Monthly Archives: November 1900

ZZ Top

You watch one of their videos and you can’t say that ZZ Top are exactly complicated. But they’ve been playing together, the same three Texan guys, for more than thirty years now. After all that time, the story of ZZ Top has become something of a mystery of faith: Here’s a band that not only still loves to rock, but whose music can be counted on to crank out of radios for decades to come; a band that started out playing the blues, brought the message to millions, and still mines that soulful ore as if the blues were its own pension. Maybe ZZ Top aren’t complicated, but these days, few things are harder to explain than something that’s built to last.

They formed in Houston in 1969, the consolidation of two of the area’s best blues bands: Guitarist Billy Gibbons, who’d done session work for an admiring Jimi Hendrix, came over from Moving Sidewalks, and Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) joined from American Blues. Within the year, they recorded their first single (“Salt Lick”) and LP (named, in then-typically unadorned fashion, ZZ Top’s First Album) on a shoestring budget with manager Bill Ham at the controls. At first sales were quiet, but their furious live gigs certainly weren’t. The ‘Top finally hit paydirt with their third full-length, 1973’s Tres Hombres. Like its predecessors, the album’s cuts were built around the classic riffs of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker. But now the sound was more radio-ready than ever: “La Grange,” a boosted-up vamp on Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun,” was a big hit (if a beer ad for years to come), and Tres Hombres hit #8 on the album charts that August.

The band then put out the half-live Fandango, which included the hit “Tush”; 1976’s Tejas, a huge commercial success, was released to coincide with a two-year tour that reportedly outdrew Led Zeppelin and whose road gear included more than $100,000 of prime Texas livestock grazing around the amps. Understandably drained afterward, the band took a break as Gibbons brushed up on his synthesizer know-how; they returned with a new Warner Bros. deal and 1979’s Deguello. With its remarkable version of Elmore James’s “Dust My Broom,” the downright weird “Manic Mechanic,” and the radio-ready “Cheap Sunglasses,” Deguello was ZZ Top’s most critically acclaimed LP to date.

But critical mass, amazingly, was still to come. 1981’s El Loco saw Gibbons and Hill wearing matching boiler suits, sunglasses, and beards that hung down like lobster bibs; there was a new attitude, too, slightly lighter and a little raunchier, that was reflected in the hit “Pearl Necklace.” Eliminator, released two years later, was the ultimate synthesis of the band’s best marketing and songwriting. The #3 LP netted three unforgettable hits that blazed through nacent MTV’s heavy video rotation in the rumble seat of ZZ Top’s new iconic red 1933 Ford coupe: “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs.” The followup, 1985’s Afterburner, found the Ford transformed into an orbiting spaceship on the album cover, charted at #2, and yielded four hits, including the #8 “Sleeping Bag.”

Recycler (1990) reached #8 on the album charts and marked the end of ZZ Top’s most commercial phase. A greatest-hits compilation was released in 1992, and then the group signed a lucrative deal with RCA and released three LPs (Antenna, Rhythmeen, and the thirty-year anniversary XXX) that marked a return to the blues roots that had never really been forsaken—they were just hidden under a little bit of Simonizer.

Formed: 1969, in Houston, Texas.

Years of Chart Activity: 1972-1991.

Group Members: Billy Gibbons (vocals, guitar); Dusty Hill (vocals, bass); Frank Beard (drums).

Important Contributors: Bill Ham (production)

Biggest Hits:
Francene (1972; Pop#69)
La Grange (1974; Pop #41)
Tush (1975; Pop #20)
It’s Only Love (1976; Pop #44)
Arrested for Driving While Blind (1977; Pop #91)
I Thank You (1980; Pop #34)
Cheap Sunglasses (1980; Pop #89)
Leila (1981; Pop #77)
Gimme All Your Lovin (1983; Pop #37)
Sharp Dressed Man (1983; Pop #56)
Legs (1984; Pop #8)
Sleeping Bag (1985; Pop #8)
Stages (1986; Pop #21)
Rough Boy (1986; Pop #22)
Velcro Fly (1986; Pop #35)
Doubleback (1990; Pop #50)
Give It Up (1991; Pop #79)

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The Yardbirds

House band and mobile laboratory to three of the most accomplished electric guitarists in rock history—first Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck, and finally Jimmy Page—the Yardbirds are the quintessential keystone band, shades of their music echoing deeply in any rock ‘n’ roll that’s mattered ever since.

They were formed out of the dust of the Metropolitan Blues Quartet in early ’63 by singer-harmonicist Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and were buttressed by the drumming of Jim McCarty, the rhythm guitar of Chris Dreja, and the leads of Anthony Topham—at least until Topham, only 16, made the regrettable career move of enrolling in college. He was replaced by Clapton, whose pious devotion to the Church of the Blues swept the entire band into a like-minded fervor. They took over for the Rolling Stones at Richmond’s Crawdaddy Club, where they backed bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson in a long series of gigs that honed their so-called “rave-up” style: Long, feverish jams alternating between Relf’s harmonica and Clapton’s guitar, sometimes surging and churning for more than thirty minutes at a time.

Live, it was the real thing and then some, atomic interpretations of classics like Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’.” But their first, earnest single—a cover of a Billy Boy Arnold blues number called “I Wish You Would”—was a different kind of bomb, and the follow-up didn’t fare much better. Seemingly unruffled, the group released the slashing live set Five Live Yardbirds as its debut LP. Then the third single came out. It wasn’t the blues. It was “For Your Love,” a dark, harpsichord-and-bongo-driven singalong written by somebody named Graham Gouldman, and Clapton loathed it. He quit the band, heading for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. And as Jeff Beck strapped himself in as the replacement on lead guitar, that song hit #3 on the UK pop charts, #6 in the US.

The Yardbirds’ golden nexus of sonic experimentation and commercial success was beginning. The blues were still their bedrock, but now they had a secret weapon in Beck: He could make his guitar chime like a sitar or wail in sirens of feedback. In the meantime, the band kept experimenting with its arrangements, spurring psychedelia while still keeping its fangs. By the time Samwell-Smith quit in mid-1966 (he’d go on to be Cat Stevens’s primary producer), the Yardbirds had logged seven top-ten singles in a little over a year. Dreja switched to bass. A former sessioneer by the name of Jimmy Page took over on second guitar, and the band’s third incarnation began.

It wouldn’t last long—about six months and only two singles—but while it did, it was a level of instrumental intensity never before seen in any rock band. A small glimpse can be caught in Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up, where a dashikied Page sweats out a chorus of “Stroll On”; the excellent single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” also shows that lineup’s muscle. But Beck was through; he quit in ’67, and the band plodded through one more LP, the forgettable Little Games, before folding in 1968. Relf and McCarty formed the progressive band Renaissance, Dreja became a photographer, and Page, smitten with the Yardbirds’ bug, formed the New Yardbirds. They were soon rechristened Led Zeppelin. But the rave-ups never stopped.

Formed: 1963, in London.

Years of Chart Activity: 1965–67.

Group Members: Keith Relf (vocals, harmonica); Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar); Paul Samwell-Smith (bass); Jim McCarty (drums); Anthony Topham (lead guitar). Topham replaced in 1963 by Eric Clapton; Clapton replaced in 1965 by Jeff Beck; Samwell-Smith replaced in 1966 by Jimmy Page. Soon after joining, Page switched to second lead guitar, with Dreja taking over on bass.

Biggest Hits:
For Your Love (1965; UK #3, US #6)
Heart Full Of Soul (1965; UK #2, US #9)
Evil Hearted You (1965; UK #3)
Still I’m Sad (1965; UK #3)
I’m a Man (1965; US #17)
Shapes of Things (1966; UK #3, US #11)
Over Under Sideways Down (1966; UK #10, US #13)
Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (1966; US #30)

Noteworthy Appearances on Rhino CDs:
Five Live Yardbirds (70189)
Greatest Hits/Vol. 1, 1964-1966 (75895)
Ultimate! (79825)

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Los Angeles, 1980. In a city with the most carefully cultivated aura of Mellow in the entire universe, who’d figure there’d be a music scene so desperately in need of an enema?

X would be the band to do the honors. It wasn’t that the city was entirely in thrall to the Fleagleswood MacdoobieDan spirit of the time—punk bands like the Germs had done their part to shake things up—but even the acts with the least apparent connection to L.A.’s musical-industrial complex seemed to be surviving (or, in the Germs’ case, expiring) in large part on attitude borrowed from places like London and New York. Places where at least the weather was crappy.

But X weren’t about to deny their roots, instead steering around the dead weight of punk’s original blueprint. They customized it, first, with the rockabilly guitar stylings of Billy Zoom and the dueling vocals of Exene Cervenka and bassist John Doe. Crashing along over drummer D.J. Bonebrake’s colossal racket, X sounded equal parts Perkins and Pistols; but the coup de grace came with Cervenka and Doe’s literate lyrics and clever wordplay that drew from their city’s grit in much the same spirit as Charles Bukowski or Tom Waits. Cervenka and Doe didn’t meet at a poetry workshop for nothing: The opening cut of the first X record is called “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not,” and other blazing numbers included “Sex and Dying in High Society” and “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss.” They knew they’d happened upon something their hometown hadn’t quite seen before. They saw no reason not to title their debut, produced by L.A. rock legend Ray Manzarek, Los Angeles.

Cervenka and Doe were married after Los Angeles’s release; Wild Gift, their second independent album, charted both the duo’s relationship (“When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch”) and their growth as writers. “This midnight I will turn into a beer,” Exene, always a peculiar brand of Cinderella, sings in “Some Other Time,” while elsewhere she sings about building fires next to pay phones, drying a man’s feet with her hair, or throwing her lipstick and bracelets like gravel—and rhyming that with moving to Alabama. All of this over Zoom’s increasingly accomplished work on both the smoking fast-tempos and the arpeggios of the Earth Angelic slow numbers.

The next four LPs, Under the Big Black Sun (1982), More Fun in the New World (1983), Ain’t Love Grand (1985), and See How We Are (1987), were Elektra releases; none were commercially successful at all (remember, this is the new Los Angeles, and priorities are different), but the torrid playing and on-point lyrics kept coming. Zoom’s finale in Black Sun’s “Motel Room in My Bed” is absolutely frightening, while Cervenka keeps the surprises coming in the title track: “Plaid perfume on my breath/I mean I’ve been drinking scotch.” More Fun featured the amazing raveups “Make the Music Go Bang” and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.” Ain’t Love Grand, given a big-sound production coat from metal engineer Michael Wegener, was Zoom’s last record as a member, and, with “Burning House of Love,” also tolled the bell on Cervenka and Doe’s marriage. The group’s final studio LP saw Zoom replaced by former Blaster Dave Alvin, whose “4th of July” is a highlight. The two-disc Live at the Whisky a Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip was released the following year, just as the city’s rock n’ roll torch was passed on to Guns ’N Roses—who, for all their sales, released exactly one-sixth as many great albums as X did.

Formed: 1977, in Los Angeles, California.

Years of Chart Activity: 1980-1987.

Group Members: Christine “Exene” Cervenka (vocals); “John Doe” Nommensen (bass, vocals); Billy Zoom (guitar); Don “D.J.” Bonebrake (drums)

Los Angeles (1980)
Wild Gift (1981)
Under the Big Black Sun (1982)
More Fun in the New World (1983)
Ain’t Love Grand (1985)
See How We Are (1987)
Live at the Whisky a Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip (1988)

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Wilson Pickett

The singer behind no fewer than 32 Top 40 R&B hits between 1965 and 1972, Wilson Pickett—“The Wicked One”—is, in both style and substance, the embodiment of the classic American soul singer: one of the greatest living legends of some of the sweatiest, most urgent, and most fun music ever recorded, period.

Pickett was born in Prattsville, Alabama, in 1941, but by the mid-‘50s had moved with his family to Detroit. He started singing in gospel groups there, eventually turning to the vocal-group style with his first band, the Violinaires. Around 1960 he was recruited to sing lead for the already successful Detroit group the Falcons, and soon, behind his raw-piped screams of “Yeah yeah yeah yeah!”, they scored a hit with his “I Found a Love” in 1962. Next, Pickett signed with Lloyd Price’s local, independent Double-L Records, scoring two hits out of three singles: “If You Need Me” and “It’s Too Late,” both from 1963.

In 1964 he moved to Atlantic Records, already home to the world’s most prodigious soul roster. After his first two singles mysteriously tanked, however, a flummoxed Jerry Wexler sent Pickett to Memphis to record with Booker T and the MGs, sessioneers par excellence. The first result of that collaboration was “In the Midnight Hour,” credited to Pickett and guitarist Steve Cropper. Its impact? Ask the millions of garage bands, radio DJs, and juke box button-pushers who made that 1965 track a #1 R&B hit and one of the most enduring popular songs of all time.

It was the beginning of an astonishing string of hits for Pickett, which he recorded both in Memphis and Muscle Shoals: He hit #1 again with “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.),” “Land of 1000 Dances,” and “Funky Broadway,” and recorded such indisputable classics as “Don’t Fight It,” “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do),” and the definitive version of Bonny Rice’s “Mustang Sally.” His LPs, including In the Midnight Hour (1965), The Exciting Wilson Pickett (1966), and I’m in Love (1968), combined these rock-solid singles with more originals, sultry numbers like “I’m in Love”, and dance-igniting covers like “Knock on Wood” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”

Amid the tragic demises of soul pillars such as Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, Pickett entered relatively uncharted territory as the ‘60s came to a close, seeking a way to bend with the era’s massive climate of change. His 1968 LP I’m a Midnight Mover was a collaboration with Bobby Womack, while his 1969 offering, Hey Jude, attempted—surprisingly successfully—to embrace rock and pop material. Then came 1970’s smoothed-out Wilson Pickett in Philadelphia, a collaboration with soon-to-be giant producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. That project, which included the smash singles “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (R&B #2) and the Sly-like funk of “Get Me Back on Time, Engine Number Nine” (R&B #3) was followed by several more Muscle Shoals hits, but by 1973 Pickett’s outrageously successful relationship with Atlantic had finally run its course. Pickett was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

Born: March 18, 1941, in Prattsville, Alabama.

Years of Chart Activity: 1963–1973.

Biggest Hits:
If You Need Me (1963; R&B #30)
It’s Too Late (1963; R&B #7)
In the Midnight Hour (1965; R&B #1, Pop #21)
Don’t Fight It (1965; R&B #4)
634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.) (1966; R&B #1, Pop #13)
Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do) (1966; R&B #13)
Land of 1000 Dances (1966; R&B #1, Pop #6)
Mustang Sally (1966; R&B #6, Pop #23)
Everybody Needs Somebody to Love (1967; R&B #19, Pop #29)
I Found a Love (Part 1) (1967; R&B #6, Pop #32)
Soul Dance Number Three (1967; R&B #10)
You Can’t Stand Alone (1967; R&B #26)
Funky Broadway (1967; R&B #1, Pop #8)
I’m in Love (1967; R&B #4)
Stag-o-lee (1967; R&B #13, Pop #22)
Jealous Love (1968; R&B #18)
She’s Lookin’ Good (1968; R&B #7, Pop #15)
I’m a Midnight Mover (1968; R&B #6, Pop #24)
I Found a True Love (1968; R&B #11)
A Man and a Half (1968; R&B #20)
Hey Jude (1969; R&B #13, Pop #23)
Mini-skirt Minnie (1969; R&B #19)
Hey Joe (1969; R&B #29)
You Keep Me Hanging On (1969; R&B #16)
Sugar Sugar (1970; R&B #4, Pop #25)
Cole, Cooke & Redding (1970; R&B #11)
She Said Yes (1970; R&B #20)
Engine Number 9 (1970; R&B #3, Pop #14)
Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You (1971; R&B #2, Pop #17)
Don’t Knock My Love (Part 1) (1971; R&B #1, Pop #13)
Call My Name, I’ll Be There (1971; R&B #10)
Fire and Water (1972; R&B #2, Pop #24)
Funk Factory (1972; R&B #11)
Mama Told Me Not to Come (1972; R&B #16)
Mr. Magic Man (1973; R&B #16)
International Playboy (1973; R&B #30)
Take a Closer Look at the Woman You’re With (1973; R&B #17)
Soft Soul Boogie Woogie (1973; R&B #20)
The Best Part of a Man (1975; R&B #26)

Noteworthy Appearances on Rhino CDs:
In the Midnight Hour (71275)
The Exciting Wilson Pickett (71276)
I’m in Love (Deluxe Re-release) (72218)
The Very Best of Wilson Pickett (71212)
A Man and a Half: The Best of Wilson Pickett (70287)

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WEA Round-up

Belly, Star (1993; 45187)
Founding Breeder and Throwing Muse Tanya Donelly earned the great-band hat trick upon the release of Star, the debut album from her group Belly. Quirky, catchy, and anchored by Donelly’s breathy vocals and bang-up guitar, Star‘s lyrics were personal yet too rich with imagery to fall into the “confessional” trap; here, killer songs like “Dusted,” “Slow Dog,” “Feed The Tree,” and “Full Moon, Empty Heart” made Donelly one of the last college-radio gods in the waning days of the medium’s golden age.

Brand Nubian, One for All (1990; 60946)
A seminal album from hip-hop’s heavy-sampling period, this debut from New Rochelle, New York’s Brand Nubian finds the group knee-deep in a treasure chest of rare party grooves and lyrical back flips. Also the only Brand Nubian LP fronted by Maxwell “Grand Puba” Dixon, One for All‘s bumping, good-time production is the perfect counterbalance to the conscious, sometimes militant lyrics of tracks like “Concerto In X Minor,” “All For One,” and “Slow Down.”

Dinosaur Jr, Where You Been (1993; 45108)
Unlike Green Mind, Dinosaur Jr’s major-label debut that didn’t catch frontman J Mascis in the mood to share his toys (Mascis played nearly all the instruments), the second effort, Where You Been, presents a cohesive band all the way through. Bassist Mike Johnson and drummer Murph join Mascis on an incendiary set of howled lyrics and absurdly muscular lead guitar. While other “alternative” bands were all starting to sound the same, soaring singles here like “Out There” and “Start Choppin” proved to be highly visionary revisionism.

The J. Geils Band, Full House Live (1972; 82803)
Though the J. Geils Band recorded a bunch of great studio albums, their bread and butter was always their white-hot live shows—and 1972’s single-LP Full House Live is the most concentrated dose of the action you can get. Eight tracks recorded live in Detroit, including great versions of the Contours’ “First I Look At The Purse” and John Lee Hooker’s “Serves You Right To Suffer,” provide a premium sampling of one of the best juke-joint bands of all time.

Grateful Dead, Skeletons in the Closet: The Best of the Grateful Dead (1974; 2764)
The long, strange trip starts here. Featuring some of the Grateful Dead’s most beloved tunes (“Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Friend Of The Devil,” “Casey Jones”), the 1974 compilation Skeletons in the Closet is the perfect introduction to a band that only barely needs an introduction at all.

The Kinks, The Kink Kronikles (1972; 6454)
The Kinks had so many good songs that a best-of compilation, even a two-disc one, could easily fail to do the masters justice. But by leavening the more obvious hits (“Waterloo Sunset,” “Victoria,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Lola”) with relatively obscure album tracks and previously unreleased B-sides from the band’s richest creative period, The Kink Kronikles has a rich, cohesive feel and has long proven indispensable for both Konverts and Konnoisseurs.

Morrissey, Southpaw Grammar (1995; 45939)
Something the Moz doesn’t always get credit for is the magnificently deafening rock band he put together in the ’90s. 1995’s Southpaw Grammar, with two of its eight tracks clocking in at over ten minutes, captures these twin-guitared blokes at a throttle that’s spiritually not too far off from Rock n’ Roll Animal–period Lou Reed. Standout tracks, delivered by a particularly agitated Morrissey, include “The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils” and “Do Your Best And Don’t Worry.”

My Bloody Valentine, Isn’t Anything (1988; 45231)
After carefully honing their sound on several mid-’80s EPs, Dublin’s My Bloody Valentine released their first LP, Isn’t Anything—and suddenly it seemed like they were shaping everybody else’s sound as well. The hugely influential 1988 album featured Bilinda Butcher’s soft, breathy voice riding the crashing treated guitars of leader Kevin Shields. The delicious contrast of melody and white noise is perfectly encapsulated in the titles of some of Isn’t Anything‘s best songs: “Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside),” “(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream,” and “Feed Me With Your Kiss.”

The Smiths, Singles (45932)
Unlike some bands’ greatest-hits albums, there are no questionable selections on this essential Smiths compilation: It’s just all their singles, 18 of them, presented in chronological order. And from “Hand In Glove” (1983) to “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (1987), there’s no question that Morrissey, Marr, and company are one of the tightest, most inventive bands of the post-punk era: perfect proportions of inventive guitar, tight rhythm, and obsessive romantic crooning to inspire generations of rock aficionados and melancholy teenagers alike.

