Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Songs With A Symphonic Flair

Today’s feature tunes include several movements and are much like mini symphonic pieces rather than typical three or four chord rock ‘n roll songs. Nearly all exceeded five minutes in length and had variations in structure, tempo, and sometimes time signature. While this is atypical in the world of rock music and is not the formula structure for a hit, many of these songs have become well known and some might be even termed as anthemic. Sometimes the titles are obscured in or even absent from the lyrics. Three of the five examples are like this.

Crosby, Stills, and Nash: Suite Judy Blue Eyes

From the very first CSN LP, this Stephen Stills composition has him singing and playing all of the instruments sans drums – which are courtesy of Dallas Taylor. Graham Nash and David Crosby join in on vocals. In fact, it’s Nash’s voice that is the most distinctive voice of the three during most of the song.

The author and Graham Nash in 1982

In the mid 70s, I read an interview with Stephen Stills and he confessed that, on this song about Judy Collins, he tuned his guitar low to high – E-E-E-E-B-E to get the distinctive sound.

My favorite story regarding this song is about one my radio news compadres who went by the contrived moniker of Mike Corsair (my suggestion based on the WW2 US Navy plane). It seems that Mike loved this song so much that he went to the store one day and found it listed on the live LP “4 Way Street.” Not really wanting to spend the money on a double album, but wanting this song, he bought it anyway. At home, he put it on the turntable and was ready to hear a live rendition of his favorite CSN song. The needle hit the vinyl and within moments he was in the midst of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” only to find that the album contained only the final 33 seconds of the song. A lesson to learn – don’t always believe the label.

The single, which was cut down to from 7:28 to 4:35, charted at #21 in 1969. I had an opportunity to see CSN twice – once in Huntington, WV in 1977 and in Charleston, WV in 1982. I am also thinking that I’ve also seen Crosby and Nash as well, but cannot swear to it.

Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody

If any song could wear the label of being rock operatic, it would be this classic by Freddie Mercury and Queen. In fact it was from the album “Night at the Opera,” which is fitting on so many levels. This tune was a number one record in 1975 in the UK, Australia, Ireland, and The Netherlands; however, it only charted only at 9 in the US. The single was certified platinum in the UK and gold in the US. Frankly, I will admit that I hated this song the first time I heard it, but it really grows on you. The musicianship is superb and Freddie Mercury’s vocals are as always fantastic.

Paul and Linda McCartney: Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey

Described as a collection of song snippets that were combined together, this piece (for lack of a better term) is titled after Paul’s uncle (Albert of course) and American World War II Admiral: “Bull” Halsey. I remember the first time I heard this song. I had stayed with my brother and sister-in-law in Lexington, KY for two weeks during the summer of 1971. At the end of my visit, the three of us piled into their Chevy Vega for the long trek back to Pennsylvania. The back seat was crowded with PA speaker cabinets and assorted musical equipment and a cat and dog.

As we were heading out of town on I-75, this song came on the radio and I heard if for the first time. I remember asking if it was a new Beatles’ tune, but was informed that it was Paul and Linda McCartney’s latest single from their new album, “Ram.” The song quickly charted at number one. The trip was also memorable because the cat decided to relieve himself on my leg somewhere between Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. It was a memorable trip to say the least and the summer heat, well, you know only made a bad experience worse. A stop at a rest area to clean up and change clothes helped somewhat, but not entirely - as the trip lasted for another 3 or 4 hours.

Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven

I first heard this song on WDVE during my senior year in high school. I thought it was just absolutely beautiful and still do nearly forty years later. I never had a chance to see Zeppelin in concert, but I did see Robert Plant in 1985 and he did a wonderful version of this song in concert – although his voice had gotten lower by then.

 Recorders: bass, tenor, alto, soprano, & sopranino

The woodwinds, which John Paul Jones played in concert on a Mellotron, were actually overdubbed recorders (a fipple flute) that Jones also played. While the full version was released on a single in the US to radio only, it never was commercially available as such. In 1987, Mark Nathan at Atlantic Records sent me a mint copy of the promo single (PR-269) – stereo on the blue labeled side and mono on the white labeled side. I will treasure this collectable forever.

Derek and the Dominoes: Layla

Probably the not the best example of a song with more than one movement, “Layla” was written about George Harrison’s wife Patti, who later left George in 1977 and married Eric Clapton in 1979. She was the inspiration for Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” as well. Featuring the twin guitars of Clapton and Duane Allman, the single was released twice in the US. To cater to radio, a 2:43 single was issued in 1971. This version containing only the first portion of the tune only charted at #51. The next year, ATCO re-released the song in its full 7:11 version on single and under the same number (#6809) as the previous version. The 1972 single peaked at #10. I have both single versions in my collection, but have no clue if the shorter version is worth anymore than the later, full reissue of the tune.

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