Hell’s Drummer: Ginger Baker, RIP

Ginger Baker burst onto the music scene with Cream in 1966, the only drummer on the circuit who could go toe-to-toe with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. He was a jazz drummer, heavily influenced by the great Phil Seamen, whose technical expertise was unmatched, but his ego and bad temper led to a nearly constant conflict with Jack Bruce. They admired each other greatly as musicians, and hated each other with a passion as people. Cream was simply not built to last.

Neither was Blind Faith, the band formed by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. Baker showed up at Winwood’s house and told them that he was joining the band. Clapton and Winwood were glad to have such an incredible drummer, and too scared of Baker to say they didn’t really want him.

Being the drummer in a band was never enough for Baker. His ego wouldn’t let him take a back seat to anyone. He formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a largely ad hoc ensemble, and released two albums. Air Force was an interesting band, a pioneer in what is now called “World Music”. But how many extended drum solos can you put on an album before you realize that commercial success isn’t going to be there? Their very little-known second album was more interesting than the first, double live, album, and included a version of Cream’s “Sweet Wine” that featured Baker at his frenetic best.

After that, Baker drifted. He moved to Africa and opened a recording studio (Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run was recorded there). He played with several different outfits over the decades, from the Baker-Gurvitz Army to Masters of Reality. He even hooked up with Jack Bruce again in a trio called BBM, with Gary Moore stepping in for Clapton. He did session work, even joining former Sex Pistol John Lydon (nee Rotten) on PiL’s Album (yes, that’s the name).

He moved from Africa, to Italy, to America. His studio in Africa failed. He lost almost all of his money through bad management and worse investments.

I had the great fortune to see Baker playing with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton in one of the Cream reunion shows at Madison Square Garden in 2005. Baker was in poor health at the time, but you would never know it. His playing was extraordinary, from the rolling toms of “We’re Going Wrong” to an extended drum solo in his showcase, “Toad”. It should be noted that I hate drum solos, and have always hated “Toad” (Cream), “Do What You Like” (Blind Faith), and “Toady” (Air Force). Seeing him live, that all went away. Midway through the solo, my friend who also hated drum solos turned to me and said, “That’s a different drummer”. And it was. The Ginger Baker of 2006 was incorporating African rhythms, world music, jazz, rock, blues, and everything else he could think of into his playing. It was a far cry from the technically amazing, but monotonous, solos he’d done as a young man. Amazingly enough, Ginger Baker in 2006 was actually better than Ginger Baker in 1966, when he was considered the best drummer in the world.

bakerUnfortunately for himself, his bandmates, his family, his friends, and anyone who got in his way, Ginger Baker was an absolutely monstrous human being. Angry, violent, short-tempered, arrogant, abusive to everyone around him. It was why he could never stay in a band for long, and why bands he created splintered just as quickly as those he joined. Every musician wanted Ginger Baker on drums; nobody wanted Ginger Baker in the band. Even in his dotage, it didn’t change. A documentary called Beware of Mr. Baker begins with an elderly Baker insulting almost every musician he ever played with, culminating in Baker hitting the director in the face, breaking his nose,  with his cane because the director mentioned, casually, that as part of the project he would also be interviewing Baker’s musical associates and family. The documentary gets darker from there, and is a fascinating viewing experience. The only people who escaped Baker’s vitriol were Phil Seamen, Charlie Watts, and Eric Clapton, whom Baker called his best friend. The reaction shot of a genuinely shocked Clapton saying, “He said that?” before damning Baker with very faint praise is worth the price of admission alone.

But at the end of the day, the documentary is both harrowing and heartbreaking. He abandoned his family, only to reconcile many years later, and then abandoned them again, but not until he told his son, a gifted musician in his own right, in his parting words, “You’re a lousy drummer.” It’s hard to imagine living with as much hate in your heart as Ginger Baker.

Ginger Baker was one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. His playing at times was almost supernaturally good. Neil Peart, the Rush drummer largely looked at as a God by drummers everywhere, once said “His [Baker’s] playing was revolutionary, extrovert, primal, and inventive. He set the bar for what rock drumming could be. Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger—even if they don’t know it.” Drummers from John Bonham to Stewart Copeland to Alex Van Halen to Chad Smith have sung Baker’s praises, even if Baker would never return the favor (“Bonham couldn’t swing a sack of shit”).

He is gone now, and I sincerely hope he found peace and redemption in his final years, when he was ill and out of the spotlight. If not, Rock and Roll Hell just got its drummer. RIP.

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

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.

The Rolling Stones: Voodoo Lounge

VoodooLounge94The Steel Wheels tour (later dubbed the Urban Jungle Tour when it hit Europe) was a long, grueling exercise in money-making for the Rolling Stones. At the time it was the most lucrative tour ever done, grossing nearly $100 million dollars. But it was also a musically valid tour, with the Stones not only selling out arenas but rocking them with abandon. Yes, in some ways it was The Rolling Stones On Ice: lots of supplemental musicians and singers, fireworks, huge projection screens so the guys in Row ZZ could feel like they were there, and even two massive inflatable women that bounced and swayed while the band played “Honky Tonk Women”. It was also true that the band was very tight and in fine form.

After the tour Richards went back to the X-Pensive Winos and released a second solo album in 1992, Main Offender, which was a worthy successor to the excellent Talk Is Cheap. In 1993 Mick Jagger released his third solo album, Wandering Spirit, and, much to everyone’s surprise, it was as good as Keith’s efforts. But the Stones were also shocked after the tour when Bill Wyman announced that he was retiring, possibly to provide daycare for his wife. Wyman’s departure wasn’t announced until 1993, when the band reconvened to begin work on a followup to Steel Wheels. Partially as a reaction to the overproduction on their comeback, the Stones chose to go with producer Don Was, the guiding light behind the band Was (Not Was), whose own 1989 album What Up, Dog? was a bizarro funk/soul classic. Was wanted to bring the band back to their earlier sound, the sound of Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, much to Jagger’s chagrin. The sessions were fraught with tension between the singer and the producer. Jagger’s always been obsessed with keeping the Stones contemporary, and this throwback to 1970s-style production was anathema to him. Richards, however, wanted the band to get back to basics with a stripped-down sound and raw production.

The result was Voodoo Lounge. The album has a more live, organic sound than Steel Wheels, but production isn’t everything. Overall, it’s a better album than its predecessor but it’s also bloated. At over an hour in length, it’s longer than any previous Stones album with the exception of Exile which makes Voodoo Lounge a de facto double album. Exile it’s not. The earlier album breezed by, an effortlessly enjoyable listening experience. By the time Voodoo Lounge reaches its conclusion, you’re exhausted. Had four or five songs been trimmed, Lounge might be talked about as the undisputed best Stones album since Some Girls, but the album’s excessive length and the mediocre quality of some of the songs ensure that the album remains a good, but lesser, effort in the band’s canon.

There is some material that comes close to greatness here, though. “Love Is Strong” opens the album with a superb groove and bluesy harmonica. The production is much cleaner but the song itself wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Exile. It was released as the first single, their strongest since “Miss You” in 1978, but flopped in the charts despite a lot of FM and MTV airplay. Jagger’s vocal is a sultry seducer’s voice and his harmonica playing is, as usual, excellent. New bassist Darryl Jones makes his presence felt immediately; he and Charlie Watts provide the groove that Keith and Ron Wood punctuate with short, stabbing leads and chunky chords. If there’s a flaw on the track it’s the too professional backing vocals, but it’s churlish to complain about a band sounding too good. Don Was’s production is perhaps best seen here: the separation between Richards and Wood is clear and every instrument can be heard clearly and cleanly, but without the plastic sheen of Steel Wheels or Dirty Work. Voodoo Lounge is the best produced Stones album since Some Girls.

“You Got Me Rocking” follows. It’s a by-the-numbers song that extols the joys of, you guessed it, rocking. It’s stadium-ready, with its “Hey! Hey!” hook, and has become something of a concert staple for the band since 1994, but it’s not a particularly interesting song. Jagger bellows sad sack lyrics about how miserable he was until [cue the big anthemic hook]. Richards and Wood play great guitar throughout, and once again Darryl Jones shines. He’s a better bass player than Wyman was (which shouldn’t be understood as a slam of Wyman, who could be extraordinary), and for the first time since Undercover the bass is actually clearly audible in the mix. But the song itself is still a bit flat, the Stones addressing the need for another “Start Me Up” for the forthcoming World Tour. “Sparks Will Fly” is better, with an actual melody in the chorus and bridge. It’s most reminiscent of the sound of Some Girls, and would have fit perfectly on that earlier album. Three songs in and it’s clear that Voodoo Lounge is classic Stones in sound and form, even if not in song quality.

This impression continues with the band’s return to country for the first time in many years. “The Worst” is a Keith Richards-sung country ballad with some exquisite pedal steel from Ron Wood and acoustic guitar from Keith. But it’s the following song that truly signals the band’s march back to their past. “New Faces” takes the band all the way back to 1966’s Aftermath. After a hushed count in, Jagger sings of a doomed love over a musical backing that mimics “Lady Jane”. Some very nice acoustic guitar work from Richards and Wood compete with the harpsichord. Jagger had gone this route on his Wandering Spirit solo album with the “Lady Jane” knockoff “Angel In My Heart”, but it works better here. Still, it’s an almost shocking anachronism in 1994: an Elizabethan ballad whose musical heft is borne by an instrument Bach would have recognized. It’s redeemed somewhat by those acoustic guitars, but it sounds like an obvious effort to regain that classic sound of the band in their peak years of 1966–1972. On Aftermath “Lady Jane” fits perfectly with the eclectic times; on Voodoo Lounge “New Faces” sticks out like a sore thumb.

Things get back to normal with “Moon Is Up”, a mid-tempo, mostly nondescript song that neither offends nor inspires, and the second single from the album, “Out Of Tears.” The single was another flop, despite some considerable airplay on FM radio. It’s a nice, piano-driven ballad and yet another broken heart lyric delivered by Jagger. Credit Don Was for getting the best vocal performance out of Jagger in years, especially noticeable here. Jagger’s mannerisms are most noticeable on the slow tracks, and here they’re kept to a minimum. Vocally it’s far from “Wild Horses” but it’s still effective. There’s also a lovely pedal steel guitar solo from Wood, but at five plus minutes it’s a song that drastically needs some pruning. The song’s got a nice melody on the chorus, but that’s not enough to save it from being somewhat boring. “Out Of Tears” is followed by “I Go Wild” which is an almost totally pro forma rocker. Charlie’s drums are good as always, but the guitars are repetitive and Jagger’s back to his debauchery in the lyrics. There’s also a stadium sing along ending that is pretty transparent in its effort to create a “moment” for the stage.

“Brand New Car” is more musically interesting, but lyrically it’s atrocious. The metaphor of a car for a woman and driving for sex is bad enough, but “nudge nudge wink wink” lyrics like “Give it some stick”, “Slinky like a panther you can hear her purr”, and “Fill it with juice” are cringe-worthy. Better is “Sweethearts Together”, a song that could have been done by Buddy Holly. There’s a nice Mariachi/country vibe to the music, complete with a subtle accordion, while Charlie shuffles along on the drums. Keith is heard singing harmonies on the chorus, rather than the usual complement of backup singers. It’s a quiet gem of a Stones ballad, with a good vocal from Mick.

The professional backup singers return to put a too-polished spin on “Suck On The Jugular”, which may just be the worst song title in Stones history. The song itself isn’t bad, a funky shuffle that once again lets Jagger show his skill as a harmonica player. Charlie’s drumming is, as usual, stellar, but his snares sound like they were airlifted from the Steel Wheels era. Daryl Jones provides a good bottom end, and little touches of wah-wah guitar, keyboards, and horns add to the retro-70s party feel of the song.

“Blinded By Rainbows” follows, a pretty ballad that has a smooth vocal from Jagger. Lyrically it’s a bleak assessment of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the violence described in the lyrics only serves to make the song more poignant..

Did you ever feel the blast
As the Semtex bomb goes off?
Do you ever hear the screams
As the limbs are all torn off….

You’re blinded by rainbows…

It’s a much heavier subject than the Stones usually embrace, seemingly coming down on the side of the English Protestants against the Catholic IRA.

Do you see the light?
Is the end in sight?
See the face of Christ
enter paradise?
I doubt it

As is usual for the Stones, their politics offer no solutions, just commentary. Still, it’s one of the best lyrics on the album, and one of Jagger’s best performances. Keith’s opening guitar licks wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Let It Bleed, and Charlie’s drums and Daryl Jones’s subtle bass kick the chorus into a higher gear before the song settles back down in the verses. There’s also a nice keyboard throughout, played by Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, and a distorted, bluesy guitar solo from Keith. “Blinded By Rainbows” is one of the highlights of the album.

The highlights continue with “Baby Break It Down”, a bluesy shuffle with a simple, but irresistible, chorus. Vocal hooks were never really the band’s strong suit; they tended to leave the catchy choruses to the Beatles. But even though it’s lyrically simple, the chorus is a nice earworm. There’s a really nice pedal steel solo from Ron Wood, and more than any other song on the album, “Baby Break It Down” catches the spirit of Exile on Main Street that Don Was seemed determined to recapture. If it had been rocked up a bit, with a sleazier production and Keith a little more prominent in his backing vocals, this track would have fit almost perfectly on side three or four of Exile.

Keith puts a ravaged vocal over the top of the torch song “Thru and Thru”. The electric guitar is a series of delicate, circular, licks, but it’s Keith’s vocal that carries the day. Only Keith, with his weathered, hoarse tones could get away with a verse like:

I only found out yesterday
I heard it on the news
What I heard really pissed me off
‘Cause now I got those fucking blues
I got those awesome blues
Babe I got those nothing blues

At around the four minute mark the rest of the band kicks in and brings no small degree of power to the finale. At just over six minutes, “Thru and Thru” is a tad long, but there’s enough tension in the music and vocals to get away with it.

