Playlist: Memories of and A Requiem For Rock And Roll Radio

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“I like to listen to music, I like the way that it sounds on the radio…” – Joe Walsh, “The Radio Song”

When I was a young kid, before the hormonal-overdose party that is puberty began, I had a clock radio on my nightstand. I rarely, if ever, turned the “radio” part on. Well, that’s not really true. I was a huge KC Royals fan when I was a kid and in the summer I’d fall asleep listening to baseball games. I can remember using the Royals’ exploits as an excuse to get out of bed and walk to the landing on the stairs to tell my dad, “Amos Otis hit a home run!” “Shut up and go back to bed…” ah, dad. So my clock radio was merely the miserable howling siren that pulled me from sweet unconsciousness to a startled wakefulness that signaled, yes… it was time to load the “yellow death wagons” and head off to the dreaded “pit of misery”, er, I mean school. With that as a backdrop maybe it’s not so hard to understand why I never turned the radio on… classical conditioning, baby.

It wasn’t until a fateful day riding in my mother’s Oldsmobile when all that changed. Somehow, I ended up in the backseat and my brother was riding up front with mom. My brother had latched onto the Beatles (and later, tellingly about his personality, the quiet Beatle George Harrison), and was a huge rock and roll music fan. I was probably 13 around this time which means he was just ten. How the younger of us ended up in the front seat with me in the back is one of those unsolvable mysteries of my childhood. Anyway, my brother immediately commandeered control of the radio and was bouncing back and forth between the bubble gum pop of Q104 (with Johnny “Rockin'” Rollins, who is still around as a traffic-helicopter guy) which left me cold and the rock station, KY/102. I was only half paying attention when they played the Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” I remember lunging forward and saying, “Turn that up, man…” which surprised me almost as much as it did my brother. It’s kind of how I discovered sex, accidentally…it just sort of snuck up on me.

My clock radio, whose speaker beforehand had never been tested, was suddenly constantly tuned into KY/102 and cranked up loud. I realized I’d been missing out on a lot of really cool shit. Instead of a shrill alarm, my clock radio now awoke me to the sounds of rock and roll and morning DJs. That was one thing I really loved about radio, the DJs. KY had a great stable of talent who made me feel like I was part of a larger dysfunctional family. They had a comedy duo, Dick and Jay in the mornings. The afternoon guy was General Max Floyd of the Rock N Roll army. He’d use faux explosion noises while “blowing up” disco records. At night it was Katie McGuckin (sp?) who falsely announced that Rod Stewart had collapsed on stage and had to have his stomach pumped because… well, best leave that story aside, it was a slanderous lie. The overnight guy was named Vaughn Mack and he always sounded like the most stoned man on the planet. Vaughn was always famous for saying in his dull monotone, “Yeah man, uh, stay tuned, I’ve got some Boston, Van Halen and then some Stones coming right up…” and then he’d play everything but Boston, Van Halen and some Stones. Stay high Vaughn, stay high.

Suddenly instead of a shrill alarm, a portal to the world had opened up on my nightstand. Listening to the radio is where I got my PHD in classic rock. I learned about all the bands that had come before and all the bands that were current. I would leave the radio on even when I left my room and padded down the hall to shower and try to tame my crazy mane of feathered-hair… I didn’t want to miss a thing. Instead of dreading that morning wake up, at least now it had become a lot more tolerable. I can still hear a song today, all these years later, and close my eyes and see my old room from the vantage point of sitting on my bed, pulling my socks on. The wallpaper is more atrocious in my mind than it probably really was… It was from listening intently to the radio that I started to become interested in where this music came from… it inspired me to start buying vinyl and reading liner notes. It’s where I first heard there were these things called concerts, where the bands I was hearing on the radio actually performed, live in person. I could be in the same room as Mick Jagger for two hours (albeit very far away from him)? Fuck yes, sign me up.

Not only were my mornings transformed. The ride home from high school had completely changed. My buddy Brewster would generously drive me to/from school and the radio was always on. I can still remember hearing “Another Brick In The Wall” the day it came out, in the back back of Brewster’s car heading home from school. He was a hard working guy and always had a pocket full of coin and his car stereo was fucking amazing. If I’d ever had a heart attack you’d need only throw me on his speakers and crank the drum solo on “In The Air Tonight” and I’d recover. When I was looking for my first car, I went looking for wheels with my dad who would ask questions about mileage, price, condition of the car – all I wanted to know was if it had a stereo and could play cassette tapes. I also quietly wondered if two people could fit in the backseat, but I kept that to myself.

I listened to KY every night in my room while I did my homework. My dad yelled, “Turn that down” so often that I thought my parents had changed my name. When I went away to college, two hours down I-70 to Kansas State, my friends and I from KC were distraught we couldn’t get the KC rock radio stations. The radio in Manhattan, Kansas was all Top 40 – Madonna, Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul. God, how did we survive the 80s? When Rock Line with Bob Coburn came on, an interview show where rock bands would come on and talk about upcoming albums and tours, I can remember my roommate Matthew and I going up to a room on the top floor of our building where a guy we knew had strung a coat hanger as an antenna out onto the roof so we could get KY102 and hear Diamond David Lee Roth dispense his rare brand of wisdom… he lit a joint while the interview was going on and called it a “behavior modification device.” Huddled around the static-filled sound of our friend’s radio, we howled with laughter.

There was just so much joy we all associated with listening to the radio. Whether it was blasting tunes while driving down the highway or tuning in over lunch as the DJ put on the new album from Springsteen, there was so much we learned from radio. When I was driving back home, either from college or during my exile years in Arkansas, as soon as I heard KY, I knew I was home… But then, during the late 90s, early 00s, something happened. The FCC changed the rules and allowed big media companies to start consolidating radio station ownership. Everything went corporate. Budgets and playlists shrank. Radio stations had to adhere to strict formats. KY disappeared, they went off the air. The classic rock station in KC doesn’t even play new stuff by the older artists any more. You have to seek that out in other places. Any new rock in the 90s got classified as “alternative rock” for one station or “heavy metal/hard rock” for a different station. These days, if it weren’t for Satellite Radio, I wouldn’t even turn my car radio on. At the risk of sounding cranky like my grandfather near the end of his life, without the casual generational, casual racism, rock and roll radio just isn’t the same anymore. Radio isn’t the same anymore.

I heard a song the other day, that gave me one of those flashback moments. I was a high school kid and I was sitting on the edge of my bed. I could close my eyes and see my old bedroom…jeez, I forgot I had a bean bag chair… It made me miss those good ol’ days, listening to rock and roll. I’m like Joe Walsh, I like the way the music sounded on the radio. I put together the following playlist, as a way to honor those memories. My thoughts on the tracks below.

  1. 1. Autograph, “Turn Up The Radio” – A one-hit wonder that sums up that moment I discovered rock n roll radio.
  2. Rush, “The Spirit of Radio” – One of my all time favorite Rush tracks.
  3. The Clash, “Radio Clash” – A groovy missive from one of the greatest bands of all time.
  4. Ramones, “Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio” – God, do I!
  5. Jet, “Rollover DJ” – I always wonder what happened to all those great disc jockeys.
  6. Cheap Trick, “Radio Lover” – A great tune from their last album. These guys are still putting out great music.
  7. Warren Zevon, “Mohammed’s Radio” – There’s also a great cover of this track by Linda Rondstadt.
  8. Smashing Pumpkins, “I Of The Mourning” – “Radio, radio, play my favorite song.”
  9. Green Day, “Kill the DJ” – A tad violent, but such a great tune.
  10. Talking Heads, “Radio Head” – The song Radiohead got their name from.
  11. The Firm, “Radioactive” – Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page’s ill fated super group with their tongue firmly in their cheek.
  12. George Harrison, “Devil’s Radio” – George being preachy… still a great tune.
  13. Van Morrison, “Hey Mr. DJ” – Van grooving.
  14. ZZ Top, “Heard It On the X” – They pay homage to a great Houston radio station.
  15. Elvis Costello, “Radio, Radio” – It’s the point of the playlist.
  16. Hole, “Boys On the Radio” – Push through the crazy and Courtney Love put out some great stuff with Hole.
  17. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Last DJ” – From Tom’s “angry” album.
  18. Roger Waters, “Radio Waves” – No one likes this album but me…
  19. Journey, “Raised On Radio” – Who better to celebrate the anachronism of radio than this band.
  20. R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe” – The first track from their first album.
  21. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Supernatural Radio” – Petty on a slow jam from a soundtrack album.
  22. Cheap Trick, “On The Radio” – Another great, early track from Cheap Trick.
  23. Queen, “Radio Ga Ga” – Not my favorite Queen track, but I dug the performance at Live Aid in the movie…
  24. Jet, “Radio Song” – I loved that first album by Jet but then they disappeared… I probably shouldn’t have bought the t-shirt.
  25. R.E.M., “Radio Song” – “I can’t find nothing on the radio…” It’s how I feel these days.
  26. David Bowie, “D.J.” – “I’ve got believers, believe in me…”
  27. Green Day, “Revolution Radio” – The title track from their great, most recent record.
  28. Bruce Springsteen, “Radio Nowhere” – Great late period Springsteen where he laments the death of radio.
  29. Steely Dan, “FM” – “No static at all…” unless you’re on the top floor of a building in Manhattan, KS.
  30. R.E.M., “I’m Gonna DJ” – It seems R.E.M. are as obsessed with radio as I was.
  31. Joe Walsh, “The Radio Song” – Joe was kind of losing it by the time this track came out, but I was still drawn to it…

I probably forgot a few great radio-centric tracks so please feel free to add in the comments section. Cheers… signing off now…

 

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LP Review: Van Morrison Returns (Already) With the Bluesy Jazz of ‘The Prophet Speaks’

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“When the prophet speaks, you’ve got to listen” – Van Morrison “The Prophet Speaks”

I never dreamed, when I posted my thoughts in September of 2016 on Van Morrison’s brilliant late-period album Keep Me Singing, that it was going to be the beginning of one of the most prolific periods of his career. His previous album of all new material had come in 2012, four years prior (Born to Sing: No Plan B). The guy has been really busy since then. Since Keep Me Singing, he’s released four albums in the span of 15 months. This prolific period began with the exceptional Roll With the Punches, which I described as a laid-back blues party. Van had some friends jamming with him on that album, which included Jeff Beck on guitar, an inspired choice. He went on to release Versatile (a jazz and standards heavy record) three months after Roll With the Punches. He then recorded the jazzy You’re Driving Me Crazy with the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet last April. Now he’s already back with a new album, The Prophet Speaks, a mere 8 months later. He’s on a 2 album/year pace… Back in the sixties the record companies were always pressing their artists for new product. The feeling back then was you had to stay in front of the public with new stuff… The Beatles and Stones, early in their careers, put out 2 albums/year. These days, this kind of pace/output is unheard of.

As long as Van keeps putting out quality albums like The Prophet Speaks, I say, keep them coming. Van has always been a prolific songwriter, but I believe one of the reasons he’s been able to put out albums every few months is that since Roll With the Punches his records have been heavy on covers. For Van, who can literally sing anything – folk, blues jazz, Irish, soul, rock and roll – doing covers isn’t a bad thing. Van may not be the singer he was in his 20s, like Geddy Lee or Robert Plant these days he’s singing more from his diaphragm than shredding his vocal cords, he can still sing with nuance and great feeling. He’s also got spectacular taste in material, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the reasons I loved Roll With the Punches was that it was deeply rooted in the blues. As anyone who have read this blog for any time knows, everything we love at B&V springs from the blues. I will admit, I shied away from Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy as they were more jazz leaning than I’m typically drawn too. For years I felt I wasn’t smart enough for Jazz. It’s very cerebral music. Last year I went to a ClassicAlbumSunday event (an afternoon featuring a certain album, curated by experts) and heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I’m still not smart enough for jazz, but that album blew my mind. The curator of that afternoon explained a lot about jazz and at least now I can groove on wonderful saxophone driven music that was here-to-fore a mystery to me. Still, Van’s Versatile and You’re Driving Me Crazy just didn’t hit me the way Roll With the Punches did.

With The Prophet Speaks, we find Van recording with the same crew as You’re Driving Me Crazy, the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet. Joey plays keyboards (most notably organ) and horns. He’s accompanied by Michael Ode on drums, Dan Wilson on guitar and Troy Roberts on bass and saxophones. This is a big, brassy album with a lot of great organ fills. When I hear this music, it transports me back to the old days when the Plaza III had a jazz club in the basement. If you knew somebody you could slip in after hours and listen to the old jazz guys, done with their paying gigs, jam until the wee hours. Nowadays to hear music like this, I grab the Rock Chick and head down to the Green Lady Lounge, order martinis and swing, baby. While this album is jazzy, it’s more like blues or R&B filtered through a jazz lens than straight up jazz. It’s very accessible music. As mentioned, this album swings. It is very apparent that Van, one of rock’s original curmudgeons, is having a blast here. You can hear him call out for sax solos, or moan, “Whoa” in reaction to a solo. He’s into this album and he should be, it’s great.

Van’s selection of artists to cover would make a great blues and soul record collection. He does a great, albeit less bluesy cover of “Dimples” by his old pal John Lee Hooker. He also does Willie Dixon’s “Love The Life I Live” made famous by Muddy Waters. While this version couldn’t sound more different from Gregg Allman’s recent cover of the same track, I still dig it. We also hear Van do “Worried Blues/Rollin’ And Tumblin'”… I think Van is the third artist to do that song this year (Billy Gibbons, Rod Stewart). Another highlight is the old traditional, “Teardrops” that finds Van and the band jamming in fine form. Van does a couple of great soul standards as well. “Gotta Get You Off Of My Mind” by Solomon Burke has a nice harmony vocal by Van’s daughter Shana Morrison. Another soul cover, and perhaps my favorite, is Sam Cooke’s “Laughin’ And Clownin’.” Sam’s influence is so broad, I need to write about him.

Beside all those great covers, Van blends in a number of originals. My favorites are probably “5 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time,” the story of a guy walking home at 5 a.m… and yes, it’s been a while since I’ve done that but we’ve all been there. Another great, bluesy tune is “Ain’t Gonna Moan No More.” It’s just a great Van Morrison song. Another great vamp is “Got To Get Where the Love Is,” Van’s first original on the album. The record ends with two songs more based in spirituality, “Spirit Will Provide” and title track. What would a Van album be without a little spirituality. 

If you’re a fan of Van’s, and admittedly, I am (I’m currently reading a book on the recording of Astral Weeks), you’ll love this album. Don’t let the word “jazz” in this post scare you away. This is a great, loose, groove record and I highly recommend it. To paraphrase, when Van sings, you’ve got to listen…

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Review: Elvis Presley – ‘The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition’ – The Return Of The King

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My parents weren’t very musical. They didn’t even own a stereo until we moved to Kansas City when I was five. I don’t know why they even bought a stereo, they only owned a handful of albums. I never actually remember the stereo being turned on, other than once a year for Christmas music. Later, when I started collecting vinyl my father once asked me why I had so many different albums. Uh, there are different bands with different music on each record, dad. I don’t know what had happened to my father. When my dad was a kid, he collected a bunch of 45s that my brother, who was turned onto rock and roll long before I was, snatched up and probably still owns. There’s some cash in that little singles rack. But during my youth there was no evidence of my father’s early interest in music… sports had supplanted everything. My dad was one of those set-up-three-tv’s on New Years Day to watch every college Bowl game simultaneously kinda guy. Dad didn’t want to spring for cable.

My parents were very much a product of the 50s. My uncle who was three years younger and my aunt who was seven years younger than my father (I think), were very much a product of the 60s. Think of it this way: my parents were very Eisenhower, my aunt/uncle were very JFK. My parents are only moderately into music even now, despite having two music addicts as kids. Every once in a while they’ll add a Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison greatest hits album to their Christmas list. I shudder when I think about them dropping Roy in the CD player and attempting to dance and shuffle around in the basement on wobbly knees and bad ankles. At least no hospital has called me yet…”Sir, your parents have fallen victim to boogie fever.”

Of those handful of albums my parents owned (for their dusty and unused turntable), one of course, was Elvis. The thing that was mind boggling about it was that the lone Elvis album they had was Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, which, lets face it, isn’t Elvis’ greatest album. I mean, it was a live album. Don’t get me wrong, I still remember being huddled around the TV in 1973 to watch Elvis perform via satellite (which was unheard of technology back then) from Hawaii and being mesmerized…but an obscure live record for the King of Rock and Roll? No greatest hits album? They at least had the blue Beatles greatest hits album, entitled 1967 to 1970. I always preferred the red one, 1962 to 1966.

All that said, it’s clear my exposure to Elvis was fairly limited. It wasn’t until that fateful day in August of 1977 – when I was in the backseat of Coach Taylor’s car, on the way to football practice with two other guys on the team, when we heard Elvis had died – that I realized his impact. I remember Coach Taylor turning to us and saying, “He’s my age…” with tears in his eyes. NBC re-aired the original 1968 special, which had been dubbed “the Comeback” special and that’s when I was hooked. It didn’t hurt that the special broadcast was hosted by Ann Margaret. It was then that I circled back to my brother’s room and started listening to some of those early singles. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog” and of course, my favorite, “Jailhouse Rock.” It was during that sad summer of ’77 that I realized we may all disagree on who the President should be, but we could at least all agree there is but one King. Elvis brought us together in our grief. What a tale his was…

Elvis’ life was an epic story, worthy of being written by a Greek tragedian like Sophocles or Euripides or perhaps by Shakespeare. There was our Hero, who rose from the Mississippi Delta town of Memphis, Tennessee, the walking embodiment of all the music that had come before him: rhythm and blues, soul, country and of course gospel. And of course every tragedy has to have a villain, in this case it was Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis’ career began at the famous Sun Studios after being discovered by producer Sam Phillips. Phillips sold his contract to RCA and Col Parker, a two-bit concert promoter who stepped forward to take Elvis as his only client. From then on it was Elvis the artist controlled by the Colonel (our Iago in this story) who was driven by nothing more than commerce.

Presley was becoming a phenomenon in the south when his contract was sold to RCA… it was then that he broke nationally. The world had never seen success like Elvis’. From 1956 to 1958 he absolutely dominated the new American art form known as rock and roll. No one sounded like Elvis. Strip away the image and just sit and listen to those early records… what a voice… the voice of the Delta with a dash of gospel. And when he performed live, nobody moved like Elvis. Of course that caused some backlash from the prudes and puritans of the era. Then, inexplicably, (although it was probably to control him), Elvis was drafted into the Army. Colonel Parker, rather than have Elvis record a bunch of material to keep him in the public eye, released music only sporadically during the two years Elvis was in the Army ’58-60… It was John Lennon who said, “that was the end of Elvis, when he went into the Army.”

When he finally got back in early 1961, he apparently surrendered all control of his career to the Colonel. After the smash success of his first studio album, Elvis Is Back! the Colonel turned his eye to Hollywood. Why every rock star wants to be a movie star and vice versa is a mystery I’ll never unravel. Elvis even stopped doing live shows after 1961. From ’61 to ’68 Elvis was seemingly trapped in formulaic, crappy rom-com musicals. Each movie had the inevitable soundtrack. The movie drove people to buy the soundtrack and the soundtrack drove ticket sales for the flick… rinse and repeat. Eventually what had been a very profitable enterprise fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. When you think about ’61 to ’68, a lot of things happened in music. The Beatles and the British Invasion changed everything. Motown and soul had become very prominent. It appeared that the music scene had completely passed Elvis by. He was a has-been, marginalized. The King, it seems, had been dethroned.

It was then that NBC approached Elvis about doing a TV special. The Colonel wanted it to be a Christmas special. He wanted Elvis to do a Christmas album. Elvis steadfastly refused. TV producer Bob Finkel suggested to Elvis that the network would be willing to do whatever Elvis wanted to creatively… Suddenly, like in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf frees the King of Rohan from the evil machinations of Wormtongue, Elvis was freed from the Colonel, if only momentarily. He took complete control of the special, including the music. He did concede to the Colonel’s wishes to perform one Christmas song, “Blue Christmas,” which is one of the few Christmas songs I can actually listen to without screaming. The special was conceived as Elvis on a sound stage performing songs. While they were rehearsing and filming, the music producer on the special, Steve Binder went to Elvis’ dressing room where Elvis was sitting around with the musicians, goofing around and loosely jamming on some of his old stuff. It was so powerful and natural Binder realized, that a concert had to be a part of the show.

Immediately they decided to intersperse live concert footage of Elvis on a small, square stage surrounded by a small crowd in the special. The Colonel, who really was a fuckstain, was supposed to send out tickets to fans across the country but didn’t do so. There was a pretty small crowd lined up for the actual show, so the producers went across the street to a local diner and convinced some people to come over and watch Elvis perform. The Colonel was unhappy about it, but Elvis chose to wear fantastic, tight, black leather from head to toe. The Colonel always tried to down play Elvis’ powerful sexual charisma.  To make sure Elvis felt completely confident they brought back some of his early band, Scotty Moore on guitar and DJ Fontana on drums. The thought was to have Elvis come out and talk about the old days while he played in a real loose setting.

There was only one problem. Elvis wouldn’t come out of the dressing room. He wanted to cancel the concert scenes. He hadn’t been on a stage since 1961… his confidence was gone. The King had surrendered his throne. Binder insisted… Imagine being Elvis in that dressing room in that moment. He hadn’t performed live in 7 years, his confidence had been shaken. His last few records had flopped. The Beatles ruled the world now. He’d been hiding away in a Hollywood bubble… the self-doubt, the fear of failing. I wonder to this day what went through his mind. Finally, with a nod, Elvis agreed to Binder’s pleading and walked out on the stage… and something magical took place.

It’s a common trope in movies, especially bio pics, to have the hero rise, then fall and then rise again. This is that one uncommon case where it actually happened that way in real life. Elvis relaxed immediately upon taking the stage. He was sexy, he was powerful, he was self-deprecating (about his past, the Elvis the Pelvis stuff, about his movies) and it just worked. In one powerful performance, we as a nation witnessed not just rock and roll history, we witnessed a King retaking his throne. John, Paul, George and who? This was Elvis, baby, as big as America, as big as the fucking world.

The show was originally broadcast on NBC on December 3rd, 1968, exactly fifty years from tomorrow. While the concert footage is my favorite and the most powerful part of the show, the producers and writers had written a song specifically for Elvis to reflect how he felt about the world. America in 1968 was a tumultuous place… RFK and MLK had been assassinated. Elvis was particularly disturbed by MLK’s murder as it happened in his hometown of Memphis. Elvis was that rare breed of southerner who was completely color blind. He’d grown up listening to black musicians his whole life, including black church gospel. For me, the center-point of the special, beyond the concert stuff is the great, great track “If I Can Dream.” It’s a song meant to unify and bring people together and I believe it to be one of Elvis’ most towering achievements.

I heard Bruce Springsteen talk about the “Comeback Special,” as it has come to be known. He said the whole family was looking forward to watching it, but he confessed to being nervous. Could Elvis pull it off? Did he still have “it?” The answer, of course, is yes.

Now, on it’s 50th anniversary they’ve released The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition. It’s pretty spectacular. It’s everything. The original sound track is here. They even include the raw concert recordings. They even have the recordings of the rehearsals here. Everyone out there should own a copy of the Comeback Special in some format. It’s a really important chapter in the life of the King and in the story that is rock and roll.

After the success of the special, riding high, Elvis told the Colonel he wanted to get back on the road. He also decided to return to Memphis, his home to record there. The sessions from Memphis produced two landmark albums, From Elvis In Memphis and later Back In Memphis. It also produced the smash single, “Suspicious Minds.” You can easily find all the Memphis sessions combined on 1 or 2 CDs. I’ve always recommended The Memphis Record as the definitive one. After the special, the success of “Suspicious Minds,” and the album From Elvis In Memphis, the King had returned.

This new box set is likely the definitive version of the Comeback Special. I highly recommend it and the Memphis stuff recorded right after… I said earlier that we could all agree that Elvis was the undisputed King of rock and roll. When he was asked by a reporter at a press conference about being the King of Rock N Roll, Elvis shook his head and said, “I’m not the King, he is…” and pointed to Fats Domino who happened to be there. So I guess I can’t really say he was the undisputed King…

Long Live the King!

 

 

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…”

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!