Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits”

Cover for Hank Williams's 40 Greatest Hits album

This week, I’ve been listening to the posthumous double-LP greatest hits album of Hank Williams’s “40 Greatest Hits.” Mercury Records released this compilation on the 25th anniversary of Hank Williams’s passing on new year’s day 1953 in the small city of Oak Hill, WV. Williams recorded all of these songs for MGM between 1947 and 1952. This compilation presents more direct recordings of the songs, without much of the overdubs heard on earlier releases.

I grew up in a family that listened to pop and rock music;The only place I heard 90s country music was on the school bus radio. It shocked me, in my 30s, to learn that my dad had primarily listened to country music in his early teens. I only heard Hank Williams songs in commercials, tv shows as a joke, or in cover versions. That changed in my adult years. Dwight Yoakam became the first country artist that i seriously liked, and he provided my introduction to artists that came before him.

What we have here is a collection of early country music recordings. Remember, Columbia introduced the 12 inch LP format in 1948. Before that, an album was a collection of physical singles. Music was mostly purchased on thick acetate records, an early example being Eck Robertson’s Sallie Gooden from 1922. The “Howdy Doody” show first aired in 1947. Many consider 1949 the birth year of rock music, but it rock music didn’t really take off until 1954 with “Rock Around the Clock.” Hank Williams recorded these songs between 1947 and 1952. Recording music was still fairly new, and the idea of an album was a decade off yet.

Move It On Over

If we consider 1949 the birth of rock music, then Williams’s “Move It On Over” sounds like a strong precursor. Bill Haley even covered it, as well as particularly rocking cover by George Thorogood. The song combines twelve-bar blues with a country shuffle. The upbeat Williams recording features basic percussion, an upright bass playing a walking groove, acoustic guitar strumming chords, electric guitar playing bluesy melodic lines, fiddle padding between vocals lines, backing vocals from the group, and Hank Williams singing lead. The percussion is so far back it’s more felt than heard. The upright bass provides more of a percussive sound to the track than the drums.

Each verse follow a blues progression of I-I-IV-I-V-I. The first two lines of each verse provide the narrative part. The speaker spending too many nights out late and his wife won’t let him back in the house. The rest of each verse are spoken to the dog in the doghouse. The titular phrase “Move it on over” is to the dog, because the doghouse is getting rather cramped now that the “big dog’s moving in.” The second two lines of each verse features a call and response with the backing vocals answering “move it on over.” And then each verse is capped with the punchline (of sorts) “Move over short dog cause the tall dog’s moving in.”

She warned me once, she warned me twice
But I don’t take no one’s advice
So scratch it on over (move it on over)
Shake it on over (move it on over)
Move over short dog cause a tall dog’s moving in

Ramblin’ Man

Williams wrote the mournful slow song “Ramblin’ Man” with a simple two chord progression in a minor key: i-V7. Bass guitar beats on the first and third beat of each measure. Acoustic guitar strums, emphasizing each slow quarter like a slowly churning train in the distance. A fiddle cries gently, again that far-off train’s whistle. Clean electric guitar with tremolo provides a haunting lead accompanying Williams’s singing. The speaker provides this apologetic dirge on how he can’t settle down because the urge to travel and move on is stronger than his love for the listener.

Each verse consists of four lines followed by a two line refrain. Each pair of lines rhyme as a couplet. He consistently uses the sound of the train as providing the call to ramble. This is combined with the declaration that God made him this way, he must ramble. His nature and that call compels him to leave, and no matter how he might want to, he cannot deny his nature.

I can settle down and be doing just fine
Til’ I hear an old train rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the Lord made me, he made a Ramblin’ Man

Hey, Good Lookin’

Hank Williams wrote his “Hey Good Lookin'” drawing direct inspiration from the Cole Porter song “Hey Good Lookin’.” Legend has it that Williams wrote the song in less than half-an-hour when requested to write a hit song for a friend. Either he wrote it knowingly making a reference to the Cole Porter song, or it was a subconscious transference. The Porter song has the lines of “Hey good lookin’,
Say what’s cookin’? Do you feel like bookin’ some fun tonight?” With first two lines sung not terribly unlike the Hank Williams tune, which starts with “Hey good lookin’, what you got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ something up with me?” Both songs use the cooking as a starting point for a proposition of love in much the same way.

I first heard this song in commercials from the mid-80s from the National Cheese Board, “How’s about cookin’ something up with cheese?

