Tag Archives: pop music

#163 – It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me

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#163 – It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me by Billy Joel

 – When this song came out in 1980 boomers were still controlling the music scene, but something strange was starting to happen. Our rebellious nature had been focused on the older generation, but now we were feeling the push of a generation coming up behind us. They were tagged as Generation X and many of us considered them too young to be of any real notice as we continued to groove through our late twenties. It was noticeable when the punks and new wave bands of the late 1970s (with members born in the boomer generation) started calling our favs like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and The Who “dinosaurs.”

I’ll go ahead and lay the blame on the newer and younger record-buying age group for pushing the latest vinyl 45 rpm singles to the top of the music charts during the late 1970s. My age demographic had been album-oriented since the late 1960s and the current singles really didn’t interest us.

If a new group didn’t have an album worth buying, we didn’t notice.

But teenagers were buying the singles, making them hits and influencing the latest styles. Since sales equals profit for record companies hoping to stay in the black (vs. going into the red and out of business) they focused on their new audience. And like boomers during our era, the latest look was influenced by new artists, which meant both the music and fashion trends were shifting away from us.

We had to adjust or join the pack of dinosaurs that risked going out of style and being labeled old.

Here’s what I mean:

In the late 1970s you could still be psyched about the latest album from your favorite band that had formed in the 1960s. Fashion-wise you could still maintain some type of cool looking like one of The Eagles from Hotel California, a disco freak from Studio 54, a punk rocker or Keith Richards. As a side note, the Keith Richards look always allowed for admittance into the other groups.

By the time we hit 1980 there was a major shift in music and fashion sense.

I was already three years into my New York City residency when I realized this new trend was taking over. Hippies were past tense, the Woodstock era no more than a memory, disco was dying, and punk was… well, for punks.

The music consisted of more electronics than guitars and the beat came from drum machines. To be fashionable and anti-prehistoric, the guys had ditched bellbottoms for skinny legs and shirts with skinny ties topped with loose jackets. Hair on girls would continue to get higher throughout the decade while the guys went shorter.

But again, the fault didn’t lie with my demographic of baby boomers. The younger crowd was coming into spending money and the music and fashion industries were catering to their newest and profitable big market.

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me was a protest song about this.

A hit during the summer of 1980, Billy Joel defended our taste in music while still succumbing to a fashion statement in the song’s video that wouldn’t make him seem like a dinosaur. His shorter hair and skinny tie made that perfectly clear.

The song rocked enough to make adulthood challenged boomers still feel relevant while also signaling the end of our musical dominance. The 1980s would’ve only gotten worse for us if we hadn’t been saved by the advent of Classic Rock Radio. At least our hits would still be on the airwaves while it would be decades before our fashion sense became retro.

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It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me hit this Dream Song list on September 18th. I own a copy and it’s not an unfamiliar addition to my weekly playlists. But it hadn’t been recently. For that skinniest of reason, it goes into the subliminal category.

As a musician I was still playing what I felt was rock and roll at the time, even though it was a far cry from the rock and roll I lived for as a teenager. Over the previous decade bands like Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who and yeah… even KISS had given it more volume, power and flash.

If you wanted to be in a rock band in 1980 you had to adjust.

I strummed here a few times!

After a couple years strumming an acoustic guitar and going nowhere fast in Greenwich Village folk clubs, I bought a bass and decided it was time to turn up the volume. Along with my pals Tim on guitar and Bobby on drums we formed a hard rock, high volume trio that we called Rox. I found out years later another band had used the same name and released an album, so in the end I guess they own it. But I also maintain we were first.

It’s just that no one outside of our NYC neighborhood ever heard of us.

As a band we spent more time rehearsing and recording than we did playing live shows. I thought it was mistake then and still do. Playing live really was the only way to be seen and hopefully discovered, but the others disagreed. Their logic was to record an album worth of original songs and sell it to a record company.

Rather than debate the merits of that decision let’s just say it didn’t work out.

But thanks to a good friend who worked as a producer of radio jingles and had been a fan of my earlier music in the Village clubs, we scored quality time in a state-of-the-art recording studio in Midtown Manhattan. She basically “piggybacked” us onto scheduled jingle recording sessions. If she had booked four hours for a jingle and it only took three to complete, we inherited the remaining hour. The result is that I own about three-quarters of a finished LP by Rox that no one outside the three of us and a few family and friends have ever heard. And to be honest, it’s pretty good.

Someday I should do something with it. But in the meantime…

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The few live shows we did were more concerts than club gigs. When the mood struck us, we’d rent a large loft near Gramercy Park, rely on friends to help build a stage (and I have no idea who donated the lumber for these “raves”), use a photographer friend’s lights, and borrow a sound system from another band. We’d schedule an opening act, print up flyers and end up packing the place.

These were hot, sweaty, energetic and LOUD performances. The crowd reaction was always great and called for encores until we ran out of songs. But instead of keeping the momentum going, my two band mates were content to spend weeks in rehearsal studios and hours recording our “breakout” album.

Again, it didn’t happen.

Fighting for Rock ‘n’ Roll

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me was on the charts and video airwaves while all this was going on with Rox. And it reminds me of one live performance that was far from a concert since it was an audition for some type of talent show that was supposed to help us be seen by record people.

It was a Saturday morning (not the best time for rock and rollers) during the summer of 1980 when we carted our equipment via a NYC taxi to a studio in The Village. We set up in a room to play in front of a panel of about six people who would decide if we’d be part of this industry showcase.

Billy Joel’s video comes to mind because we played rock and roll but bowed to the current fashion trend. I remember wearing tight pants, white Capezio dance shoes, shirt with skinny tie and a white cloth jacket with the sleeves pushed up. I’m not sure what the other guys wore, but guessing it wasn’t too far removed from my look. The only real difference from Mr. Joel was our long hair.

The 80’s hadn’t changed us that much – at least not yet.

We were a loud and heavy band, but for some reason Tim and I had written the first – and only – slower, ballad type song we would ever do. It was called Forever and I played a very melodic bass line while Tim floated a flanged guitar effect sound over the top. Bobby kept a simple time on the drums, and I sang lead. By the end of the song it built into a heavier sound that I thought then – and still do – was very cool and more classic rock than ’80s hip.

When we finished the song, we were very pleased with how it went. However, one of the judges came over and asked if we could “turn down the volume” for our second song.

Say what?!

Turn it up to eleven!!

That definitely wasn’t what we were about as a band. We also realized, based on the judges looks (80’s hip) and attitudes (turn it down?) that this showcase wouldn’t be right for us anyway. The three of us came to a quick decision, scratched the idea of doing a more pop song we had planned and turned the volume on our amplifiers up to eleven.

We played one of the hardest rocking songs we’d ever written and recorded called Love On Wheels. I maintain we sounded like Guns ‘n’ Roses at least six years before any of us had even heard of Guns ‘n’ Roses. We also extended the ending lead guitar jam into what we called a Wall Of Sound and pretty much shook the building down to its foundation.

I remember a few of the judges walked out during our performance. I have a feeling their 80’s hipster ears were bleeding to the sound of Rox.

After finishing, we didn’t even wait for the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” decision. Laughing and giving each other high-fives, we dragged our equipment out onto the street, hailed a taxi and made it to our local neighborhood hangout for lunch and beers. A crowd of our friends turned the afternoon into a party and we never thought again about auditioning for a showcase.

We ended up doing one more huge loft gig that year before we split up – staying friends – for other career paths. In my case, my microphone and small practice amplifier were the only equipment needed to start a popular comedy club in our same neighborhood hangout that ended up taking me places and providing experiences I would’ve never dreamed of while protesting the “new sound” by being a rock ‘n’ roller in 1980.

Have a comment?

Please use the form below – and keep rockin’!

And speaking of protesting and defending rock ‘n’ roll in 1980, here’s Billy Joel doing just that:

 

To purchase The Essential Billy Joel with It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me visit Amazon.com

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing

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#165 – I Want You Back

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#165 – I Want You Back by The Jackson Five

 – There was a popular television show when I was a kid called, I’ve Got A Secret. The song I Want You Back by a preteen Michael Jackson and his brothers has really nothing do with that, except for bringing back how I felt – sort of – when I first heard it in 1969.

The show was hosted by popular television personality, Gary Moore – not to be confused with the guitar playing Gary Moore decades later. A supposedly unknown person would be introduced, chalk his or her name on a blackboard and sit behind a desk with the host. Moore would give a panel of four celebrities a brief hint of what secret the guest was hiding, while the viewing audience would be given the answer at the bottom of our black and white television screens.

