Acoustic Guitar Innovators

With a few guitars sitting on the other side of the room, and decades of watching and listening to acoustic guitar players, I thought I had some notion of the boundaries of how one could play the instrument. I was so wrong.

Topeka, Kanas born Andy McKee incorporates a wide range of tapping and percussive techniques into his work, and check out the slanted scale on the guitar in this video! He’s released a number of albums dating back to 2001’s Nocturne, and he’s the first artist signed to the record label of guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel. In addition to his own records, he’s contributed to albums by Lee Ritenour and Josh Groban, and he toured with Prince. McKee blew up on the internet in 2005 with videos from his third album, Art of Motion, including this song “Drifting”.

Jon Gomm’s career has been very independent, self producing and crowd-funding his albums, playing local venues in England, while also touring the world and playing guitar festivals. In all my years of watching guitar players, until this video I’d never seen anyone play melodies by tuning the strings. If you want to see more, here’s a link to the video that put him on the map, 2011’s “Passionflower”.

This video by 23-year old Russian, Alexandr Misko incorporates the tapping, percussion and tuning effects used by McKee and Gomm, and he throws in an Eminem rap on top. His internet launch began in 2016 with his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

If you want to explore this vein of acoustic guitar playing further, apparently the godfather of these techniques is the late Michael Hedges, followed by Preston Reed.

To Love Somebody

On Friday, Barry Gibb released Greenfields: The Gibbs Brothers’ Songbook (Vol. 1). Barry is the last surviving Gibb brother of the Bee Gees. On Greenfields he reworks a number of Bee Gees hits in collaboration with a who’s who of country music. A lot to get your head around there, but relax – this post isn’t about any of that.

The Bee Gees first major album, Bee Gees’ 1st, was released in 1967 and included “To Love Somebody”. The song was written by Barry and Robin Gibb, intended to be given to Otis Redding to record. But the Bee Gees released it in mid-1967, and Redding never got a chance to cover it before he died at the end of that year. Over the years, though, an incredibly wide range of artists did cover the song, and what a malleable piece of music it has proven to be. Let’s start by watching the Gibb brothers perform the original, decked out in full 1960s splendor.

In 1969 the song got soulful treatments that Redding never got the chance to provide. Nina Simone and Janis Joplin delivered these interpretations that show just how far the song could be stretched.

Nearly 40 years later, Smashing Pumpkins founder Billy Corgan selected the song for his first solo album, TheFutureEmbrace. The album version features Robert Smith of The Cure on backing vocals, but here’s Corgan singing it by himself and delivering a beautiful, hypnotic performance.

American Epic Sessions

Among the things that somehow escaped me over the past few years is the 2017 documentary film The American Epic Sessions. The film surrounds the restoration of a 1920’s recording system, apparently the first to use an electronic microphone to record a room full of performers. The system cut a wax disc directly from the performance, and the cutting lathe was driven by a descending 100 lb. weight that provided about 3-1/2 minutes of recording time.

Once the restored system was operational, an A-list group of musicians showed up to take turns cutting tracks for the movie and for an expanded set of records.

Jack White created this gem, “Matrimonial Inclinations”. One take perfection.

Here’s Elton John with Jack providing a bit of backing.

And finally, here is Willie Nelson and the late Merle Haggard, who passed away before the film’s release.

Rock Hall 2020

A couple of weeks ago the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted its Class of 2020. T. Rex, The Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Whitney Houston and the Notorious B.I.G. Wow. Let’s sample some of that breadth.

Marc Bolan and T. Rex were credited with launching glam rock, and this video of their biggest hit “Bang a Gong” shows off some satin and glitter in a sea of other 1971 styles. And who’s that sitting in on keyboards? Someone who would set new standards for glam himself, Elton John!

Joan Jett covered T. Rex’s “Jeepster” for the tribute album AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex. The album was released this past September, in time for the band’s Rock Hall induction, and Joan did a pandemic performance on The Late Late Show to show it off.

Depeche Mode got off the ground with their first U.K. top ten hit “Just Can’t Get Enough” in 1981. In 1984 they achieved their greatest single hit, “People Are People”, and 1989’s Violator was their masterpiece and top charting album. Here’s a video of “People Are People” and Johnny Cash’s cover of Violator’s “Personal Jesus”.

Whitney Houston scored three #1 singles from her eponymous 1984 debut album, including “How Will I Know” with a synth intro worthy of a Depeche Mode track.

One of the best selling singles of all time was Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You” recorded for the movie The Bodyguard. The song was written and recorded by Dolly Parton nearly 20 years earlier. Since Whitney’s soaring chorus is burned into your memory, here’s Dolly’s original.

Tainted Love

A friend and reader turned me on to a great musical arc that is right in Music Now & Then’s wheelhouse. Thanks, David!

In 1964, Motown singer Gloria Jones recorded “Tainted Love”. The song was a B-side and didn’t get much attention (nor did the A-side), but in the early 1970’s it started to turn up in British “Northern Soul” dance clubs.

Marc Almond, half of the synthpop duo Soft Cell, heard the song in such a club and made it part of Soft Cell’s live sets after the group formed in 1977. When Soft Cell released the song as a single in 1981, it catapulted the band to fame. It was a No. 1 hit in 17 countries (No. 8 in the U.S.), and spent a then record 43 weeks in the top 100.

The song was later covered by an unlikely collection of musical acts ranging from Marilyn Manson to Pussycat Dolls. Check out this article for a sampling. The Soft Cell version was also the driving sample for Rihanna’s first #1 single in the U.S., “SOS”, released in 2006. Believe it or not, this video has been viewed 115 million times.

If you have another five minutes, hear the story of “Tainted Love” as told by Gloria Jones herself, and learn about her relationship with one of last week’s 2020 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees.