|Marshall Crenshaw, the living embodiment of Buddy Holly|
In my previous post, I sang the praises of the country cats—Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, and Eddie Cochran—who started off as country artists before the “Sun Revolution” of 1955-1956 but quickly crossed over and achieved success in the fledgling rockabilly genre. But another major stream/influence on the emerging rock idiom was not just jump blues/R&B or country, it was pop. Elvis himself was influenced heavily by pop superstars like Dean Martin and other pop vocalists of that same ilk. Indeed, “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine”, written by Tin Pan Alley’s Mack David but popularized by the recently deceased Patti Page in 1950 and covered by Martin in the 1953 movie “Scared Stiff”, was the B-side to his second single, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”. “Harbor Lights”, which is reputed to have been recorded at Presley’s first official session at Sun on July 5th, 1954, is another pop standard, made popular by Bing Crosby, but Presley’s version was never released as a single.
Buddy Holly, who followed Elvis, could cut loose and rock with the best of them, but his staggering talent for writing sweet, catchy songs brought rock into a whole new era. Elvis rarely wrote his own material, choosing instead to cover songs by a wide range of vocal stylists; Holly, on the other hand, was an outstanding and prolific writer who greatly expanded the sonic vocabulary of rock. Even on his first single, 1956’s “Blue Days, Black Nights”, Holly was crafting a smoother hybrid of pop rock than Elvis managed with his covers. But his flood of amazing, jangly, melodic singles that followed—“Words of Love”, the catchy, simple B-side to his second single, “That’ll Be The Day”; the positively exquisite confection “Everyday”, which was the B-side to “Peggy Sue”, which may be one of the sweetest, most marvelous songs ever recorded; and 1958’s “Look At Me”, which was never released as a single but was on Holly’s second long-playing album—hinted at the unbelievable talent of this young man and of his ability to fuse the energy with nascent rock with the sweet harmonies of pop vocals.
The king of rock crooners, of course, was Roy Orbison, who first hit the big time with his single “Ooby Dooby” with Sun in 1957. Orbison’s voice was as soaring and sweet as his own appearance was bizarre; a childhood bout with jaundice had left him sallow, and he had notoriously horrible eyesight, forcing him to wear thick glasses (which he hid by wearing prescription sunglasses). But on songs like the almost surreal “Only the Lonely” (Orbison hits a note that almost no other human seems capable of hitting at the denouement), “Blue Angel”, “I’m Hurtin’”, “Crying”, and “In Dreams”, Orbison brought the lush, orchestral production of classic pop vocal songs of the 50’s to rock. In doing so, there’s no doubt that he (and many, many others) tamed much of the original fire and passion out of rock. Ultimately this would lead to rock’s “death” in the late 50’s and early 60’s (until the Beatles and the British Invasion revived it) as rock became progressively more watered down and safe. Bobby Darin would ride this safer, family friendly form of rock (that was miles from the deep south gutbucket quality of Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) to a series of ever-blander hits like “Splish Splash”, “Dream Lover”, “Beyond the Sea”, and the execrable “Mack the Knife”.
Orbison would undergo one of the most astounding renaissances of any of the original rockabilly pioneers. A spate of successful covers (both Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris and the metal pioneers Nazareth covered “Love Hurts”; Linda Ronstadt covered “Blue Bayou”; Don Maclean covered “Crying”; Van Halen covered “Pretty Woman”) brought his music once again into public consciousness in the 70’s and 80’s. In the 80’s Orbison also achieved considerable success with movie soundtracks; David Lynch’s 1988 classic gothic film “Blue Velvet” used “In Dreams” as a centerpiece to the plot, and the next year Orbison teamed with former Misfit Glenn Danzig (of all people!) to write two songs for the soundtrack to the movie version of Bret Easton Ellis’ classic 80’s excess tale “Less Than Zero”, the transcendent “Life Fades Away”, on which Orbison hits a note at the end that almost tops his high note from “Only the Lonely”, and the title track, which was performed by Danzig. I was a HUGE fan of the book “Less Than Zero” and raced into the theater to see the movie, only to be bitterly disappointed at the weak, “Just Say No” moralizing of the plot, which is light years from Ellis’ classic cautionary example, but I did buy the soundtrack (it was one of the last albums I bought in record form) and I really, really liked both of those songs.
1987 also was the year that Orbison teamed up with ELO frontman Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty to form the Traveling Wilburys; their subsequent album was a massive worldwide hit, and Orbison’s contributions to songs like “Handle With Care” and “Not Alone Anymore” stood out even in such storied company. Lynne then produced Orbison’s new album, and the results were another smash success, with the song “You Got It” becoming a major hit, though a sadly posthumous one when Orbison died in 1988 at the far-too-young age of 52.
The 80’s saw a revival in the interest in classic, simple pop rock songs. Initially this grew out of the new wave/powerpop movement and the desire to return to the simplicity of earlier forms of rock that flowed out of the punk scene. One of the best, and least appreciated, artist of this era was Marshall Crenshaw. Crenshaw’s music was a sublime combination of Buddy Holly-like simplicity, Beatlesque harmonies and melodies (Crenshaw first achieved fame playing John Lennon in the traveling company of “Beatlemania”. When I was 9 or 10, my parents took me to see this great theatrical production at the Shubert Theater in Century City, so I’m proud to say I actually have seen Crenshaw in concert), and well-crafted “angry young man” new wave lyrics in the same vein as Elvis Costello (to whom he is often compared, due both to their similar musical leanings and their geeky, bespectacled appearances). His self-titled 1982 debut album was probably the apogee of his career, a magnificent melding of his influences and one of the best albums of the decade—sweeter than Costello’s work, but meatier than other powerpop releases, it hit that perfect sonic sweet spot. “I’ll Do Anything” is groovy (the bass here is particularly thumping) and melodic, and Crenshaw’s distinctive voice rings like a clarion through this song, which to me hints at what Buddy Holly might have achieved had he lived until and undergone a revival of his career in the 80’s similar to Orbison’s. “Rockin’ Around NYC” is more up-tempo and has that energy and nervous edge of most new wave from that era. “Cynical Girl” is more of a late 50’s throwback, despite the thoroughly contemporary lyrics (that evoke to me the biting work of Tonio K), and is jangly and sweet; Tom Petty often hinted at songs like this as he traversed the 80’s (think “Free Fallin’”) but as much as I love Tom, his voice is too gravelly to pull off the sweetness needed here. “Mary Anne” is another phenomenal track, hailing to the classic 50’s/60’s tradition of writing pining, sweet songs with a girl’s name in the title.
But the standout track, and indeed Crenshaw’s only flirtation with widespread success, is the jaunty, fun “Someday, Someway”. No song of the past 55 years since Holly’s death has come even remotely close to evoking his spirit and musical vision more than this song; indeed, many people still are fooled into thinking this is a Holly song they don’t remember. This song is simply fantastic, perfectly capturing Holly’s style without sounding like an imitation. Crenshaw clearly loved and respected Holly; he even covers “Rave On” on this album so perfectly, with just his voice and electric guitar, that you’d swear Holly survived the crash that took his life. Crenshaw’s singing and acting ability, along with his skinny frame and glasses, led to him playing Holly in the Richie Valens biopic “La Bamba” (former Stray Cat Brian Setzer plays Eddie Cochran, giving this movie a pretty talented and highly credible musical cast).
Crenshaw’s followup, 1983’s Field Day, suffered from over-production that bleached out some of the vibrancy of his debut. The songs here are uniformly solid but few stand out with the sparkle of the work on his first album. I like “One Day With You” because of its Beatlesque harmonies (it actually reminds me more than a little of first-run powerpop songs by bands like the Raspberries and Big Star) and the rocking “Monday Morning Rock”, another track that evokes (though much less than “Someday”) the work of Holly. On 1985’s Downtown, Crenshaw completed his highly regarded early trifecta, but like Field Day, it fails to capture the lightning in a bottle his debut was able to grab. But two highlights stick out: the jaunty, Holly-influenced “(We’re Gonna) Shake Up Their Minds” and the rocking rave-up “Right Now” (which reminds me of some of John Fogerty’s early solo work, like Centerfield).
For the past 30 years, Crenshaw has continued to release albums hewing to his own vision. My favorite songs are the twangy “Someplace Where Love Can’t Find Me” off 1989’s Good Evening; “What Do You Dream Of?” off 1996’s Miracle of Science (this song reminds me of some of the work Tommy Tutone did on his third album, National Emotion); “Television Light” and the sweet, Wilbury-esque “TMD” off 1999’s #447.
One of Crenshaw’s earliest singles, “Something’s Gonna Happen”, evoked another ballad singing 50’s pretty boy who pushed rock toward pop: Ricky Nelson. Nelson of course even covered a Gershwin standard, “Summertime”. His pop rock classics “Hello Marylou”, “Poor Little Fool”, “Everlovin’”, and “You Are the Only One” were smooth, sweet slow dance numbers (though Nelson could also rock with the best of them, particularly when his guitarist James Burton cut loose) calculated to appeal to the teenybopper girls who swooned over his handsome face.
Speaking of handsome faces, I’ve said in previous posts that I consider Chris Isaak to be one of the best musicians of the last thirty years. Starting with his early work with his proto-rockabilly group Silvertone, Isaak began crafting songs that pulled on a variety of early rock influences, everything from the wild rave-up work of the early Sun artists to the sweet rockabilly pop of Holly, Orbison, et al., to the early 60’s groove of artists like Neil Diamond. But more than anything Isaak is the contemporary embodiment of Ricky Nelson—his pretty boy looks, his acting success, and his emphasis on crooning ballads have caused many people to dismiss him as a musical lightweight, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Recently I’ve been really getting in to his 1985 debut, Silvertone. I can remember seeing the video for “Dancin’” back in the day on the video/dance show MV3 and liking the slinky, sexy moodiness of this song. This song was a minor hit on the college/independent circuit and rightly so, it should actually have been an even bigger hit than it was. But it’s not even my favorite song on this album: currently I’m obsessed with “Livin’ For Your Lover” and it’s shimmering guitars and peppy, strolling rhythm that evokes the best of both Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison (Chris even hits a few killer high notes like Roy here). I also love how the happy, upbeat feel of this song is punctuated and occasionally even counterpointed by James Calvin Wilsey’s twangy stabs of rockabilly guitar. This is very much one of my favorite songs right now. “Talk To Me” and “Voodoo” have more of that ominous, moody feel of “Dancin’”, while “Tears” has a kind of Johnny Cash lite feel to it, while “Gone Ridin’” and “Western Stars” have more of a country/western feel.
Isaak’s self-titled 1986 sophomore effort continued in the same vein but often got a little too bogged down in the mopey crooners. I love his Elvis update “Blue Hotel”, which evokes the King without being mawkish. His cover of the Yardbirds” “Heart Full of Soul” gives a rockabilly twist to this psychedelic blues classic, while “Lover’s Game” and it’s weird up-and-down chorus is another good track. “Fade Away” is classic Orbison again but the guitar here almost brings to mind some of Johnny Marr’s work in the early Smiths.
Isaak hit the big time with his single “Wicked Game”, off his 1989 album Heart Shaped World. I remember when this album came out and became a huge hit; it was in the heyday of grunge but Isaak and Wilsey crafted a moody, melancholy masterpiece that struck a chord in a lot of people (including me), but it isn’t my favorite song on this album. My faves are the title track and its brooding reverb and relentless beat; the Everly Brothers-influenced “I’m Not Waiting”; the funky, groovy “Don’t Make Me Dream About You”; the twangy country flourishes on “Wrong To Love You”. But my favorites are two complete opposites: the slow, ominous “Nothing’s Changed” and the bouncy up-tempo rocker “Diddley Daddy” and its Bo Diddley beat.
His followup, 1993’s San Francisco Days, was a little bit of a letdown. After the pure crystalline sonic vision and broodiness of Heart Shaped World, his attempts to expand his sound into the early 60’s by adding organ and moving beyond his lonesome crooner image seemed a trifle forced. Nevertheless, some songs hit the mark, most notably “Two Hearts” a sweet perky confection with classic Isaak/Orbison unreachable high notes works; here the light organ accompaniment underscores rather than dominates the melody. The echoey, reverbed “Waiting” is another gem. “I Want Your Love” has some wild, trilling organ, but mostly this song evokes the manic energy of Jerry Lee Lewis, and Isaak plays this often in concert. His cover of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man” is solid though I love the original too much to fall too hard for a cover.
1995’s Forever Blue also had some noteworthy cuts. One of my favorite Isaak songs of all time is the Orbison-esque “Somebody’s Crying”, with its sweetly jangling guitar and driving drum line married to Isaak’s masterful falsetto croon. James Wilsey left Isaak’s band after San Francisco Days and newcomer Hershel Yatovitz ably stepped into his (substantial) shoes on this song and on songs like the shimmery “Things Go Wrong” and the jaunty “There She Goes”. “Goin’ Nowhere” is a twangy rocker with less mood and more texture than previous efforts in this regard, particularly on the slashing whammy bar guitar sections, which to me evokes the very antithesis of Isaak, the Cramps (most notably “New Kind of Kick”). “I Believe” is a optimistic and upbeat, while “End of Everything” has that ambling horse rhythm of a Gene Autry song married to the falsetto of classic Roy Orbison.
To me Isaak’s best album, and one of the best albums of all time, is 1996’s Baja Sessions. Here Isaak mostly covers songs by other artists and re-records some of his own work, many of which evoke lyrically or thematically breezy, summery, and/or tropical themes in line with the album title. The album wasn’t actually recorded in Baja, but thanks to the magnificent production and south-of-the-border themes it has an almost timeless warm weather feel to it. Very often at this time of the year we start to get some truly warm (but not hot), marvelous spring days, and it’s on those days that I’m most likely to throw this entire album on and let it play through. I have hundreds of happy memories of pleasant warm days filled with Mexican beer, white wine, tank tops and warm breezes that this album is the soundtrack to.
Most notably, the tone on this album is unbelievable. Tone is an amazing and evanescent thing, difficult to capture, but when it is captured it’s like magic. Most of the early Sun recordings of Elvis and Carl Perkins had a full sound and tone, even with just three instruments, that still sounds incredible today. Many of the great classic albums of the 70’s by people like Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac (especially their albums recorded at Sound City in the Valley) had an incredible tone to them that still rings out today. Here the tone is lush, warm, but mellow—it really DOES sound like Isaak and his bandmates are lounging in patio furniture wearing linen pants, noodling on some old faves while someone snaps on a tape recorder. Every track here sounds fantastic but the standouts to me are his re-interpretation of his own “Pretty Girls Don’t Cry” from his debut album, which was good but too staccato and slickly produced; this new version is smooth and organic and Yatovitz’s guitar sounds absolutely AMAZING, especially when he rips off some exuberant rockabilly licks after each chorus. Isaak’s cover of Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” seems overdue but here it’s given a soft, Spanish feel that fits perfectly with the Latin timbre of the album. Similarly, his cover of Gene Autry’s “South of the Border” is another gem, as are his covers of “Yellow Bird” and Bing Crosby’s “Sweet Leilani”. “I Wonder” has some incredible guitar sound too, and its mix of optimistic and pessimistic lyrics give it a lilting feel. But album closer “Think of Tomorrow” is yet another personal favorite, a final blast of sweet pure guitar tone that leaves the listener feeling very satisfied.
Isaak has continued to release excellent albums, but one of my last favorites by him is 1998’s Speak of the Devil (“Walk Slow” is another personal favorite song, especially when Chris hits those great high notes at the end). I did recently download some of his songs from his Sun Records album, mostly his covers of Elvis and Carl Perkins classics like “Dixie Fried” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. But to me Baja Sessions was the pinnacle of his career; few artists will ever match the breezy pleasure and warm inviting tone of this album. The thing is, I don’t even know who the producer was on this album, a shame considering I consider this to be one of the best production jobs of all time.