So the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just delivered their list of nominees for 2017, and I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve been telling anybody who would listen for many years that it was a travesty that ELO hadn’t yet been included or even nominated. I’m not kidding myself to think that they’ll get in; let’s face it, Tupac and Pearl Jam are sure things, leaving only three spots for 13 other nominees, so the math isn’t really in Jeff Lynne and company’s favor. (For the record, my choices: ELO, The Cars, Tupac, The Zombies, and Depeche Mode. Personal tastes play a lot into these things, obviously, and, as a songwriting guy, these five artists, to me, left behind the largest portion of memorable songs of this field.)
ELO’s last album in their heyday was 1986’s Balance Of Power; they would disband for fifteen years before their next studio album, Zoom, appeared in 2001. I’ve always had an affinity for this album, perhaps more than any of their other albums in the 80’s. It didn’t have any big hits but the songwriting was consistently sharp, the melodies pristine, and the production, with the exception of a synthy misstep or two, typically sumptuous; what else would you expect from Lynne?
ELO’s list of tear-jerking ballads will always be topped by “Telephone Line” with “Can’t Get It Out My Head” sitting at 1A; you just don’t get much better than those two. But Lynne delivered a late-period showstopper on Balance Of Power with “Getting To The Point.” Only the diehards (and I’m proudly one of them) know it, which is why I’m hoping that those reading this who are only casually aware of the band will check it out, and maybe check out the rest of the album in the process.
In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that ELO somehow sneaks into the final five for the Rock Hall, even as I know it likely won’t happen. And, while we’re on the subject, maybe next year at this time I’ll be doing a Weeper of the Week on Harry Nilsson, Warren Zevon, or Squeeze in honor of one or all of their nominations. One can dream.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a full list of my Counting Down books and E-books, check out the link to my Amazon page below.)
I got a kick out of hearing that Conor Oberst’s new solo album, which is quite excellent by the way, was called Ruminations. Couldn’t every one of his albums, every one of his songs for that matter, be titled the same? Picking at the minutiae of life for morsels of truth and digging deep into loves he’s lost and mistakes he’s made for some sort of lesson that he eventually ignores, lest there be no more grist for his songwriting mill, Oberst is one of music’s great ruminators.
He also has the knack for putting you right in the middle of a situation, even if it’s somewhere you’d never be in your actual life. I’ve never used recreational drugs in my life and have only visited the tourist attractions in New York City. And yet, on “Lua,” released on 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Oberst’s recording alter ego Bright Eyes, his details and observations bring the city’s young and affluent drug scene to such harrowingly vivid life that the song seems like a memory that I’d blocked out. The loneliness, the weariness, the whole dispiriting, devastating cycle of that lifestyle can be gleaned from his well-chosen words.
It can also be understood from his hushed vocal, at times so quiet and defeated that it seems as though he’s singing a lullaby to a dream that long since died. When his voice does turn up, it quivers in that inimitable way that Oberst has, and the damage done to his narrator is clear. What’s so heartbreaking about the song is that this guy can insightfully describe the pitfalls of this life and yet is helpless to leave it behind.
If “Lua” is one of your favorite Oberst songs, as it is mine, you really should check out Ruminations, which also features the artist in his most stripped-down guise, nothing getting in the way of his delicate melodies and wounded words. Then you can ruminate on your own time about how, a dozen years on from “Lua,” he’s still at the top of his game in bringing listeners to the bottom.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Check out the link below to my Amazon page to purchase my Counting Down books and e-books.)
With it’s high-drama melody and straightforward yet piercing lyrics, “You Don’t Have T0 Say You Love Me,” released by Dusty Springfield in 1966, seems like the greatest minds of the Brill Building coming together in an effort to create a ballad so heart-wrenching that it’s best to pull over the car when it comes on the radio lest the welling tears block your vision. That it was originally an Italian tune and featured lyrics by a pair of songwriting novices (Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier-Bell) is nigh impossible to believe. But it’s true, as Springfield heard the tune during an Italian festival and eventually asked a pair of friends to come up with English words to match.
The fanfare opening immediately demands your attention, clearing the air for Springfield to lay it on the line. It would have been so easy to oversing this song, as many cover versions sadly prove. But Springfield’s performance here is an all-timer, as she effortlessly conveys emotions that the words on the page barely suggest. There’s obviously great pain in there, but there’s also bravery and perseverance that makes us root for this heroine even more.
Which, of course, makes it all the more tragic when we realize that she’s singing to a memory. The upswing of the melody in the refrains wants us to believe that there is hope, that this romance can work as a one-way compromise where she does all the leaving it alone and he does all the running around. The sheer futility of her plight is devastating, and yet Springfield’s dignity still persists.
It all leads to her cries of “Believe me,” three times, each one a little more urgent than the one before. Fifty years ago this unlikely song came to be, and, thanks to Springfield’s goose bumps-inducing vocal, it has only gained in power since. Greg Kihn was right to say they don’t write ’em like that anymore. But even if they did, you’d need a singer like Dusty Springfield to deliver maximum impact.
It’s been four years since Tempest, Bob Dylan’s most recent studio album of original material. The album astounds me anew with each listen. It’s a classic just waiting to be anointed as one: From the gritty rock of “Pay In Blood” and “Narrow Way,” to the ambition of “Tempest” and “Scarlet Town,” to one of the most idiosyncratic tribute songs you’ll ever hear in “Roll On John,” Dylan killed it. For my money he can release Sinatra covers till the end of time; Tempest earned him that right.
“Long And Wasted Years” is the heartbreaker on the album. Bob’s ballads are fewer and farther between on his most recent albums, but when he drops one, it’s always worth the wait. This one rides on a guitar riff that drags itself up a flight of stairs only to tumble back down every time, mimicking the Charlie Brown-ish gullibility of the narrator’s once-high romantic hopes.
But not anymore: “One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you.” Of course there are the usual Dylanesque digressions to keep us from getting any kind of linear narrative. But that’s what life is like, right? One moment you’re musing on a lost love, the next you’re thinking about your enemies back behind you in the dust, the next you’re egging someone on to dance. OK, maybe that’s what Dylan’s life is like, not ours, but it’s such a fascinating place to visit.
As always he reveals more about himself than the biographies could ever approach: “I think that when my back was turned/The whole world behind me burned.” And then, that last verse, it hurts just to write it let alone hear Dylan sing it with his brilliant phrasing: “We cried on a cold and frosty morn/We cried because our souls were torn/So much for tears/So much for these long and wasted years.” On second thought, give us an original album, Bob. Nobody writes songs like these anymore. Nobody did before, either.
It felt like a good Wednesday to rejuvenate this series, as rock fans have had plenty of cause for sadness of late. I talked about David Bowie in a post a week ago; just a few days back, Glenn Frey passed away as well. It’s ironic that the two will be linked now, because, for the most part, they occupied separate hemispheres of the rock universe: Bowie as the critically-acclaimed iconoclast who became popular almost in spite of his left-of-center artistic impulses, Frey the workmanlike striver who suffered the slings and arrows of the rock intelligentsia on his way to the top of the rock world with the band he founded.
The animosity that many rock critics had for the Eagles is well-known. I put a lot of that down to timing; had the group, with their impeccably-played and sung blend of country, rock, and soul come along in a different era, they likely would have been celebrated by the press as much as they were revered by their fans. Instead they became the symbol for corporate rock at a time when more fashionable trends like punk railed against it.
I’m not sure how anyone could complain about the Eagles greatest hits now unless to say they’re overplayed, which is why you should seek out equally worthy, if not as omnipresent, tracks like “The Last Resort”, “My Man”, “Those Shoes”, and “Hollywood Waltz”, just to name a few. And albums like On The Border, The Long Run and, especially, Hotel California, are enjoyable as a whole even when you take out the singles. From what I’ve read, Frey and Don Henley were devoted to being huge hitmakers, studying what worked and what didn’t and meticulously crafting their songs toward maximum success. Somehow they get slagged off for doing that, when others in the rock pantheon, Lennon and McCartney for one shining example, were praised for their tireless ambition.
It’s hard to know what song to attribute to whom with the Eagles, as they’ve been more cagey than most in terms of revealing the impetus for their hits, but it’s safe to say that Frey’s had a major hand in writing some rock evergreens, he and Henley nailing the California ethos despite the fact that they were from Detroit and Texas, respectively. And his singing, understated and soulful, doesn’t get enough credit either. Plus he was in on the Miami Vice fad ahead of many of his rocker buddies, for which he’ll have a soft spot in my heart. Check his lovely lead vocal out on the late-period Eagles song “The Girl From Yesterday” below.
Glenn Frey found a place to make his stand in the music world, and his fans are infinitely thankful he did.
I’ve been working on a project about the early 80’s, an era that’s near and dear to my heart, and the research rarely turns up a killer song that feels like it went under the radar. The artists at that time were pretty good about leading with the best stuff on singles and videos, and those songs have had a long shelf life. But I hadn’t heard this Phil Collins ballad in quite a long time, and after a few notes, the fondness I had for it quickly came back to me.
Collins gets an unfairly bad rap, if only because of just how ubiquitous he was in that decade, either releasing solo albums or Genesis albums, producing hit songs by the likes of Frida and Howard Jones, guest-starring on Miami Vice, putting out soundtrack songs, and on and on. The guy had a serious work ethic, and eventually he became a bit overexposed (“Sussudio”, which still sends me into spastic shivers when I hear those grating horns, was probably the tipping point for me), but his work from 1980-84 is consistently fine, as the guy, with and without Genesis, shifted seamlessly from arena rock to R&B to balladry with nary an ounce of strain.
This song was a bit of an underdog, considering it came on an album, 1982’s Hello, I Must Be Going, which produced the hit cover “You Can’t Hurry Love” and the intense “In The Air Tonight” redux “I Don’t Care Anymore.” By the time they got around to releasing this one, Collins was back with Genesis preparing their next LP.
Like a lot of his early solo work, “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” deals with the wounds of lost love. Unlike the simmering anger that surfaced on songs like “In The Air Tonight,” this one is more graceful and tender, a loving plea from a regretful guy who still thinks he’s the one for the girl he’d addressing, even as a new man moves in. With an understated string section and sensitive piano work underpinning, the pretty wistfulness of the melody shines through. Meanwhile Collins does his vocal thing where he starts off all dejected and then explodes with passion. Check it out and you’ll realize that “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” is that rare beast: an underexposed Phil Collins song from the 80’s, and an exceedingly worthy one at that.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is telling the kids about various rock and roll bands from his younger days. When he gets to The Alan Parsons Project, he confuses the band for a hovercraft. It’s typically clever Simpsons banter, but the line also wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Started by Parsons, famed for his production and engineering work with The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and composer Eric Woolfson, the APP often seemed to be hovering above the rock scene, delivering synthesizer-fueled missives about robots and Edgar Allan Poe.
Yet every once in a while they would alight and deliver tuneful, catchy, and poignant singles apart from the song suites and studio wizardry. “Eye In The Sky” was the biggest of those. “Time”, which could certainly be a future Weeper candidate, was a beauty. I think my personal favorite though is “Don’t Answer Me”, which rolled into the Top 20 in the ultra-competitive pop landscape of 1984.
Like a lot of people, I feel in love with the video, a kind of comic-book noir that was groundbreaking then and still looks wonderful today. The video actually lends the song a happy ending, something that doesn’t quite come across without the visual. The retro clip does nicely dovetail with the sound of the record though, as Parsons copped a vintage Phil Spector vibe right down to the castanets.
Meanwhile Woolfson sings to a girl who’s pulling away from the world, living in dreams and magic instead of facing the reality of the situation or her true feelings. He gives up in the chorus, daring her to isolate herself at the expense of everything they had built. Nick and Sugar may drive off underneath a benevolent moon in the video, but the hero and heroine don’t complete the fairytale in the song because “clouds got in the way.” Damn clouds.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)