I had the great pleasure of interviewing author Graeme Thomson for Please Kill Me about his biography of Scottish singer-songwriter John Martyn. You can read the interview here.
1968 was a time of upheaval and change at Motown Records. The company had moved its Detroit headquarters into a soulless commercial building, and founder and president Berry Gordy was spending much of his time in Los Angeles. Gordy was also being criticized for his relative silence on racial inequality – which was not an abstract issue for the company; among other things, many Motown artists were regularly subjected to racist threats or attacks while on tour. Other Motown acts were expressing frustration at the company’s focus on entertainment rather than on social commentary.
But amongst that uncertainty came ‘A Place in the Sun’, a song that spoke profoundly both of struggle and of hope for a better world. Although it was first recorded in ’66, more than a dozen artists –including, jointly, The Supremes and The Temptations – covered it in ’68, which indicates its relevance to those troubled times.
Ron Miller and Bryan Wells, the song’s co-authors, both came to Motown through quirks of serendipity. Miller, delivering pizzas to pay the bills, happened to bring Continue reading
(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
‘Think of Rain’ by Margo Guryan is one of those songs that, upon hearing it, you think “Why on earth wasn’t this a massive hit?” It’s charming, it’s catchy, it’s exquisitely produced and arranged, and Guryan’s dreamy vocals perfectly match its mood of whimsical romance. But even though it was covered several times in the mid-‘60s, ‘Think of Rain’ remained largely overlooked for many years. Thankfully, subsequent re-releases of Guryan’s work have resulted in this sunshine-pop gem getting the appreciation it deserves. Continue reading
(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
(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