Sparkles and Shines

Sparkles and Shines

There’s no good reason why Spooky Tooth didn’t make it big. This 5-man band played
rock, the kind you really listen to. Nothing was lacking. They had several fine vocalists,
expert guitar & keyboards, dynamic drums, good songs, & surprising arrangements. By
“surprising,” I mean that unexpected things happened. They didn’t sell oodles of records
but were a solid mainstay of the UK rock scene in the late 60s & early 70s.

Here’s the lineup:
Mike Harrison (piano & harpsichord, former member of the VIPs), Gary Wright
(organ, piano, guitar), 17-year-old Luther Grosvenor (lead guitar, formerly of the
Hellians), Greg Ridley (bass, former member of the Dakotas & the VIPs), & Mike Kellie
(drums, former member of the VIPs & Locomotive). Looking ahead, Wright (from New
Jersey, the sole American in the band) eventually went out on his own & had a huge hit
in 1975 w/ “Dream Weaver.” Grosvenor later joined up w/ Mott the Hoople & Stealers
Wheel. Ridley played bass for Humble Pie. It’s notable that keyboard wizard Keith
Emerson also played briefly w/ Spooky Tooth before going on to form The Nice &
Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. So much for the personnel.

I’m talking here about their first album, known as “It’s All About,” (1968). The
album is composed of ten songs, seven of which were written by various band members
& producer Jimmy Miller. The three covers are “Tobacco Road” by John Loudermilk, a
particularly dramatic version of Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” & a potent cover of Bob
Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing.” The seven originals contain plenty of variety. “It’s all
about a Roundabout” is light & bouncy, w/ a carefree, pop-tune, free-love message. Most
of their songs are upbeat. As you might expect, “Bubbles” is gentle, sounding lighter
than air. The band plays as a band, w/ very few show-off instrumentals on keyboard or
guitar. Each instrument sparkles & shines in the cracks, right where it belongs.
One of my favorites is “Here I Lived So Well,” which seems to be about a guy
who goes back to visit the home where he grew up. Only the house itself is gone,
replaced by a sign indicating that a seven-story parking lot will soon be erected on the
spot. Then, right at the end, it sounds like the guy himself might be a ghost. So we’ve
got a ghost visiting a house that’s gone. It’s a creepy thing to contemplate, emphasized
by the ghostly chorus of voices.

And speaking of voices—nowhere is it indicated who does any of the singing. But
every song includes at least two or three voices, one of which is kind of high-pitched &
scratchy, though not unpleasant to hear. It’s a real mix of vocals, allowing for plenty of

Another favorite is the album’s anchor piece, “Sunshine Help Me,” written by
Gary Wright. The song is sung in desperation-mode by, I’m guessing, Wright, since he
wrote it. The singer is about to just give up; but he doesn’t want to—he just wants a little
help to escape from the darkness he’s wrapped up in.

Spooky Tooth recorded one more album before the personnel changes started.
“It’s All About” is really worth a couple of good listens. The band has a unique sound,
due in part to the diverse vocals. Listen to it a couple of times & you’ll wonder why they
didn’t make it big.

-John Berbrich

Ambiguous & Vaguely Sinister

Ambiguous & Vaguely Sinister

Back when I was a scrawny teenager on Long Island, I found a second home at the local record shop.  After school I’d look through the racks, where the albums were alphabetized, scanning each cover intently before going to the next.  In those halcyon pre-internet days, the only way to hear new music was to listen to the radio—in my case, WNEW-FM from New York City, not too far away.  Going through the albums I’d spot some familiar names & consider purchases.  Albums were not expensive then; most sold for around $2.89, but my job paid only $1.46½ an hour, before taxes, 15 cents below minimum, so you’d have to work close to three hours to buy a record.  Every now & then, an album cover would catch my eye.  Something about it—the look of the personnel, the artwork, the name of the band—would tease & tickle my imagination.  Then I’d check back every day for a week or two.  If I could still hear the album calling to me, I’d buy.  Sometimes, though, my interest would fade.

One album cover forcibly captured my attention.  The picture showed five guys in the their 20s, a little bit scruffy, gazing through the windows of a luxury sedan at a clean, smiling, fashionably dressed woman ensconced in the rear seat.  Their facial expressions ranged from apathy to mild curiosity.  Like, what sort of creature were they looking at?  Written in cursive in an octagonal box on the cover was the single word, “Halfnelson,” which I took to be the name of the band as well as the name of the album.  I knew that a half-nelson was a wrestling hold.  On the back cover was another photo of these five guys staring at the camera w/ expressions of apathy, ambivalence, & mild suspicion.  

After several visits to the record shop, I was convinced that I had to hear this music & I had to own this album.  I had never heard the music, not on WNEW-FM or anywhere else.  None of my friends had ever heard of this band, Halfnelson.  Anyway, I bought the record, brought it home, & put it spinning on the turntable.  What I heard was a revelation.

The album consists of eleven songs, each roughly three to four minutes in length.  The songs are eccentric, quirky, suggestive, & saturated w/ a kind of ambiguous & vaguely sinister sexuality.  Listening to the record (which I did over & over & over), I figured that the band was from a seedy & forgotten neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but it turns out they were from Los Angeles.  Let’s meet the band.  

Lead singer w/ his remarkable falsetto is the androgynous & weirdly stylish Russell Mael.  Russell’s brother, Ron Mael, writes most of the songs, plays organ & piano, wears shades, & his mustache is the only facial hair of the group.  On lead guitar we have Earle Mankey & his raggedy dirty-blond shag haircut.  Earle’s brother Jim Mankey plays bass & guitar.  Harley Feinstein is a powerhouse on drums.  

It’s not exactly easy to describe the songs of Halfnelson.  Instead, why don’t I tell you what they are NOT.  The songs are not disco.  Not jazz.  Not blues.  Not country.  Not soul.  Not glam.  Not Hawaiian.  Not chord-bashing hard rock.  Not metal.  Not black metal.  Not speed metal.  Not punk.  Not emo.  Not trance, house, rap, classical, Dixieland, synth, polka, or K-Pop.  It just sounds like five guys got together in a basement w/ rudimentary skills on their inexpensive instruments & played darkly oblique songs that meant a lot to them.  Oh, & don’t forget the humor, which turns up pretty frequently.  I won’t go over the individual songs, as each contains its own brand of weirdness.  But this isn’t John Cage-style weirdness.  Some of these songs are actually catchy.  

For reasons that are unclear, Halfnelson changed its name to Sparks & re-released their Halfnelson album under the band name Sparks.  After a second unorthodox album, “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing,” the band broke up, w/ the two Mael brothers heading to the UK where they became hugely popular, keeping the name Sparks, & eventually developing into an international smash in places like France, Germany, Australia, as well as the UK.  In fact, right now, I hear that, like Godzilla, Sparks is big in Japan.

-John Berbrich

A Wild Excursion

A Wild Excursion

A Wild Excursion

Following the unexpected success of their 1968 single, “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” the Amboy
Dukes come at you in a fiery reckless manner on their 1969 album “Migration.” The music isn’t
sloppy—it’s turbo-charged, fervid, energetic.
Let’s start off w/ the band members. Up front we’ve got Ted Nugent on lead guitar plus
occasional percussion & vocals. He’s also written four of the album’s nine songs. Ted’s not the Motor
City Madman yet, but he is the standout performer in the band.
Rusty Day is an exciting lead vocalist.
Greg Arama is the fellow on bass guitar & bass vocals.
Dave Palmer plays lots of drums w/ enthusiasm.
On keyboards & horns we’ve got Andy Solomon.
Steve Farmer on rhythm guitar.
Everyone sings, at least a little.
Okay. Let’s go through the album, song by song.
Side One starts off w/ “Migration,” written by Nugent, a dynamic 6-minute instrumental that
features the Nuge on electric guitar. His pals join in eagerly,
“Prodigal Man,” also written by Nugent, is a wild excursion through a rock & jazz wilderness.
The words seem to be loosely based on the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son, who here ends up “sneakin’
around the corner drugstore, robbin’ all the old men blind.” An exciting & unruly sequence of smooth
instrumental solos on organ, bass, drums, & guitar drive this song to its chaotic conclusion. One of my
Next up is “For His Namesake,” written by Steve Farmer. It’s a reflective piece about how
parents need to listen to their kids & try to understand them. It’s also about a changing world, where
“Money’s been replaced by happiness.” The kids are all doing things that the parents can’t understand, &
they’re having a grand old time. “Old ideas will never die until the old are dead,” is one comforting line.
By the end of the song, the older generation HAS passed on, presumably leaving the world peaceful &
The band changes gears on Side Two, kicking things off w/ Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers’ hit
song from 1956, “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.” The Dukes, led by Andy, sing it pretty straight, but
you can tell by their snarky attitude that they really ARE juvenile delinquents.
This adolescent criminality is transformed drastically into “Good Natured Emma,” another wild
rocker written by Nugent. These songs are exciting, & “Emma” is a perfect example. You’ve got
undomesticated fully-charged guitar, shimmering organ, passionate vocals—& on top of that, it’s a love
song, as the singer implores Emma, “Don’t make your plans for less than two.” Another one of my
absolute faves.
“Inside the Outside,” is a thoughtful piece written by Steve Farmer. The singer doesn’t seem to
fit in anywhere, but he decides that “Nothin’ is too big to do, if you see it in a little way.” The song ends
w/ guarded optimism.
“Shades of Green and Gray,” is another contemplative Steve Farmer composition. The singer
looks at the world going by, the people in it, & doesn’t understand their motivation, all that greed. The
song starts slow & builds to a climax. Not quite so optimistic.
Andy Solomon is responsible for “Curb Your Elephant,” an example of a rhythm & blues song
played w/ outrageous syncopation. The drums, guitar, organ, horns help the singer (Andy) tell his tale.
Actually, he’s telling his woman that he’s got to have it his way or no way at all. He’ll “try not to
misbehave,” although he’s gonna be himself, live life his way, but she’d better not try to leave him.
Closing the album is “Loaded for Bear,” yet another wild Ted Nugent song. The singer’s having
a rough day, a rough week too, but says “I’ll never leave home again unless I’m loaded for bear,” some
good advice.
A few years later Ted Nugent takes over as band ringleader; that, & many personnel changes, turn
the Dukes into a different band w/ a different sound. Greg Arama dies in 1979. Rusty Day joins the band
Cactus, but is murdered in 1982. Meanwhile the Nuge has developed into a sort of cartoonish &
opinionated (though extremely talented) guitarist, stage performer, & recording artist. And he’s still
going, bless him.

