“Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to have made a lot of difference to my audience that I’m as bald as a billiard ball!”
– James Taylor
It’s inevitable that many rockers who have carved out decades-long careers will go bald. So what? That wavy hair may have waved goodbye but the music is just as vibrant. This month we celebrate our Top 11 Bald Rockers and some of their greatest hits.
- Losing My Religion by Michael Stipe and R.E.M.
Those who thought R.E.M.‘s Losing My Religion was sacrilegious, or even about God, were wrong. The Athens, Ga. alternative rock band used an old southern expression, “losing my religion,” which means being at your wits’ end. R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe recorded the vocal in one take. Losing My Religion would become the group’s biggest hit, reaching No. 4 in 1991.
The tune was built around a riff by guitarist Peter Buck, who rolled tape while he practiced playing his new mandolin. “When I listened back to it the next day, there was a bunch of stuff that was really just me learning how to play mandolin,” Buck said in Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. “And then there’s what became Losing My Religion, and then a whole btunch more of me learning to play the mandolin.”
Losing My Religion by Michael Stipe and R.E.M.
- Bungle in the Jungle by Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull
Bungle in the Jungle was intended to be part of a movie soundtrack written by Jethro Tull stalwart Ian Anderson. The black comedy, Heaven, was never made and the song was released on the 1974 War Child LP. “I was writing an album that was exploring people, the human condition, through analogies with the animal kingdom,” Anderson told Songfacts. “And that particular song was perhaps the more obvious and the more catchy of the tunes. Eventually it was finished and saved in time for the War Child album.”
Fans who hope to hear Anderson perform the song in concert will be disappointed. “If you ask me to play Teacher or Bungle in the Jungle then I’m afraid I have to politely decline the invitation,” Anderson told Rockol. “They are not songs I enjoy performing live, they were written for a purpose, the purpose being to release a single to get radio play and so they’re rather self-conscious, more commercial kind of pieces. I’m actually not very fond of them, lyrically and musically they don’t really stand up for me as examples of what I think is my best work.”
Bungle in the Jungle by Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull
- We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel
Billy Joel has dismissed We Didn’t Start the Fire as a “novelty song” but the rapid-fire list of world events became a No. 1 hit in December 1989. “I had turned 40,” Joel explained in In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk About the Creative Process. “It was 1989, and I said, ‘Okay, what’s happened in my life?’ I wrote down the year 1949. Okay, Harry Truman was the president. Popular singer of the day, Doris Day. China went Communist. Another pop star, Johnny Ray. Big Broadway show, South Pacific. Journalist, Walter Winchell. Athlete, Joe DiMaggio. Then I went to 1950, Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy, big cars, Studebaker, television, et cetera, et cetera.”
“For some reason people take issue with that song as if it’s an apology for the baby boomer generation,” Joel told MassLive. “‘We didn’t start the fire, it’s not our fault.’ That’s not what I was saying. Then they say, ‘Well, what does it mean?’ Hell, it doesn’t mean anything. Since when does a song have to mean anything? It’s just a list of headlines during the Cold War era, a kind of a mental exercise if anything. It’s not one of the greater melodies I’ve ever written, it sort of sounds like a mosquito drone. That’s what happens when I write the words first. That’s why I try and do it the other way around.”
We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel
- The Letter by Joe Cocker
“God, I’m just a fat bald guy,” Joe Cocker once observed. “60 years old, singing the blues, you know?”
Cocker’s 1970 hit The Letter was a bluesy cover of the Box Tops‘ 1967 No. 1 tune. Cocker’s take was a highlight of his Mad Dogs and Englishmen album recorded at New York’s Fillmore East. Cocker built a career on covers of hits that were often superior to the originals.
“Joe Cocker is the greatest white blues singer ever,” A&M Records co-founder Jerry Moss told Rolling Stone. “The song The Letter was the first hit for Joe, and provided a tremendous glimpse of his amazing musical force. The record went platinum, and sold well; it also showed this incredible menagerie of musicians, like Leon Russell. That whole group was incredible, and it was an amazing experience – what they did live and on record was magnificent. After that success, we were able to get Joe back in the studio to make more great records.”
Cocker’s version was unique but he kept Box Tops’ lead singer Alex Chilton‘s “aer-o-plane.” Chilton was an inexperienced 16-year-old when he recorded The Letter. In Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock ‘n’ Roll producer Dan Penn recalled, “It took me all day, but by five o’clock I had cut the track and singer, Alex Chilton, who I’d never laid eyes on before. We’re talkin’ faith recording here. I didn’t give him much direction. He was a little timid. I gave him a couple of small lessons in screaming. I said, ‘Now, don’t say airplane. Say aer-o-plane.’ It just came to me.”
The Letter by Joe Cocker
The Letter by the Box Tops
- In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins
In the Air Tonight was the first solo single released by Phil Collins after he left Genesis. The 1981 release, a Top 20 hit, is famous for Collins’ powerful drum fills throughout the song. In Turn It On Again: Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and Genesis, Collins said that he improvised the lyrics in the studio. “I was just fooling around. I got these chords that I liked, so I turned the mic on and started singing. The lyrics you hear are what I wrote spontaneously. That frightens me a bit, but I’m quite proud of the fact that I sang 99.9 percent of those lyrics spontaneously.”
“I don’t know what this song is about,” Collins told the BBC. “When I was writing this I was going through a divorce. And the only thing I can say about it is that it’s obviously in anger. It’s the angry side, or the bitter side of a separation. So what makes it even more comical is when I hear these stories which started many years ago, particularly in America. Someone will come up to me and say, ‘Did you really see someone drowning?’ I said, ‘No, wrong'”.
In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins
- Do You Feel Like We Do by Peter Frampton
Peter Frampton first recorded Do You Feel Like We Do in the studio with Frampton’s Camel in 1973. But his solo version on the 1976 live LP Frampton Comes Alive! is best-known by fans. At 14 minutes, the song includes a lengthy guitar solo by Frampton. “When I play the solo, I don’t think about anything,” Frampton told MusicRadar. “If I think, it won’t be any good. And I never play the solo the same way twice. Certain melodies I’ll do, of course, but a free-form solo passage is my chance to let go.”
The song’s highlight is Frampton’s use of the talk box: an effects pedal with a tube in the singer’s mouth that combines the guitar’s sound with his voice. “I wasn’t using the talk box for the first couple of years we played the song. Once I got the talk box, however, I started using it on Show Me The Way and Do You Feel Like We Do.
“It was such a different sound at the time; it just blew everybody’s minds. People still respond to it because it’s analog – and they associate it with me. I wasn’t the first guy to use the talk box: there was Joe Walsh, Jeff Beck, Pete Drake, Stevie Wonder, Alvino Rey – the list goes on and on. But I popularized it because of the songs on Frampton Comes Alive!
Do You Feel Like We Do by Peter Frampton
- It Don’t Come Easy by Ringo Starr
Originally titled You Gotta Pay Your Dues, Ringo Starr‘s It Don’t Come Easy was the drummer’s first solo hit after the breakup of the Beatles. Starr was backed by a lineup that included George Harrison on guitar, Stephen Stills on piano and Badfinger‘s Pete Ham and Tom Evans singing backup. “Ringo came in with this little song, that is, he sat down and played eight bars, and said, ‘That’s it.'” Stills recalled in the Beatles Bible. “So, we all made suggestions … and it came along very nicely. George told me that the session was for Ringo’s ‘surprise single’ and I guess that could be right.”
Harrison recorded a demo of the song with a guide vocal for Starr. Though Starr received the writing credit, he told Jody Denberg that Harrison helped. “George was my good friend. And I was very good at two verses and a chorus. And then I would take it over to George’s and he’d finish Photograph. And he finished It Don’t Come Easy. And also, you know, I’m not the best guitarist in the world. I have to admit that. I might be a great drummer, but I’m not the best guitarist. And so he would put in all these chords that made me sound like a genius and tie the song up.”
It Don’t Come Easy by Ringo Starr
It Don’t Come Easy by George Harrison (Demo)
- Face the Face by Pete Townshend
Pete Townshend once said, “The bad part about growing older is I’m going bald. The good part is my nose seems to be getting shorter.”
Face the Face was released as a single from Townshend’s 1985 concept album White City: A Novel. There has been conjecture about the meaning of Face the Face. Some have cited the T.S. Eliot poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, with its line “There will be a time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” The Who‘s guitarist said he came across the poem after he’d written the lyric but acknowledged in Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend that Eliot was onto something.
“He’s talking about preparing a certain dignity, to meet your destiny, that’s really what this song is about. It’s both about preparing to meet whatever’s gonna hit you, but also seeking it out – seeking out, certainly not death, but seeking your destiny.”
Face the Face by Pete Townshend
- Feelin’ Alright? by Dave Mason
Feelin’ Alright? has been covered by artists as varied as Three Dog Night, Mongo Santamaria, Grand Funk Railroad and Lulu. Joe Cocker had a hit with the song in 1969 and 1972. Its writer, Dave Mason, often points out that when he wrote and performed Feelin’ Alright? as a member of Traffic, its title had a question mark that Cocker dropped. “The song is about not feeling too good myself! That’s what’s the song’s about,” Mason told Something Else! “It’s not really about feeling alright, at all [Laughs]. But, that being said, without Joe’s version, it would never have gotten the enormous amount of attention it got. So, you know, it’s open to interpretation.”
“It’s just a song about a girl,” Mason said in Songfacts. “It’s just another relationship gone bad. I wrote it on a little island called Hydra in Greece. I was trying to write the simplest thing I could come up with, and two chords was it.”
Feelin’ Alright? by Dave Mason
Feelin’ Alright by Joe Cocker
- Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel, the original lead vocalist of Genesis, left the band in 1975. Sledgehammer was his biggest solo hit. Written by Gabriel, it reached No. 1 in 1986. The backing track by the Memphis Horns, house band of Stax Records, recalls the soul sound of the 1960s. Gabriel told the New York Times that Sledgehammer was “my brief encounter with mass media and pop.” Its innovative music video, one of the most played in MTV history, used claymation and stop motion animation to illustrate the song’s lyrics.
“With Sledgehammer, everyone thinks, ‘Oh, he must have created that to get a hit.’ And it wasn’t done that way,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone. “In fact, [bassist] Tony Levin reminded me that he was packing his bags to go home, and I called him back into the studio, saying ‘I’ve got this one idea that maybe we can fool around with for the next record – but I like the feel. That was Sledgehammer. It was late in the day and we just fell into the groove, landed a beautiful drum track on it, a great bass line and it all came together.”
Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel
- Fire and Rain by James Taylor
“I collect hats,” James Taylor has said. “That’s what you do when you’re bald.”
James Taylor’s first hit, Fire and Rain, appeared on 1970’s Sweet Baby James. The song is a chronicle of three events: the suicide of Taylor’s friend Suzanne Schnerr; the singer-songwriter’s battle with depression and drug addiction; and a bittersweet look back at his life.
“It details three different episodes of hard times,” Taylor told Blue Railroad. “The first one learning of Suzanne’s death, the second one coming back to the United States sick and strung out, trying to get back on my feet, physically exhausted, undernourished and addicted. And then the third one is much more general, not as specific as the first few verses. It talks about remembering one’s life, thinking back to my band the Flying Machine. Like a postcard from the loony bin. The third verse, I think, is hopeful. It is looking at going back out into the world and reengaging.
“I love playing it for people. And almost always, when I play that song, I get back to the place, to the feeling I had when I wrote it. That’s rare, after playing something maybe 1,500 times.”
Fire and Rain by James Taylor