The Beatles: Abbey Road

Abbey Road

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

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

The result was a disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

The result was a triumph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then…

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

Grade: A+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll-Over-Beethoven-Chuck-Berry

The personification of rock ‘n’ roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no rock ‘n’ roll without him.

The Rolling Stones: Voodoo Lounge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re blinded by rainbows…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

The Listening Post: January 2016

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

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels

steelwheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

The 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 an 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+