Friday, December 23, 2016

Greg Lake and Keith Emerson - Songs of a Lifetime [RIP]

Progressive rock, or “prog” for short.  For the longest time, I thought of it as a pejorative – music without guitars, or just music in something besides 4/4 time.  It’s a bit of a contradiction.  Its serious music played by serious people.  There’s not a hint of rebellion or fun in it, unless you consider its seriousness a rebellion from the rock form.  It can be long-winded, bombastic, pompous, and pretentious.  Only in the world of prog could an eight-minute song like Roundabout be considered a single.  Prog has its place.  If you want to hear long songs played by well-schooled, technical, precise musicians, this is the music for you.  And for me [sometimes], it is.  Sometimes I like the excess that is prog.  Prog became a dirty word for some because of the likes of Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and King Crimson.  These bands created songs that would last an entire album side.  The worst example was Yes’ Tales of Topographic Oceans – a four-sided album with four songs.  One needs to have a lot of patience to sit through the whole thing.  I did – once.  That is precisely the number of times I listened to that work from beginning to end in one sitting.  When I was finished, I put it away for 30 years.  But I come not to slag prog as a genre.  Bands like Rush and Dream Theater have given prog a metal [or at least a hard rock] edge, and a much better name.  I can listen to those guys anytime.  Pink Floyd is considered by some to be prog, and I love Pink Floyd.  But I write now because Greg Lake died on December 7th, and Keith Emerson preceded him in death in March.  

I don’t know when it was.  It was a very long time ago.  When I first heard Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Lucky Man, I knew that the guy who sang it would be one of my all-time favorite singers [this was before I discovered Paul Rodgers and Gregg Allman].  This was my introduction to Greg Lake.  I knew the ballads he sang from hearing them on the radio – Still…You Turn Me On, From the Beginning, and my favorite Christmas song, I Believe in Father Christmas.  Those were just the ballads.  Words fail me [as they often do] to describe Greg Lake’s voice.  But I found this from columnist Richard Stellar which captured it perfectly:  

“Backed by the late Keith Emerson and percussionist Carl Palmer, Lake’s voice would on one song lull the listener into a somnambulistic zone of quiet romanticism — and on the next track disembowel the senses with a battle cry that was a harbinger for the times.”  

Yeah…Greg Lake was that good of a singer.  

In my freshman year of college in Boulder, my dorm neighbor was playing something that I’d never heard before.  It was then he introduced me to Brain Salad Surgery.  Here was the warped genius that was Keith Emerson in all his compositional and performance glory.  That was the hook for all things progressive for me.  Soon followed Yes and King Crimson.  But ELP was different from all the rest.  They were a rock band where the keyboards were the main instrument in an era when the guitar was king [and still is as far as I’m concerned].  Like their contemporaries, they could overindulge on the side-long epics, but they could also do shorter radio-friendly songs, usually written by Greg Lake.  They were different.  Lake’s band before ELP, King Crimson [which he founded with Robert Fripp, a childhood friend from Bournemouth], were equally different.  

King Crimson’s debut, In the Court of the Crimson King has been hailed by many as a great masterpiece.  I’m not one of those who think it’s great, just merely good.  It has only five songs, all of which are over seven minutes.  And of those, I like three of them – 21st Century Schizoid Man, Epitaph, and the title song.  These songs are stone cold classics.  Epitaph and the title song is where you hear Ian McDonald’s Mellotron, the sound that Pete Townshend characterized as “sirens down a canyon.”  Greg Lake sings one of his most beautiful vocals on Epitaph.  It conveys something one rarely hears in prog – emotion.  One rarely listens to prog for its lyrical content, but the chorus from Epitaph is gripping - "Confusion will be my Epitaph/As I crawl, a cracked and broken path/If we make it, we can all, sit down and laugh/but I fear tomorrow I'll be crying..."  The vocals combined with the Mellotron make for a compelling listen.  The woodwinds are a great touch.  Yes, it’s that good.  21st Century Schizoid Man is pure dementia.  It’s hectic, it’s scary.  The combination of the blistering, aggressive guitar work of Robert Fripp, the distortion of Greg Lake’s voice, and the manic saxophone of Ian McDonald are the musical equivalent of shock and awe, long before that phrase became part of the lexicon.  The conclusion is a dissonant train wreck, which just puts an exclamation point on the chaos and disorder.  The title track is simply majestic.  But the less said about I Talk To The Wind and Moonchild, the better.  They’re quiet, and they’re nice, but not very interesting compared to the album’s three standouts.  The original King Crimson broke up two months after the release of their debut, but Fripp convinced Lake to stick around long enough to sing on the second album, In the Wake of Poseidon.  The opener, Pictures Of A City, is almost a carbon copy of 21st Century Schizoid Man [without the distorted vocals].  The title track is similar to Epitaph from the first album.  There is a sense of déjà vu on In the Wake of Poseidon, but that’s not a bad thing.  When Greg Lake was finished with this one, he departed King Crimson to form ELP with Keith Emerson.  

Keith Emerson and Greg Lake met in San Francisco, at the old Fillmore West.  Both The Nice and King Crimson played on the same bill for a three-night stand.  These were the last shows the original King Crimson would play.  Before one of these shows, The Nice were doing a soundcheck.  On the spur of the moment, Greg Lake grabbed a bass and hopped on stage with them.  Emerson and Lake felt an instant musical connection.  Before the Fillmore shows were done, the two agreed to form a new band.  A couple of months before his death, Greg Lake told Newsweek what both he and Keith Emerson were thinking when they decided to form their own band:  

I think the fundamental thing was that Keith Emerson and myself had this shared belief that too much rock ’n’ roll music had been based on the blues, Motown, gospel, country and western—all American-influenced.  I hasten to add: Nothing wrong with that; I love American music. At the time, Keith and I agreed that there needed to be something different taking place. And so we decided, really, to use European influences rather than American influences, in our music.”  

And they did just that from the beginning [no pun intended].  On their eponymous debut, two of the songs are classically-based.  The astounding instrumental opener The Barbarian is based on a piece by Béla Bartók, named Allegro Barbaro, and contains all the elements of a classic ELP song.  It’s very much a duel between Greg Lake’s distorted bass and Keith Emerson’s Hammond, with Carl Palmer holding things together in the middle while demonstrating extraordinary technique.  Carl Palmer is like Ginger Baker in that he approaches drumming from a more jazz side rather than rock like John Bonham or Keith Moon.  He gets his own showcase with TankKnife Edge takes its cues from Leoš Janacek’s Sinfonietta, with a little Bach thrown in.  Keith Emerson’s The Three Fates is an eight-minute suite of three sections [Clotho (organ solo) and Lachesis (piano solo), and Atropos (a piano trio)] that allows him to show off on the grand piano and the Royal Festival Hall’s pipe organ [a great sound!].  Greg Lake’s Take a Pebble is more of a showcase for what Keith Emerson could do on the piano.  It’s where ELP is more thoughtful, when they turn down the volume, and Keith steps back from the aural assaults with the Hammond organ.  This is what a piano sounds like when you hold down a chord and strum the piano strings with a guitar pick.  Take a Pebble would not be out of place on a King Crimson record.  Lucky Man is perhaps the song for which ELP is best known.  Greg Lake’s acoustic guitar songs were the yang to the yin of the instrumental bombast of Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer.   

As well-known as Lucky Man is, its creation was an afterthought only because they were one song short for the record.  When Eddy Offord the engineer told Greg Lake the producer they were one song short, each member asked the other ‘what have you got”?  Lake had something he wrote when he was 12.  The other two had nothing.  Emerson didn’t like it, so he went to the pub while Lake and Palmer made the record.  At first it was just the acoustic guitar and drums.  Even Lake thought it sounded “dreadful”.  But then he added bass, an electric guitar solo, and loads of block harmony vocals.  It became a proper record.  When Emerson returned from the pub he was astonished by what he heard and thought “I better play on this”.  Since there was already a guitar solo the only place for Emerson was at the end.  He had just taken delivery of a Moog synthesizer.  He started to experiment with the sound, not knowing Lake a pushed the “record” button.  When Emerson was done, Lake and Offord looked at each other and agreed that the “experiment” was the keeper.  That’s the take we’ve heard for 46 years.  And it almost never happened…  

Tarkus (1971) upped the ante with a side-long epoch [the title song] about a creature that’s a cross-between an armadillo and a tank that fights an epic battle with a Manticore [whatever that is].  A strange concept, yes – it was the 70s.  It consists of seven parts [Eruption - Stones of Years – Iconoclast – Mass – Manticore – Battlefield - Aquatarkus].  Eruption is truth in advertising -  the playing is volcanic.  Stones of Years is slower, a much-needed breather after Eruption, and Greg Lake’s voice is in fine form.  Mass doesn’t do much for me – neither does Aquatarkus.  But the rest is pure gold.  I saw ELP do Tarkus in 1998 – there’s a lot going on in this piece, and it was hard to believe Emerson could do as much live as he did, but he pulled it off.  He  later did an excellent orchestral version [no vocals] on his Three Fates Project that is worth seeking out.  The album as a whole is uneven.  The two songs on the second side that are memorable, A Time and a Place and Bitches Crystal, sounded much better when they were played live for the first time in 1997-98.  Originally these two songs were at the top of his range.  But as Lake’s voice aged, Emerson tuned them down slightly and they sound fantastic [hear them on Then & Now].  To show they weren’t as seriously as their critics alleged, they threw away two tracks with Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy, a practice they would repeat on Trilogy [The Sheriff] and Brain Salad Surgery [Benny the Bouncer].  That’s a pity because they left a good song from Greg Lake [Oh, My Father] in the can.  

Trilogy [1972] – After the concept of Tarkus, ELP went back to songs.  Except for the aforementioned The Sheriff, I like this album all the way through.  Trilogy is probably the most complete album ELP ever made.  Greg Lake provided the hit single, From the Beginning.  Keith Emerson did his first cover of Aaron Copland with Hoedown, from Copland’s Rodeo ballet.  The Endless Enigma sounds mysterious, spooky, and churchy all at once.  Trilogy [the song] is as it implies – three songs in one.  It starts with “strings” and a piano with Lake singing.  It sounds like it’s going to be a romantic number, but at the three-minute mark Emerson begins playing the Trilogy riff, then synthesizer hell breaks loose [this is a good thing].  Abaddon‘s Bolero is another nod to classical music.  Like Ravel’s Bolero, it starts quietly and gets louder as each instrument is added [they did lots of overdubbing on this album].  

Brain Salad Surgery [1973] – this one is the classic.  In retrospect, this was ELP’s peak.  Karn Evil 9 was the 29-minute centerpiece.  This is one of the few times that I thought I could do without Greg Lake’s singing [but his electric lead guitar work is stellar], and I wanted to hear an instrumental-only version of the whole piece.  My wish was partially granted in 2007 when Shout Factory re-released Brain Salad Surgery in 2007.  It contained the instrumental track for all of the first movement.  It works very well without the vocals.   In 2014 BSS was released again, and it had the backing track of the Third Movement of Karn Evil 9 without the vocals.  Like the First Movement, it works without the vocals.  And since the Second Movement was a piano solo, I have the whole thing as an instrumental.  Toccata is based on the Fourth Movement of Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto.  Emerson played it for the man himself in order to get his approval to release.  Ginastera loved it.  Emerson told the story of his meeting with Ginastera:  

"I was dubious about taking my arrangement to such a famous man. We had a delicious dinner and afterwards I showed him the arrangement, and began to talk about it. He didn't speak much English and his wife had to translate everything. Finally, Ginastera said, '...Please! Just play the tape!’ After he had listened to them all the way through, he turned to his wife in amazement. 'Diabolic!!' he exclaimed. I was terrified. I thought he hated it or thought I was the devil or something. But then, he smiled. He turned to me and said, "No one has been able to capture my music like that before! It's exactly the way I hear it myself!' "  

Jerusalem and Still…You Turn Me On are the songs that got loads of airplay along with Karn Evil 9, 1st Movement, Part 2 [“Welcome back my friends to the show that never end, we’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside…”].  Jerusalem was actually banned by the BBC because they thought ELP’s arrangement was somehow sacrilegious.  Still…You Turn Me On was a good acoustic number which got better with age when Lake played it live.  He stripped away all the instruments a left it as just him and acoustic guitar [hear it on Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 1993].  

I Believe in Father Christmas [Single, 1975] – Greg Lake released this as a single under his own name in 1975 [but Keith Emerson makes his presence known on the instrumental break].  It went to #2 on the British charts [#1 was Bohemian Rhapsody – he was ok with that].  This is my favorite Christmas song – period.  

Brain Salad Surgery, and the triple album that documented the ensuing tour [Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends ~ Ladies and Gentlemen…] culminated five years of constant recording and touring.  They took a three-year break to do their own things, which came together on Works, Volume [1977].  Some of it was good. Some of it not so much.  This double album devoted a side each to solo work, and one side to group work.  Keith Emerson did his Piano Concerto No. 1.  Greg Lake did what was expected of him [acoustic love songs, a couple of them a bit too syrupy].  C’Est La Vie is noteworthy with its French quality [Keith Emerson playing the accordion].  His song Hallowed Be Thy Name [not to be confused with Iron Maiden] was a bit strange, but it is interesting [good enough for me].  Carl Palmer did a couple of classical short pieces [Two Part Invention in D Minor from J.S. Bach and The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits from Sergei Prokofiev], and he re-did Tank with an orchestra.  The group side has Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man [which I like] and Pirates [which I don’t like].  In total, there were 14 songs, six of which I liked.  When they were done, they hit the road with a 70-piece orchestra.  This extravagance nearly ruined them financially [they ditched the orchestra after three weeks], and affirmed what the punks were saying about them being “dinosaurs.”  Works, Volume 2 is an “odds and sods” collection.  Love Beach is another way to spell “contractual obligation”.  It has no redeeming value, and showed ELP were out of ideas and out of gas.  They quietly disbanded in 1979.  

Keith Emerson went on to work on movie soundtracks.  Carl Palmer formed Asia with John Wetton, Steve Howe, and Geoff Downes.  Greg Lake made two solo albums [Greg Lake and Manoeuvres].  What surprised me was the direction of those albums.  Having been associated with keyboard-based music since 1969, he opted to create acoustic guitar ballads when given the chance.  Once away from ELP, he chose to do neither keyboard-based music nor acoustic ballads.  He hired guitarist Gary Moore [yes, that Gary Moore] and went in a hard-rock direction.  Most noteworthy was Gary Moore’s song Nuclear Attack.  This was harder than anything he did with King Crimson and ELP.  But it worked.  But it wasn’t to last, as he still liked to write about women.  After Manoeuvres he took another break from music.  Then Keith Emerson called in 1985… 

Keith had new music.  Record executives heard the music and thought “wouldn’t it be nice if Greg Lake sang on them?”  Once again Emerson and Lake created new material.  The problem was they needed a drummer.  Carl Palmer already had a job with Asia, which made him unavailable.  They found a drummer whose initials just happened to match Carl Palmer’s – Cozy Powell.  They did one album [Emerson, Lake & Powell].  The prog purists may not have liked it but I did.  This was an album like Trilogy – no side-long epics, just songs [some long, some short].  They did an especially effective adaptation of Mars, The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst.  I also liked Touch & Go, Learning To Fly, and The Miracle.  They trio toured behind the album, but there was no interest in making a second album.  Then in 1992 Emerson, Lake and Carl Palmer got an offer to make music for a movie.  The movie never happened but they did record an album together called Black Moon.  The format was like the Emerson, Lake & Powell album – some short songs, some long songs, but no epics.  Between 1985 and 1992, Greg Lake’s voice got “darker”.  I think cigarette smoking was the culprit, but Lake still had the powerful pipes, albeit a little lower. I liked Black Moon, Paper Blood, Affairs of the Heart, Changing States, and Footprints in the Snow.  Things were not well with Keith Emerson, however.  He suffered from repetitive motion injuries in his right arm.  Playing became difficult for him.  He had corrective surgery but it barely helped.  They did another album in 1994 called In the Hot Seat.  It’s notable for having a studio version of Pictures At an Exhibition.  Apart from that, there are maybe three good songs on it [Hand of Truth, Daddy, The Man in the Long Black Coat].  

ELP toured in 1997 and 1998.  I got to see them open for Deep Purple in Denver in 1998.  Theirs was a good set, just not great.  But they did play Tarkus – the whole thing.  That part of the set was amazing.  Emerson & Lake toured as a duo in 2010, and the trio played one last show that same year.  After that show, Carl Palmer told the other two he didn’t want to do it anymore.  Keith Emerson formed his own Keith Emerson Band with Marc Bonilla.  They did one studio album and one orchestral album [Three Fates Project].  The studio album was pretty good/.  There were lots of little instrumental pieces, with some songs with vocals.  I prefer the instrumentals, which were very good.  The vocals?  Well, Greg Lake had nothing to worry    .  The orchestral album [which had no vocals] was very good.  It had a version of Tarkus [yes!].

After In the Hot Seat, Greg Lake never made another studio record under his own name or with ELP.  He did play bass on The Who’s song Real Good Looking Boy, and he continued to tour.  Keith continued to have problems with his right hand.  For him it got to the point that he was extremely underwhelmed by his own performances.  He was afraid his sub-par performances would let down his fans.  He was due to tour Japan this past spring, but his anxieties [and alcohol] got the best of him.  He took his own life on March 11, 2016.  Many musicians from the generation that created the music I like [Lemmy, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, etc] have died within the past year.  Keith Emerson’s passing just added to the Grim Reaper’s tally.  As December 8th [the date of John Lennon’s death] approached, I saw a post on Facebook from a British record producer whom I count as a friend.  It said simply “RIP Greg Lake”.  I thought “Shit!  Another one?”  Yes, and now not only is Keith Emerson gone, but so is Greg Lake.  Cancer took him away.  2016 has been brutal.

Rest in Peace, gents.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Pure McCartney

Whether the world wanted one or not, there’s another compilation of Paul McCartney’s music since he left that other band in 1970.  Curated by the man himself, Pure McCartney is a four-CD “mixtape” [for lack of a better phrase] for his fans.  These are his favorite songs, but a lot of them definitely aren’t mine.  The songs don’t appear in chronological order, nor are they grouped by any overarching theme, as had been done on John Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth boxset.  They’re simply placed in the order that that Paul McCartney wanted to hear them.  This isn’t a greatest hits thing – there are plenty of deep tracks to be found along with other stray singles that even I had never heard of.  There are the usual suspects from the Wings era, and there is some very good stuff from 1997 to the present.  There are some curious omissions.  You won’t find anything from Run Devil Run or Flowers in the Dirt.  For my taste, there are too many ballads and not enough rockers.  The 1980s is a curious hole for Paul’s music.  The problem isn’t that he didn’t include anything from that decade [he did], but that the 80s music he did include was crap [except for some from Tug of War].  

Paul McCartney is by far the most prolific ex-Beatle.  He has the most hits.  In forty-plus years of ex-Beatledom, there’s lots of music to enjoy.  Since he’s the songwriter who lived, he’s had more chances to succeed, and more chances to make his fans [including me] cringe.  Luckily for us, the good far outweighs the bad.  There are reasons known only to Paul McCartney why he chose the songs he chose.  That having been done, I compiled my own Pure McCartney.  

Here is the track list from Pure McCartney, placed in chronological order and by album.  To make my own version of Pure McCartney, my deletions are crossed out, my additions are in italics.  Since there are 67 songs, there are plenty of both additions and deletions. My list is 81 songs, but they all fit on 4 CDs.  

McCartney (1970)
Every Night – as good as anything he did with the Beatles.
Maybe I’m Amazed

Non Album Single (1971) - Another Day

Ram (1971)
Too Many People – “Too many people preaching practices” and “That was your first mistake, you took your lucky break and broke it in two…”  This was aimed right at John Lennon, who returned fire with a tactical nuke, How Do You Sleep.  The nasty guitar solo at the end was played by Paul himself.
Dear Boy
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
Heart Of The Country
The Back Seat Of My Car

Wild Life (Wings, 1971)
Bip Bop

Non Album Single (1972) Hi, Hi, Hi – banned by the BBC for being a “drug song”

Red Rose Speedway (Paul McCartney & Wings, 1973)
Big Barn Bed
My Love

Live and Let Die Soundtrack (1973)
Live and Let Die

Band on the Run (Paul McCartney & Wings, 1973)
Band on the Run
Mrs Vandebilt 
Let Me Roll It – Paul’s peace offering to John after How Do You Sleep.  With all the echo it even sounds like a John Lennon song.
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five

Non Album Single (1974) - Junior’s Farm – Introducing Wings’ new guitarist, Jimmy McCullouch [RIP].  Bizarre lyrics, but that’s ok – John wrote I Am the Walrus.

Venus and Mars (Wings, 1975)
Venus and Mars/Rock Show 
Listen To What The Man Said
Letting Go – This is the heaviest one from Venus & Mars.  Great bass, and the horns are cool.

Wings at the Speed of Sound (Wings, 1976)
Let ‘Em In – I kept this one simply for nostalgia.  I liked it when I was 14.
Silly Love Songs – Despite Paul singing “I love you” about 400 times [ok, I exaggerate], this song’s saving grace is the bass.
Warm And Beautiful

Non Album Single (1977) - Mull of Kintyre

London Town (Wings, 1978)
With a Little Luck 
Don’t Let It Bring You Down 

Non Album Single (1979) - Goodnight Tonight
Daytime Nighttime Suffering – The B-side is much better than the A-side

Back to the Egg (Wings, 1979)
Arrow Through Me
Baby’s Request
Rockestra Theme – a few guests:  David Gilmour, Pete Townshend, Hank Marvin, Ronnie Lane, John Paul Jones, Kenny Jones, & John Bonham.  An instrumental [mostly] that rocks like a bastard. 
To You
So Glad To See You Here – Paul sings the hell out of this one.  Same line-up as the Rockestra Theme.  Same vibe, too.  

McCartney II (1980)
Coming Up
Temporary Secretary

Tug of War (1982)
Here Today – a conversation Paul wished he had with John Lennon.  A tear-jerker in 1982, still a tearjerker in 2016.
Ebony and Ivory
Tug of War – an acoustic beginning, a rocking middle and a huge orchestral finish.
Take It Away – Ringo on drums, George Martin on electric piano.  You never know who may be listening to you…

Pipes of Peace (1983)
Pipes of Peace
Say Say Say [2015 Remix]

Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984)
No More Lonely Nights

Non­-Album Single (Paul McCartney & the Frog Chorus, 1984)
We All Stand Together

Press to Play (1986)
Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun

Flowers in the Dirt (1989) - None
We Got Married
Figure Of Eight
My Brave Face*
That Day Is Done*
Don’t Be Careless Love*
You Want Her Too*
Put It There

Off the Ground (1993)
Winedark Open Sea
Hope Of Deliverance
Mistress And Maid*
The Lovers That Never Were*
Looking For Changes
Get Out of My Way

Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest (The Fireman, 1993) - None

Flaming Pie (1997)
The Song We Were Singing
The World Tonight
Calico Skies
Flaming Pie
Little Willow
Beautiful Night
Great Day
Young Boy

Rushes (The Fireman, 1998) - None

Run Devil Run (1999) – None
Run Devil Run
What It Is

Driving Rain (2001) - None
Lonely Road
From A Lover To A Friend
She's Given Up Talking
Riding Into Jaipur

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
Fine Line
Jenny Wren
English Tea
Too Much Rain
Friends To Go – inspired by and dedicated to George Harrison
Riding To Vanity Fair
How Kind of You

Memory Almost Full (2007)
Dance Tonight
Only Mama Knows
Ever Present Past
Mr. Bellamy
That Was Me
House Of Wax
The End Of The End
Why So Blue

Electric Arguments (The Fireman, 2008)
Sing The Changes
Dance 'Til We're High

Kisses on the Bottom (2012)
My Valentine

Destiny Original Soundtrack) (2014)
Hope For The Future

New (2015)
Save Us 
Queenie Eye 
Early Days 
I Can Bet
Get Me Out of Here
Everybody Out There 

Other additions
Paul Is Live (1993)
A Fine Day – This album is the only place you’ll find this.  It was a soundcheck, but it caught my attention in a good way

Sound City Soundtrack (2012)
Cut Me Some Slack – Paul McCartney and Nirvana.  Who knew?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Badfinger - Wish You Were Here

This is more like it.  The last time I wrote about a Badfinger album, I slammed their 1973 album, Ass.  I said then that only four of that album’s ten songs were really worth a damn.    But Wish You Were Here [1974] is a very good piece of work.  Pete Ham awakened from the slumber that seemed to grip him during the making of Ass.  Every song of his on this album is a winner.  Joey Molland contributed more good songs than not for this album.  Even drummer Mike Gibbins gets in on the act.  With Your So Fine and his contribution to In the Meantime/Some Other Time, he atones for the lamentable Cowboy from Ass.  Tom Evans contributes only one song, the merits of which are debatable.  He’s done better. Maybe it was his turn to slumber.  

Just a Chance [Ham] – This one storms right out the gate and sets an energetic tone for the rest of the album. It’s unusually fast-paced for a Pete Ham song, but it doesn’t sound rushed and it works.

You’re So Fine [Gibbin] – Very tasty guitar playing here from Pete Ham and Joey Molland.  

Got to Get Out of Here [Molland] – It’s not a dull love song.  It has just an acoustic guitar and an organ, with some tambourine percussion.  This is a bit of foreshadowing as Molland left Badfinger after Wish You Were Here’s release.  

Know One Knows [Ham] – A bad pun in the title, but excellent power pop from Pete Ham.  There’s an interlude where some Japanese woman is mumbling something that gives the song a bit of a twist, but the moment passes quickly enough.  

Dennis [Ham] – For me, it’s a toss-up whether this one or Just a Chance is the best song on the album.  It’s a piano-driven song with great sounding soaring guitars in the mix.  For Badfinger, this is perfection.  

In the Meantime/Some Other Time [Gibbins/Molland] – This one is a piano/guitar driven number with an orchestra.  As I said earlier, when Joey Molland writes a good song, it’s very good.  This one follows that rule.  This one has “Electric Light Orchestra” written all over it.  Here, this is a good thing.   

Meanwhile Back At The Ranch/Should I Smoke [Ham/Molland] – A good album closer.  This is really two songs [one each from Pete Ham and Joey Molland] spliced together to make a single song, not unlike some of the medley songs from Abbey Road.  This ends WYWH with a bang.  

Skip tracks
Love Time [Molland] – another love song from Joey Molland.  I’m glad he loved his wife, but his songs about her/to her bore me.  

King of the Load (T) [Evans] – I’m sorry, songs that feature a Fender Rhodes electric piano as the lead instrument scream “lounge music.”  This one is no exception.  A guitar solo from Pete Ham almost saves it, though.  Thankfully, it’s under three minutes.  

Badfinger were never ones to do things the easy way, Wish You Were Here has a sordid back story as did Straight Up and Ass before it.    Wish You Were Here would be the last album released by the Ham/Evans/Molland/Gibbins quartet.  Joey Molland left the band shortly after the album’s release.  The album itself was on sale for only a few weeks before Warner Brothers pulled it off the shelves.  They made this move because Badfinger’s manager Stan Polley embezzled all of the advance money provided to the band when they signed with the label.  Wish You Were Here just disappeared.  Only in the last few years has it been available for purchase {I got my copy about three years ago].  The band didn’t see a penny of Warner Brothers’ advance.  Quickly after Wish You Were Here’s release, the remaining members of the band recorded Head First. Warner Brothers refused to release it.  The band lost all contact with their manager.  With no money to pay for his new house and no way for him to release his music to the public in order to make money, Pete Ham saw no way out of his situation and committed suicide on April 24, 1975, just a couple of days short of his 28th birthday.  He left a suicide note that read “I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better.  P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”  Stan Polley is now dead.  I hope he rots in Hell.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Badfinger - Ass

Here’s how to look at Badfinger’s music.  Pete Ham was the most prolific songwriter of the bunch.  Maybe because he had more practice at that particular craft, his songs are usually the strongest the group had to offer.  Bassist Tom Evans wasn’t nearly as prolific and usually got two songs per album.  But his songs were usually pretty good.  The wild card was Joey Molland.  He could write as many songs as Pete Ham, but he was a better guitarist than songwriter.  Molland’s songs were hit or miss.  If they were good, they were really good.  If not, they were extremely ordinary. And so it goes for Badfinger’s 1973 album, Ass.  And herein lies the problem.  

Like its predecessor StraightUp [1971], Badfinger had a hard time getting this album recorded.  Todd Rundgren started producing the album, but got only two songs done before he left the project.  Then the band tried to produce themselves and quickly found themselves in over their heads.  The songs just didn’t sound good.  Finally, Chris Thomas came on board and got it done.  The album sounds great, but production wasn’t the only problem with Ass.  Badfinger was managed by a guy named Stan Polley, whose financial dealings eventually resulted in Pete Ham’s suicide in 1975.  But more to the point, Solley had a different disagreement with Apple.  Three members of Badfinger had a publishing deal with Apple – not so Joey Molland.  Solley tried to block release of the album because of Molland’s publishing.  Ass was delayed for months, but it eventually came out.  When it did come out, Ass was the last album not recorded by an ex-Beatle to get an Apple release.  And by the time it did come out, the band had already jumped to Warner Brothers, so the album got no support from the record company [it came out at the same time as Badfinger’s eponymous debut with Warner Brothers].  And to top off these problems, most of the songs came from Joey Molland.  When your best and most prolific songwriter [Pete Ham] has only two songs on the album [Apple of My Eye and Timeless], you’ve got a problem.  

Keepers - Apple of My Eye was the single from the album, and it details the band’s mixed feelings about leaving Apple for greener pastures at Warner Brothers.  There’s regret at leaving Apple and appreciation for having been given their big break, but they got to the point where they outgrew the label:   

Oh, I'm sorry, but it's time to move away
Though inside my heart, I really want to stay
Believe the love we have is so sincere
You know, the gift you have will always be…  

Oh, I’m sorry, but it’s time to make a stand
Though we never meant to bite the lovin’ hand
And now, the time has come to walk alone
We were the children, now we’re overgrown…

Get Away [Molland].  This is an example of when Joey Molland writes a good song, it’s really good.  This is his commentary on Pete Ham’s work ethic regarding songwriting.  Oddly enough, for this album Pete Ham’s songwriting well was dry.

Timeless [Ham].  This is Pete Ham’s I Want You [She’s So Heavy].  Like that Beatles song, it’s a long one, there is the first half where there is singing, then there’s an extended coda.  Pete Ham solos like a madman over a noisy, fuzzed out climax.  There is 3 seconds difference in the running time.  

Blind Owl [Evans] – This one from Tom Evans has a heavy beginning, but the heaviness doesn’t overstay its welcome.  This one is strong.  

Headscratcher Constitution [Molland].  This one rocks [or tries to rock] a little too hard for Badfinger.  It’s not bad a bad song, it’s just out of place.  Trying to be Humble Pie was not one of Badfinger’s strengths.

Skip tracks
I Could Love You [Molland], When I Say [Evans].  Both of these are love songs to the respective songwriters’ wives – yawn. 
Cowboy [Gibbins] – the drummer wrote it.  Extremely forgettable.
Icicles [Molland] – another ballad from Joey Molland.  He shouldn’t do ballads.
The Winner [Molland] – Apparently Joey Molland wrote this about John Lennon.  This one kinda bores me.

Ass is the sound of a band that isn’t sure about the direction of its music.  Are they hard rockers, or are they melodic pop stars?  The band got their musical identity crisis sorted for their Warner Brothers album Wish You Were Here.  It’s a very good album, but that’s for another blog at another time.  Ass has good moments on it.  There just aren’t enough of those good moments to outweigh the mediocre moments.  Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Joey Molland since half the album’s songs are his, but Pete Ham didn’t do the band any favors by coming up with only two songs.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Beatles - Revolver

Revolver turns 50 tomorrow!  Shit, I'm old... 
My favorite Beatles album has always been Abbey Road. A close second is Revolver. Many critics have cited Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the Beatles’ creative peak. I argue that Revolver is their finest body of work because all the Beatles were still engaged. Paul McCartney produced some of his finest songs. He was beginning to show he was becoming the Beatles’ musical director. George Harrison finally emerged from the songwriting shadow of Lennon & McCartney. John Lennon had not yet mentally checked out of the Beatles and was still writing prolifically. Of all the experimentation that occurred on Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, it all started with Revolver. Sgt Pepper, Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus probably would not have happened had it not been for Revolver. In addition to the fourteen songs that make up Revolver, let’s not forget the single [recorded during the Revolver sessions] that wasn’t included – Paperback Writer/Rain. I think of Revolver and the Paperback Writer/Rain together as a single work. As Neil Young said, "it's all the same song!" The previous album, Rubber Soul, was the quiet acoustic album. The Dylan influence was definitely there. Revolver brought in other elements to include Stax, classical Indian music and a children's song, in addition to orchestral instrumentation and elements of musique concrète. John Lennon and Paul McCartney still got the lion’s share of the songwriting with six songs each. George Harrison normally got to contribute two songs to each Beatles album. On Revolver, he got three, including the lead-off song – Taxman. Ringo got his one song to sing as usual. The Beatles were getting to the stage in their career where they were looking past a life of record/tour/record/tour. Of all the songs recorded during this period, only Paperback Writer was performed live. They had definitely gotten past the “boy/girl” songs of 1963-1965 [well, John and George did anyway]. 

The songs:  The single: Paperback Writer [Paul]/Rain [John] 

John’s songs: I’m Only Sleeping/She Said She Said/And Your Bird Can Sing/Doctor Robert/Tomorrow Never Knows 

Paul’s songs: Eleanor Rigby/Here, There and Everywhere/Good Day Sunshine/For No One/Got To Get You Into My Life 

George’s songs: Taxman/Love You To/I Want To Tell You 

Ringo’s song [written by Lennon/McCartney]: Yellow Submarine 

Taxman – George’s ode to Britain’s Inland Revenue [our version of the IRS]. 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.” A couple of notes - John came up with the lines “And my advice for those who die/Declare the pennies on your eye” and suggested adding the names of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath when George sings “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).” Guitar solos courtesy of Paul McCartney, rhythm guitar by George.  In his book Here, There and Everywhere, engineer Geoff Emerick made the claim that George Harrison couldn't play the guitar because he couldn't come up with a guitar solo off the cuff like Paul could.  What a dumb thing to assert.  He may be a brilliant sound guy, but he's an idiot.

Eleanor Rigby – no Beatle plays an instrument on this tale of an elderly spinster. It’s just the voices of John, Paul and George with a string octet. Paul started the song, but others put bits in as well. George came up with the hook "Ah, look at all the lonely people," Ringo suggested Father McKenzie be "darning his socks in the night". John Lennon’s friend Pete Shotton suggested Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie be united at her funeral, then Paul finished the words. 

I’m Only Sleeping – John had no routine away from the road, enjoyed being lazy while at home, usually under the influence of some illicit substance [usually LSD]. When he wasn’t tripping, he loved sleeping.  George plays backwards guitar solos that sound like someone is yawning. They got that idea when a tape operator played something backwards by mistake. 

Love You To – George does his first Indian song. Electric guitars, sitars, and tablas. John Lennon is nowhere to be found. It shows his growing interest in Indian philosophy. It had the working title “Granny Smith.” 

Here, There and Everywhere – Paul’s best love song – period. This was written at John’s house while Paul was waiting for him to wake up. Great vocal harmonies - even John loved it. Perfect!  A note here: Paul reportedly wrote this after hearing God Only Knows from the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. 

Yellow Submarine – This one is mostly written by Paul [with a little help from John]. Standard Beatle practice was to have Ringo sing one song on each album. Since they didn’t record covers anymore, they wrote this one for him. A novelty song? Absolutely, but if you ever need to sing a baby to sleep, this song is a good one. Both Mark and Greg fell asleep in self-defense whenever Carol or I sang it to them [yes, we’re that bad]. Regardless of its musical merits, the boys sounded like they had a lot of fun making it. “Sky of blue and sea of green” came from Donovan.  This song isn’t meant to be taken seriously.  I love it for the sound effects. 

She Said She Said – the genesis of this song came from an encounter the Beatles had with Peter Fonda at a party somewhere in LA. Everybody was tripping on LSD. Peter Fonda told the boys he knew what it was like to be dead because he had died on an operating table several times after accidentally shooting himself when he was a kid. John’s retort was “who put all that shit in your head.” But it was 1966 and you didn’t put such things on records then, so it became “who put all those things in your head.” Bass guitar is courtesy of George Harrison. Paul didn’t play this session. This was the last thing recorded for Revolver. 

Good Day Sunshine – a happy throwaway of a song from Paul. At least it gives one a lift after hearing John singing about knowing what it’s like to be dead.  A note here:  NASA astronauts love waking up to this song. 

And Your Bird Can Sing – Paul had his happy throwaway song, and this one is from John. Guitars [lots of them from John and George], bass and drums are all you hear on this one. I have no idea what this one’s about, but I like it anyway – always have.  A note:  I read an article where Frank Sinatra used to refer to his manhood as his "bird", and maybe this is what John Lennon had in mind when he wrote the song.  If you listen to an earlier version on Anthology 2, John and Paul kept cracking up while trying to sing the song.  Perhaps a bit of marijuana and the "subject matter" was too much for them to concentrate on their work. 

For No One – an unhappy but excellent song from Paul about the end of a love affair and denial. The lyrics are right on the money. This one features a French horn solo from Alan Civil, who actually got a credit on the album.  This is one of Paul's sharpest lyric efforts. 

Doctor Robert – another drug song from John about a New York doctor who had a reputation for administering amphetamines to his patients. I always thought it was about the London dentist who gave John and George their first dose of LSD in 1965. 

I Want To Tell You – a song from George about his inability to communicate. According to George, he later said, it’s "about the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit." All guitars are from George, while Paul plays piano and bass. John bangs the tambourine and sings. It had the working title “Laxton’s Superb.” What was it with George and apples anyway? 

Got To Get You Into My Life – for the first time on a Beatles record…brass, Stax-style. I’m not sure who came up with the horn arrangement, but it’s a good one. For those who think this is another Paul song about a girl, it isn’t – it’s about marijuana. Imagine that – a drug song from Paul McCartney. Paul loved it [pot] then, and still loves it 45 years later. John thought it was about LSD.  A footnote:  Brian Epstein had looked into the Beatles recording at Stax in Memphis, but it never happened.  I wonder if this song is an homage to the Stax sound? 

Tomorrow Never Knows – the first song recorded for Revolver, and due to its highly experimental nature, the only place it could go on the album was last. This was as if the Beatles were saying goodbye to the “moptops” and hello to mind expansion, Eastern mysticism, and music one could not possibly play live. This one from John is my favorite from Revolver. 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. 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. 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. 

Paperback Writer - 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, 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. 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. 

Rain – another favorite of mine from John, which was the B-side of Paperback Writer. 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." As for me, I like to play Rain and Tomorrow Never Knows back-to-back.  

Even the cover for Revolver is great.  The cover was a collage created by Klaus Voorman.  He and his then-girlfriend Astrid Kircher met the Beatles in Hamburg.  He won a Grammy™ for his work.