Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Beatles: Abbey Road

This is it – my favorite. Forty-one years ago today Abbey Road was unleashed on the listening public. I’ve had this album in one format or another [vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD] since I was a kid. I first bought it in late-1977. I was 15 then – I’m 47 now. To my then-virgin ears this one sounded the best, the band was playing at its best, it had the best songs, and the album cover was cool [it still is after all these years]. The cover didn’t even have anything written on the front. Such was the enormity of the Beatles’ popularity that all they needed was a picture for a cover. What other album cover could spawn a cottage industry about the supposed death of one of the group’s members? Abbey Road and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass are the only albums that go on my iPod and stay there. I’ll make play lists of other groups or singers that I like depending on my mood, but these two albums always go wherever I go.

Come Together – as I was growing up I thought each one of the verses was about a member of the Beatles. Now that I’m an adult I really don’t know what this one is about, not that it matters. Maybe John didn’t know either. I’ve written before that John Lennon had a batch of songs that I dubbed “the Seinfeld songs.” Jerry Seinfeld often said his TV show was a “show about nothing.” So it is that John Lennon wrote some “songs about nothing.” Come Together is one of them. It started out as a song for Timothy Leary. He wanted to run for governor of California in 1970 and he asked John Lennon to write him a campaign song. Leary was subsequently busted for marijuana possession [back then such a thing was a very big deal], and so ended any thoughts of a political campaign. But John still had this song. All I know is this is one very cool song. When John originally conceived the song he thought it should be like an up-tempo Chuck Berry-type of song. He even pinched the words here come old flat-top from a Chuck Berry song. Paul suggested they slow it down, make it “swampy.” Kudos to Paul for making the suggestion – kudos to John for taking it. What makes Come Together cool - Paul’s bass playing? Ringo’s drumming? John’s non-sensical lyrics? John’s electric piano playing? George’s guitar solo? The answer – yes.

Something – at long last, an A-side for George. After six years of hits from the pens of Lennon and McCartney, George finally got the A-side of a Beatles single. Technically, it was a double A-side as John’s Come Together was the flip side. Both John & Paul agreed this one was the best song on the whole album. Paul plays this on the ukulele during his live shows as a tribute to George. Frank Sinatra said it was the best love song ever written. Recording engineer Geoff Emerick wrote plenty about the recording of Abbey Road in his book Here, There and Everywhere. Aside from the medley on Side 2 he paid particular attention to this song. What struck him was George’s new-found confidence as a guitar player. When it came time to overdub George’s solo, he was told there was only one track left on the tape, and they were saving that for the orchestra. George replied [and I’m paraphrasing here] “no problem, I’ll cut it live with the orchestra.” And wouldn’t you know George nailed the solo in only one pass. Having learned to play it myself years ago, I can appreciate what it took to just walk in the studio, plug in and play without making a single mistake.

Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – this is the one song that keeps Abbey Road from being the “perfect” album. I liked it when I was a kid, but I’m not a kid anymore. Ok, so the song is about a homicidal maniac. Maxwell kills his girlfriend, his school teacher, and the judge at his trial. Ordinarily I’d go for something odd like that, but I just don’t like it. I’m not alone here – John, George and Ringo didn’t like it either. Both this one and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da are in the same category of Paul’s “granny music” [as John would call it]. George would call it “fruity.” Ringo simply labeled it “the worst track we ever had to record.” Who am I to disagree?

Oh! Darling – another McCartney song. Unlike Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, I love this one! This is Paul McCartney at his tonsil-shredding best. I wish I could sing like Paul does on Oh! Darling. John thought it was an outstanding piece of work but thought he could sing it better. I disagree – I don’t think John could touch this one. Paul wanted his voice to sound like he had been singing the song on-stage all week and would try to do the vocal one time daily until he was satisfied with the result. He once remarked that five years prior he could have nailed the vocal take in one pass, but now he had to break his voice in to get the desired effect. John is the piano player, George provides more excellent guitar. I don’t think Paul ever played this one live which is a shame. If he had trouble nailing the vocal when he was 27, I’m sure he couldn’t come close now that he’s 68. Oh! Darling is very, very good.

Octopus’s Garden – a Richard Starkey original. It’s a happy song that had its origins during an unhappy time for Ringo Starr. During the recording of the White Album, Ringo lost all confidence in his abilities and quit the band for a couple of weeks. Paul ended up playing the drums on Back in the USSR and Dear Prudence. Meanwhile, Ringo took his family on a holiday in Sardinia. While there he heard stories of how octopi gather up stones and shiny objects to build their own underwater gardens, and thus a song was born. The finger-picked electric guitar playing is John’s while all the tasty solos and fills are George’s. George’s playing on this song is what first grabbed my attention. The honky-tonk piano from Paul also quickly grabbed my attention. While George plays the solo you can hear George and Paul singing harmony that sounds like they’re underwater. This one is fun.

I Want You [She’s So Heavy] – a lyrically simple song from John. If you don’t count Revolution #9 as a song (most people don’t, including me), this one is the longest song in the Beatles canon. In 1970, John said the following to Jann Wenner:
A reviewer wrote of She's So Heavy: 'He seems to have lost his talent for lyrics, it's so simple and boring.' She's So Heavy was about Yoko. When it gets down to it, like she said, when you're drowning you don't say 'I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,' you just scream. And in She's So Heavy I just sang 'I want you, I want you so bad, she's so heavy, I want you,' like that.
The lyrics are the only thing about this song that one could call “simple.” The song repeatedly switches back and forth between 4/4 time and 6/8 time. The boys make the transitions effortlessly. Unlike most Beatles songs, John plays the lead guitar. His solo mimics his vocal. I like it because I can play it without messing it up. Billy Preston plays the Hammond organ. Paul’s bass lines are especially fun to play once you learn them, but it takes a lot of concentration for me not to screw it up. In one respect I Want You [She’s So Heavy] is like Hey Jude in that after the main part of the song, there’s a long finale. But there the similarity ends. Hey Jude’s finale is a long sing-along, whereas I Want You [She’s So Heavy] has a long instrumental finale. John and George recorded track after track of the same riff hammering away for what seems like an eternity. The guitar sound is massive. On top of the massive riffage, John added white noise from a Moog synthesizer. Usually recording artists want to avoid white noise like the Plague, but here John Lennon deliberately introduced it. At first it sounds like the wind, but as the song goes on the “wind” gets louder until it almost smothers the song in noise. Then suddenly, at the 7:44 mark, complete silence. The very first time you hear the song the silence is quite unexpected. It’s as if the repeating riff for the last three minutes puts you in a trance, then the silence hits you and you feel like huh? what? I always thought John’s songs were the most interesting and I Want You [She’s So Heavy] is just another example.

Here Comes the Sun – another masterwork from George Harrison. After the doom of I Want You [She’s So Heavy], Here Comes the Sun provides the proverbial breath of fresh air. John doesn’t appear on this song. He was in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident in Scotland. George wrote this one in Eric Clapton’s garden. He was playing hooky from Apple. Said George:
Here Comes the Sun was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: 'Sign this' and 'sign that'. Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton's house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric's acoustic guitars and wrote "Here Comes the Sun.
This is the first Beatles song I learned to play from start to finish. For guitar players, capo the guitar at the seventh fret to get the right sound. The bridge from this song is similar to the bridge from Cream’s Badge, which George co-wrote with Eric Clapton.

Because – this one is a beautiful vocal showcase from John Lennon. John, Paul and George sang this one in three-part harmony which is triple-tracked to give us nine voices. The melody came from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, only played backwards.

The Medley: George Martin had often told the Beatles to “think symphonically.” The medley [or as the band called it, “the Long One”] was Paul’s idea. At first John was keen to the idea, but after the album was finished he didn’t like it so much. He preferred complete songs and thought the idea of the medley as a way to clean out the garbage (so to speak). That didn’t stop him from contributing a good portion of song fragments to make the medley become a reality. One cannot imagine what the medley would sound like without Sun King, Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam.

You Never Give Me Your Money – this song from Paul starts the medley. It was loosely based on the Beatles’ financial problems with Apple, their holding company. First it starts with Paul singing the first two verses, just him and the piano. John joins him on harmony at “I never give you my number, I only give you my situation…” Then the song shifts to double-time boogie-woogie style, a look back on the Beatles’ early days. There’s the aggressive guitar/bass bridge to the final verse with George and Paul playing dueling leads with the bass keeping up with the leads [ah, the magic of overdubbing…]. With the words “one sweet dream came true today,” George throws in a riff similar to Badge and Here Comes the Sun. This riff carries through the bridge to Sun King, and will repeat on the bridge between Carry That Weight and The End. The song fades into Sun King amid chirping crickets, bubbling water and ringing bells while John sings “one two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven…

Sun King – the first Lennon song of the medley. Like Because, John, Paul and George sing three-part harmony. The band recorded this and Mean Mr. Mustard as one piece. The song sounds very dreamy. According to George:
At the time, 'Albatross' (by Fleetwood Mac) was out, with all the reverb on guitar. So we said, 'Let's be Fleetwood Mac doing Albatross, just to get going.' It never really sounded like Fleetwood Mac... but that was the point of origin.
As for the nonsensical faux Spanish gibberish, John said:
We just started joking, you know, singing `quando para mucho.´ So we just made up... Paul knew a few Spanish words from school, you know. So we just strung any Spanish words that sounded vaguely like something. And of course we got `chicka ferdy´ in. That´s a Liverpool expression. Just like sort of-- it doesn´t mean anything to me but (childish taunting) `na-na, na-na-na!´ `Cake and eat it´ is another nice line too, because they have that in Spanish-- 'Que' or something can eat it. One we missed-- we could have had 'para noya,' but we forgot all about it.
This one is another fun one to play on guitar. Sometimes when I pick up a guitar and I can't think of anything to play, I play Sun King.

Mean Mr. Mustard – the second Lennon part of the medley. This one started out during the White Album period. There’s a demo of it on the Anthology 3 collection. But in that version, Mr. Mustard’s sister was named Shirley, but in keeping with what came next, her name was changed to Pam. John was inspired to write this one after reading about a miser who used to keep money hidden up his ass. For propriety’s sake John changed it to “nose.” Paul plays a distorted fuzz bass that sounds like Jack Bruce’s EB-3. The only other time Paul used a fuzz bass was on George’s Think For Yourself on Rubber Soul.

Polythene Pam - the third and last Lennon contribution to the medley. It was recorded with She Came in Through the Bathroom Window as one piece. George cited this song as one of his favorites from Abbey Road because of John’s very pronounced Liverpudlian scouse accent. “She’s killer-diller when she’s dressed to the ‘hilt, She’s the kind of a girl who makes The News of the World, you could say she was attractively built…yeah yeah yeah!

She Came In Through the Bathroom Window – from here until the end of the album is Paul McCartney territory. Girls really did break into Paul’s house and steal stuff from time to time.

Golden Slumbers – Paul’s song, based upon a poem by Thomas Dekker and written as a lullaby. It was Dekker’s words and Paul’s music. It was recorded as one piece with Carry That Weight. John was not on Golden Slumbers because of the car accident he had in Scotland before the Abbey Road sessions began.

Carry That Weight – all four Beatles sing the chorus. John didn’t play any instruments on the recording and added his vocals after he was released from the hospital. This song is like a reprise of You Never Give Me Your Money. The guitar riff George played at the end of You Never Give Me Your Money reappeared on the bridge between this song and The End. The difference between the two songs is that on this one, George plays his guitar riff through a rotating Leslie speaker, a Harrison trademark.

The End –“and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Each Beatle takes a solo, including Ringo. Ringo hated drum solos and had to be talked into doing this one. Never to be confused with Ginger Baker, Ringo kept his drum solo short and sweet. It works for this song. John, Paul and George all trade two-bar guitar solos in this order: Paul/George/John/Paul/George/John/Paul/George/John. I’ve been searching for the right words to describe each Beatle’s playing, but all I could think of was full of clichés. But I found the following on which will do nicely:
First we get Ringo's one-and-only drum solo, and it's a catchy, inspired, rollicking gem. Then comes the "Love You" choruses that lead into the amazing guitar round robin. Paul starts it off (showing that he was always a kick-ass guitarist despite being relegated to bass), then comes George's distinctive riffs, followed by John's howling, wailing guitar. A lone piano emerges from the din, and all three sing the line, "And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make", closing out the record with a sense of, well, completion.

I like to push "repeat" on my iPod just to hear the solos.

Her Majesty – this 17-second snippet of a song was to fit between Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam but Paul didn’t think it fit, so he scrapped it, or so he thought. EMI’s recording engineers were trained to never throw anything away, so Her Majesty was tacked onto the end of the album. Once the Beatles heard it during the final mixing session, they liked that The End wasn’t really “the end” so they left it on the album.

So there you have. Whether they knew it or not, this was the best possible way to call it a career: on top. Abbey Road spent 17 weeks at Number 1 on the British charts. Led Zeppelin II finally knocked it off of Number 1. One week before the album’s release, John Lennon informed the rest of the band that he was leaving the group. It really truly was “the end.” Paul and Allen Klein asked John to keep it to himself, but seven months later Paul let it slip. But that’s another story…

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bruce Springsteen: Rain, Snow or Shine

Twenty-five years ago today I learned the true meaning of the words “rain, snow or shine.” Those were the exact words that were printed on my tickets to see Bruce Springsteen on his Born in the USA tour back in 1985. As a music consumer, I don’t ask for much – I just want truth in advertising. Boy am I naïve! Back in 1985 I was a Springsteen fan. I loved Born to Run, and I thought Darkness on the Edge of Town was even better. I still think those two albums are Springsteen at his best. The River was his first step toward massive success, and when Born in the USA came out in 1984 that sealed the deal for him. By the time he rolled into Denver in September 1985, he was one of the two biggest stars on the planet [Michael Jackson, of course, being the other one].

Everybody I knew wanted to go to Mile High Stadium to see him. He had been to Denver earlier on this tour, but he played at McNichols Arena then. There was no way he could play to everyone who wanted to see him, so the next time he would come through town he was going to play two shows at Mile High. I got in line hours before tickets went on sale, and my patience was rewarded. I snagged two seats on the stadium field. My girlfriend Carol [who is now my wife of 23 years] and I looked forward to seeing the show with keen anticipation. At the time, I was going to school in Pueblo and she was back home in Fort Collins. We got to see each other one weekend every month, so for this particular month it was going to be extra special…or so we thought.

Our show was to be on Sunday, September 22nd. The plan was to go up to Fort Collins on Friday afternoon, spend the weekend with Carol, see the show on Sunday, then head home on Monday so I’d miss only one day of class. All was going according to plan, but then on Sunday the snow came. There wasn’t much snow, it wasn’t sticking, so we thought “no problem.” The ticket said “Rain, Snow or Shine.” What suckers we were! At mid-afternoon on the day of the show we started heading toward Denver. Right after I turned on the radio to hear some music, we heard the announcement – “tonight’s Springsteen show is postponed until Tuesday night because of the weather.” What? No! Ah shit! Not ten seconds after the announcement was made on the radio I saw the familiar flashing lights of a Fort Collins cop in my rear view mirror. Crap! Busted for speeding. That was hard to do in a ’75 Toyota Corolla, but somehow I managed. What started out as a good day was going downhill and picking up speed. So then we went to Washington’s in Fort Collins, but we got booted out because we brought in our own booze. We really liked Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers back then…The perfectly shitty ending to a perfectly shitty day.

The next day I went to the local Ticketbastard outlet to either get my money back or to swap my tickets [remember, they were down on the field] for seats for that evening’s show. We were in luck. There were still seats available for the Monday show, so I grabbed them. There was only one problem – they weren’t on the field like my other seats. They were in the upper deck. We pretty much had the same view of the stage as Voyager [I actually heard that at a Who show in Oakland, but I digress…]. Ok, so we wouldn’t be able to see the band very well, but there were these huge TV screens on either side of the stage, so those of us who were getting nosebleeds because of the altitude could see the band. All was ok for about the first hour, but then the winds came. And the temperature dropped…and we froze our asses off. The metal bleachers we were sitting on weren’t helping matters any. Damn you Springsteen! If you hadn’t canceled the day before I wouldn’t be freezing my ass off. You asshole! “Rain, snow or shine” my ass! Carol and I still get pissed whenever we hear those dreaded words. We were so cold it took us hours to thaw out. I lived in a Winnebago for awhile after we got to Colorado in 1978, and one day the temperature dipped to 35 below zero, and I wasn’t as cold then as I was the night we saw Springsteen [asshole…].

We learned a few lessons that day: 1) Never believe what is says on your ticket, especially if it says “rain, snow or shine;” 2) Don’t go to a Springsteen concert ever again; 3) Avoid outdoor shows in Denver after Labor Day; 4) Bruce Springsteen is an asshole. Many years after this show I flipped through a Springsteen biography, and it mentioned our show on that day back in 1985. The book revealed that Springsteen had not even bothered to leave Los Angeles that day. So not only is Springsteen an asshole, he’s also a pussy...and a lying sack of shit! Yeah, I’m still bitter… }:-P

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Allman Brothers Band - Enlightened Rogues and "Death by Arista"

In the aftermath of the Allman Brothers’ breakup in 1976, the other band members read the transcripts of the trial where Gregg testified against Scooter Herring, a former roadie. They came to realize the Feds had Gregg between the proverbial rock and a hard place – cooperate or do hard time. Butch Trucks, Dickey Betts and Jaimoe realized they didn’t know the entire story of Gregg Allman’s predicament [albeit a self-inflicted one], so all was forgiven. The band regrouped in 1978 to record a new album with Tom Dowd. Gone were Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams. The band included new members Dave Goldflies [bass] and Dan Toler [guitar]. Both had played with Dickey Betts in his band Great Southern. Once again they were a two-guitar band, and all was right with the world [for now]. Enough time had passed since Duane Allman’s death that the band could afford to bring in another guitar player to complement Dickey Betts. Save for the resurrection of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, all was restored to the way it should have been.

The new album was entitled Enlightened Rogues. It was Duane’s name for the band. The trend of Dickey writing the lion’s share of the songs that started on Brothers and Sisters continued. Not exactly a prolific writer, Gregg contributed one original song. There is one blues cover. The album begins with a very uptempo Dickey Betts-penned rocker Crazy Love that has Dickey playing slide guitar in spades. It’s a fine performance. Dickey sings and is backed by Bonnie Bramlett [of Delaney & Bonnie fame]. When I first bought the album and heard Crazy Love for the first time, I thought “ok, not a bad beginning – what else you got?” Well, the next three songs gave me the answer I was looking for. The second song is Can’t Take It With You. This is another song from Dickey [and Don Johnson!], but sung by Gregg. What really caught my attention was Gregg’s singing. It was very strong – it didn’t sound like the drug-addled guy from Win Lose or Draw. It was a sign of things to come. Gregg hadn’t sounded this good since Idlewild South. The band was tight and energetic. Next comes the eye-opener – the Dickey Betts instrumental Pegasus. It’s an instrumental not as well known as Elizabeth Reed or Jessica, but it is solid nonetheless. The two guitarists start things off, then the bass, then the band starts to play the main theme. The guitarists have the twin-harmony thing going, Dan Toler takes the first solo. Toler’s playing sounds a lot like Dickey’s, but that’s not a criticism. It was very melodic and very fast. That’s not easy to do – it isn’t for me anyway. After Toler’s scorching solo Gregg goes for it on the Hammond. With musicians the caliber of Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Chuck Leavell and Berry Oakley being in the band at one time or another, it’s easy to overlook Gregg’s ability on the Hammond. Not so with Pegasus. One listen and you hear the finest playing of his career up to that point. Once Gregg finishes his bit, Dickey takes off until the drum break. At the end of the drum break that band comes back in, plays the main theme all together, then they’re done. Following Pegasus is Little Willie John’s Need Your Love So Bad. A strong mid-tempo blues, it closes Side 1.

Side 2 opens with Dickey’s Blind Love. Again Gregg takes the vocal, which matches Can’t Take It With You in its intensity. John Swenson from Rolling Stone referred to this as a latter-day Statesboro Blues. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it sounds more like What’s Done Is Done from 1994’s Where It All Begins. But there I’m getting a little ahead of the game. The bottom line is it’s a good song, and a strong performance. Following Blind Love is Try It One More Time. Is this a commentary on the Allman Brothers reunion? I don’t know – it could be. This one has a first in the Allman Brothers catalog – a call-and-response vocal from Gregg and Dickey. It works ok, but it’s fairly pedestrian. Next is the one and only song Gregg wrote for Enlightened Rogues, Just Ain’t Easy. This one is a slow, bluesy ballad that is Gregg’s take on living in Los Angeles. He once remarked that he could exist out there but he couldn’t really live, him being the born-and-bred Southern kid out of place in Tinseltown. What Gregg lacks in quantity in the songwriting department on Enlightened Rogues he makes up for with quality. This is one of his better songs. It’s a shame they rarely play it anymore. Ending Enlightened Rogues is Dickey’s Sail Away, a duet with Mimi Hart. After many fine performances on the album, this last song is a bit of a snoozer. But since Dickey carried the songwriting load on this album, he can be forgiven for a forgettable song like this one. As a whole, Enlightened Rogues is an underrated gem in the Allman Brothers catalog. In a time when disco was king, this album had no business doing well, but it sold fairly well anyway. I would put it on par with Brothers and Sisters. It was a pretty good comeback, but trouble loomed just ahead.

After the release of Enlightened Rogues, the Allman Brothers’ record label, Capricorn Records, declared bankruptcy. The band lost millions in unpaid royalties. Their manager Phil Walden also ran Capricorn Records and the Allman Brothers music publishing company. Can you say “conflict of interest”? Dickey Betts took Capricorn to court over unpaid royalties and won, but in the ensuing bankruptcy he and the rest of the band got nothing while Phil Walden got to keep his own personal fortune. Dickey once remarked that this sequence of events was a “very expensive education.” With their record label bankrupt, the Allman Brothers were free agents who could sign with any label. They signed with Arista Records. While Arista was the home of the Grateful Dead after they abandoned their own record label, Arista was [and still is if I’m not mistaken] the label that made it safe for the likes of Barry Manilow. The label wanted the Allman Brothers to record songs more like mainstream pop. The label was not interested in the blues-based music that made the Allman Brothers’ reputation. Arista wanted hit singles – the band wasn’t that kind of band. They tried to pleased their label. They recorded the albums Reach for the Sky and Brothers of the Road. These albums would be okay if anybody else had recorded them, but as Allman Brothers albums they are bad – they are very bad. I have heard both albums, but to this day they remain the only Allman Brothers albums that I do not own. The Brothers do not think much of this music they produced for Arista, so why should I, or you for that matter? Since the band was not allowed by their own record label to make the music they wanted to make, they had the intestinal fortitude to stop. In January 1982, the band that once sang “the road goes on forever” reached the end of that road and broke up, seemingly for good. Duane and Berry would have been pissed, and rightfully so.