Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #28: Public Enemy

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: One of the longest-running and most highly-acclaimed/respected acts in modern American hip-hop/rap culture. Lyrical prophet Chuck D and hype-man Flavor Flav are the sole permanent members and most visible faces/names in the group, though there have been a variety of core/key collaborators in their posse across the years, including DJ/turntable masters Terminator X and DJ Lord, guitarist Khari Wynn, singers/philosophers/media assassins Harry Allen, Professor Griff and Sister Souljah, The Bomb Squad production team (Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Gary G-Wiz), and the “Security of the First World” (S1W) dance/support/security team. Public Enemy have always been a strongly political group, merging hard, trenchant messages with some of the most incredible beats ever laid down on wax (or encoded into bits and bytes). Since emerging from their Long Island homes in 1985, they’ve taken their messages, their styles, and their sounds to a global audience, with varying degrees of commercial and critical success, but without ever compromising their commitment to their causes and their communities. Their most recent album, 2020’s What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?, was an unexpected gem, one of the finest releases of their long and illustrious career, after a period of churn and turmoil when Flav was allegedly kicked out of the group and their future seemed uncertain, though they’ve since claimed that the announcement of Flav’s firing was an April Fools stunt designed to measure and demonstrate the ways in which the media market and mismanage their stories.

When I First Heard Them: Soon after their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, dropped in 1987. They received a lot of attention in the music press of the era, and they made me rethink what it meant to be a member of a musical group when I first read about and listened to them, as most of the people who appeared in their press shots of the era didn’t actually sing or play any instruments, in the traditional uses of those verbs. They really cemented their standing as one of my favorite acts a couple of years later, when Marcia and I went to see Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (one of my all-time favorite films) in Washington DC on or very near to its release date. That great film opens with Rosie Perez dancing and boxing on the big screen with Public Enemy’s most lasting anthem, “Fight the Power,”  just absolutely kicking!!! It remains the only time I can ever recall an audience clapping, standing and whooping for an opening credit segment. (You should watch it now). As provocative and inspirational as the song was in and out of its original context, it’s dismaying to think that it’s been 32 years (“1989, a number . . .”) since Spike released that great film, in which the climactic scenes hinge upon a black man being choked to death by a police officer. I guess I hoped, dreamed, maybe even believed in 1989 that things would have changed by 2021 in ways that such acts would be inconceivable, not commonplace. Nope. We’ve still got a ways to go on that front, alas. Public Enemy issued an updated version of “Fight The Power” in 2020, and included it on the aforementioned fantastic Grid album. The core riffs, beats and rhymes of the song are just so iconic all these years on, and I am most pleased that P.E. returned to that classic with a topical and timely update, involving some of the many talented folk they have inspired over the years. I didn’t think the original version of the song could be topped or improved. I was wrong. The new version is absolutely astounding, and you’ll get to see/hear it in my favorite PE songs list below.

Why I Love Them: Public Enemy hit all the marks for me. Their music has always been ground-breaking from a creative and critical standpoint, Chuck and Flav are charismatic and distinctive front-men who have helped to shape the ways that modern hip-hop music looks and sounds, and their lyrics are cleverly crafted and drop-dead timely on cultural, social and political fronts, year after year after year. Their influence is huge, but rather than just sitting back and reaping the acclaim that their historic stature and status accord them, they have continued to issue albums and singles at a fairly steady pace, pushing themselves to share their important sounds and messages, even in years (or decades) when it has seemed like the record-buying, political science, and/or critical arts communities weren’t necessarily interested in receiving them. Not much more to say than this, at bottom line: they make me think, and they make me groove, and I’ll always love anybody who can push both of those buttons as well as Chuck, Flav and compatriots do and have done for so many years, in so many ways.

#10. “Son of a Bush,” from Revolverlution (2002)

#9. “Bring The Noise,” from It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)

#8. “He Got Game,” from He Got Game (Original Soundtrack Recording) (1998)

#7. “Harder Than You Think,” from How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (2007)

#6. “R.I.P. Blackat,” from What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? (2020)

#5. “Shut ‘Em Down,” from Apocalypse ’91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)

#4. “Burn Hollywood Burn,” from Fear of a Black Planet (1990)

#3. “WTF,” from Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp (2012)

#2. “Fear of a Black Planet,” from Fear of a Black Planet (1990)

#1. “Fight The Power (2020 Remix),” from What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? (2020)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #27: Uriah Heep

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: Named after an odious, unctuous character in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Uriah Heep are an English hard rock band that have been doing what they do since 1969, through myriad line-up changes, with guitarist/songwriter Mick Box as the sole constant in their long and convoluted history. Despite all of their many personnel configurations, there is an identifiable Heep sound to which each and every one of the group’s incarnations have hewed, more or less. Box’s wah-heavy guitar stylings are a key part of that, as are heavy organ riffs, massed male vocals, driving rhythm section work, and song structures that are punchy and progressive in equal measure. I’m not quite sure exactly why it’s the case, but the Heep sound has made them super-stars in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and parts of Asia, while the English and American fan bases are smaller, but deeply devoted. Me among that posse, of course. The modern core of the group, since 1986, features Box, his primary songwriting partner and keyboardist Phil Lanzon, and vocalist Bernie Shaw. Drummer Russell Gilbrook has been pounding the skins with aplomb since 2007 (replacing the late, great Lee Kerslake), and bassist Dave Rimmer joined in 2013, after long-time bassist-composer-singer Trevor Bolder (once one of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) succumbed to pancreatic cancer. I last caught the current five-piece live in March 2018 at the great Arcada Theater in the Chicago suburbs and they were just utter dynamite, delivering the classic tunes that the audience expected, mixed with new material that (to these ears) stood and stands up as well as anything they’ve ever done. The group had a deep history with Chicago, as one of the first markets where they broke big in the United States, and as an act of respect for the venue’s management, who had been involved with promoting the group regionally in the early 1970s, and the fans in attendance, the group members did a wonderful impromptu Q&A session before the show, making the evening even more memorable. Here’s what that looked like, from the cheap seats (left to right: Gilbrook, Shaw, Box, Lanzon, Rimmer; click to enlarge this and all subsequent images):

When I First Heard Them: Not exactly sure, honestly. I must have heard their AOR hits from the ’70s on the types of radio stations that I listened to in that era, but I think I actually started tuning into them a bit more when I got into King Crimson and started exploring that group’s convoluted family tree, which connected to the Heep via bassist-vocalist John Wetton. (Wetton’s peripatetic career also introduced me to Wishbone Ash, Roxy Music and Family, three other great bands in which he served short, but memorable, stints). As a “Rock Family Trees” nerd and avid liner-note reader, I loved the fact that the Heep’s first U.S. Best Of collection from 1975 included a way cool back cover image that charted the group’s membership changes and band members’ earlier projects. I learned about The Gods and Toe Fat (more on them below) from that chart, happily. For the record, that sleeve, which I pored over a lot in various record stores and libraries before actually buying the thing, looked like this (it might be hard to read, I can’t find a higher resolution image, alas):

I scored that Best Of record and the 1973 Uriah Heep Live double album sometime in the latter half of the ’70s, and those were my stalwart delivery vehicles for their classic-era material for a good number of years. The first non-compilation Uriah Heep studio album I purchased was Abominog in 1982. It was a re-boot for the band, of sorts, as the first disc released after long-time songwriter-keyboardist-guitarist-singer Ken Hensley left the group. It was a big hit for them, critically and commercially, laying out a glide-path for the Mick Box-helmed incarnation of the group that continues to this day. Plus, Abominog had a truly heinous title and album cover image if you wanted something to rub your religious parents the wrong way, which I did. Check this out:

Why I Love Them: I guess I must have some sort of Eastern European-Scandinavian-Russian thing working deep within my critical consciousness, as I hear and perceive of the Heep as a charismatic arena-caliber rock band, which they are in those territories. Years and years ago, I wrote a piece here about Heavy Organ Music, a self-named genre that I particularly enjoyed then and continue to enjoy, and which Uriah Heep embody as well as anybody. Their back-story bands also fit that idiom perfectly: I’m quite fond of The Gods and Toe Fat, which featured Hensley and Kerslake as members in their pre-Heep days, and I listen to their small catalogs of great albums regularly to this day. Look ’em up, along with other things recommended in that prior link, if you like this sort of music. You’ll be glad you did, I promise! I do deeply appreciate the fact that Uriah Heep have released some of the finest music of their 50+ year history on their most recent albums, and that those songs fit and sit soundly alongside the classics of their canon. They’re not a nostalgia act, at bottom line, though their body of work would certainly allow them to rest on their laurels and profiteer on the path of least creative resistance were they so inclined. The years have been tough on the group, it must be noted: Mick Box is the only surviving member of the “classic” Uriah Heep era, as Kerslake and Hensley recently flew away, singer David Byron and bassist Gary Thain were early rock-lifestyle casualties in 1985 and 1975 respectively, and bassists Bolder (died in 2013) and Wetton (2017) are also no longer anchoring things on this mortal coil. I’m certainly hopeful that Box can continue on for years to come, as he is an utter delight, wonderfully fun to watch and hear onstage (he’s got a very distinctive visual style and flair in his playing, in the ways that he uses his hands and body to emphasize what he’s doing with his guitar), and equally enjoyable in video and printed interviews, a real gentleman who seems pleased and proud to have made his way all these years doing exactly what he loves to do the most. Bravo, Mick! While it’s not directly related to their musical output, as a creative person who has been highly active online since the very dawn of the World Wide Web, I also have to share my appreciation for the fact that Uriah Heep have had a vibrant and useful presence in virtual space since ~1996, long before most bands arrived in this our virtual play-space. Hats off to long-time webmaster Dave White for that fine feat!

#10. “T-Bird Angel,” from Into the Wild (2011)

#9. “Sweet Lorraine,” from The Magician’s Birthday (1972)

#8. “Lady in Black,” from Salisbury (1971)

#7. “Rocks in the Road,” from Living the Dream (2018)

#6. “Poet’s Justice,” from Demons and Wizards (1972)

#5. “Nail on the Head,” from Into the Wild (2011)

#4. “Easy Livin’,” from Demons and Wizards (1972)

#3. “Stealin’,” from Sweet Freedom (1973)

#2. “One Way Or Another,” from High and Mighty (1976)

#1. “Waters Flowin’,” from Living the Dream (2018)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #26: Cat Stevens

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who He Is: A man of multiple names and career phases, born in England of Greek Cypriot and Swedish ancestry, and christened Steven Giorgiou by his parents. In the mid-1960s, he began performing as Cat Stevens, recognizing (probably correctly) that his “ethnic” name was not going to be a draw or a grab in the venues and idioms that he wished to play. He quickly rose to (UK) chart-topping prominence as a prototypical and stereotypical Carnaby Street pop star, with multiple successful singles culled from a pair of fine, richly-orchestrated (bordering on over-wrought) albums. In 1969, Stevens contracted tuberculosis and spent over a year in convalescence and spiritual reflection. His career re-launched in 1970 with the Mona Bone Jakon album, a stripped-down folk record that put the focus squarely on Stevens’ voice and songs. It also marked his first collaboration with guitarist Alun Davies (more on him below), and featured a young Peter Gabriel playing flute on one track. Over the next eight years, Stevens issued eight studio albums, one live record, and a hugely-successful Greatest Hits collection, cementing his commercial and critical reputation as one of the era’s finest singer-songwriters. In the late 1970s, Stevens converted to the Muslim faith, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and retired from the music industry. He sadly became something of a cultural pariah in the the early 1990s based on reported comments about the fatwa imposed on author Salman Rushdie. Many years later, he stated that his remarks at the time were the result of leading questions posed by a journalist to a man young and naive in his new faith, and that he regretted and rebuked any interpretations of his words that supported a bounty on the head of the (in)famous author of The Satanic Verses. His public life, on a macro basis, has included so much goodness and so much charity that I accepted and continue to accept his explanation and apology in good faith. In 2006, Yusuf returned to the pop music world with the release of his An Other Cup album; he has since released four additional studio albums, and (pre-COVID) had returned to touring in secular venues, after decades of only recording and performing in religious settings.

When I First Heard Him: Probably on AM radio in the early 1970s, though my deepest connection to him came a bit later. As was the case with Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Bee Gees (among others), my father’s cassette tape collection served to get me obsessed with the artist in question, in this case through Stevens’ 1975 Greatest Hits collection. I loved it to pieces, and I know that the first one of his albums that I bought (as a vinyl record, not as a tape) with my own money was Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974), which probably remains my favorite of his classic-era albums to this day. I also scored the guitar/vocal music book for that Greatest Hits album, and spent a lot of time playing and singing those songs, both for myself and for others. One Cat-related incident sticks to mind above all others: I was asked by my church’s youth pastor to offer a solo acoustic version of Stevens’ arrangement of “Morning Has Broken” at a sunrise Easter service in a town park on Long Island, some time in the late ’70s. I did so, and it went down gangbusters, if I say so myself. After my opening performance before the rising sun and the church’s large congregation, the grown-ups got down with getting their faith on, while I slipped into the nearby woods with my girlfriend of the time, where we made out in the chilly morning dew. Who says the spiritual and the physical can’t occupy the same times and spaces, if we really want them to?

Why I Love Him: Steven/Cat/Yusuf has a great, emotive voice, generally deployed in the service of deeply-melodic, thematically-sensitive songs with ear-worm caliber hooks and smart lyrics. His AM radio hits are mostly great, but some of the deep-cut tracks on his classic-era albums offer the greatest return on listening investment. I must note that the very best Cat Stevens albums and songs are the ones that he recorded with his core ’70s band/team: guitarist Alun Davies, drummer Gerry Conway, keyboardist Jean Roussel, bassist Bruce Lynch, and producer Paul Samwell-Smith. Lots of solo artists (David Bowie comes to mind, for example, with his Davis-Murray-Alomar-Visconti team) have long and fulfilling careers working with an evolving cast of supporting players, though one era clearly rises above all others in terms of recording and concert quality, because the typically-anonymous musicians who work on behalf of their marquee-named group leaders make collective and collaborative magic together, without ever receiving the critical credit they are due. Cat Stevens’ 1970s band was a killer ensemble of that variety, and every one of my Top Ten Cat Tracks below features some combination of that team, hitting it out of the park, over and over again.

#10. “Peace Train” from Teaser and the Firecat (1971)

#9. “On the Road to Find Out” from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)

#8. “Lady D’Arbanville” from Mona Bone Jakon (1970)

#7. “Where Do The Children Play” from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)

#6. “Trouble” from Mona Bone Jakon (1970)

#5. “Majik of Majiks” from Numbers: A Pythagorean Theory Tale (1975)

#4. “Music” from Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974)

#3. “Longer Boats” from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)

#2. “Sitting” from Catch Bull at Four (1972)

#1. “Sun/C79” from Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #25: The Bee Gees

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Were: Barry, Maurice and Robin were “The Brothers Gibb,” born of English parents on the Isle of Man, emigrants to Australia in childhood, from whence their global pop success unfolded, in various waves, with various soaring highs and crushing lows along the way. The Bee Gees are estimated to have sold at least 120 million albums over their long career run, making them one of the most successful musical acts that the world’s markets have ever known. 1977’s Saturday Night Fever soundtrack marked their commercial high-water mark, but the post-disco backlash against it turned them into loathed caricatures, and they never really recovered, emotionally, creatively, or financially, from that unjust obloquy under their own brand name, though they did have tremendous success in later years as producers and songwriters for other artists, e.g. Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, etc. Twin brothers Maurice and Robin both died before their allotted times (as did younger brother Andy Gibb, who had been officially branded the fourth Bee Gee just before his passing), leaving Barry as the sad sole survivor of his family’s incredible creative business. The 2020 documentary How Can You Mend a Broken Heart provides an outstanding overview of their entire career, and I commend it to you highly, especially if your brain immediately starts doing John Travolta’s “Stayin’ Alive” dance any time you hear the words “Bee Gees.” There’s so much more to their fascinating story, and you owe it to yourself, and to them, to know it.

When I First Heard Them: My dad had the 1969 compilation album Best of Bee Gees on cassette tape (he got into that technology well before most folks did, during his active duty Marine Corps time in Japan), and that tape used to play a lot around our house in its time, so I am guessing that was when and how I first heard them. That great introductory album provided an overview of their earliest pop successes, and also of their stellar original band, which featured Vince Melouney on lead guitar and Colin Peterson on drums; Maurice was the bassist/keyboardist for the group, Barry usually played guitar, and Robin generally restricted himself to vocals. After a fallow commercial period, which included Robin’s brief departure from the group, the Bee Gees re-emerged as superstars on American pop radio around 1975 with the R&B-infused Main Course album and its attendant singles, which also marked the debut of the signature falsetto singing style that defined their commercial apogee, and the emergence of their second great band, with Blue Weaver on keyboards, Alan Kendall on guitar, and Dennis Bryon on drums. I’d have been listening to American Top Forty regularly in those days, rooting for their singles as they climbed the charts, feeling smart that I knew the group’s back story, when most of my friends would have perceived them as some hot new pop item. Saturday Night Fever was utterly ubiquitous during my Mitchel Field years, inspiring both deep affection and deep dismay within my friendly cohort; it wasn’t my favorite of their records, then or now, but I was happy to see them achieve that level of fame, even though the blow-back that followed was painful and sad to endure.

Why I Love Them: In 2012, around the time of Robin’s death, I wrote a post here called I Like The Bee Gees. It remains one of the more regularly-read items on my website all these years on, as I suppose there are a lot of other people out there who may search for that title, proud to admit their love and respect for a group that has received precious little of both attributes in recent decades. I don’t think I can improve on it in terms of tersely answering this question, so I encourage you to click over there to read it before I roll out my top ten favorite songs by the wonderful Gibb men, below.

#10. “Sweet Song of Summer,” from To Whom It May Concern (1972)

#9. “Sinking Ships,” from “Words”/”Sinking Ships” single (1968)

#8. “I.O.I.O.,” from Cucumber Castle (1970)

#7. “I’ve Gotta Get A Message to You,” from “I’ve Gotta Get A Message to You”/”Kitty Can” single (1968)

#6. “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” from Bee Gees 1st (1967)

#5. “Jive Talkin’,” from Main Course (1975)

#4. “Massachusetts,” from Horizontal (1968)

#3. “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You,” from Bee Gees 1st (1967)

#2. “I Started A Joke,” from Idea (1968)

#1. “Nights on Broadway,” from Main Course (1975)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #24: Reverend James Cleveland

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who He Was: Reverend James Cleveland (1931-1991) was, justifiably, known as “The King of Gospel Music.” The Chicago-bred singer, composer, pianist, arranger, and choir master gained growing acclaim through the 1950s for his formative work with The Gospelaires and The Caravans (the latter group including the extraordinary Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews and Dorothy Norwood, among others), before embarking on a long and prolific featured artist/solo career on Savoy Records in 1962. Reverend Cleveland’s instrumental arrangements were radically influential, incorporating R&B, soul, and jazz elements into traditional gospel idioms, and his work as a choir master was revelatory and transformative, eventually spawning the Gospel Music Workshop of America, which remains active to this day on a global basis. Aretha Franklin’s critically-revered 1972 live gospel album Amazing Grace was the best-selling release of her career, and also in the history of recorded gospel music. Reverend James Cleveland served as musical director, master of ceremonies, co-vocalist and pianist for that recording, shepherding the Southern California Community Choir and an ace backing band (including session legends Chuck Rainey, Cornell Dupree, and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie) through a mind-blowingly inspirational, emotional, and powerful set of songs, recorded over two nights at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. Reverend James remained active, prominent and influential until his death in 1991 of complications associated with HIV/AIDS, forcing a reckoning, of sorts, in the ways that churches have treated (and treat) their LGBTQ members. That reckoning obviously remains a work in progress to this day, but Reverend James Cleveland was a titanic presence in the history of modern gospel music, even if, in his time, and in his place, he could not fully disclose who he was and who he loved.

When I First Heard Him: During my early childhood, at my grandparents’ house in South Carolina. There were a fair number of gospel or gospel-adjacent records and (later) 8-track tapes around their house, and the one that I loved best was called James Cleveland Sings Song of Dedication (1965). Sometime in the ’80s, I found a big box of his classic Savoy Records albums on cassette tapes at a “fell off the truck” record warehouse, and bought something like 12 hours of his music for less than ten bucks. (Sings Songs of Dedication was one of those tapes). They were crappy quality recordings, but I played them to death, literally, mostly in the car when driving around on my own, singing along with Reverend James and his various choirs, loudly, enthusiastically, happily. When the digital era emerged, I replaced the few tapes that had survived, and acquired others, on various compact disc and music file formats, and I still play a big list of Reverend James’ best works regularly. Interestingly enough, Sings Songs of Dedication was the one record of his that I’ve searched for in digital formats for, literally, decades, and I’ve never seen it released with its original track listing (many of its songs came out elsewhere) in ways that I can readily play it in my current computer-based idiom — until this morning, when I was researching this article, and, on a whim, searched for that favorite record on iTunes, and was tickled to pieces to finally see it there. Hallelujah!

Why I Love Him: I actually wrote about this very question and its answers about 10 months ago, in the early days of this our Anno Virum, invoking the concept of “comfort music” to describe the resonance that Reverend James Cleveland holds for me to this day. Rather than re-typing those sentiments here, I’ll just send you over to that article for the back story. I’ll be here when you get back. Got it read? Good! Okay, so Reverend James may not have been the best gospel singer ever (his rough and ragged baritone is powerful and distinctive, if not pure and clear, and I suppose could be an acquired taste), nor the best pianist ever, nor the best arranger ever, but he was pretty darn good and boundary-pushing at all those things, had character to burn, and his music moves me in strange ways that few other performers’ catalogs can. As I’m searching for song files online to post my very favorite of Reverend James’ songs for this article, I do note that his later, more polished works are the most readily available, and that the same cuts from his later years seem to appear on a variety of greatest hits compilations, over and over again. But Reverend James Cleveland’s best work is his earlier, grittier stuff, where you often just get his voice, loads of skating-rink style swirly church organ (Billy Preston played with him for a while, before he started playing with the likes of the Beatles and the Stones), maybe a snare drum, usually a piano, and almost always a bold mass choir accenting those thrilling choruses. If you like Gospel Music, then Reverend James Cleveland is a must-listen. And if you don’t like it, then Reverend James Cleveland might make you change your mind. Give him a chance. He’s good, good, good. Amen. Selah. Right on. (Note: Reverend James’ massive discography is something of a mess, but I’ve tried to cite the earliest source recordings for the ten songs in my list below).

#10. “Something’s Got A Hold of Me,” from He’s So Divine (1959?)

#9. “Get Right Church,” from Crown Prince of Gospel (1967)

#8. “Meeting Tonight,” from “Lord Do It”/”Meeting Tonight” single (1962?)

#7. “God Can Do Anything But Fail,” from Today (1959)

#6. “Old Ship of Zion,” from The Soul of James Cleveland (1962)

#5. “Plenty Good Room,” from Crown Prince of Gospel (1967)

#4. “It’s Real,” from James Cleveland Sings Songs of Dedication (1965)

#3. “No Cross, No Crown,” from I Stood On The Banks of the Jordan (1963)

#2. “Lord Do It,” from “Lord Do It”/”Meeting Tonight” single (1962?)

#1. “Wondering,” from James Cleveland Sings Songs of Dedication (1965)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #23: Pink Floyd

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Were: Pioneering psychedelic rockers turned progressive music titans turned arena rock superstars turned fierce litigants and creative combatants turned cultural icons of deep and lasting significance. The group’s formative members began playing together as early as 1962, with their original break-through line-up of Roger “Syd” Barrett, Roger Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason coalescing around 1965. The group’s live shows were epic and highly acclaimed, and their early singles and debut album (1967’s The Piper At The Gates of Dawn) have come to carry legendary and hugely influential stature. Barrett’s mental health deteriorated rapidly after their popular ascendance, and David Gilmour was brought in as a fifth member to support and supplement the group’s fading luminary. After one album as a five-piece (1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets), Barrett left the group, and Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason went on to achieve massive global success as both an innovative studio act and a truly powerful live draw. Their 1973 concept album The Dark Side of the Moon charted on the Billboard Top 200 Albums list for over 950 weeks, and it remains an audiophile’s dream, with incredible textures, production, engineering, songs and performances, along with a smart and timeless libretto that has spoken deeply, richly and meaningfully to generations of young people. Waters eventually (and somewhat unilaterally) assumed a lead songwriting and public spokesperson role for the group, which began to fracture around the time of 1979’s blockbuster release The Wall, when Wright was pushed out, largely at Waters’ direction. 1983’s The Final Cut was essentially a Waters solo album, with Gilmour and Mason being sidelined and supplemented by studio session players. After that album, Waters left the group, assuming that the other members would retire the name and get on with their own solo careers. He was wrong in that estimation, as Gilmour and Mason brought Wright back into the fold and soldiered on for for three more studio albums and countless live shows under the Pink Floyd moniker. It was a culturally controversial move that resulted in years of litigation, eventually, essentially, settled in Gilmour’s favor. Many fans still decry the Waters-less Floyd, but (to be fair) Gilmour’s voice and guitar were every bit as important to the classic-era Floyd sound as Waters’ songs and lyrics were. I think a lot of people presumed that because Waters wrote the words and much of the band’s music, he was the “front man” lead singer of the group, most of the time. That was never true, as he was but one (and the weakest) of three regular vocalists in the group, and to my ears, the greatest, truest magic of the Pink Floyd sound was the ways in which Wright’s and Gilmour’s keyboards, guitars, and vocals worked together, while presenting Waters’ certainly brilliant songs. Wright died in 2008 of cancer, but he spent his final years touring in Gilmour’s solo band, and they were truly special and wonderful together, always.

When I First Heard Them: My introduction to the group was through the breakthrough (in America) lead single “Money” from The Dark Side of the Moon, which I no doubt would have heard on American Top Forty and the types of pop radio stations that aired it, as it rose up the charts during the summer of 1973. Sometime soon after that, I was in South Carolina with my family, and we visited someone in Savannah, Georgia (presumably a relative, or maybe some friends of my parents, though I can’t remember who it was, exactly) for an afternoon party-type gathering, and as the adults chatted and drank and smoked (as they all did at the time) in the main part of the house, the few kids there (of whom I was the oldest) were sent to the rumpus room den-type space to amuse ourselves. There was a Baldwin Fun Machine organ there, and I noodled away on that for awhile, before deciding to explore my host’s record collection, while wearing their choice ’70s can-style headphones. Their album rack included an odd black gate-fold record with a cool prism and rainbow design on it. I didn’t actively make the connection that it was the album that contained “Money” until I got to side two and the extended version of that song (better than the radio edit, by a long shot) rolled out. That was cool, but by that point, I was already deeply sold on the music, the message, and the group that created the utterly brilliant The Dark of the Moon and unleashed it on the world. I bought the 8-track tape version of the album soon after getting home from that trip, and it has remained a favorite in every format all these years on, opening doors to the rest of the Floyd’s tremendous catalog along the way. When The Wall came out in 1979, Waters conceived of an over-the-top stage show that was so complicated that it only played two venues in the United States in its initial run, one in Los Angeles, and the other (Nassau Coliseum) in Long Island’s Uniondale, less than a mile from my high school home at Mitchel Field. In those pre-Internet/Ticketmaster days, physical proximity to the box office was gold, and as soon as ticket sales opened for that show, me and a few buddies raced over to the venue on our bikes and snagged our seats. It was one of the most amazing live events I’ve ever seen.

Why I Love Them: Many times over the years here, I’ve noted that there are three guitar players who make up my most-revered Holy Trinity of String-Benders: Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Paul Leary (Butthole Surfers), and David Gilmour. Now, add to that level of personal devotion the fact that Gilmour is also a truly exceptional singer, and that he had an utterly perfect vocal and instrumental foil in Rick Wright for most of Pink Floyd’s peak run, and you’ve already got a special group of note in my pantheon. But then, add in Roger Waters’ conceptual and lyrical work, which was highly poetic, profound, and provoking when he was at his best, and that takes things to an even higher level of acclaim in my book. And then, of course, there’s Nick Mason, the only member of the group to have served on every album and every tour from Pink Floyd’s inception to its demise. Is he a favorite drummer of mine? No, but he was just right for the roles he needed to play, and he seemed to have been the genial glue that held the other fractious elements of the band in some form of nominal stability, and that’s a truly important role in a long-term creative group dynamic, and worthy of value and praise. I’m probably something of a Floyd heretic in that I think that much of the recorded evidence of Syd Barrett’s time in the group has not aged particularly well, and with a couple of exceptions, I don’t much listen to many cuts from his era. But his early creative sparks and the tragedy of his later life are big parts of the Floyd story, whether one still likes his work or not, and that’s important too. When you get down to brass tacks, Pink Floyd could rock you hard on one song, then make you trip balls (with or without drugs) on the next, all with utterly pristine and magical studio sound, while making you think about things that popular rock groups rarely sing about, and almost never with such eloquence. Has there ever been a better “Headphone Band”? I think not. When I wrote my long form Best of the Blockbusters article in 2010, attempting to divine which of the world’s highest selling albums was the best from quality and content standpoints, I ended up selecting The Dark Side of the Moon, and that choice still feels right, and true, and accurate. I also selected David Gilmour’s Rattle That Lock as my Best Album of 2015. When I did the original Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series, the two groups that it most pained me to exclude were COIL and Pink Floyd, who have given me decades of regular musical joy, even if they were never quite my most favorite bands at any particular point in time. I now feel better having rectified those omissions.

#10. “Astronomy Domine” (Live Version) from Ummagumma (1969)

#9. “Brain Damage/Eclipse” from The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) (Note: I am probably cheating by counting this as a single song, but it tracks that way, and you can’t play one without the other).

#8. “Sheep” from Animals (1977)

#7. “The Hero’s Return” from The Final Cut (1983)

#6. “Comfortably Numb” from The Wall (1979)

#5. “Wish You Were Here” from Wish You Were Here (1975)

#4. “Run Like Hell” from The Wall (1979)

#3. “Free Four” from Obscured By Clouds (1972)

#2. “Fearless” from Meddle (1971)

#1. “Us And Them” from The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)