THE SPIRIT OF ’65

CD Review:

Completely Under the Covers (2016)
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

There’s always been a place in Susanna Hoffs’ voice that feels like 1965 and is all the more compelling for persistently suggesting that the only thing 1965 was ever missing was her.

This is four CDs worth of her indulging the premise.

Oh, Matthew Sweet is here also and that’s hardly insignificant (they call themselves Sid n Susie….cute). But I’ve never thought I’d be interested in hearing him sing the phone book. With Hoffs, be it lead or harmony, I’m not so sure.

Well there’s no phone book test here, just a bunch of great songs from the Sixties (Disc 1: The original Under the Covers from 2006), Seventies (Disc 2: Under the Covers, Volume 2, from 2009 and Disc 3: Outtakes from the same sessions) and Eighties (Disc 4: Under the Covers, Volume 3 from 2012).

I didn’t make a count, but I’ll guess she takes the lead about two-thirds, him about a third, with a few trade-offs and close harmony leads throw in.

It doesn’t all work, or anyway it’s not all outstanding. I wasn’t surprised because I’ve pulled up their collaborations here and there on YouTube over the years and while the song choices always seemed compelling, the actual performances were a little too true to the originals to really add anything obvious.

Still, I thought it might be more compelling to sit down and listen to them all at once so when this came up cheap on Amazon with my birthday rolling around I sprang for it.

I wasn’t wrong either time.

Listening close, listening all at once, it’s compelling enough to amount to some sort of vision: a quarter-century of white rock and roll re-imagined as a set of well-produced folk songs. Slick but (mostly) not too slick.

Despite the slightly salacious series title, there’s nothing like sexual heat or chemistry going on here and nothing remotely like the subliminal, rivalry-based anger that drove pretty much every one of the great harmony acts that were around in ’65 (Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel….all in all, not a happy bunch). I miss the heat. I miss the subliminal, which is so often the springboard for the sublime.

But this has a pull all its own. Some of it’s just the confidence that every song is tried and true. There’s no wondering if the tunes won’t work, especially since Sweet and Hoffs work only the tiniest variations on the originals. As the songs roll on–sixty in all, including fifteen bonus tracks not previously available–it’s those variations and their subtleties that take hold: Hoffs making rare use of her soprano for two magic seconds at the fade of “You’re So Vain” pulling the song backwards and forwards at the same time while also making it do something it never quite did before, which is hurt; the gentle subversion of refusing to either switch the gender for “Maggie May” and (following Linda Ronstadt) “Willin'” or just give them to the guy; the shift from Love’s “Alone Again Or” to Bran Wilson’s “The Warmth of the Sun” that actually feels like it’s straight from a bar band stage at Ciro’s on a night when nobody wants to dance.

And, all the way up in the Eighties’ portion of the program, proof that the old alternative universe dream of Hoffs fronting the Go-Go’s (the better singer hooking up with the greater band), was, like so many alt-universe dreams–including those being dreamed from left to right in this new world we’ve made–a false flag. All this version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” does is suggest that, in our non-alternative reality, Belinda Carlisle really is some kind of genius.

That’s how it goes throughout. The highs and lows chase each other around without leaving any indication that there could ever be a consensus on exactly which is which. The notion of a place where there’s a home for Yes and the Clash, the Who and James Taylor is just as mixed up and confused as you might fear and as oddly reassuring as you might hope.

Music for these times then?

I honestly wasn’t sure until I got to the middle of the third disc–all outtakes–and, with Sweet taking the lead and Hoffs pushing him from underneath the way Jackie DeShannon might have pushed Gene Clark if God had been on the ball in, yeah, ’65, and had them do an album of duets where they submerged their personalities into each other and the spirit of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” even if the song wasn’t yet available.

It’s a song Nick Lowe wrote in 1974 about the spirit of ’65, an unofficial sequel to the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (which, by some unfathomable mystery, is missing from this set). A short time after, Elvis Costello and the Attractions turned it into an anthem of pure fury and one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. You can hear those versions here:

Since then, there have been a boatload of other covers. You can chase those around YouTube all day long if so inclined, but, if not, I’ll just pull up the other two good ones I found here:

That gives you some idea of the song’s flexibility…its own ability to reach forward and back.

If you listen close to Costello’s version, you can even hear that old Byrds’ jangling guitar–the secret language of white rock for the last fifty years–chiming throughout…and breaking loose in the bridge.

