Friday, January 30, 2009

Neil Young 21: Life

Coming off the Crazy Horse tour supporting Landing On Water, Life had a lot more going for it, even if the public ignored it. Its luster has lessened since then, plus the keyboards suffer from that old enemy, “contemporary sheen”. (Mostly recorded live, a ton of post-production work added to fit the boominess.)

“Mideast Vacation” was unique for 1987, as it seemingly indicted U.S. foreign policy at a time when the entire Reagan administration was being canonized. “Long Walk Home” kept with the same theme, and sounded just enough like “After The Gold Rush” to get airplay. Cool gun effects too. “Around The World” goes through a lot of changes, not all connected, but still not bad. (The “Hey! Yer lookin’ beautiful!” section is still a scream.) “Inca Queen” takes us back to the Native American country of Pocahontas and Cortez in a D modal tuning with fake horn keyboards, and is gorgeous.

At first listen, side two is all barroom songs—an idea ten years past its time. “Too Lonely” and “Cryin’ Eyes” (also ten years old) are two versions of the same song, but “Prisoners Of Rock ‘N Roll” is perhaps his only “statement of purpose” that deserves to be in the official oeuvre. “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” slows things down in a big way and is emotionally effective, with an expressive solo that hints at his next direction. “We Never Danced” ends it all unsettlingly. Made all the more poignant by its key role in the film Made In Heaven, the album ends on a quiet, unresolved chord.

Time has taken away some of the excitement, but considering the rest of the crap he’d put out of late, Life was his first decent album in eight years, and it had Crazy Horse. Things were definitely looking up. (As for the title and cover, you can just barely see the jailhouse symbol for five scratched on the cell wall. This was his fifth album for his current label.)

Neil Young & Crazy Horse Life (1987)—3

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Neil Young 20: Landing On Water

Neil had been through electronics, rockabilly and country, and supposedly woke up one day with a big beat banging in his head. Whatever he heard must not have been pleasant, because Landing On Water is awful.

Some of the songs had been around for a while, and while he toured with Crazy Horse to support it, for the album he went for a sound akin to three guys in a garage studio with a bunch of synthesizers. It’s still unknown what co-conspirators Danny Kortchmar and Steve Jordan think of the album, but it’s not encouraging when Trans can be said to be a success in comparison to this clunker.

As a lead track, “Weight Of The World” sets up the carnage to follow, and the video is hideous. “Violent Side” sports a contemporary riff, but it’s doesn’t sound enough like Neil Young to please David Geffen, and to add an occasional boys’ choir into the mix is simply cruel and unusual punishment. “Hippie Dream” might have come off better had it germinated until the ‘60s revival a year later; now we can hear it as a reaction to David Crosby’s recent slide. “Bad News Beat” sounds like an outtake from the last Don Henley album (thanks, Kootch) and did you ever think you’d hear Neil sing “she’s so on fire, she’s my desire”, much less write it? “Touch The Night” is a less successful rewrite of “Like A Hurricane” with impenetrable lyrics, and there’s that boys’ choir again. At least the video was clever.

In case you hadn’t heard, “People On The Street” “need a place to go”, and he’ll keep telling you that. (The video completely deflates whatever compassion he was trying to convey.) “Hard Luck Stories” mixes it up between the dull hook and the verses, but irritation with other people’s issues is badly balanced with “I Got A Problem”. “Pressure” is upbeat and snappy, but not exactly a new sentiment; it too had a wacky video, and some good screams. Finally, “Drifter” features an annoying guitar line that Sting would steal for his next hit single, and some good sludge in his solo, but that’s about it.

Landing On Water is an ugly, ugly-sounding album that leaves a bad taste. Occasionally there’s a riff or a moment that gives you hope, but these are never followed up. It was his worst to date, a feat he hopefully won’t try to repeat, and not a good sign for the future.

Neil Young Landing On Water (1986)—2

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Neil Young 19: Old Ways

After what seemed like ages (and a detour with Crazy Horse that went nowhere), Neil’s next real album finally turned up. Old Ways was a straight Music Row country album through and through. No matter how many times you listen to side one of American Stars ‘N Bars, side two of Hawks & Doves and all of Comes A Time, you won’t be ready for this. This is strictly Hee-Haw music, with Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins on piano, the seesawing fiddle of Rufus Thibodeaux and a pile of all-star duets.

“The Wayward Wind” is a standard with too much syrup for it to go down smoothly, sung with the otherwise unknown (to us) Denise Draper. “Get Back To The Country” comes from the same bad intentions as the still-unreleased “Gonna Rock Forever”, and the wacky jaw harp boinging all the way through doesn’t help either. “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?”, a duet with Willie Nelson, finally makes a good point, in this case asking what true country is. The sweeet “Once An Angel” could easily be a hit for lots of other people, while “Misfits” spends a lot of time telling a tale that never finishes.

“California Sunset” is a souvenir from the Austin City Limits TV show, while “Old Ways” came from the post-Trans era and asks the same questions as “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?”. “My Boy” is even sweeter than “Already One”, a lovely song to either of his sons. “Bound For Glory” is a truck-drivin’ song that could have been a hit for Charlie Rich ten years earlier, and “Where Is The Highway Tonight?” ends it all with a dull thud.

He had another album’s worth of songs put aside that his touring band had mastered, but his career was going nowhere with no rescue in sight. It would recover, just as the music from this period would gain appreciation, but for now, it was getting tough to be a fan.

Neil Young Old Ways (1985)—2

Monday, January 26, 2009

Neil Young 18: Everybody’s Rockin’

The experiments of Trans didn’t go anywhere, and soon Neil was insisting that country music was all he was ever going to care about henceforth—even more so when his record company, headed by and named after old pal David Geffen, objected after hearing what he’d been recording. Desperate for product that would generate sales, they insisted he put out some rock ‘n roll, so he did—to the letter—tossing together ten short songs that fit right in with the retro style the Stray Cats were then riding. Everybody’s Rockin’ was then tossed into stores in the midst of that phenomenon and sank, justifiably. The selections mix oldies with his own originals, the artist was listed as Neil and the Shocking Pinks, and no one knew what to think.

Two of those oldies start side one: “Betty Lou Got A New Pair Of Shoes” sports a lot of honking sax from the stalwart Ben Keith, miles away from his pedal steel guitar, and “Rainin’ In My Heart” has a great blast of harmonica. Then we get three originals in a row. With clever “cash-a-wadda-wadda” doo-wop vocals, “Payola Blues” reflects both his current situation and insists that record company corruption was alive and well in the ‘80s. “Wonderin’” was revived for the first time since 1970, though he had recorded it as late as 1973; it’s the best song here by far, supported by a herky-jerky, eye-catching video. “Kinda Fonda Wanda” references several girls from song titles, with a surprising R-rated reference in the third verse.

“Jellyroll Man” isn’t much more lyrically elaborate than “T-Bone”, but at least it sounds vintage despite being his own. Neither “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Mystery Train” surpass the originals, but in between is “Cry, Cry, Cry”, which also isn’t much but throws in an unexpected minor chord to mix things up. Finally, the title track makes an unfortunate, dated reference to then-President and Mrs. Reagan.

Throughout the album, Neil pounds a piano, and the familiar rhythm section of Tim Drummond and Karl Himmel keep up. However, at twelve minutes a side, the album should have been marketed as an EP, or at least cheaper. It might have made sense as part of a larger project, perhaps with his other more overt country songs mixed in. But that didin’t happen, so it stands alone. As a genre exercise, Zappa did it better.

Neil & The Shocking Pinks Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983)—2

Friday, January 23, 2009

Paul McCartney 12: McCartney II

So Paul took his new Wings on tour and forgot that customs people don’t like you to pack that much weed in your suitcase. Ten days later he was allowed to go home, and Wings was done. But he had a deal with Columbia, and funnily enough he was able to give them a new album. The previous summer he’d recorded a pile of tracks in the style of his first solo album; in other words, he did it all himself, directly into the machine. Because it was ten years later, this time he used synthesizers and other high-tech gizmos. Since he wasn’t trying to do an album per se, he was pretty experimental in the broadest sense of the word, so many of the songs as originally recorded were interminable; when McCartney II finally came out it had been pared down from two records (nearly 90 minutes) of worse songs and more knob twiddling.

“Coming Up” is still a lot of fun despite the vocoder effects and sped-up saxophones, with a clever video to go with it. Unfortunately, “Temporary Secretary” bubbles from the speakers with headache-inducing intensity. Paul didn’t usually put the really annoying songs this early on his albums unless it was the best he had, so this didn’t bode well. “On The Way” is a slow blues, with some welcome guitar parts and bass playing that’s not at all showy. It can even be considered a better version of “Let Me Roll It”. “Waterfalls” is pretty if spooky, but would be recycled to commercial success 15 years later by TLC. This was an odd one to hear in the middle of the summer; the album as a whole is claustrophobic, a common effect when machines are used almost exclusively. “Nobody Knows” is another fun rockabilly tune, with enough different voices to make it sound like different guys in a band.

The rock ends there—it’s on to more atmospherics on side two. “Front Parlour” sounds like a hamburger commercial, and that’s not meant as an insult. The dreamy “Summer’s Day Song” uses the Mellotron in a way that his future classical endeavors wouldn’t repeat, while “Frozen Jap” should have been retitled after his customs escapade. The next two songs are two of his most embarrassing compositions, back to back to boot. Despite the notes explaining the origin, “Bogey Music” should have been a B-side; had he changed the words to follow the example of the guitar songs on the first side we might have had something. “Darkroom” also suffers from half-baked lyrics, then he runs out of words and starts scatting. (This is what happens when you have toddlers around.) “One Of These Days” almost redeems the collection, a nice acoustic and vocal tune in a style we’d forgotten. Hidden at the end of the album, it’s been unjustly overlooked over the years—and Paul’s probably forgotten it too—but it’s another in the growing tradition of a rare gem on even his least successful albums.

It was the first time in a long time we could say he had broken new ground, even if it wasn’t about to influence anyone. McCartney II wasn’t appreciated when it came out, but looking back and considering it in the canon, it has grown just slightly. It would be a long time before he truly felt his legs again, and would be as comfortable as he was in the Wings heyday.

While the original CD added two contemporary B-sides of low quality, the original US LP included a bonus single-sided 45 with the live version of “Coming Up” that was the radio hit, recorded the previous December by Wings. Only the single has the extended ending with the crowd chant that was edited off of future appearances. Thirty years later, McCartney II was reissued in tandem with its 1970 predecessor as part of the “Paul McCartney Archive Collection”. In a move surely designed to piss off his fans, it was available in two expanded packages. The so-called Special Edition added the two B-sides plus an extended but still truncated live “Coming Up”, along with some outtakes and “Wonderful Christmastime”. The much pricier Deluxe Edition didn’t just add a thick book and a DVD; a third CD filled out the balance of the original unreleased 2-LP sequence, with seven unedited versions of some of the released session tracks plus the radio edit of “Waterfalls”, which had already been included on Wingspan. All in all, a lot of fuss for an album a lot of people didn’t like much to begin with.

Paul McCartney McCartney II (1980)—3
1987 CD reissue: same as 1980, plus 2 extra tracks
2011 Archive Collection Special Edition: same as 1987, plus 6 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 8 extra tracks and DVD)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Beatles 22: Rarities

Capitol’s repackaging of Beatles music had gotten off to a brisk start, but waned. Meanwhile in England, EMI put together a handsome boxed set of all the original LPs—not including A Collection Of Beatles Oldies, Magical Mystery Tour, or Hey Jude, the latter two of which had received official UK release around this time—with a bonus disc called Rarities that served to mop up some of the leftovers from various singles and EPs. This collection eventually turned up as a separate entity outside of the box, and was even imported to the US due to its inclusion of three previously unalbumized songs, but it was neither chronological nor all-inclusive.

After a certain amount of shuffling, a strictly American Rarities appeared in early 1980. Rather than replicating the British one exactly, Capitol went all out with a unique cover, tons of uncommon photos, fairly accurate liner notes, and even a clean reproduction of the so-called butcher photo. A big deal was also made of the return of the “rainbow” label. All this nicely frames the music within, which combines tracks and takes never before available on a Capitol LP, along with more subtle mix variations.

Side one begins with the elusive “Love Me Do” with Ringo on drums—so elusive, in fact, that the recording had to be taken from an old record. “Misery”, “There’s A Place” and “Sie Liebt Dich” made their first Capitol appearances, and in stereo to boot. “And I Love Her” features two extra repeats of the riff at the end from a German mix. “Help!” appears as the British mono single with a faster lead vocal. “I’m Only Sleeping” comes from the British mono Revolver with alternate guitar effects. “I Am The Walrus” combines two unique versions, incorporating extra beats after “I’m crying” from the US single and two extra intro riffs from the British stereo version.

“Penny Lane” was first heard as a mono DJ copy on your AM radio with a trumpet tag at the end; this version is in stereo with those extra notes tacked on. “Helter Skelter” and “Don’t Pass Me By” are markedly different mixes from the mono White Album; “Helter Skelter” also does not fade back in here. The B-sides “The Inner Light” and “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” finally surfaced on LP, as does the original version of “Across The Universe” with vocals by two Apple Scruffs and bird sound effects. To round it all off, “Sgt. Pepper Inner Groove” is the two seconds of gibberish that was looped on the first British copies of that LP to be heard ad nauseam.

All in all Rarities is a fairly listenable set, with tracks that many casual fans hadn’t heard before. Of course, it sold well, and also fueled the fires of collectors looking for anything and everything from the vaults. While many of the songs would be included in the standard CD canon, it’s doubtful that all of these alternate mixes will ever be available again officially.

The Beatles Rarities (1980)—
Current CD equivalent: none

Monday, January 19, 2009

Who 14: Face Dances

Having broken in Kenney Jones on the road—and with a fat contract from Warner Bros. beckoning—the Who managed to put together another album. Face Dances arrived with a good amount of fanfare, and while it’s very challenging for those looking for the classic Who sound, at least there was an attempt to evolve.

“You Better You Bet” is good Roger, with a good arrangement throughout. Even after all this time the album version, which includes a second verse cut from the single version, sounds too long. “Don’t Let Go The Coat” utilizes a swaggering vocal that unfortunately would get used in the wrong places soon enough. And then “Cache Cache” arrives to confuse. Pete’s lyrics have started to get incredible obtuse, and there’s too much going on for us to care. “The Quiet One” is John’s statement, and made for the stage. “Did You Steal My Money” is a self-indulgent mess, with awful rhymes. If it’s not the worst Who song, it’s up there.

Side two has a majestic introduction in “How Can You Do It Alone”, but soon explores territory that’s probably a little too creepy under its overly happy arrangement. (People really don’t want to hear Pete or Roger try to analyze flashers and whatnot, do they?) “Daily Records” has improved over the years, a bold ode to the joy of writing songs and recording demos. “You” is another angry Ox tune and not very good. But “Another Tricky Day” is a great closer with fantastic harmonies and good playing throughout.

With the exception of “Don’t Let Go The Coat” and “Another Tricky Day”, it’s clear that Pete had used his best stuff for his solo album the previous year. Face Dances is okay, not much worse than Who Are You, but would be viewed differently when compared with what was to come. (The ‘90s reissue didn’t have the elaborate liner notes as found on its predecessors; bonus tracks include the pointless “I Like Nightmares”, the biting “It’s In You”, a preview of “Somebody Saved Me” and two live songs—a 1979 jam that was the starting point for “How Can You Do It Alone” and a pointless 1982 performance of “The Quiet One”.)

The Who Face Dances (1981)—
1996 remaster: same as 1981, plus 5 extra tracks

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Roger Daltrey 4: McVicar

By the end of the ‘70s, the Who expanded further into the film industry to shore up any finances lost via touring or lack thereof. Having already enjoyed a piece of The Kids Are Alright and getting kudos for the adaptation of Quadrophenia, another pet project served to provide Roger Daltrey with both a dramatic lead role and a new haircut. McVicar was based on the memoirs of a British career criminal who managed to overcome incarceration, recapture, and parole to rejoin society as a journalist. (Considering Roger’s hardscrabble upbringing, he must have felt born for the role.)

Naturally, despite the non-musical content of the film, a soundtrack album would be mutually beneficial. As ever, Roger relied on songwriters both established, like Russ Ballard, and new, like Steve Swindells. And while the liner notes are vague, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Kenney Jones and Rabbit Bundrick are among the all-star musicians, so listeners can imagine it’s a Who album.

The opening “Bitter And Twisted” is a tough rocker with some smart couplets (“a psychopath never takes a bath,” indeed) balanced immediately by the lonesome sentiments of “Just A Dream Away”. There’s some odd but purely coincidental foreshadowing in “White City Lights”, which is merely another ballad. Despite the disco thump, “Free Me” has all the power chords and horn blasts of a solid Who song, and enough to make it to radio.

“My Time Is Gonna Come” is fairly boneheaded, with a four-note range, and more than a little robotic, wearing out its welcome in no time. “Waiting For A Friend” has an easy, country-influenced swagger to it for a nice change of pace. Sweet without being saccharine, “Without Your Love” would be familiar to diehards as a Meher Baba hymn penned by Pete’s buddy Billy Nicholls, as originally included on the obscure With Love tribute LP, mandolins and all. To Roger’s credit, he does a fine job with it. The title track is the most overt reference to the film’s plot, but it’s strong enough to stand alone without it.

As a rockin’ Daltrey album it works, but because McVicar is a soundtrack, each side is interrupted by instrumentals credited to Jeff Wayne, of the musical War Of The Worlds fame. Both “Escape Part One” and “Escape Part Two” sound like any number of ‘80s crime thriller soundtracks, with a flute that owes more than a debt to Ian Anderson. Beyond that, the half-hour of Roger music is surprisingly fresh.

Roger Daltrey McVicar—Original Soundtrack Recording (1980)—3

Friday, January 16, 2009

David Bowie 6: Aladdin Sane

So now he was a superstar, which meant he had to prove himself as more than a gimmick. Bowie rose to the occasion with his next album. Aladdin Sane kept the Ziggy persona going without sounding like a retread.

The album leaps from the speakers on the opening track, the muffled but driving “Watch That Man”. The title track follows, complete with a subtitle that references the years before each of the century’s world wars and an extended piano solo that manages to avoid any key, melody or structure, yet still fits. “Drive-In Saturday” lays a template for Roxy Music, with its mix of ‘50s nostalgia and futuristic decoration. “Panic In Detroit” gives you a reason to dance, even though we’re not sure what it’s about. “Cracked Actor” lands with a round of feedback going into a riff and a honking harmonica, and ends much too soon.

“Time” is another attempt at a grand statement along the lines of “Changes”, and succeeds in adding an extended wordless singalong for the end. “The Prettiest Star” is an uptempo remake of an earlier single, but in the new style. Continuing the trend of odd covers, “Let’s Spend The Night Together” is wrenched away from the Stones and given a homosexual coat of paint that unfortunately doesn’t go well with the drapes. “The Jean Genie” is the odd single, with a simple riff pounded into the ground and clever dynamics toward the end. “Lady Grinning Soul” brings the cocktail piano back for a lackluster ending.

The Ryko reissue strangely had no bonuses. That was rectified somewhat with the eventual 30th Anniversary edition, which added some rarities, single mixes and live tracks, some previously released. There’s yet another version of “John, I’m Only Dancing”, and Bowie’s own recording of “All The Young Dudes”, which Mott The Hoople did best. While they’re all nice to have, you’ll be happier with the album itself, which sounds great.

David Bowie Aladdin Sane (1973)—
2003 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1973, plus 10 extra tracks

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

David Bowie 5: Ziggy Stardust

Many have pointed to Ziggy Stardust as Bowie’s pinnacle achievement, but they fail to mention what it doesn’t accomplish: by setting itself as a story, and one that’s barely there, it falls flat. Luckily, most of the tunes are pretty good.

“Five Years” creeps in nicely, and sets up the story of an imminent alien invasion, though its references to “the black” and “the queer” show its age. “Soul Love” sports an interesting 7/4 time signature and a pleasant sax solo by the man himself. “Moonage Daydream” gives Ronno a chance to shine both on guitar and in the strings. “Starman” is the hidden gem here, a nice conversation between the kids suggesting that the imminent invasion might not be such a bad thing (shades of Childhood’s End here). “It Ain’t Easy” is a cover left over from the Hunky Dory sessions; it doesn’t fit the plot, but then again neither did Chuck Berry’s “Round And Round”, which was in the running order for a while.

“Lady Stardust” attempts to bring the story back to music, though it’s hard to tell where the aliens come in. Still, it’s a wonderful piano performance. “Star” plows ahead, but it’s an unnecessary detour before “Hang On To Yourself”, supposedly the title character’s theme song (and indeed the opening number at all the concerts of this era). “Ziggy Stardust” crams all the details into three minutes, and goes directly into “Suffragette City”, which doesn’t seem to be about much of anything. “Rock ‘N Roll Suicide” takes us back to Ziggy’s demise, and ends the proceedings on a properly “showstopping” note.

Some of the bonus tracks on the Ryko reissue (and subsequently the 30th anniversary double-disc) are worth a listen, notably the decadent “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head”. Demos of “Lady Stardust” and “Ziggy Stardust” have alternate lyrics, as do the early “Arnold Corns” versions of “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On To Yourself”; in all cases, the album versions are the best. Completing the picture is “John, I’m Only Dancing”, a contemporary single that probably doesn’t fit on the album thematically, but is musically on the level of anything else. Ten years later, the 40th Anniversary edition of the album apparently restored the music to the proper stereo channels. That was the limit of the CD version; a deluxe LP set offered the same, but added a DVD with 5.1 surround sound and other mixes of the album as well as “The Supermen”, “Velvet Goldmine”, “Sweet Head”, and an instrumental of “Moonage Daydream”.

David Bowie The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972)—4
1990 Rykodisc: same as 1972, plus 5 extra tracks
2002 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1990, plus 7 extra tracks

Monday, January 12, 2009

David Bowie 4: Hunky Dory

With a split-second hesitation, and immediate defense of the ones that are almost as good, Hunky Dory is the best David Bowie album. It’s a nice album, and that’s meant in a good way, but like all his stuff, there’s a sinister undercurrent.

It was this album that harvested the seeds for his “sound”; add the crunch of his previous LP to the piano, strings and sax, and you’ve got the Spiders. “Changes” starts the album perfectly, with its melody showing off all he learned from listening to Anthony Newley all those years. Quite a mature statement for a 25-year-old, and the “strange fascination” bridge does a great job of going into third gear right before the last chorus. (By the way, that last sax part at the end is him.) “Oh! You Pretty Things” at first sounds like all his other songs about aliens taking over/improving/destroying the planet, but we’re still seduced (sorry) by the cheery, Sunday morning coffee mood it sets by the simple piano and vocal. “Eight Line Poem” follows immediately; vocally he may be trying to do Dylan, whose piano-dominated New Morning may well have inspired this, but the biggest influence on this track is Nick Drake’s “Time Has Told Me”; the piano and guitar tone on that track are identical to the sound of this one. The piano continues on “Life On Mars?”, the sweeping sound of which carries one away, just like whatsername watching the movie show. And the “My Way”-meets-2001 ending is stunning, right down to the phone ringing at the end of the track. “Kooks” is a lullaby to newborn Zowie Bowie, complete with admission of the fear that he might not be a perfect father. (An understatement, since it’s bad enough your Dad says he’s bi, shaves his eyebrows, dyes his hair orange and banana-yellow, does enough coke to cover Antarctica… but he names you Zowie! Which the way yer supposed to pronounce it rhymes with your last name! Wouldn’t have been much better if it rhymed with “kapowie” or “Maui”, but you’ve suffered enough.) This track is very derivative of Neil Young’s “Till The Morning Comes” from After The Gold Rush, also out around the same time. “Quicksand” is another tune one can love without understanding what it’s about. The chords are catchy, as is the subtle key change that can’t happen until the first chorus that sets up for the modulation towards the last chorus.

“Fill Your Heart”, picked up from a Tiny Tim B-side, is the first candidate for clunker of the album, but it’s so gosh-darn happy, and however Mick Ronson learned to arrange strings—or copy them from the original version—they make the song memorable. The tribute to “Andy Warhol” would probably be forgettable, if not for the in-the-studio snippet that starts the tune, an idea stolen from Dylan’s “115th Dream”. Speaking of which, “Song For Bob Dylan” hasn’t worn well over the years, mostly because the message is muddled. In the future he would do better in this style without being so overt. If he found a different lyric for the verse, while keeping the “here she comes” chorus, it might have aged better. But “Queen Bitch” is just fun, a sugar-coated distillation of Lou Reed’s Tales of the City, and the last verse where he’s “staring at [his] hotel wall…phoning a cab…throwing both his bags down the hall” is such a great litany of growing pissed-offness. (Best musical moment: where the electric comes crunching in on the third bar.) “The Bewlay Brothers” is one of many tunes about his brother Terry. It’s not clear what “Bewlay” refers to, but the last part about baking pie still startles when it comes in, and the demonic cartoon voices… a stunner.

Hunky Dory gets unjustly overlooked, coming as it did on the cusp of his superstardom, but it’s truly held up after all these years. One gets one’s hopes up when one hears of unreleased gems from the sessions for such a classic album, and in the case of the Rykodisc reissue it was a toss-up. “Bombers” would have been a fine B-side, but just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. The demo of “Quicksand” and the alternate “Bewlay Brothers” are negligible, but this version of “The Supermen” beats the overblown one on The Man Who Sold The World and the live ones where Ronno is more out of tune than usual.

Unlike others, this album was passed over for its thirtieth anniversary, and several milestones since; not until 2022 did something approximating a deluxe edition arrive, in the form of Divine Symmetry. This so-called Alternative Journey Through Hunky Dory offered four CDs of demos, live versions, and outtakes, along with a deluxe book of photos and annotations, another reproducing his notebooks, and a Blu-ray disc of high-resolution audio.

The demos are in varying quality, but include such gems as “Tired Of My Life” (which would one day form part of “It’s No Game”), “Looking For A Friend”, “King Of The City”, and “Shadow Man”. (Along with the live versions, the demos also make clear which piano parts he played himself on the album, some of which we’d previously assumed were Rick Wakeman’s since they’re so proficient.) The “Bowie & Friends” BBC appearance appears twice, mostly, on disc two: the surviving mono tape of the performance, and the stereo mix from the transcription disc distributed for broadcast. Some of this was already on 2000’s BBC compilation, but now we get to hear George Underwood and Dana Gillespie sing “Song For Bob Dylan” and “Andy Warhol” respectively.

Disc three begins with another BBC session, this time of just David and Mick, and a concert performed a few days later with all of the Spiders, plus onetime Animal Tom Parker on piano. Rather than include the album proper, the fourth disc is all alternate mixes, some vintage and some specially prepared for this set. In order to be complete, this means we have repeats of “Changes” and “Amsterdam” sequenced a little too close to each other, and also unnecessary retreads of “Quicksand” and “Bombers”. “Lightening Frightening” (hopefully shelved due to its approximation of a Crazy Horse album track) appears here in chronological context, but the other Arnold Corns content, as well as that superior take of “The Supermen”, would emerge on an expansion of the next album.

David Bowie Hunky Dory (1971)—5
1990 Rykodisc: same as 1971, plus 4 extra tracks
David Bowie Divine Symmetry (2022)—

Friday, January 9, 2009

David Bowie 3: The Man Who Sold The World

Inching ever closer to his “real” self—that month, anyway—The Man Who Sold The World turns up the volume thanks to guitarist-arranger Mick Ronson. The drummer was then known as Mick Woodmansey, and even though it’s producer Tony Visconti on the loud bass guitar, it’s basically the Spiders from Mars.

Lyrically, the songs are also closer to more along the lines of trademark Bowie. “The Width Of A Circle” is another lengthy epic, but he’s discovered dynamics. It dallies with the bisexual image, but still has some great sections amidst the posturing. Much shorter but just as involved is “All The Madmen”, an acknowledgement of the mental issues in his genealogy, with great guitar lines and an infectious fade. “Black Country Rock” is a gentle tweaking of Marc Bolan’s new glam sound for T. Rex, providing a break before the spooky “After All” closes the side with sped-up voices and burbling Moog.

Side two is dominated by a trio of ugly songs. “Running Gun Blues” isn’t much more than a riff with a lyric about a soldier for hire in Southeast Asia, whereas “Savior Machine” tells of a “President Joe” who contracts the solution in the title, which of course is too smart to contain. “She Shook Me Cold” would be a metal parody if the genre existed yet; Ronno gets some Jimmy Page-style phrasing in his extended solo. The title track got more exposure thanks to several covers over the years, not least Nirvana’s unplugged rendition shortly before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and it brings the album back to a better place. However, “The Supermen” would be done better in a stripped-down yet still electric rendition a year later; here it’s overblown with layered vocals where none are needed.

Today, people insist that The Man Who Sold The World is his first great album, but that’s only if you like side two. Half of it is very good, and just as with its predecessor, it shows the genetics of the style that would make Bowie a media sensation. He would do better next time out.

Also, like its predecessor, it’s had different covers depending on when and where it was released. Americans first got a cartoony sleeve commissioned by Bowie until he decided to pose in a dress in time for the British release. Then, when RCA reissued it along with Space Oddity, the sleeve above was used. Its initial Rykodisc reissue restored the “dress” version, and as part of its campaign, included sundry bonus tracks, which were later assigned to other album reissues once the rights reverted to Bowie.

The Man Who Sold The World resisted any kind of expanded anniversary approach until its fiftieth, when Tony Visconti remixed every track except “After All” for a “new” package titled Metrobolist, allegedly Bowie’s original album title, with restored pre-dress artwork to match. For the most part, the new mix merely expands the sound picture, making it seem less constricted and giving it more punch, mostly by pumping the volume of the lead guitar, drums, and his own bass. Some of Bowie’s Bolanisms over the fade of “Black Country Rock” are boosted in the mix, and the title track gains a count-in; any other eye-raising differences weren’t immediately apparent.

Nine months later, following the concept of the Conversation Piece set but not its path, the album got something of a unique expansion via a companion set. The Width Of A Circle collected various odd recordings from 1970 leading up to the album on two discs. The first is devoted to an appearance on John Peel’s BBC show, playing such favorite covers as “Amsterdam” and “Buzz The Fuzz” solo as well as songs with the newly formed band the Hype, with new discovery Ronson on guitar and Visconti on bass. Only six tunes from this appearance were on the Bowie At The Beeb, probably because they sounded better than the source for the others—Visconti’s own off-air copy—but context helps a lot here. The second disc begins with five songs from a stage show organized by Bowie’s mime mentor, likely recorded off the television broadcast. A remake of “When I Live My Dream” is accompanied by weedy organ in both its full version and reprise, “Columbine” and “Harlequin” are nice little sketches, but the vaudevillian “Threepenny Pierrot” merely reworks the melody of “London Bye, Ta-Ta”. Various singles from the year, including the first versions of “The Prettiest Star” and “Holy Holy” and another try at “London Bye, Ta-Ta”, appear in their original mixes as well as modern mixes, with another, more rockin’ Hype appearance on the BBC (only one of these songs was on the Beeb set) in between, likely for a less repetitive listening experience.

David Bowie The Man Who Sold The World (1970)—3
1990 Rykodisc: same as 1970, plus 4 extra tracks
David Bowie The Width Of A Circle (2021)—3

Thursday, January 8, 2009

David Bowie 2: Space Oddity

Technically, Space Oddity is Bowie’s second album, but since nobody paid attention to his first, this is really where the story of his popular persona begins. To make things even more confusing, its original UK title was David Bowie, only slightly set apart by Man Of Words, Man Of Music in the US. Once he became famous it was rereleased with an anachronistic photo and titled after its hit single, so that’s what we’ll call it (despite its availability on and off again as David Bowie). This is also the first time he worked with producer Tony Visconti, who would be involved with some of the better Bowie albums over the years.

“Space Oddity” is still one of those songs that sounds like nothing else, with enough mystery to keep it fascinating today, and a sound that most would mistake for the Spiders three albums later. The 12-string acoustic dominates, with a fitting string arrangement and decent lead guitar. After all his attempts at songwriting throughout the Sixites, here he finally found a character who would endure past a novelty. “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” gets tagged as a Dylan homage, but outside of the title and a few harmonica blasts it goes into generic rock territory for six minutes. (Since 1972 a snippet called “Don’t Sit Down” disappeared from the sequence; it has been restored in the CD era, and is again appended to the end of “Unwashed”.) “Letter To Hermione” is melancholy and relatively brief, and straightforward in its lovelorn sentiment. But “The Cygnet Committee” is just too long, and hard to follow, making it almost a Bowie parody. Which is a shame, since there are segments in its nine minutes that are infectious.

Side two begins with a pair of love songs; first there’s the rocking “Janine”, with its kalimba touches, and then “An Occasional Dream”, another letter to Hermione. The wonderful tale in “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is unfortunately buried beneath an over-the-top yet still picturesque orchestral arrangement. “God Knows I’m Good” is a character study of a shoplifter, shackled to the same Bo Diddley rhythm of “Unwashed”. The side ends with another epic, “Memory Of A Free Festival”, about nothing more mythical than an all-day concert, and works best as a closing chant in the vein of “Hey Jude”.

Whether you call it David Bowie or Space Oddity, it’s still a better debut than his first album. Modern reissues have included two of the best songs of this period that weren’t even on the album proper. The B-side version of “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is preferable to the album version, with only the 12-string, cello and handclaps to keep from getting in the way of the story. “Conversation Piece” is a pleasant if misleading portrait of life in a small city, tucked away on the B-side of the original, slower version of “The Prettiest Star”. “London Bye Ta-Ta” never made it as a 45, but a re-recording of “Memory Of A Free Festival” did, with most of the chant relegated to “Part 2”. (It also sports the first appearance of one Mick Ronson on guitar.) All these, plus a few demos, alternate mixes, BBC sessions and an unrelated Italian lyric for “Space Oddity”, load up the second disc of the album’s 40th anniversary edition.

Just because they could, a brand new mix of the album by Tony Visconti appeared in time to celebrate the album’s 50th anniversary, sold on its own under the Space Oddity title as well as part of another archival box set. The most drastic overhaul comes to “Space Oddity”, removing the fade-in as well as the strings. The “Don’t Look Down” segment is gone, while “Conversation Piece” appears on side two right after “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud”. (Apparently it was cut from the original album due to time constraints; god forbid they didn’t include all seven minutes of “Memory Of A Free Festival”.)

David Bowie Space Oddity (1969)—3
1990 Rykodisc: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks
2009 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1990, plus 12 extra tracks
2019 50th Anniversary Mix: “same” as 1969, plus 1 extra track

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Pete Townshend 3: Empty Glass

While The Who continued on the road with new drummer Kenney Jones, Pete took the opportunity to sign a solo deal and finally get the first pick of his own songs (in between drinking binges and worse). The immediate result was the excellent Empty Glass, which he considers his first real solo album.

Right out of the gate “Rough Boys” delivers some of the most exciting music he’d played in years. The lyrics would continue to be misinterpreted over the years, but the guitar intro and inexplicable ending stand one’s hair on end. “I Am An Animal” is very subtle and heartbreaking. “And I Moved” is an interesting experiment, a song written from a woman’s point of view, which only fed the fire down the road. “Let My Love Open The Door” was a top 10 single—bigger than any Who hit since “I Can See For Miles”—and still good today. “Jools And Jim” closes the side with an ambiguous, angry rant at the press.

“Keep On Working” has some great vocals and layered harmonies, followed by “Cat’s In The Cupboard”, an excuse for boogie. “A Little Is Enough” is one of his most direct love songs, for his wife as well as Baba. (Listen for that melody between the verses; it’ll come up again.) The title track is a cry for help with some intriguing dynamics, while “Gonna Get Ya” slams it all home with more great vocals, a fantastic midsection and good piano. It’s probably the closest thing to a Who song here.

Even if he was slowly killing himself, Empty Glass proves Pete could still write. He also got support in the studio from a handful of talented players, including the soon-to-be rhythm section for Big Country, along with crisp production by Chris Thomas, who earned his bones with the Beatles and had recent success with the likes of the Pretenders and the Sex Pistols. If the Who wouldn’t ever return to the heights they had with Keith behind the kit, the album at least should have given Pete some confidence that his own career wasn’t finished. And even if Roger couldn’t see himself singing these songs anyway, he had his acting career for the time being. (The album was respected enough to be available on a “gold” CD in the mid-‘90s, while the 2006 reissue added some previously unreleased demos of four of the album’s tracks.)

Pete Townshend Empty Glass (1980)—4
2006 remaster: same as 1980, plus 4 extra tracks

Monday, January 5, 2009

Who 13: The Kids Are Alright

Released to accompany the chaotic film, which was mostly completed before Keith died, The Kids Are Alright works as a hits album of sorts. Many of the songs have subtle differences from the album versions, and the album does bear repeat listening, making it a fan favorite since its release, as well as a great place to start.

The first thing we hear on the album is also the first thing we see in the movie—the infamous Smothers Brothers introduction to “My Generation”, complete with the explosion at the end. The screams kick in for “I Can’t Explain” from Shindig. Then we go, surprisingly, to Leeds for “Happy Jack” (which would not be revealed for many years, as the original album notes called it a Swedish TV performance, and the film used the promotional clip for the studio version). “I Can See For Miles” purports to be from the Smothers Brothers, but is really the standard mix. “Magic Bus” is listed as from the German Beat Club show; the video clip is that, but the track is the standard short version. “Long Live Rock” is a different mix to the Odds & Sods version and became the single.

“Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” is a pretty tinny but powerful showcase from Ready Steady Go. “Young Man Blues” is from the London Coliseum, and as good as the one from Leeds, with different solos. “My Wife” is John’s only contribution to the album, and an okay live version. (They never finished it as well as they started, which bugged him no end. It’s not featured in the film, and wouldn’t be seen by the public until 2008.) “Baba O’Riley” is from Keith’s last gig, and the movie reveals all the parts Pete screwed up, drunk as he was.

“A Quick One” is the best version of the song, and for years the only thing available from the Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus. The rest of side three is dedicated to Tommy—“Tommy Can You Hear Me”, with an extra surprise at the end, and three selections from Woodstock. “Sparks” absolutely burns, as does “Pinball Wizard”, and this “See Me Feel Me” is the only time Roger nailed it on stage. Having heard the rest of that set, these are still the best moments.

Half of side four is taken up by a meandering medley from the end of 1975. “Join Together” is unrecognizable, “Roadrunner” barely touches it and “My Generation Blues” is plodding. (The first CD version omitted this for space reasons; it was restored for the 2001 reissue.) “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the last moment of greatness, and Keith’s last moments on stage. It takes a long time to get there.

Oddly, nothing was included either in the film or on the album from Quadrophenia; perhaps because that film was up next? Whatever the case, both film and album succeeded on giving fans lavish packages reminding them why they cared in the first place.

The Who The Kids Are Alright (1979)—4

Friday, January 2, 2009

Who 12: Who Are You

Who Are You was the last album Keith played on; he would die two weeks after the album finally came out. Listening to the songs one gets the impression that Pete had already used some of his better ideas on Rough Mix. Many of the songs deal with the importance of music, the result of yet another stab at Lifehouse. Pete doesn’t seem to reach any conclusions, positive or negative.

“New Song” crashes in with a good start, but soon ends up in a wash of synthesizers. “Had Enough” is John’s, a little too close to the Quadrophenia title. At least Roger was happy to sing one of John’s songs for a change, even if he wasn’t thrilled about the string arrangement, courtesy of Pete’s father-in-law. (This song would be ripped off in four years’ time by Asia on their first album.) “905” is also from a futuristic opera John was writing that fits just barely into whatever the Lifehouse plot was this time. “Sister Disco” has some great movements, but to this day nobody seems to possibly understand what it’s supposed to be about. “Music Must Change” is the big statement, spread around a jazzy idea.

“Trick Of The Light” is one of John’s best, and perhaps the best on the album. “Guitar And Pen” is easily the worst. It careens around an annoying Gilbert & Sullivan arrangement that takes too long to finish. “Love Is Coming Down” is the pretty ballad that doesn’t quite fit Roger’s voice or the audience. The title track is still classic after all these years, though if you’ve gotten used to hearing it daily on Classic Rock radio, you may have long tired of it.

As an album Who Are You hasn’t aged well, and the bonus tracks on the reissue aren’t very revealing. “No Road Romance” is a stark Pete demo that sounds of a type with his 1975 material. An early runthrough of “Empty Glass” shows promise, yet it’s doubtful Roger would ever sing it. The rest of the tracks are alternate mixes or versions of the last three songs on side two, none very exciting.

It would have been a shame to end the band on this note, and fans still argue about whether The Who should have kept going. But they did.

The Who Who Are You (1978)—3
1996 remaster: same as 1978, plus 5 extra tracks

Thursday, January 1, 2009

David Bowie 1: David Bowie

David Bowie has recorded many albums, to be sure, but those who began following him early in his ascent would doubtless find their reflections tinted by the man’s extravagant concert tours and public appearances. But today, outside of the grainy clips on YouTube, it’s the albums themselves that are the artifacts of a fascinating career, and that’s what we’re going to explore here.
Bowie’s career began in Mod London, taking him through several bands and styles before he found the right mix of his influences to stick. And even when he did find something he liked, he’d abandon it for his next album, confounding fans and irritating critics for the duration of his career.

Once he became a superstar, the work he did on his way there would be repackaged constantly, more for commercial reasons than to preserve some early glimpse of genius. Much of the Mod stuff can be found on a Rhino collection called Early On (1964-1966), but it wasn’t until he signed with the “progressive” Deram label that he started writing his own songs and trying to carve out an identity not immediately recognizable as somebody else’s image.

As it was the beginning of the Summer of Love, the contents of David Bowie are placed firmly within the genres of chamber pop and Kinksy character studies. The arrangements are loaded with oboes, bassoons, trombones and tubas, heavy handed even for the wartime nostalgia in “Rubber Band”, “Little Bombardier” and “She’s Got Medals”. “Join The Gang” seems to poke fun at the very people he hoped would buy his records, with a manic sitar passage and even a quote from “Gimme Some Lovin’”. Chances are they weren’t impressed by “Love You Till Tuesday”, an unconvincing campaign for free love sung overly Cockney and too close to that other Davy Jones.

“Silly Boy Blue” stands out for being a decent melody and unironic lyric, as does “Come And Buy My Toys”, played simply over acoustic and bass. But “We Are Hungry Men”, a sci-fi satire encouraging cannibalism to combat overpopulation, sits uncomfortably next to the more romantic “When I Live My Dream”. “Please Mr. Gravedigger”, a sneezy monologue in prose over rainy sound effects, closes the album; clearly, he was hoping to be remembered as provocative.

While his voice is recognizable as pure Bowie, it’s obvious why this album was not a huge hit. Three decades later the man himself would revisit some of the songs for an album that was shelved, though some things did emerge as B-sides. Of the dozens of compilations covering the original material, there are two decent options for those who must have everything. 1997’s The Deram Anthology 1966-1968 is a chronological single disc overview, prefacing the first album with such singles as “The Laughing Gnome”, notorious for being extremely silly to the point of being unlistenable, and ending with an early version of “Space Oddity”. Save that last track, this collection has since been surpassed by the David Bowie Deluxe Edition, which presents the original LP in stereo and mono on one disc, and a pile of stereo and mono singles plus various BBC sessions on another.

David Bowie David Bowie (1967)—2
2010 Deluxe Edition: same as 1967, plus 39 extra tracks