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

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

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

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

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

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

8) Various ArtistsEasy Rider Soundtrack(1969)

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

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

7) Fairport Convention Fairport Chronicles(1976)

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

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

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

5) The Clash London Calling (1979)

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

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

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

4) Joe Tex I Gotcha (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) The Four Tops Greatest Hits (1968)

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

til next time…

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Winter 2019, Countdown–Another All Vinyl Edition)

10) Various Artists  Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 (1972)

Ain’t it beautiful? The (reissue) cover, the concept, the overkill, the noise. Although some of these records were big hits, by the time Lenny Kaye got the idea to gather them all together in one place, there was at least some danger of them being forgotten. A bazillion spin-offs later (including three box sets put out by Rhino which, yes, yes, I have) and there are probably a thousand or so records that deserve to be forgotten but can’t be as long as somebody, anybody, is consumed by the desire to prove they can dive deeper into obscurity than you in search of a lost aesthetic that really should be ruling the world. This is still the best of the lot. I used to think I would change a cut or two, but time has only elevated it. It’s all emblazoned in my brain now. I wouldn’t change a thing.

9) Various Artists Super Girls (1986)

Okay, this I would change….a little. One last gasp at putting out a definitive girl group set, sans Phil Spector, in the vinyl era. There is plenty of great music, but the set is schizophrenic: girlish pop mixed with some hard-core R&B numbers that happened to be sung by females, with the unclassifiable Jaynetts and Shangri-Las thrown in for good measure, not to mention Brenda Lee. The schizoid problem, incidentally, would not have been solved by more Spector (the Paris Sisters are here and they only point up the set’s split personality.)

I’m glad to have it and all…but, pulling it out for the holidays, I was reminded why it never went into heavy rotation back in the days when vinyl was still king at my house. It surges….then it flags….then it surges..and you think, less might be more?

8) Various Artists 18 King Size Rhythm & Blues Hits (1967)

This doesn’t flag. I’m not sure it was the set it might have been (a couple of re-recordings…the Platters’ side is early, pre-fame) but it’s stellar just the same. I mean, that early Platters on “Only You” isn’t just a valid take, it’s a killer.

And don’t covers sometimes make a difference? Somehow that beautiful combination of colors that Columbia Records put together to promote their recently acquired King Records catalog always creates the right mood for me. I feel like I’m in a smoky corner waiting for the floor show on the wrong side of town in 1954 from the minute I see it on the shelf.

7) Graham Parker Howlin’ Wind (1976)

I’m always surprised to rediscover, yet again, that this isn’t a punk record. England, 1976, scenester, cultish following. How can it not be punk or at least “punkish”?

It’s always better for the distinction. Really , if you aren’t the Clash, I’d rather you not be punk, or, God forbid, punkish. Just my personal prejudice. And, every time I put this on–once or twice a decade–I swear I’m gonna get to know it better.

Maybe this will be the decade it really happens.

6) Paul McCartney and Wings Band on the Run (1973)

Okay, this one….I’m really going to devote myself to knowing this one better. Because I really want to know if “Let Me Roll It” constitutes an act of arrogance or subversion. I mean, one day, Paul McCartney woke up and said You know, John’s been a bit mean about me of late, so I think what I’ll do is, I’ll make a record in John’s signature style but, instead of just making it a parody or something, I’ll actually do John better than John can do John. I’ll not only do the singing and writing part of it better, I’ll even do the angry bit better. And I’ll leave it there as a reminder that John can only be John, but I can be anybody. 

And I’ll let the world sort out whether any of that makes it worth a single hit of “Jet,” delivered straight to the veins without any jingling intervention by the radio.

Yep, I definitely need to listen more.

5) Toots & the Maytals Funky Kingston (1975)

I’m starting a little project of finishing off collecting the LPs listed on Greil Marcus’s Treasure Island recommendations from his 1979 illuminati standard Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. One way to keep myself (and my pocket book) interested is by listening to a lot of the ones I already have. This one–which I’ve had forever but somehow never acquired an intimate knowledge of–was a revelation. It’s been released in various forms on both vinyl and CD, but I can’t imagine any lineup beating the one I have. Toots Hibbert was/is frequently compared to Otis Redding (for whom I’ve been developing a whole new appreciation I’ll probably need  to write about in the future) but I hear more Ray Charles myself. That’s hardly a bad thing, especially since reggae puts even more structural limits on a singer than southern soul. I don’t count it a coincidence that Toots joined Ray in bringing whole new worlds to John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Call it the vision thing.

This one’s going into heavy rotation.

4) The Maytals Do the Reggae 1966-70 (1988)

In vinyl days (which I’m happy to say are coming ’round again), this was always more my speed. Maybe it still is, even if I’m never convinced I’ve comprehended a single word.

Roots reggae at it’s Leslie Kong-produced peak, then, and, of course, I don’t mean I failed to understand it. It always sounded like a soundtrack for the horror stories my missionary parents used to bring home from reform schools (or, in my dad’s case, prisons) filled with the wretched of the modern earth.

3) Dave Mason Alone Together (1970)

Weird album. Loved by some, dismissed by others, the crit-illuminati couldn’t get a reliable read on it and, despite my innate desire to confound the confounders at every possible turn, neither can I.

It fits the tenor of its times: Bloozy, Anglo, Laid Back Cali, uncredited Eric Clapton sideman-ship floating around in there somewhere. I can’t really make sense of it. But what do I know? The Dave Mason I loved was the one who had a big pop hit with “We Just Disagree,” which still makes me smile and remember–I like the rest but in thee end it just makes me shrug, no matter how much I want the worlds to collide.

2) Warren Zevon Stand in the Fire (1980)

One of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Performance freed up something in Zevon that rarely got loose in the studio. His vocals were better, his bands were tighter, even his lyric improvs were better. (Has there ever been a leap of faith into a dark zone that landed more beautifully on point than changing the line after There’s a .38 Special up on on the shelf from If I start feeling stupid I’ll shoot myself to And I don’t intend to use it on myself?) No, of course there hasn’t.

Bonus tracks later added to the CD only subtracted from the overall effect. It’s perfect as it stands, from the opening title track (written for the tour) all the way down to a “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” that links the album to the history of the world and, unimaginably, tops the original.

1) War Greatest Hits (1976)

Was it really possible to sum up the entire decade, and all the decades to come, in 1976?

It was, but you would never have known it without these guys. Without them, it all just felt incoherent.

In a generous mood, I try to believe “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” was/is the record that best defined my beloved 70’s. But in my heart I know it is/was “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” even if my only cavil with this mind-bending album is that it substitutes the powerful hit single version for the long version that’s too harrowing for words.

Til next time then!

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO…(Summer 2019, Countdown)

I’m a little late with this, which I meant to post in early August….Life intervened but here goes:

10)  The Clash: Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

The album between The Clash and London Calling, the monuments upon which their legacy rests.

It’s not really lesser. It’s reputation suffered (though only a bit…you couldn’t say anything too bad about the Clash in 1978!) in the moment and afterward for a myriad of reasons that had nothing to do with the music. It was an early Purity test for the era’s new Lefty, anxious, as in every era, to wipe out the old Lefty. Hiring Blue Oyster Cult’s producer wasn’t exactly a hip move and it turned into a double bust when it didn’t break them on American radio.

But with all that long gone, how do you gainsay, “Safe European Home,” “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” “Stay Free?” It rocks and burns and stings and it’s of a piece, everything a master work should be. Confession: I’m sorry I haven’t listened to it more. I’d even say ashamed, except I don’t want to end up in any tribunals.

9)  Ringo Starr: Photograph–The Very Best of (2007)

ringo1Ringo gets by on his solo records for the same reason he got by on Beatles’ records. You like the guy. And he played with great musicians, who must have liked him too. It might be that “It Don’t Come Easy” is the only great single he made, but several others (“Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” for starters) come close and a lot of others get by on the sly. The Lucky One?  Maybe, but it stands up to any similar length comp from any of his mates…and, not to coin a phrase, goes down easier.

8)  Clarence Carter: Snatching It Back (1992)

clarencecarter1

I keep asking: Is there such a thing as a minor genius?

Not in my book. I’d no more want to be without this than a good Otis Redding package even if I know the difference and it’s hardly negligible.

What Clarence did was carve out a serio-comic niche that belonged to him and no one else. What other deep soul singer had his style defined by a chuckle?

It worked as more than novelty because, when he dug deep on a pure melodrama like “Patches” it was of a piece with his commitment, and when he went on the sly for “Slip Away,” his other signature song, it was right in line with his eye for the main chance (in the song, of course, but career-wise, too). And brother, there’s nothing in this world to compare with his version of “Dark End of the Street,” seemingly covered by every soul and country singer in the world and the most devastating, guilt-ridden tune in all of southern soul. He turned it into pure comedy. Of course he did. Until the very last line, when he took a single line from the real song and turned it into soul’s deepest, darkest statement about not getting out alive.

It’s only then that you understand why some people have to laugh to keep from falling apart.

7)  Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (1975)

My go-to Springsteen. Robert Christgau once wrote that Springsteen was “one of those rare self-conscious primitives who gets away with it”

I’m not going to beat that description though even Bruce only got away with it for so long. This both embodies and transcends all that, however, because the  Boss was still young, still hoping to become the new Elvis, which was/is better than being the new Dylan and miles better than being the new Woody Guthrie, the ultra-sincere schtick he’s been riding for about two decades now everywhere except in his legendary concerts. I play this whenever I want to remind myself what the fuss was all about and it still delivers. In spades.

6)  Buddy Holly: Memorial Collection (2008)

buddyholly1

You could go crazy trying to keep up with all the Buddy Holly collections out there. This is a good one: sixty tracks, nice package, all the essentials. For when you want more than the still peerless 20 Golden Greats and less than the still essential big box that covers everything.

Still brimming with surprise and invention at any length. Except for Elvis and maybe Ray Charles, the other 50’s legends sound like they’re standing still by comparison.

5)  Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees (1976)

bozzscaggs

It’s easy to forget how big this was in the mid-seventies. It sold five million and yielded four hit singles (of which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” became radio staples). Rita Coolidge took the album closer “We’re All Alone” to the top ten.

And I must say it still sounds good. Crafty sure, but not quite slick. An  earned success and career definer after his stint in the original Steve Miller Band and his “Loan Me a Dime” blues phase with Duane Allman. Turned out there was a reason people of that caliber wanted to work with him.

4)  Jimmy Reed: The Anthology (2011)

Two long discs and you kind of have to be in the mood. Still, it’s amazing how much dexterity Reed got out of what had to be the most limited range any key blues man had either vocally, lyrically or instrumentally. Once you break through to a certain level of acceptance though, it quickly becomes addictive. I found myself wondering what microscopic change he would work next–and laughing out loud when he produced yet another small miracle. “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Imagining a world where his original versions could make the Top 40 is impossible now. If the historical record didn’t exist no one would believe it. Can’t wait until I’m in the mood again.

3)  The Jackson 5: Anthology (1976)

The last of the old Motown triples on vinyl…and possibly the best. Considering the competition (Smokey and the Miracles, Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye) that’s saying a mouthful. But this never quits and never even dips. There are no show-tunes or Vegas breaks, no finding their form in the early days (they broke out with “I Want You Back” for Christ’s sake), no late-career sag. Great moments from the always under-appreciated Jermaine and even Jackie in addition to you-know-who, who was still more victim than perpetrator at this point. I’ve always believed you can hear the difference. Worse for him. Better for us.

So it goes.

2)  Earl Lewis and the Channels: New York’s Finest (1990)

Unless you’re a doo wop fanatic or at least a serious record collector you probably never heard of them and would therefore likely be shocked at how good they were. Their big one was “The Closer You Are” which does capture their essence, though it only hints at their depths. No period group had better or more arresting arrangements and aren’t arresting arrangements the reason you listen to doo wop?

Besides being transported I mean.

1)  The Chi-Lites: Greatest Hits (1972)

I went to sleep to this for a couple of weeks even though it meant sleeping in my bedroom where the record player is. (I don’t mean it put me to sleep–that would be a whole different thing. I rarely sleep in a bed because it gives me a stiff back.)

An essential 70’s album. No record collection should be without it (and no CD collection has come close). At this distance, it’s also one of the saddest records I know. Eugene Record’s vision of assimilation has since vanished from the culture, to be replaced by “diversity” which is always code for running back to the tribes, doubtless in hopes that one’s own tribe will one day triumph.

I wonder if we could still refute the coming collapse if we really wanted to.

And I wonder if we really want to.

Maybe putting them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they belong, would be a start.

I won’t hold my breath.

Till next time…

FINALLY, SOMETHING WORTH GETTING MAD ABOUT! (Segue of the Day: 8/3/18)

Some time in the last twenty-four hours, one of the Twitter accounts I follow (doesn’t matter which one) linked to a meme that was something like Name a cover that’s better than the original, Jeff Buckley and Sinead O’Connor don’t count.

Well I wasn’t gonna play, either here or on Twitter. Sorting through a thousand treasured covers so I could pick one seemed like an exercise for people with too much time on their hands, never one of my particular problems (even less so in a week when I’m contemplating making The Byrds Play Dylan–which might yield half a dozen contenders all by itself-my next Track-by-Track).

But I couldn’t help clicking through and scrolling down a list of other people’s picks. The day was slow enough for that.

It was the usual mishmash. Jimi’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” was the most frequently mentioned by far and, except for maybe the predictability of it all, I got no problem with that. Then there were all the Twitter people playing How obscure can I get?

Then, just as I was about to move on to some other page, I saw this:

Take Me to the River.

And then somebody wrote Yes! And I love Al Green.

Look.  War, famine and pestilence I accept as part of our fallen world.

But preferring this…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ar2VHW1i2w

to this…

Is why God sends plagues.

I’ll spare you what I thought about Green Day’s version of “I Fought the Law” being better than the Clash’s “original.”

(NOTE: Sinead O’Connor is famous for her scintillating cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” What Jeff Buckley is famous for covering I have no idea…Enlightenment appreciated.)

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Elton John Up)

“Lady Samantha”
Elton John (1969)
Did Not Make the Charts
Recommended source: To Be Continued (Box Set)

and

“Part Time Love”
Elton John (1978)
US #21
UK #15
Recommended source: A Single Man

I started listening to the radio seriously in late 1975. I was aware of Elton John before that. It was hard not to be at least aware (though if anyone could have managed it, it would have been me).

I didn’t have much of an opinion about him, even after I started listening to the radio. 1976 was sort of the break point. I loved “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (still do), liked the others he had out at the time (still do, especially “I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”). But, as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was a duet, the first record of his alone that I took entirely to heart was an obscure side I discovered when I plucked The History of British Rock Vol. 2 from some bargain bin or other, along about 1977. I was still in my discovery days. There were a dozen or more classics I encountered for the first time on this particular set (and, yes, I still have it), everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to “The Mighty Quinn” to “Something in the Air.”

“Lady Samantha” didn’t take a back seat to any of them.

Knowing, by the chart book I was then busy memorizing (it came natural as I’d been a baseball stat freak), that, unlike those other records, it had never been a hit in either the U.S. or the U.K., I had one of my first inklings that my own taste might not line up with everyone’s, even when it came to the 60s, so it was a more than usually valuable marker.

As the seventies progressed, my stubborn streak would become more and more necessary.

“Part Time Love” was the next Elton record that I really loved and it came and went like a cool breeze. It followed a string of flops (by his standards) and didn’t do much to get him started again. By the time he did get started again (some time after the Thom Bell collaboration “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” had provided a nice respite for audience and artist alike in 1979) he was a changed man and a changed artist. He would remain a consistent hit-maker for another two decades. He would never matter again.

“Part Time Love” came and went so fast I didn’t have chance to score it on a 45 and years of hunting the used oldies bins proved fruitless. Once it left the radio, I never heard it any place except my head until a full decade later, when I picked up the album A Simple Man for .99 cents (less than I would have paid for the single in ’78) at my then favorite, now deceased, local record store.

All those years, my head was enough. A decade further on, when I was putting my first mix-tape of beat records together (there were dozens eventually and, still another decade on, I transferred most of them to CD), and I was looking for something to segue out of “London’s Burning,” I knew there was only one record that would do the trick. I still listen to the mix-disc regularly and every time I hear Paul Buckmaster’s soaring arrangement bleed out of London punk–and subsume and subvert it, all of it–I can’t keep from smiling.

I’ve learned to love a lot of Elton John’s music in the years since 1978, even some that he made after he stopped mattering as anything more than a celebrity hit-maker. But I never forget that I came to the biggest solo artist of my youth through the great records he made just before and just after he was King of the World.

That, too, makes me smile.

 

BEFORE THE FALL….JUST (Memory Lane: 1980)

(This was occasioned by an online poll seeking to name “The Best Album of 1979.” In something like the round of sixteen, the Clash’s London Calling (12/14/79) was pitted against Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes (10/19/79). Given the typical voting demographic for such contests, the Clash were a guaranteed easy winner. And, as someone who is not averse to participating in such exercises now, and was positively enthusiastic about breaking rulers to “Death or Glory” then, I can say I probably would have voted for London Calling myself if I had worked up the energy to cast a vote. No shame in that for Damn the Torpedoes. In purely musical terms (i.e. the terms in which the premiere punk bands so often failed), London Calling is one of the most exciting albums ever made, the more remarkable because it’s a double. Then again, Petty could never be accused of the kind of naivete that manages not to notice that when “one or two” evil Presidentes “have finally paid their due” it’s usually courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps, the point of the spear of a Military Industrial Intelligence Complex which has since developed sufficiently dread Leviathan characteristics that records like London Calling end up sounding like helpless bleats if you pay too much attention to the politics behind all that wondrous noise. Put another way, if I want to feel sufficiently detached from my surroundings to keep from screaming as I cruise through the American Night, running (albeit mostly in my head these days) along the crumbling superhighways of the Rust Belt or the Deep South or the West Coast or simply sitting in the Den Where I Keep My Records, I’ll play Damn the Torpedoes over London Calling every time. Same if I want to engage.That’s probably why I don’t end up participating in many of these straight up-or-down things. Still, arriving as it did at pure random from the internet ether, the main effect of this particular bracket was to remind me that, in the days when the 70s were turning into the 80s, “Train in Vain” and the hits from Damn the Torpedoes (“Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl”) were the most exciting things on the radio. if not the only exciting things on the radio. And thereby hangs a tale….)

Thanks to Rock and Roll Time, I know what I was doing in the late afternoon/early evening hours of Feb. 12, 1980.

I was going to see my mother in the hospital.

That, in itself, would not be memorable. My mother (b. 1919) was in the hospital a lot between 1960, when she had me, far too late in life for a woman in already fragile health, and 1987, when she passed away. Over time, the visits all ran together.

The only reason I recall this particular visit well enough to look up the date (no, I didn’t note it at the time, though I probably should have), is what happened while I was driving from our house in the Florida Panhandle to Dothan, Alabama’s Southeast Alabama Medical Center.

What happened was “Train In Vain.” It was the best new thing I had heard on the radio in at least three years. I knew it was new because it was everywhere, something no record older than a few months ever was. You could only pull about three stations that played pop music in the area (well, at least if you drove a ’71 Maverick with an AM-only radio). I kept punching between all three  because, no matter how often I heard this mysterious new record which had obviously just been released (nothing hit that suddenly everywhere unless it was release day), I wanted to hear it again.

I also wanted to know what it was called.

Over twenty miles to the hospital, and, an hour or two later, twenty miles back, I heard it six times on three different stations.

Some dee-jay finally said it was “the new one from the Clash.”

I’d barely heard of the Clash and, as far as the radio in the Deep South was concerned, they didn’t have any “old” ones. Anyway, he didn’t reveal the important information: the name of the freaking record.

I wasn’t too worried. The name of the record was obviously “Stand By Me.” Or “You Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “(You Didn’t) Stand By Me. Or “(You) Didn’t Stand By Me.” Or “Didn’t Stand By Me.”**

One of those.

Well, really, it didn’t matter. I mean anything that exciting that hit the radio that hard was going to be in heavy rotation for months. Somewhere, some time, some dee-jay would spill the beans….just in case I hadn’t tracked in down in some local record bin, under the letter “S.” Or “Y.” Or “D.”

One of those.

A funny thing happened though.

Make that a few funny things.

First funny thing: The next time I heard it on the radio was on a college station. Twenty-five years later.

Second funny thing: It wasn’t in any of the usual record bins. Not under “S.” Not under “Y.” Not under “D.” I tried riffing through a few huge bins (45 bins were still huge in those days, even in places like North Florida and South Alabama), to see if I could spot something–anything–by the Clash.

No such luck.

And that all led to the third funny thing…

A few months went by. One day I went into a department store in Dothan (Woolworth? Woolco? Some chain whose name I’ve forgotten? The memory hazes). It was a location I wasn’t used to frequenting and I was there for something else (a tire patch? a quart of oil?…the memory hazes) but I decided to see if they had a record bin.

They did. A small one. One small enough I could actually flip through every record. If I only had a reason.

I didn’t really. I knew department stores were no place to find what I considered “interesting” records. I could see, after looking at the first few records in the bin, that it was mostly the crap that made me stop listening to the radio that year.

(Which crap exactly? The memory does what the memory does…and you wonder why I don’t do drugs!)

But, still….it was a small bin. No more than a couple of hundred records. Probably not more than fifty titles.

Oh, well.

I was about half-way through when a kid came wandering into the area. He was a big kid. Dressed in the redneck uniform. Jeans, boots, flannel work shirt. Just about old enough to drive. (Except for the boots, I was probably dressed the same….you know how it is, the memory hazes. But I always wore sneakers in those days. That was how you cold tell me from the rednecks. Kid I was looking at wouldn’t have been caught dead in those things.)

I was flipping idly through the records, not really imagining that he was there for a 45. He looked more like somebody interested in a set of speakers for his pickup. Either way, he did something I usually avoided like the plague. He signaled the employee who was watching over the electronics department, making sure kids like us didn’t steal anything for help.

The young man came at the kid’s call, very polite.

Very politely, the kid asked if they had “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I was past the “H”s by then but I kept shut about it. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen “Here Comes My Girl” but, since I wasn’t specifically looking for it (already had the album), I thought I could have seen it and not really taken note.

The employee in charge of watching over us said if they had it, it would definitely be under “H.”

They looked. It wasn’t there.

Then they wandered over to the album section.

The employee was trying to talk the kid into buying Damn the Torpedoes when this came under my hand….in the “T'”s.

I did a long double-take. I held on tight. It was the only one.

The kid who had come looking for “Here Comes My Girl” was telling the store clerk he’d really like to buy the album. Except he didn’t have the money. For the single, yes. Not the album.

I thought: “This industry does not work very well.”

Tom Petty was the kind of square who named his songs after the choruses. The kind of square who gets voted out in the round of sixteen by the hip kids four decades down the line. The kind of square who got the jeans-and-boots crowd looking for his single, which would actually be right where it could be easily found….if the store had it in stock.

And he was also the only other guy on the radio just then who had records as exciting as the one I now knew was, for some silly reason, called “Train in Vain.”***

I felt a twinge of sympathy for the young man who had found himself in a position with which I was intimately familiar. No bread….

So I did something I really never did. I offered my sympathies and some advice.

“That’s a really good album,” I said. “It’s worth saving up for.”

Maybe if the store clerk hadn’t still been standing there it would have gone over better–like a secret we could keep to ourselves.

As it stood, the kid was in no mood to thank me for my priceless advice.

“Yeah, well, I really only like that one song,” he said. “That’s a great song.”

He had felt a need to be accommodating to the store clerk, who was only doing his job.

Me, I was just butting in. It occurred to me that he probably had the money for the album. He had the look of a kid who was already working somewhere. He also had the look of a kid who only wanted what he wanted and didn’t need any advice from strangers about what that might be. He had the chip on his shoulder you found–and still find–in a certain kind of Tom Petty fan. The kind who are mostly from the South and whose other records are mostly by hardcore country singers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Or perhaps it had just been a long day. I was never to know because, on that note, he stalked away.

The store clerk looked at me and shrugged. He didn’t say anything, but he gave me a sort of “what are ya’ gonna do?” look.

Well, I knew what I wanted to do.

I held up my copy of “Train in Vain,” and said:

“I’m ready to check out.”

Better then….

(NOTE: **The actual lyric is “Did you stand by me?” I still hear “You didn’t stand by me.” I still don’t know–or care–if either way makes sense.)

(***To avoid confusion with Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” Wikipedia now tells me. I’m not sure I believe that one either.)

 

THE SPIRIT OF ’65

CD Review:

Completely Under the Covers (2016)
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

There’s always been a place in Susanna Hoffs’ voice that feels like 1965 and is all the more compelling for persistently suggesting that the only thing 1965 was ever missing was her.

This is four CDs worth of her indulging the premise.

Oh, Matthew Sweet is here also and that’s hardly insignificant (they call themselves Sid n Susie….cute). But I’ve never thought I’d be interested in hearing him sing the phone book. With Hoffs, be it lead or harmony, I’m not so sure.

Well there’s no phone book test here, just a bunch of great songs from the Sixties (Disc 1: The original Under the Covers from 2006), Seventies (Disc 2: Under the Covers, Volume 2, from 2009 and Disc 3: Outtakes from the same sessions) and Eighties (Disc 4: Under the Covers, Volume 3 from 2012).

I didn’t make a count, but I’ll guess she takes the lead about two-thirds, him about a third, with a few trade-offs and close harmony leads throw in.

It doesn’t all work, or anyway it’s not all outstanding. I wasn’t surprised because I’ve pulled up their collaborations here and there on YouTube over the years and while the song choices always seemed compelling, the actual performances were a little too true to the originals to really add anything obvious.

Still, I thought it might be more compelling to sit down and listen to them all at once so when this came up cheap on Amazon with my birthday rolling around I sprang for it.

I wasn’t wrong either time.

Listening close, listening all at once, it’s compelling enough to amount to some sort of vision: a quarter-century of white rock and roll re-imagined as a set of well-produced folk songs. Slick but (mostly) not too slick.

Despite the slightly salacious series title, there’s nothing like sexual heat or chemistry going on here and nothing remotely like the subliminal, rivalry-based anger that drove pretty much every one of the great harmony acts that were around in ’65 (Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel….all in all, not a happy bunch). I miss the heat. I miss the subliminal, which is so often the springboard for the sublime.

But this has a pull all its own. Some of it’s just the confidence that every song is tried and true. There’s no wondering if the tunes won’t work, especially since Sweet and Hoffs work only the tiniest variations on the originals. As the songs roll on–sixty in all, including fifteen bonus tracks not previously available–it’s those variations and their subtleties that take hold: Hoffs making rare use of her soprano for two magic seconds at the fade of “You’re So Vain” pulling the song backwards and forwards at the same time while also making it do something it never quite did before, which is hurt; the gentle subversion of refusing to either switch the gender for “Maggie May” and (following Linda Ronstadt) “Willin'” or just give them to the guy; the shift from Love’s “Alone Again Or” to Bran Wilson’s “The Warmth of the Sun” that actually feels like it’s straight from a bar band stage at Ciro’s on a night when nobody wants to dance.

And, all the way up in the Eighties’ portion of the program, proof that the old alternative universe dream of Hoffs fronting the Go-Go’s (the better singer hooking up with the greater band), was, like so many alt-universe dreams–including those being dreamed from left to right in this new world we’ve made–a false flag. All this version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” does is suggest that, in our non-alternative reality, Belinda Carlisle really is some kind of genius.

That’s how it goes throughout. The highs and lows chase each other around without leaving any indication that there could ever be a consensus on exactly which is which. The notion of a place where there’s a home for Yes and the Clash, the Who and James Taylor is just as mixed up and confused as you might fear and as oddly reassuring as you might hope.

Music for these times then?

I honestly wasn’t sure until I got to the middle of the third disc–all outtakes–and, with Sweet taking the lead and Hoffs pushing him from underneath the way Jackie DeShannon might have pushed Gene Clark if God had been on the ball in, yeah, ’65, and had them do an album of duets where they submerged their personalities into each other and the spirit of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” even if the song wasn’t yet available.

It’s a song Nick Lowe wrote in 1974 about the spirit of ’65, an unofficial sequel to the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (which, by some unfathomable mystery, is missing from this set). A short time after, Elvis Costello and the Attractions turned it into an anthem of pure fury and one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. You can hear those versions here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_u2OK_IKw0

Since then, there have been a boatload of other covers. You can chase those around YouTube all day long if so inclined, but, if not, I’ll just pull up the other two good ones I found here:

That gives you some idea of the song’s flexibility…its own ability to reach forward and back.

If you listen close to Costello’s version, you can even hear that old Byrds’ jangling guitar–the secret language of white rock for the last fifty years–chiming throughout…and breaking loose in the bridge.

Now what I can’t do is post Sid n Susie’s studio version, which hit me this week the way “Turn, Turn, Turn” hit me in the spring of ’78, when I got my high school diploma and my first copy of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits in the space of about twenty-four hours.

I can’t post it because it’s not on YouTube yet and I’m not into posting music there. Maybe I should be. Because, as things stand, I heartily recommend that you avoid the live versions which are posted and give no hint of anything but professional boredom.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to take my word for it that, without Matthew Sweet being anywhere near a Byrd (or Elvis Costello) vocally, or the band being anywhere near able to generate the Attractions’ mind-meld, Sid n Susie made me feel the gap between 1965 and now like nothing I’ve heard in decades. Like it still might be possible–just…and just for a moment–to wake up tomorrow and find that Peace, Love and Understanding had finally, in the moment when the children of ’65 have so far lost their minds that they’re holding their breath waiting for the CIA to save the Republic and the next Democratic Congress to convene anti-anti-communist versions of HUAC hearings, become not so funny at all.

It’s almost enough, all by itself, to redeem the idea of spending this last horrific decade treating rock and roll as folk music with which black people had nothing to do while pretending that such oversights are in no way responsible for our current predicament.

Well, that plus doing right by bubbling unders from the Left Banke….

UPDATE: As of 1/4/18, the Sid n Susie version of “What’s So Funny” is on YouTube. Get it while you can…

 

EVE OF DESTRUCTION-BY-ELECTION SOUNDTRACK…BUT ONLY FOR THE LONELY

Tomorrow night, or maybe the morning after, half the electorate will feel we’ve been saved from Hitler/Lucifer. The other half will believe we’ve elected Hitler/Lucifer. Either way, Delusion’s reign will be secure. We won’t have elected Lucifer. But that will be him you feel turning round. And he’ll be smiling.

The soundtrack in my head will play on regardless. So, for those who don’t want to just stick to War and Creedence as they begin waking up from history in the days/months/years to come, welcome to my world. (As before, the soundtrack is programmed like a K-TEL Special…as before, I promise the content and programming make for a greater mix-disc than K-TEL ever managed.):

SIDE ONE

Track 1: Laura Nyro “Eli’s Coming”

Track 2: The Miracles “I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4R-y3fTEOM

Track 3: Arlo Guthrie “Lightning Bar Blues”

Track 4: The English Beat “Save It For Later”

Track 5: The Pretenders “Middle of the Road”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Niz2DuHc5K8

Track 6: The 5th Dimension “Another Day, Another Heartache”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0kKRJblwFU

Track 7: The Go-Go’s “Foget That Day”

SIDE TWO

Track 8: The Clash “Gates of the West”

Track 9: Rosanne Cash “This Is the Way We Make a Broken Heart”

Track 10: The Youngbloods “Darkness, Darkness”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRLU-EvW-gM

Track 11: Bob Dylan “Shelter From the Storm” (live)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rKEXFSw54M

Track 12: Phil Ochs “When I’m Gone”

Track 13: Jimmy Cliff “Trapped”

Track 14: The Undisputed Truth “Smiling Faces”

Track 15: Al Green “Hanging On”

[NOTE: I had to sit through about twelve Marco Rubio commercials in order to check all these out. Much more of this and I’m going to find a way to start charging.]

 

FOOT SOLDIERS, PART ONE (Segue of the Day: 8/3/16)

I’m working on a post about the few good films that focus on the essence of combat: taking and holding ground. When I tried to think of songs that might speak to the subject (something I tend to do with any subject), I only came up with these very strange bedfellows…now looped in my head for the near term. If you listen close for Johnny Horton’s rebel yell on the second and third choruses, you might find yourself wondering if the funny one is the serious one:

Baby, that was rock and roll.

The cost of empire, as represented by Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army” will have to wait for another day. I can’t link it to anything just yet…

MY FAVORITE DOUBLE LP (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

fleetwoodmac3

I’ll just take the suspense out of it this time and go ahead and admit my current favorite double LP, unlikely to be dislodged any time soon, is the one pictured above. I’ll get back around to it in a bit, but I want to preface this with a short history of the “double LP.”

It has to be a short history because truly important double LP’s in rock and roll–one artist, studio bound, more or less conceptual, on two 12″ vinyl records, making some sort of real statement that amounted to something more than simple overindulgence or hubris–weren’t all that numerous.

Though the concept had been around since the fifties, Bob Dylan started the whole thing for rockers with Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Over the next two decades or so, the meaningful history of the concept amounted to more or less the following:

Freak Out The Mothers of Invention (1966)

Electric Ladyland The Jimi Hendrix Experience. (1968)

The Beatles (aka The White Album) The Beatles (1968)

Trout Mask Replica Captain Beefheart (1969)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs Derek and the Dominoes (1970)

Exile on Main Street The Rolling Stones (1972)

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton John (1973)

Songs in the Key of Life Stevie Wonder (1976)

Tusk Fleetwood Mac (1979)

The Wall Pink Floyd (1979)

London Calling The Clash (1979)

The River Bruce Springsteen (1980)

1999 Prince (1982)

Double Nickels on the Dime The Minutemen (1984)

Sign O’ the Times Prince (1987)

I may have left out a few, especially on the cult side, but those entries represent the basic shape of it. There were dozens of others recorded (who can forget Atomic Rooster!) but those are the highlights from the days when it still mattered–major artists, or at least major cult artists, making major statements in the studio that couldn’t reasonably fit on one LP in the pre-digital days before virtually unlimited content made the LP, let alone the double LP, an entirely amorphous concept. These days, if you want fifteen songs on your latest album, there’s usually nobody there to either stop you at twelve or make you come up with four more. Same if you want thirty-two or seven.

That said, the list above is not a half-bad overview of rock history, or at least the limits of rock ambition, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties. Before the technology altered both limitations and expectations for the form, it was almost impossible for any but the most adventurous artists to leave any kind of impact on the history of the music through the medium of the double LP. Technology giveth–the double LP couldn’t have existed without it. And technology taketh away–these days anybody can make a “statement,” so no one ever quite does.

So it goes.

My own experience with double LPs is pretty limited. I’ve listened to all the albums above at least once or twice. Of those I’ve heard only once or twice (Freak Out, Trout Mask, The Wall, Double Nickels), I can imagine some day getting closer to Double Nickels on the Dime for reasons I explained here. Of those I’ve listened to more than once or twice, I can easily imagine getting closer to Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Songs in the Key of Life,  The River, 1999 and Sign O’ the Times, all of which I like a lot but never quite obsessed over.

Besides Tusk, that leaves:

doubalbums1 doubalbums2 doubalbums3

goodbyeyellow2

doubalbums5

These, I’ve obsessed over.

Some time or other.

Leave London Calling, however reluctantly, to youth, and the breaking of rulers (or, as I used to call them, drumsticks) over various bits of unpaid-for furniture.

Say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really is a tad slick and, if I say that (which it maybe is, though only in comparison with what’s left standing, and really only a tad), then I have to say the same for The White Album too, even if the least of it functions perfectly as filler.

Somewhere along the way, you have to make things a little bit easy for yourself.

That leaves Layla and Exile and Tusk and having to choose–really having to choose because I chickened out on my last category and there’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to make impossible choices.

Boy, do I feel foolish.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Exile on Main Street are not only bottomless, they come from a period I really like better than 1979. Surely it was harder to define despair at a moment when at least a modicum of hope remained? Surely it was harder to sound crapped out at the beginning of the last decade before the reactionary backlash fully set in than at the end, on the very eve of the real destruction?

Well, maybe.

One thing that doesn’t surprise me in hindsight is that neither Eric Clapton, the Stones nor Fleetwood Mac ever sounded quite up to the task again. All made fine music now and then. None ever again sounded truly epic.

And maybe the reason I give an edge to Tusk these days is that it pulls off the near impossibility of sounding quietly epic. Which, given its subject matter in common with Layla and, especially, Exile–spiritual desperation born of dissolution, unless, of course, it’s the other way around–just means it ends up, on the very closest attention, sounding ten times as vicious.

You end up sounding ten times as vicious as Exile on Main Street, you’ve got my attention.

But how else is there to hear it when you listen close?

Granting it’s all “metaphorical,” the rain outside coming down forever, the feel of 1979, transmuted through the broken relationships that had already been done to death on Rumours, one of the best and most popular albums of the decade. But so what? Pass it through ten thousand layers of studio polish and emotional murk and a knife fight still sounds like a knife fight.

And Tusk still sounds like what The White Album might have if John and Paul had gone right ahead and said what they were really thinking, instead of holding it back for their solo albums (and George, checking in from the other room, had been half the singer Christine McVie was).

For a good portion of Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t just sound like he’s waving knives, he sounds like he’s throwing them. And Stevie Nicks sounds like she’s catching them in her teeth and spitting them out. Which leaves McVie to wipe up the blood.

Pleasant that. And never-ending. The damn thing stops and, sure enough, when you push the button–no relief breaks from getting up and turning over the record anymore…technology giveth and technology taketh away–it starts all over.

There’s Buckingham, saying stuff like “What makes you think you’re the one?” and “It’s not that funny is it?” and “That’s all for everyone,”  in the exact tone you’d expect from somebody who is banging the little woman’s head against the wall he just ripped the phone out of. Pretty soon he’s singing “Don’t blame me,” like a head case on Law and Order who makes you believe until the very last minute that he might be innocent. After that he’s singing about walking a thin line inside his own head as a lead-in to an ode to his member which, in context, begins to sound like an Appalachian murder ballad.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Before I have to put this knife in your throat.

All of which should make the myriad of devices–alternately soothing, bitter, angry, forgiving–that Nicks is using to survive sound pathetic (a “mooncalf” in Robert Christgau’s contemporary judgment). Probably she would sound pathetic, except that she’s Stevie Nicks, so even when it seems like she’s going to drift away, (“drowning in a seas of love, where everyone would love to drown”) there’s always some bit of timbre or phrasing that snaps her back. Pretty soon after you accept that she isn’t going to come undone, her compliments–“When you were good, you were very, very good”–start to sound like razor cuts, just because she’s the one singing them. “Intense silence” sounds like “Intense violence” and there’s no question who the silence and the violence are really directed at. You can fool yourself into believing she’s indulging in escapism but it would be very dangerous to turn your back.

That leaves McVie in something like the role she had on Rumours and, to a lesser extent, Fleetwood Mac–a honey-toned referee, there to cut the hard tension with a kind of melancholy that doesn’t exactly disperse the bitterness but at least makes it bearable.

Except here it’s not quite that simple. Here she sounds more like the woman across the street who can hear what’s going on at the neighbors’, who keeps a window open maybe just so she can hear, but can never quite bring herself to call the cops. Over and over she’ll never forget tonight. Something’s certainly distracting her. Maybe she’s having the best sex of her life. Maybe she’s found true love. Maybe she’s earned her peace.

Too bad the neighbors are killing each other.

It’s easy enough to hear why Tusk never reached the stratosphere commercially. It runs on sounds and attitudes more than melodies and pop song structure. It’s a mashup, coolly received in its own time (Greil Marcus was one of the very few big-time critics who lauded it–John McVie said it sounded like three solo albums mashed together and he wasn’t entirely wrong, just irrelevant), which turned out to be a time most people would like to forget.

But we still live in those times. They were just beginning when Fleetwood Mac spent endless months wringing Tusk out of the experience of their own lives and their improbably mad fortune. There’s something heroic about most of the other albums I listed above, even those which came after, when the rot was really setting in. There’s nothing heroic about Tusk. It promises no change, offers no peace, no idea that things will ever get better. Like every one of the great albums listed above it had its finger on the pulse of its own time. More than any album I know of, it also had its finger on the pulse of the future.

Too bad for us and too bad for them.

And I really wish I could stop listening.

But I can’t.

(NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE ROCK CRITIC)