Perfect Album Sides: Learning to Crawl

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Perfect Album Sides looks back through pop/rock history, and spotlights the album sides that have stood the test of time.

The early 1980s were a wild and challenging time for The Pretenders. After releasing two popular and widely acclaimed albums, bassist Pete Farndon‘s heroin problem had brought the band to an unexpected crossroads. According to frontwoman and chief songwriter Chrissie Hynde, “he was in a sort of diminished mental condition ’cause he was stoned a lot. He couldn’t handle drugs that well. No one can handle that drug very well.” The problem had become so pronounced that guitarist James Honeyman-Scott issued an ultimatum: he would quit the band if Farndon wasn’t fired.

So, on June 14, 1982, Farndon was dismissed from the band. And, that’s when the trouble really began.

Two days later, on June 16, 1982, Honeyman-Scott died of heart failure triggered by cocaine intolerance. He was 25 years old.

Nine months later, on April 14, 1983, Farndon was found dead in his bathtub: he had drowned after overdosing on cocaine and heroin. He was 30 years old.

In between those two deaths, though, came a huge spark of life: Hynde had a baby in January of 1983, daughter Natalie Hynde, with her partner-at-the-time, Kinks frontman Ray Davies.

Those were the circumstances that the remaining members of The Pretenders – Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers – found themselves in as they started working on their striking third album, Learning to Crawl: quite literally, life and death. As Hynde told Rolling Stone back in 1984, there was ultimately no other option but to get back to work. “What else were we going to do? Stay at home and be miserable, or go into the studio and do what we dig and be miserable?” Indeed.

As they began recording, Hynde and Chambers were unsure about who to recruit in place of Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, so they cycled through a revolving door of session players and notable guest stars before deciding on a new Pretenders lineup featuring guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster. It was this revamped version of the band that played on the majority of the album

Released the first week of January, 1984, Learning to Crawl went Top 5 on the Billboard 200, eventually receiving a Platinum certification from the RIAA, and produced three Top 40 singles – “Middle of the Road,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” and “Show Me” – all of which became instant classic rock staples. Hynde stated that the album’s title was inspired by her infant daughter, who was learning to crawl at the time, but it could just as easily refer to her and Chambers figuring out how to be mobile again after being knocked flat by the deaths of their bandmates and the turmoil of re-forming their band. Hynde’s ambivalence about everything that the world had recently thrown at her is all over Learning to Crawl‘s sublime first side.

“Middle of the Road”

Side one kicks off with the full Chrissie Hynde experience: equal parts piss and vinegar, a little bit of venom, and a whole lot of badassery. There’s also Chambers’ opening drum bash, that ornery, twisting guitar lick, and those urgent backing vocals (which don’t qualify as either war cries or howls of anguish, and yet invoke both). All of those elements combine to paint a compelling picture of early onset mid-life crisis reflection. There’s the part where Hynde says that she’s “standing in the middle of life with my plans behind me,” as if all of her plans have passed her by for good. There’s the part where she rails against the emotionally detached greed of the 1%, and jabs at their incognizant blindness towards the poverty that supports their lifestyle:

When you own a big chunk of the bloody third world
The babies just come with the scenery

Then, there’s Hynde’s grudging, reluctant acknowledgement that she’s getting older, an outgrowth of her fatigue with fame:

I can’t get from the cab to the curb
Without some little jerk on my back
Don’t harass me, can’t you tell
I’m going home, I’m tired as hell
I’m not the cat I used to be
I got a kid, I’m thirty-three

These are full-on curmudgeon vibes, but lest anyone (including herself) think that she’s losing her edge, Hynde, in the words of The A.V. Club, closes out the song with “an angry growl that shifts seamlessly into a harmonica solo – a rock ’n’ roll moment as thrilling as Roger Daltrey’s scream on The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.'” And, even if that moment isn’t quite as iconic as advertised, it is nearly as effective: it’s the crescendo that underscores what this song (and the rest of the album) is really about: rocking one’s ass off to beat the devil. Listeners responded in kind by sending “Middle of the Road” to No. 19 on the U.S. Top 40.

“Back on the Chain Gang”

Honeyman-Scott haunts this song from top to bottom. Not only did Hynde write it as a tribute to her fallen bandmate, but she and Chambers started recording it with a preliminary new version of the band – McIntosh, Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner, and Big Country bassist Tony Butler – a month after Honeyman-Scott’s death. Bremner was recruited specifically because Hynde knew that Honeyman-Scott was a fan of his. The freshness of Hynde’s grief is evident from the song’s opening lines:

I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We’ve been cast out of? oh oh oh oh

And then, right at the point where she could esily tip into full-blown sadness, she does an about face and makes this surprising declaration: “Now we’re back in the fight.” From there, the song launches into its familiar chorus, defiantly facing down sorrow to announce that nothing can stop The Pretenders. AllMusic hit the nail on the head when they wrote that “Back on the Chain Gang” serves “both as a resigned farewell to loved ones and a restatement of purpose.” That dichotomy resonated deeply with listeners: they helped propel this one to No. 5 on the U.S. Top 40, making it the band’s biggest all-time hit in America.

