Canada’s Punk Rockers: Rebelling Against… Something, and Doing It Well

The CD cover for Sum 41's "Underclass Hero."I’m sort of embarrassed to admit it, but my international travel has been limited to three trips to our neighbor to the north, Canada. Actually, one of those barely even qualifies. In 1999, while in Detroit during a multi-city baseball trip with two of my nephews (neither of whom had ever been to Canada, but wanted to be able to say that they had), I drove to Windsor, Ontario long enough for us to get burgers at Harvey’s, the biggest Canadian-owned burger chain in the country. The length of the entire trip was maybe an hour. My previous forays into The Great White North (a tip of the cap to Bob and Doug Mackenzie, characters from the once-popular SCTV sketches) came many years earlier during a pair of family vacations with my parents. Both of those trips were in the western provinces, the English-speaking part of the country, where the relative differences in culture to that of the Midwest isn’t any greater than that between the Midwest and the American east coast.

The impression of Canada that I came away with from those three trips was that of a slightly cleaner country than my own United States, inhabited with people who seemed a little more polite than my own fellow countrymen. I’m sure that that assessment doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as those things seem to be the most common ones that Americans observe about our neighbor to the north. The trouble with impressions made from vacation trips, however, is that you tend to visit “nice” places and seldom stray into decaying areas filled with have-nots. The picture is very seldom balanced. For all I know, Canada may have had its share of urban blight and teeming slums, no different than the United States, but I didn’t see it. Consequently, my view of Canada was fairly rosy.

Several years ago, I noticed a certain musical trend coming out of Canada, which was the surprising number of Canadian punk bands that were making inroads into the United States music charts. My general perception of Canada was somewhat rocked by the thought of the country now being a hotbed for emerging punk artists. “What are they rebelling against?” I wondered. Could it be the lack of recent Stanley Cup triumphs by their NHL franchises in recent years? Or, were they pissed off about the 1995 merger of their homegrown Tim Hortons restaurant chain with America’s Wendy’s International? (For the record, Tim Hortons was spun off as its own company again in 2006, only to merge with Burger King eight years later; so they might be pissed again!) Who knows the reason? In any case, punk, the music of rebellion, was alive and well in Canada. The punk of the nineties until now, of course, isn’t quite the same as what it was when it first came onto the music scene in the seventies.

So, what is punk? As is the case with other popular genres, the music is defined by common lyrical content, tempo, and instrumentation, but also by the attire worn by band members (and their fans), as well as their general attitude, whether it be their stage presence or the way they act during interviews, public appearances, etc. Punk originally emerged in the seventies as part of the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement, and particularly in Britain, as a political outcry by a generation of young working class men who were coming of age only to find an economic landscape littered with failed manufacturing companies and entire industries paralyzed by lengthy strikes. The decline of the British Empire had resulted in a generation of workers feeling hopeless about their prospects, but with few viable ways to express their frustration. This frustration resonated to some degree with the younger generation in the United States and Canada, but the economic difficulties in North America were never as devastating or long lasting as they were in Britain.

Although punk originated on this side of the Atlantic Ocean with The Ramones in the mid-seventies, punk never became more than an underground movement here. Had it not been for the safety-pin piercings and spikey, multi-colored hairdos of its adherents, it’d probably have gone unnoticed by most Americans. A few major cities had fervent punk scenes, but the movement never really took hold across the board. By 1980, several of Britain’s punk bands had already evolved into what would become known as new wave, which – in part due to the launch of MTV in 1981, which initially relied on newer bands willing to produce music videos – did have a decided impact in North America and around the world.

Simple PlanWhile new wave siphoned off most of the major British groups who were hitting the American pop charts during the eighties, punk didn’t completely wither away. In fact, it was renamed hardcore punk to more clearly differentiate it from the much poppier post-punk bands of the eighties that would eventually morph into alternative rock. Hardcore punk soon jettisoned the “punk” portion of the name and carried on the angry attitude for ensuing generations of rebellious young music fans. By the late-eighties, a punk revival was fomenting on the west coast wherein the music was more akin to the late-seventies style. By the mid-nineties, Green Day, The Offspring, Blink-182, and Everclear were among a wave of bands championing this more melodic form of punk that would boost the genre into the upper reaches of the U.S. singles charts for the first time, with accompanying massive album sales. It is this strain of west coast punk that gained traction in Canada during the late nineties and into the new millennium.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that punk didn’t just suddenly appear in Canada during the late nineties. In fact, some of the first major punk bands in North America were Canadian. The first Canadian punk band to be signed by a major label (Columbia) was The Diodes in 1977, which came within a year of their formation. The Toronto, Ontario-based band released three proper albums, as well as a fourth album of demos and outtakes between 1977 and 1982. They were largely responsible for creating the vibrant Toronto punk scene, as the band and their manager turned their practice space into the city’s first punk club. Hamilton, Ontario’s Teenage Head was started by high school classmates in 1975 and they had their self-titled debut disc on store shelves by 1979. Teenage Head released several albums during the eighties, which may have been helped or hindered by the notoriety they received for two Toronto concerts (in 1978 and 1980) that ended in riots and police intervention.

On Canada’s west coast, punk was also becoming established. Vancouver, British Columbia’s D.O.A., formed in 1978, was soon regarded as one of the progenitors of hardcore punk during the early eighties. Since then, D.O.A. has experimented with various musical styles – with a revolving door of members – but they always seem to return to their punk rock roots. In the process, they have released an impressive eighteen studio albums! Nomeansno formed in Victoria, BC in 1979, the result of attending a D.O.A. concert that got them pumped up for punk. Their distinctive sound comes from placing the instrumental emphasis on the bass guitar and drum kit, rather than on lead guitar. Since 1982, Nomeansno has released a dozen albums and numerous EPs.

A new breed of Canadian punk bands began emerging in the late nineties, no doubt inspired by the success that America’s west coast punk bands were already achieving. This time, however, almost all of the action taking place north of the border was in the province of Ontario.

Sum 41 came together in tiny Ajax, Ontario in 1996, but were soon gigging in the province’s larger cities. Their first album was released in 2000, but it was 2001’s All Killer No Filler that brought them fame on both sides of the border. Often sophomoric in their lyrical approach, the quality of their musicianship and production, however, make their albums a rollicking romp. Through 2011 they’ve put out half a dozen studio albums, plus one live disc.

Montreal, Quebec’s Simple Plan was formed in 1999 by several high school friends who’d initially gone their own way after graduation, but came together again a couple of years later. Their first album, No Pads, No Helmets… Just Balls (2002), was an immediate success, using a formula that might be described as “party punk.” Since then, they’ve released three more studio albums and a live set.

Hailing from Burlington, Ontario, Silverstein began in 2000 as a side project of its five members. After recording a well-received EP that same year, the quintet decided to become a permanent arrangement. Silverstein’s post-hardcore sound is a melding of screamo and punk. The band has recorded eight full-length albums between their first in 2003 and their latest, which was released this year. A good place to start might be 2005’s Discovering the Waterfront.

Like Silverstein, Alexisonfire (pronounced Alexis on fire, not Alex is on fire) also mines post-hardcore territory. Formed in St. Catharines, Ontario in 2001, the combo’s disc debut came with an eponymously titled album in 2003. The highpoint of their five-album career may be 2006’s Crisis.

Glass BoysTogether since 2001, Toronto, Ontario’s Fucked Up released a succession of EPs and singles before recording their first full-length album in 2006. Three more albums have been issued subsequently, but the prolific band continues to churn out EPs and singles at an amazing rate. The eclectic rockers vary from the usual enraged vocals and limited, but feverish guitar lines of traditional punk songs to also include lengthy instrumental passages, atypical arrangements, and experimental sections. Their latest album, 2014’s Glass Boys, may be their most subversive yet.

Other Canadian punk bands worth a listen include The Mahones, Propagandhi, Billy Talent, and Death from Above 1979. Click on any of the linked items to take you to the online catalog records of each of these bands. Reserve them, take them home, and give them a spin. Then you too can find out why punk is alive and well in the land of the maple leaf!

Swedish Popular Music: “I Don’t Care, I Love It”

AviciiLately, it seems that every time I hop in the car I hear the song “Wake Me Up” by Avicii come on the radio. So I was wondering, who’s this guy with the Latin sounding name? After a few minutes of searching the Interweb, I found out two things: 1) Avicii is the pseudonym of Swedish electro-dance producer and DJ Tim Bergling, and 2) Avicii is not Latin at all, but a word that means the lowest level of hell in Buddhism. Now I’m no expert on Buddhism, but from what I understand, once there, you can’t escape that level of hell. What those connotations have to do with this artist’s music, I’m not going to even hazard a guess! Personally, I find it kind of catchy.

At just 24, Avicii has already been a star in Europe for several years. With “Wake Me Up,” he’s the third Swedish act to land a tune in Billboard’s top ten in the past year, following Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” Before those acts hit the U.S. top ten, it’d been a long time since a Swedish artist had accomplished the feat. You have to go all the way back to 1996-97, when Robyn had a pair of singles that each rose to number seven. While it remains to be seen whether Avicii , or Icona Pop, will become fixtures on U.S. music charts  (Swedish House Mafia had already announced their imminent breakup prior to the release of “Don’t You Worry Child” in 2012), Swedish acts are hitting the American singles charts the hardest they have in many years.

Despite the fifteen-year gap in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, many Swedish acts have achieved a notable level of success in the United States during the interim. Those artists include Alcazar, Basshunter, The Cardigans, The Hives, Lykke Li, Opeth, Eric Prydz, and The Sounds. The names in that list cover many different musical genres, proving that popular music in Sweden isn’t limited to a particular style. That said, however, I find it interesting that the Swedish acts that found massive mainstream success in the United States all fall into a pretty narrow range: mixed-gender pop/dance groups accenting female vocals.

Ace of BaseThe most recent of these Swedish superstars is Ace of Base, who stormed onto the scene in 1992 with the album The Sign (originally released in Europe as Happy Nation, with a slightly different track listing) which became one of the best-selling debut albums in recording history. Comprised of Ulf “Buddha” Ekberg and siblings Jonas “Joker” Berggren, Malin “Linn” Berggren and Jenny Berggren, Ace of Base placed four singles in the U.S. top ten, including the number one title track from their American debut disc. Worldwide, Ace of Base has sold over fifty million albums, making them the third-bestselling Swedish act of all time.

Roxette is a duo made up of vocalist Marie Fredriksson and songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Per Gessle. Fredriksson and Gessle came together after successful stints in other groups, but each one’s previous success in their native Sweden was nothing compared to what they’d achieve together. In the three years covering 1989-91, Roxette was a hit machine in the United States and throughout the world. Stateside, they had four singles shoot to number one while another pair peaked at two. Their career has continued far longer in Europe than it has here, but with worldwide album sales of over seventy million, Roxette is the second-bestselling Swedish act ever.

As popular as the two aforementioned bands have been, they never even approached the spectacular heights achieved by ABBA between 1972 and 1982. From almost the very beginning, ABBA – whose name is an acronym of the band members’ names:  (A)gnetha Fältskog, (B)jörn Ulvaeus, (B)enny Andersson, and (A)nni-Frid Lyngstad – was  an absolute sensation in Europe and throughout most of the English-speaking world.  The band certainly had plenty of success in the states, too, though not nearly as much as one might expect. They only placed four singles in the U.S. top ten, with just one reaching number one (“Dancing Queen”). Throughout their career, and for some years after, it just wasn’t cool to like ABBA in this country. Perhaps the nation’s ABBAcollective mood during that time – due to the Watergate Scandal, the Oil Crisis, rising unemployment and inflation rates, the Farm Crisis, etc. – was such that many Americans weren’t in the proper temper for such bright, bouncy tunes.

The general assessment of ABBA’s output, however, appeared to shift significantly in the early nineties. At that point, several contemporary American artists covered ABBA songs, a couple of popular Australian movie imports (Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) highlighted ABBA tunes, and ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits was released, which has been a consistent seller ever since. By the end of the decade, the musical Mamma Mia! had landed on U.S. stages, continuously playing venues throughout the next decade, and followed in 2008 by a film version starring Meryl Streep. Suddenly it was cool to like, even love, ABBA. On March 15, 2010, the band was fully legitimized when it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite the fact that they never officially disbanded, the group has not recorded together in over thirty years. Even so, ABBA has sold over 300 million albums worldwide, easily making them the most successful Swedish act of all time, as well as one of the planet’s biggest acts, period.

Before I bring this blog entry to a close, I’ll also mention a couple of Swedish rock bands that had a taste of mainstream success in the United States. Seventies pop/rock cover band Blue Swede holds the distinction of being the first Swedish music act to score a number one single in America. They did so with a remake of the B.J. Thomas hit “Hooked on a Feeling” in April 1974. Although you may not remember the band, you may well remember the “ooga-chaka ooga-chaka” background chant that they cribbed from English singer Jonathan King’s earlier cover version. Blue Swede hit the top ten again later that same year with a cover of The Association‘s “Never My Love” before disbanding in 1975. In the mid-to- late 1980s, the hard rock band Europe was Sweden’s apparent answer to the American arena rock/hair metal trend of that period. Europe placed four songs on the U.S. top forty singles chart (two of those rising to the top ten) and had two albums reach the U.S. top twenty albums chart. Europe remains an active recording and touring act still popular throughout… well, Europe.

Visit the Des Moines Public Library for thousands upon thousands of CD titles across every musical genre. CDs have a three-week checkout period, no limit above the overall fifty-item limit, and – best of all – they’re free!

The Family Business: Country Music Style

Miley Cyrus apparently subscribes to the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The former star of Disney TV’s Hannah Montana set the media abuzz with her surprisingly raw dance routine on the recent Video Music Miley CyrusAwards telecast. Of course, had Katy Perry or Lady Gaga performed that same routine, there would probably be far less scrutiny, but this was a bit of a shocker from the previously untarnished twenty-year-old. Riding high with the current number one single “Wrecking Ball” on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, Cyrus seems determined to shed her squeaky clean teen image in favor of a rather salacious adult persona. 

I suppose that you can’t blame Miley Cyrus from wanting to make the break. Billy Ray CyrusAfter all, she’s actually trying to distance herself from two things: her teen image and her country singer/actor father, Billy Ray Cyrus. I assume that it’s difficult to sell yourself as a pop diva when many still think of a line dance craze at the mention of the name Cyrus. Billy Ray, of course, is probably still best remembered for creating that craze with his monster hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” way back in 1992. Although he has twelve studio albums to his credit, none has repeated the incredible success of his debut disc, Some Gave All. For over a decade now, he has focused much of his attention on acting. Among other roles, he starred as a Montana physician who took a job in New York City in the PAX  TV (now ION Television) show Doc, which ran from 2001-04, and as the on-screen father of his real-life daughter’s Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana dual character from 2006-11. 

Miley is far from the first progeny of a country singer to make a name in her/his own right in the music field. Surprisingly, however, she is the only one that I could discover who had not followed a country music icon into that same genre. Whereas Billy Ray is undeniably a country singer (who also cut some religious discs, but in a country style), Miley is clearly a pop singer. Apparently, this is a rare occurrence, as my check of similar parent/child music performers across all genres showed that the apple rarely falls far from the tree. One such example of disparate genres is John Raitt, the late star of several major Broadway musicals, and his daughter Bonnie Raitt, who became a blues-rock musician. Another is Ravi Shankar, the recently-deceased sitar virtuoso, and his daughter Norah Jones, who opted for a career as a jazz vocalist/keyboardist. A third might be singer-pianist Nat King Cole and his daughter singer Natalie Cole, but Nat, who started in jazz and ventured into pop, shared much musical territory with Natalie, who started in R&B and soul, before moving into pop and jazz. 

Despite Miley’s spurning country for pop, several country music icons have had offspring who have followed in their footsteps and become stars in their own right. Depending on your age, you probably rate either Hank Williams or Johnny Cash as the most iconic figure in the history of country music. Either way, those superstars would be a difficult act to follow, and yet, both had a child who managed to get out of the shadow of their famous father and into a spotlight of their own. 

Hiram King “Hank” Williams was the first superstar of the genre, as he took what had previously been referred to as “hillbilly” music onto the national stage in the 1950s, writing several dozen classic honky tonk tunes before Hank Williamsdrinking himself to death at age twenty-nine! His son, Hank Williams, Jr. (born Randall Hank Williams), started out as a sort of Hank Williams tribute performer, but after some mild success doing that – and having first to overcome his own fondness for drink and drugs – went on to become one of the most popular country artists of his generation. He found his own voice in the outlaw country style, with his long career peaking in the 1980s. Junior’s son, Hank Williams, III (born Shelton Hank Williams), has followed in the rebel footsteps of his forbearers, acquiring a considerable reputation for enjoying a certain naturally growing “weed.” Hank the Third started his music career in punk and hardcore bands, but more recently has drifted in and out of the traditional honky tonk style, often creating a hybrid of honky tonk and rock that generally gets him labeled as an alt-country artist. 

Johnny Cash (born J.R. Cash, as his parents couldn’t decide on a name!) enjoyed a half-century career yet his reputation seems to continue growing even a decade after his death. Like the Williams clan, Cash also went down the Johnny Cashdark path of alcohol and drugs, with alternating periods of living under the influence and being sober. Nevertheless, he remained productive through it all, releasing dozens of albums and writing over 1,000 songs. Perhaps country’s first “outlaw,” Cash was a genre-bending artist who embraced the poor and downtrodden. With his first wife, The Man in Black fathered Rosanne Cash, but had little contact with her until she graduated high school. Rosanne then spent the next three years serving in various non-musical and increasingly important musical capacities on her father’s cross-country tours, learning her lessons well. Starting in the late 1970s she began releasing critically lauded, but infrequent albums in the neo-traditionalist vein, spawning several number one hits and earning recognition for her own remarkable songwriting skill. 

Johnny Cash’s second wife was June Carter, a member of The Carter Family, The Carter Familyoften acknowledged as “The First Family of Country Music.” June’s mother, Maybelle, was one of the founding members of The Carter Family, originally a folk/gospel trio that was one of the most important artists in the creation of country music during the 1920s and 1930s. Starting in the 1940s, June spent over half a century working in the family business. With first husband, Carl “Mister Country” Smith, one of the most popular stars of the 1950s, June had daughter Carlene Carter. Like her mother, Carlene began her career as a member of The Carter Family, but had her greatest success as a solo artist during the 1990s as a neo-traditionalist.

Lorrie-Morgan-2009-300-01Country crooner George Morgan was the singer of the 1949 number one hit “Candy Kisses,” the first of his twenty-three singles that would reach the country top forty. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a long-time member of the Grand Old Opry, Morgan was the final artist to sing on stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and the first to sing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House, when the venerable program moved to its new digs in 1974. George’s daughter, Lorrie Morgan, was a major star of the late-eighties and throughout the nineties, achieving three number ones among her fourteen top ten singles.

Mel Tillis is primarily known for two things, possessing one of the most Pam Tillisbeautiful voices in country music, and having one of the most severe stutters of any public figure. As a songwriter, he is one of the most covered artists in country music history, penning dozens of hits from the late-fifties forward. In the 1970s, Tillis became one of Nashville’s biggest stars. By the time his career was winding down in the 1990s, he’d had six number ones and another thirty top ten country hits.  By then, his daughter, Pam Tillis, had become a star and was making her own mark on the country charts.  By the start of the new millennium, Pam had had a number one hit of her own, as well as another dozen top ten country hits. 

Like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings was one of the main figures in the outlaw country Waylon Jenningsmovement of the 1970s. In fact, there was a previous connection between the two, as they once shared a Nashville apartment and, by their own admissions, large quantities of amphetamines. Although he was already a successful musician, Jennings didn’t become a superstar until he gained complete creative control over his recordings in the mid-seventies.  In 1969, Jennings met and married Jessi Colter, who went on to her own successful music career as one of the few women to be part of the outlaw movement. Their only child, Shooter Jennings (born Waylon Albright Jennings) is currently an alt-country star. 

Whether you’re looking for classic or current country music stars, we have them in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library. Browse our shelves, or browse our catalog, for hundreds of country titles. With our new, higher-limit CD policy, you can check out up to fifty discs at a time. So come to the library and get your country on!

Hair and the Rock Musical

HairOne of the most ubiquitous images of the late-sixties and early seventies was the orange, green, and yellow psychedelic poster for the musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. I was too young to actually know what Hair was about. All I knew was that it was something big and that it was very controversial. What I didn’t know at the time was that several songs that I was familiar with as radio staples were from that production, having all debuted in 1969, the year following Hair’s Broadway debut. Three Dog Night took “Easy to Be Hard” to number four, Oliver pushed “Good Morning Starshine” to number three, The Cowsills shot to number two with “Hair,” and The Fifth Dimension enjoyed a six-week stay at number one with the medley “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”

Hair was conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who had met while appearing in a short-lived off-Broadway play in 1964. To help fill time between acting gigs, they decided to write a play that would try to capture the growing counter-culture movement of the sixties. Later, they were introduced to composer Galt McDermott, who set their words to music. Hair originally opened off-Broadway as the debut production of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater on October 17, 1967. After a six-week run there, Papp and new co-producer Michael Butler moved it to The Cheetah, a discothèque located on 53rd and Broadway, for 45 performances starting December 22. Following that second off-Broadway run, Hair had a hiatus during which it was thoroughly revised, including the addition of 13 new songs and the introduction of nudity.

When Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968 it became the first rock musical to play The Great White Way, and very possibly the first to play anywhere. Its loose tale of a “tribe” of young hippies touched on numerous topics that were still considered taboo by the majority of the American populace:  anti-Vietnam War stance, Hair DVDrecreational drug use, sexual freedom, religious irreverence, and environmentalism. Much of the stagecraft was experimental (a spare, gray set scrawled with graffiti, overly stylized hippie costuming, “psychedelic” lighting) and the acting was unconventional, using improvisational techniques and repeatedly breaking the “fourth wall.” Most of all, it had exuberant music: edgy lyrics and captivating melodies. The result was a work that defied nearly every musical and theatrical convention – and it was a sensation. Curious crowds quickly made it Broadway’s biggest hit.

Butler, a Chicago businessman, was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War who was considering a run for the U.S. Senate on an anti-war platform at the time he stumbled onto the Public Theater version of Hair. He soon gave up his political aspirations and instead used the musical to further his anti-war agenda. The Broadway run of Hair lasted an impressive 1,750 performances, though its longevity was no doubt diminished by its success elsewhere. Butler licensed productions in virtually every major U.S. city. At one point, concurrently-running versions were playing in nine American cities, while national touring companies simultaneously crisscrossed the country. The staging of Hair in London’s West End ran an equally astonishing 1,997 performances. The creators continued to write additional songs that made their way into various versions playing throughout North America and the world. Many of the regional U.S. and international versions were even tailored with topical and/or local references to appeal to their specific audiences.

In the meantime, dozens of cast albums were recorded, with the original Broadway cast album becoming a multi-platinum smash and a Grammy winner for Best Score from an Original Cast Show Album. In addition to those mentioned above, literally hundreds of other cover recordings were made by popular musicians ranging from Barbra Streisand to Sérgio Mendes. Between the licensing of the many productions and the music royalties, all of the principals involved in the show became wealthy. Subsequent revivals have continued to thrust the musical back into the public eye.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how much effect Hair actually had on turning national sentiment against the Vietnam War, as there were many factors, but it’s safe to say that it was a contributing cause.  By the time master filmmaker Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) adapted Hair for cinema screens in 1979, the show’s moment had passed, and the movie was only a marginal success. To this day, however, the stage version continues to be regarded as one of the best artistic works to depict the mood of the radical sixties.

Hair’s success, naturally, spawned a wave of rock musicals hoping for similar fortunes. Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Grease, Pippin, The Rocky Horror Show, The Wiz, and Evita were all launched in the early to mid-seventies and attained Hair New Albumconsiderable popularity, either on Broadway, the West End, or both. In fact, many theatre critics of the time predicted that rock music would be the norm for stage musicals going forward.  That, however, did not prove to be the case. After an initial flood of productions, rock musicals slowed to a trickle by the latter part of the decade, with none attaining the massive success of the aforementioned titles.

The eighties and nineties produced a few very notable rock musicals – Little Shop of Horrors, Chess, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, and Rent, but those were exceptions. Audiences were increasingly turning to gargantuan productions featuring more traditional, pop-oriented musical fare, such as 42nd Street, La Cage aux Folles, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, The Lion King, and Jekyll & Hyde.

In more recent years, rock musicals written expressly for the stage have become a great rarity. Generally, rock musicals are now adapted from pre-existing works. These so-called “jukebox” musicals have been popular with audiences, perhaps only because the tunes are already proven hits. Examples include Tommy (by The Who’s Pete Townshend), Smokey Joe’s Café (by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and their collaborators), Jersey Boys (by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, based on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), Rock of Ages (featuring hits of eighties arena rockers), and American Idiot (by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong).

It’s impossible to predict how long these jukebox musicals will remain popular, but it’s interesting to note that as far as rock music is concerned, Broadway appears content to continue looking to the past, rather than at the present. The legacy of Hair – an incredibly bold statement about America’s youth during a highly contentious time in our nation’s history – has been cast aside by Broadway in favor of the tried and true, and safe.

If you love stage or film musicals, as well as movie soundtracks, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of titles available. They are conveniently grouped together in the Show Tunes section of the CDs.

From Madonna to Rihanna: The Rise of Females in Music

I like lists. I like to read lists and make lists. I like all kinds of lists – well, except perhaps for “honey do” lists, I’m not quite so fond of those. In general, though, show me a list and I feel compelled to read it. One of the best list makers ever is Billboard, the music business magazine that compiles charts for various genres in Billboardnumerous international locales. Billboard has been publishing music charts since the 1930s (its corporate history actually dates to the 1890s) and has long been recognized as the definitive source for data on the popularity of singles and albums. Its main competitors, Cashbox and Record World, came and went in their wake, leaving their own very interesting, but incomplete data.

If I have any problem with Billboard, it’s that their charts are so mesmerizing that every time I look something up in one of their publications, I find that minutes (occasionally hours) later, I’ve completely lost focus on my original query. OK, OK that’s not actually Billboard’s problem, that’s my problem, but if you like lists and love music, that’s a dangerous combination. So, when I recently grabbed The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits by Joel Whitburn to look up one topic, the mesmerizing options of information sidetracked me once again. I found another topic so very interesting that I’ll wait to address the subject of contemporary English female blue-eyed soul singers (and no, I’m not kidding about that subject) on a future occasion. Today, however, I’ll talk about the rise in popularity of female artists in the United States from the nineties to the present.

Billboard started compiling an expanded list of popular songs in 1955, tweaking it again in 1958 to make it more comprehensive. Joel Whitburn founded Record Research Inc. in 1970 and has been assembling Billboard data ever since (Billboard and Record Research are separate entities, but for ease of use, I’m just going to lump them together as Billboard for this post). Tucked far in the back of The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits is a section called “The Record Holders: Top Artist and Record Achievements.” One of the categories in that section is “Top 25 Artists by Decade,” which is solely based on the popularity of an artist’s singles. As a result, you won’t find a mega-band like Led Zeppelin in the 1970s rankings because their success was almost entirely based on album sales and massive touring.  Nevertheless, the rankings provide a worthwhile snapshot of which artists were dominant in various decades.

Looking through the decades, I quickly became aware of one rather surprising fact: female artists rarely found success in equivalent numbers to male artists for much of the Top 40 era. In The Supremesthe fifties (covering `55-`59), only five female artists placed in the Top 25, with the McGuire Sisters the highest at number ten! One mixed gender group, The Platters, comprised of four males and one female (who didn’t sing lead), also made the list. The sixties also featured just five female acts in the rankings, though The Supremes (at three) and Brenda Lee (at five) were in the upper reaches. The seventies were slightly better for female artists, as six solo vocalists made the list, with another three mixed gender groups taking slots in the Top 25. Of the latter, The Carpenters, took high honors at number four, while Olivia Newton-John (at nine) was the highest ranking solo female. Those gains all but disappeared during the eighties. Although Madonna scored the highest ranking ever for a female, placing at number two, only three other women made the list!

Then something dramatic occurred. On the heels of the worst decade for female representation, the nineties exploded with popular female artists! Mariah Carey became the first female to top the decennial rankings, followed in order by Janet Jackson and MadonnaMadonna. Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and TLC went five through seven, respectively, and Monica was the seventh woman in the top ten by placing at nine. All told, twelve female acts were in the Top 25. Along with the mixed gender group Ace of Base, females had achieved absolute parity with male artists. The first decade of the new millennium nearly matched the previous one as eleven female artists and one mixed gender act found slots in the rankings. Beyonce became the second female to top the chart and, separately, with Destiny’s Child, was also at ten. Rihanna and P!nk also placed in the top ten at seven and nine, respectively.

The current decade is now one third over and female artists are proving more popular than ever. I don’t have any comprehensive up-to-the-minute data to share, but I do have a bit of raw data (through 4/6/13) from which to draw some suppositions. For Rihannainstance, four artists have had three or more number one hits so far this decade, with Rihanna leading the pack with seven and Katy Perry right behind her with six. Adele is fourth with three. In terms of cumulative weeks by the primary artist at number one, Rihanna again leads with a whopping twenty-eight weeks, Katy Perry follows in second with an also impressive twenty weeks, and Adele maintains the fourth position with fourteen weeks. In addition to those stars, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, Britney Spears, P!nk, Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson have all had considerable chart success in this decade (some for much longer). It’s still early in the decade, but this may become the first in which females dominate Billboard’s Top 25 rankings.

Frankly, I don’t have a definitive explanation as to why female artists have become so much more popular in recent times. Actually, I’m sure that there are several contributing factors at play here. If I had to make one guess, however, I suspect it has a lot P!nkto do with the liberation of women in our culture generally over the past fifty years. That personal freedom has afforded increasing opportunities for females to pursue their interests in fields previously dominated by men. Quite obviously, musical talent is not gender specific, so we are now blessed with a greater pool of female musicians, many of whom have risen to the top of the field. That’s just one theory. If you have another, please add a comment to this post. I’ll happily share the best ones with my readers.

Remember, Des Moines Public Library patrons have access to thousands of CDs, all at no charge and with a very generous checkout limit! Come in and browse the CD racks at any of our six locations, or hop online and search our catalog. We have titles for virtually any musical interest! 

Country Rock… In the Beginning

According to the Recording Industry Association of America – the organization that awards gold and platinum certifications based on the number of albums and singles sold through retail and other ancillary markets in the United States – the best-selling album of all-time is EaglesTheir Greatest Hits Eagles(1971–1975). That title, originally released in 1976, has sold over 29 million copies. In addition, the career retrospective follow-up album, Eagles Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, from 1982, has sold more than 11 million copies. Simply put, on the basis of just those two albums alone, Eagles are among the top-selling American artists ever!

….I interrupt this blog to present a syntax service announcement: the past paragraph appears to missing the word “The” in three places, all preceding “Eagles.” It has always struck me as particularly awkward that the band was named Eagles, not The Eagles, as in The Beatles, just Eagles (trust me, you can look it up). That’s weird, right? Anyway, it’s their name and they can call themselves anything they like, so Eagles it is. I now return you to your regularly-scheduled blog….

Eagles were the primary purveyors of what is commonly known as country rock. “What’s country rock,” you may ask? Or, “Is country rock, a category of country, or of rock?” Or even, “How does country rock differ from southern rock, which also shares a number of similarities with country music?” Definitions certainly vary from one source to the next, but I’ll take a quick stab. Country rock was, for the most part, a west coast phenomenon in which rock musicians began incorporating elements of country into their music. Their audience was primarily made up of rockers, but there certainly was crossover appeal to fans of other genres, such as country (naturally), pop, and easy listening (now known as adult contemporary). Unlike southern rock, which generally had a hard edge, country rock tended to be more on the mellow side.

Many claim that country rock was born when Bob Dylan went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding in October-November 1967 (released December 27, 1967). The Dylan connection grows Bob Dylanstronger when considering that one of the first country rock bands, The Byrds, a California-based band, had their first big hit with a cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965. At that time, however, The Byrds were known as the foremost progenitor of the new folk rock genre. The Byrds didn’t move into country rock until the short-lived addition of Gram Parsons in early 1968, though founding member Chris Hillman also had a background in, and love for, country music. Further Dylan influence can be seen in his relationship to a group of Canadian musicians who served as his backing band in the mid-sixties. When those musicians struck out on their own in 1967, they tried on various names before eventually becoming known simply as The Band. Like The Byrds, The Band was adding country accents to their rock and folk The Bandmix.

The first country rock album, however, may have been The International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home, which was recorded in July 1967, but not released until the following March. ISB was led by the aforementioned Parsons, an unknown singer-songwriter-guitarist whose group disbanded before their album ever hit store shelves. Safe at Home quickly became an occupant of bargain bins in the few places it was ever stocked in the first place. In the meantime, The Band finished work on Music from Big Pink, released on July 1, 1968, while The Byrds completed Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released on August 30 of the same year. Both of those albums The Byrdsreceived initial critical approval, but very sluggish sales, though they are now considered seminal albums in the country rock genre and are consistent selling back catalog titles.

After a power struggle within The Byrds between acknowledged leader Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and Parsons, the latter left the band in mid-1968, again before his latest album hit store shelves. Parsons immediately formed The Flying Burrito Brothers, and within a few weeks was joined by Hillman. Together they wrote most of the songs for The Gilded Palace of Sin, another key album in the country rock canon, released in February 1969. In mid-1969, Hillman invited singer-songwriter-multi-The Flying Burrito Brothersinstrumentalist Bernie Leadon (pronounced Led-un) to join the band. Hillman and Leadon had played together briefly in the bluegrass band The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers in the early sixties. After two albums – the first of which was the classic Burrito Deluxe; it was also the last to feature Parsons – Leadon, disappointed by the general lack of commercial interest in the group’s product, decided to leave.

Leadon, however, didn’t depart without prospects. Moonlighting from The Flying Burrito Brothers, he had fallen in with three musicians who were serving as the backing band for folk rocker Linda Ronstadt’s 1971 summer tour. Their names were Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner, and Don Henley. Together, the four decided to push out on their own. It was allegedly Leadon who proposed the name Eagles. Leadon was instrumental in helping to define the early sound of Eagles as a country rock group, and they immediately clicked with the public. He was prominently featured on their first four albums, the ones covered by Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975). By 1975, Leadon was becoming disgruntled with what he felt was a move away from country rock toward arena rock and voluntarily left the band. Eagles would continue for several years (not counting the periodic reunions), more in the mainstream of rock, but never totally abandoning their country rock roots.

After leaving The Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons recorded two solo albums before dying of a drug overdose September 19, 1973; he was just 26 years old. Hillman stayed with the Brothers for four albums Gram Parsonsbefore stints in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, and The Desert Rose Band among others. Parsons and Hillman, as much, or more so than Dylan, were the architects of country rock. Actually, I could make a pretty nearly equal case for several other artists who were active in the California music scene during that same period; you’ll see a few of those listed later.

Based on what I’ve written above, the emergence of the country rock subgenre probably seems fairly convoluted. That, I can assure you, is just the tip of the iceberg. The number of configurations, entries and exits, and start-ups, revivals and reunions among country rock bands and their personnel is nearly mind-blowing! When it comes to country rock bands, there are about two-degrees of separation, as nearly every possible permutation seems to have been tried at one time, or another.

In addition to the various groups mentioned above, there were (in some cases, still are) a number of other notable west coast-based country rock bands, including Buffalo Springfield, Firefall, Little Feat, Moby Grape, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Poco. Two female artists are also commonly associated with the movement: Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt. The Des Moines Public Library can get you up to snuff when it comes to country rock, so visit us at any of our six locations, or online, and hear what you’ve been missing!

Boy Bands, Now and Then

It may have passed under your radar, but earlier this month, New Kids on the Block (or NKOTB as they sometimes prefer to be called) released their latest album: 10. Why is it called 10? I really don’t know. New Kids on the BlockThere are five members in the band, it’s only their seventh album, and they’ve certainly been around for much, much longer than a decade. Could it be because the album features ten songs? Gee, I hope not, as I’d like to give them more credit for originality than that. In any case, the Kids — can we still call them kids now that they’re all over 40? – are still trying to prove that they have “The Right Stuff.”

At their zenith in the late eighties and early nineties, New Kids were about the hottest thing in the pop music world, and a formidable money-making machine. Not only did they sell tens of millions of albums worldwide, they licensed just about anything you could imagine, from earrings to bed sheets. At one point, they were the highest paid entertainers in the world. Beyond all that, they are often credited with creating the boy band phenomenon.

OK, wait right there! I’m going to take issue with that last statement myself, at least for the most part. It’s true that New Kids’ success did pave the way for other similar groups in the nineties and beyond, but they were hardly the first. They can, however, be acknowledged as the one who most solidified the blueprint. A quick definition of a boy band would need to include the following traits: they generally have four or five members, sing close harmony pop tunes, are squeakily clean cut, incorporate synchronized dance moves in their live performances, and target the young, female demographic.

In the New Kids’ wake, we’ve had more boy bands surface than at any time in the rock era. Other nineties phenoms such as Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys, ‘N SYNC, 98 Degrees and Hanson all owe a debt Backstreet BoysBoyz II Menof gratitude to the Kids, as do dozens of others who got a moment in the spotlight before being pushed aside by other contenders. In the new millennium, such boy bands as Westlife, O-Town, and The Jonas Brothers took up the mantle, though the trend seemed to be winding down. With the ascent of The Wanted, Big Time Rush, and One Direction, however, boy bands appear to be alive and well once again.

If New Kids weren’t the first, then who were? It may be impossible to know, but it was most likely a fifties-era doo-wop group, such as Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. In the decades since, countless other groups would aptly fit the general definition. I’m now going to list half-a-dozen major acts that most helped to develop that definition, even if some aren’t necessarily thought of in those terms.

1)      Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, most famous for the fifties’ classic “Why do Fools Fall in Love,” wouldn’t have been too out of place if they had been miraculously transported forty or fifty years into the future to the heyday of the boy bands. In updated duds (although Boyz II Men often rocked suits back in the day) and modern arrangements, they’d have been right at home on Total Request Live.

2)      The Beach Boys had the well-groomed looks of modern-day boy bands and most of their early repertoire consisted of songs about love (like “Don’t Worry Baby”), good times (“Surfin’ U.S.A.”) or not-altogether believable attempts at posturing (“I Get Around”), which are all staples of the boy band repertoire. Incidentally, they covered “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” early in their career.The Beatles - Please Please Me

3)      Although The Beatles caused a commotion with their “long” hair in 1964, their manager, Brian Epstein, made them presentable, even loveable, to all ages. Their multi-part harmonies and simple love songs made America embrace them to the point of coining the term “Beatlemania.” It wasn’t long, of course, before they threw off the pretense of innocence and really ruffled a few feathers.

4)      The Jackson 5 seemed born to become pop superstars. The way that their father-manager-coach, Joe Jackson, pushed his children to excel in music, perhaps they were. Ultra-talented (and youngest brother) Michael was only eleven in January, 1970 when “I Want You Back” hit number one, the first of many to come.The Osmonds

5)      To some, The Osmonds were just a white rip-off of The Jackson 5, but, in truth, they were entertainment veterans long before the Jackson clan cut their first record; The Osmond Brothers were regulars on Andy Williams’ network TV show from 1962-69 as a barbershop group.  Like their so-called rivals, The Osmonds’ career lasted long after their initial boy band-type pop success of the early seventies.

6)      If ever there was a blueprint for the nineties boy band phenomenon, it was New Edition. The group, whose fame peaked in the mid- to late-eighties, was in every sense a modern boy band. In fact, writer-producer Maurice Starr created New Kids on the Block after legal issues created a falling out between him and New Edition. Ronnie DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ralph Tresvant (also, Brown’s replacement, Johnny Gill) were each very capable performers, who either solo, or in combination, had significant chart success post-New Edition.

Boy bands have been with us for decades, though they may not have been labeled as such. Enjoy the crush-inducing, safe-sounding melodic pop of boy bands – past or present – by checking out music at the Des Moines Public Library, where CDs circulate for three weeks without charge.