Wednesday, September 24, 2014

TMFW 55 - Jimi Hendrix rebels on the BBC (and inspires a young Elvis Costello)

In TMFW 53, we learned all about Elvis Costello's infamous act of rebellion on Saturday Night Live in 1977.  For those with really short memories - come on people, it was 2 weeks ago! - Costello started to play his song "Less Than Zero," but thought better of it and abruptly cut it off in favor of "Radio, Radio."

In an interview with Details magazine last year, Costello noted that his stunt was inspired by an act of subterfuge by Jimi Hendrix, eight years earlier on The Lulu Show in 1969. Costello said "They've run that clip [of me on SNL] forever, and every time anybody does anything outrageous on that show, I get name-checked. But I was copying Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix had done the same thing on [BBC's] the Lulu Show, when he went into an unscheduled number. I remember seeing it and going, 'What the hell's going on?'"

As this Open Culture article explains nicely - go and read it for the full story - Hendrix was meant to play "Hey Joe" as his second song on the show.  The plan was for him to sing the final bars as a duet with the show's host Lulu, a British pop singer famous to that point for songs like "The Boat That I Row" and "To Sir, With Love." Lulu would then close out the show with her own song.

After enjoying some pre-show "festivities," and after their first song went off okay, the band started into "Hey Joe" as planned.  But about halfway through, Hendrix stopped the song early, saying "We’d like to stop playing this rubbish.”  He then dedicated a song to Cream, which had recently broken up, and he and the band played a loose version of "Sunshine of Your Love."  They kept it up right on through the time Lulu was to join them on stage, and on through the end of the show. The stunt allegedly earned Hendrix a lifetime ban from BBC; it turned out to be a short one as he died less than two years later.

You can watch Hendrix's performance here; Hey Joe starts around 4:30 and stops around 7:07.


BONUS FACT:  The incident noted above had little effect on Lulu's show or her career.  Her show ran until 1975, and her career was active well into the 2000s.  She had a UK top-5 hit in 2002 with a cover of Bob Seger's  "We've Got Tonight," a duet with former Irish boy-band member Ronan Keating.

BONUS FACT 2: Lulu's first husband was famed Bee Gee Maurice Gibb.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TMFW 54 - Such Great Stamps

In 2003, the "supergroup" The Postal Service released Give Up, its first and only album.  The group primarily featured Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and Jimmy Tamborello, an electronic music artist who more commonly goes by the name Dntel.  It also included vocals from Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley on a few tracks. Give Up included the excellent song "Such Great Heights," which carried the record to platinum status.

Today's True Music Fact is a combination of two about the band's name.  First, "The Postal Service" is a descriptive name (as opposed to a facetious allusion or arbitrary phrase like TMFW 7 subjects Toad the Wet Sprocket and Three Dog Night).  The band used it as a reference to their method of recording the album: Tamborello would make music and send a DAT to Gibbard through the mail; Gibbard would then edit the music into the shape of a song, add vocals, and send it right back.  They corresponded that way until they had a finished work: in a sense, they were super-devoted pen pals, and their band name honored the unique collaboration. 

Second, almost everyone who hears that story thinks it's pretty cool.  But the real live Postal Service didn't quite see it that way.  In a lemonade-back-to-lemons PR move, the USPS sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sub Pop records, noting the infringement on their federally-registered trademark for "The Postal Service."  According to Sub Pop, the letter was "really polite," and the USPS understood that pushing too hard would be a dumb move.  So they made a friendly deal: the USPS gave the band a free license to use the name (and for a short time sold their CD on the website!), while the band agreed to do some promotion for the USPS and even played a short set at the postmaster general's 2004 National Executive Conference.