The two guests I remember most were Brian Epstein and in a separate episode, Pete Best. Brian’s secret was that he managed The Beatles while Pete’s was being a former Beatle. Of course, to first generation Fab Four fans, there was nothing secret about either guest and we immediately knew when they walked out to sign their name on the chalk board. But it was fun watching the older generation (I also remember Groucho Marx as an occasional guesser) try to figure out who these guys were.

My secret in 1969 was that I really liked The Jackson Five. It may not seem like such a scandalous admission now, but this was around the time when another great musical divide was occurring within the generational gaps.

Anyone have a driver’s license?

As mentioned in previous Classic Rocker ramblings, my particular segment of the boomer generation was too young to experience firsthand the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s. The dangerous element was toned down into being popular music in the early 1960’s, then burst into the fab stratosphere as pop in 1964. This morphed into more rebellious pop-rock, drifted into hazy psychedelic and eventually just all-out anarchy rock toward the end of the decade. By early 1969 The Beatles had just released The White Album, The Who were promoting Tommy by trashing instruments and acting like punks before anyone ever heard of punk music, and we were just getting into Led Zeppelin.

Woodstock was only a few months away and by the fall we were listening to Abbey Road.

But there was another form of music “bubbling” beneath the surface labeled as bubble gum. My teenaged “just getting our driver’s license” crowd had zero interest in this AM radio takeover, even though we were often forced to listen since that was the only bandwidth our parents’ cars came equipped with at the time. Without doing an internet search, my recollections go to Donny Osmond and his Osmond Brothers, The Archies and… well, that’s the extent of how deep I want to go into the memory bank on this topic.

Bubble gum seemed to be music made for my little sister’s demographic and she was seven years younger than me.

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Now, there’s no way I can ignore Motown in the above listings. I suppose the Top 40 deejays tried to fit it into the pop music category, but we knew it was more than that. Hitsville in Detroit gave us more rhythm and soul than most of the light weight pop acts. Motown could sound clean and smooth, or hot and sweaty. My favorites were The Temptations with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, and The Four Tops with the great Levi Stubbs. But in 1969 Stevie Wonder was still trying to distance himself from the Little adjective that had been stuck on him for his early records and label head Barry Gordy was grooming The Supremes as a lounge act and Diana Ross for solo superstardom.

Okay, now that I’ve set the stage for what a sixteen-year-old boomer was listening to and my thoughts about it all, in the winter of that year we were presented with The Jackson Five and their first hit record, I Want You Back.

Kings of soulful pop!

First thought: This is a kid singing.

Second thought: This is great!

Now, I wasn’t sure if this realization would seem cool to my fellow-teenaged friends that, along with me, were listening to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or The Who (and The Rolling Stones). But it was impossible for me not to turn up the AM radio dial or even sit still when hearing I Want You Back.

These kids just… Okay, did it rock? Was it pop? Bubble gum? It didn’t sound like the Motown of The Temps, The Tops or Little Stevie, but it couldn’t be ignored. At least by me and the millions of other fans that sent this record screaming up the record charts. Maybe it was because my little sister and her age group were finding their own musical personalities at the time and jumping on the Jackson (and Osmond) bandwagons. There was no reason why I couldn’t also make room on my playlist for this rocking’ and soulful family band.

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But like the television show, I had a secret. There was no way I could ask my friends to turn off Led Zeppelin and listen to The Jackson Five if I wanted to remain hip enough to look cool. So, without Groucho and the other panelists outing me on national television, I kept it to myself. At least for a while.

But here’s another secret…

Ed’s ready to bust a move!

The first time I saw The Jackson Five was on The Ed Sullivan Show. And one of the most memorable parts was how Michael and his brothers danced. So yeah, I wanted to dance like The Jackson Five. Too bad my feet, arms and… well, everything else could never move like that. It’s also too bad I never realized that when I was on a dance floor. More on that in a moment, but first…

I Want You Back danced its way onto this Dream Song List on September 10th. And yeah, I own a copy, it’s on my digital playlist and I had just heard it. So, this one moonwalks into the recent memory category.

I won’t pull any punches here. Myself and my buddies were far from possessing any soulful or rhythmic moves. I might have imagined myself as Michael or even Jackie (or Tito?) at our high school and later college dances, but reality has a way of exposing our secrets. For a description, if you combine The Twist with leg jerks and flaying arms as if you were being attacked by a swarm of mosquitos – it would look better than what we were doing. The effort might have been there, but the talent was missing.

I recently had a chance to reconfirm this no-so-secret admission.

A couple days ago I was just about to leave the house when I Want You Back came on. At this moment, at least for the first verse or two, time and commitments are forgotten. There’s no way to prevent a dance attack and I was doing my best twisting, jerking and flaying moves when I looked up and into a mirror directly in front of me. It was far from being Michael, Jackie or even Tito staring back at me. Of course, I didn’t stop – but from now on I’ll keep these moments between you and me.

Can you keep a secret?

Have a comment?

Please use the contact form below – and keep rockin’!

Here’s a video of The Jackson Five with a very young Michael on lead vocals performing I Want You Back.

 

 

To purchase The Ultimate Collection: Jackson 5 on Motown Records with I Want You Back visit Amazon.

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2019 – North Shore Publishing

#166 – C’mon Marianne

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#166 – C’mon Marianne by The Four Seasons

 – You don’t need to have age revealing personal memories of placing a vinyl 45 rpm on your portable Hi-Fi record player to know The Four Seasons were HUGE during the era when the times really were a’changing. Okay, that’s a round ’bout Bob Dylan-isk (I just added that ending syllable to make up that hyphenated word) way of saying they were having hits before, during and after The British Invasion. That’s was a HUGE accomplishment for a U.S. pop group, especially when success on the music charts after February 9, 1964 pretty much required an English accent and long hair.

The only other band I can think of with the same resume would be The Beach Boys. They held down the West Coast sound while The Four Seasons were… Jersey Boys.

Along with catchy tunes and harmonies, Frankie Valli was The Voice that made their sound distinctive. No one else sounded like him. Brian Wilson could hit some high falsettos singing about surfer girls and woody hot rods, which was a common West Coast term for a surfer dude’s car rather than a common term for a New Jersey guy’s… ah, never mind. But Frankie could belt the upper octaves. There was never a doubt who you were listening to when hearing a Four Seasons song.

And it’s lasted for decades.

Jersey Boys based on The Four Seasons was a hit Broadway show, movie and a favorite revue in regional theaters, Las Vegas and on cruise ships. It’s the power of their hit songs and a story that even during their chart-topping days in the 1960s was rumored to have had a little help from The Underworld.

But I won’t go there. At least not right now…

That’s for the theater and movie fans to drool over. For me it was about the music. And even as a fan of almost every song that came from an English accented, long haired band during the mid-1960’s, I would never change the AM radio dial when The Four Season’s latest release came on.

C’mon Marianne was on just about every AM station’s playlist during the summer of 1967, but those were really some fast changin’ times. Sgt. Pepper came out in early June and by mid-summer everything had changed. Well, just about everything. The Four Seasons stayed true to their sound and image and C’mon Marianne would be the last time they hit the Top Ten during this Decade of Change.

It was The Summer of Love.

Even as a junior high kid who only knew about hippies because I saw them on television, there was a feeling The Four Seasons wouldn’t be contributing to the soundtrack for my segment of the boomer generation for much longer.

Frankie and the boys still looked like they were hanging out in New Jersey while everyone else was shifting their focus to San Francisco and London. They were as far from psychedelic as Frank Sinatra Jr. and had a better chance of drawing a crowd in a Las Vegas lounge than by singing on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I didn’t like their music.

In fact C’mon Marianne is on my digital playlist and I had just heard it the day before waking up to Frankie Valli falsetto’ing (just made that word up too) through my mind on September 8th. And if you’re keeping count, that makes it a recent memory Dream Song.

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What I am saying is these Jersey Boys stuck to who they were and what got them there. When psychedelic music reached our portable record players in album form, The Four Seasons weren’t on the vinyl playlist. The times had a’changed (sorry, I’ll stop with the Dylan-isk innuendos).

It would never prevent me from telling Frankie Valli he’s a great singer and I’m a fan. And that’s a good thing because a couple decades and a few years after C’mon Marianne I had the opportunity to do just that.

In the early 1990’s I had a very cool job in Los Angeles scheduling stand-up comedians to appear on a television show called A&E’s An Evening at the Improv. My boss was the legendary Budd Friedman, known to everyone that has anything at all to do with the industry as The Godfather of Comedy.

There’s no underworld reference in that. It’s just that he’s The Guy that started the modern comedy club concept with The Original Improvisation (shortened to The Improv) in New York, then Hollywood and eventually throughout the U.S.

