A music blog

This is what comes of having your own record label.

Best known as a poet and songwriter in the 1960s, McKuen was a trailblazer in the unaccountable fame hall of fame, paving the way for folks like Garth Brooks and Kenny G. While he never wrote another symphony, McKuen did write other “classical” works, including a concerto for four (count ’em) harpsichords and orchestra (something no Bach—JS or PDQ—ever attempted).

McKuen is just as easy a target now as he was when my fellow English majors and I did dramatic readings from Listen to the Warm back in college. Not that it wasn’t deserved: that subtitle, “All Men Love Something,” gives you some idea of the color and precision that marked Rod’s verse. So while his poetry may never be in the Norton Anthology, perhaps his career should be studied at the Harvard Business School. This is, after all, a poet who parlayed his meager gifts into a monster publishing and recording career. I mean, here’s a poet who had his own record label.

Fair play compels me to note that there are far less noble occupations than midwifing Jacques Brel songs into English, and the McKuen-penned A Man Alone is, against all odds, one of the more creditable of Frank Sinatra’s late 1960s platters. Certainly Don Costa’s harmonically sophisticated arrangements aid the songs on that concept album immeasurably. McKuen’s were neither the first nor worst lyrics from which Sinatra would wring Mahlerian depth.* But the Voice found something in those songs worth investing in, and that ain’t nothing.

Rod McKuen, Symphony No. 1 “All Men Love Something” (1970)
First movement: Gibraltar
Westminster Symphony Orchestra

Stanyan 9005

* If you doubt Sinatra’s knack for turning the most dubious of concepts into art songs, check out the McKuen-Brel existential waltz (yes, really) “I’m Not Afraid.”

(Happy birthday, Davey)

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Faithful correspondent/spiritual adviser/strategic genius of sixteen-inch softball Gregory Sager sends this alert: “Just in case you needed a Bananarama fix, now that it’s almost summer.”

More on Fever High here.

I have mixed feelings about 1980s revivals—let alone a revival of a girl group that was itself a revival of earlier girl groups—but this is Bananarama we’re talking about. Fever High aims for very small target and hits it dead center. The decade hasn’t been so charmingly reanimated since Annie’s “Chewing Gum.” 

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After Elvis and rock ’n’ roll, My Fair Lady was one of the great cultural quasars of this late 1950s. It was the most successful and longest running musical in the history of Broadway at the time. Its original cast album reached number 1 four separate times between 1956 and 1959, and in 1957 alone it sold 5 million copies, more than any previous LP. This chart success might seem almost preordained considering that Columbia Records backed the original production of the show in exchange for the rights to the cast album, but the show’s impact spread beyond just one album (or two if you count the London cast album in stereo). Not only did virtually every pop singer cover at least one song from My Fair Lady in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but dozens of artists cut entire albums of the show’s songs: Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, Shelly Manne with Andre Previn, Rosemary Clooney, Oscar Peterson. The show and its songs were everywhere.*

Tito Puente was a little late to this particular party, not releasing his version until 1964. He had been his own pop culture phenomenon during the peak MFL years, riding a wave of mambomania and cutting landmark albums for the RCA and Tico labels simultaneously. His final album for RCA appeared in 1963, leaving him exclusively with Tico—or almost. Tico had been founded by the great, if unlucky, George Goldner. Like most of the other labels he founded (Gone, Gee, Roulette) Tico ended up in the hands of Morris “Hesch” Levy as a settlement of Goldner’s gambling debts. However it may have happened—one imagines a poker hand just short of an inside straight was involved— Puente’s MFL album ended up on Roulette, which meant that Puente likely never saw a dime on the project. Perhaps that’s why it feels like a work for hire, a homework assignment. Puente and Co. go through the motions of Latinizing the score less than enthusiastically in typically crappy, compressed Roulette sound. It works better than it should given the durability of the songs, but what to do with that ultimate ode to English stuffiness, “Ascot Gavotte,” an antimambo if ever there was one? It was at this point in the project that you sense Puente said the hell with it, abandoning Frederick Loewe’s tune after a few bars for a full-on “Guantanamera”-style danzon-guajira rave up and in the process turning a silk purse into carnitas.

Tito Puente and his Orchestra, “Ascot Gavotte” (1964)
My Fair Lady Goes Latin
Roulette R 25276

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* Someone ought to do a study, if one has not already been done, on My Fair Lady as a precursor to the Beatles. Aside from expanding the capacity of record pressing plants and blazing a path for media saturation, My Fair Lady moved to the center of American culture Anglophilia of a new kind: witty, cheeky, skewering class pretensions. In this light, weren’t the Fab Four inheritors of George Bernard Shaw’s brand of wit? And weren’t the boys Pygmalion figures themselves, schooled and polished by their very own Professor Higgins in Brian Epstein?

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If you were lucky, you could raid your older brother or sister’s record collection while they were off to camp, college, or adulthood. No-risk exploration. The good stuff might be quietly merged into your own meager library. I skipped over Three Dog Night and Jackson Brown to find the Beatles’ red and blue albums in the milk crate in my brother’s room—an essential education. I made out much better than my cousin did when we raided the box of his brother’s albums in their basement: Aftermath and Between the Buttons.

 Sometimes you ended up with stuff that only made sense later. My sister abandoned her copy of All Summer Long (the title cut was recorded 50 years ago today) in the wire racks containing my parent’s sparse, eccentric collection of LPs: Allan Sherman, ten-inch classical records, Christmas in Sweden, an unplayed album of African music gifted or inspired by a visiting missionary. Before I even liked the Beach Boys, I understood this was a true artifact that should not be lost. The annotations of a high school sophomore from the summer of 1964 capture the excitement of a listening to a new album for the first time, learning it, making it your own. They also offered me a glimpse into the mysterious world of my Big Sister—even if that glimpse came when I was myself 14 and she was by then mysterious in different ways (adulthood is the ultimate mystery to a 14-year-old). Her notes have also kept the music fresh for me: I never hear “Hushabye” without thinking of it as a “cha-cha.”

The whole album is, of course, a classic—the first if not the ultimate “summer album.” The further away we travel from the world that inspired it, the more precious its catalog of details about clothes, motorbikes, and manners is; what once seemed mundane, crass, consumerist is now positively Proustian.

Once I “got” the Beach Boys, the song that left the deepest impression was the last: “Don’t Back Down.” Here was an acknowledgment of fear and doubt that was typical of Brian Wilson, yet (less typically) he also asserts the need to summon the grit to stare them down: “When a twenty-footer sneaks up like a ton of lead / And the crest comes along and slaps ’em upside the head / They’re not afraid.” Here are lines that are about something more than surfing.

(Happy birthday, Mary.)

The Beach Boys, “Don’t Back Down”
from All Summer Long (1964)
Capitol T 2110

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Big Star, “I’ll Never Be Sane”
From Whammy Bar (1976)

Another Chiltonesque enigma is the fate of Big Star’s fourth album—one oddly untouched by Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. (I’ve not yet read A Man Called Destruction, so I can’t comment on its treatment of the subject.) Perhaps some things are simply too bound up in skeins of myth, drunkenness, pain, and foggy memory to untangle.

My introduction to the possible existence of the album came in a lively email discussion concerning the Replacements in the late 1990s. I was a mere spectator of that virtual roundtable, which centered around what my friend Greg Sager called “one of the pivotal moments of ’Mats lore; the band’s breaking into the Twin Cities offices of their former label (Twin/Tone), stealing the masters to all of their old albums, and subsequently dumping them into the Mississippi River. It’s an event shrouded in mystery and rich in the nose-thumbing ethos of the band.”

From one correspondent (posting under the moniker of “Tom Thrift”) came this equivocal yet tantalizing reply:

If I wanted to be held accountable for my facts, I’d be a journalist (okay, maybe that’s a bad example in 1998). The whole point of the Web for lazy asses like me is that stylishly expressed bullshit will always trump gray flannel facts—the eggs benedict of opinion will always be preferable to the shredded wheat of accountability. My theory is that the ’Mats dumped not their own master tapes into the swirling eddies of the Mississippi, but the long-lost masters to Big Star’s little-known, never-released, now-lost fourth album, Whammy Bar, which were given to them by the great man, Alex Chilton, himself in Memphis during the recording of Pleased To Meet Me. Cut by Chilton and a backing band made up of former Elvis sidemen (Jerry Scheff on bass, James Burton on guitar) in the fall of 1977, it was a concept album about the recently deceased King and was, from all who heard it, the crowning achievement of Chilton’s career—despite the country disco song, “Tupelo Bunny,” that Chilton insisted on including. The fate of the album hinged on that song: Chilton came to regret writing it, recording it, playing tambourine and clavinet on it, and denied knowledge of the tapes until he met a scruffy band of post-punkers in the early 1980s. When they were in Memphis, he played them the tapes and handed them over to Paul Westerberg, saying, “Dump these for me, boy. They ain’t never gonna be right.” The ’Mats debated whether or not to make a dub of the album, but finally their loyalty to Chilton triumphed; just before they reached home, the van swung over to the side of the road and the tapes went over the bridge.

The well-connected Sager (who “had the Paul Harveyesque ‘rest of the story’ explained to me one night over a round of Hamm’s by a former ’Mats roadie in the CC Club in Minneapolis”) responded to this post thusly:

I heard roughly the same story Tom did about the Replacements reluctantly disposing of the long-rumored fourth Big Star album Whammy Bar. However, Tom’s eggs benedict did not have enough Tabasco sauce on them. Truth is stranger than fiction … and what I am about to tell you is stranger than either one.

