Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, 1955-2019

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“The typical trajectory for a rock artist goes like this: Start out raw, risk-taking, totally true to yourself, then gradually get ground down by the industry into making ever more spirit-sapped and radio-ingratiating records. Far less common is the reverse: a career whose public story commences at the showbiz heart of mainstream pop, then torpedoes fame and fortune by embarking on a series of increasingly weird adventures in sound.” —National Public Radio, in an obituary for Mark Hollis on February 28, 2019

NPR is right. There are not many rock artists who deliberately sabotage a successful career to pursue a strange and less commercial musical path. It would be like ditching a six-figure salary as an attorney to sell homegrown produce from a roadside stand.

Scott Walker (Walker Brothers), who died in March, is one such musician. Syd Barrett was never exactly “showbiz,” but his two post-Pink Floyd solo records have people scratching their heads to this day.

Mark Hollis, lead singer of the 1980s English synth-pop band Talk Talk, is another who stepped off the carousel. Although details are sketchy, Hollis died February 25 at age 64.

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My music era is the mid-1960s to the mid-70s. I can count on four fingers the punk rock bands I like, and I generally dismiss the entire synthesizer-sapped and overproduced 1980s. A few names stand out: XTC, Prefab Sprout, China Crisis…and Talk Talk, led by singer Mark Hollis. I liked this band’s bouncy New Romantic sound and songs written by Hollis and non-performing member Tim Friese-Greene. The rhythm section of Paul Webb (bass) and Lee Harris (drums) defines the word “punchy” and is sorely underrated. And I especially liked Hollis’s odd singing style. His voice sounded like Bryan Ferry’s, only with a frog stuck in his throat.

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Early Talk Talk. L to R: Hollis, Harris, Webb (Photo: Picture Alliance/Photoshot)

Talk Talk made five albums between 1982 and 1991. The first two, The Party’s Over (1982) and It’s My Life (1984) produced seven singles and established Talk Talk as a sort of thinking man’s Duran Duran, with whom they recorded on EMI and toured (and shared similar redundant name). The single “It’s My Life” hit number 31 on the American charts, and “Such a Shame” became a hit in continental Europe.

The first clue that EMI might have a “difficult” artist on its hands was the promo video for “It’s My Life.” (Remember, this is the visual image-obsessed 1980s when everyone needed MTV and VH1 to listen to music…or record companies believed they did.) In the original version of this song video, Hollis refused to move his lips to the vocalized words, then winked at the end. EMI fumed when they saw it. They forced him to do it over.  The second time, he practically jumped through the camera, spitting out the lyric.

Then, the 1986 album The Colour of Spring presented a more reflective and sedate Talk Talk, slightly at odds with its earlier pop leanings. Ironically, this record went to number 8 in the UK charts, the group’s highest position. It was propelled by the powerful singles “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living in Another World.”

Examining the titles for these two songs, alongside “It’s My Life,” provides further clues that Hollis might have some misgivings about his pop stardom.it's my life

A scintillating 1986 concert from Montreux, Switzerland shows the band had by then closeted the stock designer costumes that New Wavers wore, and Hollis is bedecked in jeans, rumpled shirt…and sandals. He also hides behind sunglasses, clutches the mic stand, and keeps his head bowed for almost the entire show.

By the fourth record, Spirit of Eden (1988), Talk Talk was practically another band.

Today, Spirit of Eden and its follow-up Laughing Stock (1991) are regarded by some critics as shining examples of ambient or minimal music. The singing is sparse, as is the instrumentation. Tone and mood are emphasized over rhythm and structure. It’s an approach that probably dates back to avant-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, and was explored later by Brian Eno. Lately, it’s been interpreted again and renamed “post-rock.”

While I find this music relaxing, and I’ve dabbled at the edges of ambient music with certain jazz and prog rock records, I don’t usually find it engaging. But in writing this essay, I’ve listened to Spirit of Eden several times, and we’re now engaged. Whether most critics who praise Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock do so more for Hollis’s artistic courage than the music itself, I can’t say. But I have no doubt Hollis was serious about capturing some magic with sound, and not merely trying to cultivate a legacy as an “enigmatic artiste.”

But while the usual adjectives and nouns for this music are “sparse,” “atmospheric,” “mood,” and “ambient,” the word that counted for EMI was non-commercial. After Spirit of Eden, the band and the company “parted ways,” as they say, not long after battling in court. Talk Talk signed with the smaller Polydor-Verve label for Laughing Stock. Then the band broke up. In 1998, Hollis released a self-titled solo LP, furthering Talk Talk’s minimalist approach. All three records are highly praised but, of course, they only assisted Hollis with his disappearing act.eden

Hollis gave few interviews, but in one of them he said something quite simple (minimalist) but also quite profound: “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note. And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.” Hollis was talking about music, but he could have been talking about life.

After his solo album, Hollis, who’d been crouching at the edge of the carousel platform for over a decade, took the leap. Beyond minimalism, the only place to go was total silence. He left music to be a full-time husband and father in rural England, later moving his family to Wimbledon, London. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”

For the next 21 years, Hollis guarded his privacy. He made some minor contributions to other peoples’ music, but he insisted his name not be used.

R.I.P. Mark Hollis.

(Thanks to WordPress blogger moulty58 for alerting me to Hollis’s death, and to Wikipedia for quotes and information.)

(For further reading about Mark Hollis, Talk Talk, and in particular the making of “Laughing Stock” and how art intersects with commerce, I highly recommend reading an article in “The Quietus,” located here.)

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Basking in the Land of the Zombies

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If a group like the Zombies appeared now, they would own the worldTom Petty, 1997

Thanks, Tom, longitudes agrees.

Here’s a list of reasons why the Zombies would own the world, plus some tidbits about a beloved band on the eve of their long-overdue induction into the seriously flawed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in the same induction “class” as…wait for it…Janet Jackson):

  • Hailed from the city of St Albans, Hertfordshire, north of London
  • Formed in 1961 when the members were just 15; broke up in 1967
  • Consisted of five schoolmates: Rod Argent (keyboards), Chris White (bass), Colin Blunstone (lead vocals), Hugh Grundy (drums), and Paul Atkinson (guitar)
  • Lineup remained intact, and friends, throughout career
  • Won a song contest in 1964, then signed to Decca Records by infamous Dick Rowe (aka MWTDB, or “Man Who Turned Down Beatles”)
  • Covered American R&B songs in beginning, like most early ’60s Brit bands, but soon concentrated on self-compositions
  • Two U.S. number one singles with “She’s Not There” (1964) and “Time of the Season” (1969)
  • A U.S. number three single with “Tell Her No” (1965)
  • A critically acclaimed album, Odessey and Oracle (1968), released just after they disbanded (U.S.-released only through efforts of Al Kooper)
  • Appeared briefly in Otto Preminger-directed movie starring Laurence Olivier, entitled Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
  • More popular in America than their homeland (part of the “British Invasion“)
  • The first pop band in which electric piano was the main instrument
  • A lead singer (Blunstone) with a distinctive, smoky voice and movie-star looks
  • Not just one, but two songwriters of exceptional talent (Argent and White)
  • Didn’t do drugs
  • Didn’t destroy hotel rooms
  • Didn’t impregnate groupies
  • Didn’t follow gurus or dabble in occult
  • Did perfect the two-and-a-half-minute pop symphony
  • Did amass a cornucopia of non-charting symphonies that remains undiscovered outside of Zombie enthusiasts.
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The Zombies.  L to R: Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson (Photo: Fremantle Media/REX/Shutterstock)

I’ll confess, though, that I was also a bit late joining the Zombie cavalcade. For years, I’d considered them a three-hit wonder: five middle-class English geeks in matching suits who made a few classic singles…brief candles who flickered momentarily during a whirlwind era.

Thankfully, I evolved.  While vacationing in Florida in 1986 with my brother, Steve, he played a 90-minute cassette of Zombies songs while we basked on the beach. The cassette included their three hits, of course, but it also had a beaucoup of superb songs I’d never heard. It was a eureka moment. “This band is more than meets the ear!” I remarked to the startled bikini strutting nearby, between applications of Panama Jack SPF-15 while scoping the “scenery” with binoculars.

(To this day, I never visit the beach without bringing along the five Zombies…and SPF-30, if not the binoculars.)

The Zombies only recorded for four years, disbanding in December 1967 just when the rock “revolution” was occurring. Thus, their beat-band and media-perpetuated square image—executive outfits and librarian glasses—remained static, while select other British Invasion bands had an opportunity to become “heavy.” This fact undoubtedly hurt their standing with the emerging hard rock crowd and the rock music press that followed.

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Odessey and Oracle album from 1968, with “Time of the Season” (and colorful artwork by Terry Quirk)

They also lacked a distinctive lyricist, right when words were becoming important in rock. After their initial success in 1964-65, the public seemed to turn away, despite their cranking out numerous carefully crafted songs.

Amazingly, “Time of the Season” became a surprise hit over a year after they broke up, reaching #1 on Cashbox 50 years ago this March 29 (coincidentally, the same day as the Hall of Fame induction spectacle). By that time, leader Argent had formed his hard/progressive rock band, Argent, with White along as a co-writer (notably on the Top 5 single “Hold Your Head Up” from 1972). Columbia Records begged him to reunite the Zombies to capitalize on the success of “Time of the Season.” But to his everlasting credit, he refused.

Like Argent, Blunstone continued as a recording artist, finding great solo success in Europe.  Chris White continued writing and producing, and Atkinson and Grundy became music A&R reps.  Atkinson sadly died in 2004, but the other four miraculously reunited in 2008 for the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, performing the entire record on stage for the first time ever…and, unlike most such reunion affairs, the singing and musicianship was immaculate. Presently, Argent and Blunstone record and tour together under the Zombies name.

Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris Walter

(Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage)

If melody and harmony still count for something in popular music, the Zombies earned their PhD, and they’re at the top of the iceberg of 1960s British Invasion bands. Only the Beatles and Hollies achieved their harmonic depth, and only the Beatles managed such caramel-coated melodies and marbled arrangements. While their lyrics were less clever or astute than, say, Lennon-McCartney or Ray Davies (the Kinks), they blossomed on Odessey; one only has to look closely at the words to Rod Argent’s “Care of Cell 44” or “A Rose for Emily,” or Chris White’s plaintive song about a soldier’s emotions during WWI, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

If you’re unfamiliar with the Zombies beyond their three hits, and you’d like your own eureka moment, I humbly recommend Odessey and Oracle (especially vinyl), one of the great lost jewels of the ‘60s, and the Zombies’ singular contribution to the canon of classic rock albums (despite the misspelled title!). If this tickles your fancy, then proceed to the affectionately compiled CD box set Zombie Heaven, or newly released vinyl set Complete Studio Recordings; pure pop bliss of the like we will never hear again. You’ll be as pleasantly surprised as me when I heard that cassette, on the beach, way back in 1986.

While it may defy logic why it’s taken so long for the Zombies to enter the dubious Hall, and while they disappeared from the rock radar way too early, this is certainly their year, and it took a long time to come.  And below is a link to my favorite Zombies song, the moody 1965 B-side “Don’t Go Away,” written by Chris White. Note the velvety “oohs” and “aahs,” and unusual A-B-C-C-A-B structure.

Mark it on your calendar: March 29, 2019 is worldwide Day of the Zombies.

 

Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

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There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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The Mystery Man of Steely Dan: An Interview with Singer David Palmer

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In 1971, David Palmer was working in a plastics factory in his home state of New Jersey. He’d recently left the rock band he’d sung with, the Myddle Class. For a few years in the mid-1960s, the Myddle Class were one of the most scintillating club groups in greater New York City. They were also on the same label and publishing company as ex-Brill Building songwriting team (Gerry) Goffin and (Carole) King.

