Such a life I’ve had lately, what with getting Covid and then getting part of the house renovated…four weeks of a two-week project. And the job isn’t even done, but that’s not the contractor’s fault. (Replacement parts, don’tcha know.) And for some reason it’s taking forever to put the kitchen—the whole downstairs, really—back together.
This episode takes a peek at the song that arguably became the Four Tops’ signature hit. The funny thing is, none of the Tops thought it would be a hit. What’s more, none of them thought it SHOULD be a single, never mind a hit. But Berry Gordy isn’t called “genius” for nothing, and he not only released the single, he made it the lead (and title) track for their fourth album. Reach Out (the album) is definitive Four Tops, and marks the bridge between early 1960s Motown and the sounds they were producing in the second half of the decade.
If you haven’t been paying attention (and, based on the download statistics, you haven’t), I’m part of a second podcast, where I take on more of a support role than as the lead voice. The show is called Words and Movies, in which my partner Sean Gallagher and I choose a pair of films and find the links between them.
In an upcoming episode, we discuss a film from 2007 called Honeydripper, starring Danny Glover. There’s a scene involving Glover’s character and a blind musician played by Keb’ Mo’, who sings a couple of bars of “Stagger Lee,” causing Glover to mutter, “I hate that song.” We don’t find out why until later in the film, but (spoiler alert) it’s because when he was younger, he’d been in an incident similar to the one outlined in the song.
The interesting thing here, though, is that the song “Stagger Lee” was always about one man killing another. But when Lloyd Price recorded the song, he recorded two versions: one in which one man kills another over a dice game, and another where they merely get into a fight over a pretty girl. (The second version was for American Bandstand and for radio consumption in more conservative areas of the country.) The experience that Glover’s character went through as a younger man appears to be a mashup of both versions of the song.
At any rate, “Stagger Lee” as a song has a very rich history, and it turns out to be rooted in a true story. Many times, when doing the research for an episode I reach a point where the more I dig, the more I find myself going in circles. This time, I tapped a rich mine of information, to the point where I found myself having to decide what to keep and what to toss to keep the episode to a reasonable length.
Pardon my allergies; I’ve sounded kind of rough for a week or so. There was a lot of throat-clearing to edit out of this one. I can’t even blame the Southern Studio on this one; it’s the direct result of spending too much time cutting the grass at home. (And THEN I can blame the Southern Studio a little bit, because I went there the next day and it certainly didn’t help matters.)
How does one spend too much time cutting the grass? By having an electric mower and starting the job with a battery that isn’t fully charged, that’s how.
This is an episode topic I’ve wanted to return to for a long time, but for some reason I kept procrastinating. But way, way back in Episode 11, I featured a bunch of songs that had mistakes in them which were discovered before the final product was released, but they decided they liked it better that way and ran with it. And today we return to that well for another dip.
The tough part with songs like this is curating the best ones to use. Led Zeppelin often left in stray noises because they didn’t really care (ringing phones), or because they were actually counting on it (squeaky pedal on Bonham’s drum kit). So finding one that was both inadvertent and improved the recording? Absolute Gold, Jerry. Similarly, The Beatles would make an error in rehearsal or elsewhere and decide that that was something they needed to retain/reproduce (e.g. the wine bottle rattling at the end of “Long Long Long”), so those weren’t really good candidates.
And, of course, you run into a story which is just plain wrong. Yes, Ronnie Van Zant was talking to the board operator when he said “turn it up” while recording”Sweet Home Alabama,” but he did not mourn the loss of doughnuts near the end. (What you’re hearing is, “Montgomery’s got the answer.”)
At any rate, I finally buckled down and did the necessary research, and I hope you have fun with this one as much as I did.
Screen capture of McCarty during our Zoom-based interview.
Jim McCarty is one of the founding members of The Yardbirds, and he’s recently published his second book, She Walks in Beauty: My Quest for the Bigger Picture. It’s a journey that starts with the death of his wife Lizzie and then jumps back to earlier in his life, as he examines the various things that connect us to parts of the world that are just beyond our reach.
I was hooked immediately when I began reading this book, and no doubt you will be too. There’s a search for spirituality weaved among stories about his musical career with, and since, the Yardbirds, and how the two occasionally intertwined. You can order the book from this site, or you can check out all the usual outlets (but it’s guaranteed to be in stock there).
At any rate, because he’s living in France and I’m living in Baltimore, he and I communicated via Skype. It was supposed to be Zoom, but he couldn’t get it to work. Then I couldn’t get it to work. So we bailed out and jumped over to Skype, where my camera wouldn’t work but at least we could hear each other. I’m so glad we both persevered, because I think we had a fantastic conversation, and the date of the interview turned out to be important to both of us, for similar reasons.
At one point we talk about the Krishna Das cover of “For Your Love”, which I gave him a heads-up that I wanted to talk about, and it turns out that he was quite familiar with it, and a little bit more. There’s a short clip in the interview but the whole thing is here, and worth a listen. It’s probably in my Top Ten all-time tracks:
When the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik first came out, I’d just left a job working in a record store and was doing some part-time work as a mobile DJ. I had a few regular gigs here and there on Long Island, which is where it’s at when you do that sort of thing, because you get to know your crowd and who likes what, etc. Weddings and birthday parties, etc. were just Death on a Triscuit, because you have guests of all different ages, and the old people want to hear one thing, and the young people want to hear something else, and there are always arguments about the volume…feh. I hated doing that stuff.
At any rate, I was working in a bar in Franklin Square, NY at this point and this crowd absolutely loved this track. That was a cool bunch, with a lot of that adult alternative stuff. I enjoyed working there except for two things:
The equipment was stored in the bar’s basement, which meant going outside into the alley out back, going downstairs to get it, dragging it upstairs and setting it up, and having to und0 it all at the end of the night;
The setup was on floor level, which meant that any drunk moron could—and sometimes did—crash directly into my stuff. And since I was still playing records sometimes, that made for some audio disasters.
I would have stayed longer if I hadn’t broken my ankle and moved 30 miles away in the interim (long, long story there). I also liked my boss and he’d throw me other work from time to time. Ah, well.
Incidentally, I didn’t mention this during the episode but the song has been covered about a dozen times and sampled more than twice that many. In fact, Busta Rhymes’ “Break Ya Neck” owes so much to “Give it Away” that all of the musicians who played on “Give it Away” appear on the record’s credits as co-writers. (It’s not so much a sampling as it is Rhymes inserting the chorus into the song.)
This is a show that I made a long while back specifically for the Patreon crowd. Those are the folks who have been supporting the program and helping me to cover some of the hosting and other costs attached to doing the show (e.g. subscriptions, software, etc.). In fact, it was so long ago that the show’s logo changed in the interim. I had to re-do the cover art to accommodate the change. (Changing the lettering is easy; the rest of it was more complicated than it should have been. But now I’m just kvetching.)
Their money also funded the source materials for this particular episode. As it happens, there’s only one place you can get it. And it’s only available on LP, though with the LP came the ability to download digital files as well. At any rate, because the LP set was quite expensive, I decided to create the episode as a “Thank You” to those folks. I also knew that I would publish it to everyone else in the future, around this time of year.
For those of you who don’t know: you can support the show financially at patreon.com/howgooditis. For a mere five bucks a month, you get a weekly newsletter where I share information from around the music world. The newsletter has a couple of Patron Saints, and that newsletter is delivered every single week (OK, there have been a couple of misses, usually due to illness) whether there’s an episode or not. So while there haven’t been any episodes in several weeks, the Patrons have been seeing newsletters.