ZZ Top, Deguello (1979; 3361)
Their 1970 debut LP was straight-up Texas bar blues—and we all know about the beards, the fur-covered guitars, and the ’33 Ford that ZZ Top were sporting by the time of 1983’s seven-million-selling Eliminator. But it’s 1979’s Deguello that may be the perfect ZZ Top record, a middle-ground convergence of grit and flash exemplified both in rootsy covers of Elmore James’s “Dust My Broom” and Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You” and poppier radio-friendly originals like “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” and the hit “Cheap Sunglasses.”

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Talking Heads

In an era when “art rock” called to mind forty-minute Moog explorations and song suites about some such temple or Nordic deity, it’s not unfair to assume that the Talking Heads, first formed at the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-1970s, had the odds of underground punk-rock success stacked against them. That they did, in fact, succeed—leading their dancing followers on a twelve-year adventure through pop, new-wave rock, pulsing funk, global rhythms, the Top 40, and finally onto the big screen—might be testament to the fact that the Talking Heads really were, actually, artists. Is it possible that sometimes life is fair?

After graduating from RISD, David Byrne (vocals, guitar), Tina Weymouth (bass), and Chris Frantz (drums) moved to New York to concentrate on their music, a sparse, rhythm-driven sound backing up the reedy-voiced Byrne’s witty, obsessive lyrics about life in modern days. By the middle of the ‘70s, their acoustic act was opening for the Ramones at CBGB’s, and former Modern Lover Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar), no stranger to eccentric bandleaders, had joined to fill out the band’s sound. The band signed to Sire. Weymouth and Frantz got married. It gets even better.

The first LP, Talking Heads 77, was a critical success that showcased the band’s spry chops and Byrne’s unapologetic geekiness: Songs like “Psycho Killer” and “Don’t Worry About the Government” (“My building has every convenience/It’s gonna make life easy for me”) introduced long-starving eccentric rock fans to a truly kindred character. The next album, More Songs about Buildings and Food (1978) was the first of several collaborations with producer and fellow AV-club member Brian Eno. Under richer production, the music actually seemed tighter, laying bare a respectable artery of funk. The nervous, syncopated guitar of “Found a Job” (about achieving happiness through writing sitcoms) was a typical merging of the group’s signature style and substance; the version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” would be their first big hit.

The next two LPs, Fear of Music (1979) and Remain in Light (1980) saw impressive developments in style and arrangement. Fear’s “I Zimbra” was built on African rhythms, while “Life During Wartime,” another hit, offered more sharp social comment; Light featured an array of session players—horn sections, backup choirs, mad electronic tweaks—buttressing the Heads’ now-razor-sharp sound, and would be the most ambitious record of their career.

Before 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, which featured the band’s biggest hit, “Burning Down the House,” and the beautiful “Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place),” the band went on tour and released a spate of surprisingly un-self-indulgent side projects. Byrne put out a groundbreaking collection with Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and scored Twyla Tharp’s dance suite The Catherine Wheel. Harrison released his first solo album, The Red and the Black, and, with Frantz and her sisters, Weymouth formed the Tom Tom Club, a prescient stripped-down funk band that would score a #7 hit with “Wordy Rappinghood” in 1981.

The next stop was the screen. Director Jonathan Demme captured the Heads’ elaborate live show in his film Stop Making Sense, and, in 1986, Byrne himself tried his hand at directing with the feature True Stories. That film’s soundtrack and the 1985 album Little Creatures would mark the band’s return to pop, if mature-audience oriented (Creatures’s “Stay Up Late” introduces a baby to a household); 1988’s Naked would return to world-beat style for the group’s final offering.

Byrne went on to form his own record label, Luaka Bop, which specialized in reissues of classic pop music from around the world, especially South and Central America; he also released the solo albums Rei Momo (1989), The Forest (1991), Uh-Oh (1992), David Byrne (1994), Feelings (1997) and Look into the Eyeball (2001). Harrison became a prominent producer, shaping the sounds of bands like the Violent Femmes, the BoDeans, and Live. He would join Weymouth and Frantz as the Heads for 1996’s semi-reunion (Byrne would not attend). The group released one LP, No Talking Just Head, but Byrne was back aboard to help promote a new, extended version of Stop Making Sense the following year.

Formed: 1974, in New York, New York.

Years of Chart Activity: 1978-1986.

Group Members: David Byrne (vocals, guitar); Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar); Tina Weymouth (bass); Chris Frantz (drums).

Important Contributors: Brian Eno (production); Adrian Belew (guitar); Bernie Worrell (keyboards); Steve Scales (percussion); Alex Weir (guitar); Dollette McDonald (vocals)

Biggest Hits:

Psycho Killer (1978; Pop #92)
Take Me to the River (1978; Pop #26)
Life During Wartime (1979; Pop #80)
Burning Down the House (1983; Pop #9)
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) (1983; Pop #62)
And She Was (1985; Pop #54)
Road to Nowhere (1985; UK Pop #6)
Once in a Lifetime (1986; Pop #91)
Wild Wild Life (1986; Pop #25)

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The Sugarhill Gang

So the Sugarhill Gang weren’t really from the celebrated and culturally legit Sugar Hill area of Harlem. So the group’s three members—Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien, and Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson—hadn’t even met until the day of their spontaneous audition in a sedan parked at the curb outside the Englewood, New Jersey pizza joint where Big Bank Hank was working the register. So their debut single, 1979’s staggeringly successful “Rapper’s Delight,” was seen at the time as a novelty along the lines of “Disco Duck,” “Pac-Man Fever,” and that song with the John Wayne impersonator. So what? Because despite all that, the Sugarhill Gang were really on to something: “Now the system’s on and the girls are there, ya definitely have a rockin’ affair,” Hank chants at one point in that prescient fifteen-minute twelve-inch. “But let me tall ya somethin’, there’s still one fact, and to have a party, ya gotta have a rap.”

