American history

REVIEW: Johnny Horton – Battle of New Orleans (1981/1990)

JOHNNY HORTON – Battle of New Orleans (1981/1990 CBS Select)

I grew up with my father’s cassette of this compilation album, which only had the first eight songs.  Each one was a keeper, and we rarely skipped any songs (though side one was stronger than side two).  We played that tape every Saturday night in the car, when we were up at the cottage.  When it was released on CD in 1990, it was expanded to 12 tracks of Johnny Horton’s greatest hits.

The banjo and marching drums of “The Battle of New Orleans” set the stage for an irresistible tune.  I used it myself for a highschool project on the War of 1812.  I learned that many Canadian historians do not consider the Battle of New Orleans to have been a part of the War of 1812, since it was a raid that took place after the Treaty of Ghent was signed.  When reading American historical accounts of the war, I discovered that they included New Orleans in their books.  Why?  Because it was one of the few decisive American victories in that war, which is considered by Canucks to have been won by us and the British Empire.  Neither here nor there:  This song is unforgettable musically and lyrically.

Yeah, they ran through the briars,
And they ran through the brambles,
And they ran through the bushes,
Where a rabbit couldn’t go.
They ran so fast,
That the hounds couldn’t catch ’em,
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

The British retreat enabled the United States to put a happy ending to their part in this war of empires.

The marching drums return for “Sink the Bismarck”, another story of history and victory, this time the Second World War.  The Bismarck was the biggest battleship the world had seen yet, and when it sunk the British ship the Hood, the Royal Navy went in pursuit.

We’ll find that German battleship that’s makin’ such a fuss,
We gotta sink the Bismarck ’cause the world depends on us,
Hit the decks a-runnin’ boys and spin those guns around,
When we find the Bismarck we gotta cut her down.

The song is ambiguous about how the ship went down.  Filmmaker James Cameron and experts discovered that after a British torpedo (fired from a Swordfish biplane) damaged the ship’s rudder (jamming it and rendering it useless), the Bismarck was scuttled by her own crew.

The Great Sioux War of 1876 is the setting for “Comanche (The Brave Horse)”.  Comanche was one of only three American horses to be given a full military funeral.  Johnny does the horse proud with a sad but beautiful tune and minimal accompaniment.

Picking up the tempo, “Honky Tonk Man” is purely fun.  When I think of country music, it sounds like “Honky Tonk Man”.  I remember flipping the tape here as a kid, and hitting play on side two.  “North to Alaska” tells of the gold rush with a catchy tune, but not quite as good as to those on side one.  “Whispering Pines” is a pretty ballad that we didn’t have patience for as kids, but is a flawless song for grown ups.  Marching drums and banjo returns as we visit the Civil War.  “Johnny Reb” is a symbol of the south, a controversial subject in 2017, but a good song regardless.  Our childhood cassette copy ended with “Rock Island Line”, a fun fast-talkin’ song performed live.

Four more songs included on the CD act like a “third side”, all a little less familiar.  “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s 40 Below)” is a actually ballad of love and murder.  “All Grown Up” is a rock and roll tune, and unfortunately a skipper.  “Sleepy Eyed John” is back to banjos and better for it.  “I’m a One Woman Man” is a fine song to end the CD on, upbeat and easy to remember.

There are a few different Johnny Horton hits CDs to choose from, but for nostalgia and quality, Battle of New Orleans is still recommended.

4/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Jon Bon Jovi – Blaze of Glory (1990)

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JON BON JOVI – Blaze of Glory: Inspired by the film Young Guns II (1990 Mercury)

Billy the Kid was a fascinating character.  Perhaps he was the embodiment of the Old West itself: a charismatic outlaw, who reportedly had a hair trigger temper but also a heart of gold.  Unfortunately, the film Young Guns II seems more about a person called Brushy Bill, rather than William H. McCarty, also known as William H. Bonney, but best known as Billy the Kid.  Having killed his first man at 18, the Kid earned his nickname with his boyish looks.  He looked nothing at all like his screen counterpart Emilio Estevez, but it’s because of Emilio that Jon Bon Jovi recorded the soundtrack to Young Guns II.

A popular theory from the 1990’s was that Billy the Kid was not killed by Sheriff Patrick Frank Garrett in 1881.   In 1948, a character called Brushy Bill Roberts emerged claiming to be the Kid, alive and well.  There was enough facial resemblance, and also sworn statements from five people who knew the Kid. Roberts never proved that he was actually William McCarty, and today historians have dismissed his claims due to the number of facts that do not match (such as dates of birth).   Young Guns II, the film, operated on the popular theory that Billy survived, and that he faked his death with the help of Pat Garrett.

In fact Garrett did shoot the Kid and lived a life of shame afterwards, as the details of the shooting of the popular Kid didn’t paint him in a positive light.  Oddly enough, Garrett himself was shot and killed in 1908 by a rancher named Jesse Wayne Brazel, in New Mexico.  The interesting coincidence about this is Brazel was uncle to a Mac Brazel, also a rancher in New Mexico, near the town of Roswell.  It was on his ranch that something strange (almost certainly an actual UFO) crashed and was covered up.  It is an amusing intersection of two of the great folk tales in American history.

So along came this movie.  Emilio Estevez asked Jon Bon Jovi if they could use “Wanted: Dead or Alive” in the film.  Jon declined and said, “The lyrics don’t make sense.  That song is about touring, let me write you something more appropriate to the old west and Billy the Kid.”  This turned into an entire album.  Essentially Blaze of Glory is not a soundtrack album (since none of Jon’s songs are in the movie until the end credits) but a concept album based on the film.

The album begins with a snippet of dialogue:  “Yoo-hoo!” says Emilio/Billy.  “I’ll make ya famous.”  A gunshot and the song “Billy Get Your Guns” begins.  That’s Kenny Aranoff on drums in case you were wondering.  “Billy Get Your Guns” isn’t a hard rock song like Bon Jovi was doing at the time.  But it’s still rock and roll, featuring some great slide guitar riffing by Waddy Wachtel.  Jon’s voice is young, strong and loud.  It’s a sound I miss.  I think it’s impossible to dislike the excellent “Billy Get Your Guns”, especially when topped by a Jeff Beck guitar solo, who plays on pretty much the whole album.  (The album also features two Journey bassists:  Randy Jackson and Bob Glaub.)

Jeff even appeared in the music video for “Miracle”, the hit ballad from the album.  The lovely accordion and spare arrangement gives it quite a different feel from old Bon Jovi ballads. Once again I am reminded that Jon once possessed quite a powerful voice.  It’s also worth noting that Jon wrote every song himself.

“William H. Bonney, you are not a god.” – Keifer Sutherland as Doc Scurlock

“Why don’t you pull the trigger and find out.”  – Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid

I still love “Blaze of Glory”.  It’s timeless, more so than a lot of Bon Jovi’s hits from the time — “Bad Medicine” and so forth.  I remember seeing Aldo Nova on TV playing the riff on an acoustic guitar, and it is perfect in its classic simplicity.  Aldo is one of Jon’s oldest friends and he plays on the whole album as well.  This dynamite hit song has become so loved that Bon Jovi play it live and included it on their greatest hits compilations, even though only Jon was part of it.  Jeff Beck’s smoking solo is as much part of the song as Jon is.  I cannot understate how great this song is. From quiet acoustic strumming to bombastic aplomb, the song is a great achievement.

“Blood Money” is a short ballad, with spare acoustics, tambourine and accordion.  Jon sings as Billy the Kid, directly to Pat Garrett.  Historically we don’t know if Garrett and McCarty were friends as they are portrayed in the film, but likely they were not.  Regardless, even though the lyrics are implausible historically, it is still a powerful little song.

This leads into “Santa Fe”, which is from the perspective of Doc Scurlock.   You want epic?  Look no further.  An album highlight, “Santa Fe” boasts strings, powerful Aranoff beats, and Jon’s most vivid lead vocal.  If it had been on a Bon Jovi album, I think it would be regarded as highly as a song like “Dry County” which it resembles slightly.

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Side two opened with Lou Diamond Phillips (Chavez y Chavez in the film) singing a native chant.  The song “Justice in the Barrel” refers of course to the barrel of a gun, and Jeff Beck’s playing in the opening reminds us why he is one of rock’s most legendary gunslingers.  The song however is more laid back, a slow rock groove.  “Never Say Die” is the most straightforward rocker on the album, and it features Robbin Crosby of Ratt on electric guitar.  This song most closely resembles Bon Jovi, the band, even lyrically.  It is followed by a song that sounds nothing at all like them, and also my favourite:  “You Really Got Me Now”.  From first listen, way back in 1990, to today, this is a song that always puts a smile on my face.  Imagine Jon Bon and Little Richard building a time machine, travelling back to 1881, and jamming in a saloon.  That’s “You Really Got Me Now”.  Richard plays piano and sings the second verse, and I love it.  It’s a shame this little tune is only 2 1/2 minutes long, but I guess it was a bit of a novelty.

“Bang a Drum” is a pleasant soft soul rock anthem, but the Hammond organ and Jeff Beck help maintain its integrity.  The soul comes from the backing vocals of Julia and Maxine Waters.  This is the climax; the denoument is “Dyin’ Ain’t Much of a Livin'”.  The delicate piano is provided by one Elton John (before he would become Sir).  Elton also joins Jon on backing vocals.  “All this fame don’t bring ya freedom,” sings Jon, a line that may apply to a rock star life as well as an outlaw.  The powerful song is a natural ending to a story such as this.

There’s a brief coda, an orchestral piece from the movie by composer Alan Silvestri called “Guano City”.  I always wondered why this piece (as good as it is, sounding like some of John Williams’ more exciting segments) was on the album.  Nevertheless, there it is, and the album is done.

Jon was very emphatic in stating that Blaze of Glory was not his true solo album.  It was 10 songs written specifically for a movie, to fit that movie.  His solo album would come seven years later with Destination Anywhere, but first it was time to get Bon Jovi, the band, back on track.  This began with a 1991 live performance of “Blaze of Glory” at the Academy Awards, by the full Bon Jovi band, augmented by additional guitarists Waddy Wachtel and Danny Kortchmar.

If you consider solo albums and soundtracks as part of the overall catalog, Blaze of Glory still clocks in as one of my absolute favourites.

5/5 stars