Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Man In Black

For anyone who’s paid any attention to Johnny Cash’s career, you’ve probably heard the story about how he got canned by Columbia Records in the 1980s, and had a 4-year run with Mercury before they canned him too. Then along came Rick Rubin, the head of the American Records label. He usually worked with rap and hard rock acts, most especially the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Rubin had a plan to revive Johnny Cash’s career: just record Cash with only an acoustic guitar and have him sing the songs Johnny Cash always wanted to sing. Additionally, Rubin would bring contemporary songs to Cash for consideration. Rubin’s production style is a stripped-down style that eliminates string sections, reverb, and few instruments. It’s a very dry sound but it works. The result of this Cash-Rubin partnership was six albums of secular music, one album of gospel music, and a five-disc box set of songs that didn’t make the other albums. That’s not too bad for a career many thought was in the toilet.

Bono of U2 once wrote “Johnny Cash doesn’t sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company…” In the liner notes for Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, The Man In Black wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God.” When you see this list of those American recordings that I like, you’ll see plenty of evidence of Johnny Cash’s like for the darker things.

Hurt [American IV: The Man Comes Around - 2002] – The Nine Inch Nails song from The Downward Spiral. Much has been written about Johnny Cash’s rendition. The video of Hurt juxtaposes the younger, rowdier, hell-raising Johnny Cash with the frail old man lamenting “everyone I know goes away in the end.” In the original NIN version, Trent Reznor wears a “crown of shit”, but Johnny Cash turns that into a “crown of thorns,” which made a more direct reference to Jesus. When you hear the bit out the needle tearing a hole in his skin, one can’t help but think of Johnny Cash’s addiction to amphetamines. So when he sings about it, and the need to hurt himself to see if he could still feel something real like pain, you just know he’s saying “been there, done that.” When both Roseanne and Cindy Cash saw the video for the first time, they cried because they thought it was their dad “saying goodbye.” According to Cindy Cash, when her father heard that remark he said “I am.” He knew his time on Earth wasn’t much longer. Perhaps that is the song’s appeal.

Rusty Cage
[Unchained – 1996] – This song is the leadoff track from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger album. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is the backup band. For some reason, when I hear Rusty Cage, I have to hear it with Hurt back-to-back. I guess its part of the old adage of taking someone else’s song and making it your own, which he certainly does with both Hurt and Rusty Cage. In the booklet that accompanies the Unearthed box set, Rick Rubin describes how he first presented Rusty Cage to Johnny Cash for consideration. He heard the Soundgarden version and thought Rick Rubin was nuts for suggesting it. So Rick Rubin cut a demo that sounded a lot like the version you hear on Unchained and presented that to Cash. He liked what he heard and recorded it.

The Man Comes Around [American IV: The Man Comes Around - 2002] – One of the last original Johnny Cash songs. The “Man” in question is Jesus, who will come someday back to pass judgment. The song begins and ends with the spoken word that’s made to sound like it’s coming from an old scratched-up record. The beginning part is the description of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelations. The ending part is the description of the “fourth beast”:

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts...
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him…

Most of Johnny Cash’s many Biblical references come from Revelations, but he also draws inspiration from the Books of Luke, Matthew, Acts, and Genesis. He sings of Armageddon, women “trimming their wicks” in preparation of Jesus’ return, God being the “Alpha and Omega,” trumpets, pipers and one million angels singing. One line [in the chorus] came to him in a dream. In this dream Queen Elizabeth told him “Johnny Cash, you’re a thorn bush in a whirlwind.” He later found the same reference in the Book of Job, and wrote “the whirlwind is in the torn tree.” Like most of his American Recordings output, the instrumentation is sparse – two acoustic guitars, a piano and an electric organ. Throughout the song he paints a pretty scary picture. Maybe that’s why I like it.

God’s Gonna Cut You Down [American V: A Hundred Highways – 2006] – This one is a traditional folk song that is a warning to sinners that no matter how hard they try, they can’t escape God’s final judgment. “God is vengeful and uncompromising, so you better watch out” is the message here. This is some pretty grim stuff. Up until this version was released, no other Johnny Cash song sounded like this – a stomping, clapping rhythm track [think Tom Waits or Queen’s We Will Rock You…].

Like the 309 [American V: A Hundred Highways – 2006] – At the time of its release, this song was billed as the last song Johnny Cash he wrote. The first song he wrote and recorded, Hey Porter, was about trains, so it was fitting his last song would be a train song as well. He always liked trains, so he could think of nothing better than to have him and his casket taken away on a train – Put me in my box on the 309. He liked songs about death as well, so he got a “twofer” with Like the 309. He pokes fun at his own mortality - Asthma comin’ down like the 309 – after which he wheezes, on purpose. Cash is playing it for a laugh here…

Ain’t No Grave [American VI: Ain’t No Grave – 2010] – Ain’t no grave can hold my body down, so the song goes. This one has footsteps and rattling chains for percussion, as if Johnny Cash is being dragged to his final resting place. The gist of the lyric is pretty simple – no earthly bonds are going to keep Johnny Cash from getting to the promised land - Meet me, Jesus, meet me/Meet me in the middle of the air/And if these wings don’t fail me/I will meet you anywhere/Ain’t no grave can hold my body down. The music has a vibe of doom, complete with rolling banjo, eerie organ chords, minor chord guitars, a tolling bell, but it all works [it does for me, anyway…]. This song is very similar to God’s Gonna Cut You Down.

Redemption Day [American VI: Ain’t No Grave – 2010] – Rarely, if ever, do I have anything positive to say about Sheryl Crow. That having been said, this song of hers seems as if it is tailor-made for Johnny Cash to sing. Crow’s lyrics emphasize those things about which Johnny Cash obsessed – grief, murder, social injustice, salvation. There’s another train reference - There is a train to heaven’s gate. Johnny Cash intones the words freedom…freedom…freedom, one gets the sense that soon he’ll be free of his own frail body and will soon meet his maker.

Further On (Up the Road)
[American V: A Hundred Highways – 2006] – Bruce Springsteen wrote this one. No post-9/11 bravado here – just quiet and somber. But then again, almost everything from A Hundred Highways and Ain’t No Grave is quiet and somber, since both were recorded in that four-month period between June Carter’s death and his own.

The Mercy Seat [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – Here’s another uplifting song; this one from Nick Cave about a guy who is waiting to be executed in the electric chair. There’s some pretty vivid imagery here [The face of Jesus in my soup…I think my head is burning…it’s made of wood and wire, and my body is on fire, and God is never far away…my head is shaved, my head is wired…and the mercy seat is waiting, and I think my head is burning…and I think my head is glowing…and the mercy seat is smoking, and I think my head is melting…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…and I’m not afraid to die…]. Acoustic guitar, tack piano and organ accompany Johnny Cash here. Stark, scary, brilliant.

I See a Darkness [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – This is a song by Will Oldham, who goes by the stage name Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy. Best way to describe this one? Haunting…

Rowboat [Unchained – 1996] – This one comes from Beck. This one is a slow burner. You feel the pain [pick me up, bring me some alcohol…] and heartbreak [she don’t wanna be my friend no more/she dug a hole in the bottom of my soul…]. Been there, done that. More backup from Tom Petty and Company. They would’ve made some great shitkickers…

Wayfaring Stranger [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – A spiritual/folk song about the trials and tribulations of the singer’s life. After the hardships of life on Earth comes the journey to a better life. Sheryl Crow plays accordion.

One [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – U2’s song from Achtung Baby. The lyrics describe Bono’s struggles to maintain good relations with the others in the band. There was some marked difference of opinion as to which direction U2’s music should take. The rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr wanted to continue how the band sounded on such things as The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire. The Edge and Bono wanted to go more towards alternative rock and electronic dance music. There was a lot of butting heads during the making of Achtung Baby, so much so there was fear the band would break up. Bono says the words are about being “one, but not the same”, and that people have to get along in order for the world to survive. Johnny Cash’s version doesn’t have Bono’s vocal gymnastics, doesn’t have the Edge’s many guitars. It’s a lot more sparse arrangement, and Johnny Cash does well with the song. I’m sure the song takes on a different meaning in Cash’s hands, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know that I like it. This wasn’t the first time that Johnny Cash had sung a U2 song. He had recorded the vocals for the song The Wanderer from Zooropa in 1993 that I really like.

I Hung My Head [American IV: The Man Comes Around - 2002] – This is one of Sting’s songs from his Mercury Rising album. It’s a simple tune about a young man who borrows his older brother’s rifle, accidentally kills someone, and then has to face the music for what he did. Having heard both Johnny Cash’s version and Sting’s, I like The Man in Black’s version better - it’s more intimate.

The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] - This is an old one that originated from the Carter Family, and later recorded by the Louvin Brothers. “"Lord have mercy on me” was the drunkard’s plea as he knelt there on the ground to visit his mother’s grave. Pretty straight forward, don’t you think?

Country Boy [Unchained – 1996] – This is one of Johnny Cash’s oldest original songs. It first appeared on the very first album released by Sun Records, With His Hot and Blue Guitar. Recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, this is a visitation of Johnny Cash’s rockabilly roots. Good stuff.

Southern Accents [Unchained – 1996] – A Tom Petty original. Johnny Cash remarked this would make a better anthem for the South than Dixie. I guess he really liked the song…

Mean Eyed Cat [Unchained – 1996] – Another Sun song from 1955 recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. According to Johnny Cash: “Mean Eyed Cat took me 40 years to write. I hadn’t finished it in 1955 when, at a session, I sang the first two verses for Sam Phillips. He said “that’s a keeper. I like that.” I said “but it isn’t finished.” He said it was good enough. I was totally surprised when it was released not too long afterward. And all these years, every time I would see the title in print, or hear the song on the radio, I’d cringe. Never once did I do the song on stage, and as the years passed, it bugged me more and more that the song was unfinished. So, about a year ago, I wrote the third verse. When I brought it into these sessions, it was like a new song. Finally, after 41 years, I am satisfied with Mean Eyed Cat.”

I’ve Been Everywhere [Unchained – 1996] – This song was a hit for Hank Snow in 1962. It’s used in some hotel commercial. I always marveled at how fast Johnny Cash could rattle off all those cities without repeating them or stumbling through the words. My sons Mark and Greg really like it - so do I.

I Won’t Back Down [American III: Solitary Man – 2000] – Another Tom Petty original.

Delia’s Gone [American Recordings – 1994] – another Cash oldie, first released in 1962 on The Sound of Johnny Cash. This one is a murder ballad about a man killing a vicious and conniving woman. Misogynist? Yup.

Thirteen [American Recordings – 1994] - Glenn Danzig said he wrote this one especially for Johnny Cash in twenty minutes.

The Man Who Couldn’t Cry – [American Recordings – 1994] – Finally there’s some levity for a change, albeit in a sort of tragic, twisted way. This one was written by Loudon Wainwright III. Recorded live in the Viper Room, it details the trials and tribulations of a man that if it wasn’t for bad luck he wouldn’t have any luck at all.

There once was a man who just couldn't cry
He hadn't cried for years and for years
Napalmed babies and the movie love story
For instance could not produce tears
As a child he had cried as all children will
Then at some point his tear ducts ran dry
He grew to be a man, it all hit the fan
Things got bad, but he couldn't cry

His dog got ran over, his wife up and left him
And after that he got sacked from his job
Lost his arm in the war, was laughed at by a whore
Ah, but still not a sniffle or sob

His novel was refused, his movie was panned
And his big Broadway show was a flop

He got sent off to jail; you guessed it, no bail
Oh, but still not a dribble or drop

In jail he was beaten, bullied and buggered
And made to make license plates
Water and bread was all he was fed
But not once did a tear stain his face

Doctors were called in, scientists, too
Theologians were last and practically least

They all agreed sure enough; this was sure no cream puff
But in fact an insensitive beast

He was removed from jail and placed in a place
For the insensitive and the insane
He made lots of friends and played lots of chess
And he wept every time it would rain

Once it rained forty days and it rained forty nights
And he cried and he cried and he cried and he cried

On the forty-first day, he passed away
He just dehydrated and died

Well, he went up to heaven, located his dog
Not only that, but he rejoined his arm
Down below, all the critics, they loot it all back
Cancer robbed the whore of her charm

His ex-wife died of stretch marks, his ex-employer went broke
The theologians were finally found out

Right down to the ground, that old jail house burned down
The earth suffered perpetual drought

The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore – [Unearthed – 2003] – What a surprise – a song about trains! It doesn’t stop there anymore because the coal mine closed. It’s an outtake from American III: Solitary Man. June Carter recorded it for her Press On album, so it’s a Carter-Cash family favorite. The first time Johnny Cash recorded this one was in 1979 for his album Silver, the same album as (Ghost) Riders in the Sky.

Big Iron – [Unearthed – 2003] – This one is an old Marty Robbins song. Joe Strummer thought it embodied the romance of outlaws and gunfights of the Old West.

Redemption Song – [Unearthed – 2003] – the Bob Marley classic and duet with Joe Strummer. Johnny Cash wanted to do a song from Jamaica, and he picked this one. He loved Jamaica, he owned a house there. Joe Strummer ended up doing it himself on his Streetcore album.

Trouble In Mind – [Unearthed – 2003] – This is a slow blues from Bob Wills, the man Waylon Jennings called “the King of Western Swing” in Bob Wills is Still the King. Recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for Unchained but left off the album. Why? This one is great!

I’m a Drifter – [Unearthed – 2003] – This one came from the pen of Dolly Parton. There are two versions with Tom Petty and Company – acoustic and electric. I like them both. It’s another song left off of Unchained. They definitely had too many songs for that album.

The Running Kind – [Unearthed – 2003] – This is Merle Haggard song is a duet with Tom Petty. Johnny Cash told Rick Rubin a story about a Merle Haggard show in the South where the audience was so into the song and stomping their feet that the balcony collapsed. Johnny Cash liked a song that could cause so much commotion, so that’s why he recorded it.

Long Black Veil – [Unearthed – 2003] – This song was first done by Lefty Frizzell in 1959. Johnny Cash recorded this once before in 1965 for his Orange Blossom Special album. It’s about a man accused of murder who refused to provide an alibi because he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife. He was executed rather reveal his secret. The song described how the woman in question would visit his grave while wearing a long black veil. The story is told from the point of view of the executed man. The Band also did this song on Music From Big Pink.

That’s a lot of songs, more than can fit on one CD, but then that’s why Apple invented the iPod, right? As with all things, these selections are just one pinhead’s point of view – mine! If you get the chance, check these out. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Buyer’s Guide to George Harrison

George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once as a member of the Beatles, the second time as a solo artist. A humanitarian, he is credited as being the first rock star to organize the charity concert with his Concerts for Bangladesh in 1971. He started his own record company, Dark Horse Records. He started his own film production and distribution company, Handmade Films, originally as a way to get the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian made. Other notable movies from Handmade Films include Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, and Nuns on the Run. He was a devotee to the Hare Krishna tradition from 1969 until his death in 2001. He was an avid fan of Formula 1 racing. After the Beatles run ended in 1970, he became quite the accomplished gardener, and wanted to be remembered as such. Despite all these things, he will always be remembered as a musician and songwriter. Oh yes, and as the lead guitarist in the Beatles. Not a bad resume to have.

During my short time on this Earth, I’ve owned copies of all the Beatles’ works and most of those of George Harrison’s solo career. What you will find below is one pinhead’s point of view [mine!] about what to get and what to avoid if you’re interested in George’s solo work. So without further delay, here are my picks and pans. Note: if there is an album that is not mentioned here, it is because I never owned it nor heard it.

1. Wonderwall Music [1968] – George Harrison’s first solo album. In fact, it’s the first solo album by any Beatle. Although George himself does not appear as a musician on this album, all the songs were written by him. As the soundtrack for the movie Wonderwall, this was George’s way of introducing the Western world to Indian music. Of the nineteen songs contained therein, eight of them are Western songs recorded in England in December 1967. The remaining songs were recorded with Indian musicians in Bombay in January 1968. It’s an interesting soundtrack. Both Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton appear under the aliases Richie Snare and Eddie Clayton respectively. It’s not available domestically, but for the cool price of $47.99 you can get an import copy from Amazon. For completists only.

2. All Things Must Pass [1970] – Before I go any further, just let me say this – of all the Beatles solo albums, this one is the very best. If you are going to own one George Harrison album, this is the one. It was George Harrison’s misfortune to be a good songwriter in a band that had two great songwriters. As I mentioned in my last blog [Taxman], George was allotted two songs for every Beatles album. This being the case, he stockpiled a lot of unrecorded songs. During the filming of Let It Be, George was overheard telling John Lennon that he had enough songs to fill his quota for the next ten Beatles albums, and that he had a plan to record them on his own to clear out the backlog.

Once the Beatles dissolved in 1970, George was able to execute his plan. There are some truly great songs on ATMP, including My Sweet Lord, Isn’t It a Pity [two versions!], What is Life, Beware of Darkness, Let It Roll [The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp], Let It Down, and the title song. In fact, the song All Things Must Pass nearly became a Beatles song as it was run-through with the band many times during the making of Let It Be. But, George ended up keeping it for himself. All Things Must Pass finally became a Beatles song in 1996 when a demo of the song was included in the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection. There is one Dylan cover [If Not For You] that is far superior to the original from New Morning, and there’s one Harrison/Dylan collaboration, I’d Have You Anytime. Many have said that George Harrison’s best love song was Something [from Abbey Road], but I disagree. I think I’d Have You Anytime is better. One can tell immediately the Dylan influence from the words: All I have is yours/All you see is mine/And I’m glad to hold you in my arms/I’d have you anytime…
There are also four jams included. This was originally released as a triple LP back in the day, and the four jams were included on the third LP. It was labeled “Apple Jams.” If one is a fan of recorded jam sessions, this one is a good thing to have because it spotlights George Harrison playing with Eric Clapton and his band [which would soon become Derek & the Dominos], Dave Mason, Klaus Voorman and Ginger Baker. All Things Must Pass is essential for any George Harrison fan.

3. The Concert for Bangladesh [1971] – In the 1970 East Pakistan was hit by a cyclone [the Bhola cyclone] so terrible that over 500,000 people perished. To compound the humanitarian problem, unrest between East Pakistan and the government in West Pakistan escalated into the Bangladesh Liberation War. It was estimated East Pakistan [which became the nation of Bangladesh when the war finally ended in 1971] suffered between 200,000 and 3,000,000 casualties. Bangladesh was a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. Sitar master Ravi Shankar told his friend George Harrison about his county’s troubles and asked him if he could provide any help. George’s response? Two benefit concerts that predated Live Aid by 14 years. George made a bunch of phone calls and got quite a few friends to participate. The friends? Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Jesse Ed Davis, Klaus Voorman and others. The shows were recorded and filmed with all proceeds supposed to go to UNICEF for Bangladesh disaster relief. To begin the show, Ravi Shankar performed Bangla Dhun, a traditional raga. George played three of his Beatles songs [Here Comes the Sun, Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps] and four songs from All Things Must Pass. Ringo did It Don’t Come Easy [he forgot the words!], Billy Preston did That’s The Way God Planned It, and Leon Russell performed a Youngblood/Jumpin’ Jack Flash medley. To top it all off, Bob Dylan performed A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, Blowin’ in the Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man and Just Like a Woman for both shows. He also played Love Minus Zero/No Limit for one of the shows. This album won the 1972 Grammy® for Album of the Year. This album is a bit pricey [about $32], but it’s a good album to have. Not essential, but good to have.

4. Living in the Material World [1973] – Coming off the heels of All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh, there were high expectations for this one. Unlike ATMP, which featured many musicians including an army of guitar players, George is the lone guitarist on this release, and he does not disappoint. The music is great, but the words are a bit preachy. Each of the Beatles had his own distinct personality following the breakup in 1970. John Lennon was the political agitator, Ringo was the happy-go-lucky entertainer, Paul was the hit-making machine, and George was the preacher. While John’s studio was his political soapbox, George’s was his pulpit. The leadoff song, Give Me Love [Give Me Peace on Earth], was a Number 1 single for four weeks. Sue Me, Sue You Blues is one of the few secular notes on the album that gives insight to the Beatles’ legal entanglements. Of note is George’s acoustic slide playing here – that alone is worth the time spent listening to it. The title track features some tasty guitar/sax trade-offs. Also included are stuff from his own life, including the Beatles, to wit: "Met them all here in the material world / John and Paul here in the material world / Though we started out quite poor, we got Ritchie on a tour..." The Lord Loves The One Who Loves the Lord - more excellent guitar playing, and a tongue-in-cheek slam on world leaders who “act like big girls.” Be Here Now is a quiet acoustic song inspired by Baba Ram Dass’s “Remember Be Here Now” book on spirituality and meditation. Two B-sides are included in the 2006 remaster, Deep Blue and Miss O’Dell. If there is one thing I don’t like about this album is that the single version of Bangla Desh was not included. This CD is a must have for George Harrison fans.

5. Dark Horse [1974] – This is the album where George’s solo career starts to slip. There are three good songs on this album – Dark Horse, So Sad, and Ding Song, Ding Dong. This album was recorded while George had a bad case of laryngitis. It probably should have been named Dark Hoarse, but I digress. The music is ok, but the words are too preachy, and the signing is just plain awful because of the aforementioned laryngitis. Avoid this one.

6. Extra Texture [Read All About It] [1975] – There’s one good song on this album – This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying). If you think it’s a follow-up to The White Album’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, you’d be right. If you can find a MP3 of this song, get it. Don’t waste your money on the rest of the album. Is it that bad? Yes, because it’s boring. Definitely avoid this one.

7. Thirty-Three and 1/3 [1976] – George’s first album for his new Dark Horse label. It’s a much better album that the two that preceded it. There are many happy, upbeat tunes. The first of these, Woman Don’t You Cry For Me, showcases George’s slide playing. It’s also the closest any of the Beatles ever got to being funky. Unlike Dark Horse and Extra Texture, there is only one overtly religious song – Dear One. It’s dedicated to Premavatar Paramahansa Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi. Since it isn’t a dirge it’s actually enjoyable to listen to. Thirty-Three and 1/3 spawned one hit single, Crackerbox Palace. A good CD to have.

8. George Harrison [1979] – This one is a good one. It has an unintentional sequel to Here Comes the Sun [called Here Comes the Moon], an ode to Formula One racing [Faster], a song that didn’t make it onto the Beatles’ White Album [Not Guilty], a song inspired by the ingestion of some magic mushrooms [Soft-Hearted Hana], and a Top 30 single [Blow Away]. It’s all good – buy it.

9. Somewhere in England [1981] – One good song – All Those Years Ago. It can also be found on Let It Roll: The Best of George Harrison. The rest is crap. Avoid at all costs.

10. Gone Troppo [1982] – Three good songs – Wake Up My Love, That’s the Way it Goes, and Mystical One. They’re available in MP3 format. Get the MP3s, forget the rest.

11. Cloud 9 [1987] – After being away from the music business for five years to concentrate on gardening and his Handmade Films company, George teamed up with ELO frontman Jeff Lynne to make a comeback with this gem. Got My Mind Set On You was his first hit since Give Me Love [Give Me Peace on Earth] in 1973. My favorite from Cloud 9 is the Beatles tribute When We Was Fab. It has a definite I Am the Walrus vibe, which is a good thing. Other standout songs include the title track, Devil’s Radio, This Is Love, Wreck of the Hesperus, and Fish on the Sand. There’s quite a bit of guitar interplay with guest Eric Clapton on a few of the songs. This is his best album since Living in the Material World – a must-have CD.

12. The Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 [1988] – This one came about by accident. Warner Brothers Records told George he needed another song as a bonus single for the European market. He and Jeff Lynne were in Los Angeles on business, so George decided to stop by Tom Petty’s house to pick up a guitar. Jeff Lynne was involved in two projects at the time – Tom Petty’s first solo album Full Moon Fever, and Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl album. Before they knew it, there were four guys working on a new George Harrison song, but they needed a place to record it. George knew just the place to go on short notice, so he called his friend Bob Dylan, who had a home studio. So they did one song called Handle With Care. Warner Brothers took one listen to the song and decided it was too good to waste as a B-side. So, they asked these five guys “do you have any more?” Thus, without any advanced planning or anything, a “supergroup” was born. A couple of weeks later, this album came to fruition, and it’s a damn good one. Each of the Wilburys sings lead on several songs, but a couple of songs stand out for me. One of these is Not Alone Any More, sung by Roy Orbison in all of his glory. The other, Tweeter and the Monkey Man, is a hilariously funny spoof on Bruce Springsteen sung by Bob Dylan. It also has some nasty acoustic slide playing from George. Another hit from the album is George’s End of the Line. Sadly, shortly after this album’s release, Roy Orbison died. This is an excellent companion piece to George’s Cloud 9. George was definitely on a creative roll. It had been out print for several years, but now it is available with Volume 3 as a 2 CD/1 DVD package that is well worth having. Buy it!

13. The Traveling Wilburys Volume 3 [1990] – Reduced to a four-piece with the death of Roy Orbison, this one starts with the high-energy She’s My Baby, which features the playing of Irish guitarist and “Friend of George” Gary Moore. Just to hear Bob Dylan sing the line she likes to stick her tongue right down my throat alone is worth the price of the CD. The album ends on a funny note with Wilbury Twist. There’s many several tongue-in-cheek moments in between. Nothing really Earth-shattering, but still enjoyable to listen to.

14. Live in Japan [1992] – After releasing the Traveling Wilburys Volume 3, Eric Clapton convinced George to go on tour with him and his band in Japan. George didn’t like touring, but Clapton kept after him and George finally said “yes.” This tour was very well-received by his Japanese fans, and this album is a good-sounding souvenir of the tour. If you have the extra money, this CD is good to own. I have one minor complaint – the female backup vocals on While My Guitar Gently Weeps have got to go [shoowop shoowop wahoo? Gag me…].

15. Mantrum: Chant of India [1997] – This is not a George Harrison album per se. He produced this recording of Sanskrit and Vedic prayers for his friend Ravi Shankar, and he does play many instruments on it. A nice change of pace. If you can find it, get it.

16. Brainwashed [2002] – George’s final album, released posthumously. George had begun working on Brainwashed shortly after the completion of Cloud 9 but never finished it because other things came up [the Wilburys albums, the Beatles Anthology project, the Chant album, etc]. He recorded enough bits to be put together as a proper album and he left detailed instructions to Jeff Lynne and his son Dhani about how he wanted the pieces to be put together. A few months after George’s death Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison resumed work on Brainwashed and produced a very good album. Standout songs include Any Road, P2 Vatican Blues [Last Saturday Night], Looking for My Life, Stuck Inside a Cloud, Run So Far, and the title track which ends with the “Namah Parvati” prayer chanted in unison by George and Dhani. The instrumental Marwa Blues is excellent.An excellent CD – buy it!

17. The Concert for George [2003] – On November 29, 2002, one year to the day after George Harrison’s death, George’s friends and family gathered at the Royal Albert Hall in London to perform a tribute concert to their departed friend. Not only was the concert recorded, but it was also filmed for theatrical release. Everybody involved in the concert knew George, which gave the show a sense of warmth you won’t find from most all-star shows. The all stars include the usual suspects: Eric Clapton [who was the show’s musical director], Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Jools Holland & Sam Brown, Gary Brooker [from Procol Harum], Joe Brown, and Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka. Four surviving members of Monty Python [Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam] performed Sit On My Face and The Lumberjack Song after a half-hour of Indian music courtesy of the Shankars. The Pythons were included in the movie, but left off the CD. So you have Indian music to reflect George’s spiritual side and Monty Python to reflect George’s sense of humor. What made the Python bit even more effective was that it lightened up the atmosphere because it immediately followed the solemn Indian music. Musically, I have one gripe about the CD. If you watch the movie, the song that stole the show was Sam Brown singing George’s Horse to the Water. Inexplicably, it was left off the CD, but at least it was in the movie. Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney reprised their roles from the original White Album recording of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Billy Preston’s rendition of My Sweet Lord was outstanding. Ringo Starr provided the most touching moment when he performed his own song Photograph, which he wrote and recorded with George in 1973 [Every time I see your face it reminds me of the places we used to go/But all I’ve got is a photograph and I realize you’re not coming back anymore…]. Paul McCartney had fun with For You Blue, and did a wonderful rendition of All Things Must Pass. A nice moment came when Paul talked about having dinner at George’s, and when dinner was over out came the ukuleles. So with that in mind, he dedicated Something to “our dear friend” and accompanied himself with a ukulele given to him by George. After the first verse, Eric Clapton and the whole band came in and finished the song. The show finished with Joe Brown singing the 1920s song I’ll See You In My Dreams. Well done, and well worth having.

18. Let It Roll: The Best of George Harrison [2009] – This is the only George Harrison compilation to span his entire solo career. I bought it because I can’t find Cheer Down anywhere else, and one MP3 just wouldn’t do. Included are the three Beatles songs from the Bangladesh concert album. Olivia and Dhani Harrison missed an opportunity to include the Bangla Desh single – it should be here but is not. Horse to the Water, George’s final song which he recorded for Jools Holland [Small World, Big Band if you’re looking], should be here as well but is not. No Crackerbox Palace either - a serious oversight. So yes, I could have made a better compilation of George’s solo career.

19. Honorable mention-

a. Day After Day [1971] by Badfinger. George produced this 1971 hit from Badfinger, and played slide guitar. It is some of the best playing you’ll ever hear from George Harrison.

b. Imagine [1971] by John Lennon. George plays dobro on Crippled Inside, and electric slide on I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier, Gimme Some Truth [another song with origins from the Let It Be sessions], and How Do You Sleep?

c. Ringo [1973] by Ringo Starr. George plays on Photograph [which he co-wrote with Ringo], Sail Away Raymond, You and Me Babe, and John Lennon’s I’m the Greatest. Of note, John, George and Ringo were all on I’m the Greatest with Billy Preston and Klaus Voorman, just one Beatle shy of a full reunion. This would be the last time all three played together.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Throughout the Beatles’ seven-year recording career, most of the songs were written by either John Lennon and/or Paul McCartney. George Harrison was allowed two songs per album. Neither Lennon nor McCartney wanted to spend too much time on George’s stuff. Neither did producer George Martin. They just didn’t think George’s material was “up to scratch.” That changed with Revolver. For this album, George got three songs, including this ode to Britain’s Inland Revenue [our version of the IRS], Taxman. Not only were George’s songs on par with those of Lennon and McCartney, Taxman was the first song on Revolver. This was the first great [not merely good] song to come from George Harrison. In the Anthology series, George explained his motivation for writing Taxman:

It was in April 1966 that we started recording Revolver. Taxman was on Revolver. I had discovered I was paying a huge amount of money to the taxman. You are so happy that you’ve finally started earning money – and then you find out about tax. In those days we paid nineteen shillings and sixpence out of every pound (there were twenty shillings in the pound), and with the supertax and surtax and tax-tax it was ridiculous – a heavy penalty for making money. That was the big turn-off for Britain. Anybody who ever made any money moved to America or somewhere else.

George was none too thrilled about confiscatory taxation.

Let me tell you how it will be
There's one for you, nineteen for me
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don't take it all.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

(If you drive a car, car) - I’ll tax the street
(If you try to sit, sit)- I’ll tax your seat
(If you get too cold, cold) – I’ll tax the heat
(If you take a walk, walk) - I'll tax your feet.


'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman

Don't ask me what I want it for (ah-ah, Mister Wilson)
If’you don't want to pay some more (ah-ah, Mister Heath)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Now my advice for those who die (Taxman)
Declare the pennies on your eyes (Taxman)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

And’you're working for no one but me.


So for those of you who haven’t filed your tax returns yet, this one’s for you. Enjoy!

From the Beatles cartoon series...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Paperback Writer/Rain

On this day in Beatles history [April 13, 1966], the Beatles began recording their eleventh single and its B-side, Paperback Writer and Rain. Though recorded during the sessions for Revolver, the songs appeared separately from the album in keeping with British music business practices of the day. Paperback Writer is notable because this is the first Beatles song where you don’t have to strain to hear the bass. Credit John Lennon for demanding why American records had far more bass than their own records. At that time, British producers were loathe to record the bass at a high volume for fear that it would make the needle jump off the record during playback. According to Geoff Emerick [the guy responsible for getting the sounds the Beatles wanted], several things factored into the louder bass sound. First, Paul McCartney switched from his Hofner violin-shaped bass to a Rickenbacker. Emerick also used a loudspeaker placed directly in front of Paul McCartney’s amp as a microphone. Emerick stated that the Paperback Writer/Rain single was cut louder than any other Beatles record up to that time, due to a new piece of equipment used in the mastering process, referred to as "Automatic Transient Overload Control." Unlike Tomorrow Never Knows [which I wrote about last week], the instrumentation on Paperback Writer is the standard two guitars/bass/drums. As such, it was the only new song from 1966 to be performed on the Beatles final tour.

According to Paul McCartney: "I arrived at Weybridge and told John I had this idea of trying to write off to a publishers to become a paperback writer, and I said, 'I think it should be written like a letter.' I took a bit of paper out and I said it should be something like, 'Dear Sir or Madam, as the case may be...' and I proceeded to write it just like a letter in front of him, occasionally rhyming it... And then we went upstairs and put the melody to it. John and I sat down and finished it all up, but it was tilted towards me-- the original idea was mine. I had no music, but it's just a little bluesy song, not a lot of melody. Then I had the idea to do the harmonies, and we arranged that in the studio." John Lennon described Paperback Writer thusly: “It's sort of Paul's version of Day Tripper, meaning a rock 'n' roll song with a guitar lick on a fuzzy, loud guitar - but it is Paul's song.” Indeed. It’s also their first single in the UK that wasn’t a “boy/girl” song [in the US, that honor went to Nowhere Man]. Paul McCartney’s reputation as very melodic bass player started with this song. One could make the case that he plays “lead bass” on the song. Of note, you can also hear snatches of the French children’s song Frère Jacques in the backing vocals.

The flip side of Paperback Writer is Rain. It’s one of John’s songs. According to John, Rain is “about people moaning about the weather all the time.” Like its A-side, Rain had the two guitars/bass/drums. The bass is very loud. It also is not a love song. That’s where the similarities with Paperback Writer end. During the recording of Tomorrow Never Knows, the Beatles discovered they could get different tonal qualities of their sounds if they sped up or slowed down the tape they recorded on. In this instance, they played the song at a fast tempo then slowed the tape to the tempo they wanted. This gave the song a hazy, murky kind of drugged-out quality. The vocals were recorded at a slower speed and sped up [go figure!]. The other feature of Rain is the backwards vocal. According to John Lennon, this innovation was discovered by accident. After a long recording session, John took home a tape of that day’s session. He was a bit stoned at the time and he threaded the tape on his machine backwards. He liked what he heard and wanted it on the record. During the outro, you can hear the words “rain,” “sunshine,” and "If the rain comes they run and hide their heads” all backwards. Ringo’s playing is especially good on this one. According to Ringo: "My favorite piece of me is what I did on Rain. I think I just played amazing. I was into the snare and hi-hat. I think it was the first time I used the trick of starting a break by hitting the hi-hat first instead of going directly to a drum off the hi-hat. I think it's the best out of all the records I've ever made. Rain blows me away. It's out in left field. I know me and I know my playing... and then there's Rain."

During the years 1963-1966, the Beatles had quite a heavy workload between recording sessions, touring, television appearances, making movies, etc. One way to ease their workload was to make “promotional films.” Today we call them videos. The Beatles made promotional videos for both Paperback Writer and Rain which were shown on The Ed Sullivan Show. These films prompted George Harrison to remark during the Anthology series “so I suppose, in a way, we invented MTV.” That having been said, here are the films they made to promote their new single. Note Paul’s chipped front tooth – this was one of the “Paul is Dead” clues.

Rain [Original video]

Paperback Writer [Paul "plays" Hofner on video, but not on record]

Paperback Writer [B&W version for UK TV]

Rain [shown on The Ed Sullivan Show]

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tomorrow Never Knows

On this day in Beatles history [April 6, 1966], the Beatles began recording their seventh album, Revolver. The first song to be recorded was John Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows. This is probably John’s weirdest song [just a tad weirder than I Am the Walrus], which of course makes it one of my favorites. The lyrics are inspired by what John called his “Tibetan Book of the Dead period.” Specifically, it was a book written by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert [later known as Baba Ram Dass], and Ralph Metzner entitled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thought, surrender to the void,
Is it shining? Is it shining?

That you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being

Love is all and love is everyone
Is it knowing? Is it knowing?

That ignorance and hate may mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

But listen to the color of your dreams
Is it not living, is it not living

Or play the game "Existence" to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning

The production of the music is the “everything including the kitchen sink” approach. The first half of the vocal track utilizes Automatic Double Tracking, known as ADT. John Lennon hated the process of singing overdubs to his own voice, so he prodded the Abbey Road staff to come up with a technical solution. This technique, invented for the Beatles by Abbey Road studio technical manager Ken Townsend, linked two tape recorders together to automatically create a double track. You can hear the slight delay between the voices when listening on headphones. John told producer George Martin that he wanted to sound like a hundred monks chanting from the Himilayas. He suggested to Martin that he be suspended from a rope and [with a good push] sing into the microphone as he spun around it. George Martin thought that idea was unworkable, but recording engineer Geoff Emerick came up with an idea. He figured out how to route John’s vocal through a Hammond organ’s rotating Leslie speaker. You can hear the effect starting at 1:27 into the song […Love is all and love is everyone…], the second half of the vocal track. That’s just the vocals…

The music itself was an Indian drone in C. Usually Western music has several chord changes, but not Tomorrow Never Knows. You have the bass playing the same notes through the song, and a very heavy drum sound that was achieved when Geoff Emerick took a huge sweater and put it inside Ringo’s bass drum and close-miking the entire drum kit. Lots of compression was added as well. George Harrison plays a sitar and a tambura droning over the bass and drums. Then there are all the sound effects. These effects were created by utilizing tape loops. Paul McCartney had been listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic music, and thus inspired during this time he experimented on a home tape recorder. He discovered that by removing the erasure head from his tape recorder, he could keep recording over the same piece of tape, saturating it with sound. He brought a bag full of these tape loops for the session for Tomorrow Never Knows. During the session, the Beatles had about five of these loops playing at the same time while George Martin and Geoff Emerick moved the faders of each tape machine up and down at random. Since all the tapes were going at the same time, it was a “live” performance of the mix, which prompted George Martin to state that the finished mix of the song could never be duplicated. The effects ranged from a “seagull” [which is really Paul McCartney laughing, or so I've read], a Mellotron playing on the flute setting, another Mellotron playing on a ‘violin” setting, and an orchestral chord recorded from a Sibelius symphony. They mixed those with a tape of the guitar solo from Taxman, which was cut up, reversed and overdubbed onto Tomorrow Never Knows at a later date.

There are currently three versions of Tomorrow Never Knows available to the general public. The best known version is the last song on Revolver. The second version released [which is actually the very first take of the song] can be found on Anthology 2. Minus all the tape loops and Indian instruments, this one has a Hammond organ, drums and John’s voice that all sounds like it was recorded underwater. The third version can be found on the LOVE soundtrack. This particular version begins with the turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying, it is not dying vocal, then the bass/drum rhythm track comes in with the vocals and melody of Sgt Pepper’s Within You Without You mixed in. Both tunes are based on Indian music, and the combination works well.

I asked Carol and Mark how they would describe Tomorrow Never Knows -

Carol: "Kind of like a boat on a river. A trance."
Mark: "It's kinda weird."
Greg was sleeping and unavailable for comment, but I know he loves the song.
My comment: "Genius!"


The Revolver version...

The making of Tomorrow Never Knows...

Take 1 from Anthology 2...

The Tomorrow Never Knows/Within You Without You version from LOVE...

Main sources
Mark Lewisohn - The Beatles Recording Sessions: The Original Abbey Road Studio Session Notes 1962-1970

Geoff Emerick with Howard Massey - Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bob Dylan: No Direction Home

About five years ago Martin Scorsese made a film about Bob Dylan called No Direction Home. At over three hours, it’s a very thorough documentary of Dylan from his beginnings in Hibbing, Minnesota up until the Blonde On Blonde era in 1966. One thing that struck me during this film was his audience’s reaction to his shift from his one-man, folk-like acoustic music to playing electric rock music with a full band. His audience saw him as the spokesman of a generation, as one who would use his songs to shine the light on all of society’s ills. Not only did his fans not like his new direction, they hated it. They hated it so much that they would spend money to go to his concerts for the express purpose of booing him. As expensive as concert tickets are today, can you imagine anybody purposely spending money to see or hear something they already know they don’t like? Not only did these people hate Dylan’s electric music, they were very angry about it. In watching interviews of people at the time, you get the feeling that these people had been betrayed by a lover or something. These holier-than-thou folks who just knew that they knew more than you must have thought “how dare he play what he wants to play and not play what WE want to hear.” It is almost as if these folkies felt like they OWNED Dylan. The joke was on them – nobody “owned” Bob Dylan. But this is getting ahead of the story just a little…

When Bobby Zimmerman left Hibbing immediately after high school [he wasn’t “Bob Dylan” yet], in his mind he was a “musical expeditionary” who had no past to speak of, nothing to go back to. He went to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota. He was enrolled, but he didn’t go to class. He felt he didn’t have time to go to class. He was too busy learning about things like Jack Kerouac, who thought the world was completely mad and the only people who were interesting were the people who were “mad” people, those who wanted to do everything there was to do, experience all there was to experience all at once. He really didn’t have any kind of musical goal at the time except to learn all the songs he heard and play them. Then he heard Woody Guthrie.

“He had a particular sound – and besides that, he said something to go along with his sound. That was highly unusual to my ears. He was a radical – his songs had a radical slant. That’s what I wanna sing. I wanna sing that,” said Dylan. Dylan’s feeling was that when one listened to Woody Guthrie’s music, one could learn how to live. He felt he identified more with Woody Guthrie’s book “Bound for Glory” than he did Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” He couldn’t believe he never heard of Woody Guthrie, but after he did he wanted to be like Woody Guthrie. So for awhile, he was a Woody Guthrie clone. But “Bob as Woody” didn’t last very long as he began to write his own stuff. John Hammond of Columbia Records discovered him and signed him to a recording contract.

He never thought of himself and his material as “folk” but as “contemporary.” He said he wrote the songs to perform the songs. He wrote about contemporary things using traditional forms, but his songs inspired people. Mavis Staples had no idea how Blowin’ in the Wind came from a white kid from Minnesota. How could he write “how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man”? That was Mavis’ father’s experience, not Dylan’s. But she said Dylan’s songs were inspirational like gospel because “he was writing truth.” Folk musicians back in this time [the late 1950s-early 1960s] were topical. The topical songwriters were a product of the Left. They created material based on topical situations. With songs like Oxford Blues, Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, it would only be natural for these folks to think of Bob Dylan as a fellow traveler. He was seen by many as the heir to the traditions of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. “He has the finger on the pulse of our generation”, so said the guy who introduced him to the audience at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. He never considered himself a “protest” singer. He never thought of himself as the “voice of a generation.” He thought politics as “trivial.”

At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, a lady said this about him: “He came to be, as he is, because things needed saying. And the young people were the ones who wanted to say them. He somehow had an ear on his generation. I don’t have to tell you. You know him; he’s yours, Bob Dylan.” But Dylan stopped writing the “topical” songs, and to leftist folkies they felt he was going away from a political consciousness that they felt they and Bob Dylan all had. He was thought of by the hard-core folkies as having “gone commercial” which to them was an unpardonable sin. Unbeknownst to the folkies, Bob Dylan never got the memo to conform to “the way of the folky.” Bob Dylan was going to do what he wanted, when he wanted, and he did. That pissed off a lot of people when he went and did his own thing. For these kinds of folks it is always about control, and they got a rude awakening that they couldn’t control Bob Dylan. They were always agitating for change, yet when Bob Dylan changed, that upset them greatly. Dylan couldn’t then, and won’t now, do the same thing twice.

At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan previewed things to come. He shocked his audience. Instead of coming out by himself with only a guitar and a harmonica to play for an hour as had all the other acts, he came out with a full electric band and played three songs. This is the famous concert where he had “gone electric.” After 15 minutes of playing electric music, Dylan and his band left the stage, leaving a very unhappy audience in his wake. Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul & Mary pleaded with Dylan to come out and play one more song. He did, and played It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Was this Bob Dylan’s message to the folkies that things have changed, and that they were never going to be the same? I think it was…

What was the change? Three albums came out in rapid succession – Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Bringing It All Back Home starts off with Subterranean Homesick Blues. I have no clue what it’s about, it isn’t bluesy as far as I can tell, but it definitely isn’t folk music. Maggie’s Farm [also on Bringing It All Back Home], one of three electric songs Dylan played at Newport, could be about anything. Is it about Dylan not wanting to play folk music anymore for his oppressive folkie fans? You be the judge. The first shot right out of the box on Highway 61 Revisited was Like a Rolling Stone. It’s a sneer at an unnamed someone who was once high and mighty but had since fallen on hard times. “How does it feel to be on your own?” he taunted his unnamed target. Just how did it feel to go from riches to rags? A year ago I saw the movie Factory Girl. It’s about Edie Sedgwick, a New York trust fund baby who supposedly had an affair with Dylan, who had made underground films with Andy Warhol, who had pissed her money away on parties, clothes, booze, drugs, etc and ended up broke. After having seen that movie, I’m convinced Like a Rolling Stone is about her. There’s some pretty humorous stuff from this period, like Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, Tombstone Blues, and there’s some pretty surreal stuff, like Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row, Queen Jane Approximately. I have no idea what those songs are about, but anything with the line “something’s happening but you don’t know what is is, do you Mr. Jones?” has definitely got something going for it.

So with these three albums out in 1965-66, Dylan took his electric show on the road. The band he had included the likes of Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Mickey Jones [who was subbing for Levon Helm], who later became “The Band” [but more on them later]. Dylan would do the first half of the shows by himself with just a guitar and harmonica. The audiences loved that part of the show, but after about seven songs, Dylan would bring out the band and play an electric set. To hear Mickey Jones tell it, “when we kicked off the second half, we did kick ass and take names and we got everyone in their’s attention and they knew that we had arrived. Because they were such fans of his acoustic set, that when we came in and did the electric set people have said the word to me that he was a “traitor” to folk music, the “pure” music.” And that’s exactly what happened. Eleven years ago Columbia put out a recording of the show Dylan and The Band did in Manchester, England. During the first set, the audience sat in rapt attention, not making a sound and enjoying it. After the band came out, you can hear booing between each song. This was not a happy audience. Between Ballad of a Thin Man and the finale Like a Rolling Stone, you can hear one audience member yelling out “Judas” for Dylan having betrayed his folk music roots. These guys didn’t want to hear “pop” music. So what did Dylan do? He turned around to the band, and you can hear him say “play it fucking loud!” They kicked into Like a Rolling Stone and played such an intense version the audience was stunned into silence. It's all there on film.

During the No Direction Home documentary, Dylan friend Bobby Neuwirth said “the audience came to Bob Dylan.” That’s true. He’s not the “flavor of the month,” his music doesn’t get the airplay it used to, but somehow I was drawn to it. I don’t know exactly when I started listening to lots of Bob Dylan’s music. Liam Clancy said “everybody has a favorite Bob Dylan song. It’s because he’s tapped into the universal soul, the universal mind…” Who am I to argue?

Friday, April 2, 2010

It Might Get Loud

The concept was to get iconic guitar players from different eras, have them meet and talk shop. Jimmy Page put it best: "We're going there to have a chat," Page says at the beginning. "But it just so happens that the instruments are there as well, so who knows?" The other players? The Edge from U2, and Jack White from the White Stripes. This documentary is not a “history of the electric guitar.” It traces the lives of these three men, their origins, their inspirations, the tools of their trade. If you’re a guitar geek and music junkie like me, this is a very enjoyable film.

Jimmy Page
Before watching this movie, Jimmy Page was the one guitarist out of the three I knew the most about. If you grew up in the 1970s, you knew lots of Led Zeppelin stories. But only the four of them knew them all.

First fact I didn’t know before I watched this movie: Jimmy Page played on “Goldfinger.” That’s right, that “Goldfinger.” He talked about Shirley Bassey doing the vocal in one take and collapsing at the end of it. The Edge asked JP about his session work in the 60s – what did you play on? “Sometimes you could hear what I did, sometimes you couldn’t hear what I did” - then comes out the “Goldfinger” story. The epiphany that he was playing other people’s music happened at a session where he was playing Muzak. That’s when he wanted to start creating his own music.

Jimmy Page’s musical roots – skiffle, blues. “Pop music was rubbish, so we weren’t gonna be playing that. Playing blues music, music of the Chess catalog, not going with the flow.” He played gigs all over Britain, sleeping with the equipment in the back of touring vans, getting sick all the time. He thought music might not be his calling so he went to art college for awhile to learn painting. But he couldn’t stay away. Since he had given up his lucrative session gigs, Jimmy Page was a free agent, so he was talked into joining The Yardbirds in 1966, first as a bassist, then as a second guitarist with Jeff Beck. After The Yardbirds imploded in 1968, Jimmy Page was left holding the proverbial musical bag, so he put together a group of New Yardbirds that was still under contract to fulfill some live dates in Scandanavia. These New Yardbirds later changed their name to Led Zeppelin. The rest is history…

Second fact I didn’t know before I watched this movie: Even Jimmy Page plays air guitar. While talking about his influences in his living room, he treats the viewers to a glimpse of a record collection that I would kill for. He puts on a 45 of one of his favorite songs, Link Wray’s “Rumble.” While “Rumble” is playing, JP talks about all the nuances of the song, playing air guitar while doing so. Who knew…

First guitar: Fender Stratocaster. Sunburst finish. Once he started to get proficient on the guitar, it became an obsession. He took it to school – practiced during the recess breaks. The school confiscated it, thought it was subversive.

Where does the songwriting come from? “Whether I took it on or it took me on I don’t know. The jury’s out on that. But I don’t care. I just really, really enjoyed it. That’s it.”

The Edge
What inspired The Edge to become a musician? The Edge came of age during Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.” The Irish Republican Army was in full flight, people were being shot, things were blowing up. It wasn’t a pleasant environment. On top of the Troubles, there was the economy, of which The Edge says:

“Dublin in the mid-70s was really economically very challenged. The economy was in the toilet. We just didn’t believe that anything could change.” While looking across the loading docks in the port in Dublin he laments “there has to be more than this…This is not the only thing that is on offer here…”

First guitar he bought: Gibson Explorer, bought in New York.
“The biggest thrill is creating something that has the power to really connect with people. That’s why I took up the guitar in the first place.”

The Edge reveals himself to be a slave to technology. He’s enamored with technology. His guitar tech wheeled his arsenal of effects onto the soundstage where some of this movie was filmed. He shows the viewer how each U2 song has a its own guitar and unique sounds that go with them. Quite the gearhead, he demonstrates how the riff from “Elevation” sounds with and without effects. The differences between the two are startling.

Jack White
The movie starts with Jack White, he of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. He demonstrates how to build a Diddley Bow, using one board, a piece of wire, a Coke bottle, a few nails and one pickup. After taking about five minutes to put it together, he demonstrates that it works and asks the cameraman “who says you need to buy a guitar?”

Where he grew up in southwest Detroit, it was uncool to play an instrument. People wanted to hear rap, hip-hop. Nobody liked rock ‘n’ roll or blues music. He apprenticed in an upholstery shop as a teenager. A guy he worked with was a drummer, so Jack White thought “ok, I’ll play guitar.”

His drummer friend exposed him to punk music, the Velvet Underground, and Cramps, surf and rockabilly, Dick Dale, trying to absorb everything, but the hook was a two-piece band from North Carolina called the Flat Duo-Jets. Just guitars, drums and vocals – just like the White Stripes. Seeing them live blew him away. There was nothing on-stage, just a 10-watt amp and a Silvertone guitar like you could get at Sears.

By the time he was eighteen, someone played him stuff from Son House. “That was it for me.” His favorite song to this day is Son House’s Grinnin’ in Your Face. He was blown away by this guy just singing and clapping, no instruments. All that mattered was the attitude of the song.

First guitar: a beat-to-shit Kay which he still plays. He got it from a St Vincent De Paul store as payment for helping to move a refrigerator.

What should I sound like?
As each of these guys talked about how they came up with their trademark sound, it became clear that they began defining themselves by what they didn’t want to sound like.

Jimmy Page was the London first-call session guy. He got discovered playing in a band at the Marquee Club in London and was asked if he would like to play on records. He’d do film music or jingles. He’d play for other recording artists like The Kinks or Donovan. He played Muzak. And that’s why he created Led Zeppelin. He wanted a band that could use both light and dark shades. He wanted to be able to speed up and/or get louder in the middle of a song. He wanted to stretch out on tracks for a long time. “Dynamics, light and shade, whisper to the thunder, sort of invite you in, sort of intoxicating. Well, the thing that fascinates me about it, and always has about the six strings, no one has ever approached, they all play in a different way and, you know, their personality comes through.”

The Edge: “15-minute guitar solos – 15-minute organ solos, or the drum solos. Professional rock musicians who looked down upon their fans. There was a huge element of self-indulgence. Those old colors were dead. We wanted none of that…” He confessed that when U2 started out, they didn’t know what they wanted to sound like, but they knew what they didn’t want to sound like. They didn’t want to sound like those bands that The Edge described as self-indulgent. This is a very punk-like aesthetic. Ironically, some of the bands the punks didn’t like included the likes of Pink Floyd, Yes, and…Led Zeppelin. He saw the movie Spinal Tap and confesses he didn’t laugh at the movie – he cried because for him it was so close to the truth.

“If we believed fully in what we were about, that actually was far more important than how well you could play. Our limitations as musicians were ultimately not gonna be a problem.” Again, a very punk-like aesthetic, where attitude was more important than ability.

Jack White: If The Edge was the antithesis to bands like Led Zeppelin, then Jack White is the antithesis to U2. To him, what’s old is new again. His attitude toward playing – unlike The Edge, Jack White is not enamored with technology. He prefers his guitars cheap, beat-up, even out-of-tune. He says he wants his music to be a struggle between him and his instrument. He wants to suffer for his art.

Jack White’s influences - “You want to figure out how you want to play guitar, what your niche will be. You just start digging deeper. When you’re digging deeper into rock ‘n’ roll, well you’re on a freight train headed straight for the blues…”

Get Back To Where You Once Belonged
For each guitarist, the journey had to start somewhere. For The Edge, he and the camera crew go back to the very elementary school where U2 started. The Edge pointed out the very spot on the bulletin board where Larry Mullen, Jr. posted a “musicians wanted” notice. They walked to the classroom where one of the teachers would allow the nascent U2 to rehearse. They got around to the back of the school to what turned out to be U2’s first stage for a public performance. The Edge hadn’t seen the place in over 30 years, so he was definitely taking in the moment to stroll back through time. He points out “Larry was in the back, I was on this side. I’ve been on this side ever since…”

Jack White took a drive through the part of Detroit he grew up in, what he dubbed “Mexicantown.” He lamented that people in his neighborhood were more into rap and hip-hop, how it was uncool to actually “play” an instrument. But instead of exploring the old neighborhood, Jack White and his camera crew went to a farm outside Nashville. Jack White uses the device of having a young kid play the “younger Jack White” so the “older” Jack White could show him how to play. Very strange, a bit contrived, but still interesting.

Jimmy Page goes back to an old Victorian era house – Headley Grange. Zep fanatics like me know about Headley Grange, but for those who don’t, here’s a taste – Stairway to Heaven was written there. Some of Led Zeppelin IV and most of Physical Graffiti were recorded there. Jimmy Page tells the story of how he captured the booming drum sound on When the Levee Breaks in a stairwell at Headley Grange. Jimmy picks up a mandolin and starts playing The Battle of Evermore. Good stuff indeed.

 “The Summit”
After all the biographical sketches of the three men, they met on a Hollywood soundstage. Davis Guggenheim, the man who made this documentary, concedes that “for the first two hours, the conversation was actually boring. I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is going to suck.’ ” Then, he says, “Jimmy picked up his Les Paul and played ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ and it was like a throwdown. Basically saying: ‘Here’s what I do. Let’s stop talking, boys, and get on with it.’ After that, I knew we had a movie.” That was fun to watch because you’ve got this elder statesman of guitar suddenly get up, strap on his Les Paul on starting banging out the riff to Whole Lotta Love. All The Edge and Jack White can do is sit and watch in awe. Then the “I showed you mine, now show me yours” back-and-forth started. The Edge showed how he came up with the chords for “I Will Follow.” Jimmy Page was kind of bemused because The Edge doesn’t use the usual chord shapes, so it kind of threw him.
For me, by far the highlight of "the summit" was when Jimmy Page picked up a Gibson 320 and started playing In My Time of Dying from Physical Graffiti. Thus inspired, The Edge and Jack White picked up their guitars and joined in. It didn’t take long for me to notice that this was when these guys started to click together. I remember reading Tom Dowd’s description of Eric Clapton’s Layla sessions with Duane Allman. He described Eric and Duane’s first meeting as two long lost brothers having found one another, and then there was a four-way conversation – the heads were talking to one another, and the guitars were talking to one another. In My Time of Dying was just such a moment in It Might Get Loud.

The summit, and the movie ended with all three guitarists playing The Band’s The Weight. The two younger guys tried to get Jimmy Page to sing, but he told then “guys, I can’t sing” [or words to that effect anyway]. The movie ended there, and the credits rolled.
Bottom line: I enjoyed this documentary. It isn’t for everybody, but it is for music junkies like me, and I got my fix.