Sunday, July 24, 2016

Dunhill Records: Eve of Destruction

Now that we’re back on track with the blog, we can resume with our features. Since it’s the fourth week of the month, we turn to our Fourth Week Label Feature. For this week, I’ve chosen Dunhill Records. The company was conceived in 1964 by Lou Adler and several others as a production house for Johnny Rivers. It did not become an actual label until spring 1965.

While it is commonly cited that the label’s initial release was by Adler's wife Shelley Fabares, this is incorrect. Two singles were issued a month prior to Fabares’ recording: Ray Whitley’s “I’ve Been Hurt” and Ritchie Weems and the Continental Five’s “Natural Born Man.” These two singles were numbered D-201 and D-202 respectively.

With Dunhill’s third release (Fabares’ “My Prayer” cataloged as D-4001), the label began a distribution deal with ABC-Paramount Records – later simply known as ABC Records. Two years later, Adler sold his shares to ABC and this created the subsidiary label: ABC-Dunhill Records. Dunhill would be inextricably linked to ABC throughout its 10-year run.

By 1975, ABC began consolidating its subsidiaries under the ABC Records’ umbrella and Dunhill was no longer an active imprint.  Within four years, ABC’s record holdings were purchased by MCA and subsequent releases used its imprint. Geffen Records now controls the Dunhill catalog. This week will look at seven releases from Dunhill and ABC-Dunhill.

Numbered as D-4009, Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” was actually Dunhill’s twelfth release and not the eleventh as one may surmise. This was because two P.F. Sloan singles that were subsequently issued shared the D-4007 catalog number and the same B-side.

Written in 1964 by P.F. Sloan, “Eve of Destruction” chronicled the unrest in the world during the mid 1960s that dealt with war, suffering, and racism. According to McGuire, he recorded the song on a Thursday and it was on the air the following Monday. McGuire’s recording was Dunhill’s first Top 40 hit and it quickly ascended to the number one slot during the fall of1965. The song hit apparently hit a political nerve at the time.

The double strike on the tom-tom found only in the intro and the first verse provides a subliminal sound effect of artillery fire that accentuates the message decrying war. The lyrics played on the real fears of nuclear annihilation – “if the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away. There will be no one to save with the world in a grave.” Sloan’s lyrics also points at hypocrisy found in America with the line “hate your next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”

McGuire later re-recorded “Eve of Destruction” on his second Contemporary Christian release “Lighten Up.” It was released on Myrrh Records in 1974 - a label that was part of ABC's holdings of Word Records in the 1970s. Being the album’s lead track dispels the rumors that McGuire eschewed the song once becoming a Christian. He still performs “Eve of Destruction,” but often modifies the lyrics to be applicable to the unrest of the present world.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Bruce Springsteen: Jungleland

As Lou Abbott used to say, “I’ve been a baaaaad boy.” During the last three years, I have let my participation in this blog lapse. Much of my absence has been due to some major changes that have occurred in my life since the end of 2012. Unfortunately, 2015 and 2016 have suffered the most with my lack of posts. I dropped below 100 posts in 2015 and so far this year, I’ve only had 17. It is time to rectify this. Jim Mycyk, a friend of mine since first grade, asked me three weeks ago when I was bringing back “Reading between the Grooves.” I told him soon. That time has come.

What better way to return to writing is to head back to Bruce Springsteen’s landmark album from 1975, “Born to Run.” It wasn’t the first album for this legendary New Jersey rocker, but his third; and, it was the first to propel him to stardom. Having lived in Eastern Kentucky since 1973 where album radio was scarce in the mid-70s, I hadn’t heard of Springsteen until I walked through my college’s library and saw his face on both the covers of Time and Newseek. Who was this guy with the chimera of a guitar that sported a Fender Telecaster body and an Esquire neck?

During that same fall, Springsteen had his first Top 40 hit with the title cut, “Born to Run,” which peaked at #23. A second single, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” fared worse at #83. In 1974, music maven Jon Landau wrote in The Real Paper, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Springsteen and Columbia Records both took note.

Landau was brought in as one the producers of the “Born to Run” LP and Columbia engaged in a massive quarter of a million dollar publicity campaign for the album. With inflation, that campaign would cost about $2 million in current dollars. Not a small investment for an artist that, up to this point, had minimal success. Was it worth it?  Over the years, “Born to Run” has sold over six million copies worldwide, with two million in sales in the US alone.

While this album was wildly popular, it was not certified gold or platinum until the 21st century. It earned the gold record certification in April 2001 by the Recording Industry Association of America for 500,000 copies sold. Three months later, the RIAA certified it platinum for a million copies sold. By 2004, it achieved double platinum status for two million sold copies – showing that even nearly 30 years after its release, it was still viable in the minds (and ears) of the American public.

Bruce Springsteen holds a special place in my heart, as because of him I received my only hate letter in my 20 year career as a broadcaster. In November 1981, I had done a wildly exaggerated impersonation of Springsteen on the air, and a lady, originally from Philadelphia, saw the need to write a six-page, single spaced, typewritten letter telling me how much she loathed me because I had insulted “The Boss.”

She went on to say that, had I lived in Philadelphia, people would have been camped out on the doorstep of the station waiting for me to end my shift that night to teach me a lesson that only those who lived in and near New Jersey could. I still have the letter, as it was a first. In addition, her Herculean effort was worth saving. Good thing I used a different name on the air at the time.

For my return to “Grooves,” I didn’t pick “Born to Run” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but rather an album cut that is my favorite song on the LP. This nearly 10 minute song closed out the album and starts out uncharacteristic of a typical Sprinsgsteen song – but if you wait, it is Springsteen through and through.

The song commences with Roy Bittan on piano and Suki Lahav on violin before this song about love, gang warfare, and bloodshed commences into a full rocker. It also features one of the best sax solos by Springsteen’s longtime partner in musical crime, the late Clarence Clemmons. The relationship between these two is cemented in the minds of Springsteen fans everywhere due to the iconic album cover of “Born to Run.” The lead guitar on “Jungleland” is played by Springsteen – this was before the addition of Little Steven and Nils Lofgren who augmented these duties later.

The piano, violin, sax, and Springsteen’s overly processed cries of anguish at the song’s conclusion all contributed to this musical epic. The addition of a string arrangement shows a softer side to a harsh story merges with the rock guitar, drums, bass, and organ that accentuates the violence that occurs in “Jungleland’s” story. The production on “Jungleland” is legendary – the changing dynamics are essential to match the emotions in the lyrical content. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A George Martin Production: A Day In The Life

I couldn’t end out my tribute to George Martin without featuring one of his most famous and involved recordings: The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” This final cut on the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album took a total of 34 hours to record and the sessions comprised four days in January and February 1967.

While it is generally considered an album cut, it was released as the flipside of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”/”With a Little Help from my Friends” single in 1978. The “A” side only peaked in the US at #71. This single was timed with the release of the musical “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that featured The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, Steve Martin, and others. George Martin arranged and produced the movie’s soundtrack.

As for the original album, “A Day in the Life” had several constituent parts, which are as follows:
  • Verses one and two written and sung by John Lennon;
  • An orchestral crescendo as a link;
  • A bridge written and sung by Paul McCartney;
  • A second bridge comprising vocal effects and written by Lennon;
  • Verse three written and sung by Lennon; and
  • The song’s finale featuring an orchestral crescendo and the eternal chord.

The link and end were the final aspects of the song to be recorded. George Martin composed the score for a 40 piece orchestra by writing out the lowest note of each instrument culminating in their highest note that would comprise an “E” major chord. The instrumentalists were ascending chromatically to their final destination. As one can notice, they were not all in time with each other and not on the same notes. In addition, some of Paul McCartney’s piano chords in the link are discordant – but it all works surprisingly well.

The crescendo was redone for the song’s finale and four takes were overdubbed as one giant orchestral swell. For the song’s ending, the four members of the band originally tried humming an “E” chord, but couldn’t create the impact they desired for this track – it needed to be dramatic. Three pianos were brought into the studio and Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Mal Evans, the band’s road manager and assistant, all played an “E” chord. George Martin also played a harmonium to add to the chord’s texture.

All five struck the “E” chord simultaneously and as it naturally decayed the microphone volumes were increased incrementally to add to the effect. It is probably the most famous chord in recording history. In 1978, The Rutles, a Beatles parody act, recreated a similar, but less involved, crescendo. Their Lennonesque “Cheese and Onions” ended with a humorous staccato chord.

“A Day in the Life” was probably the most creative production that George Martin had been involved. Rest in Peace George and thanks for your many years of musical talent and abilities as an arranger and producer.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A George Martin Production: Let Me Down Easy

Formed in 1976, American Flyer was considered to be the newest folk-rock super group; however, it was difficult, despite their quasi-famous lineup, to live up to the reputation. The band consisted of Craig Fuller of the Pure Prairie League; Eric Kaz ex the Blues Magoos; Steve Katz formerly of Blood, Sweat, & Tears; and Doug Yule previously with the Velvet Underground. Oh, by the way, the first of their two albums was produced by George Martin.

Named for the A.C. Gilbert Company’s model train, their brand was familiar enough to the public by association; however, American Flyer, the band, never quite caught on despite the reputation of their members. Their debut LP produced one charting single: “Let Me Down Easy.” Unfortunately, it only peaked at #80. American Flyer disbanded in 1978.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A George Martin Production: Sister Golden Hair

While George Martin had produced numerous #1 hits with The Beatles and others, he had a drought between 1970 and 1975. His final top charting song with The Beatles was his production on the “Let it Be” single. Although the band would have one more number one with “The Long and Winding Road,” it was Phil Spector’s term at the helm that time.

George Martin’s next number one hit was America’s “Sister Golden Hair” that was released as a single from their album “Hearts.” Gerry Beckley, who wrote and sang the tune, was looking for a song that was a marriage between the styles of Jackson Browne and George Harrison. I think he succeeded.

While the song has the flavor of a Jackson Browne message, the slide guitar was quite reminiscent of the nascent sound of the former Beatle – leading some to speculate that Harrison played these parts. Alas, it was one of the members of America. It is unclear from the liner notes who actually played slide guitar parts, but only the members of the band are credited as guitarists on the album.

Beckley admitted that the song was originally written for the previous LP, “Holiday.” For some unknown reason it was shelved. Since Martin produced “Holiday,” it is likely that it would have been recorded in the same vein as it was in 1975. Besides “Holiday” and “Hearts,” Martin would also produce the following albums by America: “History: America’s Greatest Hits,” “Hideaway,” “Harbor,” “America Live,” and “Silent Letter.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A George Martin Production: Cause We've Ended as Lovers

Day four of our look at the production work of George Martin with a cut from guitarist Jeff Beck’s instrumental album “Blow by Blow.” This LP was a departure for Beck and moved him into more of a jazz vein. “Blow by Blow” was the second album that credited him as a solo act – the first being 1968’s “Truth.”

Recorded in 1974 at the end of the run of Beck, Bogart, & Appice, “Blow by Blow” was produced by George Martin – one of two of Jeff Beck’s LPs where he shaped the sound – the second was “Blow by Blow’s” follow-up: “Wired.”

This 1975 release is truly a great album. I happen to have a half-speed master of the vinyl edition that a friend at Epic Records gave to me in the 80s. At #4, it was Jeff Beck’s highest charting LP of his career. Our featured selection, “Cause We've Ended as Lovers,” was written by Stevie Wonder and is one of two of his compositions appearing on the album. Beck’s guitar emotes passion, grief, angst, and excitement all in a single song.

“Cause We've Ended as Lovers” features the keyboard work of Max Middleton – a former member of the Jeff Beck Group. Middleton uses a Fender Rhodes electric piano with a Super Satellite Speaker System that gives the characteristic Rhodes vibrato that sounds so good in stereo. The Super Satellite System contained two twin-12 cabinets each with its own 100 watt amp. One acted as the master unit and the other as the slave.

In addition to Beck and Middleton, the album also featured Phil Chen on bass and Richard Bailey on drums and percussion. Although not credited, Stevie Wonder adds clavinet to his other composition: “Thelonius.” Great stuff and wonderful production by the master – George Martin.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A George Martin Production: 13 Questions

It seems that the state of album rock radio has gone the way of Top 40 – I swear you hear the same songs over and over. Just last week I was inundated with The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” (four times) and Steve Miller’s “The Joker” (3 times). Now, I love both songs, but come on – give me a little variety now and then.

With that said, in the last year I discovered WRLF in Fairmont, WV – an automated AOR station in North Central West Virginia. Personally, I would like to shake the hand of the programmer, as not only do you hear the classics, but they have a good bit of variety. Sometime within the last several months, I was driving back from Pittsburgh and was listening to the station and heard Seatrain’s “13 Questions” – a song that I probably hadn’t heard since 1971.

Formerly known as Sea Train, the band altered their name to Seatrain with their second LP, which happened to be produced by George Martin. While some say this album was the first Martin produced since his work with The Beatles, it was not, as he had a couple other clients prior to recording the Seatrain LP.

Richard Greene’s electrified fiddle and Lloyd Baskin’s clavinet make this cut. While Seatrain never became a household name, they made some great music. Unfortunately, “13 Questions” only made it to #49. Even more important than a chart position was the greatness of the music that was framed by their famed producer: Sir George Martin.