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.