Tag Archives: music history

The Opera Lover Who Composed “Bat Out of Hell”

American singer Meat Loaf performing on stage during the Bat Out Of Hell Tour, USA, September 1978. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Popular perceptions of rock and opera typically place the two traditions on opposite sides of the musical spectrum — so much so that a genre like rock opera could emerge in the 1960s as an oxymoronic novelty. Yet they share wide swaths of common ground when it comes to earnest expression and unabashed sentimentality. Corey Atad drives this point home in his Hazlitt piece on Jim Steinman’s prolific composing career. His biggest hits — from Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” — all proudly wear their emotions on their huge, puffy sleeves.

It’s no accident that Jim Steinman’s songs veer into the theatrical: his roots were in musical theatre. Steinman grew up in love with opera. In the late 1960s, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where he worked on several musical projects. In 1969 he wrote and starred in The Dream Engine, an occult rock and roll musical that served as his independent study at Amherst, and featured themes—and even lyrics—which would recur throughout the rest of his career. In fact, more than perhaps any other modern music producer, Steinman’s willingness to pilfer his own work is impressive. The move fits with his Wagnerian influences, prizing leitmotif on top of the grand scope. Looked at another way, his entire career can be seen as one long workshop for a grand musical that was never produced. Songs he’d written for The Dream Engine would go on to be recorded as recently as 2016, in his fourth collaboration with Meat Loaf, Braver Than We Are. The seeds of some of his most famous songs can be found in it, too, including the “turn around” lyric and call-and-response structure that would become central to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

The Dream Engine was seen by Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who hired Steinman to stage it professionally. Years of workshopping went nowhere. Eventually Steinman wrote another musical, More Than You Deserve, a lurid Vietnam War story that ran for several weeks at the Public Theater in late 1973. It was on that production that Steinman met Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf.

Around the time Meat Loaf was starring in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he and Steinman collaborated on a series of songs which would eventually become the basis for Bat Out of Hell. The seeds of the album were planted earlier in the decade, while Steinman was at work attempting to reshape The Dream Engine into a Peter Pan-inspired musical called Neverland, a reflection of Steinman’s career-spanning obsession with eternal youth. Though that project never properly got off the ground, it featured work that would later end up on Bat Out of Hell, including the title track. All Steinman needed was a muse to help him bring it all together, and in Meat Loaf he found just that.

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The Brief Career and Self-Imposed Exile of Jutta Hipp, Jazz Pianist

Detail of the cover for Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims, Blue Note 93178. Via flickr4jazz on Flickr

Aaron Gilbreath | This Is: Essays on Jazz | Outpost19 | August 2017 | 21 minutes (5,900 words)

In 1960, four years after the venerable Blue Note Records signed pianist Jutta Hipp to their label, she stopped performing music entirely. Back in her native Germany, Hipp’s swinging, percussive style had earned her the title of Europe’s First Lady of Jazz. When she’d moved to New York in 1955, she started working at a garment factory in Queens to supplement her recording and performing income. She played clubs around the City. She toured. Then, with six albums to her name and no official explanation, she quit. She never performed publicly again, and she told so few people about her life in music that most of her factory coworkers and friends only discovered it from her obituary. For the next forty-one years, Jutta patched garments for a living, painted, drew and took photos for pleasure, all while royalties accrued on Blue Note’s books.

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Why the “Black Grateful Dead” Thrives Outside of Top 40 Radio

Frankie Beverly from Maze performs in Chicago in 1986. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

For the Undefeated, music writer and essayist Bruce Britt offers a compelling history of soul band Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, whose ebullient hits like “Before I Let Go,” “Joy and Pain,” and “Happy Feelin’s” have been mainstays of black American social gatherings for nearly half a century. Deeply entrenched racial divisions in the music industry have allowed Maze to become one of American music’s best kept secrets.

Betty Shaw experienced Maze’s engrossing stagecraft firsthand. She was 25 when she first saw the band in 1978. At the time, Shaw was a recently separated mother of three with dim employment prospects and a deeply troubled mind. One day, she took her sister up on an invitation to attend the Kool Jazz Festival in Milwaukee. There, during Maze’s performance of “Happy Feelin’s,” Shaw had an epiphany. “It was such an experience,” she recalled. “I had never even heard ‘Happy Feelin’s’ … but the way Frankie presented the song, it was giving you the feeling like everything is going to be all right. The song says, ‘I’ve got myself to remind me of love,’ and since I have this love in me, I’m not going to give up on life. It was like a turning point in my mind.”

With Maze winning converts on the road and Arnold converting the nation’s programming directors, the stage was set for Maze to become a crossover breakthrough. Yet, despite all the hard work, debut album sales stalled at around 600,000 copies. It was an impressive showing by ’70s industry standards but far from the million-plus units that Arnold had envisioned. He believes Capitol didn’t try hard enough to help the album realize its tremendous sales potential.

“I had a lot of fights with my pop promotion department because they would never expose the album to white FM,” Arnold said. “That first time I saw Maze at the Fillmore West, the whole audience was white. I know if white people were exposed to Maze, they’d like it, but the belief at the time was, ‘Well, white people really don’t want to listen to black music.’ And I’m saying, ‘Look — it’s not just ‘black’ music!’ ”

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“BRAAAM!”: The Sound that Invaded the Hollywood Soundtrack

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad.

Adrian Daub | Longreads | December 2016 | 15 minutes (3,902 words)

 

You walk into a local multiplex a few minutes after the lights have dimmed. You find your seat to the first trailer, some confection involving superheroes or zombies. As the light flickers over you, strings churn from the speakers, interrupted at certain intervals by a massive blast of indistinguishable brass, like an alphorn next to an amplifier.

Does this sound familiar? At some point movies started braying at us like ships lost in a fog, and we have come to accept that as perfectly normal. Variations on this sound sequence — a simple string motif interrupted by sudden bursts of non-melodic noise — are everywhere in film soundtracks and trailers. It is the noise that goes with people in spandex standing in a Delacroix-style tableau, or so Hollywood has decided. It is the sound we know is coming when a trailer intercuts CGI objects slamming into each other with portentous fades-to-black.

The internet and the sound’s creator refer to it as BRAAAM. (If you think you’ve successfully avoided it, here’s a sample). It may sound synthetic, but it’s usually produced with brass instruments and a prepared piano. Although it has its roots in a scoring style composer Hans Zimmer employed for much of the early ’00s, the BRAAAM heard in seemingly every trailer was first recorded for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, and has been adapted, copied, and even outright sampled ever since. Is BRAAAM something that happened to us, or is it something we, as moviegoers, desired?

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The Diluted State of Punk

With a recent slew of documentary films and books, punk’s forty year old body has been repeatedly repackaged, sweetened and sold to the masses at the mall, mystifying and irritating many people in the process. In The Baffler, Eugenia Williamson analyzes punk’s history, evolution, literature and commodifycation and addresses the lingering question: what does being ‘punk’ even mean anymore more?

Besides, anyone who’s seen the Ramones documentary End of the Century knows that punks weren’t entirely free from rules, even within the confines of their small domain. In one of the film’s saddest sequences, Dee Dee Ramone—the band’s lovable, goofy bass player and resident junkie sexpot—tries to set out on his own as a white rapper. By the time he hit his forties, he had grown tired of the bowl haircut, tight jeans, and leather jacket dress code enforced by Johnny Ramone, a man who thanked George W. Bush at his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Chastened by the verdict of the market—and it must be conceded, abundant evidence of his absent rapping talent—Dee Dee fatalistically dons his bomber jacket and returns to the Ramones fold, never again to depart from the prescribed formula in the short balance of his life. So much for punks doing whatever the fuck they wanted.

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The Wild Times of Billy Idol

Before there was pop-punk, there was Billy Idol. More than any other artist of his era, the man born William Broad brought the style and attitude of punk rock into the American mainstream, via massive hits including “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell.”

For this, he was both celebrated and vilified. Fans adored Idol’s bad-boy image and his music’s cagey mix of aggressive guitars, dance beats and pop hooks. But to his detractors, he was a fraud — the “Perry Como of punk,” in Johnny Rotten’s famously dismissive phrase.

Throughout his career, Idol has seldom addressed such criticisms directly. But in his latest album, Kings and Queens of the Underground, and a new [2014] memoir, Dancing With Myself, both released last October, the veteran singer clearly is shoring up his legacy. Both the book and the album’s title track explore at length his role in the birth of British punk, as lead singer of the band Generation X and part of the crew that launched the Roxy, London’s first punk-rock club, in 1976.

Andy Hermann writing in LA Weekly about the musical highs and personal lows of the singer with the snarling lip and studded leather wrist-guards, Billy Idol. Hermann’s piece ran in February, 2015.

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Do Music Biographies Really Enhance Our Musical Experience?

If [Rhiannon] Giddens were to tell us in a memoir that she’d been thinking about her own child when she sang, it would make the line a poignant narrative moment. But really, what would that reveal that we don’t know from her performance? It might risk drowning out other information we already have: Michael Brown’s mother in tears at a press conference last summer; Mamie Till choosing an open coffin for her son in 1955; Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot protecting his mother in an Alabama café in 1965, days before marchers massed in Selma.

A singer of mixed African American, Native American, and Caucasian ancestry, Giddens is occasionally asked in interviews to offer up a personal explanation for her connection to the music she sings. On NPR’s Morning Edition last winter, Renee Montagne asked, “I know you’ve recorded songs in Gaelic. Is that your tradition?” You could hear Giddens kind of sigh—OK, here we go. “That whole idea of, is it my culture—you know,” she replied, “it gets asked of me in a way that white people who do blues music don’t get asked. I don’t know all of my genealogy, but my point is that if music speaks to you, I think that you have the ability to do that.” And she’s right to push back; when she sings Scottish folk, audiences don’t need a genealogical chart to know they’re witnessing something extraordinary.

Sara Marcus, writing in The New Republic about how the immediacy of music always outlives and out-performs the effect of reading a biography, or viewing a documentary about a musician ─ a phenomenon she calls the “power of songs over their singers.” Marcus’s piece ran in August 2015.

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Who Wrote ‘Happy Birthday’?

Photo by Pixabay

Most musicologists who’ve traced the origins of “Happy Birthday” agree that its musical score dates back to the work of two Kentucky sisters in the late 19th century: Mildred Jane Hill (b.1859), and Patty Smith Hill (b.1868).

After graduating as valedictorian of Louisville Collegiate Institute, Patty went on to be a central figure in the progressive education movement, endorsing hands-on learning techniques and interactive teaching methods. She invented “Patty Hill Blocks” — a set of large, cardboard bricks that children could use to learn about structural engineering — and then founded the Institute of Child Welfare Research at Columbia University Teachers College.

In 1889, while serving as a kindergarten teacher at a Kentucky grade school, she began working on a set of childrens’ songs with her older sister Mildred, a well-known organist, composer, and “Negro music” scholar. Four years later, the two released their first collection of tunes in a book titled “Song Stories for the Kindergarten.” Among the songs, was a little ditty entitled “Good Morning to All,” which would later be the source of the sheet music for “Happy Birthday.”

Zachary Crockett writing for Pricenomics about who owns the copyright to “Happy Birthday.” Update: On Tuesday, September 22, a federal judge struck down Warner/Chappell Music’s long-standing claim to the copyright for “Happy Birthday.”

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