Tag Archives: Phil Spector

The 10 Most Important Artists of the Last Decade – 5. Danger Mouse

Like Phil Spector, George Martin, and Brian Eno, Danger Mouse has elevated into a realm that few producers have.  He’s created a unique sound for different artists and bands, while managing to become a star in his own right.  Dabbling in indie rock, hip-hop, and soul-pop, Danger Mouse has constantly pushed the boundaries of what modern can sound like.

In the past decade, he’s produced and worked with such artists as the Black Keys, Beck, Gorillaz, James Mercer of the Shins, and of course Gnarls Barkley, his own band with Cee Lo Green.  And none of these projects have sounded alike, partly because Danger Mouse doesn’t force his own philosophy and ideals onto his collaborators.  Rather he finds a particular sound that suits the artist while still blending his own dark soul-pop.  Unlike other super producers, Danger Mouse creates a sound that is dense and atmospheric, while still being sparse.  Even without Cee Lo’s paranoid lyrics, “Crazy” manages to be dark and foreboding with little instrumentation.

Danger Mouse first gained attention with the The Grey Album (the mash-up between Jay-Z’s Black Album and The Beatles’ White Album).  It should have been a novelty item – let’s face it most of these projects are.  Yet, there is a respect and knowledge for both artists that very of these project have.  “99 Problems” is given more bite when the screaming guitars and bounding drums of “Helter Sketler” teeter out of control underneath the lyrical rage of Jay-Z.  “Moment of Clarity” is even more poignant when it is driven by the opening riff of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”.

While Gnarls Barkley is mostly known for their monster hit “Crazy” (which Rolling Stone named the best song of the decade) the rest of St. Elsewhere is a minor masterpiece of funk, soul-pop, indie rock, and general weirdness. On the surface, Cee Lo’s soulful voice is the driving force behind the album , particularly on “Crazy” where comes off as both sympathetic and slightly insane. But the combination is deceiving it’s not really a dance-album – the production is too sparse for that.  And it’s not exactly indie-rock either.  Rather Gnarls Barkley is the sound of two men who are not bound by any particular genre – and simply creating music they like.

And that seems to be Danger Mouse’s credo.

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15 Best Girl Group Songs

On Monday night along with Tom Waits, Alice Cooper and Dr. John, Darlene Love (finally!) got inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Her most famous song is the Holiday Classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, but Love added her vocal talents to other groups of the time as well including The Crystals, The Blossoms, and Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans.

So in honor of her induction, I present my list of the 15 Best Girl Group songs.

1.) The Ronettes – “Be My Baby”

Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” at its best.  The drum intro is probably responsible for a lot of drummers’ careers.

2.) The Shirelles – “A Thing of the Past”

The original female group.

3.) The Crystals – “Da Doo Ron Ron”

According to Darlene Love, she originally sang lead vocals for this track with her own band The Blossoms, only to have Phil Spector erase them and rerecord the lead with The Crystals’ Dolores “Lala” Brooks instead.  Love still ended up singing background vocals.

4.) The Dixie Cups – “I’m Gonna Get You Yet”

Slightly sinister (?) B-side of “Gee, The Moon Is Shining Bright”

5.) Martha & The Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street”

Forget the craptacular Bowie & Jagger version.  Brilliant song about how something as dancing in fire hydrants can be a rallying cry.  Co-written by Marvin Gaye.

6.) The Shangri-La’s:  “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”

The obvious choice would be “Leader of the Pack”, but I prefer this one.

7.) The Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go?”

Best use of Footstomps ever in a song, which actually consisted of one person, a teenager named Mike Valvano, to create illusion that it was a group of footstomps.

8.) Martha Reeves & The Vandellas – “Heatwave”

Listen for Martha Reeves belting out “Yeah, yeah!” at the 2 minute mark.  Killer stuff.

9.) Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans – “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Da”

Disney, who?  With Darlene Love taking over, this is the definitive version of the song.

10.) The Ronettes – “The Best Part of Breaking Up”

11.) The Marvelettes – “Please Mr. Postman”

Probably the first song that I ever recognized as an “oldie”, so as such I’ve always had a soft spot for it.

12.) The Crystals – “He’s A Rebel

13.) Chantals – “Maybe”

14.) Shirelles – “Stop the Music”

15.) The Crystals -“Then He Kissed Me”

I always thought that the narrator was pretty forward in this song telling her potential beau that she loves him.  Luckily it all worked out.

 

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Great Songs With Horns

A friend of mine suggested a while ago that the use of horns in rock and roll is very under-rated.  While a horn section is certainly a staple of soul and old school R&B, it’s not an instrument that comes directly to mind when you’re thinking of rock and roll.   So for this blog post I’ve decided to list some of my favorite rock songs that make full use of horns.

The Rolling StonesRocks Off

I could probably list about 15 different songs by The Rolling Stones alone for this.  The obvious choices would be “Waiting on a Friend” with the saxophone solo by the great Sonny Rollins.  But I’m going to go with Rocks Off for this.  For starters, it’s one of the Stones’ best rockers.  It’s messy, and the harmonies on the chorus don’t entirely sync, and the horns nearly drown out the vocals.   Yet they all carry the same melody and somehow it works – you get the horns stuck in your head.  After the final chorus Mick Jagger lets out an exuberant, “Wooo!”.  It’s as if even he knows it can’t get any better than that.

Bruce SpringsteenThunder Road

I’m sure lots of people will read this post and suggest that I choose “Jungleland” – The Big Man’s de facto anthem.  Truth is, I don’t rank Jungleland as highly as one of Bruce’s best as other people do.  But on “Thunder Road” rarely has a saxophone solo sounded so triumphant as it does here.  “Thunder Road” is as perfect rock song as they get, but the entire song rests on Clarence Clemon’s saxophone at the end.  The open road would not sound as as convincing without it.  The song may be about getting away, but the saxophone represents the possibilities of the destination.

U2 – Angel of Harlem

One of my favorite U2 songs, and one of their best.  Bono name drops Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and A Love Supreme on a song about Billie Holiday which would almost be unbearable if it weren’t for the sheer joy he shows in the song.  But it’s really the brass that makes the song.  The horns weave in and out between Bono’s lines during the verses, adding extra life to his ode to Billie Holiday.  In concert Bono has often declared that “the goal is soul” – they achieved it in spades on this song.

The Beatles – Penny Lane

An obvious choice, but you could also pick about a dozen or so other Beatles songs just like The Rolling Stones.  I’m going with Penny Lane, because the trumpet is so an integral part of the song.  It’s a song about childhood, and like the flip-side of the single Strawberry Fields which saw Lennon experimenting with both lyrics and music- Penny Lane is also experimental just not quite as extreme.  The trumpet solo is in fact in a mock-Baroque style, which also fits the over-all sound of the song extremely well.

George Harrison – What Is Life

Without a doubt, George Harrison’s best song as solo artist.  The use of both the saxophone and the trumpet elevate this song right as soon as the drums kick in.  Thanks to Phil Spector‘s wall of sound, the horns almost completely take over the chorus which is one of George’s catchiest.

David BowieYoung Americans

I couldn’t make this list, without listing this one.  It’s Bowie during his “plastic soul” phase.  It’s borderline campy, which is kind of the point.  The saxophone is one of the trademarks of the song – it’s trying to keep up with Bowie’s fast vocal delivery, and it’s a close call over who actually wins until Bowie delivers the famous “ain’t no one song” line near the end.

The Clash – The Right Profile

Just like Montgomery Clift (who the song is about) this song nearly veers out of control several times.  The horns seem to be the only thing actually anchoring it down.  The horns blast around the band and Strummer who delivers one of his best vocal performances describing the destruction of the life of Montgomery Cliff sometimes in horrific detail.  The saxophone solo in the bridge provides some added weight, and lets Strummer breathe for a few moments.

 

 

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Holiday/Christmas Theme Week: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.  With The Beatles, and with his solo works, Lennon remains one of my favorite rock artists. If Phil Spector totally changed the way in which Christmas songs could be heard, then Lennon changed the message of what a Christmas single could be with “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which was also produced by Spector.

Both A Christmas Gift For You and Happy Xmas are tied together not just by Spector, but also the Vietnam War.  A Christmas Gift For You was in November 1963, right after President Kennedy’s assassination.  Though the US was already involved in the Vietnam War, by the end of of 1963, Lyndon Johnson reversed Kennedy’s decision to remove 1,000 troops from Vietnam and ended up expanding the war.   It’s little wonder that A Christmas Gift For You didn’t initially catch on under the circumstances.

Flash forward almost 6 years later to 1969, with the war at its height John Lennon and Yoko decided to rent billboards across several cities with the slogan “WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It).  Happy Christmas From John and Yoko”.   It would be two years later before “Happy Xmas” would be released, but the slogans served as the basis for the song.

Almost 40 years later it’s become passe to release Christmas singles or exploit the season for charity events.  But it can’t be denied that the concept came from this song. Lennon, ever the political, made sure that his sentiments came through with silver bells.  Here was a song designed to make the listeners think about what they’ve done over the past year.  “So this is Christmas,” Lennon begins as he strums his the guitar, “and what have you done?”

Lennon’s genius shines through by making a very adult oriented theme a form (the Christmas song) normally considered “jolly”.  To drive the point home, the background vocals provided by the Harlem Community Choir who sing the “war is over” slogan.  Children tend to be oblivious to politics, and often see things in gray that adults often do not.  By having the children’s choir singing that particular line, Lennon is making the point that war affects everybody, and not just the troops (and their families) who were fighting in Vietnam.  If Lennon had sung “war is over, if you want it” the song wouldn’t be nearly as convincing.  Cynics could easily raise their eyebrows at a famous rock star making flights of fancy about how to end the war.  (Which, right or wrong, has always been a criticism of “Imagine”, particularly the line about imagining no possesions.)

This time of year is about coming together and forgetting life’s troubles.  Lennon reversed that with “Happy Xmas”, and made us remember what was going on.  But the idea of coming together for peace and love is very in the vein of the Holiday season, and in that sense, “Happy Xmas” might be the best representation of those themes.

 

 

 

 

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Women Singers: “Be My Baby” – The Ronettes

So I realized that the  majority of my posts (okay pretty much all of them) have been guy-centric and perhaps as a bit sexist in my selections.  So I plan to remedy that situation with this week’s list.  (And this won’t be a half-assed week either, just in case anyone tries to call me out on that.)

To kick things off, I’m going to start with what I think might the ultimate pop-song.  And if you don’t believe me – a certain Mr. Brian Wilson lists “Be My Baby” as his all-time favorite song.

“Be My Baby” begins with perhaps the most famous drum intro in popular music.  It sounds standard now, but the sound of the song itself was quite revolutionary at the time.  “Be My Baby” is Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound at its epitome.  Session man Hal Blaine’s thunder-clap drums  reinforce Ronnie Spector’s declaration that “we’ll make them turn their heads everywhere we go.”

Ronnie Spector doesn’t have the same control and force in her voice that Darlene Love (another Spector-girl) had.  Yet she commands “Be My Baby”.  Her voice is sexy and yearning.  Spector might be begging for the listener to be her baby, but by the second verse you want to be her baby.  “Since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you,” She coos.  And for a moment it seems innocent, but Spector nails the thin between romance and sex in the song  And there’s no denying the “oooh-oooh” at the end of the song.  I’ve always loved the violin break in the middle of the song.  It seems to add tension in the song – and it just thickens Spector’s Wall of Sound Production.

Be My Baby

John Lennon’s “interesting” cover of “Be My Baby”

The Ronettes performing “Be My Baby”:  (Sound quality is kind of iffy):

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