On this date in 1967, Floridian Psychedelic Folk band Pearls Before Swine (a precursor to contemporary so-called "Freak Folk") began the three-day sessions for its debut album, One Nation Underground. The album would become a moderate success, selling nearly a quarter of a million copies.
One of the album's tracks, "(Oh Dear) Miss Morse," was the source of some controversy. The subversive chorus of the weird little song (essentially a banjo riff with some organ blips) consists of vocalist/songwriter Tom Rapp (and that organ) "singing" in Morse code the letters "F," "U," "C" and "K" (Dit Dit Dah Dit/Dit Dit Dah/Dah Dit Dah Dit/Dah Dit Dah).
And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for some meddling kids! Famous New York DJ Murray the K was busted after playing the song on the air when a few smarty-pants Boy Scouts reportedly recognized the code and called in to complain about the veiled obscenity (or maybe brag that they figured it out).
It's not the only song to feature secret Morse code messaging. Mike Oldfield's album Amarok (featuring, essentially, one hour-long track) came towards the end of his contract with Virgin Records in 1990. Oldfield sent a little note to his boss on the album; towards the end, there's a Morse code message that spells out "Fuck Off RB," referring to Virgin label chief Richard Branson.
The Rush song "YYZ" from the 1981 album Moving Pictures also features Morse coding, in a pretty ingenious manner. Drummer Neil Pert's rhythm on the song is based on Morse for "YYZ." The letters weren't especially controversial, though — they were simply the code for Toronto's airport (Rush is from the area).
Other instances of Morse code in popular music: Roger Waters' album Radio KAOS features several Morse messages; Kraftwerk used it throughout their 1975 track "Radioactivity" (it simply spells out the title); and The Clash's "London Calling" has choppy guitar feedback at the end of the song that spells out "S.O.S."
Here's the Pearls Before Swing tune. NSFW (if you work for a former Boy Scout or telegraph expert).
Born This Day: Musical movers and shakers sharing a May 7 birthday include late drummer for influential Rock bands New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Jerry Nolan (1946); Disco diva ("Don't Leave Me This Way"), singer/songwriter and actress Thelma Houston (1946); masterful German Boogie Woogie pianist Axel Zwingenberger (1955); Motorhead guitarist Phil Campbell (1961); Swedish one-hit-wonder, son of Jazz legend Don Cherry and half-brother to Neneh Cherry, Eagle-Eye Cherry (1971); drummer for British Pop/Rock stars Arctic Monkeys, Matt Helders (1986); and British singer Martina Topley-Bird (1975).
Topley-Bird is probably best known as a crucial part of Trip Hop pioneer Tricky's early (and biggest) success as vocalist on his classic album, 1995's Maxinquaye. The album made Tricky a Pop star, something that he admittedly was not prepared for and which drove him a little nuts. He recently told U.K.'s The Guardian that, going into the album's release, "I thought I'd be an underground artist. I had no idea it was going to do that and I was not ready for it." He says he spent much of the rest of his career trying to become more of a cult artist than a superstar. And he succeeded.
Topley-Bird parted ways with Tricky in 1998 and has made a trio of solo album (and worked with Gorillaz and Massive Attack). But late last month, she rejoined Tricky in England to perform Maxinquaye in its entirety. Well, that was the plan, anyway. Tricky reportedly disappeared during parts of the performances, which didn't exactly live up the "play the full album" billing. In a review of the performance in Manchester, ClashMusic.com wrote that the Tricky concert ultimately became "the Martina Topley-Bird show, with the singer providing the only reliable musical seam throughout, in contrast to an erratic and seemingly disengaged Tricky."
Here's Martina Topley-Bird's "Anything" from her acclaimed debut solo album, Quixotic.
April 29 - Super 8 Motel, Wytheville, Va.
Wytheville — pronounced "whiteville," I believe — sits at the cross of I-77 and I-81. Looking down I-81, I used to see Bristol, Tenn., and think of that time in 1927 when The Cater Family and Jimmie Rodgers separately met a rep from the Victor Talking Machine Company and recorded a couple of songs. They got paid about $100. Lot's changed since then, though the pay's about the same. These days when I look down towards Bristol I see a redneck deputy hauling a longed haired songwriter off to jail for the crime of relieving himself behind a bush. In 1981, that cost $25. There use to be a great BBQ joint in Wytheville. It's gone. too. They had the best fried chicken and blackberry cobbler.
I guess everyone wore themselves out Saturday as no one stayed up past midnight to talk or jam or whatever. On Sunday morning, with a solid six hours of sleep, I was up and drenched in coffee by 8 a.m. I packed up camp and planned what was left of my MerleFest weekend. I like to get going, so it was an easy morning and I headed out to the Traditional Tent for some Shape Note Singing with Laura Boosinger.
I misidentified this a few days ago as Sacred Heart singing. The idea is the same — using shapes for notes instead of notes on a musical staff. Sacred Heart uses four notes. Shape Note uses seven. The workshop I attended was about those seven notes and how to sing them. It's pretty straight forward — anyone who's ever seen The Sound of Music and sang "Do Re Mi" will get the idea. "Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti" — each note has a particular shape attached to it and you sing that note when you see that shape. Laura talks about the history of Congregational singing, why they use shapes (people actually patented musical notation at one time) and how Sacred Heart differs from Shaped Note contextually, historically and regionally. Pretty cool stuff, even if the Traditional Tent smells like a barn and is now filled with flies. Laura is also really funny, cracking denominational jokes that the churchgoers find hilarious. I don't get them.
My interest in Sacred Heart/Shaped Note singing came when I wandered into a church one Sunday morning 30 or so years ago. I was wandering around northern Alabama on a motorcycle making my way to the Natchez Trace and then south to New Orleans when I stopped for a breather and cool air beneath a tree. I heard the singing as soon as my head stopped rattling. I slipped inside the outer part of a church and heard the most glorious harmonies — not sweet or beautiful, but primitive and inspiring.
In Shape Note, everyone is singing to the pitch the lead singer has identified. There is no piano, no organ, no hip dude playing guitar, only imperfect humans looking for the most comfortable place for their voice to sing. Your split into four groups depending on your vocal range — altos (includes sopranos), tenors, bass (includes baritones) and leads (anyone who can't but follow the melody regardless of range). I go to the bass group. Each group has a different part to sing — the altos, basses and tenors all singing a harmony part and the leads singing the melody. When it all comes together it unifies the same way most old time music does. It's wondrous and miraculous; if there is a place where God exists, it is inside the dissonance that has congealed into a thing so coherent and beautiful that any existence of God outside of it becomes marginal and meaningless.
I leave the Traditional Tent invigorated and inspired and head back to camp to pack the van. Everything packed and lunch consumed, I head back to the Traditional Tent for one last show before heading home — "Women Singing Traditional Music." On stage are women ages 20 -70, including hosts Carol Rifkin and Gaye Johnson, Brooke Buckner, Laura Boosinger, Joan Wernick, Tara Nevins (Donna the Buffalo), Kim McWhirter and Gailanne Amundsen (Jubal's Kin). All give outstanding performances, but Kim McWhirter brings the house down with a moving version of the Dolly Parton song "Crippled Bird" (which in turn is based on an English Broadside) sung in a sweet mountain lilt and strummed sparingly on guitar.
A wonderful to finish to a great MerleFest.
MerleFest is so much more then one guy can write about, no matter how much he tries. I like what I like — new bands and rediscovering old favorites. In addition to what I see and hear, there are workshops on everything from clawhammer banjo to dulcimer playing, a kids stage and activities, open mics, sitting and picking, indoor concerts, food, vendors galore. It is amazing how much music and activity the organizers pack into one day (and then clean it all up and do it again).
A lot of people stream in mid-afternoon for the nighttime concert. As mentioned, these always feature name acts. I am most fortunate to be able to tag along with my sister, help her in her booth and receive onsite camping privileges in exchange. By 8 p.m., I'm pretty exhausted and looking forward to reading under the remaining light and then laying back and hearing what's on the main stage.
This year they had some good acts. Thursday night the very humble and talented (and maybe the last real Country act standing in Nashville) Vince Gill had a fine set. Saturday I was fortunate to hear Derek Trucks take Sam Bush and his band to school on how to play melodious improvisation on the Clapton tune "Bell Bottom Blues." Derek Trucks is the living heir on slide guitar to the dead-to-early Duane Allman and he has unquestionably extended that legacy way past a wink and a nod and into something quite imaginative and bold. His wife Susan Tedeschi joined them on The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and hit all the backing vocal parts with soul.
Later that night, Trucks and Tedeschi helped Los Lobos to new heights on a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Bertha." They sounded like they were having a blast, and my noisy camp neighbors confirmed as much the next morning as they were on stage watching the whole thing go down. Unfortunately, I slept through most of Los Lobos set and the Tedeschi/Trucks set Saturday night, though I caught the first few songs, and they sounded quite excellent. Good sleeping music — that's a compliment!
After the tumultuous revolution of The White Stripes, the twisted Pop/Rock convention of The Raconteurs and the Blues/Indie Rock gene splice of Dead Weather, there was nothing left for Jack White to do but to hang his own name on the marquee and go the solo route. There is an argument to be made that every White project is an extension of his musical persona regardless of the personnel he surrounds himself with or what he calls it; even the album's he produces bear his distinctive mark. At the same time, it’s also true White uses his shifting musical guises to offer a prismatic glimpse into the unique facets of his creative psyche, each one cut from the same bolt of cloth but patterned into something subtly but noticeably different.
White’s debut solo album, Blunderbuss, follows that logic line in much the same way. He explores and expands upon many of the genre variations that have defined his catalog to date in the service of imploding love songs that, at least on the surface, would seem to point toward his recent divorce as inspiration. In fact, the lack of actual drama surrounding that event indicates that White has written a song cycle about theoretical bad love rather than using pages out of his tear-stained journal for his muse.
Musically, Blunderbuss is a mixed bag of White’s best tricks; the Who-like guitar blast of “Sixteen Saltines,” the Prince-channels-the-Stooges Soul squall of “Freedom at 21” and the bluesy sugar swing of “I’m Shakin’.” But White also pushes his work down some interesting new paths as well, from the Americanapolitan Soul of “Love Interruption" (where White and singer Ruby Amanfu duet in a manner befitting Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) and the purer Country sway of the effecting title track to the Ray Davies-tinged dancehall Pop of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” and the loungey piano Pop of “Hypocritical Kiss.”
Blunderbuss is another prime example of Jack White’s impeccable track record as one of Indie Rock’s most reliable chameleons.
(Edited to correct White's duet partner on "Love Interruption")
When Maps & Atlases dropped Perch Patchwork, their 2010 debut full-length and first album for Barsuk Records, the Chicago-based quartet was just beginning to explore the intersection of their adoration of Post-Punk Math heroes like Don Caballero and their father-tilted love of ’70s Prog avatars like Jethro Tull and Mahavishnu Orchestra. M&A’s introductory EPs — 2006’s Tree, Swallows, Houses and 2008’s You and Me and the Mountain — found the band pursuing a more Folk-tinged flavor, but Perch Patchwork was an expansive yet subtle attempt to utilize the totality of the band’s creative building blocks. That exploration paid huge dividends as critics and fans alike were drawn to M&A’s lo-fi sonic constructions and hi-fi orchestral ambitions.
Maps & Atlases’ sophomore full length, Beware and Be Grateful, expands and refines the musical trail blazed on Perch Patchwork. In the album’s formative stages, the band employed a collection of secondhand battery-powered keyboards to blueprint their textural arrangements and, although the keyboard sounds were largely excised for the final recording, they were vitally important in forcing M&A to rethink their creative process.
As a result, Beware and Be Grateful doesn’t stray impossibly far from Perch Patchwork but it definitely advances the band’s flag a little further up the hill, exhibiting a forceful Math Pop sound that shimmers and shakes with an exuberant authority. The album’s opening track, “Old & Gray,” begins like Talking Heads tributing Paul Simon’s Graceland and finishes like Brian Eno producing Spoon. Similarly unexpected juxtapositions crash and meld into one another throughout the duration of Beware and Be Grateful.
Tribal choral melodies float above while the band skips and skates around a soundtrack that is equal measures of quirky Indie Rock (“Vampires”) and blippy Electro Pop (“Silver Self”). There are still plenty of remnants of the band’s organic approach to song construction but there are also many more examples of Maps & Atlases pushing themselves to think well beyond the natural box they fashioned on their earlier releases, blending their influences and experiences and evolving in fascinating new directions.
(Maps & Atlases perform July 15 at the inaugural Bunbury Music Festival along Cincinnati's riverfront.)
On this day in 2003, Iggy Pop reunited The Stooges to perform at the 2003 Coachella festival in California. Well, as much of a "reunion" as possible — original bassist David Alexander died in 1975. But you can't do much better than Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) as a substitute. Pop re-teamed with guitarist Ron Asheton and drummer Scott Asheton for a few tracks on his Skull Ring album, which led to talk of playing some shows (joined by Steve Mackay, who played sax on Fun House).