Harbingers of easily the most significant development in popular music since the genesis of rock ‘n’ roll? These guys? Singin’ “on ‘n’ ‘n’ on ‘n’ on on ‘n’ on like a hot buttered a pop da pop da pop dibbie dibbie”? And doing it over a spirited, but hardly reinterpretive, version of Chic’s “Good Times,” which had reached #1 a mere three months previous? Who knew? Sylvia Robinson, founder of Sugar Hill Records—she knew. At that point, rap had been incubating for some time among kids uptown and in the Bronx—alternating rhythmic toasts and put-downs over radio hits in the parks, instrumental disco twelve-inches at parties, and newfangled cassette mixes you could buy up and down Tremont Avenue. Robinson, formerly half of the Mickey and Sylvia soul combo (“Love Is Strange,” Pop #11, 1957), knew what would sound good coming out of a radio and sent her son, Joe Robinson Jr., out to scout some local kids who could put a friendly face to it. He didn’t even have to cross the river from Englewood into the city. Even then, hip-hop was all over every street.

“Rapper’s Delight” was cut for $700 and it was a party record that just wouldn’t quit, Mike, Gee, and Hank tag-teaming on rhymes that, if transcribed, filled up ten pages. They bragged a little and dissed a couple suckers, tossed in a few bizarre childhood memories and a little Ecclesiastes, had us wave our hands in the air like we just don’t care—and the record went double platinum. It hit #4 on the U.S. R&B chart in October, 1979, reached #1 in Canada, and hit the top five in Israel, South Africa, and all over Europe. And it would usher in a five-year period when Sylvia Robinson’s little independent label would both shape and rule hip-hop with acts like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, The Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, and Sequence, rap’s first all-female group.

The Sugarhill Gang would go on to chart seven more times, most notably with 1980’s “8th Wonder” and 1981’s “Apache” and “Showdown,” an early posse cut that was recorded—by Maurice Starr—with Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. In the mid-1980s, Joe Robinson Jr. replaced Master Gee; 1999 saw the release of the children’s LP Jump on It, which featured re-recorded versions of some of the Gang’s classics for the nursery-rhyme set. The new lineup continues to tour, too, assuring us that the show will still go on and on…’til the break of dawn.

Formed: 1979, in Englewood, New Jersey.

Years of Chart Activity: 1979–1984.

Group Members: Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright (vocals); Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien (vocals); Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson (vocals).

Important Contributors: Joey Robinson Jr. (production, vocals)

Biggest Hits:
Rapper’s Delight (1979; R&B #4, Pop #36)
8th Wonder (1980; R&B #15, Pop #82)
Showdown, featuring The Furious Five (1981; R&B #49)
Apache (1981; R&B #13, Pop #53)
The Lover in You (1982; R&B #55)
The Word is Out (1983; R&B #71)
Kick it Live from 9 to 5 (1983; R&B #50)
Livin in the Fast Lane (1984; R&B #84)

Noteworthy Appearances on Rhino CDs:
Rapper’s Delight: The Best of the Sugarhill Gang (71986)
Jump on It (75599)
The Showdown: The Sugarhill Gang vs. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (75624)
The Sugar Hill Records Story (Box Set) (75841)

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Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart has now entered his fifth decade of chart residence. As the ‘80s dawned after his fast-flying ’70s, some may have predicted a fall; ten years of unswerving success later, they may have suggested that surely the ‘90s would do him in. Now, nine Top 40 hits after that (he has 34 in all), there’s no reason to believe that his run will stop any time soon. The simple fact is that he’s just too popular, and his voice—smoky, straightforward, heartfelt—is still just too good.

The son of a Scottish shopkeeper, the London-born Stewart was a standout soccer player with musical talent and a bandleader’s charm. Music won out when he was 16, only a few weeks after being drafted by the professional Brentwood Football Club: He quit the team to hitchhike and busk around Europe, honing his Sam Cooke–influenced vocal style. On returning to London, he spent the next few years playing in a stream of blues bands (The Five Dimensions, The Hoochie Coochie Men, The Soul Agents, Steampacket, and The Shotgun Express, with Mick Fleetwood) before getting his big break, landing the lead-vocal slot with the Jeff Beck Group in 1968. Success on tour and with that band’s first two LPs (Truth and Beck-ola) led to a £1000 solo record deal with Mercury in 1969.

That year he released his solo debut, The Rod Stewart Album, to favorable reviews; around the same time, he and his former Beck bandmate, Ron Wood, filled holes in the lineup of British rockers The Small Faces and joined the band for its First Step LP. For the next half of the decade, Stewart would split his time between his solo work and the now-rechristened Faces, riding an enormous creative wave and becoming an exceptionally well-rounded songwriter and live performer…and getting really famous in the bargain.

With the Faces, he’d release three Top 40 LPs including the #6 A Nod’s as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse (1973) and its Top 20 hit “Stay With Me.” But even by then his solo star outshined the band’s: In 1971, Melody Maker named him top British male singer of the year, and his own LP Every Picture Tells a Story and its hit “Maggie May” both topped the charts. The 1972 follow-up, Never a Dull Moment, would rise to #2.

In 1975 he jumped to even greater commercial heights when he moved to Los Angeles and switched to Warner Bros. Records. The Faces had broken up—Wood went on to join the Stones—and Stewart was able to concentrate entirely on his solo work. The result was a massive upswing in record sales (his next four albums would sell a combined ten million copies) if increased criticism that he’d sold out, gone model-chasing and decadent, and trampled his true-to-the-street rock n’ roll roots. Maybe. But even disco-ready singles like “Hot Legs” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” were buttressed on their LPs with straightforward, Stewart-penned anthems in the “Maggie May” mold: Cuts like “Tonight’s the Night,” “You’re in My Heart,” and “Is That the Thanks I Get?”—often major hits in their own right—were the same honest music that had always been his trade. And “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” was a lot of fun.

Stewart would enjoy continued success throughout the ’80s and ’90s, with highlights including the LPs Out of Order (1988) and Unplugged…and Seated (1993), both double-platinum, a massive 1990 box set, Storyteller, a chart-topping collaboration with Sting and Bryan Adams on 1993’s “All for Love,” and a well-deserved election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Born: January 10, 1945, in London.

Years of Chart Activity: 1971–1996.

Biggest Hits:
Maggie May (1971; Pop #1)
(I Know) I’m Losing You (1971, with Faces; Pop #24)
You Wear It Well (1972; Pop #13)
Angel (1972; Pop #40)
Stay with Me (1973, with Faces; Pop #17)
Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright) (1976; Pop #1)
The First Cut Is the Deepest (1977; Pop #21)
The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II) (1977; Pop #30)
You’re In My Heart (The Final Acclaim) (1977; Pop #4)
Hot Legs (1978; Pop #28)
I Was Only Joking (1978; Pop #22)
Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? (1978; Pop #1)
Ain’t Love a Bitch (1979; Pop #22)
Passion (1980; Pop #5)
Young Turks (1981; Pop #5)
Tonight I’m Yours (Don’t Hurt Me) (1982; Pop #20)
Baby Jane (1983; Pop #14)
What Am I Gonna Do (I’m So in Love with You) (1983; Pop #35)
Infatuation (1984; Pop #6)
Some Guys Have All the Luck (1984; Pop #10)
Love Touch (1986; Pop #6)
Lost in You (1988; Pop #12)
Forever Young (1988; Pop #12)
My Heart Can’t Tell You No (1988; Pop #4)
Crazy About Her (1989; Pop #11)
Downtown Train (1989; Pop #3)
This Old Heart of Mine (1989 Version) (1990; Pop #10)
Rhythm of My Heart (1991; Pop #5)
The Motown Song (1991; Pop #10)
Broken Arrow (1991; Pop #20)
Have I Told You Lately (Live) (1993; Pop #5)
Reason to Believe (Live) (1993; Pop #19)
All for Love (1993, with Sting and Bryan Adams; Pop #1)
Having a Party (1994; Pop #36)
Ooh La La (1998; Pop #39)

Noteworthy Appearances on Rhino CDs:
The Very Best of Rod Stewart (78328)

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Miles Davis

Miles Davis in 500 words or less? A million words, sure. None at all? Probably better, still. In his forty-year career, Davis’s trumpet was telling the story even when his back was turned, no words necessary. The story was about change. Sometimes slow, sometimes sudden; sometimes ugly, yet always beautiful—simply because it was so clearly changing, and was consequently so human. Davis went through at least four major musical phases, their progressions deliberate and visionary. Taken as a whole, these periods connect to form a life. Yet there’s also a lifetime between every note, from a whispered passage to an impatient staccato burst. All you have to do is listen, and you’ll hear a different story every time.

Born in 1926, Davis moved to East St. Louis with his father and mother—a dentist and a music teacher—when he was still a young boy. By his teenage years he was playing trumpet in local bands, even playing with Billy Eckstine in St. Louis proper. He moved to New York in 1944 to study at Juilliard, but within the year he’d cast school aside and was playing clubs; soon he was playing and recording with giants such as Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. Be-bop protocol at the time called for lightning-fast runs, which wasn’t Davis’s style, but nevertheless by 1947 he was leading his own band, a nine-piece called the Miles Davis All-Stars. That group’s lush, more laid-back sound was captured on sessions arranged by Gil Evans, recorded in 1949-50 and later released as 1957’s monumental Birth of the Cool. This marked Davis’s first departure from the norms of the jazz world.

Davis successfully fought off heroin addiction in the early 1950s, emerging a confident bandleader and forming, in 1954, the Miles Davis Quintet with Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers, and John Coltrane. That lineup’s four 1956 releases—Workin’, Steamin’, Cookin’, and Relaxin’—mixed originals and standards in what stand as classics of the era. Round About Midnight (1956) was another undisputed masterwork recorded with the Quintet; the next, Miles Ahead (1957) had him playing flugelhorn and once again working with Evans. It was an album that would inspire mass imitation, and foreshadowed a remarkable series of orchestral collaborations still to come with Evans, including Porgy and Bess (1959), Sketches of Spain (1960), and Someday My Prince Will Come (1961).

In the meantime, Coltrane, battling addiction, was replaced with Sonny Rollins for Milestones (1958); Cannonball Adderley joined on alto sax to make that remarkable LP’s lineup a sextet. The newly clean Coltrane was back, however, for Davis’s most popular and influential album of all, 1959’s Kind of Blue. Built around modal scales that sidestepped the standard octaves of standards and show tunes, the record was moody and spellbinding.

The Grammy Awards debuted in 1959 and had a lot of catching up to do with Davis. By 1964 he’d been nominated for four awards, and 1966’s Miles Smiles saw the first nomination for that decade’s entirely reorganized lineup. 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro marked still another major innovation: New members Wayne Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea each played electric instruments. The establishment was aghast, but Davis pushed ahead, releasing 1969’s beautiful, brooding In a Silent Way (another Grammy nominee) and, later that year, the gold, Top-40 double-LP Bitches Brew, his trumpet riding a wash of wah-wah.

Davis would release several more fusion LPs, including Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971) and On the Corner (1973), but by 1976, under failing health, he hung it up. He returned in the early ‘80s and continued to tour and record throughout that decade. In July, 1991, only two months before dying from a stroke, he recorded a live LP at Montreaux with a Quincy Jones–led orchestra. Revisiting his work with Evans for the first time, it was a moving sign that his restless quest for change had come full-circle.

Born: May 26, 1926 in Alton, Illinois.

Died: September 28, 1991 in Santa Monica, California.

Years of Prominence: 1945–1976.

Collaborated With: Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine, Benny Carter, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Max Roach, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Horace Silver, Percy Heath, Thelonious Monk, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb, Hank Mobley, Ron Carter, George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Sonny Stitt, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Keith Jarrett, Quincy Jones

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John Prine

You can come up with a lot of possible explanations for why John Prine has always been a little bit different from other songwriters. For one thing, his zeitgeist wasn’t the ‘60s; he didn’t like Vietnam any more than his predecessors, but when he recorded his debut in 1971, his protest had the scope (and guts) to also question the way we treated our veterans on their return. He was different because, while others were scratching out increasingly personal, abstract lyrics, he introduced vivid characters who lived somewhere at the heart of America. And, of course, he was different because his talent was overflowing: He was the real deal, a truth-teller.

Though he grew up outside Chicago, the hitch in his voice—and his taste for simple, folk- and country-infused melodies—suggests his parents’ Kentucky background. He started playing his guitar and singing in Chicago clubs after his stint in the army, spending his days working in the post office, and soon had the admiration of rising local songwriter Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans”), who would introduce him to Kris Kristofferson after one of Prine’s gigs. Kristofferson, knocked out by an intimate, after-hours set of the 24-year-old’s best material, helped Prine secure a record contract with Atlantic.

The selections on Prine’s debut, John Prine, displayed the uncommon pairing of an utterly mature worldview with youthful humor and sense of possibility. Songs like “Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello in There” reflected on growing old with incisive empathy, while the tragic “Sam Stone” and the humorous “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” examined the mixed messages of the homefront. “Donald and Lydia” was about two outsiders who might have found love; “Illegal Smile” was about just getting high.

His music’s sound would change over the years and the mood of his observations would shift with his fortunes (or lack thereof; he never did sell a lot of albums), but the quality of his lyrics would be remarkably consistent. The 1972 follow-up Diamonds in the Rough would turn toward country with the classic bar stomp “Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You,” while 1973’s Sweet Revenge—that’s him scowling through the five o’clock shadow on the cover, about to step out for a little hair of the dog—picks up a rock angle with “Blue Umbrella,” “The Accident,” and the title track. The fed-up Common Sense (“It don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more”), produced by Steve Cropper, would rock out even further in 1975. 1978’s Bruised Orange would find Prine back with Goodman for a quieter, more romantic set that included “If You Don’t Want My Love,” written with Phil Spector. And his last two albums for the Warner empire would explore the cradle of American rock: Pink Cadillac (1979) was recorded with Sam Phillips and his son Knox at Sun Studios in Memphis, while 1980’s Storm Windows sent the singer to Alabama, pairing him with producer Barry Beckett and the great Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

In 1984, Prine released Aimless Love, the first offering from his own Oh Boy label. Operating on a smaller scale than he did in the ’70s, Prine has continued his acclaimed live performances and songwriting while turning his back on corporate pressures. He would go on to be nominated for the Best Contemporary Folk Grammy for 1986’s German Afternoons, and would pull off the victory a few years later with The Missing Years, in 1991. In the meantime, Prine’s been getting his due via royalty checks from George Strait (“I Just Want to Dance with You” hit #1 in 1998), the Everly Brothers (“Paradise”), Bonnie Raitt (possibly the definitive “Angel from Montgomery”), and Joan Baez and Bette Midler (who both did “Hello in There”). On his own terms, Prine has carved a place for himself as one of America’s finest songwriters.

Born: October 10, 1946, in Maywood, Illinois.

Years of Chart Activity: 1972–1995.

John Prine (1971)
Diamonds in the Rough (1972)
Sweet Revenge (1973)
Common Sense (1975)
Bruised Orange (1978)
Pink Cadillac (1979)
Storm Windows (1980)
Aimless Love (1984)
German Afternoons (1985)
John Prine Live (1988)
The Missing Years (1991)
Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings (1995)
Live on Tour (1997)
In Spite of Ourselves (1999)
Souvenirs (2000)

Noteworthy Appearances on Rhino CDs:
Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (71400)

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