Now what I can’t do is post Sid n Susie’s studio version, which hit me this week the way “Turn, Turn, Turn” hit me in the spring of ’78, when I got my high school diploma and my first copy of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits in the space of about twenty-four hours.

I can’t post it because it’s not on YouTube yet and I’m not into posting music there. Maybe I should be. Because, as things stand, I heartily recommend that you avoid the live versions which are posted and give no hint of anything but professional boredom.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to take my word for it that, without Matthew Sweet being anywhere near a Byrd (or Elvis Costello) vocally, or the band being anywhere near able to generate the Attractions’ mind-meld, Sid n Susie made me feel the gap between 1965 and now like nothing I’ve heard in decades. Like it still might be possible–just…and just for a moment–to wake up tomorrow and find that Peace, Love and Understanding had finally, in the moment when the children of ’65 have so far lost their minds that they’re holding their breath waiting for the CIA to save the Republic and the next Democratic Congress to convene anti-anti-communist versions of HUAC hearings, become not so funny at all.

It’s almost enough, all by itself, to redeem the idea of spending this last horrific decade treating rock and roll as folk music with which black people had nothing to do while pretending that such oversights are in no way responsible for our current predicament.

Well, that plus doing right by bubbling unders from the Left Banke….

 

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 3: The Seventies, Amended)

Whenever you do this sort of thing, ad hoc, you’re almost bound to leave something out. But, while I haven’t had more than one or two pangs of regret over my sixties’ list, the deep and fundamental inadequacy of my seventies’ list started bugging me almost as soon as I posted it. I kept remembering yet another album that made me ask “How could I have left that one off?” Finally, when there were enough of them, I decided to put the eighties’ list on hold.

I’m not much into the old this “decade vs. that decade” disputes, at least not when the decades in question were indisputably great. But for rather obvious historical and demographic reasons, the seventies were certainly the most prolific decade for rock and roll. One fun aspect of taking the focus off the canon for a bit is exploring roads not taken or roads that were partially explored before being abandoned. More of that probably happened in the seventies with truly popular (and populist) music than in any other arbitrary ten year stretch. Some of what’s here “hit,” some didn’t. But it’s easy to think that any of it might have. And, in any case, it was fun to have an excuse to dig out the vinyl and just sit back and smile….

Brinsley Schwarz Despite It All (1970)

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Fake country rock…from England. Really, now, what other decade had that? Weird thing was, for the space of this album, it was convincing. Even Gram Parsons never did better with the concept. And, as we surely know now if we didn’t know then, that’s as good as the concept gets.

Pick to Click: “Ebury Down”

The Move Message From the Country (1971)

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In the later vinyl and cd era, re-releases of this album have always included “Do Ya” and some other fine singles recorded around the same time which were not on this album originally. But the original album was fine on its own. They morphed into ELO of course, but, believe me, Bachman Turner Overdrive took a few notes as well. If, like me, you cant that a good thing, then this is a kind of touchstone of a style of rock and roll that, unless “rock and roll” counts, was never hip enough to acquire a catchy name.

Pick to Click: “Until Your Mama’s Gone”

The Belmonts Cigars, Acappella, Candy (1972)

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I have to admit, when I put the original list together I left this off because I thought these guys had been inducted along with a lot of other famous backup bands/groups a few years back (Blue Caps, Miracles, like that). Seems they weren’t. Once again, you have to sometimes wonder what the folks at the Hall are thinking. Me, I’d put them in if this miraculous LP was all they ever did.

Pick to Click: “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”

B.J. Thomas Billy Joe Thomas (1972)

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I wrote at length about this album’s most famous track here. There’s no way the rest of it could live up to “Rock and Roll Lullaby” which would pretty much upset the balance of any LP ever made. But Thomas was one of the finest studio singers of studio singing’s golden age and, as the title suggests, this is an attempt at the kind of cohesive statement studio pros weren’t supposed to be capable of (not being “soulful” enough presumably). Despite some occasionally pedestrian production, it largely succeeds. A vocal tour-de-force.

Pick to Click: “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Following along with the “Drift Away” theory established in the “Volume 2, The Seventies” portion of our program….Of the album’s other cuts, I especially commend the closer, a version of John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell” which, unfortunately, I couldn’t find on-line.)

Barry White Stone Gon’ 1973

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One of the things Rock and Roll America used to turn up on a fairly regular basis was voices the rest of America hadn’t been able to previously imagine. Believe me, you can find more precedent for Little Richard in 1955, or Jimi Hendrix in 1967, than you can for Barry White in 1973. This was his second album. It’s here because it’s the only non-comp of his I happen to own. I’ll need to correct that oversight some day. Just be warned that his habit on LP was to stretch his great singles to the breaking point and then surround them with the stuff the radio didn’t have time for…also stretched to the breaking point. I’ll just add that when white Englishmen took this sort of approach, it was always called “art” or “classical” and never once sounded either half as good or half as adventurous.

Pick to Click: “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” (long version)

KC and the Sunshine Band Do it Good (1974)

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If disco hadn’t taken off the way it did, and they hadn’t played such a key role in that takeoff, then they would probably be recognized and celebrated for what they really were, which was a hardcore southern funk band whose leader, Harry Wayne Casey, was, as bandleader, frontman, writer, producer and arranger, the point man in changing the style’s deepest scene from Memphis to Miami.

If that kind of recognition should ever come, it might just get him and his crack band (along with his partner in enlightenment, Richard Finch) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they richly belong. All of their period albums are good, and their basic comp is essential. But not more so than their first album, which creased the R&B charts and presaged their breakout the following year. In a word, they did what a southern funk band was supposed to do and for half a decade they did it better than anyone else.

They stomped.

Pick to Click: “Sound Your Funky Horn”

Hot Chocolate Cicero Park (1974)

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Actually, every album they released in the seventies could qualify as one of my favorites for this list and just as superb albums period. They were basically unclassifiable, which may be why they’ve never quite gotten credit for being as great as they were. The vision was equal parts funk, rock, glam, reggae, sixties’ soul and social protest. Actually there once was a classification for that: Rock and Roll. Don’t tell the wrong people. They might swim over to your island and steal your Hot Chocolate records.

Pick to Click: “Changing World”

Wet Willie Keep On Smilin’ (1974)

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The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd set the tone for most of Southern Rock. It would be rooted in blues and R&B, crossed with country and English hard rock, with (in the case of the Allmans) a little jazz thrown in. Wet Willie were hardly unmindful of all that, but they also gravitated toward blue eyed soul and hard funk and, at their best, it led to what I can only call gutbucket beauty. This is them at their best. If the title track were even conceivable today, it would be slotted “Americana” and have no chance whatsoever of being played anywhere except college radio. In it’s day it went Top Ten on the Pop charts. Tell me again why things are really the same or better now?

Pick to Click: “Keep On Smilin'” (live)

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids Rock & Roll Forever (1975)

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This is a cheat. It’s a sort of comp, though sufficiently unusual for me to include it even if I didn’t have my reasons. It contains their first album, plus other stuff like the cut from American Graffiti (where they played the band for the high school dance) that threatened very briefly to break them out. They were neo to the core, of course. Throwbacks of a kind that normally aren’t good for anything more than the cheapest nostalgia. A decade later, bands like the Blasters made the throwback thing cool and the Stray Cats even made it commercial. But Flash Cadillac weren’t really like that. They were more like a group of guys who were genuinely caught out of time. They played and sang like the sixties had never happened. There were limits to the approach to say the least. But they, almost alone among the many practitioners of the ethos, found a genuine joy in it, too. Having never heard a single cut on this LP except the American Graffiti stuff, finding this in a used record shop in the nineties still put the smile of the year on my face. And taking it home and listening to it didn’t dim that smile even a little bit.

Pick to Click: “She’s So Fine”

Vicki Sue Robinson Never Gonna Let You Go (1976)

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Out here in the hinterlands there was a very long stretch, basically from whenever the single edit of “Turn The Beat Around” fell off the charts and took the LP out of your local department store’s record bin with it, until the mid-nineties CD reissue boom began taking hold, when, if you wanted to hear the incendiary long version of “Turn the Beat Around,” you had to get lucky and find this in a throwaway bin somewhere. (Oh yeah, you could luck into a 12″ white-sleeve single version…In North Florida…Sure you could. Just like you could see Elvis and Jim Morrison pumping gas across the street from the local Hardee’s.)

My copy was acquired in the late eighties. It still has the fifty-cent tag on it and, if memory serves, it was from a shop where the standard fare was more like fifty bucks.

Or it could have been from the one that was keeping most of their stock on dirt floors in an open-ended barn.

Have I mentioned previously that, sometimes, memory does not serve very well?

What I do remember was picking it up because I had kind of liked the single once upon a time, didn’t have it, but was having a bit of a love affair with old disco albums at the time, figured “Hey, it’s fifty cents. What can it hurt?”

What else I remember was playing the lead track–yes, it’s “Turn the Beat Around”–and being literally floored. There was a time when I obsessed on understanding the lyrics, especially the part where she started redeeming what I had previously considered the dubious history of any and all scat-singing that didn’t involve Louis Armstrong, before finally deciding it was pointless because she was obviously speaking in tongues.

Then, of course, Gloria Estefan came along and straightened it all out with her perfectly articulated 1994 version. I can’t tell you how I know this, and, of course it won’t really be my call, but you can rest assured that, on the Judgment Day, one Gloria Estefan will not be forgiven.

Yes, there’s a whole album and it’s a pretty darn good album. I especially like that fact that, according the back cover, one Vicki Sue Robinson both arranged and performed all that scat-singing herself, including the backup. And, of course, these days, the long version is readily available on YouTube, Amazon, etc.

But that’s really immaterial.

It would be immaterial if the rest of this album were Let It Bleed. Music’s an affair of the heart before it’s anything else. So’s record collecting.

Vicki Sue Robinson, come on down.

Pick to click: “Turn the Beat Around” (long version)

The Cars (1978)

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The album has nine tracks. Six of them became permanent radio staples, despite no single reaching higher than #27 in Billboard. It didn’t sound like anything else before it (even though everybody swore it did, because, well, it must have) and, except for other Cars’ albums, it hasn’t sounded like anything since. Maybe we should be thankful, because, before it’s anything else, it’s ice cold, the epitome of naked ambition. But it worked. And, when it works, ice cold naked ambition is as rock and roll as anything else in this vail of tears.

Pick to Click: “Bye Bye Love” (live)

Rachel Sweet Fool Around (1978)

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As I’ve said somewhere on here before, the missing link between Brenda Lee and Britney Spears. I bet Britney would have been better–and better off–if Rachel had been as big as either. Girl could have used a role model. (Britney, I mean. Rachel was a smart cookie. Went into TV, did just fine. Her lack of stardom was our loss, not hers.)

Click to Pick: “Who Does Lisa Like” (live…and absolutely smokin’)

Nick Lowe Pure Pop For Now People (1978) and Labour of Lust (1979)

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I should mention at this point that there are several albums here, including both of these, which have different tracks for English and American releases. My preferences are for the American versions. Sometimes this is simply because those are what I heard first. More often it’s because I just think the American versions are better.

Going back to the Beatles and Stones, the hard fact is that American record companies had a tendency to cut the fluff. I know this fiddled with everyone’s artistic integrity and all, but I think it also made for better listening experiences. Letting artists have complete control over their album content and sequencing was great in theory, just like letting movie directors have the final cut was great in theory. In practice, better movies and better albums got made when there was a hard won balance between what the artist wanted and what the suits wanted. Now, in the music business at least, we’ve managed the worst of all worlds. The artists are indulged and the suits could care less because there’s no real money in the recording subdivision of the multi-media conglomerate that controls the artist and reports to the corporate sub-overlords who report to the real overlords who keep asking why we really need to keep this music thing going anyway when there’s no money in it?

Case in point, the “bowdlerized” and “re-sequenced” American versions of these two LPs are swift and concise and perfect. The longer English versions (all that’s available on CD as far as I can tell, Pure Pop was originally titled Jesus of Cool) wander around a bit, never quite come to the point and leave no real indication of why this old Brinsley Schwarz hand and jack-of-all-trades record man should have been a much bigger star than he was.

If you can find the vinyl, the question will arise. Those albums were perfect in theory and in fact and, unlike, say, Elvis Costello, he clearly wanted the stardom that never quite came.

No better way to conclude an amended post on the seventies, then, than with the nearest of all the near misses…

Picks to click: “Rollers Show” (Pure Pop) and “American Squirm” (Labour of Lust)

I had some additional thoughts about Pure Pop‘s most famous track, among other things, here.

And I promise you I’m done with the seventies!

And that the eighties, being the eighties, won’t take nearly as long.

ONE SAD EYED LADY TO RULE THEM ALL, ONE SAD EYED LADY TO BIND THEM….THINKING OF GAIL RUSSELL (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #39)

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Quite often, I think I’m going to write about something here…and then I don’t.

A couple of months back–under the fresh spell of the Criterion release of 1944’s The Uninvited–I was set to write a piece pondering whether the movie’s heroine, Gail Russell, (giving one of her several indelible performances, each markedly different from the rest, each forever attributed to her ability to “play herself” as it was well known she “couldn’t act”) might have been in the DNA of Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

I was coming down on the side of “yay, verily” (yes, I know it was probably “about” Dylan’s then wife Sara Lownds if it was about anybody, but, genius or no, it’s hard to believe that title would ever occur to any man who had never seen a Gail Russell movie).

Time got away from me. YouTube wouldn’t let me post the best scene from the movie. I decided to let it go.

Then a couple of weeks back, I was considering a piece on Rick Nelson’s fabuloso box set Legacy, which, after many a long year, had finally come within range of my budget via the used-on-Amazon-and-I-know-from-long-experience-that’s-the-cheapest-it’s-ever-gonna-get routine.

It was going to have something to do with him being at the core of so much that became “California” rock, even as far back as the late fifties (that is, long before the Byrds or even the Beach Boys), when he was supposedly a teenage idol being manipulated hand-foot-and-mouth by puppet-masters.

In the further, relentless press of time, I let that go, too.

I tend to let go of a lot. In this case I really regretted it, though.

I mean, I even had to let go of my own personal Gail Russell anecdote, which had to do with me saying, “She had a sad life,” after I had identified the mystery starlet in the 8X10 I was purchasing to the lady behind the counter of an antique store in North Dakota, to which the lady replied, “Yes, I think you can see that in her eyes.”

Then, this week, I came across this:

“I’ve learned you can’t satisfy everyone. You start and then, all of a sudden, it stops and you can’t even please yourself.” (Gail Russell to Hedda Hopper: Source “Gail Russell Memoriam” Los Angeles Times, 2007)

Russell died, alone in her apartment, in 1961. The cause was essentially acute alcoholism leading to liver failure. She was 36.

I’m guessing this quote would have been printed in some fan mag that was circulating in Hollywood, circa the late fifties, where Rick Nelson had grown up on television, very much a part of the world that produced that quote from an actress who, despite being on the short list of “most beautiful woman in the history of Hollywood” (and my own personal pick), suffered hobbling, then crippling, bouts of stage fright, insecurity, depression.

There’s no way of knowing if Nelson ever read that quote. If he did, he probably didn’t take any special note or remember it for the ages.

Strange, though, that a decade after Russell was found dead (her life and death bearing striking similarities to certain others: Marie Provost, a thirties’ star who had passed away at a similar age in similar circumstances and would become the inspiration for one of Kenneth Anger’s fantasies in Hollywood Babylon, which in turn became the source for Nick Lowe’s “Marie Prevost,” wherein Anger’s tale of Provost dying alone in her apartment and being partially consumed by her pet dachshund in the days that passed before the body was discovered was granted the power of myth; and, a year after Russell’s own death, she was joined by the pathologically insecure Marilyn Monroe, crippled by many of the same demons, playing out a truly myth-making version of the same tale), Rick Nelson would come off a bad gig at Madison Square Garden and scribble a song about the experience.

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Somewhere in there, if you get the bifocals out and peer close enough, you can read the words that revived Nelson’s career (and shattered any doubt that he was ever anybody’s puppet):

Well it’s alright now
I’ve learned my lesson well
You see you can’t please everyone
So you got to please yourself.

And hey, a little more than another decade on, he died in a plane crash. But at least he didn’t die scared and he didn’t die alone.

He learned Gail Russell’s lesson well–took her truth to heart in a way she never could, even if he never knew it was hers before it was his.

But here’s something even stranger.

Once I started thinking about it, I realized Russell might just as well have been in the DNA of another Bob Dylan song.

The one that went “she never stumbles, she’s got no place to fall” and (nice line for a movie star who wrecked as many cars under the influence as Gail did and missed vehicular homicide only by the grace of some mysterious God) “she’s nobody’s child, the law can’t touch her at all.”

Which just happened to become an actual hit in the version done by….aw, you know how it works with mysterious muses around here: