Where I feel the need for a Silent Night.
To all my family, friends and followers…..
What they said:
Where I feel the need for a Silent Night.
To all my family, friends and followers…..
What they said:
More fruits of my time on YouTube–here are the Temptations being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and turning the affair into a tribute to their fallen brother, Paul Williams, who would have been the lead singer in ninety-nine percent of the vocal groups who ever lived and accepted third lead (and best dancer) in the Tempts because, well, that’s what brothers do:
And lest we forget…If it’s love that your running from….:
The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965)
Continuing with the in-depth presentation of my 20 favorite Vocal Albums. I’m up to #5 (And 1965, which is going to be a very big year for this concept):
Any list of competitors for the not-so-imaginary title of Greatest Rock and Roll Vocal Group doesn’t need your toes to count: The Everly Brothers, Beatles, Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas, Impressions, Spinners, Four Seasons. You can argue all day long about who’s #2.
There’s no argument about #1.
Close harmony might belong to one of the white groups (white musicians tend to prize order). But the Temptations, who were better than fine with close harmony, could do more of everything else and do it better while the Motown machine assured they would never lack for first rate material. If White America–well, the crit-illuminati anyway–hadn’t been so stuck on the auteur theory, developed for film but lying handy and transferable to anything, and been averse, consciously or subconsciously, to the idea that Black America could do more than dance and snap its fingers, the Tempts’ early albums (which I wrote about here) would have been treated as seriously as contemporary efforts by the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys.
Since this was their tribute to Smokey Robinson, who may or may not have once been called America’s greatest living poet by Bob Dylan, but fit the bill in any case, it was the best material they ever got. Although the album was assembled from a putative hodgepodge–a hit from their debut album combined with material Smokey had written for himself, the Tempts and/or other acts–it coheres like a concept LP because Smokey was a conceptual artist and because this is the rare, possibly unique, “tribute” album where the subject of the tribute is producing it himself.
Call it their Rubber Soul….unless of course it makes more sense to call Rubber Soul, released nine months later, the Beatles’ natural answer to The Temptations Sing Smokey.
“The Way You Do the Things You Do”–Berry Gordy had been trying to break the Temptations (previously the Primes–the only better name change was the Primettes becoming the Supremes) for a while and finally gave them to his best friend with the instruction to “get some hits on these guys.” This was the breakout, with Smokey switching the emphasis from Paul Williams’ gravelly baritone to Eddie Kendricks’ ethereal tenor, and then using one of Marvin Tarplin’s indelible guitar lines and the Tempts’ own clever harmony arrangement (beefing up every other line in the verses, call and response alternating with close harmony in the chorus) to get Eddie within range of a Smokey Robinson lead. In the fifty-five years since, it’s never been off the radio.
“Baby, Baby I Need You”–One of the last sides recorded with original member Al Bryant just after Robinson took over the reins but before David Ruffin replaced Bryant. Did I mention they were just fine with close harmony? This is the closest the album gets to their doo wop roots and gorgeous.
“My Girl”–Smokey was determined to get a showcase for Ruffin. He got it. This is one of those records that’s now so deeply embedded in the culture it feels like it must have been breathed into being rather than composed but what’s really miraculous is how complicated the simple arrangement sounds. It fills the ear the way “I Get Around” fills the ear, but it’s devoid of spectacle, all nuance and shading. Well, maybe except for that opening guitar line (from Marvin Tarplin again).
“What Love Has Joined Together”–A straight remake of one of Smokey’s own hits with the Miracles. Not even Eddie Kendricks could match the purity of Smokey’s tenor, but he gets inside the song all the same and with the others answering in the background I’m sure no woman receiving the message was heard to complain.
“You’ll Lose a Precious Love”–Notable for David Ruffin using his tenor voice, bleeding into falsetto on the choruses. It was as beautiful as his rough baritone and hints at roads not taken. Tantalizing.
“It’s Growing”–Here, Ruffin, already firmly established, does something even Smokey couldn’t do, sliding from tenor to baritone to blue falsetto with miraculous ease, matching the movements to one of Robinson’s most trenchant lyrics. The group’s “Hey, hey, heys” would have stolen the moment from anyone else. Another hit.
“Who’s Lovin’ You”–Another remake of one of Smokey’s own hits. Here Ruffin, a Mississippi native who lived in the South until he was sixteen and whose family gospel group shared bills with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, shows why he could have cut it on the southern soul circuit. The others had all been born in the South, too, so they had no trouble keeping up. Gently, though. Gently. That’s the Smokey influence.
“What’s So Good About Goodbye”–Eddie takes on Smokey’s original again but this time the backing is stronger, more distinctive. If you can remove the memory of Robinson’s version (one of his most spectacular leads), this is beautiful on it’s own terms. The Tempts and their producer both knew how to play to their own strengths.
“You Beat Me to the Punch”–Paul Williams, the quiet man displaced by the spectacular Ruffin, accepts his assignment and gives it his special touch. The others were capable of reaching melancholy as required. Williams lived there, even on upbeat material like this, a hit for Mary Wells, who Smokey had already gotten a bunch of hits on.
“Way Over There”–Here Kendricks uses the rougher part of his voice to fine effect. The Tempts push hard, like a gospel group aiming for the charts. Good thing, because it took a might effort to get within ver-r-r-r-y close calling distance of Smokey’s original.
“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”–Poor Eddie. This was Smokey’s signature tune at the time, and the Beatles had done a superb cover. Everybody decided to take it easy, not to compete with the intensity the song had brought out of the lead singers in its two already famous versions. In context, though, it works, a setup for the close.
“(You Can) Depend On Me”–A coda, which nonetheless delivers. One of Smokey’s earliest efforts (so early Berry Gordy helped out with a co-write–a reminder that the Boss was no small genius as a music man), it floats where his original soared, but it’s a beautiful closer. Makes you want to start over…..Hey Marvin, what’s that guitar line again?
Note: The Temptations Sing Smokey, barely noticed by White America in 1965, spent 18 weeks at #1 on the newly instituted Billboard R&B album chart, a record that would not be surpassed until Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life spent 20 nonconsecutive weeks at #1 in 1976-77. Stevie’s record would stand (though tied by Rick James’ __ in 1981) until Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in 1983 and changed the game forever. Thriller struck deep, but new marketing techniques would soon allow LPs to spend a year or more at the top of the Pop or R&B album charts without leaving a mark on the culture crumbling around them. I don’t consider the inability/unwillingness to grant the final degree of creative license even to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations in their moment and the ensuing collapse the least bit coincidental. And throwing awards at those who survived to old age doesn’t make up for any of it.
Another of rock and soul’s many lessons for those who come after.
I’m a little late with this, which I meant to post in early August….Life intervened but here goes:
10) The Clash: Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)
It’s not really lesser. It’s reputation suffered (though only a bit…you couldn’t say anything too bad about the Clash in 1978!) in the moment and afterward for a myriad of reasons that had nothing to do with the music. It was an early Purity test for the era’s new Lefty, anxious, as in every era, to wipe out the old Lefty. Hiring Blue Oyster Cult’s producer wasn’t exactly a hip move and it turned into a double bust when it didn’t break them on American radio.
But with all that long gone, how do you gainsay, “Safe European Home,” “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad,” “Stay Free?” It rocks and burns and stings and it’s of a piece, everything a master work should be. Confession: I’m sorry I haven’t listened to it more. I’d even say ashamed, except I don’t want to end up in any tribunals.
9) Ringo Starr: Photograph–The Very Best of (2007)
Ringo gets by on his solo records for the same reason he got by on Beatles’ records. You like the guy. And he played with great musicians, who must have liked him too. It might be that “It Don’t Come Easy” is the only great single he made, but several others (“Photograph,” “You’re Sixteen” for starters) come close and a lot of others get by on the sly. The Lucky One? Maybe, but it stands up to any similar length comp from any of his mates…and, not to coin a phrase, goes down easier.
8) Clarence Carter: Snatching It Back (1992)
I keep asking: Is there such a thing as a minor genius?
Not in my book. I’d no more want to be without this than a good Otis Redding package even if I know the difference and it’s hardly negligible.
What Clarence did was carve out a serio-comic niche that belonged to him and no one else. What other deep soul singer had his style defined by a chuckle?
It worked as more than novelty because, when he dug deep on a pure melodrama like “Patches” it was of a piece with his commitment, and when he went on the sly for “Slip Away,” his other signature song, it was right in line with his eye for the main chance (in the song, of course, but career-wise, too). And brother, there’s nothing in this world to compare with his version of “Dark End of the Street,” seemingly covered by every soul and country singer in the world and the most devastating, guilt-ridden tune in all of southern soul. He turned it into pure comedy. Of course he did. Until the very last line, when he took a single line from the real song and turned it into soul’s deepest, darkest statement about not getting out alive.
It’s only then that you understand why some people have to laugh to keep from falling apart.
7) Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (1975)
I’m not going to beat that description though even Bruce only got away with it for so long. This both embodies and transcends all that, however, because the Boss was still young, still hoping to become the new Elvis, which was/is better than being the new Dylan and miles better than being the new Woody Guthrie, the ultra-sincere schtick he’s been riding for about two decades now everywhere except in his legendary concerts. I play this whenever I want to remind myself what the fuss was all about and it still delivers. In spades.
6) Buddy Holly: Memorial Collection (2008)
You could go crazy trying to keep up with all the Buddy Holly collections out there. This is a good one: sixty tracks, nice package, all the essentials. For when you want more than the still peerless 20 Golden Greats and less than the still essential big box that covers everything.
Still brimming with surprise and invention at any length. Except for Elvis and maybe Ray Charles, the other 50’s legends sound like they’re standing still by comparison.
5) Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees (1976)
It’s easy to forget how big this was in the mid-seventies. It sold five million and yielded four hit singles (of which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” became radio staples). Rita Coolidge took the album closer “We’re All Alone” to the top ten.
And I must say it still sounds good. Crafty sure, but not quite slick. An earned success and career definer after his stint in the original Steve Miller Band and his “Loan Me a Dime” blues phase with Duane Allman. Turned out there was a reason people of that caliber wanted to work with him.
4) Jimmy Reed: The Anthology (2011)
Two long discs and you kind of have to be in the mood. Still, it’s amazing how much dexterity Reed got out of what had to be the most limited range any key blues man had either vocally, lyrically or instrumentally. Once you break through to a certain level of acceptance though, it quickly becomes addictive. I found myself wondering what microscopic change he would work next–and laughing out loud when he produced yet another small miracle. “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Imagining a world where his original versions could make the Top 40 is impossible now. If the historical record didn’t exist no one would believe it. Can’t wait until I’m in the mood again.
3) The Jackson 5: Anthology (1976)
The last of the old Motown triples on vinyl…and possibly the best. Considering the competition (Smokey and the Miracles, Supremes, Temptations, Marvin Gaye) that’s saying a mouthful. But this never quits and never even dips. There are no show-tunes or Vegas breaks, no finding their form in the early days (they broke out with “I Want You Back” for Christ’s sake), no late-career sag. Great moments from the always under-appreciated Jermaine and even Jackie in addition to you-know-who, who was still more victim than perpetrator at this point. I’ve always believed you can hear the difference. Worse for him. Better for us.
So it goes.
2) Earl Lewis and the Channels: New York’s Finest (1990)
Unless you’re a doo wop fanatic or at least a serious record collector you probably never heard of them and would therefore likely be shocked at how good they were. Their big one was “The Closer You Are” which does capture their essence, though it only hints at their depths. No period group had better or more arresting arrangements and aren’t arresting arrangements the reason you listen to doo wop?
Besides being transported I mean.
1) The Chi-Lites: Greatest Hits (1972)
I went to sleep to this for a couple of weeks even though it meant sleeping in my bedroom where the record player is. (I don’t mean it put me to sleep–that would be a whole different thing. I rarely sleep in a bed because it gives me a stiff back.)
An essential 70’s album. No record collection should be without it (and no CD collection has come close). At this distance, it’s also one of the saddest records I know. Eugene Record’s vision of assimilation has since vanished from the culture, to be replaced by “diversity” which is always code for running back to the tribes, doubtless in hopes that one’s own tribe will one day triumph.
I wonder if we could still refute the coming collapse if we really wanted to.
And I wonder if we really want to.
Maybe putting them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they belong, would be a start.
I won’t hold my breath.
Till next time…
Commenter April mentioned that a single song summed up 2018 for her, personally, and wondered if others had a song that might do the same for them.
That smelled like a post to me!
I was sure I could come up with a song that encapsulated this past very interesting year of my life.
For the record (and for those of you who–shame on you!–don’t follow along in the comments), April’s record was this one, which, serendipity or no, is the theme from a movie that I have long loved but which, for reasons that might require another post some day, has hit a little closer to home of late:
I hope that means April is in a better place–like Kelly’s heroes at the end of the movie, rather than the beginning.
The minute she posed the question, a song popped into my head. I’ve spent a day or so thinking about it, but nothing has dislodged that first thought. Before I share it, let me first say that, if the question had been posed a year ago, I would have had no hesitation in knowing how 2017 was summed up because it was like a lot of years before it, and maybe even my whole life:
Bleak as that may seem, I’m always grateful for any year that doesn’t turn out like this…because there have been a few:
Last year, though, was a good year, all in all. I can now see the light at the end of a financial nightmare tunnel, which I entered one afternoon (in 2007) when I discovered my 87-year-old father had, unbeknownst to anyone, cancelled his supplemental health insurance nine months earlier. It might not have been a big deal, except he’d had a stroke that morning.
Well, when else would you find out something like that? Such is life.
2018, though, felt like a turning point. If I manage to hold on to my job (a big “if” at the moment) the coming years promise to be much brighter. We’ll see.
For now, I offer this little-known gem, modest in conception and execution, at least until the singer takes a deep breath before stepping into the final chorus.
Back in simpler times, I used to stay up all night, trying to figure out how she did it.
Now, I just smile:
If anyone has a song, album, movie, book or anything else that summed up last year for them, I hope you’ll share it. Me and April can’t be the only ones.
The Definitive Collection
Diana Ross & the Supremes (2008)
Let’s start with this: The Supremes, in their various incarnations, have thirty-one comps listed on Wikipedia. I doubt that’s all of them, but it’s enough to suggest there is probably no such thing as a “definitive” Supremes collection. I have four, including the four-disc CD box, which stretches from the very beginning (when it wasn’t clear whether Diana Ross or Flo Ballard would be the lead singer) to the very end (by which time Mary Wilson had, for years, been the only remaining original Supreme and Ballard was in the boneyard). It sustains.
But for getting to the essence, it’s hard to beat this one–and the essence is as essential as anything in the rock and roll era.
In the 173 weeks preceding the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” reaching #1, (Oct. 3, 1961 to Feb 1, 1964) the top of the American pop charts looked like this:**
Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 53
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 4
In the same length of time after (Feb. 1, 1964 to June 3, 1967):
Weeks Total: 173
Weeks Black Artists spent at #1: 32
Weeks Motown artists spent at #1: 26
Weeks the Supremes spent at #1: 19
Short summary: In the middle of what is supposed to have been Rock and Roll America’s most expansive period, absent Motown (meaning absent Berry Gordy, Jr.), Black America’s time at the top of the Pop Chart would have reverted to the pre-Elvis standard.
Without the Supremes, even Motown would have made little difference in this respect (something Berry Gordy understood better than anyone).
This was after a period–supposedly rock’s most limited and fallow–when Black America had sustained enough chart action over the entirety of the early Rock ‘n’ Roll era for both Cashbox and Billboard to experiment with ending the R&B (or “race”) chart–an experiment a year’s worth of the British Invasion ended for good. So much “for good” that recent years when White America dominated the Hip Hop chart–including one year (2013) where white acts occupied the top spot forty-four out of fifty-two weeks–have not revived the concept.
“Race” dies hard.
If the Supremes had not existed–had not been what and who they were–the shape of the dream that is receding behind us, the restoration of which will be the bedrock of any future revival of anything worth either living or dying for, would be a great deal smaller and meaner.
I listen to them hard and often. Always have. Always will.
Lately, when I listen, I listen to this–because I hear the perfect shape of something America responded to like no other version of ourselves that existed in their time. Hit play:
“Where Did Our Love Go”–By the time they broke out, in the summer of ’64, it was Diana Ross’s show. But the other key elements were already in place. The neighborhood harmonies, the pounding rhythm, Holland-Dozier-Holland’s gift for tying memorable melodies to stringent-but-far-from-simple lyrics that turn on the subtleties of Ross’s timbre: “I’ve got this burnin, burnin, yearnin’ feeling inside me” had never been followed quite so smoothly and irresistibly by anything as turned-on-its-head as “Ooooohhhh, deep inside me….and it hurts so bad.”
“Baby Love”–In true Motown style, the hit formula was copied closely on the subsequent release. Unlike all the other hit formulas, this went straight to #1 again. (Nice story, which I’ll paraphrase: Years ago, I heard all three members of HDH interviewed on public radio. One of them told a story about hanging out on the porch at Motown’s Hitsville after a long, not especially fruitful day of songwriting. He happened to overhear Gordy telling someone that, after the years-in-coming success of “Where Did Our Love Go,” he was going to put all the company’s promotional muscle behind the Supremes because they were the ticket to the white mainstream he had been seeking. Back inside, the eavesdropper went to the room where he had been working with the others, locked the door, hooked a chair under the knob, told his partners what he had heard, and said “We’re not leaving here until we write three number one hits for the Supremes.” “Baby Love” was the first.
“Come See About Me”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the second. And #1 again. However great it was in conception, it grew by leaps and bounds when Ross got hold of it. There’s no question in your mind that he’ll come see about her. Who wouldn’t! Hers is the only mind filled with doubt.
“Stop! In the Name of Love”–This, a fair bid for their finest hour, was the third. And #1 again. Their signature stage song–Rock and Roll America produced nothing more iconic than their hand-motion choreography for this one and Rosanna Arquette fit a lost world into her five-second imitation in Baby It’s You–and for the first time James Jamerson’s bass emerged from the mix so powerfully that it became its own voice, counterpointing Ross’s desperate lead with a sound that seems to lead her down a path where hope and fear are forks in a road with no signs. To listen close is to be forever lost on that road….where you can never know if the path taken is right or wrong, no matter how many times it put a smile on your face when you were just singing along with the radio.
“Back in My Arms Again”–And, just like that, they were personalities. “And Flo, she don’t know, ’cause the boy she loves is a Romeo!”…And #1 again.
“Nothing but Heartaches”–A brilliant record, featuring some of the most haunting and complex harmonies found on any Motown record, plus the usual sterling qualities all the way around….and a flop! After five straight #1’s, this only got to #11. Not sure oldies radio ever made a distinction–but the Corporation noticed.
“I Hear a Symphony”–And went back to basics. The beat’s BIG again (especially that bass!), the harmonic lines cleaned up and deepened, the booting sax from ’64 restored to the bridge. Plus a lyric that’s a straightforward Ode to Joy. Back to #1!
“My World Is Empty Without You”–The lyric complexity returns. Is she pleading for forgiveness, extending it, or admitting she doesn’t care? The track retains the back-to-basics feel. The chart split the difference. It peaked at #5.
“Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”–A fair bid for the sexiest vocal ever recorded. I don’t think it’s her heart that’s itching. Deeper than you might think, even so. The charts noticed (else fatigue was setting in)–this, as great and joyous as anything, settled for #9.
“You Can’t Hurry Love”–No way to stop this one, even if it plays like a sequel to “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart”–straight-up itching traded for Mama’s advice. By itself, that might have thrown the radio audience, but it was #1 by the time the bass intro reached the third note.
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”–A shock. Still. Decades of radio play could never wear it smooth. The track itself was so compelling that Kim Wilde’s note-for-note copy went #1 two decades later…and was promptly forgotten. What neither Wilde nor anyone else could match was Ross’s combination of intimacy and distance–as if she’s finally grown terrified of a version of herself it would cost her life to reject. And across those same decades, seven thousand white boy critics echoed each other with some version of “Why doesn’t this weak women just leave the bastard?” Gee, all that liberation theology, all those leftover groupies, and they still never heard about the thing called Sex. #1 of course.
“Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone”–“Into your arms I fell, so unaware, of the loneliness that was waiting there.” It’s what you might call a theme. #1 again.
“The Happening”–Okay, here’s why there will never be a perfect Supremes comp. It’s another #1 (and therefore can’t be left off) and a good enough record that I could imagine it gracing a run of hits by someone else and not interrupting the flow. But this is the Supremes. And it’s only 1967. The quality doesn’t matter. It will just never fit. (Click the link, though. It’s the Sullivan appearance where Ed forgot the name and just introduced them as….”the girls!” Plus, they could dance. In case anyone forgot.)
“Reflections”–The themes reach culmination–loneliness, despair, the Morse Code of heartache, reflection. My pick for their greatest record, and Motown’s. It’s given extra weight by being so close to Flo Ballard’s last gasp (she would last only another six weeks before being fired). Somehow, this most perfect intimation of its time and place only reached #2. And that after even “The Happening” had gone to the top. One of life’s little mysteries. It’ll be worth every step of the hard road that ends with both feet inside the pearly gates to have that one explained.
“Love Child”–With Ballard gone, Mary Wilson was frozen out of the studio and backing vocals were turned over to the thoroughly professional Andantes. Three fantastic singles followed “Reflections” (to diminishing chart returns–with Ballard gone, they fell from the Top Ten like a stone). I feel their loss. But hearing “Reflections”bleed into this one elevates both. Which in the abstract, I wouldn’t believe was possible. And back to #1.
“I’m Livin’ in Shame”–A “Love Child” sequel and nearly as good. Standing on it’s own, it can slide by you and you can hear why it only reached the Top Ten. But placed here–and knowing the end is near–it gains weight, as the kitchen-sink details that lay hidden between the grooves of its predecessor are filled in and turned into pure loss. “She never got out of the house, never even boarded a train.” It’s all in the voice–Ross’s sly ability to shift between Ghetto Child and Worldly Sophisticate Looking Over Her Shoulder without losing the plot–and no record caught Black America’s then emerging, still unresolved, cultural dilemma better.
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (with The Temptations)–Pure product. And as irresistible as the Art that preceded it.
“Someday We’ll Be Together”–Their last release with Diana Ross and the last #1 single of the 1960s.
Of course it was.
Now excuse me while I hit replay.
**NOTE: I chose the period of 173 weeks based on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” marking a new era for Black America in terms of reclaiming the charts….The other non-Motown acts who reached number one between the arrival of the Beatles and the week “Respect” topped the chart were Louis Armstrong, the Dixie Cups and Percy Sledge. I wrote about the significance of Percy’s record here.
Dennis Edwards was one of the last great soul men–and, perhaps because he replaced another legend in the greatest call and response vocal group of the rock and roll era (there’s competition among the harmony groups, where they’re also in the running)–one of the least appreciated.
Like a lot of soul singers, he was the son of a preacher man. Very few brought as much raw gospel power to the world stage. He turned every venue into a revival, every microphone into a pulpit. If you need a measure of his quality, consider only this. The Temptations survived the departure of David Ruffin (whom Edwards replaced). They survived the death of Paul Williams. They survived the departure of Eddie Kendricks.
When Dennis Edwards left in 1977, they were finished as a major force in American music. By then, he had helped extend their legacy by nearly a decade. Shouting all the way, from his first mighty hit (which kept them firmly at the forefront of the changing times)…
to his (and their) last.. which might have been his (and their) mightiest.
Higher ground tonight brother. Every inch earned.
I spent a good part of the last week (on again, off again…and, inevitably, inexorably, on again) using my limited internet skills to look up someone I barely knew nearly forty years ago.
I’m not at liberty to reveal more. Suffice it to say it brought home Rock and Roll’s preeminent lesson (nearly as pitiless as History’s preeminent lesson, which is “Don’t Lose”) with more force than anything I’ve ever experienced, not excluding the deaths of my parents.
It’s been said many times, many ways and I think I’m gonna need to spend time with every one of them to pull the knife from my heart some day short of the Judgement, which I now know will require an extra pound of penance.
And what might this lesson be?
Ah, well….From the Scriptures….
Yes, everything I really needed to know I learned from Rock and Roll (well, and the New Testament, which is hardly unrelated).
Now if I could only remember never to forget.
The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)
I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).
But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.
First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.
Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?
Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?
I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.
But, my God, what a missed opportunity.
Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”
One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.
That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.” That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)
Well, none of that happened.
Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)
Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).
And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”
Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.
One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.
Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.
Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.
Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.
Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.
Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.
And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.
Take it Mavis:
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…