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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Summer Psychosis 2: Preview for the Final Four

Hey everyone,

Were you wondering where this thing went? I was busy, but now I am free so the suspense is over! As you may recall, there are only four songs left in our Summer Psychosis Songs of the 60's bracket. Scratch that, four amazing songs. Some were favorites all along, and some got here through stunning upsets. Now each one has a shot at moving on to the Championship round! 

But before we decide that, I just wanted to share the origin story of each remaining song. The process of creating one of these classics is often absurdly long-winded and complex, and not a single one of these songs was safe or destined for success. Yet each song has stood on its own merits through the test of time, winning the hearts of those who have crossed its path. These are their stories:

File:Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone.jpg

Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone

June 1965 was a trying time for Bob Dylan. Physically drained and musically frustrated after five albums in three years and his England tour that spring, Dylan felt so directionless about his music that he considered halting his career altogether. It was some kind of identity crisis with writer's block to boot. But everything changed for Dylan after "Like a Rolling Stone", and I'm not just talking about its #2 peak on the Billboard Hot 100. The song started as 10-20 pages of "vomit", free-written poetry on his typewriter as documented on the documentary "Don't Look Back", that only acquired musical structure after Dylan whittled it down to four verses and a chorus.

Dylan and his mostly familiar band--pianist Paul Griffin, drummer Bobby Gregg and producer Tom Wilson all worked on "Bringing It All Back Home"--convened for the first recording session on June 15th in Columbia Records' Studio A. The day was hectic and unproductive; five takes were attempted in a waltz time with Dylan on piano, and they could barely get to the first chorus. Yet it only took four more takes the next day (15 were recorded in total) to capture "Like a Rolling Stone" in its now famous form, a 4/4 folk/blues with Dylan on electric guitar. Surprisingly, the iconic Hammond organ throughout the record came from a new addition to the session. Al Kooper had come to play guitar, but Mike Bloomfield had that spot nailed down. Once the Hammond organ was available, Kooper said he had a good part for it. Producer Wilson dismissed him, but Kooper went in anyway. Dylan liked it so much that he asked for the organ to be turned up in the mix.

Due to concerns over its "raucous" sound and unprecedented length, "Like a Rolling Stone" was at first denied as a single. But after the acetate demo was played until it wore out at local New York club Arthur, a Top 40 DJ immediately demanded copies. The song was soon released as a single by Columbia Records and proceeded to rock the music world to its core.



The Doors - Light My Fire

Back in the 60's, radio hits were everything if a band wanted to be successful. For a group as progressive and volatile as the Doors, it was essential. In August 1966, the quartet of Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore had been playing together for barely a year. They had recently signed to Elektra Records (who were primarily a folk label at the time) only to be fired from their house gig at Whiskey a Go Go three days later after a profanity filled performance. The recording session for "Light My Fire" was equally tense, as Morrison smashed engineer Bruce Botnick's television because he didn't want any distractions. But luckily, things came together the next day, where the Doors only needed two takes to record what would be their masterpiece and what Krieger would later call a "once in a generation" song.

In combining a jazz drummer, flamenco-trained guitarist, classically-influence pianist and a poet with real flair and sex appeal, "Light My Fire" was the best distillation of these disparate parts. Originally an unfinished song from Krieger, it also was driven to glorious excess in the form of lengthy solos from keyboardist Manzarek and the main writer himself. When their self-titled album was released in January 1967, they had little hope of a radio hit. "Break on Through" was released as the first single, but was a commercial flop. However, the seven-minute "Light My Fire" quickly became the most requested song for radio stations on the West Coast.

With a lack of commercial success, it was do or die for the Doors. "Light My Fire" proved to be their savior once the label suggested that cutting out the solos would turn the song into a short, AM radio-friendly hit. As we now know, the results surprised everyone; "Light My Fire" not only went to #1 but was a phenomenon, even landing them a controversial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. So the Doors began their too-brief but illustrious career in the limelight, by sounding like nothing else with no compromises.

The Beatles - A Day in the Life

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is without a doubt the most avant garde and grandiose album that the Beatles ever made. Their experiment-minded and studio-oriented approach was no more apparent, and arguably never as well executed, as on the album closer "A Day in the Life". The total amount of time spent recording the song was a staggering 34 hours. To put that number in perspective, the Beatles recorded their entire debut album in only ten.

Despite the extravagance of the "Day in the Life" sessions, the song had relatively humble beginnings. Lennon's verses were inspired by the mundane--he read about 4,000 Blackburn, Lancashire holes in the paper and referenced the movie "How I Won the War", which he was starring in--and the deeply personal in the death of Guinness fortune heir Tara Browne in a car crash. McCartney's contribution was the piano-led middle section that was originally an independent piece recalling his younger days. He also suggested the verse-ending line "I love to turn you on", a self-aware drug reference at the time. It was a close and unique collaboration, but McCartney and Lennon pulled it off.

The only thing that left the Beatles stumped was how to tie these sections together. Originally, the two 23-bar bridges only had the basic track along with the sound of assistant Mal Evans counting off each bar while setting off an alarm clock in the first bridge. The final form came when McCartney proposed that a full orchestra filled the gap, improvising along the way. Producer George Martin wasn't sure that classically-trained musicians would want to improvise, so he wrote an atonal glissando that ended in a dramatic crescendo. The orchestra was recorded doing this four times, so the overdubs were plentiful. It provided a transition that increased the juxtaposition between Lennon and McCartney's section while lifting the song as a whole to dizzy new heights. Then the final chord (played on three pianos simultaneously) comes crashing down, bringing the studio whirlwind to a satisfying close.



Sam Cooke - A Change is Gonna Come

As a very successful R&B singer in the late 50's and early 60's, smoothed-voice Sam Cooke was not one to go for an activist song, even as the country was in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. That all changed when Cooke heard Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". He was moved by Dylan's take on racism in America and stunned that a 21 year old white kid could discuss that kind of struggle so powerfully. This event, along with a meeting with sit-in protesters in Durham, North Carolina, prompted Cooke to start writing "A Change is Gonna Come" on his tour bus in that fateful summer of 1963. Though this did not occur without some hesitation; Cooke had felt the need to address racism in one of his songs, but feared the departure would cause him to lose his largely white fan base.

But as that year dragged on, the impetus for "A Change is Gonna Come" seemed more and more like destiny. The song itself reflects two pivotal moments for Cooke in '63: the death of his 18-month old son by drowning and his arrest for disturbing the peace when trying to register in a "Whites Only" motel. All of that anger and weariness was channeled through Cooke's uncharacteristically gospel-like vocals when he finally got to record the song on December 21st, 1963. He also gave free rein to arranger Rene Hall, who provided a thunderous orchestral background to make the song sound even more monumental.

It was a long and bumpy road to get "A Change is Gonna Come" the recognition it deserved. He managed to perform it on The Tonight Show in February 1964, only to be overshadowed by the Beatles' legendary Ed Sullivan appearance two days later. Cooke, who was shot at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles on December 11th, 1964 by Bertha Franklin, didn't live to see the song become a success. However, it was released as a B-side on a posthumous single just eleven days later, soon becoming the powerful civil rights anthem that it was meant to be.

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