TRACKING PHIL SPECTOR….(CD Review)

A few days back, Greil Marcus, who trashed Phil Spector’s Back to Mono box when it came out, recommended it to someone who wanted to know where she should start if she wanted to get to know Spector’s music.

Very Trumpian I thought–doubly so if he was just being mean–but it did put me in the mood to revisit the box…on headphones.

Listening to Spector at this distance creates an audio equivalent of double-vision for us obsessives. No matter how glorious the sound in your ears is, and no matter how completely you are able to forget the gentleman is a psychopathic murderer, there is always the high probability that someone, somewhere has written about how, in order to really hear it, you need to have the original Philles single…and maybe a Bang and Olufsen (at least) to play it on.

Or the rare European-only vinyl pressing from the sixties.

Or the original tapes that somebody heard in their “truest” form on some bootleg version that was playing down the hall while they were meditating in their college dorm in 1968.

Or when they were hanging out with Phil at his home studio during the first of his several hundred retirements back in the sixties.

I’m not sure all those people are wrong either.

I can personally attest that the reissue MGM 45 I purchased “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” on, which listed Bill Medley as the producer, blows all other versions away.

And, even if you can blow all that out of your head (and, when the best records are playing, you can), there’s still the fact that Phil Spector isn’t best heard on a box set featuring upwards of sixty tracks. His greatest work is too intense and his workaday efforts too mundane to make the experience anything but disorienting. Just when you’re thinking one more wall of *&&#@ strings will either make you drive a splinter under your eyelids or send you off to sleep, some bit of genius brings Paradise heaving back into view (though, not, I hasten to add, on the record of that name, on which the Shangri-Las blew the Ronettes away).

One thing I did notice this time around, though, was that Paradise came heaving into view most often according to a distinct pattern.

Again and again, my cheap headphones (ain’t no Bang and Olufsen at my house, alas) kept delivering the notion that Spector did his best work when he was working with a new voice.

And, usually, it was a Seasoned Pro’s voice.

Gene Pitney…

Darlene Love….

Ronnie Spector (the partial exception to the Seasoned Pro rule–she had made records but was still living at home when he met her)…

Bill Medley….

Bobby Hatfield…

Tina Turner…

Sonny Charles…

In every case, Spector soon tired of whatever quality he had heard in them…and (with a brief exception for Darlene Love, whose power he diluted by parceling out her records under various names, least often her own) subsequent productions–or business arrangements–suffered accordingly.

The usual method for burying anyone who hung around too long (usually no more than a record or two), was to do just that.

Bury them.

Their voices anyway.

Because one thing Phil Spector liked to remind all his singers of, was his ability to make them go away, often at the very moment when one more brilliant arrangement (usually provided by Jack Nitzsche, though there were others), was begging for the Wall of Sound to be dialed back a bit and let the lead singer shine.

The one exception was the former Ronnie Bennett.

Her voice, he was never quite able to tame.

God knows he tried.

On record after record.

And when that didn’t quite work–when he couldn’t quite make her irrelevant to her own records the way he had done with literally everyone else, even Darlene Love–he found other ways. Like marrying her and locking her up in his mansion and killing her career and tormenting her for years until she ran away (carrying her shoes down the mansion’s driveway so she wouldn’t make any noise) and finally stalking her and terrorizing her with death threats everybody thought she was crazy to take so seriously until he finally acted out on Lana Clarkson.

The gift she left him was a box set that bends, but never quite breaks.

Nearly all the hidden treasures are hers.

MY FAVORITE WESTERN THEME (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Movies only…we’ll leave this, by a long ways the best TV western theme, aside…

..and stick to the cinema entries.

First, a little history:

Narration: Though High Noon opened to universal praise in late July, 1952, one of its early previews has proved disastrous. 

Fred Zinneman, Jr.: What was wrong with the preview was that there was wall-to-wall music in it and what people were responding to was the amount of music. After it was over, people–all the executives–were forming into little groups, whispering, and I just went into the bathroom, where two other executives were, and I heard one of them say to the other, “Well, what does a European Jew know about making westerns anyway?”

From Inside High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Frank Langella, narration)

Stanley Kramer:  He (Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn) said “What difference does it make? So I ran it. It’s a piece of junk anyway”

Narration: Now, in fairness to Harry Cohn, the print that he saw of High Noon was missing a crucial element: music. You don’t have to be an expert to know how much music can add to a movie. But in this case the music was so unusual, so revolutionary, in fact, for its time, it added a whole dimension to the picture. Most movies of the 1950s opened with a fanfare, a big orchestra. Here’s what you heard at the beginning of High Noon…as spare and low-key as the film itself:

(From The Making of High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Leonard Maltin, narration)

Not that those sometimes fanfares went away entirely….either from not so famous movies…

or extremely famous ones…

Or that you couldn’t split the difference:

Still, the makers of High Noon–having gone with too little music and too much–were onto something when they found the right mix. In the western, at least, vocals added something.

But there were only a few great ones. Some spare and low-key, some operatic.

And some of them didn’t make it to the movie. Well, one of them anyway:

Sometimes, a shoulda’ been didn’t make the movie either…

…that’s from the cutting floor of Rio Bravo, which, if it’s missed, is not as missed as it might have been, thanks to what is there.

This couldn’t have been a theme, exactly….

But this actually was…(well, a piece of it was, anyway)

So you can see (or hear), where they might have had a hard time choosing. And why they had a high bar to meet when they “remade” it (fanfare and all)…

And, by the late sixties, there was even at least one instance of a theme that blossomed out into a soundtrack (i.e., an ongoing ballad that ran through the whole movie, with endlessly witty variations, the gist of which are barely hinted at up front):

But, really, when it’s all said and done, there are three that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

One has the advantage of being from the greatest movie ever made:

One has the advantage of being both the greatest vocal and the best song ever recorded for a western theme.

But, down at the end, there’s something about the ground-breaker…Tex Ritter’s proudest moment, and one which he knew how to deliver more ways than one. My favorite is the one I played first, but this is a great variation. And there’s no more elegant or mysterious phrase in the English language than…”Wait along.”

 

ILLUMINATION AND ALL THAT…THE BEATLES IN THEIR TIME (Segue of the Day: 11/8/15)

Or, what might this…

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have to do with this…

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and this…?

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More than I would have guessed.

It’s always fun to think of some small new twist on a story that’s been done to death. Not too many stories have been worked over more thoroughly than The Story of the Beatles.

But one thing I’ve never done before is try and listen to the music that made them big in England, a year and half before ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and The Ed Sullivan Show sent them into the international stratosphere, in the context of what was happening on American radio in the months must before which we’ve always known they had an ear for.

How much of an ear?

Well, their first album, finished in February, 1963, included fourteen songs. Eight were Lennon/McCartney originals. One was a recent Broadway tune (“A Taste of Honey”). The other five were hits of recent vintage (no fifties’ rocker stuff, as there would be on later albums), three of them straight from the Brill Building (though one of those was by way of the Isley Brothers) and another, “Boys,” that might as well have been.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but outside of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “There’s a Place” (that last, a space even the Beatles never got back to) and, at a stretch “Love Me Do,” the Brill Building cuts, real and faux, are the strongest stuff on the album. “Chains” is solid. The other three (“Boys,” with Ringo’s first recorded vocal and his best until “It Don’t Come Easy,” plus “Baby It’s You” and “Twist and Shout”) all epic.

Having four sides in the can (the A’s and B’s of their first two singles) when they prepared to cut the album, their assigned producer George Martin asked Paul and John what else they had. They answered “our stage act.”

Meaning all that Broadway/Brill Building/Faux Brill Building stuff of such recent 1960–63 vintage wasn’t thrust upon them. It was what they liked. What inspired them.

Which is odd, given that for several decades after, as professional rock criticism bloomed, flowered, withered and died, the basic narrative pretty much held that rock had “died” in those years. (You can still find Greil Marcus going on about it in his latest, which I’m still loving by the way.)

For many reasons, the strongest maybe being because I came in at the Beach Boys (first national hit, albeit one I never much cared for, released June, 1962) and, especially, the Four Seasons (first national hit, August, 1962), I never bought that particular narrative myself.

Later on, when I got to know much more about Roy Orbison and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Brenda Lee and Gene Pitney and Ray Charles and girl groups and surf rock and second-generation doo wop and early Motown and so on and so forth, I bought it even less.

But, amongst all those “nevers” I still never thought to actually play the Beatles first album next to a well chosen anthology of the music that was in their LIverpool-to-Hamburg-to-London air, via Pirate Radio or the BBC or their record collections or whatever other distribution methods were targeting their demographic at the time.

Then, this week, I found myself with my latest additions to Time Life’s year-by-year collection, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” which happened to be the two discs devoted to 1962. And, since I was duty bound to listen to them anyway, I went, “h-m-m-m-m.”

Why not stick the Beatles’ first, Please Please Me between Time Life’s 1962 and 1962 Still Rockin’?

That was Monday, which makes this Segue of the Day a week late and a little bit of a cheat, but what’s a blog for if you can’t bend a cheap concept like Time out of shape once in a while to suit a narrative?

Anyway, it sent me off on that whole tangent I mentioned in my other posts this week, and I might still have one or two posts to go before I exhaust that particular day.

The day itself didn’t exhaust me. I found it pretty exhilarating

Because listening to a multinational corporation’s repackaged definition of what the Beatles were trying to fit into as they climbed their first mountain made both experiences bigger and better.

In the first place, I learned something.

Listening to all this music thrown together, I could finally begin to understand the belief held by so many about rock’s “demise.”  There are 44 tracks on the two Time Life collections and, even with the names I mentioned above being mostly absent (except for Gene Pitney), the period was heavy on reaching for quiet spaces. That wasn’t quite the rejection of Little Richard and Chuck Berry so many assumed. More like a broadening of perspective. But I can see how some might have been fooled.

Because while there are rockers (the Isley’s “Twist and Shout” among them, though it doesn’t rock like the Beatles, who tended, along with everything else, to be smart about choosing their battles), the major emphasis is on introspection, heartbreak, longing.

That really shouldn’t be surprising.

These are the kind of things you might expect the era’s outsiders: black people, urban immigrants, girls, perhaps even the occasional hillbilly (throw Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby” up against “Love Me Do” some time if you need evidence history doesn’t always move in a straight line even in the short run), to be especially invested in communicating as a dual language: part public, part secret.

The Beatles certainly didn’t miss that. A lot of that first album, including something as joyous and up-tempo as “Please Please Me,” reaches for those very same qualities. Sometimes they missed. Several cuts tend to commodify rather than amplify the melancholy, skate over it rather than deepen it (something else they would also always be very good at and which the public accepted enough, in the immediate wake of February, 1964, to make cuts like “P.S. I Love You” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” into big hits–what happened with the Beatles, there was a reason they called it Mania).

But about half the time, they grabbed hold. On top of which they, or somebody, had the sense to start and end strong. “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Please Please Me” frame the first side of the British debut LP; “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout” the second.

All to the good.

Believe me, coming out of Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park” and Don and Juan’s “What’s Your Name” (both wonderful) at the end of the first 1962 volume, “I Saw Her Standing There” really is a leap in the dark, a rush that feels like “What’d I Say” must have felt in 1959 or “Tutti Frutti” must have felt in 1955. In fits and starts at least, Please Please Me still sounds like some sort of revolution.

By the end, with this…

and this…

closing the record*, it becomes possible to think Americans must have been flat out deaf and stupid not to respond to the various attempts to sell the Beatles over here throughout the latter months of 1962 and all of 1963.

That, in fact, is just what I was thinking.

But then I put on the second Time Life disc.

And it started with a reversal of form: The Beatles’ quiet-place-bleeding-into-a-loud-place becoming a loud-place…

bleeding back into a quiet place…at a party no less…

And I was yet again reminded that the competition in early rock and roll was literally insane. That maybe the miracle wasn’t so much the Beatles didn’t make it here sooner, but that they made it at all.

In the Contours’ Detroit, after all, and Sam Cooke’s Chicago-or-L.A., and a whole lot of other American spaces, they might have gotten lost in the crowd.

Well, until Rubber Soul anyway.

By which time they probably would have had other jobs.

*Sorry, no decent studio cut was available. Even YouTube isn’t perfect.

 

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume Four: The Eighties)

Ross MacDonald once had Lew Archer say that as a man gets older, the women he’s interested in should get older too. For what it’s worth, the women in this little survey–the women of my own generation or the one right before it–have remained the women I’m interested in. Purely spiritually of course.

The early eighties, especially, were a breakout period for women in rock and roll that was unlike anything seen since the early-mid sixties. I’m sure the fact that music has been steadily shoved back to the sidelines in the generations since, assuring that such things happen no more, is purely coincidental.

I mention all this because it turned out well over half the records in this last installment were made by the women I’ve grown older with. Beyond that, I’ll let any obvious themes emerge on their own. This was fun.

Blue Angel (1980)

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The lead singer was a superstar in waiting. As one of rock’s last visionaries, she was ready here, her vocal style fully formed. The world would catch up a few years later. Through some combination of experience and nature Cyndi Lauper was already able to sing, “I’ll take it like a man,” and make the mighty Gene Pitney sound like a four-year-old, which, believe me, he wasn’t.

Pick to Click: “I’m Gonna Be Strong” (Television performance. Later on, she recorded another version for her first greatest hits package which actually got past this…but she’s the only one who could have.)

Warren Zevon Stand In the Fire (1980)

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Zevon rarely caught the reckless abandon of his lyrics in the studio. He captured it in spades here and sustained it for an album-long assault. He sounded like nothing so much as man who was raging against the dying of the light, like he already knew the ripped-and-torn seventies would be the last decade anyone ever missed.

Well, anyone who wasn’t part of the conspiracy anyway.

Pick to Click: “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” (alternate live take)

REO Speedwagon Hi Infidelity (1980)

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Everything anyone would ever need to know about the eighties in a sleazy album cover, a catchy title and a single genius line. The rest sounds real good to me, but, really, who cares what the rest sounds like?

Pick to Click: “Take It On the Run” (For those who may have forgotten, that’s the one that begins “Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around.” Welcome to Hell.)

Robin Lane & the Chartbusters (1980) and Imitation Life (1981)

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At the time, pretty much everything written about Lane (L.A. born show-biz kid who became the leader of a Boston based punk band which ended up sounding fashionably New Wave on their albums) mentioned that she was an Evangelical or “born again” Christian. I only mention it here because nobody seemed to ever draw the logical conclusion about the black hole in her voice. Weird how the illuminati tend to forget (or is it ignore?) that a belief in God contains an inherent belief in the Devil.

Strictly on the formal side, there is an awful lot of what the Go-Go’s and, especially, the Bangles, got up to directly after.

If you want to know how good they had to be to make it, you could start by considering how good she had to be to not quite make it.

Picks to Click: “When Things Go Wrong” (Robin Lane…live) and “Send Me an Angel” (Imitation Life, sorry, couldn’t find “Pretty Mala”)

Rachel Sweet …And Then He Kissed Me (1981)

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Her major label debut and there’s some gloss on the basic concept, but she cut through it effortlessly. The commercial push was behind a duet with Rex Smith on the indestructible “Everlasting Love” which scraped the Top 40 and generated one of the great Devil’s Island videos.

But some idiot or other failed to see the potential in her greatest vocal and it was left for Pat Benetar to scoop and score with a just-fine version that wasn’t half as good. Two years later Sweet was out of the music business, yet another might-have-been. This was the best of her.

Pick to Click: “Shadows of the Night”

The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (1981)

Go Go' Beauty and the Beat

On their way to cracking the code that had kept every female band from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm to the Runaways safely on the fringes, they made the rest of the New Wave bands sound like they weren’t trying. That was no particular shame on the New Wave, because the dirty little secret was that they made pretty much every pre-New Wave band sound like they weren’t trying either.

This took nine months to climb to number one on the Billboard Album Chart, at which point the general word was that we could expect a wave of highly successful all female bands.

Still waiting for that.

Pick to Click: “Can’t Stop the World”

Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

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Hence the flood. One of a wave of mega-million sellers that made up rock and roll’s last gasp as a force that defined something more than itself. All of the others (Thriller, Born In the U.S.A., Purple Rain, Eliminator, Scarecrow, 1984, et al) were by well established acts who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since.

Every one of them sure sounded like the present in 1984 and that’s exactly what they sound like now.

1984.

Despite a production style that’s as dated as any, Lauper still sounds like she’s singing about a future in which she would be the only one left standing. The future that is now.

It’s 2015 and there are individual cuts here and there on those other albums that sound great. This is the only one I still listen to at all…and I listen to it obsessively.

Pick to Click: “Money Changes Everything” (The album’s fifth hit single and probably the most radical recording to ever hit the Top 40 even before you take into consideration when it was released.)

The Bangles All Over the Place (1984)

FAVALBUMSBANGLES

Honestly, I thought they sounded a little cold around the heart at the time. I was wrong. They were just coolly taking the world’s measure. As perfect a folk rock record as anyone’s ever made, up to and including Dylan and the Byrds.

Now, if only folk rock had still been a thing…

Pick to Click: “Silent Treatment”

Los Lobos How Will the Wolf Survive (1984)

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I mean, the rest of their career, at least as much as I’ve been able to keep up, suggests they’re archivists on some level, but this sounded like a deep well from the gut to me in its day and I’ve never stopped drinking from it. I forget it for a while, sure. But every time I pick it back up it sounds new again. I don’t need all my fingers and toes to count the albums I can say the same for. The album Donald Trump’s Republican rivals would be playing at every campaign stop if they had any brains (and, no, I have no idea if we should be glad that they don’t…I’m a pox on all their houses sort from way back).

Pick to Click: “Our Last Night” (live from 1987)

Minutemen Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)

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Revolt that had no chance whatsoever of coming into style. I bought it nearly thirty years ago and listened to it once, transfixed. I swear I’ll listen to it again some day. When I’m old enough to fully accept that it either is or isn’t what I hope it is.

Pick to Click? Er, no.

The Go-Go’s Talk Show (1984)

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Revolt going out of style. Those ugly, blocked lines separating them were more real than symbolic. They saved my life and then broke up. Can’t forgive, can’t forget. May write about it some day. Stay tuned.

Pick to Click: “Beneath the Blue Sky”

Todd Rundgren A Cappella (1985)

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A weird and compelling amalgamation of Brian Wilson’s brain, circa 1966, transmuted through Thom Bell’s melodic sensibility, circa 1973, and Daryl Hall’s larynx, circa 1977. Or something like that. This album could be an appropriate soundtrack for a teleconference on euthanasia, a street revolution, or a CIA sponsored convention on “Torture in the Third World, Effective or No?” Honestly, I don’t listen to it very often. But when I do, my mind ranges very far afield and I invariably end up with a slow, dreamy smile on my face which I’m convinced enhances my enigmatic appeal immensely.

Pick to Click: “Mighty Love” (unfathomable)

Katrina and the Waves (1985)

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I think it’s pretty obvious by now I like Power Pop a little more than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does. This isn’t one of those acts who are worthy of Hall consideration, of course, but it just goes to show how thin the line is, because it’s easy to imagine this perfect little album being a springboard to a lot more than one hit single. It’s also easy to imagine it never being even that. Mysteries of life I guess.

Pick to Click: “Going Down to LIverpool”

Cyndi Lauper True Colors (1986)

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Backlash was inevitable. She was too…something. The nasty comments about her audacity in covering the by-then sainted and martyred Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” obscured what she did with it, which was explode it from the inside, cast it into the future (This future, did I mention? The one where the wars never actually end? The one only the visionaries could see?) and segue it into “Iko, Iko.” That’s supposed to be what albums are for, especially if it sells seven million worldwide and all. Instead she got endless grief and a broken career which is now often deemed that of a mild underachiever because she only sold fifty million records.

Pick to Click: “Change of Heart”

Terence Trent D’Arby Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (1987)

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Sweep and scope like nobody’s business. Star in the making. Took a few years off. Made another album. Walked away. Never walked back. Maybe said all he had to say. Sure sign things were falling apart. Guy like this having no more to say.

Pick to Click: “If You Let Me Stay”

House of Schock (1988)

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Oh, I guess what I said here (with links worth pursuing).

Other Pick to Click: “Love In Return”

Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1988)

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There was a moment there when it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t be a major star. It didn’t happen, but this was a hip hop apotheosis and Madonna supposedly spent a whole lot of time obsessively breaking down a certain single…May as well close the eighties, and the series, with that particular mystery dance.

Pick to Click: “Buffalo Stance”