It’s Hard to Believe It: The Amazing World of Joe Meek (1995)
[NOTE: I don’t know if this is the best introduction to Joe Meek’s music, just that it was mine. It got away in the Great CD Selloff of 2002 and I eventually replaced it with a 56-track, 2-disc set, which I don’t hear adding anything new or vital to his vision.]
It pays to take care when tip-toeing around cults. I trust them a little more when the object of shared affection has achieved some legitimate Pop success. I trust them a little less when said object is a murderer.
One whiff of Death Chic and my horse manure detector goes straight to eleven.
The day Phil Spector was arrested for murdering Lana Clark (a murder which fulfilled a spiritual contract he had been threatening to carry out on anyone but himself for decades and for which he was ultimately convicted), I got in my car, put my cassette copy of this in the tape deck and took the long way to town and back.
I got home just as “Black Pearl” was cutting to the fade. I sat in my driveway, sang along with Sonny Charles the way I always do, then closed my eyes and listened to Bobby Hatfield close it out with “Ebb Tide.”
Then, eyes still closed, I shook my head and said out loud:
“Well, he wasn’t a murderer then.”
He also wasn’t someone who really needed Death Chic, or even the common air of carefully cultivated eccentricity with which he was already associated, to ratify the genius part of his Genius.
All you had to do was listen to the records.
With Britain’s Joe Meek the equation, musical or human, isn’t so easy.
He, too, was some sort of genius. Perhaps just not a musical one.
I hear three great records below and they are very great indeed. I also hear a lot of interesting technology, near misses and talent seeking an identity.
The Death Chic odor that surrounds Meek, then, is an especially strong one. Unlike Spector’s, his murder occurred while he was still young and active. It’s not so easy to disassociate the evil act with which he finally defined himself from the music he made or the public’s affection for it.
He was definitely no talent scout. Having, at some point, turned down the Beatles, Rod Stewart and a young David Bowie (and for no other reason than they stank), he did discover one of England’s finest female vocalists, Glenda Collins, and a good rockin’ band with a hard-driving female drummer (Honey Lantree of the Honeycombs), with whom he even had some commercial success. But his preference, always, was for weird, quasi-musical sound effects and studly young males who couldn’t sing. It may have been that talent put him off somehow.
Anyway, back and forth I go…
Does a minor genius–one tormented by being a closeted gay in an England where homosexuality was still outlawed–deserve the same respect for his work as a major one?
Especially if, unlike Phil Spector, he at least had the decency to off himself?
And if, unlike Spector, he committed his evil deed without first spending decades convincing himself he wasn’t satisfied with making all those great records, that he wouldn’t really amount to anything until he had blood on his hands?
It’s a close call, with no easy answers.
I guess the best thing to do is promise to listen close before we decide…
“Telstar” – The Tornados: #1 on both sides of the Atlantic in December, 1962. The first British rock and roll record to hit #1 in America, more than a year before the Beatles hit The Ed Sullivan Show. It deserved its place in history. It’s a furious, mad record, as exciting and unrepeatable as “Rumble” or “Eve of Destruction.”
“Johnny Remember Me” – John Leyton: Meek’s first UK #1, from 1961. The production is already forward looking, especially given Meek’s preference for recording in his flat. It wouldn’t be the last time he got a unique sound out of his need to keep everything close and completely under his control. Nor would it be the last time he failed to find a singer who could live up to that sound.
“Tribute To Buddy Holly” – Mike Berry & The Outlaws: From 1961. What this has going for it is sincerity. The singer has the voice to put that sincerity across, but doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it. The producer seems more interested in cramming in as many sounds as he can than with producing an effective record. It did hit the top 40 in the UK.
“Chick A ‘Roo” – Ricky Wayne & The Flee-Rakkers: This is a near miss. Somebody knew their Buddy Holly front to back. The only thing they forgot was to come up with one of those great songs Buddy wrote like it was as easy as breathing.
“Night Of The Vampire” – The Moontrekkers: All atmosphere. In keeping with the vibe that was coming from comic books and the cheapest horror flicks. It’s probably effective background music for something….I’m just not sure what.
“Paradise Garden” – Peter Jay: Another great production in every respect except the vocal. If this was what Joe really preferred, one can hear how he missed on the Beatles. Paul McCartney would have killed this, if he could have been induced to sing it instead of one of his own little compositions.
“My Friend Bobby” – Pamela Blue: A pleasant girl group entry from 1963. The singer does not live up to her name.
“Swingin’ Low” – The Outlaws: The Outlaws were sort of Meek’s house band. This is a nice little number, a little Duane Eddy twang, a little rockabilly flavor in the drums, some weird echo. The Wrecking Crew, they were not. This is one of many records where it’s fair to ask whether Meek lacked access to top session men or they simply didn’t yet exist in Great Britain….or whether he preferred it this way. The Outlaws (who later on featured Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple fame), did make a record called “Crazy Drums” which lives up to Meek’s reputation. It, uh, did not make the charts.
“Valley Of The Saroos” – The Blue Men: In his liner notes for the EP on which this first appeared in 1960, Meek billed the music within as suitable for space travel. It was/is unclear whether the astronauts having it piped in their ear were supposed to be asleep, moon-walking or making out. Fun to speculate.
“The Bublight” – The Blue Men: From the same I Hear a New World project. I don’t think anyone was supposed to make out to this one. It may have been for going a step beyond…with space aliens.
“Til The Following Night” – Screaming Lord Sutch & The Savages: Still in 1961. Look the man was dedicated to his vision. Jungle music on the moon. Good story line, though, something about a fellow who goes about doing terrible things in the night but has to crawl back in his coffin during the day. One of Meek’s true fellow visionaries, David Sutch eventually founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in Great Britain and lost a record-breaking forty elections. I have no idea of his platform, but it’s hard to imagine the Brits being any worse off for him winning a couple.
“Just Like Eddie” – Heinz: Heinz was the bass player for the Tornados. This was his big shot at solo stardom and did chart in the UK. He had a white-haired version of Pink’s cropped-head look down forty years early. Alas, he did not have Pink’s vocal chops. But there’s a moment at the very end where he reaches for Eddie Cochran’s spirit and style and, for about five seconds, grabs it. That and some nice early session guitar from the aforementioned Ritchie Blackmore keep things interesting.
“North Wind” – Houston Wells & The Marksmen: This one is almost all the way there. The production and guitar work are arresting, the vocal is good. Its buried too deep in the mix for maximum effect, leading me to wonder if Meek was simply scared of good singers? He rarely signed them and, when he did, he failed to show them off. Was he afraid they would get the credit? Give Phil Spector credit for this much: Even Ronnie Spector (who received credible death threats from her former husband decades before Lana Clark met her fate) said the one person who had complete autonomy on a Phil Spector record was the lead singer. He hired great voices and showcased them. To this point, no one would accuse Joe Meek of that.
“Huskie Team” – The Saints: British surf music. Very fine. It would have fit right in on a collection of obscure South Bay bands from the Dick Dale era, though it wouldn’t have stood out.
“Have I The Right” – The Honeycombs: 1964 and at last it all comes together. Meek signs a good band with a distinctive singer (Denis D’Ell) and straight off comes up with a stomping masterpiece that goes #1 UK and Top 5 US. Despite a string of fine singles (a few of which scraped the charts on either side of the pond), they never came close to this level of commercial success again. Evidently, some ensuing copyright issues going all the way back to “Telstar” were a major factor in destroying Meek’s finances and helped put him in a murder/suicide state of mind. The court issue was decided a year after he killed his landlady, then himself, in 1967. Apparently, British courts run along the same lines as American ones: The process is the punishment. The Honeycombs’ sides, along with “Telstar” and the best work of Glenda Collins, certainly make him the greatest British producer who never worked with a major band.
“My Baby Doll” – Mike Berry & The Outlaws: A straight-up rockabilly tribute–with what sounds like zippy strings. Another near miss that goes by swiftly and painlessly.
“Something I’ve Got To Tell You” – Glenda Collins: I said what I have to say about Collins’ vocal here. It was the finest she delivered on a series of strong singles for Meek and the one moment when she was the equal of Brenda Lee or Dusty Springfield. I’ll just add that Meek’s beautiful production–recorded in his flat, like everything else–is just as great, the one moment he really could have been Phil Spector.
“I Take It That We’re Through” – The Riot Squad: 1966 and Meek is back to his old tricks, but he’s certainly learned a thing or two. This is a good record and has some great elements, including a wild instrumental break played on God knows what. If there’s a tragedy for the rest of us in Joe Meek’s story, it’s that he was clearly getting better as the decade went on.
“Lost Planet” – The Thunderbolts: I couldn’t find out anything about the Thunderbolts, or when this was recorded, but it sounds like it would have fit on a Tornados album from 1962. There are people who can’t get enough of this stuff. I’m not one of them, but a touch of it here and there is good for the soul.
“It’s Hard To Believe It” – Glenda Collins: A British “Eve of Destruction,” which means it lacks a certain air of the Apocalypse, lyrically and vocally. Still a fine record and a great closer, bringing Meek’s sonic, emotional and political concerns together in memorable fashion…and when he goes full sonic at the end–dispenses with everything except his own mad take on the world–the Apocalypse arrives anyway.
For those who want to seek out more information on Joe Meek’s life and career, there are a number of interviews and footage from documentaries on YouTube (just search “Joe Meek interview” or “Joe Meek documentary”). There’s also a fictionalized biopic based on his life (Telstar: The Joe Meek Story). Might make a good Rock and Roll Screening some day.
(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.
I’ve never had strong opinions on whether Rock and Roll is ‘”album music” or “singles music.”
The debate more or less opened up in the wake of Dylan and the Beatles way back when. I don’t know if it gets a rise out of anybody these days, when every music is “download music.” But I started thinking along those lines (again) after all these years, in response to some of the on-line Hall of Fame discussions, which often center around the general conflict between Commerce (almost always code for a string of hit singles) and Art (almost always code for critically acclaimed LPs).
Of course, there have been a handful of acts, from the Beatles onwards, for whom the distinction was virtually meaningless..
But, trying to wrap my mind around it from a twenty-first century, middle-age perspective, I started counting up who–in Rock and Roll and Rock and Roll only–I really thought of as “album” artists.
For the purposes of this little list, then, I’m leaving out quite a bit.
No comps or live albums (certainly no box sets). No pre-rock artists (which for me would be Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and Doris Day, make of that what you will) or contemporary artists who aren’t considered Rock and Roll, even in my own strictly big tent version. And no playing favorites (that would, incidentally, be a different list by at least half).
With that for the context, I stuck to artists who have made five or more original, studio albums I know well enough to have what I call sequence response: That is, if I hear something from that album in some other context (radio, commercial, computer mix, etc.), I’ll likely get a little jolt of surprise when the next song I expect to hear–i.e., the next song from the original album–doesn’t follow.
I thought there would be at least ten Rock and Roll acts who met this criteria, possibly as many as fifteen or twenty.
Not even close.
I only made it to six.
Turns out five is a very high number, when it comes to making compulsory-listening albums.
And all those reasonable caveats I mentioned above do dwindle the list considerably.
Which sort of confirms a suspicion I’ve long had about my listening (and judging) habits.
I tend to go free-form (not just comps but multi-artist comps, or else a lot of running back and forth to the shelves)….or very, very concentrated (box sets, the bigger the better).
So a lot of artists who have a great box set, or made way more great tracks than required to fill five (or even ten) LPs, still don’t make my list of five actual albums–James Brown, Brenda Lee, Janis Joplin, the Impressions, Aretha Franklin (who almost made it anyway) all come readily to mind.
So do the Jackson 5 and Jackie DeShannon, if you really want to know how deep a fifty-great-tracks list might run.
One qualification that would not have expanded the list much, however, is including non-rock acts from the rock (or now post-rock) era.
Again, there are plenty of favorites who have a wealth of great sides (Bobby Bland, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, maybe a couple of dozen country singers, not just the usual–Merle, Loretta, Patsy, Waylon, George, Dolly, Buck, but lesser known geniuses like Don Gibson and Connie Smith as well). But, for any number of reasons–time and money preeminent among them–I’ve never really listened to many of their studio albums at length.
The one exception is Patty Loveless, who is also the only artist of the last quarter century in any format whose albums I have any deep, consistent connection with.
It’s not that I don’t try–and not that I don’t find an occasional LP that moves me (Pink’s Missundaztood (2001) and the Roots’ Undun (2011) are fairly recent discoveries, for instance). But, if I said I heard great stuff all the time and probably just don’t have enough time to stay caught up (a frequent excuse as we get older), I’d be lying.
So I guess I could have included Loveless–on the grounds no one’s likely to be joining her on my little list.
I didn’t, though, because I’ve written extensively about her elsewhere and, again, I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty about specifically rock and roll album acts, So suffice it to say hers would be the longest list here, and would also cover the longest time-span, exceeding even Elvis. It’s possible–just–that compiling this list has sent my respect for Ms. Loveless (aka, “the Awesome One”) even higher. Which is fine, because compiling lists like this is partly an exercise in pinpointing what we value–and partly an excuse to ruminate a bit on what it all means, not just to us, but to the Cosmos.
Which brings me to my last point:
Great rock and roll album acts–at least by my lights–tend to have a great run in them, which also tends to exhaust them on some level.
The most extreme example is the Rolling Stones. They made what I think is their greatest album in 1972, at the end of nearly a decade of sustained brilliance (and over half a decade of sustained album brilliance).
Then they were replaced by pod people.
But, except for Elvis (whose larger story is, in some ways, even more extreme), everyone on this list could be described by some version of the same story.
In rock and roll, when the real greatness goes, it tends to go fast, hard and for good (no matter how much “good” music is left–and often there’s quite a lot).
The same is true, incidentally–with little exception–for my near misses (Dylan, Aretha, Hendrix, Van Morrison, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin–see the complete list below).
These were acts that had three or four on my list and maybe a near miss or two.
The oddest cases were Dylan, who missed because I’ve never really connected with Blonde on Blonde and Morrison, who missed because I didn’t count his two fantastic albums with Them (which might be unfair, but I was sticking to the strictest criteria possible) and would have made it anyway if I’d ever connected with Astral Weeks or if my vinyl version of Into the Music didn’t have some weird fuzz on Side Two that made it unlistenable-but-unreturnable when I bought it new (and thus never replaced)!
I throw in that last to emphasize just how arbitrary such “judgments” are if you don’t get your records for free.
But I think the main point still holds. Except for Elvis (and Patty Loveless), everybody who made, or nearly made, this list, made their best five to eight (or even three to four) original albums in the space of a decade (usually much less). And that’s all irrespective of whether these are my six “favorite” artists or I think they are “the greatest.”….As it happens, my six favorite rock and roll acts, if somebody put a gun to my head, would probably look a lot different…only Elvis would be guaranteed (though the Byrds and Al Green would certainly be in strong consideration).
Make of that what you will.
In any case, I’d really like to hear from anybody who has a different take (or artists they’d put on their own list).
As you’ll see, I’m not exactly after rearranging the canon here!
(*Denotes what I think is the artists’ greatest LP, or, if you prefer, my personal favorite–order is chronological, from date of the first LP that qualified for my list).
Elvis Presley (Two gospel albums and a Christmas LP here….but I included them because that was his version of rock and roll. And he would have made the list anyway):
1957: Christmas Album
1960: Elvis is Back!
1960: His Hand In Mine
1967: How Great Thou Art
1969: From Elvis In Memphis*
1971: Elvis Country!
1975: Promised Land
1964: Meet the Beatles
1964: The Beatles 2nd
1965: Help! (UK)*
1965: Rubber Soul (US)
1966: Revolver (UK)
1968: The Beatles (White Album)
[Note: Several of the early Beatles’ LPs, especially Hard Day’s Night, would almost certainly be here (perhaps substituting for US versions) if I had acquired the UK versions back in the days when I listened to them a lot more than I do now–I’m limiting these lists to albums I actually own (a function of finance), know backwards and forwards (a function of time spent), and happen to think are great listening experiences (a function of taste). See, I told you it was arbitrary.]
The Beach Boys:
1964: All Summer Long
1965: The Beach Boys Today!
1965: Summer Days (And Summer Nights)
1967: Wild Honey*
and a fantastic live version:
1965: Mr. Tambourine Man
1965: Turn, Turn, Turn
1966: Fifth Dimension
1967: Younger Than Yesterday
1967: The Notorious Byrd Brothers*
1968: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
1969: The Ballad of Easy Rider
The Rolling Stones:
1966: Aftermath (US)
1968: Beggar’s Banquet
1969: Let It Bleed
1970: Sticky Fingers
1972: Exile on Main Street*
1971: Gets Next to You
1972: Let’s Stay Together
1973: Call Me
1973: Livin’ For You
1974: Explores Your Mind
[Note: It’s worth mentioning that, in three of the six cases here, I thought the last great album on the list was the greatest. And, in the case of the Byrds, the two albums I list after Notorious Byrd Brothers were made with significantly different lineups. So, four times out of six, some point of crisis was reached. And the artists’ in question–be it faux-Satan worshiper Mick Jagger or the Reverend Al Green–were never really the same again. Something to bear in mind in any discussion where the spiritual cost of making great rock and roll happens to come up.]
(Near misses: Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Rod Stewart, Prince (if I only counted doubles as two!), Aretha Franklin, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, The Who, The Kinks, Fleetwood Mac and, a very recent discovery, Spinners–I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t think albums have progressed much after about the early eighties, but then, neither have singles.)
I was on an errand to Best Buy (searching for something called an HDMI cable which was needed for the completion of a secret mission which has now been brought to fruition–freedom in the West will continue). Decided to browse the CD section while I was on my way to the checkout and found Alecia Beth Moore’s second album (Missundaztood) and the new legacy edition combo of Elvis Presley’s first two albums both on sale.
I’m at the end of a mad summer so I couldn’t resist picking up both.
Moore, for those who don’t know, is a YWF (young white female) singer who has been having hits under her professional name, Pink, for more than a decade and, though it’s a decidedly faint-praise category, she has probably received more critical accolades in her own time than any solo YWF not named Janis Joplin in the history of critical accolades (which for rock purposes, stretches back nearly half a century to about the time of Joplin’s first records). Just as a for-instance, Robert Christgau, the “dean of American rock critics,” has graded three of Pink’s albums at A- or higher…which is three times as many A- or higher grades as he has ever given Linda Ronstadt, Tanya Tucker, Brenda Lee, Jackie DeShannon and Patty Loveless combined. Though I find such complete abdications of critical responsibility to be extremely bizarre and more than a little depressing, I have to admit he’s far from alone.
For the record, I like Pink just fine and, driving around town today, I discovered that I liked her second album just fine, too.
On her up and mid-tempo numbers, I have to confess I still can’t distinguish her from Britney or Christina or Miley or any number of other YWFs or, for that matter, from any number of BWFs, all of whom I also like just fine.
On her ballads, where I assume she sounds something like herself, she also sounds remarkably, at times even eerily, like Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie, who, under her professional name, Lulu, is one of my absolute favorites in the category of singers who were pretty big but should have been a whole lot bigger.
Between purchasing Missundaztood in conjunction with Elvis’ first RCA efforts (from 1956) and cottoning to the Lulu connection, I was maybe a little more inclined than usual to hear history in the background of what I suspect would otherwise have been an unremarkable encounter with a perfectly fine, newly purchased album by a catchy modern singer.
One thought that occurred is that Pink is supposed to represent the success of the revolution.
She’s got attitude. She’s got tatttoes. She’s sexually aggressive. She dyes her hair to match the color scheme on Elvis’ famous first album cover. She’s nobody’s idea of a pushover. She’s her own woman. She can even use words like “bitch” and “ass” and make them sound almost unforced and natural. Almost like something she would say every day even if there was nobody to impress, which, believe me, is no small feat given as how no punk, rapper or member of the modern intelligentsia I’ve heard (admittedly a long way from all of them) has ever managed it despite an absolute, almost comical, persistence in trying.
All fine…except that she was twenty-one when she made this particular album, had been a star for a couple of years already, and was trying desperately–and successfully, particularly in the songs that mention World War III and Vietnam–to pass for sixteen.
Just for comparison’s sake, the album Lulu made at twenty-one, and at the height of the revolution, was called New Routes. (Christgau was around, he might have reviewed it. He didn’t, which means he didn’t think it was worth reviewing–a lot of rock critics have to get pretty old before they think young women can teach them anything).
By the time she recorded New Routes, Lulu had been wrapped in the cocoon of show-biz success herself for half a decade.
And she didn’t exactly sound like an old woman, but she did sound like an adult.
Enough like an adult, for instance, to directly inspire no less than Aretha Franklin to cover “Oh Me, Oh My,” the album’s modest hit single–and also enough like an adult to keep even Aretha Franklin from catching her.
Just for further comparison’s sake, Elvis recorded the material for his first RCA album when he was twenty (some of it was left over from his stretch at Sun)–and he also sounded like an adult, if also like a bit of an eager beaver.
For all the constant dissing of rock and roll–then and now–as “teen” music, there was, in fact, no part of the revolution that encouraged perfectly intelligent and gifted young people to pretend they were younger than they were.
And while I haven’t heard any of Pink’s other albums, I have heard most of her hit singles, including her latest, recorded when the was on the north side of thirty, and, as far as I can tell, she’s still trying to sound sixteen. To be fair, it’s a measure of the rock and roll revolution’s present failure (I never give up on the future) that intelligent, gifted young women now seem to have little choice if they want to be played on the radio.
There are, after all, always plenty of photogenic women who actually are sixteen waiting to step in and take your place, and modern recording values make actual talent–which Pink certainly has, though I’d rank her a bit short of Lulu (and a bit further short of the other women I mentioned)–something of a non-issue.
That’s a long way from how it started.
The early “girl group” singers were mostly teenagers, yet, to a woman, the really great ones all sounded like old souls–and like no one else.
Maybe on some of her other albums, Pink does, too. God knows we’ve been told over and over that she has the biography for it. But on this one–her most lauded–I didn’t hear a trace of anything that truly sets her apart.
And yeah, hearing her in conjunction with Elvis (the man who gave so many racists of all colors so many new boundaries to defend) and Lulu (a white singer who, when the revolution was still more or less on track, got responses from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Al Green that we are now frequently told by the new reactionaries no white singer can ever get from any black person–if you can track down a copy of Green explaining to NPR’s flabbergasted Terry Gross how taken he was with “To Sir With Love,” you’ll hear what I mean), I had thoughts about the history of black-face, too.
They involved Alecia Beth Moore being the very sort of young woman who, if she had been born a hundred years earlier, might have passed herself off as a boy so she could join a minstrel show.
But there might be a novel in that some day, so I’m gonna to leave that one alone…at least until I can figure out whether or not it should involve a time machine.