Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Aural Fixation: The Art of the Album Cover

Aural Fixation:

The Art of the Album Cover

Aural Fixation” is a music-themed column I wrote for PopMatters.com from 2011-2013. They are no longer online there, but I have reformatted them here at the DMDB blog with additional videos, photos, and links, such as where to buy referenced albums. I have also used the title “Aural Fixation” for any essays I have written outside of PopMatters.com as well. To see the essays, check out the Dave’s Music Database Aural Fixation page. You can also purchase the essays in book format here.

Eons ago during my college days, I had a buddy named Don. We ended up as roommates down the line, but when we first became friends he was living with a guy named Tyrone. The two of them were pretty different. Their musical tastes pretty well summed it up – Don was a fan of Manhattan Transfer and Linda Ronstadt while I recall Ty listening to more hair bands and heavy metal.

One afternoon I trekked up to the third floor of our dorm to visit Don. He wasn’t home. I hung out with Ty poring over his albums. And yes, I mean LPs – complete with large, square cardboard covers which could also properly house artwork on the front, back, and insides. We ended up rating his albums – not based on the music, but on the cover art. We devised categories, which I’ll recall here to the best of my ability. On a scale of 1 to 5, albums merely emblazoned with band logos and album names rated the worst (1). Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet is a prime example – especially when one considers that the originally planned cover (see here) was, while crude and sexist, at least more interesting to look at.

Dull band and artist photos which looked like publicity stills also got thumbs-down ratings (2). How many times can Phil Collins plaster his less-than-model-beautiful face on the front of an album? Garth Brooks may be one of the best-selling album artists in history, but are his fans clamoring for all his multi-platinum efforts to be splashed with uninspiring shots of him hiding his balding head with an ever-present cowboy hat? Couldn’t No Fences at least have been infused with a bit of humorous irony by having him pose against a fence?

In all fairness, these covers aren’t tragedies. They are just uninteresting. If you’re looking for the truly awful – covers that evoke gasps of disbelief or make you throw up in your mouth a little – there are sites devoted to just such endeavors. For covers like the one below, check out worstalbumcovers.org, coverbrowser.com, or this page at superdps.com.

To continue with the Ty-and-Dave rating system, a photo of a band done in at least some semi-interesting or amusing fashion garnered a passing grade (3 out of 5). Only the completely prudish would stifle a chuckle at the Who’s Next album cover.

Albums got kudos when they were bold enough to forego an image of the band altogether in favor of interesting photos or imagery (4) such as Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

Best of all were fully commissioned works of art which one would consider hanging on the wall (5). These were albums which made the buyer feel like they’d made a decent investment even if the music sucked. Roger Dean made a name for himself as the artist for Yes and Asia album covers.

A poll by MusicRadar.com forced me to revisit what makes for great album art. The Ty-and-Dave scale celebrated the effort put into a cover’s creation. However, upon surfing the Web for best-covers-of-all-time lists, my resulting aggregate DMDB list proved that an album falling anywhere on the scale could make the cut. Sadly, this diversity of album effort is largely predicated on the reality that to achieve classic album art status first requires attaining classic album status. While the idea of a classic collection of music housed in a classic exterior is appealing, the hope was that this list would turn up inspired works of album art, regardless of what was within. A full 39 of 100 albums on the best-covers list also make the DMDB’s list of the top 100 albums of all time. Of the 62 albums left, another 46 made the DMDB top 1000 albums list. This left a mere sixteen albums to boast of classic packaging that had nothing to do with what was tucked inside the cardboard.

That means this list is populated with album covers that in some cases are more iconic than great. As the bestselling album of all-time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is inescapable. It follows that the packaging for such an album would be roughly as recognizable to anyone who lived through the 1980s as would be a picture of President Ronald Reagan. However, that doesn’t mean the Thriller album cover is a great work of art. On the Ty-and-Dave scale, this thing is merely a promo photo, which would land it a miserable 2 on a scale of 5.

