Rock Calendar for March 29: Life Imitates Art

On March 29, 1973, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show appeared on the cover of The Rolling Stone following the success of their single of the same name.

Here’s what former Rolling Stone editor Chet Flippo had to say about this about this clear case of life imitating art.

CHET FLIPPO: That song came out of left field. Shel Silverstein wrote it. And when we heard it, we knew what they were doing. We kind of laughed and we said, “These guys down here are trying to con us, obviously.” And then the song took off and we said, “Well, we gotta do it.”” People expected it. So we whipped up a frothy little article and said, “OK, Dr. Hook, here’s your cover.” And they laughed because they knew what they were doing. It was a game and both of us played it. The odd things is, a few years later I got a call from Dr. Hook’s management and they said they were ready for the cover again and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Dr. Hook appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone on this day in 1973.

Here’s the song as immortalized in Almost Famous. . .

The Stones in the Studio, Tattoo You and Beyond (Guest Post by Matt Blankman)

Many thanks to Matt Blankman for contributing this expanded, and multimedia-itized version of an essay he wrote for 50 Licks. You can follow him on Twitter. Take it away, Matt!

Tattoo You, the Stones’ 1981 album release, was a largely a hodgepodge of outtakes, leftovers and neglected tracks from previous album sessions. Associate Producer Chris Kimsey dug into can after can of tapes, some of which dated all the way back to the Mick Taylor era and Goats Head Soup sessions of late 1972, and compiled the worthy tracks. Mick Jagger did the bulk of the work bringing them into the present, writing lyrics and melodies, recording vocals and helping Kimsey shape the unruly stew into a unified album that sounded up to date. The result was a huge financial and critical success. Tattoo You is fully in a classic Rolling Stones vein and yet was ready for 1980s radio. The last Stones album to hit #1 on the Billboard album chart, it’s also what is now generally thought of by critics and Stones fans alike as the last great Rolling Stones album.

In the years since Tattoo You, Rolling Stones albums have all met a similar fate: lots of hype and attention at release, followed by reviews that breathlessly suggest that either a) it’s their best work since Some Girls or Exile on Main Street or b) it’s an embarrassing disaster and they need to retire. For most fans, after running out the day of release to purchase any new Stones album, the initial excitement wears off within a few weeks and albums such as Steel Wheels and Bridges To Babylon wind up gathering dust on the shelf while Sticky Fingers and Aftermath never leave the stereo for very long. Although the overall quality of their album output in the three decades since Tattoo You may not live up to the brilliant standard they had created in the 60s and 70s, these later records all have their moments where the genius of the Rolling Stones fully shines through and are worthy of reconsideration.

After Tattoo You and the attendant 1981/82 world tour and live concert album and movie, the Stones would release two more albums without touring, Undercover (1983) and Dirty Work (1986). Both albums sold reasonably well and garnered some strong reviews; however neither has aged particularly well with fans and very few of the tracks ever made their way to the band’s live set lists or classic rock radio. Nearly 30 years later, however, the lead single from Undercover, the politically charged “Undercover of the Night,” stands out as one of their more successful attempts at updating their sound for the 80s, as does Mick’s oddball “Too Much Blood.” There’s no new ground broken on the back-to-basics horny schoolboy rock’n’roll romp, “She Was Hot,” but that doesn’t stop it from working.

Unfortunately, it’s a largely unmemorable album with subpar material. Dirty Work saw the Mick and Keith feud of the 1980s at its zenith – Mick was absent from most of the album sessions. Working with then-hot producer of the moment Steve Lillywhite, the record never finds a groove and suffers greatly from a dearth of good new Jagger-Richards songs. Ronnie Wood coaxed fellow British guitar hero Jimmy Page into playing lead on “One Hit (to the Body),” the only track that sounds remotely like a classic Stones single, but despite some inspired playing by Page, Wood & Richards, the production sounds terribly dated, with its 1980s “big drums” and female background vocalists. “Had It With You” is a lively, nasty rocker seemingly echoing Mick and Keith’s ongoing hostilities that does a bit better with Liillywhite’s production, but the lone track that truly transcends the album is Keith’s haunting, piano driven ballad “Sleep Tonight.” With a guest appearance by Keith’s friend and sometime collaborator Tom Waits on backing vocals, “Sleep Tonight” is the first of Keith’s great late-period slow ballads. It’s also hard to not wonder if he’s singing about his estranged musical partner: “They robbed you of your dignity / they even steal your heart from me.”

Détente was in the air a few years later as Mick and Keith got back together, wrote a few dozen new songs and the Stones re-emerged in the summer of 1989 with Steel Wheels. Steel Wheels saw a little nostalgia back in the mix, as “Blinded By Love” was an acoustic based song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a 1966 Stones platter. As for the singles from the album, “Mixed Emotions” (or as Keith reportedly called it “Mick’s Emotions”) was an effective call to arms, the strident “Rock In A Hard Place” less so, but both seemed like a Rolling Stones simulation rather than the real thing. Far better was the lost love song “Almost Hear You Sigh,” originally written by Richards and Steve Jordan for the former’s solo debut album Talk Is Cheap, retooled slightly by Jagger for the Stones. However, the album’s most memorable track for many Stones-o-philes is the Richards-sung ballad that closes the album, the sublime and delicate “Slipping Away.” The band must seem to agree, as it’s been in the concert repertoire ever since and was re-recorded for the partly live Stripped album in 1995.

Steel Wheels was followed by the success and spectacle of their monstrously huge Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tours in 1989 and 1990 and then the upsetting news in 1993 that Bill Wyman was calling it quits. Later that year they were back in the studio with producer Don Was working on their first studio record in five years, Voodoo Lounge. The brief whiffs of nostalgia on Steel Wheels grew stronger on Voodoo Lounge, thanks in part to Was’ admittedly classicist approach. The producer was able to tamp down Jagger’s ongoing desire to sound current and hip in favor of a more conventional, classic Rolling Stones sound. Critic Robert Christgau joked that they sounded like “the world’s greatest roots rock band.” Jagger groused about it afterwards, but Was’ instincts were in synch with Stones fans. The lead single, “Love Is Strong” seemingly owed a lot to Richards work with his X-Pensive Winos, but Jagger delivered a slinky, sexy vocal and strong harmonica work. Despite several slashing guitar work outs, once again, they were at their best with the quieter songs. “New Faces” was a surprising delight – a harpsichord-driven, acoustic song about jealousy of a young rival suitor that could have come from Aftermath or Between The Buttons. Ronnie Wood broke out his pedal steel guitar for “The Worst,” featuring Keith’s gravelly, lived in lead vocal and a gentle Celtic-country-rock lilt. “Out of Tears” is an archetypal Jagger breakup tune, musically reminiscent of “Fool To Cry” nearly twenty years later and “Blinded By Rainbows” a moving tale of a lost soul amid political and religious violence and strife featuring one of Jagger’s best vocal performances in years. Keith scored again with his second lead vocal of the album, the spooky, gritty “Thru and Thru,” seen by some as a message to the missing Wyman rather than to an errant lover. (Years later, the track was used on the seminal TV series The Sopranos, and the song quickly found its way back into the set list.) Voodoo Lounge meanders a bit, but it’s a genuinely satisfying listen, lacking only a truly great rocker to join the pantheon of classic Stones albums.

Jagger would get his wish to let the Stones experiment with more contemporary sounds a few years later with Bridges To Babylon. Don Was returned, but Jagger wanted to bring in The Dust Brothers, (riding high after working with Beck on his breakthrough album Odelay) to work on some tracks and give them a more current sheen. Richards wasn’t happy, but the peace was kept and the resultant album is a bit overlong and scattershot, despite some strong material. Keith’s gut feelings were largely correct here, as Jagger’s attempts to incorporate hip hop and electronic elements to the blues workouts and ballads he and Keith had written seem gimmicky and have not aged as well as the more straight forward tracks. Case in point – the lead single “Anybody Seen My Baby” sounds embarrassing fifteen years later, with the sample of rapper Biz Markie standing out like a sore thumb. That said, the Stones still knew how to construct and execute a great track, as the terrific “Already Over Me” illustrates, featuring an expressive, sensitive vocal by Mick and beautiful guitar textures from Keith. “Flip the Switch” rocked at an absurdly fast clip and “Too Tight” was an unjustly neglected, driving barnburner buried near the end of the album. Other strong material, like “Saint of Me,” and “Might As Well Get Juiced” sounds gummed up from the Dust Brothers overactive production. Keith protested that the more traditional takes of the bluesy “Juiced” blew the doors off the album version, and perhaps to reward his acceptance of Mick’s experiments, he was given three lead vocals on the album: the delightful reggae romp “You Don’t Have To Mean It,” and the album closing two-fer of the atmospheric, mysterious “Thief In The Night” and the gorgeous jazz ballad “How Can I Stop,” featuring jazz legend Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone.

The band got back together in 2002 to record some new tracks for a greatest hits collection (Forty Licks) and tour. The tour was excellent, the new songs adequate but forgettable (Quick – when was the last time you heard “Don’t Stop?”). It took until 2005 to get a new full-length studio album out of the Stones, and it was worth the wait. A Bigger Bang was the most natural, least forced album the band had made in decades. Critics were again quick to suggest it was the best Stones record since Tattoo You but this time they were probably right. It neither sounded like the Stones pretending to replay their glory years or aping current pop trends, it simply sounded like the Rolling Stones. The chemistry between Mick and Keith sounded unforced and Charlie Watts’ groove was confident, relaxed and rocking. “Rough Justice” and “Oh No, Not You Again” were strong, driving rock’n’roll tunes that showcased classic Stones swagger and “Back of My Hand” the best bit of pure blues they’d recorded in eons.

“Rain Fall Down” was an effective funk/disco workout and “Biggest Mistake” is a hugely enjoyable and darkly funny sad-sack tale of lost love. “Let Me Down Slow” showed they could still write an exemplary pop song and “Streets of Love” was a lovely, shimmering ballad. Perhaps they were inspired by their friend Bob Dylan’s late career comeback, but A Bigger Bang found the Rolling Stones at peace with being the Rolling Stones, simply making strong music together, without pretense or affectation.

And the free book goes to. . .

Keith and Brian "pull a nanker."

Keith and Brian “pull a nanker.”

Before we get to this week’s winner, just a few words from your host. I do want to finish up this week posting on here Monday through Friday but after that I’m going to cut back a little bit as new projects are calling. And starting next week, with Susan going back to work, I am going to be the primary caregiver for little Perrin a couple of days a week — I presume this will seriously curtail my working hours!

I definitely want to keep the blog going though, I just need to sort out if it’s going to be a once, twice or thrice-a-week-appearing blog. The rest of this week should be fun on here. Tomorrow I’m aiming to run a guest blog from Matt Blankman, an expanded version of the piece he did for 50 Licks about the Stones in the 80s. And for Friday I have a Rock Calendar for one of the great novelty songs of all time.

As for my new projects, they are all TOP SECRET at this stage. Well, that’s a lie. It’s no secret at all that Chris Jericho and I have been diligently working away on a third book, the Return of the Jedi to the Star Wars that was A Lion’s Tale. Or something like that. But I have to put in a few weeks setting the table for Chris to do that voodoo that he do so well on that one. I also should be having a guest post about broadcasting and basketball up on SBNation soon. Then there are three other ideas percolating. All I can say for now is that one is about booze, one is about booze AND food, and the other is about music. Sports, booze, music, food, co-writing. I should put that on my business card.

OK, as for this week’s winner. . .it’s Dan. No last name, just Dan. He won the drawing and will hopefully email me back with his proper name and address so I can send him his book. He correctly knew that the two pseudonyms associated with the Stones were Nanker Phelge and The Glimmer Twins. For the easy question, Exile on Main Street was recorded at Keith Richards’ villa, Nellcôte, in France.

If you didn’t win, don’t fret. I’ll be doing one or two more contests over the course of the next couple of weeks, so tune back in. Or you can always just buy the damn thing.

The Curious Incident of the Stones and the Mars Bar

67 evening news drug swoop lo res

OK, I’ll admit it. I still watch Californication. Yes, the show has become a bit of a cartoon. And a little bit of a repetitive one at that. But I guess I just enjoy watching a romanticized version of a writer’s life, especially one who screws up constantly and somehow gets away with it (not that I can relate or anything. . .). Even in its dotage, the series still pulls off some cool father-daughter stuff thanks to the performances of the ever charismatic David Duchovny and the underrated Madeleine Martin. And I really appreciated this season’s mini-Lost reunion when Evan Handler, Jorge Garcia, and Maggie Grace all got to share screen time (Yes, I watched Lost to the bitter end as well).

You might ask yourself: what does any of this have to do with the Rolling Stones and 50 Licks?

But the truth is that Californication has been laden with Stones references from day one. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was featured in a prominent role and was called back for a season finale a couple of years ago. David Duchovny has speculated about what a great guest star Keith Richards would be (he settled for Marilyn Manson). And this season contained an acting out of one the most infamous footnotes in Rolling Stones history.

Now this is a PG blog, or maybe PG-13, so I’m not going to get into all the specifics here, but if your prurient interest is piqued, you can check out the full story over here.

The subtitle of the book is “Myths and Stories from Half a Century of The Rolling Stones” and this is one of the myths. The legend sprouted from a real incident took place at Keith Richards’ estate, Redlands, in 1967. It involved Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, a coterie of drug enthusiasts, and, in the fictional version, a Mars bar. On Californication, David Bowie is inserted into the scene in a nod to another, possibly true rock and roll urban legend. In 50 Licks, we write all about what really happened at Redlands on page 75. There’s another good Stones myth on page 169.

Here’s a list of five other rock and roll urban legends. Feel free to insert your own in the comments:

Charles Manson auditioned for the Monkees.

Rod Stewart/Elton John/one of the Bay City Rollers collapsed at a party and had to have his stomach pumped.

Frank Zappa took a shit on stage.

Mama Cass Elliot died from choking on a ham sandwich.

Ozzy Osbourne once bit the head of a bad on stage. No wait, that actually happened:

Eddie Kramer Interview

When it comes to rock and roll engineers, Eddie Kramer is at the top of the mountain. His work is legendary, including sessions with Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, on the Woodstock soundtrack, and with many others. Any editor reading this should immediately reach out to him to sign up his memoir (I know a decent, NYT bestselling co-writer who might be interested). Bernie had a chance to talk with him for 50 Licks and as usual he came up with some great stuff.

Photo of Eddie Kramer by H.W. Worthington

Photo of Eddie Kramer by H.W. Worthington

When was the first time you had contact with the Stones?

I’m not sure if my memory serves me correctly, but there were quite a few albums done by the Stones in around ’67. One of them was the Between the Buttons album. The other one was an album called Flowers. The other one was Satanic Majesty’s and the fourth one was Beggar’s Banquet which I started cutting the basic tracks for. I was assistant engineer on all of those.

What’s your assessment of the tracks they put down for Satanic Majesties?

It was done for a reason. The Stones don’t make an album without a reason. It was a response to Sgt.Pepper. It was a response to the busts. An artist is affected by his or her surroundings. If you want to express that angst, you express it through your music and that’s exactly what they did. It was the height of psychodelia; it falls hard on the heels of the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper was a major influence. In some ways people thought it was their answer. I’ve always loved them because they tool a lot of chances. It’s not sophisticated music and they tried to make it sophisticated. I think that’s why a lot of people look on it today as it was the Stones experimenting.

I think they’d had enough at that point — thank God they found Jimmy Miller. Certainly Mick and Keith and the boys had heard what we’d done with Traffic. And it was amazing. When you put Dear Mr. Fantasy up against Satanic Majesties it completely blows that away. So the Stones probably think, “Who is this guy Jimmy Miller?”

You took on a more advanced role with the Stones on Beggar’s working under Jimmy.

Yes, that’s when I became senior engineer. I had big success with Traffic and Jimmy Miller. Jimmy was then asked to produce the Stones, which I think yielded, in my mind, the best albums that the Stones have done. My feeling about it is, had he not done that, I don’t think the Stones would be in the place they are today. Because what he did is that he went to the heart and soul of where they came from. And he was so adept at milking the inner psyche of the band. And he was so clever at production. And he’s the guy I’ve always modeled myself after in terms of how to get a session going. How to make the artists really get excited about what they’re playing. Even to the point where Charlie couldn’t play the drum part the way he was hearing it, he would go and sit on the drums and play the drum part. [ed note: Jimmy Miller plays the drums on You Can’t Always Get What You Want]

In my mind, all the sessions I did with the Stones assisting on Satanic Majesties and the Flowers album and Between the Buttons – I was just an assistant there witnessing all of the crazy stuff that went on. So when it became time for me to step up to the plate and be the senior engineer with Mr. Jimmy Miller, who, in my mind, like I said, he was really so much a member of the band and so well respected with his musical ability. And the other thing that one has to remember is that Jimmy was a funny guy. He would keep the session light in spite all the crazy bullshit that was going on in the Stones life.

Talk a bit more about what Jimmy Miller was like as a musician.

He was so animated and so excited in the studio. He would get the band revved up about their songs and he understood the mechanics of how to make a song really come alive. He knew the inner workings of a song, because he was a musician. He got to the heart of the matter. He just understood the musician’s perspective. Working with the Stones was like herding a bag of cats. He extracted the most intense performances from the Stones and the music that was the closest to their core essence.

You worked on the recording of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. How did you achieve that sound?

The way it was recorded was we used Jimmy Miller’s wollensak -– a cassette machine with a microphone it -– we put it on the floor of the studio and we recorded Keith’s guitar and I believe Charlie was just using a brush or a stick on the snare for the back beat. After we cut the track on the cassette machine, we played it back on a little speaker, then rerecorded that on one track of a fourtrack machine. That was the guide track, then everybody overdubbed to that. When you hear the beginning of the song you can hear the amount of wow – on a cassette machine when you play the straight chord you hear “bo-wow-wow-wow” because the movement of the tape against the pinch wheel was never very steady. It wasn’t a professional machine. You hear the movement of the pitch, which is the reason that it has this funky sound which everyone dug at that time. It was a cool idea. Jimmy said, “Hey let’s just record it on this.” I said fine and I figured out how to get it to play back in a reasonable fashion and put a nice microphone in front of the speaker and that became the basic track.

What was Brian Jones like at that time?

The drug problems only exacerbated the health problems he had. Poor guy. I loved Brian. I thought he was cool. He was nice to me. He adored Jimi. He and Jimi were big buddies. Brian used to come over to Jimi’s sessions. You could hear him on the tape. I have a multi-track of when we’re cutting “All Along the Watchtower”. You can actually hear him as he stumbles into the control room and he stumbles out to the studio. He’s trying to play the piano and Jimi says, “no.no.no.” Jimi would wink at me, “See if you can get him out of here.” Because he was out of his mind…He would come into the control room and collapse in a heap. He had a mischievous side to him-a genius musician. He would try any goddamned instrument you could think of just to get a different sound. I think it was very helpful to the Stones that he added these tone colors that they hadn’t thought of.

How would the Stones have fit in at Woodstock?

I think the Stones would have done enormously well. The competition would have been so fierce. Having Jimi Hendrix, The Who and the Stones. It doesn’t get much better than that. The Stones were an awesome frickin’ band and they still are to this day. Thank God.

You also worked with the Stones on “Love You Live” in Canada. Tell me about that experience working with this big rock band in a small club.

I’m sure Mick and Keith probably figured that this would be a cool thing to do and I loved the concept. I had the 16-track mobile bus there. We rehearsed and it sounded great. That evening it was wow! It was amazing. Keith was a little out of it, but he was still able to play. Then we went into the studio-It was a lot of fun. There was a lot of political bullshit going on-as you can imagine-with Margaret Trudeau and Mick Jagger-whether or not that actually happened I don’t know. Certainly she was there that night. She introduced herself to me in the club. “I’m Margaret Trudeau. Who are you?”

What do you think about the Stones going out on tour to celebrate their 50th anniversary?

The Stones march to their own drummer – and I mean Charlie Watts. Mick and Keith are so diametrically opposed. They are so different in make-up and character which is what I think makes the Stones so great – the fact that these two characters are always at each other…they love each other, but they’re like brothers. They like to scrap. And if you don’t have that tension, you don’t have a great band. I would say that these guys have the music in the blood. Without this, they are not whole. God bless them if they can still do it. Keith is indestructible for crying out loud.

A Very Special Guest on Mixed Bag

Is she a natural or what?

Is she a natural or what?

Welcome to the daily blog for my new book, 50 Licks.

As promised, today I am posting a link to my appearance from last weekend on Mixed Bag with Don McGee. Many thanks to Don and Jeremy Rainer for all their kindness and help during our visit to WFUV. Dad started Mixed Bag in 1982 and I’m thrilled to say that thanks to Don it is still going strong 30+ years later! One of things Dad was famous for on Mixed Bag was referring to each and every guest as a “special guest.” More than one person, including his old rival/foil Howard Stern, made fun of him for this, “If every guest is a special guest, doesn’t that mean that none of them are special? By definition, they can’t all be very special.”

Dad had a prepared response, “During that hour were on the show, they were all very special to me.”

I think it’s safe to say that the guest on last weekend’s Mixed Bag has would have rated as the most special of all time for the elder Pete. That’s because this show marked the radio debut of Perrin Tamar Fornatale, making her the third generation in my family with radio experience on the old resume. I know Dad would have loved the fact that less than three months into life she’s already been on the radio, and on the show he created to boot!

You access the page where the file by clicking on any of these highlighted words. Once you’re there, just click the play button on the right hand side of the page about halfway down.

A couple more pix. . .

The two PTFs
The two PTFs plus Jeremy and Don

The two PTFs plus Jeremy and Don

Rock Calendar for March 21st: CLEVELAND ROCKS!

Welcome to today’s daily installment of the 50 Licks blog, a compendium of facts and information about rock history, the Rolling Stones, radio history, and most important of all, my new book.

First off, Happy Birthday to my brother Steven. . .Steve, I hope it’s a great one.

Steven, it turns out, shares a birthday with rock and roll. On this date in 1952, the first live rock and roll took place.

250px-Moondog_poster

Disc jockey Alan Freed, then of radio station WJW-AM, put on his first live rock and roll show ever at the Cleveland Arena. The show was called the Moondog Coronation Ball and starred, among others, Harvey and the Moonglows, the Orioles, and Billy Ward and the Dominos (featuring Clyde McPhatter).

Pretty controversial for 1951, don’t you think? What do you suppose he means by “blowing my top”?

As you might expect, there was trouble. An article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer described the event this way, “Angered fire department authorities went after warrants today against Alan Freed, disc jockey, and associate promoters of an arena dance where police reserves were forced to disperse the crushing mob of 25,000 blues fans. Police captian William Zimmerman was forced to call for 40 extra fireman and 40 extra police as the rowdy crowd broke down the doors when ticket sales were stopped. Hepcats jammed every inch of the big arena floor, took every street, filled the aisles and packed the lobby and sidewalk, overflowing into the seat. Dancing was impossible and the orchestra was inaudible in the din. Five persons were arrested for intoxication, one was knifed in the general melee.”

So not only does today mark the anniversary of the first rock concert, it marks the anniversary of the first rock and roll riot!

Do yourself a favor and click the link below, I’m proud of the obvious segue. . .