Where is the Harmony?: Nick Lowe’s ‘What’s So Funny (’bout Peace, Love and Understanding)’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue 69)

The world currently seems to be descending into an abyss of alternative facts, ruled over by a terrifyingly ignorant spray-tanned buffoon with access to nuclear weapons. In that context, Nick Lowe’s song ‘(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ might be even more powerful as an expression of hope than when Lowe wrote it in the early ‘70s.

But given the abject misery and desperation of the past few decades, maybe there’s never been a time when ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ was irrelevant. That’s tremendously depressing to acknowledge, but it also helps to explain the song’s enduring popularity. Pete Curry of Los Straitjackets, who cover the song on their new album What’s So Funny About Los Straitjackets, describes ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ as having “a great sentiment. Even the most cynical person gets it.”

Lowe has described ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ as Continue reading

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Building Castles in Shifting Sands: The Bee Gees’ ‘Morning of My Life’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #67)

It seems that music fans either adore or despise the Bee Gees.  The adorers believe the Gibb brothers have been unjustly ignored even though they might have been as musically adventurous as the Beatles. The despisers have heard enough of the Bee Gees during the disco era to last a lifetime and then some. Having lived through the aforementioned era – at its peak, allegedly, at any given moment there was at least one radio station somewhere in North America playing a Bee Gees song – this writer has some sympathy for the “enough” argument. But unfortunately the falsetto vocals and nasty polyester trousers have distracted attention from some of the Bee Gees’ other, truly lovely music.

‘Morning of My Life’– also known as ‘In the Morning’ – was never a hit, but Continue reading

The Dawning Grey: Randy Newman’s “Living Without You”

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #65)

“He can communicate complex human emotions with just a few perfectly chosen words.”  That’s how record producer and music industry executive Lenny Waronker, Randy Newman’s friend since childhood, explains the brilliance of Newman’s songwriting. And there is no better demonstration of Newman’s evocative ability than his songs about romantic heartbreak – such as ‘Living Without You’, from his ’68 debut album.

Newman started Continue reading

Fred Neil: Lost Child in a World of Sorrow

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #63)

Fred Neil’s ‘The Dolphins’ grabs the listener from its first notes, just because it sounds so very different. The echoing acoustic and electric guitars shimmer like light reflecting off rolling ocean waves, and Neil’s dynamic, resonant baritone voice ebbs and flows like the tide.  ‘The Dolphins’ doesn’t sound like the other songs on the same album; it doesn’t even sound like what other artists were doing in the same era. More than one commentator has described ‘The Dolphins’ as a perfect song, or something very close to it.

With that level of critical esteem, it’s more than surprising that Neil’s music, so well-regarded in its time, is now not widely known. That might be because his recording career was relatively short. He made only five albums between ’65 and ‘71, and then essentially walked away from the music industry; he may be most familiar to contemporary audiences as the writer of Harry Nilsson’s ’69 hit ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. Neil also kept a deliberately low profile during and after his musical career, right up until he passed away in 2001. He was generous, he was kind to his acquaintances, he was humble, but he was also very private. Ric O’Barry, his friend for nearly 40 years, says, “I probably knew him better than anybody, and he was still a mystery to me. I didn’t know much about him and he didn’t talk much.”

But those who had the privilege of being his friend agree that ‘The Dolphins’ may be the song that is Fred Neil. Peter Childs, who played guitar on the song, describes ‘The Dolphins’ as “one of the purest expressions of who he really was.” O’Barry says, “It’s a beautiful song, it’s from the heart, and if you really want to know who Fred was, you just have to listen to his songs.”

Neil’s life and musical career Continue reading

Nothing Really Matters: Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Wasn’t It You”

[originally appeared in Shindig! issue #60]

Great songs often come from both imagination and personal experience; the great songwriters are the alchemists that can combine those sources and create something unique. The element of imagination means that what’s going on in a song may not always be what’s going on in the songwriter’s life. But in the case of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, it’s entirely possible that the tension in their personal relationship sparked their ’66 composition ‘Wasn’t It You’.

Goffin and King married in ’59, when he was 20 and she was 17. Starting with the Shirelles’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ in ‘60, they established themselves as a highly successful songwriting team. By the mid-‘60s Continue reading

Twisting the Knife: Cat Stevens’ ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’

[originally appeared in Shindig! issue #59]

‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ has been a hit for several artists in several countries over several decades, but’s it a challenging song to unravel. A deceptively simple ode to resignation and redemption, its composer Cat Stevens has said “The words of my songs speak for themselves”, and many of the artists who have covered the song don’t appear to have much to say about it either. But ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ has often marked a time of transition in its performers’ careers – which perhaps is fitting for a song about moving into a new relationship while dealing with the emotional baggage of a previous relationship. Continue reading

Things May Change: Janis Ian’s ‘Society’s Child’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #58)

A listener in 2016 discovering Janis Ian’s ‘67 hit ‘Society’s Child’ might well hear it as the musical equivalent of a fly in amber: a well-preserved relic from a distant time when interracial relationships were shocking or even illegal. Some might argue that racial discrimination has diminished since then; after all, a black man is the president of the United States, and a Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants is the Mayor of London. But the racial conflicts that have erupted in the US and elsewhere over the past five decades – the Watts riots, the Rodney King trial, the shootings that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement – show that the prejudice Ian portrayed in ’67 is still very much with us.

Ian was a 14-year-old high school student when she wrote ‘Society’s Child’. Because of the song’s first-person perspective, and because of her age, many assumed that ‘Society’s Child’ was based on events in her own life. But Ian explains Continue reading