TORQUÉS LIVE

torques live 002

Tucked in between Toots & The Maytals and Peter Tosh on one of my record shelves is an LP called Torqués Live. It’s more of a time machine, really. I drop the needle on it occasionally to go back fifty years and watch my teenage parents, who were in the audience that night, dance to it on New Year’s Eve. It’s 1966. Lexington, Kentucky. The Torqués are their favorite local band. The minutes tick down, everyone’s cheering . . .

The record was recorded at local teen-club Carnaby in Lexington. The place was fairly bare bones, just a building that had the good fortune to be located across the street from Henry Clay High School. “It was a big deal to all of us,” my mother told me “because it was a place where we could go to listen to music and dance. This was a time of sock hops and lots of dances, mostly at the country clubs and schools.”One of my mother’s favorite DJs, at those dances was Nick Clooney. Who, on top of his duties as a local news anchor and game show host, fathered a son named George, whom you may have heard of.

Entering from a side door, the crowd could see the stage off to the left, along the front of the building. The band, in their satin outfits—sewn by the mother of lead guitarist, Bill Brooks—were already revving up the audience with trip hammers on their guitars. An almost incomprehensible announcer mumbles something about a “thing they’ve just recorded” and shouts, “Let’s give ‘em the Torqués!” at which point they launch into their recent single, a cover of The Tams’ I’ve Been Hurt.

Lead singer Phil Copeland immediately takes control, and he is a force of nature. But the backing harmonies are the first thing you hear that lets you know this is not an everyday cover band. Then drummer Mike Thompson slices the song in two with an incredible Funky Drummer-style drum break (no small part of this record’s lasting appeal to crate-diggers). After which the band slides effortlessly into Los Bravos’ recent hit, Black is Black. Copeland’s voice starts overloading the sound system.

After listening to the record probably 30 times, I finally contacted The Torqués’ lead guitarist and founder, Bill Brooks, to find out more on the fate of the band.“The Torqués was the original garage band in this region,” he told me. They operated out of a makeshift studio in the garage of their manager, Cecil Jones. Jones had started a small label called Lemco Records, meant to capitalize on Kentucky talent. He released their first 45, a song called Deep Blue, At Dusk backed with Linden Walk.

Image

Left to Right: Ricky Rose, Bob Remington, Frank Harscher, Bill Brooks, Elbert Thompson, Mike Thompson, Kneeling – Joe Breshear. This is the original group that was also on the ACME label songs.

Brooks told me that the group formed from “a service club talent contest, “when they were in high school.”We actually won $5,” he said. This was 1960, and the name of this nascent group was The Five Keys (not the R&B vocal group). Two members of The Five Keys would go on to form the original Torqués.

Although several 60s groups shared the name, Brooks’ group apparently predates them by a year or two. “The name ‘Torqués’ actually came from a Spanish text. It means ‘to twist’. The original drummer pinned the name because he was taking Spanish in high school.” While the translation may not be 100% accurate, the sentiment is there.

Meanwhile, back at Carnaby on New Year’s Eve… the band is giving Tom Jones a run for his money, heating up It’s Not Unusual and immediately raging into (I’m Not Your) Steppin Stone, modelled on Paul Revere and the Raiders’ earlier version rather than the more famous one by The Monkees. The fuzz tone makes its first appearance.

“The music scene in Lexington was dominated by the Torqués and Mag 7,” Brooks said, referring to another local band called The Magnificent 7, or, earlier, The Temptashuns). “These were the rivalries,” he said. “Other groups followed both bands, dependent on style. “ When asked about a report that The Torqués would loan other groups their precious 45s for them to learn, Brooks remembered only that they “often shared music and advice to younger groups.”

The band began to be successful around 1964–5. “We played college and fraternity parties on a regular basis,” Brooks said. Things accelerated when they replaced their lead singer (Pat Horine, who went on to become a member of the New Kingston trio) with Phil Copeland, who brought a more danceable British-invasion vibe. As the Sixties wore on, the band would incorporate psychedelic and Motown influences.

TORQUES

This was the group that was together for the last 21/2 years.Back Row – Bill Brooks, Phil Copeland, Glen Bagby, Mike Sullens(last bass player), Mike Thompson, Charlie Carter. Kneeling – Elbert Thompson, Paul Mansfield. This is the group that recorded for Dial Records, and also The Torques Live LP.

It all seems to have come to head on New Year’s Eve. The people in the crowd, including my 17-year-old parents, sound beside themselves. “The Torqués were the band at the time,” my mother told me. “Everyone loved them, and when word got out that they were taping an album, we all wanted to be there. I’m pretty sure Bill Brooks, the lead guitarist, told us about it. If I remember correctly, we had to make reservations to go that night, which was not usually a necessity.”

Onstage and on the record, The Torqués move from another Raiders’ classic—Hungry—to James Brown’s Out of Sight, showing their astounding range and how tight they’d become playing to easily bored teenagers every weekend or so for five years.

While their main rivals in town, the Mag 7, released a few fantastic singles on Lemco, their recorded output doesn’t stand a chance next to The Torqués. Two of their 45s are highly lauded on the Northern Soul scene, and they often exchange hands among collectors for three figures. 1965s’ It’s Me Not You, written by saxophonist Dent Thompson, is a flat out raver and exhibits the best kind of Kinks-influenced garage mayhem, to which Bill pleads guilty and states that it was “all part of the wide scene we covered”.

Bumpin’ is an instrumental, counter-intuitive perhaps for such an excellent vocal group, but the proof is in the groove. Written by the band’s organist, Charlie Carter, this track has it in spades. The song has gone on to feature prominently on Northern Soul playlists.

Meanwhile, back at Carnaby, The Torqués are punishing The Young Rascals’ Come on Up with primitive phasing effects on the guitars and nascent psychedelia. They pound out the beat until someone finally shouts, “That’s all!” and sends everyone out into the night, thinking about the year to come. 1967 must have seemed very bright and weird.

The Torqués broke up in 1968. My parents’ marriage lasted a few years longer. but Torqués Live lives on.

Postscript:

This article would not have been possible without the cooperation of Torques lead singer, Phil Copeland, who was instrumental in facilitating the interview and also found the incredible pictures that accompany this article. Miraculously, The Torques reformed several years ago with four of the five original members and play in Lexington to this day. If you’d like to keep up with them, they have a Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/The-Torques/163311567076346 and a greatest hits CD available at www.thetorques.com.

Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Memphis Pop Scene – Part One

Ardent Logo B&W

With the band Big Star currently in the spotlight thanks to the long-awaited documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story, it seems an appropriate time to shed some reflected light on their lesser-known contemporaries in the Memphis Power Pop scene.

Ardent were the epicentre of this late sixties-early seventies scene. Through their recording studio and record label, they fostered young Memphis musicians who were interested in learning the ins and outs of the recording studio. One of the most eager was teenager Chris Bell.

Bell, along with Jody Stephens, formed Rock City with Thomas Dean Eubanks and effectively created the nascent Big Star. In fact, My Life is Right, later released on #1 Record, was co-written by Eubanks and recorded at this time. A little later, former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton moved back to Memphis after an unsuccessful attempt at a folk career in New York City and became the missing piece of the Big Star puzzle.

This part of the story is fairly well known. However, there were several bands working in the studio at the same time, creating similarly transcendent pop music, that have unfairly lived in Big Star’s shadow.

In fact, Cargoe were the best known Ardent band at the time and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens recently reflected that Cargoe were a better live band than his group. Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma they moved to Memphis in the late 60s and recorded the scorching single Feel Alright for Ardent Records (after an early flirtation with Dan Penn’s Beautiful Records). Sounding like a cross between The Raspberries and Big Star, the single is full of arching harmonies, meaty guitar and a rhythm section that would give The Who a run for its money.

Their self-titled record is full of similar gems, including the gorgeous I Love You Anyway.

Ardent Records released The Hot Dogs’ Say What You Mean LP in late ’73 right after Cargoe and Big Star’s debuts. Though the band initially consisted of only two members: Bill Rennie and Greg Reding, in the studio they were helped by quite a few Ardent personnel. Producer Terry Manning played lead guitar, while Big Star associate (and I Am The Cosmos drummer) Richard Rosebrough was on drums. While exemplary in many ways, Say What You Mean isn’t quite up to the Chilton/Bell songwriting standard. But… it’s immediately sonically clear that it was recorded at Ardent Studios. The crisp acoustic guitar sound mixed with impeccable backing harmonies could be straight from #1 Record. The standout track is Another Smile, released as a single, which has a very Big Star feel, with crisp acoustic guitars, compressed handclaps and strings. Have a listen here…

http://ardentrocks.com/catalog/H/15-hot-dogs/songs.html

Perhaps the least-known participant in this story is Gimmer Nicholson, who recorded a number of songs at Ardent Studios just prior to the making of Big Star’s # 1 Record. His acoustic guitar style greatly influenced the Big Star sound, to the point that at certain times, it’s possible to hear exact riffs taken directly from these sessions. Regrettably they were not released to the public until 1994 when Lucky 7 Records finally brought them into the light of day.

Millenial Harbinger from the Christopher Idylls has all the hallmarks of this sound and gives you an idea of where Chris Bell and Alex Chilton received the inspiration for songs like The Ballad of El Goodo and 13. The record is often described as New Age guitar music before that term came into vogue. It certainly wouldn’t have been out of place on the Windham Hill label a decade later.

Of course, most of these songs and more gems from the Ardent catalogue can be found on The Ardent Records Story, coincidentally called Thank You Friends. Imagine that…

If you’ve enjoyed this, stay tuned, for part two, where we’ll venture outside Ardent Studios’ hallowed walls and explore the mean streets of the Memphian pop aftermath…

Lou Reed Set Free 1942-2013

Big Star 007

It’s hard for me to put into words how much Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground meant to my musical upbringing. After being initially referred to their third album by an early R.E.M. interview in Creem Magazine, I was intrigued by the deference that one of my favorite contemporary bands gave the Velvet Underground. Soon after, Rolling Stone alerted me to the fact that the VUs albums were being reissued on vinyl and they had ALL received five stars. I didn’t need any further prompting and made my way through each record as soon as my allowance would allow.

As a somewhat limited high-school rhythm guitarist, the VU’s combination of folk chords, modern poetry and chaos was manna from heaven for a kid raised on the Beatles and comic books. Soon, my small-town ears were deflowered by Reed’s junky-poem-cum-audio bomb, Heroin:

I have made the big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death  

a SEVEN-MINUTE screed that shattered any remnants of Mayberry that lingered in my child-soul.  The Velvet Underground & Nico’s combination of the luminescent beauty of Sunday Morning, followed by the bounciest song about scoring dope you’re ever gonna hear,  I’m Waiting For My Man, was so revolutionary, only The Beatles had worked such extremes credibly and made it all sound a part of the same whole.

Here, for the first time, were songs (and guitar chords) that I could play myself that would sound reasonably similar to the recordings. With the addition of a loud amplifier and a few friends playing along, I was ready to use the aesthetic learned from Lou in most every musical situation I would encounter.

Later, when my record-collecting gene was more firmly developed, I found earlier Lou Reed records, made while he was an indentured songwriter for hire with Pickwick Records that had all of the hallmarks of the VU sound. They are incredible to hear, starting with the record that brought Lou together with John Cale, The Ostrich by the bespoke group, The Primitives.

Lou’s aesthetic came through loud and clear for many of these early tracks, including You’re Driving Me Insane by The Roughnecks:

And Cycle Annie by The Beachnuts :

Years later, in 1993, I quit a job I wouldn’t miss and left the U.S. to play guitar on the streets of Europe with a friend. After the decision, but prior to departure I found out through my old friend, Rolling Stone, that the Velvet Underground were reuniting in Paris for a few shows. I did everything I could in the pre-Internet era to secure tickets and ended up seeing the best show of my life.

Waiting outside the Olympia Theater for what seemed like days, we were lucky enough to be close to the front of the line, which guaranteed that we’d be in the front row! After an interminable wait, Venus in Furs erupted from the stage. The sub-Hades thump of Mo Tucker’s floor tom mixed with John Cale’s demotic viola drone announced they were back.

An unexpected treat was watching Sterling Morrison play the guitar parts that I’d been trying to figure out for years and realizing that (as with The Beatles) they weren’t that difficult when you understood the voicings.

But it was Lou who commanded the night. Changing his lyrical phrasing so frequently  we sometimes had trouble singing along with songs so familiar they could have been siblings. Perhaps it’s just as well – Lou’s reticence to be placed under glass is well documented and I can only image how difficult it must have been to live up to such an early influential catalogue.

I’ve since watched the video of that night, released a few years later, and it pales in comparison to memory. Though, of course, I experienced a high seeing the show again, especially as I’m in the video at about 3:27, right after Lou says “bleeeed for me”.

The sweetest moment of the night came when Mo Tucker came down from her drums and sang the early out-take, I’m Sticking With You…

When I learned that Lou had passed I realized that, though by all accounts a gigantic malcontent, his soul was wide enough  to embrace the chaos and beauty of the world. This is how I’ll remember Lou Reed.

Gram Parsons’ Hidden Discography

gram nudie

Early on, in a pattern that would often emerge in his life, Gram Parsons was attacking the music biz from any angle possible, from sideman, to songwriter, to hip best friend of various celebs and musicians. From his early attempts at writing and recording to his later penchant for ‘sitting in’, Gram has quite a record for appearing on other people’s records. Yet, for a man with a well-documented, some would say ‘over-healthy’, desire for fame, Parsons appearances as a musical sideman are perplexingly ghostly. If his name appears, you can lay odds it will be for an ethereal organ, guitar, or piano part that adds weight to the proceedings without calling attention.

The first noticeable songwriting attempt was counter-culture hero Peter Fonda’s 1968 cover of November Nights. The song, released on Hugh Masekela’s Chisa Records, isn’t one of Gram’s more fully developed efforts, but Fonda gives it his best, despite a limited vocal range. Oddly Masekela, who produced the track and was one of the more accomplished trumpet players of the time, plays a fairly anodyne part that limps its way through the song.

A more successful outing came with Steve Young’s sublime (and bizarrely out of print) 1969 album, Rock Salt & Nails. Young’s debut record announced the Texas singer/songwriter ‘s soulful gift and holds up as one of the better ‘lost’ albums of the late Sixties. Gram happened to be recording The Flying Burrito BrothersGilded Palaces of Sin at the same studio, liked what he heard, and stopped over to play organ on a version of the Otis Redding soul classic That’s How Strong My Love Is (originally recorded by the deep south soul master O.V. Wright , the song lends itself surprisingly well to this loose country soul treatment. Clearly a meeting of minds…

Gram is well known for having been a fan of Fred Neil, the Florida troubadour with the best bass/baritone in folk. He had already covered Neil’s Other Side of this Life, one in a group of early demos that were posthumously released under the title Another Side Of This Life.

During Gram’s downtime after the Burrito’s second record, Burrito Deluxe, he and Neil recorded a wonderfully lugubrious version of the William Bell track You Don’t Miss Your Water. Gram had already staked his  claim on the song with The Byrds for their iconic album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. However, in this version everything slows down to live in Neil’s molasses world. This is also one of the few instances when Gram (here billed as ‘Graham Parsons’) shows off his chops, playing wonderfully laconic piano, and singing distinctly tart backing vox.

During that same break, after Burrito Deluxe, Gram contributed to Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shot . The extent of his participation isn’t fully known, though it’s easy to picture Parsons’ and Duane Allman feeling right at home and slapping their laps along to this rousing version of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad (as Bonnie Bramlett later recalled).

Perhaps the oddest contribution in this ‘alternate discography’ was Gram’s inclusion on a country-rock Christmas tune by the made-to-order group, The Christmas Spirit. The Turtles’ record label White Whale released this one-off single, Christmas Is My Time of Year backed with Will You Still Believe in Me.  In such heady company as that of Clarence White and Linda Ronstadt, Gram and The Christmas Spirit deliver a truly whacked out pair of Country Rock tunes.
(The A side is currently not on YouTube, but here’s an iTunes taste. The flip is a more sedate affair with Ronstadt (?) on backing vocals.)

Another interesting anomaly occurs on Johnny RiversSlim Slo Slider record. Among versions of songs by Van Morrison, John Fogerty and Tony Joe White, Rivers cut an unrecorded Parsons’ song called Apple Tree.  A wistful, fairly slight, tune likely influenced by Gram’s childhood as the scion of a wealthy orchard family.

On that same album, Rivers does a cover — the first ever — of Gram’s Brass Buttons and it is surprisingly affecting.

I hope you enjoyed this trawl through Gram’s more shadowy archives.

Save Me (from the Gloria Progression)

Image

One of the more interesting musical reinventions in 60′s Soul & Pop is Help Me by Ray Sharpe with the King Curtis Orchestra. The track is revered among collectors as one of the first appearances by a young James Marshall Hendrix on guitar. Hendrix at the time was in King Curtis’s band, who back Sharpe on this track. In addition to the early notoriety, the song went on to have unexpected second and third lives.

Help Me began as a simple progression from Curtis, Atlantic Records’ go-to band leader at the time. It was based on the recent hit, Gloria by Them, which had featured a young Van Morrison. Even now, Gloria is in most amateur guitarists’ quivers. Its three chords, ploddingly played, are simplicity defined. From there, R&B singer Ray Sharpe added seemingly extemporized lyrics (at one point adding a “here come my baby” straight out of Gloria) and a minor classic was born. Be sure to listen for a few tasty Hendrix licks on Part II starting around 3:01.

After its relative failure to light the charts on fire, Curtis recycled the track for the debut Atlantic release of a new signing with some promise, Aretha Franklin.  ‘Retha and her sister Carolyn wrote new lyrics, or more accurately wrote actual verses for the first time, and a MAJOR classic was born. Aretha is soul personified and it’s impossible not to like any song that name checks Batman and The Green Hornet in its fading moments.

Call in the caped crusader, Green Hornet, Kato too
I’m in so much trouble, I don’t know what ta do

From there, the cover versions started amassing. Nina Simone’s is the best known.

King Curtis liked the progression so much that he revisited it as an instrumental, renaming it “Instant Groove”.

However, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger’s version is my favorite as it adds fantastic bluesy organ playing by Auger. Combined with a bit of uber-groovy syncopation and Driscoll’s commanding vocal, it’s a winner.

The most recent (and oddest) version is a recent official mash up created by OMD which merges their 1980 hit Messages with Aretha’s version of Save Me.

On a side note, there have been many variations of Gloria itself, but perhaps the greatest is by Van Morrison’s old band mates in Them who briefly changed their name to the Belfast Gypsies. It’s a great garage take produced by pop exploiter-extraordinaire Kim Fowley, who never let an opportunity to cash-in on a current hit pass him by. The track is called Gloria’s Dream.

Thanks for wading through this morass of I-VII-IV chords with me. I recognize that three simple chords probably shouldn’t be subjected to this much scrutiny (unless it’s Louie Louie, of course).

From the Fruit Tree: Surprising Nick Drake covers.

Nick Drake

Being a Nick Drake fan, you’re often confronted with the fact that he made only 3 albums and you will never get to hear anything new. With the exception of an odds and ends collection, some early demos, and a few outtakes, this has proven to be fairly immutable.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I happened across a Drake biography from 1998 by Patrick Humphries which mentioned that there had been a few unlikely covers of Nick’s songs in the early 70′s.

Joe Boyd, Nick’s producer, was doing everything he could to expose Drake’s songs to the world. To make them more palatable, and maybe less cryptic, he hired a studio singer to sing basic demos of the songs. The singer’s name was Reginald Dwight, but you might know him better as Elton John.

I’d vaguely been aware that John made these demos for Joe Boyd‘s Warlock Publishing, but had never heard them. Luckily they’ve since turned up on youtube, along with everything else in the world.

Perhaps the most surprising cover wasn’t directly related to the Warlock demos, but involved Joe sharing an early Drake demo with the producers behind Jamaican singer Millie, of My Boy Lollypop fame. It’s somewhat disconcerting hearing Nick’s Mayfair sung in a jaunty rocksteady/ska version, “jaunty” and “ska” being words you wouldn’t wager would ever show up in the same sentence as Nick Drake. But, Mayfair was recorded before Nick’s debut, Five Leaves Left, and is a little less structurally ambitious than his later work. As a result, it lends itself fairly well to this treatment. Check it out:

As for the Elton John demos? They’re hit or miss. His version of Saturday Sun is quite nice and Way to Blue succeeds by becoming a proto-Elton song. There are also fairly amusing comments between EJ and ND fans, neither of whom seem to like each other very much.

Apparently when Elton sold his voluminous LP collection for charity, the only two records he kept back were a signed copy of Sgt. Pepper and his copy of these demos. Here are a few to peruse:

Saturday Sun

Time Has Told Me

Way To Blue

When the Day is Done

I would be remiss not to mention one of the more successful (if better known) Nick Drake covers, Lucinda Williams’ Which Will. This is one of the few that nails the sadness inherent in Nick’s work.

If you have any other favorite Nick Drake covers feel free to share them below.