One the heartbreaking things about loving music is that at some point you realize that there are so many great musicians, so many incredible bands who will never get that big break. The history of rock & roll is filled with dreams, but also with even more stories of talented people who were unable to build a commercially successful career.
The same thing is also true for local music scenes. For every success like the Bay Area "Summer of Love" scene in the 60s or Seattle's 90s grunge scene, there are lots of vibrant music scenes that never make it past local fame. Maybe the timing is wrong or there's just too much going on in other hipper parts of the country. But the world of rock music is littered with amazing bands that should have been your next obsession.
Chicago in the late 1970s and 1980s was lousy with great pop rock and roots rock bands. Cheap Trick led the first wave of late 1970s groups to reach national success and while others like Off Broadway and Shoes managed only modest chart success, there was a sense that a real important music scene was building. By the early/mid 1980s, Chicago was lousy with great rock bands. Every club seemed to have another potential star band in the making and the consensus was that once one band broke big, Chicago would have its musical moment in the sun.
And that never quite happened. A lot of bands were signed to major labels, from the staggeringly great root rocks band Insiders (who had a modest hit with "Ghost On The Beach"), to The Elvis Brothers and The Bad Examples. There were at least a dozen bands that were signed to major labels and by the time the 90s rolled around, most of them had lost their deals and none of them had broken big.
But for all of that energy, there were also some great bands that never inexplicably got as far as a major label release. I was living in Chicago back then and The Wildroots were a band you'd always see playing around the local clubs. With incredible hook-filled original tunes and a charismatic lead singer, The Wildroots always felt like they were one break away from making it big.
They didn't. I left Chicago towards the end of the decade and I'm not sure what happened to the band. The only official recording they left is a single track on a local 1987 compilation album entitled "Live From Jay's Garage." Lead singer JD Dragus seems to have worked with local Chicago rocker Hugh Hart on a couple of projects after the Wildroots broke up. But I can't find out much more online. I seem to remember they had recorded some demos for Island Records at one point, but I could be mistaken.
"Summer Days" is a great rocker and when I ran it across it on YouTube while back I was thrilled. It reminded me how great The WildRoots were back then and hearing the song again is more than a little bittersweet. The Wildroots deserve to be remembered and for right now, this is just about all that's left of the band.
The Wildroots were:
JD Dragus: lead vocals & lead guitar
Tom Gerlach: vocals & guitar
Kerry Kelekovich: bass
Dan Massey: drums
In 1968, Wendy Carlos had a Top 40 hit with a synth-pop instrumental song called "Switched-On Bach" and that success inspired a bunch of other attempts from Moog synthesizer-based bands. But the most of the successful of the bunch was an anonymous band who called themselves Hot Butter.
"Popcorn" was first recorded by Gershon Kingsley in 1969 and he later re-recorded it with his First Moog Quartet in 1971. But the following year, Stan Free (who was a member of the FMQ) recorded it once again with his cover band Hot Butter and that version became a worldwide hit. It hit #1 in places ranging from Australia to the Netherlands and it hit #9 on the U.S. Billboard Top 40 charts. The single sold more than two million copies worldwide and even though Hot Butter only released two albums and a handful of other singles, "Popcorn" is notable for being only of the most insane instrumentals to ever become a hit single.
Even by 1970s standards, "Popcorn" is simplistic and listening to it in 2019, it sounds like something a kid would create randomly pounding synth track buttons on a $5 keyboard. But it was an actual worldwide hit and as you can see in the video below, people really danced to it. Although whomever was the director of this TV segment was likely yelling "quick, another shot of breasts" to the camera crew during the performance.
The Sweet have always been a guilty pleasure of mine. These British glam-rockers had a string of hook-filled hits in the 1970s, after teaming up with songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. But they eventually began writing their own music and the band's last hit single was 1978's "Love Is Like Oxygen." Longtime vocalist Brian Connolly left the band following an increasingly drunken tour opening for Bob Seger the same year and the band has limped along ever since.
While often competing versions of the band have toured regularly over the ensuing years, The Sweet had only released a couple of albums with various lineups before 2012's "New York Connection." That album featured only one original member of the band and was essentially a collection of cover versions, with a few snippets of Sweet hits included for flavor. The album included covers of "You Spin Me Round" and "Join Together," along with this cover of The Ramones song "Blitzkreig Bop." It's a surprisingly lively version of the song and while I'm not sure I can recommend it, it doesn't suck. Which is pretty much the gold standard for any band's attempt to cover The Ramones.