The Ty-and-Dave scale was frequently trumped with iconic imagery trumping effort. The Beatles’ White Album, Metallica’s Black Album, and AC/DC’s Back in Black made the list precisely because of their absence of artwork. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols would rate a 1 on the Ty-and-Dave scale, but its logo has become so iconic it lands the album in the top 10. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is nothing more than a brick wall with the title scrawled upon it, but it has become one of the most recognizable album covers of all time.

Simple band or artist photos of the Beatles (With the Beatles), Fleetwood Mac (Rumours), Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run), Prince (Purple Rain), Patti Smith (Horses), and the Ramones (self-titled debut) didn’t hamper them from making the cut.

The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Elvis Presley’s 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, U2’s The Joshua Tree, the Police’s Synchronicity, and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, all make the list with photos depicting them in more interesting ways than the standard band shots. Some of these images have reached iconic status, such as Annie Leibovitz’s twist on the shot of the artist with her photo’s focus of Bruce Springsteen’s butt on Born in the U.S.A.. The Queen II cover was immortalized when the group revisited the image in the video of “Bohemian Rhapsody” a couple albums later. It has practically become the still shot to represent the band.

Some albums stuck with depictions of the artists, but eschewed photography as the medium of choice. Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, the Beatles’ Revolver, Cream’s Disraeli Gears, the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours all opted for this approach.

Upping the game a bit were those covers abandoning any reference to the artist in favor of representative photos. Supertramp’s Breakfast in America was a straightforward but clever interpretation of the album title while the Doors’ Strange Days captured a fittingly odd circus-on-the-sidewalk shot. The Rolling Stones generated controversy with their image of a toilet and its surrounding graffiti. New Order went with a beautiful picture of roses to contradict the Power, Corruption and Lies album title. Sometimes the image evoked puzzlement. What’s with the crab on the cover of the Prodigy’s Fat of the Land or the shot of the cow on Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother? How about that odd sheep dog jumping a hurdle on Beck’s Odelay? At other times, the image was pretty straightforward. DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing was just a shot of browsers in a record store.

A whole subset of the non-band-photo technique emerged via the “provocative” cover (i.e., covers which featured nudity or came close). Roxy Music’s Country Life, the Cars’ Candy-O, the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and Bow Wow Wow’s roll-off-the-tongue title See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! all gave horny teens drooling material. The latter was an homage to Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Lunch on the Grass),” but since Annabella Lwin was only 15 when photographed sans clothing, the album art had to be reworked in some markets.

The Strokes’ Is This It, with its close-up profile of a woman’s hip, and Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, with a bevy of nude women lying entwined amongst each other, also required reworks before they could hit the U.S. market. Jane’s Addiction mocked the whole thing with their cover of Nothing’s Shocking. Its picture of conjoined twins sitting in a double rocker with their hair on fire was more disturbing than arousing. In that same vein, Marilyn Manson’s body suit with breasts confirmed the image people already had of him as an oddity. While Manson’s suit had nothing in the nether region, David Bowie’s cover art for Diamond Dogs painted him as an unquestionably male canine. The tamest of all was Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights, although in 1965 it evoked a stir with its suggestiveness.

Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and Velvet Underground’s debut all proved that simple imagery could make for impactful art. VU’s banana cover, created by famed pop artist Andy Warhol, has become one of the most iconic covers in music history.

Of course, the Velvet album was also notable for innovative packaging. Early versions of the album inticed the buyer to “peel slowly and see” – an invitation to see the flesh-colored banana beneath the banana skin. Warhol also conceived the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album cover, which featured a close-up of a blue-jeaned crotch and a working zipper. Unzipping it would show the inside of the album – a close-up of the model in briefs. Bob Marley’s original album for Catch a Fire was a picture of a Zippo lighter. One opened the album from the top, much as one would flip open a lighter. Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box was originally packaged as three 12” 45 RPM’s in a metal canister.

The Band’s Music from Big Pink, the Stone Roses’ debut, Duran Duran’s Rio, Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King (in all its disturbing glory) all went with paintings for their covers. Mati Klarwein, who painted the 1961 “Annunciation” (below) which served as the cover for Santana’s Abraxas, also lent his paintbrush to the classic cover for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

On the lighter side, some albums used cartoons for their covers. Amongst the most prominent are Green Day’s Dookie, Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, the Mothers of Invention’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and Sonic Youth’s Goo.

Finally, there are some albums whose cover art has become as iconic as the albums they decorate. The naked baby swimming after a dollar on Nirvana’s Nevermind, the reworked version of Elvis Presley’s debut (itself an entry on the best-album-cover list) for the Clash’s London Calling, and the gathering of cardboard cut-out celebrities for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all have entrenched themselves into pop culture. Topping them all, however, is the prism on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. That one would rate a 5 on the Ty-and-Dave scale.

For more “Aural Fixation” essays, check out the Dave’s Music Database Aural Fixation page page.

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First posted 4/26/2011; updated 10/27/2023.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

50 years ago: Judy Garland recorded live at Carnegie Hall

First posted 3/18/2008; updated 10/2/2020.

Judy at Carnegie Hall

Judy Garland

Recorded: April 23, 1961

Released: July 10, 1961

Charted: July 31, 1961

Peak: 113 US, 13 UK, -- CN, -- AU

Sales (in millions): 0.5 US, -- UK, 0.5 world (includes US and UK)

Genre: vocal jazz/traditional pop

Tracks, Disc 1:

Song Title (date of single release, chart peaks). Chart information is for the original studio recordings. Click for codes to singles charts.

  1. Overture: a) The Trolley Song b) Over the Rainbow c) The Man That Got Away [5:48]
  2. When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You) (Mark Fisher, Joe Goodwin, Larry Shay) [3:29]
  3. Medley: [6:27]
    Almost Like Being in Love/ (Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe)
    This Can’t Be Love (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart)
  4. Do It Again (George Gershwin, Buddy DeSylva) [6:16]
  5. You Go to My Head (J. Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie) [2:43]
  6. Alone Together (Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz) [5:38]
  7. Who Cares As Long As You Care for Me (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) [1:46]
  8. Puttin’ on the Ritz (Irving Berlin) [2:45]
  9. How Long Has This Been Going On? (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) [4:12]
  10. Just You, Just Me (Jesse Greer, Raymond Klages) [2:16]
  11. The Man That Got Away (Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin) [5:03] (8/21/54, 22 US, 18 UK)
  12. San Francisco (Walter Jurmann, Gus Kahn, Bronislaw Kaper) [4:45]
  13. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh) [6:46]
  14. That’s Entertainment (Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz) [6:38]

Tracks, Disc 2:

  1. Come Rain or Come Shine (Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer) [7:23]
  2. You’re Nearer (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart) [2:33]
  3. A Foggy Day (George Gerswhin, Ira Gershwin) [3:04]
  4. If Love Were All (Noel COward) [2:53]
  5. Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart (James F. Hanley) [4:04] (7/17/43, 22 US)
  6. Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler) [6:11]
  7. Medley: [3:56]
    You Made Me Love You (Joseph McCarthy, James V. Monaco, Roger Edens)/
    For Me and My Gal (George W. Meyers, Edgard Leslie, E. Ray Goetz) (1/24/42, 3 US)/
    The Trolley Song (Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane) (11/18/44, 4 US)
  8. Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody (Sam M. Lewis, Jean Schwartz, Joe Young) [5:22]
  9. Over the Rainbow (Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg) [5:47] (9/9/39, 5 US)
  10. Swanee (Irving Caesar, George Gershwin) [7:31]
  11. After You’ve Gone (Henry Creamer, Turner Layton) [4:20]
  12. Chicago (Fred Fisher) [5:15]

Total Running Time: 122:51


4.554 out of 5.00 (average of 9 ratings)

Quotable: “One of pop music’s greatest live recordings” – Jason Verlinde, Amazon.com


About the Album:

“The late ‘50s were tough on Judy Garland, but this live recording…would (rightfully) bring the legendary icon back into the spotlight.” AZ “With relentless verve, Garland takes on her entire musical catalogue with astonishing aplomb. There is little sign of the decades of self-abuse which had left her frail by the early ‘60s.” AMG

The album won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and was Garland’s bestselling record. The album confirmed “that, yes, on certain levels, she still had it. Her vocals are as strong as ever on these tunes, and Garland has fun with an audience obviously enraptured by her charms. She’s self-deprecating where necessary – on You Go to My Head she forgets the lyrics but keeps improvising. But mostly she just shines, especially on tunes she made famous, such as…Over the Rainbow. This is easily one of pop music’s greatest live recordings and a fine testament to Garland’s recorded legacy.” AZ

Other than her own songs, she tackles a number of standards. In fact, eight songs from this album are featured in the DMDB book The Top 100 Songs of the Pre-Rock Era, 1890-1953. In addition to “Over the Rainbow” and For Me and My Gal, which she took to #3 in 1942, she covers three songs which Al Jolson took to #1 – You Made Me Love You (1913), Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody (1918), and Swanee (1920). She also covers songs which Marion Harris (After You’ve Gone, 1919), Cliff Edwards (I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, 1928), and Ethel Waters (Stormy Weather, 1933) took to #1.


The “40th anniversary edition…is a completely fresh experience even for those intimately familiar with previous versions. By accessing tapes which have not been used on any other release…many sonic foibles which plagued the original have now been repaired. The overwhelming success of this album…makes it a prime candidate for a sonic overhaul. By reclaiming tapes that were once considered MIA, the sound is now notably more balanced. In addition, much of the fake applause has been thoughtfully removed, unveiling previously masked dramatic pacing and audience interplay between songs.” AMG

“But the highlight of the entire package is the return of Alone Together from the actual Carnegie Hall performance. The song had been replaced by a studio version on the 1989 CD reissue due to missing master tapes. Since then, those tapes have been put back into commission and provide the jaw-dropping sound on this delightful set.” AMG

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Modern-Indie-College-Alternative Rock for Hipsters (MICAH for Short)

Originally published in my "Aural Fixation" column on PopMatters.com on April 18, 2011. See original post here.

That collective gasp when Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs snagged the Album of the Year prize at the 2011 Grammys was not just the sound of middle America murmuring “Who?” It was also the crestfallen sigh of the hipster nation, aghast that another of its warriors had succumbed to the dark side. It was yet another lost battle to keep underground music where it belonged – in the hands of teens and 20-somethings dedicated to sporting thrift shop apparel and ironic looks.

As a grizzled codger, I took a “seen it all before” attitude. I am, after all, twice the average hipster’s age with an unfathomable 44 fire-hazard-producing candles atop my last birthday cake. That cry of “I remember when that band belonged to us” was not invented by the latte-swilling generation. There have been decades of precedents, be it U2 taking over the world with their #1 hit “With Or Without You”, Green Day signing with a major label so that they could win over the masses with songs about masturbation and paranoia, or Nirvana dethroning Michael Jackson on the album chart.

The “sell out” tag was attached to all these bands prior to these incidents, but like Arcade Fire’s Grammy victory, these were defining moments when indie faves became mainstream darlings. Hipsters might lament that Arcade Fire lost their edge when they racked up Grammy nominations. Maybe it was when The Suburbs topped the album chart. It could go back to their sophomore effort, 2007’s Neon Bible, hitting #2. It might date to “Wake Up” becoming inescapable or when the band’s 2004 debut, Funeral, went gold.

Ever since rock ‘n’ roll became the music for the masses with Elvis’ hip swiveling broadcast to millions via The Ed Sullivan Show, there has been an alternative scene dedicated to, well, not the masses. The garage rock of the ‘50s gave way to beret-wearing beatniks celebrating Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground pet project in the ‘60s.

In the ‘70s, Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop in Britain and Hilly Kristal’s CBGB club in New York gifted punk rock like the Sex Pistols and Ramones to disenfranchised youth with tastes for power chords and clothing decorated with safety pins. With their early brand of electronica, Kraftwerk spawned synth-loving new wave rockers who dressed fashionably and sported ozone-killing hairdos. Goth-rock innovators like Joy Division birthed a generation of brooding musicians and followers marked by jet-black hair drooping over pale faces and mascara-painted eyes.

It all gelled together just enough in the early ‘80s to spark under-the-radar radio stations devoted to representing the various underground scenes. A more all-encompassing banner became necessary. This left-of-center music which appeals to 20-somethings who dress funny has been saddled with a handful of monikers over the last 30 years, but I’ll call it “MICAH”. Huh? Who’s MICAH? No, not who, but what. “MICAH” is my admittedly cheesy acronym for music that has, at one time or another, been defined as modern, indie, college, alternative, and hipster music.

Because of its origins at under-the-radar college radio stations at the dawn of the ‘80s, this music first gathered under the “college rock” banner. Some of the genre’s earliest champions were U2, R.E.M., Duran Duran, INXS, Depeche Mode, and the Cure. In what became the MICAH music trend, these bands all forfeited their college-rock membership badges when they landed top-selling albums fueled by top ten hits. Fanatics who had supported these bands pre-MTV cried “sell out” and embraced the never-quite-prime-time rockers like the Replacements and Sonic Youth.

By the late ‘80s, the term “college rock” was overhauled to “modern rock”, presumably because its 20-something listener base were now struggling to pony up cash for rent and car payments instead of textbook fees and pizza deliveries. Groups like Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers found ways to turn Run-D.M.C’s remake of “Walk This Way” into an entire rap-rock genre. Like their predecessors, however, they were booted to the curb by their MICAH base when they fueled their efforts into top ten hits like “Epic” and “Under the Bridge”.

In the ‘90s, the music was rechristened “alternative rock” and helmed by punk rock revivalists like Green Day and flannel-wearing grunge rockers like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Once again, these were the flagship groups who quickly outgrew their underground aesthetic when they became “the music of a generation”.

Amusingly, another MICAH trend perpetrated itself during this era. Much as groups like the Jesus and Mary Chain or Echo & the Bunnymen had enjoyed far greater success in their native UK, ‘90s groups like Blur and Oasis led the Britpop movement overseas, but were just part of the collective alt-rock genre in the States. Apparently, it was acceptable to listen to bands who’d landed huge hits – as long as they hadn’t done so in North America.

Another reboot was necessary by the end of the century. This time the worshippers of non-mega-label music opted to stamp their favorite tuneage with the “indie rock” tag. Once again, bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes, which came out of a garage revivalist movement, quickly became too big for their britches.

In the 21st century, MICAH music has become the soundtrack for hipsters whose credibility lies in latching on to that to which the general public remains clueless. Ironically, the very collective comprised of those who make such effort to not be defined have, like their predecessors, pretty cleanly boxed themselves into a clique with their concerted efforts at their alternative looks, tastes, and lifestyles.

What’s a MICAH fan to do when the rest of the world is suddenly aware of what was supposed to stay underground? Emo proved a failed outlet for indie tastes as Pete Wentz hooked and unhooked with pop singer Ashlee Simpson as quickly as his group Fall Out Boy and fellow emo rockers Panic! At the Disco and My Chemical Romance went from underground to mainstream to falling out of favor. Similarly, dance-rock revival groups like Franz Ferdinand and the Killers were big before they’d ever been small.

In recent years, Mumford & Sons, the Fleet Foxes, the Black Keys, the National, Band of Horses, and the Hold Steady earned just enough media spotlight to leave hipsters wondering where to turn next. Thanks to the digital age, anyone and their mother can download anything ever recorded or YouTube anything ever filmed. Bands like Vampire Weekend practically had their MICAH membership cards revoked before they’d arrived in the mail.

Well, MICAH fans, rejoice. For every Arcade Fire or U2 or Green Day who makes it big, there will be a wake of also-rans. For every album that sells in the six-figure range, there will be other acts who struggle to sell, well, six albums. Every suburban garage holds possibilities for the next band that will go nowhere and every local club potentially houses the next audience-of-one performance by the latest not-up-and-coming band.

Oh, and there is one more possibility. Don’t gauge how much you should or shouldn’t like a band based on their sales on iTunes, their number of fans on Facebook, or the size of the venues they play. Don’t fret over who does or doesn’t have your band’s tunes spinning on their iPods. Don’t get alarmed when your band hits one million plays on YouTube or uses their song to hock product in TV commercials. Like the bands you like because… well, because you like them. Just a thought from a decidedly unhip fogie who’s probably old enough to be your father.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aural Fixation: When the Rainmakers Came to Town

Aural Fixation:

When the Rainmakers Came to Town

Aural Fixation” is a music-themed column I wrote for PopMatters.com from 2011-2013. They are no longer online there, but I have reformatted them here at the DMDB blog with additional videos, photos, and links, such as where to buy referenced albums. I have also used the title “Aural Fixation” for any essays I have written outside of PopMatters.com as well. To see the essays, check out the Dave’s Music Database Aural Fixation page.

The essays from PopMatters.com have been gathered in book form as Aural Fixation: Essays from a Music Obsessive. Essays written from 2009 to 2011 have been gathered in the book No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze”. You can purchase the essays in book format here.

I was a latecomer to the whole concert-going experience. My first show was in college. The Rainmakers, a Kansas City-based band, did a campus gig. I don’t remember much other than going with a group of a half dozen friends or so, sitting in the balcony, and having Amy vent her disgust that we weren’t getting up and dancing.

I also plopped down the bucks for a concert tee which became my favorite shirt once I’d so thoroughly butchered the sleeves that way too much of my then-way-too-skinny frame was on display. More importantly, I became a huge fan of the band’s debut album (their only release at the time) – in fact, I now proclaim it my favorite of 1986 and one of my top 30 albums of all time. Forgive me – those who know me are well aware of my list-making obsession. I haven’t been institutionalized for it – yet.

The Rainmakers never gained a big following. Their audience was primarily, and understandably, based in the Midwest and, in a comment sure to evoke a chorus of “huhs?,” in Norway. I’m not sure what the Norwegians saw in this mix of roots-rock, rockabilly, and country, but it evidences their good taste.

Actually, pinning a label genre on the Rainmakers is no easy task. I read a recent review comparing them to Creedence Clearwater Revival. That is somewhat apt in that John Fogerty gave CCR a distinct voice much as the Rainmakers’ Bob Walkenhorst defines their sound. Both bands have decidedly regional feels to them, even if CCR’s homebase appears to be the swampy vibe of New Orleans when they actually were based in California. The Rainmakers also seem slightly displaced with a sound that owes more to Southern rock and Memphis’ Sun Records than to, well, whatever the hell the sound is that defines the Midwest.

Aside from their sound, much of the Rainmakers’ appeal comes in their witty and well-crafted lyrics. How does one not snicker and cringe simultaneously during “Little Tiny World,” which offers the poignant observation of the soap operatic nature of close-knit friends with the line “when I figured it all out, I figured I’d slept with myself”?

The debut album thrust itself upon the world with songs about Moses leading his people to redemption (“Let My People Go-Go”), Chuck Berry and Mark Twain cruising the Mississippi River in a row boat (“Downstream”), and an affection for not-so-skinny-boned women (“Big Fat Blonde”).

They weren’t a novelty band, though. The debut album also showcased the crew’s political side with a commentary on Welfare (“Government Cheese”) and, on the band’s 1997 release Skin, the group crafted an entire concept album about the subjugation of women.

So why the nostalgia now, 25 years after that concert and album? Well, the quarter-century anniversary is precisely why. After a 14-year hiatus, Walkenhorst reconvened with Pat Tomek and Rich Ruth, the band’s original drummer and bassist, for a reunion tour and album. Subbing for original guitarist Steve Phillips, who was committed to his band the Elders, was Jeff Porter, who shared the stage with Walkenhorst at a standing weekly gig at Kansas City’s Record Bar.

The resulting album, 25 On (read more here), was released mid-March. Time will tell where it ultimate stands in my grand assessment, but the initial reaction is a thumbs-up. Now I’ll anxiously await their triumphant concert return to Kansas City in May and hope they don’t wait 14 years before another album.

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First posted 4/7/2011; updated 10/28/2023.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aural Fixation: The Art of List Making

Aural Fixation:

The Art of List Making

Aural Fixation” is a music-themed column I wrote for PopMatters.com from 2011-2013. They are no longer online there, but I have reformatted them here at the DMDB blog with additional videos, photos, and links, such as where to buy referenced albums. I have also used the title “Aural Fixation” for any essays I have written outside of PopMatters.com as well. To see the essays, check out the Dave’s Music Database Aural Fixation page.

The essays from PopMatters.com have been gathered in book form as Aural Fixation: Essays from a Music Obsessive. Essays written from 2009 to 2011 have been gathered in the book No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze”. You can purchase the essays in book format here.

For anyone paying attention, you’ll know that I like making lists. A lot. Obsessively so. Not to-do lists, mind you – I’m enthralled by making best-of music-related lists. In the music world, nothing seems to simultaneously disgust and delight so many – well, with the possible exception of Justin Bieber. Detractors whine over what doesn’t make it that should and what makes it that shouldn’t. Music elitists argue that a list degrades musical accomplishments to a subjective ranking. Fans like yours truly just say pfffft.

Consider best-of lists in the same light as, well, compilation albums. Album purists whine that such collections don’t represent artists’ work as originally intended. Sneer at anthologies if you wish, but they serve a purpose. For many people, such a package is the first exposure to an artist beyond a random song here and there. A greatest hits can be the first dip of the toe into the artist’s greater pool of work, prompting the listener to dive deeper.

Best-of lists serve the same purpose. They offer general overviews of whatever they’re specializing in. That may mean diddly to veterans, but it can be a game changer for novices. Years ago, I picked up Dave Marsh’s 1989 book The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. It was, as far as I can remember, my first foray into the world of best-of list making. While I certainly could nitpick over Marsh’s rankings, I instead relished the discovery of hundreds of songs previously unfamiliar to me. For example, if Marsh ranked Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad” as high as #49, it at least bore investigation.

So now, twenty years later, I’m trotting out my own book – The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era 1954-1999, available now at Amazon.com. You can learn more about the book at here.

Yes, this blog entry is a shameless plug for said book. What can I say? With all the fake modesty and sincerity I can muster, I hereby proclaim it the best book ever written. Non-listers will build altars to the book that opened the musical door for them. Those who are already list believers will abandon all other lists, knowing they have found the one-and-only TRUE list. Uh huh. You can insert your favorite “swamp land in Florida”, “when pigs fly” or other “it’ll never happen” slam here.

In all seriousness, I cringe at the same thing that makes the skin of many list readers crawl. Who picked these? Even the most credible music sources – the Grammys, the Billboard charts, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone magazine – have built-in biases. No matter who generates the list, it is targeted toward that source’s specific audience, inevitably leaving important elements out of the list-making equation.

For example, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” aren’t in the Grammy Hall of Fame, despite being mainstays on any song list worth its salt. Check the list of the thousand songs to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and you won’t find John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Even if you figure any Hot 100 charting song into the mix, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” are still A.W.O.L. from the list. That’s right – neither even dented the U.S. pop charts, despite their presence on many a best-of list.

The Grammys and Billboard represent more middle-of-the-road tastes, hence the omission of classic rock gems from Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and others. The problem, however, goes both ways. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame generated a list of the “Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,” and, apparently as punishment to songs not sporting guitar solos, showed no love to monster hits like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.”

Use Rolling Stone magazine, arguably the leading U.S. rock rag, as your guide and their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list won’t leave you feeling like “Dancing in the Street” when you realize that the Martha & the Vandellas’ classic has been kicked to the curb. The absence of Don McLean’s “American Pie” is enough to make one drive his Chevy off the levee.

I could site more oversights from other major music publications, but you get the point. None of these lists capture everything. Maybe a list is slanted toward commercially successful songs. Perhaps it favors critical acclaim. It may be too acutely tuned in to one genre of music. These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

Actually, I should qualify that. Music lists have kept me up many a night, but it’s the mix of being a night owl and having a driving need to seek out lists ad infinitum that has led to pillow neglect. I’m fairly non-plussed by whatever a list maker chooses to include or not include. There’s always another list around the next Internet corner to make up the difference.

Out of my late-night excursions trolling the web for best-of lists, Dave’s Music Database was born. At the turn of the millennium, best-of lists were as common as Y2K panic. I have compiled one massive database in which I’ve averaged hundreds of these lists together, effectively weeding out the idiosyncrasies of individual lists and leaving behind one definitive, end-all be-all, no-questions-asked, granddaddy list of all lists. After all that work the next logical question is “Now what?”

I built a website (DavesMusicDatabase.com) around my endeavors and later a Facebook page so that I might connect with other similarly-minded fanatics. Ultimately my love of writing – and a pipe dream of making barrels and barrels of cash – led to The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era 1954-1999. I keyed in on the rock era since even the plethora of lists in my database couldn’t erase the dominance of the second half of the 20th century.

In writing about the top 100 songs, I opted for an aggregate approach. Much as I’d consulted countless lists to create my definitive one, why not tap multiple sources for the ultimate consolidated capsules about those songs? After such an objective process to determine what made the cut, it would have been oddly inappropriate to suddenly go all personal with heartfelt essays and “I remember where I was when I first heard that” ramblings about each song. Heck, I can save that subjective, opinionated crap for my blog. No, the only acceptable angle was to harken back to the days of collegiate research-paper writing. I liberally footnoted, quoted, and referenced (see sample pages here). It won’t look like other best-of books, but then again, I never wanted it to anyway.

So the end result is, as it says on the back of the book, “the ultimate cream-of-the-crop list which will draw criticism from none and praise from all. Well, one can dream.”

Dreaming may be free, but the book is not. Point that browser toward Amazon.com and plunk down $16.95. Hey, I need to pay next month’s Internet bill so I can start surfing my way to the next project.

BTW, once you have that life-changer in hands head on over to the discussions section on the DMDB Facebook page to leave your comments of praise, worship, and devotion.

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First posted 4/5/2011; updated 10/28/2023.

Friday, April 1, 2011

100 years ago: “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey” hit #1

Put Your Arms Around Me Honey (I Never Knew Any Girl Like You)

Arthur Collins & Byron Harlan

Writer(s): Albert Von Tilzer (music), Junie McCree (words) (see lyrics here)

First Charted: March 25, 1911

Peak: 15 US, 12 GA, 110 SM (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 (sheet music)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 0.01 video, -- streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Differing accounts suggest either Virginia Houston DJ or Blossom Seeley SH introduced the song in vaudeville in 1910. Elizabeth Murray also popularized the song in vaudeville DJ and sang it in the Broadway musical production of Madame Sherry, SM although the rest of the songs were by Otto Harbach and Karl Hoschna. TY2

Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan were the first to record the song on November 16, 1910. SH It became a #1 hit the following year. Ada Jones (#5) and “That Girl” Quartet (#6) also charted with the song in 1911. Dick Kuhn revived it in 1942 (#4) and Dick Haymes (#5) also had a hit with the song in 1943. PM The song has also been recorded by Fats Domino, Sammy Kaye, Clyde McPhatter, and others. SH Betty Grable sang it in the 1943 movie Coney Island and Judy Garland sang it in the 1949 film In the Good Old Summertime. DJ It was also featured in Slightly Terrific (1944) and Mother Wore Tight (1947).

The music was composed by Albert Von Tilzer, best known for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The lyrics were written by Junie McCree, born Gonzalvo Macarillo in Toledo, Ohio, in 1865. Not only did he write songs for vaudeville, but he was a successful joke and sketch writer. The two also collaborated on “Take Me Up with You, Dearie” (#4, 1909), “Let’s Go in to a Picture Show” (#5, 1909), and “Carrie (Carrie Marry Harry)” (#1, 1910), “Nora Malone” (#9, 1911), and “Oh, That Moonlight Glide” (#8, 1911).

“The conversation between the two black characters..took the form of a proposal” SM from Rastus to Liza. She warns him that they shouldn’t get cold feet and they “laughed at the mention of each others’ faults and sang through another chorus.” SM “The chorus…was the only part that most of the singers who covered the song in the 1940s sang.” SM


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First posted 2/26/2023.