Archive for the ‘music’ Category

David Cassidy: A (Brand) Identity Lost and Found

Monday, February 27th, 2017

2545764400000578-2936558-image-m-6_1422890689144 I don’t know what I’m up against. I don’t know what it’s all about. I got so much to think about…This week, former pop idol David Cassidy announced to the world that he has dementia and, after nearly 50 years of performing, he is retiring.  His life has been an extreme rollercoaster ride that has touched many and, as much as any, tells a cautionary tale of a brand identity run amok, lost and later found.

A working actor and musician in his teens, Cassidy always sought stardom, appearing on a slew of early 70s high-profile television series, including: “Medical Center,” “Bonanza,” “Ironside,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Adam-12.” But nothing could have prepared him for his role in the Cowsills-inspired “Partridge Family” that would, virtually overnight, elevate his status to one of the most famous and sought after pop stars ever while leaving him wondering who he really was.

For Cassidy, the fame would become both a blessing and a curse as he has described the phenomenon of “him” in interviews over the years.  Media of the day worked both for and against him.  At a time before cable, the Internet, MP3s and video games, there were only three national TV networks; as such, millions watched while millions more bought Partridge Family records (myself among them).  As such, to much of the world David Cassidy was Keith Partridge – whether on television, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine covers, lunch boxes or in concert (where he sang series songs).

Exacerbating the problem for Cassidy was that in a time before the Internet and cable, there were few media platforms to appear as “yourself” – no personal websites to tell the tale of who you really were as an artist rather than fictional character; no E! Entertainment cable network to run stories on a day in your life.  And, further, there were only a handful of network TV talk shows where one might appear “out of costume” as it were; the granddaddy being “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” although this aired late nightly and long after most teenyboppers went to bed.  As a result, David Cassidy lost himself with a personal brand and identity virtually hijacked by a TV network (ABC) that owned his likeness and a recording company (Bell) that owned his voice. It was a disastrous recipe for typecasting and, for many years, resulted in something akin to career suicide. Just ask one-time “Batman” star Adam West.

Cassidy eventually would resurrect his career and take his talents to Broadway and then Vegas and, in time, return to touring and playing (and enjoying) the songs that initially made him famous enough to sell out Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium, among others, back in the day.  However, it would take walking away at the top of his fame and drastic measures (appearing mostly nude on the cover of Rolling Stone).  Radio and music buyers would largely eschew his new offerings for years.

They say time can heal all wounds and hindsight is forever 20/20 and, to be sure, in recent interviews he has talked about the positives of extreme celebrity and how it has allowed him the opportunity to positively impact the lives of many. As he enters the twilight of his life and a difficult road ahead, perhaps David Cassidy has also finally come to terms with and accepted the pivotal role Keith Partridge played in his life.  One would think that, at the very least, he’s met him halfway. And you know what they say about that.

Kansas Carries On Its Wayward Band

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 3.39.46 PMOnce I rose above the noise and confusion, set a course beyond this illusion…In 1976, the band Kansas produced its swan song album, “Leftoverture” and signature single “Carry On Wayward Son”.  Though it was not their very first album (that had come two years prior), no one had heard anything quite like this art rock from the heartland.  Some 40 years later and despite the exit of most of its original members, Kansas has found itself re-energized with a new LP: “Prelude Implicit” and a piece of work on par with their best ever.  It’s a study in counterintuitives.

In a recent article on Rollingstone.com, writer Steve Smith provides more background on various aspects of this dynamic, including the fact that only band mates Phil Ehart (drums) and Rich William (guitar) remain from the early days. Of particular note is that the heart of soul of Kansas, singer Steve Walsh and guitarist Kerry Livgren are gone after both forever served as primary songwriters. How does any group survive such turnover? Such an undertaking is particularly tough without your lead singer. ELO II, as it was once named, tried unsuccessfully to make it without Jeff Lynne; the Guess Who without two main vocalists: Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman.

Many groups in recent years have toured successfully with “doppelganger” lead singers culled from tribute bands, Journey and Yes among them.  Yet, it’s one thing to emulate on stage while surrounded by several original members, another to release and successfully market brand new music.  With their first album of new material in nearly 16 years, “Prelude Implicit”, Kansas once again hits the right note despite what might otherwise be creative handicaps – just as it did in the mid 1980s when singer John Elefante temporarily replaced Steve Walsh for huge hits “Play The Game Tonight” and “Fight Fire With Fire”.

And, it appears, lightening can strike twice (three times?).  This time, it’s singer Ronnie Platt who supplies the electricity as Kansas returns to two guitars and heavy organ – harkening back of course to its original sound.  And, the signature violin never sounded better. The timing is also just right for this reincarnation as classic rock enjoys a resurgence and new appreciation by millennials who grew up with their parents playing these artists.  Just look around you at your next Steve Miller or Styx concert to the audience’s demographic makeup.

What matters most, though, is the music – and these new tunes sound really, really good.  As a huge Kansas and Steve Walsh fan I was very, very, pleasantly surprised.  Reading reviews, I’m not alone. This is not a tribute band.  As writer Craig Ellis Bacon recounts in the prog report this Kansas brings a fresh, new energy that is also “comfortably confident and mature”, “totally even and incredibly enjoyable”. Give it a listen. I think you’ll agree that 2017 sounds a bit like 1976 again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One More Try

Monday, December 26th, 2016

GeorgeMxlThat’s what George Michael appeared to be preparing for in 2017.  A new documentary film, a new album – all to come nearly two decades after exiting the record charts and moving largely into reclusiveness.  It is a return (redemption?) that will, sadly, have to be realized without him.

I love writing about music but hate writing about an artist leaving us and, in 2016, this happened all too often.  For many of us, George Michael is still in his 20′s or 30′s, singing his heart out and moving about, arguably among the top, true talents to come out of the MTV era.  And while he was a singer, the words he sang spoke to millions of fans across the world.  He knew his audience and they loved him for it.

George Michael could have easily been dismissed after first appearing as a member of Wham! with the bubble-gum pop, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in 1984 and yet we watched (often in awe) as he not only moved feet but hearts with the haunting “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner”.  As a solo artist, his growth as an artist – singer/songwriter – increased exponentially as he also matured with this audience.  From controversial sex object (“I Want Your Sex”) to existentialist (“Father Figure”) to romantic (“One More Try”) Michael connected with his fans – giving them what they wanted but also keeping them guessing with beats and melodies the likes of which many had never heard.

In a Facebook post yesterday someone noted the cruel irony of Christmas Day being George Michael’s last Christmas, ala his holiday song of the same name.  I prefer instead to refer back to a few of his other tunes (“Heaven Help Me”), (“Praying For Time”), (“Jesus To A Child”),  and, considering his often tumultuous life, perhaps even “Freedom”.  He has turned “a different corner” than expected yet we can still be thankful for the good fortune to have met him. (We) gotta have faith.

WMGC: Wherefore Art Thou Going Next?

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

imagesIs this where we cue the DJ to play Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust?” Sadly, the death of another radio station format in Detroit is no laughing matter – not when jobs and livelihoods are lost.  Yet, after just three years, that is exactly what has happened again in this town as Greater Media announced last night that its Sports/Talk station, 105.1 WMGC, is switching formats. Most staffers, it has been reported, will not be retained.

How and why did this occur? A look back (and of course, hindsight is always 20/20) illuminates what some might deem missteps. When WMGC flipped from Adult Contemporary “Magic” (with Jim Harper) it brought Drew Lane, the legendary morning man from sister station WRIF-101.1 FM, over to apparently anchor the new competitor to CBS juggernaut WXYT (97.1 FM The Ticket).  However, Lane was inserted not into his customary AM drive slot but rather into PM drive.  A lot of that could have been due to the fact that Lane had publicly shared his disdain for the life-style-challenging early morning shift.  His audience, however, did not follow him in the droves that had been anticipated or at least hoped for.

