My latest for Sixties Music Secrets is now online. It’s all about how and why the decade of war, riot, and assassination was also, coincidentally or not, the golden age of harmony. You can find it here.
If you need a primer (and you know you do)…
My latest for Sixties Music Secrets is now online. It’s all about how and why the decade of war, riot, and assassination was also, coincidentally or not, the golden age of harmony. You can find it here.
If you need a primer (and you know you do)…
10) Poison: Greatest Hits 1986 – 1996 (1996)
Merry Christmas everybody! i like my hair metal straight with no arty pretensions. In the wake of punk, especially, hair metal bands had one refreshing quality. They made no bones about being in it for the groupies. About half of this soars and the rest doesn’t sink so low that it amounts to more than a minor distraction.
9) David Bowie: Hunky Dory (1971)
I don’t really have a go-to David Bowie album but, if I did, this early entry might fit the bill. The man could write hooks and, over the course of a mere album (especially a good one from when he was giving everything he had to put himself over), his voice doesn’t wear thin. Plus, with “Changes” he was already signalling how far he could take fake naivete, which was only as far as it could go.
8) Gary Lewis & the Playboys: The Complete Liberty Singles (2009)
What an aesthetic! A plastic concept were Gary and the boys to be sure…but they made some fine pop records from their earliest days. And, as I had not noticed on a previous listen to two, Gary kept getting better as the sixties and his popularity waned in unison. This lays out the whole story so, along with stalwarts like “Just My Style” and “Little Miss Go-Go” you get an extra disc’s worth of lost sixties’ pop that reminds you just how good you had to be in those days to not get lost . Then there’s genuinely weird-but-catchy stuff like “I Saw Elvis Presley Last Night” which Lewis apparently wrote after seeing Elvis the night before.
7) Bob Dylan: Live 1964 Concert at Philharmonic Hall, The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (2004)
This has musical value. It’s a good, typical concert from Dylan’s folkie phase. The big difference is that it’s near the end–the moment just before the Voice of His Generation stabbed his original audience in the eye by going Rock and Roll.
Here, Dylan the master showman has his New York audience eating out of his hand, hanging on every sung or spoken word. You can still hear and feel the spell he cast. The highlight comes at the top of the second disc, right after he’s returned from the intermission to do his nine hundredth great version of “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”
This is the one where he mocks the Shangri-Las and Martha and the Vandellas and his audience laughs right along.
Or is it the about-to-be-left-behind audience he’s mocking?
People argue about this, but it’s worth remembering that when the Voice of His Generation wanted to name-check “inauthentic” pop stars he had previously tended to use Fabian, the son of a Philly beat cop, who, like Martha Reeves and Mary Weiss, had fought his way out of tougher circumstances–and tougher neighborhoods–than Robert Zimmerman’s.
Right after that Joan Baez comes on and kills the buzz.
There’s no album that better explains the anger some of Dylan’s audience felt when he “betrayed” them a few months later (first at Newport, then all over the world). Listening to this, there is no reason to believe the voice of their generation would ever be anything but completely at one with them.
6) Mary Wells: Looking Back 1961 – 1964 (1993)
Invaluable set from Motown’s first big solo star. “My Guy” wasn’t all that typical of her style, but it shows just how many directions she might have taken had she not made the fateful decision to become the first Motown star to walk away. I don’t know if she needs a two-disc set, but she certainly needs more than one. One of history’s great “what-ifs” sure, but there’s more than enough here to justify a bigger place in the pantheon, at Motown and elsewhere.
5) War: Outlaw (1982)
The greatest band of the 70s was mostly a spent force by the time this came out. But the two strongest tracks, “Outlaw” and “Cinco de Mayo” were on a par with their best, and you can hear bits and pieces elsewhere of what might have been a new vision, had they still been young and hungry.
4) Jr. Walker and the All Stars: Nothin’ But Soul, The Singles 1962-1983 (1994)
A great journey through the party funk of the mid-sixties, backed up with Junior’s plaintive vocals once somebody figured out his ragged-but-right timbre could work on ballads. Twenty years worth of never losing what he had, with the highlight being perhaps Motown’s great lost single. Tell me again why he’s not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
3) Lynyrd Skynyrd: Nuthin’ Fancy (1975)
There are people who still think this–the second greatest band of the 70s third LP–is their weakest. If that’s true, it’s a measure of just how great they were. There weren’t ten bands in the decade who made one as good. And not one where the lead singer would start off an album by writing a fierce ode to gun control and, without taking a breath, dream of shooting down his “Cheatin’ Woman” exactly one track later.
2) Fats Domino: The Fats Domino Jukebox (2002)
I finally broke down and bought a single disc of Fats’ best on CD. The old two record set from Imperial is still the best “short” compilation but this does a nice job of getting to the highlights, beginning with the true dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps because I’ve been doing some side projects (more word soon!) that turn a strong spotlight on rock and roll’s first decade, the most intriguing track this time around was “The Valley of Tears” a straight country record from 1957 which went top twenty pop and #2 R&B and represented everything Nashville feared might be riding over the hill if they didn’t get the white rock and rollers under control. They shut down crossover within a year, even if it meant telling country stations not to play Elvis and the Everly Brothers. And that’s exactly what it meant. These days, and not coincidentally, country, pop and r&b are all dead things. Except when you reach back.
1) Various Artists: A Very Special Christmas (1987)
One of the great rock and roll Christmas albums. At what is probably the low point, Bon Jovi pulls off a credible “Back Door Santa.” Elsewhere, everyone from RUN-DMC to Bono to Alison Moyet to (gasp) Sting go to the limit. And there are tracks that go beyond the limit: Bruce Springsteen (live, where’s he’s always best) managing a version of “Merry Christmas Baby” that escapes the long shadows of Charles Brown’s original melancholy and Elvis Presley’s cataclysmic transformation to inject an improbably merry vibe that’s just as valid; John Mellencamp’s re-orienting “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to an Indiana farmhouse; Bryan Adams’ blasting through “Run, Run Rudolph”; and, to close things down, Stevie Nicks, who believes in witchcraft if she believes in anything, giving a definitive reading of “Silent Night,” the stateliest devotional hymn on earth, proving yet again that God will always move in a mysterious way.
Merry Christmas to all my readers!
…Til next time.
How it was on at least one night of a tour that keeps getting extended. If it comes near you, see it if you possibly can.
1) The band comes on. Then McGuinn and Hillman walk in from the wings and launch into the opening chords of “My Back Pages,” which turn out to be as recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I’m not sure why this surprises me.
2) McGuinn turns out to be the (even) better story teller. First story of the night involves the first time he heard the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
“Sounded like bluegrass to me….”
3) Turns out he also does a killer Bob Dylan imitation. Anyone who hears him do it just before he demonstrates how he changed the dynamics of “Mr. Tambourine Man” completely (and made it a groundbreaking hit–and one of the most important records of the twentieth century–in the process) will no longer need to labor under the illusion that, in forging the Dylan/Beatles combination that came to be called folk rock (and which everyone thought was as natural as breathing the minute after it happened), the Byrds were somehow lesser.
4) Chris Hillman: “It is true that Gram Parsons and I met in a bank….” I don’t remember if that was before or after he explained how he wrote his first song when he came home from a jazz session with Hugh Masekela’s band. He does not explain why it came out a country song (“Time Between”) except to say that he does not know. This leads to other stories about actually going to Nashville with Gram in tow. The best involves McGuinn demonstrating a riff on the three-finger banjo to one of Nashville’s top session men.
You better let me do that, the fellow said.
5) Marty Stuart’s band is in support and Marty steps out in front a few times. His first memorable moment is just after the intermission when he comes out to warm up the crowd for the second half and plays something from his new album that incorporates the basic riffs from “Eight Miles High” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”
Which turn out to be as instantly recognizable as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” And “My Back Pages.”
6) Then it’s on to Sweetheart material proper and McGuinn’s complete intro to “I Like the Christian Life.”
“When we recorded this song, I didn’t know what it meant. I do now.”
7) And, of course, the umpteenth retelling of being given the cold shoulder by Ralph Emery. Still funny. Still painful. Still suggestive of lost possibilities for American music for generations to come. (He who shall remain nameless McGuinn says. Ralph! the crowd shouts.) Followed by a version of “Drug Store Truck Driving Man” that should be no more than a goof and instead, stings like a rattler. The record sounded like a petulant whine. The version I heard Sunday a week ago was tougher, meaner and funnier. By a factor of ten.
8) The musical highlight of the evening…out of nowhere: “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with McGuinn, Hillman and Stuart in three-part harmony. I’ve only been to the one show so I don’t know if they capture this every time out, but for one night in Atlanta, at least, it was beyond even the Everly Brothers. If Brian Wilson had been there he wouldn’t have needed LSD to see God again.
I wasn’t alone in thinking so. The crowd consisted largely of aging hippies. I think it’s safe to say they had, on average, a minimum of three beers apiece in them by then. And if anyone had dropped a pin between first note and last, it would have sounded like an atom bomb. (Avoid the versions available on YouTube which have spotty sound and barely hint at the quality of what I heard.)
9) For an encore: Proof that, on the right stage with the right sound system, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” rocks as hard as anything that has ever hit the air. Then the inevitable Now people tell us we sure do a great version of that Tom Petty song…which segues nicely into a tribute to Petty, the highlight of which is Stuart and his band doing a bluegrass version of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” that builds and builds and lays to rest any question of whether Tom Petty was a genius.
10) A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late….
Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have lost none of their formidable musical skills and they both sing far better than they did in any clips from the sixties I’ve come across.
These days they’re master showmen as well, but, better than that, they’re Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the surviving core of the greatest band assembled on American shores after Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Just to be in a hall with them was a life-defining experience for me. That there would be so much real magic was almost too much to hope for.
Brother, I’d do it again.
And I confess I didn’t realize this was as close as they would get to either Waycross (Gram Parsons’ principal childhood home) or South Carolina (of the many tall pines)….but, looking back, there might have been a ghost or two wandering about.
I apologize again for the problems the site has been having the last two weeks. I’ve shelled out for a firewall in addition to last month’s cleanup fee…Hoping that solves the issue for good. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to do a bunch of reconfiguring and it that happens, I’ll try to keep you posted as best I can.
Meanwhile I thank everyone for their patience….And, yeah, people who said rock n roll was merely teen music, devoted to things you and the world would soon outgrow, were, as usual, clueless.
Worries, worries, pile up in my head….
Paul Revere & the Raiders (2005)
Paul Revere & the Raiders have been lucky with comps in the CD era. For those who just want the garage band essence, The Essential Ride is unbeatable. The Collector’s Choice set of their complete singles easily sustains three long discs.
But for the best overview of everything they meant in their decade of prominence–a decade that made them the one true garage band (in the narrow sense of the term–there’s a case to be made that all rock and roll bands are garage bands of some sort) to transcend the genre (which, like most rock and roll genres, was retroactively named).
I loved them at every phase. And at every phase, they may have wandered in this direction or that for a record or two–a little folk rock, a little psychedelia, a little pop–but they always came back to the same place.
“Louie Louie”–Not as chaotic as the rival Kingsmen’s monster hit and, oddly, not as focused either. But it does have its own unique thrill. Right at the top. “Grab your woman, it’s Louie Louie time!” Now that’s a band announcing itself.
“Steppin’ Out”–They made plenty of other gut-bucket sides, chasing a way to put the jet-fuel energy of their live shows on wax. This segue takes you past all that and straight into their greatest period. Meaning they managed the trick. The narrator’s been in the military. Just got home. Found out his girl’s been running around. He’s not happy. He wants answers. Released in 1965 and only a modest hit at the time, it was enough to get their career started. Within a few years, it was as much an autobiography of a generation as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” or “Run Through the Jungle” and the true birth of what came to be called Heartland Rock. I don’t think much has changed.
“Just Like Me”–And then they go bigger. Mark Lindsay was already one of the period’s great vocalists, able to purr on one beat and roar on the next without sounding like he had played a trick….or contradicted a thing.
“Kicks”–A specific anti-drug song, courtesy of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. As un-hip as anything could be in 1966 and one of the few records that saw around the corner as clearly as it embodied the times.
“Action’–This one I could do without. As TV show themes go, it wasn’t “Come On Get Happy” let alone “Theme from the Monkees.” Placed here, it just breaks the momentum of one the great singles’ runs in the history of singles.
“Hungry”–Back on track. Mann and Weil again. It’s worth remembering they wrote “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” too. They had a knack for expressing blue collar anger. As did Mark Lindsay.
“I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone”–Suddenly they’re in competition with the Monkees, which probably didn’t do anything for their cred, especially since “Steppin’ Stone” was one of Mickey Dolenz’s best vocals. I’m not even sure this is as good. But it still scorches. No let up.
“Louie, Go Home”–An obvious throwback, just before they moved to the next phase. One of the great Louie updates, though, and a harbinger of where they would always go in a pinch. For a taste of what they had done with this sort of material three years earlier, you can watch this…
“Ballad of a Useless Man”–Not a ballad. A talking blues. “I was gonna be a king…Now the end is drawing near.” That kind of talking blues.
“The Great Airplane Strike“–One of the great protest records because it’s one of the few that insists on acknowledging that, in the Land of Milk and Honey, it’s the small ways the Man has us by the balls–his endless capacity for packaging every last detail of our existence–that matter.
“Good Thing”–If White Boy Stomp was all there was, and this was the only example, would we know what we were missing? (And I’m not sure whether the video I linked is the apotheosis of the White Boy Stomp Ethos or the reason it had to die. Both maybe?)
“Why, Why, Why? (Is It So Hard)”–Fang sings…Why, why, why?
“Louise”–And what would an anthology of the greatest garage band be without a weird blend of wistful thinking and hostility towards a mysterious femme?
“Him or Me-What’s It Gonna Be?”–Back to business (i.e. Return to Stomp). “I can still recall when you told me I was all….everything you looked for in a man.” Bet you can guess how the title question gets answered! Love the “what’s” instead of “who.” Love the stinging guitar lick in the intro. Love the whole thing actually.
“Mo’reen”–Bit of a placeholder. Except for the part where I can’t figure out whether Mo’reen looks green or clean. In any case, she’s neither. Just jailbait. Else the little sister of the girl from “Poison Ivy” carrying on a family tradition. Or…both?
“Gone-Movin’ On”–A thumper with one of those stereo-typical break fades that meant the times were a changin’. Before that, weird, discordant echoes of the Nashville Sound and the Everly Brothers….There’s a reason they lasted folks.
“Tighter”–Okay now we’re dipping into the pop psychedelia bag (the one where the records were made by people who didn’t take drugs…or else didn’t pay any attention to the effects). If you ask me how I know, I’ll just say I know my fellow abstainers when I hear them. That said, not the worst of it’s type.**
“I Had a Dream”–They still hadn’t taken any drugs…but this one did have an addictive melody. There was a reason they lasted folks…when so many others fell away.***
“Ups and Downs”–Back to stomp (with a lovely teaser intro just to keep everybody a little off-balance….). And yes, the girl’s still got him on a string (their great theme). And he’s still not sure how he feels about it.
“Peace of Mind”–Be sure to attend the strangled scream of “Well I’m talkin’ about peace” just before the long fade.
“Too Much Talk”–One of those period records that sounds like it starts in the middle and features a touch or two of fuzz-tone guitar. Unlike a lot of others, this one works–mostly thanks to an epic bass line that works like a lead guitar.
“Cinderella Sunshine”–”Windy’s” younger, tougher sister?
“Don’t Take It So Hard”–Okay, this time he’s definitely leaving her….by trying to appeal directly to the teeny-boppers who were ready to abandon the Monkees?
“Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon”–This is my fave of their late 60’s “pop” direction…shoulda been bigger!
“Let Me!”–Angry lust…as Stomp. Whatever assurances had been offered by the previous few singles was withdrawn. “I know that, my love is going somewhere….But, I’m sure, that it ain’t being got by you.” Indeed. Let me do what now?
“Just Seventeen”–Just in case you missed the point of about half the entries so far. Never mind that this time she’s hunting him!
“Indian Reservation “–(The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)”–The apotheosis of Pop Protest–statement records that sounded like (and were) natural Pure Pop #1’s. (See Cher’s great “Half Breed,” Three Dog Night’s “Black and White” among others). Plus one of the greatest arrangements ever on a hit record. And don’t think Pop Protest Mark Lindsay had forgotten his garage band roots when it came to digging in on the chorus.
“Birds of a Feather”–One of Joe South’s lilting melodies and a fine pop-rock vocal. Imminently pleasurable, especially the bridge. A bit lightweight next to their greatest, but you could live a step down from that height and still be pretty fine.
“Country Wine”–One last diversion…into some blend of Aesthetic Pop and Countrified pop. Could have been a modest hit as a folk rock record in 1966. All of which meant….
“Power Blue Mercedes Queen”–It was time to Stomp. And time for an age to end. Though if this had been the big hit it deserved to be, who knows how much longer the fun might have lasted? A mid-chart disco record perhaps? A singer-songwriter knockoff? Who knows. One thing you can bet. Wherever they ended it….it would been set to Stomp.
**NOTE–Ace commenter Neal Umphred–who, believe me, has forgotten more about the sixties than I’ll ever know–ran this by a friend whose an expert on the Raiders and has been assured that various members of the band were experimenting with drugs at the time. I covered myself a bit on this (that’s what the “or else didn’t pay any attention to the effects” was for)–but I should have been clearer. If they weren’t taking drugs, then they pulled off a masterpiece, because they made a record that sounds exactly like squares pretending. I also shouldn’t have further muddled it by suggesting they were abstainers, which is a whole other thing and something I really couldn’t know. What I should have said is “Poor lads. They were trying to do things that were hardly worth doing when they were already better at what they did best than practically anybody else.” In any case mea culpa!
***On the followup, “I Had a Dream,” Neal’s friend says it was mostly session men backing Mark Lindsay. Who knows what those weirdos were into!
“We’ve Got To Get It On Again”
The Addrisi Brothers (1972)
Recommended source: Have a Nice Day: Volume 8
The Addrisi Brothers, Dick and Don, started out imitating the Everly Brothers in the fifties (well, after they failed an audition for the Mouseketeers anyway) and, thanks mostly to their songwriting abilities (the big one was “Never My Love”), hung on through disco. Don passed away from pancreatic cancer in the eighties.
They had one great record on their own and it was one of their periodic rides up the charts though nowhere near as big as it should have been. You could still hear it now and again on Oldies and AC formats in the late seventies where I first encountered it. In all but a few places, it has long since vanished from the radio.
Too bad, because “We’ve Got To Get It On Again” has a unique vibe. Evidently the brothers worked best when writing from personal experience. “Never My Love” had grown out of a conversation Don had with his fiancee. “We’ve Got To Get It On Again”–distinctively brooding and intimate for all its pop sheen–was originally slated as a B-side. Some DJ in Boston turned the record over and the phones lit up. Pretty soon it was the A-side. Dick came home one day shortly thereafter and his wife said “You’re on the radio.” He thought great. Assumed it was the A-side.
“No,” she said. “The other one.”
The other one?
“You really should have told me first,” she said, “before you put it out there for millions of people.”
Honey, it was a B-side…
Coincidence or not, these days, Dick lives in Argentina. Pretty sure he lives there without that particular wife.
His best record lives on in the shadows.
(NOTE: I’ve been working on this one for a while and now present it as, I believe, the most in-depth appreciation of Brenda Lee that exists anywhere. If, by chance, that’s true, she deserves for somebody to beat it every day from now on.)
First my story….
Back in the days when I measured my life in large part by the discovery of voices, I used to hit the good local record store every Friday after work the way other people hit bars, restaurants or movie theaters. There was a process, almost sacred. It differed from ritual only in that it involved making decisions. Lots of decisions. I like all kinds of music. Back in the days of good record stores in medium-sized towns, there were literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of records (later CDs) I wanted to hear.
I emphasize the word “hear” because, for me, that was always the point: the actual listening experience. I didn’t care about “collecting,” never cared whether a record or disc had any qualities beyond what I was actually going to hear when I put it on the appropriate playing device. I’m not saying I was never influenced by any other factor (I love album covers for all kinds of reasons…and I’m hardly averse to a bargain), but when the last measure was being counted, on a Friday night or any other time, where I put my twenty or thirty or, at a rare extreme, fifty bucks was completely controlled by what I wanted to hear when I got home that night. If that makes me sound like a junkie, well, I can see where there’s a certain obsessional affinity. (It’s one reason I never took drugs. I recognized my vulnerabilities.)
One day in the early nineties, I came home with this:
I didn’t think it was any big deal. I just thought it was time. I knew who Brenda Lee was, and by that I mean I was certain I knew who Brenda Lee was. I was born in 1960, in the south. There was no way to avoid knowing who Brenda Lee was in that time and place, and, really, no way to avoid being certain that you knew.
Okay, I didn’t really know too many of her songs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” was a holiday perennial. “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” showed up on an oldies’ station once in a while. I even had one of her greatest hits albums on vinyl. This one as it happened:
I hadn’t bought it, just acquired it in one of those stacks of records that record junkies acquire here and there (people are forever giving away their old albums, even to this day…the only ones you never end up with are the ones you were certain you would that invariably contain that one cherished item you can never find anywhere else…oh, wait, I think I may have just gotten this confused with life).
I had listened to it. Nothing went on the shelf without getting a spin. For whatever reason it hadn’t made an impression. You listen to enough records and some of them get by you. That one got by me, maybe because I was certain I knew Brenda Lee so I knew I only had to listen with half an ear.
I liked her, of course. Who didn’t? She was big. She had a lot of hits in an era when that was hard to do without being good (though, of course, it wasn’t impossible…I’ll avoid naming names).
So I knew all that when I brought that 2-CD package home on a Friday night around 1994 or so. I also knew–was certain I knew–where Brenda Lee fit. She was one of those good singers from the fifties/early sixties. One of those singers like Gene Pitney or Brook Benton or Bobby Darin who made really good records and earned a certain level of respect that went so far and no further.
By which I mean I knew–was certain–that she wasn’t important. Not truly important. Not to people like me. She was too professional. Too inside the lines. Too cautious. Maybe even too slick.
Now don’t get this wrong. I expected to enjoy the Anthology, was very much looking forward to hearing it. I even thought–took it for granted really–that I would be moved by a previously unheard track or two, that there would be a few new favorites to absorb into my personal pantheon. There almost always were and just because I had Brenda Lee pegged, didn’t mean I didn’t respect her. I mean, it was the nineties. Rock and roll was dead as a door nail (just like it had first been pronounced in the days when Brenda was having her first hits with her being, by some people’s lights, exhibit A…except this time it was real, because, among other things, it was happening to me, and, of course, I turned out to have the kind of cursed luck that means when it happened to me it really, really happened!), and even if it somehow wasn’t, I still knew not to take a sixties-era hit maker for granted because the stuff they had made sound so easy had long since proved to be anything but. Hey, why do you think those Friday night decisions in the record store were so hard? How do you think I had gotten twenty years into my record buying life without having a decent Brenda Lee collection on my ever-burgeoning shelves? A treasury of riches, that’s how. Always a little more gold to mine. Just keep digging.
So the digging had finally gotten around to her. Specifically to a 2-CD set (minus box…they knocked five dollars off the price…that’s all it took!) entitled Brenda Lee Anthology: 1956-1980–surely the only Brenda I would ever need.
I bought other stuff, too. I don’t remember specifically what, but there were probably two or three other cheap CDs. The Anthology, though, was definitely the big purchase of the week, I do remember that. I remember that because it was my habit to save the big purchase for last. So the way it worked, I got myself something to eat, I puttered around, I watched part of the baseball or basketball game (whatever season it was).
I listened to the other CDs.
Then, when midnight drew near, I threw on the first CD of the Brenda Lee set.
My thinking was I could listen to a few tracks while I was getting ready for my shower (probably something similar to what I had done with that LP that got by me back when). Then, if it sounded like I might miss something important, I could pause it while I was in the shower and, if it didn’t, I could turn it up a little and keep it playing, pretty sure I would hear enough of what was going on over the stinging needles to do a playback if needed. I mean, it was the big purchase of the week but I knew Brenda Lee, had grown up with her being sort of around, heard her all my life.
I was pretty sure I could sneak in a shower.
So I listened to this while I was getting the towels out, changing into my robe…
And it was fine. Not Hank Williams (hell, she was eleven) but catchy. Then there was a another catchy one and the one after that was this one…
And I thought, “Gee, this is….something…”
Enough of something to get me to walk into where the stereo was and cinch my robe and take a seat.
Just for a song or two, you know.
Then the song or two went by and this came on…
And I thought…”What is this?” By which my subconscious meant something like “What’s happening here?”
An hour-and-a-half later, I was still sitting there in my robe, listening to this…
“What just happened?”
Well, by then the question was purely rhetorical. I knew what had just happened. What had just happened was I had been taken on a great journey through American music–rock and roll, country, rockabillly, R&B, the Nashville Sound, teen-pop, Tin Pan Alley–by one of its greatest singers.
And I wasn’t entirely happy about it.
Oh, I was happy about the music. Ecstatic in fact. Lifted in the way that only the discovery (or in this case, comprehension) of a great new voice could lift somebody who spent as much of his life searching for voices as I did.
But the ecstasy was cut, seriously, by anger.
I was angry at the people who had lied to me, who had managed to render somebody I had known all my life literally invisible, to somehow shove her out of reach, past what I had previously considered my very keen hearing.
And it was then–right then–that I began developing my Unified Theory of Rock Criticism as a specific conspiracy designed to drop Brenda Lee down the memory hole.
It took me about ten minutes to develop that theory. I’m still working out how I feel about it. Which is maybe why I put Brenda Lee’s picture at the top of my blog the day it started and waited six years to write about her.
I’m still working through my issues.
But this is a celebration of Brenda Lee, so I’m not planning to work through them here. What I’m planning to do here is place Brenda Lee in rock and roll history the way I hear it.
And the best way to do that is to leave my story alone and tell hers…
First her life, then her art.
Her life went more or less like this….
She was born in 1944. Her family was literally dirt poor, moving constantly in and around the dirt hills of northeast Georgia. She was singing for candy in local stores at three, on what passed for the local stages at five, on local radio not long after. When her father died in 1953, she instantly became the family’s principal breadwinner, a journey that took her to radio stations in Ohio, Kentucky and, eventually, a local show where, upon hearing the voice John Lennon would later allegedly pronounce “the greatest rock and roll voice of them all,” Red Foley got “cold chills,” watched her get three encores, and signed her up for the Ozark Mountain Jubilee.
Soon she was commuting from north Georgia to southern Missouri every weekend, leaving Friday afternoon for a fifteen-hour ride with whoever was going, telling jokes to keep the drivers awake, performing live Saturday night in settings like this one….
Then returning on Sunday, arriving home Monday in the wee hours, just in time for school
More Mondays than not, her head hit the desk before lunch time. Her teachers let her sleep.
The hard-won professionalism that would, in part, keep several generations of critics, programmed to prize what they deemed “spontaneity” as the only true form of “authenticity,” from understanding her, paid off with a Nashville contract (Decca/MCA) in 1955.
Then the real work began. How to sell an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old girl who looked half her age to either a hard-bitten country audience that had never accepted anyone her age before, or a rock and roll audience that Nashville was scared to death of–and, despite a few hits for Frankie Lymon and Arlene Smith’s Chantels, hadn’t made anybody that young a major star either. One hit wonders of the type that proliferated throughout rock’s early dawn were virtually unheard of in country at any age. In Nashville, they were looking to build careers.
You can carry your family on your back, touring from town to town. You can sign with a one artist manager (just like Elvis!) who makes you the first truly international rock and roll touring star while Nashville’s A Team and crackest of crack producers (Owen Bradley), is still trying to figure out where you fit. You can smart talk the ace session men (“well goo-goo to you, too” she said, on the guar-an-teed last occasion when anybody talked down to her) and get everybody who knows you personally to love you enough that you’ll be something like the biggest star nobody ever said a bad word about…if you can only find a hit that makes you a star to begin with. Something more than a touring sensation. Something more than a girl the French make up stories about (“she’s really a thirty-year-old midget!”…that made more sense than the truth of that voice coming from a four-foot-nothing thirteen-year-old).
It must have been the longest four years anyone ever lived while, in some senses, having it so good. She was everybody’s baby. She was making a living. She was even already “Little Miss Dynamite” as great an earned nickname as anybody ever had or ever will.
She just wasn’t a hit-maker.
It must have been extraordinarily frustrating–to hear dozens (or hundreds) who weren’t as good as you have hits, even strings of hits, in and out of Nashville. Even for someone who had once moved eight times in nine years, seen her daddy die of old age in his forties (like so many then), carried her family on her tiny back for nearly a decade at the ripe old age of fifteen without achieving anything like the Shirley Temple/Judy Garland level of promised success that must have been whispered in her ear by managers, talent scouts, record producers, know-it-alls, know-nothings, from the time she was big enough to stand on the box that let her reach the microphone.
Frustrating all the more because she must have known she was already so much more than a pro. Being a pro was important, sure, but it only gets anyone so far. If you are being mistaken for a female midget, it may not get you as far as it does some others. And, without a hit, the greatest mentors and finest friends can’t keep you afloat forever.
Frustrating because, on top of everything else, you’ve managed to get better and better, to build, step by painful step, something authentically new in American music, the blend of Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland you, and you alone, aimed for. Hard to do all that, and still get taken for a little girl.
Harder still if even this can’t bring you a hit (it didn’t get big until after she did)…
..and the specific style you’ve been groomed for, rockabilly, is beginning to fade. One day, you look around and Elvis is in the army, Jerry Lee’s in trouble for cousin-marryin’ (surprise, surprise), Buddy Holly just went down in a plane crash. Roy Orbison is thinking about how to get away from Sam Phillips. Charlie Rich is doing the same. And you?
…Then the Art
Well, you’ve been on a major label for nearly four years without cracking the Hot 100.
And, oh by the way, the word has gone out.
If you do, by chance, get a pop hit, Nashville won’t let any country stations play it. It’s not 1956 anymore. The world has moved on. They had shut out the Louisiana Hayride. They had shut out Elvis and the Everly Brothers. They had kept the colored people out.
Actually, that last part was sort of okay. She did behave. Maybe she didn’t quite always behave just exactly like the book said (and wouldn’t you like to get a peek at that book, the one you know is still somewhere in Nashville, locked away, consulted only on high holy occasions, its location and provenance known only to the few?) when she opened her mouth to sing, but, hey, that’s a chance you sometimes have to take. Does it matter really, where the records get sold? The profits come back to the same office don’t they, whether the next release takes off in Pittsburgh or Winnemucca….or Tokyo?
It could have gone on a while longer, the speculation about whether she would finally make it. Maybe not much longer. Certainly not forever. Even Nashville loses patience at some point. They lost patience with plenty of people, before and since, who had fewer shots at making it than Brenda did. Some of them were even big talents.
But maybe not quite as big a talent as she was. It wasn’t her professionalism or her toughness or her beyond-her-years ladylike demeanor that won her all that patience–seven singles in three years that combined for exactly one week on the country charts and zero weeks in the Top 40. It was her voice. Her voice and, I suspect, a general sense that the voice wasn’t the problem, that it couldn’t really miss if it was given the right setting.
What that setting was, nobody knew. We shouldn’t forget that. We shouldn’t forget what we have forgotten in the nearly six decades since, the decades that have brought us a long string of what I like to call Brenda’s Children, a line that, sticking only to white women and the most obvious, runs directly from Jackie DeShannon to Lulu to Tanya Tucker to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow to Pink and whoever comes next, casting a shadow the meanwhile on every single woman who has sung any sort of rock, country or southern inflected R&B.
We shouldn’t forget that Brenda Mae Tarpley made herself up out of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson and Judy Garland and that nobody before her sounded like her. We shouldn’t forget that, having heard that voice in literally hundreds of different throats since, we can take its place in the American soundscape for granted only because it was one of those voices that, when it did appear, made everybody go, “Well, of course,” and believe they must have heard it all their lives because it’s that kind of voice. I mean, a sound like that, what would keep it from existing in our national consciousness before, say, 1959?
Lots of things, actually. Musical things, cultural things, socio-political things. All that plus the absence, until the right moment, of an imagination sufficient to the task of calling the future into being.
If you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, well-behaved, mistaken for a midget, a freak of “nature,” not interested in songwriting, most of all a girl-l-l-l-l, then you are not likely to be given credit for all that. Not even if, through all the sweat, all the grind, all the learning, you find your way, at last, to this…
…and make it sound as natural as breathing.
After that, the floodgates.
For one hot minute, she was alone. Then the minute passed–lightning quick, as rock and roll time demanded back then–and her imitators were everywhere. There was a reason I was ready for her all those years later in my apartment, stuck in my chair as if I were paralyzed, as if I had lost every sense but my hearing. I was ready because “Oh Me, Oh My” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ and “Landslide” and “Delta Dawn” and a hundred others had made me ready, ready to say “Oh, that’s where all that came from,” ready to go searching for where she had come from, a search that still goes on, because, if she came from anywhere, (even Edith Piaf, as some insist), it’s not likely she came from there anywhere near as directly as all those others came from her.
So the stardom everybody had predicted came at last.
And it came because she had put the essential rasp in the future of white women singing rock and roll.
And because she was a pro’s pro.
Well, she still had a life to live.
Like so much else, she didn’t live it the way anybody expected.
Chaperoned on dates until she was eighteen, she eloped with the first man she dated alone, (eloped so that her mother and her manager wouldn’t have a chance to talk her out of it). She had two kids. She left the road for a bit to raise them. She saw the British Invasion coming before anyone else. (But boys, where do you get these songs? she asked two lads whose band was opening for her on a German tour. John Lennon and Paul McCartney looked at each other and said, Well. We wrote them….. Oh my, she said. A lot of people would later claim they said something similar, but she was the only one who went home and told her record company they would be fools if they didn’t sign that band at once. It didn’t matter what kind of performers they were, the songs would be worth a fortune. The record company scoffed at her. I’m certain she was too much of a lady to ever remind them, after what she knew was bound to happen happened.)
What was bound to happen took as much out her career as anyone’s. She would always say she never changed, the world just turned. Right enough.
Because it was all more or less there from the beginning. It was there, not so much because she wasn’t forever polishing her style, but because the quality that marked her off even more than her remarkable timbre was the artist’s consummate empathy.
I’ll share what I’ve lived, her voice would always say.
And I’ll share what you’ve lived.
It was that last that made her a giant. It was why she could exemplify the rock and roll audience more deeply than anyone else, even though she had grown up as far inside Show Biz as Ricky Nelson (the only other major early rock icon who had grown up in Show Biz at all). The efforts her family–and, lest we forget, her culture–made to make sure she kept her feet on the ground, made a perfect fit with her nature. She was the little girl with the big voice and she was Little Miss Dynamite.
She was also every-teen.
She wasn’t chaperoned on dates when she was sixteen because she was selling millions of records. She was chaperoned because, in the world she came from, that was what you did. (It was the last moment when many did, but it was still what you did.)
She sold “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”–marriage as an act of rebellion–because that’s what she imagined others doing. A few years later she eloped.
But it wasn’t a simple matter of wish-fulfillment. Nobody could have sustained a career like hers on that.
She would learn–in the process of becoming the highest charting female act of the 1960s (trailing only Elvis, The Beatles, and, in some counts, Ray Charles)–to summon feelings no one would wish for.
She would learn to do it so well–to imagine herself in our shoes so thoroughly–that some of us would never wish for anyone else to take her place.
She would do that despite living no part of it herself. She would do it despite remaining happily married for life to the first man she ever dated without a chaperone.
And she would do it over and over again–wring every last ache out of the ballads that made her the Queen of Heartbreak:
…all defining (and being defined by) a sensibility that ended up in the same place, no matter which angle she started from…
Then the times changed and she woke up one day to find that her one-act manager had passed away, left her–a massive touring star who was the best selling female act of her era–in possession of her husband, those two kids, twenty thousand dollars and the deed to a split level ranch house. She made her husband-for-life her manager and determined not the repeat the mistake. That led to a fine second career on the country charts which finally welcomed her when she could no longer go pop. Somewhere down the line–some time after I had my epiphany, the honors came. The Halls of Fame (she’s one of four acts who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls as a performer–the others are Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers….you may have heard of them) came calling, better late than never. The inevitable embalming in Branson. The late career retrospectives and fond reminiscences.
And the secret tribute from the air, where her voice is still the foundation of a hundred others who may never have heard her or even of her. Now, they swaddle those voices in walls of suit-approved, machine-generated white noise, but, if you strip all that away, it’s still her voice at the core. You might call it the Other voice.
Because the great voices come in two kinds: those that can be readily imitated (even if never quite matched) and those that can’t.
Call it the Brenda Lee/Patsy Cline Paradigm.
Patsy’s influence is almost entirely inspirational because nobody can quite get in her space.
Same for Billie Holiday. Same for Janis Joplin.
Brenda Lee? Well, gee, lots of people sound like her, don’t they? Lots of people get in her space.
Sure they do.
And because of that, we’re prone to assume she just came from the air. That if she hadn’t conjured whatever she conjured, somebody else would have.
That’s how she gets dropped down the memory hole and also why she can never quite remain buried.
The air works like that.
Too many end up owing you too much. As long as anyone, anywhere wants to dig a little deeper–and as long as there’s air to breathe, someone will–it’s always you they’ll find at the root.
Brenda Mae Tarpley may have only grown to four-foot nothing.
But she didn’t know how to be small.
Little Miss Giant she was….
Little Miss Giant she remains.
I just found this on YouTube… The tune’s from Dylan and a touch ragged, but it’s still proof that, years before she exploded “When Will I Be Loved” from the inside, Linda Ronstadt had a special ear for things Everly….In a better world there would be at least an album’s worth…They brought out the best in each other.
It’s easy to assume that the digital age has preserved everything. Even the black and hillbilly stuff. But there are still more than a few holes in our Paradise’s memory banks. Here’s ten of the hundreds I’d like to see plugged. listed more or less chronologically. No bonus tracks needed. Just put them out. Bear Family. Hip-O. Raven. Ace. Somebody…
1) Louis Armstrong: The Louis Armstrong Story Volume 4: Favorites
A stellar collection of Armstrong’s early thirties’ ballads, which may have been even more influential than his smoking small band sides from the twenties. They were certainly more subversive and, while they’ve been collected numerous times in larger formats and this set has probably been approximated somewhere or other among the voluminous Armstrong re-issues, the precision of this particular collection is sufficiently burned in my memory to make me loath to accept any substitutes. I listen to these songs compiled any other way and they simply feel incomplete. In that respect, you might consider this the first concept LP. Of course “Black and Blue” is the all time killer, but for pure perversity, don’t sleep on “Shine.” which works in this context as a kind of answer record.
2) The Coasters Their Greatest Recordings…The Early Years
Still the best way to hear the Clown Princes of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Fourteen diamond hard classics that represent the cream of 50s’ era vocal group R&B, plus the songwriting and producing pinnacle of Leiber and Stoller’s not exactly one-dimensional career. Best CD Substitute is 50 Coastin’ Classics, which is fabulous and never quits either. But sometimes you just want a shot of Rhythm and Blues…not the whole bottle. Plus, it’s the only place you can find Barret “Dr. Demento” Hansen’s fabulous liner notes. Yet more proof, if any is needed, that record company comps can make their own irreducible statement.
3) The Everly Brothers: Wake Up Again With the Everly Brothers
Okay, so you’ll kind of have to take my word for it that that’s the name of it and it was a real thing. That picture is the best I could find. This collection was released on GRT records–one of those seventies’ era subsidiary labels of dubious virtue–and was the kind of mishmash you might have expected…except it was, by happy accident, also a superb overview of the brothers’ legend-making career on Cadence, where they made most of the records we still remember them by. Unlike pretty much every other comp restricted to that era I’ve seen on vinyl or CD, it’s spiced with a few cuts from their great Songs Our Daddy Taught Us LP. And, cheap knockoff or no, I swear it sounds great, too. If you wanted a CD that caught all the excitement of the early Everlys without having to listen to an entire box set, or all their period LPs at once, this would fill the ticket before anything else. GRT went bankrupt in 1979, so I won’t be holding my breath on this one. But I can dream, can’t I?
4) The Impressions: The Vintage Years
I’ve written at length about this one before. It blends half a dozen career phases seamlessly (Jerry Butler, early and late, the Impressions from doo wop to early sixties r&b to mid-sixties’ soul, capped off by Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly breakout) and tracks black music from the street corner where “Your Precious Love” was conceived to the street corner where Freddie, the small time loser headed for the graveyard in Superfly, hangs out, without telling you whether it’s the same one or ever letting you forget it might be. No CD era reissue has come close, because none have fused all those careers together, let alone accepted them as being of a piece. If more people recognized this as the greatest concept album ever made, the world would be a better place.
5) Buffalo Springfield
Not their eponymous first LP, which is readily available. This two-record retrospective was how most of us from the hinterlands, who discovered them in the late seventies when their regular LPs were a bit hard to find at Camelot or Record Bar, first heard them. It’s probably still the best way, outstanding though all the other ways be. But the real reason me and a lot of other folks want this to be on CD is because it still seems to be the only place you can find the long version of “Bluebird.” Except for YouTube, of course…
6) Fairport Convention: Fairport Chronicles
This superbly chosen and programmed two-record set, which can only be approximated now by buying five or six separate CDs by Fairport, Fotheringay. The Bunch and Sandy Denny, then mixing them on the re-recording device of your choice, hasn’t even come close to being matched by any CD era release. And this group, which cries out for a definitive box set that focuses on their early career and its various immediate off-shoots, is represented instead by sets that include their “entire career,” meaning due deference is paid to decades of fey folk music the in-name-only pros who kept the name alive made after Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny departed for their respective fates as aging eccentric and most-inevitable-young-corpse-ever. Their three definitive albums (What We Did On Our Holiday, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief) are great beyond words (and easily available on CD). But this is by far the best place to hear Thompson’s “Sloth,” the Bunch’s revelatory covers of Dion and Buddy Holly, and Fotheringay turning Gordon Lightfoot into King Dread on “The Way I Feel,” all essential. This exercise is partly tongue in cheek…but this is one of those things somebody really should fix dammit!
7) Brenda Lee Memphis Portrait
See, I don’t even have this. I should probably just bite the bullet and spring for a cheap used version off Amazon or something. But Jesus, can somebody please release Brenda’s late-sixties and seventies albums in the new format? All of them? Any of them? The Bear Family doesn’t even have these recordings on a box. They and Ace have both done thorough jobs of making her prime hit-making years and before (1956 to 1963 roughly) available. The rest has been left to float in the ether. I’ve heard enough of it to know that shouldn’t be so.
8) Johnny Bush: Bush Country
I don’t have to speculate about this one. it’s been a staple of my collection since John Morthland turned me on to Johnny with his invaluable guide to the greatest country albums (that was released just as the CD era arrived). A couple of his other albums for Stop–where he was never less than inspired–have made it to CD but not this one, which is as hard as hard country gets and doesn’t have a wasted second. If nothing else, this–one of the greatest records ever made–deserves a home on some format more permanent than vinyl. But, really, the whole thing, including killer versions of “It’s All in the Game,” “Statue of a Fool” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” back-to-back-to-back, is up to the same standard. There’s no finer vocal album in any genre.
9) Tanya Tucker: Here’s Some Love
Along about now, you’ll be detecting a theme here–Nashville has not done a good job of taking care of its legacy. Such value as there’s been has mostly been provided by overseas reissue labels (with Bear Family preeminent, though by no means alone). No one, home or abroad, has yet stepped into the breach and released Tanya’s string of child-into-woman albums recorded between her departure from Columbia and her mid-eighties comeback. This is from early on (1976). The deathless title cut (a natural country #1) is readily available on numerous comps, and all these albums were a touch uneven. But they all had great, hidden things on them, too. “Round and Round the Bottle” is up to the standards of her early Gothics, and the two-step from “Gonna Love You Anyway” to “Holding On” used to keep me up nights.
10) The Kendalls: Old Fashioned Love
Yes, the whole list could have been devoted to lost country albums from the seventies. Heck the whole list could have been devoted to the Kendalls. If I wanted to put together a list of the ten most beautiful vocals ever recorded, I wouldn’t consider having Jeannie Kendall occupy less than half of it. That her greatest records (the four albums she and her father made for Ovation, beginning with Heaven’s Just a Sin Away), have never been re-released in any format is the kind of thing I like to point to when I talk about how civilizations decline and fall. That she is remembered, if at all, for even as great a cheating song as “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” is something like a national sin–testimony to how casually we throw talent away after having misunderstood it in the first place. Not that she ever sounded like she expected any better, especially on this, a concept LP about cheating as redemption. And yes, it blew everybody’s minds back when, especially the open marriage crowd at all the hip rock and roll mags, who suddenly decided they were Puritans after all. “PIttsburgh Stealers” wasn’t the half of it. They did plenty of good work before and after (I especially recommend Mercury’s Movin’ Train), but If anybody ever has the sense to release their four Ovation LPs as a box set, it will be one of the essential documents in country music.
Til then, Thank God for Vinyl.
10) Stevie Wonder Talking Book (1972)
Primo Stevie and a high point of both his career and the Rising. Highlights are many, including “Superstition,” a valid entry in the Greatest Record Ever Made sweepstakes.
And, at this distance, even its mellow, meandering cuts talk louder than they did in the seventies, when Hope was still a prime ingredient and Anger was still righteous. And, of course, it still goes out on the smiling note of “I Believe,” a side which has me thinking about my Favorite Album Closer.
But what speaks loudest today is “Big Brother,” which still says I don’t even have to do nothing to you, you’ll cause your own country to fall, after he’s already told you why.
9) Patty Loveless (1986)
Patty’s eponymous debut. It was basically a collection of mid-charting singles and their B-sides from the early days when Nashville wasn’t quite sure what to do with or make of her.
If it were all there was, it would be remarkable enough to make you wonder why she didn’t quite make it. Sort of like wondering why Kelly Willis or Mandy Barnett or Shelby Lynne didn’t quite make it. As is, it’s still a fine entry. No weak cuts (she didn’t know how to make weak cuts), though only a hint, albeit a strong one, of why she would not end up being cast aside. As usual the simplest explanation is the best. She was Patty Loveless and they weren’t.
8) Glen Campbell The Capitol Years 65-77 (1998)
Just a reminder of how good he was and for how long….and how many directions his career could have gone. His last big hit was from Allen Touissant after all. “Galveston” (reportedly Glen’s own favorite) hits especially close to home these days, when it is clear some poor schlub will always be cleaning his gun until the Empire collapses.
And the “Rhinestone Cowboy”/”Country Boy” one-two punch will always be a knockout.
But he really could have been a Beach Boy, too…Or a folk rock stalwart.
7) Free Molten Gold: The Anthology (1993)
A superb two-disc comp that doesn’t quit and showcases Paul Rodgers at his best. For me, this hits the just-right sweet spot between the populist (think Rodgers’ next group, Bad Company, who I still love) and arty approaches (think John Mayall or even Mike Bloomfield, who I also love) to white blues that proliferated in the “molten” decade between 1965-75. This, I could listen to all day, because everything is in place, but nothing feels forced.
And, just when you think all they/he can do is stomp, he/they pull back just a touch…and the sun shines through something other than a pair of legs in a short dress.
6) The Cars Just What I Needed: Anthology (1995)
Grand overview of history’s most successful Power Pop band (unless Blondie counts). Yes, they go down easier at album length and easier still at single length. And yes, you could argue they never really broke, or needed to break, the mold of their early singles.
But there were an awful lot of great singles in there and it’s nice to have them all in one place so you can just let them roll over you.
How you have a two-disc comp, though–one complete with outtakes, B-sides and previously unissueds which don’t even come close to breaking the momentum–and leave off “Bye Bye Love,” one of their greatest and still in regular rotation on Classic Rock radio, I’ll never know.
5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)
The greatest album of 1983…or 1984 (when its five hit singles were all over the radio), or the entire 80s…turns out to be the greatest album of 2017, too. I’m thinking of doing a longish piece on either the album or one of the individual cuts so I won’t go on at length here. Suffice to say this was the last time anyone–including Cyndi–was both willing and able to pull off a vision that incorporated nearly everything rock and roll had been up to that point (including Byrds’ guitar, which I finally heard tolling under the maelstrom of “Money Changes Everything” just the other day. (Live link…if you only click on one, etc….no Byrds guitar, just a reminder that she was the era’s greatest live performer, too.)
Then, it was possible to hear it as a direction the future might take. Now, it sounds more like rage against the dying of the light. And anyone who thinks it quits on what used to be the second side just hasn’t been paying attention all these years.
4) Johnny Rivers Secret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology (2006)
Well, there’s definitely an “anthology” theme developing here (don’t worry, it’s not done yet).
This was released fifteen years after Johnny’s Rhino two-discer and, as such, includes generous helpings from his later rockabilly throwback albums.
It seems Johnny was always throwing back to something–he broke out with a Chuck Berry cover in the teeth of the British Invasion, after all, when everybody else was just playing lip service (that’s what an album track amounted to in those days). But across four decades he never failed to add those things that came only from him. The plaintive timbre (never parlayed more effectively than on his jumping “live” cuts). The sharp-edged, no-nonsense guitar lines (ditto). The sense that time keeps turning back on itself, never resting. Not sure how anyone could listen to this all the way through to “Let It Rock” and argue that he doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then life is full of mysteries.
3) The Spinners A One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (1991)
The Spinners are one of the few acts who have been blessed with great comps at every level. Their 1978 Best of is as essential as anything Rock and Roll America produced. Their 2003 box set, The Chrome Collection, contains revelations galore (one of which I wrote about here). And this, a two-disc tweener, is perfect in its own way, since, unlike the other comps, it includes a lot of 12-inch versions of their hits, all of which sustain and satisfy because Philippe Wynne was the greatest improv vocalist to ever stand in front of a microphone (and no, I haven’t forgotten Louis Armstrong).
They made great albums, too. How could they not? They were the greatest vocal group of the 70s, and in the conversation with the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Everlys and the Mamas & the Papas, as the greatest vocal group of the rock and roll era. There’s no way even a box set could fully contain them. But if there were only going to be one Spinners’ comp in the world, I’d have to pick this one, which catches the aspirational aspects of Black America–the still radical notion that black people belong here–like nothing else.
2) Rod Stewart Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings (2002)
Staggering. 3 discs containing Stewart’s first five solo albums (plus an album’s worth of mostly killer extras–only “Pinball Wizard,” which must have seemed a natural for him, falls flat).
These are the records that made the reputation he has lived on ever since, and, however unfortunate his life and legacy became afterwards, they’re plenty enough to justify four decades of self-indulgent posing and/or epic laziness (take your pick). Everything that stands between you and his decades of excrescence still disappears the minute he pivots in the middle of “Street Fighting Man,” which led his first album, and turns it from a straight country blues (some kind of attempt to reclaim both its musical and political origins) and shows he hasn’t forgot what he learned hanging out in the London Blooz scene….which was how to stomp.
Over these five albums, he never forgot. Over the few years left of the seventies, he mostly forgot.
After that, he permanently forgot.
There is much to forgive, Rod.
1) Burning Spear Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost (1975/76)
This natural pairing of Winston Rodney’s classic reggae albums (more high points of the Rising, arriving just as it became the Falling) is probaly now the natural way to listen…the vocal version of his celebration of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, flowing into the dub version.
Strangely enough, the music is stronger on the original album, where the strident lyrics/vocals sometimes serve as a distraction from what the music would say if the singer could only manage to get out of the way. Garvey’s Ghost, instead of drawing those unspoken (perhaps unspeakable–that might be the singer’s insurmountable problem) truths to the surface they bury them deeper. The dread dissipates and a kind of epic Jamaican make-out album emerges.
Was that the point? Was that the most subversive claiming of the New World’s space a Rastaman could envision? Or did I just dream it?
Sorry, I think I need to get back to listening now.
Til next time…