Wednesday, March 18, 2020

ONE FINE DAY: HOW A NEARLY FORGOTTEN FREAKBEAT TUNE IMPROBABLY COMBINED SOME OF THE GREATEST BRITISH (AND AMERICAN) MUSICIANSHIP OF ITS ERA.



Written by a member of the Kinks and performed by half of Led Zeppelin, the little-known 1964 Freakbeat rocker “One Fine Day” does not disappoint. You may listen to it above, Dear Reader, via the good wonders of the internet. Play it loud and dance with abandon. The singer, Shel Naylor from Coventry, is really named Rob Woodward, a bloke who went on to do some unusual things with Stavely Makepeace and Lieutenant Pigeon. That he also played the ukulele and clarinet—in addition to piano and guitar—should’ve offered a clue as to his future eccentricity, but I get ahead of myself.

The Kink in question is guitarist Dave Davies, and the members of Led Zeppelin in question are Jimmy Page (guitar) and John Paul Jones (bass). Led Zeppelin wouldn’t materialize for a few more years, of course, but the Kinks would become an international sensation the very same year with “You Really Got Me” among other tunes. 1964 could’ve been worse, musically. David Bowie recorded his first single, “Liza Jane,” and Jimi Hendrix made his first recordings with the Isley Brothers. Also, a fellow named Rob Woodward cut two songs as Shel Naylor for Decca: “One Fine Day” b/w “It’s Gonna Happen Soon.” The drummer was thought to be the legendary Bobby Graham. Presumably, Messieurs Page, Jones, and Graham were the backing vocalists. Outside, it was London, everywhere you looked.

The Kinks might’ve recorded the song themselves, but instead, Davies gave it to Naylor, a teenager at the time. Noting the influence of The Ventures, an American group famous for its instrumental hit “Walk, Don’t Run,” Davies relied on a Ventures-like chord structure in banging out “One Fine Day” for Naylor on the piano; this, in the office of Davies’ manager. Apparently, the Kinks made a demo, but only so Naylor could understand the song. Given the benefit of—more than 50 years of—hindsight, I do believe that one can hear The Ventures, The Kinks, and Led Zeppelin in “One Fine Day.” (I also hear “Lonely Traveler” by Jimmy Lee Robinson, but that’s some archaeology for another post.)

As for the song’s narrative situation, we can tell that the singer’s “baby” ain’t around, at present. She will, however, come back home “whoa yeahhh one fine day,” according to Naylor. She seems to have instigated the separation. He still loves her, apparently. You can interrogate his value system, or not, Dear Reader, but knowing London weather, he might be waiting for a while. In the meantime (thankfully!) everyone contented himself to strenuously rock out, in the postmodern tradition. 




Shel Naylor, the music act, didn’t prosper, and Woodward abandoned the career of his alter ego in favor of vastly different projects: first, Stavely Makepeace, and later, Lieutenant Pigeon, which produced a 1973 chart-topping UK hit with “Mouldy Old Dough.” The Stavely Makepeace material is collected in a 2004 compilation album, The Scrap Iron Rhythm Revue, which features a few interesting songs, including “Slippery Rock ‘70s.” Critic Richie Unterberger describes the Lieutenant Pigeon sound as, in part, “…martial percussion, century-old sounding parlor music, and weird insertions of fifes, rickety pianos, and half-buried miscellaneous vocal growls.” In addition to “Mouldy Old Dough,” devotees of Lieutenant Pigeon cite “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen” and “Desperate Dan” as worthy listens. In every song that there’s a piano, it’s Woodward’s mother on the ebonies and ivories.

Thus, the chord progressions of a successful American instrumental band (The Ventures) were channeled by a member of an arriving British megaband (Dave Davies of The Kinks) to produce a song (“One Fine Day”) for an unknown Coventry teenager (Shel Naylor / Rob Woodward), who’d go on to produce hits as part of two eccentric British groups (Stavely Makepeace and Lieutenant Pigeon), but not before two future members of, arguably, the greatest hard rock / heavy metal band ever assembled (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin) would back Naylor / Woodward—by “back” we mean “blarst forth!”—on his Decca A-side, “One Fine Day.” Whew. You get the idea. In short: “One Fine Day” rocks. Enjoy, enjoy, hoy hoy!!!


Sources of Information
One Fine Day at 45cat
One Fine Day at Discogs
Freakbeat article at Wikipedia
Interview with Dave Davies at Record Collector Mag
Shel Naylor blurb at Jimmy Page Session Man site
Bobby Graham article at Wikipedia
Mouldy Old Music page at Discogs
Ventures page at Allmusic
Decca Biographical insert for “One Fine Day” (see photo, above)







Thursday, March 5, 2020

BUILDINGS WITHOUT MURDERS



Check out the trailer for my new novel, Buildings Without Murders, published by Atmosphere Press on March 1, 2020. Visit my brand-new website or the Atmosphere website for more information and purchasing options (paperback and e-book). In my base-town of Washington, D.C., Buildings Without Murders is available at Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue. The video is by multimedia artists Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac; visit their website for more information on their projects. Finally, consider following my Instagram page, where I’m just getting started. I’ll follow you, if you follow me. Thanks for taking a look! 

The video is captions-enabled, or here’s the excerpt from the book that’s read aloud in the trailer: “LaRousse’s smartphone buzzed. It registered the presence of several GPS pins orbiting her own signal, a collection of competent kissers, street kids, philanthropists, and rough-house run-rioters demonstrating recalcitrant intentions. Half her body shivered in a downdraft. She traced the origins of this chilly whirlybird by sizing up the architecture of the tallest crane, from anchor to tower head, until she espied the very phenomenon that the News Update had reported for the past several broadcasts, up high, adrift above everyday birds and skyscrapers. A single, available cloud bank blundered between the forces of opposing currents, the defiant and the stoic, its magenta-white lightning bolt fizzling in a brisk state of perpetual discharge. The cloud hauled a stroke of incomplete, ornamental lightning.”


Sunday, February 2, 2020

ELECTABLE AND COURAGEOUS: BERNIE SANDERS FOR PRESIDENT.

 Bernie Sanders represents more individual donors than 
any other candidate. (Photo: Rebecca Cook / Reuters)


You go about your day and you encounter some Democrats who insist, “I’m for Biden, because he’s electable,” but when you convince these good souls to cut that out, to forget the “electable routine” for just one minute, and instead, credit the candidate closest to their value set, these good souls will invariably say—about nine times out of ten—Bernie Sanders. We’ll get to Bernie’s electability in a minute. Hold the line, please.

I don’t happen to dislike Joe Biden as vehemently as some hardcore liberals do. On paper, he presents remarkable credentials: Vice President for eight years, Senator forever, working class advocate, et cetera. He likes Amtrak. I like the train, too. Apparently, Trump fears Biden the most, or so we’d imagine, owing to the entire impeachment thing—maybe you’ve heard of this?— that’s been predictably stubbed-out by Senate Republicans.

Yet Biden can be maddeningly error-prone. He seems to be running—as Hillary Clinton twice did—because he wants to be president, rather than because he can communicate a compelling vision for his presidency. In any event, the mainstream media has been searching for a younger, less baffling version of “Sleepy Joe.” They have tried to champion Pete Buttigieg and Amy “Comb-uchar” but it’s hard to know what either of those two candidates really stands for, aside from the DNC talking points.

Noting that the Democratic electorate is of two minds—OMFG if the party should actually nominate a genuine liberal—the mainstream media has also been searching for an alternative to Bernie Sanders: left, but not left-wing. Some outlets have championed Elizabeth Warren. Maybe it’s just me, but every time I look at footage of Warren, I feel as if I’m about to get a C+ on my term paper. It perpetually appears like she’s detecting a sour odor, which does conjure the teaching corps in higher education (her former metier.) I know, I know, she has a plan for that sour odor.

Bernie’s in his upper seventies. He’s suffered a well-publicized heart attack. He represents a state that will likely vote for the Democrat no matter who leads the ticket. Some people call him “socialist” and / or “communist.” All of these fabulous highlights might have disqualified him during another election cycle, but we here at Blood And Gutstein note that Bernie’s the only Democratic candidate who’s been broadening the tent, via the trademark small donations, since 2016. In particular, young people hoot & holler for him. And if you can say one thing about Donald Trump’s ascendancy, it’s canceled any conventional wisdom about who might run and who can win. 


     AOC’s endorsement underscores the sentiments 
of young voters. (Photo: J Pat Carter / Getty)


It’s also clear to us that Bernie isn’t just spinning yarns because they might “play well” among voters. He’s been advocating many of the same policies now for decades, and his pledge to drive-out big money from American politics is the single most identifiable policy among all candidates for the Democratic nomination. His vision is clear and courageous. We also admire his zeal in campaigning with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is one of the most dynamic politicians in the world.

The Republican presidential nominees often succeed in positioning themselves as “tough guys” (even as many of the same “tough guys” deftly evaded military duty when called upon to serve) and toughness does resonate among voters in November. Should Bernie win the Democratic nomination, he’ll have to project toughness, not only in standing up to the forthcoming negative barrages from the right, but in leading during an era of unprecedented global challenges. Before that, however, it’s voters like you and me who must demonstrate toughness, by making the correct choice—Bernie—in 2020.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

YOU’RE GONNA NEED ME: THE TOP 30 WOMEN’S VOCAL RECORDS FROM THE JUMP & SHAKE ERAS + 5 EARLY JUMPS.


     






 





     Top, left to right: Barbara Lynn, Ella Mae Morse   
Bottom, left to right: Big Maybelle, Jackie Shane


It’s hard to imagine the evolution of American music without the contributions made by these singers, whose work brashly inhabits at least ten genres: swing, jazz, blues, jump blues, rhythm & blues, electric blues, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, soul, and pop. Some of the songs contributed formatively to the nascent states of their genres. These ladies built a formidable idiom during the Jump Blues and “Shakers” periods, which roughly accounted for the twenty-five year stretch from World War II up until the British Invasion. Their voices howl and holler, they croon and brood, they scat and bounce.

The singers didn’t bring their voices alone to the stage. Nellie Lutcher, Martha Davis, Camille Howard, Cleo Brown, and Aretha Franklin played the piano; surely you remember Aretha Franklin in The Blues Brothers. She wasn’t the only actress from this group. Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Sylvia Sims, and Mabel King (What’s Happening!) were actresses, too. Marylyn Scott and Sister Rosetta Tharpe played guitar. Little Sylvia played guitar; later, as Sylvia Robinson, she went on to found Sugar Hill Records and played an irreplaceable role in formation of hiphop music. Barbara Lynn appeared in the 2015 documentary I Am The Blues and continues to play guitar. Irma Thomas is still active. Sugar Pie DeSanto was, and still is, a dancer. Big Mama Thornton played drums and harmonica. Jackie Shane identified as female; she passed away this year after her work, long-neglected, came back into focus with a Grammy nomination. Shane first performed her hit single, “Any Other Way,” in Toronto, backed by Frank Motley, who often played two trumpets simultaneously.

To say that many of these tunes simply concern “love relationships” would grossly underestimate their contents. When Nancy Adams narrates all the activity in her “orchard,” she does so from a gangster standpoint, threatening to take “[her] gun and rat-a-tat-tat” that cat who’s “picking at [her] plum tree.” Irma Thomas and Sugar Pie DeSanto sing about the need (as jilted lovers) to leave town altogether while Rose Mitchell and Jo Ann Henderson both plead for a “baby” to stay, as they perform two different versions of the same song. Dolly Cooper doesn’t mince lyrics in establishing a certain ferocity of passion in “Wild Love,” and similarly, Nellie Lutcher urges her partner to “Hurry on down” since there “ain’t nobody home but [the singer].”



Left: Dolly Cooper, right: LaVern Baker


Some songs describe earthy forms of celebration. Camille Howard’s “Fiesta In Old Mexico,” Marylyn Scott’s “Beer Bottle Boogie,” LaVern Baker’s “Dix-A-Billy,” and the voice of Helen Lancaster in “The Monkey Swing” call to mind jumping juke joints and house rent parties. Big Maybelle and Ann Cole recorded the first versions of iconic songs that later came to be standards for Bill Haley and Muddy Waters, respectively. A dark horse candidate for the best among these songs is the Martha Davis tune, “Sarah Sarah,” which conjures the earnest life of a seamstress in a shoeshine shop. Of course, male characters abound. From a “little boy” to a “baby” to a “hound dog” to “Henry” to “Johnny Lee” to the singer Percy Mayfield (of “Mercy Mister Percy”), these ladies sure do address the fellas. Cleo Brown predicted—“Here’s the news / And it’s the newest”—that Jim Braddock would meet Joe Louis, two years after her song appeared. And they did meet, and Louis knocked out Braddock in what would become a comeuppance that reinforced the message in Brown’s song.

