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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the King!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

LP Review: Tom Petty, ‘An American Treasure’ – A Different Path Through a Brilliant Career

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“And may my love travel with you, everywhere” – Tom Petty, “Have Love, Will Travel”

As chance would have it, the day my copy of Tom Petty’s new box set, An American Treasure arrived at the house, September 28th (I’d pre-ordered it), I had to jump in the car to head out to points west to take my wife and daughter to see my KC Chiefs play the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. It was tough duty to hold that box set in my hands and leave it behind… Family comes first. After a great, long weekend in Denver, the Rock Chick slid behind the wheel as we headed back home… I realized it was October 2nd, the one year anniversary of Tom’s sad passing… I commemorated the date in a way I’d hope would make Tom smile, out on the open road, cruising down the highway at top speed, blasting the Tom Petty playlist the Rock Chick put together a year ago to honor the man. That quickly led me to my playlist of my favorite deep tracks, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks, now posted on Spotify.

While my driving, binge-listening to Petty was a nice memorial, I found a much more fitting tribute when I returned home to An American Treasure. This is a superb box set. It was lovingly curated by Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and Petty’s wife Dana and daughter Adria. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Ryan Ulyate, whose remastering of these tracks is nothing short of genius. Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first box set, Playback in 1995 and one might wonder, “another box?” Playback was a six disc box. The first three discs were a wonderful career retrospective of greatest hits and “best of” kind of tracks. The last three discs were b-sides and unreleased tracks. It’s an exceptional listen.

An American Treasure is simply put, a different journey through this artist’s or this band’s career. It reminds me somewhat of Bruce Springsteen’s epic box set Tracks, that Bruce described as a different road than what his journey had taken him on. If you’re more of a greatest hits type fan, this box will take you into some deeper cuts from Petty and flesh out the man’s artistry. Campbell, Tench and company actively tried to stay away from the greatest hits or anything that was previously released on Playback here. You won’t find “Free Fallin'” on this box. The familiar tracks are either live or released in an alternative version, which (while cliche) is a window into Petty and the Heartbreakers’ creative process. The goal on An American Treasure was to bring you inside the studio with the Heartbreakers to get a glimpse of their genius. I was surprised what a cohesive listen this was from start to finish. To me, what this box highlights, is Petty’s amazing and oft overlooked ability as a lyricist. He remained through out his career an “Everyman” who could tell stories and paint pictures with just a modicum of words and whole lot of emotion. What he’s able to convey with such an economy of words is amazing and perhaps something I should learn from. When you do listen to this set all the way through (at four hours it’s a commitment) you start to realize the cinematic scope of Petty’s writing. His songs, for me, evoke images in my head. I can see what’s happening in the song.

If you will indulge me in a metaphoric detour, I would compare An American Treasure to my old days, driving up to college. Between my hometown and my college, there is a 4-lane, interstate highway, part of which is a toll road. It was the fastest way to get there… hit the on ramp, pay the toll, speed to college. But there were many of us, mostly to avoid the 75-cent toll, who would skip the interstate and take back roads… It was slower on the two-lane black top roads but the ride was much more interesting. You had to slow down at every little village and hamlet on the way, but you saw a lot more of the country side. There was even a bar or two one might stop at, if you were so inclined. If I was at one of those places now, I’d be highly motivated to put this box set on the stereo… “a round for everyone, I’m here for a little while” to quote Petty himself… An American Treasure is that slower journey down that road less traveled.

There really is something on this box for everyone, no matter what kind of fan of Petty’s you are. If you’re only into the greatest hits, there are deep/album cuts here that will deepen your understanding of Petty’s work. From “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from the first album to “Crawling Back To You” from Wildflowers, there are a bunch of tracks that you won’t find on a Greatest Hits compilation but are of such a high quality one must wonder, “why wasn’t this a single?”

Stepping in a little deeper, there are a lot of unreleased live versions of songs here. While Petty released a big multi-disc live set, Live Anthology the live versions of tracks you find here are revelatory. You get to hear the band develop as a live act. Especially of interest to me was a live version of “Breakdown” that was recorded live for a special radio broadcast at Capitol Studios, in front of a very small audience. That version of “Breakdown” was the only version of that song played on my local radio station, KY/102. This is the first official release of the song and it’s about time! When I bought their first eponymously titled album, I was disappointed when I realized the version of “Breakdown” was a studio version. It’s nice to finally hear this released in a clean copy. There are great live versions of tracks, including ones by Mudcrutch that are worth exploring. The Heartbreakers, Campbell on guitar, Tench on keyboards and either Ron Blair or Howie Epstein on bass, Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone on drums, and utility infielder Scott Thurston on, well, almost everything, were one of the tightest bands around.

For those of you who own all the albums, many of the familiar tracks are here in “alternate” versions. “Here Comes My Girl” is the same track as originally released, but rather than fade out you get to hear the band jam a bit at the end. “Fooled Again” from the second album was sped up when it was originally released, and I like this slightly slower version. There’s something new to discover in these different versions. Special kudos to Ulyate for his work on bringing out features and sounds on these alternate versions that you might have missed on the first go around. Many of the alternate versions were earlier versions or have different arrangements or lyrics. There are enough differences in the alternate versions that kept me highly interested. The redone version of “Rebels” with a different drum track (without that 80s echo) is perhaps definitive here.

Finally, for me, the intense collector, there are a host of previously unreleased tracks. It’s an American treasure trove. I’d heard a few of these before, in different versions, “Surrender” (here a first take) and “Keeping Me Alive” (a Long After Dark leftover). There’s a great, funky little, Leon Russell-like track from Mudcrutch, “Lost In Your Eyes,” that makes me wonder, why’d they hide this amazing song so long. Of course, the first single, “Keep A Little Soul,” also an out take from Long After Dark, remains one of my favorites Tom Petty: New Single From The Upcoming Box-set, “Keep A Little Soul”. “Walkin’ From the Fire” is an excellent track from the Southern Accents that should have been on the album. There are just so many great tracks – “Gainesville,” Chuck Berry-style rave up “Lonesome Dave” or the jam “Two Men Talking” – everyone needs to hear these songs.

An American Treasure, which is a term we all use to describe Tom Petty, is an aptly named, wonderful tribute to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ career. This is a must hear for all fans. Lock the door, turn off your phone and spend the evening with an old friend, Tom Petty, and may his “love travel with you, always.”

Cheers!

 

LP Review: Paul McCartney’s ‘Egypt Station’ – All Aboard For The Album Of the Year

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Well, it took all the way to September, but I think finally – spoiler alert! – we have the B&V Album of the year in Paul McCartney’s epic new record Egypt Station. I reserve the right to change my mind should something stunning come out between now and New Year’s Eve… but I highly doubt anything like this will. We have to remember people, when the former Beatle puts an album out, it’s a pretty big fucking deal. McCartney’s late career renaissance continues. I’m still recovering from my Florida trip, but I have to say, this album really grabbed me. I’ve been thinking a lot since seeing Robert Plant on Monday night about artists who have to grapple with past glories but remain creative today (Concert Review: Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters, KC 9/10/18). While Plant has headed off in different directions from Zeppelin, McCartney just continues to hone his gifts and create new melodic pop/rock.

The world was such a different place when the Beatles broke up. The world was devastated and as usual in break ups, everyone was looking for someone to blame. Many blamed Yoko, which is bullshit, we always seem to blame the girlfriend. Since McCartney was the one who announced it, he was widely blamed especially in the rock press. He quietly just released a series of great albums, which at the time were only moderately appreciated by critics, but are now widely lauded. From McCartney, Ram, Band On The Run through the mellow London Town McCartney remained popular with the fans. He was a hit-single machine. No wonder he has so many Greatest Hits packages. You have to wonder if Lennon and McCartney’s rivalry in those days might have been like Hemingway and Fitzgerald – Hemingway always admired Fitzgerald’s writing style and Fitzgerald always envied Hemingway’s sales numbers. I’ll let you guess who is who in that analogy… but I’m off on a tangent.

Things had already started to cool off for McCartney when in 1980 John Lennon was tragically assassinated. I remember walking into a record store in ’82 and the clerk had slipped Tug Of War on the turntable. I wasn’t there to buy that record, but I ended up doing so. That was such a brilliant album, well except for those Stevie Wonder duets. Many of those tracks were directly about John. After that McCartney’s career started to stall. The magic seemed to be gone. He’d have a great song every now and then like “No More Lonely Nights” or “Spies Like Us” but his music became more convoluted and impenetrable. I always wondered if Lennon’s absence unmoored him a bit. They always brought out the best in each other – McCartney sweetened Lennon and Lennon toughened up McCartney. Even though they weren’t working together anymore you wonder if the loss shook McCartney more than even he realized. People play up the feud, but at the heart of that relationship was friendship.

I had written McCartney off in terms of buying his records, but I always kept one eye, or perhaps more correctly, one ear on what he was doing. I even bought Press To Play, which in retrospect was ill advised. There was always an interesting single that would pierce my indifference. Then in 1995-1996 McCartney immersed himself in the wonderful Beatles Anthology series of albums and documentary. By returning to that early music I think he rediscovered the magic of simplicity and melody.

When he re-emerged from the Anthology thing with 1997’s Flaming Pie it was a comeback as seismic as Dylan’s Time Out of Mind comeback.To prep for this I listened to that record again and it’s one of his best ever. Thus began the McCartney renaissance. If you’ve been ignoring him, it’s at your own peril. His late career albums are the type of records this blog is built on. Run Devil Run recorded and released a year after he tragically lost his wife Linda, was a return to the music of McCartney’s youth, namely, old school rock and roll. It was joyful and cathartic. From there he’s been on fire – Driving Rain (a more experimental but great McCartney album), Chaos and Creation (a mellow grower of a record) were both great records. As great as all of those records are, they were each very distinctive, ie, the songs on those albums were all of the same sound. Flaming was built on acoustic guitars. Devil was straight up rock  (kudos to David Gilmour on guitar). Driving Rain was trippy. They each had a coherency and showed off a singular strength of McCartney, of which there are many.

By 2005, I think McCartney decided, to hell with it, I do a lot of things well and I’m going to do it all on each record. His melody writing and penchant for hooks have not diminished over the years. Memory Almost Full was brilliant. It even had a mini-suit of songs toward the end that hark back to side two of Abbey Road. He followed that up with New that saw McCartney stretching out even farther. Ballads, rockers and “Queenie Eye” a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on the “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields” single… If you like the Beatles New is the record for you.

A few months ago on social media I began seeing McCartney posting black and white photos of instruments. A guitar leaning on an amp. Piano keys… Something was afoot. Indeed it was. He has returned after a five year absence with Egypt Station, a record he’s described as a “concept album.” I think that’s a conceit, as the concept is the listener boards a musical train at “Egypt Station” and each song is a stop along the line. It’s an odd concept, but it works in that it allows McCartney to go in any direction his creativity and melodies take him. There are ballads, rockers, even political songs on this album. Despite the variety of the material on the record, it hangs together very well. It was produced by Greg Kurstin who has worked with, gasp, Adele. Don’t let that scare you, this isn’t a mellow record. Kurstin puts a modern sheen on McCartney’s classic style. The record sounds current and yet timeless at the same time.The best moments on this album evoke past glories without wallowing in any nostalgia.

The first single, “Come On To Me” was a great crunchy rocker about sex. It’s catchy as hell. “Who Cares” starts with guitar feedback and deals with haters, “who cares what the idiots say?” “Caesar Rocks” (read that She’s a Rock) is another randy song about sex. For a guy 76 years old, this cat is horny still. We should all be so lucky. The only rocker that left me cold was the vulgar “Fuh You” (read Fuck You). It’s not the vulgarity, hell I cuss all the time, it’s that it’s a great riff and song but the lyric is kinda stupid.

There are great ballads in here as well. “I Don’t Know” starts the record with a beautiful, melancholy piano. It may still be my favorite song on the record (Paul McCartney: Two New Songs From The Upcoming ‘Egypt Station’). McCartney has a reputation as being Mr. Sunshine, but there are sadder elements just under the surface here. “Do It Now” is another sweet, but slightly sad ballad where someone seems to be saying goodbye. “Happy With You” is a stunning acoustic guitar driven song about the joys of domestic bliss. McCartney sings, “I liked to get wasted, but these days I don’t, ’cause I’m happy with you.” Somehow, with a name like BourbonAndVinyl, I can relate to that. The Rock Chick saved my life, but that’s another blog post. “Hand In Hand” is another piano driven track that’s just straight up about love. The one song that also jumped out at me from the mellower end of things was “Confidante.” I don’t know if he’s singing to an ex-lover, John Lennon, or both. It’s a great track. There are so many layers to this music.

I was glad to see McCartney, an old hippy, take up the topic of politics. “People Want Peace” is a big anthem of a track. You wonder if McCartney has been hanging with Ringo, Mr. Peace & Love. It’s a short track but effective. “Dominoes” is another catchy rocker with distorted guitars and nice drums and seems to be a call for unity when he sings, “Soon we’ll see that you and me, we’re really friends.” “Come Together” people… right now! The heart of this record for me, was the brilliant political allegory, “Despite Repeated Warnings,” about a ship being piloted by a crazy captain. The line, “how can we stop him, grab the keys and lock him up,” tells you all you need to know. At almost seven minutes long, it’s pretty epic.

The only track that lost me here was “Back In Brazil.” Even a genius can throw a curve ball at you. The chorus of “Ichi Ban” being repeated over and over made me think somebody should have pushed back on that one… The album ends with an old-style Red Rose Speedway medley, “Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link.” The “Hunt You Down” portion rocks. “C-Link” is some tasty guitar solo’ing.

Egypt Station finds McCartney in fine voice. His instrument has not diminished at all. I think he plays all the musical instruments too. It’s a sprawling epic McCartney’s been doing since the “White Album,” although, it’s only one guy so that comparison may be hyperbolic on my part. This is a highly recommended album to all fans of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and great rock everywhere. It’s a shame music like this can’t find a place on modern radio…

Enjoy this one, it’s a treasure!

RIP Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul: Another Legend Gone

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Another day, another legend gone.

And make no mistake people, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul was a legend. She’s the first person outside of the Beatles (John, Paul, George, Ringo) who could be identified with only one name… Aretha. You didn’t need to include the Franklin, people knew.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been traveling a lot lately (Thoughts From The Traveling Salesman And A B&V Playlist: Hanging On The Telephone). I was in the airport on Monday, waiting for a plane, when I heard the news that Aretha was in hospice. “How could that be?” I asked myself. She was only 76, way too young to pass. My thoughts the rest of the week were centered on Aretha and her brilliant career. I was moving slowly through the labyrinth style security line at DIA on Thursday morning, yesterday, when I heard this scruffy kid with a really sorry excuse for a mustache, who looked thirteen, say “Aretha Franklin just died.” I spun around quickly…”When?” was all I could say. “Just now…” He went on to say, “I can’t really think of any of her songs…” I considered striking him and challenging him to a duel, but he was a TSA agent and I didn’t want to end up in a padded room in the basement of the airport. Instead, I walked in sad silence to my gate. The Queen of Soul was gone.

I couldn’t help yesterday, flashing back 41 years to the day, on a similarly sad August afternoon. I was in junior high school and I was piled into my football coach’s car, along with what seems like ten other players, all shoulder pads and helmets, on our way to football practice. The news came over the radio that Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll had died. My coach, Coach Taylor, pulled his blue Mercury over to the side of the road and we all listened to the radio news report. “How could this be, the coach uttered, Elvis was my age?” Indeed, coach, how could this be?

Aretha Franklin was a titanic talent. She got her start, like many singers, in church. In this case, it was her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin’s church. Aretha could sing but she was also a self-taught pianist. Frankly, I’ve always felt, like Elton John said on social media yesterday, that she was an underrated pianist. Rev C.L. Franklin was actually a preacher of some renown and had a touring tent gospel show, preaching the word. Aretha would sing. Because of that renown, many other famous people would stop by the Franklin residence in Detroit. The Soul Stirrers featuring none other than Sam Cooke were friends and occasional visitors. Martin Luther King, Jr was also a guest in the Franklin home. I read somewhere, that when she was 12 years old, Aretha actually sang for the first time publicly for MLK. That moment, if that’s true, sort of crystallizes a lot of things that Aretha conjures in my mind- singer, gospel, and civil rights advocate. In 1968, she also sang at Reverend King’s funeral cementing her connection with the Civil Rights Movement.

It wasn’t long after beginning her singing career, inspired by Sam Cooke’s switch from gospel to secular, pop music, that Aretha was moved to do the same. She transplanted to New York and signed with Columbia Records. But it wasn’t until she moved to Atlantic Records, and teamed with Producer Jerry Wexler, that things clicked. And boy did they. My frame of reference and focus on Aretha’s catalog has always been the must-have albums, I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Loved You and Lady Soul. There are so many other great Aretha albums from that late-60s early 70s time period, that are essential soul: Aretha Now, Soul ’69, Spirit in the Dark, and Young, Gifted And Black. It was a criminal omission on my part, to not include her fabulous live album Live At The Fillmore West on my Essential Live LPs list (BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums). I advise everyone to dive deeply into this woman’s catalog. So many hits, so many great songs. My favorite might be “Baby, I Love You,” but it’s hard to name just one. She sold over 75 million albums in her career. That’s a ton of records. And like Elvis, Aretha would occasionally return to her gospel roots on records like Amazing Grace.

When you think about Aretha’s career, it all boils down that voice. What Wexler was so genius at in terms of producing was that he brought her gospel roots out in the soul music she performed. No matter what genre Aretha was interpreting, blues, soul, jazz, you could always hear the gospel in her voice. The Stones, both Mick and Keith, commented in their tributes yesterday, the same thing, that Aretha “took you to church.” My buddy Stormin’ once said that same thing to me about Aretha, years ago. I know what they all mean. She was one of the most brilliant interpreters of other people’s music, no matter who it was – Sam Cooke, B.B. King, or Otis Redding – Aretha would make the songs her own. And her mastery of the call and response with her back up singers is another thing she just owns for me.

The most famous song she did, was Otis Redding’s “Respect.” When Otis heard the Aretha’s version of the song, he muttered, “Damn, that girl just stole my song.” He knew it wasn’t his any more. “Respect” indeed became Aretha’s “signature song,” much the same way “Satisfaction” is for the Stones. It was the perfect song for Aretha. She fought her whole life as a black woman for civil rights but also for women’s rights. It was such a strong statement in her voice, demanding respect as a proud, black woman. That’s why Aretha is such a legend, she transcends music and soul. She was the voice of America, not just musically but culturally. It’s a shame so many of the issues she fought for remain problems to this very day… but I digress. I could literally listen to this woman sing all day. In fact, the last two days, that’s what I’ve done.

It’s going to be a very soulful weekend here at the B&V labs, sipping dark, murky fluids and listening to the Queen of Soul into the early morning hours. I do like to think, if there is a “Heaven,” that the King of Rock n Roll and the Queen of Soul are reunited today… singing a great, great gospel song. That’s a service that even I’d attend…

RIP Aretha Franklin! Long live the Queen!