Vigrass & Osbourne Queues LP (UNI, 1972)
Rule #328 in the Scott Soriano Guide to Record Hunting: Anything on UNI is worth a chance. The first UNI record I bought was probably a Strawberry Alarmclock 45. The first one that I am aware that I bought was the Mirettes' classic funk side Whirlpool (a real tuff soul sister funk burner with former Ikettes on vox). After that I made a point to pick up any UNI record I found. Of course, I have picked up plenty of duds, but the payoffs have been great. Vigrass & Osbourne is a good example.
One day, digging through 45s, I found a copy of Vigrass & Osbourne's Ballerina. Instinct would tell me to avoid records titled Ballerina done by a singer-songwriter team (the _____ & ______ is a giveaway), but the record was on UNI so I had to take a chance. I am VERY glad I did. Ballerina is one of the best produced, creepiest, most haunting songs I own. The song's texture is heavy but the heaviness is created by very little - a piano, moog, and bass. Simple notes fill the song's frame. The song is lush but not overdone. The production is remarkable. The topper is that the song is about a dying child!
Before I get back to the production I need to go off on the song's lyrical theme. A little girl named Emily wants to be a ballerina and like all would-be little girl ballerinas she wants to see a ballerina in real life. She has ballerina's in her dreams but not in real life. And then she dies. There is a little more than that but you get the idea. Set to music and the story is 100% Creepsville and I love it! Before you get on my ass for being a morbid SOB, please point your finger toward France and at Jacques Brel.
In 1961, Jacques Brel wrote a song called Le Moribund. It was about a guy saying bye bye to his girlfriend, his folks, and his pals, the young man's death quickly approaching thanks to some unnamed disease. The poet Rod McKuen translated it and it was soon recorded in English by one of the Kingston Trio and the Beach Boys. In 1974, fresh from the Poppy Family, Terry Jacks grabbed the song, fudge with the lyrics and recorded Seasons in the Sun. I was a kid when that song hit the radio and every day for nearly a year I heard it played. I think it was the first time I really listened to the lyrics of a song. I remember crying the first time I figured out it was about someone dying (and, no, that was not just last year). Later, lines like "too much wine and too much song" and "the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach" sent me to fits of laughter.
I don't know if Seasons in the Sun created a template, but I certainly became aware (and a fan) of songs about dying people. I am the only person I know that digs John Denver's Sunshine on My Shoulders and remember the movie, Sunshine, as well. I am certain I am the only one within shouting distance that knows the lyrics to Michael Murphey's, which isn't about a dying child or wife but a horse that freezes to death. I remember Love Story, both the theme and the movie. And who can forget Brian's Song, the only movie that Real Men are allowed to cry over (about the death of football player Brian Piccolo). The Seventies were full of great terminally ill themed pop art. If I had been aware of Vigrass & Osbourne's Ballerina back then, I would have cried my wussy head off while playing the record over and over. Nowadays, I play the record over and over and marvel over the production.
The man responsible for the music and the production is Jeff Wayne. Name does mean anything to you? Listen to the three tracks and think hard. There is the heavy, lush, darkness of Ballerina, done with minimal instrumentation. Forever Autumn, a cult hit among Sunshine pop fanatics, also has a dark undercurrent. The last entry, An Invitation should be a give away. Again the songs fills with little. Two things should yank at your memory: The bass and the beginning of the chorus. Puzzled? Yeah so was I. Then it clicked. I dug through the record collection and found that Jeff Wayne has produced David Essex's Rock On, one of the best singles and most underrated albums of the era (it is also very easy to find so there is nothing keeping you from tracking that one down). On Rock On, Wayne creates some of pop's darkest sounds. Dub, funk, & glam are all used and it is a combo that is pretty unique for the time. While Wayne doesn't screw with dub, funk, or glam here, he does create a similar dark dreamy feel. One constant in Wayne's early 70s production is Chris Spedding, the Brit guitarist who produced some Sex Pistols demos (what I first knew him for).
So there you go: The Mirettes, terminal illness, French tearjerkers, Seasons in the Sun, David Essex, lush minimalism, and Chris Spedding. The only thing I have to add is that the Ballerina 45 forced me to track down the album it came from, Queues. It was Vigrass & Osbourne's only full length. It produced no hits and V & O drifted back to their songwriter roots, sessioning on other people's stuff and working with Jeff Wayne on several other projects. Queues isn't easy to find but when you do come across it, you'll be able to get it for less than ten.
10 days with Brenda
Ronnie Dio & the Prophets 10 days with Brenda 45 (Parkway, 1967)
Like many of you, my first hearing of Ronnie James Dio's voice was on Rainbow's Man on the Silver Mountain. An early heavy metal classic, Man on the Silver Mountain shows former Deep Purple guitarist Richie Blackmore running on fumes. At the time I first heard Rainbow, I thought they were a solid okay, which is a pretty damning assessment from a noise thirsty 14 year old. Because Rainbow never clicked for me, I really had no opinion of Dio. He was just the guy who sang for Rainbow. When he joined Black Sabbath - the favorite band of the teenage pre-punk me - my thoughts were, "No Ozzie = No Sabbath," though I have to admit that Heaven & Hell is a fine record, much better than the Ozzie-fronted Sabbath's last two. By the time Dio abandoned Sabbath for Dio, the group that would make him a mega-star, I was too into punk rock to give a shit about Ronnie James.
While punk rock closed me off to commercial heavy metal, it opened me up to 60s garage/beat, bubblegum, and 50s rockabilly. At 14, I would have snarfed at Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. The Yardbirds were only important because that was the band Jimmy Page came from before he was in Led Zeppelin. I didn't know the Them, Pretty Things, Troggs, Small Faces, etc. and only knew the Kinks, Who, & Rolling Stones because they were still making records in the mid to late 70s. Blame this ignorance on me having no older sibling and the wretched state of Sacramento FM radio. Like many stations across the country, the late 70s saw Sacramento's KZAP go from an exciting freeform community station to album rock radio, pretty much playing what today we would consider classic rock. Gone were dejays who got to play the Stooges' LA Blues as an 8 am wake up track, in were the slick commercial hucksters playing whatever major label A&R folks told them to play (for an excellent read on that time check out Frederic Dannen's Hit Men, as damning a work on the music industry as has ever been written. I am surprised that the guy wasn't assassinated by the majors for writing it. I also recommend Fred Goodman's Mansion on the Hill as a great read on the issues and events that lead to the total commercialization of rock & roll and the rise of classic rock. So important was this issue that it got run in the movies [FM] and television [WKRP], weak treatments for sure, but striking because the mainstream felt a need to attack the mainstream). Thus my early musical education was one of curiosity and chance. By chance I was introduced to the Sex Pistols. My curiosity lead me to look for more.
One of the great things about late Seventies punk rock was that it beat back the commercial, the music industry, and the dinosaur bands, while championing forgotten icons from the past. Through the Sex Pistols, I was to discover the Small Faces. And the Small Faces lead to the Troggs, Pretty Things, etc. Sid Vicious made me check out Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. The Cramps, along with the "cat" infested (Stray Cats, Rockats, Pole Cats, etc.) punk inspired rockabilly revival, turned me on to Link Wray, the Burnette Brothers, and obscurities like Charlie Feathers. And then there was Lenny Kaye's Nuggets comp, something listed on every early punk band's influences, along with the Stooges, Velvet Underground, Fugs, and Modern Lovers. All of this music is the real classic rock.
So where do Ronnie Dio & the Prophets come in. Simple, had someone slipped Ronnie Dio in with the Standells, the Lemon Pipers, and the Shangra-La's when I was a newly minted punkeroo, I would have gone wild! And had the powers that controlled radio pushed what was good rather than what the music industry wanted to sell, I'd have heard 10 Days with Brenda before I was introduced to Man on the Silver Mountain.
10 Days... comes at the tail end of the pre-acid rock/heavy metal career of Ronnie Dio. In 1957, he made his first single with Ronnie & the Redcaps. They existed from 1957 to 1959 and had two 45s to show for it. In 1960, Ronnie Dio & the Prophets formed. They started off doing a bit of dowop and R&B and ended up with some great 60s pop. In 1967, they did their last single, the fantastic 10 Days with Brenda. After the Prophets, Dio fronted the acid rock band the Elves, who later became ELF. ELF was followed by Rainbow and the rest of his years are pretty much Classic Rock 101.
10 Days with Brenda is great for a number of reasons. First is the intro. Guitar flourish, haunting backing vocals, and a throbbing bass. Second, the vocal melody. I tried to get together a band a few months ago and this was one of the songs we tried to cover. With me as singer we were doomed to one practice but I did have fun trying to sing 10 Days... Third, the lyrics. 10 Days... is one of the most heartless songs ever. Dio wants to leave Brenda. Despite the fact that he doesn't love her, he will giver her 10 more days of his time. That is the very least he can do for her. While there is the chance that Dio is singing about his impending death (which would make this one of rock's great morbid songs), I am gonna go with Brenda's dumping. Four, when the song kicks in with full drums in the second verse it is one of the best transitions of the time, the only fault being that the song ends soon after. (If you want one of the best rhythmic shift/transitions check out Sade's Smooth Operator. I know you've heard it a million times before but the next time you listen to it listen to the rhythm shift. It is as effective and artful as it comes. That said, the best rhythm shift in rock & roll is a very very lucky mistake, the shift in Crime's Hot Wire My Heart.) Add those up and you get five. You also get a great song.
Naturally Stoned / I'll Give You Things
The Avant-Garde Naturally Stoned 45 (Columbia, 1968)
Ron Dante I'll Give You Things 45 (Columbia, 1966)
Certainly I could say that it is a coincidence that I am posting these tunes at the same time that a new James Bond film is in the theaters and it would be a wee bit true in that I am not on the payroll of whomever is producing the movie. Perhaps both the Avant-Garde and Ron Dante deserve the benefit of the doubt that the melodies in these songs, the ones that sound lifted from the 007 theme, came from their own imaginations. Perhaps, but probably not. Ron Dante and the main guy behind the Avant-Garde were both supreme popsters and master showmen.
The brains and one of the voices of the Avant-Garde belonged to Chuck Woolery. From the mid to late Sixties the Avant-Garde were to have a small sting of hits, all of them orchestral pop and Naturally Stoned, which played on the James Bond theme, the hippie lets-get-high vibe, AND the new "natural living" craze, was the biggest. Hip conservatism that would make Mike Curb proud! The Avant-Garde died in 1970 and Woolery headed into TV. Though he was to return to singing in the late 70s, Chuck's biggest fame was to come with the game show Wheel of Fortune. He left that show after contract disputes and bopped around the TV dial (and as founder of a fishing lure company) until he hit the Game Show Network, who were to do a reality show on Chuck entitled Naturally Stoned.
Ron Dante is a god among bubblegum enthusiasts. Why? Because he was THE voice behind the Archies. Those of you into the Archies know their records and the Ron Dante solo record made around that time. You also probably know of Ron's stint in the Detergents and their parody Leader of the Laundromat. But do you know Ron's post-Detergents/pre-Archies songs? If you don't, you should. They have the same pop quality that his bubblegum has but there is a bit of an edge. I'll Give You Things uses the 007 theme and some nearly suggestive lyrics to make a haunted pop classic. Don't know if this one charted or not.
3 Pop Gems
New Horizon One Bad Thing 45 (Bell, 1970)
Dept. of Sanitation Just a Good Show 45 (Nite Life, 196?)
The Los Vegas As Time Goes By 45 (Columbia, 1966)
Here are three faves of mine but briefly because time is short right now.
New Horizons is Brit bubblegum legend Tony Burrows and Bob Saker. Burrows was the voice behind the White Plains, Edison Lighthouse, the Pipkins, and others. Here he puts his voice & production skills the Barry Gibb's One Bady Thing, which has seen a few other versions but none by the Bee Gees. Terrific pop.
The Dept. of Sanitation had one single that I know of and it on the obscure Nite Life label. Can't fault any single where the hook is carried by a tuba.
One of my all time fave records is The Los Vegas' As Time Goes by. Sure, we all know the song from Casablanca. Here Teo Macero gives it the pop treatment, with some great monster drums. The accented vocals make me giggle every time I hear this and I've heard it a hundred times.
Troy Shondell This Time LP (Sunset, 1967)
My "first record" was probably some kid's record that I took a bite out of and promptly got thrown away. I don't remember it so it doesn't count. My real first record was a 45 of Troy Shondell's Girl After Girl. It was one of about 100 of my mom's 45s that made their way one by one into the 5 year old me's bedroom. I would sit in my room dropping the needle on each and every record, carefully creating a pile of stuff I liked and a pile of stuff I didn't. And after a week that pile would become one and I would go through the process once again. The records that appeared in the pile I liked ever time I sorted were the Cheers' Black Leather Jacket & Motorcycle Boots, Duane Eddy's Rebel Rouser, Elvis' Teddy Bear, a 4 song Elvis ep with Crayfish on it, Gene Vincent's Woman Love, and Troy Shodell's Girl After Girl. I can't say any one was a stone favorite but the one that got the most play was Girl After Girl. Credit Shondell's elastic vocal style as the hook. For years, my little brother and I would put the record on and mimic Shondell's "I go from..." and laugh our asses off. I am quite sure that if I was to go to my brother's house and plop this fucker in the turntable, he would get shit giggles upon hearing the open strums and we would devolve to 7 years old aping Shondell once again. I am not sure what became of the Girl After Girl 45 I copped from my mom. I know we broke the Cheers record about the time I turned six. I still have the Elvis records, Gene Vincent, and Duane Eddy (in fact, up until about ten years ago, I had most of the 45s. I did one final sort and tossed the then-extremely scratched batch of stuff I didn't like). When I became a teenage record hound, I would look in oldies sections for Troy Shondell records, wanted to get Girl After Girl. Never found it. Shondell was an East Coast sensation, who was also popular in Chicago and other Midwest cities. Years past and the internet was invented. I did a search on Alta Vista for "Troy Shondell" and "for sale." The search brought up a listing for This Time, a collection of Shondell material from about 1963 to 66. A record dealer in Boston wanted seven bucks post paid for it. So I sent him a money order and I got the record. I dropped needle and on cue mimicked "I go from..." and laughed by ass off. Before I leave you with two songs from the album, I should note that a guy named Tommy James loved Troy Shondell's music so much that he named his band after him. Enjoy Troy Shondell.
The Dancing Did The Green Man & the March of the Bungalows 7" (Kamera, 1982)
One of the great things about seeing a record priced at 49 cents by a band you've never heard of. Perhaps it is because I am not a Brit or maybe because I ignored the Batcave scene after one Specimen record that I never heard of the Dancing Did. I can't say I am sorry, because I am sure if I'd have checked them out when I was a teen, their music would have fell on ears more suited for Black Flag and the Feederz. That I came upon the Did twenty years after this record was made is good. Now I can appreciate it.
There is a lot of dorkiness in this record. The refrain of "Bungalows! Bungalows!" is easily one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. The reverb at the end of "I'm the Green Man" is cheesy as fuck. However, ever since I first heard Bow Wow Wow I've been a sucker for Brits playing jungle drums. Then there is the big dumb riff that centers the song. And, to be truthful, the cheese, taken as a whole, is pretty damn cool. I mean, these guys don't hold back. Those three things make for the immediate appeal.
After a few listens some nuggets from the Brit Lit classes I took in college came into the memory. Since the 11th Century, the Green Man - usually depicted as a man's face sprouting branches and leaves. On the surface, the Green Man represents the emergence from Winter. A bit deeper and the image means both rebirth and a vibrant Earth. From there it is pretty obvious (if it already wasn't) that The Green Man & the March of the Bungalows is an environmental protest song of sorts.
That the Dancing Did were mythology obsessed, tree hugging Goth rockers might seem odd until you find out their big influences were Fairport Conventions and Steeleye Span. Knowing that I am pretty sure these guys were nursed on Pentangle and other Brit folk acts as well. I have not heard their LP, but titles such as The Wolves of Worchestshire and descriptions of their live act (lots of drums, lots of flailing around) tells me that what you hear here is standard for the Did.
The Ballad of James T. Kirk
Jurassics The Ballad of James T. Kirk 7" (Surf or Die!, 1986)
Sometimes you buy into theories that prove to be wrong. You are either a tragic or a dumb ass when that theory is something like Rapture is going to come in 1998 so you better sell all your stuff, quit your job, and wait on top of a hill with a bunch of other religious freaks for the Sky God to send down His holy tractor beam to suck you and your brethren up to Heaven where you will get a second life of tummy rubs and lemonade on demand just like the Bible promised. Buy into that theory and your ass is stuck cold on a hill when the calendar clicks to 1999. Buy into a theory like the late 80s were the Dark Days of punk rock and you just miss a handful of great records. This Jurassics 7" refutes that notion. Surfer Joe Atomic, Jet Screamer, MD, and some uncredited drum machine turn out two great DIY punk tunes. The Ballad of James T Kirk is one of the best, if not the best Star Trek song not done by No Kill I ("your middle name is T and you never gotten hurt"). And who can't love a song titled 1,000,000,000 Years Ago. That many zeros in a song title demands liking. I don't know anything about the Jurassics other than they were from New York City and walked around in leather jackets with a Stegosaurus painted on the back.
Jose He Say
Linda Laurie Jose He Say b/w Chico 45 (Keetch, 1964)
When I was a kid I heard more than my fair share of ethnic humor. My dad is Italian and my mom Polish, and one of their favorite activity was attacking the other with their newest ethnic joke. My mom would go out in the middle of the night and slap a "Mafia Staff Car: Keepa You Hands Off" bumper sticker on the back of my dad's car. He would come home with a blank book for my mom, entitled The Polish Way to Knowledge. And because they razzed each other so much - and took it with good humor - they felt free to bust on any ethnic group, as long as it was done for comedic sake. And why not? They were doing it at a time before Black Power and La Raza, before multiculturalism and identity politics, back when it was acceptable for a White comic to joke about whomever regardless of ethinicity. My parents were just going with what was the cultural norm, while accepting that their people would be the butt of many jokes. Don't read this as me stating those were better times. Read it as those were different times, times that interest me. One of the mini-collections within my record collection is ethnic humor novelty songs. I've got a small stack and have posted a few (Cholley Oop, Hari Kari & the Six Saki Sippers, etc.). Linda Laurie's two jabs at Mexicans is a recent pick up.
Linda Laurie had a pretty varied carreer. She did girl group tunes, sung the theme to Land of the Lost, and knocked off a few novelty records (one of the oddest being Ambrose Part 5). Because she was already doing novelty songs (and doing all the voices) it isn't a surprise that she wound up with one ethnic joke song. It also ins't a surprise that her Ambrose voice winds up here, with a bit of an accent. And, like a lot of these songs, you get past the initial "hmmmm...what were they thinking" and you can get a chuckle or two, maybe at the artist if not with the artist (I can't help but laugh when Jose says "Lies"). And what about Chico? Musically it is a great boogaloo! What the hell? Enjoy Linda Laurie.