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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could you draw this when you were three?

Could you draw this when you were three?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

The Original (And Still Best) Princes of Pop

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

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

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

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

“The Grateful Dead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monkees

Do these guys really look that clean cut?

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

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

The music, on the other hand, is fantastic.

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

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

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

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

tattooyou_cover

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

They succeeded. Partially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there’s side two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Jack White: Lazaretto

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In 1967, blues guitar genius Michael Bloomfield quit his day job with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to create a new group. The Electric Flag was devoted, in Bloomfield’s words, to playing “American music”. Rock, blues, soul, country, and R&B all figured into the mix. They released one album before Bloomfield, always a guy with a short attention span, left. The album, A Long Time Comin’, is a flawed gem. There’s some superb blues (“Texas”), some great soul (“Over Loving You”), and a wicked rave on the old R&B song “Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)”. In attempting to be all-encompassing “American music” the album falls short. It was too big a concept, one that required over-thinking on the part of the band’s leaders. Years later, Gram Parsons dubbed his music “Cosmic American Music” but no matter how you sliced it, Parsons was a country boy. His two solo albums are staggeringly brilliant, but they’re almost pure country. Perhaps the most successful attempt at “American Music” was the Stephen Stills project, Manassas. Over four sides of a self-titled album, Manassas toured the music scene, touching on everything from rock to Latin music. It’s a lost classic LP (the band was so good Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman said it was the only group he’d quit the Stones to join), but it also has that quality that marred the Electric Flag album: the concept isn’t organic. Sides are neatly divided into themes. A second album was a flop.

The problem with these attempts at “American Music” is that they fail to recognize that American music is as much a melting pot as the country.

Which brings me to Jack White.

White has, as far as I know, never referred to his music as “American”, cosmic or otherwise. He simply plays what he wants to play. The White Stripes were blues run through a Led Zeppelin filter and played with punk rock intensity. The Raconteurs are straight up classicist rock music and power pop. The Dead Weather explores White’s interest in dark, Gothic, industrial music. His first solo album, 2012’s Blunderbuss, was a masterpiece of songwriting and performance. His latest album, Lazaretto, falls short of that mark, but in some ways clarifies White’s vision. Lazaretto is American music.

Unlike the earlier albums discussed, White doesn’t separate the different genres. He puts them all into the melting pot and what comes out is uniquely his. The best example on the album is the title track. There are hints of progressive rock in the keyboards and synthesizers, the guitar is screamingly loud in the finest rock tradition, there are bluegrass violins playing over the end of the song, the groove is funk, and the vocal delivery is rap. Yes, he’s even a good rapper. Of course, since this is Jack White the lyrics are about being quarantined in a leper colony, making models of people using coffee and cotton, and having discussions with God, rather than the bling he’s wearing. I’ve never cared for rap; I find it too repetitive, not melodic, and far too much of it is disturbingly racist and sexist. But if more rap songs had lyrics about leper colonies, and were set to an instrumental backing of scorching lead guitar and Appalachian fiddle, I’d be on board.

What White has done with this song (and with the other song that uses a rap delivery, “That Black Bat Licorice”, is combine the dominant strains of popular music from the past sixty years: blues, rock, country, and rap. He’s also added in his trademark eccentricities in the lyrics. “Licorice” makes references to Roman hypocausts, Nietzsche, Freud, and either the Egyptian god Horus or the Roman poet Horace (I’m guessing the latter). It also has the lines “I mean, she’s my baby/But she makes me get avuncular/And when my monkey is jumping/I got no time for making up for her” which, aside from being funny, is a sophisticated rhyme scheme.

White’s humor is clear throughout. The man may be the PT Barnum of rock and roll, a prankster and promoter of supreme ability. Consider the vinyl version of the album, which is the highest selling vinyl record in over 20 years. White has brought his showmanship to the grooves of his record by forcing people to interact and actually think about putting on music. Side one of the album is a standard shiny LP, but side two is flat matte to reproduce the look of old 78 RPM records. Side one of the album plays backwards…that’s right, you drop the needle at the end of side one for it to play. The run out groove on side one is etched with holographic angels that can only be seen from a certain angle. There are two extra songs on the vinyl LP…hidden under the label. One of these songs is played at 45 RPM. The other at 78 RPM, making Lazaretto a three-speed record. The first song on side two (“Just One Drink”) has an acoustic intro or an electric intro, depending on which groove you drop the needle into. Lastly, there are continuous loops of sound at the end of each side, similar to the run out groove on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And if you got the LP from White’s exclusive website (The Vault), the album was blue and white vinyl instead of black, and the cover was black and white instead of blue. It’s all promotional, but it also forces the listener to experience the tactile sensation of playing music, a sensation that any music geek will tell you increases the connection with the music in a way that you don’t get with a sound file. It certainly lacks the convenience of an MP3, but it’s actually fun to see and experience the process. And Jack White is clearly having a lot of fun…probably more than anyone in the music business except Dave Grohl. White is rock’s greatest eccentric and musical wildcard since Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

The album also jams country, Delta blues, piano ballads, Zeppelin riffs, and just about anything else you can think of into its eleven tracks, frequently combining some or all the elements into a single song. The opener, “Three Women” is an updating of Blind Willie McTell’s “Three Women Blues”, though it lifts the “Lordy Lord” chorus from McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues”. It’s one of the most straightforward songs on the album, in stark contrast to the delightfully schizophrenic “Would You Fight For My Love?” “Temporary Ground” features White duetting with Lillie Mae Rische on a song that blends country and rock; “Entitlement” takes a vicious, and well-deserved, stab at the Entitled Generation; “High Ball Stepper” is an instrumental that sounds like Emerson, Lake and Palmer jamming with Led Zeppelin; “Want And Able” would fit perfectly at the end of any White Stripes album; and “Just One Drink” is country as played by the Rolling Stones, sounding like a lost track from Exile on Main Street. And if the connection to “American music” isn’t clear enough, White even throws in a lyrical reference to “Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)”, the song the Electric Flag covered as their R&B track.

Jack White has come very close to perfecting “American music”…a stew of blues, rock, country, folk, bluegrass and, now, hip-hop. He hasn’t done it by trying his hand at different styles, the way Bloomfield, Stills, or Parsons did. Instead, White has completely assimilated the music he loves and spits it back out through the prism of his own prodigious talent. Lazaretto is not as good as Blunderbuss; it tries too hard in spots where the previous album seemed effortless, and Lazaretto takes several listens to appreciate where Blunderbuss was instantly likable. Nevertheless, it’s another stunning collection from a great musical talent that is peaking in his creativity.

Grade: A

The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue

The Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue

In 1978, Some Girls proved that the Rolling Stones were still a major creative force and a rock and roll band to be reckoned with. In the age of punk, the Stones had proven themselves as fierce as any of the young upstarts who were dismissing them as dinosaurs. By ramping up the guitars, speeding up the tempos, and still being open to the current music scene, the Stones had planted a flag for all the remaining bands of the 1960s.

In 1980, they dug up the flag and buried it under a landfill.

Emotional Rescue is not the worst officially released Rolling Stones album, but it’s certainly near the bottom of the barrel. At least Their Satanic Majesties’ Request was an interesting failure and contained two classic Stones songs. By comparison, Emotional Rescue is a tired slog through the music scene of the day, populated by songs that were recorded but deemed not good enough for the previous album and a handful of new tracks. But even in 1980, the songs here sounded out of date. Disco was still king in 1980, but it was being absorbed by New Wave and post-punk and starting to manifest itself in some interesting ways. Some Girls showed that the Stones were paying close attention to disco and punk; Emotional Rescue indicates that they’d stopped listening to anything new in 1978. It is not the sound of a vital band; it is the sound of old war horses trying to emulate the sounds that the kids are listening to these days.

The opening track, “Dance, Pt. 1”, is as imaginative as its title. It’s a disco/funk track that is better than “Hot Stuff” but nowhere near as good as “Miss You”. It’s actually a pretty good groove, and Mick Jagger is convincing even as the rest of the band is coasting. “Get up/get out/Into something new” Jagger snarls. The nights he was spending at Studio 54 are clearly his muse here, but the lyrics are mostly nonsensical; he seems to have put almost no effort into writing them.

The Stones follow this with a rocker, opening the album with a disco/rock salvo that mirrors Some Girls. But “Summer Romance” is no “When The Whip Comes Down”. While “Romance” is one of the few genuine winners on the album, it’s also an archetypal post-Exile on Main Street rock track. It pales in comparison to the vastly superior rockers on Some Girls, but it’s a good album track here, and probably would have fit on Goats Head Soup or It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Summer Romance” does, at least, have an excellent guitar solo, and Charlie Watts swings like a demon. There’s also an excellent bass line from Bill Wyman. In fact, Wyman is the unsung star of the album. For years his bass had been largely buried in the mix, but as the Stones paid homage to dance music, the rhythm section rose in importance and Wyman’s bass once again came forward. This album is actually a potent reminder of what a great bass player Bill Wyman was, and a sad reminder that the bass that was so prominent in the 1960s had become muted in the 1970s.

“Send It To Me” served notice that the Stones were checking off boxes on this album. “Dance” was the disco track, “Romance” the rocker, and “Send It To Me” is the obligatory reggae filler. It’s a lazy shuffle that Charlie Watts sounds half asleep on. The entire band plays it as if they simply don’t care. Jagger tries to put some life into it, but his delivery is once again undercut by half-baked lyrics about a mail-order bride. The Stones were never particularly convincing when it came to reggae, and this is readily apparent here. There’s no inspiration at all, just lazy playing.

The band returns to rock with “Let Me Go”, but the song simply sits there. Keith Richards and Ron Wood chug along nicely on guitar, but the song sounds like it’s going somewhere only when Jagger and Richards start harmonizing on the bridge. That moment passes in the blink of an eye and it’s back to the chug. There’s a decent guitar solo and once again Wyman plays like an old pro, but Watts now sounds like he’s completely asleep. The drums aren’t bad, especially in the breakdown about two and half minutes into the song, when Watts wakes up and reminds the world that he’s Charlie Watts and he doesn’t play bad drum parts, but nothing could save the song from its mediocrity. In the context of the album, “Let Me Go” sounds better than it actually is because it’s at the very least a rock number, and it’s the Stones playing the music they were born to play. It’s all the more disappointing because the song segues into “Indian Girl”, a too-long acoustic ballad that features some nice, tinkling piano parts and some genuinely lovely pedal steel from Ron Wood. But despite some interesting Mexican mariachi-style horns that add a nice touch “Indian Girl” is boring. The acoustic guitar is so laid back it might as well not even be there. Jagger talk-sings over the fade as the song disappears into nothingness. It’s too bad because on an album where the lyrics can best be described as weak, “Indian Girl” is a political rumination about the indigenous population of Central American countries at a time when that section of the world was being torn apart by conflict. It’s a serious subject and a heartfelt lyric, married to a tune that never happens.

The second side of the album kicks off with another rocker. “Where The Boys Go” was picked up by rock radio at the time because it was one of the few songs on the album where the Stones rocked unapologetically. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good song. There’s a fine guitar solo, but Jagger sings much of the song in a faux-Cockney accent that is, at best, distracting and, at worst, silly. There are also prominent female backing singers that add nothing but stridency to an already half-assed vocal. Yes, it rocks. Yes, Charlie Watts is now fully awake and pounding. But “Where The Boys Go” is tuneless and pointless. Like “Let Me Go” it sounds better in context but this is the weaker song.

The Stones had cut their teeth on blues music. Jagger famously said, in his first newspaper quote, “I hope they don’t think we’re a rock and roll outfit”. But while the blues always underpinned the Stones, the traditional form had largely been eschewed by the band. “Down In The Hole” was the first traditional 12-bar blues the Stones had done in many years. There’s a great harmonica and for the first time on this album the band sounds like they’re fully invested in the music. It’s not a great blues song by any stretch, but it was good enough that the Stones should have taken a cue from it and started doing more straight blues numbers. It’s a style the Stones always excelled at, and “Down In The Hole” provides a highlight on an album drowning in indifferent writing and playing.

The Stones were smart enough to put only one real disco song on Some Girls, and “Miss You” had a bridge that came out of the rock world. While you could dance to “Beast Of Burden” it was disguised enough to pass for a rock ballad on first listen. But the title track for this album is the single purest expression of Jagger’s love of disco that the Stones ever did. It bears almost no trace of rock. There are good things here: as required by the Gods of Disco, the rhythm section is spot-on (Wyman’s bass is outstanding) and the song is an earworm, making it somewhat listenable even when you’re not on the dance floor. There’s also a great saxophone in the fadeout. But there’s plenty of bad here, too. Jagger sings the entire song in a tortured falsetto, and does a proto-rap that is nothing short of excruciating; Richards and Wood are almost invisible; there’s no warmth at all and nary a trace of emotion in the performance. “Emotional Rescue” is a time piece. It’s forever locked into 1980 and it must be admitted that it evokes a time and a place for those of us who were around at that time. As was true of most disco, however, the songs that worked when you were dancing do nothing when you’re sitting at home or driving in your car. That goes double for this song because its style was based on heavily electronic Euro-disco, and not the more organic American dance music. “Emotional Rescue” was shocking enough as a Stones song that many fans started reaching for the torches and pitchforks, but it’s not as terrible as it seemed when it first was released. It’s also not good.

As if sensing that “Emotional Rescue” was a bridge too far, the Stones followed it with the one legit Stones classic on the album. “She’s So Cold” is the only track on this album that could have fit on Some Girls…probably because it was written and first recorded for that earlier album. Wyman again provides the support; his is the car the band rides in. Jagger’s vocal delivery is excellent and the lyrics contain the trademark misogyny and humor that marked so many of the band’s best songs. As they are throughout the album, the guitars are fairly muted but they are at least solid and Richards and Wood blend seamlessly.

Unfortunately, the Stones couldn’t sustain this level even for one more song. “All About You” has some wonderful harmonies on the chorus, but this is the first of many of Keith’s sleepy, album-closing ballads. Keith hasn’t written and sung a great ballad with the Stones since “You Got The Silver” on Let It Bleed, and “All About You” is never more than pleasant and boring.

Taken as a whole, Emotional Rescue is saved from being the Stones worst album by the fact that it sounds like the Stones at least had songs that they were performing (as opposed to the riff-based jams of Black And Blue). But there’s no question that the album is occasionally painful to listen to, and only once truly engages the listener. Satanic Majesties was a druggy experiment that went awry; Black and Blue was an audition turned into a contractual obligation album. Emotional Rescue was a different animal completely. Emotional Rescue was the Stones doing what the Stones are supposed to do…and failing.

Grade: D+

The Listening Post: December 2013

Hard, soft, and pop perfection.

  • Lightning BoltPearl Jam. Picking up where Backspacer left off, the tenth studio album from Seattle’s last survivors finds the band lacking energy. The album starts very strongly, delivering several high-octane rockers and one classic Pearl Jam ballad (“Sirens”), but somewhere around the 30-minute mark the songs suddenly start drifting. It’s almost as if the band was replaced with Pearl Jam soundalikes beginning with “Let The Records Play”, a stale rewrite of Vitalogy‘s furious “Spin The Black Circle”. There’s also a full-band version of one of Eddie Vedder’s solo ukulele songs, “Sleeping By Myself”, before the album closes with two somnolent ballads (“Yellow Moon” and “”Future Days”). What’s particularly noticeable about these tracks is how lethargic Vedder sounds. His vocal on “Yellow Moon” sounds like he’s just woken up. It’s surprising coming from one of rock greatest vocalists, but for much of the album Vedder simply sounds like he can’t be bothered. In contrast, Lightning Bolt features some of Mike McCready’s best guitar playing, especially on “Sirens” and the punky “Mind Your Manners”. McCready is an extraordinary guitar player who doesn’t get the credit he deserves; he’s capable of both shredding like the best heavy metal players and playing stunningly lyrical runs of great power and subtlety. Apparently Pearl Jam had begun recording the album and then stopped for a year while drummer Matt Cameron rejoined Soundgarden. This may be the reason the second half of the album sounds like it was recorded just to get it over. In 2006, Pearl Jam released what may be their best album, the intense, cathartic Pearl Jam, and followed it with Backspacer where the band sounded (for the first time) like they were just having some fun. Lightning Bolt, despite the strong first half, sounds like a band that’s running on fumes.
    Grade: B-
  • Walking In The Green CornGrant-Lee Phillips. It’s getting harder to identify Grant-Lee Phillips as the guitarist/vocalist with the alternative rock cult band Grant Lee Buffalo. His old band played a beautiful mix of tender, acoustic ballads, modern folk, and bone-crushing rock. As a live act they could blow the roof off the venue. Grant-Lee Phillips was the undisputed leader of the band; he wrote the songs, played the guitar, and sang everything with a voice that alternated between a blazing bellow, a note-perfect tenor croon, and a sweeping falsetto. His guitar of choice, a 12-string acoustic, was run through enough distortion pedals to create a powerful electric sound the equal of any of their more popular alt-rock brethren. The band was loved and respected by their peers, and played huge stages with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. But Phillips’s solo career has been decidedly different. The Sturm und drang is gone, the distortion pedals locked away. What’s left is the quiet, tender stuff. That’s fine by itself, because Phillips writes and sings so beautifully. Walking In The Green Corn, a meditation on his Native American heritage, is full of lovely ballads. The instrumentation is very spare, and Phillips sings in a “don’t-wake-the-kids” voice throughout. It gives the album a quiet, dreamlike sound. It also makes the songs blend together. The album is a coherent whole, but the songs don’t stand out individually. Conversely, all ten of the songs are stunning but listening to all ten songs in a row is a bit boring. This was the problem that plagued Phillips’s last album Little Moon, which featured six straight ballads on side two. It makes the album difficult to review because the songs are so good, but the cumulative effect of them is a drowsy haze. As such, Walking In The Green Corn is a nearly perfect Autumn album to be playing in the background while enjoying the falling leaves and the first fires on cool nights, but it’s not something you’d play at a party or when you want an active listening experience. It’s a soundtrack, and a good one. But it’s not built for sitting by the stereo and listening.
    Grade: B
  • Nothing Can Hurt Me: Original SoundtrackBig Star. They’re probably the greatest lost band of rock history, an act whose legend far outstrips their actual accomplishments. But even as legends, Big Star remains largely unknown. They sold very few albums. The original, best, lineup released only one LP. Their third, and final, album is a notoriously difficult listen swinging between the pop perfection of songs like “Thank You Friends” and the stark, harrowing “Holocaust”. Now comes Nothing Can Hurt Me, the soundtrack to a new documentary about Big Star, featuring demos, alternate mixes, and random ephemera. The audience for this release is the same audience for all Big Star releases: a tiny, obsessive group of fans that hangs on every note. The beauty of the soundtrack is that it hangs together like a real album, making it a great place for a new fan to start. With the exceptions of “Thank You Friends” and “Back Of A Car” all the major Big Star classics are here and sounding cleaner, crisper, and better than ever. In some cases, like “In The Street” (known to some in a bastardized form as the theme song to That ’70s Show), the difference in the mix is remarkable. The vocals are clearer and the music practically explodes out of the speakers. In most cases, the difference is more subtle. What it all means is that this release is not really necessary. The essential Big Star albums remain #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers, and they remain crucial listening experiences for anyone who wonders what the Beatles might have sounded like if they’d continued into the 1970s. But while it’s not necessary, there’s also no denying that this soundtrack is a festival of delights. For the die-hard fan the different mixes are great fun (and the new mix of Chris Bell’s solo song “I Am The Cosmos” is considerably better than the muddy mix on the original CD release of Bell’s album); for the new fan who wouldn’t know the difference this is still an album that has one perfect pop song after another. Based on the music alone, this soundtrack delivers in spades.
    Grade: A

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

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The Rolling Stones achieved levels of fame and musical quality that most bands could only dream about in the early 1970s. The middle of the decade was less kind. Drugged, tired, and uninspired were the hallmarks of those middle years. Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Black And Blue all had their moments of greatness, but those moments were dwindling and increasingly outnumbered by mediocre efforts.

The same can be said for rock and roll in general in the mid-1970s, at least as far as the radio was concerned. Singer-songwriters filled the airwaves with sensitive, plaintive ballads. Progressive rock was also big, but it was bloated. How bloated? In 1975, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman staged a performance of his solo album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. On ice. By the mid-70s mainstream rock had very little to say to the kids in the street. It’s hard to connect with your fans when you’re flying around in a private jumbo jet with the name of your band emblazoned on the side.

By the time the Stones brought in ex-Face Ron Wood to replace Mick Taylor, the reigning style of music was disco, its pulsating rhythms and repetitive beat blaring in the trendiest night spots in New York and Paris, where jet-setting Mick Jagger was spending a lot of time.

But there was another style of music that was also rising in prominence, especially in England. Punk rock was still relegated to some of the smaller and seedier establishments in New York but over in Blighty the Sex Pistols were being excoriated in Parliament and punk rock was as hated and feared as any music since 1956, when Elvis Presley gave older America a serious case of the vapors. Jagger, always looking to stay current, was paying attention. So was Keith Richards who didn’t like disco but did like the energy and enthusiasm of punk, even while he labored under the mistaken belief that punk rock musicians couldn’t play their instruments. (This was a common belief. After all, the punk rock poster boy was Sid Vicious, who really couldn’t play his instrument.) Punk rock and disco were the ingredients that fueled Some Girls.

People didn’t know what to make of “Miss You”, the leadoff single and opening track on the album. To this day the song divides Stones fans; some think it’s a betrayal of everything the Stones built their career on; some, while acknowledging that it is at base a disco song, recognize all the elements that make the Stones the legends they are today.

What makes “Miss You” a disco song is the beat, which Charlie Watts could play in his sleep. The “four-to-the-floor” beat was the hallmark of disco because it made the music so danceable. The lyrics, steeped in the hustle and bustle of New York City (as were many of the songs on the album), placed the song at the epicenter of the disco explosion. The combination of the beat, the words, and the wordless “ah hah” hook firmly locks the song into the disco era. The Stones were the first of the big-name rock bands to tip their hat to dance music. Virtually every other legendary rock performer would also record a dance song over the next couple of years: Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Kinks, even Kiss.

What the detractors miss is that this is a Stones song, recorded at a time when they were still legitimately bad boys. “Miss You” may be disco, but it’s disco played with far more aggression, passion, and intensity than any other disco song before or since. The justifiably famous harmonica hook, played by bluesman Sugar Blue, ties the song into the roots of the band, and the soaring bridge brings the song back into rock. The saxophone solo, played by Mel Collins, even ropes in Progressive Rock; Collins was a Prog Rock stalwart after playing in bands like King Crimson and Caravan. Jagger’s partially spoken, falsetto-ridden, proto-rap performance is over-the-top but Jagger knows it, which adds to the basic good humor of the song; Bill Wyman’s slinky bass is prominent for one of the last times on a Stones song. From a style of music not noted for songwriting, “Miss You” remains one of the pinnacles of the disco movement. The lyrics both reflect and satirize disco-era Manhattan.

Despite the fact that it became a hit single and a staple of Stones concerts, the reaction to “Miss You” among rock fans was so polarizing that, to this day, there are people who think of Some Girls as the “disco album”. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Disco shows up on the album in the lyrics but, with the exception of a few tracks, Some Girls is the closest the Stones ever got to punk rock. Lyrically, “When the Whip Comes Down” holds up a mirror to the overwhelmingly gay habitués that Jagger was encountering at Studio 54, the infamous New York disco. The line about “going down fifty-third street and they’re spitting in my face” refers to a spot that was notorious for gay prostitution. It also nods in the direction of the Ramones, who sang about turning tricks for heroin in the song “53rd and Third”. The lyrics are really an update of the notorious unreleased Stones song “Cocksucker Blues”. The lonesome schoolboy has left his position in Trafalgar Square and made it to New York.

Musically, this was the Stones rocking again, harder than they had at any time since Exile On Main Street. The jump in inspiration over the previous three albums is so startlingly obvious that it highlights just how uninspired much of those earlier albums were. The addition of Ron Wood on guitar was a perfect choice: his style meshes perfectly with Keith’s and the two became a pile-driving powerhouse. And let’s all pause for a moment to reflect on the great Charlie Watts…his drumming on this album is some of the best he’s ever done and the breaks at the end of “When The Whip Comes Down” are particularly fearsome.

As they did on It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, the Stones went back to the Temptations for a cover song. The Stones bring out the bluesier side of “Just My Imagination”, turning a Motown ballad into a gritty rocker. As it does throughout the album, the Big Apple gets a shoutout as Jagger changes the lyrics from “in the world” to “in New York”. It’s odd, but true, that a band from England made one of the quintessential New York City albums; the city lives and breathes throughout the album, and many of the songs capture with near-photographic quality what the city was like in 1977 and 1978.

The title track is one of the most controversial songs in the Rolling Stones canon. The band achieved a number one hit with “Brown Sugar” in 1971, a song about sadism, masochism, slavery, and interracial oral sex, but it was “Some Girls” that got them in trouble despite the fact that the lyrics are clearly meant to be funny. Jagger sings about the many women he’s known, contrasting the good (who give him money, jewelry, diamonds, etc) and the bad (those who take “all my bread”, give him children he “never asked them for”, and those who leave him with “a lethal dose”), but it’s the litany of ethnic stereotypes that got the band in trouble with feminists and civil rights groups. The song is a blues-based mid-tempo rocker with a great harmonica from Sugar Blue prominent throughout. Taken as a serious meditation on the qualities of women across the world, it’s offensive. But it’s not that. It’s a joke, and a pretty funny one that happens to be married to a great tune.

“Lies” is the fastest rocker the Stones had recorded since “Rip This Joint”, which makes it one of the fastest songs the band ever recorded. It’s a bit slight, and the lyrics are a trifle, but the song is performed with such drive and energy that it’s impossible not to like it.

Side two of the LP begins with another one of those divisive Stones songs. Jagger’s Southern drawl-infused vocal is so exaggerated in its cornpone hillbilly elocution that it’s easy to miss that “Far Away Eyes” has a wonderful chorus and is one of the funniest songs in the Stones repertoire. It’s both a loving tribute to Bakersfield-style country music and a parody of the same. Backed by a shimmering pedal steel played by Ron Wood, Jagger speak/sings a hilarious tale of being on the road, down on your luck, running red lights in the name of Jesus, and meeting the title girl who makes it all right. The backing of a simple guitar, bass, and drums is understated in the finest tradition of Bakersfield, and lets the pedal steel shine gloriously.

“Respectable” is another punk-fueled raveup, marveling at how the bad boys of rock and roll are now hobnobbing with Presidents and other foreign dignitaries, while also putting down a respectable woman who’s really nothing of the sort. Like “Lies” the beauty is in the performance, since the lyrics are mainly two verses and an endlessly repeated chorus. The lyrics here act as a bridge between the ferocious guitar breaks provided by Richards and Wood.

Keith Richards shines on “Before They Make Me Run”, his ravaged vocals highlighting one of the last truly great Richards showcases on a Rolling Stones album. It’s his last genuine outlaw anthem, a chugging riff rocker about his then-recent heroin bust in Toronto. There’s a wonderfully understated pedal steel guitar played by Ron Wood, locking in and weaving with Keith’s guitar solo. The country element in an otherwise straight rocker is perhaps a tip of the cap to Richards’s late friend Gram Parsons, to whom the lyric “another goodbye to another good friend” refers.

The influences that inspired Some Girls are in clear evidence on the final tracks. “Beast Of Burden” is another disco-influenced track, custom-made for a slower spin on the dance floor. As a ballad, it is less recognizably a disco song, but that beat was definitely made for a slow dance. The album closer, though, is another trip to downtown New York. “Shattered” wears its punk influence clearly, a hard-charging riff underpinning the “New York City in 1978” lyrics. The Big Apple was rotting in the late 1970s, and “Shattered” captures the essence of the city almost perfectly. “What a mess/This town’s in tatters” sings Jagger. “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple/Don’t mind the maggots.” “Shattered” is a perfect Rolling Stones song, a concise mix of humor, pathos, decadence, and rip-roaring rock and roll. It’s the only way Some Girls could have ended. This album, and the tour that followed, were the last vestiges of the band that burst out of London in 1964. The Stones would become something else after Some Girls, and this was the last salvo fired by the band that made Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers. They had finally made an album that was a worthy successor to those masterpieces.

Grade: A+

The Listening Post: Spring 2013

Without the daily four-hour grind of commuting, I’m not listening to as much stuff these days. But there are a few things that have sparked the ear.

  • King AnimalSoundgarden. It’s not supposed to work like this. Bands that broke up nearly two decades ago and then reunite should not put out new material that is this good. Of course, it helps that Chris Cornell has made good music fairly consistently since Soundgarden’s 1996 opus Down On The Upside. And drummer Matt Cameron has certainly kept his prodigious chops intact by joining Pearl Jam. Nobody’s really sure what guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd were doing in the time between Upside and King Animal, but they certainly kept in touch with their instruments. The Achilles heel of almost every album Soundgarden released at their peak (Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, Upside) was their insistence that every bit of data that could be squeezed onto a CD was squeezed onto a CD. At 52 minutes long, King Animal sounds positively short compared to the earlier albums. What the length of those earlier albums meant was that some songs were too long, or there were songs included that would have been left off in the days of vinyl: filler. Even an alternative rock classic like Superunknown has several songs that would have been better off never seeing the light of day.

    King Animal is the shortest Soundgarden album since 1986’s Ultramega OK. It’s also the most consistently good album they’ve ever done. There is nothing on here that surpasses the classics that blared out of car radios back when you could actually hear music like this on car radios. There’s nothing as good as “Black Hole Sun” or “Blow Up The Outside World” here, but the songs on this album are not far off from those peaks and they’re all on that level. There are no sub-Sabbath dirges like “4th of July” or “Half” here either. The opening tracks are a statement of purpose. “Been Away Too Long”, “Non-State Actor” and “By Crooked Steps” serve notice that Soundgarden is back and that they’ve lost none of the chemistry that made them such a formidable presence back in the early- and mid-90s. The balance of the album brings the heavy (“A Thousand Days Before”, “Blood on The Valley Floor”, the punishing “Attrition”), but also plays up the band’s secret weapon: swirling, vaguely psychedelic instrumentation and melodies. It was this secret weapon that made “Black Hole Sun” so arresting when you first heard it. The reaction is similar when hearing “Bones Of Birds”, or “Black Saturday” (a close cousin to “Burden In My Hand”). There are curveballs like the album closer, “Rowing” which rides a Shepherd bass line straight to the delta and sounds like a Charley Patton field holler updated for the iTunes generation. There’s also “Taree”, an ode to growing up in the Northwest that has a time signature that defies description. “Eyelid’s Mouth” is a moody, sinuous mid-tempo number that ends in a welter of rhythmic riffs and searing lead guitar over Shepherd’s rubbery bass.

    What the future holds for Soundgarden is unknown. Matt Cameron is an essential ingredient both for his drumming and his songwriting, and it’s doubtful he’d be willing to leave his very lucrative day job with Pearl Jam. But if the next album is as good as this one, whatever the wait is it will be worth it.
    Grade: A
  • Document (Deluxe Edition)R.E.M. The golden children of Athens, GA are in the process of re-releasing all of their albums in 25th anniversary editions. The original albums have been thoroughly remastered, a second disc of unreleased material is included, along with a poster, postcards, liner notes, etc. They’ve done a great job with this, but then R.E.M. has done a great job on almost everything they’ve touched in their career. Document was the first R.E.M. album that broke through to the mainstream based on the Top 10 hit “The One I Love” and the FM/MTV favorite “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” but what’s so remarkable listening to it again after so many years is just how bizarre the album is. There may have been a hit single here, but Document was far from a bid for mainstream acceptance. Even that hit single was just one verse repeated three times (with a slight change the third time) and a one word chorus: Michael Stipe howling “Fire!” as if he was being tormented in Hell. The backing vocal in the chorus (Mike Mills singing “She’s coming down on her own now”) was inscrutable even if you could discern it. “The One I Love” was a fluke hit, most likely due to its beautiful production and a complete misunderstanding of the darkly vicious lyric. It was 1987 and Document sounded nothing like the Pet Shop Boys or Michael Jackson. “They’re numbering the monkeys/The monkeys and the monkeys/The followers of chaos out of control” sang Stipe on “Disturbance At The Heron House”. Who knows what it meant? Who cared? Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch is heard in his famous rebuke (“Have you no sense of decency?”) of Joseph McCarthy in the politically charged lyrics of “Exhuming McCarthy”. Stream of consciousness lyrics touching on everything from Donald Trump to, of course, LEONARD BERNSTEIN!! are rattled off at breakneck pace in “End Of The World”. “Strange” is a cover song of post-punk heroes Wire. The guitar that opens and punctuates the verses in “Finest Worksong” is discordant and distorted. And these are the songs that are on what’s usually considered the radio-friendly side of the album! Maybe in another universe, but in 1987 America this was as far from radio material as you could get. Side two is even stranger, with “Fireplace” (an ode to the Shakers), “Lightnin’ Hopkins” (which has absolutely nothing to do with the famous blues singer), the completely incomprehensible “King Of Birds”. Then there’s the album closer about a drunk who lives in his car behind the Oddfellows Local hall, where he drinks 151 proof rum and rants at the members of the order.

    Document was a breath of fresh air in 1987 when I spent the autumn listening to it until it had burned a hole in my brain. It is still a breath of fresh air; it’s a brilliant, confusing, mysterious album whose lyrics and instrumentation consistently undermine it’s radio-friendly production. The second disc included is a live show from Holland that shows the band at the end of an era, and at their creative peak (which lasted for many more years). In 1988 R.E.M. would sign with a major label and begin their assault on superstardom. In this show, they are still very much the little band from Athens, Georgia but they are putting themselves in place to dominate the music world.
    Grade: A+ (original album)
    Grade: A (live disc)
  • The Solution Is The ProblemMark Scudder. The first album from singer/songwriter and one-man band Mark Scudder (available on iTunes and through his website markscudder.com) is a low-budget affair with grand pretensions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though Scudder sometimes gets a little carried away. Recorded at his home, with Scudder playing every note, The Solution Is The Problem swings between bracing post-alternative rockers (album opener “Moving To Silence”) and hushed acoustic ballads (the title track). Scudder is clearly a guy with music in his blood. His voice is limited; you can hear him straining when he goes for higher registers. However, he plays all the instruments with no small degree of skill (the exception, as is usual in most of these non-Dave Grohl one-man band albums, is drums, where Scudder is only adequate). Still, the album never really sounds like a band. Even when all the instruments are charging ahead and Scudder is joined by some backing vocalists, as on the anti-Occupy Wall Street broadside “Occupied”, it still sounds like the meticulously crafted work of one guy. This has the effect of making the album seem static. There’s no sense of spontaneity. Still, it’s hard to argue with music that’s this well-played, and Scudder does yeoman’s work here. His lyrics are quite good, and his conservative politics are certainly unusual for someone in this field whose name doesn’t rhyme with Bed Stugent. Throughout the album he takes shots at the Occupy movement, and at an unnamed left-wing television host (“Follow Me (The Hypocrite Song)”), and “Free” is a statement of broad intent whose target is either unnamed or too many to name. But politics is only part of the game, and thankfully not that big a part; politics in rock music (whether it’s on the Left or the Right), is best done in either small doses or obliquely.

    There are two big flaws with the album. The first is that many of the songs sound the same: strummed acoustic guitars and Scudder’s deep voice eventually building to anthemic choruses or finales (“Free”, “I Want To Be With You”, “Alera”, “Occupied”). The songs are best when this device is used sparingly or when Scudder finds a groove and sticks to it (“Moving To Silence”, the excellent “I Will Love You If You Let Me”, “Follow Me”). The second, and more serious, flaw is that nearly every song is several minutes too long. Of the eleven tracks, only two come in under five minutes while a whopping seven are over six minutes, and four of those are over seven. The finale, “Real Hope”, is a nearly eleven minute-long instrumental soundscape that comes perilously close to New Age. Virtually every song on the album would have benefited from some judicious pruning. Mark Scudder is a talent to watch, but he would greatly benefit from playing with other musicians and from adhering to Rock and Roll Songwriting Rule #1: keep it short and powerful; it took the Beatles years before they wrote a song as long as the shortest one here.
    Grade: B-

Ray Manzarek, RIP

The story of how I became a Doors fan is probably the most unlikely in all of music fandom.

When I was about 12 years old or so, my sister decided to weed through her LPs and donate several to the local library. I was a budding music geek, so she gave me first crack at them. One of the albums she singled out, and said “This band was very good.” The band was called The Doors. I took the album and listened to it and fell instantly, madly in love with this band. I listened to the album every day, usually more than once. Some songs I kept listening to, lifting the needle at the end and putting it back at the beginning. Over the course of the next several months, I listened to the album constantly.

Several months later, I was talking to my brother about this incredible band I had discovered, how they were unlike anything I’d ever heard. He was aware of what I was listening to and he smirked at me and said, “You know, they were even better with Jim Morrison.”

“Who was that?” I asked.

He explained to me that the album I’d been listening to, Other Voices, was recorded after the death of their original lead singer, and that they were a much better band when Jim Morrison was alive. I was intrigued. Better than “Down On The Farm”? Superior to such surefire classics as “I’m Horny, I’m Stoned” and “Tightrope Ride”? A better singer than Ray Manzarek?!

Later, looking through my brother’s record collection, I discovered Strange Days. I put the record on and lowered the needle on the title track. An odd, squiggly keyboard run and then a voice, dripping in echo and effects: “Strange days have found us/Strange days have tracked us down…”

I hated it. I took it off and put Other Voices back on.

It wasn’t until a year or so later when I saw a brief clip from the Ed Sullivan Show and finally made the connection between “Light My Fire”, a song I had long loved, and The Doors that I took a chance on the band with their earlier singer. I haven’t looked back.

So yes, probably unique among Doors fans, my first allegiance was to Ray, Robbie, and John. For months I was likely the only Doors fan who had never heard of Jim Morrison.

Ray Manzarek could be an absolute blowhard as the self-appointed keeper of the Doors Myth. His endless talk of Dionysos, shamanism, existentialism, and the need to explore the boundaries of reality could be really wearing to heathen ears. But at the same time, Manzarek was a great storyteller. His recounting of meeting Jim Morrison on Venice Beach and having the erstwhile poet cum filmmaker crouch in the sand and sing the songs he’d been writing has been repeated ad nauseam, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that he tells the story so well. You can almost feel the sun on your back and smell the Pacific air; you can almost see the shy young Morrison before the drink and drugs destroyed him, crouching before you and letting the sand run through his fingers as, eyes closed, he nervously sang the words for what would become “Moonlight Drive.” For all of his tendency towards the pompous, I could listen to Manzarek spinning yarns for hours.

He will be remembered, though, for his musicianship. Manzarek was a truly great keyboard player, playing both the haunting organ runs that permeated the Doors while simultaneously playing bass keyboards with his left hand. You can see him in the clips of the Doors and in the Hollywood Bowl performance: head down, shaking vigorously, with a huge smile on his face. The man was totally lost to the music he was playing and hearing. The Doors don’t get anywhere near the credit they deserve as a band. They successfully followed a lead singer who was prone to bursting into poetry or drunken rants at any given moment, but as long as Morrison was semi-coherent, they never lost the thread. It’s not easy. Doors concerts were wildly unpredictable; the result of having a lead singer like Morrison.

What Manzarek brought to the Doors, along with drummer John Densmore, was the sensibility of jazz. For all of their success as a rock band, both Manzarek and Densmore were jazz musicians, while guitarist Robbie Krieger was in love with flamenco, blues, and folk. That odd trio made rock music that sounded like nothing else before it or since. Much like The Who, The Doors shouldn’t have worked. But they did, and were so unique that their sound is almost impossible to imitate. Listen to the lengthy instrumental break in “Light My Fire”. It’s a bizarre combination of John Coltrane and Paco DeLucia. It’s also, as Grace Slick memorably described it, “the closest thing to sex on record.” There’s nothing else like it in the entire rock canon.

But as the final two Doors albums recorded with Morrison proved, Manzarek was equally at home playing barrelhouse piano. Right in the middle of “L.A. Woman”, a song dripping in darkness, mystery, murder, and madness Manzarek launches into a honky-tonk piano solo that was lifted almost verbatim from Blood, Sweat & Tears’s bright, summery “House In The Country”. It’s a truly odd dichotomy that works brilliantly. From the jazz-inspired soloing of “Light My Fire” to the psychedelic strangeness of “Not To Touch The Earth”, from the waltz-time “Wintertime Love” to the sea-shanty organ of “Land Ho!”, from the pounding blues runs of “You Make Me Real” to the elegiac, tinkling rains of “Riders On The Storm”, Ray Manzarek proved that he was a musical polymath. He could do it all, and was endlessly creative on his instrument. Like his musical partners in the Doors, Manzarek’s playing was virtuosic but somehow never showy. Musically, the three of them were incredibly sympathetic players, almost never playing the wrong part. Their music, even on their less successful songs, was always appropriate for the mood and theme of the piece. In an era when musicians spent a lot of time trying to outplay each other, this was a rare gift. Jim Morrison was the voice of the band; he was the brains of the outfit, and the public face. Robbie Krieger was the muscle; John Densmore, the heart. Ray Manzarek was the soul of The Doors. The world of rock music is greatly diminished by his loss.

And I still really like Other Voices.

Kurt Cobain And The Soul Power Of Music

It’s been 19 years since Kurt Cobain hopped the wall of his rehab facility, went home to Seattle, and killed himself with a lethal dose of heroin and a shotgun blast to the head. With the passing of time it’s become easy to forget the asteroid-sized impact of Nirvana on the music scene. After all, Kurt Cobain was not a great guitar player. He sang in a harsh, unschooled style that incorporated blood-curdling screams and howls of torment. His lyrics seemed troubled, but were most often simply inscrutable. With his back twisted from scoliosis, unwashed hair in his face, Kurt Cobain was as far removed from today’s American Idol pop stars as Little Richard was from Pat Boone.

And yet, Kurt Cobain was briefly the brightest star in the rock firmament. He was the face of rock music in 1992 and 1993. His suicide led to an outpouring of grief unseen in popular culture since the murder of John Lennon, and not seen again since that April day. Just as Lennon’s murder made the almost universally despised Yoko Ono a sympathetic figure, the suicide of Kurt Cobain changed Courtney Love (briefly) from the parasitic grunge hanger-on to the beloved widow. Since his death Cobain has been the subject of documentaries, biographies, and endless speculation. By dying, he achieved immortality. He remains frozen in time, encased in the amber of memory where nobody can touch him.

But that question remains. How did a mediocre lyricist and guitar player with a remarkably rough singing voice become so popular in the first place? How did the howling, screaming wails of this troubled soul from the Pacific Northwest break through to the masses?

It’s far too glib to say, as many have, that Cobain was the voice of his generation. His lyrics were far too personal and, often, far too bad to tap into the consciousness of millions of people. Their breakthrough song was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but how exactly did “A mulatto/An albino/A mosquito/My libido/Yeah!” embody that generational voice?

No, it wasn’t Kurt’s words that spoke to the fans. What elevated Cobain into the stratosphere was that the music meant everything to him. A good friend of mine once said to me, “Kurt Cobain’s conviction highlighted the complacency of the entire musical scene at that time.” This is about as perfect a description of the reasons for Cobain’s status as a rock icon as I’ve heard.

To understand the significance of Nirvana you must also remember what rock radio sounded like in 1991. It was the era of Phil Collins and Michael Jackson. Guns ‘n’ Roses was the gem amidst the junk of the Los Angeles hair metal scene (and for many of the same reasons that Nirvana stood out). Mainstream rock was exemplified by bands like INXS, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Spin Doctors, and Billy Idol. The slickly produced sound that defined the 1980s was starting to wane a bit by 1990 and 1991, but it was still heavily represented on the radio. It was still the era of the so-called “corporate” sound…music that sounded like men in suits sitting around a conference table were dreaming it up. Nirvana would later write a song called “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” because that was the jargon that record companies used to refer to hit singles.

Meanwhile, there were underground bands starting to make headway. Bands like Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Metallica, Mudhoney, and Alice In Chains spoke to those fans who were tired of slick production and insubstantial, often crudely misogynistic, songs about partying at the trendiest clubs in Los Angeles. Here, for the first time since punk rock came out of the New York City Bowery and the London housing units, were songs that were played and sung as if lives depended on it. The subject matter was often dark and the guitars were sludgy and tuned down, but what these songs had was a sense of urgency. The listener may not have been able to fully appreciate (or even understand) the lyrics, but they responded to the passion that poured out of the bands. What the bands were saying was largely irrelevant. What was important was that they clearly meant every single word. It was important to them that this song be written and played. And because it was important to the band, it became important to the listeners.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of craft in songwriting. Popular music is filled with songs where the style, structure, and performance are better and more important than the substance. Many of these songs are intensely enjoyable (believe me, I’ve got far more Monkees songs on my iPod than any human being should be allowed to have). But these songs rarely define a time like Elvis did, like the Beatles did, like punk rock did, and like Nirvana did. For that, you need conviction. For that you need to believe that your very life, and maybe the lives of your audience, depends on what you are doing.

Kurt Cobain believed in what he was doing. Music, for him, was a way to escape his life as a neglected child and a bullied teen. It was a way to forget the stomach problems that kept him in a perpetual state of nausea, and it was a refuge from the sycophants and toadies that clamored around the band, seeking to bathe in reflected glory. In the end, Cobain was not strong enough to withstand it. His addictions were too intense, his demons too powerful. He turned to the wrong people for advice, preferring to surround himself with fellow addicts who assured him that everything would be fine if he just took another hit. He was his own victim.

But the intensity and passion he brought to his art still shine. It’s the same passion that you hear in the voices of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Robert Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, Mavis Staples, Howlin’ Wolf, Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Billie Holiday, Chris Cornell, and Jack White. It’s the soul power of music that comes from deep reservoirs of emotion, love, rage, and humor. It’s a connection to a musical history that is appreciated, studied, and respected.

Musical ability is great. Pitch perfect singers of astonishing range, musicians of awesome technical skills…these things can move the listener to gasps of appreciation. But talent is not enough. If it was, Yngwie Malmsteen would be a household name. What matters in the end is not the gasp of appreciation. What matters is how the heart is moved, and how the soul is touched. There are thousands of acts who can play their instruments and sing their songs perfectly, with every note in place and every lyric perfectly enunciated. Just watch American Idol or The Voice and you’ll see them.

Kurt Cobain did not have great musical talent, but he had enough. He did, however, have a great musical heart, and he wore it on his sleeve for the world to see and hear. That is why he is still relevant. It is why all great art and music endures.

The Beatles: Rubber Soul

beatles-rubber-soul

In 1965, the squalling musical brat known as rock ‘n’ roll took its first steps to becoming the music that would dominate the rest of the 1960s all the way through the mid-1990s: rock. The transition wouldn’t really be complete until 1966, but the “new” music started the year before. The difference between the two forms, often referred to interchangeably, is stark. You could dance to rock ‘n’ roll, and the lyrics were usually pretty benign odes to teenage love and lust. It was the music of kids. Rock music, on the other hand, was heavier, noisier, lyrically expansive (love and lust were still the biggest topics, but of a somewhat less innocent nature). In folk music, Bob Dylan was expanding the vocabulary of lyricists everywhere. This wasn’t lost on the young rock musicians like the Beatles and the army of guitarists who followed in their wake.

The Byrds were the first to make explicit the connection between Dylan’s lyrics and wordplay and the beat laid down by the rhythm section of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. But in 1965 the Bard of Greenwich Village also made the connection when he laid down his acoustic guitar and brought in a heavily amplified backing band. The Beatles, too, made the connection in the opposite direction by using more acoustic instruments and using far more colors in their lyrical palette.

The new music in 1965 was heralded by six of the best albums of the 1960s. Since Dylan already had the words aspect of songwriting down to an art, it was his music that was most radically different. The Byrds were the perfected synthesis of the 1964 Dylan and 1964 Beatles. The Beatles, already restlessly inventive with their music, turned their attention to the words.

The fact that Rubber Soul, one of the best albums of all time, is only the second or third best album of 1965 is testament to the fact that Bob Dylan had just changed the landscape with the two masterpieces he released that year, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. The fact that Rubber Soul is a better album than the Beatles’s own Help! or the first two Byrds albums, Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! is testament to just how great the Beatles were at this time.

The album was cannibalized for release in America, as usual, but in this case the album didn’t suffer too greatly. In some ways, it was strengthened.

U.S. Edition U.K. Edition
1. I’ve Just Seen A Face*
2. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
3. You Won’t See Me
4. Think For Yourself
5. The Word
6. Michelle
7. It’s Only Love*
8. Girl
9. I’m Looking Through You
10. In My Life
11. Wait
12. Run For Your Life
1. Drive My Car**
2. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
3. You Won’t See Me
4. Nowhere Man**
5. Think For Yourself
6. The Word
7. Michelle
8. What Goes On**
9. Girl
10. I’m Looking Through You
11. In My Life
12. Wait
13. If I Needed Someone**
14. Run For Your Life
*Originally released on the British LP Help!
**Released in America on the LP Yesterday…And Today

It’s possible that my personal experience colors my opinion here. I grew up with the American LP and while the album is certainly not improved by losing John Lennon’s masterful “Nowhere Man” and George Harrison’s excellent “If I Needed Someone”, the fact is that “I’ve Just Seen A Face” belongs here. Lost in the middle of side two of the British LP Help!, this fantastic McCartney track, with its furiously strummed acoustic guitar rhythm and propulsive vocal, is the perfect first song for Rubber Soul, miles ahead of the surprisingly pedestrian “Drive My Car”. And while “It’s Only Love” is somewhat slight, musically it’s a perfect fit with the rest of Rubber Soul. The same can’t be said of the equally slight country pastiche “What Goes On”. On an album that is so clearly influenced by both Dylan and the Byrds, “Drive My Car” and “What Goes On”, enjoyable as they are, sound jarring to the ear, like throwbacks to A Hard Day’s Night.

And yet, these are quibbles. In fact, it feels like a sin to criticize an album this good over such trifles. The American version of Rubber Soul hangs together a little better musically. But it is shorter, misses one Beatles classic and one near-classic, and is the product of record company control, not artistic control.

“Drive My Car” starts the album with a heavy electric guitar lick and riff, underlined by crashing piano notes, and a lyric that sounds like it was tossed off. But the “beep beep mmm beep beep, yeah!” hook is now indelible in Beatle lore, and the song is great fun. At the end of the day, that’s all it is: great fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but “Drive My Car” could have fit comfortably on With The Beatles. Any indications that the Beatles were growing by leaps and bounds were not present here.

The same could not be said of “Norwegian Wood”. Lennon’s ode to an affair was such a massive leap forward for the band in terms of their songwriting that it still is a marvel. Lyrically it was a straightforward tale of infidelity, but told with Dylan’s sense of wordplay combined with Lennon’s dark humor: Boy meets girl, they go to her house, they drink and talk, he’s certain they’ll end up in bed, she turns the tables on him and goes to bed alone after first laughing at him, he drunkenly curls up in the tub to sleep, in the morning she’s gone and he sets fire to her home. What?! Had there ever been a lyric like this outside of blues murder ballads? And musically the tune was lovely, a strummed and picked acoustic guitar provided the bulk of the accompaniment, but the lead was played on a sitar, the Indian instrument that George was just beginning to learn. Odd, droning notes sound throughout, and then the brief instrumental hook of sharp notes that must have sounded like nothing else on a pop music record in 1965. No drums, but Ringo makes his presence felt with tambourine and maracas. “Norwegian Wood” is lyrically fascinating (written mainly by Lennon, but with help from McCartney), exotic music, and Lennon’s brilliant vocal performance. The musical world shifted on its axis in the barely two minutes it took Lennon to tell his tale. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with “Like A Rolling Stone”, “My Generation”, and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as one of the essential songs of 1965.

“You Won’t See Me” is one of the underrated gems on the album. Had it been released as a single, and almost every song on Rubber Soul was single-worthy, it would have been a huge hit. Macca sings the lead with the confidence of a man who knows he’s writing better and better songs, and the backing vocals from Lennon, and those gorgeous “ooh la la la” harmony vocals are the icing on the cake. McCartney’s piano and Ringo’s percussion are the main instruments, with a simple guitar part played by George, but the triumph of the song lies in the vocals and the melody, a endlessly repeating hook that drives into your brain and stays. As a trivia note: at 3:30, it was the longest Beatles song to date. Macca knew a good thing when he had it.

The vocals that made “You Won’t See Me” so good are even more clear on Lennon’s brilliant self-analysis “Nowhere Man”. Clearly inspired by The Byrds (who were, of course, inspired by the Beatles), the ringing, jangly guitar was played by Lennon (George played the solo using an identical style of guitar), “Nowhere Man” is one of the first Lennon/McCartney originals that was not a love song. The double-tracked lead vocal and the harmonies from Paul and George beat the Byrds at their own game while Ringo lays down a smooth shuffle beat and McCartney plays a busy bass line that practically skips along. Yet despite the bouncing music, the lyric is a harsh examination of a life that Lennon felt was getting away from him. Despite the fame, money, women, intoxicants (the often unmentioned influence on Rubber Soul was marijuana—just check the cover art), Lennon looked at his life and found himself to be a nowhere man, making plans for nobody. The dichotomy between lyric and music, like that of “Help!” earlier that year, makes the song all the more gripping.

While George Harrison was not yet anywhere near as prolific as Lennon or McCartney, the songs he was writing at this point were nearly as good. They also were clearly influenced by his elders in the band. “Think For Yourself” is a driving rock tune that, unlike “Drive My Car”, manages to sound of a piece with the rest of Rubber Soul. While there is guitar on the song, the lead is played by McCartney’s bass. Macca plays a great bass line, and then doubled it using a fuzz tone on his bass. The result is that one of the bass lines sounds like a heavily distorted guitar. It’s a great sound if used tastefully, as McCartney does here. His bass lines were always tasteful. The guy doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves at one of rock music’s greatest bassists. The beauty of the fuzz tone on the bass is that it brings McCartney’s prodigious talents as a bassist to the fore, putting it in a can’t-miss lead position. George sings lead and, for the first time, he sounds like he knows what he’s doing. He’s still not the sublime singer he became a couple of years later, but at least he no longer sounds like a randy scouse git. He’s helped considerably by the way John and Paul come in with harmonies after the first line of each verse. This was George’s best song so far, though only until the record was flipped and “If I Needed Someone” came on. It was also not a love song, indicating George, too, was starting to think beyond the confines of the traditional rock ‘n’ roll subject matter.

Lennon’s “The Word” was about love, but in a decidedly different way. Far from the eros of young love, “The Word” makes the case for agape and philia. It’s an early example of a hippie ethos, perhaps, or the first pass at songs that took a more universal approach to the subject of love, like “All You Need Is Love”. It’s got a nifty upright piano lick that kicks it off and Ringo’s drumming is stellar throughout. The music itself proceeds at a syncopated gallop, unlike anything the Beatles had ever attempted before and the lyric definitely caught the zeitgeist of the hippie era a full year before that movement became widely known. There are a few lyrical hiccups (“in the good and the bad books that I have read”) but it’s so unusual for 1965 that those problems don’t matter.

The problems that plague “Michelle” do matter, however. It’s considered a Beatles classic, but I’m not sure why. Yes, there is a lovely sing along melody, and the Greek feel of the guitar is an extrapolation on what had been done a year before with “And I Love Her”. But ye gods, those lyrics. McCartney brought his amazing ear for melody to the song, but the lyrics are so trite and hackneyed they are cringe-worthy. Yes, the “ooh”-ing backing vocals are beautifully done, but there’s simply no forgiving the lyrics. The fact that many of them are sung in French makes it even worse. “Michelle” is not a bad song. Musically it’s quite good, and the vocal performance is as good as any on the album. It’s simply too bad that McCartney didn’t take ten more minutes to write some better lyrics.

Side two begins somewhat disappointingly. Yes, “What Goes On” is thoroughly enjoyable, but the faux-country music didn’t suit the Beatles any more here than it did on “Act Naturally”. Like that earlier song, this one was given to Ringo as his number. The Beatles could be admired for ensuring that all voices were heard on every album, but it seems clear that the songs given to Ringo were likely the ones that Lennon and/or McCartney thought were substandard.

It’s also clear that Lennon especially was firing on all cylinders at this time. His stunningly gorgeous “Girl” is a near perfect masterpiece of both lyrics and music. That Greek feel once again raises its head, but in a far more convincing way than on “Michelle.” The very simple rhythm provided by Ringo’s percussion and McCartney’s bass give all the support the song needs. Musically the only thing that matters is that beautifully played guitar. The lyrics were worthy of Dylan, with lines that paint a picture of the unnamed girl as a full flesh-and-blood person. The sharp intake of breath that punctuates the single, repeated word of the chorus could make the girl seem breathtaking, or mimic dragging on a joint. The backing vocal, amazingly missed or misunderstood by the critics of the day, features the chant of “tit tit tit.” Yet this is not a drugs or sex song; it’s a meditation on a toxic relationship. “She’s the kind of girl who puts you down when friends are there”, “when I think of all the times I tried so hard to leave her”, “she promises the earth to me and I believe her/after all this time I don’t know why”. And does the singer threaten or promise to kill himself at the end, when all of his efforts to appease this girl have proven fruitless? This is pretty heady stuff from the guy who only two years earlier just wanted to hold your hand.

Immediately on the heels of this comes “I’m Looking Through You”, McCartney’s jaunty take on a similar situation. In this case it’s a relationship that has gone bad. It’s nowhere near the sophistication of “Girl”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a treasure chest of pop hooks and jangly guitar. It’s easy to picture “I’m Looking Through You” as the musical template for the Monkees. Even as a child I couldn’t hear this song without hearing the similarity to a dozen Monkees songs. It’s a pop music gem that often gets overlooked because it’s sandwiched between two of the greatest Beatles songs ever.

“In My Life” is the flip of “Girl”. Instead of a poisonous romantic relationship, Lennon surveys all the many good relationships that have marked his life. It’s now a wedding favorite, and one of the most covered songs in the Beatles canon. This is Lennon’s “Yesterday” though it’s superior to that McCartney song in almost every way. But it’s not simply Lennon’s song. McCartney claims to have written the music (Lennon claimed McCartney wrote the melody) and their producer George Martin is responsible for the gorgeous, Bach-like piano solo (sped up so that it sounds like a harpsichord). Ringo plays a beautifully sympathetic drum part and George plays the simple lead guitar hook that opens the song and leads into the verses. This was a band effort, marrying some of the best music the Beatles ever did to one of Lennon’s best lyrics. On an album that is stuffed to the breaking point with timeless pop music gems, “In My Life” stands alone at the top. It is one of the most transcendent pop songs of the 20th century.

Of course, anything after that is bound to be a bit of a letdown, but it’s only in comparison to what came before that “Wait” and “If I Needed Someone” suffer in any way. “Wait” was originally recorded for Help! and it’s a mystery why it was bypassed in favor of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” or “Act Naturally.” Of course, “Wait” was also sweetened for Rubber Soul with several overdubs and vocal harmonies. It’s possible that without this sweetening the song was considered sub-par. But “Wait” remains a lost gem in the Beatles songbook. Ringo rides a tambourine for all it’s worth, and the shared lead vocals between John and Paul are the two singers doing what they do best. Lyrically it’s nothing to write home about. Essentially it’s a lyrical rewrite of “When I Get Home” or “Things We Said Today” but the music fits in as part of the new “folk rock” sound.

This is true in spades for George’s “If I Needed Someone”. The guitar and wordless harmony vocals are heavily inspired by “The Bells Of Rhymney” from the Byrds. But if “Think For Yourself” was George’s best song to that point, it was quickly surpassed here. “If I Needed Someone” is the greatest song the Byrds never did. It’s a wonder they didn’t cover it, probably because they knew they couldn’t improve on it. The lyrics are pretty simple, an ambivalent look at a prospective lover that could be boiled down to an even more simple “You’ll do in a pinch”. George wasn’t writing anything near the quality of Lennon or even McCartney when it came to the words. But the arrangement is glorious, all ringing guitars, Byrds-like vocals, a throbbing bass line underlining it all. It was also George’s best vocal, although he got much help from John and Paul on the verses.

There’s no doubt that Rubber Soul does not end as well as it should. “Run For Your Life”, a song Lennon absolutely hated, is much more of a by-the-numbers song, built around a lyric lifted verbatim from Elvis Presley’s Sun Records classic “Baby Let’s Play House”. The song is nowhere near as bad as Lennon believed, but it’s more a victory of style over substance. This is a top-notch performance of a decent song, and I can see why the guy who had just written “Norwegian Wood”, “Girl”, and “In My Life” might think it was garbage. But it isn’t garbage. It’s just not on the same level as the other songs Lennon was writing at the time.

Rubber Soul is the first masterpiece LP by the Beatles, showing them responding to the gauntlet thrown down by Dylan and the Byrds. This is the album that inspired Brian Wilson to do his greatest work on Pet Sounds. It was the clearest example yet that the Beatles were far more than flash-in-the-pan lovable Moptops, that they could craft a full album’s worth of songs that were as good as or better than the best of their contemporaries. Astonishingly, it was just the beginning.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Black And Blue

blackandblue

True story: I was eleven years old when Black and Blue was released. At the time, I had recently discovered my brother’s worn, scratchy copy of Hot Rocks, the gateway drug to the Rolling Stones for almost everybody of my generation. I was also very familiar with Aftermath, from my sister’s record collection. I was a budding Stones fanatic. I listened to side two of Hot Rocks obsessively, losing myself in “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Paint It Black”, “19th Nervous Breakdown”, and “Under My Thumb”. When I found out that the Stones were about to release a new album, I was practically giddy with anticipation. I begged my mother to take me out to buy it as soon as it came out, which she did. I may have used my mother’s money, but Black and Blue holds the place of honor as the first record I ever bought.

When I got home, my sister and her infant daughter dropped by, forcing me to sit and be with our guests while all the time that slab of vinyl was burning a hole in my brain, teasing me. Finally my sister left and I raced to my room to put the album on. Visions of Aftermath, “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, “Ruby Tuesday”, and “Satisfaction” swirled in my head. I put the record on, put on my headphones, and lowered the needle on to the first groove.

“What the hell is this mess? This is the worst music I’ve ever heard!”

Time has been a little kinder to Black and Blue than my original reaction, but there is no question that this is one of the oddest of all Stones albums. Even after all these years, the album opener “Hot Stuff” is five and a half minutes of suck. The song sounds like a meandering jam over a slinky funk/disco groove that repeats itself endlessly. Of course, that’s what most of this album is.

Black and Blue is the most groove-oriented album in the Stones collection precisely because the Stones were using the recording sessions to audition guitar players to replace Mick Taylor. There’s a very loose, jammy feel to much of the album. With a few exceptions, the songs are little more than ideas that are taking a rough shape.

At the time of recording, the Stones were actively auditioning numerous guitarists. Everyone from Jeff Beck to Rory Gallagher to Steve Marriott passed through the doors. In addition to Keith Richards, there are three guitar players on Black and Blue. Taylor’s eventual replacement, Ron Wood, plays on half the album and is credited as “inspiring” the song “Hey Negrita.” For “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel” the lead guitar duties are handled by Harvey Mandel, while Wayne Perkins plays lead on “Hand of Fate” and “Fool To Cry” and acoustic rhythm on “Memory Motel”.

From the repetitive funk/disco of “Hot Stuff” the album segues into the best track, “Hand of Fate.” This is the tightest, most fully realized song on the album, featuring Wayne Perkins’s extraordinary imitation of Mick Taylor. “Hand of Fate” is a lost gem in the Stones catalog: a tough, hard-hitting riff rocker with a great lyric. Lyrically it takes a cue from the outlaw anthems of reggae, telling the tale of a man on the run from the law. The song carries a reggae groove to it, but remains indisputably rock. The Stones would have done well to break this song out of the closet for some of their recent tours, but Black and Blue as a whole has largely gone down the memory hole and this unheralded Stones classic is collateral damage.

It’s not surprising. “Hand of Fate” is sandwiched between “Hot Stuff” and the reggae cover “Cherry Oh Baby”. About the best thing that can be said of the latter song is that it’s the shortest on the album, falling just short of four minutes. Again, this sounds like the Stones sitting in the studio and doing a loose jam on a song they all liked. It’s not a great song, but it’s a decent jam. At four minutes it’s at least a minute too long, maybe two. Coming after “Hand of Fate” it’s an incredible let down.

“Memory Motel” continues the schizophrenic tone of the album. The closing song of the old side one, the sound of “Memory Motel” is a distilled essence of 1976 radio. As such, the song suffers from sounding like it was entombed in a tar pit during that Bicentennial year. However, it’s a lovely song featuring a great vocal from Mick on the verses, while Keith chimes in as the lead voice on the “she got a mind of her own” hook. At a certain point in the song, the listener can be excused for thinking, “Is this song still playing?” At over seven minutes, it’s one of the longest studio songs the Stones ever released. Pretty melody or not, “Memory Motel” falls victim to the jamminess of the album. The Stones had a good song here but didn’t know when to stop, and the song overstays its welcome. Still, at the right time and in the right mood, “Memory Motel” is one of the highlights of the album.

Side two opens with “Hey Negrita” and it’s difficult to see this as much of an improvement over the side one opener, “Hot Stuff.” Like the earlier song, “Hey Negrita” is little more than a riff with a shouted, mostly nonsensical lyric grafted on top. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this song would have been seen as more than it is: a Ron Wood riff that led to an impromptu jam with probably extemporaneous lyrics.

Even worse is “Melody,” a loose, piano-led lounge song that sounds like it was recorded after a night spent at the studio bar. Even a nice horn arrangement that comes late to the party can’t save the song precisely because there is no real song to save. The fact that this trifle is nearly as long as “Memory Motel” but lacks the sweet instrumentation and solid vocal performance of the earlier track makes the situation even worse.

“Fool To Cry” was the hit single from the album, reaching the Top 10 in America and England. Musically, it’s a continuation of “Memory Motel”, bearing an almost identical keyboard sound. At the very least, it is one of the only fully realized songs on the album. Sure, it drags on too long, and Jagger’s falsetto vocal can be a bit tiring, but at least “Fool To Cry” sounds like somebody came to the studio with an actual song, rather than a bag of riffs. That said, despite the ear-worm chorus, “Fool” is one of the lightest and most forgettable singles the Stones have ever released. It’s not the worst they would ever release, but it was the worst to this point. One can only imagine why “Hand of Fate” was skipped in favor of “Fool To Cry” and “Hot Stuff” as single material. My hunch is that as funk and disco were starting to become more mainstream and more popular, Jagger wanted the band to sound apace with their contemporaries. “Hand of Fate” was a prime slice of vintage Stones. “Fool To Cry” was the Stones in 1976.

Black and Blue does end well. “Crazy Mama” is another tough rocker, concise at four and a half minutes, with an impassioned vocal from Jagger and nice guitar work from Richards and Wood. It’s easy to see with “Crazy Mama” why Wood made the cut as Taylor’s replacement. It’s the earliest example of Wood and Richards practicing what Richards calls “the ancient art of weaving.” It’s also a foreshadowing of where the Stones would go next. Now that the auditions and jams were over it was time to hone everything to a razor sharp edge and use the twin rhythm/lead guitar attack in a way they’d never done before. Black and Blue isn’t a very good album for repeated listens. There are too many formless songs, loose jams, and lengthy tracks. Throwing it on at a party every once in a blue moon would probably make it sound better than it actually is, but the sad fact is that this is near the bottom of the barrel for Rolling Stones albums.

Grade: C-

The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll

With Goats Head Soup, the Rolling Stones showed some indications that the fuel that had burned in them since 1968 was starting to run out. With 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, the band was clearly in a holding pattern. As with Soup there are several real gems on this album. The highlights of the album are at least the equal of its predecessor and might even be slightly better. The lowlights were lower, though, and there’s simply no denying that an audience expecting a new Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main Street was going to be extremely disappointed.

Like some of Bob Dylan’s early 70s albums (e.g., New Morning, Planet Waves), both Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll sound better in retrospect. Time has distanced them from the ragged genius that cemented the Stones legend, and this allows the albums to be taken on their own merits, as well as judged by their own flaws.

It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is the work of a highly accomplished band. By this point the Stones knew exactly how to craft down and dirty rock and roll in their sleep. That’s actually something of a drawback in rock music. When a band reaches this level the temptation is there to coast, and that’s just what the Stones are doing throughout this period. The mid 70s were a fallow time for rock music. The wave of Sixties titans was largely over: the Beatles were no more and the solo Beatles, with the exception of McCartney who was still riding high, had drifted off. The Who were still releasing great albums but the tour following Quadrophenia was a disaster. The Kinks were releasing convoluted concept albums that made no sense to anyone. By 1974 Glam Rock was nearing its expiration date, with David Bowie, Elton John, and T. Rex peaking a year earlier. Punk rock was emitting its first cries, but was unknown outside of small venues in New York. Disco was arriving, but not quite there. The so-called Progressive rock of Yes, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, was big in the world of FM radio, but the mid 70s were still very much an AM radio era.

Where there was inspiration was in black music. Funk, reggae, and soul were big. The radio grooved to such soul classics as Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” (which was recorded, but not released, by the Stones for this album). And as they had done in the mid 60s, the Stones turned to this music for inspiration for two of Rock ‘N’ Roll‘s best tracks.

“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is a fierce, rocked up version of the classic Temptations song. Kicked off by Charlie Watts, a man who never played a bad drum part, and featuring both a funky clavinet and barrelhouse piano from guest Billy Preston, this is one of the most convincing non-blues Stones covers. Jagger never tries to emulate the soulful vocals of the original, opting instead simply to be himself. The soul is stripped from the song, turning it into a visceral, drunken howl. “Luxury” is the first attempt by the Stones to do pure reggae. The Stones make their mark in the guitars, which are more distorted and raw than you find in reggae, but there’s no mistaking this song as anything other than proof that the Stones were listening to a lot of Bob Marley. Reggae was a well from which the Stones would draw a lot of inspiration over the next ten years or so, but to these ears their first attempt was also their best. “Luxury” has a melody that would have made Marley proud, and the toughness of sound at which Peter Tosh excelled.

It’s a shame in some ways that the Stones fell back into by-the-numbers rockers and extended ballads. With the exception of the title track, which is still about two minutes too long, there’s nothing else on the album that you haven’t heard before. “If You Can’t Rock Me” is a fine, hard-charging album opener, now rendered redundant by the fact that the Stones seem incapable of putting out an album that doesn’t have at least one song extolling the virtues of “rocking”. But as good as “You Can’t Rock Me” is, it also never rises above the level of professional, competent rock music. It’s enjoyable, and not particularly memorable.

The same criticism can be leveled at the rest of the rockers on the album, but those tracks are usually not even as memorable as “You Can’t Rock Me”, which at least benefits from being the first thing you hear. “Dance Little Sister” is okay, the kind of song that sounds better live. It, too, is helped by Charlie’s unerring sense of swing. His rapid fire fills and the sterling guitar work from Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, and Jagger’s excitable vocal all combine to make something this is…meh. Once again, it’s a matter of coasting over inspiration. Yes, this is good. Coming from another band, it would probably be a career highlight. Coming from the Stones, it’s just an album track that is enjoyed, and forgotten. Far worse is “Short and Curlies,” a throwaway track that is about exactly what the title implies. It’s a dumb attempt to write another raunchy, not-fit-for-radio song in the mold of “Star Star”, and best forgotten.

The Stones draw more inspiration from black music with “Fingerprint File”, this time tapping funk music. At six and a half minutes, it’s far too long and far too repetitive. The basic groove of the song is good, but there is a lengthy jam in the middle that goes nowhere. Cut down to three minutes, “Fingerprint File” might have been one of their better funk moments, but at this length it merely sounds like self-indulgent album filler.

With “Angie” from Goats Head Soup, the Stones hit chart gold and discovered singer/songwriter-ish balladry. “Till The Next Goodbye” is It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll‘s “Angie.” A spare, acoustic number with lilting piano from Nicky Hopkins and a lovelorn lyric and vocal from Jagger, it’s actually a better song than “Angie.” But once again, it suffered. Because “Angie” came first, and the Stones were likely wary of putting out a too similar ballad as a single, this lovely song is almost unknown. “Time Waits For No One”, which immediately follows “Till the Next Goodbye”, is both a genuinely great Stones track and a prime slab of Radio Friendly 1974. Although it was not released as a single (it creeps toward the seven minute mark), the sound of the song almost defines the era. “Time” is the ballad version of Sticky Fingers‘s”Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” It’s a lengthy song that is end-loaded with an extensive guitar solo from Mick Taylor (his last brilliant moment with the Stones). Taylor wisely avoids the “Santana lite” jazz he played on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” in favor of a fluid, lyrical solo. It was not only Taylor’s last truly great moment with the Stones, it was the last time such a solo would ever be played on a Rolling Stones song. It’s a sad reminder of what the Stones miss with Taylor’s absence: a genuine virtuoso who for several years managed to keep his ego in check and lend a dimension of musicality the Stones never had before and haven’t had since.

As good as “Time Waits For No One” is, there’s also “If You Really Want To Be My Friend.” One of the problems with It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll is that there are three songs that crack the six-minute mark. The Stones have always been at their best when they were more concise. Sure, there are exceptions like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and the live “Midnight Rambler” but as a general rule, the more songs that hit that five and six-minute length, the more you know the Stones are running low on ideas. “Friend” is one of the low points of the album, with an overwrought vocal from Jagger and a backing vocal section from the soul group Blue Magic that is completely unnecessary. The extended, jammy fade seems designed to add gravitas to the song, but it falls flat.

The Stones had been brilliant in their career, and had failed gloriously with the experimental Satanic Majesties. What they had never been up to this point was boring. The album is redeemed by the classic title song, co-written with Face, friend, and future Stone Ronnie Wood, and a handful of great album tracks, but is ultimately undone by the undeniable mediocrity of the rest. Shortly afterwards, Mick Taylor left the band to pursue stardom with the mercurial Jack Bruce in what remains the stupidest career decision in rock history. The Stones were about to change again, becoming yet another type of band. But first they needed to make a transition.

Grade: C+

The Listening Post: June/July 2012

Wrapping up nearly four years of commuting four hours a day.

  • Tin Can TrustLos Lobos. It’s been a very long time but Los Lobos—one of the greatest live bands in the world—has finally delivered a worthy followup to their 2002 gem Good Morning Aztlán. The fact is that the twenty years since their 1992 masterpiece Kiko has been pretty patchy. Colossal Head and This Time were hurt by uninspired songs and kitchen sink production. The Ride, an album containing duets with a number of other artists, was only partially successful. The Town And The City was better, but lacked a lot of the excitement and vigor that Los Lobos is more than capable of dishing out. But Tin Can Trust has it all. From the opening strum of acoustic guitar before it’s accompanied by a seemingly bottomless bass in “Burn It Down” the album leaps out of the speakers. It’s one of those rare albums that you know you’ll enjoy as soon as it starts. There are a couple of misfires: the jammy instrumental “Do The Murray” and the spacey “Jupiter Or The Moon” put a dent in your listening experience. Overall, though, these are exceptionally good songs. “Tin Can Trust” is a beautifully melancholy song about trying to make it in a bad economy, “All My Bridges Burning” features a great guitar solo and stunningly evocative vocal. Their version of “West L.A. Fadeaway” is yet more evidence that the Grateful Dead were better songwriters than performers. This version simply destroys the Dead’s original. Tin Can Trust also contains two extraordinary Spanish-language mariachi songs, proving that traditional Mexican music and rock ‘n’ roll can peacefully coexist when they’re played by a band that is this good. And at their best, Los Lobos is insanely good. Tin Can Trust falls a little short of albums like Kiko, The Neighborhood, and By The Light Of The Moon, but it’s still an extraordinary piece of work.
    Grade: A
  • Little FeatLittle Feat. The first album from California’s Little Feat is often overlooked even by fans of the band. That’s a shame, because it’s great. The second album, Sailin’ Shoes, had a little more weirdness to it, and a superior version of “Willin'” which makes its début on this album, so for most people it’s the second album that really begins the band because that was where their vision really started to take hold. But that’s not to say this album is devoid of that weirdness. Band leaders Lowell George and Roy Estrada were straight out of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, one of the weirdest bands of all time. Just check out titles like the slide guitar workout “Snakes On Everything”, “Brides Of Jesus”, “Hamburger Midnight”, and the brief, irresistible album closer “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie.” There’s also a failed cover of Howlin’ Wolf via Captain Beefheart in the rote blues “Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years.” Still, the Wolf cover is the only false note on the album. The album is blues, but it’s been run through the ringer and emerges as something skewed. It’s a band that’s close to achieving their own sound, but they’re not quite there yet. The difference is between the version of “Willin'” that appears here and the one that appears on the next album. In either version, it’s one of George’s best compositions. But while the Little Feat version is great, the Sailin’ Shoes version is the way the song is supposed to sound. Still, the album begins with two classic Feat songs (“Snakes On Everything” and the brilliant “Strawberry Flats”) and ends with a run of three songs that are as good as anything that came out of that California/Laurel Canyon scene (“Crack In Your Door”, “I’ve Been The One”, “Takin’ My Time”) before climaxing with the jaunty fun of “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie.” Little Feat is very close to being a lost classic.
    Grade: A
  • PezbandPezband. Who? Yeah, good question. The surprise is not that there was once a band called Pezband. The surprise is that this, their début album from 1977, is so great. This is classic power pop. Hearing it in 2012 it’s almost impossible to remember a time when music like this was being pumped out of radios everywhere. As with most power pop bands they lack some of the power of the very best practitioners of the style, but they’ve got the pop down perfectly. The best power pop outfits (Badfinger, early Who, the Jam, Brendan Benson) combined the pop hooks and choruses of the Beatles with a thicker, heavier guitar sound. In so doing they created something different. It was reminiscent of the Beatles without sounding like the Beatles. It was harder-edged like the Rolling Stones, but more melodic. Pezband plays up the melodies and hooks while putting the heavy guitars into a background role, but unlike most of the second tier of power pop bands the heavy guitar does have a place. In fact, the final song “Close Your Eyes” ends with a wall of cascading drums and a truly ripping guitar solo. This was a band that could really play. This song, as well as “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “When I’m Down” are power pop on a Badfinger level. The rest of the album isn’t quite up to that very high standard, but only “Tracer” and “Gas Grill” slide into a more generic level. The rest of the album is full of well-written, punchy, hook-filled wannabe hit singles. What’s surprising about Pezband is that they didn’t become as well-known as their fellow Chicago brethren, Cheap Trick. Certainly the songs were there.
    Grade: A-
  • ColliderThe Sam Roberts Band. Say this for Canadian troubadour Sam Roberts: He’s consistent. Unfortunately that’s what makes this album difficult to review. There’s a lot of this album that’s good: “The Last Crusade”, “Without A Map”, “No Arrows”, “Longitude”, “Twist The Knife”, “Partition Blues”, “Tractor Beam Blues” are all solid songs that sound like almost every other Sam Roberts song. Truthfully, if Collider was my first exposure to Roberts I would probably think more highly of it. Some of these songs are really very good. But this is Roberts’s fourth album, and the songs are all starting to sound alike by this point. “Without A Map” is good, catchy, well-played. But it’s hard to differentiate it from songs off We Were Born In A Flame, Chemical City, and Love At The End Of The World. It’s just another Sam Roberts mid-tempo song, high on craftsmanship, low on inspiration. To be fair, there are only two clunkers on the album. The turgid “I Feel You” and the languid “The Band Vs. The World.” However, there are also moments when the craft of songwriting meets inspiration, “Let It In”, “Graveyard Shift”, “Streets Of Heaven (Promises, Promises)” and “Sang Froid” are all Sam Roberts at his best. Collider is a Sam Roberts album. This is what he does. As with the others, it’s almost start-to-finish enjoyable. But if you’ve heard Roberts before, you’re hearing him now.
    Grade: B
  • OceaniaSmashing Pumpkins. It’s been a long time since I was looking forward to a Smashing Pumpkins record. Bill Clinton was President. After the departure of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain following Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, Billy Corgan seemed like a man who didn’t know where to go next. The band continued to release some great songs, but no great albums, until they broke up in 2000. Corgan followed the band with Zwan (whose one album is unfairly forgotten) and a solo album that was heavy on synthesizer noodling. Responding to pressure from fans, he reunited with Chamberlain and released Zeitgeist in 2007. It was a monstrously loud, riff heavy noisefest, and it wasn’t too difficult to figure out that Corgan was giving those fans who wanted him to rock out again an overdose of what they wanted. But in the last few years, again without Chamberlain, Corgan’s been releasing free downloads of a project called Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, and the songs have been excellent. When he announced the release of Oceania, it appeared that he’d made peace with the legacy of the Pumpkins, and was once again ready to put out work of a high quality.

    So close…yet so far away.

    Oceania is halfway to being a great Smashing Pumpkins album on the order of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. For the first five songs, it’s easy to be convinced that Corgan is back with a vengeance. The one-two punch of “Quasar” and “Panopticon” are flat-out terrific heavy rock. “The Celestials” and “Violet Rays” slow the pace, but continue the high quality. “My Love Is Winter” is one of those things Corgan does so well: melodic hard rock with psychedelic touches. After twenty minutes, Oceania is great enough to make you forget albums like Adore and Zeitgeist. Then it falls apart. Almost completely. “One Diamond, One Heart” has a great chorus but the music is straight out of 1985: washes of synthesizer over a robotic keyboard. “Pinwheels” takes two minutes of synth noodling before turning into a forgettable ballad. The title track is over nine minutes of prog-rock nothingness, culminating in a guitar solo that Corgan’s done so much better so many times. “Pale Horse” sounds like a lost Depeche Mode song that should have stayed lost, despite harrowing lyrics and a chilling final line: “Please come back, Pale Horse.”

    Fortunately, Corgan picks it up again. “The Chimera” returns to heavy guitar rocking again with a catchy chorus. Musically it probably has more in common with Zwan than with the prime Pumpkins, but that’s okay. It’s one of the best tracks on the album. It’s followed by two more excellent songs, the sliding and gliding “Glissandra” and the hard groove “Inkless”, before limping to a conclusion with “Wildflower”, a nearly-five minute tone poem that would have been a good two-minute album closer, but is rendered almost unlistenable by its length. Better luck next time, Billy.
    Grade: B

  • Even If And Especially WhenScreaming Trees. Opening with the terrific garage blast of “Transfiguration” the second full-length album from Seattle’s Screaming Trees is a continuation of the sound the band had forged, but the more overt psychedelic touches have been toned down and the guitars turned up. What comes through—sporadically, to be sure—is an early version of what would later be called grunge. “Straight Out To Any Place” could have fit nicely on the radio in the wake of the alternative rock explosion of 1992, and their first truly great song “Pathway” would not have sounded out of place on later Trees albums like Sweet Oblivion and Dust. What mars this album is that the band were still learning to write. Despite several gems, most of Even If And Especially When is standard issue garage rock. Quite good and fun to listen to, but not memorable in a way that later Trees songs would be. At this point, the Trees were still a band with great potential, but only good execution. It’s an improvement over their first album Clairvoyance, with songs like “Transfiguration”, “Straight Out To Any Place”, “Girl Behind The Mask”, “Cold Rain”, “Pathway”, and “Back Together” rising to the top. That puts half of this album solidly in the very good to great range. Of the other songs only “In The Forest” misfires. The others are simply decent album tracks that are quickly forgotten when the album ends.
    Grade: B
  • Throw It To The UniverseThe Soundtrack Of Our Lives. And so, the best musical export from Sweden comes to its end. This is the last album by TSOOL, and it’s an odd one to go out on. What’s missing here is the pulverizing hard rock of which the band is capable. This is a laid back, groove-oriented album, heavy on lyrical reminiscences and fond farewells. The title track opens the album with both an introduction and a goodbye: “We say hello to say goodbye/We are the soundtrack of your life” sings frontman Ebbot Lundberg over a musical track that starts with a strummed acoustic guitar and builds to a solid rock climax. It’s one of the few outright rockers on the album, sharing it’s slow build properties with their previous album’s opener, “Babel On.” The second song, “You Are The Beginning”, is a lush, beautiful ballad. Most of the rest of the album splits the difference between these opening songs. There’s a heavy acoustic presence on the songs, and the majority of tracks ride a mid-tempo groove. This could get boring, but the album sensibly hovers just above the 45-minute mark. With 13 songs, nothing overstays its welcome, and the musical interplay between these guys is so good it makes each song a pleasure to hear. Even on the slower tracks there’s enough going on musically to keep things interesting. The lyrics are some of the best they’ve written, with nearly every song addressing the end of the band in some way: “we’re about to dissolve into oblivion”, “need to start again”, “the turning of the final race is here…now we’re back to be gone”. “Shine on/there’s another day after tomorrow/there’s another day after the end” sings Lundberg as TSOOL concludes their final album. This isn’t their best album, but it’s a fitting end.
    Grade: B+
  • Secret TreatiesBlue Öyster Cult. Forget the admittedly funny Saturday Night Live skit with Christopher Walken recommending ever-increasing amounts of cowbell be added to BÖC’s classic rock staple “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” It was an odd skit coming about 30 years or so after the last Cult fan graduated high school. But then, BÖC was an odd band. For a period in the early to mid-Seventies, they were the bizarro cousins of Black Sabbath, relying more on science fiction than horror motifs. They were intelligent where Sabbath wasn’t, and while the Sabs relied on molten slabs of granite riffs, BÖC relied more on speed and the jack-rabbit runs of guitarist Buck Dharma (Donald Roeser). They were dubbed “heavy metal” but they were really more of a psychedelic-tinged hard rock band. Secret Treaties, released in 1974, should put the lie to the notion that BÖC was heavy metal. Sure there are plenty of hard riffs, but the songs are far more melodic than most metal, and the music relies more on interplay than on crushing guitar. Lyrically they keep an eye on the dark side without resorting to the cartoonish doom and gloom of Sabbath. The topics here include the closing days of World War II (“ME 262”), drug experimentation with horrific side effects (“Flaming Telepaths”), what appears to be a song about interplanetary conflict (“Astronomy”), and one whose lyric was inspired by former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas (“Harvester Of Eyes”). Even the loaded title “Dominance and Submission” is not about what you think: it’s about New Year’s Eve in 1963 being the dividing line between the old and new music (“In Times Square people do the polka/Dominance…Submission…Radios appear/This New Year’s Eve was the final barrier”). Most of it’s pretty nonsensical, but just go with it. The melodies are great, the words are fun even if you don’t know what they’re about, and BÖC was a band that understood intricacy in their playing. This is a very good album.
    Grade: B+

The Beatles: Help!

Of all the Beatles’s classic albums, it is probably Help! that gets the short end of the stick. This is due to a couple of different factors: 1) it was quickly overshadowed by Rubber Soul, 2) the movie was not as good as A Hard Day’s Night, 3) the American version of the album was cluttered with movie theme music and left off many of the best songs.

It wasn’t until the CD era, in 1987, when Help! was released in America the way the Beatles intended, and the result is a revelation. Help! is the first full-throated embrace of Bob Dylan and, to a lesser extent, the Byrds. This is the clear warm up to Rubber Soul. It bids a final goodbye to the happy little rockers the Beatles had been and definitively steps towards what the Beatles would become.


U.S. EditionU.K. Edition
1. James Bond Theme (Instrumental)
2. Help!
3. The Night Before
4. From Me To You Fantasy (Instrumental)
5. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
6. I Need You
7. In The Tyrol (Instrumental)
8. Another Girl
9. Another Hard Day’s Night (Instrumental)
10. Ticket To Ride
11. The Bitter End/You Can’t Do That (Instrumental)
12. You’re Going To Lose That Girl
13. The Chase (Instrumental)
1. Help!
2. The Night Before
3. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
4. I Need You
5. Another Girl
6. You’re Going To Lose That Girl
7. Ticket To Ride
8. Act Naturally*
9. It’s Only Love**
10. You Like Me Too Much***
11. Tell Me What You See***
12. I’ve Just Seen A Face**
13. Yesterday*
14. Dizzy Miss Lizzy***
*Released in America on the LP Yesterday…And Today
**Released in America on the LP Rubber Soul
***Released in America on the LP Beatles VI

I will confess a weakness for one aspect of the US edition over the UK edition. I grew up listening to the brief snippet of the James Bond theme leading into “Help!” and that part of the listening experience is hardwired into my DNA. Otherwise, there’s simply no contest here and it is clear why Help! wasn’t recognized in America as being the great album it is.

Incidentally, the two versions of the album had remarkably different packaging. The UK edition was packaged as an album, the US edition as a soundtrack complete with lots of photos from the movie and no small amount of marketing hype about the film. Also, the order in which the Beatles are standing on the front cover is different for some bizarre reason.

The first seven songs are the new Beatles songs from the film, and are as good or better than almost anything the Beatles had done to this point. The title track, written as a ballad by John Lennon, is given an air of desperation by the sped up arrangement. Deceptively toe-tapping good-time music underpins a lyric that is every bit as harrowing as any of Lennon’s later primal scream epics on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Trapped by the confines of Beatlemania, Lennon turned his pen inward and wrote a lyric dripping with pathos. Lennon had done this before with songs like “I’m A Loser” from Beatles For Sale, but he had blurred his tortured emotions in the guise of a love song. With “Help!” it was all out in the open, a cry in the wilderness of Beatlemania.

It’s easy to forget that Lennon was only 24 years old at this time and one of the four most famous people in the world, and the demands of band mates and fans must have been nearly unbearable for the fiercely independent songwriter. “Help!” is the first of John’s truly mature songs and one of the finest arrangements the Beatles had produced. Listen to the backing vocals, actually preceding the lead vocal, and the way they are sung. Lennon sings the lead quickly, full of vigor. The lead vocal does not sound like a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. But the backing vocals are sung more slowly, in fragments of lyrics. It’s almost as if the backing vocals represent the sadness and insecurity Lennon felt, while the lead vocals are the full howl of pain that finally burst forth. I don’t know how much of this is intentional, but listening to the vocals on “Help!” is like being privy to both the private interior monologue and the desperate public cry of a man whose soul is roiling with emotional torment. The effect, especially when coupled with the ringing Byrds-like guitars, set a new standard for Beatle songs.

Anything after that opening is bound to be a let down in some ways. But it’s only in comparison to the title track that the other songs suffer. “The Night Before” and “Another Girl” are standard issue Paul McCartney songs: lyrics about love (lost and found, respectively), great melodies, etc. They become great Beatle tracks because of the arrangements. From Lennon’s organ to McCartney’s bass stepping gingerly throughout the song, the stinging lead guitar (also by Paul), and the call-and-response vocals, “The Night Before” is triumphant. Similarly, “Another Girl”, the happiest-sounding kiss off to a girl ever recorded, is nothing really special until the absolutely irresistable hook rises out of the chorus.

George’s contribution to the soundtrack portion of the album is his best song thus far. “I Need You” (by George Harrison—that’s a joke fans of the film will get) rides a simple two chord guitar riff manipulated by a volume pedal and the best use of a cowbell prior to “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. Lyrically it’s nothing special, but it’s the first time George was able to craft a melody that could stand along those produced by Lennon and McCartney. For the first time, a George-penned track didn’t sound like a throwaway or an afterthought. It sounded like the work of a rapidly maturing songwriter.

The rest of the film songs belong to Lennon. They’re not as nakedly emotional as the title track (though the gorgeous “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” comes very, very close), but the words mostly reflect Lennon’s state of mind during this time, what he called his “fat Elvis” period.

“You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, with Ringo’s stunning bongo work, is the darker flip side of “She Loves You.” While the earlier track and its ebullient “Yeah yeah yeah” hook are a reassurance of a woman’s love, “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” warns that if the loved one does not act quickly, the lover will be stolen…by the same guy who was shouting “Yeah yeah yeah”, no less. The “yeah yeahs” are here replaced by a more sinister-sounding “Yes yes.” The one instance where the word “Yeah” pops up is as a snarl after the line “I’ll make a point of taking her away from you.” It’s a deceptively dark song that, like “Help!” is married to a joyful racket.

The title of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” could refer to the fact that Lennon was under strict orders to keep his marriage to Cynthia a secret, lest it should break the hearts of teen girls across the globe, but the lyric is a very straightforward lament for lost love. What matters here, is the spare acoustic instrumentation and the “feeling two-foot small” lyric. Although the lyric was just a flubbed line, Lennon left it in because he preferred it to the actual “two feet tall”. Both the instrumentation and the surrealism of that lyric (and the “gather round all you clowns” line) are direct imitations of Bob Dylan. The Beatle music in this song comes at the end, in the form of a flute solo played by British composer John Scott. Again, it shows the Beatles thinking outside of the traditional rock box.

Throughout the album, Dylan’s influence is very strong. This is the most acoustic album the Beatles had done. Acoustic guitars are prominent in the rhythm tracks, even as Dylan (influenced by the Beatles) was plugging in for the first time. As such, this is also the most different Beatles album yet. Dylan’s influence had reared its head earlier on songs like “I’m A Loser”, but there the Beatles appeared to be copying the Bard of Greenwich Village. Here, for the first time, it sounds like the Beatles have fully absorbed the sound and run it through the filter of their own budding genius.

“Ticket To Ride”, described (incorrectly) by Lennon as “the first heavy metal record”, is the last of the film songs. The chiming guitar riff does sound like the Who as played by the Byrds, and Ringo plays the hell out of the drums. (You think Ringo’s not a great drummer? You’re an idiot. Shut up and listen to this.) Paul’s bass is straightforwardly simple, probably because this was the first song where Paul handled not just a solo but lead guitar, leaving George and John to handle the rhythm. Heavy metal it isn’t, but it’s one of the heaviest songs the Beatles ever did.

The non-film songs that make up side two of the record are a little more problematic. “Act Naturally”, a country hit for Buck Owens, was given to Ringo to sing as a nod to his surprisingly good performance in the Hard Day’s Night movie. As with most of the songs given to Ringo, it’s fun and fairly lightweight. As four young men from Liverpool, the Beatles were far from country music. They play the notes well enough, but it never sounds like anything more than a lark.

Lennon’s “It’s Only Love” returns to acoustic rhythms with a loose lead. The lyrics are nothing special, but the vocal sells it, especially John’s falsetto swoop at the end. This song ended up as the first song on side two of the American version of Rubber Soul, and it fit better on that album. Here, sandwiched between the faux country of “Act Naturally” and the unremarkable George-penned “You Like Me Too Much”, the song sounds out-of-place.

The same fate falls on Paul’s considerably better “I’ve Just Seen A Face”. The propulsive, yet folky, song was the first song on the American Rubber Soul and set the tone for that album. Here, in its original (and, I suppose, proper) place, it’s between the nothingburger “Tell Me What You See” and the masterpiece “Yesterday.” The placement of this song on Help! makes one of McCartney’s best songs lose the impact it had on American audiences when it kicked open the door to Rubber Soul.

Tribute must be paid to “Yesterday.” Thousands of cover versions (it’s one of the most widely recorded songs in history, with versions by everyone from Sinatra to Liberace) may have dimmed its light, and the George Martin-arranged string quartet is a little mawkish, but that’s hindsight. At the time, “Yesterday” was a radical departure for the Beatles (Paul is the only Beatle on the record, which is why they did not approve it as a single, though Capitol Records overruled them in America and released it). As Lennon was starting to break out of the confines of Beatle music lyrically, McCartney was now doing so musically. It was a Beatles record because they said it was a Beatles record. It was a rock song because they said it was a rock song. In truth, it was neither. It was a Paul McCartney solo effort, and musically it harkened back to the standards that Sinatra used to sing, and that the Beatles grew up hearing. It’s far closer to “Til There Was You” than “Ticket To Ride.”

Still, it’s brilliant. It’s a new standard in 1965, and recognized as such immediately. There was no need for “Yesterday” to stand up to the rigors of time. It was clear the first moment the needle hit the groove that McCartney was writing for the ages on this one. People who loved rock and roll accepted it as a great ballad. People who hated rock and roll fully embraced it. The kids loved it and so did Mom and Dad, ensuring that the Beatles could appeal across generational boundaries. More than any one song, “Yesterday” buried the image of the Beatles as the Mop Tops. This was a serious song, with a serious arrangement. To really appreciate the greatness of the song, the version on Anthology 2, before the string section had been added, makes the song sound fresh again. This version presents the song as McCartney wrote it, with just his guitar and vocals. For this listener, this alternate take is the best version of the song.

“Yesterday” was so masterful and so different that including a souped-up cover of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” sounds wildly out-of-place. It’s a great version—probably the definitive version of this song—but it’s obviously a place-filler for a band that needed to release an album but didn’t have quite enough songs ready to go. Following all the acoustic introspection that preceded it, the effect of the slashing guitars and wailing vocal from John is, to say the least, jarring. It’s a great performance. It also is what it is: a by-the-numbers cover of a song by a writer who, at his best, was nowhere near the level of Lennon and McCartney. Help! deserved a better ending than a song that would have sounded redundant on With The Beatles.

Help! pointed in the direction the Beatles were going. The best was still ahead.

Grade: A