10) Various Artists Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (1972)
Ain’t it beautiful? The (reissue) cover, the concept, the overkill, the noise. Although some of these records were big hits, by the time Lenny Kaye got the idea to gather them all together in one place, there was at least some danger of them being forgotten. A bazillion spin-offs later (including three box sets put out by Rhino which, yes, yes, I have) and there are probably a thousand or so records that deserve to be forgotten but can’t be as long as somebody, anybody, is consumed by the desire to prove they can dive deeper into obscurity than you in search of a lost aesthetic that really should be ruling the world. This is still the best of the lot. I used to think I would change a cut or two, but time has only elevated it. It’s all emblazoned in my brain now. I wouldn’t change a thing.
9) Various Artists Super Girls (1986)
Okay, this I would change….a little. One last gasp at putting out a definitive girl group set, sans Phil Spector, in the vinyl era. There is plenty of great music, but the set is schizophrenic: girlish pop mixed with some hard-core R&B numbers that happened to be sung by females, with the unclassifiable Jaynetts and Shangri-Las thrown in for good measure, not to mention Brenda Lee. The schizoid problem, incidentally, would not have been solved by more Spector (the Paris Sisters are here and they only point up the set’s split personality.)
I’m glad to have it and all…but, pulling it out for the holidays, I was reminded why it never went into heavy rotation back in the days when vinyl was still king at my house. It surges….then it flags….then it surges..and you think, less might be more?
8) Various Artists 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits (1967)
This doesn’t flag. I’m not sure it was the set it might have been (a couple of re-recordings…the Platters’ side is early, pre-fame) but it’s stellar just the same. I mean, that early Platters on “Only You” isn’t just a valid take, it’s a killer.
And don’t covers sometimes make a difference? Somehow that beautiful combination of colors that Columbia Records put together to promote their recently acquired King Records catalog always creates the right mood for me. I feel like I’m in a smoky corner waiting for the floor show on the wrong side of town in 1954 from the minute I see it on the shelf.
7) Graham Parker Howlin’ Wind (1976)
I’m always surprised to rediscover, yet again, that this isn’t a punk record. England, 1976, scenester, cultish following. How can it not be punk or at least “punkish”?
It’s always better for the distinction. Really , if you aren’t the Clash, I’d rather you not be punk, or, God forbid, punkish. Just my personal prejudice. And, every time I put this on–once or twice a decade–I swear I’m gonna get to know it better.
Maybe this will be the decade it really happens.
6) Paul McCartney and Wings Band on the Run (1973)
Okay, this one….I’m really going to devote myself to knowing this one better. Because I really want to know if “Let Me Roll It” constitutes an act of arrogance or subversion. I mean, one day, Paul McCartney woke up and said You know, John’s been a bit mean about me of late, so I think what I’ll do is, I’ll make a record in John’s signature style but, instead of just making it a parody or something, I’ll actually do John better than John can do John. I’ll not only do the singing and writing part of it better, I’ll even do the angry bit better. And I’ll leave it there as a reminder that John can only be John, but I can be anybody.
And I’ll let the world sort out whether any of that makes it worth a single hit of “Jet,” delivered straight to the veins without any jingling intervention by the radio.
Yep, I definitely need to listen more.
5) Toots & the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)
I’m starting a little project of finishing off collecting the LPs listed on Greil Marcus’s Treasure Island recommendations from his 1979 illuminati standard Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. One way to keep myself (and my pocket book) interested is by listening to a lot of the ones I already have. This one–which I’ve had forever but somehow never acquired an intimate knowledge of–was a revelation. It’s been released in various forms on both vinyl and CD, but I can’t imagine any lineup beating the one I have. Toots Hibbert was/is frequently compared to Otis Redding (for whom I’ve been developing a whole new appreciation I’ll probably need to write about in the future) but I hear more Ray Charles myself. That’s hardly a bad thing, especially since reggae puts even more structural limits on a singer than southern soul. I don’t count it a coincidence that Toots joined Ray in bringing whole new worlds to John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Call it the vision thing.
This one’s going into heavy rotation.
4) The Maytals Do the Reggae 1966-70 (1988)
In vinyl days (which I’m happy to say are coming ’round again), this was always more my speed. Maybe it still is, even if I’m never convinced I’ve comprehended a single word.
Roots reggae at it’s Leslie Kong-produced peak, then, and, of course, I don’t mean I failed to understand it. It always sounded like a soundtrack for the horror stories my missionary parents used to bring home from reform schools (or, in my dad’s case, prisons) filled with the wretched of the modern earth.
3) Dave Mason Alone Together (1970)
Weird album. Loved by some, dismissed by others, the crit-illuminati couldn’t get a reliable read on it and, despite my innate desire to confound the confounders at every possible turn, neither can I.
It fits the tenor of its times: Bloozy, Anglo, Laid Back Cali, uncredited Eric Clapton sideman-ship floating around in there somewhere. I can’t really make sense of it. But what do I know? The Dave Mason I loved was the one who had a big pop hit with “We Just Disagree,” which still makes me smile and remember–I like the rest but in thee end it just makes me shrug, no matter how much I want the worlds to collide.
2) Warren Zevon Stand in the Fire(1980)
One of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Performance freed up something in Zevon that rarely got loose in the studio. His vocals were better, his bands were tighter, even his lyric improvs were better. (Has there ever been a leap of faith into a dark zone that landed more beautifully on point than changing the line after There’s a .38 Special up on on the shelf from If I start feeling stupid I’ll shoot myself to And I don’t intend to use it on myself?) No, of course there hasn’t.
Bonus tracks later added to the CD only subtracted from the overall effect. It’s perfect as it stands, from the opening title track (written for the tour) all the way down to a “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” that links the album to the history of the world and, unimaginably, tops the original.
1) War Greatest Hits(1976)
Was it really possible to sum up the entire decade, and all the decades to come, in 1976?
It was, but you would never have known it without these guys. Without them, it all just felt incoherent.
In a generous mood, I try to believe “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” was/is the record that best defined my beloved 70’s. But in my heart I know it is/was “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” even if my only cavil with this mind-bending album is that it substitutes the powerful hit single version for the long version that’s too harrowing for words.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is semi-notorious for handling inductions one of a few ways: a Hall insider (like Seven Van Zandt) or existing Hall of Famer (like anybody) or combination of both (like Bruce Springsteen) does the honors. Or else a star of the moment (Jewel inducted Brenda Lee for instance) is shoved into the spot for ratings. After the early, obvious years, rarely has the choice of inductor made real historical sense.
Tonight there will be an exception when Susanna Hoffs, the only thing the sixties were missing and the principal lead singer of Rock and Roll America’s last great harmony group, inducts the Zombies.
Hoffs proved her Zombies’ bona fides covering their “Care of Cell #44” on the first Sid n’ Susie album. But the spiritual connection was legit long before that:
Hope she gets to sing with them. It’s so logical I can’t imagine even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame objecting.
Then again, they didn’t exactly ask Stevie Nicks or Linda Ronstadt to induct Brenda Lee, did they?
“Fallin’” Connie Francis (1958) #30 Billboard #39 Cashbox Recommended source: Souvenirs
Connie Francis was a brilliant pop singer who, because she was the right age for it in the late fifties, got marketed to the rock and roll audience–and pulled it off. Not many waked that path with any real success. Bobby Darin for sure. Pat Boone sort of (his success was undeniable–for all kinds of musical and social reasons, his relationship to rock and roll was far more dubious than Darin’s or even Connie’s, but that’s a story for another time).
If you accept her as rock and roll–which is not much more a stretch than accepting Italo-American women who came in her wake, from Nancy Sinatra to Madonna Ciccone (lots don’t, I sometimes do, though Connie remains an enigma)–then she was the music’s first female superstar, beating Brenda Lee to the Top Ten by two years.
Yet, if Brenda is obscured now, Connie is all but forgotten. Listening to the first disc of her box set Souvenirs, which I just reacquired, more than fifteen years after the Great CD Selloff of 2002 (aka, The Second Worst Mistake of My Life–the first involved a girl), one can almost hear why.
Despite her remarkable talent, it didn’t seem the industry knew quite what to do with her. Records that would have fit right in–and possibly been big hits a few years earlier–sounded staid and old-fashioned in 1955 and ’56, even though she was still in her teens.
After ten straight stiffs (somebody must have believed in her), “Who’s Sorry Now” finally put her in the big time, reaching #4 on both the Pop and R&B charts in 1957. There was another stiff and a modest hit before she followed up with 1958’s “Stupid Cupid,” a novelty that sold entirely on her voice and didn’t necessarily point to any discernible future.
A few months later, in early 1959, “My Happiness”–an early and excellent example of vocal double-tracking (mostly available to singers who were really on-pitch in those days)–went to #2, established her basic persona for good, and cemented her position as a major star, a position she would hold until the arrival of the Beatles. (From “Stupid Cupid” onward, twenty-seven of her next twenty-eight singles went Top 40, with thirteen going Top 10 and three to #1.)
You don’t exactly need a calculator to count the vocal stars who could match that success between 1956 and 1963 and to count the women you only need to count Connie and Brenda.
But the record released between “Stupid Cupid” and “My Happiness” is one of history’s intriguing near misses. “Fallin'” was a bluesy, adult vocal married to a Tin Pan Alley-style lyric (not as good as top level Tin Pan Alley but not bad). It stalled in the lower half of the Top 40 and was promptly forgotten. If it had broken as big as “My Happiness” did with the very next release–if the lyric had been as good as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” or “Blue Moon,”–who knows what possibilities producers would have sensed in Francis’ voice? Hits do clarify things!
It’s a fine record in its own right. And the more pop-sounding records were plenty good.
But boy would I love to hear her on an album’s worth of this stuff:
Since this is, among other things, an homage to the dancers who lit up the Hollywood Rock and Roll shows in the sixties (especially Hollywood A Go-Go), I’ll let this lovely photo of Roberta Tennes stand in for all of them. She passed away in 2015. Time is merciless. R.I.P.
I don’t know how many mix tapes/discs I’ve made in my life. Probably less than a hundred. Definitely more than fifty.
A modest number then. The point of a mix for me is to approximate the surprise juxtapositions you run into on radio or, these days, YouTube.
Of course, if you listen to a disc too often, the surprise element goes away. The sequence can become as ingrained and automatic as your favorite Beatles album…until you let it sit on the shelf long enough to forget.
And when you come back (in this case, after maybe seven or eight years, to a disc I originally put together as a tape in a series I called Cavern Classics, all based around music I could picture the Hollywood A Go-Go dancers dancing to at the Sock Hope at the end of the Universe), sometimes it makes you smile….
Here’s Volume 20 of the Cavern Classics…with stray thoughts attached:
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”Elton John & Kiki Dee (1976): A sneaky good side-starter. Don’t go breaking my heart the guy says. I couldn’t if I tried, the girl answers. Wait….what? Next thing you know, feet start tapping. Somebody had been listening to a lot of Philly Soul.
“Jingling Baby”LL Cool J (1990): I still haven’t figured out quite what’s jingling. But I’ll always listen for the poetry of Taking out suckers while the ladies pucker/And rolling over punks like a redneck trucker. Oh, wait. He says its earrings that are jingling. Yeah, that’s probably it.
“Hawaii Five-O” The Ventures (1969): Of course it all has to make sonic sense. “Jingling Baby” to this: One of my top five transitions all time. Dance, girls, dance!
“The Boys are Back in Town”Thin Lizzy (1976): And here’s a song about somebody escaping the club and going downtown and driving all the old men crazy. I’m betting the late, great Phil Lynott–the second greatest Irish rock and roller after Van Morrison–had seen Hollywood A Go-Go some time or other.
“Ffun”Con-Funk-Shun (1977): Mystic chords of memory. They played Disney World the night of my senior Class Trip. I was elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom when they took the stage. Elvis wasn’t the only one who knew how to be lonely in the middle of a crowd. I don’t want to talk about it.
“It’s So Easy”Linda Ronstadt (1977): Dave Marsh once said he would prefer having records to masturbate to on his Desert Island to enduring Linda Ronstadt’s company in person. Back when this was on the radio, we used to have a word for guys like Dave: Afflicted. I think we should bring this word back.
“Mickey’s Monkey” The Miracles (1963): Okay, this is literally about spreading a new dance all around. The Cavern is not unaffected. From now on, girls, no matter what plays, everybody will be doing Mickey’s Monkey. (Warning: the video link is to the actual Cavern….this is where I learned that Rock and Roll America’s basic dances could be performed to almost anything with a beat.)
“Pay Bo Diddley”Mike Henderson & the Bluebloods (1996): No, you don’t get permission to stop! Not even for “Pay Bo Diddley.” Keep doing Mickey’s Monkey. Okay….maybe you can do a little hand jive, too. Yeah, and maybe a little of that other thing. Just keep those feet moving. What? No, you absolutely cannot do that! Not until Mike gets Bo paid. Speaking of poetry–is rhyming IRS and Leonard Chess Rock and Roll America’s funniest line? Now, I’m not gonna help you with the answer….
“Radar Love”Golden Earring (1973): The intro always damn near brings a mix to a halt. I’ve stuck it in a few, though. Because soon enough the shuffle starts (dance, girls dance!) And somewhere in there the singer’s gonna insist the radio is playing some forgotten song/Brenda Lee…coming on strong. It’s the absence of “is” that makes it.
Program Break(Note: Because I started with tapes, my mixes always ran about forty-five minutes. Feel free to go to the bathroom!)
“Summer of ’69”Bryan Adams (1985): Bryan Adams has tried to explain this song more than once. Shut up and sing Bryan. Play your guitar maybe. Lead your band. Count your money. Any damn thing. There are a few people who can get away with explaining perfection. You’re not one of them.
“Be-Bop-A-Lula”Gene Vincent (1956): Take Gene for instance. Gene’s not trying to explain. And he’s talking about a girl in her red blue jeans who’s the Queen of the Teens! Get it?
“Sweet Jane,”“Rock and Roll,”“Cool it Down”TheVelvet Underground (1970): This is the Velvet Underground Suite or, if you like The Loaded Suite. Now I’m not saying these things are meant to define any band as great as the Animals or the Velvets. But by the time they hit the chorus of “Cool it Down” here, and all the girls are dancing like spinning tops in the Cavern, you might be forgiven for thinking so. Singing along is permitted by the way. Did I forget to mention that?
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”The Rolling Stones (1968): When it was recently revealed that the FBI called its operation to “help” Donald Trump “Crossfire Hurricane,” there were many hilarious attempts to explain that “this is a reference to the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ which was also the name of a Whoopi Goldberg movie.” And you wonder why Trump is rolling over these punks like a redneck trucker?
“Tear Stained Letter”Patty Loveless (1996): Sprightly. (This is supposed to let the people dance, remember? Look, they’re back to doing Mickey’s Monkey!) Putting this together in the late nineties might have been the first time I realized Loveless and the Stones had some sort of weird connection. It wasn’t the last. Now let me list all the other country singers I ever thought of sticking between the Rolling Stones and War on a mix disc….
“Cinco De Mayo”War (1981): Did I mention War was coming up. Dance, girls, dance!
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (12″ version)Santa Esmeralda (1977); The twelve-inch version of Santa Esmeralda’s cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” runs ten-and-a-half minutes. I don’t know how many minutes of that Quentin Tarantino (coming along years after I got all those girls dancing in the Cavern, mind you) used in Kill Bill. It felt like seventy-five or eighty. All I know is, until I saw Kill Bill, I believed Leroy Gomez and company could make a sprayed roach lying flat on its back get up and dance. I still believe that. I just know even they couldn’t make me think I was watching anything but a sprayed roach lying flat on it’s back while Kill Bill was playing.
“Gloria” Santa Esmeralda (1977): “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” can never be part of a suite. It is its own thing (heck it’s even called that officially–“The Esmeralda Suite”). But nothing else can follow it to close out a mix. I like when the Latin guy makes the Irish guy’s “i-yi-yi-yi” sound like “ay-ay-ay-ay.” There might be a revolution starting in there somewhere. Have to think it over.
Okay girls, you can stop doing Mickey’s Monkey now.
Girls….I say there….Girls?
Wait, what do you call that now?
Don’t you make me….
GIT YER CLOTHES BACK ON!
The mind is a funny thing. I’m sure glad I didn’t waste mine.
I think I’m gonna dedicate a song to Roberta’s memory…
They fail, of course. In 1969, Rolling Stone had writers worthy of giving Brenda her due, but no interest. Now they have the interest, but no writers. This writer’s conclusion is that Brenda should be remembered because she once sold a lot of records and other famous people say nice things about her.
The two photographs above are included in the article and they say more about why Brenda Lee matters than the 4,000 words that accompany them. Unlike these photos, the accompanying words convey no heart, no guts, no insight, no trace of why anyone, including the writer, should care. They’re a perfect incorporation of modern media formula and they offer no reason whatsoever that we should take Brenda Lee any more seriously than does the anonymous horde from which the writer fails to distance himself.
My 4,000 words hardly did her justice either–4,000 words never could–but at least I tried. In the face of half-a-century of crit-illuminati indifference, I consider that better than nothing, which, except for these historic photographs (neither of which I had seen and each of which is nearly as great as my banner photo–they tell a bigger story side by side because, outside of Rock and Roll America, they don’t look like they could have come from the same world, let alone the same life), the Rolling Stone piece is not.
(FWIW: I’m also a better headline writer: There’s no crucible better, it seems, than the back room of the Chipola Junior College journalism building, circa 1979. Me and a kid named Rusty used to bang ’em out. He joined the Navy that summer and died after taking three in the chest a year later in a dispute following an Orlando traffic accident. Don’t worry brother. If we ever do get beat, it won’t be by Rolling Stone.)
All of which leads me to the Fifteenth Maxim: Do not bury what you came to praise and do not exemplify what you claim to dispute.
But, better than all that, you could just listen again:
I’m learning. This is probably the most perverse album ever released by a major star. Dylan’s previous three albums had all produced Top 40 singles (as would his next).
Despite Harding selling well, it produced no hit singles (though Jimi Hendrix later took “All Along the Watchtower” for a ride up the charts with a Cover from God), and seems to have been conceived as some kind of throwback to the days when nobody could imagine Dylan having hits of his own. You could hear it as the same kind of spitball to his rock and roll audience as “going electric” had been to his folk audience.
I’m a sucker for Dylan’s Rock and Roll Voice, not as much for his Folkie Voice.
Maybe for that reason it took me years to hear this–and this last year for it to become a go to.
Or maybe the times they’ve just a’ changed.
9) Arthur BakerGive in to the Rhythm (1991)
Baker was a big name in the early days of the remix craze. Since I’ve never been into remixes, I’m not sure why or how I came to have this laying around for years. This is the first time I’ve listened to it in ages–maybe the third time ever. Mostly, I like it without loving it, a reaction I often have to music that was made more for dance-floors than headphones. I wonder, though, if a single side ever sunk in, whether it would unlock the key to the rest? As it stands, I’d rather listen to Madonna remixes, which are the only ones I’ve ever found revelatory.
8) Various ArtistsLouisiana Roots: The Jay Miller R&B Legacy (1998)
Jay Miller was an avowed segregationist who nonetheless ran an integrated studio throughout the early years of rock and roll in the Jim Crow South and recorded a number of classic r&b sides of which this is a generous selection. Like a lot of off-shoot projects that acquire a gut-bucket reputation based on the idea that relatively obscure music must be tougher than what reaches the mainstream, this one has more nuance and a lighter touch than you might expect. I can’t say much of it is transcendent but it’s consistently enjoyable and, given the predilections of Miller’s politics, a testimony to mankind’s thoroughgoing perversity. You’d never guess how he felt based on the sounds he made!
7) Harold Melvin and the Blue NotesIf You Don’t Know Me By Now: Best of (1995)
One of the great collections of 70s soul. They could probably sustain one twice as long, but, given the number of long (12″) cuts, this is still generous and a fully realized journey. Of course, Teddy Pendergrass is the main show, but the Blue Notes were also the recipient of some of Gamble and Huff’s most startling arrangements (I wrote about “Wake Up Everybody” here), including “I Miss You” which, in its full version is almost unbearable, coming as it did at the moment when Black America seemed within sight of achieving a level of integration that transcended mere law and politics. You can still hear that possibility whispering close here. Once in a while, you can hear it shouting…and wonder just how it was we missed out on the Promised Land and came up with this unholy mess instead.
6) John LennonLennon Legend: The Very Best of (1997)
Lennon’s first two solo albums stand on their own and his box set isn’t a slog. The album released just before his death remains hard to hear through the haze of murder and grief it seemed designed to disperse. Hence, when I want to hear him without the Beatles, this is usually where I go. It doesn’t all work. As agitprop “Imagine” gets by on its melody (and the fact Lennon had a sense of humor about how far he was from living out its ideals), but his voice is just about all that redeems “Instant Karma” or “Cold Turkey.”
That aside, this is still a fine document of a man caught out of time. Lennon was the Beatle who most believed in all that “All You Need Is Love” stuff. It’s not surprising that he found the 70s a nasty shock, or that–in interviews and on record–he kept reaching back to something he could never quite find. It’s also not a surprise that, with “Nobody Told Me,” a posthumous hit that was his strongest side in years, he seemed to realize he would never find what he was looking for, even if he kept a phalanx of bodyguards and lived to be a hundred.
5) Various ArtistsBrown Eyed Soul: Vols. 1-3 (1997)
I’m counting these as a single entry, because that’s how I listen to this set, one of Rhino’s best, and that’s how I hear it. As a single experience.
“The Sound of East L.A.” is the music Chicano audiences listened to from the late fifties to the early seventies and someone took care in the sequencing and programming for each volume here to reflect an experience that’s of a piece–and is only enhanced when you listen them all over the course of an afternoon or evening or (like me) in the early a.m. How close it is the actual listening experience of those who lived in those communities in the time covered I can’t say (though I haven’t heard anyone complain). But the mix is beguiling–heavy on off-key doo wop, light soul (think Brenton Wood), garage bands (think Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters, both local heroes) and slow-groove funk (think the mellow side of War)–and if it catches you in the right mood, you can find yourself wanting to be part of any world that would respond to this music as though it were the key of life.
Well worth tracking down for those who still think about acquiring music in some form more permanent than a microchip.
Pick to Click: “The Town I Live In” where Thee Midniters make like a west coast Rascals…and, for those three minutes at least, concede nothing.
4) Brenda LeeI’m in the Mood for Love: Classic Ballads (1998)
To say Brenda is underrepresented in the CD era is to concede that the sun rises in the east. This collection barely scratches the surface of her greatness as a ballad singer. But it’s what we have, and, to quote Spencer Tracy “what’s there is cherce.” It’s highlighted by killer original versions of “The Crying Game” and “Always on My Mind” and includes cuts from throughout the sixties, arranged out of sequence so that you can’t miss how centered her style was–how much 1968 was connected to 1960 in her voice if nowhere else. A thousand nuances, then, and always unmistakably her. It’s a perfect album and my only complaint is there could and should be another dozen like it.
3) Robert JohnsonThe Complete Recordings: Centennial Collection (2011)
The essence of Robert Johnson at this distance is how much his voice calls into question whether the arrow of defeat and humiliated pride that’s been driven deep in the heart of Black America can ever finally be withdrawn.
And if the question is left only to his voice, the answer will always be no.
That’s as true on a supposed novelty number like “They’re Red Hot” as it is on “Hellhound on My Trail” or “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” which even the nonbelievers can’t pretend are jokes.
2) Various ArtistsThe Disco Box (1999)
A fine overview that isn’t quite what it might have been. Disco can sustain four CDs and then some as a listening experience (as well as a dancing one). But the compilers at Rhino were always historically minded, so a pedestrian cut like Carol Douglas’s “Doctor’s Orders” is bound to take precedence over records that were real grabbers simply because it was a touchstone of the form’s early days and a big hit. There’s a bit more of that here than I’d prefer as there’s no reason for a box of this significance to have any filler.
Even so, it sustains almost in spite of itself. The form was always more than its critics acknowledged so a run of soft spots (usually chant records or metronomic “mood” instrumentals) is inevitably followed by a commensurate handful of irresistible highs. And, often as not, the chant records are as great as “Keep it Comin’ Love” and the instrumentals are as non-metronomic as “Fifth of Beethoven.” Besides, with due respect to Barry White* and the white disco of “Dancing Queen” and “December 1963” (all absent here) and short-shrifting the Bee Gees (maybe understandable given they’re not exactly lacking appreciation elsewhere, including from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which has ignored, say, Barry White), the form’s very greatest vocals are here: Vicki Sue Robinson on “Turn the Beat Around,” Candi Staton on “Young Hearts Run Free,” Jimmy Ellis of the Traamps on “Disco Inferno” and Evelyn “Champagne” King on “Shame,” which in its 12″ version, (not presented here–another complaint is they always settled for the single) calls out the same questions Robert Johnson does…and gives back the same responses.
Outside his two big hits, “Frankenstein” and “Free Ride” Edgar’s reach mostly exceeded his grasp. The fine bands he assembled tended to be stronger than his writing–just not quite strong enough to overcome the lack of inspiration in Winter’s own lyrics and singing (Dan Hartman was another story).
Still, he and his group had an interesting niche–a rare white funk band who retained a foothold in the burgeoning concept of Classic Rock.
And kudos to the programmer.
You could do a lot worse than close down a “last ten” with this. Speaking of arrangements….
Til next time!
*NOTE: White is represented as an orchestra leader, but not as a vocalist.
(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)
First my story….
Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.
I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)
One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:
I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.
Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:
I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).
I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.
I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).
So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.
By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.
Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.
So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.
I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).
I listened to the other CDs.
Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.
My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.
I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.
So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…
And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…
And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”
Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.
Just for a song or two, you know.
Then the song or two went by and this came on…
And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”
An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…
“What just happened?”
Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.
And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.
Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.
But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.
I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.
And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.
It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.
I’m still working through my issues.
But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.
And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…
First her life, then her art.
Her life went more or less like this….
She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.
Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….
Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school
More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.
The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA) in 1955.
Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.
But, in order to build a career, you had to have a hit to build it on. Somewhere, some time. You can stand around and look cute. You can even go to Vegas…
You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).
It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.
She just wasn’t a hit-maker.
It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.
The only picture I could find of Brenda with Patsy Cline
Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.
Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.
Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…
..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?
…Then the Art
Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.
And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.
If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.
Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?
It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.
But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.
What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.
We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?
Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.
If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…
…and make it sound as natural as breathing.
After that, the floodgates.
For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.
So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.
And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.
And because she was a pro’s pro.
Well, she still had a life to live.
Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.
Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)
What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.
Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.
I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.
And I’ll share what you’ve lived.
It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.
She was also every-teen.
She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)
She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.
But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.
She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.
She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.
She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.
And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:
…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…
Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.
And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.
Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.
Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.
Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.
Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.
Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.
Sure they do.
And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.
That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.
The air works like that.
Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.
Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.
Like a lot of people, I took a real hit from Google changing their search parameters (or whatever it is they do) in June. Up to that point, this blog had steady quarter-by-quarter growth for five years. In the last six months of 2017, views and visits dropped off about 25 percent, making this the first year I didn’t improve over the previous one (I was down about eight percent for the year).
On the other hand, the comments increased dramatically, so I traded some quantity for a lot of quality. That’s a deal I’ll take any day, though I hope things will get cracking in the new year so it’s not a choice I have to make!
Anyway, that’s one of the main reasons I slacked off considerably in December, hoping to recharge the batteries and hit the ground running in 2018.
The other reason is I ran up against a sort of existential spiritual dilemma (I hesitate to call it a crisis) which is going to require me to make some serious decisions about my personal life and goals in the next few months…Don’t worry, if anything major happens, I’m sure I’ll be blogging about it!
Meanwhile, here are posts I have in the hopper, just waiting a moment of inspiration for me to finish them…
-A continuation of my meditations on John Ford’s People (beginning with the latest on The Searchers)
-Vocalist of the Month features on Brenda Lee (pretty far along) and Sandy Denny (nascent but promising)
-The revelation of My Favorite Book of Movie Criticism
-A new category called Track-By-Track where I break down some classic albums with what I hope will be a fresh approach to record reviewing.
-Nothing specific, but I’ll step in on the Trump Era when a moment of clarity arrives. Just FYI, my gut had him a slight favorite to win the election throughout 2016 (which put my gut in a very small minority). My gut has him a slight favorite to emerge the winner in his war with the Security State which will almost certainly come to a head in 2018. Stay tuned….
-Plus a continuation of my other new category of Handy Tens and all the other usual ongoing features.
In the days when Mel Tillis was as famous for being a reliably charming and hilarious talk show guest as he was for being a country singer, he liked to tell the story of his discovery by Mae Axton (Hoyt’s mother and co-composer of, among many others, a little tune called “Heartbreak Hotel”). She met him somewhere in Nashville, learned he was a sihger/songwriter, checked out his stuff and encouraged him to see a producer/executive she knew. Recognizing that his afterwards-famous speech impediment might be a problem during any formal interview process, she wrote a letter for him to take along.
The essence of the letter was this: “Never mind that he can’t talk. Good singer. Great writer.”
Of all the people who have ever been thus described to a Nashville Executive–by Mae Axton or anyone else–and who then carried the tag for a decade or more, while so many other people (Bobby Bare, Brenda Lee, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers) sang his hits….
…only Mel Tillis emerged all the way from such deep and lengthy shadows to become a superstar in his own right. On the slow-moving Writer-Becomes-An-Unlikely-Singing-Star train, even Roger Miller had a shorter, faster ride to the Promised Land reached by so few.
Some of what allowed Mel to buck the Narrative was likability, some of it stick-to-it-tiveness, some of it elbow grease–all qualities prized by country audiences.
Most of it, though, was that he turned out to be a great singer as well, master of both comedy….
..able to work nearly endless variations at both ends of the scale until it all meshed into a Sawdust-in-the-Suburbs world-view…
…one where country’s impoverished roots and middle-class aspirations were revealed as two sides of the same coin. By the seventies, when Tillis ascended to the top of the country charts often enough to become a presence in the larger culture, the assurances of the latter were still undercut by the memory (and shame, and guilt, and stubborn refusal to admit either) so inescapable in the former.
Most of that contradiction has been washed away now and what country music understood itself to be for nearly a century along with it. Now, the real impoverishment is spiritual…and hence not curable by either the dream or the reality of a split-level in the suburbs or a house in the Hills or even a recording contract in Nashville.
I had the pleasure of serving a couple of Mel’s daughters (not Pam, alas) breakfast, lunch and dinner at a girl’s camp in the summer of 1979. They were shy to a fault–even shyer than most shy kids, even shyer than I had been–and, if their stammering, stuttering father came from a similar psychological place and transcended it so thoroughly, it was a mark of character that makes me proud to have shared a home state with him.
And, speaking of Pam, she sang the harmony on the cut below, my pick for the greatest country record of the 80s….or, if there really could be such a thing, ever.
There was a lot of talk about outlaws back then. And a lot of that talk–mostly from people who didn’t really like country music or its audience–said that outlaw was the “real” country.
Maybe along about here I should mention that the girls’ camp where Mel sent his daughters was at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.
Nobody ever called Mel Tillis an outlaw.
And nobody was more country than Mel Tillis:
Born: Tampa (1932). Raised: Pahokee. Died: Ocala (2017).
I’ve been in a vinyl mood this week. I listened to a couple of CDs as well, but, for the purposes of this list, I’m pretending I didn’t. Until the very end at least.
10) Johnny Bond Bottles Up (1965)
I found this at a local antique store (my town basically consists of such) and took a chance. Had to pull Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, which I had used the night before to cure insomnia, off the turntable to make room. One thing is for sure. Johnny Bond was way weirder than Steely Dan. This album sounds the way the cover looks. What more recommendation do you need?
9) Kid OryThe Song of the Wanderer (1958)
And while I was there, I spotted this lovely little item, also cheap. I see a Kid Ory item I haven’t heard for five bucks, I’m gonna take a chance.
Ory was best known as a key associate of Louis Armstrong in the days when Pops was reorienting American music and, by exension, American life. This is not that. What this is, is a very pleasant, lovely and conservative jazz record from the fifties, which breezes along as though Bop and Rock and Roll had never happened, and almost as though the searing early New Orleans jazz scene, of which Ory had been such a vital component, never happened either. Music to read and smile by, then, right up until “The Sheik of Araby” comes on, at which point it is time to stop reading but not to stop smiling.
8) The Atkins String CompanyThe Night Atlanta Burned (1975)
Generally referred to as a “Classical Country” album, with the classical part referring as much to Mozart as Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs. However defined, unique in the annals of American music.
This is a mix of standards and incidental mood music composed by John D. Loudermilk, based on his recollection of an old man from his home town who claimed to have learned scraps of what he taught the young Loudermilk from sheet music he found left in a music case (along with the mandocello the case had been built to protect) which had been rescued from the Atlanta Conservatory of Music after Sherman marched through in 1864 and since been lost again in a hobo camp. Loudermilk was wry enough to suspect every single bit of that might not have been true, but he, Chet Atkins, and assembled session players (including Lisa Silver, Paul Yandell and the legendary Johnny Gimble) made an album that deserved to complete the story. There are a few great albums that stop time, but none of them stop time in quite the same way as this one.
7) Iron City HouserockersBlood on the Bricks (1981)
A crit-fave from the late New Wave/Early Heartland phase of Rock and Roll’s decline. Listening now, it’s a lot easier to hear all the reasons they didn’t make it–lack of distinction in the singing, writing, playing and general Zeitgeist (which is derived from J. Geils and Southside Johnny, who did the same things better)–than why so many people were excited in the moment. This is typical fare, and just fine. But on this and every other side, what I hear most is “almost.”
6) Various ArtistsStiff Records Presents:The Akron Compilation (1978)
This was a much better shot at sending Rock and Roll off in a new direction. There’s some failure on this record–songs or sounds that don’t quite finish somehow–but forty years on, it still sounds like something trying to be born on cut after cut. Never released on CD, It’s still the best place to hear every artist here but one. And it’s still the best place to hear that one’s greatest record (which, had it made her the star she deserved to be, might have redefined a lot of things in 1978).
5) The Beach BoysSunflower (1970)
Commercially, the Beach Boys got swept out with the tide around the latter part of 1967. They kept on making great sides, year by year, but this was probably the best album they made between Wild Honey and Love You…and it doesn’t need to take a back seat to much else that was going on in 1970. I’ll take it over Let It Be eight days a week.
Somebody in the marketing department was either asleep at the switch or having their mind seriously altered by drugs. “Cool, Cool Water,” perfectly fine as a trippy album closer, was the least commercial single ever–and I mean ever–released by a major artist. The B-Side was one of the greatest records of their career–and definitive of the era’s often wistful secret ethos, so often lost among the noise. Sleep does these things. So do drugs.
Then there’s stupidity. For hardcore Beach Boys’ fans, a touchstone. For everyone else, a lost gem.
4) Various ArtistsLost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (1985)
I don’t even remember how I first heard about this record, but it’s still my go-to for Kurt Weill, or just the Weimar mood transported.
Boy does it transport to now–even more than to 1985, which I once would have deemed impossible. As often happened with high middle-brow music of an earlier vintage, rock and rollers did better by it than anyone else, in some cases, maybe better than the music deserved. And the truest rock and roller did better by it than anyone. A fine companion piece for The Night Atlanta Burned, which is also born of defeat.
3) Various ArtistsBeserkley Chartbusters Volume 1 (1975)
Cheeky title for a cheeky collection. Unlike the Stiff label compilation above, this is almost entirely reactionary–rock and roll as it might have sounded if it really were made by entirely arrested adolescents obsessed with their older brothers’ record collection. Not without its charms mind you–older brothers tended to have some cool tastes ten years before this happened. I lean towards Earthquake’s heavier take on the whole, but the closest thing to a killer is Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” which almost justifies his rep when he starts speed rapping like the world’s whitest white boy.
There was, so far as I can tell, no Volume 2.
2) Various ArtistsLess Than Zero Soundtrack (1987)
The sound of rock and roll closing down for good. From here there was nowhere to go but Grunge (and from there, no way to go but the Exit). Afterwards it was every man for himself, but this still sounds of a piece. It’s everything the lame movie it supported wasn’t–loose, funky, cynical to a fault. And, at the last minute when the concept of “Loa Angeles” meant anything, definitive L.A., right up to the living end, when the Bangles show up and stomp all over everybody. Certainly Aerosmith and Public Enemy, who are at their sleaziest and most self righteous, (meaning best) respectively. But also “Goin’ Back to Cali,” which has a claim on being the greatest Hip Hop record ever. And even Roy Orbison and Glenn Danzig, who have claims on being peak Roy Orbison (no more need be said) and the greatest Scott Walker record not made by Scott Walker (who made damn few to match it). Even now, it kinda makes me wonder where the world might have gone if the movie had been better. (I can’t speak for the source novel as I haven’t read it. Based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel I have read, I can’t imagine it could have been made into a much better movie.)
1) Marianne FaithfullBroken English (1979)
Disco punk and, to be honest, I never came close to getting it.
Maybe I didn’t get it because it turns large swathes of rock and roll–often the rock and roll I love most–inside out. When I’m listening now, Brenda Lee’s throb, always vulnerable, suddenly sounds like its coming from the bottom of a barrel just before somebody seals the lid. Girl group romanticism sounds like it must emanate from the dark side of the moon. The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, out the year before and on my CD player the night before I made the deliberate decision to make this the end of this list, now sounds like the Rape Record record they always had in them–the one where they’re finally so bored they could scream, and, for the last time, do.
Perhaps the news of the moment–rapists/harassers/assaulters being turned up and out everywhere you look–has given a tiny, pitiful bit of context to the rest of us that only a woman who had literally crawled out of the gutter of addiction and homelessness after being the Queen of Swinging London (i.e., the World) to ask “Why’d you spit on my snatch?” without succumbing to self-pity or psychoanalysis (if only because one or the other might kill her), could have comprehended, let alone communicated, at any previous cultural moment.
Anyway, after sitting on my shelf for thirteen years or so (the town’s last vinyl store put dates on their price stickers) the find of the year.
And please don’t think I’m anything less than frightened by it.