So anyway: what we have in this super-sized episode is a look at the Golden Record. That’s the collection of music curated by scientists and then mastered onto a disc, which was put on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 and blasted off into space. The Voyagers are billions of miles away, and while their discovery by aliens is unlikely (because space is BIG, yo), there’s a more-or-less permanent record (heh) of human culture out there in the universe.
This episode is a track-by-track view of the Golden Record. You don’t hear most of the tracks in their entirety, but you do hear something from every track. It’s a fascinating look at what was considered significant enough to represent the entire planet back in 1977.
For the last few weeks I’ve been having some weird troubles with the websites for both this podcast and the other one (wordsandmovies.com, in case you didn’t know), especially with the other one. Pages would load slowly on my end, or not at all, which made it very difficult for me to post anything. And in the case of this site, it rendered releasing new episodes nearly (but not completely) impossible. So, after many hours on the phone with my webhost provider—most of them on hold—I finally gave up on them and moved the sites to a new location.
A few bumps in the road were expected, and sure enough I got those. But for the most part everything has been going well over the last couple of days, so I took the time to record and post a new episode for you. (And apologies to the Patron crowd; that’s the time I usually spend writing the newsletter.) There are still a few glitches here and there, and I’ll be ironing those out as best I can. But I think in general we’re all back on track.
All that said, we’re looking at a rather faithful cover of a song that, in turn, was a cover of another recording. However, that first cover was rather different from the original. To find out how different, you’ll have to listen to the episode itself. But then, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it.
Despite being born in Westchester County, NY, Felix Cavaliere is closely associated with Long Island, enough so that he inducted Vanilla Fudge into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. Most of Vanilla Fudge is from New Jersey, so there’s that. I have to think that it’s because both Vanilla Fudge and The Rascals earned a lot of their performing chops in Long Island clubs. At any rate, it was the “live” feel and energy of their performing “Good Lovin'” that the record’s producers were hoping to capture when the track was cut, and it’s pretty clear that they succeeded, even if Cavaliere and company didn’t really like their performance on the record. In fact, they didn’t think it would sell very well at all.
If you want to get technical about it, Looking Glass was NOT a one-hit wonder.
“Brandy” was, to be sure, their biggest hit and the song that most people identify with the band. But “Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne,” the opening track from their second album, spent only one week less on the Billboard Hot 100 chart than “Brandy” did. Okay, it peaked at #33 while “Brandy” spent most of its chart life at or near the top, but still.
“Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” was actually a departure from their usual sound, which was a little more Jersey Shore Rock and Roll. This wound up creating a little trouble for audiences who came to see them expecting to hear an entire evening of “Brandy”-grade music, and it probably contributed to the demise of the band.
Founding member Elliot Lurie left the band in 1974 for a solo career, and by the end of the next year the band changed names twice and moved into a power pop/metal sound. That band, called Starz, did have a couple of hits and they do still play from time to time. Lurie, meanwhile, moved into the production and music supervision side of things for awhile, and occasionally returns to live performances.
Wang Chung was a band that wasn’t getting a lot of traction when they had a more traditionally Chinese name. I remember that early self-titled album Huang Chung and I have to admit I was a little put off by it, because it frankly wasn’t especially cool-looking, so I didn’t give it much of a chance.
By the time their fourth album, Mosaic, came out, they’d switched labels a couple of times and had enlisted the help of people like David Geffen and Peter Wolf to get them on track. In fact, Wolf listened to the demo for “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and made a suggestion that changed the tenor of the song, and turned it into the hit we all know and love (or hate, I don’t know you).
So after all that, what does it mean to “Wang Chung tonight”? Well, I think Nick Feldman explained it best. He said, “Wang Chung is the feeling, not the word. It represents an abstract, an escape from pragmatic, complex ideas. Wang Chung means whatever you want it to mean. Have fun with it. That’s the whole idea of the line ‘Everybody Wang Chung Tonight.’ It can mean a tribal dance, a Viennese waltz, a party in New York, or whatever.”