By John Ruberry

Next week the fiftieth anniversary arrives of the release of the groundbreaking Sweetheart of the Rodeo album by the Byrds..

At the time, however, the collection was a commercial flop and it received mixed reviews.

Byrds leader and lead guitarist Roger McGuinn envisioned the band’s sixth album as an overview of the history of American music. McGuinn was not originally a rocker, he began his preforming career after graduating from Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. But a new member, who was soon to depart, Gram Parsons, urged the band to record a country album. The result was arguably the first country rock album, at least by a major artist, one that also served as an inspiration for the alt-country and Americana genres.

“Eleven trips to the country” is how a radio ad described the work. And Sweetheart’s eleven songs are dominated by banjo, country fiddle, and pedal steel guitar. This was not your older sibling’s Byrds.

The album begins typically for the Byrds, with a Bob Dylan cover, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” Dylan’s primary career inspiration was Woody Guthrie and Sweetheart includes a version of his “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Parsons’ two Sweetheart compositions–one was co-written by a former bandmate–“Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years from Now,” offer a contrast to listeners. The first is a traditional country tune. The second ironically is the Byrdsiest–sounding track on the album.

Sweetheart was recorded in the spring of 1968 in Nashville–after which things got interesting. The Byrds managed to score an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, where these hippies were booed by the straight-laced audience. A deejay covering their concert mocked the band, which inspired McGuinn and Parsons to write a song, “Drug Store Truck Driving Man,” that appeared on the Byrds’ next album.

By that summer Parsons, who some say was not actually full-fledged member of the band but a contract player, quit the act. There are two versions of his departure. One was that he preferred to hang out in London with the Rolling Stones, or that Parsons left to protest the Byrds’ decision to perform in South Africa.

Parsons’ lead vocals on “The Christian Life”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, and “One Hundred Years from Now,” were replaced by McGuinn’s on the first two and with Chris Hillman’s along with McGuinn on the latter.

Since 2003 the Parsons leads have been available, but on Spotify only the original release versions play first–you have to scroll down to find Parsons voice up front on those tracks. McGuinn’s take on “The Christian Life” is a sardonic take of this Louvin Brothers song, found on the now infamous, because of its outlandish album artwork, Satan Is Real collection.

Recently McGuinn had this to say about Parsons vocals on that cut. “I was doing almost a satire on it. I was not a Christian at the time,” he remarked. “Back then, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek. I know the Louvin Brothers meant it when they wrote it and sang it. And Gram meant it. He was a little Baptist boy.”

After Sweetheart Hillman bailed on the Byrds and with Parsons formed the highly-influential Flying Burrito Brothers. After two brilliant country rock albums that sold even worse than Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Parsons was booted from the band because of his excessive drug use and overall unreliability. Parsons’ two seminal solo works, also poor sellers, showcased the talents of the then-virtually unknown Emmylou Harris.

Parsons died in 1973 from a drug overdose. The theft of his body and the makeshift cremation of his remains at what is now Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most bizarre tales you will ever hear.

McGuinn and Hillman, two of the three surviving original Byrds members, David Crosby is the third, are currently on a 50th anniversary tour celebrating the release of Sweetheart, which has already included a performance at the Grand Ole Opry.

As Aesop wrote in the Tortoise and the Hare, ‘Slow and steady wins the race.” As that is the case with Gram Parsons and Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Synesthesia: “A sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color,” so says Dictionary.com.

If there is a void in your musical life and you are a fan of the Kinks and the Beatles, or perhaps Oasis, then I suggest you explore the career of XTC, the most unappreciated band of its time.

And what a time it was. XTC was part of the Class of 1977, rock and roll’s last great year in my opinon, when the Clash, Blondie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and many more burst onto the musical scene. By 1999, after a seven year strike against its British label, when they released their penultimate album, Apple Venus Volume 1, only Costello and XTC remained as active acts.

Like the Beatles, XTC evolved musically into a much different group when it was all over.

Late last year in Great Britain and early this year in the United States, the documentary, yes, rockumentarty, XTC: This Is Pop was released. It’s available where I live on Showtime and Xfinity OnDemand.

What became XTC began in the southwestern English city of Swindon, the onetime home of the Swindon Works of the Great Western Railway, with a band started by its de facto leader, Andy Partridge. Bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers rounded out the nucleus of the group. London keyboardist Barry Andrews, the only XTCer who is not interviewed for This Is Pop, later joined; he appears on the band’s first two albums, White Music and GO2, which comprise the band’s punk period. After Andrews’ departure he was replaced by another Swindonian, guitarist Dave Gregory.

“I actually think we started pretty damn good and then got a lot better. And there’s not too many bands can say that’s their arc,” Partridge immodestly but correctly boasts about XTC.

Yet there is some humor in This Is Pop that offsets the braggadocio.

“Don’t you dare have-into this documentary,” Partridge waves off “that lugubrious keyboard player from that prog-rock group,” Rick Wakeman of Yes, who makes a hilarious cameo.

Partridge says of his troubled childhood, “I never thought I was good at anything until I got more and more into drawing and painting.”

Imagine if legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who early in his life aspired to be a painter, formed a rock group instead. It just might have sounded like XTC.

The band’s breakthrough in 1979 came not from a Partridge-penned tune but one by Moulding, “We’re Only Making Plans For Nigel” from their third album, Drums and Wires, which Little Marathon Pundit said of the other day, “That’s one song I like.” If its sonorous drum patterns seem familiar, that’s because engineer Hugh Padham discovered that effect while recoding “Nigel” before bringing the technique to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” Many other 1980s acts swiped that sound.

The next two albums, Black Sea and English Settlement, brought more–albeit modest–success and momentum to XTC as it rounded out its New Wave period. But as the Kinks often bungled their career, XTC’ sabotaged things too, although not intentionally as I’ve always suspected the Kinks did. The effects of Partridge’s Valium addiction, which went back to when he was 12, and the withdrawal effects, led to a nervous breakdown during a Paris concert–which is shown in This Is Pop. The lads from Swindon still traveled to the United States for their first tour as a headliner. But what should have been an American victory lap lasted just one show. Outside of a smattering of radio and television appearances, they never performed live again.

XTC’s pastoral era brought three albums, Mummer, The Big Express, and Skylarking. But within that period XTC’s psychedelic alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear, released two collections that outsold those last two in the UK.

Before recording Skylarking, Partridge tells us, their record label issued an ultimatum: You need to grow your American audience and hire an American producer. Presented with a list of unfamiliar names, Partridge chose the only one he had heard of: Todd Rundgren. The result was the band’s masterpiece, Skylarking. On it you find the conceptual orchestral greatness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But because Partridge and “Runt” butted heads–they probably had too much in common–the studio atmosphere mirrored the angst of the Beatles’ White Album recording sessions. XTC came close to blowing this moment too as the original pressings of Skylarking omitted the best song from the Rundgren sessions, the controversial atheist anthem “Dear God.” It was the B-side of the “Grass” single. American deejays elevated “Dear God” to prominence. Their record company was right, XTC needed a jump start from America.

Earlier I mentioned synesthesia. “How I write a lot of the songs, I will find a chord or a chord change on a guitar or on a keyboard,” Partridge describes his songwriting technique, “and I’m playing those but not I’m not hearing music–I’m seeing pictures. That’s how I write songs, it comes usually from the synesthesic level.”

And I wager you thought I was overreaching with the Akira Kurosawa comparison.

“Synesthesia is where you get stuff mixed up,” Partridge expands on his thoughts, “someone will say a number and you’ll hear a noise, or someone will show you a color and you’ll think of a number, or you’ll hear a peace of music or a chord and to me it makes a picture.”

And that is why XTC’s music is different.

The follow-up to Skylarking was 1989’s Oranges and Lemons, another success as XTC entered its proto-Britpop era.

Chambers left during the pastoral period and Gregory departed shortly after XTC’s recording strike ended. Their band’s final album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), was released in 2000.

An eclectic group of commentators contribute context to This Is Pop, including Stewart Copeland of the Police, Blondie’s Clem Burke, and a veteran mockumentary performer, Harry Shearer, who, unlike Wakeman, plays it straight here.

Woven into This Is Pop is the countryside of southwestern England and a model train set winding through an intricately-reconstructed Swindon, because it doesn’t seem possible to separate XTC from their hometown.

XTC: This Is Pop is an essential film about an essential band, a group that belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The documentary can be streamed on Amazon.

John Ruberry, who has been an XTC fan since 1979 after hearing “We’re Only Making Plans for Nigel” on WXRT-FM in Chicago, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

John ruberry
John “Lee” Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven

By John Ruberry

The leftist group MoveOn got its start as Bill Clinton was being impeached. Their initial message was along the lines of, Bubba has done a great job running the country, his affair with Monica Lewinsky was inappropriate, and now it’s time for Americans to, well, move on.

Now if only the cheerleaders in the media for the Democratic Party could do the same.

There’s a book’s worth of material out there for this post, but I’ll zoom in on just a few today. Dahleen Glanton, an African American Chicago Tribune columnist, puts the blame on the Democrats failure to keep the White House on where she feels it belongs. Yes, the headline gives the ending away, “White women, own up to it: You’re the reason Hillary Clinton lost.” Yet the first sentence of that column betrays how foolish she is, “I don’t understand women.” Her dazzling display of ignorance continues for another two dozen paragraphs.

There must be vile fumes from the Chicago River poisoning the minds of Chicago newspaper columnists, as ignorance begets insanity. I had to read Neil Steinberg’s Nazi-drenched column about Donald Trump and his advisor Steven Bannon, who, by the way, is not an anti-Semite, three times before I gave up trying to make sense of it. Well, almost.  When I am confronted with Nazis and insanity I do one thing and that is listen to avante-garde rockers the Residents’ masterpiece, “The Third Reich and Roll,” only this time I did so while trying to block out of my memory all of my knowledge of the 1960s garage pop classics that are satirized in this work, as a possible gateway into Steinberg’s rambling mess. That didn’t work either. But hey, I tried.

At the end of his column he all but claims that it will be followers of a religion who have been scapegoated for centuries who will be blamed if Trump’s economy doesn’t take off as he promises it will.

Oh, do newspaper columnists have editors anymore?

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who was exposed as a colluder with the Democratic National Committee by WikiLeaks, is calling the incoming Trump administration “the fake news presidency.” Yet two months ago Milbank was covering for Clinton’s “deplorables” gaffe by claiming that “she might have low-balled the number.”

Wrong.

Perhaps what these mainstream media hacks really need is a good cry, which is something the Residents have done as they confide in “Hitler Was a Vegetarian.”

Yes, it’s your party, I know it’s your party
And, you know that you can cry, and, it’s cool
But you have to remember that I too cried my 96 tears
And… it’s just something we all have to go through some time or another.

Get to it.

And then move on.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Packard
Packard plant, Detroit

By John Ruberry

Two months after I returned from my urban exploration trip to Detroit David Maraniss’ Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story was published.

For me the timing couldn’t have been better, As I drove west to my home in the Chicago area I mused, “What in the hell went wrong with Detroit?”

Maraniss, who was born in Detroit, is the author of biographies of Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, and Barack Obama. More on the Obama book later.

After seeing Chrysler’s two-minute long Super Bowl commercial for the 200c that featured the Motor City that aired five years ago, Maraniss wondered the same thing I did and decided to write a Detroit book.

Rather than focusing on the deadly 1967 riots that hastened white flight and the exit of thousands of businesses, Maraniss zooms in on a period where Detroit seemed poised to join New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles as an American Great City: the fall of 1962 through the spring of 1964. Detroit’s Big Three were building cars than ever. The city’s long unfulfilled goal of hosting the Summer Olympics finally seemed within reach. Liberal Democrat Jerome Cavanaugh, Detroit’s version of John F. Kennedy, was forward-thinking on civil rights, as was Michigan’s Republican governor, George Romney. Motown Records was enjoying its first taste of national exposure–with greater glory yet to come. The Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin, organized a Civil Rights march led by Martin Luther King; and MLK was warmly greeted at the airport by Cavanaugh’s pick for police commissioner, another liberal, George Clifton Edwards, Jr. The president of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, was a prominent supporter of civil rights too.

Downtown Detroit from inside the abandoned Fisher Body 21 plant
Downtown Detroit from inside the abandoned Fisher Body 21 plant

The foundation seemed solid for what was then American’s fifth-most populous city. But there were noticeable cracks. Shortly before the International Olympic Committee vote on its choice for host city of the 1968 summer games, an open housing bill in the Detroit Common Council was overwhelmingly defeated, which led supporters of that bill to appeal to IOC members to deny Detroit the games. Local black nationalist Albert Cleage was gaining support and Malcom X spoke at a Detroit church where he condemned King’s call for non-violence in his Message to the Grass Roots address, where the few whites in the audience were forced to sit in their own section. Edwards’ push to pivot the Detroit Police Department away from its racist legacy was meeting resistance from rank-and-file cops and the DPD brass.

Interestingly, Maraniss intersperses excerpts from letters from white racists to Cavanaugh and Romney several times in Once in a Great City. He also includes a quote from  Rush Limbaugh II about where he lived “prided itself that it never allowed a Negro to live in it and no Negro lived there permanently.”

What the heck does Rush Limbaugh’s father have to do with Detroit? Nothing. However, in his Obama biography Maraniss points out many inconsistencies–or should I say lies?–within the future president’s Dreams from My Father memoir. Rather than being happy about the unexpected publicity about the book from the conservative radio host and others, Maraniss responded in anger to those attacks on a president that he supports. Which explains the author’s end-around attack on the younger Limbaugh. Such pettiness has no place in a serious book.

Michigan Bungalows in Grixdale Farms
Michigan Bungalows in Grixdale Farms

Something else happened in 1962 in Detroit that would hasten its demise, which Maraniss mentions only twice. Three months before the timeline of this book begins, Detroit’s municipal and commuter income taxes went into effect. Those are good reasons not to live or work in such a place.

Near the end of the book President Lyndon B. Johnson, after departing from Air Force One in Detroit on his way to the University of Michigan to give what became known as his Great Society Speech, offered remarks that seem comical today. “Prosperity in America must begin here in Detroit,” he told cheering crowds brought in for the occasion. “You folks in Detroit put American citizens on wheels, you have the American economy on the move. Unemployment in Detroit is down, profits are up, wages are good, and there is no problem too tough or too challenging for us to solve.”

But for LBJ Big Government was the solution to every problem. The Model Cities program, which Cavanaugh bought into big-time, was perhaps one of the biggest debacles of the Great Society.

Despite its flaws I heartily recommend this book. Because another city–Chicago perhaps, which also recently bid on an Olympics–may be the next Detroit.

Or perhaps your city is next.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

The Rap group Salt N Pepa have been around for a long time.  They broke into the rap scene in the 80’s and continue to perform 30 years later.

Their song “Push it” was released in 1986 and hit #1 on the charts in the US , as you can see here, the  lyrics are, shall we say, provocative…

Push it good
Push it real good
Push it good
P-push it real good

Ah, push it
Get up on this

Boy, you really got me going
You got me so I don’t know what I’m doing

Ah, push it

While this song when released and sung by twenty something women in their sexual prime produces a certain image sexual theme, when song by the still attractive but now late 40 something women another image comes to mind.

Now one might when seeing this ad thing of it as simply a clever little ad selling insurance but think of it. Soap opera, novellas and late night drama not withstanding there is a change of focus as you get older, when you’re young it’s all about some things, as you get older it’s all about other things and when we try to pretend that we are still 20 when we’re not, disappointment follows.

Exit question: Do you think that Salt N Pepa for one moment thought that someday this song would be used to sell insurance?