Wilmoth Houdini

[Portrait of Calypso, between 1938 and 1948] (LOC)

After seeing the absolutely amazing C.W. Stoneking a few months ago (in a tiny church, which was pretty much the best show I’ve ever been to. No exaggeration, literally the best show I’ve ever been to. Even months later, I’m in awe.), I started to wonder about some of his direct influences. I knew that some of the songs on his Jungle Blues must be covers, but since we don’t get liner notes anymore (sigh), I hadn’t yet looked into any of the original artists.

During the show, Stoneking mentioned a few who I hope to research eventually, but the song that’s always intrigued me on that record is “Son of America”, the very odd calypso ode to General MacArthur. I’d assumed it was a bit of a joke, a serious subject done so bizarrely intensely that it’s hilarious. I had no idea it was an old song.

The original artist is one Wilmoth Houdini (to the right in the photo above), a calypso singer from Trinidad who eventually became known as “The Calypso King of New York”. After singing in Trinidad and traveling the world working on ocean freighters, Houdini landed in New York and, apparently, went to town making calypso records. Between his arrival in New York in the late 1920s and the 1940s, Houdini recorded over a hundred songs and supposedly wrote over a thousand. Even though I’m pretty crazy about the ones I’ve heard, the sheer volume of these recordings might explain why a lot of them are a bit same-y.

In 1946, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five recorded a version of Houdini’s “He Had It Coming” as “Stone Cold Dead In The Market”. Their version was a hit R&B single and even had some crossover success. This gave Houdini the boost he needed to create calypso events all over the city, helping to popularize the style for the masses.

Although Houdini’s songs are an absolute joy – just try to listen to “Rum and Coca-Cola” and not get up and dance – here’s the really funny part of the story. Apparently, Houdini’s calypso colleagues back in Trinidad started to see him as, well, a bit of a sell-out, watering down their calypso for the American (ahem, white) audience. This seems to have started pretty early on, because Houdini answered these allegations in his 1934 track “Declaration of War”. Oh, snap! Diss songs, old-school stylee. Truthfully, his come-back is a little weak – he basically accuses them of being jealous ’cause he so fly. Not the most creative retort ever. The thing is though, I hate to say it, but I kind of see what they meant. From the first time I listened to Houdini, before I’d researched his career, I couldn’t help but wonder who these songs were meant for. I mean, ‘Oh, Frankie Sinatra … you have the perfect voice to sing calypso’ and songs about how great it was when the Yankees came to Trinidad, spending American money and dating their daughters – it sure seems like these lyrics were meant to appeal to the white record-buying audience. Not that I can blame him for it – the music business has never been an easy one, especially for black artists – but you can’t help but see what his fellow musicians were saying.

Even so, Wilmoth Houdini is a sadly forgotten artist today – I’d have never heard of him if it weren’t for C.W. Stoneking – and 1930s-1950s calypso isn’t a style we talk about often. Shame really, because these are some really wonderful pop songs. Grab yourself a collection of Houdini’s recordings at emusic.

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Songs About Dancing

When I’m able, I like to watch the UK Top 40 on Monday nights – you know, to keep up with what those crazy kids are listening to these days. If I consider each song on its own, I’m pretty much ok with chart music right now. No one song is so bad that I really hate it*, some are even catchy as hell.

On the other hand, I look at the chart as a whole and I’m all, ‘Wha’ happen?!’ Since when is a single sound represented in the charts? And I mean that almost literally: during a recent countdown, I counted about 6 songs out of 40 that did not use the same clubby dance beat. And on top of that, the beat kind of makes them all sing the same – to the point where choruses actually do all sound the same, note-wise. And what’s weird is that it’s almost as if artists are now afraid not to sound exactly like everyone else, if recent tracks by Snoop Dogg (ahem) and Flo Rida are anything to go by. I know that chart music is not always the most diverse, and every old fart like myself says it was better in their day, but seriously – this is out of hand. It’s like unique-ness is now a flaw in an artist, no longer their potential selling point.

While thinking about all this important stuff, I’ve also noticed something else weird (and same-y) about chart songs right now: they’re all about partying, getting wasted, dancing all night, having the night of our lives. Last Friday Night, Party Rock Anthem, On The Floor, Don’t Stop The Party. There are few artists that even pretend they’re offering any substance right now. Tracy Chapman, Aloe Blacc, and even Adele feel very out of place when you watch along on MTV. Doesn’t anyone have an opinion about anything anymore? Don’t these artists think about stuff? I really wish the youth of today had something to say that wasn’t about partying but – based on the charts, at least – I’m really not sure they do. Which is pretty much the most depressing thing ever.

But, if you think back a-ways, this isn’t actually new, it’s just a little worse than before. Here’s a weird little thought that’s been floating around in my head for years: there were a lot of songs about dancing in the 80s. Seriously, a lot – everybody just dancing all the time.

Lionel was dancing on the ceiling:

while Bruce danced in the dark:

and Billy danced with himself** :

Whitney wanted to dance with somebody who loved her:

but David was inviting us all to just dance already:

And, of course, Madonna was into the groove, Michael Sembello told us the story of the maniac on the floor, Kenny Loggins got footloose … the list goes on. Maybe we just always loved dancing and always will. Maybe, just maybe, there’s still some hope for those kids out there right now.

After all, we all turned out ok, right?

David Byrne – I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Whitney Houston cover)

* Other than that godawful Snoop Dogg song that’s popular right now. It’s so crap I can’t even be bothered to check the title. Please stop playing it. Seriously. Please stop.

** And some zombies, apparently. What the hell is going on in this video?!

The Soup Dragons, Hotwired

Do you remember The Soup Dragons? If you’re from the UK and / or of a certain age (the certain age that means you actually remember buying albums on cassette), you probably do. If not, this band probably passed you by completely. Which would be a shame because, while Hotwired isn’t necessarily one of the very best albums ever, it’s a classic of my 1990s and can definitely still stand up tall today.

Although I only really listened to Hotwired, a little research shows that The Soup Dragons were more than I realized – or, at least, here in the UK they were. Nevermind that they were already six years old by the time I heard of them, or that Hotwired was actually their third LP – they’d also had a pretty decent hit in the UK with “I’m Free” in 1990. The Wikipedia says that single charted higher on the U.S. Modern Rock chart, whatever that is, but I definitely don’t remember it being a presence. I do, however, know every note of it, though I couldn’t have even told you it existed before yesterday. Isn’t it weird how that happens sometimes, as if you just absorb songs somehow without ever consciously hearing them?

Anyway, it turns out that the band had had some indie-world success even earlier than that, and – enough to secure their place in indie music history alone – were included on the NME’s legendary C86 cassette compilation. If you don’t know about that cassette, check out this great post from Indie-MP3. (Also, you can still download the whole compilation from Stupid and Contagious, though I can’t promise for how long.) The track included on C86 is wildly different from how we came to know them on Hotwired in 1992 – very much a Buzzcocks-inspired messy-punky-poppy sound which is very pleasant but, honestly, not terribly unique. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great track, but I doubt I’d have remembered it if I didn’t already love them from their later work.

I don’t know exactly what caused the change in sound, other than just the change of times and trends, but when they hit upon the sound featured on Hotwired, they made a classic album. Personally, I had no idea The Soup Dragons existed before “Divine Thing” came along and rocked my MTV. I didn’t know from baggy, or rave culture, or C86. I had no concept of British music being cool or anything in particular; I’d never heard of The Stone Roses or the NME. But I do remember this album soundtracking the summer of 1992 (along with Stereo MCs’ Connected). And you know what? It’s actually still pretty great. The sound might be a little bit dated, but not nearly as much as I’d expect after nearly 20 years – and even if it is a little dated, it’s in a wonderfully nostalgic way (rather than a cringey embarrassing way). These guys deserve to remembered fondly.

The Soup Dragons – Divine Thing
The Soup Dragons – Running Wild

The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing: the real #1?

The B-52s, Cosmic Thing

For many, many years, I’ve claimed that Pearl Jam’s Ten was my first album purchase but it recently occurred to me – holy crap! – have I been lying about that all this time?!

Not that my real #1, now that I see my mistake, isn’t just as cool. My deception was accidental, I assure you – I promise I was not trying to look cooler than I am. Please. I freely admit I adored New Kids On The Block. The cool ship has sailed.

So anyway, I recently went on a miniature album shopping spree and, at the last minute, threw The B-52’s Cosmic Thing into my cart. It was by the register and stuff. Listening to it the next day, I couldn’t get over how fresh, fun, and surprisingly not dated it sounded. Honestly, I bought it thinking it would be a nostalgic giggle and not much more. “Love Shack”, anyone? But that never was the best track on Cosmic Thing and I should’ve remembered that.

Taken aback by how much I still loved it, and not in a kitschy sort of way at all, I looked it up and – wha?! – found out that it was released in 1989. That’s a whole TWO years before Pearl Jam released the amazingness that is Ten. Even if my 9-year-old self took a while to catch on and buy Cosmic Thing, it still came first. Whoopsie. Sorry I lied to y’all for so long.

When I thought about it a bit more, I actually remembered the exact day I bought it – on cassette! From Phar-Mor!! I had a little pocket money I’d gotten as a gift or something, I’d guess around $10, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted some specific Barbie or the B-52’s album. I guess I wasn’t really your typical 9-year-old girl. I must’ve been dimly aware that I’d already prolonged the decision-making process out to a near-painful point, because I remember choosing the Barbie, in part, just to be done with it so my father and I could go home already. I was known for this type of separation anxiety when it came to my pocket money. But, perhaps predictably, I regretted it almost immediately and was in quiet, trying-to-hold-them-back tears by the time we got home a few minutes later. I wonder if I’d have done the same if I’d gone the other way in the store? I guess not, because Dad was crazy nice about it and took me back to exchange the Barbie (though he really must’ve wanted to shake me silly by that point) and I never looked back. I mean, I totally still played with Barbies, but I didn’t want one more than I wanted that album. I guess I was a budding music dork long before I knew what that meant.

But back to the album. Maybe not as ass-kicking as Pearl Jam, but Cosmic Thing is still – after 22 years, that’s a scary thought – a really great album. It feels just like the time, but also like it totally could’ve come out this year – both nostalgic and timeless somehow. Fred Schneider’s freaky speak-singing really should be annoying or gimmicky, but it fits here, alongside Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s angelic harmonies, to make something unusual and pretty, poppy and alternative. “Roam” is still my favorite track, it’s just too dreamy, though I have always loved the quirkiness of “Junebug”. Whatever, the whole album’s classic – get it yourself right here.

The B-52’s – Roam
The B-52’s – Junebug

Friday Favorite: Fat Boys

Fat Boys – Human Beat Box

Cornershop and The Double ‘O’ Groove Of, featuring Bubbley Kaur

Cornershop

It’s no secret that I love Cornershop. Yeah, I say I’m a big fan of a lot of bands, and it’s always true, but this is special. Like on equal footing with how I feel about the Beatles. One of those rare, one-in-a-million bands whose music you love so much it almost makes you feel a little sick to your stomach.

Me and Cornershop go way back. In fact, I remember the day – like most people, I got into the band via “Brimful of Asha”, just as it was turning into a monster single, and it was my night out with my friends for my 18th birthday. A little silly on the bus ride home, my friends and I couldn’t stop singing the ‘on a 45’ bit of that song, it being the only part we really knew yet. It didn’t take long for me to get myself When I Was Born For The 7th Time and, as they say, I’ve never looked back. I would pledge my undying love to Cornershop’s music (erm, if I had to for some reason), so 8 pounds seems like nothing.

Cornershop is asking us, their listeners, to pledge as little as 8 pounds to get a minimum of a pre-order of the new album they’re working on with – my heart just stopped a little – Bubbley Kaur. She of the magical single “Topknot”, one of my most beloved songs of all time. In fact, this new album seems to be based around the amazing results of that recording, finally turning it into a full-length LP. For 8 pounds you’ll get yourself the album and the knowledge that you had a little part in making it happen. For more money, you’ll get more stuff, but the list of possibilities is pretty fun to look through so I’ll let you check it out yourself.

This pledging / investing-in-the-making-of-albums isn’t really brand spanking new; I’ve seen similar offers by other bands. It’s a really interesting thing going on, releasing bands from big labels who don’t seem to give much of a crap about the bands they represent nor the listeners who pay for the music. Wouldn’t you much rather give your money directly to a band you care about and have a wee hand in helping get an album made? Cornershop is the first band to do this that I do feel that strongly about, and I will definitely be making my pledge asap, – how about you? There’s only 27 days remaining so have a think about how great it will be to hear Cornershop and The Double ‘O’ Groove Of for the first time and get pledging.

Hear Tjinder and Ben tell you all about it themselves, and find out more about the pledge options over at PledgeMusic – and remind yourself how amazing this band has always been below.

Cornershop – Good Shit

Classics: Peter, Paul and Mary, Peter, Paul and Mary (updated)

Peter, Paul and Mary

Update: I’m bumping up this post from last week, which was just a little nod to a group I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, in tribute to Mary Travers, who died yesterday at the age of 72. The New York Times has a very nice obituary here and there’s not much I can add to it except to say that I was terribly saddened by the news. As I mentioned below, bedtime lullabies were my introduction to Peter, Paul and Mary, and I’ve listened to them ever since. As I got older, I gravitated towards more grown-up songs like “If I Had My Way” and their version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, but I’ve never not loved their music. As much as they are amazing as a whole, Mary Travers’ voice was the one that you really heard, clear and strong, and – simply put – it’s a damn shame that we’ve lost that.

Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1962 self-titled debut album is a 60s folk classic. Actually, just a classic. Something that could almost for sure never happen today, this album stayed in the Billboard Top One Hundred for over three years. Plus, “If I Had A Hammer”, the album’s lead single, won Grammys in both folk and pop categories. The album also had two singles in the Billboard Pop Chart, one in the top 10. And despite being a basically manufactured band à la The Monkees, the trio doesn’t seem to have had to deal with any accusations of not being ‘real’ musicians, or at least not that I’ve ever heard about. Their voices are all the proof anyone would’ve needed – I’m not sure even Gram and Emmylou sounded this great together.

It’s a shame that the trio is best known now for a lighter, children-friendly sound, most obviously heard on “Puff The Magic Dragon”, probably my least favorite Peter, Paul and Mary song. (Though I do have fond memories of my mother singing it to me as a little girl, so I guess “Puff … ” does have its merits after all.) When they got going, they could sound positively fierce. Just listen to “If I Had My Way” below, and see if it doesn’t get your foot stomping by the end.

Peter, Paul and Mary – If I Had My Way