When New Found Glory released their album Makes Me Sick in 2017, I immediately fell in love with the track "Call Me Anti-Social," which I spent a lot of time arguing was the hidden "song of the summer." Despite my one-man promotional campaign, the song (and album) never seemed to get the attention it deserved, so I'm glad for an excuse to highlight this song again.
The track is the perfect balance of pop and punk and it has a guitar break that just screams "throw your hands up and dance!" Did I mention I love this song? I do and if I couldn't make this ear candy the summer song for 2017, then maybe I'll be more successful in 2021.
There aren't many bands that have been around since the late 1990s who can still claim to be performing at the top of their game, but New Found Glory is one of them. Their brand of pop-flavored punk can often seem stale in 2021, but these guys are as vital and inventive as they've ever been. Their moist recent album is 2020's Forever + Ever x Infinity, but I would also recommend the 2019 album From The Screen To Your Stereo 3, where they tackle fun covers of songs ranging from "The Power Of Love" and "Eye Of The Tiger" to "Let It Go" and "Cups."
So why am I featuring this song on the July 4th weekend? Well, it goes out to all of the people out there who struggle to socialize on a day that's all about hanging out and having fun with friends and family.
I've always had a soft spot for old-school country songs that tell a story and on the 4th Of July I'd like to highlight the really distinctive 2001 hit "Riding With Private Malone" by country singer David Ball. Written by Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd, the song tells the story of a man just out of the military who buys an old Corvette and discovers it was previously owned by a "Private Malone," who was killed in Vietnam. Of course there's a twist, but what makes the song special is that unlike a lot of songs about veterans, it's up-tempo with a memorable hook.
The song went to #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, and #36 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was Ball's biggest hit since 1994's "Thinkin' Problem" and it was last big single. Ball continues to tour although his last album was 2010's "Sparkle City."
There were a lot of impressive soul and R&B singers in the 1960s and 1970s, but few of them were as talented as the late David Ruffin. Known for his unique raspy and anguished tenor vocals, you're likely to recognize his singing from his 1964-1968 stint with The Temptations. That period was known as "Classic Five" period of the group and Ruffin sang lead vocals on unforgettable hits like "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "My Girl."
Ruffin had always been an impressive performer. As a teenager, he toured with several nationally known gospel groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds and the Soul Stirrers. At age 16 he moved to Detroit to pursue a secular singing career and soon meet Berry Gordy Jr., a local songwriter who wanted to become a music producer. Ruffin was soon working at Gordy's Anna Records and in 1964, he joined the Temptations after one of the original members was fired. While Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams were the group's lead singers, after the success of "My Girl," Ruffin sang lead on hits like "(I Know) I'm Losing You" and "I Wish It Would Rain."
By 1967, Ruffin had become addicted to cocaine and was eventually fired by the group. Motown kept on Ruffin as a solo act and his first single in 1969 - "My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)" - became a Top Ten hit. After the release of two solo albums, there was a three-year gap before Motown released the album "David Ruffin" in 1973. But in that period, the troubled singer recorded a number of songs, many of which remained unreleased until they came out on a 2004 compilation 14 years after Ruffin's death.
That 2004 album included a 1970 version of "Rainy Night In Georgia," which singer Brook Benton had a hit with later the same year. As well as a version of "I Want You Back, which was recorded before the Jackson 5 later made it a hit.
Both the Ruffin and Jackson 5 versions of the song were produced by Motown's in-house production group The Corporation and musically they are very similar. And as much I love the Jackson 5 version, Ruffin's has an adult longing and incessant pleading to it that is really special. Hearing Ruffin's version may ruin the Jackson 5 version for you forever.
As for Ruffin, he had a string of modest solo hits in the mid-1970s, most notably the Van McCoy-produced Top Ten hit "Gonna Walk Away From Love." But Ruffin's addiction problems continued. He changed labels in the late 1970s and at one point was hired and then refired by The Temptations after recording the 1982 album "Reunion." In 1985 Ruffin and fellow former Temptation singer Eddie Kendrick teamed up with Hall & Oates to perform and record an album at the re-opening of the Apollo Theatre. The album was successful, but Ruffin's severe addiction problems led to a falling out with Hall & Oates.
Ruffin died in 1991 due to "an adverse reaction to drugs." The death was officially ruled an accident, but some friends and family suspected foul play, since a money belt containing $300,000 from his recent tour was missing when he was dropped off at a Philadelphia hospital.
But what we're left with are some amazing performances, and of "I Want You Back" is one of my favorites.
Now I don't blame you if you're skeptical about seeing any band live that had its first hits back in the 1970s. There are entirely too many classic rock bands cranking out lackluster tours with almost no original members and a live sound that can charitably be described as "workmanlike."
I've seen Foreigner live perhaps a half dozen times since 1976 and one thing I can say is that their live shows might be different now than they were in the original incarnation. But they are just as entertaining now as they were back then. It's just a different lineup and a different era.
Founder and original member Mick Jones is back for this massive 2021-2022 tour, along with Kelly Hansen, who has been the group's lead singer since 2005. That longtime lineup has kept the band's sound quite consistent and if you listen to their underrated 2009 album Can't Slow Down, you'd be hard-pressed to separate that release from those created during the group's commercial heyday.
Other band members for the upcoming tour include bass/vocalist Jeff Pilson (band member since 2004), keyboard/vocalist Michael Blunstein (band member since 2008), guitar/vocalist Bruce Watson (band member since 2011), guitar/vocalist Luis Carlos Maldonado and drummer Chris Frazier (band member 2ince 2011).
In other words, if you enjoy the hit music of Foreigner, you're likely to love them live and based on the just-announced first leg of their tour, they are going to be playing somewhere near you.
Foreigner was originally set to headline a tour called "Juke Box Heroes" last year, with supporting bands Kansas and Europe. As you might expect, the pandemic canceled that tour, and now Foreigner is set to tour by themselves in 2021 and 2022.
The U.S leg of Foreigner's world tour takes the band to 71 cities in 42 states and the remainder of the 121-date tour across 16 countries will be announced in November.
For tickets and more information, visit www.foreigneronline.com.
Thursday, June 24
If you're a fan of odd, catchy rock/pop, the 1990s era was a golden era. It's not there's not stuff that is just as perfect being released in 2021. But while today's budding bands are releasing their stuff on Bandcamp, the 1990s was the last gasp of music labels signing bands they didn't understand. They knew the public's tastes were changing but they didn't know why or how. So the big labels signed all of these quirky bands that either weren't quite ready or were probably too fringe to break big nationally.
Tampa's Pee Shy is the perfect illustration of that trend. The band began as a duo - local bookstore owner/poet Cindy Wheeler and community radio DJ Jenny Juristo. They began playing at Tampa-area poetry readings in late 1993 and within a year, they had added two more members, released two home-produced EPs and in December 1994, they were featured in Interview Magazine and that publicity sparked a bidding war between Sony & Polygram.
That would be a remarkably fast career path for anyone, but it was especially challenging for a band whose sound was an unpredictable mash-up of accordion, clarinet and quirky beat-poet voices. Their music was often great, but even in the best of circumstances it would be a tough sell to audiences who had no idea who they were. It didn't help that when "Who Let All The Monkey's Out?" finally came out in 1996, alternative rock was exploding, making it an even bigger challenge to get attention.
"Little Dudes" was the lead single off the album and despite some good reviews, the song and the album sank without a trace. Wheeler said in several later interviews that the album sold less than 1,000 copies during its first four months, despite the positive press and a solid job of production by Galaxie 500 frontman Dean Wareham. Written by Wheeler, "Little Dudes" was about the tendency of her and Juristo to date much younger men and the song is a great example of Pee Shy's sound at the time: catchy, odd snippets of seemingly random music that you can't get out of your head.
On the other hand, some of the lyrics of the song bordered on creepy in 1996 and seem downright unsettling in 2021, especially when you watch the video below:
"One drinks beer and one drinks gin/We like the little boys & not the men
We keep our eyes open for the little dudes/because they never try and tell us what to do"
"Where are you little dude?/Don't you know I'm in love with you
Well, I ain't old enough to be your mom/But you were six years old when I went to the prom"
"You hardly have to shave around that smile/Please don't think I'm a pedophile."
Despite the commercial failure of "Who Met All The Monkey's Out?," Mercury released a second album, "Don't Get Too Comfortable," in 1998. Produced by Brad Jones, the album's more guitar-driven pop sound garnered the band solid reviews and the song "Mr. Wheeler" received airplay on a number of college and alternative rock stations.
But by the end of the year, the band broke up for reasons that were never explained by either Wheeler or Juristo, other than some vague comment along the lines of "it was time." Eventually, Wheeler and Pee Shy bassist Mary Catherine Guidera founded the Brooklyn-based band The Caulfield Sisters. Jurristo continues to record and perform as a solo act under the name Go Jenny. Drummer Billy Orrico is a New York based television and film sound editor. He's received two Emmy nominations for sound editing, including for work on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
Today is Bob Dylan's birthday and there are hundreds of cover versions of his music I could have chosen to highlight. But I chose Garth Brook's version of "Make You Feel My Love" because it means something to me personally.
The song was written by Dylan for his 1997 album "Time Out Of Mind." Billy Joel released a version of it as a single off of his "Greatest Hits II" album even before Dylan's version had been released.
The most commercially successful version of the song (which has been covered by everyone from Adele to Bryan Ferry) was the one from Brooks, which was originally included on the soundtrack for the 1998 movie "Hope Floats." That track became a #1 country hit and went to #8 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Chart. Brooks also received a Grammy nomination for Best Male Country Performance and Dylan also received a Grammy nod for Best Country Song.
Aside from the fact that this is a wonderfully sparse and emotional take of the song, it has a lot of meaning for me. The first weekend that I spent with the woman who I am still married to, the power briefly went off in her New Jersey high rise. So we cuddled on the couch, talking and listening to the "Hope Floats" soundtrack. It's impossible for me to hear the song without thinking about her and about all of the wonderful years we've spent together.
As much as I hate to admit it, I've been interviewing people for more than 25 years. I like to think that I have some level of skill when it comes to asking questions, but I don't think any journalist has a firm handle on the best way to interview a well-known performer. Whether it's an actor that is a household name or a musician with a couple of Grammys under their belt, stars are a tough interview. By the time that they've become a household name, celebrities have been interviewed a thousand times. They're locked into their personal "brand" and how they want to be perceived by the public. They only remember the terrible interviews, so they are wary about the interviewer and deathly afraid of saying something that will become tomorrow's social media hot take. So most of the time, celebrity interviews tend to be safe and dry and polite. You don't learn much - other than what the celebrities want you to know.
The music industry is slightly different in that there are rare occasions when an interview or a TV show can provide surprising results. For instance, the podcast and TV series Song Exploder does a magnificent job of convincing musicians to discuss their creative process. It's not that the interviews reveal some great secret. It's just that you get a glimpse of the music and the person behind the mask.
The new Paramount+ series From Cradle To Stage is a wonderful series that will give you insight into how some of your favorite musicians became the people they are today. Produced and semi-hosted by Dave Grohl, the six-episode series is based on a book written by his mother. From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars was written by Virginia Hanlon Grohl and it examined the special relationship that musicians have with their mothers. The series takes some of the same journey, with each hour-long episode featuring a well-known musician. Each episode has a similar format, with Dave Grohl interviewing/hanging out with the performer while his mother Virginia focuses on the parent. Interwoven into each episode are some snippets from Grohl's life, generally something that tracks the conversation in the episode. Those snippets will be gold for Grohl fans, who among other things will get to see footage of him playing his first live show in what looks to be someone's living room.
Because the artists know Grohl can relate to their stories, they open up a bit more than they would with normal interviewers and it's a similar story with Virginia Grohl, who is able to put the mothers at ease as she draws out the stories of how they struggled to understand the ambitions of their children. Teresa Carlile talks about the struggles she had when daughter Brandi came out and how seeing the reaction their small town had to her girlfriend helped make her understand that her daughter would be fine. Christene Reynolds - mother of Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds - talks honestly about raising a family of nine children and navigating the world between her Mormon religion and her son's rock and roll career. Miranda Lambert's mother Bev and her husband were private investigators and she ended up becoming Miranda's manager during her teen years. As you might imagine, that brought a great deal of conflict into their relationship and as they discussed it, you can see the emotion is still there bubbling just below the surface.
The segments with the musicians are just as enlightening, as they discuss their childhoods and revisit old haunts. Some interviews are more successful than others, but the stories of their parents and their childhoods always make it worthwhile. Fans of Rush won't discover much new about Geddy Lee's career in his episode. But he spends a lot of time talking about his parents, who were both Holocaust survivors and who met and fell in love at the work camps. They had extraordinary lives and watching Geddy taking his now very elderly mother around town for their regular Saturday morning breakfast and shopping tour provides viewers with a new perspective on his life and music.
Dave Grohl does a wonderful job with the show as he is able to bring just the right amount of levity to the conversations. He's a star and he's well aware of that. But he also has a fun sense of perspective that keeps the conversations from veering into the mock seriousness of an Oprah interview. At one point, he talks about his father calling to give him feedback on the lyrics of some Nirvana. "I told him, I hear you, Dad. But I'm just the drummer, " explained Grohl.
The final episode ends with a dinner Virginia Grohl held for some of the mothers featured in her book, including the mother of Amy Winehouse. At the end of the dinner, Dave Grohl's daughter Violet sings for the group, accompanied on guitar by her father. Aside from the fact that Violet is crazy talented, it's an appropriate way to end a series about musicians and the relationship they have with their parents.
From Cradle To Stage will be a treasure for any music fan and as Mother's Day approaches, it's a good reminder of how even the people with the strongest personalities and most confidence still have those moments when they need their mom.
The first episode of From Cradle To Stage premieres Thursday, May 6th, 2021 on Paramount+. A new episode will premiere each Thursday through June 10th.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a tough period for Lionel Richie. After releasing three consecutive solo albums that became massive worldwide hits, the singer/songwriter was feeling burnt-out. He decided to take some time off but that break turned into a nearly ten-year period where Richie battled depression, the collapse of his marriage and the death of both his father and a close friend. Other than the 1992 compilation album Back To Front, Richie didn't release a follow-up to 1986's Dancing On The Ceiling until Louder Than Words hit stores in 1996. The album was co-produced with longtime producer James Anthony Carmichael, with three tracks produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and one track co-produced by Ritchie and David Foster.
Given his earlier success, Louder Than Words was seen as a commercial disappointment in the U.S. The album only made it to #28 on the Top 100 album chart and the lead single from the album - Don't Wanna Lose You - topped out at #39 on the Billboard Top 100 singles chart.
But there is a lot to love about the album if you're a Lionel Richie fan. The album's most successful moments are when Ritchie focuses on the smooth soul sound that audiences had connected with in the 1980s. But there are moments when Richie tries to lean into the 1990s New Jack/Hip hop vibe and to be kind, it's not a great fit. But overall, Louder Is Words is a comforting and smooth effort that deserved a better fate. The album is being rereleased this week, with five bonus tracks that include two tracks originally only available on the Japanese release of the album along with Italian and Spanish versions of Still In Love.
As for Don't Wanna Lose You, it's easy to see why the track was the first single. Even though it was written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the sound is classic Lionel Richie. It's smooth and soulful and easy to sing along to in the shower. The track should have been a bigger hit at the time, but that is also the case with much of Ritchie's late 1990s output. Ritchie is one of those performers who was making great music long after the industry moved on to newer faces.
By the time REO Speedwagon released its seventh studio album, 1978's You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish, it was beginning to look like the band was destined to be another Midwestern group with a great live show but not much in the way of radio success. The band had signed with Epic Records in 1971 and had changed lead vocalists three times for their first three albums and the band's albums never managed to capture the strength of the band's performances.
REO's previous album, the live album You Get What You Play For, had produced a minor radio hit with its live version of "Ridin' The Storm Out" and the album sold well overall. But there was a growing sense that this was a band that might not be able to unlock the secret of radio play.
You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish began to change the band's radio fortunes, although it didn't produce a massive radio hit. But the rollicking guitar & keyboard-driven track "Roll With The Changes" became a staple on FM rock stations, although it only reached #58 on the Top 40 charts. The follow-up single off the album was the power ballad "Time For Me To Fly" only did marginally better (it topped out at #56), but it's the precursor for the sound the band rolled out two years later for the massively popular Hi Infidelity, which sold ten million copies and produced three Top 20 hits, including the #1 hit "Keep On Loving You."
If all you've ever heard from REO Speedwagon are the ballads, then you'll be surprised by "Roll With The Changes," which was one of the great air guitar songs of the late 1970s. This live video from the period highlights not just the band's live chops but their reputation for having some of the best hair in 70s rock music.
During the golden age of Top 40 radio, it was not unusual for a popular local DJ to begin playing a song that wasn't on the official playlist. Maybe they liked the song or perhaps they just wanted to annoy the program director. Most of the time, the song's popularity never extended farther than the range of that individual radio station. But every often the song would catch fire regionally and then become a national hit. Which is why you have fond memories of odd tunes ranging from "99 Luft Balloons" to "Tubthumping."
If I had a radio show of my own right now (and believe, I wish that I did), I would likely be playing this impressively quirky song from the Norwegian rock and folk trio Plumbo.
Yes, the lyrics are entirely in Norwegian and the instrumentation has this quirky mix of flutes and guitars melded onto a beat that sounds like a mash-up of Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the theme from "Titanic." And did I mention that the band name is taken from a brand of Norwegian drain cleaner? Sure, I have no idea what is going on in the song and for all I know lead singer Lars Erik Blokkhus is singing about kicking cats or the joy of pleasuring yourself in public. Although "Langt mot nord" apparently loosely translates into "Far To The North," so I suspect the lyrics are some variation of "damn, it's cold here in Norway."
Still, I would playing the hell out of this song, which was a 2017 single that doesn't appear to have charted anywhere. Blokkus, Tommy Elstad (bass) and Hasse Rønningen (drums) have put together one fine example of music that is impossible to accurately define. But it certainly deserves to be played on the radio. A lot.