After Big Star’s third album (initially released in ’78 as Big Star 3rd but subsequently released as Sister Lovers) failed to land the band a record deal in late 1974, the band broke up. Actually, it wasn’t really much of a band at that point; there was the increasingly eccentric and cantankerous Alex Chilton and Chilton’s producer-guitarist-keyboardist-engineer-Sancho Panza Jim Dickinson. Even stalwart Big Star drummer Jody Stephens was replaced on some of the third album sessions by Ardent studio engineer/drummer Richard Rosebrough.

Chilton then disappeared for an extended period of time, leaving only the spotty 1975 EP The Singer Not The Song (recorded at Ardent in Memphis with the usual suspects, including his current bass player Tommy McClure) as evidence of his existence.

He next assumed a public profile in early 1977, when he moved to New York City and assembled a backing band that consisted of future dBs founder Chris Stamey on bass, Fran Kowalski on keyboards, and Lloyd Fonoroff on drums. They regaled Big Apple audiences with loose takes on songs like the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the Seeds’ mid-1960s psychopunk classic “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine.”

He would break this band up by the summer of ’78 to return to Memphis and enter into his full-blown wacko-lounge-lizard phase, when covering KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” and the saloon chestnut “Volare” seemed to be logical career moves in his mind.

The missing piece of the puzzle is 1976. What happened then was that Chilton, hearing about the rise of a new and exciting scene in New York City centering around the seedy Bowery nightclub CBGB, made his initial foray to Manhattan at that point. Bringing back Stamey and ousted Blondie co-founder Gary Valentine to Memphis with him, he reassembled Big Star for one last go at Ardent Studios. This group consisted of Chilton and Valentine on guitars and vocals, Stamey on bass and vocals, and Stephens on drums and his requisite cameo vocal appearance (a la “Way Out West” and “For You”). Dickinson sat behind the board and filled in on keyboards and brass (along with his fellow former Rolling Stones sideman Bobby Keyes). The resultant double album Whammy Bar was, contrary to Tom’s description, not a tribute to Elvis but rather a freewheeling masterpiece of offhand power pop gems recorded by a bunch of has-beens, not-yets, and never-weres.

Included alongside “Tupelo Bunny” (not, as Tom indicated, a song about the King but rather a snide riposte by Valentine to his former bandmate/ingenue vocalist Debbie Harry, whose mad crush on Van Morrison was an open secret in the mid-1970s New York punk scene) were such classics as Chilton’s “I’ll Never Be Sane,” “No Pets” (later reworked in the 1980s as “No Sex”), and the title track. An early version of Stamey’s and Peter Holsapple’s dBs single “Dynamite” also appeared on the album—with Bobby Keyes’s honky-tonk saxophone replacing the whirling organ of the dBs version.

Covers abounded, most of them recorded during warm-ups to the sessions. They included Big Star concert staples such as the Kinks’ “Come On Now,” T. Rex’s “Baby Strange,” Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues,” and, of course, The Box Tops’ “The Letter”—as well as “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

Like the third album, Whammy Bar had no takers in terms of labels willing to release it. The band disintegrated, Chilton went back into hibernation, and Stamey and Valentine returned to New York. But while Dickinson and Chilton managed to get the third album released on the independent PVC label in ’78, Whammy Bar faded into the ether.

Chilton accompanied the Replacements on the fateful day in the mid-1980s when they broke into Twin/Tone’s offices and stole the master tapes to their old recordings. In fact, it was his daring them to do it that led Replacements roadie/driver Carton to pull the van over on that fateful Minneapolis bridge. When they actually went through with the caper and dumped the masters into the Mississippi River, Chilton had to live up to his end of the dare. He reached into his travel bag, pulled out a reel of tape containing the long-lost Whammy Bar, and tossed it over the side into the swirling waters that had already sucked in Hootenanny, Let It Be, Sorry, Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Stink, and The Shit Hits The Fans.

Some time later, the surviving trio of Replacements—Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars—felt so guilty about their complicity in destroying what may very well have been the high-water mark (pun intended) of 1970s rock-n-roll that they went to Ardent Studios to see for themselves if any other copies of Whammy Bar remained. Whether Dickinson had (or has) his own copy remains a mystery, but the band did end up recording Pleased To Meet Me at Ardent (with Dickinson producing) while they were there—an album which includes their tribute to the only man alive apart from Brian Wilson with enough moxie (or bad craziness) to destroy his own masterpiece … Alex Chilton.

Sager later polished and published a version of this tale on the late, lamented Seattle-based music site PandoMag, but that, too, is now lost to the ever-flowing river of the digital past.

Clearly, as this post proves, copies of at least some of songs from Whammy Bar survived. As with all such “grey-market” material, the wheres and hows of how they came into my possession cannot be revealed.

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