The Listening Post: November 2015

Revisiting some old friends.

  • Sonic HighwaysFoo Fighters. Let’s face it, it’s pretty much impossible not to like Dave Grohl. He’s so unconcerned with being cool, he approaches his music with a huge smile and boyish enthusiasm, as if even now he can’t believe that this is how he lives his life, and he has always come across as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s nicest characters. He’s a good singer, a solid if unspectacular guitarist, and a drummer the likes of whom we haven’t seen since John Bonham sat behind the kit for Led Zeppelin. Also, he’s a punk rock kid who’s got Paul McCartney on his phone contact list. So it’s resolved: Dave Grohl is awesome. Then there’s his band. Foo Fighters have always been a band with plenty of chops. As amazing a drummer as Grohl is, his equal (and in some ways superior) is Taylor Hawkins. Guitarist Chris Shifflett is a top-notch lead guitar player, and bassist Nate Mendel provides a great bottom end. However, there’s little in Foo Fighters that can be called original or even particularly interesting. Many of their songs are solid, and their highlights (of which there are many) are among the best examples of rock music in the post-alternative era. But this all makes Sonic Highways that much more disappointing. The album is the “soundtrack” to an eight part documentary that Grohl did for HBO last year. The Foos traveled across the country and hit the biggest of the nation’s musical meccas to explore the evolution of the sound from each of those cities. They talked about blues, power pop, and punk in Chicago, Dixieland jazz in New Orleans, alternative rock in Seattle, etc. In each city, Grohl conducted interviews with musicians and producers, and then wrote the lyrics for these songs based on those interviews. It’s a great concept, but a failed execution. Grohl hit each of these cities like the fan that he is, but didn’t absorb any of the atmosphere. The music on Sonic Highways sounds like every other Foo Fighters album, despite the presence of guest stars like Gary Clark Jr., Rick Nielsen, and Joe Walsh. Of all the guests, only Walsh really makes his presence felt, dropping into “Outside” an elegant, atmospheric guitar solo that could have been lifted straight from James Gang Rides Again. Otherwise, the guests, even the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, get sucked into the band’s sound.

    Which wouldn’t be so bad if the sound was good. But on Sonic Highways Grohl has fully embraced his Enormodome tendencies. There isn’t a single song on the album that doesn’t seem like it was written specifically to be played in front of 80,000 punters at Wembley Stadium. The music is completely faceless, generic arena rock, barely distinguishable from Journey or Nickelback. Grohl still has a lot of punk rock kid in him, which makes this exercise in corporate rock somewhat baffling. This is music that sounds like it was dreamed up by men in suits sitting around a table. It’s almost cynical. Listen to “I Am A River” with your eyes closed and just try not to picture 80,000 lit cell phones being waved in the air at a football stadium. I don’t think it can be done. Notice how what was once passion (The Colour and the Shape‘s “Monkey Wrench”) has now become a cliché: the music is rising to a crescendo, time to start screaming the lyrics as if they actually mean something. For all the volume, speed, screaming, and thrash in these grooves the result is completely soulless. Grohl is the ultimate rock music fanboy, and Sonic Highways is a love letter to the cities that generated the music he loves, but it’s a love letter devoid of genuine emotion, as if it was written by a child painstakingly copying the love letters he found in his Dad’s dresser drawer, but not really knowing what the words mean. The songs from Sonic Highways will probably sound great in the Enormodome, but in the car or streaming through Spotify they sound banal and dull, and the band that has been flying the True Believer flag for rock music for twenty years now suddenly sound like the reason Nirvana had to exist.
    Grade: D
  • Crosseyed HeartKeith Richards. It’s been 23 years since the soul of the Rolling Stones has stepped out of his band’s shadow and released a solo album. In 1988 and 1992 Keith Richards proved that he could survive, and even thrive, without his musical brother Mick Jagger. Talk Is Cheap and Main Offender were loose, sloppy affairs that called up everything that was great about the Stones. More than two decades later, and ten years after the last Rolling Stones album, Keith’s done it again. Crosseyed Heart has an advantage over Keith’s previous solo efforts: he’s no longer stuck in a high-gloss production era. Now the drums sound more like drums and less like rifle shots, and the rough edges are allowed to show. It’s a better sound than the earlier albums, and a worthy successor in terms of song quality. What the album is missing is Mick Jagger’s vocals. Keith has always been a bit lacking in the vocal department; his best vocals are a soulful, excited bray, and add texture and color to the Stones. Who doesn’t love a good Keith track like “Happy” or “Before They Make Me Run”? But there’s a difference between being the spotlight kid on one or two songs and carrying an entire album. As studied and forced as Jagger’s vocals have become in the last twenty years, they’re still a far sight better than Keith’s. There’s also little doubt that Keith’s vocals have been helped by modern technology. Anyone who’s heard Keith speak, his voice a harsh, phlegm-filled rasp, would know that the singing here has been sweetened. It’s still rough, but he doesn’t sound like a man with encroaching emphysema. Musically, Crosseyed Heart is a winner. Keith has always been an advocate of the roll in rock ‘n’ roll, and there’s plenty of groove to be found here. “Heartstopper” and “Trouble” are terrific Stones-y rockers, “Love Overdue” is Richards’s best reggae track since It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s “Luxury”, “Blues In The Morning” resurrects the spirit of Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson, “Suspicious” is one of the best examples of Keith’s recent penchant for torch song balladeering. There’s also a terrific cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” that connects Keith to his influences in a way that hasn’t been heard since the days when the Stones were covering Robert Johnson. Maybe best of all is “Substantial Damage”, a great funk groove underpinning Keith’s speak-sing lyrics (“What’s that thing attached to your ear?/I’m talking to you but you don’t seem to hear/I’m paying for dinner and I might as well not be here” could have been lifted from a Jack White song.) There are some quibbles: the title track is fantastic, a finger-picked acoustic blues that sounds like Robert Johnson was reincarnated, but ends abruptly with Keith declaring “That’s all I got.” He should have taken some time to finish the song. “Illusion” sounds like a rewrite of Talk Is Cheap‘s vastly superior “Make No Mistake” with Norah Jones filling in for Sarah Dash. “Robbed Blind” is a not terribly interesting country ballad, though the pedal steel is lovely. Still, the album proves that there is songwriting and performing life still in Keith Richards. If he can steer Mick Jagger away from his desire to be “contemporary” and get him back to his roots, another Stones album could prove to be a real winner.
    Grade: B+
  • Dodge And BurnThe Dead Weather. Much like with The Raconteurs it seems a little unfair to call The Dead Weather “a Jack White side project”. It is that, but it’s surely just as much, if not more, of an Alison Mosshart side project. The singer for The Kills is the heart and soul of The Dead Weather. While the most famous musician in the band is sitting in the back, playing astonishingly good drums and taking the odd vocal turn, Mosshart is the strutting tiger that gives the band their strength. Dodge and Burn, recorded in fits and starts over the past couple of years, is the band’s best album yet. It maintains the Weather’s industrial Gothic blues sound, but is more easily accessible and more varied. “Three Dollar Hat” hints at rap, and “Lose The Right” has a reggae vibe, but both songs sound like the soundtrack to the end of the world. Throughout the album all the Dead Weather hallmarks are prominent: distorted, fuzzed bass and guitar, heavy keyboards, strangled vocals, and pounding drums. But unlike their earlier efforts, Horehound and Sea of Cowards, the sound doesn’t overwhelm the songs. These are the sturdiest songs the band has done. The best tunes on this album (“I Feel Love”, “Buzzkiller”, “Open Up”, “Cop and Go”) are as good or better than anything they’ve ever done, and even the lesser tracks (“Three Dollar Hat”, “Be Still”) are pretty solid. The album closer, “Impossible Winner” is a string-laden ballad that sounds like nothing else in their canon and proves that Mosshart can actually sing. The Dead Weather can be a tough listen; it’s rare that I revisit the first two albums. But it’s a band with talent and attitude to spare and on Dodge and Burn they sound for the first time like more than the sum of their parts.
    Grade: B+

“One more trip and I’ll be gone…” Scott Weiland, RIP

It’s something of a tasteless remark, but not untrue, that the biggest surprise in Scott Weiland’s death was how late in his life it happened. The singer of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver has spent more than twenty years fighting his demons, including his diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, in the public eye. The cycle was always the same: Weiland’s on drugs, goes to rehab, goes back on drugs, gets arrested, goes to rehab, puts out new music, goes back on drugs, gets kicked out of his own band, goes to rehab. Repeat as unnecessary. His addiction to drugs, most notably heroin, came to be the defining aspect of his life just as it will likely be revealed to be the defining aspect of his death.

And that’s a shame. Scott Weiland was also a remarkably good rock singer, capable of a sweet croon, a sultry Morrison-esque baritone, and a raging rasp. He had a finely tuned sense of melody, far superior to Kurt Cobain (who usually gets the credit for putting melody into alternative rock). Stone Temple Pilots’s songs could be crushing hard rock, but they were almost always very catchy. His idols were David Bowie and the Beatles, and he displayed the former’s chameleonic, mercurial showmanship with the sturdy melodic lines of the latter, all set to an alt-rock attack that carried more than a few hints of glam and psychedelia.

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When STP released their first album, Core, they were dismissed by critics as Pearl Jam clones, and there was more than a hint of Eddie Vedder’s “Jeremy” mannerisms in STP’s “Plush” video, but the comparison of the two bands was always lazy. Aside from both Weiland and Vedder having deeper voices than was common in rock at the time, and aside from them being guitar-based bands, there was very little overlap between them. Pearl Jam worshiped at the shrine of Pete Townshend and the Who; STP sped up Bowie and combined it with Black Sabbath-style riffing. Core was a huge hit, spawning no fewer than four successful singles (“Sex Type Thing”, “Plush”, “Wicked Garden”, and “Creep”) but the dirty secret of such a successful album was that it really wasn’t very good. Yes, the singles were excellent, and the album tracks “Dead and Bloated” and “Crackerman” were equally good, but the rest of the album was mediocre at best. I bought it on the strength of “Plush”, but didn’t anticipate ever buying another album from them.

Then Purple came out, heralded by the song “Big Empty” from the soundtrack of the movie The Crow. I bought Purple based on hearing “Interstate Love Song”, the best song the band ever did and one of the best songs of the entire decade. The album was almost breathtakingly heavy, its relentless pace softened only by “Pretty Penny”, “Big Empty” and the closing “Kitchenware and Candybars”, but it never seemed that way because of Weiland’s melodic gifts.

Other albums followed, and the band explored their roots, mixing heavy and trippy, pummeling riffs and acoustic ballads. It’s somewhat ironic that their first, best-selling album is also their worst, the sound of a young band finding their way.

The guiding light of the band was always Scott Weiland, but his troubles were so deep he was repeatedly fired from the band he led, only to be brought back when his bandmates recognized how important he was to their success. In the downtimes, he released solo albums that suffered from a lack of constraints on his excesses, and teamed up with former Guns ‘n’ Roses players to form the short-lived Velvet Revolver, who eventually fired him for being so unreliable. Despite his problems, his gifts remained undiminished.

Whether Weiland died from a drug overdose or because his body simply gave out after years of abuse is irrelevant. A gifted singer and melodist, a strong songwriter (with admittedly weak lyrics), and an electrifying performer is now gone at the age of 48. His band was possibly the best singles band of the 1990s, with their only real competition for that title being Smashing Pumpkins. Scott Weiland wasn’t a musician; he was a rock star. One of the last we’ll ever see. RIP.

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre: A Biography Of The Doors, by Mick Wall

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It’s now been 44 years since Jim Morrison shuffled off his mortal coil, and the story of his tumultuous life and early death has been told countless times. In books, magazines, interviews, and even a big budget feature film, it’s almost as if Morrison never left.

The band’s influence is still felt today, and that’s especially true of their lead singer, whose stage persona can be seen, in part or in whole, in the stylings of singers ranging from Perry Farrell to Scott Weiland to Eddie Vedder. When the Doors reunited in the late 1990s to perform on VH1’s Storytellers, there was no shortage of alternative rock gods lining up to pull on a pair of leather pants and do their best impressions of the Lizard King.

It’s a fair point, then, to ask if there’s a purpose to yet another Doors biography. Is there anything new that hasn’t been discussed before? Is there a single anecdote that Ray Manzarek, in the seemingly daily interviews he gave to everybody with a microphone or a pen in the years before he died, didn’t pontificate upon? Based on the latest, from British writer Mick Wall, the answer is no. This is the same story that was told (poorly and with a different ending) in No One Here Gets Out Alive, the Big Bang of Morrison biographies. It’s the same story that Stephen Davis told (very well) in Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. It’s a similar story to the one told (bizarrely and with little regard for reality) by Oliver Stone in the movie The Doors.

This isn’t to say that Mick Wall brings nothing new to the party, but they’re mostly small anecdotes, like George Harrison inviting Morrison to Abbey Road Studios where the Doors singer met the Beatles while they were recording the White Album. But the main thrust of the story is still the same: pudgy young film student and poet discovers LSD, loses weight, starts writing songs, forms a band, becomes a sex god, has great success, and throws it all away (in one of the worst cases of alcoholism ever documented) while his band members fume indignantly (when they’re not making excuses for him).

Morrison was a star that eclipsed everything in his orbit. It’s why he appears on almost every page of this book, subtitled “A Biography of the Doors”, and the rest of the band drifts in an out. Morrison’s talent was, let’s be honest, limited. He couldn’t play an instrument, his voice was beautifully expressive when he sang in his range but that range was also very limited, his poetry was generally awful even as his lyrics, more disciplined, were often excellent. Forget Ray Manzarek’s constant talk of shamanism and Dionysian ecstasy and the fact remains that Morrison became an archetype. He was the tortured artist, doomed from day one, who transcended death and became a legend.

In many ways, Morrison was symbolic of the decade from which he emerged. He was vital and good-looking, filled with promise, bursting with creativity and a desire to challenge the established order. But, like the Sixties that began with JFK and Camelot, all of that potential was squandered with drugs, promiscuity, and alcohol. By the end of his life, Morrison was a burnt out husk. One of the last things he ever wrote was the scrap: “Last words. Last words. Out. Regret for wasted nights & wasted years. I pissed it all away. American music.” It was in his last journal, along several pages where he had written, over and over, “God help me.”

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is very good. It doesn’t add much to the story but it does flesh out one crucial aspect of Morrison’s life: how it ended. The story had first been told in Stephen Davis’s book, but there’s considerably more detail here. Since July 3, 1971, the story of Morrison’s death has been this: he went to Paris to get away from the rock and roll craziness and concentrate on his poetry and to be with the love of his life, Pamela Courson. One night they went to the movies and when they went back to their apartment Jim took a bath. He had a heart attack in the bathtub and passed away. That story has always seemed way too trite for me. I believed it because there was no contradicting story, but it never really seemed right somehow.

It’s not. People are talking now, including the ones who carried Morrison’s body out of the bathroom in a Parisian bar and deposited it in that bathtub. There’s far too many corroborating accounts now not to recognize the truth: Jim Morrison died of a heroin overdose while sitting on the toilet in a bar called the Rock and Roll Circus. In order to avoid police involvement and scandal, he was wrapped in a blanket and carried out the back door to a waiting car. His body was driven home at around 3:00 in the morning and carried up to his third floor apartment, dropped several times along the way. Pamela was mostly passed out, strung out on heroin. They stripped Jim, placed him in the tub, told Pamela what to do (get rid of all the drugs in the apartment) and what to tell the police, and left. Pamela did as she was told, and the French police weren’t really interested in pursuing the matter. It’s a more sordid tale than the myth, but far more believable. Morrison didn’t go to Paris to concentrate on poetry; he went because France wouldn’t extradite him back to the United States, where he was due to be sentenced for the infamous Miami concert. In Paris, he admitted that he was barely reading or writing anything. He was drinking an enormous amount, and had recently begun to try heroin. The heroin that killed him was nearly pure, supplied by Count Jean de Breteuil, Marianne Faithfull’s boyfriend (and former lover of Pamela…it was he who hooked Pam).

Mick Wall’s style is fluid and engaging, though perhaps more befitting a blog than a book. There are many asides and sarcastic comments scattered throughout, and Wall especially seems to hold an intense disdain for Ray Manzarek. While he readily acknowledges Manzarek’s musical skill and his gift of gab, he begins the book by telling how Manzarek had insinuated, in an interview with the author, the old trope that maybe Morrison was still alive somewhere. Rather than shrug it off as Ray being Ray, repeating something that he’s been saying to the punters for over 40 years, Mick Wall seems personally offended by the comment, and almost never fails to include snarky comments when he quotes Ray throughout the book. Some of the snark is funny, but not appropriate for what should be a more dispassionate biographical work. In contrast, the author holds John Densmore in very high esteem (deservedly so…Densmore’s autobiography Riders On The Storm is essential reading for Doors fans, and he is unquestionably the most level-headed and clear-eyed analyst of life with Jim Morrison).

Wall is also surprisingly critical of the music. While he thinks that Strange Days and L.A. Woman are complete triumphs, he’s strangely dismissive of a large part of the band’s brilliant first album, The Doors, and their hard-rocking return to basics, Morrison Hotel. He’s unfairly harsh with both Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade, admittedly the two weakest Doors albums but still containing many delights. He savages their performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which I’ve always found to be an extraordinary show, and the showcase they did on PBS (to my mind, one of their best performances on tape). But Wall is clearly a fan. As Morrison devolves, and the band starts to crack under the weight of playing with such a loose cannon, Wall finds it hard to disguise a sense of genuine anger that a band with so much talent could lose the thread so completely.

Wall also refuses to take a position on some of the many controversies of Morrison’s life. He shrugs and backs away from the idea that Morrison was bisexual, though the anecdotal evidence is very strong that the singer was, if not sexually attracted to other men, willing to overlook the gender of whoever was pleasuring him. Was he bisexual or just a drug-addled hedonist? It’s true that nobody will ever know but Wall seems to deliberately shy away from a stance. That’s fair enough, but he’s also agnostic on whether Morrison had been sexually abused as a child. Here there seems to be less room for hesitation. Aside from the fact that he exhibits almost all the signs of the abused child (the addictions, the sexual acting out, the violence toward women, etc), Morrison himself told his lawyer that he’d been abused. In No One Here Gets Out Alive, Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman recall the many instances where a pre-teen Morrison had drawn sexually explicit (and often violent) pictures of children with adults in his notebooks. Sugarman, more a hagiographer than a biographer, dismissed these pictures as being wild and precocious, yet another manifestation of Jim’s towering intellect and Dionysian godhood, when they seemed to me to be a real cry for help. The evidence of Morrison’s abuse is all there, and Wall’s dismissal of it strikes me as cowardly (Wall says that the admission to his lawyer was possibly just more myth making, though by all accounts Morrison was in tears as he told the story). Stephen Davis did a much more thorough job of exploring this angle of Morrison’s life and behavior, including the story of the (male) Florida bar owner who would let the teenaged Morrison on stage to read his poetry in exchange for sex.

Throughout Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre, and most other good Doors books, Jim Morrison comes across as a man who is kind and personable, very witty, insecure (he was hesitant about meeting the Beatles—”What if they laugh at me?” he asked), and extremely intelligent. When he was sober. When he wasn’t sober, and he was drunk more often than not in the last few years of his life, a rage-filled monster emerged. In vino veritas. Today he would have managers shipping him off to rehab and therapy, but in 1971 nobody knew what to do with him, and he paid the price with his life.

Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is a worthy, though ultimately redundant, addition to the story of the Doors. It doesn’t reach the level of Densmore’s Riders on the Storm: My Life With Jim Morrison and The Doors, Manzarek’s autobiography Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors, or Stephen Davis’s Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend, but it is far superior to the original Morrison biography, the grossly distorted, sycophantic No One Here Gets Out Alive. Wall has done fans a service by providing the comprehensive story of Morrison’s death, but there’s little else here that hasn’t been seen before.

The Thrill Is Gone

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The gateway drug of the blues for me was The Rolling Stones. My initial exposure to the Stones was their early- and mid-sixties period, when they were releasing good albums and some of the greatest singles ever recorded. It was the lesser-known album tracks that opened the door. “Confessin’ the Blues”, “The Spider and the Fly”, “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” and others were raw slices of blues, and their other songs were heavily influenced by the genre. From the Rolling Stones it’s only a short walk to the Animals, the Yardbirds, and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. It was the Yardbirds and Mayall who blew up a passing interest into a full-blown obsession because both of those bands provided the seeds for others. From the Yardbirds and Mayall came Clapton; from the Yardbirds came Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin; from Mayall came Fleetwood Mac and the addition of the virtuoso Mick Taylor to the Stones. Hendrix was in the mix as well, playing his blues from Mars. The Butterfield Blues Band was also there. As I was listening to these bands, and others from the era ranging from Ten Years After to Savoy Brown, the originators of the style of music were unknown to me.

That all changed when the connection was made. In a record store one day I found an album called Muddy and the Wolf, featuring members of Butterfield’s band, the Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Cream. Later I found out that the album was a repackaging of Muddy Waters’s Fathers and Sons and Howlin’ Wolf’s The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, but when I handed over my money to the good folks at Tapeville USA I just thought it was some supergroup I’d never heard before. When I listened to it, I was hooked. Like a lot of people, I expected the old blues players to be croaking vocals about bad times while playing rudimentary acoustic guitars. I was floored by both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. For whatever reason, at a time when the Human League and Soft Cell were all over the radio with heavily synthesized pop tunes, there was something in this primal music that grabbed me by the ears and demanded that I pay attention. This music was completely unfashionable but that didn’t matter. It was real.

Once I learned that the originators of blues music, those old black guys from down South and from Chicago were actual players and, in some cases, virtuosos, it became a quest to find out more. My first stop after Muddy and Wolf was B.B. King.

I’d heard about King from interviews with Eric Clapton. Of particular interest was Clapton’s quote from a 1968 Rolling Stone interview: “I don’t think there’s a better blues guitar player on the planet than B.B. King.” This coming from Clapton? That’s some serious high praise. My first experiment? Live in Cook County Jail. And again, I was hooked.

B.B. King had one of the purest tones on the planet. Unlike most electric guitar players, King played with little to no distortion. Each note rang clearly and cleanly, and the notes he played were amazing. King was not a particularly great guitarist if you measure skill by your depth of knowledge. King never played chords, and never played while he sang. For him, the guitar was a solo instrument, and an extension of his voice. His rich, pleasing singing was punctuated by flurries of notes from his guitar, which he named Lucille. His style was immediately recognizable. Nobody else plays like him. For millions of fans raised on a diet of guitar virtuosos from Hendrix to Stevie Ray, B.B. King’s style seems almost simple. From a technical perspective, that’s probably true. But King was never interested in playing ten minute solos at the speed of light. His guitar was his partner. He was not its master, and it was not his. A B.B. King song is almost a conversation between the singer and his instrument. He sings the blues, and his guitar whistles, sighs, moans, and cries in sympathy. His guitar playing was a response to his voice’s calling. “Every day I have the blues,” King sings, and his guitar answers “I know you do. Me, too”. There’s an almost Gospel sensibility to it, with King in the role of a preacher and his guitar playing the part of the congregation. “The thrill is gone!” “Alleluia!”

For rock fans King is known as the guy who took one of Bono’s most pretentious lyrics and rooted it in the ground on U2’s “When Love Comes To Town”. Others know him for his biggest hit single, “The Thrill Is Gone”, a fluke pop hit in the late 1960s that still retains its power all these years later. But King’s canon has many joys. The greatest is probably Live at the Regal, often considered one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. It is the concert stage where King worked best. On stage, King could play with an abandon that was often lacking in his studio work. He filled his songs with thunderous vocals, searing lightning fills on the guitar, and his often very funny stage banter (listen to “Worry Worry” from the Cook County album). And above it all, towering over everything, was THE NOTE.

The note changed, of course, depending on the solo or the song in which he unleashed it. But it was always there. The band would chug along, King would stop singing, he’d play a handful of notes, and then hit it. One note. One string. That note would never end. Each one of these, over tens of thousands of live shows, can probably still be heard by the most sensitive recording equipment. THE NOTE would ring out, louder, higher, and clearer than any note that had ever been played by any guitarist. The sustain would go on…and on…and on. The band continued playing while that single note stopped time and let everyone on that stage, and everyone listening, know who was boss.

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When the note finally faded, it was usually followed by another quick blast that would put Eddie Van Halen to shame. King’s virtuosity was not technical, it was emotional. He was one of the greatest of all the blues legends, a towering figure in 20th century music. His name should be revered and held in the same company as Armstrong, Sinatra, Parker, Coltrane, Hendrix, Davis, Lennon, Presley. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf made better records because they were able to capture their live sound on tape, but Riley “B.B.” King stands at the top of the list of blues musicians. He influenced every blues guitar player who came in his wake. His voice is silenced now, as is Lucille’s. The notes live on forever. RIP.

The Beatles: The Beatles

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With Revolver and, especially, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles had radically altered the sound of rock music in the mid-1960s. Rock and roll was no longer content to be short songs with a steady beat that sent teenagers running to the dance floor. Rock music now was in big, bright Technicolor. It was now art and began to suffer from some of the problems that plague the modern art world. After Pepper, orchestras started popping up on even innocuous pop songs. The idea was to harness the mighty power of oboes and violins to make these songs into Important Works Of Art, though the effect was usually to render them insufferably pretentious. As bands got more psychedelic, and more colorful, there was the inevitable backlash.

After electrifying the music world with the holy triptych of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan went up to Woodstock, New York and vanished from sight. He was woodshedding with his backing group, The Hawks, and writing songs that were lyrically and musically worlds apart from the thin, wild, mercury sound of his last three albums. The Beatles got deeper in to meditation, going as far as a trip to India where they played acoustic guitars and wrote songs. The Byrds, always students of country music, added Gram Parsons to their lineup. Parsons was a talent so bright that he changed the sound of the band overnight. The Rolling Stones were stung by the critical reaction to their sojourn to psychedelia and by the increasing isolation and decrepitude of their most far out member, Brian Jones, and began to plot a future without the exotic instrumentation and influences that Jones brought to their music. Cream was still releasing songs with psychedelic tendencies, but turning them into extended blues/jazz workouts in concert. Jimi Hendrix started to move away from the psychedelic freakout of his first two albums to the blues from Mars approach of Electric Ladyland.

The backlash was heralded in late 1967 with the release of Dylan’s extraordinary and criminally underappreciated album John Wesley Harding. Over the next several months the biggest players on the field began to drop their psychedelic dreamcoats and head back to basics. The Byrds released the stone cold country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Stones followed the excess of Satanic Majesties with the jaw-dropping roots blues rock single “Jumping Jack Flash”. Even a lesser act like the Beau Brummels retreated to a pre-rock sound with the excellent album Bradley’s Barn. The Beatles followed the garish Magical Mystery Tour with its polar opposite. The “Hello Goodbye”/”I Am The Walrus” single with it’s heavy orchestration and cryptic lyrics was followed by “Lady Madonna” a barrelhouse Fats Domino-inspired piano rocker that was far removed from the psychedelic world. The B-side, George’s “The Inner Light” was an Indian raga that kept one foot in Pepperland, but was so rarely played that it became a track on The Beatles’ Rarities LP in the late 1970s. Their next single was “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” and the break from psychedelia was complete.

The biggest influence on all of this was Music From Big Pink, the first album by Dylan’s Hawks, now rechristened The Band. The album electrified the rock music community. It was rootsy, country, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and sometimes all of the above. Big Pink is the Big Bang of the genre now called Americana; there is no Mumford and Sons without it. Eric Clapton went to visit The Band in the hope they’d ask him to join. Paul McCartney sings a snippet of “The Weight” during the fade of “Hey Jude” when the Beatles performed the song on David Frost’s show. Even the Rolling Stones, on the original, banned cover of their album Beggar’s Banquet slipped in a sly piece of graffiti that read: “Music From Big Brown”. The rock music world had once again shifted.

In late November 1968 the Beatles released an album called, simply, The Beatles. The statement was obvious right away. There was no orchestral band, no magical wizards. The boldness and vibrancy of the album covers, from Revolver‘s Klaus Voorman mixed media artwork to Magical Mystery Tour‘s trippy, star-spangled typography were gone. In their place was nothing.

“The White Album? What was that? There was nothing on that goddamn cover.”—This Is Spinal Tap

For all its legendary starkness, the packaging of The Beatles, packaging that immediately and forever branded the new release as “The White Album”, was actually a good deal more sophisticated than Sgt. Pepper’s. There may not have been a picture on the front or back cover, but the words “The Beatles” was embossed above a gray line of text that was a serial number (the embossed words were later replaced by gray type and the serial number disappeared). The first pressing of the White Album was a limited edition, each album individually numbered. The gatefold contained a listing of the songs and small black and white photos of the band members. It was a double album, and the records were removed from the sleeves at the top of the cover, not the sides. The inner sleeves were black. There were four color photographs on heavy stock paper that were included with the album. These were color versions of the photos that appeared on the inner gatefold. There was an enormous fold out poster that was printed with all of the lyrics on one side and a photo montage of the band throughout their history on the other. An enormous amount of attention to detail went into the packaging for an album that has somehow become famous for being “white”.

There were 30 songs stretched across four sides of vinyl, and it was clearly a continued distancing of their sound from what they had been releasing less than a year earlier. The White Album, and the two preceding singles, mark the arrival of what’s now thought of as “late period Beatles”. It was also the sound of the beginning of the end.

The most noticeable aspect of the album is how schizophrenic it sounds. For the first time on a Beatles album there are clearly “John songs” and “Paul songs”. The recording sessions were very tense. Ringo quit the band for awhile, and their engineer Geoff Emerick also quit. The Beatles were at odds, focusing on their songs and acting as sidemen for the others. This was the first Beatles album where the band didn’t sound like a group.

It’s a very difficult album to review because there are two contradictory elements in place:

  1. A lot of the songs, especially Paul’s, just simply aren’t that good.
  2. It’s the Beatles bloody White Album. Shut up.

And that’s the crux of it. George Martin begged the Beatles to make a single album. He knew that many of the songs here were half-baked. But Martin lost the argument and the Beatles released this warts-and-all double record that somehow manages to hang together in one brilliant whole. Is “Wild Honey Pie” a good song? No. Is “Revolution 9” a great piece of music? No. Is “Birthday” more than just a riff with throwaway lyrics? Not really. But on the White Album, they work. It’s the most idiosyncratic album ever released, from the jokey Chuck Berry meets the Beach Boys pastiche of “Back in the USSR” to the string-laden, somnolent “Good Night” and I wouldn’t change a note of it.

George contributed some of the best songs he’d ever written: the classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with a searing lead guitar by guest Eric Clapton, the swipe at unidentified fat cats everywhere with “Piggies”, the lovely ballad “Long Long Long” and the fuzzed raver “Savoy Truffle” about Eric Clapton’s love of chocolates (the lyric “you’ll have to have them all pulled out after the savoy truffle” is probably the only lyric ever written about Clapton’s teeth). George was clearly stepping up his game. He’d written and they’d recorded another gem called “Not Guilty” that didn’t make the album, though it was far better than many of Paul’s tracks.

Even Ringo stepped up with his first song as a writer. “Don’t Pass Me By” is a country honk, both a parody and tribute. Ringo loved country music (so much so that his first solo album was country), and “Don’t Pass” is a hoot. The lyrics are silly (“you were in a car crash/and you lost your hair”) and the violin is way over-the-top but Ringo’s voice lends just the right amount of bonhomie and charm to what is, at the end of the day, a pretty mundane song. Even here, despite the fact that the one source of agreement between John, Paul, and George was that everyone liked Ringo, the only Beatle who plays on the track is Paul. No Beatle plays an instrument on “Good Night”, a straightforward lullaby by Lennon that Ringo sings over a string section. At least all four Beatles played on two of George’s songs, though Lennon skipped out on “Long Long Long” and “Savoy Truffle”.

Their recent trip to India had lit a fire under the two main songwriters, who returned to England with more songs than they knew what to do with. For Paul McCartney, though, the White Album seemed to indicate that he was running a little low on petrol. McCartney had just written one of the greatest rock songs of all time and seen it released as a single while the band was in the studio working on what would become the White Album. There’s no denying that “Hey Jude” is a masterpiece. But McCartney’s White Album tracks, while mostly good and occasionally great, were well below that standard. McCartney seemed to want to stretch out, penning songs in a variety of styles. This added to the varied nature of the album, but when these songs are taken out of context they are revealed at far below the quality of Lennon’s work.

The album begins with the sound of a jet taking off and McCartney’s loving tribute to Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys. Parodying the title of Berry’s “Back in the USA” and the lyrics of the Beach Boys’s “California Girls”, “Back in the USSR” is best described as clever. It’s not particularly substantive, but it chugs along as a happy little rocker. McCartney’s vocal is excellent, a combination of his Elvis voice and his Little Richard voice, but the words are, at best, cute. For all of it’s catchy enthusiasm and sense of fun, “Back in the USSR” is the kind of song that McCartney could write in his sleep. Yet as songs go, it’s one of his best on the album.

McCartney’s songs provide a lot of the eclecticism of the album. “Wild Honey Pie” is a throwaway experiment, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a misguided attempt at reggae, “Honey Pie” is a tribute to the music of a long-gone era, “Mother Nature’s Son” is a beautiful acoustic ballad, “Helter Skelter” was McCartney’s attempt to record something heavier than The Who.

The problem is that McCartney seems to have been infected with a nasty attention deficit disorder around this time. It seems that after Pepper he was so convinced that he (and the Beatles) could do anything, that they also should do everything. This leads to many of McCartney’s songs seeming incomplete. “I Will” is a lovely ballad that doesn’t crack the two-minute mark and features a bass line that is sung by McCartney, as if he was in such a rush to record that he didn’t have the time to pick up his bass guitar. “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” features a thrilling McCartney vocal (the White Album has much of Macca’s best vocal work) and the complete lyrics: “Why don’t we do it in the road?/No one will be watching us”. “Birthday” is a repetitive, and simple, guitar riff that McCartney put some dreadful lyrics on. According to Paul it was made up on the spot, and it sounds like it. It’s still a highlight of Paul’s work on the album, with another superb vocal and prominent harmonies from John (who later called the song “garbage”). “Birthday” is a fun song and sounds like the Beatles were having a blast recording it, but both lyrically and musically it’s McCartney on autopilot. “Rocky Raccoon” is a fun, jokey, spoof of folk music, while the pummeling “Helter Skelter” is the heaviest slab of music the band ever recorded, though the lyrics are about a slide at an amusement park. The original jam, lasting 27 minutes, is what led Ringo to shout “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” at the end. But for all of its power, “Helter Skelter” is another riff in search of a song. McCartney screams and wails the lyrics like his heart was about to explode out of his chest. It’s the most mercilessly savage vocal of his entire career but, once again, he’s singing about nothing.

But “Helter Skelter” is saved by the performance. “Honey Pie” is yet another pastiche (this time of 1930s-style music hall), while “Wild Honey Pie” is little more than a clanging acoustic guitar and drum. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” gamely attempts to put a Beatles stamp on reggae, or maybe it’s a reggae stamp on the Beatles. Either way, the song’s a trifle. McCartney was obsessed with the recording, but Lennon famously hated it. According to their engineer Geoff Emerick in his fascinating book Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording The Music of the Beatles, after far too many attempts to get the song right, Lennon stormed out of the session. He returned a few hours later, stood at the top of the steps leading down into the studio and announced, “I am stoned! I am more stoned than I have ever been, and I am more stoned than you will ever be! The song goes like this!” before marching over to the piano and playing the intro exactly as it’s heard on the album.

All of these songs have two things in common: The first is that McCartney wasn’t writing about much of anything; the lyrics are either tossed off as if he simply didn’t care, or they’re parodies of other types of music. The second thing they have in common is that they all work in the context of the White Album. God knows, they shouldn’t work, but they do. It’s all part of the crazy quilt that is the album. Would I listen to “Wild Honey Pie” as a standalone song? No. But I sure would miss it if it wasn’t sandwiched between “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.”

And not all of Paul’s songs are like this. He also turned in a magnificent tribute to his sheepdog, Martha (“Martha, My Dear”), that is one of the catchiest songs he ever wrote. Yes, he’s singing about his dog. Who cares when the tune is that good? He also provided two stone cold classics: “Blackbird” is a magnificent acoustic ballad that uses the British slang for “girl” to make an anthem for America’s Civil Rights movement, and “Mother Nature’s Son” is a lovely back to nature song written in India with an exquisite brass arrangement, courtesy of George Martin.

The lightness of Paul’s songs stands in stark contrast to John’s material. The White Album, frankly, is owned by Lennon. His songs, for the most part, tower over the others. His opening shot is “Dear Prudence”, written about Mia Farrow’s sister who accompanied the Beatles to India and was so enamored with meditating that she refused to come out of her room. It’s one of John’s best songs, helped considerably by Paul’s throbbing bass line and rolling drums (Ringo isn’t on the song), and the intricate weaving of the guitars. John never sounded better as a singer (the high, nasal tones he’d been using since Revolver are gone), and the lyrics are gorgeous.

“Prudence” is one of several acoustic-based Lennon songs. “I’m So Tired”, “Julia”, “Bungalow Bill”, “Cry Baby Cry”, and “Revolution 1” are built on acoustic foundations. Of these, “Julia” is the standout, an uncompromisingly beautiful ballad that serves as Lennon’s introduction of his deceased mother Julia to his new lover (“Yoko” translates to “child of the ocean”) while also, somewhat disturbingly, conflating the two. But there’s no getting around the beauty of Lennon’s finger-picked guitar (learned from Donovan while they were in India) or the vocal that expresses so much pathos. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” begins not with a snippet of flamenco guitar, but with a sound sample of flamenco guitar that was played on a Mellotron before launching into a fun and funny song about a wealthy American and his mother who had stayed in India in their own private bungalow and who ended up shooting a tiger while he was there. The mockery of the lyrics was Lennon’s response to what he saw as a strange contradiction of a man coming to commune with nature and God who nevertheless found time in his day to ice a tiger. Yoko Ono appears on the song in a cameo as Bill’s mother, who was apparently enormously proud of her son’s actions. Even better was “I’m So Tired”, Lennon’s ode to the insomnia that plagued him in India, and “Cry Baby Cry”, a variation on the traditional folk children’s ballad “Sing A Song of Sixpence”. “Revolution 1” was an alternate take of the much heavier song that had been released as the flip side of the “Hey Jude” single. The single version was all rock fury, but the version on the White Album is a lazy, acoustic shuffle. Most noticeable is the lyrical switch. In the single Lennon disavows violence, instructing the audience to count him out when destruction is on the menu. On the album, the lyric is more ambivalent as Lennon mutters the word “in” after the “count me out” line. It’s a great alternate version, quite different than the more well-known single, with some gnarly electric guitar riding on top of the acoustic.

It wasn’t all acoustic for Lennon, however. His more rocking side was well-served, too. “Glass Onion” featured some of John’s typical wordplay, teasing Beatle fans who had taken to obsessing over the lyrics with allusions to recent songs. “The walrus was Paul,” John sang (even though it wasn’t). “The Fool On The Hill”, “Lady Madonna”, “Fixing A Hole” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” all get namechecked. Interestingly, most of the songs John mentions were originally written by Paul. The lyric later became one of the central tenets of the “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy and, to this day, people still think the “here’s another clue for you all/the walrus was Paul” lyric is Lennon’s commentary about that conspiracy. Unfortunately for the nutters, “Glass Onion” was written, recorded, and released before the first whispers of his band mate’s mortality started to circulate. In fact, Paul plays an amazing bass line (especially for a dead guy). As a singer, John sounds reinvigorated to be playing loud, thumping rock and roll again. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, its title taken from Soldier of Fortune magazine is more wordplay, though according to John the title carries a sexual meaning as well. It seems to be a more sinister cousin to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. The plasticine porters with looking glass ties are now a “man in the crowd with the multi-colored mirrors on his hobnail boots/Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime” while the girl with kaleidoscope eyes is now “a soap impression of his wife/which he ate and donated to the National Trust.” What did it all mean? Who knows? With Lennon’s more surrealist songs it’s best to just let the words flow and not ponder too deeply, especially since we know that sometimes the words were specifically designed to confuse the listener. The song breaks into three distinct movements with different melodies and rhythms, moving from the piano ballad opening to the heavier section that alludes to John’s newfound heroin habit (“I need a fix ’cause I’m going down”) to the mid-tempo, Elvis-on-drugs section (“when I hold you in my arms”). It’s a dizzying song, allegedly the favorite of all the Beatles, and a minor masterpiece in the band’s canon.

After disappearing for most of the second side (his only songs are “I’m So Tired” and “Julia”), Lennon reasserted himself on side three. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except For Me and My Monkey)” is probably the most anarchic song the Beatles ever released. It’s not as heavy as “Helter Skelter” but it swings much looser and faster, with a brutal two-guitar attack from John and George and a pulsating bass line from McCartney. Rumored to be about drugs, it’s really about the thrill and excitement of John’s relationship with Yoko (who had recently been depicted in a cartoon as a monkey clinging to John’s back), and takes it’s “come on, it’s such a joy” hook from one of Maharishi’s lectures. As with some of McCartney’s cuts, “Monkey” is less a song than it is a performance. The lyrics are repetitive and the melody is nearly non-existent, but the breathless pace and exuberance of the vocals more than compensate for any lyrical shortcomings.

It’s actually somewhat ironic that John took so much good material away from his time in India with the Maharishi. He’d written some of his greatest songs there, and the Maharishi’s lectures informed not only “Monkey” but also the beautiful “Child of Nature”, which wasn’t recorded for the album but would later turn up as Imagine‘s “Jealous Guy”. But the only song on the White Album that is really about the Maharishi is “Sexy Sadie”, and it’s a scathing indictment of the band’s erstwhile guru. “What have you done? You’ve made a fool of everyone,” Lennon sings. “However big you think you are/…you’ll get yours yet.” It’s not really a surprise. John Lennon was forever seeking answers from gurus of all sorts. From his mother to Stuart Sutcliffe to Brian Epstein to the Maharishi to Yoko to Arthur Janov, Lennon threw his lot in with anyone who promised him answers and had a good sales pitch. But he also soured on these gurus, those that didn’t abandon him, quickly, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was no exception. Rumors hit the camp in India that the Maharishi was pursuing some of his female guests with some very earthy intentions and that was enough for John to disavow him. The title “Sexy Sadie” was a cop-out, holding the same amount of syllables as “Maharishi”, but the intent was clear. The song itself is one of John’s best, with particularly strong piano and bass (both played by McCartney), and a typically sympathetic drum part from Ringo, with some of his trademark fills and patterns. The more one listens, really listens, to the Beatles, the more impressive Ringo’s performances sound. He never played a drum part that didn’t suit the song, and “Sexy Sadie” is one of the best examples of this.

John’s first song on side three, coming after the boisterous “Birthday”, is one of the heaviest songs the band ever recorded both musically and, especially, lyrically. John titled the song “Yer Blues” as a joke but only because he felt self-conscious. The song had been written in India when John was supposed to be relaxing and meditating but, plagued by insomnia, his crumbling marriage to Cynthia (who was in India with him), and his distance from Yoko, was instead feeling borderline suicidal. The music is something of a parody of the then-popular British blues scene, but none of the Beatles could match the instrumental prowess of the Alvin Lees, Jeff Becks, or Jimmy Pages of the world. Knowing this, the solos are intentionally sloppy to add to the parody, though the rhythm from the guitars is primal and distorted. But the lyrics cut deep. Lennon hid his pain with a jokey title but the truth comes out in his performance. “Yes, I’m lonely/Wanna die” he wails. And he did. This was truly the way he felt when he was in India. “Feel so suicidal/Even hate my rock ‘n’ roll,” he concludes with enough passion and conviction in his voice to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. “Yer Blues” is a blues. It lacks the formal pretensions of the British blues boom, with their five-minute guitar solos, but it harkens back to an earlier era. Much of the British blues boom was about virtuosity, especially on the guitar, but this was anti-virtuosity. “Yer Blues” is less about Cream or the Yardbirds, though it shares the heavy vibe of those bands, and more about John Lee Hooker or Blind Lemon Jefferson. “Yer Blues” is a raw howl, an ode to despair from the dark night of Lennon’s soul. This is the other divide between John’s songs and Paul’s songs. Throughout the White Album, Lennon sounds like he means every single word he’s singing, while McCartney is creating characters and hiding behind them. There’s an honesty to John’s work here that is missing in Paul’s.

It wasn’t all gutbucket emotion from John. He also is responsible for the most avant garde moment in the Beatles songbook. “Revolution 9” is unquestionably the most polarizing song among Beatles fans. It’s probably pretty safe to say that most people hate it. The White Album spends four sides of vinyl creating a crazy patchwork of sounds and styles, and it culminates with the penultimate song on the album. Leading into the string-laden lullaby of “Good Night” is the audio collage that makes up “Revolution 9”. It’s the longest recording the Beatles ever released and can’t really be classified as a song at all. The sounds of fire, sirens, the crowd at a soccer game, dissonant piano tinkles, a gurgling baby, backwards violins, a choir, and bizarre vocal intrusions paints an aural picture. The key is in the title. This is the sound of revolution. Music is a thing of the past, and Lennon (and his real partner on the track, Yoko) has dropped the listener into a post-apocalyptic landscape where the world has gone insane. A voice mindlessly, endlessly, intones the words “Number nine/number nine/number nine”, the voice rising and falling in the mix. There are no lyrics, per se. The vocals all seem to be snippets of conversation:

there’s this Welsh Rarebit wearing some brown underpants
About the shortage of grain in Hertfordshire
Everyone of them knew that as time went by
They’d get a little bit older and a litter slower but
It’s all the same thing, in this case manufactured by someone who’s always
Umpteen your father’s giving it diddly-i-dee
District was leaving, intended to pay for…

…So the wife called me and we’d better go to see a surgeon
Or whatever to price it yellow underclothes
So, any road, we went to see the dentist instead
Who gave her a pair of teeth which wasn’t any good at all
So I said I’d marry, join the fucking navy and went to sea
In my broken chair, my wings are broken and so is my hair
I’m not in the mood for whirling

George appears, the only other Beatle to do so, as does Yoko. Producer George Martin and the Apple Records general manager Alistair Taylor also make an appearance in the beginning, with Taylor begging forgiveness from Martin for forgetting to bring a bottle of wine to the producer (“Will you forgive me?” “Yes.” “Bitch.”) Throughout the track, George Martin can also be heard saying “Geoff, put the red light on” though the line is buried deep in the mix and sometimes distorted beyond recognition. Once you finally hear it you become very aware of it, but actually tracking it down requires more deep listening than most people would be willing to do. There is a rich vein of typical Lennon humor in the track: “my wings are broken and so is my hair”, or his recitation of popular dances “the Watusi/the Twist” before George Harrison chimes in “El Dorado!” His sense of wordplay is also evident: “So, any road, we went to see the dentist”, “dogs for dogging…fish for fishing/Them for themming, when for whimming”, “a man without terrors from beard to false”. The revolution culminates with:

Maybe even then
Impervious in London
Could be difficult thing
It’s quick like rush for peace is
Because it’s so much
It was like being naked

Yoko concludes the ceremony with the line “If you become naked.”

The answer to why the Beatles released this, despite the protestations of both George Martin and Paul McCartney is also found in the tapes for the song, though it’s buried so deep in the mix it’s impossible to hear: John and George repeating the line “There ain’t no rules for the company freaks.” “Revolution 9” was a startling example of musique concrete. It’s not a song in any traditional sense yet, and I know I’m in a tiny minority here, it is fascinating. It’s far more interesting than more traditional songs like “Honey Pie” or “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”. It’s unsettling and strange, saved from being unlistenable by the attention to detail Lennon put into it, and the grace of his innate sense of humor.

The White Album is the sound of a band without limits. There were no rules for the company freaks. They recorded whatever they wanted and overruled the protests of producers and, sometimes, each other. The album can give a listener whiplash as it switches genres and moods randomly, cascading from light to heavy, from despair to frothy fun, from achingly sincere to dadaist surrealism. It’s like the earliest version of an iPod shuffle, where you have no idea what’s going to come next. So what if some of the songs lack substance? So what if some of the lyrics could use some work? It’s the bloody White Album, one of the genuine masterpieces of the rock era not just despite its flaws but, in many ways, because of its flaws. It may not be as cohesive as earlier albums, but there was so much here to digest and enjoy. A rock album would never sound like this again, this loose and unrestrained. Today, a record company would be reduced to paroxysms of anxiety if their marquee act wanted to release something this strange. The White Album flies in the face of conventional wisdom that albums need to have a sound, a feel, a pace, a unified tone. It’s a trick that perhaps only the Beatles could have pulled off. They were a band that never really had a single, easily codified, sound. Their restless creativity and boundless imaginations led them in a dozen different directions so audiences were somewhat used to being surprised by whatever came next. But if Beatles singles gave an early indication of what to expect from the next album, the White Album also gave an early indication of what was to come: four individual talents, unleashed and no longer tied to anything that might hold them together.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Dirty Work

The Rolling Stones Dirty WorkSomewhere out there in this big beautiful world, there is a person whose favorite album of all time, the album that he or she considers the greatest album ever recorded, is Dirty Work.

That person is not me.

The Stones nearly imploded in the years following Undercover. Mick Jagger announced his intention to launch a solo career, much to the indignation of Keith Richards. The two band leaders feuded openly and bitterly in the press. Jagger’s solo album She’s The Boss, a truly lamentable slice of mid-80s pop rock was released in 1985 and spawned a couple of hits. Later that year Jagger teamed up with David Bowie for a truly embarrassing video for “Dancing In The Streets” which premiered during the Live Aid global broadcast. Jagger himself appeared at Live Aid, singing with Tina Turner. Keith Richards and Ron Wood showed up at Live Aid, as well, backing an almost incoherent Bob Dylan. All of this time, they were dogged with questions about the Stones: what’s next for the band? The reactions from both Mick and Keith were disheartening to any Stones fan. The anger was real between them, and boiling over.

The band managed to drag themselves into the studio in mid-1985 to begin work on Undercover‘s successor, but the bad vibes between Mick and Keith continued. Jagger wasn’t particularly interested in the project, and wanted to spend the time promoting his solo album. This led to several songs being credited to Jagger-Richards-Wood, as Ronnie picked up the slack from Jagger’s disinterest. Credits to the contrary, none of the songs were actual Jagger/Richards collaborations.

The result was an album that was full of inchoate passion. It’s unquestionably the angriest album in the Stones canon, from the opening “One Hit (To The Body)” and “Fight” to “Had It With You” and “Dirty Work”. Dirty Work is certainly the effort of a band that was being riven by animosity.

That could have worked for the band if the songs themselves hadn’t been so lackluster. There’s a feeling you get when listening to the album that the band spent most of the time in the studio thinking, “Let’s get this over with.” The result is a largely unlikeable listening experience.

To be fair, there are a few true gems buried on the album. “One Hit (To The Body)” features some slashing guitar work from guest Jimmy Page. Jagger roars his way through “Fight”. “Dirty Work” and “Had It With You” straddle the line between pissed off and funny. “Sleep Tonight” is a nice Keith ballad that ends the album on a quiet note. There’s a brief coda by Ian Stewart.

And then there’s the rest of the album.

Dirty Work is mercifully short, with only ten songs clocking in at 40 minutes, and as dysfunctional as the band may have been at this point they were at least savvy enough to start strong and finish strong. “One Hit (To The Body)” starts the album in a welter of slashing electric and acoustic guitar chords from Richards and Wood. Charlie Watts plays one of the most uninteresting drum parts of his career while Jagger shouts the lyrics, backed by a chorus of guest stars (including Bobby Womack, Bruce Springsteen’s then backup singer, now wife, Patti Scialfa, and Kirsty MacColl). There’s a sloppy guitar solo played by Jimmy Page, at the time wasting his career with Paul Rodgers in The Firm. The song, along with the one that follows it, is an attack. The experimentation of Undercover is gone here, replaced by an in-your-face production that sounded raw on a first listen but still retains the overly bright sheen that hid the rough edges of rock music in the mid-80s. “One Hit” is good, but not great. It is the hardest rocking Stones song in many years (in some ways, Dirty Work is their hardest rocking effort since Some Girls), but it doesn’t sound like the work of a real band. There’s no real sense of interplay in the music, and Jagger’s “So help me God!” lyric is embarrassing. The anger behind the song was clearly real, but this song also marks the first time the Stones don’t sound like a real group. “One Hit”, like the rest of Dirty Work, is faceless.

If anything, “Fight” takes it up a notch. “Gonna pulp you to a mass of bruises/Is that what you’re looking for?” shouts Jagger. “Got to get into a fight/Gonna put the boot in.” The song rocks relentlessly hard, putting even “One Hit” to shame. Like the earlier song, this one is credited to Jagger/Richards/Wood, meaning that the music was written by the two guitar players and represents their anger at the singer, who reciprocated with his lyrics and abrasive performance. At first listen, it’s thrilling. But then you listen closely. Charlie’s keeping a steady beat as he always did, but he sounds like a metronome. There’s a very good, raw, guitar solo and God knows the chords are hit like anvils, but the only thing the song really convinces you of is that it’s played by angry musicians. The band members were all at odds and, amazingly, the components of the music sound the same way.

Perhaps sensing that they were overdoing it, the third song completely retrenched. It’s a cover of Bob and Earl’s R&B classic “Harlem Shuffle” and, surprisingly, is one of the most cohesive songs on the album. It’s not a great cover. Their versions of R&B chestnuts from “Pain In My Heart” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” up to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Just My Imagination” throw the weakness of “Harlem Shuffle” into sharp relief. It’s not helped by Steve Lillywhite’s neon production. The fact that “Harlem Shuffle” was the leadoff single for the album is testament to how both the band and the record company felt about the original songs. This was the first time the Stones had released a studio-recorded cover song as a single since “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” in 1974, and only the second time they’d done this since 1965, when they were still learning to write originals. Once again Charlie hits a metronomic beat that drags the song down. The beat on these songs is steady, but Charlie Watts is never boring and the drum tracks on these songs is flat and lifeless. What Stones fans didn’t know at the time was that Charlie, long considered the “straight” member of the band, was deep into a nasty heroin addiction at this time (Jagger later said he didn’t want to tour after Dirty Work because he was concerned about how it would affect Charlie). Chalk it up as yet another source of tension within the band and in the record’s grooves.

“Harlem Shuffle” was one of the more musical numbers on the album. It still had that disconnected feel between the instruments, but at least Jagger was singing. On “Hold Back” Jagger is angry, my friends, like an old man sending back soup in a deli. Over a tuneless musical accompaniment, Jagger offers words of wisdom that sound an awful lot like he’s lecturing Keith about his reasons for putting out a solo album. But who knows? You can’t actually understand the lyrics because Jagger shouts them without any regard for melody or rhythm. Jagger bellows like he’s been brushing his teeth with an X-acto knife. “Hold Back” is a full-on assault that will leave the listener cowering in a corner…and not in a good way. By the time its interminable four minutes have ended you feel like you’ve just gotten life advice from some pilled-up lunatic who spends his days screaming about chemtrails and his nights hitting himself in the groin with a plank of wood.

After this sensory overload, the Stones again step back to a cover song. “Too Rude” is the first of Keith’s spotlight moments on the album. Jagger is nowhere to be found. The song is another attempt at reggae from the band, who really hadn’t done a particularly good job at this style since “Luxury” in 1974. “Too Rude” is no exception. Drums with heavy echo can’t disguise another flat beat, and unlike their previous attempts at reggae “Too Rude” sounds nothing like the Stones. It’s clearly a Keith solo song, slapped on the album as filler to close out side one of the record. And yet, despite that, it towers above the two songs that opened the second side of the record.

“Winning Ugly” was the second single, and is almost certainly the worst single the Stones have ever released. Astoundingly, it received an enormous amount of radio exposure in the spring and summer of 1986, reaching number 10 on the rock charts. Once again, Mick’s angry. This time he’s mad at people who will do anything to come out on top. The most obvious targets of the lyrics are the Wall Street fund managers (this was the ’80s, after all) and politicians, though nobody specific is named. Still, a listener could easily think that this is another swipe at Keith with lyrics like

I wanna win that cup and get my money, baby
But, back in the dressing room
the other side is weeping

It’s another largely incoherent rant lyrically speaking but what really kills the song is the production that’s brighter than the pants Jagger’s wearing on the album cover. If “Too Rude” was a solo Keith number, “Winning Ugly” has all the hallmarks of a mid-80s Jagger solo song: the heavy use of female backup singers, the shiny keyboard sound, the prominent disco funk bass (by John Regan, not Bill Wyman). Ever-so-slightly better is “Back To Zero”, another in an endless parade of 80s pop and rock songs about impending nuclear annihilation. Credited to Jagger, Richards and Chuck Leavell, it’s another faux funk track that simply screams “solo Mick”. Listening to it, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that the Rolling Stones are playing on the track (in fact, the guitar is being played by Bobby Womack). Once again Charlie Watts sounds like he was propped up behind the drums with an elaborate pulley system to raise and lower his hands as he held the drumsticks. Dirty Work is like the musical equivalent of Weekend At Bernie’s, with Charlie taking the place of the movie’s titular character.

But all is not lost. Dirty Work concludes with the three best songs on the album. The title track is another broadside at an unnamed person that could easily be about Keith’s abdication of responsibility during his heroin addiction and his Jagger’s subsequent unwillingness to turn the reins of power back over to his band mate. But damn if “Dirty Work” doesn’t swing like a prime slice of vintage Stones. Even Charlie sounds like he’s been roused from his torpor, though most of the swing comes from the guitars. Jagger’s vocals are again shouty and harsh. By this time almost all evidence of the guy who once sang, really sang, ballads like “Wild Horses” or “Love In Vain” is gone in a storm of affectations. But “Dirty Work”, unlike the songs the precede it, has a sense of humor: “You let somebody do the dirty work/Find some loser, find some jerk/Find some greaseball.” The song sounds like the band is once again an actual unit. The tension between Jagger’s vocals and Keith and Ronnie’s guitar is palpable, more than in “One Hit” or “Fight” certainly.

This sudden and dramatic increase in quality gets even steeper with the next cut. “Had It With You” got a bit of radio play in the week leading up to the album’s release because it was the far superior flipside of “Harlem Shuffle”. Then the album came out, with a lyric sheet, and “Had It With You” would never be played on commercial radio again. “I love you dirty fucker/Sister and a brother/Moaning in the moonlight” sings Jagger over a Chuck Berry-style guitar riff. Lyrically it’s the culmination of the entire album. All of the anger that was fuelling Jagger and Richards erupts here: “Loved you in the lean years/Loved you in the fat ones/You’re a mean mistreater/You’re a dirty, dirty rat scum/I’ve had it with you.” Yet, oddly, there’s almost joy in the music. It’s the sound of the Stones playing to all their strengths and sounding, ironically, like they’re having fun. Even Jagger delivers the closest thing to a traditional Mick vocal on the track. His voice is still raspy and filled with odd growls, as if he was chewing sandpaper, but at least he’s not shouting like someone hit his toes with a hammer, like he is on the rest of the album.

The last song on the album is “Sleep Tonight”, a lovely Keith Richards piano ballad that is a bit too long, but still endures. Keith’s been rewriting this song ever since, but never as well as he did here. The production hurts the song as it does the entire album. The drums are too loud and clean (played by Ron Wood, who shows more verve here than Charlie Watts has shown through the rest of the album), and the backing vocals are too prominent. However, it’s a fine ballad that would have fit perfectly on Keith’s later solo album Talk Is Cheap. The song is followed by a raw, bluesy boogie-woogie piano for 30 seconds, a brief excerpt from “Key To The Highway”. Sadly, it’s easy to imagine this being the only thing on the album on which the band could all agree: a brief tribute to Ian Stewart, the straight arrow blues master and sixth Stone who had kept them in line for over 20 years before dying of a heart attack in December of 1985. Dirty Work is dedicated to Stewart, and his piano coda is a genuinely touching moment on an album not known for sentimentality.

Dirty Work was not an interesting experiment gone awry, like Their Satanic Majesties Request. It wasn’t a freeform guitarist audition like Black and Blue. It wasn’t a disinterested filler album like Emotional Rescue. Dirty Work was a bitter, invective-filled divorce-in-progress that left an acid taste in people’s mouths, including the band themselves. It was easy to dismiss Majesties, Black and Blue, or Rescue as anomalies in the band’s storied career. It was much harder to dismiss this album because for the first time it seemed that the Stones were trying really hard to be the Stones, but that they didn’t know what that meant any more. Dirty Work is the album where they lost their identity and ended up sounding almost like a parody of themselves. Afterwards, Jagger went right back to work on his second solo album, and Keith eventually followed that route with far better results. For all practical purposes, the band split up. When asked about the band, they took turns ripping each other and shrugging off the possibility of a future. But the band did have a future, although it would be markedly different from the past it had shared. This was a good thing because it meant that the nadir of their recording career would not be their last gasp.

Grade: D+

Elegies To A Monument: Smashing Pumpkins, Expectations, and the Trap of Nostalgia

monumentsLate last year the musical entity that is called Smashing Pumpkins released their latest album, Monuments to An Elegy. The Pumpkins were never really more than a band in name only. During their heyday the “band” consisted of guitarist/singer/songwriter Billy Corgan, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, and guitarist James Iha, but that was really just the public perception. Smashing Pumpkins was always a mask for Billy Corgan’s musical ambitions and it’s the worst kept secret in alternative rock that their classic albums were written and performed almost entirely by Corgan and Chamberlain. D’Arcy and Iha were trotted out for live shows, and had the odd vocal or songwriting credit that furthered the illusion that this was more than a band in name only.

But Smashing Pumpkins is Billy Corgan. Now, even Jimmy Chamberlain is gone (as is his replacement, a 20-year-old prodigy named Mike Byrne), and his presence is sorely missed. Chamberlain is one of the greatest drummers who ever held a pair of sticks. He’s the Ginger Baker of alternative rock, a jazz drummer who plays rock with an intensity that can not be believed or duplicated. Unlike other great drummers like Dave Grohl or John Bonham, Chamberlain had swing. On Monuments to an Elegy the drumming is handled by former Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee who is as far removed from swing as he is from Pluto. Lee’s a basher, whose style fit his former band but who sounds woefully inept with Corgan’s more intricate music. Where Chamberlain added texture to his rock-solid beats with intricate, rapid-fire fills, Lee thuds with hands like hams. It’s as if he spent more time rehearsing his drumstick twirls than his paradiddles.

Lee’s iron-fisted drumming is not the only problem with Monuments. Hey Billy, 1985 called…they want their synthesizer sound back. The synthesizer sound on the album is atrocious. Corgan’s always been an unabashed fan of synth-bands like Depeche Mode, but here the sound is closer to the synth pop of the 80s. I recently saw the video for ABC’s “The Look of Love” and thought, “Same sound as the new Pumpkins record”.  The song “Run2Me” sounds as if the last thirty years never happened, with one of the most obnoxious synth riffs since “The Final Countdown” polluted the airwaves. Yes, there’s an ocean of guitars on Monuments to an Elegy, but they’re an undifferentiated mass. There are no riffs that truly stand out (like, say, Mellon Collie and the infinite Sadness‘s “Zero”) and there are no solos that burn the grooves off the vinyl (like, say, Gish‘s “I Am One”). This is a shame because Corgan is one of the greatest guitarists of the past thirty years.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t some good songs on the record. The first two, “Tiberius” and “Being Beige”, and the last song, “Anti-Hero” are very good. “Drum + Fife” captures some of the old Pumpkins vibe. “One and All” is excellent, and the only song that sounds like it could have fit on Mellon Collie. The rest of the album is a goop of uninteresting synth rock. Which begs the real question: whatever happened to the Smashing Pumpkins we knew and loved? Where’s the “Cherub Rock”, “Zero”, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Bury Me”? Hell, where’s “Ava Adore”? What happened to Billy Corgan?

The answer is unsettling. Nothing happened to him. Corgan is now twenty years older than the snarling, rage-filled, angst-ridden songwriter who spit out lines like “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage” over a crushing musical background that made most heavy metal acts (like, say, Tommy Lee’s old outfit) sound like the Bay City Rollers. What happened to him is that he grew up, mellowed, and hopefully got a bit wiser. The music is still heavy, but the rage is gone. Corgan sings now, he doesn’t snarl. His melodies are poppy, almost upbeat. He’s writing love songs. Maybe he’s happy. I certainly hope he is.

The problem with this is the expectations. Corgan famously broke up the Pumpkins and formed a new band called Zwan, whose sound was closer to the more recent Pumpkins. When Zwan crashed and burned, he went solo while simultaneously saying he wanted his old band back. But he didn’t want Smashing Pumpkins back. He wanted the name. D’Arcy and James Iha were not invited to the reunion and the resulting album, Zeitgeist, was a noisy, headache-inducing affair. It was as if Corgan was telling his fans, “You didn’t like my synthesizer-driven solo album? You want guitars? Here. Have a billion of them.”

The Smashing Pumpkins is a brand name, and what fans expect from that brand is very different from what they are hearing in the 21st century. That’s really unfair, but it’s a result of nostalgia. People don’t mind when a band grows organically as the Beatles or R.E.M. did, but that’s not what happened here. Corgan made a huge show of getting the band back together but he kept the sound of his later projects. Pumpkins fans who had skipped Zwan and Corgan’s solo The Future Embrace were disoriented, and Monuments to An Elegy has already slipped into some cyber discount bin.

But is that Corgan’s fault? Yes, and no. What many of the fans of his band don’t realize is that even if it were still the original four members on the latest album it would still sound the same (except for the drums, which would be a billion times better). Because Corgan is the Pumpkins. Musically, lyrically, emotionally, psychologically…Monuments is where the guy is in 2015. What fans are expecting (and I’m as guilty as anyone, and maybe more guilty than most) is not the Smashing Pumpkins. They’re expecting to feel the same way they did the first time they heard Siamese Dream. There is almost nothing Billy Corgan can do at this stage of his career to appease the people who heard “Cherub Rock” on the radio and saw “1979” on MTV and who expected more of the same in 2014. So yes, it’s Corgan’s fault because of the hype he built up surrounding his reignition of the Smashing Pumpkins brand. He created a set of expectations for his new music without any sort of acknowledgement that his new music wouldn’t be the same. It’s possible he wasn’t even aware of the change because to him it was completely organic.

But no, it’s not Corgan’s fault. The Smashing Pumpkins are now, and always have been, Billy Corgan. They were his vessel. He’s grown up and matured. His attitudes have shifted and the music has shifted accordingly. That doesn’t mean it’s good, mind you. Monuments to an Elegy is a pretty lousy album no matter who did it. But it does mean that Corgan is writing the music he’s capable of writing at this point (which doesn’t mean he won’t write better music in the future). The fact that the fans expect something different is a trap. Corgan is trapped by expectations, and the fans are trapped by nostalgia. It is easier for Corgan to escape: as long as he likes his music, that’s all that truly matters. But the trap means he’ll probably never sell millions of records or sell out stadiums again.

It appears Corgan has seen the writing on the wall. A recent article in Rolling Stone finds the singer sounding as if he knows the end is near. A new album is projected for September, but after that? Only time will tell. Corgan is right to think about hanging up the band name and striking out on his own again. The Pumpkins were a band that was extremely popular (and great) twenty years ago. Today it’s just a monument to that band. The new album by William Corgan may not generate as much publicity or hype as a new album by the Smashing Pumpkins, but it’s far more likely to be accepted for what it is: the work of an artist still plying his trade.

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

TheBeatlesMagicalMysteryTouralbumcover

Released less than six months after the glory of Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour is not really an album. At least, it wasn’t at the time. It was never released in England until the compact disc era. In truth, it was another money-grabbing effort from Capitol Records to milk a little more cash out of the audience. Ah, but what an effort…

In England, Magical Mystery Tour was released as an EP consisting of six songs on two slabs of vinyl. The songs were the soundtrack to a new movie made by, and starring, the Beatles. Since the EP market didn’t exist in America, Capitol Records took the six songs and added three recent singles, including the pre-Pepper “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” single, the post-Pepper “All You Need Is Love/Baby You’re A Rich Man” single, and “Hello Goodbye” the A-side of the current single. But in this case, the desire for more sales accidentally created a masterpiece. There’s really no comparison: the American version of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack is so much better than the officially released EP that even the Beatles were forced to acknowledge it by making the American version the official version in 1987.

U.S. Edition U.K. Edition
1. Magical Mystery Tour
2. The Fool on the Hill
3. Flying
4. Blue Jay Way
5. Your Mother Should Know
6. I Am The Walrus
7. Hello Goodbye
8. Strawberry Fields Forever
9. Penny Lane
10. Baby You’re A Rich Man
11. All You Need Is Love
1. Magical Mystery Tour
2. Your Mother Should Know
3. I Am The Walrus
4. The Fool On The Hill
5. Flying
6. Blue Jay Way

Everything about the American version works better. Even the sequencing of the six soundtrack songs has a far better flow and pace than the double EP version. The packaging of the album, a gatefold with a 24-page booklet featuring a bizarre Beatles cartoon story and a series of extremely odd photographs, also benefits from being the larger LP size. It should be remembered how strange this must have seemed to the American audience. The Magical Mystery Tour movie was made specifically for the BBC and was never shown in America (lucky us), which means that the photographs and cartoon story had no real context outside of the album art. Why is there a photo of John Lennon dressed as a waiter shoveling mounds of spaghetti and what look like rags onto the plate of a large woman? Why is Paul McCartney in a military uniform? Why are there cartoons of the Beatles dressed as wizards? Who the hell is Little Nicola and why is she so adamant that I am not, in fact, the Walrus? Why are the Beatles, if it’s really them, dressed up like animals on the front cover?

The answer, of course, is that it was all part of a trippy mess of a movie, but the Americans didn’t know any of that, aside from a brief mention in the gatefold. What they knew was the music, most of which was sublime.

The title track serves much the same purpose as the title track of Sgt. Pepper. It’s a grand fanfare and an introduction. Separated from the movie, the song still works as an album intro, promising a journey to lands unknown in the songs that follow. It’s a loud, brassy song with simple lyrics that can be read two ways: the literal interpretation of a magical tour, and the metaphorical reading that reveals the drug references. “Magical Mystery Tour” is a drug song, starting with John Lennon’s carnival barker shout of “Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour!”, a line that uses a common English phrase as code for the act of rolling a joint. The entire concept of the song, written by Paul McCartney, is based on the notion of tripping, taking the common British bus tour and using it as a metaphor for a journey to magical lands. But it is, in the end, still just a fanfare. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, saved from banality by the McCartney’s lead vocal and by the driving, propulsive music. Lyrically it’s even simpler than Sgt. Pepper‘s opening salvo, though the song itself is longer. Removed from its context it’s not a great song, but it’s a world-class album opener. It’s short enough that it doesn’t wear on the listener, punchy enough to force you to pay attention, and catchy enough to leave it stuck in your head. “Magical Mystery Tour” is less a song and more a mission statement. As such, it’s the perfect introduction to the songs that follow.

“The Fool On The Hill” is the first Beatles song to reflect their newfound admiration for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a short, bearded guru with a girlish giggle who turned the Beatles on to Transcendental Meditation. At this point, the band was still enthralled with the diminutive Indian and McCartney’s “The Fool On The Hill” is a loving tribute, portraying the Maharishi as a misunderstood wise man while playing with the imagery of the man with the answers to life’s questions being seated at the top of a mountain. It hearkens back to the literary convention, used most famously by William Shakespeare, of having the Fool be the only person who can speak the truth that others don’t want to hear. The powerful brass of the preceding song is here replaced with flutes and woodwind instruments that float throughout the song, lending an airiness and a baroque sense of sophistication to the music that perfectly complements the naïve lyrics.

This is followed by a song that is one-of-a-kind in Beatles history. “Flying” is the only song credited to all four Beatles, and is the only instrumental they ever officially released. In the film, “Flying” is the soundtrack to a collection of unused footage that had been filmed for the trippy “stargate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s one of the few parts of the movie that genuinely works well. On record, distanced from the visuals, “Flying” still manages to achieve its desired effect. The title clues the listener in to what to expect, and the music doesn’t disappoint. The music glides and swirls. Keep the title in mind and close your eyes and you will see landscapes below you and clouds ahead. It’s very brief, just a bit over two minutes and the last thirty seconds or so is some Mellotron  squealing and backwards tapes that provides a perfect segue into George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way”.

One of the key elements to Beatles music has always been humor. All four of the them were very, very funny. “Blue Jay Way” sounds mysterious and dark, psychedelic and moody. But the lyrics are actually typical Harrison humor. The song was composed when Harrison was waiting for Derek Taylor to arrive at a house he had rented in Los Angeles. Taylor was late, and had gotten lost. Harrison, at the point of exhaustion, passed the time by playing a Hammond organ and making up lyrics about his friends. The mysterious, atonal, psychedelia of the music is paired with lyrics that could have come from a Monty Python song:

There’s a fog upon L.A.
And my friends have lost their way
They’ll be over soon, they said
Now they’ve lost themselves instead
Please don’t be long

It’s the “they’ve lost themselves” that makes it, a wonderfully eccentric turn of phrase. The music on “Blue Jay Way” is probably the most psychedelic the Beatles ever got, which makes the next song on the album all the more jarring. “Your Mother Should Know” is a McCartney soft-shoe shuffle that harkens back to English music hall. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable trifle, as good as or better than most of McCartney’s similar excursions (“When I’m 64”, “Honey Pie”). It’s the kind of track that would never be approved by a record company today because it doesn’t sound like the other songs on the album, but the Beatles never felt constrained by the need to stick to a formula. They were restless in their creativity and went wherever the song happened to take them. In the case of “Your Mother Should Know” that creativity took them to a time before Elvis shook their worlds, a sound that may have opened the ears of some of their fans.

It was the last song on side one, the final song that appeared in the Magical Mystery Tour movie that really opened ears. John Lennon had heard that there was a course that analyzed Beatles lyrics being offered at his old high school in Liverpool, something he considered absolutely absurd. “I Am The Walrus” was his response, a series of images and lyrics that seemed to make sense in a Jabberwocky kind of way but were, in the end, meaningless. This was Lennon playing with words and having a grand time doing it. The images were sometimes shocking (“pornographic priestess”, “yellow-matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye”), sometimes funny (“crabalocker fishwife”, “I am the eggman”), and sometimes coded (“elementary penguins” were Hare Krishnas, “semolina pilchard” was a reference to Norman Pilcher, a British police officer who was notorious for busting rock stars for drugs and even more notorious for bringing his own just to be sure the charges stuck). “Lucy in the sky” gets a shoutout, and the opening couplet came to Lennon on separate acid trips, and it was all punctuated with the refrain “Goo goo g’joob!” The ending includes dialogue taken from a radio production of King Lear and a chanting chorus that repeats the phrase “everybody’s got one” and “oompah oompah stick it up your jumper”. Musically, the song stands with “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” as one of the band’s crowning achievements, largely due to producer George Martin’s ability to interpret the desires of his unschooled musicians. There is a rock band of guitar, bass, drums, and piano at the heart of “I Am The Walrus” but it’s the churning orchestration led by violins and cellos, with brass punctuation marks, that make the song stand out. The orchestration adds a veneer of sophistication and respectability. The song seems to be an important statement because the music is so serious. Ironically, a song written to mock the people who took Lennon’s lyrics too seriously sent people into a tizzy as they tried to figure out the meaning of this word jumble. Absent the orchestration, it’s likely that Lennon’s words would have been taken for what they were: a joke. But by adding the hallmarks of so-called “serious” music the Beatles made the joke all that much funnier. “I Am the Walrus” is the greatest musical practical joke ever played.

And it was a B-side of a single. Not even deemed worthy of being the A-side, much to Lennon’s annoyance.

The song that was the A-side of that single led off the second side of the album. “Hello Goodbye” is certainly a better single than “I Am the Walrus” even if it falls far short as a musical innovation. “Hello Goodbye” is insanely catchy, perhaps the catchiest thing Paul McCartney ever wrote (and that’s saying something). One listen and it’s hooked into your brain forever. The simple yin/yang lyrics are easily remembered and the melody is unforgettable. It may not be the achievement that “Walrus” was, but it was unquestionably a more marketable single. “I Am the Walrus” was a brilliantly disorienting slice of surrealism and wordplay. “Hello Goodbye” was a markedly less brilliant solid gold radio-ready hit.

What’s ironic about this is that the two songs that follow “Hello Goodbye” were the two sides of a double A-side single that had been released in February of 1967, months before Sgt. Pepper changed the musical landscape. That single, considered one of the greatest singles ever released, was also the first Beatles single to fail to make the top of the charts. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were a huge leap forward when they were released as the first Beatles single after Revolver. Perhaps it was too far a leap, because the single stalled at number two in the charts, held back by Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me”. That doesn’t change that both sides of the single were masterpieces. The songs had been recorded for Sgt. Pepper but rush released as a single when that album was delayed. They became the centerpiece of the second side of Magical Mystery Tour instead, and their inclusion elevates the entire album. There is a slight difference in tone between these songs and the rest of the tracks on the album…they’re not a perfect fit as they would have been on Pepper, but one would have to be a long-faced, humorless scold to care. When an LP is blessed to have both sides of what may be the greatest single in rock history (all votes for “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” will be counted), the idea that the songs sound like they were recorded at a different time and mindset is the lowest form of nitpicking.

If there is a fly in the ointment of the LP it’s “Baby You’re A Rich Man”. Comprised of two songs blended together (Lennon’s “One of the Beautiful People” and McCartney’s “Baby You’re A Rich Man”), the music features a discordant and harsh clavioline, not entirely pleasing to the ear. Lennon’s vocal melody is excellent though the vocal itself isn’t his strongest, and McCartney’s chorus is loud and brash, but both are somewhat undercut by the willfully defiant music. Rolling Stone Brian Jones pops up tooting on an oboe throughout the song, and Mick Jagger is rumored to be a backing voice in the finale. The song was thought to be about Beatles manager Brian Epstein (allegedly Lennon sings “baby you’re a rich fag Jew” at one point, but I’ve never heard it), but Lennon insisted that the song was a message to people to quit whining about their status in life, that we were all “rich”. Unfortunately, the lyrics are something of a mess (“You keep all your money in a big brown bag/Inside a zoo/What a thing to do”, contributed by McCartney, may be one of the dumbest lyrics ever written), so Lennon’s theme never becomes clear.

The lyrics of Magical Mystery Tour‘s final track are also something of a mess. The chorus made the song the anthem of the so-called “Summer of Love” when it was released as a single a month after Sgt. Pepper, but the verses are a circular mash of word soup. How do you parse “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done” or “Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung”? At first glance, the lyrics seem like a “You can do it!” affirmation but what Lennon is really saying throughout the song is that you can’t do it. If it can’t be done, you can do nothing; if it can’t be sung, you can sing nothing; if it can’t be known, you can know nothing; if it isn’t shown, you can see nothing. This is reinforced by the one exception: “There nothing you can say/But you can learn how to play the game”. The chorus seems like a non-sequitur: “All you need is love/Love is all you need”. Lyrically, “All You Need is Love” takes a somewhat darker and more cynical tone than it is ever given credit for. “Love is all you need,” Lennon sings in the chorus, while the verses hammer home the message “because you don’t/can’t have anything else.” You  can learn how to play the game, but if it’s not already being done you can’t do it. “All You Need Is Love” is Lennon’s message to the voiceless, powerless masses that they don’t need the trappings of modern life as long as they have love. It’s a childlike message but, as he did later with the even more naïve “Imagine”,  he uses the music to sell the message. “All You Need Is Love” is a beautiful song, from the opening bars of “Le Marseillaise” to the winding close that incorporates musical themes from “Greensleeves” and “In The Mood” and lyrical shoutouts to “Yesterday” and “She Loves You”. The chorus is simple, making it perfect for singalongs and sloganeering (much like the vastly inferior song “Give Peace A Chance”), and the verses are melodic and sung beautifully by Lennon.

Magical Mystery Tour is not an album, but it is a magnificent LP record. Some of the best songs the Beatles ever did grace its grooves and even the songs that don’t rise to that level are excellent. The Beatles canon is improved by its inclusion.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Undercover

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In 1983, the Rolling Stones released yet another album that polarized fans. Undercover was their last blending of dance music and rock, and it was buried in “contemporary” production techniques that sound almost impossibly dated today. The music of the 1980s was blighted by these production standards: drums that sounded like machines (even when they weren’t), a clean, bright sound that smoothed over any and all rough edges, an over-reliance on synthesizers and sound effects, a shrill keyboard sound. Much of the music on Undercover, and even the album cover, was garish and brightly lit: like the decade itself. It’s hard to describe a sound of production techniques but the sound of the 1980s is all right there on side one, track one of Undercover.

“Undercover of the Night” is an almost perfect example of a song from the 1980s: the lyrics are about revolution in Central America, it was a rock song that had a dance groove, the drums sound like they were played on a computer, the bass is very prominent, the guitars slash but don’t really sound like guitars until the terrific solo, there is a wash of synthesizers over everything. But “Undercover” works, as so many other songs from this era failed to do. The production techniques of the time wrapped songs in a gauzy haze. The sound was pristine, but indistinct at the same time. There was no hint of musical interplay. For too many songs, there was no sense of real musicians playing instruments. Everything sounded processed by machines. Many great songs from this era are still difficult to listen to because they sound so bad. The quality of the writing, playing, and singing needed to be extraordinarily good to rise above the production values. Some albums succeeded despite their production (e.g., XTC’s Skylarking is a perfect example of an album where the songs were so good they rose above the neon shininess of the production), but most mainstream albums were suffocated before they had a chance to breathe.

“Undercover of the Night” is an exception. Perhaps it’s because the Stones embraced the new production values that they sound refreshed throughout most of the album. They were no longer even attempting to sound like the band that recorded Exile on Main Street. Instead, they sounded like the most vicious New Wave band on the planet. They brought their trademark aggression and encased it in a sound better suited for Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet. The final results were admittedly spotty, but that had more to do with the material than the production. “Undercover of the Night” is a great song, full of tension and violence. The video, featuring Keith Richards as a skull-masked assassin looking to kill Mick Jagger’s stuffed shirt diplomat, solidifies the impact. Taking a cue from dance music, Bill Wyman’s thick, rubbery bass is the lead instrument, swapping lines with the guitar over Charlie’s mechanized, effects-enhanced drums. Over the backing Jagger barks his lyrics about Communist insurgency in Central America, wisely avoiding choosing sides (there were no good guys in those conflicts). This being the Stones, Jagger makes even revolution sexual as he sings about the prostitutes “done up in lace, done up in rubber” servicing “jerky little GI Joes/On R&R from Cuba and Russia”. It’s a kitchen sink production, with the backwards loops, dub-influenced echo, and phased drums, but still leaves space for a ferocious guitar solo from Ron Wood. “Undercover of the Night” was the first single released from the album and was shocking in a way that the Stones hadn’t achieved since “Miss You”, and for the same reason. The song was the Stones wading into the production values of New Wave and dance music, and emerging with a tough rocker that you could dance to, and a video violent enough to be banned from MTV until it was edited. You can change the sound, but the Stones were still the Stones.

This was proven by “She Was Hot”, a comic sex-romp about groupies who are so steamy they leave even Mick Jagger burnt out. The effects of the previous song are gone here, leaving the band to sound natural again. Charlie Watts and Keith Richards benefit the most from this. Charlie lays down a steady beat and Keith plays a distorted, thick solo. Jagger shouts the funny lyrics, a vocal style that he would use more often as he got older. Undercover has a lot of great singing from Jagger, but also marks the point where his voice started to change into what you hear today: over-enunciated, shouting. The man who sang “Wild Horses” is still there, but time and life were conspiring to change the timbre of his voice.

This vocal style is even more pronounced on “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love)”, Jagger’s nod-and-a-wink song about S&M. In a way it’s a companion piece to “She Was Hot”, just another experience pulled from Jagger’s bottomless well of libertine decadence, but you never get the feeling that Jagger actually means it. When it came to sex, the Stones were always a little cartoonish, and this song fits right in to the milieu. Indeed, Keith has said that the song was something of a joke meant to annoy “mouthy little feminists” who had given the band a difficult time over their perceived misogyny since the days of “Under My Thumb”. Bill Wyman is again the real star of the song, which is a straight rocker with one foot in dance rhythms. There’s also a completely unnecessary conga break that adds nothing but a distraction.

Those dance rhythms are gone in “Wanna Hold You”, another winner in Keith’s string of rockers that dated back to Some Girls‘s “Before They Make Me Run”. From a technical perspective, “Wanna Hold You” is a mess. The backing vocals are all over the place, the lyrics are a throwaway, and Keith slurs the lead vocal. But Charlie Watts once again rides the beat like the old pro he is, and Ron Wood plays a solid bass line. It’s sloppy, but effective, a throwback to a time when the band was more concerned with the feeling of a song and not the perfection of a recording. Four songs in, and Undercover is firing on almost all cylinders. It won’t make anyone forget Sticky Fingers, but it’s clearly their best album since Some Girls.

All of which makes “Feel On Baby” even more disappointing. To call it a half-hearted stab at reggae would be overestimating it. Musically it’s a dull, phony dub/reggae tune mired in awful production values, electronic drums, shrill harmonica, and a go-through-the-motions lyric about hooking up with a girl while on the road. It’s one of the worst songs in the Stones canon.

The nadir of “Feel On Baby” is all the more unfortunate because it’s the one song on the album that’s truly bad. “Tie You Up” isn’t great, but otherwise Undercover is a strong album, more interesting and inspired than the overly praised Tattoo You. The second half picks up with “Too Much Blood”, another love-it-or-hate-it song that comes from the dance world. Once again the drums are processed beyond recognition, leaving the listener baffled as to why the Stones would put the great Charlie Watts in an electronic box. The guitars are barely noticeable, but offer a constant plucking and picking that drives the song. Once again, it’s Bill Wyman’s show, though he’s assisted by a punchy horn part. Over it all is a superficial lyric about just wanting to dance in a world that’s gone crazy. What makes the song different, however, is Jagger’s two extended raps. The first is a straight telling of a true murder story from Paris, about a Japanese man who murdered and ate his girlfriend. The second is, to me at least, an hilarious rap about the then-current trend of slasher movies. “You ever see the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? ‘Orrible, wasn’t it?” Jagger asks. “Oh no, don’t saw off me leg…don’t saw off me arm…When I go to the movies I like to see something more romantic. You know, like Officer and A Gentleman‘”. Both of the raps were off-the-cuff vocals, and they make the song. “Too Much Blood” succeeds because it has a great bass line, and because it’s funny. The video, with a campy, scared Jagger running away from chainsaw-wielding Keith and Woody, is even more amusing (in an admittedly dark way).

In a way, it’s easy to see why many fans dismissed Undercover. The middle of the album is a three song sequence that starts with the awful “Feel On Baby”, continues to the dance/rap hybrid of “Too Much Blood”, and culminates in the funk of “Pretty Beat Up”. If the Black and Blue album is what funky dance music sounded like in 1976, then “Pretty Beat Up” is what it sounded like in 1983. It’s a junk lyric, but it’s got a solid groove and a good sax solo from David Sanborn. Still, it’s the third song in a row that can’t really be classified as rock and roll or blues, so it’s the Stones playing outside of their strengths. “Pretty Beat Up” is good. It’s closer in spirit to Tattoo You‘s “Black Limousine” than Black and Blue‘s “Hot Stuff”, which makes it one of the band’s better excursions into funk.

The fans who stuck with the album through these three songs were paid off with “Too Tough”, “All The Way Down”, and “It Must Be Hell”. Jagger plays the strutting macho man of “Too Tough”, a riposte to an aggressive, possibly psychotic, woman who tried (and failed) to put the singer under her thumb. It’s the flip to “She Was Hot” with Jagger boasting of his victory over his female adversary. It’s a thoroughly convincing rocker, with Charlie once again on target and Ron Wood tearing into a quasi-heavy metal guitar solo.

Even better is “All The Way Down”, a sleazy rocker about a youthful affair. Jagger has commented that the song was based on an old relationship and the opening lyric, “I was 21, naïve/Not cynical, I tried to please” would seem to indicate that the girl in question may be Marianne Faithfull who, in 1983 when Undercover was released, was deep in the throes of drug addiction. “Still I play the fool and strut,” Jagger sings in a proto-rap style before shouting “Still you’re a slut!” It’s a harsh, angry song but there’s an undercurrent of lost affection in the bridge as Jagger croons “She’s there when I close my eyes” and also a real sense of lost time, innocence, and youth. “Still the years rush on by/Birthdays, kids, and suicides…Was every minute just a waste? Was every hour a foolish chase?” With Keith and Woody lending strong support, the chorus line of “She went all the way/All the way down” can serve as the obvious sexual reference it is but, assuming the song is about Faithfull, also a judgement about her life, now that the beautiful songbird of Swingin’ London had become a croaking, haggard junkie (she has, fortunately, cleaned up her act).

“It Must Be Hell” ends the album as it began, with another foray into politics. In this case, Jagger compares his life in the West with the one lived by those on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Lyrically, it’s a little sloppy. Jagger has admitted that the words weren’t as clear as he would have liked, especially in the first two verses. The closing summation makes his point, though, that as troubled as the West may have been, things were far worse under Communist rule:

Keep in a straight line, stay in tune

No need to worry, only fools

End up in prison or conscience cells

Or in asylums they help to build

We’re free to worship, free to speak

We’re free to kill, it’s guaranteed

We’ve got our problems, that’s for sure

Clean up the backyard, don’t lock the door

Musically, “It Must Be Hell” draws on a more unlikely source: the Stones themselves. The main guitar riff is a slightly altered variation of the chorus riff on Exile on Main Street‘s “Soul Survivor”. (Hey, it’s a great riff…Slash ripped it off for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, too.) At just over five minutes, “It Must Be Hell” overstays its welcome a little, but it’s a fine, propulsive rocker with scorched earth guitar work from Ron Wood.

Undercover was an experiment, an attempt to sound very contemporary. It was the last time the Stones would be this daring on an album. Experiments would be few over the rest of their career, which is unfortunate. Soon after this album the band would settle into workmanlike songwriting and playing that provided lots of good material, almost none of which were as memorable as their best music. In 1983 the Stones were fracturing. Keith and Mick were at each other’s throats, which is clearly evident in the lyrics on Undercover. It’s an album where the songs are steeped in violent metaphors and allusions. Even sex, Jagger’s leitmotif, has become violent. Nearly every song carries this theme: “Pretty Beat Up”, “Tie You Up”, “Too Tough”, “It Must Be Hell”, and that doesn’t even include the themes as shown in songs with more innocent titles: revolution, recrimination, bitterness, anger. What you’ve got with Undercover is an album where the band was working as a unit, but where the two songwriters and leaders were filled with passion. The anger would be even more pronounced later, but by then the unity was gone. By the time the unity returned, the passion was lost to an uneasy détente. That makes Undercover the last album made by the Rolling Stones as a vibrant, intense rock group. From here on they would be a working band, driven by habit, finance, and professionalism. Undercover has its flaws, but is a largely underrated album in the Stones discography. It’s the last album where the Stones sound like they were really trying, and that has to count for something.

Grade: B

Two Of The Greats Are Gone

They were never as widely known as the people they played with, but the recent loss of Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan marks a sad week for rock and roll fans.

Bobby Keys was a saxophone player out of Texas who had played with everyone from Little Eva to Little Anthony and the Imperials. He met the Rolling Stones while they were on their first tour of America and became friends with the band, especially Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. He was primarily a session player, but in 1969 he became an unofficial Rolling Stone when he played the sax solo on Let It Bleed‘s “Live With Me”. He was Keith’s sax player of choice afterwards, adding an extra dimension of musicality to the band’s extraordinary string of albums in the early Seventies. When people think of the classic Rolling Stones sound, Bobby Keys is an integral part of that mix.

He toured with the band throughout the rest of his life while also playing sessions for rock’s royalty. The sax on John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”? The Faces’s “Had Me A Real Good Time”? George Harrison’s epic All Things Must Pass? Joe Cocker’s raucous Mad Dogs and Englishmen? These, and countless others, were improved by Bobby Keys. He played the sax with the soul of a jazz musician but the heart of a bluesman and the muscle of a rock star. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most Stones fans have never even heard of the man, though it was the Stones with whom he was most closely associated. But any fans of rock music, and Stones fans in particular, have grooved to the music he made.

And if losing Bobby Keys wasn’t enough of a hit to the Rolling Stones camp, news yesterday announced the death of the great Ian McLagan. Mac was probably better-known than Keys because in addition to his session and tour work with the Rolling Stones, Mac was also an essential ingredient in two legendary bands that shared a name and personnel. Ian McLagan was the keyboard player for the Small Faces in the 1960s, and provided exemplary work on their classic albums (he also wrote and sang one of my favorites, “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire”). After singer Steve Marriott left, McLagan stayed when the Small Faces recruited Rod Stewart and Ron Wood and changed their name to Faces, and their sound from dreamy psych pop to raw blues rock. Mac’s piano playing was always a highlight of the band. He played broad boogie woogie, swirling psychedelia, and even the prominent electric keyboards on the Stones’s first excursion into disco, “Miss You”. He played sessions for everyone from Bob Dylan to Paul Westerberg, as well as releasing several solo albums. He also wrote one of the great rock autobiographies: All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock and Roll History. The rock and roll universe is a little dimmer now.

Jack Bruce, RIP

In my Junior year of high school, way back in 1980, my Spanish class had a Secret Santa for Christmas. We were all supposed to write our names on a slip of paper, put them in a box, and then draw names out of the box. Fortunately, my best friend and partner in all things music, Joe, sat next to me in that class. We had the slips of paper with our names but, rather than put them in the hopper, simply handed them to each other and then pretended to draw from the box. Neither of us wanted the obligatory bottle of cologne that would be presented by a girl, or whatever token gift one high school boy would give another. So when the time came, we exchanged presents. I gave him the LP Rainbow Bridge, by Jimi Hendrix. Joe gave me Cream’s Disraeli Gears. I can still vividly remember another of my friends complaining about the gift he’d gotten (of course, a bottle of cheap cologne). I’m sure he forgot about that gift long ago, but those two LPs Joe and I exchanged served us well for decades. I listened to Disraeli Gears until the grooves on the record were gone, and the album had to be replaced. I taped it and listened to it on a boombox whenever I had to do yard work the following summer. It became part of my DNA. I knew every note, every nuance. In May of 1982, Joe threw a beer bash at his house while his parents were away. We discovered that the day of the party also happened to be Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s birthday, so we posted up signs saying “Happy birthday Jack Bruce” and made sure that both Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire made it on to the turntable that night.

The soundtrack of my life during those years was huge, and varied, but Cream was one of the major players. I had all the albums, and went so far as to buy the huge poster that came with the first edition of the Goodbye album from my local record store, where it was stapled to the ceiling. Many years later, in 2005, Joe called me at work. He was talking to me in a very distracted way, mumbling and repeating, “Hold on…” before finally bursting out with “Got it! We’re going to see Cream at the Garden!” He’d been sitting at home, with two computers going, trying to get tickets. The concert was one of the best we’d ever been to, somewhat to our surprise. The band didn’t sound like three guys playing the music of Cream. They sounded like Cream. The three of them stretched out, with songs routinely crossing the eight-, nine-, or ten-minute mark. They played with the fluidity of the best jazz musicians and the fury of the best rock musicians. They were as locked in as any band I’ve ever seen, and they were louder than bombs. Nobody in the band had done anything as good as Cream in the 30+ years since the band’s breakup, but on this night it was like no time had passed. Eric Clapton was being forced to break a sweat for the first time in decades. Ginger Baker was a revelation, as good as he’d ever been, if not better.

The night, however, belonged to Jack Bruce. Two years earlier Bruce had a liver transplant, which meant that there were moments in the show where he sat down to rest. But his voice was as elegant as ever, a resonant tenor that added pathos to “We’re Going Wrong” and a withering intensity to “White Room.” His bass playing was equally remarkable. He played lightning fast runs on the bass, going toe-to-toe with one of rock’s greatest drummers and one of rock’s greatest guitarists.

Cream was a band of equals. Equal in skill, equal in ego, equal in ambition. It was a band that was never going to last because it was far too combustible. Bruce and Baker hated each other, though they were in awe of each other’s musicianship. All three members were also far too mercurial. Much like Jeff Beck or Neil Young, they were journeymen, too restless to ever be tied down for a long time. In many ways it’s a miracle Cream lasted as long as it did.

After the band split, Jack Bruce began an erratic solo career. He played free jazz with John McLaughlin on Things We Like and joined Tony Williams’s jazz fusion-oriented Lifetime. He released solo albums, and played with everyone from Frank Zappa and Lou Reed to Robin Trower and Leslie West. His jazz-influenced rock album I’ve Always Wanted To Do This paired him with the great jazz drummer Billy Cobham. It was released around the time I first got Disraeli Gears, and I bought it almost immediately.

Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were jazz musicians. They played blues and rock, as well, but at the end of the day it was all about jazz for both of them. The intensity they brought to their extended musical improvisations when Cream performed live were revolutionary. They brought a level of musicianship to rock that demanded attention and respect.

Jack Bruce never matched what he did with Cream. He didn’t have to. He, along with the Who’s John Entwistle, changed the way bass players handled their instruments. Every jazz or rock bass player since Jack Bruce reflects his influence, consciously or unconsciously. He wrote some of the classic songs of the rock era: “Sunshine Of Your Love”, “White Room”, “Theme From An Imaginary Western”, among others. He was one of the greatest musicians in jazz, blues, or rock, a true virtuoso on his chosen instrument (and others he played equally well, like cello and piano), known for the complexity and speed he brought to his bass lines. He was an extraordinary singer, a difficult personality to deal with, too obstinate for his own good, too restless for his own career. He was a titan of the era of rock music. RIP.

Paul Revere, RIP

In the summer of 2013, my closest friend and partner in all things music-related gave me a parting gift. It was a bag full of music magazines from the 1960s and early 1970s. It included everything from an issue of Time with The Band on the cover to issues of Teenset and Hit Parade. Those magazines were directly aimed at the teenybopper crowds. The issues were full of articles with titles like “What Kind of Girl Does Davy Jones Like?” and “Will Mickey Dolenz Ever Find the Girl of His Dreams?” (The implication, of course, was maybe it was you.) Clearly the Monkees were the band. The Beatles figured prominently as well, but they were written about almost as if they existed on another plane.

The second most popular band in those magazines, with enormous amounts of ink spilled in slavish devotion, was the now largely forgotten Paul Revere and the Raiders. It’s kind of a shame that few people know them or remember them now. Sure, they looked ridiculous in their tri-corner hats and Revolutionary War-era garb. Paul Revere (yes, that was his real name), like Manfred Mann and Dave Clark, was not the focus of attention in his own band. Revere stayed in the back, playing keyboards while singer Mark Lindsay was the public face in all those teenybopper magazines. There was nothing hip about them at all, and hip was an important consideration in the music industry then, just as it is today.

But hip or not, the band released a handful of great singles. “Just Like Me” is a flat out mid-60s classic, as is “Kicks”, a song that took a strong anti-drug stance in an era where drugs were being celebrated in music. “Him Or Me, What’s It Gonna Be?” and “Good Thing” were all tough rockers whose energy and attitude belied the gimmick of the band’s dress code.

The band scored one hit in the 1970s, the cheeseball AM-radio standard “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)” and then sank into obscurity before hitting the Oldies tour circuit.

Now Paul Revere has died at the age of 76. Like his namesake, he represented America when the British were invading. He played a small part in rock history, but that handful of singles still shine as brightly now as they did almost fifty years ago, long after songs by more well-known bands have become dated relics of a bygone era. RIP.

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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With Revolver the Beatles were openly flouting the pop music rule book. They were sending an early notice that they wouldn’t be bound by convention. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ripped up the rule book, burned it, buried it, and sowed the earth with salt. It’s really not too big a statement to say that Sgt. Pepper redefined the musical landscape almost completely…for good and for bad. The significance of the album’s release in the rock music firmament can not be overstated.

But Sgt. Pepper didn’t come entirely out of the blue. In February of 1967 the Beatles released a double A-sided single of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”. These songs were such a radical departure for the band that they might as well have been recorded on Mars. Swirling Mellotrons, horns, strings, seemingly cryptic lyrics (which aren’t that cryptic if you know the back story)…this single was as great a departure from Revolver as that album had been from Help! Musically, lyrically, and stylistically, it was a huge leap forward (or backwards, I suppose, if you liked your Beatles as four lovable Mop Tops).

That single had originally been recorded for inclusion on the project that would become Sgt. Pepper. It was released early under pressure from the record label who had not released a new Beatles track in months. It seems odd to think about now, when bands routinely take years between releases, but in 1967 if a band didn’t release a new single every few months they were considered washed up. Rumors were circulating that the Beatles, holed up in EMI Studios, were out of ideas and probably going to break up. They’d quit touring in 1966, which is something bands never considered doing until that time, to focus on recording. But the recording process for the new album was taking months, an almost unprecedented amount of time in the history of rock music. Reporters routinely staked out the studio, ready to ask the Beatles “Are you finished?” whenever the band arrived at EMI’s door. The band even looked different. All four had grown moustaches.

The Beatles were not out of ideas. Sgt. Pepper was part of an extraordinarily creative period for the band and was, in many ways, the apex of that creativity.

When the album was released in June of 1967 it became the soundtrack for what was called the “Summer of Love”. It was as if an earthquake had shaken the musical world to its core. It was the first Beatles album that Capitol Records released without removing tracks and substituting others. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, crafting Smile, his band’s response to Revolver, heard Sgt. Pepper and had a nervous breakdown. Paul Kantner has talked about how you could hear Sgt. Pepper blasting out of every window at Haight-Ashbury. Even the Monkees paid tribute: in one of the musical sequences on the show, when the band is seen running around in an Old West town, Davy Jones has a copy of Sgt. Pepper tucked under his arm.

The album dominated the charts for the entire summer and sent other bands reeling. The Rolling Stones responded with Their Satanic Majesties Request, a drugged out, bleary copy of Pepper. Less well-known, Arthur Lee’s Love responded with Forever Changes, an album that nearly matches Pepper on every level and surpasses it on some. The Doors heard an early acetate of the album before its release and were similarly floored by the notion that they could do anything they wanted in the studio. Frank Zappa brilliantly parodied the cover on his We’re Only It It For The Money. Jimi Hendrix opened his show by playing the title track, only 48 hours after the album was released. The rule book was gone and every band in the land suddenly realized they could go wherever their talents and muses would take them. This created the unfortunate idea in every songwriter that they needed to release “their Sgt. Pepper“. But these other bands were not the Beatles, and the result was usually an awful, overindulged, mess.

So much has been said of the album that it’s almost easy to overlook the music. The first album to have the lyrics printed on the back sleeve; the first to have a design on the inner record sleeve; the first to come with a sheet of cutouts; one of the first single album gatefold releases (maybe the first); the first to have a “legitimate”, well-known artist, Peter Blake, design the cover. The splashy, colorful cover that seems to be a graveside service, features wax figures of the “old” Mop Tops standing next to the latest incarnation of the band, who are dressed in brightly colored pseudo-military uniforms. Behind them, arranged in a crowd of life-size cutouts, are the band’s personal choices for heroes and influences. Tucked away on one side is Stuart Sutcliffe. Right up front is a doll wearing a shirt that says “Welcome The Rolling Stones Good Guys”. (The Stones repaid the compliment by hiding the Beatles’s heads in the 3-D cover of Majesties.) The album title is spelled out on a bass drum, and the name “Beatles” appears as a floral arrangement…right in front of a row of marijuana plants.

So yes, it’s easy to forget that this is an album of songs. And as an album of songs, Sgt. Pepper is not the greatest rock record ever released. It’s extraordinarily good; great even. But the songs are so decked out in their psychedelic finery that it’s easy to miss the fact that they’re not the band’s best songs. It was certainly thought so at the time, but Sgt. Pepper succeeds mainly because of its innovation, its playfulness, its experimentation, and its ruthless rule-breaking. As recordings, this is the best the Beatles, or any other band, got. As songs, on the other hand…a case could easily be made that Pepper doesn’t compare with Rubber Soul, Revolver, the best of the White Album, or even Abbey Road.

Paul McCartney’s concept for the album was that the band could pretend to be another band. That way they could do whatever they wanted without being hemmed in by whatever was expected of the Beatles. This “concept” lasted all of two songs. The opening, eponymous, track and the introduction of “Billy Shears” to sing “With A Little Help From My Friends”. But Billy Shears sounded a lot like Ringo Starr, and the idea of the Beatles pretending to be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band quickly fell apart, only to be briefly revived on side two with a reprise of the title track.

So what of the music? The title track, clocking in a barely two minutes, is a brief introduction to the concept. It’s not so much a song as it is a fanfare, but it does have a great vocal from McCartney and some searing guitar work on both the stinging lead and the thick, heavy rhythm riffs. It ends with applause and the introduction of “the one and only Billy Shears” before blending into “Friends”. The song is Ringo’s finest performance on a Beatles album. He gives the lyric a warmth and bonhomie the elevates the entire recording. Sung by Lennon or McCartney, “With A Little Help From My Friends” wouldn’t work as well. (Sung by Joe Cocker, it worked even better.) For the first time, Ringo was given a song to sing that was neither throwaway (“I Wanna Be Your Man”) or novelty (“Yellow Submarine”). “A Little Help” is one of the crown jewels of Pepper.

The next track, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is even better, and the album is off to a roaring start. John’s acid-drenched lyrics and nasal vocal provide the musical equivalent of an LSD trip. John would, of course, deny that “Lucy” “Sky” and “Diamonds” were intended as code for LSD. The claim was that it was based on a drawing his son Julian had done of his classmate, Lucy, flying through the air with diamonds drawn as stars. When John asked his son what the picture was called, Julian told him that it was “Lucy, in the sky, with diamonds”. It’s possible. I’ve seen pictures of the drawing. But Julian was only three years old when John wrote the song, and it’s entirely possible that the title was grafted onto a drawing made at a later date (the drawing itself seems more the work of a precocious five-year-old than a three-year-old).

Could you draw this when you were three?

Could you draw this when you were three?

Lennon stuck with the story of the song’s origin until his dying day, long past the point when anybody cared if he was winking at the audience with the title. And regardless of the title’s beginnings, the lyrics themselves were unmistakably about acid. Lennon later said that at this point in time he was taking LSD “like candy”. George and Ringo were also enthusiastic takers and McCartney was starting to dabble in the drug, though his drug of choice was always pot. “Newspaper taxis”, “tangerine trees and marmalade skies”, “rocking horse people” eating “marshmallow pies”…it’s all a trip in a psychedelic wonderland, led by your tour guide John Winston Lennon. McCartney’s bass is amazing throughout and Ringo’s pounding that leads into the chorus tether Lennon to the earth even as his phased and echoed vocal takes him higher and higher.

Pepper is McCartney’s album. The concept was his idea, and it was his work ethic that kept John focused. But after Lennon’s journey into Acidland, McCartney responds with three straight songs that are fairly conventional. “Getting Better” is a good song that is saved from its faceless optimism by John’s sarcastic “it can’t get no worse” backing vocal and George’s tamboura in the last verse. “Fixing A Hole” is better, but similarly faceless. Like many of the songs on this album, if it had not been on Sgt. Pepper it would likely be considered a second-tier Beatles song.

“She’s Leaving Home” is the third McCartney song in a row (Lennon helped in the writing). His output at this point was outpacing John, who was consumed with consuming drugs and was besotted by a Japanese avant-garde artist he’d met in late 1966. “Home” is a magnificent track, with a sensitive but not cloying string section orchestrated by Mike Leander. It’s a story song, telling a tale that was all too common in 1967. Tom Wolfe told the same story in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in what became known as “the Beautiful People letter”:

“Dear Mother,
I meant to write to you before this and I hope you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian Reservation!!! New York, Ajijic, San miguel de Allende, mazatlan, Mexico!!!!] and it is really beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it happened, but I really tried, because I know you wanted me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college, my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it is a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

But even on “She’s Leaving Home” it is the production and the performance that sells the song. McCartney’s lyrics are sentimental without being precious and the string section fits the mood perfectly. But the hidden star of the song is John Lennon. Lennon and McCartney are the only two Beatles on the track, and neither plays an instrument, but Lennon’s vocal steals the show. In the tale of a runaway girl, John plays the role of the parents, underpinning McCartney’s high chorus vocal. “What did we do that was wrong? We didn’t know it was wrong,” John sings in the same nasal tone he used on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. The vocal slices through McCartney’s lead and adds a perfect amount of pathos to the song. The dueling lead vocals of Lennon and McCartney on the chorus are a primer on how to sing a counter-melody.

Lennon’s “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” closes the first side of the album. The lyrics were taken, almost verbatim, from an old-time circus poster John had hanging in his home. In the context of Pepper the song was assumed to be psychedelic, along the lines of “Lucy”. In fact, it was banned by the BBC who mistakenly believed “Henry the Horse” was a heroin reference. It’s not that, however. Hogsheads of fire, hoops, garters, somersets, the Hendersons, Mr. Kite…they’re all there in the poster. There’s an atmosphere that matches the lyric perfectly; steam organs, calliope sounds, tape loops, and various harmonicas fill out the piano/bass/drums musical accompaniment (there are no guitars on the track). After many failed attempts to achieve the desired results through conventional recording, the carnival sequence in the break was achieved by cutting the tapes into small sections, throwing them in the air, and then putting them back together in random order (some backwards). It worked beautifully, with the carnival sounding out of control. The effect was of being on the fairway with your senses radically altered. Nearly the whole of the album was an aural manifestation of disordered senses.

The second side of the album begins with George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You”. In the context of the kaleidoscopic Pepper, it works. Out of context, the song is an Indian drone with ponderous lyrics. It’s George’s longest Indian-style song, and far less effective than Revolver‘s “Love You To” or the Indian/psychedelic mashups “Blue Jay Way” and “Only A Northern Song”. As the song ends, there is a break of laughter. It shows good sense on the band’s part that they would follow the track with a laugh to lighten the oh-so-serious tone of the song. George’s heavy-handed mysticism is followed by one of McCartney’s lightest tracks. “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a staple at weddings now, but was written when McCartney was just fifteen years old. It displays both his overly sentimental side and his love for English music hall. What saves the song from being treacle is that descending line “You’ll be older, too” followed by Lennon’s wordless backing vocal that adds just a bit of edge to the song. Lennon and Harrison’s backing vocal of “We shall scrimp and save”, modulating the last vowel are the perfect complement to Paul McCharmley’s happy vocal. The backing adds just the right touch, reminding the listener that “scrimping and saving” isn’t necessarily easy or fun.

Fortunately, the song is followed by “Lovely Rita”, Paul’s ode to hooking up with a meter maid. The piano-driven track is an old-style rocker, but even here the Beatles were playing with the recording. The piano purposely slips in and out of tune, John’s backing vocals are once again very prominent, and the song ends with a not-very-subtle simulated orgasm, the music and a breathy, wordless, moaning vocal rising and getting more intense until the piano suddenly drops off and John is heard saying “Believe it.”

“Good Morning Good Morning” continues the rebound on side two. It’s a heavy rocker with a punchy brass section, scorched earth guitar fills by McCartney, and lyrics inspired by a commercial for corn flakes. The lyrics would have fit in perfectly with the original concept for Pepper’s songs. The original idea, represented by the “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” single, was that the songs be a nostalgic look at their childhoods in Liverpool. “Good Morning Good Morning” plays on that theme with its tale of a man’s day, not wanting to get up and go to work, taking a walk by his old school, heading home to watch television (“Meet the Wife” was a British TV show). Lennon captures the frustration of everyday living with typical Lennon bile in the lines “Everybody knows there’s nothing doing/Everything is closed it’s like a ruin/Everyone you see is half asleep/And you’re on your own you’re in the street”. Only when the sun starts to set does the song’s protagonist start to come alive, flirting with the girls and acknowledging the people around him as “full of life”. In many ways, it’s the sequel to Revolver‘s “I’m Only Sleeping”, taking that song’s character and seeing how the rest of his day plays out. It’s a straightforward track, but still has some of the Pepper artifice. Aside from the horns and multiple time signatures there’s the ending, where a series of animal noises are heard, each sound representing an animal that could kill or frighten the animal before it.

On the stereo version of the album, the last of the animal sounds is a two-note guitar lick that mimics a clucking chicken. In reality, that was added in later to cover a terribly bad edit between “Good Morning Good Morning” and the following song, a reprise of the title track. The original, bad edit is heard in the mono version of the album, and is a clear example where the stereo mix being better than the mono. Both the mono and stereo mixes have their selling points and despite Lennon’s insistence that mono was the best way to hear the album, the stereo mix is far superior to that of any pre-Pepper Beatles album. The “Sgt. Pepper” reprise is brief, a reminder that there was once a concept behind the album. Its inclusion still leads people to believe that Pepper has a unified theme. Like the title track, it’s a fine rave up, but there’s really nothing much to be said about it. It’s main purpose is to serve as the gateway to “A Day In The Life”.

The last track on Sgt. Pepper is also the best. It is, to my ears, the best song the Beatles ever did, and arguably the best song of the rock era. With a finale like this, it’s easy to forgive the superficiality of any of the preceding tracks. It is this song that sticks with the listener more than any of the others, and elevates Pepper to the top of critical lists. “A Day In The Life” is essential listening. For this song alone, Sgt. Pepper is a necessary addition to the collection of any serious fan of rock music.

Here the Beatles transcend rock music. The song has all the conventions of rock, but the recording is something else entirely. The verses are simple: a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, a stately, near classical piano, and Ringo Starr’s brilliant drum fills. Anyone who says that Ringo is not a world-class drummer needs to listen to this, and then forever shut up about it. Floating over it all is Lennon’s voice. In the first two verses he tells the story of the car crash that killed the Guinness heir Tara Browne, in the third he pays tribute to the movie How I Won The War, in which he had taken a supporting role in 1966. But it’s at the end of the third verse that the song takes off. As Lennon sings a line written by McCartney, “I’d love to turn you on”, the music swells underneath, an orchestral rush that rises and rises until it seems like it will explode out of the speakers. The orchestra, recorded with the musicians wearing fake noses and various costume parts to get them in the right frame of mind, had been instructed that they had 24 bars to go from the lowest note on their instruments to the highest, and how they did it was up to them. The sensation one gets listening to it is the same as taking off in an airplane. There’s a rush and a feeling of inexorable rising…until the 24th bar when the orchestral orgasm abruptly ends with the sound of an alarm clock and McCartney’s voice taking over the lead from Lennon. This section by McCartney was part of a song he’d been writing for the “childhood” concept of the album. It recounts his days riding on the top of the bus, smoking cigarettes, and daydreaming. In the context of the song, though, it is from the perspective of an adult, probably running late for work. Still, the lines “found my way upstairs and had a smoke/Somebody spoke and I went into a dream” was enough to get the song banned by the BBC for referring to drugs.

It’s hard to argue that those lines are not about drugs. At the moment McCartney finishes the word “dream” the music again shifts from the rock piano to a brass section that sounds impossibly deep. The brass builds from the bottom, becoming more prominent before ending in a five-note flourish that transitions back into the music of the first three verses. Overriding the brass is Lennon’s wordless wail, providing another melody on top. His voice on that elongated “Ahhhhhh” modulates and turns, drifting from speaker to speaker, before fading. And just like that we’re back to softly strummed acoustic, stately piano, and Ringo’s ever-changing fills. The last verse is nothing more than a poetic retelling of a news story about the number of potholes in the road (“four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”). But as Lennon ends the verse he circles back to that infamous line “I’d love to turn you on” and the orchestral rush begins again. This time the surge ends not with an alarm clock, but with what is probably the most famous chord in the history of 20th century music. It’s a simple E Major chord, played simultaneously on three different pianos by Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and roadie Mal Evans and on a harmonium by George Martin. As the sound of the chord started to dissipate the engineers in the studio turned up the recording levels until they were capturing not only the resonance of the chord but the ambient studio sounds. like the squeaking of a chair. The result is a massively rich chord that sustains for over 40 seconds before finally disappearing. Buried in the fade is a dog whistle, undetectable to human ears (and probably undetectable to recording devices, so who knows if it’s really on there or not).

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ends with a snippet of studio dialogue and noise, sped up, backwards, and on an endless loop for record players that do not have an automatic return on the stylus. It’s the last touch on the album, a hidden nonsense track less than 5 seconds long that continued playing on a loop until the listener lifted the needle off the groove.

Sgt. Pepper changed the musical world. It opened the doors for musicians to be more creative and take more chances. It also led to the mistaken belief that brass and strings were enough to turn a pop song into an artistic statement. We still listen to music in the world that Pepper created but the fact is that, with some exceptions, the songs on the album simply aren’t as good as the ones on Revolver, or even Rubber Soul. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock album ever released, and my grade reflects that. But is it The Greatest Album Ever Made as so many claim? No. It’s not even the best Beatles album.

Grade: A+

The Original (And Still Best) Princes of Pop

When I was ten or eleven years old and just discovering the Beatles, my attention was briefly diverted by the syndicated exploits of another group of boys with long hair and catchy songs. The Monkees was in repeats on one of the local stations and I enjoyed what I heard enough to look through my brother’s record collection to see if he had anything. This collection included the LPs that had been owned by all three of my brothers, and was large enough to encompass a lot of stuff I’d never heard. And there it was: The Monkees’ first, eponymous LP. I put it on, and loved it.

Not long after that, I went to my brother who had first turned me on to the original Fab Four. I asked him about The Monkees.

“The Monkees are the second worst band in the world,” he replied.

“Who’s the worst band in the world?” I asked.

“The Grateful Dead.”

My brother was half-right. The Grateful Dead were the worst band in the world and their stench still emanates from jam bands everywhere, but nearly fifty years later the music of the Monkees stands up with the best pop of the 1960s.

I get it. The Monkees were the Pre-Fab Four, a collection of actors who responded to a casting call and then were thrust together and told to act like a band. Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones could sing, but couldn’t play anything. Mike Nesmith fancied himself a musician and had a collection of songs to back him up. Peter Tork was an itinerant folkie who could play a little. As musicians go, they were lacking in almost all areas.

But here’s the thing: the songs they were given to record were extraordinarily good pop songs. Forget the dumb TV theme. “Last Train To Clarksville”, “Saturday’s Child”, “I Wanna Be Free”, “Sweet Young Thing” and “Take A Giant Step” graced the first album by the group. All of them are near-perfect slices of pop music. Add in Nesmith’s original “Papa Gene’s Blues” and you’re suddenly looking at an album that has stood the test of time far better than a lot of their more “serious” competitors. It may sound superficial and light compared to Blonde on Blonde or Revolver but it holds up as well or better than albums by The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas And The Papas, both of whom were riding high in 1966 and are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Go ahead. Listen to the first Monkees album and then listen to Daydream or If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears and tell me which album you enjoyed the most. And More of The Monkees, Headquarters, and especially Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd are even better.

The simple fact is that the Monkees were blessed. Their impressario, Don Kirschner, may have been a pompous buffoon and an insufferable gasbag in a lot of ways, but he understood that “I’m A Believer” was a smash hit single when Mike Nesmith was convinced it was a lousy song that would never be a hit. The group had people picking songs by some of the best pop songwriters of the time: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and Neil Diamond among others. They also were lucky to have a gifted songwriter in their own ranks. Mike Nesmith was a country boy at heart, but had an instinct for blending country and pop that served him well. In fact, months before the Monkees appeared on TV screens and radios, none other than the truly heavyweight Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded Nesmith’s “Mary Mary” on their landmark East-West album. A few years later The Stone Poneys, featuring a very young Linda Ronstadt on vocals, had a huge, well-deserved hit with “Different Drum” a song Nesmith had written before the Monkees. (Funnily enough, in an early episode of the TV show Nesmith pretended to be a bad folk singer and strummed his way through a sped up version of “Different Drum”.) Today Nesmith is considered one of the pioneers of country rock and is also thought by many to be the father of modern music videos due to his work setting up the fledgling MTV.

The group’s blessings continued with the people who really did play the instruments. Most of their music was provided by L.A.’s famous “Wrecking Crew”, a group of studio musicians who were considered the best in the business. In 1968, post-Buffalo Springfield and pre-legend Neil Young played on some tracks.

But the greatest blessing the Monkees had was that their main singers, Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones are two of the most listenable singers of their, or any other, era. Dolenz’s crystal clear tenor and Jones’s Manchester-by-way-of-Broadway tones were so easy on the ears that you can listen to them for hours and not grow tired of their voices. Jones is often considered the “lead” singer because in the show Dolenz was sitting awkwardly behind a drum kit he couldn’t play, but really the voice of the group is Mickey’s. Davy Jones had several fantastic songs that he voiced, but was also given every saccharine sweet “romantic” ballad they did. This left Dolenz with the lion’s share of the classic pop hits.

The backlash against the Monkees started when Mike Nesmith told the press that they didn’t play their own instruments. In fact, with the exceptions of Nesmith and Tork, they couldn’t play their instruments. It was an age where “credibility” was considered very important among the hip crowd. The growing numbers of rock fans disdained the Monkees for their artificiality (likely the reason my brother hated them way back when). Nobody from the “In Crowd” would admit to liking the pseudo-band that was built especially for pre-teen girls to swoon over.

But the Monkees did have some highly placed fans. The Beatles loved them. John Lennon said they were “the new Marx Brothers” and Dolenz and Nesmith were both invited to hang out with the Beatles on various occasions. Nesmith even makes a cameo in the video for “A Day In The Life”; he was an invited guest to the studio when the Beatles recorded (and filmed) the orchestral surge. This puts Nesmith in the company of not only the Beatles but also Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Donovan. Peter Tork introduced Buffalo Springfield on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival at the request of his friend Stephen Stills. It must be remembered that the four Monkees were still young men of their time. They may have been actors and itinerant musicians but they had more in common with their peers at the Love-In than they did with the screaming girls in their audience. They bristled at being told what to do and began to believe in their own myth: that they were a band. This led to some remarkably good music and some delightfully subversive moments. One doesn’t usually think of the Monkees as being subversive, but examples abound.

The Monkees

Do these guys really look that clean cut?

  • They selected The Jimi Hendrix Experience to be the opening act on their first tour (Hendrix was pulled quickly)
  • In one episode, Peter is setting up a row of dominoes, standing them on end. “What’s that game called?” asks Mickey. “Southeast Asia,” replies Tork as the dominoes fall.
  • The song “Last Train to Clarksville” is about a soldier going off to Viet Nam. “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home,” he tells his girl.
  • Mickey’s song “Randy Scouse Git” tells the true story of a druggy party with groupies and the Beatles (“the four kings of EMI”). The title also translates to “Horny Liverpudlian Idiot”. Both “Star Collector” and “Cuddly Toy” are about groupies (the former featuring one of the first ever uses of a Moog synthesizer on a pop/rock song. The first was “Daily Nightly” by…the Monkees).
  • The second-to-last episode of the show features a hilarious appearance by Frank Zappa, destroying a car while the song “Mother People” plays and Nesmith acts as a conductor.
  • The last episode, directed by Dolenz, shows Tim Buckley singing an acoustic version of “Song To The Siren” while sitting on the hood of the car Zappa destroyed. The episode, called “The Frodis Caper”, is such a blatant advertisement for marijuana that it might as well have been produced by NORML. The word “Frodis” was the group’s slang term for pot, and it appears a few times during the show’s run.
  • The song “Mommy and Daddy” features Dolenz instructing the group’s very young audience to ask their parents questions like “What happened to the Indians?” “Who really killed JFK?”, “Why doesn’t that soldier care who he kills?” and “Would it matter if the bullet went through my head?” before the climax of Dolenz wailing “It’s all a lie.” Considering who their audience was, that one song is more subversive than anything Marilyn Manson ever did.
  • And then…there’s Head.

The one movie the Monkees did, Head, was a psychedelic mashup of scenes, skits, bits, and some of the best songs the band ever did. The title refers both to oral sex and marijuana. It begins with the group committing suicide and gets progressively stranger from there. It’s a terrible movie. It’s so bad it makes Magical Mystery Tour look like Citizen Kane. Okay, maybe not that bad.

The music, on the other hand, is fantastic.

Nesmith’s brutal “Circle Sky” (performed live by the band) is as heavy as anything coming out of San Francisco in 1968. “As We Go Along”, sung beautifully by Dolenz, may be the best ballad they ever did. Best of all is “Porpoise Song”, the seemingly nonsensical lyrics actually telling the audience that the band was leaving their image behind them. Written by Carole King and played over the opening scene as the Monkees jump off a bridge, the lyrics are a coded suicide note and tell the story of the band and why they’re doing what they’re doing. They are nothing but “a face, a voice”, but “an overdub has no choice/And it cannot rejoice”. The old Monkees are gone. “Riding the backs of giraffes for a laugh is all right for awhile” but now they’re free to pursue their own agenda.

The problem with believing your own myth is that it’s a fatal flaw. It turns out they had no agenda. After Head and with the TV show over, the band splintered. Tork left first, leaving the rest to carry on as a trio. Then Nesmith left and suddenly the Monkees were just Dolenz and Jones. But there was nothing there. A few good songs pop up from this era when the band was fracturing, but there was nothing approaching the quality of their first five LPs and the songs they did for Head. They ended with a whimper; a last-gasp television special as a trio was the lowest-rated TV show in history (and it’s worse than Head).

They tour occasionally now, minus Jones who died of a heart attack in 2012. I met Jones once in the mid-90s at my local pub after he’d played a show nearby. He was gracious and very nice, a true class act. But even without the warm blanket of nostalgia, those songs they did in their prime are as rock solid today as they were in the sixties. Now that the issues of “credibility” are behind them (and people know that other famous bands, notably the Mamas and Papas and even, to a degree, the Beach Boys didn’t play their own instruments either), all that’s left is the music in the grooves. And that music is overwhelmingly good, largely great, and sometimes stone cold brilliant. As a teenager and in my twenties I considered the Monkees a guilty pleasure. Now they’re just a pleasure. They may not have been a real band until the very end, but the Monkees were a truly great group.

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

tattooyou_cover

The Rolling Stones had almost nowhere to go but up after Emotional Rescue. With the exception of Some Girls, the band had spent nearly a decade floundering. Five studio albums of varying quality and a mediocre live album had tarnished the reputation of what had once been considered The Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band In The World. Their singles could still be counted on to chart, and their albums were still selling, but Emotional Rescue proved to be the final nail in the coffin for many fans who were put off by the icy disco and rote rockers. For the next record, the Stones needed to recapture what made them so good.

They succeeded. Partially.

The first single, and leadoff track, was a return to full-on rock, led by a choppy Keith Richards riff, Charlie Watts in full swing, and a Mick Jagger vocal that combined humor and raunch. “Start Me Up” was such a refreshing change after Emotional Rescue that it instantly became a Stones classic. The band, it seemed, was back with three and a half minutes of reckless abandon. To my ears the song hasn’t held up as well, over 30 years later. The lyric is repetitive, the riff a bit too simple. At the time, the song was a cause for celebration for Stones fans everywhere. It’s now a staple of their concerts, along with “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash” but it doesn’t belong in that category.

“Hang Fire”, the song that follows, is better. It’s shorter, punchier, with a better lyric, and better guitar interplay between Richards and Ron Wood. The wordless backing vocal provides the real hook in the song. Both “Hang Fire” and “Start Me Up” rock with total abandon, like the best of Some Girls did. And there’s a good reason for that.

Tattoo You, it turns out, was not a real album at all, in the sense that it was not a collection of new songs. Tattoo You was compiled by Chris Kimsey, the engineer, from the Stones’s musical vault. In most cases, the songs were incomplete. Jagger had to write lyrics and record vocals and some overdubs were added, but the basic recordings on the album go all the way pack to 1972. That’s Mick Taylor playing guitar on “Tops” and “Waiting On A Friend”, both originally cut during the Goats Head Soup sessions. Wayne Perkins, who played the extraordinary solo on Black and Blue‘s “Hand Of Fate” is the guitarist on “Worried About You”, originally recorded in 1975. “Slave” was also cut during those sessions. Other songs were from the Some Girls sessions, and even the Emotional Rescue sessions.

It didn’t matter. The instrumental tracks from those sessions were given new life by Jagger in 1980 and 1981, as the band prepared a massive tour. Tattoo You‘s sole reason for existing is the 1981 tour. The shows were booked and the band felt they had no time to write and record new material, so the vaults were plundered. Chris Kimsey chose wisely for the most part.

Side one of the album is one of the best sustained slices of music the Stones have released post-Exile. There simply isn’t a bum track. From “Start Me Up” through “Neighbours”, Tattoo You sounds like the World’s Greatest Band having fun again. “Slave” is a mostly instrumental groove piece (you can tell it’s from the Black and Blue sessions), but the groove is irresistible and the minimal vocals that are there (including backing vocals from the Who’s Pete Townshend) are a hoot. There’s also a sax solo from jazz legend Sonny Rollins as the cherry on top. There’s nothing much to the lyrics; it’s basically a chant of “Do it! Don’t wanna be your slave!” with a funny mini-rap from Jagger thrown in, but in this case the song stands on the music, which is terrific.

The obligatory Keith Richards-sung track, “Little T&A” is another superior rocker with what may be Keith’s best vocal since “Happy”. What would have easily been the best song on Emotional Rescue was, strangely, left off that album. The lyrics keep the song from being as good as “Before They Make Me Run” or “Happy” but it’s still very close to that standard, and features a throbbing bass line (played by Keith). It’s followed by “Black Limousine” a blues powered by Ian Stewart’s masterful boogie-woogie piano, a terrific guitar solo, and Jagger’s harmonica. It’s often overlooked, but Mick Jagger is one of the premier blues harmonica players, as his playing here proves.

That great side of music ends with “Neighbours”, a Some Girls-style rocker that’s one of the band’s fastest songs. Jagger’s vocal is wonderfully hammy and fun while the band plays as if they’re careening down a curvy road at ninety miles per hour. Side one ends in crashing chords and howled vocals and it was clear that the Stones were back after the misstep that was Emotional Rescue.

Then, there’s side two.

Tattoo You was released in 1981, but in some ways it’s a perfect summation of the post-Exile Stones in the 1970s. With the exception of Some Girls, the Seventies Stones swung wildly between moments of greatness and uninspired banality. Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Black and Blue, and Emotional Rescue all had high points worth hearing and low points worth ignoring. Tattoo You has the same issues, but in this case the highs and lows are equally divided and split into different halves of the album.

Not everything on side two of Tattoo You is bad, and none of it is truly awful. “Waiting On A Friend” is considered a Stones classic ballad, with another sax break from Sonny Rollins, but nobody is ever going to confuse it with “Wild Horses” or even “Angie”. As Stones “classics” go, “Waiting On A Friend” is strictly second rate. It’s good, but not much more.

Probably the best song on the side is the opener. “Worried About You”, which dates back to the Black and Blue sessions, has the same keyboard sound (played by Billy Preston) as the songs from that earlier album, and a mostly falsetto vocal from Jagger. It also has a fiery lead guitar solo from Wayne Perkins. And in the final two minutes Jagger mostly drops the falsetto and brings it all home. It’s a far better song and performance than the hit single “Waiting On A Friend”, but the song clearly harkens back to an earlier time. It’s also better than everything on Black and Blue except the mighty “Hand Of Fate”.

“Tops” goes all the way back to 1972 and has Mick Taylor on guitar, but stylistically it sounds more like mid-70s Stones. There’s an undeniable dance groove and the falsetto (again) vocals recall the Seventies Soul pastiches that featured on Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll. Again, it’s not a bad song but it sounded dated in 1981 and sounds even more dated today. The same goes for “Heaven”, recorded right after the Emotional Rescue sessions and featuring yet another falsetto vocal from Jagger over an admittedly slinky reggae/dance groove. The only Stones on the song are Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, but the main sound you hear is the high vocals awash in Wyman’s synthesizer. “Heaven” could have been better with a full band backing and the vocals less processed. As it stands, it sounds like the drugged homecoming from a night at Studio 54.

Before “Waiting On A Friend” ends the album on a high note, “No Use In Crying” is another ballad from the Emotional Rescue sessions. For the fourth song in a row Jagger breaks out the falsetto, though sparingly this time. I guess even Jagger probably didn’t think the song was worth straining to hit those high notes. It’s no wonder after this that “Waiting On A Friend” sounded so good: it shuffles where the earlier songs lay there, the falsetto is relegated to a few “doo doo doo” backing vocals, and there’s Rollins’s terrific sax solo.

The second half of Tattoo You doesn’t ruin the album. Of the five songs, two are very good and the other three are not as bad as almost anything on Emotional Rescue. But Jagger’s overuse of the falsetto and a reliance on keyboards and dance ballads to close the album can certainly leave the listener feeling disappointed. Side one is fantastic; side two is mediocre. The only other album I can think of that is this evenly divided between wheat and chaff is John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, and that’s because half of those songs are Yoko’s. Tattoo You would probably have been served better by nixing “No Use In Crying” and “Heaven”, adding two more rockers (they had plenty of great ones in the can from the Some Girls sessions), and mixing the album up to blend rockers and ballads. As it stands, it brings the Stones back, and drops them down again.

Grade: B