Today marks the 48th anniversary of the release of Tommy. It was a grand statement for Pete Townshend and The Who. Roughly seven years ago, I did a series of reviews that covered all of their discs up to Who Are You.
Feel free to check out my take on this iconic double LP here
Friday, May 19, 2017
Light years ahead of its time, Close to the Edge represents nothing less than the high watermark of the prog period. The second (and last) Yes album to feature the Anderson/Squire/Wakeman/Howe/Bruford lineup is their masterpiece, though the sessions were reportedly far from carefree.
Three long form pieces are presented, two of which feature four part suites.
Opening with the gentle sound of a burbling stream, the 18 minute title track is soon overtaken by an intense rush of guitar/bass flourishes with precision drumming that straddles time signatures. Bruford
couples solid foundation work with flash and Squire's bass tone is spectacular. There is dirt in the attack on his Rickenbacker where needed, switching on a dime from roller coaster runs to smoother expressions. Special mention goes to Rick Wakeman with the nimble fingered, mind-blowing virtuosity he demonstrates in the “I Get Up I Get Down” section. According to Steven Wilson, who did the 5.1 mix:
"They went to a church [St. Giles-without-Cripplegate in London], recorded the church organ in isolation, and then came back and spun it back into the multitrack. I didn’t know that at first, but it’s such a glorious, kind of overpowering sound. And you know what? That’s pretty much the way it is on the tape. All of the reverberation is the natural reverberation from the church where it was recorded..."
This high wire act continues with meticulously layered vocal parts.
Close to the edge, down by the river
Down at the end, round by the corner
Seasons will pass you by
When the downshift occurs, it is mesmerizing. The listener is coaxed back to the pastoral soundscape that started the trip (and it is a journey), wrapping side one.
"And You and I" is the audio equivalent of a solar eclipse. Howe excels with acoustic figures that are as fine as the melody itself.
"Siberian Khatru" sees every member of the team contribute memorable passages, creating their own category in a way that seems effortless, though painstaking hours went into every recorded minute. Being a product of the analog era, there was no recourse to the easy digital solutions that are at the fingertips of contemporary engineers. Watch the creativity as it flies through the air. Going to tape was an entirely different process, yet magic was made.
Gliding high above these amazing arrangements is the voice of Jon Anderson. What else can you say? For the uninitiated, this is an album that you will happily never get to the bottom of. Easily remains as futuristic music upon this writing.
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Upon its release in June 1989, this record was greeted far more warmly than anything McCartney had done since Tug of War. There was sound reason for such sentiments. Following Tug of War, his output during the decade of MTV was patchy and not terribly focused.
Pipes of Peace had the same basic ingredients as Tug of War (George Martin handling production, superstar duet action on two tracks) yet much of the material was weak. After hearing "The Other Me", it put me off from purchasing anything bearing his name for several years.
Give My Regards to Broadstreet had nothing new to offer, save for "No More Lonely Nights". The soundtrack to a poorly received feature film recast Beatles, Wings and (oddly) recent solo stuff with a ton of big name session players lending their talents. Overall, it was a fairly pointless exercise.
The "Spies Like Us" single begged the question: What happened to the guy who wrote "Live and Let Die"?
Press to Play, despite the promise of teaming with Eric Stewart, failed to make much of an impression and was seen as another misstep. Reportedly, endless tinkering in the studio drained the content of any initial spark that was present during writing sessions. More effort should have gone into song craft and the final product was met with commercial indifference.
One of the most successful artists of the 20th century was again at a crossroads. He had been written off before in the early 70s. Those who had underestimated his ambition were pleasantly surprised by Band on the Run, a subsequent run of hits and the enormous success of the Wings Over America tour.
Would he have enough left in the tank for a third act?
ALL THE BEST
Compiling a retrospective hits package for issue in November of '87 was the first step back in the ring. He also included a song ("Once Upon a Long Ago") which had been submitted to director Rob Reiner for use in The Princess Bride. Though rejected for the film, McCartney deemed it worthy to put out as a taster single to help promote All The Best. For the first time in nearly five years, I went out of pocket for a new McCartney record. Flipping to the B-side for a listen, there was a little gem called "Back On My Feet" that immediately caught the ear. Co-written with one Declan McManus, this was the first road test of a new writing partnership that would spawn some very fine songs.
Still have that single.
Though it is purely coincidence, the lyrical subject matter would suggest the mindset of someone who is temporarily down but has the resolve to rebound.
Give me your hand again/'Til I land again
Fast forward to late May of '89...
"My Brave Face" is 45'ed and shipped out to tease the upcoming Flowers in the Dirt. Backed with a great tune called "Flying to My Home", both had been co-written with Elvis Costello. Spinning a narrative around a character who is missing their partner, the melody is solid. The hook is bolstered by a well placed guitar figure that echoes the verse. No doubt inspired by having a wordsmith like Costello to bounce ideas around with, it amounts to his sharpest work in years. There are more than a few nods to his past in the arrangement, though it comes across fresh and still holds up quite well.
As for the rest of the pack, there is much to be desired. Exquisite melodies ("Distractions", "Put It There" and "Don't Be Careless Love") mix effortlessly with punchy pop ("This One", "Figure of Eight"). In fact, "This One" could very well be the highlight of the set. Catchy, confident and riding on an infectious chorus, it bears all of the hallmarks of what this gifted man is truly capable of. For balance, "You Want Her Too" brings a bit of shade to the table with Costello playing sarcastic counterpoint to McCartney's hopeless romantic. His influence is a steadying presence here. Though he does not contribute to "We Got Married", he likely kicked Paul in a direction that freed him to craft a minor-key, dramatic storyline around a long term relationship that is not viewed through the usual rose-colored lenses.
Strength follows strength throughout the program with a few exceptions. "How Many People" and "Motor of Love" should have been elbowed as they lack the quality of all that comes before. Closing honours rightfully belonged to the majestic "That Day is Done". Similarly, in the spirit of revision to improve the overall listening experience, I would have put "Flying to My Home" in place of "Rough Ride". It is a far superior construction. The production, while considered top class for that period, tends to unjustly date stamp much of what drifts out of the speakers. Part of the problem is "too many cooks" syndrome with no fewer than four big names (plus McCartney himself) occupying the directors chair during the gestation period of this disc. That said, the result exceeded all expectations, setting the table for McCartney to return to the business of touring for the first time in a decade. More importantly, he would be doing so behind a a stellar new album.
"When I'd got the call to say Paul wanted me to write some songs with him for his next record, I didn't know what to expect, but as his last cowritten hit had been with Michael Jackson, I wondered whether I should be taking some dancing lessons."
These lines from Costello's book, Unfaithful Music, (which is a terrific read) are a glimpse into the wit and way with words that likely brought about this pairing.
He was not a contemporary of McCartney in the sense that they did not come to prominence in the same era, though he had long established his own style, had success and respect from his peers. Well aware that he was not in the same class as McCartney in terms of the business (few could make that claim) there would always be a sense of being a junior partner in the arrangement. His talent would never be in question and Elvis brought out the best in his co-writer. Neither man is known for their ability to suffer fools, yet the two were very productive during the time that they set aside to write together. Though it was fleeting, some magic definitely happened. The missed opportunity was a full blown, joint project. You can read about it elsewhere, though differing opinions on the overall production direction roundly dashed ice water on the plan to have Costello quarterback the project.
Luckily, Paul is a thoughtful curator of his recorded legacy and the recent addition to the ongoing Archive Collection offered all of those pristine demos along with a remastered version of Flowers in the Dirt. Unlike some material of this nature, these songs are an absolute pleasure to listen to. All are of very high calibre and tease what an alternate universe iteration of this LP may have sounded like. While the full band treatment of "My Brave Face" adds crucial elements to it that aren't fleshed out in the embryonic take, the stripped down approach still works. "Don't Be Careless Love" in skeletal form beats the album cut by a country mile. Again, with minimal retakes and bare bones augmentation this disc would have been one hell of a surprise had it been followed through properly. The consolation prize is that we have it here (in part) in excellent fidelity. Highly recommend adding this one to your collection.
Saturday, February 25, 2017
Reflecting on George Harrison's Cloud Nine LP. This iconic musician would have been celebrating his 74th birthday today.
At that point in time, his last outing (Gone Troppo) had clocked in at roughly 30 minutes, contained a number of excellent songs ("Wake Up My Love", "Circles") was woefully under-promoted and failed to make a dent in the charts upon release in 1982. Harrison saw little value in chasing what was trendy or even trying to compete with the disposable pop that began to dominate the airwaves as the MTV craze snowballed. Spectacle now ruled in terms of music PR, twisting a barrage of images around the collective optic nerve of television audiences 24 hours a day. Understatement in song craft and musicianship now had very little traction with the masses.
George downed tools for a few years to spend time on other pursuits, though the urge to create pulled him back to his home studio in January of 1987 to start work on what would be termed as a "comeback" record.
Not that anyone was going to forget who he was
Having gathered a group of high profile friends to contribute to this project, the end product is tightly edited, well paced and the production (handled by George and Jeff Lynne) is pristine. Vocal harmonies and hooks abound, the quality of the material is top class. Among the best of the pack are "Fish On the Sand", "This Is Love" and the in-joke filled, "When We Was Fab". There is some fantastic six string interplay between Harrison and Eric Clapton on the title track. Listening to my vinyl copy (which I snapped up way back in November of '87) while scribbling these lines, it is impressive to hear the attention to detail that went into layering guitar parts. You also get the sense that George reigned in Lynne's tendencies toward throwing a ton of augmentation into the arrangements. Similarly, the pairing with Lynne helped Harrison simplify his approach toward song structure. The overall mix is superb, still sounding fresh nearly 30 years on.
This song is just six words long
The biggest surprise of the set was the inclusion of an obscure tune by Rudy Clark ("Got My Mind Set On You") which tore up the charts as a leader single and gave the album a massive boost from a commercial standpoint. Speaking of videos, this one and the clip that accompanied "When We Was Fab" both received heavy rotation on MTV, bringing his famous face into the purview of another generation who had missed him in his first incarnation as a pop star back in the sixties.
Ringo shows up to grace the skins here, as well.
Cloud Nine arguably paved the way for the Traveling Wilburys aggregation the following year, which itself was a massive, yet unexpected, hit.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Following the release of three decent (albeit largely unnoticed) studio albums, Blue Oyster Cult decided to package their live show for direct injection into the homes of their fans in early 1975. Two black circles were duly filled with performances culled from a number of venues on their (then) most recent tour. This double live set cracked the US top 30 (topping out at # 22 on the Billboard chart) serving to bring their sound above ground, while deservedly garnering the attention of a wider audience in the commercial sweepstakes.
Hey, I heard a couple of people sayin' Hot Rails to Hell
Relentless gigging will turn any loose aggregate of musicians into a well-oiled machine. Such was the itinerary for the pride of Long Island in the early seventies. While the quintet squeeze every drop of blood from their tunes onstage, they do remember to remove their collective feet from the gas and allow for dynamic downshifts in the arrangements. "Seven Screaming Dizbusters" is one of the best examples of that, along with the moody "Then Came the Last Days of May". Crowd reaction is retained, rather than downplayed in the overall mix. Listen to the faithful as they respond rapturously after getting scorched by a particularly frenetic, extended version of "ME 262" which closes side three. People went nuts for these guys and they packed houses without the benefit of a hit single or any significant unit shifting.
Curiously, the label makers in the industry have been content to brand the output of this truly under-appreciated band as "Heavy Metal" and unfairly rank them below their contemporaries. Part of the equation comes down to a low profile in the lead vocal department. All of them could sing, though there was no Plant, Gillan, Rogers or Mercury that really stepped out front to own the stage. This is what bumps you into the economy class seats in terms of early to mid 70s purveyors of hard rock. Not quite Foghat nor were they Uriah Heep. Traces of prog flirt with "boogie" riffs, though embracing lyrical subject matter that was at times unfathomable (What the hell is "Harvester of Eyes" REALLY about??) was another obstacle to contend with in terms of gaining entry to the mass public imagination. Nevertheless, the lads did bring a not-so-secret-weapon to the party.
Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser
Precise, fret-scorching virtuosity lifts just about every cut on this gem into the stratosphere. Why this man does not figure in the conversation when it comes to six string wizards is a puzzle. His partners in crime provide perfectly obstreperous, yet tasteful, sonic support. The Bouchard brothers keep the engine stoked while allowing Roeser and Allan Lanier to shine. Buck's solos defy gravity. "Cities on Flame" is taken at a positively caffeinated pace. All of the material found here comes off far better than the studio versions. Eric Bloom keeps all of the stories straight behind ever present shades.
These guys could really play
Pound for pound, this is the finest BOC live album. Definitely stands as one of the most exciting documents of its kind from that decade, coming across raw, sweaty and real. Some Enchanted Evening (1978) and Extraterrestrial Live (1982) have their moments, though both are uneven, without an eighth of the intensity that crackles from the speakers when this disc is cranked. While it has resided in my CD collection for many years, I have only obtained a vinyl copy very recently while rummaging through the stacks of a used record store in San Francisco. Listening in the intended format inspired this post.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
Fourth time around would best describe the prep that went into getting this time capsule to its present state.
THE BACK STORY
Capitol Records' Voyle Gilmore had the first crack with his team on hand to capture the Beatles Hollywood debut on August 23, 1964. Utilizing a remote sound truck parked several blocks from the venue, they plugged directly into the stereo board at the Bowl. Primitive equipment (3 track machines) mostly picked up gale force screaming that saturated the tapes, with VU meters constantly buried in the red. This exercise was repeated a year later, though technical issues with Paul's microphone on the August 29th show rendered it useless. The set on the following night turned out to be much better and was recorded without incident. Some work was done to prepare a disc for official release at that time. Unhappy with the overall sound quality along with their collective performances, the group vetoed the plan.
Phil Spector, following his work with the output from the Get Back sessions, was asked to do a similar salvage job on these concerts in 1971. His efforts never escaped the Apple vaults.
Overwhelming odds were in favor of the project simply being left for dead.
Enter George Martin and Geoff Emerick
In early 1977, the legendary producer and engineer were tasked with delicately transferring the original masters to 16-track tape for filtering, equalization, editing and mixing. Their major obstacle was finding a 3 track machine that actually worked. With much luck they did so, though it was barely functional. Cold air had to be constantly directed on it to avoid overheating and destroying the precious tapes. Their painstaking work paid off, bringing an exciting document to the masses. All four Beatles received a copy, though only Lennon rated it as fit for public consumption. (Harrison thought that it wasn't very good) Nonetheless, it was shipped to record retailers in May of that year, sailed to number one in the UK, number two in the US and sold over a million copies.
Contrary to myth, they were a solid live act. Caught in relatively decent form here, it is to their credit that there were no major train wrecks considering that they were playing to 17,000 screamers without monitors for reference. Highlights include "She's a Woman", "Things We Said Today" and Lennon laughing in the middle of "Help!", overwhelmed by crowd reaction (or nerves) Everything is taken at a much faster tempo.
Calm down, Ringo.
Cover art features a clever mock up of concert tickets that bear no resemblance to the originals. Here's what a lucky fan would have actually presented for admittance to the 1964 show.
In 1984, the official Hollywood Bowl set went out of print. The vinyl is easily found in second hand record stores and I still have my copy from the early 80s. Bootlegs are out there, too, if you want to hear all three concerts in their entirety. Hollywood Bowl Complete is a good one. (They even got the tickets right.)
For die-hard collectors, Capitol also released "In-Store Only" 8 -track tapes with five songs from the album to record outlets. These listening post promos are now nearly impossible to find.
When the Beatles catalog was repackaged for sale in CD format in 1987, Hollywood Bowl did not make the cut. Since that time, Apple has acted as curator to the most dissected, well loved and marketable collection of music in rock history. Everything from BBC sessions to the Anthology cutting room floor material had been dusted off and dangled in front of willing consumers in the nineties. The re-mastering of their work for the digital age was another massive roll out in 2009, yet this one remained under glass in the museum.
Fast forward to 2016
Giles Martin, with the aid of 21st century advances in recording technology, picked up where his father had left off four decades earlier. Take a moment to find out how this came together.
The general consensus is that the audio update allows the listener to properly hear bass and drums in the mix. "Ticket to Ride" is a completely different aural experience here as are "She's a Woman" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy". Overall, the track sequence is identical to the 1977 issue, with four bonus tunes that are tagged on to keep things interesting for the casual fan. Hardcore collectors will likely view this as a missed opportunity to have all three concerts out there, though technical gremlins made certain performances unsalvageable. The energy (and volume) of the crowd still resonates even though over 50 years have passed. Their reaction gives the set an electric thrill, even as they threatened to overwhelm all attempts to preserve these shows for posterity. Very worthwhile addition to your collection.