Saturday, December 14, 2019
Paul Simonon putting his bass to death on the iconic cover along with the paranoia of the title track are more than worth the price of admission to the Clash's third set. Double albums are tricky as you really have to vary the pace to maintain interest throughout. No such issues arise with London Calling. Rock, rockabilly, pop, punk, soul, reggae and ska all figure in the mix, topped with clever lyrics that touch on many themes.
It has been forty years since they unleashed their masterpiece, yet it sounds contemporary. The main reason? In a matter of weeks, they hit these songs hard with a minimum amount of takes and retained an excitement that radiates from your speakers with genuine force. Three cover songs show up alongside the strongest material that Strummer and Jones had contributed to date. "The Guns of Brixton" is the lone track written by bassist Simonon. While Elvis didn't pen anything here, he showed up in spirit.
"London Calling" (the song) is a perfect opener. Building on an intense, staccato march, Strummer unleashes a kitchen sink litany of doomsday scenarios that include nuclear meltdown, depletion of wheat crops, the earth hurtling toward the sun and impending ice age. Referencing the the decline of sixties optimism that defined "Swinging London" (see we ain't got no swing") and snidely ripping the band that dominated said decade ("phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust") there is now only hard drug addiction ("while we were talking, I saw you nodding out") a grim economic picture with many on the dole and London sinking into the Thames. It is a gripping piece of music. Ending on a question mark with Morse code, the unfinished "I never felt so much a like, a like..." line is actually a truncated "I never felt more like singing the blues." No wonder, in light of such grim circumstance. They continue to dazzle with shaggy dog tales ("Jimmy Jazz", "The Card Cheat") touching commentary on finding your place in a crass commercial society ("Lost In the Supermarket") and socio-political concerns ("Spanish Bombs"). Out of everything, "The Right Profile" wins the prize for most bizarre lyrical subject matter. Documenting the car crash of actor Montgomery Clift that damaged his face and forced him to suspend work on Raintree County, the title comes from the actual direction to shoot his right profile as much as possible when he returned to finish the film. Hearing Strummer howl this one is a close encounter with extremely black humor. Despite a few interesting detours into other musical forms, rock is at the heart of the most potent cuts. "Clampdown" warns against getting caught up in a socio-economic trap, where you end up working within a structure that rewards you with...more work and very little to show for it. Donning the "blue and brown" traps you in a cycle of hard labor and debt.
The men in the factory are old and cunning
You don't owe nothing, so boy get running!
It's the best years of your life they want to steal!
The riff is supported by the dynamic percussion of Topper Headon, whose skill on the kit greatly benefits the quartet. It allowed them to pursue the eclectic styles that color these truly magical four sides of vinyl.
They put their collective foot down in the back nine, accelerating the pace with high energy tracks ("Death or Glory", "Koka Kola", "Four Horsemen" and "I'm Not Down") only to lay back slightly with another well chosen cover. Originally done by Danny Ray and the Revolutioneers, “Revolution Rock” is no call to arms but rather an invitation to let go and have a little fun. Their enthusiasm is infectious, with Strummer making jokey announcements over the strains of the Irish Horns through the outro.
Playing requests now on the bandstand! El Clash combo. Make fifteen dollars a day.
The long fade seems like a fitting end to this wonderful trip.
Not so fast.
You didn’t stand by me / No way
"Train in Vain" is a peppy, surprise closer (courtesy of Mick Jones) that is all pop, all day long. Complete with wheezy harmonica and a very basic structure, it finishes as one of their most accessible tunes. Radio loved it and the single version charted respectably at that time. It went unlisted on the first pressings of London Calling simply because it was added to the running order at the last minute.
No longer primarily identified as a "punk" band by this time, genre experiments and a move toward "rock" pushed them toward greater commercial success. The attitude remained the same, though their profile was raised considerably. Often name-checked one of the best sets of the 1980s, it can easily vie for the honor of one of the most exciting double albums ever issued. Better yet, it has not stale-dated, sounding extremely vital in 2019.
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
A veritable dream team rolled into Southern California on Sunday evening to deliver an action-packed, incredibly tight program of music. The brief? Recreate the sprawling, eclectic tracks that comprise The Beatles' White Album, live without a net.
The musicians in question are five young upstarts who have a bright future ahead of them.
Mickey Dolenz, Todd Rundgren, Joey Molland, Christopher Cross, Jason Scheff backed up by a stellar supporting cast, absolutely obliterated an ecstatic, packed house at the Magnolia.
Taking the stage to a prerecorded snippet of "Revolution 9", the players leaned into "Back In The USSR" which segued into "Dear Prudence". This was the only instance where they followed the album sequence, though the set was very well designed. Following a killer version of "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey" led by Rundgren, Christopher Cross took up a note-perfect "Martha My Dear" before handling over the spotlight to Joey Molland, who nailed "Savoy Truffle". He received a round of applause for being the lone Liverpudlian in the ensemble cast.
Just as the crowd was catching their collective breath, Mickey Dolenz strode back out to kick off the bonus round. Thanking the great songwriters who contributed to The Monkees discography, he peeled off "I'm a Believer" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" in rapid succession. Both he and Rundgren were by far the most animated performers, bringing a touch of theater to everything that they touched.
Molland then chipped in with two of Badfinger's best known tunes ("Baby Blue" and "No Matter What") which he had help on harmonies/guitar from Rundgren. Being the pro that he is, when Molland mistakenly went for the bridge instead of the guitar solo in "No Matter What", he did a mock panicked gesture and coolly jumped back into place to wring those iconic notes from his Gibson. Easy when you know how. San Diego born Scheff was next up, remarking how surreal it was to be back in front of hometown supporters. "25 or 6 to 4" was a shred-fest, featuring Wayne Avers raising the ghost of Terry Kath. He and Rundgren melted their respective fretboards, as Scheff effortlessly knocked his vocal out of the park. Rundgren then performed two of his biggest hits, "I Saw The Light" and "Hello, It's Me", encouraging maximum participation from the faithful on the latter. Christopher Cross was then given a humorous introduction, teaming with Scheff on "Sailing" and "Ride Like the Wind". (Cross soloed like a madman, albeit a very talented one) He has not lost one iota of that golden voice, either. Joking about bribing their musical director with a thousand dollars just for the privilege of getting to sing "Honey Pie", he then did so with obvious joy. Dolenz reappeared for "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?" and the first portion of the show closed with Rundgren handling "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". He took the opportunity to wind out on his custom painted, psychedelic axe.
Let's all go to the lobby, let's all go to the lobby and get to know the rest of the players
It takes the right combination of voices and instrumentalists to pull off this type of effort successfully. Nailing the iron clad harmonies that the Beatles were known for is no mean feat, though it is important that all sonic nuances are covered properly. The White Album has cuts that boast guitar noises so dirty that you need to shower even after minimal exposure to them. Arrangements also feature augmentation that needs to be present so as not to disappoint the more discerning listener.
To that end, musical director Joey Curatolo, who chipped in on keyboards/guitar/vocals, did a masterful job of assembling the band. (Fun fact: he also served the same role for the popular "Rain: A Tribute To The Beatles" show). The aforementioned Wayne Avers was brilliant on guitar, handling those signature lead parts with taste and razor-sharp attention to detail. (He is Dolenz' lead player/musical director)
Drummer Darin Murphy, who played John Lennon in the Broadway Musical "Lennon" was stellar, not only steady as an atomic clock on his Ludwig kit, but also in contributing excellent vocal harmonies. Keyboardist Gil Assayas, who is Todd Rundgren's right-hand man when he's out touring, rocked the 88s, in addition to covering all key string and horn parts with very nimble fingers.
Following a brief intermission that was filled with the music of Bert Kaempfert blasted at top volume to cleanse the palate (kidding!), the back nine of the production commenced in understated fashion with Cross on acoustic. He did "Blackbird" on his own, while the others joined him on "I Will" and "Mother Nature's Son". Sheff took the lead on "Julia". It didn't escape the attention of anyone present that this was the 39th anniversary of John Lennon's death. His spirit was very much alive as very respectful readings of his songs filled the venue. "Revolution 1" was a wonder. As Molland's only lead vocal in the second half, he really made it count.
Highlights abound, the energy increased as the band rolled on, playing with the abandon of teenagers. Thousands of hours of gigging experience were on display, as all in attendance were swept along with their passion. Todd played ringleader and showman to the hilt, dressing as though he had just left the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for "Sexy Sadie". He then did a quick change into full jungle hunter gear, accompanied by a power squirt rifle with which he baptized the first few rows as he giggled through the intro line of "The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill", recovering quickly to pull off a spot on Lennon imitation.
Watching Mickey Dolenz power through "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" was sublime. The filthy riffs in the "I need a fix" section were perfectly executed by Dr. Avers. Similarly, no distorted punches were pulled during a devastating "Helter Skelter", which Rundgren screamed with every ounce of conviction. These guys were all in exceptional voice. No cheating was undertaken by tuning down an octave and they treated every note with respect.
"Birthday" got everyone up and singing together again as did the finale, an encore reading of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which capped off an incandescent night of music. Taking their bows to a well deserved standing ovation, the players trooped off. The crowd filed out to the strains of Ringo crooning "Good Night", with smiles on their faces that a nuclear detonation could not wipe off.
From my perspective (third row, center) the front of house sound was impeccable as was every note that wafted from the stage. Mind blowing show in every respect. They take their collective talents to the Wiltern in LA tomorrow night. Your only excuses for not attending should be death or jail. It is that good. You'll be inspired out of your skull while revisiting a treasure trove of exceptional music.
Thursday, December 05, 2019
The Rolling Stones were in the initial phase of an extremely creative roll as they began work on what would become their eighth LP. Mick and Keith brought their strongest collection of songs to date into the sessions. Beggars Banquet was successful, commercially and with critics. Their next release would be highly anticipated. One dark cloud hovered over the new project. Brian Jones was no longer a productive, functioning member of the team. His absence saw Richards cover all of the bases when it came to guitar work. Gearing up for a return to touring meant that a decision had to be taken. Jones was informed that his services were no longer required in June 1969 and within a few weeks he was dead. Mick Taylor was recruited as his replacement. Despite the tumultuous circumstances surrounding the band during this period, they pulled together to finish Let it Bleed.
When it comes to the deployment of open tuning in the framework of rock composition, it's safe to say that Keith Richards has already explored every option before most of his contemporaries. Half riff machine, half cigarette, the man delivered one of his most memorable passages with "Gimme Shelter", which is done in E major tuning for those of you playing the home game. Opening strong, this is is simply a masterclass in arrangement and taste. Compelling from the introductory notes, there is a tension that builds as each instrument is introduced that actually conjures the effect of an impending storm that Jagger references in the lyric. Merry Clayton's soaring vocal part is a critical element to the structure here. The sheer force of the performance, which is cinematic in scope, would make this the highlight of any album. Simply a cut above anything they had done to that point. If this gem doesn't persuade you to keep listening, then you don't have a pulse.
Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away...
Brilliant sequencing allows for a soft landing pad in their acoustic-driven interpretation of Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain". Understated in execution, it is graced by a delicate mandolin solo courtesy of guest contributor, Ry Cooder. As the lone cover in the pack, it fits perfectly with the general vibe. The same cannot be said of "Country Honk", which should have been elbowed from the set in favor of "Honky Tonk Women". It's a jokey B-side, at best. Things return to focus as "Live With Me" features Keith playing a slinky bass intro, riding the steady wallop of Charlie Watts. It's a straight up, filthy rocker with sex on the menu. You can almost picture Mick's sarcastic leer as he delivers each line. The title cut and companion piece is served up next, closing the first side in spectacularly grimy fashion.
I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement
When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea
But you knifed me in my dirty filthy basement
With that jaded, faded, junkie nurse oh what pleasant company
Grim subject matter is a lyrical thread that runs through all you encounter on this mesmerizing record. There is a callback to the rape/murder exhortations of "Gimme Shelter" in the sprawling blues of "Midnight Rambler". The "hit and run raper" creeping about with sharpened knife conjures absolutely terrifying images. Dramatic and tight as an E string, this stunner would find a home in their set lists for years to come. The remainder of the second side is slightly less intense. It is to their credit that "You Got the Silver" follows, providing a light break from the assault that precedes it. Keith takes his first true solo lead vocal on this tender tune. The sleeper here? "Monkey Man". Fantastic intro, top class bass work from Bill Wyman and it stands as one selection that classic rock radio has not driven into the ground.
In the category of easy decisions, there is no other offering more deserving of the closing spot than "You Can't Always Get What You Want". The strains of the London Bach choir would seem to be the most unlikely sound you would expect to be emanating from your speakers at this point, yet, there they are in full stereophonic glory. Even better, you could not imagine this without them. As they complete their intro, gentle acoustic strumming takes center stage with Al Kooper providing a moody French horn to perfectly set up Jagger.
I saw her today at the reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she would meet her connection
At her feet was her footloose man
Disillusion clouds a very clever lyric, though the addition of one key line softens the blow. ("If you try sometimes you just might find/You get what you need"). There have been many armchair attempts to decode the meaning of the song. Best just to appreciate the artistic triumph of this one, without trying to over-analyze the message. Producer Jimmy Miller "fills in" for Charlie on the kit and there isn't one note out of place. It is a majestic ending to a truly devastating song cycle.
Peering through a cloud of smoke back into the foggy mists of the late 1960s, it is hard to believe that a half century has passed since Let It Bleed first hit the shops. It is more than fair to state that the Stones more than held their own with their competition of that era, which included the Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and Led Zeppelin (to name a few). There has been much ink spilled in editorializing certain aspects of this release. You often hear that it provided a summation to the violence of the decade that spawned it. There is some truth in this take, however, much of that narrative is tied to coincidence. Namely, the issue date was reportedly held up over delays with cover art. When it was ready for public consumption, the unfortunate events that befell their headlining gig at Altamont Speedway cast a pall over what had been an otherwise successful US tour. This took place a day after Let it Bleed was made available to record retailers. That said, none of this detracts from the excellence of the final product and how well it has aged overall. For those who know and love this one, spin it again. For the uninitiated, get yourself a copy now and find out what made these guys great.
Friday, September 20, 2019
Revisiting this often misunderstood disc requires equal measures of patience, open mind/ears and some understanding of the events that preceded the sessions. Ultimately, the listener may want to indulge in a dollop of "Mother Nature's Finest" to get in the head space of the gentlemen who recorded it. Not necessary, of course, though the Beach Boys were admittedly wreathed in smoke during this time, as were many of their contemporaries. Something to keep in mind when you first take in Smiley Smile.
The backstory here is critical. Without going too far down the proverbial rabbit hole, the project that the group was immersed in prior to this one needs to be addressed.
A seemingly endless series of online write ups, audio reconstructions from fans, videos and books have been issued to try and capture the story of Smile. Brian worked tirelessly on this , with the intention of taking his compositions to another level. Aided and abetted by Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the lyrics, members of the famed Wrecking Crew and the vocals of his bandmates, this concept LP was intended to be his magnum opus. He shut down the sessions in the spring of 1967, refusing to do any further recording. Because it did not see official release at the time, Smile achieved legendary status in the intervening years. Certain tracks dribbled out on subsequent Beach Boys albums (including Smiley Smile), though they were reworked by the band.
Finally in 2004, a re-recording/release of the project itself was undertaken by Brian Wilson (as Brian Wilson presents Smile). This was followed in 2011 (with Wilson's blessing) by The Smile Sessions, which presented the project content as it would have been originally sequenced along with outtakes.
Back to summer, 1967
Smiley Smile is an important record for a number of reasons.
The Wilson brothers along with Mike Love and Al Jardine handle the instrumental parts as well as those impeccable vocals. With session players no longer filling these roles, the final product was far more of an actual group effort. They didn't exactly roll the clock back to 1962, setting up as they once had to capture a track, though democracy was (sort of) restored with production credits going to all five members.
This set also prefigured the "lo-fi", home recording movement by a few summers, with the bulk of material taped at Brian's home studio. In this instance, the final mix was light years away from industry standard. After the release of Sgt. Pepper, artists started down the path of lavish, big budget productions. The Beach Boys went in the opposite direction, which was a fairly bold move during this period. The decision wasn't calculated as much as it was born out of necessity, though it put them in the vanguard of the "return to basics" movement that would emerge in 1968.
JUST LISTENING AND RE-LISTENING...
Both sides of the vinyl version of Smiley Smile begin with songs that have elaborate production values. No surprise that both were originally tracked the previous year. "Heroes and Villains" was released as a single in July of '67 and "Good Vibrations" was a massive hit, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic after it was issued in fall 1966. The rest of the disc is austere by comparison, utilizing spare instrumentation and emphasizing vocal harmony. Curiously, the sequencing of these tracks sets the listener up for a pay off that never happens. It almost seems that their placement is a deliberate cover for some of the offbeat insanity that follows. The prime source of the charm that oozes from the grooves here is quirky humor, with the "smiles" generated from both an innocent and subversive perspective. Are they pulling your leg? Sure, though we'll explore that later on.
Heroes and villains, just see what you've done now
There has been much conjecture around what iteration of "Heroes and Villains" should be considered as the definitive version. As mentioned, it was dangled before consumers as a trailer 45 that summer, charting respectably. That exact mix was chosen to open the album. The complexity of the vocal arrangement is stunning and it boasts one of Brian's most haunting melodies. Van Dyke Parks' lyrics are poetic, referencing the conflicts that took place between indigenous peoples of California and the state militia spanning the period of 1850 to 1880. The historical context is not explored in granular detail, but provides the background for a series of vignettes. Recording was a glacial process. Taking place at various times from the initial attempt in May 1966, going well into spring/summer of 1967, multiple mixes and edits were undertaken. Inscrutable as it is beautiful, the final outcome is sublime. What didn't make the grade was the yearning, majestic instrumental outro, which is a shame as it serves as a wonderful summation to a standout cut. (Wilson wisely restored this piece when he re-recorded it in 2004). The unexpurgated Beach Boys take is worth a listen, running nearly five minutes.
Transitioning from this to "Vegetables" is jarring, with an insistent bass line serving as the lone support to those ever-tight harmonies. The tune and lyrical subject matter is deceptively simple, but extremely catchy. Actual vegetables get chomped, with group chewing recorded for posterity. Brian also flies in a segment that had been done during the Smile dates toward the end. Harmless fun, yet damn near impossible to dislodge from the brain. Before you can name your favorite vegetable, we have seasonal change in the ultra-cool, slightly trippy "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter". Managing to sound light and ominous all at once, this interlude packages stacked harmonies that float over percussive noises with a squeeze box deployed to intermittently imitate the laugh of Woody Woodpecker. Setting the table for what follows, things manage to get stranger with "She's Goin' Bald". This bizarre confection starts off fairly straight with a narrative about a girl who quickly becomes "follicly challenged". The Eltro Information Rate Changer then provides a drastic pitch change of the "sha-na-na-na" harmonies midway through, which allowed them to achieve this effect without manipulating the actual speed of the tape. Taking a page from the Silhouettes 1957 hit, "Get a Job", there had to be a lot of spoiled takes and laughter in realizing this one. Savagely cutting the elfin doo-wop insanity dead, a spoken word passage takes over briefly before all is resolved in jazz guitar figures, with a final reminder to the girl that any remedies for her condition are futile.
You're too late mama
Ain't nothin' upside your head
No more no more no more no more
Side one closes on a gentle note with "Little Pad". Announced by a snippet of audio verité, the lads break down in giggles while gathered round the mic. Lyrically slight, the melody is sweet. Brian conjures the music of a time before rock and roll. Deftly strummed ukulele (courtesy of brother Carl) anchors this gem, with a wistful feel generated by the vocal. It finishes as one of the best of the pack. You need only listen.
Following the wayward journey of the first half to the run out grooves, you realize that this is nothing like Pet Sounds. Flipping the disc to start the second side causes a quick revision of that revelation. "Good Vibrations" is a stunning creation deserving of every scrap of praise. Nothing short of a master class in studio craft, it represents the genius of Brian Wilson in full bloom. Worth every penny and hour (reportedly 90 hours) invested over six months of work, it is the most recognizable Beach Boys classic.
Yet it doesn't belong here.
This beauty was a worldwide smash roughly a year before it was slated for inclusion on Smiley Smile. Polished and perfect, these vibrations are the antithesis of all that surround it, "Heroes and Villains" being the lone exception. Still ahead of its time, though not part of the author's (then) current head space. As it fades (gloriously), we are guided back to earth. "With Me Tonight" is a chant, held together by those iron clad vocal harmonies. The stripped down, repetitive approach is also evident in "Little Pad" and the closer, "Whistle In". Small wonder that it was Mike Love (and not Brian) who gravitated strongly toward the practice of Transcendental Meditation. These examples are redolent of chanting a mantra, focusing on a particular phrase to achieve a path to inner tranquility. For Brian, it may have been a musically therapeutic way of blocking out the noise of negative voices, keeping them at bay with positive self talk. The homestretch of this beguiling set is placid, with the exception of "Gettin' Hungry". This is by far the most disposable offering. By contrast, "Wonderful" lives up to its title in every respect, worthy of repeated spins.
All things considered, this LP was unfairly written off when it was made available to an unsuspecting public back in September of '67. Expecting another lush extravaganza a la Pet Sounds, disappointment quickly set in as listeners adjusted to these very quiet soundscapes. It is far better than its reputation would lead you to believe. Returning to the conversational marker concerning the "comedy" aspect of Smiley Smile, there are quite a few layers to be found in this cake. From the slide whistle interjections that punctuate "Heroes and Villains" to the “giggling” backing vocals of "Vegetables", having a laugh seems to be the dominant theme throughout. To wit: "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" has the “haw haw” (sounds close to a dog bark) and the aforementioned Woody Woodpecker laugh. "Wind Chimes" sneaks in a subtle accordion ”laugh” at the 1:26 mark. There is also a deliberately "off" delivery of the "ting a ling" lines that are treated with heavy reverberation, which culminates in the ultimate audio prank. Those barely whispered lines as the song winds down move you to gradually increase the volume in an effort to catch everything. BANG! you then get knocked back in your chair as the opening of "Getting' Hungry" crashes in. Priceless. Add to this the “stoned” laughter at the beginning of "Little Pad" and the entirety of "She's Goin' Bald". Let's just say that it's surprising that they didn't plant a loop of Woody Woodpecker laughter to play insistently in the run out groove.
In my woody, I will take you everywhere I go...
Enough said. Time now to revisit your copy of Smiley Smile, if you happen to own one. While listening, know that there is an intelligent design to the madness that unfolds. Wilson didn't retire to his bedroom at this point. He was wide awake, involved and tuning in to a different creative wavelength.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
September 13th, 1969. The Rock and Roll Revival is held at Varsity Stadium in Toronto before a crowd of 25,000. Twelve hours of music is presented by iconic, first wave pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Representing the (then) current generation of bands are the Doors, Alice Cooper and Chicago.
John Lennon, who had not set foot onstage for a proper gig since Candlestick Park in 1966, was invited to attend. Insisting on performing, he brought Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, Alan White and Yoko out for a rough and ready set that mixed oldies with a couple of new tunes. His appearance was unexpected, the audience erupted and a good time was had by all. The gig was filmed and professionally recorded. The resulting LP, Live Peace in Toronto, hit record stores just three months later.
It all happened a half century ago. Crank it up...
Thursday, August 15, 2019
New music from Led Zeppelin was eagerly awaited by their fan base in the summer of 79. Three years had passed since the issue of Presence and The Song Remains the Same soundtrack. They had not set foot onstage since the ill-starred US tour in 1977, which had been cut short due to the tragic death of Robert Plant's son, Karac. All group activity came to an abrupt stop as the once mighty dirigible lost altitude, floating gently back toward earth. At this point, it was uncertain that the quartet would ever regroup again. This was kept quiet as Plant took time to grieve with his family.
While they were away, the sonic landscape shifted. Punk, new wave, and pub rock offered back to basics, streamlined fare that hit listeners hard. Lengthy sets, interminable solos and spectacle were replaced by short blasts of adrenalin from groups that made up for in energy what they lacked in chops. Radio was dominated by disco, soft rock and pop. The dinosaur tag was slapped on those artists/bands that came to prominence in the previous decade and who were now considered out of touch.
How would Zeppelin respond, creatively, to these developments?
Their return to business would be a fairly glacial process, though the offer of free studio time that came from Abba members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson would be too good to pass up. The now defunct Polar Studios was be no means conveniently located, though it did provide a new environment in which to work. Convening in the last months of 1978 to start the project, winter weather in Stockholm ensured that the players would be woodshedding without distraction. Despite this fact, certain indulgences were still impeding half the team, leaving them not quite match fit. (We'll insert a conversational marker on that point.) They soldiered on, finding their feet and rediscovering their chemistry as a functioning unit.
The contents of In Through the Out Door would serve to both delight and confound listeners on first pass. The key element common to all of their albums is clever sequencing. Page especially knew the power of an attention grabbing first track bookended by a dramatic closer. "In the Evening" would continue that tradition in grand style. Deploying a Gizmotron, Jimmy sets up a hazy, atmospheric drone that has a middle eastern flavor. Hypnotic as it is exotic, the minute long intro creates a spacey feel, building expectation of what's to come.
In the eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevening
Plant breaks the spell, leaving Bonham to kick down the door with authority. Over his four on the floor stomp sits an exquisite, rotating riff punctuated by dive-bombing whammy bar action. All perfectly complimented by the innovative synth touches of John Paul Jones. Page's solo is preceded by a brief, but glorious, noise explosion that he created by depressing the tremolo arm toward the body of his Strat as far as it could go before quickly releasing it. He references this trick in a 1990 interview with Guitar World magazine, stating that he wanted to shake up anyone listening to the tune and make them go, "what the hell was THAT?!?". There is even a quick nod to Clapton's figure from "Outside Woman Blues" in the outro passage to ice the cake. Outstanding work from all involved.
Now is an appropriate time to return to that aforementioned conversational marker. The material that follows can scarcely be described as "Quintessential Zeppelin". This is where devotees of the band who appreciated their "scorched-earth" approach to rock were puzzled. Similarly, if you were in search of acoustic fare there wasn't any to found. One main factor in the musical knuckleball tossed out here is that John Paul Jones had a larger hand in the writing than he had previously. He had also come into possession of a Yamaha GX-1, an analog polyphonic synthesizer organ that figured prominently in the overall sound. He stepped forward because Page had partially checked out, his contributions greatly scaled back in comparison to all efforts that had come before. He played brilliantly, though mainly to add color instead of being the driving factor behind these compositions. Be mindful of this as you listen.
"South Bound Saurez" is a light, piano driven piece that would have sounded more at home on an early Elton John record. Not a bad tune, though nothing that sticks in the brain or bears repeated spins. Zep aficionados were not seeking such detours nor were they hoping for the lads to suddenly morph into the Atlanta Rhythm Section. "Fool in the Rain" is far superior, boasting a strong melody that supports a clever narrative where the protagonist is so anxious about being stood up on an important date that he blanks on the agreed upon meeting place. Nifty 12/8 meter is employed, with the piano and bass playing slightly against it. The instrumental star of this piece is Bonham, who flawlessly executes a deep pocket groove that is worthy of every scrap of praise which has been heaped on it over the years. His technique is stunning. Percussionists can easily go to Youtube and marvel at his work on this cut in isolation. Cigar goes to Jones (with an assist from Robert) for the arrangement, featuring that cool, freewheeling samba breakdown. Plant nails his vocal, making this an absolute highlight. Again they aren't playing to type, though that doesn't matter when the song itself is so strong. Rounding out the first side is "Hot Dog", which is notable for Page's tricky riff, barrelhouse flourishes on the 88s from JPJ and comedic, cornpone delivery from Plant. His Elvis worship comes into play here as does Jimmy's love of the Sun Records sound. While this is a fine example of their versatility and ability to comfortably slip into another genre, the track is dispensable. "Wearing and Tearing" which had been committed to tape during these sessions, but left in the vault, (eventually released on Coda in 1982) would have been a much better fit.
Side two begins with the sprawling, proggy "Carouselambra". Dominated by the stabbing, icy synths of Jones, this multi part vehicle is interesting in places, yet it would have benefited from judicious editing as the running time outlasts the strength of the concept. Zep were rarely tedious with their studio work, the lone exception being made here. By contrast, "All My Love" is a triumph. Taking care with all possible loose ends, the lyric is a fulsome, heartfelt tribute to Plant's son. Out of tragedy, healing is achieved in creative expression. Beautifully sung, delicate guitar decoration is woven in seamlessly in with the keys. All is topped by a stately, classically influenced solo from JPJ. It is the closest that they ever came to a pop song and is another standout. Page was dismissive of this approach in later interviews, going as far to say that it really wasn't their style. He plotted with Bonham to ensure that their next project moved them squarely back into the hard rock camp. This would sadly not come to fruition. In Through the Out Door did close out in far more familiar, bluesy territory. "I'm Gonna Crawl" is soulful, nodding to the Stax sound. Plant pours some real emotion into the mic. And Jimmy? If the master doesn't bring you to the verge of tears with his expressive solo, you don't have a heart. It almost seems as if he is roused from a soporific state, taking the reins belatedly to remind us that his gifts are still intact. Ending on a single note from Jones that sounds like a musical question mark, there is a feeling of unfinished business hanging in the air for a moment. With that, the prodigiously talented aggregation that guided a generation on a magically mind-blowing, decade-long sonic journey took their final recorded bow. Pity was that no one realized it at the time. All future plans ended with the shocking death of Bonham the following year.
EPILOGUE: IN THROUGH THE OUTTAKES
Forty years have passed since the release of this often misunderstood LP. Points can be made for the fact that though it was uneven as a whole, they were at least making an attempt to expand their horizons, experiment with new technology and deliver an end product that was moving with the times. For better or worse, the synthetic layering (which seems woefully dated now) prefigured what was to come in the eighties. All four members of Zeppelin had large music collections, covering a broad range of styles. It should come as no surprise that they would add new colors to their creative palette. Commercially, the disc flew off the shelves of record retailers with alarming speed. Music executives of the era credited this platter with single handedly rescuing an industry that was flagging as the seventies drew to a close.
Page has been protective of their legacy, acting as curator over the years when it has come to the three R's of this iconic band: Remixing, Repackaging and Re-releasing. The 2015 reissue didn't yield very much in the way of aural goodies. Essentially, the second disc features an alternate mix of each song from the original set. It would have been nice to hear demos or tracks that never saw the light of day in any format. Even better, there is live documentation of a handful of these tunes that could have been cleaned up and offered for consumption. Only extremely hardcore fans would play the 2015 extras more than once. If you see a vinyl copy in good shape for five to ten bucks, grab it. No need to shell out anymore than that. There are six different cover photo variations out there as well, just to add to vinyl collectors fun. Happy hunting.
This gig from June 30th, 1980 is one of then best you'll hear as far as late period, live Zeppelin goes. Captured without a net in Frankfurt, they are firing on all cylinders. Far more solid than their Knebworth performances. One week later, they played their last show with Bonzo.