Journey to the Center of the Mind – The Amboy Dukes
Monday song of the day: Today’s song is a slice of 1960s psychedelia that comes from an unexpected source.
In 1967, The Amboy Dukes were recording their second album, and since the psychedelic sound was all the rage, two members of the band decided to write a song that describes LSD usage – or at the very least tapped into the psychedelic feel of the era. It was titled Journey to the Center of the Mind and became the title track to that album, which was released in 1968. Being a big fan of the Yardbirds, the two writers based the song on the style of that band. The second guitarist of The Amboy Dukes, Steve Farmer, wrote the lyrics, with Journey to the Center of the Mind clearly referring to using drugs to “expand your mind,” as they said at the time.
The music was written by the main guitar player and founder of The Amboy Dukes, Ted Nugent. Yes, the Motor City Madman himself, before he went solo. Nugent has often talked about being drug free, and he later claimed that he didn’t know that the song was about LSD. Given how obvious the lyrics are, and that the topic was such a big deal at the time, I doubt his claim. My guess is he knew what the song was about and didn’t care. A good song is a good song, and the band’s first album was not a hit. I doubt he much cared what the song was about as long as it sold well.
Journey to the Center of the Mind did in fact sell well. It was the only hit for The Amboy Dukes, and reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Since then, the song has been covered a few times, including versions by Slade and The Ramones.
While the song was a hit, The Amboy Dukes never had another. The band continued and recorded a few more albums, but gradually became more and more just a backing band for Ted Nugent, until he ended The Amboy Dukes in 1975 and continued as a solo act. It was shortly after this that he achieved his biggest success.
Tuesday song of the day: Today’s song originated in German theater during the Weimar Republic, but now most people associate it with rock legends.
Alabama Song was written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in 1925 for the short opera Mahagonny-Songspiel (commonly known in English by the title Little Mahagonny.) Little Mahagonny was first staged in 1927, and its concepts and songs were later expanded into the full opera Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahogonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) in 1930.
While most of the opera was in German, Alabama Song had English lyrics. Brecht wrote the lyrics in German, and his friend Elisabeth Hauptmann translated them into English. Kurt Weill wrote the music for Brecht’s lyrics.
In the opera, the song is sung by the character Jenny, and other prostitutes. Jenny was played by Lotte Lenya, who was Kurt Weill’s wife. She recorded the song numerous times over her career.
In the 1930s, as the Nazi party was taking over Germany, Weill and Lenya left the country. In 1933 Lenya lived in Paris, and in 1935 Weill and Lenya moved to New York. Weill died in 1950, but Lotte Lenya continued her acting career, winning a Tony Award for a stage production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera in 1956 and being nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1961 for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Despite these accolades, she is best remembered for her role as Rosa Kleb in the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love.
Her name is also familiar to a lot of people because it is mentioned in the hit song Mack The Knife. In 1956 Louis Armstrong recorded the Brecht-Weill classic both by himself and as a duet with Lotte Lenya. In the list of Macheath’s female conquests, Armstrong added Lenya’s name in place of one of the characters in the play. Several later versions recorded by other artists kept the addition, including the huge hit recorded by Bobby Darin in 1959 where he added “Look out for Miss Lotte Lenya!” (The Bobby Darin recording of Mack the Knife was Song of the Day for July 31st, 2014 – Mack the Knife – Bobby Darin )
Most people these days who are aware of Alabama Song know it as a song by The Doors, who are only one of the many artists who have covered the song. They recorded it for their 1967 debut album, The Doors. This version was listed as Alabama Song (Whisky Bar) and changed some of the original lines, such as replacing the original “For we must find the next pretty boy” to “Show me the way to the next little girl.” The Doors also cleaned up the musical arrangement, replacing the intentionally staggering music written to be sung by fictional drunken prostitutes in a play with a more solid and straightforward tune. It was never released as a single in the United States but was in a few other countries. It rose to #3 in France in 1967.
David Bowie also covered Alabama Song, and as a fan of Bertolt Brecht, his version was more faithful to the original than the Doors’ cover. Bowie returned to the drunken, meandering nature of the music from the operatic origins of the song. Hell, he went much further over the top than the Lotte Lenya version. He had performed the song in concert, then recorded a studio version in 1978, finally releasing this version as a single in 1980. It was not released in the United States, but did reach #23 in the United Kingdom.
Lotte Lenya backed by “The Three Admirals”, 1930
The Doors, 1967
David Bowie, 1980
David Bowie, live performance in Berlin, 2002. Included because he’s obviously having fun performing the song.
Wednesday song of the day: Today’s song of the day is one of the many songs over the years that dealt with a specific dance. Of course, the biggest of these was The Twist by Chubby Checker. There were many dance craze hits in the 1960s, including Wu-Watusi by The Onions, The Locomotion by Little Eva, and of course the numerous dances listed in Cannibal and the Headhunters’ Land of 1000 Dances. More recently, we have had Macarena by Los del Rio and Gagnam Style by Psy.
Tighten Up is less remembered as a dance craze today than it is as one of the earlier hit songs in the Funk genre. It was released in 1968 by Archie Bell & the Drells. The music originated with a group called The T.S.U. Tornadoes. They had performed the instrumental at shows in the Houston area and it was popular. They then brought the music to Archie Bell to write lyrics around. That he did, while also creating a dance to go with the song. Put together, the song and the dance became The Tighten Up.
The record was released in March of 1968, and by May it had sold over a million copies. It quickly rose up the charts, topping out at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Shortly after its release, Archie Bell was drafted into the Army. Although he was not available to record new material, with Tighten Up proving such a big hit, the record company wanted to release an album to capitalize on the song’s success. The band used previously recorded tracks from 1967 to flesh out the album, which was also titled Tighten Up.
After Archie Bell returned from his stint in Vietnam, he and the Drells had a few more hits, but none rose to the heights that Tighten Up had.
Thursday song of the day: Today’s song of the day was a hit, but not the first time it was released. The singer went solo, did a remix of his previous band’s record, and Presto!, scored himself a hit to kick off his solo career.
Generation X was a band formed in 1976 by a group of English fans inspired by the Sex Pistols. They were part of the “Bromley Contingent,” a group of Sex Pistols fans who lived in or near the city of Bromley that also included Siouxie Sioux and others who would form Siouxie and the Banshees. Generation X was founded mainly by William Broad, a guitar player and singer who went by the alias Billy Idol. His friend John Towe played drums, and Idol recruited Tony James on bass through an ad placed in Melody Maker magazine.
Generation X recorded three studio albums from 1978 to 1981. The last of these was Kiss Me Deadly, which included today’s song of the day. By that time, the band had undergone some personnel changes and had rebranded itself as Gen X.
While the album was released in January 1981, one of its songs was released earlier. The single Dancing With Myself was released in October 1980 and performed poorly in the United Kingdom, topping out at only #62 on the UK charts. It wasn’t even released as a single in the United States.
The song was written by Idol and Tony James, and was inspired by something they saw during a 1979 Generation X tour in Japan. In a Tokyo disco, they saw people dancing with their reflections in the mirrors that lined the walls rather than other people. Noting the social isolation, they wrote the song Dancing With Myself to highlight the loneliness of society.
After the commercial failure of the Kiss Me Deadly album and the Dancing With Myself single, the band broke up. Billy Idol immediately started a solo career, and his first record was a remix of Dancing With Myself. Keith Forsey lowered the levels on the guitars and bass, while elevating the singing and the drums. It was labeled as being performed by “Billy Idol featuring Generation X,” and kickstarted Idol’s solo career.
The remixed version was released and rose to #27 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. While it failed to make the overall Billboard Hot 100 Chart, the video of the song received heavy airplay on MTV and established Idol as a star in the growing New Wave genre.
Friday song of the day: Yes, in the 1960s and early 70s, bell bottom pants were a thing. They looked really stupid, but then so did a lot of clothes in the hippie era. Today’s song refers to bell bottoms, but it is really about the torment of unrequited love.
After playing a backing role with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends in late 1969 and early 1970, Eric Clapton found that he enjoyed not being the center of attention. With this in mind, he started a band in which he would not be the sole focus. Eventually he settled on the name Derek and the Dominos for the band, except that “Derek” was actually Eric.
Starting in August 1970, the band began recording songs for what would become the classic double album Layla and other Assorted Love Songs. As the album title suggested, Layla was the standout song, and has since become an iconic recording of the era. Nevertheless, Bell Bottom Blues is also a damn fine song.
Like several songs on the album, including Layla, Bell Bottom Blues is about Pattie Boyd. Clapton had fallen in love with her, but unfortunately, at the time she was married to Clapton’s friend George Harrison. Needless to say, this placed Clapton in an awkward situation.
Boyd was one of the top models of the 1960s, and inspired Harrison to write several songs about her, including the Beatles hit Something. She married Harrison in 1966, and they eventually divorced in 1977. In 1979, she married Clapton. Oddly, Eric Clapton and George Harrison remained friends after all of this. In 1989, she divorced Clapton, citing problems related to his alcoholism.
Bell Bottom Blues was released as a single in 1971 and reached #91 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 1973, it was rereleased, this time charting at #78. Since the Derek and the Dominos project was short-lived, and the band was only active in 1970 and 1971, the rerelease was not credited to Derek and the Dominos like the original release. Instead, the 1973 record was credited to Eric Clapton, with the notation that it was produced and arranged by the Dominos.
Tomorrow: On a moonlight night you got your dead toad frog
Saturday song of the day: The inspiration that caused me to select today’s song of the day was something I smelled the other day while driving to Bowling Green State University to attend a class. About 5 miles out of town, I noticed that unmistakable odor of skunk and immediately thought of this song.
Yes, it’s a novelty song about stinky roadkill, but I liked it in 1972, and I still like it today.
Loudon Wainwright III has had only one hit in his long career, and it was inspired by running over an already dead skunk. He says he wrote Dead Skunk (often erroneously identified as Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road after its repeated lyric) in about twelve minutes. It was included on his third album and released as a single in November 1972. By early 1973, it had risen to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Wainwright never had another song hit the charts, but he has had a long musical career, recording 26 studio albums. His fame from Dead Skunk also aided in starting a sideline as an actor, starting with a recurring role in the classic TV series M*A*S*H as the singing Captain Spaulding. (The name of the character likely stemmed from Groucho Marx’s character in Animal Crackers, immortalized in that film’s song Hurray for Captain Spaulding, which was song of the day for September 28th, 2019. Hooray for Captain Spaulding – Groucho Marx ) This led to other roles, and Wainwright occasionally turns up in television shows and movies to this day.
Wainwright felt that having a novelty song as his only hit may have held back his career, saying. “So I became the ‘funny-animal-guy songwriter.’ Which got to be a drag after a while. But I certainly made a lot of money that year.” Eventually he came to terms with it though. “It was nice to have a hit. It’s fun to have a hit. It’s really fun to be driving around and listen to yourself on the radio, and boy, that record got a lot of airplay at that time. So I’ve enjoyed that, but I don’t think it’s one of my best songs.”
Tomorrow: It’s so nice to have you back where you belong
Sunday song of the day: Once again I’ll delve into one of the records I remember from my early childhood for song of the day. This one is a show tune covered by one of the 20th Century’s musical giants.
It’s difficult to overstate just how important Louis Armstrong was to the popularizing of jazz music. From the 1920s until his death in 1971, he was one of the most influential writers and performers in the genre. As a composer, trumpet and cornet player, and singer, he had few peers. Known worldwide as “Satchmo” (short for Satchel Mouth), he was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and by the 1950s and 1960s had crossed over to mainstream international superstardom.
When I was growing up, one of the records that my parents had was his 1964 album Hello Dolly! I remember playing it often. When it was released, I would have been five years old.
In 1964, the musical Hello Dolly! opened on Broadway, starring Carol Channing in the title role. Prior to the opening, the show’s music publisher asked Armstrong to record the song to help promote the musical. Satchmo’s recording was released as a single, and shortly thereafter as the centerpiece of an album of the same name. The record was an instant hit, spending 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and peaking at #1 in May 1964. It ended up as the third highest ranked song of the year, trailing only I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You by The Beatles. Quite a feat by a 60+ year old jazz artist at the height of Beatlemania.
While artistically Hello Dolly! was not one of Armstrong’s iconic works, it was his biggest hit. He went on to appear as himself in a cameo for the motion picture adaptation of Hello Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand in 1969.
1964 studio recording
Louis Armstrong on What’s My Line?, promoting Hello Dolly!, March 1964
With Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film adaptation of Hello Dolly!
Tomorrow: Your kisses are as wicked as an F-16
Monday song of the day: I have to admit it: I had a massive crush on Liz Phair. But then, didn’t every heterosexual guy in the 1990s? Hell, I still do.
After bursting onto the scene with the critically praised Exile in Guyville in 1993, Liz Phair released a follow-up album, Whip-Smart in 1994. While apparently Phair had a difficult time following up the breakthrough that was Exile in Guyville and the critics didn’t gush quite so hard over Whip-Smart, I really like the album. I especially like the first single from the album, Supernova.
What’s not to like in a song that includes such lyrics as “Your kisses are as wicked as an F-16” and “And your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub’s bare wet ass”? It’s just an over-the-top song describing a new love, and it’s perfect.
Supernova hit #6 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart and the video received heavy airplay on MTV, but in the end it was only a minor hit, reaching #78 on the overall Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The video censored one word of the lyrics. The original recording featured the line “and you fuck like a volcano” but the offending F-word was edited out of the video. It wasn’t bleeped. Liz just shrugged her shoulders and it wasn’t sung.
Tomorrow: On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man