Sunday, July 27, 2014

The new unofficial Parents' Day theme song



Today (July 27) is Parents' Day. Unlike Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving and Halloween, Parents' Day doesn't have its own holiday music. To remedy that situation, Music Weird will, in just a few minutes, announce the new unofficial theme song of Parents' Day. 

Parents' Day is a weird holiday, because it overlaps so much with Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day. Also, most kids are ingrates who don't rush to honor their parents, so it's not clear who is supposed to do the celebrating. 

The Congressional resolution that created the holiday in 1994 says only that the holiday is meant for "recognizing, uplifting, and supporting the role of parents in the rearing of children," but it doesn't specify who will do this recognizing, uplifting, and supporting. I think Congress just assumed that someone would do it. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg even suggested that Parents' Day replace Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day altogether as a way of "minimizing traditional sex-based differences in parental roles." That would be more efficient too.

In fact, I think we should go even further. We've already combined all of the US presidents' birthdays into one Presidents' Day, so why not consolidate every holiday into one great Holiday? We could wrap up the whole Christmas season, along with every other international holiday from the entire year, in one day with a single Holiday that everyone could celebrate as he or she sees fit. This one-holiday system would greatly simplify the lives of people who create calendars. I also propose that the new Holiday fall on a specific date instead of this "fourth Sunday of the month" business.

But.... Let's get back to music.

I tried to find out if a Parents' Day theme song had ever been written, and I found the image below in a 1986 issue of Billboard. It shows contemporary Christian singer Cheri Keaggy and gospel and soul singer Candi Staton (misspelled as Stanton in the blurb) at the National Parents' Day Conference that year. The theme of the conference was "Strengthening Families—Building Communities," but the article didn't say whether the conference also had a theme song to go with its theme.

Cheri Keaggy and Candi Staton perform for Parents Day 1986

In popular music, an endless number of songs celebrate mothers, and fewer songs celebrate fathers, but even fewer celebrate parents as a unit.

You might be wondering at this point, "Then what's your great idea for the unofficial Parents' Day theme song?"

I'll tell you. Because of the coercive aspect of holidays like Parents' Day, the most fitting theme song is the Shaggs' 1969 classic, "Who Are Parents?" This song really embodies the conflict that lies at the heart of Parents' Day. 

On the surface, the song celebrates parents as "the ones who really care" and "the ones who are always there." That sounds nice. 

But the Shaggs also wrote and recorded their music under duress, prodded along by a tyrannical father who had been told by a palm reader that his daughters would become a famous music group. So, even though the lyrics celebrate the compassion and benevolence of parents, you have to wonder who's doing the celebrating. Just like with Parents' Day itself. 






If you're looking for a sincere Parents' Day song, then you probably can't do better than Lefty Frizzell's "Mom and Dad's Waltz." It's just a sweet song that Frizzell wrote about loving his mom and dad. Of course, this song doesn't accommodate same-sex parents, so it can't really serve as the unofficial theme. 






Neither can Cheap Trick's "Surrender," which also refers to mother and father, but it's a good candidate if you're looking for a "cool" Parents' Day theme. 




Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Intruders' "Fried Eggs": Minimalist New Jersey Rock from the '50s




New Jersey's Intruders notched a minor national hit with "Fried Eggs" in 1959. Nationally, the single peaked at only #73 in Billboard, but it was a big hit in some markets. At Seattle's KOL, for example, it reached the Top 10.

The Intruders consisted of two electric guitarists and a drummer. The guitarists were the Mitchell brothers, George and Augie, who were 17 and 29 years old at the time. Augie had played minor league baseball, and the brothers rated baseball second only to music among their passions. The drummer was Joe Rebardo. Augie was an Air Force veteran and Joe was a Marine Corps veteran. 

The Intruders were discovered while playing at a New Jersey Holiday Inn in 1958. Lee A.C. Gallo Jr. and Larry Bennett from Fame Records saw them and signed them to Fame, which was a subsidiary of Gallo's Gallo Records label. (Gallo also ran the music publishing firms Aurelio Music and Leeann Music.)

The Intruders' first record for Fame was "Fried Eggs," which George Mitchell wrote as a tribute to a relative whose nickname was "fried eggs." The songwriting credit was split between Mitchell, Gallo, and Ben Smith. According to Dead Wax, Smith had been a saxophone player in Andy Kirk's Mighty Clouds of Joy and owned the New York record labels Teenage, X-Tra, Tra-X, and others. Smith is credited as the writer or co-writer of 62 songs in the BMI database, but "Fried Eggs" appears to be the most successful one with his name on it.
 




The B-side of "Fried Eggs" was "Jefferie's Rock," which has the same composer credits.



The Fame label says "Vitasonic Sound" beneath the catalog number. Vitasonic was an audio technology in the film industry, but here it is probably only hype. 

The success of "Fried Eggs" was substantial enough to land the Intruders appearances on American Bandstand and on Alan Freed's television show.

The group followed up with a novelty adaptation of "O Tannenbaum" called "Frankfurters and Sauerkraut" (b/w "Creepin"), which was mostly instrumental but had occasional vocal interjections. 


The group's third and final Fame single, "Rock-A-Ma-Roll," was also released in 1959. It must be a rare single, because I couldn't find much information about it. The flip side was "Era-Rock-A."

After that, the group released one single on Beltone in 1961, "Camptown Rock" b/w "Morse Code." A number of groups have been called "the Intruders" over the years, but this is definitely the same Intruders that recorded "Fried Eggs," because the "Tequila"-esque "Morse Code" is credited to Mitchell/Rene/Gallo.




A commenter on YouTube who claims to be George Mitchell said that Augie Mitchell passed away about a year ago. George—if it's really George—still plays music three nights a week and says that the secret to success in music is to "play with simplicity."

Friday, July 18, 2014

101 Strings' best and weirdest albums




A lot of people today think of 101 Strings as a generic easy-listening franchise that appealed only to casual music buyers who had no taste, but some of the 101 Strings records were very popular with all age groups. Believe it or not, Dick Clark featured the 101 Strings album Back Beat Symphony on American Bandstand in 1961, and within a month, the single from the album had sold over 400,000 copies. In 10 years, the ensemble sold 50,000,000 records. 


Although 101 Strings released countless albums of movie themes and romantic themes, its vast discography also includes some oddball albums, many of which seem likely to have alienated the average 101 Strings listener. Today on Music Weird, we'll look at some of the best and weirdest albums of the 101 Strings.

Back Beat Symphony (1961)

Never reissued on CD, the album Back Beat Symphony was one of several attempts around that time to combine light classical and traditional orchestral pop music with rock 'n' roll rhythms. Other examples include Ray Conniff's Concert in Rhythm (1958) and Ray Martin's Rockin' Strings (1961). 





Songs and Sounds of the Jet Set (1965)

Songs and Sounds of the Jet Set is another one of 101 Strings' sporadic rock-oriented efforts. The snazzy illustrated cover looks like something out of a travel magazine, and the theme of travel continues halfheartedly throughout the track list. Although most of the album's musical destinations are Latinesque, such as "Puerto Vallarta" and "Bahia de Acapulco," others seem random, like "A Hard Day's Night." Musically, it's pretty bombastic for a 101 Strings album, especially "Cantina Tarosa." Here is the album's "Killer Joe a Go-Go":



Plus Guitars Galore (1966) and Plus Guitars Galore Vol. 2 (1969)

The two Guitars Galore albums are among my favorite 101 Strings albums. They both prominently feature guitars on arrangements of contemporary selections such as the Beatles' "Hey Jude" and Chris Montez's "Call Me." Alshire Records reissued Guitars Galore on CD in the 1980s. 

 
 
Sounds of Today (1967) 

Sounds of Today has one of the best album covers of all the 101 Strings albums. The music isn't quite as psychedelic as the cover art, but it has its moments. Some of the notable original cuts—"Karma Sitar," "Blues for the Guru," and "Strings of Ravi"—appeared on several subsequent 101 Strings albums. 




Astro-Sounds from Beyond the Year 2000 (1968)

One of the few 101 Strings albums that has been reissued by a label other than Alshire or Madacy, Astro-Sounds from Beyond the Year 2000 is definitely one of the ensemble's weirdest efforts. Really, only the Sounds of Love albums rival it. You know that you're in for something different from the average 101 Strings album when you see titles like "Re-entry to Mog," "Astral Freakout," and "Barrier X-69."

The album rocks pretty hard with fuzz guitar and synthesizers. It was reissued on CD by Scamp Records in 2009 and was fetching high prices for a while, but now you can get it for cheap as a print-on-demand CD-R on Amazon. The CD includes a few bonus tracks from the 1970 album Exotic Sounds of Love
 



Plays Hits Written by the Beatles (1968) 

This is one of the more collectable 101 Strings albums, because of the Beatles connection. "Hard Day's Night," which appeared on the album Songs and Sounds of the Jet Set, reappears here. True to form, 101 Strings slip in a few cuts that aren't Beatles songs at all: "Blues for the Guru" (from Sounds of Today) "Six Pence and You," and "Tropic of Chelsea." 

Monty Kelly, one of the staff arrangers for 101 Strings, wrote "Blues for the Guru" as well as many of the other original 101 Strings compilations that crept into otherwise thematic collections like this one.



The Sounds of Love (1969) and The Exotic Sounds of Love (1970)

The Sounds of Love and The Exotic Sounds of Love were two of 101 Strings' forays into the realm of erotic music. They aren't the only examples of risque content on 101 Strings albums, though; a couple of 101 Strings albums even had photographs of nude women on the cover

The Exotic Sounds of Love is better than The Sounds of Love. It contain some tracks from Sounds of Today with the addition of a woman's orgasmic moaning, similar to Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg's "Je t'aime... moi non plus," which was a huge international hit in 1969 and certainly inspired these two 101 Strings albums. On Sounds of Love, some guy recites bad poetry between the orchestral instrumentals. The Exotic Sounds of Love is much harder to find than The Sounds of Love. And what's going on in that cover photo?






Swingin' Songs (1972)

101 Strings' quadraphonic album. 



Journey into Space (1979)

Features the themes from Star Wars, Superman, and Battlestar Galactica along with space-themed cuts like "Uranus" and "Memories of Venus."



Plus Plus Plus (1986)

This CD on Alshire Records doesn't appear to have had a vinyl counterpart. It's a collection of rock-oriented songs from earlier 101 Strings albums, many of which appear on this list: "Hey Jude," "Karma Sitar" (without orgasmic moaning), "Killer Joe," etc.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

The mysterious Charlie Blackwell and "Midnight Oil"


Charlie Blackwell

Charlie Blackwell was a one-hit wonder whose one hit didn't even crack the Top 40. The hit was "Midnight Oil," a whistling tune on Warner Bros. Records that was composed by Walt Disney's Sherman Brothers. It peaked at #55 on the Billboard pop chart in 1959.

It's hard to find any information about Blackwell, and little was said about him even during his brief heyday as a pop semi-star. The ads for his records never pictured him or gave any information about him other than his name and the titles, and Billboard never profiled him or reported on his doings other than to mention that he used to be a jazz drummer of some note. 

Blackwell was born in Seattle in 1921, the Billboard chart books say, and played drums with numerous jazz bands, including those of Count Basie, Kid Ory, Shelly Manne, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Monte Easter, and Eddie Heywood. Blackwell shouldn't be confused with British bandleader Charles Blackwell or Tulsa drummer Chuck Blackwell.

Blackwell cut five pop and rock singles in the '50s: one for Decca in 1958 and four for Warner Bros. in 1959. The Decca single was a vocal number, a rock 'n' roll cheating song called "KX2 Secret Spy." The flip side, "Glory," was the "Pick of the Week" at KDAY in Los Angeles.

Blackwell moved to Warner Bros. the next year and bowed with "Midnight Oil," which was a strong seller in some regions—especially San Francisco and St. Louis, where it reached the Top 20. Warner Bros. advertised Blackwell alongside its other hit artists of the time, such as Tab Hunter and Don Ralke.

Unlike Blackwell's other singles, "Midnight Oil" is vaguely jazzy. It features simple instrumentation—a piano, upright bass, and drums—and Blackwell's whistling. 

Billboard's review of "Midnight Oil"


"Whistlin' Dixie," a whistling followup to "Midnight Oil," got some airplay in Boston but didn't reach the national charts. The flip side, a teen rocker called "Kath-A-Leen," did well in Albany, New York, and San Francisco. 

Billboard's review of "Whistlin' Dixie"

Billboard gave Blackwell's third Warner Bros. single, "Blue Bird of Happiness," a three-star review and said, "Blackwell has an attractive, mild rock version of the old Jan Peerce ork. Lush horns assist. Side starts with a spoken intro." Billboard gave the flip, "Josephine," three stars too and said, "Peppy vocal by Blackwell on a charming ditty with bright chorus and ork support." The latter side competed with recordings of the same song by Bill Black's Combo, Wayne King, Johnny Maddox, Russ Morgan, Lloyd Mumm, and Lawrence Welk.

Blackwell's fourth and final Warner Bros. single wasn't a hit at all but has attracted as much attention as "Midnight Oil." The single, "Choppin' Mountains," is notable because of its B-side, "The Girl of My Best Friend." The song was later recorded by Elvis Presley and then covered by Elvis sound-alike Ral Donner, for whom it became a hit. Blackwell's recording is the first version of the song, though. He recorded it with Warner Bros. label-mate Don Ralke.


Billboard's review of "Choppin' Mountains"


The image at the top of this page is from the cover of a privately released album that Blackwell cut in 1975. It was issued on Chafay Records of Foster City, California, and coincided with Blackwell's regular performances as the Charlie Blackwell Trio at the Villa Hotel in San Mateo, California.

Larry Hatch, who used to maintain a popular database of discredited UFO sightings, played in the Charlie Blackwell Trio and says that drummer Tom Widdicombe was the third member. Hatch said that Blackwell "had a terrific voice, something like Nat King Cole only more powerful," and was "dumb as a sack of rocks and kind of bull-headed, but not a bad guy." Hatch also said that Blackwell claimed to be of Native American descent.

Tommy Widdicombe, by the way, played with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and appeared on Jimmy Dorsey's Dot album So Rare. He was featured in an ad for Ludwig drums in the '50s.

An ad for Ludwig drums that features Tommy Widdicombe

That's as far as I got in uncovering the Charlie Blackwell story. Here is Blackwell's minor hit, "Midnight Oil."


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In search of the one-chord song



Trying to write a one-chord song is a time-honored challenge among songwriters, but trying to find a song that actually adheres to the one-chord limit is also a challenge. 

It's a challenge in pop, rock, and country music, that is. In blues, one-chord songs are fairly common. Floyd Jones' "On the Road Again" from 1953 and Boozoo Chavis' "Paper in My Shoe" from 1954 (technically zydeco, but whatever) are a couple of examples. John Lee Hooker is a master of the one-chord song. In funk and reggae, quite a few songs are essentially one-chord grooves, like James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing" and Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up." 

Many songs that start out as one-chord songs eventually resort to using other chords. Examples include Donovan's "There Is a Mountain," Robyn Hitchcock's "Superman," Stereolab's "Emperor Tomato Ketchup," and the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." 

The Beatles seem to have had a particular interest in the one-chord songwriting challenge, because, in addition to "Tomorrow Never Knows," the songs "Norwegian Wood" and Wings' "Helen Wheels" (below) appear to have been composed along similar lines.

Today on Music Weird, we'll listen to some one-chord songs, beginning with a couple of one-chord songs that Keith Urban and Stoney LaRue wrote about one-chord songs. If you know of others, please add them in the comments! 


Keith Urban – "One Chord Song"




Stoney LaRue – "One-Chord Song"



Neu! – "Hallogallo"

An instrumental, not a "song," but still. Ten minutes on one chord. 




Ozark Mountain Daredevils – "Chicken Train"



The Stooges – "T.V. Eye"


Wings – "Helen Wheels" 


Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper – "The Story of One Chord"

No video. Audio snippet here

Palace Brothers – "(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit"


Friday, July 4, 2014

"The Battle of New Orleans" around the world



One of the biggest international hits of 1959 was Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans." 

Written by Jimmie Driftwood about the final battle of the War of 1812, the song was not only an international hit but also kicked off a wave of copycat historical and narrative songs that coincided with the folk boom of the early '60s. 

The song was hugely successful—it ranks as one of the 30 biggest hits from the first 50 years of the Billboard charts. It topped the pop and country charts in the US and the pop charts in Canada and Australia. It was a Top 20 hit in South Africa. The sheet music topped the sheet music chart for weeks. 

In the NARAS (later known as the Grammy) awards that year "The Battle of New Orleans" netted awards for Jimmie Driftwood in the "Composer, Song of the Year" category and Johnny Horton in the "Best Country and Western Performance" category.

A rousing song about defeating the British didn't seem to have great commercial potential in the UK, so Horton recorded an alternate version that told the story from the other side. Interestingly, when British skiffle star Lonnie Donegan recorded the song, he recorded the American version, albeit somewhat mockingly. His version was a bigger hit in the UK than Horton's.

For the 4th of July, Music Weird presents Johnny Horton's US and UK versions, Lonnie Donegan's version, Jimmie Driftwood's original version, and Driftwood's answer song. 

Canadian band Des Williams and His Redcoats also recorded an answer song, "The Bladensburg Races," that told the story of the British burning the public buildings in Washington in 1814. The song was a regional hit in Canada in 1959, but I couldn't find any label shots or audio to include here.


Johnny Horton's U.S. version:



Johnny Horton's British version:



Lonnie Donegan's version:



Jimmie Driftwood's original version:



Jimmie Driftwood's "The Answer to the Battle of New Orleans"

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jon Hancuff evaluates the new Cozy Catastrophes EP, "Way Last June"


The new Cozy Catastrophes EP, Way Last June, was released July 1 on February Records, a great indiepop label that is based in Stockholm, Sweden, and Greater Boston, MA. The EP features six songs and is available as a digital download or as a limited-edition cassette that replicates the look and feel of early Columbia House Record and Tape Club cassettes. The cassette version includes a digital mystery bonus track, a button, and other fun stuff. 



You can get the cassette here or the name-your-price (with no minimum) download at February Records' page here.

Jon Hancuff
The band is me, and I didn't want to talk about myself, so I turned to standup comedian Jon Hancuff to provide objective commentary and analysis. 

Jon recently performed at the Limestone Comedy Festival with Patton Oswalt, Emo Phillips, and Jimmy Pardo, and opened for Marc Maron this past weekend. He used to be in the band Thump Tingle with Mike Beam of the Mary Janes and had something to do with the script of this forthcoming movie.
 

I consider Jon an expert on music because he included the Don Lennon song "Gay Fun" on the reception playlist at his non-gay wedding. He also buys a lot of "vinyls" and appeared as a guest on the Two Gregs One Podcast Midwest music podcast that I have nothing to do with despite also being named "Greg." 

This interview took place in the week of June 16, 2014.


Greg: Have you listened to the EP yet?

Jon: The difference in production level is definitely noticeable to someone who has listened to your stuff religiously over the last 5-6 years. I love the relative rawness of your earlier stuff, but I think the additional mastering you had done evens out the sound without losing the playfulness—quaintness?—of your earlier recordings.

Greg: Paul Mahern's mastering made it punchier, but a lot of what seems like higher production values is really just from me figuring out what I'm doing. I mean, the "production" of the EP is the same as the album—I recorded both of them at home in an old version of Garageband with a USB microphone. I guess what you're saying is that I've lost my naive charm. 


Jon: No, you sound as ignorant as ever. That's a synonym for "naive," right? I feel like the EP flows better than the first album [An Instructive Amusement]. Do you agree? 

Greg: I hoped that the EP flows better! 




Jon: Is it because it was a concentrated effort to produce a specific collection of songs? The first album was more about combing through the stuff you'd been working on for a few years and tightening it up, wasn't it?

Greg: The first album was more like an anthology than a unified album. The songs on the EP are all kind of related, and I recorded them in a shorter period of time, so that helped. This EP is a clearinghouse for some new songs that I didn't think would fit on the second album, which has a sunny vibe. I'm recording the new album with a full orchestra. 

Jon: "Always Say Never to Always" was a bit of a dark choice to kick off this bad boy. The opening guitar really reminds me of New Order, so I really liked that. And "Pillow Fight" is a song about relationship trouble. Didn't you recently get married?

Greg: I'm pretty sure that all of the songs are about relationship troubles. I got on a kick reading self-help books about relationships and just funneled that stuff into the songs. Speedmarket Avenue's Way Better Now is a record I like that seems to have been inspired by self-help literature, so I went off in that direction, thematically.

Jon: Okay, so that explains the third track on the album, "Unlovable."

Greg: That song is straight-up self-help book content about dysfunctional patterns in relationships. You raise an interesting point, though. People don't distinguish between fiction and nonfiction in music the way they do with books and films. People assume that music is autobiographical. I'm actually very happily married.

Jon: Yeah, me too.

Greg: I'm glad. Did you open the cassette?

Jon: I haven't opened it. I don't have a cassette player, so I wanted to leave it in mint condition for now.
 

Greg: That's obsessive. I just wondered how you reacted to the look, the feel, the smell of it. Do you remember Columbia House cassettes from back in the day?

Jon: The packaging is amazing. It looks, on the outside, exactly like those tapes. And the advertisements you included are really fun. The level of detail is amazing. Columbia House was a godsend for me growing up—a music lover who lived in middle of nowhere. It was also a huge rip-off, but I assume what you're doing is on the up and up.

Greg: I hated the record club versions. They didn't match the retail versions. A lot of times, the clubs used thinner paper, the ink colors were wrong, and they did weird stuff like putting those red lines on cassette spines so that the cassettes looked generic. And they always replaced the bar code with their "manufactured by" message. Some record stores wouldn't buy or trade record club releases, because they were inferior and undesirable. So I made the cassette look like that!


Jon: Yeah, I do remember feeling bummed out when a tape had the red stripes on it. It was the cassette equivalent of generic cereal packaging—the sub-store-brand stuff. Is the woman you're singing to on "When You're Gone" the same person you sang about on "Cigarette Girl"?

Greg: "When You're Gone" isn't about a particular person. It was supposed to be about the generalized anxiety and worry that people have about the health and well-being of people they love, but then it progresses to a point where the concerns become kind of invasive and unrealistic. Like it's more neurotic than caring.


Jon: My wife probably thinks that we're having relationship problems, because I'm walking around the house singing these songs all the time.