MY FAVORITE DOUBLE LP (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

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I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”

It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.

Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:

Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)

Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)

The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)

Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)

Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)

Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)

The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)

London Calling The Clash (1979)

The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)

1999 Prince (1982)

Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)

Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)

I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.

That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.

So it goes.

My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dime for reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life,  The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.

Besides Tusk, that leaves:

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These, I’ve obsessed over.

Some time or other.

Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.

Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.

Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.

That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.

Boy, do I feel foolish.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?

Well, maybe.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.

And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.

You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.

But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?

Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.

And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).

For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.

Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.

There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,”  in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Before I have to put this knife in your throat.

All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.

That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.

Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.

Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.

It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.

But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.

Too bad for us and too bad for them.

And I really wish I could stop listening.

But I can’t.

(NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC)

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #8: The Rolling Stones–Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), US, 1966)

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The Stones are everywhere this primary season. Closing Donald Trump’s road show is the least of it. I woke up one day this week and somebody (I think it was MSNBC but don’t hold me to it, I’ve been going to sleep with the TV on a lot and sometimes the waking and dreaming are hard enough to keep track of without getting all technical about purely three dimensional details), was using the opening and closing tracks of Exile on Main Street for bumper music.

The next evening it was “Miss You.” Maybe on C-Span or Fox. Again, I lost track.

Tomorrow, who knows?

But does anybody still want to take a look at the set of problems facing us and the choice of candidates who will lead us boldly into the future and still argue Satan’s not, as one of the minor prophets had it, laughing with delight?

The cover of the first hits package released by the Laughing One’s favorite band, the first and last to stake their claim so entirely on being that before anything else that they were that (say from roughly 1965 to 1972) or nothing (say, ever since), was a kind of perfect statement all on its own.

It said most of what there was to say without any reference at all to the great full page photos that came with the original vinyl package or the stripped down assault of the actual music:

“We may have been born clodhoppers but we’ve now made every deal that needs to be made and we’re here to burn down your cornfield and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Tom Wolfe’s famous epigram (“The Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Stones want to burn down your town.” yaddah, yaddah, yaddah) didn’t cover the half of it. The Stones were more like agents from the future we’re now living in than the James boys fresh off their break from Captain Quantrill. Not undercover mind you–what could possibly be more obvious than that picture up there–just messengers.

That’s what I always liked about them, once I started working my way backward through rock and roll history from the late seventies and turned this one up on one of my first trips to the panhandle’s only record Co-op (say 1979 or 80).

They were were so refreshingly up-front. Hey, it’s 1966 and things seem a little nervy. But it’s about to get way-y-y-y-y worse. Soon you’ll be stumbling around in the dark and become so lost that most of you will live to see P.T. Barnum rise from the grave and storm the gates. And you can bet he’ll use us for exit music!

As a collection covering a period that had its share of musical rough patches, High Tide is just about perfect. It contextualizes both the half-successful “As Tears Go By” (which was a big hit despite Mick Jagger’s bound-to-be-awkward attempt at faking sentimentality), and their version of “Not Fade Away,” where Jagger sounds even clumsier chasing Buddy Holly than he did chasing Howlin’ Wolf on High Tide‘s UK-version cover of “Little Red Rooster”–by the sixties, it was much odder to sound like you’d never seen a Cadilllac than like you’d never seen a rooster.

Context is everything, too. Those two neither-here-nor-there tracks are the only side trips on an otherwise perfect collection and they don’t really take you so far from the rubber-burning highway they were running down at full speed that they amount to anything more than bathroom breaks.

Here, better than anywhere else, you can understand why Nik Cohn thought it would be perfect for the Stones to die-before-thirty in a plane crash.

That they spent the next six years mounting ever higher is still shocking.

And it’s even more shocking that the mounting was all in the music.

Purely image-wise, they never beat that photo.

Come on, how could they?

They stuck Brian Jones up front, like nobody could possibly imagine he belonged anywhere else.

They stood on rocks.

At low tide.

They stared down every other bunch of punks who ever posed for an album cover and  made it clear that all the others would be both inevitably compared to them…and found wanting.

Whatever deal you think you made with the Laughing One, they seemed to say, you can walk away from it. We can’t. Because we’ve cancelled all the bets. Ours and yours.

Brian Jones was dead within three years. The rest were pod people within five years after that. We live in the world left behind.

Kinda’ sucks for us.

But, boy, while it lasted….