Our Favorite Second Albums: Defying The Sophomore Slump With An Even Better 2nd LP

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*Photo taken by your intrepid blogger which explains why ‘Led Zeppelin II’ is obscured. Sigh.

There’s a certain theory, not exclusive to music, known as the sophomore slump. I almost called it a canard, a word I dislike for reasons unclear. According to Webster, a canard is an “unfounded rumor or story.” For example, our previous story about Zeppelin being booed off stage in KC was a canard and proved to be untrue. However, even I will admit, there is some foundation to the sophomore slump theory in music and sports. I’ve heard it applied in football to quarterbacks who have a great rookie season. Their second (aka “sophomore”) season can often be seen as a setback and not as good as that first, rookie season. Defenses adjust, they’re more prepared for you and what not and so the QB in question takes a step “backwards.” I guess in this example the rookie year is akin to the freshman year. Personally, while I had a number of disasters my sophomore year in college they paled in comparison to the absolute dumpster fire my freshman year was. Even though that sophomore year was awful it was an improvement for me over that accursed freshman year in college. When you’re a senior in high school you’re on top of the food chain and then suddenly you’re a freshman in college and you’re back on the bottom of the ladder. Sophomore year was a cake walk in comparison… at least in my case.

I guess there’s probably a reason the sophomore slump applies to both sports and rock n roll. A rookie quarterback has a lot to prove. He likely has to justify his draft spot and prove he can make it in the league. And, much like that, rock n roll bands are typically starving artist types and when they get that record deal, they too have to prove themselves on that first album. They likely put everything they’ve got into it. You only have one chance to make a first impression as they say. That “giving it your all” on the first LP doesn’t leave a whole lot for the follow-up album. There’s a saying in music, “you have your whole life to write your first album, you only have 18 months to write your second.” I don’t know who said that but it’s brilliant. And as long time B&V readers know I’m a huge fan of debut albums and even solo debut albums from guys who have been in a band we like. I’ve also highlighted rock n roll acts whose third album was the commercial breakthrough for them… I doubt any record company is going to show that kind of patience any more.

Recently I began thinking about second albums because… well, I’m obsessed with rock n roll? I couldn’t help but ponder the rock n roll sophomore slump. Even I have to admit there have been some bad second albums. I think the group, for me, who takes the trophy on this is a little band out of Australia named Jet. When their debut Get Born came out I thought they were going to be “the next big thing.” I saw them open for Oasis at Red Rocks outside of Denver and they rocked. I was so into them I bought the t-shirt, which is a pretty big commitment from a rock n roll fan. I don’t buy a t-shirt every time I go to a concert… I saw Fitz And the Tantrums on Tuesday and no shirt purchase was even considered… Anyway, a few years later when they came out with Shine On I was baffled. They sounded like a second-rate Oasis. Maybe they spent too much time hanging around Noel Gallagher. It ruined them for me. I sold that record at the Used CD store a few months later. Sadly, I still wear the t-shirt, it’s like a tattoo I regret.

Jet was a pretty extreme case of the sophomore slump. There are examples, however, of big bands, bands we all love, who suffered through a bad (or not-as-good) second LP. I remember at their Rock Hall of Fame induction ceremony U2’s Bono saying something about the record company sticking by them even for “the difficult second album.” In U2’s case it was October, which would vie amongst only a few others for their worst album. The Police’s second LP Regatta De Blanc, despite having the great singles “Walking On The Moon” and “Message In A Bottle,” was pretty weak, or perhaps we should say it was only fair. Second albums don’t always have to be a disaster to be considered a sophomore slump. Van Halen’s second album is a record I still love, but everyone will universally admit it isn’t up to the level of their masterpiece debut Van Halen. The ideas had all been spent on the debut. The sophomore slump is just a slight and in some cases pronounced dip in quality. Van Halen was only going to get to sneak up on us once… unless of course you consider that Van Hagar debut to be a surprise (In Defense of Van Hagar, No Really… Complete With a B&V Van Hagar Playlist).

All of that said, let’s not get carried away with this thing. There are plenty of bands who released a great second album. In some ways I like Candy-O more than The Cars but I know I’ll mostly lose that argument. There wasn’t much of a drop in quality between those albums. And if I’m being honest, while I love Cheap Trick’s debut I’ve always dug In Color, the follow up. I’ve always wondered if I was in Cheap Trick back then, would they put me on the front cover with the good lookin’ guys or on the back with the carnival freaks? Sorry, I digress. The Byrds, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Allman Brothers – to name but a few – all had great debut albums and then put out a second album as good, or close to, the first album. I guess I’m just trying to underscore the fact that we shouldn’t consider the sophomore slump to be the norm. It’s hard to follow up a spectacular debut, the pressure the record company and the fans put on artists has got to be immense, but some artists actually do it. Some bands were just fortunate enough they didn’t have Axl Rose driving the car, making the creative decisions for them…

But then we have some acts who not only equaled their debut, they transcended it. There are some bands with a strong debut who took an enormous leap forward with their second. Ok, maybe not an enormous leap forward, but strides in creativity, songwriting and/or accessibility. Those are the albums I’ve been thinking about over the last week in between blasting Chuck Berry covers and Elton John’s Madman Across the Water. I don’t know what alchemy causes it but some acts just got stronger after their debut. Maybe it’s the uptick in touring that helps them hone their skills. A successful debut might breed more confidence. There are just some bands who defied the odds and defied the sophomore slump. It’s those albums we celebrate here today.

Here is our list of 20 of our favorite 2nd albums. It’s certainly not meant to be definitive and if you’ve got an example of a great, sophomore-slump-defying, second album please let us know in the comments. I highly recommend listening to each of these albums and if you hear something you like you haven’t before, explore the catalogs of these artists, it’s worth the journey… I have listed the artists’ name, album name and my explanation for it’s inclusion on the list. As usual I’ve tried to stray a little off the beaten path (at least somewhat) here…

  • Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique – After Licensed to Ill and all that “You’ve Got A Fight For Your Right (to Party)” stuff did anybody see this massive leap in creativity and sophistication coming? Paul’s Boutique is arguably their masterpiece. The jump between the two albums is staggering and was completely unexpected.
  • Def Leppard, High And Dry – We all thought those Def Leppard kids were a novely act after On Through the Night. I saw them in concert on that tour (they were openers) and I was older than them and I don’t think I could drive. This album was such a leap forward. It rocks harder than anything the put out before or after. Even though Mutt Lange is onboard to produce he hasn’t yet dipped them in amber gloss nor smoothed out the rough edges yet. This was a sign that Def Leppard would be around for a long while.
  • Aerosmith, Get Your Wings – Aerosmith’s self titled debut was one of the first Aerosmith LPs I purchased, probably because of “Dream On,” an FM staple when I first started listening to music. I still love that album but don’t know anybody else who owns it. I loved “One Way Street” and “Movin’ Out,” they’re amongst Aerosmith’s finest songs. However, it’s on Get Your Wings where they found their stride. Tunes like “Same Ol’ Song And Dance” and “Lord of the Thighs” are cornerstones of the Aerosmith foundation. I love their version of the Yardbirds’ “Train Kept A’Rollin’.”
  • The White Stripes, De Stijl – This album will always be my favorite White Stripes’ album. It’s bluesier than anything else they put out. They hadn’t hit it big yet, that’d happen on their third LP, White Blood Cells, but all the pieces are all here – Jack White’s tortured vocals and more tortured guitar solos with Meg White’s primal drumming. This is the LP to start your White Stripes’ collection on.
  • Fiona Apple, When The Pawn… – I fell in love with Fiona Apple on her debut, Tidal. She was still so  young when that came out. Despite the Guiness Book title, When The Pawn… showed such a leap forward in maturity and strength from Fiona as an artist it signaled her debut was no one off.
  • Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle – I judge every Springsteen fan I meet by their opinion of this album. The evolution forward on this album is incalculable. He started penning epic 7-plus minute songs. Side two: “Incident On 47th St,” “Rosalita,” and “New York City Serenade” may be the greatest side of music Bruce ever recorded… I’ve always also loved “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”
  • Black Sabbath, Paranoid – Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut always gets slagged as sounding like a bad version of Cream. I like it but the Cream influence is palpable. Paranoid is where they forged their own identity. It’s truly their masterpiece. Master of Reality may rock harder, but tune for tune this is the greatest thing they ever put out.
  • Social Distortion, Prison Bound – People tend to forget about Social D’s early, pre-big label LPs. I like the debut but Prison Bound is the greatest fusion of country and punk rock – and who’d have thought that was possible – ever recorded. As a Stones’ fan I love their version of “Backstreet Girl,” but “I’m An Outlaw (For You)” is my favorite Social D song… well, one of them anyway.
  • Buffalo Springfield, Again – Buffalo Springfield is proof that one band can have too much talent. Too many songwriters, too many singers, too many lead guitarists. After breaking up after the debut they’d gotten back together and issued this, their masterpiece. The debut was awesome but Neil Young is on fire here: “Broken Arrow,” “Mr. Soul,” and “Expecting To Fly.” Stills has some of his best stuff here too including “Bluebird.”
  • Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream – Gish is an amazing debut album. I think it’s better than Nirvana’s debut, Bleach. But even through turmoil and almost breaking up, Billy Corgan delivered a brilliant batch of songs. They spent the rest of their career trying to outdo this one.
  • Cream, Disreali Gears – I love Fresh Cream but even I’ll admit it was mostly a blues covers LP. On Disreali Gears Cream took the blues, added psychedelics and turned the world on its axis.
  • Lou Reed, Transformer – Lou was pretty low after the Velvet Underground broke up. I think he took a job as a typist at his father’s company for a while. His solo debut was a disappointment… enter David Bowie and Mick Ronson who produced this, Lou’s most commercially successful album.
  • The Cult, Love – The Cult’s debut Dreamtime is a great album but it sounds like a debut. Love is my favorite Cult LP. It doesn’t rock with the abandon of the follow-up, Electric, but the songs are amongst their best. “She Sells Sanctuary” blows me away every time I hear it but “Rain,” “Hollow Man” and “Revolution” are all great rock tunes.
  • Nirvana, Nevermind – I doubt this one needs any explanation. Bleach was good but a fairly typical debut LP… Nevermind destroyed everything that came before… This is a once in a generation album.
  • Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – Dylan’s debut was a folkie’s delight. His talent exploded on Freewheelin’. It’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded. And to think it was only his first masterpiece.
  • Van Morrison, Astral Weeks – Astral Weeks was different than anything that Van Morrison did before it. I like to listen to it in it’s entirety, it’s like being on a spiritual retreat or listening to a meditation app.
  • Faces, Long Player – First Step was a great well, first step. Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood had joined the Small Faces, but they stood a head taller than the rest of the band. The debut was really the sound of Rod and Wood integrating into the band. Long Player, more than any of their other LPs really captures the spirit of the Faces.
  • Metallica, Ride The Lightning – This album ranks up there with Paul’s Boutique as a stunning leap forward. I mean the sophistication and sheer strength and power of this album dwarfs Kill Em All and that one is a classic as well. This is by far Metallica’s best album.
  • Little Feat, Sailin’ Shoes – Little Feat’s debut was an awesome record but even I’ll admit, quirky. Lowell George was nothing if not an eccentric. Sailin’ Shoes was just as good but much much more accessible. The title track, “Easy to Slip” and “Apolitical Blues” are all essential Little Feat tunes that have been covered by countless bands.
  • Led Zeppelin, II – Zeppelin’s debut laid out the blueprint for who they were. It too was one of the first LPs I ever purchased, likely because of “Dazed And Confused.” But it was very much of that late 60s, British blues rock sound. On Led Zeppelin II they took that and blew it up to 11. They were still very blues based but this rock n roll went places the music had never been. All the pent up aggression and hedonism and stress of their first U.S. tour was poured into the grooves of this record.

If you’ve just started something new and are worried about a sophomore slump, just put on one of these albums and turn it up loud. Hell, if you like these records, dive into these artists’ back catalogs. It’ll get you through any “slump” they can come up.

Now that the Summer Solstice has passed and it is “officially” summer, let me just say… stay cool out there, and have a happy summer! Find something cold to drink and kick back… they say if you’ve started drinking chardonnay you’re becoming your mother and if you put ice in your chardonnay you are your mother. Here’s to all you mother’s out there!

Cheers!

Playlist: The B&V Favorite Covers of Chuck Berry Songs – A Tribute To His Immense Influence

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*Picture from the internet and likely copyrighted

“If you were to try and give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry” – John Lennon

As longtime readers know, I spent much of the last week and half listening to the 50th anniversary edition of Elton John’s Madman Across The Water. As I listened to that beautiful rock and roll album I couldn’t help but ruminate on the future of rock n roll. Will anyone ever make music like that again? And as usually happens when I think about the future of rock n roll, my mind kept returning to rock’s history, where it’s been. While Elvis is universally hailed as the King of Rock n Roll, although he was uncomfortable with the title and used to say, “Fats Domino, he’s the King of Rock n Roll,” a guy that ought to be in that discussion is Chuck Berry.

I was surprised that it’d been over five years since we lost Chuck Berry. And yes, I wrote my usual tribute/”obituary” (RIP Chuck Berry – Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll), but I don’t feel I properly honored the man. I think you could argue that the Beatles and the Stones are greatest rock n roll bands ever. Sure, there’s the Zeppelin and Pink Floyd fans and I dig those bands too, but the influence the Stones and especially the Beatles had on popular music is enormous. The thing that people don’t seem to remember is those bands had influences as well and one of the biggest influences on both of them was Chuck Berry. As much as Paul McCartney wants to describe the Stones as a “blues cover” band, they also played a ton of Chuck Berry in those early days.

Speaking of the Beatles, I’m reminded of when I was just a little kid or as Tom Petty sang, “a boy in short pants.” I hated elementary school which seemed like a bad prank my parents played on me. Like the Godfather’s sang, “Birth, school, work, death.” I’m not a morning person, and even at that very tender age I was stunned I had to wake up, get out of bed, put clothes on and go to what seemed like a prison for the day with people I didn’t like. What I really liked, besides summer vacation, was to be sick and stay home. I had a Charlie Brown poster on the back of my door that read “Happiness is being too sick to go to school but not too sick to watch TV.” Savage honesty from Peanuts.

I remember – and I was in the single digits, age wise – being sick a couple of days and my Sainted Mother made a bed on the couch for me. Day time TV was different back then. The local station showed an old, old movie in the morning and there was Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas in the afternoon. There was no Oprah or Ellen back then. The shrews on “The View” were just someone else’s nightmare back then. I turn on the Mike Douglas show that first sick day and his cohost that week – he’d have a different one each week as I recall – was John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. I was so young I only had a vague idea who the Beatles were – they were a  music group my brother liked – and I was pretty sure John had been in the Beatles. It was a crazy week of TV. Mike was stunningly very welcoming to John & Yoko who were counterculture icons by this point. They had a Black Panther on, they had George Carlin on. It was wonderfully subversive TV, and in-color! But the thing I remember most is Lennon bringing on Chuck Berry. His love and admiration was on full display in this clip. And mind you this is after Chuck had sued Lennon for lifting a few lyrics from him for “Come Together,” (“Here comes ol’ flattop he comes groovin’ up slowly”).

Lennon clearly worshiped the guy. So did McCartney although I sense he was more of a Little Richard fan. And this underscores my point about Chuck’s influence on rock n roll. He was really the first “guitar hero” rock star. Elvis would wear a guitar around his neck sometimes but he was a singer. Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis all sat behind a piano. Buddy Holly played guitar but he wasn’t as aggressive a player as Berry. Berry was a precursor to Hendrix. He was out front, singing but also playing the guitar at the same time. His duck walk, pictured above, was as iconic as Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.

Most of Chuck’s tunes were up-beat rockers. He would just find a riff and ride it until the end. It was very guitar forward rock n roll. He would play blistering, albeit brief solos. It was the sound of freedom and rebellion. You could tell Chuck was probably misbehaving. He wrote more songs about under age girls than perhaps he should have…Everybody that you can think of – all the great bands and artists – cover Chuck. From the aforementioned Beatles (and both Lennon and McCartney) to the Stones (and Keith solo) to the Kinks, the Animals, the Everly Brothers and even Elvis covered Chuck Berry. Even if a band you love didn’t cover Chuck, they can probably play one of his tracks live. Keith Richards even did a documentary in honor of Chuck, Hail! Hail! Rock N Roll. There are so many great tunes that are based on the Chuck Berry formula: the Stones’ “Star Star” and Bob Seger’s “Get Out Of Denver” to name but a few. He’s all over rock n roll.

If you’ve never really listened to Chuck Berry – and you’ve probably heard his music but didn’t realize your favorite band was playing Chuck – I would recommend his compilation LP The Great Twenty-Eight, as a starting point. There are probably bigger or more complete “greatest hits” packages but The Great Twenty Eight covers the cream of the crop all in one disc. Artists in the 50s and 60s were more singles focused instead of album focused so compilations of those singles are the best way to experience artists like Chuck or Buddy Holly. My father had a bunch of singles from Elvis, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles but oddly no Chuck Berry…

I decided to compile a playlist based on The Great Twenty Eight. I did something similar with Robert Johnson’s King Of the Delta Blues album. I find my favorite versions of covers of the songs on the album and put them on my play list. I also threw in a few bonus tracks of versions of songs that are too good to ignore. One thing I found and this is weird to me – is that there are so many blues or blues rock guys that covered Chuck Berry. It’s like he’s a missing link between the blues and rock and roll. Maybe it’s because he was so guitar focused. His songs were riff, riff, solo, riff. And that is kind of similar to blues. But when you see Johnny Winter, George Thorogood and Foghat on a list you start to think, hmmm the blues and Chuck Berry must have had some synergy. If you’ve got a great Chuck Berry cover, put it in the comments and I’ll drop it in the playlist. As usual you can find my playlist on the dread Spotify.

  1. AC/DC, “School Days” – AC/DC rock this one. I’ll say again it’s interesting how bands with a great blues base always seem to find Chuck. I love Angus’ solo but then I love all of his solos.
  2. The Rolling Stones, “Come On” – I could have just filled this list with Stones’ tunes. I love this mono version of the Stones’ very first single. I mean, very first ever.
  3. Faces, “Memphis” – This is the ultimate version of this song in my opinion and one of my favorite songs from Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane and the gang. Woody just takes the band on a little slide guitar jam before the song kicks in. Sublime.
  4. Bob Seger, “Let It Rock” – If Seger’s early music was out there I’d have included the studio version of this track from Smokin’ O.P.s but this epic live version will do. It’s amazing that Seger and the Silver Bullet Band could take a three minute Chuck Berry song and turn it into their epic show ending last encore for the balance of their career. You hear a snippet of “Little Queenie” as well. “Get Out of Denver” from Bob might be the best Chuck Berry song not done by Chuck.
  5. The Animals, “Around And Around” – The Stones also did this track on their second LP but I feel like the Animals – who were a solid blues rock outfit in their own right – deserve some love from B&V.
  6. The Rolling Stones, “Bye Bye Johnny” – Another Berry cover, another single. The devotion was real!
  7. The Kinks, “Too Much Monkey Business” – Sure I could have gone with the Elvis version but I couldn’t resist this version by the Kinks. The Yardbirds did a spirited version of this track as well.
  8. John Lennon, “You Can’t Catch Me” – One of several Chuck Berry covers Lennon did on his oft overlooked 1975 LP Rock N Roll an album of early rock covers which made our list of favorite “cover albums.”
  9. Linda Ronstadt, “Back In The U.S.A.” – One of my all time favorite Chuck Berry covers and one of my favorite songs from Ronstadt. Everything she did was amazing (Documentary Review: The Sublime ‘Linda Ronstadt, The Sound Of My Voice’).
  10. The Everly Brothers, “Maybellene” – I actually was torn between this version and the Foghat version so I’ve put both on this playlist. I feel like they vary enough I could get away with it.
  11. REO Speedwagon, “Little Queenie” – Again, I could have used the Stones’ version but what’s the fun in an all Stones’ playlist? This was from their 1972 second LP back when they still rocked and before they became sell out hacks. “Little Queenie” is one of Chuck’s more oft covered tracks.
  12. Stray Cats, “Beautiful Delilah” – I love the Stones’ version, especially on the On Air – Live At the BBC album but I’ve always kind of dug the Stray Cats. I saw them live by accident once at, of all places, Worlds Of Fun. Brian Setzer on guitar is the real deal.
  13. The Beatles, “Roll Over Beethoven” – I’m stunned it’s taken me this long to get around to a Beatles’ version of a Chuck song! ELO did a version but c’mon, you’re never gonna beat the Beatles doing Berry.
  14. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Carol (Live)” – In his later years Petty got into the blues and unsurprisingly it led him to Chuck Berry.
  15. Rod Stewart, “Sweet Little Rock n Roller” – From his oft wrongly maligned LP Smiler which marked the end of his fruitful Mercury years. This song is worth the price of the album alone.
  16. Johnny Cash & Carl Perkins, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” – There are so many fabulous version of this track from Buddy Holly to Paul McCartney but you can’t beat two legends taking a turn on this one.
  17. The Rolling Stones, “Talkin’ About You” – Well, I didn’t say I was going to avoid all the Stones’ covers did I? Another great track.
  18. John Lennon, “Sweet Little Sixteen” – Lennon back with another Chuck song about a young girl… I sense a pattern here from Mr. Berry.
  19. The Beatles, “Rock And Roll Music” – The young Beatles at their ferocious best. Primal rock n roll here.
  20. Johnny Winter, “Thirty Days” – The legendary blues man doing a raucous version here. Johnny deserves more love… we just reviewed his brother Edgar’s tribute LP for Johnny, a must listen for fans of the blues. It’s like Johnny was meant to cover Chuck Berry.
  21. Santana, “Havana Moon” – Never has a song and a band been a more perfect match.
  22. The Pretty Things, “Oh Baby Doll” – One of Bowie’s favorite bands doing Chuck here. I’ve just recently gotten into these guys and they are awesome.
  23. Dave Clark Five, “Reelin’ And Rockin” – Was there any 60s era band that didn’t take a crack at a Chuck Berry song?
  24. Jimi Hendrix, “Johnny B Goode (Live At Berkley)” – This is a really manic version of this song but it works. Guitar God Jimi Hendrix giving a nod to the first real Guitar God, Chuck Berry. What’s not to love?
  25. Lovin’ Spoonful, “Almost Grown” – A great band that also deserves more love here at B&V. I’ve had several readers post their tracks as suggestions for our other playlists… I thought I’d beat them to the punch!
  26. John Hammond, “Nadine” – A new discovery for us here at B&V but love this track.
  27. George Thorogood & the Delware Destroyers, “No Particular Place To Go” – This song takes me back to high school and college, Thorogood’s heyday. He’s another example of a blues guy – who turned a John Lee Hooker tune into a hit (“One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”) – doing Chuck Berry.
  28. Foghat, “Maybelline” – Call me a product of the 70s but I will always love Foghat… especially that famous picture of them in front of the Holiday Inn marquee…
  29. The Band, “Back To Memphis (Outtake)” – I’ve been jamming on the Band’s album Cahoots for the last few weeks now I’m thinking I’ll have to dig into Moondog Matinee now too.
  30. Jerry Garcia Band, “You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)” – Seger did this song on a greatest hits compilation but I was just so delighted to be able to slip Jerry Garcia on this list. I’m sure there are countless Greatful Dead covers that rage on for 45 minutes but this one is a short and sweet track.
  31. Keith Richards, “Run Rudolph, Run” – This is a bonus track for all you Christmas music folks. Keith just loves Chuck.

I have to admit, I had to make some really tough choices. There are so many bands who did so many good versions of Chuck’s songs that it was hard to pick just one. And well, with “Maybellene” I couldn’t pick just one. At only 2 hours this is one rollicking, rocking playlist. The songs all hold together so well because Chuck had a magic formula. Lots of guitar.

Hopefully we’ve turned you on to Chuck Berry with this playlist, if you hadn’t already been into him. Or at the very least hopefully you’ve heard something new. Either way, I hope this rocking playlist helps get you through the summer heat.

Cheers! Stay cool out there… stay hydrated.

Review: Elton John, ‘Madman Across The Water – 50th Anniversary Edition’ – Is It Worth It?

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It would be impossible for me to overstate how big Elton John was in the mid-70s. Yes, the rock n roll world was listening to Zeppelin, but everybody and I mean everybody was listening to Elton. I really didn’t start listening to rock n roll until 1978-ish so I missed out on a lot of that “Elton heyday.” I remember hearing “Rocket Man” and “Bennie And the Jets” and loving those songs. But in truth, I actually didn’t get into Elton through my junior high or high school years. In those early days of my listening to rock n roll the greatest sin of all was to profess to like music that was considered “pop.” Any artist you were listening to had to be pure rock – Aerosmith, Zeppelin, and Van Halen were all rock approved. You couldn’t be caught dead listening to say, disco or Olivia Newton John from the Grease soundtrack, which I never did. I think back to that macho posturing now and laugh… I mean we thought Journey and Styx were cool. Journey might have been…but Styx?

The “problem” with Elton, even though by ’78, ’79 he’d had a slight decline was that he was still viewed as being this, well, pop juggernaut. And if Elton was pop music then by definition he wasn’t rock n roll. Or at least that’s what the prevailing attitude was back then amongst my gang of miscreant friends. It wasn’t until the summer after my senior year of high school, right before leaving for college that my attitude toward Elton turned completely around. It was on a hot early July evening in 1982 that my parents drug me to Starlight Theater to see Elton. It was my brother’s birthday gift – he, for one, was not afraid of people’s opinion’s of what he listened to, something it took me years to do. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t want to go (forgive me, I have told this story before: Elton’s Retirement From Touring Takes Me Back to His KC Starlight Theater Show July 6, 1982 ). I wanted to drink beer and hang out with a girl I knew. Elton came out that night with his original backing band who’d just reunited – Davey Johnstone (guitar), Nigel Olsson (drums) and Dee Murray (bass) – and they blew the lid off the place. They opened with “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and from that point on I knew, oh yes, this was rock n roll.

It wasn’t until I got up to college and started hanging out in a record store with my roommate Drew that I started to actually collect Elton’s albums. All of those records are so iconic I just assumed they all sold a billion copies. Whether it was Tumbleweed Connection, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or Honky Chateau his albums had songs that had been drilled into our collective consciousness by radio. I just assumed that every album from Elton John (his 1970 U.S. debut but actually his 2nd LP) to Captain Fantastic had been monster sellers. I was surprised when I learned later that his first three U.S. records while selling better here than in the UK were not huge sellers – Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water which are now widely considered some of the greatest records of all time. It wasn’t until Honky Chateau that his album sales exploded. Honky Chateau was his first LP that the record company let him record with his backing band vs hired guns. Coincidence that it was the LP that exploded his popularity? I think not.

Back in college I was picking up an Elton LP almost every trip to the record store there for a while. I remember buying Elton John at the used record store. “Your Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot” were essential. The next LP I purchased was his third (fourth in the UK), Madman Across The Water. I loved, loved the title track. I will admit, I was little put off by the LP art – embroidered blue jeans but you can’t judge an LP by it’s cover. The album starts with two of Elton’s most iconic songs, “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” Elton’s piano playing is just stunning. The songs are all beautifully orchestrated. “Tiny Dancer” somehow combines gospel with country flourishes. “Tiny Dancer,” featured on almost all of Elton’s greatest hits LPs wasn’t a huge hit at first. I thought it was since it was central to an episode of the TV show WKRP In Cincinnati, a show I watched religiously. “Levon” is a beautiful song about the passing of generations and how they each want something different than the previous one. It was supposedly inspired by Levon Helm, who didn’t like the song, but there’ some disagreement about that. Admittedly Elton and his lyricist Bernie Taupin were huge fans of The Band at the time.

The epic title track was the gold for me (and no, “Madman Across the Water” wasn’t about Nixon) on this record but I also really liked “Razor Face” about an older musician who was perhaps a mentor who returns to town and being an itinerant musician needs help. I’ll be honest, when I first bought Madman Across the Water I thought side two was weak. Listening now I question my judgement when I was a college kid. Well, let’s face it my judgement was shit back then so why not extend that to some of the music. These songs are Elton’s classic blend of rock n roll, country rock and gospel. It conjures the 70s to me. I think “Indian Sunset” is a great, intense tune even if the lyrics are historically inaccurate. Geronimo was not “gunned down.” “Holiday Inn” is a humorous song about the road. I like “Rotten Peaches” as well, another song about traveling down the road and the interesting people you meet there. The only track that still leaves me cold when I listen to this wonderful LP is “All The Nasties” an apparent swipe at critics.

Last weekend Elton released a 50th anniversary edition of Madman Across the Water. It was released in 1971 so this is actually 51 years but I think the box was a Covid delay. I couldn’t resist this edition. I have to say, this music sounds incredible. Included with the original LP on the first disc is the original version of “Madman” with Mick Ronson (of Bowie’s Spiders From Mars fame) on lead guitar. It’s almost 3 minutes longer than the Davey Johnstone version released and Ronson proves why he belongs on lists of “greatest guitarists” on this track alone. Not that Davey doesn’t belong on that list also… There’s a version of “Rock Me When He’s Gone” a track Elton gifted to mentor Long John Baldry. Baldy employed not only Elton but Rod Stewart in various incarnations of his band. This was the first I’d heard Elton’s version. It might have really picked up the tempo on side 2 if he’d kept it instead of say, “All The Nasties.” I even liked the extended version of “Razor Face,” but then I love that song.

Disc 2 of the new box has a collection of ten “piano demos” of the tracks. One thing I’ve always thought about Madman is that the album captures some of Elton’s greatest piano playing. Unlike the Rock Chick I love the piano in rock n roll. From Fats Domino to Elton to Billy Joel, the piano gives rock it’s roll. On the released versions the wonderful strings conducted by Paul Buckmiester almost overwhelm the songs to the point where you miss what great things are happening on the piano. Don’t get me wrong, I love the released versions, and after a few listens the piano starts to jump out at you but these demos give you a more prominent piano that I liked. But I get it demos aren’t for everybody. There’s also a couple more versions of “Rock Me When He’s Gone,” a piano demo and a longer fully done version on disc 2.

The final disc is a live performance – just Elton and his rhythm section (Olsson on drums; Murray on bass) – taken from an April 29, 1971 performance from “BBC Sounds For Sunday.” There is no crowd or audience for the show, or at least there’s not one that you can hear. It’s an intriguing listen. I like Elton’s introductions of the tracks. I was surprised they did the entire new album on the show, not in order. I have to assume this was widely bootlegged.

The question here is, is this 50th anniversary version of 1971’s Madman Across The Water worth the money. If you’ve never purchased the album before this is a great version to buy. The sound is amazing. I liked the extras on disc 1. I understand if you’re not a fan of hearing demos and the creative process, disc 2 might not be for you. The songs are pretty fully realized, save for the strings on disc 2. The live performance, while intriguing, is probably not essential live Elton. So my answer to the “worth it” question is qualified. I’d say this is a must have for big fans of Elton or of this album in particular. If you’ve never owned it, I’d also recommend this version as a purchase. But for the most part this box is for big fans only. If you’re a casual fan this is not the box for you. There are some great moments in the extras, certainly worth streaming but if you’re not into Elton like I am, that’s as far as I’d go with it.

Cheers and Happy Summer everyone.

New Song Review: Jack White, “If I Die Tomorrow,” From His Second LP of 2022, ‘Entering Heaven Alive’

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“If I die tomorrow, could you find it in your heart to sing?” – Jack White, “If I Die Tomorrow”

As longtime readers of B&V know, I’m a huge fan of Jack White. I think the man is a genius. He’s one of the best guitarists of his generation. Like most people I got on his bandwagon during his time in the White Stripes. But I also followed him over to the Raconteurs, his first “proper” side project. I even kept an eye on the Dead Weather such was my “fandom” of Mr. White and he was just the drummer in that band. But, I have to admit, when I heard he had a new song out, “If I Die Tomorrow,” I hesitated a second. Over the last few albums Jack has made me feel a little like Charlie Brown from my dad’s favorite cartoon, Peanuts.

When Jack finally went solo in 2012 I absolutely loved that first album Blunderbuss. I was equally enthusiastic about the follow up Lazaretto. Naturally my anticipation around his third solo album was, shall we say, “fever-pitched.” I was crushingly disappointed with 2018’s Boarding House Reach and wrote about it here on B&V, LP Review: Creativity And The Curious Case of Jack White & ‘Boarding House Reach’. I applauded his creativity and his striving for something new, but the album just left me cold. When he reunited with the Raconteurs for 2019’s Help Us Stranger I was delighted. I felt his being back in a real band gave some structure to his creative impulses and said so, LP Review: The Raconteurs’ (Jack White) ‘Help Us Stranger’.

I read late last year, or perhaps early this year that Jack had not wasted his time in pandemic lockdown and would be issuing not one new LP, but two. After the positive experience with Help Us Stranger I couldn’t help it, I let my excitement and anticipation get a little out of control. The first single did nothing to staunch that excitement. I thought the song “Taking Me Back” was a great first salvo (and even liked the softer version, “Taking Me Back (Gently)”). But then I heard the entire LP Fear Of The Dawn and I didn’t even review it. There’s enough negativity in the world, if I don’t like something I don’t generally review it (the ol’ “if you’ve nothing nice to say, say nothing at all”). It sounded like nails in a blender to me, nothing but odd sound experiments. I would have never guessed that both Jack White and the Black Keys would put out albums and it’d be Dropout Boogie that’d be the better album. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Black Keys and don’t mean to compare them to Jack or the White Stripes, I think they’re consistently fantastic, but Jack is my “O.G.” on that bluesy, punky, rock. But the Black Keys simply delivered on Dropout Boogie.

This week as I was getting back on my feet again after the Memorial Day holiday and my annual summer cold (the cold leaves, the cough stays until the 4th of July), I saw that Jack had another new song out, the lead single from his upcoming 2nd LP of the year, Entering Heaven Alive. And this, faithful readers, is where I hesitated. In the aforementioned cartoon Peanuts, Charlie Brown is kind of an “everyman” and some might say a loser. He has a neighbor, Lucy, who brings over her football every fall and says she’ll hold the ball and Charlie can kick it, like a field goal. Every year he hesitates because he knows at the last minute Lucy will pull the football away and Charlie will fly through the air and land on his ass. You’ll have to forgive me, but after Boarding House Reach and Fear Of The Dawn, I’m starting to think of Jack White as Lucy with the football. I just don’t want to work myself up like Charlie and end up flying through the air and landing on my ass again.

With all my mental health issues around rock n roll anticipation aside, I have to say, I’m quite taken with this new song, “If I Die Tomorrow.” While Fear Of The Dawn was a rock and roll album, Entering Heaven Alive was billed as being a more “folky” set of songs. I took that to mean more acoustic. Who doesn’t love Jack White acoustic? One of his earliest popular tunes was the beautiful “We’re Going To Be Friends.” With the new song, he’s released this video:

I don’t usually comment on videos, I’m here for the music, but that’s a pretty cool video. It’s surreal enough to fit the subject matter. I feel like this is the kind of video I’d have sat up late on a Friday night in college, into the wee small hours, drinking beer and waiting to see again.

In terms of the song, from the first cymbal, strummed acoustic guitar and violin a sense of drama envelops the song. The singer asks for us to look after his mother if she “weeps in sorrow.” He asks us to even mix her a double of her favorite drink, apparently lemon flavored. Who doesn’t love a lemonade and vodka, but I’m off topic. It’s an acoustic song but it’s not laid back at all. It actually has a slow burn intensity that I keep coming back to. The guitar solo sounds almost jumbled like something off of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” like they sliced the tape up and tossed it in the air and then re-assembled it, if that makes sense. It’s not a searing guitar solo, its more surreal which befits the song and the subject matter. Jack’s vocal is at once sad and hopeful.

While this may be the thoughts of a dying man, I can’t help but feel warm when I hear the sentiment of the last verse:

If I die tomorrow
Will you let me know I left in peace?
I begged and I borrowed
Everybody’s love, and they gave for free
And I wish that I could give it back to them
So, if I die tomorrow
Will you give them all the love they lent to me?

That last line sounds oddly hopeful to me and these days when so much grim shit is going down, I could use a little sharing of love to boost me up. Pay it forward, as they say.

I love this song. However, I am taking a much more cautious approach to what Entering Heaven Alive might bring us. All I know is this a great tune, especially to listen to during some late night, whiskey in a tumbler rumination.

Cheers!

Our Favorite “Concept” Albums – From Rock Operas to Musical “Novels” – Don’t Be Afraid

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I recently realized it’s been a full two weeks since I’ve posted anything here at B&V, an unusually long absence for me. Have no fear, the rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated. My last post on the Stones Live At El Mocambo was right before Memorial Day and that holiday took up a lot of time… switching out bourbon for the summer vodka season can be time consuming. Plus, I vowed to get a tan this year… I look like a translucent cadaver most of the time. Then sadly I came off the long holiday weekend with a bad head cold – no it was not COVID – but it was severe enough that I couldn’t even listen to music, which is rare for me. In the midst of the cold I perhaps exacerbated it by drinking a lot of Keeper’s Heart whiskey – a new delightful discovery for us here at the B&V labs – with my old roomie and dear friend Drew. I don’t blame anybody for thinking I’d given up hope in rock n roll this year. After two disastrous and terribly disappointing albums from Jack White (Fear Of the Dawn) and Liam Gallagher (C’mon You Know), two artists I had pegged to contribute to our annual “best of” list, you can understand why I’d be down. Two great rock n rollers reduced to releasing what amount to “sound experiments,” sigh. But no, that wasn’t it, I was just sick. As Ozzy once told us, “You can’t kill rock n roll.”

Having a little time away did give my mind time to wander. For reasons yet unclear I found myself thinking about that most misunderstood of rock n roll art forms, the “concept” album. While there is really no true agreement on what constitutes a concept album, Wikipedia defines it as “an album whose tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually.” I must agree that a lot of concept albums are better when you listen to the whole thing straight through vs just a song, like Dark Side Of the Moon. Most concept albums do tell a story – whether it’s a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who becomes a Messianic preacher or mentally unstable rock star named Pink who builds a metaphorical wall around himself. Although, admittedly the concept album doesn’t have to tell a story. Perhaps its thematic like Hotel California about the greed, disillusionment and loss of innocence the hippy generation found themselves in by the mid 70s or Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection which was about the old west. Often concept albums contain small bits of music that act more like narrative connective tissue than actual songs. Song titles can repeat themselves on concept albums, numbered to distinguish the different versions, i.e. “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 1).”

I don’t know what it is about telling a story across an album – or more likely across a double-album – that scares people. I remember reading an interview of John Mellencamp (and this was years and years ago) and he was making fun of some of his crew for wanting to head into Indianapolis to see Pink Floyd on The Division Bell tour. He said something scathing about being too “arty.” What people tend to forget when they show their disdain for concept albums is that some of the biggest albums of all time were concept albums. Sgt Pepper, Ziggy Stardust and Tommy were all concept albums. The concept album transcends genres. Country music legend Willie Nelson did Red Headed Stranger, an amazing album. Sadly, Garth Brooks also did that Chris Gaines thing, best forgotten. Heavy metal has their concept albums like Queensryche’s Operation Mind Crime. I think the first person to do a true concept album was none other than “the Chairman of the Board,” Frank Sinatra. If you don’t think In The Wee Small Hours was a song cycle strung around a central concept then you haven’t been paying attention.

I know when I mention the idea of the concept album to the Rock Chick she recoils in horror. Sadly for her she was forever scarred by Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, perhaps the worst concept LP of all time. She saw them in concert on that tour. She said its the only time she’d ever been to a concert and no music was played for the first half hour they were on stage. I saw Styx in 1980 or 1981 and they were great… then Dennis DeYoung took over and… well… “Domo arigato Mr. Roboto.” In the Rock Chick’s defense in her disdain of concept LPs, my friends and I always used to say, “Never trust a woman who likes Pink Floyd.” Concept albums do seem to be more a “dude” thing. All men are nerds deep down and suckers for a “far out” story. Women are likely smarter. Still, while some concepts are just bad or perhaps confusing, we shouldn’t dismiss them outright. The bigger the artistic risk, in some cases, the bigger the failure. It’s difficult to juggle writing a set of great songs and making them fit into a cohesive narrative. More often than not we get great songs and a less-than-cohesive narrative. I’m ok with that.

Some songwriters just seem to need a global narrative on an album in order to write songs. Pete Townshend seems almost wedded to the idea of having a concept. He’s written a set of songs before, like Who By Numbers, but he seems more comfortable with a story cycle to wrap his songs around. Everybody needs an on-ramp to write something, some idea or flight of imagination, in order begin so for Pete I guess that’s rock opera. Roger Waters is another guy who seems more comfortable tying songs and characters together than just writing straight up tunes. Ray Davies of the Kinks has written a lot of great songs but he’s also done a lot of great concept albums. He can do either. Regardless, I think this kind of artistic reach should be applauded and encouraged. I like ambition in rock n roll.

Without further adieu, these are my favorite concept albums. Much like my picks of “Hybrid” albums (both live and studio stuff mixed together) or Cover albums (albums featuring all cover songs) and Live albums these are our favorites. It’s not meant to be an exhausting ranking. You may have a concept album you feel should be added to the list – please mention them in the comments. I didn’t add Rush’s 2112 and I know I’m going to hear about that but the concept here only lasted on side 1 of the album. And while I could have listed all of Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd’s records… or the Who’s for that matter… I’ve chosen only a few of each artist, my favorites. I’ve picked some of the biggest LPs of all time but also some more obscure choices that perhaps deserve reconsideration. Either way, if there’s a concept album you like or are curious about but haven’t listened to, I urge you to seek it out, put it on and turn it up. Perhaps with a tumbler of something strong to help get you along the line.

  1. The Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band – One of the greatest albums ever if not the greatest. Built around a simple premise – the Beatles were pretending to be this other band, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, in order to free themselves from expectations. The result, a masterpiece.
  2. David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars – Bowie already had a string of successful LPs but this is the one that made him a superstar. Similar premise to #1 above. Pretend to be an alien and sing about isolation and feeling different.
  3. Jackson Browne, Running On Empty – This one may surprise some folks, wondering how it’s a “concept album.” Well, it’s a live album about a live album. Recorded on the road about the road. Still one of my favs.
  4. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On? – Marvin’s masterpiece of a protest album. It’s written from the point of view of a Vietnam vet returning home and I think was based on his brother’s or cousin’s return from the war. He calls out poverty, the ecology and the war. And it swings baby.
  5. Green Day, American Idiot – A scathing indictment of one of the worst Presidents in our history. This album rejuvenated Green Day’s career. They did another rock opera but this is the one you want.
  6. Elton John, Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy – A song cycle about Elton and co-writer Bernie Taupin’s rise to fame. I like it a whole lot better when I listen to it from start to finish as one piece of music. I was tempted to list Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection as it’s an excellent album about the ol’ West written by a couple of guys from England.
  7. The Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – I hate to admit it but the Kinks don’t get enough love around here. After the Kinks were shut off from touring the U.S. because of a pot bust, they turned insular. Here they turn their attention to the English village square. They’re pining for an England that had ceased to exist.
  8. The Kinks, Arthur Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire – Still turned inward to England this time on a broader scale. “Victoria” and “Shangri La” are two of my favorite Kinks’ tracks. I need to delve deeper into these guys in these pages.
  9. Randy Newman, Good Old Boys – A scathing indictment of racism in the South. Randy grew up in L.A. but spent summers in New Orleans. This is one of his strongest albums. Sometimes you need a character or a story to hide behind while telling the truth.
  10. Pink Floyd, Animals – Like I said, I could list all of their LPs on this list. I’m not listing Dark Side of the Moon because it’s just too big. Everybody’s heard it. A friend of mine and I used to drive around Kansas City drinking beer and cranking Animals which seems slightly Orwellian to me. But man what a great album.
  11. Pink Floyd, The Wall – I can still remember riding home from high school, sitting in the back seat of my friend Brewster’s car cranking “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 1).” Roger Waters who was the principle writer here (or is it principal writer?) blended his own story with founder Syd Barrett’s story. Inspired by his own spitting on a fan on the previous tour, he realized people put up walls around themselves. I did see Waters perform this at the Berlin Wall.
  12. Lou Reed, New YorkBilled in the liner notes as a novel set to music, Lou suggested listening to the entire album, in order, in one sitting. I always listen to Lou’s instructions.
  13. Lou Reed, Berlin – A prominent entry onto our list of Grim and Sad albums too, this is a difficult listen but worth it.
  14. Pete Townshend, White City – The concept here, basically a treatise on poverty and urban decay, is a bit lost on me now. The LP was billed as “A Novel” in the subtitle. I just loved “Give Blood” and “Secondhand Love.” This is one of those albums that nobody talks about but I still enjoy.
  15. Roger Waters, Radio K.A.O.S. – This album is actually on my list of “The Dirty Dozen, Albums Only I Like.” Oh well, I still dig this album besides the bizarre story line and I feel it needs a reassessment.
  16. The Who, Quadrophenia – Sure, Tommy is recognized as the first and perhaps greatest “rock opera” but give me Quadrophenia any day. It has louder guitars.
  17. Frank Zappa, Joe’s Garage – To me this is one of Zappa’s most accessible albums. Who doesn’t enjoy a visit from the “Central Scrutinizer” once and again? From the title track to “Catholic Girls” this album makes me laugh. Although even I have to admit Joe’s Garage can’t touch Freak Out! in terms of being an exceptional concept LP.
  18. Warren Zevon, Transverse City – This LP also made my list of “essential” Warren Zevon albums. It’s a grim commentary about U.S. society in the late 80s. It may be grim but it’s a great, great album. Someone with some connections needs to get Warren into the Rock Hall.

While I left off some of the biggest titles, Dark Side of the Moon or Tommy but it was my goal to share the LPs that maybe you haven’t heard or heard in a while and inspire you dust off the turn table, open up that double album, hoping no old pot seeds fall out and turn up a little rock opera. There are a few here that are quirky suggestions of LPs that I really dig and hope I can turn you onto. Again, this list wasn’t supposed to be exhaustive and if you have a concept LP that I should check out I always appreciate a suggestion in the comments.

Cheers! I hope, “a splendid time is guaranteed for all…”