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.
Michael Stanley died on Friday after battling lung cancer for seven months and if you lived in Cleveland, you might know him best for his thirty-year stint as the afternoon drive voice of the classic rock station 98.5 WNCX. But for Midwestern rock fans of a certain era, his music was a fixture of their lives as head of The Michael Stanley Band.
Born Michael Stanley Gee in Northwest Ohio, record executives changed his name when he signed his first record deal in 1969. But it was when he formed The Michael Stanley Band in 1974 after losing his day job that his musical fortunes changed. The band went on to release 11 albums and have two top 40 hits: "He Can't Love You" hit #33 in 1981 and "My Town" got as high as #39 in 1983. The band finally broke up in 1987 and in a 2019 interview with Cleveland Magazine, Stanley said he only had one regret about the experience:
"My biggest regret is that, for a lot of people, there was a feeling that it wasn’t a successful band or that we were only a Cleveland band. We toured seven or eight months out of the year for 13 years. We had two top 40 hits. You don't do that if you're not successful. Did we reach the level that we wanted to, or that the fans wanted us to? No, we didn't."
"My Town" is the quintessential Michael Stanley song. Solid midwestern rock with a hook that is the definition of ear candy. While Stanley never had a huge national breakthrough, he left behind some really great rock and roll.
There are some musicians whose music is just impossible to accurately describe. Music that has to be heard to be believed and that is certainly the case with country hip-hop artist Cowboy Troy.
Born Troy Lee Coleman III in Victoria, Texas, the Cowboy Troy name apparently was given to him by friends in college, to differentiate him from the other guys they knew named Troy.
His first major label album was released in 2005 as part of the MuzikMafia wave in Nashville that included Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson and James Otto. "I Play Chicken With The Train" was his most commercially successful single, reaching #48 on the Country Singles chart and #81 on the Pop Singles chart. The album hit #2 on the Country Album chart, #13 on the Rap Album chart and #15 on the Pop Album chart. While none of his other releases have done as well commercially, I think it's fair to say that he has carved out a unique sound for himself.
"I Play Chicken With The Train" is the distilled-down version of the style Cowboy Troy refers to as "hick-hop." Smooth-ish lyric runs, mashed together with plenty of traditional country music arrangements. It's catchy and a tad bit unsettling. But I've always enjoyed his music and wish it had broken through a bot more over the years.
Today, I'm highlighting one of my favorite Canadian bands: Lighthouse. While they only had one major hit in the United States, the band cranked out a series of really great albums that fused rock, jazz and pop in a way that has probably only been matched by the pre-Peter Cetera-era Chicago. But they were much more popular in their native Canada, where they won the Juno Award for best Canadian band in 1972, 1973 and 1974.
Lighthouse was formed in Toronto in 1968 by vocalist/drummer by Skip Prokop and keyboardist Paul Hoffert. The band had a rotating group of musicians and had some initial success with their first three albums. But the addition of lead singer Bob McBride in 1970 marked the band's biggest commercial success. Lighthouse released two albums the following year and the title track from the "One Fine Morning" album went to #2 in Canada and #24 in the United States. They continued to have success in Canada and their 1972 double-album "Lighthouse Live" became the first Canadian album to be certified platinum. By 1976, the band had fallen apart but some of the original members did reunite in 1992 for a tour and new album which produced a Top 20 Canadian hit with "Remember The Times." That marked the band's 7th Top 20 hit in Canada.
Members of Lighthouse continue to tour sporadically, but the best known Lighthouse alumi is likely original saxophonist Howard Shore. After leaving the band he became the musical director of "Saturday Night Live" and went on to win three Academy Awards for "The Lord of the Rings" film trilogy.
Taylor Swift Fans Out To Remind Netflix That Only Taylor Swift Can Joke About How Many Men She May Or May Not Have Dated
One annoying aspect of writing about the world of entertainment is that there is no shortage of dumbass, over-blown controversies. Every day brings another story or two of some perceived slight or trumped up outrage and for the most part, I just tune it all out. Because even when the issue is legitimate (and half the time, it's really just some convoluted PR stunt), no one is going to give a crap about it 24 hours from now. And I am at the point in my life when I just don't have the desire to waste precious hours of my life dissecting someone's hurt feelings based on random tweets from fans.
Still, I decided to write about this latest Taylor Swift story because it's the perfect storm of brand management. fan overreaction and a not especially funny throwaway line in a streaming series. In a better world, this is the type of story that would never get past the Taylor Swift fan group text level. But it's 2021, and there is apparently no outrage too small to ignore. So even the Hollywood Trades wade in with a story or two, because....hey, pageviews.
This tale of misplaced PR assets begins with the new Netflix series Ginny And Georgia. There is a mention of singer Taylor Swift in episode ten and here is how it is described by TV Line:
Georgia (Brianne Howey) and daughter Ginny (Antonia Gentry) get into an argument, prompting the following comeback from Ginny when Georgia comments on her daughter’s relationship status: “What do you care? You go through men faster than Taylor Swift.”
It's a throwaway line and to be honest, it's not the greatest joke in the world. Especially since the young singer/global brand has apparently been in a committed relationship for several years. Still, it doesn't seem like a big deal. And when I watched the episode maybe six weeks ago before it premiered, the line didn't even register in my consciousness.
But apparently Taylor Swift noticed, because she did what any savvy celebrity does in 2021, she cranked out an angry tweet:
Hey Ginny & Georgia, 2010 called and it wants its lazy, deeply sexist joke back. How about we stop degrading hard working women by defining this horse shit as FuNnY. Also, @netflix after Miss Americana this outfit doesn’t look cute on you. Happy Women’s History Month I guess.
Now Swift is certainly entitled to be annoyed by the joke. But given that her PR people spent years encouraging fans to breathlessly dissect her songs for hints about her love life and her every dating move was indirectly monetized, the Ginny And Georgia line might be lazy, but it's not "deeply sexist." And it certainly doesn't rise to the level required to threaten Netflix with the "hey, I let you stream a special with me. How can you treat me this way?"
And in fact, the line seems to be there to be cringy and tone-deaf. It's a bit of a cheap shot on purpose, designed to show one of the nuanced aspects of the mother/daughter relationship and how people will say things in order to seem hip or cultural aware while at the same time also showing how out of touch they really are.
But regardless of any context for the line, Swift has a core sub-group of fans who love her in the same way that Zack Snyder fans love the #SnyderCut. So her fans swarmed onto sites such as IMDB, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes to downvote Ginny And Georgia. Because screw all of those people who worked on the show and the year or two of hard they put into the show. All I care about is a five-second not-that-funny joke in one episode. Fuck everything else, all that matters is the supposedly hurt feelings of my favorite singer.
What's the point of this piece? Part of it is just ranting, because I hate this entitled, whiney fan culture. As well as celebrities who engage in this passive, aggressive brand management and PR spin through social media outlets. I really enjoy Swift's music and I look forward to what she'll do in the next few decades. But while that throwaway line might not be a highlight of Ginny And Georgia, this overblown controversy isn't going to make any of Swift's "year-in-review" highlight reels.
If you're a music fan, one of the saddest things about getting older is that songs that hold a touchstone for your life become essentially invisible to later generations.
"Colour My World" by Chicago is one of those tunes. Thanks to the demographic quirks of classic rock formats, it's rare to hear anything older than the early 1980s on the radio. And even on the few hard classic rock radio stations, a lot of bands that were integral rock bands in the 1960s and 1970s are pretty much ignored because they fall into that category of "classic but not hard rock."
While plenty of the Peter Cetera-era soft-rock hits from Chicago's 1980s and 1990s output are still receiving plenty of attention, the early songs of the band once known as the Chicago Transit Authority are sadly unknown to most music fans under the ago of 50. Which sucks, because the band put out a string of really impressive horn-based rock albums that reflected the jazz and classical roots of the original band members. A great jumping-in point for that era of Chicago is the band's Chicago At Carnegie Hall, a massive four-album live set that covered most of the important tracks from the band's first three releases. While the studio version of "Colour My World" (which was on the band's second album) was the hit, I much prefer the live version. It sounds a bit more relaxed and despite the size of the crowd, more intimate.
With vocals by the late, great Terry Kath and music/lyrics by James Pankow, "Colour My World" was originally released as the "B" side of the May 1970 single "Make Me Smile." It was released a year later as a single and went to #7. Despite only having one verse and a flute solo, the song was played at every high school dance and most of the backyard weddings throughout much of the 1970s.
Rather than focusing on the death of convicted murderer and well-known music producer Phil Spector, I wanted to focus on some of his victims. Specifically, people whose careers and lives were negatively impacted by Spector's erratic behavior and tendency towards violence. And if you want a textbook example of Spector's negative impact on a female singer's career, you have to look no farther than his ex-wife, Ronnie Spector.
Spector's voice is instantly identifiable, and as the lead singer of The Ronettes, she had a string of hits arranged and produced by Phil Spector. "Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You," "Walking In The Rain" and other singles helped define the pre-Beatles soundtrack of the early 1960s. But the group broke up in 1967 & the following year Ronnie Spector (born Veronica Yvette Bennett) had married Phil Spector. Where she quickly found herself in the grasps of a manipulative, angry psychopath.
She famously left the marriage when she escaped barefoot from his mansion in 1972, but in the years of her marriage she experienced a simply stunning level of abuse from her husband. In her 1990 memoir, "Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts And Madness," she detailed years of psychological torment. He surrounded the house with barbed wire, guard dogs and confiscated her shoes to keep her from leaving. On the rare occasions he allowed her out alone, she had to drive with a life-size dummy of Phil. She also claimed he sabotaged her career by forbidding her to perform.
It wasn't until 1976 that she began an attempt to build a solo career by appearing on the Southside Johnny recording of "You Mean So Much To Me." The track was written by Bruce Springsteen and that association brings us to "Say Goodbye To Hollywood."
In 1976, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band were hobbled by a lawsuit filed by former manager Mike Appel. They were legally prohibited from recording a follow-up to the "Born To Run" album and spent much of their time touring. But members of the E-Street Band did also did some session work, including drummer Max Weinberg and pianist Roy Bittan appearance on Meatloaf's "Bat Out Of Hell" album. In January of 1977, Steve Van Zandt decided to take the entire E Street Band into the studios and cut some tracks with Ronnie Spector. The result was a single of Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" b/w "Baby, Please Don't Go." Release on the same CBS-distributed label as Meatloaf (Cleveland International), it was billed as the first single off an upcoming album.
Joel had released "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" in 1976 and was obviously inspired by the Phil Spector Wall of Sound that framed the Ronettes work. So much so that his version of the song began with the same drum intro as their single "Be My Baby." "Baby, Please Don't Go" was written by Steven Van Zandt. Both tracks are magnificent updates of the iconic Ronettes sound as listening to them now, it's hard to believe "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" wasn't a hit. Incessant piano undertones, the incessant Clarence Clemons sax counterpoints and an overall production that is best described as "timeless." There was some level of work done on an album, but in later years, Ronnie Spector said she was distracted by custody issues and other legal problems that prevented her from focusing on her career.
She has released several albums since (including a 1999 album produced by Joey Ramone), but her most recognizable work as a solo act is likely her vocals on the 1986 Eddie Money hit "Take Me Home Tonight."