Jul 072020

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

“I don’t believe in death; there is no death,” Sky Saxon told the Austin Chronicle one week before he unexpectedly passed away. “In a higher understanding, none of us die; we leave our body. We’re going from one room to another room. Once you realize there’s no death, then you’ll live forever.”

On June 25th, 2009, when Sky Saxon traveled from one room to the next, he went arm and arm with Michael Jackson whose death was the day’s news. The King of Pop was celebrated and memorialized everywhere, while the King of Garage Rock died in obscurity.

The legend of Sky “Sunlight” Saxon is shrouded in mystery – his exact year of birth, how many children he has, no one knows. It’s believed that he was born in 1937 in Salt Lake City, UT, and his real name is Richard Elvern Marsh. At around 18 years old, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, but it wasn’t until the mid-60s, when he started the psychedelic proto-punk garage band The Seeds, that he began to gain the notoriety he was seeking. Prior to this he tried his hand at becoming a teen idol, fronting doo-wop groups like Richie Marsh and the Hoodwinks before changing his name to Sky Saxon and making a few more failed attempts on the doo-wop circuit as Sky Saxon and the Soul Rockers, and Sky Saxon and The Electra-Fires.

After Saxon formed The Seeds with guitarist Jan Savage, drummer Rick Andridge and organist Daryl Hooper, the band was signed to the GNP Crescendo label and performed regularly at clubs like Bido Lito’s in LA. Hooper played the bass lines on his keyboard (setting the example for Ray Manzarek of The Doors), freeing up Saxon (who was the bassist and singer of The Seeds) to move around the stage and command the crowd, flailing his arms and preaching his message of love and peace in a tailored suit or wizard-like robe. The songs were pure energy, with heavy swirling organs, fuzzed-out two-chord guitar lines, and vocals sweeter than Mick Jagger’s – but meaner than any Beatle’s – that expressed teenage love, lust, and heartbreak filtered through the eyes of flower children on the Sunset Strip.

The band’s sound is defined by their first three records. The first two, The Seeds and Web of Sound, are garage rock stompers with trippy psychedelic flourishes that produced the top 40 hit “Pushin’ Too Hard.” The third album, Future, is a pure psychedelic LSD induced trip with harps, sitars, tubas, and spoken word. Listeners wanting to dive deeper will find a disappointing blues album, A Spoonful of Seedy Blues, released under the name the “Sky Saxon Blues Band” (with liner notes written by blues legend Muddy Waters), and an amazing fake live album (audience cheers and sounds were added to the recording) Raw & Alive: The Seeds in Concert at Merlin’s Music Box. By the time the live album was released, the band had already fallen apart. Drugs, egos, and GNP Crescendo’s inability to provide sufficient funds to promote The Seeds led to their breakup before they could really, ahem, flower (sorry).

After The Seeds, Sky Saxon joined a religious hippy commune called The Source Family, led by Father Yod (aka YaHoWha), in the Hollywood Hills. Eventually he relocated to Hawaii with the group. Father Yod gave Saxon the names “Sunlight” and “Arlick,” and he went by Sky “Sunlight” Saxon for the rest of his life. He began releasing music again in the late ‘70s, using various names – The Starry Seeds Band, Sky Saxon & Firewall, Sky Sunlight, Sunlight & the New Seeds, Sunstar, etc. – and he reformed “The Seeds” many times, though never with the original band members. While he never quite recaptured the magic he had with the original Seeds, he never wavered too far from his style or message, and managed to make good music until his untimely death in 2009.

Johnny Thunders – Can’t Seem To Make You Mine (The Seeds cover)

The first single released by The Seeds in August of 1965 was “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine.” It barely made a mark in the charts. But two albums and one top 40 hit later (“Pushin’ Too Hard”), GNP Crescendo re-released the single in February of 1967, and the song peaked at #41 in the charts. Here it is covered by Johnny Thunders on the Copy Cats album, released by him and Patti Palladin (one half of the band Snatch) in 1988. Long after the ex-New York Dolls’ guitarist turned Heartbreaker – and regretfully turned Sid Vicious on to heroin – Thunders continued a solo career that thrived on his genius and songwriting chops until his mysterious death in 1991. “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” encapsulates Thunder’s romantic side with a dose of sweetness and sadness, with the pompousness that gave birth to a slew of hair metal bands in the ‘80s like Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue. The guitar reverb, the keys, the changes in lyrics, and the unfiltered sadness in Thunders’ vocals create a perfect rendition of an already perfect song.

The Makers – Pushin’ Too Hard (The Seeds cover)

The Seeds’ second single “You’re Pushin’ Too Hard” was released in November of 1965. But it wasn’t until its re-release in July of 1966 – after the release of their self-titled album, The Seeds, and the shortening of the song’s title to “Pushin’ Too Hard” – that the song hit the top 40 charts in the US, where it remained for eleven weeks. The song was featured on Lenny Kaye’s legendary Nuggets collection, and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “The 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” Here’s a cover by Spokane, Washington’s neo-garage rockers The Makers from 1997’s Shout On!/Hip-Notic compilation. The Makers speed through the song with a rawness that illustrates their early rough around the edges sound, excluding the organ but nailing the fuzzed-out guitar solo. Michael Maker’s vocals are a perfect Sky Saxonesque wailing that comes off as a warning call.

Strawberry Alarm Clock – Mr. Farmer (The Seeds cover)

In January of 1967 The Seeds released the first single from their album Web of Sound. The song was “Mr. Farmer.” It reached #86 in the charts but was banned by multiple radio stations for its marijuana references. The song would go on to be featured on 1987’s More Nuggets: Classics from the Psychedelic Sixties Volume 2. In 2012 a reunited Strawberry Alarm Clock – famed for their #1 psychedelic hit, “Incense and Peppermints” in 1967, and an appearance in Russ Meyer’s 1970 cult classic flick, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – covered the song on their first album since 1969, Wake Up Where You Are. It’s a fun rendition with additional keyboards and vocal harmonies. The video is inundated with green screen effects (in a good way!) and very literal images of the guys on a farm holding rakes and hoes.

Billy Childish and Thee Headcoats – No Escape (The Seeds cover)

One of the B-sides to “Mr. Farmer” (there were two versions released) was “No Escape,” a two-chord proto-punk rocker that sounded very similar to “Pushin’ Too Hard.” The song also appeared on their debut The Seeds and their fake live album Raw & Alive. Here’s a cover by the ever-prolific Wild Billy Childish and his band Thee Headcoats, from their collection of singles Elementary Headcoats. Billy Childish has been making music since 1977 with various bands (The Pop Rivets, Thee Milkshakes, Thee Headcoats, Thee Mighty Caesars, The Buff Medways, The Musicians of the British Empire, etc.) and has released over 100 albums (a true renaissance man, he also paints and writes poetry). His version of “No Escape” is raw and angry, with a wink to garage rock fans that know just how similar the song is to “Pushin’ Too Hard” – he includes the instantly recognizable “Pushin’” guitar solo.

Sky Saxon – My Little Red Book (Love cover)

In 2008, Sky “Sunlight” Saxon released his final recording – an album of covers appropriately titled The King Of Garage Rock. Saxon took on new versions of Seeds originals like “Pushin’ Too Hard,” “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,” and “Mr. Farmer.” He also covered the likes of The Stooges, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Monkees. But the highlight of the album is Saxon’s take of Love’s version of the Bacharach-David classic “My Little Red Book.” It’s a revved-up, punkish version of the song that earned Love a spot on American Bandstand back in 1966. The distorted guitar is menacing, and while Saxon’s vocals are a little high in the mix, they sound closer to the classic Seeds sound than he gets on any of the other tracks on the album.

Jul 062020

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Ride Wit Me covers

Hot shit! Nelly’s debut album, Country Grammar, turned twenty at the end of June. The album brought Nelly into the spotlight and made the public aware of the hip-hop scene in St. Louis (check out that famous arch on the album cover). Other St. Louis rappers followed, such as Akon (“Smack That”), Chingy (“Right Thurr”), Huey (“Pop, Lock & Drop It” ), and J-Kwon (“Tipsy”).

The album’s third single, “Ride Wit Me,” had the highest US charting of all the songs on the album, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100. The song features Nelly’s friend, City Spud, who also produced four songs on the album. City Spud ended up going to jail thanks to an unfortunate choice of person to ride with. Under the circumstances (and mandatory minimum sentencing laws), City Spud was in jail during the ascent of “Ride Wit Me.”

Although we probably won’t be riding with anyone outside our immediate household any time soon, we can dream while listening to these new spins on a 2000 classic (although, sadly, City Spud’s verse is missing from them all). Go ahead and scream “MUST BE THE MONEY” into the void. And for all of you wanting to celebrate another one of Nelly’s masterpieces, “Hot in Herre,” you’ll have to wait two more years for Nellyville to turn twenty. (By the way, Nelly’s iconic bandage on the face on this album’s cover is a reference to his friend, City Spud.)

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Jul 062020
last of us take on me

There are few songs more quintessentially ‘80s than A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” From the iconic synth-driven keyboard riff to the then-groundbreaking animated video, everything about it is reminiscent of that decade. In the years since it was an MTV staple, it has been covered by ska bands, punk bands, bluegrass outfits, folkies and even the likes of Weezer and Metallica. The song rejoined the animated world when it was included in the recent release of the video game The Last of Us Part II, the sequel to one of the most beloved games of the 2010s about a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by disease and zombies. Continue reading »

Jul 032020

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Leonard Cohen was known for being something of a perfectionist. “Hallelujah,” for example, was apparently whittled down from around 80 verses, while “Anthem” was the product of ten years’ arduous rewriting. With this in mind, it’s safe to say that Cohen took the same considered approach on the rare occasion that he covered a song. Not the type of person to hastily record a cover to fill up space on an album, each one of Cohen’s covers appear to have been chosen and performed with a great deal of care.
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Jul 022020

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Van Morrison

Some songs have the capacity to weave a legacy greater than simply a sum of their constituent parts. “Into the Mystic” is one such song. It isn’t necessarily the best song Van Morrison has ever constructed, but somehow it strikes chords heavier than it first seems to hit. Prefacing and pre-empting Morrison’s classic mid period of dreamy treatises on humanity and higher powers, all spiritual quests and transcendentalism, “Into the Mystic” actually appears on 1970’s Moondance, that almost most commercial of his works, the follow-up to the way more cerebral Astral Weeks. But for all the FM-friendliness of many of the songs, go read the lyrics, and Van is as philosophical as he ever has been. “Into the Mystic” proves to be the epitome, a yearning hymn to the seeking of an understanding of the cosmos, within and without the body and world.

The first draft was entitled “Into the Misty”; we can be grateful he took a pen through that, the meaning so less, well, cosmic in that phrase, and so more earthbound. The effect of the song is in no small part down to the superlative musicians then at his command, and the consummate arrangements, with the guitar, keyboards, and sax of John Platania, Jef Labes, and Jack Schroer, respectively, exquisite and never bettered subsequently. Even better than the studio take is that on 1974 live opus It’s Too Late To Stop Now, with the same musicians, and a stellar string section, still a high-water mark for live recordings by anyone.

Mind you, the vocals are pretty damn good too.
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Jun 302020

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

John Bonham

If Led Zeppelin’s 1971 track “When the Levee Breaks” is widely considered an original, it’s because the sound that Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham make on that record bears very little relation to its source material: a jauntily played acoustic blues number from 1929. It emanates instead from deep in the heart of the mightiest of English rock bands. It is huge, rumbling, and apocalyptic. And it is totally at one with the song’s all-too-familiar theme of an individual at the mercy of forces way beyond his control.
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