Maybe irony isn’t the word, but it’s certainly intriguing that while Phil Spector was creating the raw, spartan sound that would make John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band so remarkable, he was also hard at work on an album, for a fellow Beatle in fact, that would go against that ideal so strongly – an album which might be considered the archetype of Spector’s “Wall of Sound” concept.
Which is not to say that Spector’s bold production should be the main thing to take away from this 3-disc colossus of an album – far from it. But it’s certainly interesting to note that it was released just six months after Let it Be, and a mere fourteen days before Lennon’s iconic “debut”.
Of course, as fate would have it, it was this album that would emerge triumphant against the rest of the post-fab-four solo projects, becoming the top-selling album of 1971. And there’s certainly a lot to take in, from the joyful opener “I’d have you anytime” and the anthemic “What is Life”, which feels like a clarion call for 70’s rock, mixing orchestral backgrounds with the bass tones from the Spencer Davis Group’s “Keep on Running”.
Being the huge beast that it is, “All Things Must Pass” is hard to get the real feel of until a few listens in. With the exception of the euphoric “My Sweet Lord” and the wonderful title track, not much on here quite reaches the magic of “While my Guitar Gently Weeps”, but what comes through is a brimming sense of confidence – as if George was finally enjoying his emancipation after a decade in the shadows of Lennon and McCartney.
It’s a bit sad saying it, but for us Generation X’ers, Rod Stewart has always been a bit of a comic character. Whether that’s because of countless cheesy discos playing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, that fucking awful collaboration with Sting and Bryan Adams, or just his status as an icon of 70’s rock pomp, I don’t know, but I approached “Gasoline Alley” with some trepidation.
That’s a bit unfair really, because between his solo work and The Faces, he was capable of putting out a few belters when he wanted to. And let’s face it, his appearance on Jeff Beck’s “Shape of Things” sounded wonderfully familiar and kind of epic at the same time.
“Gasoline Alley” isn’t Rod’s big album – that honour would go to his 1971 follow-up “Every Picture Tells a Story”, and it’s surprisingly gentle. It’s mostly acoustic, leaning on a few country chords and Rod’s distinctive voice, but it does have a few chances to rock, including a delightful cover of The Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now” (more famously covered by the Stones).
For the most part though, this is a songwriter’s album, whether that’s in a tender cover of Bob Dylan’s “Only a Hobo”, covering Elton John’s “Country Comforts”, or indeed Stewart’s own efforts on “Gasoline Alley” and “Lady Day”, both of which stand out on here.
“Gasoline Alley” has the vibe of a folky album, but that’s not really doing it justice. Pulling The Faces in for “It’s All Over Now” and the more riffy “I Don’t Want to Discuss It” gives it its rock certificate, while there are touches of soul and R&B throughout. What this album is though is a surprisingly dignified and tender 42 minutes. Even if its creator would later become the tartan twat of 70’s pop culture, he deserves more than a little credit for this underrated delight.
As I get into my forties, one of the more depressing signposts of middle-aged obsolescence is the plethora of “Deluxe Editions” and “20th Anniversary releases of my favourite albums. Still, there are some treats to be had. “In Utero” and “The Downward Spiral” had superb remasters and remixes, while “Definitely Maybe” was the perfect collection of the original album and all the B-sides that made Oasis such a phenomenon way back then.
I mention all this because “Live at Leeds” could be argued as an exception to the rule. It’s an album that in its current incarnation stretches over two hours, including a full live rendition of “Tommy”, monologues to the crowd and performances of “Tattoo”, “Happy Jack” and “Heaven and Hell”. It’s epic in its scope, and impressive, sure, but felt sprawling and hard to get into at first.
Contrast that with the original 1970 release, 37 minutes’ long and packaged in a shabby cardboard gatefold sleeve, and comprising just six tracks. The first, a cover of Mose Allison’s “Young Man’s Blues” is full of satanic fire, and their hit “Substitute” is transformed into a brutally short but adrenalised blast. It’s followed by similarly furious covers of “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over”, to create a masterful and iconic side A.
The 15-minute epic version of “My Generation” starts Side B, and promises the operatic rock that would come to define their 70’s output through tracks like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “The Seeker”. The closing track, “Magic Bus” is even more exciting, with Daltrey on top form, with Keith Moon hammering the skins with the fury that would come to define him as a rock icon.
It’s worth noting that this, their first live album, was also among the last to feature the classic line-up of Daltrey, Townsend, Entwhistle and Moon. From that perspective, what you’ve got here is the archetypical grand rock band in their prime, unleashed on stage and distilled into 37 minutes of near rock perfection.
Even if the sound has become a curry house cliché, there’s always been something quite joyous about the sound of a sitar. It was the dawn prayer of the Beatles going somewhere interesting on “Norwegian Wood (This bird has flown)” and something that Ravi Shankar would do a great job of introducing to Western audiences with 1968’s “The Sounds of India”.
For Shankar’s nephew Ananda, it was an invitation from Jimi Hendrix to collaborate on an album together that got him to go his own way, deciding that such an album “wouldn’t be my music”. And while we can mourn the loss of one of the greatest albums that never were, it did lead to something quite interesting.
Ananda Shankar’s eponymous album was a landmark in creating a fusion of traditional Indian classical music with a modern, rock feel. It’s best evident on storming covers of “Jumping Jack Flash”, which opens the album, or the warmer “Light my Fire”, but thanks to the healthy injection of Moog and a few good drum solos, it’s a motif that carries through.
(found a really good remix of it too).
It’s also a good landmark for ambient music. “Snow Flower” calms the mood with a pleasant floating sound, and “Sagar (The Ocean)” explores that ambience on a whole new level. The latter was also reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” for me, but whether that’s down to the wind sound effects or my own Floyd geekiness is up for debate.
“Metamorphosis”, a highlight of the album, brings the funk quite nicely, and there’s some fantastic breakbeats and Moog chords to keep things interesting. “Dance Indra” moves back to Indian traditionalism (despite the addition of rich synth), while album closer “Raghupati” combines the chanting narrative fun that his uncle pioneered with a fevered, upbeat approach.
“Ananda Shankar” takes a few listens to adapt to, and sank too fast into the background on the first few plays, but there’s a lot to discover once you get into it, and move past the stereotypes that plague musical genres like this.
That we often think about Nick Drake in bleak terms is sad in itself, a reflection of his most famous and tragic work, Pink Moon. It’s sad, because there was a time where, despite his demons, he glowed with potential, and nowhere is that more true than on Bryter Later, his second album.
If his debut, Five Leaves Left, gave a sense of his dreamlike creativity, it was an introspective and thoughtful peace that contrasts interestingly with this album, an album that drips playful confidence and skill.
Bryter Later is an intriguing album that uses his iconic and hushed vocals properly, seamlessly blending them with orchestral touches. In fact, some of the album’s highlights, the Introduction and the mellow title track, are instrumental, and with Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks roped in, along with John Cale, this feels like a collaborative musical work.
It’s still Drake’s album though. On the most iconic track, “At the Chime of a City Clock”, his vocals make the album, and when he switches between emotional turbulence and subtle self-parody between “Fly” and “Poor Boy”, his soft lyrics and gentle song are spellbinding. The latter track, “Poor Boy”, seems to surge with a jazzy upbeat feel (there’s even a saxophone floating around in there somewhere, and at over 6 minutes, it’s the biggest track on the album in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
“Northern Sky” is gorgeous in its simplicity, while the instrumental closing track, “Sunday”, returns to the iconic chords that defined so much of the album. It’s less than 4 minutes long, but feels like it drifts along for much longer (in a good way).
