74 years ago today, one of the great protest singers of the ‘60s was born, although if you’d asked Phil Ochs how he preferred to be described, he probably would’ve told you that he was a topical singer…and that’s fair enough, because lord knows his lyrics were topical.
Born in El Paso, Texas in 1940, Philip David Ochs moved around rather a lot as a child, so he was arguably no more of a Texan than he was a New Yorker or an Ohioan, but it was in the latter state where he was able to take his gift for playing the clarinet and turn it into a spot in the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music. His skill at playing classical music was soon turned toward performing more modern material, however, as he became fascinated with the sounds of country music and early rock ‘n’ roll.
27 years ago today, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe – collectively known as Pet Shop Boys – took a song that had previously been identified as belonging to Elvis Presley or Willie Nelson and somehow managed to make it their own…like, to the point where, in October 2014, a BBC poll found it named as the best cover version of all time.
Written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, “Always on My Mind” started life when Carson spent about 10 minutes on the song, set it aside for about a year, and then finally ended up asking Christopher and James to help him finish it when producer Chips Moman asked him about recording “that mind” song. Upon completion – which really only involved adding the bridge – the song was recorded by Gwen McRae and Brenda Lee in 1972, but it was Elvis’s version, recorded the same year, that put the track on the map. It was also a top-20 country hit in 1979 for John Wesley Ryles, but for the definitive country version, most folks tend to look to Willie’s take on the track in 1982.
Sad news for Big Star fans: John Fry, the man who founded Ardent Records, the label that first brought the world Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City albums, and Ardent Studios, where those albums were recorded, has died at the age of 69. Mind you, the man was about far more than just Big Star: he was such a major player on the Memphis music scene, in fact, that he was inducted into the city’s Music Hall of Fame only last month.
Celebrating his 61st birthday today is the left-handed guitarist whose solos were one of the driving forces behind The Cars making it beyond the Boston new wave scene and turning into a platinum-selling rock band.
Although Brooklyn-born (and originally named Elliot Steinberg), Easton got his Boston cred by attending the Berklee College of Music – a school also attended by his soon-to-be bandmate, Greg Hawkes – and first crossed musical paths with Ric Ocasek and Benamin Orr when they played together in a group called Cap’n Swing. After some creative struggles within the lineup of the band, a few folks left and a few new folks came in, but once Hawkes and David Robinson were onboard, Robinson suggested that they call themselves The Cars, and the rest is history.
43 years ago today, T. Rex earned their first and only #1 album in the UK, but it was a long-lasting one, staying in the top spot through January 29, 1972, then taking the top spot back again on February 5 and remaining there through February 19.
Marc Bolan and Steve Peregrin Took released three albums as Tyrannosaurus Rex and found a following almost immediately, even if their popularity was often more cult than mainstream, but when Took stepped out of the band after 1969’s Unicorn and Mickey Finn stepped in for 1970’s A Beard of Stars, Bolan also strapped on an electric guitar in the studio for the first time. Before the year was out, the band had simplified their name to simply T. Rex, released a self-titled album, and revealed that they’d punched up their sound considerably, turning away from the folk side of things and leaning heavily into the rock. By the fall of ’71, their transformation into glam rock heroes was complete.
New this week in the Rhino Room at iTunes:
J Mascis, Martin + Me: By the time J Mascis finally got around to releasing his first album under his own name in 1996, many critics – most of them old-school Dinosaur Jr. fans – were muttering, “You might as well,” since the band’s most recent album, 1994’s Without a Sound, found Mascis as the sole founding member remaining in the ranks. (As it happens, it was also their most commercially successful album up to that point.) Whether it’s because he was toying with the idea of doing away with band name altogether or just because he felt like it, Martin + Me, a live album recorded on Mascis’s Fall 1995 acoustic tour, came out under his name, and…well, frankly, it sounds like Dinosaur Jr., because what else is it gonna sound like when the lead singer of Dinosaur Jr. releases a live album that includes several Dinosaur Jr. songs in his set? Still, if you like the band, you’ll like the album, and even if you’re not a fan, you might actually become one after hearing Mascis’s low-key covers of the Smiths’ “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side,” the Wipers’ “On the Run,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Every Mother’s Son,” and Carly Simon’s “Anticipation.”
Josh White, The Story of John Henry / Sings Ballads – Blues / Chain Gang Songs / The House I Live In / Spirituals & Blues / Empty Bed Blues / The Best Of: As you may have noticed in some of our past Digital Roundups, we’ll occasionally have a week where you suddenly find yourself knee-deep in the work of an artist whose past efforts – if not all of them, then certainly quite a few of them – have suddenly found their way into our digital catalog all at once. Such is the case this week with singer, songwriter, occasional actor, and frequent civil rights activist Josh White, whose Elektra output during the 1950s and 1960s has arrived at last.
Trim your tree. Part three of our vintage holiday mix series. Find part one, here and two, here. Continuing in the vein of the past two weeks, Wassailing aims to re-frame seasonal music in a way that has nothing to do with crowded shopping malls, elves on shelves, or, as Charlie Brown once pondered, the over-commercialization of the holidays.
43 years ago today, David Bowie released the album that would give him his first top-five placing on the UK album charts, kicking off a series of ch-ch-ch-changes in the public’s appreciation of his music that would, only two years later, lead him to earn his first #1 album in the UK.
While the success of Hunky Dory no doubt had quite a lot to do with the music, which found Bowie’s confidence sky high (as well it should have been, given that this is the album that featured “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life on Mars?” and “Kooks,” among other classics), the value of Bowie making the jump to a new label must be taken into consideration as well: having concluded his contract with Mercury after The Man Who Sold the World failed to set the charts alight, RCA signed him to a three album deal after hearing the tapes of Bowie’s still-in-progress effort, and they maintained their optimism through its initially-minor success to see him through to his full-fledged commercial breakthrough. As for Bowie himself, he has rarely hesitated to cite the album as being a major turning point in his career.