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

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

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

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

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

George-Martin-conducting-Beatles-554-46

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

The Listening Post: January 2016

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

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels

steelwheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

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

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

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

David Bowie, turning his death into art.

David Bowie, turning his death into art.

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

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

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

The Listening Post: November 2015

Revisiting some old friends.

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

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

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

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

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

scottweilanddylan

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

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

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

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

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