DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Starz Up)

“Cherry Baby”
Starz (1977)
US #33
Recommended source: Brightest Starz: Anthology

Despite its impeccable Big Thing antecedents (Beatles, Beach Boys, Who), Power Pop never quite made it to Next Big Thing status on its own. It hung around–over ground in the music of Badfinger, Raspberries, Cheap Trick, Cars, Go-Go’s and underground (Big Star, Flamin’ Groovies and several hundred lesser bands)–without taking over. Even with the bleedover from bigger-than-the-genre bands like Blondie in the 70s and the Bangles in the 80s, and the inescapability of the Knack’s “My Sharona” in the late 70s, there simply weren’t enough hits.

And, as an unabashed fan of the genre (or maybe the word is concept), I have to say there weren’t enough hits because there simply weren’t enough great records.

Outside the bands I mentioned above and a few, mostly Brit, tweeners like Small Faces and the Move, Power Pop in its heyday promised more than it delivered. In the 70s, when there was still a chance it would be more than a sub-genre of the perpetually underachieving New Wave, only two records ever grabbed me.

One was Sniff N’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat,” which actually made the American top 20 and isn’t eligible for my little category here.

The other was Starz’ “Cherry Baby.”

1977 was the year the rock and roll experiment really started to waver. Besides “Cherry Baby,” Shaun Cassidy’s three great singles (“Da Doo Ron Ron,” “That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie”) the radio was as dead to anybody who, from ignorance or otherwise, was holding disco at arm’s length as everybody claimed it had been in 1963, before the Beatles came along and saved us all.

In 1977, the Sex Pistols were apparently supposed to do it all again. They failed. Mostly because their records couldn’t compete with those made by black people.

They still can’t.

“Cherry Baby” did and does. If Starz (who preferred being billed as a metal band anyway) had been able to come up with another dozen of these, who knows….

Alas, there was only one. But it still makes me smile.

And, as I’ve learned long since, that’s not nothing.

RIGHT CROSS (Malcolm Young, R.I.P.)

It’s a little hard for a non-musician to say exactly what a rhythm guitarist adds to a rock and roll band but I’ve always assumed it had something to do with providing, you know, the rhythm.

If that’s true then few people have ever been a more hard core rock and roller than AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, who just passed away, twelve days after his older brother (and original producer), George, and three years after he retired from the band he founded with another brother, Angus, in the early seventies, as a result of complications due to early stage dementia. Because, before and after they were anything else, AC/DC were rhythm, rhythm, and more rhythm.

Yes, they wrote songs, including fifteen or twenty that became permanent radio staples and Malcolm had a strong hand it that, too. I suspect on some level, he played a role similar to John Entwistle’s in the Who–the steady hand, who took care of basic business, musically and otherwise, giving the more flamboyant personalities (in AC/DC, the head-banging, road-running, rhythm-rhythm-rhythm Angus, and the powerhouse rhythm-rhythm-rhythm lead singers Bon Scott and Brian Johnson) room to roam.

Unlike the punks who rose beside them or the death metal bands who sprang up in their wake (and often cited AC/DC as an influence), the Young brothers knew there was more to rhythm–and hence to the “rock and roll” they always insisted was a good enough description of what they did when anybody bothered to ask–than just playing loud, fast and primitive. Yes, they rocked–and rocked and rocked and rocked. But they never forgot to roll. Which is why they were a truly great band and also why they blasted out of more radios than all the punk and death metal bands combined back when rock and roll on the radio was still the common coin of the culture.

I suspect their “rhythm” guitarist had something to do with that, as well.

Malcolm Young and his band knew who they were, they kept on being who they were come hell or high water and they never quit or tried to be anyone else.

Very few of us get to pass to the next stage knowing we managed all that.

I hope the final highway led some place other than Hell, but, if not, at least Malcolm Young will be one of the very few who reach the last stop with his eyes wide open.

 

WHEN THE GO-GO’S RULED…AND WHY (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #107)

I just came across this clip from a Go-Go’s’ concert on Germany’s Rockpalast. It’s from smack dab in the middle of their three-year run on the charts. There is much better live footage of them across the years. They look exhausted here, ripe subjects for burnout and Exhibit A of “paying the price for too much too soon” even if it probably felt like a hundred years to them.

But….

I’ve never seen any other clip which demonstrates so clearly why they were the last great rock ‘n’ roll band, even if it turns out the members of the last great “rock” band are waiting to be born.

Except for the Who, no band ever had so many folks fighting for so little space…and the Who thrashed at each other as often as they meshed.

The Go-Go’s had at least three people playing what amounted to lead instruments and two of those were the rhythm section. They traded their licks at a speed that made everybody else who bothered trading licks (not all that many) sound like they were playing underwater. It really shouldn’t have worked and it wasn’t exactly to their advantage that they made it look–and sound–so easy.

