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I’m just talkin’ ’bout Shaft

23 Jan

In olden times, kids could purchase items called “45s” from magical places called “record stores.” On one visit, my brother Jeff bought an Osmonds single while I bought one by the Jackson 5. I still believe I had better taste. But we saw no need to spend all our lawn mowing earnings on records when we could record songs right off the radio. That didn’t last long. It may have had something to do with the quality of our $20 cassette recorder, the cheesy microphone, the poor speaker on the radio, or perhaps the quality in general of AM radio. So, we resorted to the king of all too-good-to-be true mail-order schemes: Columbia House Records. Columbia House offered ten albums or tapes (cassettes or eight-tracks) for the low, low price of two dollars. All you had to do in exchange was buy a certain number of albums of the month at regular price.

Imagine the delight of choosing ten highly-listenable rock and pop albums. Then imagine the disappointment we felt when we could not identify ten albums we wanted to listen to. A “good” album would be any that had least two songs we knew. It seemed as though eighty percent of the albums offered by Columbia House were by Ray Coniff, Ferrante & Teicher, Dean Martin, Jim Nabors and similar tuxedo wearers. Our mom could have found plenty to listen to, but not my brother and me.

breadThe first few tapes we chose were easy. By the time we reached numbers seven, eight, nine … we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. My brain has judiciously prevented me from remembering all ten tapes, but I just re-listened on Spotify to the ones I do remember. Let’s see how our selections held up, or failed to, more than 40 years later. Let’s also see what the “experts” at AllMusic have to say.

Best of Bread by Bread: I know: Soft Rock is the ultimate oxymoron, but I played this tape a lot when I was fourteen. I loved it, especially Mother Freedom, which was as RAWKing as Bread ever got. I didn’t re-listen to the album, however, because I’m a man now, and I have my pride. AllMusic doesn’t have much to say either. Moving on…

Honky Chateau by Elton John: This came out when Elton had yet to start dressing like a Vegas Christmas Tree (on his album covers anyway). MI0000434654You may know the singles Daniel and Rocket Man, but the album is filled with strong cuts. “Mellow,” the first track, is the classic Elton I loved as a kid. (I raised two steers named Elton and John.). AllMusic: “On paper, (Honky Chateau) reads like an eclectic mess, but it plays as the most focused and accomplished set of songs Elton John and Bernie Taupin ever wrote.” Well done, young Ronnie and Jeff.

albumcovermcleanAmerican Pie by Don McLean: Just like everyone else in the world, we chose this album 99% because of the title anthem, and 1% because Vincent was a decent song, too. AllMusic: “… the album has an overall elegiac quality that makes it sound like a final statement. After all, if the music has died, what else is there to say?” You can say the album cover was pretty decent.

Looking Glass by Looking Glass: This seemed like a dumb buy at the time, but it surprised me how much I liked it 43 years later. Thanks to the hit Brandy remaining in heavy rotation on Oldies stations, the songwriter will never go broke, but there was potential for much more. If you replaced the early 70s piano with a fiddle, this album would fit well with 21st century Americana music. AllMusic: “Their great one-shot hit ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)‘ pegged the group as a smiley, sunshiny AM pop frivolity, and while they surely shone in this regard, Looking Glass started out as a hard-boogying rock & roll band, and elements of that can be heard on their 1972 debut. It’s not enough to make the LP an unearthed hard rock treasure thanks in large part to producer Bob Liftin, who helped turn singer/songwriter Elliot Lurie’s “Brandy” into a seamless, sunny confection and wound up defanging whatever rock & roll bite the group had in the process.” Ouch.

Sammy_Davis_Jr._NowNow by Sammy Davis Jr.: … It’s your serve, AllMusic: “The song ‘Candy Man’ starts the first side off. Yes, this was the biggest-selling record Sammy Davis, Jr. ever had, but thankfully full appreciation of the dismal nature of that fact does not require repeated listening to the song itself. There are tracks enough on this album that are painful to sit through, without enduring this one.”

When we chose this tape, I thought it included Isaac Hayes singing The Theme from Shaft. The tape cover had an inset photo of Sammy together with Isaac. But Hayes did not sing on Sammy’s album. I suspect his attorneys made sure of that. The song is not even called The Theme from Shaft. It’s called John Shaft, which should have been a clear signal to put down the tape and walk away before anyone got hurt. Sammy’s version is sort of the same song as the original, but with a good dose of Vegas Schlock.

Let’s compare: In Hayes’ version, he says or sings 73 words in a song that is well over four minutes. We don’t hear Hayes’ voice until three minutes in, and the last thirty seconds of the song are instrumental. Less is more.

Do you think Sammy Davis, Jr. could wait three minutes into a song to start singing?  Though his song is shorter than the Hayes version, he had a lot of space to fill, and he did it with lyrics that I suspect he ad-libbed at the end.

Hey man, can you dig him?
Always looking so cool.
Together for days in all that leather.
Takin’ care of business, too, baby.

He’s always on the case.
I mean he gets it all together. (grunt)
Yeah, he’s bad, bad, bad, bad bad, bad, bad, bad.
Bad bad, bad, bad bad, bad, bad, bad. (Repeat.)

Sound engineer: “Sammy, how about we do a second take?”

Sammy: “Nope, I’m good with that one.”

Could Now get worse? Yes, if you choose to put McArthur’s Park on it. I’m not saying I have strong feelings about that song. However, if I could, I would tie it up in a gunny sack and dump it in a pond.

A+Passion+Play-1024x1015Still, Jeff and I paid only a couple of dollars for a lot of music. We did not reach our Columbia House nadir until Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play came in the mail. We had failed to return the card that said we did not want that album of the month. I still cannot describe what this progressive rock opera is about, but it may involve a recently-deceased guy looking back on his life. Or it may be a light-hearted musical about a puppy. I could go either way with it. All I know is, the album cover with a dead ballerina was enough to make me long for Best of Bread. I don’t believe the Scottish flutist Ian Anderson had a 14-year-old rural Missouri boy in mind when he created the record. I listened to thirty seconds of it before using it as a door stop.

Still, it was worth another listen a few days ago. I didn’t love it, but it was pretty good. Still not sure what it’s about, though. The ball is in your court, AllMusic: “… a dazzling mix of old English folk and classical material, reshaped in electric rock terms. The band is at its peak form, sustaining the tension and anticipation of this album-length piece across 45 minutes, although the music runs out of inspiration about five minutes before it actually ends.”

I may listen to A Passion Play again sometime. Not all of it–I’m not that into it–but some of it. And I would also listen to Honky Chateau again. The others? I don’t know. But if my parents run out of things to do, they can dig through the basement and perhaps find those old cassette tapes. Nothing can add zest to a cold night in northern Missouri like Sammy Davis, Jr. talkin’ ’bout Shaft.

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