David Bowie: ‘Toy – Box Set’ – Bowie’s Lost Album Finally Sees Official Stand-Alone Release

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OK, let’s get the monkey-boy, er I mean the elephant in the room out of the way right off the bat. This cover art is amongst the worst I’ve ever seen. The Rock Chick wandered in yesterday and said, “God that picture is freaky,” in an almost frightened voice. Bowie was a beautiful man, why he chose this cover art will just have to remain one of life’s mysteries. Please don’t judge this book by it’s cover. Now, on the with the post…

Last Monday, January 10th marked the sixth anniversary of rock n roll icon David Bowie’s passing. I’m still sad about that. Bowie was indeed a titan, a true rock star. His image can still be found everywhere. Every time there’s an art fair in town, whether it’s on the Plaza, Westport or Brookside, there are always works featuring Bowie’s visage. The most popular seems to be the image from the cover of Aladdin Sane, with the iconic blue/red lightning bolt drawn across Bowie’s face, his spiky hair deep orange. Bowie was a hero to all the misfits and outcasts. He sang from a real outsider’s point of view on songs like “Is There Life On Mars?” and “Changes.” He came out as bisexual when to do so could have ended his career. He blasted MTV in it’s early days for not featuring enough (or really any) black artists. Even though he’s gone I still see his face on t-shirts of young girls wandering Westport or painted on murals several stories tall. I can’t help but think, when I see people with Bowie shirts on, have they actually heard the music or is he just a symbol of something bigger?

I’m a huge Bowie fan. Now that he’s gone I look forward to his birthday, January 8th, every year as his team releases something new on or around that date annually. A few years ago it was the EP No Plan and last year it was the previously unreleased double-single, “Trying To Get To Heaven” with “Mother.” I will admit to you, I wasn’t always keenly watching for new Bowie releases. I grew up in the American midwest and frankly I was aware of Bowie but really knew very little about him. Our rock radio station (remember them?), KY102 would play select tracks. I remember hearing “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel” and “Changes.” I think they’d occasionally play “Heroes.” His most played track in Kansas City was probably his duet with Queen, “Under Pressure.” If Bowie ever came up in conversation it was sort of like Elton John at the time – he was maybe gay so you had to keep your distance. Ah, the insecurity of the adolescent male. I’d like to say I was cool even in junior high and I was early on the Bowie bandwagon and bought Low or Hunky Dory at an young age, but alas, my journey to Bowie was slow and likely to most of his true fans, very uncool indeed.

I’ve written before about the fact that most people end up making their first purchase of an artist whose been around a while by buying whatever is then current. For example, my first Stones LP was the (at the time) recently released Some Girls. My first Who album was Face Dances, which I think only I like, because the first single “You Better You Bet” was played constantly on KY102 at the time. I can’t even claim being so cool that I did that with David Bowie. When I was in junior high he came out with Scary Monsters. I’d like to tell you I jumped on his bandwagon at that point and bought that album. I liked the song “Ashes to Ashes,” who didn’t, but it was my brother who bought that record. And he’s 3 years younger than I am. Even Scary Monsters would be a cool LP to begin your Bowie journey on… nope, not me. I was holding out.

I waited to make my first tenuous step into Bowie’s music until I was in college. Yes, it was the song “Let’s Dance” that brought me into the fold. Let’s Dance came out in 1983 and I think it’s Bowie’s most commercially successful album. Even worse than admitting “Let’s Dance” was my real entry point for Bowie, I was really enticed by the amazing video that was in high rotation on MTV. I loved the line from that song, “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” After hearing “Modern Love” I broke down and bought the album which I’ll admit was a bit uneven but with Nile Rogers producing and on rhythm guitar and the then unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar, you couldn’t go wrong. I know Let’s Dance was shamelessly pop-friendly and not hipster, avant garde like say, Lodger, but I don’t care. I remember a friend from high school, Brewster, who had ended up in Lubbock sending me a Bowie bumper sticker he bought at the Bowie concert from the ensuing tour entitled The Serious Moonlight Tour so it appears I wasn’t the only one on the bandwagon after Let’s Dance. I still have that sticker in a box somewhere. Everything I own is in a box somewhere these days.

At that point I went out and bought his greatest hits package, Changesonebowie figuring that was all I needed of Bowie. I was playing “Space Oddity” one rare sober Friday night and I remember the guy across the hall asking me “Why I was playing Sunday morning music on a Friday night?” It was one of my roommates Drew who plunged into Bowie at that point, leaving me behind. He brought home Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s masterwork, and I was at least moved to tape it onto cassette. That was the entire extent of my Bowie collection for the next fifteen years. I bought Tonight when it came out because I liked “Blue Jean.” But to me, it was a huge disappointment and I sold it quickly at the used record store. I was aware of the release in spring of ’87 of Never Let Me Down and the ensuing Glass Spider tour but I largely ignored it. After that Bowie retreated into his “side project” Tin Machine and floated out of my consciousness. In the 90s he went into this heavy electronic/industrial thing and even worked with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. I had begun to think of Bowie as basically an artifact struggling for relevance. Although I loved the song, “I’m Afraid Of Americans” which was the only track that reached my ears during those days.

But then in 1999 something happened. I was listening to the radio and I heard a song “Thursday’s Child.” It was from a new album from Bowie, Hours… and I loved it. I know, another odd entry point back into Bowie, but I’m not a music snob. If a song hits my lower brain stem I’m in. Critics were lukewarm on the album, it was composed as a soundtrack for a video game and had a song with lyrics composed by a fan in a contest, but I really thought it was a return to his classic sound. It’s described in Wikipedia as the beginning of his “neoclassicist period,” whatever that means. It was only then, at the end of one millennium and the dawn of another that I plunged into Bowie. I went back and started buying all of his LPs, from The Man Who Sold The World up to Scary Monsters. I joyfully followed Bowie’s every twist and turn on that back catalog and that’s when I became a huge fan. I also realized how much I’d been missing out on… That newfound fandom was only solidified when Heathen came out in 2002. It’s an album everyone should own and it’s exactly the type of late-career type of LP B&V was founded on. He followed up with the brilliant Reality in 2003 and it was on that tour, that I finally joined my friend Brewster in actually seeing Bowie in concert. “Station To Station” was the highlight of the evening. The Rock Chick, sadly, was a bit baffled by the evening as she wasn’t as familiar with his stuff as I was… but marriage is a compromise.

It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that I discovered there was an unknown chapter to that fruitful 1999 to 2003 period. Apparently jazzed with how his backing band had sounded on the tour for Hours, Bowie decided to head into the studio. He was excited to have a band honed on the road, doing live shows and he wanted to capture that. On that tour he had decided to start revisiting songs from his early pre-fame period when he was just a struggling Mod in London. They were playing various tracks on the tour like, “You’ve Got A Habit of Leaving.” Bowie’s plan was to hole up with his touring band, Mark Plati (multi-instrumentalist/producer), Earl Slick (guitar), Gail Ann Dorsey (bass), Mike Garson (keyboards), and Sterling Campbell (drummer) and record an introspective version of Pin Ups his 70s LPs of cover songs that I featured on my list, B&V’s Favorite Cover Albums: Singing Other People’s Songs. While he covered other artists on Pin Ups, on this new album Toy he was going to go back over 30 years and cover himself. The plan was to do a surprise release of the album which is common now but way ahead of its time in 2000 but that’s Bowie for you… a visionary. Apparently there wasn’t the technology available yet to go from studio to release in a matter of weeks. Unfortunately the record company wasn’t as excited about Bowie revisiting his early catalog as he was, they wanted an album of new songs, and they rejected Toy. Let me just say, I doubt the cover artwork helped any. The sessions did lead to Heathen…so there’s that.

As I mentioned, a decade later in 2011 Toy was leaked to the internet and became a widely bootlegged album. I don’t condone bootlegging but I won’t lie I’ve been an owner of a number of bootlegs since I was in college. I had a copy of Toy on a CD that I got from sources that shall remain hidden. While most Bowie aficionados look down on this record, I think it’s damn good music and a hell of a lot fun. A couple of tracks from Toy had been released as b-sides for Heathen so some of it had seen the light of day. I loved that it was Bowie singing passionately with a band that does sound road tested and rocking these old songs. It was modern and yet it had that mid-sixties mod energy. Listening I felt like everyone involved was wearing a suit with a parka and riding a scooter while taking pills. With titles like “I Dig Everything” you definitely get a sixties vibe which is nothing but a good thing.

Toy was finally released in last year’s box set Brilliant Adventures (1992 – 2001). The running order and track list was slightly altered from the 2011 bootleg but the sound is better and I think it’s an even better version of Toy. The day before his birthday, last Friday, Bowie released Toy as a box set of its own with the original LP, a disc of alternative versions and a third disc entitled Unplugged And Somewhat Slightly Electric. The original Toy is all rock and roll. He was right his band was really tight. The track I’ve been obsessed with since it came out as b-side is “Conversation Piece.” It’s a melancholy rumination from the eyes of a young person wondering if they’ll ever amount to anything or connect with anybody. I think it ranks amongst his best deep tracks. “I Dig Everything” is a ferocious rocker and the perfect opening track. “You’ve Got a Habit Of Leaving” is an elastic rock song. “Karma Man” is my current obsession as it wasn’t on the bootleg. “Shadow Man” is a beautiful ballad. Most these tracks just rock, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” and “Let Me Sleep Beside You” are prime examples. This isn’t Bowie setting new directions, this his him rocking out and gads, having a great time doing so.

The second disc, full of alternative versions, might be the bootleg versions I had in 2011 although I can’t be positive. It kicks off with “Liza Jane” a great bluesy, harmonica tune that I just love because well, everything I dig can be traced to the blues. I think this may just be a remastered version of the 60s original although the vocals sound 2000 to me. I’m like most people, I’m not familiar with Bowie’s pre-“Space Oddity” work so this is all a new treat to me. There’s also a track “In The Heat Of The Morning” that’s a solid rock tune that’s not on disc one. Disc two is interesting but it’s probably for obsessives like me who ruminate over different tempos and guitar parts.

Disc three, the Unplugged & Somewhat Slightly Electric disc, is as advertised, Bowie’s band playing the Toy tracks in a more stripped down fashion. I don’t know if this disc was recorded in 2000 or Plati, who produced all of this just went in and re-recorded the backing tracks behind Bowie’s vocals like they did for the “updated” version of Never Let Me Down a few years ago. I like the stripped down versions of the Toy material, it’s like a lost Unplugged concert that we never got to see or hear (not that these performances are live). If you like Toy you’ll dig the Unplugged versions on disc 3.

Once again Bowie has a birthday and he gives us the gift of his music. I really think Toy is worth checking out for any Bowie fan. Especially if you dig his latter day work like Heathen, Reality or even the great LP The Next Day. It stems from a great period for Bowie and he had a great inspiration trying to capture the magic that a great band delivered live in a studio. I highly recommend pouring a nice glass of wine and kicking back with Toy, you will be rewarded.

Cheers!

Review: Documentary, ‘Under The Volcano’ – A Wonderful Lookback At AIR Montserrat Studios

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m in the throes of the dreaded Dry January these days. It’s very hard to self entertain during the coldest, grayest time of year, especially without booze. Let’s all admit it, January sucks. The Holidays, however you feel about them and whichever you choose to participate in, are over and it’s just a long, dark slog until Spring. Or at least until Valentine’s Day if you’re into that sort of Hallmark Holiday. But with the cold, Midwest weather there’s really no outdoor activities to help divert the winter blues. All there is to do in Kansas City these days is eat and drink… not that there’s anything wrong with that but currently I’m not doing one of those things.

This last weekend my beloved Chiefs played their game on Saturday instead of the usual Sunday football game. My friend Doug came over to watch the game with a couple of boxes full of non-alcoholic beer. While Doug isn’t joining me on the long, slow slog of Dry January he was kind enough to support me. I was surprised how good that beer was, but perhaps I just miss beer. I don’t miss the bloating beer brings on…  Anyway, when Sunday rolled around there were a ton of NFL games on to watch, all of which had playoff ramifications but I could tell the Rock Chick was not enjoying being a “football widow.” I knew I needed something on Netflix and I needed it fast. Some buddies of mine have me in that most dreaded of things, a group text. But last week on the aforementioned group text one of my friends mentioned a documentary that came out last March, Under The Volcano. He said to me specifically, “You’ve probably seen this already, but if you haven’t, you’ll dig it.” I had seen that it was on Netflix (and it was actually on Showtime this last week) but for some reason both the Rock Chick and I thought we’d already watched it. We tend to watch anything about rock n roll if it looks like it’s well done but in fact, we had not seen it. I knew this might be the thing to save my wife from the football induced boredom I was subjecting her to.

Apparently in the mid to late sixties Beatles’ producer extraordinaire George Martin formed a company, Associated Independent Recording (aka AIR). I had no idea George Martin was going to be at the heart of this story. As soon as I heard that, I sat up straight in my chair and started paying more attention. Martin started this company and opened his own state of the art studio in London, on Oxford Street. I think Martin produced Rubber Soul there. The man was genius. Growing tired of the big city and feeling the need to get musicians away from all of that and more isolated for focus, Martin discovered and fell in love with the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Known as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean,” Montserrat was this sort of unspoiled gem. Martin fell in love with the island but he especially loved the warm and wonderful people there. He bought a property there and eventually bought built a studio down there in 1979, long after the Beatles had gone their separate ways.

In today’s world of Pro Tools, digital files being sent around on email and folks recording music on their phones, it’s hard to understand how musicians and producers used to actually all get together in the same room and play music together. And, lets face it, in the late 70s and 80s, the time covered in this documentary, record companies had bigger budgets. It was a time of decadence but it was a time of great music as well. Often bands or solo guys with their backing band would retreat to the country or some remote location with a studio and live, party, write and record as a group, or some might say, like a family. And what better place to get away from the distractions of the world than in paradise. Many of the guys would bring their family and make it a holiday. They’d work a few hours on music and then off to the beach of if you’re Sting, off to windsurf.

I was aware that there was a studio on Montserrat and vaguely aware that some of my favorite albums were recorded there but had never really investigated it. Again, I had no idea that George Martin was involved. He lived there and would often pop in to check out how things were going even if he wasn’t producing the record. That’s like having Roger Federer come down to check on how your tennis game is coming along. The island of Montserrat is simply beautiful. However, the island has a “dormant” volcano that stands over the island and the proceedings here like a silent, dangerous, smokey sentinel. It’s like recording at the feet of the famous “Iron Man” of Black Sabbath. I knew AIR Montserrat studio closed in 1989 and I kept thinking… “my god, what happened, did the volcano go off?” The studio itself was like a resort. They had a pool right outside the studio – lots of rock star photos jumping into the pool – and an onsite cook and bar. Many locals who worked at the studios or who had gotten to know the rock stars are interviewed and I enjoyed hearing them as much as I did the rock stars. This documentary reminded me a lot of Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City, only with much better surroundings.

The first album produced at AIR Montserrat was by the Climax Blues Band for those of you who feel like getting in the “way back” machine. Jimmy Buffett was the second artist to record there because – hello, he’s Jimmy Buffet the island guy. So influenced by the island and it’s primary geological feature he called that record Volcano. I love that he bought out the whole bar at the studio one night. If they weren’t drinking at the bar, many of these rock stars would venture out to these little, rundown neighborhood bars nearby and hang with locals. How cool would that be? Especially for the rock stars… to be able to act like a normal person.

So many great acts did records at Montserrat. McCartney did Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace, his first work with George Martin since the Beatles broke up and sadly only weeks after John Lennon was murdered. The Police recorded Ghosts In The Machine and Synchronicity there and Sting fell in love with the place. He recorded his first solo record there too. Artists from Gerry Rafferty to Duran Duran did albums there. They talk about the studio having its own particular sound, like the island was in the space between the notes. That laid back Caribbean vibe soaked into the music like rum into a pineapple. I knew without checking the internet, for example, that Eric Clapton must have recorded Behind The Sun there. Keith Richards brought the X-Pensive Winos down there to record Talk Is Cheap and vowed he’d get the Stones back together and bring them down. As it turns out, the Stones did reunite and recorded Steel Wheels there. Again, so many great albums were done down there.

Alas, the Stones were the last group to record there. Spoiler alert – it wasn’t the volcano that destroyed AIR Montserrat, that honor went to Hurricane Hugo. The destruction caused by that hurricane brought to an end a really wonderful point in time in the annals of recorded music. The property now is “returning to the jungle.”

I was really entertained by this documentary. If you’re into music and how it’s recorded… nay, how it used to be recorded this documentary is for you. It’s really cool seeing all these guys like Dire Straits down there doing their most famous albums. You even learn the truth about how Sting ended up singing on “Money For Nothing,” a story I won’t spoil here. Check it out… it’s January, you’ve nothing else to do, especially if you’re going dry like me!

Cheers!

B&V’s Best of 2021: Our Favorite New LPs & Vault/Live Releases

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“Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast…” – Bob Dylan, “You’re A Big Girl Now”

This year, like many before it, seemed to both fly by and at the same time drag on. I looked up and suddenly realized it’s the end of the year… it snuck up on me again. Traditionally for me, this time of year, once we’ve cleared the big Christmas holiday, always seems to bring with it a time of reflection. With New Year’s Eve – a holiday I’ve always considered Amateur Night (and I’m a fan of St. Patrick’s Day, speaking of amateurs) – comes a sense that time is passing and in some cases, slipping away. At least the introspection has stopped me from all the Holiday gorging myself. I’ve been wandering around the house with two full cheeks of food like a chipmunk for about a week now, but I digress. What was it Jackson Browne sang, “I’ve been aware of the time going by, they say in the end it’s the wink of an eye.” Maybe it’s all like Siddhartha, the Herman Hesse book, and we’re all just sitting by the river, watching it flow…always changing but yet seemingly the same. It appears I may be a little too into the reflection this year.

There seems to be a pervasive attitude among a lot of people that 2021 was just “2020 Redux.” I would argue with that. This year I was able to return to seeing my beloved Chiefs play at Arrowhead. 2020 was the first year in quite a few that I attended zero home games. Unless we all pull together progress will remain slow… I was able to travel a little this year – some in the service of my corporate masters, which I was actually looking forward to as a traveling sales guy – and some of it personal, mostly to points west to see my daughter. Hopefully you guys all got to see loved ones this year as well and didn’t have to resort to “virtual” roadtrips. Most importantly I got to see a couple of concerts. The Rock Chick surprised me with tickets to see Joan Jett and Cheap Trick (what a double-bill!) and we went out to Colorado to see 311. I can’t tell you how healing it is to spend an evening with like-minded strangers, standing in the dark in front of a stage listening to rock n roll music.

I have to say, I thought 2021 was much, much better than 2020. Although it wasn’t without tragedy. We lost a legend this year in Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. I’m still not over that one. The man played with such an effortlessness. He made what he did look easy and believe me it wasn’t. He was the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones and one has to wonder if they’ll get over that loss. Although they did tour this year and you’d have to think those guys are in that “high risk” demographic. When I think about 2021 in general, but especially in terms of music, I thought it was a good year but I expected a great year. I thought with everybody off the road in 2020 we’d see a lot more new music than we got this year. We didn’t get that new Guns N Roses LP, although we got a few “new” singles, “Absurd” and “Hard Skool.” We didn’t get a new Stones album.

Despite those complaints, what we did get this year in terms of new music was really strong. We had new stuff from young bands like Dirty Honey and Greta Van Fleet. We had a number of new albums from veteran artists that epitomize why we founded B&V in the first place. The archives were opened up in 2021. It was a great year for live stuff and box sets. This year was a big anniversary year for many albums, especially those from 1971. As usual, I decided to end 2021 on a high note by listing out our favorite or “best of” list of new albums and in conjunction our favorite live/archival/vault releases. We did something similar last year, and the years prior. Per usual, these are listed in chronological order so please don’t consider this a ranking from 1 to 10.

B&V 2021 Best New Albums

  1. Cheap Trick, In Another WorldWhen this came out, much like 2021 itself, I was a little let down vs their prior LP, We’re All Alright! Expectations are a tricky thing. The more I listened to this album the more I dug it, much like Pearl Jam’s Gigaton last year. This is a solid, ass kicking rock album. I got to see these guys in concert and they played “The Summer Looks Good On You” and it inspired me to go back and start listening to this LP again. These guys have been delivering so consistently for so long it’s easy to overlook a great rocker like this one… “Stop Waking Me Up” should have been on my playlist ‘Songs About Sleeping.’
  2. Black Keys, Delta KreamI’ve been on these guys bandwagon since Rubber Factory. I was completely taken by surprise that they put out an album of blues covers highlighting the Mississippi Hill Country blues made famous by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. “Crawling Kingsnake” was the highlight but there are ton of great, bluesy tracks here.
  3. Billy F. Gibbons, HardwareThe longtime ZZTop front man released his third solo LP and it’s the most “ZZTop-y” album he’s delivered. He does what he does best whether its dirty riff rock like “My Lucky Card” or bluesy ballads like “Vagabond Man.” This may be his best solo LP yet. The final track, “Desert High” is one of the best things he’s done.
  4. Jackson Browne, Downhill From EverywhereJackson just keeps putting out great, late period albums. He’s still writing wonderful songs like “Still Searching For Something” or the great ballad, “A Little Too Soon To Tell,” with a dash of politics, “Until Justice Is Real.” He’s an important voice and this was a treat of an album.
  5. David Crosby, For Free – Crosby is in the midst of a great late career renaissance. I got on the bandwagon on Sky Trails, but For Free is another great record. He collaborates with Micheal McDonald on “River Rise” and Donald Fagan on “Rodriguez For The Night,” which is my favorite track… because we’d all “sell our soul to be Rodriguez for a night…”
  6. Lindsey Buckingham, Lindsey Buckingham – I was a little overwhelmed at work when this gem came out and didn’t write about it. This was the album that got Buckingham fired from Fleetwood Mac when he asked for more time to promote it vs go on tour with the band. There are some of Lindsey’s best solo tracks on this album, the best of which is “I Don’t Mind.” “On The Wrong Side,” “Blue Light,” and “Santa Rosa” are all great songs. My only complaint is Lindsey needs to invite some other musicians into the studio to make the sound a little fuller vs playing everything himself.
  7. Chrissie Hynde, Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob DylanI’m shocked at how many great cover albums came out this year. Hynde, known for her pugnacious rock n roll with the Pretenders, strips it down to acoustic guitar and piano here for an inspired set of covers, mostly from Dylan’s later career. Mesmerizing album.
  8. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raise The RoofIt took over a decade but Plant/Krauss finally delivered this stunning sequel to Raising Sand, highlighting the beautiful alchemy created by their intertwined voices. Pure harmonic sorcery.
  9. Sting, The Bridge – It is so utterly satisfying to hear an artist who I had, sadly, left for dead come back to life. “If It’s Love” is the best pop song he’s done in ages. I keep listening to this LP, I can’t stop. A true late career gem from Sting.
  10. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Barn – Neil Young reunites with Crazy Horse for the second LP in a row and really delivers on Barn. From hushed acoustic tracks (“Song of the Seasons”) to full on garage-rock tracks (“Human Race”), this is the best thing he’s done in a while and I loved the last LP, Colorado.

B&V 2021 Best Vault/Archive or Live Albums

  1. Neil Young, Archive Vol 2 – An amazing chronicle of Young’s career from 1972 to 1976, ‘The Ditch Trilogy’ years. A must have for any Young fan.
  2. Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker 30th Anniversary – This might be my favorite box set of the year. The bonus tracks are great, but the full concert included is worth the price of admission.
  3. Fleetwood Mac, Live – Deluxe – The original Fleetwood Mac Live album but with twice the music. I’ve always felt the original double-LP, live record was underrated.
  4. Mick Fleetwood & Friends, A Celebration of Peter Green – Speaking of Fleetwood Mac, drummer Mick Fleetwood put together a great tribute for Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green that plays like a great blues jam at a hot blues club. Steven Tyler, Billy Gibbons and Kirk Hammett all show up… The only sad part is Green was a no show… and passed shortly afterward.
  5. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Deja Vu 50th Anniversary – Revisiting the landmark 1971 album with a bunch of demo’s and the seeds of many of the tracks that ended up on their solo records. I was surprised how much I loved every bit of this.
  6. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells – Deluxe – The album that broke them far and wide… plus a concert from that tour which is icing on the cake.
  7. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary – Another 50th anniversary… George’s magnum opus complete with great demo’s, both acoustic and fleshed out with the band. Truly a glimpse into the creative process that was ATMP. I really dig the acoustic demo’s where he lays out the mostly all fully realized tracks. He really was stifled in the Beatles.
  8. Bob Dylan, Springtime In New YorkA box set from Dylan’s oft-overlooked early 80s during the recording of the LPs Shot Of Love, Infidels and Empire Burlesque which proves that this period needs another listen.
  9. The Beatles, Let It Be – Super DeluxeA bunch of outtakes from one of my favorite Beatles’ albums. The Super Deluxe really fleshes the album out. A must for any Beatles fan. I can’t keep humming and air-guitaring to “Get Back.”
  10. The Rolling Stones, Tattoo You – 40th Anniversary Tattoo You was assembled from outtakes from earlier recording sessions, so they returned to that formula to add 9 more bonus tracks. There’s a Super Deluxe edition that has a full concert from the tour. This was an iconic album for all of us who were too young and missed them in the 60s… This was a special box.
  11. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concert – I thought I’d throw in a bonus album, this concert document that I didn’t have time to write about. Most of the E Street Band’s legendary 1978 concerts in support of Darkness On The Edge of Town were three hours long… This abbreviated set for the No Nukes show was only an hour and a half and it’s like the band, who had been in the studio laboring over The River, sound like they’ve been shot out of a cannon. It’s chalk full of hits. It’s perfect for a casual fan who can’t groove for three hours.

That’s our top of the pops for 2021. I hope you guys enjoyed this music as much as we did here in the B&V labs. I hope everybody has a safe and happy New Year’s. I’ll be doing what I do every year. We’ll head out to dinner with friends and home and asleep by probably 10. Like I said, it’s Amateur Night. Even when I was young and faced the hope of some fabulous, un-forseen New Year’s Eve liaison… it never panned out, but I digress. I, for one, am looking forward to 2022. I hope we’ll see you here at B&V next year! Thanks to all of you who have joined and contributed to our little musical dialogue!

Cheers and again, Happy New Year!

Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Second Great LP In A Row, ‘Barn’

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“So, welcome back, welcome back
It’s not the same
The shade is just you blinking”

– Neil Young & Crazy Horse, “Welcome Back”

I’ve never been one who is known for his Christmas spirit. At one point, some might have even called me a “Grinch.” I like to think I’ve gotten better about it since the Rock Chick, er “Mrs. Claus,” came along. I’ll tell you one thing, there’s nothing that makes me feel better and perhaps more festive than a great rock and roll band like Neil Young and Crazy Horse putting out an amazing new album, Barn. It’s all I’ve been listening to this week and let me say, Neil is on a roll.

It’s amazing to think that Neil first recorded an album with Crazy Horse – Danny Whitten, guitar; Ralph Molina, drums; and Billy Talbot, bass – in 1969. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was a complete change of direction from Neil Young’s solo debut the Buffalo Springfield-ish Neil Young. It had his first real hit, the great riff-rock tune “Cinnamon Girl.” The  album featured a couple of Neil’s most famous, long guitar work outs. “Down By The River” was over 9 minutes long. “Cowgirl In The Sand” was over 10. I think that album was the one that has always made me feel in my gut when I see Crazy Horse, there’s gonna be some loud guitar. When I was exiled to Arkansas after college, I used to play the title track, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” at top volume. Man, I hated it there… met some great people though. 

Rather than follow up the successful Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with another album with Crazy Horse, Neil joined Crosby Stills and Nash (creatively renamed Crosby Stills Nash and Young) for Deja Vu. Neil has followed his muse where ever it has taken him in terms of collaborations. The CSNY thing didn’t last, in terms of recording albums together anyway, and Neil was soon doing solo albums. For his next solo record, After The Gold Rush Neil still used members of Crazy Horse (although it was not a Crazy Horse LP) and he brought in a hot shot young guitarist Nils Lofgren who he promptly had play…piano. Neil would continue on with his solo career without doing anything formal with Crazy Horse for several years. On their own, Crazy Horse did put out a great debut LP, Crazy Horse. I think part of the reason Neil didn’t reunite with Crazy Horse during that period was Danny Whitten’s decline into addiction. In 1972 Whitten became a drug casualty and it fueled some of Neil’s darkest work.

It wasn’t until 1975’s Zuma that we saw an official “Neil Young & Crazy Horse” LP from these guys. By then they’d replaced Whitten with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar. I don’t think they could have found a more perfect replacement for Whitten, in terms of his chemistry on guitar with Neil. Neil said he hired Poncho because he had really killer weed which seems to be a good reason to hire a guy in a band. They continued that guitar “workout” tradition with songs like “Cortez the Killer.” Young always said he just played better guitar with Crazy Horse. “Like A Hurricane” certainly springs to mind as an example…

Neil would continue to work with Crazy Horse off and on through the early 80s. He’d do an album with them, then off to the Stills-Young Band, then back to Crazy Horse, then a completely solo thing. He stopped working with them for a while in the mid-80s, his creative nadir. It’s perhaps no coincidence that he’d hit his low point because he’d gotten away from that Crazy Horse base. Finally in 1987 he did reunite with Crazy Horse for Life, which should have made my list, B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?. It wasn’t until 1990’s masterwork Ragged Glory that Neil rediscovered the power and the glory of Crazy Horse. Everyone should own that album. From then on he’d work with Crazy Horse about like he did in the 70s, he’d bring them in every other album.

But then after 2003’s Greendale (a tour I mistakenly took the Rock Chick to) Neil and Crazy Horse drifted apart again. The theatrical nature of that Greendale show was not the concert to try and turn a person on to Neil Young but I digress. It wasn’t until 2012 that we’d see another Young LP featuring Crazy Horse. To make up for lost time they put out two LPs that year, Americana and then Psychedelic Pill. There are many who complain that Psychedelic Pill suffered from Young’s inability to edit and many lament the loss of his long time producer David Briggs who could have curbed Neil’s proclivity for long songs, but I loved it. “Driftin’ Back” was almost a half an hour. The Grateful Dead would envy that guitar jam. “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like A Giant” were both over 16 minutes long. If you like squalling, loud guitar jams, I’ve got your LP for you.

After Psychedelic Pill, it seemed it might be over for Crazy Horse. Neil started doing albums and tours with the Promise of the Real guys. Sampedro actually up and retired. I sort of drifted away from Neil’s new music and started focusing on his archives. But just when I thought it was over, Nils Lofgren to the rescue. In 2019 Neil pulled Crazy Horse back together. Joining Neil, Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) would be erstwhile sidekick Nils Lofgren on guitar and yes, piano. Nils had some time off from his gig as Springsteen’s E-Street Band’s “most over qualified second guitarist.” The resulting LP, Colorado was the first new Young music that I connected with since, well, Psychedelic Pill. I called that album a good Neil Young album but maybe not a great one. Having gone back and listened to the whole thing this week, I think I was too reserved. It’s a great record.

For the first time, maybe ever, Neil has returned to working with Crazy Horse for a second album in a row, the new Barn. This is a really great album. I expected some real guitar fireworks between Neil and Nils when they did Colorado, and there was some of that, but I think Nils helps bring more structure to Crazy Horse than Sampedro did. He plays piano and even accordion and provides Neil with the perfect backdrop instead of that old jam until we get tired ethos. As was the case with Colorado, the topic foremost on Neil’s mind is the environment and the climate crisis we all face. Some might say he’s becoming more strident, but I think of it as Young being more urgent in his songwriting as the situation merits it. He also sprinkles in love songs to show there is hope. Neil’s nickname, for his vocal delivery has always been Shakey. I think at this stage you could change that to Craggy but as I said on the last LP, if you’re complaining about Neil’s voice at this stage you’re probably not a fan anyway.

While guitar jams are what you think of with Crazy Horse, the LP opens with the first single, the beautiful acoustic hymn for the environment “Song of the Seasons.” I love that Nils plays accordion on this song. Although it’s been said that the definition of a gentleman is a person who knows how to play accordion but chooses not to… I reviewed that song when it came out, see the link above, so I won’t go into it. “They Must Be Lost” is another great acoustic track with that signature Neil harmonica. There are a couple of great country-rock vibe tracks that I dug. “Shape of You” is the first of those and it has a rolling, lilt to it. It’s a groovy love song. “Tumblin’ Through The Years” mines that same field and may be one of my favorite tracks. I may have to include some of this on my “Rockers Going Country” playlist.

I love that acoustic, country rock style stuff, but fear not there is plenty of rock n roll guitar here. “Heading West” is a great riff rock travelogue song. I can feel the movement west in the song. It feels like you’re riding in a car or a train. “Change Ain’t Never Gonna” is a great State of the Union protest song. Nils plays a barrel house piano on that one. “Canerican” is Neil’s personal statement and is a very garage rock style song. “Human Race” is my favorite of the harder rocking songs. It’s all squalling guitars and ominous warnings about the climate. “The human race is run…” The centerpiece of this album, for me, is the song quoted above, “Welcome Back.” It’s a 8 and half minutes long. It’s Neil squealing out guitar notes over sparse backing. It has that haunted feeling that tracks on Tonight’s The Night had. Neil sings in a lower register, like a man who is delivering bad news. It’s a gripping, epic tune and that guitar raises goosebumps on my arms. It’s like Cassandra on the beach, issuing a warning that is ignored.

The album ends with “Don’t Forget Love,” a hopeful note. It’s like a message to remember as you’re around family for Xmas and your older relative mutters something fascist, or your hippy college cousin utters something socialist, rather than get mad, remember that we’re all family and we all love each other…or we used to anyway. It may sound a little 60s in attitude, but maybe we could all use a little of that these days.

Barn is simply put, one of the best records of 2021. I highly recommend everyone checks this one out. It’s the kind of LP that B&V was founded to extol. I hope everybody has a great holiday season – whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, or bemoan in my case. It’ll be another quiet one here at B&V but I get to see my daughter for a few days and that makes everything better.

Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers! (If you’re celebrating, remember, don’t drink and drive folks. Even I follow that rule).

Review: The New Beatles 3-Part Documentary, ‘Get Back,’ Directed By Peter Jackson

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Well, I finally finished the three part Beatles’ documentary Get Back. I was pretty excited when I heard that Peter Jackson, famed director of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, was going to revisit the footage shot for the Beatles’ 1970 film Let It Be. The Beatles shot over 60 hours of footage for what turned out to be an 80 minute film. Everybody knew there was more to the story. It was announced early on that Peter Jackson was going to make this a 3-part mini-series, if you will, as there was just too much footage for a traditional 2 hour movie. And lets face it, Peter Jackson is kind of the king of movie trilogies. This thing had “binge-watch” written all over it for me. I figured the Rock Chick and I would bang this out in three nights after the Thanksgiving day release. I thought this would be a great exercise for B&V as I’m a big Beatles fan (albeit, as mentioned I’m more of a Stones guy) and the Rock Chick is more of a… casual fan. It turns out that casual nature of her interest in this project only allowed us to watch one episode per weekend. That’s all she could handle. The last three Friday nights were our date with the Beatles circa 1969. Hence, it took me three weeks to get through this. So much for my binge watch fantasies.

I was going to go back to the original Let It Be so I’d have a baseline to compare to the new project, entitled Get Back. I guess I didn’t realize they’ve pulled the original 1970 film off the market. It hasn’t been available for purchase since the 1980s. I think it was considered kind of a drag. I actually saw Let It Be at the midnight movies at Oak Park Mall when I was in high school. I’m still unclear how my parents allowed me to stay out until 2am on a Saturday night. Proof I was a natural born salesman. The midnight movie was typically just drunken or stoned mayhem. I saw Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same, one soft-core porn movie, the cartoon Heavy Metal and yes, Let It Be all at the midnight movies. I’m surprised I went to so many of those things. I think I even saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the midnight movies. Crazy times.

I don’t recall much about Let It Be. That may be because of the aforementioned drunken mayhem. Typically when I went to the midnight movies there was beer or vodka involved. Sometimes both. I do remember thinking, like most folks, that it was a bit of a drag. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be more of a concert thing, with complete songs. It turned out it was film of the Beatles rehearsing and working up new material and usually stopping mid-song to debate arrangements. That was McCartney’s idea, to show the Beatles going from nothing to a complete album over the course of January of 1969. So you’d have snippets of songs as they worked out songs, lyrics and arrangements. It was actually a bigger deal than I’d realized at the time. The Beatles hadn’t played together as a band, live, since they’d retired from the road in 1966. They were going to record the rehearsals at Twickenham Studios, a soundstage where they filmed movies, and then play a big concert where they performed the new album. They had all kinds of wacky ideas for the concert. An ancient amphitheater in Tunisia, a cruise ship and other exotic locations were discussed. Someone told me once they’d considered doing it at Stonehenge but that may be apocryphal. You can never trust stoners at the midnight movies.

Episode 1 of Get Back captures the early days of rehearsals at Twickenham Studios. Those rehearsals were basically a disaster. Because the film crew worked during the days, it required the Beatles to show up in the morning… and they were more, let’s say, afternoon and evening people. It was a huge, cold room. They set up their equipment on one side of the soundstage and huddled together trying to come up with ideas. Everyone hated being there. They were used to being at Abbey Road. a more intimate setting. There were to be no overdubs or studio trickery, so George Martin’s role was reduced. Even I’ll admit Episode 1 was hard to watch. The Rock Chick left and went to bed 2/3 of the way through. The Let It Be project has been described as an old couple who are headed for divorce trying to rekindle the relationship by going out on dates to old familiar spots. Episode 1 captures that awkward ethos. Lennon, with Yoko Ono super-glued to his side, seems particularly checked out. The highlight for me was seeing McCartney conjure “Get Back” out of thin air. Paul seems like he’s bursting with music. Every time there’s a break in Episode 1, he’s at the piano working on something. Harrison keeps suggesting songs and Lennon/McCartney basically ignore him. The episode ends with Harrison announcing he’s leaving the group. He’d recently been up in Woodstock visiting Dylan and the Band and realized by seeing how harmoniously they worked that the Beatles were dysfunctional. He says, as he’s walking out, “See you around the clubs.” Lennon suggests giving him a few days, “and then we’ll just get Clapton to replace him.” I’m not sure how that would have worked out. While it was hard to watch, Episode 1 is the perfect set up for Peter Jackson’s narrative.

By Episode 2, they’ve convinced George to come back. He’d agreed on two conditions: a) no live concert, he was terrified by the idea and b) they move back to Apple HQ on Savile Row to the basement studio they’d just installed. Unfortunately the guy they entrusted to install it had been an idiot and nothing worked. George Martin came to the rescue with a mobile recording unit. Episode 2 is where the songs began to gel. It helped that George invited keyboardist Billy Preston to join the sessions. His keyboard work is phenomenal and the Beatles were on their best behavior with him in the room. McCartney who had been very directive of Harrison in Episode 1, has backed off a bit in Episode 2. Lennon is much more engaged. While there aren’t any complete songs in Episode 2, the jams are fun to watch – I especially dug them doing “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” – and the vibe is much better. The original director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg keeps pushing the concert idea but there isn’t much enthusiasm outside Paul. I do have to say, watching the first two episodes makes you realize what a pro Ringo was. The guy doesn’t say much but he shows up on time and he put in the work. He really was the foundation of the band from which they could launch. Jackson takes us from the near disaster of a break up in Episode 1, to progress in Episode 2, which sets up the final chapter.

Episode 3, which I watched last night, is where the songs have finally come together. In fact, they have more than enough songs for an album. A lot of what became Abbey Road is written and demo’d in these sessions. And frankly, a lot of songs that ended up on the Beatles’ early solo records came out of these sessions. They’re still unsure how to end the movie they’re filming. I think it was Ringo who suggested they go up on the roof and play. McCartney’s stepdaughter Heather shows up and she’s yes, adorable… for a while. I can only take so much of her screaming into a microphone. Although I prefer that to Yoko yelling into a microphone. Contrary to the myth, Get Back shows the other Beatles’ being very cordial to Yoko. Sadly you hear Lennon talking enthusiastically about meeting with and hiring Allen Klein, a conman, as their manager. McCartney hated him and refused to sign. The seeds of the break up were planted on film. The other guys started bringing their wives in too. It was a very convivial vibe. Finally, at the end of Episode 3, for the first time ever we get to see the entire Beatles’ roof top concert and it is glorious. The Rock Chick was disappointed they played the same songs a couple times over but that didn’t bother me. There’s a moment when they start playing up there, blowing minds all over the neighborhood, where Lennon and McCartney look at each other and smile and it’s fucking magic. The chemistry is there… all the arguments are gone. It’s amazing footage. After the cops stop them playing (which is good comedy watching the staff stall them) they show the Beatles huddled together in the control room listening to the playback and they all look so joyful. It’s sad to think they couldn’t hold that together.

In the end, dissatisfied with the recordings they shelved the project. They ended up recording Abbey Road next and to fulfill a contract, gave the tapes to Phil Spector to pull together the Let It Be album as their swansong. I’m alone amongst my friends in loving that album. I love a little sloppiness in the music. It makes it feel more authentic to me, but maybe that’s because I dig the Stones so much and they’re nothing if not sloppy. The film they’d been putting together was finally released in May of 1970 to lukewarm reviews. I think the announcement of their break up overshadowed the thing.

Peter Jackson does a nice job setting up the story arc over the three episodes. I don’t know how they did it but they restored this film to pristine shape. The colors – and in the 60s day-glo was in – are gloriously bright and wonderful. George Harrison’s choice of pants’ colors is particularly vibrant. It’s visually stunning to watch. It helps to be a big Beatles fan, as the Rock Chick’s early departures during Episode 1 &2 showed me but it’s more important to just be a big fan of the musical process. It’s fun to watch these guys create new songs out of the air on camera. It’s not just a film of the roof top concert, it’s literally a film about the creative process. If you’re not into this, I think it’s easy to get bored pretty quick. I certainly enjoyed the pay off in Episode 3 of the full roof top concert – their last public concert. That alone to me is worth the price of admission. Everyone should at least watch that episode. 

Instead of saying Cheers as my sign off, I’m going with a more Ringo sign off… Peace and Love everybody!

Review: Sting, ‘The Bridge’ – A Great Album From An Artist I’d Given Up On

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With Thanksgiving and visiting relatives, the food and drink and all of the box sets I’ve been working through lately (the Beatles, Stones, Dylan) I’m only just now getting around to focusing on Sting’s new LP which has been out a couple of weeks. This is a review I never thought I’d write. This is certainly an artist I’d sort of… written off, I’m sad to say. Defying odds and my jaded expectations, Sting has returned with a pop/rock delight on his new album, The Bridge.

I’m like most people I think. I got into Sting when he was still the singer/songwriter/bass player in the Police. I remember in junior high there were two sides to our Study Hall. One side was for quiet studying which was oddly where you could usually find me. The other half was for a more social experience. You could buy soft drinks and snacks. I never had any cash for that sort of thing. They’d play music over there on the social side. I can remember making a rare appearance on that louder side of Study Hall and hearing “Roxanne” for the first time. I can remember after it played, this dude I didn’t know very well named Chris began singing along in a high pitched falsetto to approximate Sting much like Eddie Murphy did in 48 Hours a few years later. We laughed but we dug the song.

I thought at the time that the Police were a punk band, like the Clash. In retrospect I think they were more faux punks. I didn’t buy their first album Outlandos d’Amour until I was in college. I do remember hearing “Walking On The Moon” and “Message In A Bottle” from Reggatta De Blanc and mistakenly assuming those were also on the first album. It wasn’t until “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” (which looks ridiculous typed out) and their breakthrough third album Zenyatta Mondatta that we all took notice of the Police in earnest. They had been out on a world tour and the broad scope of that trip informed a lot of that great album. I always dug the deep track, “Man In A Suitcase,” which was probably a precursor to my life as a traveling salesman. My brother owned that album and I promptly taped it… which was the way I acquired a lot of music in those days.

My buddy Doug saw them on the following tour for Ghost In The Machine, their fourth album. I would have really liked to have seen those guys on that tour but Doug took a chick he’d met at his job in the mall. It was all very Fast Times At Ridgemont High for us in those days, so I can’t fault him. By that time I thought of the Police as more pop/rock than pure rock n roll. That’s not a knock, it just meant that they rocked but with a more pop sensibility. Cheap Trick and Big Star always get lumped into that category and I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. But because of that slightly “pop” approach I sort of shied away from purchasing Police albums. Masculinity was important in puberty and apparently you had to listen to harder rock and metal to prove that you were “a man.”

It wasn’t until I was in college that I became a life long Police fan and purchased all of their LPs. It was the summer after my very, very difficult freshman year (my fault, mostly) that I heard “Every Breath You Take” on the radio. It was the perfect song. I knew from that first listen, based on some personal experience, that it was most definitely not a love song. A tale of heartbreak and obsession, it’s one of those songs that comes along and hits you so hard you know it’ll stick with you forever. It was a message I was in touch with at the time. I never get tired of that song. My first Police album purchase was Synchronicity which I bought the day after hearing “Every Breath You Take.’ It wasn’t until I got back up to college that fall for sophomore year that I started buying all of their albums while hanging out in record stores with my pal Drew. Synchronicity turned into one of the biggest albums of all time. The Police went from being a well-known, big act to being the biggest act in the world.

Sadly though, that massive success would spell the end of the Police. Sting decided they’d gone as far as they could. A lot of people say he was tired of carrying those other two guys. I’d say drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers were incredibly talented guys but Sting was “the man” in that band. It would have been hard for the Police to follow up the success of Synchronicity and perhaps Sting deciding to go solo was his way of ducking the pressure of having to top it. Many artists change their music to avoid the intense pressure fame and success bring. At the time we thought Sting’s solo thing was going to be a one-off and he’d come back the Police. Nope.

I, for one, was looking forward to Sting’s first solo album, The Dream Of the Blue Turtles. I always thought if you dug a band, if the main creative force of that band left, it was going to be automatically awesome. When we heard “If You Love Someone, Set Them Free,” the jazz-lite first single, we were beyond horrified, we felt “betrayed.” The communal feeling was “What is this crap?” Sting was apparently unhappy that people misinterpreted “Every Breath You Take” as a love song and “Set Them Free” was the “anecdote for the poison?” I’m quoting something I read back then, sigh. Needless to say, I didn’t invest in Sting’s first solo LP. Songs like “Love Is The Seventh Wave” didn’t help much. Gads, I dislike that song. I will admit the first Sting track that I thought had some potential from that LP was “Fortress Around Your Heart.” Lyrically brilliant, it was a track that resonated with me. I later heard his solo version of the Police song, “Shadows In The Rain” and I love that version. “Woke up in my clothes again this morning, don’t know exactly where I am, I should heed my doctor’s warning… he does the best with me he can” were lyrics that hit perhaps a little too close to home at the time.

After college, my corporate masters thought it was a good idea to exile me to Arkansas. Ft. Smith had terrible radio, all Madonna and Micheal Jackson who to my hard rock sensibility was like battery acid in my ears. I rarely listened to the radio in that town, but one lunch I had to leave the office and go to the dry cleaners. I didn’t have a cassette to pop in so I just let the radio play. The DJ was doing a lunch hour playing whatever music he wanted vs the usual heavily programmed, oft-repeated rotation. I had just pulled into the parking lot outside the One-Hour “Martinizing” place (whatever that is) when I heard the DJ announce he was playing a deep track from Sting’s new LP (Nothing Like The Sun, his second solo album), a cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” While utterly re-imagined with a jazz combo, it hit me hard. I love that song and especially Sting’s vocal. I went out after work that day and purchased the album. Who says I had impulse control back then? It began a long period of me being a big fan of Sting.

I actually really dug the entirety of the album Nothing Like The Sun, which I’d bought on vinyl. It was designed for that new format, CDs, so they had to make it a double-LP with only three songs on each side. I went with the unconventional vinyl as I was certain “CDs” were a fad. I followed Sting to the next LP, The Soul Cages. The title track rocked and I really liked “Why Should I Cry For You.” While I didn’t connect with The Soul Cages the same way I did the previous record, I was still on the Sting bandwagon. His next album was probably his biggest solo record, Ten Summoner’s Tales. Beyond the Chaucer-inspired pretentious title, was eleven great songs. There wasn’t a bad moment on that album. I still play “She’s Too Good For Me” and dedicate it to the Rock Chick.

I even liked his next album Mercury Falling. I saw Sting on that tour and if I had a bone to pick with him, it’s that he doesn’t play the Police material with any conviction. It’s like he’s embarrassed by the most popular part of his career. Sigh. Another track I play for the Rock Chick is from that record, “All Four Seasons,” although I realize I take my life in my own hands when I do that… “That’s my baby, she can be all four seasons in one day.” Brand New Day was another great Sting record but after that the wheels came off of my fandom. Sacred Love was, in a word, awful. I purchased that album, based purely on the momentum of my experience with Sting’s music but quickly had it in the stack headed to the used record store for sale.

After Sacred Love, to a large degree, Sting disappeared as a solo artist for me. He did an album featuring him playing the lute. Yes, the lute. The main character in A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius O’Reilly played the lute. He did a chilly Christmas album. He did a Broadway play. He set some of his songs to an orchestral backing. He redid a bunch of Police and solo tracks with perceptible but slight alterations which left me thinking, “Huh?” The only thing he did during an almost 13-year stretch away from contemporary pop music that caught my interest was re-uniting with the Police for a hugely successful tour… which, naturally, he now says he regrets doing. Some people are just never satisfied. He finally returned to pop music in 2016 with 57th & 9th. I hoped it signaled a return to form and was ready to give Sting the benefit of the doubt but oddly, it left me cold. It was a very workman like effort. Well crafted and played but nothing I dug. The second half was very introspective and quiet. I thought, well, that’s it, I’m now permanently done with Sting.

Admittedly, my daughter and her beau recently turned me onto Sting’s collaboration album with reggae star Shaggy and to my surprise I liked it. It’s something I’d never heard before, Sting having… fun? It was a return to Sting’s early reggae-based music and he seems very engaged. I wondered if it was another strange detour or maybe, just maybe it’d spark something interesting from Sting in his solo career. “Waiting For The Break of Day” could have been on this new album and fit seamlessly… Everyone should check out at least that track if not all of 44/876.

I heard Sting had a new album coming out this fall. At this point listening to a Sting album felt like sitting up late at night with a tumbler of bourbon while thumbing through an old high school year book looking at pictures of that pretty girl from Geometry class in my sophomore year. I put on the first single from the new LP, The Bridge, a song called “If It’s Love” and… yes, it’s love! I should hate this song, it features whistling which I despise. I’ll be the first to admit, I consider any whistling in a song to be McCartney-level cheesy and yet this song is so catchy I can look past it. It tells the story of a man who awakes happy and smiling (“a muscle I rarely use,” which I can relate to) who calls his Dr to find out what’s wrong with him and it turns out, he’s in love. It’s such an earworm! It’s the best purely pop song Sting has done in years… I say that and yet there’s whistling! It’s an “Everything She Does Is Magic” meets “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”

What would the rest of The Bridge hold? Would I be as disappointed as I was with 57th & 9th? The short answer is that this is the best, catchiest LP Sting has done in 20 years. It’s my favorite thing he’s done since Ten Summoner’s Tales. The album starts off with the upbeat, “Rushing Water.” It starts with an insistent drum beat like water on a rock. Sting sings over a plucked electric guitar until the chorus explodes like, well, rushing water from a broken pipe. “The Book Of Numbers” is another solid midtempo rock song complete with Biblical imagery set in a bar. The second half does get mellow, much like 57th & 9th, but in the case of The Bridge, I like the mellow tracks. The LP is laid out like those old Rod Stewart LPs with a “Fast Side” and a “Slow Side.” The highlight on the mellow, back end is “The Bells Of St. Thomas.” A heartbroken man is awakened by church bells to find himself hungover in the bed of a rich woman… in Antwerp no less. To me, it’s one of the most evocative tracks Sting has ever written. 

Other highlights include “Harmony Road” which features a sax solo by none other than Brandford Marsalis who was in an early incarnation of Sting’s solo band and played on Dream Of The Blue Turtles. I thought I was having flashbacks. “For Her Love” is a beautiful love song that has echos of “Shape of My Heart.” There are a lot of moments on this LP like that, that remind you of Sting’s past glories while not reveling in them or feeling like cheap nostalgia. He seems to just be doing what he does well. I like the title track which is only Sting’s voice and a plucked acoustic guitar. “Loving You” is another standout track that could’ve been done just as effectively as a blues song, “if that’s not lovin’ you, then tell me what it is.” “Hills On The Border” is almost like a sea shanty but I dig it. Of the bonus tracks I liked his cover version of Otis Redding’s song “Dock Of The Bay,” but as long term readers know, I love cover songs.

If you’re like me and you’ve given up on Sting, or any artist for that matter, The Bridge is proof that there is always one more great album or song left. If someone’s art has moved you in the past, there’s a good chance that if you keep connected with the artist he will eventually pay off again. This is a real treat of a record and I urge everyone to check it out!

Cheers! And Happy Holidays to all of you!

Review: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Triumphant Return – ‘Raising The Roof’ – Beautiful Alchemy

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I think I mentioned when I posted about Dave Gahan & the Soulsavers new LP Imposters, that there was a lot of great new music that came out last weekend. Springsteen released an explosive live LP recorded at the No Nukes concert in 1979. And, believe it or not, Sting released a new LP that caught my ear. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write again. Despite my maniacal focus on Gahan’s new LP, there was another album that caught my ear immediately. The long awaited new collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raise The Roof. I can’t believe it’s been 14 years since their first album, the monumental Raising Sand.

I can still remember Raising Sand’s release like it was yesterday. Bob Dylan was right, time really is a jet plane. I was really into Robert Plant at the time. Truth be told I always have been and likely always will be into Robert’s music. He had emerged from his collaboration with Jimmy Page (Page Plant) which had yielded a couple of LPs (one of them live) and two tours both of which I was lucky enough to see. The second tour by Page Plant was like being transported back to 1974, but I digress. The first LP he did post Page Plant was 2002’s Dreamland. It was an atmospheric album of blues and classic rock covers. I loved that album. When I saw Plant on that tour I was so enamored that I bought a concert t-shirt with the album cover on it… and it was mustard yellow. I told myself it was gold… it wasn’t gold. I wore that thing for years until the Rock Chick finally nodded, “no.” I remember reading about Dreamland and Plant saying something about breaking in his new backing band by culling through his record collection for great songs for them to play. He must have a pretty cool collection. I can only hope it’s all on vinyl.

While I dug Dreamland, as I usually like albums consisting of all cover songs, I did hope that Plant would return to his solo career full-fledged so to speak, with an album of originals. My patience and hope was rewarded when Plant returned in 2005 with The Mighty Rearranger. What a knock-out that album was. I think Rearranger ranks amongst his best solo stuff. Around late 2006 or early 2007 I remember a brief interview of Plant in Rolling Stone. They asked what was next for him and he said he’d written down a bunch of song titles and given them to the band to come up with music for each one. He’d fill in the lyrics later. He did mention something about being on the way to do a benefit concert for a long passed blues guy (whose name escapes me) put together by T. Bone Burnett. Somewhere along the line, Burnett suggested for the benefit that Plant do a duet with Alison Krauss of an old Lead Belly song. So entranced by their combined vocals, they decided to record an album of duets with T Bone producing.

Having read the press stuff leading up to Raising Sand I was keeping an eye out for the release date. At the time I remember thinking, I’ll probably dig the Plant led songs. I didn’t know much about Krauss but I thought I could “suffer” through songs that featured her. The day it came out, I stopped on my way to work and picked up the CD. I wasn’t buying a ton of vinyl in the early 2000s, alas. When I got home I went immediately to our basement…which is where the stereo was and started playing Raising Sand. Within moments the Rock Chick was in the basement asking me what the great music was. When the album was over, we were both blown away. The Rock Chick looked at me and said, “Wow that was kick ass.” Little did we know it was going to be a world wide sensation. While on the surface it seemed like an odd pairing. Krauss, to my great surprise, is an amazing singer with her roots in bluegrass. Plant is an amazing singer with his roots in well, rootsy music like bluegrass, the blues and folk. Their harmonizing is something akin to sorcery. It’s magic alchemy. T. Bone is the only producer who can help these two produce such an atmospheric, swampy mix of music which is the perfect backdrop for the harmonies. I was lucky enough to see Plant/Krauss in concert on the tour in support of Raising Sand and it was superb. The harmonizing was just as spot on live.

I assumed there would be a follow up and in 2009 it was rumored they were working on one but nothing materialized. I think they did record some stuff but Plant “didn’t hear the magic.” Plant, in my opinion, is one man who doesn’t like expectations and pressure. I think that’s why he’s never reunited with Led Zeppelin for anything more than one-offs. Although Bonham was a close childhood friend of his and that loss can’t be overcome. Plant formed Band of Joy and put out an album by the same name that was similar in spirit. He had Patti Griffin on harmony vocals… but it just wasn’t the same. As Joe Strummer said, and I’m fond of repeating, never underestimate the chemistry of the same people in a room.

A few months ago, now with all of us 14 years down the road, I heard Plant Krauss (along with T. Bone) were finally set to put out a follow up LP, Raise The Roof. With its similar title to the first record, I thought maybe this would merely be Raising Sand 2.0. There are certainly similarities obviously but this is not the 2.0 I thought it might be. They’ve picked some really obscure tracks – at least to me – for the new album. They must have dug back into Plant’s record collection again. They go from 60s era folk stuff to country and blues stuff that was recorded 90 years ago. Some of the artists they cover here I’ve never heard of. There is one original on the album, penned by Plant and T. Bone, “High And Lonesome.” One thing that draws me to a cover song is enjoying the new version but being reminded of the original. So many of these tracks are unknown to me, it almost feels like these are originals.

The sound of this record, to me, differs from Raising Sand as well. There was a swampy murk to their first record that I don’t hear as much of here. They lean on more traditional country rock/folk structures here. Its not a bad change, but feels different, like an expansion from the first record. On the Raising Sand there were a lot of tracks where they both sang and harmonized for the whole tune, co-lead vocalists if you will, but on Raise the Roof on many of the tracks Plant or Krauss takes a more lead vocal and the harmonizing is on the choruses. Subtle differences between albums and I don’t think the slightly altered approach hurts this new record at all. In fact, this is a great album and a great sounding one as well. It is certainly one of our albums of the year, if not the album of the year. It’s amazing how many “all covers” LPs came out this year (Gahan, Chrissie Hynde, and the Black Keys to name a few).

I’ll admit as (World I’ve already hinted at, I love Raise The Roof. It’s about all I’ve listened to since Friday. There isn’t a bad song here. The opening track, “Quattro (World Drifts In)” by an obscure Tex-Mex indie band from Arizona, Calexico, is a great opening track. It’s almost spectral with wonderful harmonies. It builds a real sense of drama and mystery. I may have to check out Calexico. On “The Price of Love” Krauss takes more of the lead vocal and it may be my favorite of her vocals on the LP. There’s a great little guitar solo on the song as well. It’s an Everly Brothers cover and could I say, is there a more perfect duo to cover on a duets LP than the Everly Brothers? Plant comes in vocally right under Krauss, it’s perfect, like Phil and Don. On “Go Your Own Way,” an Anne Briggs (the 60s English folk singer) cover, Plant takes more of lead vocal and it’s wonderful. Silky acoustic guitars and a mandolin as pillows for Plant’s seductive vocal. It may be Plant’s best vocal on an album of standout vocals.

Another stand out is “Searching For My Love” originally done by the Rhythm Aces, a great 50’s rock n rolls style tune, especially the chorus. They do a Lucinda Williams’ track “Can’t Let Go” which I reviewed earlier and it remains one of my absolute favorites here. “You Led Me Wrong” is an old country song by Ola Belle Reed that Plant turns into an almost bluesy thing and features a great violin. I think Krauss should play more violin whenever she can. I love what Krauss does with Alan Toussaint’s “Trouble With My Lover” with Plant on the mischievous harmony vocal. And she was made to sing Merle Haggard’s “Going Where the Lonely Go.” Great high and lonesome pedal steel guitar floating around her vocals…

I love a pair of tracks toward the end of the album where they stretch out their sound a little bit. The lone original, “High And Lonesome” has a rumbling rock n roll vibe. This track would have been right at home on Plant’s last solo LP Carry Fire. It sounds current and at the same time ancient. Plant uses some vocal effects on the chorus while guitars clang around behind him in what sounds like an attempt to expand their sound palate. The last track, “Somebody Was Watching Over Me,” which sounds like an original is a Maria Muldaur track written by Brenda Burns. Muldaur who I’m unfamiliar with was another 60s folky. They turn that song upside down. It sounds like an outtake from Principle of Moments. I love the line, “My bad times are better than my good times used to be…” I can relate… The song sounds like nothing Plant Krauss has done before. Again effects are used for background vocals. “Somebody was watching” gets repeated over and over like a mantra until it’s almost menacing over a fuzzy guitar riff. It certainly points to a direction they could have taken if they wanted to completely break with their original sound… An intriguing detour indeed.

If you were like me and you fell in love with Raising Sand, be ready to have that same feeling all over again. With the success of that album I never thought Plant would agree to do another album with Alison Krauss due to increased expectations around any kind of follow up. I think I can say after hearing this album, he had nothing to worry about. Their beautiful alchemy remains solidly in tact. This is simply put, a great album.

Cheers and Happy (and safe) Thanksgiving this week to all of you in the U.S. especially if you’re traveling. This post came quickly on the heels of my last one but I’ll be celebrating with family, turkey and bourbon this week. I’m reminded that George Carlin once wondered why no one ever had sex on Thanksgiving… he thought maybe it was because all the coats are on the bed. Well, no B&V post gets written during Thanksgiving because… all of the coats are on the bed and the house is full of relatives…gads.

Review: Dave Gahan & Soulsavers, ‘Imposters’ – An Intimate Albeit Mellow Album of All Cover Songs

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There was a virtual smorgasbord of music released yesterday, November 19th, 2021. Enough music to keep your intrepid blogger and bourbon enthusiast busy through Christmas. I may need to buy my own barrel of whiskey to get through the holidays… but that has more to do with relatives than music… While there is plenty to be happy about from yesterday I was set on a course to explore Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan and his partners the Soulsavers’ new album Imposter. I haven’t seen this record get a ton of attention, so enter B&V. There will be plenty of time for me to “catch up” and write about those other new LPs.

As long time readers know, it was the Rock Chick who turned me onto Depeche Mode. I have to admit, before meeting her I only knew the song “Personal Jesus” and I’m embarrassed to admit that I only knew that from the black and white video. When that song came out in 1989 I was in exile in Arkansas and only got new music from gads, MTV. That’s probably the only reason I’d heard the song. Depeche Mode’s dark synth rock wasn’t getting a ton of airplay in Northwest Arkansas. You were more likely to hear Micheal Jackson or Madonna on one hand and Foghat or Bad Company on the other. Not that there was anything wrong with Foghat or Bad Co. It was pop or classic rock in Fayetteville, Arkansas with nothing new and current on the rock n roll radio station. Had I stayed there I’d have certainly missed the whole Grunge thing.

When I met the Rock Chick she’d just gotten out of a relationship with a guy who was musically barren. He didn’t go to concerts or own any CDs. When I met someone in the old days I didn’t judge them by what they did or what they stood for, I judged them on their music collection. The first thing I did when a woman invited me to her place was look at her CD rack. When I came along it was like the Rock Chick had this musical awakening. Don’t get me wrong, she was already the Rock Chick, I just sort of helped her re-engage. It was on one of our first dates that I realized I could take her to the record store and we could browse and buy in the same way my old friend Drew and I used to do in college. A record store, with a chick? Oh, yes, sign me up. That first trip to the music store the Rock Chick bought a stack of CDs. She was collecting them in her arms like she’d just escaped from a gulag. They should have charged her by the pound vs the disc. We rocked out on that music purchased over the course of a few hours for years and years.

While she bought a bunch of CDs that ended up helping me reconnect with bands I’d drifted away from – Motley Crue, AC/DC, and Green Day just to name a few – one of the main purchases she made that day was Depeche Mode’s double-disc retrospective greatest hits The Singles 86-98. I had no history with that band. I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s the “Personal Jesus” guy.” I was, as usual, curious about their music but she rarely played that CD. She used to insist you had to be in the “right mood” for Depeche. I assumed that like olives, they were an acquired taste. I tried to put them on during her ritualistic “Saturday House Cleaning” – the Rock Chick is nothing if not organized – and she came sprinting down the stairs to make me change the music.

Eventually, and I might have been alone at the time, I started listening to those two discs and I was blown away. What a great band and I had been utterly unaware of them. Eventually I picked up their best known record Violator. At that point I was hooked. One of the main things that drew me in, besides the songwriting by (mostly) Martin Gore was the towering voice of Dave Gahan. Hypnotic and seductive it was that voice that made me a Depeche fan. Over the years I’d notice their albums started to appear at the house. Over the years the Rock Chick brought home Playing The Angel, Sounds Of the Universe and finally Delta Machine which I really connected with. Delta Machine was the first overt connection I heard in their music to the blues. And, as is well documented in these pages, everything I like leads me to the blues eventually.

It was in 2015 that I first heard a Dave Gahan solo song. I had no idea Gahan had a solo career. My ignorance was not blissful. Anyway, I heard this song “Shine” and I really dug it. There was a gospel vibe on the thing. I found out it was from an album named Angels And Ghosts, that Dave recorded with collaborators the Soulsavers, multi-instrumentalists Ian Glover and Rich Machin. At the time they’d already done an LP together but it was more Gahan grafting his vocals over their already written tracks. Angels And Ghosts was a real triumph and a true collaboration between Gahan and the Soulsavers. I went back and listened to the whole thing this week and thought, I need to listen to this album a lot more than I do. “My Sun” is a classic track.

While it stands out on its own right, I will fully admit that Gahan solo LP made me even more excited for that next Depeche album. In 2017 they put out what can only be described as a late-career masterpiece, Spirit. That album is an absolute classic. Musically and lyrically it was a tour de force. I was lucky enough to see them twice on that tour in both Denver and then in Tulsa. Although admittedly, the Tulsa show was like going to a Goth rave at an LGBTQ bar in the basement of a church. It almost felt subversive to be there… It was over the course of those two concerts that I realized that Dave Gahan was simply one of the most charismatic frontmen in rock n’ roll. The guy doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He was like a hipster preying mantis grooving all over the stage.

It was a few weeks ago that I heard that Dave had teamed up with the Soulsavers again for an album of all covers, Imposter. I’m on record as a fan of “cover albums.” Many bands do covers songs but it’s rare that bands will do an entire LP of covers. Although admittedly, there has been a ton of cover LPs this year: The Black Keys, Chrissie Hynde, and Plant/Krauss to name a few. I read on line that Gahan was describing this as an intimate record where he tells his story using other people’s songs. Cover albums are like getting a two-fer… you get the artist whose singing them but there is a connection in the music to the original artist. I will admit, a covers LP is only as strong as the material chosen.

As has happened several times this year, I will admit up front that I like the last album from Gahan & the Soulsavers more than I do this one. At first listen this album is a bit monochromatic and could be considered slightly somnambulant. It doesn’t have the variety of sounds nor the upbeat moments that drove Angels and Ghosts. At first listen this is a really mellow record. Although the more I listened to it and the more time I spent with this week it did reveal its charms. Its a good record for that late night, sitting up with a tumbler of bourbon while doing some heavy contemplation. And let’s admit it right up front – Dave Gahan could sing the phone book and pull it off.

As with any album of covers songs I’m drawn to the material I’m familiar with. I had no knowledge of the first single, “Metal Heart” but its the most rocking moment you’ll find here and I really liked it. It’s a track by Cat Power who I’ve merely heard of, not heard. But as I explored the track list I did see some familiar tracks. My favorite, as would be expected is the Dylan cover, “Not Dark Yet.” There’s been a lot of great Dylan covers this album, from the aforementioned Chrissie Hynde album to David Bowie. I was familiar with the song “The Dark End of the Street” written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn from the version Gregg Allman did on Searching For Simplicity. I have to admit Gahan does it just as well as Gregg and that is high praise indeed. “A Man Needs A Maid” the Neil Young orchestral epic was a nice surprise. I really like this version. For reasons unclear Gahan chose to do the old Nat King Cole chestnut “Smile.” I despise that song no matter whose at the mic. The album ends on the Elvis track “Always On My Mind” and I admit, I liked it.

I really liked the track “Strange Religion” and somehow guessed it was a Mark Lanegan track. The Soulsavers have worked with him in the past and I just knew immediately that lyrically it had to be him. “Lilac Wine” was a miss for me… as any Eartha Kitt song would be. “I Held My Baby Last Night” an Elmore James blues tune is another great moment here. I like the opening salvo of guitar on that one and Gahan goes into a deep bluesy growl. “Shut Me Down” is another gauzy track that makes my mind drift a bit. It was nice to see a Gene Clark track here, “Where My Love Lies Asleep,” but again following “Shut Me Down” it makes for a pretty mellow back to back listen. PJ Harvey’s “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” sparks a bit of excitement toward the end of the album.

The listening experience for me, was bit of a start/stop experience. There’d be a track I’d really like and then a track that sort of sent my mind a’wandering. The thing that really holds it together is, as you’d expect, Gahan’s voice. This album really makes me want a Depeche album. I want to hear Dave singing Martin Gore tracks, not Nat King Cole. That said, I can’t completely dismiss this record. While I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody but true fans (like myself) there are enough high points that I think everyone should give it a spin or two, especially after the sun goes down.

Cheers! And Happy Thanksgiving folks.

New Song: Scorpions Release “Peacekeeper”- First “Rawking” New Song From The Upcoming LP ‘Rock Believer’

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I don’t know what it is about the Scorpions but I keep losing track of them. I always know they’re out there rocking, or perhaps better said “RAWKING,” but for some reason I never know about it when they release new music. Thankfully I saw on Twitter a little while ago that they’d released a new single entitled “Peacemaker” and intend to release a new album in the spring, Rock Believer. I think the world is a better place when there is new Scorpions’ music out there to turn up to 11.

My history with the Scorpions is almost like a hide and seek game. They’re there, right in front of me on stage or on my turntable and then suddenly I’d lose track of them. I’ve probably mentioned this somewhere but the Scorpions were a part of my first ever concert. A friend of mine had tickets to see Nugent and couldn’t go. This was when Nugent was a guitar-wielding, rock n roll wild man, not his current incarnation as a gun-wielding moron. Nugent was still cool in the late 70s/early 80s. My friend sold me his ticket to “the Nuge” for something like $10. It was a crazy night at Kemper Arena. The opening act came out and they were all kids my age. It was Def Leppard on their first tour in support of On Through The Night. They played “Wasted” and “Rock Brigade.” And yes, we were a wasted rock brigade up in the cheap seats where I was sitting. I remember thinking that I needed to keep an eye on those nutty kids.

It was after Def Leppard… the drummer had a Union Jack diaper on, that lo and behold the Scorpions rushed the stage. I’d never seen a band with that much energy but admittedly, this was my first concert. The only song I recognized, well the only song of theirs I knew was “The Zoo.” I was completely unaware that they’d been around for almost a decade at that point in 1980. I had never heard or even heard of those Micheal Schenker led early records like Virgin Killer, In Trance or gads Taken By Force. I thought they were a brand new band and Animal Magnetism, their then-current LP, was their debut album. I’m embarrassed I hadn’t even heard the classic album Love Drive at that point. Although I have this funny memory of hearing Klaus Meine on an interview show and they asked him about the meaning of the title of Love Drive and in that heavy German accent that makes him sound like a villain in a World War II movie he said, “It’s both about making love while driving in the car but also it’s about that urge we all feel for “love.”” Oh Klaus, that ain’t love you’re talking about…

While I was impressed with the Scorpions enough to go out and buy Animal Magnetism, I wasn’t moved to do any deeper inspection and figure out the back catalog. Let’s face it, on that crazy night in 1980 at Kemper Arena, I was there to see “Ted the Sledge.” It’s hard to believe that within two years the Motor City Madman would have faded so quickly and the Scorpions would explode with the landmark heavy metal LP Blackout. We used to stand on our desk chairs and air guitar to “Dynamite” all night long. I taped my roommate’s copy of that album and played it in my car almost constantly. I remember I still had that cassette in my “cassette briefcase” in my backseat when I was sent into exile in Arkansas… When 1984’s LP Love At First Sting came out, I bought it on the day it was released and pleased that I have the original album cover on that vinyl treasure. Walmart made them change the cover. Prudes.

After college, I again lost track of the Scorpions. Somewhere along the line I picked up Crazy World but that was it for me and the Scorpions for years. I did see them again in concert, this time as headliners, out at the local “shed,” Sandstone Amphitheater. They were even better that time but despite the fact that 15 years had passed, their energy level on stage was exactly the same – full tilt. Other than that show I wasn’t listening to much of the Scorpions. And then… I met the Rock Chick. On one of our first dates we went to the CD store. She bought a stack of CDs that day… and one of them was the two-disc, greatest hits compilation Deadly Sting: The Mercury Years. We poured some red wine and cranked those 2 CDs up loud! It was a revelation. I quietly admonished myself for losing track of those guys. They’ve got so much great music out there. I realize they changed their sound to a more radio-friendly, heavy rock sound vs the hard edged metal of their early years but still they’ve remained really consistent in terms of sound over the years. They haven’t really chased fads as far as I can tell. They’re kind of like AC/DC, they know what they do well so they keep doing it. And the thing they do well is to RAWK.

I actually picked up their 2010 album Sting In The Tail and it was a fantastic hard rock, Scorpions’ album. It sounded like not a day had passed since their heyday. It’s one of those LPs that B&V was founded to talk about. When I heard they had a new song out, I rushed to Spotify. It was then that I realized that, true to form, I had lost track of them again and missed that they had released an album in 2015, Return To Forever. That’ll be another LP I’ll have to put in the stack as I prep my review of the upcoming album this spring, Rock Believer. The fact that I didn’t know about that record tells me that the Scorpions need to fire their PR person. Either that or they’re purposely eluding me…

From the opening riff of “Peacemaker” I knew I was listening to a classic Scorpions hard rock track. Rudolf Schenker and Mathias Jabs guitars weave together for a heavy yet nimble riff to open this thing. When Klaus Meine’s vocals kick in it’s race to the finish line time. The guitars and drums start rolling faster. And by the way, I think the coolest name in rock may be Mathias Jabs. He’s like 7 feet tall too…or at least that’s what it looked like from the cheap seats. The Scorps can play a heavy riff and then jump to intensely melodic guitar faster than anyone this side of Metallica. Rudolf breaks off a tasty guitar solo in the middle. Pinch me, am I dreaming, is it 1985? I’m really impressed with the lyrics to “Peacemaker.” This isn’t their first stab at a socio-political statement in their lyrics. I can still remember the track “Crossfire” from Love At First Sting that also took up the cry for peace. I was impressed that in between calls to blackout or to be bad boys running wild they had the presence of mind to speak about peace. I think this opening lyric says it all:

“We could turn another page
Keep the lions in the cage
The battlefield is bleeding red
Land of glory, monster dead
Into a world without frontiers
With no hate, regret or fears
We’ll burn to ashes in a flash
If we don’t change, we’re gonna crash”

Here’s a link to “Peacekeeper”:

The only bad news here is we’re going to have to wait until February 2022 for Rock Believer. If Sting In The Tail and “Peacemaker” are any indications, this may be another great, late-period Scorpions LP. I know I’ll be looking out for it since it’s clear after all these years… the Scorps are purposely eluding my attention.

Cheers!

Review: Apple TV’s ‘The Velvet Underground – A Todd Haynes Documentary’ – An Enjoyable, Stylized Look At The Iconic Band

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It was just one of those exhausting weeks. After another arduous day I needed a distraction. Much to the Rock Chick’s consternation, I filled a tumbler with bourbon, flopped down on the couch and pulled up Apple TV. As I’d been threatening to do for a few weeks now, I pulled up the new documentary by Todd Haynes about the Velvet Underground. The Rock Chick was on her feet and across the floor to the stairs faster than an Olympic sprinter. I hadn’t seen her clear a room that quickly since the days I was really into watching Kojak reruns. Say what you want but there hasn’t been a decent cop show on TV since they cancelled Kojak. I had hoped the Rock Chick would hang around and watch the documentary with me but I can fully understand her reaction. I think a lot of people have the urge to flee when they hear the Velvet Underground is coming up.

I know in the early days of my rock n roll obsession I was afraid of the Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground was Lou Reed, vocals/guitar; John Cale bass/keyboards; Moe Tucker, drums; and Sterling Morrison, lead guitar. When I was in college I used to love to get those Rolling Stone magazines counting down the top 500 LPs. The Velvet Underground’s iconic first LP, produced by Andy Warhol no less and featuring German-born singer Nico, The Velvet Underground & Nico was not only always on the list but it was usually near the top. I had always been under the same mistaken impression I had about punk rock back then, that it was all just avant-garde noise. There were a few bands I was “afraid” of in those days. I figured if you put the Velvets on the stereo the needle would break, your ears would bleed, neighborhood dogs would howl, you might grow hair on your palms, all sorts of bad things would result. I’m still not sure how I garnered that impression from merely reading about the Velvet Underground. I’d never heard any of their music. It wasn’t played on the radio. No one I knew owned any of their LPs. It was Brian Eno who famously said, “The Velvet Underground’s first LP only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” That might actually be true. So many musicians cite the VU as an influence from David Bowie to Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers (who was pals with the band and is featured in the film).

In the mid-80s I started getting into Lou Reed. You typically get into a band in a few different ways. Either a friend turns you on to an iconic older recording or you would hear something on the radio that was then current and it would catch your ear. I know it’s a risk to my credibility when I tell you my first Lou Reed LP was the then-current album, New Sensations. That album might be the most accessible album Reed ever put out. Even then I was just dabbling in Lou’s catalog. I picked up Transformer, the David Bowie produced LP that is probably Reed’s best known work. That’s the album with “Walk On The Wild Side” on it. Right out of college when I went into my exile in Arkansas I heard “Dirty Boulevard” on MTV… there was really no radio in Ft. Smith. I loved that dark track. “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs,” is a quote I still use today when referring to my job. I immediately went to the record store and purchased New York which had just come out and I loved that record. I was spending so much time in my car in those days I bought it on cassette which I now regret. I wore that thing out driving from Ft. Smith to Shreveport or Dallas or back to KC… anywhere but Arkansas. That led me to dive deeper into Reed’s catalog. Although admittedly, I still shied away from the Velvet Underground.

It wasn’t until the late 90s that I decided to stick my toe in the Velvet Underground pond. I had dug out that Rolling Stone magazine from the 80s with the top 500 albums ranked and had decided I was going to buy all of them. Crazy, yes I know. It was a great time of musical expansion for me. My friends had all settled down and were having children. I was just hanging out listening to music… which if I think about it is what I’m still doing. Thank God I married the Rock Chick. Anyway, as part of my push to buy all 500 of these records, I went out and bought the Velvet’s debut LP with Nico and I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t all just noise. Yes, John Cale brought a kind of drone thing to the band but Lou Reed was a fabulous songwriter. Nico’s vocals were interesting on the few tracks she sang. The thing that grabbed me about them was the lyrics. Their debut came out in 1967, “the Summer of Love.” While everyone was in tie-dye and bright colors singing about love being all you need, the Velvets were wearing black and singing about heroin and S&M. They were nihilistic and dark. What’s not to love there. They were a real counterpoint to the hippy thing.

The day I bought The Velvet Underground & Nico I had listened to it once when a buddy of mine called to go out and get a beer. He and I went bar hopping. This guy was really into smoking pot, something I’ve never enjoyed. He had some hashish. He kept telling me I’d enjoy it as “it’s a different kind of high.” That is always the pitch with the pot guys. I don’t like it, it makes me anxious and I haven’t done it in years. But there’s always a pot guy telling me to try edibles or hash or something because it’s a different high. On the night in question, I must have been drunk, because I believed my friend’s claims about the magic hash. I vaguely remember taking a hit just as we pulled up in front of this bar, O’Dowds. It was a block from my apartment. I stepped out of the car and felt “the fear” wash over me with the hash, smiled at my friend and promptly walked home without him, leaving him standing on the curb. There is no such thing as a different high… it’s all one anxious, paranoid, miserable experience for me. But hey, I don’t judge, smoke ’em if you got ’em.

I got home and to calm myself, I decided to put on my new LP purchase, the Velvet Underground. I was thinking, yes, music, that’s the ticket… that’ll bring me back to reality. I’ll drink some water and lay down. I put the album on and was wandering around my apartment in the dark. Suddenly I hear Lou Reed in the darkness, he’s waiting for the man… his voice terrified me. Rather than take the album off I just sort of, hid under the bed until it was over. In retrospect, maybe I should have put on some Hendrix. While the VU terrified me that night, I can assure you, I haven’t been afraid of their music since. I quickly bought the rest of their catalog. Their second album, White Light/White Heat is actually the avant-garde noise I had feared but I understood them and it didn’t scare me anymore. Their third LP, The Velvet Underground which features the great songs “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus” is probably the most pop-oriented thing they’ve ever done. If you’re a novice fan that might be the place to start. That’s the album where John Cale, who was the most aggressively experimental quit and Doug Yule joined. Yule could sing but he was also a more traditional bass player. Their final LP, Loaded is also a masterwork, despite Reed quitting during the process. Don’t be afraid!

I was hoping for some in-depth look at the Velvet Underground. There’s a lot of mythology around the band. Todd Haynes documentary is a very stylized look at the band. He does go in depth into the background of the band but it does get a little lost in the split-screen, chaotic manner it’s presented. He starts by profiling Lou Reed and then John Cale. He has a number of friends and family of the band (Sterling and Lou are gone) who talk about their experience with the band. It was great to see Moe Tucker interviewed. John Cale is prominently featured, as he should be. Jackson Browne pops up, and while he’s the last guy you’d associate with the VUs, he was friends with Nico and possibly her lover. That Jackson… he got around. It’s a thorough look at the VU but Haynes way of presenting it in this faux Warholian way gets in the way of the story for me. The film starts with, yes, a split screen and on one side is a close up of Lou Reed’s young face… that was all it took to send the Rock Chick running from the room.

I was also a little disappointed there wasn’t more, well, music in this thing. You’d get snippets of songs but nothing substantive. There seems to always be music playing but its not in the forefront as much as I’d have liked. I would have liked Haynes to let us see the Velvets on stage a bit more. Let us hear them playing live. Again, there are snippets of that in the film but it jumps around quite a bit. I do like the retelling of the story of when Reed fired Warhol as the band’s manager. Warhol had discovered them and put them in his multi-media Plastic Explosion Inevitable show. They’d play and he’d project a film onto the band. He produced their first album and pushed Nico into the band. The first LP was a commercial dud and Reed got pissy and fired Andy without consulting the band. Warhol was so angry, and he apparently rarely got angry, he called Lou “a rat.” It was the worst thing he could think of.

The documentary goes on to chronicle Cale’s departure and Yule’s entry into the band. Eventually the lack of commercial success killed the VU. Reed left, everybody else quit but Yule. The moment Reed left, for me, is the end of the Velvet Underground. I get why Cale quit. He wanted to push the band further into it’s experimental sound and Reed wanted the band to be more accessible and well, sell a few more albums. Those conflicting views on the direction of the band caused that split. Those two did reunite for a tribute LP to their mentor Andy Warhol upon his passing, Songs For Drella which I also highly recommend.

I enjoyed this documentary but it’s really only for fans. Clearly I’m ambivalent about this doc. I liked it but I don’t feel strongly enough to recommend it to everybody. This is a great place to perhaps start your journey into the VUs. It’s a very stylistic, pretty movie to watch. I’m not sure this will turn anybody onto their music though. If you’re interested and you want to watch this doc, I will warn you… beware of family members sprinting from the room. It’s too bad… this is a band that deserves a wider audience. I know their fame has grown over the years but this is a truly under appreciated band.