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The Ultimate Christmas Playlist

Today is the day after Thanksgiving here in the United States of America. You’re officially allowed to start listening to holiday music now. To get you started, I compiled a playlist of what I consider to be 100 of the best Christmas songs. Okay, 98 songs, a stand-up routine and a skit. It’s a mix of standards, versions of standards with which you may not be familiar, and obscure but delightful tunes.

Enjoy!

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Throwback Thursday – 1976 (Part II)

In October of 1975, the band Queen played for their manager, John Reid, a song they recently finished recording that they wanted to release as their next single. Reid told them the track would not get any airplay. He played it for another artist he managed, Elton John, who reportedly said “Are you mad? You’ll never get that on the radio!”

Queen stayed firm, not relenting when their record company begged them to at least edit the song down from its nearly six-minute duration.

To promote the song, the band was invited to play on England’s hugely successful Top of the Pops television program. They were unable to appear due to tour commitments, so they did something that wasn’t very common in 1975 – they filmed a videoclip. Top of the Pops aired the clip. As the song rose up the charts, the video was shown repeatedly. Soon other artists in the UK made videos for their records, which is why when MTV launched in the United States in 1981, many of the clips they aired were of UK acts.

The single, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” went to #1 in England in December of that year, where it stayed for nine weeks. It got knocked from the top spot by a song whose title consisted of a phrase used in “Bohemian Rhapsody” – ABBA’s “Mamma Mia.” “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit #1 again there in December of 1991, a few weeks after the death of the band’s lead singer and the song’s composer, Freddie Mercury.

Winston & queen

In the United States, the song didn’t go to #1, but it did hit the top ten in 1976 and 1992.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday playlist, Tunes du Jour revisits 1976 (part I can be found here), kicking off with the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”


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Throwback Thursday – 1978

Just how popular were the Bee Gees in 1978? So big that they accounted for two percent of the record industry’s profits that year.

On January 1, 1978, the trio, made up of brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb, were at #1 with “How Deep is Your Love,” which the three performed, wrote and co-produced. It stayed on top for three weeks. In February they returned to the #1 position with “Stayin’ Alive.” That stayed at #1 for four weeks. It was knocked from the top spot by “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” performed by Andy Gibb, younger brother of the Bee Gees. “Thicker Than Water” was co-written and co-produced by Bee Gee Barry Gibb. “Thicker Than Water” was knocked from the top spot after two weeks by “Night Fever,” performed, written and co-produced by the Bee Gees. That song remained at #1 for eight weeks, only to be knocked from the top by “If I Can’t Have You,” performed by Yvonne Elliman and written and co-produced by the Bee Gees. Starting in mid-June, “Shadow Dancing,” written by the Bee Gees and Andy Gibb, co-produced by Barry Gibb, and performed by Andy Gibb went to #1 and stayed there for seven weeks. In late August Frankie Valli had his first #1 single in three years with “Grease,” written and co-produced by Barry Gibb.

Not everything they touched hit #1 that year. “Emotion,” written by Barry and Robin Gibb, co-produced by Barry Gibb and performed by Samantha Sang, peaked at #3 in March 1978. It was kept from #1 by “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive.”

The album from which “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love” and “If I Can’t Have You” were taken is the soundtrack to the film Saturday Night Fever, which spent 24 weeks at #1 and became the largest-selling album in history at that time. It remains the only soundtrack to have spawned four #1 singles. It could have been five if the Bee Gees’ version of their composition “More Than a Woman” had been released as a commercial single. Instead, the Tavares version of the song, which also appears on the soundtrack, was the single and became a top forty hit. Saturday Night Fever became the first soundtrack album to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The Bee Gees also won Grammy Awards for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (both “How Deep is Your Love” and “Stayin’ Alive”) and Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices (for “Stayin’ Alive”), and Barry Gibb, along with Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, won Producer of the Year.

In 1978 the Bee Gees were connected with another high-profile movie project: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in which they starred and performed on the soundtrack. Though Robin Gibb hit #15 with the film’s “Oh! Darling”, the album and film were considered flops.

The relative failure of Sgt. Pepper’s notwithstanding, the Bee Gees remained huge throughout 1978. Their blend of pop, soul, and dance music gave them mass appeal. Besides hitting #1 on the pop charts, “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever” were top ten hits on the r&b and disco charts.

Tunes du Jour celebrates Throwback Thursday this week with the music of 1978. The Bee Gees may have dominated the mainstream, but as you’ll hear, rumblings of new and exciting permutations of rock & roll were rumbling under the surface.

We’ll kick off today’s playlist with the song that went to #1 in the UK, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.


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My Birthday Advice: Don’t!

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Today is my birthday. Over my 25+ years on earth, I’ve learned many life lessons. Most of them came from songs. My birthday gift to you is a playlist of 100 songs offering advice as to what not to do.


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A Star-Spangled Night for Rights

On September 18, 1977, Aaron Russo, Bette Midler’s manager, produced “A Star-Spangled Night for Rights” at the Hollywood Bowl. The focus of the four and a half hour concert was gay rights. Performers included Midler, War, Richard Pryor, Helen Reddy, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits and Tanya Tucker. Among the approximately 17,000 people in the audience was Paul Newman, Olivia Newton-John, Valerie Harper and Robert Blake.

It had been a rough year for gay rights. In June, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign proved successful when Dade County, Florida voters repealed the gay rights ordinance they had just passed in January. In Arkansas, the state legislature reinstated the sodomy laws it repealed two years earlier.

As a result of these setbacks, gay rights marches appeared around the country, official Gay Pride parades drew their highest number of participants to date, and Russo organized the concert to benefit the Save Our Human Rights Foundation.

California Senator John Briggs threatened to blacklist every Hollywood performer or politician who supported or attended the show. The following year Briggs sponsored a proposition to remove all gay or lesbian employees and their supporters from California schools. The measure was defeated due in large part to the efforts of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. On September 18, 1977, Milk had yet to be elected to that position.

The concert went well for its first few performances, but took an ugly turn when comedian Pryor took the stage. Among the things he said: “Motherfuck women’s rights!” “Fags are prejudiced.” “I’m sick of y’all and your faggoty-ass bullshit. What were you doing during the Watts riots – sucking each other’s dicks? Fuck you and everything you stand for, I’m getting the fuck out of here.” And the finale, “You Hollywood faggots can kiss my happy rich black ass!” It wasn’t his best material. And yes, if given the choice between arson, destruction, looting, beatdowns and fellatio, my selection is a no-brainer.

Next on the concert bill…Tom Waits! It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer was to perform a comedy set at Mr. Burns’ birthday party. Mr. Smithers gets on stage and announces “I have some sad news to report. A small puppy, not unlike Lassie, was just run over in the parking lot. And now it’s time for the comedy stylings of Homer Simpson!”

Waits was invited to perform at the event by his close friend Bette Midler, who he met three years earlier at The Bottom Line in New York. Subsequently, Midler recorded Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” in 1976 and they did a duet on Waits’ Foreign Affairs album released the year of the Hollywood Bowl show.

Before Waits took the stage Aaron Russo came out to apologize for Pryor’s outburst. “I’m terribly embarrassed and don’t know what to say about what just happened, but I do think this show tonight started out and will end up on a positive note.” However, the audience was agitated. Waits gave up after two songs.

The crowd wanted the headliner. Bette Midler bounded on stage and asked the crowd “Is there anyone here tonight who wants to kiss this rich white ass?” The crowd cheered and she closed the show.

Today Tom Waits turns 65. Aside from Milder, his compositions have been recorded by Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen and The Ramones, among others. Here are twenty career highlights.

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A Talking Heads Playlist

One of the best things about my job as Vice President of Licensing at Warner Music was working with one of the greatest catalogues in the business. I negotiated deals for many of my favorite artists under the Warner umbrella, including R.E.M., Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Ray Charles, the Ramones and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few.

Another of my favorite acts whose music I got to license was Talking Heads. Just last year I did a deal for the band’s live version of “Slippery People” to be included on the soundtrack to the Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Marrying great music to great projects makes for the most rewarding parts of my career.

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Today Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne celebrates his 62nd birthday. Here are twenty of my favorite tracks from this band.

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Your Day Of Happiness Soundtrack

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Today is the United Nations International Day of Happiness. Our soundtrack kicks off with The Turtles’ “Happy Together.”

Ironically, this is not a happy song.

Written by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, the song is about a one-way love affair. The singer imagines being with the girl to whom he’s singing. He’s in love with her and thinks if they were to be together the skies would be blue. He imagines how the world would be – so very fine – if they were a couple.

She doesn’t feel the same way. When this sinks in to our narrator, he makes small talk. “So how is the weather?” he asks, alternating that line with his repeated sentiment that they would be so happy together.

The song opens on a minor chord, which has a more melancholy sound than a major chord. The chorus – “I can’t see me loving nobody but you for all my life” – opens with a major chord, and the instrumentation is appropriately louder and joyous, the celebratory sound matching his feelings of ecstasy as he imagines his fantasy life with this woman.

For younger folks reading this, there used to exist public phones where one could insert a dime to make a three-minute long local call, hence the lyric “If I should call you up, invest a dime.” If the song were written today, this verse may go “If I should call you up, use up minutes from my cell phone plan / And you say you belong to me, I am your man / Imagine how the world could be, I’m hungry for flan.” Not as strong. Now I’m hungry for flan.

The Turtles recorded “Happy Together” in January 1967. Two months later it knocked The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” out of the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. It stayed on top for three weeks.

Enjoy your Day of Happiness. May all your loves be requited loves.

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He’s A Rebel

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Some time in my teen years I feel in love with the girl group sound. My favorite was The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.” The music and the vocals hooked me. The singer tells of how others don’t approve of the boy she loves as he’s a non-conformist, but he treats her well and that’s all that matters.

The story behind the record is as interesting as the record itself. The song was written by Gene Pitney, who had several hits of his own, including “Town Without Pity” and “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valence.” “He’s a Rebel” was slated to be the debut single for Vikki Carr, but when Spector heard Pitney’s demo he knew he wanted it for one of his acts, The Crystals.

He needed to record it quickly in order to challenge Carr’s version at the stores. The Crystals, however, were on the road in New York and unable to make the recording sessions in Los Angeles. No problem. Spector hired a local group called The Blossoms, led by Darlene Wright, to record the song. Wright was paid $3000 for the session. Spector released the record under the name The Crystals, as his label owned the name. The actual Crystals first learned of their new hit song when they heard it on the radio. It became their first #1 single, meaning The Crystals had to learn this song so they could perform it at their shows. The group’s lead singer, Barbara Alston, could not match Wright’s vocal performance, so fellow Crystal LaLa Brooks moved into the lead vocalist slot. Coincidentally, the week The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” was #1, Gene Pitney was #2 as a singer with “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” a song he didn’t write.

As “He’s a Rebel” was so successful, Spector needed to get a follow-up single out quickly. Again, he turned to The Blossoms to record “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” Wright, however, was angry that her name was not on “He’s a Rebel” and told Spector she would only do this song if she were singed to a recording agreement and was properly credited for her vocals on the track. Spector agreed, changing her name in the agreement to Darlene Love. He released “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” It was credited to The Crystals.

Spector used the money he made from “He’s a Rebel” to buy out his business partners in the Philles Records label. In addition to the financial settlement, Spector had to give his two ex-partners a share of the royalties of the next Philles single release, so Spector got the real Crystals into the studio and recorded “(Let’s Dance) The Screw,” a silly number clearly not intended to be a hit. A copy was sent to one of the ex-partners. No royalties were generated.

Today is Phil Spector’s 74th birthday. He’s spending it in jail, convicted in 2009 for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson. What happened to Clarkson is horrible and unforgivable. That this is how many people know of Spector these days is tragic. This playlist recalls the years that Spector was known as one of the greatest producers in the history of rock and roll. Besides the tracks presented below, Spector also worked with John Lennon, producing with him, among others, a little ditty called “Imagine;” with George Harrison, producing, among others, a song you may have heard called “My Sweet Lord;” and with The Beatles, producing an album named Let It Be.

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I auditioned for American Idol

In February 2002 my friend Sophie and I auditioned to be the hosts of a new US television series based on the successful UK show Pop Idol. On American Idol, amateur singers competed against each other and the public voted for the winner.

I’ve never seen American Idol. It’s not because I’m bitter I didn’t get the job. I have a different opinion than many of the show’s viewers as to what constitutes good singing. Being loud and hitting high notes do not necessarily make for great singing. A great singer is expressive, feeling the words they are singing. Aretha Franklin and Adele are two singers who can belt and hit a wide range of notes. They also know when to sing softly or when not to let vocal gymnastics get in the way of the song. They are great singers. Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are also great singers. They own their material. They feel their material. They live their material (more accurately, the personas they put forth for each song lives the material).

Dylan and Waits are also great songwriters. Dylan is the better-known of the two, but as today is Waits’ birthday, I’m going to focus on him. His songs have been recorded by a diverse group of artists, including Elvis Costello, Eagles, The Ramones, Johnny Cash, The Pogues, Solomon Burke, Steve Earle, Marianne Faithfull, The Neville Brothers, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Norah Jones, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen and Neko Case, the latter two appearing on today’s playlist with Waits covers. His sole US top forty hit on the Billboard Hot 100 was not as an artist, but as the writer of “Downtown Train,” which Rod Stewart took to the top ten in 1990.

Today’s Tom Waits-inspired playlist kicks off with the singer-songwriter’s version of that one hit. Enjoy!

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An Atheist Jew’s Guide To Christmas Music, Part 1

Raised Jewish, I celebrated Hanukkah. For several years, my family also celebrated Christmas. We didn’t go to midnight mass, we didn’t drink egg nog, we didn’t throw a special type of log in the fireplace. (By the way, I have no idea what makes a Yule log yuley). We put tinsel and candy canes on a large potted plant my mother had in the den and bought each other small but practical gifts. For example, when I was 11 for Christmas my parents got me a salt shaker. The Christmas celebrations stopped after I innocently told Grandpa Mordechai about them. My parents were so angry with me they took away my salt shaker.

Though I no longer celebrate Christmas, I still have a major jones for Christmas music. I own many more Christmas records than any atheist Jew probably should. We’re talking in the hundreds.

I eschew Christmas classics performed by well-known middle-of-the-road acts such as Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, Kenny G (sell-out Jew), Neil Diamond (sell-out Jew) or Barbra Streisand (sell-out Jew). Frank Sinatra shows up only in a duet with Cyndi Lauper and Bing Crosby shows up only in his duet with David Bowie.

Including the Crosby/Bowie version, I have 15 renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy” in my iPod, by a diverse list of artists including Johnny Cash, The Temptations, Joan Jett, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and RuPaul.

I have ten versions of “Winter Wonderland,” and that’s not counting the cross-dressing parody “Walkin’ Round in Women’s Underwear,” not performed by RuPaul.

I have “Christmas in Hollis,” “Christmas in Harlem,” “Christmas in Washington,” “Christmastime in the LBC,” “Christmas in the City,” “Christmas in Heaven,” “Christmastime in Hell” and “Christmas at the Zoo.”

I have Christmas songs by most of my favorite artists of all-time, including The Beatles, Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, R.E.M., Elvis Presley, The White Stripes, Kanye West, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, and Radiohead.

Some Christmas songs aren’t Christmas songs at all. “Frosty the Snowman,” “Let It Snow Let it Snow Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland” don’t mention the baby Jesus or Santa Claus or presents or a bullied reindeer with a skin ailment.

Some of the Christmas songs I have are a bit odd. “I Found the Brains of Santa Claus,” a smooth jazz version of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” C3PO and R2D2 singing “Sleigh Ride.” I have Liberace reciting “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” though his version doesn’t hold a candle to Aretha Franklin’s version, in which the Queen of Soul took a few liberties with the words: “A bundle of gifts he had and what did I get? / As I squealed, opening the package, the same old shit!” Her lyrics are downright Disneyesque compared to Snoop Dogg’s reading of the famous poem. If you’re interested, Google the lyrics because I’m not going to print them here.

I have John Denver singing “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas).” Verse one opens with a couplet for the arithmetically-challenged: “Just last year when I was only seven / Now I’m almost eight you can see.” Santa needs to bring John some flashcards. The next two lines create a holiday image that is less Norman Rockwell and more John Waters: “You came home at quarter past eleven / And fell down underneath the Christmas tree.” Someone needs to get him to a 12-step group. He can attend a meeting with the title character of Fishbone’s “Slick Nick, You Devil You,” who came down the chimney with a keg of brew and spilled Jack Daniels all over the drapes.

I have Sarah Silverman singing “Give the Jew Girl Toys,” in which she taunts Santa by singing “You have a list / Well, Schindler did to / Liam Neeson played him / Tim Allen played you.”

Then there’s the classic “Fairtytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, which evokes the holiday spirit with the line “You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot,” something yelled at me every year by those Salvation Army Santas.

Better still is “Macarena Christmas.” I LOVE “Macarena” and I’m betting you do to though you probably won’t admit it. “Macarena Christmas” celebrates the birth of our lord and savior Baby Macarena by taking the chorus from the hit single and uncleverly inserting it repeatedly into a medley of Christmas songs, so it goes “Joy to the world, the Lord has come / Da le a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena, Que tu cuerpo es pa darle alegria y cosa Buena / Da le a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena / Eeeeeh, Macarena – ay / Jingle bells jingle bells jingle all the way.” Sound effects of what sounds like an infant with the hiccups are thrown in. It makes no sense, y me gusta mucho.

My favorite holiday album and one of the greatest all-time albums period is Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You, featuring tracks he produced for The Ronettes, The Crystals, Darlene Love and Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans. Every cut on it is classic and can be enjoyed by the whole family, except Grandpa Mordechai.

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