Good Influences: Florence + The Machine

floBy turns commanding and vulnerable, Florence Welch has become one of the most compelling musical figures of the past decade. As primary songwriter for Florence + The Machine, she crafts anthems that necessitate sing-alongs, as well as introspective hymns that would guide anyone through a dark night of the soul. Her powerful voice and idiosyncratic style have brought Flo piles of accolades, and landed her spots on soundtracks like this summer’s The Great Gatsby, where her song “Over the Love” provides a moving contrast to the glitz of the other tracks. While Florence + The Machine have conquered the world with their original sound, they still call upon a vast array of influences to blend an assortment of styles into their own:

British superstar Kate Bush has had a long and storied career, refusing to tour and releasing albums sporadically. Her distinctive vocals and ever-evolving musical style have kept fans on their toes, while providing Kate with a dozen hit songs. Beginning with 1978’s “Wuthering Heights”, Kate has shown a flair for the dramatic, something that Florence has evidently taken to heart. In her most popular Hounds of Love-era incarnation, Kate pioneered the use of heavy percussion in pop songs—an element Florence + The Machine use extensively in their own work. With its innovative use of background vocals and strings, Kate’s “Hounds of Love” single provided a template for Flo to follow.

Florence + The Machine draw heavily from late 80’s and early 90’s pop music, with an emphasis on the big and the dramatic. Annie Lennox, formerly of the Eurythmics, released her album Diva in 1992. Her strong and soulful voice was a perfect fit for the larger-than-life songs on the album, and it was one of the year’s biggest hits. The ornate “Walking on Broken Glass”, with its video that seemingly inspired Flo’s clip for “Shake It Out”, is just the sort of pop song that influenced “Rabbit Heart” and “Hurricane Drunk”.

Flo’s mystical style, with flowing dresses and magical props, calls back to the style of Stevie Nicks. Flo has gleaned some melodic inspiration from Fleetwood Mac, particularly their unusual Tusk-era songs, but her on-stage persona recalls Stevie, especially. The natural elements that populate Stevie’s songs pop up in Flo’s (“What the Water Gave Me”), along with elements of the supernatural (“Breaking Down”, “Leave My Body”). Flo’s aesthetic can be summarized with the video for Stevie’s Fleetwood Mac song, “Gypsy”.

Born and raised in the suburbs, Siouxsie Sioux eventually joined forces with the Banshees in 1976. The band originally played punk music, which slowly morphed into an early example of goth pop. Siouxsie eventually became known as the Queen of Goth, to Robert Smith’s King. Flo’s darker songs, including “Seven Devils” and “Howl”, owe a debt to Siouxsie and her moody, atmospheric albums.

Flo’s self-professed “hero” is Jefferson Airplane frontwoman, Grace Slick. A former model, Grace stalked the stage like it was a catwalk, and her emphatic vocals drove hits like “Somebody to Love”, “White Rabbit”, and “Crown of Creation”. Flo admires Grace for her stage presence and her ability to work the crowd, but they share something else: the ability to inspire adoration.


Joni Mitchell: “Song to a Seagull”

joniguitarAn album that opens with a song about a divorce and closes with a song about freedom promises to tell an interesting story, and that is exactly what Joni Mitchell’s debut delivers. Produced by David Crosby, a huge fan of Joni’s songs, the album’s simple instrumentation belies the complex stories the songs tell. A genuine artist even from the beginning of her career, Joni has said that the songs on her debut are classical songs played with folk instruments. The unusual construction of the songs and the way vocals are used to represent various classical instruments were novel concepts at the time of the album’s release in 1968. Divided into two halves, with the first side titled “I Came to City” and the flip called “Out of the City and Down to the Seaside”, it was a true concept album.

Opener “I Had a King” provides some detail into the dissolution of Joni’s marriage to Chuck Mitchell, her former singing partner: “I can’t go back there anymore/You know my keys don’t fit the door/You know my thoughts don’t fit the man/They never can, they never can”. The sweet “Michael From Mountains” follows, telling the story of a love that flourishes despite the mystery that exists between the two partners. It would become one of Joni’s early classics. The rest of the “City” section contains paeans to city life (“Night in the City”) a story of urban isolation (“Marcie”) and a story about a very bitter cabbie (“Nathan La Freneer”).

seagullThe “Seaside” portion of the album takes place after the break, when the captivity the narrator somewhat enjoyed has been disintegrated. Learning to make her way in the world alone, she explores her new surroundings in songs like “Sisotowbell Lane”, “The Dawntreader” and “Pirate of Penance”. In the title track, she mourns the loss of the freedom she originally had: “My gentle relations have names they must call me/For loving the freedom of all flying things/My dreams with the seagulls fly/Out of reach, out of cry”.

The album’s final song, “Cactus Tree”, is one of Joni’s truest classics. The story of a woman who enjoys the company of several different men over the course of her life’s seasons, it was one of the first songs to suggest that women, too, could view life as a journey. The concept of a “journeyman” had previously been applied exclusively to men; Joni turned the concept on its head by pointing out that men were not the only ones who could be complex, intelligent, ever-changing beings.

joniJoni insisted upon giving her audience all-new songs for her debut, even though other artists had already covered some of her songs (“Both Sides Now”, “The Circle Game”, and “Chelsea Morning”) with great commercial success. She would hold on to her famous songs and record her own versions of them later. She seemed to know that she wouldn’t need them to get the attention of the world, and indeed she didn’t: Song to a Seagull announced to the world that Joni Mitchell had arrived. With its colorful cover— painted by Joni herself—and the printed lyrics telling stories of the freedom found by the characters within, an entirely new lifestyle was subsequently available to young women. And with that announcement, Joni Mitchell went on to make immeasurably significant contributions to music and culture that continue to this day.

Sweet Inspiration: Chrissie Shrimpton

chrissieMick Jagger had the ability to write very touching songs for his girlfriends—he wrote the  sweet “Wild Horses” lyrics for paramour Marianne Faithfull—but he seemed incapable of writing anything nice about his first main squeeze, Chrissie Shrimpton. The sister of famed British model Jean Shrimpton, Chrissie modeled also. She met Mick while he was still an art school student, in the pre-fame days of the Rolling Stones. Although they were still just teenagers when they began dating, Mick quickly showed signs of being controlling. He considered Chrissie his trophy, since she was a famous model and he still a nobody. As the Rolling Stones rose to international fame, Chrissie stood by his side. Mick dictated who she could speak to and who she was allowed to be friends with. Despite his ill treatment of her, Chrissie came to care for him deeply, so it must have hurt when he unveiled a new song called “Under My Thumb”. The song was included on the massively successful Aftermath album from 1966. The lyrics told the tale of a once-carefree girl, now wilting under the control of her gloating boyfriend:

Also on the Aftermath album was a song called “Stupid Girl”. Again, the song was written about Chrissie, and again the lyrics were nastily boastful:

By this time, unbeknownst to Chrissie, Mick had met and begun dating Marianne Faithfull. She was aware that something was very wrong in their relationship, though, and in late 1966 she took an overdose of pills. Chrissie survived her suicide attempt, learning about Mick and Marianne as she recovered in the hospital. When she had recovered enough to return the apartment she shared with Mick, she was unable to collect her belongings— the locks had been changed. Their three year relationship was over.

After the dissolution of her relationship with Mick, Chrissie went on to date Steve Marriott of the Small Faces. She later married and now lives a quiet life. Mick, of course, would go on to marry Bianca Jagger, then Jerry Hall, all the while conducting dalliances on the side.

Ten Reasons Why Joan Jett Rocks

joanShe’s been called the “Queen of Rock n’ Roll”, the “original Riot Grrl”, and the “female Chuck Berry”, but if you still needed more reasons why Joan Jett rocks:

1. The Runaways. Joan teamed up with Sandy West in 1975 to form the Runaways, the first highly successful all-girl rock band. Just seventeen years old, Joan quickly became the band’s primary songwriter and shared lead vocal duties with Cherie Currie. As the band’s rhythm player, Joan was a reference point for girls who wanted to play electric guitar, while her risqué songs brought the band all kinds of attention. Although they saw their greatest success in Japan, not the United States, the Runaways were ultimately a major milestone in rock n’ roll. A film based on their experience was released in 2010.

2. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer. When the Runaways disbanded in 1979, Joan recorded her debut solo album. After being rejected by 23 major record labels, Joan decided to start her own record label and release the album herself. It contained hits like “Bad Reputation” and “Do You Wanna Touch Me”, and her gamble paid off when she was signed to a record label shortly thereafter.

3. Awesome cover songs. Even though Joan is more than capable of writing a compelling song, she also chooses excellent songs to cover, with great success. Selecting songs from artists as diverse as Sly and the Family Stone to Iggy Pop, Joan always adds her own touch. Covers like “Crimson and Clover” and “Light of Day” rank among her greatest hits, while her version of The Arrows’ “I Love Rock n’ Roll” is the definitive one. With its monster guitar riff and lyrics that seemed tailor-made for Joan, the song was #1 for seven weeks in 1982.

joan24. Her consistency.  Joan has been making records for nearly forty years, and she has never wavered from her original attitude and sound. Her albums are consistently good, and she has had no period of decline.

5. Her style. In her days with the Runaways, Joan favored glam-rock influenced jump suits. In her solo days, she gravitated towards black leather (jackets and pants) and her trademark Converse hi-tops. With her shag haircut and heavy black eyeliner, Joan’s look became as distinctive as her music.

6. Her activism. Joan has supported causes like PETA and Farm Sanctuary, but she is best-known for her work with the investigation of the murder of Gits lead singer Mia Zapata. Joan collaborated with the remaining band members on a live album, contributing all proceeds to the investigation. She also appeared with the band members on America’s Most Wanted to make an appeal for any information that could help solve Mia Zapata’s murder. After 11 years, the case was finally solved in 2004.

joan37. Her guitar. Joan’s guitar, which she bought from Eric Carmen after the breakup of the Raspberries, has become an icon in its own right. Gibson manufactured a Joan Jett Signature Melody Maker that is now out of production. Joan says, “I got my Melody Maker in 1977. It was light and it sounded great. It was the guitar I had in the Runaways and then played on all my hits…It’s my baby.” Playing with all the attitude of her idol, Keith Richards, Joan appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. Shamefully, only two women were included.

8. Her record label. Although it was founded in a moment of desperation, Blackheart Records is still going strong today. Joan uses it to release her new music, as well as reissues of her classic albums, solo and with the Runaways. New artists like Endless Bummer, The Eyeliners, Girl in a Coma, and The Vacancies are signed to the label. Joan is particularly passionate about signing up-and-coming female bands, giving them the break that she didn’t have as a new artist.

9. Freaks and Geeks. When the legendary cult TV favorite Freaks and Geeks was looking for a song for their opening credits, they turned to Joan’s music and found a kindred outsider spirit. “Bad Reputation” became the show’s theme.

10. Her legacy. After three and a half decades in the music business, Joan has rightfully earned her place in the “living legends” category, while still remaining an impressively current artist. Her kindness to new bands and loyalty to old friends have set her a cut above the rest. The Riot Grrl movement came to life in her wake, and countless people have gleaned music history from her seamless mix of punk, glam, metal, and straightforward rock n’ roll. She remains the patron saint for every girl who just knows that learning to play guitar will change her life.

Video Stars: Ladies of the Eighties

aimeeWith the dawn of the 80’s came the rise of the music video, culminating with the founding of MTV. Image, which had always been significant in the realm of pop music, was suddenly elevated to unprecedented importance. A large number of previously popular bands did not make the transition into the 80’s, but those who were willing to invest in the music video system found themselves riding an unstoppable wave to the top of the charts. Many of these artists were women, willing to roll with the changes and take the opportunity to shine.

One of the biggest video stars of the decade was undoubtedly Cyndi Lauper. Growing up in Queens, Cyndi worked in thrift stores like Screaming Mimi’s to make ends meet while she sang in nightclubs. After leaving her first band, Blue Angel, in 1982, Cyndi recorded her debut album, She’s So Unusual. She became the first female artist to achieve 4 top ten hits off the same album, and soon made a reputation for herself on the strength of her music videos. Using her background in thrift stores to put together eccentric ensembles, Cyndi told stories with her videos and cultivated variations on her distinctive look in each one. 1983’s “Time After Time” is an excellent example of Cyndi’s careful control of her image as a relatable heroine:

College student Aimee Mann left the punk band the Young Snakes to form the new wave band ‘Til Tuesday in 1982. An accomplished songwriter, Aimee penned the hit song “Voices Carry” in 1985 after a fight with her boyfriend. The lyrics tell the tale of a woman being held down by her abusive partner. “He wants me— if he can keep me in line”, she sang. The song’s accompanying video expanded on the theme, and featured Aimee’s trademark spiky blonde hair. Such a story was unusually serious for MTV, but the high quality of the song ensured its airplay. Aimee would eventually go solo, and garner an Academy Award nomination for her work on the Magnolia soundtrack.

Few artists in the 80’s saw as much success as Prince. When he met singer and percussionist Sheila E, he promised her they would collaborate. Several years later, he made good on his promise by involving her in the sessions for his massively successful Purple Rain album. He then offered her a song he had written, “The Glamorous Life”. It shot up the charts into the top 10, and made Sheila E a superstar. The video for the single established Sheila’s image as a bewitching chanteuse, while reiterating her talents as a musician.

Although she played lead guitar in the Runaways with Joan Jett, Lita Ford dreamed of becoming a heavy metal star along the lines of her idols, Deep Purple. After leaving the band, she launched a solo career in 1983. After two disappointing albums, she took control of her career and produced her third album, Lita, herself. The album finally made her a superstar, with four hit singles (one a duet with her hero, Ozzy Osbourne). The video for “Kiss Me Deadly” was classic Lita: all black leather, bleached hair and tough attitude, she was the party girl of the decade.

Although they formed in the late 70’s, L.A. new wave band Berlin didn’t really get their big break until 1986. That was the year they collaborated with producer Giorgio Moroder on a song for the Top Gun soundtrack— “Take My Breath Away”. Lead singer Terri Nunn, who also pursued acting alongside her music career, sported two-tone hair and elegant style. After their number one hit, Terri left Berlin to go solo, and recorded for the Better Off Dead soundtrack. “Take My Breath Away” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Trained as a classical vocalist, Pat Benatar surprised everyone who knew her when she began singing rock in the mid-70’s. Scoring her first hit in 1979 with “Heartbreaker”, the tiny and tough Pat refined a look that was made for the video age: very high heels and lots of spandex. Her video “You Better Run” was the second music video to be played by MTV (the first was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles). She went on to become one of the biggest stars of the decade, with hits like “Love is a Battlefield” and “We Belong”.