The Beatles: Let It Be

LetItBeIn “The Hollow Men”, T.S. Eliot wrote the famous lines “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper.” Eliot was writing about despair, but the lines could be applied to the implosion of the Beatles in 1969 and 1970. Since 1963 in Europe, and 1964 in America and throughout the world, the Beatles were the Sun in the musical sky, the immense star around which everything else orbited. They did it all, they did it first, and they did it best. They managed to grow in startlingly fast ways, while always increasing the size of their audience. They changed the musical landscape forever, and their impact is still felt today, nearly fifty years after the band broke up. Their legacy has proven immune to the ravages of time as every year a new generation of fans is created. There has never been anything like them in popular culture. There’s never really been anything even remotely close to them. The story is extraordinary.

And yet, their final release is one of the weakest albums in their canon. While the final work they recorded, Abbey Road, was a masterpiece, the final album released under their name was a half-hearted collection of overproduced filler. These were the tracks that they had recorded in early 1969, then shelved because they hated the result. What’s truly remarkable…astounding, really…is that this album is still very good, far better than it has any right to be. Even at their worst, the Beatles light shone bright.

After Abbey Road, the tapes from the Get Back sessions, as they’ve come to be known, were handed to Phil Spector, the megalomaniac who pioneered the Wall of Sound-style production in the early-1960s. Spector had spent years wanting to get his hands on the Beatles and now he had his chance. He was given the rough tapes and the instructions to turn it into an album. The Beatles didn’t want much involvement in the process, and were content (“happy” is too strong a word to describe any of the Beatles at this point) to let Spector do his thing.

Many years later, Spector was convicted of murdering an actress named Lana Clarkson. She was not his first victim. His first victim was Let It Be (his second was All Things Must Pass).

Spector does deserve credit for some good decisions. The first is that he picked the best take of every song. His ear was perfect for that. The second good decision was to keep the loose feel of the original concept by including snippets of studio banter and between song jams. The third good decision was to take George Harrison’s slight “I Me Mine” and loop it to make it longer.

These good decisions were undercut by his desire to drown some of the songs in molasses. Strings, choirs, hordes of angels…attend! McCartney was hardest hit, though Lennon’s “Across the Universe” was also targeted for the Muzak treatment.

In 2003, the Beatles released the poorly titled Let It Be…Naked, which changes the song running order, takes out the studio chatter, adds in Lennon’s brilliant “Don’t Let Me Down” in place of “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae”, includes some different takes, and most importantly takes out Spector’s heavy hand and leaves the music to the band and Billy Preston. This is actually the better version of the album. It also comes with a second disc with about 20 minutes of studio chatter and rough run-throughs. That disc is mainly useful as a coaster.

The Let It Be album starts off very strongly with Lennon introducing the lead off track as “I Dig A Pygmy, by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids! Phase one: In which Doris gets her oats!” It’s not exactly the excited count in of “I Saw Her Standing There” or the drugged count in of “Taxman”, but it’s a surprising, light-hearted moment that leads into one of the album’s best songs.

“Two Of Us” was written by McCartney about a road trip he took with this soon-to-be wife, Linda Eastman. It’s a mostly acoustic number, loping briskly in something that is related, but not that closely, to country music. A lot of Beatles fans, myself included, think that the song works beautifully as an elegy to the partnership of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. It may have started as a song about being on the road with his lady love, but there’s no denying that the lyrics are a nearly perfect summation of Macca’s years-long partnership and friendship with Lennon. For starters, it’s both John and Paul singing the song in harmony, and the lines “You and me chasing paper/Getting nowhere” is almost certainly about the business troubles the band were in. Similarly, the line “You and me wearing raincoats/standing solo in the sun” could also easily reflect the mindset of McCartney at that time in the band’s life. But it’s the “You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches out ahead” that is almost certainly about the band. Why would McCartney write such a line about a woman he’d known less than a year and expected to be with for a very long time to come? He wouldn’t. But a man reflecting on his life with his friend since they were teenagers, and knowing it was all coming to an end? Yes, he’d write that line about Lennon.

More studio chatter and a blown intro lead into “Dig A Pony”. The lyrics are mostly nonsense. Lennon said he was just having fun with words, incorporating little jokes throughout. Given the spirit of the album, a return to their roots, “moon dog” is more likely to be a nod to Johnny and the Moondogs than it is to the celestial phenomenon and “I roll a stoney/you can imitate everyone you know” is almost certainly a good-natured dig at the Rolling Stones. Lennon, in the infamous “Lennon Remembers” interview in Rolling Stone magazine, accused the Stones of copying the Beatles every step along the way (not entirely inaccurate, but a vast overstatement). The music itself is good, but not great. The band sounds less than truly inspired, which is true of several tracks on the album. They play the notes just fine, but the passion that fueled their earlier work seems lost.

“Across the Universe” has one of Lennon’s best lyrics and was originally recorded in early 1968. A stripped down version, with overdubbed bird sounds, was released in late 1969 on an album called No One’s Gonna Change Our World, a charity release for the World Wildlife Fund. It was also later released on the Past Masters collection of non-LP tracks. That earlier version is the superior version. For Let It Be, Spector brought in the Heavenly Host to gild over the flaws in the track. Lennon later complained that he was singing and playing out of tune on the final release, but it’s hard to notice under all those strings that were ladled throughout. Lennon’s correct…if you listen to the beginning, before the orchestration, it sounds like a very well recorded demo. It’s also interesting in that it’s the last Lennon song to reflect positively on his time in India. Nearly a year after denouncing the Maharishi, the lyrics include the Sanskrit “Jai Guru Dev Om” which loosely translates to “Victory to God divine”.

George Harrison steps up to the plate for the first of his two songs with “I Me Mine”. Contrary to popular belief, the attack on a blatant egotist is not about Paul McCartney or John Lennon. It’s about George Harrison, who claimed that his experiences with LSD had opened his eyes to his own ego, and he didn’t like what he saw. The song has a place in music history as the last song the Beatles ever recorded, completing the overdubs in 1970, but that’s about all it has. A “heavy waltz” (as George described it), it’s a simple song with simpler, repetitive, lyrics. Spector looped the song, stretching it from 1:46 to a little under two and a half minutes, then brought in the strings to fill any space that might have been left between Paul, George, and Ringo (John didn’t play on the track). It’s a filler track that may well have never seen the light of day if the band hadn’t given up on themselves.

Side one of the album concludes with a very odd triptych. The first part, “Dig It”, is a 50 second excerpt of an interminably long jam the Beatles did in the studio, with Lennon singing extemporaneous lyrics. Talk about filler! But it’s also fun, as is the third part, a very loose rendition of a traditional song about a Liverpool prostitute named “Maggie Mae” that clocks in at 40 seconds. Sandwiched between these trifles is Paul’s classic title track.

“Let It Be” doesn’t escape Spector’s obsession with drowning the Beatles in schmaltz, but it survives intact. For starters, the orchestration is narrowed down to a small horn section and some cellos. More crucial is that the song is the type, a lovely piano ballad, that can actually benefit from some sympathetic orchestration. Add in terrific organ and electric piano accompaniment from guest star Billy Preston, a blistering guitar solo (George Harrison in overdrive), a magnificent vocal from McCartney, ably backed by Lennon and Harrison, and stellar drums from Ringo, and you’ve got a Beatles classic. It’s also helped by the fact that the somewhat repetitive lyrics, about a dream McCartney had in which his deceased mother, Mary, came to him to console him about the problems in the band, are sentimental without being maudlin.

Just as good, albeit in a different way, is “I’ve Got A Feeling”, which kicks off the second half of the record in fine style. It’s a tough rocker, recorded live at EMI Studios as part of the famous “Rooftop Concert”. This is the last true songwriting collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Paul brought in his love song to Linda Eastman, “I’ve Got A Feeling”, while John supplied his White Album-era song “Everybody Had A Hard Year” and the two of them collaborated on how to stitch them together. The result is a brilliant blend of McCartney looking forward and Lennon looking backwards. As he did on “Oh! Darling” McCartney breaks out every weapon is his vast vocal arsenal, singing as if his heart was about to burst, and the result is thrilling. It’s one of the best vocals McCartney ever recorded.

Macca’s got a feeling that he can’t keep inside, a feeling everybody knows, and that keeps him on his toes. For years he’s been wandering around wondering how come nobody told him that all that he was looking for was somebody who looked like Linda Eastman.

Lennon casts his eye to the past, inadvertently putting an epitaph on the Beatles by summing up their career from their hardscrabble beginnings to their increasingly bitter and angry infighting.

Everybody had a hard year
Everybody had a good time
Everybody had a wet dream
Everybody saw the sunshine
Oh yeah, (oh yeah) oh yeah, oh yeah (yeah)
Everybody had a good year
Everybody let their hair down
Everybody pulled their socks up (yeah)
Everybody put the foot down, oh yeah

The fact this is a live recording adds to the excitement. It’s the Beatles rocking together, seemingly having a grand time as Lennon and McCartney swap and blend vocals, and Ringo and George play tough support. The knock against the Beatles was always that they were a lousy live band, but that’s never been true. “I’ve Got A Feeling” shows that, even unrehearsed and spontaneously, the Beatles were capable of creating a joyous racket when they played together. It’s unfortunate that they never toured when the sound systems were louder than the audience. “I’ve Got A Feeling” is a great example of what might have been.

Also live from the rooftop is “One After 909”, a song that is a genuine throwback. Lennon and McCartney wrote it in the early Sixties, and the Beatles even recorded a version of it in 1963. The lyrics are simple; clearly they were still finding their way as lyricists, and the music is raw. This is the Beatles “getting back”, which was the purpose of the album. Essentially it’s the 1969 Beatles doing a cover version of a 1963 Beatles song. An enormous amount of musical growth had happened during those years, and “One After 909” isn’t even as sophisticated as what the Beatles were writing in 1964, never mind 1969. It’s a fun rocker, souped up from it’s original version, and they clearly are having fun doing the song. It’s nice to think that for three minutes the Beatles could leave Apple, Allen Klein and contract negotiations behind, and see themselves as they had been when they were so close Mick Jagger called them “the four-headed monster” because they always went everywhere together.

The joy of “One After 909” gives way to the sadness of McCartney’s “The Long And Winding Road”. If there is one song that was most hurt by Phil Spector, it’s this one. It was released as the Beatles final single and dutifully went to number one on the charts, becoming a very well-known track, but the version on the Let It Be album is a mess.

At its core, “The Long and Winding Road” is a strong piano ballad, not too dissimilar from “Let It Be”. But it was also not well performed. Lennon plays bass on the track and makes a lot of noticeable mistakes (perhaps intentionally?), and the take that was used for the album is more of a full band demo than a master take. Phil Spector wanted to cover the bum notes and too-loose feel of the song, so he applied his famous kitchen sink approach to production and poured on strings, horns, and a choir. Then he poured it on some more.

The result was that McCartney’s plaintive piano balled was turned into Muzak. The Beatles had released songs before that contained few or no Beatles playing, only singing. “Eleanor Rigby” had Paul and John on vocals only. “Yesterday” was Paul playing acoustic guitar and singing over a string section. But those songs sound more like the Beatles than this one, on which all four band members play. George Martin had written scores to accompany and support Beatle songs (as had Mike Leander for “She’s Leaving Home”), but “The Long And Winding Road” is Spector’s show. The band is merely supporting the pomposity and grandiosity of the producer. This is further evidenced by the fact that Spector erased one of McCartney’s two vocal tracks in order to use the tape for the orchestration. McCartney was furious, but his protests were too late and the song was released in this format. It’s a shame, because the underlying song is quite good, with a lovely melody.

George comes up again with “For You Blue”, which was also the B-side of the “Winding Road” single. It’s another very slight song, a sort of goofball happy blues with Lennon playing lap steel guitar (using a shotgun shell as a slide). Contrary to George’s encouraging words, John is no Elmore James. The band sounds like a band again, but I’m not really sure which band. It’s a decidedly un-Beatlesy song. What’s most confusing, however, is that in 1968 and 1969 George Harrison was improving as a songwriter almost exponentially, yet for Let It Be there are only two lightweight tracks. Songs like “All Things Must Pass” were already in their early stages, and were far superior to “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue”. The Beatles took a few passes at “All Things Must Pass” but never did a completed recording. Too bad. A stripped down Beatles recording of “All Things Must Pass” would have been as perfect an ending for the band as the closing of Abbey Road. Considering what Phil Spector did to the song on George’s first solo album, perhaps it’s for the better.

The album concludes with the mission statement for the recordings. McCartney’s “Get Back” is a brisk little rocker that was described by Lennon as a better version of their 1968 single, “Lady Madonna”. The song is helped immeasurably by the electric piano playing of their old friend Billy Preston…so much so, in fact, that when a different version of the song was released as a single in 1969 the label carried the credit “The Beatles with Billy Preston.” Eric Clapton didn’t even rate a mention for his work on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” although that may have been due to record company permissions.

“Get Back” is a great tune, but its fame may be somewhat outsized compared to its quality. It was the last song on the last Beatles album, and so holds a place in the heart of Beatle fans everywhere. It began life as a political statement, a satire of British attitudes towards immigrants, but fortunately the world was spared McCartney’s “don’t dig no Pakistanis” lyrics in favor of the story of Jo Jo and Sweet Loretta Martin. The truth is that the verses (of which there are only two) are somewhat nonsensical, but are saved by the swing of the music and the earworm of the chorus. There are also two very good guitar solos, played by John Lennon.

Ironically, it was Phil Spector who may have been the one who immortalized the song. Spector added a bit of studio chatter at the beginning of the song, and more importantly added a bit of banter from the rooftop concert to the end. Although the song is entirely a studio recording, it ends with the applause of the onlookers from the roof of Apple Records. McCartney thanks Ringo’s wife, Maureen, for her support and then Lennon gets the final word as the last song on the last Beatles album closes out a truly legendary career: “Thank you. On behalf of the group and ourselves, I hope we passed the audition.”

There was never any doubt that they had.

Grade: B
Grade (Let It Be…Naked): A

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The Rolling Stones: Bridges To Babylon

The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon

On Voodoo Lounge the Rolling Stones tried their best to recreate the sound and production of their glory years. For the followup, Keith Richards wanted to bring Don Was back as producer but Mick Jagger had other ideas. Jagger, driven as always by a need to be seen as contemporary, wanted to bring in some young, cutting edge producers. The result was a compromise. Jagger would get his producers, but Don Was would be the “executive” producer overseeing the whole project. The result was an album that was as bloated and overlong as Voodoo Lounge, but had a fiercer set of songs and was less beholden to the need to sound retro.

While not really a return to classic form, Bridges To Babylon holds up as the best album they’d done since Some Girls. Granted, that’s not all that difficult. Still, there’s real grit on Bridges, unlike the cartoon-ish tough guy stances of Dirty Work.

The album launched with controversy. The first single, “Anybody Seen My Baby?” bore a striking resemblance to K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving”. That chorus was so similar the album ended up being released with a co-writing credit for Lang on the song, meaning that Lang has as many co-writing credits with the Stones as Marianne Faithfull. The song isn’t particularly good, and features a cringe-inducing rap sample from Biz Markie, but it does have a really slinky bass line from Daryl Jones and an appropriately sleazy vocal from Jagger, who purrs the words like a cheetah sizing up an antelope. Charlie sounds like he was replaced with a metronome, his drumming lacking all of his usual character, and even the guitars are buried in the production. There’s some nice lead guitar work in the fade, but it’s mixed to be not much louder than the percussion that underlines the entire song.

Far better was the album’s opening track, “Flip The Switch”, which breaks out with Charlie, joined by Keith and Ron Wood, before Jagger comes in with full sneer. It’s a typically defiant Stones lyric, with the twist being that Jagger sings from the perspective of a man about to be executed. “Lethal injection is a luxury/I want to give it to the whole jury”, Jagger sings as Richards and Wood bounce dual lead/rhythms off each other, and the entire band sounds like they’re having the time of their lives just cutting loose. Sure, “Flip the Switch” has been accused of being a “Start Me Up” knockoff, but it’s got better lyrics, better guitar work, and rocks relentlessly…so who cares?

Richards and Wood also dominate “Low Down”, another rocker with deft interplay between the two guitarists. A close listening to the Stones in the Ronnie Wood era is like reading a textbook of how a two guitar lineup should work. It’s not the typical rhythm/lead trade-off that you find in the Mick Taylor era (and in almost all of rock history), with a virtuoso playing lead and a rhythm guitarist slashing the riffs. Wood and Richards play both lead and rhythm, each of them banging chords and playing different, complementary, riffs while unleashing brief flurries of lead work. Jagger’s in fine voice, as he is throughout the album, which features some of the last truly great singing he ever did, but “Low Down” is something of a rote rocker. It’s a good album filler track, and the chorus soars nicely, but there’s nothing really memorable about the song.

Jagger sings “Already Over Me” with a melodramatic, halting vocal that sounds like he’s on the verge of breaking down in tears, as if he’s overcome with emotion. It’s not really a particularly believable vocal coming from a notorious satyr like Mick Jagger. How much time would he spend crying over a woman who left him instead of merely promoting one of the other girls he’s got waiting in line? But whether you believe in Sad Sack Mick or not, it’s a fine ballad, with sweetly subtle piano from Blondie Chaplin and Charlie Watts playing a perfectly empathetic drum part. The closing refrain of Jagger plaintively repeating “What a fool I’ve been” is both a nice departure from his usual sex god persona and a timeless and very human thought. Anyone who’s ever loved and lost has felt this way.

The band cranks it up again on “Gunface”, a song that practically drips with malice and a genuine sense of menace. Directed not to a cheating lover, but rather to the man she’s cheating with, “Gunface” is a flat-out declaration that murder is the order of the day. The lyrics are intense and nasty, pregnant with the threat of impending violence, but they’re also more interesting than that. As the words spill out, Jagger’s voice drenched in scorn and hatred, he implies that he was once the other man (“I taught her everything/I taught her how to lie…I taught her everything/Yeah, I taught her how to cheat”) but that won’t save the man from certain death (“Your tongue licking way out of place/I’ll rip it out, yeah/I’ll put a gun in your face/You’ll pay with your life”). The band sound like legitimate bad boys here. Jagger’s snarling voice and the razor slashing of Keith and Ronnie Wood’s guitars, punctuated by Charlie’s staccato drum fills sounding like so many shots going off are far more convincing than anything dreamed up by bands like Motley Crüe. This is likely to do with their being steeped in the blues, the original bad boy music filled with tales of heartbreak, revenge, and murder. Ronnie’s wicked slide solo burns and ties the track back to the blues of their youth. “Gunface” is a modern rock take on songs like Howlin’ Wolf’s hellacious “Forty-Four”.

After a track that intense, Keith Richards brings down the intensity with the first of three (!) lead vocals on one of his beloved reggae numbers. “You Don’t Have To Mean It” is likely the best reggae song they released after 1974’s “Luxury”, but it also sounds like an outtake from one of Keith’s solo albums. Jagger is nowhere to be found, and the main musical hook of the song is a horn lick. Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin provide the too smooth, too professional backing vocals that immediately make the song sound less like the Stones than they should. It’s a good song, but it could have been so much better with Jagger on backing vocals.

The Stones discovered reggae music in the 1970s, and the next track taps into their other  love from that decade, funk. With a bass line nicked from the Temptations classic “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, “Out Of Control” tips its hat to performers like Curtis Mayfield in his Superfly days. before the chorus explodes into a more typical Stones-ish feel before settling back down into that funky vibe for the verses. Jagger also breaks out his harmonica, adding a touch of blues to the song, and reminding everyone that he’s a truly great harp player. “Out Of Control”, as well as “Saint Of Me”, got quite a bit of radio exposure back in the day, probably the last time the Stones could be considered radio stars before the internet blew up the music and communications industries.

What’s striking about “Saint Of Me” is the remarkable twist of the lyric. Jagger belts the chorus (“Yeah, oh yeah/You’ll never make a saint of me”) with pure defiance, like a challenge to God. He’s Big Bad Mick Jagger, after all, wearing his mantle of debauchery and dissolution. But the verses of the song can be seen almost as a prayer, seeking a better life and even sainthood. The prospect scares Jagger because he doesn’t want his head on a plate like the martyr John the Baptist, but he begins the song with accounts of famously sinful people who were shown the light. Literally in the case of “Paul the persecutor” who was hit “with a blinding light/And then his life began”. There’s also Augustine who “loved women, wine, and song”, much like a certain Rolling Stones singer, before becoming a saint.

Jagger asks himself if he could stand the trials of becoming a saint (“Could you stand the torture?…Could you put your faith in Jesus when you’re burning in the flames?”) and somewhat surprisingly answers, “I said yes.” He then goes on to say that he believes in miracles, and that he wants “to save his soul” while acknowledging his own sinfulness and that he will “die here in the cold”. Later, he sings of hearing “an angel cry”.

Aside from the fact that “Saint Of Me” is a ripping track that pulls deeply from the sound of the Stones in the 1970s (they even bring in Billy Preston on the organ), this is one of Jagger’s best vocals since Exile On Main Street, and one of the most intriguing lyrics he ever wrote. Jagger’s first-person lyrical excursions have included a lot of bluesy myth-making. He was the one who was born in a crossfire hurricane, howling at his mother in the driving rain. He was the one who took on the role of the Devil, and who once hoped that the band wasn’t “a trifle too Satanic”. On “Saint Of Me” he seems to be saying that that wants to join the communion of saints, but that he’s so debauched he’s beyond hope. Even God can’t save him, and the angels weep because of it. The chorus sounds defiant, but in context with the verses it seems more than a little sad, and maybe even a little angry. He wants to be better. He wants to be a saint, but God isn’t helping.

God’s probably not helping because he’s Mick Jagger, the guy who follows up the sad pleas of “Saint Of Me” with the answer “Might As Well Get Juiced.” Why waste His time? Right away, we’re back to the Devil’s music, blues, albeit with a very modern, and not wholly enjoyable, spin. Lyrically, this may as well be Jagger once again taking on the role of the Devil and whispering in the ear of the guy who sang “Saint Of Me”:

If you really want to melt down your mind
Crank it up to straight double time
If you really want to have you some fun
Spit right down on everyone
If you’ve got the strength to scream out Hell why?
The wheel of life is passing you by
You might as well get juiced

The vocals are sleazy, Ron Wood plays some nasty slide guitar, and there’s a sweet blues harp solo from Mick. This is the Stones playing to all of their strengths and yet the song remains simply an interesting experiment. This is the kind of blues the band is capable of doing as well as anyone and better than almost everyone, but Jagger’s desire to remain “current” with the music scene, and his affiliation with producers the Dust Brothers (“They were two stoners; one had the record collection and a bong, the other was the knob turner,” according to an engineer on the sessions), led to the Stones being buried under an avalanche of synthesizer swoops, keyboard farts, and electronic squiggles. The song at the base is so good, and so much in the band’s wheelhouse, that it survives the experiment but it’s easy to understand fans wondering what to make of this sudden swerve into electronic music. Keith Richards hated the production, and once claimed that “there’s a great version” of the song somewhere. Hopefully it will see the light of day. Jagger’s desire to be current has only dated the most timeless music of all, blues.

The band missteps with “Always Suffering”. It’s another Jagger ballad, although not as affecting as “Already Over Me”. Lyrically, it’s the equivalent of trying to talk your way out of being dumped. “Please take these flowers, smell the perfume/Let your soul come alive/Let there be hope, hope in your heart/That our love may revive,” sings Jagger. The song follows a similar musical template to “Already Over Me”, and is close enough that it probably should have been relegated to a B-side or left in the vault. Jagger’s vocal is smooth, and Keith and Ronnie play well together, especially when Ronnie answers Keith acoustic lead with some great pedal steel. But it’s almost five minutes long, and that’s at least a couple of minutes longer than it needs to be.

Fortunately, the band steps right back into the groove with “Too Tight”, a Keith Richards rocker, co-written and sung con brio by Jagger. A warning to a clingy girlfriend, it’s a thrilling riff rocker. The Stones are clearly having a blast with this one, featuring some super piano flourishes by Blondie Chaplin and a terrific guitar solo from Keith. The vocal support is by Bernard Fowler and Blondie Chaplin, but also include Keith’s recognizable rasp that adds the proper amount of grit and makes the song sound more raw than the songs where the band is absent from the backing vocals. Charlie’s in his Human Metronome disguise, providing a crisp snap that propels the song as much as Keith and Ronnie’s guitars.

And that’s how Bridges To Babylon ends.

Not really. But it is how the album should have ended.Unfortunately. In the annals of baffling decisions by the Rolling Stones, ending their best album in nearly twenty years with two consecutive Keith-sung ballads is among the most mystifying.

“Thief In The Night” is more of a soundscape than anything else. The song is built on a guitar riff that originated with Keith’s guitar tech, Pierre de Beauport, who gets a co-writing credit. Keith speak/sings the vocals over a far too prominent Fowler and Chaplin and a percussion track that sounds like a hi-hat factory. Charlie puts in some nice fills, and Keith does a nice acoustic guitar solo that’s buried too low in the mix, but the whole song, including the vocal, sounds improvised. Some last-second horns spice it up a bit but they arrive too late and, like everything else, are buried in a bad mix.

It gets better with the album’s closing track, “How Can I Stop”, the title of which should include a parenthetical (“And the Story Of How I Couldn’t”). The mix here is much better but once again it’s the sound of solo Keith Richards. At nearly seven minutes, it’s one of the longest songs in the Stones studio canon, and while it’s considerably better than the song that precedes it, it still never really achieves liftoff until the end, when Wayne Shorter steps in to play a terrific sax solo and Charlie Watts starts to amp it up a bit. Keith’s vocal is very nice, maybe the perfect vehicle for a song like this, which Jagger probably would have over-emoted. If they’d kept the ending and shaved two minutes off the beginning, “How Can I Stop” would have been a great way to close the album, but every bit as much as Keith Richards, Mick Jagger is the Rolling Stones and keeping both “Thief In The Night” and “How Can I Stop” makes it sound like the band’s frontman took a powder before the album was even finished.

Bridges To Babylon was largely praised by critics, but mostly ignored by the public. At the time it was seen as just product for the next tour, but hindsight reveals it to be a genuinely good album. The running time clocks in at over an hour, but if you remove “Always Suffering”, “Thief In The Night”, and “Anybody Seen My Baby?” the album suddenly bounces up from good to near-great. It’s not Sticky Fingers, or even Some Girls, but it’s as good as, or better, than most of their second-tier albums, and probably the best album of their post-70s career. It’s the 1990s equivalent of Between The Buttons, a lost gem that’s worth discovering. It was also the last Rolling Stones album for nearly a decade.

Grade: B+

Buried Treasure: Grant-Lee Buffalo, Mighty Joe Moon

Mighty Joe Moon by Grant Lee Buffalo

In the autumn of 1994, alternative rock was still very much the dominant sound on modern rock radio. It was the year of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Nine Inch Nails’s Downward Spiral, and Alice in Chains’s Jar Of Flies. R.E.M. embraced crushing distortion on Monster, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Rollins Band, and Meat Puppets released popular discs, and Nirvana exited the stage to the elegiac strains of unplugged guitars. So-called “Britpop” blew up with the début album from Oasis and Blur’s Parklife. Thanks to a mud-caked appearance at Woodstock ’94, Green Day became the tip of the pop-punk spear that would soon become very popular.

Completely unobserved amid the crashing guitars, a trio named Grant Lee Buffalo released their second album, Mighty Joe Moon. Their first, Fuzzy, had been a hit with critics and other musicians. R.E.M. in particular were huge, and vocal, fans. Because of this, and thanks to being given the opening slot on R.E.M.’s worldwide, and jinxed, Monster tour, Mighty Joe Moon became the band’s most successful album. Their (not very good) video for “Mockingbird” was played on MTV a handful of times (Beavis and Butthead critiqued it at one point), and there were the occasional late night TV appearances. But calling it their most successful album is faint praise. In the public consciousness, the album came and went without a trace.

Mighty Joe Moon was too different from the musical zeitgeist. A lush, densely layered, largely acoustic album, enriched with Dobros, pedal steel, mellotron, banjo, all manner of percussion instruments, and even a pump organ was a far cry from the Who-like storm of Pearl Jam or the psychedelic metal of Soundgarden. To be sure, there were moments of alternative rock fury, most notably on the bruising “Lone Star Song”, where singer/songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips deftly mingles the stories of Kennedy’s assassination and the more recent fiasco at David Koresh’s compound in Waco. But even here, riding atop the slabs of guitar chords, the musical hook comes from a harmonica…not exactly the most commonly heard instrument at the time outside of the confines of a Blues Traveler song.

Over twelve more songs, Phillips, bassist Paul Kimble, and drummer Joey Peters travel the back roads of America. They sing of eating trout in the Cumberland Gap (“Mighty Joe Moon”), of Johnny Cash singing for pills (“Demon Called Deception”), of the airplanes flying high above Tecumseh’s grave (“The Last Days of Tecumseh”), and of the devastating aftermath of the 1994 earthquake in California (“Mockingbirds”). American icons like Evel Knievel and Muhammed Ali show up alongside villains like John Wayne Gacy (“Sing Along”) and characters from myths and folktales (“Lady Godiva and Me”), before the album closes with a beautiful, heartfelt prayer and plea for forgiveness (“Rock Of Ages”). The music is folk and rock, country and alternative. Nobody was calling it “Americana” back then, but that’s exactly what it is, and it puts the biggest names in the genre to shame. This is what an alternative rock version of The Band would sound like, with Phillips’s magnificent tenor and sweeping falsetto (Rolling Stone‘s Annual Critics Poll named him Best Male Vocalist in 1994) replacing Levon Helm’s down-home grit and Richard Manuel’s keening heartbreak.

The album sold a bit more than 100,000 copies, roughly equal to the total sold by Grant Lee Buffalo’s three other, excellent, albums combined. Those sales numbers don’t reflect quality, and Mighty Joe Moon stands as one of the best albums of the decade that spawned it.

Grade: A+

The Beatles: Abbey Road

Abbey Road

After the tension-filled sessions that created the White Album, the Beatles went back into the studio with a film crew in tow. The idea was to film a documentary about the making of the next album, provisionally called Get Back. It was a move to fulfill their old contractual obligation to make movies, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.

The concept was to go into the studio and “get back” to their roots as a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band. Lennon, especially, wanted to avoid what he saw as the overproduction on albums like Sgt. Pepper.

The result was a disaster.

The rehearsals for the sessions were not done in their home base of EMI Studios, but in Twickenham Film Studios. Lennon, deeply in thrall to his new partner Yoko Ono, refusing ever to be apart from her, addicted to heroin, and creatively empty, was looking to break from the Beatles and was, at best, disinterested in the recording. Harrison was blossoming as a songwriter, turning out many of the best songs he ever wrote, and was frustrated that Lennon and McCartney were still treating him as an inferior. At one point he briefly quit the band. Ringo, too, felt apart from the band. McCartney was the only member who could still be called a Beatles fan. He tried desperately to rally the group into making a great album, but by taking over in the studio he became insufferable. Arguments abounded. Brian Epstein was dead and the band had no direction or focus. Even George Martin, their guiding light in the studio, was out of sorts when Paul brought in the producer Glyn Johns as an engineer. All of it was caught on film.

There was a brief bright spot. On the roof of EMI Studios, on a cold January day, the Beatles played one last live show. They only got through a few songs before the police shut them down, but for that brief period they were a band again: locked in, happy, and functioning as a single unit.

That moment was not enough. The music they had recorded in the studio was, as Lennon rightfully described it, “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever”.

Shortly after the rooftop concert, the band gave up and went their separate ways.

It was, of course, McCartney who reached out to the others, including George Martin, and got them to agree to give it one more try. Martin agreed on one condition: “We go in and do it like we used to.” The Beatles agreed.

The result was a triumph.

Abbey Road, the final album the Beatles recorded and thus their true swan song, is not without some flaws but it is a far more cohesive album than its all-white predecessor. It begins with John Lennon’s last famous Beatles song. “Come Together” started life as a campaign song for LSD-guru Timothy Leary’s brief attempt to become the governor of California with the slogan “Come together, join the party”, but Lennon was never able to get past the “come together” phrase. When Leary’s run ended as the result of a drug bust, Lennon scrapped the idea, kept the slogan, and crafted the song as we know it today. Beginning, and laced throughout, with John whispering the now creepily ironic line “Shoot me”, the lyrics are a hodgepodge of non sequiturs though there is speculation that each verse has cryptic allusions to the members of the band. The third verse clearly is about Lennon: “Bag Productions“, “walrus gumboot”, “Ono sideboard” can all easily be seen as self-referencing, but the theory falls apart when it gets to the other Beatles. Non sequiturs or not, it’s the music and the tagline (“Come together/Right now/Over me”) that make the song. Originally meant to be faster, it was McCartney who suggested they slow it down and add a swampy, bluesy feel to the track. Propelled by McCartney’s extraordinary bass line, and Lennon’s sublime vocal, it’s a devastating salvo to lead off the album. As wildly eclectic as the White Album was, there was nothing like “Come Together” in the band’s canon. The true tragedy of the song is that Lennon decided to nick a lyric from “You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry: “Here come a flat top/He was movin’ up with me” was modified into “Here come old flat top/He come groovin’ up with me.” Lennon was sued by Berry’s publisher and, as part of the setttlement, ended up being forced to record his sloppy, cocaine-fueled, largely uninspired solo album of covers, Rock ‘n’ Roll, in 1975.

As good as Lennon’s song was, it was immediately outclassed in every way by the song that followed. “Something” was George Harrison’s finest moment as a Beatle (though all votes for “Here Comes The Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” will be counted). Upon hearing it none other than the Chairman of the Board (and no fan of rock music), Frank Sinatra, dubbed it “the greatest love song of the past 50 years” (though for years he gave the songwriting credit to Lennon and McCartney). Ironically, George also stole a key lyric, though he wasn’t sued. James Taylor, then a new recording artist signed to Apple Records, had a song on his fairly obscure first album called “Something In The Way She Moves” from which George blatantly, and admittedly, lifted his opening line. From there the songs parted. Taylor’s mid-tempo ballad, with a terribly cheesy harpsichord introduction, sounds like something Simon and Garfunkel might have done as album filler (though Taylor’s guitar playing shines far brighter than Simon’s ever did). Harrison’s “Something”, with its elegant guitar (bent strings, not a slide as many people think) and rocked up bridge, are immediately recognizable and timeless. Indeed, “Something” was so strong that even Lennon and McCartney conceded that it should be the A-side of their next single, a first for a George Harrison song. Lennon called it “the best on the album” and McCartney thought it the best song Harrison had written to that point. The song also contains one of the very best performances on a Beatles record from both Ringo, whose cascading rolls and fills both punctuate and push the ballad into rockier territory, and, especially, McCartney, whose wildly intricate bass line is one of the best he’s ever done.

McCartney takes the lead on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, another of his English music hall pastiche songs, a sort of psychopathic cousin to “When I’m Sixty-Four”. It’s as cute as any other song about bludgeoning people to death, maybe even cuter, with some nice guitar fills from George and excellent piano from Paul. There’s also a Moog synthesizer solo that never should have been recorded (generally true for all Moog synthesizer solos). The earworm chorus, complete with a hammer striking an anvil (for Richard Starkey of Liverpool, opportunity clanks!), makes the song instantly memorable even though it’s really very lightweight. Far better is “Oh! Darling”, which follows. It’s also something of a pastiche, but this time it hearkens back to the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll the Beatles loved so much, and features a larynx-shredding vocal from Paul. Lennon had made a pitch that he should sing it, since it fit his raw vocal style better, but there’s simply no denying the visceral thrill of McCartney employing almost every weapon in his arsenal.

Ringo marks his presence with “Octopus’s Garden”, a quirky song that was inspired by a conversation with a boat captain, but also a comment on Ringo’s wish to get away from the tension that came with being a Beatle in 1969. In some ways it can be seen as a companion piece to Ringo’s other nautical adventure, “Yellow Submarine”, with underwater sound affects, but also employs some of the country music sound from “Don’t Pass Me By”, especially on the chorus and George’s superb guitar solo. It’s the best song Ringo wrote as a Beatle (granted, there’s only “Don’t Pass” for competition), and it’s quite charming, but it’s also a light piece of fluff. A perfect Ringo song.

Side one ends with one of the rare “love it or hate it” songs in the Beatles canon. While it’s nowhere near as controversial as something like “Revolution 9”, many fans are divided on the merits of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. The lyrics are simple: “I want you/I want you so bad/It’s driving me mad” and “She’s so heavy” are pretty much the total of the words, but the song clocks in at nearly eight minutes. The critics say the lyrics are too simple, the music too repetitive, the song too unlike any other Beatles song. Put me in the “love it” side of the argument. Yes, the words are simple but Lennon wasn’t trying to intellectualize his feelings for Yoko Ono, he was simply howling his raw, unbridled, lust. The music is a circular motif that borders on heavy metal, slathered in washes of synthesizer and Paul McCartney’s astounding lead bass playing. Layered guitars make the song sound impossibly big, and the repetition makes the listener feel like he’s being sucked into a maelström. The effect is hypnotic and the ending, a sudden cut to silence that is impossible to accurately time even with repeated listens, is as shocking as the piano chord that ends “A Day In The Life”.

The swirling darkness and Lennon’s primal vocal on “I Want You” offer a stark contrast to “Here Comes The Sun”, which kicks off side two of the album with a gorgeous, gentle guitar lick. This is George’s second song on the album, and stiff competition for his first, and the title of “best George Beatle song”. Written in Eric Clapton’s garden on a beautiful sunny day, the theme actually mirrors “Octopus’s Garden”. It’s George’s sigh of relief that he is, at least for that moment, away from the crushing pressure of the Beatles. It’s unfortunate that Lennon, recovering from a car accident, doesn’t appear on the song. Musically, it’s George, Paul, and Ringo at their best. The gentle, but insistent, guitar from Harrrison is given a great deal of urgency by Ringo’s sterling drumming and McCartney’s melodic bass line. It’s also one of George’s best vocal performances ever. With some subtle touches of synthesizer, strings, and woodwinds, it’s a perfect song to capture that feeling of springtime breaking through the cold clutches of Old Man Winter.

“Because” is the sun fully arrived. Based loosely on the chords of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” played backwards, and with sparse instrumentation, it’s perhaps the best example of the three-part harmonies of which the Beatles were capable. Sung by John, Paul, and George in harmony, with the vocals later triple-tracked to give the impression of nine voices, over George Martin’s harpsichord and John’s matching guitar, and underpinned by Paul’s simple bass and Harrison’s Moog flourishes, “Because” is one of the loveliest songs the Beatles ever did.

“Because” ends on a sustained “ahhh” that trails off into the ether and segues into the understated piano chords that herald one of the greatest of all late-era Beatles songs. “You Never Give Me Your Money” is McCartney’s song about the tension of being in the Beatles, their legal and accounting issues, and the desire to get away from it all. “You never give me your money/You only give me your funny paper”, Paul sang directly to Allen Klein, the ruthless and corrupt manager that the other Beatles wanted to fill the void left by Brian Epstein’s death (they didn’t know he was ruthless and corrupt yet, only that he managed the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger had provided a very tepid endorsement). From this understated beginning, the song rapidly switches to Paul doing his best boogie-woogie piano (recorded at half-speed and then sped up) and Elvis voice, singing about the joys of the early days of the band, when the future stretched out in front of them. He’s singing about the beginnings of the band, hitting the road, all the money gone, with no idea of what the future might hold but knowing it was going to be great: “But oh, that magic feeling/Nowhere to go/Nowhere to go!”, followed by a wordless three-part harmony that leads into a quick, but ripping, guitar solo.

The third part of the song is Paul looking to recapture those early days, but this time with his new love, Linda Eastman, and with boatloads of money: “One sweet dream/Pack up the bags/Get in the limousine/Soon we’ll be away from here/Step on the gas and wipe that tear away.” While the third part of the song looks forward, it’s also somewhat sad as it’s Paul essentially acknowledging that his future does not lie with the Beatles. As the song ends in a firestorm of guitar and piano, Paul sings the childhood chant “1-2-3-4-5-6-7/All good children go to Heaven”. The song is a nice contrast to Starr’s and Harrison’s similarly themed songs. Ringo just wanted to get away from it all, and George was so happy to be away from it all, but “You Never Give Me Your Money” is shot through with nostalgia for the past, sadness for the present, and a wistful melancholy for the future. While George’s and Ringo’s songs were snapshots of a moment in time, of how they felt at the precise moment they were writing the song, McCartney’s was a survey of all his conflicting emotions during this incredibly difficult time.

What follows is one of the greatest sustained album sides ever recorded, made all the more remarkable because most of the songs aren’t particularly good. They might have been good, or even great, given more time and effort, but the rest of Abbey Road is a collection of half-formed ideas for songs. Standing alone, most of these songs would be considered lesser Beatle efforts, toss-offs, and outtakes. Only two of the remaining eight songs break the two-minute mark. Confronted with the need to fill the rest of the album, and not having enough full songs to do it, with their interest level waning, McCartney suggested that they take their ideas and stitch them together to form one long suite of short songs. It was a brilliant idea that paid off big. Sure the songs are half-baked, but the reckless pace of what became known as either the “Abbey Road Medley” or, as it was commonly referred, “Side Two of Abbey Road” sweeps the listener along. The individual parts of the medley are unimportant (at least until “The End”), but the medley carries a rhythm and flow that essentially turn these disparate elements into one long song.

The real start of the medley is “You Never Give Me Your Money”, but that song is rarely considered to be the start since it’s a standalone song with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Yet as it finally drifts away in a wash of chiming guitars, “Sun King” slides in underneath, connecting the two pieces. “Sun King” is very close to being a full song, though the lyrics are very simple and the last refrains are a combination of Spanish, Italian, English, and gibberish. Lennon once referred to it as “a piece of garbage I had laying around”. But even these words sound marvelous with the Beatle voices locked in harmony. It’s an understated, slow song that provides the perfect introduction for what follows. “Mean Mr. Mustard”, with Paul resurrecting the fuzz bass he last used on Rubber Soul‘s “Think For Yourself” and John giving a great delivery of nonsense lyrics about a nasty man who hid money in his nose, picks up the tempo before crashing into the fast rocker, “Polythene Pam”, another snippet Lennon had in his back pocket. It makes more sense than “Mean Mr. Mustard”, as a straightforward tribute to an “attractively built” girl, but at just over a minute long it sweeps by so quickly that it barely registers. “Polythene Pam” then segues seamlessly into McCartney’s “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”. It’s nearly two minutes long, and can rightly be seen as a standalone song (Joe Cocker covered it). It keeps up the pace of “Pam”, but is more structured and complete. It’s also lyrically more coherent, telling the tale of a fan who broke into Paul’s house and stole a picture.

There is the briefest of pauses (something I never understood) before “Golden Slumbers” begins with its quiet piano and soothing McCartney vocal, underpinned by George Harrison’s bass and a string section that swells and sighs behind the vocal melody with a melody all its own. The quiet interlude is brief, as McCartney starts belting out the chorus only to tone it down again for a repeat of the verse. Instead of the chorus repeating, “Carry That Weight” breaks in with a powerful horn flourish and a chorus of Beatle voices singing the lyrics as if the band members were a stadium full of soccer hooligans. Once again it’s McCartney commenting on the problems in the Beatles circle, evidenced by the return of the melody for “You Never Give My Your Money”, this time played by a horn section. The reprise of the earlier song crashes up against the main song’s climax before switching to the grand finale of “The End”.

The beginning of this finale is so much of a piece with “Carry That Weight” it could easily be seen as a continuation. Both songs are loud, bracing rockers; the anthemic “Boy, you gotta carry that weight a long time” vocal blends seamlessly into McCartney’s raw-throated “Oh yeah!/All right!/Are you gonna be in my dreams/Tonight?” that kicks off “The End” before sliding into the most unlikely thing one would expect on a Beatles album: a drum solo.

Ringo hated drum solos and had to be convinced to play one. Even here, given the chance to flail around like so many drummers do, Ringo chose to serve the song. The solo is brief, uncomplicated, musical, rock-solid, and unwavering. It’s the perfect Ringo vehicle, with none of the usual histrionics one expects from drum solos. As the solo ends, there’s a brief intercession with the band banging out chords and chanting “Love you!/Love you!” before segueing into the next least likely thing you’d expect to hear on a Beatles album arrives: a guitar duel. McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon (in that order) took two bars apiece, rotating three times, to cut heads one last time. Recorded live with the three of them playing and, according the the engineer Geoff Emerick, appearing ecstatically happy, the solos are perfect representations of their musicianship. McCartney’s solo is fluid and fast, complex, but musical. Harrison’s solo sounds more structured, but is equally facile. Lennon once said that as a guitarist he “wasn’t that good, but I can make it howl”, and he does so here. His chugging, distorted chording and triplets add just the right note of chaos to the structure. The solos build in intensity, a rock band firing on all cylinders before abruptly ending and giving way to a simple piano motif.

And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to
The love you make

It’s Paul sendoff to the band, and a last piece of advice for a tumultuous decade. The vocal, punctuated lightly with a three-note George guitar lick, ends with a huge buildup of strings and brass, McCartney’s breathy “Ahh”, and Harrison’s majestic guitar.

It’s really pretty amazing that collection of gestating song ideas, strung together, could provide a climax as cathartic as the final chord of “A Day in The Life”, but that is what happens here. Broken into their individual elements, only “The End” and, maybe, “Sun King” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” hold up as complete entities. Taken as a whole, the sum of the parts is gloriously transcendent. The parts swirl, ebb, flow, crash, live, and breathe as a unique organism, and the medley remains one of the greatest moments in the Beatles recorded history, and elevates Abbey Road from the level of merely excellent to being considered one of their best albums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then…

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she doesn’t have a lot to say
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day
I wanna tell her that I love her a lot
But I gotta get a belly full of wine
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
Someday I’m gonna make her mine, oh yeah
Someday I’m gonna make her mine

Grade: A+

“Lonely and weary from this troubled task of trying…” Chris Cornell, RIP

When I first heard Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” it was before I knew who Chris Cornell was (though I’d heard of, but never heard, Soundgarden). I also didn’t know who Eddie Vedder or Pearl Jam was, as they were still many months away from releasing their first album. As far as I was concerned, Temple of the Dog was some new band. I was suitably impressed, remarking to a friend, “This band has two of the best singers I’ve ever heard.” I didn’t hear the song again for nearly a year, when the record company finally realized, in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten that it was failing to promote what was, essentially, a “grunge” supergroup.

Since then, Chris Cornell has always been there, the most powerful voice from a scene that included singers as visceral and exciting as Vedder and Mark Lanegan. His range was close to four octaves, and when he hit those higher registers he could strip the paint off your car.

In Soundgarden, Cornell brought out the heavy. Soundgarden’s stated intention was to be “Black Sabbath, minus the parts that suck”, and at first they were unsure of what that meant. Their early material is brutally heavy, crashing chords, searing leads, and Cornell’s glass-shattering wail riding on top. It was the songs he wrote for Temple of the Dog that showed the first indications of maturity. While “Hunger Strike” and “Wooden Jesus” were originally written for Soundgarden, Cornell held them back because they weren’t the right fit for the band. Yes, they were hard rock, but the lyrics were more personal, the melodies more refined, the instrumentation more diverse. The experience of working on these songs, and collaborating with three-fifths of Pearl Jam, was instructive and Cornell took the lessons back to Soundgarden. There’s an enormous leap of songwriting skill between 1990’s skull-crushing Louder Than Love and 1991’s still bruising but more eclectic Badmotorfinger. The latter wasn’t short of pummeling guitar on tracks like “Rusty Cage”, “Outshined”, and, especially, “Jesus Christ Pose”, but it was leavened with slower, denser songs like “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, which contained elements associated with genres like psychedelia.

That songwriting leap, and Cornell was not the only writer in the band though he was the most dominant, was matched in the years between Badmotorfinger and Soundgarden’s breakthrough album, Superunknown. In the summer of 1994, “Black Hole Sun” was ubiquitous, a magnificent combination of Cornell’s soaring vocals and swirling textures unlike any heard in rock or metal at that time, or since. It sounded like nothing else before it, and was miles apart from what was being played on the radio. The video, a surreal and disturbing glimpse of suburbia that made judicious use of the then fairly recent technology of morphing, was a breakout on MTV in the waning days of music on that channel. Soundgarden were suddenly alternative rock superstars, held in the same light as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins, but they were always different. “Black Hole Sun” won the MTV Video Award for Best Metal Video, prompting guitarist Kim Thayil to say in their acceptance, “I thought we were ‘grunge’.” But truthfully, no label really fit. Their music was intricate and challenging, with oddball tunings and time signatures that were far removed from conventional rock music (one of their most famous songs, “Spoonman” alternates between standard rock 4/4 time and 7/4 time; “Limo Wreck” is in 15/8 time).

The band broke up after one more album, Down On The Upside, and Cornell went solo with 1999’s Euphoria Mourning, a grab-bag of styles that proved Cornell could sing anything from acoustic ballads (“Preaching the End of the World”, “Sweet Euphoria”) to sludgy hard rock (“Mission”) to alternative (“Can’t Change Me”, “Pillow Of Your Bones”). He was even adept at R&B; “When I’m Down” is a song that in a different life could have been a blues standard or, with only a slightly modified arrangement, sung by Frank Sinatra. On “Wave Goodbye”, his tribute to his late friend Jeff Buckley (another virtuoso singer with a multi-octave voice), Cornell’s voice drips with pathos and heartbreak until the bridge when he hits his upper register and does the most spot-on imitation of Buckley imaginable. For those few seconds, Cornell has brought his friend back to life, and the effect is both devastating and thrilling.

In the years since Cornell has released solo albums, broke out his heavy rock chops as the lead singer for Audioslave, reunited with both Soundgarden (for 2012’s excellent King Animal) and Temple of the Dog, and done solo acoustic tours. With the exception of one serious misstep, the beats-heavy techno pop album Scream, his career has been one of consistently high quality. Even his Casino Royale song, “You Know My Name”, was the best James Bond theme since “Live And Let Die”.

As he got older, his songwriting only got better. Higher Truth, his last solo album…unfortunately…was also his best, a stripped down, largely acoustic collection of songs that sounded like a gifted writer just hitting his prime. While his voice may have lost a few notes off the high end, he remained one of the most versatile and gifted vocalists rock music has ever produced. The fact that he could marry that voice to smart, sophisticated rock songs that never sacrificed an intensity best described as pulverizing, made Chris Cornell a rare and unusual talent.

In the end, the gifts he had and the adulation he received as one of the most successful musicians of the past thirty years were simply not enough. The demons that haunted him, that he tried to exorcise through his lyrics and his electrifying performances, convinced him that his troubles were permanent and that they required a permanent solution. It was a tragic and heartbreakingly sad end for a truly gifted man.

Buried Treasure: The Saints, All Fools Day

The Saints All Fools Day

When they first formed in the early 1970s, Aussie rockers The Saints proudly proclaimed themselves “The Most Primitive Band In The World”. By the time their first single, “(I’m) Stranded”, lit up England a few years later, they were one of the most incendiary punk rock bands on the circuit. Their first album was pure aggression, louder and faster than any of their more famous punk brothers. The change began on their masterful second album, Eternally Yours, with the addition of a horn section on some songs. The horns didn’t dilute their sound, they added power to it. The opening track, “Know Your Product”, is one of the greatest of all punk rock songs, though few have heard it. After “(I’m) Stranded” faded from the charts, The Saints began their march to obscurity despite releasing better music. After their third album, Prehistoric Sounds, guitarist Ed Kuepper left the band in the control of singer Chris Bailey.

By 1987, punk was relegated to back alleys and dive bars, and The Saints of All Fools Day sound almost nothing like the band that torched the scene in 1977. Chris Bailey’s bluesy wail, sounding like Van Morrison after chain smoking a few packs of Camels and drinking a few pints of whiskey, is the sole thread connecting the band to their earliest days. So as a point of order, All Fools Day is not a punk rock album. It is, however, a thrilling guitar rock album, with strings and horns punctuating several of the songs. As with their earlier material, the horns don’t swing so much as punch in short jabs, acting as punctuation and counterpoint to the wall of acoustic and electric guitars that drive the songs. The songs themselves, from the magnificent opener, “Just Like Fire Would” (later covered by Bruce Springsteen on his High Hopes album) to the elegiac closer “All Fools Day”, The Saints fire off one grand statement after another, slowing things down for the beautiful “Celtic Ballad”, the mournful “Blues On My Mind”, and the title track, but otherwise rocking with more conviction and more heart than the majority of their 1987 peers.

Of particular note are “The First Time” and “Temple of the Lord”, two hard-charging rock tunes swimming in hooks and melody. In many ways these are the definitive Saints songs from this era, when the punk rock kids inside them were still alive and well but had learned to temper their most aggressive and primitive instincts with genuine songcraft and thoughtfulness.

Grade: A+

“My, but that little country boy could play…” Chuck Berry, RIP

I first heard Chuck Berry when I was a child, unfortunately. The song came out of the radio constantly, hitting number one on the charts. But even as a child, I thought it was inane and stupid, a joke so bad and crude that it was below even those of us in second grade.

Astoundingly, “My Ding-A-Ling” was Chuck Berry’s only number one hit. Fortunately, it has now taken its rightful place as a freak novelty number better left in the dustbin of history.

My next exposure to Berry came via the soundtrack album to American Graffiti, the two record set (41 songs!) that sparked a great love of early rock ‘n’ roll for many people my age. “Almost Grown” and “Johnny B. Goode” immediately and forever banished the idea that the guy who sang that dopey dick joke song was a one-hit wonder.

ChuckberrysgoldendecadeIt was several years before I found a good compilation in a used record store. Released in 1967, Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade was the first comprehensive collection of Berry’s classic songs and the gold standard of Berry’s greatest hits until The Great Twenty-Eight was released in the early 1980s. It was missing several songs now acknowledged as classics (no “Carol”, no “Little Queenie” or “Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller”, among others), but included some lesser known songs like the bluesy “Deep Feeling” and the boisterous “Too Pooped To Pop”.

Two things were immediately apparent on listening to Golden Decade. The first was that Chuck Berry was an extraordinary guitar player. The second that he was an equally amazing lyricist.

More than Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everlys, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and even Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry was the definitive 1950s rock ‘n’ roller. He was the first “guitar hero”, and singlehandedly made the guitar the primary instrument of this new music. His showmanship, culled from guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Guitar Slim, set the standard for rock ‘n’ roll that is still in use today. His voice was smooth and clear, making even his made up vocabulary (“motorvatin'”, “botheration”, etc) easily understood. Chuck Berry was the defining sound of rock ‘n’ roll music, and every rock guitarist since then must pass through the School of Chuck.

Roll-Over-Beethoven-Chuck-Berry

The personification of rock ‘n’ roll

But as much as his music, what also set Berry apart were the lyrics. Already in his late-20s and early-30s when he had his greatest success, Berry was the poet laureate of the decade he helped define. Most of the early rock ‘n’ roll songs concentrated more on a good beat to get people on the dance floor; the words were strictly a secondary concern. But Berry’s lyrics were perfect encapsulations of the lives of his young audience. At a time when the subject matter of pop and rock songs was love and, well, more love, Berry was writing about life (including, of course, love). And importantly, he was writing about life in the 1950s. In the song “Me and the Devil”, Robert Johnson brought blues out of the cotton fields and into the 1930s by adding details like getting on “a Greyhound bus”. Berry did the same for rock ‘n’ roll, by writing about the culture of the 1950s: Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs on the highways, jet-propelled airplanes, televisions, drive-in movies, jukeboxes playing the really hot records, malt shops, high school, teenagers dancing on American Bandstand…all of it taking place in an America where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.

Compare the nonsense lyrics of so many early rock ‘n’ roll songs with any of Berry’s. The simple, practically cretinous, rhymes of “Be-Bop A-Lula”, the novelty nonsense lyrics of “Jailhouse Rock” or the sanitized versions of “Hound Dog” and “Tutti Frutti”, the raw lust of “Great Balls of Fire”…all of these are great songs. None of them can hold a candle to the lyricism here:

Runnin’ to and fro, hard workin’ at the mill
Never failed in the mail, yet come a rotten bill…

Salesman talking to me tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy it, go on try it, you can pay me next week…

Blonde haired, good lookin’ tryin’ to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, get a home, settle down, write a book…

Same thing every day, gettin’ up, goin’ to school
No need to be complainin’, my objections overruled…

Pay phone, somethin’ wrong, dime gone, will mail
I ought to sue the operator for tellin’ me a tale…

I been to Yokohama, been a fightin’ in the war
Army bunk, Army chow, Army clothes, Army car…

Workin’ in the fillin’ station, too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check the tires, check the oil, dollar gas

Each of these lines is punctuated with some exasperated version of “Ahhh” and the refrain of “too much monkey business for me to be involved in”. It’s a lyric that could be written today, with only a few details changed, describing life in a hectic world. The song is rooted firmly in the 1950s, however, not too far past World War II, where you spoke to operators via pay phones, and were helped by gas station attendants who wiped your windows, checked your tires, and pumped a dollar’s worth of gas into your car at a time when that could get you a few gallons. Berry is describing life at the time in a way that has more meaning to more people than the combined writings of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg.

Berry’s music defined guitar rock for all time. His songs have been covered by everyone from the Beach Boys and Beatles to Green Day and The Killers. Berry’s lyrics notified the Dylans and Lennons of the world that you didn’t have to be tied down to moon/June/croon rhymes. His showmanship set the precedent for the Hendrixs and Townshends that came later. (You can even see Townshend imitating Berry’s famous “duck walk” a few times in the movie The Kids Are Alright, and Hendrix tearing through a jaw-droppingly ferocious “Johnny B. Goode” in Jimi Plays Berkeley.) The Rolling Stones, more than any other band, worshiped at the shrine of Chuck Berry; his “Come On” was their first single and they covered “Carol”, “Little Queenie”, “Confessin’ The Blues”, and “Down the Road Apiece” among others. The band’s most famous lyric, “I can’t get no satisfaction”, was a direct rip of Berry’s “I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge” in “Thirty Days”.

Elvis Presley is the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll. His style was utterly unique, not least because he was a white kid who sang like a black man. But Chuck Berry was the man who truly defined both the music and the decade. Elvis spawned hundreds of impersonators after he died; during his lifetime, Berry had tens of thousands of disciples who ran his music through the prism of their own experiences and lives, and took his timeless riffs and stagecraft from the shores of California and the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl and Wembley Stadium.

There is no rock ‘n’ roll without him.