100b’s School Of Learnin’: Michael Nesmith

Everyone knows Michael Nesmith as the dry, sarcastic, hat-wearing member of 60s ‘boy band’ the Monkees. Of course that’s part of his story, but only one part, and the rest seems to be widely overlooked. I can’t say why, except that the post-Monkees prejudice is widespread and long-lasting, and that most of music history chooses to see them as nothing other than – and only capable of being – television puppets. Barely anybody knows that, among other things, Michael Nesmith was a huge part of what made the Monkees a genuinely great pop band, that he helped to develop areas of popular culture that we can’t imagine being without today, and that he was a pioneer of the music we now call country-rock.

Born in Texas to the (eventual) inventor of Liquid Paper, Nesmith spent some time in the Air Force before pursuing his interest in music. Originally a singer, he picked up the guitar in his 20s and started his career as a songwriter, turning the poetry he’d been writing since high school into lyrics. Having moved to Los Angeles, Nesmith recorded a handful of singles between 1963 and 1966 with limited release: some under the name Michael Blessing (picked out of a phone book when his label said ‘Nesmith’ wouldn’t do, according to the interview in the video linked below) and one as Mike and Tony (though it doesn’t seem that Tony actually existed, and it’s possible that Nesmith had nothing to do with that song at all, depending on which story is true).

After a few recordings with various musicians on various labels, Nesmith teamed up with Colpix Records (also home to future co-Monkee Davy Jones) in 1965 to release “The New Recruit” / “A Journey With Michael Blessing”. The b-side is an instrumental track, both country and surfer at the same time; the a-side is a playful and deeply sarcastic portrait of an army newbie in a jangly folk style somewhat reminiscent of the sound the Byrds were just starting to popularize (with their first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, earlier that year). This is an early indication of the type of music that Nesmith would take with him to the Monkees.

   Michael Nesmith (as Michael Blessing) – The New Recruit

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Elvis And The Movies

Elvis’ movie career is considered a big joke by most people – after all, there are an awful lot of them and they do seem a little plotless and silly. But think about it this way – Elvis starred in 31 movies in 13 years (over half of his career), from 1956 to 1969. That’s an average of 2.5 films cranked out every year. And if you watch them objectively, they’re no worse or cheesier than any other ’60s teen movie (or the ones now, come to think of it).

Each of those 31 movies had at least 6 new songs that had to be recorded for it. That makes somewhere around 186 movie soundtrack songs, 15 per year. (I’ll take this opportunity to point out that there’s barely anyone around today who will record 15 songs every three years, let alone 186 songs in their entire lifetime.) Add to that the fact that Elvis’ movie career quickly became something he himself hated. He wanted to be in real movies, to be given the chance to try something challenging. It started off that way but it didn’t take long for Colonel Parker to see the money-making potential and convince Elvis that he couldn’t afford not to make as many of them as humanly possible. Which meant that there was no time for decent plots and interesting roles – it was a lot faster (and cheaper, of course) to just stick Elvis with a few hot chicks and some slapped together songs. Also take into account that Elvis’ musical passion lay in Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, and Gospel – not throwaway pop songs with no soul at all. Imagine how mind-numbingly boring it all must’ve been for him.

Under the circumstances, it’s pretty incredible that Elvis managed to record anything good during that time period at all. Some of them are even classics: “Love Me Tender” (from Love Me Tender, 1956) “Jailhouse Rock” (Jailhouse Rock, 1957), “(Let Me Be Your) Teddybear” (Loving You, 1957), “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (Blue Hawaii, 1961), “Return To Sender” (Girls! Girls! Girls!, 1962), “Viva Las Vegas” (Viva Las Vegas, 1968), and these three:

   Elvis Presley – Hard Headed Woman (King Creole, 1958)
   Elvis Presley – What’d I Say (Viva Las Vegas, 1964)
   Elvis Presley – Rubberneckin’ (Change Of Habit, 1969)

100b’s School Of Learnin’: Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

Most of us know Shel Silverstein as the playful author of Where The Sidewalk Ends (from 1974) and A Light In The Attic (1981), among other classics. He’s beloved by children everywhere as the poet who actually wrote for children, not their parents. (How many children’s writers would publish a poem like “Little Abigail And The Beautiful Pony” – the tale of a little girl who dies of heartbreak because her parents won’t buy her a pony – and advise the reader to read it “to your folks when they won’t buy you something you want”?) But Shel Silverstein was a giant of a man who did much more diverse work than most of us realize. He was a poet, a cartoonist, and a playwright. He published books for adults, wrote for Playboy magazine (and lived at the Playboy Mansion), and co-wrote the film Things Change with David Mamet.

But this here is a music blog and, you guessed it, Silverstein also made music which was, just like his writings, widespread and varied. I think the only way to cover even a small selection of his work is to just give you a few highlights: His song “A Boy Named Sue” was made popular by Johnny Cash, originally recorded on Cash’s 1969 At San Quentin album. Johnny Cash sang another of Silverstein’s songs, “25 Minutes To Go”, at Folsom Prison (as well as on a previous album). Then he wrote “One’s On The Way”, “Here I Am Again” (both in 1972), and “Hey Loretta” (1974) for country goddess Loretta Lynn, all three of which provided her with Top 5 hits in the Billboard Country charts. Around the same time period, he contributed to the award-winning Free To Be … You And Me album (1972) and TV special (1974). In 1984, he won a Best Children’s Album Grammy for his recording of Where The Sidewalk Ends. And in 1990, Silverstein was nominated for an Oscar for the music he co-wrote for the film Postcards From The Edge.

   Johnny Cash – 25 Minutes To Go
   Loretta Lynn – One’s On The Way
   Tom Smothers – Helping (from Free To Be … You And Me)

Phew. And those are just highlights. In fact, the BMI database lists 810 songs as written by the incredible Mr. Silverstein.

He is probably best known for his involvement with Dr. Hook (And The Medicine Show). Dr. Hook, a bar band from New Jersey, was discovered by a scout looking for a band to record Silverstein’s songs. Their partnership continued through several albums; he wrote pretty much all of Dr. Hook’s songs, including their most famous hit, “The Cover Of The Rolling Stone” (1972). Which makes perfect sense – the poem “Rock ‘N’ Roll Band” (from A Light In The Attic) is basically a G-rated version of the Dr. Hook song:

     If we were a rock ‘n’ roll band,
     The people would all kiss our hands.
     We’d be millionaires and have extra long hair,
     If we were a rock ‘n’ roll band.
        (“Rock ‘N’ Roll Band”)

     Well, we’re big rock singers, we’ve got golden fingers,
     And we’re loved everywhere we go.
     We sing about beauty and we sing about truth,
     At ten thousand dollars a show.
        (“The Cover Of The Rolling Stone”)

   Dr. Hook – The Cover Of The Rolling Stone

Of course, Shel Silverstein recorded his own music and, after so many projects where he worked behind the scenes, it’s lovely to hear his voice. I suppose I probably made up a voice for him, after reading his poetry for so many years, and it’s almost what I imagined. It’s not exactly a skillful voice, but it’s kind and full of heart. Exactly as I like to imagine he must’ve been. If you’d like to hear him for yourself, Amazon has two free downloads available, from Silverstein’s 1979 album, The Great Conch Train Robbery:

   Shel Silverstein – So Good To So Bad (Amazon free download)
   Shel Silverstein – June 25 At The Fourth Of July (Amazon free download)

Considering all of this (and more) incredible work, it seems reasonable to call Shel Silverstein a legend. Sadly, he died in 1999 at the age of 68, though it seems to me that he should’ve been allowed to live forever. A proper biography – A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein – will be released this coming November. I’m looking forward to it like I look forward to new Harry Potter books. Given how many bits and pieces I gathered from various websites and books without any definitive source of information, it’s about time somebody took this project on.

If you’re interested in knowing a bit more (especially about Shel Silverstein as a writer), Lisa Rogak (author of the upcoming biography) wrote this lovely article, and The Shel Silverstein Archive has quite a large selection of reviews and articles. Also, be sure to check out his official site, which claims it’s for kids, but we all know better.

100b’s School Of Learnin’: The Free Freeloaders Guide To Free Music

I’ve said it before, but nothing makes me happier than a good free song. Bean talked about how she comes across new music a few months ago and I’d like to share how I find all my precious free legal music:

1) The MySpace:
MySpace is the easiest and most obvious way to get your hands on some free tunes. I always feel a flutter in my belly when I see the download button light up under a song. Very often that thing doesn’t work though. I’d like to appeal to the MySpace fat cats and tell them to please stop playing with my feelings and fix that shit, you free music tease.

2) Band sites and mailinglists:
Some bands are more generous than others with their free music. Bands like Takka Takka are so generous that you start to worry if they’re making any money at all. The mailinglists are great resources too. Some bands give their mailinglist members exclusive downloads. Crash Convention, for instance, has a special section on their site for members with regularly posted new singles or exclusive versions of songs.

3) Other blogs:
Bean has already covered the best blogs to visit for some yummy new bands. There is a smorgasboard of blogs for any kind of music out there. The trick is to keep track of the ones that seem to match your music taste. So I’d like to add that Music For Robots, Keep Hope Inside and You Ain’t No Picasso are absolutely wonderful too.

4) Online music shops:
Itunes, Amazon and 7Digital all have free music downloads, you just have to look for them. Sometimes it’s as easy as typing in “free download” in a search box. For instance you can get Bright Eyes’ “When The President Talks To God” for free from Itunes. Insound is the best and my favorite one, they have a whole section dedicated to free mp3s. Respect.

5) The Bean:
Bean is a regular donator to the Provide Tam With Music fund. She has filled my greedy little hands with more new beautiful music than you can shake a stick at. So if you ever come across a Bean hold on for dear life, because she knows good music when she hears it and is always willing to share. God bless her.

6) Online music mags/sites:
I love online music magazines, because even though they may be free they often have quality reviews and even better offerings of music for nothing. 3hive is brilliant! I get choked up just thinking about it. They collect all the legal downloads from record companies, artist websites etc. and put them in one place. They call it sharing the sharing. So sweet.
Daytrotter is slowly becoming my new spiritual leader. They have regular live sessions with the most wonderful bands and you can listen to all these exclusive sessions for free. For some reason many of the bands feel compelled to play new or lesser known songs on Daytrotter, which is just heaven.
Then there’s The Downloader. I love Daytrotter, but I want to make babies with The Downloader. I’m not sure how or when or why I came to be on this guy “Matt The Downloader’s” mailinglist but it’s the best thing ever. The site claims to be the “complete guide to legal music downloads” and I’m inclined to believe it. He has a lot of of free mp3s from new bands and the best thing is he puts them in a top ten list in order of most downloaded track. If there’s something I love almost as much as free music, it’s lists … and shoes and bags, but that’s a whole other story.

7) Record companies:
Record companies, especially the smaller ones, are a great source too. Just look up your favorite artist’s label and visit their site, they’ll often have some songs to sample from. Absolutely Kosher Records even sends a free sample CD of their artists to anyone who joins their mailinglist. I’ve mentioned Filthy Little Angels a couple of times, but they have the best themed free music downloads ever. My favorite is still the Grease one. Their artists covered a song from the musical in their own unique way and we get to listen to it for free.

And that’s how I build up my library without spending a dime. But hey ever heard of that excellent broke-ass band that’s still playing twenty years later? Yeah me either. I may be greedy, but if you want your favorite bands to stick around they’re gonna need some cash. So if you come across a band that takes your fancy, support them any way you can and buy their stuff.

100b’s School Of Learnin’: Where Do You Find New Music?

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at Drowned In Sound’s new-ish sub-site Discover about how people go about finding new music and bands. I expected to be intimidated by the time and energy that the commenters devote to hunting down new stuff, but I was actually suprised by what a lot of them said. Most have sites they check regularly or rely on friend’s recommendations, but a lot also said that they have to keep their searching narrowed down to a few places to keep from being completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new music available.

I feel the same way and, while I’d love to be able to spend even more of my time surfing around for the Next Great Thing, I usually have to limit my regular searching to whatever I have time for right then. A lot of people on DiS mentioned that they try to check out support bands when they can. Tam and I do that too, but we don’t get the decent support bands around these parts that are often found in the UK, for example. It very rarely pays off. But every once in a while, you get lucky. We expected Final Fantasy to be just another guy we’d have to sit through but he really blew us away, left us speechless. And this coming weekend, we’ll get to see Cold War Kids support Two Gallants, though we had no idea they were touring together when Tam bought the tickets. It’s doesn’t happen often, but sometimes support acts can be a goldmine.

Tam herself is probably my favorite source of new stuff. She and I constantly share our finds with each other – we even make each other mix cds from time to time of our recent favorites. Yup, mix cds – we do it old school up in here. If it wasn’t for her, I may never have known about The Kills, The Black Keys, The Decemberists, Two Gallants, The Fratellis – the list could go on for a very long time. By combining our, um, powers, we manage cover a lot of ground.

If I talked up emusic any more, I could probably be their pimp, but they are a fantastic way to try out something different. The cost of using emusic is so outrageously low, I’m happy to use my downloads on something I’ve never heard before, or an album I’ve read about but I’m not sure I’d like, or just something that has a cool cover. There’s almost no risk and they have a massive amount of music available. Sites like the previously mentioned Drowned In Sound, rockfeedback, and playlouder are pretty much the only places I’ll dare go to for reviews. I don’t always agree with them, but I’m not looking to read my own opinion. I trust that they’ll have a point to make whether I agree with it or not.

But everyone’s ultimate source has to be the insane amount of music blogs out there on the Interweb. I have a huge folder of bookmarked blogs, which I try to go through once a week. That rarely happens, but I always have a look at what they’ve got going on at Badminton Stamps, my all-time favorite music blog. Those guys over there are fantastic – they’re funny, smart, always post something interesting, and, most importantly, are never snobby about any genre. They’ll post Public Enemy, Arcade Fire, and Billy Idol in the same day and seem to appreciate them all for what they are. I’m also a big fan of The Daily Growl and Good Weather For Airstrikes, among too many others to mention. I suppose I look for like-minded bloggers – if someone’s posted about some bands that I already like, I’m likely to take their suggestions on the ones I haven’t heard of.

So, using a magic combination of all this stuff, and whatever else I can squish into my, ahem, busy schedule, I’m just able to keep my head above the constant flood of new music. I’m glad to know that it’s not just me that can get overwhelmed. Geez, how on earth do some people find time to do more than this?!

100b’s School Of Learnin’: Creem Magazine

Boy Howdy

Creem magazine is back! It’s in digital form (for now?) but the premise is still the same as far as I can tell. It’s a “rock n roll magazine for the people” as Barry Kramer the original founder of Creem Magazine put it in 1969. Now I’ve never read the original Creem mags, because I wasn’t born yet, but I have read a little bit about music criticism and rock ‘n roll history and it seems to be impossible to discuss either topic without mentioning Lester Bangs’, and therefore Creem’s, influence.

Creemmagazine.com has great reviews and new articles about the latest music news, but what really makes me come back are the archived articles from the days of yore and the beautiful old magazine covers from all the issues up to 1988. The first old articles I read were also the oldest two articles in the archive; I was a bit overwhelmed and I didn’t know where to start, so I figured I’d read them chronologically. The one is a description of a venue and a review of a bunch of concerts at that venue including the MC5 and the other is about the ‘Paul is dead’ hoax. Especially the latter article is really interesting. Among other things, I learned that Creem had a big contribution to spreading the hoax. I did not know that and it tickled my inner geek so I thought that would fit nicely into 100B’s School of Learnin’s alley.

When I read contemporary reviews and articles, I never really notice how much they breathe the time they are written in because I’m right in the middle of living it. Things have and haven’t changed much since those earlier articles. Most people who love music still write passionately about it, but don’t use words like “greaser” anymore. Creem’s old articles give us an impression of how the bands were received at the time and how they were talked about, but also how opinions about certain bands have changed since then. For instance, there is an article about the Beastie Boys from way back in ’87 when “Licensed to Ill” had just ushered them into the limelight. The article makes them sound like a bunch of crazy talented punks. I guess that hasn’t changed much, but it also mentions that though their album is brilliant, they weren’t much to look at live. Last year 100b went to see them live and they were anything but underwhelming. ANY band that can roll a mariachi band on a stage belongs on a pedestal reaching the heavens as far as I’m concerned.

My favorite article so far is the one announcing that The New York Dolls were voted Best New Group of 1973 by Creem readers, BUT that same poll also voted them the Worst New Group! Now three decades later, the three remaining Dolls are touring again and I just happened to see them play on Jonathan Ross last Friday. It was still absolutely thrilling and for some reason the 1973 vote seems totally appropriate. They’re too sleazy and out there to appeal to everybody, but they’re just too good to ignore.

I think I’m gonna waste away many many hours foraging through the Creem Archives, so I for one am happy they’re back and I think they came at a good time too. Music is so diverse and exciting right now, who could cover it better than the rag that gave us the term “Punk Rock”?

100b’s School Of Learnin’: Guitar Man

Will Hodgkinson, Guitar Man

Remember back when 100b celebrated our 100th post and we said we had some new themed post ideas for you all? And remember how we said we didn’t have a name for one of them yet? Yeah, we still don’t. So for the time being, this post will be called “100b’s School Of Learnin'” – just hope we’ve come up with something better by next month.

Tam and I both love the geeky side of music, and we know we’re not alone. So this monthly post will feature the kind of things that you might like if studio released albums just aren’t enough for you anymore. It might be a documentary, a new collections of b-sides, a historical cd boxset, or even just a really great article that we read. Stuff that will take you from a listener to a big dork. So to start things off this month, we’re going with a book.

I just finished reading Will Hodgkinson’s Guitar Man and I thought some of you might enjoy it. Hodgkinson (a journalist who’s written for Mojo and The Guardian, among others) decided it was about time he stopped just listening to guitar and learned how to play one. I don’t want this to become a review, but it really is a charming book. I think you’d probably have to be into music to really enjoy it (a lot of the book covers the history of the guitar and guitar-based music, which is pretty fascinating if you love it too), but wanting to be a guitar player yourself isn’t necessary. I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t at some time tried to learn something completely new and felt like they’ll never, ever be able to do it. There’s that clumsy time where you don’t even understand the directions or book you’re learning from and then, after a while, you get the basic concept but you just can’t get yourself do it right. When you finally get it, you can’t believe how clueless you were in the beginning.

Hodgkison describes that frustration perfectly, but his learning is pushed along by some great guitar players – Johnny Marr, Mr. David Viner, Devendra Banhart, and Robert Johnson, and many others – who are kind enough to share some of their wisdom on the subject. He booked himself, and his merry band of misfits, a gig in a public place to force himself to learn and learn quickly. Of course I’d never ruin the end for you, but when the gig starts getting close, it’s gripping stuff. I can’t imagine doing such a foolish thing myself – I have the worst stage fright known to man – but you have to admire a man who is that dedicated to a task he set himself.

You can find out more about the book and the author here, and even have a listen to Mr. Hodgkinson’s newfound skills. Or just go buy the book at amazon (UK).