Sunday, December 09, 2018
George Harrison turned a corner with his third studio release. Featuring an array of session players, notably members of the LA Express, the result plays a lot better now than it did to those eagerly awaiting its arrival in the shops back on this date in 1974. While it is not the best LP in his discography (that honor typically goes to All Things Must Pass), it is quite worthy of investigation as he explores a few different sonic avenues. There is a looser feel to some of the tracks ("Hari's On Tour (Express)", "Maya Love") and the author isn't shy about chronicling some of the painful recent events that had cast a shadow upon his personal life. Substance abuse ("Simply Shady"), his marital breakdown/separation ("So Sad", the bizarre cover of and lyrical updates to "Bye Bye, Love") are laundered and left to freely twist in the breeze.
Despite the rough patch, a sense of humor remains. The title cut makes a number of amusing allusions to his status as the quiet, economy class former Fab who sneaks up to pull away from the others in field, running on a dark race course. It features some beautiful, Harrisonoid changes, with a jazzy arrangement lifted by the flute of Tom Scott. Definite highlight and deservedly got the nod as a single release. His voice was not in the best shape for these sessions, though the slight frog in the throat delivery comes very close to that of his old pal Eric Clapton on this one. This actually helps, rather than hinder, the end product. Soul informs the stunning "Far East Man", adding yet another dimension to the overall eclecticism of this disc. This was a co-write with fellow raver, Ron Wood and one that he hoped might pique the interest of Frank Sinatra in terms of having Ol' Blue Eyes cover it. He passed, though you should not as it ranks with "Dark Horse" and "Maya Love" as a standout here. The only real clunker is "Ding Dong, Ding Dong" which was intended to reap some airplay as a would-be seasonal favorite. Lavishly produced, it bombs the assignment due to Harrison's inability to provide a strong vocal performance. In the end, it should have been elbowed off of the completed project.
Why did this effort receive such a critical pasting when it first appeared?
Refusing to play to type, Harrison deliberately went in a 180 degree direction from his work up to that point. Delving into jazz, soul and taking a more spontaneous approach to his craft were bold moves. The record-buying masses aren't keen on change. George put his foot down on providing the musical comfort food that his Beatle-obsessed followers were craving and in doing so, created some very compelling soundscapes for Dark Horse. Listen with fresh ears to the closer ,"It is 'He' (Jai Sri Krishna)". Deeply introspective and exquisitely crafted, it is several summers ahead of what his contemporaries had on offer at that time. Ragged in places, though disarmingly honest overall, Dark Horse is a far better record than its detractors would have you believe. Spinning it again today has revealed further nuances that have only served to reinforce that opinion. Revisit your vinyl copy (if you have one) and hear for yourself.
Thursday, November 22, 2018
The songs that grace this high watermark in the Kinks discography are some of the finest that Ray Davies would ever submit for public consumption. High praise indeed as he was in the midst of an incredibly inspired composing run. "Sunny Afternoon", "Waterloo Sunset", "Autumn Almanac" and the brilliant Something Else by the Kinks LP had all showcased an embarrassment of riches in terms of pure quality.
In part, Village Green offers up a fond, poetic obituary for a fictional place in the distant past. The added bonus comes in the use of interesting stylistic, musical detours which maintain listener engagement throughout. This should have been a universal smash for the group. The release date would not be an auspicious one for the set. Falling on the same day as The White Album, the disc was overshadowed by this seismic event along with the offerings of other heavy hitters during this timeline (Beggars Banquet, Electric Ladyland had also hit the shops at this point). Lacking proper promotion (new albums weren't hyped half as much as they are today) and with the Kinks still banned from touring in the US, it sank commercially. Lyrical subject matter was well out of step with the psychedelic vibe that was prevalent at that time, which also didn't help matters.
"While everybody else thought that the hip thing to do was to drop acid, to do as many drugs as possible and listen to music in a coma, the Kinks were singing songs about lost friends, draught beer, motorbike riders, wicked witches and flying cats."
One additional wrench in the works was a decision to put out a different iteration of the disc for the European market. This version had 12 tracks, omitting "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains", "Big Sky", "Sitting by the Riverside", "Animal Farm" and "All of My Friends Were There" and adding "Mr. Songbird" and the excellent "Days", which had already scored in Britain as a single. The record company restored the aforementioned tunes (removing "Mr. Songbird" and "Days") for the more familiar 15 cut sequence that went out to residents of the US and UK.
Are you with me now?
Tinkling piano, underpinned by softly strummed acoustic guitars and a descending bass line introduce the title track. The Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium, the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular, the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate-inventive playfulness wrapped in an engaging melody that starts you on a very English trip.
Fairly weighty thoughts, for a 24 year old, also shape "Do You Remember Walter?". The frustration felt by the inability to reconnect with a childhood friend who has succumbed to complacency is a universal subject. Jeff Lynne tipped his hat to it nearly a decade later in the opening of ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" which matches the piano and drum intro exactly.
"Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago
If you saw me now you wouldnt even know my name.
I bet youre fat and married and youre always home in bed by half-past eight.
And if I talked about the old times you'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say."
Growing old wasn't a common theme in the music of the late 60's, though the first line of "Picture Book" suggests that you imagine yourself doing just that. Looking over your shoulder at the past, all the usual suspects show up while thumbing through an album of dusty photos. Davies was reportedly going through a patchy period in the mid sixties, suffering a depressive episode. Better spirits recovered, childhood memories of bed and breakfast, seaside vacations in "those days when you were happy, a long time ago" were channeled into his work.
"Big Sky" seems to be an impassive watcher of all that goes on below it, with lyrics that suggest an anti religious sentiment. ("Someday, we'll be free...") The band plays hard here (and on "Wicked Anabella"), without regressing to the sound of their early, almost punkish singles.
Music hall now made an appearance in certain arrangements, yet this would not figure as prominently in Davies’ playbook until the early to mid 70's. Proceedings do take a strange turn, at times. Noel Coward on acid fuels the vari-speeded "Sitting By the Riverside", though the full on psychedelic path is purposely avoided. Because of this, the band also fell out of sync with then current trends. Production values were not at the level of the Kinks' contemporaries, allowing distorted sounding drums, bass rumbles and guitar buzz to remain. Getting sounds to tape without overloading the tracks would have greatly enhanced the overall audio experience.
The material was strong enough to get by this fact, though it's a minor annoyance.
Let it be stated that though the majority of the compositional load fell on Ray, brother Dave contributed a lot in shaping the final product. His input is truly deserving of co-credit. Similarly, kudos are in order for the tastefully solid foundation work of Quaife and Mick Avory. They had stretched as a functioning unit, their touch turning far more subtle in the relatively short journey from the early, proto-metal blasts of pure riff-rock that brought them to prominence in 1964.
Village Green presents a kinder, gentler Kinks, if you will. All is viewed through the lens of a quasi-pastoral existence, "far away from the soot and noise of the city" where life is quiet.
"I tried to write about what I knew, and that was the neighbourhood I grew up in. All of those songs were inspired by characters who lived, probably, 100 yards away from me. But they also pick up on a kind of wistful and ironic facet of English culture. English people are a little bit wistful and mundane - and I like the people that have little quirks in their lives and low-achieving people. I think they're worth writing about. It's something to do with the English culture and dark humor and the way we look at the world."
Bassist Pete Quaife named "Animal Farm" as his favorite track saying that, "the song gave him shivers when he first heard Ray banging it out on piano." "Starstruck" continues on an ethereal path, with mellotron supporting the lyrical reading of an individual that gets caught up in fast living, chasing after a rock star. A promotional film was made for this one, the last featuring the original lineup.
Lovely sonic surprises crop up as the needle travels across the grooves. "Phenomenal Cat" musically echoes what Syd Barrett had been doing on Piper at the Gates of Dawn., with bizarre, sped up elfin voices unsettling the once upon a time, fairy story atmosphere "Monica", by contrast, slips into a latin jazz. Sarcastically funny, "People Take Pictures of Each Other" is a cruel version of picture book in which the author expresses his distaste both for being photographed and being stuck, sitting for hours perusing them.
"Don't show me no more, please!"
Completely deflating the yearning, nostalgic theme of the album, it employs a soundtrack flown in from a distant generation to completely kill all that came before. It is nothing less than a masterstroke of sequencing as the curtain drops.
My own trip into the past comes into play here. Being steered toward this record opened another important door in my musical education. Flashback to summer 1981: Twelve year old me is in a familiar place, flipping through the stacks of a local record store. An older man who took notice of the titles that I was looking at approached me.
You really like 60's music? Have you ever listened to the Kinks?
I really hadn't, except for "You Really Got Me".
He went on to explain why they were great and that "The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society" was the one to seek out. Prophetically, he also said that I should buy lots of Stones albums as they would probably be making records for another twenty years or so. Never did see that guy again, though he was very wise. It took some time to fully appreciate Ray Davies' genius, though his body of work puts him in the same class as the premier songwriters of the sixties. Should you should sell a family member or a kidney to get a copy of this album?
Concerning the low profile of this wonderful set, Ray himself once jokingly noted that, "Even the people who talk about Village Green probably haven't heard it."
Fortuitously, subsequent generations have been exposed to the magic of this timeless classic via some long overdue repackaging love. First came the 2004 deluxe edition, which shoveled up much of what was recorded during these sessions on three CDs, in better fidelity.
In grand celebration of its 50th birthday, the "Superdeluxe" package leaves no stone unturned, giving the Superfan 11 discs and a staggering 174 selections to become immersed in. Pop into this link for all of the details. Sadly, they don't make 'em like this anymore.
Saturday, November 17, 2018
Synchronicity – an acausal principle as a basis for the apparently random simultaneous occurrence of phenomena
The last recorded statement from this legendary trio manages to be exciting, dark, jarring, clever and accessible all at once. Neatly avoiding the aural traps that would forever freeze their contemporaries in time, Synchronicity plays as fresh today as it did upon its release. Far from radiating mindless good cheer, the subject matter ponders extinction, spiritual decay, betrayal and relationships in turmoil. All was expertly woven together by the principal author of this intriguing song cycle. Copeland and Summers each chipped in with one of their own compositions, supporting Sting's endeavors with their usual imaginative, impeccable instrumental magic.
Cigar to Hugh Padgham for a pristine production job. Listening now to my vinyl copy in awe.
Austerity in arrangement is the key to the joyous aural experience, allowing every snare hit, bass line and guitar figure to punch through spectacularly in the mix. The virtuosity of all three musicians is slightly muted in favor of subtlety. Copeland is most notably reserved on the second side of the disc, keeping time and adding flourishes where required. He is not filling every empty space with dexterous high-hat work or flying across the kit, yet when he does break out (the outro of "O My God", the entirety of Synchronicities I and II) it is electrifying. Summers puts on a masterclass in tasteful, atmospheric coloring, leaving no blemish on any track. The sounds that he coaxes from his guitar and accompanying effects deployed are always in service of the song. Special mention goes to the dazzling set of runs that he rolls across "Synchronicity II". He also raises the ghost of Plastic Ono Band with "Mother", which is bizarre and a step ahead of its time. The Mother Complex in waltz time, complete with primal screaming, also fits into the Jungian concepts that inform much of this LP, albeit unintentionally.
Without question, this is pretty much a Gordon Sumner showcase. His mindset going into the writing process was not a happy one. His marriage was on the rocks and relations with his bandmates were fractious, at best. All parties have expressed their opinions on the difficulties that clouded the sessions. For Sting, his creative outlet became a source of healing. Four singles hit commercial paydirt upon release, though by far the most successful was the "tune that shall not be named". It is subversive in tone, possessing dark undercurrents that are not the norm for a worldwide, number one smash hit. Deserving of all acclaim, its power lies in a direct simplicity that is difficult to achieve in songcraft.
Every cake you bake, every leg you break
There is a palpable tension that builds through side one of Synchronicity. Listeners are treated to abrupt, 180 degree turns as the change-ups are relentless, much to the credit of all involved in sequencing. The rush of images and aggressive playing of the opener dissolves into tribal, world beat ("Walking in Your Footsteps") and a sobering message about the fragility of existence. That paranoia creeps into "Miss Gradenko" which playfully examines forbidden love under the guise of a totalitarian regime and a feeling of impending disaster is what makes "Syncronicty II" so compelling even as of this writing. Long shadows are cast, though the melodies are brilliant. Sting's bassmanship is particularly sharp with sparkling lines underpinning both "O My God" and the aforementioned "Miss Gradenko". Side two provides a break from the claustrophobia-inducing tone that pervades the beginning of the set. Though the material is less experimental, it is minor-key morose in nature. Beautifully executed, "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" manage to transcend the root core of hurt/betrayal that inspired both cuts. They are nothing less than triumphant highlights in a stacked deck. The moody closer ("Tea in the Sahara") ends on an anticlimactic, dour note. With an enchanting storyline that took a cue from The Sheltering Sky, the image of the beguiled sisters burning under the desert sun with nothing more than broken promises and cups filled with sand is grim.
This ambitious and smart offering is timeless, succeeding on every level. The men who created it were aware enough to know that they would not be able to carry on as they were. Sting had the vision, though it was unfair to assume that the massive talents of Summers and Copeland could be sublimated, relegating them to silent session players. To their credit as a team, they moved away from the reggae-fied sound that brought them to prominence and continued to stretch creatively. Synchronicity stands as their finest work and a fitting swansong for a group that accomplished a lot in a very short window of time.
Sunday, September 02, 2018
Indulgence in genre hopping seems fairly commonplace in the 21st century, so most contemporary listeners greet these shifts by their favorite artists with a resigned shrug. In 1968, The Byrds full on swan dive into country music was widely viewed by their fans as sacrosanct. The band had flirted with this style on a handful of tracks spread over their previous five LPs, though they never fully committed to it. This type of musical cross-pollination wasn't entirely unprecedented at that time. Jerry Lee Lewis, Buffalo Springfield, Rick Nelson, Dylan and The Beatles all recorded material that bore the stamp of country-fried influences, yet stopped short of total immersion.
Prior to embarking on their path toward the Sweetheart sessions, all was not well with the Byrds. The recording of their last LP The Notorious Byrd Brothers saw the departure of David Crosby and Michael Clarke. The album itself was one of their best efforts. The group, on the other hand, was effectively gutted. Needing to replace the departed in order to play live, their first act was to bring in Kevin Kelley on drums. The trio played some small gigs but it soon became evident that they would need a fourth musician to properly flesh out their sound on stage.
Enter Gram Parsons
Though his tenure with the band was brief, Sweetheart of the Rodeo may not have happened if he had not come into their orbit. Whole books and articles have been devoted to this subject. In short, Parsons bonded with Hillman while kicking around some old country tunes together. Gram spelled out his plan to intertwine rock with country, something he had first attempted with the International Submarine Band record in 1967. Hillman was game. McGuinn took some convincing when the idea was initially floated to fully submit to the rustic charms of traditional roots music and head to Nashville to lay it all down. He acquiesced and they set to work, aided by session pros JayDee Maness on pedal steel, guitarist Clarence White, John Hartford (who handled banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar) with Earl P. Ball and Barry Goldberg on piano. Clocking in at just over thirty minutes, the result was a model of concision, glorious harmony and impeccably rendered song craft. Curiously, this incarnation of the Byrds was also done by the time Sweetheart was released in late August. Commercial reception was chilly, though that is understandable considering the jarring 180 degree turn taken by the group. Rock journalism of the era was limited to paper based media. News related to the upcoming projects and plans of "your favorite artists" travelled far more slowly. Promotional ads were utilized by record labels, though in most cases, new releases appeared without months of aggressive marketing campaigns to precede them. The Byrds audience was not prepared for what they heard and were duly perplexed. Airplay was limited in terms of pop/rock radio. Country stations viewed the long-haired hippie boys' foray into their territory with suspicion and also opted not to take up the disc. The Outlaw movement was still in the future. Country music stars remained in their own camp with followers who didn't pay much attention to rock bands or the burgeoning counterculture. Delivering this magic record put them in the vanguard of a particular sound. They would have to wait patiently for the rest of the world to catch up.
Bookended by two Dylan compositions, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” kicks off the proceedings in grand style. McGuinn renders the unfathomable lyric beautifully, with smooth pedal steel lines supporting the verses. This was one of many tunes that Bob worked on with The Band in the basement of Big Pink. Roger altered a line that Dylan playfully corrected him on when he re-recorded the tune for release on his second greatest hits album in 1971.
"Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn."
Chris Hillman gets nominated next for one of the best lead vocal tracks in the pack. "I Am a Pilgrim" is an old Christian spiritual that dates back to the late 19th century, though its authorship is unknown. Hillman has no trace of affectation in his delivery, bringing home the lyric beautifully with a very even, natural tone. All three singers do a very earnest and admirable job throughout of occupying the space without ever sliding into hokey parody. Both cuts are standouts and were duly issued as singles, though neither selection caught fire on the charts.
There is a subversive genius at work in the arrangements here. The "country-rock" tag is actually a simplification of what is really happening under the surface. "You Don't Miss Your Water" is soulful, R & B in the hands of its writer (William Bell) yet is reworked to synthesize rock drumming, the mellow back-porch strains of pedal steel and iron clad harmonies that veer toward pastoral settings rather than the Stax sound. Similarly, this approach is taken with "One Hundred Years From Now" and the closer "Nothing Was Delivered". On the other side of the spectrum, you have Parsons clearly channeling George Jones on "You're Still On My Mind" as the narrator soaks up booze in a local watering hole to fill the void of the departure of an ex lover. "Life in Prison" is cut from the same cloth, retaining the uptempo honky tonk shuffle with despondent lyrical subject matter. Antithetical to the aforementioned hybrid selections, they provide a listening experience that has variance in theme. Don't be fooled by labels, as you really do hear a subtle, sonic shift in gears as the album progresses. Ranging from the dirt-under-the-nails folk of "Pretty Boy Floyd" to the unabashed "livin for the Lord" overtones of a Louvin Brothers classic ("The Christian Life") you also get the aching beauty of Parsons' ode to his teenage home in Greenville, South Carolina ("Hickory Wind"). The experience is rewarding in every aspect.
"One Hundred Years From Now" is sublime.
Returning to where they begin this set, Dylan's inscrutable “Nothing Was Delivered” wraps up Sweetheart with a combination of elements that make this LP so brilliant. Production, playing and singing are all equally fine with an oblique summary in the refrain:
“Nothing is better, nothing is best / Take care of yourself, get plenty of rest.”
Critical estimations from the era in which it appeared were actually pretty positive. There were dissenting opinions about the new direction, though to their credit, the band did not overplay their hand with their fans in presentation. They do not appear on the cover in ten gallon hats, soberly posing in the garb of the wild west amongst tumbleweeds. Presentation is as subtle as the musical content. No references are made to the political and social turbulence of the late sixties, which has allowed the disc to age gracefully. Outside of and a step ahead of its time, Sweetheart of the Rodeo has lived up to its reputation as an incredibly brave and influential work.
The following year, Hillman and Parsons would team up to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, while McGuinn recruited a whole new cast of players to forge ahead under the Byrds name. The country rock banner would be taken up by subsequent groups to far greater acclaim, though the architects did eventually get their due acknowledgment as true innovators.
McGuinn, Hillman, Marty Stuart and a crack band of pros are currently in the midst of a tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart. Playing the album in its entirety, along with a mix of other classics, the dates are selling out quickly and the reviews have been glowing. Here's a taste of what to expect from these legendary musicians and upcoming dates as of this writing.
Sept. 9 Folly Theatre Kansas City, MO
Sept. 12 Historic Gillioz Theatre Springfield , MO
Sept. 17 Albany, NY Hart Theater @ The Egg
Sept. 18 Albany, NY Hart Theater @ The Egg [Sold Out]
Sept. 20 Hopewell, VA Beacon Theatre [Sold Out]
Sept. 23 New York, NY Town Hall
Sept. 24 New York, NY Town Hall [Sold Out]
Sept. 26 Boston, MA The Emerson Colonial Theatre
Oct. 1 Louisville, KY Brown Theatre
Oct. 3 Akron, OH Akron Civic
Oct. 8 Nashville, TN The Ryman Auditorium
Oct. 10 Roanoke, VA The Jefferson Center
Oct. 15 Durham Performing Arts Center Durham, NC
Oct. 21 Byers Theatre Atlanta, GA
Oct. 23 EKU Center For The Arts Richmond, KY
Oct. 30 Carnegie Music Hall Of Homestead Munhall, PA
Nov. 9 Majestic Theatre Dallas, TX
Nov. 10 Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater Austin, TX
Thursday, May 10, 2018
Inspired by the historic naval battle of 1805 that took place west of Cape Trafalgar at the mid-point of the Napoleonic wars, the Bee Gees ninth disc was not a conceptual piece that documented every aspect of the British defeat of the Franco-Spanish coalition. Aside from the cover artwork which featured a reprint of Pocock's painting (The Battle of Trafalgar) and an elaborate recreation of Lord Nelson's death on the inner sleeve, there is little reference to this historical event found in the music. For those who enjoy such trivia, the gatefold shot features Barry playing Admiral Nelson, surrounded by Robin, Maurice, their father Hugh Gibb, Geoff Bridgeford, and an unidentified man in the shadows.
Standing a few feet taller than everything else on this disc is the majestic "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart", which begins with Robin delivering his lines in a vulnerable, almost tentative fashion. Barry joins as the track builds toward the chorus, which has their pitch-perfect harmonies stacked against piano and understated strings. Their melodic sensibility here is balanced by dynamics which draw the listener closer. The full stop before the hook-line isn't anticipated, making that falsetto vocal change-up altogether more surprising. Achingly beautiful, with a universally understood refrain, the Gibbs were rewarded with a their first chart topping single. They run up another contender for stand out selection in the pack with "Israel", which has an ethereal overall feel complements of the orchestral touches and inventive bass work. Their estimable talents as singers lifts the material, though it would be fair to say that the mood here is reserved throughout. Upbeat fare, programmed to move the party to the dance floor, this is not. Primarily focused on song craft, great care is lavished upon every detail in production. Now afforded the luxury of using two-inch, 16-track master tape, this allowed for increased separation of instruments and voices, which inevitably made more refined stereo mixes possible.
Per usual, Maurice is a one-man instrumental army. He also takes (rare) lead vocals on both of his contributions ("It's Just the Way", Trafalgar"). One of the most curious tunes in the "back-nine" is "Don't Wanna Live Inside Myself" which has a verse whose melody is more than reminiscent of "Helpless" (CSNY) and then veers sharply toward "I Shall Be Released" in the approach to the chorus. They had been down this path before with "Marley Purt Drive" from Odessa (think "The Weight"). Subversive humor at work, no doubt. All three brothers could be quite funny in both live shows and interview situations, though that side of their personality was muted in their writing. Closing with the sweeping "Walking Back to Waterloo", Trafalgar ends on a dramatic and classy note. The prevailing tone is one of introspection, which positions this LP as a perfect accompaniment to twilight, adult beverages and headphones. The mix is sublime with enough subtlety to maintain interest. Hypnotic without being soporific, this set has aged remarkably well.
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Long in circulation as a bootleg recording, the audio document of The Who laying waste to the stage of the Fillmore East in April 1968 caught the quartet in excellent form and fidelity. Tight from months of road work, their sets were no less than beautifully executed sonic assaults on the lucky crowds in attendance. Lauded as one of the greatest live rock bands of any era, the illicit issue of this material in the mid 70s only served to solidify such opinions.
This single, black market disc was duly redistributed over time in various formats, yet only told part of the story.
The April 5th and 6th shows were taped in their entirety, though the capture of the first night was botched and unsalvageable. Barring technical issues that obliterated large parts of "Substitute" and "Pictures of Lily", the second attempt was magic. The unofficial version that originally leaked out to collectors is truncated, however. "Relax" and "My Generation" both fade out prematurely, while the beginning of "A Quick One" is also unceremoniously cut, picking up the action with the "Ivor" sequence.
Enter Bob Pridden and Richard Whittaker
Tasked with dusting off the original four-track tapes and utilizing 21st century technology to mix them for proper release, they did a fantastic job. The performances are incandescent, showing a powerhouse band in a crucial phase of transition. Maximum R & B was abandoned at the side of their touring highway, growing smaller in the rearview mirror as the unique songwriting vision of Pete Townshend coalesced. Reconciling studio arrangements with the precision attack that the instrumentalists brought to their live work, the results remain astonishing a half century on.
In the initial rush of what came to be known as the "British Invasion" in the early sixties, groups would generally have a half hour turn on stage after their opening acts. Front of house sound was treated as an afterthought as amplification was limited to what the players themselves had onstage. Vocals were run through columns that pointed toward the audience, monitors were non-existent and the brief was to turn up, play aggressively and shout to be heard over the crowd. This worked out fine for small clubs, though the ability to project the music to larger venues filled with screamers wasn't possible at that time. Bill Graham was one of the early champions of giving artists a proper platform to deliver their message. He viewed rock concerts as theatrical performances, thus the musicians he promoted were equipped with the best sound and lights available. Having hit on a winning formula in San Francisco with the Fillmore, he gambled on renovating an abandoned movie theater in New York City in 1965 and the Fillmore East showcased some of the greatest bands of that era.
Are we there yet?
The Who had made their US debut roughly a year before, playing short sets in front of rotating crowds as part of a package gig (promoted by DJ Murray the K) in New York with Cream and a few other notable acts. Set length was 15 minutes. Constant touring followed with an appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June helping to raise their profile in the States. Between gigs they had to squeeze in session time to complete their inventive concept LP The Who Sell Out which was released at year end.
Having put hundreds of hours into their craft, the beast that was Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon now stretched their show well beyond a perfunctory turn of 30 minutes. The concept of extended jams were coming into vogue and "stacks" replaced the lone amplifier that hitherto had been the only source of noise for guitarists/bassists. The revolution of signal phase distortion raised the game, giving birth to ROCK and a genuinely mind-bending experience for concert goers.
"My Generation" swallows two full sides here, clocking in at 33 minutes. Kicking off with the stop/start motif, Entwistle solo bursts and key signature change toward the chaos that closes the studio recording, they take an abrupt detour into improvisational madness. The lads throw up a compelling wall of noise: Moon flailing around his kit as Townshend coaxes an array of sounds from his axe, while Entwistle solos as much as his counterpart on the four-string. They lose each other in the sonic hedge maze at times, though the germs of themes that would be integral to Tommy show up as they bomb the faithful back to the Stone Age with sheer intensity. The casual fan may only take one pass through this, yet it reveals them to be far heavier than their records belied up to that point in time. Similarly, "Relax" is a revelation extended out to nearly 12 minutes of psychedelic bliss, with a quick shot of "Day Tripper" thrown in for fun. Never in solidarity with the hippy bands that came out of California during this era, the Who made an exception in their approach with this deep cut from Sell Out. Special mention goes to their take on "A Quick One (While He's Away)". It weighs in as the third longest piece from the Fillmore gigs and was a genuine surprise. The ending still grants forgiveness to all but goes on for quite some time in the outro as Entwistle gives a mini-master class on how to work every inch of the fret-board. It is different from the arrangements they did at Leeds, on the BBC, Monterey Pop and even the superb take from the Rock and Roll Circus film.
There once was a note, LISTEN!
Pretty much everything etched into the grooves is a highlight reel. You get a spotless version of "Tattoo" and Townshend's offering to the American Cancer Society, "Little Billy", which went unused until it was pulled from mothballs for Odds and Sods in 1974. The scattershot drum pattern of "Happy Jack" hits a home run as does "I'm a Boy". The caffeinated, "run and gun" Eddie Cochran covers ("Summertime Blues", "C'mon Everybody") along with a few other selections from the vaults ("Fortune Teller", "Shakin' All Over") would remain in their set lists for another couple of years.
Switching to a gear that was hitherto unknown for them, the transitory period of their stage show from 1967 to 1970 wasn't well documented. This slab of brilliance fills in the gap, showing the pre-Tommy Who to be already one of the best in the business. An exciting release, Live at the Fillmore East 1968 is highly recommended. Best appreciated in vinyl format.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Supposing that this record was a room, then its contents would certainly bear the hallmark of opulence. Rare paintings adorning the walls, with furnishings and fixtures from an interior decorator's wet dream to complete the space. Cracks and blemishes? Sure, a few are present, yet the sheer brilliance of the cornerstone pieces divert your attention from any surface flaws. The brothers Gibb dipped their cups into a well of songwriting riches early on, always coming up with them filled to the brim. Bee Gees 1st was actually their third full length release, though it was the first to be issued internationally.
Truly fine it is.
Even a cursory listen will reveal that these lads possessed sharp melodic instincts, harmonic gifts and an intrinsic knowledge of song craft well beyond their years. To put things in perspective, while in the midst of writing and recording this material, Robin and Maurice were 17. Barry was the elder statesman at the tender age of 19.
This set appeared at the height of the Summer of Love, a window of time which saw an incredibly eclectic crop of musical styles unveiled to an unsuspecting public. The Beatles had recently set a very high bar with Sgt. Pepper in June, casting a daunting shadow over their contemporaries at that point. To their credit, the Bee Gees held their own, turning out high quality, easily assimilated work on this LP. While some content is redolent of the sonic template that the Fab Four had established on Revolver the previous year (which evolved exponentially on Pepper), they did have their own artistic voice. With Colin Petersen (drums) and Vince Melouney (guitar) on board as full fledged members, the quintet was also a legitimate performing entity. This lineup would stay intact until 1970.
Percentage wise, exceptional songs are the rule here. No less than five tracks from this platter found their way onto their first hits compilation in 1969 (Best of Bee Gees). These selections all have a distinctive flavor, caressing the neural population in your auditory cortex in a manner that will not allow your brain to shake them easily. Catchy yet curiously minor key morose at their core, they played a major role in bringing the Gibbs to the attention of the masses.
"Holiday" sees Barry taking lead vocal honors to set things up ("Ooh, you're a holiday/such a holiday") with Robin's distinctive quaver taking over in short order (beginning with "It's something I thinks worthwhile"). They deliver a lyric that likens a romantic partner to a vacation or trip. Possessing a high haunt count, the melody grabs you immediately. Whether "the puppet makes you smile" or not isn't the point. When writing about love and relationships, they were deliberately vague in framing the narrative. In an excerpt from Daniel Rachel's fascinating book,The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters, Robin explains the process:
"Holiday" was written on an autoharp...There have been songs called "Holiday" since, but we were probably the first group to write a song called "Holiday" about a relationship...Songwriting is not so much about the obvious; it's about going around the houses and looking at it from a different angle.
Hitting the top ten at that time in the singles sweepstakes, this one still resonates even a half century removed from that era.
Grim subject matter frames "New York Mining Disaster, 1941", yet they take the plight of those trapped by an underground collapse and turn it into a conversation. Following a very solemn intro, the music breaks out of its straight-jacket, building in intensity and speeding up in an unorthodox fashion.
Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?/ Do you know what it's like on the outside?/Don't go talking too loud you'll cause a landslide...
The orchestral arrangement is ideal with those iron clad harmonies tying it all together. Viewed through the Gibb's lens, there is no resolution, only resignation when it comes to the doomed crew, sealed in miles below the surface of the earth. Oddly enough, Rupert Holmes may have taken inspiration from this when he crafted "Timothy", which was a minor chart hit for The Buoys in 1971. In a "you-have-to-hear-this-to-believe-it" scenario, the protagonist is singing about being snagged in a mine cave-in with Joe and Tim. They are located and freed, though only two survive to tell the tale. The inference is that they resort to cannibalism, consuming Timothy to stay alive while awaiting rescue.
Moving to more conventional fare, "To Love Somebody" is a quintessential torch song that Barry draws every iota of raw emotion out of in his vocal. Achingly powerful in a visceral sense, a debt to the Motown sound is quite obvious in the arrangement. This one cuts to the chase beautifully, has been widely (deservedly) covered by other artists and boasts an incredible hook. Anyone who has been on the short side of love can relate. "I Can't See Nobody" emerges as its natural companion, with the refrain again bringing home a universal sentiment: love can blind you to all other available options. All four aforementioned compositions managed to grab the public imagination in a big way, despite having an underlying sadness about them. There is catharsis in suffering, though it helps to have such innovative soundscapes to soften the hard medicine in the messages.
Oh solo Dominique...
Maurice emerges as multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire in the unique, psychedelic and quite startling "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You". Mixing Gregorian chant, mind bending mellotron and a good deal of confidence in pulling this one off, there is much to be commended in terms of its construction. Beautifully "out there", they never attempted anything even remotely like it again. An exercise in good intentions gone right, it remains "trippy" as of this writing.
Circling back to my earlier comment about stylistic comparisons to that quartet from Liverpool, the Klaus Voormann designed cover art wasn't the only linkage to Revolver to be found here. "In My Own Time" runs uncomfortably close to the structure of "Taxman" with jagged, distorted down-strokes on rhythm guitar and McCartney's bass line showing up with little alteration. Drop-dead perfect emulation of John/Paul/George three-part harmony makes you forget about this and marvel at how dialed in the lads were as singers. Sharing DNA didn't hurt, either. The drawing room harpsichord that drives "Turn of the Century" nudges into Pepperland territory ("Fixing a Hole"), though they counter that by running the clock back to examine life through the eyes of those souls that witnessed the last gasp of the 1800s. "Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts" is pure English musical hall, very much in the vein that Ray Davies was mining in his work with the Kinks as they turned away from riff-based rock in the mid-sixties. My personal favorite of the deep cuts is "Cucumber Castle". Brief with esoteric strings that serve to enhance the song, rather than smother it, the title would be recycled for a future project. It would represent a difficult chapter in their career that saw Robin leave the fold for a short time to embark on a solo venture. Happily, all differences would be patched up amicably. Flashing back to 1967, hard work and talent aligned perfectly to bring the first taste of fame to the Bee Gees.
Returning to my dog-eared vinyl copy to take in this gem was easy. Even the second tier tunes have merit and properly listening again after a long time away has renewed my appreciation for them as composers. When the band comes up in conversation, people tend to immediately flash on the trio as they appeared at the height of Disco-mania in the late 70s, when the Saturday Night Fever film soundtrack dominated radio playlists. Multi-faceted as writers, musicians and prodigiously talented singers, the ingenuity that fueled Bee Gees 1st was impressive, establishing them as a creative force a full decade prior to this. If it's not already part of your collection, grab it. One of their best records, bar none.
