Playlist & Reflections on Robert Johnson & His LP ‘King Of The Delta Blues Singers’

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As I’ve documented in these pages, my first album ever was The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. After that, I was hooked on the power and the glory of rock and roll. I dove into the Stones catalog as deep as my allowance and lawn mowing money would take me. After that I started branching out. Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and Eric Clapton found their way into my record crate. Soon I was listening to Cream, AC/DC, Aerosmith and the Allman Brothers. I’m not a smart man, so it wasn’t until, believe it or not, I bought the Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues that it dawned on me that everything I like seemed to stem from this thing they call the blues. Say what you want about Belushi and Aykroyd’s vocals and stage schtick, the Blues Brothers boasted a crack band – Matt “Guitar Murphy, Steve Cropper (guitar), Duck Dunn (bass), Steve Jordan (drums and later Xpensive Wino), Paul Shaffer on keyboards and an all-star horn section. Before that album, I’m not sure I even knew what the blues were.

Hearing some blues, or a reasonable facsimile there of, made me realize all of the bands in my collection weren’t just rock and roll, they were blues rock. Even the term “rock and roll” came from the slang of the old blues guys… it was their euphemism for sex. AC/DC may have been harder than some of the other bands I listened to but the blues (or in their case blooze) was clearly there in songs like “The Jack,” or “Ride On.” Impassioned vocals over a great riff with a break for a soaring guitar solo was the blueprint. English rock stars had taken what the black blues legends of the Mississippi Delta had done and expanded on it. Although in many cases, they just stole the stuff the old blues cats had done, but that’s another post. It wasn’t until later that I began to explore the blues guys that had so heavily influenced the rock bands that followed them. I started seeking out Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker and of course, B.B. King. I foolishly thought those guys had invented the blues in the 40’s and 50’s. Ah, the misconceptions of youth. The blues have a much longer history.

The blues sprang out of the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the last century. Musicians from plantations in the Delta started playing the music we now know as the blues on acoustic guitars. They sang about every day troubles and tribulations, but mostly they sang thinly veiled songs about sex. Was it really a “Little Red Rooster” they were singing about? I think not… That music slowly moved up the river to Memphis. Eventually, after World War II, as black people moved up north looking for work, the blues followed and implanted itself in places like Chicago and Detroit. It took a while, but eventually the music the blues guys were making made it’s way to England where guys like the Stones, the Yardbirds, Alexis Koerner and Van Morrison snatched up blues 45s and formed bands. Those bands would incorporate blues and change rock and roll in America. The blues had taken a circuitous route home. It wasn’t until the folk music revival of the 60s that people started to seek out and appreciate some of the really early acoustic blues of the 20’s and 30’s. Blues and folk are more closely associated than people realize. I hear as much blues in Bob Dylan’s early work as I do Woody Guthrie. On his first LP Dylan did “In My Time Of Dying,” if you need proof.

It was during that folk/folk blues revival in the sixties when people began to discover the guy who is known as the Father of the Delta Blues, a man named Charley Patton. Charley is largely credited for being the first real blues star, if you will. Sadly he was long since dead by the 60s. Charley had passed the blues torch to greats like Bukka White and Son House. Son House was actually rediscovered in the sixties and returned to playing blues. It was one of Son House’s disciples that was rediscovered around that same time… a man named Robert Johnson who became King of all those early blues guys. Basically a footnote in the history of blues up to then, it wasn’t until 1961’s King of the Delta Blues Singers came out, a compilation of roughly half his recorded material that Johnson finally got the fame and accolades he’d missed out on in his short life. His legend grew quickly… soon there were stories about Johnson’s making a deal with the Devil down at the crossroads to obtain his mastery over the guitar. Those rumors mostly stem from stuff Son House said but it stuck…

Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911 (approximately). When he was but a youngster he met Son House who remembered him as an OK harmonica player and singer and a bad guitarist. Johnson moved from Robinsville, MS to Martinsville, MS where he studied guitar with Ike Zimmerman who supposedly got his gift with the guitar by hanging around graveyards…He most likely played there because no one was around, not to meet Satan. The next time Son House saw Johnson he was playing guitar like a master. It had been two years since he’d seen Johnson but House always recalled that it had taken such a short time for Johnson to improve so vastly that the Devil had to be involved… perhaps Johnson had indeed gone down to the crossroads and made that deal with the Devil, trading his soul for guitar mastery. A legend and myth were born.

I’m not a religious man. In the old days, in tough times I’d describe myself as being spiritual… there are no atheists in fox holes. As I’ve said before, “God makes me nervous when you get him indoors,” so I’ve always avoided organized religion… and well, unorganized religion for that matter. I’m sure the religious leaders of Robert Johnson’s time saw these guys traveling around, performing music, drinking booze and seducing women and immediately deemed it evil. No civilization has ever been comfortable with the effect really great music has on women (or men for that matter)… all that dancing and hair flying around, it’s like fucking standing up. Let’s remember Lucifer was the Angel most closely associated with music. I see a trend here. And let’s face it, even if you’re of the purest heart, having some puritan decry your music as evil probably helps make it irresistible to folks…forbidden fruit. How many rock bands have similar stories – Led Zeppelin (specifically Jimmy Page’s legendary interest in the occult) and even the Stones played that up (Their Satanic Majesty’s). Sabbath did pretty well financially pretending to be occultists and Satanic as well…

Whatever the explanation, supernatural or just that whole 10,000 hours of practice thing Malcolm Gladwell is so fond of, Johnson’s gift with the guitar was real. He’d left the life of a farm worker to become a traveling musician, which at the time was considered trading a normal life for that of the devil – traveling, drinking and of course women. He managed to record around 30 songs in hotel rooms in San Antonio and the back of a Dallas office. In the end, Robert Johnson was poisoned by a jealous girlfriend or perhaps a jealous boyfriend of one of his lady friends. He was 27… the first member of that horrible 27-Club. That would have been the end of his story, save for the early 60s folk/folk blues revival.

In 1961 Columbia records released the aforementioned compilation King of the Delta Blues Singers and suddenly Johnson’s myth took off. Bob Dylan is seen holding a copy of the album on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, which sealed Johnson’s hip factor. For whatever reason, I’ve been listening to King of the Delta Blues Singers a lot lately. I’ll admit 1990’s The Complete Recordings has probably supplanted it as the Robert Johnson album to have, but I still love Delta Blues Singers. The recordings are eighty years old, so they’re a bit primitive but Johnson’s music is so striking. His voice seems otherworldly. And yes, his guitar playing is masterful. His songwriting is top drawer as well. I consider Johnson one of the critical artists that everyone should experience.

In many ways, almost everyone has had some experience with Robert Johnson, so vast is his influence. He’s been covered by everyone from Cream to the Stones to Led Zeppelin and beyond. It was Brian Jones who introduced Robert Johnson’s music to Keith Richards who has been a lifelong fan. I mentioned the influence on Dylan prior. I don’t think there’s a bigger influence on Eric Clapton than Robert Johnson. I started thinking about all the Robert Johnson cover songs out there and I realized those songs would make a great playlist. I put together the following playlist in the same order as the tracks on King Of The Delta Blues Singers. But since there are so many other tracks by Johnson that have been covered, I added those additional songs to underscore how wide Johnson’s influence remains to this day. You may or may not have realized that these familiar songs were Robert Johnson, but hopefully this playlist will clarify this… my descriptions below.

  1. Cream, “Crossroads” – Clapton’s greatest cover of a Johnson tune. This may be Cream’s signature song in my mind.
  2. Foghat, “Terraplane Blues” – People forget how blues based Foghat were. This is maybe one of the earliest tracks to use a car as metaphor for sex.
  3. The Allman Brothers, “Come On In My Kitchen” – An authentic, acoustic take that makes me feel like I’m sitting on the front porch with Gregg belting this one.
  4. Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Walkin’ Blues” – Michael Bloomfield’s guitar is sublime.
  5. Eric Clapton, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” – Clapton has done almost all of the songs on this list and I like his take on this one.
  6. Bob Dylan, “32-20 Blues” – Dylan just slays this. I love it when he goes bluesy.
  7. Muddy Waters, “Kind Hearted Woman” – Johnson not only influenced rock n roll, he influenced the blues.
  8. Big Head Todd And the Monsters, “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” – Nobody was more surprised than I was that one-album wonder Big Head Todd had done an album of Johnson covers. I included this version to prove the reach of RJ’s music.
  9. Living Colour, “Preachin’ Blues” – These guys pour everything they’ve got into this tune.
  10. Johnny Winter, “When You Got a Good Friend” – A classic blues guy doing an even more classic blues tune. Johnny goes acoustic, very reverent of the original. You can tell Johnson’s a huge influence for Winter.
  11. Lucinda Williams, “Ramblin’ On My Mind” – Clapton did this with John Mayall way back when but I like Lucinda’s take too.
  12. John Mellencamp, “Stones In My Passway” – From Mellencamp’s overlooked blues album, Trouble No More.
  13. Led Zeppelin, “Traveling Riverside Blues” – Probably my favorite track here.
  14. John Hammond, “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” – Another faithful, acoustic blues track.
  15. Leon Redbone, “Me And The Devil Blues” – I thought Redbone was more of a novelty singer… this is actually a kick ass track. Redbone’s voice sounds almost as ancient as Johnson’s.
  16. Jimmy Wolf, “Hell Hound On My Trail” – Wolf is a blues guy I wasn’t familiar but this is a great take on this tune. It’s heavy blues.
  17. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “They’re Red Hot” – This is where the tracks I added beyond King of the Delta Blues Singers begin… Chili’s aren’t a blues band but it seems inevitable they’d do this track… I saw them improvise it live in Denver after a fan request once…
  18. The Rolling Stones, “Love In Vain” – The Stones at their bluesy best.
  19. Steve Miller Band, “Sweet Home Chicago” – People dig Miller’s 70s, spacey hits but he started as a blues guy. He returned to the blues later in his career and this one definitely worth checking out. I have to guiltily admit I like the Blues Brothers version as well… what can I say, it’s imprinted from my youth.
  20. ZZ Top, “Dust My Broom” – I had always thought this was Elmore James, but it’s pure Johnson.
  21. George Thorogood & The Destroyers, “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” – I always thought of George as a bit of a joke with all that “Bad To the Bone” stuff but he’s got the blues chops, especially with this great material.
  22. Cream, “Four Until Late” – From the bluesy, bluesy debut album.
  23. Peter Green, “Phonograph Blues” – Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker fame, doing a great solo take on RJ.
  24. Eric Clapton, “Little Queen of Spades” – Yes, I’m revisiting the same album as #5 but Clapton and Johnson have a symbiotic relationship…
  25. Johnny Lang, “Malted Milk” – The youngster on a track that Clapton did on his Unplugged album.
  26. The White Stripes, “Stop Breakin’ Down” – The Stripes doing one of my favorite RJ tracks… also done by the Stones on Sticky Fingers.

Listening to these tracks you’re probably already thinking, I didn’t know that was a Robert Johnson song! Take my advice and check out the originals. A haunting vocal that seems to come from the very soil of the Delta from which it sprang. “I went down to the crossroads, try to beg a ride…”

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LP Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Iha’s Surprisingly Tentative Return ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’

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I had heard rumblings about a true Smashing Pumpkins reunion forever. As early as 2007’s Zeitgeist when Corgan ran a full page ad in the Chicago newspaper saying he wanted everybody back onboard there’s been talk of a Pumpkins reunion. Then a couple of years ago on, yes, social media we started seeing pictures of guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in the studio with writer/producer/guitarist/singer Billy Corgan. Sadly, most of the buzz and talk around the reunion was around bassist D’Arcy’s absence. Apparently Corgan didn’t feel she could carry the weight of playing on a record and a tour. It’s much the same thing with Axl and Steve Adler, who actually admitted he couldn’t have played a whole show. If you don’t play, you forget how, apparently.

When I think about the Smashing Pumpkins, I think back to those glory years. My dear friend Doug gave me Siamese Dream. Obviously, that record is a masterpiece. It was the Chicago answer to the Seattle wave that engulfed the 90s. If you subscribe to the “great man” theory of history, I don’t think Corgan gets the credit he deserves. (Just ask him, he’d agree). While Cobain was the voice of a generation, an honor he never wanted, Corgan desperately coveted that tag. People spoke of Vedder, Cornell and Staley in hushed and reverent tones but Billy never got that kind of love. I guess Chicago isn’t as cool as Seattle… although I’d argue that point. Of all the big 90s bands, I think Corgan was the most “classic rock” influenced. I bought the double CD Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and remain blown away by it to this day. That tour was my first time seeing them in concert and they rawked.

But just when it seemed world-dominance was within Corgan’s grasp things went haywire. Chamberlin who had been struggling with alcoholism and heroin addiction for quite some time, OD’d along with touring keyboardist Jonathon Melvoin who tragically died. The band had had enough and Chamberlin was fired. The line-up of the Pumpkins has really been in flux ever since. They went with an electronica thing, produced by Rick Rubin on Adore and I think they lost a lot of people. I personally loved that record. The title track, “Ava Adore” and “To Sheila” remain among my favorites. I remember my friend’s wife turning to me during that concert and saying, “What’s this shit?” How Greil Marcus of her.

Chamberlin cleaned up and returned for 2000’s Machina/The Machines of Gods but by then D’Arcy had been dismissed for undisclosed reasons. The rumor was crack cocaine. I remember hearing she and her boy friend tried to rob a convenience store… I want to party with you, D’Arcy. After that the wheels came off and Corgan ended the Pumpkins. Chamberlin, who had at one time been Corgan’s roomie on the road, joined the short lived Zwan, an album apparently only I bought. Corgan did an un-listenable solo record and opened a tea shop. Finally he ran the ad calling his old comrades back to the band. Again, only Chamberlin showed up for Zeitgiest. After that, it was really a revolving door of musicians. Only guitarist Jeff Schroeder has seemed to stick. Tommy Lee of Motley Crue actually sat in the drummer’s chair for 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy.

I will admit, I’d been ignoring pretty much everything Corgan did since the Zwan thing. But I ended up picking up Oceania and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a great record. I also bought Monuments to an Elegy but admittedly I was merely intrigued by the idea of Tommy Lee drumming for Billy Corgan. Those were both great, sort of midtempo records. Nothing as epic or earth shattering as “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” but enjoyable rock albums. Then the announcement that Iha and Chamberlin were both back hit social media… I couldn’t help but wonder what their presence would do to the Pumpkins sound.

It was a Joe Strummer documentary I watched late at night, by myself where I saw Joe say, “never underestimate the chemistry of four guys in a room.” I’ve always believed in that. No matter how badly those folks might get along, there’s something about band chemistry. You get the right guys in a room and magic happens. Chrissie Hynde just plays better when Martin Chambers is on the drum kit. He knows instinctually what she’s going to do before she does it. With Iha back, I thought some of that magic might return.

I have to admit, on first listen I was a little surprised by Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol 1. The title actually goes on for a bit longer, but I’m too lazy to type the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, I like this record. I like most rock and roll. But I guess I expected a little more strum und drang. I was hoping for a bunch of bombastic guitar. Chamberlin’s drumming is, as usual, thunderous. For the most part, this is an all too brief, midtempo record in the same spirit of Oceania or Monuments. Iha’s presence hasn’t really fired Corgan up. I hear Iha’s distinctive guitar sound through out the record, but there’s nothing terribly heavy on this record. Rick Rubin has returned to produce this album, and he gives it the usual organic, clean production. I like the sound of this music and that’s probably due to Rubin.

The album starts off with a trio of pretty mellow tunes. I really like “Knights of Malta,” it reminds me of “Tonight, Tonight.” There are keyboards and strings. Then they slip into “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” which has that same chugging rhythm as “1979.” That song slips seamlessly into “Travels.” And I mean seamlessly, I had to look at the stereo to see that it had gone to the next track. Finally the band catches fire on the rocking lead single, “Solara” (New Single: The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Solara”: The Original (3/4 of it Anyway) Line-Up’s Rocking Return). Other than “Solara” the only tracks that really rock are “Seek And You Shall Destroy” and “Marchin’ On.” “Solara” is still the pick of the litter but “Seek And You Shall Destroy” is a very close second. The only real miscue on this record is “Alienation” which finds Corgan at his cliched worst.

Overall this is a pretty good record. It just feels like a real tentative reunion, like they’re still feeling each other out. I think a little touring and time spent together will loosen these guys up. Then maybe they can get back to their usual window shattering, earth shaking rock and roll. Give this one a listen, it’ll grow on you.

Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!

 

‘The Beatles (The White Album) – Super Deluxe’ – “So I Guess I’ll Have to Buy ‘The White Album’ Again”

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Oddly, one of the few things I remember about the 1997 movie ‘Men In Black’ is a joke about the Beatles. ‘Men In Black’ is about a secret security organization that interface with and police extra terrestrials here on Earth. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Agent J is showing Will Smith’s character, Agent K around MIB Headquarters. K asks how they pay for all of it. J explains that over the years they’ve confiscated several technologies from the visiting aliens that MIB have been able to monetize, like velcro, microwave ovens and liposuction. He then holds up a small disc and describes it as a “fascinating little gadget… gonna replace CDs soon.” And then, in that Tommy Lee Jones world-weary way, he says, “I guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again.” Only a rock n roll obsessive with a blog would probably remember that joke, but here it is….

https://youtu.be/bKlmoCzBPdw

In my early days I didn’t even buy The Beatles album, commonly known as The White Album for it’s blank cover with only their name embossed on it. I was a Stones fan back then. My brother, who’d discovered rock n roll way before I did and who purchased a little all-in-one unit stereo (with turntable, cassette and radio all built in) was the Beatles fan. Back then the world was divided into two camps, Stones fans or Beatles fans… it’s like being either on Batman’s or Superman’s bandwagon… you’re not supposed to dig both of them. By the time I’d started to buy albums, my brother had amassed a huge collection of Beatles records, including of course, The White Album. I guess being an obsessive complete-ist runs in the family. Instead of buying the album myself, I wandered into the forbidden zone, er, my brother’s room with a bunch of blank cassettes. I had a Sony Walkman and was committing vinyl to cassette so I could wander around the world with music in my ears…which beat talking to people.

I didn’t know much about the Beatles, only that my parents dug them and had the Blue edition of their greatest hits. I was going to record only “my own” Beatles greatest hits, the songs I liked. I was a bit daunted by The White Album. It was a double LP and besides “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” I didn’t really recognize any of the tunes. I set out to only tape the tracks I liked. I’d hit pause after each song which was hard because like a Pink Floyd LP, they kind of bled into one another. By the time I was halfway through side 1, all the way to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” I just said fuck it, all of this is good, I’m recording the whole thing. Well, until I got to “Revolution 9.” I still skip that sound montage.

It wasn’t until college, when I was going down to the town’s lone record store, spelunking for rock and roll with my roomy Drew, that I finally broke down and made that double-album commitment and properly bought The White Album. It’s truly an essential album for every rock and roll fan to own. I was extremely tardy in making that purchase…youth is wasted on the young. Then of course, vinyl faded (briefly) and CDs became all the rage. I bought The White Album a second time on CD. Then years later I ended up buying the Stereo box set of Beatles albums. Then I realized, on the early stuff, the Mono recordings were the ones to have. If I include my “bootleg” taping of The White Album I’m already up to four times purchasing the goddam White Album (and of course, 1 time stealing it). And now, for the 50th Anniversary, the Beatles have released a box set, The Beatles (The White Album) [Super Deluxe] a six-disc extravaganza remastered (masterfully) again by Giles Martin, the son of genius producer George Martin (RIP George Martin, Producer Extrodinaire of the Beatles). I bought the Giles’ remastered version of Sgt Pepper and it’s mind blowing. He’s doing some fabulous work for the Beatles including a crackerjack job on Live At the Hollywood Bowl LP Review: The Beatles, “Live At The Hollywood Bowl”. Here I am in 2018, and like Tommy Lee Jones said in ‘Men In Black,’ “I guess I’m going to have to buy The White Album again.

By 1968 the Beatles had conquered the world. Sgt Pepper had seen commercial and critical success that no rock album before it (or since, really) received. They were on top of the world. They had gotten a little criticism over their TV special, The Magical Mystery Tour but the fans loved it and the music was sound. They made the fatal mistake of forming Apple Corps, because they thought they could do anything and succeed. Ah, hubris. The Beatles then decided to indulge John and especially George’s interest in Eastern religions and they decamped to Rishikesh, India to learn about mediation from the Maharishi. They took only acoustic guitars and marijuana, they didn’t want to risk smuggling acid. It was with clear heads and calm hearts that they sat out in the middle of nowhere, and instead of meditating, they wrote songs. The period of February to April of 1968 was a particularly fruitful time for the Beatles’ songwriting, especially for George Harrison. Hari really came into his own as a songwriter in that period. Ringo was the first to split India, he didn’t like the food… a man after my own heart, I can’t stomach curry.

The Beatles reconvened as a band in May of ’68 at George’s house in the London neighborhood of Esher. They cut a bunch of acoustic demos that have come to be known by bootleggers as the Esher Sessions. Disc 3 of this new box is the (basically) complete Esher sessions, which makes this a must have for Beatles fans. A few of these tracks had been released on the Anthology series, but this is the whole thing. It proves their time in India had indeed been fruitful. Although when you think about 1968 and all the political turmoil – the Tet Offensive, LBJ announces he’s not running for re-election, MLK is assassinated, RFK runs for President and is also assassinated, the student riots in Paris (which inspired the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”) – the music on The White Album can seem a bit frivolous and light. It wasn’t the grand political statement people were hoping for, but I doubt they had TV coverage in the ashram.

The White Album has some of the most diverse stuff the Beatles ever did. They go from rock n roll (“Back In the USSR”) to blues (“Yer Blues”) to country (“Rocky Racoon”) to lush ballads (“Long, Long, Long”). Even Ringo wrote a song. When they entered the studio, fresh from the previous year’s success of Sgt Pepper and the Indian retreat, they booked massive amounts of studio time. Unfortunately, at least emotionally, they used it all. They’d record over 100 takes of each song, even songs they’d later scrap (“Not Guilty” got 102 takes and was criminally left off the album). They hadn’t really played as a foursome in a long time – they’d create a basic backing track and then overdub the other parts. Here they just jammed and overdubbed on the best versions. It took a long, long time to get a take they liked. McCartney’s perfectionism drove the others nuts. Ringo quit during the sessions for a week. They were a long way from four guys bashing it out at the Cavern Club. They had to relearn how to play with each other. The Apple Corps turned out to be a disaster financially and critically. That failure cranked up the pressure on the lads. Lennon hated the songs McCartney brought in, they were too saccharine for him. McCartney hated John’s stuff, he thought they lacked melody and were too contentious. Eventually they’d end up working in two different studios. You could cut the tension with a knife. Also, Lennon violated the “boys club,” “No girls allowed” rule and brought Yoko into the studio. A lot of people blame Yoko for the break up but hey, it was John who insisted she be there. It fundamentally changed the chemistry of the band and destroyed the communication between Lennon and the rest of the band, but especially McCartney. Even George Martin took off for an unannounced vacation and longtime engineer George Emerick up and quit.

I’ve heard Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours described as the recording of an orgy gone wrong. The White Album is really the soundtrack to a beloved band breaking up. It was clear they were all moving in different directions. The chemistry was irrevocably altered by Lennon’s love for Yoko. But damn, if this isn’t still a towering achievement. I can’t stop listening to this newly remastered version. Giles Martin has made this music sound fantastic. The version found here, on disc 1 and 2 is simply the definitive version from a sound perspective. I can’t stop listening to “Sexy Sadie.”

After disc 1 & 2, the original album, and disc 3, the Esher sessions, you find three discs of studio outtakes and earlier versions of the tracks on the albums. During The White Album sessions they recorded and released the double-sided single, “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” and you’ll find early versions of the former here. There’s an early sketch of “Let It Be.” While there are some rehearsals and some instrumental tracks that are probably only for the true complete-ist among you, there are a lot of little treasures. There is an almost 13 minute version of “Helter Skelter” that’s played slowly, like a blues tune that knocked me out. You’ll find the orchestral intro piece that George Martin put together for “Don’t Pass Me By” that got cut from the original release here as well. The 102’d take of “Not Guilty” is here as well. It’s a great song. Harrison did it later, not as well, on a later solo record. I wonder what took him so long to come back to that song…It isn’t until you get to disc 6 that you find some stuff that might be characterized as “superfluous.” I loved hearing the studio chatter of the band members in the studio. So, yes, this box set is really worth it.

I found something to love on all three of the latter discs. And of course, The White Album totally remastered and the complete Esher Sessions make this a B&V must have. I know what you’re thinking… like Agent J… Yes, you’re “gonna have to buy The White Album again.” But trust me, it’s totally worth it.

 

 

Movie: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – The Story of Freddy Mercury and Queen

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*Image from a drawing I bought at an art fair that hangs in my office, artist’s name illegible

I think it was Lou Reed, on a song from his landmark late-80s album New York, who sang about the “duality of nature, human nature, godly nature splits the soul.” I’m not sure I knew what he was talking about when I was listening to that song in my car on cassette, driving around Northwest Arkansas. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to piece that together a little better. For example, on a superficial level, I can tell you that autumn is my favorite time year (“autumn’s sweet, we call it fall” as the Chili Peppers sang). At the same time I can tell you that I hate this time of year. The faceless corporation I work for does most of it’s business in December so autumn and early winter are always insanely busy. My travel goes up, my time to listen to rock and roll goes down. The only thing that throws the balance of autumn to the positive is football and well, it is bourbon season.

Being so busy this time of year has prevented me from my favorite past time – holing up in the B&V labs and scribbling about the music that shaped my life. I’m long overdue for a post, but enough about me. I got home from one of my interminable business trips this Friday, dropped my suitcases in an exhausted heap and learned that the Rock Chick had bought us tickets to see the new bio-pic about Freddy Mercury and Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.” This was quite a delightful surprise. She was not keen to go see this movie. Earlier in the week, there had been an intense negotiation around which flicks we would be seeing in the near term. In exchange for her going to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ I fear I may have committed to go to ‘A Star Is Born.’ Say what you want about Lady Gaga, (and while I think she’s talented, I’m not a fan…not my style), Kris Kristofferson and Streisand own that movie for me… Little known fact, Streisand originally asked Elvis to play the part of the druggy, burned-out rock star… He (or more likely, the Colonel) turned her down. They speculate that taking the role could have saved his life. He’d have had to sober up and get in shape. At least Baabs tried. What might have been…?

Last night, I finally got to do something other than work and we went to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ The movie stars Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor, Joseph Mazzello as John Deacon (or Deacon John as we knew him back in the day), and finally Gwilym Lee as Brian May. Gwilym? This kid’s parents must have been hippies or had a strange sense of humor. Not enough can be said about the performance of Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddy’s long time friend and briefly, his wife. I will be the first to admit, this movie is flawed. The timeline as to which songs or which albums were released was way off. Probably only an OCD rock fan with a blog would notice but I kept muttering about it to the Rock Chick. I think Freddy was probably a tortured soul and struggled with his own “duality of nature” if you will, and I think Rami Malek captures that well. However, I think there was a lot of joy in Freddy’s life and I don’t think they captured enough of that. Freddy always looked like he was having a great time to me. All of that aside, as a rock fan, I really liked this movie. But then, I really love Queen.

Queen were already international rock stars when my own rock and roll awakening took place in 7th or 8th grade. My parents weren’t musical, they never played the radio, but somehow there were just certain songs or groups that seemed to pierce my consciousness. I can distinctly remember going to the pool in the summer, which was literally my only exposure to pop music when I was a kid (except those rare times I went into my brother’s room, he was far more advanced musically than I was), and being aware of hearing “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac and “Killer Queen” by, of course, Queen. I was literally aware of Queen before I was aware of rock and roll.

My first vinyl Queen purchase was 1977’s News Of The World. It was one of the first rock albums I’d purchased. You couldn’t get away from the lead singles “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions.” The “Champions” part was Freddy’s snarky reply to the punks, and probably the best reply by a “classic” rock band other than “Who Are  You?” Who would have dreamed a band fronted by a gay man would pen a song that would be played in every arena and stadium at every macho sporting event for the rest of recorded time. I simply loved that album. It had a little bit of everything. People forget that Queen started as a hard rock band with prog rock influences. While they rocked, they could certainly roll too. Freddy, very early on, cited Robert Plant as a singing idol. Metallica has covered some of their early stuff… News Of the World had plenty of hard rock (“It’s Late” is my perennial favorite), but it also had piano ballads (“My Melancholy Blues”), disco (“Get Down Make Love”) and epic arena rock (“Spread Your Wings”).

After News, I was on the bandwagon. Queen was on top of the world at that time. 1978’s Jazz which was described in Rolling Stone magazine as “fascist,” and had nothing to do with the musical genre it’s named after. It was all rock and roll. That was followed by their oft overlooked live album, Live Killers that always seemed to be playing at keg parties I went to. It was always that album and Rush’s 2112 that somebody put on. Queen finally reached their second career zenith (the first being, of course, their masterpiece, A Night At the Opera) with 1980’s The Game. The lead single was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and it still knocks me out. I was too young to realize that Freddy was doing Elvis.

The Game always conjures a bit of a bittersweet reaction in me. Queen came to Kansas City on that tour. My friend Matthew and his hot girlfriend Debbie tried to talk me into going to the show. By then, I was a “Death Before Disco” guy and didn’t like “Another One Bites the Dust.” I hate to admit it, but I think there was more to it than that. For The Game Freddy had cut his hair short, grown a mustache and was dressed like a butch biker. All the time we’d been listening to Queen, we’d all say, “he’s not gay, he’s just English, they’re more flamboyant,” with all apologies to every Englishmen out there. I fear I was part of the backlash against Queen and I didn’t go the show. I wish I’d seen these guys, I blew it. My friend Matthew sadly passed out as they came on stage and only regained consciousness when they were saying goodnight. I think we’ve all had nights like that…mine was Neil Young and Crazy Horse… what happened?

It was then that Queen began to “lose” America. Their next album, Hot Space was their worst… I shudder when I think about the lead single, “Body Language.” Not even the presence of David Bowie and “Under Pressure” could save that record. There was more to it – I don’t know if it was gay backlash. I know at the time of The Game I was an adolescent kid who didn’t know much about the world. I was still forming. An in your face gay Freddy was more than we could handle. I’m ashamed of that now. Now I’d say it doesn’t matter who you’re fucking, what matters is the music… Despite all that, we all still made sure we were home when Queen were on Saturday Night Live. I can still remember being thrilled to see them perform “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Under Pressure.” That was back when SNL was “appointment” television. You’d make sure to get home to see the skits, and more importantly for me, the bands.

While it wasn’t until much later that I picked up 1984’s The Works, I certainly got back on the bandwagon for their album, A Kind of Magic, which was basically the soundtrack to one of my all time favorite movies, ‘Highlander.’ I can remember Matthew saying at the time, “Brian May needs to take control of this band,” which probably shows our lack of understanding as to how Queen operated. Queen went on to have a very strong late career. The highlight of which, and the climactic moment in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ was their performance at Live Aid. I remember watching them on TV and being blown away. Forget all the reunions – Zeppelin, CSNY, Mick and Tina Turner, Black Sabbath – Queen stole the show. The final scene in the movie, which is a spot-on recreation of Queen’s Live Aid set (slightly edited) put tears in my eyes. When I got home from the theater I had to pull up the YouTube video and marveled at how kick ass Queen was that day. Mercury was warned by doctors he could lose his voice if he sang that day, and he still went on. The fans at Wembley went certifiably nuts… As I watched the YouTube footage, again, tears welled for a friend lost too early, Freddy Mercury.

Fans of rock and roll, fans of Queen, fans of the human experience, the “duality of nature, human nature…”, all of you should go and see this movie. It’s not a perfect biography but it was a fun and enjoyable movie. The thing that you’ll enjoy the most is the power and majesty of the rock and roll Queen and Freddy made. It’s certainly better than that mess Oliver Stone made about the Doors. After you’ve seen it, run home and drop Sheer Heart Attack on the turntable, pour something dark and murky and marvel… Long Live the Queen!