The catchy chorus of the Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin'” follow a I-I-II-V7 chord progression. The verses drop into a IV-I-IV-I-IV-I-II-V7 progression. A IV-I progression is the same as a I-V progression in the subdominant. I do not suggest that this is a key change, but it is interesting to think about, because if the song opened with a verse, we might suspect the song was in a different key than it is. The chorus establishes the key at the beginning. This contributes to the feeling of stable resolution that the chorus provides after the IV-I progression of the verses.

The lyrics of first verse maintain the AABB rhyme scheme that is also used in the other verse. “dollar bill” rhymes with “over the hill.” is better than just “bill” with “hill” But listen also to the use of consonance within the lines. “got a hot rod ford” with “spot” and “soda pop.” He sings “dollar” and “dancing” likewise in the same position of the first and third lines. These lines beat musically without even hearing the melody.

I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill
There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free
So if you wanna have fun come along with me

40 Greatest Hits

Many of these songs bare similarities to each other, more so than often found on albums. I think that is due to the nature of their original intentions as releases. The public received these as singles with two songs at a time. The need to try something different in approach was not as strong when the songs were not going to be heard all together. There’s also similarities that are normal within a genre, especially with a single artist.

The bass almost always emphasizes the first and third beat of each measure, with a walking bass that bounces back and forth travelling across the progression. The acoustic guitar shuffles, with emphasis on the second and third beat of each measure. A brushed snare drum often strengthens the rhythm of the acoustic. A clean electric guitar, sometimes with subtle tremolo, opens the tracks with a country-blues lead that pulls the listener into the rhythm of the song. These intros are frequently only one or two bars. The songs are about the emotional narrative, usually mournful and sad. Metaphors represent the other feeling or urges, and Williams wisely uses one metaphor per song, making word choices that support both that metaphor and the emotion.

Overall, this is a collection of extremely well-crafted songs.

The Rolling Stones’ “Aftermath”

Cover of Rolling Stone's Album "After-Math"

I’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones’ album “After-Math” from 1966 this week. This was their fourth album in the UK, but their sixth released in the States. Quite impressive, either way considering their first album had only come out in 1964. The UK and USA releases had different cover art and different track listing. The UK release instead starts with “Mother’s Little Helper,” one of my favorite Stones songs. That and three other tracks are missing from the American version that I listened to. In their place, it opens with “Paint It Black.” A song that I also love, only not as much as “Mother’s Little Helper.” This album was excellent from start to finish, either version.

“Aftermath” represents a significant point in the band’s evolution. Previous albums consisted mostly, if not entirely, of cover songs originally performed by blues and soul. This album shows the band venturing further beyond their initial blues inspiration into more other territory. Guitarist Keith Richards and vocalist Mick Jagger wrote all of the songs, according to printed credits. Brian Jones most definitely contributed to the songwriting, especially on “Paint It Black.” Also, “Aftermath” presents a set of songs written together, as opposed to a collection of individual songs.

I Am Waiting

On the second side of both the UK and US release, “I Am Waiting” provides a gentle folk-inspired rock ballad after the more rocking “It’s Not Easy.” The intro and verse feature instruments played gently, resulting in their identifying characteristics becoming hidden. There’s a harpsichord, dulcimer, and acoustic guitar weaving together a tapestry of chords textured by arpeggios. A haunting bassline quietly emphasizes the chord progression, while encouraging the cautious suspense of a hide-and-seek game. Restrained drums beat pull the song from one bar into the next, without emphasizing the beat. Jaggers sings the verses gently, with even softer backing vocals singing in unison on key phrases.

The band play the choruses much different from verses. Dulcimer and guitars join in a jangly strumming rhythm. The drums approach a rock beat, with the hats giving a jazz dance over the beat, the kick drum emphasizing the first beat and the snare providing hops across the remaining three beats. The bass guitar gets played more strong. The vocals are sung more strongly.

The lyrics consist of verses, choruses, and a refrain. Normally in songs, every chorus has the same lyrics, giving the listener a hook to return to. Here, a separate refrain provides that function, with “Waiting for someone to come out of somewhere.” The chorus each consist of four lines, the second and fourth being some variation of “You will find out.” Each of the first and third contain an internal rhyme, dividing the line into two parts.

Stand up coming years and escalation fears
Oh yes we will find out
Well like a withered stone, fears will pierce your bones
You’ll find out

Think

The Rolling Stones close out the first side of the US release with “Think.” Jagger and Richards wrote “Think,” but the song already received release as a single by Chris Farlowe. The more filled out soul-rock Chris Farlowe version is fair enough, but I definitely prefer the more raw rock sound of the Rolling Stones track. It opens with a blues acoustic guitar intro riff, joined then by a second acoustic guitar strumming chords, drums, bass guitar, clean electric guitar, and a fuzz electric guitar. The fuzz guitar mostly plays extended notes, letting them fade out. Richards originally meant the fuzz guitar in “Satisfaction” to be played by horns; the fuzz guitar here performs a similar function. A significantly clean electric guitar plays a solo, backed by that fuzz padding the background.

The song has two different types of verses, with one feeling like a bridge. The overall song structure, with the two verse types labelled as VerseA and VerseB is: Intro-VerseA-Refrain-Chorus-VerseB-Refrain-Chorus-VerseB-Refrain-Bridge-VerseA-Refrain-Chorus-Outro. The first and last verse follow a chord progression of IV-V7-IV-V7, which is a progression leading the listener to a cadence, providing a floating sort of suspense. The refrain gives that cadence, by staying on the tonic chord. Now we have resolution, but extending it gives desire for movement. The chorus rises up to IV, holding that chord, and then closing with a I-VII– IV. The flattened major seventh is a particularly blues-rock borrowed-chord. The other verses start with this borrowed chord, following a series of descending chords: VII-V7-IV-II7. The use of sevenths on each second chord pulls the listener towards the next bar by creating a mild-dissonance asking for resolution.

Doncha Bother Me

Perhaps the song that most got stuck in my head is the stomping blues track “Doncha Bother Me.” Brian Jones provides essential electric slide guitar between each sung line. His slide guitar drew me into the song, and the vocal hook of “Doncha bother me no more” increased the catchiness. Piano, acoustic guitar, and drums provide rhythm, panned hard left. The electric guitar is panned hard right. Vocals and bass sit right in the middle. Cross-talk between mics (and perhaps on the tape machine) pulls this hard-panning together putting the listener in the room. I’ve seen some documentary footage of the Stones doing overdubs on songs, and they would sometimes just have the previously recorded tracks playing through a speaker in the studio rather then into headphones. While this robs the engineer of the separation of tracks (a preferences especially in the 90s), it increases the live-sound of the room. It’s more pleasing and gives the recording a more warm human feel.

The choruses use a blues-inspired chord progression of I-IV-I-IV-I-V7-IV-I. And the verses go into a more energetic rock feel with V7-V7-IV-I. The piano drives along with a boogie-woogie rhythm throughout, drumming up in intensity during the verses. The drums move between stick and snare sounds. The vocals deliver a line, then the slide guitar rises up in response.

I said, Oh no, don’t you follow me no more
I said, Oh no, don’t you follow me no more
Well, pick your own mind and don’t you touch mine no more

Blondie’s “Parallel Lines”

Album Cover for Blondie's Parallel Lines

This week, I’ve been listening to Blondie’s third album “Parallel Lines” from 1978. I remember this record being among my parents’ collection, though the only songs I heard were “One Way or Another” and “Heart of Glass.” Singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein founded Blondie in 1974, after working together as former members of pre-Punk band The Stilettos. A few years later, they released their debut album and the new-wave single “X-Offender.” Blondie came out of the NYC art-rock scene of the early 1970s to become an important part of the new wave movement of the late 70s/early 80s. In New York City, these were bands descended from the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Television. The new wave had many of the same influences as punk rock, but took a different stylistic approach.

Picture This

Blondie released the third track, “Picture This,” as a single in the UK where it hit the top 20 charts. Like much of the album, this great track beautifully combines early 1960s pop musicality with 1970s art-rock sound and a touch of punk attitude. Much of the Blondie sound comes from the use of non-distorted electric guitar with the recently invented chorus pedal, dry punchy drums, and rolling clean bass. Of course, Harry’s cool vocals front the band, truly making it Blondie.

The verses follow a I-IV pattern repeated three times, but then finish differently each time depending on what they are leading into. The first verse completes with an unusual V#-I, pulling into the second verse which ends with a more normal I-V, and then the third just continues a I chord. These are played with picked arpeggios on the chorus guitar in one channel. A clean electric guitar strums each chord once at the beginning of each bar and plays a leading arpeggio during third beat of each measure. The bass walks us up and down each bar from one chord to the next.

The choruses rise up to a IV-V-IV-V progression. This progression along with the intensified vocals and organ, give the chorus excitement through the tension of an unresolved progression begging for cadence. The IV-V-IV-V leads into a extended VI chord, which brings even more tension. The post-chorus then repeats II-VI-II-VI, which threatens to never resolve. Then the next verse starts off with the tonic chord again, returning to the more comfortable I-IV pattern. The song however, does NOT end with the tonic, but just drops the listener off the cliff on that post-chorus pattern.

