Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Essex – "Easier Said Than Done" (1963)

Deep in my heart I know it,
But it's so hard to show it

When today’s featured song popped up on the Sirius/XM “The ’60s on 6” channel the other day, this photo was displayed on my car’s navigation/multimedia screen:

It turns out that those uniforms were the real deal.  Each member of the Essex was an active-duty U.S. Marine when “Easier Said Than Done” was recorded in 1963.

The Essex were formed by guitarist Walter Vickers and drummer Rodney Taylor when the two were stationed in Okinawa.  When they were transferred to North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, they recruited three other Marines – Billy Hill, Rudolph Johnson, and Anita Humes, who became the group’s lead singer.

Roulette Records – a New York City-based label – signed the group to a recording contract after they submitted a demo.  I don’t know if they recorded “Easier Said Than Done” somewhere near Camp Lejeune, or if they got leave to travel to a New York City recording studio – but hopefully they got permission from their superiors before traipsing off to record the song.  (Camp Lejeune had a notorious brig back in the day, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that the members of the Essex served time there for being AWOL.)

The sleeve for the 45 of “Easier Said Than Done” depicts only four musicians.  The Marines sent Rudolph Johnson back to Okinawa about this time, so I’m guessing that he’s the one missing from the photo.

*     *     *     *     *

“Easier Said Than Done” reached #1 on the Billboard “Hot 100” in July 1963.

The group follow-up single made it to #12, but the next two singles failed to crack the top 40.

That was pretty much the end for the Essex.  No doubt it was difficult (if not impossible) for the group to tour or make TV appearances to promote their records given they were Marines.

*     *     *     *     *

“Easier Said Than Done” held down the #31 spot on Billboard’s “Top 100 Songs of 1963” list.

“Surfin’ U.S.A.” was the number one song of 1963
The songs that were ranked ahead of it included “The End of the World” (Skeeter Davis), “Blue Velvet” (Bobby Vinton), “Hey Paula” (Paul & Paula), “My Boyfriend’s Back” (the Angels), “Sukiyaki” (Kyu Sakamoto). “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (Peter, Paul & Mary), and “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” (Eydie Gormé).

Let’s be honest: most of those songs suck.  (Believe me, there are plenty more where those came from on the 1963 “Top 100” chart.)

The 1964 year-end chart looks very different.  It was dominated by the Beatles, who placed nine singles on the top 100 – five of which were in the top twenty.  Lesser “British Invasion” groups – the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Peter and Gordon, and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, among others – were responsible for another dozen-plus top 100 singles.  

The Supremes and other Motown groups also began to make their presence felt in 1964, and the Beach Boys made a big impression with “I Get Around.”

Sure, there were still a lot of backward-looking songs aimed more at the parents of teenagers instead of the teenagers themselves on the 1964 year-end chart – like “Everybody Loves Somebody” (Dean Martin), “There! I’ve Said It Again” (Bobby Vinton), and a couple of Al Hirt instrumentals.  And there were several dated-sounding girl-group songs on the chart (including “Chapel of Love” and “Leader of the Pack”) and the truly horrible “Last Kiss.”

But Elvis Presley was thankfully absent from the 1964 “Top 100” list.

*     *     *     *     *

For me, four songs on the 1964 “Top 100” list really stand out.

Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” were traditional pop songs taken to the next level – Orbison’s performance is truly jaw-dropping, while it’s the message of Gore’s song that made it ahead of its time.

Sneaking in at #99 on the “Top 100” chart that year was the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” in all its haphazard glory.  (Was there a 9th-grade garage band in America that year that couldn’t have done a more professional-sounding job on that song?)

And finally we have “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals.  There’s nothing on the 1963 year-end chart that compares to that tour de force.  Of course, there have been few (if any) songs recorded since then that have come close to the intensity and raw power of the Animals’ masterpiece.

*     *     *     *     *

Here’s “Easier Said Than Done”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, May 18, 2018

Fairport Convention – "The Bonny Black Hare" (1971)

If your powder is willing
And your bullets play fair
Why don't you keep firing
At the bonny black hare?

