Phil Ramone


When I was a kid, maybe my early teens, I used to get a little confused.  For example, I thought that Phil Ramone had some sort of relationship to the Ramones.  Sadly, he never produced anything they did; that would’ve been kind of awesome.  The Ramones are long defunct, and most of them have passed away.  Today, the word came down that legendary producer Phil Ramone has also passed away at 72.  Maybe they can collaborate at the great rock concert in the afterlife.

Sometimes, an artist is only as good as his/her/their producer can make him/her/them sound.  Phil Ramone could make anyone sound good.  I’m not going to list the many different artists Ramone worked with (but you can find a pretty comprehensive list here).  Suffice it to say that over the course of his nearly 60 year career, Phil Ramone worked with just about everybody.  He didn’t limit himself to any one genre, but much of his work was in pop/rock and jazz.  Ramone also pioneered a lot of innovation in recording, including being one of the first to use digital recording (for better or worse).  He was one of the greats, and I know he’ll be missed.

One of his huge successes was Billy Joel’s The Stranger, released in 1977.  It is one of Joel’s finest albums, and it probably wouldn’t have been half as good with any other producer.

Happy Birthday, God!


The fact the Easter is tomorrow has absolutely nothing to do with this post; it’s just a freaky coincidence precedented by the fact that Christianity simply hijacked a pagan holiday to commemorate the death of their savior (that’s why Easter is always on different dates–it follows the moon, just like whatever pagan holiday it used to be).  No, today’s (first*) post is to celebrate a different kind of religion.

No, not the return of Doctor Who, although the second half of season seven is premiering tonight, with a new companion.  (Although I just read this over at IMDB, and I got all aflutter.  Ten and Rose!)  Now let’s get on with the celebrating, for today is Eric Clapton’s 68th birthday.

Yeah, there are better examples of his playing out there, but this is one of my favorite Slowhand tunes.  It’s got a neat chunky rhythm and a nice little solo.  It’s from his 1985 release Behind the Sun, which was his divorce album and features contributions from a number of popular musicians (most notably Phil Collins, who could still rock the drums then and was at the absolute height of his creative powers).  This song is a man reminding someone that his lady is going to dump him for someone better if he doesn’t change his lousy behavior: “You’ve been abusing her for far too long, think you’re a king and she’s your pawn.  Get ready now, cause pretty soon she’ll be gone and you’ll be on your own.”  At this point in his life, Clapton might well have been singing to a mirror.  His marriage to Patti Boyd was in tatters; Boyd actually left him during the recording of Behind the Sun for a “trial” separation.  This particular track exemplifies the peculiar mood of this album–sadness, chagrin, grief, regret.  There’s even a weird sort of elation to a lot of the tracks, like the burden of uncertainty was finally being lifted from his shoulders.

That’s sort of Clapton in a nutshell.  He’s a bluesman with pop tendencies, who puts all his heart and soul into his music.  He might be all over the map, but you know that whatever you get, it’s going to be genuine.


*There’s another post right on the heels of this one, sad news that hit the music world today.

Freaky Friday: Laurie Anderson


Laurie Anderson is an artist.  Her work is a brilliant commentary on American culture, values, and mores.  She is the author and creator of herself.  For women, that last statement is very important, because so much of what women do in this culture is defined, at least in part, by their relationships with men.  But Anderson has never been in anyone’s shadow.  She got her start in New York in the 1970s, during that amazing heady period when punk and disco were born.  Now Anderson  was never a punk or a disco diva; her musical sensibilities were wide-ranging, but much of it could be traced back to experimental music.  It’s also important to note that while Laurie Anderson uses music as a medium, she isn’t really a musician.  She’s an artist.

One of her earliest installations at a gallery was a jukebox that played 45s of songs she wrote.  One of these was “It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You (It’s the Hole).”  These songs were never released as songs, although a few copies are still around.  This particular song seems to be about misplaced values and a culture of violence, a world where the victim gets blamed for the crime (sadly, this is still familiar for some crimes).

It doesn’t hurt that Anderson’s compositions are attractively catchy.  She’s clearly got a tunesmith’s ear for what works musically.  Her songs are interestingly literate, with good hooks.  She often creates instruments to help craft her songs and performances.  One of her earliest creations was a violin with a tape recorder attached to it, which eventually evolved into her tape bow violin.  It creates eerie sounds that perfectly echo the dread underlying much of her work.

Of course, Anderson is at her best when she’s performing.  Her concerts aren’t really shows, but more like experiences.  In 1986, she released Home of the Brave, a film version of performances at the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey.  Some kind soul has posted the entire film on YouTube, which I’m including here (thanks, LegeCre).  It is by turns thrilling and unsettling.  Enjoy.

File This One Under, “Huh?”


Venerable British heavy metal band Iron Maiden has teamed with a British brewery to release their own signature beer.  “Trooper” promises to be a “premium British ale with true depth of character and flavour.”  Now I admit to being a bit of a beer snob; I like almost anything that isn’t American.  (That’s actually an exaggeration.  I prefer amber ales and the occasional stout to lagers and pilsners; it’s not my fault that most American beers are lagers and pilsners.)  If Trooper ever comes to the U.S., I might be willing to give it a go–as long as it doesn’t cost too much.  Being a beer snob has its drawbacks, not the least of which is having to shell out extra money for brew.

I’m not much of an Iron Maiden fan.  They were always a little too melodramatic for me.  Most British metal bands are, although that at least distinguishes them from sex-and-spandex American metal.  But I find their endurance admirable.  Formed in 1975, the band has performed and recorded pretty continuously ever since, and they’ve sold over 85 million records.  They’re about to embark on a new tour, and released their most recent album in 2010.  (They also recently lost former drummer Clive Burr, who performed with them on their first three albums.)

Of course, the one thing that always made Iron Maiden memorable for me was their mascot, Eddie, who will be featured on the label of their beer.  Eddie has been on every single Iron Maiden album cover, and a significant portion of other merchandise.  When I was younger, I used to think he was kind of creepy, but I’ve got a real soft spot in my heart of that old bag of bones these days.

He’s coming to buy you a drink!

It adds to the melodrama, but Eddie also helps make Iron Maiden one of the most recognizable names in rock music.  Not that they need the help.

Gone to the Movies: Disney


What’s your favorite Disney song?  I’ve got lots, but I’ve noticed that I tend toward the really sappy, sentimental ones.  I’m happy to tap my toes along with “Bare Necessities” or “Under the Sea.”  I’ll grin like a loon every single time I hear “You Can Fly.”  And I’ll sing along with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (which I almost knew how to spell).  But the songs I listen to repeatedly are the ones that make me tear up.  Every. Damn. Time.

I don’t know what that says about me, although it’s pretty in keeping with my feelings about music.  I demand genuine feeling and emotion from my music.  Anything that doesn’t somehow feel like someone cared about it at some point in its production is garbage.  Now, arguably, all music has some genuine feeling in it somewhere.  But I’ve heard enough over-produced, poorly written, studio-dubbed crap to know that isn’t true.  Some music is created to appeal to the widest possible audience while (ostensibly) offending no one.  It’s bland and forgettable, completely lacking in any and all soul.  Many people feel that Disney is one of the mega entertainment conglomerates responsible for this kind of travesty, and I’m sure there’s more than a few Disney songs that fit this category (everything from, say, The Lion King, for example).  But they’re also responsible for a huge portion of the most iconic, and most recognizable, songs in popular culture.  And when these songs are done right, they are brilliant.

Take “When You Wish Upon a Star” for example.  Originally written for the 194o animated feature Pinocchio, the song seems to have taken on a life of its own.  This was the theme for the movie, and in the tradition of great themes, it laid out in simple musical terms the theme of the movie: “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”  Toymaker Geppetto longs for a son, so he carves himself wooden marionette in the form of a little boy.  The Blue Fairy grants his wish and brings the wooden boy to life, but Pinocchio must prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish” in order to become a “real” boy.  I’m pretty sure you know the rest of the story (and if you don’t, go watch the movie, for goodness’ sake).  What I’m not sure anyone realized at the time was that they were creating the theme for all of Walt Disney’s empire.  “When You Wish Upon a Star” has become the de facto theme song of Disneyland–and Disney World, and all the rest of the resorts.  And movies.  And television shows.  The idea that your dreams can come true is something repeated over and over in everything Disney does.  Sure, these days those dreams seem to come attached to a price tag, but even consumerism can’t obscure the truth behind the song.  Warning: This clip contains the end of the movie, so have some tissues handy!  (It’s funny; I sometimes criticize newer Disney movies like Finding Nemo for being a little upsetting and dark, but that’s been a tradition of Disney movies since the beginning.  You can’t have the light without the dark, after all.)

Maybe we’d all do ourselves some good if we followed our dreams and imaginations a little more often.  And maybe all of our lives would be a little better if we listened to that little Jiminy Cricket in our hearts.  It certainly can’t hurt.  Of all the Disney songs I love, I think this one really might be my favorite.  It gets me every time.

So reply if you like with that one Disney song that gets you every time.  You know which one I mean.  The one that makes you happiest, and turns you into a child all over again.

“Take On Me”


Rapper Pitbull and singer Christina Aguilera have a hit song out right now called “Feel This Moment.”  I haven’t heard the whole thing yet, but the parts I have heard just bore me.  There’s nothing genuine or real in that song.  The only thing that catches my attention about the whole thing is the semi-sample* of the iconic keyboard riff from an 80s hit that doesn’t bore me at all.  It might be A-ha’s only real hit in the U.S., but it’s also one of those songs that almost everyone in a certain age group remembers.

Aside from being a really fun, catchy song, “Take On Me” is also one of the most influential music videos of all time.  In 1985, the combination of animation and live action was a rare thing for any film/video medium, and pretty unheard of for music videos at that point.  (Before 1985, animation and live action was most famously combined in short scenes in a number of Disney films and cartoon shorts, and a scene in Anchors Aweigh in which Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse.  A few years later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? used the technique for a whole film, even making the crossover part of the plot.)  Video director Steve Barron also made the animation-live action crossover a plot point–this time as a love story between a young woman in a restaurant and a character in the comic book she’s reading (he seems to be a sort of Speed Racer type).  It’s absolutely perfect for the song.  “Take On Me” is a slight little love song about a boy and girl trying to connect, moving toward and away from each other in fits and starts, “slowly learning that life is okay.  Say after me, it’s no better to be safe than sorry.”  Restaurant Girl and her Comic Boy spend the video trying to find a way to bridge their two worlds, and he finally breaks out of the comic at the end.  Presumably, they get to live happily ever after.  (There’s something of a follow-up to the video at the beginning of the video for their next single, “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” but it’s not very happy, so let’s just pretend it doesn’t exist.  The song isn’t that good, either.)

This was one of those musical moments when everything just sort of magically came together–the right song, the right visuals, the right time.  It makes sense to me that other artists will try to draw on that magic, to recreate it for themselves.  But that’s the thing about magic: You can’t force it to happen.  You can’t explain it or recreate it.  You can’t predict it.  You might as well catch lightning in a bottle.  Or fall in love with a comic book character.  So Pitbull can use that riff to try and capture that magic and use it again.  But it’s already moved on somewhere else.


*I call it a “semi-sample” because I think it’s played new for the Pitbull song, and not sampled directly from the original, but I can’t be 100% positive about that.

Happy Monday!


First of all, I would like to wish a Happy Passover to any Jewish readers I might have out there.  (I  learned what little I know about Jewish holidays and observances from reading the All of a Kind Family series of books as a child.  They were awesome, and I highly recommend them.)

Second, today is the birthday of not one, but two great musical voices.  Aretha Franklin was born in 1942, and Elton John was born in 1947 (making them a year younger than my father and the same age as my mother, respectively).  Truly, that qualifies today as one of the happiest Mondays ever–at least for music fans.  While both singers are distinctive and different, Aretha and Elton are both incredibly talented and influential, and I adore them both.  They don’t really need any commentary or editorializing, so just enjoy the clips I chose.  These might not be the best known of their hits, but they’re two of my personal favorites.

(I would’ve used a good live clip of this, but I didn’t like any of the ones I found.)

(It’s kind of cool watching all those dancers get funky around him.)

Repost: “Building a Mystery”


I got nothing today.  I’m still dealing with a little Sudafed-induced loopiness, so that’s what I’m attributing it to.  


If you listen to music on a computer, or iPod, or really just about any listening device made in the last decade or so, then you know the seductive wonder of the shuffle or random setting.  Apple even made it more interesting a few years ago with the introduction of Genius, a setting that chooses songs according to what you’ve been listening to or according to genre or mood or just about any other criteria (something I’m pretty sure my iPod did long before Genius ever came along).  It’s so much fun to see what the machine comes up with.  If you aren’t in the mood for the song, you just skip to the next one.

Of course, you’ve also probably figured out that there are a few songs you never, ever skip when they come on, for whatever reason.  I’ve started keeping track of these with a playlist on the computer; it’s surprisingly long.  Although I know that these songs really don’t come up all that often–most of them are in single digits for listens.  But there’s a couple of double digits, and this is one of them.  According to my computer, I’ve listened to “Building a Mystery” nineteen times (and about to be twenty).  That might not seem like too many, except that I’ve got nearly 6,000 tracks to choose from.  Why would I listen to one Sarah McLachlan song that much?

I don’t really have an answer.  I mean, obviously I think it’s a really good song.  The whole album, Surfacing, is pretty terrific.  But it was, frankly, overplayed on the radio when it was popular.  Not Chris Isaak “Wicked Game” overplayed, but it got pretty ubiquitous for a while there.  The lyrics, while pleasingly cryptic, aren’t really special (although she does drop the f-bomb, which works in the context).  The production and playing are okay, but, again, nothing special.  I do really love the minor chord it starts out on (minor chords rock).  And I found out one afternoon at a friend’s house that it’s a great song to swing along to (a child’s swing, get your mind out of the gutter).  But there’s nothing that makes it stand out.

Except for maybe the mood.  The opening sets it beautifully, descending into the dreaminess of the rest of the music nicely.  “You come out at night” adds to the, well, mysterious mood.  It’s hard to tell what emotions are being conveyed.  McLachlan’s lilting voice drifts from smirking to angry to sad to loving and back again, over and over.  Like a swing.  There’s no telling what’s going on between the characters in this song, whether it’s something supernatural happening or just a relationship cycling through ups and downs.  Whatever it is, it seems chaotic, disturbed: “You woke up screaming aloud, a prayer from your secret god.  You feed off our fears, and hold back your tears.  Give us a tantrum and a know-it-all grin, just when we need one when the evening’s thin.”  This is not a very stable person, “a beautiful, fucked up man.”  What’s happening?  I’m not sure it matters.  It’s about the mystery, not the solution.

That might be what I like most about this song, that I can’t quite pin it down, and, more importantly, that I don’t really want to.  I keep coming back because of the mystery that Sarah McLachlan builds so perfectly.

“Then Came You”


I was a little remiss earlier this week when I failed to note that Spinners’ lead singer Bobbie Smith passed away at 76.  I’d like to correct that now.  Smith was diagnosed with lung cancer just last November.  He chose to treat the disease aggressively, which compromised his immune system, and he died from complications of pneumonia and the flu.

I’ve never been much of a Spinners fan, but Smith had one of those silky smooth voices that just floated over the music.  He made songs like “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” a pleasure to listen to.  He made otherwise innocuous lyrics sound cool and sexy.  The Spinners might not be my first choice, but I don’t turn them off on the radio, largely because of Bobbie Smith’s performance as a vocalist.

My own personal favorite is their 1974 hit with Dionne Warwick, “Then Came You.”  It’s one of those cheesy 70s love songs I just can’t get enough of.  The combination of those wonderful voices is what makes it so much fun to listen to.  It’s not really a duet in the sense that one singer takes each verse, and they come together for the bridge and chorus.  This is Dionne singing with the group, with Bobbie providing counterpoint vocals when he isn’t harmonizing.  I love the call and response style; it just works so well here.  Smith’s responses to Warwick’s call are emotional and evocative, adding a layer of meaning that this song might have otherwise lacked.  Listen to the fade out, especially when he sings out joyously “I’m a contented man!”  There’s a happiness to this song.  I think it’s a great way to remember a great singer.


Freaky Friday: “Imaginary Diseases”


Now that I feel better (even the congestion is starting fade a little), I can get back to my regularly scheduled hypochondria.  Because I’m convinced I’m dying of some horrible and/or exotic disease–even though I haven’t had the chance to contract any horrible and/or exotic diseases.  I can’t watch the health report on the local news unless it’s about some magical treatment that cures everything (turns out, that might just be aspirin, but they have to do some more studies).  I can’t watch hospital shows on TV.  Any time I hear about the symptoms of something, I start feeling like I have them.  Thing is, I know my body pretty well (I’d better since I obsess over its health so much).  I know how I feel when I’m sick, and how I feel when I’m well.  I get regular check-ups, so anything that might be about to go wrong should get caught early.  And aside from being a bit overweight, high cholesterol, and my infamous cysts, I’m in pretty damn good health (knock wood).  My hypochondria actually eased up quite a bit after I had my humongous fibroid tumors removed (along with most of my uterus).  There’s nothing like getting the gigantic hard masses removed from your abdomen to lighten the psychosomatic load off your mind.

But I freak out over health issues really easily, so I try to temper my hypochondria and anxiety with knowledge.  My father regularly feels compelled to remind me that diabetes runs in the family (a pretty good reason why I should lose some more weight), as if I didn’t already know that.  I also know all the symptoms and monitor myself for anything amiss in that department.  We also have a history of heart disease and arthritis (both sides of the family, too), so I’ve got to watch out for those, too.  I try to understand what the illnesses are, and, most importantly, how to prevent them.  I’m not nutty about it, but I try to be careful about food and get some exercise (which seem to be the universal preventative measures for everything).  I don’t smoke anything, and I don’t drink enough for it to be an issue.  My only really bad habit is Coke.

No, not the illegal one; I can’t afford that shit.  But I love my Coca Cola (regular; none of that diet crap for me . . . artificial sweeteners are bad for you).  Yeah, it’s got high fructose corn syrup and caramel coloring (look it up if you want to know how horrible that is).  But it’s so sweet and cold and fizzy.  It’s my comfort food and my one true vice.  I don’t care.  It’s not like I have pizza topped with triple cheese and meats, with sides of hot wings and french fries dipped in Thousand Island dressing for every meal.  I can indulge a little.

So, enjoy this little instrumental piece from the Godfather of the Freaks, and think about all the horrible and/or exotic diseases you don’t actually have.  I’m gonna go have a Coke.