BONUS FACT: If you are new to "Such Great Heights," listen to it with a pair of nice headphones.  The stereo arrangement is delightful.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TMFW 53 - Elvis Costello Gets Banned From SNL (Then Triumphantly Returns)

In early 1978, Elvis Costello and the Attractions released their second album, This Year's Model.  Recorded in late 1977 and early 1978, the US version of the album featured "Radio, Radio," a song that criticized corporate control over music.  At the time the song was recorded, punk music was young and The Sex Pistols had recently released "God Save the Queen."  Opening with the phrase "God save the Queen, a fascist regime," and going from there, the BBC famously labeled the song "gross bad taste" and banned it from their airwaves out of respect for the monarchy.  London tabloids went even further, and accused The Sex Pistols of treason.  (Naturally, such censorship from the establishment was a terrific endorsement for a punk song, and the record made its way to #2 on the UK charts.) 
Against the backdrop of the nascent punk scene and the Sex Pistols controversy, and recognizing the very real control that record labels and radio stations had over popular music, Costello's song is a pretty good poke in their eye.  It features lyrics like: "They say you better listen to the voice of reason / But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason," and "the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools / tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel."  As one might guess, Costello's song was not super-popular with the music establishment.  (But it was sufficiently tame and sufficiently catchy that they chose to include it on the US version of This Year's Model).
In December 1977, before This Year's Model was released but after it had been mostly recorded, a musical guest spot opened up with short notice for Saturday Night Live's December 17 show.   Elvis Costello and his band were in New York City at the time - they played at The Bottom Line club on December 14 and played two shows at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey on December 16 - and their proximity to 30 Rock got them the coveted airtime.  They just needed to settle on what to play.  
Hard details here are sketchy, but the common story is that Costello wanted to play "Radio, Radio" on the show, but given its message (and given that nobody had ever heard the song or could even yet buy it on a record), his record label and SNL bosses demanded otherwise.  So, Costello gave in and during rehearsals for the show he and the band played the song "Less Than Zero," which was a quasi-protest song from his first record about the pre-WW2 British Fascist Oswald Mosley. (It was an odd choice: the song, with its narrowly specific British subject matter, wasn't a particular hit.  It failed to chart either in the UK or in the States.)  
What happened next is SNL and pop music history.  During the actual show (which, remembering its name, was live), Costello and his band started playing "Less Than Zero."  But after only 6 seconds of the song, Costello abruptly stopped the band and announced "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here."  He called for "Radio, Radio" and the band ripped into it.  You can watch the video here; the angst in Costello's performance is clear.  For his part, SNL boss Lorne Michaels was incensed.  It is alleged that, standing just off-camera and watching the act of defiance, he raised his middle finger to Costello and held it there for the duration of the performance
Costello's stunt earned him a ban from SNL that lasted 12 years until 1989, when he returned to play his excellent song "Veronica."  But that wasn't the "triumphant return" noted in today's subject.  That came 10 years later, on the 1999 prime time special celebrating SNL's 25th anniversary.  Among the musical guests featured, the special had the Beastie Boys, who came on and started playing "Sabotage."  Except that, just shortly into the tune, Costello came on stage and interrupted.  Using the same line of "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen,. there's no reason to do this song here," he called off "Sabotage" and he and the Beasties transitioned into a solid version of "Radio, Radio." 
Thus, the one-time act of true defiance and rebellion became one of nostalgia and furtherance of corporate interest.  Isn't that too often true.  
BONUS FACT 1: Ironically enough, the whole reason Elvis Costello and his band got a spot on SNL back in 1977 and had a chance to protest media censorship of bands like the Sex Pistols was because the original band slated to perform - the Sex Pistols themselves - faced visa difficulties in getting to the US.  Costello's drummer references this on the shirt he wore on air - it reads in big block letters "THANKS MALC," which was a winking reference to Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
BONUS FACT 2:  In a nice piece of congruity, in the Beastie Boys/Elvis Costello performance from 1999, Mike D is wearing a "THANKS MALC" shirt too.
BONUS FACT 3:  As a funny lemons-to-lemonade tribute to Costello's SNL performance, "Weird" Al Yankovic launches into "Radio, Radio" when he faces technical difficulties at his shows.
BONUS FACT 4:  The Beasties' performance with Elvis Costello in 1999 was not the first time that the groups were associated.  In their 1994 song "Do It," Mike D boasts that he's "got [A]ttractions like I'm Elvis Costello."
BONUS FACT 5:  Costello's song "Veronica" was co-written by TMFW 44 and TMFW 47 subject Sir Paul McCartney.
BONUS FACT 6:  Bret Easton Ellis, writer of American Psycho and a member of the literary "brat pack" that came to prominence in the 1980s, took the name of his first book Less Than Zero from Costello's song. 
BONUS FACT 7:  Any reference to "Sabotage," even if it was only the first few seconds of the song, is a good excuse to link the all-time great video

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

TMFW 52 - Marvin Gaye's Alimony "Concept Album"

In 1963, Marvin Gaye married Anna Gordy.  Gaye was just 24 years old; Gordy, the sister of Motown Records founder Barry Gordy, Jr., was 41.  The two had a son, Marvin III, in 1966.  But by 1973, the couple filed for legal separation, and in 1975 Gordy filed for divorce. 

By all accounts, the proceedings were messy.  Gaye was accused of infidelity, and it was not hard to prove.  As it turns out, the singer of such hits as "Let's Get it On" and "Sexual Healing" was living at the time of Gordy's divorce filing with Janis Hunter, a woman who was 17 years younger than him (that's a 34 year spread between his two ladies!).  Gaye had met Hunter in 1973 when she was just 17 years old and he was 34; he wrote and started performing his over-the-top love song "Jan" while on tour in 1974 and still married to Anna.  In September of that year - still while Gaye was married - Hunter gave birth to the couple's first child.  At the time of the divorce filing, Hunter was just 19 but she was already pregnant with she and Gaye's second child. He was a classy dude.

Gaye's life during the divorce proceedings was marked by drug use, profligate spending, and reckless behavior.  By the time of the divorce settlement, Gaye was well in debt to the IRS and had virtually no money.  But he was still a big star - three of his last four albums at that point were top 10 records and each of the three were #1 on the R&B charts - so his lawyer worked out a deal.  Gaye gave Gordy his full advance on royalties from his next record (about $300,000), and he promised that he would pay an additional $300,000 from the future sales of the album.  Anything above that was his; anything below became a debt that Gaye would have to repay some other way.

Though it is a matter of debate whether Gaye purposely tanked the record - given that he was required to pay the second $300K no matter what that would have been a pretty stupid thing to do - it is beyond dispute that the finished product bombed.  Referring to the fact that the royalties were Gordy's, Gaye titled the record Here, My Dear.  The cover of the double album folded out, and featured a large illustration of a Monopoly-type game called "JUDGMENT."  In the illustration, a man's hand holds out a record (presumably the Here, My Dear album).  On his side of the board are a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a piano.  On the other side of the board are a house, a car, jewelry, and furniture.  The illustration - a not-so-subtle statement that Gordy had taken everything from him but his music - was a good indication of what was on the record.  Featuring songs like "You Can Leave, But it's Going to Cost You," "Anger," and 3 (!) versions of "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You," the album was 4 sides of emotional songs about his divorce (and one 8-minute track called "A Funky Space Reincarnation" that imagines he and Anna "getting down on the moon" "light years" in the future). 

When the album was panned by critics and the music-buying public, Gaye stopped promoting it and his record label followed suit.  The record peaked at #26, and it never recouped even the advance.  As a result, Gaye owed Gordy the remaining $300K.  He still owed it when he died in 1984. 

History has been kinder to Here, My Dear than initial audiences were.  The album is now considered by many to be an underrated gem.  Rolling Stone has named it (twice) to its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list, and the record was re-released as a special expanded edition in 2007.  You can listen to it on Spotify here or on Rdio here.   


BONUS FACT:  As Gaye admitted late in his life, despite a public "pregnancy" of Anna Gordy's, Marvin III was not the couple's child.  Gaye was the father, but the child's mother was Denise Gordy, Anna's niece.  She was just 16 when the child was conceived. 

BONUS FACT 2:  One of Gaye's first hits was The Marvelettes' 1962 song "Beachwood 4-5789." Gaye co-wrote the song and played drums on the record.

BONUS FACT 3:  For a terrific cover of Let's Get it On, check out Jack Black in High Fidelity

BONUS FACT 4:  The venerable Snopes has a great writeup of the Here, My Dear story, from which much of today's story was drawn.  Inexplicably though, Snopes confirms 90% of the facts and then marks it "false" anyway.