190. Guitar Town-Steve Earle (1986): By 1985, alternative country singer-songwriter Steve Earle had secured a major label deal with MCA. He had been kicking around Nashville for over a decade, once working for a publishing company where he tried but ultimately failed most of the time to get his compositions covered. Mentored by greats like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, there were breakthroughs along the way until Earle finally hit the big time after 15 years of trying to make a go at it. Before all the controversial stances and crippling drug addiction became the bigger news, Earle was considered the future of outlaw country, an even more non-mainstream and abrasive Nashville regular than neo-classic country pioneers like Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakham or Randy Travis. By the time of his debut he was already 30, had been kicking around in the music world since age 15 when he left home and had been thrice married. Plus he was a noted drug user with, as he sings on the title track "a two pack habit and a motel tan." 1986's Guitar Town was a superb album in a genre where studio LPs aren't normally so great. It was as country as he'd ever get before flying off in other directions to use more rock, bluegrass and folk influences meanwhile becoming more audacious with his leftist politics in a right-wing sector of the music industry.
These politics of his would only become truly full-fledged and radical after he kicked drugs in the mid-90s. The song "Guitar Town" is a statement of his love for Nashville, good 'ol country and and is as good a taste of what he was like in the mid-80s than any. Earle's music even gets infectiously catchy on a heartfelt breakup song like "Goodbye is All We've Got Left to Say," a top 10 country song. Even more mesmerizing is "Someday," one of the better "stuck, trying to get away from a one-horse town with no future" tales you'll hear. It's a tremendous rumination on the dregs of small-town life as Earle moans "Someday I'm finally gonna let go/Cause I know there's a better way/I wonder what's over that rainbow." He also mentions that "There ain't a lot that you can do in this town" while describing a familiar working class reality of recent Springsteen when he says "You go to school and you learn to read and write/So you can walk into the county bank and sign away your life." By the song's end, Earle sings from his character's point of view about how he has a '67 Chevy and he one day plans to "Put her on the interstate and never look back." It's almost like Earle is the Southern cousin to Mid-West Mellencamp and East Coast Springsteen on "Someday" and his politics align with those two, though to an even more extreme degree. He often earned comparisons to the two before showing he had his own musical identity that no one in Nashville could pin down.
Earle has always seemed to prefer it this way but even he could not be defended when his drug addictions turned his career from promise to a waste in the abyss during the 1991-94 period when he began selling off possessions like his guitars for crack or heroin money as well as torpedoing his music aspirations by skipping dates, showing up high or going through yet another divorce (he's had seven marriages to date, marrying the same woman twice at one point). But in 1986, he was not that emaciated figure yet, rather a sort of portly country boy rebel with a chip on his shoulder and messages from his heart (just like today, only with way more hair and no beard that makes him look like a Cossack). "Good 'Ol Boy (Gettin' Tough)," "Hillbilly Highway" and "Down the Road" continue the alt-country brilliance of Guitar Town but it's tender moments like "My Old Friend the Blues" and "Little Rock n' Roller" that show his true grit. Earle would alienate the country audience he'd earned here by opting for tougher, more country-rock sounds, along with non-typical backing bands like the Dukes, who share credit on his followup from 1987, Exit 0. On 1988's Copperhead Road he teamed with the Irish celtic punks the Pogues on a couple tracks while digging into bluegrass and country-rock avenues even deeper.
But after 1990, he would sink into drug addiction and not release an album for almost five years. After his comeback in the mid-90s, a fresh out of jail Earle turned the music world on its ear with the fabulous trio of Train a Comin', I Feel Alright and El Corazon in just 3 years time. Never fully abandoning country, Earle nonetheless would find more attention from rock critics and audiences attuned to roots music instead of the Nashville scene. Earle would revisit the themes of his debut from time to time, though usually moving on to different, modern political causes which he does to this day. He's settled into a role now where he seems to be one of those stereotypical Texan folkies who just happens to also enjoy country. Alt country could hardly describe where's he at now, but it would be a good categorization for the Earle we know and cherish on Guitar Town. For it was on that splendid debut that Earle showed what country could be if its big wigs had the musical sense to invest in music that average Americans could truly relate to, not some petrie dish, genetic mutation wearing a cowboy hat singing blatant product about beer, heartbreaking women, pickup trucks and good ol' Southern down home Christian values. In essence, a promotional spot for consumerism and the Republican party which is what the most unimaginative country has fallen into the trap of. Earle can never be accused of this malady though.
189. Out of Time-R.E.M. (1991): The major label success of R.E.M. had convinced some listeners the group had become commercial, mainstream, safe and no longer growing artistically. Sure the 1988 album Green was not a step forward, but the group learned a few things and like U2 and other major acts, decided to delve into Americana for inspiration. Their early years (better covered by the review in a later part of 1983's special Murmur) saw them hammer out their name on the road with a burgeoning popularity among college radio and their fans were usually in or around that 18-23 demographic. Formed out of Athens, Georgia, they were profoundly influenced by cultist new wave/neo-folk rock acts like Patti Smith, Television, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers and the Feelies. They were made up of guitarist Peter Buck who was befriended when he worked at a record shop, the oldest member at 24 when they formed in 1980. Hard-to-pin down vocalist Michael Stipe and finesse drummer Bill Berry were both 20 while adept bassist Mike Mills was 22. Buck brought older influences to R.E.M.'s punkish spirit, lightening their sound with jangly, melodic guitar that recalled folk-rockers the Byrds. After a well-received 1981 single came out locally ("Radio Free Europe""), they hit national headlines with a sensational 1982 EP, Chronic Town.
The next year came the lauded Murmur and though R.E.M. was rocketed on the path to stardom, they didn't strike the same consistent chord a Murmur on the otherwise alright Reckoning (1984), Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) and Life's Rich Pageant (1986). Despite bouncing around from producer to producer and not replicating the artistic dent Murmur had made, they spawned sparkling jewels that would have sounded perfectly at home in the mid 60s: "Pretty Persuasion," "So. Central Rain," the soulful funk of "Can't Get There from Here," "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" (which quotes the guitar hook from Johnny Rivers' "The Poor Side of Town"), "Driver 8," "Fall on Me" and "Superman." The minor complaints of R.E.M. through these years usually centered around Michael Stipe's vocals being buried in the mix and on top of that mumbly, incoherent and reserved. Stipe slowly came out of his shell both in the studio and on stage, where he used to act sullen, shy and hesitant of the spotlight. By 1986, he projected his words and vocals much better and the band left their reliance on jangly folk-rock atmospheres to become a little more experimental on the impressive Document. While "Finest Worksong" was a standout, it was the tongue-tied "It's the End of the World As We Know it (And I Feel Fine)" that opened R.E.M. up to a wide consciousness. The loquacious, politically aware R.E.M. was a turnaround from the early R.E.M.'s sometimes perfunctory outlook. the By 1988, some were wishing for the old Stipe because of his newfound political outspokenness outstripping and overshadowing R.E.M.'s music.
With Green, R.E.M.'s guitar sound more keen to fuzz, distortion and power chords than ever as Peter Buck made a break from the distinctive jangle of before. When they signed on with Warner Bros. in 1988, after years of dissatisfaction at how low profile they were at I.R.S. Records, the R.E.M. we know today took shape, though arguably they got a little less interesting and began to pander more to their politically agreeable brethren as well as the circuit of messianic arena-pleasing rock a la U2. But arguably they really didn't become too stale or stagnant until the late 90s. To their credit, R.E.M. took a couple years off the road after their late 80s rush of fame and came back with an album that was much more modest, yet much more intricately beautiful, than anything from the post-Murmur period. Even more amazing was how little promotion they did for their 1991 return, Out of Time: Just a few announced and unannounced club gigs, mostly in the UK, which they planned to follow-up quickly in 1992 and did so with the surprisingly- likely its accessibility and broadly aimed songs like "Man on the Moon," "Everybody Hurts" and "Drive"- more highly regarded Automatic for the People. Stripping away the electric guitars, whether they be Peter Buck's Roger McGuinn-styled jangle or Neil Young-styled distortion, R.E.M. took a sort of "unplugged" approach.
Mellower, more mature and measured than many previous releases, they seemed to be growing up in a way. Their Georgian roots shouldn't be discarded or ignored and they just might have played into the new rustic atmosphere on this 1991 gem. To great effect, harpsichord, mandolin, acoustic guitars and strings adorn gems like the massive hit "Losing My Religion," the quaint instrumental "End Game" (highlighted by a flugelhorn/English horn? melody) and "Half a World Away," a 3/4 (waltz) nugget of gold driven by Elizabeathan overtones- having harpsichord be the main instrument. "Losing My Religion" has a memorable riff on mandolin and on top of that Stipe sings a confessional set of lyrics of vivid imagery. It was the hit that helped push Out of Time to the top of the charts but it only begins to tell the tale of a an album full of lovely turns. On "Losing," there's the emotional drive and questioning confidence behind Stipe's hurting vocals that was perfected after his early timidness. There were even late 60s influences on Out of Time, with strings and horns more prominent than ever. R.E.M.'s brand of sunny folk-rock with a pop touch is displayed through the dressed-in-contentment"Near Wild Heaven," the jangly "Texarkana" (co-sung by bassist Mike Mills), "Shiny Happy People," and "Me in Honey" (the latter two with one of their favourites Kate Pierson from the B52s on vocals). The unashamed cheeriness got R.E.M. some rather unfair rolling of eyes from some and gave haters more reason to find them bland in the 90s. But that's all rot because "Shiny Happy People" may just be a statement of irony by the band.
That being said, on Out of Time it's the restrained, brooding and bittersweet "Low" and "Country Feedback" that are startling moments because they so deftly contrast with the rest of the album's easy-to-like rural version of good ol' rock-pop. "Low" uses organ, muted guitar and violins to build the drama to a swirling peak and all done without a drum part too. It represents a flowering of R.E.M.'s ability to take on separate forms within the same album, sounding like several different groups within the same LP. They even work in their really experimental side with the elegiac spoken-word "Belong" and the album's first track "Radio Song," a string-and-horn adorned bit of psychedelic pop that's intercut by forays into rap with Michael Stipe and the hip-hopper KRS-One. It's not quite a knockout to hear R.E.M. fusing white funk, folk-rock and rap but it's an amusing journey into left field for a band you could never fault for their willingness to experiment and tread in waters generally considered foreign to them. Even Stipe's lyrics and vocal flourishes fail to grate on you on this album like they're capable of. The guys in R.E.M. would do a few more decent albums but Out of Time remains their last true masterpiece LP. Afterward, they could still pull out all the stops to make a good impression but as the 90s went on, the group aged but lost whatever dynamic intrigue they possessed and the loss of Bill Berry who quit in 1996- two years after a near fatal brain hemorrage- seemed to sap theit strength. Following 1996's New Adventures in High Fi it's been a hit and miss experience going blow-by-blow with the trio version of R.E.M.
186. King of America-Elvis Costello (1986): Hitting a dead end with his side group the Attractions, Elvis Costello had become banal and tedious during his days of attempting inroads to the pop charts. 1981's Trust was a stellar album that got unfairly ignored and his 1982 opus double-disc Imperial Bedroom did not become the smash Elvis envisioned. The critics adored it but for some reason, management or Elvis C. himself were convinced that hits were needed. While Punch the Clock in 1983 provided the bouncy, soulful classic "Everyday I Write the Book" and the hauntingly jazzy "Shipbuilding" featuring a memorable Chet Baker cameo, it was not a great album as Midas touch producer Clive Langer's glossy touch brought about more awkward moments than triumphant. Any momentum was all but curtailed when his 1984 dud album Goodbye Cruel World got panned and sold poorly. Aside from "Peace in Our Time," "I Wanna Be Loved" and "The Only Flame in Town," it was a miserable, mediocre affair spliced with production even more badly dated than today than Punch the Clock (which was sweetened and improved by the backing vocals of the female singing duo Afrodiziak). Trying to nudge in there with cheery, happy Britpop like Wham, Adam & the Ants and Duran Duran was not for Mr. Costello. Needless to say, a shift in direction was craved by everyone, especially Elvis.
Elvis had been enjoying a roll of prolific proportions since arriving in 1977. Though he was still only 22 at the time, Elvis had been performing, writing and attempting to secure a contract since age 15. In his formative years he soaked up nearly every style of music imaginable as his career would go toward demonstrating. My Aim is True was a promising start, an album neither invigorating nor inconsequential. In short, pretty good but not great, at least in this reviewer's haughty estimation. It had Elvis flexing his muscles, calling attention to the chip on his shoulder and dabbling in many 50s rock sounds while staying modern enough to deliver the unforgettable, heartbreaking ballad "Alison," as well as the clever "(The Angels) Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" and soulful "Miracle Man." As has been touted about him at times, Elvis seemed able to recreate the past of pop music in his own image, like some popular music walking encyclopedia. But when he sauntered into a studio with his road group the Attractions, a more vital, youthful and physical element entered into his lexicon. This was evident on the brilliant 1978 LP This Year's Model, where Elvis became associated with punk and new wave whether rightly or wrongly. This album yielded amazing signature tunes like "No Action," "The Beat," "(I Don't Want to) Go to Chelsea," "Pump it up" and "Lip Service" while non-LP singles of the 1978-79 rush of glory- "Radio Radio," "Watching the Detectives"- were even better.
Elvis & the Attractions made waves as well with the pop clinic Armed Forces in 1979, which toned down the brash fury of This Year's Model for more contemplation, paranoia and quirkiness. Plus synthesizer smatterings. Tunes like Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," "Accidents May Happen," "Senior Service," "Oliver's Army" and "Green Shirt" had Costello on the sonic, cutting edge of new wave rock, putting flashy keyboard textures alongside pulsing rhythms and furious punk presentation with flair and genius. He had even put out enough shelved material and B-sides to unleash the two-LP, twenty song Taking Liberties in late 1980, a nearly identical compilation to the UK release Ten Bloody Marys and Ten How's Your Fathers. Earlier in 1980, Elvis decided he wanted to show he had a real desire to emulate black music, gravitating toward reggae and ska ("The Imposter") rhythms, R&B/soul ("Opportunity," their cover of Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand up f0r Falling Down," "Beaten to the Punch" and a cover of "I Stand Accused") as well as some 60s touches of psychedelia ("King Horse," "5ive Gears in Reverse," and "New Amsterdam"- which includes the immortal line "Do I speak double dutch to a real double duchess?") for Get Happy!! in 1980. This was a single LP chocked full by 19 short tracks, leaving the inevitable amount of filler but a small amount considering how quickly so many tunes were written.
Nonetheless, some doubting souls saw Get Happy! as a reaction to a controversy that erupted around Costello (real name Declan McManus) in 1979 when it was reported to the media by Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills that Costello uttered a racial slur directed toward Ray Charles at a hotel bar. There at the same time due to their touring schedules, Bramlett (formerly of Delaney & Bonnie) and Stills tried to chat it up with a surly, tanked Elvis. As he recounted it, he said more and more outrageous stuff to get them to leave but when it didn't work he replied- in reference to the two raising the subject of Ray Charles- that Charles was "a fucking blind, ignorant nigger." The firestorm of accusations of racism led to a press conference where Elvis's attempts to temper the outrage just seemed to do no help and find people wrapped in more confusion about his intentions. This may have curtailed the commercial clout of Elvis & the Attractions but the effects only took shape a few years later if that's true. Trust in 1981 found Elvis crafting demented, twisted pop that was like Armed Forces gone circus. Elvis later recounted the high amounts of booze and powders behind the album's creation and the madness of that substance dependency is evident in that diffuse but excellent album full of Latino, percussive gumbo like "Lovers Walk," "Clubland," and the tormented "Pretty Words." Elvis then began to try knocking down barriers that said new wavers shouldn't walk into some territories unwelcome when he went to Nashville with his group and they cut Almost Blue, an LP of country covers released later in 1981.
Almost Blue had mixed reviews but most found Elvis's dedication a winning one that was motivated by honest, sacred respect for C&W music. It was also the only album before 1983 that Nick Lowe didn't produce for Costello. Elvis's music began to lose focus after Imperial Bedroom, a suitably dapper double-disc achievement that was like Sgt. Pepper for the 80s, invoking Elvis's love/knack for classical, barocque pop, psychedelia, blue-eyed soul and folk. But newer was his affection for jazz as many tracks, namely "Almost Blue"- a sombre, late night Chet Baker channeling from Elvis- were very rooted in the romantic kind of jazz that lots of heroin musicians liked to produce in the cool jazz era. Elvis was trying to shake his alcohol dependency in the midst of a divorce struggle, so the early 80s were the nightmarish end to the dream of his career's kick start. The artistic and commercial failure of Goodbye Cruel World (the CD remastering liner notes written by Costello start a bit like this, "Congratulations. You just purchased our worst album") meant Costello had to bounce back from a shoddy musical showing for the first time in his career. It's a totally unavoidable moment for all artists and Elvis deserves huge props for fending it off for 7 years but he recovered like a champ. H
He retreated to work with famed roots artist T-Bone Burnett, only then beginning his legacy as a production giant, though he didn't totally abandon the Attractions as keyboardist Steve Nieve (who appears on a few other tracks on his own), bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas figure in on the tune "Suit of Lights." Perhaps Goodbye Cruel World made the Attractions a little less alluring to collaborate with, but Costello would go back to them for them for the fine LP Blood & Chocolate released later in 1986. That however would be his last teaming with the Attractions for six years. Enlisting an array of respected session men, including rockabilly guitar great James Burton, Burnett and keyboardist/arranger Mitchell Froom (who produced a few albums in future for Elvis), Mr. Costello did his first truly American album, hence the tongue-in-cheek title. A lot of the songs are devoid of the proper Englishness heard on even his most adventurous works beforehand. Here, pub rock and jazz is not on Elvis's mind nearly as much as rockabilly, folk, country and blues. A wry, sarcastic album cover photo has a bearded Elvis wearing a crown, plus with the album being credited to "The Costello Show" and his birth name Declan Patrick (with Aloysius added for this occasion) McManus given in the instrumentation and songwriting credits. These were indications this was a turn of events for Costello, a new phase of sorts. Definitely it was not a return to the Nick Lowe or punk days nor was it top 40 ear candy. As usual, Elvis, ever the workaholic and the prolific writer, runs out the album length to a gaudy 15 tracks spanning nearly 60 minutes on one single disc, yet he rarely falters.
Before he put out the album, Costello released a single that failed to chart, credited to Elvis Costello & the Confederates. It was the very Johnny Cash-like "The People's Limousine," which finds him duetting with Burnett and James Burton's genius guitar picking amply supplying licks and musical phrases to the main melody and chord progression. This was even more pronounced on King of America. The album itself is led off by the ambient "Brilliant Mistake" an unmistakably folsky foray, with accordion and mandolin colouring the palette a few years ahead of John Mellencamp's forays into it. The same sound, arranged in waltz time, is provided for "American Without Tears" later on. His country mood was never deeper and more authentic than on songs like the buttery soft "Our Little Angel" and melancholy "Poisoned Rose." The expected Costello styles are few and far between. I suppose the sardonic, flippant "Loveable," and the jazzy cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"- more in line with Nina Simone's frayed, demanding version than the Animals' eerie take- sound familiar but no one had ever heard Elvis go full bore rockabilly like with "Glitter Gulch" (a tricky, breakneck Elvis circa 1955 cut) and the snappy standout "The Big Light" or to a lesser extent "Eisenhower Blues," one of the more ordinary songs yet a spirited, goofy performance from Elvis. "I'll Wear it Proudly" and "Jack of All Parades" are dramatic, tense and sweeping like some of Elvis's best Imperial Bedroom material though presented in a rootsier fashion with T-Bone instead of Nick Lowe at the switch. Meanwhile Costello goes for sugary, peaceful brushes of music on the pretty, near-lullaby "Sleep of the Just" and the charming "Suit of Lights." The songs presented just on acoustic guitar focus on his previously underutilized folk leanings and though a tad contrived at times, "Indoor Fireworks" and "Little Palaces" are compelling glimpses into him at his most simplistic instrumentally.
They aren't quite English folk yet not really American folk either, caught somewhere in between as Elvis's previously tucked away abilities on acoustic guitar finally got to see their time. Today it's well understood that Costello is a chameleon, a purveyor of many styles and stances in music and he can switch back and forth between them with ease as he prolifically churns out one release a year. Heck, he's still doing it and being a man of such talents has served him well. However, putting out a record every year or two is something he can no longer do while making masterful albums. He really hasn't come up with one that ranks among his choice releases in a while, perhaps since Blood and Chocolate 23 years ago. One who is well-versed on late 70s, early 80s Costello will re-think their position on him in a good way after listening to the tremendous King of America. A 90s special edition of the album includes an "extended play" featuring "The People's Limousine" plus a few minor vault dwellers. A Live on Broadway, 1986 bonus mini-album is also included, featuring raucous, finely rehearsed live versions of many King of America's tracks but also stunning covers of the Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham soul classic "It Tears Me up" as well as "That's How You Got Killed Before," and a medley of Mose Allison and Sonny Boy Williamsons respectively, "Your Mind is on Vacation/Your Funeral and My Trial." We also get the unreleased Johnny Cash homage "The Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line." It was all a component of his 1986 touring ensemble where he'd perform solo, with his "Confederates" or with the Attractions in order to give fans some excitement plus there was a giant wheel spun to decide which parts would come next. In other words, the set-up could go in any order or any given night. King of America was Elvis in a maturing position, passing the age of 30 and likely realizing his adventures in music were all that could stand the test of time so why bother with the party life and cynical moodiness?
187. Sunflower-The Beach Boys (1970): The 1960s had been such a kind decade, such a prosperous, life-affirming, thrilling decade for all involved in the Beach Boys gravy train. But when rock music got serious, spurred on by the advent of the drug culture and revolutionary challenging of the establishment, the Beach Boys were no longer needed. Now just a passe vestige of the top 40 machine, the Beach Boys were a dirty word in America. But Europe never judged them for their unpretentious, sunny, good vibrations demeanour and their approach to songwriting that was uncluttered with pomposity or drug-induced calamity even when it was pointed to classical, orchestral directions by the very much drugged up Brian Wilson. The story of the Beach Boys is a long, winding Shakespearean arc that hasn't fully been resolved yet (currently three incarnations, led by Mike Love/Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson, tour the country as vehicles for this catalogue) and is not only one of the most compelling and pyrrhic stories behind an American music phenomenon, but also one of the most dysfunctional and horrifying. After all, it was a family affair as all the group, save for members David Marks, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston, were related. The Wilson brothers of Dennis, Carl and Brian were each three unique identities but all gifted in their own way to their own degree but Brian was the musical genius in the bunch. Their hardheaded, bullish cousin Mike Love was a focused, strong individual who has done just as much to keep the group's legacy going as central figure Brian Wilson ever did.
Brian was the key to it all and without his enormous gifts, the Beach Boys never come to fruition. Brian had excelled in academics, athletics but mainly music throughout his youth, a thoroughly troubling time for Brian in particular. While Carl could sometimes escape the abusive terrorizing of patriarch Murry Wilson by being the polite and attentive youngest child- mother Audree's favourite- and Dennis resisted conformity and found solace in being a rule-breaking rebel, Brian had all the expectations heaped on him- still, Dennis would live a high-stakes life on the edge and in the fast lane that ultimately chewed him up before he managed to get to 40 and Carl struggled with his weight, finding food a respite from his father's treatment. Murry provided a decent middle-class life for his family in Hawthorne, California (after moving from Inglewood when Brian was an infant), his own family having emigrated to California from the mid-west during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. But Murry, abused by his own father until he ran away, had failed to meet his dream of becoming a famous and lucrative songwriter, instead finding his role in life running a machinist business (he had worked in this capacity as a young man and lost his eye in an industrial accident. Malicious as he was, Murry used his glass eye as a ghoulish prop, removing it at times to scare his boys into his way of doing things). This failure to get more than a handful of his songs out in the music biz was mainly due to his lack of formal training and talent, but he always remained passionate about music though he wrote corny, Tin Pan Alley pop long after it was fashionable and couldn't even break through to the Lawrence Welk market of old-fashioned American chutzpah.
As a result Murry pushed Brian hard but also showed jealousy to his son's abilities, which Murry liked to take credit for by taking an iron-fisted management and consulting role while providing Brian the training and cushy upbringing he never had. Still, Murry used physical and emotional abuse on his sons, becoming a bully that scarred his sons for life with his humiliating tactics. Brian found a refuge in the harmony-rich music of vocal groups like the Ink Spots and Four Freshmen but when Carl opened his eyes to rock n' roll, Brian saw an exciting genre to pursue fame and fortune with. Brian sought to combine rock with the complex chord changes of jazz and the complicated harmonies of post-war pop. By 1961, Brian was composing songs at the piano in his family's garage and had learned some guitar, which was the new cool instrument thanks to rock. Murry never cared too much for R&R but saw potential in his son's music. However it was Brian and Carl that got together and soon a group formed with their cousin Mike Love, friend Al Jardine and Dennis tagging along. Needing a band setup for their vocal-dominant music, Audree Wilson encouraged Brian to put Dennis in some form so he took drums despite limited musical ability. Carl had been learning guitar for years and he was the lead player while Jardine- a huge enthusiast of college and Caribbean-styled folk- took rhythm.
Mike Love stuck to vocals, mainly bass and baritone but exhibited a nasal tenor when he sang lead. Brian took bass and the group was dubbed the Pendletones (a play on words of a popular surfing shirt called a Pendleton). The composition "Surfin'" got them a deal with local label Candlestix Records and when the labee decided the name "Beach Boys" would market better, the name stuck. It became a hot local favourite and they were off. The idea to centre their songs around surfing- later high school functions like dates, drive-in restaurants and above all cars- came from the growing youth culture in post-war, booming California, a time of unbridled optimism even moreso than the rest of America during "The New Frontier" age. Dennis suggested the fixation because he himself was the only surfer of the group. At this point, the Beach Boys were born, though the oldest member was only 20 (Love), Brian and Jardine were merely 19, Dennis was 17 and Carl was a pudgy, baby-faced 15-year old. Murry, not entirely enthused by "Surfin'" but seeing dollar signs, then pimped the hell out of "Surfin'" while getting the group out on tour to try and land a national deal. Al Jardine saw the group's financial prospects as dim and left to further his studies at university early in 1962. He was replaced by amateur guitarist David Marks, a 13-year old neighbour of the Wilsons in Hawthorne. Adding him brought a two electric guitar attack, beefing up what had been a folky sound on "Surfin'" for more rocking tracks like "Surfin' Safari" and "Surfin' USA."
Marks would eventually leave after his parents disputed Murry Wilson's handling of the finances for Marks' involvement and by then- 1963- Al Jardine had returned to fill in for Brian on bass. The next three year saw the Beach Boys define teenage social commentary and contagious surf and car oriented pop. But the Beatles then careened in like a comet in 1964, posing a chart rival to the Beach Boys and Brian- who permanently retreated from the road after an anxiety attack on a flight to Houston in December 1964- started penning tunes of increasing sophistication and density, almost trying to top his production idol Phil Spector. Incredibly, just one solitary pop figure was able to push the Beatles competitively. This newfound drive of Brian's culminated in 1966's Pet Sounds (read on much, much later for more on this), a landmark masterpiece that stands as one of the 20th century's great pieces of musical art. The album was Brian reshaping pop to be a quasi-religious, quasi-classical form of high art that inspired nearly everyone else, though it was their lowest selling LP in four years in America. The UK crowd loved Pet Sounds and it helped them beat out the Beatles in many UK musical press polls for best group of 1966. Yet, Mike Love wasn't so keen- being known to refer to it as "Brian's ego music" and warning him not to "fuck with the formula"- because it meant the end for the ride the Beach Boys had been on.