I hope that many of these musicians will be new to you, as they were to me. Seek-out the songs. Play them loud. Jump about. Shake your entire body, then shake individual body parts, one by one. Most importantly, figure out some way to compensate me for bringing this music into your life. I’d like you to know that I accept most—but not all—forms of stout, and stout-porter, and porter. Inquire via modern inquiry techniques, if you will, and you will. Oh yes. Amen. Also, please refer to our Jump Blues post, our Shakers post, and our Unassailable Vocalists post, even as there may be some minor differences between the opinions and lists published therein. Hoy hoy!



 Irma Thomas “Break-A-Way” (1964)    
Discography information appears below


Top 30 Records

Nellie Lutcher: “Hurry On Down” (1947) [Capitol, A-side b/w “The Lady’s In Love With You”]
Martha Davis: “Sarah Sarah” (1948) [Jewel B-side b/w “When I Say Goodbye”]
Camille Howard: “Fiesta In Old Mexico” (1949) [Specialty A-side b/w “Miraculous Boogie” ]
Marylyn Scott: “Beer Bottle Boogie” (1950) [Regent A-side b/w “Uneasy Blues”]
Little Sylvia: “Little Boy” (1951) [Savoy A-side b/w “How Long Must I Be Blue”]
Big Mama Thornton: “Hound Dog” (1952) [Peacock A-side b/w “Night Mare”]
Terry Timmons: “Got Nobody To Love” (1952) [RCA Victor A-side b/w “I Shouldn’t Have To Cry Over You”] 
Varetta Dillard: “Mercy Mr. Percy” (1953) [Savoy A-side “No Kinda Good, No How”]
Rose Mitchell: “Baby Please Don’t Go” (1953) [Imperial A-side b/w “Live My Life”]
Ruth Brown: “Hello Little Boy” (1954) [Atlantic B-side b/w “If I Had Any Sense”]
Blanche Thomas: “You Ain’t So Such A Much” (1954) [Imperial A-side b/w “Not The Way That I Love You”]
Big Maybelle: “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1955) [OKeh A-side b/w “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”]
Marie Knight: “Who Rolled The Stone Away” (1955) [Decca A-side b/w “Easter Bells”]
Sylvia Sims: “Each Day” (1956) [Decca A-side b/w “Dancing Chandelier”]
Faye Adams: “Johnny Lee” (1957) [Imperial B-side b/w “You’re Crazy”]
Dolly Cooper: “Wild Love” (1957) [Ebb B-side “Time Brings About A Change”]
Tiny Topsy: “Miss You So” (1957) [Federal B-side b/w “Aw! Shucks Baby”]
Ann Cole: “Got My Mo-Jo Workin’” (1957) [Baton A-side b/w “I’ve Got A Little Boy”]
Jo Ann Henderson: “Baby Please Don’t Go” (1957) [Phonograph A-side b/w “Just Leave Me Alone”]
Etta James: “Dance With Me, Henry” (1957-58) [Crown from A Rock ‘N Roll Dance Party]
LaVern Baker: “Dix-A-Billy” (1958) [Atlantic B-side b/w “I Cried A Tear”]
Mary Ann Fisher: “Put On My Shoes” (1959) [Fire A-side b/w “Wild As You Can Be”]
Sugar Pie DeSanto: “Going Back Where I Belong” (1960) [Veltone A-side b/w “Wish You Were Mine”]
Aretha Franklin: “Won’t Be Long” (1961) [Columbia from Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo]
Mabel King: “Go Back Home Young Fella” (1962) [Amy A-side b/w “Lefty”]
Barbara Lynn: “You’re Gonna Need Me” (1963) [Jamie B-side b/w “I’m Sorry I Met You”]
Jackie Shane: “Any Other Way” (1963) [Sue Records A-side b/w “Sticks And Stones”]
Nancy Adams: “Somebody’s In My Orchard” (1964) [RCA Victor A-side b/w “You’ve Got To Show Me”]
Irma Thomas: “Break-A-Way” (1964) [B-side b/w “Wish Someone Would Care”]
Yum Yums: “Gonna Be A Big Thing” (1965) [ABC Paramount B-side b/w “Looky, Looky (What I Got)”]

+ 5 Early Jumps

Cleo Brown: “When Hollywood Goes Black And Tan” (1935) [Brunswick A-side b/w “When”]
Helen Lancaster with the Harlem Stompers: “The Monkey Swing” (1938) [Decca A-side b/w “My Understanding Man”]
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: “Rock Me” (1938) [Brunswick A-side b/w “Lonesome Road”]
Ella Mae Morse with Freddie Slack And His Orchestra: “Get On Board Little Chillun” (1942) [Capitol A-side b/w “Old Rob Roy”]
Helen Humes: “Be-Baba-Leba” (1945) [Philo Recordings B-side b/w “Every Now And Then”]
   
















Top, left to right: Annie Laurie, Dolly Lyon     
Bottom, left to right: Wynona Carr, Inez Foxx



+ Also Considered:

Annisteen Allen: “Oo-Ee-Bab-A-Lee-Bob” (1945). Marion Abernathy aka The Blues Woman: “Voo-it! Voo-it!” (1946). Blue Lu Barker: “A Little Bird Told Me” (1948). Paula Watson: “Hidin’ In The Sticks” (1948). Albennie Jones: “Hole In The Wall” (1949). Erline Harris: “Jump And Shout” (1950). Julia Lee & Her Boyfriends: “Mama Don’t Allow It” (1951). Mabel Scott: “Catch ‘Em Young, Treat ‘Em Rough, Never Tell ‘Em Nothing” (1951). Margie Day: “Snatchin’ It Back” (1953). Pearl Reaves: “You Can’t Stay Here (Step It Up And Go)” (1955). Lula Reed: “Rock Love” (1955). Wynona Carr: “Jump, Jack, Jump” (1956). Annie Laurie: “Rockin’ And Rollin’ Again” (1956). Anita Tucker: “Hop Skip And Jump” (1956). Dolly Lyon: “Palm Of Your Hand” (1957). Lillian Offit: “Miss You So” (1957). Fay Simmons: “Hangin’ Around” (1957). Carol Fran: “I Quit My Knockin’” (1958). Sharon Smith: “I’m Waiting” (1958?). Baby Jean: “Oh Johnny” (1962). Jessie Mae: “Don’t Freeze On Me” (1962). Inez and Charlie Foxx: “Mockingbird” (1963). Cookie Jackson: “Do You Still Love Me” (1963). Patti LaBelle and the Blue Bells: “Academy Award” (1963). Pearl Woods “Stickum Up Baby” (1963).


Sources of Information

Wikipedia, AllMusic Guide, YouTube, Discogs, 45cat, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, The Guardian obituary on Nellie Lutcher, Nick Tosches The Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Mary Unterbrink Jazz Women at the Keyboard, Black Cat Rockabilly article on Camille Howard, New York Times obituary for Sylvia Robinson, Gillian Gaar She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, Last.fm article on Terry Timmons, Kim Clark’s Record Shack article on Varetta Dillard, Tony Russell The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, Jazz Archivist article on Blanche Thomas, Robert Santelli The Big Book of Blues, W. K. McNeil Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music, Black Cat Rockabilly article on Faye Adams, Bob Eagle and Eric LeBlanc Blues - A Regional Experience, Black Cat Rockabilly article on Ann Cole, IMDB page for LaVern Baker, Bob Gulla Icons of R&B and Soul, SF Gate article about Sugar Pie DeSanto, Mary J. Blige profile of Aretha Franklin at Rolling Stone, IMDB page for Mabel King, NEA Heritage Fellowship page for Barbara Lynn, NPR article on Jackie Shane, Jeff Hannusch I Hear You Knockin : The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, NEA Jazz Masters article on Cleo Brown, Dan DeLuca article on Sister Rosetta Tharpe at Pop Matters, New York Times obituary for Ella Mae Morse, Whitney Balliett American Singers: Twenty-Seven Portraits in Song.


Discographical information for “Break-A-Way”

In addition to Irma Thomas (vocals), personnel may have included: Jessie Willard Carr (guitar), Paul Hornsby (keyboards), Pops Powell (bass), Squirm (drums), Swamp Dogg (piano). All other instruments, if any, and backing vocals unknown. Recorded in 1964 as a B-side b/w “Wish Someone Would Care” on Imperial Records No. 66013.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

TEST PRESSINGS.



Who: Joy on Fire.
What: Punk Jazz.
When: January, 2020.
Where: Trenton, N.J.
Why: To Rock the World.

Joy on Fire will be releasing a limited-edition 180 gram LP on black vinyl entitled Thunderdome Extended Single. It will feature two songs (“Thunderdome” and “Uh Huh”) from our forthcoming States of America album, plus three remixes. These songs add lyrics and vocals to the band’s trademark punk-jazz sound. If the test pressings are any indication, get ready to dance, jump, bang your head, holler, run amok.

Personnel:

John Paul Carillo (bass, guitar)
Anna Meadors (bari sax, alto sax)
Chris Olsen (drums, percussion)
Dan Gutstein (lyrics, vocals)

Please contact the band if you are a deejay at a college radio station or an independent radio station, or if you would like to suggest a potential recipient for this record. We would be happy to send some vinyl your way in 2020. Hoy hoy! And otherwise, stay tuned, friends! 


A(NOTHER) CONVERSATION WITH RIGHT-WING ALEXA.



          —Right-Wing Alexa?
          —Yes, Rusty?
          —Is ‘quid pro quo’ a Democrat term?
          —Of course. Democrats from all eras of human history have used it.
          —Against who?
          —The Ukraine.
          —You mean Democrats from:
          —Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Assyria….
          —That was before Joe Biden!
          —That was before America, Rusty.

          —Hey, Right-Wing Alexa?
          —Here, Rusty.
          —How many hits has my online dating profile received?
          —Your profile has received three hits.
          —Today?
          —One hit today.
          —And who is the lucky lady?
          —Squidmark6969 from Newark.
          —Cancel online dating profile! Immediately!
          —Rodger Dodger.

          —Oh, Rusty.
          —Yes, Right-Wing Alexa?
          —I have a bill here from the “A Is For Boof-A Buffet.”
          —[…]
          —They’re billing you for 24 consecutive sticky rices.
          —[…]
          —Plus something they refer to as the “Barricade Incident.”
          —[…]
­          —Rusty!
          —Please pay the bill! 




          —Yo! Right-Wing Alexa!
          —Yo! Howdy from the Yellowhammer State!
          —Huh? Who is this?  
          —You’ve reached the Right-Wing Alabama Weather Forecast.
          —Where’s Right-Wing Alexa?
          —I don’t know. We’re closed. Expecting a hurricane.
          —Really? Is it windy and rainy there?
          —No, it’s a beautiful day outside.
          —Oh, so the storm is on the way.
          —No, it’s not. But someday a storm will come. In the meantime, we’re making weather forecasts great again!

          —Right Wing Alexa?
          —Yes, Sir?
          —What does “Okay Boomer” mean?
          —It only means something if you allow it to mean something.
          —Does it threaten our way of life?
          —It could, if allowed to go unchecked.
          —What are you saying?
          —Imagine trying to order a McChicken but instead, having to order:
          —Yeah?
          —Donald Duck a l’Orange Julius Caesar Salad!



need more right-wing alexa?


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

PUT ANOTHER DIME IN THE JUKEBOX, BABY: A REVIEW OF “I LOVE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL,” FEATURING LIVE FOOTAGE OF THE ALAN MERRILL EXTRAVAGANZA AT THE BRIGHTON BAR (2019).

Alan Merrill (guitar), Amy Madden (bass), and Mark Brotter (drums) perform an 
inspired version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” at The Brighton Bar, October 4, 2019. 


Behold “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the genre-busting anthem that propelled Joan Jett toward international superstardom. Since 1981, loudspeakers everywhere have been proclaiming Jett’s boisterous recording, which predicts—through equal measures of playfulness and mischievousness—a role-reversal hookup between a female speaker and a teenage guy who’s dancing in front of a jukebox. Yet the ditty dates to 1975, when it was written by Alan Merrill and Jerry Mamberg, also known as two-thirds of the Arrows, a trio that emphasized glam hairdos and also recorded one of the catchiest records of its era.

Your humble blogger crossed paths with Mr. Merrill last week at The Brighton Bar, a storied landmark in Long Branch, New Jersey that was hosting six bands, including the punk-jazz combo, Joy on Fire, for whom I vocalize and pen lyrics, as well as the headline act, billed as the Alan Merrill Extravaganza. In fact, Joy on Fire played its set right before Merrill and his bandmates, bassist Amy Madden and drummer Mark Brotter, took the stage. The organizers of the event—David Tanner and Kipp Elbaum—had been touting Merrill’s connection to the song throughout the evening, and the audience (myself included) was eager to hear the tune straightaway.

