Guns N’ Roses Drop Another “New” Song “Hard Skool”

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Now this is more like it…

Long time readers know of our love for Guns N Roses here at B&V. When Slash and Duff McKagan rejoined the band to go on tour a few years back we were hoping for new music. I saw them in 2016 and it seems like yesterday. It took a while but finally 2021 has seen the release of new GnR music. A few weeks ago they debuted a “new” song in concert named “Absurd.” Shortly after they played it live, the studio version was released to the public. It’s actually not a new song but a reworked Chinese Democracy outtake that was originally called “Silkworms.” Our reaction was… disappointment. It was an odd choice for their first track in 13 years. I couldn’t help but lament, this is what they came up with after being back together for five years?

I spent most my week listening to solo Lindsey Buckingham. My old college roommate, who I’ll call Walt (named changed to protect the guilty) would be proud… he was a big Buckingham fan. Walt is the only person I knew who owned Buckingham’s second solo disc, Go Insane. He played it in the room enough that I was the one who almost went insane. Lindsey recently released his latest solo, self-titled LP. Its the record that got him fired from Fleetwood Mac. I liked it but it’s too artsy for mass consumption. Lindsey plays all the instruments. The man needs to bring in some other musicians to play off of but I’m getting off topic. I wasn’t sure what, if anything I’d be writing about this weekend. This time of year, one must never underestimate new music Fridays. The rock gods smiled on us with the latest GnR track. Beautiful fall weather, football and now some “Hard Skool.”

Yesterday indeed saw the release of a second new GnR track, “Hard Skool.” Yet again this is a track who’s origins date back to yes, the Chinese Democracy days. It appears that instead of holing up during the pandemic and writing brand new material GnR are content to just rework leftover stuff from Axl’s vault. If that’s what we’re left with, I will say I’m relieved that at least “Hard Skool” is a kick ass song. While “Absurd” sounded like a bad Nine Inch Nails cover band, “Hard Skool” at least sounds like a Guns N Roses song. At their best GnR sounded dangerous, perhaps almost menacing and this track captures that alchemy. We are once again reminded that at one time, Guns N Roses were the greatest rock band on the planet.

The track opens with a great, rolling, Duff McKagan bass line. I don’t think Duff gets the credit he deserves as a bass player. He did some amazing work last year on Ozzy’s last LP, Ordinary Man. When the guitars kick in on “Hard Skool” there’s no mistaking that this greasy blues rock metal is Guns N Fuckin’ Roses, baby. While this is a Chinese Democracy outtake, it sounds like it could have been on one of the Use Your Illusions discs. It has that unhinged “Back Off Bitch” or “Right Next Door To Hell” vibe. I can not say enough about Slash’s lead guitar on this track. His solo is classic. There’s even a spacey, Led Zepplin-y bridge in the middle where everything slows down except for drums, Duff and Slash. Slash has such a distinctive tone when he plays. And let me say, kudos to Axl on the vocals. He sounds great. I don’t know if these are vocals from 13 years ago or not but he sounds like a man possessed. Nobody does pissed-off, scorned lover vocals like Axl. On this track, everybody shows up and does what they do best. It’s a great GnR track.

Here is the link to the new song, if you haven’t heard it you’ve gotta check it out:

If I have any complaint, I still wish these guys were collaborating on new music rather than just  being content with reworking Axl’s leftovers. After five years I would have expected that to have happened. Of course this could be an Axl ego thing, one never knows. He may be refusing to move forward with new stuff until he tidies up his music backlog. I hear they’re going to release an EP with the two new tracks (“Absurd,” “Hard Skool”) and several cover songs including, apparently, a version of Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets.” It kinda makes me feel like this is more of a touring exercise than full-fledged band reunion. Although for me, it can never be a real reunion without Izzy Stradlin but that’s another topic. For now we can just be happy with some new savage rock n roll…Nobody does it better than GnR.

Review: New Showtime Documentary: Bitchin’ – The Sound And Fury of Rick James

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I am many things. I am not, however, funky. One merely has to casually glance at me and realize, there’s no funk there. I can rock but I just can’t roll. Believe me, in the old days, I certainly tried to be funky. But I’m not someone who should ever be seen on the dance floor. I’m the consummate wallflower. I have tried to get into funk music but it just never connected. I’ve purchased LPs by Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic (a group whose records my brother owned, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein) and various Motown acts like the Temptations. I could just never get into it. Little did I realize those acts were very strong influences on 70s/80s pop star, Rick James.

I came back from a trip a week or so ago and the Rock Chick smiled and said, “I’ve found a documentary I think you’d enjoy…” I was a tad surprised when I saw it was a new Showtime documentary about Rick James. The actual title was Bitchin’ – The Sound And Fury of Rick James, which I thought was a mouthful… however, now that I’ve seen the doc, it’s certainly fitting. I was surprised the Rock Chick thought I’d dig this documentary, although I’m quite pleased she did. Of course she knows how much I enjoyed Questlove’s Summer of Soul documentary… I’ve always thought of James as a funk artist and someone who is, if I’m being honest, a little outside of my wheelhouse. I didn’t really realize how many of his songs were “crossover” hits. A song was described as “crossover” when it crossed over from the Soul Charts (aka the Black Charts) to the mainstream Pop Charts. All that industry speak just means it was a song by a black artist that’s popular amongst a white audience, which seems like a badly outdated construct anymore. Rick James was out there making wildly popular hits in the late 70s/early 80s before Michael Jackson and Prince struck chart gold in the 80s. Rick James, in many ways, was the guy who blazed the trail for those other artists.

I was unaware, or had forgotten a lot of Rick James’ story. It’s a fascinating tale. Frankly when I think of James these days its usually in the context of the Dave Chappelle skit about him, “I’m Rick James, Bitch,” which is too bad because Rick had an amazing career. He hailed from Buffalo, New York. In the ’60s he joined the Army Reserve to avoid having to go to Vietnam. As his career as a multi-instrumentalist was taking off the Army life wasn’t to his liking so he deserted and moved to Canada. When in Canada he actually formed a band called the Mynah Birds with… rubs eyes and checks notes… Neil Young. I knew that but had forgotten all about it… I think Young had some Mynah Birds on his first Archive box. Rick and Neil had met on the thriving Toronto folk scene. Bruce Palmer was the bass player. They were signed by Motown and recorded a few singles… until someone dropped the dime on James for desertion. He ended up back in Buffalo in jail. Young and Palmer loaded up in Young’s hearse and drove to L.A. where they formed the Buffalo Springfield.

Once he was released, he and a friend named Greg Reeves traveled out to California. They both auditioned for bass player in the new Super-Group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Despite his relationship with Young, they chose Greg Reeves. It’s like James was living some sort of Forrest Gump existence. He was tricked into taking acid by Jim Morrison… He gave up on the folk-rock thing and moved back to Buffalo where he formed the Stone City Band. He was absorbing all sorts of influences – folk rock, Motown, the funk of Sly and George Clinton – but he was mixing in a little bit of a rock sensibility. They were signed by Motown. One of his early hits was “Mary Jane.” It was the first Rick James’ song I ever heard. I was in junior high and despite the fact that marijuana was merely a rumor – something the druggy  kids out behind the school were smoking or some of the older brothers of my friends were involved with – we all got a sly smile on our faces when we heard it… “Mary Jane is not a girl, the song is about pot!” Oh, we thought we were so cool and subversive. We mentioned James along with Bob Marley to prove were hip to the weed thing.

James went on to release the mega hit “Super Freak.” Everyone knew that track. It was one of the biggest crossover songs ever at the time. It gave him a ton of freedom and power. Motown tapped him to produce other artists including Smokey Robinson. He even formed a Girl-Band, The Mary Jane Girls and wrote their big hit, “In My House.” On his tour behind the Street Songs LP, opening act Prince must have been paying close attention as he would go on to repeat the formula to even greater success. It never dawned on me that Rick James was a big influence on Prince and other artists at the time. Hell, I even remember him producing Eddie Murphy’s only hit single, “Party All The Time.” I vividly recall watching the video for that song when I was in college… Eddie couldn’t sing but I thought it was cool when Rick James strolls out of the control booth and strides to the mic to sing with Murphy at the end.

But alas, all that success wouldn’t last. As usual it was a combination of hubris and well, drugs. Cocaine, and more specifically, crack cocaine were Rick James’ downfall. And women… there were a lot of women. There were problems with the law – as Dennis Quaid once said, “Drugs are fun, then fun with problems and finally, just problems.” Rick was arrested for holding a woman hostage and torturing her because he thought she stole his coke. He ended up doing time for that. As with so many stories, this was turns out to be a little sad. MC Hammer sampling “Super Freak” probably paid James more money than the original hit which is sad because MC Hammer is beyond lame. In the end Rick James passed at the tender age of 56. He never did overcome the demons of coke and booze.

Even with the somewhat sad ending, this was a great documentary on a fascinating character in the pantheon of rock n roll and pop music. Again, I think that Rick James’ career was trailblazing for a lot of Black artists who followed him. The guy may have been reduced to a punchline by Dave Chappelle but he even owned that. This is something any music fan would enjoy. I highly recommend checking this one out. As Rick would say, “It’s such a freaky scene.”

B&V’s Favorite “Comeback” LPs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

George Harrison’s Magnum Opus ‘All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary’ Edition

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“Sunrise doesn’t last all morning, a cloudburst doesn’t last all day. Seems my love is up and left you with no warning, its not always going to be this grey…” – George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass”

Since its been a whole month since this new 50th anniversary version of All Things Must Pass came out on August 6th I’ll have to admit to you, it’s taken me a while to get this piece written. Other things kept popping up from Plant/Krauss to Metallica that prevented me from getting this done. The original LP/vinyl version of George Harrison’s first (official) solo album All Things Must Pass was three albums long – already a magnum opus – the 50th anniversary edition is 5 CDs. That’s a lot to digest. I had been shying away from sharing my thoughts on big editions like this that are focused on one album. Well, I’ve been shying away from anything like this by anybody but Prince. Prince’s “deluxe editions” are always packed with an enormous amount of unreleased material. John Lennon did a 50th anniversary edition of Imagine and I didn’t even check it out. I figured it would be all roughed out demos and “alternate takes.” Only the true collectors could delve into those waters. The box set that changed my opinion on this was CSNY’s Deja Vu – 50th Anniversary. That set blew me away. And admittedly I’ve been in a heavy celebration of all the great music of 1971 all year long…

I remember when the sitcom Seinfeld was on television. Seinfeld was a huge Superman fan. It reignited a debate from when I was a kid. The question always was, are you a Batman fan or a Superman fan? We like to create rivalries on all things it seems. Supposedly, which side you fall on in this debate tells us something about your personality. For the record, I’m a Batman fan. He was darker… his origin story was more violent and horrible. Anyway, there was a similar debate when I started listening to music – are you a Beatles guy or a Stones guy? In the late 70s when I first started listening to music, I was 100% a Stones guy. Not surprisingly, my brother who usually tends to line up on the opposite side from me, was a Beatles fan. Frankly, all these years later I believe it’s possible to be a fan of both… the Stones and the Beatles, not Superman and Batman… you have to make a choice on the latter. For Beatles fans, it wasn’t enough to be a Beatles fan, you had to declare a “favorite Beatle.” Purists, what are you going to do? I think, and I would never dare to speak for him, my brother was a George fan. George was the quiet Beatle. I think George was considered the quiet Beatle because he could never get a word in edgewise with McCartney and Lennon hogging the spotlight. I always thought of him as more the sullen, frustrated Beatle. He wrote songs like “Taxman,” or “You Like Me Too Much.”

When the Beatles finally disintegrated in acrimony, they all went on to solo careers. For years Harrison had been stockpiling songs. Lennon and especially McCartney prevented his songs from making the released Beatles albums. His contributions to the Beatles’ last LP, Abbey Road, couldn’t be ignored however. The songs “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” were the best songs on the album. Sinatra once covered “Something” in concert and announced it as the best song Lennon/McCartney ever wrote… probably too much bourbon for Frank. There was some thought that McCartney was threatened by Harrison’s amazing development as a songwriter and that was another contributing factor in the Beatles break up. McCartney’s penchant for doing dozens and dozens of takes on trifles like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” couldn’t have helped. Lennon used to refer to those types of songs as McCartney’s “granny-style” music.

Harrison really had developed as a songwriter and with Lennon/McCartney keeping his songs off the Beatles records he had this incredible number of great songs he was sitting on. Uber-producer Phil Spector had worked with the Beatles on what would become Let It Be and had worked with John Lennon on his early solo stuff. Harrison decided to bring him in for All Things Must Pass. Spector’s “wall of sound” was considered the perfect background for Harrison’s “reedy” voice. I’ve always liked his voice, I’m not sure where that assessment comes from. The burst of creativity that is All Things Must Pass is nothing short of breathtaking. It was a statement to the world, George Harrison would be silenced no longer. It was a double album with a third LP sub-titled Apple Jams all packaged in a small box. Three LPs was almost unheard of in the 70s. I remember going into my brothers room and marveling at the enormity of it all. He had that box and the Concert For The People of Bangladesh which was also a triple- LP packaged in a large box. Those are probably worth some money these days. I don’t know where my brother got all this bread to buy these giant box sets but clearly his allowance was larger than mine.

To me, All Things Must Pass is the greatest solo LP from any Beatle. Ok, I could probably do without the Apple Jams third album. Like most people who discovered rock n roll in the 70s I started off as a big McCartney fan. Then by college I’d shifted to being a Lennon guy. I love their solo work but nothing compares to All Things Must Pass. The sheer volume of top shelf material here is astounding. Harrison has spent the end of ’69 up at Woodstock with Dylan and the Band and his obsession with the sitar ended and he rediscovered playing guitar. That experience supposedly inspired “Run of the Mill,” a track that ends the first album. He also covers Dylan’s “If Not For You.” “My Sweet Lord” was the first single, one of Harrison’s signature songs. So many great tracks: “Wah Wah” about the guitar, a farewell to his former bandmates in the title track, “Let It Down,” “Beware of Darkness,” and so many more. Every track on the first two albums could have been a hit. Maybe if Harrison had held back some of these tracks he could have solidified his solo career in the early days. There’s rock and roll, folk influences, gospel chords and of course, Eastern religion plays heavily here. It was an explosion of creativity that signified everything Harrison was into and everything he was about. It’s enormous yet a very personal statement. “Awaiting On You All” has been running through my brain non-stop all month. I’m a non believer and I’m singing, “the lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see.” I’m not sure that’s true but what a great song and sentiment. 

The band backing him on this album is also quite extraordinary. Clapton brought all the guys he’d met while on tour with Blind Faith from the opening band, Delaney and Bonnie inlcuding Jim Gordon (drums) and Carl Radle (bass). Those guys went on to form Derek and the Dominos. Ringo shows up as well as John and Yoko on a track. Tellingly, only McCartney is absent. If you dig deep enough it’s a who’s who of British rock. Ginger Baker from Cream plays drums on a track. Klaus Voorman, bassist friend of the Beatles is here. Peter Frampton is on acoustic guitar. Billy Preston and Bobby Whitlock show up on keyboards. Dave Mason, guitarist of Traffic is on the LP. Alan White, later of Yes shows up on drums. Spector’s “wall of sound” approach usually included multiple drummers, guitars and backing singers on all songs. One could imagine him saying, “More guitars and drums and you two in the back, pick up those tubas and play something… horns, more horns.” The sound is all encompassing and powerful. It’s really incredible.

All of that said, I really dig the bonus material here and believe me, with three discs of it, there is plenty. Disc 3 on the CD version of the box is probably my favorite. It’s Harrison laying down demos of the tracks for Spector. It’s just Harrison, typically on acoustic guitar with Ringo on drums and Klaus Voorman on bass. That’s a similar line up of who recorded Lennon’s Plastic Ono album. Just Lennon and that same rhythm section. I think Spector’s decision to add all the backing musicians and turn it up to 11 was the right decision but I like these quiet, stripped down versions. They’re all (for the most part) fully realized songs. It makes for a much more personal statement from Harrison. The focus is more clearly on the lyrics. It feels like you’re sitting around the campfire jamming. They aren’t all acoustic tracks, “What Is LIfe” is still a rollicking rocker in this stripped down form. These early takes are so different from the released LP I found them fascinating. There are a few unreleased tracks here too. “Going Down to Golders Green” is a track he gave to another artist. There are two Eastern themed songs, “Om Hare Om” and one I really dug, “Dehra Dun.” Considering the unreleased stuff, he could have done three LPs without the jam LP. “Sour Milk Sea” was another acoustic track that would have translated well to an electric, full-band version. “Awaiting On You All” has different lyrics which include a swipe at the Pope which I thought was funny.

Disc 4 continues the demos theme. It’s mostly acoustic but this time just George alone with an acoustic guitar. I like “Everybody/Nobody” which was not included on the LP. “Beautiful Girl” is a track that eventually saw the light of day on the album Thirty Three & 1/3. “Tell Me What Happened To You” was an interesting outtake as is “Nowhere to Go,” which finds George alone on electric. “Cosmic Empire” is a track that I thought could have been a hit with a band. It’s a great little ditty. “Mother Divine” is another track I wish he’d pursued. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the acoustic versions of these songs presented here but it does hint at the fact there was so much more here.

The final disc, disc 5, has outtakes featuring the whole band backing him up. “Hear Me Lord” sounds like a jam that could have been a Derek and the Dominos outtake. What a great, big rock n roll tune that one is. George and the band do a funny rendition of “Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Gang of Mine.” The lyrics of this version of “Isn’t It A Pity” start off with “Isn’t it so shitty, we do so many takes, now we’re doing it again.” I wonder if that is a swipe at McCartney or Spector? They even include a version of the Beatles’ “Get Back” that is a sloppy delight. I like the bluesy “Down to the River (Rocking Chair Blues).” The bluesy, acoustic “Woman Don’t Your Cry For Me” is completely different than the version released on Extra Texture. The musicians he has in the studio with him really were extraordinary.

There is so much to like in these unreleased demos and outtakes. It does remind me of the recent 50th anniversary edition of CSNY’s Deja Vu. The quality of the unreleased stuff is on par with what was finally released. It just underscores what a huge, freeing, creative burst this album was for Harrison. I’ve come to appreciate a lot of George’s solo work over the years but this box really reconnected me to his masterwork. It’s well worth the investment of time.

Cheers!

 

Review: A Surprise Return To Concerts, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts With Cheap Trick! August 29, 2021, Starlight Theater

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*Photo above of (L to R) Rick Nielsen, Daxx Nielsen and Robin Zander of Cheap Trick taken by your intrepid blogger at an actual live concert

I don’t care what your political persuasion is – I’m a lover not a fighter – but I think no matter what you believe we can all agree that one of the greatest losses during the depths of the pandemic and lockdown was the darkening of concert stages. Live music as an entertainment ceased to exist. It wasn’t safe to pack into a dark, sweaty room with other people and listen to rock n roll played live right in front of you…the way God intended it. I realize the actual loss of human lives was a toll incalculable but this is a rock n roll blog and I feel its necessary to at least acknowledge the cancellation of concerts as a thing. Believe me, I’m not of like mind with moron Eric Clapton… It does stun me, a huge music fan, to think that I hadn’t seen a live concert since Starcrawler on October 14th in 2019. That seems like it was lifetime ago… and it feels like we’ve lived a lifetime in those almost two years.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m fully vaccinated. I’ve actually started to travel for work again. My corporate masters want me out there on the road and frankly I had missed it. I’d be lying though if I didn’t admit to feeling quite a bit of anxiety that first time I masked up and walked into Kansas City’s somewhat crowded airport. I’d been hiding in my attic ala Boo Radley for two years. Suddenly I’m amongst a crowd of people. It wasn’t agoraphobia but more of a fear of large crowds, whatever that’s called. As they said in the movie Barfly, “People, I just sorta feel better when they’re not around.” I couldn’t imagine going to a concert and most the bands I know had been cancelling everything until 2022. I hadn’t been out to the Ticketmaster website in, well, two years. I did stick my toe into the live music water, so to speak, a few weekends ago when I drove to the Harley Davidson dealership up by the airport to see some friends of mine the Sunset Sinners do a gig. But it was an outside thing in the parking lot with plenty of space.

The Rock Chick celebrated her birthday recently. In truth we celebrated that for about a week which is our wont around here. There’s no such thing as a birth “day.” I like to refer to the week around my birthday as the Festival of Me. The Rock Chick informed me a couple of weeks ago she had something planned for Sunday night, the 29th. She was, as usual, her mysterious self. The only hint I got was that I should take Monday off. At first I thought perhaps we were going to a movie, another thing we haven’t done in two years. But she mentioned to me yesterday while we were at the Nelson Atkins Museum that it was likely we would be standing all night. Cryptic, indeed. That ruled out a movie.

Finally around six last night, we jumped in the car and headed east. It was pretty soon I realized we were headed to the venerable Starlight Theater in Swope Park. She had surprised me on my birthday one year with Jim Gaffigan tickets (a brilliant comic). It was her birthday but I thought maybe she was going to surprise me with another comedy show. It was then she revealed that we were seeing a fabulous rock n roll double-bill, Cheap Trick and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts! I almost screamed! Starlight is such a great old theater and a wonderful place to see a concert. They used to only have musical theater stuff out there, but when I was in high school they opened it up to rock n roll concerts. My first show out there was to see Elton John with my family. I’ve seen some really great shows out there: David Bowie, Rush, Greta Van Fleet and Soundgarden to merely name a few. I knew we were in for a great evening. I will admit I felt that same anxiety that I’d felt at the airport when I found myself crowded into the throng of the crowd but that soon passed. Although admittedly no one was wearing masks in the men’s room which irked me. It’s public safety people.

Cheap Trick, to my surprise, opened the show. I thought for certain they’d be the headliners, but then I’m more into Cheap Trick and am still listening to their latest LP, In Another World. It was great to see these guys stroll out on the stage: Rick Nielson on guitar, his son Daxx on the drums, and Robin Zander in shiny black pants with blue stars on them on lead vocals/rhythm guitar. Cheap Trick are old school rock stars and Zander stands out amongst them. I knew immediately it wasn’t longtime member Tom Petersson on bass. Sadly, he had a recent heart procedure and had to sit this one out. Zander’s son Robin Taylor Zander pinch hit on bass and backing vocals. Robin Taylor also took lead vocalist duties on, I believe, “Downed.” The kid sounds just like his father. Daxx doesn’t play the drums with the aggression of Bun E. Carlos but he gets the job done. As Keith Richards would ask, “He rocks but does he roll?” Not like Bun E, sadly.

Cheap Trick rocked with an attitude. Nielsen was giving people shit in the audience. They opened with the track that opens At Budokan, “Hello There.” They then proceeded to do 19 rocking tracks over the course of an hour and half. They hit all the highlights – “Surrender,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” and “I Want You To Want Me.” Nielsen is a beast on lead guitar. I will admit some of his gimmicky guitars get a little old. He had trouble holding the 5-neck custom guitar on the encore… but hey he shredded on lead guitar. Robin Zander’s voice is as strong as it ever was. He sounded fantastic. His voice was strong, loud and on key. His son Robin Taylor was there on backing vocals to help with the high notes – although Zander didn’t need much help. I loved, especially, the raucous versions of “California Man” and my all time favorite Cheap Trick tune, “She’s Tight.” I was screaming on the chorus, “So I got off the phone” like I was in high school. The only ballad was “The Flame” toward the end of the main set. My only complaint – and it’s a nit – is I’d have liked more from the new LP. They only did two new tracks, the great “Summer Looks Good On You,” and “Another World (Reprise).” I’d have loved to have heard “Light Up the Fire,” an incendiary new track. These guys are consistently excellent. They played with the gusto they did when I saw them when I was in college. I’ll always come out for Cheap Trick.

After that, I was pretty blissed out and yet we still had Joan Jett & the Blackhearts to go! I’ve searched and scoured the internet to find out the names of the guys that were on stage with her last night. She did intro’s but I missed it. They looked younger than the Blackhearts on Wikipedia… The lead guitar player really rocked. He was on fire. I thought she called him Johnny. I’m embarrassed I can’t find his name. My inability to get their names doesn’t take away from the great job the drummer and the lead guitarist did. They had a hard edged, punk rock vibe that I really liked. It was like they turned Starlight into CBGB’s… Joan opened the set with “Victim of Circumstance” and then went into the great Runaways track (one of several), “Cherry Bomb.” That was a real highlight for me, as I’ve always dug the Runaways. “Bad Reputation” was absolutely priceless. The Springsteen penned “Light of Day” was another rocking highlight. They played a song I had never heard, but immediately purchased when I got home last night, “Soulmates to Strangers” that was an absolutely gorgeous track. Everyone should check that out because, well, we’ve all been there. There are subtle vocal things that Jett does on her records and she replicated all of them last night. Whether its an “oo” or an “ah” or a moan Jett made sure it was part of the performance. The last three songs of the main set were all killers: “I Love Rock N Roll,” “Crimson And Clover” and one both the Rock Chick and I’d forgotten, “I Hate Myself For Loving You.” The encore wrapped up with “Everyday People,” another highlight. It was 21 songs of a hard edged rock over the course of almost an hour and forty minutes. Joan Jett really impressed me. I find myself listening to her quite a bit this morning. She’s a rock n roll survivor and icon.

I’m sitting here on a Monday both exhausted and happy. I’m usually exhausted on Mondays, but never happy. My ears have a slight ring and I feel a little ragged. It’s so wonderful to have seen a rocking concert again. To spend an evening grooving on Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and Cheap Trick was such a great way to end the birthday Festival of the Rock Chick. If these guys come near you, if you need some rock n roll, try and see them!

Cheers!

Review: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Return With New Song “Can’t Let Go” From Upcoming LP ‘Raise The Roof’

Robert Plant has had a storied career. He began – or became famous anyway – as the lead singer of the legendary, hard-rock band Led Zeppelin. There were two bands that were worshiped like deities in the 70s when I was in junior high school: Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Of course I may think that because most my friends were stoners and stoners tend to gravitate to those bands. Maybe it was all that velvet, black-light art work… We weren’t listening to punk in the Midwest, we were listening to classic rock. After the tragic, preventable death of Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham, Zeppelin decided to disband. Bonham would have been hard to replace. And in all honesty I think Zeppelin had watched the Who try to replace Keith Moon with former Faces’ drummer Kenny Jones and realized it might be a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I still dug the Who and Face Dances is one of those LPs only I love… but the Who were fundamentally different without Moon on the kit.

Almost from the moment Zeppelin broke up – on December 4th 1980 – people have been clamoring for a Zeppelin reunion. Early on there were rumors that Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page were going to dump bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and form a “super group” with the former rhythm section of Yes, Chris Squire (bass) and Alan White (drums). I’m still not sure where those rumors came from. I think the four had jammed one afternoon. I think the rumor took root because the proposed name of the new band was catchy. They were going to be called XYZ… for Ex-Yes and Zeppelin. Which I have to admit is a pretty cool name. But, confounding the adoring, broken-hearted fans Plant put out his first solo record a year and half later, in June of 1982, entitled Pictures At Eleven. I absolutely loved that album despite Phil Collins playing drums… well, he’s actually a great drummer, but I digress. “Burning Down One Side” is one of my all time favorite songs.

From there Plant’s solo career has really been a journey. He’s explored the vast regions of roots-centric rock ever since. Every few LPs he’d change his band or change his sound. He experimented with what was new and current but always kept a foot in the bluesy, folky stuff that he sang in his early days. I’m not suggesting much of what he’s done solo is “Zeppelin-esque” but it does have some of the same qualities. As he’s gotten older Plant went from the banshee wail of those early Zep albums to becoming a fuller singer with a richer voice. I have absolutely loved the sound of his voice on his last few solo records like his last LP, Carry Fire. His late period solo career from Dreamland onward has been the stuff that B&V was founded on. I have seen Plant solo (and with Jimmy Page in Plant-Page) several times and the last concert of his I attended might have been the best yet.

Despite all the success and wonderful music Plant has put out over the years there are still those who would love to see a Led Zeppelin reunion. I think the show they did in London at the O2 Arena (memorialized on the live LP and Blu-Ray, Celebration Day) will be the last we see of Zeppelin. I think Plant likes to be relaxed. He doesn’t like the pressure that a reunion LP and tour would put on him… the pressure to match the heights that Zeppelin soared to in the 70s would indeed be daunting. I saw Plant at the venerable Uptown Theater with the Rock Chick years ago and after the main set, when Plant came out for the encore, he strolled out on stage with a cold Red Stripe beer in his hand. He looked as chill as they come. I certainly envied him the cold Jamaican beer. I think that’s the vibe Plant wants in his life. Who needs the hassles of expectations?

I think the pressure of high expectations is also what has kept Plant from doing a second duets LP with Alison Krauss. I can’t believe it’s been fourteen years since the wonderful Raising Sand. That album was a runaway success. I can remember hearing about it coming out and going to the CD store to pick it up… I brought it home and rushed it down to my “man-cave,” the rock and roll basement. The Rock Chick and I sat smiling and marveling at the wonderful harmonizing Krauss and Plant were doing. It was a laid back, rootsy affair. The Rock Chick looked at me and said, “This is going to be huge.” And indeed it was. We saw them in concert on the ensuing tour and it was wonderful. They brought that harmonizing alive that night. There were rumors that they were going to record a follow up with producer T Bone Burnett back at the helm but it never came. The rumors seemed to indicate they were going to actually write new, original songs for the follow-up. But the bigger Raising Sand became the bigger those pesky expectations became. And I think Plant felt that pressure and decided to grab a Red Stripe and head the other direction…

We finally have a reunion involving Plant – perhaps not the reunion all the Zeppelin fans have clamored for – but a reunion I’m excited about. Plant and Krauss finally got together, with producer T Bone Burnett (also on guitar) for a new LP, Raise The Roof. I don’t know what is up with the use of the word “Raise” in both titles but hey, it worked last time. From what I’ve seen there are no original songs on this LP. It appears they’re sticking to the formula that worked so well with Raising Sand and the new LP will be another album of all cover songs. They’ve released the first single, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ great tune “Can’t Let Go.” Its a song from her masterpiece, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. I can’t think of a better song selection for their roots-driven vibe than this Lucinda Williams tune.

Once again we have those two fabulous voices, weaving together like a finely knitted sweater. They sing over what has to be T Bone Burnett’s spidery guitar and (I’m assuming) the subtle drumming of Jay Bellerose. Plant’s voice is a little more dominant but Krauss is right there with him. They compliment each other in much the same way the Everly Brothers used to. They really kill it on this track. The Rock Chick exclaimed, when I played the track for her, “They’re just so damn good together!” They capture the spirit of Lucinda’s original but make it their own. This is a great kick off to what promises to be a fantastic LP… Here’s the link to the song:

While it’s been a tough week here at B&V with the loss of Charlie Watts, this great little roots rocker is helping pull me through. It’s strong enough it got me to stop obsessively listening to the Stones…(“the drummer thinks that he is dynamite”). I hope it gets you down the road to where you’re going… maybe grab a Red Stripe while you listen to this one and kick back. Its what Robert Plant would do.

Cheers!

 

Devastating News, RIP Charlie Watts, One of The Greatest Drummers Of All Time

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“I’m yellin’ at the kids in the back seat, ‘Cause they’re bangin’ like Charlie Watts” – John Hiatt, “Slow Turning”

I just got the sad, devastating news that Charlie Watts, the legendary drummer of the Rolling Stones passed away at 80 years old, surrounded by family in London.

I was worried something was seriously wrong. For the first time in Stones’ history, it was announced that Watts was going to miss the upcoming North American tour, coming in the fall. He’d had to have surgery on “something they found” in a pre-tour physical. I had hoped he’d bounce back. The band and Charlie’s family have been very tight lipped on what his condition was, so it was easy to be optimistic that it was something minor… But it kept nagging at me… he was 80. I was hoping for the best but worrying about the worst case scenario, just like Grandma taught me.

In a band known for it’s excesses back in the 70s and 80s, Watts was the epitome of class and restraint. Even his drumming could be described as controlled. He was heavily influenced by jazz and indeed I think it was his first love. Besides the Stones he’d occasionally tour as the Charlie Watts Quintet playing the jazz msuic he loved.

As I’ve often said, the Stones were the first band I ever loved. They are my absolute favorite. And Charlie Watts’ amazing drumming is a big part of that. He was never flashy like Neil Peart. His drumming was never overbearing and dominant like Keith Moon or John Bonham. He played his drums in whatever way that best suited the song. Keith used to refer to Charlie as the “engine” of the Stones. I am just gutted by this news.

My favorite Charlie Watts’ story dates from the 80s. The Stones were somewhere in the Caribbean recording an album. Mick Jagger had been out drinking and decided he wanted to do some recording. He was drunkenly stumbling around the lobby of the hotel they were staying in, shouting “I need my drummer. Somebody get my drummer down here.” Eventually he got on the house phone and called Charlie’s room and said the same thing, “I need my drummer, I want to record something, get down here.” Charlie, ever the classy dude, rose from bed and put on his suit, enraged to have been awakened in the middle of the night. He put on his suit and shirt. He went to the elevator and calmly rode down to the lobby. I always imagine it like that scene in The Blues Brothers…chaos in the lobby, calm in the elevator car, maybe some Muzak playing. He sprang out of the elevator grabbed Mick by the collar and punched him with a round-house right. “I’m not your drummer, you’re my fucking singer.” He then returned to his room, leaving Jagger laid out on the floor. Only Charlie could get away with something like that. I’m guessing nobody woke Charlie up at 3 am again.

I took my daughter to see the Stones on the ‘Zipcode’ tour a few years back. It was really important to me that she see the Stones. She texted me this afternoon and said, “Did you see the news about Charlie Watts? So sad.” Indeed it is… I’m so glad we bought those tickets. The fact that my daughter knew who Charlie Watts was and got to see him is proof that no matter what… I’m a great parent.

This devastating news leaves only Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as the original members in the band. Of course Bill Wyman is still out there in retirement. Mick Taylor is still around and appeared at some of their 50th anniversary shows. They recruited Steve Jordan who has worked with Keith in the Xpensive Winos to play on this tour. Ronnie Wood has reported he just recovered from cancer which scares me.  What this means for the future of the Stones is hard to know. As long as Keith and Mick are around they’ll probably be another tour on the calendar. But in my mind they’ve really lost something with Charlie’s passing. He was the foundation. I’m concerned about what this means for the oft delayed new studio stuff they were working on.

Most of all I’m just bummed out that a legend on drums has left us. The world is a less rhythmic place today. I know I’ll be listening to a whole lot of Stones tonight.

Cheers. It’s a long dark ride. Take care of yourselves out there. Live every day like it’s your last.

Lookback: Metallica’s ‘The Black Album’ Turns 30 This Month – My Conflicted Thoughts

There have been a number of significant anniversaries this year. Well, rock and roll anniversaries anyway. Most of the milestones have been around albums that were released in that seminal year of 1971. I’ve been kind of wrapped up in all of that having posted a playlist for 1971, blissing out on CSNY’s Deja Vu and currently listening to George Harrison’s masterwork All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary. It’s hard not to get caught up in the whole “50th anniversary thing,” that’s a big number. While I’ve been focused on all of that, I didn’t realize that another album had reached a significant milestone as well. Metallica’s self-titled 1991 LP, aka The Black Album, turned thirty years old this August. In many circles it’s considered a stone cold classic. I have to admit, I dig this album, but I have a bit of a complicated relationship with both it and Metallica in general. To be more accurate I used to have a conflicted feeling about Metallica. I love them now. But I still have a conflicted relationship with the album Metallica.

Metallica’s first album the classic Kill ‘Em All came out in 1983. I had to rub my eyes and look at that again. In 1983 I was just barely in college, struggling to make the adjustment to living away from home and trying to become an adult. Needless to say, I was distracted and completely unaware that Kill Em All even existed at the time. In my defense, most heavy metal bands in those days dressed like chicks in spandex and bandanas with giant blow-dried hair. Every band looked the same and their videos looked identical. Well, the bands we thought of as heavy metal back then anyway. And while some of those bands rocked hard – Motley Crue springs to mind – a lot of them didn’t – Bon Jovi springs to mind. Metallica was authentic, balls to the wall heavy metal. Their influences were all those great British 70s heavy metal bands that arrived in Black Sabbath’s wake. Their sound was significantly heavier and more menacing than anything around. There was a touch of punk in the thrash metal they played and more than a touch of prog rock in the way they played on their early LPs. No wonder we never heard them on the radio.

Metallica took a quantum leap forward on their second album, Ride The Lightning. The first album was already a classic but no one expected the long, complicated tracks with multiple time changes and even heavier lyrics. Most bands sang about partying and chicks while Metallica sang about dying in the electric chair. There was an intelligence and power in what they were doing and yet… I still had no idea who they were. It wasn’t until March, 27th 1986 when some buddies of mine and I drove all the way down to Wichita, Kansas to see Ozzy Osbourne that I became aware that Metallica even existed. We were Ozzy fans. We dug Van Halen and AC/DC. The opening act comes out onto a foggy stage covered in big white crosses. There was a collective, “who the fuck are these guys?” Metallica were opening up for Ozzy and touring behind their third LP (who knew?) Master of Puppets and the stage evoked the album cover. When I tell Metallica fans that I saw them on this tour they tend to freak out. This was original bassist Cliff Burton’s final tour. He was killed in a bus crash on the European leg later that year. I didn’t even know which one he was on stage… That night at Ozzy, I’m embarrassed to admit – they didn’t make an impression on any of us. They opened with “Battery” and went right into “Master Of Puppets.” They played faster than anything we’d ever seen before. We kept yelling, “Louder, faster!” They had their heads bowed down and all we could see was bobbing heads with shaking hair. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize any of them in a line up… I don’t think I saw a face. We were all loaded on beer and No-Doz and couldn’t be bothered with this gloomy opening act. We walked in Ozzy fans, we left as Ozzy fans. I did pick up some Metaphysical Wisdom that night…

It was 10 years later when I crossed paths with Metallica again. By then I at least knew who they were. On a drunken night in Westport years earlier we’d run into an old college buddy who I’ll call Al (name changed to protect the guilty) and he kept singing at the top of his lungs “Aaaaand nothing else matters!!” Do you want another drink Al? “Yes… AND NOTHING ELSE MATTERS…” So by June 27, 1996 when Lollapalooza came to Kansas City (specifically, Longview Lake), I was familiar with the 1991 LP, Metallica. By then they had a new LP out, Load. It was a bit controversial that Metallica was headlining Lollapalooza. They were metal, Lolla was an alternative rock thing. The tribal lines were drawn more firmly back then. I remember going over to my friend’s little brother’s place to “pre-game” and have a few beers. His roommate, who was in med school, had “Metallica” tattoo’d on his bicep. I can just imagine some poor old lady in surgery, coming out of the anesthesia induced fog and seeing that tattoo and dropping into a coma. I had been talked into going all the way out to Longview Lake to see this show because Soundgarden was playing right before Metallica.

I’m standing in the beer line on a ridge overlooking Longview Lake (naturally) and I hear the Doors’ song, “Waiting For the Sun.” But it’s not Jim Morrison, its Chris Cornell. I turned and ran back to the area where the stage was set up as fast as I could. What a show! As he was leaving, addressing the Lolla controversy of Metallica headlining Cornell said, “I bet you’re all glad now Metallica is still coming up next.” I have to admit, I really didn’t care. But then Metallica came out and they rocked. My friend’s little brother, who I’ll call Young Goodman Brown says that during “Ain’t My Bitch” I nudged him with my elbow and said, “These guys are kind of good. I like this tune.” What drew me in at first was Kirk Hammett’s fluid, soaring solo’s on guitar. That guy is amazing. But as I listened I started to realize what a great drummer Lars Ulrich is. Maybe there was more to this band than I’d realized. Sometimes you just have to see a band live. I do remember Lars made a mistake on one song and James Hetfield (lead singer/guitar) gave him a ration of shit, live in front of the crowd.

I went out the next day and bought Metallica and the then-current Load. Mind you, I had no knowledge of their first iconic four LPs. They rank up there with Sabbath’s first five or six LPs. Classic heavy metal and I hadn’t heard a note of any of it. Well, except the two live shows I’d seen. They’d even played “Whiplash” at Lolla, not that I could have identified it. While I really loved “Until It Sleeps” off of Load, I spent most my time after that listening to Metallica. There’s a theory in rock n roll that says when a band, later in their career, releases a self-titled album (ie, it’s not their debut) it signals a rebirth or a new direction for the band. Unbeknownst to me, that was utterly true for Metallica. They had taken the epic length song, thrash-metal style of Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All as far as they could. They pared the songs down in terms of length and made them more concise and even heavier, if that’s possible. They were still rocking with the same intensity but that change in style also made them… oh no!… more popular. The hard core following they had up to that time felt betrayed. There were accusations of “selling out.” Of course that LP sold in the millions.

I struggled a bit with The Black Album. The Spinal Tap art work didn’t help. “How much blacker can we get it?” There were five big “hits” that I really liked. “Enter Sandman” (great f’ing song and video), “Nothing Else Matters” (cheers Al), “Unforgiven” (their first ballad), “Sad But True” and “Wherever I May Roam” were instant classics. The rest, however, felt like filler. I remember taping the album for use in my car – yes, this was pre-iPods – and I only taped those five songs. I then did a bit of a pick and choose on Load as well. I could go so far as to say I liked Metallica, but I didn’t love them. I struggled to understand what the rabid fans saw in these guys. And, I’ll admit, I thought Hetfield was kind of an asshole. Of course back then those guys drank more than my friends and I did which didn’t really help. In my mind I’d kind of relegated them to a big band I could only connect with on a few tracks. I decided I just didn’t “get” Metallica. For me, I thought the issue was settled.

Then a strange thing happened. Another 12 years passed. It was 2008 and I was now a married guy, living in the suburbs. Metallica released a new album Death Magnetic which was seen as both a comeback and a return to the style of their earlier LPs. I kept hearing “The Day That Never Comes” on satellite radio…and to my surprise, I loved it. I heard “Cyanide” next. After hearing “All Nightmare Long” I’d heard enough… I bought the album and something just clicked for me with Metallica. I know that’s a weird on-ramp to this band but it’s how it happened. I quickly snatched up their first four albums and I was suddenly amongst the converted. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t own that miserable Re-Load album… gads that was a wrong turn. But I now consider Metallica to be amongst the most important heavy metal bands ever.

Hearing the first four LPs helped me put The Black Album in clearer context. I could see how the people who’d followed them up to that point were disappointed. That said, I thought it was a nice change of direction. Even the songs beyond “the big five” tracks that everyone knows started to grow on me. “Holier Than Thou” and “Don’t Tread On Me” started to find their way onto my heavier playlists. I’ve gone from thinking it was a weak album with a handful of great tracks to understanding that it is a very good Metallica album. Although, hearing their early stuff, I have to say, it’s not a great Metallica album. Beloved by millions of new fans at the time, it’s really not the essence of who they are…at least not to me. Their last LP, Hardwired…To Self Destruct was another triumph in the same vein as that early stuff. I now look forward to new Metallica with the same excited anticipation as I do anybody else in the B&V canon. Having listened to The Black Album repeatedly over the last few weeks it’s an album we should be celebrating on it’s 30th anniversary in a big way. Although I have to admit I’m a little stunned it’s been 30 years… as Dylan said, “time is a jet plane, moving way too fast.”

Cheers!

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

BFI_The Roadside-CD Wallet FNL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!