The untimely death of the great Tom Petty a few weeks ago forces us to look back in wonder at his amazing career and his frankly unbelievable trove of fantastic songs. There are very few American artists in any popular song-making genre who were able to sustain such a prodigiously satisfying output while also experimenting within what was ultimately a singularly unique personal style. Dylan, of course, and probably Springsteen and Paul Simon. But after that I’m at a loss.
Love Is A Long Road
“Love Is A Long Road” is a sterling example of Petty remaining true to his earliest rock instincts even while pursuing new artistic directions. Off of his first solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, and relased at the height of his collaboration with his Traveling Willbury’s bandmate, Jeff Lynne, the song is a standout among such blockbuster hits as “Free Fallin’,”“Running Down A Dream” and “I Won’t Back Down” precisely because it doesn’t resemble them. Rather, it’s classic Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, less slick and more emotional than those other chart toppers. You can draw a straight line from earlier dark horse standouts like “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” and “Straight Into Darkness” right to “Long Road” and clearly see its intense similarity by way of raw emotion and well-constructed gritty rock dynamics. It’s also a wonderful showcase for Petty’s uniquely evocative voice and it’s no wonder it remained an Easter Egg-like staple in his live arsenal even though the song never charted.
We here at Man’s Fine Life are deeply saddened by the untimely passing of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tom Petty at the age of 66 after a cardiac arrest at his LA home on October 2. The Rolling Stone obituary is here.
Tom Petty was one of the best of the straight-ahead American rock ‘n rollers to come out of the 1970s, arguably forming a triumvirate with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger that spearheaded a rebirth of singer-songwriter rock with a gritty edge characterized by narrative lyrics about the common man and impeccably crafted tunes played by top notch bands. It’s easy to forget just what that meant at a time when it looked like conventional blues-based rock was on the wane due to the onslaught of Disco, Heavy Metal, Wus Rock (Firefall, Dan Fogelberg, Bread, et al) and Punk. But like Springsteen and the E Street Band and Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recaptured traditional fans of rock and made legions of new ones with whole albums full of catchy singles suffused with the passion of the true believer in the redemptive power of Rock.
Petty and the Heartbreakers started off with a bang way back in 1976 when they had Top 40 hit with the sinuously assertive “Breakdown” and a very influential non-hit with the Byrds-inflected “American Girl” on their eponymous debut album (legend has it that people were calling up Roger McGuinn to see if it was his new single). With Petty’s oddly effecting trademark nasal delivery and 12-string Rickenbacker, Mike Campbell’s stinging lead guitar, Benmont Tench’s pivotal swirling organ adding uncommon depth and the rock solid rhythm section of the late Howie Epstein on bass and Stan Lynch on drums, the original lineup seemed to emerge as a finely tuned outfit from day one and never took their foot off the gas for the next few years. Their consistently excellent efforts culminated in one of the decade’s best albums, Damn the Torpedoes, in 1979. With such all-time classic as “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Breakdown,” Torpedoes was an artistic and commercial smash, going 3-times platinum with over three million in sales.
The band entered the 80s with two more fine releases — Hard Promises (1981) and Long AfterDark (1982)– that, while not as successful as Torpedoes, still solidified their rep as major hit makers and one of the most important acts around. Then came Southern Accents in 1983. A beautiful album with a very troubled recording process — Petty broke his hand badly punching a wall in frustration during the mix of the lead single “Rebels” — Southern Accents was originally conceived as something of a concept album by way of an exploration Petty’s “red neck” Florida roots. Other than a general thematic similarity the songs on Accents do not quite add up to a concept album, perhaps because it was trimmed down from a double LP. But it is beautifully produced, significant for its lyrical ambitions and ultimately lovely and artistically satisfying. It hit platinum and so was also successful commercially. But Petty considered it a noble failure and for him the album never quite lived up to the magnum opus that he had in his head when he conceived it.
