The Beatles: Let It Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was never any doubt that they had.

Grade: B
Grade (Let It Be…Naked): A

The Rolling Stones: Bridges To Babylon

The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s how Bridges To Babylon ends.

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

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+

“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 a string section. At least all four Beatles played on two of George’s songs, though Lennon skipped out on “Long Long Long” and “Savoy Truffle”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Dirty Work

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

That person is not me.

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s the rest of the album.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: D+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

TheBeatlesMagicalMysteryTouralbumcover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Undercover

undercover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep in a straight line, stay in tune

No need to worry, only fools

End up in prison or conscience cells

Or in asylums they help to build

We’re free to worship, free to speak

We’re free to kill, it’s guaranteed

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

Clean up the backyard, don’t lock the door

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

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

Grade: B

Jack Bruce, RIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Revere, RIP

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

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

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

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

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