Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Under My Thumb: Steelheart & Hounds Edition

Just last week, I was writing about the many fine covers of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?" and this week I am seemingly besieged by covers of one of my fave Stones tunes, "Under My Thumb".

Out of the many covers of this legendary Jagger-Richards composition, two really caught my ears and eyes: Canada's Steelheart (which, funnily enough featured future Loverboy members Paul Dean and Matt Frenette) and Chicago's own Hounds, who were led by John Hunter.

What is so striking about the two versions, released the same year, is how virtually indistinguishable they are from one another. Both versions take the song in a very disco-oriented direction, which is quite funny when you consider the venues both bands were used to playing: biker bars, for example.

Of course, the Stones and bikers have always been a bad combination, so Hounds are tempting fate either way, if you ask this writer. As for covering the Stones, unless you're 1000% convinced that your version is superior, what is really to be gained?

As for Canada's Streetheart, bonus points are immediately awarded for not only giving their version a slick disco sheen, but the performance itself is actually pretty glammy to boot.

So mixing the Sweet, the Stones and the Bee Gees in '79 sure seems like a recipe for chart mayhem, right?

While the song was a Top 20 hit in the band's home country, it failed to give them the break out hit in the U.S. and around the world, forcing the band to fracture.  Drummer Matt Frenette and guitarist Paul Dean would soon form Loverboy and wind up conquering North America on their own a few years later.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Song of The Day ('Happy Birthday, Ron Mael' Edition): Sparks "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us"!

On the occasion of Ron Mael's 74th birthday today, we at The Shit take a trip back to the year 1974, when, after two unsuccessful attempts at rock & roll fame & fortune in the U.S, the brothers Mael found their way into the Top 5 in the UK.

All the band had to do in order to completely change the trajectory of their career was to fire the only band they'd ever known, part ways with the only label they'd ever known, and leave the only country they'd ever called home.

Of course, if you'd found out that the style of music that your band was playing to a crowd of only twelve people in the U.S. was being adored by thousands and thousands in dreary old England, you'd probably do precisely what the brothers Mael did when Island Records invited them to the UK to partake in the country's exploding glam movement.

The band's first single upon settling in Great Britain was none other than "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us", which rocketed into the Top 10 with a ferocity the duo had never experienced before and made Sparks a household name.

In hindsight, it might seem like the band knew they had a sure-fire hit on their hands prior to the song's release, but it would take Elton John's willingness to bet producer Muff Winwood that the song would reach the UK Top 3 to convince both band and producer that they were truly onto something and that Elton knew exactly what he was talking about.

While the song's success makes it a perennial British pop favorite, ripe for occasional covers by British acts such as Siouxsie & The Banshees and British Whale, the song never found a footing in the U.S., which proves yet again that U.S. radio programmers have long acted more as censors than providers of quality entertainment.

If not for specialty radio shows like "The Dr. Demento Show", the song would have received no measurable U.S. airplay at all.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Ten Best Covers Of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding" (Not Counting The Elvis Costello Version)!

As someone who absolutely adores the original Brinsley Schwarz version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love & Understanding", we can all agree that Elvis Costello was definitely the right tool for the job when it came to covering the song in 1979.
Since then, untold numbers of artists have taken their own stab at the song, which remains one of Costello's most popular songs, appearing on all 3,425 of Costello's greatest hits compilations.

If only Brinsley Schwarz, themselves, had been just a little more photogenic, Lowe wouldn't have needed the gap-toothed Costello's assistance in taking the song to the rest of the world. We would rightly know the Brinmsley Schwarz version and, truth be told, Costello's version might not exist at all.

One can easily see what attracted Costello to the song.

After all, the song itself has a punk swagger that can be amped up or down to the artist's liking and, despite never being a bit in America, this writer has yet to see an audience that isn't intimately familiar with every last word.

Also, as far as the jukebox goes, Costello's version ranks second only to Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" as the one song you can play in any barroom in any city, town, or brothel and watch every person in the place start grooving along in their own way.

Hence, you can see why so many artists have gravitated to the song over the years.

With that in mind, we've lovingly compiled the consummate list of the Ten Best Covers of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding".


10. Midnight Oil - B-Side to Australian 7" release of "Put Down That Weapon in 1987.

The Oils give it the ol' college try and come up with a very decent facsimile of the original. Peter Garrett's voice either akes or breaks this version, depending on your love for over-enunciation and bald lead singers (ha!).

9. Bruce Springsteen w/ Jon Bon Jovi and Pals

When Bruce covers you, you know you've arrived. When Bruce covers you with Jon Bon, well, even your mechanic brother can appreciate this stadium-size cover of a bar band staple.

8. Cast of the TV Show "Legion" Season 3

You'll notice most folks stick pretty close to the Costello version and, well, why not? Leave it to the FX series "Legion" to take things in a whole new direction. If this were only about originality, this one would be #1 by a country mile.

We fully expect to see other shows use the song in much the same manner because, let's face it, this is pretty gripping.

7. Chris Cornell - Unplugged In Sweden album

See, every musician on the planet loves this song. Cornell's love is really audible, though. You can hear him getting off on wrapping his voice around a favorite song and re-sculpting it with just a few choice taps of the chisel into something minimal yet ... monolithic.

6. The Cover-Ups (a couple of whom look awful familiar) - some bar in Albany, NY

Someone on this list had to represent the beer-soaked joy of performing this song in a damn bar in front of a bunch of shit-faced booze hounds. After all, the song is written to be sung in a pub by slovenly men and that was just Brinsley Schwarz, ba dum bum.

This particular bar band features Billie Joe Armstrong who does his best Keith Richards (side man) as Jason White takes the lead vocal and does a better job than most in giving the song an honest reading.

5. Bruce Springsteen with Eddie Vedder, John Fogerty, and Jackson Browne

Hey, wow, Bruce really likes this song, doesn't he?

4. Los Straitjackets - 'What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love And Los Straitjackets' album

Man, this song makes you wanna throw a hipster lounge party in your studio apartment, invite a few people to suck olives over light music and throw this on, then trade seductive googly eyes with the cute girl from accounting who actually showed up.

You meet in the hallway just as this song plays and kiss beneath a mistletoe left over from five Christmases ago.

In the movie version, you'll be played by Michael Cera.

3. Susannah Hoffs and Matthew Sweet - bonus track for Under The Covers Vol. 2

If there is any way to work Matthew Sweet into one of my Top 10 lists, I will take it. Also, if
Hoffs isn't your favorite Bangable, oops, what did I type?

2. Bruce Springsteen w/ Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews and Eddie Vedder again

Yep, you haven't lived until Dave Matthews has sung your song. And, hey, more Eddie Vedder, folks. If Nick doesn't at least send Bruce a thank you note, with a check...

1. Puddles Pity Party - songs from the road

Sure, Puddles was funny the first ten times but you've got to admit, he gives the song a certain creep factor that is oddly unsettling, yet likable. I included this video for that reason and that reason alone. Also, the idea of your boss watching you watch a video of an over-sized clown playing an acoustic guitar in your cubicle cracks me up.

And we all work in cubicles. Self-made prisons of our own making. Think about that one for awhile.

Monday, August 5, 2019

What's The One Key Factor Still Missing From The Vinyl Resurgence, You Ask?

By all reports, vinyl is back.

Sales are up and record pressing plants are not only busy, but expanding, with Jack White jumping into the game with his own state-of-the-art Stryper-themed pressing plant AND two retail stores (in Detroit and NashVegas, respectively).

Artists big and small are not only paying through the nose to press their music on glow-in-the-dark radioactive splatter vinyl, but they're still willingly waiting upwards of 4-6 months to receive their hot wax back from the plant.

In a day and age where you can upload a breakfast fart to the interweb and that fart can have a million followers and a record deal with Atlantic Records by lunch time, who the fuck has that kind of time?

Especially when the tide could turn at any time.

All it would take is one tiny little recession, or oil-based upheaval (war, pipeline disaster, you name it) and that perilously fragile resurgence could come to screeching halt at any given moment.

Especially when the going retail price for new vinyl is $23.99, but most titles being re-issued from the '90s (when labels wanted artists to fill up as much space as possible on that 70-minute CD to rationalize the $19.99 list price) require two albums, making for quite the wallet-buster.

That, my friends, is highway robbery and the only part of the whole "vinyl resurgence" that I don't like.

I feel the need to put said resurgence in air quotes because there's still one thing missing from this comeback story... one key component that many of us have totally forgotten about, but that once I say those words, foreheads will be slapped in unison.

Okay, here goes:

The one thing still missing from this whole Main Street America Vinyl Resurgence is (drum roll please) record store chains.

Where are all the record store chains?

The first chain I could think of is Amoeba and they have three whole stores.

Considering that I once lived within ten minutes of three Tower Records locations, the fact that three stores now counts as a chain is downright heartbreaking.

Those who suggest that sales lost from chain stores is picked up by the Amazons of the world are missing the fact that no online retailer can compete with the sense of discovery that comes from not just walking into a record store, but walking into that same record store in any of its many locations across this country and feeling that same sense of the unknown.

What album cover will grab me that I never would have otherwise purchased in a million years?

What music will be playing when I walk in?

Is that Elton fucking John in the next aisle buying records buy the stack?

These and other questions can only be answered once the record chains get back into the brick-and-mortar game.

It is fair to say that many reading this may not know that, back in the '70s and '80s, you couldn't go anywhere without passing a major record store location. If you went to the mall,there weren't just national chains like Musicland and Tower, but also many regional chains like The Wall, Wherehouse, Record World, Record Town, Licorice Pizza, Newbury Comics, to name but a few.

Of course, no list of regional chains would be complete without Rose Records, who had 35 ginormous locations spread throughout Chicagoland.

Can there be a vinyl resurgence without  resurgence in record chains?

To answer that question, one must ask themselves "Do you really want to put the future of your next record in the hands of a bunch of uncoordinated ma-and-pa stores?"

That's no slam against such retailers - who will always be a much-needed part of the equation - but the resurgence needs to start putting up some respectable sales numbers soon or else the wave will peter out. Only chain retailers can shake things up, move some major units, and helping break tomorrow's biggest bands today.

So, who's it gonna be?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Woodstock 50: Lessons On How To Fuck Up A Sure Thing!

It isn't like Woodstock's 50th anniversary snuck up on anybody.

The creator and producer of the original Woodstock, Michael Lang, is alive and has thrived in the concert and music events business, becoming hilariously rich and amassing untold industry connections in the process.

When his Michael Lang Organization signed a lucrative partnership with Sony back in 2009 for management of an all-encompassing Woodstock website, it was to help promote Lang's best-selling book Road To Woodstock as well as Ang Lee's film, "Taking Woodstock", but you just knew that there just had to be something in the works for the next anniversary with a big round number.

And ten years seemed enough time to pull the whole thing together.

When you start to think about all the potential sponsorship opportunities, the pay-per-view receipts, the after-the-fact audio and video sales, not to mention the A-list of acts that would be lining up to play such a prestigious event, and, last but not least, ticket sales, you start to see how even a wide-eyed kid could have pulled it all together.

Yet, somehow, the very same kid who pulled off the first Woodstock could not do the same as a hot shot concert promoter and artist manager with over 40 years of experience and connections.

What remains to be confirmed is just whose ineptitude sunk this sure-fire payday that, if done right, could have rivaled Live Aid as the most-watched music event ever.

How does that much money get left on the table when you've literally known this day was coming...for FIFTY YEARS?

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"And The Award For Worst Follow-Up To A Mega-Platinum Album In The History Of Recorded Sound: Toto 'Isolation'!"

If you were alive in 1982, then, whether you wanted to be or not, you were intimately familiar with the songs "Rosanna" and "Africa", two of the key tracks from Toto's mega-platinum fourth album, Toto IV.

The only album that was bigger during that period ('82-'83) was Michael Jackson's Thriller, which four members of the band also just so happened to have played on as well. For reasons that nobody could quite figure out, suddenly everything the band touched was turning to gold and platinum.

This was a welcome change after three years of trying to get back to the high watermark set by the success of their 1978 debut album. Though ambitious and musically varied to a fault, both Hydra (1980) and Turn Back (1981) lacked that monster single that, seemingly out of nowhere, Toto IV had in spades.

Then, in a move that can best be described as "ill-advised", the band decided not to tour in support of Toto IV. Not only would such a tour have been a huge moneymaker, it would have helped American rock fans put a face to the name of the band that was suddenly dominating the airwaves like no other.

Unbeknownst to the public at the time, taking singer Bobby Kimball on the road would have likely only exacerbated the singer's out-of-control drug addiction, which the band tolerated until it began to hinder his concert vocal performances.

Instead, the band took some time off - probably not enough, in hindsight - and then began work on their fifth album, Isolation. It became obvious early on that Kimball's vocals were not up to the task of singing songs that were all written at the top of his range by the rest of the band.

In fairness to Kimball, the easiest solution would have been to give him some songs in a register he could sing comfortably, unless his fellow bandmates actually wanted him to fail. I know, unthinkable.

Or is it?

These are L.A. session guys; as cutthroat a bunch as you'll ever see shy of the Jersey shore.

So, with Kimball now history, the band made yet another pivotal mistake by choosing Fergie Frederiksen (of the southern rock band LeRoux) over a field of otherwise worthy contenders that included Mr. Mister's Richard Page and journeyman singer Eric Martin (who would go on to form Mr. Big).

In hindsight, if they'd made Page "an offer he couldn't refuse", there would have potentially been no Mr. Mister. If they'd chosen Martin, there would have been no Mr. Big. Instead, we got both.

With MTV now all-the-rage, Toto was not a band you wanted to put in front of video cameras so the addition of a Page or Martin would have solved that issue, among many others.

The one aspect of Isolation's commercial failure that is hardly mentioned is just how weak the material was that the band assembled for an album that was going to soon have the eyes and ears of the world upon it.

How could a band that had proven themselves to be capable songwriters come up so short on material when it counted the most.

By not touring, they now had all the time and the resources in the world during those two years of not touring, not glad-handing, and not promoting their own music. Hell, they should have had a double-album worth of material at-the-ready.

Instead, I suspect, they snorted their way around town for two years, got to know a few supermodels, and then cobbled together whatever songs they could find at the last minute when the suits at CBS started sniffing around the studio.

Why else would Frederiksen, a singer who was reportedly brought in last-minute, get FOUR of his own songs on an album that was reportedly finished before he even showed up?

The band had a real stink-burger on their hands and, worse yet, the label knew it, too.

Famed film director David Lynch knew it, as well, creating an album cover based on the band's music that the band swiftly rejected.

Sadly, yours truly was unable to find any sort of representation of Lynch's artwork for the album online, but would it be safe to argue that it could not have possibly been any worse than the artwork that the band ultimately chose.`

In hindsight, there isn't one thing the band did right in the wake of Toto IV's success.

Keep in mind that this wasn't some starry-eyed bunch of newbs from Podunk, these were L.A. industry veterans who had seen it all and probably laughed at those who stumbled down the path of "too much, too soon" and blew it, only to do so themselves.

Oh, the irony.

As a fan of the band's first and third albums, Toto IV cast me aside in order to appeal to a largely secretarial audience at the time, so I, too, had hopes that the band's fifth album would see them find their distortion pedals again, among other things.

For this writer, hearing Isolation for the first time turned out to be the only time.

Adding insult to injury, two short months later, Toto hit us with yet another stink bomb in the form of the soundtrack to "Dune", the highly-anticipated, big budget, sci-fi flick that even starred Sting from The Police.

Despite liking just about everyone involved in the making of the film, from David Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan to Linda Hunt and Virginia Madsen, there are few films that flopped harder at the box office than this foul-smelling moon rock.

No matter how ambitious the band's work for the film had been, being attached to a monumental dud like "Dune" did them no favors.

Would our opinion of the band's musical contributions to this film have been viewed more favorably if the film hadn't been such a fetid chunk of detritus?

Probably not.

Many times over the last three decades, I have found myself driven to revisit both Isolation and the Dune soundtrack - not to relive any great musical moments, but to make sure that what I'd heard had really been that bad.

And every time I hit "PLAY", it was.

By 1986, Toto would be back with another singer (Joseph Williams, son of famed composer John Williams), another album (Fahrenheit), and another pair of Top 40 hits (the titles of which nobody reading this remembers).

Oddly, this time around, radio play did not lead to platinum album sales.

In the U.S., the band's sales plunged further with the release of The Seventh One in 1988, leading to their exit from the Sony/Columbia label roster in 1991.

Sadly, Jeff Porcaro would die a year later under suspicious circumstances; a tragedy from which the band would understandably never quite recover.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Song Of The Summer: Villagers' "Summer's Song"!

In a way, it seems kind of sad that this year's "summer song" should have to call itself that just to get the attention of those who were on the lookout. I'd like to think that if this song was called "Jupiter's Gambling Problem" or "Down At The Dive Bar Drinking", I'd still have found it in time to keep this summer from being less musically euphoric.

I grew up HATING Chicago (the band) because their music was everywhere and, even more importantly, they far exceeded my tolerance for facial hair in a rock band at the time.

Years later, hormones and constant radio airplay led me to romanticize the idea of killing an afternoon in the park with the one you love, a la Chicago's "Saturday In The Park".

What does any of this have to do with Villagers' "Summer's Song", you ask?

Well, truth be told, this is the first song to come along all bleeping year that actually manages to put me back in the park on the most beautiful day of the year with the most beautiful girl in the world and, for once, I don't hear Chicago's "Saturday In The Park" playing in the background.

Instead, I hear "Summer's Song"; a song that eloquently captures the false security of this temporary bliss, but chooses to proceed with open heart and arms anyway.
In other words, mission accomplished. Thank you, Villagers!