[NOTE: This is the second in my series of Track-By-Track appreciations of my twenty favorite vocal albums of the twentieth century.]
Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) was the roughest of the post-war blues singers, the one closest in sound and spirit to prewar bluesmen like Texas’s Blind Willie Johnson and especially Wolf’s mentor the Delta’s own Charley Patton.
If he sounds slightly more accessible to modern ears, it’s likely due to better recording circumstances that improved on the primitive technology of the 1920s. Like all blues singers worth their salt, he wanted to be successful, to sell records, to escape plantation life. Unlike most–especially those who were incapable of the compromises that open most doors in the record business, the radio world, Las Vegas (whether someone, even the Wolf, is unwilling to make such compromises is another, perhaps unknowable story)–he was successful. Perhaps not by pop star standards, but he was able to make a living doing what he wanted to do.
For me, finding the Wolf among the blues singers was like finding Louis Armstrong or Elvis or Al Green or Patty Loveless elsewhere.
Aha, I thought. This is the one.
Where I found him was here, on the second collection of his 50s/early 60s singles put out by Chess records.
I was led to The Rockin’ Chair Album by the conventional wisdom which held that it represented him at his peak.
For once, the conventional wisdom was not just blowing smoke up my skirt.
“Shake for Me”–A lot of singers have expressed something along the lines of “shake it for me.” No one else made it sound like lives depended on it…his and hers.
The Red Rooster”–The Little Red Rooster, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. It’s not exactly as if it was given to him, it’s that he’s taking it anyway. Just try and stop him. The Wolf will laugh at you. Speed up the rooster? The one who’s too lazy to crow for day? Good luck with that.
“You’ll Be Mine”–An unholy noise, the vocal equivalent of a pile-driver. And yet, there’s a delicacy of feeling, a nuance of romanticism that belies the mighty yowl. In this reading, You’ll be mi-i-i-i-i-ine!, is equal parts joy of expectation, fear of loss, and something not quite definable. Terror of what he’ll do if it turns out she won’t be his perhaps? A lifetime of listening hasn’t yielded the answers. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to ponder it in the next life?
“Who’s Been Talkin'”–My favorite Wolf record, the very sound the Rolling Stones spent their early years chasing. The band may have even gotten there, and there would come a time when Mick Jagger had made enough deals with Lucifer to approximate Wolf’s capacity for excising everything inessential from a vocal. What he could never match–few could–was the ease available to a singer who dealt in souls himself. Ask me what My baby bought the ticket, long as my right arm means and I can’t tell you in words. But, in the place where words don’t count, I know exactly what it means.
“Wang Dang Doodle”–Like most of the songs on this album, this was written by Willie Dixon. Unlike most of Willie Dixon’s songs, here and elsewhere, this one is channeling “Young Goodman Brown.” Chester Burnett does Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Hawthorne descended from the Salem Witch Trial judge who never repented. Ah yes, it all makes sense now, this America!
“Little Baby”–Wolf turns ghost or is it stalker? He promises to follow the girl to church or jail. He swears he won’t let anything keep him from holding the money she wins at wages or playing the ponies. You go, and I’ll come with you, little baby. So much for the light-hearted side.
“Spoonful”–Now you flip the record over and it gets deep. Deep enough to make the wicked guitar–wicked even for a Wolf record, maybe the very wickedest–take second place.
“Going Down Slow”–This is the one where he sings about having things kings and queens ain’t never had. Anybody else would be bragging, including the richest rock stars, especially the ones who settled for knighthoods. Silly buggers. They ain’t the Wolf. He ain’t bragging. Just telling it like it is.
“Down in the Bottom”–This is the one where he sings If you see me runnin’ you know my life’s at stake. What’s remarkable about the way he sings it–what turns it inside out and lands it on its head, and yours–is it sounds almost matter of fact. And it’s the “almost” that puts the smell of fear and danger in the air. Comic fear, sure. Comic danger. But the kind that whispers: Next time, you won’t be so lucky!
“Back Door Man”–The men don’t know, but the little girls understand. Anything else you need to know?
“Howlin’ for My Baby”–This is the one where he takes a couple of minutes off to provide a prototype for a side of Otis Redding that never quite came out of Otis himself. If it had, he would have wasted Janis, Jimi, and the Who at Monterey. For the Wolf? A day at the office. Hey ya’ll, I think I just invented the future again. Make sure Mr. Chess gets my check now.
“Tell Me”–Trouble shows up at Wolf’s door….to tell him his baby is gone. He promises to forget in a voice that says he won’t. Oh, goodbye. Goodbye baby got to go. Trouble keeps knocking all the way through the fade. It knocks still. Wolf promises it will knock forever, whether he gets paid or not.
Next up: Bobby “Blue” Bland Two Steps From the Blues. (My complete review from 2012: “By which he means “not even two inches.” Should be fun!)
One good theory of American music (okay, mine, but that’s not the only reason I like it), is that white music tends to preserve order and black music tends to challenge or disrupt it. The over-arching geniuses of the twentieth century’s three fundamental American music movements (it’s too constricting to call them genres or even styles) all achieved their preeminence by complicating this theory to the point of obliteration. What Elvis did for rock & roll and James Brown did for hip hop, Louis Armstrong did for jazz and this set concentrates on the orderly side. The brilliance of his 20s-era playing and early 30s-era singing is mostly reined in over three discs that cover the rest of his career (a later live version of “Black and Blue” proves he could smooth the rough edges off of anything), but that only goes to show how far genius can take you. Not the first Armstrong I’d give somebody who didn’t know what he was about, but it fills an essential niche.
9) Various Artists: The Funk Box (2000)
Speaking of James Brown, he kicks off this 4-disc set from Hip-O with a couple of early 70s tracks that prove just how elemental and elementary his basic vision was. Everybody else spent the next decade trying to catch up and, while there’s plenty of fine music here, it sort of falls between the cracks. Apparently, the licensing was limited to a couple of labels so too much that’s essential is missing for it to be a definitive history of Funk as it reached the mainstream. And, unlike the label-specific What It Is!, it’s not quirky enough to amount to an eccentric vision. Really good then, no weak tracks. But I find it a little four-square in the matter of representing funk’s reach, and a little meager in representing the power of its full punch.
8) Cyndi Lauper:Twelve Deadly Cyns…and Then Some. (1994)
Cyndi Lauper sang like she had been put in the world to disprove my main theory: white music that challenges and disrupts everything. One of the great 80s comps (and one of the few that can stand with the great 60s and 70s comps), a concept album made from a conceptual career, beginning with a reimagining of her already incendiary Blue Angel-era cover of Gene Pitney’s (yes, already incendiary) “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and winding its way through America’s turn to imperial darkness to arrive at a sadder, wiser remake of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “Come on Home.” Nobody ever swore she’d “take it like a man” with more conviction. It still lifts me.
7) Otis Redding:Pain In My Heart (1964)
I was able to get hold of a box set of Otis Redding’s complete LPs thanks to some gift certificates. This was his first and the first time I’d heard it complete. It reminded me of the Beatles’ first UK release from 1962: shafts of brilliance shooting out from a hardworking set of principles. Should it be a surprise that he was of yet only a functional rock and roller but already a brilliant ballad singer? Well, I can’t stay I was too surprised. Either way, I’m looking forward to the rest.
6) The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974)
The Stones didn’t need to wait for the 80s. They gave up on the world right here. Not that the better half of it can’t still knock your teeth out if you aren’t on your guard. Who thought they could pull off “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”? Surely not anybody who remembered them trying to take on “My Girl.”
5) Various Artists:Doo Wop From Dolphin’s of Hollywood Vols. 1 & 2. (1991)
Two volumes, forty-nine sides, dozens of lost gems, not a hit in sight. Proof of how deep the ocean was, once upon a time.
4) John Mellencamp:Words & Music (2004)
Possessing nothing like the vocal power or ingenuity of Al Green or Patty Loveless, Mellencamp sold more records than either with a similar act of faith in a Fallen Land. What Green did for Black America and Loveless for Appalachia, Mellencamp did for Heartland America–pointed a finger and told the truth. This mixes his occasional didacticism with his frequent populism and his pervasive romanticism over two discs that get the shape and size of his career just about right. The remastering makes it sound and feel like he and his band are sitting next to you, which suits their ethos just fine and gives this a disorienting feel the match the times being transcribed.
Stick it in the CD player and drive.
3) Ohio Players: Funk on Fire–The Mercury Anthology (2002)
Industrial funk from Mellencamp’s Heartland, a generation earlier. Outside of the go-rillas you know so well (“Fire,” “Who’d She Coo?,” “Love Rollercoaster”) it still strikes a match because their great theme was celebrating black women as the epitome of desire–and, in “Far East Mississippi,” recognizing how deeply interconnected such celebrations are with the worst forms of oppression. They don’t ‘low no skinny dippin’ in far east Mississippi you know.
And we all know the reason.
2) Prince:The HIts/The B-Sides (1993)
He made a lot of good albums, but his ethos still lends itself to a generous comp. This is that. Something always jumps out and this time it was “Alphabet Street.” Barely remembered among the stream of radio riches here, it would have been a career definer for almost anyone else. He was too narcissistic to really celebrate anyone but himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn a lot from the Ohio Players and James Brown and, who knows, maybe even Pops Armstrong and John Mellencamp. Cyndi Lauper certainly learned a lot from him: everything except how to guard herself. This is the sound of a genius unto himself, letting us in on secrets a more open-hearted man would have taken to his grave. He’d have made a great spy.
1) Manfred Mann:The Best of
I spent years trying to get hold of this. It was one of those easily available yet somehow elusive collections: I ordered it at least three previous times only to meet with “just sold the last one” or “sorry we sent you the wrong version” or “why won’t this disc play.” The curse is now over!
And the verdict: Spottier than it should have been. 26 tracks and no “With God On Our Side” (where they wasted Dylan)? No “John Hardy”? Come on! But the dozen best that are here still make me ask why exactly the Hollies, Moody Blues, Dave Clark Five, Zombies, are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mann, who made great records with three different bands for more than a decade, and Mike Jones, who could sing every one of those bands under the table, have never even been nominated?
Especially before J.T. Taylor joined, they flirted with a kind of anonymity: each member interchangeable within the collective and the collective interchangeable within the form (which in the beginning was funk, funk, and nothing but the funk–meaning the white boy intelligentsia was all too happy to define them out of existence).
They were too good for that to last and, over the long haul–which this strictly chronological delight traces step-by-step–they helped define funk, disco, even the new R&B ballad style. And, for all that, there’s no way to get to the bottom of “Celebration,” which seems lighter than air the first hundred times you hear it on the radio or some comp and, here, late at night on the headphones you wear so you won’t wake up the neighbors, reveals itself as one of the greatest and deepest arrangements in the history of rock and roll. Meaning, around these parts, the history of great and deep arranging, period. Try it some time.
9) Desmond Dekker Rockin’ Steady: The Best of (1992)
A recent re-acquisition (among several on this list that were lost in the Great CD Sell-Off of 2002)–and I can’t even believe how much I was missing. My vague memory was that, after all the early Leslie Kong-produced stuff everybody knows are great (“007” “The Israelites” “It Mek”) there was a bit of a tail-off. If anything, he got better. This is the most readily available comp and, while I suspect it only scratches the surface–nobody this consistent on the singles, across decades, ever fails to have hidden depths–it’s still a lot to take in. For at least these twenty cuts, Dekker belongs in the company of the reggae giants, with Marley and Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert.
And, lest we forget, it was he, not they, who broke the music off the island.
8) Patty LovelessUp Against My Heart (1991)
Between 1988’s Honky Tonk Angel and 1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome, which preceded her first unofficial retirement, Loveless released seven albums. This is the only one that didn’t go gold or platinum so naturally it’s my favorite…not to mention one of the greatest vocal albums of the twentieth century. The significance to her career–and the direction of country music ever since–was not slight. This was her fifth album and fifth albums are about where sawdust-on-the-floor acts are supposed to give a little.
It must have occurred to somebody that she was digging in instead of selling out. A label change, throat surgery and her first “comeback” were in the offing–and she would take digging in further than anyone has in these modern times, (when it really has become gauche), eventually winning every major award, without bluster, without giving an inch, and without playing any way other than nice.
But I still wonder what would have happened–to her and the country–if, with Bill Clinton’s unctuous combination of Sanctimony and Sleaze lurking just around the corner, somebody had the nerve to release “God Will” to the radio….and it had taken off.
7) War All Day Music (1971)
One of the great albums of the seventies. I’m starting to think it might be even greater than its mind-blowing followup The World is a Ghetto, which was the best-selling album of 1973. It’s conceptual, and the concept stretches from “All Day Music” to “Slippin’ Into Darkness” to an early, live version of “Me and Baby Brother,” (called here just “Baby Brother”)–from the afterglow of the just-then-receding Civil Rights movement, to the ominous warning of a present already being robbed of the light, to a future that must, of necessity, betoken a reckoning.
And it flows, brothers and sisters. It flows.
Never more so than when snatches of cross-talk at the beginning of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” recreate a camaraderie every living human can envy as prelude to a lyric that drops us into a situation far too many of us would sell our souls to avoid having to deal with personally.
6) The Mamas & the PapasDeliver (1967) and The Papas & the Mamas (1968)
Speaking of slipping into darkness, it’s funny how one album puts you in a mood for another. I listen to these albums as the second disc of a box set, where they make a seamless transition that amounts to a blessing on the sixties’ present (represented by several stunning re-imaginings of R&B classics on Deliver) turning into a curse on any possible future that might result as The Papas & the Mamas wanders along.
Over the course of these, their last two albums (not counting a listless reunion effort in the seventies), Cass eventually takes over on her way out the door–with a “Dream a Little Dream of Me” that wastes every pre-rock Pop singer to a husk, with a “Midnight Voyage” that closes down the album and the group as swiftly, surely and seductively as “Safe in My Garden” and “Twelve Thirty” (which novelist Steve Erickson once accurately described as an ode to the Manson girls) close down the sixties. And that’s not even taking into account the single line where she sing’s Get on your pony and ride which might be her finest moment.
These days, I listen to this disc a lot.
I mean, with the End so near, why wouldn’t you?
5) Earth, Wind & FireGreatest Hits (1998)
Funk’s most formidable hit machine and this is all of them, rolling one right after the other. (Mix-disc advice: Stick “Serpentine Fire” next to the Beach Boy’s “How She Boogalooed It.” Strap down your mind first. Thank me later.)
People who think EWF lack street cred (mostly white people who mistook George Clinton’s slave humor for Old Testament commandments–as with the Stax/Motown debate, the opinions of actual black people, including George Clinton, are rarely taken into account unless they conform to certain necessary preconditions) function as useful idiots. There’s more evidence on their albums and box sets. I invite you to explore…but this is proof enough.
4) The TokensWimoweh! The Best of (1994)
Another recent re-acquistion–disappointed that it didn’t have “He’s in Town” (though that at least proved I hadn’t somehow missed or, worse, forgotten it, and gave me an excuse to add it to the Diamonds in the Shade category). What’s left after “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is still pretty spectacular. One can hear how, with a break or two, they might have been much bigger. Maybe not as big as the 4 Seasons, for whom they cleared the ground…but bigger.
Instead, the sixties happened. This is a nice trip to the land of what might have been.
3) The SkylinersSince I Don’t Have You(with Bonus Tracks) (1991)
(Another recent re-acquisition–it’s been that kind of year.)
A vehicle for Jimmy Beaumont, a doo wop genius who was really a blue-eyed soul genius arrived half a decade early. This is nearly all riveting. The killer soprano who augments the sound, occasionally taking it over, is Janet Vogel. She would hang over the proceedings like a ghost even if you didn’t know she committed suicide in 1980.
On these records, she is not alone in sounding like she already knows something you don’t. Killer stuff.
2) Barry WhiteAll-Time Greatest Hits (1994)
They could have called it “quittin’ just ain’t my stick.” It’s too bad Barry became known as the Maestro of Sex because he was really the Maestro of Devotion, who understood how important Sex was. I’m with Marvin Gaye in regarding him as one of the deepest spiritual artists. Some people understood–this never, ever quits and, released nearly two decades after the Maestro’s hey-day, it went double-platinum. You want to go really deep, catch “You See the Trouble With Me’ and “Oh What a Night for Dancing,” but even the most heavy rotation hits have never worn out and never will….and you talk about arrangements? Jesus, these don’t even call attention to themselves when you’re concentrating on them and nothing else.
Or at least trying to!
1) Various ArtistsUltimate Seventies: 1973 (1990)
One thought that struck me listening to nearly everything on this list, but especially to Barry White, was how everybody used to sound big.
Music only rides three basic trains: Melody, Rhythm, Trance. Pitchfork‘s recent list of the 200 Greatest Albums of the Eighties had a link to a key song from each album. That sort of thing is one of the great blessings of the modern age. Once upon a time, when a critic waxed lyrical about some obscure recording, you had to sweat blood, time and money to ever hear it. Now, it’s just a click away. Except for the few dozen on that list I knew (Madonna, Bruce, Michael, Prince, Cyndi, the Go-Go’s) I clicked every single entry (something north of a hundred and fifty) and finished exactly one (a song by the Replacements I’m not the least bit haunted by already having forgotten the name of even though I swore I’d try to remember).
For all the rest, be it hip-hop, rap, grunge, punk, post-punk, indie, hardcore, speed metal, dance pop, electronica, post-modern classical or even singer-songwriter (Leonard Cohen was on there somewhere), I developed a pattern.
Click on a link.
Mutter Trance music.
I was aware of the new form of evil moving through the land in the eighties as it happened. I hope that awareness has touched almost everything I’ve written on this blog. But the level of calculation, especially as it related to what had, only a moment before, been Rock and Roll America, the most liberating force in American life, if not American history, never before struck me so forcefully.
Not coincidentally I found myself, a day or two later, wondering what I needed to listen to in order to finish off this list and my hand strayed to, of all places, the Time Life area of the CD shelves.
I picked 1973 because it was supposed to be a nothing year, the nadir--the kind of vacuum that made the Punk and Rap Trances (and the Grunge and Hip Hop trances that followed in their wake)–and the smug pretense their trances represented something besides capitulation–inevitable before the decade was out.
And this collection from the corporate behemoth started with “Loves Me Like a Rock” “Superfly” “We’re an American Band’ “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And, except for maybe Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” it rolled all the way to the end with no trace of a trance anywhere–and even Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” didn’t sound small. It didn’t matter if me or you liked all of this music or none of it–it was the sound that mattered. The sound of somebody–literally anybody–trying to get a grasp on a moment that was huge, not because of your private taste or mine, but because we were still desperate to be caught up in some larger story and to have music represent that desperation.
And now, like everything from 1980 onward that wasn’t a throwback, we have….smallness.
Jesus. You artists of the present (the ones that reach the radio anyway).
You shameless fronts for suits and machines.
“Midnight Train to Georgia” is one thing. Nobody expects you to live up to that.
But you’ve made Stealers Wheel and Seals and Croft sound epic.
How am I supposed to forgive you!
Take it Marvin…Save me Brother! Sing Track 18 for Barry and all the ladies and shut down the trance lords forever. Make them ashamed:
David Cantwell has gently taken Pitchfork to task for putting out a list of 200 essential albums from the 80s and not including a single country LP. I like his list a lot. If anyone is interested in catching up with the dawn of what, to date, is country music’s last golden age, you couldn’t do better than to start here.
My two favorite artists from the decade (Patty Loveless and George Strait) are, unsurprisingly, represented–but the list got me thinking about my favorite country records from the 80s that nobody talks about and which also aren’t on David’s list. Loveless’s “Fly Away” has still never been posted to YouTube. So I’ll settle for George. No worries. He’ll do.
NOTE: My other relevant favorite nobody talks about is Dwight Yoakam’s “South of Cincinnati” which, with the genders reversed, is sufficiently close to my current station in life that I can hardly listen to it–but the album did make David’s alternate picks. If you listen at the link, just remember to thank God for small favors.
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…
There’s been a first-verse-and-chorus-only version of Patty Loveless singing “Here I Am” (one of the contenders for her greatest recording) live on YouTube for years. Finally, there’s a full version (from Austin City Limits, no less, a place she always seemed especially relaxed). Double bonus since it’s preceded by “Tear Stained Letter” and catches her in her Best-Dressed-Woman-In-Nashville phase. These things can disappear, so catch it while you can!
Primo Stevie and a high point of both his career and the Rising. Highlights are many, including “Superstition,” a valid entry in the Greatest Record Ever Made sweepstakes.
And, at this distance, even its mellow, meandering cuts talk louder than they did in the seventies, when Hope was still a prime ingredient and Anger was still righteous. And, of course, it still goes out on the smiling note of “I Believe,” a side which has me thinking about my Favorite Album Closer.
But what speaks loudest today is “Big Brother,” which still says I don’t even have to do nothing to you, you’ll cause your own country to fall, after he’s already told you why.
9) Patty Loveless (1986)
Patty’s eponymous debut. It was basically a collection of mid-charting singles and their B-sides from the early days when Nashville wasn’t quite sure what to do with or make of her.
If it were all there was, it would be remarkable enough to make you wonder why she didn’t quite make it. Sort of like wondering why Kelly Willis or Mandy Barnett or Shelby Lynne didn’t quite make it. As is, it’s still a fine entry. No weak cuts (she didn’t know how to make weak cuts), though only a hint, albeit a strong one, of why she would not end up being cast aside. As usual the simplest explanation is the best. She was Patty Loveless and they weren’t.
8) Glen CampbellThe Capitol Years 65-77 (1998)
Just a reminder of how good he was and for how long….and how many directions his career could have gone. His last big hit was from Allen Touissant after all. “Galveston” (reportedly Glen’s own favorite) hits especially close to home these days, when it is clear some poor schlub will always be cleaning his gun until the Empire collapses.
And the “Rhinestone Cowboy”/”Country Boy” one-two punch will always be a knockout.
But he really could have been a Beach Boy, too…Or a folk rock stalwart.
A superb two-disc comp that doesn’t quit and showcases Paul Rodgers at his best. For me, this hits the just-right sweet spot between the populist (think Rodgers’ next group, Bad Company, who I still love) and arty approaches (think John Mayall or even Mike Bloomfield, who I also love) to white blues that proliferated in the “molten” decade between 1965-75. This, I could listen to all day, because everything is in place, but nothing feels forced.
Grand overview of history’s most successful Power Pop band (unless Blondie counts). Yes, they go down easier at album length and easier still at single length. And yes, you could argue they never really broke, or needed to break, the mold of their early singles.
But there were an awful lot of great singles in there and it’s nice to have them all in one place so you can just let them roll over you.
How you have a two-disc comp, though–one complete with outtakes, B-sides and previously unissueds which don’t even come close to breaking the momentum–and leave off “Bye Bye Love,” one of their greatest and still in regular rotation on Classic Rock radio, I’ll never know.
5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)
The greatest album of 1983…or 1984 (when its five hit singles were all over the radio), or the entire 80s…turns out to be the greatest album of 2017, too. I’m thinking of doing a longish piece on either the album or one of the individual cuts so I won’t go on at length here. Suffice to say this was the last time anyone–including Cyndi–was both willing and able to pull off a vision that incorporated nearly everything rock and roll had been up to that point (including Byrds’ guitar, which I finally heard tolling under the maelstrom of “Money Changes Everything” just the other day. (Live link…if you only click on one, etc….no Byrds guitar, just a reminder that she was the era’s greatest live performer, too.)
Then, it was possible to hear it as a direction the future might take. Now, it sounds more like rage against the dying of the light. And anyone who thinks it quits on what used to be the second side just hasn’t been paying attention all these years.
4) Johnny RiversSecret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology (2006)
Well, there’s definitely an “anthology” theme developing here (don’t worry, it’s not done yet).
This was released fifteen years after Johnny’s Rhino two-discer and, as such, includes generous helpings from his later rockabilly throwback albums.
It seems Johnny was always throwing back to something–he broke out with a Chuck Berry cover in the teeth of the British Invasion, after all, when everybody else was just playing lip service (that’s what an album track amounted to in those days). But across four decades he never failed to add those things that came only from him. The plaintive timbre (never parlayed more effectively than on his jumping “live” cuts). The sharp-edged, no-nonsense guitar lines (ditto). The sense that time keeps turning back on itself, never resting. Not sure how anyone could listen to this all the way through to “Let It Rock” and argue that he doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then life is full of mysteries.
3) The SpinnersA One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (1991)
The Spinners are one of the few acts who have been blessed with great comps at every level. Their 1978 Best of is as essential as anything Rock and Roll America produced. Their 2003 box set, The Chrome Collection, contains revelations galore (one of which I wrote about here). And this, a two-disc tweener, is perfect in its own way, since, unlike the other comps, it includes a lot of 12-inch versions of their hits, all of which sustain and satisfy because Philippe Wynne was the greatest improv vocalist to ever stand in front of a microphone (and no, I haven’t forgotten Louis Armstrong).
They made great albums, too. How could they not? They were the greatest vocal group of the 70s, and in the conversation with the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Everlys and the Mamas & the Papas, as the greatest vocal group of the rock and roll era. There’s no way even a box set could fully contain them. But if there were only going to be one Spinners’ comp in the world, I’d have to pick this one, which catches the aspirational aspects of Black America–the still radical notion that black people belong here–like nothing else.
2) Rod Stewart Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings (2002)
Staggering. 3 discs containing Stewart’s first five solo albums (plus an album’s worth of mostly killer extras–only “Pinball Wizard,” which must have seemed a natural for him, falls flat).
These are the records that made the reputation he has lived on ever since, and, however unfortunate his life and legacy became afterwards, they’re plenty enough to justify four decades of self-indulgent posing and/or epic laziness (take your pick). Everything that stands between you and his decades of excrescence still disappears the minute he pivots in the middle of “Street Fighting Man,” which led his first album, and turns it from a straight country blues (some kind of attempt to reclaim both its musical and political origins) and shows he hasn’t forgot what he learned hanging out in the London Blooz scene….which was how to stomp.
Over these five albums, he never forgot. Over the few years left of the seventies, he mostly forgot.
This natural pairing of Winston Rodney’s classic reggae albums (more high points of the Rising, arriving just as it became the Falling) is probaly now the natural way to listen…the vocal version of his celebration of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, flowing into the dub version.
So I go on the road, I drive, I get to listen close…Six hours to the airport (where I fly nonstop to North Dakota so I still save a few hours in the end by avoiding layovers).
The plane leaves at 7:00 a.m. so I leave the house before midnight.
On the way down, I listen to The Basement Tapes (which I’ve just got cranking when the local constabulary pulls me to tell me my tag light’s out, thank you very much!), Timi Yuro’s Complete Liberty Singles (worthy of its own post…how do we so easily forget Timi Yuro?), The Trouble With the Truth (one of several Patty Loveless albums I’m always convinced is her very best whenever I’m listening to it) and close with the real killer, Don Gibson’s A Legend in My Time (a superbly chosen Bear Family disc from his classic period), which I never have time to really focus on when I’m at home.
Twelve days later, I return in the rain. It’s one of those Florida rains which I know is not worth waiting out (for one thing, I’ll be asleep in the airport by then…it’s been a lo-n-n-n-n-g-g-g twelve days). So I hike to my car in the rain (it’s one of those ariports where, if you’ve parked a car, it’s a hike), get my shirt soaking wet, decide I might as well wait until I stop for gas to change it (by which time it will be dry enough not to bother….no matter how often I fly from this airport, I always forget how far it is to a gas station…or food!). Don Gibson is still in the CD player, so I listen again….
…and it’s still awe-inspiring. There’s nothing quite like hearing an hour’s worth of Don Gibson while you’re driving in a welcome-back-to-Florida rain.
And then, to tell the truth, I pull Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now for no better reason than because it’s sitting on top of the stack.
I only threw it in the box because I’ve had my new CD version sitting around the house for months, meaning to give it the listen I never quite gave it when I bought it cheap and used on vinyl twenty years back.That’s another thing driving trips are good for–catching up on stuff you don’t have proper time for when your life is gathered around you at home, where dishes need to be washed, the blog needs keeping up, the paycheck has to be earned, the book wants a polish.
Starts off fine. I have the usual reaction I have when I haven’t listened to Van in a while. He’s great, but nobody could be as great as Van is when I’m only listening in my mind, so I’m soon wondering if he’s merely great, and maybe not, you know, transcendent.
That’ gets me all the way to this…the ninth track on the first disc…
…and about halfway through it, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I start thinking, no, it’s not possible to overestimate Van Morrison, even when he’s just being the crowd-pleaser his legend suggests he could never just be.
Of course, it could be that this is just the first song I know well enough to sing along–which means I can start edging towards ecstasy, especially if I’m driving along in the the still steady drizzling welcome-back-to-Florida rain.
Then he switches to Muddy Waters…
…and gets inside him, sneaky little bastard. Muddy Waters as lounge music that’s deeper and fleeter than the original and which, since I haven’t quite comprehended whether this first disc is supposed the be the entire original album (it’s not), may be closing the original concept down. It feels like it could do that. Driving along in the rain, it feels like it could close down the World…or the State of Florida at least.
But it’s just a set up. I’ve got the second disc cued up and, though I can’t tell if it’s bonus material or not (it isn’t), it doesn’t matter, because he jumps straight into Sam Cooke, who knew a thing or two about Vegas-ing the Blues himself. No more than Van, certainly…
…but maybe no less. Either way, Van’s off into the mystic so to speak, because he jumps from there to “St. Dominic’s Preview,” which it takes me a while to recognize, by which time my mind has split in two and I’m doing some sort of mental dissertation on White Boys diving into the Blues and hearing snatches of Mick Jagger’s negotiations with Satan, circa 1974, about the time Satan started cashing Mick’s checks and draining his bank account and while most of the conversation drifted by, what with the rain and the Yes-Sir-Van-is-All-That singing going on, it did keep my mind running in Fake Stereo for fifteen minutes or so while Van got all the way to end of his personal Magnum Opus, “Listen to the Lion” which can never be added to on stage because he took the recorded version as far as anything can be taken.
And I figured that was probably that.
The rain had stopped by then. The sun was coming out, and Van went straight back into his crowd-pleasingist, crowd-pleasing mode, and we all know what that means….Time for a little THEM…
Starting with this…
which makes me wonder if he’s trying to steal it back from Lulu…
…who stole it from him in the Them days (she got it out first, they had the big hit, and somewhere deep down inside I think, listening to It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Van knows she found something to be afraid of in the night he was busy owning it…and still trying to own all those years later).
After which, of course, it’s on to the one he’ll never get away from…and which no one will ever beat him on…or find anything in that he didn’t find the first time…
And you’d think this would bring my poor ragged mind back to a single track, especially since I’m clapping, driving and singing at the same time.
Hey, don’t worry, no more rain, no problem. I’m VERY experienced at this.
But while I’m doing that, I also start conducting an (imaginary–I ain’t crazy you know) interview with Jimmy Page, where I ask if he minds focusing on his early session-man days (among which a number of Them tracks, and Lulu’s version of “Here Comes the Night” are rumored to be highlights…or maybe it isn’t rumored anymore and it’s either been confirmed or debunked by now, but in my mind I’m assuming young James did indeed play on some Them sessions and Lulu sessions, and he doesn’t seem to want to shatter any illusions).
But, instead of asking him about Van Morrison and Them, or even Lulu, I find myself asking if this was as much fun as it sounds like…
….and his imaginary face lights up for the first time, loses it’s professional cool. “Tried to throw her off with that discordant bit in the bridge,” he says. “Silly me…Gave me some ideas for later though.”
I might have pursued the conversation further…I WOULD have pursued it further. Nothing could have kept me from it.
Except maybe this.
The sun was shining bright by then. I was somewhere near Ocala. Still three hours from home, but the past is behind me and Van Morrison is speaking in tongues.
I’m still recovering from the trip…And still being reminded I ain’t as young as I used to be. But I did want to comment on Rolling Stone‘s new list of the 100 Greatest Country Artists. It’s not the worst of its kind I’ve seen, not even the worst provided by Rolling Stone. You can read their own explanation for why they left off Elvis (who would be in the top ten of any real list). They don’t need to explain why they left off Brenda Lee and Linda Ronstadt and the Everly Brothers (had to make room for Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, among others). Or why they think Garth Brooks is “greater” than Lefty Frizzell (a judgment that will be considered at the level of a “what were they thinking” Communist plot when they update the list a generation hence).
But at least Patty Loveless made the list. Heck, she even came in three spots ahead of Taylor Swift, for which I imagine David Cantwell, who wrote Patty’s entry and is one of the few people on the selection committee who demonstrably knows anything about country music, can be thanked.
Why she’s fifty-two spots below Shania Twain, on a list that includes the words “Greatest,” “Country” and “Artists” in its title?
Well, there’s no explaining that. So I’ll just dedicate a song…from Patty to the rest of the selection committee:
I touched back down in Florida this afternoon and, near the end of my six hour, post flight, drive home from the airport, I had run through my personal programming (about which more later if I can find the time and energy…there was a lot of free associating to a soundtrack of Van Morrison involved), I started trying to find my regular radio stations (which invariably get switched around when I drive as long as six hours).
Before I found my usuals, I was stopped by this…
which told me I was listening to a station specializing in country’s back pages…which told me I was back in the South…and which was followed by this, which I had somehow never heard….
…and which, as I listened close, trying to figure out how I missed it, reminded me that the only thing that kept Martina McBride from being both the best and bravest country singer of the last quarter century was the existence of Patty Loveless….who might have sounded perfect if she had come next, but probably not as perfect as what actually did, which was this…
…which brought home very close, and reminded me that North Dakota, from whence I had just returned from two weeks of, among other things, eating in an old-fashioned diner where the owner keeps the Statlers in heavy rotation, probably has stations that play combinations like this.
But I bet they don’t close with this…
….just as the station passes out of range.
Pretty sure that only happens here.
(NOTE: I’ll be answering any outstanding emails or comments in the next day or so, once I catch up on my sleep.)