Pluto Rocks!! The Classic Rock Connection – from the Moody Blues to Queen!

Pluto Rocks!!

If you can’t get the Moody Blues, Queen will do!

new horizon

In Mid-July the New Horizons space probe sent back spectacular photos of our solar system’s most mysterious planet (yes, I said planet, dammit!) Pluto. I blog about my initial reactions here.

The biggest reaction I got from my blog was from Moody Blues fans. Like hundreds (perhaps thousands or more) fans I trolled the interweb looking for any connection between the space probe and the Moody’s song from their 1972 album Seventh Sojourn (“New Horizons” was the second song on the Side A).

Nothing on a NASA-related site or a Moody Blues-related site showed any connection, other than fans like me wondering why not.

Too bad, it was a missed opportunity for both.

It would not have been the first time the Moody Blues were associated with space travel – it was a major theme in their 1969 album To Our Children’s Children’s Children.

I am a huge Moody Blues fan – ever since I started listening seriously to music as a child I loved hearing their songs on the radio. This was about the time “Nights in White Satin” hit the charts (around 1972) and was played frequently. Their greatest hits package This is… was an early purchase.

Moody Blues2

2015 is a great year for Moodies fans. March marked the 50th anniversary of their first hit “Go Now”, John Lodge released a solo album and Justin Hayward is doing a solo tour of the US (his St. Louis show on September 11th is sold out and I am begging on my knees-on-my-knees-Jacob-Marley for tickets).

Because of the Pluto probe, it should have also been a big year for the song “New Horizons”. But not one documentary or special I have seen – not one – feature the song.  Too bad, it would have been a perfect fit.

Imagine watching a special documentary on Pluto: with the stark image of the cold planet with these lyrics softly playing:

Where is this place that we have found? Nobody knows where we are bound,

I long to hear, I need to see; ‘cause I’ve shed tears too many for me,

But I’m never gonna lost your precious gift, it will always be that way,

‘Cause I know I’m gonna find my own peace of mind, someday…

 

It could have been the beginning of a wonderful two years for the band. Their publicity people could keep up the momentum until 2017 – which will be the 50th anniversary of the release of their iconic Days of Future Passed album. Rumors are already abound on the anniversary event. A one-time concert event with the “original” members is the most prominent – and the most likely.

Note that by “original” members I mean the iconic and most successful line-up. The 1965 Moodies who released “Go Now” fifty years ago had only three members go on to the more successful so-called prog-rock version of the group that is still around today. In fact, only one member – Graeme Edge – has stayed with the group all this time. The real original line-up was Graeme, Ray Thomas, Michael Pinder, Clint Warwick and Denny Laine (who was later the only lasting non-McCartney member of Wings). That group broke up but shortly reformed under the same name without Warwick or Laine. Their replacements were John Lodge (who played with Thomas and Pinder in prior combos) and Justin Hayward. This was the group that released Nights … In Search of the Lost Chord, Long Distance Voyager, The Other Side of Life, and more – totaling fifteen. Pinder left the group in 1978, Thomas retired and has since had a cancer scare (now in remission). Their last album was December, a Christmas collection – featuring only the remaining three. Their website spotlights only Haywood, Lodge and Edge.

All the members – current and former – have their own websites. Mike Pinder is still releasing albums! Most excellent!

The people at NASA and the Moody’s camp certainly missed a great opportunity here. Surely someone somewhere would have made the connection!

***

But those looking for a classic rock connection to the mission to Pluto need look no further than Queen!

Queen’s guitarist Brian May was in graduate school when the band took off. After the death of Freddie Mercury, the group disbanded and May finished his doctorate in astrophysics.  During New Horizon’s flyby of Pluto, he was recognized by NASA as a science collaborator for the mission. He used the images sent back to earth to create the first stereoscopic image of Pluto.

You can read all about it on his web-page.

When I first head about Brian May’s association with New Horizon, I was not surprised. One of his first solo efforts was Star Fleet, which featured Eddie Van Halen and members of REO Speedwagon and background vocals by Roger Taylor, Queen’s drummer. I loved the video when it first came out on MTV (note to the kiddies: this was way back when MTV played music). You can see it here.

starfleet project

***

Unfortunately, the photo showed no signs of the Mi-go. Well, the photos they are officially releasing, that is …

migo

But that can be the subject of another blog…

Copyright 2015 Michael Curry

 

 

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Think you can name famous adopted people? You don’t know Diddley!

November is National Adoption Month! Throughout the month I’ll feature famous folk who have been adopted! 

 bo diddley

Culled mostly from Wikipedia:

 Ellas Otha Bates (December 30, 1928 – June 2, 2008), known by his stage name Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley is best known as … well, if you don’t know you are reading the WRONG blog… let’s just say anyone who has picked up a guitar since 1955 was influenced by his style and playing.

Born in McComb, Mississippi, as Elias Otha Bates, he was adopted and raised by his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, whose surname he assumed, becoming Elias McDaniel.

 

Be sure to visit Abby’s Road on Facebook for more Spotlights!

 The cover of Abby's Road

The cover of Abby’s Road

 “Abby’s Road, the Long and Winding Road to Adoption and how Facebook, Aquaman and Theodore Roosevelt Helped” leads a couple through their days of infertility treatments and adoption. It is told with gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) humor from the perspective of a nerdy father and his loving and understanding wife.

Join Mike and Esther as they go through IUIs and IFVs, as they search for an adoption agency, are selected by a birth mother, prepare their house, prepare their family, prepare themselves and wait for their daughter to be born a thousand miles from home.

 

Winner, Honorable Mention, 2014, Great Midwest Book Festival


Abby’s Road is available at Amazon here: 
http://www.amazon.com/Abbys-Road-Long-Winding-Adoption/product-reviews/0692221530/ref=cm_cr_pr_top_recent?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending


at Barnes and Noble here: 
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/abbys-road-the-long-and-winding-road-to-adoption-and-how-facebook-aquaman-and-theodore-roosevelt-helped-michael-curry/1119971924?ean=9780692221532


and at Smashwords here:
 https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/457270

 

Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

 

 

Part Two of “Come and Watch us Sing and Play”; the Monkees Live in St. Louis!

(Part Two of) Come and Watch Us Sing and Play

          The Monkees at the Fabulous Fox Theater, June 5th, 2014

St. Louis, Missouri

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The concert started with the screen tests aired as bits during their TV show (there were no never-seen-before bits on the screen), followed by the theme song and opening video of their show. I’m kind of glad they didn’t perform it.

  1. Last Train to Clarksville (from The Monkees – first album)
  2. Papa Gene’s Blues (from The Monkees – first album)

3.      Your Auntie Grizelda (from More of the Monkees)

  1. The Kind of Girl I Could Love (from More of the Monkees)
  2. She (from More of the Monkees)
  3. Sweet Young Thing (from The Monkees – first album). This was the first of many times Pete played banjo. Ironically, days before I was listening to George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music on which Peter played the banjo. Legend says his track was not included on the album – but it was in the movie – but I hear banjo…)
  4. I’m a Bleeder – er – Believer (from More of the Monkees)
  5. (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone (from More of the Monkees)

Here was the first “break” featuring many video clips of the show – including Mike’s rapid-paced singing of his own “Different Drum”.

A wonderful part of the show was dividing the sets into their respective albums. The next set featured (mostly) songs from their most popular album Headquarters, unless otherwise noted:

9.      You Told Me

10.    Sunny Girl Friend

11.    You Just May Be the One

12.    Mary Mary (from More of the Monkees) (with this song Mickey took over the drums – I watched and he did very well – and the other drummer did percussion)

13.    Girl That I Knew Somewhere (B-side of A Little Bit You, a Little Bit Me)

14.   Shades of Grey (this song had a particularly great video montage – although it did distract from the band – it was here Mickey’s teasing Pete’s hair during the chorus). This was the first Davey song, although he co-sung it with Peter.

15.   Randy Scouse Git (this was preceded by the clip from the British TV show Til Death Do Us Part that inspired the title. The show was Americanized by Norman Lear and renamed All in the Family. So during a trivia night if you ever want to link the Monkees with Archir Bunker … here is it!

16.    For Pete’s Sake

17.    No Time

Video clips during this set break were clips of the show in Spanish.

18.    The Door Into Summer (from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd … pant pant, hereinafter “Pisces”)

19.    Words ((from Pisces)

20.    Tapioca Tundra (from The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees)

21.    Going Down (B side of Daydream Believer)

The video screen showed clips of their movie “Head” … oh dear god in heaven are they going to do songs from “HEAD”!!??

The movie was awful, but the soundtrack was the best thing they ever did. It should air with Sgt. Pepper as examples of sixties pop/rock. I’m not kidding.

This was the best part of the show.

22.    Porpoise Song. Oh my god, they did the Porpoise Song. If anyone recorded this that loud voice in the audience singing along was me.

23.    Can You Dig it

They showed the video of Nilsson’s Daddy’s Song with Davy singing. The CD has a bonus track of Mike singing it. I liked that version better. So much so that I forgot that the “official” singer was Davy!

24.    CIRCLE SKY!!! (caps intentional – by now my sister and nephew asked me to sit down and stop embarrassing them. I never. NEVER. thought I would hear this song live. I hoped that someday I might see a solo set by Mike Nesmith, but this was a thrill.)

25.    As We Go Along (and by now the people sitting next to me were reacting and ushers had to be called. This is one of my favorite “deep tracks” by the Monkees. Hardly anyone knows about this beautiful Toni Stern/Carol King tune)

26.    Long Title: Do We Have To Do This All Over Again

After this wonderful set more videos aired as we headed for the big finish…

27.    What Am I Doing Hanging Round? (from Pisces. THIS is my favorite Monkees song. I was sooo glad they did it. Plus they did it at a slower tempo than the original. Overall the “new” live arrangements were superb, sometimes better than the originals)

28.    Daydream Believer (from The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees). This was sweet. Each of the surviving members took a verse, with Mike Nesmith taking the last. His velvety voice fit perfectly.

Encore:

29.    Listen to the Band (from The Monkees Present) (this was accompanied by a video of the song that I never knew existed)

The band members were introduced.

30.    Pleasant Valley Sunday (from Pisces). You knew this song was coming. It was one of their biggest hits and one of my favorites. Damn fun to play on the guitar, too.

I asked my sister how the show compared to the others. I expected the ones with Davy to be more Vegas-y. Lots more showmanship, horns, dancing, etc. I pointed out Mickey’s dancing during “Going Down” as an example of “Vegas-y”.

No, she said, those featured rock bands and were done in similar styles as this. The first tour with Mike Nesmith featured some of his solo songs. Ooo, I would have liked to hear some Nesmith tunes – Joann, for example.

She said there was more banter between the band members in their 2012 tour. There was some here, but not as much. I don’t mind that – I go to a show to watch them play. They can banter on Letterman…

The audience went bananas throughout. And there was quite an age mix – older men and women and small kids. Nothing like the Wiggles show, mind you, but there were kids under ten there. They used to introduce “…Believer” with “we used to do this before Shrek did…”

We need to start a petition to either make them put out a live album or a studio album of these arrangements pronto. Who’s with me?

Gentlemen, you were never jokes; you were never Beatle rip-offs. Bravo for Peter’s jibe about “we were accused of not being the Beatles, along with three million other bands…”

Thank you for nearly fifty years of wonderful music. And thank you for performing it for one night!

I am so glad I went – what a wonderful show. If you can, go see them. As Davy Jones’ death proved, we might not have many more chances to see them. In other words – you’d better get ready; they may be coming to your town.

 

Here’s another great review of the show: http://www.thetelegraph.com/news/lifestyle-news/1414036/The-Monkees-turn-back-the-clock-in-fun-energetic-show

 

Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

Come and Watch Us Sing and Play – The Monkees Live in St. Louis

Come and Watch Us Sing and Play

          The Monkees at the Fabulous Fox Theater, June 5th, 2014

St. Louis, Missouri

Part One

 monkees2014

This was my sister’s fourth Monkees concert – two with Davy and now two with Mike. This was my first. I was a Monkees fan before I was even a Beatles fan – the pre-Fab Four’s TV show reruns on Saturday mornings helped their songs to be as familiar to me as the theme songs to HR Pufinstuf or Scooby-Doo.

With some exceptions I have retired from concert-going since 1992. Shows were expensive even back then and my poor ears were suffering from enough tinnitus I didn’t need to aggravate it. I wore earplugs to my last shows – even Bob Dylan. During one, ZZ Top, I pulled out an earplug just to see how bad it was. I winced. Not at the music – they were in good form and supporting a great album – but at the volume.

I’ve come out of retirement twice not counting this show – Ringo Starr playing free at the VP Fair in St. Louis (a Beatle for free? Yes, I will come out of retirement to see a Beatle for free) and Rik Emmett playing a solo show in San Antonio (do I want to see the founder of Triumph for ten bucks? Oh yes…). I’ve not attended any other concerts. Rock concerts … the Wiggles and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra notwithstanding…

Until now.

The Monkees concert was a gift from my sister in exchange for purchasing some DVDs for her at Comic Con. She took her ten-year-old son and asked if I wanted to go.

They’ve toured extensively over the past eleven years; but I had to ask myself: “when am I ever going to get to see the Monkees again?”

Their story is familiar: NBC wanted a TV show to cash in on the success of the Beatles and capture the fun of their movies “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help”. The execs thought about getting an actual group – legend says the Loving Spoonful was considered – but decided to cobble together a group from actor/musicians. Stephen Stills tried out and convinced his friend Peter Tork to do likewise. Mike Nesmith was another budding musician. Davy Jones appeared on the famous Ed Sullivan show featuring the Beatles’ first appearance along with his fellow cast-members of “Oliver”. Mickey Dolenz was also child actor.

The plots of the show dealt with an up-and-coming band playing gigs and getting into various zany antics – spies, monsters, gangsters, and mistaken identities – the gamut of 1960’s sitcom fare.

But the music set it apart. During this show the band showed their admiration for the many wonderful song-writers they used and named them – Goffin/King, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Harry Nilsson, etc. And rightly so…

At the time the songs and the Monkees – although very successful on the music charts – were written off as bubblegum music. Well, that term came a few years later, but the criticism was the same.

The Monkees were mocked for not playing their own instruments on their songs and albums. The band members complained about this too, and were allowed to do so beginning with their Headquarters album.

Eventually the show was cancelled, their movie and TV special each bombed and their albums and singles failed to chart. One by one they left the group to do their own thing.

Their popularity grew as new fans discovered their show’s reruns on Saturday Morning (me) and in the 1980s on MTV (my sister). Their detractors were silenced over time as their music aged well. Very well.

They would reunite throughout the decades, usually Mike being the hold-out as his career was moving along and his participation was not necessary.

I am a big fan of Nesmith’s solo music and a subscriber to his video ranch productions. Check it out: http://www.videoranch.com/

Nesmith appeared on stage with the other three on occasion and helped with the album and TV special for their last album “Justus” in 1996. But otherwise, when the members were not doing solo shows or participating in “Teen Idol” festivals, the Monkees toured as Davy, Mickey and Peter.

Davy Jones died in 2012. Mike agreed to tour with Peter and Mickey in 2012 and again this year. Among the excellent band members were Mike’s son Christian on guitar and Mickey’s sister as one of the back-up singers. The other back-up singer, Circe Link and Christian are in a band called “Circle Jerks” and the bass player is their manager – so there was a lot of family up on the stage.

 

The musicians were wonderful. They rocked even during the more poppy numbers. Throughout the show I was amazed at how well these songs have aged.

And the Monkees themselves have also aged well. Mickey can still hit the high notes – particularly on “Words” and “Randy Scouse Git” and only rarely being unable to hit the higher ranges – most notably on “She”. Mike still sang with a caramel smoothness. Peter suffered the most from comparison, but then, he was never known for his strong vocals.

Recommendation: the Monkees should think about making a studio album of their live set to show off their musicians and the new, wonderful arrangements of their classic songs. Their version of “Daydream Believer” will likely make the charts, or at least be a popular download.

A video screen above the band showed constant clips of the TV show, their movie and TV special. At times I found it distracting. I’m there to watch the show, not clips from “The Monkees’ Paw”. But it helped give the band a break during sets and keep the audience cheering.

Next: Part 2 – the set list!

 

Copyright 2014 Michael Curry

A Night of the Most Excellent Order – a review of “The Beatles – a Night that Changed America, a Grammy Salute

A Night of the Most Excellent Order
A review of “The Beatles – a Night that Changed America, a Grammy Salute”.
            Popular music and I have not said a kind word to each other in over twenty years. That is why, up until the afternoon of February 9, 2014, I had no plans to watch the CBS Special “The Beatles – a Night that Changed America, a Grammy Salute”. It was taped some weeks ago, but it aired 50 years to the day – to the hour – that the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. It was the most-watched television program up to that time.
            Reading through the list of scheduled performers – the ones hyped, that is – was akin to reading “Entertainment Weekly”. Page after page of people I don’t know starring in TV shows and movies I don’t care to see. The only group I had heard of was the reunion of The Eurythmics. Oh joy. A combo I didn’t like 30 years ago are reuniting so I can dislike them all over again.
            But it was necessary to get the public to pry themselves away from reality shows to watch musicians play songs from fifty years before.
            It wasn’t until previews were available on Youtube that I decided to watch it. Well, Tivo it. Stevie Wonder performed. Okay, so it’s not just “American Idol” rejects wailing their way through the Beatle catalog. There was some talent involved.
            Fortunately, instead of a parade of the latest talent-less celebrities known more for their tongue and twerks, we saw some fine performances!
           
            And it was a great show! The performers – all of them – did an excellent job! The bits in between the songs were of more interest to me, but I was not disappointed by the performances. The ones I knew, the ones I only heard of and the ones I never heard of – all did superbly. I have no desire to run out and get their latest albums, but …
            I had to look up the spelling of some of the performers on Google, I apologize if I didn’t get them right…
            The show started with the original intro tag. Coming up next on the “The Ed Sullivan Show” … a great way to start it.
            LL Cool J gave us an introduction to the reason for the special and introduced a clip from the “The Ed Sullivan Show” – the Beatles performing “All My Loving”. It segued into Maroon 5 finishing the song and they then performed “Ticket to Ride”.
            Throughout the show shots of audience members peppered the performances. Mostly they concentrated on Paul and Ringo and their wives in the front row; but occasionally we saw Yoko and Sean and George’s widow Olivia as well as other stars. I only recognized a few of them.
            Next came Stevie Wonder with his hit “We Can Work It Out”. Rumor is he did it twice because he did not like the first take. “Fire me, sue me,” he told the audience. It’s Stevie Wonder. He could have done a dozen more…
            And now we get to see the house band – Peter Frampton doing his usual excellent guitar work. He was an uncredited guitarist on George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” album. Steve Lukather, a touring member of Ringo’s All Starr Band also played guitar excellently. Had he played this well with Toto they might not have sucked. Kenny Aaronson played thunderous drums. He played with everyone – EVERYONE – in the 1980s and I know him from the woefully underappreciated album “HSAS” with Sammy Hagar and Neil Schon. The director apparently loved Kenny too – they cut to him playing every six seconds or so.
            Johnny Depp introduced the song “Something” performed by rock veterans Joe Walsh and Jeff Lynne. They were joined by George’s son Dhani. It was the only stage appearance by a Beatle-spawn. Sean Lennon was in the audience but did not perform. Why didn’t he?
            Eric Idle appeared next, reprising his role as the narrator/TV journalist from his “Rutles” specials. They gave his character a name – Nigel Spasm (although his name was never given in the original Rutles programs). He mentioned the Rutles performing that night 50 years ago. He was hilarious.
            He introduced (and narrated) short biographies of the Beatles beginning with John Lennon. John’s was the most effective. It ended with the death of his mother and the line “… the love of music his mother shared … would … transport him our of Liverpool and across the universe.” Lovely.
            Why did they decide to colorize part of the black and white photos in these biographies? We the People do not need big, bright and loud colors to keep our attention; we can handle black and white photos, thank you. Treat us like adults and we will start acting like adults. Deal?
            Next began a series of excellent, excellent, walk-throughs and interviews with Paul, Ringo and David Letterman. They discussed the studio, the set list, their choice of name, etc. It was usually done after the commercial break and was one of the highlights of the show.
            Some of my favorite bits throughout were interviews from women (girls) who were in the audience 50 years before. This was peppered with Ed Sullivan performances of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”
            Kate Beckinsale (someone who starred in movies I’ve not seen) introduced Ed Sheeran (a singer I’ve never heard of) doing “In My Life”. He did an excellent job! Wonderful guitar work – I’d like to learn his version of this song (which was performed at my wedding).
            More audience shots. Ah, I recognize someone – Tom Hanks! Tom Hanks was in an audience that had camera shots and this was the first time he managed to get his mug in front one? Wow.
            They showed a clip from “Let It Be”. They got the rights to show a clip from “Let It Be”. This is akin to showing footage of Bigfoot. It was the rooftop concert version of “Don’t Bring Me Down”.
            In the middle of the song it segued into two singers named John Mayer and Keith Urban singing the song (ala “All My Loving” at the beginning of the show). They cut off a clip of “Let It Be”. THEY CUT OFF A CLIP OF “LET IT BE”. To use the previous analogy – is would be the same as showing ten seconds of authenticated proof of Bigfoot then airing a bit from “Harry and the Hendersons”.
            Katy Perry managed to cover her cleavage long enough to sing “Yesterday”. There was some controversy when she changed the lyrics by switching gender (“I’m not half the girl I used to be”). Oh, get over it. Happens all the time. That is no controversy; leave her alone. 
            Then came the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan performance of “She Loves You”.
            An aside: strange that the two songs most associated with the Beatles – not the most popular but the most iconic – “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” are the two least-covered songs in their repertoire. They did not cut away to anyone “taking over” “She Loves You” from the Ed Sullivan clip – whereas they did twice earlier in the show.
            At this point, and peppered throughout the rest of the show, were my favorite bits. Interviews with the crew of the “Ed Sullivan Show” on that day 50 years ago. Bill Bohnert, art director/set designer, John Moffett, associate director, and Vince Calandra Sr, production assistant and George’s stand-in during rehearsal were interviewed about their work on the show that day and during rehearsals. Bill tells the story that Paul said, “We’ve always wanted to do ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’.”  Funny, not a half-hour ago Paul said they had never heard of “The Ed Sullivan Show” until they were booked on it. No one else seemed to care …
            There was a moving story of John Lennon’s awe at standing in the same spot as Buddy Holly when he did Sullivan a few years before.
            LL Cool J introduced the song “Revolution” performed by Imagine Dragons. “What!?” says I. “The kid’s band? Disney’s version of the Wiggles?”  No, that was Imagination Movers – this is Imagine Dragon. They did a very good acoustic version of the song.
            Dave Grohl was next. He was in the Foo Fighters and Nirvana with Kurt “what a weird bong” Cobain. He gave a moving tribute, saying his mother had always been a fan of the Beatles; saying his daughter is a fan of the Beatles; and lying about HE always being a fan of the Beatles. I recall 22 years ago he and his fellow grungy ilk saying they don’t like music by dead people.
            They stopped saying that when Cobain showed us what his brains looked like.
            I guess being invited to a Beatles tribute helped his love of the group along a bit.
            That being said, he and Jeff Lynne did a superb version of one of the Beatles’ best and least-known songs. “Hey Bulldog”.
            Back to Kate Beckinsale introducing The Eurythmics. There is no “The” in their official name. When they were popular they insisted that DJs NOT call them The Eurythmics, just Eurythmics.
            So THE Eurythmics played “Fool on the Hill”. I said that correctly – they PLAYED “Fool on the Hill”. If you recall The Eurythmics were a purely electronic band; all computerized. Yet, when they performed they had drums, back-up singers and guitars. “If they were true to their art,” I said on the radio back in 1985 or so, “they would set up a computer on stage, put in a floppy disk, press play and tell the audience to enjoy the show.”
            Annie Lennox has a lovely voice and is a powerful singer, but I’ve never liked it personally – oil to my water. Dave Stewart was once in a band in the 1970s called Longdancer. It was an EXCELLENT group. And some of his post-The Eurythmics bands harkens back to those rock ‘n roll days. So The Eurythmics reunite. From the hype you’d think this was the highlight of the show. It wasn’t. It was GOOD, mind you, but not the highlight of the show.
            Alicia Keys andf John Legend gave testimonials and then gave their rendition of “Let It Be”.  I had heard of them both but never heard their music. I only knew of John Legend when I would joke about (ironically) him being in the Beatles with Paul McKenzie.
            John Legend has an excellent voice! Alicia Keys … well, it’s like the issue I have with anyone – ANYONE – on “American Idol”. I would have more respect for her talent if she could sustain a solid note for more than two seconds. Was someone shaking her seat or does she cover the entire musical scale with every note?
            More bits with audience members and crew members. Here they included reminiscings from Mitzie McCall and Charlie Brill – a comedy duo who also performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that night! I wanted more of this – I wanted to know who else was on the show as well as what else was on that night? What did NBC and ABC air? This show’s main focus was on the Beatles, true, but it was also focused on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, too. I have the Beatles’ appearances on Sullivan on DVD, so I know who else was on the show, but a few clips of the other performers wouldn’t have taken up much time.
            Actress Anna Kendrick, who starred in movies and TV shows I’ve never seen, introduced the song “Here Comes the Sun” and gave us a history of its writing. Would it have violated some law to mention it was a hit for Richie Havens, who died last year? Pharrell Williams and Brad Paisley, whom I have not heard of, performed the song with members of Cirque du Freaks, er, Soleil pole dancing above them. Other members of the circus troupe sat in front of them holding dolls. This circus troupe is popular why?
            Gary Clark Jr., Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh did a rousing rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. A fun moment was the camera cutting away to Ringo who was miming Grohls’s drums. I love Joe Walsh. He is an excellent guitar player and even shared some vocals here (not his strongpoint one must admit). He, as well as the other two, was wonderful, but … would it have been so hard to get Clapton? Really?
            Jeff Bridges gave a wonderful testimonial and introduced Ringo. Ringo then made us forget the past hour and a half and stole the show. He perfomed “Matchbox”, “Boys” and got the audience involved in “Yellow Submarine”. Musically, it was the highlight of the show. And kudos to Ringo for introducing at least one member of the house band – sometimes All-Starr Peter Frampton. Ringo gave a shout-out to Grohl and his daughter. You could tell Ringo was impressed with his drumming.
            Sean Penn, who is looking more and more like DeNiro, introduced Paul McCartney. After Ringo’s funfest this seemed almost anti-climactic. Paul went through rote versions of “Birthday”, “Get Back” and “I Saw Her Standing There”. The house band left and Paul performed with his group. By now Paul could do these songs in his sleep. He nearly did. Too bad. He had nothing to prove, true, but it was almost as if we were supposed to enjoy McCartney being McCartney and not enjoying his performance.
            Case in point: Paul did “Sgt. Pepper”. He would have been forgiven if he changed the lyrics to “50 years ago today…” The press would get on Kate Perry but not HIM. Just before Ringo joined him onstage, Paul sang “Billy Shears”. He could have said “Ringo Starr”. The audience would have loved it. I would have loved it! To me this shows how Paul was going through the motions rather than relishing the moment.
            Paul and Ringo have only performed together (post-Beatles) once in 2010. So their “With a Little Help From My Friends” was momentous and fun. Ringo brought back the enthusiasm he apparently took with him from his previous set.
            For the finale, “Hey Jude” they were joined by the house band and the other performers and producers.
            Yoko, Sean and Olivia never took the stage. I think that was a wise move. They would have been given a standing ovation, to be sure. But they were there to honor their husbands and father.
            It was a wonderful program and I enjoyed it very much. Probably not enough to rush out to get the DVD, but I liked it and was glad I saw it.
            I did have some problems with it: as I said earlier, this was about the Beatles, but there was enough about “The Ed Sullivan Show” to wonder why they didn’t talk about who else was on that “America-changing” day” Why not show a clip of Frank Gorshin’s hilarious stand-up from that night? Or a bit from Sophie Tucker?
            Would it have hurt to have Mickey Dolenz give a two-minute tribute to fellow-Monkee Davy Jones? He was on the show too that night, doing a song from “Oliver” as the Artful Dodger.
            Also, perhaps after two-and-a-half hours the powers-that-be were afraid We the People would not have the attention-span for another 50 minutes; but why not SHOW the entire Ed Sullivan program from February 9, 1964. It couldn’t have been a question of acquiring the rights – they showed a clip from “Let It Be” for god’s sake!
            And where the hell was George Martin?
Copyright 2014 Michael G Curry
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 
 
 
             

 

 


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A review of “A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

A review of “A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
 
 
            My wife and I went to Powell Symphony Hall to watch the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra perform “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” on December 14, 2013.
            A college roommate introduced me to Mannheim Steamroller in 1982, one year after the release of their “Fresh Air IV” album. I was hooked.
            They combined classical music (particularly baroque) with jazz and rock into a light-progressive instrumental style. It featured Chip Davis, the founder, on drums, Jackson Berkey on the various keyboards – from piano to pipe organ to, particularly, harpsichord, and Eric Hanson on bass guitar.
            Their music avoids labeling – it has been called everything from New Age to Baroque-and-Roll (this label was first used on the group “The Left Bank” – a proto prog-pop band from the mid-1960s). The band does not embrace the New Age label, nor do most New Age enthusiasts embrace their inclusion into the genre.
             I am the exception. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I hosted “A New Age” at my local NPR station on Sunday nights. I happily included Mannheim’s music in addition to other artists outside the genre – Ravi Shankar, Isao Tomita and Blue Chip Orchesta along with stalwarts Kitaro, David Arkenstone and Enya. By this time there were surprisingly good so-called New Age music from the likes of even John Tesh and Barbie Benton.
            “Fresh Aire IV” combined medieval instruments on pop and rock arrangements of damnably catchy melodies. Ancient instruments playing tightly structured songs but with enough obtuse and unexpected variations on the melody to keep me listening.
            Four more “Fresh Aire” albums were to come – each album with a “theme”: the excellent “V” (a trip to the moon), “VI” (Greek Mythology), “7” (themes involving the number 7 – 7 seas, 7 chakras, Sunday, and “8” (infinity) – these last two reaching Number Two on the newly-created New Age charts; the only chart their music would seemingly fit.
            In 1984 Mannheim Steamroller released a Christmas album. For this ensemble known for its quirkiness and undefinability to enter the realm of Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and Percy Faith was the last thing one would expect – so of course it was a natural thing to do!
            Jazz musicians have released Christmas songs for decades, and there have been Christmas versions of electronic music; but for a still-obscure musical group to release a Christmas album was a substantial financial risk. Would those who enjoy traditional Christmas fare buy an album from this eclectic group? Would fans of this eclectic group buy an album of traditional Christmas fare?
            Fortunately for Mannheim Steamroller, both groups did. That first album “Mannheim Steamroller Christmas” was done in their unique style while still respecting the traditions of Yule. It spawned twelve other holiday albums with tunes ranging from original compositions to “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch”. They have sold in the millions and over the past thirty years the songs are considered Christmas classics.
            I saw Chip Davis and company perform their Christmas and Fresh Aire tunes in Chicago in 1987 on their first tour. They’ve toured at Christmastime regularly ever since – the band now down to Chip Davis, various session men and orchestras big and small.
           
            In October I was looking at what was happening in St. Louis during the Christmas season – perhaps we could see “A Christmas Carol” being performed, or a madrigal or a special concert. Perhaps the Nutcracker.
            “Elf” was playing at the Fox. Nah. No special individual Christmas shows were announced yet – not even Trans-Siberian Orchestra (another eclectic group – although firmly ensconced in the rock idiom – that had taken some of the thunder from Mannheim’s Christmas popularity). The St. Louis Symphony was going to perform a Gospel Messiah during the week of December 7th and their traditional Christmas program on the 21st. But the weekend of the 14thwas set for the Music of Mannheim Steamroller Christmas.
            I misread it at first and thought it was Mannheim Steamroller performing with the Symphony. Stop right there. We have a winner. My wife was excited too – especially since there were still front row seats available.
            A closer look shows it was not Mannheim Steamroller themselves (or himself – the “group” is now solely Chip Davis’s baby) but the St. LouisSymphony performing its music.
            Fine by me; fine with my wife, too. Would I like to go see one of the best symphony orchestras perform some of my favorite holiday music from one of my favorite performers from the front row? Sure, what the hell…
           
            The conductor/arranger of the concert program was Arnie Roth, the orchestral arranger for Mannheim Steamroller for many decades; so there was at least a connection with Chip Davis. He was there in spirit.
            I was interested in seeing how the orchestra would handle some of Steamroller’s electronic doodlings: the synthesizer intro to “Deck the Halls”, the mechanics of “Little Drummer Boy”, the swirling ending of “Silent Night”. 
            I needn’t have worried – the strings (cello and bass violin in particular) handled the “Deck the Halls” intro, for example. We sat right in front of the violins. I was enraptured by their ability and talents. Throughout the concert the violins played in the quiet, serene background. When they took the lead of a song – they were majestic and moving.
            There are no bad seats at Powell, but one unfortunate side effect of the front row is we could watch the violinists play masterfully at the cost of not seeing anyone else. The brass, percussion, harp and piano/harpsichord were heard but not seen. I could spot one trumpeter between the legs and feet of the viola section, but that was it. And unfortunately the brass, percussion, harp and piano/harpsichord were the main instruments in the concert. From the intro of “Hark the Herald Trumpets Sing” I knew I was missing watching professionals playing excellent music. I didn’t mind though – I got to observe the entire violin section. I have been tinkering with the violin for many years and, as with guitarists, I loved watching their playing techniques.
            So next time we’ll sit a little further back.
            There were only a few sour notes – twice from the brass section. A missed note and an early intro; I have already forgotten which songs because frankly, I didn’t care. The drummer did an excellent job keeping the beat, but there were times he lagged behind the rest of the orchestra; I think it was during “Joy to the World”. Again, who cares? It did not distract from a superb show!
The set list:
Hark Fanfare
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Do You Hear What I Hear
Traditions of Christmas (an original Chip Daviscomposition)
The Little Drummer Boy
Greensleeves
We Three Kings
Cantique de Noel
Carol of the Bells
Hallelujah (a highlight of the concert)
Intermission
Deck the Halls
Pat-a-Pan/Fum Fum Fum Medley (another highlight)
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Joy to the World
Renaissance Suite: (my favorite part of the concert, a personal highlight)
            Gagliarda
            Il duci jubilo
            Wassail, Wassail
            Carol of the Birds
            I Saw Three Ships
            God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman
Silent Night
encore Angels We have Heard on High
            During the 1987 concert, Mannheim performed the Renaissance version of “God Rest Ye …” and broke into “The William Tell Overture” between lines. I was hoping for the same here, but they did not. The smiles in this concert came not from humor but from enjoying superb musicianship playing superb arrangements.
           
            Here is another review of the concert from a classical radio station in St. Louis – another interesting view that touches on the differences between this orchestral performance and the original arrangements: http://kdhx.org/music/reviews/st-louis-symphony-a-mannheim-steamroller-christmas
            My wife and I enjoyed our evening at Powell very much! During the intermission the line to the rest rooms were in the dozens. I told my wife I would chance it and miss the beginning of “Deck the Halls”. Don’t worry, I said, we’ll hear it on the radio on the way home.
            Over the years the various Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums have not been played on my stereo. They are played on the radio at Christmastime – a lot. A lot. But this concert gave me a new appreciation of the music from the albums and their quirky arrangements. Here we heard these quirky arrangements done in a very traditional way with a fine, fine orchestra. Loving this concert made me love the original arrangements as well. I even dug out my old Fresh Aire CDs to play in my car and in the 5-CD changer in the living room.
            Welcome back to the rotation, my friend. I had forgotten how much I missed you.
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry
             


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The Ten Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

The Ten Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

                I finished my list of the best Christmas songs of all time (see prior blog). It is only natural to follow up with the worst Christmas songs of all time. My jaw is already clenching thinking about these overblown, overplayed and overdramatic pieces of tripe.
                Funny that, with a few exceptions, this list isn’t composed of individual performances but the songs in general – or at least in the way they are usually performed. So you won’t see individually bad tunes by New Kids on the Block (“Funky Christmas”), John Denver (“Daddy Please Don’t Get Drunk for Christmas”) or the Clay Aiken masterpiece of drivel “Merry Christmas with Love” on the list. And besides, those don’t get much airplay anyway.
                I’m sorry if you like any of the songs on this list. I am truly sorry. I am sorry for you and for the people sitting next to you as you play the tunes and sing along.
 
                These are in no particular order:
 
1.       Little Drummer Boy. What!? Two versions of this song made my Top Ten Best Christmas Songs. True. How then can the song also make my Top Ten Worst Christmas Songs list?  Excellent question. With two exceptions (the Crosby-Bowie duet and the Vince Guaraldi version) this song is performed in the most over-produced and pompous way possible: thick orchestration and operatic voices. Diana Ross’ version is particularly annoying. Even the iconic version by the Harry Simeone Choirale is overwrought at times – although the choir sings it softly and quietly, the “brum-brum” male singers in the background get a bit carried away. The story: a child plays his drum to the baby king. He didn’t bring gold or lavish him with other gifts. He played his drum for him. He played his best for him. It’s the widow’s mite story; it’s the sinful woman from the Book of Luke washing Jesus’ feet with her hair. A humble story should not have full orchestra and choir. Imagine watching a love scene in a movie and the theme from “Jaws” starts playing; or “Psycho” (I’ve been in situations where that is appropriate, though); or “Rocky” (ditto, I am proud to say…). But you get my point here. Pretention has no place in this song. That’s the point of the song.
2.       The Twelve Days of Christmas. The rock-concert-drum-solo of Christmas songs. When the song is on the radio or on a TV special it is a good time for a bathroom break or to go get a snack in the kitchen or vacuum the rugs or go visit a friend or head to the office or take a weekend vacation. It’ll be just wrapping up when you get back. Over long and the “five gold rings” part is usually over-dramatic. Not even the Muppets could salvage this one. Ray Conniff has a good version of the song – if only because his singers race through it and finish it in just under two hours, rather than the standard six. It’s the German opera of Christmas songs.
3.       Christmas Shoes. Things are looking up as to this tear-jerker and garment-render – some stations make a point of saying they will NOT play the song. If the boycott boosts their ratings enough we may never have to hear it broadcast again! The people who poo-poo the derision with arguments that it is a lovely story and shows the real meaning of the holiday are missing the point. Yes it is a wonderful story, but the rest of us think it is as melodramatic as a nineteenth-century vaudeville drama. The kid buying the shoes might as well cross a raging river on patches of ice. With hound dogs chasing him. And his mother’s cancer portrayed by a guy wearing a top hat twirling a long mustache. Videos of the song may as well come with placards telling us when to “Boo” and “Hiss”. Yet every year people talk about how bad the song is and yet every year it is played over and over. All I can say when it comes on the radio is “Curses! Foiled again!”
4.       Mary Did You Know. This isn’t played very often on commercial stations and not very often nowadays even on Christian stations, but it was played and played a lot a decade ago or so. Another song that is usually done with a high level of pomposity and over-production. It doesn’t even have the saving grace of “Christmas Shoes” by being a lovely story. “And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary; for thou has found favour with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and his kingdom there shall be no end.” Luke 1: 30-33; King James Version – the only real version of the Bible, or as I like to put it, the version Jesus wrote. “Mary Did You Know”? “Yes, yes, I did. But thanks for asking…”
5.       Any Christmas Spoof. This is more of a category of songs rather than one in particular. And I’m talking spoofs, not novelty songs. “The Chipmunk Song”, “…Two Front Teeth” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – these are novelty songs (although most novelty songs belong on this list too). Spoofs are pre-existing songs with different lyrics – presumably knee-slappingly hilarious lyrics. The most famous of which is “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg …” Two reasons this makes the list – with rare exception spoofs are 1) too long and 2) not that funny. Usually after the first line we get it. The secret to humor is not only surprise but brevity. The aforesaid “Batman smells” is a good example: four lines and done. But most spoofs go on with verse, chorus, verse, chorus. The reactions are as follows: “Ha! Ha! That’s hilarious!” (second verse) “Heh, heh! That’s great!” (second chorus) “Hmm-hmm, that’s funny.” (third verse) “Do you have any big plans for New Year’s Eve?” (third chorus) “Is that song still playing?” There are lots of spoofs to the tune of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” and “The Christmas Song” but the most popular song spoofed is “Twelve Days of Christmas”. It’s the perfect example of why spoofs generally suck: a song that goes on too long being made into a spoof that goes on too long.
6.        Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. And speaking of novelty songs. This inbred ditty usually makes most Top Ten Worst Christmas Songs lists and yet it still constantly airs during the season. Yes, when it came out everyone hyucked it up, whistled between their missing teeth and tapped their web-toed feet. But after the first listen and the first (and last) laugh it is time to stop wallowing so gleefully in its ignorance.
7.       Baby it’s Cold Outside. Or as I like to call it, “The Date Rape Song”. The song has nothing to do with Christmas. Of course, neither does “Jingle Bells”. But then “Jingle Bells” isn’t a song about a misogynist who slips Zolpidem into a lady’s drink and traps her in his house during a winter storm. The song is performed as a dialog between the victim and the rapist, with the victim singing first. Some verses left out of the original version: “Uncuff me at once; Baby it’s cold outside. I’m not going down there; Baby it’s cold outside. Is that a pit?; Baby it’s cold outside. I’m dialing nine-one {whack}{thud}; Baby it’s cold outside…”
8.       Santa Baby is the flip side to “Baby it’s Cold Outside”. A gold digger seduces Santa into giving her diamonds and minks. Even Eartha Kitt’s version comes off as slutty. The male back-up singers sound like those old Warner Brothers’ cartoons where men turn into wolves and drool over pretty women. After the song airs I feel like I need a shot of penicillin. It reminds me of the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit – it’s not a bad song, it’s just written that way.
9.       Grown Up Christmas List is not as pompous as “Mary Did You Know” or as overproduced as “Little Drummer Boy” nor is it as laughably melodramatic as “Christmas Shoes”, but it combines the three into a canny and boring song. “But it’s a wonderful sentiment!” Ho-hum, let’s move onto the next song. It’s even bad at being a bad song.
10.   Wonderful Christmastime. Oh how it pains me to put any song by Paul McCartney on a “worst” list, but let’s face it, the lyrics are banal and the music is awful. McCartney was experimenting with synthesizers at the time (late 1970s) and this was his first attempt at a structured song. He would get MUCH better at it (the following album “McCartney II” with the hits “Coming Up” and “Waterfalls”). The telling factor here is listening to the remakes. They are not very good either. After 45 seconds the song is done and we have to listen to it repeated four or five more times – usually with lots of cheering in between by the back-up singers. “…a wonderful Christmastime.” {gleeful cheers) “Yea! The song it done! Oh, nope, here’s another reprise … the moon is right, the spirit’s up…”
11.   Oh what the heck, one more, after all, it’s Christmas. This Christmas. When it was only done by Wham, it could be duly ignored, but I’ve heard people remake this lame-o tune.  Listen to the lyrics, I mean listen to them. What the heck does this have to do with Christmas? Nothing! If the song included something about “why this time of year” or “being Christmas makes our break-up especially sad”, the song would … well, it would still suck, but it wouldn’t have made the list. There is one line about his love wrapped up and sent. But that connection to Christmas is pretty thin. Try this experiment: next time you hear this song, substitute the word “Christmas” with “Wednesday”. Has the song changed in any way? No.
 
                After listing these I now have to do something to lower my blood pressure. I know, I can go back and read my Top Ten Best Christmas Songs list. Ahhhh … that’s better.
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry


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