Tag Archives: The Kinks

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.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

GOOD TIMES! by The Monkees

Can somebody please tell me when it was that nostalgia became such a huge commodity? I don’t remember there being so much reverence for the past when I was a wee lad. Sometime in the 1990’s when they started adapting shows like The Brady Bunch and Lost in Space into feature films is when I became aware of nostalgia for the first time. I used to think it was kinda sad/lame, but now that I’m turning into an old fart I’m beginning to see the appeal. Anyway, I bring all this up because when I first heard that The Monkees were going to put out a new album in 2016, I was pretty much nonplussed but I could smell the nostalgia in the air. These long lost reunions never yield anything close to good, so I wrote the whole concept of a new Monkees album off.

the-monkees-good-times-album-rivers-cuomo

The Monkees were never really my thing. Besides being too young to watch their television show, I was born in an era where they were considered a joke. A sad, pale corporate imitation of The Beatles. Growing up I was a Beatle-fan and had no time for The Monkees and their less-than serious 60’s shtick. It wasn’t until I got much older that I learned that while The Monkees weren’t exactly serious musicians, they had a ton of real talent backing them up. People like Carole King and Harry Nilsson were penning songs for the imaginary TV-band. It was around the time that Gorillaz came out that my attitude towards The Monkees started to change. Perhaps I’d judged them too harshly. Less of a band and more of a cultural happening, The Monkees occupy a very strange (very meta) part of 1960’s culture.

So what about this new 2016 album, GOOD TIMES? Well, I got interested in it a bit once I found out that Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne was going to produce the record. Then I found out The Monkees were tapping Andy Partridge of XTC and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer to write songs. Then I heard the album would feature new covers of Harry Nilsson and Carole King songs–and the deal was sealed for me: I had to hear this record. It’s a strange thing to log into your Spotify account and boot up a new album from The Monkees. But that’s the world that we live in now, so that’s what I did a few weeks ago when the album was released. To my shock, GOOD TIMES! is a fantastic pop album that’s a ton of fun to listen to. Is this groundbreaking, earth-shattering music? No. Is GOOD TIMES! a soul-lifting, life-inspiring album that reaffirmed my love of music? Not quite. Is it the best Monkees album of all time? Yeah, it is.

I realize that statement, “best Monkees album of all time,” might seem like faint praise…because it is…but remember this is band that put out “Last Train to Clarksville.” While not the greatest song of all time, “Last Train To Clarksville” is a one of the better bubblegum pop songs from any decade, not just the decade when Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney were at their pop zenith.

GOOD TIMES! opens with Nilsson’s “Good Time,” a soulful, sweaty party song. Lead singer Davy Jones has sadly left us, so Micky Dolenz does most of the singing (though Jones does appear posthumously on one track, the Neil Diamond-penned “Love to Love”).

“You Bring the Summer” is a lovely, charming pop ditty that recalls the quaint, innocent teenybopper party songs of the early 1960’s (read: before the drugs really hit). Written by Andy Partridge, the track sounds like it’d belong on the gentler-side of one of his Dukes of Stratosphere recordings. There are a couple of odd British phrases (i.e. “sun cream” rather than “sun screen”) that add a glaze of weirdness to an otherwise basic (albeit very proficient) pop song. Rivers Cuomo’s song “She Makes Me Laugh” is easily the best song on the album, a sunny song of love and devotion. The track artfully blends Beatle-esque rock with Beach Boys-like backing vocals. This is the sort of song you hear and when you get to the end you hit “repeat” so you can go again. The only part of “She Makes Me Laugh” that bums me out is the fact that Rivers isn’t able to conjure up a song like this for Weezer. Whatever happened to Mr. Cuomo and Co. can’t be blamed on a lack of talent–Cuomo can still write a really great song. I guess there’s always the next Weezer album, but I digress…

Another really great track is “Me & Magdalena,” a soft ballad written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. The song has a dreamy, twilight feel that’s very comforting…it took me a few listens before I picked up on the fact that the song is ostensibly about death/dying. It’s not the buzzkill that you’d think and is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the material on the album (i.e. it’s more than just a fun pop song). This song is so good, in fact, it’s got me thinking I need to revisit Death Cab (a band that I never really gave a fair shake to if I’m being honest).

“Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” the strangest track on the record, has the most interesting pedigree. Written by Oasis founder Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller of The Jam, “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is weird. There are weird vocal effects and the song yo-yos between faux-psychedelia and campfire sing-a-long. The first time I heard it I was convince that it was the worst song on the record. Then I saw that it was written by two to of the best British songwriters of the last 30 years, so I gave the track another chance. Then I gave it another chance. And another. Eventually the song wove it’s magic on me and it’s one of my favorites on the record. But like “Me & Magdalena” it doesn’t feel like a Monkees track, it’s a bit of an outlier. But that’s a good thing.

“Wasn’t Born To Follow”is a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that was most famously covered by The Byrds. The song has a pastoral, Kinks-like quality that I really dig. Like the Harry Nilsson track that opens the album, this older song is less bubblegum than those written by the youngbloods. It would have been interesting to hear an album of just these type of songs. I found the tonal shifting with these more meaningful songs and the new bubblegum was a bit dizzying. GOOD TIMES! is front-loaded with new, sugary songs and ends on decidedly more adult fare.

Overall, GOOD TIMES! is…well…a really good time! A handful of these songs will probably haunt my playlists for years to come. I wouldn’t call this an all-timer by any means, but for a 2016 Monkees album, GOOD TIMES! is pretty outstanding. Worth noting, there a bunch of non-album tracks that one can hear depending on the venue by which they consume the record. On Spotify/digital streaming services, the bonus tracks are “Terrifying” written by Zach Rogue of Rouge Wave and an electric uptempo version of “Me & Magdalena.” I’m not a fan of the latter, but “Terrifying” is damn good and probably should have been included on the album proper. I’m half tempted to seek out the other bonus tracks just to see what other fantastic nuggets were omitted.

Put aside your preconceived notions and give GOOD TIMES! a shot if you’re a fan of any of the songwriters mentioned above and/or if you’re a fan of old-fashioned pop music.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

YouTube Killed The Video Star

I’ve been feeling particularly nostalgic lately. Something about the shorter days/longer nights of late fall makes me think about how things used to be. The recent lack of posts here on Defending Axl Rose isn’t completely due to a lack of time or interest in writing–I’ve also had little to write about. At some point, having access to every song ever written resulted in me listening to the same four Kinks songs over and over. Anyway, I was recently thinking about the halcyon days of sitting on the couch and watching MTV as a kid. I distinctly remember getting into new bands I might have overlooked simply because they had a cool/interesting music video.

If only...

If only…

But it’s 2015 and MTV is dead, are there still music videos? And are any of them cool? I took to the Internet determined to find cool music videos. I let YouTube be my guide and encountered some good stuff. Some of it was old, some of it was new, and some of it was worthy of sharing with everyone/anyone that reads my blog. So with that said, I give you my top five Internet music video finds:

These are in no particular order…

 

FIDLAR- “40oz. On Repeat”


This video was tailor-made for me and the headspace I was in when I started looking for music videos online. FIDLAR’s music video pays homage to all the classic MTV video’s I was nostalgic for. The shout-outs run the gambit from Missy Elliott to Jamiroquai to The Hives to Korn. Soak this one in, because it’s not only got a funny DYI aesthetic, but the song also kicks major ass.

Hockey Dad- “I Need A Woman”

I love the laid back, mellow surf-rock of Hockey Dad. Mix-in a classic VHS diary of the day in the life of a couple of young dudes hanging around a beach town and I’m in heaven. Though the band is Australian, everything about this is universal: all we want to do is be young and have fun…forever. Maybe summer isn’t endless, but Hockey Dad found a way to bottle a little of it for the cold winter days ahead.

Saul Williams- “List of Demands”

Holy shit did this one get stuck in my head. This is an older song, one that was apparently co-opted by Nike to sell us shit (a few years ago), but I found it to still be very relevant to my news feed today. Saul Williams has had a really interesting career, becoming friends with Trent Reznor (whose NIN-fluence is all over this song) and releasing a bunch of half-spoken word/half-rap albums. This is fantastic.

Michael Christmas- “Michael Cera”

Usually I’m not a fan of too much humor in music. Don’t get me wrong, I love to laugh and don’t think music is so serious or important that there’s no room for jokes…but I can’t rock a Weird Al album for more than a few tracks. Michael Christmas walks the fine line between rapper and joke rapper, for sure, but this (very unconventional) song and video won me over. Also any song that references Arrested Development is okay in my book

Har Mar Superstar- “Lady You Shot Me”

Though it’s a bit of cliche these days, I still love it when a fat/schlubby/unassuming person turns out to be an amazing singer. The Susan Boyles of the world have kinda made the phenomenon passé, but every now and then I fall for it hook line and sinker. Well, I fell for it big time with Har Mar Superstar. The gimmick is that he looks like porn star Ron Jeremy but has an amazing set of pipes, and even though I should be jaded and unimpressed…I’m impressed. I also really dig how in on the joke he is. But even if this guy had supermodel looks, the song would be good. So really I need to get over myself and just accept how shallow I really am.

BONUS 6th song!

Alright, I lied and want to share one more.

Studio Killer- “Eros and Apollo”

I have no idea why I like this. Please do not judge me, but this cartoon band from Europe have weaseled their way into my heart. Studio Killers make catchy, funk-fun club music that should not be my cup of tea…but this stuff is great! Their schtick is very Gorillaz-inspired and nobody is 100% sure who they are, though the word on the street is that the female lead singer is really a dude. Either way, this is pretty great.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Classic Albums Revisited: The Greatest Living Englishman

I’m sure 99.999% have never heard of Martin Newell and The Cleaners From Venus.  They’re not household names.  Newell formed The Cleaners in 1980 and put out a couple of really fantastic, old-school 1960’s-esque British pop albums.  They were all released on cassette and put out via a West German label.  Here in the States, the Cleaners two RCA albums have been re-released on CD a few times, but with little fanfare.  I strongly urge you to seek out GOING TO ENGLAND, it’s a fantastic album.   England, that dreariest of islands, has an incredible ability to churn out super-talented songwriters.  Mr. Martin Newell is such a songwriter.  Though the Cleaners albums were all shoddily recorded,  I’m always amazed at how his songs pop and rise above the limitations of their production.

Ah! Just look at that healthy, British complexion.

It wasn’t very cool to like The Beatles in the 1980s, especially in England.  Punk and New Wave were all about going forward, not looking back.   I suspect that this is part of the reason Newell & The Cleaners From Venus were never able to hit it big.  Steeped heavily in 60’s pop, Newell worships at the alter of Lennon which is  evident the first time you hear his songs.  And just like Lennon, Newell is big on melody, wit, and cynicism.

By 1993 Newell had given up on The Cleaners of Venus and decided to start a solo career.  His solo debut, THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN, got a major boost when XTC frontman Andy Partridge agreed to produce the record (and play drums).  Like Newell, Partridge was a Beatle-fan at a time when being Beatle-fan wasn’t in vogue, the two were musical blood-brothers. And while XTC was by no means the world’s most popular band, they’d had enough success worldwide that Partridge’s involvement in THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN helped boost interest in the album get heard over here in the U.S.

THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN is a fantastic record, dripping with catchy hooks.  The music is very Beatle-esque with a Kinks-like lyrical slant.  This is a very, very British record.  The album opener, the sublime “Goodbye Dreaming Fields,” recalls Ray Davies waxing nostalgic for the village green—although for Newell it’s a dancehall that he mourns.  The snappy “She Rings The Changes” feels like a long lost single from 1969, as one listens to THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN the sense of musical déjà vu can become overwhelming.  These songs are so good and seem so catchy you’ll swear you’ve heard them before.

And  though it’s a very upbeat, fun album, I really appreciate the way Newell snarkily attacks aspects of the socio-economic inequality in England.  This is particularly evident on “We’ll Build A House” which addresses poverty and the inability for many young people to have something so basic as a home.  In a similar vein, “A Street Called Prospect” paints an incredibly detailed sound-picture of life on a very shabby English street called Prospect.  The first time I heard this song I laughed because there’s a street called Prospect in the town where I’m from…and it’s a piece of shit too.  “The Jangling Man,” like “We’ll Build A House” describes the gulf between the wealthy older class and the “poor starving children.” It’s a terribly bitter, angry song, and yet Newell’s pop sensibilities manage to keep the track from sounding bitter or angry.

“Before The Hurricane” tackles British country life, specifically the head-in-the-sand attitude of those living in rural British communities.  Bombs and hurricanes can come, but nothing really changes anything for them.   “Home Counties Boy” offers a glimpse into Newell’s country upbringing and disdain for working in the city.  Both songs remind me of the Kink’s in both their quaintness and  in the interesting duality of both their yearning and disdain for rural life.

I’ve always loved British fatalism and Newell has it in spades.  My favorite track on the record, “Tribute To The Greatest Living Englishman” is about falling from the good graces of the public—and how much we like to see a public figure fall.  I like Newell’s song because the song’s narrator (it can’t be about him, he never rose high enough to fall) attitude towards the loss of his champagne wishes is a shrug and “it would have been mad not to try.”  I can certainly see how this sort of music would not be for everyone, but it’s like catnip for a pop-fan like me.  THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN is the best Martin Newell record (solo or otherwise) and thankfully, it’s the easiest to come by these days.  I heartily recommend this album if you like cheeky, catchy pop.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Legend of “You Really Got Me”

Perfection.  There are some who think perfection is only an idea, a theory that can never be truly realized.  And then there are people who have heard “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks.  I have nothing against complex, intricate music; I think there’s something to be said about an intricate symphony.  But when it comes to rock music, simpler is always better.  When Ray Davies wrote “You Really Got Me” in 1964, I’m confident that he wasn’t aware of the importance of what he was doing, he wasn’t trying to change the world, just write a tune.   But as one of the first successful songs built exclusively around a power chord, “You Really Got Me” proved hugely influential.

Simply put, heavy metal and punk rock could not exist without “You Really Got Me.”  That is not my opinion, it is a fact.

The riff that launched a 1,000 bands. It’s the rock music equivalent of E=MC2

But besides being built around a simple, repetitive power chord, “You Really Got Me” is notable for a unique distortion effect created by guitarist Dave Davies who cut the speaker cone of his amplifier with a razor blade.  The simple song with a unique sound was an instant hit, and saved The Kinks.  According to Ray Davies, the band’s record contract included a provision that The Kinks had ave a hit within three songs or their label would drop them.  The band’s first single, a cover of “Long Tall Sally” and follow-up single “You Still Want Me” proved to be dismal failures.  That put an incredible amount of pressure on the band, who literally had one shot to write a hit song or lose their deal with Pye Records, their record label.

“Fuck Off”

Interestingly, there are two legends surrounding the song, both involving the song’s guitar solo.  One of the rumors circulating is that Page played the guitar solo on “You Really Got Me,” but he didn’t.  During the 1960’s, Jimmy Page was the world’s most unfamous, famous guitar player.  Instead of being in a band, Page worked as a session man, or hired gun, playing on just about any and all tracks that paid.  He wasn’t well-known to the general public, but behind the scenes he was well regarded as a top-session guitarist.  Ironically, more people probably heard him play anonymously than when he was in  Zed Zeppelin.  He’s even on the theme-song for GOLDFINGER of all things.  And while The Kinks did use Page as a session player, he didn’t play on “You Really Got Me.”  The truth, it turns out, is stranger than fiction.

Ray Davies amazingly claims that not only did Kinks guitarist Dave Davies play the guitar solo, but that the word “fuck” is in original recording of the song.  The story goes that as the band was recording the song, Ray shouted to Dave Davies (in encouragement )as Dave started to play the solo.  Misinterpreting this gesture (imagine if you were about to record a solo and someone just randomly yelled at you) Dave, who was standing before a hot mic, allegedly told Ray to “Fuck off.”  Ray Davies claims that they kept the take, and that the band tried to cover it up with an “Oh No” but that it’s still there.  Davies says that with improved CD-quality sound technology the “fuck off” is quite audible.  After studying the song for several hours, I can tell you that there is without a doubt an “oh no!” just before the solo…beyond that…I just don’t hear it.

Regardless, “You Really Got Me” is an amazing song that launched the career of The Kinks and also changed rock music forever.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Gringo Star vs. Ringo Deathstarr

Last night I went on a Magical Mystery Tour deep within the bowels of Spotify.   I do this thing I call “band hopping” where I’ll listen to something and then let Spotify recommend something.  After I’m done listening to that I let it recommend something to me based on THAT song…pretty soon I’m completely and utterly lost.  I wish I could remember what led me to down the weird rabbit-hole of bands named in honor of ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, I bet the trajectory of songs was pretty interesting, but alas…I was in offline mode and my listens were not recorded.

But I digress.  The important thing is there are two really awesome rock bands with Ringo-inspired names.  The first of these bands that I happened upon was Atlanta-based Gringo Star.  What do you think of when you read that name?  I bet you think Gringo Star is a Beatles-inspired pop-rock band, right? I know that’s what I was thinking.  Turns out Gringo Star is a really cool rock band with some British-invasion influences, but mostly is a bit like the UK’s Supergrass.  The band’s latest album COUNT YER LUCKY STARS is a pretty tight collection of rock songs with a lot of “ooh’s” and “ahh’s.”**

I’m counting ’em…

The album opener “Shadow” invokes both the aforementioned Supergrass as well as Oasis, Blur, with just a hint of Dr. Dog (great harmonies).  The album is full of great songs, but I really like the spanish-influenced “Esmerelda” and the dreamy album-closer “Mexican Coma.”  That last song in particular sounds like it could have been a hit in 1966 by song little-know, post-Beatles invasion-era rock band.  I can almost see the vinyl copy of “Mexican Coma” by The Mudd Turtles or some such thing. It’s a really nice summer chill-out song, with a super-cool guitar solo.  But the song the changed my lust to love was “Got It,” which sounds like an early Kinks single.  It’s got a real nice, super-catchy hook that just digs into your brain and won’t let go.  Right now “Got It” is near the top of the list of best songs I’ve heard this summer (woah! It’s only June) .

From Gringo Star I ended up listening to a band called Ringo Deathstarr.  As far as jokey names go, Ringo Deathstarr beats Gringo Star hands-down.  Besides having the proper number of “R’s” in “Starr” the band’s name is also a freaking STAR WARS pun.

Super-washed out colours.

Now Ringo Deathstarr is a COMPLETELY different animal.  For one thing, their album COLOUR TRIP is more acid/reverb drenched than Gringo Star’s super-crisp rock.  Hailing from Texas, Ringo Deathstarr sounds a bit like The Flaming Lips by way of The Cure.  The band is a girl-and-guy “shoegaze” band that I have to reluctantly admit to being a sucker for. COLOUR TRIP opens with the spaced out “Imagine Hearts” which is a joyous bit of pop.  The album’s best track is “So High,” which sounds how a whacked-out day at the beach feels.  The gentle “Other Things” closes the album with bittersweet introspection.  It’s the kind of song that’s easy to get lost inside.  Some bands exist in space and other create it, and Ringo Deathstarr definitely create their own space–COLOUR TRIP is best enjoyed alone with headphones.  

Both bands (and albums) are pretty awesome, and despite sharing similarities in their name they’re pretty far apart sonically.  For me, Gringo Star has the better songs and Ringo Deathstarr has the better vibes.  Is that a cop-out? I guess, but it’s really like comparing apples to oranges.  Check ’em both out and tell me what you think.

FOOTNOTES:

**TANGENT: I think that modern music needs more “ooh’s” and “ahh’s.”  Go back and listen to music, from all genres, of the last 50 years and you’ll hear a ton of “ooh’s” and “ahh’s.”  But with only a few notable exceptions, COUNT YER LUCKY STARS being one of them, I can’t recall very many bands/albums today that use “ooh’s” and “ahh’s.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

“Big Sky” by The Kinks

This is a killer-cut off off THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY.

 

Tagged , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,