BY ARRANGEMENT…MY LATEST FOR SIXTIES’ MUSIC SECRETS

Okay, time for my (almost) monthly column for Rick’s place at Sixties’ Music Secrets. The subject this time is the art of Rock and Roll arranging in the first half of the sixties with another on the second half to follow shortly. Listening to records with a specific ear for arrangements is an old habit of mine–probably gifted to me by my choir-arranging, vocal-coaching mother–and it’s the one quality, more than any other, that first drew me to the decade’s music. It was no accident that I was pulled in by the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys...who get their due here, along with many others!

Just to whet your appetite, here’s the one that didn’t make the cut when we finally cut the selection to ten:

TRACK-BY-TRACK: THE TEMPTATIONS SING SMOKEY

The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965)
The Temptations

Continuing with the in-depth presentation of my 20 favorite Vocal Albums. I’m up to #5 (And 1965, which is going to be a very big year for this concept):

Any list of competitors for the not-so-imaginary title of Greatest Rock and Roll Vocal Group doesn’t need your toes to count: The Everly Brothers, Beatles, Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas, Impressions, Spinners, Four Seasons. You can argue all day long about who’s #2.

There’s no argument about #1.

Close harmony might belong to one of the white groups (white musicians tend to prize order). But the Temptations, who were better than fine with close harmony, could do more of everything else and do it better while the Motown machine assured they would never lack for first rate material. If White America–well, the crit-illuminati anyway–hadn’t been so stuck on the auteur theory, developed for film but lying handy and transferable to anything, and been averse, consciously or subconsciously, to the idea that Black America could do more than dance and snap its fingers, the Tempts’ early albums (which I wrote about here) would have been treated as seriously as contemporary efforts by the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys.

Since this was their tribute to Smokey Robinson, who may or may not have once been called America’s greatest living poet by Bob Dylan, but fit the bill in any case, it was the best material they ever got. Although the album was assembled from a putative hodgepodge–a hit from their debut album combined with material Smokey had written for himself, the Tempts and/or other acts–it coheres like a concept LP because Smokey was a conceptual artist and because this is the rare, possibly unique, “tribute” album where the subject of the tribute is producing it himself.

Call it their Rubber Soul….unless of course it makes more sense to call Rubber Soul, released nine months later, the Beatles’ natural answer to The Temptations Sing Smokey.

“The Way You Do the Things You Do”–Berry Gordy had been trying to break the Temptations (previously the Primes–the only better name change was the Primettes becoming the Supremes) for a while and finally gave them to his best friend with the instruction to “get some hits on these guys.” This was the breakout, with Smokey switching the emphasis from Paul Williams’ gravelly baritone to Eddie Kendricks’ ethereal tenor, and then using one of Marvin Tarplin’s indelible guitar lines and the Tempts’ own clever harmony arrangement (beefing up every other line in the verses, call and response alternating with close harmony in the chorus) to get Eddie within range of a Smokey Robinson lead. In the fifty-five years since, it’s never been off the radio.

“Baby, Baby I Need You”–One of the last sides recorded with original member Al Bryant just after Robinson took over the reins but before David Ruffin replaced Bryant. Did I mention they were just fine with close harmony? This is the closest the album gets to their doo wop roots and gorgeous.

“My Girl”–Smokey was determined to get a showcase for Ruffin. He got it. This is one of those records that’s now so deeply embedded in the culture it feels like it must have been breathed into being rather than composed but what’s really miraculous is how complicated the simple arrangement sounds. It fills the ear the way “I Get Around” fills the ear, but it’s devoid of spectacle, all nuance and shading. Well, maybe except for that opening guitar line (from Marvin Tarplin again).

“What Love Has Joined Together”–A straight remake of one of Smokey’s own hits with the Miracles. Not even Eddie Kendricks could match the purity of Smokey’s tenor, but he gets inside the song all the same and with the others answering in the background I’m sure no woman receiving the message was heard to complain.

“You’ll Lose a Precious Love”–Notable for David Ruffin using his tenor voice, bleeding into falsetto on the choruses. It was as beautiful as his rough baritone and hints at roads not taken. Tantalizing.

“It’s Growing”–Here, Ruffin, already firmly established, does something even Smokey couldn’t do, sliding from tenor to baritone to blue falsetto with miraculous ease, matching the movements to one of Robinson’s most trenchant lyrics. The group’s “Hey, hey, heys” would have stolen the moment from anyone else. Another hit.

“Who’s Lovin’ You”–Another remake of one of Smokey’s own hits. Here Ruffin, a Mississippi native who lived in the South until he was sixteen and whose family gospel group shared bills with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, shows why he could have cut it on the southern soul circuit. The others had all been born in the South, too, so they had no trouble keeping up. Gently, though. Gently. That’s the Smokey influence.

“What’s So Good About Goodbye”–Eddie takes on Smokey’s original again but this time the backing is stronger, more distinctive. If you can remove the memory of Robinson’s version (one of his most spectacular leads), this is beautiful on it’s own terms. The Tempts and their producer both knew how to play to their own strengths.

“You Beat Me to the Punch”–Paul Williams, the quiet man displaced by the spectacular Ruffin, accepts his assignment and gives it his special touch. The others were capable of reaching melancholy as required. Williams lived there, even on upbeat material like this, a hit for Mary Wells, who Smokey had already gotten a bunch of hits on.

“Way Over There”–Here Kendricks uses the rougher part of his voice to fine effect. The Tempts push hard, like a gospel group aiming for the charts. Good thing, because it took a might effort to get within ver-r-r-r-y close calling distance of Smokey’s original.

“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”–Poor Eddie. This was Smokey’s signature tune at the time, and the Beatles had done a superb cover. Everybody decided to take it easy, not to compete with the intensity the song had brought out of the lead singers in its two already famous versions. In context, though, it works, a setup for the close.

“(You Can) Depend On Me”–A coda, which nonetheless delivers. One of Smokey’s earliest efforts (so early Berry Gordy helped out with a co-write–a reminder that the Boss was no small genius as a music man), it floats where his original soared, but it’s a beautiful closer. Makes you want to start over…..Hey Marvin, what’s that guitar line again?

 

Note: The Temptations Sing Smokey, barely noticed by White America in 1965, spent 18 weeks at #1 on the newly instituted Billboard R&B album chart, a record that would not be surpassed until Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life spent 20 nonconsecutive weeks at #1 in 1976-77. Stevie’s record would stand (though tied by Rick James’ __ in 1981) until Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in 1983 and changed the game forever. Thriller struck deep, but new marketing techniques would soon allow LPs to spend a year or more at the top of the Pop or R&B album charts without leaving a mark on the culture crumbling around them. I don’t consider the inability/unwillingness to grant the final degree of creative license even to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations in their moment and the ensuing collapse the least bit coincidental. And throwing awards at those who survived to old age doesn’t make up for any of it.

Another of rock and soul’s many lessons for those who come after.

THINGS GOIN’ ON….

You may have noticed that things are changing. After 7 years of relying on setups that were older than that, I’m being pulled in to the new century with Neal U’s able assistance. (Actually he’s doing all the work, which is what able assistants have done throughout history!) It’s a work in progress so we are still tweaking things though I don’t expect any dramatic changes to appear on the Home Page from this point forward.

Thanks for your patience!

And here’s to you, my loyal readers:

 

AND NOW FOR A LITTLE BEACH BOYS’ DISCUSSION

Neal U. has a new post on Tell It Like It Was concerning the underrated talents and contributions of Beach Boys’ lead singer Mike Love to their music and legacy (and how they’ve been undermined in the group’s narrative by Love’s admittedly unpleasant personality). He invited me to take part in the discussion, which can be found here.

Here’s my favorite vocal collaboration between Mike Love and Brian Wilson to get you in the mood. Listen close…

 

KING FOREVER (Dick Dale, R.I.P.)

All of a sudden, mighty oaks are falling…

Dick Dale, who passed away last Saturday, was known as The King of the Surf Guitar. That was a title nobody even bothered to contest, but he was also its inventor, one of those crazy Americans we used to produce now and again and produce no more. His style was a combination of ocean roar and eastern mysticism wedded to a thirst for working with guitar manufacturers (especially Fender) who were willing to help him create an instrument that would capture the sounds in his head.

The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and a thousand one-offs from the likes of the Surfaris or the Trashmen are among the more obvious legions unthinkable without him, but there are significant chunks of Hendrix, metal, and punk that would go missing as well if he had never existed–what became known as shredding was his signature as far back as the early sixties.

Why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame never got around to so much as nominating him while he was alive is mind-blowing even by that august institution’s bizarre standards.

Doesn’t really matter, though. Dick Dale’s music is like the surf he, almost alone among the musicians associated, by technique or marketing, with the sounds and visions he created, loved and lived for.

It rolls on.

TUSK (Track-By-Track)

Tusk (1979)
Fleetwood Mac

Tusk was the third album released by what had already become the most famous version of Fleetwood Mac. The history is well known but bears repeating.

The group started out in the mid to late sixties as a first rate English blues rock outfit, distinguished from dozens of others, and even most of the better ones, by Peter Green’s scintillating guitar, the rock solid rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and some better than usual songwriting.

With Green’s departure, the early seventies’ version of the band brought on several new members–Christine McVie (née Perfect) and Bob Welch preeminent among them–and gravitated towards a mellower soul-pop sound.

The first version had kicked up some serious dust. The second version hung around.

Eventually it, too, fell apart and Fleetwood found himself in recruiting mode again.

This time, he happened on an up and coming guitarist and vocalist named Lindsey Buckingham, who already had a record out with his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood and the band offered Buckingham a job. He said he would take it but only if his girlfriend could join too.

There was a big meeting–laughable in hindsight–to determine whether the two women could get along.

In the years to come, the two women would be just about the only ones who got along. But what the new Fleetwood Mac did over the next four-and-a-half years, as they were cutting each other to shreds, was remarkable by any standard.

The new unit’s first album, Fleetwood Mac, was released in 1975 and to date has sold seven million copies in the U.S. alone. Their next album, Rumours, made that, and nearly everything else released in the decade, look like chump change.

Both albums deserved their status as massive sellers and era-defining records. Good thing, because by the time they were done, Stevie Nicks was no longer Lindsey Buckingham’s girlfriend and Christine McVie was no longer John McVie’s wife.

It seemed they had taken sexual politics as far as it could go–further than the Mamas & the Papas, who had shattered under similar strains in the sixties and left a legacy in the arena other romantically entwined male/female outfits (Jefferson Airplane, Abba, Fifth Dimension) who had gotten in between couldn’t touch.

On Rumours, Buckingham and Nicks in particular, has blasted past all that, answering each others insults face to face and voice to voice on the album,  the radio, and stages all over the world.

There really should have been nowhere to go.

But selling albums in the tens of millions, as opposed to mere millions, brought a whole new perspective.

How could they break that up?

And, after Packing up, shacking up’s all you want to do and Players only love you when they’re playing, how could they not break it up?

A million dollars, a studio built especially for the ask, and many obsessive months later, Tusk was the answer. One which, in effect, bound them together forever, and from which they would never recover.

“Over & Over”–Gently, gently, Christine the Bystander leads us into the house of horrors. It’s placement at the top of the album might have been designed to mock the jump-start openers on their previous two albums. The mood Lindsey the Boyfriend was in, I don’t doubt such placement was deliberate. Lindsey the Producer was savvy enough, though, to give this the full late-sixties Beach Boys vibe and Lindsey the Guitarist was sensitive enough to provide a gorgeous fade that evokes a clear blue mountain lake, glimpsed through a high window.

“The Ledge”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend puts the lines You can love me baby but you can’t walk out and six feet under in the same song. He didn’t put them next to each other, but he was singing this one himself, so there’s no mistaking the meaning, which would have been the same if he had just sung the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

“Think About Me”–Wait, we better put a hit single on here somewhere. Let’s throw it to Christine the Bystander! And Christine delivers, except, as hit singles go, Baby once in a while, think about me is not Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow or Over my head and it sure feels nice. Top twenty sure, but by this time that was counted a flop. They didn’t play it in concert for twenty-five years. If you listen close, you can hear the stinger in the lyric. That part about not holding you down and maybe that’s why you’re around.

“Save Me a Place”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend turns philosophical. He’ll come running. He promises. If you’ll love him. If you don’t, it’s all on you, because he needs to be amazed.

“Sara”–Stevie the Ex is finally allowed to get a word in edgewise and the very first thing out of her mouth is Wait a minute baby...Then she pretends to be the someone else he wanted her to be while she’s explaining how he tricked her into thinking he was the someone else she wanted him to be. Somebody understood. It went Top Ten and became the album’s only radio staple. Must have been the part about drowning….in the sea of love….where everyone….would love….to drown. The sentiment was sure fire. It had worked for Phil Phillips and Joe Simon in times past. But the hesitations were new. Very 1979.

“What Makes You Think You’re the One”–Something struck deep. Lindsey the Boyfriend is starting to hone his attack. It’s not entirely clear that the attack will be limited to words. By the end, it sounds like he’s thrown every dart he can get his hands (or tongue) on at the Stevie the Ex’s back. And if she doesn’t turn around? What then?

“Storms”–Or worse, what if she turns around and sings a lullaby? What if it’s impossibly lovely and wounded, the sound of a broken flower? What if it ends with I have always…been a storm. Watch out, she’s hesitating again.

“That’s All For Everyone”–I spent a lot of years not looking at the titles on this album so I always heard Last call for everyone. Last call for me. And that’s still what the voice says, lyric sheet be damned. Already the album is veering towards things words either can’t say or can say but better not.

“Not That Funny”–And just in time, too, since this is the sound of a man breaking into his ex’s house and telling her to stop making him do it while he punches her in the face, and the way he sings don-n-n-n’t bla-a-a-me me-e-e hardly belies the air of menace.

“Sisters of the Moon”–At which point Stevie the Ex, bound to think this might have something to do with her, is forced to turn herself into a ghost who walks through walls. When she gets to the next room, she turns and watches her temporal body from a distance, not really wanting to look, but not daring to go too far either. There is serious competition, but arguably her greatest side. The key is how she makes In-tense si-lence sound like in-tense violence…Lindsey the Producer’s grasp of the mood helps as does Lindsey the Guitarist’s blistering fade.

“Angel”–The morning after: Peace, and a powerful, lilting suggestion that what came before was just an ugly dream….or a suppressed memory. (And I’ll bet if Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend had known there would one day be compact discs and streaming services that obliterated side breaks, Lindsey the Producer would never in a million years have granted Stevie the Ex two songs in a row.)

“That’s Enough For Me”–Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend hears what he did the night before transmuted into something he can’t recognize or understand. He senses this might give him an edge and swears it’s all he ever wanted! Damn convincing, too.

“Brown Eyes”–Clearly personal, but because Christine the Bystander, who’s got problems of her own, isn’t involved in the main drama, she has to bury her personality under an abstract vocal, which sounds like it’s coming from that room where Stevie’s ghost wandered. Only Christine can’t walk through walls, which means she can’t leave.

“Never Make Me Cry”–Hear what I mean?

“I Know I’m Not Wrong”–Don-n-n-t bla-a-a-me me. Lindsey the (jilted) Boyfriend cries. You can see him clinching his fists, staring at them, wondering what they might be capable of if somebody else doesn’t take the blame very, very soon.

“Honey Hi”–Christine the Bystander still can’t get out of that room because she still can’t walk through walls. She’s started to sound more like a ghost though.

“Beautiful Child”–The memories are now so suppressed Stevie the Ex has reverted all the way to childhood.

“Walk a Thin Line”–Lindsey, knowing he will never again be the Boyfriend,  that being the Producer and the Guitarist will never again mean as much as they did before, perhaps horrified by what he has done or thought of doing, perhaps torn apart by the ex’s retreat into a vocal beauty so pure he ca never hope to comprehend it, walks the thin line between loading every chamber and playing Russian Roulette. No one was listenin’….

“Tusk”–The sound of the fantasy rape that takes place when the Boyfriend, jilted or otherwise, has had enough! Recorded live at Dodger Stadium, with the USC Trojan band accompanying. Top Ten in the moment. Kept off my radio ever since by those very forces that put so much effort into making it easy for us to assume they don’t know what they’re doing.

“Never Forget”–None of this ever happened. It’s really just an album folks. Listen again. Right now. You’ll see.

THE ABC’s OF DOO WOP (Segue of the Day: 8/22/18)

I don’t remember how long it took me to get hold of Rhino’s original Doo Wop Box (released in 1994). Not long as I recall. When the great CD selloff of 2002 became necessary, it was one of the items I was most reluctant to let go of.

My reluctance wasn’t ill-considered. It took me until four months go to reacquire it. It’s taken me until this week to get around to listening (I wanted it to have my full attention–something that’s harder to achieve as I get older).

Today, in the car, on the third disc, I ran into a forgotten pairing, which were this….

followed by this….

I first heard these songs in later versions by the Shangri-Las and Beach Boys respectively. And to be honest those versions waste these. No shame in that: Mary Weiss and Brian Wilson were two of the finest singers of the entire rock and roll era, their groups stood at the pinnacle of harmony vocals. Almost everything good about these lovely records was enhanced by a factor of ten on the versions I heard first.

But what came home today, hearing the originals for the first time in years, was that nothing which came later, however great, could capture the pure weirdness of early rock and roll quite like the style that came to be called doo wop.

In its original version, absolutely nothing about “You Cheated, You Lied” makes any kind of formal musical (as opposed to emotional) sense. Even here, in the company of a hundred other doo wop songs, the lyrics, arrangements, lead and backing vocals don’t go anywhere they, properly speaking, “should” go. And while “So Young” isn’t quite as dissonant, it’s still a reminder of how much we now take for granted–how many assumptions about taste–actually came from people who have been all but forgotten.

I don’t doubt Mary Weiss and Brian Wilson loved what they were covering–that they were, in part, paying homage. And it wasn’t their fault they were better singers, working in far more professional environments. The world isn’t best served by turning backward (no matter how often the barbarians–always in the name of progress–tell you otherwise).

But knowing there was a quality in those records they loved that even they, masters of their own kinds of weirdness, couldn’t catch makes me smile…and shake my head in wonder.

Just like rock and roll should do.

ONCE THERE WERE GIANTS (Aretha Franklin, R.I.P.)

They grow fewer by the day…and have no heirs.

Others will say their piece and, where the terms of her importance to the world are addressed, I can’t imagine anything will be left unsaid.

I’ll stick to the personal.

The first album of hers that I owned is still my go-to.

She did other fine things before and after, but that decade (1967–1976) was really everything that mattered. Almost anything she did inside it was greater than almost anything she (or anyone) did outside it. Which is by way of saying I’m glad I got to it first–in  a bargain bin somewhere, I don’t remember where, circa 1978.

The impact of those recordings was profound, as it has been for millions before and since, however and wherever they find them.

I had a habit in those days of sticking my head next to the turntable (the speakers were built in, cheap as they come, and, in these halcyon days of Bose and digital, I still kind of miss them) and singing along with everything. I had only been buying records for a couple of years and was still in the process of discovering that, while I was nothing special singing on my own, I was an inspired mimic.

I took it very seriously, tried to get everything just right in my own head (what you heard in your head, was your business–I knew what I sounded like!), because I saw (or heard) it as a means of linking into other souls–souls I imagined were bigger and bolder than mine, who had faced things I had yet to face, or perhaps never would face, trying to reach the world through me and me through the world, who could carry me to higher ground.

Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, you can get carried away….and carried a long way up the mountain in a very short time.

When I got hold of Ten Years of Gold, I already knew I could do Frankie Valli, Diana Ross, Donny Osmond, all five Beach Boys (no matter how fast they traded off) not to mention the easy stuff like Elton John and the Beatles.

We needn’t speak of Buddy Holly. I was note perfect from the beginning, but since I was his reincarnation (as I’ve stated before, I’m sure I’m not the only one), that hardly counted.

One thing I was queasy about was singing “girl” lyrics. I loved female voices–anyone who has followed along here knows how much I still do. And I sang with them.

But I had trouble making a particular leap.

Not timbre (heck, if you can do Diana Ross, that’s never going to be an issue–and, no, I don’t have a high speaking voice–quite the opposite–life’s full of mysteries).

The trouble was lyrics.

If one just skipped by–say Come on boy see about me, that was maybe okay.

And, of course, plenty of lyrics are gender (or was it sex?…I never can remember which is supposed to be which) neutral.

Aretha Franklin was the first singer I loved and listened to close who forced a choice.

She wasn’t a girl…and nothing (by which I mean nothing) just skipped by.

I fought it for a while. A month probably. Maybe a little longer.

Not forever.

Sooner or later, I was going to have to decide–do I keep changing the gender pronouns while I’m singing?

You know, the way I had been.

I might imitate some girl…But was I going to make the soul-shift take her perspective?

Then one day, I was singing along with Aretha (who I could do like nobody’s business–Sweet Inspirations too–go figure….I once knew all the words to a song I’d never heard before and have never been able to remember them since…life’s full of mysteries) and I realized something,

If I’m worrying about changing the lyrics, I’m not being carried away.

And if I wasn’t being carried away….what was the point?

So I did it.

I pretended, for a few minutes, to be a girl. Better yet, a woman.

And never thought about it again.

It didn’t turn me effeminate or gay or queer or whatever the word was supposed to be then, when I tried to keep up, or is supposed to be now when I hardly bother.

It didn’t threaten my sense of myself.

It didn’t make me stop liking girls.

It did what great music always did.

Made me bigger.

Better.

Helped me see further.

Took me to the Higher Ground.

After Aretha (who came right after Elvis and right before the Shangri-Las, all of whom came after Jesus), I never had to get a whole lot bigger, because there wasn’t that much bigger to get.

She forced me to change to a new self…and to start at the top.

For me, it was part of a Christian journey (which, unless you have taken it, is not remotely what you think it is, peace be upon you), to a place where we not only see ourselves as others see us, but we see others as they see themselves, with all the beauty and terror that implies.

I like to think the preacher’s daughter understood.

And in case you are wondering if the song that opened the world was the one you think it was, you can stop wondering.

It was the song you think it was.

Like I said, she made me start at the top.

it was many a long year before I discovered the lyrics had been written by a man. (And mea culpa and R.I.P. to Gerry Goffin, who somehow passed away in 2014 without my hearing about it. Time does both fly and march.)

What was it the poet said…Memory believes before knowing remembers?*

Yeah, that was it.

I think I might want to crank up the Bose tonight.

Might even have to get the turntable out.

*William Faulkner, for those wondering.

TRACK-BY-TRACK: THE BYRDS PLAY DYLAN

The Byrds Play Dylan (2002)

“What really got me most was Dylan coming up to me and saying, ‘They beat you man,’ and he lost faith in me. He was shattered. His material had been bastardized. There we were, the defenders and protectors of his music, and we’d let Sonny & Cher get away with it.”

Roger McGuinn  (on Dylan’s response, circa 1965, to Sonny & Cher’s version of “All I Really Want To Do” besting the Byrds on the American charts–interesting insight into the spirit of the times!)

Playing Dylan was only a fraction of what the Byrds did, but there’s no denying Roger McGuinn, especially, had a knack for bringing something new and exciting to Dylan’s music almost every time he touched it. This compilation, released decades after their heyday and years after the final Byrds’ studio recordings in the early 1990s (occasioned by their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the release of a box set), is one of my favorites in a genre I sometimes affectionately, sometimes sardonically, refer to as Grab Bag.

Such albums are usually assembled for only the most cynical purposes–record labels looking to exploit familiar product one more time. But every once in a while the approach bears fruit.

This is one of those times.

At twenty tracks, The Byrds Play Dylan is expansive enough to include some illuminating live performances, alternate tracks and obscurities which manage to re-contextualize the familiar anthems from their early days (and to be re-contextualized themselves for Byrds fanatics who may have experienced the obscurities in less convincing circumstances elsewhere–that’s what a record company can do for you).

It’s not perfect–such things never are. But it’s been my go-to album by my favorite band in the Age of Trump. I wouldn’t suggest it’s as mind-blowing as their first five albums, as epochal as Sweetheart of the Rodeo or even Ballad of Easy Rider (an album McGuinn made with his third best band that’s worn better than the movie that inspired it or that movie’s fine soundtrack) or any sort of replacement for The Byrds’ Greatest Hits (nothing could be).

But it is a statement worth hearing.

“All I Really Want To Do”–Dylan was being a little harsh. (And why did Lonesome Hobo Bob* care so much about the charts anyway?) “All I Really Want To Do” is a long way from either his most inspired tune or their most inspired interpretation. But it’s a nice opening day curve-ball for a collection that throws a lot of them (“Mr. Tambourine Man” would have been the obvious choice). And you can measure how great he and they were by listening close and realizing how far past nearly everything else it still is.

“Chimes of Freedom”–As great as any cover of Dylan or anyone else. This album could also have been titled McGuinn Sings Dylan. His voice was always the one best suited for Dylan (hell it was often better suited for Dylan than Dylan, a claim that can me made by exactly no one else). But they were also inventing a new kind of harmony and, considered as a clarion call, this might be their pure pinnacle (the competition is stiff). It remains a mystery how they, and they alone, managed to intertwine so much passion with so much detachment. They really did sound like they were soaring above the earth, catching a glimpse of something over the horizon that was not yet visible to ground control–and, given what’s happened to ground control in the half-century since, still isn’t.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”–Recorded in the sessions for the band’s second album, this version wasn’t released until 1996, as a bonus track for a reissue of Turn, Turn, Turn. It’s inclusion here is a little odd, since McGuinn’s later band did a superior, beautifully re-imagined version for the official release of Ballad of Easy Rider. This is fine. It sustains the collection’s developing mood and gains by the company. But I think the later version would have done the same, only better.

“Lay Down Your Weary Tune”–This, on the other hand, is a track that always struck me as pedestrian on Turn, Turn, Turn. Here, though, it takes hold. The lyric still sounds like Dylan learning to imitate himself, but there’s no better example of McGuinn’s early Rickenbacker magic and his disorienting technique of plying dissonance under the verses, then ringing out rhythmic, anthemic chords in the fills (the opposite of what everyone else does, then and now). After a while (okay, a long while, but still), the lyrics even start to sound….inspired?

“Lay Lady Lay” (Single Version)–A single from the Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde sessions which didn’t make the album (which ought to say something). In many ways misbegotten–a female choir that doesn’t work, overbearing late-sixties uber-production style, jarring juxtapositions between the lyric and the chorus. Notable for one element: A dry, pleading McGuinn vocal which makes it sound as though he sees the lady laying across the big, brass bed in human, rather than mystical, terms, as though he might be speaking to someone specific with whom he had been through a lot of changes. That quality alone guaranteed it wouldn’t be a hit up against Dylan’s lovely original, but gives it a poignance not found in any other version, including the one below, which, for all I can tell, is the same vocal with a different, more conventional backing. In this context: Odd and disorienting, as I’m sure was intended.

“Mr. Tambourine Man”–The first official Byrds’ single, a natural Number One and one of the most important records of the twentieth century. Here, it sounds almost off-hand, as though the startling new thing were no more spectacular than breathing. The marriage of Dylan and the Beatles was nowhere near as inevitable as McGuinn (the only Byrd who played on the track due to the record company’s lack of faith–soon rendered laughable–in the young band’s musical prowess) made it sound. As always happens when some visionary renders the far-fetched inevitable, the world–including Bob Dylan, who laid down Highway 61 Revisited as this sat atop the charts–went “Of Course!” (And it’s a fine segue: straight from the human-scale “Lay Lady Lay,” to the era-defining anthem that made this album’s concept possible in the first place.) Why should you wait any longer for the world to begin, this record asked, years before Dylan wrote the words to that other song.

“My Back Pages”–Another in competition for Greatest-Ever Dylan cover. It has–impossibly–grown with the years, precisely because those years have failed to catch up to it.

“Nothing Was Delivered”–A highlight from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It’s worth remembering that Sweetheart inspired reams of musicians, not one of whom ever came close to sounding like the original–maybe because no one else really thought Dylan and country music belonged together, no matter that Bob made the greatest albums of his life in Nashville.

“Positively 4th Street” (Live)–This is where the concept comes in handy. This isn’t the kind of song where Roger McGuinn or anyone else could go toe-to-toe with Dylan and come out ahead. And McGuinn, in particular, never did anger (or spite) well. But, here, his ability to turn the concept around is put to the test–and passes. Suddenly, I hear You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend as a plea, even a world-weary sigh of regret. I’m not saying I like it better, or even as well, but who else could come so close to Dylan’s timbre and completely reverse his meaning?

“Spanish Harlem Incident”–Back to the beginning and a reminder of how rife with possibilities it was. This sounds like they did it on their lunch break–and fifty years haven’t worn it out.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'”–From their second album, where, like “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” it came across as a bit of a letdown. One wonders if they were being careful not to become too tied to Dylan’s material as he matched, then eclipsed, their fame. Then again, this wasn’t the only take–see below! This one is saved, barely, by the usual impeccable harmonies and McGuinn’s witty guitar licks, which made it sound like Dylan was Stephen Foster’s natural heir (amplified by his take on “Oh Susanna”…but that’s what the original albums are for).

“Wheel’s on Fire”–The opening cut from Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, their weakest album from the sixties (and if you want to know how great Roger McGuinn was, listen to Dr. Byrds sometime and consider he made seven better albums with three different bands in five years). I prefer it to the Band’s contemporaneous version. Still, the era-bound production tricks don’t really work and this lumbers more than it should. The concept wavers a bit….

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”–And then snaps right back in place. I’m among those who think the real strength of Sweetheart of the Rodeo (from which this is the opener) is the juxtaposition of McGuinn and Parsons’ sensibilities. Of course, that’s not at play here, so this is a completely different context…which works every bit as well.

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” (Live)–It took a while but this one has grown on me. This is one case where Dylan’s original is so definitive it doesn’t seem to leave any room for anyone else to breathe. McGuinn’s voice isn’t nearly as commanding….but once more a human, conversational tone lets the song gain a new dimension. It isn’t the prophet proclaiming. It’s the poor boy figuring things out without being the least bit certain he likes what he sees. Plus some fine harp work.

“Just Like a Woman”–Nice enough. Maybe too nice. All the qualities I mentioned before about McGuinn cutting down the scale are present, but, somehow, the song doesn’t offer the same rewards. Until you notice the country phrasing of her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls is right where you least expect it. At which point, I believe it’s time for us to quit offers a reward all its own.

“Lay Lady Lay” (Alternate Version)–Straightforward alternative to the tricked up version above. More tasteful without necessarily being more effective. Somewhere in the middle, a great version might have been waiting. For the purposes of this collection, a tease that doesn’t distract.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'” (Early Version)–I like the charge they put into this version better than the tongue they put in their cheek on the released master (which nonetheless had its values, see above). Still not as good as the Beach Boys’ complete subversion on Party! and, oddly enough, it doesn’t sound like anything is changing at all.

“Mr. Tambourine Man” (Live)–From ’70. The old anthem sounds tired, the new guitar dynamics show-offy. And it’s a lesson in how much those harmonies in the original group really meant and how rarefied they were that their absence speaks louder than anything present here. Still, if you wanted to hear this as a symbol of how things had gone astray, I wouldn’t argue with you.

“Chimes of Freedom” (Live)–From ’69 and the harmonies are still missed. But McGuinn at least sounds committed and, while it’s almost too bad they didn’t substitute the more poorly recorded, but near-desperate version heard here, this still pushes back hard enough for what comes next to feel like a setup they earned.

“Paths of Victory”–After listening to later versions of the band wander around a bit, perhaps even lose the plot, this summoning of the old magic by the survivors, harmonies intact one last time, puts a smile on my face every time. A tired smile maybe, but at this point in the American Experiment, I’ll take what I can get.

More than that, it always makes me want to go back and listen from the beginning and maybe ask one more time just what it is I see flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight?

God bless them, every one. Yes, David, even you.

*Hat tip Nik Cohn and Rock Dreams.

EPIC B-SIDES…A HANDY TEN

This is the flip-side to my post on obscure b-sides (and sorry for the borken links–YouTube giveth and YouTube taketh away). As I noted before, three acts could easily qualify for their own “Handy Ten”–Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys. I left them off this list, too. Ten is such a measly number anyway. No need to make it harder.

I also left off b-sides that were hits (think Ricky Nelson’s “Helly Mary Lou,” which definitely would have been here otherwise, or Bruce Springsteen’s  “Pink Cadillac” which might have been). I also limited myself to one record per artist (else the Shangri-Las would have three or four).

And because I already covered the true obscurities, these are all by successful artists (as opposed to one-hit wonders)–most people know the acts, even if they don’t know the records.

What’s left is still a weird and beautiful secret history of rock and roll. If these were the biggest/best hits these acts ever had, the world would not have been the worse for it.

1959–“What About Us” (A-side: “Run Red Run”)
The Coasters

The Coasters/Robins were not exactly slouches in the B-side department themselves. I picked this one because, in combo with “Run Red Run” it’s an early example of the concept single, which a lot of crit-illuminati types think couldn’t possibly have existed before “Strawberry Fields” or, at the very outside, “Don’t Worry Baby.”

1964–“Silence is Golden” (A-Side: “Rag Doll”)
The 4 Seasons

I first heard this on a Seasons’ comp in the late seventies. I remember being shocked–I don’t think benumbed is too strong a word–to learn it was never promoted as a single (i.e., that there had once been a world where this could be relegated to a B-side because the A-side was only “Rag Doll”…and that, little more than a decade later, such a world no longer existed). Then I found out it had been a hit for an English group called the Tremeloes. Then I heard the Tremeloes’ version. Good God.

1966–“I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (A-Side: “Sunny Afternoon”)
The Kinks

This is in the conversation for the greatest record the Kinks ever made. If the conversation is with me, it’s not even a conversation. And yes, I’m aware of the extreme competition.

1967–“I’ll Never Learn” (A-Side: “Sweet Sounds of Summer”)
The Shangri-Las

Speaking of being shocked and benumbed…The record I think of first when I think of all that’s been lost in the fifty years since. Mainly the future that never arrived…and I don’t just mean Mary Weiss’s career.

1967–“I’ll Turn to Stone” (A-Side: “7-Rooms of Gloom”)
The Four Tops

No way a handy ten of epic B-Sides would be complete without Motown, but this is a new discovery for me. I came across it when I was researching a possible post on co-writer R. Dean Taylor. To think: “7-Rooms of Gloom” as the upbeat, radio-ready side! (And FWIW it replaced the Go-Go’s “Surfing and Spying” which is the proof that Charlotte Caffey was a walking encyclopedia of surf guitar and sadly missed. Like I said, ten is a measly number.)

1968–“Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms)” (A-Side: “Abraham, Martin and John”)
Dion

I love “Abraham, Martin and John” unreservedly. But I can only imagine the shock that must have occurred to anyone who turned it over in 1968. It’s still shocking.

1969–“Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” (A-Side: “Snatching It Back”)
Clarence Carter

A sermon on sex. Guilt-free, too. Until the end. Starts funny as Richard Pryor. Ends deep as James Carr.

1973–“Something” (A-Side: James’ nine hundredth version of “Think,” all necessary.)
James Brown

George Harrison’s favorite version….of hundreds.

1977–“Silver Springs” (A-Side: “Go Your Own Way”)
Fleetwood Mac

Left off Rumours as a casualty of the permanent psychodrama that was Buckingham/Nicks. Else they just didn’t have room (hahahahaha!). Restored to various versions of the album in the CD-era, with stunning outtakes added on the multi-disc release. The rare song left off a classic album which, when restored to its original running order (at the top of the second side), doesn’t just improve the album but force-multiplies its power.

1981–“Psycho” (A-Side: “Sweet Dreams.” What else?)
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

I was gonna go with Tanya Tucker’s “No Man’s Land,” which is scarier, but I decided to keep this an all rock and roll affair.

Love the cheering at the end. What else should one do after “Mama why don’t you get up?”

That seems an appropriate place to end this.