Monday, August 23, 2010

How It Works

On August 22, 2010, I wrote 366 entries for this blog, one for every day on the calendar. So, it's time for me to catch up with my other writings.
I'll also look for ways to make this blog more interactive. In the meantime, just use the archive or the Search function to find whatever day you like. (Archive is more reliable; one of the things I'd like to fix...) As always, comments are appreciated. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 22

Why write about Ron Dante on his birthday? Because he sang the biggest song of 1969, but nobody knew his name.
He left his behind birth name, Carmine Granito, when he joined his first band in the early 60's. Eventually, he was working with producer Don Kirschner, songwriting and singing demos.
In 1965, he was the lead singer of a comedy band, The Detergents: they hit the Top 10 with the parody "Leader of the Laundromat" (they got hit with a lawsuit, too; that was settled out of court.) They hit the Hot 100 one more time with "Double-0 Seven" (not a parody, just a comedy song about dating a James Bond fan) before they called it a day:

"Leader of the Laundromat" was written by the team of Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, who wrote some successful original hits ("Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini", "Catch a Falling Star".) They recruited Dante to sing vocals for a demo(all the vocals: lead, and all harmonies.) The agreement was, if the song was a hit, Dante would record an entire album for them; the song became a Top 10 hit by the end of 1969.

After the success of "Tracy", Dante recorded all the songs for The Cuff-Links' first album in two days (at the boards, up-and-coming music producer Rupert Holmes...)

The reason for all the rush was that one of Dante's singing sessions was becoming the biggest hit of 1969. Don Kirschner, having just washed his hands of The Monkees, was hired to create music for a TV series based on the comic book character Archie Andrews; Kirschner hired Dante to sing vocals for their songs (and "Leader of the Pack" composer Jeff Barry as lead songwriter; small world...) "Sugar Sugar" was the Archies' monster hit, a global sensation that set the bar for cartoon rock for decades.
The Archies would hit the Top 40 four times; here's their other million-selling single, "Jingle Jangle", taken from the Ed Sullivan archives:

(Trivia: which member of the Archies is singing lead on "Jingle Jangle"? Betty? Veronica? It's Ron Dante, falsetto!)

So, Dante recorded hit songs for the Archies and the Cuff-Links in 1969, without having to tour for either of them. Instead, Dante accepted a solo recording contract with Don Kirschner, which excluded any outside work (except, of course, Don Kirschner projects...)

"Let Me Bring You Up", the lead-up single from his 1970 solo album, was written by the "Sugar Sugar" songwriters. Despite this, they couldn't strike lightning twice. By 1972, Dante was the lead singer in another cartoon band...

It wasn't the end of his music career; he made it through the 70's producing some of Barry Manilow's greatest hits ('Copacabana', 'Mandy'), before parlaying into Broadway production (Ain't Misbehavin, Children of a Lesser God). Today, he raises dalmations and tours for the festival crowd; he resumed his solo career in 1999, and released his most recent in 2010.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

August 21

Happy Birthday to Stephen Hillenburg, animator; today, we're going to feature his pre-Spongebob work.
His first college degree was in marine biology; in fact, he taught marine biology for several years before he pursued his second life passion, animation. Before he graduated in 1992, he had two short films making the festival circuit. One of those films, "The Green Beret," also appeared on the "Liquid Television" anthology:

His festival shorts caught the notice of animator Joe Murray, who hired Hillenberg as a writer and director for Rocko's Modern Life, which ran for four seasons on Nickelodeon.
The following clip, from "Jet Scream", is one of Murray's favorite episodes in the series:

After Rocko's Modern Life was done, a colleague encourage Hillenberg to pitch the Spongebob character to Nickelodeon. Since his debut in 1999, Spongebob has become Nickelodeon's most successful series; their most recent contract guarantees a ninth season, and enough episodes to make it the longest running series on the network.

I can't offer much insight on post-Spongebob projects: the Spongebob Squarepants theatrical movie, intended as a series finale, was Hillenberg's farewell as an active creator of Spongebob's adventures. Although he heads United Plankton Pictures (which oversees the Spongebob empire), his most prominent activities appear to be on the academic circuit, speaking about his twin loves: marine biology and animation. So, no telling what he'll do once this Spongebob train runs out of steam...

Apologies if this clip still auto-plays: it's still my favorite Spongebob moment, a typically atypical moment that let me know that, within its all-ages confines, anything could happen...

Friday, August 20, 2010

August 20

Quick, name the year:

That sea of feathered hair was brought to you by the 1985 benefit single "Give a Helping Hand", recorded by Swedish Metal Aid, a collective of Swedish hard rock artists. The song was written by Europe frontman Joey Tempest, who celebrates his birthday today.

His hair's calmed down since those days, but he's still rolling. When hair metal took a backseat to grunge, Europe went on hiatus and Joey got his Richard Marx on. In fact, he released three solo albums, which did well in his native Sweden:

In 2002, around the release of his third solo album, Tempest and the rest of Europe reunited:

Europe - Last Look At Eden

// EUROPE // | MySpace Music Videos

So far, they've released three albums and done several world tours. No sign of them slowing down yet.

No signs of any US dates this year, either, so here's the Europe that American fans know best:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August 19

John Deacon, bassist of Queen, is considered the Ringo of the band, the quiet, unassuming one that willfully stepped back so the other members could stand in the spotlight. (In fact, that's the exact reason he got the job; the prior bassists the band auditioned were trying too hard to keep up on-stage with Freddie Mercury and Brian May.) But even though he cheerfully accepted the role of The Boring One (and the nickname "Deeks"), Queen would not be the history-making band it was without him.

In the first place, he brought the funk:

"Another One Bites the Dust" is undisputedly Queen's biggest hit, topping nearly every chart it touched. John Deacon wrote the song (inspired by a visit with 70's dance band Chic) and developed the arrangement for the band. Although the rest of Queen was initially cool about the song, an endorsement from Michael Jackson encouraged the band to release it as a single, and it became one of the most irresistable songs ever.

When Queen started, it had a hard rock sound that had extracted the blues influence out of their songs(hence, songs like "Ogre Battle" and "Bohemian Rhapsody.") But all four band members began exploring every musical genre they could, from Tin Pan Alley to opera. The follow-up single to their operatic "Rhapsody" was "You're My Best Friend," which became Deacon's first hit single songwriting credit:

He's written songs for every Queen album since "Sheer Heart Attack"; other songwriting credits to hit the charts include "Back Chat", "I Want to Break
Free", and "One Year of Love".

Pretty much, his music career begins and ends with Queen. John had graduated with honors from Chelsea College with an electronic degree when he joined the band in 1971(another reason Queen chose him; he built and repaired equipment for the band!) After Freddie's death in 1991, John would play some benefit shows and record the remaining songs Freddie had contributed before retiring from music altogether. In the between, he had done studio work with other members' solo projects, but his highest profile solo gig was The Immortals, who recorded one song for a children's movie soundtrack:

No, he put down his sticks and went home to his wife and six kids and songwriting royalties (in 2009, his estimated worth was reported at about £50 million.)

I can't end this post without mentioning his greatest contribution to civilization: his bassline for "Under Pressure". John Deacon playing the opening seven notes to "Under Pressure" are enough to qualify him for the blog. The song resulted from a jam session, an impromptu visit from David Bowie to one of Queen's recording sessions. John credits Bowie with the riff, but Bowie - and the surviving members of Queen - credit John with its creation. Whatever percentage his participation, he helped create an anthem for our civilized world:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August 18

Let's sing Happy Birthday to Jon 'Bermuda' Schwartz:

Bermuda's been providing percussion since the day they met, and he used Al's accordian case to provide the backbeat for Al's first radio performance of "Another One Rides the Bus":

Nearly 30 years later, he's helped Al emulate the most popular sounds in pop culture on every album and every tour stop but 3. He even webmasters the official Weird Al site, among others...

Here's a rarity: Bermuda performing with another band. Here he is, assisting behind the skins for rockabilly artist Rip Masters:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 17

Let's talk about Eric Johnson, musician's musician and guitar god. If you're a Guitar Hero player, you know how hard it is to play along with "Cliffs of Dover," his biggest charting hit. The song came from the 1990 album 'Ah Via Musicon', his Grammy-winning platinum record. Here's a performance of the song from the 'Tonight Show':

If you're not convinced of his awesomeness after that performance, you don't have to apologize. Sometimes in this column, we talk about why certain talents aren't superstars. Eric Johnson's downfall is a more pronounced but typical demonstration of why musician's musicians don't become superstars.
Let's put it in context: 1990's "Ah Via Musicon" is a technical masterpiece. In that album, he achieved the ultimate artistic goal of revealing his unique voice within his medium of guitar playing, of establishing his own sound.

When you get beyond the guitar wizardry, you can't ignore the fact that it's a soft rock record. It is so easy to believe that this guy got his big break doing studio sessions for Christopher Cross. Here's another song that Eric Johnson did with ex-Marilyn Manson guitarist John5, just to remind you that Johnson can still rock:

Back to Eric Johnson: Some of the songs on "Musicon" are barely songwriting, just skeletons to let the guitar drift and zoom around the room... that's why people gave up on jazz. It's what they call "guitar wanking", and it sets a divide between the audience and the musician. It's like any athlete or artist flexing their muscles: after a while, the only audience the performer is concerned about is the performer. And while there's something to be said about the purity of the artistic expression, what gives art its resonance is its connection with an audience.
Let me encapsulate the difference: listening to most Eric Johnson songs, at best, makes me want to play guitar like Eric Johnson. But a song like "Cliffs of Dover"... it makes me want to fly like Superman.

I don't know if he's ever going to try to hit the charts again; heck, I can't tell if he'll release another solo album on schedule (every six years.) But Eric Johnson has found great success as the 'musician's musician'. After two successful world tours with G3 (a triple bill with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai), he's doing a Guitar Masters tour in 2011, alongside other guitar masters. That's success aplenty...