Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson

By now, the entire world knows of the untimely death of Michael Jackson, and it seems as though every blogger in the universe has offered their observations. This is only fitting, as Jackson's presence dominated the entertainment world as few performers ever had. Virtually all of Jackson's life was spent in the public eye, and anybody who hasn't spent the last 40 years under a rock knows his life story, from achieving superstardom at age 11, to his 80's reign as the King of Pop, to the bizarre behavior and ultimate tragedy of his later years. Perhaps the best way to remember Michael Jackson, then, is through his music, the songs, the voice, and the magnificent talent that left its mark on generations.

The Jackson 5: The first four Jackson 5 singles for Motown - "I Want You Back", "ABC", "The Love You Save", and "I'll Be There" - all topped the US charts, seemingly making matinee idols of the five young brothers from impoverished Gary, Indiana almost overnight. By the time of their breakthrough, though, the Jackson boys were already veterans of the club circuit, displaying a craft honed through long hours of rehearsals, often with father Joe sitting in a chair, belt at the ready to deliver a whipping should one of the boys miss a note. (The claim that Diana Ross "discovered" the Jackson 5 was a myth manufactured by Motown's PR staff.)

The early J5 singles were written and produced by The Corporation, headed up by Motown chief Berry Gordy, along with staff writers/producers Alphonzo Mizell, Deke Richards, and Freddie Perren. Gordy said that the brothers were the last big stars to roll off his assembly line. Those hits had one foot in the Motown assembly-line dance-pop of the 60's, but you can also hear the Jacksons straining to break out of that formula, already incorporating elements of the funk that would come to dominate 70's R&B. Michael was at the forefront of those records, possessed with a voice clear and innocent, yet also already having the nuance of the great soul singers, often sounding as though he knew of matters far beyond his years.

Jackson began recoding solo in 1972. "Ben", his first chart-topping single as a solo artist, seems especially interesting in retrospect. The empathy Jackson shows for the subject, a telepathic, manipulative rat, is downright eerie, given how the rest of Jackson's life played out.

Desiring more artistic freedom, the Jackson 5 signed with CBS Records in 1975. They enjoyed few big hits in the latter 70's, but during this period Michael's voice deepened, he developed a range of distinctive vocal mannerisms, and perfected his dance moves. In 1978 he starred as the Scarecrow in The Wiz. During the film's production he met Quincy Jones, with whom he formed a partnership that was the key to the next stage of Jackson's career.

Off The Wall (1979): Off The Wall confidently announced Michael Jackson's coming of age as a major artist. Released at the height of the disco explosion, Jackson and co-producer Quincy Jones issued a statement that they would take a back seat to no one when it came to grooves, while also including a selection of ballads that signaled his maturity.

The energetic, funky groove of the self-penned "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" (embedding not permitted) is arguably Jackson's finest hour. The song introduces Jackson's falsetto and the vocal hiccups that would become a staple of his future work. To accompany the release of the single, Jackson released an innovative video, a practice that would become another of the artist's trademarks.

The mid-tempo, romantic "Rock With You" followed "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" to the top of the charts. "Off The Wall", "Workin' Day And Night", and "Get On The Floor" are fine examples of the irresistible dance grooves featured on the LP. "Girlfriend" was written by Paul McCartney, with whom Jackson would work with periodically for the next few years. Another of the disc's finest moments is the ballad "She's Out Of My Life", in which Jackson breaks down and cries at the end of the track. Quincy Jones had Jackson record several takes, but when Jackson ended each one in tears, Jones decided that his cries were meant to be included in the final recording. Off The Wall became the first album to produce four US Top 10 singles, yet Jackson was still disappointed by this performance and was determined that his next LP would create an even bigger impact. He had yet to become the icon of later years, but as a recording artist, Jackson had already reached his peak.

Thriller (1982): Off The Wall was an excellent dance-pop LP. Thriller was a cultural event, one that ultimately overshadowed the quality of the songs themselves. With worldwide sales of 105 million and counting, Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time.

Thriller does contain its share of notable tracks. Working again with Quincy Jones, Jackson was determined to create an album on which every track could be considered as a potential hit single. He became so obsessive with rehearsing and recording that his relationship with Jones became strained. The extra work paid off, as the LP spawned an unprecedented seven hit singles, some of which displaying a darker side to Jackson's art previously unseen.

"Billie Jean", about an obsessive fan who claims that Jackson fathered her child, is a fine example of the new directions Jackson's music was taking. With Jackson's voice alternating between lust and paranoia, the song stands as one of his finest performances. "Wanna Be Startin' Something" is a propulsive dance track, while "Human Nature" is an edgy, brooding ballad. "The Girl Is Mine" was another collaboration with Paul McCartney; although musically slight, it broke ground with its treatment of interracial love. The title track featured another innovative video, along with narration by Vincent Price.

Of all the performances on Thriller, none had more cultural impact than "Beat It" (embedding not permitted). One of Jackson's goals was to record a successful rock crossover, which he achieved with the help of guitarists Eddie Van Halen and Steve Lukather of Toto. Once again, the single's success was bolstered by a creative video that pays homage to West Side Story.

It was that video that turned out to be a milepost in music history. Barriers between black and white music that had steadily fallen since the 50's were becoming restored to some extent by a new generation of radio programmers dividing the dial into tightly segregated formats. At the time, MTV seldom played any videos from black artists, as they felt they held little appeal to the demographic the channel targeted. Jackson felt that "Beat It" was as much a rock song as anything MTV had in rotation. CBS Records, frustrated with the music channel's stance toward black artists, threatened to not release new product to MTV unless they agreed to air "Beat It". MTV relented, and the video became one of the most popular in their rotation, paving the way for exposure of other black artists.

Thriller led artists to view their releases in a new light. In the early days of the LP, they were seen as a few singles held together by filler. In the 70's, inspired by The Beatles, many artists strove to create albums in which the songs were loosely united by a general theme. Jackson's approach, in which every track was seen as a potential hit, was adopted by many pop artists in subsequent years; the main advantage of this method was that a successful LP would spawn enough hits to keep it in the spotlight for two or even three years, eliminating the need to quickly return to the studio to record new material. Through the success of Thriller, Jackson showed his fellow artists a way out of the vicious cycle of recording, touring, and more recording that had ground so many acts into the dust in the 60's and 70's.

In the US, several albums have approached Thriller in overall domestic sales. Worldwide, Thriller leaves everyone else in the dust. We tend to think of "world music" as encompassing the various indigenous folk styles of the planet, but Michael Jackson, with his universal appeal and attention to craft, could make a claim to creating the real "world music". At his peak, you were as likely to see kids attempting Jackson's moonwalk in the neighborhoods of Soweto, Moscow, and Saigon as you would in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. By the mid-80's Jackson had achieved a measure of international stature unapproached by almost any other music performer.

The King Of Pop: Many claim that Jackson released some of his best work in the years after Thriller. Frankly, I paid less and less attention to him as the years passed. At times Jackson continued to release interesting music - "Man In The Mirror" is the artist at his most introspective; "Black Or White" served as a statement of purpose. Often he seemed to descend into self-parody - the title track of Bad sounds hollow, as if the person Jackson was most trying to convince of his badness was himself. At times when Jackson was exploring the dark side - "Scream" and "They Don't Care About Us" come to mind - the results seem just silly. Through it all, Jackson continued to make pop history. In 1995, "You Are Not Alone" became the first single to enter the Billboard singles chart at #1, and his halftime performance at Super Bowl XXVII forever changed the way audiences and performers regarded that event. Until the end, Jackson was capable of filling stadiums and arenas, especially abroad where the more sordid stories surrounding his life didn't have as much impact. It seemed to me, though, that Jackson spent the rest of his life trying to duplicate the success of Thriller, a success so phenomenal that he could never hope to match it.

Michael Jackson's legacy is the generic, grab-bag pop that dominates hit radio today. His masterful blending of styles created the template that has been used by everyone from Madonna to Britney Spears; from George Michael to Justin Timberlake. Most of these artists, unfortunately, lacked the understanding of modern pop that Jackson had; what seemed fresh and exciting in Jackson's hands often sounds lifeless when attempted by lesser performers. In the process, Michael Jackson brought pop music back into the world of showbiz, a mixed blessing at best. Nevertheless, he was able to achieve a rare level of celebrity; his was a face instantly recognized anywhere on the planet. For Michael Jackson, this turned out to be a mixed blessing as well.

SteveAudio offers his recollections of working with the Jackson family. Also check out this essay from Robert Christgau, who continues to be one of the world's best writers on popular music.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ed McMahon

Ed McMahon, television pioneer, pitchman, and world's greatest sidekick, passed away Tuesday at age 86, having suffered ill health for the past several years.

Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. was born in Detroit on March 6, 1923. By the time he was 10, he wanted to be a radio announcer; at 15 he had his first announcing job, promoting a circus from the back of a sound truck. In World War II, he served in the Marines as a test pilot and flight instructor; he returned to the service in the Korean War piloting spotter planes. After WWII, he earned a degree in speech and theater from Catholic University in Washington, DC, paying his way through school by working as a pitchman for vegetable slicers on the Atlantic City boardwalk.

After graduating in 1949, McMahon took a $75/week job at the brand-new Philadelphia TV station WCAU. Within two years he was Philadelphia's most visible TV personality, hosting 13 programs on WCAU. He gained some national exposure in the 50's as an MC for several game shows. He got his big break in 1958, when he was hired to be the announcer on a new show hosted by Johnny Carson, Who Do You Trust?

The ebullient McMahon proved to be the perfect foil to the reticent Carson. Originally hired to announce the guests and read commercials, Carson quickly worked McMahon into his comic routines, especially poking fun at Ed's love of food and drink. He adapted to the job of straight man so well that when Carson was named to succeed Jack Paar as host of NBC's Tonight Show, he took McMahon with him. Over the next 30 years, McMahon established himself as the undisputed king of the sidekicks, developing an encyclopedia of catchphrases, knowing exactly when to laugh, and introducing Carson each night with his trademark, "Heeeeere's Johnny!!!" As McMahon explained it, "I was there when he needed me, and when he didn't, I moved down the couch and kept quiet." McMahon and Carson worked together 34 years in all, forming one of the great show business partnerships and becoming good friends as well. When Carson died in 2005, McMahon described his longtime partner as "like a brother to me".

During his over 50-year career on television, McMahon enjoyed an assortment of other prominent roles. From 1983 to 1995, he hosted Star Search, a talent-scout show that gave early exposure to the young Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Rosie O'Donnell, among others. He was one of TV's most prominent pitchmen, some of his best-known spots included commercials for Budweiser, Alpo, and American Family Publishers. Every Labor Day for 41 years, he appeared with Jerry Lewis on his telethon for muscular dystrophy, and with Dick Clark, he co-hosted TV's Bloopers And Practical Jokes for several years.

McMahon's final years were somewhat sad. He broke his neck in a fall in 2007, accelerating his declining health status. The next year, it was reported that he was behind hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments on his Beverly Hills home. Donald Trump offered to buy the home so that McMahon would escape foreclosure, but McMahon made an agreement with a private buyer who leased the mansion back to him. Good-natured to the end, McMahon spoofed his financial difficulties in commercials for

Ed McMahon will forever be remembered as the ultimate second banana. This Alpo commercial from The Tonight Show highlights several of McMahon's roles, and is a great example of the rapport he enjoyed with Johnny Carson.

(Crossposted at SteveAudio.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Album project: The Band

The Band, Stage Fright (1970); The Band, Greatest Hits (2000): If this were a serious rock history, The Band would receive a good deal more attention. They were one of rock's seminal quintets, taking part in some key historical moments and contributing a number of works regarded by many as classics. Only a few of their songs really caught my ear, though, and their greatest-hits collection more than serves my needs.

Their roots were with 50's rockabilly outfit Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks. Such outfits were a dime a dozen in their native Arkansas, but Hawkins was able to make connections in Toronto and discovered a fresh market for their sound. Over the next several years, The Hawks were a popular act on the Canadian club circuit. Drummer Levon Helm accompanied Hawkins on his trip north; Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson replaced the other original Hawks as they became homesick and returned to Arkansas.

