Friday, October 19, 2007


...with Music Player!

I Put a Spell On You

The British saved Rock'n'Roll.

The usual rap goes that there is a gap between the implosion of the first Rock'n'Roll stars (1959) and the phoenix nova of The Beatles (1963). In this pop wasteland, prefab pretties like Fabian and Annette pantomimed and pretended. The truth is better. This is actually an intensely fertile time of expansion in the wake of that first Big Bang of Rock. It'd be unfair and unaware to overlook this early 60's hotbed: the adolescent opera of the Girl Groups; the Motown machine revving up; the grand epics of Phil Spector; the turbo fun of Brian Wilson's bunch; the kick-azz grit of the Chess Records mob; and the ascent of Soul music under the wings of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. But of these, it was Surf music that most retained the bristling edge of Rock. With its full-throttle fearlessness, it preached the virtues of speed, clamor, and sleek power. All of these new influences enthralled european teens, but it was that guitar that spurred them into magnificent action.

First up, there was the british Rockabilly star, Tommy Steele ("Doomsday Rock"), then leather-god Vince Taylor (the original "Brand New Cadillac", covered by the Clash), and Johnny Kidd & The Pirates ("Shakin' All Over"). Then brilliant producers like the eccentric genius Joe Meek came in with his guitarstrumental bands. Meek, a secretly unhinged dandy, was a tech wizard who concocted weird sound instruments in his apartment studio and recruited acts to justify their use on pop records. His oeuvre straddles prom rock shuffles, Les Paul's outlandish Jazz scales, the bubbly pizzicato pop favored on government sanctioned radio, and an obsessive penchant for otherworldly tones. Plus, he idolized Buddy Holly and the hard echo of Duane Eddy and Dick Dale. All of this hit a beautiful equinox with The Tornados' "Telstar" (1962). Its eerie interstellar metallic vibrato shocked radio listeners like an Orson Welles broadcast and ushered the guitar wave of The Tornados and The Shadows and art school rockers everywhere.

Art school was the only bastion for the rebel in such a rigidly classist society. England was now a working class nation tyrannized by a mass delusion of elitist civility that was crushing its earthy heart. The War had destroyed them, the 50's was all about picking up the pieces. While parents clung to status quo for stability, their children wanted something more. Rock'n'Roll was like a reverse blitzkrieg. It was a wave of concussive renewal and creation. They were riveted by the foreign-ness of it, but also by the familiarity of it. In the raucous roll of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley they could hear the robust tavern ballads of warrior pasts. In the ethereal country hymns of the Everlys they could hear celtic madrigals. In the plaintive strains of Hank Williams, Buck Owens, and Patsy Cline there was the Olde Country folk of troubadours, brought home more closely by the emerging Bob Dylan. In the coiled cool of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters they heard the course rounds of feudal farmers. In orchestral pop soared the strings of their Classical heritage. In the immigrant shangri-la of America they saw amplified and unleashed versions of themselves, risen shining and sleek for the future in the wake of the war. And the ticket to freedom was three chords and a hook!

John Lennon wasn't the only art school drop-out to take up a guitar, but he formed the band to beat all bands. The Beatles were the Biggest Bang, from which everything else would unfold from then on. This is a Law of Physics at this point, so we'll get on to the initial effects. The first was the galvanation of this galling nation of sharp-dressed men with impossibly long hair setting prim young girls on fire with jet-engine hysteria. The second was synthesizing everything from before into a new world of possibilities. The third was to give permission to everyone to be whatever they wanted.

The bands started as retro-revivalists turned into pop futurists turned beat ambassadors. Soon every group in the British Invasion splintered into smorgasbord shards. The blues purists birthed John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and The Yardbirds. The pop pundits cheered Gerry & The Pacemakers, the all-female Liverbirds, The Searchers, and The Kinks. The R'n'B contingent numbered The Who, The Pretty Things, The Spencer Davis Group (with Steve Winwood), Dusty Springfield, Chris Farlow, and Georgie Fame. Donovan ushered in the Folk rebound.

Then quickly, the triumph over America prompted a domino escalation that opened a new door every day with every record over the next several years. Beat groups like The Who and acolytes like Les Fluer de Lys and The Creation started getting more aggro, pumping out a fuzzy delirium later dubbed Freakbeat. With The Yardbirds getting more sonically intense, this ricocheted in rehearsals all over America in the first Garage Rock bands. The Beatles were now exploring all the sounds they'd heard on world tours. A crosscontinental one-upship ensued between the Fabs, Dylan, Brian, the Byrds, and anyone in the wake. This produced an exponential wave of some of the greatest songs and albums ever made. Every style, every madcap instrument, every incredible new studio technique became fair game. As the newly revitalized Rock went both toward the brutal and the beautiful, it began converting the planet.

Rock'n'Roll was here to stay, it could never die. It now belonged to the world.

© Tym Stevens

See Also:
-The Real History of Rock and Soul!: A Music Player Checklist

Monday, October 1, 2007

SHAKE AND FINGER POP! Soul Music and the Interior Truth

...with Music Player!

Booker T And The MGs


Soul music is the shared emotion of experience. As such, everyone breathing can relate to it, be touched by it, be moved by it. Soul, like all great traditions, is actually what each person has brought to it and what we shared from it.

No one has a monopoly on pain. And the human heart is too huge to be bound by fake distinctions like class, body type, or skin. We breathe the same air, dream the same hopes, feel the same emotions. As souls, we share this life, and when we forget our commonality, music brings us back to the root; the interior truth of self.

From the beginning soul stew was cooked by everyone. It's initial gumbo ingredients were the sacrilegious mix of Gospel and Blues, but Jazz brass horns, voodoo mythos, Country tearjerkers, European strings, modern pop, Rock swagger, political Folk, and even spy themes have flavored it over time. It was male and female, and included label owners, talent scouts, songwriters, producers, and performers from every possible human persuasion.

Case in point. Until the late 1940's, all music made by African Americans was called "Race Music". Jerry Wexler, a writer for Billboard magazine's music sales charts, found this disgraceful. There had to be a more dignified term, but how do you encompass the various musics being made? Since urban Jump Jive and rural acoustic Blues were the most popular, he split the difference with the umbrella term, Rhythm & Blues. While R&B later became yet another flat euphemism for 'black music', it actually spoke to divergent sounds. As 1950 dawned, small independent record labels sprung up everywhere to sample the smorgasbord of homegrown talent nationwide. Jerry Wexler became perhaps the preeminent Soul music producer of all time working for Atlantic Records, owned by the astute and hyper-hip Ertegun brothers from Turkey: Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Coasters, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Rascals, and may more were his charges. Similarly, the Chess brothers parlayed the Chess label, the home of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Etta James, etc. The jewish family had slept with a horse in their house back in Poland to keep warm in the winter. As hardluck musicians migrated from the depleted southern states to their Chicago studios, they found kindred sympathy.

In the South, Gospel music was God's music, and Blues was the Devil's by default. The line between the sacred and the profane was absolute. But the 50's was when the imaginary barriers started being challenged. Ray Charles, a cocksure upstart, committed heresy by combining the two. In 1955 he turned a hymn about love for Jesus into a secular ode to a girl with "This Little Girl of Mine". Churchfolk burned like brimstone over it, but young people felt the relief of constrictions evaporating. Ray had combined the sacred and profane and arrived closer to real life. He showed that any segregation is stillborn while synthesis is always rebirth. All too quickly, radio segregated everyone's psyches using separatist terms like 'Rock'n'Roll' for whites and 'Rhythm & Blues' for blacks. Most often this music was the same thing, just separated by the superficial. But at dancehalls all kids shook their hips the same, yelled the same, felt it the same. It made you move and it said something you understood inside.

Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Taylor, the Womacks, and scores more also left the amen corner to sing new hymns from their hearts about the way they lived, and how they felt. By the early 60's, the R&B tag waned along with the doowoppers and the jivin'wailers. It was a new ere, with the Civil rights movement come to redeem America's heart and open up its future. It was the era of Soul music.

Robert White and Joe Messina of the Motown house band,
the Funk Brothers.

It came from everywhere and back. Motown records in metal Detroit. Chess in hogkiller Chicago. Atlantic in nosebleed New York. Stax in funky Memphis. And from one-hit and no-hit wonders on meteoric labels throughout the south and west and north, and soon from as far east as the United Kingdom. It was tender or tortured ballads, uptempo dance stompers, crazed gobbledygook, strutting proud testimonials, and anthems for justice. It consoled your pain, conjured your joy. Berry Gordy called his label "The Sound of Young America" to transcend useless terms like black and white, but that was only the beginning. Soul music had tapped into the declarative, confessional nature at the heart of all the world's folk musics. Its passionate vocals were a shared memory in all cultures. As such, it was felt, resung, and rebounded back. It was a universal chord that resonates through all pop history since. The British Invasion couldn't win without it, and its influence fused with Jazz, metronomed beneath Psychedelia, got all Funked up, hothoused Ska and Reggae, boogied Glam, strobed Disco, swelled under New Wave, spliced Rap, throbbed in the abstract through House and Jungle, inverted itself as Neo-Soul...well, you feel me.

Every great label had a house band cooking up all the hits. Stax made Memphis soul stew with Booker T and the MG's. Rock steady drums, pulsing melodic bass, slinky azz organ, and zen essence chank guitar. Bring in the class brass of the Memphis Horns, a killer tune, and a belting singer and then look the hell out! Besides their own proto-funk instrumental classics, like "Glass Onion" and "Hip Hug Her", they backed Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Albert King, and more. Like their rivals at the Muscle Shoals studios, they were soul brothers one and all, and the fact that they were varied hues only added more flavors to the brew.

Etta James recording with the Muscle Shoals house band.

Soul music is the soundtrack of the human experience. It's cheap and easy to wear attitude like armor. But it takes real courage to bare your heart to the world. To confess doubt, hurt, or wrestle with anger or anguish. To drop the skin and disclose the interior truth of self. That kind of vulnerability is the core of real growth, toward maturity, solace, wisdom. Listen to these brave songs, where men and women stand vulnerable before the eyes of the world. Listen in recognition as they unveil our common heart.

© Tym Stevens

See Also:
-The Real History of Rock and Soul!: A Music Player Checklist