“do they know it’s hallowe’en?” – the north american hallowe’en prevention initiative (2005)

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As someone who loves novelty music, of course this also must include holiday music.  In our vernacular, what people generally consider as holiday music is pretty much the sounds of joy and cheer that only Christmas music can bring.  This makes sense.  Christmas is a major holiday and lots of money is made to capitalize on the season and it even branches to the music we hear.  That’s all well and good, but holiday music is a flexible term for me.  I apply the label of “holiday music” to whatever holiday is around the corner.  And with Halloween creeping towards us, you better believe I’ve been blasting the holiday sounds of Don Hinson, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, and all the other novelty recording artists singing about movie monsters, flying purple people eaters, and all kinds of kooky Halloween nonsense.

While I love Christmas music, Halloween music is a special treat.  All the songs I can find on YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora are ridiculously fun and don’t contain some larger message about a higher deity, goodwill towards all people, or peace on earth. At Halloween, I’m in it for the monsters, candy, and mayhem.  Give me the songs about Dracula drag racing, spooky movies, and artificially-flavored blood substitutes.  For all these reasons, Halloween music is just stupid fun.

Christmas music does really set the bar for seasonal tunes, though.  Think about it.  More people know “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” than they do “The Monster Mash.”  However, Christmas music isn’t always held with high regard and respect.  Christmas is big.  The biggest holiday of the year.  Granted, there are a lot of cultures, religions, and philosophies that don’t celebrate Christmas.  However, Christmas has its own fair share of cynics.  There are lots of people who celebrate Christmas who otherwise don’t really believe it and only do so to be a part of family tradition or fit in.  You don’t get to be the biggest holiday of the year all over the world and not inspire some snide and cynical comments.

There are dozens of Christmas-themed tunes that take the holiday and shed a light on the less merry aspects such as income inequality and social hypocrisy.  Those songs have their place, but it’s Halloween god damn it!  Christmas is still two months away so why waste time talking about it?  Because Christmas music has such an influence that it even inspires novelty songs for other holidays.

In 2005, a consortium of musicians and comedians gathered together to form the North American Hallowe’en Prevention Initiative.  Consisting of members including Beck, David Cross, Peaches, Win Butler, Feist, Karen O, and the legendary Elvira, the members the NAHPI recorded the single “Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en,” a fun little indie rock song about the horrors of Halloween.  Drawing inspiration from Band Aid’s 1986 Christmas classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the NAHPI’s ode to Halloween horror was a charity single benefitting UNICEF.  While the source material is one the biggest examples of celebrity benefit grandiosity (though one of my favorite Christmas songs), “Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en” took that misguided self-righteousness and not only made a fun song about Halloween, but also to make an honest declaration against charity benefit singles that have colonial and western-centric perspectives.  While I may disagree with some aspects of that premise, I applaud the NAHPI’s brazen attempt to tackle a huge Christmas classic and do so in the name of charity.

“Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en” is a fun song about Halloween terror.  It is goofy and that goes a long way when satirizing the overall concept of charity singles while being one as well.  Musically, it is a barely interesting standard indie rock piece.  But, that isn’t what makes this song work.  It is a package deal; all the pieces coming together to make a whole concept work.  The talent on the track offer personality and humor.  The video is a ridiculous cartoon.  There is nothing to take seriously in this song.  And that should be the case with all Halloween music.  It’s a stupid holiday with stupid music.  Leave the preachiness and morality in Christmas music.  This is Halloween.  Give me something questionable to drink, a pillowcase worth of candy, and idiotic costumes.  Do I know it’s Halloween?  You better believe it.

“2120 south michigan avenue” – the rolling stones (1964)

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When I moved to Chicago in 2011, I spent my first three years working for a non-profit in the South Loop.  During my lunch breaks, I liked to walk around the neighborhood.  If you’ve never been to the South Loop, there isn’t much to see.  With condo buildings up and down Michigan Avenue, the whole area is very grey.  So much concrete that it was jarring to see these shrines of modernity jutting out of an otherwise crumbling landscape.

However, you can find little pockets that are quite interesting.  The southern part of Grant Park is just off the Roosevelt red line. The Museum Campus isn’t too far away either.  Even in Prairie District, a little neighborhood pocketed at 18th and Michigan, you’ll find some green space as well as some historical points of interest.  However, for me, the real gem of the South Loop was located a few blocks down from where I worked.  Amidst all the high rises and urban decay, you’ll find a little haven located at 2120 South Michigan.