Splitting from Hawkins in 1964, they worked some as Levon And The Hawks before coming to the attention of Bob Dylan, who was looking for musicians for his first electric tour. That tour became one of rock's historic moments, as Dylan and The Hawks tore through their set with savage fury while the audience, accustomed to seeing Dylan perform alone with just his acoustic guitar and harmonica, responded with loud booing and heckling. The negative reaction proved to much for Helm, who left early in the tour and returned to Arkansas. Later, Dylan and the group, now referred to simply as "The Band", settled in Woodstock, New York, with Danko, Hudson and Manuel moving into a large house they dubbed "Big Pink". During Dylan's long recovery period following his 1966 motorcycle accident, they jammed together in the basement of Big Pink, producing a legendary series of recordings known as the Basement Tapes. The association with Dylan had a marked effect on the group's sound, as Dylan introduced them to various styles of folk, country and R&B, as well as becoming a significant influence on Robbie Robertson's songwriting. Earning their own recording contract in 1968, they talked Helm into rejoining the group and recorded the classics Music From Big Pink and The Band.

The latter albums are the place to start for those who wish to further explore The Band's career. Music From Big Pink featured "The Weight", "Tears Of Rage", and "Chest Fever". The album showcased their eclectic songwriting and unusual song structures. Helm, Danko, and Manuel handled lead vocals: none of them were polished singers, but were able to convey a wide range of emotion through their creative arrangements. All were proficient multi-instrumentalists, and producer John Simon practically became a sixth member, adding madcap horns and other flourishes. The Band was the group's finest hour, with "Up On Cripple Creek", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "Rag Mama Rag", and a host of other performances that earned the disc a place on many lists of rock's greatest albums. The album has a timeless feel to it, as though the songs were found in some obscure early 20th Century book of folk tunes. The Band's ability to evoke old Americana became the key to their charm.

Stage Fright, despite a couple of good rockers like "The Shape I'm In", was a decline from the high standard set by the first two LP's. The title track, easily the best tune on the disc, describes the pressures the band was feeling from life on the road and the need to come up with new material. Robbie Robertson said, "It was named after the experience of having put ourselves in the public eye but we were kind of private people at the same time. Taking our music out and performing it, there was something very private about it and the way we performed it was not very flashy or showy. We just came for business so we could go on and play our hearts out. There was some kind of yin-yang between our nature and what concerts really were. It was almost like a classical music in performance than it was of coming out and wearing cut-off leotards and buckskins. We're not here for nonsense, we're not here for people to get drunk while we're playing anymore. We wanted to shed that skin. It was just a different thing. Not being very showy it all added up to this kind of stage fright thematic thing in our lives. It became so vulnerable and sensitive somehow, presenting this music in public."

The Band's later work never again quite reached the standards of the earlier LP's. Cahoots was a laid-back affair best noted for "Life Is A Carnival". "Rock Of Ages" was a live recording. Moondog Matinee featured idiosyncratic covers of their favorite 50's tunes. After a lengthy hiatus, they returned to form somewhat with 1975's Northern Lights-Southern Cross. "Acadian Driftwood", a wistful tale of the Acadians' expulsion from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the 1750's, stands as one of the group's best tracks. In general, though, their inspiration had been lagging for some time. As well, tensions were increasing between Robertson and the rest of the group. Other group members complained that Robertson was hogging the limelight, while Robertson said he had begged the other group members to help out with songwriting, but they seldom came up with anything. The animosities took their toll on the group's communal spirit that was at the heart of their greatest performances.

The Band played one last show at San Francisco's Winterland on Thanksgiving 1976, a performance immortalized in Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz. The movie is almost as notable for all the celebrities that gathered to bid the group farewell as it is for The Band's performances themselves. Robbie Robertson's outsized ego tends to dominate the proceedings, while Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson are hardly seen at all. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is one of the film's better moments.

The Band reunited in 1983 without Robertson, who has kept his distance from the other group members over the years. Robertson for his part has kept busy with a variety of solo projects, the best-known being his 1987 disc Robbie Robertson. Richard Manuel, having a long history of substance abuse issues, committed suicide in 1986. In 1999, Rick Danko, also having battled drug problems for many years, died in his sleep. The Band broke up for good at that point, with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson engaging in a number of solo activities since. Helm and Robertson, feuding over songwriting credits and a number of other issues dating from The Band's heyday, have reportedly not spoken in years.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quick and dirty IQ test

Blog filler. Because I'm trying to get back into the habit of posting two or three times a week.

Your IQ Is 130

Your Logical Intelligence is Exceptional

Your Verbal Intelligence is Genius

Your Mathematical Intelligence is Genius

Your General Knowledge is Exceptional

Remember, these things are not scientific. Although this comes fairly close to the scores I got on IQ tests in school. YMMV.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Barry Beckett

Notable sessionman and producer Barry Beckett passed away Wednesday at age 66. Beckett had been in poor health in recent years, having been diagnosed with cancer, and suffering a series of strokes.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Beckett first came to notice in the 60's as part of the crew of session musicians associated with Rick Hall's Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section provided a soulful touch to hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge, among others, with Beckett's keyboard stylings as a key part of the mix. Leon Russell dubbed this outfit "The Swampers", and they were immortalized by Lynyrd Skynyrd in their "Sweet Home Alabama".

In 1969 Beckett co-founded the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and began to branch out into producing, while continuing his activities as a session keyboardist. A couple of Beckett's notable session credits from this period are on The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" and Paul Simon's "Kodachrome". As a producer, Beckett scored pop successes with Mary McGregor's #1 hit "Torn Between Two Lovers" and The Sanford-Townsend Band's "Smoke From A Distant Fire". At the end of the decade, Beckett produced notable LP's for Bob Dylan (Slow Train Coming) and Dire Straits (Communique).

Beckett sold his stake in the Muscle Shoals studio in 1984 and took a position with Warner Brothers in Nashville. His production skills played a key role in Hank Williams Jr.'s mid-80's success, as well as producing hits for Alabama. Working independently, Beckett also produced an eclectic array of artists including Etta James, Pfish, and The Waterboys. He also helped launch Kenny Chesney's career, producing his first two discs. Chesney said, "There's no way I would be where I am today in my life if it wasn't for Barry Beckett. He was one of the first people in Nashville to believe in me, on any level, and he taught me so much. The more I got to know him, the more I realized how much he contributed to the world of music."

Beckett's work on "I'll Take You There" and "Kodachrome" provide ample testament to his skills on keyboards.

A 1999 interview with Beckett is also a good primer on how records are made in Nashville, for better or worse.

(Crossposted at SteveAudio.)

Friday, June 12, 2009


Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. Jenn and I brought home a couple of kittens last night. I missed having cats around the house, though I'm still a bit concerned about how they will interact with Thalia.

Go over to Jenn's blog and get your catblogging fix.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The nickel tip

Back in 1957, my dad was assigned to Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Illinois. They didn't pay airmen much in those days, and Dad wound up taking a second job at a gas station in town. Down the road from there a bit, a new A&W Root Beer joint opened up. There was nowhere on the premises to go in and sit; you pulled your car up under the long canopy and a carhop came out and took your order. My mother's cousin owned the local A&W franchise, and he hired Mom as one of his first carhops.

It didn't take Dad long to notice the attractive blonde carhop who brought out his hamburgers and root beer floats, for which he always left a nickel tip. Dad was a bit shy around girls then, so it may have taken a bit for him to muster the gumption to start a conversation with Mom. My mother, though, had been nurturing a desire to get out of small-town southern Illinois and see more of the world, and the more she encouraged the handsome airman's attentions, the more she heard his stories of the faraway places that he had been stationed. They began to date, Dad spent more of his time at the A&W, and he kept leaving Mom his nickel tips.

Last Saturday, Mom and Dad have been married 50 years. It seems that in these times, a marriage that endures fifty years has become a rare accomplishment. They raised children, traveled a lot, saw both good times and bad, yet even through the darkest moments their love endured and grew. I feel extremely fortunate to have them for parents, and wish them many more years of happiness together.