THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2020, Countdown)

10) The Prisonaires, Five Beats Behind Bars (1979)

The Prisonaires assembled in the Tennessee State Pen in the early 50’s. Their leader, Johnny Bragg, was a decade into his sentence after being convicted on six counts of rape at the age of seventeen. “Just Walking in the Rain,” a song the illiterate Bragg composed and gave a co-credit to a fellow inmate for transcribing the lyric, found its way to Sun Records and Sam Phillips after a local radio producer sent a tape of a show Bragg and his prison vocal group had performed in gaol. To hear the song now is to be caught between the last rock and the last hard place: Is this the pure expression of the soul of a rapist, or the spirit of Jim Crow being brought to its knees? The question haunts, because Bragg’s vocal is probably the most delicate ever recorded. Let out of prison on the strength of his musical ability and success, he was soon thrown back in for being caught riding in a car with a white woman: A violation of parole and never mind that she was his wife. Here’s the kicker, though. The whole thing is up to that standard, which leaves us with another question: If he’d never been in prison, would Johnny Bragg be as well known as Clyde McPhatter or never heard from at all?

9) Steely Dan Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

To be honest I’ve never been able to attend any of their other albums all the way through. This was one of the great debuts, though, and everything they would ever be.

You could even argue that everything they would ever be was in the first two sides, which were only “Do It Again” (a huge hit) and “Dirty Work” a non-single which has never been off the radio, whether because or in spite of vocalist-for-hire David Palmer coming as close to the spirit of Johnny Bragg as any white man who never saw the inside of a jail cell could is another question to keep you up nights while you’re trying to figure out what the crit-illuminati saw in the rest of the story.

8) Various ArtistsEasy Rider Soundtrack(1969)

If I’m being honest, I prefer listening to the soundtrack, which I’ve done three or four times, to watching the movie, which I’ve done once.

If I’m being further honest, it’s really too bad the Band’s version of “The Weight” couldn’t be used. If they had to go with Smith, they should have just put their bombastic hit version of “Baby It’s You” in the movie itself (and no, I have no idea if they had even recorded it yet). Worth all the meandering to hear Roger McGuinn close down the proceedings–and the 60’s–by reading Dylan and a version of his own self-composed title track that adds depth and nuance to the great version he did with the Byrds for their Ballad of Easy Rider LP, which is way better than either this or the movie.

7) Fairport Convention Fairport Chronicles(1976)

From 1968 to 1972, from whence the music here is drawn, Fairport and its off-shoots (Fotheringay, The Bunch) made music to equal anyone alive and this is the best of it, brilliantly programmed and sturdier than time, Stonehenge or the digital recording industry which never caught up with it. Richard Thompson was the stable genius, Sandy Denny the mercurial, self-destructive one, and for a time, they held the center of Britain’s best-ever collective of folkish musicians. It all went the way of dusty death, of course, but nothing’s ever beaten it and no CD comp comes close.

6) The El Dorados Low Mileage – High Octane: Their Greatest Recordings (1984)

Of all the bottomless rock ‘n’ roll genres, doo wop is the deepest. The El Dorados were one of the hundred or so 50’s era vocal groups that managed a hit (“At My Front Door”) among the more than ten thousand who made a record and God knows how many who tried. I’ve got a few dozen comps by the style’s “one hit wonders”….and every one of them is magnificent. Is it an accident that Black America’s tendency to ruthlessly compete against itself (on the way to competing with the world) has produced so much fine culture, and that the self-defeating tendencies of ruthlessness have forced so much of it to remain in the shadows? I don’t know…but I’ll never get tired of trying to figure it out.

5) The Clash London Calling (1979)

Did anyone else ever make a double LP where every song rode a killer riff? I don’t just mean a catchy riff, like Tusk or the White Album, but a killer riff?

If somebody did, please let me know. I mean even Exile on  Main Street lets up for a song or two and Prince, well he would always start noodling after a while when you gave him that much space.

Not this. This keeps punching from beginning to end and also flows like water. For that, I can forgive the politics being a tad naive, even for 1979. Wish I could feel that way again, so this wouldn’t carry the weight of a lost time and it wouldn’t give me a sense of peace it was never mean to convey. But so it goes.

4) Joe Tex I Gotcha (1972)

Yeah, Joe Tex, who was he anyway. He’d been making records since the 50’s, had a string of hits since the mid-60’s and in 1972, this got lost. Christgau gave it a B- (and didn’t grade the next item here at all). I’m not sure anybody else mentioned it at all. Too bad. Shame on them. The man who helped invent Southern Soul and get it on the charts was still going strong. This was as good as anything released in it’s year. If Otis Redding or Al  Green had done it, it would have been slavered over. But then, the white boy illuminati never did have room for more than one black southern male genius at a time. Heck, if Otis hadn’t died, I bet even Al would have been put on hold. You know that’s how it was, because this is as good as Al Green.

3) Joe Tex From the Roots Came the Rapper (1972)

So is this, which came out the same year, and without a big single (like I Gothca‘s title track), got even less attention.

Interesting that Rap became the dominant musical form of a subsequent age without ever challenging the limits of what Tex did in the early 70’s. The only people who really responded to his mix of country, soul, R&B, pop crooning and high comedy were record buyers. Plus maybe the black women he spent his career mocking, celebrating and humanizing by turns. Nobody ever got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doing that. If somebody ever does, it will be this guy.

2) Dion and the Belmonts 24 Original Classics (1984)

There have been a lot of ace Dion comps, up to and including his box set. This double-LP is the best (released on CD some time in the Dark Ages but evidently long out of print).

More than almost any other comp of its kind, it traces a journey–from the scorching, white hot doo wop of his youth through his dalliances with folk rock, heroin addiction, singer songwriter sensitivity, rehabilitation and a return to roots. There was more to the man to be sure–Christian music, a series of blues albums (which I really need to get hold of), and a standout version of Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” that might be my favorite of anything he ever did. But while I’m listening to this, I can’t be convinced anything’s been left out.

1) The Four Tops Greatest Hits (1968)

The Tops can sustain a much longer comp. Their three-record vinyl set is one of the strongest in Motown’s old Anthology series and I’ve got a 50-side double CD that does’t quit. But this straight hit between the eyes is one of life’s perfect things. I wonder how many people feel the desperation in something as jaunty sounding as “I Can’t Help Myself?” And how many think Levi Stubbs was a second-stringer based on his uncanny ability to shield them from the point? Although if you start obsessing on “Reach Out I’ll Be There” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love” where the desperation is impossible to miss–or run from–you can understand how they came out confused.

til next time…

DOO WOP IN ’59 (Segue of the Day: 12/22/16)

There are times when I listen to Doo Wop and wonder why I ever listen to anything else. The silly music often renders everything else silly by comparison.

And anytime I get a notion I know something about it, something about the form itself or the larger context in which it either grew from or birthed the air around it (depending on whether you’re in the mood to argue for the chicken or the egg), all I have to do is sit with it a while and I’m readily disabused.

Take this little volume, where thirty-four cuts, from a single twelve-month period that kicked off the age of rock n roll’s supposed “nadir,” yield a dozen or more one-offs that concede nothing to the famous names which here included the Clovers, Coasters, Drifters, Belmonts, Isley Brothers, Dells, Shirelles, Little Anthony.

Some of those one-offs were big national hits, or have become sufficiently known through famous covers that they may as well have been: “Sea of Love,” “Hushabye,” “Hully Gully.”

And then some have remained hidden, waiting in the ether for obsessives in foreign lands (Germany, in this case) to give them a new context. Something like this, which, if it had hit, might have taken Motown in a whole other direction:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLzmR4gpZKw

And even that wasn’t as startling as the two records by famous names that didn’t hit either, but here live to leave the present speechless in wonder, not because they are better than what surrounds them, but because, shockingly, they aren’t.

 

…IN FIFTY-EIGHT (Segue of the Day: 8/12/16)

streetcorne2

Slowly, slowly, as the budget allows, I continue to make my way through the Bear Family’s doo-wop series Street Corner Symphonies: The Complete Story of Doo Wop.

I’m up to 1958, which was just about when inspiration and formula (the nexus of art) became fully wed. The whole 34-track disc is staggering, from the Crests’ “16 Candles,” as familiar as an oldie can be, leading off, to the near-forgotten Kodoks’ “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh,”  featuring Pearl McKinnon, the world’s greatest Frankie Lymon soundalike, closing the show.

But the knock-you-off-your-feet moment comes early, when this third track, with eighteen-year-old Jerry Butler and his Cabrini Green pals sounding impossibly deep and languid, as though time has actually stopped….

snaps straight into this fourth track, from eighteen-year-old Dion DiMucci and his buddies from Belmont Avenue, which flies by at the speed of sound…

Whenever I want to be reminded that the history of the post-war era is the history of Rock and Roll America’s reach for freedom, defined by thousands of previously excluded voices from every corner of the land, and the inevitable reactions any such reach is bound to provoke, a listen to early rock and roll usually serves as a slap to my fading memory.

Nothing is ever likely to hit harder or cleaner than that combo, provided by what were arguably (in an argument that can stretch until the end of the time Jerry Butler stopped) the two greatest vocal talents in the richest vocal tradition we’ll ever have, being pushed to their limits by the friends they grew up with.

Can’t wait to see what ‘fifty-nine brings.

Something better than 2016, I bet.

(NOTE: Good article on just how the never-ending “reaction” is panning out in Cabrini Green these days can be found here.)