Then, out of the blue, Palmer got a phone call. It was from an old friend, a guitarist named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter told him that a new band was forming out in Los Angeles. They were looking for a singer. Would he be interested in auditioning?

Palmer flew out to L.A., sang at the audition, and was eventually hired.  The group’s name was Steely Dan (Baxter was lead guitarist through the first three albums, then joined the Doobie Brothers). The leaders and songwriters were Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. These two would soon be the sole members of Steely Dan, and they enjoyed enormous success, racking up hit singles and albums through the 1970s, as well as critical adulation and hall of fame induction.

But what about Palmer? After only one album with Steely Dan [Can’t Buy a Thrill, on which he sang lead on two songs: “Dirty Work” (click here) and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),”] he dropped out of sight.

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I love good rock ‘n’ roll and have always been intrigued by footnotes, and Palmer seemed like the perfect rock footnote. So I decided to track him down. I soon located him, running his own digital photography business in California. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to a short interview.

In researching, I learned that, in addition to Steely Dan, Palmer crossed paths with some of the greatest names in popular music: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, of course, and also James Taylor, the Blues Project, and even the Velvet Underground.

I figured Palmer was very busy with his work in visual arts, and I assumed he distanced himself from music for a reason. So I kept my questions rudimentary and brief. Although his answers were also brief, I think they’re still real informative. So here’s my interview with a guy who, like Forrest Gump, seemed to always be at the right place at the right time.

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Early publicity photo of Steely Dan. L to R: “Skunk” Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen, Jim Hodder

longitudes: You were an original member of Steely Dan, singing lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn,” as well as contributing harmony vocals on several other songs (and singing lead when the band toured).  What were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker like to work with?  Were they as demanding and perfectionist in the beginning as they supposedly were later on?

Palmer: Donald and Walter were The Dan. The rest of us were fortunate to be there. Brilliant writers both, and yes, demanding, but the result is on the record.

longitudes: Before joining Steely Dan, you were in a popular Jersey-NYC band called the Myddle Class. On December 11, 1965, you headlined an infamous show at Summit (New Jersey) High School, and your opening act was the Velvet Underground. It was their first gig under that name (occurring only a few weeks before the Velvets joined Andy Warhol).  Do you have any memories of that show, including meeting Lou Reed or the other Velvets?

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The Myddle Class.  L to R: Danny Mansolino, Dave Palmer, Rick Philp, Charles Larkey, Myke Rosa (image copyright Brett Aronowitz)

Palmer: No memories, really. I was only 19 and it wasn’t really a big deal to us. But that gig has become an urban legend of sorts, and you could probably fill Madison Square Garden with the amount of folks who claim to have been there that night!

longitudes: The Myddle Class did a classic garage-band rave-up, “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” (click here), which Al Kooper and the Blues Project included on their album Projections (under the title “Wake Me, Shake Me”).  Your version is tremendously more exciting.  The song is derived from an old gospel tune.  Who originally adapted it, the Myddle Class or the Blues Project, and how close were you to the Project and/or other New York-based bands?

Palmer: We definitely stole it from the Blues Project, who stole it from Public Domain. We actually had a run-in with (Blues Project guitarist) Danny Kalb at Palisades Park when we opened for what was left of the Project. I think what really pissed him off was that (Myddle Class guitarist) Rick Philp played a much better solo on our record than (Kalb) had on theirs!

Someone once sent me a version of that tune that Springsteen recorded with one of his early bands…very cool. We weren’t close to the Project at all. We were closer to Kootch (guitarist/songwriter/producer Danny Kortchmar) and The Flying Machine, when James (Taylor) was in the band.myddle class poster_cropped

longitudes: Your vocals on the Myddle Class songs “I Happen to Love You” and “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” have that archetypical sneering, teen rebel sound so prevalent in mid-60s urban bands.  It’s hard to reconcile this with the sweet-sounding guy who later sang with the Dan.  Was this a difficult vocal transition, or did it come naturally?

Palmer: Actually, I’ve always had a split personality with vocals. But the sweetness was what I believed was called for on the Dan tunes. However, if you go to my website www.davidpalmerimages.com and click on The Lost Demos section, you’ll hear me morph again!

longitudes: The Myddle Class were managed by music critic Al Aronowitz, the man who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles.  He also wrote a classic article about the hit songwriting team of Goffin-King.  You eventually became close friends with Carole King, later co-wrote an entire album with her, Wrap Around Joy, and Carole married Myddle Class bassist Charles Larkey.  Are you in touch with Carole these days, or with any surviving members of Myddle Class?

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Carole King’s 1974 LP Wrap Around Joy, co-written by Palmer

Palmer: Carole is extremely busy with the Clinton campaign, I believe. The last time I spoke to her was to offer condolences on the death of Gerry Goffin. Before that, it was to thank her for the shout-out she gave me at the Gershwin Awards for having co-written “Jazzman.”

I was close to Myke Rosa, Myddle Class drummer, for many years until his passing.

longitudes: Speaking of “Jazzman” (click here), the melody for that 1974 hit is real similar to Carole’s earlier breakout solo hit “It’s Too Late,” but it’s got some very smooth saxophone by Tom Scott. Do you know if Carole was consciously trying to replicate “It’s Too Late”?  Also, were you thinking of any particular jazz artist when you penned the words?

Palmer: Since Carole was so prolific, I doubt if she was even aware of sounding like earlier tunes. I mean it’s hard not to “resemble” yourself when it’s your style. And, yes, (John) Coltrane was the inspiration (for the song).

longitudes: In the late 1970s you joined a soft-rock band called Wha-Koo, which made three albums.  Can you please comment on that experience?

Palmer: Danny Douma and I put that band together. I loved the way he wrote, and I wasn’t too sure of what it was I was trying to do until much later. But I think some great tunes came out of that band, but things were changing, and we just missed the rising tide.

longitudes: After Wha-Koo broke up, what were your activities before becoming an artist/photographer?

Palmer: I stayed in the music biz far past my expiration date – as a writer, basically. Once again, I refer you to The Lost Demos on my website.

longitudes: You’re now a successful digital photographer.  Why did you leave music, and how did you get involved with photography?

Palmer: I woke up one day and, literally, couldn’t write, and knew it was over. And yet I also knew I needed a way to be creative. I fell in love with the process of creating images – from the initial camera work to the post in Photoshop. There seemed to be no limitation. And I didn’t have to ask the band what they thought!

longitudes: Thank you for your time, David.

Palmer: You’re welcome.

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1966: A Very Good Musical Year

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Listening to Spotify the other day, I landed on a band whose songs never fail to make me feel good: the Turtles. Remember them? Their No. 1 hit “Happy Together” is one of the most beloved anthems of the 1960s. Grade school lyrics, for sure, but absolutely luscious choral harmonies.

Years ago, when I began buying their records, I discovered the Turtles were not just a one-hit wonder. From 1965 to 1970 (in addition to their biggest song) they strung together a glittering necklace of golden tunes: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “You Baby,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “She’s My Girl,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Outside Chance,” “Is It Any Wonder,” “You Showed Me,” “Lady-O,” and many others.

The Turtles even recorded a version of the Kingston Trio’s “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Frank Sinatra heard it and loved it so much he did his own version… in inimitable Sinatra style, of course.

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The Turtles in 1966. L-R: Al Nichol, Chuck Portz, Howard Kaylan, Jim Tucker, Mark Volman, Don Murray.

The Turtles were one of the few groups able to combine the best genres of ‘60s pop music – British Invasion, folk-rock, baroque pop, and flower power – and they did it with a warm, southern California smile. They flirted with weighty themes during their five-year existence, but they never took themselves too seriously. For me, the Turtles typified the sunny side of the ‘60s. And the sun was never brighter than in the year 1966.

It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history, when the music was ruling the world.

– Howard Kaylan, lead singer of the Turtles

Fifty years ago was a transitional time in popular music. The rock songs of 1966 bridged the folk, garage, and surf rock of the early ‘60s with the hard rock that came later on. It was also still an innocent time. The pied piper of the era – the Beatles – were still writing love songs and had only recently started experimenting with more exotic arrangements, instruments, and lyrics, like in “Rain,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby.” They’d also taken the hallucinogen LSD (at least, John and George had). But they’d yet to alter minds with their psychedelic masterwork, the LP “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which arrived the following year).

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The Barbarians, with hook-handed drummer Moulty, had a minor hit with “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” This was a crucial question in 1966.

On the radio, AM was still king in 1966. And AM radio played singles (45 rpm records), not album cuts. So the songs had to be brief but catchy. This format required artists to squeeze in their ideas in under three minutes. At minimum, you needed a verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrics didn’t matter, but you had to have a catchy melody. Harmonica might provide a slight blues or folk feel, and guitars had to ring and chime. In 1966, most bands copped either the cheery, up-tempo Beatles or the bad-boy Rolling Stones. Some of the more adventurous tried covering Dylan (other than the Byrds, these attempts usually failed).

But the icing on the cake was multi-part vocal harmony. Great harmonies separated the men from the boys. They transformed modest two-and-a-half minute melodies into miniature symphonies. Not surprisingly, the best harmonizers had a big year in 1966: the Beatles, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Hollies, Association, and anything Motown.

Also, in 1966 you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or author your own songs to ride the carousel of success. The Turtles used crack outside songwriters for most of their singles. Many of the biggest hits of ’66 were by teens who’d only recently purchased their first guitar. Tommy James was only 16 when he and the Shondells recorded the smash “Hanky Panky,” which went No. 1 in ’66. The members of the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 with the organ-driven “96 Tears,” had parents who were migrant farmers.

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The Leaves were the first of many groups to record the song “Hey Joe.” Leader Jim Pons is in the middle.

One of my favorite rock ’n’ roll rags-to-riches stories involves Jim Pons of the Leaves. Pons had never touched an instrument. But he formed a band to entertain his college fraternity brothers.

In ’66, the Leaves recorded the very first version of the four-chord song “Hey Joe.” It became a surprise hit in Los Angeles. Pons was then asked to join the Turtles on bass, right when “Happy Together” was riding the charts. When the Turtles disbanded, he joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring the world and appearing in Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” He parlayed his film experience into a job as video director for the New York Jets football team, which lasted till his retirement over 20 years later.

And it all started with an itch to play “Louie Louie” at frat parties!

Won’t you tell your dad get off my back / Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black.’

– from the song “Thirteen” by Big Star

Looking at the year-end Billboard chart reveals that rock artists weren’t the only players in 1966. Soul music (the Supremes, Miracles), crooners (Sinatra, Jack Jones), and even novelty songs (“Winchester Cathedral”) were also represented. This diversity of styles was good, since the local swimming club didn’t have to change the radio dial to appease both parents and kids. Chuck and Susie could dig the Kinks, Standells, or Monkees while slurping their ice cream, and Mom and Dad could sneak sips of gin while humming Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66.

But this heterogeneous programming could also be frustrating. Imagine hearing a Four Tops song one minute, then a few minutes later the year’s No. 1 hit, the jingoistic “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by an army sergeant. No wonder people rioted in Detroit!

the-hollies-bus-stop-odeon

The Hollies were from Manchester, England. They broke the U.S. Top 10 in ’66 with “Bus Stop.” Graham Nash, top right, later teamed with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

Things changed in 1967, after another sergeant came along (Sgt. Pepper). Then came large, outdoor rock concerts, spearheaded by the Monterey Pop Festival. Albums replaced 45s as the medium of choice, rock lyrics became deeper and darker, the Vietnam War crept into songs, and free-form FM radio – pioneered by an underground rock DJ in San Francisco named Tom Donahue – began compartmentalizing musical genres. Rock was finally able to rid itself of the likes of Frank, Jack, Sergio, and Sgt. Sadler.