“Bryter Later” is different to both Drakes debut and follow-up albums. While it’s demeaning to call “Bryter Later” the cheery one, as it’s multi-layered and has its melancholy moments too. It’s probably the one that shows off what could have been though, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a listen.
Maybe it’s the weight of expectation, but after years of not giving The Grateful Dead any kind of serious listen, but still hearing of their devoted following and the ongoing deification of Jerry Garcia, I always felt like I was missing something.
Discovering “Live/Dead” a few reviews back was a bittersweet moment then. Looking back, it was a notable piece of live psychedelia with some impressive moments, but for me it didn’t quite live up to what I was anticipating.
Now once again, I’m discovering The Grateful Dead once more, on what is a radically different beast to “Live/Dead“. Following a quite dramatic metamorphasis from trippy jamming to folk-rock with their previous album “Workingman’s Dead”, “American Beauty” has been described as the band’s landmark piece, and by rights it is a fine, beautifully crafted album. And yet, I still find myself not quite engaging.
When the album starts off with the gentle yet rich “Box of Rain”, it sets the tone for the album, a slice of Americana that pulls in the country sound but matches it with a worldview that’s more Rock than Nashville.
“Friend of the Devil” is more energetic and quite witty with its lyrics, while “Sugar Magnolia” is just as well-crafted, with bright use of harmonic vocals and steel guitar. The short and snappy “Operator” leans on Ron “Pigpen” McKernan both for its lyrics and vocals, and it’s full of charm.
“Candyman” is the longest track on the album, and it demonstrates Garcia’s pained and soulful vocals best, and once again the smart use of harmonies makes it a highlight of the album.
Side B starts with “Ripple”, a track that drops any pretension of the Dead’s rock roots, a pure country effort. There’s much to enjoy though, with a serene mood that carries on through their next track, “Brokedown Palace”. The latter is slower, softer and almost a cappela except for some piano and a little subtle bass guitar.
“Till the Morning Comes” gets the tempo going again, and is perhaps the most old-school Dead track on the album. There’s something intangibly 60s about it, and there’s a couple of points in the chorus where it almost sounds like something from the fab four. Or maybe that’s going a bit far.
“Attics of my Life” leans on that harmonic vocal theme more than any other track on the album, and it’s flawlessly crafted and haunting. But for all its technical prowess, it’s not as memorable as you’d hope.
The album finishes with the R&B-sounding “Truckin'”, a happy celebration of life on the road with the band. It was a popular radio favourite for the band, and it’s easy to see why. This isn’t a post-CSNY country track, but a folky rock ballad. As far as tracks on the album go, it’s the black sheep of the family, but as a closer, it’s a romantic delight.
There’s a lot to enjoy on “American Beauty”, and there’s no doubt about the remarkable craftmanship that put it together. And once again I find myself enjoying the listening experience, despite that “Yeah, but…” voice in my head that stops me really falling for it.
“What a long strange trip it’s been”, Jerry sings on the end of “Truckin'”.
One of the things I’m fast learning as I work through this list is that sometimes, even on great albums, well, sometimes you have to work for it – I loved Bitches Brew, sure, but it took a few listens to sink into. And I still haven’t got around to revisiting Trout Mask Replica (call it PTSD).
So, coming across an album like “Moondance”, one I’d never heard before and, “Caravan” aside, I really didn’t know much of, and finding myself immersed in it within a few tracks, well that was a treat.
“Moondance” of course, is Van Morrison’s follow-up to the epic, if ethereal, “Astral Weeks”. But while this album retains Morrison’s lyrical charisma and soul, it’s a much richer and refined sound, filled with guitars, horns, and even a sense of pop.
The opening track, the haunting “And it Stoned Me”, sets the tone for the album, creating a snapshot of adolescent days that combines emotion and story expertly. The title track that follows is more playful but filled with jazz sensibilities, and the third track, the wistful “Crazy Love”, was an instant hit that inspired a popular cover by Helen Reddy.
“Caravan” was the track I was probably most familiar with before visiting this album, and it’s always been a favourite of mine. I first discovered it in an old episode of The West Wing, and it’s always felt comforting, a perfect track for sunny weekends when you’ve got nothing to do and want to play loud and relax. The live version on “The Last Waltz” is really worth checking out too.
“Into the Mystic” is almost certainly the highlight of the album, even if picking out one track from the mix is a bit unfair. It’s a track that evokes the dreaminess that defined “Astral Weeks” but brings a rich mix of vocal highs and horn backgrounds to create something truly captivating. True, lines like “I want to rock your gypsy soul…” sound slightly awkward, but when you’re listening, you really don’t care.
Side B of the album kicks off with the joyful “Come Running” and that sense of euphoria stays even for more folky tracks like “These Dreams of You” and “Brand New Day”. By the time the album starts to close with “Everyone” and the wonderful “Glad Tidings”, you’re left feeling part of something warm and even special.
“Astral Weeks” might well stand as Morrison’s creative high, but “Moondance” is the album that’s going to be best remembered fondly for a long time.
If there was an embryonic trinity for heavy metal, with Led Zeppelin bringing the riffs, and Black Sabbath delivering the scary, then this is the album where Deep Purple brought the batshit insane.
In fact, Deep Purple had been around for a while, with some success, but it was “In Rock”, their fourth album, and their first with the classic lineup featuring Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, that cemented (get it?) their reputation.
The opening solo of “Speed King” sounded like nothing that had ever existed before, a cacophony of axe-mangling that would have made Led Zep and Sabbath spill their tea. Then after some unnecessary organ fiddling, it bursts into an orgy of Little Richard lyrics (nice touch), introducing an entire new hellscape of fast, hard metal.
The second track, “Bloodsucker” is mellow enough to let you take a breath, even if it sounds like meandering jam session, but things heat up soon after.
“Child in Time” is a monster. It’s long, it’s bold, it’s loud and it’s many things mashed into one. It starts with what sounds like a reflection of Deep Purple’s psychedelic roots, with gentle vocals that channel Jim Morrison (as well as sounding puzzlingly like Tony Hadley), and takes up a quarter of the entire album. There’s no time for nostalgia though, as it steps up quickly into some powerful guitar work from Ritchie Blackmore, including a three-minute solo that’s nothing short of spectacular. When the psychedelia comes back (at around the six-minute mark), it’s back with full rock afterburners on, with high-pitched choral screams that might have inspired Queen.
“Flight of the Rat” isn’t quite as epic, but it does mix the psychedelic and the thrash together neatly, plus it brings a great bit of wah-wah silliness at 4:46, as well as some great drumming at the 7-minute mark.
“Into the Fire” is riffy and more conventional, but it’s effective and exciting. It’s followed by “Living Wreck”, which is the most traditionally Deep Purply track as well as being the runt of the litter. Still, it manages to steal some effects from “Hush”, and there’s even some of the “Smoke on the Water” riff hidden in there.
The album concludes with “Hard Lovin’ Man”, which harks back once again to the band’s 60’s roots, with some ace electric piano and Moog-mangling, but it also has a high-tempo metal riff that feels ahead of its time and goes out in an orgy of distortion and feedback that would make Kurt Cobain proud.
As an album, “In Rock” was never quite as iconic as “Led Zeppelin II” or “Paranoid”, but as you listen to it you can hear Iron Maiden, Van Halen and Twisted Sister being conceived on the mixing desk, and that’s just on the first track.
Even with one foot still planted in the sixties, “In Rock” manages to stand as a bold statement of what rock music was going to become.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that there’s another side to Led Zeppelin, at least if you’re listening to them in these early career stages anyway. The blues to rock to epic bang that defined tracks like “Communication Breakdown” and of course, “Whole Lotta Love” were, by this time in their career, the Zep’s trademark, but they did alright on the softer acoustic side as well.
