Jaimie Vernon_Viletones
Happy 2016, ev-ree-baw-daaaaay.
Woo! Howz everybody feel?
We’re all here to partaaaaaay!!

Paul_Stanley It’s a new year. It’s a new chance to reflect, repent and repeal all previous promises to improve ones lives. Let’s face it, statistically, no one’s gonna do shit-all about any of it…especially not in January. Despite the rather mild weather for a Toronto winter, we’d all just as soon curl up in pajamas on the couch and binge watch ‘Making A Murderer’ with a 12 kilo Costco bag of Doritos and 20 litres of Coca-Cola. Those who are really motivated to change usually do so after a health scare or a horrible one-night stand gone wrong from hooking up on www.sadiehawkinswasabitch.com
I’m not sure people ever resolve to do anything more than attempt comebacks from whatever hell hole they plummeted down in an ongoing series of failed personal episodes. Once the episodes are minimized or even stopped, there’s a new you at the end of it. It’s not necessarily the same you, but we all want it to be the person we were before everything went sideways – from our previous body weight to our previous life as a mover and a shaker.

Take rock stars, f’rinstance; they are chameleons at trying to re-invent themselves so the public will follow them down a new path. Sometimes the new path is a positive change, sometimes it’s so drastically different that the artist can no longer be recognized as the same individual – or musical innovator – and the fans no longer come along for the ride.
Bowie2016 Dave Bowie might be the most famous at this parlour trick – he’s turned “new and improved” into a fluid state. His motis operandi is artistic Chimera. Bowie’s newest album, ‘Blackstar’, has tongues wagging and media aflutter because Bowie is, if nothing else, reliable in his unpredictability; Neil Young fancies himself in the same league. Artistically he’s only out to satisfy himself. Unfortunately, that self-indulgence has created 40 years of hits and misses. Mostly misses. Young is a hell of a force – but one with a very limited palette. When he steps outside of it he fails on a massive level. But he can afford to. He’s Neil Young. He’s earned the right to not give a shit what you or I think; then you have Paul McCartney who wants people to like him. He craves the adulation of the masses and is held to account by his own previous genius. He portrays himself as someone that doesn’t give a fuck when he makes a right turn with his music (say, a jazz album with Diana Krall or an EDM record as The Fireman) but then gets butt-hurt like a grade schooler when the fans dislike his finger painting.

Pop music history is filled with these u-turns. Here’s some of the top comebacks of all time. How you view these re-inventions is up for personal interpretation. It’s interesting to note that many of these come on the heels of technological changes in the biz leaving us to admire those who were able to adapt and carry on when stepping outside their comfort zones.

10) “Devil Woman” – CLIFF RICHARD

Cliff Richard England’s anointed Crooner of Distinction had elevated the career of an instrumental group of some great renown (The Shadows) and held his own against both the British Invaders in the early 1960s and their mutated hippie brethren (Cream, Blue Cheer) before finding himself standing in a morass of post-Beatles Middle of the Road names-of-the-week (Gilbert O’Sullivan, Alan O’Day, Rex Smith, Donny Osmond). Not since the Bobby Wars of the 1950s had Richard found himself lost in a sea of sameness. Like Paul Anka, he needed to adapt to a more adult-oriented audience and reclaim his throne as the original King of Pop. Producer Bruce Welch was brought in to re-brand Richard with rock arrangements of otherwise standard pop fair on the album ‘I’m Nearly Famous’. It gave Richard his first US #1 hit with “Devil Woman”. Hard to imagine this was the same guy that sang “Summer Holiday” in 1963.