-John Berbrich

Mulling It Over

Mulling It Over

It was years ago, & I was down on my luck.

I was living in a cheap hotel in Richmond, Kentucky. My job at the car wash in a sketchy neighborhood in Lexington was done. My girlfriend had gone back to her guy, just out of jail. I was not eating regularly. The hotel provided me w/ a single room, a private bathroom, a bed, a desk, &, curiously, a radio—& the lobby had a big ice machine, so I’d fill my bathroom sink w/ ice & (when I could afford it) a 12-pack of (cheap) Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. It was all pretty depressing.

Yeah, some nights it was hard to sleep.

But one particular night, I had the radio tuned in to a local station, &, right at midnight, the DJ played an entire album by Martin Mull. I had never heard of Martin Mull at the time; now I know that he’s a successful actor, comedian, writer, &, yes, even a musician.

The album was called “I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved.”

Now, I don’t want to get all hyperbolic about this, but here’s the scene. I was feeling down, surely, but not suicidal. Let’s call it mildly depressed w/ pretty much a blank future to look forward to. No immediate potential for good things. No girlfriend, not much money, no prospects. Sounds to me like a dead end.
I’m not kidding, but this album changed the atmosphere I was living in. I felt like I was breathing clean air again. The music & words put the pep back in my step, the glide back in my stride. Seriously, it had that big an effect.

So why don’t I tell you about this music?

Okay, I will.

For this record, Mull develops a personality for himself. He’s simultaneously a womanizing narcissist & a drunken loser. Each pose elicits a wry smile & buckets of laughter. The lyrics are smart & the music is brightly recorded. The band itself sounds like a professional airport lounge jazz ensemble playing at LAX.

Of course, this is comedy, & the words are perfectly interwoven w/ the music, so I can give only a rough idea of the effect. Often Mull will argue w/ the company president (Rob Reiner) about the next song. Reiner insists that they need more songs or tells Mull that the next song is filthy & they can’t use it. In the latter case, Mull sings the filthy song but hums the words that might offend some. As you can guess, most of the words are hummed.
“Bombed Anyway” features the quite convincing Tom Waits as the bartender. In that one, Mull sits at the bar drinking himself into a stupor while thinking about the awful state of the world. He’s wondering which country will drop the next bomb, but he doesn’t worry because he’s “usually bombed anyway.”

In another, Mull insists that he wants to record an example of Philadelphia soul. What emerges is “The Boogie Man,” a real earworm & a marvelous recording.

By the way, Mull writes all the lyrics to these musical numbers & most of the music, additional tunes having been composed by pianist Eddie Wise. And Mull teams up w/ Steve Martin on the indescribable epic “Men.”

One of my favorites is “Honor Roll,” in which Mull goes out drinking every Saturday night. Of course he wakes up seriously hungover on Sunday mornings & therefore misses church; “That makes almost seven years, God save my soul,” he pines. He’s afraid Saint Peter’s going to be mad when he shows up at the Pearly Gates: “When it’s time for him to read that honor roll / I would have been in church, I would have / been in church, good God / But I was on a roll.”
The album ended. I sat & stared at the radio on the desk. I breathed in that fresh, clean air. Suddenly, my little room in a cheap hotel in a backwater town didn’t seem so bad. There were sparkles in the atmosphere.

These reflections should give you a pretty good idea of what the album’s about. I’m sure some of these songs are creeping around the internet somewhere. If you need a little pick-me-up someday, try to find one or two & see if I’m not telling you the truth. It might just put a little cut back in your strut.

-John Berbrich

A Mostly-Forgotten Gem

A Mostly-Forgotten Gem

Zephyr was a rock band (w/ blues & delightful jazz tendencies) from Colorado that lasted from 1969-1971 & recorded only two albums; the first album, the eponymous “Zephyr” (1969) is a mostly-forgotten gem. Let’s take a good look at the band members, then we’ll examine the songs, one by one.
The leader & frontline performer here is Candy Givens, lead vocals & a pretty mean harmonica (played sparingly). Candy loves to shriek & screech, sometimes overdoing it a bit, which gets a little annoying. She’s got kind of a thin voice which sounds a lot better when she’s in control of it. Still, she sings w/ a tremendous amount of energy & a whole lot of sassy charisma. She co-writes about half the songs, probably lyrics.
On guitar is the flashy youngster Tommy Bolin, who was only 17 when this album was recorded. He can burn & grind & shred. He can also play sweet & gentle, like moonlight on a calm lake surface. He’s co-writer on roughly half the songs. Tommy didn’t quite make it into the 27 Club, dying at the tender age of 25.
On piano, organ, & flute we’ve got the diminutive, bespectacled John Faris w/ the fluffy hair. John’s keyboards participate fully w/ Bolin’s guitar. The organ swells & rises & fills out the sound.
Candy’s husband David Givens plays bass & like most of the members co-writes about half the songs. His bass is unspectacular but steady & always right where it needs to be.
I can say the same for Robbie Chamberlin on drums. He’s unspectacular, but always right there. And sometimes those drums step out in front perfectly, crashing a climax or building a crescendo.
The entire band plays well together, each instrument going for extremes but never getting completely out of control. And now for the songs.
Side One starts w/ “Sail On,” dramatic blues-rock, which features a furious instrumental break in the middle & a sonic train wreck at the end. The lyrics are like all of Candy’s lyrics: She’s in a relationship, which is either failing or just starting—or she’s in the middle of a really good one.
Next up is “Sun’s A-Risin’,” more blues w/ guitar & organ, plus Candy’s passionate harmonica.
Back in 1961, Dee Clark had a big hit w/ “Raindrops.” Zephyr covers that song here, & it’s probably the least successful piece on the entire album. It features Candy Givens at her most shrieky, trying too hard to be emotional.
Next we get a cool urban jazz instrumental called “Boom-Ba-Boom,” written by bassist David Givens. It’s short, showcases Bolin’s ripping guitar, & leads directly into “Somebody Listen,” a blues number w/ Candy on desperate & convincing vocals.
Which brings us to Side Two, kicked off by “Cross the River,” the best song on the album. It’s a powerhouse performance by the entire band, featuring a delirious jazzy instrumental in the middle, fierce guitar—flute, organ, bass, everybody gets a turn—tempo changes, best voice on the record.
Another cover is “St. James Infirmary,” a blues standard previously done by dozens of artists. Candy certainly sounds anguished, though a bit over the top.
The band has some fun w/ “Huna Buna,” a VERY suggestive jazz number. The sound is tight & exuberant, the voice sexy & fun-loving.
The album closes w/ the big “Hard Chargin’ Woman.” Candy declares that she needs to roam a bit, seeking temporary lovers out of curiosity & a sense of freedom. The music begins slow, ominous, & dark. The voice is in control, moderate & determined. There’s an unaccompanied guitar solo in the middle—rapid, flashy, & wild. The song speeds up, slows down, then accelerates to a grand climax. At eight minutes & forty seconds, it’s the longest song on the album & it deserves to be the longest.
If this sounds interesting, check out Zephyr online. There a sort of controlled wildness in their sound that can be quite stimulating. And Bolin truly could have been one of the greats.