Archive for the ‘R.E.M.’ Category

Is there a better song than “Moon River”? Perhaps. Yet there’s no denying that it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. Composed by Henry Mancini and featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer, it features prominently in the 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where it’s first heard as an instrumental during the classic opening sequence…

…and, later, when Audrey Hepburn sings it while sitting on her apartment’s window ledge. Initially, Paramount executives considered dubbing a trained singer’s voice and, after an early screening, then cutting the scene altogether. The former was taken care of Mancini, who specifically composed something within Hepburn’s range; and Hepburn herself took care of the second threat, insisting it remain. (Good thing she did: It won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the next year’s Academy Awards.) 

In October 1961, Mancini’s re-recorded orchestral version was released as a single alongside the album Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Music From the Motion Picture. The 45 peaked at No. 11 on the charts that December, while the LP went to No. 1. Hepburn’s winsome rendition, however, could only be heard in the movie until after she passed in 1993, when Music from the Films of Audrey Hepburn was released on CD. (Mancini is quoted as saying, “‘Moon River’ was written for her. No one else has ever understood it so completely. There have been more than a thousand versions of ‘Moon River,’ but hers is unquestionably the greatest.”)

Jerry Butler’s rendition was released concurrently with Mancini’s orchestral rendition, and also reached No. 11. 

Over in the U.K., Danny Williams – aka Britain’s Johnny Mathis – scored a No. 1 hit with the tune in 1961. (His was an interesting life. Born in 1942 South Africa, he won a talent contest at age 14, joined the Golden City Dixies and, when that act visited London in 1959, was signed to EMI.) 

Back in the U.S., meanwhile, a whole host of singers began covering the song – most notably Andy Williams, who covered it on his 1962 Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes album. He also sang it at the 34th Academy Awards and, then, adopted it as his theme song…but, oddly, never released it as a single. 

One of those “whole host of singers”: Ben E. King, who infused a “Spanish Harlem”-like vibe into his version, an album track on his 1962 Ben E. King Sings for Soulful Lovers LP.  

Bobby Darin recorded it in early 1963, though it sat in the vaults until 1999, when it was included on the Unreleased Capitol Sides compilation (and again, a few years later, on the five-star Legendary Bobby Darin CD).

Here are a few – of many – memorable renditions from the 1960s:

I’ll jump forward – and skip many other worthwhile renditions – to 1987 for one of my favorite versions, which hails from the Irish singer Mary Black’s 1987 album, By the Time It Gets Dark. At the time, it wasn’t included on the LP or cassette, just the CD. 

CD bonus tracks became all the rage by the early 1990s, of course, as music companies pulled out the stops while striving to get fans to re-purchase albums for the second (or third) time – LP/cassette —> first CD release —> CD reissue. In 1992, I.R.S. did just that with R.E.M.’s early albums, including their classic sophomore set from 1984, Reckoning. It featured five bonus tracks, including their take on “Moon River.”  

Michael Stipe & Co, though initially classified as “college rock,” weren’t the only alternative-minded rockers to cover it. In 1996, the Afghan Whigs released a cover of it as a bonus track of their “Going to Town” CD single. 

I’ll skip ahead to the next decade, when former and future Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly shared her sweet version of “Moon River” on the 2010 Sing Me to Sleep: Indie Lullabies compilation.

The next year, the retro-minded Puppini Sisters – whose close harmonies are a thing of wonder – sang it on their Hollywood album.  

The British singer-songwriter Rumer, who pretty much makes every song she sings hers, included a version of it on her 2014 B-Sides & Rarities set. 

Frank Ocean surprised fans in February 2018 with his rendition of the song…

And, finally, here’s the rendition that sent me on this journey: Melody Gardot’s. Her luminous version can be found on this year’s Sunset in the Blue.

Beneath my desk is a box that, for the past 14 months, I’ve used as a footstool. Inside it are some hundred-plus bootleg CDs, including quite a few Springsteen sets that have become moot due to his ongoing archival releases, as well as some Neil Young concerts and assorted other oddities, such as this one on the TMOQ bootleg label. It’s a pristine soundboard recording of the early and late shows at McCabe’s Record Shop in Santa Monica, Cal., on May 24, 1987.

Unlike what the CD cover claims, the night’s participants were L.A.-area bands Downy Mildew and Love Tacos (of whom I can find no information); the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn; Opal; Peter Case; Natalie Merchant; and “Mystery Twins” Michael Stipe and Peter Buck. The single CD doesn’t present either show in its entirety, however. Substantial sections are edited out to fit the proceedings onto one disc. As a result, it’s something akin to a best-of.

Due to that, the participants featured on the CD aren’t one and the same with the night’s acts. Steve Wynn, Natalie Merchant, Downy Mildew’s Jenny Homer (misidentified as Jenny Holmer) and Charlie Baldonado are on it, as are Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, and Opal’s Kendra Smith. Wynn is afforded a large portion of the spotlight, but Natalie Merchant and the Twins get their due, too.

Cross-collaboration occurs quite often. For instance, Natalie is joined by Homer and Stipe for a cool rendition of “Hello Stranger” – you can hear the intro to it at the end of the “Don’t Talk” clip above; and Stipe and Buck are joined by Natalie, Homer and others for a fun mashup of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Sunday Morning.” 

Kendra Smith and Natalie Merchant join forces on Opal’s “Hear the Wind Blow”…

And here’s Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant on the “Wheel of Fortune/The Counting Song,” which I often ended compilation tapes with back in the day:

Unfortunately, those are the only clips I can find on YouTube from the night’s two sets.

For those curious, here’s the night’s lineup in full:

Early Show:
Downy Mildew: The Big Surprise; Floorboard; Your Blue Eye; Hollow Girl
Love Tacos: Border Patrol; Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White; Torn Away; Pleasure
Steve Wynn: Merritville; Drinking Problem; One More Cup of Coffee (with Bob Forres)
Steve Wynn and Russ Tolman: Galveston Mud; Solitary Man
Opal: Rocket Machine; She Moves Ahead; Magick Power
Natalie Merchant: Don’t Talk (with Downy Mildew’s Charlie Baldonado); Hello Stranger (with Michael Stipe, Jenny Homer and Baldonado); The Wind, the Wind (a cappella); Verdi Cries
Michael Stipe and Geoff Gans: The One I Love
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Welcome to the Occupation; Disturbance at the Heron House; Finest Worksong; Maps and Legends
Michael Stipe: Harpers; Damaged Goods (with Buck and Merchant)
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Leaving on a Jet Plane-Sunday Morning (with Wynn, Merchant, Homer and others)

Late Show:
Downey Mildew: The Kitchen; Floorboard; The Big Surprise; Hollow Girl; Your Blue Eye
Love Tacos: Border Patrol; Torn Away; Pleasure; Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White (with Peter Buck)
Peter Case and Peter Buck: Walk, Don’t Run; Baby Please Don’t Go; A Million Miles Away; Blue Eyes
Steve Wynn: 50 in a 25 Zone; How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?; Killing Time; See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (with Buck)
Steve Wynn and Russ Tolman: Galveston Mud; Solitary Man; Stage Fright; Too Little, Too Late (with Kendra Smith)
Opal: A Falling Star; Rocket Machine; Supernova; Magick Power
Natalie Merchant: The Fat Lady of Limbourg (a cappella); Don’t Talk (with Charlie Baldonado); More Than a Paycheck (with Homer and Smith); Hear the Wind Blow (with Baldonado and Smith); Hello Stranger (with Stipe, Baldonado and Homer); Verdi Cries
Natalie Merchant & Michael Stipe: A Campfire Song; Wheel of Fortune/The Counting Song
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Stretch My Hand; The One I Love
Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills: Spooky; Disturbance at the Heron House; King of Birds/Finest Worksong; Fever; So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry); Red Rain

I should add that the shows have been bootlegged beyond my early TMOQ release, which is stamped No. 189; as evidenced by the artwork, the clips above come from bootlegs of the original bootleg. (From what I’ve read, the complete shows made their way into the collector’s world in 2006 – long past my bootleg-collecting days.)

Be that as it may, the single disc – regardless of how or where you find it – is a delight. The sound is perfect; and the performances are a lot of fun. Fans of any of the featured performers are sure to enjoy it. 

The track list:

Sunday July 20th, 1969, marked a momentous moment in the history of humankind: Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module Eagle and descended a ladder to the surface of the moon. After touching ground at 10:56pm ET, he paused to say, “that’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (The “a” is in brackets because it wasn’t audible on the transmission beamed to the 600 million people watching on Earth.)

The U.S. president – the 37th in the country’s history – was Richard M. Nixon, who took the oath of office six months earlier. His time in office was accented by chicanery, cynicism and brilliance, though much of that was yet to come. At this point in time, though he was viewed with disdain by some, his approval ratings were routinely in the 60s.

On the economic front, the unemployment rate began the year at 3.4 percent and ended at 3.9 percent. Everyone who wanted one had a job, just about. Inflation, on the other hand, was a source of concern: When Nixon took office, it was already high at 4.4 percent, and it continued to inch higher each month. 

When it came to foreign affairs – specifically, the Vietnam War – this very month marked two significant events: the first U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam occurred on the 8th; and, on July 25th, the “Nixon Doctrine” – aka the Vietnamization of the war – was announced. The plan was for the U.S. to turn over the defense of South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese.

In the Philly region, it was an atypical summer’s day, topping out at a mere 78 degrees (Fahrenheit). The Phillies didn’t take advantage of the cool weather, however, as starting pitcher Bill Champion failed to live up to his surname in a 6-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Connie Mack Stadium.

Among the movies playing in the theaters: Hook, Line & Sinker, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, and Easy Rider, which was released on July 14th. As I’ve noted before, however, this was the era when it could take a movie six or more months to make it to your local cinema.

Aside from the moon transmission, TV was basically in yesteryear’s DVR mode – rerun season. It’s when folks caught up on episodes they had missed.

In the world of music, June and July 1969 saw the release of a few notable – and not-so-notable – albums, including Roberta Flack’s First Take, Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis, Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking, Tim Buckley’s Happy Sad, The Doors’ Soft Parade, and Yes’ eponymous debut. 

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: July 20, 1969 (via Weekly Top 40; the chart is for the 19th).

1) Zager and Evans – “In the Year 2525.” The next time a baby boomer laments the state of today’s music, point them to this song. And laugh. Because on July 20th, 1969 – less than a month before Woodstock – this “prophetic” song was the No. 1 song in the land.

And for you Gen-Xers feeling smug right now, here’s R.E.M. covering it:

2) Blood, Sweat & Tears – “Spinning Wheel.” Holding steady at No. 2 for a second week is this jaunty philosophical ode, which was penned by BS&T singer David Clayton-Thomas. 

To again leave the pop charts for a moment, earlier in the year Peggy Lee released an effervescent rendition of the song that reached No. 24 on the Easy Listening charts…

3) Three Dog Night – “One.” Dropping from No. 5 to No. 6 is this song, which I first heard in the mid-1970s on a commercial for a mail-order compilation. The song was written and originally recorded by Harry Nilsson, who released it in 1968.

And – yes, this is a trend – Aimee Mann recorded “One” for the For the Love of Nilsson tribute album in 1995. It also appeared on the soundtrack for Magnolia.

4) Elvis Presley – “In the Ghetto.” Elvis continued his comeback with this classic song written by Mac Davis that tackles poverty. (Sad to say, 50 years later, it remains as relevant as it was then.)

A few decades years later, on the 1998 Lilith Fair tour, Natalie Merchant – accompanied by Tracy Chapman – sang the song.

5) Jackie DeShannon – “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” One of the week’s “power plays” is this catchy plea for love, which jumps from No. 55 to 48. FYI: Jackie co-wrote it.

And, finally, Dolly Parton recorded a wonderful version of the song for her 1993 album Slow Dancing With the Moon. Here she is singing it a few months earlier on the CMA Awards… 

April 1983: high-school graduation was a month and change away. I’d yet to attend a concert, outside of some nondescript local band (named Lightning, if memory serves) that played the high school one Friday or Saturday night in ’81 or ‘82. That would change the following month, though, when I saw not one, but two cool shows: the Kinks at the Spectrum and Roxy Music (with Modern English opening) at the Tower Theater…

And, yes, we have been here before: That opening paragraph is borrowed from what I wrote 11 months back, when I covered this same stitch in time – but via Musician magazine (click here for that). So, instead of regurgitating a similar recap, I’ll turn straight to the newsprint. And I do mean newsprint: the newspaper-like Record came folded in fourths, just like its big brother Rolling Stone did in the early ‘70s, and the ink sometimes smudged on the fingers.

Ric Ocasek of the Cars, as evidenced by the picture up top, graces the cover. He’s the focus of an in-depth profile by David Gans that, as the Contents page reveals, uncovers the fact that the soft-spoken musician is warm, human and lovable. Who would’ve guessed?

Today’s top 5:

1) Holly & the Italians – “Dangerously.” Mark Mehler pens an excellent profile of Holly Beth Vincent, which opens with this: “One morning about a year ago, [she] awoke to perhaps the worst feeling a human being can have—none at all. ‘I felt like I was in a void,’ she says matter-of-factly, not unlike one of those ‘real people’ on television describing the onset of a migraine headache. ‘I had no control over my body. I didn’t know who or where I was.’”

That inability to move apparently didn’t stop her from grabbing for a pen and scribbling the lyrics to this song, which graces her second album, Holly and the Italians. According to Mehler, “it’s one of several tunes on the album dealing explicitly with the thin line between sanity and insanity; with remembrance; with violence and loss. But these subjects are handled with poignancy, melodic grace and occasional humor.” (For the complete Holly Beth article, scroll down.)

2) R.E.M. – “Radio Free Europe.” Mehler also catches up with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who discusses the recording of his band’s first album, then tentatively titled 7,000 Gifts. “From what I can hear,” he says, “most albums consist of ten songs all sounding pretty much the same. It’s taking me a long time to come to terms with the fact that we’re actually in the middle of recording one ourselves.” The brief piece concludes with Stipe discussing touring: “I don’t like to drive the van. Driving from Philadelphia to Madison, Wisconsin, in the middle of the night is no fun. But I can’t claim to be a martyr to rock ’n’ roll; it’s the life I chose.”

3) Marvin Gaye – “Sexual Healing.” At this point in time, Marvin was in the midst of a comeback – and sat for an interview with Gavin Martin. There’s far too much to recount, but I found and still find the last questions and answers  illuminating and sad.

4) Neil Young – “Transformer Man.” Stuart Cohn is not kind to Neil’s Trans album: “Neil Young’s much-vaunted experiment in electronic music is like one of those get-rich-quick schemes everyone comes up with now and then. It seems like a sure thing in the middle of the night as the drinks are flowing. But hungover in the cold light of dawn, you realize it wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

5) The Bangles – “I’m in Line.” Wayne King tackles the debut EP of “yet another all-girl group.” As you can see in the scan, he raises the question that “haunts most all female acts” – whether they play their own instruments on record – before dismissing it as irrelevant: “somebody has come up with what they used to call a hot platter, one so tight and sharp that it threatens to singlehandedly resurrect that deservedly-dormant phrase, power pop.”

He also singles out their “intricate and endearingly rough harmonizing” and equates the end of “I’m in Line” to the Move’s “Message From the Country.” He also pushes forth his view of how the band should evolve: “If the Bangles don’t yet articulate the tough sexual politics of a Chrissie Hynde, they at least may be close to finding that voice.”