I’ll resist the urge to parse the Extravaganza’s entire set, which was very enjoyable. Since this review concerns itself with a single song that ended up producing more fame for a musician (Jett) other than its writer (Merrill), I will say that it was a bit loopy to consider Merrill’s relationship to hits first recorded by different musicians, such as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones or the 1958 Larry Williams song, “Slow Down,” a real humdinger, which benefitted (in its day) from the gritty honking of under-celebrated saxophonist Plas Johnson. As expected, the Alan Merrill Extravaganza saved “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” for last. They wanted to play the song. It wasn’t drudgery for them. It immediately became the jewel of their set. 


Joan Jett performing (in a New York Jets Joe Namath shirt) in Norway.


The biggest beneficiary (and enhancer) of this tune, Joan Jett, is bad-ass. We don’t need to demonstrate this claim, it just is. She inhabits “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” with plenty of—Yeow!—jumpy, punky, metallic energy, outstripping the somewhat mellower version recorded by the Arrows. She first encountered the televised Arrows version on the ITV Network in 1976, while she toured England as a member of the all-female band, the Runaways. In time, she would record “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” twice: first with two members of the Sex Pistols and second with her band The Blackhearts. The latter version rose to No. 1 on the pop charts, and arguably, would come to define Jett’s career, even though it’s not her edgiest song.

The lyrics as envisioned by Jett and Merrill can be summarized easily enough. A teenager catches the eye of the singer / speaker as the teenager is “dancing there by the record machine.” This unnamed dancer is “about 17” and we assume that the singer or the intended audience is roughly the same age (or recalls being that age). Ultimately, the song’s narrative involves two threads: a girl meets boy scenario and the chorus, which expands the budding tryst to include the entire genre of rock ‘n’ roll.

In the first case, the singer seems to be intent upon securing the partnership—dancing or otherwise—of the dancing teenager. The song insists that “it wouldn’t be long ‘til (he / she) was with me” as well as “next we’re moving on and (he / she) was with me / Yeah me” before the two would ostensibly be at home so they could “be alone” (together). These words are mere highway, though, to the infectious carnival of the refrain, or the second thread. (The music—hard rock guitar riffs, boom-boom-chick percussion—transports the listener efficiently.) And there we behold Jett & The Blackhearts, raucous and disdainful: “Singin’ I love rock and roll / So put another dime in the jukebox, baby / I love rock and roll / So come on take some time and dance with me!” 


The Arrows: Alan Merrill (left), Jerry Mamberg (center), Paul Varley (right).


There aren’t a ton of versions out there, perhaps owing to the iconic, somewhat perfect nature of the Joan Jett rendition. There’s a Britney Spears rendition that I haven’t heard, and will never hear, unless somebody, physically, compels me to listen. Jett’s version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” levitates as it hurtles toward the exit; many popular songs wallow through a couple minutes of repetition. Alan Merrill’s animated live performance (above) just as much concerns his estimable legacy as a musician and songwriter as it narrates a teenage hookup fantasy. The original Arrows version is a snappy, medium rocker, which deserves a listen. Its video deserves a view; it’s frolicsome in the best ways.
                       
Merrill and his bandmates were friendly. Maybe the bassist, Amy Madden, was coolest of all. I can verify that I was humming the refrain the next afternoon before Joy on Fire kicked off the Unruly Sounds festival in Princeton, N.J. The song can be resisted, but that’s difficult! It packs eagerness, it rewards itself for being tightly coiled; its simplicity invites participation. Even though “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” perpetuates a standard form of teenage rebellion, its great advantage might be the durability of its refrain. Just about anybody can sing the words without maiming them, and anybody can love rock ‘n’ roll, although just what kind of rock ‘n’ roll is truly “love-worthy”—invites a much different debate. We can only complain that a dime doesn’t get you anywhere near a jukebox these days, never mind the fact that a modern “record machine” plays digital files, not a 7-inch 45.


[Update, March 29, 2020: We were incredibly saddened to learn of Alan Merrill’s death from COVID-19. We wish his family and friends our deepest condolences during this difficult time. --B.A.G.]
                   

Sources of Information:

Carl Wiser’s interview with Alan Merrill at Songfacts
Discogs entry for Arrows version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Discogs entry for Joan Jett version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Discogs entry for the Larry Williams song “Slow Down”
Melena Ryzik New York Times article on Joan Jett
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame entry for Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Rolling Stone Magazine’s entry for “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” on its Top 500 songs list
Web site and trailer for Bad Reputation, a documentary about Joan Jett
Wikipedia entry for “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”
YouTube video for “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” as recorded by the Arrows
YouTube video for “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” as recorded by Joan Jett and members of the Sex Pistols