The Ted Zone: “David Bowie: The Last Five Years”

It’s been two years since David Bowie left this veil of tears. And in that two years, there’s been a lot of time to reflect on the cultural impact of his music. Whether you like early Bowie, Berlin Bowie, ‘80s Bowie, ‘90s Bowie, or albums he recorded in the 2000s until his death, it’s clear that it has been a mixed bag for an artist whose first single (“Liza Jane”) stiffed in 1964 when he fronted the group Davie Jones with The King Bees.

For the new HBO documentary, David Bowie: The Last Five Years the focus is supposed to be the period from 2011-2016, but producer/director Francis Whately didn’t have much footage, interviews, or images for a 95-minute documentary, so he had to stretch. With a film like this, the compelling story is how, after a long absence, Bowie came back to recording music without compromising his artistic vision. Now, if Bowie — like people in many parts of the world — compulsively and obsessively chronicled his life on social media, there would be a plethora of material for the documentary. But, Bowie being Bowie, he went the other way. Opting for obsessive privacy, he kept any details about work on his album “The Next Day” completely secret. That meant having the musicians who backed him in the studio sign non-disclosures agreements, people who did the artwork to do the same, and even the director of the videos for the record. All of it was hush-hush. The result was — in an age where very little can be kept secret — a surprising return for Bowie. He did absolutely no press for the record, nor did he tour to support the album. His decision to lay low on promotion paid off. The album was number one almost worldwide and certified Gold or Platinum in many countries.

For Bowie’s on again/off again producer Tony Visconti, he was surprised by the reflective tone of the album’s first single “Where Are We Now?” Not only does the song reference his long stay in Berlin, Germany, but in the video, Bowie can be seen wearing a t-shirt that says “m/s Song of Norway.” The reference? Well, it’s about Hermione Farthingale — with whom he had a relationship and collaborated with a group they formed with John Hutchinson in 1968. Yes, she’s is “the girl with the mousy hair” in “Life On Mars?” and the Hermione in “Letter to Hermione.” Farthingale left Bowie for an actor she met on the set of the film “Song of Norway” — which she was acting in. As Bowie said in the documentary, “That really broke me up.” It took him a long time to get over her split with him. Seems unrequited love knows no bounds — and even after being happily married to Imam for decades, it’s clear Bowie still bore the emotional scars of that early relationship.

The interviews with Bowie’s band members who worked on “The Next Day” and the jazz group led by sax player Donny McCaslin on “Blackstar” had some nice moments where they broke down a couple of the songs to show what they added to the proverbial mix — and it was quite a lot. Other highlights of “Blackstar” sessions were when Tony Visconti isolated Bowie’s vocals to show how much he was putting into his vocals on “Lazarus” (you can hear Bowie breathing hard between verses).

Maria Schneider with David Bowie during the recording of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).”

Knowing this was his last album, Bowie ditched any pretense of commercial viability in the songs by exploring a noir jazz vibe with Maria Schneider on the first version of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” in 2014. That song went through a major musical revision on “Blackstar” with a kind of manic drum and bass underbelly that changed the tenor of the song. If “The Next Day” has a “looking back” quality (as Visconti said at one point in the documentary), “Blackstar” was both a progressive push to try something new and a bit of a retrospective as well.

With the musical “Lazarus” Bowie wrote (mostly because he wanted to write a musical for a long time), it’s interesting to see footage of the actors rehearsing scenes, and how the musical director convinced Bowie to use the song “Heroes” in the production — even though he was against it until he heard the altered version. Michael C. Hall does give it his all in his portrayal Thomas Newton (The same character in film The Man Who Fell to Earth), but clearly the musical was more of a way for Bowie to explore eras of his life with music from his catalog that, as my Popdose colleague Bob Cashill wrote in his review of the production, “… is about poses, images, stage pictures–milk and blood are spilled, balloons are kicked around, teenage groupies and Kabuki-masked phantasms loll about.” Perhaps those poses are what Bowie’s career was about: A professional life without a central narrative.

How very postmodern.

While the musical lacked structure, Whately’s documentary is more conventional in its ambitions. Focusing on the musical and last two albums are points where Whately aligns the subject with the title of the film — but alas those moments are doled out sparingly. Instead, the film gets sidetracked with extended sections of Bowie’s career in the 1970s. While much of the footage from that era may not have been exhibited before, it dilutes the main theme of the film: Bowie’s last five years. Now, it’s clear the lack of material meant Whately chose to broaden the scope of the film, but he was not bound by a running time. He could have made a very tight one hour documentary with the footage he had from 2003 to 2016. Instead, Whately traversed some of the same ground he explored in his 2013 film, David Bowie: Five Years. As important it is to highlight Bowie’s cultural impact in the 1970s, it’s a well-trodden path. The overall disappointment of David Bowie: The Last Five Years is that it sheds very little light on Bowie’s late-career projects — or the man himself in the winter of his life.

Soul Serenade: Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, “Little Latin Lupe Lu”

Before the Righteous Brothers became the megastars they would become when “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” raced to the top of the charts in 1964, brother Bill Medley wrote a song for the duo called “Little Latin Lupe Lu.” It was released as the Righteous Brothers’ debut single in 1963. It was moderately successful, just edging into the Top 50 on the Pop chart. Stardom would have to wait another year for the Righteous Brothers.

The original version of “Little Latin Lupe Lu” was not the only version, or even the most successful. The latter designation would go to a band called Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels who released their cover of Medley’s song in 1966. Unlike the Righteous Brothers original or subsequent covers by the Chancellors (their 1964 version was a regional hit in Minneapolis and Chicago) or the Kingsmen (theirs reached #46 the same year), Ryder’s torrid take on the song was a bonafide hit, racing all the way to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Ryder came out of Hamtramck, Michigan and formed his first band, the Tempests, while he was in high school. The Tempests gained some popularity in the Detroit clubs but it wasn’t long before Ryder was fronting another band, Billy Lee & the Rivieras (Ryder’s given name was William S. Levise, Jr.). Along the way, they came to the attention of Bob Crewe whose production and songwriting credits included a number of hits for Four Seasons. The first thing that Crewe did was to change the name of the band to Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.

Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels

The original Detroit Wheels lineup included John Badanjek on drums, lead guitarist Jim McCarty, and bass player Earl Elliot. The Wheels breakout single with Ryder was “Jenny Take a Ride” which reached the Top 10 in 1965. The follow-up single was “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and it did nearly as well in 1966. But the best was yet to come as Ryder and his Wheels had a stone smash with “Devil With a Blue Dress” that same year. In 1967, “Sock It to Me, Baby” almost equaled the success of “Devil” reaching #6 on the Pop chart. All of the singles were originally released on Crewe’s DynoVoice label with Crewe producing.

In 1968, Ryder left the Wheels behind for a solo career. He had some success with his version of “What Now My Love,” reaching the Top 30, but that was the last single he placed in the Top 50. In the early ’70s, Ryder formed a band called Detroit that included Badjanek and guitarist Steve Hunter. Lou Reed liked Hunter’s playing on the Detroit version of his song “Rock & Roll” so much that he grabbed Hunter for his band. That said, the one album that Detroit released in 1971 barely crept into the Top 200.

Ryder developed throat problems and bowed out of the music business in the 1970s. He managed a comeback in 1983 with an album called Never Kick a Sleeping Dog which was produced by John Mellencamp. The album spawned a Top 100 single version of Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” Ryder’s most recent album, The Promise, was released in 2012. It was his first album in nearly 30 years.

McCarty and Badjanek reunited later to form a group called the Rockets, and McCarty had some hard rock success with the band Cactus. Meanwhile, the influence of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels has proved incalculable, inspiring rockers like Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springsteen, whose “Detroit Medley” was a staple of his live set for years.

Mitch Ryder was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Forty-Six

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode Forty Six

2018 doesn’t even blink its’ sleepy, hungover eyes open as Jon and Rob get right back to work, talking things over and hit the ground running.  The discussion runs like a river – talking about the criminal enterprise known as “cable T.V.”; New York City’s appalling mayor; the never ending sense of “entitlement” running rampant; the Bitcoin lunacy; media gadflies and buzzwords that need to go away, “In Our Heads” and so much more.

Sit down and take your place as part of a very warm conversation – Radio City is the perfect way to start the New Year…

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Forty Six

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

Single Review: Bellringer, “Stumble Bum/Triangular Object”

No matter how much he loathes it, Texan and musical-firebrand Mark Deutrom forever might be inextricably linked with Melvins, the legendary Gods-of-Thunder quartet whose debut he released on Alchemy 30-odd years ago and, more importantly, for whom he played a mean bass during a good chunk of the 1990s.

But the Deutrom story did not end when he left Melvins circa Honky – no further evidence is needed than his current band, Bellringer, which released a new, one-song single a few days ago, in the egg-still-on-ear moments of the new year.

The song, titled “Stumble Bum/Triangular Object,” centers around something very non-Melvins, an almost jazz-pop lurch with off-kilter drums and a hummable, two-part melody. But, as on Bellringers’ Jettison LP, that’s just a point of departure. Deutrom, who wrote and produced the piece, is not interested in conventional time, and he darts from one suite to the next with a seeming disregard for transition. It suits drummer R.L. Hulsman, with their rubbery angularities, well and gives the track a weird dimension that’s inviting – listen to the psych-trance guitars over buzzing bass in one section, get hooked by the bass-drum lurch elsewhere. Deutrom’s got the right prescription.

All of this continues to beg the question, though: how many times do we need to write about Deutrom, Bellringer and the solo efforts – which have a pretty rich biography of their own – before we drop the Melvins footnotes? I, for one, like the context but, with tracks like this, Deutrom continues to craft his own epic narratives.

DVD Review: Sting, “Live at the Olympia Paris”

There are two very clear sides to viewing Gordon Sumner, a.k.a. Sting, the former singer/songwriter/bass player for The Police and solo star (since 1985).  One is the objective eye, which says he is, without question, one of the finest performers, musicians, singers, etc. of the last thirty-plus years and his concerts are wonderful executions of precision playing and flawlessness.  The other is the subjective eye, in which the word “insufferable” seems to always start the sentence, usually followed by expletives and hyperbole.  I would prefer to veer away from the latter as it doesn’t serve any purpose.

Here’s the takeaway from watching this new concert DVD, Live At The Olympia Paris:  it is, indeed, a flawless performance.  The man knows how to lead a band like a general with his troops; the musicians he has as his backing band (who he’s worked with for years, now) is a well-oiled, on point, tight machine.  The song selection is consistent, which is an important change, as in the past, Sting’s concerts have meandered into dangerously pretentious waters – there’s no escaping that irritating fact.  But here, he delivers the lion’s share of his last album, 57th & 9th (a very good, strong rock/pop album).  And that’s the point of this tour and DVD – this was Sting’s first “rock”-oriented tour in over 10 years (which I presume, means the last time he played rock was during The Police’s reunion shows).  The songs from that album works perfectly in a live setting – in this case, it was at the Olympia Theatre in Paris – and they have (as many songs or even total albums do) take on a greater punch and ferocity when played live.

Naturally, there are a good number of Sting “classics” from his solo canon and yes, he gives a fair number of The Police’s greatest hits their time.  All of which is to say, the audience certainly got their money’s worth from this performance.  From the academic standpoint, simply a great show – and the man’s voice is still pure, honeyed gold.

The problem is this is about as soul-less as you’ll get.  It’s a bland set of music – all the crackerjack musicianship doesn’t negate the fact that there’s nothing dynamic; nothing that makes you feel.  And I found that element distracting and off-putting.  Yes, musicians get tired and bored from doing the same songs on the tour cycle, but Sting is just too clinical, too antiseptic a performer to get the blood pumping.  At the same time, by seeing this DVD, it saves me the time, money and effort of having to actually go to one of his concerts since there’s no great warmth here.

Nevertheless, for the musical merits alone, he’s still one of the untouchables.  And there’s a lot to be said about someone who’s been doing it since 1977.  So full marks go to him and his band – and a very savvy choice of songs that provided a solid set.


Live At The Olympia Paris is currently available

Popdose Video Premiere: Hannah Williams & the Affirmations, “Late Nights & Heartbreak”

You could listen to Hannah Williams & the Affirmations’ “Late Night and Heartbreak” for the first time, but you already have.

Confused? The killer hook from this insane ’70s soul throwback track was used for Jay-Z’s bombshell “4:44.” Yeah, I thought it was a long-lost bleeding-soul, maybe Muscle Shoals record, too, and if a song can fool me, the Queen of Retro, it’s certainly proving its mettle as a timeless, classic sound.

I’ve honestly encountered few bands in the past decade that truly exemplify the iconic blue-eyed soul genre as much as Hannah Williams & the Affirmations. Williams’ voice falls somewhere between Linda Ronstadt and Gladys Knight, adding real depth to the horn-soaked instrumental tracks of her Affirmations. This track in particular, “Late Nights & Heartbreak,” showcases how that magic, time-honored concoction still really works and is still so, so important in music today.

Check out the beautifully shot video for “Late Nights & Heartbreak” below. Afterward, take another listen to “4:44” and be amazed at how seamlessly the clip complements Jay’s sick beats.

Album Review: Carey Frank, “Something to Remember Him By”

Ye gods, this is GOOD.  Like “mega-good”.  The moment the album started playing, I thought I was wrong and that this was an old Jimmy Smith album – A New Star, A New Sound Volume 2, perhaps – but that’s impossible since I know that album six ways to Sunday.  No, this astounding piece of work is courtesy of Carey Frank, who has been serving as the touring keyboardist in the Tedeschi Trucks band as of late.  Mr. Frank delivers here, with guitarist Bruce Forman, a devastating set of standards that screams “Blue Note, 1953”.  Fluid, warm and wholly embraceable, it’s a dynamic collection played by two obvious masters.  Something To Remember Him By is one of those albums you will, indeed, not forget.

The trade off of Hammond B3 runs by Mr. Frank and the delicate tastefulness of Mr. Forman’s guitar stylings are immediately felt on Chet Baker’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is”; the sympathetic guitar notes that run parallel to the organ on Cole Porter’s “All Of You” is just so well-placed; of course, I get very emotional when I hear “I Remember You” (albeit the “hit” Frank Ifield version – one of my all-time favorite songs) but hearing this, I would SWEAR that Jimmy Smith did, indeed, do a version as well almost the exact same.  But nonetheless, I love the way this swings; this is done with so much soul.  As that songs reminds me of something mournful in the way I grew up with it, here it’s buoyant and joyful. On the legendary “September Song”, aside from the quiet ease of Mr. Forman’s guitar, my guess (and that’s all it is) is Mr. Frank is deftly playing an accordion (unless he’s a master harmonica player) – either way, it’s breathtaking.

Eleven songs that hopefully anyone with a musical sense and a quietly romantic side will take to heart.  This is an easily embraceable album and shines – with good reason.  Carey Frank and Bruce Forman have plumped from a very rich tapestry of true, classic music and not only breathe new life into these songs but introduce them (hopefully) to a new generation.

Absolutely outstanding.


Something To Remember Him By is currently available

DVD/CD Review: Jeff Beck, “Live at the Hollywood Bowl”

I’ve been a fan and was influenced very early on by The Yardbirds.  I was never keen on Eric Clapton (and still am not) or Jimmy Page (although I do love Led Zeppelin).  I’m also not a great fan of guitar virtuosos.  Watching the uber-flashy style of someone like Eddie Van Halen was always a cringe.  But Jeff Beck IS the one true master – and he was, to me, THE Yardbirds’ guitarist who mattered.  Go back to “Over, Under, Sideways, Down”, “Shapes Of Things” or “Mr. You’re A Better Man Than I” – his playing was fluid, took good songs and gave them life and his sound was absolutely his own.  Hence, he’s the only guitarist whose career I’ve followed from the time he founded The Jeff Beck Group in 1968 through all his solo albums up to Flash.  There have been moments, I’m happy to say, when I’ve been able to cop a lick or two or nail one of Beck’s solos in my own playing but he’ll always be the guru as long as I play a Telecaster.

Even though he joined The Yardbirds in 1965, in 2016, Beck celebrated his 50th year as a living guitar legend with an unbelievable performance at the Hollywood Bowl and he did it in style with some incredible guests to help out – all heavy hitters in their own right.  Among the names on the bill include Beth Hart, Billy Gibbons and Steven Tyler.  Just from that alone, you should immediately understand that this was not going to be some ordinary concert with “special appearances”.  This also marked a major step forward for the newest gathering of players backing Mr. Beck, including powerhouse singer Rosie Bones and guitarist extraordinaire Carmen Vandenberg (both of the band Bones).  Longtime collaborator Jan Hammer is back behind the keyboards and there is no dearth of Jeff Beck classics in the mix of numbers performed.  Early on – the second song of this set – we’re immediately treated to the epic “Over Under Sideways Down” which follows into “Heart Full Of Soul” and “For Your Love” – three of The Yardbirds’ greatest hits and done with great energy with stellar vocals by Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie (!).  The monumental “Beck’s Bolero” is next (and what a magnificent band he has), leading into The Jeff Beck Group standard “Rice Pudding” and onto “Morning Dew”, again, sung by Mr. Hall.  One of my favorite pieces of Mr. Beck’s from 1980’s There And Back (probably my most-loved Beck solo album) is “Star Cycle”, where he’s joined by Mr. Hammer, who shoots keyboard melody to match Mr. Beck’s guitar fireworks.  Of the guest appearances that stand out (in a show filled with stand out moments), the incredible Beth Hart (who I’ve loved since she was on Atlantic Records when I worked there) rips through a version of “I’d Rather Go Blind” that induces chills; the legendary Buddy Guy joins Mr. Beck for “Let Me Love You” and Steven Tyler just tears the roof off the Hollywood Bowl with his near-perfect imitation of Rod Stewart on “Shapes Of Things”.  The finale is a tribute to Prince, as the group tears into “Purple Rain”.  All in all, a breathtaking collection and gathering of performances.

This release comes as a Blu-ray/DVD with 2 CDs; so thanks, Mr. Beck for your 50-plus years; because of you, my 39 years of guitar playing have always been infused with your influence and I’m grateful.  So too am I glad that there’s a document of this celebration, which is so richly deserved.


Live At The Hollywood Bowl is currently available