Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

I just realized I have four minutes to get this post in before the new year. So here is a great little lost tune by Colin Blunstone, a B-side to his first official solo single. I Hope I Didn't Say Too Much Last Night.

And Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Found All the Parts

If you want to make a damn good record there is no better start than to hire producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. In a nod to the 66-69 Beatles, Cheap Trick did just that for their 1980 LP All Shook Up. Sadly the record buying public missed the boat and the album sold considerably less than the previous year's Dream Police.

Regardless the album is full of odd little gems like Baby Loves to Rock which starts out like a 50's Elvis number and turns into a guitar riff driven cruncher in the chorus. Or the heavy metal Merseybeat tune Just Got Back. Or the proggy High Priest of Rhythmic Noise or even proggier Go For the Throat. Or the Stone-ish I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Friends with a stellar bass part by Tom Petersson.

But the killer track and initial single release was Stop This Game. Never mind that it tanked on the charts (though our Canadian neighbors put it in their top ten), for it kicks out the jams. Mr. Petersson delivers another classic bass part. Rick Neilson scales back his guitar pyrotechnics to allow the awesome Martin production to come through. I even detect a glockenspiel in there. And best of all Robin Zander delivers another top notch vocal. Is it just me or is he one of the most underappreciated rock vocalists ever? Not to worry Bun E. Carlos fans - I will sing his praises in another post.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

When I Go Anywhere I See Love

There is nothing like a day trip to the Oregon coast to clear one's mind. A spectacular hike at Cape Lookout with temps above freezing and no rain made for a memorable day. Upon return I had a yearning to listen to some Brian Wilson tunes. Today's post was a real toss-up among several of the Beach Boy's lesser-known singles. I settled on This Whole World from 1970. The single did not chart and the LP it came from - Sunflower - was the lowest charting BB album up to that point at 151. By that time Brian was no longer performing but he still provided a number of songs on the group's records. Invariably they were the highlights of the album.

After a two bar introduction with chugging guitar and Carl's solo vocal, the song immediately moves into the main verse:

"Late at night I think about the love of this whole world. Lots of different people everywhere. And when I go anywhere I see love I see love I see love."

Carl's voice never sounded more soulful. And dig the tubular bell chiming amongst the doo-wop background vocals by the rest of the band (something along the lines of aaauuummm bop dibit). Then a new section begins:

"When girls get mad at boys and go
Many times they're just putting on a show
But when they leave you wait alone"

The ultimate Spector-ism - a glockenspiel - plays a counter melody and the band adds their gorgeous "oh-s". The first and second sections are repeated, then at 1:35 the boys go acappella, soaring off into the distance as the track ends before two minutes have passed.

What really casts a glow over me is Brian's incomparable harmonic progressions. I know a thing or two about music theory, and the modulations here are way beyond the grasp of almost any pop group then or now. Brian Wilson has an ear for sounds and harmonies like no other.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Auf wiedersehen to the beat

Few bands engender such hostility as Sparks. In the first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide Billy Altman of Creem Magazine wrote "The(ir) objective was to hit it big in a foreign land and then return home to conquer the masses who ignored them before they went to England to get rich and famous". He also "docked" them "one star per album for being somewhat responsible for Queen." Of course the first statement is not true. Little did he know when he wrote that put-down in 1979 that Sparks would still be around in 2009 with a dedicated worldwide fanbase. And the second statement is way off the mark, as Queen was already well on their own upward path in 1974 when Sparks hit the big time in the UK.

From their first demo recording of oddball California Folk/Psych (the sadly never-released Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing) in 1968, to their most recent 2008 release Exotic Creatures of the Deep the Mael brothers have followed their own path. They have conquered, then jettisoned more musical styles (and bandmates) than even David Bowie. Frankly I never got into their Euro-electro-dance pop albums of the 80s and 90s, but what came before and after are essential pieces in my LP/CD collection.

The central nugget that ties their 21 albums together is Ron Mael's songwriting. He can pop out a killer hook in a heartbeat. And the lyrics - oh my - how does one begin to decipher the byzantine layers of psychological maneuvering that takes place in most of their songs? At the same time there is a junior high school sex-obsessed boy peeking out from under the sheet music.

Leaving my syntax back at school
I was thrown for a loss over gender and simple rules
You mentioned Kant and I was shocked ... so shocked
You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues

That little nugget comes from Hasta Manana Monsieur on 1973's breakout LP Kimono My House. Here is a live performance from Don Kirchner's Rock Concert in 1974 at the Beacon Theatre NYC. I can only imagine the shocked look on the faces of the people in the crowd... what the heck IS this? Give a listen to the crackerjack band - Dinky Diamond was a powerhouse drummer, and guitarist Trevor White laid down a glam sound that kicks these songs into fifth gear.

Immediately following HMM is Thank God It's Not Christmas, which may be my favorite Sparks song ever. The opening guitar melody is genius. The music may be upbeat but the lyrics tell the tale of a man who spends 364 days of the year seeking thrills in the streets of the city

There I'll spend the night
Meeting fancy thins
At bistros and old haunts
Trying very hard to sin

That 365th day is the one he wishes to avoid at all costs - spending time with only his mate.

Thank God it's not Christmas
When there is only you
And nothing else to do
Thank God it's not Christmas
Where there's just you to do
The rest is closed to public view

Saturday, December 19, 2009

They Came From Birmingham

The Move were at least three bands rolled into one. The initial version to appear was a first class pop outfit, delivering two and a half minute hit singles with great regularity in the UK starting in 1967. The dandy Carl Wayne and slightly freaky Roy Wood were a killer pair of lead singers, and of course Roy had the secret formula to writing melodic hooks. And Trevor Burton, initially a rhythm guitarist then bass player, was a fine vocalist in his own right, and between the three of them their harmony work was right up their with their contemporaries. Last but not least, Bev Bevan was a force to be reckoned with on the drums.

The second incarnation grew organically from the first. Burton was replaced by Rick Price on bass, but the big change was an opening up of the musical scope. Roy was a fan of the new US West Coast sound, and all kinds of musical ideas from bands such as The Byrds and Love crept into their recordings in 1969. The musical forms were expanded and Roy began to experiment with the production. This culminated with their 1970 LP Shazam. There are only six tracks, but several of them are miniature rock symphonies with multi-part structures. And Roy's guitar playing comes front and center. There is no doubt he was one of the most gifted rock musicians of the flower power era. The first side was comprised of three original Wood tunes, the second side was all covers.

The last track is American folk singer Tom Paxton's The Last Thing On My Mind. It takes a cue from the Byrd's twelve string interpretations of Dylan then carries it about as far as the fabric will stretch.

It's a lesson too late for the learnin'
Made of sand, made of sand.
In the wink of an eye my soul is turnin'
In your hand, in your hand.

The yearning for a lost love in the powerful original version is surrounded by a haze of ringing guitar arpeggios and harmonics. Adding to the sonic mix are repeating quaverings in both the vocals and the guitar lines. Mr. Bevan's percussion work is sensitive yet powerful throughout. Somewhere around 3:34 Roy lets loose with a multi-tracked psychedelic guitar solo for the ages.

Shortly after the completion of Shazam Carl Wayne and Rick Price left The Move, and upon the entry of Jeff Lynne the third incarnation was off and running.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Zombie Heaven

Yeah, I am definitely into a Zombie's kick at the moment. There is magic around every corner, on the B-side of neglected singles, even on the post-breakup songs recorded by Rod Argent and Chris White to take advantage of the success of Time Of The Season.

For example, take She Does Everything For Me, the B-side to their November 1966 UK-only single with a slap-dash version of Goin' Out Of My Head on the A. Give a listen to this unbelievable rave-up. From the opening keyboard riff, to the vaguely middle eastern sounding guitar riff, to the wonderful Hollies-inspired harmonies this is a killer song. And that last note - wow!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

I have a "thing" for Southern gothic stories. Bring me a book by Carson McCullers or some short stories by William Faulkner and I will hole up for days to read until I can no longer stay awake. In 1967 the Zombies entered EMI's Abbey Road Studios to record what would become their swan song, the Odessey and Oracle album. Rod Argent used a Falkner short story as the basis for A Rose For Emily, which appears as the second track on side one. The dense five part construction of the original story is jettisoned for a simple tale of a spinster who never finds love. But the tune itself and its arrangement - like everything on this album - is one-of-a-kind baroque pop of the most beautiful variety imaginable. Colin Blunstone's breathy vocals are unparalleled in pop music, and on this occasion he used his choirboy simplicity to evoke something antique. He effortlessly handles the leaping melodic twists, and the band joins him for the middle eight, their harmony vocals echoing clear and stark, imbuing an emotional burden almost too intense to bear. The closing lines bring no final respite for Emily's plight.

"The roses are fading now. She keeps her pride somehow it's all she has protecting her from pain. And as the years go by, she will grow old and die. The roses in her garden fade away, not one left for her grave, not a rose for Emily."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Too Much Too Soon

Recently over at Clicks And Pops Alex Stein discussed one of his guilty pleasures, a holiday tune by the glam metal band Angel. The ugly beyond-belief album cover brought back memories for me of purchasing the first New York Dolls album. In the wheat country of Northwest Oklahoma in 1973 there was good reason to fear reaction of the locals to this photo of the boys dressed up in provocative derelict drag. I had read about the Dolls in various rock magazines and decided I had to hear it for myself.

I went to the local 5&10 cent store to buy it, expecting.. I'm not sure what.. but the fears were real in my mind. Amazingly they had the record in stock, and I bought several other LPs in hopes it would blend in with the crowd, so to speak. My fears turned out to be unnecessary as the big haired clerk rang up my purchases without blinking an eye. I took it home, placed the vinyl on my turntable, and about two seconds into Personality Crisis I was hooked. None of my college friends had much to say about it. To this day I may be the only Dolls fan who ever lived in Enid.

Generally the US rock press originally either ignored or dismissed the band, but now bestows honors upon them as if they had been in their corner all along. In a way I am happy to see them reincarnated and receiving the accolades they deserve, but then again would I have such a passion for them if they had met the same success in the early 70's that David Bowie encountered in the UK? Perhaps I enjoy the drama of a contender that never makes it to the big time. And certainly there was a thrill and daring for me in that LP cover that was taboo in the vast farmlands of middle America.

Recently there has been a wealth of live videos surfacing of the original New York Dolls in their prime. Few of these videos would have been allowed on broadcast TV back in the day. Here is Chatterbox off of their second LP In Too Much Too Soon. David Johansen struts across the stage in a killer cocktail dress while Silvain Silvain lays down majestic riffs and Johnny Thunders sings and coaxes devil sounds out of his guitar.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I'll feel much better on the other side

With the stroll through my Kink's LPs completed, first I need to tip my hat to Dave Emlen's Unofficial Kinks Web Site which is a treasure trove of all things Kinks. It is an invaluable resource. Great work Mr. Emlen.

So if you have visited here before you know I am a nut for British Invasion bands. But there were some damn fine 60's bands in the US too. And three of my favorites were from smoggy LA - The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Love. I love Love. Founder Arthur Lee passed away in 2006 and it hit me hard. If there is a silver lining to his end of days, it is that he was released from prison in 2001 and the fabulous Baby Lemonade became his new "Love". The DVD of their concert performance of Forever Changes is a must have for Love fans. And better yet, they toured for several years and there is a wealth of video available on YouTube.

I just happened across this 2003 Glastonbury performance of Your Mind and We Belong Together, which was the final single released by the original incarnation of Love. It is a trip and a half, with Mr. Lee in fine form and the band literally rips it up. RIP Mr. Lee.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Kinkdom is a land populated exclusively by mods who wear shoulder-length hair which droops, boots, guitars who twang and baby doll eyes which turn you

...on and on.

With the release of Kinkdom in November 1965 the Kinks - or rather Reprise Records - had managed four LPs in the span of twelve months. There is no UK counterpart to this release, as it was cobbled together from singles A and B sides, the British EP Kwyet Kinks, and a leftover track from an early UK EP. That track - Louie Louie - makes its second US LP appearance as Reprise was desperate to fill up side two. By this point they had nearly emptied the vaults of Kinks material.

In terms of music this is an awesome album. All but two tracks were written by one of the Davies' brothers. But I would have ordered the tracks differently. For instance, why bury I Need You in the middle of side 2 when it cries out for either the lead-off track or the LP closer. But enough nitpicking. Reprise was right on to include A Well Respected Man, and even more so to release it as a single A side the previous month. Why it was relegated to an EP track in the UK by Pye is one of the great mysteries of Kinkdom. This would be the first of many character sketches to come in which Ray would explore the pompous and the pure. The amount of bile generated towards the "man" of this song is astonishing for a 1965 hit. Such a Shame is that rare early Kink's track to dwell in minor keys. Never Met A Girl Like You Before starts off with the opening riff from Tired Of Waiting For You, then completely switches gears into a perky R&B number. In the previously mentioned I Need You Ray Davies perfected the proto-metal genre he created with You Really Got Me. The sound is vastly improved over that earlier hit, as is the production which uses feedback to propel the song forward into the pile driving riff that carries through to the end. The Kinks would not return to this sort of raw rock until the late 70's, and even then they would never surpass it.

Today's bonus embedded video contains one of the oddest Kinks performances, this one of See My Friends, a single A side released the previous summer and also the closing track on side 1. The song's novel use of an Indian drone accompaniment (using western instruments) was no doubt ahead of its time. Ray produced one of his most touching lyrics in which he deals with the departure of his girl. We learn that she left by crossing the river, but why she left is never discussed. All we know is that she left him and he feels abandoned, but at least he does have his friends, who he watches playing across the river. The vocals on this performance are live, though I suspect the basic instrumental track may be canned. Ray uses a much more nasal voice for the "see my friends" lines, while Dave's harmony vocals during the "she is gone" are louder and fuller than Ray's lead. It is a very affected and affecting performance.

Friday, December 4, 2009

I Don't Need Nobody Else

Kinda Kinks hit the US record shelves in August 1965, five months after the UK release with the same name. Many of the same tracks appeared, augmented by two 45 single A-sides, Ev'rybody's Gonna Be Happy (UK March 1965) and Set Me Free (from May 1965). Ev'rybody failed to make the top ten in Britain so the A and B sides were switched for the US market with Who'll Be The Next In Line getting the A honors when it was released in July 1965. Meanwhile a new single was out in the UK . Confusing? Reprise and Pye were each attempting to keep the masses buying Kinks' product, unsure just how long the British Invasion was going to last. Neither Set Me Free nor WBTNIL would come close to the top ten in the US, a steep drop-off from their first three hits.

The US LP kicks off with Look For Me Baby, a Motown influenced number in which Ray chides his lover "In your desperation you're going to look for someone else". There is a clumsiness to Ray's lead vocal that endears it to me, and the background vocals are a dead-on swipe from the Motown girl's group of that period. On Nothin' In This World Can Stop Me Worryin' About That Girl Ray opens up a new sound for the Kinks with a bluesy acoustic opening, then midway through the electric guitar and bass play a unison riff underneath his gentle lead vocal and propel the song to a most satisfactory end. Of the two previously mentioned singles Set Me Free is far superior, containing one of Ray's first falsetto attempts and a middle eight of impeccable beauty.

On the LP's final track The Kinks offer up a brilliant combination of Merseybeat songwriting and a chiming guitar riff that sounds as if the boys had been transplanted from sunny Southern California. Given that Something Better Beginning was recorded in December 1964, months before the Byrds would make their big splash, one wonders where Dave came up with this unique sound. Ray plays out this story of young love on the dance floor, one of the first of many Kinks songs to do so. And for once Ray is feeling positive, believing that this time it might just work out.

"Is this the start of another heart breaker
Or something better beginning"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Sun Never Sets on English Quartets

Kinks-Size was the Kinks' second Reprise LP, released about the same time as the UK Kinda Kinks in March 1965. You know the drill - the contents were not same, although there are a few tracks in common. The US release contains All Day And All Of The Night, the hit single from fall of 1964. Two tracks from Kinks (UK) also made their first US appearance.

Because I grew up with them I really love these early US releases. The UK versions are generally longer but not necessarily better, even if they were what the band intended. For the Kinks were being rushed to put out product, so I do not believe they put in much effort to create a cohesive collection. That would come with their landmark post-1966 albums down the road.

Today I shall take the easy route for my song of the day. Tired Of Waiting For You was the third Kinks hit single in a row, and the first to slow down the tempo and offer more than a wall of guitar noise. The real kicker here is the gorgeous middle eight in which Ray grants his girl the freedom to make her own way, yet pleads with her to make a decision.
It's your life
And you can do what you want
Do what you like
But please don't keep-a me waiting

There are even some simple sweet harmony vocals to accompany his plea. The Kinks were growing and some real changes are just around the corner. Normally I prefer a live rather than lip-synced performance, but the Kinks have a priceless, purposely lame outdoor video with a surprise ending.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lord she almost touched the sky

Three Kinks LPs to go, but today I am taking a break to clear my head for the final volley. So in the interim it brings me the utmost pleasure to blather on about my most favorite lost cause. Do you remember the Rolling Stone Magazine 1970 album of the year? Let It Be? Nope. All Things Must Pass? Nein. Fun House? If only. Led Zeppelin III? Just kidding. Parachute? (yes) Huh? Am I referring to The Pretty Things LP? Indeed. The only RS Mag album of the year ever not to earn the RIAA gold certification. And probably the only time those RS dipwads got it right. Dumped on Motown's Rare Earth label in the USA with no promotional effort whatsoever, it died a lonely underground death on the charts.

This album was 36 years old the first time I heard it. And literally within two or three listens it rose to somewhere in my top ten favorite LPs ever. If I could distill this album into a single concise description I would, but it escapes my effort. All I can say is that it is a cohesive unit, a soundscape that never fails to set a mood when I listen.

It was recorded at EMI's Abbey Road studios and produced by Norman Smith of early Beatles fame. And like the Beatles' album named for that studio, it has a deep rich sound. And it also borrows some of that album's novel structures - a couple of song suites, and a couple of heavy rockers that are years ahead of their time. Here are the opening tracks that set the stage for the side 1 story of the pitfalls of life in the city. The bottom drops out when the story line descends into a dark back alley in tracks 7 & 8 but that will be a post for another day.
  1. Scene One - a prelude that sounds nothing like anything the Pretties had produced up to this point. "Stone spires rise high, lacerate warmer skies, iron laced populations, beneath molten fields"
  2. The Good Mr. Square - the Pretties are not the Hollies or Beatles when it comes to harmony singing, but their effort here is top notch. Lovely! Mr. Square could very well be the social hermit from Waterloo Sunset. The linkage to the next track is seemless.
  3. She Was Tall, She Was High - Ah that opening is so Beatle-worthy! More stellar harmonies.
  4. In the Square - The beginning of another song suite, with a breathtaking acoustic guitar and harpsichord-like mellotron accompaniment.
  5. The Letter - An upbeat melody hides the pain as the protaganist learns that his girlfriend has bailed to move out to the country
  6. Rain - a gradually building rave-up that starts acoustic and ends in blue-hot heat.
And we have yet to reach the REALLY good parts :)