Veteran singer Al Wilson, a versatile performer who recorded rock, spirituals, blues, and soul, but is best known for his #1 hit "Show and Tell," died Monday night. He was 68.
Most of you probably know "Show and Tell," an epochal 70s soul ballad with a slow-burning groove, funky clavinet, and a chorus that scales pop heaven. So to honor Wilson I'll feature his first hit single (#27, U.S.), 1967's "The Snake."
This classic has many devotees on the Northern Soul scene, though to be fair, plenty of big-time soul fans think it's overrated. It's always worked for me. Not only do I enjoy this record's tight, well-played backing (probably featuring some of the great L.A. musicians who also played on Johnny Rivers' records, since this disc was done for his Soul City label), the lyrics are also sociologically fascinating. And Wilson sings the hell out of them.
The story concerns a woman who finds an injured snake and takes him in. She nurses him back to health, but overplays her hand...I wonder if this is an old legend, because it certainly sounds like one.
I've been meaning for a while to pick up on the obscure early 70s California band Instant Orange. German record label Shadoks, which reissued their barely-heard music on CD and a double LP a few years ago, described Instant Orange's music as
"a refreshing reflection of their west coast folk-rock influences that were so prevalent during the sixties and early seventies. All original tracks with inspiration from bands like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Love...full of electric and acoustic guitars with nice doses of McGuinnesque 12 string riffing as well as many unsuspecting surprises (antiquated electronic effects, rambling rural explorations, long jams, experimental moves, stoner banter and other weirdness between songs, caveman fuzz, etc)."
Well, you can guess that I was gonna get this music, even if the record-company stuff was overblown. The band released a single in 1968, then an album in 1973, and three more singles through 1975.
A lovely, sunny, jangly-guitar and laid-back drums California vibe permeates, sort of psychedelic, pretty, and odd in various places. It owes much to the Byrds, the Beau Brummels, the Beatles, Love, and other bands who sometimes used 12-string guitars and winsome vocals, but Instant Orange was completely and fully out of its time.
By 1968, when Instant Orange got together, folk-rock had already faded, either getting heavy or wimping out. By 1973 and 1974, the very idea of folk-rock was not to be taken seriously. The music had degenerated--with the help of many of its earliest participants--into either generic hippie country sludge or lighter-than-air, slick L.A. songwriter pap.
But these guys from San Bernadino, who from the liner notes of the Shadoks CD appear to have been humble and easygoing, just stuck to what they liked to do. Guitarist/singer Terry Walters and guitarist/bassist Randy Lanier, with Lynn McCurdy on drums, had a classic combination of 1) good ideas and 2) not always enough raw talent to realize them. Such a mix made the group, apparently, a bit erratic, but led to some revelatory recordings (and, I'm sure, some fun gigs).
Some of the time, the band sounds like a bunch of dudes playing in someone's basement. But their utter lack of pretense, their energy, and their focus outweigh the technical concerns, and feel is a lot more important than tightness anyway.
The song I've placed at the bottom of this post for thy listening pleasure is "The Visionary (Reactive)." It's the leadoff track from their full-length release, 1973's Five Year Premiere (the title refers to the band's long wait to do a first album). Trippy, urgent, and jangly, it feels like nearly nothing else recorded or released at that time.
Having only listened to the CD a few times, not all the songs have worked their way through me, and not all of them are special. But "View From Ghiradelli Square," "Coming of the Day," "Seems Like Everything," and the garage-y "Suburban Pictorial Abstract" (title alone earning that one a place in the late-60s Hall of Fame) have been immediate hits around this reporter's fuzzy brain.
With little promotion, sporadic gigs, some changes in personnel, and no radio or managerial support, the group's limited-production run of records had almost no contemporary impact...but with the passing of time, the charms of records like Instant Orange's have spread--by word of mouth and the tireless efforts of collectors and small record companies--enough so that the whole world (at least theoretically) can read about and hear a special class of music fully ignored by the official histories of rock and roll.
Bands and artists like the Patron Saints, Trizo 50, the Brain Police, Michael Angelo, Jungle, Justin Heathcliff, Lazy Smoke, the Penny Arkade, the Spoils of War, Blo, Erkin Koray, the Mops, and so many others (and I have so much to learn!) now have growing legions of fans eager to discover more of this unheard side of pop and rock music, one that spread around the world in a seemingly endless supply.
Tell you what--discovering this stuff is a lot more exciting than listening to the same old Eagles/Stones/Floyd "classic" axis over and over again, and it ain't just the pleasures of novelty. A lot of this music is AS GOOD AS the best of the all-time greats. I'm so blessed to have been turned on to it.
This past week, NPR's syndicated sports program "Only a Game" (which you can't actually hear in Chicago) ran a story on Wrigley Field. Reporter Yolanda Perdomo interviewed me as well as several other folks for the piece. If you'd like to hear this story via the Internet, you can click here.
April 6, 1974 was the day I bought my first record.
(click to enlarge in excruciating detail)
That afternoon, my mom took my brothers (John and Tom) and me to downtown Evanston--on the 203 bus--to Laury's Records (RIP), where the three of us were each allowed to select two 45 RPM discs.
By this time, I was a committed top 40 radio fan, having fallen headfirst into pop sometime a few months before.
The WCFL radio survey carried a list of the 40 most popular records in the Chicago area. WLS' survey had, as I recall, just 25 or so. While we listened to WLS more often, we were much more impressed by WCFL's surveys.
Seeing all of these shiny little 7-inch records available for us to purchase nearly blew my little mind. Therefore, despite the presence of some truly spectacular records on the WCFL April 6, 1974 survey ("Jet," "Just Don't Want to be Lonely," "TSOP," "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me," "Let it Ride," "Star Baby") I instead opted for two records that I loved at the time but that today you couldn't get me to listen to all the way through.
My first two records were..."Mockingbird" by Carly Simon and James Taylor and "Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John.
My two younger brothers had somewhat better taste at this time. John picked up Blue Swede's laugh-riot "Hooked on a Feeling" and, er, Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun." Tom, the youngest, snapped up "Jet" and Jim Stafford's unclassifiable but muy cool "Spiders and Snakes."
Eventually among the three of us, we picked up most of the good records that pop radio played during the mid-70s, and my 45-buying habit has never ceased. Thank God.
Thanks, mom, for taking us to the big record store that sunny April 6, 1974, and thanks for spurring my lifelong love of rock and roll.
The tune at the bottom of this post just gets me right in the throat. It's called "Hackensack" by Fountains of Wayne. A masterfully written little one-way conversation, this one is a credit to writers Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger. One of the saddest songs I know.
Maybe I should start a thread here...how about suggesting some other songs you find to be real tear-jerkers?
Other really, really sad songs, off the top of my head:
*I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now) -- Otis Redding *Dock of the Bay -- Otis Redding *Torpedo -- Julian Cope *For No One -- The Beatles *Favourite Hour -- Elvis Costello *End of the Rainbow -- Richard & Linda Thompson *Holocaust -- Big Star *Pearls -- Sade *Place to Be -- Nick Drake *I Had a King -- Joni Mitchell *Perfect Circle -- REM *Camera -- REM *Find the River -- REM *This Night Has Opened My Eyes -- The Smiths *Angel Eyes -- Ella Fitzgerald *Alone Again Or -- Love *Sleepless Nights -- The Everly Brothers
I must be forgetting about a million great ones. Help!
Really, Paul... I assume that the fallout from your failed marriage to Heather Mills was traumatic and very painful. And you have every right to find a new love. Good luck to you. But couldn't you have done better than a mobbed-up Republican?