The Go-Gos – an underappreciated group

The Go-Gos are the first popular all female band that played their own instruments and wrote their own songs. There were earlier female bands, but this New Wave group catapulted to the top of the charts faster than others and belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A Showtime documentary called “The Go-Gos,” produced by Alison Eastwood, provides a great look into the band.

The Go-Gos are usually identified by the five members when they hit it big – Belinda Carlisle (lead singer), Jane Wiedlin (rhythm guitar), Charlotte Caffey (lead guitarist and keyboards), Kathy Valentine (bass guitar) and Gina Schock (drummer).

Ironically, they started as a punk rock band as the initial members felt they were not part of any other culture. Their initial drummer was Elissa Bello and initial bassist was Margot Olavarria. Even more surprising, none of the four initial members knew how to play instruments. Fortunately, in punk rock, belng a bad musician was not a total liability. So, they played and learned. Caffey joined them and brought musicianship and song writing. And, when Bello left due to a paying career, she was replaced by Schock who had been drumming for years. Valentine would replace Olavarria later.

They hit it off with Madness and The Specials, two Ska revival UK punk rock bands, when they played in the US. So, The Go-Gos joined these groups on a tour of Scotland. It should be noted their first manager Ginger Canzoneri sold everything to underwrite their UK trip. Now, the Ska bands attracted a white nationalist fan base that did not like non-Scots, Americans and women playing in a band, so the group took a lot of grief which toughened them and made them a more cohesive group.

They released “We’ve got the beat” as a single under Stiff Records in the UK. When they returned to the US, they signed with IRS Records and released their double platinum album “Beauty and the Beat” which soared to #1 on the Billboard charts. The album included their hit single and “Our lips are sealed,” “Get up and go,” and “This old feeling.”

They would release “Vacation” as their second album, whose biggest hit was the title cover. “Talk Show” followed, but by that time, the band was having troubles. Personal differences, song writing revenue sharing and drug issues led to the eventual split. Wiedlin left and was replaced by Paula Jean Brown, but the band would not last long after that.

The band would break up in the mid-1980s, but tour off and on in the 1990s through today. There was even a Broadway show called “Head over Heels” about the band. Carlisle would go on to have a successful solo career and the others would form or join bands. Yet, they would reconvene to celebrate and re-perforn what made them great.

The Go-Gos had a fun, energetic sound. They also played with a joie de vivre. They influenced many a young girl to strive to be a musician or artist or follow a passion. Seeing someone like you on stage is an inspiration.

Do you think they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. What are your favorite songs or memories?

A unifying person – a tribute to Carlos Santana, the person (a reprise)

The following was written and posted in 2014. The theme is so very relevant today as a much needed approach to emulate. Carlos Santana is known for his collaboration with singers and other performers.

I was watching an excellent documentary film on HBO about Carlos Santana, which included the lead up to and concert in his birth country of Mexico at the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The music is terrific, but the stories from Santana and his fellow performers, friends and family are enlightening and confirming. Santana received a Kennedy Center Honor from President Obama in December, 2013 for his life’s work and devotion to making great music and sharing it with us and his fellow performers.

As one of the best guitarists around, Santana has a gift of working well with other performers and using their talents to make beautiful music. In the documentary, he was described as a “unifying person” which may be one of the nicest compliments you could pay to someone. The story-teller said Santana had a gift for unifying diverse music and musical talents to make a unique and wonderful sound. Three quick stories, two from Santana and one from his wife Cindy Blackman, will provide great glimpses into Santana’s make-up.

Someone asked Santana how he was able to collaborate so well with other musicians in recordings and in performances. He said, “I just show up with a smile on my face and a willingness to work together with others.” If we could bottle that and give it to everyone to drink, what a difference that would make. A simple example of this was when Santana was talking to his fellow musicians about “not playing too loudly, so as not to drown out the voice of the singers.” I had heard him earlier describe that you have to provide some space for people to listen to the various subtleties of the music. To me, this is giving of himself to make the whole sound better.

The last example comes from his relatively new bride, Cindy Blackman, whom he married in 2010. She was describing how at the Kennedy Center Honors banquet, Santana went back to the kitchen to thank all of the chefs and wait staff for their help that night. He noted later in the documentary, many of us immigrants came to America and took jobs to have a chance to live in a great country. They work hard and we should acknowledge them.

I purposefully did not make this about his wonderful repertoire of songs. His music will live on. I was so moved by this quote of him being a “unifying person” I felt the need to share his example for us all. Muchas gracias, amigo.

Ain’t no sunshine when (he’s) gone

Bill Withers died a few days ago at the age of 81. If you don’t know who Withers is, you may know one or two of his songs. The one that is getting the most attention, and should is “Lean on me.” More on that later. The one that also should get attention is the soulful song of loss called “Ain’t no sunshine.”

The next lyric is “when she’s gone,” but we can use this title to remember Withers with the replacement word “he’s.” This song has been used in at least one movie to share the sense of loss. I also liked that Booker T. Jones produced it and Donald “Duck” Dunn played bass with Stephen Stills on guitar.* Here is the first stanza.

Ain’t no sunshine

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
It’s not warm when she’s away
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
And she’s always gone too long anytime she goes away.”

“Lean on me” deserves attention. It keeps coming back in new strains and served as the title song to a movie in the late 1980s. In my view, given its words and simple heartfelt melody and delivery, it is one of the finest pop songs every written. It is not a surprise that it is an anthem for healthcare workers today. Here is the first stanza and chorus.

Lean on me

“Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on.”

A song that is a little out of character with the first two is “Use me up.” In short, he knows he is being used by a girlfriend, but he is enjoying his time too much to change her poor behavior toward him. Here is the first stanza.

Use me up

“My friends feel it’s their appointed duty
They keep trying to tell me all you want to do is use me
But my answer yeah to all that use me stuff
Is I want to spread the news that if it feels this good getting used
Oh you just keep on using me until you use me up
Until you use me up.”

The final song I want to highlight was released as duet with Grover Washington, Jr. about ten years later. It is called “Just the two of us.” Here is the chorus.

Just the two of us

“Just the two of us
We can make it if we try
Just the two of us
Just the two of us
Building castles in the sky
Just the two of us
You and I.”

If you only remembered the first two songs, that would still paint Withers in a good light. He had voice that resonated. His songs also had a good pacing, so that the words could shine through. He will be missed.

* Note: Booker T and the MGs were the studio band on many Memphis R&B recordings. Donald “Duck” Dunn was a member. Think the band behind John Belushi and Dan Akyroid in “The Blues Brothers.” Stephen Stills, of course, was with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Buffalo Springfield.

Note: Here is a link to Jill’s post on Bill Withers which includes some song links.

♫ Bill Withers — A Tribute ♫

Great song lines from R&B

Rhythm and Blues (or R&B) has made a huge contribution to our musical richness, here in America and around the world. The sounds came out of Motown in Detroit, Staxx Records out of Memphis and Chess Records out of Chicago. The music was different, even though all classified as R&B.

The Motown sound had rhythm up front right out of the gate. Memphis was more soulful, driven by very evocative singers and a tremendous house band that would even release later instrumentals (think the band behind the Blues Brothers). Chess had bona fide stars like Etta James and Muddy Waters that led the way.

They built off of great jazz and blues out of places like New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago and New York, to name only a few. It should not be lost that The Rolling Stones recorded a terrific album in Memphis and knew the folks at Chess.

What is discounted is the terrific song lyrics. These songs are remembered for more than terrific music. Some lyrics were merely catchy, but many had a resonance that left a indeliable foot print. The following are all from memory, so it is very likely I misstated a few.

“You make me feel brand new,” sang The Stylistics.
“When a man loves a woman…can’t keep his mind on nothing else,” sang Percy Sledge.
“Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he laid his hat was his home. And, when he died, all he left us was alone,” sang The Temptations.
“Neither one of us…neither one of us…wants to be the first to say goodbye,” sang Gladys Knight and the Pips.
“At last….,” sang Etta James, which lingers in the air.
“Baby, baby…where did I love go?” sang Diana Ross and The Supremes.
“War…what is it good for? Absolutely, nothing. Say it again,” sang Edwin Starr.
“Mother, mother…why are so many of you dying?” sang Marvin Gaye.
“Sugarpie, honeybunch. You know that I love you. I can’t help myself, I love you and nobody else,” sang The Four Tops.
“Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. Sitting on the dock of the bay… wasting time,” sang Otis Redding.
“Don’t be fooled by my glad expression, if it’s giving you the wrong impression,” sang Smokey Robinson.
“I heard it through the grapevine, that no longer would you be mine,” sang Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye in separate versions of the same song.

These songs are like little time capsules. Please add to the list with some of your favorites. I just stuck my toe in the water above. I would love to hear from you.

A couple of musical memories

As I search my thoughts for writing inspiration, a Carole King song leaped off the TV screen in a show we were watching. We saw the traveling Broadway show “Beautiful” about King’s life.

King is an American treasure and has written or co-written some of our most popular songs. Then, she realized she could sing them as well. “Tapestry” was her first album and for the longest while was the best selling album ever.

It reminded me of another prolific songwriter named James Taylor. He sang King’s song “You’ve got a friend,” at her invitation. She would later record it and include it on “Tapestry.” We saw Taylor two times and it was a treat. Yet, seeing the two of them perform together on PBS was even more special.

Connecting one more dot, Taylor dated another singer-songwriter named Carly Simon. Of course, she has had a wonderful career building off songs like “You’re so vain” and “Anticipation,” which sold more than ketchup.

Three artists with a connection more than music. Three people who have given us their hearts and souls in their music. There are other connections like this to explore.

Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell lived together, which inspired Nash to write “Our House.” Mitchell wrote the pivotal song about “Woodstock” also sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Stephen Stills dated Judy Collins, who he wrote about in “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” another CSNY song. And, to round it all out, Collins had a hit with Mitchell’s “Both sides now.”

Connections. Inspiration. Collaboration. Memorable music.

A great songwriter and drummer passed away

The main songwriter for the rock band “Rush” and voted fourth best drummer in the world, Neil Peart, passed away Friday night from brain cancer.

One of the best examples of Peart’s clever wordsmithing is from the song “Freewill:”

“When you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

When my two sons and I saw Rush, Peart had two sets of drums surrounding him. In the middle of the show, the drums rotated, so he could play a different sounding set.

He was representative of the band, which included Alex Lifeson (superb lead guitarist) and Geddy Lee (lead singer, bassist and keyboardist), as people were amazed by how much sound came out of just three people.

People know their bigger hits like “Freewill,” “Tom Sawyer,” ” Spirit of Radio” and “Fly by Night,” but their body of work is pronounced due to great lyrics and musicality. Here are a couple of samples:

From the song “Subdivisions” about cookie cutter housing and thinking is the classic line about having to fit in:

“Conform or be cast out.”

Another clever set of lyrics comes from “Limelight” as he writes:

“All the world’s indeed a stage,
And we performers are merely players,
Performers and portrayers,
Each another’s audience,
Outside the gilded cage.”

Finally, from the metaphor “The Trees,” Peart and his mates write:

“There is trouble in the forest,
There is trouble in the trees,
For the maples want more sunlight,
And the oaks ignore their pleas.”

In the end, the forest is destroyed. The metaphor is plain – the haves must not ignore the plight of the have-nots, but destroying the haves is not the answer either.

Peart will be missed. His drumming, songwriting and his ability to make us think.

Bristol and Abingdon – a nice escapade

My wife and I ventured to the southwestern Virginia highlands for a few days. We took in the fall foiliage, but also wanted to visit the museum in Bristol (Virginia and Tennessee) honoring the birthplace of country music. More on that later.

We stayed in a Bed and Breakfast in a nearby quaint town of Abingdon, VA. We love B&Bs as they afford opportunity to meet people, both guests and hosts. Abingdon has a charmlng and walkable downtown, with more than a few excellent restaurants, the Barter Theatre and access to a biking and hiking trail along pulled up railway lines called the Creeper Trail.

Bristol straddles the two states with its main street aptly called State Street (with one side in Tennessee and the other side in Virginia). It is filled with many shoppes and businesses. The museum is part of the Smithsonian. And, it exceeded our expectations.

Having seen Ken Burns’ excellent documentary series on “Country Music,” the birth place of recorded country music is in Bristol. The “Bristol Sessions” were the creation of a recording producer in a relative new industry in the second half of the 1920s. Ralph Peer of Victor Talking Machines traveled to Bristol with a state of the art portable recording system and two engineers. He had published in the newspapers an invitation to any musical individuals and groups who wish to be recorded.

They recorded 67 songs with 19 groups, including the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Stoneman, who Peer had recorded earlier. He paid the artists $50 a song and set up a royalty system. The sessions produced recordings that were gobbled up by a welcoming public. In an introductory video narrated by John Carter Cash, whose grandmother was Maybelle Carter, it was noted listening to recorded music was egalitarian and broadened its interest and influence.

The museum is interactive with many listening stations throughout to supplement various videos and sidebar exhibits. A favorite sidebar was a video with four misicians discussing the musicality of the initial recordings. You can even record a short song after rehearsing how it goes, which we did.

As I have written before, we love going to small towns. This was a wonderful experience, even though we are not huge country music fans. We ate at a locally owned mom and pop restaurant actually run by the parents and family. We stumbled on the best laid out antique store run by a 67 year-old eccentric southern gentleman. Each area was a splurge of colors which rivaled the fall leaves.

So, do yourself a favor and take a day trip or long weekend. It is an easy way to invigorate yourself. Ours ended on a high note, as we met our daughter for lunch in another quaint, but much more vibrant, college town across the border in Boone, NC.

Country music documentary – a review

Ten days ago, I gave a quick heads-up about Ken Burns’ excellent eight-part documentary series on “Country Music.” We have now watched all eight shows and highly recommend the series, even if you are like us and not huge country music fans. For those unfamiliar with Burns, he has produced similar documentaries on the history of jazz, the Civil War, baseball, national parks, the Roosevelts, e.g.

I shared a few themes in my last post, but want to stay away from spoilers. The documentary takes us through 1996, so the more current artists are not delved into. What makes the documentary live are the stories told by several artists, writers, historians, musicians, producers, etc.

Some of the more frequent commenters included: Marty Stuart (a mandolin prodigy and long time performer), Vince Gill, Brenda Lee (who had several hits in her early teens), Rosanne Cash, Carlene Carter, Bill Malone (a historian), Merle Haggard (who passed away after filming), Kathy Mattea, Dwight Yoakam, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Darius Rucker, Wynton Marsalis (the jazz musician), Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Ricky Skaggs and many others.

A few more take aways trying not to reveal too much, include:

– more than a few performers who made it big had doors closed in their faces, but kept at it;
– more than a few big artists held firm in playing songs and doing things their way (Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Garth Brooks, etc.)
– country music thrived because the artists spent huge amounts of time being among their audiences at fairs, gatherings, rodeos, small venues;
– country music is not just Nashville based, with Bakersville, CA, Bristol, VA (and TN), and places in Oklahoma and Texas all playing a hand with different influences; and
– country music was and is influenced by multiple types of music and has an influence on other types.

On this last point, Ray Charles, the R&B star who grew up in Georgia was ridiculed for cutting a country album. The music was part of his roots, so his best selling album was his way of sharing.

Check out the series. I think it will be worth your while.

Time passages – tribute to Al Stewart

If you do not know the soothing voice and beautiful guitar playing of Alastair Ian Stewart, please check him out by his shorter name – Al Stewart. Hailing from Britain, Stewart’s most popular songs were overshadowed by more dance oriented songs of the mid-1970s.

Yet, three of his songs did get ample recognition, yet even now people may hear them and say who sang that? “Time passages” is my favorite, but his biggest hit was “Year of the cat.” He also got notoriety for “On the border.” Here are sample lyrics from these three songs:

Time passages

“Well I’m not the kind to live in the past
The years run too short and the days too fast
The things you lean on are the things that don’t last
Well it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these
Time passages
There’s something back here that you left behind
Oh time passages
Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight”

Year of the cat

“On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat”

On the border

“The fishing boats go out across the evening water,
Smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish border.
The wind whips up the waves so loud,
The ghost moon sails among the clouds,
And turns the rifles into silver,
On the border.”

But, his great songs go much deeper than these three – “Carol,” “Songs on the radio,” and “In Brooklyn,” to name a few.  I have CD of his greatest hits and it offers a terrific soundtrack for a long drive. Per Wikipedia, “Stewart is a key figure in British music and he appears throughout the musical folklore of the revivalist era. He played at the first-ever Glastonbury Festival in 1970, knew Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon, shared a London flat with a young Paul Simon, and hosted at the Les Cousins folk club in London in the 1960s.”

To me, his music is a combination of well crafted lyrics, sung beautifully and accented by great accoustic guitar playing of Stewart and his mate Dave Nachmanoff. The latter is the one adding the terrific color to the songs. One of the more vivid lines Stewart penned is the reference to Peter Lorre strolling suspiciously through the crowds, as it evokes memories of “Casablanca.” Since that is my favorite movie, it is another reason to like Stewart

If you don’t know Al Stewart’s work, give him a listen. If you do, revisit an old friend.

Welcome back – John Sebastian

On Friday, my wife and I had a real treat as we watched John Sebastian perform in a wonderful venue. If his name is not top of mind, he was the lead singer and songwriter for Lovin’ Spoonful. And, one of his hits following the band’s break-up was called “Welcome back.” More on that later.

What made Sebastian’s performance so wonderful extended beyond his many great songs. He told us the backstory behind each song, at times revealing the musical influences, referring to his use of other styles as his “kleptomania.”

And, while his 75 year-old voice was not as velvety as before, his guitar playing was surprisingly superb. He exhibited various styles ranging from Mississippi John Hurt to several folk musicians to a Martha and the Vandellas song and a specific guitar riff called the St. Louis shuffle.

Sebastian performed many of his hits, as well as some of those artists who influenced him. Of his hits, he played (a little vignette he shared is in parentheses) the following:

– Do you believe in magic? (he sped up the notes in Dancin’ in the Street”)

– Daydream (this is one of my favorites and he invited the audience to accentuate it)

– You didn’t have to be so nice (Steve Boone wrote the bass line and Sebastian took it from there saying it took 15 minutes to complete it as Boone did far more than a bass line)

– Summer in the City (he said they played the drum part in the stairwell for a unique sound)

– Darling be home soon (this is a classic love song which was terrific in the small venue)

– Did you ever have to make up your mind? (he wrote the lyrics on a Lucky Strike wrapper in a taxi on the way to record it)

– You’re a big boy now (theme song for a Frances Ford Coppola movie)

– Amy’s Theme (an instrumental he thought up in a Grand Central Station restroom, then forgot it and went back to recall the tune)

– She’s a lady (not the Tom Jones’ one)

– Welcome back (he wrote it overnight to the surprise of the “Welcome back Kotter” TV producers, saying he was one of those students portrayed on the show)

Here is a taste of two song lyrics with the title of each in the first line:

“My darling be home soon
I couldn’t bear to wait an extra minute if you dawdled
My darling be home soon
It’s not just these few hours but I’ve been waiting since I toddled
For the great relief of having you to talk to”

“Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out
Welcome back, to that same old place that you laughed about”

Please do visit or revisit his many songs. Whether they are along with his Spoonful mates – Boone, Zal Yanovsky, Joe Butler and Jerry Yester – or on his own, they are a treat.