“Thru and Thru” would have been a fine album closer, but the Stones rolled out one more rocker with “Mean Disposition.” It’s another Exile-style throwback with a great, jamming finale. As with the other tracks, it’s lacking the damp basement, raw, junkie blues vibe of Exile. It’s a fast rocker that would have been well-served by making it even faster, à la “Rip This Joint”. As it is, it’s a fine song, though not particularly memorable.

Voodoo Lounge was the sound of the Rolling Stones trying to sound like the classic, pre-Ron Wood version of the band. Unfortunately the technology of 1993 and 1994 was just too advanced. Don Was got a great sound from the band but, try as he might, the Stones caught lightning in a bottle in that era. The production matched the songs and the final albums were a part of a larger zeitgeist. Despite Mick Jagger’s later insistence that he wished Exile had “sounded better”, it was that grit that gave the album much of its power. Voodoo Lounge is what Exile would have sounded like if the production had been cleaner and clearer, but it’s an unfair comparison because the songs weren’t anywhere near the caliber of classics like “Rocks Off”, “Torn and Frayed”, or “Tumbling Dice”.

Still, this was a good effort. Trim some songs, cut some songs completely, and whittle down the album to forty minutes and it’s actually got a lot to recommend.

But not the album cover. The album cover is awful.

Grade: B

“Parties weren’t meant 2 last”: Prince, RIP

In 1973, the band Argent had a mild hit single called “God Gave Rock and Roll To You”. It seems that in 2016 God’s decided to take it back.

The death of Prince was as shocking and unexpected as that of Michael Jackson, and shook the musical landscape nearly as hard. For someone who was so outrageous on stage, who celebrated and struggled between carnality and spirituality, and whose appearance was so flamboyant, Prince was very circumspect about his life. Aside from the protégés he dated, he mainly avoided the gossip mill despite being one of the most successful musicians in the world. This, and his seeming devotion to being a Jehovah’s Witness, was why everybody bought the “flu” excuse his publicist made when Prince was treated for an “emergency” a few days before he died, even though it made no sense. It’s beginning to look more like the standard rock star death: opioids are the cause; whether it was an overdose or just a cumulative toll of addiction remains to be seen.

I’ll confess that I was never a big Prince fan. I wasn’t crazy about the synthesizer-heavy sound of many of his 80s hits, the length of his album cuts, and I thought the salacious lyrics of his songs bordered on cartoonish at times. But I’ve always respected Prince as one of the rock music immortals. He was a musical polymath, a virtuoso musician on any number of instruments. He wrote, recorded, and produced his albums mostly alone, playing the lion’s share of the instruments and bringing out a full band when live shows beckoned, but his music never sounded like the work of one man in a studio. There was a fresh, live intensity to his recordings even if it was Prince going from guitar to bass to drums to keyboards. It was the sound of a party, and Prince was the DJ.

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All respect for a virtuoso and complete original.

The first video I ever saw on MTV was Prince’s “1999”. I’d never heard of him. As I was flipping through channels I caught a glimpse of a black man wearing a bandanna around his head, holding a guitar, and singing into a microphone. “Was that Hendrix?” I clicked back to that channel and was confronted with Prince. I didn’t care for the song at first; it was too dance-oriented, too synthesized, and not a bit like Hendrix. But as the song took off I learned to like it, and eventually love it. Not as much as “Little Red Corvette”, the radio-friendly pop hit whose raunchy lyrics sailed over the heads of radio and MTV programmers. That song I loved right away; its chorus was irresistible. Prince eventually became a huge part of the soundtrack of my college years. Purple Rain was released as an album and a movie, and while the movie is pretty forgettable (Prince was no actor), the soundtrack is a modern rock classic, spinning a dizzying collection of sounds from the dance metal (?) of “Let’s Go Crazy” with its frenetic guitar solo ending to the weird, off-kilter hit “When Doves Cry” to the plaintive rock ballad of the title track. Only Prince could have pulled off something like “I Would Die 4 U”, a song about God set to a slinky retro-disco beat.

But while Purple Rain was likely his peak with tight, concise, focused, and powerful songs, for me his greatest statement was the song “Sign O’ The Times”, a percussion- and bass-heavy funk ballad that surveyed life in 1987 and saw the coming Apocalypse. It’s a thrilling song with an unusual semi-spoken lyric that proved there was more to Prince than an endless party. Commercially he trailed off after that, enjoying hits, but never again reaching the apogee of the Purple Rain era. He became known as an eccentric, writing the word “Slave” on his face and changing his name to a symbol, eventually becoming known as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”. Few understood the bruising battle and lawsuits with his record company that led to these actions. To the outside observer it just seemed weird, and became the fodder for late night TV snark. But when the lawsuits were settled and the battle ended, he became Prince once again. Through it all, Prince was an original. He sounded like nobody else on the scene, and nobody could sound like him. He was influenced by everything he listened to, and filtered it all through his music. A disco beat, a New Wave synthesizer, a heavy metal guitar solo, gospel vocals on an X-rated lyric…sometimes all in the same song. He was as unpredictable and wild as his peer Madonna, but his skill as a musician made it all valid. His like will not pass this way again any time soon.

“From that point on, it was mayhem…” George Martin, RIP

Perhaps the greatest lucky break in rock history is when a young producer named George Martin had an affair with his secretary. Contrary to the oft-related story of how Martin was so impressed by their wit he signed them to a contract, the truth is that Martin was assigned to the Beatles, largely as punishment by his bosses for the affair. He had no great love for the music he heard on their original tapes, or in the audition tapes. He thought they were raw, their songs were lacking, and their drummer was terrible. But the voices…now that was something that came through the amateurish noise he heard.

George Martin turned out to be exactly what the Beatles needed. His first order of business was convincing them to fire Pete Best, which they did. But his most important contribution at that stage was to trust them. Martin gave the band a Mitch Murray song called “How Do You Do It?” and told them to learn it and record it. He assured them it was a hit single. The Beatles recorded the song against their better wishes, protesting bitterly the whole time, and Martin agreed to release “Love Me Do”, a song he didn’t like, instead. When it was time to release a followup, Martin again suggested “How Do You Do It?” Building on the fair success of “Love Me Do”, Martin told the band that “How Do You Do It?” would be a number one hit. The Beatles hated the song and refused to release it. Martin, whose word was final, challenged them to come up with something better. The result was “Please Please Me”. Martin admitted that the song was better.

He was right about “How Do You Do It?” The song was a chart topper for Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool’s also-rans in the wake of the Beatles. But it bears saying how extraordinary this was in 1962-63. Artists, especially newly signed artists with a four-song contract, never contradicted their producer. Producers of that time in England functioned more as Artists & Repertoire experts, matching songs to performers, while engineers did the real recording work. In the studio the producer’s word was gospel; he was the boss and the artists did what he said. Had the Beatles been given to any other producer their weak, disinterested recording of “How Do You Do It?” would have been their first single. It’s almost certain they’d have been told to follow with another cover, hand-chosen by the producer from a pool of songs whose copyrights belonged to EMI. The recording studio was no place for real creativity; EMI Studio was a laboratory (the engineers wore white lab coats) where everything was highly regimented…microphones were placed a precise distance from instruments, drums were recorded with a specific microphone setup, etc. The studio was where music was recorded professionally, quickly, and at little cost.

And this was truly Martin’s greatest achievement: he was willing to break the rules. He listened to the band and worked with them to make their musical vision come true. He’s often said to be the “fifth Beatle” and if anyone can lay a claim to that title it was George Martin. He brought order to the band’s chaotic creativity. He harnessed their energy and focused it. He made their musical ambition a reality because he was the only trained musician in the studio. It was Martin who suggested that “Please Please Me” be sped up and turned from a Roy Orbison-like ballad into a smash hit rocker. It was Martin who suggested and scored the strings for “Yesterday”, and turned the song from a ballad into a standard. It was Martin who had the genius to record the piano solo of “In My Life” at half-speed, then speed it up, turning it into a baroque harpsichord solo. It was Martin who transcribed McCartney’s humming into the gorgeous French horn solo on “For No One.” It was Martin who figured out a way to stitch together two versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” that were in different keys and different tempos, and got it to work.

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His imagination, and his own musical creativity, were fueled by the Beatles, and he returned the favor by acting less like a studio boss and more like a collaborator. What the band wanted, he made happen even if there was no precedent for what they requested. What he suggested, the band took very seriously and, more often than not, tried (usually to great effect). The Beatles smashed all the rules of the recording studio. They were such a money machine for EMI that they couldn’t be refused. George Martin, naturally rebellious, musically creative, and in sync with the band, played a huge part in that. As the band threw out the rule book for a musical artist, Martin rewrote it for a producer. Before Martin, pop music producers tended to be either martinets like Phil Spector who insisted that everything be done their way or disinterested clock-punchers who hit the record button and let those no-talent rock and rollers sing their song until the serious jazz and classical musicians arrived; after Martin and the phenomenal success of the Beatles producers listened to the band’s ideas while offering suggestions for improvement. Producers were there to shape the final product, not to create it.

The Beatles and George Martin were the perfect yin and yang of popular music. Four young, long-haired, drug-fueled, musically immature, creative artists and one older, short back and sides, straight-arrow, musically mature, creative producer. Rarely, if ever, in rock or pop music has the marriage of band and producer been so complementary or so fruitful. Had the Beatles recorded with anyone else at the helm their career would have had a remarkably different path. One need only listen to Let It Be, the album recorded by Glyn Johns and produced (dreadfully) by Phil Spector to hear the difference. If Spector had produced “Yesterday” it probably would have featured a bombastic forty-piece orchestra and choir instead of the sympathetic and tasteful string quartet Martin suggested. Listen to the band’s recordings compared to anyone else from that era, and you’ll be able to hear the difference. One of the reasons the Beatles were so dominant in the Sixties was not just that they had better songs than anyone else. They also sounded better, and that was the result of working with George Martin. As my friend novelist (his Broken Glass Waltzes is a great combination of noir and rock and roll; you should buy it), Berries drummer, and fellow garage rock enthusiast Warren Moore wrote in his encomium:

Despite the technical limitations of the period (remember, Sgt. Pepper was recorded on a pair of four-track machines), and despite the increasing complexity of the instrumentation as the band developed…things don’t get lost in Beatles cuts — they get found. Martin’s work allowed space for a variety of nuance that other producers lost.

Martin went on to record other artists (he actually worked with others in the Sixties, as well). He produced Jeff Beck’s landmark fusion album Blow By Blow and it’s worthy, but lesser, sequel, Wired. He worked with Cheap Trick, America, Ringo, and Paul McCartney. He even worked with Neil Sedaka and Celine Dion, but nobody’s perfect. He will always be remembered for his work with the Beatles. It’s too flip to say that Martin made the Beatles what they were; their talents existed even without him. But Martin made their musical dreams come true, and that made ours come true, too.

The Listening Post: January 2016

  • Higher TruthChris Cornell. The last time we heard from Chris Cornell the Solo Artist was 2009’s Scream. It took him six years, a reunion with the mighty Soundgarden, and a solo acoustic tour, to recover from that steaming mess. Scream, a train wreck collaboration with Timbaland that buried Cornell’s songs under a mountain of electronic dance music, was such an embarrassing fiasco it would have killed the career of a less established star. It took 2012’s excellent Soundgarden reunion album King Animal to gain back Cornell’s credibility. Fans didn’t shrug off Scream as a misstep in a long career; it was almost universally hated. This just makes Higher Truth that much sweeter. Cornell has followed up what is certainly one of the worst albums ever released by a major artist with the best album of his solo career. cornellInspired by his recent solo tours, Cornell strips down the production on Higher Truth to focus on the subtler, more acoustic side of his sound. That’s not to say that this is an acoustic singer/songwriter album. There’s no shortage of indications about who Cornell really is on the album, and he’s not Jack Johnson or James Taylor. He’s the howling banshee lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave, two of the heaviest rock bands of all time, whose voice could peel the paint off your walls. Taken as a whole, Higher Truth sounds like a serious rock band playing a mostly acoustic set before the big show starts (there are electric instruments amid the mandolins here: check out the buzzsaw guitar solo on the first single, “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart”). There are many ballads (“Dead Wishes”, “Before We Disappear”, “Through the Window”, “Let Your Eyes Wander”) but there are also plenty of songs that blend balladry with the intensity of heavier rock, held in check by the acoustic presentation (“Murderer Of Blue Skies”, “Higher Truth”, “Circling”) . There’s even a song (“Our Time In The Universe”) that successfully blends rock and electronic dance music, the synthesis Cornell failed to create on Scream, by sticking to conventional rock instruments and melodies and attaching them to a beat and chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place in the world of strobe lights, DJs, and Ecstasy (as a bonus track there’s a more straightforward rock mix of this track, as well as three other songs that maintain the quality and sound of the main album). This variety has the benefit of keeping the album fresh. Too many acoustic albums are sleepy affairs, as if the electric guitar was meant for rock and the acoustic was meant for slow, confessional ballads. Cornell reminds the listener that this is not the case: acoustic instruments can rock, too.
    Grade: A
  • The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Best of The Cutting Edge, 1965-66Bob Dylan. Most bands are lucky if they have an album’s worth of first-rate outtakes collecting dust in some studio archive. There’s usually a very good reason the songs that don’t make an album are left unheard. Traditionally, the best of them have been released as the flip sides of singles and sometimes when there is enough stuff that’s really good it gets released in some sort of rarities package. For years the gold standard of this was the Who’s Odds And Sods, a 1974 collection of unreleased songs that contained real Who classics like “Long Live Rock”, “Naked Eye”, and “Pure and Easy” alongside odd treasures like “Now I’m A Farmer”, the early pass at Tommy of “Glow Girl”, and Townshend’s anti-smoking song for the American Cancer Society, “Little Billy”. But rarities collections are invariably hit-or-miss affairs, at least until Bob Dylan unleashed The Bootleg Series on an unsuspecting world. dylanThere are some previously unreleased songs on the twelve (and counting) packages, but most of the tracks are alternate or live versions of songs that have been previously released. All too often, alternate versions are a letdown: a slightly different mix, a poorly recorded demo. But this is Bob Dylan and his alternates are usually radically different takes on familiar songs. Take, for example, the version of “Visions of Johanna” on The Best of the Cutting Edge. The Blonde On Blonde version is a stately, haunting ballad dripping with some of Dylan’s best wordplay. A previous package (Vol. 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert) featured a beautiful, live acoustic version that downplayed the music and highlighted the words. The version here (a rehearsal) is a rollicking, fast-tempo rocker so unlike the other versions that it may as well be a different song. Or the version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that sounds like it could be played by the house band at a Mexican cantina, tying the music to the opening line about being lost in Juarez in the rain when it’s Easter time, too. Or the solo acoustic version of Bringing It All Back Home‘s electric “She Belongs To Me.” Every one of the songs here is noticeably different than the previously released versions, and every one is a gem. One of the interesting things about it is how many of the songs sound like kissing cousins of “Like A Rolling Stone”, particularly the songs recorded after Highway 61 Revisited. Both the music and the phrasing of lyrics, in many cases, bear a strong resemblance to the most famous of all Dylan songs. The final versions are, of course, very different, but in these early workouts and rehearsals, the music had really not yet finished its journey. Some of these songs are early versions with incomplete, or different lyrics (for example, Dylan has yet to add the word “just” to the song “Just Like A Woman”, and “Tombstone Blues” has a slightly different chorus); some are demos (there’s an abbreviated but wonderful piano demo of “Desolation Row” as well as a full band version of what became the acoustic conclusion to Highway 61). The Bootleg Series has been truly extraordinary, and there are still depths to be explored. The quality of the material stands on its own, revealing just how restless and creative Dylan was at every stage of his career, and this latest collection culls material from the zenith of his musical output, when Dylan was burning across the cultural landscape and leaving a scorched earth in his wake. Twelve illuminating and musically valid compilations of Dylan outtakes later, it’s almost possible to construct an alternate history of Dylan’s entire career. There are still gaps, mainly from about 1973 to the mid-80s, although 1975’s Rolling Thunder tour has a package and a few songs from this era appear on Vol. 2 and Vol. 3, but rumors abound that the next package will begin to address this with outtakes from the Blood on the Tracks/Desire era. Amazingly, the alternate history is nearly as interesting as the real one. Dylan may be the only musician in the world to be able to claim that.
    Grade: A
  • Song ReaderVarious Artists. Rock music has always had its eccentrics and musical iconoclasts. Bob Dylan is one, as is Neil Young. In recent years, Jack White has garnered a reputation as a musical maverick who does what he wants with little regard for convention. Add to this Beck, who emerged in the 1990s with an oddball folk rap song and who has proceeded to hopscotch his way across the musical landscape, following his whims and his muse wherever they take him. In 2012 word got out that Beck was going to release a new album, which he did. Being a musical eccentric, Beck didn’t release Song Reader in any physical form meant for listening. It was not released as an LP, a CD, or in any digital format. Beck released his album as sheet music. beckIt was an odd stroke of genius. YouTube became the home for the album, as thousands of people posted videos of themselves performing new Beck songs. The record industry being what it is, a physical release was inevitable, and in 2014, Song Reader was released, featuring twenty different artists performing the songs in their own style. Categorically, this is a Beck album, although only one song (“Heaven’s Ladder”) is actually performed by the songwriter. Stylistically it’s all over the map with artists as diverse as Laura Marling, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Norah Jones, David Johansen, Jack White, Jack Black, Sparks, Loudon Wainwright, soul singer Swamp Dogg, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy all taking their turn interpreting the songs Beck wrote. This is not a tribute album, one of those well-meaning but usually artistically bankrupt compilations where artists do soundalike versions of a performer’s best-loved songs. Because there was no Beck template outside of notes on a page, the artists here were able to make the songs their own, and it shows. Norah Jones’s “Just Noise” is a wonderful, sweeping shuffle. Jack White puts his standard guitar crunch on “I’m Down” and it sounds like a track from one of his solo albums. Jack Black, no great musical talent, tackles the humorous “We All Wear Cloaks” like a drunken Tom Waits. Marc Ribot does an old-fashioned jazz turn on “The Last Polka.” Colombian star Juanes provides a Spanish language version of “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard”. Perhaps the most affecting song here is Swamp Dogg’s beautiful version of “America, Here’s My Boy”, the heartbreaking, angry, and bitter tale of a father whose son has died in combat. The diversity of sound and feel on the album makes it hard to imagine that the songs are all the product of one man, and that works in the album’s favor. It allows the listener to hear Beck with fresh ears, and realize just how talented the man behind the curtain really is.
    Grade: B+

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine

Yellow SubmarineIn the summer of 1968, the film Yellow Submarine was released. The Beatles were under a contract to make three movies for United Artists, but had no interest in participating. A Hard Day’s Night and Help! had been the first two, and their other attempt at film, Magical Mystery Tour, had been a disaster both artistically and in terms of public reaction. The solution was simple: make a cartoon. The Beatles declined to take part, fearing the worst, but they agreed to provide four new songs and were so pleased by the finished movie they filmed a cameo for the end. (The band’s participation was so negligible that United Artists refused to count Yellow Submarine towards their contract, thus necessitating the Let It Be documentary.)

They were right to be pleased. Yellow Submarine is a pleasure to watch. It’s trippy and psychedelic but also fun and funny, recounting the tale of how the band traveled through various seas in a yellow submarine to save the world from the dreaded Blue Meanies who wanted to ban all music. It’s a silly story that works perfectly for children, with enough nods, winks, and in-jokes to keep the adults in the room interested. The cartoon Beatles sound nothing like the real people, but the characterizations built on the Hard Day’s Night/Help! personas that were indelibly etched in the public’s mind: posh Paul, mystic George, sarcastic John, and lovable goofball Ringo. The voices were different but the characters in the film still felt like the Beatles.

Several months later, a soundtrack album was released, with six Beatles songs on the first side and a collection of George Martin instrumentals on side two. Of the Beatles songs, two had been previously released, but it should be noted that “All You Need Is Love” was not yet available on an album in England. Because the band were not particularly interested in the project, the songs that were given to the producers had been previously recorded and left on the cutting room floor. There were two exceptions, Paul’s tossed off “All Together Now” and John’s brutal “Hey Bulldog”, but both of George’s songs were Sgt. Pepper outtakes.

Simply put, Yellow Submarine is not a Beatles album in any way, shape, or form. As an official release bearing their name, released in similar formats in both England and America (the packaging was slightly differnt…the American version featured some very funny liner notes and pictures on the back cover, the English version contained, strangely, a review of the White Album), it is part of the discography, but it also stands apart.

Unsurprisingly, the album kicks off with the title track and there is an immediate revelation: “Yellow Submarine” works better as the leadoff track to the soundtrack than it does nestled between “Here, There, and Everywhere” and “She Said, She Said.” That’s it as far as revelations go. The song remains charming, and is off-kilter enough to have fit on the bizarrely eclectic White Album, so it’s appearance here works. The first side of the album ends with “All You Need Is Love”, the anthem of the Summer of Love in 1967. It’s easy to understand why: it’s got all the makings of a finale, with the Beatles defeating the Blue Meanies through the power of love and music. In the summer of 1968, the song still had life. By the time the soundtrack was released in early 1969, there was already a dated feel. “Lady Madonna”, “Hey Jude”/”Revolution”, and the White Album had already moved the band well past the sound of 1967.

This is abundantly clear on the four previously unreleased songs on the soundtrack. “All Together Now” is custom-made for singalongs, propelled by an acoustic guitar and a lyric so simple a child could easily remember it (and probably have written it, frankly). It’s a pleasant track, almost impossible to dislike and equally impossible to truly love. Like many of Paul’s songs from the White Album, it sounds like it was dashed off, taking no more time to write than it took to play. But that trait also makes it more of a piece with where the Beatles were in 1968, so it sounds fresh in that part of the band’s history.

The same is true of John’s “Hey Bulldog,” a piano-driven rocker that’s one of the toughest songs in the band’s repertoire. It was written mostly on-the-spot when the band were in the recording studio to be filmed for a promotional video of “Lady Madonna.” Rather than just mime the song, they decided to record something. What’s fascinating is that the “Lady Madonna” promo is actually the band recording “Hey Bulldog”, something that wasn’t realized until decades later, when the footage was matched up to the proper song.

The song began life as “Hey Bullfrog”, but was changed on the fly by Lennon when McCartney started barking like a dog during the recording. Lennon later claimed that the lyrics were meaningless and, taken as a whole, he’s right. But there are several extraordinarily good lines in the song: “Some kind of solitude is measured out in you”, “What makes you think you’re something special when you smile?”, “Some kind of innocence is measured out in years/You don’t know what it’s like to listen to your fears”. At this point, writing material for what would become the White Album, Lennon was simply on fire. Even a toss-off like “Hey Bulldog” has some great lyrics and a solid rock musical background. George’s guitar solo, especially, is dazzling. This is the sound of the Beatles, and especially Lennon, in 1968: it’s tough and raw.

And that’s the fatal flaw of the soundtrack. The other “new” songs are both from George Harrison, and both sound like the Beatles of 1967. Both “Only A Northern Song” and “It’s All Too Much” are very good, even if the latter song is a bit too long and marred by a muddy production. But both songs are examples of the Beatles exploring psychedelia, something they hadn’t done since Magical Mystery Tour. The songs work in the movie, but the band had moved on from this and in the post-White Album world of the soundtrack these songs sound like what they are: leftovers from an earlier era.

They’re pretty cool leftovers, though. “Only A Northern Song” is George’s rant at Northern Songs, Ltd., the publishing company that had been created in 1963 for the Beatles. Harrison was contracted to Northern Songs as a songwriter, while Lennon and McCartney had shares in the company. This meant that Harrison earned less money from his songs than John and Paul did from theirs. The lyrics are essentially a put down of the song. Nothing about the song really matters because I’m not getting anything for this, Harrison seems to be saying. The chords may not be right, the vocals may be out of key, and none of it is important because somebody else owns the song. “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/What words I say or time of day it is/As it’s only a Northern Song.” To hammer the point home, the music is some of the hardest to listen to in the Beatles songbook. The lead guitar is shrill and noisy, and the music has a drugged out, bad trip feel to it. Amazingly, this combination of music and lyrics works. The melody on the chorus is one of George’s best from this era. This would probably have been a lead weight clunker in the middle of Sgt. Pepper but here, its fate tied to a psychedelic movie about Apple Bonkers, Flying Gloves, and Blue Meanies, the song matches the mood. It was already a musical anachronism for the Beatles by the time it was released, but it still fit in the larger musical landscape.

This is equally true of George’s “It’s All Too Much”. It begins with a shout of “To your mother!” and a burst of feedback worthy of Jimi Hendrix before becoming a keyboard-heavy drone worthy of Vanilla Fudge. It’s saved from mediocrity by the melody and the lyrics that can be read as either a straightforward love song to a girl with long blonde hair and blue eyes (a tip of the hat to the 1966 song “Sorrow” by The Merseys) or as a tribute to what Otis Redding dubbed “the Love Crowd” in 1967 and the drug scene in general (George was very enamored with LSD at this point, his eye-opening trip to Haight-Ashbury still months away). The lyrics have many of the same mystic tendencies that could be found in “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light” but here they’re set to a hard rock backing track. “Floating down the stream of time from life to life with me/Makes no difference where you are or where you’d like to be,” George sings. “Everywhere is birthday cake/So take a piece but not too much.” At over six minutes, “It’s All Too Much” lives up to its title. There’s a version available on bootlegs that has an extra verse and tops the eight minute mark. Strangely, the verse that was cut out for the soundtrack is the only verse heard in the film. The song ends with chants of “too much” that go on for far too long. “It’s All Too Much” also suffers from the same problem as “Only A Northern Song”: the progress the band was making was so fast that by the time it was released the Beatles were past it. It sounded like what it was, a leftover from an earlier era. It was as if the Beatles had released “I Call Your Name” as a single between Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour.

The second side of the album has no Beatles music at all. The music is composed by George Martin, who stole melodies from various classical composers as well as Lennon and McCartney. The soundtrack music is really pretty good, with the exception of “Yellow Submarine in Pepperland” which is just a Muzak orchestral rehash of the title song. But like most soundtrack music, it works best in the context of the film.

Yellow Submarine wasn’t even a holding pattern for the Beatles. While it bore their name and featured four unreleased songs and two earlier hits, it can’t be considered a proper album. It was rereleased in 1999 as Yellow Submarine Songtrack to coincide with the remastered DVD of the movie. This version has all the songs used in the film remixed into proper stereo. It’s an outstanding listen. The songs pop with a sonic quality they’d never had before, and there are fifteen Beatles songs and no George Martin compositions. It’s the far superior version, but also makes clear that the original soundtrack was just a repository for completed songs that didn’t fit anywhere else. When the soundtrack was released in January of 1969 the Beatles were fracturing, getting ready to play one last show on a London rooftop. Yellow Submarine, both the film and soundtrack, was a callback to a time when things were better.

Grade (Beatles songs): A-
Grade (George Martin material): C
Grade (overall): B-
Grade (Yellow Submarine Songtrack): A

The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels

steelwheels

The best Rolling Stones album of the 1980s featured no vocals from Mick Jagger, no drumming from Charlie Watts, no bass from Bill Wyman, and no guitar from Ron Wood. The 1988 Keith Richards solo album Talk Is Cheap, despite being dogged by the too clean production of the age, was a blast of bracing rock, blues, and soul. For some fans, it was a clear indication that the Stones were finished. Their last album had been drenched in acrimony and bitterness and now Keith had proved that there was life beyond Mick. Jagger followed Dirty Work with his second solo album, Primitive Cool, which was neither, and possibly the worst single of any major recording act (and certainly the worst video), the truly atrocious “Let’s Work”. Keith’s album was a shot across Mick’s bow: Jagger’s solo career was off to a terrible start but Keith had assembled a tight band and worked with them to produce a truly great album. Talk Is Cheap was notice that Keith could thrive in a post-Stones world. Working with the X-pensive Winos inspired Keith even as it scared Jagger, so by 1989 the stage was set for a rapprochement between the two.

Released at the end of August in 1989, Steel Wheels was considered a comeback album and on those merits it largely succeeds. But it’s a hollow comeback. Dirty Work, for all of its many flaws, was also the last blast of the band as a unit driven by passion. When it was recorded the Stones were still a group, albeit one that had been splintering for several years. When Mick and Keith reunited in 1989 to begin work on Steel Wheels, they were simply a band that was brought together by mutual respect and a desire for the audience’s money. They were now a professional recording group and their albums would reflect this. The passion was gone, replaced by competency and an innate knowledge of what the Stones were supposed to sound like.

That’s not to say that Steel Wheels is bad. Pound for pound, it may be the best real Stones album of the decade. It’s certainly miles better than Emotional Rescue, side two of Tattoo You, and Dirty Work. While it lacks Undercover‘s experimental side, it has more of a rocky, back-to-the-roots, sound. The production is clean to a fault, instantly dating the album back to the 1980s, but the performances are tight and Charlie Watts once again plays like he’s clean and sober.

What’s really missing here is inspiration. Back in 1973 and 1974, both Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll sounded like the Stones were reading from a “How To Write A Rolling Stones Song” manual. There were some great songs on those albums, and there are on Steel Wheels as well, but the songs on the earlier albums were helped by the recording techniques of the day. There’s a certain sleazy, raw sound on the albums from the 1970s that gave even half-baked songs a great vibe. Steel Wheels doesn’t benefit from this, and even the best songs have to overcome the way they sound coming out of the speakers.

The album begins with crashing guitar chords, but they sound different than the ones that open the previous album. Dirty Work sounded angry from the first note, but the chords that open “Sad Sad Sad” sound loose, like the band is once again having some fun and just enjoying rocking out. Charlie crashes in, sounding invigorated in a way he hadn’t sounded in the previous decade, but Jagger’s transformation from singer to shouter is pretty much complete. There’s a mass of guitar interplay between Richards and Woods. Throughout the track Richards and Woods duel on rhythm and lead and who can tell the difference? There seems to be a million overdubbed guitar lines on the song, dancing between the speakers…little stabs of picked lead, chunky chords, and quick slides. It all leads up to a thrilling track that kicks open the door and swaggers in like John Wayne, ready to dispatch some bad guys.

It was the second song on the LP that heralded the Stones “reunion”, though. The first single, “Mixed Emotions”, was the Stones sounding like an actual unit again. Keith and Mick sing harmonies over a too fussy backing. Charlie really shines and once again Richards and Woods weave their different guitar parts beautifully, but the song sounds so commercial it might as well be playing behind an advertisement on television. It’s clearly written about the feud between Jagger and Richards and their reunion, with lyrics about bickering lovers reuniting and seeking to strengthen their bond. “Button your lip/And button your coat/Let’s go out dancing/Let’s rock and roll,” Jagger barks. In one of his trademark magnificent one-line slags, Keith quipped at the time, “Shoulda been called ‘Mick’s Emotions’.”

“Terrifying” follows a slinky groove with a nice bass line from Bill Wyman. There’s absolutely nothing terrifying about it, with lazy lyrics taken from the Big Book of Similes, but Jagger actually sings this one so well it’s possible to hear the singer he used to be. “Terrifying” might have been a good outtake or B-side from the late 70s or early 80s, and it’s certainly not bad, but it’s also nothing special. It stands in stark comparison to “Hold On To Your Hat” which proceeds at hurricane velocity. Jagger’s back to shouting and seems to be channeling the Angry Mick that was so prominent on Dirty Work. But here Jagger sounds like he’s working with the band, not yelling at them. It’s an underrated gem from this period, with particularly good guitar lines from Ron Wood.

A very nice bridge saves “Hearts For Sale” from mediocrity. A good guitar solo (Keith, I think) doesn’t save another shouty Jagger vocal and a repetitive guitar lick. Again, and this is a criticism that can be applied to a lot of post-Dirty Work Stones, there’s nothing wrong with “Hearts For Sale.” It exists on a pleasant plain where it is enjoyed, and quickly forgotten. It’s certainly better than “Blinded By Love” a faux-Mariachi ballad the likes of which Los Lobos would have discarded as embarrassing.

The biggest hit from the album was the ubiquitous “Rock And A Hard Place”. Buoyed by the incredibly popular and successful Steel Wheels Tour, “Hard Place” received a lot of play on both radio and MTV. It’s a fair stadium-ready rocker, like a faster version of “Start Me Up”, though the lyrics are more thoughtful than they sound on the first, or ten thousandth, listen. The motif for the tour was steel and construction, with giant girders around the stage, and “Hard Place” was about a vanishing countryside, being consumed by ever-growing cities. This made it the perfect song to plug both the album and tour, though the song itself is hurt by Jagger’s mannered vocals and an annoying, halting chorus. Despite the lyrics, it became something of a rock and roll anthem, with people never realizing that the rock of the title was literal, and the hard place was a city landscape. That’s bound to happen when you play to 70,000 people and the hook of your song is shouting the word “Rock!”

Fortunately, Keith swings in with “Can’t Be Seen”, a terrific rocker that bears more than a hint of Talk Is Cheap in its grooves. Over a solid guitar line, Keith sings of an affair that must be broken off because it’s simply no good for either party. “You’re married anyway,” Keith sings before tossing in a subtle “Oh shit”. Charlie is his usual solid self and the bridge is one of the catchiest moments on the album. If there’s a flaw it’s the backing vocals that make it sound a bit too much like a Richards solo vehicle, and not a true Stones song. Bernard Fowler is especially prominent on the backing vocals, as are Lisa Fischer and Sarah Dash, and they’re great. But it leads to the inevitable question: where’s Mick? Consider “Happy” for a moment, Keith’s greatest song. Jagger provides the strong backing vocal but as great a song and performance as “Can’t Be Seen” is, it sounds oddly disconnected on the album.

The flip side of “Can’t Be Seen” is “Almost Hear You Sigh”. The strong ballad was written by Keith and sounds much like something from his solo album but now the question is: where’s Keith? The vocal, a good one, is from Jagger and he’s backed by the professional backup singers the Stones were using. Keith plays guitar, of course, but there’s little of his personality on the track. Smooth harmonies were never the band’s strong suit, but their ragged glory lent a swagger to even the slower songs, and some backing harmonies from Keith might have elevated “Almost Hear You Sigh” to the upper reaches of Stones balladry. As it is, it sounds like a Keith solo track with a guest vocal by Mick Jagger.

The most startling moment on Steel Wheels, probably the most startling moment on a Stones album since Their Satanic Majesties Request, is when the ghost of Brian Jones suddenly makes an appearance. In 1967 on a trip to Morocco, Jones became enamored with a group of local Sufi trance musicians who went under the name The Master Musicians of Joujouka. Suddenly, twenty years after Brian Jones slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the bottom of his pool, the Master Musicians turned up on a Rolling Stones album. “Continental Drift” is, to my ears, one of the best songs on Steel Wheels because it is so different and so unexpected. It’s a relentless, driving song, propelled by African pan flutes and percussion providing an Eastern sound. There’s nothing else like it in the Stones canon. Even the trippy psychedelia of Satanic Majesties sounded like Western music, albeit drugged. It was a rock band going psychedelic. The beauty of “Continental Drift” is how prominent the Master Musicians are. It’s their song, and the Stones are just along for the ride. It’s one of the most daring and different songs the band ever recorded, and its place on an album of such slick, over produced rock songs makes it stand out. It’s too bad the band didn’t feel like taking some more chances like this one. An entire album of the Stones doing Sufi trance music may have been a bit much, but the experiment is grand enough to leave you wanting more.

“Break The Spell” continues the more daring aspect of the album. It’s a swampy, sleazy shuffle, like something Junior Kimbrough would have recorded. Jagger’s vocal is suitably mud-caked, and his harmonica drives the song. Mick rarely gets credit as being one of the great blues harmonica players, but he is, and it’s a pleasure to hear this side of the band. Much like “Continental Drift”, “Break the Spell” sounds like it was airlifted in from another album, but it’s a very welcome diversion. Keith ends the album with “Slipping Away”, a slow ballad that strikes the perfect note. Like “Can’t Be Seen” it sounds like an outtake from Talk Is Cheap but they were smart enough to have Mick play a prominent vocal role. Of the three songs that most sound like a Richards solo effort, “Slipping Away” is the one that most sounds like the Stones. It’s the best ballad on the album, and the best they’d done since the 1970s. “Slipping Away” is a near perfect album closer. The last three songs on Steel Wheels is the highest quality block of songs the band had created since side one of Tattoo You, and has the benefit of making the listener believe the entire album is better than it actually is. Steel Wheels started strong, and finished stronger, but much of the middle is simply filler product, devoid of any real inspiration or creativity.

The end of the decade saw the Stones in a stronger position than the beginning. Steel Wheels was a satisfying comeback, if not exactly a true return to form. Mick and Keith were posing for pictures and smiling again. Most importantly, the band embarked on a massive worldwide tour that was both musically excellent and financially lucrative. The fighting and backstabbing in the press had mortally wounded the band that came out of the London clubs in the early 1960s. The band that recorded “Satisfaction” and Exile On Main Street was dead, killed by drugs and ego. The band that rose in its place looked familiar and even sounded familiar at times, but it wasn’t the same. With Steel Wheels the Rolling Stones embarked on the final stage of their career: professional recording and touring artists. There would be better albums in their future, and some truly great songs where all the elements meshed, but the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World was now just a shadow of its former glory.

Grade: B

“The Stars Look Very Different Today…” David Bowie, RIP

Last month I was on a huge David Bowie kick. I created a playlist for the car that I listened to every day for a few weeks and watched both the Showtime documentary Five Years and Bowie’s guest appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on Hulu. The Bowie binge was precipitated by the news of his new album and the surreal, vaguely disturbing video that accompanied the title song, “Blackstar”. I didn’t know that Bowie was dying. Nobody outside of his immediate circle did.

There’s nothing in the “Blackstar” video that would indicate a man on his last legs. Bowie looked old, but he was 69. His voice sounded strong and clear, even if it wasn’t the commanding instrument that went toe-to-toe with Freddie Mercury in “Under Pressure”. The music was high on atmospherics, and low on guitar crunch, but that had been Bowie’s sound since the late 1970s when he traded in Los Angeles and London for Berlin. The song was good, if a bit long, but it carried one Bowie trademark: it didn’t sound like anything else. Even at the age of 69, David Bowie was challenging himself and his audience. His final video, for the song “Lazarus”, shows Bowie in a hospital bed, blindfolded. At the end he steps into a wardrobe and closes the oak door on himself, disappearing into a symbolic coffin. He even made his death into an artistic statement.

David Bowie, turning his death into art.

David Bowie, turning his death into art.

Bowie had his critics, including Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who claimed that Bowie’s entire career was just a pose, an artificial construct. The criticism is valid to a point, but misses the larger picture. Bowie did work within the confines of artifice, but that doesn’t mean the music was artificial. Are Warhol’s paintings of a Campbell’s Soup artistically false because they portray something found in most people’s kitchen pantries? Does Jack White’s plastic guitar and red/white/black color scheme mean that the blues he plays is less legitimate than John Lee Hooker’s? Bowie’s costumes, the poses, the “Is he or isn’t he gay?” controversies, the elaborate theatricality of his stage show, were all designed to offer a framework for the listener and concertgoer to be immersed in the art. This was more than just music; it was theater, it was pantomime, it was acting. It even touched on literature; on his Serious Moonlight tour he performed the song “Cracked Actor” while singing into the face of a skull he held in his hand, a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Yorick. Bowie’s art covered a far wider spectrum than that of his peers, though the music was always the most important part: “Space Oddity”, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Station to Station, Low, Scary Monsters…these are all essential rock and roll recordings, deserving of a home in any rock fan’s record collection.

Too many of the encomiums that have been written since his death try to portray Bowie as some sort of social activist, a champion of gay rights, but this is a dreadful misreading of his art. Yes, he played with gender roles and was the first rock star to openly announce that he was gay but even that was part of his art. Later in his career Bowie said that he had always been “a closet heterosexual” and seemed reticent to discuss the extravagant pansexuality that had garnered him so much attention (much of it negative, but there’s no such thing as bad press) in his early 70’s heyday. The tributes to him that focus on his gender-bending androgyny do the artist a grave disservice; they focus on the façade and not on the music that was the heart of his artistic expression. I’m sure Bowie was pleased to know that he was an inspiration to a lot of kids who felt alienated and different, whether it was because they were gay or simply because they were different, but it was not the purpose of his various personas. The purpose was to provide a showcase for the music, an ever-changing persona that allowed him to explore whatever musical inspirations were guiding him. In the early 70s he essentially created glam rock by adopting the persona of an alien that had come down to show a dying Earth how to have a good time in its final days. When he fell in love with Philly soul he became a soul man, putting on a suit and crooning in his smoothest voice. When he went to Berlin and became entranced with Kraftwerk he cut his already short hair even shorter and adopted the ice-cold look of Euro disco. When he embraced the New Romantic movement in the early 1980s he appeared like a long-lost member of Spandau Ballet.

Bowie was not a chameleon, disguising himself by blending into his surroundings. He was a shape-shifter, using his body, his bands, and his stage as a canvas to illustrate the music in his head. With all of his various personas Bowie gave the audience the chance to actually see what music looked like. Throughout his career, Bowie became his music. In this sense Bowie is unique among musicians. All true musicians are artists. David Bowie was art.