Friday, December 20, 2013

We'll Have a Dance of Liberty

"Black and White" - Three Dog Night (Jimmy Greenspoon) 

In 1954, the Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, inspiring a song titled "Black and White," music by singer Earl Robinson and lyrics by David Arkin (father of actor Alan Arkin).  17 years later, the band Greyhound reached #6 on the British pop charts with their version of the song.  An American band heard this single and recorded the song for its next album.

Who was the band?  Obviously, it was Three Dog Night, who took it to #1 in America in September of 1972.  

TDN is an underrated band and an unusual one.  It featured three lead singers, so perhaps this lack of a solitary front man like a Jagger or Cobain made it harder for fans to focus their attention (the Beatles, as usual, being the exception to this theory). But TDN had three #1 singles and 21 (!) Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1975.

On the one hand, despite a five year break in the late 70's, the band has been remarkably durable, continuing to play together with most of the original lineup.  On the other, they haven't released a new album since... 1976!

But the most likely reason they are not in the hip pantheon of rock groups is that they were unabashedly pop rock.  Many of their songs are perfect for singing along to in the car or at the arena.  They weren't dark and edgy and experimental.  They didn't write most of their hits.  But they were very capable musicians who had a fantastic knack for picking songs, many from writer/performers who went on to become successful in their own right.

One (Harry Nilsson) - is the loneliest number.
Mama Told Me Not To Come (Randy Newman)
Eli's Coming (Laura Nyro)
Never Been to Spain (Hoyt Axton)
Joy To The World (Axton) - "Jeremiah was a bullfrog," not the Xmas song.
An Old Fashioned Love Song (Paul Williams)
Sure As I'm Sitting Here (John Hiatt)
The Show Must Go On
And so on...

One of the band's original members, Keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon, shared his memories and insight with me.  If you want more than the seven questions and answers below, he also wrote a book with a very long title: 

One Is the Loneliest Number: On the Road and Behind the Scenes With the Legendary Rock Band Three Dog Night

1 - I've read that TDN heard the UK reggae band Greyhound's recording of B&W and covered that version. But B&W was originally recorded in 1956 by Pete Seeger and then by Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1957. Were you familiar with either of those versions?

Jimmy Greenspoon: I wasn't aware of the other versions. I knew there were some out there as it was written some time ago. The Greyhound  version was what we used for a template.



2 - I assume that's you playing the famous piano intro?  How was it decided to start the record off that way?

JG: Yes, that's me. It was a running joke that I started 99% of the songs, so as on "JOY", "MAMA", "OLD FASHIONED" and others, the guys took a dinner break and left me to come up with something that was radio friendly. TA DA!

3 - Was there any negative reaction to the song from people who disagreed with its meaning or didn't think it should be commercialized, etc?

JG: None at all. In fact, some school teachers in the deep South used the song as a learning tool for the children.

4 - When you finished recording the song, did you think it was going to be a hit?

JG: Yes. At that point, our track record was extensive, so we knew we had a hit on our hands.

5 - How has the social context for the song changed, given that you and the band have been performing it for 40 years?

JG: The context of the song remains intact to this day. There's still people out there who don't want that equality, but you can't fix stupid. Most people at the shows just view it as a fun, sing along hit.

6 - What was the most memorable live performance of B&W?

JG: The one that never happened. We were scheduled to play South Africa at Sun City, but someone on the other side didn't do their homework. When they found out that Floyd was black (DUH) they cancelled the show. That would have been quite the learning experience.

Drummer Floyd Sneed and the rest of the band

7 - Who are the children singing towards the end of the record?

JG: The kids at the end were Cory's daughters (Cory Wells is one of TDN's lead vocalists), Floyd's daughters, my daughter and some of their school friends.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Musical Chemistry

"Breaking Bad" (TV series) - Dave Porter

As it builds to its highly anticipated finale, "Breaking Bad" is widely hailed as one of the finest television series of all time.  What elevates this drama is the excellence with which every element is crafted: the acting, writing, directing and cinematography are the most obvious examples.

But don't overlook Dave Porter's masterful work scoring each and every episode.

Great scores in film and television come in two flavors: those that call attention to themselves and those that you don't often notice. Both types are equally effective in the right hands and in the right context.  John Williams' classic score for Star Wars is something anyone can hum - its grandiosity and power match the scale of an intergalactic battle between good and evil.

Showy scores like Williams' tend to get the most attention. And people also notice music when it's bad - heavy handed or repetitive or incongruous. 

