NRBQ

NRBQ was a band that could play a little bit of everything, from rockabilly to Beatles-influenced pop to jazz and blues. They were what I think of as a musician’s band — no great commercial success but popular with other musicians (Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney were fans). They were famous for taking requests from the audience and playing ANY song that was requested. In my opinion, the best bar band ever. They flirted with widespread recognition on several occasions, but never quite got there. Get That Gasoline Blues reached #70 on the Billboard charts in 1974, their only appearance in the Hot 100.

NRBQ stood for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet during most of the band’s existence, but the “Q” originally stood for Quintet, since they started out in 1967 as a 5-piece band.  A handy abbreviation I would say. From 1974 to 1994 the band members were Terry Adams (keyboards), Joey Spampinato (bass), Al Anderson (guitar), and Tom Ardolino (drums).

The following video of them performing the rockabilly classic I Got a Rocket in My Pocket shows some of their strong points. You can see them careening back and forth between order and chaos.  Terry Adams demonstrates that the piano can be a percussion instrument.

The song Me and the Boys was one of their most popular. It was covered by Dave Edmunds, Bonnie Raitt, Thin Lizzy and Twisted Sister, among others, and the Dave Edmunds version was used in the movie Spring Break. Here’s a video of NRBQ with the Whole Wheat Horns (who doubled as the band’s roadies). Donn Adams (Terry’s brother) on trombone does a fine impression of a car taking off at the end.

This next song, Ridin’ in My Car, should have been a hit. It’s a terrific song that has all the ingredients for a great pop song. Here’s the video:

The song was recently covered by She and Him. Here’s a video of them doing the song along with NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson (who wrote the song).

One more great pop song — Magnet — which is one of my favorite songs ever.  I love the lyric “You’re like a magnet, I’m like a piece of steel, the way you break my will”. This is the only video I could find with NRBQ’s version of the song:

Meat Puppets

My wife and I have found a number of bands over the years by taking a chance — we’ll read a favorable review and say “let’s try them”. (We’ve also ended up with a few ‘I can’t believe I bought that one’ albums.) That’s how we stumbled upon the Meat Puppets. Pre-Internet, it wasn’t easy to check out bands before buying, so you had to plunk down your money and hope for the best. My wife decided that good review + weird name = let’s buy it, so we got our first Meat Puppets album in the mid-80s. It turns out that they’re a great band that has produced a lot of terrific music.

The band was formed in 1980 in Arizona, by brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood (with Curt on guitar and vocals and Cris on bass) and drummer Derrick Bostrom. They started out as a hardcore punk band, and later added psychedelic rock and country elements to the mix. They have disbanded a couple of times and then re-formed. They are currently together (as of January 2012), and released the album Lollipop in April 2011.

Curt Kirkwood is one of the best guitarists I’ve heard, and that, more than anything, is why I’ve followed their career and bought several of their albums. I think that their taste for the bizarre and macabre in song lyrics and images in their videos is the main reason why they remain relatively obscure. In a previous post, I talked about how, for me, the lyrical content of a song isn’t very important as long as the music sounds good. The Meat Puppets are a good example of a band where this comes into play. If lyrics matter a lot to you, or if you’re looking for an emotional lift from a song, you probably won’t think too much of the Meat Puppets. I love them because their music sounds so good. As an example, here’s a video for the song Orange from last year’s Lollipop album:

One of their best-known songs from the early days was the title track of their third album, Up on the Sun. Here’s a video that includes some of Kirk’s improvisation:

The band reached their peak of prominence in the early 90’s. The members of Nirvana were big fans, and they invited the Kirkwood brothers to appear with them on their legendary 1993 appearance on MTV Unplugged, where they did three Meat Puppets songs in their set. The Meat Puppets’ next album, Too High to Die, released in 1994, was their most successful, and the single Backwater made it onto the charts. Here’s a video of them playing Backwater:

Here’s another great song with huh? lyrics, Scum, from their 1995 album No Joke (“Under the stone, we find the scum”):

To conclude, here’s one more video, for the song Vile from 2011’s Lollipop album, which I want to include just because it’s a damn good song:

Neil Young

Neil Young is an amazing musician, a master of several styles of guitar playing. In addition to being the godfather of grunge rock, he’s also outstanding playing folk and country, and has challenged himself by playing with a wide variety of people through the course of his career. He’s also as good at songwriting as he is at playing. In another post, I recommended his film Rust Never Sleeps. In the film, he does the same song two different ways — folk and grunge — demonstrating his mastery of both styles. Here are videos (not from the film) of both versions:

Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue) is the folk version, performed on acoustic guitar with harmonica. This version is from from Farm Aid 1985:

Hey Hey My My (Into the Black) is the grunge version, performed with Crazy Horse. This version is from the Phoenix Festival in 1996:

He first became known in the US as a member of the short-lived but highly influential band Buffalo Springfield. Here is a video of them doing Neil’s song Mr. Soul at the Hollywood Palace in 1967:

Neil collaborated with Crazy Horse many times over the years. He’s playing with them in the grunge version of Hey Hey My My (above), and he played with them in the film Rust Never Sleeps. His first collaboration with Crazy Horse was the album that established his prominence, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which was released in 1969. This trailer describes the effort in 1997 to restore and release five tracks from the band’s March 1970 performance at Fillmore East. Here’s one of those tracks, Cowgirl in the Sand:

Neil and Steven Stills were both members of Buffalo Springfield, which led to Neil playing with Crosby, Stills and Nash on occasion through the years. Here are Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young performing Ohio on 3/30/2000 in Toronto:

Neil played with many musicians over the years. For example, he recorded his twenty-third studio album, Mirror Ball, in 1995 with Pearl Jam as his band. Here they are playing Rockin in the Free World:

I’ll freely admit that I like his rock music the best, but I also like his acoustic music. For the last twenty-five years, he has held an all-acoustic benefit concert for the Bridge School in Marin County, California. The list of performers over the years has been a “who’s who in rock and roll” (look at the list of performers in the history section of the website). He’s made an effort over the years to include younger artists. Here’s a performance from the most recent concert in October 2011, with Neil and fellow Canadians Arcade Fire doing Helpless:

Here’s another performance from the same show, with Neil doing Pocahontas with Beck:

As with some of the other artists I’ve written about, it’s hard to decide where to stop. I hope I’ve given you motivation to go find more about this great artist, and some clues as to where to find it.

More Gems

Here are some more Gems — songs that I want to single out, plus one album.

Midnight Oil

The thing that drew me to Midnight Oil was their intensity. This quote from Michael Lippold-Wollombi in the liner notes for their live album Scream in Blue sums it up better than I could:

I remember them alright. Prospect Hill Hotel, Melbourne a hot summer’s night in 1980. The crew weren’t saying much but the three-inch nails being used to secure the equipment to the stage should have alerted me to the forthcoming onslaught. I watched with fascination as the monitor engineer tuned the lead singer’s wedges whilst standing on top of a box. On questioning him he replied with a smug “you’ll see.” An ominous warning but what the heck, it was only a “one off” job for the day, just another band, it couldn’t be that bad. Custer probably made the same observation.

That night a gargantuan figure cavorted recklessly across the stage ducking and weaving around three manic guitarists as some lunatic at the rear was trying his hardest to destroy the drum kit I had laboriously assembled in the afternoon. Two hours later I stood among the ruins, soaked in sweat, and still unsure of what I had just witnessed. I collected my day’s pay and contemplated a safer career as a mercenary in a war zone somewhere.

Now THAT’s rock and roll, right? Power and the Passion was the first Midnight Oil song I ever heard, long before they were well-known in the US, and is still my favorite of theirs. I’ll admit I know nothing about Peter Garrett’s political career, which may influence your view of their music.


Metallica

This video of Metallica performing Enter Sandman on September 28, 1991 is one of those cases where it was about more than just the music. The show happened as a result of post-Cold-War political changes. Two million people showed up at an airbase outside of Moscow to prove that there are headbangers in the East as well as the West. You can feel the intensity level go up when the band starts playing. It goes up a level when the bass starts, then goes up another level when the guitar starts, then BOOM they’re off.


Lemonheads

This next video is of the Lemonheads doing Walkin’ Stroll. As far as I know the band never received much attention, but I like this song as 1:47 worth of straight ahead rock and roll (circa 1992). Not as sure about the video — just close your eyes and listen.


Roxy Music

I really like Roxy Music‘s song Love is the Drug (from the mid-70s). This video shows the band lip syncing to the song, but cuts it off before the end. The following video is a slideshow, but plays the whole song:


The Turtles

I want to spotlight an album instead of a single song. The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands is one of the best concept albums ever, and one of the funniest. It was released in November 1968.

The concept is simple — it’s a battle of the bands, with the Turtles playing the members of each band. So they present songs in several styles, and made up a fake band name for each song. The album has band pictures for each “group”. Here’s the program for the evening:

  1. The Battle of the Bands – The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul
  2. The Last Thing I Remember – The Atomic Enchilada
  3. Elenore – Howie, Mark, Johny, Jim & Al
  4. Too Much Heartsick Feeling – Quad City Ramblers
  5. Oh, Daddy! – The L.A. Bust ’66
  6. Buzzsaw – The Fabulous Dawgs
  7. Surfer Dan – The Cross Fires
  8. I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) – Chief Kamanawanalea and his Royal Macadamia Nuts
  9. You Showed Me – Nature’s Children
  10. Food – The Bigg Brothers
  11. Chicken Little Was Right – Fats Mallard and the Bluegrass Fireball
  12. Earth Anthem – All

My personal favorite among the band names is The Atomic Enchilada. As to Kamanawanalea — well, sound it out. The album demonstrated the terrific sense of humor of the band, who were known primarily for sweet love songs. Band leaders Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman later put that to use as Flo and Eddie in Frank Zappa’s band. Here’s a video for one of their “in character” songs, Surfer Dan, which does a good job imitating the Beach Boys and other surfer bands of the day.

There were two singles released from this album, Elenore and You Showed Me. Here’s a video for Elenore, with “Eddie” on lead vocals and “Flo” in the white shirt right behind him.

Frank Zappa

My wife and I, on our first date, went to a Frank Zappa concert (April 1973 — we’ve been married since 1975).  That qualifies me as one of the few people who has romantic thoughts associated with Frank Zappa’s music.  His music can be challenging.  If you are looking for simple and straightforward you won’t find it here.

The man was a musical genius, whose interests included many things outside the borders of rock and roll.  That included avant-garde composers, Edgard Varèse in particular, and 50’s do-wop music.  He also had a delightfully twisted sense of humor.  He made a lot of music that was not rock and roll and, as a result, he  developed a reputation among many mainstream music fans as a maker of weird music.

For those of you who only know him by reputation, the first thing we need to do is establish that he was an amazing guitar player. Listen to his playing on Willie the Pimp, which also features his high school friend Captain Beefheart on vocals and what can only be described as blues violin:

Willie the Pimp is the second track on the Hot Rats album; the first track is Peaches en Regalia.  I found the following video, which uses Peaches en Regalia as the soundtrack for an old Mickey Mouse cartoon, to be tremendously entertaining.  It shows the sense of fun that is present in a lot of his music.  Note the spoof of the Hot Rats album cover (the image in the Willie the Pimp video) at the very beginning:

Frank Zappa first gained notice as the leader of The Mothers of Invention.  The following video is from Paris in October 1968.  I think you could call it avant-garde bluesy jazz with some absurd humor thrown in, but that would probably be over-simplifying.

In 1969, Zappa disbanded the original Mothers of Invention (primarily for financial reasons), and released Hot Rats as a Frank Zappa album in October. I graduated from high school and started college in 1969, and didn’t start expanding my musical horizons until I got to college. Hot Rats was the first of his albums that I heard. I didn’t find out about the original Mothers until they were already over.

In 1970 he formed a new version of the Mothers to tour with. This version included three former members of the pop band The Turtles. (Here’s a link to the band’s website and a link to a video of their biggest hit Happy Together). Due to contract problems, the former Turtles couldn’t record using their real names, so Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman called themselves the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, which was later shortened to Flo and Eddie. Here’s a video of this band doing Call Any Vegetable from November 13, 1970 (a good example of their weirdness).

This was the version of the band my wife and I saw on our first date — April 27, 1973 at Dillon Gym, Princeton University. Flo and Eddie were there, as was French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. We arrived at our seats about 7:20 for an 8:00 show and Zappa was on stage because apparently they had a new guy on the sound board that night. He was out there for about another 20 minutes before going backstage to get ready — it was an interesting behind-the-scenes look. If anyone has a set list from this show or knows where to find one, please let me know.

One other touring event from this period deserves mention — they were playing at the casino in Montreux, Switzerland, when an audience member set off a flare, starting a fire that burned down the casino and destroyed the band’s equipment. This event was immortalized in Deep Purple‘s song Smoke on the Water (didn’t know that until I was researching this post).

The albums Over-Nite Sensation (1973) and Apostrophe (‘) (1974) led to his most commercially successful period. (Watch out where the huskies go, don’t you eat that yellow snow.) Here’s a video from Saturday Night Live in December 1976 doing I’m the Slime:

Frank Zappa released over 75 albums (according to a 12/1/2010 interview with his son Dweezil) before he died of prostate cancer in 1993. Other great albums that I haven’t mentioned yet include 6 volumes of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, and Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.

For even more information, visit the Frank Zappa website. Also, his son Dweezil has put together a band to play his father’s music. Visit the Zappa plays Zappa site to check on their touring schedule.

But the Lyrics Are Lame

As I said in my Introduction for this site, I listen to the voice as an instrument – how does it sound with the other instruments – more than what the words have to say.  Practically speaking, that means a song could be one of my favorites despite the fact that its lyrics are lame.  Ten Years After: 50,000 miles beneath my brain? Huh? I’ll admit that there are songs that I really like, and have listened to over 100 times, for which I don’t know all of the lyrics.

For example, the following two videos are R.E.M.’s first national TV appearance October 6, 1983.  They performed Radio Free Europe (one of my all-time favorite songs) and an at-the-time unnamed song which was later called South Central Rain.  I don’t know if the lyrics are lame or not, because I can’t figure out what most of the words are, and it hasn’t been important to me to look them up.  The fact that Michael Stipe has his hands on the microphone means that most of the time you can’t lip-read to get a hint. I DO think that he has an awesome singing voice, which fits perfectly with the band.


As an aside, when writing this post I was pleased to find a “clean” version of the Radio Free Europe performance. When I first found it, in the only copy on YouTube (and still the most viewed), some clown had added a dialog balloon with “I’m gay” at about 0:50. It says a lot about the person who did it and nothing else. When I’m listening to a singer, I want to know how well they can sing and if they fit with the musicians. I don’t care who they sleep with.

So you might be thinking ‘How can you call it one of your favorite songs if you don’t know the words?’ It has to do with the differences in how people experience music. For many, you could say it’s like poetry set to music — the lyrics form a picture in your head, and the sound of the music plus that picture are how you experience that song. For other people it’s primarily about emotions — how the song makes you feel. For some it’s just background sounds.

In addition, I don’t think people experience music the same way all the time. I may not care much about lyrics, but if I dislike the lyrics strongly enough, it doesn’t matter how the song sounds. So I think each person experiences music in some combination of the ways I described above.

The sum of all this is that when you ask people for their favorite songs, the lists will differ. I’m not offended if you don’t like some of the songs I’ve featured here. How do you experience music?

She Can Play

It’s tough to make it in the music business, and it’s tough to be taken seriously as a musician.  Women have the additional problem that there’s usually someone at the record company saying “You know, if you would dress more sexy you could sell more records.”

I have no brothers and I have no sons, so I’ve spent a good part of my life as the only man in the room.  I think that is one of the reasons why I’ve always thought of women as people first, something a lot of men seem to have trouble with.  I’ve found that I’ve had a ‘Hip Hip Hooray’ reaction when I see a woman as a member of a band, doing more than just singing.  So I want to pay tribute to women who can Play.  This is by no means a complete list (and I’m deliberately excluding solo acoustic guitar), but all of these musicians are worth listening to.

One more thing — I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to ghettoize women musicians.  In the last decade, there have been more women in bands, so it’s not so rare any more.  Many of the women in this post were pioneers who made it possible for others to follow their path.

Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt released her first album in 1971, emerging from the Cambridge, Massachusettes coffeehouse scene as the red-haired woman who could play the blues.  She had the opportunity to learn from and play with some of the all-time greats.  My wife first saw her around 1972, and we saw her together around 1980.  She has achieved legendary status as a guitar player.  This video has her playing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song Pride and Joy with SRV’s band Double Trouble at a tribute concert from the mid 90s, and shows off her awesome ability on slide guitar:

Here she is performing one of her best-known songs from the early days, Love Me Like a Man, in 1976:


Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie Hynde and her band The Pretenders emerged from the London punk scene in the late 70s (although they were most often referred to as a New Wave band).  She was originally from Akron, Ohio, while the other band members were English.  The band eventually had considerable commercial success,  Here they are doing My City Was Gone in 1984 (way to go, Ohio):

This video of the band doing Talk of the Town is from 1981:

Tina Weymouth

Bass player Tina Weymouth was a founding member of Talking Heads, and one of the first women to be just a band member — by that I mean she wasn’t the singer, just one of the musicians.  Listen to her playing in this video of Talking Heads doing Found a Job (in 1978) — her bass drives the song:

Tina and her husband Chris Frantz (Talking Heads drummer — yup, a husband and wife rhythm section), along with Tina’s sisters, founded the  Tom Tom Club as a side project from Talking Heads, and had a couple of big hits.  Here’s a video of the much-sampled Genius of Love from 2009 (couldn’t find a video from the early 80s, when the song first came out):

Joan Jett

Joan Jett first emerged as a member of The Runaways. Since then she’s carved out a solo career and had a number of hits. Here she is with her band, the Blackhearts, doing her punk anthem Bad Reputation:

Here’s a fun alternate version of Bad Reputation, with Joan doing the song on November 13, 2011 with Foo Fighters

Veruca Salt

I just LOVE this next song by Veruca Salt. The contrast of the soprano voices and the crunch of the guitars is awesome. Here they are doing Seether at the Glastonbury Festival in 1995:

The Breeders

Here’s another song I just love. They look like they are having a lot of fun, This is The Breeders playing Cannonball:

Tal Wilkenfeld

I had never heard of Australian bass player Tal Wilkenfeld before seeing the performance in the next video. My first reaction was that if she’s playing with Jeff Beck, she must be good. When I heard her bass solo, I was blown away. I love seeing the band taking a bow at the end, with the 20-year-old woman standing next to her much-older band mates. This is Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers from the 2007 Crossroads Music Festival:

Sleater-Kinney

I had heard of the Riot Grrrls movement of the mid-90s and had heard of a few of the bands, but I didn’t kmow a lot about any of them. Since I felt that any discussion of women musicians wouldn’t be complete without them, I looked at the Wikipedia entry (link above) and started looking at YouTube videos for the various bands. If you do the same you’ll be glad you did, The one that jumped out at me was Sleater-Kinney, here doing Jumpers (don’t have the date for this one):

Au Revoir Simone

When I told my daughter I was working on a post about women musicians, she said I should check out Au Revoir Simone and directed me to the following performance of Only You Can Make You Happy. I’ll admit the lack of a rhythm section took some getting used to, but I like it — it’s ethereal and weird at the same time.