Yeah, it was like The Comedy Invasion and he was Ed Sullivan, if you catch my reference.

We would pre-tape these one-hour shows (running on The Arts & Entertainment Network, hence “A&E” in the title) at The Improv comedy club in Santa Monica. They were aired weekly, which meant there were fifty-two shows a year. Since production expenses would be too over the top to deck out the club with cameras, lights, sound equipment and crew every week, we’d film two or sometimes three hour long shows in one night.

The on camera set up went this way…

Budd, wearing his trademark monocle, would open each show by greeting the live audience and home viewers. Then he would introduce a celebrity guest host who would do a short monologue and introduce the comedians. While each performed his or her seven-minute set, the guest host would sit at a table with Budd until it was time go back on stage, announce a commercial break and after, introduce the next comedian.

Repeat the process for five comedians and that was a show.

The Godfather of Comedy

Since we filmed two or three shows at once, we had to make it look like each was done on separate nights. That meant Budd had to change into different clothes for each show since he would be on stage and sitting with the guest host at a table that the cameras would focus on a number of times so television viewers could see them laughing at the comics.

Me? I didn’t have wardrobe changes in my behind-the-scenes job requirements.

Usually during one of the shows there would be an open seat at the four-person table and Budd would ask me to sit with them. That was also very cool because I knew when it would air and could tell my parents in Ohio to watch for me. Yeah, almost – but not quite – a celebrity son. Then after that particular episode was finished, I would disappear to sit at a table behind the cameras to keep up the illusion each show was filmed on a different night in front of a different audience. It would look pretty suspicious for television viewers to see This Guy (me) sitting at the featured table wearing the same exact clothes for what would seem to be two or three weeks in a row.

As mentioned, I worked with the comedians. So I never really gave much thought about the guest hosts. To be quite honest, I didn’t even know who many of them were. Most were supporting actors on sitcoms I didn’t watch, or hadn’t been on television for years and needed some screen time to let people – and casting directors – know they were still around.

The Godmother of Rockin’ Cars

But one guest host that really attracted my attention was the actress Tawny Kitaen. She played Tom Hanks‘ fiancé in the movie Bachelor Party, but was better known to my male buddies back in New York City as the “hot chick” rolling around on top of a hot car in an MTV music video for Here I Go Again by Whitesnake. It had been on heavy viewing rotation when I lived in NYC pre-Hollywood and if we were hanging out in a bar when it came on television, everything stopped. You could hear a pin drop and ever guy’s jaw hit the floor.

She was The Babe at that moment.

When it came time to film Tawny’s guest hosting episode, I was unfortunately minus a wardrobe change and relegated to a back table. But it was one of the few times I ever brought a camera to a taping and immediately after introducing myself we cheerfully (at least for me) took a photo together. When I mailed copies (pre internet) to my buddies at our local NYC hangout, I’m sure everything stopped except for their jaws hitting the floor.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Frankie Valli. That’s the next episode, but first an interesting commercial break…

I don’t know the relationship and again, I won’t go there. Not even later. But Tawny had an entourage with her and there were only four chairs at Budd’s table. So some of her gang was sitting at a table next to me. Following a commercial break Tawny announced there was a celebrity in the audience – and introduced O.J. Simpson. A spotlight and camera zoomed in on the table directly behind me where O.J. stood up and waved to the crowd.

This wasn’t too long before the infamous murder and notorious trial. So at the time it was no big deal. But thinking back on it now… Yeah, it’s kind of creepy.

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There was one other time I wished a camera had been a job requirement. It was when I arrived for a taping and learned Frankie Valli would be our guest host. Normally I would meet the guest hosts in the club’s showroom right before filming started. But this moment dictated an exception to that routine.

For the first and only time I went searching backstage to find The Voice.

Since it wasn’t a large area and a small office would be set up as a dressing room, I very quickly looked past a half-opened door and saw Frankie sitting in a chair. He was wearing makeup (remember, this was television) and a dark suit with a high white collar and tie looking like…

Well, looking like a Jersey Guy.

Now it might have just been me. In fact, I’m SURE it was ME basing my first impression on a preconceived stereotyped image.

The Godfather of Vocals

I knocked on the door and introduced myself as the talent coordinator for the show. Once he was assured I had a reason to be there we made small talk about the comedy biz before I took the opportunity to tell him I’d been a big fan for a long time and it was a thrill to meet him.

Frankie Valli could not have been a nicer guy.

That should have been the end of the story and it actually is, except for my misconstrued preconceived stereotyped image kicking in. Frankie held out his hand for me to shake and I remember noticing he wore a large ring – or maybe even two that definitely told me he wasn’t just another guy from just another neighborhood in New Jersey. With his high collared buttoned white shirt, dark tie and suit, and a hair style that was closer to Sonny Corleone’s than a hippie holdover from The Summer of Love my mind wandered to the rougher parts of New Jersey, The Underworld and…

Well, I was greeting The Voice himself.

Yeah, I might have mentally viewed it closer to The Don (as in Sonny’s dad) – which is wrong. I know that. But when it comes to Frankie Valli he deserves respect. And just to dig myself into a deeper hole with insinuations, preconceived notions, unfounded stereotyping, too many long-gone rumors and too many viewings of Jersey Boys, when he said I could enter dressing room to say hello…

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Have a comment?

Please use the contact form below – and keep rocking’!

Sorry – I searched – but couldn’t find a video of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons performing C’mon Marianne. So what I found instead was this STRANGE film of STRANGE teenagers from the 1960’s with the song used as a soundtrack. Enjoy? That’s up to you. It might find it difficult just getting through it.

 

To purchase The Very Best of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons with C’mon Marianne, visit Amazon.com.

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing

#169 – 25 or 6 to 4

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#169 – 25 or 6 to 4 by Chicago

 – Sometimes there’s nothing like a solid horn section to punch up a great rock ‘n’ roll song. For me that feeling goes back to the early days of Little Richard (though I was too young to actually experience it at the time) when a dirty-sounding saxophone raged over his pounding piano. And even today since a young Little Richard is never too old for the digital age of listening, the volume is worthy of being turned up whenever The Upsetters – his backing horn section – kick it in with him.

The same can be said for Bobby Keys and The Rolling Stones. Brown Sugar would not be the same song without his sax, even if Keith Richards and Mick Taylor had practiced what Keef refers to as “the ancient art of guitar weaving” for the instrumental break.

Saxophone was one of the founding instruments in rock ‘n’ roll. But as also a big fan of rhythm & blues, soul and Motown, a horn section with brass trumpets and trombones are also requirements. I have a feeling any promoter suggesting James Brown, Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye could have cut costs by leaving the horns at home would have found himself with nothing but an empty stage to promote.

But when I was finally old enough to experience what was happening in the world of pop music, it was the beginning of The British Invasion. Other than The Dave Clark Five with Denis Payton on sax, groups featured guitar players. Even when American groups counterpunched with The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful, no one was blowing into anything other than an occasional harmonica – and that includes Bob Dylan.

With a horn section!

In May 1966 The Outsiders caught my attention with Time Won’t Let Me and a great backing horn section. Then later that summer The Beatles released Revolver with the Motown influenced Got To Get You Into My Life. But it wasn’t so much that horns were changing the pop music we were listening to. It was more like pop was borrowing from the other styles to give us a lesson in what a big segment of the youngest baby boomers was missing by only listening to our local Top 40 AM radio stations.

What does that have to do with 25 or 6 to 4? I’ll tell you…

I remember a slight bit of personal confusion when Chicago hit big in 1970. Pop had morphed into rock and the main engine driver was a high-powered electric guitar. Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton were making that notion very clear. Horns could be a great background enhancement, but none of our radio favored bands seemed to have these jazzy players as permanent members.

So with embarrassed hindsight, my perception of Chicago predated the lyrics Dire Straits sang a few years later in Sultans of Swing:

They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playin’ band. It ain’t what they call rock and roll.

But then Chicago changed that.

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Their innovative style as a band in the pop-rock world wasn’t really new. Al Kooper’s original Blood, Sweat & Tears made the scene in the late 1960’s and was the first group I took notice of that had a permanent horn section. But just like the subsequent version led by David Clayton-Thomas, they were too jazzy for my tastes.

It ain’t what they call rock and roll.

Chicago’s first LP under the name Chicago Transit Authority went unnoticed by me. But the opening riff of 25 or 6 to 4 when it was released in June 1970 definitely caught my attention. It rocked. And I don’t think I’m saying anything dedicated classic rock fans will object to, but it struck a rock chord by sounding a lot like Babe I’m Gonna Leave You by Led Zeppelin. And then the horn section came in over the grungy guitar and…

That’s what they call rock and roll.

