The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #5. Run, Rudolph, Run

One of the most awful Christmas traditions is the novelty song. Songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”, the Chipmunks, or that atrocious version of “Jingle Bells” as performed by barking dogs are a blight on the Holidays and an insult to the Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes. But Chuck Berry’s jokey ode to Santa’s foul-weather friend Rudolph works. Yes it’s a novelty song, as was the original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (both songs were written by Johnny Marks), but even though the lyrics are filled with humor it’s not a joke. Also, Chuck Berry gave Marks’s tune one of his standard guitar riffs, blending a bit of “Johnny B. Goode” with the melody of “Little Queenie”, which means that it is as rock and roll as any song released in the past 60 years. There’s also a terrific version by Keith Richards, which he released as a one-off single in 1978. So this one’s a two-fer. The Chuck Berry version fits in beautifully with the best of Berry, and the Richards version ramps everything up and produces an absolutely glorious mess.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #6. Thanks For Christmas

Released under the pseudonym “The Three Wise Men”, this was actually XTC at their Beatle-y best. The band had put aside their herky-jerky New Wave beginnings and their misguided attempts at funk and started concentrating on the lessons they’d learned from their forefathers in the 1960s. Aside from some brilliant conventional work, they also produced this perfect little pop gem that revels in all things Christmas.

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 Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #7. Merry Xmas Everybody

Yet another song from the Glam Year of 1973, “Merry Xmas Everybody” was Slade’s entry into the Christmas song sweepstakes. It’s interesting (well, to me anyway) to note that the three Glam bands represented on this list all took very different approaches. Wizzard’s song was a kitchen sink production, befitting the guy who formed the Electric Light Orchestra. Elton’s song was a straightforward, and very typical, single. The major difference between “Step Into Christmas” and any other Elton John single was the lyric. Slade was a somewhat different animal. While they wore the costume of Glam rock, they were more of a Jack-the-Lad band, and “Merry Xmas Everybody” is the song for a proper knees-up down at the local pub. It’s irreverent, loud, and tons of fun. The perfect song to go with a pint of wassail and a side of figgy pudding.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #8. Step Into Christmas

There must have been something the Glam Rock guys loved about Christmas. The same year that Wizzard gave us “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” also saw Elton John, arguably the biggest rock star in the world at the time, step into Christmas music with this song. And just to make sure you know, Elton announces “Welcome to my Christmas song” before inviting you into the music to lose yourself in the holiday spirit. Here the lyrics are all about having a good time and partying with the band. I can’t imagine it took Bernie Taupin more than 20 minutes or so to write the words, but Elton was so hot at the time and so on top of his game that he managed to craft a joyful minor classic around the throwaway words. And in doing so, he created a Christmas rock song that’s now 40 years old and still going strong. To put that in perspective, “Step Into Christmas” is now older than “White Christmas” was when Elton first released this song. How long does a song have to be popular before you call it a standard?

The Ten Greatest Rock Christmas Songs: #9. Christmas All Over Again

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers added this festive gem to the Very Special Christmas series of charity albums. It’s got all of those Heartbreakers elements: chiming jangle guitars, bar-band punch, and a sense of humor (Petty ends the track by talking about what he wants for Christmas, including a “new Rickenbacker guitar”). But even if you took Christmas out of the equation, this would still be a pretty stomping track.

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

In 1977 Stephen King gifted the world of horror fiction with a simple, elegant ghost story. The Shining was King’s third published novel and is still considered by many of his fans as one of the best novels he’s written. Among most King fans, there’s a general consensus that the books he wrote in his early days are his best. The rankings change, but most discussions about the “best” of Stephen King start with The Shining, The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and Pet Sematary. There’s also strong support for It and The Dark Tower series, but to this reader both of those works suffered from severe cases of bloat.

One of King’s saving graces is that even when his novels are overstuffed they’re so easy to read that the extraneous pages zip by without much effort being required. Of course, this is also a criticism…the pages that are crucial to the story also pass quickly without much effort. For this reason, many of King’s novels are fairly forgettable. Does anyone really have any memory about the plot points of From A Buick 8? Insomnia? Lisey’s Story? Needful Things?

This isn’t true of his earlier novels. King’s early work benefited greatly from being shorter and simpler than most of his recent novels. Carrie, clocking in at under 300 pages, was about a girl with telekinesis. ‘Salem’s Lot was about vampires. The Shining was a ghost story. Pet Sematary was, in essence, a zombie story. They were brief, intense, and very memorable. Compare these streamlined tales with the sprawling mess of Under The Dome or the alternate world-hopping of the thousands of pages that make up The Dark Tower.

Now King has released his first proper sequel (not counting Black House, his collaborative effort with Peter Straub that was ostensibly a sequel to The Talisman but was more closely affiliated with The Dark Tower). Doctor Sleep picks up the story of Danny Torrance, the little boy with the big shine who barely escaped the swinging roque mallet and possessed countenance of his father at the Overlook Hotel. Dan is now an adult with a serious drinking problem, restlessly moving from one spot to another, looking for any place he can call home. His mother is now deceased, as is Dick Hallorann. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel continued to plague him for years after the boiler blew the place sky-high, but Dan has learned how to lock the ghosts away in his subconscious, a plot point with much potential that never goes anywhere.

The bulk of the novel focuses on a newly sober Dan, in touch with a girl named Abra Stone. Abra has the shining as well, the brightest ever seen, and she is in danger from a group of psychic vampires who call themselves The True Knot.

It is this group, semi-immortal beings that feed off the psychic energy of children with the shining by torturing them to death and inhaling their essence, that ultimately undermines a story with a great deal of promise. The brief description of The True Knot is compelling, but the execution falls very far short. They are possibly the least effective villains King has ever created.

To all outward appearances, the True Knot seem to be middle-aged and elderly people who drive all over the country in tricked out RV campers. While their true age can be hundreds of years, they remain susceptible to disease, accident, and any of the other millions of ways mere mortals can die. Fairly early in the novel they kidnap, torture, and inhale the shining of a boy who has the measles. Because they are not immune, the True Knot then begins dying off from the measles. It’s enough to make you wonder whether, in their hundreds of years doing this, they had ever before met a child with a communicable disease. Apparently not.

The group’s leader, an Irish woman named Rose The Hat because of the top hat she wears, believes that if the group can get Abra Stone’s powerful shine into their systems that it will cure them. The problem is that the True Knot is about as competent as the Keystone Kops. Whenever Rose attempts to establish a psychic link with Abra, the young girl swats her aside effortlessly. The attempt to kidnap Abra is successful, but results in the deaths of almost the entire kidnapping party. The kidnapping itself is short-lived. A trap is then set by Dan Torrance, Abra’s father, and Dan’s friends from the local Alcoholics Anonymous. With very little drama, almost the entirety of the True Knot is dispatched, leaving only two survivors of the group. They, too, are easily taken care of.

The set up for the novel works. The True Knot’s base of operations is a campground in Colorado, on the site of the old Overlook Hotel, which brings Dan back to that haunted ground for the first time since the Peanut Farmer was President. It’s easy to see the potential here: Dan Torrance is back at the site of the Overlook; his subconscious is stuffed full of the ghosts that called the Overlook home; he is engaging in a pitched battle with psychic vampires who want to swallow the essence of his shining. All of this time I thought, Here it comes…Dan’s going to release them…the woman from 217, Horace Derwent, Lloyd the bartender…and the full battle will be on between the ghosts and the True Knot with Dan and Abra guiding the action with the shining. Pretty cool, huh?

Yeah, but none of that happens. The ghosts stay in Dan’s subconscious. Abra is thousands of miles away from the action and never in real danger. The True Knot puts up a fight worthy of a bunch of easily tricked, elderly people with the measles. And then it’s over.

The problem that plagues Doctor Sleep is that you never feel like the good guys are in any real danger. They’re constantly one step ahead of the True Knot. There is good in the novel. King’s portrayal of Dan Torrance is terrific, and the interactions between Dan and Abra are real and warm. There are enough connections to The Shining to make it a genuine sequel, even if the connections are never built upon. But Stephen King novels rise or fall on the strength of the villains, and the True Knot are as scary and intimidating as a group of mischievous puppies. That makes Doctor Sleep a huge disappointment. The Shining, one of the greatest ghost stories ever written, deserves better.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #10. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

And so begins my countdown of the Ten Best Christmas Rock Songs. The criteria was simple: no standards covered by rock artists. All ten of these songs are original tunes from the rock era, and carry all of the hallmarks of that genre. I also wanted to avoid those pedantic “remember the poor” lectures, which eliminated a lot of possibilities.

Number ten on the list is from 1973, a banner year for rock Christmas songs. After The Move broke up, frontman and true rock eccentric Roy Wood formed the Electric Light Orchestra, but quickly moved on from that band to create Wizzard. As career moves go, it probably wasn’t a good idea. ELO became one of the biggest bands of the 1970s and Wizzard…well, they didn’t.

But Wizzard did give the world “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday”, a song that is so over-the-top it makes ELO look like Hall & Oates. Choirs of children, honking saxes, and the clear influence of Phil Spector’s Christmas album. Even better is the video, which borders on insane. But there’s also denying that it’s incredibly catchy and a great deal of fun.

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

somegirls

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: October 2013

Trouble music for troubled times.

  • The Bomb Shelter SessionsVintage Trouble. Okay, where did this come from? New York Post writer, blogger, punster, raconteur, and cool dude Robert A. George tipped me off about this band on Twitter. For that, I owe the man a beer. Vintage Trouble is fronted by former Rock Star: INXS contestant Ty Taylor, a man who sings with the gruff soul of Wilson Pickett and moves with the fluid grace of James Brown. What makes the band unusual is that this soul man is backed by a power trio that’s equally adept with straightforward soul and garage rock fury. Their début album, the wonderfully titled Bomb Shelter Sessions, draws freely from the last fifty years of rock music. From the pounding punk-soul opener “Blues Hand Me Down” to the Otis Redding-style ballad “Gracefully”, from the bluesy “Nancy Lee” to the Curtis Mayfield vibe of “Not Alright By Me”, from the salacious Prince-inspired funk rocker “Total Strangers” to the R&B meets Zeppelin swagger of album closer “Run Outta You”, Sessions offers the listener a wide spectrum of soul-based rock music. Recorded in three days and eschewing digital technology, this is music custom-made for vinyl LPs; there are two evenly balanced halves that have an ebb and flow like the best albums. The listener is never pounded mercilessly nor lulled into complacency; the album segues seamlessly between kinetic rockers, mid-tempo shuffles, ballads, and soul torch songs. As “Run Outta You” ends the album in a tempest of Jimmy Page-inspired guitar, the breadth of pleasures here becomes clear. Ten songs, none that sound alike, but all that sound like the work of a single, great, band that approaches music fearlessly.
    Grade: A

I Wanted My MTV

In 1981, Gil-Scott Heron’s proto-rap song was proven wrong; the revolution was televised.

It started slowly, and there were plenty of technical problems in the beginning, but eventually the little cable channel known as Music Television completely changed the look, sound, and feel of television. In all likelihood, it was the most significant change to popular culture since the Beatles landed at JFK. And all it did was play commercials twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Make no mistake: music videos are commercials. They were nothing more than advertisements for albums, tours, and artists. They’d been invented back in the 1960s as a way of appearing on television shows without having to actually appear on the shows. It’s impossible to determine what the first music video is: was it the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A Hard Day’s Night? Was it the video for “Paperback Writer” that featured the Fabs in a garden standing around and looking like the coolest gang on the planet? Was it by music video pioneer Mike Nesmith, who in the 1970s married his songs to short films that had nothing to do with Nesmith or the song? The debate can go on forever, and in the end it’s not the important. What is important is that a small group of television executive wannabes came up with the idea of creating a video jukebox and airing it all day, every day. They hired five personalities to introduce the videos. They launched the channel on August 1, 1981 by playing a ten minute clip of rockets being prepped and countdowns being intoned before a voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” and the promo for the Buggles’s “Video Killed The Radio Star” began.

The first ten years of MTV are considered the Golden Age of the channel, back when it still played music videos and before it degenerated into a series of reality shows that celebrate the worst of human behavior. A big part of that is simply nostalgia. I certainly had a love/hate relationship with MTV (I wrote an article for my college newspaper about “Empty V”), but I also could not stop watching it. Starting when MTV came to my local cable company in January 1982, when I had free time, my channel was set to MTV.

Even now, when I hear a song that was a hit in the early 1980s, I can see the video in my mind’s eye. I can’t hear “Centerfold” without seeing Peter Wolf running in slow motion through a corridor filled with beautiful women doing cartwheels. “Rio” calls to mind images of the Duran Duran boys cavorting on beaches and a boat. “Jesse’s Girl” makes me picture Rick Springfield standing with his legs spread, playing the guitar as if he was sawing a two by four. The music of that era is inextricably linked with visual images.

I have always loved music videos. Growing up in the 1970s, long before MTV, YouTube, DVDs, etc., there was no way to establish a connection with the band other than albums. I would stare at the pictures of the bands on the LP covers. Too young to attend concerts, this was the only way to know what the bands looked like. To see them performing, even miming to a song, brought the musical experience to a different level. It made the artists into something more than iconic photographs; it made them performers. To see the Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper was one thing; to see them walking around in the streets of London in the “Penny Lane” video was a revelation. Looking at them now, it’s like looking into a time capsule and seeing old or, in too many cases, dead musicians when they were alive and full of youth and energy. I still get a thrill when I see a performance clip of a favorite artist that I’ve never seen before, whether it’s a live clip, a lip-synced TV performance, or a promotional video is irrelevant to me: it’s like watching home movies of my favorite bands.

Two recent books tell the story of the channel from different perspectives. I Want My MTV is an oral history that gathers stories from everyone involved: musicians, video directors, executives, on-air talent, behind-the-scenes movers and shakers. It’s an extraordinarily good book that leaves no stone unturned and recounts those early years straight up through the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s. It is filled with stories of sex, drugs, rock and roll. There’s an entire, hilarious, chapter about Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” video that the rocker claims destroyed his career. There are ribald stories about the making of videos (including an unforgettable image from the making of Van Halen’s “Pretty Woman” that will sear itself into your brain). The origin of MTV’s first attempts at programming are discussed, from Yo! MTV Raps to 120 Minutes. MTV was a player at all the major musical events of the 1980s, including Live Aid, Farm Aid, the US Festival (remember that one?). This is like reading a fast-paced, funny history of 80s rock music. Much of that music was lousy, and almost all of it was over-produced, but the stories are great. The scope of the book is so large, it’s one of the few rock books worth a second read.

The second book, released just a few weeks ago, is another oral history called VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. This book focuses exclusively on the five people who were the original Video Jockeys, and it is nowhere near as successful as I Want My MTV. Of the original five VJs, only four survive. J.J. Jackson died in 2004. The main problem of the book is that the only real storytellers among the five were Jackson and, to a lesser degree, Mark Goodman. This is likely because both came up through radio, and both had extensive experience in the rock music world before MTV. Jackson was the first American DJ to play Led Zeppelin on the radio, and he was considered a friend by many of the big bands of the day. When doing promos and appearing on MTV, both Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey refused to talk to anyone except Jackson. They were all hired for their looks: Nina Blackwood was a smoldering hot wannabe actress who knew very little about music, but she filled the niche of the “Video Vamp”; Alan Hunter, another aspiring actor and dancer, knew next to nothing about music (though he’d appeared in David Bowie’s “Fashion” video), but he could be goony and funny in front of the camera; Martha Quinn, a recent NYU grad who’d never held a job before, was the perfect America’s Sweetheart choice with her pixie-ish look and “golly gee!” demeanor; J.J. Jackson was the black elder statesman who knew rock history inside and out; Mark Goodman was the knowledgeable, Jewish/ethnic guy. When you consider that one of the behind-the-scenes guiding lights of MTV was Mike Nesmith, it’s ironic that the VJs were assembled much like The Monkees, with each designed to appeal to a different demographic.

Throughout VJ you learn the stories of what it was like to be there at the beginning when nobody, not talent, crew, or executives, had any idea what they were really doing. The problem is that for too much of the book, which is about half the length of I Want My MTV, they reminisce about things that are of little interest to the general audience: where they shopped, who they were dating, what kind of apartments they lived in. A couple of eye-popping things do emerge from these stories, like the fact that Mark Goodman was taking full advantage of his fame by bedding every woman he could find, including MTV contest winners, or the mind-boggling idea that Martha Quinn dated former Dead Boys/Lords Of The New Church singer Stiv Bators in what must be one of the most unlikely, and cringe-inducing, pairings in rock history. Both Hunter and Goodman also fueled much of their time with cocaine, while J.J. Jackson was hitting the clubs almost every night.

Where VJ fails is where I Want My MTV so gloriously succeeds: the music and, specifically, the music videos. Since three of the five knew very little about music, and none of them were present at the creation of the videos they were playing, their stories about interviewing or hanging with the stars of the day tend to be very self-oriented (Nina Blackwood recounts Johnny Cougar attempting to seduce her, Martha Quinn talks about how she flubbed an interview with David Lee Roth). There is almost nothing about the videos they were playing. The most surprising revelation in the book is that the VJs filmed their segments in advance: four segments per hour, each only one minute long. These characters, who seemed so much a part of the viewers’ lives, were only on air for four minutes an hour. For somebody like me, who could not tear himself away from the channel in those after-school hours, Martha Quinn seemed as ubiquitous as “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “She Blinded Me With Science.” It’s oddly disconcerting to learn that these characters who seemed like such a huge part of my musical life were, in fact, bit players.

VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave is a forgettable book that is akin to listening to people sitting around reminiscing about their salad days. What it lacks is electricity, and this is something that I Want My MTV, one of the funniest books about rock, provides in spades. Many of the stories in VJ are also in I Want My MTV, but come across as fresher and funnier. The latter book is the one to read.

And if you want to know why MTV doesn’t play music videos anymore, here’s the answer with more truth than you probably want to hear:

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+