Like the Pixies, the reunion seems never-ending. The original reunion shows usually stuck to material from the group's first two albums, but eventually they added material from Raw Power (which featured James Williamson on guitar and Ron Asheton on bass) and the band's mixed-reviewed new album, The Weirdness.
In January of 2009, Ron Asheton died of a heart attack. He was 60. The remaining Stooges issued a statement saying, in part, "We are shocked and shaken by the news of Ron's death. He was a great friend, brother, musician, trooper. Irreplaceable. He will be missed."
Then they replaced him. By May, the group had announced plans to keep going with former guitarist Williamson rejoining the band. Pop told NPR, "Although 'The Stooges' died with Ron Asheton, there is still 'Iggy and the Stooges'."
The group picked up reunion-touring that November, adding more Raw Power material to their set. In 2010, after a lot of clamoring from fans and even just those who understood the influence of Pop and Co., The Stooges were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I saw the first Stooges reunion a couple of times and Pop and the band, while perhaps not as "dangerous" as they once were, still put on a great live show. It would be hard for Pop not to at this point, though it should be interesting to see how much longer the seemingly bulletproof 65-year-old can keep prancing around, shirtless (of course), on stage like a 25-year-old. Is 70 too old? 80? Will Pop keep throwing himself around the stage and working out until his veins protrude from his skin when he's 90? He certainly doesn't show any signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Here's a bit from the historic 1970 Iggy & the Stooges show here in Cincinnati at the ol' Crosley Field (yes, it was broadcast nationally on TV). Read all about the event here, from a 2010 CityBeat feature story on the 40th anniversary of the Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival.
Born This Day: Musical movers and shakers sharing an April 27 birthday include: legendary Rock drummer (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Elvis Costello) Jim Keltner (1942); Soul singer/songwriter ("I Can't Stand the Rain") Ann Peebles (1947); lead singer for the Soul group The Main Ingredient ("Everybody Plays the Fool"), Cuba Gooding, Sr. (1944); singer/songwriter/guitarist for Beatles-approved rockers Badfinger ("Come and Get It," "No Matter What"), Pete Ham (1947); vocalist with New Wave group The B-52's, Kate Pierson (1948); original KISS guitarist Ace Frehley (1951); Scottish Pop star Sheena Easton (1959); former Belle & Sebastian singer/cellist Isobel Campbell (1976); frontman for Fall Out Boy and solo artist Patrick Stump (1984); and America's countdown king, broadcaster Casey Kasem (1932).
And now, a long-distance dedication (to be read it in Kasem's voice):
When I was a youngster, I was addicted to your American Top 40 syndicated radio show. I'd listen every Saturday, just as I'd watch the morning cartoons (which you were also a part of, as the voice of Shaggy on Scooby Doo, as well as Robin on my must-see TV of the time, SuperFriends, among other shows.)
In a few years, my musical tastes would develop and I became less and less interested in most Top 40 music, so I didn't listen as much. But I'd still pop in every now and then, to check and see how my favorites, like Men at Work or The Police, were doing that week. And, if I was lucky, you'd throw in a fun fact or two about the artist behind the next song you were going to play (like, "… and that gas-station attendant was none other than Sheena Easton").
As I grew older, I also listened to commercial radio less and less, and I lost touch with my old friend, though I loved the clips of you losing it while recording your show. Earlier today, I noticed on Wikipedia that you officially retired from your radio shows in 2009 (and, apparently, you were still voicing Shaggy until that year as well). I felt bad that I thought you disappeared from the radio in 1986. So, Casey, could you please play Killing Joke's "Eighties" for my old pal, you, on his/your 80th birthday?
Oh, and YOU keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.
Mike B. from Ohio
Today in 1996, one of the greatest, most influential bassists ever, Bernard Edwards of Disco/Funk group Chic, passed away after contracting pneumonia while on tour in Japan.
My personal favorite bass line is Sly Stone's lick on "If You Want Me to Stay," but it's hard to deny the power of Chic's "Good Times," a Disco-era hit that helped lay the groundwork for Hip Hop. Edwards' bass line from the song is considered one of the most sampled pieces of music ever and it has been mimicked almost as often. Songs that wouldn't exist with Edwards' riff include Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," Hip Hop trailblazers Sugarhill Gang's breakthrough "Rapper's Delight," Blondie's "Rapture," Daft Punk's "Around the World" and Wham!'s "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)" (hey, they can't all be winners).
R.I.P Bernard Edwards. And thanks for the groove.
Click on for Born This Day featuring Bez, Skip Spence, Grandmaster Caz and Robert Christgau.