Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Clash, Joe Strummer, and Me

Once referred to by critics as “The Only Band That Matters,” I started liking The Clash in my late teens. Like most people who came of age in the early 1980s, the first time I heard The Clash was when I heard Rock the Casbah from Combat Rock. I saw the video on MTV [back when they showed actual music videos]. Four guys playing music in front of an oil pump while an Arab and a Jew were getting off on their music. That was better than most videos of the time. I read about their politics. I didn’t think much of it. I was never unemployed, I never lived in an inner city, I didn’t know why punks were so angry. Growing up in suburban America, how can one relate to such things? Not very well I’m afraid. But Rock the Casbah? That wasn’t punk. That wasn’t angry. It was just straight-ahead rock and roll. Where was the anger I heard about? Little did I know, The Clash were on their last legs by then, and they left punk in the dust long before I ever heard them. Then a friend handed me a copy of London Calling. “Okay” I thought – still no anger here but there’s a lot of variety in the music. There was rockabilly, lots of reggae [who thought white English guys could play reggae?], ska, hard rock with the title track, and even pop [Train in Vain]. Still I thought “this isn’t punk, it’s The Clash’s version of The Beatles’ White Album.” They’re all over the stylistic map on London Calling. But this was great stuff. The same friend who loaned me London Calling then loaned me Sandinista! Not only did they cover all the styles they covered on London Calling, they added a few more. They added dub, rap [The Magnificent Seven – yes!!!]. a waltz, gospel, funk, psychedelic explorations. You name it, it was on Sandinista! But still, where was the angry punk of legend? I had to go back to their first recordings. I never owned them, but later in life I got a double cassette of The Story of The Clash, Volume 1 and there it was. There were quick two minute songs like White Riot, London’s Burning, I’m So Bored With the U.S.A. But even then they were starting to break the punk format with [White Man] In Hammersmith Palais and Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad. I liked it all.

One day in 1983 I read a small blurb in Rolling Stone magazine [before it became a fashion mag] that Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon fired Mick Jones. That was like Lennon firing McCartney. The Clash put out one more album called Cut the Crap. If they had indeed "cut the crap" there wouldn't have been an album. It was bloody awful. I wanted nothing to do with it [I still don’t]. In my mind there could be no Clash without Mick Jones. In 1986, The Clash were history. What a shame. Mick Jones formed his own Big Audio Dynamite. I got their first album This Is Big Audio Dynamite. There wasn’t a lot of guitar, but there was a lot of dub and sampling [before “sampling” has become big in hip-hop]. It was interesting. Their next album was No. 10 Upping Street. Imagine my surprise when I found that Joe Strummer produced it with Mick Jones. Apparently Joe Strummer realized his crass mistake and made up with Mick. Be that as it may, I never really caught on with Big Audio Dynamite. Shortly thereafter, Joe Strummer made an album called Earthquake Weather and promptly assumed a low profile for the next decade.

I didn’t give two thoughts about Joe Strummer or Mick Jones or anything Clash-related until 2002. I was doing my usual channel-surfing on cable when I saw a blurb on CNN that Joe Strummer had died right before Christmas. That day was eight years ago today. “How could that be?” I thought. He was still fairly young [he was only 50]. So as usual, when a rock star dies I decided I wanted to check out their work. I read up on his albums with his group The Mescaleros. All the reviews said “if you’re expecting The Clash, you’ll be disappointed.” The critics were right in one respect – the anger and venom of youth were gone, but they were also wrong because like the London Calling and Sandinista!, Joe Strummer was all over the stylistic map. I bought the albums and was surprised by what I heard. It was a shame that it took Joe Strummer’s death for me to rediscover him. He left some pretty good damn work behind. RIP Joe.

Director Julien Temple, a friend of Joe Strummer, made a documentary on Joe Strummer called The Future Is Unwritten. Also, Chris Salewicz [he of the New Music Express and The London Times] wrote a biography of Joe Strummer called Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer. I have it - it's a good read. The Independent Film Channel showed Let’s Rock Again, a tour documentary by Dick Rude of Joe Strummer trying to get his name re-established in the music world while touring for his Global A Go-Go CD. When I’ve seen and read all of this I hope to write about them at a future date.

Until then, there’s a lot of Joe Strummer’s music on my iPod. Here it is:

The Clash
London Calling/The Magnificent Seven/Brand New Cadillac/The Leader/Police on My Back/Rock the Casbah/Should I Stay or Should I Go/Bankrobber/Armagideon Time/Know Your Rights/Straight to Hell/Rudie Can't Fail/The Guns of Brixton/(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais/London's Burning/White Riot/Somebody Got Murdered/Charlie Don't Surf/Kingston Advice/The Street Parade/Wrong 'Em Boyo/Death or Glory/The Card Cheat/Revolution Rock/Train in Vain/Clash City Rockers/Stay Free

Joe Strummer
BBC World Service/Tony Adams/Mega Bottle Ride/The Long Shadow/All In A Day/Global A Go-Go/Arms Aloft In Aberdeen/Willesden to Cricklewood/Bhindi Bhagee/Johnny Appleseed/Coma Girl/Ramshackle Day Parade/Burning Streets (London Is Burning)/ Get Down Moses/Shaktar Donetsk/Minstrel Boy [Black Hawk Down version]/Redemption Song/"Punk Rock Warlord"

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here/Animals

With Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd faced the unenviable task of following-up the massively-successful The Dark Side of the Moon. The band were at a creative dead end. They had achieved all the success they had ever wanted, but the question became "now what?" They settled on two themes- the long-since departed Syd Barrett, and the music business. Shine On You Crazy Diamond is a nine-part song written by Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Richard Wright. It's about Syd Barrett. It was originally intended to take up an entire side like Echoes [Meddle] and Atom Heart Mother [Atom Heart Mother], but the band opted to split the song after the fifth part and insert three songs - Welcome to the Machine, Have a Cigar, and Wish You Were Here. Welcome to the Machine centers on a young musician who is signed to a record deal by a record executive, who had been "provided with toys" and "scouting for boys" for the record company. Once signed, the musician is told by the record company what to sing [it's all right we told you what to dream...], so "welcome to the machine" [the "Machine" being the music business]. Have a Cigar picks up the sleazy record company theme with the question Oh by the way, which one's Pink? The cluelesss record company executive then tells the band they're "fantastic," they've got to get another album out because they owe it to their fans and the record execs are having a hard time counting all their money. Things are going very well [everybody else is just green, have you seen the chart, it's a helluva start, it could be made into a monster if we all pull together as a team...]. Roy Harper does the vocals on Have a Cigar. He was in an adjoining Abbey Road studio recording his HQ album while Pink Floyd were doing Wish You Were Here. Roger Waters was having a hard time getting the vocals right, so the rest of the band suggested Roy Harper sing it. The song Wish You Were Here is another tribute to Syd Barrett. In my opinion it's one of the finest songs Pink Floyd ever did. It is the perfect combination of David Gilmour's music with Roger Waters' lyrics. The album closes with the remainder of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. It closes the album on what David Gilmour called a "funeral march."

I can summarize Animals as Orwell's Animal Farm set to music. Roger Waters breaks the human race in his Orwellian world into three kinds of people - Dogs, Sheep and Pigs. Dogs traces it's roots back to 1974, when it performed in concert with songs that became the album Wish You Were Here as You Gotta Be Crazy. That reference appears in the very first line of the song - You’ve gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need./You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you’re on the street,/you gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed./And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight,/You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking. Dogs are depicted as the sort of people who will stab one in the back to get what they want. Dogs are cutthroats, opportunistic, but to survive in the capitalist Britain of the 1970s are "told what to do by the man" [who in this case are the Pigs], and are beaten into conformity of British society, "broken by trained personnel" and finally "dragged down by the stone." Pigs are at the top of the economic heap, those who think they're so morally superior they can tell the Dogs and the Sheep what they can and can't do. In Pigs [Three Different Ones] Roger refers to Mary Whitehouse, a British morals crusader [also immortalized in Deep Purple's Mary Long] as a "fucked-up old hag." There is another kind of "Pig" who is the greedy capitalist lording over the proletariat who are the mindless Sheep who do what they are told. Sheep began as Raving and Drooling, another song that traces its origins to the pre-Wish You Were Here days. The Sheep are "harmlessly passing the time in the grassland, clueless animals that have no idea about the "sudden unease in the air." But things aren't what they seem. The clue lies in a parody of Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want He makes me down to lie Through pastures green He leadeth me the silent waters by. With bright knives He releaseth my soul. He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places. He converteth me to lamb cutlets, For lo, He hath great power, and great hunger. When cometh the day we lowly ones, Through quiet reflection, and great dedication Master the art of Karate, Lo, we shall rise up, And then we'll make the bugger's eyes water.

The Sheep rise up and slaughter the Dogs [Have you heard the news? The Dogs are dead...]

I have always considered both Wish You Were Here and Animals as being two sides of the same coin. The songs came from the same period, and to there ears they sound very similar. Not only do they sound like they were recorded at the same time and place, there's a bitterness to all the lyrics that suggest to me that once Roger Waters got on a roll, he couldn't stop. Here's how I've got things sequenced: Pigs on the Wing Part I/Have a Cigar/Wish You Were Here/Welcome to the Machine/Sheep/Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts I-VII (from the Echoes "Best of" CD)/Dogs/Pigs [Three Different Ones]/Pigs on the Wing Part II.

Related link:

Monday, December 13, 2010

David Gilmour: About Face

This second album from David Gilmour, the guitarist and singer from Pink Floyd, came out in March 1984. At that time, the last I had heard from Gilmour was on Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut from 1983. While I liked The Final Cut then [and still do] I felt there was something missing, and that “something” was David Gilmour. For that final album with Roger Waters, Gilmour was just the guitar player. He didn’t have any of his own songs on the album, he sang only one song [Not Now John], and he did not receive any production credit as he had on the Floyd’s previous album, 1979’s The Wall. Where The Wall saw loads of input from Gilmour, The Final Cut had none. The Final Cut was seen by many [including me] as Pink Floyd’s swan song. So when About Face came out I was keen to hear what David Gilmour had been up to since The Wall. I remember back in the day that Rolling Stone magazine [and Kurt Loder in particular] had given About Face a three-star [out of five] rating. Loder grudgingly gave a positive review. But shortly after About Face’s release [a month], Roger Waters put out his own album, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking. Where Loder’s review of About Face was somewhat positive, his review of The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking was downright scathing. Loder stated that when comparing the two Floyd solo albums to each other, it was perfectly clear to him who had the patent on Pink Floyd’s sound. Loder’s verdict on that question: Gilmour. He even stated that About Face gained more luster in comparison with “this turkey.”

Every Pink Floyd album between The Dark Side of the Moon and The Final Cut is based [in some cases loosely, in others explicitly] on some sort of concept or theme. About Face is not like that. It is simply a collection of songs. Some of the music on About Face is very Floydian. These songs would include Murder [a song addressed to John Lennon’s killer], You Know I’m Right [Gilmour’s open letter to Roger Waters], Near the End [another open letter to Waters], and the ballad Out of the Blue, where Gilmour voices his concerns about nuclear war. Each of these songs has what many songs from The Final Cut do not have – melody. Murder starts with an acoustic guitar which reminds me of Norwegian Wood [This Bird Has Flown], has a wonderful fretless bass solo from Pino Palladino, and finishes with some fierce electric guitar at the end. Near the End is similar in structure to Murder, but instead of having a “big guitar” finish, Near the End ends with a double-tracked acoustic guitar solo that morphs into a single electric guitar solo. You Know I’m Right has a simple electric guitar introduction, a big orchestral sound, and then a minute-and-a-half of somewhat atonal guitar soloing at the end. The instrumental Let’s Get Metaphysical is an orchestral piece with Gilmour soloing over the top. It serves as an introduction to Near the End and would also seem at home on a Floyd album.

The rest of About Face is a different kettle of fish. Until We Sleep, which leads off the album, has vocal harmonies that sound like they came from The Byrds, humongous Fender Stratocaster tones, and a massive synthesizer sound courtesy of Deep Purple’s Jon Lord. The second side of the album [back when there was such a thing] begins with the headbanging All Lovers Are Deranged, co-written by Gilmour and Pete Townshend. When asked about this song, David Gilmour said he fancied a bit of headbanging before he got too old for it. The ballad Love on the Air is another tune co-written with Pete Townshend. In 1985 Pete Townshend played two shows for charity at the Brixton Academy under his own name [rather than as a member of The Who]. David Gilmour served as lead guitarist for the band [he had played on Pete’s White City album then currently out], and during his solo spot he played Love on the Air. Blue Light is David Gilmour trying to be funky (?!?), complete with a horn section. This song is more of a curiosity than something that should be taken seriously, but I like it anyway because it’s so “out of character” for him. Cruise is another acoustic-driven song that has a reggae (?!?) breakdown in the middle. It’s the one song on About Face that makes me hit the “skip” button on the CD player every time.

David Gilmour has often said that he finds it easier to express himself musically rather than lyrically. About Face shows David Gilmour to be an average lyricist, especially when compared to an outstanding lyricist like Roger Waters or Pete Townshend. That being said, it’s better than anything I could ever attempt. The appeal of About Face lies in the music contained therein. David Gilmour is an outstanding musician with a keen melodic sense. He's also my most favorite guitar player. In places it sounds a lot like Pink Floyd. Though he is a very fluid soloist, he demonstrates that he can play piledriving riffs if the song requires it. About Face is Gilmour at the crossroads between The Wall and A Momentary Lapse of Reason. It is essential for any Pink Floyd fan who does not think that Pink Floyd began and ended with Roger Waters.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Rolling Stones: Very Cool Songs [according to ME]

What defines a cool Rolling Stones song? Everyone has their own definition, but for me the answer is very simple – you never, ever tire of hearing it. It’s the kind of song you want to have stuck in your head. Here are my picks, in no order whatsoever.

Gimme Shelter [Let It Bleed, 1969] – There are no words to describe the coolness of Gimme Shelter. It’s so cool that Keith once recorded it live for a B-side for one of his own singles [Eileen if you’re looking…]. This song is Keith Richards’ vision of the apocalypse. Merry Clayton did the female vocals. They were so good that this song is primarily for what she is known. Once you hear the arpeggioed beginning, you know something ominous is about to happen.

Live With Me [Let It Bleed, 1969] – What makes this song cool? It starts with the very first notes played on the bass by Keith Richards. When he felt like it, he'd relieve Bill Wyman of the bass and play it himself. This is one of those times. The bass is very prominent in the mix – it’s like he’s playing “lead bass.” Bobby Keys takes the solo instead of one of the guitar players. Live With Me is one of the first songs with Mick Taylor. Mick Jagger’s lyrics are about as racy as they come. This song was never released as a single, but it should have been. In my humble opinion, the only song better than this from Let It Bleed is Gimme Shelter.

No Expectations [Beggar’s Banquet, 1968] – Brian Jones played a very good acoustic slide here. It’s one of the last best things he did before he left Planet Earth. Nicky Hopkins accompanies with an understated piano that doesn’t get in Brian Jones’ way. The song has the feel of an old-time blues classic.

Stray Cat Blues [Beggar’s Banquet, 1968] – Before there was Live With Me, there was this tale of backstage debauchery with under-aged girls. This is Mick Jagger at his sleaziest. He was 25 when he first sang it – now he’s 67 [ew...]. About the only thing missing from the lyrics are the words “would you like some candy little girl?” Keith Richards played all the guitars, and I think he played the bass as well.

You Got the Silver [Let It Bleed, 1969] – Keith Richards takes the lead vocal for the first time on this tune. Critic Richie Unterberger from Allmusic describes this song as the closest the Stones would get to the roots of acoustic home-down blues. I disagree – it could be the flip side to No Expectations. Keith performs it on-stage today, and without a guitar! Ron Wood plays acoustic slide on the Shine a Light version.

Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – Play this one back-to-back [this one first] with Sister Morphine. The classic Keith Richards human-riff rhythm playing sets the table, and then keeps the song going while first Bobby Keys delivers a blistering sax solo, to be followed by Mick Taylor soloing out of his mind. By the time it’s over after seven minutes of jamming, you think the song was over too soon. It ends with you wanting more.

Sister Morphine [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – This song is best heard while driving around Los Angeles at night. If you can’t get to LA, just turn off all the lights, sit back and enjoy this very dark overdose tale. The scream of the ambulance is sounding in my ears/Tell me, Sister Morphine, how long have I been lying here? What am I doing in this place? Why does the doctor have no face? Sticky Fingers has lots of songs with a drug reference or two. Ry Cooder plays the slide guitar, Jack Nitzsche on piano. Both of these contributions contribute to the scary atmosphere [which seems to work better for me after dark].

Sweet Virginia [Exile on Main St, 1972] – the Stones go country. Here the influence of Gram Parsons emerges [he might even be in the chorus]. Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes…

Turd on the Run [Exile on Main St, 1972] – no particular reason – I just like the song, and it segues into…

Ventilator Blues [Exile on Main St, 1972] – I think of all the songs on Exile this one captures the essence of the whole thing.

Street Fighting Man [Beggar’s Banquet, 1968] – This one is inspired by riots in London and Paris during the summer of 1968. The cool factor - the song sounds electric, but in fact the only electric instrument was the bass. Keith played an acoustic guitar into an overloaded cassette player that gave it a metallic sound, and Brian Jones provided the sitar and tambura. The rhythm section was solid. The drums were very loud and in your face. It’s a very good song that starts off Beggar’s Banquet.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash [single – 1968] – This one was recorded during the Beggar’s Banquet sessions but released only as a single. It took me many years to figure out what Mick Jagger was singing. I could not for the life of me decipher the words. But then Al Gore invented the Internet, and presto…instant comprehension! What makes this song cool – the riff. It’s one of the most indestructible riffs in rock music, like Sunshine of Your Love or Smoke on the Water. Once you hear the riff, you never forget it.

The Last Time [Out Of Our Heads, 1965] – This is the first big UK single written by Mick & Keith. The reason for this song’s coolness is the same as Jumpin’ Jack Flash – the riff. It digs into your ear and stays there for several years.

Paint It Black [Aftermath, 1966] – Another great riff, but with a twist; Brian Jones plays the riff on a sitar, which gives the song a Middle Eastern flair. This song has death written all over it - I see a line of cars and they're all painted black…With flowers and my love both never to come back…I could not foresee this thing happening to you…You’ll find it at the end of Full Metal Jacket.

Under My Thumb [Aftermath, 1966] – This is the musical equivalent of The Taming of the Shrew. Brian Jones shows off his musical versatility again by playing the signature riff of this song on marimbas.

2000 Light Years From Home [Their Satanic Majesties Request, 1967] – the Stones succeed at getting trippy. It’s a bit dated, with Brian Jones getting to show off on the mellotron. This is the furthest that the Stones would stray from their blues roots, a mistake they would correct with Beggar’s Banquet. But despite the album’s flaws, I love this song.

Satisfaction [Out Of Our Heads, 1965] – Do I really need to explain this one? Even my mother liked this one. This is probably the best rock-and-roll song ever done. Period. End of discussion.

Bitch [Sticky Fingers, 1971] - the riff, the horns, Charlie Watts kicking the band’s ass.

Moonlight Mile [Sticky Fingers, 1971] - one of the best ballads the Stones ever recorded about life as a rock star on the road. It closes Sticky Fingers.

Wild Horses [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – a country ballad written originally by Keith about him missing his son Marlon. This is one of two country songs on the album, the other one being Dead Flowers.

Dancing With Mr D [Goats Head Soup, 1973] – This is the leadoff song from the first of the Junky Trilogy, Goats Head Soup. The song begins and ends with a riff that repeats often throughout the song. Mick Taylor plays a stinging electric slide as well as the bass. Charlie is flawless as always. Mick Jagger’s lyrics allude to dalliance with death: Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clinging and thick/But I know his name, he's called Mr. D/And one of these days, he's going to set you free. I wonder if Keith’s descent into full-blown heroin addiction prompted this song.

Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) [Goats Head Soup, 1973] – This song tells two stories: the accidental shooting in New York of a ten-year-old boy, and a ten-year-old girl dying in an alley of a drug overdose. Billy Preston plays clavinet on the intro, then is joined by Mick Taylor playing wah-wah guitar in unison. Keith plays the bass. But what makes the song standout from other Stones songs is the horns. Usually they’d have Bobby Keys’ sax, but this song uses sax and trumpet giving the horns a beefier sound. Underneath it all is Keith’s bass playing holding down the fort while Mick Taylor plays one of his many lyrical solos.

Time Waits For No One [It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1974] – There are two cool songs on It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll; this is one of them. Why is this song cool? Mick Taylor. Like Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, Mick Taylor starts his solo about 2/3 of the way through the song and carries it to the end. He just carries the song, period.

Hand of Fate [Black and Blue, 1976] – After finishing Exile on Main St, the Stones recorded three more albums which I have dubbed The Junkie Trilogy. I gave these albums this name because they were made as Keith Richards slipped deeper and deeper into the grips of heroin addiction. This had the effect of Mick Jagger taking over as the Stones’ musical director. Mick Taylor left the band after the release of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll [the second of the Junkie Trilogy], so the Stones used several lead players to make Black and Blue, the third and last Junkie Trilogy installment. Who else but the Stones would use recording sessions as auditions for a departed guitarist? American Wayne Perkins did the honors on this song. His solos are as fluid and blistering as anything Mick Taylor laid down during his tenure in the band. In fact, the first time I heard it I thought it was Mick Taylor. The ever-present Keith Richards rhythm playing locks in tightly with Charlie Watts. Hand of Fate is without a doubt the best song from Black and Blue.

Fingerprint File [It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1974] – This is the other cool song from It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, the second installment of The Junkie Trilogy. Mick Jagger plays the heavily-phased rhythm guitar, Keith plays the guitar with the wah-wah pedal, Mick Taylor plays the bass, Bill Wyman on synthesizers, and Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins also join in the fun. The lyrics express paranoia about wiretapping and other FBI surveillance activity, which actually did happen to John Lennon. The funky/dance sound of this song is so uncharacteristic of the Stones one has to put it in the “cool” category.

Thru and Thru [Voodoo Lounge, 1994] – Another Keith vocal, quiet and menacing, this one sounds like it was recorded in a small blues club after hours. There’s minimal instrumentation – one or two guitars, piano, bass & drums. Keith uses that nasty rhythm tone of his again. Why is this one cool? It appeared on The Sopranos, dammit. What could be cooler?

Too Much Blood [Undercover, 1983] – This song has Mick Jagger written all over it. It’s a horn-driven dance song where Mick Jagger laments the amount of violence depicted in pop culture [wanna dance, wanna sing, wanna bust up everything…]. Consider this pseudo-rap from Sir Mick:

Did you ever see "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"? Horrible, wasn't it. You know, people ask me "is it really true where you live in Texas, is that really true what they do around there, people?" I say, "yea, every time I drive through the crossroads I get scared, there's a bloke running round with a fucking chain saw. Oh! Oh! oh No, he's gonna cut off, Oh no. Don't saw off me leg, don't saw off me arm.

Ok, it might not fit any definition of “cool,” but it’s damn funny and that’s good enough.

One Hit (To The Body) [Dirty Work, 1986] – This is the lead-off track from Dirty Work. This was recorded at a time when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards couldn’t stand to be in the same room. The cause of so much discontent? Mick Jagger wanting a solo career. Keith’s guitar tone throughout is big, nasty, loud and very angry. Ron Wood’s acoustic backing cuts through the noise like the Grim Reaper wielding a scythe. Jimmy Page provides all the solo work. Mick Jagger spits out the lyrics with much vitriol. Put all these pieces together and you’ve got a very aggressive track. The video that was filmed for this song barely disguises the ill-will between Mick & Keith. This is a great song from an otherwise crappy album.

Worried About You [Tattoo You, 1981] – This was an outtake from Black and Blue. I can’t figure out why it was an outtake because this song is far better than Black and Blue [with the exception of Hand of Fate]. This is a “sleeper” track on Tattoo You. Start Me Up and Waiting on a Friend were the singles that got all the radio airplay. Worried About You sticks out from the rest of Tattoo You, but in a good way. As with Hand of Fate, Wayne Perkins provides the soloing. That’s the bit that sticks out for the listener because when you hear it, you know immediately it isn’t Keith or Ron playing the solo. Neither of those guys could play as fluidly as what you hear Wayne Perkins doing on this song.

Almost Hear You Sigh [Steel Wheels, 1989] – This one is a leftover from Keith’s Talk Is Cheap album from 1988. A song about a difficult breakup, this one is a very melodic, medium tempo song with an acoustic guitar solo from Keith. It also has the classic Keith Richards rhythm guitar sound that I have no idea how to replicate. Charlie’s timekeeping is flawless.

Slipping Away [Steel Wheels, 1989] – Keith sings! I guess having done Talk Is Cheap the year before gave Keith the confidence to sing more on Stones albums. Both Slipping Away and Almost Hear You Sigh are excellent ballads. Both songs are tearjerkers without a doubt – a sign of a great song.

Love Is Strong [Voodoo Lounge, 1994] – this slow, snakey song kicks off Voodoo Lounge. To me it sounds a lot like Keith’s Wicked As It Seems from his second solo album [Main Offender]. Where Steel Wheels had a fairly slick production, Voodoo Lounge sounded like the producer [Don Was] was trying to get back to the Exile on Main Street sound. It has the same dry, sparse sound of Keith’s Main Offender, which is ok with me.

Low Down [Bridges to Babylon, 1997] – on Bridges to Babylon, there were really two albums in one. Mick worked with the Chemical Brothers [he was always trying to get the latest club sounds onto a Stones album], and Keith worked with Rob Fraboni to keep the Stones doing what they do best. This one is one of the Fraboni tracks. Big, beefy horns, and Keith’s snarling rhythm guitar – just what a good Stones song needs. How does he get that sound? I know he plays in Open G with only five strings, but he has a very distinct sound I would kill for.

It Won’t Take Long [A Bigger Bang, 2005] – see Low Down, only without the horns. Keith and Ron Wood practice their ancient form of weaving.

Does anybody care to disagree with my choices?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Taj Mahal: Maestro

Taj Mahal has always been a different kind of bluesman. For over forty years he has incorporated acoustic blues, rock, folk, jazz, gospel, reggae, various African styles of music, even traditional Caribbean styles into his music. His latest album, Maestro (2008), is an excellent example of Taj Mahal's eclecticism. He shows no sign of not doing whatever his muse tells him.

If you like the albums Taj Mahal did with the Phantom Blues Band [1993's Dancing the Blues, 1996's Phantom Blues, 1997's Señor Blues, and 2000's Shoutin' in Key], then you'll love Maestro. After a nine year hiatus, The Phantom Blues Band returns on four blues tunes - James Moore's Scratch My Back, Willie Dixon's Diddy Wah Diddy, Further on Down the Road (a duet with Jack Johnson), which he wrote with the late Jessie Ed Davis that first appeared on 1969's Giant Step, and Slow Drag, a funky slow blues that is another Taj Mahal original. A band called the New Orleans Social Club (the core of which - George Porter, Ivan Neville, and Raymond Weber - is Warren Haynes' new band away from Gov't Mule) appears on Taj's houserocker I Can Make You Happy and Fats Domino's Hello Josephine. He's off to R&B territory with Los Lobos on Never Let You Go, and rejoins with Los Lobos on the Delta blues TV Mama. Ziggy Marley and his band make an appearance on the reggae tune Black Man, Brown Man, and Ben Harper and company drop in for some blues rock on Dust Me Down. For more variety, Taj Mahal revisits Africa on Zanzibar, renewing the collaboration he started with Mali Kora master Toumani Diabate on 1999's Kulanjan. Maestro is Taj Mahal's first release in 5 years, and is a showcase for both his talents and eclectic musical interests.

As a bonus, in 2009, Taj Mahal lent his talents to a collaboration with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and a San Francisco Bay-area band called Los Cenzontles ["The Mockingbirds"]. On the album American Horizon, Taj Mahal contributes three original tunes - La Luna [which he sings completely in Spanish], No Hay Trabajo, the bluesy One Hot Mama, Sueños and La Fuerza. A multi-instrumentalist, Taj Mahal contributes organ, piano, electric bass, electric guitar, ukelele, acoustic guitar, banjo, and harmonica. He definitely likes to stay busy. He doesn't sing on all the songs, but he either co-wrote and/or played on them. Good stuff.

If you want to hear some good music from Taj Mahal, these two CDs are good places to start. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Neil Young - On the Beach

On the Beach was the in-studio follow-up to 1972's Harvest. Neil Young once wrote in liner notes for his Decade compilation that ''Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there." Neil headed for the ditch with the "Ditch Trilogy" - Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, and On the Beach. Neil became disillusioned with stardom, discovered that "success" wasn't all that it was cracked up to be, and a couple of friends [Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry] succumbed to drug overdoses. Those circumstances put Neil in a foul mood, the result of which was the "Ditch Trilogy."

Neil Young emerged from the ditch with On the Beach. Released in 1974, it reflected the times - Watergate, the Symbionese Liberation Army and their kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the energy crisis, the post-Woodstock hangover of hippies having to grow up and actually contribute something to society. Several of Neil's friends appear on On the Beach, to include David Crosby, Graham Nash, Ben Keith, Rusty Kershaw, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. The album sports one of the coolest album covers I've ever seen - a Cadillac buried in sand up to its tailfins, a newspaper with headlines calling for Nixon to resign, a yellow beach umbrella and two chairs, and a long-haired Neil gazing out at the ocean while standing near a potted palm tree.

On the Beach was made under the influence of "Honey Slides," courtesy of Rusty Kershaw. A honey slide is a concotion made from mixing up honey and real cheap marijuana. According to Neil's manager Elliot Roberts, "The high was debilitating. People passed out. This stuff was, like, way worse than heroin. Much heavier. Rusty Kershaw would pour it down your throat and within ten minutes you were catatonic."

Despite the honey slides [or maybe because of them, I don't know], On the Beach has lots of good Neil Young music. When it came out it was panned, but time has been more than kind to On the Beach. Critics have since praised it as a "masterpiece."

Walk On - Some get stoned, some get strange/Sooner or later it all gets real... a commentary on the 1960s perhaps?

See the Sky About to Rain - a leftover from the Harvest days. Yawn...

Revolution Blues - not so much a tribute to Charles Manson, but written from Manson's point of view. Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars... It's not a blues - it's a full-tilt rocker with the Band's rhythm section [Rick Danko and Levon Helm] and Croz on rhythm guitar.

For the Turnstiles - Neil plays banjo. What does it all mean? Damned if I know...

Vampire Blues - Neil skewers the oil companies. Neil was green before being green became chic. This is as close to a blues as Neil Young gets.

On the Beach - Neil laments stardom. If you should always look on the bright side of life, then Neil meditates on the downward side of fame. I need a crowd of people but I can't face them today/Though my troubles are meaningless - that don't make them go away. This one has the feeling of waking up with a skull-crushing hangover. It sounds a bit bleary-eyed in its execution. Perhaps it was the honey slides. Graham Nash appears on Wurlitzer piano.

Motion Pictures - Neil laments his breakup with Carrie Snodgrass, the actress he fell in love with on Harvest's A Man Needs a Maid.

Ambulance Blues - Neil takes aim at his critics [so all you critics sit alone, you're no better than me from what you've shown with your stomach pumps and your hook-and-ladder dreams], Richard Nixon [I never knew a man could tell so many lies /He had a different story for every set of eyes /How can he remember who he's talkin' to/'Cause I know it ain't me and I hope it isn't you], and Crosby, Stills and Nash [you're all just pissing in the wind...]. It sounds a lot like Bert Jansch's Needle of Death - even Neil said so. It's not a blues either, but a 9-minute ballad. It's just Neil, one acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and Rusty Kershaw's fiddle. Good stuff this one.

On the Beach is not a cheery album, but not every album has to be. Play this one back-to-back with Harvest for maximum effect.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tony's Picks: Frank Zappa

How did I get Frank Zappa? It mostly started long after he died. When I was in college KILO 94 used to play Cosmik Debris. It was goofy but harmless fun. Many years later I bought Strictly Commercial: The Best of Frank Zappa. It's a very good primer for someone just getting into Frank Zappa's music. I liked what I heard, then I went after the instrumentals: Hot Rats [1969], Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar [1981] and Guitar [1988]. These works are where I discovered Frank Zappa as a take-no-prisoners guitarist. Then I got the stuff from his 1970s period - Over-Nite Sensation [1973], Apostrophe (') [1974], One Size Fits All [1975], and Zoot Allures [1976]. There's more excellent musicianship and loads of ascerbic wit. I also got Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage. I tried to like them but there was just too much bathroom humor for one to stomach, so I eventually sold them when I was "culling the herd." The Flo & Eddie period didn't do too much for me either, so I didn't bother with those releases. Frank Zappa branched out into serious classical music. There are two noteworthy albums - The Yellow Shark [1993] (the last album of Frank Zappa music released in his lifetime) and Ensemble Modern Plays Frank Zappa: Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions [2003]. Both are well-executed by the Ensemble Modern, but that's another story. Frank Zappa was a wicked satirist who did not suffer fools gladly. But he was also a fantastic guitar player. That's why there are so many "guitar-only" songs on my list.

With all of the releases I've listed above, I compiled a bunch of tunes for my iPod. So, for those who care for such things, these are my Frank Zappa picks:

Peaches en Regalia [Hot Rats, 1969]

Camarillo Brillo [Over-Nite Sensation, 1973]

Dirty Love [Over-Nite Sensation, 1973]

Cosmik Debris [Apostrophe ('), 1974] - Frank Zappa's commentary on self-help gurus

Stink-Foot - [Apostrophe ('), 1974] - Frank Zappa's commentary on Bromidrosis

My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama [Weasels Ripped My Flesh, 1970]

Trouble Every Day [Freak Out!, 1966]

Apostrophe (') [Apostrophe ('), 1974] - Jack Bruce jams with the Grand Wazoo himself, back when he still used to play a Gibson EB-3. Do you want to know what a fat, distorted lead bass sounds like? Try this song and you'll hear.

Montana - [Over-Nite Sensation, 1973] - guy wants to move to Montana to become a dental floss rancher

Inca Roads [One Size Fits All, 1975] - UFOs are landing!

Florentine Pogen [One Size Fits All, 1975]

Evelyn, A Modified Dog [One Size Fits All, 1975] - "Arf!" She said...

San Ber'dino [One Size Fits All, 1975] - Johnny "Guitar" Watson guest vocals. A not-so-nice look at San Bernardino, California.

Andy [One Size Fits All, 1975]

Muffin Man [Bongo Fury, 1976] - "Goodnight Austin wherever you are..." Frank Zappa's musings on the world's most perfect food, the muffin.

Dumb All Over (Live) [Have I Offended Someone?, 1997] - The Pier, NYC August 25, 1984 - a scathing attack on televangelism. Insane guitar solo at the end.

five-five-FIVE [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Conehead [You Are What You Is], Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 19, 1979

Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 17, 1979

Sexual Harassment In The Workplace [Guitar, 1988] - Fox Theater, San Diego, California December 12, 1981 (late show)

Systems Of Edges [Guitar, 1988] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Rhein-Main-Halle, Wiesbaden, Germany, March 27, 1979 (early show)

Black Napkins [Zoot Allures, 1976] - Kosei Nenkin Kaikan, Osaka, Japan
February 3, 1976

Pink Napkins [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Black Napkins, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 17, 1977

Zoot Allures [Zoot Allures, 1976]

Ship Ahoy [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Coda from Zoot Allures, Kosei Nenkin Kaikan, Osaka, Japan, February 3, 1976

Watermelon in Easter Hay [Guitar, 1988 - originally Joe's Garage, 1979] - Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, NY August 16, 1984

Friendly Little Finger
[Zoot Allures, 1976]

Which One Is It? [Guitar, 1988] - Guitar solo from Black Page, Olympiahalle, Munich, Germany, June 26, 1982

Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 18, 1979 (early show)

Return Of The Son Of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar [Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1981] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK, February 19, 1979

Chunga's Revenge [Trance-Fusion, 2006] - Wembley Arena, London, UK
April 19, 1988

Bowling On Charen [Trance-Fusion, 2006] - Guitar solo from Wild Love, The Palladium, NYC, October 28, 1977 (early show)

A Cold Dark Matter [Trance-Fusion, 2006] - Guitar solo from Inca Roads, Memorial Hall, Allentown, Pennsylvania, March 19, 1988

Village Of The Sun [Roxy & Elsewhere, 1974] - about a turkey farm on Palmdale, California

Echidna's Arf (Of You) [Roxy & Elsewhere, 1974]

Cheepnis [Roxy & Elsewhere, 1974] - Frank Zappa's tribute to cheap monster movies

RDNZL [You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 - The Helsinki Concert, 1988]

Pygmy Twylyte [You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 - The Helsinki Concert, 1988]

The Dog Breath Variations [You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 - The Helsinki Concert, 1988]

Uncle Meat [You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2 - The Helsinki Concert, 1988]

If you can afford them, check out these titles. I think you'll enjoy them for the humor, and for the musicianship.

Thanks to Román García Albertos for making much of this track information available to me.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tom Waits: The Black Rider/Alice/Blood Money

Of all the people who grace my CD collection, Tom Waits is probably the most interesting. He’s been making records since 1973 [Closing Time]. He possesses a unique voice that critic Daniel Durchholz described as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” I suppose that’s one way to describe his raspy, gravelly voice, but the voice is only part of the appeal. His music includes styles ranging from cabaret, vaudeville, primal blues, carnival music, tango and theatrical music. Some of his stuff sounds industrial. He includes unique instruments in his music, like bassoon, waterphone, bagpipes, pump organ, marimba, accordion, Stroh violin, and an early mellotron called a Chamberlin. He sings about bums, he finds inspiration in hookers, strippers, thieves, drunks, jailbirds, addicts, all kinds of life’s losers. He’s done music for movies, and he’s done music for theatrical productions. I have CDs from three such theater productions on which he collaborated with director Robert Wilson: The Black Rider, Alice, and Blood Money.

The Black Rider is based on an old German folk tale called Der Freischütz [The Marksman]. Wilson’s The Black Rider premiered at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, Germany in March 1990. It’s the story of a young clerk named Wilhelm who makes a pact with Satan in order to marry the daughter of an old forester. Wilhelm had a problem. He was in love with a girl named Katchen, but her father Bertram wanted her to marry a hunter. Herein lies Wilhelm’s problem – he’s a poor marksman. He can’t shoot straight to save his life. While he’s out in the woods trying to improve his marksmanship, Wilhelm is approached by a dark horseman named Pegleg. Wilhelm and Pegleg have a chat, during which Wilhelm tells Pegleg his tale of woe. Pegleg has a solution to Wilhelm’s problem. He has these “magic bullets” that allows the shooter to hit whatever he aims at, no matter how lousy a shot he is. There is only one catch – Pegleg wants the very last bullet to be able to go wherever he wants it to go. Wilhelm is desperate for Katchen’s hand so he agrees to Pegleg’s proposal. Unbeknownst to Wilhelm, Pegleg is really the Devil. So, Wilhelm practices with his magic bullets and becomes quite the marksman. He enters a shooting contest, wins, and Bertram agrees to let his daughter marry Wilhelm. On their wedding day, Bertram asks Wilhelm to demonstrate his excellent marksmanship one more time before he and Katchen exchange their vows. Wilhelm has but one bullet left out of those given to him by Pegleg. He loads, aims at a wooden dove, and fires. The bullet doesn’t hit the wooden dove – Pegleg directs the bullet to Katchen, who is stricken and dies. Wilhelm kills his own bride and shortly thereafter becomes a raving lunatic. The moral of the story is fairly obvious.

Alice is based on Lewis Carroll’s fascination with Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Wilson’s play premiered at the Thalia Theatre in 1992. The folks at describe the music as “nocturnal, gloomy, reflective, literate, and quirky.” The music is in many styles like jazz ballads, old waltzes, tangos, European folk songs, theatrical love paeans. There is not a single “rock” song in the bunch. The instrumentation includes the Stroh violin [a violin fitted with a brass horn for amplification], marimbas, piano, organ, French horns, trumpets, woodwinds, and reeds. There are no guitars to be heard on Alice. There are themes of loneliness, sadness, insanity, resignation to one’s own fate. According to Waits "Alice is adult songs for children, or children's songs for adults. It's a maelstrom or fever-dream, a tone poem, with torch songs and odyssey in dream logic and nonsense."

Blood Money, released the same day as Alice, is another German tale. Another Robert Wilson production, the play premiered at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen in November 2000. The story is from a political play written in 1837 by Georg Büchner. The play, Woyzeck, is about a German soldier who needs to earn extra money and subjects himself to bizarre army medical experiments. These experiments and his lover’s infidelity with a handsome drum major drive this German soldier into madness, which leads him to murder said lover. So you’ve got sex, drugs, insanity and murder [oh my!]. This isn’t your typical “concept album.” This CD is permeated with German cabaret, and with some sound effects, like the sound of marching feet, it gives the CD a Weimar-era Germany feel. According to Waits, "Blood Money is flesh and bone, earthbound. The songs are rooted in reality: jealousy, rage, the human meat wheel...They are more carnal. I like a beautiful song that tells you terrible things. We all like bad news out of a pretty mouth. I like songs to sound as though they've been aging in a barrel and distressed." Like with Alice, there’s some eclectic instrumentation on Blood Money. He uses the Stroh violin, calliope, Chamberlin, trumpets, reeds, woodwinds, marimbas, accordion, guitars, bass, drums, cellos, to evoke the moods of panic, confusion, desperation, pain, death. He even shies away from traditional drums in favor of a “kitchen sink” approach, which included trash can lids, brake drums, megaphones, chairs, and even tubas to further help evoke the proper mood. There’s some interesting sounds going on here and on Alice and it definitely is not boring. It keeps me guessing “what is the next one going to sound like?” In one song Tom Waits will slur his words, another he’ll bark, maybe growl in the next, then maybe whisper. This stuff keeps you guessing musically. One thing Tom Waits is not is “typical.” If David Lynch made records instead of movies, this is what they’d sound like.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bob Mould: Workbook

Once upon a time there was a punk band from Minneapolis. Their name - Hüsker Dü. They were Bob Mould [guitar, vocals], Grant Hart [drums, vocals], and Greg Norton [bass, vocals]. Bob Mould and Grant Hart wrote the songs. Their sound was equal parts distortion, feedback, extreme volume, and speed. Their first album Land Speed Record consisted of 17 songs spread out over a whopping 26 1/2 minutes. (!) Bob Mould once remarked Land Speed Record was "the bad part of the acid...It sounds like when you go to a gig and get your ears blown off." Hüsker Dü soon acquired the tag of "hardcore punk." After Everything Falls Apart and the EP Metal Circus, Hart and Mould became better songwriters, and beginning with Zen Arcade Hüsker Dü would try anything - pop songs, tape experiments, acoustic songs, pianos, noisy psychedelia. Both Hart and Mould developed a dependency on alcohol and speed. Mould sobered up, but Hart drifted into heroin addiction. As a result, tensions between Mould and Hart began to rise. In 1987, the night before they were to tour in support of the double-album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Hüsker Dü manager David Savoy committed suicide. Mould took over the management responsibilities, and Hart slid further into heroin addiction, thus adding to the vibe of doom between the two. After the Warehouse tour, Hüsker Dü dissolved amidst much acrimony. It was quite the painful split. Mould chalks the breakup to "not liking each other very much" and "not liking each others' songs." They recorded seven albums and an EP in five years, and crammed in tours between each of the albums. They fell victim to the album-tour-album-tour treadmill.

After Hüsker Dü's split in 1988, Bob Mould moved into a Minnesota farmhouse and woodshed with his acoustic guitar for months. During his woodshed time he came up with the songs that became his debut solo album, Workbook.

In an interview in 2009 with musician Tom Goss, Bob Mould said of Workbook:

"That record was a big departure from what I'd ever done before. Compositionally, it was a lot more poetry and free verse, non-rhyming structure, the sort of narratives, sort of found images that would collide when I put them together. Sort of a real unconscious way of writing as opposed to ''I need to find a word that rhymes with this.'"

He wasn't kidding. Nothing says "I'm free" from a previous band than to change the sound radically.. Workbook, released in 1989, starts with an acoustic instrumental called Sunspots. Most of Workbook is acoustic, with touches of cello and mandolin thrown in for good measure. If you want to find a blueprint for Workbook, look no further then Mould's Hardly Getting Over It from Hüsker Dü's Candy Apple Grey. The gentle strains of acoustic guitars, whispered vocals from Bob Mould with a melancholy melody from Hardly Getting Over It [itself a depature for Hüsker Dü] are all over Workbook. The electric guitar makes itself known in a few of places: Wishing Well, Poison Years [which on the surface sounds like Mould's lamentation on the Hüsker Dü experience], and the finale Whichever Way the Wind Blows. Workbook doesn't have the Hüsker Dü wall of noise. Mould actually sings the songs instead of screaming them. Workbook derives its heaviness not from any loud music but from the angst contained in the lyrics, to wit:

Used to be that a handshake was a man's word
But now we settle arguments in court
No one trusts anyone's intentions anymore...

[Compositions for the Young and Old]

Why every time you knock me down
It's all that I can do to get up off the ground, pull myself apart again
At the end of this rope, rope at the end of the line
I see you swing by your neck on a vine

[Poison Years]

Cheap thrills are awful hard to find these days
No one is amused for free
Someone's pulling on your mama's apron strings
You'd better run and see who it is

[Compositions for the Young and Old]

As the years go by, they take their toll on you
Well, think of all the things we wanted to do
And all the words we said yesterday
Well, that's a long time ago

[See a Little Light]

All those things I've done before
It doesn't matter anymore
I see the errors of my oh-so-humble ways
Better run before
There's no way that i can cover for
All these things catch up to me
We've all sinned before
I have sinned before

[Sinners and Their Repentances]

See a Little Light is a brilliant little pop gem. Songs like Dreaming, I Am and Heartbreak a Stranger are almost a whisper [compared to Hüsker Dü anyway...]. The tunes are extremely well written, and the guitar playing is flawless. My favorite is Poison Years. There's so much venom and vitriol there. The music matches the mood. If you are going to own any music Bob Mould made after Hüsker Dü, Workbook is the one to have. It's brilliant!

Also recommended: Sugar - Copper Blue

Poison Years

Friday, October 29, 2010

Buffalo Springfield Again

For those who don’t know much about Neil Young’s personal story, he is the father of two children who have cerebral palsy. His wife Pegi, Jim Forderer, two parents who could not find a school to suit the needs of their special-needs children, and Dr. Marilyn Buzolich, a speech and language pathologist, proposed a San Francisco Bay Area school dedicated to providing an environment where children with complex communication needs could learn, grow and thrive and develop skills they’d need to be successful adults and have a good quality of life. The Bridge School [] opened its doors in 1987. Its major source of funding comes from the Bridge School Benefit show, organized by Neil and Pegi Young and held on an October weekend every year at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. Past performers over the last 24 years include Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, and The Who, just to name a few. This year’s shows were extra special because they saw the return of the Buffalo Springfield, 42 years after they last performed.

To put in perspective on how much time has elapsed since the last time these guys performed together before a paying audience, Lyndon Johnson was still president, Bobby Kennedy was still alive. Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated only a month before. This country was still in the quagmire that was Vietnam. Barack Obama was seven years old and living in Indonesia. Ronald Reagan was governor of California. The Beatles had not yet recorded the White Album. The world had not yet heard about Charles Manson. Yes, it’s been a long time coming…

Bassist Bruce Palmer and drummer Dewey Martin have both since died (2004 and 2009, respectively). The surviving members – Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, and Neil Young – reunited last weekend to perform at the Bridge School Benefit. Rick “The Bass Player” Rosas from Neil Young’s road band and longtime CSN collaborator and drummer Joe Vitale filled in for Palmer and Martin. As is customary for the Bridge School Benefits, Buffalo Springfield performed acoustically. Hearing these old guys play their old songs stripped down to the bare essentials worked very well for them [my opinion anyway]. I went out to YouTube and found the best clips I could from the shows. You can judge for yourself the quality of the performance. All I know is they made ME smile. I have only one question – what took you guys so long? Now if the surviving Byrds and Stephen Stills’Manassas can get together, that would be as special as last weekend’s Buffalo Springfield reunion. Many thanks to Pocolova, Maxsdad49, ZUrlocker, and MrTripps99 for shooting these clips and sharing them with everybody.

A dream setlist if there ever was one:
On the Way Home
Rock and Roll Woman
A Child’s Claim to Fame
Do I Have To Come Out and Say It
Go and Say Goodbye
I Am a Child
Kind Woman
For What It’s Worth
Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing
Mr. Soul

“On the Way Home”

“Rock and Roll Woman” and “A Child’s Claim To Fame”

“Do I Have To Come Right Out and Say It”

“Go and Say Goodbye”

“I Am a Child” and “Kind Woman”


“For What It’s Worth”

“Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing”


“Mr. Soul”

Friday, October 22, 2010

Richard III

Richard III started out as a play written by William Shakespeare that depicted the rise to power and short reign of Richard III. There have been several movies based on this play, three of which I’ve seen. The first, Tower of London (1939) starred Basil Rathbone as Richard, Boris Karloff as his executioner Mord, and Vincent Price as Richard’s older brother Clarence. The second, Tower of London (1962), was Roger Corman’s remake of the 1939 movie with Vincent Price as Richard. Both of these movies were made as horror movies. The third Richard III-inspired movie, oddly enough titled Richard III, has Sir Ian McKellen playing Richard. This movie was done as the tragedy that Shakespeare wrote in the 16th century. It is an adaptation by Sir Ian McKellen of the Royal Nation Theatre production of which he had been starring. Sir Laurence Olivier also adapted Richard III as a tragedy in the 1950s. Unlike the earlier movies, all of which had been set in the 15th century. Sir Ian McKellen’s film set the story in 1930s Britain in what appears to be a fascist country. According to Sir Ian:

We were creating our own world, our own history of the 1930s and our invention of what might have happened if Britain had been involved in a civil war sixty years ago. We decided we wanted to find eccentric places and turn them into elements of the story. We decided Victorian Gothic was a nice way of placing King Edward's court in a traditional context. When Richard takes over,he moves his headquarters away from the palace into accommodation derivative of Speer's Berlin or Mussolini's Rome. 'We drew on elements we liked about the look of the 1930s as they really were and used them as keys. The costumes, for example, were very specific to 1936. We're using 30s furniture and props and architecture that has survived from the 30s.
Those “eccentric places” referred to by Sir Ian are landmarks of contemporary England. Through the use of special effects, the Battersea Power Station [think of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals] is transported to the coast of Kent and becomes Richard’s bombed-out headquarters, the Bankside Power Station becomes the Tower of London where Richard’s nephews and his older brother Clarence are imprisoned [and later murdered], the Brighton Pavilion is relocated close to Dover and becomes King Edward’s country retreat.

For those unfamiliar with the Richard III, it is the story of one man’s ambition to claim England’s throne and the ruthlessness he uses to eliminate all the family members who stand in the way between him and the throne. The film starts with England embroiled in a civil war. The ruling king, from the House of Lancaster, was under attack from the House of York [historically, this was the War of the Roses]. The House of York was aiming to place the eldest son, Edward, on the throne. The “rebel” army, led by Edward’s younger brother Richard of Gloucester, is advancing on the king’s headquarters at Tewkesbury. As the film begins we see a close-up of a teletype message at the king’s headquarters which says “Richard Gloucester is at hand. He holds his course toward Tewkesbury” [Tewkesbury was one of the decisive battles in the War of the Roses]. The king [Henry VI] and his son [Prince Edward] look very worried, the king goes to bed, and the son goes to another room to have dinner. While Price Edward is eating, a tank bursts into his room, troops wearing gas masks swarm in, and someone shoots and kills the Price Edward. Then that same person who killed the prince found the king praying at his bedside. He approached the king, then shot and killed him too. The soldier then takes off his mask to reveal him to be Richard Gloucester.

The scene then shifts to the new king’s palace, where the House of York is celebrating its victory over the House of Lancaster. All of the players, with the exception of Richard, are attired in formal dress. Richard, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the army, is dressed in full dress uniform. It is a not-so-subtle way of distinguishing him from the rest of the family. During this celebration we get to see many of the characters of the film: Richard [Sir Ian McKellen] King Edward [John Wood], his American-born Queen Elizabeth [Annette Bening], the Duke of Clarence [Sir Nigel Hawthorne], the Prime Minister Lord Hastings [Jim Carter], the Earl of Richmond [Dominic West], his uncle Lord Stanley [Edward Hardwicke], Queen Elizabeth’s brother Earl Rivers [Robert Downey Jr.], the Duchess of York, mother to Edward, Clarence and Richard [Dame Maggie Smith], the Duke of Buckingham [Jim Broadbent], and Princess Elizabeth [Kate Steavenson-Payne]. Most of the characters are paired up with another character, engaged in some conversation, while Richard is alone, mingling among the crowd of well-wishers and quietly observing the festivities. Sir William Catesby, the King’s private secretary, leans over to whisper something to the King. Both men look in Clarence’s direction. Then, inexplicably, Clarence is arrested and taken away to the Tower. Once the big band that is providing the evening’s music finishes a song, Richard then approaches a microphone to begin a soliloquiy:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York!
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war has smoothed his wrinkled front:
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds,
To fight the souls of fearful adversaries

After Richard has finished toasting his brother the King, he heads for a bathroom, where he continues his soiloquiy. Both Shakespeare and Sir Ian [who wrote the screenplay with Richard Loncraine, who also directed] depict Richard Gloucester as a hunchback with a withered arm. They suggest that these deformities are the source of Richard’s evil. While he is no longer addressing the gathering celebrating victory, Richard turns to the camera and speaks directly to the audience [which is called ‘breaking through the fourth wall’], which to me makes us complicit in everything he has done or is about to do.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass,
I, that am rudely stamped -
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,
And descant on my own deformity.

Why, I can smile; and murder while I smile;
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears
And frame my face to all occasions!
And, therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid...

Then Richard reveals his first act: "To set my brothers, Clarence and the King, In deadly hate, the one against the other." That’s out first clue that Catesby is really working for Richard.

Richard then spies Clarence being led away to a boat for transport to the Tower. He asks Clarence what is going on and why he’s under guard. Clarence doesn’t have a clue and says as much. Richard promises Clarence to intercede with their brother the King to make sure that Clarence’s imprisonment is a short one. Clarence believes him, but Richard has no intention of getting Clarence out of his current predicament. Once Clarence is led away, Richard moves onto his next task: to woo Lady Anne.

Lady Anne [Kristin Scott Thomas] is Prince Edward’s widow. She finds him in a morgue at a public hospital. She begins to speak:

O, cursed be the hand that made these holes;
Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it;
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!
If ever he have child, abortive be it.
If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the life of him,
Than I am made by my young husband's death

Little did she know she was cursing herself. Through the door to the morgue steps Richard. She starts to cuss out Richard for the deed he has done in killing her husband. He protests that he did it out of love for her. She spit in his face. He expresses remorse for killing her husband, and in so doing picks up a scalpel, places it in her hand tells her to kill him. She can’t bring herself to do it, so he picks up the blade as if to kill himself. She tells him to put down the blade. When he asks if there is any hope that they would be together, she says all men I hope live so… So he takes the family signet ring off his own finger with his teeth and then places the saliva-covered ring on her ring finger. With that gesture she is no longer angry with Richard, but now fascinated by him. He walks out of the morgue, knowing that Lady Anne is now his.

Meanwhile back at the palace, King Edward signs a pardon for his brother Clarence. The pardon countermands the order he signed earlier [at Richard’s behest] to execute Clarence. The King is not a well man. He has a persistent cough and needs an oxygen tank to breathe. He gets around with the aid of a wheelchair. Unbeknownst to the King, Catesby delivers Clarence’s pardon to Richard, who burns it. Clarence’s fate is sealed. Richard turns to the camera and says:

"Clarence still breathes. Edward still lives and reigns. When they are gone, then shall I count my gains."

While Queen Elizabeth has breakfast with her brother Earl Rivers, she tells him the King’s doctors fear for his health. She also tells Rivers the King has appointed Richard as Lord Protector of the King’s young sons because they are underage. She also reminds Rivers that Richard has no love for her or her brother the Earl.

Richard then makes his way to the army barracks where he recruits assassins to kill his brother Clarence. The two men accept the job and go to the Tower. They find Clarence in a bathtub. They tell him why they’re there. After some brief conversation one of the assassins cuts Clarence’s throat and then pushes his head underwater. Clarence dies, unbeknownst to the king. The king then has a get-together at his country retreat where he implores everybody [Buckingham, Rivers, Richard, Elizabeth, Catesby] to kiss and make-up so as to have on big happy family. When Richard informs the King that Clarence was dead, he goes into respiratory arrest and dies. Shortly thereafter, Rivers is impaled and dies after having sex with a Pam Am stewardess.

Richard, as Lord Protector, then meets the Prince of Wales at the train station and advises the presumptive king that he would be safer if he and his younger brother went to the Tower. The Price of Wales takes Richard’s advice and goes to the Tower. Richard has gotten the boys away from their mother, Queen Elizabeth. Lord Stanley and the Earl of Richmond see what is going on, and Richmond flees to France.

There is then a meeting to determine when the young prince will be crowned king. They [Lord Hastings, Lord Stanley, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Catesby, Buckingham] gather at Richard’s headquarters. Hastings presumes to speak for Richard the Lord Protector, but then Richard walks in, making apologies for sleeping late. Richard sits at the table and laments the state of his arm, that it was damaged by witchcraft perpetrated by Queen Elizabeth. Hastings questions whether Elizabeth could have done such a thing. Angry, Richard labels Hastings a traitor and says “Off with his head. Now, by Saint Paul, I swear I will not dine, until I see the same. The rest who love me, rise and follow me.” Everyone else gets up and leaves, leaving Hastings with James Tyrell, one of Richard’s bodyguards and Clarence’s assassin. Tyrell says to Hastings “The Duke would be at dinner. He longs to see your head.” Hastings is hanged shortly thereafter.

With the promise of an Earldom, Richard enjoins the Duke of Buckingham to start a campaign of lies to insinuate the marriage between his late brother the King and Queen Elizabeth was not a legal one, which would make the young princes who stand between Richard and the throne illegitimate and thus ineligible to succeed King Edward. The Lord Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury beg Richard to take the throne, which he “reluctantly” accepts right before he goes to a meeting that has the look and feel of a Nazi Party rally.

Once Richard is crowned King, he orders Buckingham to kill the two princes in the Tower. Buckingham hesitates. He’s not too keen on murdering children. Richard notes Buckingham’s hesitance and is annoyed. Buckingham demands from Richard the Earldom which Richard promised to him. Richard refuses, saying he wasn’t in a giving mood that day. Buckingham, thus rebuffed, heads to France to join Richmond. Richard then asks Tyrell to do the deed. He kills the princes. Meanwhile, Richard hatches a plot to kill his own wife Anne [who has become a drug addict], and then marry his niece, the Queen’s daughter Princess Elizabeth [who fancies Richmond] in order to secure his claim to the throne. He also wants to deny Richmond’s claim. Richmond came from the Lancaster branch of the Plantegenet family. In due course, Anna dies. We see her lifeless body lying on her bed, eyes wide open, a spider crawling across her face.

As the body count rises, Richard loses more and more allies. Even his own mother the Duchess of York turns on him. Lord Stanley then defects to Richmond's side. Richard threatens to kill Stanley's young son, but Stanley calls his bluff and defects anyway [the boy survived the movie]. With only one card left to play, Richard sees Queen Elizabeth to try to arrange a marriage between him and Elizabeth [his niece, her daughter]. She doesn't like the idea but plays along. When they finish talking, Elizabeth and Richmond get married in a hurry.

Richmond's forces invade England and attack almost immediately. The Duke of Buckingham was captured and killed, but Richard's forces, though numerically superior, are caught off-guard and defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The fighting takes place around the Battersea Power Station. Richmond chases Richard. During the chase Richard's jeep gets stuck and he bellows Shakespeare's famous line "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richmond quickly catches up with Richard. Richmond wants to capture Richard alive, but Richard has other ideas. He says to Richmond "Let us to't pell-mell; if not to heaven, then hand-in-hand to hell!" and then throws himself to his death in an inferno. While he's falling you here Al Jolson singing "I'm Sitting On The Top Of The World."

My wife always wants a movie to end like this - a bomb drops and everybody dies. This movie comes close. Everybody didn't die at the end of the movie, but most of the players died along the way to the ending. By my count, these folks from the "victory celebration" scene died - King Edward, his brother Clarence, the king's two sons, the Queen's brother Earl Prince, Lord Hastings the Prime Minister, Richard's wife Anna, the Duke of Buckingham, and finally Richard himself. Machiavelli would be proud. I always found Shakespeare's tragedies to be more interesting than his comedies. That Sir Ian had the brainwave to set the story in more-modern times was a masterstroke. Ordinarily whenever I see a movie that has a lot of good big-name actors, that's the kiss of death because the movie in question needs a lot of star power to make up for a lousy story. Not so this movie. This one is brilliant! Even if you have no use for Shakespeare, this is a good one to watch, again and again.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gimme Some Truth: The Solo Music of Dr Winston O'Boogie

Who is Dr Winston O'Boogie? It was John Lennon's favorite pseudonym. If you should ever pick up Elton John's Greatest Hits Volume II, it has Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, which in my humble opinion is the best Beatles cover version ever done. Even John Lennon prefers Elton John's version. Why do I bring up Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds? Because if you look in the credits it says "featuring the reggae guitars of Dr Winston O'Boogie." But I digress...

On October 5th, Capitol Records re-released John Lennon’s eight albums [all remastered, again…] to commemorate what would have been John’s 70th birthday. Capitol also put together [under Yoko Ono’s watchful eye] two compilations – the single disc Power to the People and the 4-disc Gimme Some Truth. Power to the People has the usual suspects on it, same as you’d find on Shaved Fish, Lennon Legend, or Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon. Gimme Some Truth is much more comprehensive – 72 songs divided into four themes: Working Class Hero [socio-political songs], Borrowed Time [songs about life], Woman [love songs], and Roots [rock and roll roots and influences].

Having looked over the track listing, I see that Gimme Some Truth has all of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, most of Imagine, most of Walls and Bridges, the only good song from Sometime in New York City [New York City] and six of the seven Lennon songs from Double Fantasy. However, there’s also a lot from the Rock ‘N” Roll [his collection of “moldie oldies”] - too much, if you ask me. But again I digress. I’ve been reading customer reviews of Gimme Some Truth and one reviewer’s comments stuck out. He opined that only a fragment of John Lennon’s music was represented on Gimme Some Truth and that it should contain one CD of music he created with the Beatles. I think he's right. Would there have been a John Lennon solo career were it not for the Beatles? He didn’t say what he would pick, but I took up the challenge. Here’s what I came up with that I could fit on one 79:57 CD.

The Weird and Innovative Songs I'm Only Sleeping/Rain/Tomorrow Never Knows /A Day in the Life/I Am the Walrus/Hey Bulldog/Come Together/Across the Universe

Borrowed TimeHelp!/Norwegian Wood [This Bird Has Flown]/In My Life/Girl/Nowhere Man/She Said She Said/Strawberry Fields Forever/I Want You [She’s So Heavy]/The Ballad of John and Yoko/Yer Blues

Working Class HeroRevolution/All You Need Is Love

Beatlemania A Hard Day’s Night/I Feel Fine/Ticket To Ride

I know, there some major titles missing, like Please Please Me, I Want to Hold Your Hand, Eight Days a Week, and Twist and Shout, just to name a few. Space on a CD is a premium. I deliberately avoided the love songs because there are so many of them. Plus, I like my list better. A good number of them were not "hits" per se. That was Paul McCartney's forte. I always preferred album tracks anyway.

Gimme Some Truth, and for that matter the entire Lennon solo catalog, boasts it uses the original mixes that John approved. This is an improvement over the remasters that came out between 2000 and 2005. I've heard the new remastered remixes and they're right, to a degree. The most noticeable difference is the album Imagine. The early remasters have a brightness to them that bring out all the high frequencies, especially the slide guitars of George Harrison, who played on five songs on Imagine. The highs sound great, but that comes at a cost - there's no bottom end. You can't hear the bass. Imagine from 2001 sounds like a well-recorded demo. The new mixes restore the balance between the highs and the lows and they sound much more like what you were used to if you bought the albums on vinyl back in the day. Walls and Bridges remixes from 2005 sound better than what is out now, but just a little. The old remixes sound like they have a bit more sparkle. But both versions (2005 and 2010) sound all right. Don't part with your 2005 mixes.

At any rate, if you don't want to stick a crowbar in your wallet and buy all the Lennon CDs, Gimme Some Truth is the way to go. With a couple of minor exceptions, this collection has all you need to know about John Lennon's solo career.