This sound was coming in through my grungy brain on the morning of September 4th. It rocks its way into the recent memory category because I had just heard it. In fact, this song has occasionally crept into my Top 25 list of Most Played Songs that iTunes so conveniently keeps track of. And by the way, in case you can’t tell from the countdown aspect of these Classic Rocker ramblings, I enjoy that feature immensely.

I should have been more welcoming to the brassy horn sounds of Chicago. But as mentioned, The Guitar Gods had taken hold of the rock scene. I say this because at the time I was a player that could have fit into either section.

My guitar fumbling (for lack of a better term) started soon after The British Invasion – like many other baby boomers. But my skills have never been anything to write home about. I tend to blame that on never having the best guitars. I went more for “looks” (does it look cool?) rather than ease of playing. But trumpet was the opposite. I had access to two very cool horns and a practiced ability to play them.

My interest in the trumpet didn’t start when my parents “told me” that’s the instrument I’d play in the junior high and eventually high school band. It was a tradition on my dad’s side that started with his father and continued with him. And believe me, they were both good players. Especially my dad who played bugle in the U.S. Navy and made trumpet his creative outlet by performing with numerous bands around where we lived. He could play anything from jazz, big band to marching band. I have memories as a very little kid going with my mom to watch his shows. He had invested in a very good (let’s call it expensive) trumpet in the 1950’s and yeah, he looked and sounded cool.

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My grandfather was a lot older than my friends’ grandfathers. He was 46 when my dad was born. I don’t know how young he was when he started playing, but know he had purchased a silver cornet in 1905 and was a member of the town’s concert and marching band. Not only do I still have my dad’s trumpet, but also my grandpa’s silver cornet – and the 1905 proof of purchase receipt.

Yeah, you could say I’ve always been good at hanging on to important stuff.

Herb Alpert & TJ Brass

I alternated between the trumpet and cornet when I joined the school band, but again – I didn’t have much interest. I thought the guitar was cooler. But in April 1967 I watched a television special by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and beginning at that exact moment – by the end of the show – trumpet looked pretty cool. I’m positive that I immediately went to my room and started practicing on grandpa’s cornet. My dad – most likely shocked but overjoyed at the same time – got out his trumpet and started teaching me. Before long we were playing duets and it became a father-son bonding I’ll always have with him.

Another totally shocked victim of my new-found love for brass was our junior high band director. For close to three years I had been languishing in the lower reaches of the trumpet section, barely able to make any type of recognizable musical noise. A few weeks after the Herb Albert TV special we had tryouts for “chair placement” and I aced it.

I still remember him staring at me – smiling – and wondering out loud why this happened “to him” when I’d be moving on to the high school band and a different director in just a few months. My band friends were also flabbergasted (again – lack of a better term) when I propelled past about 30 other trumpeters from the back end of the section to third chair. I never looked – or went – back after that.

Beatles Horn Section

But would I have wanted to be in a rock band like Chicago? Honestly, not in the horn section. As Paul McCartney once pointed out, his first instrument had also been the trumpet – also a gift from his dad – but you can’t play and sing at the same time.

Since that’s what I had in mind when I auditioned for the high school musical – and aced it – my trumpet playin’ band days came to an end. When I took off for college and later New York City, a couple guitars were in the back of my station wagon and the brass horns were left behind.

But they didn’t go unused, since I’ve always been good at hanging on to important stuff. More than a century after my grandpa bought his cornet and half a century after my dad bought his trumpet, my son Paul was playing both in the high school band. But now that he’s a professional singer, they’re both on the shelf waiting for the next generation.

And as for Chicago, they’ve also lasted for a few generations. Sometimes there’s nothing like a solid horn section to punch up a great rock ‘n’ roll song. And since there are still plenty of rock ‘n’ rollers from first generation baby boomers on down, I don’t hear that sound fading out any time soon.

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To watch the original Chicago lineup performing 25 or 6 to 4, check out this video…

 

 

To purchase Chicago’s Greatest Hits with 25 or 6 to 4 visit Amazon.com

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Dave Schwensen is The Classic Rocker and author of The Beatles At Shea Stadium and The Beatles In Cleveland. Visit Dave’s author page on Amazon.com.

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing