middle period) -- Ripples, Madman Moon, Afterglow, Vancouver, Your Own Special Way, Like it or Not, You Might Recall.
* Gentle Giant -- Funny Ways (live), Think of Me With Kindness.
* Gong -- Wingful of Eyes.
* Group 87 -- One Night Away From Day, Moving Sidewalks.
* Gryphon -- Lament, Spring Song.
* Happy the Man -- Service With a Smile, Wind-Up Doll Day Wind.
* Hawkwind -- You Better Believe It.
* Illusion -- Everywhere You Go, Candles are Burning.
* Jethro Tull -- The Whistler, Living in the Past, Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day.
* Journey (strange stuff) -- Daydream, People and Places.
* Kansas -- Carry On Wayward Son, Miracles Out of Nowhere, Journey from Mariabronn, Song for America.
* King Crimson -- Epitaph, 21st Century Schizoid Man, Frame by Frame, The Great Deceiver, Red.
* Lyle Mays -- Ascent.
* Pat Metheny (Group) -- The Search, Praise, New Chatauqua.
* Moody Blues -- Nights in White Satin, Tuesday Afternoon, Question, The Story in Your Eyes, You and Me.
* The Move -- Do Ya, Message from the Country.
* Nektar -- It's All Over, Do You Believe in Magic?, King of Twilight.
* The Nice -- America.
* Mike Oldfield -- Incantations Part One, Ommadawn Part One, Tubular Bells Part One.
* Alan Parsons Project -- Some Other Time, The Gold Bug, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.
* Pink Floyd -- High Hopes, Us and Them, Astronome Domine (live), The Great Gig in the Sky, Wish You Were Here, Money.
* Procol Harum -- Whiter Shade of Pale, Shine on Brightly, A Salty Dog.
* Providence -- If We Were Wise, Fantasy Fugue, Neptune's Door.
* Renaissance -- Northern Lights, Ashes are Burning (live, first three minutes), Rajah Khan.
* Scarlet Rivera -- Day of the Unicorn.
* Roxy Music -- The Thrill of it All, Over You, Love is the Drug.
* Todd Rundgren -- Real Man, Saving Grace, The Very Last Time (with Utopia).
* Sky -- Vivaldi, Watching the Aeroplanes.
* Steeleye Span -- Alison Gross, All Around My Hat.
* Al Stewart -- Year of the Cat, Modern Times, Running Man, Nostradamus.
* Stories -- Please Please, Love is in Motion, Words.
* Strawbs -- Where is This Dream of Your Youth? (live), Down by the Sea, Hero and Heroine, The Man Who Called Himself Jesus (live).
* Synergy -- S-Scape, Icarus, Warriors.
* Tangerine Dream -- Monolight (live), Igneous.
* Richard Thompson -- Cavalry Cross (live).
* Steve Tibbetts -- Ur.
* U.K. -- Time to Kill, In the Dead of Night suite.
* Vangelis -- Alpha, Spiral, To the Unknown Man.
* Yes -- Your Move, Roundabout, South Side of the Sky.
To be continued ... maybe....

Thursday, February 8, 2018

10,000 songs

I'm not a sucker for this book. 1,001 SONGS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE (AND 10,001 YOU MUST DOWNLOAD) (2010/2013) struck me at first as a gimmick and a joke. All of those "before you die" books seem kind of silly -- your life is your own, live it your way, set your own goals.
But I was looking for something new about music to browse, and this book is HUGE. So I picked it up for a closer look.
One of the first things I saw was a write-up on Nick Drake's gorgeous "Northern Sky." Then they listed the Korgis' "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime," which I have fond memories of. Then I noticed Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High," which I'd just played on the stereo that morning....
So I flipped a few more pages. Love's "Alone Again Or." The Beach Boys' "Surf's Up." Fairport Convention's "She Moves Through the Fair" (which I'd never heard before). By then I was pretty much sold. At least these folks seemed to have a pretty good ear for the overlooked and off-the-wall.
I still think that. But a more detailed browse through these 960 pages shows that the compilers (50 of them, British, all people I've never heard of, including general editor Robert Dimery) are also suckers for one-shot pop trash. My life would be complete if I never hear songs like Toni Basil's "Mickey" ever again. And it gets a write-up in this book.
Even more than the page-long articles on each song considered "essential" by the compilers -- and these are always informative, even if you don't like the song -- the index including 9,000 more songs to download is a field-day of obvious and not-so-obvious choices, leading a fan to ask the obvious "But how could they NOT include...?" questions.
For example. How many Britney Spears songs do you really NEED to hear? I'd say none. The index lists six, including one that's "essential."
How many AC/DC songs do you really need to hear? I'd say maybe one. The index lists 15, including two the compilers feel are essential.
OK, Tom Petty. I'd say one, the index lists 10. And the one I'd choose ain't here. Neither are some other rather obvious choices.
But the format's interesting. If you had to sum up an artist's achievements by picking just one or two songs, which would you choose? There's an argument starter. And an idea for a post I may write soon....
You name 'em, they're in here, from Abba to Zappa, with the index alphabetized the way your computer or smartphone or iPod or whatever would do it -- with Zappa filed under "F" for Frank. The book runs the gamut from Enrico Caruso in 1916 to David Bowie in 2013. Nice to see Cab Calloway's hilarious "Minnie the Moocher" from 1931 in here.
And the sections that focus on the '60s and '70s are jammed full of classics -- I mean, the songs I know. There's plenty in here that I've never heard. There's a ton to learn.
But I also have to note that there's a real downturn in well-known, often-heard "classics" after the mid-1980s. Which may just indicate that this book wasn't meant for me.
But for all the information in it, and all the new directions it points me as a fan, I'll be holding onto it.
For that, I'll forgive that they included as essential "Ode to Billy Joe." "Unchained Melody." "Walk on By." "Superstar." "Rock On." "Desperado." "Sweet Home Alabama." "Dancing Queen." "Hotel California." "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"....

Monday, February 5, 2018

He wakes

Hey, horror writer Jack Ketchum passed away a couple weeks ago. He was 71 years old. I would never have gotten the news without the good folks at Ansible. Surprised there wasn't mention of his death elsewhere.
Of course, Ketchum wasn't a household name. He got close. Stephen King once called him the scariest writer in America, and about a decade ago all of Ketchum's books were reprinted in paperback by Leisure Books after the original out-of-print versions started fetching big prices on the Internet.
But Ketchum never got rich. I think he did OK, though. He had enough spare cash to take a trip to Greece to revise his novel SHE WAKES. And he grabbed headlines a couple times in his career.
The first time was for his first novel, OFF SEASON (1980). This thin, shocking book was allegedly so brutal that (Ketchum revealed in a reprint edition 30 years later) he and Ballantine Books had to go through the manuscript line by line to make it "acceptable" to print. Ketchum said these discussions came down to "I'll trade you this beheading for that disembowelment...."
The book was launched with much hype -- with a black cover, with a trail of blood dripping down the side. Folks looking for the next Stephen King were advised to look here.
But OFF SEASON only sold 30,000 copies. Ketchum's two follow-up novels sold even less, and his career still hadn't gotten started.
I found a copy of OFF SEASON at a yard sale about 15 years ago, for 25 cents -- and grabbed it without really knowing what it was.
And I was surprised. This guy Ketchum was on to something. His book was brutal and direct. It punched me in the face from almost the first page, and never let up until the end. The reprint "uncensored" edition a decade later added more detail -- but it was twice as long, and the blistering pace of the original edition was part of what impressed me.
Ketchum was one of three writers who spoiled me as a reader. He wasted absolutely no time, and kept the pace tight and the events comin' at ya relentlessly. Ketchum, Thomas Harris (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, RED DRAGON) and Kathe Koja (SKIN, THE CIPHER) became my new writer-heroes.
Later, I found more old novels by Ketchum, in their original paperback, for not-too-much. JOYRIDE continued the blistering pace of OFF SEASON -- a guy snaps and runs amok, for the sheer rush of it. It's a breathless 200 pages.
HIDE AND SEEK is a sort of sequel to OFF SEASON, though that isn't clear until the end ... when the Bad People from OFF SEASON reappear and turn a twisted, ominous love story into a real nightmare. And Ketchum pulls off another shocking story in about 130 pages. It's probably my favorite of his novels.
Then came THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, in which a girl is kidnapped, locked-up and tortured by a twisted family in the basement of a supposedly "normal" suburban home. This book is a shocker, impossible not to keep reading ... and yet, it somehow doesn't up the ante of his other books. There are parts Ketchum backs away from and says explicitly that he's NOT going to tell you. He doesn't have to. There are also parts early in the book (before things go bad) that have an almost Ray Bradbury-like gentleness. Stephen King went out of his way to call this the scariest book he'd ever read.
I've read a handful of Ketchum's other books since then. All worth the cash, none disappointing. One of the best is SHE WAKES, in which an ancient Greek goddess is reincarnated and goes on the warpath after being snubbed after an affair. I was in Greece for a few weeks once, and this book gets the atmosphere of that place down perfect -- the tavernas under the trees, the ancient air around the place, the sense of something brooding and biding its time somewhere nearby. And the story's gritty and believable. Great stuff.
Ketchum won a couple of World Fantasy Awards for his short stories in the '90s. But that belated recognition of his talent doesn't seem like enough. The later reprints of his books include forewards and afterwards that tell you what was going on behind the scenes as the books were written -- and they are well worth it as a peek into the writing process, and into how the publishing business often goes wrong.
You know how a person's writing sometimes seems to conjure up the kind of person they must be, their outlook, their age, etc? Fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin -- who also passed away a few days back at age 88 -- was seemingly born 40 years old, always stable, measured, always looking at the long view.
Jack Ketchum wasn't like that. He was always pushy, abrasive, risky -- a 20-year-old punk, constantly getting in your face and trying to get your attention. And that's one of the things that made him great.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

All new stuff!

OK, I've put this off long enough. I have this HUGE pile of previously-unheard Strange Music in the house, which has been waiting for a YEAR to be listened to -- material for a book project that may never get finished. So I've decided to dip into it a few pieces at a time and see what happens. Maybe I can chop this pile down a bit.
At some point I'll live-blog my reactions to some of this stuff (when my energy level's up or the sun decides to come back out of the winter-western-Washington gloom) and see how far I can get through the pile before I can't take anymore. But for now, let's try this sampling....
* Happy the Man: Eye of the Storm, from 3RD/BETTER LATE.... (1983). Demo recorded in Feb '79, after Arista cut the Happys loose when their excellent second album CRAFTY HANDS failed to sell mega copies. Later covered by Camel on their half-decent '79 album I CAN SEE YOUR HOUSE FROM HERE. Camel's version has more impact. This original is in a lower key, though it's still pleasant -- though not haunting like Camel's version is. There's no real ending. One more flute solo/overdub would have set it off. A good production would have punched it up, too.
* Happy the Man: While Crome Yellow Shine, from 3RD. Pastoral keyboard driving music, watching as scenery passes by on the side of the road. Then guitar and keyboards pick it up. Their usual quick-changing, overlapping pastoral moods. Very pleasant, but needs some sax or flute to jazz it up and set it off.
* Omega: Hazug Lany, from OMEGA 5. From Hungary. Sung in Hungarian. Organ's not bad, though simple. Drums are rudimentary. Upbeat group-vocal chanting, kind of naively charming. This could have been a single -- I'm sure they're trying to chat-up some hot woman. Sort of a Hungarian version of Free's "All Right Now."
* Omega: A Madar, from OMEGA 5. Something's missing. Not enough beat? More bass? But the keyboards are a trip -- Benko Laszlo's pretty great on the Moog. But they need more energy. Naïve heavy rock, circa 1968. But the keyboards always help.
* Omega: En Elmegyek, from OMEGA 5. Uh oh, they're Slowing Things Down. Long, funereal organ opening. Low-key choir vocals. Going pastoral. Twangy guitar. Where'd the women back-up singers come from? There are no women in this band, or credited on the album cover. Enough.
* Alquin: Stranger, from NOBODY CAN WAIT FOREVER (1975). From Holland. Funky guitar. And they sing in English. Not terrible. The singer could be more forceful. OK "I know" choruses. Low-key instrumentals -- bass and keyboard solos, very modest. Low-register sax joins later, not bad. Builds slightly in intensity. Smooth sound overall. Produced by Rodger Bain (Black Sabbath, Rainbow, etc).
* Alquin: Mr. Widow, from NOBODY.... Surprisingly upbeat. The lyrics are silly. Maybe too light -- attempt at a single? Choruses are fairly catchy. The sax always helps.
* Alquin: New Guinea Sunrise, from NOBODY. Now they're gonna show-off on guitar. This needs to pick up fast. How about some sax and underwater keyboards? Beat picks up for a section called "Wake Me Up." Lyrics are still silly. Singer's annoying.
* Ray Thomas: High Above My Head, from FROM MIGHTY OAKS (1975). Moody Blues singer and flutist, who died a couple months back, shortly after it was announced that the Moodies finally made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ray was always good for a solid song or two on Moodies albums. This is from his first solo album. Optimistic, big-band arrangement, lyrics are kinda silly. Middle break on Ray's harmonica, not bad. Production seems kinda bass-heavy. Could have been a single.
* Ray Thomas: From Mighty Oaks. Orchestral instrumental to lead off the album. Sounds like the start of a movie soundtrack. Lots of English hunting-horns. Not rock and roll. Pretty pretentious. Nothing here that would make you want to listen further.
* Greenslade: An English Western, from GREENSLADE (1973). Dave Greenslade was pretty nimble on the keys. This jumps around a lot. Can't find anything "Western" in it. Old-fashioned '70s organ sounds are pleasant. There actually seems to be a sort of repeating theme -- sort of a nautical, sea-going thing -- but not much of a tune.
* Greenslade: Melange. Jumpy old-English melody carried by sprightly keyboard and slightly-too-heavy guitar, heavy bass joins in later. Lower-key midsection with show-offy guitar and bass and wordless vocals. What's all the ominous atmosphere for? Then bubbly, aquatic keybs and bass -- jaunty tune -- then more atmosphere. Then back to the opening tune with heavily flanged guitar. Lots of noise, means nothing. A good tune would really have helped these guys. Lots of talent, but noodling around.
* Fairport Convention: She Moves Through the Fair, from THE ESSENTIAL/WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES? An ominous ghost story, showcasing Sandy Denny's haunted voice. The best thing I've heard all day. I got addicted to Fairport around 1983, so why have I never heard this before?
* Fairport Convention: Ballad of Easy Rider, from ESSENTIAL. Sandy Denny singing the old Byrds classic. This version is downbeat and very different from the original. It's also about four times longer than the Byrds' version, which is not a good thing. Nice guitar work by Richard Thompson, of course.

...More of this stuff coming soon, along with reviews of 1,001 SONGS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE, the BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING series, THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN (an oral history of ESPN), David Hepworth's NEVER A DULL MOMENT (about rock and roll in 1971), and much more....