B&V’s Favorite B-Sides – Songs That Were Orphans But Found Fame Anyway

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*Photo of actual 45s, and actual B-sides, taken by your intrepid blogger

I think a lot of people, especially the casual music fan, can be put off by the term B-side. The term sounds like something you’d find in the discount aisle of your local retailer next to day old bread. It’s not an “A” it’s a “B” so it must be somehow… less valuable? Oddly, I actually understood what a B-side was before I started really getting into collecting music. My father had an old wire rack full of singles – known as 45s as that was the speed the turntable would have to be turned to in order to spin the smaller vinyl discs. An album is rated at 33 1/3 RPM (revolutions per minute), a single was 45 RPM’s. These old 45s that my father had amassed when he was still cool was a who’s who of 50s popular music: Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles. My little brother commandeered the collection as his own when he was really young and then enhanced it by buying Beatles’ singles…he was always years ahead of me on rock n roll…it’s a wonder he didn’t make my parents get his haircut in that mop top Beatles’ style but I digress. He had the little plastic insert that allowed him to play the 45s – which have a bigger hole in the middle – on the turntable. 45s only had one song per side unlike an album which has a number of songs on each side (well, typically… maybe not if you’re the Allman Brothers and it’s live and you’re really cooking, then it might be say, “Whipping Post” taking up one entire side of the LP). My brother and I shared a room in the early days so occasionally I’d wander in hand he’d be playing tunes. I think it was on one of those occasions that he explained what a B-side was to me before I even cared about music.

In the early days of rock n roll, like my dad’s collection, the music industry was focused on singles. Typically albums were merely a collection of previously released singles. When the artist in question had released enough songs to fill up an album the record company would lump ’em together and pump out the LP as another item to sell to the public. On those singles typically the A-side would be the song they wanted to release as the “hit.” What to do with the other side of the 7″ vinyl disc? Well, slap another song on the B-side! Typically the B-side would be a “lesser” tune, one the record company didn’t have high hopes for. The record company didn’t always get it right. Tony Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” began as a B-side to “Once Upon A Time” a track none us can remember. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” may be that first B-side to break out as a hit, I don’t really know. It was a DJ who decided to turn the record over to play the B-side and the rest, as they say, is history. Since it was left up to the record company, sometimes with input from the artist, B-sides weren’t always the “lesser” of the two tracks released. Record companies are rarely right about anything.

When the Beatles ushered in the “album” era of rock n roll the nature of B-sides changed. It really was the Beatles, especially after they stopped touring, who realized the artistic possibilities of a full length album. You listen to albums like Rubber Soul or Revolver and you realize there is a unity of sound and themes that enhance the listening experience over 12 songs instead of just the “hit” singles and some filler. When artists started releasing full length, thought-out albums the pool of tracks for use on B-sides – because people still bought a ton of singles back then – became a lot deeper. Typically the record company would pick a song to be a single, and then look for a deep album cut that in some cases might be “filler” on the album and slap it on the B-side. However, as usual, the record company didn’t always get it right. Rod Stewart’s signature song “Maggie May” was the B-side to “Reason To Believe.” And, exactly like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” an enterprising DJ in America turned the single over and voila, “Maggie May” is a monster hit and Rod Stewart became a star.

In the pantheon of great, great songs that started out as B-sides the list is long. The Beatles chose to release the epic psychedelic track “I Am The Walrus” (mostly written by John Lennon) as the B-side to “Hello, Goodbye” a McCartney track. Obviously “I Am The Walrus” is a legendary track but they put it on the B-side? Which is too bad because Lennon was quoted later as saying something like, “that was when we all began to get tired of being Paul’s backing band.” That animosity festered… But “I Am The Walrus” is not an isolated case of great tracks ending up as a B-side. So many great tracks ended up as B-sides and went on to become monster hits, legendary in their own right. The Stones released “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as the B-side to “Honky Tonk Woman”; Bowie released “Suffragette City” as B-side to “Starman”; and finally the Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better” (a Gene Clark penned classic) was B-side for “All I Really Want To Do” a Dylan cover. The list is vast and I could go on and on.

Any of those tracks could have easily made it onto our list of “favorite B-sides,” but the stakes rose. In the 70s as bands became more prolific and often bands would have more music than they needed for an album. Many times they’d have a song that they really liked but it wouldn’t fit the confined space of vinyl or wasn’t the right vibe for that particular album or often they’d record a cover song just for the fun of it. Instead of putting out a deeper album cut as the B-side, the band would put out one of those unreleased tracks that didn’t make the album. For me the prime example of that was “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” a great acoustic driven track that Zeppelin left off Zeppelin III and instead put out as the B-side of “The Immigrant Song.” Suddenly, this opened up the possibility of non-album, previously unreleased gems out in the wild. Hunting for stray B-sides was a fun side project for my old roommate Drew and I as we built our album collections in college. I remember spending weekends on vacation in Chicago hunting for certain songs only found on that B-side single. Finding a cool B-side is frankly the only reason I lament the end of singles being released. I’ve always been an album guy.

While the hunt was fun, in the era of CD-box sets and compilations many of those orphaned B-sides have been released. Often CD releases and “deluxe edition” releases of classic albums contain those old hard to find B-sides. U2 has done two “greatest hits” LPs each with a complimentary disc of B-sides. Springsteen has Tracks that contained a lot of the B-sides that Drew and I were always chasing after back in college. R.E.M. released Dead Letter Office, a collection of strictly B-sides (and what a great title for that LP). Now, it’s bad enough singles are rarely if ever released, but there’s no scurrying around town to all the usual vinyl shops looking to locate that one copy of “Go Your Own Way” paired with “Silver Springs.” The hunt is over. Now if you want to hear Prince do “Irresistible Bitch” you merely have to download it from a box set. For those of us aware of and collecting B-sides it was like being a member of a cool club or subculture. I guess I still have hunting for great used vinyl purchases left to me… sigh.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, Dr. Rock, commented on a post I’d done with a playlist of tracks from 1982. Or it might have been a comment on our post about Robert Plant’s solo debut, Pictures At Eleven. Regardless, he mentioned a track “Far Post” that has always been a favorite B-side of mine and naturally Dr Rock suggested I do a post on my 10 favorite B-sides. And as usual that stretched out to my 25 favorite B-sides. In between cranking up new songs from Billy Idol (“Cage”) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Tippa My Tongue”) this week I’ve been scouring through my old 45s and box sets looking for B-sides. As I indicated above, I chose B-sides that were orphans – songs that were originally left off of albums – songs that could only be found on the second side of a 45 or on the single CD release (from back when they would still put out singles on CD with a few extra tracks). I mostly avoided the “deep album tracks” as B-sides. My list is not meant to exhaustive but merely representative of a) my personal favorites and b) what kind of quality material is out there in the world by artists we all love but you may not have heard or worse, heard of. My list stems from the well known all the way to my usual obscure choices. If you have a favorite B-side that didn’t end up on a record, please post it in the comments section. I’m always looking for a good, unheard tune…

The Bourbon And Vinyl 25 Favorite B-Sides

  • Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog” – Elvis released “Hound Dog,” one of his most famous tunes, a few months after his second LP Elvis was released. It was originally released as the B-side of “Don’t Be Cruel.” The record company quickly changed the printing on the single sleeve to make “Hound Dog” the A-side, and “Don’t Be Cruel” the B-side… it didn’t really matter, both songs hit number 1. Elvis was aware of the original by the legendary Big Mama Thornton but was likely more influenced by a cover done by Freddie Bell and the Bellhops. It’s hard not to include one of the greatest songs ever on a favorite B-sides list. As Dylan said, “I’m standing on a chair proposing a toast to the King.” Surely he meant Elvis?
  • Jimi Hendrix Experience, “51st Anniversary” – I’ve always dug this track about a couple who have been married for well, 51 years. This track didn’t make it on Are You Experienced? but was released as the B side for “Purple Haze.”
  • The Beatles, “Revolution” – Another case where Lennon had his track relegated the B-side in deference to McCartney’s A-side “Hey Jude.” Maybe Paul should have let Lennon win a few of these battles. I get “Hey Jude” is epic but “Revolution” is probably my favorite hard rocking Beatles track. Both tracks were on the unreleased tracks, stop-gap U.S. LP Hey Jude.
  • Neil Young, “Sugar Mountain” – Neil liked this song so much he used it as the B-side for two different songs, “The Loner” from his debut and “Cinnamon Girl” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with Crazy Horse. “You can’t be 20, on Sugar Mountain with the barkers and the colored balloons…” It finally was included on Neil’s three-LP greatest hits package Decade a compilation album truly ahead if it’s time.
  • Paul McCartney, “Oh Woman, Oh Why” – McCartney has a myriad of great B-sides. It was hard to pick just one. I’ve always loved “Oh Woman, Oh Why” the B-side to his first ever solo single “Another Day.” The lyrics are a bit slight but McCartney sings like he’s Little Richard turned up to 11. This track is kind of a bluesy rocker and I’ve just always loved it.
  • George Harrison, “Deep Blue” – This rarity was finally released on the “deluxe edition” of Living In The Material World but began as the B-side for Harrison’s charity track “Bangla Desh.” I don’t think of the Beatles as being especially bluesy but I love this acoustic, blues shuffle. Harrison landed a few blues tracks on our Rockers Playing the Blues playlist… I should have included this quiet little gem. I’m a sucker for the blues. I think my brother may have played this song for me, he was a huge Harrison fan and might have had the “Bangla Desh” single.
  • Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” – This song, for me, was the beginning of my B-side awareness. Finding this song as the B-side on the single for “The Immigrant Song” was like finding the Ark of the Covenant for Indiana Jones. I can’t believe this track never landed on a proper Zeppelin LP.
  • AC/DC, “Carry Me Home” – This great, hysterical drinking song – that only Bon Scott could have written – was the B-side to the track “Dog Eat Dog” from Let There Be Rock. It was an early selection for inclusion on our Drinking Songs playlist and really is a centerpiece there of. We find our hero, the narrator, too drunk to drive home and it’s too late to find a bus or cab. His only solution is to ask a young lady he’s been drinking with to carry him home with her. Reminds me of my 20s. Rakish charm?
  • Fleetwood Mac, “Silver Springs” – Oh man, this is one of my all time favorite Mac songs. The Rock Chick preferred the live version from The Dance, but I’d been a fan of this song, the B-side to “Go Your Own Way,” that had been criminally left off Rumours, since the first time I heard it in the car driving back to Boston from Cape Cod during my summer after college. It just grabbed me from the beginning. When Stevie builds to the climax and sings/shouts “I know I could’ve loved you, but you would not let me, I’ll follow you down ’til the sound of my voice will haunt you…” she means it. The song does haunt me and I’m not even who she’s singing to…
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Casa Dega” – This song was left off Damn The Torpedoes and was originally released as the B-side to “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Petty has so many B-sides that have seen subsequently released on his various box sets it was hard to pick just one (and actually I picked 2) but I’ve always loved this song partially inspired by a Spiritualist camp in Florida.
  • Robert Plant, “Far Post” – As pointed out by the aforementioned Dr. Rock when we posted about Plant’s solo debut Pictures At Eleven, this amazing song was left off the album and released as a B-side to “Burning Down One Side” in the UK and eventually found it’s way to my local radio station. Great piano break in the song… it felt like Plant was already starting to stretch the boundaries of what he could do outside Zeppelin.
  • The Police, “Murder By Numbers” – The Police actually released this song on Synchronicity if you bought the cassette. Well, I’d purchased the vinyl, naturally. But they made up for it by releasing it as the B-side of “Every Breath You Take.” This was such a great song it never made sense to me they didn’t put it on the vinyl. They do include it on the CD version of Synchronicity.
  • R.E.M., “Pale Blue Eyes” – R.E.M., like so many bands who’ve recorded a ton of B-sides released an entire album of B-sides on the collection Dead Letter Office. I love that album as they do a ton of cover songs. Cover songs do have a way of popping up as B-sides. I especially love this song, a Velvet Underground track. Michael Stipe can sing almost any song better than any original singer. This track was a B-side to the great track “South Central Rain.” I really could have picked just about any song from Dead Letter Office… and heavily considered their cover of Aerosmith’s “Toys In The Attic” which has to be heard to be believed.
  • Prince & the Revolution, “17 Days” – This track was a B-side from “When Doves Cry” from Princes’ masterpiece Purple Rain. This was such an incredible album it’s no surprise that there were some incredible B-sides… Prince was so prolific. This is a classic funk, pop song about a break up. I was drawn to this kinda track back in the day. The chorus will drill into your brain… “Let the rain come down, let the rain come down…” I may be the only fan of this track but I had to include it. It just takes me back…
  • The Cars, “Breakaway” – The Cars buried this outtake from the Heartbeat City album as the B-side to the fifth(!) single “Why Can’t I Have You.” I first heard the song, once again, in the car as some friends of mine and I were driving over a high bridge on our way onto Padre Island for Spring Break. Can you think of a better theme song for a Spring Break? “The loud mornin’ in the small town cries…You gotta get away.” Actually the Spring Break was a disaster but I spent years looking for this track which I later found out was about heroin
  • Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, “Pink Cadillac” – The B-side to “Dancing In The Dark.” Oh man, we all bought the 45 with this as the B-side. Clarence Clemons on the sax is epic. I still drive a little faster when this song comes on the stereo.
  • Don Henley, “A Month of Sundays” – This is a little like “Murder By Numbers,” listed above. The track was on the cassette version of Building The Perfect Beast but not the vinyl version I had. It was released as the B-side of “Boys of Summer” and I remember being floored the first time I heard it. I did a tape to tape thing and recorded it so I could listen to it over and over. It’s a sad ballad about the death of the family farm but it just grabbed me.
  • Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, “Shut Out The Lights” – Bruce has so many B-sides it was hard to limit myself to just two… This is another Born In The U.S.A. B-side, to the title track. Both songs are about a Vietnam veteran but are very different vibes. “Born In The U.S.A.” was a huge, arena rocking anthem (that was widely misunderstood). “Shut Out The Lights” delivered the message more directly in my mind as it was a sad song about the mental health struggles our veterans faced when they returned from the war.
  • Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, “Fortunate Son” – Well, I did mention that cover songs do have a way of finding themselves on B-sides. This track was the B-side to “American Storm” from the Like A Rock album. I don’t know if there is a more fitting artist to cover Creedence Clearwater Revival than Bob Seger. Perfect song in the perfect hands. Smokin’ O.P.s indeed.
  • Rod Stewart, “Almost Illegal” – Rod had been doing middling pop for so long it was a big deal when he teamed up with Andy Taylor erstwhile guitarist from Duran Duran and released Out Of Order an album that actually… rocked! This song was the B-side to “Lost In You” and I was so enamored with both the LP and that song, I gave this 45 a chance and brought it home from the record store. And, yes, this song rocked and made me smile at the same time. This is probably the most obscure track on my favorites but I am who I am.
  • The Rolling Stones, “Fancy Man Blues” – When the Stones reunited for Steel Wheels we were all ecstatic. I was living in Arkansas at the time and I jumped a flight to Chicago to see them on that tour out at East Troy where Stevie Ray died… Anyway, I was in a bar the night before the show and whoever was in charge played “Fancy Man Blues” the B-side to “Mixed Emotions” and then I spent years trying to find it. The Stones always return to the blues.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Soul To Squeeze” – As I mentioned in my resent post on the Peppers’ new song “Tippa My Tongue,” the RHCP’s creative process includes a lot of jamming which leads to a plethora of unused material that ends up as a B-side. This haunting ballad – that has to be about Hillel Slovak’s death and Anthony Kiedis’ running away to Mexico and missing the funeral – was used as a B-side twice for both “Give It Away” and “Under the Bridge” before finding widespread fame on the Coneheads’ soundtrack. I’ve seen them do it live and man, goosebumps.
  • Pearl Jam, “Yellow Ledbetter” – Well, you knew this track would be on here, it’s only the most famous B-side released in the 90s. It was the B-side to Jeremy and I purchased the CD single just so I could own this track. It sounds like an homage to Stevie Ray Vaughn, at least when you hear them play it live, but that might just be me. I do relate to the lyric “I said I don’t know whether I’m the boxer or the bag.”
  • U2, “The Lady With the Spinning Head (UV1)” – The Rock Chick turned me onto this song. I love it. It was a demo that spawned both “The Fly” and then “Ultraviolet Light.” Eventually it saw release as the B-side to “One.” We put this on one of our party tracks and people always approach me and ask me about this song… and “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” but that’s another song for another day.
  • Tom Petty, “Girl On LSD” – Any long time readers of B&V know that this song was my “white whale” in terms of B-sides for a long time. I did have a bootleg version but I always want an official version if I can get it. It’s the funniest song Petty ever did. It finally saw release (in an alternative version) on Finding Wildflowers. Petty has another bluesy rocker named “Sweet William” that has become my new “white whale” B-side… I will find you “Sweet William,” if it kills me.

Many of these tracks you’ve probably heard before. But if there are ones you haven’t I urge you to seek them out and give them a spin. These sadly orphaned B-sides deserve to be heard. There are so many more B-sides out there that I didn’t list. I look forward to seeing if any of you out there have a favorite B-side to add to this list.

Enjoy the last bit of summer! Cheers!

Review: John Mellencamp, ‘Strictly A One-Eyed Jack’ – Curmudgeon Rock?

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I’m going to admit right off the bat, that much like 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, this new Mellencamp album Strictly One-Eyed Jack is going to be an acquired taste. It’s going to need time to grow on you, in much the same way wine needs to breath a bit when first opened. It’s like olives… who liked olives the first time you ate one?

It wasn’t always that way. I think when you mention Mellencamp’s name to most folks it conjures his late 80s, early 90s heyday. Most people think of “Jack And Diane” or “Little Pink Houses” or some other big anthem. Squint your eyes and in your memory you can see John in a video in a wheat field strumming a guitar while we all sang along. He was one of the biggest artists on the planet. I can even admit to remembering when his name was John (or to some people, Johnny) Cougar. His manager at the time gave him a stage name based on the type of car the manager drove. I’m not sure I’d trust anybody who drove a Mercury Cougar to guide my career but then I was in middle school back then so what would I have known? And Cougars were sporty… While we were all vaguely aware of John Cougar he wasn’t a household name by any means. If you’d asked me in 1979 who sang “I Need A Lover” I’d have told you it was a Pat Benetar song. She covered the song, albeit without the great, extended guitar intro and that was the version that became a “hit.” They didn’t play the Cougar er, Mellencamp version until later… at least in Kansas City anyway.

It wasn’t until 1982’s American Fool that John Cougar broke it big. “Hurts So Good” was a good song but it was “Jack And Diane” (a track I don’t like) that was the big hit. I would urge everyone to seek out the song “Thundering Hearts” from that record. I wasn’t on the bandwagon until the 1983 release, Uh-Huh. Yeah, the video for “Crumblin’ Down” was cheesey – John dancing around parking meters like he was a young Cool Hand Luke – but damn if it wasn’t a great song. “Play Guitar” and “Little Pink Houses” drove me to the record store. It was the first album to bear the “Mellencamp” name. It was credited to John Cougar Mellencamp in what we didn’t realize at the time was a rebranding campaign. The great meat and potatoes rock that he was serving up continued on the more politically charged Scarecrow, which is probably my favorite LP of his. And, naturally, my sainted mother even liked “Small Town” on that record because well, she’s from a small town.