Thanks to the previous 2 or 3 lines, you now know the difference between alligators and crocodiles.  But do you know the difference between rabbits and hares? 

Rabbits and hares are members of the same animal family – Leporidae – so they are more closely related than alligators and crocodiles (which belong to distinct animal families).  

But there are a number of differences between hares and rabbits, the most significant of which is that hares are relatively mature when they are born while newborn rabbits are blind, hairless, and completely dependent upon their mothers.  (That last part sounds a lot like my children until they reached the age of 30 or so.) 

Rabbit (left) vs. hare (right)
Also, hares are usually larger than rabbits, with more elongated ears and larger hind legs. 

And unlike hares, which live a relatively solitary life in aboveground nests, rabbits live underground in social groups.

Hares and rabbits don’t interbreed in the wild.  When they have been cross-bred in the laboratory, the fertilized eggs don’t develop because hares and rabbits have different numbers of chromosomes.  (Rabbits have 44 chromosomes, while hares have 48.)

100% chance they're fighting over a female
Here’s something I didn’t know:

Some herbivorous animals consume part of their own feces, thus recovering fermentation products that have passed through the digestive tract.  Reingestion of feces is an especially well-developed practice in [rabbits and hares] and is important for their adequate nutrition.


(Maybe that’s why rabbit meat is not kosher.)

*     *     *     *     *

Rabbits are legendarily prolific breeders, as Australians know all too well.  In the next 2 or 3 lines, I’ll tell you about the 1139-mile-long State Barrier Fence of Australia, which was built in the early 1900s to protect sheep and cattle-grazing areas from rabbits.

*     *     *     *     *

“Bonny Black Hare” is an old English folksong that has nothing to do with hares.

What it is about will become quickly apparent if you pay close attention to the lyrics.

The “Angel Delight” album
Here’s Airport Convention’s version of “Bonny Black Hare,” which was released on their 1971 Angel Delight album – their first without the legendary Richard Thompson:

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Bill Haley & His Comets – "See You Later, Alligator" (1956)

See you later, alligator
After ’while, crocodile

What is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile?  Do you know?

Both alligators and crocodiles are members of the Crocodilia order of reptiles, but they are members of separate families.  You might have heard that alligators have broad, U-shaped snouts while  crocodiles have narrower, V-shaped snouts, but that’s not really true.

There are two ways to tell the two apart.  First, alligators have an overbite, so only their upper teeth are visible when the mouth is closed.  (Crocodile teeth interlock, so you can see both upper and lower teeth.) 

Second, both alligators and crocodiles have integumentary sense organs (ISOs) – which look sort of like pimples – on the skin of their heads, but crocodiles have ISOs all over their bodies as well.

Crocodile's teeth
Alligators and crocodiles are not as closely related as you might think, so they can not interbreed and produce live offspring.  Even if their DNAs were more similar, alligators and crocodiles rarely cross paths.  In fact, the only place where crocodiles and alligators live near each other is in south Florida.  But alligators stick to freshwater areas, while crocodiles prefer saltier water.

Click here to watch a video that explains all this is some detail.

By the way, there are no alligators in Australia.  That’s why the movie character was named Crocodile Dundee.

Crocodile Dundee
(You don’t see many Crocodile Dundee hats these days.)

In the next 2 or 3 lines, I’ll explain the difference between a rabbit and a hare.

*     *     *     *     *

“See You Later, Alligator” was written and originally recorded by Cajun singer-songwriter Bobby Charles (whose real name was Robert Charles Guidry) in 1955.  Its title was inspired by a teenage catchphrase that had become popular a few years earlier.  (Other rhyming catchphrases that were popular around the same time were “You’re cruising for a bruising” (which was a favorite of my parents), “Don’t get tough, powder puff,” and “What’s buzzin’, cousin?”

Bill Haley & His Comets
The next year, a cover version of the song was a big hit for Bill Haley & His Comets.  It was featured in the Rock Around the Clock movie:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Glen Campbell – "Walls" (2008)

I can’t hold on forever
Even walls fall down

The first thing that struck me about Fort Frederick – an 18th-century fort located on the Maryland side of the Potomac River about 100 miles northwest of the U.S. Capitol – was how thick and high its stone walls were.

Fort Frederick has some big-ass walls
Construction on Fort Frederick, which was one of a chain of forts built during the French and Indian War to protect the British colonists who lived on the western frontier, began in 1756.  

Many of the frontier forts of that era were made of wood.  The Indian tribes who were allies of the French were certainly capable of setting fire to wooden forts.  But Fort Frederick’s stone walls are three to four feet thick and 17 feet high.   Walls that thick and high would have stymied them completely.

The French troops in the area may have possessed some light field artillery, but nothing that would have made a dent in a three-to-four-foot thick stone wall – that would have required much more formidable weaponry, like siege mortars or shipborne cannons.

Given the lack of roads and the shallowness of the Potomac River, there was no reason for the colonists to worry about mortars or ocean-going men of war.

*     *     *     *     *

Horatio Sharpe, Maryland’s colonial governor, was the driving force behind the construction of fort Frederick.  He told the colonial legislature that the fort “will not be completed for less than £5000.”

Fort Frederick from the air
That turned out to be an understatement.  A year later, the legislature expressed alarm at the amount of money that had spent on Fort Frederick, which was nowhere near being complete:

Near the Sum of £6000 has been expended . . . and tho’ we have not any exact Information what Sum may still be wanting to compleat it, (if ever it shall be thought proper to be done) yet we are afraid the Sum requisite for that Purpose, must be considerable . . . 

The legislators were also concerned about the size of the force necessary to man the very large fort:

[W]e are apprehensive that Fort is so large, that in Case of Attack, it cannot be defended without a Number of Men larger than this Province can support, purely to maintain a Fortification.     

The fort had barracks sufficient to lodge some 300 soldiers.  That may not sound like many, but the area surrounding the fort was very thinly populated.

*     *     *     *     *

In 1758, a British expedition captured Fort Duquesne, a French fort located in what is now downtown Pittsburgh.  That victory freed western Maryland from the threat of attack, and whatever militia garrisoned Fort Frederick at that time were sent back home.

The fort was abandoned until 1763, when several hundred settlers took refuge there during Pontiac’s War, a wide-ranging Indian uprising that broke out just after the British and French signed the Treaty of Paris, which brought a temporary end to hostilities between those two empires.

Fort Frederick reenactors
The tribes who united under Chief Pontiac’s leadership attacked several British forts in western Pennsylvania, but never got as far as Fort Frederick.  After a month or so, the settlers returned to their farms.

Fort Frederick was pressed into service to hold British prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War.  Nearly a thousand British soldiers and officers – including some family members – were housed there at the end of that war.

The fort fell into disrepair over the next decades.  Some of its stones were removed and used in the construction of the C&O Canal and for the foundations of several houses in the area.

Maryland sold the land around Fort Frederick to a local farmer in 1791.  (The fort was occupied by a Union regiment during the Civil War, and there were some skirmishes between Union and Confederate forces in the area early in that war.)  The state repurchased the property in 1922, and the Civilian Conservation Corps restored it during the Great Depression.

*     *     *     *     *

I visited Fort Frederick recently during a two-day bike ride on the C&O Canal towpath.

Before entering the fort proper, I sat down on a shaded bench and enjoyed an egg salad sandwich, dill pickle-flavored potato chips, and some Dr. Pepper, which I had picked up at a truck stop just a few miles away.

I posted a photo of the egg-salad sandwich on Facebook, claiming that I had purchased it at a gas station the morning before, stuck it in my backpack, and promptly forgot about it for 24-plus hours.

What a kerfuffle this caused among les femmes d’un certain âge who are my Facebook friends.  

“Don’t eat it!” said one.  “Don’t you eat that!” said another.  “If you decide to eat it, please post the name of the hospital where you're being treated so we can send get well wishes,” said a third.  (HOW STUPID DO YOU THINK I AM, LADIES?)

Imagine the psychic cost of being the husband or child of one of these literal-minded neurotics . . . these worry-warts! . . . these nervous Nellies!

*     *     *     *     *

Glen Campbell, who died last year, was one of 12 children of a poor Arkansas sharecropper.  An uncle gave him a five-dollar Sears guitar when he was four years, and within a few years, he was performing on local radio stations.  He was a talented and highly sought-after studio musician in the sixties, and later became a very successful solo artist.  He eventually released over 70 albums – 12 went gold, four went platinum, and one was double-platinum.

Today’s featured song – which was released on his 2008 album, Meet Glen Campbell – was written and originally recorded by Tom Petty.

Meet Glen Campbell also includes covers of songs by John Lennon, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, U2, Green Day, and the Foo Fighters.  (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)

Here’s “Walls”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, May 11, 2018

Kaiser Chiefs – "I Predict a Riot" (2004)

Watching the people get lairy
Is not very pretty I tell thee

Life today is incomprehensibly different today than it was in the 19th century.

If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is take a bike ride along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which follows the course of the Potomac River between Washington, DC, and Cumberland, Maryland.

Boat on the C&O Canal
Thousands of men equipped only with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows labored from 1828 to 1850 to dig that 184.5-mile-long canal.

*     *     *     *     *

Most of the workers who worked on the C&O were Irish immigrants attracted by advertisements in the newspapers of Belfast, Cork, and Dublin.

Frances Trollope – whose son Anthony was the most prolific and probably the greatest of all the 19th-century British novelists – described the life of these Irish immigrants in her 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans:

Of the white laborers on this canal, the great majority are Irishmen; their wages are from ten to fifteen dollars a month, with a miserable lodging, and the large allowance of whiskey.  It is by means of this hateful poison that they are tempted, and indeed enabled for a time to stand the broiling heat of the sun in a most noxious climate: for through such, close to the romantic but unwholesome Potomac, the line of the canal has hitherto run. 

The situation of these poor strangers, when they sink at last in “the fever,” which sooner or later is sure to overtake them, is dreadful. . . . Details of their sufferings often reached us; on one occasion a farmer calling at the house, told the family that a poor man, apparently in a dying condition, was lying beside a little brook at the distance of a quarter of a mile.  

The spot was immediately visited by some of the family; he was conveyed to the house, and expired during the night.  By inquiring at the canal, it was found that he was an Irish laborer . . . . He did not appear above twenty, and as I looked on his pale young face, which even in death expressed suffering, I thought that perhaps he had left a mother and a home to seek wealth in America. 

*     *     *     *     *

Not surprisingly, many of the canal workers turned to alcohol to assuage their suffering.  (Wouldn’t you?)

The canal company soon prohibited the consumption of spirits by its workers.  You can imagine how well that went over.  (We’re talking about the Irish, after all.)

From National Park Service historian Harlan Unrau’s history of the C&O:

The company had considerable difficulty enforcing its prohibition in the absence of sup- porting Maryland laws, as the contractors continually faced trouble with shopkeepers along the line who maintained grog shops or surreptitiously sold liquor to the men. . . .

Drunkenness had actually increased during the period of prohibition as the men, deprived of a steady supply of spirits during the day, drank excessive quantities of alcohol at neighboring grog shops in the evening.  The intoxicated men rioted throughout most of the night, and morning found many of them lying on the ground where they had fallen exhausted, unfit for work that day.

*     *     *     *     *

Fights among the canal workers were an everyday occurrence.

Harlan Unrau described the most serious outbreak of violence, which took place in 1834:

In 1834 open warfare broke out between two long feuding rival factions of the Irish workers – the Corkonians and the Longfords, sometime called Fardowners – during the idle winter months.

[Note: The “Corkonians” hailed from County Cork, the southernmost county of Ireland.  Longford County in central Ireland was a very small and very poor county.]

The first encounter in January 1834 was the result of a fight between on of the Corkonians and one of the Longfords named John Irons, the latter man being beaten badly that he soon died. . . . The skirmish between the Corkonians, who were working near Dam No. 5 above Williamsport, and the Fardowners from the vicinity of Dam No. 4, below the town, resulted in several deaths and many wounded in the clash before two companies of the Hagerstown Volunteers arrived on the scene to restore order.  The following day the militia returned to Hagerstown with 34 prisoners who were sent to jail. . . .

[A] major battle erupted [on] January 24.  A party of 300 Longfords, armed with guns, clubs and helves [i.e., ax handles], were permitted to cross the aqueduct and march up to Dam No. 5, when they announced that their intentions were merely to make a show of force.  Farther up the line they were joined by 300 to 400 more . . . . In a field on a hilltop just above Middlekauff’s Mill near Dam Mill near Dam No. 5, they met about 300 Corkonians armed with “military weapons.”  

Dam #5 today
Accepting a challenge, the Longfords charged up the hill amid an exchange of volleys that killed a number of men.  Soon the Corkonians fell back and fled before the superior forces of the Longfords.  A merciless pursuit took place until nightfall, and many of the fugitives that were over taken were savagely put to death.  Later five men were found in one place with bullets through their heads.  In addition, the bodies of other dead and wounded were strewn in every direction. . . .

The Maryland House of Delegates passed a resolution asking the President of the United States to order out a sufficient number of troops to preserve the peace at Williamsport.  The Maryland Senate substituted a resolution of its own authorizing the Governor to call out the state militia, but President Andrew Jackson had already issued orders to send two companies of the 1st regiment of the U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort McHenry to proceed to the canal.  Arriving via the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the federal force remained along the line of the waterway for several months.

*     *     *     *     *

I recently took a two-day, 60-mile bike ride along the C&O, which ceased operating in 1924 and was eventually acquired by the federal government and turned into a national historical park.  

The first day, I rode from mile 99.8 (Williamsport, Maryland) to mile 72.8, which is just across the Potomac from Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  (I parked in Shepherdstown and arranged for the owner of a local bike store to shuttle my bike and me to Williamsport so I didn’t have to ride that stretch of the canal in both directions.)

The second day, I drove to Williamsport and rode from mile 99.8 to mile 114.5 (where the towpath is adjacent to the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail) and back.  

The most notable canal structure I saw that day was Dam #5, one of several “feeder” dams built on the Potomac to provide a reliable water supply for the canal. 

Dam #5 – which was built by Corkonians – is about six miles upriver from Williamsport.

In December 1861, Stonewall Jackson and his men attempted to destroy the dam, which would have deprived the canal of sufficient water for boats to carry coal from western Maryland to Washington.  But Jackson’s attacks failed to knock the dam out of commission.

The dam currently produces over 1200 kilowatts of hydroelectric power.

*     *     *     *     *

A couple of miles upriver from the dam is the house that was the home of the lockkeeper assigned to operate lock 49.  

Lockhouse 49
Lockhouse 49 is one of six C&O Canal blockhouses that you can rent.  It sleeps eight and costs only $125 a night.  While it has electric baseboard heat, it doesn’t have a kitchen or running water.  There’s a portapotty, however.

*     *     *     *     *

The highlight of my second day’s ride was Fort Frederick State Park, the site of a stone fort built in 1756 to protect settlers during the French and Indian War.  

I’ll tell you more about Fort Frederick in the next 2 or 3 lines.

*     *     *     *     *

“I Predict a Riot” was released in 2004 on Employment, the Kaiser Chiefs’ debut album:

The Kaiser Chiefs aren’t Irish – they hail from Leeds.  (Close enough for government work.)

In case you’re not familiar with the word “fairy,” the Cambridge English Dictionary says it means “behaving in a loud, excited manner, especially when you are enjoying yourself or drinking alcohol.”  

Not surprisingly, the word is almost always used to describe men, not women.

Here’s “I Predict a Riot”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, May 6, 2018

AC/DC – "Highway to Hell" (1979)

No stop signs
Or speed limit
Nobody's gonna slow me down . . .
I’m on the highway to hell!

When someone describes a drive as “hellish,” you’re thinking stop-and-go traffic due to lots of stop signs and stoplights, or road construction, or simply too much traffic volume.

But if there was a highway to hell and you were driving on it, wouldn’t you want the traffic to be moving as slowly as possible?  

If you’re driving to hell, you’re in no hurry to arrive – correct?  You want the trip to take as long as it can.

Or is it better just to get the journey over with?  If you’re going to spend all eternity in hell either way, isn’t it better to have the drive there at least be pleasant?

As King Yul I of Siam once said, “It’s a puzzlement.”

*     *     *     *     *

“Highway to Hell” – which is a quintessential hard-rock anthem – was the first track of AC/DC’s 1979 album of the same name.  

That was the last AC/DC album to feature lead singer Bon Scott, who died the next year at age 33.  (The authorities said the cause of his death was acute alcohol poisoning, but the author of a biography of Scott believes he died as a result of aspirating his own vomit following a heroin overdose.)

Here’s “Highway to Hell”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, May 4, 2018

Third Rail – "Invisible Man" (1967)

The invisible man stepped out of his door 
Precisely at 7:10
He bought the paper and caught the train
With the rest of the invisible men

Like that invisible man, I took a train to my office every day.  But I was almost never out the door at 7:10.

Invisible men taking the train to work
Forty years ago, when I was a brand-new government lawyer, I usually left the house by 8:10.  But my departure time eventually slid to 9:10, then 10:10.  

In the months leading up to my retirement last year, it slipped to 11:10 or even 12:10.  That’s because I felt obligated to visit my mother in her assisted living apartment every morning before heading to the nearest Metro station.

*     *     *     *     *

“Invisible Man” tells the story of a nameless, faceless, white-collar drone who is indistinguishable from all the other nameless, faceless, white-collar drones who work at his company.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Sloan Wilson’s hugely popular 1955 novel – which was made into a hugely popular movie the following year – told the story of an “invisible man” who also struggled with the surrender of freedom and individuality that was expected of those who worked for large corporate organizations.  

Today’s featured song is a two-minute, fourteen-second distillation of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

*     *     *     *     *

Although there were hundreds of other attorneys at the law firm where I spent the bulk of my working life, I didn’t really feel invisible there.

But I felt very invisible last Saturday night when I journeyed to a hip Washington bar to hear a local band that was recently featured in 2 or 3 lines.  

That’s because everyone else at that bar were twenty- and thirty-somethings.  I’m 65 years old, which meant that I was invisible to them.

I’m not looking for you to feel sorry for me because of that – I’m just stating a fact.

(Actually, that’s a lie.  I am looking for you to feel a little sorry for me.)

*     *     *     *     *

“Invisible Man” is not the only Third Rail song that says “Fie!” to corporate conformity.  

The group’s best-known song, “Run, Run, Run,” also pokes fun at the “straight world rat race” (to quote Allmusic):

Up at the morning at half-past eight
You can’t have your breakfast ’cause you’ll be late
Tie your tie like a hangman’s noose
Ain’t no time to drink your juice

The brains behind the Third Rail were Brill Building songwriter Artie Resnick (who co-wrote “Under the Boardwalk” and “Good Lovin’”), his wife Kris, and 20-year-old  wunderkind Joey Levine, who later sang the lead vocals on “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” and other bubblegum-music hits.  

Levine eventually became a very successful advertising jingle writer.  (Who can forget “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t” for Almond Joy and Mounds candy bars?)

Here’s “Invisible Man,” which was released in 1967 on Id Music, the Third Rail’s one and only album:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon: