Rascals in knickerbockers

Four young men, looking moody and  wearing knickerbockers and short ties. The cover picture on this EP is strange. What is this? Little Lord Fauntleroy Does Motown?

young rascalsI had not heard of the Young Rascals, the gents in the strange gear. But they were genuine stars in the late 1960s, with five US number 1 hits, including Good Lovin’, Groovin’, and People Got To be Free, a civil rights song.

LLF

An early-model Young Rascal

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes the Young Rascals as “one of America’s finest pop/soul ensembles” and explains:

Despite a somewhat encumbering early image – knickerbockers and choirboy shirts -the group’s soulful performances endeared them to critics and peers … one of the east coast’s most influential attractions, spawning a host of imitators

Most of their songs are smooth and soul-tinged, but the track I have chosen here has a rougher edge. It’s a stomper, a break-up song with strong vocals and nice harmonies. Ignore the knickerbockers, and just listen.

  • Artist: Young Rascals
  • EP title: How Can I Be Sure
  • Track: A2 You Better Run
  • Format: 12”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Atlantic
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: AX-11,407
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

HAL on Earth

Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.

Sci-fi fans will recognise the “dying words” of HAL, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL goes mad, you see, and murders all but one of the crew of a spaceship. The one survivor shuts HAL down, and as his circuits die HAL sings “Daisy Bell” not especially well.

The film was made in 1968, when 2001 seemed a very long time in the future. It is full of guesses about what computers might be like in this glittering space age, and some things are wildly excessive – HAL can lip-read, from side on. Other things are pure 1968. HAL, like the computers of that period is HUGE, a giant mainframe the size of a small house. That’s how computers were back then. They were enormous, and very expensive, so there were not many of them. A university, a government agency or a large company might have one.

Something else about the computers of the late 1960s. Their information capacity was tiny, pitiful to modern eyes. A standard smart phone has about 64 gigabytes of memory. A gigabyte is 1000 megabytes. A megabyte is 1000 kilobytes. And the big, expensive computer you are about to meet could store 32 kilobytes of data.

0278 a

The ICL 1905 computer had a massive 32 kilobyte memory.

Let me introduce the ICL 1905. It was a computer, which was used by the Queensland Main Roads Department. And, in January 1969, it starred in a recording. Someone, the equivalent of HAL’s Mr Langley, had programmed it to play music. What does it sound like? Pretty much what you would expect from a computer with a 32K memory: truly awful.

But the fact that someone went to the trouble of pressing a record, to preserve this ghastly beeping for posterity, shows that getting a computer to play music was a real accomplishment, something exciting and new in 1969.

And now? It sounds like HAL on Earth. But it is fascinating, and truly weird. Just listen!

Side A

Side B

  • Artist: MRD [Queensland Main Roads Department] Computer ICL 1905 32K
  • A Side: Brahms: Waltz in A Flat
  • B Side: B1 Wagner: Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, B2 Colonel Bogey
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: custom pressing
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: January 1969

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Give Peace a chance

On the fringes of the R&B and soul scene of the 1950s were hundreds, maybe thousands, of talented singers and musicians who inhabited the land of Neverquite. It is often hard to chart their careers. They would shift from group to group, perform under different names, a minor hit here, an under-appreciated release there.

Such a one is Elroy Peace, aka Elroy Peade, and perhaps some other names. I have been able to learn that Elroy had the nickname “Shadow”, that he fronted a group called the Bow Ribbons, and that he sang the odd duet with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Almost certainly he performed on many other recordings, credited or not, under one name or another.

elroy peace via discogs

Elroy Peace. Image via Discogs

So, I know almost nothing about him. There is a photograph, and there is this record. From the photograph we learn that Elroy was black, and had a flashy stage suit. From the record – well, he really, really could sing.

This single’s A-side is a novelty dance track, Elephant Walk. Doubtless the hope was to start a dance craze and rocket to stardom, but it didn’t and he didn’t. It is well-done, but lightweight fun.

The B-side, though. Here Elroy Peace drops the silliness and just lets a fine singing voice caress a torch song. The lyrics are trite, but it does not matter. The result is magical. Hints of Nat King Cole, but not an imitation – in fact, maybe better?  I do not know Elroy’s story, but this fragment of recorded sound, washed up on Planet Vinyl, suggests that had the breaks gone his way he could have been a star. Just listen.

  • Artist: Elroy Peace
  • A Side: Elephant Walk
  • B Side: Our Hearts Will Sing
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 101528
  • Year: unknown [mid-1960s?]

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Cross-over Man

Cross-over. It was a buzz term in music marketing, back in the 80s. Like many things from that decade it was applied cynically. Industry executives were worried that Micheal Jackson would not make them quite enough money because, well, he was black, n’ all.  So they hired Eddie van Halen, with impeccable redneck street-cred, to play the guitar solo on “Beat It”. This would ensure radio airplay in the Southern states, you see.

Just one of many examples of such cold calculation, which brought the whole idea of cross-over into disrepute. This is a shame, because, at core, music which crosses over between cultures, or even sub-cultures, is surely a good thing. Elvis. Dylan. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. All cross-over in one way or another. It means reaching out, breaking down barriers of prejudice.

“Prejudice”: literally, to pre-judge, decide without a fair hearing. Which is to say, without just listening.

Jim_Reeves

Jim Reeves. Image: WikiMedia

Which brings us to Jimmy Reeves. “Gentleman Jim”, they called him. Starting out as a shrill hillbilly country singer, Reeves changed his singing style, brought in elements of pop, elements of swing jazz, and became something of a crooner – but still country, and in many ways much more than that.

Born in 1923, Reeves served a long apprenticeship working the country music circuit. He performed on the great radio shows of the 1950s, Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, and was already established in country before he broke through to the pop charts in 1957, with the hit “Four Walls”.

And did he cross-over, or what? It is one thing to record in Nashville and make the US pop charts. It is quite another to become a revered, genuinely loved artist across nations and cultures, most of which have never seen a Stetson hat outside of a movie theatre. And that is what Reeves did.

Reeves was listened to and loved – and is still remembered fondly if fan websites are anything to judge by – in the UK, in Norway, in the Netherlands, in South Africa (he was so big there that he recorded songs in Afrikaans), in India, in Sri Lanka, and in a whole host of other places you would not expect. Reeves died tragically young, killed in an air crash in 1964, but his music lived on.

The secret of  Reeve’s appeal? Part was his pure, smooth vocal style. Part was his ability to give emotional conviction to the (let’s face it) sentimental lyrics which are country music’s core. He was a Christian, too, and he expressed his faith in his music without being bombastic or preachy.

This track “Suppertime” is the B-side to a 1965 single. It is sentimental to the extent it needs a heart-health warning, but Reeves carries it off. He was already dead when the record was released, which makes the message all the more poignant: there is a loving God, at whose table all of us are welcome. Just listen.

  • Artist: Jim Reeves
  • A Side: How Long Has It Been
  • B Side: Suppertime
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: RCA-1445
  • Year: 1965

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie

I am not a TV soap kinda guy. Nothing against the soapies – they give work to lots of actors and entertainment to millions of people, and are mostly harmless. Give me Neighbours over the latest vile reality-TV blood sport any day. Anyway, not being a watcher of soaps, I had not heard of Michele Lee but she was seriously big. She appeared in all 14 seasons of Knots Landing, playing Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie, a Texan society-matriarch with a string of husbands.

KFC etc

Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie not, from the look of things, having a great day.

It is that for which Lee is chiefly remembered, but she did a lot of other stuff besides: as well as acting she was a singer, dancer, producer and director. One of her early successes was in the 1962 Broadway musical, Bravo Giovanni, about an Italian restaurateur facing bankruptcy because of a big “chain” eatery setting up next door. The production was primarily a vehicle for one of the star opera singers of the day, Cesare Siepi. Lots of booming baritone among the bocconcini and basil.

bravo

Bravo Giovanni was a Broadway hit show in 1962.

