Michael Franks: The Cool School Is In Session

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In these chaotic and mind-scrambling times, we need to relax to something mellow, something hip, something cool. And who better to deliver that than the professor of the Cool School, Mr. Michael Franks, with his first album in 7 years, The Music In My Head.

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But if you would like to get a crash course in Franks-ology, check out this article on my 9 favorite Michael Franks tunes from his 50-year career.

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West Coast Pop from the Early 80s

In order to escape the sharpening political climate of the 1980s, we needed something to assuage the chaos. Moving into the Me decade, West Coast music grabbed a strong foothold of the pop charts.

Here’s a sample of Top 40 West Coast pop from 1980-1984:

How A Supermodel Saved Steely Dan

“We don’t meet people by accident. They are meant to cross our path for a reason…”

Have you had a chance to enjoy watching Steely Dan on tour over the past 20 years? Do you enjoy your evenings by cranking up Two Against Nature for a little Jack Of Speed? None of that may have been possible had Donald Fagen and Walter Becker separately engaged in a musical project by a former supermodel. Read the story  about the catalyst which sparked one of the greatest and improbable comebacks in rock.

The Magic of John Farrar

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In the music industry it is rare for a songwriter and/or a producer to work exclusively for one client. Although he has worked a few other artists such as Irene Cara and Cher, John Farrar is one of the few who’s success has been with singer Olivia Newton-John. He was written and/or produced almost every Top 40 record that Olivia charted with in the U.S. from 1971’s If Not For You to 1985’s Soul Kiss. That’s an astonishing 23 hits, including 5 #1s over a two decade period. But that few people know about the hidden West Coast gem that this former member of the Strangers and the Shadows released in 1980.

John had married singer Pat Carroll in 1970 who was Liv’s singing partner In Australia and the threesome decided to move to the US to make it big.  Within a few years he produced a few top 10 hits with his partner Bruce Walsh and by 1974 John had written the #1 smash, I Honestly Love You, which would win a Grammy for Record of the Year. He & Olivia would have continued success throughout the decade, but they both really hit their stride with two big hits from Grease (the #1, You’re the One That I Want and Hopelessly Devoted to You), the Totally Hot LP, the Xanadu soundtrack (which included the big #1 hit, Magic) and the zenith of Physical. (Juliana Hatfield has just released an album’s worth of Olivia covers, which I hope brings new attention to her and John’s work.)

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Within that busy schedule, John was given a deal to release his own album of songs, and released his self-titled debut LP on Columbia Records. John performs all of the vocals, guitars and synths with drumming support from either Michael Botts or Ed Green, bass from Mike Porcaro and David McDaniels and keyboards by Tom Snow on the two of three songs he co-wrote with John.

I’ve often wondered if he wrote these songs with any specific singers in mind, because to me, Can’t Hold Back sounds like a lost Cliff Richard track from the We Don’t Talk Anymore-era and Reckless sounds like something ONJ would’ve easily melted hearts with. (Olivia would eventually record this as a duet with John in 2009.) Gettin’ Loose & Tell Who Someone Cares are aerobic workouts and most likely blueprints for Michael Sembello’s Maniac. But my favorite track is the first one on Side 2 – Recovery. Even though Olivia would record it for the Physical LP, I prefer John’s version. It’s got a smooth subtle island vibe with just enough rough edges to go along with the I’m-fine-all-by-myself energy of the lyrics. I dig the feel of the Caribbean-style guitar solo and I love the way it builds up to the hook of the chorus. As far a I know it was never released as a single but to me, this is the hidden West Coast gem.

This is a hard record to find on LP or CD, but do yourself a favor and seek it out. Here’s John’s version of Recovery:

 

The Underground Soul Of Big Love

What would Isaac Hayes sound like covering Big Love by Fleetwood Mac? Or Barry White? Or anyone who could turn this 3+ minute fast tempo’d tune into a luxurious 8 minute opus of sultriness? That’s a question I’ve always had since I first heard this song in the Spring of 1987 as the first single from Mac’s Tango In The Night LP. Underneath the cocaine jitter of the guitar licks, galloping drums and sinister vocal stylings from Lindsey Buckingham, I could hear a bluesy soul trying to bubble up even as the band repeatedly smothered it, like Mick Fleetwood bashing it down with his drum fills. Maybe that was intentional or the subconscious kicking in. After all the band began as a British blues band only to abruptly abandon their history and fully embrace to WestCoast pop.

I decided to slow the track down while trying to keep the integrity of the production (the song always sounded sped up to me anyway) and lo and behold if Lindsey doesn’t sound a bit like Issac. Stretch the song out, remove the drum fills, layer on some strings and you got some Hot Buttered WestCoast Soul.

Take a listen and tell me what you think:

Meetwood Flac – Big Love (The Soulful Spring Edit) from WestCoast Breeze on Vimeo.

West Coast Music From Hawaii

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In the 70s & 80s, Hawaiian musicians incorporated a lot of sounds into their music to sound contemporary but none more than West Coast music. These bands incorporated elements of funk, soul, folk and jazz and a smoothness only found on those Pacific islands. You can view a list of those groups here.

We have created a video which features musical samples from those artists. We also encourage you to visit Aloha Got Soul, which was started by Roger Bong in 2010 and his love for 70s & 80s West Coast funk, soul and jazz from Hawaii.

 

Knocking The Walls Down With Steve Kipner

For our ongoing West Coast Classic album series, we will be spotlighting albums that are great representations of the genre. Today it’s the 1979 LP Knock The Walls Down by Steve Kipner.

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In 1979, singer Steve Kipner got his turn to shine as a solo artist. He already had a Top 20 US hit called Toast & Marmalade For Tea produced by Maurice Gibb, but that was as a member of the duo, Tin Tin. After they split he joined the bands, Friends & Skyband, along with future Player Peter Beckett. Knock The Walls Down was Steve’s chance to show what he could do by himself and he had the fortune to hook up with guitarist Jay Graydon who produced the LP, save for one track. Steve wrote this as a concept album about a guy who lucked into the awesome job of getting to record an album, so you could say it was autobiographical.

The album features a who’s who in the world of West Coast: David Foster, Michael Omartian, Bill Champlin, Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, Victor Feldman and others. 9 of the 10 tracks feature the rhythm section of Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate fresh off the success of Toto’s debut. Player’s JC Crowley & Peter Beckett lend their backing vocals to a few tracks. And Jay’s guitar playing is so strong that the last track, The Ending, is considered to be his one of his best performances on record.

All of this support and talent contributed to a very solid album, but very little success. The lead off single, Knock The Walls Down, was listed in Billboard’s July 21st, 1979 as a recommended track and the album was listed a Top Recommended LP. Billboard describes the album as “squarely in the pop-rock bag…” and “..a bit more Top 40 oriented that that of the recently launched groups who provide backup.” They were definitely on to something. Unfortunately 1979 was a year of heavy musical saturation as so many albums were being released, much more than anyone could play on the radio or purchase and listen to, and this one got lost in the shuffle. Eventually the Elektra Records LP and released singles never placed on any charts and the album disappeared.

But for Steve, this was the beginning of the story. Since Jay liked Steve’s songwriting he passed his material on to other folks which led to some writing gigs with other artists, such as Alan Sorrenti and Manhattan Transfer and more notably Olivia Newton-John. Although the song he co-wrote with Terry Shaddick was meant for Rod Stewart, ONJ’s management team heard it and the rest was history. Two years after Knock the Walls Down, Steve had written a #1 song – Physical which stands today as one of the Top 10 biggest hits in the rock era[Steve’s dad, Nat Kipner wrote Too Much, Too Little, Too Late a #1 hit in 1978 for Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams, making Steve & Nat the rare father-son #1 hit writing duos]

Steve has a 40+ year career in music, writing hits for many artists such as Chicago, Natasha Bedingfield and Christina Aguilera. And it all started with this release.

 

Out of the Ashes of 70s Fame Rose Solo Acts of the 80s

The idea of being super started to take over by the late 70s. It was not just for comic book heroes, expanded grocery stores or the Concorde. It was one thing to be successful but to be considered a superstar raised you to another strata few had ever been. Whatever feelings of invincibility one felt they were just as soon matched with time pressures, fan burdens, company managers and egos so out of control that by the end of the decade, a lot of these groups crashed and burned or at the very least didn’t want to be around each other anymore.

By 1980, The Eagles, Steely Dan, and the Doobie Brothers put out their last recorded output for a while as some of the members of those bands decided to explore other musical avenues. (Fleetwood Mac needed a similar break, and after recharging the batteries they would get back together from time to time.)

Luckily for us fans we ended up with more music than before. The Eagles would get back together 14 years later with Hell Freezes Over. The Doobie Brothers would only need 9 years until Cycles, but Michael McDonald never rejoined the band. And even though Steely Dan started touring again in the mid-90s after a multi decade drought of concerts, it would be a solid 20 years for their next album, Two Against Nature, which won a Grammy for Album of The Year. Good things come to those who wait….

Here’s a montage of 1980s West Coast solo acts spawned from popular 70s bands:

The Story Behind Toto’s 99

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The first single from Toto’s second album, Hydra, in 1979, was the band’s second Top 40 hit when it peaked at #26 in early 1980. Written by David Paich, this soft yet funky keyboard-driven jam featured lead vocals by Steve Lukather, and a very jazzy solo on the outro by him.

Many have wondered what the title refers to. Some say that someone in the band had been dating Barbara Feldon – Agent 99 on Get Smart – and that it was written about her. That turned out to be not true. [Coincidentally Barbara Feldon released a 45 in 1966 called 99.] Some say that 99 is about a girl who’s almost perfect but is not quite 100. Again, false. And it’s not about Wayne Gretzky either. Or the number of beer bottles on the wall.

David Paich actually wrote the song as a tribute to George Lucas’ first film, THX-1138This film takes place many centuries in the future where people live in a totalitarian state and are referred to by number. Thus is a love song to someone imagined in the world with the number 99. Why 99? Probably just sounds good. (Two more Top 40 songs in the 1980s would have 99 in them – Prince’s 1999 and Nena’s 99 Luftballons.)

Toto didn’t play the song live for many years mostly because Steve didn’t like it all that much. As it peaked in the Winter of 79-80, I liked hearing it on the radio as it give life to me as I stared on at the cold dreary skies and leafless trees.

The reflects the film that inspired with everyone wearing white jumpsuits and lens a tinge out of focus. I think most videos back them were made for $20 and took 30 minutes to film. Check it out for yourself: