Tag Archives: Classic Albums Revisited

Classic Albums Revisited: REVOLVER

REVOLVER, The Beatles seventh studio album, just celebrated an impressive 50th anniversary earlier this month. Last night I sat down with my son and listened to in its entirety for the first time in many years. Growing up, REVOLVER was my very first Beatles album. It was one of two CD’s my parents owned for many years which means this is The Beatles album I am most familiar with. Because it was the first time my son Warren had heard an entire Beatles album, I decided to try my best to listen with new ears, not an easy task for an old Beatle-fan like myself.

AugustBeatles

For starters, I was surprised at how clean and modern REVOLVER sounds. Sure, this type of rock music isn’t what’s in vogue today, the album could still have easily been released today. I know that this isn’t a new revelation, and is, in fact, the chief aspect that makes The Beatles and their work still so relevant. But I was still nonetheless impressed with how well REVOLVER holds up. I also noted, maybe for the first time, what a fantastic bridge album REVOLVER is between the early “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” Beatles and the drugged out later period. The band is still trading on their moptop image/sound but there is a clear effort to craft songs that are both sonically diverse and that cover meaningful topics outside of merely wanting to hold a girl’s hand and/or being in love. There are, history tells us, several factors that contributed heavily to this evolution in the band’s sound. The first is, of course, the band’s exposure to Bob Dylan, which began a sea change in the band’s writing on RUBBER SOUL released the year before. Lennon, in particular, was increasingly trying to say more with his music thanks to Dylan’s influence. Drugs, specifically LSD, and the psychedelic counter-culture movement also played a tremendous influence on the band and REVOLVER. Lastly, I’d also say that George Harrison meeting Ravi Shankar, how expanded upon and improved Harrison’s sitar playing during the summer of 1966 also heavily influenced REVOLVER.

REVOLVER might also best be described as Harrison’s coming out party. Though his best Beatles-era songs are arguably on ABBEY ROAD, I would argue that it is REVOLVER where it becomes apparent that Harrison is just as good a songwriter as Lennon-McCartney. It’s worth noting that this is the first (and only) time that a Harrison-penned song opens a Beatles album. And what an interesting choice “Taxman” is when you consider the song’s subject matter. This is the first time The Beatles get political and it’s not about war but rather their pocketbooks! I’m not sure I would be aware of the tax situation in the UK during this period of history were in not for this song and The Rolling Stones eventual decision to be tax exiles during the recording of EXILE ON MAIN ST. Interestingly enough, unlike many protest/political songs of the era, “Taxman” is probably the closest song to remain topical even to listeners today.

Though largely considered to be the pop Beatle, the one with the keenest commercial sensibilities, even Paul McCartney gets serious on REVOLVER. True, McCartney (like Lennon) had been maturing in his songwriting with each successive album, REVOLVER features one of his darkest songs ever, “Eleanor Rigby.” Though the song was written in conjunction with Lennon, who often gets credit for being the more artistically-serious Beatle, McCartney came up with the impetus for the song. Listening to “Eleanor Rigby” with fresh ears, I was struck at how hopeless the song’s characters are. That McCartney, a wealthy young rock star, would write such a sensitive song about ordinary, lonely people is still surprising to me. Though the similarly melancholy ballad “Yesterday” gets the lion’s share of accolades, I think “Eleanor Rigby” is the better song. The arrangement is more complicated and the lyrics are more evocative. Without devolving into a simplistic story-song, “Eleanor Rigby” manages to paint the listener a few sad vignettes that cut to the very heart of loneliness and the plight of people society at large has forgotten about. Sure, the song is a bit dramatic, perhaps even a bit melodramatic, but I still get chills listening to the track’s mournful strings.

The Beatles dipped their toes into psychedelic music with “I’m Only Sleeping.” A John Lennon song about the joys of staying in bed, the song features reversed or “backward” guitar tracks, a touchstone of psychedelic music, and has an overall druggy feel to it. The song is one of the few Beatles songs that feature an explicit outsider perspective (“I’m a Loser” might be considered a proto-outsider song, “The Fool on the Hill” is a notable example, as is “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”). Was the world judging Lennon because all he wanted to do was sleep or is the song really about drugs (like most things)? It’s difficult to say. During this period Lennon did reportedly enjoy getting high and staying in bed, but I’ve also read that McCartney had to frequently rouse his writing partner from bed before working on their songs. Also worth noting, the interview Lennon gave around this time in which he famously declared The Beatles “bigger than Jesus” was part of an article that contains a quote from a friend of Lennon’s who declared him the “laziest man in England.” So perhaps “I’m Only Sleeping” really is just about napping in bed. Either way, the song’s inventive use of studio trickery was foreshadowing to surreal sounds the band would capture later on REVOLVER (and in their subsequent albums).

“Love You To” is Harrison’s best song on REVOLVER and one of the most daring songs the band ever produced. Though he’d used the sitar on RUBBER SOUL, to great effect on “Norwegian Wood,” it was this track where Harrison truly brought Indian music to the band’s sound. Using a sitar, a tabla (hand drum), tanpura (a special rhythm instrument), and Harrison created a sound that no doubt sounded otherworldly to the majority of Western listeners of the time. Besides launching a whole new phase of the band’s creative life, “Love You To” single-handedly popularized the genre of World Music. A mix of philosophical noodling and romantic love, the track was the undoubtedly the most sexual song the band had recorded up to that point. Harrison repeatedly states “I’ll make love to you/if you want me to” in the chorus of the song.

Another key influence on The Beatles was Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who’s ghost is all over McCartney’s “Here, There and Everywhere.” The most obvious Wilson-trademark found in the song are the ethereal backing vocals. But the core of the song, being in love and having that love make you a better person is almost a reflection of the themes found in Wilson’s own “God Only Knows.” Though the songs were written and recorded around the same time, this can’t be accidental, can it? A more nuanced and mature love song, “Here, There and Everywhere” takes a larger view of the impact of romantic love beyond the early pleasures of love’s first blush (like most early Beatles love songs). The track is less about how love makes one feel and more about the impact love has on one’s outlook. I think that this song is probably a better example of The Beatles doing a Beach Boys-esque song than “Back in the USSR,” which is just straight parody. The song is nothing but further proof that the band didn’t exist in a vacuum and took cues from the work their peers (besides Dylan).

I can’t tell you how crushed I was when I first learned that “Yellow Submarine” wasn’t actually written by Ringo. The rule for 99.999% of Beatles songs is that whoever is singing lead wrote the track. Sadly, Ringo only wrote two songs during his time with The Beatles, “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden.” The song is a fanciful kiddie track that began life as McCartney trying to write both a song for Ringo to sing and a Donovan-esque number. To McCartney’s credit, even though the song is pretty much nonsense, it works wonderfully with Ringo at the helm (pun intended). That this song would later go on to inspire a super-trippy animated film is just icing on the cake. I’d like to hear McCartney sing this one, though I have a hard time imagining what that would be like. It’s odd that two of Ringo’s best known Beatles songs involve the ocean, but then again England is an island and Liverpool is a port city so I suppose it’s not so odd that the boys would have a healthy interest in the sea. I love the song’s goofy little extras, like the crashing wave sound and the ringing bell. Ringo play-acting as a sailor in between verses is also a really nice touch that adds to the song’s theatrical, almost pop-up book-like quality. The Beatles dabbled in so many genres that I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that they ventured into kids music.

“She Said She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” are both ostensibly a dialogue taking place between a man (Lennon) and a woman. “She Said She Said” has a real druggy (acid?) feel to it in which neither party can properly connect or articulate a feeling that they are having. Though the “I know what it’s like to be dead” is definitely the proclamation of chemically altered mind, “I know what it is to be sad” is very real thought/feeling. The juxtaposition between the two has always fascinated me. Is the communication breakdown between the two parties the result of drugs or gender? Who can say? Further complicating matters are the fact that the song was inspired by Henry Fonda, who famously told Lennon at a party “I know what it’s like to be dead.” The song pairs nicely with “And Your Bird Can Sing” which is an indictment against materialism over a personal connection. Both songs share an awesome, iconic opening guitar riff (though “And Your Bird Can Sing” edges out “She Said She Said” in this department). In his book All We Are Saying, author David Sheff quotes Lennon as being dismissive of the song, essentially calling it all style and no substance. I disagree and think Lennon was doing what Lennon often did and disparaged his older work in favor of whatever thing he was doing at the time. The I’ve always really enjoyed the line “You say you’ve seen Seven Wonders/and your bird is green.” That image always stuck with me and I picked up on that line again when I re-listened to the record.

Similarly, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” are very similar McCartney tracks that feel almost like throwbacks to a quainter, simpler time. “Good Day Sunshine” has a very old-timey feel to it, both in its simplicity and with it’s twinkling piano and optimism. In fact, the track wouldn’t be entirely out of place on The Kinks magnum opus VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY. The shining horns on “Got to Get You Into My Life” has a similar effect, though “Got to Get You Into My Life” features a much rougher-sounding vocal performance from McCartney. It’s almost an R&B song and was famously covered by Earth, Wind, & Fire in 1978, so apparently I’m not the only one to pick up on this fact. Paul McCartney has gone on the record to state that “Got to Get You Into My Life” is about marijuana, which I find both perplexing and oddly satisfying. Both tracks share a youthful optimism and exuberance that an older version of the band probably couldn’t pull off. McCartney would later revisit this type of old-fashioned/throwback on The White Album (“Martha My Dear” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) with diminished results.

“For No One” is one of the band’s most poignant and bare-bones songs. Detailing the end of a relationship, Paul McCartney’s song perfectly captures the sadness one feels when you realize the love is gone. Tastefully understated, the song is memorable for its achingly sad french horn solo near the end. The line “a love that should have lasted years” sounds less accusatory the older I get, which I get is an outside quality that I am bringing to the song. And yet, part of me can’t help but think that McCartney’s choice of words aid this phenomenon by being just a touch vague enough to avoid implying fault on either party. Even Lennon, who could be McCartney’s toughest critic, was a fan of “For No One.” Again, this is another track that lives in the shadow of “Yesterday,” even though I think it does essentially the same thing but better.

Much like “Got to Get You Into My Life,” the song “Dr. Robert” was about drugs. Though the latter was more obviously about drugs than the former, it’s still a bit of a secret drug song. A bit cornball in comparison to many of the band’s other drug songs, “Dr. Robert” is important because it’s ostensibly about the doctor that supplied the band with their first acid trip (a dentist who laced the band’s coffee with the drug after dinner one evening). This track is most notable (in my opinion) for the almost hypnotic quality applied to the lyrics”well, well well you’re feeling fine.” Despite not being as colorful as the band’s later substance songs, this one key feature of the song puts above most other songs of a similar theme recorded by other artists at the time.

The last Harrison-penned song on REVOLVER, “I Want To Tell You” is almost a rallying cry for his creativity. While not exactly stifled, Harrison also didn’t receive the full support of McCartney and Lennon when it came to his songs. “I Want To Tell You” is all about having a tremendous torrent of things to say and the struggle with which Harrison (and really all of us) have trying to express ourselves. There’s a dash of mysticism running through the song, no doubt an influence from his intense studying of all things Eastern. “I Want To Tell You” is a great song because even though it covers a very heady, intellectual topic, the song is still very humble in its presentation (almost low-key in many respects). While not Harrison’s best song, I’d say it was the most emblematic of who he was as an artist and as an individual: highly intellectual with a down-to-earth quality, mystical with an aura of practicality.

The final track on the album is also the best. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a tour de force and easily in my top 5 of all-time Beatles songs. Everything about this song is crafted perfectly, from the odd effect place on Lennon’s vocals to the Indian-influenced drum pattern that Ringo uses. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is probably the first truly great studio track from a band that would soon go on to do nothing but fantastic studio-driven tracks. Using looping tape, The Beatles create an otherworldly soundscape that must have scared the crap out of all the kids tripping on acid the first time they put REVOLVER on. That this is the track to close the album makes the songs feel like an odd, beautiful sunset. The strange, mystical poetry of Lennon’s lyrics are as just a good as anything the man ever wrote. I’m sure this song is highly regarded, but I feel like his later works like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are more lauded. And I find that sad in a way, because “Tomorrow Never Knows” is easily the equal of both of those tracks.

Perhaps I don’t run in the right crowds, but I feel like REVOLVER is almost a forgotten masterpiece by The Beatles. RUBBER SOUL is usually the transitional Beatles record that gets the most attention, which is a shame because I think REVOLVER is the superior album. Straddling the line perfectly between both periods of the band’s creative life, REVOLVER has everything one thinks of when they think of The Beatles.

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Classic Albums Revisited: JESUS OF COOL

Snarky, sarcastic, New Wave-Brit: Elvis Costello.  Right?  Well that description could also apply to a one Mr. Nick Lowe.   During the mid-1970’s Lowe produced the first five Costello records, including the astounding MY AIM IS TRUE.  Little did many in the listening public know of the power behind Costello’s throne.  In 1978, Nick Lowe unleashed his first album as a solo-artist: JESUS OF COOL.  While many were no doubt caught off guard, those in the know had Lowe on their radar even before he was helping Costello.  During the early 1970’s Lowe was in the band Brinsley Schwarz, a fun little pub-band that quickly made a name for themselves by opening for bands bigger than the bar room circuit. Lowe bailed on them and entered into an on-again off-again relationship with another band called Rockpile.  That band recorded four albums, though they only put out one officially (the others were released as a pair of Dave Edmunds solo records, while another eventually came out as Lowe’s second album LABOUR OF LUST).

It’s not blasphemy if it’s true, people.

So it’s not understatement that Lowe’s a man with a complicated musical pedigree.  JESUS OF COOL has a similarly complicated history.  The album was released in the UK and then issued in the USA as PURE POP FOR NOW PEOPLE.  This is presumably because us Yanks have trouble with cheeky-references to Christ.  It was a gutless move on the label’s part, but for Lowe it was just par for the course.  It was also super-ironic considering the content of the album. You see, JESUS OF COOL is a power-pop record in the finest sense of the term.  Bright, hooky, and fun as hell…but the record is almost entirely about how greedy and petty music industry is.  Lowe’s bite is just as sharp as his pop sensibility and JESUS OF COOL is the kind of record you can’t help but sing along-to.  You can’t help but tap your foot and smile, then you realize  what he’s singing about…and you’re kind of horrified.

The song the best encapsulates this, and JESUS OF COOL as a whole,  is “Shake and Pop.”   The song is a hilarious story-song that chronicles the rising fame (and subsequent fucking) of a band by the music industry.  The best, and most telling, line of the song is:  “Arista says they love you/but the kids can’t dance to it.”  One can almost close their eyes and see a bunch of old, fat, out-of-touch suits saying just that to Elvis Costello…and Nick Lowe.  Besides name-checking a bunch of massive record labels, “Shake and Pop” also pokes fun at the fickleness of music journalists.  And while “Shake and Pop” might come off as brash, it’s tame compared to the biting-the-hand-that-feeds awesomeness of “I Love My Label.”  In an age when musicians were simply not heard (at all) without major corporate sponsorship, Lowe’s first album included this sarcastic love song dedicated to his record company.  There was no Internet or social media for Lowe to embrace or hide behind.

 In a way, JESUS OF COOL is a bit preverse–after all why would someone make a record if the music industry is so awful?  From the sound of it, Nick Lowe is a huge masochist.  Speaking of twisted sensibilities, there’s nothing more twisted than “Marie Provost.”  The song is about a famous silent-film starlet who died alone, a shadow of her former glory–a victim of alcohol and talkies.   She’s also famous partly because her pet dachshund Maxie was discovered to have nibbled on her bloated corpse.  Such a sad tale…of course Nick Lowe had to write a hilarious pop song about it! With lines (cheerily sung) like “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner/She never meant that much to me.”   There’s dark, and then their’s Nick Lowe-dark.  The only other person who comes close to this type of shiny-happy-horror is my idol Warren Zevon.

Not everything is dark and twisted on JESUS OF COOL, there are a number of straight-up rockers: “Heart of the City” and “So It Goes.”  Both songs are about as normal as Lowe can get and should have been Top-40 hits, of course they weren’t.  One can’t help but wonder if they didn’t chart because Lowe did some much poking fun at the music industry big-shots.   The UK album includes a live version of “Heart of the City” while the US version has the studio version.   Both are good, though the live version’s frantic energy (and double length) wear a bit thin.   It pains me to agree with the label, but I think the studio version is what belongs on record*.

“So It Goes” isn’t Lowe’s most famous song**, but it’s his best in my opinion.  “So It Goes” is a perfect, sugar-rush of a song.  The chugging, thundering drum beat and the rapid-fire lyrics (seemingly about evil concert promoters and diplomats) are about as great as power-pop gets.  It’s the kind of song you think you can sing entirely after hearing it once, even though you’ve only deciphered about 1/3 of it.  I guess that describes JESUS OF COOL as a whole.  More than just being a manifesto against his corporate masters or a clever pop record, JESUS OF COOL is a phenomenally entertaining record from a true pop master.

Still not convinced that JESUS OF COOL is worth your time?  What if I were to tell you that Lowe out-Bay-City-Rollers The Bay City Rollers on “Rollers Show.”  I remember back in the 1990’s, when The Backstreet Boys hit it big, thinking to myself “These songs suck, I could do that!”  Well back in the 70’s Nick Lowe felt the same way about The Bay City Rollers (kids: go look them up).  Unlike me, Nick actually went out and recorded what is ostensibly the greatest Bay City Rollers song of all-time.  Part hilarious parody, part serious-deconstruction of a horrible fad–“Rollers Show” actually works as a respectably awesome song despite itself.  I defy you listen to “Rollers Show” and not:

A). Smile

and

B). Cheerily sing along.

It’s one thing to attack faceless suits and thick-necked show promoters, but attacking helpless children  is taking it a bit too far…right?  Maybe you think Lowe should pick on people his own-size/talent?  Well how about this: on the same record he skewers The Bay City Rollers he also out-McCartney’s Paul McCartney. That’s right, SIR Paul McCartney*** 

The first time I heard “Nutted By Reality” I nearly choked on my Coca-Cola.  A truly strange song, on an album of strange songs, “Nutted By Reality” parodies Wings-era Macca.   Specifically the BAND ON THE RUN song “Mrs. Vanderbilt.”  Even after a causal comparison between “Mrs. Vanderbilt” and  “Nutted By Reality” it’s hard to deny that Lowe was taking the piss out of one of the planets all-time greatest songwriters.  Just like Paul’s “Band on the Run,” “Nutted By Reality” starts off like one song before hard-shifting into something else entirely.  Beginning as a bouncy song about Castro (?) the song then turns into a jangly-song about visiting his sister.  It’s so bizarre it’s downright divine.  The parody of McCartney is so spot-on it stops being a send-up and damn near becomes a love-letter to the former Beatles-solo work.

If you’re at all pop person you owe it to yourself to check out JESUS OF COOL.

*God did that hurt.

**That honor belongs to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” or “Cruel To Be Kind,” though most people don’t realize he wrote those songs as they’ve been covered ad nauseum.

***Though back in the 1970s he was “just” Paul.

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Classic Albums Revisited: DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP

The second album that AC/DC recorded, DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP has an unusual release history. In this modern age of iTUNES and instantaneous/simultaneous global releases it sometimes shocks people to learn just how fucked up some band’s catalogs are. The best examples are The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. For whatever reason, there is a huge differences in album art, album titles, track listing, etc. on much of the these classic band’s output. This issue often creates a problem for international fans who invariably ask, “which is the official or canonical release for this band?” Oddly enough, The Beatles and Stones are (like in most cases) polar opposites. For The Beatles, the British releases are considered the “true” or “real” catalog. Thus, in the 1980’s when their records were converted over to CD the American public was…confused when the British LP’s were released on CD. Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones choose to have the American release act as their “official” cannon.

Whatever.

What does any of this have to do with AC/DC? Well, if you live in Australia or Europe DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP was the band’s second album, and it came out in 1979. If you lived in America it came out in 1981 after the massively successful BACK IN BLACK record. This might seem like a little detail, but if you’re living in America and AC/DC puts out BACK IN BLACK as a tribute to their fallen lead singer, Bon Scott, with new vocalist Brian Johnson and a year later Scott returns on a “new” record…you might wonder what the hell is going on.

The following “Classic Albums Revisited” is true, only the names have been changed to protected the innocent.

The delay in the album’s release in America is all about taste. The good folks over at Atlantic records didn’t get, probably couldn’t get, songs like “Squealer” or “Big Balls.” What they could ‘get’ was the piles of money the band made after Johnson’s death when BACK IN BLACK hit #4 on the US record charts. What’s amazing, however, is the success of DIRTY DEEDS. It went on to reach #3 here in the US, making it the highest charting AC/DC album.

This of course just goes to show you that the suits at the top have no idea what the hell they are doing.

I first heard AC/DC growing up listening to classic rock radio with my parents. I never really noticed a difference between Brian Johnson and Bon Scott. As an older, more critical listener I can separate the two (Scott having a slightly higher register than Johnson). Many consider Johnson to be an imitation of Scott, but I don’t think that’s very fair. However, as a music geek/nerd I have to love the original line-up more.

Growing up, I only knew one person in the whole world that liked AC/DC, a kid named Josh that lived over on the next street. I remember him showing me his CD collection before class in 8th grade. Our teacher was one of the younger teachers at our school, she happened to be walking by when he was showing me his collection:

“Oh, AC/DC…they were popular when I was in High School. I can’t believe people still listen to them.”

She had a nasty, slightly disgusted look on her face. Like we were looking at a Playboy instead of a stack of shiny plastic discs. I can’t really say I blame her, there is something inherently…dirty about AC/DC. Oh sure, they sing about the usual sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll…but that’s not quite what makes them seem so…’brown bag.’ For me, and I suspect lots of people, AC/DC is a bit of ‘brown bag’ bag. You know, the sort of thing you buy looking down at your shoes. The sort of thing you stuff under your mattress.

The album’s title track, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” is one of the most cinematic rock songs I’ve ever heard. Every time I hear this song, a roaring advertisement for a dubious, back-alley problem solving service, I can see the vicious High School principal. I can see the cheating boyfriend who needs his ass kicked. The bitchy woman that needs to be put in her place. All of these people harass us throughout our lives– how often have we wished for a tough-talking wise guy to appear and magically “solve” these walking-problems by kicking some ass? The only thing better is: this service is surprisingly affordable (dirt cheap).

“Big Balls.” I’m sure there are a few of you reading this that have never heard this song. And I bet just by reading the title you have a pretty good idea what this song sounds like. Right??? Wrong. Oh sure, AC/DC could have gone all low-brow and written a song about how big their balls are. They could have, but they didn’t. Instead, these (seemingly) dunder-headed rockers form Down Under have crafted a shockingly up-scale double entendre. A song that’s both rockin’ and 10X funnier than any Weird Al song.

My favorite part:

“Some balls are held for charity
And some for fancy dress
But when they’re held for pleasure
They’re the balls that I like best”

The Chuck Berry-esque “Rocker” is an awesome, breathless song that clocks in at only 2:52 but manages to perfectly encapsulate everything about rock music. That this track is so perfect (and yep almost haphazardly dashed-off) is surprising…but not as surprising as “Ride On.” Think about AC/DC and what do you think of? Loud. Balls-to-the-walls rock, right? “Ride On” is a quiet, introspective cowboy song. It’s my favorite track because of the vulnerability in Bon Scott’s voice, the regret and yes…heartache in his soul. At five minutes, it’s too long for radio-play (and was thus, never released as a single) but in my book ranks as one of the greatest rock ballads of all time. The guitar solo starts at 3:40 and goes all the way to 4:47. It’s not a complex or blistering solo, but like great bluesman of the past, Angus Young astounds by somehow conveying real human emotion through thin steel stings.

It’s an amazing, beautiful moment and it’s on an AC/DC record.

The original Australian Artwork:

This album artwork was…DONE…DIRT…CHEAP!!!

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Classic Albums Revisited: IT’S HARD

The second album following the death of drummer Keith Moon, and the last until 2006’s ENDLESS WIRE, The Who’s album IT’S HARD isn’t as highly regarded as the group’s late 60’s and 70’s output. Released in 1982, the band wasn’t considered “relevant” anymore by most mainstream rock critics. Radio stations and casual music fans greeted IT’S HARD with ambivalence when it came out, and the album languished at #11 in the UK and #8 in the US. Of course, most bands would kill for their album to reach #8. But IT’S HARD wasn’t released by “most bands,” it was put out by the legendary Who (or what remained of them).

“He’s an Atari Wizard, there has to be a trick…”

A few years ago I got into this phase where every time I took a long car-trip I’d go buy a Who album to listen to while I drove. After a few long-ass car rides I’d purchased just about every single Who album, except for FACE DANCES and IT’S HARD. I chose IT’S HARD over FACE DANCES because I’d heard “Eminence Front” on the radio growing-up and remembered liking it.

Despite being deemed a failure upon it’s release, I found IT’S HARD to actually be not only a pretty solid late-period Who album, but actually a pretty good Who album-overall. IT’S HARD is an extremely passionate record. Roger Daltry is no slouch when it comes to conveying emotion through his legendary rock-howl…but on IT’S HARD his voice is downright visceral.

I also read a review somewhere that said the album was full of complex songs with meandering structures that, for the large part have no strong melodies. I agree with some of that. The songs do have long, almost prog-rock like structures, but this enhances the album and is a detraction. I will admit that the hooky lyrics and melodies of the early Who albums aren’t as strong here. But what the album lacks in “hooks” and choruses you can instantly sing along with, the album makes up in passion.

The album’s two singles–the before mentioned “Eminence Front” and “Athena,” aren’t really very reflective of the album as a whole. Whenever this happens (a band’s single not representing the bulk of an album’s content), that artist is nearly always in trouble. Perhaps the main record-buying public balked at IT’S HARD because of “Athena” and it’s bubbly, adult-contemporary-ness. Serious Who fans who were floored by the groovy white-guy soul (that only Brits can pull off) of “Eminence Front” were probably turned off by the rather non-groovy white-guy soul of the rest of the album. Both groups are hard to please, but with the passage of time and absolutely no expectations I walked into this album complete and utterly shocked. And amazed.

As stated earlier, this is a record dripping with passion, and passion and politics go hand-in-hand. No stranger’s to politics, The Who once again dabble in fiery protest rock with “I’ve Known No War.” Equal parts anti-war/pacifist, this song chillingly points out that even if a person doesn’t want to fight in the great war it won’t matter…because the next great war will be fought by two people with there fingers on “the button.”

Also political, is “Why Did I Fall For That?” which seems to directly answer the band’s earlier “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Listening to this song reminds me some of my relatives who voted for the current president…then voted for him the second time. The song reminds us that history will hold ALL of us accountable for falling for the same old line time and time again. In other words, twenty years later, it STILL touches a nerve. That, my friends, is awesome.

The album’s title track is fucking amazing. It’s completely 100% classic Who. It has the nice, rollicking guitar. It has the pounding drums. It has the classic Who-background vocal-chant. The lyrics, while a little cumbersome at times are still pretty good. Who (not the band) after a particularly bad day hasn’t asked the heavens above to be dealt a better hand? The Who (band) have:

“Anyone can do anything if they hold the right card
So I’m thinking about my life now
I’m thinking very hard
Deal me another hand Lord, this one’s very hard
Deal me another hand Lord, this one’s very hard”

The guitar work on this record, while a little more restrained (compared to previous Who records) is still very good. I’m not a fan of the ridiculous Rocky-Theme-sounding horns at the beginning of “One At a Time.” These horns were never cool, not even in 1982. Crappy horns (they’re seriously only there for like 5 seconds) aside, “One At a Time” is actually a pretty good song, in the same vein as “Squeeze Box” and “You Better You Bet.”  But my biggest gripe I have about IT’S HARD is that it’s production is a bit dated (read: sounds like the 1980’s) and the band uses a bit too much synthesizer for my taste. I’m sure at the time; this wasn’t as big an issue as it is now. Like black and white film, the sound of a synthesizer really turns a lot of young people off. To be fair to The Who, IT’S HARD makes good use of the synthesizer. Still, I think the production/synthesize-issue are the two main reasons this record’s reputation takes such a hit compared to the bulk of the Who’s recordings in many people’s esteem.

Despite a lackluster public and critical reception, IT’S HARD is actually pretty fucking amazing now that I think about it. Next time you find yourself about to listen to WHO’S NEXT, TOMMY, or (if you’re really cool) QUADROPHENIA, pop in IT’S HARD instead. This album demands a second (or third, fourth, etc.) listen.

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Classic Album’s Revisited: THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY

On  November 22, 1968 The Kinks released their sixth album THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY (hence to be referred to as VILLAGE GREEN). Upon it’s release the album was branded a flop and the world moved on. But like a lot of great art, time has been kind to VILLAGE GREEN, and the album is now regarded as one of the band’s best efforts.

Not a bit of green on the sleeve, how odd.


VILLAGE GREEN is a very (very, very) English record. It’s also a concept album. These two factors probably contributed to it’s poor reception here in America. Singer-songwriter Ray Davies, who wrote all the songs on the album, celebrates the traditional English country-village (the “Village Green” which is brought up throughout the album), while at the same time lamenting and mourning it’s disappearance. It’s difficult to tell exactly how much of Davies bemoaning is genuine and how much is ironic. The album opens with the song, “The Village Green Preservation Society” which, though sung in a very sincere manner…if clearly meant to be tongue in cheek with it’s list of things the band (as the Preservation Society) wishes to protect: draft beer, china shops, custard pie, strawberry jam (and all different varieties), Sherlock Holmes (and Moriarty), and the whole damn “English speaking vernacular.” It’s all a bit extreme, including the assertion that this “society” is also the “skyscraper condemnation affiliate/God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards.”

And yet, even though the song is a bit ridiculous, to the extent that it seems to be a parody…in comes the chorus: “Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do?” and I begin to wonder if perhaps Davies is only half poking fun. The answer can be found on the rest of the album, which is nearly 100% earnest in it’s assertion that the times are changing…and it kinda sucks.

Less about “green” spaces transforming into modern skyscrapers (though that’s in there too), VILLAGE GREEN is about how time and the change it brings effects one personal life. Ray Davies is a young-man beginning to realize he’s getting older. There are two themes of VILLAGE GREEN, both are very much intertwined. The first thing the album is about is time. The passage of time, the marking of time, the struggle against the change time brings, and finally the acceptance that one must grow older. The second theme of the album is photography, specifically as a reaction to time.

On a majority of the record the subject of photography/photos/taking pictures comes up. The question Davies seems to be asking throughout is: why do we take photographs? Is it because we love each other (like in “Picture Book” a song so pro-photograph it’s no wonder HP included it in a 2004 digital photography ad campaign) OR do we take photos for darker, more selfish reasons (like in the album closer “People Take Pictures of Each Other”)?

Davies and the rest of The Kinks seem to think it’s a little of both. “Picture Book” is a bouncy, glorious ode-of a song about looking back on one’s life via a big book of pictures. Though the chorus is a bit dark “pictures of each other/to prove we love each other,” the content of the photos described in the song are all seemingly random snapshots of our lives. It’s almost like photography as an extension of our memories. After all, if we don’t remember something, it’s like it never happened. And just like a picture of “a holiday in August/outside a bed and breakfast in sunny Southend,” our memories can be inexplicably random (why DO we remember the odd little things we remember?).

Again, not a bit of "green" on THE VILLAGE GREEN.

The darker side of photography, however, is found in “People Take Pictures of Each Other” (which actually seems like it should be the title of the more well known “Picture Book”). The song has a soft, French-like quality about it. Davies sings about how “People take pictures of the Summer/Just in case someone thought they had missed it/Just to proved that it really existed.” Which leads us to a world or mindset where, it’s not a question of “if you don’t remember it, it didn’t happen” but rather, to a place where “if you have no photographic proof of it…it didn’t happen.” I find that many people in my generation and beyond are obsessed with photos, so much so that many people (parents at a dance recital) agonize so much over the photos that they miss the actual moment. The song also touches on the albums other theme, of time when later one Davies sings: “You can’t picture love that you took from me/When we were young and the world was free/Pictures of things as they used to be/Don’t show me no more, please.” That’s a bold, and frankly powerful lyric…and really encapsulates the complexity of VILLAGE GREEN. The album goes from “Picture Book,” a love letter to photographs…and ends thirteen songs later with the exclamation “show me no more, please.”

That’s why this record is so fucking great. It’s this giant, complex mediation of life and death, disguised as a pop record.

“Do You Remember Walter?” has nothing to do with photos, but it’s a central track to the record. Whereas “The Village Green Preservation Society” is all about trying to hold onto the past, “Do You Remember Walter?” is a frighteningly realistic look at how that fight ALWAYS ends. The song is one man’s recollection of his old school chum, Walter. Walter and the song’s narrator were once young and idealistic–they were going to “fight the world and be free,” with the goal of saving their money and buying a ship to sail the world! Now he’s married and fat, in bed by 8:30. He’s not the cool guy that smoked and drank, and had a bunch of fun with his “mates.” Now he’s this empty shell of the free-spirited kid he once was. And, as the narrator laments, “Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago/If you saw me now you wouldn’t even know my name.” This suggests to me, that the narrator–like Walter, lost that battle against time. There is a brief respite from the gloom, tucked away at the end of “Do You Remember Walter?” when Davies sings: “And if I talked about the old times you’d get bored and you ll have nothing more to say/Yes people often change, but memories of people can remain.” Which, in a way, reflects on the albums other theme of photography, in that like our memories, photos can preserve events AND people in the past forever. So Walter is gone, but never forgotten.

A bit of hope.

“Village Green” is a slower song, one that’s essentially a list of all thing country things that the narrator/Davies misses about pastoral Brittan. It’s a good song, notable for mentioning the titular green-space AND also referencing photographs: “American tourists flock to see the village green/They snap their photographs and say gawd darn it/Isn’t it a pretty scene?”

The Kinks ape The Yardbirds on “The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” which shares many thematic similarities to “Do You Remember Walter?” It’s a bluesy-harmonica fueled stomp that finds Davies proclaiming that he is the last “of the good, old fashioned, steam-powered trains.” This of course, is used as a metaphor for Davies/the narrator’s staunch stand against the endless parade of time: “I’m the last of the good old renegades/All my friends are all middle class and grey/But I live in a museum, so I’m okay.” It’s about trains, but it’s also about being that last holdout against growing up and adult responsibilities.

But it’s not all heavy on VILLAGE GREEN. The album has fifteen tracks, and some have very little to do with any larger theme (except in the most abstract sense). Of these, I enjoy the vaudevillian “Sitting By the Riverside.” With it’s heavy use of keyboard (there’s a great freak-out moment mid-way the song, when the keyboard reaches this climax…this thunderous peak, then crashes and the vocals kick back in, it’s fucking great) and laid-back vocal harmonies, this song reminds me of the Beatles-throwback songs like “Your Mother Should Know” or “When I’m Sixty-Four,” in that it’s a rock band playing a song in a style their parents would have liked. I always find those kind of songs fascinating.

Another non-theme related song I find really interesting is “Big Sky.” “Big Sky” is a trippy, near-psychedelic song–that’s nearly spoken-word. Davies croons and wails about all the injustice/terrible things that the song’s “character” the sky (Big Sky) looks down upon…and shrugs. He shrugs because he’s, well because he’s just so gosh darn big, and our problems are just so small. Is Big Sky God? Does God, like Big Sky, see our problems and find him/her/itself too powerful or mighty to help? Or is Davies being a bit sarcastic, is Big Sky not really overwhelmed but rather complacent?

“People lift up their hands and they look up to the big sky/But big sky is too big to sympathize/Big Sky’s too occupied/Though he would like to try/And he feels bad inside/Big sky’s too big to cry.”

What is Big Sky “too occupied” doing? Is he too busy staring down at our suffering to do anything about it? Maybe God’s hypnotized in such a manner, maybe that’s why we have war and disease and suffering. Then again, isn’t that what we all do? Don’t we as people look at other suffering and throw our hands up and say “I’m too busy to help!” What are we too busy doing? If The Kink’s “Big Sky” is God, then we were certainly made in his/her/it’s image.

From contemplating such large, theological questions, The Kinks switch over to the “Star-fucker” phenomenon on the song “Starstruck.” Which of course is about a girl who runs around, going nuts because she’s starstruck. Other album oddities include a song about fat cat (“Phenomenal Cat”), and an Orwellian-ode to Animal control of the world (“Animal Farm”). All three of these tracks make fantastic use of the mellotron–which allowed the band to simulate woodwind instruments (though they sounded pretty real to me).

I’ve probably over-thought this record. I know I’m misrepresenting it–it’s not a dodgy, stuffy old record with a lot of things to “say.” VILLAGE GREEN is just a rich, detailed, thought-provoking piece of art that, like a good painting or film–can stimulate the mind and, if you chose…give you something to think about.

Or you can hum along with it. It’s full of wonderful, beautiful hooks. VILLAGE GREEN is a very literate, yet very lively rock record. And we all know how few of THOSE are being made today. What do I have to do, put it in your hands? Go. Get it. Listen.

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Classic Albums Revisited: BILLION DOLLAR BABIES

Alice Cooper made “sick in the head” an art form. Before Marilyn Manson, before rap music was making parents shit themselves…there was Alice. A lot of people plop Cooper into the same category as Ozzy–bumbling, brutish, pseudo-satanic weirdos. But Cooper is much more than that, he’s more dangerous than Ozzy, because unlike the “Oz-man,” Cooper is actually very well-read, smart, and witty.

Snakeskin...dollar babies...

I know, some of you reading this will think I’m crazy. Maybe you’ll think I’m being overly generous, but listening to BILLION DOLLAR BABIES, Alice Cooper’s fifth (and greatest) album–I had to look some stuff up. For instance, do you know who Saint Vitus is? I didn’t either, but Cooper makes a passing reference to him in “Unfinished Sweets,” the album’s fifth track. I had to look it up. Turns out Vitus was this dude who is supposed to have driven a demon from this Roman Emperor’s son. He was drove the demon away and was killed (because he wouldn’t renounce his Christianity). Before performing this task (and then being rewarded with death) Vitus is said to have been tortured by his father (who was a Roman Senator and wasn’t cool with his son’s religious views).

Or something like that. The point is, Cooper put this strange, educated reference into a song about being tortured in a dentist’s chair.

Alice Cooper’s popularity was at an all time high in 1973. The band’s last album SCHOOL’S OUT, had been the band’s biggest hit and catapulted them into the ranks of rock glory. BILLION DOLLAR BABIES was the follow-up record, and proved to be more popular than SCHOOL’S OUT, spawning four hit singles.

While not quite metal, Cooper walked a thin line between hard-rock and mainstream rock ‘n roll on BILLION DOLLAR BABIES. The songs are darker sounding, the guitars are heavier than what most people think of as typical 70’s rock. But beyond being “heavy” or just being loud…Cooper was very theatrical. There is this sinister, “evil-carnival” type vibe flowing throughout the album. I’ll admit, some of it is ridiculous. Some of it is even pretty damn stupid. But most of it is kinda awesome, like one of those cheesy black-and-white rubber monster movies. BILLION DOLLAR BABIES works because Cooper is smirking through the coarse growls and dark ambiance.

Let’s talk first, though about the track that most disturbed me: “Mary-Ann.” This song is a freakishly-normal sounding love song. It comes in near the end of the record, just after the absurdly dark/satanic-ish “Sick Things” (which I’ll get to). “Mary-Ann” is a breath of seemingly-fresh air. Think 1930’s piano ballad or early Elton John. But somewhere, something goes wrong and the about half-way through the song (after going on and on about how much he loves his girl Mary-Ann), Cooper wails: “Mary-Ann…I thought you were my man!” The first few times I listened to the song, I totally missed this. Before your brain can make sense of this bizarre phrasing (or is it a revelation?) the song degrades into a funky-fucked up piano solo that starts sweetly in heaven before dropping back down to Earth (where is stutters and dies).

It’s a short, two minute song…but it freaks the hell out of you at three AM…when you’re wearing headphones and the lights are out. That’s the power of Cooper–he can make the most innocent thing strange and sorta creepy/terrifying. And yet, at the same time he can take something godawful, something repugnant…like say, necrophilia and make it happy and sunny like on “I Love the Dead.” This song, which is both unabashedly about violating corpses (and yet very innocent for the most part, lyrically) is also very up-beat sounding. There’s a strange, explosive sing-a-long quality to “I Love the Dead” that makes you…smile. It’s damn near a Beatles song at the end, it’s so fucking sunny. And yet, it’s about fucking someones dead loved one: “While friends and lovers mourn your silly grave/I have other uses for you, Darling.” There’s a beautiful horn and string arrangement at the end (there’s also a sick groaning sound, too). I know, intellectually, I should find this song horrid…but I love it. That, too, is the power of Cooper.

BILLION DOLLAR BABIES opens with “Hello Horray!” which pretty much sets the scene for the entire forty minutes of the album. The song is the declaration of a mad carnival barker, the loudmouth announcer who’s preparing himself as much as he is his captive audience (“I’ve been waiting so long for this thing to come/Yeah-I’ve been thinking so long I was the only one”). “Hello Horray!” also mentions the “American Dream” which is a theme that Cooper seems preoccupied with at various times throughout the album (most notably “Elected” which I’ll attend to in a moment). It’s as though “Hello Horray!” is a kind of cry to everyone–including the disenfranchised (youth) of America. Cooper’s swagger, his affirmation that “God, I’m so strong” at the end of the song appears to be brash arrogance…but by the end of BILLION DOLLAR BABIES you realize it’s not arrogance, it’s a natural fact.

I haven’t talked much about the music of this album–BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is very much a “guitar” album. There is some killer guitar work on this record. The title track “Billion Dollar Babies” (which yes, was in GUITAR HERO 2) is the most technically impressive track on the record, but the album abounds with awesome (and catchy) guitar licks. Cooper’s band is not big on the guitar solo (which was HUGE in the 1970s), expect on “Billion Dollar Babies” which is like 80% solo.

“Billion Dollar Babies” is a fucking fantastic song. Again, it’s not so much anyone thing that makes this song so creepy–it’s everything added up. First off, there’ s the creepy lyrics. I have no idea what this song is about (Cooper makes another reference to the “billion dollar babies” in a later track, “Generation Landslide”) but the lyrics are all “attics” and “moonlight.” There are some weird images too, like “Rubber little lady, slicker than a weasel.” Uh, okay. The song is supposed to be about the dangers of over-indulgence…but I don’t see it.

But anyway, back to it being creepy.

“Billion Dollar Babies” is also so strange because it’s a duet–between Alice and Donovan (yes, the dude that sang “Mellow Yellow” and “Sunshine Superman”). Donovan’s sweet, angelic voice combined with Cooper’s creepy growl makes for an unusual pairing…that both delights and unnerves. This mixed with a blistering guitar tone, makes “Billion Dollar Babies” truly awesome…and really messed up. It’s one of those things that must be heard to be understood.

“Elected” is Cooper at his most satirical, taking a stab at both vanity and the American political machine. This song sounds like a strange-hybrid of the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” and The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated.” There’s a brilliant, chugging guitar lick that pervades the song (along with Cooper’s trademark howl). Supposedly, this song is a reworking of an older song “Reflected” (but as I am unfamiliar with this song, I cannot comment directly on this). What I can say is that the song is, in the words of my uncle “the perfect November song.” Though he never says “president” in the song, it’s inferred that Cooper is demanding that he be elected Commander-in-Chief. It’s surreal to hear a man how sings about corpses croon that he wants to be elected President. Once again, like on “Hello Hooray!” Cooper seems to be reaching out for that all-important disenfranchised youth rock-demographic. He calls out that “Kids need a savior, don’t need a fake” and that “I never lied to you, I’ve always been cool.”

Indeed.

My personal favorite off BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is probably the record’s most famous single, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” First off, this song has an awesome Stone-ish vibe right at the beginning. It’s instantly recognizable, and awesome. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is a great satirical stab at Cooper’s own infamy. I love all the crazy, outlandish things that happen to him because people think “he’s sick, he’s obscene.” Like the reverend punching him on the nose in Church. Or how his own dog turned on him (and bit him in the leg). Not to mention how his parents have been effected (his dad’s in hiding and his mom was kicked out of the “society circle”). Awesome chorus. Awesome chorus. This song is catchy and insane (and I love the fact that he’s only now bad because the world has made him that way). “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is fantastic and definitely on the best songs Alice Cooper ever recorded.

Speaking of catchy, “Generation Landslide” is super-catchy. The song, which as mentioned before is the second on the album to mention “billion dollar babies” is about spoiled rich kids. The song is also noteworthy of the guitar solo at the end (which as mentioned before are kinda rare on the album). The album’s other two tracks, “Raped and Freezing” and “Sick Things” are both two differing examples of Cooper’s bizarre songwriting. “Raped and Freezing” is a more traditional rock-story-song about a role-reversals (Cooper’s narrator-character ends up getting raped and left “naked, stranded in Chihuahua.” Meanwhile, “Sick Things” is a strange near-spoken-word song that’s really freaky…and is apparently, about…sick…things??? I haven’t a clue. Honestly, I think this song is a bit of a turkey.

But hey, nine out of ten ain’t bad. That’s a 90% (which is an A-). So Cooper makes the grade.

One final note, about “Alice Cooper” vs. “The Alice Cooper Band.” You may have noticed that earlier in this essay, I referred to this album’s artist in both the singular and the plural near the beginning. The reason for this is because, in the beginning, Alice Cooper was the band’s name (and not just it’s lead singer’s stage name). BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is the final album of Alice Cooper THE BAND (as it was originally formed). Alice Cooper the man went on to make a bunch of records, but not with the same backing band.

Just thought I should clear that up. As a youngster I was often confused when I heard people say “Alice Cooper were great” or “I like The Alice Cooper Band.” Both of these things sound weird (especially coming from the mouth of a drunk person) but actually make sense when you are aware that…oh, never mind…you get it…

So, what does it all mean? Well, bottom line: BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is an interesting romp through the strange, dark, wilderness of rock. It’s a fantastic October album (though it is a good November album, too) because it’s plenty spooky. BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is also an interesting historical piece. It’s funny to listen to it because, compared to much of what I hear–it’s actually very tame. Unlike the “dumb” wrap that most music like this gets, Alice Cooper (the man and the band) are pretty clever and merge rock with the theatrical unlike any band this side of Queen.

BILLION DOLLAR BABIES is essential rock. Period.

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Classic Albums Revisited: SOME GIRLS

There are two kinds of Stones fans–ones that think 1972’s EXILE ON MAINSTREET is the band’s greatest album…and those who differ to 1978’s SOME GIRLS. I fall into the latter category. I think EXILE is a fine album, but SOME GIRLS is more fun. The album came out in a very strange time for music, both punk and disco were in full-swing–and rock acts from the 1960’s were beginning to be pegged as “dinosaurs.”

Yes, that’s right–the Stones were being branded dinosaurs all the way back in 1978. Were those boys ever NOT teased in this manner? But I digress. Mick Jagger and company put out a hell of a record in response to the growing criticism that rock’n roll was dead. SOME GIRLS takes what was best about the era (the dance-ablity of disco, and the raw/primal aggression of early punk) and merges it with the Stones classic blues-rock sensibilities.

Some girls look like boys with wigs on...

The band recorded the album over a period of several tense months in 1977. While most of the world was enjoying STAR WARS, guitarist Keith Richards was sweating a possession of heroin charge (he was busted up in Canada). Suddenly, with the prospect of losing their lead guitarist for several YEARS–the Stones got serious and recorded 50+ songs. It was during this time that Jagger, with Richards distracted, took up the bulk of the song writing duties. SOME GIRLS was a product of his frantic writing/recording period.

The album opens with “Miss You,” a bluesy-disco tinged song that became the band’s final #1 song in the USA. Unlike a lot of music from this era, the song remains catchy and cool as hell–despite the disco influences. I think the reason for this is simply, the Stones didn’t do a full disco song. The rest of SOME GIRLS is an interesting mix of punk and country (believe it or not). “Far Away Eyes” being an extreme, almost country parody and on the other end “Lies” tips closer to blind aggression of the early punk scene. Somewhere in the middle falls the rest of the album. It’s this middle where the magic is.

I have three favorite songs on this record, which in itself says a lot about its overall greatness. They are as follows (in no particular order):

1. “Beast of Burden”
2. “Before They Make Me Run”
3. “Shattered”

“Beast of Burden” with its crazy-ass falsetto and rolling guitar licks is a masterpiece. I’ve read that some of the lyrics were improvised by Jagger on the fly…I’m not sure I buy that, but part of the song’s greatness is how laid-back/casual it seems to flow. On the other end of the spectrum, is the precision and edginess of “Shattered.” Jagger’s practically spitting the verses at you, while the guitar chugs along in the backroom…before BAM! Awesome fucking solo (with hand-claps, which is always important).

There’s a theory that the reason this record sounds so good is because the band finally got a third guitarist–SOME GIRLS marks the first appearance of Jagger the guitar player. Not sure how much water that theory holds, but the music side of things does seem more complex than earlier Stones records.

And while he’s not the world’s greatest singer, I do love the Keith Richards “Before They Make Me Run.” Of course it has an amazing, holy-grail-like guitar lick. The song, though not sung my Jagger, is probably (in my opinion) the best example of a “Rolling Stones Song.” All the elements are there: killer guitar, hooky-but simple lyrics, a bluesy-country feel…it’s awesome. It makes me wish Richards had given up smoking cigarettes (his voice sounds like crap now, way too raspy). He might have even turned into a hell of a vocalist–we’ll never know. I think its funny how confident Richards playing is, but how almost quiet the vocals are. You can tell he knew he wasn’t a very good singer–I’ve noticed this on a lot of the early Clapton solo records, too. I took Clapton a long time to get the nerve to belt out “Layla.”

SOME GIRLS is a classic album, and arguably the last great record from one of the world’s greatest rock bands. Most people have actually heard 65-70% of this record via classic rock radio (which plays damn near everything on it). The damn thing is practically a GREATEST HITS for their 70’s period. This one is definitely on my “Desert Island” List of great records. Go check it out–or if you have it (like me) go give it a re-listen.

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Classic Album’s Revisited: ALADDIN SANE

Maybe he's born with it, Maybe it's Maybelline.

In 1972, David Bowie toured the United States as Ziggy Stardust (his alien alter-ego). Both America and Bowie were never the same again. Bowie’s previous record THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS proved to be a smash hit–but the weirdness was only beginning.

God only knows what Bowie thought of mid-seventies America…his sixth album ALADDIN SANE (which is a play on “A Lad Insane”) is supposed to be/rumored to be Bowie’s take on the US…but Bowie is an enigma wrapped in a mystery–so to be quite honest, I don’t “get” it. I’ve never been real big on concept albums or story albums…or whatever. Some songs go together, they make an album–great.

But don’t try to tell some over-reaching narrative. It just doesn’ t work.

And neither should ALADDIN SANE. This thing is very much a “kitchen-sink” recording, meaning they threw in everything BUT the kitchen sink when they were recording it. So say that there is excess on this record would be the understatement of the decade…but hey, this is glam rock at it’s finest (meaning it’s supposed to be vampy and over-the-top). ALADDIN SANE has a surprisingly harder edge than I remembered. But I’ll get to that part in a minute.

More than about America, ALADDIN SANE seems to be about The Rolling Stones. Mick and the boys loom large over Bowie’s sixth record, no more so than on the record’s opening track “Watch That Man.” This song sounds EXACTLY like a Rolling Stones song. In fact, prior to researching the album for this blog post, I thought this was a cover. It’s not. The Chuck Berry-eque guitar licks, the frantic/half-muttered lyrics, the horns, the female backing-vocals…it’s all very Stones-ish. Apparently audiophiles (people waaay to into recorded sound) are split very heavily when it comes to this songs final mix. When you listen to “Watch That Man” on the radio you don’t notice it as much, but the instruments are pushed “up front” with Bowie’s vocals (rather than being on a separate channel, “pushed back” like in a lot of pop recordings). This means that for large portions of the song, Bowie cannot be heard as clearly as if he’d been bummed up a little “higher” than the music.

Bowie defended this (to his record label that wanted him to change it) by saying some crap about his voice being just “another instrument” (or some such nonsense). I think he really just liked it because it made the recording sound rougher, more crappy–like a Stones song.

Anyway, the Stones pop-up again a few more times on the record–once in “Drive-In Saturday” when he mentions Jagger by name, and again towards the end of the record when Bowie legitimately covers the Stones on “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” It was the latter that first attracted me to this album. There’s something about a good cover, I just can’t resist it. Most times covers blow–but there’s something special about Bowie’s unique take on “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Bowie’s version is spacier, but it’s more than just a few electronic whizzing sounds…Bowie’s attitude is softer, sexier than Jagger’s. Then there’s the little verse that he adds toward the end:

They said we were too young Our kind of love was no fun But our love comes from above Let’s make… love

Followed by an awesome guitar outro, this little bit of himself carries an otherwise awesome cover into legendary status and–in my book, is better than the original. A feat that almost never happens.

ALADDIN SANE is packed with interesting songs, with vastly divergent influences. There’s the blues-R&B stomper “The Jean Genie” that sounds like a Cream or Yardbirds songs. Bowie dabbles in doo-woop on “Drive-In Saturday,” which is about as far from the Yardbirds as humanly possible. This song, about a post-apocalyptic future-world where people watch porn at the drive-in to re-learn sex, gets the “Craziest song on this album” award. Because it’s really, really freaky man. Also freaky (but not nearly as freaky) is the cabaret/vaudevillian “Time.” Whenever I hear “Time” I think of Queen, the song’s sheer pomposity makes me think of Freddy Mercury. It’s that kind of song. It’s very long and strange, words really don’t do this song justice. I love it, and yet if I met it in a dark alley I’d probably run the other way.

“We should be home by now” indeed.

But the jewels in ALADDIN SANE’s crown are “Cracked Actor” and “Lady Grinning Soul.” Written in Los Angeles, “Cracked Actor” is a ballsy rocker–the hardest song on the album. It’s about an aging Hollywood actor getting serviced by a prostitute. With some drugs thrown in there. The song has fucking amazing guitar work and Bowie playing harmonica (of all things, I can’t imagine Bowie doing THAT). The lyrics are full of all sorts of loaded phrases and double entendres.

“Lady Grinning Soul” has been described as Bowie’s best attempt at a Bond Theme song. As in “Bond, James Bond.” It certainly is very cinematic and strange. This song is all about the lush piano and acoustic guitar. It’s very surreal but at the same time romantic–just like David Bowie. “Lady Grinning Soul” also has features the awesome “she will be your living end”-lyric. It’s about as far from traditional rock ‘n roll as music can get, and yet it’s on the same record as “Cracked Actor” and “Watch That Man.” It takes a big set of balls to pull something like ALADDIN SANE off.

I bet there are a lot of people that haven’t heard this record, if you fall into this sad category I urge to you go out and track down a copy of ALADDIN SANE. It’s a fantastic record that belongs in your collection.

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