Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ian Thomas: Painted Ladies

I guarantee that if you play this song for those who only have a working knowledge of the records played on American radio in the 70s and ask the name of the artist, they will first guess that it is the band America. No. Then it must be Neil Young. Same country of origin, wrong vocal range – Neil Young is a little lower. Then who? It’s Ian Thomas with “Painted Ladies.” The Canadians in the audience knew that; but sadly, the Americans may have a vague recollection of this tune, but that may be the extent of it.


“Painted Ladies” is a great little tune from 1973 – the year of my high school graduation and I remember hearing this on the radio and remember seeing it in the stores and considered buying it; however, I did not get the single until a year or two later (another flea market find). In the US, it was released on Janus Records – the same label that brought us Al Stewart, Mungo Jerry, Charlie, Harvey Mandel, and Status Quo. Many may not be familiar with some of these artists, but they are all worth a listen or ten.

Ian Thomas only had this one hit in the US and it was barely that – as it only charted at 34. In his native Canada, the song peaked at number four and was the biggest hit of his career. In addition, it was his only song (as a solo act or with the Boomers) that charted within the top 10. He was fortunate that Santana covered his song “Hold On” in 1982 and collected royalties off their recording and airplay.

While Ian Thomas is not a household name in the US, he has a famous older brother. Dave Thomas, better known in the lower 48, was a regular on SCTV and played (Doug) opposite of Rick Moranis (Bob) as the McKenzie brothers from the “Great White North” – eh?

One of the distinctive elements of the Ian Thomas' "Painted Ladies" is the rhythmic accompaniment of a clavinet – a keyboard instrument that was popular in the early seventies. Like the melodica I mentioned on Monday, the clavinet was originally produced by the Hohner corporation. The instrument is essentially an electric clavichord – a medieval instrument that fretted strings at different points along their lengths to produce a staccato sound. The clavinet works in a similar manner by striking a string with a rubber tipped mallet and in essence producing tones by doing something akin to hammer-ons with a stringed instrument like a guitar. The effect produces a tone similar to the staccato effect produced by its historic ancestor.

See & Hear the Clavinet



The clavinet sound is still occasionally used today; however, most recent examples are probably sampled or synthesized sounds and not the real instrument. Although my Prophet 5 had a clavinet sound, I never was fully satisfied with it. In 1985, I purchased an Ensoniq Mirage – a great little instrument for its price and used it for a number of sounds. I used it to mimic a clav on The Romantics “Talking in your Sleep.”

At one point in time, I began using a Korg Poly-800 strapped around my neck to activate the Mirage via a MIDI connection on this song. Unfortunately the Korg did not have a velocity-sensitive keyboard (as did the Mirange) and what I gained in flexibility to be out front with the guitarist and bassist, I lost in keyboard attack. Somewhere I have a video of me playing this setup – but alas, it is boxed away somewhere.

Clavinet with Wah-Wah



Be that as it may, there is nothing like a real clavinet. Some great keyboardists used the clavinet to its full potential – with some combining the sound with a wah-wah pedal. Although hundreds of recordings used one, probably the granddaddy of all clavinet songs was Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”

Stevie Wonder in the Studio: "Superstition"



With the competition producing more (tune) reliable and versatile keyboard instruments, its popularity began to wane as various polyphonic synths began to rule. As a result, Hohner stopped production of the instrument in 1982, but continued to use the brand name for a line of digital pianos that contained a clavinet sound.

In this great stereo mix, “Painted Ladies” uses not one but two clavinet tracks. Throughout the song, the left channel features a clavinet opposite an acoustic guitar on the right side. As the song begins to fade, the acoustic guitar is replaced with a second clavinet. I never noticed this before hearing it on YouTube –but with music, you can hear something new nearly every listen to a song.

LYRICS

I remember setting out just to see what I could see
Streetcars rolling by and airplanes flying high they all meant nothing to me
No one ever looked my way or knew that I was there
I kept walking and the rain kept raining
Until all the streets were bare

Ooh ooh feeling fine mama
Painted ladies and a bottle of wine mama
Ooh ooh Feeling good mama
They took my money like I knew they would
La la la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la
La la la la la

City lights were shining on me through my window pane
I kept thinking 'bout the day when I'd be home again
Rocking chairs and summer fairs and swimming in the sea
I kept drinkin', sinkin' 'till there was nothing left of me

Ooh ooh feeling fine mama
Painted ladies and a bottle of wine mama
Ooh ooh feeling good mama
They took my money like I knew they would
La la la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la

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