Also, hard drugs entered the picture, which had a profound effect on the musicians and their music. The chiming guitars were becoming distorted.

In 1966, though, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were little known outside L.A., London, and Haight-Ashbury. Drug use was generally limited to a little pot or “a couple ‘o quarts ‘o beer” in Joe’s garage. And kids were still learning the chords to “Louie Louie.”

We were happy together, and it was a very good year.

harrison

How a Teenage Girl from Maryland Helped Launch the Beatles in America

50 years

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The term “Beatlemania” was being tossed around in the United Kingdom several months before February 9, 1964. The Liverpool lads already had hits in their homeland, starting with “Please Please Me” from a year earlier (see Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released).  They’d released two albums, the first named after their debut single, the second titled “With the Beatles” (“Meet the Beatles” in the U.S.).  They’d performed tirelessly in Hamburg, Paris, Sweden, Scotland, Wales, and all over England (two of their tours included American singers Roy Orbison and Tommy Roe).  They’d appeared on English regional television and the BBC.

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Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles

On October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan was at London’s Heathrow Airport when the Beatles returned from their Swedish tour.  He witnessed firsthand the swirling circus – earnest journalists with their stencil pads, dozens of flashbulbs popping, hundreds of shrieking, prepubescent girls.  Sullivan later claimed he hadn’t seen such hysteria since Elvis.  He contacted Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and the two worked out a deal for three headline appearances on Sullivan’s show.

The U.S. frenzy over the Beatles started like a slow-moving freight train in December 1963.  First, the “New York Times” printed a Sunday feature article on the band.  Next, a London news bureau offered a piece on the Beatles to Walter Cronkite, who aired an in-depth profile on the “CBS Evening News” on December 10 (and received an immediate phone call from his buddy, Sullivan).  Most importantly, genius manager Brian Epstein launched a $40,000 media campaign in the U.S.  It included heavy radio rotation for the recent English hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then a U.S. re-release of “Please Please Me.”

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WWDC-AM disc jockey Carroll James, with fan Marsha Albert (later photo)

But here’s an interesting footnote: a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert, from Silver Spring, Maryland, helped kick-start the radio blitz.  She’d seen the Cronkite broadcast, and wrote Washington D.C. disc jockey Carroll James with words to the effect “Why can’t we have music like that in America?”  James was impressed by the letter.  He secured an import copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then let Albert herself introduce the record.

Ten years before, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a record, “That’s All Right (Mama),” by an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley.  It ignited the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll.  Well, the same thing happened now.  Before long, WWDC phone lines were lighting up.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was soon a hit in greater Washington D.C.  Then other U.S. stations took the cue.  Then Capitol Records lifted an eyebrow.  They rush-released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 26, three weeks ahead of schedule.  The song was all over the radio throughout January ‘64, and on February 1 it was the No. 1 single in the country.  The freight train was now out of control.

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon

(Personal note: a very hip girl in my kindergarten class named Dana Moriarty brought the record in for Show-and-Tell.  After so many sing-alongs of “My Country Tis of Thee” and “This Land is Your Land,” this amazing new Beatles sound was revolutionary to our 5-year-old ears.  Wherever you are, Dana… I am forever in your debt)

And that’s why 5,000 fans invaded JFK airport on February 7 to greet four “mop-topped” boys from merry olde England, who looked like cheerful aliens, but blended melody, harmony, rhythm and electricity like nobody before.  After the JFK assassination, a dreary nuclear Cold War… and Pat Boone… Americans wanted an upbeat, refreshing diversion.  The Beatles provided it.  All the band needed now was the proper venue to push them over the top.  And “The Ed Sullivan Show” provided that.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned for a “Really Big Shoooo!”

with the beatles