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In 1955, when he was twenty years old, Eddie Floyd co-founded the Detroit-based soul group The Falcons, who would score a major R&B hit four years later with “You’re So Fine.” Joe Stubbs was the lead singer of the group at that time but Floyd would eventually become the lead singer until a guy named Wilson Pickett—who would later record the seminal hits “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and “Mustang Sally”—became the lead singer. The Falcons broke up in ’63, a year removed from Pickett deciding to go solo, and Floyd would eventually go down to Memphis and join the roster at the burgeoning Stax Records label. Floyd was signed as a writer and producer with Stax working primarily with Carla Thomas but in 1966 he began working with Steve Cropper, the lead guitarist of Stax’s house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s and all-around music genius.[1]

Floyd and Cropper’s collaborations resulted in a hit—”634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)”—for former Falcon Wilson Pickett who was now on the Stax roster as well. The two also penned a song called “Knock on Wood” that was originally intended for Otis Redding, but Redding and Stax weren’t thrilled with the song because it sounded like a Pickett knock-off. Atlantic Records, who had first dibs on anything recorded at Stax at this time, however, thought the song would be a hit and they grabbed it. “Knock on Wood” became a hit and the defining song of Eddie Floyd’s catalog.

Floyd would go on to record a handful of Top 40 R&B hits—”I’ve Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)” chief among them—and stay with Stax as a writer until its bankruptcy[2] but nothing really ever compared to “Knock on Wood,” a single that both buttressed Stax Records’ signature sound (horns, heavy drums, Cropper’s textural work with a guitar) as well as connecting to a casual music audience, albeit briefly, in ways that Pickett and Redding were not able to.

That last part is beyond pertinent as Floyd sat nicely in between his former band mate (Pickett) and the burgeoning giant whose crossover success resonated with white audiences in new ways (Redding, whose performance at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was his national coming-out party). Pickett could make you move and dance and was cut from the same entertainer’s cloth as James Brown and Little Richard and Jackie Wilson; high energy guys whose energy seemed to quintuple when performing live. Redding was one of those rare souls that could captivate you regardless of style or genre. If he sang fast, one moved; if he sang a soulful ballad, one melted. In between the two sat Floyd, who had the authoritative voice and the ability to make one dance but who performed at a slower pace—too quick for a soul ballad but slightly slower than much of the R&B of the day.

“Knock on Wood” is emblematic of the Stax sound and emblematic of the depth of talent that flowed through that Memphis studio so many decades ago. It is not merely a one-hit wonder. It is part of the mosaic that makes Stax Records an indelible part of modern American music and it plays a role in explaining why Memphis in the ’60s rivaled Detroit as far as creative output. That Eddie Floyd is indistinguishable from a ghost for some people is frustrating, but names, like years and dates, sometimes float into the aether. They become collectively erased until a different point of reference jogs our memory. Ask someone to explain 1870 in America and most will struggle, but if you say that Grant was President during that year it becomes a little easier to guess what was going on because it’s not too far removed from Lincoln and the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction. Mention Eddie Floyd to someone and you might be met with a shrug but play “Knock on Wood” and they will most likely know this song.

Eddie Floyd deserves a better more universal history; his name doesn’t deserve to be stuck in the aether. In the meantime, this song is a seminal recording in the Stax library which is something that artists from the same era with more recognizable names cannot lay claim to.

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[1] Cropper will never be revered like Page or Hendrix or Vaughan or Clapton amongst casual rock fans, but make no mistake: Steve Cropper is a goddamned national treasure. Just listen to “Time Is Tight.” He won’t wow you like the other Rock Gods; instead, he’ll just wow you with his technical mastery. Sometimes, greatness lies in how easy you make something look/sound/feel. Steve Cropper is the Renoir of guitarists, able to make the ordinary extraordinary upon closer inspection.

[2] The short story is that Stax never fully recovered from Otis Redding’s death.

Falling in love is an act of controlled chaos. It is an initial balancing act of two forces: one that brings with it a fear of letting yourself be vulnerable with your heart and who you give it to, and one that begs for caution to be thrown to the wind and to announce to the world how you are feeling; both involve taking leaps of faith, and the latter almost always defeats the former.

Falling in love is terrifying and exciting, a ball of nerves waiting to be a live wire that is also tucked behind a wall of objectivity and self-defense. A battle between heart and mind. Is it any wonder why so many poets and musicians and writers and artists and directors have struggled to convey and depict what falling in love is like, and why we the audience have myriad feelings about the works and their authors? A good love story will outlive its audience in ways that other genres can never capture.

The language of falling in love and the imagery (and dreams) of it have a universality to it, but try explaining it to someone. Try explaining the moment in which you knew you were first in love to your friends while it is happening to you. Some will be ecstatic for you, most of them will be guarded, and you’ll probably be struggling to convey everything the whole time. These external forces are also universal.

And so it makes sense that the artists oftentimes will swing for the fences in trying to describe love and all of its power because, after all, they are merely providing a mirror for what our desires, dreams, and thoughts are (even the aforementioned guarded friends are simply looking for a burden of proof to be met and then the rest is basically giddiness after that). Excepting the birth of a child, there is nothing better than falling in love—profound, unconditional love with someone. The kind of love that renders the universe moot because no star or man-made thing can match their eyes, smile, laugh, or kiss.

Or maybe it’s how they look when they are walking toward you. Or maybe it’s how they hug you. Or how they look when they are reading. Or hold your hand. Or how the small of their back or their hair feels. Or maybe it’s all of it (it most likely is). The point is everybody has different things that they love about the person they love—or different things that mean love to them if they are not yet in love. In trying to describe love, or falling in love, there is a spectrum of descriptions, desires, and dreams pertaining to it.

Love songs have a spectrum too, with everything ranging from the simple and the clichéd to the emotional and the complex. Some people like A-to-B love songs with traditional love song rhythms (violins or heartbeat type drum beats); some people like complex lyrics with atmospheric music to match. For me, the music has more power over me than the lyrics for the most part. I prefer the music to evoke images in my head rather than the lyrics mapping it out for me but I’ll also never pass up a well-written love song.

Lyrically speaking, there really isn’t a whole lot to “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” by Jackie Wilson. The chorus is larger than the verses, and the lyrics revolve around love and its Chagall-esque power to move its subjects. The lyrics are pretty Oldies sounding: you would be excused if you thought this song came out quite a few years before its actual release year of 1967. It isn’t the lyrics so much as the delivery of them by Wilson that makes this song so special and so evocative of all of love’s power and emotion.

Listen to how he sings “lifting me” and “higher and higher” during the chorus: he sings the first like it’s meant to be in italics—Lift-ing me—with a kind of emphasis that tries to almost suppress his emotion; he almost sounds overwhelmed with the love he has for whomever he’s singing about (or to), the musical totem of the battle between the leap-of-faith and objective forces of falling in love. He sings the second lyric with the abandon of someone who is fully in love and wants to tell the world—carefree, swinging for the fences, the kind of tone that oozes with the authority that the poets hope their audience reads in. He sings “keep on” at an even higher clip, which not only shows the range of someone who was nicknamed “Mr. Excitement” but also completes the circle of his elastic voice with regards to this singular song, this singular ode to love. Wilson is surrounded by music that is simultaneously waiting to burst at the seams and kept in check by pop music constraints. Listen to how on key the background singers are, how high their voices get but are also contained. Listen to how the drums get quicker… but slow down. Listen to how the horns unleash movement… but are still corralled. Listen to how circular the sound of the song is: it wants to deviate into a free-form expression of what love is… but it can’t due to the time restriction that radio, and 45 RPM albums, imposed on the music of that time.

“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” is an exercise in the need to express something within a window of time, which makes it a perfect mirror for falling in love and the movement and energy and power of expressing it all to the one that you need to express it to. When one realizes that they are falling in love they are typically seized by the reality that, the very next time they see them, they have to express everything to them. They have to lay it all on the line and tell that person how special they are and how madly in love with them they are. The proverbial light goes on over your head and that leap of faith needs to be taken. This is what the poems and the novels and the movies and the love songs have taught us, but really they haven’t taught us so much as reflected what human nature is when it comes to love: that it is one of the best feelings in the world, and that you just dive in and all of the overthinking be damned at some point.

This song captures all of it in such a short window of time. Small windows of time are all we have at the end of the day so you have to seize those opportunities and do everything in your power to lay everything on the line, to swing for the fences, to slay all fear and express everything (even your fears) to the one you love. Few are the things that are more powerful than unconditional love, as the great artists have always known and have been willing proxies for us on the matter.

This is one of the twenty greatest songs ever made. I mean just listen to how sings

“I’m so glad I finally found you
Yes that one in a million girl
And now with my lovin’ arms around you
Honey, I can stand up and face the world

And how enunciates certain words and how there is a battle between his voice and the wall of sound behind. They are both professing everything they possibly can, but instead of battling for attention they work in harmony. A perfect totem for love if there ever was one.

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In 1957 a man named Jim Stewart founded a record label out of a garage in Memphis named Satellite Records. The early releases on Satellite were almost exclusively country and rockabilly music; white musically, basically. The following year in 1958 Estelle Axton, Stewart’s sister, mortgaged her home to financially assist with the Satellite label by purchasing a tape recorder that cost roughly $20,000 today adjusted for inflation. A chance encounter with producer Chips Moman by Stewart in 1959 while the label was temporarily relocated to Brunswick helped Satellite land the single “Fool For Love” by The Veltones, the first black artists Satellite worked with after Moman had introduced Stewart to black R&B music. While promoting “Fool For Love” (which was eventually picked up for national distribution) Stewart met Rufus Thomas, a radio DJ, singer, and all-around Memphis institution. Additionally, Moman convinced Stewart to move Satellite back to Memphis, specifically into an old movie theater on McLemore Avenue in South Memphis. In 1960 Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla signed with Satellite and recorded the regional hit “Cause I Love You” which caught the eye of Atlantic Records, which released the single nationally on its Atco subsidiary label. The success of “Cause I Love You” (about 40,000 singles sold in the Memphis area alone) brought about a contract with Atlantic in which they had first choice on releasing any singles from the Satellite studio. The end result was that Stewart and his sister Axton made two important, culture-defining decisions: 1) they started focusing almost exclusively on the R&B and soul music of the south, and 2) they changed the label’s name to Stax (a combination of the first two letters of the business partners’ last names STewart and AXton).

The cultural significance and musical impact of Stax Records cannot be overstated: the music made in the old movie theater on McLemore Avenue rivaled Motown, planted the seeds of modern soul and funk music, and played a role in helping the rest of the country accept racial diversity.

The last point extends beyond the mere binary reality that white audiences were buying black music in larger-than-expected quantities (Sun Records had figured this out years earlier, and the niche popularity of race records with whites before that) and the reality that white businessmen could successfully tap into black music and turn it in to a cultural force for both (Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and Sun’s Sam Phillips discovered this earlier too). What Stax did was bigger: they integrated white and black in a southern city and region. Stax’s first house band was The Mar-Keys, an integrated group with white and black musicians.

The Mar-Keys originally started out as The Royal Spades and included Estelle’s son, Charles. A testament to Estelle’s deft on-the-job music sense was that she convinced them to change their name and reconfigure their lineup—only then did they actually land a contract with the label that she helped run. The original Mar-Keys lineup consisted of Charles Axton, Steve Cropper, Donald Dunn, Terry Johnson, Wayne Jackson, Don Nix, and Jerry Lee Smith. Cropper and Dunn would eventually be a part of Stax’s next house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, whose place in the canon of American music will never be in doubt. Future members of The Mar-Keys would later include a young Isaac Hayes, and the other musicians that would round out what would become Booker T. & the M.G.’s: the namesake Booker T. Jones, and Al Jackson, Jr.

The Mar-Keys played on some of the earliest influential singles in Stax history but their legacy will forever be tied to their instrumental hit “Last Night” which hit #2 on the R&B charts and #3 on the pop charts in 1961.

“Last Night” is one of the greatest and most influential instrumental songs of the rock era, alongside “Green Onions” by the aforementioned Booker T. & the M.G.’s and “Raunchy” by Bill Justis. It is a landmark single, one that mixes the kind of blues, soul, and pop that defined both Stax in particular and Memphis in the late ’50s and early ’60s in general. It is also a totem of finely crafted music in general; its timelessness was cemented immediately after it was pressed to vinyl.

Great art should be evocative in myriad ways—you should be able to think of or notice new things about it every time you are around it. Like the late, great Roger Ebert once said of cinema, “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.” “Last Night” lends itself to this on a couple levels, as a piece of music for film soundtracks and for the soundtrack to life. As for the former, it is a song that could be applied to any or all of the following movie scenes:

– A comedy involving a bank or jewel heist with quirky and/or older characters
– Dancing, particularly in front of a jukebox
– A slow-motion shot of people walking and putting on sunglasses
– Teenagers sneaking out of a house during a sleepover
– A Tarantino-esque use of an energetic, uplifting type song set against something dark (murder, drug use, torture, etc.)
– An absurd scene involving people walking up buildings a la the Batman series that Adam West starred in
– People going undercover dressed in ill-fitting clothes, or clothes from a different era, or both
– Something involving a Mod aesthetic and/or paisley and/or rotating gel lights a la Andy Warhol’s Factory in the ’60s
– A song for Ferris Bueller to dance to on a float, had he chosen to just dance instead of sing and dance

As for the soundtrack of life, “Last Night” has the kind of buoyant rhythm that can connect with anyone of any age. My son will be 3 later this year and he almost always asks me to play the song again after the first time. There is something about the Na-Na! chorus of horns that can just put one in a good mood. It is a happy, catchy song that always sounds new to me again if I haven’t listened to it in a little while.

In addition to its built-in catchiness and buoyancy, and movement that could be applied to myriad cinema scenes, this song is just plain cool. Listen to the organ throughout this song: I could live to be 1,000 years old and I’ll never come up with anything as cool as that. And neither will you. “Last Night” provided the first glimpse of how talent-heavy Memphis was, both in who grew up there and who it would later draw in. The Mar-Keys were the house band and they scored a Top 5 single. That just doesn’t happen very often, the sessions musicians temporarily dwarfing the main acts. Booker T. & the M.G.’s would ultimately come to define Stax Records but The Mar-Keys were the first house band and the first to put the rest of the country on notice as to what was happening at the label inside of a movie theater in Memphis. Stax became officially special once Jerry Wexler caught wind of them, but the label’s iconography begins with this song.

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Growing up, I listened to my fair share of classic rock and oldies stations and I don’t remember ever hearing “Son of a Preacher Man” by Dusty Springfield being played, which is retroactively weird because it was a Top 20 hit in the US and UK when it was released, and it was a song that was originally offered to Aretha Franklin (who later covered it a year after Springfield’s recording). Also, it is one of the best songs of the ’60s.

Twenty years ago the song found its rightful home on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, overseen by Quentin Tarantino, a man whose essence, sometimes to a fault, is defined by homages to overlooked classics (both music and cinematic themes alike). A new generation of music fans was introduced to Dusty’s indelible track from her masterpiece Dusty in Memphis. The US release of Dusty in Memphis (on the Atlantic label) says “Dusty Springfield’s Recording With The Memphis Sound” in the lower left-hand corner of the album. The “Memphis sound” is basically code for the “Stax Records sound,” which in turn means it is code for a particular kind of southern sound.

The Stax Records sound is like a perfect communion of blues, soul, and pop. (Atlantic, under Jerry Wexler’s creative direction, came really close especially with Aretha on the roster.) The Stax sound incorporated horns, organs, and loud drum beats in a way that could be silky or bombastic but always accessible (think “Baby” by Carla Thomas as the silky example and “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd as the bombastic). Between 1957 and 1967 Stax (which was originally founded as Satellite until the name change in ’61), along with Sun Records, made Memphis a musical juggernaut alongside Chicago and Detroit. Factor in Memphis’s relative acceptance of outsiders (and black artists)[1] compared to other southern cities and regions, and it became a powerful draw for artists of all blues and soul stripes.

Dusty Springfield, born Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, arrived in Memphis in 1968 flanked by Jerry Wexler, backup singers the Sweet Inspirations, and The Memphis Cats as the session band—the Cats had previously worked with, among others, Elvis and Wilson Pickett. The songs that were recorded for the album were written by Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach, Eddie Hinton, and others; no original songs were going on to Dusty in Memphis. No doubt it was quite daunting for a North Londoner to cross the pond and fly right in to Memphis with the following tall order in front of her: recording an R&B-only album for the first time in the thick of so much talent, while Aretha Franklin’s producer is at the controls.

Springfield nailed it all, of course. If it weren’t for “Son of a Preacher Man” the crown jewel of the album would probably be her performance of the Randy Newman-penned “I Don’t Want to Hear About It Anymore,” wherein she flawlessly captures the kind of short story loneliness and awkwardness that Newman is a master of, set to flowing music that is both beautiful and sad. It takes immeasurable skill to pull off singing lyrics such as

“I don’t want to hear it anymore
I don’t want to hear it anymore
‘Cause the talk just never ends and the heartache soon begins
The talk is so loud and the walls are much too thin”

With the loneliness that Newman can conjure, but “Son of a Preacher Man” was recorded and it is the undisputed crown jewel on the album.

“Son of a Preacher Man” is an example of how music can sometimes transcend the lyrics. The music on this track is so silky, so cool, so sexy that when Dusty’s sultry vocals are introduced it almost doesn’t matter what she’s singing about. She could be singing in Portuguese and it would take nothing from the song. It begins with an organ and a drum beat tailor-made for driving at night with the windows rolled down. A rhythm guitar here, some horns there and you have a song that was born to claim a spot in the soundtrack of your life. And make no mistake that that is what music, the classics especially, does to our life: it adds itself to our own internal soundtrack. Some songs are special because they are directly tethered to personal moments, other evoke feelings of how we want to perceive ourselves. “Son of a Preacher Man,” to me, is a song that deserves to be played while driving a vintage convertible at night. It is the personification of the word “cool” like a blue and white ’63 AC Cobra or a red ’63 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso. Whether it’s at the beginning of the song or the crescendo, this song can evoke whatever images that come to your mind as it pertains to the word “cool.” Which is why it made perfect sense for someone like Tarantino to use it in a movie that craves an intangible sense of cool amongst a screenplay that relies on fractured timelines: “Son of a Preacher Man” is a throwback to another era that still sounds amazingly fresh, a great totem for a film in which many characters and scenes were thrust out of their original decade and plopped into present day.

Dusty Springfield had already recorded a string of top hits across the pond—”I Only Want to Be With You,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’” “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” and “You Don’t Have to Say That You Love Me”—before she arrived in Memphis, and while her career didn’t generate many hit singles post Dusty in Memphis that album is a high watermark of ’60s music and “Son of a Preacher Man” is one of the best soul songs, blue-eyed or otherwise, ever produced.

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[1] See: Stax’s house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Sam Gooden and brothers Richard and Arthur Brooks formed the group The Roosters in 1957 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The following year they would move to Chicago, add Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield to the group, and become Jerry Butler & the Impressions. Butler would leave the group in ’58 after the smash success of “For Your Precious Love” (a #11 pop single) and the R&B hit “Come Back My Love” and would embark on a successful solo career; the Brooks brothers followed him out too at this time. Curtis Mayfield toured with Butler for a little bit but eventually came back with Sam Gooden and new member Fred Cash to form The Impressions, the core lineup for the group’s Zeitgeist run.

The Impressions started out as a mostly typical-sounding doo-wop/soul/gospel brand of R&B—though their group vocal trade-offs and Mayfield’s Latin-inspired guitar playing were new to the genre, their early singles were typical in the sense that they revolved around love songs and relationships. By 1964, The Impressions were musically at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. “It’s All Right” became “Keep on Pushing.”

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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 celebrated its 50th birthday this past July 2nd, and in some instances it is soul-crushing to realize that nakedly systemic racism still exists in America. 50 years—two generations!—later and you can see that the game of life is stacked against you if you are black in this country. And heaven help you if you are poor too.

The Civil Rights Act provided immeasurable assistance to minorities and helped advance an undeniably meaningful discourse in this country as it pertains to race and gender. In the truest sense of the term, the Act is a landmark bill and watershed moment in American history. It acts as a dual force, though, in the sense that for every progressive step forward it has made, it also is a touchstone for an already racist segment of this country to double down on fear and new tactics to ensure that systemic racism is still a part of this country. It created what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism.”[1] It helped create obscene incarceration rates and an imbalanced war on drugs (read: punishment of drug use vis-a-vis young black males and white males of any age). It allowed a new generation of racist dog whistle to be mass-produced—listen to any upper case-C Conservative talk show for a week and it is hiding in plain sight. It is to the point that, as of this writing, a whole swath of white people in America believe that racism doesn’t exist, and if it does your argument is invalidated simply because Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson exist. Four hundred years of institutional racism pales in comparison to two black men who intermittently yell on the television.

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri by police officers. He was shot multiple times and killed while no firearm was on his person. There are numerous red flags with this incident that buttress the argument that systemic racism exists in this country—one of many being that white males in this country are still taken alive even when they brandish a gun in front of authorities (see: the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting). More intelligent and eloquent people than I have written about the details about this incident, and I recommend that you read all of them. (This by Greg Howard and this by Ezekiel Kweku are good starters.) What I would like to focus on with the Michael Brown incident is that his body was left on the street for hours after he was killed. His dead body was left on the street to bake in the August heat for more than three hours. His dead body was left on the street like a dead stray dog or a dead skunk. Basic humanity escaped multiple officers and municipal employees to the tune of leaving a fucking dead body to bake on the street.

By and large America, certainly majorities of the people that live in states that skew Conservative, prides itself on being a just and God-fearing nation. Every religion treats death, and a dead body specifically, with the same outlook: you are to never desecrate it. Whatever your views on your enemy was before they died go out the window when it comes to their actual burial. You can still dislike the person but you are never supposed to spit on their grave or do disrespectful things to their body. The body is sacrosanct, regardless of what its owner said or did before death.

Michael Brown’s dead body was desecrated when it lay there on the street for hours on August 9th.

Desecrated in a way that should transcend any form of elegant racism that exists in this country, but spoiler alert: it didn’t mean shit for a sizable swath of people. Video was released of Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store, as if that means a goddamn thing and could reinforce a binary thought that some people deserve to be shot to death on the street. Pictures were released of Brown looking “threatening” or “thuggish,” as if a burden of proof was met as to why he had to meet the fate that he did. It was all so… elegant how his death was seen as an end to a justifiable means.

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I bring up things like Michael Brown’s death and systemic racism to illustrate how soul-crushing life can be in America, or anywhere really. No country is immune to horrible acts committed upon innocent people. But I bring this up in the same vein that Coates does: if we don’t confront the horrible things, we will never move forward. Nature abhors a vacuum—we can’t live in denial about how things work, and we definitely cannot accept racist dogma. On the flip side, though, there are always things like silver linings and hope (in the truest sense of the word and not a gimmick that Obama used and didn’t back up).

If you let yourself live in the vacuum that reinforces that everything is awful you will never live a full life. You will set yourself up for the embrace of a propaganda that will reduce you to a frenetic caricature; you will build your own intellectual prison but still whistle as if you’re a bird outside of a cage. You will see the optimistic and the sentimental as something to avoid. This is not how to live life; this is not rational.

And so while one can hear a song like “We’re A Winner” and think that its message is no longer pertinent now, I believe the exact opposite: this is a song that will never lose relevance, not in a society with any ounce of humanity in it. Sure, it might be escapism to get lost in this song amongst the reality of the day, I’ll give you that, but it is profoundly important escapism if you are inclined to reduce life to that basic (dare I say cynical) level.

Amongst the changing societal tide that was leading up to and happening in 1967 when “We’re A Winner” was recorded, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden, and Fred Cash had surveyed the cultural landscape and embraced their black pride and equal rights and community movement and became a meaningful voice in the Civil Rights movement. They were not afraid of their voice and did not back down from the wrong side of history. They didn’t let certain vacuums dissuade them from their message and their beliefs. The end result was this song and lyrics such as “We’re a winner and never let anybody say/Boy, you can’t make it ’cause a feeble mind is in your way/No more tears do we cry/And we have finally dried our eyes” and “I don’t mind leavin’ here/To show the world we have no fear/’Cause we’re a winner/And everybody knows it too/We’ll just keep on pushin’/Like your leaders tell you to.”

“We’re A Winner” begins with people talking for a few seconds and then a horn sets off the melody—a melody that is both flowing and easygoing, and a prototype for the funk music of the ’70s that Curtis Mayfield would help pioneer as a solo artist. The drums sound as if they are hit harder than normal and Mayfield’s minimalist guitar inspires unexpected movement. The organ rounds out the lushness of the track. Musically, everything here is gorgeous and uplifting and befitting of an anthem that deals with pride and overcoming obstacles.

The obstacles will always be here in America for black people. There are cottage industries designed almost exclusively to make money in the obstacle-making business (for-profit prisons). They have incentives to trade in such things. However, our society laid waste to falsehoods like black people couldn’t go to school with white people, or couldn’t go to college in general. Life is an ever-moving arrow forward and while many things are better today than they were yesterday, there is a lot of work that needs to be done in our society to rid ourselves of the racism that has defined our country since its birth. But that work cannot exist in a vacuum; we cannot work with blinders on and heads down 100% of the time. We have to come up for air. Clear our minds and smell the roses and all that. “We’re A Winner” is a reminder of how art can inspire hope—and simply inspire. In the face of darkness you have to look for or make your own light. The Impressions were one of the first groups to embrace singing about social commentary during a tumultuous societal time. Our society is better because they recorded the music that they did.

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[1] Speaking of Coates, please read his immensely important essay “The Case for Reparations” as a companion piece.

A few months ago I wrote this in the post about Marvin Gaye:

“I mean, if you’re an artist that wants to make an album that matters and you’ve listened to What’s Going On, which solo artist are you placing above Marvin Gaye?”

I purposely added the “and you’ve listened to What’s Going On” part and put it in the form of a question because, while Gaye is enormously (and rightfully) influential because of that album, there is one solo artist I would put above Marvin Gaye. It’s Curtis Mayfield.

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Musically, Curtis Mayfield had a large hand in sculpting and defining funk music as we know it, in addition to incorporating Latin-style guitar playing into soul music. Lyrically, and this is where his legacy mostly resides, his writing aligned with his unabashed fight for, and support of, black pride and equal rights that had rarely been seen or heard on a national level. Gaye produced a game-changing concept album; Mayfield was a game-changer.

Curtis Mayfield was born in Chicago in 1942, spending his formative years growing up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects after his father left the family. He learned and embraced music from a young age (sang at church, excelled at music in school, etc.) and one of his school friends was Jerry Butler, who would later form The Impressions, the band that Mayfield would eventually front (after Butler left) and make his name with. Mayfield’s time with The Impressions produced some of the most important, thoughtful, and socially aware music of the Civil Rights era; to say that Mayfield and The Impressions helped produce the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement is not an exaggeration. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom you may have heard of before, adopted “Keep On Pushing” as an anthem of the movement. Their music was that culturally significant 50 years ago.

I’m going to skip over many of the details of Impressions’ era Mayfield because the group will be getting its own post here on the site very soon, but suffice it to say Mayfield during this time came into his own as a songwriter and guitarist and it was only a matter of time before his falsetto voice went solo. Mayfield left The Impressions in 1970, shortly after “Choice of Color” and “Check Out Your Mind” were released, #1 and #3 R&B hits, respectively.

Mayfield’s debut album Curtis was released in the last half of 1970 and it announces itself to the world very boldly with the opening track “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” and its fuzzy bass and dialog about the Book of Revelation and Mayfield opening with the echoing “Sisters, Niggers, Whiteys, Jews, Crackers!” About a minute and ten seconds into the song is a melody that will basically be the staple of the funk genre in the ’70s: a wah-wah guitar set to heavy bass lines accented by horns and violins. This song and the album both charted on the pop charts—something that seems mildly shocking in retrospect. (Could you imagine the Conservative think pieces being written if this came out today?) Mayfield’s second album was Roots, a critically acclaimed gem that has the soul and earthiness befitting of an album with that title. But it was Mayfield’s third album that took him to new heights.

In other universes the movie Super Fly and its accompanying soundtrack would simply be a forgotten relic of an odd genre. By its very word, “blaxploitation” is something rooted in the ephemeral and/or the ironic. It’s hard to take something seriously that winks at you for being exploitative. Mayfield could have very easily mailed in the soundtrack to this movie; instead, he humanized it (as Robert Christgau once succinctly put it, “Message: both candor and rhythm are essential to our survival”) and along the way created one of the few soundtracks to ever outsell the movie it accompanied. Mayfield was at the height of his powers with this soundtrack, for after its release he fell into inconsistent disarray—so much so that even his anthology ends in 1977 despite the fact that he made music into the ’90s. That an artist can not keep up a run of great work over a prolonged stretch of time is not new—this applies to literally every artist who did not die young—but Mayfield’s post Super Fly work probably suffered from two equally powerful forces: 1) the aforementioned problem of not being able to replicate genius over a stretch of time, and 2) not being able to connect with an audience over a stretch of time about socially heavy issues.

Regarding the latter, you see it and hear it everyday now (just as you would if you lived in previous decades/centuries/millenia or just as you would if you could travel to the future): there is only a finite amount of discussion about race that resides in most people at any given time. The individual quest for enlightenment and social justice is oftentimes derailed by a child’s homework or a promotion at work or a broken garage door opener, or some such obstacle that appears trivial to others. Mayfield, in his prime, was able to make one care about the world, its problems, and its possible solutions all wrapped up in hopeful outlooks and inspired, energetic music.

“Superfly,” the final song on the soundtrack, best illustrates how Mayfield navigated this territory in his solo career: the music, for the most part, overshadows the lyrics. How could it not to some degree? The first twenty five seconds of the song is one of the most indelible funk intros of all time—a hodge-podge of percussion beats (those cymbals at the nine second mark!), a deep skipping bass line, a brief whirring organ coming to life, and a horn section that’d make Memphis proud—and the rest of the song is nothing short of perfection. The lyrics are definitely noticeable (the chorus is indelible too) but I think the song’s center hinges on:

“The aim of his role
Was to move a lot of blow
Ask him his dream
What does it mean? He wouldn’t know
Can’t be like the rest
Is the most he’ll confess
But the time’s running out
And there’s no happiness”

Specifically “Ask him his dream/What does it mean? He wouldn’t know.” There’s a lot of humanity in those lyrics, an awareness that selling drugs and the culture that creates its jobs in the inner city is part of a prion disease rather than an either/or proposition to kids that want to deal. Selling drugs and getting involved in violence in the inner city is a serious problem, but so too is children not having any meaningful dreams. The latter feeds the former, regardless of race.

“Ask him his dream/What does it mean?”—judgment is thrown aside in favor of a desire to dig deeper into root problems. What does it mean? and not “Who’s to blame?” or “Should we cut social programs?” One can easily picture community or religious leaders or therapists asking this question. It’s a simple and human question; the polar opposite of what usually gets talked about when things like Ferguson, MO or the murder rate in Chicago are talked about in national media outlets.

In a perfect world Curtis Mayfield would be more of a household name. If he had been on the Motown label he’d probably be seen as someone on par with Smokey Robinson (like Robinson, Mayfield wrote and produced a lot of songs for other artists). His name recognition would be off the charts and the mourning of his death fifteen years ago would have been much louder. But there’s no sense in harping on that particular hypothetical, not when we have a catalog of thoughtful, socially conscious music produced by a generational talent. Curtis Mayfield’s solo work from the early ’70s will always be relevant to American culture going forward. That is how important he is. The man was a game-changer.

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If you are someone who dislikes/loathes/hates the early ’90s, or if you hold one-hit wonders with some amount of contempt, then Lisa Loeb is a pretty easy target. Her lone #1 single “Stay (I Missed You)” has plenty of things to offer if you have particular irrational hatreds built up inside of you.

First, there’s that guitar riff at the beginning. That little wrist flick of a soft riff on an acoustic guitar that sounds like a thousand coffee shop performers’ go-to move and doesn’t it kind of sound like it borrows from R.E.M.’s “Find the River,” which is just obscure enough not to be recognized, anyway?

Second, there’s her voice. That kind of guileless voice that can sound like nails on a chalkboard to someone who skews a little more cynical.

Third, there’s her look (and the look of her video). Misguided people whose formidable years took place during the early ’90s will tell you that the Cobain/Vedder/alternative look defines the fashion aesthetic of the first half of that decade, and they’d be more wrong than right. They’d be right in the sense that it happened and was popular, but they’d be wrong in the sense that it had no wide scope, no far-reaching meaningful influence into other decades. It provides a very specific snapshot of the decade, not unlike Reebok Pumps. Loeb, with her black baby doll dress, black leggings, and leopard pattern glasses is far more indicative of not only the ’90s but of the last twenty years. Lisa Loeb in 1993 would be immediately hired by Warby Parker today. As for the music video, it was directed by Ethan Hawke and it finds Loeb inside one of the most comically overused tropes of the ’90s: a sprawling, spacious NYC apartment that an average person somehow lives in. This video may very well have inspired the show Friends.

Finally, there’s the movie from which this song originated from. Reality Bites was the directorial debut of Ben Stiller, which he also starred in alongside Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. Loeb was friends with Hawke who in turn submitted “Stay” to Stiller for the film’s soundtrack. Released about 2 years after Cameron Crowe’s Singles, Reality Bites is viewed by some as the defining Generation X movie of the ’90s. This view is incorrect and you should never trust anyone who places the former above the latter. While Reality Bites has a few genuinely great things to offer (its critique of MTV and its aesthetic was spot on; the realization that “All I Want Is You” by U2 is, in fact, a perfect song to use in a movie), it ultimately deals with people who are unlikable, and this song became the big hit from the movie’s soundtrack so it’s not implausible for people to make a bad connection between the song and movie if they (rightfully) didn’t like the latter.

Any or all four of the things above could be used as reasons for not liking this song, but just as we oftentimes eat with our eyes we listen to music with our eyes too: image will always play a part in how we consume music. Even if you hold non-image as a virtue, you’re still attracted to image; the lack of one doesn’t absolve you from its marketing. Image, for better or worse, can make a song sound more satisfying. Image, for better or worse, can advance a back story or a narrative about a band’s rise to fame, its sophomore album effort, its unyielding desire to stay in the indie sphere, or its comeback story. So I get how the image of the artist(s) can affect a song.[1] Image becomes a microcosm of eras, decades, and stretches of time inside of decades.

Lisa Loeb’s image is both a relic of twenty years ago and something commonplace today in a culture that values fashion nostalgia. As a song “Stay (I Missed You)” is both a great example of an adult contemporary hit single in general and specifically a totem of the mainstream diversity of the radio of the early ’90s, as this song bloomed out of an era in which nearly everyone, myself included, just assumed that bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails were going to unequivocally rule the entire decade.

That little wrist flick guitar riff that starts the song? It’s pretty great and perfect for a song about a relationship on thin ice set to mellow, folk-y music. Sure, it might remind you of previous songs or singers (which songs, by anyone, don’t do that?) but it’s kind of perfect, whether you’re talking about a standalone song, a #1 hit, or a part of a soundtrack (even if it’s from a movie that’s kind of maddening).

Her voice? I’m a sucker for guileless sometimes. Country mouse meets city mouse and all that.

About a month ago I posted on my Facebook page that Lisa Loeb was going to be the second post of the month here and it was met with a resounding shoulder-shrug. “Why are you including her on this site?” was the overall consensus. Call me crazy but I think this song is great. I love the feel of it; it’s a light song about a subject matter I’m familiar with and I’ve met no less than fifty woman who look and/or sound like Loeb. Sometimes, it’s just as simple as that—image or no. But if you need a historical reason to select this song for this site, here you go: “Stay (I Missed You)” is the first song to ever go #1 by an artist that didn’t have a recording contract when it was released.

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[1] That Green Day look like jerk-offs fuels more of my dislike of them, I’m not gonna lie.

As a rule, I try to never get caught up in the narratives or biographies that surround an entertainer (and by entertainer I mean an actor, musician, or athlete). Obviously, there are some instances where someone’s life story is fascinating or quirky or heartbreaking, or some combination of all three, and it’s hard not to get sucked in to them from time to time (see: Olympics, The). I’m not a robot or anything—I root for an underdog as much as the next person.[1]

The biggest fallacy of the narrative business, specifically with positive narratives, is that it oftentimes conflates ethics and/or morality with skill and talent. To be sure, work ethic is a good indicator of performance but how many times have you worked with someone with sub-par work ethic but still did their job well when it mattered, or someone who had great work ethic but was still fundamentally bad at their job? These are normal, human, everyday things. But we’re dissuaded from applying them to entertainers because the narrative business regularly overlaps with the echo chamber business, and the two, when combined, creates an abundance of nauseating ideas that mostly runs counter to how things actually work in real life. Believing that a musician, athlete, or actor is great because he or she works harder than everyone else is lazy thinking and overly simplistic. The world is filled with people who work hard and who are not great at their jobs, and people who don’t work very hard at all but are still extremely talented and successful; to believe otherwise is to be willfully ignorant of how life works. Some of the most immoral and unethical people have an abundance of natural talent while some of the nicest people in the world can’t keep a job for two years. Things like “grittiness” typically only become tangible with deadline writers and hagiographers.

Which brings me to Bill Withers.

I know very little about his personal life. Oh sure I could do the cursory online lookup thing. Here. He was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia on Independence Day in 1938. He is the youngest of six children. Something else: he served in the Navy for 9 years before beginning his music career. I can delve into the encyclopedia entry of his life with no problem. But what I mean here is that I don’t know any anecdotes about him or his music. I don’t think I’ve ever read a profile of him or an interview with him, or seen one either. I could search for it all but I kind of don’t want to.

I don’t want to because Bill Withers might be the only musician that I purely (and probably selfishly) want to enjoy only through his music. The thing is is that with him in particular I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of why he is great or what made him great because the simple reality is that he is a great musician who made great songs. This is what frustrates me about narrative when it comes to greatness—you can spend hours trying to figure out why someone is great, but sometimes the simple answer is that they are just great. Bill Withers, while frustratingly overlooked at times, is simply fucking great.

Withers in the ’70s recorded the following hits: “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Use Me,” and “Grandma’s Hands,” a murderer’s row of folk soul and R&B anthems. “Lean on Me” is one of only nine songs in the history of the US charts to go to #1 by two different artists. “Just the Two of Us” would be the go-to sex song reference if Barry White and “Let’s Get It On” didn’t exist. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is barely two minutes long and it has soul and feeling for days.

Oh, and he also recorded “Lovely Day,” which is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

“Lovely Day” uses a smooth funk drum beat and bass, guitars, violins, horns, and a celesta to perfection. Withers’ vocals always registered as being a little heartier and earthier than his contemporaries who cast a shadow on him but this track gives him the canvas with which to unleash some impressive sustained vocals (he stretches out “day” at one point to about twenty seconds), and his all-around presence on the track, like that on his other hits, is indescribably warm and inviting. It’s probably corny as hell but his voice is befitting of the smiling guy in the picture above. Bill Withers just seems like a genuinely happy guy, and this is the kind of song that will be able to put you in a good mood every time you hear it.

I need to believe that Bill Withers is a genuinely happy guy because I can’t imagine a world in which a person who wrote the lyrics “Then I look at you/And the world’s alright with me” is an unhappy person. I can be a cynical person about a lot of things but this I need to believe in. Those lyrics (and its accompanying music) are soul-hugging. This song—and the aforementioned hits—are the work of a man who, in his prime, had talent that could rival anyone.

Narratives are based in reality, which should never be confused with actual reality. Actual reality can be muddy and disorienting. A narrative might suggest that Bill Withers was great because he wasn’t a groomed performer. That because he got a late start on his career and held the music industry at an arm’s length initially—he wouldn’t quit his day job after “Ain’t No Sunshine” was released for fear that the music industry couldn’t provide the stability he needed—this somehow explains why he is great. Bill Withers is great because he was immensely talented and he had brilliant songs swimming around in his head and he surrounded himself with great musicians. Sometimes it really is that simple, and we are all better for its simplicity.

The ’70s are defined in part by an array of funk and smooth soul anthems. “Lovely Day” is one of the best songs from that decade, standing out amongst a crowded house of classics that have never been replicated since.

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[1] For obvious reasons sports plays into this underdog idea the most. It’s weird, though, for all of the teams and players that I’ve rooted for over the years I don’t think I’ve ever felt more deflated then when Tom Watson didn’t win the 2009 British Open. (Okay, that’s a lie. The 2003 Cubs made me feel an existential pain that I don’t think can ever be duplicated, but they exist on an entirely different level.) If Watson, a 59-year-old legend who suddenly started channeling the powers he had the year I was born, had won that tournament it probably would’ve been the greatest live sports event I would’ve ever witnessed this side of Ron Santo losing his shit on the radio as the Cubs won the World Series at Wrigley Field.

Anyone who knows me personally or has been following this site for a while knows that I am a big fan of Sun Records and Chess Records; the former’s contributions to rock, country, and rockabilly and the latter’s contributions to the blues were sweeping and culturally significant in profound ways.

Chess Records holds an enormous spot in my heart because of its roots in Chicago, a city I’ve lived near almost every day of my entire life. People outside of Chicago have defined the city with Al Capone, Michael Jordan, Ferris Bueller, and machine politics over the years and, recently, its staggering murder rate and shootings. But if you really want to know what the essence of Chicago is—the stuff that sits on the opposite end of the corruption and stomach-churning decades of systemic racism—it’s Studs Terkel, and Mike Royko, and Roger Ebert, and two Polish immigrants (Leonard and Phil Chess) who started a record label that forever altered the trajectory of blues music. You bring Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf to people’s attention and you are changing things culturally.

I love Sun Records for almost as many non-music reasons as music-related ones (though my soul melts every time I hear “Dixie Fried” by Carl Perkins). Sun Records brought a theatricality to music that forever changed the game. The Beatles and the Stones couldn’t have existed as they did without that early heathen roster of Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Johnny. Sun also, albeit temporarily, had the power to desegregate Memphis and West Memphis and those surrounding areas. California doesn’t start believing in the “music can change the world” stuff without black folks and white folks listening to the same music and watching the same broadcast performances on local TV in a deeply southern state.

Sun Records was founded by Sam Phillips, who died 11 years ago today. Phillips discovered Elvis and that event alone has defined his legacy (though by his own admission he declared the discovery of Howlin’ Wolf to be the greater achievement). He brought black music to white people in a wide, meaningful way—which was, even if a white face was put on the music more times than not, a pretty unthinkable thing mere years earlier. Phillips also launched the first all-woman radio station, WHER. In 1955. It’s 2014 and I would be shocked if such a station exists anywhere in the US right now as of this writing.

Sam Phillips also recorded “Rocket ’88′” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a song written by a 19-year-old Ike Turner. A song that is the first rock and roll record ever recorded.

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You would be excused for thinking that “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets is the first rock and roll song ever recorded. It’s what I grew up hearing and reading and I imagine many other people around my age heard and read the same thing. “Rock Around the Clock” expanded rock and roll but it is not rock’s source. “Rocket ’88′” is the first rock record because of how it ends; the thirty or so seconds of it breathed life into a genre and a culture that up until that point had no name.

It might be weird to proclaim a song that does not have a traditional guitar solo in it to be the first rock and roll song. It might be weird to proclaim a song that relies heavily on the piano and a horn section to be the first rock and roll song. But then again this isn’t your average song. Right off the bat you have some weirdness with who did the performing: it’s credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, but really Ike Turner wrote it and Brenston was a part of Turner’s Kings of Rhythm (Brenston, not Turner, is credited with writing it, possibly because he is lead vocals on it). More weirdness: “Rocket ’88′” is a straight-up R&B song.

So how is this song the first rock song if it’s an R&B song? Ike Turner himself does a pretty good job of explaining it many years after its release (emphasis not mine):

“[...]but the truth of the matter is, I don’t think that ‘Rocket 88′ is rock ‘n’ roll. I think that ‘Rocket 88′ is R&B, but I think ‘Rocket 88′ is the cause of rock and roll existing.”

And that cause lies mostly in Willie Kizart’s fuzzy distorted guitar, which gets louder and more noticeable as the song goes on. It also lies in the fact that this is a song about a car, cruising, and women, with enough innuendo (“oozin’ and cruisin’” and “long, hot run”) to be a co-author of the sophomoric humor of every guy that’s ever lived. Kizart’s guitar competes with the horn section and Turner’s killer piano for most of the track. It’s always there and present but the gravity of its existence probably doesn’t translate nowadays like it did back then. This song is one of the first ever recorded to have a guitar this fuzzy or distorted. Link Wray was essentially born the day this song hit the airwaves for the first time.

About two minutes and twenty five seconds into the track Kizart’s guitar becomes more pronounced and jabs and stabs itself free from the horn section and becomes the progenitor of rock, culminating in a little ending riff that would later morph itself into The Kinks and “Helter Skelter” and Alex Chilton and the New York Dolls and R.E.M. and basically everything. Willie Kizart’s guitar broke out of an R&B song and became the foundation of rock. This by itself makes it one of the most important and influential songs in all of modern music, but then when you factor in Sam Phillips recording it and Chess Records releasing it and that dovetailing makes it exponentially more special and unbelievable (as if such a thing even seems possible).

“Rocket ’88′” is so central to what rock is because, by definition, rock is the child of country and blues and yet by its first song being born out of an R&B sound it paved the way for rock to be expanded and broken down into myriad sub-genres and categories. One song, performed by a black band, recorded by a son of poor southern rural farmers, and released by two Polish immigrants, set all of that into motion.

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You know, it’s funny how wrong an artist can be about his own work. The one composition of Tchaikovsky’s that he really detested was his ‘Nutcracker Suite,’ which is probably the most popular thing he ever wrote.

—Deems Taylor, Fantasia

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“I wasn’t very happy with it and told my producer that he could release it over my dead body” is what Chrissie Hynde famously thought of “Brass in Pocket,” the song she co-wrote with lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. Hynde didn’t like her vocals on the track: “I was kind of a new singer, and listening to my voice made me kind of cringe.” We are our own worst critics most of the time but it is weird to hear Hynde criticize her voice, the primary thing that made this single a smash in the US and UK; her unique voice, with its punk-ish sassiness, set to a new wave pop sound.

The back story of the original Pretenders lineup is like a ready-made biopic script: equal parts once-in-a-lifetime chance encounters, and the inevitable drugs and pain. Hynde, the only constant in the band’s history, moved to England after high school and wound up writing for New Music Express and working in Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique. A couple of failed bands later she helped form the Pretenders in 1978 with Honeyman-Scott, Martin Chambers and Pete Farndon, all of whom were local Brits. They recorded a cover of Ray Davies’ “Stop Your Sobbing” and within 4 years Hynde and Davies would meet, fell in love, and have a child. Farndon was kicked out of the band due to drug problems in 1982. Two days afterward, Honeyman-Scott was found dead of an overdose. (Farndon would later die of an overdose a couple months after Hynde gave birth to Davies’ child in 1983.)

This is the Behind the Music summary of the band’s early years from a bird’s-eye view. If we drill down further you would find what the essence of the band was: a group that had punk sensibilities but were smart enough to embrace pop in ways that many weren’t. The term “new wave” in the US during the late ’70s and early ’80s started to become synonymous with “synth pop” but the Pretenders were a new wave band along the lines of Talking Heads and Blondie, even if they didn’t rely as heavily on the keyboards as the latter. In the UK, new wave had more of a punk association so that when you combine the two you get quite a range of music on the spectrum. Even the Pretenders’ debut eponymous album dabbles in both pools: Farndon and Hynde dressed more punk and mod, whereas Honeyman-Scott and Chambers have a more standard fare rock/pop look.

In critical circles, the common logic in assessing a band’s catalog or legacy is that their big single will somehow always pale in comparison to their vaunted quote unquote early stuff. I think the “early stuff” POV hit its stride in the ’80s, though I admittedly might be biased in thinking that because I grew up in the ’80s. But the reason I do think the ’80s kind of brought that mentality to a more expanded acceptability is A) the birth and growth of modern college radio stations (the obscure bands had more torch carriers), B) albums were still being churned out more frequently (the emphasis on national touring wasn’t as huge unless you were top tier, for the most part), and C) the growth of entertainment publishing and content, which meant more voices, which inevitably meant more contrarian opinions and ratings. I mean for Christ’s sake Fear and Whiskey by The Mekons is one of the very few albums of the ’80s that Robert Christgau gave an A+ to.[1] Which means to some extent the prevailing logic should be that “Brass in Pocket” shouldn’t be considered the Pretenders’ best song. It’s too easy, too pop.

But here you have a song that, yes, drinks a lot from the pop well, but it does so in subtly different ways. First, there is no guitar solo, or solo of any sort. Like not even a whiff of one. If you haven’t heard this song in a while you would be excused for assuming there was one. Second, the dovetailing of British slang in the lyrics with an American brand of pop music is pulled off really damn well. It’s not too often you hear something like “Got new skank it’s so reet” in a song on FM radio followed by Van Halen. (It’s also not too often you hear the word ditalini used, an Italian word that can be used as slang for fingering.) Third, the small textures in the song: the way Hynde plays the guitar as if she’s kinda smacking it with her thumb and pinky quickly, more like it’s a drum than a guitar; Honeyman-Scott’s short loud guitar riffs that sound like they are going to signal a solo but stand up on their own; Chris Thomas’s keyboard effects that sound like electric xylophones.

Because the Pretenders were critical darlings and their original lineup was destroyed way too soon by drugs, there is a tendency to overvalue tracks like “Stop Your Sobbing” or a deep cut off of one of the first two albums. “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid” and “Talk of the Town” and “I Go to Sleep” are all terrific tracks worthy of a lot of praise. It’s just that “Brass in Pocket” is better.

The producer and the record label knew it before Chrissie did.

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[1] The Internet has exponentially increased the last point. I mean, even though it deals with a movie and not music, just try to read this headline with a straight face.