Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul McCartney 4: Red Rose Speedway

Determined to prove that Wings was no fluke, Paul added Henry McCullough on lead guitar, and the band spent 1972 on the road, putting out odd singles and getting busted for possession. None of those singles were included on Red Rose Speedway when it finally appeared, just like in the Beatle days. That’s too bad, as some of those singles would have made this album better than it is, as it isn’t very good.

“Big Barn Bed” springs full-blown from its teaser on Ram, having developed nicely into an actual song. Despite the heavy syrup, “My Love” is finally the classic we’d been waiting for. It’s still great today, especially that guitar solo, but fueled the fire for those who said Paul didn’t rock. Another Ram leftover, “Get On The Right Thing”, follows nicely with good dynamics, and Linda’s vocals aren’t even that obtrusive. “One More Kiss” is an unmemorable trifle, and would be rewritten to much better effect six years later as “Baby’s Request”. “Little Lamb Dragonfly” is another in what would be a long line of multi-sectioned transplants. He puts his soul into the arrangement, with lots of 12-string guitars and dramatic shifts, but by this point he’d already written a few too many songs about sheep.

The rest of the album just doesn’t go anywhere, and takes its sweet time to boot. “Single Pigeon” has some great if fleeting moments based around nice piano modulations, but such moments can’t sustain it. The same can be said for “When The Night”, which commits misdemeanors by having each of the lines echoed, exposing their emptiness in the process. It’s another shame, since that piano part at the beginning seems to portend so much before delivering so little. “Loup (1st Indian On The Moon)” is based around chanting and underwater guitar, and is a pointless jam. There is a subtle tip of the hat in the middle to Pink Floyd, who despite rumors were not recording down the hall. The final “Medley” interestingly takes four song snatches, none of them very interesting—save maybe “Lazy Dynamite”—and brings them all together at the end, when it makes sense and makes good music. Unfortunately it’s too late, and much too long a journey to endure. (Coincidentally, Paul has two separate songs called “Hold Me Tight” in his catalog, and neither of them were worth writing twice.)

As a whole, Red Rose Speedway really isn’t a horrible album, but it just doesn’t get the mixture correct. One thing this album truly lacks is balls, which Wings could pull off onstage and on some of those singles. (The initial CD reissue included three contemporary B-sides: “I Lie Around”, “Country Dreamer” and “The Mess”, only the latter of which rocks, having been recorded live.) While “My Love” helped, and the album was a chart success, Paul’s star seemed to be dimming. He did take the opportunity to put his name on the spine in front of Wings, in the hope that people would pay more attention knowing whose band it was.

The Archive Collection, 45 years later, attempted to put the album back in original context, serving up not only every single and B-side from the era but various other tracks earmarked for the album when there was a chance it might have been a double. (“Country Dreamer” was one of those, which almost justifies its duplication from another installment, but that doesn’t excuse the repeat of “Little Woman Love”, in another lapse of quality control.) For balance, the original sequence would have included a couple of Denny Laine vocals, plus Linda’s magnum opus “Seaside Woman”. These pale alongside “Mama’s Little Girl”, an acoustic gem, just as a cover of the torch song “Tragedy” is nicely arranged. The instrumental rockers “Night Out” and “Jazz Street” are little more than jams, while “Best Friend” and “1882” are live recordings, the former catchy and simple and the latter plodding and inscrutable. As it turns out, the band wasn’t too bad once they got a few shows under their belts, and considering the quality of material Paul was giving them. (In hindsight we can also see that while a double Red Rose Speedway might have been too much of not a very good thing, we feel for the poor sod, as he was still stuck on Apple Records and had to witness the label he basically launched gladly issuing not one but two double LPs by Yoko Ono over the gestation of his own album.)

If you bought the expensive box you got a disc dedicated to the double album sequence (plus video content like the James Paul McCartney TV special and the unreleased Bruce McMouse Show concert film) plus more audio of varying excitement. Of course, the best chance for people to decide if the band had any potential was onstage, as they traveled across Europe playing their slim, Beatle-free sets. To commemorate these reissues, Paulie went so far as to compile a CD of highlights from these tours, only available in a $400 box that encompassed the Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway Deluxe Editions and sold out immediately. What a guy.

Paul McCartney & Wings Red Rose Speedway (1973)—
1989 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 3 extra tracks
2018 Archive Collection: same as 1989, plus 15 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 17 tracks, DVD, and Blu-ray)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

John Entwistle 1: Smash Your Head Against The Wall

With the Who’s newfound success, the other members had more time on their hands and creativity to burn while Pete enjoyed the luxury of waiting until his next big concept came to him. Fans had already gotten a taste of John Entwistle’s brand of black humor with the occasional album track and B-side, and Smash Your Head Against The Wall served up nine original songs alternating between both wistful and heavy. Outside of Who roadie Cy Langston on guitar and Humble Pie’s Jerry Shirley on drums, John played everything else, including keyboards, brass and, of course, all the basses.

The album’s title comes from the opening “My Size”, which boasts a terrific riff with a Neil Young influence (whose “Cinnamon Girl” was covered for the album, but not released until the ‘90s), and even ends with a quote from “Boris The Spider”. “Pick Me Up (Big Chicken)” condenses a night of binge drinking and the aftermath into a dense couple of minutes, while “What Are We Doing Here” is an insightful lament about Life On The Road way more convincing than cowboys riding steel horses a generation later. It’s elbowed aside by the car horn fanfare that opens “What Kind Of People Are They”, a kind of observational standup comedy routine about authority figures. Having been disappointed with the Who’s version, his own rendition of “Heaven And Hell” takes the place of honor at the bottom of side one. (We still think the Who version kicks butt.)

“Ted End” shows an awareness of mortality not often exhibited by rock stars, in this case the matter-of-fact summation of a friend’s death and the subsequent arrangements. Both “You’re Mine” and “Number 29 (External Youth)” approach the concept of Faustian bargains somewhat, the former with a pointedly dissonant bridge and the latter a more conventional rocker along the lines of “My Wife”. Finally, “I Believe In Everything” punctures a certain guitarist’s idea of a guru by embracing all things mystical, ending with a chorus of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, with Keith Moon high in the mix.

Throughout Smash Your Head Against The Wall we hear evidence of John’s skill at musical arrangement, with a gift for harmony and juxtaposition. The album is a good outlet for his creativity, as only a few of these songs might have found their way onto Who albums, where Roger gave voice to Pete’s more universal ideas.

The album has been reissued twice in the digital era, first by boutique reissue label Sundazed, which added an alternate mix of “What Are We Doing Here” and a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”, which fits John perfectly. That was also included on the next go-round, with an extra half-hour of music, including an early, drier mix of “My Size”, hideous-quality demos of four songs, and three other demos of songs that never made it to the studio. Of these, “It’s Hard To Write A Love Song” has the most promise, and would eventually lend a bridge to the closing track on a later solo album.

John Entwistle Smash Your Head Against The Wall (1971)—3
1997 Sundazed reissue: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2005 Sanctuary reissue: same as 1971, plus 9 extra tracks

Friday, September 26, 2008

Who 7: Who’s Next

The Who premiered a handful of new songs on stage all through 1970, which were to be the basis of the next album, then just an EP to tide the fans over once a theme started to emerge. Then, once Pete decided he didn’t like the EP songs on stage either, they waited for the next batch of songs to materialize. And they did, though they didn’t exactly arrive as originally planned.

Considering that it came out of the bunt that was Pete’s long-gestating Lifehouse epic (a dystopian foretelling of the Internet), Who’s Next shouldn’t be as good as it is. But having failed at a big concept, the band took the best of what they had for a single album. The economic approach is to be commended, as they ended up with an amazing record.
The otherworldly tones of “Baba O’Riley” start us off and it’s ages before other instruments come in. When they do, they crackle, right up to the violin solo (which Roger would eventually emulate on the harmonica in years to come). “Bargain” sneaks in, with another powerful vocal from Roger, interrupted by Pete’s midsection. All the car ads can’t take this song away. “Love Ain’t For Keeping” mixes it up with two minutes of acoustic rock, slapped away by the humor of “My Wife”. (This is the only song that had nothing to do with Lifehouse, and it’s not even one of John Entwistle’s best songs, but it’s still so tough.) “The Song Is Over” was originally the Lifehouse finale; here it’s driven by the great Nicky Hopkins on piano and more traded verses, with the final couplet coming from “Pure And Easy”. (Its slightly Leslied guitar brings to mind early-‘70s TV ads depicting rainy afternoons in Central Park.)

“Getting In Tune” is a beautiful song that also works very well outside the Lifehouse concept. “Goin’ Mobile” is also better than it deserves, with great synth effects pushing it along. It’s a good song for driving fast in any weather. “Behind Blue Eyes” gives us a rest for a few minutes before picking up and shutting down again. Some great dynamics on this one. Then, like “Baba O’Riley”, the finale starts on one chord, with those rippling lines taking us to another place. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a tour de force for everyone here, and this album couldn’t end any other way. (Listen right before the synth solo and you can hear the last few strums of the acoustic guitar from Pete’s demo.) Keith’s drums come exploding back, Roger screams, and they proceed to beat the end senseless.

The eventual remastered CD included some extra tracks from the early New York sessions for the album—with Leslie West on a lot of lead guitar, plus somebody on some organ—that didn’t detract from the original nine-song set. As that was satisfactory, the Deluxe Edition eight years later smacked of exploitation but turned out to be a grand slam, and a very pleasant surprise. Those of us looking for Lifehouse (or at least cleaner versions of the contemporary B-sides “Here For More”, “When I Was A Boy”, and the live “Baby Don’t You Do It”) remained disappointed, but we got loaded up with plenty else instead. The nine album tracks were remastered from the original tapes for the first alleged time, followed by some longer edits of the New York session tracks. The second disc consisted of 74 minutes from one of the band’s experimental concerts at London’s Young Vic Theater when the Lifehouse concept was still a dim possibility. Neither bonus section attempted to improve on the original album; they simply give a larger picture of how it came about.

If you were really hungry, Pete had released a limited edition box set in 2000 that included two full CDs of his original one-man-band demos for the project. But it wasn’t until two years after the album’s fiftieth anniversary that a package attempted to entirely encompass the original concept as well as the finished album—and then some. The Who’s Next/Life House Super Deluxe Edition offered ten discs, starting with the yet-again remastered album on one. Then, two discs of Pete’s demos include most but not all that had been on Pete’s box (including some already on the original Who Came First and Scoop), plus “There’s A Fortune In These Hills”, a few alternate mixes and longer edits—the instrumental “Baba O’Riley” turns out to have topped 13 minutes—and one completely new track, a slow piano-based one called “Finally Over” not far removed from “Getting In Tune”.

That is the only “new” song in the whole set, as there are no previously unheard Who arrangements of a Pete song throughout the studio sessions, which take up three discs. The first contains even longer edits of the New York sessions, so we can now hear more chatter between takes, plus a second run through “Behind Blue Eyes”. (However, the previously heard snippet that preceded “Behind Blue Eyes” as heard on the 1994 box set isn’t here; at 44 minutes, it’s not like this disc didn’t have room.) Things immediately improve on the next disc, which delve into the London sessions under the expert ears of Glyn Johns. Among the extended takes and alternate vocals, there’s an alternate take of “Naked Eye”, a restored “Time Is Passing”, a jam on “Getting In Tune”, and the backing track for “The Song Is Over”, the latter in particular putting the spotlight on Nicky Hopkins. Two mixes of “When I Was A Boy” are nicely included, one on the third studio disc, which focuses on extra tracks from before and after the album sessions proper. Here are the single mixes of both “The Seeker” and “Here For More” (the unedited version of “The Seeker” finally shows up too), as well as a handful of songs that ended up on B-sides and Odds & Sods, some included here in their original mixes without later redone vocals or bass parts. Perhaps to build more of a bridge to Quadrophenia, the 1972 singles mop up some Lifehouse leftovers, including “Let’s See Action”, “Join Together”, and “Relay”, along with “Long Live Rock” and, as a favor to nobody, “Wasp Man”.

The band was terrific on stage at this period, so the set did everyone a solid by devoting two discs each to two fabled concerts from 1971: the Young Vic show previously condensed on the 2003 set, and the San Francisco show from December that spawned the “Baby Don’t You Do It” B-side and other things that had trickled out over the years. Both were presented complete for the first time on an official release, with terrific sound. On top of that, a Blu-ray disc had the requisite hi-res and surround mixes of the album and some B-sides, plus the original mix of the album. Along with such ephemera as reproductions of posters and concert programs, a hardcover book of sleeve notes was accompanied by another hardcover, this one a newly commissioned graphic novel based on Pete’s original story but also alludes to later details; this was also sold separately. (We always thought Life House could only become a film in animated form, so once again we were right, kinda. By now readers should also have noticed that Life House had become two words instead of one, a variation that carried over to the box itself, along with initial-capping “Next” on the cover. These are things Who freaks like to pick apart.) All in all, an expensive set, retailing at $300 list price, but chock full of great music.

The Who Who’s Next (1971)—5
1995 remaster: same as 1971, plus 7 extra tracks
2003 Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 20 extra tracks
2023 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2003, plus 60 extra tracks (plus Blu-ray)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Elvis Costello 17: Brutal Youth

1994 was a very busy year for Elvis. Along with the new and rare tracks added to reissues of his older albums and contributions to just about every “tribute” album released that year, there was a new album to tour behind. This was an especially big deal, because while Brutal Youth didn’t have them on every track, the tour featured the long-awaited reunion of the Attractions. Even the album’s red and black-and-white color scheme—plus the occasional appearance of old pal Nick Lowe—suggested we were picking up where Blood & Chocolate left off.

That would have been nice, but as could be expected from an eight-year absence, the results were slightly more tentative. It was originally intended as a noisy album, but as the sessions developed and progressed, the songs were given more space. However, that space is framed by the murky, noisy production by occasional collaborator Mitchell Froom, who tends to treat bass as an underwater effect and percussion as the sound of drums being thrown down a flight of stairs. If you can get past that, the songs hold up, for the most part.

“Pony St.” begins with a raindrop piano line for a strong opener, followed by the stark attack of “Kinder Murder”. “This Is Hell” extends the sci-fi/absurdist commentary of his last album, while the piano-and-vocal “Favourite Hour” reflects his baroque education. “20% Amnesia” is another angry attack on British politics; a more affectionate view of home appears in “London’s Brilliant Parade”. Many have lauded “Just About Glad” as being another lyrical classic, but these ears feel he’s trying too hard to be clever, with a delivery bordering on smug. That said, “Rocking Horse Road” is a fresh take on the usual chord changes, and “All The Rage” is an incredibly satisfying riposte to critics.

The fans liked the album, but it didn’t break any sales records, despite a world tour and several TV appearances. Critics were more excited about seeing the Attractions onstage again, but a growing rift between the Singer and The Bass Player probably had a lot to with the selection of bonus tracks on the reissue, which consisted of a few demos and B-sides that illustrate the development of the project from cacophonous experiments to their final draft. These tracks—particularly a full band take on “Favourite Hour” and a breathtaking early version of “You Tripped At Every Step”—help you appreciate the songs underneath the clutter.

Elvis Costello Brutal Youth (1994)—
2002 Rhino: same as 1994, plus 15 extra tracks

Monday, September 22, 2008

Beatles 18: 1962-1966 and 1967-1970

By early 1973, bootleg Beatles hits collections had already begun appearing, one of which was even advertised on TV. Apple and Capitol struck fast, allegedly deputizing John and George to approve two official retrospectives. Released alongside new Paul and George LPs, 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 were very well received, having been so well done.

Each two-record set neatly summed up the two eras, with generous helpings of all the hit singles and key album tracks. The sequencing was faithfully chronological to the British release schedule, giving context and flow to songs people had already grown to love. Lyrics for all the songs were included, while the covers put the dormant Get Back idea of mimicking the Please Please Me album cover to good use.

Side one of the first set goes through the first five singles in order—“From Me To You” making its Capitol LP debut—adding the album track “All My Loving” and topping it with “Can’t Buy Me Love”. Every song on side two was an American single, but even Brits would agree that “And I Love Her”, “Eight Days A Week”, and “Yesterday” belong here. (Plus, “A Hard Day’s Night” was on a Capitol LP for the first time.) Side three’s “Help!” and both sides of the “Day Tripper”/“We Can Work It Out” single are bolstered by “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” plus the first two songs from the British Rubber Soul: “Drive My Car” and “Norwegian Wood”. Four more songs from Rubber Soul start side four, before the singles “Paperback Writer”, “Eleanor Rigby”, and “Yellow Submarine”, the latter making its third appearance on an American Beatle album release (and its fourth on a British LP!)

The second set begins strong with “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane”, the first three tracks from Sgt. Pepper plus “A Day In The Life” faded in, and “All You Need Is Love”. Side two begins with four songs from Magical Mystery Tour, which made that album a little redundant if you were backfilling your library, and the three popular single sides from 1968. Three songs from side one of the White Album start off side three, followed by both sides of the “Get Back” and “Ballad Of John And Yoko” singles, thus helping replicate most of the Hey Jude album between the two sets. With two of George’s songs, this is also the first side not credited solely to Lennon and McCartney. Both of his Abbey Road masterpieces are on side four, along with “Come Together” and “Octopus’s Garden” (giving Ringo a slice of the publishing), followed by the single version of “Let It Be” and the slushy mixes of “Across The Universe” and “The Long And Winding Road”.

The albums were very handy for the Brits, with some songs appearing on albums for the first time, but they were made for the American market, which snapped both up to the top of the charts. An insert in both albums revived the “exclusive” exhortations of early Capitol liner notes, giving 45, LP, cassette, and 8-track discographies for the group and solo projects, along with a chart saying which songs came from which albums. Somebody goofed, as “A Hard Day’s Night” and “From Me To You” are listed as being from the Help! album, referring to the instrumental non-Beatle versions on that soundtrack. Also, “Help!” itself is preceded by the “James Bond Theme” from the same album. (“Get Back” was also listed as being the album version, but was the single version.)

The Red and Blue albums, as they came to be called, stayed popular over the years, giving new-generation Beatle fans born too late a place to start their collections. The resolution of various lawsuits paved the way for their release on CD in 1993, now standardized with the first four songs in mono, no James Bond intro on “Help!”, and a clean intro for “A Day In The Life”. Yet there was much complaint over the cost vs. disc space, which was understandable. The Red album included 26 tracks and totaled 66 minutes, while the Blue had 28 tracks for nearly 100 minutes of music. Both were issued as double CDs at thirty dollars apiece. While the Red could have fit onto one CD, Apple decided to go for consistency, arguing that the value was in the songs. After all, what could one add or take away?

As it turned out, plenty could be added. The 50th anniversary of the albums conveniently coincided with the completion and release of the legendary third single originally intended for Anthology 3 but left unfinished. “Now And Then” finally arrived 27 years after we first heard about it, and was stuck on the end of an expanded 1967-1970, which gained eight other songs, including two of George’s. At the same time, the now all-stereo 1962-1966 was boosted with twelve songs, two of which were George’s, and two of which were covers (one sung by George). For the pricey vinyl editions, the new songs made up a third LP in each set, while the CDs had the tracks slotted in (mostly) chronologically, justifying double sets for both. In all cases, the songs were updated mixes; most of the Red album were brand new Giles Martin jobs, while the rest came either from the various Deluxe Editions or the 1+ DVDs. There were some bold differences—the Ringo take of “Love Me Do” to start off, a radically different “I Am The Walrus”, way more rhythm guitar on “Magical Mystery Tour”, a clean intro for “Dear Prudence”—and questionable inclusions (“Roll Over Beethoven”? “You Really Got A Hold On Me”? “Oh! Darling”? “She’s So Heavy”?), but the key additions of “Twist And Shout”, “I Saw Her Standing There”, “If I Needed Someone”, and five Revolver tracks seemed designed to right wrongs. After all, even the Beatles can’t please everyone.

The Beatles 1962-1966 (1973)—5
2023 Edition: same as 1973, plus 12 extra tracks
The Beatles 1967-1970 (1973)—5
2023 Edition: same as 1973, plus 9 extra tracks

Friday, September 19, 2008

Elvis Costello 16: The Juliet Letters

In that brief early-‘90s period before grunge embraced punk and new wave was something to mock, Elvis Costello was hardly popular. His general disfavor was not helped when pundits got wind of his next project: an original song cycle with a string quartet. To make matters worse, the theme of the project was letters written to a fictional character, Shakespeare’s Juliet. While it screamed pretension on paper, the biggest surprise for the people who took the time to listen to it was that it was pretty good.

Beginning with an overture of sorts, The Juliet Letters gave Elvis a chance to stretch both his compositional legs as well as his voice. The nasty sneer of his early work shows up only rarely, giving way instead to a loud, bold croon that invariably ends in some kind of vibrato. Juliet, thankfully, doesn’t appear in all twenty songs, but most share the common theme of confession and revelation, from love letters (“Taking My Life In Your Hands”, “Who Do You Think You Are?”) to angry, humorous diatribes (“Swine”, “I Almost Had A Weakness”). Death looms large over the proceedings, in the form of suicide notes (“Dead Letter”, “Dear Sweet Filthy World”), voices from beyond the grave (“Romeo’s Séance”, “The First To Leave”) and even a postcard from a soldier (“I Thought I’d Write To Juliet”). Other current events get a nod in “This Sad Burlesque” and “Damnation’s Cellar”, while “This Offer Is Unrepeatable” takes the form of junk mail. The subdued yet grand finale, “The Birds Will Still Be Singing” makes for a somber farewell.

Once you get past the arrangements—most of which follow the increasingly quavering vocal closely—you’ve got some classic Costello that could easily translate to his rock albums, but even he hasn’t bothered. The most obvious choice would be the undeniably catchy “Jacksons, Monk And Rowe”, which is just begging for a Pete Thomas backbeat and Steve Nieve arrangement.

Despite its relative success for a classical album, The Juliet Letters was criticized for years, acknowledged in Elvis’s grumpy notes for the 2006 reissue. (It probably didn’t help matters that his other big releases of 1993 were the first wave of reissues of his first three albums, along with an album’s worth of songs he and his then-wife wrote in a weekend for fading pop tart Wendy James.) Rhino’s bonus disc thoughtfully includes some more collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, along with some modern classical and jazz collaborations that complement the main album better than they would any other. All in all, it’s good rainy day/Sunday morning music, though one does long for a rhythm section after one play through.

Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet The Juliet Letters (1993)—4
2006 Rhino: same as 1993, plus 18 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Who 6: Live At Leeds

Live At Leeds has been called the best live album of all time, and Everybody’s Dummy is inclined to agree. It’s a raw performance that sweats heat and dust particles. Its original six-song form was just enough, abridged just like the bootlegs it was designed to imitate. To finally release the whole concert only made it better, but let’s start at the beginning.

“Young Man Blues” falls out of the speakers, all controlled chaos. There’s some joking before a powerful short version of “Substitute”, then the best version of “Summertime Blues” and the mindwarp of “Shakin’ All Over”. Side one is just as long as the first song on side two, 15 minutes of “My Generation” that trawl through “See Me Feel Me”, “Listening To You”, “Sparks”, what would become “Naked Eye” and plenty other riffs. “Magic Bus” plows one note into the ground and that’s the album.

25 years later, the expanded Live At Leeds was the opening shot in the band’s reissue program. As it turned out, the original six songs were a small part of the show, which really began with “Heaven And Hell” (still a great opener, even if John did redub his first vocal for the reissue), then into “I Can’t Explain”. A quick hello, then a cover of “Fortune Teller” goes right into “Tattoo”, of all things. Pete’s intro to “Young Man Blues” is included, with pertinent puncturing from the back by Keith. “Substitute” was their trip through their few hit singles, including “Happy Jack” (which had appeared mislabeled on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack) and “I’m A Boy”. This is followed by a pretty powerful “A Quick One”, which set up the Tommy portion of the show. Only “Amazing Journey/Sparks” is included from the 18-song sequence, and it’s really all you need. Then we get the end of the original album, in order, with the scream edited out of “My Generation” for no good reason and the backwards snippet reinserted from “Magic Bus”. But that’s why you save your LPs.

Fan outcry and a quest for profit inspired the Deluxe Edition of the complete Leeds concert, which put the Tommy portion on a second disc with the rest of the show (plus some spoken extras) on the first. The thing is, Tommy at Leeds wasn’t that good. They could rarely get that first chord right, Pete was always out of tune by the middle, and Roger usually blew the first note of “See Me Feel Me” as well. (Actually, he did get it right at Woodstock, but since Pete and Roger hate the recording of that show, it’s likely to remain unofficial.) “Pinball Wizard” is OK, but several vocal parts were fixed 30 years after the fact, and not as successfully as John’s job on the first reissue.

To add further insult to injury, the concert’s fortieth anniversary was “celebrated” with an even more expanded edition, including the 2001 Deluxe Edition, a new vinyl copy of the original six tracks, a bonus 45 of the “Summertime Blues”/“Heaven & Hell” single, and surprisingly, the complete Hull concert from the day after the original Leeds show. For this, the producers flew in John’s bass tracks from Leeds for the first four songs, which is what kept them from issuing the concert in the first place. Then, two years after all the hardcore fans bought the big set, Live At Hull was issued by itself.

If you want the complete Leeds concert as performed, and can stand the crackles, there’s a bootleg. But for sheer entertainment, stick with the 1995 version. It smokes.

The Who Live At Leeds (1970)—5
1995 remaster: same as 1970, plus 8 extra tracks
2001 Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 18 extra tracks
2010 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collectors’ Edition: same as 2001, plus 32 extra tracks

Monday, September 15, 2008

Led Zeppelin 6: Physical Graffiti

The inevitable double album—which came about when Zep had too much for a single and wanted to let out some worthy leftovers—could have been slapped with the “self-indulgent” tag, but they rose to the occasion. Physical Graffiti is one of those rare cases when four sides of music contain zero filler, with a flow from start to finish.

“Custard Pie” starts it off with a rocket, a slightly huskier vocal from Plant and a gurgling clavinet in the back to keep it funky. “The Rover” is heavy to please the kids, but always sounds like the tape is slowing down by the end. “In My Time Of Dying” is a blues extension that works much better than it ought to. Once it gets rolling, it’s impossible not to be carried along.

“Houses Of The Holy” is the title track that never was, an inferior cousin to “Misty Mountain Hop”. “Trampled Underfoot” has even more funk and stink, and has also grown a lot over the years. “Kashmir” is the quintessential eight minutes in the canon. “Stairway” may be their most successful offspring, but “Kashmir” is Zeppelin’s proudest achievement. Those first four seconds, that deceptive meter (over two or four), the fake horns and strings, those extended held notes and its immortal use in Fast Times At Ridgemont High make it work on several levels. How many people have bought Zeppelin IV only to be confused when “Kashmir” wasn’t on it?

Side three is perfect. “In The Light” creeps in, with all the delay effects, symphonic sections and that majestic layered ending. “Bron-Yr-Aur” is also suitably pastoral, and quite a variation on the same old chords. Very pretty. “Down By The Seaside” almost doesn’t sound like them, but it’s got a dreamy, accurate seaside quality to it. The “ah” sections at the choruses and the “twist” interlude work every time. But if we had to choose an absolute favorite Led Zeppelin song, it would be “Ten Years Gone”. The opening is aching, right along with the lyrics about certain wounds that never heal, the middle section, right up to the “did you ever” bridge—again, a perfect album side.

After that, the rest is almost anticlimactic. “Night Flight” is notable for the mention of “mother” (as opposed to “mama”) and is a fairly inoffensive pop song. “The Wanton Song” is another version of “The Rover”, a lumpen riff that doesn’t go anywhere except for the Leslie effect on the solo. “Boogie With Stu” is a rewrite of “Ooh! My Head” by Richie Valens, featuring Ian Stewart on piano; convenient since he’d driven the Stones’ mobile studio over for their use. “Black Country Woman” is the second blues song in a row, starting off like their own acoustic thing but with that kickdrum pounding through your chest. But all is not lost. “Sick Again” is sublime, especially with that chord in the key of H at the beginning. Some great layers here. The song and the album end with a resounding thud just like Zoso. Whew.

Even if you buy this album just for “Kashmir”, you’ll find lots of other moments to enjoy. Take the time to take it in, and you’ll be rewarded. (Speaking of which, the Deluxe Edition added another two sides’ worth of working takes, the most striking being “Everybody Makes It Through”, which eventually became “In The Light”. If this mix is to be believed, they dropped in the verses once rewriting them. The drier mixes, particularly of “Houses Of The Holy” and “Trampled Underfoot”—here called “Brandy & Coke”—bring out the nuances of the vocals as well as various instruments, while the “rough orchestra mix” of “Kashmir” still blurs the answer as to which brass and strings are real and which are Mellotron. Hats off to John Paul Jones, and for the mandolin on “Boogie With Stu” too.)

Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti (1975)—4
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1975, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, September 12, 2008

John Lennon 4: Some Time In New York City

Just as Paul was trying his fans’ patience, John seemed to lose the plot around the same time. Some Time In New York City was lambasted when it came out, and if one doesn’t know the events behind some of the lyrics, they may seem confusing. (Come to think of it, even after researching the events, they still seem pretty pointless.) There was a lot going on in the world in 1972, so John took some of his pet peeves and beat them into the ground for forty minutes, alternating vocals with Yoko.

For starters, “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World”, which not only opens the album but was issued as a single, was banned from airplay for the title alone. (This perhaps drove the point home even further, which was that while John’s new radical friends may have wanted freedom of expression, he noticed that didn’t necessarily apply to their old ladies.) “Sisters O Sisters” is pleasant reggae, with a charming if silly vocal by Yoko. “Attica State” is an angry rocker with both Lennons yelling along. “Born In A Prison” isn’t about to convert anyone into thinking Yoko’s a poet, but the bridge has a nice melody with John joining in. “New York City” is an updated “Ballad of John And Yoko” and the album’s most successful snapshot; had it been the single it might have helped sell the album.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” actually has some passion to it, for it got John’s Irish up; this continues on the slightly softer “Luck Of The Irish” which still gets played every St. Patrick’s Day on certain FM radio stations. “John Sinclair” is fun if only for trying to keep up with every “gotta” in the chorus. Despite a tender melody and stirring arrangement, “Angela” doesn’t approach its potential. (Perhaps if the lyrics had been about something other than a revolutionary figure most people don’t remember three decades on…) Yoko drags it all home against its will with “We’re All Water”, further proof that not all poetry makes good songs and not all sentences make good poetry.

But wait! There’s more! You paid for it, so you might as well listen to the second disc. Technically a separate entity, Live Jam was included in the package with a dollar added to the regular list price. (John initially wanted to issue it on its own, and thankfully, smarter heads prevailed.) Starting with the “long-awaited” Plastic Ono Supergroup performance from December of 1969, any excitement at hearing two Beatles (George was in there somewhere) live on stage together for the first time in years is trampled by the plodding version of “Cold Turkey” and the relentless horror of “Don’t Worry Kyoko”.

The other side, recorded at the Fillmore East in June 1971 with Frank Zappa and the Mothers, starts out promisingly with “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)”, but degenerates into more shenanigans that perhaps should have been left inside a bag and not miked. Once you’ve studied Zappa a little more it’s interesting to hear what Yoko does all over “King Kong”; then your opinion is affected by how much you liked the Flo & Eddie era. (An alternate mix of the same material prepared by Zappa surfaced in 1992, with such telling titles as “A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono”.) If you don’t listen to side two of the Toronto LP that much, you probably won’t go back to this either. Whatever impact the first disc may have had is irreparably blemished by the load of crap on the second. (The album was remastered and reissued in 2005 on a single disc, which added both sides of the “Happy Xmas” single and cut all of the Zappa material save “Well”. Unfortunately, the 1969 tracks were also preserved. The 2010 Signature edition restored the original 2-LP lineup.)

Lyrically challenging and musically frustrating, the only upside of the whole affair was that John played a few live shows with backing band Elephant’s Memory. But otherwise he retreated to Greenwich Village, scared of what the government was doing to him.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono Some Time In New York City (1972)—
2005 remaster: same as 1972, plus 2 extra tracks (and minus 3 original tracks)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Neil Young 12: Decade

Proof that he was a bear for detail, Decade is an ambitious, sprawling retrospective that got pushed around a year while Neil sorted out the Stars Bars/Chrome Dreams mess. Originally a three-record set, it anticipates the box set genre by including rare and unreleased tracks, the big hits, album cuts, and artist-penned notes for each track. Every album is represented (with the notable exclusion of Time Fades Away) along with tracks by Buffalo Springfield, CSNY and even the Stills-Young band for balance. The sequencing is more or less chronological, and flows nicely through all six sides. For brevity’s sake we’ll discuss just the rare tracks here.

The set begins with “Down To The Wire”, a Springfield outtake that loomed large in their legend. “Sugar Mountain” was a B-side to about 12 of his singles before finally being albumized here. It’s still great, and a good teaser for the hours of live acoustic performances he’s sitting on in his vaults. While previously available on the CSNY So Far compilation, “Ohio” is included here in its original and best single version. “Winterlong” had been around since 1969, was recorded in the On The Beach era, and inexplicably left aside until now. It’s still one of his most enduring tracks. “Deep Forbidden Lake” comes from the same cloth as “Star Of Bethlehem”; from the Homegrown era, it’s very pleasant soft country, but not so “Love Is A Rose”, an unnecessary rewrite of “Dance, Dance, Dance”, which he used to do in his acoustic shows and recorded by Crazy Horse for their album. It’s easily surpassed by “Campaigner”, a sympathetic look at the deposed Nixon by a man who had a lot to do with taking him out not much earlier.

Decade is an excellent place for anyone to start, giving a generous sampling from each of his albums while leaving some gems to be uncovered by those willing to dig for them. He would not be quite as prolific over the next ten years, which is one reason why a proposed Decade II turned into the Archives project, which took another three decades and then some.

Neil Young Decade (1977)—4

Monday, September 8, 2008

Neil Young 11: American Stars ‘N Bars

Everybody’s Dummy will take the daring stance that American Stars ‘N Bars is nowhere near as good as Chrome Dreams, the shelved album it supposedly replaced. But because the original lineup included songs that would become key elements of later classics, its cancellation arguably proves Neil’s instincts were correct.

What we have here is another hodgepodge. None of the hokey country songs on side one really stand out, but they are kinda fun. Backed by Crazy Horse, Ben Keith, a fiddle player, and Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson harmonizing, the tunes were all recorded on the same day, and sound like it. “The Old Country Waltz” starts lazily, and “Saddle Up The Palomino” and “Bite The Bullet” (pornographic references notwithstanding) are both pretty dopey. “Hey Babe” has a pleasant lilt that would improve on his next album, and “Hold Back The Tears” is sweet, but disappointing once you’ve heard the earlier acoustic take from Chrome Dreams.

Side two presents an odd mix of songs. “Star Of Bethlehem” is a Homegrown outtake that had fans wondering if the rest of that shelved album could be as good. (That this album teases us about two unreleased projects is just cruel.) “Will To Love” is a one-off homemade tape transformed into a big production in the studio; as a result it’s incredibly hard to hear, yet fascinating. No amount of Classic Rock Radio airplay will ever diminish “Like A Hurricane”, still one of his absolute best. Repetitive as it is, it’s always a live crowd-pleaser, but this original released take is still the benchmark. While not from the same sessions, “Homegrown” is the lost title track to that lost album, and undermines our desire to hear what’s left in the can. In this context it’s pro-pot, but he’s managed to make it more of a patriotic anthem for his Farm Aid activities. (For some reason, the same take ends both sides of the cassette version, giving the false impression that it was intentional.)

It’s a shame that this album is so underwhelming, considering everything available that was left off. It’s a minor, less interesting piece of the puzzle, with its best two tracks about to appear on a satisfying compilation. (Interestingly, all of side two was included throughout the Chrome Dreams sequence.) Yet even though it’s one of his lesser releases, American Stars ‘N Bars is not a dull listen.

Neil Young American Stars ‘N Bars (1977)—3

Friday, September 5, 2008

Who 5: Tommy

It’s hard to talk about Tommy. The album, songs and concept were a big gamble that paid off thanks to the power of the performance, making the band stars. The newly converted shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves drawn into the murky plot, sympathizing for the poor boy. They would do well to avoid the 1975 film; despite full involvement from the band, the lurid images and sheer ugliness of the characters will permeate your thoughts to the point that subsequent plays of the album will be tainted.

Nonetheless, the first notes of the “Overture” bring to mind the old Maxell tape commercial with the guy blown back in his chair. It’s an incredible, impressive piece of music for a 23-year-old kid to have put together. “1921”, called “You Didn’t Hear It” on the US release, is a very pretty song, even if we don’t know who’s talking which line. (Even the libretto doesn’t help matters much.) With “Amazing Journey” we finally hear Roger’s voice. The song serves as more commentary than plot development, then “Sparks” crashes in before sliding into the familiar theme first heard on “Rael” from Sell Out. “Eyesight To The Blind” is a pretty sneaky way to get one of Pete’s favorite Mose Allison blues covers into the plot, and becomes a Who song in the process. (It sets up “Acid Queen”, which for some reason doesn’t follow until the next side.)

“Christmas” crashes into side two, redeemed by the “Tommy, can you hear me?” section and the arrival of the “See Me Feel Me” theme. “Cousin Kevin” is just as frightening as we’d expect from John, and the mood darkens with the further abuse of the “Acid Queen”. “Underture” is basically a ten-minute extension of “Sparks”, and if you can listen past the first four minutes without zoning out, it’s quite rewarding. (Pete’s original sketch sequence listed several links to illustrate Tommy’s experiences via pinball, his frustrated parents’ violence and familial abuse; more than likely these tracks would have been excerpted from “Underture”.)

Side three begins with Tommy’s night under the sick supervision of Uncle Ernie, an experience that’s thankfully wiped away by “Pinball Wizard”. Written as a joke, without any artistic impetus outside of getting a good review, it may be one of the best songs on the album. “There’s A Doctor” is a 20-second pause to the next great song, “Go To The Mirror”. It works on several levels—good dialogue, powerful backing track and fantastic dynamics. The faster stroll through “See Me Feel Me” and the first appearance of “Listening To You” keep it moving. “Tommy Can You Hear Me” goes on far too long, on the way to “Smash The Mirror”, a jazzy composition that teasingly ends just as it gets interesting. “Sensation” combines flower power and Meher Baba into a song that he’d rewrite much better down the road.

“Miracle Cure” kicks off side four, possibly the least satisfying portion of the album. “Sally Simpson” works as a morality tale outside of Tommy, while “I’m Free” would eventually move up to better illustrate the cure. “Welcome” comes out of the same hippy-dippy cloth as “Sensation”, with some interesting ambience along the way. But just as we’re settling in, “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” blasts everything with color, followed by the epic but ultimately anticlimactic ending in “We’re Not Gonna Take It”: his audience revolts, Tommy regresses, but then what?

Due to varying CD standards and tape availability, it wasn’t until 2003’s Deluxe Edition — the fourth CD reissue in the history of the format — that a “definitive” reproduction was available, yet people still argue about it. Disc One presents the album in its original 1969 mix, and the 5.1 SACD surround mix includes some extra elements, like a slightly longer “Sparks” and an extended “Pinball Wizard”. “See Me Feel Me/Listening To You” is finally indexed as the final track, though Pete had to be persuaded not to swap “Welcome” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”. The short second disc includes negligible instrumental outtakes and some (but not enough) of Pete’s demos, but gets points for including the long-missing “Dogs Part Two” B-side and a superior studio version of “Young Man Blues”. “Tommy Can You Hear Me” appears as an electric instrumental with an ending that seems to fit the “violent” plot point; the otherwise discarded “Trying To Get Through” has a similar ending. Most of the demo choices used here are odd, being either short or ones that had been available before. “Amazing Journey” appears stripped of the futuristic effects and backwards loops, as heard on the bootlegs, that truly illustrate both the journey and Pete’s interest in electronics.

Ten years later, having already given the “Super Deluxe” treatment to a couple of their other albums, Tommy got a fifth rollout, with yet another remaster of the original LP, a 5.1 version on Blu-ray, a disc with all of Pete’s demos (finally, plus “Trying To Get Through” and “Young Man Blues”) and another disc presenting so-called “live bootleg” performances of the album, mostly from 1969, but some from 1976. (A two-disc version was also released, containing the album and the bootleg disc.) Because a thick book and poster were involved, fans had to shell out $100 and rising for it.

All of this activity detracts from the original story, which grew out of the band to have a life of its own. Tommy is still an incredible album, without which Pete couldn’t have gone on to write some of his absolutely finest songs. (We can’t stress this enough: you’re better off without the movie. Stick to the album.)

The Who Tommy (1969)—4
2003 Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 17 extra tracks
2013 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 46 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Led Zeppelin 5: Houses Of The Holy

Two years—an eternity in those days—after the apex of “Stairway To Heaven”, here was another weird-looking cover and eight more songs that cover a gamut of styles, adding a few more along the way. Houses Of The Holy takes up the challenge of The Follow-Up, and succeeds in spades.

The fanfare of “The Song Remains The Same” lasts for what seems like minutes, then Plant comes in like he’s coming off a hit of helium. It winds up again towards the end, and ends on that great unresolved chord just hanging there. Which leads us into “The Rain Song”. This one is absolutely gorgeous, from end to end—the guitars, vocals, fake strings. It’s not uncommon to have an out-of-body experience when listening to this, with absolutely no stimulants or chemicals. Then with a “blang-a-dang-a-dang” it’s “Over The Hills And Far Away”, which starts like that, then picks up with a fury. Tons of hair metal anthems would open just like this, just so the guitarist could then toss the acoustic stage right when he’s through with it. The theme surfaces again at the end with a harpsichord, and everything is perfect. Then it’s off to James Brown territory with “The Crunge”, an incredibly stupid, yet endearingly catchy song. (Allegedly the band wanted to include a chart with dance steps for this song, and it’s too bad they didn’t.)

“Dancing Days” starts side two in a similar way to Zoso, with an almost psychedelic theme and words about flower power. The siren-like sections are just nifty. “D’yer Mak’er” is a hit single ‘50s parody halfway between reggae and ska that shouldn’t work but does. (It’s near the top of the list of rock songs that either no one knows the name or mispronounces it when they do. Such is the mystique of Zeppelin.) “No Quarter” continues the Viking motif from earlier albums, with nightmarish keyboards and a guitar solo that’s almost an afterthought and buzzes right through the middle. “The Ocean” has a trademark riff, echoey drums and a universal lyric, but the best part of the song—outside of the telephone ringing and squeaky kick pedal enhanced by CD technology—is the exhilarating doo-wop ending. And despite all the other musical homages and pastiches on this album, this is their first album to end without a straight blues tune.

For the first time they actually gave one of their albums an actual title, but even if they did call it Led Zeppelin V it would be fitting. (And while the title isn’t printed anywhere on the stark and mysterious cover, at least they stopped the Chicago method before it got silly.) Lyrics for all the songs are included, though they’re not always correct. But if this was the follow-up to the smash hit, they didn’t disappoint. The band was only getting better. (The mildly chintzy Deluxe Edition offers alternate versions of every song save “D’yer Mak’er”; the most striking differences are heard in the vocal-less mixes of “The Song Remains The Same”, “Over The Hills And Far Away” and “No Quarter”.)

Led Zeppelin Houses Of The Holy (1973)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 7 extra tracks

Monday, September 1, 2008

Elvis Costello 15: Mighty Like A Rose

With the success of “Veronica” driving the sales of his last album, Elvis had a hit on his hands. An attempt to record with the Attractions failed, so he went back to the studio with many of the session cats who’d helped on Spike and on the road. Many EC obsessives hated Mighty Like A Rose upon release, lumping in how much they hated his new look—long frizzy hair and an unkempt beard that brought to mind a Hasidic Jerry Garcia. To this day the album still divides fans, despite its improvement over the chaotic Spike. This time the variety of styles is much more cohesive, helped by a liberal dose of Costello-brand bile.

“The Other Side Of Summer” opens the proceedings with a big Beach Boys production, complete with harmonies and Spector touches. The irony is deflated by the clanky “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)”, an apocalyptic rant whose main redeeming quality is to give Jim Keltner songwriting royalties for the drum loop. “How To Be Dumb” brings things back to normal, with a diatribe against Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, who’d used his downtime to write a book about his life as a musician (though it’s hard to say why Elvis was so pissed, since the worst thing the book says about him is that he suffered from aviophobia). “All Grown Up” is one of the more lush numbers here, with the vocal matching the histrionics of the plot. “Invasion Hit Parade” is an angry response to that year’s Gulf War, and sadly hits the same salient points today. “Harpies Bizarre” recalls the ornate sound of Imperial Bedroom; it must be said that his lyrics have become increasingly cryptic over the years. That doesn’t apply to “After The Fall”, an uncanny Leonard Cohen homage, except that the lyrics are a lot funnier.

The second half of the album has just as many peaks. “Georgie And Her Rival” is pure pop, again arranged like the early ‘80s. The tragedy within “So Like Candy” is as aching a Paul McCartney collaboration as “Playboy To A Man”, featuring the yowling Elvis in a new guise as “the Mighty Corsican”, is silly. (In between “Interlude: Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 2”, the instrumental fragment almost as long as its title, brings back the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as a palate cleanser.) “Sweet Pear” goes a step further to Beatle fandom with a nod to “Don’t Let Me Down” in the intro, and includes Elvis’s most labored and lengthy guitar solo. Most people’s least favorite track is “Broken”; written by Cait O’Riordan, its spare delivery and spooky production show some similarities to Sinead O’Connor’s style. “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4” provides a grand finale, its chorus of horns, banjo, and toy piano leading a march into the sunset out of the man’s passionate vocal—one of his greatest. (Those of us wondering where the other two parts of the song were might have listened in vain to the soundtrack for the British miniseries G.B.H., which came out a few months later and sported orchestral music co-composed with Richard Harvey.)

Mighty Like A Rose found nowhere near the success of his previous album, and was unfairly maligned as the decade went on. We think it still holds up, even though he’s never gone back to the full beard look. (Stubble doesn’t count).

Rhino’s reissue of the album was lavish, with its bonus disc lasting over an hour. The completed outtake “Just Another Mystery” was a big surprise, having never been mentioned or rumored before. Irish-flavored detours with Mary Coughlan and the Chieftains are balanced with the wonderful “Put Your Big Toe In The Milk Of Human Kindness”, recorded with Rob Wasserman and Marc Ribot. Some excellent live tracks dip into his hoarse appearance on MTV Unplugged, including a rearranged “Other Side Of Summer” in waltz time, along with a live “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4” with Elvis at the piano. Scattered throughout are some home demos that can best be described as “orchestrated”, dominated by keyboards and once again showing how much of the arrangements he had already envisioned. A revisit of “Forgive Her Anything” is a surprise, and there’s even a preview of “Starting To Come To Me”. (As with the last album, demos for the two McCartney collaborations on the album would emerge elsewhere.)

Elvis Costello Mighty Like A Rose (1991)—4
2002 Rhino: same as 1991, plus 17 extra tracks