by Steve Pick
I imagine if I had actually heard Richard and Linda Thompson's first album when it came out in early March of 1974, and if I was as perceptive at age 15 as I would be a few years later, I would never have believed it possible to improve upon anything contained within it. And yet, despite the seeming perfection of the ten songs on I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, almost everything could be done better.
Look no further than "The Calvary Cross," the second song on side one. Yes, that middle-Eastern solo guitar introduction is extremely cool, and the cold intonation of the three chords, ringing like mournful church bells in the distance, throughout the song is evocative and chilling. The lyrics are mysterious and dark, the vocal delivery simple, straightforward, and rhythmically light against the ponderous instrumentation. The drums push and pull at the beat, with a precision and simultaneous sense of random placement. The guitar reels off a few intriguing patterns to comment on at all. And, it's over in less than four minutes.
If you buy the current version of Bright Lights with its three live bonus cuts, or if you refer to the 1976 double LP of odds and ends, Guitar, Vocal, or any of a large number of authorized or unauthorized live albums, you'll see very quickly that the original version of "Calvary Cross" only hinted at the power contained within. For live, Richard Thompson stretched this song to the ten-minute threshold, with some of the most powerful, enigmatic, delirious guitar playing anybody has ever performed. (And, even that could be bested by some of the solos he would come up with in the 80s.) By 1974, Thompson was unquestionably one of the greatest guitar players in the world, though he deigned on this record only to support the songs with invigorating short passages and supple rhythm chords.
Or take "The Great Valerio," a stunningly beautiful modal composition sung by Linda with inviting grace. Comparing common life to heroic, godlike behavior, the song seems something of a footnoted precursor to Thompson's later "Walking on a Wire." It seems there was much more which could be done with the image of a tightrope walker than at first appeared.
I'm willing to grant that nobody, not Thompson or any of the most miserable, unhappy songwriters in history, has ever written gloomier material than either "Withered and Died" or especially "End of the Rainbow." I remember in 1982, when I saw Elvis Costello for the second time, he introduced his solo cover of this song as "the most depressing song ever written." "Life looks so rosy in the cradle / I'll be your friend and tell you what's in store / There's nothing at the end of the rainbow / There's nothing to grow up for any more." With a haunting melody perfectly attuned to the pain and suffering described in the words, Thompson managed to convince many that his worldview was one of the sharpest cynicism imaginable.
I'm still picking this album as my representative for 1974 over the closest competitor, Big Star's Radio City, because despite the fact that Richard Thompson and his wife Linda could and would do even better, Bright Lights is one of those records that never fails to live up to its own majesty. From the opening chords of "When I Get to the Border" to the closing acoustic guitar filigrees of "The Great Valerio," the Thompsons brought a clear love and relationship for folk music to a new rock sensibility which would only grow in coming years. It just might be the best blueprint in rock history.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
by Steve Pick
The missing link between the Shangri-Las and the Sex Pistols,the New York Dolls had almost no commercial impact in 1973, a time in which rock music was divorcing itself from the Top 40, and slowly but surely finding ways to become a market-friendly mass product. The Dolls had a somewhat marketable image, to be sure, but it took the far less dangerous concept of Kiss to make money off the general idea of guys in makeup, wild outfits, and platform shoes.
As I entered high school, I had no idea any of this was going on - my spare money was going back to another fling with comic books instead of music, and while I still knew what was being played on KXOK, I didn't become very passionate about anything I heard at the time. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I'd fallen into the right crowd to hear the New York Dolls at the time, but honestly, I doubt I was ready for it.
When I discovered punk rock in 1978, I quickly learned that the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5, and the New York Dolls were important influences on most of my fave bands. The Dolls were the first of these that I found, scoring sealed copies of both their albums at Wuxtry (the forerunner to Euclid Records in the West End) for the unheard-of prices of $7 and $5 each. I already knew singer David Johansen from his masterful debut solo album and the KWUR radio hit "Funky But Chic" so I was properly stoked.
To this day, when I hear the opening riff to "Personality Crisis," and then that roll down the piano keys that kicks it into high gear, I mentally pump my fist in the air and fire up a shitload of adrenaline. That is rock'n'roll to me, an anthemic, aggressive, joyous burst of enthusiasm, raw and dirty and exhilarating. And, it's just the first burst of an album that barely slows down for one and a half ballads before it's done.
There are shout-outs to girlgroups, Del Shannon, and Bo Diddley (they cover the latter's "Pills," amping up both the amphetimine-fueled energy and the delight in taking the drugs). There is a hint of early Rolling Stones bluesiness, and some rockabilly influence, especially in "Trash." But, mostly, the Dolls took all their love for old records and created something new and entirely their own - a trashy, sonic fire that burns away all the cares of the world.
Johansen is not a conventionally great vocalist - his range is extremely limited, and his melodic invention virtually non-existent - but he's got a tone and an attitude that can't be denied. As he's shown over the years on solo projects and even with his Buster Poindexter persona, Johansen's strength lies in his enthusiasm for what he's doing, and in the gruff but lovable sound of his voice. As he and guitarists Johnny Thunders and Syl Sylvain were masters at conjuring up vocal hooks, all you needed was a frontman who could sell them as something worth shouting along with. Johansen fits the bill.
Thunders was never my favorite guitarist, but man oh man, his tone, established full-blown on every song here, is exquisitely dirty. Nothing sounded like that guitar before; it was raw, nasty, penetrating, deliriously provocative. It still sounds that way, even though there have been hundreds of people over the years imitating what he came up with. And, though he doesn't sing a lot on this first album, there is an ache in his voice which works as a perfect foil to Johansen's assurance. In the same way, Sylvain's rhythm guitar work, far more conventional yet rock solid, is a perfect counterpart to Thunders' aggression.
Then there is the rhythm section. Arthur "Killer" Kane was the balance in the band, the guy who knew that somebody had to avoid calling attention to himself and simply hold down a role to solidify the songs. His bass lines were always perfect, yet never complicated. And Jerry Nolan, who had only just joined the band shortly before the recording of this album, is enormously inventive throughout. Propulsive, to be sure, but also capable of clever and delicious commentary through the use of his toms and cymbals.
The songs themselves remain perfect prequels to punk rock. There is no attempt to create complex masterpieces, simply short, punchy, hook-filled anthems with fun chord changes. Now, I have nothing against complexity, but when you get something this basic with this much je ne sais qua, well, you have a record worth playing the rest of your life. This is rock'n'roll for the heart, the head, the gut, and the feet.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
This is the b-side of the limited edition 7" single we released a couple months ago as part of the Euclid Sessions series. The Hard Lessons played in Euclid Records last Fall, we recorded it, put out the single of "Gateway City" b/w their cover of Uncle
Tupelo's "Graveyard Shift," with proceeds going to the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund. There are still a few copies remaining in the store and online.
We videotaped the performance, and here it is:
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
One week before Father's Day, come out to see DADDY (featuring Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack) at 4 pm, Saturday, June 13 right here in Euclid Records. Kimbrough and Womack have teamed up from time to time over the years, first in the bis-quits, then in this off-and-on project DADDY. The guys are pretty busy with their solo careers, and Kimbrough is one of the most in-demand session and touring guitarists - you may have caught him just last year playing with Rodney Crowell.
Daddy takes the skills of Womack and Kimbrough to new levels, as the two talented guitarists feed off each other and drive each other to greater heights. And, they lose none of their usual songwriting chops in service of the guitars. The band is rounded out with Paul Griffith (one of Nashville’s most sought-after session drummers), Dave Jacques on bass (John Prine, Emmylou Harris) and John Deaderick (Dixie Chicks, Michael McDonald, Patty Griffin) keys.
Here's a nice sample from earlier this year:
Sunday, May 17, 2009
by Steve Pick
In 1972, I heard my first reggae song - "Double Barrel" by Dave and Ansel Collins. I had no idea actually that it was part of a genre. For some reason, this was a minor top 40 hit that year, and all I knew was it sounded cool and different and totally got under my skin. I think it was more than a dozen years before I finally heard it again on a Jamaican reggae compilation, and learned that I was hip at a much earlier age than I thought.
When Paul Simon came out that same year with "Mother and Child Reunion," I wasn't smart enough to connect it to "Double Barrel." At the age of 13, you just soak up music, you don't try to figure out what makes this song a different genre from that song. All you know is whether it's got a good beat and you can dance to it, and these reggae songs definitely fit that bill.
Flash forward to the end of the 70s, and my punk rock / New Wave obsessed self learned from reading interviews, hearing cover versions, and talking to friends that if you were down with the Clash, the Police, Elvis Costello, and many more of my faves, you should probably also be listening to reggae. I bought a budget compilation I found, This is Reggae Music Vol. II, which sounded pretty good, but it was my second reggae purchase which really hit me with the island sounds.
We'll get to that in a second, but first, for those of you under the age of 30, let me tell you about a time before there was cable TV, before there was the internet, before there was even video rentals. Movie theaters generally only had one screen, and they would often host the same hot films for a couple of months, as long as people kept coming. Repertoire flicks would revolve in a couple of small places, notably the Tivoli Theatre on Delmar, where you would have the chance to catch a different double feature every night.
So, when my friends started telling me about this Jamaican movie with a reggae soundtrack starring the singer Jimmy Cliff, I had no opportunity to see it for a long time. "The Harder They Come" was popular enough at the Tivoli to be shown once a year, and I was thoroughly entranced once I saw it, even though I was far too naive to understand its themes of rebellion against authority and the outlaw as hero. I just knew it was showing me Jamaica (and even had scenes of Rastafarians, which at that time was like a sighting of a UFO to me), and the songs were unbelievably great.
I bought the soundtrack to "The Harder They Come" for $1.00 in a cut-out bin in a little record store in Northland Shopping Center, sometime in either 1979 or 1980. Since that time, it has remained my all-time favorite reggae album. Jimmy Cliff sings a half dozen of his greatest songs, and the record is peppered with classics from the Maytals, the Melodians, and Desmond Dekker.
These songs were not the roots reggae that Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and others were doing to transform the music into a much deeper style. They were much more like soul music with intriguing rhythms. The title track, sung by Cliff, is a radical manifesto, basically dismissing the idea of waiting passively for a Heavenly reward, and instead urging people to live life to the fullest while they can, right here. "I'd rather be a free man in my grave, than live life as a puppet or a slave." And, it's sung with the sweetest, most lilting and undeniably joyful melody you can imagine.
Jimmy Cliff sings all of his songs here with that pure and easy tenor. "You Can Get It If You Really Want" is a lively self-affirmation; "Many Rivers to Cross" a hymn to loneliness and desire; "Sitting In Limbo" could've and should've snuggled in next to the likes of Bill Withers on American pop radio.
And then there are the other Jamaican hits. Two of the Maytals' greatest records, featuring the astounding gravelly vocals of Toots Hibbert are here - "Sweet and Dandy," one of the most exhilarating dance songs I've ever known (and I danced hard and crazy every time the St. Louis band the Felons covered it in the early 80s), and "Pressure Drop," which I learned originally from the version done by the Clash. The Melodians' masterpiece is "Rivers of Babylon," adopted from the book of Psalms, is a song of worship and peace which never fails to move even the staunchest unbeliever with its sense of hope amidst despair. Scotty does "Draw Your Brakes," a toast over an amazing cut by Keith and Tex called "Stop That Train." Desmond Dekker delivers his usual ska /rock steady magnificence with "007 (Shanty Town)."
I know 1972 was a major year for rock and soul, with stunning records from the Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, David Bowie, Big Star, and Al Green, just to name a few. There are certainly days I could argue that any of them deserves to represent the year, but The Harder They Come gets the nod because it still thrills me with that same sense of discovery and delight I got when I first heard it, even if I heard it a few years after it came out.
Oh, and the reissue available nowadays has a bonus disc of even more early reggae classics, including the aforementioned "Double Barrel."
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
by Joe Schwab
This week we dig further into the Bernie Thrasher archives for a peek into the life and times of Stan Getz with three photos taken from around 1961. Two of these were taken in performance at The Glass Bar (Peacock Alley) where Getz would often take up one week residence. The other shot is Stan and son Steve Getz from the St. Louis Zoo. If you've ever read the Getz biography "A Life in Jazz" by Donald Maggin, you'll know that Stan's life was filled with liquor, drugs and depression, but this picture captures a wonderful moment between father and son, leaving all the sordid details of a life of excess behind.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Two dates you'll want to mark in your calendars: next Tuesday, May 19, at 5:30 pm, Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division will be performing a live acoustic set of some of his best-loved songs, while Saturday, June 13, we'll have a live set from Daddy, the new duo featuring beloved alt-country-rock singer/songwriter/guitarists Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack.
We'll have more details on Daddy in the next couple weeks, but for now, let's talk a bit about Ginoli. In 1991, Ginoli and Chris Freeman did what hadn't been done before - they formed a rock band with an explicitly gay theme to all their songs. Whether funny or serious, Pansy Division spoke of experiences rarely mentioned in rock songs of the past, and they built a fairly large audience through extensive touring in the 90s.
The band continues to record and release records, but touring has been cut way back. Ginoli has just published a book, "Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division," which is just what the title tells you it is. He'll be performing an acoustic set, and then read from the book. This is an excellent chance to catch a musical pioneer in an intimate environment, so come on out and enjoy.
Here's a nice interview with Ginoli.
by Steve Pick
For most of 1971, I was 12 years old. You know how some years of your life just stand out more brilliantly as you look back, in a way that you can almost smell what you smelled, see what you saw, hear what you heard? Well, that's one of those golden years for me. New discoveries - girls, music, baseball, hockey - came close to eliminating my single passion of five years standing, comic books.
I came to the radio searching for the Partridge Family, which was my gateway drug to a life of musical excitement. KXOK was the local top 40 station, and I had that thing going every chance I got - it was funny how when my dad would leave me in the car, his easy listening station disappeared, and my rock, soul, and pop was suddenly taking over.
Many of the albums released in 1971 - only one of which I actually bought that year, as 45s were my much more affordable option - remain favorites of mine because of the songs I heard on KXOK. The Who, Who's Next. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers. Marvin Gaye, What's Going On. Sly & the Family Stone, There's a Riot Going On. T. Rex, Electric Warrior. Paul McCartney, Ram. John Lennon, Imagine. Carole King, Tapestry (the one I bought, and one I had memorized by hearing it played in every record department of every store in the St. Louis area for three months before I saved enough to purchase it for myself).
And, of course Rod Stewart's magnificent Every Picture Tells a Story, which featured "Maggie May," one of the most popular songs of a very good year of popular songs. Listening to this song 38 years after falling in love with it, I can only quote another cut from the record, "Mandolin wind couldn't change a thing, because I love you."
It's so hard to understand what happened to Stewart over the years. In the Jeff Beck Group, and Faces, and as a solo artist, he was one of, if not the single greatest rock vocalist of his time. And then, he simply didn't sound as if he cared any more. And then he cared even less. And this fall-off continued far beyond what anybody could believe was possible. In 1978, Greil Marcus (or was it Dave Marsh?) wrote that nobody had sunk further from the heights of ability than Rod Stewart, and from our current vantage point, we look back at "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" as a pretty darn good song.
But, I've come today to talk not about his fall, but about his greatness, and Every Picture Tells a Story is as great as they come. An album immersed in life's riches and experiences, its pains and its joys. Whether backed by the Faces or by other session players, Stewart sings with such conviction, such passion, and such vitality. Obviously, he has a voice not too dissimilar from that of Sam Cooke, but he took Cooke's emotional power and amplified it with the developments in soul and rock after Cooke died.
Every song is a definitive masterpiece (including covers of "That's All Right," "(I Know) I'm Losing You," "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," and "Reason to Believe" which match or even improve upon the versions by Elvis Presley, the Temptations, Bob Dylan, and Tim Hardin. (The latter was the first song I wanted to cover when I got into a band where I played guitar back in 1984, never mind the fact that we were pretty punk and I got the chords wrong.)
Stewart sings of love discovered when he wasn't looking for it (the rollicking title track, fueled by the most exciting drum track in all of rock, played by one Mick Waller, who knows how to whomp), of love lost when he desperately wanted it to continue ("Maggie May" and "(I Know) I'm Losing You"), of love so deliriously exhilarating and then heart-breakingly foreshadowed ("Mandolin Wind"), of love so intense and unconditional that the worst sins imaginable could be forgiven ("Reason to Believe"). And, at all times, he sounds absolutely in the moment, convincing us that he is actually living these songs as they exist.
I've listened to this album for 37 years (my younger brother actually got it for Christmas in 1971, so I've had access to it almost since it came out), and have never failed to be moved by it. Every time I hear the whole thing or any individual song from it, I become that 12-year-old who was just discovering the possibilities of expression, who was learning what it meant to move beyond what he already knew. And, as I've aged, I've put whatever my own life experiences have been into these songs as well; I feel Stewart's joys and pains more richly with each passing year.
I really don't ever want to be stranded on a desert island, but in answer to everybody's favorite question, this is the record I'd take if I had to go there.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
by Steve Pick
I'm not a big believer in confessional singer/songwriter type stuff. Songs can come from life experiences, of course, but I don't always need the back story to understand what's going on. In that regard, it doesn't really matter just how big a torch Eric Clapton was carrying for Patti Boyd, the wife of his best friend George Harrison. That self-imposed pain is there in every song on the one and only Derek and the Dominos album, but it turns into a universal cry of love and anguish and unrequited imagination.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is the crowning jewel in Clapton's career. Everything he did before it (Yardbirds, Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie, assorted guest appearances) was great, but wasn't the revelatory perfection of this album. Nothing he did after it came even close to matching its emotional power.
It was also the last time Clapton worked as part of a team. He and Bobby Whitlock wrote most of the originals and bounced off each other as vocalists; he and Duane Allman challenged each other for most of the guitar parts; he and that rhythm section of Carl Radle and Jim Gordon locked in all the grooves.
There is a delightful yin yang between a ramshackle feel to these recordings and an impeccable sense of perfect arrangements. Much of that comes from Clapton and Whitlock's attempt to imitate Sam and Dave on vocals; they traded off lead vocal lines, they harmonized without ever coming close to each other's phrasing or timing, and they challenged each other with frequent flights to falsetto which thrill me every time I hear them do it. Meanwhile, Gordon on drums, Radle on bass, Whitlock on keys, and Clapton on rhythm guitar create tightly constructed arrangements of riffs and grooves which leave plenty of space for the constant stream of lead guitars.
Oh, yes, the lead guitars are exquisite. Allman isn't on every cut, but his spirit is there, pushing Clapton to create the most emotionally devastating solos of his life. Knowing that Allman was playing his heart out all over the record must have freed Clapton to get past any filters he may have had as a guitarist; this is a record of two guys with chops beyond belief using them only in service to the emotional core of each song.
There are only a couple of instances on the double LP where the guitar solos move away from being integral parts of the song structure. For the most part, they stay locking in, commenting on each other, on the vocals, on the groove, and always on the exquisite sadness being expressed. Strangely, though, there is ultimately a feeling of joy which comes from hearing so much sorrow; it may have been John Lennon who talked of primal scream therapy, but it was Derek and the Dominos who figured out a way to reach inside a man's guts and come to terms with the pain as a source of undeniable beauty.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
The Old Orchard Merchants Association has announced this summer’s schedule for its Fifth Annual Gazebo Series of free, live concerts and outdoor movies. The fun-filled event will be held on Friday evenings this summer from June 12 to July 3 at the Old Orchard Gazebo Park, Big Bend Boulevard at Oxford. This year’s event features two local and two national acts.
Bill Kirchen says, “I’ve always considered myself a folk musician, though I tend to be one that plays too loud and too fast.” That spped was evident in the song that made his style famous: it’s his fretwork which powers the classic “Hot Rod Lincoln” recorded by Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. Kirchen played with the Commander from 1968 to 1976, helping to bring country and rockabilly sounds to rock’n’roll fans across the nation. Bill’s current band Too Much Fun plays American roots music and features Johnny Castle on bass and Jack O’Dell on drums. Kirchen explains their music this way: “country-flavored music as well as western swing, rockabilly, bluegrass, country tear-jerkers, and truck-driving music.” They put it all together into a unique, tradition-based sound they call “dieselbilly.” Bill Kirchen lives up to his billing as “a one-man living history museum of the coolest rock guitar licks ever performed.”
After 35 years with the eclectric rock, jazz, blues & country stew of NRBQ, Terry Adams has set out on his own, most recently here in St. Louis with his Rock and Roll Quartet. Those who have witnessed his performances at Off Broadway, Lucas School House, and and Euclid Records will be sure to return with all their friends for Terry’s Gazebo performance this year with the Crazy Trio, featuring Scott Ligon on bass and original NRBQ drummer Tom Staley, along with special guest saxophonist Jim Hoke. Terry and gang will be performing later that same night just down the road at the Hwy 61 Roadhouse. Terry’s new CD Holy Tweet has received rave reviews throughout the world including a glowing review from the New York Times. Two songs from Terry’s November performance at Euclid Records were just released in April on a 45 RPM benefiting the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund.
June 12 - Music: The Fabulous Jazz Vocals of Anita Rosamod
Movie: The Sandlot
June 19 - Music: Superb World Music of Farshid Etniko
Movie: Ferris Bueller's Day Off
June 26: Music: Roots Country Legend Bill Kirchen
Movie: City Slickers
July 3: Music: From NRBQ - Terry Adams' Crazy Trio with Saxophone
Movie: Viewers Choice (Voted on at the events and on-line at