Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

R.I.P. Steve Popovich

In the 70s and 8os, when record companies warred against each other like lumbering dinosaurs, there were some real unsavory characters in the business. I’ve met and worked with quite a few of them, and to say I counted my fingers after a handshake is putting it mildly.

But among the stories of the ridiculously rich and powerful were the occasional feel-good stories of when David beat Goliath. Of course these days, that happens daily – the major label stranglehold on music is all but dead.

But when little Cleveland International Records started up, they could have never imagined that they would stumble across one of the most monumental albums of the rock era, especially after most of the supposedly smarter majors passed on it.

Steve Popovich had the career I thought I wanted a the time, a VP of a major label in his twenties with the ability to sign artists and help share them with the world. Any of us who are fans of music have our truckload of underappreciated musicians and writers and singers who would surely be megastars if only given the break. Working under Clive Davis at Columbia Records and then A&R with Ron Alexexburg at their sister label Epic, he was able to help launch or maximize the careers of artists like Cheap Trick, Brice Springsteen, Mott The Hoople, Johnny Winter, Southside Johnny and many of my favorites.

When he struck out to form Cleveland International Records, he used his old school local promotion skills to work an odd and obtuse album called Bat Out Of Hell month after month, slowly building an expanding regional base until radio finally fanned the spark into a flame. I was working in a record store at the time, and I remember how often labels would get all excited about a new record only to ignore it three months later if it didn’t catch on. Popovich believed in the record, believed in Meat Loaf, believed in Jim Steinman. He followed his gut instincts, and the rest is history.

He also gave us Ellen Foley’s majestic Night Out, and when Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson wanted assistance post-Mott, it was Steve they turned to for direction. He had the reputation as a man who would invest in the artist in ways far beyond financial.

Steve Popovich passed away today at the age of 69.

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The Rock And Roll 500

The windowless white van rumbled eastward on Route 90, soon to take a dogleg right and hook up with its brother highway, The Mass Pike. A six-hour trek that normally would clog at one end or another, but on the two interior days of a four-day holiday, traffic was pretty much non-existent. Most people were already where they wanted to be. I was just going back and forth, as usual.

When I was her age, I moved a few times, and always with the help of friends. Someone always had a truck. Everyone would focus on the beer and pizza at the end of the run, and were it not for my abnormal amount of vinyl albums, we could probably have been in and done in a couple of hours. But I forgot what it’s like to live in a major city where public transportation is the norm, where not only do you not have a car, but no one you know does, either. And besides, isn’t this what Dads do?

The rental van was reasonably priced but came with its limitations. No power locks, so each of the five doors had to be constantly checked. No power windows, either – do they really still make hand cranks? And much to my horror, just a radio. No CD player, not even a cassette, and certainly no input for a digital device to be plugged in. Nope, the front end of the trip would be a hollow metal can bouncing down the road (what, you expected soundproofing?) and me alone with my thoughts, unless I could find something decent on the radio. I had given up trying to do that years ago.

But it’s Memorial Day Weekend, so rock stations across the country are broadcasting their own version of the Rock And Roll 500, a countdown of the five hundred greatest rock songs ever made. And although I constantly have to hit the scanner, as signals fade and ebb between markets or on each side of a mountain pass, sooner or later it’s there. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Cream, U2, Bruce Springsteen, The Cars, The Who, The Police, The Ramones…song after song that I know like the back of my hand, whether I like them or not. It’s a bit 60s and 70s heavy, but rightfully so, because that’s when the apex took place.

I remember selling my Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin albums in a used record store, not so much because I needed the money but because radio had played “Free Bird” and “Stairway To Heaven” so often that I couldn’t bear to hear either band again. This egregious life choice was eventually recanted, of course, even though those two particular songs have long worn out their welcome. But the punk ethic of the time was to burn the past, and somehow I got caught up in the moment. I mean, really – I have never disliked the first four Led Zeppelin albums, they are incredible…but there they went across the counter.

It was a mistake I would not repeat; the day my senses came back to me and I repurchased them was also the day I realized that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. I like what I like, period. I don’t owe you an apology for that just because you disagree.

I thought of that a lot during the six-hour drive as I beat rhythms on the dashboard and heard my voice echo through the empty metal canister (reverb!), singing along as a large part of my childhood was played out for me one track at  a time. I remembered the boxes of 45s that I meticulously catalogued, the first albums I listened to over headphones, juggling prog and pop and glam and blues in college. Even the glee with which Roger and I would pore through the new punk singles arriving at Record Theatre – usually one scooped up by him and one by me, leaving none to be placed in the racks for sale. There was always an insatiable taste for great songs, and there was always the bedrock of what had come before.

I thought of the music I wasn’t hearing on the trip; were there really no J. Geils Band songs, even on the Boston station? And Tom Petty, who quietly went from ignored to elder statesman just by never stopping – would I hear “American Girl“? I already knew that The Dictators, Billy Bremner, Dwight Twilley, John Hiatt, and other lifelong favorites would probably not be heard from, but how was I not hearing a Kinks song?

Heading westward was a different story; the stations seemed less numerous and the song selections started to get downright odd. Even Eli turned to me at one point with her face scrunched up as a Candlebox song came in at number 168. I was incredulous. “The entire Kinks catalogue is better than that song“, I told her, and as “Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic” followed at #167 I imagined Sting sighing, relieved that when the great books were tabulated, someone gave the nod to his fine effort to move ahead – just ahead – of the mighty Candlebox.

Eli and I talked about many things on the way back, and the conversation turned to Lady Gaga. I don’t really care for him/her in the same way that I was never a Madonna fan – I’m much more centered on the music than the spectacle. Eli grew up listening to her own music but also getting the aural second-hand smoke of mine. My rule was and is that the driver picks the music, not the passengers. “I don’t think it’s great music per se“, she said, “but when I feel like dancing in a club it’s really fun and gets everyone going. It’s great for what it is, and I like it for that.” No guilt, just pleasure. A chip off the old block.

The sun had long set and we still had a couple of hours to go when “Going To Califormia” came on the radio, and I let it wash over me. I wasn’t going anywhere but home, but I must have channeled a dozen road trip memories in my mind. Had Eli turned to her left she would wonder why I had a shit-eating grin on my face after the long day, but someday she’ll do that herself. If there’s a better song to hear when you’re in a pensive mood on a long car trip, I can’t think of one right now.

And to think I once sold that album for a dollar. What fools these mortals be.

Led Zeppelin: “Going To California

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New Album! Ray Davies

And while the world continues to wait for a new Kinks album…

See My Friends is the latest effort from Ray Davies, a duets album of sort featuring guest artists from across the musical landscape. Even as a fan of tribute albums I must admit that I dread these affairs, for recording with the honored artist usually results in one of two things – deferring to the honoree or an awkward mix of styles…and sometimes both. Although not scheduled for release in America until April, wily Kinks fans know the album is currently one click away at Amazon UK.

The album lurches off to an unfortunate start with “Better Things”, a normally irresistible tune punctured by the growling Bruce Springsteen; if anything it proves how much better a vocalist Ray Davies is by comparison. Bon Jovi fares no better, with a turgid bar band version of “Celluloid Heroes” minus the panache, and Metallica fails to add anything to “You Really Got Me” that Van Halen didn’t already do a quarter century ago…and better. Billy Corgan’s version of “Destroyer” is as lame and irrelevant as he is. Jackson Browne and Lucinda Williams (the latter backed by The 88) are fine but unremarkable, but it is poignant to hear the late, great Alex Chilton (a longtime Kinks fan) cover “Til The End of The Day”

While the veteran rockers mostly disappoint, those from the current era fare better, although mostly sticking to safe arrangements. Gary Lightbody, lead singer of Snow Patrol, is a natural complement to Ray’s warble, sounding fragile and exhausted on “Tired Of Waiting”. Spoon is a wise match for the title track and craft an arrangement that fits their style well. And while sticking to her normal voice Paloma Faith is dynamic during “Lola”, although switching to Minnie Mouse falsetto during harmonies is jarring. And I like Amy MacDonald’s contribution on “Dead End Street” but the mood is ruined by the small talk between she and Ray at the end – whose brilliant idea was that?

The clear standout on the album is Mumford & Sons; their organic performance brings new life to “Days” and “This Time Tomorrow” and the medley is brilliantly executed. I would love to hear Ray take on the entire Muswell Hillbillies album with them. And since there doesn’t seem to be a Kinks reunion in the works – on record or live – I hope he pursues a collaboration like that before it’s too late.

Video: Ray Davies with Mumford & Sons

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Top Ten Albums of 2010 – #2

It’s not often that a veteran artist belts one out of the park deep into their career; most tend to hit the heights early on and then survive on reputation. Of course there are many who are consistently good over many years (although the musical landscape doesn’t really permit that anymore unless you are bringing in the coin). Tom Petty, U2 and Bruce Springsteen can write their own ticket, but artists less familiar who don’t sell big numbers have a tougher road to hoe.

Christine Ohlman, a/k/a The Beehive Queen, has survived that tough road for a long time thanks to an unwavering committment to follow her instincts and ignore musical fads and trends. As a walking musical encyclopedia with a ten-star voice and an ability to channel soul and passion through her music, she’s made several great records. But with The Deep End, she stepped up to the plate and crushed that fastball. Crack musicianship, first-rate songwriting, a dazzling array of guest artist collaborators, and – most importantly – the soul of Christine Ohlman fusing it all together.

Video: inside take on The Deep End

I had the great pleasure of seeing the band play two sets this past Summer, and had a brief audience with the Queen afterwards. While that has nothing to do with my feelings about this album – I had already made that clear in April – I was thrilled to find that she was every bit the delightful, witty and appreciative musicologist that I hoped she’d be (bee?). If you’ve been a fan over the years you already know what a great album The Deep End is. But if you are new to Christine and her catalogue…and I suspect many of you are…man, do you have some sweet moments ahead of you.

Listen to clips at Amazon

The Beehive

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T.G.I.F. – Ten More Rocktober Chart Toppers

Since it’s Rocktober, I thought I’d revisit the charts.

A couple of weeks back I revisited the number one songs for the first week in October from 1963-1972, a classic era for AM Radio. Almost without exception those songs are still resonant today. Maybe it’s a result of when you hear music in your life, but when radio formatting became so formulaic and segregated, the impact of chart toppers just died for me. But when every artist fought to climb the same hill…man, that was some list of great songs.

So here are Ten More Rocktober Chart Toppers – the Number One hits from the third week of October during my Wonder Years.

1963 Sugar Shack (Jimmy Gilmer) – An unexpected hit and year-end chart-topper even though it only had one more week at the top than The Singing Nun. Recorded at Norman Perry Studios, just like Buddy Holly.

1964Do Wah Diddy (Manfred Mann) – A Jeff Barry / Ellie Greenwich classic, this was prime Brit Invasion Manfred Mann long before the Earth Band and their Bruce Springsteen covers.

1965Yesterday (The Beatles) – Really just Paul McCartney and a string quartet, of course. Still listed as the most covered song in pop history.

1966Reach Out, I’ll Be There (The Four Tops) – Stone cold classic with a great Levi Stubbs vocal. Michael Jackson (at Berry Gordy‘s request) used a line from it in the 1970 song below.

1967To Sir With Love (Lulu) Another song that wound up as the top single of the year on many charts thanks to the hit movie. Didn’t realize until today that The Mindbenders were the backing band (two of whom would form 10cc not long afterwards).

1968) Hey Jude (The Beatles) – Well, since we covered this last time – it was a nine week run at the top of the charts, you know – let’s highlight the flip side (and a much better song, IMHO) – Revolution. Their only other #1 hit that year was Hello/Goodbye ( the first two weeks of January).

1969I Can’t Get Next To You (The Temptations) – David Ruffin gets a lot of credit but if you ever doubted that Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks were just as good, this song will fix that. .

1970) I’ll Be There (The Jackson 5)  – After three straight bubblegum hits, The Jackson 5 won over a whole new audience with this ballad. Maybe Jermaine Jackson‘s best vocal, ever.

1971) Maggie May (Rod Stewart) – Another song that dominated the charts for the month, but like the Beatles’ single it was a two-sided hit. The flip was his dynamic cover of Tim Hardin‘s Reason To Believe.

1972) My Ding-A-Ling (Chuck Berry) – Sad but true: this was Chuck Berry‘s only #1 hit single. I think you should instead pick up The Great Twenty-Eight, a wonderful collection that gives Chuck his due.


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Blast From The Past – The BoDeans

The BoDeans released Mr. Sad Clown this year, and for all I know it fell on deaf ears like most of their work. But the fact that they’re still out there plugging and making great music after thirty years is a welcome piece of news.

I remember seeing them play a local club just after the crest of an early hit, and I thought we must have just missed a fire drill. Surely a band who even got plaudits from Rolling Stone and MTV could draw a decent crowd, but this one was so tiny that my friends and I barely outnumbered the band. No matter – they played a great set. Great bands always do.

As you can tell from this thirteen year old review of Blend, they were getting the same underwhelming response then that they are now. I’m not pretending they’re the second coming, but they are a good band that is well worth delving into if you’re looking for music that is atmospheric, straightforward, rocking, laid back, lyrical and guttural.

Yep, those are contradictions. Life is contradictions. Enjoy.

They’re still here, ten years later, creating solid, soulful records that should be making AAA radio programmers do cartwheels. So why is it that their only glimpse of the “big time” has come from the use of their song “Closer To Free” as the anthem from the television show Party Of Five? And unlike The Rembrandts, they can’t even maximize their opportunity – after all, the show is on FOX, not NBC.

No matter – despite lackluster sales, club tours and sporadic praise, Sammy Llanas and Kurt Neumann have forged ahead, mining the vein they know best. Somehow two vocalists who individually would be unspectacular twist their voices into a well-oiled and irresistible harmony; Llanas’ rasp smoothed out by Neuman’s silk. Think Everly Brothers with a Jason And The Scorchers edge, or a Springsteen lead with a Little Steven who can hang with him all the way through.

Blend incorporates New Orleans rhythms and instrumentation to fill out its sound. “Heart Of A Miracle” could have been plucked off a Willy DeVille record (speaking of under-appreciated artists), and “Red Roses” is that slow dance with a lover on a second floor balcony. When they rock, like “Count On Me”, it’s more akin to the sound of the Long Ryders or Mellencamp than 1-4-5 rock (again thanks to brushes and toms for a backbeat instead of the Big Drum Sound). Other standouts include “Hurt By Love” and “Hey Pretty Girl”, a song that Springsteen would have killed to record for The River.

Someone must like them – they still have a record deal in an age where record execs are preaching corporate liposuction. And they’re still making very good music, despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a radio format ready to embrace them. Fans will be pleased to have another release that stays true to the course. Those new to the BoDeans will find yet another quality band toiling in the shadows. Looks like a win-win situation.

The BoDeans website

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Happy Birthday, Elvis Costello

Miracle Man.

Today we celebrate the birthday of one Declan MacManus, better known to the world as Elvis Costello, among other aliases over the years. Bursting onto the scene with what is arguably the best ever 1-2-3 punch of albums (My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces), Elvis quickly grabbed your attention with short catchy songs, a rapier wit and his secret weapon, The Attractions.

For as good as this sneering, scrawny Buddy Holly caricature was – and he was great – Steve Nieve on keys, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas (no relation) on drums were as formidable a rock band as you could hope for. They weren’t as spacial as The Police would become, nor were they thunderous like the then-still powerful Who, but they were so tight you couldn’t slip an ant’s ass hair through them.

But before Elvis Costello and The Attractions became one, it all started with an iconic debut; tracks laid down with session musicians who weren’t initially credited, total recording time adding up to less than one day.

People listen to records differently these days, especially if they are digital downloads. No tactile sensation of an album cover, liner notes, lyric sheets. Earbuds instead of walls of speakers. Sigh.

I remember the day my friend Phil showed up at my house with My Aim Is True; import version, of course. My roommate Larry and another friend were already hanging in the living room, music on as always. We had heard about the album coming out that day and planned to go grab it in a couple of hours. Phil was no procrastinator; he snagged it and came over where he knew there would be other willing participants to share the magic with. (Yet another earbud problem – isolation instead of the communal experience).

It was astonishing.

Two of the songs didn’t even hit the two-minute mark. The opening rocker “Welcome To The Working Week” somehow jammed a boatload of hooks, wry lyrics and choruses into a minute in a half; “Mystery Dance” sputtered and tumbled much like the clumsy lover the narrative depicted. There was fury and sarcasm, and there was great wit and wordplay, and the band (preAttractions musicians from Clover and The Rumour, among others) snapped everything to attention.

And maybe it was because it stood out with its winsome melody and broken heart, but “Alison” was an instant classic. The chink in the armor was there for all to see; this snarling wise-ass had feelings after all. When not long after I heard him nail this live it sent chills up my spine.

We were gobsmacked; I can’t tell you how many times we played this album over and over and over that day. It was all we would talk about with friends for days after, and whenever someone came over that album would come out and they would get indoctrinated. Not long afterwards some friends in a band worked up three of his songs so that I could duck out from tending bar and play lead singer for ten minutes. (We were the first Syracuse band to play Elvis Costello songs, and yes, I’m proud of that!)

Of course, Costello continued to floor us with one great album after another, and thanks to him and Rockpile and Graham Parker and Joe Jackson there was a new, fresh volley of literate songwriters serving up an alchemic stew of influences and flushing the distaste of disco and flaccid pop out of our ears. 

The trend wouldn’t last of course – none do – but the music proved timeless. On Friday I’ll celebrate Costello’s career with an Elvis-themed TGIF.

And yes, I know that today is also the birthday of Gene Simmons, Ruby Keeler, Tim Burton, Rob Halford, Wayne Shorter, Walt Kelly (Pogo), Regis Philbin and several others…as well as the tenth anniversary of Jack Nitzsche‘s death and the first for Ted Kennedy. But today, I must honor the Elvis who has been a part of my musical life for over three decades.

No offense, Mr. Presley.

Elvis Costello  wiki page

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Today also marks the 35th anniversary of Born To Run, when a talented performer, a crack band, a savvy manager and an all-too-eager mainstream press joined hands to crown the new King of rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen has since earned every jewel in that crown and then some, but it’s yet another reminder of how fractured the entertainment industry has become. It’s no longer possible to make the stars align on that kind of scale, and with very few exceptions, those things never happened organically.

But that can’t and won’t tarnish the memory of a time when it seemed like a blue-collar bar room rocker grabbed the brass ring and pulled down the whole damned curtain with it. Rock concerts would never be the same.

Could that really have been thirty-five years ago?

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