I never particularly liked Led Zeppelin III growing up, despite the fact that it begins with what is probably (one of) my favourite tracks, the blindingly exciting “Immigrant Song”. This is the first album that really explores that ‘other’ Led Zeppelin, with gentle acoustics and a mix of (blatantly nicked) folk-blues and weird Druid shit.
“Immigrant Song” is explosive, angry, frightening even, an adrenalised fury of howling vocals and thunder. It’s a song that came to define the Zep’s live sets (when they weren’t going drum batshit on “Moby Dick” anyway), and damn it’s good. Check this puppy out…
It’s been covered to death, recently and notably by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” soundtrack (it is quite a Scandinavian song), but for me the best ones are a VERY early and noisy Nirvana…
… and a rather more sedate but evocative acoustic cover by SOAK.
“Friends”, which follows, is the first taste of that ‘other’ Led Zeppelin on the album, with the band stretching their acoustic legs on a simple but intriguing number that even dares to have strings! (Judas!). But don’t fret, it ends on some nice Moog that leads into “Celebration Day”, a more traditional rock number.
“Celebration Day” isn’t the band’s most remarkable track (the critics weren’t kind to the rock numbers on Side A of this album), but it does come at you like a freight train, and the bass and lead guitars work in delicious synergy.
“Since I’ve Been Loving You” returns to the acoustic, and is one of the more notable tracks on the album, full of soul and blues. Like three other tracks on here, it was ‘covered’ by Page and Plant for their MTV ‘Unledded’ performance and subsequent album “No Quarter”, mixed with a Middle Eastern orchestra and despite the strange surroundings, is more bluesy than ever.
“Out on the Tiles” is often overlooked, which is a shame, because it evokes the sound of their first album and ends the A-side nicely.
Once the vinyl flips though, the real essence of this album starts to come out. It starts off with a rousing (and once again pilfered) cover of Leadbelly’s “Gallows Pole”, and is a grand new step for the band, not just acoustic but creatively structured and merging folk banjo with more familiar rock drums. It leans on tradition but is full of invention and never fails to excite.
It’s followed by “Tangerine” and “That’s the Way”, both among the band’s more gentle and emotional songs. Both incidentally were used to great effect in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”, with “Tangerine” providing the perfect outro (man, I love that film). “That’s The Way” also gets the “No Quarter” treatment, quite effectively.
“Bron-y-Aur Stomp” is a triumph of a track, sounding both richly acoustic and different to anything the band had done previously, while the album’s closer “Hats off to Roy Harper” is a surreal mix of slide guitar and distorted vocals that shows off Plant’s prowess as a blues singer.
It’s a fitting end to this album that the closing track leans on the blues tradition and acoustics rather than the usual crunchy riffs. When Led Zeppelin III was released, it got a rough ride from the critics (so much so that Page refused to give interviews for 18 months), but as Page himself stated, “Led Zeppelin III was not one of the best sellers in the catalogue because the audience turned round and said ‘What are we supposed to do with this?’—’Where is our ‘Whole Lotta Love Part 2’?”.
Led Zeppelin III has been redeemed over the ages, and it’s an album I warm to in a way that teenage me didn’t. The band would soon reach a creative zenith with “IV” and “Physical Graffiti”, but this is an important album, a reminder that in a world surrounded by Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin had the smarts to push the envelope a bit.
As I mentioned in my previous review, Neil Young was a hard sell for me back in my youth. The ‘godfather of grunge’ was a singer-songwriter with a weird whiny voice, and “After the Gold Rush”, his third solo album and the first one I ever bought, was pretty far removed from Mudhoney.
So, I bought it, gave it a couple of listens and ultimately let it gather dust. There were a few highlights to be heard, like the original version of St. Etienne’s “Only Love Will Break Your Heart”, or “Southern Man”, the song that would later get Lynyrd Skynyrd so lyrically pissed off. But ultimately, there was nothing really exciting to be found here.
It’s a misconception that I’m not alone in. When the album was initially released, it fell on critical deaf ears, with Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner savaging it as a “half-baked pie” that he couldn’t listen to all the way through.
Time though, has been kind, and with good reason. Those pedestrian-sounding melodies open up after a while, and this album grew in time to be a critical hit, and Rolling Stone itself rated it 71st in its “Greatest Albums of All Time” poll in 2003.
The album kicks off with “Tell Me Why”, a gentle but fulfilling start that sets the mood nicely. Throughout, “After the Goldrush” is reflective, even sorrowful, but not without hope. Is it an album about loss? Heartbreak? Or simply a hymn to the end of the 1960’s?
It’s a hard question to answer, but the best insights go into the title track, a surreal but haunting piece with lyrics that have long been puzzled over, but essentially it boils down to a three-verse structure reflecting on past (“Well, I dreamed I saw the knights in armor coming…”), the present (“There was a band playing in my head and I felt like getting high.”), and future (“Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying”). It’s soothing and a great example of Young’s distinctive wrong-octave singing.
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” follows “Tell Me Why” as one of the more heart-rending songs of the album, and it becomes increasingly clear that this is an album about heartbreak. From this point of view, it feels rich and multilayered. And of course, it wouldn’t do not to plug the gorgeous Saint Etienne cover while I’m here (how adorable does Sarah Cracknell look in this by the way?).
The rock, and the vitriol, step up for “Southern Man”, a hard-hitting attack on racism in the south, with an early appearance by the 17-year-old Nils Lofgren on piano, and it’s followed by the charming “Till the Morning Comes”. The powerful and bleak “Oh Lonesome Me” finishes off the trinity of heart-tuggers, and the B-side is filled with more esoteric stuff, like the hopeful “Don’t Let it Bring You Down”, the beautiful “Birds”, and the charming “When You Dance I Can Really Love”. The album’s closers, “I Believe in You” and the short and folky “Cripple Creek Ferry” help realise this album’s charm.
“After the Gold Rush” is, for the most part, a gentle album, and it’s one that captures the best of Young, from heartfelt lyrics to vocal range to ability to combine country sentiments with the rock sound. He’d go on to bigger things with “Harvest” (so I’m told), but in the meantime, there’s a lot to discover here.
“It’s tough, resilient music, and you know you can dip it underwater and like an AK-47 it still works” – Henry Rollins
Things were starting to get exciting in 1970, and a trinity of British hard-rocking bands was emerging with the rise of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and of course, Black Sabbath.
Ozzy and the boys had already had some success with the seminal (if far from perfect) first album, “Black Sabbath”, but it was with this one, just seven months later, that things really started to heat up.
As the first track opens, the fearsome “War Pigs”, you can almost feel a dark shadow growing over you, with Iommi’s now familiar growling riffs slowly growing, and that feeling builds up before the vocals kick in. Throughout, you’re sat there thinking “Fuck yeah…” as it unfolds. It’s been described as “A Hieronymus Bosch painting brought to life” and that’s a good analogy. The lyrics start awkwardly (I still flinch at “Generals gathered in their masses, Just like witches at black masses…”), but there’s some powerful commentary in here.
Lyrics were never Sabbath’s strong point, and they were never meant to be. Ozzy freely admits that “(we) used to write songs in the van, get to the gig and I would sing any old shit, as long as it had got a melody with it.”. On “Paranoid”, arguably Sabbath’s most famous track, the lyrics are a minor part of the track, and it’s the claustrophobic, foaming-at-the-mouth ferocity that gets you.
“Planet Caravan” has always been a controversial addition to the album; it’s a slow-burning slice of psychedelia that feels like it’s stowed away on the hyperspace jump from their first album to here. But things soon get back on track with the menacing “Iron Man”. Conceived around its riff, like so many tracks on the album, it’s thunderous, dark and yet exciting. Originally the song was going to be called “Iron Bloke” but the Marvellous moniker works better.
I’ve used the word ‘sinister’ a few times in this review, but it’s an adjective that fits best with the apocalyptic vibe that fills “Electric Funeral”, mixing ominous guitar, some rather nifty drumming and Ozzy right in his element, to create what’s probably the highlight of the album.
“Hand of Doom”, an epic nightmare about the dangers of heroin, is where the lyrics actually get smart, creating a suffocating nightmare that sounds like it created grunge twenty years early. “Rat Salad”, a short instrumental, is often slated as jamming nonsense, but there’s some impressive moments to be found, including some satisfyingly Spinal Tap drum solos.
The album closer, “Faeries Wear Boots” grew to be a live favourite, and it’s got its fair share of epic. Actually a song about a shady encounter with some skinheads, it might as well be a tale of a trek across Mordor for all the mystery it packs in. It’s a great closing track, not necessarily all that good but big, bold and bastardy.
If “Black Sabbath” was the ‘first heavy metal’ album, as has been mooted, then this might be its first masterpiece. It’s an album that defines the Sabbath sound, making the most of Ozzy’s vocals, Iommi’s guitar and Geezer Butler’s impressive drumming, and creating something that was new but would be imitated for decades to come.
The more I get into the 1001 Albums lark, the more I realise that some of the albums I’d previously visited disappear just as quickly into forgetfulness – maybe that’s a call to action to listen to them again, but then Pete Tong has just released that classical house album and there’s the Trainspotting 2 soundtrack album next week and hey, I can’t fake being musically cultured ALL the time you know.
But when it comes to looking at this album, it’s strikingly clear that there’s not much I remember from the first Crosby Stills and Nash album, even though I reviewed it just a few months back. And that’s a pity, because this one has its fair share of intrigue, even if it takes a while to really get into.
Historically, this album is a bit of a shitter, closely following the death of David Crosby’s girlfriend in a car accident, and took over 800 studio hours to complete. Neil Young, brought in to bring some grit to the CSN sound, mostly failed to turn up, and Graham Nash played unwitting peacemaker to the squabbling bunch.
Still, the end product was worth it. The product of four musicians who were putting out some of their best stuff (1970 was also the year of “Stephen Stills”, “After the Goldrush” and David Crosby’s “If I could only Remember my Name”, this album is full of care and soul.
From the opening anthem “Carry On” to the paranoid and stirring “Almost Cut My Hair” and the beautiful but pretty-much-a-solo-Neil-Young-track “Helpless”, this album is an immersive and loving snapshot of post-hippy America. The A-side closer, a rousing cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” is iconic and epic (as well as being the only track on the album they managed to record as a group).
Side B doesn’t really reach the same heights as the first half, but does contain the wonderful, joyous “Our House”, where the group channeled their inner Paul McCartneys into a warm family-friendly anthem. It’s the cherry on top of this rather satisfying trifle of an album.
I have a theory when it comes to the Beatles, that each of them represents a stage in our lives. We enter this world as Pauls, we grow up on cheery pop and sing “Penny Lane” and “Mull of Kintyre” during school assemblies. As we reach into our thirties we become George, we sing songs about love and heartbreak and we explore who we are and confront our own spirituality. And when the Autumn years come we go full Ringo – it’s all about happiness and yellow submarines and generally not giving a fuck.
Where does John fit into all this (you’ll notice I cunningly left him out there)?
John is our youth. His songs are full of angst and pain and rock and roll. He falls in love like a teenager and he always demands attention, to be recognised as special.
The theory kind of fits. I know that as a child Paul was my favourite (he was probably the only one I could name aged 8, and then I got him confused with Paul Young). I know that I discovered George in my thirties. And I know that my old fat bastard self thinks Ringo is the bollocks.
And of course, when I was 16, young, dumb and full of um… it was John. I even had the specs. I listened to “Shaved Fish” and found myself drawn in, imagining an emotional connection, in awe of the dichotomy of a peacenik hippy who was also a violent bastard Scouser. I was totally John.
And there’s a part of me that still probably is. His was arguably the most notable of the post-Beatle careers, and his songs were part of my growing up.
Looking at this album, his first proper solo effort (let’s leave “Two Virgins” where it belongs), it’s hard to imagine (cough) what it stood for in itself – tracks like “Mother”, “Love” and “Working Class Hero” are part of his canon and our modern consciousness, so how to judge listening to them as freshly penned and unassuming?
I’ve known this album for years but, rediscovering it for this review, it struck me at first how self-indulgent it sounded, a cry for lost puppy pity from a man who’d made himself bigger than Jesus. The first track, “Mother” doesn’t do much to dispel this notion, from the ominous church bells which start it off to the first verse crying “You didn’t want me…” to his old mum.
To be fair though, from those first bells (deliberately symbolising the ‘death’ of The Beatles), through to the howling pain that ends the song, “Mother” is a brutal and powerful beast. While a lot of this album is centred around John’s “Primal Scream” therapy and his attempts to address his own childhood demons, this track brings it to the fore, and his screams of “MAMA DON’T GO…” are genuinely chilling. It’s also worth noting that the gentle drumming that makes the song as mellow as it is caustic are provided by old Ringo.
“Hold On” is a short track, and quite remarkable in its simplicity, consisting almost entirely of John and his guitar (although Ringo was still in business). It’s a hymn to emotional vulnerability, and damn does it sound like it. But there’s a lot of warmth to gain from it, and when he sings “it’s gonna be all right, we’re gonna win the fight”, it’s moving stuff. And if it’s all getting a bit too deep, you’ve always got the unexpected “COOKIE” right there in the middle of the song.
“I Found Out” steps up with a more energetic bluesy riff, and a crunchy tremolo guitar riff. It’s a raw (both in sound and lyrics) assault on organised religion and energises the album, dragging it away from the abyss of melancholy.
For me, and I may well be in a minority opinion here, the highlight of the whole album is the epic and gorgeous “Working Class Hero”. It’s a testament to the fact that the ‘primal scream’ persona of this album isn’t just limited to the howling on ‘Mother’ – there’s real vitriol in the lyrics here.
It’s a cunning commentary of the class system as he would have seen it growing up in post-war Liverpool, and how the system is designed to grind us down and keep us begging. In these Trumpy Brexit times, it’s a prescient listen, and we could all use a reminder that we’re “all fucking peasants as far as I can see”. It’s been covered a few times, in a gorgeous rendition from Marianne Faithfull, a version by Tin Machine (I’m good thanks), and a surprisingly good rock interpretation from Green Day.
It’s a bold, angry and ultimately haunting track. Skip the maudlin floweriness of “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” – “Working Class Hero” is a song at the heart of John Lennon.
“Isolation” is a similarly powerful piece, gentle and haunting, like we’re falling into the black. Roger Waters claims it as one of his favourites (which sort of figures), and it’s been covered by Marianne Faithfull (again), Harry Nillson and Joe Cocker, who gives it a Nashville sound that is as clever as it is unexpected.
Side B kicks off with “Remember”, a song relating to John’s therapy sessions and looking back with regret at his past. It’s mostly unremarkable but for more Ringo on drums and the use of Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me” in the lyrics.
I first discovered “Love” back in my student days and it’s a beautiful, ethereal song, mixing romance with introspection in a way that only John could do. It opens slowly and quietly (which I remember being a frustration when I put it on a monthly compilation tape), but it’s worth the wait. While writing this I discovered the 1990 Dream Academy cover, which is the spiritual twin of Candy Flip’s cover abortion of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Still, I’ll post it here, because I’m antisocial and besides, we all did terrible things in the 1990s.
The music critic Paul Evans describes “Well Well Well” as a ‘tougher rock song than nearly anything before the Sex Pistols, an interesting description as at first glance, this is a tongue-in-cheek upbeat ode to his life with Yoko. But before long, the primal screams begin, with a fury that dwarfs anything before it. I just hope the poor bastard had a Strepsil handy after recording it.
“Look at Me” owes a lot in sound to “Dear Prudence” and “Julia” and, while short, is sweetly crafted. It leads neatly into the epic “God”, gorgeous and bold in its outlook. While it’s actually the penultimate track, it works as a closer for the album, reflecting on the nature of God before disavowing beliefs from mantra to Elvis, before reflecting on the end of the fab four and looking forward.
As a teenager, I discovered U2’s “God Part Two” before I knew Lennon’s original and it’s an affectionate if self-satisfied tribute. Plus, the lines “Don’t believe in Goldman, his type’s like a curse, Instant Karma’s gonna get him if I don’t get him first” needed saying after his 1988 hatchet job on Lennon and Yoko.
Fast approaching middle age and going Ringo, I’ve often abandoned my adolescent adoration of John in favour of cynicism about his self-indulgence and navel-gazing, but listening to the album’s coda, the brutal “My Mummy’s Dead”, it would take a cynical bastard not to be affected by the emotions on this album. This is an album of musical and lyrical invention, it’s as deeply personal as you could want for an album to be, and it’s arguably the height of Lennon’s solo career. A gentle yet salty classic.
Oh, and I never mentioned Yoko’s companion album, also titled ‘Plastic Ono Band’. I listened to it though. And I have a headache now.
You know what, I’ve got a confession. I’m 183 albums into this odyssey now, and there have been some that have been and gone from my consciousness, where I actually have to look back on my review to remember what I thought of them. And there are some times where I feel like I’ve really not got my teeth into an album enough to give it a fair review.
Sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud.
It’s a feeling that’s popped in my head a few times listening to this album. While Stephen Stills isn’t a big part of the modern music consciousness, he was 25% of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and he was the bloke who wrote Buffalo Springfield’s “For What it’s Worth”, so he’s worthy of some attention.
And even if he wasn’t, then this album certainly is, if for no other reason than the insane list of performers who appear on it. As well as appearances from Mama Cass, Ringo Starr, Rita Coolidge, Booker T Jones and Davids Crosby and Nash, this album brings together Jimi Hendrix and Eric ‘Cunt’ Clapton together on a side of vinyl for the first and last time (your Dad’s driving rock compilations aside). On this album, dedicated to Hendrix (who died a month before its release), he appears on the fourth track, “Old Times Good Times” with some very nifty (though slightly subdued) axe mastery.
Of course, the opening track, the energetic and radio-friendly “Love the One You’re With” is his best-known offering, mixing esoteric lyrics with Latin rhythms and that always ambiguous key message – does it mean to be thankful for who you have rather than chasing horizons, or is it basically a musical justification for getting your end away when you’re on the road? Probably the latter, but then this was the early seventies, so anything goes (went?), right?
Either way, for those who’ve watched “Prometheus”, if you get the chance to shag Charlize Theron, this is a great soundtrack. Take it away Mr Idris…
The second track, “Do For the Others” is the most CSNY-esque moment of the album, while “Church” mixes gospel R&B into soft rock with some finesse. Apart from Jimi’s appearance, “Old Times Good Times” ticks along without too much drama, although it’s notable for the fact that the opening chords sound just like Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”.
Almost as if he was aware of getting upstaged by the previous track, Eric Clapton gives it its all in the pleasing “Go Back Home”, which gets its blues-rock mojo working. Side B begins with the smooth and romantic “Sit Yourself Down”, which is, for me at least, the high point of the album. The mood softens with the drifting “To a Flame”, before mixing folk rock with a touch of psychedelia in the enchanting “Black Queen”. Things get stranger with the upbeat “Cherokee”, which begins sounding like a theme from a 70’s cop show before busting out the sitars and jazz horns.
The final track, “We are Not Helpless” is where Stills brings out the full entourage though, with Ringo on drums, Mama Bass, Rita Coolidge, David Crosby and Graham Nash on backing vocals and Booker T Jones on the organ. If Bono had turned up I wouldn’t have been surprised. The song itself is quite gentle and even conventional, but it still feels epic with its gospel notes towards the end.
“Stephen Stills” is an album which has had its fair share of praise, and has moments of real flair and creative diversity, as well as more than a little soul. But to me, it’s still an album that feels like it’s constantly playing too quietly, that even in its more energised moments really feels raucous. But then again, I’m a fraud so what do I know?
I’ll admit it – I got stuck with this one. After my October surge which started, as every month does, with a half-arsed attempt to write a review every day, I got knocked off course in a very Easy Listening way here.
Of course, after years of being taken at easy face value, recent years have been kind to Carpenters (they were very specific about dropping the definite article). There’s a wonderful nineties compilation of covers, “If I was a Carpenter”, that’s still in print and worth checking out for instance. Check out this delicious bit of Sonic Youth…
And, for the record, we had “Top of the World” as first dance at my (our) wedding. Yeah I know, I’m a soft old shite really.
This, their first successful effort, is a delicate balance of talented musicianship and shamelessly seventies cheese. The first track, “We’ve only Just Begun”, one of their most famous tracks, was adapted from a regional bank advert jingle, and a good deal of the tracks on here are covers, including the Lennon/McCartney and Bacharach/David songbooks.
In fact, for the first half of the album it’s almost entirely covers – as well as the opening track, the second track, “Love is Surrender” is an adaptation from a Christian musical, and it’s only with the charming but slightly flat “Maybe it’s You” that their own songwriting begins. Their cover of “Help!” starts off unconvincingly, but redeems itself a bit with some rather nifty Hammond Organ work later on.
The highlight of the album, in fact probably their career, is the magnificent “They Long to Be (Close To You)”, which is of course, a cover but one which they truly made their own. It drifts, it soars, it seeps romance and love from every pore and it’s glorious. Just try not to picture your parents having sex to it.
Side B begins with a joyous cover of “Baby It’s You”, a song which I never really cared for as a Beatles track, but it wins you over here (I never realised it was a Burt Bacharach track by the way). The Bacharaching continues with “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”, a pleasant rendition that you can’t help suspecting could have been so much more.
From then on there’s more self-penned work, including “Crescent Moon” and the rather enchanting “Mr Guder”, written about Richard’s manager while he worked at Disneyland (well, where would you expect a Carpenter to work?) and it’s insightful, sharp and even a little bitchy (well by Carpenters standards anyway).
There’s an upbeat moment in “I Kept on Loving You”, and the album closes with the gentle but bold “Another Song”, a jazz-infused suite that is notable for a. Not sounding much like a Carpenters song and b. borrowing slightly from Handel’s “Messiah”.
This album has the ’finding their feet’ feel that you get from albums like “Please Please Me” and “England’s Newest Hit Makers” – it’s heavy on the covers and the self-penned stuff doesn’t zing like you know it could. But, like those albums before, you can listen to it and sink into a warm saccharine glow of a musical heritage filled with joy, tragedy and some gorgeous vocals from Karen. And it’s so very very seventies.
“I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began”
– Jim Morrison, “Maggie M’Gill”.
For all the musical skill floating around in the band, the fact is that it’s hard to separate the story of The Doors from its uniquely talented but similarly ridiculous lead singer. Just as Melody Maker mocked The Doors’ 1993 reunion as akin to the Jimi Hendrix Experience reforming, Jim Morrison was, and is, The Doors.
By the time their fourth album, “Morrison Hotel” turned up in February 1970, the band had gone from creating their eponymous and classic debut to the decidedly iffy (but hugely successful) “The Soft Parade”, packed with experimental weirdness and pomposity. Meanwhile Morrison had degenerated into full-blown alcoholism and whipping his todger out on stage in Miami (and facing the prospect of imprisonment and hard labour for his troubles).
For “Morrison Hotel”, they decided to return to their blues-rock roots, and it’s an album with far less of the psychedelia that their following had gotten used to. From the opening “Roadhouse Blues”, it oozes blues respectability, even with Morrison’s slurred lyrics, making it perhaps the best-known track from the album.
There’s also a Crystal Method remix out there which I enjoyed far more than I’m proud of, but I digress.
Anyway, moving right along, “Waiting for the Sun” is a subdued affair that’s arguably the most Doors-ey track of the bunch, and with reason, originating in sessions for their album of the same name two years previously.
It works in sharp contrast with “You Make Me Real”, a proper funky rock stomp complete with electric piano and cries of “roll baby roll…”. Lester Bangs called it ‘a thyroid burst of manufactured energy worthy of a thousand mediocre groups’ but then he was hardly the band’s biggest fan. Actually it’s a hidden gem.
“Peace Frog” is a brave and exciting effort, full of funk with a delightful interlude of Morrison’s spoken word poem “Newborn Awakening”, and it always draws a smile. It segues seamlessly into “Blue Sunday”, romantic, drifting and quite lovely, with some rather nifty guitar from Robby Kreiger.
That surprising funky twist comes back on “Ship of Fools”, which closes Side A, leaving you with a feeling of optimism that is, let’s be honest, kind of unexpected.
With “Land Ho!”, which kicks off Side B, it turns out that not only do The Doors have a happy side, but are more than capable of a little humour when it suits them (who knew?). “Land Ho!” is full of Davy Crockett-inspired mischief and is joyful for it.
“The Spy” floats on by with bluesy harmony, and coins the phrase “I am a spy in the house of love” decades before Was (Not Was) got their hands on it. It’s more a filler track, as could also be said for the following “Queen of the Highway”.
“Indian Summer” evokes memories of “The End” with its sublime bassline, even though it’s far less ambitious, but still works as a charming and gentle ballad, despite being just 156 seconds long.
The final track, “Maggie M’Gill”, reeks of the blues, and with its starting bars could be mistaken for BB King. It’s a lyrical treat too, with lines like “Illegitimate son of a rock and roll star, Mom met Dad in the back of a rock and roll car, yeah”. It ends an album that, while far more interesting in the first half, keeps its energy and spark throughout and establishes the band as a legitimate blues-rock performer. While their days were numbered, they were still capable and energetic with this, their penultimate studio album.
I think it was about March last year, when I reviewed “Tommy”, that I pointed out one key fact about this list – the book is entitled “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die”, and that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best, just the ones you MUST hear.
This one fits the latter camp. It’s not quantifiably a GREAT album. It was recorded in a single 12-hour session on a meagre budget. It’s short, rough and for much of the 40 minutes, disappointingly mundane, and it was a critical failure on its release. But, and this is a but Sir Mix-a-Lot would be proud of, this album deserves a blue plaque, because, on this album, heavy metal was born.
In the gloriously meta opening track (“Black Sabbath” from the album “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath), those first bars from Tony Iommi’s guitar come down hard, followed by our old buddy Ozzy’s ominous vocals. The lyrics, designed to scare, seem tame these days, but combined with that sonic canopy, they still sound nice and evil. And oh my word, does the riffing at the 4:30 mark sound fresh.
“Wizard” scales down the ominous, incorporating some blues harmonica, but the guitar keeps growling, and there’s some fine drum work going on too.
“Behind the Wall of Sleep” is a low point on the album, with an arguably archaic sixties vibe. On the other hand, the main riff sounds quite similar to their later “Iron Man”, so that’s nice.
“N.I.B.” is probably the best-known track from the album, and one that they went on to soar with in their live shows. Rumoured to be an abbreviation for “Nativity in Black”, it was later revealed to be named after Bill Ward’s goatee. It’s a guitar-heavy first person narrative from Lucifer, with a riff that’s been described as “the raucous defiling of Cream”.
“Evil Woman” was a cover of a track from Minneapolis band Crow, and it’s more a blues rock track than genuine metal. It was released as Sabbath’s first single, which is slightly disappointing as it doesn’t really represent the sound of the album. There’s even a crude fade-out at the end of the track that just doesn’t belong.
Despite opening bars that sound just like Metallica’s “Unforgiven” and a nice drum solo, “Sleeping Village” is mostly nothing to write home about, but the album closer, the epic “The Warning”, most certainly is.
It’s a track with more conventional “woman-done-me-wrong” lyrics than the more pagan mischief from the rest of the album, but for the whole of it’s 10 and a half minutes, it’s a sonic resume of what guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward could do, and it’s quite a magnificent closer to the album. There’s more than a nod to the blues-rock from the likes of Cream and John Mayall in here, but the sound is truly Sabbath’s own, with the promise of many great things to come.
Tony Iommi famously lost the tips of his middle fingers in an industrial accident, leading him to detune his guitar to make chords easier, and it’s widely suggested that the distinctive dark sound that that created was the nucleus of heavy metal. Certainly, at the 8-minute mark in “The Warning” the guitar sounds like nothing that went before and opened up some great ideas.
There’s no doubt that Black Sabbath were pioneers of the genre, and there’s enough great music to redeem Ozzy from his missus’s later X-Factored crimes against music. There are better metal albums out there, sure, but this is a growling, abrasive little belter that has a lot of history about it. Certainly worth 40 minutes of your time.
California’s Spirit never really made it big – in fact their main lasting impression on pop culture was their riff from instrumental track “Taurus” (from their first album), which would appear to have ‘inspired’ a certain more famous track, but of course, that’s clearly not the case. But in their eleven original years (before closing with a bizarre onstage bout with Neil Young), they managed to put together a few decent tunes.
On this album, “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”, there’s a few surprises. What starts off as a pleasant, even exciting rock album with the charming and riffy “Nothin’ to Hide” soon gets more complex, and while there’s a few good commercial minxes in here (like the acoustic “Nature’s Way” and “Mr Skin”), there’s a lot of experimentation going, with some good proper Moog-mangling on “Love Has Found a Way” and “Space Child”.
That blend of commercial accessibility and experimentation wasn’t a happy mix though, with guitarist Randy California wanting to pushing the envelope and singer Jay Ferguson steering towards the straight and narrow commercial track. By the time this album came to recording, that animosity was boiling, and, like a surprising number of albums on this list, this is the soundtrack to a band in its death throes.
“…Dr Sardonicus” is a short album, at just under 39 minutes, and while there’s pleasure to be had from tracks like “Mr Skin” and “Animal Zoo”, there’s nothing hear that really sticks in the mind. But it’s also an album where there’s some real invention going on, and thanks to Neil Young, the band’s own combustion is channelled into the creativity on display.
By the way, “Dr Sardonicus” was the name of the band’s mixing desk. Which makes the album title quite a pleasing notion to me.
This is where I start to struggle. This isn’t the first time I’ve alluded to the fact that I can’t quite get my head around the whole jazz thing, but as those lucky few who’ve followed this blog will know, I’ve had a few pleasurable surprises from the likes of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, and even Miles Davis himself. When things start to approach the jazz-fusion event horizon though, I begin to feel like I’m out of my depth.
“Bitches Brew” though, as any proper jazz devotee will tell you while stroking their goatees, is THE BOLLOCKS, an epic, groundbreaking milestone in the genre, one that changed everything.
And we have Miles’s midlife crisis to thank. Hitting 40 and breathing in the heady vapours of flower power, he was overly conscious that his crown of head dude of contemporary jazz was slipping. He started recording this album on August 18 1969, just hours after Hendrix tore music a new orifice on stage at Woodstock. Hendrix was on his mind for this album, and the influence that “Electric Ladyland” had on its production is often noted – he even takes up arms against Jimi with “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”.
Miles and Jimi had met by then, and even talked of one day working together, an eye-watering concept of a collaboration. It was Davis’s second wife, Betty Mabry, who introduced them, and, at just 22 years old and surrounded by rock and funk, her influence on this album is now well-acknowledged.
What effect all those influences has is hard to pin down. The opening “Pharoah’s Dance” starts off with a conventional mix of clarinet and electric piano, but it’s not long before the knots start to loosen and things get more convoluted (not before a jarring edit crossover at 1:38 though). Soon the complexity of what’s going on starts to show itself, and the realisation that you’ve got three pianos, two drummers and two bass guitarists all throwing in starts to dawn. As the track goes on, those elements start to sound more disparate and the whole thing reeks of anarchy, but interestingly it all comes together in the last couple of minutes. It’s a noisy, messy and scattershot ride, but there’s a lot to absorb.
Title track “Bitches Brew” brings down the tempo but raises the crazy, stepping away from the trademark rhythmic feel of the rest of the album. It’s a 27-minute-long epic that’s a lot to digest, but it’s certainly interesting – each musician gets a chance to show off, and by the 22-minute mark you’re quite pleasantly absorbed by the whole thing. I was even reminded (and I’m not sure why) of “Sign o’ The Times”-era Prince. Maybe it’s their shared love for a good groovy jam session.
“Spanish Key” sounds more like the jazz-rock-funk-fusion that the album is famed for, complete with some dirty bass chords and a substantial groove, and actually feels a lot more accessible, though just as multi-textured as what went before. There’s still a lot to take in though, and at the 10-minute mark you begin to realise that the traditional idea of a jazz album working as a soothing background to your introspection doesn’t quite gel anymore. There’s so much going on, so many divergent elements coming through the speakers, that it demands concentration.
While there’s not much to really note about the surprisingly short “John McLaughlin” (except for the fact Miles doesn’t even appear on it), things get proper exciting on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”. While it sounds absolutely nothing like Hendrix, it’s pretty clear that the long frenetic jams of “Electric Ladyland” were being emulated here, and it’s rich both in pleasing basslines and some utterly insane electric piano work. There’s even a brief moment at 1:30 where I thought I could hear the bass from Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, although maybe not.
It’s probably the highlight of the album, it’s certainly the point where things get exciting. It’s also the point where Davis’s own trumpet gets the best workout, and there’s something soothing about that.
The album closes with Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary”, a track that had been recorded previously and far more conventionally. It begins so, so gently and sounds more conventional than the madness that preceded it, and it ebbs and flows pleasantly (with a nice little breather around the 5-minute mark).
“Bitches Brew” is certainly epic in scope, and it’s a testament to Davis’s skill that an album with so much going on doesn’t sound like a complete clusterfuck. In fact, it’s so frenetic and multi-layered that a brief few listens doesn’t really do it justice. Suffice it to say that while this level of experimentalism might not be to everyone’s tastes, no one could describe this album as being dull.
Of course, as much as the band’s title wasn’t particularly rocktastic (Derek?), they were responsible for this album’s title track, “Layla”, which is basically THE song, the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of the dad rock generation. It is, to be fair, an epic of a song, with a riff that’s as iconic as riffs get, a fierce energy and heartfelt, often venomous lyrics. That it was inspired by über-muse Patti Boyd, George Harrison’s missus at the time, only adds to its legendary status.
Time, and a few too many driving rock compilations, have dulled the song’s importance with time (plus there was that godawful MTV Unplugged version back in 1993), but when it gets going, it’s still a wonder of music. Personally, I’ve never been too fond of that segue into piano that occupies the latter half of the track, but that’s just splitting hairs.
It goes without saying that “Layla” is the standout track on the album (even the title acknowledges that), and it’s worth noting that this album was an obscure flop for nearly a decade before being rediscovered on the back of THAT song, but it’s not the only interesting tidbit on here.
In fact, it’s worth noting that Derek and the Dominos weren’t really a band as such, and that this is really a solo Clapton album (although the presence of keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon, all from Delaney and Bonnie and Friends certainly adds to the flavour). It brings with it some rich original blues tracks like the sombre “Bell Bottom Blues” and the Eagles-y “Keep on Growing”, as well as some blues classics like Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” and a cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” (you’re not helping yourself by covering Hendrix Eric).
Still, even at 77 minutes long, when you compare the album to the likes of “Disraeli Gears” or “John Mayall’s Blues Breakers”, it does feel like a lesser morsel, less experimental and without the same passion. It has the appeal of an album that’s evolved out of some relaxed jam sessions, but apart from that one track, there’s just not enough here to be truly memorable.
Well, this is the first album in the list from the 1970’s and, as much as I’m looking forward to funking, punking and glamming my way through the next 278 treats on here, this album is a pretty good start.
Of course, I’ve alluded to being a Creedence fan before, and both “Bayou Country” and “Green River” were great pieces of work. But this, their fifth effort, is to me, Creedence at their Creedenciest. It kicks off with the frenzied “Ramble Tamble” before delivering a mix of old rock and blues covers (“Before You Accuse Me” and Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” standing out as treats on side 1), and more soulful pop rock, such as the joyful “Travelin’ Band”, that oozes Little Richard through the speakers.
The shitty time the album was born from isn’t too far away, and the second side turns to a darker path with the Vietnam-themed “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” and “Run Through the Jungle”, but it pulls it back with a quite epic interpretation of “I Heard it Through The Grapevine”, which stretches out into 11 minutes of bassy, gravelly jam filth while keeping the soul of the original. By the time the album closes with the anthemic and poignant, “Long as I Can See The Light”, you feel like you’ve been on quite an epic ride.
“Cosmo’s Theory” lacks for the big hits that defined “Bayou Country” and “Green River”, but they still pulled three singles from it, and “Travelin’ Band” is a welcome addition to their greatest hits. Still, as I say, between snarling swampy bass notes and Jon Fogerty’s growling vocals, this is a joy to listen to, and, dare I say it, probably the most accessible CCR album. By the time it was released the band were beginning to tear themselves apart, but with this album, they were at their finest hour.
OK, I’ll admit it, I didn’t get along too well with The Mothers of Invention or Captain Beefheart on this list, and there’s a part of me that suspects I’m doomed to be forever “what the fuck?” when it comes to Frank Zappa. This album though… this album gives me some hope.
For a start it’s almost entirely instrumental, so there’s less Frank Zappa the incomprehensible nitwit and more Zappa the musical polymath to get my teeth into. And it’s quite enjoyable. As much as anything, there’s a lot going on here, and it’s one of those albums that opens up a little more with each repeated listen.
The opener, “Peaches in Regalia” is subdued compared to the rest of the album, and features chords, horns and bass that would be more suited to Funkadelic. And “Willie the Pimp” does kind of rock, and even sounds like it’s got a touch of funk about it. Damn, does it get out of control though – quite stunning guitar work. Captain Beefheart appears early on doing his Howling Wolf thing, making this the only non-instrumental track, but it’s still the background that commands attention. Amazing guitar work, did I say that earlier? Well yes. Awesome.
“Son of Mr Green Genes” carries on the peculiar with a deeper delve into the jazz side of things. It’s not the high point on the album – in fact it feels needlessly overmelodic in places. That said, the guitar does kick in at about 1:25 thanks to Mr Z himself, so you forgive it at least some of its trespasses.
“Little Umbrellas” is a short little piece that’s fundamentally jazz at its heart. It starts off feeling very Miles Davis, but as it goes on, chaos starts to ensue.
“The Gumbo Variations” though is where the heart of this album lies. Totally avant grade and hard to listen to in places, it applies the ethos (and insanity) of freeform jazz to the rock canon, merging two genres in a way that feels unique. At over 16 minutes long it’s got time to explore itself, and you’ll enjoy the ride if you’re baked enough. Otherwise grab some paracetamol.
It’s only when we get round to the closing track, “It must be a Camel” does the wankery start to annoy me. And even that has a pretty snazzy drum break at around the 4-minute mark that’s kind of amiable.
“Hot Rats” isn’t the greatest album of all time, not even the greatest instrumental album of all time. But there’s a lot of wizardry to be enjoyed here, and it should be celebrated if only because it’s a Frank Zappa album that I don’t want to punch myself in the head after listening to. Zappa himself described the album as “a movie for your ears” and there’s certainly a widescreen feel to the whole thing.
That it defies genre-stereotyping (is this rock? Jazz? Soul? Psychedelia?) is part of its charm, but it’s a smart piece of work that deserves a few listens to really explore.
SIDE NOTE: That’s the sixties done and dusted. On to 1970…
Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Sinead O’ Connor, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain… there’s always been a parallel between rock music and mental illness, just as there has been with pretty much any art form worth bothering with.
To say that Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence is no exception is probably underselling it. Formerly the head honcho with Moby Grape (and briefly the drummer in Jefferson Airplane), he was right in the mix of the late sixties music scene, but after too much LSD and some harder stuff, his mental state deteriorated to the point where he tried to break into bandmate Don Stevenson’s hotel room with a fire axe, and was committed to Bellevue mental hospital for six months.
“Oar”, recorded right after his release remains Spence’s only solo album, and it’s one that, once you get into it, is quite breathtaking in its levels of pain and despair, although it still manages some surprising lighter moments.
It kicks off with “Little Hands”, surely the most conventional, Moby-Grape-esque point of the album. A great track, for sure, but it gives away little of the hysteria to come.
The next track, “Cripple Creek”, is quite subdued too, with a gentle country twist. There’s a great Beck cover with Wilco, Feist and Jamie Liddel (from Beck’s Record Club experiment) that sounds remarkably different, but it’s still a fine song.
“Diana” though, is where things start getting… whoa.
I’ve got a note I wrote the first time I heard it simply saying “SO MUCH PAIN” and that’s as good a description as any. Muted with a touch of Spanish guitar, it has moments of Spence screaming her name over and over, and you feel like you’re just spiralling down.
Luckily the mood lightens a bit for the rather sweet and mischievous “Margaret Tiger-Rug”, but the gears slip into neutral for the very country “Weighted Down”, a track that you could almost imagine Patsy Cline singing were it not for the heavy introspective vocals.
The fun kicks in again on “War in Peace”, a far more bold piece with some vocal chicanery that has to be heard to be believed, plus a rather funky mid-instrumental appearance of the “Sunshine of Your Love” riff.
The Nashville sound we heard earlier reappears at the beginning of the B-Side with “Broken Heart” but here it’s fractured, Spence’s vocal pained as much as it’s soulful. And the descent comes with the Lennon-esque and dreaming “All Come to Meet Her”.
From that point on it’s anything goes… “Books of Moses” is the most stark and brutal track of the album, complete with a background of stormy skies, as if it wasn’t menacing enough. This is when you know that what is coming through your speakers is the sound of a man on the edge of a spiral of madness. He’s wounded, lost and, to paraphrase, he’s got some splinters in him.
Still, perhaps the real charm of this album is that as far as it descends, it’s always able to pop up for a knowing wink to the camera, as it does on the lighthearted “Dixie Peach Promenade”, complete with some cheeky lyrics.
“I bought me some zen food to learn how to think, but I can’t think of anything more that I’d adore than to see you in the pink”.
Just in case you were misled though, “Lawrence from Euphoria” channels Syd Barrett, and the final track, the floating, ethereal “Grey/Afro” combines some quite epic drumming with sub-audible vocals and swirling bass. It’s the final descent, the point where reality breaks and a psychedelic world of delirium begins. And when it does, you feel like you’ve been with him on the journey there.
“Oar” then, is a quite epic portrait of an artist’s breakdown on vinyl, and as Julian Cope once said of it, “Alexander Spence didn’t so much play music on “Oar” as much as he let the music play him.”
For all its surrealism and psychosis though, Spence remains a master songwriter on here, and there’s some moments of real loveliness.
There’s only two albums from the sixties left in this list, but for me it’s been a long time since I kicked it off with Joan Baez, and for all the top tuneage there’s been, my Generation X loins have been aching for something a bit more… well…
… a bit more Iggy Pop really.
Iggy Stooge (as he was then known) had been building up a reputation on the Detroit live scene for a couple of years, building on the new sound created by the likes of MC5 to great effect, prompting Elektra Records’ A&R man Danny Fields to sign them up.
Production on the album was slow – the band only had three original songs – and it was only through bringing in The Velvet Underground’s John Cale and locking the band up in a New York hotel that they managed to come up with more.
“1969” sets the scene for the album well. It’s actually quite restrained, no doubt thanks to Cale’s thoughtful production, but even here you can hear Iggy’s energy kicking off.
Cale let the dogs off the lead slightly more on the classic “I wanna be Your Dog”, blessed with a combination of crunchy distortion, piano and percussion that creates a masterful, ever-growing howl.
“We Will Fall” is a puzzler, a Doors-esque psychedelic synth floaty 10 minute effort that, while not a bad track by any means, feels totally out of whack with the rest of the album. The fact it recycles lyrics from the previous “I wanna be your dog” just adds to the confusion.
“No fun” is, of course, a classic, one that the Sex Pistols were to adopt a few years later to great effect, not to mention 2manyDJs, who served up a buttery mash seasoned with a little Salt n’ Pepa on the groundbreaking “At Home with Radio Soulwax Pt 2”.
Oh go on, you know want to…
It’s actually a bit more sedate than you remember, but that growling distorted guitar keeps you remembering that this is still the start of something new.
“Real Cool Time” has the same restrained but angry vibe as “1969” but it far less memorable, and “Ann” is almost sleepily calm (even with some distorted electric guitar flourish at the end).
Album closer “Little Doll” is where things get really interesting, a proper riffy snarling beast with drums to match, but even on this track, it feels more neat and constrained than it could be.
On the other hand, looking at the album as a whole, maybe it’s not a bad thing. It’s one thing looking back from 2016 and the knowledge of the career and legacy that The Stooges had on rock music, but Cale’s production keeps things in order and it’s a much more focused affair because of it. What would this album sound like without Cale? Arguably his production pulls it back from the brink of proper garage rock that might have easily been sidelined.
Still, the real appeal of this album is that it feels like a smoking powder keg, the sound of a band on a leash, chomping at the bit to really shake things up.
One man’s thoughts on the 1001 Albums he apparently needs to listen to before he dies