Mellencamp then took a stylistic left turn and got more “rootsy” on his true masterpiece, The Lonesome Jubilee. It was instrumentally speaking a much more varied sounding record. There was violin and more acoustic guitar which was like stumbling across plutonium in the 80s. There were still great rock songs like “Paper And Fire” but it felt like a real left turn for the heartland rocker. I think we all thought it was a diversion, a one off but it turned out that more rootsy style came to define almost everything Mellencamp has done since then. “Cherry Bomb” is more his signature style than say, “Small Paradise.” The last really hard rocking album Mellencamp did was Whenever We Wanted. I still love that album. Tracks like “Get A Leg Up” and “Love And Happiness” are all slashing guitar and crashing drums. After that album my interest in Mellencamp waned slightly. I loved his ’98 album John Mellencamp, as did the Rock Chick as I found out later we both owned it.

From there Mellencamp settled into this T Bone Burnett, murky almost old-timey style. Well at least after Freedom’s Road he seemed to. That and his blues cover album Trouble No More were my final Mellencamp LP purchases. As he became deeper attached to that more roots oriented sound his vision became considerably darker. The titles gave away where he was coming from: Life, Death, Love And Freedom (which sounds like a Johnny Cash title) or Plain Spoken. To go with his darker vision, the cigarettes he smokes finally ravaged his voice to the point where he’s in that Howlin Wolf, Tom Waits area. I’m a huge fan of emotive vocals versus polished vocals so the disintegration of his voice has never bothered me. All of that said, Mellencamp remains an amazing songwriter. The vision is dark but the words stick with you… more so for me than a song like “Jack And Diane.”

On Strictly A One-Eyed Jack we find John has kept his signature band together. Long time guitarist Mike Wanchic is still in the band. As is, Andy York/guitar, Dane Clark/drums, John Gunell/bass, Troy Kinnet/accordion & keyboards and perhaps most importantly Miriam Sturm on violin. Sturm’s violin is perhaps the most prominent instrument here. Thematically we find John talking a lot about lies – two songs have the word in the title, slander (“Did You Say Such A Thing”) and rain. The tracks about rain might just end up on our Playlist: Rainy Day Songs. One thing that does come across clearly from Mellencamp’s lyrics… he, as the kids say, gives zero fucks about what anybody thinks. He’s said publicly he’s not into writing hit records, he just wants to make great albums. I would say that Strictly A One-Eyed Jack is a very good, nearing great album indeed.

One thing different this time out is the sporadic appearance of that other 80s icon, Bruce Springsteen. Yes, Springsteen is credited with vocals on a few songs but more importantly he brought his guitar. The song “Wasted Days” is my favorite of the Bruce songs, and perhaps on the album. I still don’t know why I’m not hearing more about that track – if it was 1986 it’d be the biggest hit of the year. Bruce does a harmony vocal and guitar solo on “Did You Say Such A Thing” where Mellencamp accuses someone of “talking shit” on him. Springsteen’s guitar is more important than his harmony vocal on that track and it’s a livelier moment. Springsteen only adds guitar to the ballad and album end-er “A Life Full of Rain.” All three of these tracks deserve a listen.

The album opener “I Always Lie To Strangers” is a dark, gravelly affair. It can be a little off-putting on first listen like that cover art painting. Did someone poke John in the eye? What are we to take from that opening song? Is John telling us lies over the next 12 tracks? Things do pick up on the second track, “Driving In The Rain,” the first of two rain tracks. It’s a lilting waltz of a song with a great melody and comes complete with Andrews Sisters type female backing vocalists singing, “Ooo.” We get more into Mellencamp’s state of mind on “I Am A Man Who Worries,” which just might be my theme song. The song is all snarling vocal and violin with my favorite line, “I come across as dangerous and unforgiving.” Sounds like Mellencamp and I have a few things in common these days.

As usual it’s the quieter moments that I like the most. “Streets of Galilee” is a beautiful piano and acoustic guitar ballad. It’s one of my favorites. “Gone So Soon” is the saddest ballad Mellencamp has ever done and from a sonic perspective it could be something Sinatra did. “A Life Full of Rain” is another Tom Waits-ian ballad. It’s all piano and craggy vocals but a beautiful rumination on life’s mistakes while Bruce plays guitar. When Mellencamp gets quiet and sad, count me in.

The title track comes across like an old Dylan track where a bunch of fictional characters play a game of cards. I love the way the drums drive the song along… “The Gypsy King is dealing from the bottom of the deck…”Sweet Honey Brown” has a bass-line that reminds me of “Under the Boardwalk.” When the violin kicks in we know this is not anything that happy. “The show is over… the monkey’s dead.” It seems to be Mellencamp’s farewell to show business. “Lie To Me” continues the theme of lying. It’s another stand out track with the great line, “Lie to me, Lord knows I’m used to it.” The only track that really left me cold – other than the opener – was “Chasing Rainbows.” It’s like a bizarre (almost drunken) sing-along that wouldn’t be out of place at the end of a Monty Python movie. It’s sung with more of a grimace than a smile.

Mellencamp, in my mind, remains an important if overlooked artist these days. I love that he’s brave enough to share his dark vision of life with us on Strictly A One-Eyed Jack. You aren’t going to hear these tracks on the radio – and it’s criminal “Wasted Days” isn’t being played more – but they are important, well written songs nonetheless. I recommend everybody pours something strong, throw another log on the fire and turn this one up.

Cheers!

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!

How The Biggest Bands In the World Reacted Musically to Punk Rock in the 70s

Punk.jpg*Image from the internet and probably copyrighted

I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that whole Grunge era in the 90s lately. I think the whole Grunge thing was the last musical movement that I actually got caught up in. On my first date with the Rock Chick, back in my swashbuckling bachelor days, we actually talked about music and she said, “I hate that Kurt Cobain destroyed everything that came before him.” That was sadly a very true statement. When Cobain came along – and lets face it, it wasn’t just him, there was an army of bands who came with him & Nirvana, like Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, the Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden (to name a few of my favorites) – he laid waste to everything that came prior.

The Rock Chick went on to say that day, “I liked some of those hard rock, hair-metal bands like Motley Crue, Van Halen and Cinderella. You just don’t hear that kind of music any more.” Talk about love at first conversation. This was our first date! My heart throbbed, but enough of that mushy stuff. It wasn’t only those “hair bands” who bit the dust in the wake of Grunge, everybody went down. Billy Joel crawled off to write symphonies. Bruce Springsteen decided he was John Steinbeck with a guitar. Grunge shook rock and roll to its foundation. Grunge was rock and roll stripped of its artifice, more primal and visceral in nature. Gone were drum machines and synths… enter guitar, drums and a whole lot of angst. No hair spray or frankly, bathing needed.  The Rock Chick, ever adaptable, did morph into a huge “alternative” rock fan, the offspring of Grunge if you will. One door closes, another opens as the saying goes.

Of course, this isn’t the first musical wave to rise up and challenge the established order. Punk rock, which one could describe as the pierced, demented grandfather of Grunge, was just as primal and visceral, if not way more so. Both punk and Grunge, to my uneducated ears at least, seem to strip away layers of polish that had accumulated on rock and roll and get it back to that four or five guys (or gals) in a garage bashing out tunes kinda vibe. Punk, rather than express the angst of Grunge, had more of a social protest angle to it. Punk bands, especially out of England were protesting the economic and social conditions they found themselves in and it challenged the somewhat complacent rock establishment. There was an almost nihilistic bent to it that made it dangerous. Of course, I was really, really late getting on the punk bandwagon…

Here in the middle of America, we didn’t hear a lot of punk music on the radio… Not even American punk from New York like the Ramones made it on the radio here. I can remember in the late/mid-70s sitting on the couch at the house one Sunday night and my dad was watching 60 Minutes. They did a segment on the English punk movement. They showed a bunch of young kids, a little older than I was, with safety pins piercing their nose or cheeks. They had Mohawk hair cuts and wore a lot of leather. They were all slamming violently into each other on the dance floor, not unlike a rugby scrum. My father, whose sensibilities on everything are firmly rooted in the 50s, looked over at my brother and I with a look that I now realize can only be described as… fear. I felt that he had the strong urge to jump up and cover my brother’s ears and perhaps backhand me… Looking at me, in his mind’s eye, he probably saw my hair morphing into a Mohawk… a safety pin springing magically out of my cheek. He knew how drawn I was to rebellion.

For my part, I was just as terrified. The 60 Minutes crew shot the live footage at the punk concert – a Sex Pistols’ show – and didn’t do anything to mix the sound. It sounded like harsh, frightening noise with a crazed singer screaming at people. They didn’t play any studio stuff. The old farts on that show just marveled at Johnny Rotten singing “God Save the Queen.” They actually had subtitles to highlight what I’m sure they considered subversive lyrics. This was a sign of the coming apocalypse… To me, it just sounded awful. I need a little melody. It took me years – like 20 years – to finally buy a Clash album. It was a revelation. I quickly picked up the Ramones and the Stooges. Those are some of my favorite punk rock bands. At last, I finally picked up Never Mind the Bollocks, from the once scary (to me) Sex Pistols only about 10 years ago and it’s awesome. Very simple, straight forward guitar rock. As Lou Reed said, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” But as my friend Doug told me once, “Every punk rocker knows Lou Reed is an asshole.”

Punk rockers challenged the established rock acts that were already ensconced on the top of the world, the Rock Stars. Rock n roll had gotten bloated. There were Art Rock bands doing 15-minute, multi suite tracks like Rush or Yes, that almost had more in common with classical music than rock and roll. There were strings and overly polished production. Rock had gotten fat and comfortable. Along came punk to shake things up, and thank God it did. Instead of destroying everything that came before it like Grunge, a curious thing happened… the established rock bands, for lack of a better word, absorbed the energy and vibe. Although I’ll admit some of the artists ignored punk: Dylan had found Jesus, Bowie was over in Berlin doing his thing, Steely Dan’s jazz-influenced bubble never burst and hard rockers like Black Sabbath and AC/DC didn’t change a thing. But so many rockers were influenced by punk.

I’ve compiled the following list of some of my favorite band/artist reactions to the punk movement. At the time I’d have hardly known the stylistic change in music came from punk rock, but you live and learn.

  1. Queen, News Of The World – Queen was just coming off two albums of long, complicated music (A Day At the Races, Night On the Town) and were already considering a shift to shorter, more stripped down tracks. While recording News, the Sex Pistols were in the next studio… Freddie Mercury ran into Sid Vicious (who he had been calling Sid Ferocious) and Sid asked, “Have you succeeded in bringing ballet to the masses yet?” Queen, and Freddie especially had been the target of the punk’s ire, and he replied, “We’re doing our best, dear.” Queen went into the studio and delivered a stylistically adventurous LP with tighter, shorter tracks. Sure, “It’s Late” was six and a half minutes long, but what a guitar riff. The crowning glory was Freddie and Brian May’s double-single response to the punks – “We Will Rock You” (their statement of purpose) and “We Are the Champions” (Freddie’s fuck you to them). The lyrics, “no time for losers, ’cause we are the champions” were pretty clear.
  2. The Rolling Stones, Some Girls – The Stones totally absorbed the punk ethos on this album. Of course on tracks like “Miss You” they also absorbed the disco thing too. Mick always picked up on what was now, and Keith keeps them centered and connected to their roots. Songs like “Lies,” and especially “Shattered” were stripped down with rocking guitar. No strings, no fat, just awesome. On “Respectable,” they even mocked the punk’s criticism, “Well now we’re respected in society, We don’t worry about the things that we used to be.”
  3. The Who, Who Are You – No one was more disturbed by the punk’s criticism than Pete Townshend, who saw a lot of the early Who in the punks. Who Are You was seen as a return to form for them, with loud guitars and bombastic drums. Townshend’s title track was directly addressed to the punks, “who the fuck are you?”
  4. Pete Townshend, Empty Glass – So obsessed with the punks was Pete, he continued to write songs about them on his first “proper” solo album. “Rough Boys” sounds like he wants to be friends with them. On “Jools and Jim” he complains, “they don’t give a shit Keith Moon is dead.” From his interviews lately, it sounds like Pete doesn’t care either…
  5. Neil Young, Rust Never Sleeps – Nobody dug the punks as much as Neil Young did. The punks seemed to wake Neil from the torpor he was under at the time. The first half of this album was acoustic but the second half is a bunch of blistering guitar workouts. He revamped a heavily bootlegged “Sedan Delivery” and speeded it up so it was very punk. Both the opening and closing, variations of the same song, “Hey Hey, My My” were addressed to Johnny Rotten.
  6. Iggy Pop, New Values – Iggy’s first band, the Stooges was highly influential on the punks… not as much as the Ramones as I understand it but even now hard rock guys from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Guns N Roses cite Raw Power as an influence. I didn’t hear it until a few years ago and yes its great. I wouldn’t have understood it at 13. With all that adulation how could Iggy not jump on the punk bandwagon and release this album, collaborating with old Stooge, James Williamson and Scott Thurston who believe it or not ended up in the Heartbreakers. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em Iggy.
  7. Bruce Springsteen, Darkness On the Edge of Town – Springsteen had been locked in a legal battle with his first manager since Born To Run. He was already pissed off so the punk ethos probably fit the songs he was writing. If you listen to The Promise, the box set for Darkness, many of the tunes sound like the natural progression from Born To Run, but Springsteen opted to only include dark, guitar-centric tracks here. Sonically it’s miles away from his breakthrough album and remains one of my favorites… well, it remains amongst almost every Springsteen fan’s favorites.
  8. Billy Joel, Glass Houses – Like Springsteen, Joel coopted the punk energy and took a stylistic left turn from his previous album, the E-Street-ish 52nd Street. Punchy, guitar-driven tracks like “You May Be Right” and “Sleeping With the Televison On” dominate the album. Like Iggy, if you can’t beat them, absorb them!
  9. Fleetwood Mac, Tusk – Lindsey Buckingham was so afraid of repeating himself after Rumors, and so enamored with the “fuck it” attitude of the punks he decided to take Fleetwood Mac in a totally different direction. I love Tusk, although it was seen as a failure at the time. I’m sure the band struggled as Stevie was delivering songs like “Sara” and Christine McVie with “Over and Over” and Lindsey countering with the punky “It’s Not That Funny,” or “What Makes You Think You’re the One.” Buckingham took a lot of liberties with the record and it makes it all the more interesting.
  10. Paul McCartney & Wings, Back To the Egg – McCartney is the most confounding entry here. I really liked Back To the Egg, McCartney’s attempt at doing more upbeat rock and roll again. I think he really wanted to absorb some of that punk energy but he just couldn’t commit to it through an entire album. I thought “Old Siam Sir” was rocking. But Macca just can’t help himself, he’s gotta go with soft, gauzy ballads like “Arrow Through Me.” I look at this one as a lost opportunity. But hey, it’s McCartney, he can do what he wants.

As I sit here, only 1/3 of the way through the annual “Dry January” I can’t help but think I need a little punk energy to get me going… If you feel that way during the doldrums of winter, put one of these albums on and see where it takes you.

Cheers!

Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way

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*Image taken from the internet and probably subject to copyright

I’ve been a Springsteen fan for as long as I’ve been a rock and roll fan. The first LP I bought of his was The River, a double-album which at the time was a huge financial commitment on my part… there are only so many lawns you can mow or tables you can bus to feed a vinyl habit when you’re in high school. That album quickly led me backwards in his catalog, through Darkness On The Edge of Town to Born To Run to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (which is frankly my favorite of his albums). Since that time I have been on this journey with him. He likes to describe his body of work as a dialogue between an artist and his fans. When I heard he was taking a 1-man show to Broadway, I thought it was a natural progression of that very conversation.

Springsteen On Broadway is indeed just that – a dialogue. One might describe it as a recap of the entire dialogue we, his fans and Bruce have been having all along. I had really wanted to try and get tickets and fly to New York to see the show live, like my friend Judy did (name changed to protect the guilty). But like most people, watching the Netflix special was how I got to see the show. I am sure the opportunity to see this show live, in the intimate Walter Kerr Theater would have completely changed the experience. I finally caught it on Netflix yesterday and I was deeply moved. I will admit freely, that despite being a huge fan, I never did read Springsteen’s highly acclaimed autobiography fittingly named, Born To Run. Unfortunately, rock autobiography has been destroyed for me forever by Keith Richards’ Life. I didn’t need to read Keef comparing dick size with Mick.

Despite my not reading the autobiography, I realized right away it was the source material for much of the show. But that was probably because I’m a huge fan. I’m not sure a casual Springsteen fan can connect with this performance without reading his autobiography. Springsteen writes in such an epic, poetic style that it’s no wonder his story was a perfect fit for the stage. There’s a theatrical nature to all things Springsteen. And like all things Springsteen, On Broadway was long – two and half hours long. After seeing the show, I wondered to myself how often I would return to the soundtrack to listen again. I’m glad I saw it and heard it, but like reading a book, I’m not sure I’d go back to it, and again, I’m HUGE Bruce fan. For once I might have to actually say, this Bruce Springsteen performance may be only for the true fans. And there are plenty of us out here.

Over the years Springsteen’s legend has grown so huge – as a performer, writer, activist, it’s nice to see him cut loose and spend a little time debunking the legend. He begins by explaining that he’s from a boardwalk town, where everything is based on a little magic and deceit. Despite being considered the champion of the working man, he’s never “held an honest job.” He’s never worked in a factory. To the Rock Chick’s great amusement, despite being known as the foremost writer of car songs, he couldn’t drive a car until he was in his 20s. He expresses a host of emotions as he tells the stories he chose and it’s quite a ride. I was happy to hear Springsteen cuss, which I think was also meant to undercut some of the “Saint of Rock N Roll” legend. Then there are times when Bruce goes into, what I describe as “The Reverend of Rock n Roll” act which also made me feel a little like Bruce was playing a character named Bruce Springsteen.

For the true Springsteen fans, there are a host of stories that touch on all the important points of his story. Each story (and some are quite long and revealing) is accompanied by a song and they compliment each other very well. To be clear, the songs are there to compliment the dialogue and not the other way around. He starts off, of course, with “Growing Up” and a story about Elvis and his first guitar. It’s clear, like most of us, Elvis had a big impact on Bruce. Looming even larger was Springsteen’s father and the relationship between them. The most moving pieces of this show were about Bruce and his dad. I was pleased to hear him play “The Wish,” a song about his mother. It’s a deep cut off Tracks. It’s wonderful that his catalog has a song for almost everything he’s been through. His real life completely informs his art which is probably why the legend has grown.

The performance here of Born In the USA is stunning. It follows Bruce talking about Vietnam and how it affected his generation and more personally some of his friends and Jersey idols. He spoke of meeting Ron Kovic and reading his book, ‘Born On the Fourth of July’ and what an effect it had on him. I think that was probably the birth of Springsteen the activist. When he speaks of Clarence Clemons and everything that friendship meant to him I got tears in my eyes. I love the version of “10th Avenue Freeze Out” that he plays in tribute.

Patti Scialfa Springsteen comes out and sings a couple of the most personal songs, (love songs naturally), “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” Both of those performances were definite highlights. They are not only married, they harmonize spectacularly. “Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Land of Hope And Dreams” are two of the more political moments and Springsteen handled them both deftly – both the songs and the things he said prior.

From Elvis, to his dad, to his mother, to Clarence, to Vietnam, to being a parent, to our current political situation, Springsteen covers it all. He does so with at times good humor and other times deep, sorrowful feeling. This was a great performance and I really regret not making it to Broadway to see it in person. I will say, this one is just for us in the cult of Springsteen.

Life is a long ride… Turn up the radio and try to be good to each other.