Other air personalities were similarly mismatched and moved around. As a result, top talent such as Matt Dery and Tom Mazawey were not allowed to flourish nor build particular daypart followings. The station did set itself apart from its crosstown rival with a plethora of regular live, on-air interviews.  In many ways, though, this was countermanded by too much national (ESPN) content, including for a time, much of its primetime weekday morning programming.

In the end though, WMGC could simply not compete with other Detroit radio heavyweights long known for their sports team pedigrees and acumen – including CBS and Cumulus’ WJR. The Pistons were on board, sure, yet decades removed from the “Bad Boys” days of fanatical citywide excitement; having not possessed the panache of the Tigers or Red Wings (or event Lions) for far too long.  They certainly were not enough to carry a station on its back.

So, what’s next for WMGC? From a formatics standpoint, the one glaring hole in this town would appear to be the Adult Contemporary format.  And while WOMC and Greater Media sister WCSX often dip a toe into the waters of Elton John and other traditional A/C staples, only iHeart’s WNIC is considered a true A/C.  Listen for a time to 100.3 though and ‘NIC often sounds like the more-current leaning WDVD 96.3 FM, if not a Hot Hit station.  Perhaps it is time for a more sedate, adult-focused format that more intuitively merges new songs with old.  WMXD 92.3 FM has done this very successfully, albeit with a more urban/R&B flavoring. For now, ‘MGC is simulcasting content from the WCSX HD-2 classic oldies format channel.

Ironically, WMGC was A/C before Sports/Talk yet with a more upbeat, current/recurrent bent.  It might be time for a return, although with the twist I am suggesting. To get anyone to go up the dial to 105.1 FM, though, especially in these days of Pandora, Satellite and MP3s, it is going to take an investment in truly local and name-recognizable talent.  How about luring Jim Harper out of retirement and re-teaming him with Chris Edmonds? Putting Lynne Woodison back on the Detroit airwaves? Hiring Ann Delisi to program and do what she wants on both sides of the mic? Kevin O’Neil and Tom Force should be back on the regular airwaves again too. The key to success will be investment – in forethought, strategy, true name-brand talent and an appreciation for what really makes radio great. I’ll keep my fingers crossed – but am not holding my breath.

 

 

 

 

The Monkees offer “Good Times” for a New Generation

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Monkees-Good-TimesHey, hey they they’re the Monkees…and they’re not monkeying around.  In fact, the pop/rock band has just embarked on a 6-month nationwide tour as it prepares its first album of new material since 1997 (“Good Times!”) – all just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Monkees’ television debut.  Reporter Andy Greene recounts exactly what’s what in the latest issue of Rolling Stone.

While far from being among the young generation (Micky Dolenz is 70), the band still has something to say, thanks in large part to a range of contemporary and historical songwriters who are contributing material to the LP, due June 10th.  That includes River Cuomo and Noel Gallagher as well as older tunes from the 60s, written for the group but never recorded, from heavyweight authors Harry Nilsson, Carol King and Neil Diamond.

Perhaps most touching will be the release of the Diamond penned song “Love to Love” which will feature vocals from the late Davey Jones.  To help ease the loss, Michael Nesmith (he of the perpetual stocking cap) has returned to record with Peter Tork and Dolenz for the first time since the band’s breakup in 1971, although Nesmith won’t tour.

From the iconic guitar-shapred logo to the breezy, catchy tunes, the Monkees brand has endured as have their fans who are sure to pack venues just as sure as they consumed the group’s music back in the day. Wikipedia notes, in fact, that the Monkees have sold over 75 million records worldwide, outselling at their peak in 1967 the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.

Nostalgia is a powerful and incredible thing.  Far from one-hit wonders, the Monkees run on TV and radio lasted a mere three years.  Yet, long before social media, the band’s promotional tentacles stretched to multiple platforms that included everything from teenybopper magazines to toys (I possessed a very odd-looking, multi-headed pull and play). Timing was also kind, as the group offered fun and escape and an alternative to the tension, drugs and revolution of the Vietnam era.  Best of all, their music made your toes tap and their antics made you laugh. Welcome back.

 

 

When Doves Cry

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Prince_logo.svgAnother artist gone too soon.  There have been many in recent weeks with Prince, sadly, among the most notable and pioneering.  He was James Brown meets Jimi Hendrix – a rocker who merged funk, R&B, electronica and soul as well as anyone ever did.  A trendsetter and visionary.  An amazing songwriter and incredible singer with range that one moment expressed emotion, another sexuality.

As a radio disk jockey as his career began and progressed, I experienced first hand how traditional radio at first shunned and then openly embraced him.  When I first hit the airwaves in 1981, music from his first offerings, “Dirty Mind” and “Controversy” were too controversial for anything but Urban formatted stations to play, typically late at night and edited.  At the same time, traditional “Hit” radio was the exact opposite of color and gender blind. They rarely played African American or female artists. Then came Michael Jackson and MTV.

The timing was perfect for Prince and he took full advantage – releasing his swan song, “Purple Rain” and the beautiful “When Doves Cry” to radio and MTV.  The movie, “Purple Rain”, would become the silver screen’s first long-form music video since the Beatle’s “Yellow Submarine”.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

What would follow, in fact, was a legendary career that would offer the eclectic (“Rasberry Beret”), the socially relevant (“Sign of the Times”) and the out-and-out fun (“Kiss”).  A master marketer, he was among the first to release music free and or without promotion online – approaches later emulated to great success by Radiohead, Beyonce and Drake.

Always pushing boundaries.  Always setting trends.  A chameleon who was first a name and then a symbol and then a name again.  At times we might have wanted to look away, but we could never take our eyes or ears off him.

Glenn Frey: Heartache Tonight

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 1.24.44 PMThe year is 1975 and a youngster in Champaign, Illinois is listening as usual to his transistor radio and WLS-AM 890, playing Top 40 hits out of Chicago. Earlier in the year, Earth Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” had mesmerized the young man just as had the Ohio Players with “Fire” the year previously.  Then, haunting guitars, sorrowful vocals and soaring harmonies emanate from the tiny speaker as The Eagles’ “One of These Nights” produces chills on its way to the #1 song in the country. I was hooked. And I was not alone.

And though Don Henley dominated the vocals on that particular tune, Royal Oak, Michigan-native Glenn Frey was its co-author and chief harmonizer on what was their 2nd of five #1 songs over a career spanning decades.  As is all too common, we often and gradually forget the important role a particular artiss or artists play in our lives until they pass – in this case, quite unexpectedly and with an individual far too young (67).

If you grew up through the 70s and 80s in particular, Glenn Frey and the Eagles were likely an integral part of the soundtrack of your life. From 1972′s “Take it Easy,” which Frey co-wrote with Jackson Browne, his southern California neighbor, through 1980′s “I Can’t Tell You Why,” the band prolifically produced fifteen Top 40 singles in that twelve year span.  Everyone has their favorite and wonderful memories.  I also recall sitting in the lunchroom of Edison Junior High years later when the awe-inspiring guitar work of “Hotel California” came over the loudspeakers.  All I could utter was, “Amazing.”

In a band that successfully merged country/western and rock like no other, Glenn Frey’s voice seemed to possess the most “country,” the songs he sang on, the most “western” of his talented bandmates.  Transitioning later to a brief solo career, he channeled his inner-romantic (“The One You Love”) while also staying fun in the movies (“The Heat Is On”) and on television (“Smuggler’s Blues”) albeit with a more polished look and approach. Most recently, of course, Frey continued to build upon the Eagles legacy with critically-acclaimed tours and music.

As a friend of mine so aptly reminded me yesterday when word first started filtering out, the band in heaven just got that much better.  Here, among us mere mortals, his music and its impact live on.

David Bowie: And May God’s Love Be With You

Monday, January 11th, 2016

bowie_on_tourDid any of us truly know David Bowie?  Or, with every new musical delivery were we still trying to figure him out as he took us, over the golden years, to one musical oddity and then another and then another after that?  Few would argue that Bowie’s artistry was enhanced by his mystique and unwillingness to be put into a categorical box.  Always experimental. Always ahead of his time. It’s what made him special and unique and us forever curious and intrigued.

Bowie was an innovator and an amazingly adaptable chameleon.  In the world of branding the old adage: Do what you do best and stick to it could never apply.  Born David Jones, he changed his name early to avoid confusion with then superstar Davey Jones of The Monkees.  He channeled 60′s psychedelics with his first and perhaps greatest hit ever, “Space Oddity,” (this blog’s headline comes from this song’s lyrics) before embracing the 70s Studio 54 scene with androgyny and “Fame.”  “Fashion” and “Ashes to Ashes” would continue in the club vein with the latter updating us on the trials of Major Tom, complete with an experimental video two years before the MTV astronaut first made an appearance.  And how can anyone forget his rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” in a duet with Bing Crosby on a holiday TV special. Bing Crosby? With Bowie, it made perfect sense to go along with those perfect harmonies.

Image was everything in the 80s and Music Television and other programming like “Miami Vice” (conceived by creator Michael Mann as “MTV cops”) saw Bowie once again fitting right in.  From Ziggy Stardust came a more polished, dapper musician and another sound direction. “Let’s Dance” evoked big band while “Blue Jean” borrowed from R&B with horn accents equal parts Earth Wind & Fire and Sly & The Family Stone.  The next moment, he was teaming with fellow art rockers Queen (“Under Pressure”), and the next with jazz master Pat Metheny for movie music (the haunting “This is Not America).  And radio airplay never came easier.

It is quite fitting that Bowie remained true to his eclectic roots for this 25th and latest LP, “Blackstar” which, Andy Greene reports in his November 23rd review in Rolling Stone, was designed to be unconventional, different, “creating a fusion sound that can’t be pinned to any one genre.”  For David Bowie, turning 69 on the date of the album’s release before succumbing to liver cancer just days later, it really was all about changes through a consistently amazing musical ride.

Radiohead’s “Spectre”: Nobody’s Done 007 Better

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 12.25.38 PMOver the past five decades there has never been a movie series as enduring and for millions as endearing as creator Albert Brocolli’s James Bond films. Never mind Furious 7, How about 24 x 007.  And through those dozens of movies the expert melding of action and music remains integral to the franchise’s success, in particular the opening credits which set the tone for each flick.  As detailed in Wikipedia, the actual iconic James Bond theme – featuring the surfer-esque “Dum-de-de-de-Dum” guitar riff was created by composer Monty Norman and scored by the legendary John Barry.  It has been utilized in the opening credits from the very beginning, including 1962′s “Dr. No” and 1963′s “To Russia with Love” as well as many of the closing credits through the very latest film.

By 1964s “Goldfinger” however, the movie’s openings would be dominated by popular singers and groups of that particular era.  And so it was that Welch singer Shirley Bassey took on that title track and took it to #1 for a 200 week run on the Billboard charts (#14 in the UK), garnering a Grammy nomination as well. Bassey would return in 1971 for “Diamonds are Forever” and again in 1979 with “Moonraker.”  As the Bond marketing and promotions machine continued to churn with radio airplay and soundtrack sales for its celluloid offerings, the franchise officially entered the rock era in 1973 with perhaps one of its best known and successful themes: “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings. Composed by George Martin, it marked the first Bond song to be nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Original Song), reaching #2 in the U.S. and #9 on the UK charts.  The song also won a Grammy for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists).

Thus would begin a non-stop run of popular artists in every film that has included, most notably: Carly Simon, Duran Duran, Tina Turner, Sheryl Crow, Chris Cornell and Alicia Keys. To say nothing of a slew of top performers that have contributed tunes to the closing credits: Louis Armstrong, K.D. Lang, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Moby. And despite mega superstar Adele performing “Skyfall” in 2012, no Bond song had every topped the charts in the UK until Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” entered them at #1 in recent weeks on behalf of the latest 007 chapter, “Spectre.”

Which brings us to what I and many feel is one of the best Bond songs ever: “Spectre” by Radiohead.  Released to fans this past week online as something of a “Christmas gift” it does not appear in the film nor soundtrack as the hauntingly beautiful tune was passed over in favor of Smith. It’s not the first time top artists have lost out in favor of other options.  Consider these “losers”: Johnny Cash (Thunderball), Brian Wilson (for a James Bond theme song: “Run James Run” which would later appear on “Pet Sounds”), Alice Cooper (The Man with the Golden Gun), Blondie (For Your Eyes Only [Sheena Easton] and Pet Shop Boys (The Living Daylights). It would seem, then, that Radiohead is in very good company. And thought enough to make it available to enjoy through the power of social media.

Take a listen, decide for yourself and let me know what you think. You’ll find a link to the Soundcloud version here as well as a YouTube version of how it might have worked/looked over the actual opening credits here. And, with Radiohead four years removed from their last studio LP, one can’t help but get excited by the shape of things to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELO Elicits A Nostalgic Universe

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

jeff-lynnes-elo-alone-in-the-universeNostalgia.  When it comes to “blast from the past” nothing does it quite like music.  Of course, music has a few things going for it.  Like scent, auditory stimuli can trigger vivid memories of persons and places from days gone by. As notably, as WDET’s Ann Delis put forth in my book, “No Static at All,” the repetitive nature of how we consume music can leave indelible marks in our psyche. We may read a book once or twice, yet, we listen to our favorite songs hundreds if not thousands of times.

As a former longtime air personality in music radio, I played a lot of songs a lot of times. Some I liked and some I loathed.  With a potential burnout factor a fact of life at that time, I was forever grateful for new music to be released and added to my stations’ playlists.  To this day, I still gravitate toward new music and away from old. That said, like many who look back fondly on music from the fun and emotional times of their high school and college days, I still have a soft spot for some of the bands and tunes from my youth.

One of those is a group that I feel is among the most underrated ever: The Electric Light Orchestra.  Between 1972 and 1986, the band sold more than 50 million records worldwide while boasting twenty-seven Top 40 singles and fifteen Top 20 hits. Until ELO, no band had ever so successfully melded classical music with rock and roll.  That said, you may well remember Walter Murphy Band’s disco-era “A Fifth of Beethoven” to a greater degree.  For me, however, with the release of 1976′s “A New World Record,” featuring the monster hit “Living Thing,” I was smitten.

Looking back, it was almost as much the branding of the band as the actual music. And while co-founder Jeff Lynne’s haunting vocals and driving orchestration were unforgettable, so too was the band’s iconic kaleidoscope logo which would soon become the very heart of a massive spaceship depicted prominently on all later album cover art – a akin to the guitar from a group of the same era, Boston.  I would argue that only Chicago’s Coca-Cola-esque moniker is more recognized and enduring.

It is with this foundation, then, that I was so excited to recently learn of the band’s first album in 14 years: “Alone in the Universe.”  Now branded as Jeff Lynne’s ELO (a story in and of itself thanks to past turmoil not uncommon between co-founders [ever hear of ELO II]?), the look, feel and sound of the new work harkens back to a time special for me and, no doubt, others.  Lynne, appears, has not missed a beat.

Ultimately, I think, that is why I love music so much – it means different things to different people based on individual tastes, emotions and personal experiences.  For this one, I might even trek out to purchase a now-hip-again full-sized LP version; easier to savor the album art as well as the new tunes fresh from the record store, just like back in the good old days. It’s back to the future through a veritable jukebox time machine.