“Time the Avenger”

This is where Hynde starts to get the joke. First, though, she establishes her grim thesis:

Thought that time was on your side
But now it’s time the avenger

Throughout the song, Hynde establishes everything in life – a train whistle in the distance, the paramour of a married man, etc. – as a symbol of her premise. For emphasis, the rhythm section adds a revved up pulse that evokes the breakneck speed of time slipping away at an alarming pace:

But, when Hynde reaches the chorus, “Time the Avenger” suddenly sounds as if its achieving liftoff after having just spent the previous two verses hurtling down a long runway. There’s even a hint of revelry in the lyrics to go along with the celebratory nature of the music:

Time, time, hear the bells chime
Over the harbor and the city
Time, one more vodka and lime
To help paralyze that tiny little tick, tick, tick, tick

The joke, of course, is that Hynde’s coping mechanism is booze, which she knows is a double-edged sword: it might make the passage of time more fun (or, at least, bearable), but, if she’s not careful, it might also speed up the shuffling off of her mortal coil. What’s an existential crisis to do? Should she be anxious about all of this or euphoric? The dueling guitar coda illustrates Hynde’s inner conflict perfectly.

“Watching the Clothes”

This one is often written off as mere filler, but there’s a little more substantial than that because it’s our first glimpse of Hynde as a new parent. Yeah, she’s still going out on Saturday nights, only now she’s going to the laundromat:

There go the whites
Mmm, getting whiter
There go the colors
Getting brighter
There go the delicates
Through the final rinse
There goes my saturday night
I go without a fight

The lyrics are rendolent of a mantra: maybe she’s trying to convince herself that her new adult reality isn’t so bad, or maybe her brain is simply turning to mush. But, the music is the real tell here: it sounds a bit like a runaway train. Welcome to new parenthood. But, there’s also the aspect of becoming a parent that is wondrous in its wild unpredictability, and the music simultaneously reflects that, too. Every day could be a party, or everything could go right off the rails. But, at least, the song acknowledges the possibility of a silver lining. Could there be more of those in Hynde’s future?

“Show Me”

In which Hynde opens with this mysterious declaration: “Show me the meaning of the word.” Which word? And, who is she talking to? The answers start revealing themselves right with the first verse:

Welcome to the human race
With its wars, disease and brutality
You with your innocence and grace
Restore some pride and dignity
To a world in decline

It’s easy to assume Hynde means her then-newborn daughter, Natalie, whose birth seems to have stirred something in her famously peevish mother. The lyrics show us a warmer, more vulnerable Hynde than we’re used to seeing, and the music – complete with clear, sharp, glistening guitars, and Chambers’ galloping drums – supports that. Hope, a somewhat elusive quality thus far on Learning to Crawl, suddenly springs eternal in a vivid fashion.

Still, it comes as a surprise when Hynde finally confesses which word she wants to learn more about: “Oh, I want love, I want love, I want love!” Is this the same person who once sang so ruefully about being “The Adultress”? That’s hard to imagine from this vantage point, especially when she closes out the song joyfully proclaiming that she doesn’t want to live without love. But, “Show Me” remains a mainstay of classic rock radio to this day, and has outlived any listener misgivings that its modest peak position of No. 28 on the U.S. Top 40 may have initially indicated. This is a lovely song that has only gotten better with age.

Which is all just a long way of saying that within the span of one album side, Hynde moves convincingly from existential crisis and despair to a renewed sense of hope and resilience. If that’s not a perfect album side, I don’t know what is.

Perfect Album Sides: Control

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By the time Janet Jackson reached her 19th birthday in May of 1985, she had already had her fill of professional struggles. She was finishing up her run as a regular on the television series Fame, a job which, by her own admission, she did not care for; she had already released two albums that had failed to crack the Top 40; and her first marriage, to singer James DeBarge, had already gone belly-up due to her husband’s drug addiction. Hovering over all of that was Janet’s father, Joe, the notorious patriarch of the Jackson family who was well-known for the controversial and despotic way he managed the careers of his children.

Janet, feeling stifled both personally and professionally by all of this, decided that things needed to change.

Her initial act of rebellion, her marriage to DeBarge (Janet’s parents did not approve of him at all), had failed. More drastic measures were called for, so Janet fired her father as her manager, and hired John McClain, a senior vice president at her record label. McClain, in turn, introduced Janet to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the production team that had started out together as members of the famed Minneapolis funk band The Time, and the rest, as they say, is history. Janet agreed to work with Jam & Lewis, who shepherded the singer as far away from her father as they possibly could (namely, to Flyte Time, their Minneapolis recording studio), and got to work on her blockbuster third album, Control.

Released in February of 1986, three months shy of Janet’s 20th birthday, Control‘s immediate impact was easy to measure: it went #1 on the Billboard 200, and sold 10 million copies; it spawned seven singles, five of which went Top 5, and set a new Billboard Hot 100 record for the longest continuous streak of chart appearances by singles from the same album – 65 consecutive weeks (the previous record had been set by her older brother, Michael); it was nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year (with Jam & Lewis winning the award for Non-Classical Producer of the Year); and it established Janet as a linchpin of MTV’s heavy rotation, and an innovator of the music video format.

Control‘s legacy since then has proven to be vastly more influential. The sound that Janet and Jam & Lewis created for the album became the basis for new jack swing. The visual and musical persona that Janet introduced on Control served as a blueprint for countless pop stars who followed her: one can easily spot her influence in the careers of Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj, to name but a few. And,Control‘s popularity proved, once again, that a woman of color could have chart-topping mass appeal: in the 30+ years since Control‘s release, nine out of Janet’s ten subsequent albums have gone Top 3 on the Billboard 200, and seven of those went all the way to #1. That is simply unheard of.

And, all of this because Control is a monumentally excellent album. The beats are hard and unstoppable, the instrumentation and arrangements are fierce, and the hooks are infectious. The persistent themes in the lyrics – of wanting respect from men, family, and the world; of wanting control of both one’s career and sex life – struck a notable chord for many listeners, and helped to pioneer the dance floor feminism of the 1980s and further establish a beachhead for the female gaze in pop music.

All of these qualities are encapsulated perfectly on side one of Control: we are introduced to everything that Janet was about at that time, and all of the ways the world would soon change by following her dominant lead.

“Control”

Janet kicks things off by laying out her mission statement. “This is a story about control,” she tells us in the title track’s spoken intro. “My control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do. And this time I’m gonna do it my way.” Indeed. Once the music starts, she sings about moving on from her controlling parents and her disappointing first love. Her reaction to both?

Rebel, that’s right
I’m on my own, I’ll call my own shots
Thank you

But, Janet doesn’t just want autonomy for herself. She wants it for us, too, and she’s got some advice for us right after the bridge:

So let me take you by the hand, and lead you in this dance
It’s what I got, because I took a chance
I don’t wanna rule the world, just wanna run my life
So make your life a little easier
When you get the chance just take control

Throughout, the music is relentlessly uptempo, defying listeners not to dance, and it introduces a gratifying dichotomy: control may be the subject of the song, but the sound is pure freedom. Listeners responded to that tension by sending “Control” all the way to No. 5 on the U.S. Top 40.

“Nasty”

In which Janet famously declares, “The only nasty thing I like is the nasty groove.” Clearly. This track features one of the nastiest she’s ever laid down, a prime example of what music journalist Rob Hoerburger called “post-1999 metallic funk.” The lyrics were partly inspired by an episode of street harassment while working on the album in Minneapolis: as she told Rolling Stone, “…a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down.” Janet credited that experience with eliciting a newfound “sense of self-defense” that turns into unwavering confidence here. Like the song says, nasty boys don’t mean a thing to her.

Janet is no puritan, though. She’s happy to get down with the right gentleman, but it has to be on her terms:

I’m not a prude
I just want some respect
So close the door if you want me to respond
‘Cause privacy is my middle name
My last name is Control

And, we all know the rest. Suddenly, listeners everywhere were divided into two groups: those who were happy to call Janet by her first name, and those who hoped they were lascivious (and lucky) enough to address her as Miss Jackson. Both groups helped this single peak at No. 3 on the U.S. Top 40. Nasty, indeed.

“What Have You Done For Me Lately?”

Jam and Lewis knew what they had with this one: they intended to save it for one of their own albums. But, when they delivered Control to Janet’s label, McClain requested one more uptempo track to finish the album. So, Jam and Lewis flew Janet back to Minneapolis, and the trio went to work on this song. They rewrote the lyrics to reflect more of Janet’s personal experience, especially her annulment from DeBarge, and the result “still slam[s] as hard as any pop funk confection you’ve ever heard,” according to Vibe. “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” was so impressive that it was chosen as the album’s lead single, a remarkable distinction for a song that was added at the last minute. But, it turned out to be the perfect introduction to the brand new Janet, and the world responded to her with open arms: this one hit No. 4 on the U.S. Top 40, and stayed somewhere on the chart for nearly three months.

“You Can Be Mine”

The only track on side one that wasn’t released as a single, but it’s still an important one. This is where Janet first establishes that not only is she nobody’s plaything, but she wants a plaything of her own. And, she’s not asking, either – she’s demanding:

Better get on your job 
Time to go to work 
If you want to be mine
Better get on your job 
Time to make me happy 
If you want to be mine

The glittery synth part is pure Minneapolis (it’s easy to imagine that Prince might’ve written this for one of his lady protégés), and the groove is deep and sneaky. For the first time on the album, Janet sounds like she’s having fun, and it’s contagious. This is the perfect side one closer because we get to meet playful Janet, thereby rounding out the full picture of her new image: staunch determination and high-spirited conviction come together on an album side that leaves no doubt about who’s in charge.

In 2015, Jam told Rolling Stone, “We knew that Janet had a lot of attitude and a lot of feistiness just from watching her as a kid on the different TV stuff she did. Let’s create music that has that kind of attitude and let her run with it.” Consider that mission accomplished. The result of their collaboration left a lasting legacy that continues today, and still sounds exactly the way Janet herself described it to Spin three decades ago: “When I listen to it, I hear someone who is very cocky, bold, straightforward, assertive.” In other words, an artist firmly in control.

George Harrison: When He Was Fab

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I recently saw George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s lovely and comprehensive documentary about the former Beatle, and it inspired me to investigate Harrison’s songbook at length. Working in the shadow of John Lennon and Paul McCartney throughout his tenure with The Beatles, Harrison nevertheless established an indelible identity for himself within the band – he was the quiet, droll, spiritual one – that carried over into his noteworthy solo career. His catalogue is full of graceful knockouts that have earwormed their way into my daily life as of late, and the following five tracks exemplify why.

“Taxman” (1966)

Not the first Harrison song to grace a Beatles album, but maybe the first Beatles classic written by him. Outraged at the time by England’s 95% supertax on top earners (which included him), Harrison penned this satirical rebuke, which is sung from the tax collector’s point of view. The jabs are clever and succinct (“If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.”), and the musicianship is on point: the song features both a rare McCartney guitar solo, and one of his most supple bass lines. With “Taxman,” Harrison’s emergence as a formidable songwriting force within the band was complete, and not only did it turn out to be a seminal track from a seminal album, it also became the de facto anthem for one of the most reviled days of the year.

“Here Comes the Sun” (1969)

Of all the songs Harrison wrote and recorded with The Beatles, this one is my personal favorite. It is surely one of his high points with the band. The day he wrote it, he was supposed to be attending a business meeting at Apple Corps headquarters. Instead, Harrison played hooky and went to Eric Clapton‘s house, where they wandered around the garden together, noodling away on their guitars, until this song began to take shape. Thank God he decided to take the day off: Harrison cemented his Beatles legacy on yet another seminal album by the band, and the world got one of the loveliest, most upbeat songs ever recorded about both seasonal and personal renewal. If that’s not a ringing endorsement for taking a personal day every now and then, I don’t know what is.

“Run of the Mill” (1970)

1970 was a notorious year for The Beatles: the band officially broke up, but still managed to release two albums anyway; and, all four members started releasing solo albums of their own on top of that. Harrison’s solo debut, All Things Must Pass, was a massive triple LP stockpiled with songs that never made it onto any Beatles albums. “Run of the Mill,” which closed out the first LP, highlights both the band’s end stage acrimony and Harrison’s emerging spiritual philosophy. As he writes in the opening lyrics:

Everyone has choice
When to or not to raise their voices
It’s you that decides

Armchair psychologists have been interpreting this song for decades, but one thing seems clear: the business of being in The Beatles had taken its toll on Harrison. On the flip side, a creative detour he’d taken to visit Bob Dylan and The Band in Woodstock back in 1968 had also made an impression: their mojo had seeped into Harrison’s songwriting, and “Run of the Mill” is a lovely, elegant example of the gestalt of those experiences during that turbulent time.

“When We Was Fab” (1987)

During the early 1980s, Harrison put his music career on hold while he explored other interests (like becoming a well-respected movie producer). But. by the second half of the decade, he was ready to jump back into the pop music fray. He recruited Electric Light Orchestra ringleader (and Beatles superfan) Jeff Lynne to co-produce a new album: the result was Cloud Nine, his strongest solo effort since All Things Must Pass. One of the standout tracks was the overtly Beatlesque “When We Was Fab,” a tribute to his days in the Fab Four. Things come full circle for Harrison here: he subtly references one of his former hits while waxing nostalgic about the good old days (“Back when income tax was all we had”), and Ringo Starr shows up to plays drums (both on the track, and in the accompanying video). Harrison sounds like he’s having more fun here than…well, since “Long time ago when we was fab,” as the song goes, and the same can be said about the entire Cloud Nine album. It was a happy return to form that thrust Harrison right back into the spotlight.

“Handle With Care” (1988)

One year after the release of Cloud Nine, Harrison and Jeff Lynne unveiled their second collaboration together: The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, the surprising debut of the eponymous tongue-in-cheek supergroup, which consisted of Harrison, Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan (all under assumed band identities). As the acknowledged leader of the group, Harrison wrote the music for the band’s debut single, “Handle With Care,” then tag-teamed the lyric writing with the rest of the group around Dylan’s kitchen table. Working with a crew this strong (and, also, as a graduate of the Fab Four finishing school), is it any surprise that “Handle With Care” turned out to be one of Harrison’s strongest post-Beatles tracks? Whether he liked it or not, the former Beatle thrived whenever he worked with artists who were at least as good as him (if not better), and the entire Traveling Wilburys project was (and still is) a glorious, delightful reminder of that.

For Your Consideration: Honorary Oscar 2020

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Earlier this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their roster of honorees for this year’s Governors Awards – a.k.a. the Academy’s trio of lifetime achievement trophies: the Honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, or the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award – and they’ve chosen another group of deserving recipients. Over the course of the past decade, the Academy’s Board of Governors has been especially sharp in their selections for these awards, which are given for “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.” Some of my favorite honorees from recent years include Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis, Eli Wallach, James Earl Jones, Hal Needham, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Hayao Miyazaki, Spike Lee, Gena Rowlands, Jackie Chan, Lynn Stalmaster, and Donald Sutherland. It’s as if the Academy has finally started paying closer attention to those creatives who have carved out a truly distinctive career for themselves, as well as those whom audiences actually care about.

The history of the Academy Awards is littered with deserving artists who never won a competitive Oscar. The Academy has done its best over the years to correct such oversights by handing out their Honorary Awards. That’s how countless past masters finally got their due: I’m thinking of Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, and Peter O’Toole, off the top of my head, but the list goes on and on.

But, there have also been the non-winners who never even even got an Honorary Oscar (i.e. Richard Burton), and the legends who were kept out of the mix for both an Honorary Oscar and a competitive one (i.e. Marilyn Monroe). One could literally write a book about the Academy’s blind spots on both fronts.

With that said, I humbly submit the following candidates for Honorary Oscar consideration in 2020. All five have established themselves firmly in the field over the years, and have built up substantial goodwill with filmgoing audiences around the world.

Kevin Bacon

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Kevin Bacon in Tremors (1990)

Bacon has reinvented himself countless times, shown remarkable career longevity, and he never phones it in. And, what does he have to show for it? Nary a single Oscar nomination. Dear Academy: are you kidding me? Did you see Murder in the First? Let me put it this way: even my wife – who thinks the Oscars are self-congratulatory show biz nonsense, and truly could not care less about them – even she was outraged when I told her Bacon had never been nominated. That’s how ridiculous his career-long omission is. Plus, he’s been around so long, and is so popular with audiences, there’s a game named after him. Who else can say that?

Annette Bening

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Annette Bening in American Beauty (1999)

Always a bridesmaid at the Oscars, but never the bride – yet. It never quite seems to be Bening’s year. She’s been nominated four times over the past two decades, and been thwarted by her Oscar kryptonite, Hilary Swank, on two of those occasions. She’s built an impressive resume that has established her as one of the strongest actors of the modern era, and she’s well-connected: Bening previously served as one of the Actors Branch representatives on the Academy’s Board of Governors, so they quite literally know her. How stupid will they feel twenty years from now when they realize it took them so long to give her the Honorary Oscar?

Glenn Close

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Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Talk about someone who has reinvented themselves countless times, shown remarkable career longevity, and, like Kevin Bacon, also never phones it in. In an alternate universe, Close would be as critically lauded as Meryl Streep, and she’d have the hardware to show for it. The buzz around Close when she first hit in the early 1980s made it seem like such an outcome was inevitable. Nearly 40 years and seven Oscar nominations later, however, she remains winless. That makes her the current record-holder among living actors for most nods without a win. (Was I the only person who thought she would finally win for The Wife?) It seems inconceivable that someone as respected, versatile, and ballsy as Close would still be empty-handed, but here we are. Dear Academy, I ask you: what else does she have to do?

Harrison Ford

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Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Come on, now. He is both Han Solo and Indiana Jones, for Christ’s sake. He has made a bundle of money for the studios. And, he’s only been nominated for an Oscar once, for his splendid performance in Witness. The $64,000 question is: how was he not nominated for playing two of the most iconic characters in film history?! In hindsight, those omissions seem absurd, especially considering how often he’s imitated (after all, he did help create the template for the modern action movie hero). Best of all: he doesn’t actually give a damn – about accolades, or much else to do with show biz. Still, Ford is that rare movie star who remains both influential and bankable after five decades in the industry. He is long overdue for some recognition.

Samuel L. Jackson

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Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)

Like Harrison Ford, Jackson has only been nominated once, for his legendary, career-defining performance in Pulp Fiction. Also, like Ford, this is such a no-brainer, I feel as if it doesn’t have to be explained or justified, so I’ll just say this: he’s been both a Jedi and Senor Love Daddy, he has battled snakes on a plane, he assembled the most popular team of superheroes on Earth, and he’s also Mr. Glass. He is extraordinarily popular with audiences and knows which projects to hitch his wagon to: as of this writing, the total box office gross of his collective filmography make Jackson the highest-grossing film actor of all time. In other words, he can – and will – do anything. Show the man some respect.

Tony Awards Pre-Gaming

With the Tony Awards coming up this weekend, it’s time to do a little pre-gaming in preparation for Broadway’s biggest night. Every year, there are at least a couple of magnificent excerpts from the nominated shows featured on the Tony broadcast, so we’ll have to wait until Sunday to see who gives this season’s breakout performances. In the meantime, allow me to take you on a guided tour of some of my favorite numbers from the past.

“We’ll Take a Glass Together” from Grand Hotel (1990)

Musical numbers have been featured at the Tony Awards since the ceremony’s broadcast television debut in 1967, but this is the number that raised the bar for all such performances moving forward. What is it about this one in particular? Tommy Tune‘s simple-but-inventive staging, for one thing (using a ballet barre as the bar: perfection). Also, Michael Jeter‘s joyously loose-limbed performance as Kringelein, the fatally ill accountant who wants to live his remaining days in luxury. In a Broadway season that had been dominated by Cy Coleman and David Zippel’s smash musical hit City of Angels, the surprising verve of this number took the 1990 Tony ceremony by storm and helped Grand Hotel stake its claim on the territory. The show took home five Tonys that night, including two for Tommy Tune’s direction and choreography, and a well-earned award for Jeter as Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

“Circle of Life” from The Lion King (1998)

The Lion King was the beginning of Disney’s foray into Broadway theater, and the big question was: how are they going to do a live-action version of anything from this movie? Viewers quickly got the answer at the 1998 Tony ceremony, as director Julie Taymor, a former doyenne of downtown New York theater, revealed her stunning creation. Watching it now, it’s clear from the outset that her signature style (which favors the use of masks and puppets) is perfect for this material. The Lion King won the Tony for Best Musical, Taymor became the first woman to win the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, and this landmark production ushered in a new era of Broadway design.

Viola Davis in King Hedley II (2001)

Once upon a time, excerpts from plays also used to get airtime on the Tony Awards broadcast, and Viola Davis‘ fierce performance in August Wilson‘s King Hedley II is one of the reasons why. As Tonya, the beleaguered spouse of the title character, she lays into her husband about why she aborted the child that he so desperately wanted. Talking about such a hot-button issue so openly on a live award show was (and still is) daring, but, as is evident from this clip, Davis sells it with conviction. It’s easy to see why this performance launched her career, and earned her that year’s Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play.

“Life in Living Color” / “Don’t Break the Rules” from Catch Me if You Can (2011)

The surprise showstopper of the 2011 Tony broadcast. Trey Parker and Matt Stone‘s musical juggernaut, The Book of Mormon, was the heavy favorite to win everything that year (and, for the most part, it did), so no one was paying much attention to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman‘s musical adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s hit biopic (itself adapted from former con artist Frank Abagnale Jr.’s memoir). It was, therefore, doubly astonishing to see this high energy number – led by the irrepressible Norbert Leo Butz, no less, as FBI agent Carl Hanratty – steal the show. Catch Me if You Can shocked the Tonys a second time later that night when Butz pulled off an upset victory as Best Actor in a Musical. (Take that, Book of Mormon!)

“Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (2015)

In Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori‘s musical adaptation of the Alison Bechdel graphic novel, the protagonist (none other than Bechdel herself) reckons with her own sexual discovery and her father’s mysterious life at three different ages in her history. The youngest version, Small Alison, has a memorable moment of self-discovery in this striking number, as she encounters a butch lesbian for the first time. Kron and Tesori’s songwriting here is exemplary, and Sydney Lucas‘ lovely performance hits all of the right notes, as she swerves from startled unease to jubilation. The result was one of the most moving Tony performances from recent years, and the capstone of Fun Home‘s march towards that year’s Tony Award for Best Musical.

“History Has Its Eyes on You” / “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” from Hamilton (2016)

The musical number that shook the 2016 Tony broadcast. Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s landmark musical adaptation of Ron Chernow’s definitive biography took New York by storm the moment it opened. Everyone had been talking about the show for months, and Hamilton‘s performance at the Tonys was the first time the world-at-large got a good look at it. Could a show with that much buzz around it live up to all that hype? Never fear. Miranda & Co. delivered the goods, and then some. Everything that makes this show a phenomenon – the brilliant score, genius casting, humor, epic sweep, inventive staging and choreography – is all in this number: it’s an all-in-one Hamilton primer. This performance cemented the show’s legacy in the public eye, and served as its victory lap, as well: the production took home 11 Tony Awards, including the trophy for Best Musical.

Aretha Steals Your Song

When Aretha Franklin died last summer, I was struck by the realization that, for my money, she was probably the greatest interpretive singer I’ve ever heard. Nobody could cover someone else’s song the way Aretha could. She could steal your song right out from under you and own it so hard you’d be lucky to get it back. And, like many other interpretive singers of yesteryear (i.e. Sinatra, Streisand, Rosemary Clooney, etc.), Aretha made a career of singing other people’s songs: her discography is full of covers, from the traditional Tin Pan Alley and R&B standards that define her early albums for Columbia Records to the legendary pop/rock/soul tracks she cut for Atlantic Records that made her the Queen of Soul. In my view, she never met a song she couldn’t cover, and she had a keen sense of how to make every tune work for her, even those that didn’t seem like a good fit at first glance. But, that was part of Aretha’s genius: she could reveal new layers of meaning in a song while boldly transforming it to suit her needs.

There are countless examples of such brilliance throughout Aretha’s voluminous catalogue, and here are five of my favorites. For me, they exemplify her singular flair for song interpretation so completely that they pass the ultimate listening test: I prefer her versions over the originals.

“Respect” (1967)

Aretha owns this song so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget her version is a cover: the original was written and performed by Otis Redding in 1965. Otis’ version is a straightforward plea to his woman: please just give me a little respect when I come home from work. Fair enough. Otis was no slouch, but his “Respect” sounds positively pedestrian compared to Aretha’s, which started as a bit of a lark. According to Dave Marsh‘s essay about “Respect” in The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Aretha and her sister Carolyn were “merely fiddling” with Otis’ song, “pulling threads of tempo and phrasing together in a way that suggested putting them on tape.” From such humble beginnings came not only one of popular music’s crowning achievements, but a rousing anthem for the civil rights era. Aretha flips the script with the lyrics, turning it into a proclamation to her man: all I want is some respect from you when you come home. To paraphrase Marsh, the song’s genius (especially in Aretha’s case) is that it applies a fundamental tenet of the civil rights movement to everyone’s sex life.

Then, there’s the arrangement, which adds a bridge (using chords borrowed from Sam and Dave’s “When Something is Wrong With My Baby”), a power trio of backup singers (sisters Carolyn and Erma, and session powerhouse Cissy Houston), and the hard southern soul mastery of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Everything Aretha knows – about singing, arranging, applying her gospel background to pop music, creative musical savvy, maximizing studio resources and recording time, you name it – is all here. No wonder “Respect” went No. 1 on the U.S. Top 40.

“I Say a Little Prayer” (1968)

Allegedly, composer Burt Bacharach didn’t like the speedy tempo of Dionne Warwick‘s original 1967 recording (which was still a big hit, regardless: it peaked at No. 4 on the U.S. Top 40). Aretha’s version fixed that, slowing down the tempo just a hair. It’s barely perceptible on its own, but when you listen to both recordings back-to-back, it really stands out. Aretha’s version leads with the piano, and uses it as a rhythmic anchor within the arrangement, much like one would use the bass and drums: linking the piano to the tempo like this immediately lays a warm foundation. By contrast, the easy listening brass-and-strings of Warwick’s original makes her version sound like a trunk song from Promises, Promises.

The real standout of Aretha’s version is the vocal arrangement, and how she splits the duties with her backup singers (none other than The Sweet Inspirations, which were founded and led by Dionne Warwick’s aunt, Cissy Houston). They echo Aretha on key words and phrases throughout the song, emerging like the thoughts that are too emotional for Aretha to give voice to herself (i.e. the chorus, which Cissy & Co. practically carry all on their own). Lyricist Hal David intended this tune to “convey
a woman’s concern for her man who’s serving in the Vietnam War,”
but that never really comes across. The lyrics invite many different interpretations, including the one that Aretha’s performance inspires: the joy of loving (or, at least, having loved) someone who is no longer there.

(Did I mention that Aretha’s version went top 10 as a B-side, and nearly charted as high as the A-side it accompanied? Tell me that’s not a master flex.)

“The Weight” (1969)

Knowing that the films of Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel, as well as the experience of being in a band with Levon Helm, inspired Robbie Robertson to write “The Weight” explains why it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Dave Marsh’s book describes The Band’s 1968 original as “Populated by weirdnesses…The words are bizarre but the meaning that the singers bring to them has an everyday concreteness and that’s the contradiction that the music fights to resolve.” That dichotomy has helped make “The Weight” a terrific enduring classic, and The Band’s signature song.

Aretha’s version takes Marsh’s sentiment and runs with it, beating Robertson and The Band at their own game by proving that it’s really her game instead. She takes the songs Biblical imagery and its random threads of Americana, and activates them with another one of her patented home-cooked southern soul arrangements and a blazing, jubilant vocal performance. Does this song make any more sense in her hands? No way. But, it sounds like it does, and that’s Aretha’s triumph. She turns “The Weight” into a hymn and makes it sound like the gospel. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s backed up by Duane Allman‘s slide guitar (dripping with deep south flavor), King Curtis‘ horns, and a quorum of returning Muscle Shoals sidemen. Everyone is in their element here, and they know exactly what to do with this song.

(Further proof of Aretha’s dominance and mastery: her version of “The Weight” hit No. 19 on the U.S. Top 40; The Band’s original never even cracked the chart. Say thank you, Robbie.)

“Eleanor Rigby” (1969)

Aretha completely reinvents this song by taking it to church. Recorded during the same sessions that produced her cover of “The Weight,” she doesn’t even try to imitate the classical experimentation of The Beatles’ iconic 1966 original. Instead, she brings “Eleanor Rigby” onto her turf, and makes it work on her terms. Aretha’s gospel background is especially prominent here (also fitting, considering the song’s lyrics), influencing both her vocals and the arrangement. Her “Eleanor Rigby” is warm and uptempo, a joyful noise that you can also shake your ass to.

Even more striking is Aretha’s decision to change the song’s point of view from third person to first: “I’m Eleanor Rigby,” she declares at the outset, instantly making this a story that cuts closer to the bone than when Paul McCartney tells it. But then, after cruising through the added-on bridge, Aretha switches back to third person to announce the title character’s death – a bold interpretive choice that almost plays as a formal nullification of the character’s existence – and closes out the song by belting out our heroine’s name over and over again, as if serenading her off into the sweet hereafter. In a word: amazing.

(P.S. Both Aretha’s version and The Beatles’ original went top 20 on the U.S. Top 40: the former hit No. 17, while the latter peaked at No. 11.)

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986)

By the mid-1980s, Aretha was going through a full-blown professional comeback (after a notable career lull earlier that decade), thanks in part to a new record label (she left Atlantic and signed with Arista) and a newer, fresher sound. By contrast, Keith Richards was in professional flux: his working relationship with Mick Jagger had become so fractious that The Rolling Stones went on indefinite hiatus, and Mick’s subsequent solo album and tour kickstarted rumors that the Stones might actually break up.

It was against this backdrop that Aretha and Keith joined forces for an unlikely collaboration that nobody saw coming: a cover of one of the most famous Stones tracks – sung by Aretha, produced by Keith – in support of a Whoopi Goldberg comedy of the same name. On paper, it’s a head-scratcher of an enterprise, to be sure. But, Aretha quickly dispels any doubts and proves, once again, that she is never to be underestimated. She takes what could have easily been one of the most unnecessary covers of all time, and turns it into a statement of purpose for her mid-career resurgence. Aided by both Keith and fellow Stones bandmate Ron Wood on guitar (as well as the heavyweight sideman trio of Chuck Leavell, Steve Jordan, and Randy Jackson on keyboards, drums, and bass, respectively) Aretha rips through this track like nobody’s business. There’s no denying that her reading of the song’s classic opening line – “I was born in a crossfire hurricane!” – gives it the necessary jolt of authentic life experience that the Stones simply did not have when they first recorded it.

Aretha’s version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” peaked at No. 21 on the U.S. Top 40, and was one of five singles she released in 1986 (which was the highest volume of singles she’d issued within a 12-month span since 1971). In other words: Aretha was back.

Bonus Track: “96 Tears” (1967)

Wait, what? On second thought, it’s better not to ask why Aretha covered this garage rock classic by punk rock precursors ? and the Mysterians. Just take a listen, and marvel at how effortlessly she owns it.

De La Soul: Good Enough to Steal

Early last month, Aaron Williams over at Uproxx reminded us that De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, came out 30 years ago. Oh, man. This was one of the classic albums from my high school years. Even though it was released just three months shy of graduation, it made a seismic impression on both me and my fellow seniors. It seemed like we all had a copy, and it got played at every party we went to until the end of the school year. It was the ubiquitous, smart, feelgood party record from the spring of 1989.

How good is this album? About a month after I first bought it, a friend borrowed it for a party she was going to, then had to sheepishly tell me the next day that someone had swiped it while she wasn’t looking.

That’s how good 3 Feet High and Rising is: it’s good enough to steal. I can’t say that about any other album from my high school years.

But, of course, there’s much more to this record than just that.

For my buddy, Derek, a fellow De La fan from way back, 3 Feet High and Rising appeared at an equally impressionable time – the back end of middle school in his native Baltimore – and made an immediate impact on him. The songs struck him as more intricate and melodic than other hip-hop from that era, built more along the melodies of the samples being used. Case in point: “Say No Go” and “Eye Know,” both of which introduced a new generation of music fans to Hall & Oates and Steely Dan, respectively.

Derek remembers when there used to be many different kinds of hip-hop personas on the scene – some defined by hard beats, flowing rhymes, and overt political themes – and De La Soul (along with their colleagues from the Native Tongues collective) pioneered a new one: it was nerdier, wittier, and funnier – and atypical of their contemporaries. The group summed themselves up perfectly on one of 3 Feet‘s signature tracks, “Buddy,” when they said, “De La Soul, from the soul / Black medallions, no gold.” Derek loved how they made easygoing Afrocentrism an acceptable hip-hop personality.

So did I. For me, 3 Feet remains fun and sunny, an album made in an emblematic emotional major key, and one that also features a more positive, humble, wide-ranging worldview than the prevailing hip-hop from that era. The record’s smooth beats and its sense of rhythm and syncopation are more akin to jazz, but its still just as funky and danceable as one expects hip-hop to be. (The Dean himself, Robert Christgau, said it best in his review of the album: “…they’re new wave to Public Enemy’s punk.”)

3 Feet High and Rising‘s effect on hip-hop was significant and immediate:The Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll crowned it the best album of 1989. By the mid-1990s, De La Soul’s influence could be heard in the music of Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Us3, Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, and about five million other hip-hop groups. (For a more in-depth and objective take, check out Jeff Chang’s appraisal at Pitchfork.) And, in 2010, the Library of Congress added 3 Feet to their National Recording Registry of recordings deemed socially, culturally, or artistically important.

For me and Derek, it’s easily one of the top 10 greatest hip-hop albums of all-time. Hands down, no question.

I would almost say that it’s still worth stealing, but the stone cold truth is that 3 Feet High and Rising is even better than that: it’s worth shelling out your hard-earned ducats to pay full list price for. I can’t say that about most other albums from my high school years.