Music

A Song You’d Sing a Duet with Someone on Karaoke

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 17: A Song You’d Seen a Duet with Someone on Karaoke

Fun fact: I have never karaoke’d, as a duo or otherwise. And I’m not sure I ever would, at least not without copious amounts of liquid courage. But if it did somehow come down to that, I can think of no better dueting tune than Sonny and Cher’s immortal 1965 hit “I Got You Babe.” (Here’s another fun fact: When Cher first heard it, she reportedly thought it was a dumb song that would never go anywhere. She’s still performing it in concert half a century later.)

Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of a cliche and can even induce eye-rolling under the wrong circumstances, especially after the movie Groundhog Day used it to such horrifying effect, but it’s a sweet song that’s in a key just about anyone can manage (let’s be honest, Sonny Bono wasn’t much of a singer), and to my ear, it perfectly captures the innocent optimism of young love. But it’s also somehow weirdly applicable to older love too; I can easily see it as a fond commentary on a couple that’s been down the road and back, and somehow, against the odds, is still together… weatherbeaten but happy with each other. Whether you hear it as an anthem to nineteen-year-olds or a reminder of your own lost youth or as a poignant declaration to your life partner of decades — hell, why not all three? — it’s one of those songs that just makes you happy to hear. At least it makes me happy.

I have no idea where this video clip comes from — obviously a vintage television program — but it’s a pretty poignant thing too. I first got to know Sonny and Cher on their weekly TV show in the early ’70s, which was largely built around the “joke” of Cher being mean to her hopelessly square husband. As I understand it, by that point in their relationship, her antipathy for him wasn’t an act. But here they’re both fresh and cute and visibly enamored of each other, before life and fame and god knows what ground whatever they had together into a pulp.

Anyhow, that’s really all I’ve got to say about this one. Short and sweet this time. Enjoy!

 

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A Song That’s a Classic Favorite

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 16: A Song That’s a Classic Favorite

The wording of this one seemed a little odd to me, so I had to spend some time parsing it to be certain of what it was asking for. I finally decided it should more properly be read as “a classic song that’s a favorite.”

As it happens, I like a lot of so-called classic songs. Of course, the definition of “classic” varies through time; these days, the oldies station is playing stuff that was popular when I was in college. Oy. For me, however, “classic”  is my parents’ music, the early days of rock and roll. It’s mom’s scratchy old 45s played back on a supposedly “portable” record player the size of a large suitcase, the one that needed to have a penny taped to the tone arm to keep it from skipping across the platter. It’s Chuck Berry drifting in and out of the static on a tube-driven AM car radio. It’s the soundtrack to American Graffiti, and the cherry Coke you drank at sunset with a hot summer breeze in your hair, and it’s the music that mom and dad’s DJ friend pumps out across the parking lot at their classic-car cruise night events.

Boiled down to a single tune, “classic” is Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” It’s probably one of the most recognizable songs of the early rock era, and it’s one of my favorites from any era. The song was a tremendous hit for Del in 1961, sitting at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks and coming in at number 5 for the year. It became a hit for him again in 1987, when Del re-recorded it (with somewhat different lyrics) for the producers of the television series Crime Story, which could be described as Miami Vice set in the early ’60s. Every week for two seasons, “Runaway” played over the opening-credits montage of Dennis Farina in a trenchcoat, neon signs, and tail fins. I barely remember the show itself, but those credits still play through my minds-eye from time to time.

However, it’s the earlier, decidedly more innocent version of the song that I’m going to place here. Obviously, it was recorded long before music videos, but I did manage to find a vintage clip from one of those teenage dance shows that were popular in the day. I’m not sure which show, exactly — I don’t think it’s American Bandstand, the sets don’t look right to me — but of course the point is for y’all to hear the song… so, enjoy. And let it take you back to those days when your relationship with your car was at least as important as the one you had with your best girl, and likely it was a more solid one at that…

 

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A Song You Like That’s a Cover by Another Artist

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 15: A Song You Like That’s a Cover by Another Artist

I took a break from these song challenge posts for a while because, in light of everything going on in the country and the world, they seemed frivolous, if not outright disrespectful to those whose lives have been upended by — say it with me — “these unprecedented times.” But honestly I’ve been missing them. Missing the escape from thinking about current events and my job and all the rest of it. I’ve missed writing. Writing has become a luxury I rarely get to indulge, and even though these entries aren’t anything much… they’re something. I enjoy doing them, and I enjoy talking about music even though I’m basically just an uninformed loudmouth sitting at the end of the cafeteria with his friends, blathering about whatever cassette they ripped off from the 7-11 last night.

Not that I have any knowledge of what that would feel like. No, sir, not me.

Anyhow.

I also just want to finish something. This challenge was supposed to generate 30 entries, and I’m only halfway through. So, let’s get back to it, shall we?

Stevie Nicks’ fifth solo album, Street Angel, was released in 1994. That was an unhappy period in Stevie’s life as she’d been battling an addiction to painkillers, and the album turned out to be a big disappointment for her. It was the least successful of her efforts away from Fleetwood Mac, with poor sales and no top-40 hits. Both the critics and Stevie herself have criticized the album’s production, and Stevie has also said she should have gone back and redone the vocals before it was released.

But you know… in my usual contrarian fashion, I quite like this album.  It has a pared-down quality compared to her work in the ’80s (no doubt due to the production she doesn’t like) and a world-weariness that suited my general mood at the time it came out. This is an album for listening to in the middle of the night, when you’ve gotten off the late shift and the heat of the day is still bleeding out of the asphalt as you drive home with the windows down, and you’re trying figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do with your life because it sure as shit isn’t what you’ve been doing.

Not that I would know how that feels either.

Stevie mostly writes her own stuff, but one of my favorite tracks on this album is actually a cover of a Bob Dylan song. I have mixed feelings about Dylan… I think he’s hugely overrated, to be honest. His lyrics are more opaque to me than poetic, and his singing voice… well, I’m no doubt revealing myself as the uneducated philistine that I am, but he’s always sounded to me like Eddie Murphy’s impression of Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. In the hands — or voice — of someone else, though, his songs can be… magical. Like this one. At least to me. Listening to Stevie NIcks’ rendition of “Just Like a Woman,” I hear her singing about herself… or about a daughter she never had… or about a girl I might have known in my early twenties, when we all feel impossibly old and jaded as well as unbearably fragile and clueless.That’s how I remember feeling, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

I love this song.

There was no video made for this one, so just enjoy listening and gazing at the album cover for four minutes.

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A Song You’d Love to Be Played at Your Wedding

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 14: A Song You’d Love to Be Played at Your Wedding

For this category, there really was only one possible choice. It’s a beautiful little ditty, one of the most incisive and tender expressions of the human romantic experience I’ve ever heard, a jukebox favorite that dates all the way back to 1973. It’s a love song… from a different point of view:

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A Song You Like From The ’70s

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 13: A Song You Like From The ’70s

Hot Chocolate was a British soul band that gained some notoriety for having an interracial lineup (as if being a British soul band wasn’t notable enough). They pulled off the impressive feat of scoring at least one hit single in the UK every year between 1970 and 1984. Curiously, they were far less successful here in the US, where they charted only eight times during that same period, and only five of those singles cracked the top 40. Their biggest US hit, however, has become a beloved classic that returned to the top 10 in three different decades and has been featured in a dozen films and several TV series, notably The Full Monty and the first Tales of the City miniseries that aired on PBS back in 1993. For me, it’s emblematic of the ’70s, encapsulating that weird combination of permissiveness and naivete that is my biggest impression of that era. It’s also just plain fun. I don’t have any specific memories associated with the song, but it never fails to lift my spirits when I hear it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate, released in their home country in 1975 and hitting number three on the US charts a year later:

[Incidentally, I debated whether it was appropriate to post this particular song today, given the civil unrest going on in Minneapolis and other cities because yet another of our black citizens has died at the hands of a policeman. Is it in poor taste to be promoting a superficial dance tune under such grim circumstances? I don’t know… maybe. But you know what? A song like this is exactly what I need to hear right now, when it honestly feels like the damn country is about to blow apart. It’s so demoralizing to think that Americans can be better than this, but they just fucking won’t. And I can’t think about it anymore tonight.]

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A Song From Your Preteen Years

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 12: A Song From Your Preteen Years

As much as it pains some of my friends to admit this, country music is woven deeply into the DNA of rock and roll — when rock first emerged as a distinct genre in the early 1950s, it was essentially a fusion of rhythm and blues with country, along with a sprinkling of gospel — and that country gene has often expressed itself in the body of rock over the years. One such moment was the so-called “crossover” phenomenon of the early ’80s, when a number of country artists were regularly posting hits on the pop charts. The late Kenny Rogers was the king of the crossover period, but you can make a good case that Juice Newton (real name Judy) was the queen, at least for the brief two-year moment from 1981-82, during which she scored seven top-40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The video for the first of these hits, her cover of a 1968 tune called “Angel of the Morning,” was the first country-music clip to be played on MTV, on the very first day that the music network launched. (Juice herself was the third female solo artist to be played on MTV behind Pat Benatar and Carly Simon.)

Her next pop hit — and her biggest — was “Queen of Hearts,” released in June of 1981. I was eleven years old that summer. I’d be twelve by the time “Queen of Hearts” reached Billboard’s number-two spot in September, and I loved this song almost as much as “Jessie’s Girl,” which was out around the same time. Hearing it these days instantly conjures memories of riding my red Schwinn with the banana seat on a hot summer afternoon, the sky impossibly high overhead and shining like polished aluminum, and a little black AM/FM transistor radio dangling from the handlebars, expanding my universe one awesome tune at a time as I pedaled my way past the tired old brick buildings and hay fields that were my home town. All of those things, from the Schwinn to the fields, are gone now. But “Queen of Hearts” is still a cool song.

Kind of a silly video, though.

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A Song You Never Get Tired Of

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 11: A Song You Never Get Tired Of

Let’s see if I can recapture the thread on this little exercise, shall we? A song I never get tired of… let’s see…

I’ll bet you thought I was going to post something by Rick Springfield, didn’t you? Well, believe it or not, even I need the occasional break from “Jessie’s Girl.” But there is a tune I don’t ever grow weary of. It’s from the infancy of rock and roll and it radiates such a youthful exuberance that it always lifts me up when I hear it. It’s just so… joyful… from the irresistible drum beat to the cool guitar breakdown in the middle to the goofy, playful way the lyrics are enunciated. I’m speaking, of course, of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” which was a number-three hit on the Billboard Hot 100 way back in 1957. It was Buddy’s second hit after “That’ll Be the Day,” and unlike so much else from the early rock era, I think it sounds as timeless today as it did when it was released. My mom has a scratchy 45 of it that I discovered when I first started to take an interest in music around the age of 12 or so; I put a few hundred more spins on that old platter before I acquired my first Buddy cassette. It’s also one of a small handful of songs I know of that got a sequel, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” a demo Buddy recorded two months before his untimely death in February 1959. It was released posthumously.

Obviously, this all took place long before the era of music videos, so I had intended to simply post the song. But as I was poking around, I came across this clip, which I believe comes from Buddy’s appearance with his band The Crickets on The Ed Sullivan Show in December of 1957. The audio might not be the original; it’s been heavily processed if it is. But take a look and enjoy the sound. Buddy is one of my favorites, and one of my favorite “What ifs?” I truly think that if his life hadn’t been cut so short, he would be revered today as one of the true innovators, right up there with the Beatles.

Incidentally, the real-life Peggy Sue was not Buddy’s girlfriend, as is commonly believed. Peggy Sue Gerron was in fact the girlfriend (and later wife) of Jerry Allison, the drummer for the Crickets and cowriter of this song.

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A Song That Makes You Sad

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 10: A Song That Makes You Sad

“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” has quite a pedigree: It was written by Shel Silverstein, the poet known for the children’s books The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, and first recorded in 1974 by Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, who also cut popular songs like “The Cover of the ‘Rolling Stone'” and “Sexy Eyes.” But it’s the 1979 version by Marianne Faithfull — an icon of the 1960s British Invasion and a former girlfriend of Mick Jagger — that people are most likely to have heard.

I first encountered the song in the movie Thelma and Louise, where it’s used to score one of the most haunting scenes in the film. Deep into their fugitive run, the titular heroines are driving through Utah’s Monument Valley at night, with giant rock formations (unnaturally flood-lighted, but they look cool, so who cares) gliding silently past their open convertible. Thelma dozes off, leaving Louise alone with her thoughts and a bottle of Wild Turkey. The eerie throbbing keyboards and melancholy lyrics underscore the poignancy of their predicament and the growing possibility that they’re not going to come out of it alive.

I loved the song in the context of the movie. I’ve had night-time drives like that myself, and the scene is very visceral for me. Watching it, I can feel the crisp breeze flowing through the car and tugging at hair and sleeves, smell the exhaust — if Louise’s old T-Bird is anything like my Galaxie, it burns oil — and I can see the millions of stars glowing in the black velvet sky above. It’s one of those cinematic moments that really speaks to me… in no small part because the director chose that particular song.

I loved the song more when I bought the soundtrack album and finally heard it all the way through. I remember thinking it was a magnificent piece of storytelling, which, as a wannabe storyteller myself, was hugely important to me at the time. And those synths and Marianne Faithfull’s unusual voice just sounded cool.

But as the years have passed and I’ve crept into middle age myself, it’s become more and more difficult for me to listen to “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” The story of a woman facing the reality that her youthful dreams are never going to be fulfilled and all she has to fill her days are mundane chores…. well, it comes a little too close to the bone for me.

Don’t misunderstand, I still think it’s a great song. It’s just one that depresses the shit out of me.

Incidentally, Marianne Faithfull is a genuine rock-and-roll survivor who struggled with heroin addiction in the ’60s — the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is said to have been inspired by her — and homelessness and anorexia in the ’70s. And just in the past couple of months, she survived being hospitalized for COVID-19. Helluva lady.

[Edit: I learned earlier today that an old college friend died this morning. I’ll be writing more about that. But for now… I’d like to dedicate this to Jaren. He never got to ride through Paris in a sports car either. ]

 

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A Song That Makes You Happy

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 9: A Song That Makes You Happy

The big booming bass drum at the start followed by an infectious rhythm, Susanna Hoffs’ little-girl growl, and mildly suggestive lyrics that recall the dizzying early days of a new romance… “In Your Room” by the Bangles is sexy, and sexy makes me happy.

The song comes from their album Everything; released in the fall of 1988, it was a top-5 hit in the US. It would be eclipsed somewhat by a later (and bigger) hit from the same album, “Eternal Flame,” but this is the one that puts a smile on face.

Yeah… I dig the Bangles.

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A Song About Drugs or Alcohol

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 8: A Song About Drugs or Alcohol

The English band Chumbawumba first formed in 1982, but didn’t achieve mainstream recognition until the 1997 release of “Tubthumping,” which would become their biggest hit. Here in the US, it spent a total of 31 weeks in the Billboard Top 100, two of which were spent at slot number 6, the song’s highest point of success. All through the fall of that year, it was well-nigh inescapable.

Even so, it’s admittedly kind of a stupid song. There’s only a single verse and the chorus, repeated over and over. You can’t say it’s making any deep observations about the human condition. But it is weirdly evocative in its stripped-down simplicity. It so wonderfully captures a time and a place: a sweaty crowded pub, or in my case, since I didn’t get out to pubs all that often, house parties filled with horny twentysomethings trying to relax and to connect, the hormonal imperative to meet somebody and be with somebody just strong enough to overcome the insecurity, perhaps with a little help from the Jello shots. I hear this song and I think of candles flickering down deep into canyons of melted wax as the clock spins on into the wee hours and the living room grows quieter and the conversation gets weirder, the ashtrays overflowing and all the sticky-sweet mixer is gone so you’re just drinking the straight stuff now, and your free hand is around the shoulder of someone you want to take home, and someone is expounding on a book they read in college, so long ago, and someone else is staring sadly at the ember glowing at the end of their cigarette. I was 28 in the fall of 1997. Emotionally, I was probably closer to 20 than to 30, but I thought myself such a sophisticate, or at least I told myself I was. I fancied myself a Byronic hero, beaten up by the world, and yet somehow standing upright in the gale. “Tubthumping” evokes that, too… it’s not only a drinking song, it’s optimistic and encouraging, with its assertion that you’re going to get up again no matter what life throws at you.

And it’s catchy as hell.

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