Friday, December 15, 2006

Tribute 2006

In the year 2006, we lost many important music industry figures. I’d like to pay tribute to three legends in particular, as these were the people whose deaths had the most impact on me personally.

Earlier this week we said goodbye to Ahmet Ertegun, a name that should ring a bell if you saw the movie Ray. The son of a diplomat, he was born in Turkey but lived in various countries as a child before his family settled down in the United States. He fell in love with the music he heard around the world, especially jazz and blues. He co-founded Atlantic Records in 1947; the label quickly became one of the top independent labels in America, known for its commitment to quality and fair treatment of its artists. Atlantic’s reign as a mighty indie ended when it merged with Warner in 1967—indeed it is now part of Warner Music Group—but the label retained a distinct identity for years to come. Ertegun remained active in music until his death, always proving himself to have a rare combination of attributes: a genuine love and understanding of music, a personal connection to the artists he worked with, and a keen business sense. Atlantic and its affiliates had much success with rock artists such as Cream, The Rascals, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills & Nash, and (for a period) The Rolling Stones, as well as pop artists like Bobby Darin, Sonny & Cher, The Bee Gees, ABBA, and Bette Midler. However, Atlantic made its fortune on rhythm & blues and never abandoned its R&B roots. Atlantic even manufactured and distributed most of the classic output of Stax Records, the famous home of Memphis soul. Atlantic’s R&B treasure trove has been heavily anthologized on CD; if you’re looking for a place to start, Warner’s budget three-disc set Atlantic Gold offers 75 selections of this sort for a surprisingly low price and with decent sound quality if somewhat lackluster annotation. A look at the list of luminaries who scored hits on Atlantic and related labels reads like a Who’s Who of R&B: Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Chuck Willis, The Coasters, The Drifters, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Archie Bell & The Drells, and Brook Benton; Memphis soulsters Booker T. & The MG’s, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Eddie Floyd; and non-Gamble & Huff Philly soul from the likes of The Spinners, Blue Magic, and Major Harris. (Atlantic also gave Gamble & Huff some of their early breaks by sending Archie Bell & The Drells and Wilson Pickett to cut records in Philly.)

While I’m on the subject of Philly soul, let me segue into a tribute to native Philadelphian Richard “Ritchie” Barrett. A singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, session musician, and choreographer, Barrett made a name for himself in the New York doo-wop scene of the 1950s. Associating with hustling independent record moguls George Goldner and Morris Levy, Barrett discovered and worked with top-notch doo-wop groups such as Little Anthony & The Imperials, The Cleftones, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, and The Chantels. The latter outfit ushered in the “girl group” boom and Barrett oversaw their run of wonderful hits, including “He’s Gone,” “Maybe,” and “Look In My Eyes.” Barrett also worked with The Isley Brothers early in their career. He did not have much success as a recording artist, but his records were highly influential. In 1958, he revived the pop oldie “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”; while his version languished in the bottom of the hit parade, it most likely inspired The Platters’ chart-topping rendition later that year. Barrett’s 1962 record of “Some Other Guy”—released on Atlantic, no less—was not a commercial success, but it became a favorite cover item among British beat bands, including The Beatles, whose ripping version can be found on their Live at the BBC set. After the doo-wop era faded, Barrett returned to Philadelphia and played an important role in the creation of Philly soul. In 1964 he wrote and produced the prescient “Get Out (And Let Me Cry),” an early effort by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes which had most of the basic elements of the Philly sound and became an R&B hit. He then spent some time at Philadelphia’s Swan Records, where label president Bernie Binnick insisted that Barrett copy the Motown sound. Though he did comply to an extent, some of his productions from this era are truly fine examples of early Philly soul, as opposed to mock Motown. These include Sheila Ferguson’s “Heartbroken Memories,” Eddie Carlton’s “Misery,” and John Leach’s “Put That Woman Down”; check out Ace/Kent’s compilation Swan’s Soul Sides to hear these and more. Barrett also managed and produced The Three Degrees, who eventually included Ferguson. They scored some of Swan’s last chart hits before doing even better at Morris Levy’s Roulette label and then topping the charts on Philadelphia International. Interestingly, while Barrett was at Swan Records he wrote songs with Leon Huff, who along with Kenny Gamble would form Philadelphia International Records and produce The Three Degrees there. Sadly, there has been much bad blood between Barrett and Gamble, to the extent that Barrett declined to be interviewed for John A. Jackson’s Philly soul tome A House On Fire, thus denying himself his place in the history of Philly soul. (Barrett was quoted extensively in Tony Cummings' 1975 work The Sound of Philadelphia, but that book is something of a rarity today and much of the information presented therein is inaccurate.)

Finally, the death that hit me the hardest: that of ‘60s pop star Gene Pitney. Even though I grew up in the ‘90s, Pitney was one of my favorite singers growing up, one of a handful of artists who really defined my teenage years. In my early 20s (I’m 25 now) I would still occasionally raid my sizable collection of Gene Pitney CDs and just go Pitney crazy. The guy had staying power. He could sing almost any style of music and sing it well. He could convey almost any emotion, yet he was best with songs that were either sad or angry. They were the perfect vehicles for his pained, wailing tenor. He remained active until his death and was always ready to put on a show. A concert he did for public television while in his late 50s showed that he'd retained more of his vocal power than many of his contemporaries. In it, he also did the finest version of Robbie Williams' "Angels" that I've ever heard. (Were you thinking that Jessica Simpson's version was my favorite?) In addition to his impressive vocal talent, Pitney also possessed songwriting ability. Intriguingly, he usually wrote songs for other artists—Rick Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou," Bobby Vee's "Rubber Ball" (under a pseudonym), The Crystals' anthemic "He's A Rebel"—while as a singer he tended to expose up-and-coming songwriters. These included such now-famous names as Burt Bacharach & Hal David ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Only Love Can Break A Heart," "True Love Never Runs Smooth," "24 Hours From Tulsa"), Randy Newman ("Just One Smile," "Nobody Needs Your Love"), and even Jagger & Richards. In fact, Pitney's recording of the latter pair's "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday" was Mick and Keith's first composition to become an American hit. No, it was not originally recorded by the Stones; they gave the song to him while he was on his first UK tour. Indeed, once he became popular in the UK, he was always more appreciated there than here. The media frenzy in his home state of Connecticut notwithstanding, Pitney’s death went largely unnoticed in the US, while in the UK it received due attention. Maybe his passing would have grabbed more headlines in the US if he'd been a braggart. "I had 24 hits on the Hot 100! I'm in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! I was the first rock 'n' roll singer to perform at the Academy Awards! I survived the British Invasion! I was a superstar in Italy!" But no. He wasn't the type. He was a reserved, quiet fellow, at times reclusive. Yet, at least during his later years, he made himself accessible to his fans. He encouraged us to e-mail him; he chatted with us on message boards; he sent us Christmas cards if we joined his fan club; he even contributed a regular column to his fan club's newsletter. He didn't need to brag to us because we knew he was special. Apparently, a lot of people didn't. If you were one of those people, I hope you now realize how much the music world lost when it lost Gene Pitney. And Ahmet Ertegun. And Richard Barrett. Talents like these don’t come along every day, and we should all be thankful that they got a chance to make a mark on this world before their time ran out.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

[June 9, 2007 note: Since writing this piece, I have found much evidence to demonstrate that Atlantic's treatment of its artists was not always as "fair" as I made it out to be here. I learned of Atlantic's "fairness" from Both Sides Now's Atlantic story, yet I later discovered that several Atlantic artists were indeed cheated on royalties. This was addressed in public television's American Masters special about Ahmet Ertegun ("Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built"). According to the program, Ertegun took responsiblity for cheating those artists when the story broke in the 1980s and the whole affair inspired him to start the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.]

Monday, December 4, 2006

Book Review: A House On Fire

John A. Jackson’s A House On Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul (Oxford University Press, 2004) is a highly convenient source of information on Philly soul, the style that was to the ‘70s what the Motown sound had been to the ‘60s. Jackson builds his story around the three men at the top of the Philly soul heap—Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell—but in the process he sheds much light on numerous lesser-known, but pivotal, figures in the history of the subgenre. These include arranger/producer Bobby Martin, record executive Ron Alexenburg, and jack-of-all-trades Weldon McDougal. Jackson also delves deeply into the personalities and backgrounds of the recording artists, session musicians, songwriters, engineers, and Gamble/Huff subordinates who made the Philly sound possible. His narrative follows a fairly straightforward, linear chronology. A survey of major trends in R&B and the shape of Philadelphian society in the ‘40s and ‘50s leads to that fruitful-yet-frustrating early ‘60s phase in which Gamble, Huff, and Bell struggled to make names for themselves. Things heat up in the mid-to-late ‘60s as the Philly sound begins to blossom and find favor with the public. By the early ‘70s, Gamble and Huff form Philadelphia International Records and Thom Bell is flying high as an independent producer with intriguing ties to many of Philly’s power players. The Philly sound influences everything from rock to disco as the decade wears on, and the Philly soul train appears to be unstoppable—until 1979. Then, it’s a slow and painful decline, especially for Philadelphia International, which survives into the 21st century despite being a mere shell of its former self.

Jackson clearly did a massive amount of research for this project, drawing from a vast selection of books, articles, CD liner notes, and original interviews. He was unable to conduct any of the latter with Gamble or Huff, but this is not surprising. Huff was never the most talkative individual, and Gamble is known for being picky about whom he’ll tell his story to. Fortunately, Jackson collected so many Gamble and Huff quotes from other sources that the reader still gets a good idea of the masters’ perspectives. His detailed storytelling exposes a seemingly endless stream of secrets, rivalries, recording techniques, and mentalities, making well-worn chestnuts like “Love Train,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine),” and “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” seem new again. He also makes it extremely clear that Philly soul was the result of collaborations that transcended obvious boundaries. Soul may be considered a black music style, but several of the Philly sound’s key studio musicians, songwriters, producers, and arrangers were white. The names most associated with Philly soul belong to men, but Jackson shows that many women played highly important parts in the story as well. Most importantly, what do The Spinners, Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler, The O’Jays, and Archie Bell & The Drells have in common? They all made exemplary Philly soul records, yet they were not from Philadelphia. What mattered was that they cut those records in the City of Brotherly Love.

For all the good things that can be said about A House On Fire, the excitement of reading it comes from the actual information presented and not from Jackson’s clumsy, limp writing. On page 181, he writes, “In the end, CBS refused to meet Gamble’s demands for control of future recordings by Philadelphia International, although an agreement whereby CBS continued to market and distribute Philadelphia International’s records was worked out. But beginning in 1976, the control of all future Philadelphia International master recordings, as well as the publishing rights to them, reverted to Gamble and Huff.” The message of those sentences comes through eventually, but only after navigating Jackson’s confusing wording. A House On Fire is full of such passages.

More troubling is Jackson’s imbalanced treatment of racism. A book about soul music should devote considerable attention to this subject, but it’s hard to see any method to the way Jackson handles the issue. As a means of setting up his narrative, he opens the book with the story of a race riot! Is this a tome about racism or music? Pages 20-21 contain this infamous tirade: “When you leave [downtown Philadelphia] traveling east over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, headed for the morass of urban mismanagement, decay, and corruption known as Camden, New Jersey, the first building of significance to the left that you see is Riverfront State Prison. Riverfront is an apt metaphor for Camden, itself a prison to the overwhelming majority of poor blacks and other minorities who live there. Leon Huff […] was one of those fated Camden residents. But Huff […] successfully made it over the wall.” Read this paragraph after checking out the rather whitebread photo of the author on the cover jacket, and Jackson is begging to be tagged a “guilty white liberal”—a stance that is quite patronizing, even insulting, in this context. He lays on the race issue with a trowel until around page 100, when the story enters the early ‘70s. Then he cools off for the rest of the book, simply placing the music in a larger social context, discussing racism when relevant but not structuring his story around it. This strikes me as a misstep. I have many relatives who made the simple mistake of being black in Philadelphia during the ‘70s (in case you’re wondering, my ancestry is mixed). Any one of them can tell you that Philadelphia was a hotbed of extreme racial tension at the time, with the notoriously racist former police chief Frank Rizzo serving as the city’s polarizing mayor. If Jackson was going to focus on racism during Philly soul’s formative years, why not devote more attention to the issue when discussing the subgenre’s peak period? It’s not surprising that Thom Bell was discriminated against as a musician seeking high-profile work in the early ‘60s. It is surprising that a black-run, Philly-based music empire experienced so much prosperity during the tumultuous Rizzo era.

Finally, Jackson commits a few errors that are just plain stupid. For example, he describes The Intrigues’ “In A Moment,” one of the watershed moments in Philly soul, as a “falsetto-led ballad” (90). Apparently he’s hearing-impaired; “In A Moment” is a fast, funky dance track with about three seconds of falsetto in all. But Jackson’s known for such goofs; no one who read his American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire (Oxford University Press, 1997) can forget his deadpanned assertion that The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” came from their Sgt. Pepper album. Still, A House On Fire is worth reading, if only because it provides so much insight into a style of music that we have come to take for granted and compiles so much data into one concise source. Unfortunately, I must offer the same words of caution that I offer readers of most writings on the history of popular music: take what you read with several grains of salt.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

What IS that song?

As you probably know, there is an ever-growing trend to use songs in commercials. Let me reword that: there is an ever-growing trend to use pre-existing songs in commercials. Sure, we've long had advertising jingles written for specific companies, but more and more of what we hear on commercials these days was already completed long before the ads were conceived. This is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it gives exposure to songs that may otherwise go unheard or forgotten. On the other hand, unless the commercial identifies the song and artist somewhere, it leaves you wondering what you're hearing. This is especially annoying in those spots whose songs are so prominent that you're likely to forget what's actually being advertised! So, here are some recent television commercials and the songs that you hear on them:

Tide, "the difference between smelling like a mom and smelling like a woman": Any self-respecting '60s pop fan already knows which song is featured in this spot, but I must say I find such use disheartening. Sometimes a song will become associated with a product, tagline, or cause that no fan of the song would want to associate it with. Perhaps you remember the Johnny Cash estate's decision NOT to allow "Ring of Fire" to be used in a commercial for hemorrhoid medication, a rare example of good taste prevailing. But here we have a mother with a baby, the infant's head over mom's shoulder in the vomit position, and then we see the same woman romancing with her sweetheart. A female voiceover artist delivers the first half of the idiotic tagline (isn't a mom by definition a woman?) over the baby scene and the second half over the romance scene. What ties it all together? The Ronettes' 1963 classic "Be My Baby," one of the greatest hits in the recorded catalogue of legendary producer Phil Spector! I'll never be able to enjoy that song again.

Vonage: You know it. That "woo-hoo, woo-hoo-hoo" song. It's "Woo Hoo" by The's, an all-female Japanese rock 'n' roll band that has been around for 20 years. A slower, more rockabilly-oriented version of this, er, song was an American hit in 1959 for a Virginia group called The Rock-A-Teens. To confuse matters, a Georgia band formed in the '90s named itself The Rock*A*Teens [sic] after you-know-who, and also recorded a version of you-know-what.

Freestyle (diabetic testing device): "Everybody's Gonna Be Happy" by The Kinks. This was a moderate hit in the UK in 1965, and in the US it was the B-side of another moderate hit, "Who'll Be The Next In Line." Strange how The Kinks' songs seem to be popular among advertisers. Several years ago, a Jolly Rancher commercial prominently featured "All Day And All Of The Night" ("I believe that you and me last forever"), and a Hyundai commercial used a cover of "Set Me Free."

Ford, Warriors In Pink: This spot aired all throughout October, aka Breast Cancer Awareness month, and given that information you can figure out what a "Warrior In Pink" is. The song is "I Run For Life" by Melissa Etheridge. Dating from 2005, it's a reflection of her own battle with the all-too-common disease.

Planters Nuts: Just once and never again, I saw an ad with a song that went, "You can knock on my door anytime you're passing by..." I was amazed because that number is rather obscure, yet I recognized it immediately. It's "Step Inside" by The Hollies, a late '60s album cut from their requisite "Let's make the next Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper" phase.

Target: There have been many tunes used in Target commercials, but I'll zero in on "Shape Of Things To Come" by Max Frost & The Troopers. Who? A studio group cobbled together to record this opus for the late '60s teen exploitation flick Wild In The Streets. The song was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote so many other hits that I can only tell you to Google their names and prepare to be amazed. "Do Ya" by ELO (Electric Light Orchestra, for the uninitiated). Birmingham, England's The Move had much success in the UK and "on the continent" during the late '60s and early '70s, but as The Move began to grow stale, they evolved into ELO. "Do Ya" is the one song both bands have in common: The Move's version was a throwaway B-side that somehow managed to crack the US charts in 1972, becoming their only American hit! Maybe that inspired ELO to redo it a few years later.

Dell: Dark, dramatic pan shots of a laptop. Sexy, intriguing, mysterious. And what do you hear? Ominous guitar riffs, screeches of "Ohhhh, yeah!" and a wailing harmonica. It's "You're Gonna Miss Me" by The 13th Floor Elevators, one of the all-time classic psychedelic hits by one of the most legendary bands ever to come from Texas. Like all long-haired rock musicians in Texas in the '60s, the Elevators were persecuted like crazy. That story is well-documented elsewhere, so I won't attempt to recapture it here.

Medium (TV series): "Walking With A Ghost" by Tegan and Sara, the finest Canadian identical twin lesbian act in the business! I also like The White Stripes' cover version, in which Jack sings "Please don't exist" instead of "Please don't insist."

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 27, 2006

It Rocks. It Rolls.

Several beliefs about rock music and my thoughts on them:

1. There's a difference between "rock 'n' roll" and "rock."

Yeah, but the difference is so trivial that I don't always bother making the distinction. A lot of people are all too willing to point out that, during the '60s, "rock 'n' roll" became "rock." The attitude changed, the music got heavier and more complex, the genre moved far away from what it had been originally. In 1969, Dick Clark proclaimed, "The roll is going back into rock 'n' roll," explaining that everyone had been trying so hard to get far-out in the psychedelic age that they'd forgotten to have fun. Maybe so, but some far-out psychedelia is fun: Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," anyone? Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men," if you please? Or maybe you're a "Strawberry Fields Forever" kind of person? Still, I agree with Clark that the "roll" is what makes rock 'n' roll so much fun. Complementary to the fun of it all—the roll—is the "rock," that dark, aggressive energy that makes the music so viscerally exciting. Therefore, I believe that "rock 'n' roll" is an attitude, a "let's make some noise and have a good time" ethic that doesn't belong to any particular era or generation. Then again, before it was a style of music, "rock 'n' roll" was a black American slang term for sex…but let's not go there.

2. There's a difference between "rock 'n' roll" and "rock and roll."

Yes, there is. The change in spelling was a bid to make the music more respectable. I think it fails to capture the true essence of the music, so I always say "rock 'n' roll." Some people choose to spell the term "rocknroll," but even I find that excessive!

3. Rock 'n' roll was never the same after the '50s.

Damn skippy. Rock 'n' roll had a lot of enemies in its infancy. The sound of this wild, raunchy music was offensive enough to the WASP American middle class mainstream, but the fact that it was derived directly from black styles such as blues and R&B led many of its white opponents to dub it "nigger music." Then there was payola, which was customary in the music business at the time—why were you wasting a deejay's or programmer's time if you weren't offering a little something for his troubles? And payola was technically not illegal until many powerful music industry figures, politicians, and others charged that it was the only reason rock 'n' roll was so popular. The payola crackdown was not helped by the actions of some of rock's pioneers, such as Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13-year-old cousin and Chuck Berry transporting a female minor across state lines. To make matters worse, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Eddie Cochran died young in tragic accidents, while Elvis got drafted and Little Richard decided he'd rather sing praises to the Lord. The years 1958-1960 almost killed rock 'n' roll. However...

4. Rock 'n' roll died in 1959 and was not revived until the British Invasion of 1964.

Sorry, not buyin' it. Yes, in response to all the backlash against rock 'n' roll, we got cutesy teen idols (actually, I always liked Bobby Rydell), elaborately-produced pop records passing for rock 'n' roll, and the addition of orchestration to rock records to "legitimize" them. Some of the best and most popular early '60s artists, such as Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney, straddled the fence between straight rock 'n' roll and big dramatic pop ballads. But then again, we had the pounding, growling sound of Freddy Cannon; the minor-keyed guitar-and-organ drive of Del Shannon; the hard Southern stomp of Gary U.S. Bonds; the doo-wop-on-steroids of Dion and the early Four Seasons; the R&B-infused Northwest grit of The Wailers and the early Paul Revere & The Raiders; and the seemingly endless stream of West Coast surf bands. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

5. Soul music is rock 'n' roll.

That’s a really grey area to me. I could rack my brain for a thousand years and never make up my mind on that. So let’s just call soul music "soul," okay? If I get the urge to shout "Rock 'n' roll!" next time I listen to Otis Redding, so be it.

6. Rap music is rock music.

How? It may be a distant relative of rock, but it ain't rock 'n' roll. I'm not some rock snob who hates rap; I just don't get a rock 'n' roll vibe from it. Rap-rock? Well, that's rock music that just so happens to have rapping in it.

7. Punk rock started with The Ramones—or at least Jonathan Richman.

I beg your pardon? Listen to ? & The Mysterians' "96 Tears," The Bluestars' "Social End Product," The Standells' "Riot On Sunset Strip," or probably anything by The Monks, just to name a few examples of pure punk rock from the '60s. And check out the double-LP (since transformed into a CD box set) that inspired the '70s punkers, Nuggets. In his liner notes to this collection of '60s DIY bands, compiler and future punk rocker Lenny Kaye said that the music contained therein had come to be known as "punk rock"—and that was in 1972, long before The Ramones released their debut album.

8. Bill Haley sucks.

Okay, I've read or heard so many variations of this that I must address each one individually.

a. Bill Haley didn't know what he was doing.

One listen to "Crazy Man Crazy," his self-penned breakthrough hit from 1953, should dispel that notion.

b. Bill Haley ripped off black people.

Yes, he did. So did Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and every other non-black performer who had anything to do with early rock 'n' roll. Rock came about as a combination of many different styles; folk, swing, and country were among them, but so were jazz, blues, and R&B. As for Haley covering black people's songs for white audiences, it was called racial segregation, folks. It was the order of the day in America at the time, and often the only way a black person's song would get heard by white people was if a white artist covered it. And yes, Haley had to water down the lyrics to "Shake Rattle and Roll"—black audiences welcomed sexually explicit lyrics, white audiences did not. Frankly, I prefer the lyrics to Haley's version because I find the original lyrics quite disgusting ("I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you," and so forth). In any case, Bill Haley's appropriation of black music was unexceptional.

c. "Rock Around The Clock" is not rock 'n' roll.

Are you serious? Again, it's a combination of styles. You can't point to one specific sound and say, "That's early rock 'n' roll, period." "Rock Around The Clock" had a hard-hitting beat, a wild electric guitar solo, lyrics brimming with youthful hedonism, and a teenage audience that loved to dance to it. Sounds like a prime piece of '50s rock 'n' roll to me.

9. Johnny Cash was a pioneer of rock 'n' roll.

Johnny Cash was every bit as rock 'n' roll as he was country. He was transcendent not only in his music, but also his image and personal life. Country performers of his day wore white or light-colored clothing; he wore black. He lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle: got famous, became a drug addict, earned a reputation as a destructive figure, ran afoul of the law, found (or in his case, rediscovered) religion and cleaned himself up. He worked blues inflections and motifs into country music, and didn't much of early rock 'n' roll come from the mixture of country and blues? Anyone who had the brilliance to write and sing, "Get rhythm when you get the blues, get a rock 'n' roll feelin' in your bones" is alright in my rock 'n' roll book.

10. Rock 'n' roll brought the world together before "globalization" was a buzz word.

In the '60s, bands in Uruguay, Sweden, and Japan were trying to look and sound like The Beatles. So what do you think?

11. Singer-songwriters are part of the rock 'n' roll pantheon.

Depends on the artist. I like James Taylor as much as the next guy, but if I see one more feature on him in a "rock" book, I'll have all of my Beatles CDs converted into nipple rings.

12. SJ, in item #3 you said that payola was customary in the '50s as if it's now a thing of the past. But doesn't payola still run rampant in the industry to this day?

I swear I have no idea what you're talking about. Payola's been illegal since 1960. People don't do things that are illegal, especially as far as music is concerned.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 23, 2006

SuperJimenez To The Rescue!

The name SuperJimenez may conjure up images of a Mexican cartoon superhero, but it actually belongs to the latest Irish rock ‘n’ roll sensation. Surprised? Good. SuperJimenez would have it no other way. Their labyrinthine melodies and unconventional song structures take the listener on a musical rollercoaster ride, while their effortless transcendence of stylistic boundaries makes for a veritable tour of Planet Rock. After getting punky on their fantastic debut single “Helicopters,” they then get funky on “Come Out To Play.” The atmospheric “Hear You Now” resembles a late ‘80s U2 production minus Bono’s histrionic wailing, and “Beau” swings along on a poppy groove while retaining enough fire and fury to avoid slipping into bubblegumland. Just when you think SuperJimenez will rock you until you can’t be rocked anymore, they bring out the folky, acoustic “Birth of Venus,” complete with sparkling harmonies and gorgeous baroque guitar work.

It’s even a tad misleading to call the band Irish. Yes, singer/guitarist Ronan Cunningham, lead guitarist Rhys Domagala, bassist Nicholas O’Laoire, and drummer Daragh “Daz” Coen are based in Dublin. But Rhys is an Aussie who came to join SuperJimenez through the most unusual circumstances. “Quite a freaky story when I think it about it now,” he muses. “I came over to Ireland from Australia in October, 2005, and my first day in Dublin I rang this guy about a spare room, as I was in need of somewhere to live. This guy—Ronan—was actually looking for a guitarist for his band as well, so I ended up moving into the house and joining the band. What’s weird is that their old guitarist had quit the band about two days before I arrived in Dublin! And it was his room I moved into!”

From such a story, one can reasonably conclude that the members of SuperJimenez have a natural camaraderie that allows them to work together as a fully integrated unit. Although Ronan founded the band and sings lead, the creative process is a genuine group effort. As Rhys explains, “The songs are essentially written by Ronan. Generally he comes to practice with the song and lyric and then we work on it as a band. The songs often change direction at this point with each of our contributions. For example, the noted rhythm in ‘Helicopters’ (da da da, da da da, etc.) was Nick’s contribution to that song, I wrote the lead guitar hook in ‘Beau,’ and Daz funked up ‘Come Out To Play’ with his drumming giving it a new feel. With all of our songs it’s an ongoing process!”

Ronan’s lyrics capture the angst and alienation of youth and the uncertainty of living in these turbulent times. Yet there is always a hint of optimism in the proceedings. In “Helicopters” he proclaims, “I sense the sweetest times between the parachutes, the deadly routes, the start of something new!” “Fearing the worst, I can’t curse myself. I cannot say what I want when I feel. [...] Come out to play,” he pleads in the obvious. In the chorus of “Beau” he declares, “I’m just a past time for her” and asks, “When is she expecting me to falter?” But he then explains that “once she’s got it” he wants to be “the one to rock her.” Ronan’s voice is lucid and buoyant, while his bandmates add texture with their distinctive harmonies. The band’s tight ensemble playing on the mostly uptempo material is enough to make a statue want to dance.

Don’t think this group’s talent has gone unnoticed. After they inked a deal with the Irish indie Reekus Records, “Helicopters” was released to rave reviews and garnered much airplay. An impressive run in the Irish Top 20 allowed SuperJimenez to enjoy more success their first time out than many bands experience after years in the business. Are they striking out for other territories yet? “We’re currently in talks with a couple of labels in the UK,” says Rhys. “We’re working with an English producer and feel that the UK is the obvious place for our music.” That producer is the famed Adrian Bushby, who is overseeing sessions for an album that should be finished by next spring. Meanwhile, check out SuperJimenez’s MySpace page,, for streaming audio and information on how to purchase the band’s music.

Many thanks to Rhys Domagala for the stories, interviews, and song lyrics.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

[July 16, 2007 update: The first two singles by SuperJimenez have been available on digital music services such as iTunes and Napster for quite some time since the publication of this article. The band's first album is now slated to be released in January, 2008. Visit for more news and music.]

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Winter Child For All Seasons

When Matt Duke was a teenager, he wanted to get an album out by the age of 21. Now he’s 21—and he has an album out. Sometimes dreams do come true.

I first became aware of Matt after he was signed by MAD Dragon Records, an imprint formed by Philly’s own Drexel University to give music students first-hand experience in running a label. In case you’re wondering, “MAD” is the College of Media Arts and Design, while “Dragon” refers to Drexel’s mascot, Mario The Dragon. So, have I made it painfully obvious that I went to Drexel…or what? In 2005, MAD Dragon placed a few of Matt’s songs on XYX, a compilation which also featured fellow singer/songwriters Trisha O’Keefe and Julia Othmer. Matt still considers this a great experience, albeit one with a downside: “We had to go on the road a bunch as a songwriter circle. The thing that always bothered me about that was that nobody could ever understand that it was a songwriter circle. They always thought we were a band.”

I understood that “XYX” wasn’t a band, and when I saw Matt and Trisha for the first time—Julia Othmer was absent from that particular gig—I was immediately hooked on these fine young talents. They’ve since gone their separate ways, and now Matt is celebrating the still-recent release of his debut album, Winter Child. I’ve followed him for almost one and a half years now, and as good as his recordings are, they cannot compare to the unpredictable thrill of his live shows. You never know what songs he’ll play, how he’ll play them, or even in what order he’ll play them. However, he has had two CD release parties—one in New York, the other in Philadelphia—and both were full band shows. How does he feel about that? “I think that full band shows, for me, help to keep me grounded,” he replies, but he’s quick to add, “When we were rehearsing, one of the main things that I did try to get the two of them to do—meaning [drummer] Nathan Barnett and [bassist] Dane Klein—was that they need to be able to complement a certain amount of spontaneity as well.” In spite of this drive for spontaneity, Matt’s set lists have become somewhat more restricted by the release of a new album; he hardly ever plays some of his older songs anymore. As he explains it, “I just think it’s a time thing, as you move forward there’s just certain ones that you give a little more weight to that may be a little more relevant to where you are at any given time. Obviously, with this record, I’ll be kind of focusing in on a lot more of those tracks.” Even with tighter reins, Matt is still a wonder to behold on stage, as he contorts, convulses, screams hysterically, and makes all manner of strange faces—even though he’d rather not. “The faces are totally unintentional,” he admits with some embarrassment. “I do not like to see pictures of myself at the shows. I can’t take it. ‘Cause I know that I make weird faces, but I can’t help it.”

One listen to Matt’s music lends credence to his biography’s claim that he counts artists like Jeff Buckley and Damien Rice among his main influences. But those are fairly obvious; I hear something funky in his grooves, especially live, and he even throws ‘60s soul covers into his sets on occasion. I had to ask him to what extent R&B music influences him. His response was surprising: “Growing up with my dad’s sort of music, we listened to a lot of The Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, Earth Wind and Fire, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, Sam Cooke. So I went through a potpourri of music. All those things, in one way or another, help shape you in the way you approach music.”

Still, Winter Child is a smooth blend of folk, rock, and pop with dazzling songs that often draw their inspiration from outside sources. “Don’t Ask (For Too Much)” (which differs significantly from the XYX version) is about an old friend of his whose father died abruptly; “Listen To Your Window” was written about a girl who was hopelessly in love with someone who had no such feelings for her. Yet Matt writes and sings these songs in the first person. “I think that human beings are generally by nature—depending on whom you happen to meet in your lifetime—we’re empathetic to certain types of situations,” he explains. “I mean, ‘Listen To Your Window’ is about obsession, and everybody at one point or another has experienced a feeling similar to that. Maybe not to that great of a degree, but we’ve absolutely felt it.”

Matt is also a voracious reader, so it’s not surprising that some of his songs are based in classic literature. He was so floored by Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” that he wrote “Ballroom Dancing” as a musical encapsulation of its essence. “The Love We’ll Never Know” namechecks Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Matt’s thinking behind the song—and the theory of natural selection—is striking: “The basic feel centers around the fundamental truth that we, in essence, are animals—a glorified species of animal that still succumbs to the instinctual need to survive. In that sense, love is a fruitless pursuit because natural selection and evolution would tell us that we must constantly adapt and protect ourselves in order to survive.” With a song about evolution on board, it’s only fitting to include an opus on the subject of religion. But with lines like “My tongue is tied from reciting inspired Bible verses and bullshit lies,” “Tidal Waves” is bound to rattle some cages. Maybe I’m just taking it too seriously. Matt: “It is a general idea that God isn’t there—a very nihilistic (or realistic, depending on who you ask) view about a higher power. We all, at one point or another, question the existence of God or an omnipotent spiritual deity, but the idea of the song is that sometimes we can get really hung up over it and that’s a very unhealthy thing. The fact of the matter is that we will never have all of the answers, but we can certainly bide our time and continue growing through questioning all the way up until we are dead and gone.”

Like all singer/songwriters, Matt comes up with some of his most intriguing material when he turns inward for inspiration. The anti-utopian “Yellow Lights” came about in a most unusual manner: “I’d written a song that was from a very anti-war, anti-conservative, more pro-humanitarian sort of—looking at life and looking at things as an ideal sort of way, like the way that we should approach the use of our land and everything like that. I figured it would be fun to rebuttal myself!” He couldn’t help throwing in another literary reference; the line “I think Henry would probably be proud” is a nod to Thoreau. As for the anti-conservative song, Matt didn’t record it—or the other anti-conservative song he wrote. In his opinion, neither was as good as “Yellow Lights.” Maybe fate’s trying to tell him something about his political views.

One thing that makes Matt’s songs so exciting is that they’re usually anything but typical. Rarely does a Matt Duke composition follow a standard verse-verse-chorus formula, and Matt almost never gives his songs obvious titles. The words “Don’t Ask (For Too Much)” don’t even appear in that song, much less in that order. “I’m actually not that good at writing titles,” Matt confesses. “I can write a body of work, but as far as a title that might accompany what the feel of the song is, I have a much harder time figuring out titles or trying to label what the song is.” So imagine my surprise when I heard Winter Child’s lead single “Oysters,” a simple tune with a verse-verse-chorus structure and an obvious title. I had no choice but to ask him whether he was trying to write a radio-friendly single. Matt’s response proved me wrong…sort of: “I know what the formula is for a radio hit single, all that crap, that Top 40 bullshit structure, I know what that formula is. And I think that most songwriters tend to avoid it, but as far as having just a fun single song, we wanted something that we could pitch to radio. I really, really like that song. I just think it made me happy to use such an absurd metaphor as oysters and pearls, and to do something so absurd as to do a whistling solo for the bridge. We’re pulling out, like, ‘Top 40 101,’ but in a very tongue-in-cheek sort of way, I guess.” The idea of turning the mainstream on its head even applies to the song’s out-of-left-field lyrics. “I’ve found a lot of oysters these days/And with all comes a pearl and a pretty hard shell to break” is a takeoff on the old adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

As impressive as Winter Child is, there is one glaring omission. The exquisite “Weeping Winds” was featured on XYX and has become one of Matt’s most enduring tunes. His impassioned live performances of it always bring down the house, with his loyal fans invariably mouthing along as he belts out the lyrics. So why wasn’t it reprised for Winter Child? “Weeping Winds is one of my favorite tracks that I’ve written. In the format that it was recorded, I don’t necessarily want to feel like I have to re-record it over and over again the more that I do it. Once it was done, it was done.”

With his two MAD Dragon releases and much touring of the East Coast and the South, Matt has built up a sizable following. His biggest audience can be found in Philadelphia and his native South Jersey, but he is definitely in demand in other areas as well. His records have national distribution, but his popularity is still regional. How does he feel about the regional-versus-national dynamic? “The most important thing is that you do set up a regional fan base. That is the most important thing because then you have a home base, you have a very solid following, and it’s a place where you can kind of explore different musical options and also you know that in the financial scheme of things you can do fairly okay for yourself. But everybody ultimately wants to be able to manifest farther across this country in whatever direction they’re heading, and also maybe even on an international level, they do wanna be heard, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. So it is always important to focus on the regional stuff.”

Regionally or nationally, Matt Duke is an artist on the move, and deservedly so. And like a fine wine, Vermont cheddar, or William Shatner, Matt Duke gets better with age. The future for this budding young talent looks bright indeed, but even in the present he has already built up a fine body of recorded work and a history of many wonderful live shows. If you doubt me, just ask any member of his loyal following.

For more info and to hear Matt’s music:

Many thanks to Matt Duke for the interview and associated correspondences.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Spotlight On: Andrew James

Andrew James is a singer and songwriter—but the term “singer/songwriter” does not do him justice. The British tunesmith has more of a rock edge than we normally associate with the singer/songwriter subgenre, but his pop-friendly hooks and graceful piano work keep the songs grounded. While his extremely talented supporting players rock behind him, he lets loose with rich, soulful vocals that glide across his sweeping melodies. He has an impressive vocal range, effortlessly switching from a smooth falsetto to a full-bodied baritone. When he makes a vocal downward swoop, as on the chorus of “Scared To Fall Down,” he takes you down the spiral staircase with him. James’ songs paint a picture of a man who has fought personal demons, doomed relationships, and an utter lack of control over the state of his world—yet he has overcome all of those things and finally found salvation. The lyrics are sometimes loaded with multiple meanings. Is “I Can’t Fight” about drug addiction, alcoholism, or unrequited love? One could simply ask him, but part of the song’s appeal is that it leaves the listener guessing. And with beguiling couplings like “Feel like I could lie undetected/Feel like I could die unprotected” (from “Safe As Houses”), James is sure to pull you into his world and keep you in his grasp until he’s sure you’ve got his message. At first listen he may remind you of David Gray, but it soon becomes clear that Andrew James is a talent all his own. Don’t miss out on him.

More info and music:

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.