Ladies And Gentlemen, Boys And Girls…The Accordion

December 10, 2012

happywanderersWhile trekking about this morning, I had the Sirius tuned to the Bruce Springsteen station because, as you might be aware, there is no channel devoted to The Smiths.

As Be True blared from the speakers, The Big Man was – as the jazz cats might say – blowin’ notes and it occurred to me that the saxophone has all but vanished from rock and roll over the past several decades.

Then, it occurred to me that, though the saxophone might not be as prominent in rock music as it might have been in the ’50s and ’60s, at least the instrument does have a time-honored place within the genre.

Then, there is the accordion.

I learned a lot of things from the movie Ishtar. It aired often on cable in the late ’80s and when it comes to trekking forty-five minutes through snow and a sub-zero wind chill to a ten o’clock class or watching Ishtar on cable…at home…where it’s warm…Ishtar it is.

Aside from learning that it is unwise to buy a blind camel, a lyric from a song in the movie has stuck with me…

Telling the truth can be dangerous business
Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand
If you admit that you play the accordion
No one will hire you in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

As a child of the ’70s/’80s, I also am well aware that, growing up, Dennis DeYoung played the accordion. I’m not disinclined toward the former leader of Styx, but cool does not come to mind when I hear his name.

There is “Weird Al” Yankovic, who first came to me and my friends attention in junior high school when My Bologna got a lot of airplay, but, after immediately thinking of Springsteen’s 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), I struggled to think of other rock songs that made use of accordion.

A bit of quick research and I suddenly had a lengthier list of stuff that I owned with accordion. Here are four of them…

Billy Joel – The Downeaster ‘Alexa’
from Storm Front (1989)

I was in Thailand when Storm Front was released in late 1989, but when I returned to the States at Thanksgiving my dad mistook R.E.M.’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It for Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire, already the album’s mammoth initial hit.

I’ve always dug The Downeaster ‘Alexa’ on which Joel sings about the plight of Long Island fisherman with the driving music capturing the nautical vibe. In addition to accordion, there’s some cool violin credited in the liner notes to “World Famous Incognito Violinist.”

(rumored to have been Itzhak Perlman)

k.d. lang – Constant Craving
from Ingénue (1992)

As I was working in record stores, I knew the name k.d. lang as her early records arrived in the latter half of the ’80s. But, she was filed under country, so I couldn’t have been less interested at the time.

By the early ’90s, I was working in a much, much larger record store and I was invited to see lang shortly after Ingénue was released. So, the first time I ever heard lang’s music was live and I was blown away. She remains one of the more captivating live acts that I have ever seen.

Ingénue went on to be the singer’s commercial breakthrough and leading the way was Constant Craving with its mesmerizing melody – “borrowed” several years later by the Rolling Stones on Anybody Seen My Baby? – and lang’s yearning vocals.

Siouxsie & The Banshees – Peek-A-Boo
from Peepshow (1988)

I wasn’t a fan of everything by Siouxsie & The Banshees, but there was stuff that I thought was brilliant and quite inventive. They’re undeniably one of the iconic acts of modern rock.

Peepshow, on which Peek-A-Boo first appeared, got a lot of play in the record store where I worked in college. Peek-A-Boo was genius – a bizarrely hypnotic pop song comprised of samples, backwards masking, accordion, discordant guitar, and Siouxsie Sioux’ haunting vocals.

The The – This Is The Day
from Soul Mining (1983)

Good for The The’s Matt Johnson getting a boost to his bank account from This Is The Day being used in commercials for M&Ms. Critics’ favorite Johnson was largely ignored in the States, though I’d occasionally hear The The on 97X at the time.

The The mostly reminds me of my buddy Streuss who loved them – or him as The The was essentially Johnson – in college and it also reminds me of Paloma who loved The The when we met.

September 25, 1982

September 24, 2011

As the contents of my head need to settle back into place, I’m pulling up a Billboard magazine Hot 100 chart from the early ’80s – a period of my initial infatuation with music and radio – and checking out the debut songs for that week.

So, here are the eight songs making their first appearance on the chart during this week in 1982…

Billy Preston – I’m Never Gonna Say Goodbye
from Pressin’ On (1982)
(debuted #90, peaked #88, 3 weeks on chart)

For a man known to some as the “Fifth Beatle,” I know surprisingly little about Billy Preston.

I knew that Preston performed on the Apple rooftop with the band, had some legal and health issues, and passed away several years back. As far as his music, all I know is Nothing from Nothing and With You I’m Born Again – the ballad sung with Stevie Wonder’s then-wife Syreeta.

I’d never heard I’m Never Gonna Say Goodbye, but it sounds like a song that James Ingram might have done a few years later if you added a twist of stalker and a bit more melodrama.

Karla Bonoff – Please Be The One
from Wild Heart Of The Young (1982)
(debuted #85, peaked #63, 7 weeks on chart)

Singer/songwriter Karla Bonoff had a hit during the summer of ’82 with Personally. I didn’t really like the song at the time – and it got a lot of airplay – but now I find the catchy song’s bounce and playful vibe appealing.

Bonoff sang back-up for Linda Ronstadt and Please Be The One has a slow, sultry vibe that is reminiscent of Ronstadt to me. I didn’t remember the song until it reached the chorus and rarely heard it on the radio in ’82.

Jeffrey Osborne – On The Wings Of Love
from Jeffrey Osborne (1982)
(debuted #83, peaked #29, 18 weeks on chart)

I would come across Jeffrey Osborne’s On The Wings Of Love often during the autumn and winter that year when I got to the lighter rock stations on the dial. I’d stop long enough to identify it, but would only sit through it when it appeared on American Top 40.

I liked the light-funk feel of Osborne’s I Really Don’t Need No Light, and, though, On The Wings Of Love is pleasant enough, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

The Go-Go’s – Get Up And Go
from Vacation (1982)
(debuted #82, peaked #50, 9 weeks on chart)

The Go-Go’s were seemingly everywhere overnight in 1982. Their debut Beauty And The Beat had topped the album chart in the US with two massive singles – Our Lips Are Sealed and We Got The Beat – becoming instant classics.

Vacation was released toward the end of the summer with Beauty And The Beat still on the album charts. Vacation was an immediate success and the infectious title song was a hit, but both seemed to fade quicker than that summer.

The band seemed to vanish overnight – gone as quickly as they’d arrived – and I didn’t hear a new song by The Go-Go’s on the radio until Head Over Heels two years later.

(an eternity in that era)

Get Up And Go has a nifty opening that echoes Bow Wow Wow and, like most Go-Go’s songs, it is fun, but it isn’t in the same class as the earlier trio of hits by the band.

Survivor – American Heartbeat
from Eye Of The Tiger (1982)
(debuted #79, peaked #17, 16 weeks on chart)

Survivor had had the song of the summer of ’82 with their mammoth hit Eye Of The Tiger and American Haertbeat was culled as the follow-up to the band’s theme from Rocky III.

American Heartbeat was sleeker, built around pulsating keyboards, but still retained a rock edge and, though it certainly fit alongside stuff like Journey and Foreigner hits of the time, the song – not surprisingly – was unable to replicate the success of Eye Of The Tiger.

I dug the song, not that I think I heard it more than a few times on the radio at the time despite it reaching the Top Twenty.

Stevie Wonder – Ribbon In The Sky
from Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I (1982)
(debuted #76, peaked #54, 7 weeks on chart)

Stevie Wonder had released the double-album retrospective Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I in the early months of 1982. During that spring and summer, two of the album’s new songs – the yearning That Girl and joyous Do I Do – had become sizeable hits as well as Wonder’s duet with Paul McCartney, Ebony And Ivory.

Ribbon In The Sky was tapped as Original Musiquarium‘s third and final single. Unlike the previous hits from the set, the song was a gentle, lovely ballad that might not have found similar radio acceptance but has endured as a favorite among fans.

Chicago – Love Me Tomorrow
from Chicago 16 (1982)
(debuted #74, peaked #22, 15 weeks on chart)

If Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger was the song of the summer in 1982, Chicago’s Hard To Say I’m Sorry was arguably the season’s biggest ballad and a commercial comeback for the venerable band.

But, as Survivor would learn, it’s difficult to follow up to such a radio juggernaut without the song getting lost in the wake of its predecessor. I heard Love Me Tomorrow plenty and still feel that the song is the best of the group’s ’80s ballads, but it failed to resonate with the public as Hard To Say I’m Sorry had.

Billy Joel – Pressure
from The Nylon Curtain (1982)
(debuted #72, peaked #20, 17 weeks on chart)

When Billy Joel released The Nylon Curtain in autumn 1982, the singer was coming off a trio of albums – The Stranger, 52nd Street, and Glass Houses – that had sold nearly thirty million copies and made Joel a radio fixture.

The Nylon Curtain was edgier and darker, but received glowing reviews and praise for its mature subject matter. The manic, paranoid Pressure also reflected the burgeoning influence of synthesizers becoming prevelant at the time and, even though accompanied by a stylish video clip, the song and album would be a commercial lull before Joel returned with the massively successful An Innocent Man a year later.


March 31, 2011

The mashed foodstuff of Polynesian people is what this particularly stressful stretch of work has reduced my brain matter to.

(and one of these days I do intend to seek clarification as to when, if ever, it is acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition…I thought it was verboten…or maybe not in certain situations…)

Today about the only thing that I was able to hold in my head after the commute was TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia) by MFSB.

(better known as the theme for the music show Soul Train)

I happened to hear it on the Sirius ’70s hits channel on the morning commute when my brain existed in its usual, relatively unpulpified state and, since then, my headspace keeps defaulting to the song and voices singing “People all over the world!”

I recall seeing commercials for Soul Train as a kid and seem to recall that, at least when I was pre-school age, that the show aired mid-day on Saturdays, following the conclusion of the morning’s cartoons.

The show’s animated intro, that colorful train boogieing down the tracks, duped me more than once into thinking that there might be a half hour more of cartoon hijinks.

Instead, I probably switched the channel to Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

As March ended in 1974, I was finishing first grade and having no way of knowing that, thirty-seven years later I’d still be spending my days sitting at an assigned desk performing mindless tasks ad nauseum as someone – someone who the universe has seemingly placed in charge most arbitrairily – drones on and on and has everyone compete for gold stars.

If I had known, I could have had my brains removed and head filled with poi three decades ago.

As April arrived in 1974, MFSB’s TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia) was a Top Ten hit. Here are four other songs that were on the charts at that time…

Elton John – Bennie And The Jets
from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

I vividly recall hearing Bennie And The Jets playing from the jukebox in a pizza place our parents would take us as kids. I was six at the time, had little interest in music, and had no idea who Elton John was – even though he was having a run of hits rivaled pehaps only by The Beatles

But I loved the spacey, hypnotic Bennie And The Jets.

(though I was certain I was hearing him sing something about “electric boobs”)

The song is still near any list I would make of favorites by Sir Elton.

Billy Joel – Piano Man
from The Complete Hits Collection: 1973-1997

I’ve noted before that I’m strangely ambivalent about Billy Joel. If you asked me if I liked Billy Joel, I’d probably shrug and say something like, “He’s OK.”

But when I do hear one of his songs, I’m surprised at how often I pause, mentally list his songs in my head, and realize that the guy does have some truly fantastic tracks in his catalog.

I’ve always loved Piano Man even if it has been played into the ground, but I don’t remember hearing it in ’74.

Terry Jacks – Seasons In The Sun
from Super Hits Of The ’70s: Have A Nice Day, Volume 12

Apparently Canadian Terry Jacks decided to record Seasons In The Sun when the Beach Boys abandoned recording a version of the song. In the same Wikipedia entry it is noted that the song is one of less than thirty to ever sell over ten million copies worldwide.

Oddly enough, I heard Seasons In The Sun the other morning for the first time in years on the Sirius ’70s station. But I certainly remember it from its time as a hit.

I like the song. It is maudlin, but the bouncy melody hooks me. The song’s got a bit of a split personality.

Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells
from Rock On: 1970 to 1979

Though I didn’t see the movie until I was much older, I remember the buzz surrounding The Exorcist when it was in theaters. I seem to recall my parents (or at least my mom) walking out on it.

(whatever possessed them to go see a horror film about Satanic possession in the first place is baffling)

It is an evocative piece of music that no doubt is made more so by its association with the movie. The only other thing I’ve ever heard by Mike Oldfield is his very cool original version of Family Man, later a hit for Hall & Oates. I do know that he seems to be held in high regard, though, so I have add him to the list of acts I need to check out.