Friday, September 18, 2015

Talking Baseball Every Week


I've posted about theme songs for television ("Justified") and film ("We'll Never Have Paris"), but never for a podcast.  Until now.

Gleeman and the Geek are not the next Sonny & Cher or Hall & Oates or DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.  They are not musicians at all.  John Bonnes and Aaron Gleeman, among the first bloggers to cover the Minnesota Twins baseball team, are the voices behind a very popular Twins podcast.  

I'm not a big believer in the importance of "chemistry" in the clubhouse, but it's everything in a podcast.  And GATG have more chemistry than anyone this side of Walter White.  Whether recoring at KFAN studios or at a local tap room, they bring insight and humor in equal measure.

YMMV.  But City Pages agreed with me when they did their "Best Of" issue last year.

Check out their podcast if only to listen to the theme song before John answers seven questions about it below: Gleeman And The Geek Podcast

As any good theme song should do, the GATG theme sets the right tone every week at the top of the podcast.  It's catchy, to the point and lively; the guitar and vocals are fun; and the drums during the outro are the perfect lead-in to John's signature "...aaaaaaand welcome!"  Starting without this sequence would be like beginning a ball game without "...and the home of the brave - play ball!"

John Bonnes

1 - Why did you want to have a theme song for the podcast?
John Bonnes:  For the first couple, we didn't, I don't think. But when listening to a podcast it really helps to have some music at the beginning, so we put out a plea and it was answered.
2 - Who wrote and performed the GATG theme?
JB:  The original was by James Richter. It was super simple and we used it over and over, and you can still hear the gist of it at the end of our podcast, because he did a "footer" sound bit for it, too.

James Richter - Not how I imagined him based on his singing!
And then, a few months in, another band, Jerry Rodes, did one. So we went back and forth between them for them for a long time. At some point, we needed to pick one for KFAN, and we went with the Jerry Rodes one, and so then we stuck with that one during the offseason, too.
3 - How long did you have to practice to perfect your Angela Lansbury voice for your (excellent) reworking of "Beauty and the Beast"?
JB:  :-) I was actually going to have my kid sing it, but she sounded too good, and I wanted it to sound kinda stupid, so I recorded it as over-the-top as I could.  Not too many people know about that song, I don't think.  I don't think we've played it on the podcast more than once or twice.  Aaron hates it.
4 - Do I recall correctly that (besides the two versions we've discussed) there was at least one other alternate version?
JB:  This question made me look some up. 

I think the alternate version that you're talking about might be the original version by Richter.  Long time listeners will recognize it for sure.

But there also was another alternate "sexy" version which we only played a couple of times.  I've tried to find who created it, but I can't find any record of it.  I still do have the clip of it.

There is also a 2nd version that James Richter also did in a completely different style - the secret "John Mayer" version.
"Gleeman and the Geek" recording a podcast
5 - Didn't Gleeman have some teenage girl in New Zealand working on a new theme song (and I assume she wasn't Lorde)?
JB:  Yeah.  I'm kind of forgetting the details.  I think she did send something. But she didn't really know anything about baseball and so some of the words sounded like a foreigner trying to use baseball slang, so I think Aaron asked for a couple of changes and then we never heard back.  But I could be making a lot of that up.
6 - Was there any thought about calling yourselves "The Geek and Gleeman"?
JB:  No.  Gleeman and the Geek flows a lot better.  We sometimes joke about that.
7 - What is your favorite podcast theme song, aside from your own?
JB:  I don't listen to a ton of podcasts. My favorite custom one is a groovy one for the Talk to Contact. "Twin brothers talking Twins baseball....."
I also LOVED the song "Panama" by Van Halen in my youth, so I love it when The Sportive uses that to kick off their show.  And No Juice has that great instrumental that was used for some sports show in my youth.  I think that is a great beginning.

You can find GATG on Twitter: @twinsgeek @aarongleeman @gleemanandgeek

You can read Gleeman at  John writes for, a popular site he co-founded in 2012.

Friday, May 8, 2015

She Hadn't Even Begun To Sully


Songs are like people.  Some you just never take a shine to.  Some grow on you over time.  Some infatuate initially before fading quickly as you tire of the very thing that attracted you in the first place.

And then there is true love at first sight... or first listen.  You immediately know it's a great match and as time passes the bond only grows deeper and deeper.

"Billions of Eyes" was love at first stream for me.  If you haven't heard the song yet, take a listen:

I don't want to oversell. I'm not claiming BofE is a genre-defining song that will go down in history with "She Loves You" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  But it's a very good recording that really resonates with me, for whatever reason.  Lady Lamb's voice, the sound of her guitar, the energy, the lyrics that flow like a stream of consciousness yet reveal themselves to be anything but random.

Take this little snippet:
I could tell the story of howMy great grandmothers' sister was deemed a saint
how they exhumed her body after years of being buried
and they found she hadn't even begun to sully
so they moved her again, straight into the Vatican 
Initially, I assumed LL was just spinning a colorful yarn... but it turns out it's a true story.

I first heard BofE on a recent music sampler from Landmark Theatres.  There are other good songs on the sampler, but Lady Lamb's track grabbed me by the ears and made me listen to it over and over. 

Who is Lady Lamb? She's otherwise known as Aly Spaltro, a singer/songwriter/musician from Maine who is now based out of Brooklyn.  Initially known as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, she wrote and recorded songs after hours at the video store where she worked, self-releasing her music from 2007-2012. 

Ba Da Bing Records released her album "Ripely Pine" in 2013.  And earlier this year, Mom and Pop Music released "Always," which includes BofE.  Lady Lamb is on tour now, but she took time out to answer a few questions (below).

1 - Which came first, the words or the music - or did they evolve together as you wrote "Billions of Eyes"?

Lady Lamb: The words came first, with the drum beat to follow. 

2 - The mesmerizing official video for BofE says "Made by Aly Spaltro."  What was it like to come up with the concept, gather the home movies and other materials that you used, and put it all together? 

LL: I decided to make the lyric video with only two days before the song was coming out, so it was a bit of a whirlwind. My dad had just started digitizing old home videos from the early 90s so it was perfect timing that I was able to incorporate those into the video. I had also been collecting cutouts from my own magazine collection, and was able to incorporate some cutouts mailed in to me by fans. I love to edit and make movies, so it was a really fun project, and busy weekend!

3 - How did you -- and this song in particular -- end up being chosen by Landmark Theaters for their recent free music sampler?

LL: Honestly, I’m not sure exactly why it was chosen, but I’m certainly glad it was!

4 - The song refers to the small joy of barely making it aboard a train in time.  Do you have any memorable close calls, good or bad, when it comes to making a train?

LL: Living in NY, this happens to me all the time, maybe 1 in 5 times I board the subway. The close calls always bring about a small, nice acknowledgement by strangers and I love that.

5 - How did you create the jangly guitar tone used on this record?

LL: The majority of the guitars in the final version of the song were recorded in my bedroom using a Fender Jazzmaster and some mild effects of reverb and treble.

6 - BofE's lyrics have a poetic quality and could be described as impressionistic. Are you ever surprised at people's interpretations of the song or any of its lyrics?

LL: Most people I talk to really connect to the line about just wanting to fall into a pile of warm laundry when they are tired or frustrated. I really appreciate how many people get that line and agree!

7 - You're on tour now.  When we hear BofE live do you think you'll tend to stick fairly close to the recorded version?

LL: We stick pretty close to my recorded version, but the song is full of energy and we bring that live.


Saturday, March 28, 2015


We're Going to Win, Twins - Mary Jane Alm

If you grew up in the Upper Midwest, these words should be familiar:

We're gonna win, Twins
We're gonna score
We're gonna win, Twins
Watch that baseball soar.
Crack out a home run
Shout a hip-hooray
Cheer for the Minnesota Twins today.
This song has been around since the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961.  It's played when the team takes the field for home games.  It was (and maybe still is) used to kick off radio coverage of Twins games.

The song was initially intended not for the baseball team but for one of its sponsors, Hamm's Beer:

Sing out for Hamm's beer,
Sing out the name,
Sing out for Hamm's beer,
Of sky blue waters fame
I can't determine if that version ever aired.  I'm assuming not, since the Campbell Mithun advertising agency sold the tune to the Twins for a dollar.  Ray Charles (not the one you're thinking of) revised the words to the tune Dick Wilson had composed.  The Ray Charles Singers (not the Raelettes) sang the fight song and it blasted from AM radios every summer for the next few decades.
Side note: Hamm's didn't need the tune, since it already had a very catchy "From the Land of Sky Blue Waters" song that was featured for many years in popular commercials like this one:

The Twins have updated the theme song a couple of times.  The best known version, the one played as players take the field, is sung by two men and two women, and I didn't realize until recently that one of those voices belonged to Mary Jane Alm.  She was and is one of Minnesota's best known and beloved vocalists.  The Mary Jane Alm Band and its leader never broke out nationally, but regional fame eventually led to Alm's induction to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2013.

I was able to catch up with Mary Jane Alm and quiz her about her experience as a vocalist on "We're Gonna Win Twins." 

1 - Are you even a baseball/Twins fan?
Mary Jane Alm:  I am a longtime Minnesota Twins fan.  I grew up in southern Minnesota and my dad took my brothers and I to the big city to see the Twins many times growing up.  We started going to games when the Twins played at Met Stadium.

2 - How did you get the gig singing on "We're Going to Win, Twins"?
MJA:  I was one of the first call session singers back in the '80s and '90s along with the other singers on this song, Kathy Mueller, Scott (Scooter) Nelson and Steve McLoone.  We got hired for all the biggest radio and television spots that were produced in the Twin Cities...  And this was one of them. 

Scott "Scooter" Nelson of the Mary Jane Alm Band

3 - The Twin's bought the song for $1.  I'm hoping you got more.  Not to pry into your finances, but was it a flat fee or do you get residuals... or free entry to Twins games... or anything?
MJA:  I can't quite remember how much money I made but I do know that it was a flat fee...  No residuals, no free baseball games or Twins memorabilia.
4 - Have you ever sung the song since the recording?
MJA:  The four of us got to sing the Twins song and the National Anthem at a baseball game following the release of the song.  We did get great seats to see the game that day and got to meet some of the players.
5 - Did you help with the musical or vocal arrangement or were you hired strictly to sing your part?
MJA:  We were hired strictly as singers... We had nothing to do with the writing or arranging.
6 - How familiar were you with the original, 1961 version of the song?
MJA:  I was very familiar with the original theme song.  Everyone who grew up in Minnesota knew the song by heart!!
7 - You actually have twin sons, right?  Was that karma?
MJA:  I do have twin sons.  They just turned 20 and are both completely awesome!!  Karma?  Maybe... wouldn't it be great if they did another remake and my musician son played on it??
Thanks, Mary Jane.  Let's end this post with one more version of the Twins theme song, this time from another Minnesota musical institution, the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Though the Road Buckles Under

 STAY WITH ME - Jerome Moross (1913-1983)

"Stay with Me" has been in the news lately. No, I don't mean the song by Sam Smith that inadvertently rips off Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down," but the song of the same title that Bob Dylan sings on his new album, "Shadows in the Night."  This "Stay with Me" was also released as a single and Dylan closed many of his concerts last year with it.  

When the most important songwriter of the last fifty years puts out an album of standards, the songs he selects receive a rarified stamp of approval. While some of the tracks on "Shadows" are quite well known (Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening"), others are underappreciated gems. 

"Stay with Me" falls into the latter category.  A spiritual song that's less about religion and more about human hope and fear, it brings to mind "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Lucky Old Sun," standards which Johnny Cash sang on his American Recording series. 

Like Cash's covers, Dylan's version of "Stay with Me" is stripped down to an elegant arrangement, sans any orchestration, and makes evocative use of the miles on the singer's voice.  Seldom has Dylan sounded so appealingly vulnerable.

So where did this song come from?  Like all the other songs on "Shadows in the Night," it was sung by Frank Sinatra.  In June, 1965, a month before Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" turned pop music on its ear, Sinatra released an album that included "Stay with Me," which he had recorded as the theme song for "The Cardinal" in 1963.
"The Cardinal," directed by Otto Preminger, was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Picture. It tells the story of an American priest who overcomes various crises as he rises in the Church hierarchy.  

The film features an outstanding score by Jerome Moss, who also composed the music for the theme song; the song's lyrics were written by Carolyn Leigh ("Witchcraft," "The Best is Yet to Come").
Moross, an accomplished composer, is best known for his scores for "The Big Country" and "Wagon Train," but he was also an innovator who wrote for Broadway and classical ensembles.   

Moross's daughter, Susanna Moross Tarjan, put together a fantastic site for her father's centennial.  She took the time to answer my questions about "Stay with Me" and I'm happy to share her thoughts with you.

1 - What did your father think of rock singers/songwriters like Bob Dylan?
Susanna Moross Tarjan:  I have no idea what my father thought about Bob Dylan, or even if he did.  Remember, he died in 1983 and had been quite sick for some time.  I'm not sure how aware he was of all that.  However, he did not like "Rock and Roll."  He also didn't like Moog synthesizers, which were popular at that time.  I think he'd be amazed at what synthesizers sound like today, and MP3.  He didn't even know about CDs, which changed everything for me as far as getting his music "out there."
2 - What do you think of Dylan's version of "Stay with Me"?
SMT:  I find Dylan's version of "Stay With Me" very moving.  The song clearly arouses some spiritual feelings in him which he conveys.  I think it has a different quality than any other song on the album.

3 - As far as I can tell, "Stay with Me" is the only song your father wrote with Songwriting Hall of Fame lyricist Carolyn Leigh. What do you know about that collaboration?

SMT:  I don't know how that came about.  I would guess that it came via the film company.  The recording came about because Frank Sinatra was a friend of hers and she asked him to do it as a favor to her.  I'm so glad he did.  It's such a beautiful recording.  For people who haven't heard it, it's on YouTube.


4 - "The Cardinal" was unusual in that your father, who composed the score for the film in addition to co-writing the theme song, went on location with the production from start to finish.  Was "Stay With Me" part of that journey?
SMT:  "Stay With Me" came after the film and score were done.  It was unusual for the composer to go along with the production company.  My father acted as the traveling music department.  But he loved it.  He had a lot of interesting experiences, including trying to find "Horst-Wessel" songs in Vienna that he needed for a Nazi marching scene.  Of course no one had ever heard of them but finally his driver helped him.  He and my mother had a great expenses paid trip to Europe and she had never been before.  This was long before the days of deregulation and cheap fares.

5 - Did your father ever play "Stay with Me," or sing it at home, or talk about it in his later years, or was it simply one of many things he composed before moving on to other projects?
(see answer to #6)
6 - What did your father think of Frank Sinatra's original version of "Stay with Me"?
SMT:  I wasn't living at home then so I don't know how often he played it.  He certainly liked the song and I know he loved Frank Sinatra's version.  However, like with other works, he moved on to other projects.
Susanna and Jerome Moss @ 1944
7 - Your father wrote ballets, a symphony, film scores, Broadway musicals and more. Much of his work is longer form and instrumental. Is there anything in "Stay with Me" that you feel is reflective of his work as a whole or is it atypical?
SMT:  "Stay With Me" is reflective of his work in that it is a beautiful melody.  He never gave up writing tonal music even though it wasn't in fashion during his prime years.  He believed there was always another tune to be written.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Days Upon Days

"We'll Never Have Paris" Soundtrack - Alexis + Sam

I recently had the chance to see a romantic comedy, "We'll Never Have Paris," which featured a very enjoyable soundtrack consisting of two major elements: vintage French pop songs and a score which struck all the right notes (pun intended).
Before I say more about WNHP, let me opine that there are, generally speaking, three kinds of film scores:
1 - Big and bold and unforgettable: Star Wars, Gone With the Wind, Psycho.  This style works best with certain types of films: epics and action and horror.
2 - Annoying music that calls attention to itself and distracts you from the story taking place on screen.  Scores that underline every emotion to tell you FEEL SAD! LAUGH! JUMP!  I tend to block these from my memory, but I seem to recall "Amistad" being an example of such.
3 - Scores that you don't notice because they do such an artistic job of organically fitting the plot, characters, cinematography and editing.  They subtly tie things together and draw out emotional nuances without you being consciously aware of it - unless you direct your focus on the music itself.
The score to WNHP belongs to that third category, which is fitting for a breezy love story.  After I got home from the screening, I looked up the credits and found that the score had been written and recorded by Alexis Marsh and Samuel Jones, a duo based here in Los Angeles. 

Alexis on tambourine
Sam and Jonathan Richards

They were kind enough to answer the seven questions I sent them.

1 - How did you two get chosen to do the score for the film?
Alexis + Sam:  In 2011 we were referred by Evan Schroedek, a fantastic editor, to Jocelyn for her first feature, "I Am I."  Sam scored one of Evan's USC projects, and we kept in touch with him after graduation.  One day we got an email saying he was working on a film he thought we'd be good for so we sent him a folder of music and waited.
It was about 3 or 4 months till we got a call from one of the producers, Cora Olsen, asking if we'd like to see a cut of "I Am I."  We watched it; Alexis cried her head off; we wanted to write the music for the film.
We met with the Present Pictures folks - Cora Olsen, Jen Dubin - as well as Jocelyn Towne, the director, and her husband, Simon Helberg, an executive producer and actor in the film.  A week later we got their call letting us know they'd like us to be on the team.  We were in the Home Depot parking lot at the time.  So damn excited. 
Anyway, we spent the fall of 2011 working on the score to "I Am I" with that same group.  It was our first feature.  We loved the film; we loved the people.  So when they started working on "We'll Never Have Paris" we hoped they'd call us for that score.  Jocelyn texted us in the fall of 2013 on the way back from the shoot in Paris to see if we were interested and available. 

2 - "Days upon Days," the song you wrote for the film -  did you worry about how it would fit with all the older French pop songs used elsewhere in the film?
A+S:  "Days Upon Days," was a song we had written and produced before we started work on "We'll Never Have Paris."  They needed a song to play in the background for the Brooklyn pizza restaurant scene, and it just seemed to fit.
There are a couple versions of that song - one using synthesizers for the lead and rhythm lines, and the other using gritty guitars.  It was fun to work within those two sounds.  They wanted the rock guitar version. 

I think there was a bit of worry about the song being good enough to sit with those classic French pop tunes.  Not because it wasn't French - just did it pale in comparison to such fantastic recordings/compositions/performances?  But that kind of thinking will destroy you so we focused on making the best recording we could and let it be what it was. 

3 - Will there be a soundtrack album, given that most films' scores are not released (especially on CD/vinyl) due to the current economics of the music industry?
A+S:  We are currently working out the details for a soundtrack of our work on the film: the score cues, "Days Upon Days." A record would be a dream though it'll most likely be an iTunes release only. 

4 - Did you use any scores from other films as inspiration for this one?
A+S:  In our initial conversations about the film with the directors, Jocelyn and Simon, the reference that kept coming up was Henry Mancini - his score for "The Pink Panther" ("A Shot in the Dark," the "Inspector Clouseau Theme"), the "Baby Elephant Walk" from "Hatari!," "A Profound Gas" from "Peter Gunn."
Those brilliant melodies create such a sense of character without picture.  That was a big inspiration.
Rolfe Kent's score for "Sideways" was a great reference for how jazz could be used in a contemporary film - tricky to balance that style without hitting elements on screen too hard ('over-scoring' being the word we try to avoid in potential criticisms of our scores).  We were fascinated to see how it could just play under dialogue, for entire scenes at times, without distracting from what was happening in the film.  That film and score just work together, and tied into Miles' (Paul Giamatti) character/story perfectly. 
And finally, our favorite reference: Eric Dolphy's "Out To Lunch" for Quinn's unravelling scenes.  That was really a dream come true for Sam - to have that in the vocabulary.  Simon and Jocelyn both have incredible taste in music so finding the sound was a great education in how all these references could come together - to try to do our own version of that.

5 - Where did you fit in the process - did you start composing after the film was far along in editing or were you involved earlier?
A+S:  We started working out some themes and a few sketches of cues toward the end of the editing process when they had a rough cut that was close enough to work with, but the bulk of it was in the month between picture lock and final mix. 
6 - What is your process like, working as a team, and was this score pretty typical in that regard?
A+S:  Our work begins with a lot of discussion about the tone, palette, and concept of the score, followed by the two of us writing separately - each coming up with a number of themes or sketches that we perform, record, and produce to present to the director(s) & producer(s). 
Once we have an idea of what is working for the team (which melodies, instruments, or sounds they like), there is a process of sending things back and forth, adding or subtracting elements, altering forms and arrangements, etc. so that each cue becomes a collaboration that works with the picture.
Simon and Jocelyn came to our studio on a weekly basis for about a month, going over the latest reel, talking about what was working, suggesting various ideas/experiments for what wasn't working yet.  About a week before the final mix, we had some of our favorite jazz musicians come in and play over the cues as well as a small string section for a few cues toward the end of the film.

Louis Cole
Nick Mancini
Ron Stout

7 - The two main male characters have a bit of a musical rivalry going on, piano versus violin.  Did that inform or affect your work in any way?
A+S:  Quinn's being a jazz piano player certainly set out a precedent for having piano featured in the score. We loved what they did with Guillame's character - the Mozart jokes, the Boulez reference, the way he plays violin for Devon's grandparents. He's a fraction of the story compared to the larger history that Devon and Quinn have so there weren't many opportunities to bring that piano/violin tension through literally with the score.

Let me leave you with Alexis + Sam's video about recording the score:

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Big Mac on my Breath


The day after Christmas, I took my guitar to McCabe's in Santa Monica for repairs.  While perusing the musical equipment for fun, I saw this on the wall beneath some mandolins:

My photo's a bit blurry, but what is shows is a framed copy of Larry Groce's #9 single from 1976, "Junk Food Junkie," along with a note stating that the single had been recorded at McCabe's, which in addition to selling and repairing guitars also hosts intimate concerts.

That piqued my curiosity - why was it recorded there?

But before we get to that, let me ask you a question:

How many people write and record a Top Ten single AND put out two platinum record and six gold records of children's music for Disney AND serve as artistic director/host/co-founder of one of the country's best live music shows for thirty years?

Probably just one person, Larry Groce.

The Top Ten single is "Junk Food Junkie," obviously.

The Disney records include the Grammy nominee "Winnie-the-Pooh for President" as well as four volumes of "Children's Favorite Songs."

The live music series is NPR's "Mountain Stage," which has been presenting an impressive variety of top notch musicians since 1983.  I assume you're familiar with this radio institution, but if not, please click the hyperlink and dig in. 

Here's Larry performing "Junk Food Junkie" on "Mountain Stage."  Then we get the answer to "why was the single recorded at McCabe's" and more.

1 - Why did you record this at McCabes instead of in a studio or some other performing space? 

LARRY GROCE:  McCabe's recorded my performance there without telling me. When we (me and my manager at the time) found out about the recording we asked to hear it and get a copy. A little later we decided to make the performance into a recording. A studio version wouldn't have worked. 

2 - These days, are you more Mr. Natural or more Junk Food Junkie?

LG:  Still half and half. 

3 - Where did Peter Alsop, who was the first person to record JFJ, hear your song?

LG:  Peter was a friend. I don't think his recording was released before my original independent version in 1975 on my former manager/producer's label. The Warner-Curb release wasn't until 1976. 

4 - I read that Berke McKelvey played fretless bass on the track; true?

LG:  I don't think Berke played on that recording. The bass and drums were overdubbed and I forget who played them - I wasn't at that overdub session. I was playing solo at McCabe's when it was recorded. However, Berke did play with me most of the time back then. He plays with Chandler Travis now and teaches at Berklee.

5 - Why do you think that satirical songs have seemingly disappeared from pop culture?

LG:  I don't think satire and novelty material has disappeared, it just switched from sound recordings to YouTube videos.

6 - Did you watch the Jackson Five sing JFJ with McKenzie Phillips on their television show?

LG:  I didn't see it live but got a video of it. A lot of people supposedly performed the song in different ways: Dinah Shore on her TV show, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. (of the Fifth Dimension) in their club act, Judy Collins with the Boston Pops and several more. I'd liked to have seen how they all did it, it's such an odd song.

The Jacksons & Mckenzie Phillips - Junk Food... by choucoune92

7 - What do you recall of your appearance on the Tonight Show?

LG:  I just remember that it was a high pressure show and they acted like it was the most important thing in the world so don't screw up.

I had met Dick Cavett on the Merv Griffin show and remembered reading in his bio that the first time he walked on stage at the Tonight Show he could see himself walking onto the TV at his aunt's house in Nebraska. It was like that. I was nervous but got through it.

Joan Rivers was guest host. My teenage sister had flown out from Dallas to see it and we got a laugh when Joan, who had never met me and did not meet me that day, either, opened the show saying that everyone on the show were her good friends. Welcome to show business.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Where No Doctor Can Relieve Me

"If I Should Fall From Grace With God" - The Pogues' James Fearnley

While on a long drive recently, I stumbled across a compelling interview on NPR.  The fascinating fellow telling tales of rock and roll turned out to be James Fearnley, accordion player for and founding member of The Pogues.  It turns out that earlier this year his book "Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues" was published.  Believe me, if you heard the interview, you wanted to get the book as soon as possible.

I don't recall the first time I heard the Pogues, but very few people I knew were aware of the band. They were much bigger in the UK than they were in America.  But I was drawn to their unique blend of rock, celtic, punk and world music.  Their recordings from the late 1980s and early '90s have held up very well as a result of following their own muse and incorporating traditional elements, rather than chasing whatever sound was au courant.

I reached out to James and he kindly agreed to answer my questions.  The hard part was picking which song would be the subject.  "Fairytale of NY" gradually became a favorite of the musically hip here in the US; it's a Christmas song and this is the holiday season; and I find the song completely amazing even after many hundreds of listens.  But it felt like well-trod ground.

So I chose "If I Should Fall From Grace With God," the single that followed "Fairytale," for its mix of infectuous music and dark lyrics.  Take a listen; the Q+A follows.


1 - Do you recall your impression of "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" in whatever state it was in when Shane (McGowan) first played it for you?

James Fearnley:  It was during rehearsals in January 1987 that I first heard ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, along with ‘Rake at the Gates of Hell’, both of which he would probably have written anyway, but each earmarked for inclusion in the soundtrack for Alex Cox’s film, ‘Straight To Hell’, which had been shot, in Spain, the previous summer. 

Both songs, musically speaking - the way we went about them anyway - relied on a kind of propulsive, swampy (aptly enough for the choruses of ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, with their images of rivers and mud), Mississipi Delta shuffle, with elements of Cajun music, even though the band hadn’t actually visited the South at that time. 

Both songs seemed fairly complete by the time Shane introduced them to us, structurally. I had always enjoyed the powerful statement of a melody which could basically stand alone, reiterated in the middle, and as a finale to the song, following the sort of template the Pogues, in conjunction with Shane’s songwriting, had developed in the course of the previous couple of years, and as early as ‘Streams of Whiskey’ and ‘The Dark Streets of London’. 

I’ve written about the opening melody of ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ in ‘Here Comes Everybody’, and how it bore similarities, for me, to ‘The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond’. I remember adoring the melody - it’s pentatonic scale expansive and ancient, and carrying with it the theme, as in ’The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond’, of the proximity of death. I wouldn’t have acknowledged, at the time, the narrator’s beseeching ‘Let me go, let me go’, to have been particularly significant, as such appeals became more urgent a couple of years later.

2 - You played a variety of instruments on the IISFFGWG album - grand piano on "Fairytale of New York," a mandolin, a dulcimer which you hammered with teaspoons, etc.  Did you play anything in addition to accordion on the title track? 

JF:  Recording studios have always been a toy box for me, particularly during the recording of 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, with Steve Lillywhite in May 1987, and particularly on ‘Fiesta’, when it came to replicating gunshots by means of my mouth, among other things. A few years before, I’d spent quite a long period listening to Spike Jones and His City Slickers. I used to know the drummer from a band called the Vibrators. We’d get the saucepans and lids out from my kitchen, and a couple of spoons each, and 'play' along with dance bands from the 1930s - Ray Noble and Al Bowlly were favourites. 

When it came time to record the demos for a large part of what turned out to be the album 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ (’The Terry Woods Solo Album’, which, for ‘contractual reasons’ had to be kept secret), for ‘Fiesta’ there were metal ashtrays and other similar percussion instruments around the penthouse studio at Abbey Road. Otherwise, I remember sawing away at a cello on ‘Turkish Song of the Damned’, and being summoned to the studio by Lillywhite to add a bit of ‘sizzle’ to ‘Bottle of Smoke’, by means of a cymbal laid flat on the floor and beating out triplets on it with sticks. 

I think the hammered dulcimer came later, once I’d realised there was an instrument that sounded better than laying a mandolin on my lap, damping off the strings I didn’t want by means of cardboard stuck between them, and laying into it with teaspoons. The break in ‘Haunted’ (to Philip Chevron’s chagrin, because I rather think he would have liked the opportunity to play a guitar solo), which we recorded a year earlier, is done that way.

3 - Why did the band choose to name the album after this track?

JF:  Frank Murray, our manager, was vexed that we hadn’t come up with an album title. ‘Red Roses For Me’ had come so immediately and simply. I wonder if Shane knew all along what he wanted the title of our first album to be. ‘Rum Sodomy and the Lash’ became obvious, from Andrew Ranken’s navy stories - though I’m glad the album wasn’t called ‘Dance of the Flaming Arseholes’, which was one of Andrew’s most memorable stories. ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ proved to be not so easy. Nothing ever spontaneously raised its head. Murray, with his back against some sort of wall, burst into our rehearsal, wanting an album title. Shane just shouted back "‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’!”  to make him go away.

4 - IISFFGWG was used in a 2010 Subaru commercial about hockey moms.  Could you ever have envisioned this back in 1988?

JF:  No. Neither could Iggy Pop have envisioned ‘Lust for Life’ in a commercial for Royal Caribbean cruises.

5 - An earlier, slower version of IISFFGWG was released on the soundtrack for "Straight to Hell" in 1987.  Why did the band decide to revisit/redo the song?

JF:  There’s no gripping story to this. The song, with ‘Rake at the Gates of Hell’, was recorded for the ‘Straight to Hell’ soundtrack. There was some foot-dragging on our part, vis à vis our relationship with Stiff Records, and we were eager to record. After our summer holidays in the Tabernas Desert outside Almerìa there was a lot of energy in the band, musically. ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ and ‘Rake at the Gates of Hell’ were part of that energy. ‘Rake at the Gates of Hell’ should have been a contender for the record had it not been for the malevolence of the lyrics. Shame.

6 - How disappointed were you, or not, when IISFFGWG peaked at #58 in the UK after the previous single, "Fairytale of NY," was a #2 hit? 

JF:  ‘Fairytale of New York’ hit a nerve that was always going to remain hidden from ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, I suppose. Christmas in the United Kingdom (in perpetuity, it seems) was ready for ‘Fairytale of New York’. Easter not so much for ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’. (I think I’m right in saying that the single of ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ was released around Easter 1988.)

7 - What is your most memorable live performance of IISFFGWG?

JF:  All performances of ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ have tended to run into one collective one. It has been a favourite of mine to play, since we first started playing it. It provides me one of the first opportunities in the set to throw the bass end of the accordion skyward and drag the keyboard end down towards me for the last chord. If there’s any performance or series of performances I particularly remember, they were for the video we recorded at the Town and Country in Kentish Town during the week of St Patrick’s Day 1988. Philip Chevron was masterful in front of the cameras. I had no idea what to do and learned a lot from him. Not much of a memory, it’s true, since it forms part of that residency we had, and in our stamping ground, in our home town, at the end of a tour of the UK, not long after coming back from the other side of the world after our first tour of Australia. It was good to be back at home.

For other interviews James has done, see the links at this page on his website.