Macron, whose election in 2017 was celebrated across the Western Elite World as a triumph for Reason and Democracy against the Forces of Darkness, or, at very least, a sigh of relief (not to mention a poke in Trump’s Running Dog Imperialist Yankee eye), now carries an 18% approval rating in the polls.
I don’t put much stock in polls when it comes to fine-tuning–a competent pollster can tip any public poll as much as ten or twenty points in whatever direction the backing donor prefers (or deliver a private number that’s on the nose if, by chance, the backer likes to know something you don’t). But an 18% public number means the Establishment, in France, the EU (always supposing there’s a difference) and elsewhere, has lost complete confidence anyway.
Which is very bad news for Macron, because he is now faced with nationwide street riots, which, despite a recent arrest of one of the “leaders,” are essentially formless, and, worse, free of any comfortably constricting ideology. When the Marxists, the Fascists, the Anarchists and the Populists (meaning normal people who don’t usually see rioting as a solution, in this case called Yellow Vests), are all in the streets, agreeing only on the need for your removal, and everybody knows it isn’t really about rising gas taxes because those have already been addressed, then you might be in need of a dedication.
Here’s what I always play during a riot Emmanuel. Hope it helps. If it doesn’t work the first time, just keep playing it:
Especially before J.T. Taylor joined, they flirted with a kind of anonymity: each member interchangeable within the collective and the collective interchangeable within the form (which in the beginning was funk, funk, and nothing but the funk–meaning the white boy intelligentsia was all too happy to define them out of existence).
They were too good for that to last and, over the long haul–which this strictly chronological delight traces step-by-step–they helped define funk, disco, even the new R&B ballad style. And, for all that, there’s no way to get to the bottom of “Celebration,” which seems lighter than air the first hundred times you hear it on the radio or some comp and, here, late at night on the headphones you wear so you won’t wake up the neighbors, reveals itself as one of the greatest and deepest arrangements in the history of rock and roll. Meaning, around these parts, the history of great and deep arranging, period. Try it some time.
9) Desmond Dekker Rockin’ Steady: The Best of (1992)
A recent re-acquisition (among several on this list that were lost in the Great CD Sell-Off of 2002)–and I can’t even believe how much I was missing. My vague memory was that, after all the early Leslie Kong-produced stuff everybody knows are great (“007” “The Israelites” “It Mek”) there was a bit of a tail-off. If anything, he got better. This is the most readily available comp and, while I suspect it only scratches the surface–nobody this consistent on the singles, across decades, ever fails to have hidden depths–it’s still a lot to take in. For at least these twenty cuts, Dekker belongs in the company of the reggae giants, with Marley and Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert.
And, lest we forget, it was he, not they, who broke the music off the island.
8) Patty LovelessUp Against My Heart (1991)
Between 1988’s Honky Tonk Angel and 1997’s Long Stretch of Lonesome, which preceded her first unofficial retirement, Loveless released seven albums. This is the only one that didn’t go gold or platinum so naturally it’s my favorite…not to mention one of the greatest vocal albums of the twentieth century. The significance to her career–and the direction of country music ever since–was not slight. This was her fifth album and fifth albums are about where sawdust-on-the-floor acts are supposed to give a little.
It must have occurred to somebody that she was digging in instead of selling out. A label change, throat surgery and her first “comeback” were in the offing–and she would take digging in further than anyone has in these modern times, (when it really has become gauche), eventually winning every major award, without bluster, without giving an inch, and without playing any way other than nice.
But I still wonder what would have happened–to her and the country–if, with Bill Clinton’s unctuous combination of Sanctimony and Sleaze lurking just around the corner, somebody had the nerve to release “God Will” to the radio….and it had taken off.
7) War All Day Music (1971)
One of the great albums of the seventies. I’m starting to think it might be even greater than its mind-blowing followup The World is a Ghetto, which was the best-selling album of 1973. It’s conceptual, and the concept stretches from “All Day Music” to “Slippin’ Into Darkness” to an early, live version of “Me and Baby Brother,” (called here just “Baby Brother”)–from the afterglow of the just-then-receding Civil Rights movement, to the ominous warning of a present already being robbed of the light, to a future that must, of necessity, betoken a reckoning.
And it flows, brothers and sisters. It flows.
Never more so than when snatches of cross-talk at the beginning of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” recreate a camaraderie every living human can envy as prelude to a lyric that drops us into a situation far too many of us would sell our souls to avoid having to deal with personally.
6) The Mamas & the PapasDeliver (1967) and The Papas & the Mamas (1968)
Speaking of slipping into darkness, it’s funny how one album puts you in a mood for another. I listen to these albums as the second disc of a box set, where they make a seamless transition that amounts to a blessing on the sixties’ present (represented by several stunning re-imaginings of R&B classics on Deliver) turning into a curse on any possible future that might result as The Papas & the Mamas wanders along.
Over the course of these, their last two albums (not counting a listless reunion effort in the seventies), Cass eventually takes over on her way out the door–with a “Dream a Little Dream of Me” that wastes every pre-rock Pop singer to a husk, with a “Midnight Voyage” that closes down the album and the group as swiftly, surely and seductively as “Safe in My Garden” and “Twelve Thirty” (which novelist Steve Erickson once accurately described as an ode to the Manson girls) close down the sixties. And that’s not even taking into account the single line where she sing’s Get on your pony and ride which might be her finest moment.
These days, I listen to this disc a lot.
I mean, with the End so near, why wouldn’t you?
5) Earth, Wind & FireGreatest Hits (1998)
Funk’s most formidable hit machine and this is all of them, rolling one right after the other. (Mix-disc advice: Stick “Serpentine Fire” next to the Beach Boy’s “How She Boogalooed It.” Strap down your mind first. Thank me later.)
People who think EWF lack street cred (mostly white people who mistook George Clinton’s slave humor for Old Testament commandments–as with the Stax/Motown debate, the opinions of actual black people, including George Clinton, are rarely taken into account unless they conform to certain necessary preconditions) function as useful idiots. There’s more evidence on their albums and box sets. I invite you to explore…but this is proof enough.
4) The TokensWimoweh! The Best of (1994)
Another recent re-acquistion–disappointed that it didn’t have “He’s in Town” (though that at least proved I hadn’t somehow missed or, worse, forgotten it, and gave me an excuse to add it to the Diamonds in the Shade category). What’s left after “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is still pretty spectacular. One can hear how, with a break or two, they might have been much bigger. Maybe not as big as the 4 Seasons, for whom they cleared the ground…but bigger.
Instead, the sixties happened. This is a nice trip to the land of what might have been.
3) The SkylinersSince I Don’t Have You(with Bonus Tracks) (1991)
(Another recent re-acquisition–it’s been that kind of year.)
A vehicle for Jimmy Beaumont, a doo wop genius who was really a blue-eyed soul genius arrived half a decade early. This is nearly all riveting. The killer soprano who augments the sound, occasionally taking it over, is Janet Vogel. She would hang over the proceedings like a ghost even if you didn’t know she committed suicide in 1980.
On these records, she is not alone in sounding like she already knows something you don’t. Killer stuff.
2) Barry WhiteAll-Time Greatest Hits (1994)
They could have called it “quittin’ just ain’t my stick.” It’s too bad Barry became known as the Maestro of Sex because he was really the Maestro of Devotion, who understood how important Sex was. I’m with Marvin Gaye in regarding him as one of the deepest spiritual artists. Some people understood–this never, ever quits and, released nearly two decades after the Maestro’s hey-day, it went double-platinum. You want to go really deep, catch “You See the Trouble With Me’ and “Oh What a Night for Dancing,” but even the most heavy rotation hits have never worn out and never will….and you talk about arrangements? Jesus, these don’t even call attention to themselves when you’re concentrating on them and nothing else.
Or at least trying to!
1) Various ArtistsUltimate Seventies: 1973 (1990)
One thought that struck me listening to nearly everything on this list, but especially to Barry White, was how everybody used to sound big.
Music only rides three basic trains: Melody, Rhythm, Trance. Pitchfork‘s recent list of the 200 Greatest Albums of the Eighties had a link to a key song from each album. That sort of thing is one of the great blessings of the modern age. Once upon a time, when a critic waxed lyrical about some obscure recording, you had to sweat blood, time and money to ever hear it. Now, it’s just a click away. Except for the few dozen on that list I knew (Madonna, Bruce, Michael, Prince, Cyndi, the Go-Go’s) I clicked every single entry (something north of a hundred and fifty) and finished exactly one (a song by the Replacements I’m not the least bit haunted by already having forgotten the name of even though I swore I’d try to remember).
For all the rest, be it hip-hop, rap, grunge, punk, post-punk, indie, hardcore, speed metal, dance pop, electronica, post-modern classical or even singer-songwriter (Leonard Cohen was on there somewhere), I developed a pattern.
Click on a link.
Mutter Trance music.
I was aware of the new form of evil moving through the land in the eighties as it happened. I hope that awareness has touched almost everything I’ve written on this blog. But the level of calculation, especially as it related to what had, only a moment before, been Rock and Roll America, the most liberating force in American life, if not American history, never before struck me so forcefully.
Not coincidentally I found myself, a day or two later, wondering what I needed to listen to in order to finish off this list and my hand strayed to, of all places, the Time Life area of the CD shelves.
I picked 1973 because it was supposed to be a nothing year, the nadir--the kind of vacuum that made the Punk and Rap Trances (and the Grunge and Hip Hop trances that followed in their wake)–and the smug pretense their trances represented something besides capitulation–inevitable before the decade was out.
And this collection from the corporate behemoth started with “Loves Me Like a Rock” “Superfly” “We’re an American Band’ “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” And, except for maybe Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” it rolled all the way to the end with no trace of a trance anywhere–and even Todd Rundgren and “Hello It’s Me” didn’t sound small. It didn’t matter if me or you liked all of this music or none of it–it was the sound that mattered. The sound of somebody–literally anybody–trying to get a grasp on a moment that was huge, not because of your private taste or mine, but because we were still desperate to be caught up in some larger story and to have music represent that desperation.
And now, like everything from 1980 onward that wasn’t a throwback, we have….smallness.
Jesus. You artists of the present (the ones that reach the radio anyway).
You shameless fronts for suits and machines.
“Midnight Train to Georgia” is one thing. Nobody expects you to live up to that.
But you’ve made Stealers Wheel and Seals and Croft sound epic.
How am I supposed to forgive you!
Take it Marvin…Save me Brother! Sing Track 18 for Barry and all the ladies and shut down the trance lords forever. Make them ashamed:
“There’s only one difference between me and you
You got money in your pocket and I got a hole in my shoe..
All from doing the Slummer the Slum”
Of all the dance crazes that never quite took off, The Slummer the Slum is the one I most wish had made Bandstand just to see if anybody would admit it had a good beat and you could dance to it.
It was made by my favorite fifties’ rock and roll band, which was called Lowman Pauling, who also wrote it, and released by the vocal group he accompanied, who called themselves the “5” Royales. (I reviewed their mind-blowing box set here.)
Pauling and the Royales hailed from North Carolina and started out on Apollo records in the late forties as a searing, southern-style gospel group. While still on Apollo, they began to move into the secular r&b market. Too hardcore to ever court much pop success, they nonetheless struck a chord with black audiences (the one above is in Cleveland) and had a nice run of hits that landed them a contract with the King label in Cincinnati, where their presence probably had something to do with the label’s subsequent ability to sign, among others, James Brown (a near acolyte) and Little Willie John.
Oddly enough, when they reached King, which should have given them a bigger reach, they stalled out for three years before Paul came up with the classics that established their name for good in the rock and roll universe: “Think,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Tell the Truth,” all successful for them at the time and later big hits for the obscure likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, the Shirelles, the Mamas & the Papas.
They soldiered on into the sixties without ever reaching the charts again themselves. Along the way, Brown, Steve Cropper, Eric Clapton and others paid lavish tribute and turned Lowman Pauling’s guitar into a foundational element of funk, soul and hard rock.
But he was a genius lyricist, too. Never more than here, where he limned out the politics of the Frozen Silence he wouldn’t live to see in a few hilarious, slashing lines that provide a prequel to War’s “The World is a Ghetto” and cut just as deep.
I don’t know any single record that’s a greater testimony to the bottomless nature of Rock and Roll America and fifties’ r&b.
“Don’t try to figure out where I come from I could be a fat cat from Wall Street, I could be the Purple People Eater’s son…. All from doing the Slummer the Slum….”
“We had so much fun in two years, there was no more fun to be had.”
John Phillips (from A Gathering of Flowers, intro to “California Dreamin'”)
The career of the Mamas & the Papas played out with a kind of classical purity. They embodied the dark and the light of “the Sixties” by living lives that were consummately hedonistic and making music that was almost completely self-referential.
“Don’t worry,” their best music said, and says, ” if you aren’t here yet, you will be.”
“It’s also entirely possible,” that same music said, and says, “that we’ll have moved on by then.”
To make it work, they needed to carry off a style of organic arrogance that made the Rolling Stones look like supplicants.
They made it work.
Naturally, being organic, it couldn’t last.
Funny thing, though.
I keep trying to get to the bottom of it.
And I can’t.
Oh sure, there were greater groups. Greater artists. And I have no idea how they seemed in their own time. I was in second grade.
I know how they seem now, from this time: Unfathomable.
And what better description of their time can you get?
Their backstory became famous. In “Creeque Alley” they even made it sound famously typical, which, except for selling millions of records, it maybe was.
But, when I say there were greater artists, I really only mean there were artists whose greatness the Great Narratives imposed by others accepted more readily.
Because whenever I want to cast myself back there–and boy do I–there’s nobody I listen to more, nobody more dangerous, more unsettling, more….thrilling. Their time was the time worth understanding, the time we never walked away from in either dream or (more’s the pity) reality.
And, in memory at least, they are the ones who held it in their hands, more one with that time than literally anyone, one of exactly two sixties’ acts–two any-era acts really–who might have had a deal with the Devil in place.
They were different than the Stones, though. Mick and Keith (well, mostly Mick) just went ahead and made a straight deal. Why not? What did it cost them?
Send Brian Jones to the funeral pyre he was already bound for and tweak John Lennon’s nose now and again and what riches might await!
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Besides, they were Brits and there was never going to be any more England anyway. Big whoop.
But to have punched a hole in the American boat, to have had your wings melt so close to that sun, ah, now we’re talking subversion–and arrogance–of truly epic proportions.
Come hither, their deal said, and you’ll be the only act alive who can (as the liner notes for one of their many anthologies had it) bridge Rodgers & Hart and Monterey Pop.
Who wouldn’t take that deal?
Well, somebody like me maybe. But that’s different. I was in second grade.
When I was in fourth grade, a couple of years after the Mamas & the Papas broke up (their two years of so much fun there was no more to be had having run out), I took the other deal, the Christian believer deal. I took it, knowing even then, that the biggest part of the deal lay in knowing I’d never be safe from the Devil who makes the deals (he doesn’t bother with the nonbelievers once they make their deal, why would he?) and never have so much fun there’d be no more to be had.
That’s as much as I ever knew about the deal. What my background and choices did prepare me for was understanding singers and their power.
And, oh what singers they were, those four, when they were together in their time. Nobody like them. And it wasn’t like they didn’t know it. Their knowing it is evident in pretty much every photograph they ever sat for.
…and pretty much every line they ever sung.
How they got together was famous even in their own time. They didn’t have to wait for biographers, which was just as well, since there’s never been a good one.
Naomi Cohen reimagined herself as Cass Elliot, then Mama Cass. Then she hung around until the others took her in, or on, or…something.
John Phillips reimagined himself as the type of erstwhile folkie who could end up with Michelle Gilliam, who soon reimagined herself as Mrs. Phillips (“I liked folk music,” she said much, much later, “but what I really liked were folk musicians!”)
Denny Doherty, a touch uncomfortable imagining himself as settling for the title of Mister Cass Elliot, soon reimagined himself as somebody who could have an affair with Mrs. Phillips and was lucky–or was it unlucky?–enough to find her willing to share his illusion, be it ever so briefly.
That was just the personal stuff.
Out of that, the music.
John Phillips said, as often as anyone would listen, that he couldn’t write from anything but experience. So they had experiences. That whole thing about a lifetime’s worth in two years was just an excuse to make hits and money. No experiences, no hits. No hits, no money. The legend only came about because they were so good at living lives so many others wished they could live, and even better at singing about it. They reeled off a dozen radio classics in short order and four albums that stagger about a bit, but never quit yielding surprises when you stop and listen close enough. (A fifth, from a contractually obligated “reunion” gig a few years later, was desultory….there was no more fun to be had.)
Their own rise, their own Zeitgeist, their own fall, their own destruction: all right there in the music that came out of the experiences.
For about twenty-five or thirty perfect months (depending on who’s counting and who’s defining perfect), they lived more dreams than four mere lifetimes could hold.
But in order to get the loot, they had to let the world in on it, and from the release of “Go Where You Wanna Go” (instantly pulled in favor of the just-as-perfect “California Dreamin’,” which somebody had initially made the very weird mistake of imagining as a Barry McGuire record) to having the commercial failure of “Safe In My Garden” assured by their sudden absence from their own lives (no more touring, no more television appearances, no more pretending everything, or even anything, was all right) the world grabbed hold. You could say the world has never let go.
And the arc was perfect.
“Go Where You Wanna Go” can’t be plumbed. Don’t even try. Even if you make a definitive decision on You don’t understand, that a girl like me can/can’t have just one man–that is, whether you want to stick with the lyric sheet (the groupie/muse’s ultimate lament) or what the ear can’t help hearing (Women’s Lib on speed!) at least some of the time–it doesn’t really help, so there’s no need to get all balled up about it. I’ve gone there for you and my sincere advice is to go right on thinking it’s simple. It’s not. It’s not even complicated in any ordinary dictionary sense of the word. More like kaleidoscopic.There’s so much going on that if you stop believing it’s simple or go on pretending that it’s complicated but only in the usual ways, it will eat your mind out from the inside.
It will make it like the good part of the Sixties never even happened except in dreams.
You don’t want that!
Better to just go on a journey. “California Dreamin'” so to speak.
It’s a journey only they can take you on and the magic’s in the music for sure–the mostly sharp writing, the Wrecking Crew time and again measuring up to the instrumental challenge of matching and underpinning the vocals, the formal elements of the bottomless harmonies.
But mostly the magic’s in the elements there is no real vocabulary for, musical or otherwise.
It’s not in the come hither. It’s in the nah-na-na-na-nah.
..Which starts right there in “California Dreamin’.”
I mean, from this distance you can hear the fear in it–and you can hear it overridden, stomped on. Put out to pasture. it was the sound that mattered and it was the sound that did it.
We’re so close, the sound said, that the obvious–and fierce to the point of at least metaphorical bloodletting–competition going on, can be turned on its head. They were so determined to be as one that all the counterpointing in the harmonies, all the “yeah’s” that meant “no” and all the “no’s” that meant “yeah”–or “yeah?”–were as nothing. I mean, just listen to them! And, as Lou Adler would have it (naming their first album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, easily the best-ever album title, after his first audio/visual impressions of the group) just look at them.
The imagery was perfect, almost as if it had been guided into existence by the unique, unsurpassable blend of their voices.
Or perhaps those voices demanded the acceptance of any old imagery they chose as the new definition of perfection.
The dream of the “Sixties” is, after all, right there.
Today will be what we want it to be.
You know, go where you wanna go.
Even the drugs will be cool. I mean….especially the drugs will be cool…
And, by extension, if today will be just what we want it to be, tomorrow will be even better!
In one fell swoop, the Folkies from Everywhere–Mexico, So-Cal, No-Cal, Nova Scotia, Alexandria (Virginia, but it might as well have been Egypt), the Hungry I and the Village and the Virgin Islands, fusing into one–had re-formatted the Protestant Reformation’s promise of a future Golden Age (itself the rejection of the age-old idea that the Golden Age lay in the past, a rejection that set Europe’s Ice People on a staggering five-hundred-year winning streak of which, as of 1966, “Go Where You Wanna Go” seemed like no more or less than the natural conclusion and justification–yes it meant, and means, that much–your refusal to believe in it doesn’t negate its refusal to acknowledge your silly refusals).
There was, of course, no direction to head from there except Utopia or the Long Fall.
We know–perhaps they even knew–where that fork in the road always leads.
You can have the greatest vocal group in history and just happen to include among your number one of the Rock Era’s two or three finest vocal arrangers who just happens to be an ace songwriter.
You can hook up with a great producer and have unlimited access to the best session players in the world–the only people, perhaps, who could ever hope to match your Utopian vocal and visual presence to sounds worthy of comparison (and, believe me, if you ever get around to listening to what’s going on behind the vocals, you’ll find the Wrecking Crew at the far edge of their own weighty experience–not even for Pet Sounds or Frank Sinatra did they reach further). You can be the only group of any era to have great male and female lead singers, breathtaking close and counterpoint harmonies, the ability to answer male and/or female calls with male and/or female responses, and to have the answers be vocal/lyrical affirmations and/or refusals.
You can hold all that in your hand while you take the coolest drugs, ride around in the fastest cars, sleep in the biggest, spookiest movie star mansions with the partners of your choice under the world’s most beautiful skies.
You can even promise to share it with your listening audience–to transport them into your world, three golden minutes at at time.
And you can deliver over and over again.
But that choice between the Garden you found and the Mean Old World you couldn’t quite leave behind will linger on.
For you and the world.
That deal you made with the Devil will still have a payoff–and a due date.
For you….and the world.
In their case the payoff was in a run of gold records. Hell, they even sold albums like hotcakes, in an age when not many did.
The due date was the same as America’s. And the world’s.
By the time it was done, they were done.
Then the Mean Old World moved on–or pretended to.
They gave up and disbanded, the first of the great Utopian Sixties’ groups to do so. (The Byrds never really disbanded–pieces just kept falling off until nothing was left but the name. A very different process, but those were the two paradigms. Break up…or linger on. When the Doors and the Beatles broke up, they were copping the Mamas & Papas’ style. When everybody else lingered on, the pieces just kept falling off and they ended up being worse than nothing.)
That left the question of who got it and who didn’t.
Time has given us the answers, even if nearly everyone is reluctant to admit it.
We need not speak of what Lyndon Johnson, lingering on in the White House, understood. But in the Pop World that existed in the summer of ’68, it turned out that only Elvis Presley, reporting to a series of TV sound stages and with God on his side, and the Mamas & the Papas, cooped up in John and Michelle’s mansion a few miles away, concluding their deal with the Master of this world, understood that we would never walk away from 1968.
From a Pop Political standpoint, the Beatles now sound like clever children, the Stones like mere cynics. Bob Dylan was already retreating into the rusticism his great mid-sixties albums had promised an escape from. The Byrds lay in pieces on the ground and Brian Wilson had already blown his mind.
And, as Pop Prophets went, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were finally only self-destructive.
But at least they made great music.
Never mind the Thinkers. No need to pay even a modicum of attention to them.
Whoever you thought they were, time has already washed them away.
We’re left with who got it. Who looked around at the world of 1968 and said: We’ll never walk away from this.
Well, these people:
Naomi Cohen (32) died of heart failure in a London hotel in 1974.
John Phillips died in 2001 (65) never having emerged from the drug-induced haze produced by having so much fun in two years there was no more to be had.
Denny Doherty (66) died in Mssissauga, Ontario in 2007, worn down by years of alcoholism.
Michelle Philips will still show up to defend her group’s legacy. She probably hopes you won’t ask too many questions about the incest allegations John’s oldest daughter has made.
It all seems so very long ago.
And so very present.
Today, you might go on the internet and find an essay that describes “Safe In My Garden” as “happy” and “bucolic,” as though it represents an ode to a safe space replete with milk and cookies and teddy bears.
That represents real fear, I think. An understanding–an awareness of the terror abiding within the song’s formal beauty, right down to its meandering close-out, as though the group–and the world–have literally run out of places to wanna go and things to wanna do and whoevers to wanna do it with.
Else oblivion. An almost insanely pure ability to resist the obvious–the persistence in demanding that, contra Philip K. Dick, if you stop believing in reality, it will stop believing in you.
Reality still believes. The Mamas & the Papas are still the ones who recognized and sang about it, half-shouting, half-crooning, straight from the heart of the dying dream.
The world’s on fire, they sang.
We know, because we struck the match. they did not have to sing.
Primo Stevie and a high point of both his career and the Rising. Highlights are many, including “Superstition,” a valid entry in the Greatest Record Ever Made sweepstakes.
And, at this distance, even its mellow, meandering cuts talk louder than they did in the seventies, when Hope was still a prime ingredient and Anger was still righteous. And, of course, it still goes out on the smiling note of “I Believe,” a side which has me thinking about my Favorite Album Closer.
But what speaks loudest today is “Big Brother,” which still says I don’t even have to do nothing to you, you’ll cause your own country to fall, after he’s already told you why.
9) Patty Loveless (1986)
Patty’s eponymous debut. It was basically a collection of mid-charting singles and their B-sides from the early days when Nashville wasn’t quite sure what to do with or make of her.
If it were all there was, it would be remarkable enough to make you wonder why she didn’t quite make it. Sort of like wondering why Kelly Willis or Mandy Barnett or Shelby Lynne didn’t quite make it. As is, it’s still a fine entry. No weak cuts (she didn’t know how to make weak cuts), though only a hint, albeit a strong one, of why she would not end up being cast aside. As usual the simplest explanation is the best. She was Patty Loveless and they weren’t.
8) Glen CampbellThe Capitol Years 65-77 (1998)
Just a reminder of how good he was and for how long….and how many directions his career could have gone. His last big hit was from Allen Touissant after all. “Galveston” (reportedly Glen’s own favorite) hits especially close to home these days, when it is clear some poor schlub will always be cleaning his gun until the Empire collapses.
And the “Rhinestone Cowboy”/”Country Boy” one-two punch will always be a knockout.
But he really could have been a Beach Boy, too…Or a folk rock stalwart.
A superb two-disc comp that doesn’t quit and showcases Paul Rodgers at his best. For me, this hits the just-right sweet spot between the populist (think Rodgers’ next group, Bad Company, who I still love) and arty approaches (think John Mayall or even Mike Bloomfield, who I also love) to white blues that proliferated in the “molten” decade between 1965-75. This, I could listen to all day, because everything is in place, but nothing feels forced.
Grand overview of history’s most successful Power Pop band (unless Blondie counts). Yes, they go down easier at album length and easier still at single length. And yes, you could argue they never really broke, or needed to break, the mold of their early singles.
But there were an awful lot of great singles in there and it’s nice to have them all in one place so you can just let them roll over you.
How you have a two-disc comp, though–one complete with outtakes, B-sides and previously unissueds which don’t even come close to breaking the momentum–and leave off “Bye Bye Love,” one of their greatest and still in regular rotation on Classic Rock radio, I’ll never know.
5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)
The greatest album of 1983…or 1984 (when its five hit singles were all over the radio), or the entire 80s…turns out to be the greatest album of 2017, too. I’m thinking of doing a longish piece on either the album or one of the individual cuts so I won’t go on at length here. Suffice to say this was the last time anyone–including Cyndi–was both willing and able to pull off a vision that incorporated nearly everything rock and roll had been up to that point (including Byrds’ guitar, which I finally heard tolling under the maelstrom of “Money Changes Everything” just the other day. (Live link…if you only click on one, etc….no Byrds guitar, just a reminder that she was the era’s greatest live performer, too.)
Then, it was possible to hear it as a direction the future might take. Now, it sounds more like rage against the dying of the light. And anyone who thinks it quits on what used to be the second side just hasn’t been paying attention all these years.
4) Johnny RiversSecret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology (2006)
Well, there’s definitely an “anthology” theme developing here (don’t worry, it’s not done yet).
This was released fifteen years after Johnny’s Rhino two-discer and, as such, includes generous helpings from his later rockabilly throwback albums.
It seems Johnny was always throwing back to something–he broke out with a Chuck Berry cover in the teeth of the British Invasion, after all, when everybody else was just playing lip service (that’s what an album track amounted to in those days). But across four decades he never failed to add those things that came only from him. The plaintive timbre (never parlayed more effectively than on his jumping “live” cuts). The sharp-edged, no-nonsense guitar lines (ditto). The sense that time keeps turning back on itself, never resting. Not sure how anyone could listen to this all the way through to “Let It Rock” and argue that he doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then life is full of mysteries.
3) The SpinnersA One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (1991)
The Spinners are one of the few acts who have been blessed with great comps at every level. Their 1978 Best of is as essential as anything Rock and Roll America produced. Their 2003 box set, The Chrome Collection, contains revelations galore (one of which I wrote about here). And this, a two-disc tweener, is perfect in its own way, since, unlike the other comps, it includes a lot of 12-inch versions of their hits, all of which sustain and satisfy because Philippe Wynne was the greatest improv vocalist to ever stand in front of a microphone (and no, I haven’t forgotten Louis Armstrong).
They made great albums, too. How could they not? They were the greatest vocal group of the 70s, and in the conversation with the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Everlys and the Mamas & the Papas, as the greatest vocal group of the rock and roll era. There’s no way even a box set could fully contain them. But if there were only going to be one Spinners’ comp in the world, I’d have to pick this one, which catches the aspirational aspects of Black America–the still radical notion that black people belong here–like nothing else.
2) Rod Stewart Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings (2002)
Staggering. 3 discs containing Stewart’s first five solo albums (plus an album’s worth of mostly killer extras–only “Pinball Wizard,” which must have seemed a natural for him, falls flat).
These are the records that made the reputation he has lived on ever since, and, however unfortunate his life and legacy became afterwards, they’re plenty enough to justify four decades of self-indulgent posing and/or epic laziness (take your pick). Everything that stands between you and his decades of excrescence still disappears the minute he pivots in the middle of “Street Fighting Man,” which led his first album, and turns it from a straight country blues (some kind of attempt to reclaim both its musical and political origins) and shows he hasn’t forgot what he learned hanging out in the London Blooz scene….which was how to stomp.
Over these five albums, he never forgot. Over the few years left of the seventies, he mostly forgot.
This natural pairing of Winston Rodney’s classic reggae albums (more high points of the Rising, arriving just as it became the Falling) is probaly now the natural way to listen…the vocal version of his celebration of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, flowing into the dub version.
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:
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…
And what I heard this time (just for fun…and because I feel a round of lists coming on)…
10) Time Life Ultimate Seventies: 1976 (1989)
Driving around music. I could have done better by 1976 myself (it was the year I started listening to the radio). But even an collection of middling taste beats any hour you could spend listening to anything on the radio in my market these days. Best segue: “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” (closely linked to me being nearly thrown out of my one and only true rock concert experience which naturally took place in a Jai Alai fronton) into “Sara Smile” (closely linked to my dad’s car being stolen at an amusement park and the FBI giving him the heebie jeebies later that summer at self-same Jai Alai fronton, which was all way-y-y-y more interesting than it sounds). Pick to click: Spinners’ “Rubberband Man,” which I barely heard that year and is one of the most mind-blowing records ever made.
9) Gino Washington Out of This World (1962–68) (1999)
Essential to any collection. Gino was a rock and roll Martian. There were a few of them hanging round back then. He started as a Frank Guida knockoff maybe, who didn’t happen to record for Frank Guida (like Gary U.S. Bonds and Jimmy Soul) and therefore didn’t make as much noise on the charts as he should have. But “Gino Is a Coward” gave the concept a whole new way of being, and nothing, certainly not the soul sixties, could lay even a touch of slick on him. Listening this time did what it always does. Made me smile a lot.
8) The Corin Tucker Band1,000 Years (2010)
I keep circling Tucker’s principal band, Sleater-Kinney, without quite being able to land. I’m really not sure why. I doubt it’s anything rational. It could be that her strong similarity to Belinda Carlisle’s timbre and phrasing (though she puts them to quite different and original use) just causes my natural “they’re-the-Go-Go’s-and-you’re-not” response to kick in with extra-super strength.
That said, I’m also not quite sure why my response to this, which I just started listening to a few weeks ago, is so strong. It might be because it temporarily solves punk’s (for me) existential problem, which is my lack of conviction that angst-ridden, collegiate white people need their own version of the blues. But this does sound like a unique, modern version of the blues–not in form but in feeling. It’s haunting and immediate, odd but free of quirkiness-for-it’s-own-sake. Whether I’ll like it even more or a little less once I figure out the words, I have no idea. There’s no one pick to click. It’s of a piece. But “It’s Always Summer” does as well as any for an introduction.
7) The Mamas & the Papas A Gathering of Flowers (1966-68) (2013–originally released, 1970)
I wrote about this a little when I first acquired it. Nothing’s changed. The Real Gone re-release is the best sounding collection of their work to date and there is no act where getting the sound right is more important. In recent years, I’ve probably listened to them more than any sixties’ group except possibly the Stones. The distance between those poles isn’t nearly as profound as I (and many others) once assumed. Yes, there’s a piece in the works. Pray for me kids.
Granted, I’d still rather listen to whole albums or box sets, where their roiling ethos is on fullest display. But, every once in a while, I just have to throw this on and smile the smiled of the contented. No pick to click. Too many to choose from. But, as of now, there’s no better place to appreciate a “minor” track like “Did You Ever Want to Cry” (even if you can only really appreciate it on a proper player, with headphones).
6) The Rolling StonesHot Rocks 1964-1971 (2002 CD release)
And when I listen to the Stones it’s rarely this standard set, which has been derided by plenty who think it too obvious, too square, too perfectly representative of what people latch on to when they aren’t real deep-dyed Stones’ fans and only want to stay on the surface.
Okay, I confess that I can’t play most of my Stones’ CDs from this period right now because, for some reason, the ancient player I have hooked up to my main receiver won’t accept the versions I own. It won’t take my Kinks’ CDs either. I need a new player!
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great collection. About half of this never-quit set is from truly great albums, but, by my lights, about half of it isn’t. And “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women” aren’t on anything but comps–this being the best. Besides, what’s better than having the hits, the hits, and nothing but the hits (or at least signature tunes), roll over you, one right after the other? Never understood the “if you don’t like the Stones, this might serve as a sampler” mindset (Christgau, but he spoke for plenty of others). No one pick to click, of course, but for fun facts, you can’t beat the “Honky Tonk Women” being Doris Troy and Reparata and the Delrons (watch those “Diamonds in the Shade” updates folks!).
5) Patty LovelessSleepless Nights (2008)
This was one of those instances where it took me a while to catch up. It’s a “covers” album from what now looks like it will be the tail end of Loveless’s career. I took it for a good solid effort when it came out. As usual, there was more there than met the ear (I first began to suspect when I heard one of the “lesser” cuts in the middle of some fifties’ era honky tonk on an oldies country station we used to have around here…it fit so perfectly it took me half the song to even place it). Back then it was just another good Patty Loveless album. Now that it looks like there aren’t going to be any more, it cuts deeper. Bone deep sometimes. Pick to click: a complete re-imagining of the Davis Sisters’ “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.”
4) Lynyrd SkynyrdStreet Survivors (1977)
Skynyrd and Patty are such natural traveling companions (I never take a long driving trip without them) I end up listening to them in tandem at home quite a bit. No better way to appreciate how much country was in Ronnie Van Zandt’s singing (or how much Southern Rock was in Patty’s). You could miss it otherwise when “What’s Your Name” and “That Smell” roll over you straight out of the gate. All of the original band’s albums are great and I’m not sure they were actually getting better just before the crash. But there was no sign they were wearing out, the way even bands as great as War or Led Zeppelin were at similar points in their careers. We’ll never know what all we missed when that plane went down, but they were still searching for something. Try “I Never Dreamed” for something beyond the obvious.
3) Frankie Valli & the Four SeasonsJersey Beat (1962-1992) (2007: Box set)
This was finally assembled after the smash success of Jersey Boys on Broadway. Before that improbable event, it had become all too easy to forget how big they were, how deep the catalog was, how logical they seemed without being the least bit repeatable. (“I protested the war in Viet Nam,” Jersey Boys script-writer Marshall Brickman told Bob Gaudio when they were brainstorming. “When you’re writing this,” Gaudio said, “Just remember my audience were the ones fighting it.” There was a reason waitresses and beat cops and other middle-age working class types paid Broadway prices to see the resulting show twenty and thirty times over. That reason is here.)
Everybody knows the big hits. After Jersey Boys, most people even started to remember just how numerous they were. Now that the world is preparing to forget again, I’m extra glad this exists. I can’t say I listen to all four CDs all the way through very often. But when I do, I’m always reminded this is the best insurance against all future memory holes. Except for a couple of late so-so sides at the end of the fourth disc, this doesn’t even come close to quitting. Among several dozen obscure and semi-obscure gems, I especially recommend “Girl Come Running,” which might be the most perfect song ever written and arranged for Valli’s multiplicity of voices.
2) Natalie MerchantThe House Carpenter’s Daughter (2003)
In which she finally reveals herself as Sandy Denny’s long lost daughter, all grown up.
I’ve only had this a little while and, to tell the truth, I have to be in a particular doomy-but-not-too-doomy mood to throw it on. When I do, it weaves a spell. In some world that offered unlimited time and space, I could imagine obsessing on it. As it stands: a mood piece for a very particular mood.
For a pick to click, try “Diver Boy” But I warn you, that’s her fast one. Dead Girl Poetry and the Bo Diddley Beat, they do not mix.
1) DionKing of the New York Streets (1958-1999: Box Set)
A wanderer on a journey. This set covers forty years of that journey so it’s bound to be a little disjointed. At three discs, It’s too broad to deliver the deep focus several different phases of his career deserve, and not broad enough to keep the transitions from jarring. Plus, no “Sonny Boy” and no “I Knew the Bride” so it can’t be definitive in my book. Plus, there’s now a whole post-millennial phase which I understand has brought him back to the blues obsession he first started exploring in the mid-sixties (and is hinted at by a few cuts at the end of the disc one here).
It’s still the best overview out there,especially if you want to find out whether the post doo-wop career is worth your time (which it certainly is). Pick to click for the coming summer is 1971’s “Sanctuary” which is not currently available on YouTube. Somebody must know something. Just for fun, then, close it with this, which could maybe be dedicated to Corin Tucker if you’re brave enough.
The site administrator at GreilMarcus.net has done yeoman’s service and linked to every one of the “one or two-shot” singles from Marcus’ 1979 “Treasure Island” Appendix to Stranded (a collection of essays on “desert island discs” which is hit and miss but Marcus’ typically idiosyncratic list provided a starting point for many a nascent collector, including me.)
Anyway, here’s the link. I was surprised to find that, between the nineties-era CD reissue boom and the rise of YouTube, I’ve actually heard all but a handful (I’ll soon correct that!)…and nearly all have been worth tracking down. Kudos to an already excellent site for going above and beyond.
One of the key omissions from Marcus’ “island” was the Mamas & the Papas. He didn’t think their absence amounted to an “essential gap.” I’ll be dealing with that at some point, but for now, I wanted to alert any folks not similarly deafened who might have a mission similar to mine, that Real Gone Music is set to release another, more expansive, comp on the group, which can be linked here.
I don’t normally shill for a particular product but, if this is anywhere near the quality of their re-issue of A Gathering of Flowers, then it will be a huge addition to the group’s CD legacy. The difference on headphones between Flowers and every other comp I own is pretty startling and, as I said in the earlier piece, I’m hardly an audiophile.
[On a related note, I’ve also never pointed folks directly to my Amazon link (there in the upper right hand corner), but please know that if you click through my site for any and all Amazon purchases, I get a small percentage which is devoted entirely to purchasing items for review on the site.]
First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.
With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.
So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):
The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.
That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.
Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)
If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.
As for a favorite?
Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.
You just have to think of a little test.
Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?
You, Carl. Only you.
I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.
[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]