Songs

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There’s nothing to identify this random, blank flexi disc. It was mixed into a box of records in a collection we recently hauled into the shop. This is one of the fun things about digging through records — you never know what you’ll find.

We’re guessing it came from a guitar magazine. We don’t know who the performer is, but this nice tune was an enjoyable discovery this weekend.

Here’s a sequel to this post about prison records. We found one more seventies recording from America’s correctional system, this time from a little closer to home.

The only other record featuring singer Shirley Ramus we have seen is a 45 of the song “There’s Nothing in the World I’d Rather Do” on a small Iowa label, Kajac Records. On this compilation recorded at the Anamosa Men’s Reformatory she made the peculiar choice of singing Melanie hit, “Brand New Key.”

 

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Today’s post is for our friend and occasional employee Craig, who has been reading Haruki Murakami’s Absolutely on Music, a book of conversations with Seiji Ozawa. He came into the shop last weekend looking for recordings of the legendary conductor, and we turned up frustratingly few of them. This week we came across several recordings from Ozawa’s storied career, including this one.

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Seiji Ozawa conducted the premier of William Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra in 1968, with the Chicago Symphony and the Seigel-Schwall Band collaborating. Five years later he recorded the piece for Deutsche-Grammophon with the San Francisco Orchestra. The album was a hit, by Deutsche-Grammophon standards, which led to the Seigel-Schwall band performing the piece with several orchestras around the country.

Russo’s Symphony No. 2 “Titan” was comissioned by Leonard Bernstein ten years earlier and featured jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson as a soloist for its debut with the New York Philharmonic. Russo, whose early career included writing for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, wrote a number of works which walk a line between ‘high-falutin’ classical and ‘low-brow’ popular music.

We have misgivings about music which could be categorized in our “classical gasp” section, but Russo’s composition is a successful blending of genres. While never as famous as other rock/blues acts like the Butterfield Blues Band or John Mayall, the Siegel-Schwall Band is solidly talented. Corky Siegel plays a mean harmonica on these three pieces. Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra is certainly better than this hybrid concerto we posted recently.

Russo’s work also included rock opera styled productions with the Chicago Free Theater, often on current events such as anti-war protests or the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. He remained involved in theater and music in Chicago until his retirement a year before his death in 2003. Columbia College’s Chicago Jazz Ensemble, founded by Russo, continues to perform today.

Bob Dylan has drawn a lot of criticism for his decision to sit out the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm next week. Just today it was reported he also sat out a meeting with President Obama and other American laureates.

One can never predict what Bob Dylan is going to do, which has endeared him to some fans and alienated him from others. Whether its a a Christmas album (which we will enthusiastically defend) or an album of Frank Sinatra songs (which even we can’t get behind), Dylan has long had the luxury of following his muse and allowing his records to largely speak for themselves.

Consider his original Greatest Hits package, released by Columbia in 1967 to fill the gap when it appeared his next album was a ways off on the horizon and presumably compiled without his involvement. While it is not one of those “Greatest Hits” collections which misuses the word hits — his sixties singles sold successfully — it was still frustrating to fans. While it compiled his singles, in cases where those contained a separate mix from the album version, the album version was used. And it retailed for a dollar more than most LPs at the time.

Greatest Hits Volume II, which came just four years later, offered a little more to fans in the form of a side’s worth of new material. Dylan originally suggested one side be drawn from the then-unissued “Basement Tapes,” but this was rejected by Columbia executive Clive Davis — and instead a hodge podge new songs were added to the double LP. These included the tracks produced by the late Leon Russell (“Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”) as well as a live cut from the 1963 Town Hall concert and three newly recorded songs.

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This is the first “Greatest Hits” album we can think of which finds the artist enticing fans with a few new songs. Dylan’s business savvy is always surprising to us — and in this case he created an idea that became common by the time Columbia finally churned out Greatest Hits Volume III in 1994, including a successful new song, “Dignity.”

gil-scott-heron-best-of-lpWe’ve thought a lot about some of those songs added to “Greatest Hits” and “Best Of” records, because sometimes we are such big fans of the artists that we’ll buy an album even though 90% of it is already in our collection. For instance, Gil Scott-Heron’s topical “Re Ron,” which first appeared on a 1984 compilation. His picture is hardly flattering on The Best of Gil Scott-Heron, and its hard for fans to face the reality of how poorly he was doing at the time.

 

“Re Ron,” Scott-Heron’s response to Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign, would be one of the last songs he’d release for nearly a decade, as drug use derailed his life. A sequel to his first Reagan song, “B Movie,” it didn’t leave the same impression with fans and he was subsequently dropped from the label.

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From an entirely different era and an entirely different section of the record store are the two Best Of albums released by Jethro Tull in the 70s. Each adds a new song, which sound distinctly like outtakes from earlier albums. Neither is particularly essential, although Tull fans are not unlike Dylan fans in their complete-ist tendencies. The first also offers an alternate mix or edit of a couple songs, notably “Aqualung” where Martin Barre’s familiar opening riff is extended.

The second of these is one of the most un-necessary “Best Of” collections of all time, and is indulgent even by Jethro Tull standards. The new track offered for the faithful is an outtake from the band’s successful War Child album which was clearly left aside for a reason.

Faring little better is The Best of the Band, an early album in the trend of titling these collections carefully to avoid the word “Hits.” After all, The Band’s singles hardly charted, and several of these songs were not even released as singles in the United States. The album is still a fair representation of highlights from their first half dozen albums, with the exception of a single-only track, “Twilight.”

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Another collection clearly forced by the label was RCA’s Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. Never a hit-maker, Reed had already been dropped by the label by the time this record sulked into stores in 1976. Essentially a vehicle for the title track, Walk on the Wild Side did offer the first LP release of “Nowhere At All,” a rockin’ outtake from Coney Island Baby which had previously been issued as a B-side. Also worth noting is the appearance of Rachel, Reed’s long-term transexual lover, on the cover. Rachel was the inspiration for much of Reed’s music in the second half of the seventies even though she had been all but erased from the rock and roll lexicon by the time she died in obscurity in the nineties.

So far we have established that the extra song on a “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” album is a sort of ashcan for outtakes and leftover live cuts. A recent culling of our own collection turned up all the albums in today’s post, each of which purchased solely for those added ‘bonus’ tracks, but hardly ever taken off the shelves. We’ll end today’s post with a more successful example. It’s a Greatest Hits which recently saw its first US release on LP and has already sold out.

See, nobody drew such success out of the extra song on their Greatest Hits album than Tom Petty, who recorded “Last Dance with Mary Jane” while recording his second solo album with career-reviving producer Rick Rubin. The song was the last to be recorded by the original Heartbreakers lineup, and an unexpected hit. It almost certainly spurred the success of that fantastic solo album, Wildflowers, the following year.

Always one to create the creepiest possible videos, Petty outdid himself with “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” a macabre vignette purportedly based on a French film which was, in turn, based on a Charles Bukowski story. If you have never seen this video before, you’re likely to not feel the same about Tom Petty, or about actress Kim Basinger, ever again.

 

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Billy Hancock and his Tennessee Rockets were the most successful act on this rockabilly label, which released records from 1976 until about 1990. We think Ripsaw is one of the coolest 45 labels we’ve seen in a long time.

On October 15, 1971 Rick Nelson and his band were booed off the stage of a rock n’ roll revival concert at Madison Square Garden. Nelson, with long hair and bell bottom jeans, played some of his band’s newer material along with his 50s hits like “Hello Mary Lou.” It was a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” which turned the crowd against him.

He wrote the song “Garden Party” about his experience, which was his first hit in nearly a decade.

Ironically, by the end of the decade his live sets again included most of his early hits (he had 52 songs on Billboard’s singles chart before “Garden Party”). Regardless, the simple message of his last hit single is the same: You can’t please everybody, so you got to please yourself.

garden partyOf course, Nelson did a lot of pleasing himself in those days and after — his personal problems and drug use were probably a big part of why record buyers weren’t interested in his countrified persona with the Stone Canyon Band. Listeners quickly tire of the troubled artist who isn’t able to keep it together, just as we all get weary of the narcissist in our lives, whether its a friend or a family member: they’re the people who can’t seem to survive without help, yet are quick to tell you what to do. They relish in your failure and strike at you when you succeed — the only way they can express themselves is through snarky remarks, just as Nelson does in deriding George Harrison as “Mr. Hughes in Dylan’s shoes.”

We love Ricky Nelson’s hit songs — they were a regular part of our rockabilly sets when we DJed at the Turf Club for years — but from a different perspective his behavior on that October evening was a case of such narcissism. Nobody came to a rock n’ roll revival show to hear a set of country music. The other artists on the bill — Bobby Rydell, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — all offered solid sets of rock n’ roll hits, as promised, even though each had recorded new material (even some country songs) in the years since their collective peak. Sulking backstage and refusing to step out and bow with the others solidifies his selfish behavior.

The message of “Garden Party” goes both ways, and the audience was under no obligation to please Nelson by indulging his new interests. From this different perspective, the song reminds us that there’s no reason to have a narcissistic person in your life. They will never change. When Nelson died in a plane crash in 1985, investigators found traces of marijuana, cocaine and painkillers in his blood. As much as we love those classic singles on Imperial which made Nelson a star in the 50s, we could do without the person he became.

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