Saturday, December 19, 2015

Phil Ochs performs "Chords of Fame" for John Lennon

Today is the 75th birthday of Phil Ochs, for whom, in a Spoonerized way, this blog was named. The blog began as an attempt to pay tribute and give space to "ill folks," unique singers and songwriters who often are on the other side of fame.

Phil was born December 19, 1940 in Texas. Despite that infamous "Rehearsals for Retirement" tombstone album cover photo claiming he died at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, he killed himself April 9, 1976.

At that time, political singer-songwriters were pretty much obsolete, and replaced by guys like James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Phil's struggles with alcohol and depression make up the sad final chapters in two biographies.

Phil's romantic demise, and the realities and mythology of the late 60's, have led to a variety of websites and Facebook groups using his name. Some do it with sincerity, and some are trying to play his chords of fame to advance their own names. A few blogs and sites seem to want to shove the Ochs family aside and take over as keepers of the flame, and the real deal authority on the man and his work. That they are sensitive enough to choose Phil to ring the bells and wring their hands, outweighs their vainglorious egotism. Usually.

It's optimistic to know that there are any Millennials out there concerned with topical songs or political and social change. That there's anybody here who wants to call attention to a person whose songs are over 40 years old...songs that have been around a longer time than the creator of them. It's pessimistic to also admit that some in the small circle are, to put it bluntly, fucking idiots and paranoid pains in the butt…an irritating assortment of Yippie wannabe's, hipsters faking being hippies, and paranoids who live to babble conspiracy theories.

Both groups have converged on the 75th birthday, and on the chewy topic of: "If he was alive today, what would Phil be singing about THIS and saying about THAT?"

My guess, if you take a look at Phil's surviving contemporaries, is two words: "not much." The surviving folkies and musical satirists from Tom Paxton to Eric Andersen to Loudon Wainwright to Tom Lehrer aren't waving torches and leading the way anywhere. At best, Randy Newman jibed a track he pretty much gave away on YouTube for lack of commercial interest, "In Defense Of Our Country."

There used to be wild, innovative and often topical comedians on the bill at the folk venues. People expected "the word" from iconoclastic comics as well as the new generation of folk singers. In fact, there were topical folk comedians who seemed like they could be the new heroes of the day, from Shel Silverstein to the Smothers Brothers. The brothers are retired. Nobody's wondering "what would they have to say about today's situation." They aren't interested. Mort Sahl is, but he's a twitching, unfunny right-winger who hasn't muttered a quotable joke in 40 years. Anyone care what Jackie Mason, "Dice" Clay or Howard Stern think of anything? Are they quoted much? You think that "they're take on today's problems" would warrant one paragraph much less the cover of Time magazine?

"If he was alive today..." is a kind of sad thing to speculate on, whether it's Phil or Lenny Bruce or any other cult favorite. Better to be a Realist and accept that nobody's doing it the way it was done generations ago. Ramblin' Jack is still rambling somewhere, but nobody fuckin' cares. (If you believe he ignored Sammy Walker at the Phil tribute and made sure Sammy didn't even perform, then you REALLY don't fuckin' care!). As for the icon still with us, Bob Dylan, is anyone breathlessly waiting for his take on today's issues? Not really. Nor are they expecting "the word" on love, hate, getting older, or climate change. Bob dropped out of pure protest songs long ago. You can't blame him for preferring faux-Delta blues, considering the critical disgust he received on tunes about George Jackson and Joey Gallo. There's the distinct possibility that half of his riveting "Hurricane" is untrue and the boxer may well have killed several people. The man is more likely to have his eye on Alicia Keyes than any politician. You can't count him out because he can still glare with blood in his eyes, but nobody's even saying, "I can't wait for Dylan to sing about this…" Or any other songwriter. It's just not what music is about anymore, and both stand-up and music will not likely be used with the same political fire as they were a generation ago.

We are in the musical age of such lame names as Adele, Justin Bieber, One Direction and Taylor Swift. At one time, young men such as Mr. Phil Ochs and Mr. Sammy Walker sang about the problems of the "Flower Lady" and an old woman dying alone on a "Cold Pittsburgh Morning." What's Ed Sheeran singing about? Or Sam Smith? Them selfies? We are in an age without disc jockeys or meaningful rock critics. There's no direction home. When the Grammy show is hosted by Jay-Z and dominated by rappers and teen idiots, don't expect a new Ochs, Zevon or Randy Newman to find any meaningful size of audience.

It's nice that there are "Phil Ochs Nights" in Portlandia, or upstate New York somewhere, and some Millennials are fascinated with 1968 and want to wear hippie beads or leather jackets and strum an acoustic guitar and sing about fracking. But most are Viley Virus types who wear a dildo or twerk and only sing about fucking. We've got Millennials who don't even know John Lennon's music, or whether he's alive or dead. Seriously. Last Friday night, Jimmy Kimmel's put-on street interview bit included a very depressing moment. A woman in her late 20's was told, tongue-in-cheek, about the recent Beatles reunion with John Lennon and George Harrison taking the stage. Instead of snarling, "You're putting me on," the young interviewee allowed that it was nice news for Beatles fans.

I don't expect the average bint to know who Phil Ochs is, or to know his music, but to not know John Lennon was murdered?

Your download is "Chords of Fame," as performed by Phil for John Lennon. Phil, you may recall, was on the bill at Lennon's "John Sinclair Rally," performing "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon." In a hotel room, an eager Mr. Lennon learned about the history of folk protest songs from an awed, and stuttery Phil Ochs.

Phil played the long "Joe Hill" for John. As the tape starts rolling for "Chords of Fame," Ochs explains how he borrowed the "Joe Hill" melody from previous folk ballads, "John Hardy" and "Tom Joad." Part of the true "sharing" of folk music is that you borrow ideas, pay tribute by re-using or adapting melodies, and pay it forward by modernizing old lyrics. Lennon was keenly interested in the traditional process of American folk and topical ballads. Some of that interest you'll find on this blog, with entries on how British ballads were adapted in America and turned into "Farewell to Nova Scotia" and "Lily of the West."

On this strange and mournful day, I don't ask "What would Phil say" or sing. I just feel wistful that he's not around to enjoy his family, and the satisfaction that so many of his songs haven't aged at all. Some are even more powerful now, like his ominous "No More Songs," with a line that seemed to predict the phenomenon of whales beaching themselves and preferring death over polluted seas. But Phil is not with us, actively singing to a small circle as Tom Paxton or Eric Andersen is. He's not in happy retirement or semi-retirement like some of his contemporaries from Oscar Brand to Judy Henske and back. He is gone. And I guess you better cover his songs…and listen to his old stuff…while you're here.

John Lennon listens to Phil Ochs sing Chords of Fame

Patti Page and George Jones Duet - Lookin' Good and Sounding Great

The greatest female vocalist in the history of American pop music was Patti Page (real name Clara Ann Fowler...she inherited "Patti Page" when she replaced a local radio singer by that name.) She could sing jazz, rock, spirituals and country, a much wider range of Americana than Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline. Her beautiful voice was expressive. Unlike Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney and quite a few others, you can instantly tell when Patti's singing by her distinctive lilt and light touch of vibrato. If she'd had the right arrangers, and never sang "Doggie in the Window," she'd be higher on the "best female vocalist" list than the more obvious choices such as Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand.

As for George Jones, he was pure country, and that limitation runs him second behind Frank Sinatra, who sang everybody from Cole Porter to Jimmy Webb. If you want to be weird, you might place George third behind the now very dated and almost ridiculous Al Jolson, who was certainly a distinctive stylist at home with folk, swing, pop, ballads, and even traditional Hebrew melodies. Sinatra himself said George was the best…except for himself!

It's a shame that two of the greatest voices in American song didn't work together more often. It may have been because despite "Tennessee Waltz" (which could be countered by "Old Cape Cod" anyway), Oklahoma-born Patti didn't overtly move into the country music field until late in her career. Also, she and George weren't on the same music label very long.

"You Never Looked That Good When You Were Mine" is a pretty good song. What makes it great is the ache in Jones' voice and the exquisite angst in Patti's. Despite the C&W cliche of a nauseating steel guitar, the production allows these two voices to brew up a dreamy butter-rum flavor. It's intoxicating because it's a double shot…Page and Jones. Rather than corny pathos, the tone here includes some genial and wistful good humor; it's two old pros together not to recall old times, but to have a good time making a new memory.

Here's the immortal combo of George (September 12, 1931 – April 26, 2013) and Patti (November 8, 1927 – January 1, 2013).

Alias Page and Jones You Never Looked That Good When You Were Mine


Spike Jones was too corny for critics to call a genius. In his lifetime, he wasn't even given credit for the brilliance of his arrangements and the expert musicianship of his band. What Spike did in a 40's recording studio in one take would take most any band a month of rehearsals and weeks of Pro Tools overdubs and punch-ins.

Compulsively smoking, intensely scowling, Jones was the perfectionist who made sure every gunshot, every smack of a tin can, every toot of a horn, was perfectly timed and in the right key. He had a keen ear for young talent, and gave breaks to a lot of beloved weirdos like Red Ingle, Doodles Weaver and Paul Frees.

Jones had an uncanny ability to produce comic art, not just parody. While "Weird Al" has done some great things, let's face it, it doesn't take much skill to bawl "Eat It" as a parody of "Beat It," especially when you're not altering the music too much. Compare that with Spike Jones' innovative mash-ups, like turning "Dance of the Hours" into a car race complete with feverishly corny announcer Doodles Weaver. Red Ingle's brawling "Chloe" is so great, it stands on its own as great comedy more than a spoof. When I first listened to it, I had no idea there was actually a serious song about a guy trudging swamps searching for "Chloe," like a cartoonish bag in some Mad Magazine panels hunting for her boy Little Willie Elder. As for "My Old Flame," after pretending to offer a traditional version of it, a Jeckyl band singer gives way for Mr. Hyde, Paul Frees doing his definitive version of Peter Lorre. Lorre himself was impressed by it. A pioneer in sick humor, Spike offered a pretty disturbing comic punchline: immolating the ex-girlfriend and punctuating the match-strike with her sudden scream.

At the time it was released, "Spike Jones in Stereo" (well, it was also released in monaural as "Spike Jones in Hi-Fi") got little respect. Spike's 40's formula of cacaphony and corn was no longer novel, and it seemed that critics and fans didn't appreciate the subtleties that Spike brought to long-play albums. It seemed that a very narrow circle of warped comedy fans and Forry Ackerman-esque pun-appreciative devotees of those famous monsters of filmland made this disc a cult classic.

Aside from demanding the best vocal talent and musicians, Spike Jones and his arranger added a vast repertoire of sonic seasonings to the mix. One of my favorites was the perfect monster mash-up of Poe's "Raven" to Dvorak's "Humoresque." Yes, the poem's cadence and the unlikely music match perfectly.

Another example of freaky finesse, is how the opening melody of "Teenage Brain Surgeon"is body-snatched from "Elegie," written by Jules Massenet in 1872. Most anyone else (except maybe Tom Lehrer) would've just knocked off a frantic rock song, content to match a teenybop dance melody to some sick humor. Here, there's a comic shock between the opening, legitimately chilling creepiness of "Elegie" and it's sudden kick into a teen beat. The original was rendered extra-spooky by gloriously deep-voiced Thurl Ravenscroft, best remembered as the voice of "Tony the Tiger" in vintage Frosted Flakes commercials and the guy who sang "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."

Since you should get the album, and since this IS the blog of less renown, that version isn't below. Instead, it's "Teenage Brain Surgeon" covered by somebody called Doctor X. It appears on a crazy album called "The Crazy Album," issued in 1978 and long out of print. The double-vinyl indie bootleg compiled novelty originals ("Martian Hop" by The Randells) and covers ("They're Coming to Take Me Away" by The Duke of Waterloo). The bootlegger swiped the original Spike Jones "Der Fuhrer's Face" but didn't also filch Spike's version of "Teenage Brain Surgeon."

Doctor X is no Ravenscroft, and the anonymous musicians don't have the panache and splash of Spike's band, but the essential brilliance of the concept is still there, which is the musical expertise to know what oldie to borrow and how to make it new.

PS, calling attention to "Teenage Brain Surgeon" doesn't mean this blog endorses Ben Carson for President. The blog only endorses obscure cover versions, musical oddities, and offbeat (but on key) neglected works of genius.

Doctor X Teenage Brain Surgeon

RICHARD SHORES "HATE" (lost gem from the "Man from UNCLE" soundtracker)

Henry Mancini captured the Pink Panther's prowl. Lalo Schifrin provided the tense soundtrack for "Mission Impossible." Martin Denny instantly transported us to a "Quiet Village" in the jungle. And Richard Shores?

He created literal mood music, like..."Hate." It's your download below.

You might recognize his two minute instrumental as the soundtrack to violent chases through dark alleys on vintage TV cop shows. It was a generic piece of background music that could be licensed for any cheap movie scene of some psycho killer getting violent. I'm pretty sure it was also used by low-budget local TV stations in the 60's when they ran a weekly low-budge "Saturday Morning Horror Movie" or "The Late Night Thriller" and needed a theme to play behind the cheaply done art work for the show.

If Richard Shores' name seems familiar at all, it's probably because it flickered on your TV screen during the end credits for many TV episodes, including "The Man from UNCLE." Yeah, while Johnny Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini and others wrote TV theme songs, they usually didn't waste their time writing all the background music for every single episode. Those chores were handled by unsung veterans like Shores.

Shores concocted mood music for key scenes of love, hate and violence in episodes of "Richard Diamond" and "Johnny Midnight," vintage late 50's TV shows starring David Janssen and Edmund O'Brien. As a staffer at Universal/Revue, he supplied music for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" "Dick Powell Theater" and "Checkmate" (the jagged theme song on the latter was done by Johnny Williams).

Many masters of schlock and drang issued MOR albums which competed with original TV soundtrack recordings. You could find a lot of exotica from everyone from Les Baxter to Martin Denny. But Richard Shores? Richard did manage to get signed to Mercury for an album. It was titled "Emotions" and also, to get the attention of the prurient, issued as "Music to Read Lady Chatterley's Lover By."

Oddly, I think Mercury figured the words "LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER" were so strong, any kind of illustration would've had record stores hiding the vinyl under the counter.

The album has separate tracks for: Love, Hate, Sorrow, Gay, Blues, Surprise, Frustration, Nostalgia, Fear and Hysteria.

Being a music-seeker ever since I could work a turntable, I haunted record stores and thrift shops for anything within my budget, in most any musical genre. If it was recorded, I figured I might like it or learn from it. I didn't know who Shores was when I came across the vinyl, in just its inner sleeve, for 39 cents. Though I often held out for items in the "three for a dollar" bin, 39 cents was ok.

It was decades later that I learned why that record was dumped in the bargain bin without a jacket. "Emotions" had a lady on the cover who wasn't wearing a jacket! Some pervert had ditched the record but saved the cover! The nudity used to sell obscure artists peddling instrumental music wasn't all that rude back in the day, and is pretty mild by today's standards. But it's the album cover, sought after by nudie-cutie "record cover lovers" that makes this thing still pricey in surviving record stores.

Shores stayed busy in the TV field long after the "mood music" era of the late 50's and early 60's mellowed out. His late 60's soundtrack work included vivid "stings" and romantic ballad moments for many episodes of "The Wild Wild West" and "Hawaii 5-0" among others. Welcome to the formerly distant Shores, and I hope you love "Hate."

HATE Richard Shores