And, brief as it is, this is the best look at Kathy Valentine’s hands I’ve ever seen. She’s playing a top ten hit (which she wrote) at Ramones’ speed, while carrying a melody line the Ramones would have killed for….all on a bass guitar.**

And she doesn’t dominate….Because even her hands aren’t faster or more fluid than Charlotte Caffey’s or Gina Schock’s or even Jane Wiedlin’s, all of whom knew a thing or two about carrying the melody and the beat themselves, even if they only had three seconds to do it before they threw it back to whoever threw it at them.

I’ve said it before, I say it again. They were the first and last “all female” band to have a #1 album in Billboard. When folks predicted there would surely be many more such bands, I said: “Not if they have to play like that.”

When there’s only one, there’s usually a reason….it’s worth remembering that now, when we are further removed from them than they were from Fats Domino and still waiting for someone to beat their time.

**To be fair, even the Go-Go’s didn’t write many melodies as compelling as “Vacation.”

PARANOIA BLUES….ON THE RADIO NO LESS (Segue of the Day: 4/7/17)

On the way back from errands yesterday….

taking a break from the right-wing radio meltdown following the Security State’s first major win in their nearly two-year war with Donald Trump (we bombed Syria in case you missed it….John McCain’s death-mask grin and Chuck “they’ve-got-six-ways-from-Sunday-of-getting-back-at-you” Schumer’s sad, sad capitulatory eyes told all the Establishment tales worth telling, their words being, as always, post-warning, irrelevant)….

I flipped over to the Classic Rock station….

Which, in the hunt for survival, no longer confines itself to Classic Rock…

And they play Blondie….”Heart of Glass” (not just Blondie, but disco Blondie)….and I think “I’ll just listen to see if they play the ‘pain in the ass’ version….

Which they did….

…and, as it winds down, I reach for the button, prepared to be let down, thinking Alex Jones in full freak-out will probably be better than what’s coming next…

But the dee-jay says the Who are next…and, of course, if the Who are next on a day like this one, it can only be this…

…(and I flash on my Godchild, circa 2005, saying “I thought the Republicans were supposed to change all this”….appropo of which betrayal I don’t recall…what I do remember is saying ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’…and then pointing to his parents (he was a he then) and saying, ‘they got their politics from Star Trek, I got mine from rock and roll, you’ll note which of us is never surprised’….and, for once, I get Daltrey’s final scream just right)

Which puts me in such a good mood, I’m prepared to put up with the Police, even though it’s not “Roxanne”….but instead the only song it can be, if it’s playing on a day like this one and it’s by the Police….

…from 1983…and, on a day like this one, I can’t help but finally get it.

I didn’t stay in the car to find out if Hot Chocolate’s “You Win Again” was up next.

Because, hey, I got my politics from rock and roll….so I can’t possibly get fooled again, no matter who “wins.”

Weird thing was, the song that really caught the vibe of the deadened air all around….

Was the first one.

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….

UPDATE: As of 1/4/18, the Sid n Susie version of “What’s So Funny” is on YouTube. Get it while you can…

 

FORESHADOWING (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #89)

I’m starting to put my Eve of Destruction-by-Election Soundtrack together (Coming to a Blog Post Near You, November 7th!). Rummaging around, I found this little item. I have no idea whether it depicts a world busy being born or busy dying. I went to a gathering of Shades and asked the Shade of the Prophet, but he couldn’t tell me either (not only that, he refused to call me a Seeker…May the Nobel Committee take back his prize and Timothy Leary spike his dope in the Great Beyond!).

I like that about it.

What I really like, though, is that the crowd can’t tell whether they’re supposed to be dancing fast or slow. If that’s not a metaphor for the century after the American Century (and the Splendid Life of Keith Moon), I don’t know what is…

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT…MAYBE (Memory Lane: 1982, 1984 and Yesterday)

Just for starters, this memory was triggered by “We Got the Beat” playing on the radio between here and the grocery store last night. It made me smile, of course, but it also made me realize something I had not quite gleaned from the other thousand times I’ve heard it, which was that it was the last great hit surf instrumentalt, not recognized as such because it was disguised by the presence of a few strung-together words and the fact that the band was the wrong gender. Then as now, everybody recognized how affirmative the Go-Go’s were. Then as now, very few understood how disrupting they were. Or how unlikely.

The word back then was “well, there will surely be a lot of big girl bands now.”

My word was: “Not if they have to play like that, there won’t be.”

More on how that all worked out later.

And now for 1982…and a little bit of 1984.

1982 was the year I literally didn’t walk across the street to see the Go-Go’s.

They played the Tallahassee Leon County Civic Center in September. I still lived in the tiny, roach-infested apartment that had been home to my FSU years. I would move to a bigger, less crummy, apartment a few weeks later. But in the meantime I was literally a stone’s throw from the TLCCC. The only space separating its front door from mine was the back yard of the FSU Law School.

And the only post-70s band that ever had or would matter to me the way so many sixties and seventies bands had or would was playing in support of the first album by a self-contained all-female band to hit #1 in Billboard.

I already loved them so I kind of wanted to go. Three things held me back.

I was broke.

I would have had to go alone.

I thought there’d be more time.

It was probably the third reason that kept me from going. I was (and am) used to being broke. I was (and am) used to doing things alone.

And, back then, I was used to thinking there would be more time.

I wasn’t used to thinking this last part all the time. Part of the time I was used to thinking my time would end very shortly. This made doing certain things difficult. Among those certain things was arranging to attend a concert you didn’t strictly have the money for and would have to attend alone, even if it was right across the street and even if the band playing was the Go-Go’s.

It would have been doable. But I would have needed to achieve and sustain a certain mood.

I didn’t achieve or sustain the mood, so I didn’t go. At the back of it all, “There will be more time” was double-edged for me.

I was sure there would be more time for them, that they would last many years, make many albums. I wasn’t so sure about me.

So-o-o-o-o….

On the night that they played Tallahassee I ventured from my apartment to the grocery store. Kind of like last night.

Only that night, unlike last night, the concert was just letting out and there was a little more traffic than usual. Not killer traffic, not like a football game, but enough to have me waiting at a light in front of a long line of cars when the door of the car behind me opened and what I soon discerned was a Top Five girl got out and started running towards my car.

(In case you’re wondering, a Top Five girl is one of the handful you never forget. Sometimes there are more than five, sometimes less, but five’s a good average. Nobody has many more than that. And nobody who manages to survive–as, improbably, I did–has many less.)

Anyway, Top Five girl was drop dead gorgeous and she ran up to my window–it was a ’71 Maverick, no AC, so, it being September in Florida, I didn’t need to roll the window down–and started talking a mile-a-minute about the concert and how great it was and whether I had gone?

“No,” I said. “No money.”

“It’s too bad,” she said. “They were so-o-o-o great.”

After that, we chatted amiably for a bit. Then the light changed and she said “Well, bye!” and sprinted back to the car full of kids which she had no doubt left on one of those dares that get offered to certain personality types just because they are those types and get answered by them for the same reason.

I’m sure she didn’t mean to depress me. It didn’t come across as an “I’m gorgeous and having fun and riding in a cool car and you’re so-o-o-o-o not” kind of moment. She seemed to be mostly interested in making a memorable night a little more memorable. And, to tell the truth, if she hadn’t done just that, I probably wouldn’t remember the circumstances of the night I didn’t walk across the street to see the Go-Go’s very vividly at all.

Instead, it became seared in the memory, an indelible part of my “Go-Go’s Experience,” which I’m still considering writing about at length one of these days.

What happened last night, though, after “We Got the Beat” on the radio opened this particular seam, was I went searching for videos on YouTube and the comments’ sections of several of those videos led me to a search that led, in turn, to this bit of news.

The Go-Go’s are saying farewell.

Well, the Go-Go’s, like many bands, have said “farewell” before. They said farewell for the first time in 1984, barely two years after I didn’t walk across the street to see them the only time they would ever play my neck of the woods, and barely two months after they delivered the bit of rock and roll (about which, maybe more some day) that allowed me to survive myself (I wasn’t threatened by anything or anyone else, unless you count the Devil, which, honestly, I didn’t).

So maybe this isn’t really farewell. Heck, the Who are doing a farewell tour this year, too, and I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve said farewell.

In any case, I won’t be going to see them. I won’t, even though their opener, in Clearwater, is within reach. I won’t even consider it because they said farewell to Kathy Valentine a couple of years ago and, with the Go-Go’s as with so few others, if it’s not all of them, it’s not them.

I knew that back in 1982. I certainly knew it in 1984.

I haven’t forgot, because I haven’t forgot who they were, even if maybe, sadly, they have. They were the first all-writing, all-singing, all-playing all-female band to put an album at the top of the Billboard chart. Yes, they were that. And thirty-four years later, they are still the last.

Like I said then: “Not if they have to play like that.”

And like I’ve said before: When there is only one of something, there is usually a reason.

The Go-Go’s were first and last for a very simple reason, a reason that came to mind yet again when they came on the radio last night.

They were perfect. Right down to the last track on what, if they really are saying farewell, will be their last album….

THE CHANGE IT HAD TO COME….(Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #71)

..I knew it all along.

But it sure took a while

For most of the last year, I couldn’t afford a television hookup so I spent way more time than usual monitoring talk radio, the wackier the better. Back when Donald Trump first entered the Republican race, though, I had an unwacky day where I happened to be listening to NPR and the host asked two top level political reporters (so called, I don’t remember their names), if Trump had any chance whatsoever to get the nomination.

Both reporters went to great lengths to outdo each other in their absolute assurances that this could never, ever, ever, ever, ever happen in umpty billion years.

And I thought: “If you think he hasn’t got a chance, you’re crazy.”

I didn’t just arrive at that little insight by monitoring right wing radio, which, in fact, has provided plenty of push-back against Trump and Trumpism. (Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and Dana Loesh out-and-out hate him and only the wackiest wackies, Michael Savage and Alex Jones, have offered anything like strong support.)

No, I arrived at my conclusion because I’ve been monitoring the weight of the Republican party’s consistent betrayal of social conservatives and evangelicals (i.e., most of my friends and family) for three decades plus. And I had noticed that in the past five years or so, things had changed.

I was not surprised that the national media missed the story.

I’ve never seen any evidence that evangelicals in particular are in the least bit understood by what Bernie Sanders–who sounds more like an Old Testament prophet than anyone in this race–never fails to call the political, economic and media establishments.

That lack of understanding is surely why those establishments were left clutching their pearls when Trump’s rough language, for instance, failed to turn off churchgoers in South Carolina. Or when the very reasonable arguments put forth by his opponents that, until the day before yesterday, he was reliably liberal on virtually every hill-to-die-on social issue that my fellow Christians, knowing full well they would be punched in the face economically, sold their votes for over three decades.

Such things don’t tend to matter when you finally decide to swing back.

When you decide to swing back, you look for the biggest hammer in the room.

All those sold votes–sold souls in some cases–netted nothing. Republicans quite predictably collected reliable votes from the pews and, from 1980 to now, gave nothing in return. Hence, it was only a matter of time before this bargain unraveled. The only question was which election cycle would provide the tipping point.

It’s here. The bargain is dead.

And Donald Trump is the biggest hammer in the room.

I know lots of evangelicals and take the temperature of many more on the radio and online.

I haven’t found a single one who likes him and very few who aren’t disgusted by him. I think a lot of their sentiment can be summed up here (in the most frightening and salient report I’ve read on the Trump phenomenon).

But while I have trouble imagining myself voting for Trump, and will certainly hold that linked essay in my head as a warning lest I be tempted to cross over to the dark side, I can understand why others have given in. I’ve never been particularly invested in “social issues” as a political matter–the law is always helpless against any personal practice the culture cannot enforce and the culture collapsed long ago. I don’t get worked up about the issues because I tend to think of America in the past tense–as something to be studied and learned from.

We had a shot.

We didn’t listen to our own prophets (see, particularly, my posts on the Rising at right).

We blew it.

I’m resigned.

But mine is a minority opinion.

Anger is a powerful emotion in any breast clinging to hope.

And there is very little in this world more satisfying than the moment you realize you finally have a venue for speaking directly to people who have held you in open contempt for a lifetime. No matter how vigilant you are in your quest to let the red letters in the King James guide your behavior, it’s hard to resist the simplest gut-level response, the one that has reverberated throughout this campaign and can be hurled back at every puzzled pundit face on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, every hour of the day:

“I hate you back.”

Without coming anywhere near putting it so strongly, that’s what Jerry Falwell, Jr. meant this evening on Fox, when he was pressed on why and how so many evangelicals (including himself) have chosen Trump over, for instance, Ted Cruz, one of their own.

It’s not the old days he said.

It’s not about social issues anymore. The politicians have had their day and been found dismally wanting.

“It’s like that old Who song,” Falwell, Jr. finally said.

Then he named the song.

If you don’t think we’re in some sort of New Age, try to imagine Falwell’s late father (a huckster who, along with Pat Robertson, was long ago appointed to speak for evangelicals by the same corrupt payola-style process, and for the same contemptuous reasons, that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were designated to speak for Black America–brothers and sisters, I feel your pain, because the question of whether it is better to be badly represented than not represented at all is not any easy one), dropping a Who reference.

And having the reference be nothing more than a statement of the obvious, too long in coming:

The only question now is the obvious one.

If Trump wins, will the new boss really be any different than the old boss?

I fear not. If someone has a thumb in the eye of the man who has a boot in your face, it’s easy to think he must be offering a better way. It becomes easy to look past the boots he’s wearing, to miss that they are heavier and thicker and have hobnails in the soles.

But, if you want to look for a silver lining, perhaps finally asking the question is healthier than continuing to ignore it.

And if not now, when?

Something to hold on to, I guess.

I do wonder what would happen, though, if, in this very same season, Black America were to somehow wake up in time to ditch Hilary for Bernie…and if we could then somehow keep from fighting in the streets with our children at our feet.

What then?

New day? Or past tense forever?

I’ll keep watching.

And dreading.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

MEETTHETEMPTATIONS

At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

TEMPTSSINGSMOEY2

So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS