Saturday, February 25, 2017

CLOUD NINE



Reflecting on George Harrison's Cloud Nine LP. This iconic musician would have been celebrating his 74th birthday today.

THE BACKSTORY

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

DEVIL'S RADIO

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

BOC: ON YOUR FEET OR ON YOUR KNEES



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.