Not-So-Wonderful Tonight: A Review of Eric Clapton’s COVID Singles

It’s not easy being an Eric Clapton fan these days. Yeah, we’ve overlooked a lot over the years. The racist comments about immigrants. The many personal failings. Most of his 80s output. His techno album (yeah, that really happened).

But his reinvention as a COVID-19 anti-vaxxer and anti-mitigation protestor has been too much for a lot of his fans (myself included). In fact, it seems to have completely consumed him to the point where it’s become difficult to separate the political advocate from the artist.

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Career Killers: “Garth Brooks In… The Life of Chris Gaines”

The year is 1999 and Garth Brooks seems bored.

The best-selling male artist of the 90s (only Celine Dion and Mariah Carey outsold him during that decade), Brooks has seemingly figured out the formula for enduring commercial success. All he has to do is come up with 10 songs or so, pose for the album cover in his best Stetson, put on an entertaining live show and watch the money pour in. Indeed, every one of his proper studio albums has gone Diamond up to that point, and the only one that fell short was a lightly-promoted Christmas album that came out in the summer of 1992 and eventually became a staple of the cutout bin. Of course, this being Garth Brooks, that record still managed to go triple platinum and is one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time.

Most artists would have sold their souls to have experienced a fraction of the success that had become routine for Brooks. Certainly most artists would have been perfectly content to run that formula into the ground in order to keep that conveyor belt going for as long as possible. But Brooks seemed eager for a new challenge. He talked about retiring so that he could raise his children. He signed a minor league deal and played in spring training for the San Diego Padres.

And in September 1999, he made the decision to cross over into pop-rock. Kind of. It’s still really confusing — even 22 years later.

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Career Killers: “Around the Sun” by R.E.M.

Some bands like to celebrate 20th anniversaries. Some like to wait for 30. Some, like U2, do both (Achtung Baby got a 20th anniversary rerelease in 2011 and a 30th anniversary one is scheduled for December).

For R.E.M., 25 seems to be the magic number. To date, the band has issued special commemorative 25th anniversary versions for each of its first ten studio albums. The most recent one was for its 1996 classic, New Adventures in Hi-Fi (I bought the vinyl version).

It’ll be interesting to see whether their next five albums will get the same anniversary treatment. Released after drummer Bill Berry’s departure, the last five albums of R.E.M.’s career (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate, Collapse Into Now) are not widely loved or respected and clearly show a band in decline. No longer the creative or commercial force they once were, R.E.M.’s Three-Legged Dog Era (after lead singer Michael Stipe’s quote describing the state of the band after losing one of its founding members) still produced some good music and memorable performances.

Unfortunately, it also produced Around the Sun.

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Career Killers: “No Code” by Pearl Jam

There were several reasons why Neil Young got the moniker “Godfather of Grunge.”

His 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps, featured a highly distorted guitar sound that proved to be very influential with several major grunge musicians, including Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder.

Young would become a close collaborator and mentor to Pearl Jam, performing, working and touring together throughout the 90s and 00s. Young even helped inspire the name “Pearl Jam.” According to Rolling Stone, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were already considering using the word “Pearl” in their band’s name, and after attending a Young show in 1991 that featured several long instrumental jams, something clicked.

But it wasn’t just his music that was inspirational. Long known as an artist who refused to play by anyone else’s rules, Young was famous, or perhaps infamous, for making music for artistic reasons without regard for commercial success. In fact, his label once pressured Young for a rock album and he delivered a collection of rockabilly songs (they didn’t specify what kind of rock they wanted). His label then sued him for making music that was “not commercial” and “musically uncharacteristic” of his previous recordings.

Pearl Jam would take a page from Young’s book for its fourth album, 1996’s No Code. The more experimental, less mainstream and barely promoted album ended their run of commercial dominance and abruptly halted their seemingly inevitable march towards becoming the biggest band in the world. However, it may have also saved them.

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Asleep at the Wheel

Never let it be said that Ole Gunnar Solskjær wasn’t the ultimate company man.

When Manchester United finally decided to sack him as manager after a series of humiliating losses and poor performances but didn’t want to use that terminology, Solskjær went along with the charade and said that he was “stepping aside.” He even gave an exit interview with ManUtd.com that was full of platitudes and niceties. He even managed, with a straight face, to deliver lines like “It was time for me to step aside” and “I’m going to leave by the front door” even though everyone knows he’s being shoved aside (and deservedly so, but that doesn’t mean he should have to swallow his pride or continuing taking one for the team on the way out). I can only imagine what Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho would have said to that. Probably a two word phrase that starts with the letter “f” and ends with the word “off.”

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Career Killers: “Door to Door” by The Cars

Many artists have done the “back to basics” album at some point in their careers.

Sometimes, there are legitimate artistic reasons for this. Maybe they’ve been experimenting with new sounds for too long and felt like there was nowhere else to go. For instance, U2 seemed to hit the electronic wall following Pop, resulting in their back-to-basics follow up, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Or maybe they veered too hard into commercial territory, got backlash from their hardcore fans, and decided to get back to their roots. This was the stated purpose for Metallica’s St. Anger album, until lots of other things got in the way. Ultimately, their follow up albums, 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct were more in line with their 80s classic sound.

But sometimes, a “back to basics” album is a “Hail Mary” — a desperate ploy from an artist to stop his or her decline, or from a band to paper over some cracks and avoid a breakup. The proposed Get Back album and movie project for the Beatles turned out to be examples of this, as the band broke up before either were released (we’ll get to see some of that footage in November, when Peter Jackson’s documentary is released on Disney+).

Likewise, Door to Door (1987) marked the moment The Cars broke down and got put on concrete blocks, ending their run as hitmakers and exacerbating personal conflicts between members that broke them up for the better part of two decades.

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Career Killers: “In Pursuit of Leisure” by Sugar Ray

Prince was right about a lot of things. It is easier 2 use the numeral “2” instead of the words “too” or “to” (and U definitely save time using the letter “U” instead of the word “you”). Changing your name to an unpronounceable symbol can be an effective way of getting out of a record contract.

And he knew 1999 was going to be a party.

Many of the biggest artists that year were primarily about fun and brought the good times and vibes. Boy bands and pop princesses were starting to dominate the charts and airwaves, while Latino dance artists like Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez were exploding in popularity. Grunge was dead and upbeat rock groups like Smash Mouth, the Goo Goo Dolls, Barenaked Ladies and Third Eye Blind all had a banner year in 1999.

Arguably, none of those rock bands were as big that year as Sugar Ray.

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Career Killers: “Alone Again” by Biz Markie

A bit of a departure for me on this one. I wrote an ABA Journal cover story in 2019 looking at songs that changed the law. The issue of sampling has become an important one when it comes to copyright law. A major reason why was because of two 1991 cases. I spotlighted the first: a lawsuit filed by members of 60s era band The Turtles against hip hop group De La Soul. I decided to take a look at the second one, which involves the recently deceased rapper Biz Markie.

When the Diabolical Biz Markie died in July, many publications made sure to emphasize that he was more than just a one hit wonder. Widely known for his big personality and sense of humor, the “Clown Prince of Hip Hop” (he once recorded a song about picking his nose called “Pickin’ Boogers” – either that or “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Gotta Boogie,” is the best song ever written about nose doo-doo) was a highly influential rapper who was beloved in hip hop circles and by his fans.

But the fact remains that most people only knew him by his big hit, 1989’s “Just a Friend.” A major reason why he never had another was because of a lawsuit that helped set a precedent in the then-grey area of sampling.

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Dun Dun!

Late last month, NBC announced it was reviving the original “Law & Order” as a prime-time series.

The news came a month after my feature examining the show’s legacy in shaping our understanding of the criminal justice system hit the stands. Surely the folks at NBC and Wolf Entertainment read it and decided they had no choice but to bring it back, right?

So, you’re welcome! Now, if I only can get NBC to bring “Ed” back.

Career Killers: “Witness” by Katy Perry

It’s strange to think that Katy Perry’s career as a major pop superstar could be over.

Between 2008 and 2016, Perry released three multi-platinum albums and amassed 18 Top 30 singles as a lead artist, including nine #1 hits. Her 2010 album, Teenage Dream, produced a record-tying 5 number one singles (only Michael Jackson’s Bad has managed to match that). She’s been credited with selling 143 million records worldwide, putting her ahead of Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Lady Gaga, Adele, Britney Spears and many others.

That track record of sustained success should have protected her career from being completely derailed by one flop. And yet, plenty of critics and observers wrote her off after 2017’s Witness, with some even wondering if her decline marked the end of an era in pop music. Perry’s career choices since then have only seemed to confirm that her best days are behind her. In 2018, she went to the place where many music careers go when they’re on life support — the judge’s table at American Idol. Then, she did what a lot of over-the-hill pop stars do when they start to transition to being a nostalgic act: she announced a Las Vegas residency, which is scheduled to begin in December. Meanwhile, her 2020 album, Smile, landed without much fanfare and became her worst-selling record since her 2001 self-titled Christian music debut, when she was still known as Katy Hudson.

So what happened?

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