Phil Chess, one of the founders of Chess Records, passed away this week.  Chess Records, the legendary record label, could be found a few different places in Chicago.  However, none of the locations were as famous as the one at 2120 South Michigan Avenue.  In 1950, Chess Records was founded by Leonard and Phil Chess.  Polish immigrants, Phil and his brother Leonard would go on to develop and support a supremely talented roster of artists including Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and Howlin Wolf.  These artists who recorded for the greatest rhythm & blues label of all time would not only help lay the foundation for rock and roll, but also influence the next generation of artists who took the form and elevated it to new aesthetic and commercial heights.

One group inspired by the blues records coming out of Chess were the pasty clan of Englishmen known as the Rolling Stones.  In June 1964, the group went to Chicago to record at Chess and to meet some of their heroes.  These Chess recordings would appear on their Five by Five EP released in August that year.  While the Rolling Stones would grow to be one of the biggest rock bands of all time, their beginnings were humble and born out of their fandom of Chicago blues music.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is a bluesy instrumental homage to Chess Records.  What started with Bill Wyman practicing a bass riff became a full-on jam featuring the entire group (with no vocals, Mick Jagger is credited with the tambourine).  While this isn’t the best track by the Rolling Stones, it does stand out.  Musically, it is very much in the style of the magic Leonard and Phil were pressing on wax.  Also, it is a direct tribute to the label and it’s sound.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is by no way the best, or even remotely close to best, song recorded at Chess.  We’re talking about the studio that released “At Last,” “I’m A Man,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Maybellene,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coohie Man,” and so many more great rhythm & blues classics.  It seems a little peculiar to choose an obscure Rolling Stones instrumental as my song tribute to the passing of Phil Chess when considering the scores of better songs on the label.  I’ll write about those songs eventually, but I got to thinking about the influence Chess Records had.  The men and women who recorded those classic songs deserve every ounce of credit they can get.  Their talent made rock and roll what it is today.  All the monumentally successful artists who were inspired by and ripped off Chess owe their success to Leonard and Phil.  It is a shame that these black artists who built the form didn’t become as big as artists like Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones, but that is how the story goes.  Since they were black, their audience and commercial appeal were limited.  It took a couple scrawny English group to take their sound and deliver it a mass audience.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is merely a footnote in the great Chess catalog, but it is a prime example of how influential the label was for the development of rock and roll.  Even if it had to come in the form of scrawny English guys ripping off black musicians, the sound had to be heard.

Chess Records became defunct in 1975.  Now, if you were to walk down Michigan Avenue, you’ll find Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation in it’s place.  It is an organization designed to help black musicians rightfully reclaim the music they created that would later be stolen by white rock groups.  The Blues Heaven Foundation works to educate students and the public on blues music including it’s history and the workings of the music business.  It is a place I love and where I would walk past almost every day on my way to work.  It is important for what used to be there, and what it continues to be.

 

“if i knew you were comin’ i’d’ve baked a cake” – eileen barton (1950)

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When it comes to my casual music listening habits, I have my personal favorites I frequent most.  Those favorites tend to stay in the familiar waters of rock and pop.  Specifically, most of the time, I listen to new wave, post-punk, soul, and music between 1965 and 1995.  Now, there is a lot of material to cover in those areas on their own.  New developments in recording technology and distribution increasingly made it easier for artists to make music.  There is so much to explore outside the realm of commercial pop radio when you dive into the sounds of smaller indie labels.  However, it can grow tiresome sometimes and I crave for something new and different.

When I say “new,” I’m not necessarily referring to the latest record releases.  “New” in this context would mean music outside of what I typically listen to: rock and pop.  This occasional yearning has led me to explore various types of folk, world, experimental, and other types of music.  Not only do I learn something, it is a good way to cleanse the palate and you just may find your new favorite thing.

Now, there’s a bit of science behind why I, and others, tend to listen to the same things despite the vast resources we have available to find new music.  In his book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, Ben Ratliff explains in a time where the Internet offers us access to any and all types of music, the ability to have music on demand has actually limited listening in a way.  With YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, and other streaming music services at your fingertip, you can easily control the music.  There is no need to sit through a song you don’t like when you can just skip.  That type of instantaneous musical gratification has impacted how we listen and interact with music.  With the ability to cater the exact sounds we want, we tend to overlook or ignore music that could be new and potentially exciting.  It is a scenario where freedom comes in the form of too much choice.

Unintentionally closing my mind because of my ability to seek out what I want when I want is something I am guilty of too.  We all are.  I forget this sometimes until I get to the point where I am experiencing musical fatigue.  That’s when I wake up and realize I need to explore.  Not only for the sake of refreshing my senses and getting back to a point where I can enjoy the music I love, but feed my curious appetite as a full-time music lover.

I have a variety of different ways I explore new music.  I volunteer for a non-profit radio station.  I read books about music I’m not familiar with.  I work in a music archive.  I have all sorts of music available to me, so I try not to waste those opportunities.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of early vocal records.  Before Elvis Presley shocked the nation and introduced rock and roll to millions of white kids, popular music was a little more “white friendly” and non-threatening.  Artists would record songs that were fun, lite, and generally not shocking.  Certainly, there is nothing wrong with that sort of popular innocence and naiveté.  Though, it does make the music sound quaint by today’s standards. Still, it can be refreshing in a way to drop baggage and listen to a fun record.

A song I’ve just been in love with lately has been Eileen Barton’s “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake.” Going all the way to #1 on the Billboard Best-Selling Pop Singles chart in 1950, this signature song by Barton is catchy and fun.  A percussive knock on a wood block simulating someone is at the door kicks off the track and is followed by a cheerful “come in” from Barton.  Surprised by her visitor whom she hasn’t seen in many a year, she launches into her tune.  Accompanied with a bass and rhythmic clapping, Barton sings about baking her guest a cake and hiring a band if she only knew they were coming.  Towards the middle of the song, a full band comes in and joins the joyous celebration.

Barton only recorded a handful of singles in the 1950s.  Her version of this song actually stands out as the most famous.  And rightfully so.  While legends like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope recorded their own versions, Barton brings the song to life with an unparalleled energy and vigor.

“you set the scene” – love (1967)

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I recently moved to a new neighborhood.  For me, moving can sometimes be a stressful experience.  There is a lot that goes into the process of relocating.  It can be expensive when you factor in hidden costs, deposits, fees, and the logistics of moving all your stuff in one piece.  Moving can also be physically and emotionally taxing.  Carrying boxes and furniture for hours up and down stairs is never fun.  And the overall change can be difficult even if the change is good.

There’s been a lot of change lately in my life.  None of it has been bad, but the responsibility of managing it has required concentration and calm.  Change is the only constant we have in our life.  As I am getting closer to the end of my 20s, I still don’t think I am used to the idea of change as an overall concept.  Sure, I would like to think I like and accept change but I think it typically depends on what kind.  Some things are harder to accept than others.  But then again, does one ever really get fully accepting of change?

I am now done with unpacking and getting my apartment settled.  While I was sorting through boxes and trash, I listened to a lot of music.  Not only did it make the task more fun, but it also kept me calm and not too overwhelmed.  I hated my new apartment at first.  And I know what you’re thinking.  Bradley, why would you move there if you ended up hating it?  Well, it wasn’t that I hated my apartment or that it was terrible, but rather my judgment was clouded by not accepting change.  Everything is in its place now and I feel better about that, but it has taken some time to get settled in and become comfortable.

While organizing and sorting, I took time to relisten to albums that generally made me happy.  Not all of the albums were specifically filled to the brim with joy, but other an experience that I find enjoyable even if not relaxing.  One of my favorite albums I revisited after several years was Love’s 1967 classic Forever Changes.  I wanted to wait until next year to dissect this album for it’s 50th anniversary, but the themes of the album were calling out to me.

Besides the obvious title, the album is about change and was derived from a conversation between the band’s lead singer and a friend.  And the concept of change is found throughout the album.  A psychedelic rock band, Love was never really a band that fit in with the hippie movement.  With the band originating in California, it was certainly close to the epicenter of that movement.  However, the album skims the surface of darker themes and doesn’t fully adhere to the philosophies of the flower people.  There is a lot of introspection in this album that doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the wide-eyed optimism of the era’s counterculture.

There are so many amazing tracks on this album.  Every single one is a winner and to discuss only one song does the album a huge injustice.  However, this being a song analysis and discussion blog, I can only explore one.  And as I think about the change in my life, the change in other people’s lives, and what change means for the human condition, the one song that captures all of these ideas is the album’s final track “You Set the Scene.”

Closing out the end of the album and running nearly seven minutes, “You Set the Scene” is a masterful blend of psychedelic rock and folk pop.  In the lyrics, the album’s themes are explored with one of the greatest examples of American songwriting.  Written and sung by Arthur Lee, “You Set the Scene” beautifully explores change with reflections of doubt, acceptance, and curiosity.  In this song, Lee is wrestling with the idea that nothing stays the same and that the only thing he can do is live each day with a smile while people around him ask why.  Waxing philosophic, Lee sings “everything I’ve seen needs rearranging / and for anyone who thinks it’s strange / then you should be the first to want make this change / and for everyone who thinks that life is just a game / do you like the part you’re playing?”  Lee is calling out the people around him and you can either see things his way, or keep putting yourself on.

Musically, “You Set the Scene” is incredibly rich and textured.  With an array strings and horns arranged with a jazzy pop flare, the tracks never cease to excite the listener.   It is the kind of track that warrants repeat listenings on a high fidelity system as there are new things to discover in the patchwork of sound in every spin.  While the whole album sounds beautiful and complex, “You Set the Scene” is the perfect conclusion.  It always confounded me why Love doesn’t get the same radio air play or cultural recognition as other bands from Los Angeles at the time like the Doors.

There are so many nuggets of wisdom in this song.  Lee sings “This is the time and life that I am living / and I’ll face each day with a smile / for the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while/ and the things that I must consist of more than style.”  How incredibly profound.  As much as I try to not let change bother me and live to be more in the moment, it takes a lot of work.  Everyone struggles with this, though some more than others.  However, it should a goal that is attainable for everyone and something to strive for.  We all deserve peace, happiness, and closure.  This song is something I can think about during the tougher moments.

“the rain, the park, and other things” – the cowsills (1967)

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Two weeks ago, I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.  It was the first museum I visited for a bigger trip and I couldn’t have been more excited.  Not only was I in London, I was going to the V&A to see a special exhibition they had.  On what?  Well, music, of course.

The exhibition was called You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970 and is currently running now through the end of February 2017.  Using the music that defined the era as a common thread, the exhibition was a look into how the fashion, politics, technology, and revolutions of the time influenced our culture, our music, and the world we know today.  This wasn’t just some nostalgia trip for the baby boomers and hipsters.  This was an intensive cultural exploration and at a period that still resonates with the public consciousness of the present.

The exhibition was incredible.  Music was the focus of the exhibition, so visitors were issued personal headsets that piped in tunes depending on where you were.  The song that would play was a reflection of whatever items in the collection you were looking at and enhanced the experience not just on an entertainment level, but bordered on something larger and more meaningful.

The collection featured amazing items such as rock memorabilia.  Various guitars, articles of clothing, and other personal effects from music legends were proudly on display.  There were also other aspects that elevated the musical experience.  In one room, it was designed to resemble a field at a music festival.  There were large pillows and got to relax and watch a giant screen depicting Woodstock footage.  As someone who doesn’t enjoy large music festivals, relaxing on AstroTurf in a climate-controlled building was perfect for me.

In other areas, politics and revolution were the focus and included posters, books, and other items integral to the promotion of counterrevolutionary thoughts and actions.  These items were used to promote various minority groups and encourage a more inclusive society.  John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s “Bed Peace” signs were on display as well as the first gay men’s magazine to feature full-frontal male nudity and pamphlets distributed by the Black Panthers.  Nostalgia has a tendency to distort everything with rose-colored glasses, and we tend to forget the violence and blood that was spilled to get where we are today.  The music of the time reflected that as well.

When I finished touring the exhibition, I perused the gift shop.  I’m not much of a gift shop person, but I looked around.  There were shirts and posters for the collection, but what really caught my eye was a record.  The V&A had issued a 2-LP album with tracks curated for the exhibition.  It was a bit pricey and I was wondering how I could get it back to the U.S. without damaging it, but I then saw there was a CD version.  Though I am pro-vinyl over CD, the CD collection was three discs and had a lot more songs and was cheaper.  Plus, I could easily put it in my suitcase.  It made perfect sense.

When I got back to Chicago and was unpacking in my apartment, I put the CD one.  There were a lot of songs I knew as well as some that were new to me.  As I was playing it, “The Rain, The Park, & Other Things” came on.  Oh, I thought, I love this song!  I hadn’t heard it in years.  And where I first heard it is kind of funny.  It was the soundtrack to a dream sequence Jim Carrey experiences in a scene in 1994’s Dumb & Dumber when he fantasized about a woman he is crushing hard on.  Outside of the context of that film, I really like the song.  It is fun, happy, and really catchy.

What happened next blew my mind.  I was looking at the tracks and I see “the Cowsills” listed for “The Rain, The Park, & Other Things.”  For years, I had always thought the song was by the Turtles.  I was unintentionally misappropriating the song for years.  For someone who claims to know a lot about 20th century pop music, this managed to slip through my fingers.  I just couldn’t believe it.

Naturally, I had to learn more about the Cowsills, a band that was otherwise unknown to me.  Basically, the Cowsills was a family band containing a bunch of brothers and sisters from Rhode Island and were the real-life inspiration for the Partridge Family.  They had about a dozen or so singles, but none were familiar to me.

Regardless, the Cowsills (not the Turtles) truly struck gold in 1967 with this infectiously sweet pop bubblegum treasure.  “The Rain, The Park, & Other Things” isn’t the type of song that sparks a revolution or challenges the status quo, but it serves a purpose.  It is fun and it makes me incredibly happy when I listen to it.  While flowers and a girl in the park are not the stuff of a great protest song or revolution anthem, the fact this song instills pure joy is revolutionary in itself.  It takes a lot of power to put a smile on someone’s face and, sometimes, that’s all the revolution and rebellion you need in this world.