Southern Accents and the strains of making it marked a true turning point and after that Petty and the band changed subtly but significantly, as if the reach for something grander and more profound had led instead to a sort of artistic burnout. After Petty’s rehab and recuperation from his self-inflicted wound, as well as drug issues which would continue to plague him in the years to come, the music became much simpler and more stripped down if no less radio friendly. On the full band’s Let Me UP (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) and Into the Great Wide Open(1991), as well as Petty’s smash solo album Full Moon Fever (1989), the narratives became more detached, the characters observed from a distance for the most part rather than from within their skins as had been the case on the band’s earlier material. The songs seem more programmatic, more LA and less Gainesville, and frankly, from an artistic standpoint, less interesting. There’s a less nuanced, less bluesy feel overall that sacrificed some complexity for a more universal “rock” sound, which ironically hasn’t aged as well as the earlier hits. If it marked a return to the basic pleasures of the straight-ahead 3-minute single the updated style clearly seemed to abandon much of the passionate involvement of the earlier 1970s music.
His work with the enjoyably light supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, where he teamed up with other legends like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and ELO mastermind and super producer Jeff Lynne, to create one of the surprise hit albums of the late 1980s seemed to confirm that Petty was done taking things too seriously and suffering for his art. From here on out it would be all rock, no angst, jamming with friends, playing the hits live and just generally enjoying being one of the world’s most successful rock musicians. Petty evolved into a wryly funny wise old hand with hooded eyes and his trademark deadpan drawl, almost a different person from the strangely sharp featured, almost androgynous angry young rocker of the early days.
And who could blame him for that transition from hot blooded rebelliousness to satisfied professionalism? Taken in its entirety the music is still good and highly enjoyable in the later 80s and 90s. But that earlier stuff is where the magic still shines and resonates in a timeless way. Those first 9 years were a remarkable run and stand up with the creative output of pretty much any Rock artist of any era over that kind of sustained period of time. Of course there are probably fans who fall into the other camp and prefer the later, lighter stuff. But for me I’ll take the music up to and including Southern Accents as peak Petty. It’s the music I grew up with and the music I still reach for and play with pleasure.
Personal preferences aside, one thing’s for sure — Tom Petty was a great rocker and well deserving of his Hall of Fame status. He was a music giant who will be sorely missed and the world is poorer for his passing. But the gift of his music lives on as one of the real high water marks in Rock & Roll because Petty was one of the genuine originals in a genre where that’s about as rare as hen’s teeth. Godspeed, Tom, and thanks for the terrific tunes.
The love-as-a-drug metaphor doesn’t get anymore potent or direct than on the classic 1970s soul hit “Stoned Out Of My Mind” by the Chi-Lites. Led by the honey dripping tenor-falsetto of Eugene Record, who wrote most of their tunes, Chicago’s own sweet soulsters likened a bad relationship with a femme fatale to a drug or drinking binge. The results were a propulsive, horn-laden classic that made it to #2 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1973.
“Stoned” was such a quietly influential classic, in fact, that when Paul Weller was at the height of his Soul & R&B obsessions with The Jam he chose to cover it for the B-side to the band’s last single, “Beat Surrender,” in 1982. The result was a a more suave take on the original with Weller’s lowered pitch and cool to the point of almost lounge-y delivery giving the song a completely different yet pleasingly smooth vibe.
The Chi-Lites’ original has more grit and funk and The Jam’s cover more polish and finesse. Take your pick — either version is about as good of a “love is a drug” song as there is in the pop canon.
I blame that damn Volkswagen commercial with the nice old Irish lady and her family. Or maybe it’s a hangover from a certain Vermont senator’s 2016 campaign. But Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” has been absolutely stuck in my head for weeks now. And so I’m going to inflict it on you, as well, in an attempt to exorcise it from my ear canal
Obviously it’s a gorgeous 1960s classic redolent of complex youthful emotions, lyrics that effortlessly paint a detailed and profoundly human mise en scène and lifted skyward by those patented soaring S&G harmonies. There’s even a very George Harrison-like guitar sound in there rendered instead by Larry Knechtel’s Hammond organ, as well as Hal Blaine’s thundering drums, giving what could otherwise be a straight forward folk ballad complexity, texture and heft. Essentially it’s a perfect single where the words seamlessly dovetail with the music — “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” — and one that profoundly captures the troubled, fraying zeitgeist of 1968 America. I just hope that by finally posting it I’ll be rid of this masterpiece in my mind’s ear for a while. Sorry if it infects you in the process but it has to be done!
The sad and shocking news that Chris Cornell, founder and frontman of both Soundgarden and Audiosoave and one of the most gifted rock vocalists of his generation, has died at the age of 52 is still reverberating around the music world. He was found dead in his hotel room in Detroit on May 17th while on tour with his re-formed original band, the great grunge pioneers from Seattle, an apparent suicide. Cornell’s loss as an individual and his loss to rock music as a whole is hard to fully process. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends.
Searching With My Good Eye Closed – Badmotorfinger (1991)
Unlike their local peers Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with whom they are most closely grouped, Soundgarden was less true “grunge” than an extension of classic 70s hard rock, albeit with sophisticated lyrical themes and innovative musical techniques. While initially satirizing the over-the-top nature of metal at the time they began in the late 80s — see “Big Dumb Sex” for the apotheosis of this in your face, on the nose send-up of hardcore metal misogyny — Soundgarden quickly graduated to a more lyrically complex, more darkly psychedelic metal sound that was uniquely their own. Their real breakthrough was Badmotorfinger, one of the seminal albums of the 90s in any genre. A borderline concept album, Badmotorfinger was inestimably weird and powerful, featuring guitarist Kim Thayil’s patented Drop D tuning on several hard-hitting classics like “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Outshined,” the soaring & ominous “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” and the punishing and mystical “Room A Thousand Years Wide.” Another track from this awesome album, “Mind Riot,” seemed to point in the direction that Cornell and the band would take in future: hard-edged, certainly, but with an almost ballad-like emotional intensity and strikingly original lyrics of searching strangeness and loss.
I was crying from my eye teeth and bleeding from my soul
And I sharpened my wits on a dead man’s skull
I built an elevator from his bones
Had climb to the top floor just to stamp out the coals (I’ve been caught in a mind riot)
Candle’s burning yesterday
Somebody’s best friend died
I’ve been caught in a mind riot
Mind Riot – Badmotorfinger (1991)
After the explosion of Grunge as a distinct genre onto the national scene, fueled by their own success and that of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Screaming Trees among others, Soundgarden followed up Badmotorfinger with an even bigger hit, Superunknown. The new album was characterized by a subtle shift away from pure heavy metal and more emphasis on mystical guitar driven psychedelia. Propelled by the huge MTV hits “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” the album also featured other classics like the title track and the propulsive “My Wave.”
Superunknown – Superunknown (1994)
The band also honed their penchant for extreme pessimism with the beautiful downers “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Like Suicide” and the very heavy “Mailman” and “4th of July.” Continue reading →
A brief, shining 1970s phenomenon, the Florida family act Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose were essentially a two-hit wonder. Featuring very tight pop production and wonderfully controlled yet gritty lead vocals from Eddie Cornelius the quartet cut the incredibly catchy, string-heavy classic R&B pop single “Too Late To Turn Back Now” in 1972. Showcasing the band’s excellent lyrical dexterity that acted as a hook of its own — “I believe, I believe, I believe I’m falling in love!” — “Too Late” charted at #2 on the US Pop charts, outdoing its R&B status by three positions.
Their eponymous debut album also featured the Booker-T & the MGs-inspired “Treat Her Like A Lady”, a nicely funky story song with a moral about how to get the babes by being a gentleman. If it wasn’t exactly the political consciousness of Curtis Mayfield or Sly & The Family Stone, “Treat Her Like a Lady” was still on the right side of the moral equation and a propulsively danceable aural delight. It made it to # 3 on the Pop charts but only #20 for R&B, confirming that the band’s true niche was more Top 40 than true Funk or Soul.
