New 500 Songs Up: “Earth Angel”

A day late but the new episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs is now up. It’s on “Earth Angel”, and features cameo appearances from Frank Zappa, the Beach Boys’ dad, and the best music teacher ever.

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Latest 500 Songs Episode: “Ko Ko Mo” by Gene and Eunice

What do Rosemary Clooney’s sister, Rita Marley, Andy Griffith, Louis Armstrong, and Perry Como all have in common? They all recorded songs by Gene and Eunice, who had the biggest hit of the fifties you never heard of.
Find out more in the latest episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs

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Hal Blaine RIP

 I’m both ill and trying to get some work done today, so I don’t have the time to give Hal Blaine anything like the tribute he deserves, but I had to quickly mark his death here. Hal Blaine was one of the few session musicians who become almost as well-known as the musicians he played for, and deservedly so. While there’s some controversy over who played what on some records, we do know that Blaine was the first-call studio drummer in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and that he played on, if not every important record that came out of LA in the sixties, at least half of them. 

He wasn’t a flashy player, but he had perfect feel, and he was a musician who could always be trusted to play just the right part. His opening to “Be My Baby”, almost certainly the most well-known bit of drumming from him, is a perfect example. It’s utterly simple, but utterly perfect. 
Blaine was also often the contractor on those sessions, which meant that he was the one who was more responsible than anyone else for the conglomeration of msusicians that became known as the Wrecking Crew — a group that, while its membership varied depending on who was available for what date, had the distinctive sound that made pretty much every hit that came out of California in the 1960s. Blaine played on records for the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, the Association, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Elvis, Sinatra, Roy Orbison, the Monkees… anyone who was making records in LA in the sixties. He even played on stuff that doesn’t sound like typical Wrecking Crew fare, like a couple of the tracks on Forever Changes and the 1974 Roxy cast live album for The Rocky Horror Show. But there was a distinctive sound to almost everything he and the rest of the Wrecking Crew played on. “Return to Sender” by Elvis, “Strangers in the Night” by Sinatra, “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert, “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, “Mary Mary” by the Monkees, and “Da Doo Ron Ron” by the Crystals are all vastly different records in terms of their feel, their arrangements, and even their quality. But they all have a similar sonic palette, and they all sound like the Wrecking Crew. And the drums on them all sound like Hal Blaine. 
He was a drummer’s drummer, and while I know some drummers who don’t rank him as the absolute best, I know none who wouldn’t put him in the top five or ten drummers of all time. He’ll be missed.

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New 500 Songs Episode — “Pledging My Love”

The new episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs is now up, on “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, the first rock and roller to die young. This one contains a description of death by gunshot. It also contains discussions of a man getting a woman to do all his work uncredited, why the blues was probably partly caused by a plague, and what the love of Jesus has to do with wet pants.

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New 500 Songs Episode Now Up!

There’s a new episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs now up. This one’s on “The Wallflower” by Etta James, and talks about answer records, white cover versions of black musicians, and the Goon Show.

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500 Songs: “Rock Island Line”

The new episode of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs is now up! We visit the UK for the first time, as we talk about Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line”, the trad jazz scene, and white British men selling black American songs to white American teens.

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Peter Tork RIP

We knew it was coming, of course — the cancer he was diagnosed with around a decade ago is one which most people survive for a long time, but which pretty much always gets you within a decade or so, and his absence from Monkees shows last year (and his obvious frailty on the one song he contributed to their Christmas Party! album) made it clear that he wasn’t doing well at all. But it’s still upsetting as hell to learn that Peter Tork has died.

Tork was underrated, even by Monkees fans — there was the joke in Brooklyn Nine-Nine last year about someone on a quiz show “He named all of the Monkees! Even Tork! Nobody remembers Tork!” — but he was a massive, massive talent as a performer, especially as an instrumentalist. The jibe about the Monkees not playing their own instruments was never totally true — even on the first album, which was largely played by session musicians, Tork played guitar on multiple tracks — but when they took over their own record-making process, Tork’s playing on banjo and keyboards was what really held the band together in the studio, and some of the most distinctive instrumental parts on their mid-period records — the harpsichord on “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”, the piano intro on “Daydream Believer”, the sharp piano chords on the middle eight of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” were Tork’s work and Tork’s conception.

And he was a remarkable live performer. I only saw him live three times, sadly, but he was the highlight of those three Monkees shows, moving with a physicality and comic timing reminiscent of Harpo Marx, while switching effortlessly between guitar, bass, banjo, keyboards, and even French horn.

He was also an excellent songwriter and a better singer than he was given credit for, whose work on the Monkees’ reunion albums was generally a highlight of them (and in the case of Pool It! was more or less the album’s only redeeming feature). He wasn’t allowed to sing much on the records in the early years, but his vocals on “Little Girl” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow” on 2016’s Good Times! were some of the best of his career, and those two tracks were, for me at least, highlights of one of the band’s best albums.

He was very easy to dismiss. He wasn’t the front-man like Davy Jones. He wasn’t the great voice that Micky Dolenz has. And he wasn’t the mercurial genius that is Michael Nesmith. But what he was was a fine comic actor (and of all four Monkees he was the one who was most different from the character he played on screen, the only one who was really stretching himself), an excellent multi-instrumentalist, and a fine songwriter. And he was the one more than any other member of the band who pushed in the sixties for them to *be* a band, at least for a time. He was the one who insisted on them doing Headquarters by themselves, and he was the one who was most disappointed when the band started to drift into making solo records under the Monkees banner rather than continuing as a group.

The last time I saw him live was, fittingly for such a folkie, at a folk festival — Moseley Folk Festival in 2015, where the Monkees (just two of them — Micky and Peter) headlined, closing the show with a wonderful set which included the Polyphonic Spree joining them for an encore of “Porpoise Song”.

Like the other Monkees, and possibly even more so than them, Tork seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the band, and sometimes to love it while at other times seeming to resent what he saw as it taking away from his serious musical work — he made albums solo, as part of a country-folk duo, and as the leader of his blues band Shoe Suede Blues, and he seemed to regard those as being more true to his own musical soul than his work with the band he was with for three years in his twenties. But in later years he seemed to have made peace with being a Monkee, and his contributions were all over their final (non-Xmas) album from 2016. He’ll be misse,

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