The lyrics play with the sense of sight, focusing on words and metaphors involving viewing, watching, seeing, and picturing things. Most of the three-line verses follow either an AAA rhyme scheme, or an AAB rhyme with the last line ending with the word “you.” The first and third lines of each verse always begin with the same four words, usually, “All I want is…” except the second verse, which has “I will give you…” The first line makes a statement of either wanting or giving something, the second line gives further meaning to the first, then the third repeats the statement.

All I want is a room with a view
A sight worth seeing, a vision of you
All I want is a room with view
I will give you my finest hour
The one I spent watching you shower
I will give you my finest hour
All I want is a photo in my wallet
A small remembrance of something more solid
All I want is a picture of you

Fade Away and Radiate

On the fourth track, “Fade Away and Radiate,” Blondie delivers and haunting new-wave Television style epic. The slower tempo, beating tom drums that open the song, the soaring guitar effects, the restrained vocals, all lend to the sense of something bigger. There’s not really a chorus, though we do have a bridge and an up-beat coda. This lack of a chorus, in this case, adds to the sense of a warning or story-telling coming in phases.

In the verses, we have a i-IV-I-vi-ii-I-ii-I. Though the song is in a major key, each verse opens with the tonic in minor. It’s an odd choice that contributes to the eerie mood. The bridge stomps down through a ii-Isus2-ii-vi pattern, suggesting some sort of threatening opera. Then with the coda,the tempo gets picked up with reggae-inspired rhythm. This reminds me of how the Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground would sometimes end song with a Latin-inspired rhythm.

Heart of Glass

We certainly cannot ignore Blondie’s massive hit “Heart of Glass.” On this track, the band takes a decidedly disco turn. The band wrote the song in 1975 after hearing the Hues Corporation’s song “Rock the Boat.” Blondie recorded a version under the title “Once I Had a Love,” but were not quite happy with it. They had long referred to it as “The Disco Song” and on the album “Parallel Lines,” they decided to perform it in the disco style.

I don’t know what discussions they had about this, but the decision is a bigger one than might seem today. Blondie were considered part of the NYC punk rock scene, despite their already cleaner sound. To many punks, punk rock music represented a sincere pure-attitude return to rock ‘n’ roll, rejecting what they perceived as soulless nature of disco and corporate rock. For Blondie, a member of the punk family, to record a pop radio friendly disco song struck many as betrayal. Let’s not forget that Harry and Stein were once in a band performing a song called “Anti-Disco.”

So, what makes this song “disco”? Let’s start with the clear four-on-the-floor drum pattern. This means the kick drum hits on every beat, the snare drum hits on every third and fourth beat, the hit-hat strings the beat together hitting on every eight note, opening on the upbeat. The clean bass provides syncopated rhythms, bopping along with octave hops. We have string-like organs lines providing swirling pads. Soften male vocals provide “la la la” backing vocal. Harry delivers ‘ooo-ah’ vocals that soar like Donna Summer. The clean electric guitar shuffles through funk strumming patterns. It’s bright, clean, poppy, it encourages dancing in colorful clubs.

The verses repeat a I-vi chord progression. This breaks from punks conservatively I-IV-V based patterns. The chorus breaks away from I-vi to follow a IV-IV-I-I-IV-II-V-I pattern. Interestingly, the chorus is NOT where we find either titles of the song, those appear in the verses. The chorus has an AABB rhyme scheme. Within the lines, there some use of assonance that ties them together: “between/pleasing/peace/teasing”, “find/fine”, “confusing/losing”, “just/good.” These are well-crafted lyrics for sound.

In between what I find is pleasing and I’m feeling fine
Love is so confusing, there’s no peace of mind
If I fear I’m losing you
It’s just no good, you teasing like you do

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Trout Mask Replica”

Album cover for Trout Mask Replica

This week, I’ve been listening to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s double-LP “Trout Mask Replica” from 1969. This album challenges the listener’s sensibilities and understanding of musical conventions. From the start of the first track, “Frownland,” the first-time listener will question the judgement of those who consider this to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My first encounter with this album came from a girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. It was awful and offensive. Either I was an idiot or she was putting one over one me. I gave it a couple more tries and gave up. So here I am, two decades later, devoting time to it because it is a great album. Do I love it now? No, but I do appreciate it and even enjoy parts of it in doses.

The verb “experiment” means to try something for the purpose of discovery. This generally implies doing something in some way different from what one normally does. The outcome is unknown. A question beginning with “What would happen if…” prompts an experiment. Then depending on the outcome, you might alter the act for future experiments. As the outcome becomes less unknown, the act becomes less of an experiment and more of a practice. This album is the result of experiments with breaking the conventions of rock music. Living together in California, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) ruthlessly led his band of musicians like a cult leader. His methods challenged the established rules of rock as well the ethics of management. That’s another topic though.

Dachau Blues

The third track “Dachau Blues” grabbed my interest first. Yes, the song does follow some blues structure, but it’d be a stretch to call it a blues song. Beefheart’s vocals stand out in front, with the band mixed relatively low. The guitars and dry drums create a near chaotic background for the anti-war lyrics. They choose the location of Nazi concentration camp from World War II to tell how frightened children look up to the adults to not repeat the horrors of war.

The song demonstrates little relationship between accompaniment and vocals. Even though the guitars start with a jagged rhythm for the first chorus, they seem to dissolve into apparently improvised melodic riffs. The percussion and guitars fall in and out of rhythm with each other. Then a saxophone screams in competition with the spoken lyrics. There’s a mixture of intention and accident throughout the album. These glimpses into the process remind us of the importance of the process. I’m also reminded of the Beatnik notion that the unedited thought is more pure and loses something through revision. Yet, we know that Captain Beefheart and his magic band practiced and practiced these songs. The loose chaos didn’t come easy.

Pachuco Cadaver

Before the music starts, the Captain shares some nonsensical wisdom: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” There’s some underlying logical to the nonsense written by Captain Beefheart, perhaps. He has a great taste for the vocabulary of unusual, using these words to paint a surreal story world. Elements of this world are returned to throughout the album, feeling more like consistency than repetition. The lyrics of “Pachuco Cadaver” present the vignette of an attractive Latina-American woman, like a bizarre version of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.

“Pachuco Cadaver” stands out on the album as being one of the few songs with a stand-out guitar riff that repeats in different parts of the song. The accompaniment even builds up to it as it evolves out of a primordial groove. At times, it is hinted at, muted, then devolves into arhythmic strumming. Then it appears, nearly rocking, as the Captains says, “her lovin’ makes me so happy…”

When she walks, flowers surround her
Let their nectar come in to the air around her
She loves her love sticks out like stars
Her lovin’ stick out like stars

Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”

Album cover for Screamadelica

This week, I’ve been listening to Primal Scream’s third album “Screamadelica” from 1991. At the end of the 80s, critics speculated that grebo-baggy music were going to be the sound of the 90s. These genres found new energy in combining psychedelic alternative rock with dance rhythms of acid house. British bands like EMF, Jesus Jones, and the Escape Club brought these sounds to American MTV. This was right before Nirvana’sSmell Like Teen Spirit” grabbed everybody’s attention and changed things. While I liked some of it, grunge didn’t really catch me as hard as it did others. Had I heard “Screamadelica” when it came out, I probably would’ve loved it. I had the same difficulty with it now that I have with the band Muse, several of the songs sound like direct combinations of two or three other songs. More derivative than inspired.

Movin’ On Up

So, that brings us to the opening track “Movin’ On Up.” It’s a good song on its own; However, to me it sounds like The Rolling Stone’sSympathy for the Devil” played like The Who’s “Magic Bus” after listening to George Michael’s “Faith.” The first verse opens with “I was blind, now I can see, you made a believer out of me.” This verse makes an allusion to “Amazing Grace,” where the chorus’s “I’m movin’ on up now, getting out of the darkness; My light shines on.” recalls both The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” and the gospel anthem “This Little Light of Mine.” Screamadelica decidely wrote a rock n roll gospel anthem. I’m not sure what they’re believing in: perhaps it’s rock n roll and perhaps it was ecstasy.

The verses follow a I-I-I-I-V-IV-I-I chord progression, over which lay a gospel-blues melody. A female choir joins for the chorus, with a V-V-IV-IV-ii-IV-I-I progression. This jump up to the fifth for the chorus provides the feel of a key change without actually entering one. In addition to the Who-Stones inspired acoustic guitar riff, piano and choir support the gospel feel of the recording. Then an electric guitar provides an excellent solo that sounds more than a little like the solo in Sympathy for the Devil without the danger and edge.

Primal Scream’s love of The Rolling Stones stands out through much of the album. I definitely cannot blame them; my past few years of listening to the Rolling Stones have had a tremendous influence on my work as well. But sometimes I kept being reminded of specific songs by other artists strongly. The song “Damaged” kept making me want to listen to the much better “Moonlight Mile.” I think most of us as musicians try to avoid that. We might say, “I want to make a song like this one,” but our intentions are to emulate what we like about that song without copying the song itself.

Don’t Fight It, Feel It

After the opening track that blends gospel with 60s rock n roll, band jumps into acid-house track “Slip Inside This House.” This cover of a 13th Floor Elevators song from 1967 provides their sideways step into a seemingly disparate genre. Then they make full plunge into house with the third track “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.” Apparently, their intention was the produce a modern verse of Northern Soul music. Music about dancing, for dancing, with groove and soul.

It’s definitely modern (as of 1991) and makes you dance. It has the house synthetic piano chords that comes and go. It has layered soulful lyrics about getting high and dancing. It has a great bassline and house drums. It has an annoying chirping synth. It goes on and on for seven minutes that I would only find bearable if I was dancing to it in a club, and even then I wouldn’t be sad when it was over.

Loaded

The band update their earlier song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Had” on the epic middle track “Loaded.” The earlier song, from their 1989 self-titled second album. I prefer the earlier version, of course, with its more guitar-rock sound and “Sympathy For The Devil” inspired bridge.

“Loaded” opens with a sample from the movie “The Wild Angels” with Peter Fonda declaring they “want to be free.. get loaded and have a good time.” This freedom sample is appropriate, considering the song’s strong resemblance to George Michael’s “Freedom 90” from the previous year. Like much of the synth drum patterns of the early 90s, this one dances with the extra hops during the third beat. The synth piano also plays the jazz-inspired chord rhythm patterns heard in a lot of house music of the period. Guitars come and go riffing in a distinctly rock style.

Primal Scream most succeeded in combining house with rock on this track. It proceeds through a journey, with different phases. This keeps the song interesting. While they use house’s tendency towards drawn-out repetition, they’ve found a compromise between what’s appropriate for listening vs. dancing. A dance-club audience thrives on that lengthy repetition, whereas a listener needs variety.

Aretha Franklin’s “Lady Soul”

Cover for Aretha Franklin's album Lady Soul

This week, I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s album “Lady Soul” from 1968. This marked her twelfth album released in seven years since her first in 1961. Just over a week ago, I spent a week with her tenth album, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” from 1967. Both are fantastic. The songs of Aretha Franklin often played in our house when I was growing up. My mom had a copy of the “30 Greatest Hits” compilation on CD. She and my sister listened to it a lot. “Natural Woman” and “Respect” especially got a lot of play. Though her music filled my childhood, it took several years before I actually developed my own appreciation. Franklin’s singing amazes every time I hear her. She knows how to fill the songs with such emotion and power. A lot of singers attempt the same and often just sound like they are yelling. Aretha Franklin sings!

Chain of Fools

The album opens with “Chain of Fools,” written by Don Covay. The speaker of the song is in a relationship with a philanderer. She discovers that he has other lovers and that she is just one of many “fools.” And yet, she is determined to stick it out as long as she can handle. They use the metaphor of a chain consisting of links to represent the collection of lovers. This metaphor is used throughout the song, maintaining consistency.

There are three verses, the first two are eight lines, the third consists of four. Each set of four lines follows a ABCB rhyme scheme. With the exception of “fool/cruel” and “break/take” the rhymes are not strict. We have “man/chain”, “link/strength”, and “home/strong.”

For five long years
I thought you were my man
But I found out, love
I’m just a link in your chain
You got me where you want me
I ain’t nothing but your fool
You treated me mean
You treated me cruel

There is no real chord progression to the song, though there is plenty of groove and movement. The song provides soulful rock riffs over the same chord all the way through. The guitar mostly plays arpeggios, with a little melodic riffing, of the same minor chord. Joe South’s lead guitar plays some gritty low notes through a clean amplifier, again it’s simple but effective. The bass guitar rolls along, mostly repeating the same two bar pattern, one bar answering the other.

A Natural Woman

The soulful “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” closed side A of the record. Carole King wrote this song with her then husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. I heard this song so much as a child that it feels like the first verse and chorus are just woven into me. It reminds me of the front door and windows being open throughout the house in the early spring. The lead and backing vocals joining and dancing around each other.

Spooner Oldham’s perfectly understated piano starts the song with a simple set of chords, like the piano in a small church. The verses follow a chord progression of I-V-VII♭-IV. Then Aretha begins “Looking out on the morning rain,” joined by the bass guitar. Gradually, the strings and drums also begin to play. A gentle, cautious, pre-chorus follows ii7-iii7, a progression that feels like it’s waiting for strength. Then the strings and backing vocals rise up in the chorus with religious joy, “You make me feel.. you make me feel.. You make me feel like a natural woman!”

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you
Life was so unkind
But you’re the key to
My peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like
A natural woman

The Clash’s “The Clash”

Cover for the The Clash's debut album

This week, I’ve been listening to the Clash‘s 1977 self-titled debut album. I spent a week with their double-LP “London Calling,” making this the second time I’ve spent a week with one of the Clash’s albums for this project. I knew some of that one, but with this album I am very value.

My new group of friends in Athens, OH introduced me to punk rock in 1994; This one immediately caught my interest. I didn’t realize that this was the same band that did “Rock the Casbah,” a favorite song from my childhood. With a year, I bought this debut album and played it frequently. It’s part of the soundtrack of my youth, as well as an album I’ve continued to love as an adult.

Janie Jones

The rocker “Janie Jones” opened the original UK LP release of the Clash’s debut album. The drums start the song with a rapid steady beat like a speeding train. Then Mick Jones’s sharp overdriven guitar cuts in with a burst of a single chord. Joe Strummer’s distinctive raspy vocals jump right into the chorus “He’s in love with rock n’ roll, whoa.” The guitar stabs with the same chord at the start of the next bar, “He’s in love with getting stoned, whoa.” And the same for the next two lines, “He’s in love with Janie Jones, whoa. He don’t like his boring job, no.” And with those simple lines they probably embraced half of their audience. Then they repeat the chorus, this time joined by a simple, but energetic bassline.

This is not a complex song; Rather much of its success comes from it’s direct and simple approach. There’s only one chord to the chorus, with the guitar only providing a stab at the beginning of each bar and resting throughout. The verses follow a V-I-IV-V chord progression, with each chord lasting a full two bars. Topper Headon relentlessly beats a near consistent pattern, with basic fills at the end of every two bars. The instrumentation is sparse. We have the drums, bass guitar, a buzz-saw electric guitar, and vocals, but the Clash delivers plenty of energy and attitude that drives this song through its short 2 minute length.

Police & Thieves

In the middle of the second side, The Clash perform a cover of reggae artist Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” This is both the only cover song and the longest song on the album, at six minutes. Murvin’s song had been release just the previous year and The Clash frequently performed the song as a warm-up during recording sessions. Reggae had a big influence on punk rock, and especially the Clash. These 70s punks, like Joe Strummer and gang, would’ve spent their teenage years hearing songs like “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker during the late 1960s. A teenager’s appreciation for reggae in England at the time would’ve been a rebellious act of opposition of the racism of older generations.

I love the interplay of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones’s guitars across the stereo field. One is panned hard left, the other hard right. Their overdriven short chord bursts go back and forth. First with one playing a chord that slides up to the next, then rests while the other bursts the chord in response. The bass plays a bouncy little riff at the beginning of each bar, preceded by a lead-in at at the end of the previous bar. All of these elements demonstrate how the Clash translated the sound and rhythms of reggae into their own music.

White Man in Hammersmith Palais

Since the first time I heard this album, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” stands consistently as my favorite Clash song. The melody and singing are outstanding, showing off Strummer’s excellent ability to mix sonorous melodic singing, reggae influence, and British punk attitude. The melody, backing harmonies, and lyrics grabbed me immediately as a teenager. It’s an epic song, aware of its scope. There’s reggae rhythms through out, little percussive taps and ticks. The guitars scratches and bursts chords on the upbeat. It’s an absolutely perfect and essential track.

I think the line that got me first was “You think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money.” in response to rock bands and corporations capitalizing on youth. In a later verse he sings “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway,” which I wonder may’ve been in partially in response to David Bowie’s comment the previous year that “Adolf Hitler one of the first rock stars.” WIth Bowie being a huge influence on the group and punk rock in general, that and other statements Bowie made about fascism may’ve been troubling for the punks.

Importantly, I think, Stummer acknowledges his own lack of credibility, “I’m the all-night drug-prowling wolf, who looks so sick in the sun. I’m the white man in the Palais, just looking for fun.”

Lou Reed’s “Transformer”

Album cover for Transformer

This week, I’ve been listening to Lou Reed’s album “Transformer” from 1972. My dad gave me a copy of “Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed” as a gift when I was a teenager. I was already a fan of the Velvet Underground, who I’d learned about through an interest in Andy Warhol. So, I’d already heard some of this album from that compilation, plus some other sources. Still, there were a few tracks here that I’d never heard before, and the whole album is great. Reed studied creative writing in college and had an obsession with Rock N Roll. I believe he dreamed at various points of being a poet, novelist, or journalist. He found an outlet for those drives in the lyrics of the Velvet Underground and later his solo work.

Walk on the Wild Side

The first time I heard the music from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was in the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song from 1991 that sampled it. Thankfully, I heard Reed’s song a couple years later. A couple decades later, I still love it and I’ve forgotten all about the Marky Mark song. ” The music is cool, smooth, and cinematic; Reed’s nearly spoken vocals deliver poetic voyeuristic journalism over grooving, cool, cinematic music.

The song opens with Herbie Flowers playing the iconic bass riff. Flowers produced this groove by layering an acoustic upright bass with an electric bass, both fretless. The upright gives the groove its percussive quality, while the electric smooths the glissando between notes. Rhythmically strummed chords on a significantly high-passed acoustic guitar shuffle above the bass like a hi-hat. Brushed snare completes the rhythm, gently emphasizing the 2nd and 4th beat.

The instrumentation remains fairly sparse throughout. Distant strings pad the atmosphere, playing long extended notes in the upper range. Wordless backing vocals bridge between verses, sung by vocal group Thunder Thighs. Reed speaks like poetry that the “the colored girls sing doo doodoo doo doodoo,” and their vocals pick up the riff, singing. A fantastic baritone saxophone solo by Ronnie Ross, with a bit of echo, leading us through the closing fade-out. I dislike a lot of saxophone solos, but this I love.

Reed wrote short vignettes of people he knew around the Warhol Factory scene for each verse of the song. The second first, below, paints a picture of actress Candy Darling. I don’t know how pleased she may’ve been with this description; Still, Darling managed to be fairly successful, especially for a transexual in the early 1970s.

Each verse is a set of two couplets. The first two lines introduce the character and the following two lines describe what they do. Each verse is followed by repeated refrain of “Take a walk on the wild side.” The colored girls singing “doo doodoo” follows the 2nd verse and then the fifth verse, acting first as a bridge then as an outro.

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey baby, take a walk on the wild side
Said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
And the colored girls go

Hanging’ ‘Round

On “Hangin’ ‘Round,” Lou Reed plays more of a straight-forward rock no roll song. Again, like “Walk on the Wild Side,” he introduces the listener to three different characters. In this case, they are people from the past that keep trying to reconnect with the speaker, even though he’s moved past that lifestyle. He looks at them now with a bit of disgust.

Immediately, the groove starts with bass, guitar, and two dirty overdriven guitar. One guitar chugs along a rock n roll rhythm while the other, with mid-range kicked up, plays repeated rhythm-lead riffs. The verses follow first a I-IV-I played twice, and then II-IV-I-II-IV-I repeated twice, folled by the V to allow the next verse to provide cadence.

The first two lines of the verses introduce the character, their appearance then something about their behavior. The difference in chord progressions emphasizes the twist. Then the next two verses provide a contrast in their behavior, a little twist of consequence. The first two lines rhyme at the end, the second two do not. However, he does play with internal rhymes within the second two lines. They way the second two lines rhyme, though, is not done consistently across verses.

Cathy was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes
And on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose
And when she finally spoke her twang her glasses broke
And no one else could smoke while she was in the room

Satellite of Love

One of my most favorite songs by Lou Reed, “Satellite of Love” was the opening track on the RCA best of compilation, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Here, the placed in the inauspicious position as the second song on side 2. The song tells the story of a man watching the a satellite launch on tv, while plagued by jealousy over his girlfriend’s cheating. Reed recorded a demo with the Velvet Underground, but they did not record an official album version. The narrative slightly reminds me of Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” where “the girl with the mousy hair” disappointedly watches a movie while wishing to escape her dull life. Coincidentally, Bowie sings backing vocals on “Satellite of Love.”

The bass, kick drum, and piano come in at the same time to open the song. The vocals begin at just one second in. The feeling of late night longing and thoughtfulness is presented in a casual, somewhat languid manner, yet the song wastes no time getting started. Mick Ronson plays the distinct piano riff that combines ascending and descending arpeggios with chords.

The verses repeat a I-II7-IV-V chord progression. That second chord is a major 7th supertonic, which is usually played in minor. Raising it to a minor and playing it in a the seventh adds a little tension. It also hints that the opening chords are the IV-V7 of the dominant key. Because of this, the feeling is that we’re coming to a resolution that doesn’t happen until the I-V-vii-IV-I-V-vi-I-IV-I-V chorus leads back into the verse.

I love the way the chorus ends on the dominant chords (a common thing to do) and rests with the unfinished line: “Satellite of..” This unfinished chorus comes to it’s conclusion with the beginning of the outro. In the Velvet Underground and his solo career, Reed demonstrated in a few songs that he likes a Latin flavored coda, and this song is a great example. A variety of instruments, including backing vocals, recorder, trumpet, tuba, hand-claps and fingersnaps join in. It’s a triumphant end to a wistful tune.

Satellite’s gone up to the skies
Things like that drive me out of my mind
I watched it for a little while
I like to watch things on TV