Songs You May Have Missed #472

steel train

Steel Train: “Helplessly Hoping” (2003)

Sometimes it takes a cover version of a song to remind you how great the song was in the first place, when that spark of revelation the original holds has been dimmed somewhat by years of listens.

I was reminded of this when I bought Steel Train’s 1969 EP, which contains five of the band’s favorite songs from that particular year. It would be difficult to select a more diverse five songs: They do the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”, Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic”, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising”…and Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Helplessly Hoping.

It may be sacrilegious to suggest that Steel Train’s performance rivals the CSN original, but if it does so it’s because their take does what a great cover song ought to do: find the essence, the core of the song and bring it to the fore. It’s like restoring a painting–one doesn’t create a new image, but shows us that same masterpiece with fresh, vivid colors. Today’s recording technology, in theory, allows a talented band to produce music with an impact or immediacy the original artist may have achieved but for his cruder tools. While the work of the Masters is genius, the finest examples of their students’ homages seem to say, “Look what the master could have done, if he’d had a proper studio and palette!”.

Okay, maybe that metaphor lends itself better to Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” vs Dylan’s humble acoustic original (Dylan admitted he wished he’d recorded it like Jimi’s version in the first place). And there’s no doubt CSN’s voices have a distinctiveness that Steel Train’s vocalists lack. But the cover has a crispness and a richness–and perhaps a bit more of a country rock feel (think: Poco’s “Crazy Love”) which makes it a nice listen. And even if it only serves to recreate that epiphany moment when the song came fresh to your ears, that’s a pretty good reason for any good cover song to exist.

Songs You May Have Missed #471


The Zombies: “I Love You” (1965)

Unimaginative title. Pretty cool song. In 1965 the Zombies first releasedI Love You as a B-side to A-side “Whenever You’re Ready” (which peaked at #110 in the UK and not at all in the US, which is why you’ve probably never heard either one). It was released again, this time as an A-side, in ’68. But it came a little late–the group had already disbanded. That same year a California band called People released a version that, while also intended as a B-side, became their only Top 40 hit when it went to #14.

The Zombies’ version features some cool staccato acoustic guitar strumming and a jazzy Rod Argent keyboard solo very similar to the one on their massive 1964 hit “She’s Not There”. I believe it would have been a hit had they released it as an A-side in the first place. Instead it’s a real lost gem.

People’s version isn’t a bad effort either–it lacks Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals but does have a similar jazzy break and a long, strange, trippy intro.

John Lennon’s Raw, Soul-Baring Vocals From the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (1969)

(Source: Open Culture)

“When you’re drowning,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, “you don’t say, ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me.’  You just scream.”

“Don’t Let Me Down” is Lennon’s anguished scream to his lover, Yoko Ono. When he and the Beatles recorded the song during the Let It Be sessions in late January of 1969, Lennon asked Ringo Starr to hit the cymbal very hard at the beginning, to “give me the courage to come screaming in.”

The Beatles were in the process of breaking apart when Lennon wrote the song. It was a dark time in my ways, and he was becoming more and more dependent upon Ono for personal and creative support. As Paul McCartney told writer Barry Miles in Many Years From Now:

It was a very tense period: John was with Yoko and had escalated to heroin and all the accompanying paranoias and he was putting himself out on a limb. I think that as much as it excited and amused him, at the same time it secretly terrified him. So ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was a genuine plea, ‘Don’t let me down, please, whatever you do. I’m out on this limb, I know I’m doing all this stuff, just don’t let me down.’ It was saying to Yoko, ‘I’m really stepping out of line on this one. I’m really letting my vulnerability be seen, so you must not let me down.’ I think it was a genuine cry for help.

You can get a strong sense of Lennon’s anguish and vulnerability when you listen to the isolated vocal track above. And for the full arrangement, including Starr’s cymbal-crash near the beginning and Billy Preston’s brilliant electric piano playing, see below.

Songs You May Have Missed #470

flyte cd

Flyte: “Over and Out” (2013)

Infectious but hard to categorize, Flyte certainly have a bit of 80’s New Wave in them–but the good kind. A little Cars mixed with a little Talking Heads perhaps.

Still unsigned, the London band’s self-released debut EP is due September 16.


Songs You May Have Missed #469


The Kinks: “Sitting in the Midday Sun” (1973)

Ray Davies’ charmingly unambitious vignette (taken from Preservation, his most ambitious musical project).

Who needs a job when it’s sunny?

See also:

Songs You May Have Missed #468


Sonoride: “A Little Green Park” (2009)

Stockholm, Sweden’s Sonoride have digested the sounds of ELO and the Beatles circa 1967 and what they’ve regurgitated in the form of the semi-psychedelic Multi Colour Dream mostly sounds like a synthesis of the two.

All except “A Little Green Park”, which is more of a straight-ahead pop song than most of the album, a celebration of the simple joys of a trip to a favorite park–a place where “the sun never seems to be off duty…and some soothing scent is always somehow present.”

Recommended Albums #54

has been

William Shatner: Has Been (2004)

When I tell people what a great album William Shatner’s Has Been is I’m consistently misunderstood. I know I have a snarky sense of humor at times. I know I often tend to communicate by saying the opposite of what I actually mean. But as unlikely a scenario as you might find it to be, I’m dead serious when I tell you this is a very, very good pop album.

And no, I don’t “like it ironically”. Albeit elements of novelty abound, this record is not in the category of Shatner’s 1960’s cheese-fest The Transformed Man, which can only be appreciated in the ironic sense. Rather than spotlight Bill Shatner the untalented singer as that spectacularly bad album did, producer Ben Folds plays to Shatner’s strengths here–namely, his ability to deliver dramatic spoken lyric. It works.


When Folds signed on to produce and arrange this record (he and Shatner had worked together before, on Folds’ Fear of Pop project) he didn’t check his keen pop sensibilities at the door. The music here is top-notch, not to mention quite diverse.

And the guest performances are inspired. Listen for Joe Jackson’s impassioned take on the cover of Pulp’s “Common People”, the well-cast Henry Rollins on the duet/litany of general complaints “I Can’t Get Behind That”, or Brad Paisley taking a heartfelt turn on the chorus of “Real”. Folds himself takes vocals and piano on the tale of father/daughter estrangement “That’s Me Trying”. Folds’ plaintive melody and vocal delivery complement Shatner’s lamentation here perfectly.

Interlaced among all that is the astonishingly broadly-talented Mr. Shatner delivering what are at times shockingly honest and confessional-sounding self-penned lyrics. Most extreme example (not featured here) is “What Have You Done”, an unblinking account of Shatner’s discovery of his wife, dead in the couple’s swimming pool.

The guy has stones, or happens to be at the station in life when he just doesn’t give a shit anymore what people think. Probably both.

The album’s title track is possibly its highlight. Not only is it a brilliant musical lampoon of a now-obscure 60’s pop sub-genre typified by Lorne Greene’s “Ringo”, but it serves perfectly as a (hilarious) raised middle finger to Shat’s critics. Good for him.

Of course he’s Captain James T. Kirk to most. But the list of William Shatner’s accomplishments–best-selling author, successful horse breeder, Priceline commercial icon, Emmy-winning Denny Crane, and of course, a singer of sorts–is admirable. As he says in the album’s final track, “Real”:

And while there’s a part of me

In that guy you’ve seen up there on that screen

I am so much more

While I’m dead serious about how good an album this is, the chief reason to listen is that It’s good fun.

Listen to: “Common People”

Listen to: “That’s Me Trying”

Listen to: “Ideal Woman”

Don’t miss: “Has Been”

Listen to: “I Can’t Get Behind That”

Listen to: “Real”

See also:

Songs You May Have Missed #467


Flying Machines: “Stay” (2009)

One might hear echoes of melodramatic symphonic pop of yesteryear in the sound of New York’s Flying Machines. I don’t throw out Freddie Mercury comparisons lightly, but there may be basis for it here.

“Stay” is from their consistently melodic and enjoyable debut.

Songs You May Have Missed #466


Pat Donohue: “Jazz Name” (2005)

Pat Donohue is not only a master of acoustic fingerstyle guitar, but his songwriting is pretty spectacular too. The winning “Jazz Name” throws a witty series of internal rhyme rabbit punches at you until you surrender with a smile.

See also:

See also:

Guitarist Brian May Explains the Making of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

(Source: Open Culture)

“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen is one of the most audacious pop songs ever made. Part ballad, part opera, part heavy metal orgasm, the song has six distinct sections and took over a month to record. At just under six minutes, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was considered too long for pop radio. “The record company, in their infinite ignorance, of course immediately suggested that we cut it down,” said Queen drummer Roger Taylor, who stood by his bandmates and refused to let the song be cut. “It really was hit or miss. It was either going to be massive or it was going to be nothing.”

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” of course, went on to become one of the most popular songs in music history. It spent nine weeks at number one in the UK following its release in the fall of 1975, and went back to number one after the death of singer Freddie Mercury in 1991. In America the song peaked at number nine in 1976 and re-entered the charts in 1992, when it was featured in the movie Wayne’s World. Last year, an ITV poll in Great Britain listed “Bohemian Rhapsody” as “The National’s Favorite Number One” song in 60 years of music.

In this fascinating video, Queen guitarist Brian May goes back to the mixing board to explain the complexity of layers that went into realizing Mercury’s vision for the song. The original 24-track analogue recording system was far too limited, so the band used the ping-pong technique to “bounce” literally hundreds of overdubs into the mix. May explains how the operatic vocal layers were inspired by the “cascading strings” effect made famous by Annunzio Paolo Mantovani, a technique May first tried out in 1974 with the guitar solo on “Killer Queen.”

The video is an excerpt from Inside the Rhapsody, a documentary that was included on the 2002 DVD Queen: Greatest Video Hits 1. For more on the making of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” please see our post, “Listen to Freddie Mercury’s Wonderous Piano and Vocal Tracks for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (1975).” And for a reminder of how it all came together, here’s the official video:

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