But music that people don't consciously notice, even while it ties together scenes and amplifies emotion, music that would be sorely missed if it disappeared? That is the work of a very talented individual.

Dave Porter's work on "Breaking Bad" falls in this category.  Not to say that you never notice his score, because you do.  But on the whole it directs attention not to itself but keeps it on the story, where it belongs.  It never takes you out of the moment. It never hits you over the head to tell you THIS IS SCARY or THIS IS FUNNY or THIS IS SAD.  It's subtly perfect.

Because the characters have evolved so much over five seasons, Porter is always coming up with new music.  He isn't just coming up with a handful of great themes to reuse and tweak, he's constantly creating a new soundscape.

His work here is also distinctive for its lack of standard orchestral instruments. Instead, he features electronic sounds and ethnic instruments, as well as acoustic guitar and found sounds that aren't created by a musical instrument. 

And in this day of short title sequences, Porter came up with that memorable dobro and percussion theme that punctuates every cold open and primes the viewer for an hour of gut wrenching suspense.

1 - What is your favorite score for a television series and how has it influenced your work on Breaking Bad?

Dave Porter: As a whole, I'm probably more influenced by film scores than those from television, although there have been a some important exceptions.  When I was 14 years old it would have been hard to drag me away from Miami Vice on a Friday night…  Michael Mann and Jan Hammer used music in a very aggressive and overt way that hadn't happened previously on TV.  Certainly Twin Peaks is another - the way that David Lynch has always melded music and sound design has been a big influence on my own work.

(Editor's note: Once, as an icebreaker, my colleagues and I had to name our favorite TV theme songs. I said "Twin Peaks" and none of my two dozen co-workers knew the song - and we worked at a television network! Here it is in all its beautiful and mysterious glory. A TV theme would never be allowed to run this long nowadays.)  

2 - Since, sadly but inevitably, BB is ending, what will you be working on next?

DP: I'm very excited about my next project, which will be a series for Fox entitled "Wayward Pines."  It is being produced by M. Night Shyamalan, who will also direct the first episode. Chad Hodge and Donald DeLine are also executive producers, and the cast they have lined up is fantastic: Matt Dillon, Terence Howard, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, and more.  It is a thriller that is expected to air next summer.

3 - When a song is used in an episode of BB, such as Jim White's "Wordmule," is it added to the sound mix before, after or during your scoring, and do you ever consult with the music supervisor about what songs get used?

DP: All of the music, additional sound effects, dialogue fixes, etc., get mixed together in the final audio mix, which is generally the last step in the creative process of a film or television episode.  Most films and tv shows have a music supervisor in addition to a composer, and that person is responsible for the licensed music that is used.  In our case, that job is handled by Thomas Golubic and his staff, who do an amazing job.

I do coordinate with Thomas (and of course Vince Gilligan and other writers/producers) about where music should be used, and if we are going to use music in a particular scene whether it should be source or score.

If we decide source (aka licensed) music is the best option, then creatively that task falls to Thomas.  On a few occasions we've been unsure whether score or source would be the best option, and we've both worked on music for a scene, in which case Vince Gilligan would make the final decision.

4 - You've been very accessible to BB fans on Reddit and Facebook, etc.  Is using social media a must for a career in music or simply something you enjoy doing? 

DP: This is an interesting question, and one that I don't think I fully know the answer to yet.  I'm not sure that being available on social media is really anything that is likely to further my career… at least I don't see it that way.  But I guess you never know -- it certainly can't hurt to have people be aware of your work.  

For me, I started doing those things because I had an inside view on a unique television show that people were eager to talk about.  In the beginning, in particular,  it was fascinating to connect with fans who were early adopters and as passionate about the show as we were.  As the show grew in popularity I used these social networks as an interesting gauge of where we were during the crazy ascent of the show into the popular series it has become.  

As my career moves on beyond Breaking Bad it will be interesting for me to see what role social media plays.

5 - How did you select which tracks to include on the soundtrack album, given more than four season's worth of material, especially since your music for the series is not just a collection of themes and stings?

DP: Selecting cues to include on my score soundtrack CD was definitely tough.  My view is that as a film/tv composer my task first and foremost is to create music that supports the film or show.  I'm never thinking about what something is going to sound like on a soundtrack record when I'm writing it.  

But of course listening to a soundtrack record is a very different experience, with different requirements and expectations.  I really wanted listening to the score soundtrack to be a cohesive experience, but this meant, for example, that some of my favorite cues didn't make it simply because they felt too short and there wasn't time or budget to rerecord them.  

Overall it was a very rewarding experience, though, and I'm really pleased to have the score soundtrack available for those fans that are interested.

6 - What was the hardest episode to score?

DP: From a purely logistical standpoint, last summer's "Dead Freight" with the train heist sequence was the most demanding.  Previously, I think the longest cue I had written for the show was around 4 minutes long.  The train heist cue lasts almost the entirety of the final act, approximately 13 minutes.  For any composer working on an extended action sequence, it is a lot of work to keep the music varied and follow all the peaks and valleys across a long stretch of time.  

From an emotional standpoint, my "Jane's Demise" cue was probably the hardest.  That was not only a very difficult scene to have to watch hundreds of times, but a very complicated series of emotions and reactions that had to be accounted for musically without necessarily commenting on the scene from a moral standpoint.  That particular cue had many incarnations before arriving at exactly the right one. 

7 - Showrunner Vince Gilligan and editor Kelley Dixon are always quick to praise your work.  Will you be on any of their podcasts this season

DP: Our official podcasts, which Vince and Kelley put out for every episode, are an amazing source of insider info on the show.  I highly recommend them for fans of the show.  I always love attending them because without fail I'm also learning all kinds of new things that I never knew.  

I have been a part of a number of them, and I'm honestly not sure if I will be a part of any this final season… they tend to be a last minute thing.  I have, though, recorded DVD commentary on a few episodes already, which are always fun as well.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sometimes It Hurts Instead

"Someone Like You" (Adele) - Dan Wilson, co-writer/co-producer

What is the greatest post-Y2K pop song?  And, by the way, doesn't the term "Y2K" sound completely archaic now?

Yes, trying to crown a song as "greatest" in any way is a silly endeavor.  It's completely subjective.  The alternative is to use numbers: most sales/radio play, for instance.  And what does that really tell us?  

But people love to rank things.  College football teams, hamburgers, or sitcoms, the question of which is best cannot be resolved - but it can lead to endless hours of argument which, when done right, is entertaining and enlightening.

So let me ask again: what is the greatest pop song since 1/1/2000?

To me, to truly achieve greatness a song must become ubiquitous, so much so that even people who never intentionally listen to music know it.  After all, "pop" is short for "popular."

The trick is to create such a song without making it so vanilla that everyone finds it listenable but few find it essential.  And the biggest challenge of all is that even the most brilliant songs can become grating after a while, when you've heard it for the zillionth time in the last month.

So, off the top of my head, my short list of mega-hits this century would include songs like "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga; "F*** You" by Cee Lo Green; "Hey Ya" by Outkast; "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepson; "Put a Ring on it" by Beyonce; "I Kissed a Girl" by Kate Perry; "Gagnam Style" by Psy; "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay; "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk; and "You Belong to Me," by Taylor Swift.

There are certainly other songs that merit mention with those above. When I think of the last decade or so, this is the music that jumps out at me.  But one song that rises above them all: Adele's "Someone Like You."  

Like all timeless performances, it sounds fresh yet familiar.  The arrangement is elegant. Adele's vocal is so powerful that it feels like it's coming from your heart, not hers.  And love lost is perhaps the most universal of themes. 

Dan Wilson co-wrote and co-produced "SLY" with Adele.  He is a popular artist in his own right, from his days with Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic ("Closing Time," speaking of ubiquitous songs) to his current solo work.  He's a talented painted, has won Grammy Awards, and has co-written songs with everyone from Keith Urban to Weezer, Josh Groban to Nicole Atkins, John Legend to the Dixie Chicks ("Not Ready to Make Nice," anyone?).

You can read more about him at his excellent website.  Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for his mailing list and get free songs.

Dan kindly took time to answer my questions about his work on "Someone Like You."

1 - The song was inspired by Adele's ex's engagement.  How developed were the lyrics and music when you started co-writing and what did you bring to her process?

Dan Wilson: What Adele showed me at the beginning of our session was four lines of the first verse along with a cool single-note guitar part. It may be that she had some other ideas in her back pocket, because when we wrote the music for the chorus, she ran to the other room and came back very quickly withe the first half of the chorus. The rest of the song was hard work, she took the lead a lot with lyrics and I mostly helped with music and the structure of the song. I think I occasionally suggested better ways to phrase the lyrics.

