Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Heavier Side of the Beatles

There I was, searching for podcasts to download.  I found one called “Heavier Side of the Beatles.”  The guys who did this one usually comment on heavy metal, and they thought “let’s do one on the Beatles.”  Why not indeed.  They weren’t just lovable Moptops who sang love songs.  Nor were they always whacked out on drugs producing psychedelia.  When they wanted to, they could rock out.  I went through an exercise about a month ago where I wanted to put their “heaviest” stuff on one CD.  Wouldn’t you know, their list was very close to mine.  The program lasted only 45 minutes.  They played the songs they picked, so there wasn’t an entire 80-minute CD for them to cover.  They had a couple of interesting choices for “heaviness” – Tomorrow Never Knows and I Am the Walrus.  Weird?  Yes.  Heavy?  I guess it depends on your definition of “heavy.”  

My list starts in the year 1966.  What is so significant about 1966?  That was the year things began to change for the Beatles’ sound.  George dispensed with the Gretsch guitars and switched to Gibsons.  John’s main guitar had been a Rickenbacker 325, but he switched to an Epiphone Casino.  Although Paul still used his Hofner violin bass on-stage, he began to record with a Rickenbacker 4001S bass.  Geoff Emerick [and Ken Scott after him] replaced Norman Smith as their recording engineer in 1966, just in time for Revolver.  He had new and different ideas on how to capture the Beatles’ sound.  The guitars were louder and had more bite.  The bass was able to be heard AND felt.  Ringo’s drums sounded “bigger.”   

Prior to 1966, the Beatles had recorded plenty of high energy “rock” songs, but the folks at EMI weren’t interested in pushing the sound envelope.  They were worried about whether record player needles would jump and skip grooves if things were recorded too loudly.  Hence, the guitar sound was pretty thin, and one had to struggle to hear the bass.  Here are some songs with “thin” guitar sounds that could have benefit from better recording techniques:  

I Saw Her Standing There
I Feel Fine
She’s a Woman
A Hard Day’s Night
Ticket to Ride
Day Tripper
Drive My Car
If I Needed Someone
You Can’t Do That  

These songs rock, but they just aren’t “heavy” enough.  If I included these songs as recorded with the list I have below, they’d sound out of place.  What’s my definition of “heavy”?  I don’t really have one, but I know it when I hear it.  Elements are high volume [though not deafening like heavy metal], distortion, feedback, a big bottom end [though not thunderously loud like John Entwistle, Geezer Butler or Jack Bruce].  

The songs:
Taxman [Revolver, 1966] – The song that kicks off Revolver is George’s angry rant at the UK’s Inland Revenue.  That’s George playing the biting rhythm guitar while Paul plays an Indian-sounding lead on his own Epiphone Casino [which he later used on Sgt. Pepper and uses to this day].
And Your Bird Can Sing [Revolver, 1966] – That’s Paul and George playing duel lead guitars, with John chiming away on rhythm with his Rickenbacker 325.  This is probably the last song on which John used that guitar.

Rain [B-side, 1966] – This is the B-side of Paperback Writer.  To get that hazy, drugged out feeling the band recorded the backing track at a higher speed, then slowed it down to normal speed for Paul to overdub his bass.  For years I tried to learn how to play this song without success.  Then I saw a guitar lesson on YouTube where a guy tried it in an Open G tuning.  And it worked!  That was a great day when things clicked for me on this song.

Paperback Writer [Single, 1966] – This song, which was recorded during the Revolver sessions, started the Beatles revolution in sound.  I wrote in an earlier blog how Geoff Emerick beefed up Paul’s bass sound by using amps as microphones.  Paul's bass work on this song is often referred to as lead bass.  If one can hear an isolated track of the bass, you’d hear why.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967] – That’s Paul on the screaming lead guitar.  John and George play two rhythm guitars.  Ringo’s drums sound like the cracking of a whip.  This is one of the finest vocals Paul ever did.  There’s one he did even better that’s further down this list. 

With a Little Help From My Friends [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967] – This one isn’t really heavy as such, but one can’t hear the title track without this song immediately following in its wake.  This song has a great bassline.

Hey Bulldog [Yellow Submarine, 1969] – This is one of the few songs of John Lennon that is piano-driven.  They recorded this one specially for the Yellow Submarine movie.  The tambourines you hear is Paul keeping time with Ringo.  George plays a nasty solo on a Gibson SG, while Paul overdubs a booming bass with his Rickenbacker.  I love this song.

It’s All Too Much [Yellow Submarine, 1969] – This one from George was also recorded for Yellow Submarine.  George holds down a G chord on the Hammond organ throughout the song.  It acts as a drone like one would hear in Indian music.  Along with the psychedelic-sounding Hammond, there’s lots of shrieking guitar with much feedback.  I think Paul played the initial feedback bit at the beginning, but the guitar solo and everything else sounds like George.

Back in the USSR [The Beatles, 1968] – Paul is playing lead guitar, John is playing a four-string bass, and George is playing a six-string bass [a Fender VI].  This one is an ode to Chuck Berry by way of the Beach Boys.  That’s Paul on piano and drums, too [Ringo quit the band for two weeks].  Despite Ringo’s absence the boys sound like they’re having a great time. 

Revolution [B-side, 1968] – This is the most-distorted you’ll ever hear the Beatles.  The song’s first incarnation, Revolution 1 [first track, side 4 of the White Album] was a slower, more subdued version with horns.  John wanted it as a single, Paul and George said “no, not fast enough.”  This version is the result – the “angry” John.  It’s much faster, much louder and in your face than the first version.  It made it out as a single, but only as the flip-side of Hey Jude.  Things are pretty loud here.  FWIW, this song sounds better in mono than in stereo.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps [The Beatles, 1968] – Two words – Eric Clapton.  George wanted a better guitar player than he to play on his song, which neither John nor Paul took seriously until EC showed up to play.  And as George often said, when he brought a guest by the studio John and Paul were on their best behavior.  It happened again when George brought Billy Preston to the Get Back sessions, but that’s another story.  What resulted from everybody pulling together with EC was one of the Top 10 songs in the Beatles catalog.  I think George invented AOR with this song.

Helter Skelter [The Beatles, 1968] – Paul heard Pete Townshend talk about how he thought I Can See for Miles was the nastiest, loudest, sweatiest piece of rock and roll ever committed to vinyl.  Paul heard that and thought “challenge accepted.”  George and Paul played the guitars [they were VERY loud], John played the bass.  Ringo was up to the challenge, too.  That’s him yelling “I got blisters on my fingers!” at the end.  Hard rock and heavy metal bands have tried this song, and they don’t even come close.

Birthday [The Beatles, 1968] – John and Paul are playing the riff.  George is too on the bass.  Ringo’s still up to the task.  My favorite bit is after the band comes out of the drum break and John is thrashing away on an E chord while singing “yes we're going to a party party…”

Yer Blues [The Beatles, 1968] – John wrote a lot of songs in India.  This is one about loneliness and feeling suicidal.  Instead of recording in one of Abbey Road’s “regular” studios, they crammed all their instruments into a room not much bigger than a closet and bashed away. 

Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey [The Beatles, 1968] – John said this was a great line he had around which he built a song.  John and George’s guitars were so loud Paul couldn’t play with them.  He had to overdub the bass.  That’s Paul ringing the fire bell as well.

I’ve Got a Feeling [Let It Be, 1970] – This one is live from the Apple rooftop, January 30, 1969.  John plays the riff while George gets a big sound out of a Fender Telecaster [of all things].  When George enters the song, he makes his presence known immediately.  Paul voice is off-the-charts raucous here.

Come Together [Abbey Road, 1969] – John first conceived this song as a Chuck Berry style rocker, but Paul suggested they slow it down.  What emerged was a swampy, slinky, very cool song to kick off Abbey Road.  The thing one immediately notices is heavy bass.  It dominates the song.  John plays the rhythm, while George plays lead.  I can’t figure out whether he’s using a slide, but it sounds cool whatever he’s doing.

Oh! Darling [Abbey Road, 1969] – Paul’s best vocal – period.  John often said he thought he could do it better.  I beg to differ.  As much as I like John Lennon as a vocalist, there’s no way he could do what Paul did here. 

Old Brown Shoe [B-side, 1969] – This was the B-side of The Ballad of John & Yoko.  It’s a better song that it’s a-side.  It could’ve fit on Abbey Road.  It’s definitely a much better song than Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.  George played both guitar and bass in unison as he had done with Paul on Drive My Car, and he plays one of his most tasty, Leslie-drenched solos of his time with The Beatles.

You Never Give Me Your Money [Abbey Road, 1969] – There’s three parts to this one – the first, soft piano beginning where Paul is singing about Allen Klein, the second part with the jaunty, honky tonk piano, and then all the guitars come in after “oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go” and it’s rock city from there until the end of the song.

I Want You [She’s So Heavy] [Abbey Road, 1969] – This is a monstrous track with tons of overdubbed guitars, especially after the last “she’s so…” at the 4:37 mark.  And then it’s the same grinding riff as Lennon adds white noise that gets louder and louder.  Suddenly everything stops like somebody pulled the plug.  The last 3:10 of the song lulls you into a trance and the sudden silence snaps you out of it.

Sgt Pepper [Reprise] [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967]/The End [Abbey Road, 1969] – Once you’ve snapped out of the hypnosis of I Want You [She’s So Heavy], close out your playlist with these two. It’s all guitars all the time for these two brief numbers.  Both in the same tempo, if you overlap them by .37 seconds you can get a really good medley without skipping a beat.

At the end of the podcast, the two guys said to their listeners that George Harrison had to be in the conversation about great guitar players.  Hello!  I’ve known that for fifty years now!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Jack Bruce - Silver Rails

Silver Rails [2014] is the first album Jack Bruce released under his own name since More Jack Than God [2003].   Not that he was slacking between the two releases.  Shortly after the release of More Jack Than God, he got very sick with liver cancer, had a liver transplant and nearly died.  After his body nearly rejected his new liver, he stabilized and was well enough to take part in a brief reunion with Cream in 2005.  He and Robin Trower put out Seven Moons in 2008.  In 2012 he teamed up with John Medeski, Cindy Blackman Santana, and Vernon Reid to form Spectrum Road, a tribute band to Tony Williams’ Lifetime.  They released their eponymous album in 2012.  When he wasn’t busy with those projects he was gigging with his Big Blues Band all over Europe.  

Jack Bruce’s recording career hasn’t been very prolific.  He decided to make this album because he realized he wasn’t getting any younger.  He wanted to have an album with diverse music like he was listening to, and I think in that regard he succeeded.  He used his first solo album Songs for a Tailor as his template.  The comparison between that album and this one is appropriate.  He went to Abbey Road, and with a little help from his friends, we have Silver Rails.  The most inspired choice of collaborators on this album is the aforementioned John Medeski.  His Hammond organ and occasional Mellotron pop up on half this album to great effect.  There are rockers, and there are piano ballads in equal number.  And there are horns, something you don’t hear very much on a Jack Bruce release.  

The songs:
Candlelight – [Phil Manzanera – guitar; John Medeski: Hammond organ] At first listen I thought this sounded more like Jack’s remake of West, Bruce and Laing’s Out Into the Fields.  But instead of the Afro-Cuban feel of Out Into the Fields, the addition of a beefy horn section puts this one in Calypso territory.  Phil Manzanera plays a scorching guitar solo that I didn’t know he had in him.  This is an excellent opener for Silver Rails.  

Reach for the Night – [John Medeski: Hammond organ; Malcolm Bruce: guitar] – One of the best piano ballads Jack Bruce has ever written.  I like to hear this one after Fields of Forever, not before.  

Fields of Forever – Imagine Doin’ That Scrapyard Thing [Cream – Goodbye] with a horn section and you have Fields of Forever.  This is a good thing.  This is as up-tempo as Jack Bruce gets on Silver Rails.  This is my favorite from this album.  

Hidden Cities – [Uli Jon Roth: guitar, Cindy Blackman Santana: drums, Aruba Red, Kyla Bruce: vocals] – I expected some guitar pyrotechnics from Uli Jon Roth but didn’t hear any.  I tried to like this one, I really did.  This is the album’s “skip” track.  

Don’t Look Now – [Tony Remy: guitar; Malcolm Bruce: guitar; John Medeski: Hammond organ, mellotron] Look!  Another piano ballad!  This is a good one.  

Rusty Lady – [Robin Trower – guitar; Malcolm Bruce: guitar] Jack Bruce didn’t like Maggie Thatcher, the Scot socialist that he was.  And here he sings his “good riddance” to the Iron Lady.  It’s a cousin to Politician [Cream – Wheels of Fire].  Robin Trower is excellent as always.  Pete Brown has a great line - "when she stepped from her oxhide car, it was Winston in drag without the cigar."  

Industrial Child – This one is another piano ballad, with a faint acoustic guitar played by Tony Remy.  The best adjective to describe this one is haunting.  Better than Don’t Look Now, but not as good as Reach for the Night.  A keeper.  

Drone – Stukas!  Distorted bass and drums only.  His bass hasn’t sounded this distorted since he recorded Apostrophe(‘) with Frank Zappa.  Although there are references to bumble bees, this is a commentary on today’s terror weapon from above, with samples of a terror weapon of yesteryear to drive the point home.  I like it!  

Keep It Down – [Bernie Marsden – guitar] This song was first done on 1974’s Out of the Storm, his first LP after West, Bruce & Laing imploded.  Steve Hunter [he of Alice Cooper fame] played on the original, which would not have been out of place in either Cream or WB&L.  It had that power trio vibe.  This update version has Bernie Marsden instead of Steve Hunter, and John Medeski on Hammond organ.  Jack Bruce was a heroin addict when he wrote this, and he has said this is his Needle and the Damage Done.  This version isn’t as hard-hitting as the one from 1974, but it’s still pretty good.  

No Surrender – [Bernie Marsden – guitar; Cindy Blackman Santana: drums] This song was first done on 1989’s A Question of Time.  Despite Bernie Marsden’s presence on guitar, there’s little difference between this and the original.  Though this is a good song, it’s not essential either.  

Jack Bruce had plans to follow-up Silver Rails.  He bought a house in Mallorca, put in a small studio so he could write songs, and planned to go back to Abbey Road.  But his liver failed him and he died on October 25th, 2014, seven months after Silver Rails’ release.  This wasn’t meant to be a final album like The Wind was for Warren Zevon, but there it is.  Fortunately for us, it’s one of the better albums in Jack Bruce’s canon.