But for mine, Michele Lee’s lower-key take on the song “Steady, Steady” steals the show. Hints of Peggy Lee in the delivery – a strong, assured performance. Long before she became the First Lady of Knots Landing, Michele Lee had star quality. Just listen.

  • Artists: Cesare Siepi, Michele Lee
  • A Side: Cesare Siepi, “Rome”
  • B Side: Michele Lee, “Steady, Steady”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono, promo
  • Label: Columbia
  • Made in: United States
  • Catalogue: JZSP 57428
  • Year: 1962

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

When only bluegrass banjo will do

There are times when the news, both at home and abroad, is so bleak, stupid and depressing that you need an escape.

At such times, in my personal opinion, only hot-fingered bluegrass banjo will do. Hit it!

Whoops, wrong speed. (Notice how it sounds strangely like traditional Chinese music?)

Arthur Smith, who we are about to hear at 45 rpm, was Nashville royalty. Born in 1921, son of a North Carolina cotton-mill hand and a factory boy himself until music set him free, Smith absorbed jazz and combined it with American country and sheer instrumental virtuosity.

arthur_smith

Arthur Smith. Image: From The Vaults

His biggest hit came in the late 1940s, “Guitar Boogie”, which became his nickname ever after. (There were other Arthur Smiths out there, you see, including a contemporary country musician, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith.)

Any-hoo. In 1974, Arthur “Boogie Guitar” Smith turned his attention to the five-string banjo, and released this track, “Just Joshin’”.

At a time when you are reading about Trump’s border wall, Brexit and the exposure of sexual predators – everywhere from disgusting men in positions of power and influence, to other disgusting men in positions of power and influence – brothers and sisters, we need hot-fingered bluegrass banjo.

So, speed corrected – let’s try that again.

  • Artist: Arthur Smith
  • A Side: Just Joshin’
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Monument
  • Made in: unknown (United  States?)
  • Catalogue: K 5509
  • Year: 1974

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Aimee Mann is alive and well and playing bass

I feared for Aimee Mann. She was the lead singer, bass player and chief selling point of ‘Til Tuesday, a band which was, in the mid-1980s, the Next Big Thing. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Another casualty of the star machine?

‘Til Tuesday was a Boston synth-pop outfit with a hint of punk, which burst onto the scene in 1985 with “Voices Carry”. With the help of a striking video featuring Mann, she of the platinum hair and wide eyes, it was a huge hit.

TT VC 1985

Industry executives looked at her and saw dollar signs. There was a rash of publicity. I remember reading a profile in Rolling Stone. There was a picture of Mann, looking moody. The caption: “C’mon, Aimee, how can someone who looks so good feel so alienated?” This remains possibly the stupidest thing ever written, even in Rolling Stone.

Early success was not replicated. Label heavyweights demanded hits. The hits failed to come, and the band fell apart under pressure. ‘Til Tuesday; gone Wednesday.

I looked up Aimee Mann, expecting a sad story of bitterness, break-up and drug abuse. I am happy to be completely wrong. She built a solo career, worked on film music and a variety of other projects, and still performs. She has won Grammy awards, done heaps of stuff. This is her in 2008: looking healthy and happy, a woman in control of her own destiny.

Aimee_Mann_October_2008 Against all expectation, Aimee Mann is alive and well and playing bass. Her most recent album is called Mental Illness, and it is, frankly, wonderful. I have bought the download — I encourage you to do the same.

Here she is, back in the ‘Til Tuesday days, with “Don’t Watch Me Bleed”, a B-side breakup song with angsty vocals and moody bass to suit the title.

  • Artist: ‘Til Tuesday
  • A Side: Looking Over My Shoulder
  • B Side: Don’t Watch Me Bleed
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Epic
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: ES 1057
  • Year: 1985

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs