Friday, April 20, 2018

Can't You Hear a Pitter-Pat

In April of 1978, Willie Nelson released Stardust, an album made up of ten of Willie's favorite standards all recorded in just ten days with the help of his neighbor Booker T Jones on arrangements. By 1978 my dad was buying one album a year. To his credit , he purchased Songs In the Key of Life in 1977 and Pink Floyd's The Wall in 1979. But 1978 was the year of Stardust. While attending my boarding school in the 1950's, he played a four string electric guitar in a jazz band that covered some of the same songs Willie chose.  Thanks to a TDK cassette and a neighbor with a stereo, my dad passed his love for this album on to me where it remains cherished to his day. And not just by me. It has become a favorite album for generations. 

From Ariel Swartley writing for Rolling Stone

 When country singers go back to their roots, the album's usually called Amazing Grace, but Willie Nelson's never been known for his orthodoxy. Instead of hymns, he's giving us ten of the best from popular classicists like George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin. Still, Stardust traces Nelson's musical family tree more convincingly that The Troublemaker, his own white-gospel collection. 

In one sense, Stardust is a memory album: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Georgia on My Mind" and the rest were songs Nelson grew up playing in dives and dance halls across Texas. He and his band haven't reworked them much since then. You can still hear a hint of polka and the clippety-clop of singing cowboys in the bass like of "Blue Skies," and the black-tie-and-champagne bounce of "Someone to Watch Over Me" has been smoothed to a whiskey (straight up) trot. A harmonica does the duty of a horn section, and in between the verses Nelson picks out the melody on his guitar. The notes are as sweet and easy as the smiles of the women eyeing the bandstand over their partners' shoulders.

Stardust is also Nelson's tribute to his teachers -- as a songwriter, he learned a lot from these guys. Like how to open a song with a rush and a phrase that lands you in the middle of the situation: "All of me..." and "Hello, walls...." Or how to cover the two-by-fours of verse/verse/bridge with a seamless melody that glides over all the joints and angles. Willie Nelson, singer, learned his offbeat phrasing from urbane songs like these, where it still shows off best. Refusing to be hurried by the band, he strolls through "All of Me" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," as wry and debonair as the lyrics. 

 But Stardust is more than a personal history or testimonial. It's a reminder. The songs Nelson has chosen are a part of Nashville's collective bloodlines too, as much as tent-show evangelism and barroom stomps are. The old standards' precise balance of artifice and sentiment stood as a pattern for the popular song that was never seriously challenged until the eruption of rock and roll. In Nashville, it persisted even then. In "Stardust" or "September Song," as in Nashville's most enduring creations (including many of Nelson's own), resignation, with its implied self-sufficiency, triumphs -- barely -- over whatever agony of emotion is at hand. Tears may slide into the beer, but the singer's dignity is preserved.

 For all the sleek sophistication of the material, Stardust is as down-home as the Legion dance. Heard coast to coast in lounges and on elevator soundtracks, these tunes have become part of the folk music of exurban America. And that's the way Nelson plays them -- spare and simple, with a jump band's verve and a storyteller's love of a good tale. By offering these songs, he's displaying the tools of a journeyman musician's trade -- worn smooth and polished by constant use -- and when he lays them out this way, they kind of look like works of art. Willie Nelson may be acknowledging both his own and country music's debt to Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, but he's also showing these hallowed musical institutions how the country makes their music its own.

from Tom Moon's 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Willie Nelson is one great fake-out artist. A few minutes with that craggy voice on the stereo, and the logical conclusion is that he's not much of a singer. And then a few more minutes go by, and you're captivated -- this grizzled dude knows how to get his voice into a zone where his intentions can't be misread, where the warts and the flaws work for him. He sings through what would be deal-breaking disadvantages for others; you follow along in part because you wanna see if the old coot can make it. 

 Some in the Nashville Establishment hooked into Nelson's oddly compelling style early on. It took this album of standards to establish Nelson as a singer with a disarming, logic-defying knack for vocal persuasion. 

 Produced by organist Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs fame), Stardust catches Nelson in a chilled-out easygoing-grandpa mood. He's singing stuff that he grew up with -- old torch songs ("Someone to Watch Over Me"), tunes he heard Ray Charles sing ("Georgia on My Mind"), and hushed ballads including "Moonlight in Vermont," a marvel of nonrhyming prose imagery that Nelson names in the liner notes as his all-time favorite song. The small band follows his moves at close range, veering between country, soul-ballad tricks, and jazz turnarounds in a way that blurs genres while making perfect musical sense.

 One example: On the dramatic ending of "Blue Skies," after he and the band have sauntered through a few bouncy, optimistic choruses, he shifts gears into half time, and then, after a few bars, slows things even further. It's a rallentando that suggests the bittersweet feeling that sometimes descends at the end of a beautiful day. The blue sky is darkening. Dusk is approaching. And Nelson, in a rare turn as Mr. Softie, is wistful, not quite ready to let go of the light just yet.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

I Always Flirt With Death


In April of 1978, The Only Ones released their self titled debut album, one that has aged well by sounding like a cross between the band's punk rock influences and something the Stones might have cut in Keef's less lucid moments.  Songwriter and languid vocalist Peter Perrett has spent far too many years chasing the dragon. The preceding single "Lovers of Today" is about heroin, an addiction that would be one of the factors is the band's short life.  The Only Ones, recorded with a skilled band including former Spooky Tooth drummer Mike Kellie, includes one of the year's legendary singles , the often covered "Another Girl, Another Planet". 

Here's Peter Perrett on the single:

 Around that time, I wrote Another Girl, Another Planet. I used to enjoy meeting lots of girls and always thought it was like visiting a different planet every time. Each girl was different, in different ways, so I assumed it was a worthwhile experience… The stupidity of youth! Once I matured, I realised that just being with one person was actually more beneficial. 

The Only Ones was included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear where you'll read:

Perrett's flair for trembled lyrical gush, bolted onto the band's polished punk finesse, distinguished them in an era when most of their peers were scratching their heads over the whereabouts of the fourth chord.

The band would break up in 1981. Looking back, Perrett has a few regrets.

"In the 70s I just did things the way they came out and thought that they were perfect because I was always thought I was a genius, even when I was young. As you do when you’re young, you’re very arrogant. I used to think that the way it came out was perfect – nothing could improve it. But I’m a bit more self-critical and self-deprecating, obviously, as I’ve proved to myself that I’m not infallible.”

Monday, April 16, 2018

Too Much Danger

During the week of April 16, 1978 Television's new single "Foxhole" entered the U.K. charts at #36. The anti war song isn't the most obvious choice of a single from Adventure, an album that also contained the gorgeous "Days" and anthemic "Glory". 

In fact the song dates back to the band's Marquee Moon tour and sounds like it may have come from the same sessions. The song would vanish from the charts by the following week and so would Adventure's chances to be a big seller, despite Television's appearances on the Old Grey Whistle Test in May. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Lost in the Seas

In April of 1979 Mink DeVille released Return to Magenta, a follow-up to the critically acclaimed debut Cabretta. Thius time critics found fault in the album's similarity to its predecessor. Robert Christgau gave the album a C+ grade, writing "the main thing wrong with Willie DeVille is that he hasn't had a new idea since he decided he didn't like acid in 1970. Even as the songpoet of greaser nostalgia he's got nothing to say--the most interesting writing on this record is an old David Forman tune--and the romanticism of his vocal style makes me appreciate George Thorogood. "

But over time the album has been recognized as one of Willy DeVille's best. Recorded with producer and string arranging master Jack Nitsche (Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Harvest), Return to Magenta has that Ben E King swing and a pure romantic's view of New York City. Dr John makes a guest appearance. 

In the liner notes the legendary songwriter Doc Pomus said of DeVille:

Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow — timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quit for a minute. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you. And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and neverwillbes.

The album peaked at 126 on the Billboard album charts and can be purchased as a two-fer with Cabretta.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Gordon Is A Moron

In April of 1978 Jilted John, a.k.a. actor Graham Fellows, released a novelty record in the punk rock vein called "Jilted John" which would peak at U.K. #4 by late Summer, selling half a million copies. It's the story of a fellow who gets dumped by a girl named Judy who says she fancies the better looking and more stylish Gordon, leading to the singalong line "Gordon Is A Moron" . That's followed by a series of insults one could only fantasize broadcasting on the radio: She's a slag and he's a creep /She's a tart, he's very cheap /She is a slut, he thinks he's tough /She is a bitch, he is a puff".

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

She's So 20th Century

On April 9, 1978 The Boomtown Rats's latest single, "She's So Modern", entered the U.K. charts at #23. It would be the first single released from the Rats's second album, A Tonic For the Troops, which also featured a future UK#1 hit in "Rat Trap". The song's lyrics contain the album title : "And Charlie ain't no Nazi/ she likes to wear her leather boots/ 'cuz it's exciting for the veterans/ and it's a tonic for the troops."

 Below, you can see Bob Geldorf's Jagger inspired hyper kinetic stage presence which helped get him him cast as Pink in The Wall.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

With Juvenile Intentions

On April 8, 1978 Japan released its debut album, Adolescent Sex.  The band may have looked like an 80's hair band but, like Ultravox, they drew their inspiration from harder rocking David Bowie and Roxy Music.  If you're a fan of the bands's sophisticated, Eastern-influenced later works, Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids, this may come as quite the surprise.  Here is the birth of the New Romantic sound. that would be dominated by Duran Duran, Visage and Spandau Ballet.

Ripe for rediscovery, Adolescent Sex has received rave reviews from some of the band's biggest fans and was recently discussed in a Quietus article in which Chris Roberts tried to get singer/songwriter  David Sylvain to discuss an album the band would eventually dismiss.

I was interviewing David Sylvian for a career overview in 2004 and suggested we work though album by album, beginning with Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives. “You can,” he shrugged politely. “I mean, I haven’t heard them since 1982 or whatever. I have no interest.” He wasn’t being rude or affected. He genuinely doesn’t see what he perceives as juvenilia being relevant to his body of work. On another occasion I asked him if he hated them as much as is generally made out. Can he not even hear them as youthful, buoyant “fun”? “I don’t cringe as much as I laugh,” he said, smiling. “I don’t take it so seriously as to worry about it. I understand the train of thought. It doesn’t bother me.”

Check out "Television" and "Suburban Love" for some of the more oustanding moments on the album.

The follow-up, Obscure Alternatives, is just six months away. The band's recording career would only last four short years.