"Night Music:" NBC's high-art answer to MTV 

http://www.culturesonar.com/nightmusic/

For two seasons on NBC (1988-1990) David Sanborn hosted "Night Music," showcasing the finest musicians in jazz, rock, R&B, the blues and everything in between. My final CultureSonar piece for 2017 celebrates this ground-breaking TV series, a "vortex of music and love" that marks a peak moment in American cultural excellence.

I wish you all nothing but the best of health and happiness for 2018; see you on the next one! 

Be well

JM

10 Quintessential Bass Lines in ’80s Pop 

http://www.culturesonar.com/10-quintessential-bass-lines-80s-pop/

A young man and his Peavey Fury bass, circa 1987.  What music inspired this fine youngster to pick up a bass guitar and learn how to play?  How were his sensibilities formed about what the function of the bass ought to be (supportive AND melodic)? 

Like, click the link to find out in my latest totally awesome CultureSonar piece, "10 Quintessential Bass Lines In 80s Pop!" 

Be well

JM

RINGO STARR Birthday Tribute highlights!  

We celebrated Ringo Starr's 77th birthday with a full set of his solo hits and some choice Beatles cuts.  Many thanx to my incredible band of stellar musicians: Bennett Paster (keys), Benny Landa (guitar), Anthony Babino (guitar), Steven Babino (bass) and Ethan Eubanks (drums).  Thanx also to all of you who came out and celebrated with us that night, and to Steve Walter and the full staff of The Cutting Room.  Enjoy these highlights! 

Be well

JM

 

Defending My Defense Of Dave Dexter Jr!  

Being a freelance writer in the internet age is not for the faint of heart.  The court of public opinion has grown wider and more vicious than ever, with “comments” sections full of self-appointed thought leaders skewering anything and anyone that they disagree with.  But I’ve accepted the fact that when you offer creative works to “the public” there’s just gonna be people that don’t like what you do.  Also: eyeballs are eyeballs on the web whether they agree with me or not, and since I ultimately benefit from each new click, please fire away! 

Now, I would expect invective from strangers if I wrote about heavier topics like politics, crime, etc.  But I write mainly about The Beatles, and I’ve been shocked recently at a handful of my fellow Beat-ards whose love of The Fab Four has morphed into an intolerance for anything other than their own narrow viewpoint.  How could the band that sang “the love you take is equal to the love you make” attract fans who are so combative, rude, and short-sighted? 

“I don’t care what you think.”

“There’s no debate anymore.” 

”Totally stoopid.” 

Really? 

Case in point: my recent piece for CultureSonar, in defense of Dave Dexter Jr. (“Stop Knocking The American Releases Of The Beatles, Already.”)  In short, “Dex” was the Capitol Records executive that prepared The Beatles’ LPs for the American market in the 1960s.  My view is that Dex deserves more credit because those US albums stand on their own as fine cultural artifacts of their era.  But this disputes the prevailing narrative that Dex ignored the “creative intentions of the band,” and woe betide to anyone who tampers with the Fabs’ precious artistry! 

I expected some blowback because my opinion is the unpopular one.  But it was interesting to note just how quickly and easily the discussions would turn mean-spirited, thanks to the anonymity of the web; a group of Beat-ards gathered in person at a Fest For Beatles Fans would never get so defensive or belligerent.  Dex was called a “creep,” a “corporate stooge” and a “butcher.”  And at least one reader took the time to deconstruct my entire article, line for line, and refute every single point I made.  Some of these freedom fighters even started turning on each other, disagreeing about what they disagreed with me about!  (“You are greatly misinformed.” “Afraid not, read up on it.”) 

Again, the negativity did not affect me.  But I also didn’t let it go to my head when I saw all the folks who agreed with me 100% and thanked me for a well-written piece.  No, the feedback that I actually paid attention to was the only feedback that matters: the emails I received from Dave Dexter’s family. 

First it was Tyson Dexter, whose “Grandpa Dave” passed away when he was very young.  He thanked me for my accuracy, saying that the article “put a smile on the faces of my entire family.”  A few hours later, a second email came in from Dex’s eldest son, Mike.  “Thank you for actually getting my father's legacy correct,” he wrote.  “He has been criticized through the lens of today's technology by self-anointed purists.” 

When a name that you’ve only read on LP covers and in history books suddenly comes to life and reaches you as a result of something you wrote, it’s a beautiful feeling.  What the world needs now is love, and it’s the only thing I’m trying to pay any attention to! 

Dave Dexter, Jr. (Quotes from Tyson & Mike Dexter's emails used with permission.)

 

MESSAGE TO MILLENNIALS: LIVE MUSIC IS IMMERSIVE!  

The news about the Fyre Festival disaster spread fast.  Hordes of unsuspecting millennials who were promised a luxurious "VIP music experience" in the Bahamas were simply cheated out of thousands of dollars, and left stranded on an island with bad cheese sandwiches and wet mattresses.   

It's easy to assume that us forty-somethings are having a laugh at your generation's expense.  But the truth is, we actually admire (and envy) you millennials, for your mastery of rapidly-changing technology, your social consciousness and connectivity, and your spirit of adventure that drives you to seek out the most compelling experiences in life. 

So I speak to you today, not as a 45-year-old man, but as a professional musician who’s been on the grind paying bills with 4 strings and a smile since you were born.  I’ve played hundreds of dodgy gigs over the last two decades, and I’ve seen it all.  Sound, lighting and stage gear smaller than necessary or contractually-agreed-upon.  Crap food.  Shoddy, insufficient accommodations backstage, and even more dismal lodging after the gig.  But those memories fade and become great stories, and I ultimately find myself having some empathy for the promoters and organizers who put on these shows.  I don’t envy these poor souls, because Big Rock Shows involve meticulous, multifaceted planning and organizing I could never comprehend.  And honestly, as long as everybody gets paid and nobody gets injured, most musicians can hit the stage, rock asses, and go home happy having survived another night in show business. 

But for the “organizers” of the Fyre Festival, I have no such empathy.  And not just because they took money from a bunch unsuspecting young people and left them stranded, literally, on a f***ing island with no food or water.  (They say their “infrastructure wasn’t set up in time,”  but their infrastructure for accepting payment online was up and running immediately.  Their e-commerce A-game nearly caused a humanitarian crisis; nice work, bros.) 

No, what finally rocked me out of my schadenfreude stupor was the  promo video for the Fyre Festival, ironically being shared online like an invitation to the launch of the Titanic.  It features sexy models swan-diving off of yachts into crystal-clear blue water and “epic music festival” B-roll, as titles flash on the screen promising “AN IMMERSIVE MUSIC FESTIVAL” and “THE BEST IN FOOD, ART, MUSIC AND ADVENTURE.”  This is the short-sighted, ignorant nonsense that makes my blood boil. 

Listen to me very carefully: live music itself is an immersive experience.  Whether it’s a local club gig or a massive stadium spectacular, your body sharing a physical space with top-notch musicians kicking ass is about as “immersive” as it can get.  I know I’m not the first person to whine about bogus “VIP Concert Experiences” and I despise them as both a performer and as a concertgoer.  But my hope is that the Fyre Fiasco will finally be the tipping point that inspires savvy, adventure-craving millennials to discover what the Baby Boomers already know about: the raw power and magic of pure, high-quality Live Music. 

Here’s a true story about the “best in food, art, music and adventure.”  A few nights ago I went with a singer buddy of mine to see The Revolution at BB King’s in NYC.  I took the train from Brooklyn to Times Square, and met my buddy on the ticket-holders’ line.  It was a glorious, warm sunny day in Manhattan as we hung out with our fellow Prince-lovers on the street, including one guy who’d just come from “Celebration 2017” at Paisley Park.  We got inside and went to the bar, where I enjoyed some delicious BBQ chicken sliders and a nicely poured Jameson. 

We then stood on a crowded, sweaty dance floor surrounded by hundreds of our fellow black white latino asian gay straight butch femme queer trans cis whatever short tall New Yorkers, all of us coexisting peacefully, respecting each other’s space and getting happily funk’d by the pre-show DJ and then by The Revolution themselves.  Halfway through the set the band left the stage while Wendy & Lisa played “Sometimes It Snows In April” on just piano and acoustic guitar, and you could hear a f***ing pin drop as Wendy sang a tribute to her departed legendary friend with raw emotions that touched everybody in that room. 

After the show my buddy and I snuck backstage without any passes (I’ve played BB Kings a thousand times so I know where all the secret passageways are).  But security was tight.  Eventually a bouncer was politely but firmly escorting us out, but he unknowingly escorted us in a direction that brought us face-to-face with Wendy Melvoin.  With the bouncer’s hand still on my shoulder I told her what a Rock Goddess she’s been to me for thirty years.  She was sweet and gracious, shaking my hand and looking me in the eyes as she spoke, while 15-year-old me freaked the f*** out.  Seconds later, 45-year-old me said farewell to Wendy before the bouncer lost his patience.  My buddy and I got out of there and we grabbed some frappuccinos at Starbucks, laughing all the way into the downtown train. 

That, my friends, is an “immersive musical experience.”  My five senses were gratified beyond all expectations, and I have a fresh batch of memories that will last a lifetime.  And I didn’t even pass out from dehydration in a third world airport!  The total cost, including my concert ticket, food and drink, and round-trip subway ride was, I kid you not: $75. 

Dearest millennials, if you’re paying $1,000+ to watch a band from a massage table in an air-conditioned tent on a beach, you’re doing it wrong.  Trust me: save your money for buying real estate, and come back to the intangible, immeasurable, truly interactive and immersive experience of Real.  Live.  Music.

Do you really need anything more than this right here? 

CLASSIC BLOG - Sound And Fury: US Beatles Box Backlash (1.13.14) 

Several days ago I wrote a blog about the backlash toward the upcoming Beatles "US Albums" box set. In short: the source audio for these CDs will be the 2009 remasters done in the UK at Abbey Road, and not the original tapes mastered by Capitol Records in the US back in the 60s. 

Those Capitol mixes were done with the average 1960s American teenager’s turntable in mind, and under tight production deadlines.  As a result, American Beatles fans heard the music with extra compression, EQ, reverb, and the occasional "duophonic" (or “fake stereo") mix (more on this later).  And that's how we remember Beatles music sounding, for better or worse! 

So when Capitol announced that the 2009 UK remasters would be used for the "US Albums" box, many fans were outraged at what they perceived as a "rip-off."  My blog post sought to calm the fury a bit, telling these "outraged" fans to get over themselves: if they want to hear those US albums, they should dust off their old LPs and give them a spin on their turntables.  I posted the blog, got a fairly positive response, and that was the end of it. Or so I thought. 

All weekend long, the phrase "rip-off" kept going around in my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I couldn't figure out why it bothered me so much that these folks were complaining.  Meanwhile, I was bingeing on Beatles music, particularly the discs from both volumes of "The Capitol Albums" (released in 2004, utilizing the original US masters). 

And then it hit me: Rip-off?  What are you talking about? Those Capitol LPs were rip-offs to begin with!  Yes, we American fans have our sentimental attachments to US-only LPs like "Something New," "Beatles '65," and the imaginatively-titled "The Beatles Second Album."  But sense memories aside, let's face it: those LPs were always hodgepodges, "packaged in the US" like bagged spinach from China. 

Don't forget: despite being a subsidiary of EMI, Capitol Records rejected The Beatles for almost two years.  But over time, Beatles news (and sales figures) from the rest of the world couldn't be ignored.  So with an eye on the Almighty Dollar (and no input from the band or producer George Martin), Capitol started slapping Beatles LPs together with lightning speed and efficiency. 

For a start, the Capitol albums always had fewer songs on them.  This was for two basic reasons: to keep the group's royalty payments low, and to crank out more albums. (In the UK, singles never appeared on albums; this policy gave Capitol plenty of extra tracks to cobble together extra LPs in the US.)  Track listings were sequenced almost at random; cover art was equally slapdash, and the liner notes read like generic teenage ad copy written by a grownup who’d never listened to the music. ("AND HERE THEY ARE, SINGING AND PLAYING THEIR NEW COLLECTION OF HITS!") 

This is to say nothing of the way they sounded.  When tapes of the stereo mixes of "She's A Woman" and "I Feel Fine" didn't arrive from the UK in time for the scheduled release date, Capitol's engineers didn't wait.  They took the mono mixes, filtered the highs to one channel and the lows to the other, and washed the whole thing in reverb.  As a result, an entire generation of Beatles fans heard "She's A Woman" and "I Feel Fine" as if they were playing on a boombox at the bottom of an elevator shaft.  It wasn't until the 1988 release of the "Past Masters" CDs that we Americans heard the truth, the UK mixes initially being the template for Beatles compact disc releases. 

Let’s be honest: America has a proud history of presenting The Beatles sloppily and haphazardly.  We had goofy "interview" albums like "Hear The Beatles Tell All" and "The American Tour With Ed Rudy."  The American “A Hard Day's Night" soundtrack album released by United Artists is padded out with instrumental scores, some of which aren't even in the film.  (And Capitol's "Something New" LP even recycled five of those HDN songs!) The Beatles cartoon series produced by King Features didn't contain their real voices.  And the less said about a Capitol album called "The Beatles Story," the better. 

The very first sound American record buyers heard of The Beatles was a mistake, on an album called "Introducing The Beatles" released by Vee-Jay Records in January 1964 (before Capitol came to their senses).  The opening track, "I Saw Her Standing There," is missing the "one-two-three" of Paul's famous count-off, thanks to a sloppy edit by a careless American engineer.  Similarly, the very last sound they released was also an edit: applause from the live rooftop performance of "Get Back" grafted onto the studio take of the same song, closing out the "Let It Be" album (another hodgepodge LP "reproduced for disc" by Phil Spector under the aegis of Allen Klein, both Americans). 

But back to the forthcoming "US Albums" box: most of the people whining about the 2009 source audio will most likely play these CDs in their car, or copy them onto their computers for listening on desktop speakers and/or iPods.  The serious audiophiles will listen through home systems that are a million times better sounding than whatever audio gear they owned as teenagers in the 60s.  In other words, we'll never be able to completely replicate the "experience" of hearing those albums the way we did back in the day.  Yes, some wonderful sense memories will be activated.  But unless you play your old vinyl on your old system thru your old speakers, placed in the exact same position in your old bedroom in your parents' house as before, it's gonna sound different! 

Just for laughs, the other night I compared my 2004 CD of "Something New" from "The Capitol Albums Vol. 1" with the 2009 stereo remaster of "A Hard Day's Night."  There's no contest: the ’09 tracks are cleaner, bolder, fuller, alive and breathing as if they were recorded tomorrow.  The "Something New" disc is nice, but next to the 2009 disc it sounds like a color Xerox. 

If the highest-quality audio source available is being used, thus improving the listening experience, how can this be considered a rip-off?  And if the argument that the original product was something of a rip-off to begin with, can a slightly-improved re-packaging of said product also be considered a rip-off?  What metrics are we using to make this evaluation?  Are we concerned with the quality of the current product, or its authenticity in relation to the spurious item that it seeks to re-create?  Are these fans who are shouting "rip-off" upset because they're not being ripped off again today as they were then? 

I'm choosing to think of the "US Albums" box like a guitar company reissuing an old model.  My Fender Jazz Bass is a 1965 reissue, built in 1989.  The body shape, hardware, pickup configuration and paint job are all exactly the same as a Jazz Bass made in 1965, but it'll never sound exactly like a '65: the wood is 24 years younger, and bass amp technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the 1960’s.  But it's still a sweet axe that I love to play, so who cares?  Love is all you need.

CLASSIC BLOG: Sting's "THE LAST SHIP" review (5.22.14) 

Being a Sting fan hasn't always been easy.  Haters love to tell you how pretentious and self-indulgent they think he is, and how his solo work lacks the fire and passion of The Police.  But I disagree: I love the guy, and I love pretty much everything he's ever done. To me he's a Rock God: tall, handsome, supreme intellect, writes some of the best songs heard by human ears.  (He's also one of rock's most under-appreciated bassists, by the way.) 

But despite my man-crush, even my faith in Sting has been challenged over the last decade or so.  His last two albums of original music - 1999's "Brand New Day" and 2003's "Sacred Love" - were heavy on production polish but lacked focus and cohesion.  Arabic percussion here, muted trumpet over hip-hop beats there, gospel choir in 7/8, some guy rapping in French; I want Sting to show me his true feelings, not his passport stamps.  (But I will say that the 5.1 mix of "Brand New Day" is a sonic treat.) 

The "side projects" he's done since then have been mostly enjoyable.  2010's "Symphonicities" was simply his voice, his songs, and a symphony orchestra; what's not to love?  Same for 2009's "If On A Winter's Night," which is the closest we'll ever get to "A Jolly Christmas From Sting" (and thank god for that).  And I don't care what you say: I'm in love with 2006's "Songs From The Labyrinth," his tribute to English Renaissance composer and lutenist John Dowland.  Again, what's not to love?  Sting's husky tenor, growing richer with age, respectfully wraps itself around soaring melodies from Elizabethan England accompanied by master lutenist Edin Karamazov. 

But no new Sting compositions since 2003.  And there's nothing sadder than looking at one of your musical heroes and asking yourself the question: Has he lost it?  Has he dried up?  Will he simply be a "greatest hits" machine from now on? 

So when I heard that Sting would be writing a musical, I initially braced myself for the worst.  (“Sting's 'Roxanne!'  Now on Broadway; starring Kristin Chenoweth!”)  But then my fears were quelled and I exhaled: these would be new songs, and a story written with Tony-award winning book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey and director Joe Mantello.  The semi-autobiographical narrative would draw upon Sting’s working-class roots in Newcastle, and the shipyards that employed most of the men in his town (including his father). 

Now: any self-respecting Sting fan knows that this is not new territory.  In 1991 he released "The Soul Cages," a concept album composed after a lengthy writer's block brought on by his father's death in 1989.  Sting processed his grief with a song cycle full of imagery connecting his father to the sea, and the Newcastle shipyards.  Though not well-received at the time, "Soul Cages" has actually held up pretty well.  (It's my considered opinion that "Mad About You" is one of the best pop songs written by anyone, ever.) 

Having also read his splendid autobiography "Broken Music," I gained a deeper sense of where and what Sting comes from, and how his early life in Northern England helped to form the essential elements of his character.  He has stated more than once that the ships being built and then launched out to the world, never to return, seemed like a metaphor for his own life. 

With this in mind, I snapped up my CD copy of "The Last Ship" unhesitatingly.  But I was not prepared for how deeply moved by this music I would be.  I'll say it: "The Last Ship" is as magnificent as anything Sting has ever done.  It's simply that strong; like I-can't-get-some-of-these-songs-out-of-my-head strong.  Forget the modern media caricature of Sting in a castle doing tantric yoga; this is the Sting of "Ghost In The Machine" and "Synchronicity," equally comfortable spinning gorgeous, catchy melodies AND shouting at injustice with his fist in the air. 

Sting has said of writing a musical that "every couplet, every verse, every song, every character is constantly fighting for its life,” and he’s right: there's not one wasted note, lyric or sound on "The Last Ship."  Sting's gifts for captivating melodies, poetry and storytelling are sharper and more refined than ever, and his compelling narrative puts them all to great use. 

Rob Mathes' warm production and arrangements are a breath of fresh air as well; the "world" flavors and electronics that cluttered up "Brand New" and "Sacred" are gone, and Sting is back among sounds that actually exist in nature.  Longtime guitarist Dominic Miller anchors a superb rhythm section featuring drummer Joe Bonadio and bassist Ira Coleman, and a fine complement of fiddles and pipes evoke Newcastle's medieval history without being overbearing or descending into caricature. 

But make no mistake, the Geordie factor is high on "The Last Ship."  There's plenty of thick Newcastle accents, and lyrics like "woe betide ye if you're late," "we've got nowt else," "sweet bugger all," etc.  And that's fine: I'll take the rich amber ale of Newcastle over the cotton candy-flavored vodka that too much musical theater sounds like today.  Besides: anyone who's ever been a wage slave, dreamt of a better life, or been in love with someone who loves someone else will have no trouble relating to these characters.  Working class is working class, whether it's the South Bronx, East New York or the north of England. 

It was the UK’s working class that spawned the young men who would eventually storm America's shores with "British Invasion" rock and roll, a cultural force that turned the world on its ear and all but rescued Great Britain's economy after the Second World War.  Fellow Geordie Eric Burdon formed The Animals in the shadow of those same Newcastle shipyards.  Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle formed the nucleus of The Who in Acton, a suburb that was once home to a thriving automotive manufacturing industry.  And of course, the northern port town of Liverpool would receive ships returning from America loaded with rock and roll records; these found their way into the hands of the savage young Beatles. 

All of these working-class heroes simultaneously discovered what John Lennon once described as "another field of professionalism that doesn't need any qualifications except for you've gotta get down to it…and you can make it in the terms of the world, the terms they're talking about!”  ”The Last Ship" is fueled by the sentiment of that entire generation: standing up to authority, challenging social norms and expectations, refusing to follow in their fathers' footsteps up the hill toward grueling physical labor, and changing the world.  In choosing such a personal story, Sting has touched on something uniquely universal. 

Recently, Sting and his amazing band presented the "Last Ship" songs live at the Public Theater in New York, a performance that was filmed and broadcast on PBS's "Great Performances."  Watching this show was a revelation: at 63, Sting manned the stage like a shipyard's foreman.  Standing with one foot up on a wooden box, he belted out these killer new songs with the energy, grace and authority of a man half his age.  He also looked amazing, rugged and muscular in jeans and a grey t-shirt and buzzed hair cut.  (Okay, I’ve got a little man-crush;what's it to you?) 

"The Last Ship" sets sail on Broadway this fall, and you can bet that I will be in that theater singing along.  And I'll never allow anyone to tell me who to be a fan of, ever again.  Show some respect!

That Was Me.....?

It's the end of an era, but the beginning of a new one!

In 2004, one year after joining the Alan Parsons Live Project, I launched the first version of johnmontagna.com.  This was before the social media explosion; YouTube and Twitter were still a year away, and Facebook had only just launched.  Among my peers, I was "Future Boy" with my fancy website!  I shared photos and audio clips, blogged about my experiences on the road (and at home in NYC), sent out email blasts, and generally enjoyed the ability to "maintain a presence" with an audience beyond the bandstand.

Fast forward 12 years, and the world is a much different place.  We're all connected, all the time, thanks to multiple platforms that mostly co-exist and feed off of one another.  To quote The Guess Who: seasons change, and so did I.  And so it was time to re-boot johnmontagna.com for the times we're in now, versus a decade ago.  I welcome you to the new version of the site, and I hope you enjoy what you find here.  Check out the photos, listen to some music (and make a purchase if you're feeling generous), watch the videos, and keep up with where I'll be performing and when and with whom.

I'm as eager as ever to stay connected to you all as I enter this newest phase of my life and career.  But as I look forward, I also am looking back on the 12 years since I first launched my "online presence" with a mixture of wonder and nostalgia.  Is that really me in Tokyo with Denny Laine?  Or in Atlantic City with Todd Rundgren?  The "WTF With Marc Maron" theme song...that was ME?  

Enjoy, and thank you all for your continued support and enthusiasm.  
Be well
JM 



     
Sept. 22, 2016 TALKING BEATLES: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years ______________________________________________________________