Sunday, February 04, 2018
Denny Laine, along with a very talented group of musicians, brought a venerable recording to life last Thursday evening. Performing the Band on the Run album in its entirety, with a further mix of Wings and Moodies selections, Laine and his wrecking crew owned the stage, leaving two packed houses deliriously happy in the bargain. Weaving in some humorous banter between songs, the newly minted member of the Rock and Roll Hall of fame appeared relaxed and graciously shared the spotlight with his band mates. Each took a turn at the mic, flawlessly executing their daunting lead vocal tasks. No mean feat, it is a high compliment to their collective abilities as singers.
Vocal harmonies were impeccable ("Mamunia", "Bluebird"), extended guitar solos inspired ("Helen Wheels", "No Words", "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five") while the group maintained a perfect balance of spontaneity and adherence to the arrangements. Laine joked that they were "not a tribute band" because of their resistance to playing the numbers by rote. His comment is given significant weight by virtue of one irrefutable fact.
He was there when these songs first took shape in the studio...
Despite the complexity involved in putting across this LP in a live setting, without a net, it was successful on every level.
The crowd knew every word, with the master of ceremonies delivering on the promise of a high energy performance. Front of house sound was pristine, the size of the venue was ideal to catch every nuance and the set list was a virtual highlight reel. As "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" was building to that classic crescendo, everyone in the was on their feet, swept away by a killer musical experience.
There was more to come
Denny roared through "Time to Hide", one of his underrated gems from Wings at the Speed of Sound and showcased some tasty harp playing. In addition to leading a particularly fired-up "Sprits of Ancient Egypt", the caffeinated version of James Brown's "I Go Crazy" from the first Moodies disc was another welcome surprise. Closing with the ballad that he has long been most closely associated with, "Go Now" wound down the proceedings with class. Truly superb evening and it was an absolute pleasure to be in attendance.
Denny's partners in crime are all top class players in their own right. Most reviewers are remiss in failing to mention those key individuals in supporting roles. All of the following gents may take a virtual bow.
Alex Jules - One man keyboard army/horn section. His solos were brief, yet riveting and note perfect. Great voice.
Benjamin Lecourt- In addition to expertly steering the ship through the shifting sands of various time signatures, brought his bilingual skills to the fore during "Picasso's Last Words".
Brian Pothier - Bouncing between acoustic 12 string and electric lead guitar, his feel and tone were spot on. Impressive, precise slide work, as well.
Erik Paparozzi - Serious chops on the low end, though he ran all of Paul's bass lines respectfully and hit impossibly high notes with ease on every vocal turn. Quiet captain of the team.
Special mention goes to the songs themselves. While the adversity faced by Paul, Linda and Denny during the making of Band on the Run has been well documented, the lyrics and melodies themselves reveal no trace of these stresses. Instead there is an underlying theme of escape, flight, speed and joyful confidence infused in every note. The material itself was not tied to any political or socio-economic stances of the era allowing it to remain fresh in 2018. Watching it happen live provided a renewed respect for the continuous creativity that powered the LP.
Message to all who take the time to read this. If Denny is taking his act to your city this year, do whatever it takes to secure tickets. This gifted man is generous with his time and puts on an amazing show. Find out more about Denny Laine's future musical plans at his page
Sunday, January 21, 2018
1982 was a breakout year for Colin Hay and his mates. The Men At Work had put in their time since their formation in 1978 getting tight as a performing unit. In November of 1981, Business as Usual was released. Massive success followed. While folks were whistling "Downunder", record buyers sent both the single and LP to the top of the pops. In the midst of a heavy touring/promotional schedule, the group managed to commit a second collection of songs to tape. Less whimsical than their first in terms of lyrical subject matter, Cargo was shelved for some time before the record company gave the green light for issue in the spring of 1983. The executive decision was directly related to the aforementioned success of Business as Usual. No need to have competing product in the marketplace when sales were still brisk.
Who can it be now?
Heralded by the eerie sound of wind, footsteps and chiming bells, "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive" kicks open the door with force, putting a slight spin on the classic tale of a mad scientist who alters himself (physically and mentally) by downing a beaker of his latest chemical experiment. An arresting tune, the refrain is clever and sets a jittery tone for what follows. Suspend your disbelief for a moment: Imagine that this is merely a set up for a hallucinogenic sequence of events that befall him after he drinks his potion. The good doctor embarks on very unsettling trip, the narrative of which is captured in the nine songs that follow.
I can't get to sleep...
"Overkill" is a perfect pop confection: excellent hook line, taut verses with an instantly catchy chorus. Tailor made for maximum radio exposure. The lyric is restless, with nervous tension around every corner. It is here where a confusing fog steadily creeps across the brain of Mr. Jive. What is real? He isn't quite sure.
Ghosts appear and fade away...
Realizing that no such concept is actually being rolled out to listeners by the composers (mainly Hay with two contributions from Ron Strykert), those of you who are still playing the home game can still have some fun reimagining the intent of this inventive set. The protagonist flashes back to the well-meaning, yet mundane, parental lectures of his childhood ("Settle Down My Boy"), has some surreal fun in his room ("Upstairs in My House") and ends up ruminating on the past ("No Sign of Yesterday") as act one comes to a somber close. Flipping over to the next side, reality intrudes with a comment on military madness in the form of "It's a Mistake". Definite highlight of the pack. In keeping with the tense atmosphere of that era, the lyric alludes to the futility of the perpetual nuclear standoff between superpowers. Escalating one-upmanship has but one catastrophic climax. As with all other tracks here, the six string interplay between Hay and Strykert is very well thought out. Their tones are captured expertly in the mix, never stepping on each other. Cigar goes to multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham (who is sadly no longer with us) for his work throughout. From the haunting saxophone responses that grace "Overkill" to the killer flute solo (seriously) that completely lifts "No Restrictions" into the stratosphere, he leaves no blemish on this disc. He even takes a rare lead vocal on "I Like To". Split personality disorder may be the best descriptor for the overall mood as each construction whips you in various directions, with dizzying highs and lows explored equally. The opening remark about a post-drink song cycle centered on "Dr. Heckyll" was made in the spirit of fun, though the jarring 180 degree jolt that takes you from the exuberance of "High Wire" to the reggae-fried, morose strains of "Blue For You" adds fuel to the idea of a dreamlike thread running throughout the program.
Give me no restrictions, in what I do or say...
Back on earth, everyone brings a frenetic energy to their parts on this very underrated record. They were a hell of a good live band, too. Finding a receptive audience in the commercial sweepstakes, Cargo would also prove to be the final bow for the quintet, as the rhythm section was asked to leave before sessions began for their third full length project (Two Hearts). Strykert departed close to the end of those studio dates, leaving Hay and Ham to carry on with other musicians on the subsequent supporting tour.
Remaining a very compelling listen, my vinyl copy sounds as fresh today as it did when it first floated down from the sky by parachute, landing gently on my turntable back in '83. In addition to strong material, it is not weighed down by the ugly production methods (heavy reverb on everything, cheesy drum machine noises pushed way up front in the mix, etc.) that would soon be ubiquitous as the eighties progressed. Colorful and imaginative as its cover art, Cargo is quite worthy of (re)investigation. Be careful of what you drink before putting it on.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
First of three records released under the name Stealers Wheel. Gerry Rafferty (best known for “Baker Street”) and Joe Egan penned and sang all of the material, backed up by additional musicians. There would be a rotating cast of support players in their brief stint as a “band”. Sonically, the listener will spot a huge nod to the compositional approach of the Fab Four. The big single was “Stuck in the Middle With You” which flew into the top ten in 1973, sold by the truckload and saturated radio playlists of that era. Rafferty channels Dylan mixing in a bit of Lennon on his lead vocal (though he doesn’t quite veer into “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” territory), with Egan harmonizing on the catchy chorus. Tasty slide parts color the song, which sits on a clever bass groove. Handclaps ice the cake. More cowbell? They have you covered in the breaks. All the makings of a hit. When Quentin Tarantino deployed it as part of The Reservoir Dogs soundtrack (who could forget that disturbing Mr. Blonde scene) it was back. Credit to the strength of the tune in that it has held up remarkably well. The rest of this debut effort is quite respectable. “Late Again” and “You Put Something Better Inside Me” are both highlights and also got 45’ed. “Outside Looking In” plays like a lost Lennon solo cut, yet the overall impact is hypnotic. “I Get By” would have slotted in perfectly on the second Big Star album (Radio City) with a stop-start arrangement, twin guitar attack and comes closest to a “rock” feel.
The mix is incredibly clean, which is no surprise as the legendary Geoff Emerick engineered along with John Mills. My copy dates from the late 70s, though I found it second hand in the early 90s. Listening for the first time in at least a decade, this is a lot better than I remember it. Solid harmonies and impeccable playing in service of the songs goes a long way. Stealers Wheel (the album) remains overlooked despite its obvious charms. Their catalog got a makeover and reissue in 2016. If you spot this one in vinyl format, grab it.
Friday, January 12, 2018
Back in the mists of the late sixties, two session veterans coupled with two relatively unknown (yet very good) musicians. With all groups who are in their infancy, the first rehearsal is generally a proving ground to see if everyone will be able to work well together. For this quartet, the musical equivalent of nuclear fission happened in a small room. Their next steps would be to get tighter as a unit, then commit a set of songs to tape. In a quote from his book Sound Man (which is recommended reading), legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns takes up the narrative:
I turned up at Olympic (studio), not having any real idea of what I was walking into. I was blown off my feet. The album that we made in the next nine days was a landmark in rock and roll history, taking it to another level altogether. The stereo mix of this record is certainly one of the best sounding that I ever made, but the credit has to go to the band, as all I did was try to faithfully put down on tape what they were giving me, adding a little echo here and there to enhance the mood.
On January 12, 1969 Led Zeppelin was released in the US. It was a stunning debut that caught a lot of listeners by surprise. Three summers ahead of their contemporaries in terms of sonic impact, the innovation in sound was a revelation. Most rock-obsessed readers know the rest of the story: critics at the time didn’t get it, claims of authorship on certain pieces were questionable and the group was considered to be the product of hype as they landed a huge deal without having logged any serious time on stage. The fullness of time would sweep away these claims, reverse initial critical opinions and legalities concerning credits would eventually be sorted out.
Landing with the force of an asteroid strike, “Good Times, Bad Times” kicks in the door with those opening accents in E major, punctuated by percussive responses and proceeds to level most everything that came before it. Heavy rock had truly arrived with this grand statement, executed in just under three minutes.
Groups had put out heavy stuff before this, didn’t they?
They had, though Zep I properly captured the energy and live feel of such muscular playing in a recording studio. The key to this was a combination of factors. Jimmy Page produced and ran the sessions. Along with John Paul Jones, he had logged hundreds of hours of studio time. Both musicians knew that the secret to making a top class record was all about care in pre-production. The band was tight and all arrangements were set prior to tracking. Each player knew how to coax the best sounds from their respective instruments. In addition, Jimmy was also very savvy about mic technique and their proper placement to get the most out of the room.
So was Glyn Johns. It was on this gig that he discovered a widely imitated formula for recording drums. This again is an excerpt from Sound Man (edited for inclusion here)
It was a complete accident…we had finished a basic track and had decided to overdub an acoustic guitar on it. I took one of the Neumann U67s that I had been using on the drums to use on the guitar. Having finished, I put it back on the drums to start the next basic track. When I lifted the faders to listen to the drums, I found that I had inadvertently left the mic assigned to the track I had been using for the overdub (placed to the far left in the stereo spectrum). As the other drum mic was in the middle, it spread the sound to the left. So I wondered what would happen if I put them left and right and made the small adjustment of pointing the floor tom mic at the snare, making the two mics equidistant from it. The result sounded enormous with the completely different perspective that stereo brings…I panned each track to half left and half right ending up with the technique that I have used ever since. A prerequisite to this working is that you must have a drummer who gives you a good sound in the first place, as well as a pair of Neuman U67s or 47s, or Telefunken 251s.
John Bonham was not only an extraordinary player but also knew how to properly tune his drums. His bass foot sounds like the work of multiple pedals, yet it is just that magic right leg of his doing all of the heavy lifting. Couple that with virtuoso fret burning from Page and Jones and you have a winner. Robert Plant’s vocals were the icing on an astounding cake.
Led Zeppelin I is uniformly excellent. There are multiple musical personalities at work throughout. One delivers original, uncompromising, intensity in short blasts (“Good Times, Bad Times”, “Communication Breakdown”) while the next lays back and brings acoustic guitar up front ("Your Time Is Gonna Come" sporting that glorious, church organ intro from choirmaster John Paul Jones and “Black Mountain Side” an instrumental adaptation of Bert Jansch’s reading of the traditional folk tune “Black Water Side”). They split the difference with the haunting “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” an Anne Bredon composition that Page took up from a Joan Baez LP and deftly re-arranged. This is a prime example of their versatility and an innate ability to make melodic yet ultimately powerful music. Dynamics are the secret sauce that make this one so compelling. Plant hits those notes effortlessly, supported by delicate acoustic picking from Page. When Bonham and Jones kick in, the game is raised. One of my personal favorites. Elsewhere, heavy blues workouts take up the majority of needle time, with Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” show-casing everyone’s taste and skill. The monsters are “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times”. These multi-part epics stretch out to encompass psychedelic passages, face-melting solos, vocal gymnastics and both were wisely chosen to close out each side of the disc. No descriptors do justice to the sheer power of these mind-blowing slabs of experimentation. You need only listen.
As of this writing, the album holds up beautifully, sounding as fresh in 2018 as it did nearly a half century ago mainly because they didn’t overthink their performances. On the other hand, careful consideration was applied to song sequence. Very clever it is as each selection blends into the next, with the caveat that no similar theme follows what precedes it. No minor detail, this programming approach maintains interest as each new surprise unfolds.
Majestic as it was, Zep I was merely a taste of what was yet to come. “Dazed and Confused” would become a staple of their shows, running over 30 minutes on inspired nights. It also unofficially kicked off the 1970s roughly a year in advance of the actual event. Rock music’s blueprint would be redrawn overnight, with the ever present shadow of the Zeppelin cast on everything below.
Monday, January 08, 2018
Following the beast that he had unleashed with Sundown would prove to be a challenge for Lightfoot. Instead of reinventing the wheel, he opted to stick with a similar formula on Cold on the Shoulder, from which came the excellent single, "Rainy Day People". Landing with ease on contemporary radio playlists, it kept his work at the forefront of the public imagination. The mother LP was viewed as a lesser opus at the time, though it's actually quite good. His summary statement to end 1975? Gord's Gold, four sides of brilliance which served as both an excellent career retrospective and a defiantly raised middle finger to his former label.
I'll return to that conversational marker...
New business in the shape of his next project was already in progress as he closed out another productive year. Ten new songs were written and recorded by January 1976. Summertime Dream would be his twelfth LP in a decade, capping an inspired run of incredibly influential, substantial music that continues to find a new audience.
Opening with grace, "Race Among the Ruins" wastes no time establishing itself as the strongest, most accessible track. His ability to combine hooks with a well considered line is estimable. It takes the eye of a seasoned editor to make this scan and instantly catch the ear of the listener within a three minute framework.
When you wake up to the promise
Of your dream world comin' true
With one less friend to call on
Was it someone that I knew
Away you will go sailin'
In a race among the ruins
If you plan to face tomorrow
Do it soon
This country-pop diamond grabs your attention immediately, though even inveterate fans were scarcely prepared for the next weapon to be deployed on the disc. Gallons of ink have been spilled in an effort to praise and deconstruct "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Grim in that it recounts the detail of a (then) recent nautical disaster, it stands as one of the most unlikely creations to ever invade top forty playlists (Can # 1, US #2). Lengthy, ponderous and seemingly without a trace of any discernible chorus, the song stands on a very haunting guitar figure that punctuates each verse and sheer will. Musically, every player contributes to an atmosphere of pure foreboding and futility. Lightfoot tops it off with a chilling vocal that runs down every aspect of the last journey of a doomed vessel and its crew members.
Does anyone know where the love of god goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours
His genius places you right there with those brave souls about to perish in the grip of a ferocious November gale. Deserving of every superlative, this startling recording succeeds in conveying the weight and tension of the event itself. Very few writers are capable of bringing such subject matter so deftly to the masses without falling victim to maudlin cliché.
There is a distinctive adult-contemporary-country feel in place with the sweet steel of Pee Wee Charles coloring the arrangements. Lightfoot further commits to full band performances, with "I'd Do It Again" nominated as the cut that stretches out most into "rock" territory. Harmonized lead guitar and a surprising time signature change all work like a Swiss watch. Both the title track and "Protocol" weave storytelling magic and sonic innovation together successfully, coming in as close contenders in the highlight reel category. Confident, in excellent voice and determined to take new steps, Summertime Dream saw him make a stylistic break with the past. While it was successful on every level, commercial fortunes would not be the same for him after this one. Despite shifting trends, he stayed in the game doing what came naturally: writing and plying his trade in front of adoring audiences.
We now come full circle to a point that I had raised in the first paragraph. Gord's Gold had an element of score settling involved in its packaging. Still raw about what he felt was a lack of support from label executives during his time with United Artists, he re-recorded all of his early material featured on that double disc. He was not pleased with the sound of the originals nor was he thrilled about them making money by putting out compilations like Classic Lightfoot and licensing the masters to K-Tel to do the same. The past held no romance for GL and he took his revenge accordingly. This exercise in kicking off 2018 with a week of Lightfoot reviews has been extremely rewarding. I had carefully dusted off these seven great LPs, collected over years at flea markets, record shops and street sales, not entirely sure how they would sound. Some have moved around with me countless times, waiting patiently to be played again. It's been a revelation as each was every bit as powerful as I had remembered. Nuance, craftsmanship and true talent has no substitute. He is still working regularly and rumor has it that this humble poet may have a new disc for release this year. Heartfelt thanks to Mr. Lightfoot for sharing his prodigious gifts.
Saturday, January 06, 2018
Stepping back from the commercial arena in 1973, that calendar year marked the first occurrence where Lightfoot had no new product on offer since he had begun his professional recording career in the sixties. The consistent grind of write/record/tour had put heavy demands on his time, left little opportunity for family concerns and saw his intake of alcohol increase exponentially ("Somewhere USA" sums it all up). An intensely private man, he soldiered on through his commitments. His marriage imploded and the relationship he had with then girlfriend Cathy Smith would inspire both tumult and new songs. The restless artist internalized these experiences and turned them into what can arguably be cited as his best work to date.
Sundown (the album) is a consolidation of all musical avenues that he had taken over the past few years, with a nod to prevailing trends in soft rock and jazz. He was clearly utilizing new colors on the palette to paint pictures in sound and a more muscular approach is evident in the rhythm section, with session veteran Jim Gordon on drums. Synthesizers make their first appearance on a GL disc, though they are tastefully deployed. The result is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle.
THE BIG ONES
The title track is one of the most recognizable in his impressive canon. Sporting a killer hook in the chorus, simple but tasty guitar licks punctuating the verses and vaguely menacing lyrics, it is work that few writers would hesitate to sign their name to. Though the author has made little public comment on the matter, the aforementioned affair with Smith and some legendary partying are deftly woven into the narrative.
She's been lookin' like a queen in a sailor's dream
And she don't always say what she really means
Sometimes I think it's a shame
When I get feelin' better when I'm feelin' no pain
No mindless bouncy pop sentiment is present in the refrain, which found this bit of shade subversively dominate the playlists of countless radio stations and inhabit the minds of millions of listeners. Brilliant from top to bottom, it gave him his first US number one single.
Sundown you better take care
If I find you been creepin' 'round my back stairs
"Carefree Highway" owes its existence to a stretch of road in Arizona that bears the name. Lightfoot instantly co-opted the title and it followed "Sundown" into the top ten when issued as a follow up single. All of the stylistic devices he had used in the past coalesce perfectly here from supporting acoustic leads to light orchestration and a big, harmonized chorus that lodges in the brain effortlessly. There is a world-weary feel that creeps in, with the metaphorical highway being the ideal escape route from problems on the homefront. None of this was evident to his listeners at the time.
Absorbing contemporary sounds, "Seven Island Suite" takes the vocal harmony style of CSN into the arrangement, has a very pretty turnaround and breezes by even at its six minute running time. Very different also is the jazz inflected "Is There Anyone Home" which has a similar feel to the sonic approach that Joni Mitchell took on Court and Spark. Another stunner, it subtly makes comment on his domestic issues, without being too obvious. His gifts as a wordsmith never flag. I would nominate "High and Dry" as one of the most clever takes on relationship insecurities dressed up in a nautical theme. Listen closely to what is being set down and a lot more is revealed about his personal situation at that point. Pointedly, Smith sings backing vocals on this one. "Circle of Steel" is a fine composition saturated with references to the Christmas holidays. Small wonder that this gem doesn't feature with similar seasonal offerings when December rolls around. "Too Late For Prayin'" closes with understated majesty, without percussion and brings the poet/ballad singer persona out as a gentle reminder that this side of his musical personality had not been completely subverted.
Strength follows strength throughout this truly magnificent set, with nary a wasted note to be found. Deservedly attaining the number one position in the US album chart, Sundown is the commercial apotheosis in his discography. International fame and increasingly lucrative prospects followed.
Friday, January 05, 2018
Appearing in stores in November 1972, Old Dan's Records saw the bearded bard gifting listeners with his second disc in less than a year. Unlike Don Quixote, a larger group of musicians contributed to the sessions. Drums return to the mix along with pedal steel, banjo, dobro and autoharp.
What about that title?
Kind of a play on the words: old dance records. It reminds me of my uncle Jack's 78-RPM dance-record collection. It reminds me of hanging out with the grandparents at Christmastime or some other holiday, having a party and getting out the old vinyl.
Curiously, breaking out the old vinyl has caused me to listen from a different perspective. This LP sees a further elaboration of the sounds that he had first explored on the Summer Side of Life. Once again, his voice slips easily into the songs as if they were a pair of comfortable shoes. With Dylan, there was always a sense of affectation that crept into his country-fried material. Lightfoot didn't change his approach to singing, nor did he try to emphasize a twang that he didn't naturally possess. His secret was to be as earnest as possible in executing his part when he stepped up to the mic. His power of continuous creativity is astounding, with side one being absolutely flawless. "Farewell to Annabel" builds gradually, adding layers of instruments. Just as it reaches a crescendo, the drums kick in and the curtain comes down as the track fades precisely before the three minute mark. Leaves you wanting more. "That Same Old Obsession" is an aching ballad that should have struck gold as a single. The title track is a joyous exercise and "Lazy Mornin'" benefits from the deployment of atmospheric vibes. Highlight here is the pedal steel driven "You Are What I Am". Two minutes of perfection, it garnered lots of play on both sides of the border. Allegedly written for his girlfriend at the time (Cathy Smith) it has an infectious chorus, doesn't overstay its welcome and exudes positivity. The coolest of the pack is "My Pony Won't Go" which features some sweet slide work courtesy of David Bromberg. It sounds as though everyone is having one hell of a good time throughout this record. Whether intentional or not, the closer, "Hi'way Songs" is arranged very similarly to "Farewell Annabel" with all instrumentalists ramping up as the needle eases toward the run-out grooves. The lyric seems to look back on the journey that he had taken thus far as a touring musician breaking into the larger US market, yet happiest back on home ground in Canada. Per usual, his economy with words ensures that the narrative is thinly veiled, tightly edited but with enough detail to convey the message.
Just for now I'd like to rest
In the shade of a maple tree
To the blue Canadian sky
I'll say a prayer for the world out there
When I stand on my own sod
It feels so good to be home, by God
The winter wind has turned my head
But I always came up warm somehow
Prolific would be the best descriptor of the man in 1972. There was more fine work to come.
Thursday, January 04, 2018
Temporarily abandoning the sound he had explored in Nashville, our resident poet strips things back to basics. The chiming guitar interplay amongst Lightfoot, Red Shea and Terry Clements takes center stage, augmented only by strings and the melodic foundation work of bassist Rick Haynes. The end result is another impressive collection of songs, steeped in the rich tradition of folk narratives. His focus is sharp, with the words painting vivid pictures at every turn. Songcraft this good does not come without hours of contemplation, revision and hard, ugly work to fill the blank page. The lone cover in the pack (Shel Silverstein's "Susan's Floor") is decent enough, though it seems like filler when compared to the surrounding material.
Opening strong with the title track, Lightfoot takes wonderful artistic liberties with Miguel de Cervantes' iconic character, allowing him to pass clever commentary on the madness of modern human behavior.
See the man who tips the needle
See the man who buys and sells
See the man who puts the collar
On the ones who dare not tell
See the drunkard in the tavern
Stemming gold to make ends meet
See the youth in ghetto black
Condemned to life upon the street
The author himself picks up the thread
It was written for Michael Douglas' first movie, Hail, Hero! I wrote the title song for the movie, but it was no good, even though he used it. He didn't use "Don Quixote," even though it was a better song. It wasn't a very good demo. I was at the premiere of the movie in Boston, and the producers took us all out to the horse track there. It was the only time I ever went to the races in my life. The movie went down in flames. But the song survived, and it seems that Mr. Douglas has thrived also.
Once again, the playing is precise and sharp as the lyric. There are allusions to the futility of war ("See the soldier with his gun/Who must be dead to be admired") that balance perfectly with the brave but delusional young horseman, tilting at windmills in attack mode, believing them to be giants. All this in just over three minutes. The other two highlights on the first side are the upbeat "Alberta Bound" and the gorgeously arranged "Looking at the Rain". These two offerings share a common theme: love lost. The former sees the protagonist down on his luck romantically in Toronto, which offers a lot of fun but lacks the one girl that he truly cares about. Solution? He resolves to head west and catch up with her. The latter doesn't hold out much hope for reconciliation, with regret filling every corner of the page.
Wishing this was all a dream
And I'd find you sleeping when I wake
Elsewhere there are ecological concerns around whale hunting wrapped in the tale of "Ode to Big Blue" and his passion for sailing infuses "Christian Island (Georgian Bay)". The late Stan Rogers had to have been listening intently, as he took up similar themes and ran with them on a string of dazzling albums before his untimely passing. He also took more than a few cues from Lightfoot's musical template from this period.
Though this inspired gem rarely falters in consistently delivering quality songs, it contains my personal favorite out of everything that this gifted man has written. "Beautiful" lives up to its title in every sense, from its soaring melody to those expertly interwoven guitars. His very best, hands down.
Closing out with a stunning piece on the sad toll that war takes on humanity, this multi-part construction provides a harrowing bookend to the imagery that is explored in the opening cut. "The Patriot's Dream" is six- plus minutes that covers a wide scope of scenarios and could easily transfer to a short screenplay, though the underlying message is quite clear.
Pity that it doesn't always get through.
Wednesday, January 03, 2018
Gord goes Nashville on his seventh record, which sees him steering his sonic template on a jarring 180 degree turn toward the strains of bluegrass and country. Gentle, folky acoustic ballads are still present, though they now mix with more uptempo fare. The session crew expands to include some of the most respected singers/players in the revered Music City. Kenny Buttrey and Charlie McCoy, who had both worked with Dylan on Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline show up in the cast along with the Jordanaires. The transition suits Lightfoot as his voice slips comfortably into these genres, never sounding out of place. “Cotton Jenny” fully embraces the shit-kicker motif as he pulls off a minor coup with a killer hook, easily assimilated storyline and truly authentic delivery. You can almost smell the hay bales that one would imagine him surrounded with as he lays down his vocal in earnest, with a Buddy Holly hiccup thrown in for fun. This one later scored as a hit for Anne Murray, further proof of his effortless touch as a tunesmith that fellow artists could draw upon for radio-friendly material. Runner up for the most accessible selection here is the title track. The harmonized turnaround is reminiscent of “Does Your Mother Know?” and he deftly manages to balance weighty lyrical content with a very catchy melody. A creeping shadow slowly overtakes carefree time spent under the summer sun, with sadness hanging around the corner.
Lightfoot: "It's about guys going away to fight in Vietnam; that's the whole driving thought behind it. It's about saying goodbye to your girlfriend and your mother and not knowing if you're coming back--going through God knows what."
Regardless of the author's estimation (apparently it was not one of his favorites), it is a masterful four minutes of music.
And if you saw him now/You'd wonder why he would cry/The whole day long
Canadian themes are referenced (“Love and Maple Syrup”, “Cabaret” and “Nous Vivons Ensemble” which is sung in the style of stilted Diefenbaker French), storytelling is rich (“Miguel”, “10 Degrees and Colder”) and his innate ability to frame the complexities of a love relationship without veering into maudlin or clichéd territory is showcased in “Talking in Your Sleep”. Beautifully rendered, the classic harmonies of the Jordanaires are deployed perfectly at the mid-point.
Blending a number of styles successfully, this sits among his very best efforts. It is a must-own for anyone who is even a casual fan of his work. Pleasant surprises would continue unabated in 1972 as Lightfoot was embarking on an incredible creative run during this period.
Tuesday, January 02, 2018
Following the issue of his contractual obligation album, Sunday Concert (live recording at Massey Hall in 1969), Lightfoot was free to leave the United Artists label and sign a new deal elsewhere. Landing at Reprise Records, he now had Mo Ostin in his corner. No ivory tower executive, Ostin knew music and was a great champion of the artists that he brought on board with the company. Similarly, Lenny Waronker had a golden ear with a knack for finding and cultivating talent. With the dream team in place, sessions began in September of 1969 to commit new songs to tape. A few special guest contributors (John Sebastian, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks) showed up to lend a hand along the way.
Leading off with the sublime “Minstrel of the Dawn”, Sit Down Young Stranger (his sixth album) was another step forward for Lightfoot as a composer. One track in particular towers over all of the others in every respect. “If You Could Read My Mind” skillfully conveys images of a relationship in decline with clarity; the emotion projected in his voice pairing perfectly with the sweeping string arrangement. Supported by delicate acoustic guitars, this stunning creation manages to conjure up a plot in cinemascope all within the boundaries of four minutes. The strength of this tune prompted the record company to ask for a change of LP title not long after release. When he balked at the prospect, he was told what this would mean in terms of sales figures.
It then flew out of record stores as fast as they could press them.
Storytelling figures prominently throughout the disc. John Prine took more than a few cues from “Sit Down Young Stranger” (the song) when he was pulling together his debut (think “Sam Stone”). Gord’s take on “Me and Bobby McGee” does not have the intensity of Janis Joplin’s cover, though he delivers an intimate version that more accurately captures the pathos in the narrative. Kris Kristofferson had to have been flattered. “The Pony Man” is a surprising flight of fancy that aims directly at the fertile imagination of a young child. Written for his own children, this tender tune closes out the proceedings on a gently positive note.
Best descriptor for this set? It’s a grower, revealing layers of subtle charm incrementally with each listen. The monster hit single helped break Lightfoot in a very big way. His writing had previously scored with musical peers who covered his material to great success. Now he was reaping the rewards of running up the chart on his own. The next steps would elevate him to even greater commercial and critical heights.
First encounter with the music of Gordon Lightfoot? AM radio was plastered with it back in the mists of the 1970s. Growing up in Canada, you would get tossed out of the country for treason if you didn't have a nodding acquaintance with (at least) one of his tunes. For this writer, "Sundown" was memorable through sheer repetitive play on the local station (CJCB) along with "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" which still evokes images of an overcast day as glimpsed through the back window of the family car en route to somewhere. Per usual, the entertainment which makes a stuck landing in the mind of a child is generally guided along by what one (or both) of the parental units drags home for consumption. "Fantastic Gordon Lightfoot" was a double LP that was slapped together by K-Tel records and endlessly hawked on TV in 1977 like laundry soap.
Suitably impressed by their relentless media campaign, my father duly bought this compilation and unwittingly began my life-long appreciation for the work of this self depreciating, understated genius.
Can we get to this review now?
Come on sunshine, what can you show me
Where can you take me to make me understand
The wind can shake me, brothers forsake me
The rain can touch me, but can I touch the rain...
Produced by John Simon, who also did the honors on the first two releases by The Band (arguably their best), Did She Mention My Name? was the third full length statement by GL, containing a treasure trove of haunting, melodic compositions. The string arrangements that Simon crafted for some of these cuts is nothing short of astounding. "Wherefore & Why", "Does Your Mother Know" and "Pussywillows, Cattails" all stand as incandescent creations in their own right, though they are lifted to another level with Simon's orchestration. His brass augmentation interspersed with soothing violins takes "I Want to Hear it from You" from the realm of the ordinary to something much more interesting. Lightfoot's work is never overwhelmed by these touches. Instead, his rich voice is placed in the center of the mix, soaring majestically above everything with a confidence that only comes from bringing such strong material to the table. Offsetting beauty with bitter reality, "Black Day in July" is poetic, topical commentary on the riots that took place in Detroit the previous year. The incident was ignited by a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar. Clashes ensued between residents of largely black neighborhoods and police. State police and National Guard were brought in as the protests and violence escalated. The unrest lasted five days, leaving 43 dead. Hundreds were injured and thousands arrested, with businesses left looted and burned.
Motor City madness, has touched the countryside...
His appeal for inclusion ("Why can't we all be brothers/why can't we live in peace") was not well accepted by the establishment of that era and the track, unfairly, earned a ban from US airplay. It remains a striking creation as of this writing in 2018. So much has changed, yet stays the same. In the same vein (pun intended), "Boss Man" is taken from the perspective of a miner who vows to corner a management figure in the deep recess of his "office" and take physical revenge on him. The narrative carries weight for all of those brave souls who have "risked their necks" to make greedy companies rich, doing all of the heavy lifting mining the seam just to feed their families. These messages helped to garner a wider audience for a small town prodigy who refused to be one dimensional in his art.
In spite of all of the bounty that infuses the grooves of this remarkable set, it is the closing title track that completely steals the show. "Did She Mention My Name?" in the hands of a lesser talent may have come off as a narcissistic power-play. Lightfoot gently turns a conversational fishing expedition with a friend from their shared home town to confirm if an old flame is still flickering into a master class of economy with words. Delicate acoustic guitar figures are expertly rendered between verses as the imagery unfolds. Without hesitation, this ranks with the work of any of his peers. No further comment is necessary when it comes to a song so perfectly realized, all in just two minutes and change.
Supported by his brilliant, faithful touring partners (Red Shea, John Stockfish) the playing here is impeccable. Session legend Hugh McCracken (listed as Huey McCracken in the credits) also graces this one with his nimble fingers. The combination of talent perfectly compliments the artist and his vision. The best part? He was just warming up. Greater glories were soon to follow.