9) “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” – NEIL SEDAKA

Neil_Sedaka In the late 1950s and early 1960s Neil Sedaka wore two hats – one as staff writer at the legendary Brill Building with Howard Greenfield where some of the greatest songwriting teams were cranking out the Billboard Top40 at a rate not seen since the previous generation’s Tin Pan Alley – and the other as performing artist because Sedaka had that rare commodity as a songwriter…a voice. He realized quickly that his status as teen idol with songs like “Calendar Girl” and “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” was going to be short-lived – especially when the testosterone scent of the Liverpool Four began to permeate US shores. Sedaka rode out the 1960s as a songwriter for Connie Francis and Jimmy Clanton with forays into solo recording which produced consistent but less-than-stellar selling albums. By the early 1970s his star had faded. Elton John had been a big fan and after learning that Neil was without a record deal, signed Neil to his own Rocket Records company. His first release was a compilation of songs from underperforming British albums. The 1974 tune “Laughter In the Rain” emerged to become Sedaka’s second, ever, number one hit in the US. Then something strange happened, an upcoming act The Captain & Tennille released the Sedaka/Greenfield written “Love Will Keep Us Together” which went #1 all over the planet in 1975. Sedaka’s stock value soared. A duet with Elton called “Bad Blood” also went to #1. The album it came from, ‘Hungry Years’, was a modern departure for Sedaka – he was in the auspices of Elton John’s music team. The next single would change the world’s perception of Sedaka for good. A reworked and stripped down lounge version of his 1962 teen idol hit “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” went Top10 on Billboard (and hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary Charts) in 1976. Sedaka would be able to ride out that sound, that comeback version of himself, and ride it to this day.

8) “Owner of a Lonely Heart” – YES

90125 When FM radio arrived in the late 1960s to favourable enthusiasm from those whose tastes leaned more towards jazz and classical albums, a new modern musical movement arrived to fill the open spaces on the airwaves. Progressive Rock owes its lifeblood to this long-form radio format where entire album sides could be showcased with commercial interruption. One of the progenitors of the genre was British musical aristocrats YES. The early 1970s were dominated by YES releases like ‘Fragile’, ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’. They became a monster concert draw and even with an ever-evolving roster of musicians in the band (anchored by late bass player Chris Squire), they always managed a steady output of releases and successful tours. Then the punk movement and disco set about drawing audiences away – including the disposable incomes those audiences were willing to part with. YES found themselves caught in the cross-hairs of a generational and technological revolution as digital production and synthesizers became more popular – allowing basement musicians to sound more and more like professionals. YES weathered the storm, battened down the hatches…and retaliated. To say that the album ‘90125’ was a surprise is understating its impact. It was a game changer mainly in the way the record was recorded – digitally – a format reserved by only the most patient (and wealthiest) of artists. It was a huge gamble. But the release of the first single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, made it quickly apparent that YES had finally crossed over from pretentious prog navalgazers to commercial rock stars – overnight. The song went to #1 in some countries.  

7) “Gimme All Your Lovin’” – ZZ TOP

ZZTop Meanwhile, down in Texas a trio of Good ‘Ol Boys whose career was based on three chord swamprock blues with double-entendre titles like “Pearl Necklace” and “Tube Snake Boogie” found themselves in a genre that had become relegated to the backrooms of boozecans and small towns. The blues, like most long-standing genres, had been beaten back to the domain of purists by the commercial success of corporate rock, New Wave and even disco. What’s a group of gunslingers to do with the I, IV, V formula in a world now dominated by Men At Work and The Cars? You join them. Manager Bill Ham took over production duties in the band’s own Ardent Studios in 1982 and they buried themselves for nearly a year re-learning how to play white man’s blues…using the latest in digital software and keyboard technology. When they came up for air there was ‘Eliminator’. But it wasn’t just an album with a new sound, there was a band with a new image and the marriage of both elements to the newest promotional tool – music videos. Before Michael Jackson re-designed the music industry with ‘Thriller’, ZZ Top built the chassis. The videos would tell a story. There were five of them. They featured bearded, dirty old musicians in a custom painted 1933 Ford Coupe chasing bikini models from town to town across the Southern USA. The deep south was about to get fuel-injected. The opening salvo was “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and it broke Top40 radio – peaking at #2.

6) “My Ding-A-Ling” – CHUCK BERRY

ChuckBerry Depending on which Rock and Roll fountain you drink from, Chuck Berry is more than qualified to claim the mantle of King of Rock ‘n’ Roll (just ask Keith Richards). He wrote the four chord variations on blues arrangements that became the short-hand for everything that came after in terms of pop songwriting formula. The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones all prayed at the Temple of Chuck. He was a hard-living maverick in an era that had no equivalent – Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were piano players, Buddy Holly too milquetoast. Chuck’s only competition was Bo Didley and his own excesses. And they caught up with him. Chuck never adapted in the 1960s when his followers took over and dominated every aspect of the music business in the 1960s. He was a man out of time. He ran on his own schedule, played by his own rules. He became a well-respected ruler of nothing as he was dogged by debt, arrests and the need to survive – insisting on touring alone with adhoc backing bands and being paid with a bag of cash before he walked on stage every night. His last charting hit was “Promised Land” in 1965 that barely managed to scrape the Top30. Beatlemania had steam-rolled him and anyone from that era still alive to tell the tale. So it became ironic that through the ongoing rash of truly bad decisions (and the greed of others) Berry found himself at #1 on the back of a rather embarrassing and uncharacteristic novelty tune called “My Ding-a-Ling”. The song was originally throwaway album filler on the 1970 studio album ‘Back Home’, but it was the risky release of a live recording by his label, Chess Records, in 1972 that gave Berry a new musical lease on life and only the second #1 of his career.

5) “Everything Is Beautiful” – RAY STEVENS

RayStevens Signed as a teenager to be groomed as the next Paul Anka, Stevens never managed to live up to others expectations of him as a teen sensation. Instead, he leaned toward writing and arranging for other artists occasionally cranking out novelty hits for a quick cash-in on the Billboard Top40 with songs like “Harry the Hairy Ape”, “Santa Claus Is Watching You”, “Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving, Fast-Acting Pleasant-Tasting Green and Purple Pills,” and “Ahab the Arab.” The latter giving Stevens a Top5 hit in the US. Through the remainder of the 1960s Stevens returned to the behind-the-scenes string pulling for such talents as Ronnie Dove, Brenda Lee, Brook Benton, Patti Page, Dusty Springfield, and Dolly Parton. When he came up for air to record again he’d had a #1 with another novelty song called “Gitarzan” but he longed for the kind of respect that artists who sang about more universal themes were enjoying. The proof was in the pudding when he released the theme to a summer-replacement TV show he starred in called “Everything Is Beautiful” in 1970. The song would top the Billboard Pop and Adult Contemporary charts as well as the Country charts and the single won a Grammy Award. Stevens would go on to top himself with another novelty tune called “The Streak” in 1974. Old habits, it seems, die hard.

4) “Valley Girl” – FRANK ZAPPA

Zappa Technically, Zappa never went away. He never needed to ‘comeback’ from anywhere. He lived and performed and recorded outside of the orbit of the music industry – from his Mothers of Invention days through jazz stylings, classical meanderings and things that were no more than his never ending quest to amuse himself and his listeners. What few people know, outside of his very loyal fanbase, is that Zappa had done a run in the early 1960s as a tweed-wearing, run-of-the-mill crooner looking find a place in the pantheon of the unremarkable Andy Williams and Pat Boones of the world. If one could imagine an alternate world where Zappa wasn’t an agent provoceteur from 1967 to 1981 and only looked at the releases he put out in 1965 and 1982 you’d think “Holy crap, this guy really stepped up his pop music chops and got ‘with it’ in terms of tapping into the public zeitgeist.”  “Valley Girl” is a comeback record for a guy who was originally a pop songwriter and it succeeded because of its illogical, novelty brilliance. Like, totally.

3) “One Night In Bangkok” – MURRAY HEAD

MurrayHead If you don’t know who Murray Head is you’re probably not much into musical theatre. In 1971 Murray Head was Judas Iscariot in the Andrew Lloyd Weber smash musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. The soundtrack produced the song of the same name and spent four weeks at #1 on the charts around the world. Head stayed in theatre and was forgotten by everyone except the most die-hard of British theatre patrons. Weber’s lyrical cohort, Tim Rice, had dreamed of writing a musical about the Cold War and enlisted the aid of Swedish pop-music mavens Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus – better known as half of pop band Abba. Together they wrote the musical ‘Chess’. As with many musical theatre productions a soundtrack album was released first to raise funds for the launch of the stage production. In 1984 the ‘Chess’ double LP was released featuring the voice talents of Tommy Körberg, Elaine Paige, noted actor Denis Quilley and….Murray Head. The single, “One Night In Bankok” was aimed at MTV with a video recreating the feel of the upcoming production and Head playing one of the chess master antagonists – 13 years after his appearance as Judas.

2) “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” – THE HOLLIES

Hollies The Beatles cast a very long shadow in the 1960s. Every decision made in the pop music sector was a reaction to what the Beatles were doing. It was hard to create an identity – personally or musically. The Hollies had carved out a small piece of the pie as a quaint 3-minute jangly guitar pop act with goofy hairdos and groovy, year-appropriate costume updates. By 1967 they were still performing this way as witnessed by yet another clean-cut pop track like “Pay You Back With Interest”. Meanwhile, the Beatles were rubbing shoulders with the British blues movement scene featuring Long John Baldry, Cream and Hendrix and expanding their minds with psychedelics and Transcendental Meditation. The Hollies on the other hand were getting squeezed off the charts with material that just wasn’t ringing bells with listeners who had otherwise grown alongside and with the Beatles. By the end of 1969 it was all but over for the Fabs. A gap opened up…and The Hollies drove a giant bullet-train through it. They had been growing all along and their opening salvo was the Bobby Scott and Bob Russell written “He Ain’t Heavy” – a song to rival “Hey Jude” for pathos and emotion. The Hollies rode the song to #1 and never looked back (“Long Cool Woman” and “The Air That I Breathe” followed in successive years).

1) “Suspicious Minds” – ELVIS PRESLEY

Elvis Elvis would have been 81 yesterday. His life is a fairy tale story with a tragic end. Unless you were a true Elvis enthusiast, though, you might not have seen the transition Elvis made following his blind commitment to pleasing his handlers during the 1960s on the back of some of the most atrocious movie appearances and uninspired song choices (which were made for him…not by him). As he finished up the hamster wheel life of acting/recording he came up for air to be struck by the reality that he was a man out of step and nearly forgotten by the remainder of the pop music world. The Beatles had created a revolution (pun intended) that Elvis missed. The concept of the ‘comeback’ was born. The plan had been to re-introduce the world to the sexy singer in both a historical context and as a vibrant force reborn. The 1968 ‘Comeback Special’ TV show was testament to the return of a musical Messiah. He still had the voice, he still had the look, he still had the charisma. But the transformation wasn’t yet complete. Elvis still didn’t have the songs to prove he could give The Beatles a run for their money. Inspired by the success of the show (and its soundtrack) Elvis decided to pick and choose his own material, at a studio other than his usual RCA Studio hangout, in a marathon set of recording sessions at American Sound Studio in 1969 which led to the album ‘From Elvis In Memphis’. It was his first non-secular album and produced the #2 hit “In the Ghetto” – a very notable change for Elvis. But the song was not indicative of everything he’d recorded at American Studio with producer Chip Momans. Elvis had begun his first run in Vegas on July 31, 1969 and the vibrant energy of the show needed to be advertised to the masses to enforce the fact that the powerhouse of Elvis was indeed back. At the end of August 1969, the single “Suspicious Minds” hit the ariwaves and became the clarion call for the final phase of Elvis Presley’s career.

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA


Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon

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