Thursday, September 30, 2010

Saul Williams -- "List of Demands" (2004)

I got a list of demands
Written on the palm of my hands
I ball my fist and you gonna know where I stand

Let's take a short break from my series of posts featuring songs from the albums that everyone owned when I was in college.  (Don't worry, fellow boomers -- we'll get back to 1970 shortly.)

This post is the first in another series, which we can call "Songs That Were Featured in Great Nike Commercials."  I hope my habit of jumping from series to series doesn't annoy you.  But my habit of suddenly detouring from one topic to another is one of things that makes me so charming.  Plus I have a short attention span.  I get bored easily.   

Apparently I got bored easily in grade school as well.  I dug out all my old report cards when I visited my parents recently.  This was one of the comments on my 2nd-grade report card:  "Gary is making excellent progress in all areas except self-control."  The next quarter's comment was "Gary seems to be having difficulty in settling down after the Christmas excitement."  Things didn't change all that much over the next few years.  From my 5th-grade report card:  "Gary's biggest problem is lack of self-discipline."

(Those dried-up old bit . . . oh, never mind.)

Without further ado, here's the 2008 Nike-SPARQ TV commerical:

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Saul Williams and the other members of his "poetry slam" team were featured in SlamNation, a documentary about the 1996 National Poetry Slam.  In 1998, Williams starred in a feature film about poetry slams titled Slam.  

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He released his first LP in 2001 (Rick Rubin produced it).  He toured with Nine Inch Nails in 2005, and NIN's Trent Reznor produced his next CD, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust.  (A song from David Bowie's 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars will be featured in a future "2 or 3 lines.")

The "SPARQ Rating" -- SPARQ is an acronym for speed, power, agility, reaction, and quickness -- is a standardized test of athleticism created in 2004.  It has been called "The SAT of Athleticism." 

The general SPARQ test has five components: 40-yard dash, kneeling power ball (a/k/a medicine ball) toss, agility shuttle run, vertical jump, and "Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test," or "beep test."  

In the beep test, an athlete sprints 20 meters when a "beep" is sounded, and then sprints back to the starting line when a second beep is sounded.  After a short rest period, another beep sounds and the athlete does the back-and-forth sprint all over again.  The recovery time allowed between each pair of sprints is gradually shortened.  The test ends when the athlete is unable to make it back to the starting line before the beep signalling that it's time to start again sounds.

<object width="640" height="385"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/5JskyITO-AQ?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/5JskyITO-AQ?fs=1&amp;hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="640" height="385"></embed></object>

There are also sport-specific assessments for baseball, fast-pitch softball, football, boys' and girls' soccer, and boys' and girls' basketball.  Tim Tebow outscored Reggie Bush on the football test, but 2008 decathlon gold-medalist Bryan Clay poned both of them.

Nike partnered with SPARQ, Inc., to promote cross-training shoes, apparel, and training equipment designed for SPARQ training -- most famously, a really cool parachute you wear while running to create drag when you run.  And it works just as well for dogs as for people: 

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The Nike SPARQ commercial features NFL stars (Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson),  NBA and WNBA stars (Kevin Durant, Brandon Roy, Steve Nash, and Diana Taurasi), soccer players (Landon Donovan, Abby Wambach, and Hope Solo), lacrosse players (Ryan Powell and Kyle Harrison), and a baseball player (Matt Holiday).  The line that Tomlinson delivers to get things started -- "My better is better than your better" -- is pretty good, and the shot of Peterson running with no fewer than FIVE of those parachutes strapped around his waist is very cool. 

But it's Saul Williams and "List of Demands" that makes this one of the all-time great Nike commercials.   This song starts off loud and fast and never changes -- if you have high blood pressure, it might not be a good idea for you to listen to it.

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Click here to buy "List of Demands" from iTunes:

<a href="http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/list-of-demands-reparations/id281814491?i=281814562&uo=4" target="itunes_store"><img src="http://ax.phobos.apple.com.edgesuite.net/images/web/linkmaker/badge_itunes-lrg.gif" alt=List of Demands (Reparations) - The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust /></a>

Click here if you prefer Amazon:



Tuesday, September 28, 2010

James Gang -- "The Bomber" (1970)


When I became of age, my mama sat me down
Said, "Son, you're growin' up, it's time you looked around"
So I began to notice some things I hadn't seen before
That's what brought me here, knockin' on your back door


There were some great rock bands with only three members in the 1960's and 1970's:  Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were probably the best of the power trios of the era, and Grand Funk Railroad may have been the most popular.  Led Zeppelin, the Who, and others weren't pure power trios because they had four members, but they were really power trios in terms of instrumentation -- guitar, bass, and drums.  

The James Gang was right up there with the best of them.  A great power trio had to have a very good drummer and a very good bass player, but what it needed most of all was a great guitarist.  Cream had Eric Clapton, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience had you know who.  The James Gang had Joe Walsh, who was never as well-known as Clapton and Hendrix and is largely forgotten today, but he was really, really, really good, boys and girls.

The "James Gang Rides Again" album cover

The first James Gang album, titled Yer' Album, was solid.  But their second album -- James Gang Rides Again -- was outstanding.  "Funk #49" and "Woman" are classics, but I've chosen a  cut off that album that you never heard much on the radio:  "The Bomber," or "The Bomber: Closet Queen/Bolero/Cast Your Fate to the Wind" as the title is sometimes rendered.

"The Bomber" didn't get much airplay because it's about seven minutes long.  It's seven minutes long because it's really three songs in one.  

If you put the first and last parts of "The Bomber" together, you'd have a good, three-verse, three-minute rock song.  But instead of doing that, the band took a sudden detour after the first two verses and played abbreviated versions of two very different instrumental works.

First, we get a couple of minutes of Maurice Ravel's famous orchestral piece, Bolero, which was composed in 1928 and originally intended as a ballet.  Bolero was always popular, but became familiar to millions when it was later used in the soundtrack of the movie 10, which starred Bo Derek.




It turned out that the copyright on Ravel's composition was still valid in 1970, and the composer's estate threatened to sue the James Gang and its record company for their unauthorized use of Bolero.  "The Bomber" was edited for subsequent pressings of the LP, but the original version was eventually restored.

Next, the band gives us a couple of minutes of a well-known jazz composition, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," composed and originally recorded by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.  After a TV producer heard this song, Guaraldi was hired to write and record the score for the Peanuts Christmas special.  He eventually composed the scores for 16 Peanuts television specials, plus the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

Everyone has heard Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" theme song about a million times.  I remember Jim Matthews becoming quite frustrated back in the heyday of "The Rogues" when I had trouble playing it by ear.




Here's Guaraldi performing "Cast Your Fate to the Wind":




After that, the James Gang circles back and wraps up "The Bomber" (your guess is as good as mine as to where that title came from) by playing the final verse of the "Closet Queen" song.  It sounds crazy but it works.  In fact, it does more than just work -- it's genius, a tour de force.  

Here's "The Bomber":




Use this link to order "The Bomber" from iTunes:

The


Click here if you prefer to buy from Amazon:

  

Friday, September 24, 2010

Led Zeppelin -- "Gallows Pole" (1970)

Oh, yes, you got a fine sister
She warmed my blood from cold, 
Brought my blood to boiling hot 
To keep you from the gallows pole, 
Your brother brought me silver
Your sister warmed my soul, 
But now I laugh and pull so hard
And see you swinging on the gallows pole 

The first two Led Zeppelin albums were monsters, and I played them to death in high school.  Led Zeppelin III was released only a few weeks after I started college, and expectations for it were very high.  


Advance orders for the record were high, and was Billboard's #1-ranked album for four weeks.  But the critics didn't love it, and neither did the fans.  I would guess that you hear its songs on the radio much less frequently than you hear songs from previous and subsequent Led Zeppelin albums.

I guess you could call it the red-headed stepchild of Led Zeppelin albums -- it doesn't get as much love as the band's other albums.  For example, Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums ever places the first Led Zeppelin album at #29, and lists others by the group at #66, #70, #75, and #149.  But Led Zeppelin III doesn't crack the top 500.

(My apologies to those who have red-headed stepchildren and love them very much, or those who are red-headed stepchildren.  But as far as you in the latter group are concerned, I wonder if you're being honest -- are you really loved as much as the cute little blonde your father and stepmother had together?)

(If you think that is a politically incorrect statement, you should know that the original version of this is "beat them like a red-headed stepchild" -- a reference to a lopsided sports victory.  That goes a little far for my taste, so I preferred to say "beat them like a rented mule," which I think is much less offensive.) 

Why does the third Led Zeppelin album get no respect?  Led Zeppelin is sometimes characterized as a heavy metal or hard rock band, but  their music is quite diverse.  They recorded quite a few traditional folk songs, often with acoustic instrumentation.  Led Zeppelin III is viewed as an acoustic album, and it is true that it leaves a very different overall impression than the first two albums.  

Robert Plant
The first two Led Zeppelin records also had some acoustic songs, and the third album had several "heavier" electric tracks as well.  What is didn't have was anything like "Whole Lotta Love."  As Robert Plant later said, 

Led Zeppelin III was not one of the best sellers in the catalogue because the audience turned round and said "What are we supposed to do with this?  Where is our 'Whole Lotta Love Part 2'?" They wanted something like "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath!  But we wanted to go acoustic and a piece like "Gallows Pole" still had all the power of "Whole Lotta Love" because it allowed us to be dynamic. 

Bron-Yr-Aur cottage
Many of the songs on the album were created at an 18th-century cottage in Wales called "Bron-Yr-Aur," where Jimmy Page and Robert Plant spent much of the summer of 1970, resting up from a North American concert tour.  The cottage did not have electricity, so Page broke out his acoustic guitar.   

"Gallows Pole" may be largely acoustic -- it uses not only a mandolin but also a banjo (I believe this was the only time Led Zeppelin used a banjo) -- but it sure doesn't sound acoustic.  Like a lot of Led Zeppelin songs, it isn't easy to classify.  I never considered Led Zeppelin one of my particular favorites, and I didn't buy any of their albums after the third one -- but they put out a phenomenal amount of very good and very distinctive music.  

It's not always easy to categorize a Led Zeppelin song -- is it blues? metal? hard rock? folk? -- but it's always easy to recognize a Led Zeppelin song.  They rarely sound like anyone else.  

One more thing before we get to "Gallows Pole."  Do you remember the cover for this album?  It featured a volvelle -- a rotatable paper disc covered with images that showed through the holes on the album cover (which was a gatefold cover -- one that opened up like a book) as you turned the disc.  For example, if you rotated the disc so Jimmy Page's face showed through one of the holes in the cover, you'd see the other band members' faces through the other holes in the cover.  If you turned it a little further, you'd see a whole different set of images.  

"Led Zeppelin III" volvelle

"Gallows Pole" is based on a very old folk song -- there are versions from many different countries (including a reported 50 versions from Finland alone) -- which is commonly referred to as "The Maid Freed from the Gallows."  In the monumental five-volume collection of English and Scottish ballads compiled by 19th-century folklorist Frances James Child, "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" is number 95 -- its variants are numbers 95A through 95K.

The song is generally sung by a young woman who is about to be hanged.  In the English versions, we're not told why.  Child thought the English versions were "defective" on this account.  (European variants usually do explain the reason for the imminent hanging -- often, the woman is being held for ransom by pirates.)  

She begs her executioner to hold off, promising that someone bringing a bribe is about to arrive.  The woman's father, mother, sister, and brother show up one by one, but none bring the gold or silver needed to bribe the hangman.

Eventually, however, the young woman's true love arrives just in the nick of time, bringing enough gold to save her from the gallows pole.  

Legendary folksinger Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter recorded a song titled "Gallis Pole" in the 1930s, and Judy Collins and Bob Dylan also recorded songs based on the folktale.  But the Led Zeppelin version was adapted from the song written by Fred Gerlach, although the credit on the record read "Traditional: arranged by Page and Plant." 


(Led Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarism on numerous occasions.  A few months ago, songwriter Jake Holmes -- who later got into writing jingles, including "Be A Pepper" for Dr. Pepper -- sued Page for copyright infringement, claiming that he wrote "Dazed and Confused" and recorded it two years before it appeared on the first Led Zeppelin album.  Here's a link to Holmes's federal court complaint.)  

In Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole," a man (not a woman) is about to be executed.  He is disappointed when his friends arrive without any gold or silver for the hangman -- one explains "We're too damn poor to keep you from the gallows pole."

By the way, here's a photo of a primitive gallows, which may explain why it was known as a gallows pole:

Gallows pole

But the would-be victim's brother and sister come through for him big time.  The brother has some silver and he has some gold.  The sister takes the hangman to a "shady bower" and gives him something that many men rate higher than silver or gold.  (Personally, I rate silver at about 5 and gold at 8.  But being taken to a shady bower by the right sister can sometimes hit 9 or even 10.)

The hangman admits that the sister "warmed his blood to boiling hot" to save her brother from the gallows pole.  But he goes ahead and hangs the poor narrator -- seemingly just for grins.  Or because he can.  He's the hangman, after all. 

Bummer, dude.  MAJOR bummer!     

Here's Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole":



Here's Jake Holmes's "Dazed and Confused":




Here's a link you can use to buy the song from iTunes:

Gallows


Here's a link to use for Amazon: