Recent releases from the Neon Gold label out of New York include vinyls from Marina&amp; The Diamonds and Passion Pit, bands that emanate knife-sharp contemporary suss. The label's on a bit of a roll but when their latest, a 7'' single from Wolf Gang hits the deck, it's still a surprise.
'Pieces Of You' mingles and merges influences with ease, coming on like The Talking Heads produced by Phil Spector for a Greek bouzouki hoedown. Recorded at home on a four-track, it's a perfectly formed rough diamond and classic pop. "I couldn't care less about appealing to flippant, scenester people," explains the man behind Wolf Gang, 22 year old Max McElligott, with cheerful intensity, "Pop's had a bad name but it's high time it was brought back into the fold as meaningful and cool.&quot;
His four-piece band play regularly at under-the-radar gigs round London and he's putting the finishing touches to an album, much of which was composed on a piano left in the house where he lives by previous owner Clive Langer, producer of Madness and Morrissey.
Something dormant awoke when Max left home to attend the London School of Economics. Not so much due to Social Anthropology lectures, as the lavish house parties he organized and the sunny days spent squiring dates down the Thames in a rowing boat. He was drawn weekly to the speakeasy glamour of Cafe Royale's now defunct 1920s night, where he enjoyed swing-dancing A-list actresses into the early hours. His own parties even developed a well-deserved reputation- especially his notorious masked balls.
His musical blooming was revelatory, if less expected. A couple of years previously he and a friend put a couple of joke music videos on YouTube. They became a must-see sensation amongst their extended network of friends. When Max went to London he met people who'd seen them and encouraged him to write more music. As he did so, the penny dropped.
X signed with Elektra and in 1982, unleashed yet another masterpiece with Under The Big Black Sun, which saw the band beginning to incorporate elements of American roots music into their breakneck rockabilly punk rock. 1983’s More Fun In The New World – produced, like its predecessors, by Manzarek – bore a slightly more polished sound, as well as a Modern Rock radio hit in a high-velocity cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Breathless,” while standing out as a defining protest album of the Reagan era.
The band’s passion for hillbilly, folk, and country led to the formation of The Knitters, an acoustic side-project also featuring their longtime friend, Dave Alvin of The Blasters. X then parted ways with Manzarek to collaborate with Mötley Crüe/Dokken producer Michael Wagener on 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand! The album would be Zoom’s last with X, who then recruited Alvin for a fruitful but short-lived union that yielded 1987’s very fine See How We Are, the first X album to fully embrace a more traditional roots-rock approach.
Alvin amicably parted ways with X during the recording of See How We Are, and was replaced by ex-Lone Justice guitarist Tony Gilkyson, who appears on 1988’s blazing Live At The Whisky a Go-Go On The Fabulous Sunset Strip. The latter would be X’s last with Elektra, with the members pursuing solo careers – including Doe’s successful vocation as in-demand character actor – during what would become a series of long hibernations between new X projects.
Zevon’s popular breakthrough deservedly came with 1978’s Excitable Boy. The album – again helmed by Browne – made it to the top 10 on the Billboard 200 and earned RIAA platinum status on the strength of brilliantly macabre and sardonic rock ‘n’ roll tales like “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” and the all-time classic “Werewolves of London.” 1980’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School followed, further displaying Zevon’s tender heart and barbed humor on classics like “Jeannie Needs A Shooter” (co-written by longtime fan Bruce Springsteen) and “Gorilla, You’re A Desperado,” famously penned as a playful swipe at his pals, The Eagles, four of whom appear on the album.
Stand In The Fire, a ferocious live document, was followed by 1982’s The Envoy, the last album of Zevon’s long relationship with Asylum. Though it underperformed in its time, the powerfully cathartic collection eventually came to be appreciated as a lost classic and one of the finest of Zevon’s career.
Zevon, who had long battled alcoholism, then took a five-year hiatus from which he returned sober and reenergized, releasing a new series of acclaimed albums. In 2002, he was diagnosed with inoperable mesothelioma. However, he refused treatment and set to work on what would be his final album, 2003’s Grammy Award-winning The Wind. Warren Zevon died at his home in Los Angeles on September 7, 2003; he was 56.
At the 1987 WEA sales meeting in Miami, Elektra Chairman/CEO Bob Krasnow introduced his newest find, a young African-American singer/songwriter named Tracy Chapman. The Cleveland-born folksinger – who would have fit perfectly on Jac Holzman’s early Elektra roster – stood at the podium, alone with her guitar, and sang emotionally resonant songs with provocative titles like “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” Those assembled were blown away by Chapman’s passion and talent, but mainstream commercial potential? Not so much.
Krasnow, on the other hand, heard in Chapman an authentically original voice and personality, fresh and distinct from the current music scene. By the time the two returned to the annual WEA gathering the following August, Chapman’s self-titled Elektra debut album had proven an unlikely #1 phenomenon on the Billboard 200, highlighted by the top 10 pop hit, “Fast Car.” Ultimately certified six-times platinum by the RIAA, Tracy Chapman also earned Chapman her first two Grammy Awards, for “Best Contemporary Folk Album” and “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.”
The album should have been impossible to follow, but 1989’s Crossroads proved an inspired, platinum-certified second act. Matters of the Heart was released in 1992, followed three years later by New Beginning, featuring the platinum-certified single, “Give Me One Reason,” a top 3 hit on Billboard’s “Hot 100” and 1996 Grammy Award winner for “Best Rock Song.”
Two further Elektra releases followed before Chapman made her Atlantic Records debut with 2007’s Where You Live. Hailed as being among the most powerful works of her career, the acclaimed collection fully ratified Tracy Chapman’s continuing status as pop’s preeminent folk voice.
Signed to Asylum a year before its merger with Elektra, Tom Waits was certainly cut from a very different cloth than his other SoCal singer/songwriter labelmates – with musical stories that were much more about the low life of Skid Row than the high life of Hotel California. Steeped in jazz, folk, and blues, he introduced his trademark gravelly voice on his 1973 debut album, Closing Time, followed by The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), and Nighthawks at the Diner (1975).
Having won critical acclaim and built a modest but rabid following, Waits broke into the lower reaches of the top 100 on the Billboard album chart with the 1976 release of Small Change, which lurches through a whiskey haze and survives to tell the tale in jazz poetry. The cover – shot by the late Joel Brodsky (whose iconic images were used on nine Doors album covers for Elektra) – captures the album’s essence in a photograph of Waits hanging out in a strip club dressing room with a barely covered dancer. Full of eccentric characters and vivid portrayals of late-night bars and down-and-out patrons of the “arts,” the album’s novelistic approach stands out in songs like “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen),” “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” “Pasties and a G-String,” and “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me).”
Small Change proved that despite the massive commercial success of acts like The Eagles – who covered Waits’s “Ol’ 55” for On The Border – Elektra/Asylum still offered a home for quirky, one-of-a-kind, offbeat geniuses. Waits recorded three more albums for the label – Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978), and Heart Attack and Vine (1980), while also beginning an accomplished parallel career as a film actor.
Greenwich Village not only became a magnet for songwriters, it also attracted interpreters of folk and country blues. Nobody did it better than Tom Rush, a thoughtful, immaculate stylist, exquisitely adapting other’s material.
Tom emerged from the Boston and Cambridge scene and when he signed to Elektra had already recorded two albums for Prestige in 1963 that revealed him to be an accomplished bottleneck guitarist. His Elektra debut, Tom Rush, is simply masterful, and his version of Bukka White‘s “The Panama Limited” beyond compare.
When Rush came to record his second LP, Take A Little Walk With Me, much of his repertoire had been used. The second side of this album showed that like Bob Dylan, he was more than just a folkie, Al Kooper leading a full electric band including Bruce Langhorne and Harvey Brooks through a set of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly songs.
By Rush’s third and final Elektra album in 1969, he was decided to adopt a more modern approach. The Circle Game featured songs by the then unknown James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, probably the three biggest stars to be of the confessional school of song writing prevalent in the 70’s. Tom Rush's own songwriting contribution was the poignant ‘’No Regrets,” easily the definitive version of this much recorded song.
Tom Paxton was one of the early aspiring folk performers to move to New York in 1960, ahead of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and the rest of the pack.
Four years later, he recorded, Ramblin' Boy, getting his break on Elektra. The album is astonishingly diverse and accomplished, and it defined Paxton's entire career in its rich mix of romanticism, topical material and children's songs. Ramblin' Boy includes many of his best and most enduring work including 'Going To The Zoo,' 'I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound,' and, his most often covered, 'The Last Thing On My Mind.'
Paxton's avuncular presence and early maturity as a songwriter often results in his being overlooked, compared to his more angry contemporaries, notably Phil Ochs and the early Bob Dylan, but Paxton's strength was always his subtlety and sense of melody. Is there a more effective protest song than the jaunty 'Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation' (from his second Elektra album, Ain't That News?).
Paxton remained with Elektra for seven albums, the last in 1971. To this day, he maintains the same level of humanity and gentle, perceptive craftsmanship.