If they never again reached those giddy heights, the band still had some good music tucked away on their LPs. “Don’t Ever Be Lonely (A Poor Little Fool Like Me)” is a sweetly catchy self-pitying number in the Tyrone Davis mold (sans the great TD’s Chicago-by-way-of-the-Deep-South soulfulness)…
…and “Big Time Lover,” the standout title track from their second album, played the reformed ladies man card just right, another fine entry in the long tradition of Rock and R&B “I used to run around ’til I met you, baby” cuts.
Though the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose fizzled out just as quickly as they hit the big time, with both brothers Eddie and Carter finding very different religious callings later in the 70s, the songs they left behind are still a candy colored pleasure to listen to. Caught in a zone of pre-disco and scrubbed-clean Soul the band’s better efforts are simple, enjoyably well-executed pop records with a pleasing R&B veneer. And sometimes, in an age where modern R&B vocalists and production values can be at once cruder and more histrionic, that kind of clean, straight forward attack to making a 3-minute single can come across as mighty refreshing. I highly recommend picking up their greatest hits, The Story of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. Just as much as their trademark gaudy leisure suits they’re a 70s footnote but a damn enjoyable one.
This old Big Country song from their remarkable Steeltown album way back in 1984 has been going through my head on repeat to start 2017. The late, great Stuart Adamson certainly had a way with a socially conscience anthem.
Aside from the more charismatic elements of the subject it definitely reminds me of someone today. Can’t quite put my finger on it but it’ll come to me, I’m sure…
There are bands that are really good but that are destined either by bad luck or the fickle tastes of the music-buying public to never quite make it to the top. Professionally accomplished, critically acclaimed, yes, but big sellers, never. Teenage Fanclub is one of those bands. The Scottish group started full of promise way back in 1990 and has released just under a dozen albums. They’ve seen critical success based on an enchanting reworking of the power pop of the past from their key influence, Big Star, mixed with folk rock textures and angelic harmonies inspired by the Byrds. They’ve seen big label contracts and heavy cross Atlantic buzz. But they’ve never seen big sales, as their sort of classic soft rock was just completely out of step with the prevailing trends in pop during their peak years.
Which is a shame because a song like “It’s All In My Mind” from 2005’s Man-Madeis simply a stunner with insanely catchy hooks that make you want to hear it over and over. Unashamedly pretty but leavened somewhat by a sardonic, mature, bittersweet feel to the lyrics, “It’s All In My Mind” is an excellent jumping off point to get to know Teenage Fanclub. And after hearing this near-perfect single you’ll likely want to explore more of their back catalog, as I did. What you’ll find is many more beautiful tracks, once again proving that mass market success in music is not at all correlative to quality or excellence. But then sometimes it’s nice to be one of the select few in on a secret like Teenage Fanclub that’s hiding in plain sight.
In the 1960s, AM pop radio was king. FM wasn’t wide spread or heavily commercialized yet — most car and portable radios didn’t even have Frequency Modulation — and the majority of FM’s content was talk and Jazz, with some avant garde college stations breaking new ground by playing true alternative music like the Velvet Undergorund. But if you wanted to hear the hits you’d hear them on AM. While it’s easy to think that only heavyweights like Cream, Hendrix, The Doors and The Byrds were getting all the airplay two of the biggest AM chart toppers of that pop friendly-era were The Grass Roots and The Rascals.
I’d Wait a Million Years – The Grass Roots
The Grass Roots were a prototypical LA band: a good looking and interchangeable bunch of non-threatening white guys who could write a little, play a little but mostly sing very well while letting professional session musicians handle the recording dates and a master producer and songwriting team create their “sound.” On vinyl they were often backed up by that famous group of anonymous studio aces, The Wrecking Crew. But unlike other truly ersatz acts like The Association and The Monkees, The Grass Roots could really Rock when called upon with the commitment that makes for great Blue-Eyed Soul and pop rock. Sure, their music was heavily produced and the band members wound up coming and going at a dizzying pace — their only real mainstay was bassist/singer Rob Grill who wound up owning the band’s name and kept the Grass Roots going until his death in 2011. But under their nod-and-a-wink hippy moniker and backed by the remarkable West Coast songwriting team of PF Sloan and Steve Barri (of “Secret Agent Man” fame) and that great ultra-pop producer/Svengali Lou Adler (Mammas & the Papas, Carole King) and his Dunhill Records label, the Grass Roots cranked out some the seminal hits of the 60s.
Foremost among them is the great “Let’s Live For Today”. Released in 1967 at the height of the Summer of Love, “Live for Today” seemed to capture the youth explosion at its most optimistic, literally proclaiming carpe diem in 2:47 of dramatically arranged, beautifully constructed near-perfection. If it wasn’t “A Day In the Life” or “Good Vibrations”, well, not much else was either and “Let’s Live For Today”s yearning, passionate optimism and chiming but slightly wobbly, almost Eastern guitar notes — not to mention that great shouted “1-2-3-4!” bridge — signaled generational change and renunciation of establishment expectations in the guise of a plaintive love song. It brought the band major success, charting at #8 and selling over a million copies, and it’s simply a great pop record redolent of 60s zeitgeist that still holds up very well.
Midnight Confessions – The Grass Roots
Though not an album band due to their somewhat manufactured, ad hoc structure the Grass Roots had another smash with the beautifully produced and well-arranged “Midnight Confessions,” a typical hopeless love song elevated to super-hooky greatness by a swirling Hammond organ, a walking bass line and some innovative time shifts by the percussion. It deservedly reached #5 on the pop charts late in 1968.
Temptation Eyes – The Grass Roots
1969 saw them score another big hit standing out from a lot of middling material with the intense “Wait a Million Years” and its through-line of insistent electronic beep, dramatic horns and propulsive rhythms. Amidst much band reshuffling the ‘Roots had one more really good song in them, 1970’s “Temptation Eyes”, a solid straight-ahead rocker that was definitely consistent with their overall sound and contribution to the Rock canon. While they’d have even more success with 1971’s “Sooner or Later” and “Two Divided By Love”, those songs are pretty weak sauce with an inescapably cloying Wonder Bread mushiness that does the band no credit. It’s no wonder that they soon petered out and onto the oldies circuit. But their best songs still hold up really well and are a pleasure to listen to. By definition a 60s band, The Grass Roots nevertheless seem prescient in predicting the pop direction of similar acts like The Raspberries, Three Dog Night and Atlanta Rhythm Section.
The Rascals might be viewed as the mirror image of a band like the Grass Roots. Although they charted just as frequently on AM radio during the 60s and their music was also an integral part of the pop soundscape of the era, the Rascals (originally the Young Rascals) were not a West Coast studio creation at all, despite the excellent production and sophisticated arrangements of their best singles. The Rascals hailed from back east in New Jersey and were a real band with four longstanding members who wrote and performed their own material: Felix Caviellieri on keyboard and vocals, the band’s linchpin, Eddie Bregati on vocals and percussion, Gene Cornish on guitar and Dino Danelli on drums. With three of their members having already honed their chops in the band Joey Dee and the Starlighters, The Young Rascals came out of the shoot ready to rock with two reasonably successful hits, the pleasingly raw “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965) and the propulsive, all-time great party anthem “Good Lovin'” (1966).
Good Lovin’ – The Young Rascals
Already the authenticity of the vocals and more rough-hewn, organic excellence of the musicianship declare that the Rascals are not going to be just another sweet sounding pop band with only one or two hits. With an attack owing more to garage bands like the Standells and The Outsiders than to the highly polished sheen of LA’s “West Coast Sound,” but also with more than a casual nod to the British Invasion, the Rascals made the case that East Coast Rock ‘n Roll would not go gently into that good, super-sweet AM radio night.
Which is not to say that the Rascals were radical or confrontational in any overt way. They weren’t musical revolutinaries like Love or social rabble rousers like Jefferson Airplane. But neither were they bubblegum pop. The Rascals were grittier Blue-Eyed Soul with an authentic, intuitive feel for a non-condescending, non-homogenized version of that sub-genre that so many other white acts just couldn’t match. They kept up the good work in 1967 with the Bacharach-like “How Can I be Sure” (covered to even better effect by Dusty Springfield for my money), the surprisingly soulful ode to love and good times, “Groovin'”, a #1 chart-topper, and its fraternal twin single, 1968’s “A Beautiful Morning.”
A Beautiful Morning – The Rascals
Those last two lush and ostensibly happy singles cleverly utilize hints of Latin percussion and feature Cavaliere’s wonderfully evocative, emotionally complex vocals, turning what could easily be pop tripe into something lasting, universal and great. The Rascals were also dedicated participants in their tumultuous times, taking a stand on racial segregation by not accepting bookings on segregated, all-white bills. And when Martin Kuther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968 it seemed only fitting that they’d be releasing a single that made the case for peace, tolerance and brotherhood, “People Got To Be Free.”
The Rascals peaked early and wouldn’t last much into the 70s, failing to find chart success when they tried to be more ambitious than the 3-minute single and ventured into longer-form tracks incorporating psychedelia, Eastern philosophy and jazz fusion (though for true aficionados the later recordings are still worth a listen, as the musicianship is always excellent). Nonetheless, as a band that wrote & performed almost all of their own material, they were undoubtedly a more serious, substantial Rock band than The Grass Roots despite sharing a similar timeline of success, no argument. As if to prove the point, The Rascals were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. But for pure listening pleasure, both The Rascals and The Grass Roots still deliver the thrills and hooks of a beautifully fresh pop sound that resonates all the way from the late 1960s to today, whether you’re listening via AM, FM or WiFi.
“Pancho and Lefty,” written by the great cult country singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, is one of those supremely evocative songs that is both touching and enigmatic. Obliquely telling the story of Pancho, a Mexican bandit similar to the legendary Pancho Villa, and Lefty, a broken down singer who may or may not have set up Pancho to be taken and killed by the Federales, the song saw its biggest success on Willie Nelson & the late Merle Haggard’s 1983 collaboration, Pancho and Lefty. The title track reached #1 on the country charts and it’s easy to hear why today
With Willie Nelson’s inimitably reedy talk-singing laying out the story in touching but unsentimental manner for two-thirds of the track and then Haggard’s instantly recognizable Bakersfield baritone coming in for the last verse and joining Willie for the last choruses, their “Pancho and Lefty” is a world weary tale of a bandit’s rise and fall and the more nuanced discontents of an aging singer. Miles away from the ultra-slick country confections of the time, it’s easy to see how the song’s bittersweet story arc would appeal to these gritty veteran country music outlaws.
But there is an even earlier version of “Pancho and Lefty” that gives the song’s moving mini-saga an achingly beautiful feminine retelling. One of the highlights of the supernaturally gifted vocalist Emmylou Harris’s 1977 standout album, Luxury Liner, her version of “Pancho and Lefty” was actually the first cover of this much-covered song. It’s also arguably still the best.
Famed as a great duettist and muse, most notably on Gram Parsons’ best solo recordings, Harris shows that she is more than up for leading a band and dominating a tune as a solo artist. With her utterly unique and ethereal soprano front and center, Harris’s version not only puts forward the tale of the outlaw and the singer as written but also seems to be bringing forward an even deeper level of meaning as relates to the song’s author. When she sings: “The poets tell how Poncho fell/And Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel/The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold/And so the story ends we’re told/Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true/Save a few for Lefty too/He only did what he had to do/And now he’s growin’ old” the connection that this is Van Zandt’s lonesome autobiography — and that he might think of himself as both the outlaw and the singer — really hits home. As great and enjoyably leathery as the Nelson-Haggard version is, it’s the lovely and soulful Emmylou Harris take that I’d pick to move me — and breath life into the spirit of Townes Van Zandt — every day of the week.