B&V’s Favorite “Comeback” LPs

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“Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years, rockin’ my peers, puttin’ suckers in fear” – LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”

Everybody loves the drama of a good comeback. If you think about Hollywood there’s really only two story lines. There’s the story where our hero struggles, but all good things come to him in the end. I don’t know about y’all but “happily ever after” doesn’t usually happen in real life, at least to me…with the exception of the Rock Chick of course. The other story line that Hollywood loves is the comeback. Our hero gains fame or fortune but somehow, usually through some personality flaw or the machinations of some villain, our hero falls. It’s how the hero handles that adversity that fuels the drama. He struggles and then finally rights the ship and makes, yes, the comeback. That’s certainly the formula they used for the Freddy Mercury and Queen movie, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ In that case, I’m not sure how historically accurate it was.

All of that said, there have been some great comebacks in rock n roll. There are many cases where a band or artist makes it big but then… loses it. Whether they succumb to drug abuse or the pressure of fame gets to them, the artist drifts creatively. The Rock Chick continually marvels at these bands/artists who work all their young lives to get famous and sell records, who finally “make it” only to lose their shit. I kinda understand that whole thing. I don’t think anybody has any conception of what real, big fame is like. The artist perhaps feels isolated, turns to drugs or some other self-destructive behavior. Or maybe just freaked out by their fame, the artist changes their musical approach or fires the band. Certainly hubris plays a big part in all of this… I’m thinking specifically of Axl Rose who thought he was Guns N Roses. Never underestimate band chemistry, Axl.

There are many cases of big stars who eventually faded. For some odd reason I’m thinking of Sly Stone when I type these words. But for every star who eventually faded, against all odds, there are artists who have made the improbable comeback. They have somehow been able to summon the creative fire of their early success and create an album or a series of LPs that solidify their legacy and place in the rock n roll pantheon. There are many of these “comeback” albums that I just love. As I was thinking about this concept, I thought I’d share our favorites with you. There’s something about an artist with their back against the wall who comes out swinging that I’ve always loved… but then I’ve always been the underdog.

  • Elvis Presley, From Elvis In Memphis – The greatest comeback ever belongs to the King. His evil manager Colonel Tom Parker had Elvis stuck on a treadmill of making basically the same movie over and over again. The King wasn’t even doing concerts anymore. The Colonel had rendered the King irrelevant. The one time in his career Elvis bucked the Colonel was when he decided to do a television special at the end of ’68. Longtime fans were nervous… did Elvis still “have it?” Indeed he did. He mesmerized on the Comeback Special. But how to follow it up? Elvis went back home to Memphis and recorded one of his strongest albums, From Elvis In Memphis. “Stranger In My Own Home Town” still brings chills up and down my spine. Had he not come out with a strong LP after the TV show the comeback would have fizzled… The Memphis album as it came to be known solidified the comeback… Alas Colonel Parker took over again and put Elvis on the Vegas concert treadmill but that’s another story.
  • Muddy Waters, Hard AgainThe 70s saw a bunch of new musical trends and they all led away from the blues and blues rock that had dominated in the late 60s, early 70s. Muddy kept putting out LPs in the early 70s with diminishing returns. One might describe his 70s output as disappointing. Muddy acolyte, blues master Johnny Winter approached Muddy about producing an LP. Muddy agreed. They assembled a topnotch backing band and the alchemy struck gold. The version of “Mannish Boy” on this album is definitive for me…
  • Johnny Cash, American Recordings – Johnny Cash was washed up and left for dead by the Country Music establishment. He was doing dinner clubs with an ensemble of musicians. Uber producer Rick Rubin attended one of those dinner club shows and approached the Man In Black about doing a stripped down album. American Recordings, his first of several LPs with Rubin, was stark and fierce. The liner notes were a copy of something Johnny wrote on lined notebook paper. It was a staggeringly successful return. “Delia’s Gone” was my favorite but there’s a lot to like. He does everybody from Nick Lowe to Danzig. It was the beginning of one of Johnny’s most fertile periods.
  • Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind – Even a diehard Dylan fan like me had given up on Bob by the late ’90s. The last LP I’d bought of his was Oh Mercy! almost a decade prior. Dylan had holed up and done a couple of albums of folk covers. I ignored them at the time – although I love them now – but those records recharged something in Dylan. Time Out of Mind feels like mortality itself reaching out to deliver a message It’s a late career masterpiece. It led to a series of great LPs in what can only be called a late career renaissance.
  • Paul McCartney, Flaming Pie – McCartney’s late 80s/early 90s losing streak was the thing of legend. I don’t think anybody was paying attention to him any more. It verged on being embarrassing. After he collaborated with the remaining Beatles on the Anthology Series, McCartney was able to reconnect with his creative spark. Flaming Pie was an amazing record and McCartney has been on a winning streak ever since, culminating in McCartney III last year.
  • George Harrison, Cloud Nine – Odd that there are a couple of ex-Beatles on this list… After his early solo success with All Things Must Pass, Harrison’s career had stagnated. The last thing I expected in the late 80s, driving around Ft Smith, Arkansas was to hear a great Harrison song, “Got My Mind Set On You.” Harrison had brought in Jeff Lynn of ELO fame to produce. Clapton and Ringo show up to help out. Cloud Nine led to the Traveling Wilburys and nice little late career surge for George, an underrated Beatle.
  • Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygiene – Zevon had so many career collapses and comebacks I struggled to pick just one record here… I picked Sentimental Hygiene because it’s one of his greatest records. The title track features a blistering Neil Young guitar solo – recorded in one or maybe two takes. Everyone should be listening to Warren Zevon and for God’s sake if any of you have any pull – get him into the Rock Hall of Fame, please.
  • Neil Young, Freedom – Speaking of Neil Young… the 80s were a terrible decade for him. He was actually sued by his record company for “Purposely making uncommercial music.” Sigh. While many of the songs on Freedom had been around for a while, the album hung together as a whole. “Rockin’ In the Free World” in both its acoustic and electric versions is an iconic Young tune. It was a real return to form and set Neil up for a very creative decade in the 90s. Neil’s always got something left in the tank.
  • The Allman Brothers, Seven Turns – You could perhaps describe this as a reunion album more so than a comeback album, but I love it and it was so good to hear the Allman Brothers make new music in 1990. They had a great three or four LP run after this. “Good Clean Fun” and the title track remain amongst my favorites.
  • Aerosmith, Permanent Vacation – I had loved 70s Aerosmith but then they just fizzled into a morass of heroin and stupidity. I thought Done With Mirrors was a better album but it was this LP that brought Aerosmith back to center stage. While “Angel” bothers me, I loved “Dude Looks Like A Lady,” and “Ragdoll” with his greasy slide guitar. The world is always better off when Aerosmith is rocking.
  • Metallica, Death Magnetic – The Load and Reload albums sold well for Metallica but man, they left me cold. St Anger was to these ears, unlistenable. But then in 2008 Metallica dropped this gem of a record and everything clicked for me in terms of Metallica. This comeback LP got me on their bandwagon for good… I went back and purchased all their first four LPs and they are amazing.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication – In the video for the first single from this album, the amazing “Scar Tissue,” the Chilis look like someone beat the shit out of them. They’d certainly had a rough go of it. Lead guitarist John Frusciante had quit. Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction fame had joined and left. They were considering doing an electronica based record. But Flea reached out to Frusciante who was fresh out of rehab – his heroin addiction can only be described as harrowing – and John decided to return to the fold. The results were proof Frusciante is the only person who should be playing lead guitar for the RHCPs. I saw this tour, still a very dark vibe from these guys but it was a great show. They went on to even greater heights until Frusciante quit again after Stadium Arcadium… only to return again. Fingers crossed for a new album from these guys.
  • Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, The Rising – Bruce had disbanded the E Street Band, his longstanding back up band and wandered in the wilderness through the 90s. He’d gotten them back together for a reunion tour but wasn’t sure he could still write rock songs. When the tragic events of 911 unfolded, Springsteen was inspired. He was walking down the street and a fan had yelled to him, “We need you now, man.” He responded with one of his greatest sets of songs ever. The Rising was a measured and inspired response to a horrible tragedy. It’s truly one of his finest hours.

If you’re feeling like a little rock n roll comeback drama, I highly recommend every LP on this list. I’ve been cranking Cloud Nine all day. I do so love the title track. Hopefully rock n roll drama is the only thing you’re facing out there today and everything is going well. Take care of each other out there!

Cheers!

Eddie Vedder: New Song, “Long Way” From The Upcoming Solo LP, ‘Earthling’

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“Her love was but a haunting, she left but never went away…” – Eddie Vedder, “Long Way”

I have a vague memory of the first time I saw Eddie Vedder. I think – and I could be wrong, I often am – it was his cameo in the Temple of the Dog video for (and song actually) “Hunger Strike.” In the video, he was lurking in the tall, weedy overgrowth at the edge of a beach like some menacing highway bandit. As I recall as he sang his parts, he seemed slightly unhinged, like he was tearing the words out of his soul. Other than that I only saw grainy, concert footage with him swinging around the lighting rigs, up above the stage, like an unhinged grunge Tarzan. I was dating a woman at the time who turned me onto Pearl Jam’s seminal first LP, Ten, something which I’m sure I never appropriately thanked her for. Between those two LPs, Temple of the Dog and Ten, I knew I’d forever be on this guy’s bandwagon. I don’t think I’d ever seen a man with the intensity of his vocal delivery. My “fandom” was only solidified when I saw Pearl Jam live at Red Rocks outside of Denver on the Vitalogy tour in 1995.

Pearl Jam may have had its commercial ups and downs but I stuck with those guys through it all. I was there for Binaural and Riot Act – the Riot Act tour was the only time I’ve seen Pearl Jam with the Rock Chick, still incendiary despite the downpour – and those two albums were probably their commercial nadir. I think everything they’ve done since 2006’s self-titled LP has been exceptional rock n roll. And, while I was slow to warm to Gigaton that LP grows in my estimation with every repeated spin. The thing about Pearl Jam is even on their darkest, least commercially oriented records there was always those one or two tracks that are transcendent for me in the way their early LPs were for all of us. Typically that’s a result of either Eddie Vedder’s songwriting or his singing. He may be one of the last of the great front men…

While many of his peers struck out to go solo, Vedder never seemed to want to make a big splash on his own. Most of the solo tracks of Vedder’s that I had in my collection were songs from either soundtracks or tribute albums. He did “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” on that I Am Sam Beatles-centric soundtrack. I seem to remember he rocked out on a solo performance of “I Believe In Miracles” on a Ramones’ tribute LP. In 2007 Vedder did the entire soundtrack for the film Into the Wild and at the time it was considered his solo “debut” album. The Rock Chick gave me that record as a surprise gift that year. Vedder said he modeled Into The Wild after Pete Townshend’s early solo recordings, Who Came Next. I really liked the song “Hard Sun.” After that Vedder released an LP that may have been strange to some – Ukulele Songs – that I actually enjoyed. It was what a solo record used to mean in the way back machine – something idiosyncratic and completely different from your day job.

As far as I knew, sitting here today Vedder had no plans for anything major on the solo front. He’s released some tracks, including a great cover of Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up,” that he recorded at his home studio in Hawaii during Corona. Vedder lives in Hawaii with his former model wife and family where he records what he wants when he wants and then every half a decade or so goes on a boys-weekend excursion with his pals in Pearl Jam. Can we all just admit right now that Eddie Vedder “won” grunge. Anyway, this Wednesday, Vedder released a surprise, new single “Long Way” with an announcement that his next solo record Earthling will be coming out at some undetermined point in the future.

New Eddie Vedder, sign me up, yes please. I was intrigued and immediately sought the song out. “Long Way” and the rest of this impending solo album were produced by Andrew Watt… who I may have to start referring to as Uber-producer since he blew me away producing last year’s Ozzy Osbourne record, Ordinary Man. “Long Way” features not only Watt on guitar/keyboards but Josh Klinghoffer formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on guitar and Chad Smith currently still in the Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums. I hope that wasn’t awkward. Watt called in Chad Smith to play drums on that Ozzy LP I mentioned before, they seem to be pals. Also on the track on the Hammond B-3 is Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers and I don’t know if it’s his presence here but a lot of people are describing this track as sounding like Wildflowers-era Petty.

To describe this song as sounding like a Wildflowers excerpt is not an exaggeration. I hear it most in the chorus which sounds almost slightly auto-tuned, which would stun me if it is. It begins all acoustic strumming with easy but insistent drums. It chugs along… like someone on the freeway. Actually Vedder sings the chorus, “She took the long way, on the freeway” and perhaps that intonation of “free,” in long, drawn out notes is what conjures the Petty vibe. The song has a great two-part guitar solo in the middle. The song is so evocative of driving down the highway, headed toward something or as was usually my case in the old days, away from something. The lyrics are all about a failed relationship that leaves the protagonist haunted. How familiar is this lyric: “He’d taken more than his share, trying hard not to awaken the voice of regret in his ear.” Yeah, been there… “wishing the past would disappear.” Vedder’s voice is in one of those transcendent places I spoke about earlier in the post. This is a beautiful, haunting, midtempo track that really sticks with me.

Everyone should check this track out, if only to hear Vedder sing in such a committed way. This is a beautiful song. I don’t know what this portends for Earthling, his new album but it’s a great start. This is one of those great, musical surprises I was hoping that 2021 would bring. I knew musicians were squirreled way in their studios making splendid noise. Enjoy this one folks!

Cheers!

Review: New Song From Billy Idol, “Bitter Taste” From the Upcoming EP ‘The Roadside’

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I’m not a big social media guy. I got on Instagram so I could follow the Stones. Now I follow a number of bands. I got on Twitter for much the same reason. Bands seem to announce new music, new albums or a new tour on social media. I didn’t want to move from vinyl to CDs in the 90s but record companies forced my hand. I didn’t want to get on social media, but again, rock n roll forced my hand. I am not on Facebook and I will remain that way forever. My friend drummer Blake tells me it would help my readership if I did get on Facebook but I’m simply not interested.

I got on one of the social media sites this week and was scrolling through in my usual absent minded way. I follow Billy Idol and saw he’d posted what looked like a video of him driving. I had the thing muted as I was listening to David Crosby’s new LP, For Free…rather obsessively I might add. I’ve been all over the place musically of late going from Jackson Browne to Metallica to Guns N’ Roses then to David Crosby. One foot on the gas, one foot on the brake as I’ve always been fond of saying. Anyway, I scrolled right past the Billy Idol post. Don’t get me wrong, I love Billy Idol. The Rock Chick and I saw him at the Uptown Theater a few years ago and he and his guitarist Steve Stevens, who I’m also a huge fan of, were on fire that night! But for some reason – despite getting on social media to be alerted to new music – I wasn’t paying attention and completely missed Billy’s new tune.

The Rock Chick came up to my home office, which is a cubby hole in the attic, and said “Have you heard this new awesome Billy Idol song?” Because I’m brain dead, I had to say no. There’s a Bad Company song entitled “She Brings Me Love,” but in my case with the Rock Chick, she brings me music. She immediately pulled Idol’s new song up on YouTube – I’ve shared the accompanying video below – and I was blown away. The new track is called “Bitter Taste.” Oh, my god, this is the best thing Billy Idol has done since Charmed Life. Apparently Idol is releasing a four song EP, The Roadside and “Bitter Taste” is the first single. This is not only a great song, it’s one of Idol’s best tracks ever. I was completely entranced by this track.

I’ll admit in the 80s I was a slow adopter on Idol. The haircut, the videos, the snarl, and the whole punk rock thing put me off. I was busy in the 80s listening to music from the 60s and 70s. But once I started listening to the songs on Rebel Yell I started to get interested. Videos didn’t help everybody back in the day. I still had to hear the music on a stereo to get into something. I dug the song “Rebel Yell” but it was “Eyes Without A Face” that made me an Idol fan. I taped my roommates’ copy of the Rebel Yell album and to this day I don’t know why “Blue Highway” wasn’t a bigger song. The first LP of his I bought was Whiplash Smile which was an uneven record but “Forgot To Be A Lover” remains a personal favorite. I actually re-bought that album on vinyl right before the pandemic. Although, even I’ll admit I didn’t connect with his last couple of records. That cold streak ends with “Bitter Taste.” The Rock Chick played the song several times last night while DJ’ing a rock mix while we, er, she prepped dinner… she’s a talented person. It’s definitely in high rotation here at the house.

“Bitter Taste” starts off with the strumming of an acoustic guitar. It takes me back to Idol’s song “Prodigal Blues.” The lyrics portray a man who has lived hard and is unapologetic about doing so. “You should have left me way back, by the roadside.” I think those of us who have lived life on the harder edge can relate. I’ve made a lot of wrong decisions in my life but at least they were my decisions. “Hello, goodbye, I was staring in the Devil’s Eye.” I’m not a huge video guy, but here’s the link. I’ll even admit I think it’s pretty cool too.

I love Steve Stevens’ spectral electric guitar that is ever present but never overwhelms the track. It floats in the background until the very end then bursts forward like tears held back too long. When Stevens intertwines the acoustic guitar with the electric, it’s money. Shading the light with the dark, it’s the perfect balance. I feel like Stevens is one of those guitar greats who never gets the credit he deserves. He and Idol are a fabulous combination.

I believe Idol is going out on tour… I’m vaccinated and I hope he comes somewhere near here. Hearing “Bitter Taste” will be worth the price of admission. As I read today on the dreaded social media, “Vaccines are the gateway drug to concerts.” Stay tuned for more on the upcoming EP The Roadside. We’ll definitely be keeping an ear out for that one.

Cheers!

Review: Guns N Roses First New Song In 13 Years, The Aptly Titled “Absurd”

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Leave it to Guns N’ Roses to sneak up on me…

Last week was the first week in a long, long time that I’ve taken a “vacation” from music. Mind you – it wasn’t by choice. My corporate masters called me to New York for a series of meetings that chewed up most my week. Typically my job allows me to have some music on in the background when I’m toiling away on a spreadsheet or a written report. It comes as no surprise to B&V readers that I like to listen to music while I’m writing stuff. In between Webex meetings I’ve usually got tunes on. I don’t think I’m unique in that habit. But when I’m traveling to meetings like the New York session I’m typically sitting in conference rooms surrounded by people. At night I’m usually out at dinner with colleagues making small talk (“So what do you do Hank?”) and by the time I get back to the hotel, it’s lights out. I didn’t even get to listen to any tunes on the flights I was on getting to and from New York. Flight time is thinking time… which really means nap time.

When I got back home on Thursday night, the Rock Chick had her usual plethora of things we “need” to get done. I typically have music on at all times in my personal life, but the Rock Chick kept me busy… well, her and the Olympics kept me occupied. It was the first week in a long time I hadn’t posted anything on B&V. But having spent the week in the relative silence of a rock n roll void, I didn’t even think about posting. I did see however, that G’n’R had performed a “brand new song” called “Absurd” at Fenway Park in Boston. I lived in Boston for a summer and Fenway would be an awesome venue to see Guns N’ Roses. Eventually I pulled the track up and listened to the live performance. I thought perhaps they were messing with us and this was some kind of joke. To quote the Rock Chick who I played the song for, “That’s fucking terrible.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m on record as a huge Guns N’ Roses fan. I think had Axl been able to avoid his LSD (Lead Singer Disease) and the original line-up held together these guys would rank up there with the Stones or Zeppelin. I have to admit, after Axl took over the band and was the last original member standing, then took fifteen years to record an album, they lost me a bit. And, I will admit I found Chinese Democracy to be a huge disappointment. In retrospect, if you set aside all my enormous expectations, it wasn’t a horrible LP. It just wasn’t that great dirty blues metal that I’d come to love and cherish from GnR. Axl clearly has a Nine Inch Nails fetish. They veered into an almost Industrial Rock thing.

I was very encouraged and delighted when original lead guitarist Slash and original bassist Duff McKagan returned to the fold for the “Not In This Life Time Tour.” I saw their Kansas City show at Arrowhead Stadium in 2016. Other than last year’s pandemic shutdown, they’ve been touring almost constantly ever since. For those us hard core fans out here, that was great but I think I speak for the “GnR Universe” when I say we all wanted to hear new music from these guys. Although I have to admit, I was a little leery of their creative process without founding member, rhythm guitarist and foremost Axl songwriting partner Izzy Stradlin. It’s a shame that he’s not included in this reunion, but that’s another post.

I just realized on Monday that they’d released the studio version of “Absurd” on Friday… I’m usually on top of these new music releases but hey, I was still jet lagged. New York is my kinda town. I have to say, upon hearing the studio version of “Absurd” I was stunned… by how absurdly bad it is. I try to stay positive here on B&V but when something momentous like a new GnR single happens, I have to say something. Apparently they reworked an outtake from the Chinese Democracy sessions called “Silkworms” and now it’s called “Absurd.” It was written by longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed and former keyboardist Chris Pitman. Soooo, its been 5 years since Slash and Duff came back and you just reworked a single written by the keyboard section that wasn’t good enough to make it onto Chinese Democracy? I guess I was right about the absence of Izzy Stradlin. These guys have put out one album in like 30 years and this is what they chose to lead with?

The track starts with the line, “Listen motherfuckers to a song that should be heard.” This is one motherfucker who would disagree on that whole “should be heard” premise. Axl’s vocals are sung like he’s mad at us. It sounds like he’s shouting through a megaphone. I mean, Zach De La Rocha has an impassioned delivery but at least the music – while still very powerful – has some nimble swing to it. I’ve never heard the oft bootlegged original version of this song, “Silkworms” but I understand it was more electronica than classic GnR rock. I will say that “Absurd” does have some great Slash guitar work. It’s the only thing that makes this track palatable. And Duff has a lovely little bass line on the song, the guy is a nimble player. Those guys certainly elevate the track but not enough to make it interesting. And the lyrics are some of the most misogynist I’ve heard in a while, even for GnR.

You would hope a band this important would want their first single in over a decade to be something epic, something that will burnish their legend and re engage fans. This is so far off the mark that it baffles me. I’ve been hoping for a new GnR album for 5 years… now, not so much. Let’s hope this turns out to be a minor stub of the toe and they’ve been actually working on new material – not just rewarmed Chinese Democracy rejects. They had a year off to write, didn’t they?

Sigh. Cheers!

Review: The White Stripes ‘White Blood Cells (Deluxe)’ – Revisiting the LP That Made Them Famous

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The dawn of the new millennium saw a lot of changes for me. In the decade leading up to that landmark year of 2000 I had moved around a lot living on both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the Kansas City state line. I seemed to bounce from apartment to apartment every year or year and half. Perhaps that’s why I always felt like a gypsy despite living exclusively in the area codes of 816 and 913 the entire time. I was always in a constant state of flux. I never even took the time to take everything out of boxes or hang any pictures on the wall. Mine was a Spartan existence, capital letter on purpose… Of course in those days I never wanted to own anything I couldn’t carry to the car in the dead of night while the sound of sirens got closer and closer. I still had my original record crates back then to facilitate getting my albums to the car easily…say what you want, but my priorities were definitely in order… I never wanted to commit to anything that might slow my exit, should it become necessary, and it always seemed necessary.

In the year 2000 all of that changed. I remember as a kid always doing the math on what my age would be in the year 2000 where I expected robot butlers in every home and flying cars… maybe an Earth colony on Mars. I thought the Jetsons cartoon was prophecy. Well, none of that happened. While I did that math on how old I’d be in 2000, I never really thought about what my life would be like then or in the years after it. Things did start to get better for me around that time. My job situation got better. I actually started looking for a house, something my commitment-phobia would never allow prior to that. Things just started to stabilize for me. And when I stopped emitting all that gypsy, rootless energy I finally met a stable, solid woman. Yes, the Rock Chick entered my life.

By 2001, we were living together in a house in Brookside, south of my beloved Plaza in the heart of Kansas City. Alas, my record crates, like most of my pre-marriage property ended up on the curb. Farewell futon, farewell olive colored couch, farewell to my glass kitchen table. Time to make room for new, improved, Rock Chick approved home furnishings. Getting rid of all my stuff was traumatic but I have to admit, I hadn’t had a roommate in years and now I was living with the Rock Chick and her somewhat hostile daughter… thank God for Bob Marley. I had gone from gypsy to Evil Stepdad in the span of a year.

The turn of the millennium was not only a transitional time for me, so too music was in a state of flux. The Grunge movement which had dominated the first half of the 90s had faded away. Kurt Cobain had sadly taken his own life. Soundgarden had broken up. Layne Staley of Alice In Chains had practically disappeared into a heroin haze. Pearl Jam released Binaural which was a solid LP, but I felt it fell short of the heights of some of their previous work like Ten, VS, Vitalogy or even Yield. It just felt like Pearl Jam wasn’t swinging for the fences anymore. True, Grunge had punched itself out by the latter half of the 90s but it had given way to what they were then calling “alternative rock.” There was some really good stuff that came out during the late 90s but I had done what I had done in college – I’d turned backwards in time to music from previous decades. I was really into the Velvet Underground and the Clash at the time. I did catch some of the great alternative stuff that was coming out like Fiona Apple or Beck, I wasn’t completely unaware. I was also looking into some of the singer songwriters that I’d missed: Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt. I just didn’t feel connected to current music any more, something I never thought would happen. I was concerned at the time that Grunge was the last great musical movement.

I was lucky when I met the Rock Chick for many reasons, but one of the foremost was her music taste. She turned me onto a lot of stuff that I’d missed or ignored: The Cult, Social Distortion, Motley Crue and Green Day. Luckily for me she was also a little more connected to the rock music that was then current. I started tuning back in to the radio and what was going on. At the time there was this new “Garage Rock” thing going on. I couldn’t help but think, “Garage rock, Hell yes, deal me in.” There were all these bands playing loud, fast rock n roll. On paper this should have been perfect for me. There were the Von Bondies, the Hives with Veni Vidi Vicious or Hot Hot Heat who an ex-girlfriend sent me a CD from. The Rock Chick was particularly into the Yeah, Yeah Yeahs and Karen O. I jumped into the fray on this whole scene with the band that had most the hype, The Strokes and their debut LP, Is This It? I know this will be considered blasphemy by the rock n roll faithful who follow B&V but the Strokes just left me cold. They came across like hipster kids with rich parents. I couldn’t dig the lead vocalist at all. It sounded like he was singing through a running fan. I was on the verge of giving up and going back to my Clash albums when a band emerged to save me… that band was the White Stripes.

I was actually watching some MTV Awards show and they had the White Stripes play the final song of the night. “Honey, who is this? Is that a chick on drums? Where’s the rest of the band?” The Rock Chick quickly played me the “hits” they’d been playing on the radio, “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl.” This was the garage rock I had been searching for. I was convinced this was the next great band. With a little research I found that these tracks were from their third LP, White Blood Cells. I quickly decamped to the record store – lets be honest, the CD store – and picked up this album. Little did I know that I was holding the White Stripes’ landmark, breakthrough album. As I wrote last year about their Greatest Hits album, to paraphrase, I fell in love with a band.

The White Stripes were Jack White on guitar/vocals/keyboards/songwriting/production and Meg White on drums. Just typing out “Meg White on drums” seems reductive because she was a monster on the kit. Much has been said of her “caveman” style of drumming but that simple, straightforward yet visceral attack on the skins allowed Jack White to soar on guitar and vocals. When I saw them live – and I did so on two subsequent tours after White Blood Cells – Jack would always wander the stage, shredding on guitar but he always ended up back at the drum kit, the heartbeat of the White Stripes’ sound. Jack would always introduce Meg as his “sister” but in truth they’d been married and were divorced. Jack said later that he was telling people Meg was his sister to avoid that “Fleetwood Mac drama,” which actually makes total sense to me, but I love Fleetwood Mac.

There is so much to love on White Blood Cells. There’s the aforementioned “hits” like “Dead Leaves On the Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With a Girl.” I loved that they had this guitar-forward garage rock thing but I could hear blues in what they did. Probably more so on their 2 earlier LPs, but it’s still there on White Blood Cells on great tracks like “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known.” They could also go acoustic with great success on tracks like everyone’s favorite, “We’re Going To Be Friends,” which sounds like Rubber Soul-era Beatles. Rock tracks like “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman,” “The Union Forever,” and “Offend In Every Way” continue to resonate with me. They could be frantic and intense and I just loved it. Everyone should have White Blood Cells.

I was doing research on the 50th anniversary of a number of legendary LPs from 1971 recently, and I didn’t realize it’d been twenty years since White Blood Cells came out. If you’d asked me about an LP from 2001 I’d have said, “Yeah that’s about 10 years ago, right?” To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this fabulous record, Jack White and the folks down at Third Man Records have released a “deluxe” edition of the album. Much like Lou Reed’s deluxe edition of New York last year, White Blood Cells (Deluxe) is the original LP with a bonus disc containing a live concert where the Stripes play WBC in it’s entirety from start to finish. On Lou Reed’s New York Deluxe Edition, they pieced together the live performance of the LP from different performances. Despite that it hung together… Unlike that, this performance by the Stripes is one show. They recorded this at a show at The Gold Dollar club in Detroit (now gone apparently). Jack walks on stage, introduces his “sister” Megan and says, “We’re going to perform our new album White Blood Cells in it’s entirety for you.” That’s about all he says to the affectionate crowd. He does mention at the end, that they’d played the same room a few years earlier and there were only about three people in the audience… I’m guessing from the sound of it there were a few more there the night they played this show.

It’s probably no surprise, but I love this live performance. It feels more raw, less polished than the studio LP. Not that the studio LP was overly “polished.” Meg White’s drumming in particular is ferocious. As I said, I got to see this band twice and I always thought they brought it. It’s nice to hear them come out and go from quiet to loud, hard rocking to ballad and do so seamlessly. They completely nail it in these performances. I can only say I wish I had been there. The question I always ask myself on these “deluxe” packages is, is it worth? First and foremost, if you don’t already own White Blood Cells, buy the deluxe as you will absolutely want this live concert. Even though I already own this album I am absolutely purchasing this deluxe package as I think the live set is absolutely worth it. Any live White Stripes – or live Jack White, for that matter – you can get your hands on, do so. If I have any complaints, its that there is no bonus studio material… I guess we’ll have to wait on that for the 30th anniversary…

If anything, this music has me thinking back to those fun early days of becoming a family. I have intensely positive memories tied to this music… Luckily it’s kick ass music. And this live performance of the record only enhances it in my estimation. The White Stripes were such a great band. I’d love to see Meg come back from out there in the wilderness and play with Jack again… if she still even plays. I will always tell people to get into the White Stripes. They will go down as one of the greatest rock band ever… if B&V has any say in the matter. This titanic live performance ought to help seal their fabulous legacy.

Cheers!

A Brief Word On David Bowie’s January Birthday Single, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”/”Mother”

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I like to pride myself on always being aware of when new music is coming out. Be it an actual brand new song or LP from a band or a “new” previously unreleased track from the vaults. I’m always looking for stray B-sides or soundtrack tunes. I’m typically a pretty focused “watcher on the wall.” Well, in rock n roll terms, anyway. There’s a lot that seems to get by me anymore but I digress. The only reason I got onto any social media platform in the first place was to follow the Stones. And that of course led to other bands. I quickly realized that news on new music and upcoming concert tours tends to drop on “the social media.” It became a great source of information. Beyond that, I even continue to read rock n roll magazines: Uncut, Rolling Stone (although God only knows why I still do), and Classic Rock to name but a few. But alas, every now and then something gets past me. A band will release an album, or more likely, a single and I don’t hear about it or more importantly hear the music until months later. That is exactly what happened to me this week.

I was doing some research for my post for this upcoming weekend. I tend to listen to stuff all week and write about it on weekends…I needed a hobby. I was out on Spotify doing this aforementioned research. I tend to use Spotify the way I used to use the file sharing sites. I use it to discover and check out new music – or more accurately stuff I’m unfamiliar with – and then go out and buy the stuff I like so the artist gets paid. Spotify is never my chosen music delivery mechanism, but it does serve a purpose. I was looking around my Spotify home page and I discovered this “For You” section. They had all these playlists out there creatively titled, “Daily Mix 1” or “Daily Mix 2.” Usually I blow past stuff like that. I’ll pick my own music, thank you. But I was intrigued at the division of the four or five playlists… they seemed well curated based on my and the Rock Chick’s varied tastes. I plunged into one and scanned the fifty songs… and to my surprise, the last track on one of the playlists was David Bowie, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven,” a Bob Dylan cover. After some quick research I discovered the song came out January 8th of this year, 2021, six months ago.

Since Bowie’s tragic passing, his estate started releasing stuff on his birthday, the aforementioned January 8th. In 2017 they released the EP No Plan, with tracks Bowie recorded for the play he was working on at the end, Lazarus. I thought they’d actually gotten away from doing the Bowie birthday release thing, now 5 years removed from his death. But, embarrassingly unbeknownst to me, Bowie’s estate released a single this year to celebrate his birthday. Now, in my defense, I was a little preoccupied on Bowie’s birthday this year with the aftermath of the armed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. Perhaps I can forgive myself for missing the release of a song even if it is by one of my most beloved artists since traitorous rioters were occupying the U.S. Capitol…but this is not a political blog, we’re lovers here at B&V, not fighters.

As I’ve often mentioned, I dig a good cover song. It’s like a “two-for-one.” You get to groove on the artist singing the cover song and it takes you back to the original artist’s recording. It’s a layered experience. Over the course of his career Bowie wrote so many staggeringly great songs. But, he also always had impeccable taste in cover songs. He’s one of the artists who did an entire album of covers songs, Pin-Ups. On that album he covered great songs by the Who, the Pretty Things, Them (Van Morrison’s original band) and even threw in a track by Springsteen (“Growin’ Up”). As late in his career as 2002’s gem Heathen, Bowie covered Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” a track off Young’s debut LP. Bowie just always had a way of plucking out an obscure song and making it his own. On the 2003 follow-up Reality he did a couple of great cover songs by George Harrison (“Try Some Buy Some”) and Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers (“Pablo Picasso”). Those tracks were highlights on that album. I’m proud to say I saw Bowie on the Reality tour, a true highlight for me and the Rock Chick.

After discovering “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” on Spotify, I started looking to buy the track. It was then that I discovered the B-side was “Mother” a cover of the John Lennon track from Plastic Ono Band. I couldn’t help but think, a Dylan cover with a Lennon cover… bonus! I can not stop listening to these tracks. “Tryin’ To Get to Heaven” was originally done by Dylan on his 1997 album Time Out of Mind which was seen as a comeback for him. The album (and song) were produced by Daniel Lanois and has that Lanois rootsy, bluesy feel. Dylan’s voice is gravelly. The track starts off with piano and Dylan’s voice, punctuated with guitar. It’s a beautiful ballad on the album. Bowie’s version is much more “modern” sounding. It’s synth and drums with the guitar coming in later. Naturally Bowie’s vocal is smoother than Dylan’s. The guitar on this version is more alt sounding. It makes the track more muscular. Bowie totally captures the lonely wanderer vibe of the track. It’s more ethereal and more soaring than Dylan’s. I can’t believe this never got released.

The Lennon cover, “Mother” is probably one of Lennon’s most personal songs. He wrote it about the abandonment he felt at the loss of his mother when he was a teen and his father bolting the family prior to that. Lennon and Yoko Ono had been going to primal scream therapy prior to recording it and his vocals come across on the original as just that, both primal and screaming. He’s obviously exorcising a demon or two. Apparently Bowie recorded his version of the song for a 1998 Lennon tribute album that never came out. I’m a little stunned they left this one in the can this long as well. Bowie’s version doesn’t have that visceral pain that Lennon’s did but he does dig deep on the vocals. Again as on the other track Bowie’s vocals just seem more soaring. Bowie imbues the track with a beautiful strength. He does capture the pathos but with so much less pain than Lennon. There’s no screaming here but Bowie sings the shit out of this song. I was just stunned by the performance.

Here is a link to both tracks:

I searched for the 411 on these tracks – who played guitar, drums etc – but you can’t find any details out there. There were a number of announcement articles in the press which I apparently missed. I do believe that Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer for many of his greatest albums, produced “Mother.” I wish I knew more.

Hearing these two tracks makes me hope there’s even more in those Bowie vaults… I guess we’ll have to wait for next January 8th. These were a fitting birthday gift from Bowie, on his birthday, to all of us who loved him and miss him so much.

Cheers!

Review: The Black Keys’ LP of Blues Covers, ‘Delta Kream’ – Goin’ Down South To The Mississippi Hill Country

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Despite the heavy influence of the blues on just about every band I was into through college – the Stones, Zeppelin, Clapton, Aerosmith, etc – it wasn’t until after college when I was sent into corporate exile in the lonely state of Arkansas that I actually saw my first blues band in an actual blues club. Don’t be confused, it wasn’t in Arkansas that I saw my first blues band. Every week I spent in Arkansas I was usually figuring out how to get out of Arkansas by the weekend. Early in my southern desolation a group of friends of mine were convening in Chicago for various, nefarious reasons. It was my sainted mother who said to me, in regards to actually flying to Chicago to join them which I was hesitating on, “Buy the ticket son, enjoy your life.” On the appointed weekend I drove from Ft. Smith to Tulsa, the closest functioning airport, and flew to Chicago. It was like getting a three day furlough.

By the time the wheels touched down in Chicago and I made it to my friend’s waiting car, someone had thrust a beer into my hand. I knew this was indeed going to be a great weekend. Before I knew it, I was down on Halsted standing in front of the legendary Kingston Mines. I seem to recall not being able to get in and so we went across the street to the B.L.U.E.S. bar… It was there that I saw Magic Slim and the Teardrops, my first blues band. After that performance, my musical universe made a lot more sense. I spent a lot of time after returning to KC hanging in blues clubs like the Grand Emporium, alas now defunct. One of my first dates with the Rock Chick I took her to B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ, an old school roadhouse. I can still remember watching her swaying to the blues music on her barstool with a half-eaten rib in her hand. I was…mesmerized. 

Despite my love of the blues I had no idea when I posted my rockers playing the blues playlist a few weeks ago what a huge part of 2021 the blues were going to be. That post grew out of another post I’d done about old school cassette mix tapes not any preternatural sense the blues were going to be a big part of spring. But before I knew it Mick Fleetwood released the soundtrack to his blues jam in honor of Peter Green. And now, the Black Keys have released an entire album of blues covers. A blues album from those guys totally make sense. Like the White Stripes they’ve always had that bluesy sound to go along with the garage rock swagger. It’s often that you hear a band do a cover song, but an entire cover album isn’t as common as you think…but that’s another post. 

I got into the Black Keys on their third LP, Rubber Factory. For some reason that LP just didn’t click with me. Months later though, the Rock Chick discovered it and it went into high rotation for her. After hearing it a few times I realized I’d missed something on my initial listens. She not only picked up Attack & Release she went all the way back to their debut LP, The Big Come Up. Since then I’ve had an odd relationship with the Keys. I seem to like every other LP they put out. Rubber Factory, yes. Magic Potion, no (although in their defense I’m not sure I gave that one a thorough enough listen), Attack & Release, yes. It wasn’t until this week, in anticipation of the new blues LP, Delta Kream that I picked up Brothers. They had quite a run there with Attack & Release, Brothers, and El Camino. They’ve branched out from their early garage-rock bluesy roots but they always return to them eventually and that’s the stuff I like the best. 

Delta Kream is not the first time the Black Keys have done a strictly blues thing. They did an EP in honor legendary Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough, Chulahoma. The Keys also covered Kimbrough’s “Do The Rump” on their debut. The influence is definitely ingrained in their music. They’ve stated that Delta Kream is an album to honor Hill Country Blues and the musicians who played it – Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Missippi Fred McDowell, to name but a few. Hill Country blues generally refers to a type/style of blues played in the northern part of Mississippi near the Tennessee border. It has a “strong emphasis on the rhythm and percussion and a heavy emphasis on groove.” I just love that description from Wikipedia…I had to quote it verbatim. Hill Country blues has also been described as “hypnotic boogie.” It’s like cool bluesy trance music. With Patrick Carney on drums, he’s tailor-made for Hill Country Blues. 

The Keys convened shortly after their tour for their last LP, the superb “Let’s Rock.” The chemistry between singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney is so strong that they entered the studio and recorded this album in 2 days… approximately 10 hours. There was apparently no plan or rehearsal, they just set up and eyeball to eyeball played the blues. They’re like me and my friend Drew, it can be 10 years since we last spoke but when we see each other it’s like it was just yesterday… I think we all have friends like that. To augment their rootsy two-piece sound they rounded out their sound on this LP by bringing in Eric Deaton who was R.L. Burnside’s bassist and Junior Kimbrough’s sideman Kenny Brown on exquisite slide guitar. You can’t get more authentic blues sound than bringing those guys in. To emphasize the percussion, so important in the Hill Country blues they also added Sam Bacco on percussion. Brown was a critical add as his and Auerbach’s guitar snake around each other like Clapton and Duane Allman did on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. 

Knowing my proclivity for the blues, it’s no secret that I love this LP. I listened to it all day yesterday and last night on the headphones after the Rock Chick was asleep. This is the kind of music that just seeps into your pores. I can feel dirt on my hands when I hear this stuff. The first track on the LP which was coincidentally the first single is “Crawling King Snake” which I first heard the Doors do on L.A. Woman. It’s a track they played early on but Morrison couldn’t convince the band to include it on their debut. It was previously made famous by none other than the legendary John Lee Hooker. I love what the Keys do here with it – they cleave pretty tightly to the Junior Kimbrough version of the song – it’s swampy. “Louise” a Mississippi Fred McDowell tune is next up and I’ll just quote the Rock Chick when she first heard it last night, “That’s a great tune.” Indeed. 

“Poor Boy A Long Way From Home” is another favorite… it’s been done by several artists but I really dig this version. It’ll put a hitch in your giddy-up as a friend of mine used to say. These guys make these tunes sound fresh and new and somehow ancient at the same time. I feel like I’m getting wisdom when I listen to old blues tunes. “Stay All Night” which I seem to remember asking the Rock Chick after seeing her eat ribs and groove to the blues, is a slow burner of a tune. When you think about the blues, this is the type of music  you think of. “Going Down South,” which helped me name this post is a bit of a twist as Auerbach sings in a high falsetto. It’s a nice change of pace. “Coal Black Mattie” a Ranie Burnette track is another stand out. It just jumps up and grabs you with a thick riff, insistent drumming and stabs of slide guitar. I like to imagine I’m in a roadhouse down at the crossroads, washing down the dirt from a hard day working with a cold, affordable beer when I hear this stuff. 

There are so many great tunes here – and most of these blues tunes are ones I hadn’t heard before, which was a surprise. “Sad, Lonely Nights,” and “Walk With Me” are tracks I’d never heard covered. I used to think there were maybe twelve blues tunes and artists just passed those around. Obviously, that was wrong. There are some who will probably criticize the Keys for being too reverent and clinging too closely to the original versions of these songs, although I think in most cases they make these tunes their own. I remember Clapton’s great blues LP From The Cradle being criticized for not taking enough creative license with the songs. I feel like that’s hollow criticism. If you’ve got the chops to get up and make me feel something, I’m good with that. In the case of the Black Keys they’re exposing me to blues music and artists I would have otherwise not known and that is the greatest support you can show other artists, especially bluesmen. I know I immediately turned to Junior Kimbrough’s catalog to check that cat out. I will likely continue spelunking into Hill Country blues having heard this LP. 

I highly recommend Delta Kream. This is a swampy, bluesy treat of an album. When the Black Keys are on their rootsy game they can literally compete with any band on the planet. It’s just so fantastic to hear this kind of blues music still being recorded in 2021. I’ve always feared it’s going to be like what Elwood Blues once said, “some day the music known as the blues will only be available in the classical music section of your local library.” With albums like this one, that day looks like it’s been pushed a little further down the road. Thank God. 

Cheers! 

Surprise Single: Mick Jagger With Dave Grohl Deliver Lockdown Lament, “Easy Sleazy,” Pure Punk Energy And Humor

What a nice surprise yesterday, on a Tuesday no less…

I’m on record as hating Mondays. And Tuesday is always a bit of a “meh” day for me. Just another day punching the clock get to Friday when all the new music comes out. For most people, Friday kicks off the weekend but who am I kidding… my weekends tend to start on Thursday, “weekend-eve.”

I took a brief coffee break from “workin’ for the  man,” doing my usual corporate Tuesday stuff when I noticed on “the social media” that Mick Jagger had released a surprise song. I’ll admit my initial response was, “Wait a minute… I was hoping for a new Stones album in 2021…” After getting over that initial hissy fit, I read his statement about the song:

I wanted to share this song that I wrote about eventually coming out of lockdown, with some much needed optimism – thank you to Dave Grohl for jumping on drums, bass and guitar, it was a lot of fun working with you on this – hope you all enjoy Eazy Sleazy !

As I wondered why I wasn’t hearing a new Stones song I began to think back to Mick’s last surprise single, “Get A Grip”/”England Lost.” It seems when Mick has something topical to say, politically urgent if you will, he doesn’t wait to put a song through the Stones laborious creative process. Although I suppose “Sweet Neo-Con” is an exception. So was the Stones’ “Living In A Ghost Town.” I’ve seen some venerable rock stars releasing some songs about lockdown and the pandemic that I considered kind of… stupid (I’m talking to you Van Morrison and you Eric Clapton). But when I saw that part of Mick’s statement about “much needed optimism” I knew I had to check it out.

I don’t think I’ve heard Mick do anything this infused with humor since “Far Away Eyes.” His tongue is obviously firmly in his cheek as he makes fun of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists in the line “Bill Gates is in my blood stream.” He literally sums up the world’s collective lockdown experience with lines about gaining weight, drinking too much, cleaning the sink and pacing in the yard. Zoom even gets a mention. This is the kind of light hearted, rocking tune we need to kick off spring. Especially this particular spring which shows us all some signs of hope.

And speaking of “rocking,” this tune does. Mick plays rhythm guitar and vocals and he’s joined by that Fighter of Foo, Dave Grohl. Grohl plays drums – exceptionally I might add – and bass and lead guitar. I’ve never dug the Foo Fighters. I had their first LP but sold it at the used record store and never really got back on the bandwagon but I’ve always liked Dave Grohl. He seems like one of the nicest guys in rock n roll. And again, he’s a phenomenal drummer. He and Mick clearly work well together.

This song has a great punk energy I haven’t heard from Mick or the Stones since Some Girls. When punk came along it challenged the established rock authorities and well, the authorities in general, but the Stones managed to absorb that punk energy. When grunge came along it merely destroyed all that came before it. Established rock bands didn’t know how to react… It shows the full circle of rock n roll that Grunge Survivor Dave Grohl is playing with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones who managed to survive punk.

Topical songs don’t tend to have a long shelf life. But I have a feeling “Easy Sleazy” will stick with me for quite a while. Heaven knows memories of lockdown certainly will. As Mick says, “it’ll be a memory you’re trying to remember to forget.” I would urge anybody who needs a blast of punk energy and good laugh and a smile to check this tune out.

Cheers!

Lookback: My Mixtape Days – Inventor of the Cassette Tape Dies at 94

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I got up one day last week, as I thankfully do every day, and I checked the news. I’m not a morning person so there’s no TV involved. I prefer a lot of silence in the morning so I just checked on-line. I was scrolling through headlines and I noticed a Dutch gentlemen named Lou Ottens had died at the age of 94. He was a scientist and inventor for the Philips company. In my still sleep riddled mind I couldn’t help but think, big deal some scientist passed in the Netherlands. I kept scrolling, still half-asleep drinking hot coffee as quickly as the scalding liquid would allow, when I stopped and went back to the Ottens’ article. It was then that I saw that Lou was the inventor of the cassette tape. Oh man, that took me back. In this age of streaming and MP3s people forget what a revolution cassettes were. Portable music was a reality. We weren’t all chained to the home stereo any more. 

Prior to Mr. Ottens’ invention, other than vinyl the only way to consume music was on those bulky reel-to-reel tapes, but lets be honest only beatnik, jazzbo types owned reel-to-reel tapes. I have an image of groovy dudes in black turtlenecks and shades even though they’re indoors, smoking joints and talking about Miles Davis’ feel as In A Silent Way spools through the reel-to-reel player. Although as I type that sentence I’m reminded that my father-in-law owned a reel-to-reel player and as a rancher/farmer he was only into country music like C.J. McCall…”Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy…” Gads. His reel-to-reel gear was long gone by the time I came along but I would have loved to hear what that sounded like. 

In an attempt to make music more portable, the industry had tried a more “compact” tape version of the album on the now legendary 8-track tape. If you couldn’t get a turntable into a car, by God, lets try 8-tracks. A lot of people jumped on the 8-track bandwagon, thankfully I was not one of them. First of all, I never thought they were very compact. They were the size of a small paperback novel. My buddy Brewster had an 8-track player in his car and we’d listen to Cheap Trick’s Live At Budokan all the time. I thought it was because Brewster loved that album but looking back it may have been the only 8-track he owned. I could never figure out 8-tracks. It was years before I learned what the actual playing order of that Cheap Trick live album was. 

Enter Mr. Ottens and his magic cassettes. I’ll be honest, I was a vinyl guy from the start. I only purchased two albums on proper cassettes. I purchased AC/DC’s Highway To Hell on cassette because I wanted to listen to that album in the car. I actually bought that LP on cassette for the reason they were invented – so you could take your music anywhere and you were free from having to have a turntable which would have been hard in the car considering what a reckless driver I was (am?). I also bought Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass on cassette prior to that because I saw that was how a lot of people were buying albums and I thought I was missing out on some sound sensation. Was there something I was missing? Well, no but it was still a nice portable way to consume music. If you were tired of your local radio station – or if you lived in a godforsaken place like Ft. Smith, Arkansas with terrible radio – you could just pop in a cassette and magically you were listening to your own music, arranged how you wanted it. 

The real magic in cassettes were the blank cassettes that allowed you to record anything you wanted to. It was indeed, a blank canvass. There were so many different brands of cassette tapes. Early on I purchased strictly TDK brand but quickly “upgraded” to Maxell who had an infinite number of different types of cassette tapes, each one of a higher quality than the last. Cassettes would hold 90 minutes of music – 45 minutes on each side. The average album back then was around 40 minutes, usually less. If it was a Van Halen album it was more likely 30 minutes long. You could put 1 album per side and leave the last bit of tape blank or you could add your own “bonus tracks” by the same artist at the end. Each tape had a small lead tape that wouldn’t hold music but was there to protect the cassette when fully rewound. You had to be careful if you were recording on vinyl that you’d gotten past those 10 seconds of lead tape or you’d cut off the first few seconds of the first track. The struggle was as real as the skills you needed to create a good tape recording. 

In the early days of my cassette taping, I was merely trying to collect music that I hadn’t purchased (for free). Cassette tapes were the early Napster, I suppose. My brother who had a crate full of albums before I’d even purchased my first album was my first source. I remember going into his room and plugging a cassette into his stereo – it was a turntable/radio/cassette tape all in one – and declaring I was going to tape some Beatles, but only the “good songs.” After filling up two whole cassettes to quote the movie Jaws, I realized, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” My mother had a friend, who  I’ll call Mrs. Smith, who had kids my age and my brother’s age. She brought over a stack of albums for me to tape that her kids owned. I’m still unsure why that happened. I think Mrs. Smith was trying to be cool. She appeared one day holding a can of beer with a cigarette dangling from her lips and handed me a stack of the heaviest metal I’d ever heard. Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Judas Priest… it was all too heavy. I was listening to blues rock… the Stones, ZZ Top, Foghat. I’ve always wondered what the hell was happening over at the Smith’s house. It was extraordinarily nice of her to share her kids’ music even though they were probably using it during human sacrifices, or so I wondered back then. I’ve grown to love metal but hey, I was 13 years old. 

After cannibalizing other people’s albums on cassette the thing that probably accelerated my cassette use was the Sony Walkman. I got a Walkman for Christmas one year and it really changed the way I listened to music. I had headphones on my home stereo, but to be able to pop a cassette in the Walkman and actually leave my room to wander around while tunes played was mind blowing back then. I remember walking around in a snow storm, we’d been let off school, and listening to Yes (The Yes Album) and feeling my brain expand. 

Pretty soon, with my cassettes I realized you didn’t have to be so linear in your thinking. You could mix up artists or songs from one artist on the cassette. You could mix music… ie, the mixtape finally occurred to me. My music collection had expanded to the point where I had enough Aerosmith LPs or Skynyrd LPs that I could cherry pick the tracks I liked from them from each album and put them on 1 cassette. I was making my own “greatest hits” album. I remember sitting in front of my first stereo, surrounded in a semi-circle of albums resting gently on their sleeves and rotating albums on and off the turntable as I carefully hit “record” or “stop.” If a band had a double-live LP, I’d typically use that as my guide to building a 2-sided 90 minute collection of their music. I had friends who made copies of my “greatest hits” mix tapes as by then the cassette industry had created the dual tape deck that allowed you to copy a cassette to another cassette… 

Eventually, even rock and roll nerds get girlfriends. By the time I was in college I was making the dreaded mixtapes for girlfriends. You always tried to find a song that said what you didn’t have the courage to say yourself. “You’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel…” as the movie says. Mind you, my mixtapes were never terribly sappy. Often times it was just stuff I knew the lady liked. She’s into Sting, here’s a mix of Sting and the Police. I often tried to turn women onto the music I dug. It was always important. If she rejected my music, wasn’t she rejecting me? I know people think they’re doing much the same when they were burning CDs or putting together playlists on Spotify, but there was nothing like the engineering the perfect mixtape. There was no shuffle. The order you put the songs in was really, really important. I’ve always loved the scene from the movie High Fidelity where John Cusack explains the theory behind a great mixtape because it’s so accurate…

Nick Hornsby who wrote the novel this movie is based on is a real hero to the music nerd in me. 

I have an ex out there somewhere who now teaches yoga who occasionally emails me to thank me for turning her onto good music. I did a lot of that with the dreaded mixtapes. I actually used a mixtape to break up with someone in the early 90s… As I recall I started that tape with B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.” Not my finest moment. I’ve even made tapes for some friends of mine way back when. I have a friend I met when I first moved to Arkansas who had no money and coveted my deep album collection. I’d tape stuff I thought he’d dig – Clapton, the Band, the Allman Brothers – and so on… I wonder what ever happened to those things… Although if I had one of those mixtapes, I couldn’t play it. As times have changed and technology has shifted, the Rock Chick forced me to finally give up the cassette player. The only cassettes I still own are some Springsteen bootlegs from the way back machine. Oh, but I do miss those wonderful afternoons in front of the stereo with a stack of vinyl on the floor and a blank cassette in the stereo… Simply glorious. 

I’m glad Mr. Ottens came along and invented the cassette. It gave me many countless happy hours. I try and share music now via playlists but there was something so intimate and personal about sharing your music with someone back when I was younger and the mixtape was my medium. The mixtape was the way I took something that was so personal – listening to music – and turned it into something more public to be shared, to help bring me closer to people, friends and lovers. Maybe I was just practicing for this blog. The mixtape will always be a part of my rock and roll experience and enabled me to start sharing music and my experiences with it that I will hold onto fondly for as long as I’m able to hit “play.” 

R.I.P Mr. Lou Ottens. Cheers! 

Sequel: Pleased To Meet You 2 – Our Epic List of Debut Solo Albums, “Let Me Re-introduce Myself”

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As long time readers know, a few weeks ago I posted about our B&V favorite debut albums, Pleased To Meet You… The Epic List of Our 40 Favorite Debut Albums. As I was compiling the list of all the great debut albums out there, well, the list began to get a little unwieldy. I was somewhere around 80 albums when I realized I needed to put some rules around the thing to thin it down to something manageable. How I settled on 40 albums and not 50, I’m unclear about. One of the first rules I laid out for myself was to exclude any solo debuts. If a singer or guitar player had been in a band, and was thus an established artist, it seemed like cheating to include them on the debut list. When Ozzy went solo and recorded Blizzard of Ozz he had already established himself as the Prince of “fucking Darkness” (his words, not mine) through his work with Black Sabbath. It seemed unfair to compare that album with say, R.E.M.’s Murmur. When Michael Stipe and company were recording that album they were a bunch of pimply faced kids and certainly no competition for the Dark Lord. 

The Rock Chick was the first person – since she’s always the first person to see what I write, despite her life long ban from reading B&V due to her unfair grammatical criticism, to cry foul on the rule barring solo debuts from the list. In her view a debut is a debut. As I sat staring out at the frozen tundra that is Kansas City in February watching dry, powdery snow flutter through the sky like some giant human had shaken my city like a snow globe, my thoughts as always turned to rock n roll. I had to admit the Rock Chick’s argument was persistently tugging at the edge of my mind. I had excluded a lot of really great solo debut albums from the list. Since the high temperatures this last week were in the single digits with -15 degree wind chills, I had a lot of time on my hands. I was already hiding in my attic from Covid… now bitter cold has me pinned in my attic as well. 

Going solo can be a dicey proposition. In the late 60s and early 70s audiences often struggled with the whole concept of doing a solo record. You were either in a band or you were on your own and apparently never the twain shall meet. If you did your own album it meant you were leaving the band. When Paul McCartney put out McCartney, his homespun, lo-fi debut it was considered the announcement that the Beatles were over… which perhaps contributed to the critical backlash at the time. It was Rod Stewart who was the first artist to juggle the whole solo vs band career when he was a member of the Faces. He’d do a Faces album and then six months later he’d do a solo record. I think his solo stuff ended up overshadowing one of the world’s greatest bands, the Faces, and that’s a shame. People thought the Faces were just his back up band, which utterly rankled the other guys, especially Ronnie Lane. Rod was the first to try the split career but based on the fact his solo albums sold so much better I can’t say it was a screaming success. There’s always the constant allegations that you’re saving your best stuff for the solo albums. 

Rod’s career does underscore the fact that chemistry matters. When an artist is in a band its a collective. There’s a give and take. The guys in the band interpret what you’ve written. When you go solo you’re captain of the ship. Where as in a band some of your worst instincts as an artist may be curbed by the members of the band when you go solo there’s no one to say, maybe you shouldn’t have a spoken-word interlude in the middle of a rock song, Mick. I think Lennon always made McCartney tougher and McCartney always made Lennon not softer but perhaps more melodic, less caustic. When you go solo you’re putting your reputation on the line. You’ve established a brand and going solo can really tarnish your reputation. I think about Sting in this realm. We all loved Sting until Dream of the Blue Turtles came out. Looking back it wasn’t that awful of an album but that jazz-lite stuff induced a lot “what the hell is this shit?” moments. His solo career has been largely a disappointment for a lot of people. If I never hear “Love Is The Seventh Wave,” it’ll be too soon. 

Sometimes though, the risk of going solo is worth it. In many cases the artists on this list were kicked out of their bands or the bands broke up. A solo project was thus inevitable. I remember Mick Jagger, when asked in the 80s whether he’d ever do a solo record, saying something about doing a solo album when he had enough material that the band thought was “too stupid” to record. Who knew he was actually telling the truth there. Some of the artists on my list below had great solo careers, some only had this one great debut album. This is in no means a commentary about the solo careers of these artists it’s merely about their debut album as a solo artist. For example, the aforementioned Mick Jagger’s solo debut was, by any stretch of the imagination bad, he has put out a few great records. 

For the purposes of this list, which is randomly laid out, I’ll list it like this: Solo Artist Name (Former Band Name), Debut Album Title. If there’s a great debut solo LP you’re into, let me know what that is and I’ll check it out. I hope there are a few gems on this list of 25 that if you haven’t come across them, you’ll discover something you like. 

  1. Gregg Allman (The Allman Brothers Band), Laid Back – I just repurchased this one on vinyl! Frustrated with inter-band conflict, especially with Dickey Betts, Allman recorded this solo gem while also recording Brothers And Sisters with the band. More soulful and less guitar-centric, Allman even redid “Midnight Rider” and turned it on its head and into a classic on its own right. 
  2. Jeff Beck (The Jeff Beck Group), Blow By Blow – Tired of squabbling with lead singers, Beck pulled in George Martin of Beatles fame to produce and put out one of the only instrumental albums outside of jazz that I can listen to. There is such a rich and beautiful tone Jeff pulls out of his instrument. This is a fascinating listen. 
  3. Robbie Robertson (The Band), Robbie Robertson – It had been almost a decade since the Band had broken up and Richard Manuel had recently committed suicide when Robbie finally put out his solo debut. He had a lot of help from producer Daniel Lanois, U2, Peter Gabriel, and members of the Bodeans but the songwriting on this record is all Robertson. “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is my favorite song here. “Testimony” is an epic statement of purpose. 
  4. Jack White (The White Stripes), Blunderbuss – Listening to the White Stripes’ greatest hits LP makes me miss that band and Meg White even more (Review: The White Stripes ‘Greatest Hits’ – A Lovingly Curated Romp Through Their Career) but Jack White really comes through on his solo debut. He’s one of rock’s most important artists. 
  5. Paul McCartney (The Beatles), McCartney – Depressed as the Beatles imploded McCartney retreated to his home and invented DIY, indie rock. I love this little lo-fi gem. It’s heavy on instrumental jams but as usual with McCartney the melodies bore into my brain. He just released his second sequel to this one, Review: ‘McCartney III,’ A Homespun Gem, the perfect lockdown project. 
  6. Joe Walsh (The James Gang), Barnstorm – I know that Barnstorm was considered an actual band but I think of this as Joe’s solo debut anyway. I left Dio’s Holy Diver off the list because I actually did consider them a band not a solo artist so perhaps I’m bending the rules a bit. I had to include this album as the song “Turn To Stone” which is the greatest riff in the history of guitar makes it debut. It’s a surprisingly laid back affair which makes his joining the Eagles makes sense.
  7. Rod Stewart (The Jeff Beck Group), The Rod Stewart Album – With that title it’s pretty easy to see this as Rod introducing himself to the world post-Jeff Beck Group, pre-Faces. With his sidekick Ronnie Wood on guitar this album has always seemed like an interview for the job as Faces lead singer. He does some great interpretations on covers (“Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Street Fighting Man”) but the originals are just fantastic. The passionate “Blind Prayer” has always been a personal favorite. I think he should have stuck to the original title, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down.
  8. George Harrison (The Beatles), All Things Must Pass – The single greatest Beatles’ solo album. Harrison had been largely stifled as a songwriter in the Beatles – they typically gave him only 2 songs per album (if that) and he had a huge backlog of great material as evidenced by the original 3-vinyl LP package. (Yes, I’m ignoring his Wonderwall project). 
  9. Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath), Blizzard of Ozz – Everybody thought Ozzy was finished after Sabbath fired him for being out of control on booze and drugs. Along came Randy Rhoads and the rest was history (Review: Ozzy’s ‘Blizzard of Ozz, 40th Anniversary Expanded’ – Is It Worth It?). 
  10. John Lennon (The Beatles), Plastic Ono Band – I tend to ignore those 2 awful records he did prior to this with Yoko. For me this is his first solo album. Fresh from primal scream therapy Lennon delivered this, his most raw, brutally honest album. “Mother” sears itself into your memory. He’s exercising every demon in his soul here. Riveting listen. 
  11. Eric Clapton (Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith), Eric Clapton – After playing in virtually every British blues-rock band ever, Clapton finally put his solo debut LP out. He recorded this with members of Delaney and Bonnie who he’d met when they opened for Blind Faith on their tour. “Bottle of Red Wine” is a personal fav. 
  12. Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Stephen Stills – Stills, alongside Neil Young, had established himself as a guitar hero but surprisingly he leaves the solo’ing to his guest stars – Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix on his last studio recording. This is just a great, great eclectic record. The rest of his solo career was up and down but he was on the money here. 
  13. Paul Simon (Simon & Garfunkel), Paul Simon – Surprisingly, I don’t think this little gem of an album sold that well. “Mother And Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” hint at his world music influences that we’d eventually see blossom on Graceland. 
  14. Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Songs For Beginners – I considered David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name but left it out as I feared it sounded like too much of a hippy clambake for most people. Nash is probably my least favorite songwriter of the CSNY family (Artist Lookback: Crosby, Stills, Or Nash – The Essential Solo and Duo Albums), but I love this album. Its informed largely by his recent searing heartbreak from his split with girlfriend Joni Mitchell which is what makes this one so poignant to me. As I’ve often admitted, I’m a sucker for recent searing heartbreak. Well, I was until I met the Rock Chick… but those records are sealed. 
  15. David Lee Roth (Van Halen), Eat ‘Em And Smile – Kicked out of Van Halen for making a solo EP and wanting to make a movie, Roth’s split with Eddie is probably one of rock’s ugliest divorces. He recruited some top notch musicians – Billy Sheehan on bass and most notably Steve Vai on guitar wizardry – and actually treated this like a band project. After this it looked like Roth would be the one with the long, more successful career, not his former band. Alas, on his next record his megalomania took over and he started indulging his worst instincts. 
  16. Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac), Bella Donna – I love this album. Every man of a certain age has/had a crush on Stevie. Sure she had help from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Don Henley but this is a uniquely Stevie album. This thing was so big I’m still surprised she returned to Fleetwood Mac. The disappointing sales figures for Tusk is what drove her to record solo, not the break up with Buckingham which I always found fascinating. 
  17. Gram Parsons, (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers), G.P. – Gram never met a band he couldn’t quit. He bounced from band to band in an almost Clapton-esque fashion. This, his final LP before his death is a country-rock masterpiece. The Eagles were clearly listening…
  18. Peter Frampton (Humble Pie), Winds of Change – When compared to Humble Pie’s boogie rock classic Smokin’, which was their first album without Frampton and this largely acoustic album it’s easy to see that Peter was moving in a different direction than the band. I don’t know why his pre-Frampton Comes Alive studio albums aren’t more popular. This is a really engrossing listen. 
  19. Liam Gallagher (Oasis, Beady Eye), As You Were – When Liam’s band Beady Eye, which was basically a Noel-less Oasis, imploded I remember reading Noel saying, “Liam needs to put out a solo album, put his own name on something, put it all out there.” I guess Liam was listening. I described this album as a pleasant surprise from an unpleasant man. As much as I dislike Liam, I love his solo stuff, LP Review: Liam Gallagher, ‘As You Were’ A Pleasant Surprise From an Unpleasant Man
  20. Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin), Pictures At 11 – We were all still pretty raw that John Bonham had passed and Led Zeppelin had broken up. I remember guys in my high school were renting a bus to see them in Chicago when the news of Bonham’s death broke. This was such a great album and it helped us all move on. Phil Collins showed up to play drums and help Plant figure out how to produce an album. Plant seems embarrassed by his early albums but this is a classic. “Burning Down One Side” is an absolutely fantastic track. 
  21. Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs), Tigerlilly – I hated the 10,000 Maniacs, they never made any sense to me. But this solo debut from Natalie Merchant was a stunner. A friend of mine described the guitar work on this record as “smokey.” I even saw her on the ensuing tour for this record. This, for me, is the lone gem in her solo catalog. 
  22. Van Morrison (Them), Astral Weeks – Brilliant, poetic, transcendent, Celtic mysticism. One of the greatest albums of all time. 
  23. Mike Ness (Social Distortion), Cheating At Solitaire – If you dig the “cow punk” of Social Distortion, you’ll love this record. The duet with Bruce Springsteen, “Misery Loves Company” is a classic. I remember texting the Rock Chick, who turned me onto Social D, “worlds collide, Springsteen/Ness together!” The whole record blows me away. 
  24. Iggy Pop (The Stooges), The Idiot – Iggy and Bowie on the loose in Europe recording Iggy’s classic first solo album. Some say Bowie’s influence is too pronounced here but that’s just crazy talk. Iggy comes through on classics like “China Girl” and “The Dum Dum Boys.” 
  25. Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Talk Is Cheap – The solo record Keith never wanted to make. Tired of trying to get Mick interested in the Stones again, Keith put together a great band with Steve Jordan (drums) and Waddy Watchel (guitar) and put out a classic (Keith Richards: ‘Talk Is Cheap (Deluxe Version),’ The 30th Anniversary Edition With Bonus Tracks). 

Stay safe but more importantly stay warm if its cold where you are. I don’t think the son is going to shine again here until late next week. I’ll be gritting my teeth to get through it… Hopefully some of this classic rock and roll will help keep you warm! 

Cheers!