Thursday, July 31, 2008

Yardbirds 5: Little Games

Unless they were enmeshed in the business themselves, chances are if any Americans heard of Jimmy Page before Led Zeppelin was when he was playing with the Yardbirds—first as a bass player, then in a twin-guitar attack with Jeff Beck. After Beck finally had enough, the band was down to a quarter, with Jimmy as sole guitarist.

Given his experience playing countless sessions for potential pop hits, he was probably the best person yet able to handle the more commercial material foisted upon the band by producer Mickie Most, while still flirting with experimentalism. As it is, Little Games presents what Jimmy was doing immediately before Led Zeppelin, and demonstrates what led to it. Even being near the end of the band, it’s a good place to dive in.

The title track bears an simple, repetitive bar chord attack, with some signature Page leads and a cello arrangement for that chamber pop feel, provided by one John Paul Jones. “Smile On Me” is a fairly simple blues, played in two tempos depending on the section; think “The Lemon Song” without the power. Then there’s Page’s solo acoustic showpiece, “White Summer”, accompanied by tabla and oboe, which led to countless Zeppelin ideas. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor” sports a couple of chords in the intro that will be heard again on “The Song Remains The Same”, along with the first instance of Page’s violin bow technique. The potential of that approach to create spooky sounds is taken further on the psychedelic “Glimpses”, complete with tape loops, sound effects, distorted voices and Relf’s Gregorian-style chant on top (a genre he’d been courting for years).

The blues return on “Drinking Muddy Water”, a blatant rewrite of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, with Ian Stewart on piano, while “No Excess Baggage”, while strong, is another misplace pop song. The band’s view of the material thrust upon them is best demonstrated on the nutty rearrangement of “Stealing, Stealing”, the old jug band chestnut; here, the part of the washboard is tackled by somebody blowing raspberries. “Only The Black Rose” is very English folk, which is where Relf would go next, albeit with only two chords. “Little Soldier Boy” is another in a line of protest songs disguised as a nursery rhyme; rather than hire a trumpet player, that part is played by a vocal imitation.

The album’s lack of sales ultimately played a part in the band dissolving, leaving Page to take charge of his future, and boy, did he. Beginning in the early ‘90s, Little Games has had a few reissues, starting with 1992’s Little Games Sessions & More. This double CD presented the original album in excellent sound, with session chat and alternate mixes, and also attempted to complete the picture with further Page-related recordings of the period. These include the excellent B-sides “Puzzles” and “Think About It”, and less impressive A-sides, such as “Ten Little Indians”, “Ha Ha Said The Clown” and “Goodnight Sweet Josephine”. A few tracks by Together, Relf and McCarty’s next project, take some of the spotlight off of Page. (Later reissues kept it down to one disc, tacking on some of the singles and sometimes BBC sessions, including unique takes on Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and even an early incarnation of “Dazed And Confused”.)

The Yardbirds Little Games (1967)—3
1992 Little Games Sessions & More: same as 1967, plus 22 extra tracks

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Who 3: Sell Out

1967 meant psychedelia for most bands, and the Who were no exception. But instead of embarrassing themselves with a dated artifact, they put out a few classic singles, gigged incessantly and capped the year off with their first great album. The Who Sell Out uses the concept of radio, complete with jingles lifted from pirate radio stations as well as new ones recorded by the band. Even though the gimmick oddly runs out halfway through side two, the album garners repeat listening. (And the cover is a scream.)

A fanfare announces the days of the week, then it’s off to “Armenia City In The Sky”. This sounds so much like a Who song it’s hard to believe it’s not, as it plods away fantastically. “Heinz Baked Beans” is close enough to “Cobwebs And Strange” from the last album, but is a lot funnier and more fun to whistle. “Mary Anne With The Shaky Hands” is something of a novelty song they recorded at least three times. A plug for Premier Drums turns into “Odorono”, a commercial too long to be used for a real ad. A “smooth sailing” jingle takes us into the story of “Tattoo”, with harmonies so pristine they’d keep doing them onstage. Radio London reminds you to go to the church of your choice, then Pete (who takes half the vocals on the album) sings “Our Love Was”, titled “Our Love Was, Is” for some reason on the American release. A bunch of jingles, both canned and recorded, go right into the classic “I Can See For Miles”, which fits perfectly on a collection of radio songs. A fantastic ending to side one.

A jaunty plug for Charles Atlas is followed by Pete’s complaint, “I Can’t Reach You”. “Medac” (titled “Spotted Henry” in the States) is another long original commercial, followed by the nearly Pink Floydian freakout of “Relax”. From here, the rest of the original album is jingle-free: John’s “Silas Stingy” is a feeble attempt to be as scary as his other songs; “Sunrise” is Pete singing with his acoustic guitar; and “Rael” ends the album with a mini-opera of sorts that’s just too buried to figure out, but does have a guitar refrain in the middle that would pop up again (and again).

When the big reissue program began in the ‘90s, the upgraded Sell Out boldly attempted to take the radio idea even further, and would almost succeed if the compilers hadn’t included four “unreleased” songs and two jingles that had already appeared on the box set a year earlier, as well as one track (“Glow Girl”) that is somewhat related thematically, but would reappear as an album track of sorts. By compromising value with these repeats, it also left no room for a handful of other tracks that would have been welcome. Luckily, those repeats are worth having—particularly the full band take on Pete’s “Melancholia” (which he swore the band hadn’t heard when the demo first appeared on 1983’s Scoop), Roger’s “Early Morning Cold Taxi” and even Keith’s “Girl’s Eyes”—and the “new” jingles do add an element of fun to the balance of the new tracks.

The album was an excellent candidate for a Deluxe Edition, since there was room for those still-missing tracks (as well as the singles and B-sides from that year), but the mono version sports a markedly different mix. When it finally appeared, both the stereo and mono versions were included, along with a good mix of extras from the 1995 remaster and other songs that should have been included the first time. Highlights include a demo of “Relax” that sounds more like Mose Allison than Pink Floyd, a studio take of “Summertime Blues” and the long-bootlegged instrumental “Sodding About”. Of course, there were still some jingles and whatnot that were left off. (Who freaks tend to nitpick, with some justification; after all, they wouldn’t care so much if these albums weren’t so damn good.)

As if someone was paying attention, the eventual Super Deluxe Edition, which was only three years late for its golden anniversary, managed to encompass not only most of the music the band recorded in 1967 leading up to the completion of Sell Out, but also gathered up everything completed in 1968 before the Tommy concept took hold. Along with the now-standard mono and stereo versions with timely singles and whatnot, one disc was devoted to expanded outtakes with extra takes and studio chat from the album sessions, while another presented 14 songs from 1968 as the proverbial “road to Tommy”, including the elusive long version of “Magic Bus”, finally. A disc of Pete’s demos, only two of which had been released before, provided even more insight into his creation process. They also saw fit to cram in two 45s in replica sleeves and the usual ephemera (Radio London bumper sticker? A replica of Keith’s Speakeasy membership card? Gee, thanks) but at least the book delivered.

The Who The Who Sell Out (1968)—4
1995 remaster: same as 1968, plus 10 extra tracks (and 9 unlisted jingles)
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 27 extra tracks (and 5 unlisted jingles and 3 hidden tracks)
2021 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2009, plus 61 extra tracks

Monday, July 28, 2008

Who 2: Happy Jack

The Who spent much of 1966 releasing the odd single, playing in public and honing their next album. Based around a “mini-opera” Pete had concocted, A Quick One was rejigged for American release as Happy Jack, which was a good idea since its title song had become something of a hit.

“Run Run Run” starts the proceedings off and works as a mid-‘60s pop tune, even if it doesn’t fit the band. It’s followed by their next big classic and their first really stupid song, John’s immortal “Boris The Spider”. Supposedly written by Keith, “I Need You” sounds like John helped out with most of it. It also sounds too much like the Monkees, and suffers from lousy production. “Whiskey Man” isn’t quite up to “Boris”, and is one of John’s lesser tracks. “Cobwebs And Strange” is also credited to Keith, featuring a lot of out-of-tune horns, and Pete straining as his chords go up the neck. The title track, added for good reason, is still another incredibly stupid song that somehow manages to cause a smile.

“Don’t Look Away” is a country-flavored number that doesn’t go anywhere; neither does “See My Way”, one of exactly two Daltrey songs in fifteen years. “So Sad About Us” was originally passed on to another band to do first, which is odd since the Who’s version is so good. It’s a quick setup for the magnum opus. “A Quick One While He’s Away” took up a good chunk of the album, as well as much of the attention at the time. This version suffers from bad recording techniques and Roger’s nasal voice. Luckily, this arrangement would improve in time.

As a pop artifact, Happy Jack was a pleasant trifle, but not quite a classic. The eventual reissue added tracks, but made some truly glaring omissions in the process. Case in point: the Ready Steady Who! EP is included here save a decent re-recording of “Circles”. The songs are in a novelty vein, like the theme from “Batman” and two surf songs sung by Keith. “Bucket T” is incredibly stupid, and the horn breaks are hysterical. “Barbara Ann” is a little better, but the appeal of “Disguises” escapes us. Meanwhile, many of John’s songs made for great B-sides even if they didn’t make deserve to be on albums. “I’ve Been Away” is a slight change of pace, and “In The City” sounds like it was written in about ten minutes. But “Doctor Doctor”, with its high-pitched vocal and driving bass line, was recorded well after the album’s release and doesn’t belong here. “Man With Money” was an Everly Brothers tune played a lot in this era, and would have worked pretty well on an album. The medley of “My Generation” and “Land Of Hope And Glory” might have worked on the EP, but is just a failed experiment that doesn’t translate to wax. The reissue closes with an early, more acoustic version of “Happy Jack” that sounds very close to Pete’s demo, which begs the question: where’s the single track that was the cornerstone of the US LP? And what about “Circles” and the long version of “I’m A Boy”, both originally intended for the album? Even more confusing, only one track was in stereo on the reissue, and some years later when the correct tape was finally used, none of these omissions were addressed. Despite its strides, this remains a sloppy catalog item.

The Who Happy Jack (1967)—3
1995 A Quick One remaster: same as 1967, plus 11 extra tracks (and minus 1 original track)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Who 1: My Generation

The Who’s recording career began tentatively, but took off with their first real single, “I Can’t Explain”. Of course, neither it, its B-side nor its immediate follow-ups were included on the eventual debut album, with the exception of the title track. Like most British Invasion albums, My Generation—already an odd mix of earlier R&B covers and a batch of newer power pop compositions—was tampered with before it got to the US, where Decca tried unsuccessfully to push the band as heartthrobs and titled their version the unwieldy The Who Sings My Generation. And like most of the band’s albums, it doesn’t sound like anything else that came after it.

“Out In The Street” starts with a riff very similar to that of the earlier single “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”. The rest of the song isn’t carried so much by the words as by the insistence of the playing. “I Don’t Mind” is one of several James Brown covers in this period; unfortunately no one told Roger Daltrey he didn’t sound like James Brown. “The Good’s Gone” is the first real Pete Townshend song here, using clever wordplay and undercut by a clean, snaky single-string riff. “La-La-La-Lies” is a nice Motown pastiche, but unfortunately Keith Moon plays this all on the tom-toms, resulting in a sound not unlike what basement musicians used to get from empty Quaker Oats containers. “Much Too Much” attempts to show off the harmonies the band could occasionally muster, but the title song follows to win the side.

“The Kids Are Alright” starts side two, though the US version was missing a chunk of the feedback solo in the middle. It’s still one of Pete’s best songs for its time and an excellent recording with good use of dynamics. “Please Please Please” is another James Brown song, though one can’t imagine the boys throwing a cape on Roger. “It’s Not True” is a novelty tune, extending the idea from “La-La-La-Lies” to something more humorous (“I’m not half-Chinese either and I didn’t kill my dad”). “A Legal Matter” sports a ringing guitar intro like an alarm, then goes into an almost country stomp with Pete singing effectively. “The Ox” is a breakneck duel between Nicky Hopkins on piano and Keith on the biscuit tins, with Pete and John Entwistle interrupting with all kinds of hideous noises, not common sounds for pop albums in 1966. “Circles” was added onto the US album (mistakenly titled “Instant Party”), and lucky for us Pete’s writing improved with every single. The performance here is also a leap forward.

My Generation was a tough, snotty album for its time, but legal issues kept it outside the 1990s reissue program for the better part of seven years, leaving it somewhat detached from the canon. When it finally appeared, it was in a “Deluxe Edition” that set out to include all of the disparate extra tracks from this period. “I Can’t Explain” is in stereo for the first time and it is tremendous. “Bald Headed Woman” was the obligatory B-side designed to make producer Shel Talmy even more dough; he’d already forced the Kinks to record it. (John said his favorite part was when Roger put the harmonica in his mouth the wrong way around.) “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” is included in an alternate version with a hideous lead vocal that had snuck out on a French EP. The UK B-side was “Daddy Rolling Stone”—a good one—while the US got “Anytime You Want Me”, showing Roger’s improved comfort with slower, more tender sentiments. “Shout And Shimmy” was another B-side in the UK, done better by so many other people, most notably Otis Day and the Knights. “I’m A Man”, left off the US album, showcases Roger’s toughness and the guitar solo is close enough for jazz.

As we will see, while the compilers get high marks for effort, the current Who CD catalog is not without its faults. In this case, the My Generation Deluxe Edition totalled barely 90 minutes on two discs, so here was our suggestion for a single-disc version: the whole UK album as is, with some substitutes (full-length “I Don’t Mind” and “The Good’s Gone” as heard on the second disc, and the mono mixes of “My Generation” and “A Legal Matter” with all the overdubs). “Circles” should stay at the end, followed by the proper singles and B-sides, and any outtakes that will fit without being redundant.

But this century is all about more, not less, so the next time My Generation was updated, it was expanded to four hours on five discs: the mono UK sequence; a “new” stereo remix of the same sequence; bonus tracks in mono; bonus tracks in stereo; Pete’s demos. The first two discs could easily fit on one, and the stereo remix entailed contemporary overdubs “using the same guitars, amps and microphone”, cueing much slapping of foreheads, despite having snuck out on iTunes a few years earlier, along with some of the stereo bonus tracks. Everything sounds terrific, and mild variations abound between all the different versions, though somehow the a cappella mix of “Anytime You Want Me” fell out of favor. But the biggest surprises are on the demos disc, with six of them released for the first time (including “Sunrise”!) plus three never-before-heard songs. “The Girls I Could’ve Had” and “As Children We Grew” would have sounded strange on the first Who album, though “My Own Love” is more pop, and could have been sold to somebody else. The demos disc is only half an hour, yet still makes us wish Pete would make all of his demos available for scrutiny.

The Who The Who Sings My Generation (1966)—
2002 My Generation Deluxe Edition: same as 1966, plus 18 extra tracks
2016 My Generation Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2002, plus 49 extra tracks (and minus 1 track)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Neil Young 7: On The Beach

After mystifying audiences expecting “Heart Of Gold” with the ramshackle Time Fades Away tour and album, Neil took the splinters of Crazy Horse on the road with a few other stragglers and several cases of tequila for the Tonight’s The Night club tour, the album of which was shelved for another 18 months. However, a few of the sessions held to bolster that album were the springboard for what became On The Beach, which came out instead.

Side one crashes into place with “Walk On”, his middle finger to anyone who says he’s not giving the people what they want. That he does it in such a toe-tapping way is charming. “See The Sky About To Rain” had been sitting around for a few years. Performed often in his solo concerts, this pretty recording is the only one of his canon that features such a prominent electric piano. It’s a nice mood that leaves you unprepared for the next one. “Revolution Blues” is downright frightening. From the opening chords to the nightmarish image of 10 million dune buggies coming down the mountains, this is scary stuff. The loping rhythm section (from the Band) adds to the off-kilter sensation. Wow. “For The Turnstiles” offers another sardonic look at the nature of fame and the people who pay (and are paid) to see their heroes, dominated by a creaky banjo and dobro. “Vampire Blues” is the least of the album, another indictment of corporate greed, but with lines about oil consumption that ring true today. And it sputters on out.

Side two is an entity all its own. The title track is an odd blues, with slow guitar lines and jazzy chords underscoring his unhappiness. That’s sad enough, but the last two songs on the album are two of his best. Each sounds like it arrived in a single spew each, in exactly the order we hear them. There’s no real structure—they simply exist lucky to fit the music underneath. “Motion Pictures” features a guitar part not unlike a cat, dog and chicken clucking along, and seems to be a gentle tribute to his then-other half, except for the hint that it will all be over soon. “Ambulance Blues” is a more wistful, melancholy autobiography than “Don’t Be Denied”, which was so startling on Time Fades Away. It begins simply enough in the “old folkie days”, then before you know it he’s shaking his head sadly over the state of the world, with its men telling so many lies and time spent pissing in the wind. It’s such a simple arrangement, with a sweet mournful fiddle duetting with the harmonica.

His first album of new material that didn’t include a lyric sheet, On The Beach was another schizophrenic production, with extensive musician credits to help connect the dots. It must have been a startling listening experience for those who bought it upon original release. When it finally emerged on CD after a near thirty-year absence it got just as much “lost masterpiece” press as the differently received Greendale, which came out around the same time. It makes a much better bridge from Harvest to Tonight’s The Night, even though you still need Time Fades Away for the whole picture.

Neil Young On The Beach (1974)—4

Monday, July 21, 2008

Elvis Costello 13: Out Of Our Idiot

Having parted ways with Columbia in the US, Elvis took an extended break from recording. His only release in this period was a sequel of sorts to Taking Liberties—or more accurately, to Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers, as it was only released in the UK. Out Of Our Idiot collected seventeen singles, strays and sundry (21 on the CD) from the eighties, and winkingly credited the collection to “Various Artists”, given the different band permutations and pseudonyms that had performed on the tracks. Collectors already had most of these songs, but to the new initiate, the album provided a well-needed Costello fix in the drought that followed the stellar one-two punch of 1986.

The music runs the gamut from straight rock ‘n soul with the Attractions to the subdued country of the Confederates, with a few odd covers from the disparate pens of Burt Bacharach, Smokey Robinson, Richard Thompson and Yoko Ono in between. Highlights included such terrific B-sides as “Turning The Town Red”, “Black Sails In The Sunset” (recorded for Trust and buried for six years) and from the King Of America period, “Shoes Without Heels”, “The People’s Limousine” and “Baby’s Got A Brand New Hairdo”. “Big Sister” and “Blue Chair” were early drafts later retooled for album tracks, while “American Without Tears #2 (Twilight Version)” is a sequel of sorts.
Today all but two of the Idiot songs are spread across the Rykodisc and Rhino versions of Get Happy!!, Trust, Imperial Bedroom, Punch The Clock, Goodbye Cruel World, King Of America, and Blood & Chocolate. (None appear on the 2007 Hip-O reissues.) “A Town Called Big Nothing” was not included in the Rhino rollout, and “Little Goody Two Shoes”, a chaotic but fun outtake from Imperial Bedroom, appears nowhere else. (The album was eventually released as a digital download in September 2008, bringing those rare tracks back within legal reach.)

Various Artists Out Of Our Idiot (1987)—4
Current CD availability: none; download only

Friday, July 18, 2008

Paul McCartney 2: Ram

Paul spent most of 1970 feeling sorry for himself, suing the other three Beatles and recording with the New York Philharmonic. Despite the simple “Another Day”, released as an early standalone single, the resultant album seemed as if he was trying to assuage the fears of those who thought McCartney was too homey; now that he Got Back, it was huge production time, like side two of Abbey Road. For the most part, Ram is still an extension of the family values of McCartney, but with more filled-in sound. Also, being credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, you hear a lot more of her. (Get used to it.)

“Too Many People” is a nasty tune that was taken to be a slap at John; whatever the truth is it’s still a toe-tapper. “3 Legs” is a dumb blues with lyrics that seem to mean more but probably don’t, then it’s over. (Somehow John thought this was about him too.) “Ram On” has one idea, and a good one, but since it doesn’t go anywhere it’s left behind. “Dear Boy” is not about John no matter what he thought; rather it’s a “so-there” to Linda’s first husband. “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is stitched together from several fantastically melodic sections, none of which make any sense, but are all great. The orchestra is especially dreamy in the first part. After the truly exhilarating (acknowledgement to Nicholas Schaffner) “hands across the water” section it too heads off into the sunset amid the cacophony that starts “Smile Away”, another dumb yet great song. He’s definitely having fun, and we can hear it.

“Heart Of The Country” could fit easily onto the previous album, and is the first of several songs he would write over the years about sheep. “Monkberry Moon Delight” is utter nonsense, too loud and much too long. The ending is especially irritating. “Eat At Home” has a bit of a Buddy Holly snap to it, with effective rising and falling link sections. (This was actually selected as the single outside of America and Britain, and a good choice.) The orchestra returns for “Long Haired Lady”, which gets points even with Linda’s obnoxious vocals and those flatulent horns. “Ram On” comes back for another minute, then teases us with what would resurface two albums later as “Big Barn Bed”. “The Back Seat Of My Car” makes everyone happy with that one great song he puts on every album, with globs of strings and words that make sense for a change. It’s also one of the better Beach Boys homages out there. When he repeats that they believe they can’t be wrong you can almost believe him.

Flawed though it is, Ram still garners high marks, as it would be better than a lot of what would follow. It fits nicely with the first album too. There’s a little of everything, and there’s a real flow to the sequence. But Paul was still trying to find himself, and he wasn’t quite there yet.

Ram has gained respect over the years, usually among younger fans coming late to the story. Its emergence as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection, right around the 41st anniversary of its original release, was a Big Deal, available in a variety of increasingly collectible (read: expensive) LP and digital variations. Fans on a budget would have been pleased with the 2-CD version, which added the “Another Day”/“Oh Woman, Oh Why” single and the later “Little Woman Love” B-side, plus five long-booted session outtakes.

Those who sprung for the mega-box got that plus a massive book and two more CDs: one containing the promotional mono mix of the album, and another with the Thrillington album, an officially sanctioned Muzak version of the songs recorded in 1971 and shelved for six years. This curio came about simply because Paul was proud of the songs and hoped people would cover them. Rather than wait for that to happen, he commissioned Richard Hewson (who’d already worked on various Apple projects, as well as the Spector-sanctioned arrangements for Let It Be) to arrange instrumental versions. This he did, using such top session players as Herbie Flowers, Clem Cattini, and the guy who played the twangy James Bond theme—something of a British Wrecking Crew, if you will. The album is most interesting for its detail and attention to the original versions, but only if you already knew those back to front. The result was kitschy, and would be better appreciated in the ‘90s once the whole retro lounge genre had worn out its welcome.

Paul and Linda McCartney Ram (1971)—
2012 Archive Collection Special Edition: same as 1971, plus 8 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 23 tracks and DVD)
Percy “Thrills” Thrillington Thrillington (1977)—

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

John Lennon 2: Plastic Ono Band

In a period when each Beatle was making his own individual statement, there was still a sense of excited anticipation for John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Technically it was his fifth solo LP release, but it was his first real solo album—just him and his songs with no Yoko or avant-garde touches. He would tell it like he saw it; plus he’d spent most of the summer screaming therapeutically. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s worth it.

Complete with funeral bells at the start, “Mother” sets the tone for simplicity as John laments the lack of connection he’s felt with his parents, complete with a warning to the “children” who may be listening and following his lead. “Hold On John” is pretty, with the guitar matching the sweet melody. These days it’s no longer jarring to hear him sing his own name as well as Yoko’s. This temporary pick-me-up is pushed aside by the edgy “I Found Out”, its relentless beat bashing away the lies. The irritated “Working Class Hero” laments even more lies, specifically what he was told in school. (This title became a misleading nickname; he’s referring to himself as a hero of the working class, and not including himself in that class. His upbringing was easily the most financially privileged of the Beatles.) The weary “Isolation” sports perhaps the best bridge of John’s songwriting, with a vocal that shows off why they’ve called his the best voice in rock.

If you’re still wondering why he feels the way he does, “Remember” starts off side two to explain it all, complete with explosion. “Love” is another perfect extension of simplicity, and suggests for a brief moment that he may have figured it all out. (That’s Phil Spector on the piano, by the way.) After the musical illustration of Primal Therapy that is “Well Well Well”, “Look At Me”, written in 1968 in India, deflates this idea, suggesting instead that self-examination is never-ending. “God” starts off stately enough, then builds up to the (in)famous litany of all the illusions that let him down; if you look past the intentionally show-stopping declaration “I don’t believe in Beatles”, you’re left with “I just believe in me”, which is helpful advice. (If you want to include the additional “Yoko and me”, that’s your choice.) It straddles the line between a sermon and something we can all appreciate, but in the end it’s all about him, summed up by the simple fact that “My Mummy’s Dead”.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a true album by definition, for nothing else in his post-Beatle career would be as succinct, cohesive or clear-cut. By keeping it simple—accompanied only by Ringo and Klaus Voormann for the most part—he set the standard for honest songwriting, against which he would be judged long past his death. It’s still a shame everything he learned as preached on this album didn’t make him happy for the rest of his days. But having torn everything else down, he had nothing left to hide behind, leaving only his worst fears—that of exposure and rejection—strongly in evidence. This is still his most powerful statement, and quite a declaration of independence. It also says a lot that despite that “bathroom reverb”, Phil Spector let the songs speak for themselves too, and kept the production to the minimum.

The 2000 reissue CD sported questionable mixing variants, and while the inclusion of the early 1971 single “Power To The People” made sense, there was no reason to have the hideous “Do The Oz”, a later B-side. Luckily, these were ignored for 2021’s Ultimate Collection, likely intended for the album’s 50th anniversary and just as likely delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the template of the Imagine expansion, this massive set serves up new “ultimate” mixes of the album, as well as a disc of outtakes, raw studio mixes, elements mixes that hone in on different parts of the recording, demos (or at least the earliest versions of the songs), and a collection of between-the-takes jams, all on six CDs. Equal attention is paid throughout to “Give Peace A Chance”, “Cold Turkey”, and “Instant Karma!”, while surround and Atmos mixes of all of the above and more were included on two Blu-ray discs, along with the complete live session that spawned the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band album. (It’s probably just as well that these didn’t take up an entire CD, but it must be said that no matter your opinion of Yoko’s contributions, Ringo and Klaus were a stellar rhythm section, and they excel when backing her up. Definitely worth exploring.)

Some of this material had been glimpsed via other archival projects, but while it’s not a strict chronological journey through the sessions, we get more context and insight. Despite the overall tone of the finished album, now we can hear the energy and, yes, joy that went into recording it, with enthusiastic performances and feedback from Klaus and Ringo. George Harrison’s contribution to “Instant Karma!” is brought to the fore, and they nicely include his surprise appearance on John’s birthday during one of the takes for “Remember”. John himself giggles through most of the jams and even some of the breakdowns, but for contrast, the isolated vocal track for “Mother” causes greater chills than ever before. The repetition may deter first-time listeners, but longtime fans will relish it.

John Lennon John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)—
2000 remaster: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks
2021 Ultimate Collection: same as 1970, plus 92 extra tracks (and 2 Blu-ray discs)

Monday, July 14, 2008

George Harrison 2: All Things Must Pass

For his first real solo album, George came bursting out of the gate with a multi-record boxed set to prove to the world that his talents hadn’t been realized to their utmost potential. Granted, one of the three discs consists of pretty simple instrumentals, but compared to the down-home qualities of the other three’s 1970 solo output, All Things Must Pass is a natural progression from the sophistication of Abbey Road. And, after having been kept on a short leash for John’s concurrent album, Phil Spector got his big chance to really go nuts with a Beatle in the studio.

Oddly enough, despite George’s status as the “mystical one” who dragged everyone to India, the strongest musical tone throughout is country-and-western. Looking at the credits on the inside cover of the box we see such names as Bob Dylan and Pete Drake, and the first notes suggest a Nashville influence. The sultry “I’d Have You Anytime” welcomes us in with lyrical help from Dylan, deep in his own Nashville phase. “My Sweet Lord” follows, the first really overt religious number in George’s repertoire. It would not be his last. “Wah-Wah” was allegedly written the day he walked out of the Get Back sessions; while he’d explained that the title is a euphemism for a headache, it’s also the effect pedal we hear near the start of the song. It’s a great tune, with all those guitars chiming along, horns blaring, and what sounds like a car driving off at the very end. “Isn’t It A Pity” closes this perfect album side, starting so gently and carrying us away with the slightest variations on the same chords.

“What Is Life” is another classic; when he wants to, he can praise the Lord without being preachy and still get played on the radio. His version is still the best of “If Not For You”, as the arrangement is much more delicate than Dylan’s or anyone else’s. “Behind That Locked Door” is very country on the surface, but is a sweet love song to a sad friend. “Let It Down” is 1970 Rock done correctly without being dated. He’d tried this with the Beatles, but John and Paul either couldn’t or wouldn’t learn it, and it’s their loss. “Run Of The Mill” gently takes us out of the second side, with his usual jumpy time changes. Another great end to another great side.

“Beware Of Darkness” rises like the sunrise, and is just as invigorating. The guitar solo really shines, underneath that haunting arrangement. “Apple Scruffs” is fairly Dylanesque, and not just because of the harmonica. As grumpy as George could be, it’s clear he did appreciate some of the attention from his fans. “The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” has the most pointless lyrics so far, but the simple chords and the piano work every time. “Awaiting On You All” is a fairly rousing Christian rock number that couldn’t possibly offend an atheist. And while the title track may seem as timely as that year’s headlines, it’s simply an homage to his new friends in The Band.

With three sides in a row resulting in a full hour of great music, we can almost forgive the less exciting remainder. Well, almost; “I Dig Love” just plain stinks, and it’s surprising that Lenny Kravitz hasn’t stolen it yet, as it’s right up his THC-clogged alley. “Art Of Dying” brings us back with its nasty riffing and nightmare strings, but another, inferior version of “Isn’t It A Pity” serves no purpose. “Hear Me Lord” ends the side oddly, with its uncertainty a striking contrast to the happy God songs on the other sides. (This was also shown to the Beatles, and it’s not surprising to know they weren’t impressed with the words. But it’s still a pretty powerful song.)

After all that, he’s somewhat justified in showing off with his buddies on the “Apple Jam” disc. “Out Of The Blue” is kicked open in progress, and while it’s the longest jam it’s still the best. “It’s Johnny’s Birthday” provides some long overdue humor, going right into “Plug Me In”. “I Remember Jeep” has some synthesizer whoops and beeps scattered across it, while “Thanks For The Pepperoni” gets its inspiration from the Chuck Berry riff.

The rest of George’s solo career had to live up to this strong start. All Things Must Pass has only gained more sentimental value, and a worthy investment for anyone who has all the Beatle albums yet is tentative about leaping into the murky waters of their solo careers.

The original CD issue had the first (and best) three sides on one disc, with the rest on the other. The 2001 reissue (and the 2014 Apple Years edition) modified this and beefed it up a bit: the first disc has sides one and two plus new bonus tracks, and the second has sides three and four plus “Apple Jam” in what was supposedly the original sequence before it was shuffled to fit on the LP better. Of the bonuses, the best one is the hokey but sweet “I Live For You”. This is just one of the tunes he’d sat on during the end of the Beatles, and would have been appreciated more in 1970 than “I Dig Love” or the second “Isn’t It A Pity”. “Beware Of Darkness” and “Let It Down” are acoustic demos, with a little modern sweetening in the case of the latter. The backing track for “What Is Life” shows off more mariachi trumpet that was thankfully wiped from the final mix, and “My Sweet Lord (2000)” is no replacement for the original.

While slightly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Harrison Estate approved a deluxe overhaul of the album for its golden anniversary. Dhani Harrison supervised a modern remix of the album, pulling down some of the walls of sound and bringing out George’s voice in most places. Once again, sides one and two made up one CD, while the other four sides (in the original order) filled a second. A third disc was devoted to a day’s worth of demos recorded with Ringo and Klaus Voormann—some of which sound more like early takes with a lot more musicians involved—while a fourth replicated the Beware Of Abkco! bootleg of solo demos recorded the day after. Among the tracks left in the fabled bullpen: the Elvis pastiche “Going Down To Golders Green”; “Dehra Dun” and “Sour Milk Sea” from early 1968; “Window Window” from 1969; the sublime lament “Nowhere To Go”; Dylan’s “I Don’t Want To Do It”; and future LP track “Beautiful Girl”. A fifth disc of “session outtakes and jams”—which was included as the third disc in the cheaper of the expanded editions—provided some variety on familiar songs. (Fans who’d benefitted from the material world could have sprung for an “uber box” that also included more detailed session notes, a copy of a pamphlet by one of George’s gurus, a bookmark carved out of one of George’s trees, and scale replicas of the gnomes on the cover.)

George Harrison All Things Must Pass (1970)—
2001 remaster: same as 1970, plus 5 extra tracks
2021 50th Anniversary Edition: “same” as 1970, plus 17 extra tracks (Super Deluxe adds another 30 tracks)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Elvis Costello 12: Blood & Chocolate

A mere six months after the release of King Of America, Elvis returned with both the Attractions and old producer pal Nick Lowe on an album full of the same snotty punk that critics had been asking for since This Year’s Model. But by this time, neither his US nor UK record label knew what to do with him, so Blood & Chocolate was all but ignored. Not for lack of trying on Elvis’s part; he promoted both of the year’s albums with an ambitious tour, playing several nights in select cities, alternating performances with the Attractions, a variety of Confederates, acoustic sets, special guests and even a request night involving a spinning wheel normally seen in the company of Vanna White.

The album itself should have made lots of people happy. The Attractions fire on all cylinders from the get-go: “Uncomplicated” pounds the album title into your brain; “I Hope You’re Happy Now” and “Next Time Round” are biting kiss-offs; “Tokyo Storm Warning” is a surreal Dylanesque travelogue; and “Poor Napoleon” is a bedroom tale awash in feedback and white noise. “Blue Chair” and “Crimes Of Paris” evolved from earlier attempts with the Confederates. But while there are some quieter moments, they don’t exactly provide relief. “Battered Old Bird” is a childhood snapshot of a dysfunctional household. “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head” is the breathy tale of a certain unsavory character named Mr. Misery. And the six-minute nightmare within “I Want You” would provide a theme song for stalkers for years to come.

Since its initial release, Blood & Chocolate has been something of a totem for fans, being the last Attractions album for ten years and the last “loud” album for even longer. As the finale to Rykodisc’s reissue campaign, their version of the CD included a handful of single sides (two of which dated from the King Of America sessions) and one unreleased track, plus a bonus disc consisting of an interview about his career for Record Collector magazine. Rhino ignored the interview, took four of the bonus tracks, and added a few other alternate takes alongside an odd sequence of acoustic demos of country covers, three of which he’d record again one day.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Blood & Chocolate (1986)—5
1995 Rykodisc: same as 1986, plus 7 extra tracks (plus bonus interview disc)
2002 Rhino: same as 1986, plus 15 extra tracks

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Elvis Costello 11: King Of America

The title of his previous album (along with the lyrical tone and subsequent critical reaction) hinted strongly that some kind of transitional period was necessary, and with no new album in 1985, both the US and the UK were treated to a best-of album in time for Christmas.

As if to confirm that his last album was a farewell of sorts, Elvis made good on his threat by recording his next album with a rotating cast of American session guys, collectively dubbed The Confederates. He’d already reverted to using his given name to copyright his songs, but management insisted he stick with the established brand for the time being, so King Of America was credited to The Costello Show (to which Columbia in the US made sure to add “featuring Elvis Costello” in parentheses in case nobody recognized the face behind the beard on the cover).

From the start, the sound is much different to both the current music scene as well as Elvis’s own trajectory, making for a startling but ultimately rewarding listen. Acoustic guitars, mandolins and string basses drive the songs, with pianos, organs and accordions providing the extent of the keyboards. Nearly all the songs are upbeat, and even the slow ones don’t drag. Opening with “Brilliant Mistake”, which provides the album’s title, the album kicks off at a steady trot that continually satisfies. “Lovable” delivers a singalong with a successful use of key changes. “Our Little Angel” and “The Big Light” provide a before-and-after glimpse of sorts into a saloon. “I’ll Wear It Proudly” is one of his most tender love songs, balanced by the torchy “Poisoned Rose”. Topical songs like “Little Palaces”, “American Without Tears” and “Eisenhower Blues” offer some sociopolitical commentary. And the final trinity of “Jack Of All Parades”, “Suit Of Lights” (which features both the Attractions and Elvis’s first use of the f-word on record) and “Sleep Of The Just” provides a magnificent ending to an hour well spent.

King Of America was not a resounding success, and many critics were suspicious of his motives. But Elvis was definitely rejuvenated by the experience, and the album has certainly held up in the wake of the movement at the turn of the century. With only fifteen minutes to fill up on the original reissue, Rykodisc added two outtakes and three single sides to the end of the album, with a bonus disc of songs performed live with several Confederates. Rhino had a full bonus disc to work with, and added those extras plus even more demos, another live track, and a previously unreleased attempt with the Attractions. (They also colorized the cover.)

The Costello Show King Of America (1986)—5
1995 Rykodisc: same as 1986, plus 11 extra tracks
2005 Rhino: same as 1995, plus 10 extra tracks

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ringo Starr 2: Beaucoups Of Blues

A cursory listen to Ringo’s solo spots on Beatle albums might suggest a slight bias toward country music. With nothing else to do in the middle of 1970, he indulged his love of the genre by hooking up with pedal steel legend Pete Drake (most famous to rock fans for his work on Nashville Skyline and All Things Must Pass) to record Beaucoups Of Blues with the cream of Nashville’s studio cats in support. Some of these luminaries included Charlie Daniels, Ben Keith, Jerry Reed, and Charlie McCoy, plus the Jordanaires, who harmonized throughout. The only drummer listed is D.J. Fontana, unless Ringo’s in there somewhere; most reports say he didn’t touch a pair of sticks during the sessions.

It’s not a half-bad album for its genre, his lonesome voice supported by not too much syrup, and constantly betraying his Scouse roots. Unlike last time, these weren’t all golden hits; every song was brand new, and conveniently administered through Drake’s own publishing company. Once again the opening track is the title track, and probably the best choice for a single. “Love Don’t Last Long” isn’t as maudlin as Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey”, which it resembles, but it delivers the same heartache as “Without Her”, “I’d Be Talking All The Time”, and “Waiting”. He nicely tackles the key changes on “I Wouldn’t Have You Any Other Way”, a sweet duet with one Jeanie Kendall, then all of 16 years. Titles like “Fastest Growing Heartache In The West”, “Loser’s Lounge”, “Wine, Women And Loud Happy Songs”, and “$15 Draw” (which refers to the “boot” rather than the trunk of a car) are novelties, not designed for any museum. “Woman Of The Night” might have been a hit if the message weren’t so mixed, but the real surprise is “Silent Homecoming”, which could almost be a Vietnam War protest.

Given the low-key approach and how it was recorded, Beaucoups Of Blues has aged pretty well. But as we’ve said before, would anyone care were it not for that name on the spine? (The CD gets bonus points for including “Coochy Coochy”, Ringo’s one-chord exercise that was a contemporary B-side, but it’s also a head-scratcher for adding the pointless “Nashville Jam”, except that he might actually be playing drums on it.)

Ringo Starr Beaucoups Of Blues (1970)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, July 7, 2008

Neil Young 6: Time Fades Away

Following the success of Harvest, Neil embarked on his first big stadium tour. Had it been anyone else, the audiences would have enjoyed all the hits they knew and loved. Instead, Neil and the fractured Stray Gators tore their way through a pile of unfamiliar songs. The performances were ragged every night and Neil quickly lost the rest of his voice, but the recordings included on Time Fades Away show the urgency and absolute dedication to the moment. The tarnished picture on the cover shows an ocean of shaking hands; faced with this view show after show, Neil was starting to feel surrounded. Some of the songs reflect this.

After a few seconds of ambience, the title track is a country stomper that bashes along with Neil and Ben Keith yelling the best they can. He goes alone to the piano for the gentle, loping “Journey Through The Past”, which would have been more than welcome on the album of the same name. David Crosby helps out with “Yonder Stands The Sinner”, a performance that’s just this side of silly, while the rocking “L.A.” is a fairly blatant wish for the whole town to get swallowed up by the ocean. “Love In Mind” (solo on piano and recorded at the same 1971 show as “The Needle And The Damage Done” from Harvest) has clumsy notes and lyrics about religion, but ends the side nicely.

Side two contains only three songs, but he makes the most of the time allotted. “Don’t Be Denied” is an autobiography of sorts, with a distinctive riff and characteristic rhythm. Over several verses he talks about his troubled childhood, his first ventures into music and his view of the music business without sounding mawkish. “The Bridge” is the weakest of the piano tunes here, not least because his voice is absolutely shot, but it’s still a pleasant detour before the final tour de force. “Last Dance” is still a mystery, helped out by Crosby and Graham Nash, culminating in a standoff between Neil and both the unnamed antagonist and the audience. He sounds absolutely spent as the album ends; look at that cover shot again.

Time Fades Away remains a necessary artifact, and was long out of print despite various threats. Unlike Journey Through The Past, it’s indispensable for figuring out what he was about and where he was going. Well into the millennium, it wasn’t available on CD, so we held onto our precious vinyl copies. In 2017 it finally surfaced on streaming sites and some legal download services, as well as part of a pricey “Original Release Series” box set curated by Neil himself, first on vinyl only, and eventually on CD. A standalone CD finally appeared in 2022, and a 50th anniversary pressing on clear vinyl a year later added the live B-side of “Last Trip To Tulsa”, which was rightfully included on Archives Vol. II, as a bonus at the end of side two. A deluge after a drought, certainly, but at least it was finally possible for listeners to fill in the ongoing puzzle.

Neil Young Time Fades Away (1973)—

Friday, July 4, 2008

Neil Young 5: Journey Through The Past

While Everybody’s Dummy has only screened the film but once, has yet to meet anyone else who has nor read any reasonable synopsis, it has been affirmed that the Journey Through The Past album has little to do with said film, despite its classification as a soundtrack. The album doesn’t lend itself to repeated listening, except as a reminder of what’s on it.

It starts out as a kind of retrospective, with television performances by Buffalo Springfield that sound as if they were recorded by pointing a microphone at a TV speaker. We hear CSN telling an audience to listen to their “wooden music”, followed by a lackluster live rendition of “Ohio”. Another tedious “Southern Man” starts side two, then half of “Are You Ready For The Country?” fades into a version of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” performed by what appears like a dance school. That is followed by a studio meld of “Alabama”, going into the control room so Neil can teach the harmonies to Crosby. The side ends with soundbites of a TV preacher, Nixon, and Crosby ranting about something.

The sidelong rehearsal of “Words” can be pretty taxing, but side four is really odd, even compared to all that has gone before. Outside of Neil talking to a Jesus freak and the slightly meandering “Soldier” (which was recorded in a foundry), everything else is music by other people, including selections from Handel’s Messiah and the movie King Of Kings. One gets the feeling that even if the connection between “Let’s Go Away For A While” from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the movie could be determined, it wouldn’t have been worth the effort.

The film was shown on Neil’s official website during an online film festival, followed by a few years in the form of grainy YouTube clips and bootleg DVDs. When the Archives actually surfaced in 2009, it was included in the DVD and Blu-Ray packages. The album itself is out of print, and unavailable on CD; an edited mix of “Soldier” is on Decade, and the side three take of “Words” is on the first Archives box, along with a different edit of “Soldier”. Neil finally made the whole thing—dialogue and Beach Boys and all—available for streaming and download from his official website in 2023. Strangely enough, but par for his course, the “title track” wouldn’t appear until his next album, even though he’d been performing it onstage for the better part of two years.

Neil Young Journey Through The Past (1972)—2
Current CD equivalent: none

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Elvis Costello 10: Goodbye Cruel World

As his last album was a surprise hit, Elvis stuck to the formula and brought the same producers back for another go. The problem was that he had seemingly used up his capacity for pop; plus, his personal life was in the toilet. The songs he prepared for Goodbye Cruel World are dour and gloomy (hence the title), inspired by the country weepers and Richard Thompson songs he’d been obsessed with of late. Elvis himself has called this his worst album, before taking the blame off his producers for his failure to rise to the occasion and indulging the current zeal for the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which everybody was using in those days.

The producers did what they could, reducing the previous album’s horn section to a single braying saxophone, and the backing vocals to Daryl Hall on one song and the guy from Scritti Politti on another. Repeated listens will bring out the charms of such tracks as “Love Field” and “Home Truth”, while “Worthless Thing” and the singles “The Only Flame In Town” and “I Wanna Be Loved” (itself an obscure soul cover) got toes tapping amidst the wordplay. But to get to these one had to navigate through noisy tracks like “Sour Milk-Cow Blues” and “Room With No Number”. The promise of “The Comedians” is torpedoed by a clumsy 5/4 arrangement, while “The Deportees Club”, the album’s only rocker, is taken at such a pace that the words are indiscernible. The album ends with “Peace In Our Time”, another political statement that fell on deaf ears (in America, anyway).

While a select group of fans still holds incredible affection for Goodbye Cruel World, it was skewered by the critics, and still gets slammed today. Just as the original album tried to replicate the success of its predecessor, the reissues aimed to make up for any mistakes. Along with several B-sides (including the catchy “Turning The Town Red” and “Get Yourself Another Fool”), Rykodisc included some outtakes and a handful of live acoustic tracks that show his original intent for these songs. Rhino went even further, adding even more live tracks and demos along with most of the Rykodisc extras. Through these examples one gets a better sense of how and why the record turned out like it did, as well as insight into the inner turmoil and confusion that put him at odds with his chosen career. And in a small way, they provide a transition to his next grand experiment.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Goodbye Cruel World (1984)—2
1995 Rykodisc: same as 1984, plus 10 extra tracks
2004 Rhino: same as 1984, plus 26 extra tracks