Dj Shadow: Midnight in A Perfect World (1996)
The mid 90s will go down in history as the golden age of sampling (the art of lifting music from a record, to build your own around it), and there are a number of LPs to prove it. A few examples: Massive Attack’s Protection, Portishead’s Dummy, and Endtroducing….. by Dj Shadow. Very influential albums, that shaped later Pop music for years. But these albums are also important because they introduce a new, nocturnal, more melancholic sound palette and imagery to Turntable, Drum Machine, Computer and Sampler music. Which, until then, had been either Hip hop or House/Techno, and the atmospheres were more ecstatic or urban, rather than sad and gloomy (with some notable exceptions).*
Midnight in A Perfect World is a very complex assemblage of samples, obviously worked to death: when I interviewed DJ Shadow (for the now defunct snowboard magazine Freezer in Milan), he told me he made 100 different versions of this tune. The whole album was difficult to pull off. No surprise: when you’re actually breaking new ground all by yourself, in a windowless basement (you can see his studio in the video below), doubts and discouragement are to be expected. The most prominent samples are the interlocking piano loops (from The Madness Subsides☊ by Pekka Pohjola and David Axelrod’s The Human Abstract☊), the haunting vocals in the “chorus” (from Sower Of Seeds☊ by Baraka), plus Meredith Monk’s voice (from her stunning 1981 piece Dolmen Music). You can hear the nine samples identified by the crowd at Whosampled.com. The result is one of the most poetic sound collages (because that’s what this tune is) ever made, as well as the proof that a loop can be as emotional as a violin. (And cultural too: who’d ever heard of Pekka Pohjola?)
*Full Disclosure: I also made an album in 1996; it included many samples and it was quite melancholic as well. Mine came out two months before Shadow’s. By the time I met him I was so much in awe (especially of this particular tune, that fortunately I hadn’t heard before completing my LP), I didn’t bring a copy with me. The two CDs are quite different, but his is way better than mine.
Howlin’ Wolf: Moanin’ At Midnight (1951)
After a string of successful singles, the record label Chess released what was to be the very first Howlin’ Wolf album, Moanin’ In The Moonlight, released in 1959. The LP opens with this chilling track, that sets a pretty extreme tone. Moanin’ At Midnight (recorded in ’51) features what is considered to be the very first recording of a distorted guitar. It’s a one-note jam (my favorite type of Blues), that begins with Wolf moaning. And by the way he moans, he obviously means business. Howlin’ Wolf was an imposing, exhuberant, at times threatening performer, who often scared the audiences into liking him, but that could also be sweet and seductive. He was also very smart, one of the few musicians ever (white or black) to be able to be his own manager effectively, on top of being an incredibly influential performer (watch The Rolling Stones introduce Wolf♾ on British television in 1965).
Moanin’ At Midnight showcases some of Howlin’ Wolf’s musical tropes, like the moans, the typical descending melody, and the prominent swinging beat. Someone said that the greatest artists paint always the same pictures, sing the same song, make the same movie, etc. This is true for many great musicians, whose songs are often variations of very few elements, and whose musical obsessions are evident. Mr Burnett (to whose grave I paid respect to a few years ago) is one of them. Thank God.
Wilson Pickett: In The Midnight Hour (1965)
This is actually The Midnight Song: it’s the most famous, the most covered, and still a New Years Eve party favorite. Plus, it’s a fantastic example of the Memphis Stax sound (who, at the time, was in competition with Motown‘s Detroit sound), a southern mix of Country, Blues, Soul and Gospel (black and white). In The Midnight Hour was written by Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis – where Martin Luther King was killed three years later. According to Cropper (quoted in the very informative song’s Wikipedia page) the Midnight Hour idea came from an earlier Pickett Gospel recording. The song is about Pickett’s love, that “begins to shine” at midnight. It’s set to a classic Stax strong beat, with guitar and horns in the rhythm section and Pickett’s urgent voice carrying the rhythm, as well as the melody.
There are obviously countless covers of this catchy classic, from BB King to Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Roxy Music, Jam – plus endless Glees, American Idols and X-Factored. The strangest is the 1973 version by New York band Cross Country: “Group member Jay Siegel states that they re-invented In the Midnight Hour taking as prototype the recordings of Crosby Stills and Nash.” The result is a startling mix of California and Tennessee – that nevertheless topped the charts (as I said before, a good song can withstand a lot, and still be a good song).
In The Midnight Hour became Pickett’s signature tune, the one that closed all his shows. Including later gigs, with smaller, older audiences in more remote places. That’s when I saw him, in his mid forties, wearing a glorious blue leather suit. But the show was great, very consistent, the band knew what to do, and when Wilson kicked into Land Of A Thousand Dances☊ (one of the essential songs of the 60s, as well as an irresistible piece of Rock’n’roll/Soul), I was up and dancing – despite being surrounded by a much more mature audience (I was in my early 20s at the time). By the time he sung In The Midnight Hour, everybody was rocking (including the elderly and disabled).
Thelonius Monk: Round Midnight♾ (1947) Also known as Round About Midnight, this one should have made the top list, but writing an essay on this tune is a task for Jazz experts, and I’m not. Round Midnight is of the most influential melodies in the history of Jazz, written by one of its true giants. Miles Davis☊ made it legendary in 1956, and Dexter Gordon☊ reintroduced it to the masses in the 1980s (through the Bertrand Tavernier movie by the same title).
The Rolling Stones: Midnight Rambler♾ (1969) – Brown Sugar♾ (1971) Midnight seems to be an interesting time for The Rolling Stones: these are the first two songs that come to mind, but I’m sure there are more 12am references in their music. Both of these versions were filmed live in Texas in 1972 (but probably are from different shows).
Leadbelly: Midnight Special☊ (1934) “Midnight Special (the title refers to a passenger train by the same name) is a traditional folk song thought to have originated among prisoners in the American South” (from Wikipedia). First referenced in print in 1905, this one has been covered by just about everyone, and it has become one of the most beloved American Music standards. Alan Lomax recorded Leadbelly’s version at Angola Prison in Louisiana in 1934. You can download this and other Leadbelly tunes from that session (now in the public domain) from Archive.org.
J J Cale/Eric Clapton: After Midnight (1966/1970) One of the earliest J J Cale singles☊, and his first hit, thanks to Eric Clapton covering it☊ on his first solo album. He subsequently re-recorded it for his own first album, Naturally (1972): this, in my opinion, is the perfect version☊.