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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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!

 

B&V’s Favorite Cover Albums: Singing Other People’s Songs

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“You took the words right out of my mouth…” – Meatloaf

I read on-line the other day that Paul Simon has an album, In The Blue Light, coming out in September. It’s yet another artist who is teeing up a new album for next month. It’s going to be a busy September down in the B&V Labs. I look forward to sipping a nice Buffalo Trace, enjoying the slow fade of summer and the sweet decay of autumn with all this new rock and roll. I’ll be watching football in my underwear, tumbler in hand, with the volume muted and cranking tunes all month. The Rock Chick will likely travel to points west to escape that torture… The fact that Paul Simon was putting out an album caught my eye. It’s only been two years since his last album, the wonderful Stranger To Stranger Review (Full LP): Paul Simon’s “Stranger To Stranger”. Simon typically takes half a decade between studio albums so this seemed awfully quick for him. A little further digging and I realized that Simon is revisiting some of his more obscure tracks from his back catalog and redoing them on the new LP. I saw he’s even re-cutting “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor.”

I have to admit to being a tad surprised by all of this Paul Simon news. I have seen artists revisit songs before, but never an entire album of their past material. Artists typically want to move forward creatively. Sting likes to go back and redo Police tracks, like “Shadows In The Rain.” Phil Collins redid “Behind The Lines,” a Genesis track, on his debut album. Yes, Phil Collins… don’t give me any shit, everybody had that first album because of “In The Air Tonight.” Robert Plant went back to a Page-Plant track, “Please Read The Letter” and redid it with Alison Krauss and frankly, I liked that version better. Sometimes a song just isn’t done. There are different ways to approach a song and sometimes a reassessment, or if you will, a look back is worth taking and the results can be more satisfying. Keith Richards always says that Stones tunes are never really finished in the studio, and they always continue to evolve on the road.

All of this got me thinking about cover songs. A cover song is where an artist, usually an established artist, sings/performs a song written by another artist. Think of a cover song as a two-for-one…you get a taste of both the performer and the original artist. Often times the artist doing the cover finds something in the song that the writer/original performer might have missed. Think, “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley versus Leonard Cohen’s original version (although I prefer Cohen’s version, the rest of the planet dug the Buckley version). Or perhaps Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” which is definitive, instead of Otis Redding’s original. Most artists do prefer to write their own stuff. Typically every band/artist starts as a cover artist… every bar band I’ve ever seen typically does other people’s stuff until they can establish their own music. If an established artist chooses to do cover songs, they typically limit it to one or two tracks on an album. However, there are a number of cases where an artist does an entire album of cover songs, or as I like to call it, a “covers albums.” Unlike Paul Simon, these cover albums tend to cover other artists, not the artist’s own back catalog, but Paul Simon gonna Paul Simon.

Over the years I think the cover album has gotten a bad reputation. The reaction from fans usually runs along the lines of questioning whether the band has run out of ideas. Is the band getting lazy? Sometimes the cover album is considered a contract filler, much like some of the lesser live albums out there tend to be. Cut a covers album, hand it in to the record company to fulfill the specified number of albums in the contract and sign a new deal. And I’ll be the first to admit, there have been some really bad covers albums. The Band, who weren’t getting along, and couldn’t really function put out Moondog Matinee in an attempt to recapture their early, bar-band days. They missed the mark pretty widely… Although I dug their version of “Mystery Train.” Annie Lennox’s Medusa left me stone cold, and I love her voice. And, while most people would disagree with me, I loathed Springsteen’s album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. I can’t even listen to that record and I think everybody knows I’m a Springsteen fanatic.

All that aside, when the right artist is paired with the right material, a covers album can be something quite special. I think the following records are examples of those rare occasions where the artist chose material that was perfect for them. Whether it’s an artist returning to the roots music that originally turned them on or the artist’s take on some of their contemporaries tracks, there are plenty of examples of great covers albums. These are my favorites.

  1. Aerosmith, Honkin’ On Bobo – Arriving three years after the over-produced Just Push Play, this album was a welcome return to Aerosmith’s sleazy, bloozy, early sound. It was touted as a blues covers album but it’s more like covers of songs by groups who covered the blues… but I’m splitting hairs here. Aretha’s “I Never Loved A Girl,” “Baby Please Don’t Go” and a rockin’ version of “Road Runner” are some of the highlights. I haven’t been a fan of much that Aerosmith has done since Permanent Vacation, but this one is a fun record.
  2. Gregg Allman, Low Country Blues and Southern Blood – Gregg’s 2011 LP, Low Country Blues was a T. Bone Burnett produced blues album that I just loved. It’s the perfect pairing of material and artist. Gregg was made to sing the blues. His 2017 follow up, Southern Blood was supposed to feature all new material, but alas, Allman was overcome by cancer. Both of these albums were late career gems… My thoughts on the latter, LP Review: Gregg Allman, ‘Southern Blood’: A “Brother’s” Beautiful Farewell.
  3. Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones, Foreverly- Billie Joe Armstrong heard an old Everly Brother’s album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a covers album the Everly’s did after they got famous. As a master stroke he brought in Norah Jones to sing the harmony vocal that Phil sang. I love “Roving Gambler,” “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” and of course, the old standard “Barbara Allen.” This is a quiet, laid back, rootsy treat.
  4. David Bowie, Pin-Ups – This album was considered at the time to be Bowie in a holding pattern. It’s basically Bowie doing a bunch of late-60s blues based covers. He also does a Springsteen track, “Growin’ Up” and an early Syd Barret Pink Floyd track, “See Emily Play.” I love the song selection and Bowie rocks on this album.
  5. Johnny Cash, American Recordings – Rick Rubin pulled Johnny Cash out of career oblivion and exile to record this fabulous set of covers, including songs by Danzig, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. It still sends chills up my spine to hear The Man In Black return. His follow-up, cut with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, was another gem, Unchained. If you dig those albums, I also highly recommend the box set of out-takes, Unearthed, that has some mind blowing stuff including Cash singing Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” backed by the Chili Peppers (sans Anthony Kiedis). This is essential listening.
  6. Eric Clapton, From The Cradle – Clapton returning to where it all began for him, the blues. The critics suggested he was a tad too reverent on some of these blues chestnuts, but who wouldn’t be reverent with a song like “Hoochie Coochie Man,” a track written by Willie Dixon and first done by Muddy Waters? Clapton sounds more engaged on this record than anything he’s done since Layla.
  7. Bob Dylan, Shadows In the Night – The world’s greatest song writer doing covers from the great American songbook that are all related in some way to Frank Sinatra? This should be a disaster but it just works. He went on to record four more discs worth of these covers,which like Rod, was overdoing it. I still love this one though…
  8. The Hindu Love Gods, The Hindu Love Gods – R.E.M. (sand Michael Stipe) backed Warren Zevon on his album, Sentimental Hygiene. They had some extra studio time and decided to bang out this grab bag of covers. They’re mostly old blues or country standards but he also did “Raspberry Beret” which became a surprise hit. I don’t think this music was ever supposed to see the light of day and it’s release soured Zevon’s relationship with R.E.M., which is too bad because this is a great record.
  9. Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Raising Sand – Another T. Bone Burnett produced gem. T. Bone paired Plant and Krauss at a benefit and Plant was so enthused by the harmonizing, they decided to cut an album. I always wished they’d come back in and recorded some original stuff, but this covers album is super. Oh, and I think it won a Grammy or two.
  10. John Lennon, Rock ‘N’ Roll – Lennon returning to the music of his youth, the music that turned him onto rock n roll in the first place. This music is so joyful. I think people were put off by this album when it came out, but I think it’s aged very well. Lennon owns “Stand By Me.”
  11. Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run – Dylan always returns to folk music in troubled times… McCartney always seems to return to the music of his youth, early rock n roll when he’s facing tough times. This was the first album he cut after the loss of his beloved wife Linda. David Gilmour plays guitar. What’s amazing are the three originals McCartney penned sound like oldies… I didn’t realized he’d written them until later.
  12. Metallica, Garage, Inc. – This started as a five song cassette tape and evolved into a sprawling two disc opus. They cover a lot of early British heavy metal from bands I’d never heard of. They also do a great job on Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey In a Jar.” They even throw in “Turn the Page” by Seger and “Tuesday’s Gone” by Skynyrd for good measure. Wild, heavy good times.
  13. Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Sings Newman – Harry Nilsson’s voice was one of the most amazing of the 70s singer/songwriter genre. He was, to put it lightly, eccentric. He was a huge fan of Randy Newman, also a tad idiosyncratic. Harry did Randy’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” and became so enamored with Newman he did a whole album of his songs. Harry is largely credited with breaking Newman to the rest of the world. I love this record. The vocal overdubs are the thing of legend.
  14. Robert Plant, Dreamland – After pairing with his old guitarist for the Page & Plant albums and tours, Plant re-emerged as a solo artist with a covers album of old blues tracks and sixties songs he liked/admired. Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” sounds like it was written for Plant. I love his take on “Hey Joe,” which has more in common with the original than Hendrix’s cover version. “Darkness Darkness” and “Morning Dew” are definitive here. I also saw Plant on this tour and his voice was sublime.
  15. Rage Against the Machine, Renegades – Rick Rubin pushing a band to do covers, who’d have thought? At least this wasn’t his usual acoustic approach. Tom Morello’s guitar dive bombs through Zach de la Rocha’s vocals on some great tracks from “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (Springsteen), to “Maggie’s Farm” (Dylan) to “Down On The Streets” (Iggy & The Stooges). RATM never did a bad album.
  16. The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome – The Stones going back to their blues roots… It’s like hearing them in London at the Marquee Club in 1965. This album was, again, the perfect pairing of artist and material. This is essential listening for Stones fans, blues fans and fans of rock n roll. I would recommend their album, On Air, a compilation of live takes from their early days on the BBC, as a companion piece. My thoughts on Blue & Lonesome, LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle and On Air, LP Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘On Air’ – An Exciting Look Back To The Early BBC Performances.
  17. Bob Seger, Smokin’ O.P.s – The title purportedly was supposed to mean “smokin’ other people’s songs.” Seger takes on oldies, “Bo Diddley” to takes on contemporaries, Stephen Stills “Love The One Your With,” and Tim Rice’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” This is an upbeat rocking album, and a must for fans of Seger’s rockier stuff.

That’s it folks! If I missed an album of covers by an artist you know and love, let me know in the comments. I recommend everybody check out or buy these albums. If you’re thinking there’s a lot to love here, well, “you took the words right out of my mouth…”

 

 

Thoughts From The Traveling Salesman And A B&V Playlist: Hanging On The Telephone

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When I was a kid, my dad and his friends used to tell Traveling Salesmen jokes because, well, they were traveling salesmen. I didn’t really listen to much that my father said when I was young, so there’s not one of those jokes I could tell you today. I guess I should have been listening, because for some unfathomable reason I followed in my father’s footsteps. I didn’t want to be a doctor, too much blood. My father told me to be an orthodontist, “that’s where the money is, son,” but I didn’t want to have my hand in people’s mouth all day, tightening wires, although I could see where a sadist could get into that. I think I lean a little more on the masochistic side of the equation… for all you Dominatrix out there… ahem. I considered teaching, but I didn’t want to starve or worse drive a cab. Sales is where all the wretched refuse end up. The folks who don’t have that crystal clear vision when they’re 10 of what they want to be when they grow up, the people who’s major gets selected randomly, they all end up in sales. I’ve met more Psych majors, former teachers, and architects in sales than in psychology, teaching or architecture. You eventually reach that stage in life where you decide to, as Jackson Browne once sang, become “a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender.” Sales pays the bills. But sales also requires travel… lots and lots of travel.

For the last few weeks my life has been, in a nutshell, Planes, Trains And Automobiles. I’ve been in Austin, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’ve been home just long enough to unpack and repack and head back out on the road. This week is no different. I’m here just long enough to annoy the Rock Chick and then I’m off to Denver for meetings. The problem with being a traveling sales guy or gal, is that your spouse most likely sits at home at night with the kids or in my case, a cat. When you get home from the road, (and I must say, the Allman Brothers were right, “the Road” truly does “go on forever”), all you want to do is lay down on the couch and eat a sandwich. Well, you should probably sit up while you eat, but to each their own, I don’t judge. I had the inevitable conversation with my bride just last Friday. She copped to being a little bored sitting at home while I’m out on the town in some faraway city and wanted to go out for drinks. This is the fallacy of work travel. No matter where I go, as much as I like the people I work with, my travel isn’t fun despite what my wife thinks. There is nothing glamorous about going to yet another restaurant to eat and drink with strangers whom you’re trying to convince to give you money. I will admit, there are rare occasions when I get to dine or have a few drinks and talk a little treason with a friend, like my buddy RK in Chicago, but those nights are few and far between.

Unfortunately all of this travel has kept me away from B&V and music in general. Sure, I have my phone or my iTouch, because it’s really hard to get the turntable into the overhead compartment on the plane, but it’s not the same as being here in the B&V lab, listening to obscure R.E.M. b-sides. Being on the road with my iTouch does give me time to reflect on playlist ideas. What else am I going to do on the noon flight from San Fran to Orange County. I will say, having my smart phone has changed my life. I get emails and texts so I can get up to the minute updates. Although in the old days, when my travel was just driving around from small town to small town peddling medical supplies, it was nice to get away from the constant noise and be “unreachable,” a concept that is sadly gone now. The phone is so much more these days – a camera, a virtual radio station’s worth of music and a forum for the social media… It wasn’t always that way.

Phones have become a uniquely personal experience. “Where’s my phone” are words uttered around here every day… It used to be “where’s the phone.” Even at concerts, people tend to view the live action through the lens of their phones – something that Jack White and I both deplore – rather than just being in the moment and being a part of the experience by actually watching and absorbing what’s happening on the stage. I mean, sure, even I, your intrepid blogger will snap a few photos at a concert, but that’s because I need a pic for B&V – if I don’t do it, who will teach the children about rock and roll? Anything for the people… Anyway, my point is, everyone has their own phone. We take our phones everywhere. I even heard a guy in a bathroom stall in O’Hare Airport taking a business call…he was sitting down. I’ll let you do the math on that whole scenario. I won’t be borrowing that guy’s phone any time soon. I watched two college kids eating at the Shake Shack in LAX (and lets all admit what an awful, primitive airport that is… I think I saw someone trying to board a plane with a live chicken under their arm), and these two kids were sitting across from each other and they were both in their phones, not just on the phones. I don’t think they even looked at each other.

In the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the phone was not a personal experience, it was a shared experience. Most homes had a phone, but it was on the wall. A rotary phone with a really long cord was a must have in every kitchen… you could cook or sit at the kitchen table and talk on the phone at the same time. You had to share the phone with your whole family, from parents to any siblings that were hanging around. I remember being on the phone talking to a girl and my brother, the insolent bastard, kept picking up the line because, in all likelihood he wanted to call a girl too. I seem to recall all of this inability to share the phone line leading to fisticuffs but that’s water under the bridge. My mother put time limits on us for how long we could use the phone at night. When school started everybody got a directory with the home phone of every student… it made dating easier. Or at least, in my case, trying to date easier.

If you lived in a rural area, the phone was even more of a shared experience. The Rock Chick lived so far out in the country she had to have what was called a “party line” where it wasn’t just you on the phone, you shared it with your neighbors. If Edna, down the road was talking to Enid, gossiping about the bowling league, you had to wait for her to finish so you could make a call. I can’t imagine what that was like. You were literally blocked from calling anybody until the neighbor got done. I can’t fathom the eavesdropping that went on in that small town. No secrets… I try to picture my daughter in that scenario. She would have run away from home.

If you were expecting a call, you couldn’t leave the house, to continue to live your life. You had to stay home, hanging on the telephone line, as they used to say, waiting for the phone to ring. If you were out in public you had to have a dime, and later a quarter, then you had to find a pay phone to make a call. I remember being a freshman in college, I had to leave the place I lived, we were all on top each other, so I could talk to my girlfriend in private. I had to walk two blocks to the convenience store, get change for a dollar, and call from the phone booth outside. I spent hours standing in phone booths back in those days. There was something romantic about that… late at night, standing in a small glass booth, making that long distance call… I think I was on a first name basis with the operator. Nowadays, I just text my wife when I’m traveling. It’s just not the same…

I was in a hotel room recently, shuffling on my iTouch, when I heard back-to-back songs about being on the phone. The songs took me back to those old days of late night calls from phone booths along the highway to either some place I’d been or to some place I was going. Even David Lee Roth said that the entire time he was in Van Halen, he’d known that it would end with him in a lonely hotel room, with nothing but a busy signal on the other end of the line… (Note to Millennials, if you didn’t want to talk to someone, you took the receiver off “the hook” of the phone, and it would produce a busy signal). I’ve been in that hotel room… I’ve heard that busy signal.

So without further adieu, here is my Hanging On The Telephone Line playlist. As with all my playlists, which I finally posted on Spotify,  this playlist will be posted there as well. Go out and search on BourbonAndVinyl.net and you’ll find it… And as always, stylistically I’m all over the map here, but that’s what makes music fun… Enjoy.

  1. The White Stripes, “Hello Operator” – Visceral blues-rock with Meg White pounding out the insistent rhythm like an impatient caller on the line.
  2. Bob Dylan & The Band, “Long Distance Operator” – This is a Band song that Robbie Robertson grafted on the original 2 album release of The Basement Tapes. That doesn’t make it a bad tune…
  3. Robert Cray, “Phone Booth” – This one takes me back… many a night I spent in a phone booth.
  4. Kiss, “Beth” – “Beth I hear you callin’…”
  5. Blondie, “Call Me” – The theme song from American Gigolo. My mother once said to me, “I don’t know what all this talk about Richard Gere is, you’re just as handsome as he is….” Thanks mom, but I have a mirror.
  6. The Allman Brothers, “Please Call Home” – “…if you change your mind.” Sublime blues.
  7. B.B. King, “Waiting For Your Call” – We’ve all been there.
  8. Rod Stewart, “Oh, God I Wish I Was Home Tonight” – Rod imagines calling his girlfriend, from his neighbors apartment, which I’m pretty sure was breaking and entering and petty theft. Great song, tho.
  9. The Pretenders, “The Phone Call” – My friend Drew turned me back onto the Pretenders… those first two albums are priceless.
  10. The Kinks, “Long Distance” – What playlist is complete without the Kinks?
  11. Muddy Waters, “Long Distance Call” – The King of Delta Blues calling from far away…
  12. X, “You’re Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not” – Kick ass, funny, Southern-California punk rock.
  13. Foreigner, “Love On The Telephone” – This is one of the two tracks that inspired me to write this screed…
  14. The Beatles, “No Reply” – This is really a song about an ex-boyfriend stalking his ex… which is not cool, but the Beatles were so cute people dug it still.
  15. Al Green, “Call Me” – Al Green did not record one sad song, even this plea for a lover’s call.
  16. The Vaughn Brothers, “Telephone Song” – Stevie Ray and Jimmy tearing it up. What a loss Stevie Ray was…
  17. Billy Idol, “Crank Call” – Is your fridge running? Yes… You better catch it, it’s getting away. Ah, innocence lost.
  18. Blondie, “Hanging On The Telephone” – Parallel Lines is essential listening, and this is a key track.
  19. Paul McCartney & Wings, “Call Me Back Again” – A jammy, rocky, big horns track from Sir Paul, Linda and Denny Laine.
  20. Lou Reed, “New York Telephone Conversation” – As brief as I would imagine a conversation in NY going.
  21. Chuck Berry, “Memphis, Tennessee” – Also done beautifully by the Faces. “Long distance operator can you put me in touch with…” Fabulous song.
  22. Cheap Trick, “She’s Tight” – A song where our hero receives a call from his girlfriend whose parents are apparently gone for the evening… ahem… I think we’ve all been there. Youth is sometimes not wasted on the young.
  23. ELO, “Telephone Line” – My friend Doug takes umbrage when I describe them as being derivative of the Beatles, so I’m going to say it, they’re derivative of the Beatles. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a great song.
  24. Jim Croce, “Operator” – The saddest, best song on this list.

Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while and just say, hello. It’s worth the quarter…

 

HBO’s Documentary, ‘Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,’ Tearjerker

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I laughed, I cried, I was moved…

When I became a teenager in the ’70s, comedians were as important to me as rock stars. It was truly a golden age of comedy. David Letterman, Steve Martin, the original cast of Saturday Night Live (Belushi, Aakroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray), Gary Shandling, Elaine Boosler, Jerry Seinfeld were all exploding on TV (on Carson, SNL, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas’ shows) and at the movies. Steve Martin was probably my first comedy crush but the guy who was the white-hot sun in this universe of stars was Robin Williams.

In the late ’60s and all through the ’70s comedians would release albums. That was how they made most of their money. Bill Cosby was never a big hit at the box office, he built his quaalude empire by selling comedy albums from concerts he’d recorded. George Carlin, Cheech and Chong and many others were introduced to us the way rock and roll was, by dropping a needle on a vinyl album on the stereo. The apex of the comedy album was probably the late 70’s. Steve Martin had two monster albums, 1977’s Let’s Get Small and 1978’s A Wild And Crazy Guy. I’d seen Martin on SNL and loved him. Before my first proper album, Some Girls by the Stones, my actual first vinyl album purchase was Wild And Crazy Guy. I saw Steve Martin as my first concert at Kemper Arena, a 15,000 seat stadium. My friend, Stormin said that everybody in his high school, and he is from a tiny little village out on the plains of Kansas, would listen to that album, memorize the lines and do the bits at school for the chicks. All of us in the suburbs of Kansas City were doing the same goddamm thing. “And she had the best pussy….” If you weren’t athletically gifted, but you could be funny, a girl might actually turn her head toward you…

One of my early, early album purchases was Robin Williams’ first album, 1979’s Reality…What a Concept. It remains a cherished item in my collection. We were all Williams’ fans from his sitcom, ‘Mork and Mindy,’ but with his first comedy album, he was allowed to step away from the role of Mork and unleash his wild, comedic id. On side two of the album he improvises a fake Shakespearean play based on suggestions from the crowd. At one point, during a soliloquy he’s trying to make a decision and the crowd is yelling suggestions… and he cries out in mock despair, “Assholes do vex me…” It’s a line I use to this day, especially at work. It was sheer genius, his ability to create characters and put them in hilarious scenarios. The man’s brain worked on a warp speed most of us can’t get to.

After ‘Mork and Mindy’ Williams did a number of comedy specials through the ’80s, which were released on tape and later DVD, I recommend all of them. Eventually he transitioned to the movies. There were so many great ones, ‘Dead Poet Society,’ ‘Good Morning Vietnam,’ and of course later ‘Good Will Hunting.’ Eventually the movie thing started to sputter. He returned to television to do a series again, ‘The Crazy Ones,’ a sitcom that apparently only I liked. And then three years ago came the heartbreaking news that he’d committed suicide. He had Parkinson’s disease, which none of us knew.

I took the news hard. I think the reason I loved Robin Williams as much as I did, was because no matter how manic the comedy or how serious the drama he was acting in, hiding behind any performance was this big, giant heart. You could see it in his eyes. There was a quality, maybe it was sadness, maybe it was a longing to connect, that lingered behind those big blue eyes. He could make me laugh while making me want to put my arm around him at the same time. I still find it hard to believe he’s gone.

Last night, fittingly on the eve of what would have been Robin’s 67th birthday, I got home from a week of keeping Austin Weird, and finally got the chance to sit down and watch HBO’s superb ‘Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.’ That line, “come inside my mind,” was from that first comedy album I purchased, Reality…What a Concept, during a bit where Williams would invite the audience into the mind of the comedian, into what he was thinking. At the end of the bit he screams, “fuck you, what do you want from me anyway?” Look it up, it’s fucking funny.

I laughed my ass off during the first few minutes of the documentary. It starts with an excerpt from his hysterical performance on ‘Inside The Actors Studio’ (another must see), and cut to a few other performances. But oddly, and maybe I’m just getting sentimental, I found myself tearing up during much of the two hours. The documentary takes you through his whole life, from his lonely childhood and intense relationship with his mother to Julliard, to stand up and then stardom with ‘Mork and Mindy.’ For a man who made so much of us laugh, he was, as the Rock Chick noted last night, a very troubled man. He actually was briefly with Belushi at the Chateau Marmont the night Belushi died. The late 70s, early 80s were a hard partying time. Part of me wishes I’d been old enough to party with these guys and part of me is relieved I never did.

There are cameos from many of Robin’s friends who happened to be comedy geniuses. Billy Crystal, David Letterman and Elaine Boosler are all part of the documentary. I love what Letterman says, “I was just standing on stage hanging onto the microphone for dear life, and here’s Robin wandering out into the crowd.” It’s obvious how close a friendship Billy Crystal and Robin had. I think the most heartbreaking interview sequences are the ones with Pam Dawber, who played Mindy. I had always heard that the two didn’t get along. It’s obvious that was totally wrong. She teared up a couple of times… and so did I.

This is the second superb HBO documentary I’ve seen this year about a comedian. Unlike the one about Gary Shandling (HBO Documentary: The Must-See, Moving Tribute, ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’) that I found fascinating because I knew so little about the man, this Robin Williams documentary literally moved me to tears. I don’t know why, I just have a special place in my heart for Robin. The comedy universe is a little less bright with him gone. I recommend any fan of comedy or Robin Williams to see this documentary immediately… You might want to bring a handkerchief.

It’s a dark ride folks, laugh as much as you can.

 

BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums

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You don’t see a lot of live albums any more. Back in the 70s and 80s, when dinosaurs with guitars roamed the Earth, spitting fire and lighting their guitars on fire and well, there was just a lot of fire, live albums could be a big deal. I say “could be” because often times “live in concert” records were just throwaways. Bands would put out a live album as a way to fulfill contract terms. If a band owed a record company four albums and they only had 1 more album due to fulfill the contract, they’d pump out often uninspired, rote, live album so they could sign with another record company and get a big signing-bonus check. Sure, there were more creative ways to get out of a record contract – The Stones famously submitted a single to their record company entitled, “Cocksucker Blues,” a slow, bluesy number about, well, a guy who…nevermind, you get the picture. The record company guys were so horrified by the Stones they released them from their contract for purely moral reasons. Ah, the 60s.

Because so many bands put out “contract fulfilling” live albums, the live album as an art form gets a bit maligned. Tom Petty used to call those live albums, “greatest hits played faster” albums. Not unfairly… However, in the hands of a committed artist, a live album can be something special. There are many cases of a live album being the key that actually broke an act nationally – Bob Seger, Peter Frampton, and Cheap Trick are all great examples of that. The live album choice was a way to capture those band’s on-stage magic, that up to that point they’d been unable to find in the studio. I’ve always felt to be a truly classic rock and roll artist, you’ve got to be able to bring it live. With that thought in mind, it’s no surprise, that many acts on this list would be on anybody’s “greatest of all time” lists. Great bands tend to do great live albums.

I’m not fond of just putting out lists of things. “It’s not really writing, it’s just typing” as Truman Capote once said. But every now and then I have to submit a summer listening list to the B&V faithful. I have arranged this list in alphabetic order. Some of these acts have more than one essential live album so I have tried to list only the pick of the litter. Although in some cases, I couldn’t make up my mind and just listed all of them. In many cases, it’s us in the audience and our wild cheering that can make the music that much more magical…and yes, I’ll be the first to admit, that many times, the band in question heavily overdubbed the vocals or the guitar parts…

  1. Aerosmith, Live Bootleg – Before they looked like the Real Gypsie Housewives of Rock N Roll, Aerosmith used to be menacing, gypsy drug addicts who could rock. This is a great document of that time.
  2. The Allman Brothers, Live At the Fillmore East – Blues with a jazz improvisational twist.
  3. Gregg Allman, The Gregg Allman Tour – Joined by Allman Bros Jaimoe (drums), and Chuck Leavell (piano), Gregg is more soulful/R&B-ish than with the main band. His backing band Cowboy even gets one side to show off their stuff.
  4. The Band, Rock of Ages or The Last Waltz – Either of these are great, I lean toward Waltz as it’s like a drunken wake for the 60s as the Band play with influences to contemporaries.
  5. The Beatles, Live At the Hollywood Bowl – The Beatles were such studio wizards, it’s nice to get a different view of the legends. This album puts a little meat on the bones of the myth. Live at the BBC iis also a great listen, just without an audience.
  6. David Bowie, Live in Santa Monica ’72 – Bowie and the Spiders from Mars… Mick Ronson almost outshines Bowie… almost.
  7. James Brown, Live At the Apollo – Soul Brother #1’s greatest album.
  8. Jackson Browne, Running On Empty – A concept album about the road, recorded on the road. His last classic record.
  9. Johnny Cash, Live at Folsom Prison – The man in black, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die…” A young inmate in the audience went on to some fame… his name was Merle Haggard.
  10. Cheap Trick, Live At Budokan – This takes me back to riding to high school in my buddy Brewster’s car, listening to this on 8-track.
  11. Eric Clapton, Just One Night – The definitive version of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine.”
  12. Leonard Cohen, Live In London – About what other artist can you say: After years spent in a Buddhist monastery, he emerged to find out his manager had ripped him off. He had to tour to fund his legal fees. It was a treat to hear how warmly he’s greeted by his fans.
  13. Sam Cooke, One Night Stand: At the Harlem Square Club – Greatest. Singer. Ever.
  14. Chris Cornell, Songbook – Sentimental choice here… An acoustic run through solo, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave tunes.
  15. CSNY, Four Way Street or 1974 – I probably lean toward 4-way, but 1974 is a 3-disc, superbly curated (by Graham Nash) look at the tumultuous ’74 tour.
  16. Dire Straits, Alchemy – The definitive version of “Sultans of Swing” and my buddy the accountant’s favorite live album.
  17. Bob Dylan, Bootleg Series Vol 4, Live 1966 – Mislabeled as being from The Royal Albert Hall. Dylan backed by the Band (sans Levon) before they were the Band. The most combative live album ever – his folk-y fans resented his electric turn.
  18. Bob Dylan and the Band, Before the Flood – During a career lull for both acts in 1974 Dylan and his erstwhile backing band reunited for Planet Waves and this incendiary live album.
  19. Peter Frampton, Comes Alive – After a series of great solo records, it took this monster to break Frampton to the world.
  20. Free, Live Free! – Perhaps their best album.
  21. Grateful Dead, Live/Dead – So many to choose from, ’72 is also great… but I love how muscular they sound here. Pigpen’s keyboards are epic. They were never this experimental/innovative again, in my humble opinion.
  22. George Harrison, Concert for Bangladesh – My buddy Ron was there and says it was as epic as it sounds.
  23. Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsies – So many choices… I went with this one because it was the only one released while he was alive. Winterland, the box set is also a must have for The Jimi Hendrix Experience at their peak.
  24. Humble Pie, Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore – Frampton’s last album with Humble Pie.
  25. J. Geils Band, Blow Your Face Out – Before the sleek, synth pop of “Freeze Frame” the J. Geils Band were a soul, blues extravaganza, documented here. They also have a single disc live album, Live, Full House that’s exceptional.
  26. Billy Joel, Songs From The Attic – After hitting it big, Joel turns back to his early material and rerecords it with his road band, bringing the sometimes lifeless studio renditions to life. A rare case of an artist reflecting on his past.
  27. Elton John, 11-17-70 – Buy this just for the essential version of “Bad Side of the Moon” but stay for the rest. No hits, just rock.
  28. Journey, Captured – Greg Rollie’s last album with Journey and the last thing they did before becoming corporate sell-outs.
  29. B.B. King, Live At the Regal – B.B. and his rapport with his audience makes this great performance even more special.
  30. The Kinks, One More From the Road – Great Kinks arena-rock.
  31. Kiss, Alive – Heavily overdubbed, yes. Excellent, yes. Alive II was also a fan fav.
  32. Led Zeppelin, BBC Sessions – Zeppelin never really recorded a great live concert album. I liked How The West Was Won, but BBC is really the pick of the litter. Don’t forget their reunion live LP, Celebration Day.
  33. Little Feat, Waiting For Columbus – Internal dissension was tearing them apart, but you couldn’t tell listening to this great live document.
  34. Bob Marley, Babylon By Bus – You could equally pick Live! or Live At the Roxy. Marley and the Wailers were money on live albums.
  35. Dave Matthews Band, Live At Red Rocks – The best of many choices. I like this one since it focuses on the early DMB albums.
  36. Paul McCartney, Wings Over America – Derided as a “tour souvenir” I still like this record. It’s the first one I can think of with an acoustic set in the middle.
  37. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late To Stop Now – The Caledonian Soul Orchestra!
  38. Nirvana, Unplugged In New York City – Stripped off all the strum and drang, Cobain’s beautiful songwriting and sense of melody pop out at you.
  39. Ozzy Osbourne & Randy Rhoads, Tribute – Ozzy’s fine tribute to Randy, RIP.
  40. Pearl Jam, Live In Seattle, November 6, 2000 – My favorite from their bootleg series. This is a powerhouse show in front of the hometown fans.
  41. Tom Petty, The Live Anthology – A box set that is the ultimate statement on Petty and the Heartbreakers live… RIP Tom.
  42. Otis Redding, Live At the Whiskey A Go Go – I like this one better than Live In Europe, it’s more raw and immediate to me.
  43. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Live In Hyde Park – Overlooked gem of a live LP… Frusciante and Flea are on fire.
  44. Lou Reed, Rock N Roll Animal – Ferocious live solo and Velvet Underground cuts.
  45. R.E.M., Live At the Olympia – I don’t know if Michael Stipe was ever this engaging on stage ever again.
  46. The Rolling Stones, Get Your Ya Ya’s Out – The Stones have started a wonderful live Vault Series, but this is still their quintessential live album.
  47. Rush, All The World’s A Stage – This one came early in their career and it’s a powerhouse… although they medley up on “Working Man,” which is too bad.
  48. Bob Seger, Live Bullet or Nine Tonight – I’d give the nod to Live Bullet here only because it’s the sound of a funky, rock and roll bar band, The Silver Bullet Band to be specific, conquering the world.
  49. Bruce Springsteen, Live 75 to 85 (Box Set) or 1978 Cleveland – The box set captures Springsteen at the peak of his popularity, but really anything recorded on the iconic ’78 tour from his bootleg series is worth the price. I also like Live At the Hammersmith Odeon from the Born To Run tour. You really can’t go wrong with live Springsteen.
  50. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense – Also get the DVD, visually entertaining too.
  51. Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous – True on both counts.
  52. U2, Under a Blood Red Sky – Before they were world spanning titans… they just simply rock Red Rocks outside of Denver.
  53. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Live at Carnegie Hall – SRV had to self finance this thing to get it recorded. Thank God he did.
  54. Velvet Underground, Live With Lou Reed, Vol 1 &2 – Rough sound quality but essential for any rock and roll fan.
  55. Muddy Waters, Live at Newport – Muddy launching the blues revival in America at the iconic Newport Festival.
  56. The Who, Live At Leeds – The power and the glory of “maximum R&B.” They’ve got a great BBC collection as well.
  57. Neil Young, Live Rust – On tour for one of his most popular albums, this live album is split between an acoustic and an electric performance. Neil has put out a number of excellent concert recordings in his vault series, from Massey Hall to Tonights The Night Live that are all worth checking out.
  58. Warren Zevon, Stand In The Fire – Sober but still unhinged. Zevon never gets his due…

There it is rock and roll fans. A nice list of live records to pour over during your summers by the pool… call it your summer homework assignment. If there’s something I left out, just post it in the comments. I’m always open to ideas! Hold those lighters in the air and celebrate the majesty of rock and roll played live!

 

Album Lookback: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ June 4, 1984

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There aren’t many exact dates in my life where I can tell you where I was. Hell, I’m not sure where I was last Tuesday, let alone a random day in the 80s. When I was a kid I can remember my mom telling me she could remember where she was the day John Kennedy was shot… for the record, she was pregnant with me, ironing in her living room and watching ‘Days Of Our Lives’ when the network broke in to announce the sad news. I don’t have any of those momentous geopolitical days in my life where I remember where I was… I do vaguely remember I got up late and came downstairs to find that the Challenger had exploded…but I don’t remember much other than that. All that said, I know exactly where I was on June 4th, 1984.

It was summer time and I was home on break from college. In the summer, us folks who grew up in “olden times” had to find a summer job. I did a lot of different jobs, from temp work to bus boy to light construction. The summer of ’84 was a happier summer for me than the summer of ’83. In ’83 I’d gone through an embarrassing breakup and spent the summer as a man of leisure or more appropriately a man about town…the ladies of Kansas City were helping me grieve, with my eternal gratitude. By ’84 I was well past all that heartbreak and was desperately in need of money to fuel my beer and vinyl habits. My oldest and dearest friend Doug had a line on work… his father owned a small company that installed scoreboards and more importantly, built tennis courts. I was hired to help on the tennis court construction. Utterly difficult, filthy work in the hot sun, but it was an honest day’s work, unlike what I do now, and at the end of the day you didn’t really worry about the job, again unlike what I do now… Like the Cure, I submitted my unanswered prayers for rain every day… Every night after work I had to soak in hot tub to get all the grainy, hardened tennis court surface to slowly melt from the hair on my legs… it was that or pull out all of the hair on my leg with the tennis court goop. I’m a guy so I found that too painful… hats off to you ladies who pluck, shave and otherwise eradicate hair… but I digress. I was, in all senses of the word, a working stiff.

But on Monday, June 4th in 1984, and I don’t recall why, we weren’t out on a job. For some reason our foreman, I’ll call him Norman, had us working in the warehouse yard. We were moving large 55 gallon barrels of sludge around so they looked to be in some semblance of order. For some reason Norman put me in the giant one-ton truck and had me go pick up sand at a local quarry. I was instructed to hurry back and then he’d let me go to lunch. I can remember being in the cab of the one-ton, driving down Pflumm, headed back to the warehouse when the DJ on our local radio station, KY102 came on and said, “We just got the new Springsteen album and we’re going to put it on now…” This was huge to me… I’d been anticipating this record for weeks, since the single “Dancing In The Dark” had come out… I knew somewhere in Wichita, my college roomie Drew was equally anticipating this moment. When the first song “Born In The USA” came over the tinny speakers in that truck I got goose bumps and tears welled up in my eyes. The anguished cries of a Vietnam vet, who never turned his back on his country, although it seemed his country had turned its back on him, was one of those, music-hits-my-lower-brain-stem moments that bring me back to the turntable. After work, as filthy as I was, I drove straight to the nearest record store and bought the album. It was a big day.

The album by the same name, Born In The U.S.A was Springsteen’s biggest selling album. It’s the record where everything changed. The album spun off at least 7 singles, and sold a kajillion copies. This was where those of us who were in the relatively small (especially in Kansas) clique of people who liked Springsteen had to share him with the rest of the world. This album was Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau’s greatest dream. Making Springsteen a name that was uttered along with Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Me, I liked Springsteen already, this was just gravy. Springsteen managed to merge a modern sound, complete with synths, into his core sound seamlessly, a thing a lot of 70s acts had struggled with. Many believe that’s why the album was as popular as it was. Naturally I have a different theory. To understand why this album was so popular, you have to step back and look at Springsteen’s career up to that point.

When Springsteen released Born To Run he was christened the new Dylan, the savior or the “future of rock and roll.” He was on the cover of both ‘Time’ and ‘Newsweek’ the same week. The hype was almost too much. But then he ended up in a legal battle with his manager Mike Appel that drug on and on. He toured incessantly through 1976 and 1977 on tours dubbed “The Chicken Scratch Tour” and “The Paying the Rent Tour.” One has to wonder why there wasn’t a “Paying the Legal Fees” tour but I wasn’t there to consult with. Finally Springsteen made what was considered a come back in 1978 with Darkness On The Edge of Town an album that had harnessed his anger and frustration about his legal battles with the energy and feel of punk rock to great success. It had very little to do sonically with Born To Run, but it succeeded.

In order to publicize his return in 78, Springsteen allowed several radio stations in LA, NY, San Fran, and elsewhere to broadcast his concerts over the radio. These concerts were widely bootlegged and helped build Springsteen’s legend as a live act. Springsteen returned relatively quickly in 1980 with a double album, The River, which while uneven, to me was always the rightful successor of Born To Run. With all the hype of the bootlegged 78 concerts, they say that more people slept out for tickets on The River tour than actually saw him in 78. My friend Brewster was apparently on the bandwagon and bought 2 tickets but never asked me to go… It’s my belief that Shakespearean betrayal  is what caused his family to move to Houston, in shame. It was the only honorable thing to do short of cutting off a finger. By the time The River tour concluded Springsteen was huge… he was on the cusp of superstardom. So what’s he do… he releases, in 1982, the spartan, demo-sounding, acoustic record Nebraska. There might be more dour, depressing music out there, but one would have to go to some hippy coffee shop to find it. It was a shock. I get it, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s not an album you put on at a party.

If you take Nebraska out of the equation, it was actually a full 4 years between studio albums for Springsteen, much like the lapse between Born To Run and Darkness. The reason Born In The U.S.A. was such a smash, was the simplest reason – pent up demand. Yes, it’s a kick ass album, but the guy had been away for four-fucking years. That was an eternity back then. Especially for guys my age, who were too young to see the Darkness tour, we just had to settle for the bootlegs. Some of us had sadly missed The River tour – thanks Brewster. We were dying for new music from the Boss… we were dying to actually see this myth, this legend in concert. Which, we all did on this tour, I might add.

The album itself is amazing. Although I will admit I’ve always had a problem with the sequencing. The title track, which starts the record, is one of the greatest things Bruce has ever recorded. Max Weinberg’s drumming is monumental. He keeps the whole thing together. That leads us into another single, the great “Cover Me.” The next two songs, however, “Darlington County” and “Working On The Highway” both tell the same story. Both are about a guy working construction who gets busted for messing with underage girls. Although “Working On the Highway” was a great rockabilly song vs “Darlington County”‘s anthemic approach. The first ballad, and the second best song on the album, “Down Bound Train” also ends with the protagonist in jail. The 80s were a dark time… But again, the next song, which concluded side one is another ballad, ‘I’m On Fire.” Spread it out Bruce….

Side two starts with two songs about Little Steven. The recording of Born In The U.S.A. was fraught with it’s own Shakespearean drama… Springsteen’s side kick, Little Steven who always advocated for the music was pitted against, Iago, er I mean Landau who was advocating for a big, commercial record. Eventually Little Steven split for a solo career. Springsteen obviously wrote “No Surrender” and the next track, “Bobby Jean” about his dearest friend, Little Steven, who had left the band. The rest of the side 2, is a little better sequenced, finally ending on the beautiful ballad “My Hometown.”

Born In The U.S.A ended up being the titanic album that Landau and, it would appear, Springsteen wanted. The enormous fame and attention dwarfed anything Springsteen had experienced before… one might argue the success changed the trajectory of his career… but for this working stiff, on a hot June Monday, it was a game changer, so much so, I know where I was that day. It really is one of the greatest albums of all time.

Cheers!