2 - I read recently that the record label wanted to re-record SLY because it was too sparse and slow.  That blows my mind, as the utter simplicity of voice and piano is the perfect setting for a song as intimate and raw as this one.  How did you and Adele decided on this arrangement?

DW: I guess they did two alternate versions. I heard one, it had a beautiful string arrangement. They tried other versions partly because the recording you hear was thought of as the "songwriting demo." Everyone loved it the minute they heard it, but the team took some pains trying to beat it with a more complete version.

3 - I was going to ask if you worry about using a title that's been used before, thinking that Rod Stewart had a hit with "Someone Like You," before it dawned on me that this is simply a phrase used in his song titled "Reason to Believe" (which, ironically, is a title Bruce Springsteen later recycled).  If that makes sense.   So the actual question is: did you sweat the title for SLY much or was it fairly obvious all along what it would be?

DW: Actually, I didn't know what the title should be when we finished the song, and I asked Adele what she thought. "Someone Like You" was her best guess at the time and it just stuck. I'm not picky about song titles, I don't think you need to be original in naming children, nor in naming songs.

4 - Not many songs become iconic enough to inspire a Saturday Night Live sketch. Assuming you've seen it, how did it make you feel to see the ribbing of SLY's ability to jerk tears?

DW: That was one of the greatest honors of my musical life!

5 - You have been successful writing and co-writing for numerous artists in disparate genres, from country to rock to pop.  What is it you think Adele was looking for from you, specifically?

DW: I think Adele wasn't sure what I would bring to the session. Rick Rubin had been urging her to write with me, and she loved the Dixie Chicks songs I'd written with the band, so maybe she thought she'd get a little more American twang into whatever we did together.

6 - You play the piano on the song.  Did you record live to vocal or as a separate track?

DW: We recorded the piano first, I played to a click track and every time it seemed like it should slow down or speed up, I had the engineer, Phil Allen, create a little accelerando or rallentando in the click track, then played over that. Then we worked on the vocals second.

7 - SLY was voted the 3rd most popular single in the UK in the last 60 years, trailing only MJ's "Billie Jean" at #2 and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" at #1.  Which of those two songs do you prefer?

DW: I love "Bohemian Rhapsody" and listen to it a lot. I'm indifferent to "Billie Jean," I don't like the self-pitying vibe of that song. MJ did a lot better songs than that.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I Hardly Know What to Say

Shannon - Henry Gross

The early 1970's saw the rise of the "sensitive male" singer-songwriter, from James Taylor to Jim Croce, Cat Stevens to Paul Simon. From its beginnings in acoustic folk music, this genre evolved into a radio friendly form that was immensely popular at the time and remains a favorite for many a Baby Boomer.  What it lacks in edge and hipness it makes up for in melody, heart and facial hair.   Like any style, it generated a lot of forgettable songs, but also a number of classics that have endured.  Such is Henry Gross's #6 hit from 1976, "Shannon."

Event though the lyrics never specify who/what Shannon is, it became common knowledge that the song is about losing a beloved dog.  That subject resonated deeply with listeners who could relate to the difficulty of such a life event - and the deal was sealed by a memorable melody, heartfelt vocals, and lush production.

Though he is best known for singing a song so sincere that it's taken a fair amount of guff for being "corny," Henry has a great sense of humor, as evidenced in many of his other songs as well as in his answers to my questions about "Shannon" below.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Hurry, Don't Be Late

Reminiscing - Little River Band

There are songs that, whenever you hear them, keep popping into your head at random times for the next few days.  I'm not talking about an earworm, which is a short musical hook that you just can't shake.  I mean bits and pieces from an entire song flit in and out of your consciousness.

In some cases, this sonic stickiness is annoying; in other instances, it's like welcoming an old friend for a weekend visit.  The latter is definitely true for me whenever I hear "Reminiscing," a song from Australia's Little River Band that was composed by the group's Graeham Goble (pictured above).  Evidently I'm not alone in my fondness for this romantic tune, as it's been played on American radio more than 5,200,000 times since it reached #3 on the pop charts in 1978.  

(A word to the wise: the group that currently performs as Little River Band has NONE of the original members, not Graeham or any of the others who recorded "Reminiscing."  It's a case of what unfortunately happens too often, where the rights to a group's name ends up with someone other than  the musicians who made it a success.)

Graeham kindly agreed to answer my questions about "Reminiscing" and then followed up with a recommendation for a contemporary artist whom he finds very much worth a listen.  Who is it?  Read on for the answer.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I'm Stuck in Folsom Prison

Robert Hilburn - Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues"

Two giants at Folsom Prison: a musician and a journalist

You may have heard today that the USPS is issuing a Johnny Cash stamp this year.  I don't mail much these days, but now I need to come up with some excuses to do so.

This news ties in well to the subject of this post, Cash's iconic song "Folsom Prison Blues."  I'm very pleased to have my questions about FSB answered by Robert Hilburn, one of the most influential rock critics of all time.  Hilburn, who was the LA Times' pop music editor and critic from 1970-2005, has written a new book about Cash.  The author has one impeccable credential: he was the only music writer to accompany Cash on his historic performance at Folsom Prison.

Hilburn, who is on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's nominating committee, wrote a musical memoir which I greatly enjoyed reading last year.  In "Corn Flakes with John Lennon," he gives intimate insights into many of the most significant artists of the rock era, from Dylan to Springsteen to Bono, Kurt Cobain to Michael Jackson.  He seemingly has a gift for for gaining musicians' trust and respect, which leads to unique access.  

Why do you think "Folsom Prison Blues" has endured as an iconic record?

Robert Hilburn: “Folsom Prison Blues” was a hit in the country field from the moment country radio started playing it. The song entered the country charts on Feb. 11, 1956 and went to No. 4 on the country charts—remaining on those charts for 20 weeks. The appeal was partly the uniqueness of the story (with the stark line about shooting a man just to watch him die), but also the absolute authority of John’s voice. It sounded real, threatening, and important—not just another generic country hit. That record stood apart from anything else on the radio. In fact, it was too threatening and raw for pop radio. It would take the more soothing “I Walk the Line” a few months later for Cash to crack the pop market.

Though a great record, “Folsom Prison Blues” would not have endured as an iconic record without the Folsom prison concert. Times had changed by the time Cash stepped on stage in 1968 at Folsom. Dylan and so many other great rock artists had created a market for bold, authentic, edgy music and Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” fit into that world. Though the record went to No. 1 on the country charts in the summer of 1968, it was the exposure on underground rock radio and the write-ups in general newspapers and publications (from the Los Angeles Times to the Village Voice) and rock journals (notably Rolling Stone) that helped spread the word to a wider audience—thus the record became a huge pop-rock hit. Even in that edgier world, the record stood out. People weren’t just intrigued by the record but by this guy Johnny Cash. They bought the Folsom album—and the dramatic impact of that great work—made both Cash and the song more important. Together, Cash and the record became part of the American cultural fabric.

While writing your upcoming book on Johnny Cash, what was the most interesting thing you learned about FPB that you hadn't previously known?

RH: Once I learned that John based “Folsom Prison Blues” on a Gordon Jenkins’s song titled “Crescent City Blues,” I worked hard to find out how he came across “Crescent City Blues” and I track down the person who played the Jenkins song for John in an Air Force barracks in Germany. If that serviceman hadn’t bought the Jenkins record, John, most likely, would never have heard “Crescent City Blues” (it wasn’t a hit), thus there would have been no “Folsom Prison Blues”—at least anything in near the form we know).

You were at Folsom Prison for Cash's famous performance, as recounted in your book "Cornflakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life." What did you think when you saw the scenes set there in the film, "Walk the Line"?

RH: They seemed generally correct.

4 - What is the truth about the connection between FPB and "Crescent City Blues"?

RH: When I first heard “Crescent City Blues” a few years ago, I was surprised how much John took from the Gordon Jenkins song. He basically uses the same structure, simply changing a few lines. Now, those changes were important. He added, for instance, the line about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, which was perhaps the most memorable line in the song. But he kept a lot of the original language. It is clearly a different song in Cash’s hands, but the two songs are closer than I had imagined.

What is your upcoming book (tentatively titled Johnny Cash: The Life) about?

RH: I’m trying to tell the story of John’s artistry—how it came about, the factors that encouraged the artistry and worked against the artistry. In some ways, the book is about the struggles of an artist. It’s easy to think songwriters, for instance, just sit back and write songs every so often and make an album. But there are all kinds of hurdles they must cross—including emotional turmoil in their lives, and I learned in researching the book that there was much more emotional turmoil and physical pain in John’s life than I had ever imagined.

When can we expect to see it in stores and online?

RH: The book is being published by Little, Brown and Company and it is tentatively scheduled for release in November. It will also be published in various other countries around the world.

Do you want more Hilburn?  Of course you do, so here are a few places you can find him: