Friday, January 12, 2018

Nico- The Immediate Label (1965) Part 1

(l to r: Tony Calder, Nico and Andrew Loog Oldham; taken from the booklet with 6CD box "The Immediate Story")
Nico was one of the many artists I included in a long list that I felt had been unfairly excluded from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while others with little connection to the music (and likely no desire to be associated with it) were inducted over the objections of confused fans. Most of the posts for this blog in the second half of 2011 were devoted to the Checklist of Shame (click on the "Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame" label on the right side of the screen), but I've excerpted her entry below:

  1. NICO- Nobody's idea of a role model, certainly not going to win any 'mother of the year' awards, but definitely deserving of a permanent place in the rock pantheon. The minimalism of Talking Heads or Flying Lizards almost certainly can be traced directly to her post-CHELSEA GIRL solo albums, rather than Alban Berg or Erik Satie. Much of her personal history, marred by drug addiction and pathological lying, is a Gordian Knot of misinformation and contradictory accounts; I won't even attempt to address it here. For the curious, the only-- and I mean only-- trustworthy sources are the book "Nico: The Life & Lies Of An Icon" and the documentary film "Nico/Icon" it inspired. For supplemental reading, ex-band member James Young wrote a book that's been repackaged under a variety of titles by a variety of publishers and is filled with could-have-happened anecdotes from the early 1980's.
Rather than spend time on a disambiguation of her multiple biographies, I'll refer readers to the sources in the above paragraph and dive right into the music. After appearing in a number of films and television commercials in Europe, Nico turned up in England, dating Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. Their manager, Andrew "Loog" Oldham, was using his experience as a publicist for Brian Epstein's artists, to launch his own record label while the Stones were still signed to Decca. His partner in that venture, Tony Calder, had been a publicist for Decca and both had their reasons to believe they had learned from what they considered the mistakes of such major labels.

The first three releases from the label were scheduled to be released by Friday, August 20th, 1965. This was the same day as the Rolling Stones' new single on Decca, "Satisfaction". Oldham was no doubt hoping for some synergistic publicity.

The first catalogue number was assigned to The McCoys for a single ("Hang On Sloopy") that was actually licensed from the Bang Records label, located in the U.S. That label (formed by Bert Berns, Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun and Jerry-- or, for the purposes of his first initial, Gerald-- Wexler) was only a few months old itself and formed by producers and executives at Atlantic Records. Berns also had business in England producing the band Them and writing their hit "Here Comes the Night". He would later bring Van Morrison to Bang as a solo artist. The Immediate label would continue to license recordings from Bang, including by artists like the Strangeloves.

The other two singles featured original recordings. IM002 was the only release by The Fifth Avenue, arranged and produced by Jimmy Page. Page was a prolific studio musician before becoming the fourth lead guitarist in the Yardbirds (he was approached for the job when Eric Clapton quit and recommended Jeff Beck; he later played with them alongside Beck and stayed after Beck left). The two members of The Fifth Avenue were Denny Gerrard and Kenny Rowe. After this, Gerrard formed another duo at Immediate (Warm Sounds) which signed to Decca subsidiary Deram. Rowe met Brian Epstein client Tony Rivers and his band The Castaways when they recorded a one-off single for Immediate shortly before they left EMI/Columbia. After Epstein died in 1967, the Beatles formed the Apple organization, eventually leading to the Apple label in 1968. Three members of the Castaways were recruited by the head of the publishing division to form a band for an artist with a publishing contract. As Grapefruit (named after the Yoko Ono book) they were one of the first bands signed to Apple but their recordings were licensed to other labels before Apple started manufacturing their own records. For perspective, remember that the Beatles themselves continued to release records through Parlophone until August 1968. Rowe joined Tony Rivers to form a new version of the Castaways. After one single on Polydor, they refashioned themselves as Harmony Grass and signed to RCA.

The A-side of the Fifth Avenue single was a pretty faithful cover of the Byrds' arrangement of "The Bells Of Rhymney". It appeared on their first album, which had only been out in the U.S. for two months and would be released in the U.K. in August, close to the Fifth Avenue single. The Byrds never released it as a single in the U.S., although it made it to the Greatest Hits album in 1967. It the U.K. it was included on an EP in February 1966.
The B-side was a Jimmy Page original, "Just Like Anyone Would Do". Musically, it sounds like the hooks from four different songs patched together. Any one of them is hummable, but it makes the full song difficult to remember. And being difficult to remember could be fatal given the competition these initial three singles were wading into. The third single was, of course, Nico's debut. The next post will look at the A-side. In the meantime, below is a list of the top 50 singles in the August 19th, 1965 Record Retailer. Instead of listing them as they appeared in the chart, in order of their rank that week, I've listed them in the order that they were released to give a sense of how long they had been in the British consciousness at the time. I then note how long they eventually lasted with their last chart date and total number of weeks. After the artist and song title I give their peak rank (not necessarily their rank on August 19) and their label.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Frozen Warnings/A Given Voice

Well, it's that time of year again. The Bob Dylan Covers project I began last year will continue this year. However, the point of that project is that Dylan has become perennial and that his covers are ubiquitous. At the moment I have realized that there is something more pressing, at least to me.

Later this year will be the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Nico. It is unlikely to be observed in mass media. Although her music is widely respected by other musicians and fans of innovative music, it is not likely to ever be widely popular. I've written in this blog before about the mix of confusion and vindication I've felt watching music I had been told for years was "commercially unviable" becoming the soundtrack for actual television commercials. Ramones, Nick Drake, Joy Division, the Stooges and even Syd Barrett were licensed for ads in the last 20 years, but Nico, who was featured in a series of television ads in Europe before becoming a musician? Not so much. Wes Anderson soundtracks, maybe, but Nico wasn't going to get onto broadcast television unless it was in one of the three Velvet Underground songs she sang on or a track from her first solo album, "Chelsea Girls". Both sets of songs were released on the Verve label and the recordings would be licensed through UMC, presumably. But going through Warner Music isn't the reason TV shows and ads don't license tracks from "Marble Index". There's also the fact that however fascinating her life has been she had spent much of it as an unsympathetic figure. Heroin addicts and pathological liars are a dime a dozen on basic cable scandal shows but rarely get network retrospectives or tribute concerts.

Despite all of that, I still contend that Nico is overdue for a comprehensive career retrospective of her music. In fact, I felt that way over twenty years ago when I compiled the two-cassette, three hour overview that appears in the scans on the right. Like most of the compilations I made in the 90's it was a compilation of hits and rarities plus representative album tracks in roughly chronological order of their recording. In this case, 'hits' translates to anything released on a single or songs that became concert staples.

One should be aware that creating a compilation such as this, drawing on as many different sources held by so many different interests, for retail purposes is markedly different from me creating these tapes for my own enjoyment. Since I never sold these I never had to pay licensing fees or royalties. I also didn't have to locate the original masters from numerous points around the globe. These songs were all dubbed from standard store-bought CD's and vinyl. They were individually equalized and the volume levels had to be readjusted when changing sources, but the differences between formats of pre-recorded music are minor compared to trying to mix from one song to another from reels that have differing numbers of tracks recorded years apart on equipment sometimes separated by generations.

The expense of engaging capable engineers on top of the expenses of providing them with the original recordings in question all has to be balanced against the likelihood of the end results selling. Also, the more sophisticated and attractive the packaging, the higher the suggested retail price and the smaller the pool of potential customers despite its greater desirability.

Below are the final drafts of the notes for the compilation, handwritten on notebook paper (keepin' it classy). You should note that each side of the 90-minute cassettes are about the length of an LP and I saw fit to correspondingly give each side its own title as though it were a self-contained album. The particular selection of tracks allowed me to make a clean break between sides at points where Nico changed labels in different years.

In the coming months I hope to look at each track considered for this compilation and why they did or didn't make the cut. I'll also try to look at the releases made since these were compiled and consider how the retrospective might be expanded or improved. If I can complete these posts before the anniversary of her death in July, perhaps someone in a better position than I might assemble a fitting commemoration for her (likely) 80th birthday in October.

See you soon.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Plowmen Till My Earth: Introduction

.....After Thanksgiving I continued listening to The Band's Last Waltz 4CD set released in 2002 (diplomatically, between the silver anniversaries of the concert in 1976 and resulting film/album project in 1978) and reading an excellent examination of the different configurations of recordings released over the last forty years available on their website. Most versions are incomplete and the songs presented out of the order in which they were performed. The article provided a clearer picture of the events of the day and I couldn't think of anything I could comment on here that would add anything of value, beyond going into detail about The Band's relationship to each of the guests on the bill and that information is already available online, albeit scattered.

.....As I put together newspapers for recycling I noticed an obituary I had seen before, but which had slipped my mind during the fuss over holidays. There have been many deaths in the music business this year (David Bowie's 70th birthday is in a week; don't think you won't hear about that), so it would have easy for many and excusable for some to have overlooked it, but Milt Okun died just before Thanksgiving. Okun was best known as a producer, but he has touched the lives of many musicians in many ways, including as a publisher, composer and even as a sound editor. He played a large part in the background of the emergence of what I used to call "barbershop folk", characterized by traditional (or at least public domain) songs sung by scrubbed, clean shaven young people in matching outfits. (Think of the film "A Mighty Wind". Or the Bob Dylan song "Talkin' New York Blues".) It wasn't completely unrelated to the real folk music scene; most if not all of the acts played in the same clubs as people who would never get on the Ed Sullivan Show. But Okun produced the recordings that brought folk to middle America just as Nat King Cole did for jazz.The Band only ever became known to most Americans because Bob Dylan recruited them to be his touring band in the mid-60's and Bob Dylan was only ever able to tour enough to need a band because of a ball set in motion by several people including Milt Okun.

.....To set some perspective, in the late 1950's the emergence of rock music was being met with resistance, sometimes violently but more often from state and local officials under pressure from white supremacist groups who objected to the fact that it drew upon both traditionally white and black music forms and moreso that white teenagers enjoyed it. Sometimes that pressure was direct and sometimes it was through national elected officials who relied on these domestic terrorist groups as a part of their campaign apparatus. In a short period of time the major players were either dead (Buddy Holly, et al), drafted (Elvis Presley), jailed (Chuck Berry) or otherwise blackballed (Jerry Lee Lewis). Of course, there were many who simply objected to rock for aesthetic reasons. One of the most strident of these voices was Mitch Miller, a recording industry fixture for many years who wore several hats: arranger, conductor and producer, but to the general public he was best known as the host of the television show "Sing Along With Mitch". Most importantly in music history, he was the head of the Artists and Repertoire department at Columbia Records. Having issued the first major contracts to Aretha Franklin and Johnny Mathis and having put Leslie Uggams on television every week, Miller couldn't possibly have perceived himself as being in the same boat as the various "Citizens Councils" that kept rock records off certain radio stations. And it would unfair and inaccurate to paint him that way. However, he was very likely among the many at the time who saw blues and jazz as forms of minstrelsy used to demean and oppress African Americans, and that black musicians were 'liberated' to the extent that they sounded like white musicians. There's little doubt that his heavy hand regarding selecting material and arrangements drove Franklin to Atlantic records after recording eight albums for Columbia in six years. For all her effort, only the 1961 single, "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" barely squeaked into the top 40. By contrast, her first nine Altantic A-sides were each Top 10 Pop chart hits (that's Billboard Pop, not the R&B chart which skewed to black artists). It's no wonder most people think her career started with "Respect" in 1967. Her last Columbia album may have been called "Soul Sister", but with material like "Ol' Man River", "Swanee" and "You Made Me Love You", she probably couldn't care less that nobody remembers it.

.....With Miller's influence in the music business and preference for repertoire in public domain (no royalties, you see), there became an inroad into the recording industry for people with a knowledge of traditional American music so long as they were willing to perform it in a stiff, almost neo-classicist style. While this wasn't Milt Okun's mission in life, it meant work for performers who would have been unlikely to get a recording contract even a few years earlier. It didn't take long for other labels to follow suit. It also didn't take long for a folk revival to take root on American college campuses. With the most vital rock acts missing it was easy for young adults to dismiss rock music as a passé and juvenile fad. These were people who came of age in the Cold War being told that American freedoms must be preserved at all costs and as they prepared to enter the adult world and be the ones who would be responsible for that preservation, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the greatest threats to the American Dream were coming from within-- the selfsame officials and Citizens Councils that pursued segregationist policies (and worse) and pushed rock into relative obscurity. They didn't know it yet, but the nation's racist power brokers had made the same mistake that the Shah of Iran would make years later, but in reverse. The Shah eliminated his most civilized and reasoned critics in every aspect of modern Iranian culture-- academics, politics, economics; intellectuals and respected civic leaders of all kinds were exiled or imprisoned, tortured or intimidated into silence, some dying in custody or simply disappearing. The only ones he didn't bother with were the craziest of the religious polemicists because the general public didn't have any respect for them, so they couldn't form an effective opposition. However, because of his purges, the Shah left the public with no one to voice their concerns except the severest religious extremists. He essentially delivered to them the public support they could never get on their own. Enter the Ayatollah. In America in 1959, those who needed civil rights repression in order to stay in power put all their energies into persecuting whoever couldn't fight back, had no political inclinations or insights, little or no formal education, no extended network of social support in the form of middle class families or military background and the least articulate. What was left was an army of English majors with a decades long history of organizing social and political activism who now had the flag and apple pie on their side. There was something distinctly American about American folk music and something distinctly anti-American about the Confederacy.

.....One of those young fans of folk music was a Cornell freshman named Lenny Lipton who, having read an Ogden Nash poem, "The Tale of Custard The Dragon" about a girl named Belinda and her cowardly pet dragon, was inspired to write his own poem about a boy who "prepared to enter the adult world" and take on greater responsibilities, leaving his own pet dragon to carry on without him. A fellow student named Peter Yarrow set it to music and would sometimes include it while performing. (You realize we're talking about "Puff, The Magic Dragon", right?) In Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located, there's a Cherry Road and a Cherry Street. There's even a Cherry Street in Brooklyn, where Lipton was born, but not a Cherry Lane. How that made it into the song, I don't know. I also don't know why a theatrical troupe in Greenwich Village back in the 1920's would refurbish a box factory on Commercial St. and rename it the Cherry Lane Theater when there's no Cherry Lane in Manhattan, either. But in 1960, while Lipton was working on his physics degree, Milt Okun formed a music publishing company, Cherry Lane Music Publishing, in the offices above the theater. Also working in New York was a young man who left his home in the midwest with hopes of becoming a rock musician. During the course of that journey he, too, became deeply impressed by the power of American folk, as exemplified by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to touch people and spell out the human condition in stark, honest terms. And Mitch Miller couldn't have had any idea what he was getting into when Bob Dylan signed to Columbia Records in 1961, but in just two years after that Yarrow, Okun, Dylan and others would ignite a phenomenon of the 1960's that's still burning today: Dylan covers.

Next post: "Plowmen Till My Earth" continues with "Broadsides, Blowin' and Brothers", plus the reason why that's not the right lyric

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Last Waltz

Today, Thanksgiving in the U.S., November 24th, 2016, is being recognized as the 40th Anniversary of the concert by The Band known as The Last Waltz. It was both filmed and sound recorded, resulting in a documentary film directed by Martin Scorcese and a triple-LP released by Warner Bros. (although their prior albums were mostly on Capitol-- except for two recorded with Dylan when he was renegotiating with his own label, Columbia). The actual date of the concert was November 25th, 1976. This month there have already been several retail items released to commemorate the event, including a 2CD set replicating the 3LP album and a deluxe package that appears to pair the 2002 4CD set with a Blu-ray disc of the Scorcese film.

The reason why this was preserved for posterity at all, let alone revisited periodically as it has been, becomes immediately evident to anyone who has seen the film, even though it relates only a fraction of the proceedings. Guitarist and principal lyricist Robbie Robertson was leaving the group. At the time, and for some time after the film hit theaters in 1978, it was widely believed that the group was splitting up entirely. Interviews since then indicate that was not the intention of the other members but public perception has a way of shaping self-fulfilling prophesies. Other members would tour and record separately and in combinations, including as "The Band", but the performances that night were fantastic even if the title isn't 100% accurate.

The whole event was roughly nine hours, including four hours of music, Thanksgiving dinner for 5000 people, plus prior band rehearsals and later studio recordings to complete the two planned media projects. Joining The Band onstage were a wish-list of headlining musicians and singers they've worked with or for. The only one I can think of that wasn't evident was Allen Toussaint. To date there has never been a legitimate release of the full day's recordings and it's unlikely there ever will be. Perhaps for the 50th Anniversary a raw source tape without edits or overdubbing will stream online on Thanksgiving as background music for people who don't watch football.

Well, leftovers are calling me. If Black Friday proceedings don't slow the internet to a crawl then I'll probably add some thoughts tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Hall of Shame Update 2013

.....Before the year ends I should note that the recent list of inductees (pared down from an earlier list of nominees) released by the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, as well as last year's, contains names from my 2011 list of deserving candidates who have been undeservedly passed over. My "Checklist of Shame" occupied ten posts over three weeks plus one the following January. The shame, it should be noted, was on the Hall, not the artists. I named over 150 acts in the Checklist itself and more in the ranty paragraphs that began and ended each posts. In the rants preceding the second post (Sept. 29, 2011) I included Lou Adler among the non-performers "inexplicably missing"; he was later inducted in 2013. Next year Kiss and Peter Gabriel are due to be inducted. Also, as I correctly predicted (Sept. 28, 2011), Public Enemy was inducted last year in its first year of eligibility.

.....Hopefully I'll be able to record more of my thoughts in the coming year (perhaps update that list), even if it's only a random "what I'm listening to at the moment" approach; anything to prime the pump and stimulate further productivity.

.....We'll see what the New Year brings. You're always welcome to leave questions and suggestions in the comments. Even when I leave gaps between posts, the comments are forwarded.