Song of the Day, August 31: What’ll I Do from the McGarrigle Hour

McGWhatllToday’s song is a splendid family rendering of a pop standard. Irving Berlin wrote What’ll I Do in 1923 for inclusion in his Music Box Revue series. It was introduced by singers Grace Moore and John Steel and has been covered by dozens of artists; Nelson Riddle famously adopted it as a theme for his Oscar-winning score for the 1974 film The Great Gatsby.

When Kate and Anna McGarrigle assembled their extended family live shows, the McGarrigle Hour, they selected songs that showed the breadth of their tastes, let each performer shine, and resonated with them personally. Kate had selected What’ll I Do for their mother’s funeral, and the sisters decided to include it in the program. To capture the family spirit, Kate sang it with her ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III and their children Rufus and Martha Wainwright.

Sister Jane McGarrigle describes the situation nicely in her liner notes for the album taken from the show.

This song means a lot to us. Kate came up with it when our mother died in May 1994, and we wanted her funeral music to have a special touch. It was from [her] era and perfectly expressed our grief. … Here, Kate, Loudon and their kids, a foursome who had never sat down to a Christmas turkey together, let alone sing a song, come together as natural as breathing.

The family harmonies are lovely and haunting, giving no hint of the tense history they share. The track is a standout from the show and a fine moment in all four perfomers’ catalogs.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Album of the Week, August 30: Rum Sodomy and the Lash by the Pogues

Pogues-Rum-Sodomy-LashThe Pogues formed in London in the fading days of Britain’s punk explosion. Vocalist Shane MacGowan, tin whistle player Spider Stacy, and multi-instrumentalists Jem Finer and James Fearnley had worked together in a couple of punk bands before creating their own unique sound. Drawing on MacGowan’s Irish roots and a shared love of traditional Celtic music, they became Pogue Mahone. Gaelic for “kiss my ass”, the name clearly established their mission: take the DIY punk spirit and deep musical traditions and smash them together into something fresh and new. They added a rhythm section composed of Cait O’Riordan and Andrew Ranken, released an independent single, toured with the Clash, and landed on Stiff records, shortening their name to avoid problems with the BBC censors. After a solid debut that mixed MacGowan’s “gutter hymns” and a nice variety of traditional songs, they added guitarist Philip Chevron and headed back into the studio. With Stiff label-mate Elvis Costello producing, they created the defining moment in their tumultuous career.

Album Rum Sodomy & the Lash
Act The Pogues
Label Stiff Release Date August 5, 1985
Producer Elvis Costello
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  #13
  1. The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn
  2. The Old Main Drag
  3. Wild Cats of Kilkenny
  4. I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day
  5. A Pair of Brown Eyes
  6. Sally MacLennane
  7. A Pistol For Paddy Garcia
  8. Dirty Old Town
  9. Jesse James
  10. Navigator
  11. Billy’s Bones
  12. The Gentleman Soldier
  13. The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

The album opens with a blast of Pogue energy. MacGowan takes the Celtic legend of Cuchulainn and turns it on its ear, celebrating the punk ethic as a reborn spirit of the Irish warrior. It’s fun, compelling, and memorable, one of the best moments in British punk and perhaps the band’s defining moment. The Old Main Drag is a more meditative song, blending quieter Celtic instrumentation with a look at the down side of modern urban life. Rising from that gutter hymn is another Pogues masterpiece, the instrumental whirlwind Wild Cats of Kilkenny. An Irish dance band trapped on a speeding train, it mixes brilliant playing and animal howls in a perfect, crazy track.

O’Riordan turns in a fine vocal on I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Everyday, a smart traditional choice that shows off the band’s chops. Bold and quietly sure of itself, it continues the smart journey through all lands Pouge. A Pair of Brown Eyes is an unsually sweet love song, showing off a different side of MacGowan’s famously rough voice. Sally MacLennane wraps up side one with the singer showing off his traditional roots nicely and the band surging behind him enthusiastically.

Originally an outtake, A Pistol For Paddy Garcia is a smart transition — think spaghetti  western instrumental as played by an Irish covers band. It hints at the international musical palette that would creep into later Pogues albums and works as a nice bridge to side two. Dirty Old Town is a stunning cover. The Pogues take Ewan MacColl’s bitter ode to a dying hometown and make it their own, a rare example of a cover that comes close to exceeing its origins. It features one of MacGowan’s best vocals and some of the band’s finest restrained playing.

Jesse James reflects a minor obsession with the old west in a fun, unexpected traditional turn. It’s a bit of a sidetrack, but provides a glimpse at more of the band’s diversity. Navigator picks up the nautical theme that also runs through much of the band’s music with another solid performance. Billy’s Bones is a psychotic pirate song, another blast of energy that propels the disc along. MacGowan has some vocal fun channeling the various characters in the traditional The Gentleman Soldier, a bit of a lark before the stirring closer.

Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda has become a folk standard anti-war song. The Pogues make it their own, with a stately martial beat, sad accordion, and a painfully straightforward vocal. With this subtle epic, the band wrap up a fascinating, heady musical journey. They would achieve greater commercial success and turn out many wonderful songs in the years to come, but nothing matches the messy beauty of their second disc.

FURTHER LISTENING: O’Riordan promptly left the band (and married Costello), replaced by Darryl Hunt. Irish trad-folk musician Terry Woods, once a member of Steeleye Span, came on board, rounding out the band’s most famous lineup. The next two albums — If I Should Fall From Grace With God and Peace and Love — are remarkable fun with song contributions from more band members and a more varied set of folk influences. They are both solid discs, suffering only slightly from slicker production that loses some of the chaos that make the Pogues who they are. After one more mediocre album, the band fired MacGowan, who had become increasingly erratic and unreliable. With a stable but less inspired lineup, they released two more albums, including the solid alt-folk-rock Waiting For Herb, then broke up. The classic lineup — minus Chevron, who died in 2013 — are back together now, performing live but clearly indicating they don’t plan to record another album. For a quick, solid overview of the Pogues’ impressive output, Shout! Factory’s 2013 Very Best of the Pogues is a nice summary.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending August 31, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 The Power of Love Huey Lewis and the News 2
R & B Freeway of Love Aretha Franklin 5
Country Love Is Alive The Judds 1
Adult Contemporary Cherish Kool and the Gang 2
Rock Fortress Around Your Heart Sting 2
Album Brothers In Arms Dire Straits 1

JaggerBowieDancingThis week sees a superstar duo launch the third Top 40 version of a Motown classic. William “Mickey” Stevenson had the basic idea for Dancing In the Street, which he framed as a ballad. He shared it with Marvin Gaye, who helped craft it into a dance number. Gaye recorded a demo which the pair offered to Stevenson’s wife, Kim Weston. She passed, so they took it to Martha Reeves. Reeves was underwhelmed, but the track stuck in her head. She asked to rewrite the vocal arrangements to fit her style. With musical contributions from frequent Stevenson collaborator Ivy Jo Hunter, the song came together; Reeves and her group the Vandellas recorded it and had a 1964 smash hit.

Martha and the Vandellas’ rendition remains the quintessential interpretation of the song. With two weeks at #2 (behind Manfred Mann’s Do Wah Diddy Diddy), it’s also the most successful on the charts. The joyous anthem has become a pop standard with dozens of cover versions, many of them released as singles. The Mamas and the Papas, Ramsey Lewis, and Teri DeSario (with KC) all took the song into the lower reaches of the Hot 100. Van Halen released it as their third cover single and eased up to #38.

The most recent Top 40 version was recorded as part of the Live Aid charity concerts. Mick Jagger and David Bowie intended to perform the song as an intercontinental duet, with Jagger in New York and Bowie in London. Satellite delays made that impractical and neither singer was willing to lip sync, so they got together before the concert and made a video to show between acts. It was a hit, and the pair agreed to release it as a single with all the proceeds going to charity. Their version danced onto the Hot 100 at an impressive #47 this week; it blasted up to #7, becoming one of Bowie’s biggest hits and Jagger’s most successful recording away from the Stones.

Song of the Day, August 28: Harness Up (Soul’s On Fire) by Died Pretty

DPTraceHarnessFollowing the success of their breakthrough album, Doughboy Hollow, Died Pretty landed a recording and promotion deal with Sony. They took their time crafting Trace, building on the strengths of its predecessor and filling it with great songs, memorable music, and hooks galore.

The standout is Harness Up (Soul’s On Fire), one of the album’s successful singles. Singer Ron S. Peno turns in a fine, anthemic vocal, infusing the elliptical lyrics with passion and nuance. A song of naturalistic menace and grim determination, it captures the best elements of Died Pretty’s sonic style. The band are in fine form, too, with John Hoey’s keyboards propelling the rest of the group in a tight romp behind Peno.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, August 27: The Last Day of Our Acquaintance by Sinéad O’Connor

OConnorIDNWLastDayToday’s song is The Last Day of Our Acquaintance by Sinéad O’Connor. After the energetic blast of her powerful debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, the outspoken Irish singer released a more intimate follow-up. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got builds on the emotional  and personal moments of the debut, pushing the personal stories and emotions to the forefront. Best known for the international #1 Prince cover Nothing Compares 2 U, the disc is full of wonderful, fascinating tracks.

The finest is the last song before the cathartic title track. The Last Day of Our Acquaintance is a bitter, bold kiss-off. The singer is not just prognosticating, she is demanding. This day, when the couple formalize their separation, should be the last they ever spend together. Slow and simmering, O’Connor articulates her rage in a scary whisper, building slowly but never quite boiling over. It’s an amazing example of how less can be more, both musically and emotionally.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, August 26: My Country by Midnight Oil

MOilESMMyCToday’s song is Midnight Oil’s My Country. By the time they recorded their eighth album, Earth and Sun and Moon, the band had honed a powerful sound, passionate and political. Reunited with producer Nick Launay, they turned out a set of strong songs that played to their strengths. The standout is My Country, a scathing rebuke of blind nationalism. Simmering rather than blasting, it’s a quietly angry track that gains strength in its tense reserve.

Was it just a dream, were you so confused
Was it just a giant leap of logic
Was it the time of year, that makes a state of fear
Methods, were their motives for the action
And did I hear you say
My country right or wrong

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, August 25: Ragged Heroes by the Albion Band

AlbionRiseToday’s song is a stirring album opener from the Albion Band. When band leader Ashley Hutchings collected the newest incarnation of the group for Rise Up Like the Sun, their fourth album (under their third name, dropping the word “Country” or “Dance” from the middle), he asked legendary producer Joe Boyd to helm the sessions and  singer and melodeon player John Tams to arrange the tracks. The pair worked well together — resulting in a shared production credit for Tams — and inspired the players to turn out a highlight of electric folk.

Tams wrote Ragged Heroes to launch the album. A brilliant anthem, it’s an ode to the musical history that drives the album. Filled with spirited invocations and a call to action from the listeners, it is the perfect way to get things rolling. Tams turns in a great vocal as the dozen talented men behind him surge with musical energy.

Songs of hope and tunes of glory
Half remembered Albion hymns
Rise up Saint George and tell the story
This is where your song begins

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, August 24: Everybody Loves Me Baby by Don McLean

McLeanEverybodyToday’s song is delightful braggadocio from Don McLean’s brilliant album American Pie. McLean is best known for his sincerity and emotional resonance. On this track he takes another approach. Everybody Loves Me Baby is a baffled rant, the narrator listing his increasingly amazing — and improbable — accomplishments. Despite everything he feels he has to offer, the object of his affections rebuffs him at every turn.

The ocean parts when I walk through, and the clouds dissolve and the sky turns blue
I’m held in very great value by everyone I meet but you!

Skewering the serious man-and-his-guitar mystique, McLean obviously enjoys singing the song, laying it on thick with a wink and a nod. Over the top in all the right ways, it offers a nice bit of variety to the album and remains a fun, distinctive standout in his impressive catalog.

Enjoy this great song today.

Album of the Week, August 23: A Night At the Opera by Queen

QueenOperaQueen ruled the musical world for the better part of a decade, a confident, peerless quartet with a remarkable frontman and seamless musical collaboration. They blended heavy metal with camp, prog with music hall, hard rock with clever observations. The band formed when its members were in college. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor were in Smile, a short-lived group admired by a Zanzibar-born singer and pianist named Farrokh Bulsara. He stepped in when thier vocalist departed, encouraging them to push the boundaries of their music and live presence. By the time bassist John Deacon came on board, Smile had become Queen and Bulsara had transformed into Freddie Mercury. After finishing school, the quartet concentrated on their music, mounting increasingly complex live shows and releasing a trio of albums that started with adequate metal and evolved into the unique musical blend that was Queen. Nothing prepared the world for their fourth outing, however, the finest, boldest release in a catalog of strong statements.

Title A Night At the Opera
Act Queen
Label Elektra Release Date November 21, 1975
Producer Roy Thomas Baker and Queen
U.S. Chart  #4 U.K. Chart  #1
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Death On Two Legs (Dedicated to…)
  2. Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon
  3. I’m In Love With My Car
  4. You’re My Best Friend [#16]
  5. ’39
  6. Sweet Lady
  7. Seaside Rendezvous
  8. The Prophet’s Song
  9. Love of My Life
  10. Good Company
  11. Bohemian Rhapsody [#9 / #2]
  12. God Save the Queen

Famously the most expensive rock album ever recorded at the time, the elaborate sessions and production work brought out the best in the band. It also put a strain on them, with May asserting that if A Night At the Opera had not been a hit it would have ended the group. Instead it was an international smash, moving Queen from stars to megastars overnight.

Mercury teases the listener from the start, opening the album with a delightful little piano figure that makes the subsequent blast of angry guitar jarring and powerful. Death On Two Legs is a brilliant, funny, over-the-top put-down song, aimed at the ex-manager that the band were pleased to be finished with. Mercury’s lyrics were so precise and biting that Brian May has said he had trouble singing his harmonies at first.

Continuing the carnival ride, Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon is a quaint music hall number sung through headphones placed in a bucket to achieve a nostalgic quality. It’s a lovely number, capturing the more whimsical side of the band. Heavy metal roars back into the action with I’m In Love With My Car, one of Roger Taylor’s best writing contributions. It’s flawless bombast, capturing the best camp spirit by taking itself perfectly seriously. John Deacon’s evergreen hit You’re My Best Friend changes things up yet again, a charming love song with a fun Wurlitzer lead.

Somehow Brian May manages to raise the stakes again with ’39. It’s a space rock folk song about the perils of faster-than-light time dilation. And it’s REALLY good. Brimming with sincere humanity, this fantastical theme is one of the most real moments on the disc.

Even Queen couldn’t keep up the energy forever, and the next trio are solid entries that suffer mostly in comparison to the rest of the disc. Sweet Lady is musically solid, featuring some of Taylor’s finest high-speed drumming, but otherwise a pretty tepid metal love song. Seaside Rendezvous is a smart tempo change and a pleasant song, but a bit too much like Sunday Afternoon without as much charm. The Prophet’s Song is the longest track in Queen history, a ponderous beast of a song with some fascinating moments but without the internal cohesion that makes the other epic on the disc a classic.

Mercury’s Love of My Life brings back the power in a quietly moving tribute to romance. It is the band’s most-covered song and was a long-time concert favorite, with the singer pausing to let the audience take over. English folk legend Norma Waterson chose the song to represent Mercury on her tribute-driven second solo album. Good Company is a smart, funny advice song, another tribute to older musical styles that works well because of the fun sincerity that Mercury gives it.

And then there’s the rhapsody. Bohemian Rhapsody, a song referred to throughout the sessions as “Fred’s Thing” because of the writer’s obsession with its crafting. He assembled all the parts, asking his bandmates to record their contributions without a clear sense of what the final product would sound like. With 180 separate overdubs, this pre-digital construct required so much tape splicing that the final master showed daylight through the tape. It was worth the effort, however, becoming the band’s signature song and a distinctive statement of all the contrasts that their musical consistency made work.

May wraps things up with a bit of God Save the Queen, an homage to the Hendrix rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s another clever moment and a nice coda to a wonderful album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Queen continued to dominate the airwaves and the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, churning out a steady stream of fascinating music. No other album comes close to Opera, usually suffering from a bit too much bombast and a lacking the consistency and cohesion that somehow arise out of the complexity of their masterpiece. After a couple of synth dance bombs in the 80s, they found their footing again, releasing solid work until Mercury’s untimely death in 1991. Three albums stand out:

  • Sheer Heart Attack (1974), the album where the Queen sound really gelled and arguably an even more consistent disc than Opera;
  • News of the World (1977), a fine mess that captures the best of the band and makes the most of its ambition;
  • The Game (1980), home to their biggest US hits and a slightly uneven set with some stunning pop numbers.

Queen actually released most of their best songs as singles, so compilations are a great way to cover the basics. The 2004 version of Greatest Hits is just that and a perfect overview of the majesty that was Queen.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending August 24, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 The Power of Love Huey Lewis and the News 1
R & B Freeway of Love Aretha Franklin 4
Country Real Love Dolly Parton with Kenny Rogers 1
Adult Contemporary Cherish Kool and the Gang 1
Rock Fortress Around Your Heart Sting 1
Album Songs From the Big Chair Tears For Fears 5

LoverboyLEMoIThis week sees a mainstay of the 80s Rock and Pop charts debut with their biggest hit. Loverboy formed in Calgary, Alberta in 1979. The five-man band came together from a variety of Canadian groups and quickly hit on a successful radio-friendly rock formula. They had a steady stream of singles on the Hot 100 and the Rock charts and consistently achieved platinum sales for their albums.

This week the title track and first single from their album Lovin’ Every Minute of It entered the Hot 100 at #59. Ten weeks later it became their first Top 10 hit, peaking at #9 in a 21-week chart run. It also peaked at #3 on the Rock chart.

Loverboy truly bracketed the 80s, with their first hit debuting in January 1981 and their last debuting in December 1989. They managed a dozen Hot 100 hits, most of which went Top 40. They hit the Rock chart 14 times, with two #2 singles — Workin’ For the Weekend and Hot Girls In Love.

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