Love took umbrage with the hegemony being exerted by Brian, who was being lauded by hangers-on as a genius even though he was regressing emotionally by fearing aloud he was being recorded and bugged by Murray (whom he'd fired after a confrontation at a 1964 recording session) and that Phil Spector's "Mind police" were after him. This went hand-in-hand with various behavioural oddities like putting his piano in a sandbox and recording the "Fire" musical segment of their aborted followup album SMiLE by mandating that everyone in the studio dress with fire helmets on (a series of fires in the studio's vicinity convinced Brian he was creating bad karma and the "Fire" sequence was scrapped before it was even partially completed). The Beach Boys at this point had become Brian Wilson's guinea pigs, some would accuse. From 1965-67, Brian would have session musicians cut instrumental tracks then just bring the band in to sing when they got off touring. This would change after the 1967 sessions for the aborted SMiLE revealed an even more mentally fragile Brian Wilson, falling into what was later proved to be schizophrenia and social anxiety disorder. The October 1966 groundbreaking single "Good Vibrations" had been the #1 hit to prove Wilson's exploits could turn profit, a legendarily sprawling opus (recorded at several different studios around the country to capture each facility's "vibrations" as the kooky Brian saw it) that was to feature strongly on SMiLE. "Good Vibrations" stood as the peak of his genius but when SMiLE never took off (check out Brian's re-creation of it on an album with his touring band the Wondermints, the amazing 2004 release Brian Wilson Presents "SMiLE" which is still to come in my top 50 or so) and Sgt. Pepper stole its thunder, the Beach Boys were left in the lurch.
They sort of recouped with a home-recorded salvaging of it, the lousy Smily Smile- though several have praised the album as an eccentric, charmingly minimalist release I find it tedious, underproduced, boring, dull and as Carl Wilson later mused "A bunt instead of a grand slam." The issue with SMiLe is that it's quite a difficult project to cobble together because of its various fragments, a suite strung together like a stage musical. A lot of these fragments tie into certain tracks. Snippets, bits and pieces and quotes from popular compositions made up the intended album but it was only leftover songs in their basic form that survived. Many of the ones not on Smiley Smile made appearances on Beach Boy albums through till the early 70s. This letdown was the first in a series of blows to Brian's already sensitive, shaky mental state. Months later came the very unpsychedelic, soulful pop entry, Wild Honey, with everyone playing their instruments once again and Carl taking a new role in the group on lead vocals. Mike Love and Brian wrote many tracks together during that LP's making. It seemed so thin, so simplistic compared to what came before, that it was almost a shock to hear something so baldly uncomplicated. Yet, I find Wild Honey an infectiously lovable little album (it doesn't even get to 30 minutes long) with Carl emerging as a supreme white soulster with a soaring, starkly moving voice (he displayed that perfectly with his majestic, perfect vocal for "God Only Knows" on Pet Sounds).
The next two years were a time when the Beach Boys lost favour with the rock market and had become old-hat, scoring their last top twenty hits for a while with "Darlin'' and "Do it Again" in 1968. Touring Europe where they were still beloved and their new music appreciated, the Beach Boys strove to once again become relevant at home but to no avail. Meanwhile, increased use of drugs only worsened Brian's psyche and he would become less and less of a factor on Beach Boys albums until nearly disappearing from the creative process altogether before a ballyhooed mid-70s "comeback" that only seemed like a sad freak show as an obviously nervous and awkward Brian was trotted around as if he were cured. Years of mental instability, suicidal depression and then mind control from his healer, controversial psychotherapist Eugene Landy, tied Brian up from reaching his full potential as a person and artist until the 90s and by then it was too late. Still, it's a near-miracle we have the man alive and well today. So instead of laughing at how out of place and loony he seems on stage, just appreciate the man and his timeless music. Back in the 70s, Brian seemed destined for an early demise and to become a footnote as another terribly wasteful drug casualty of rock (this distinction would fall to his brother Dennis instead) and after 1969 took to spending long spells in his bed, obsessing over the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" till he wore out 10 copies, chain smoking his once soaring falsetto voice into a haggard rasp and gorging himself on food until he eventually ballooned to over 300 pounds.
People were worried but Brian's eccentric hipster music friends thought he was just being Brian and continued to stroke his ego while feeding him the drugs he was getting hooked on. While this happened, the Beach Boys reconvened and saw their dream fall in to place, forming Brother Records in 1970, breaking away from what was a contentious relationship with Capitol- and indeed their final single on that label was the joyous "Break Away." Everyone, especially Brian, was still reeling from Murry callously selling their publishing rights, Sea of Tunes, for just $750,000 (it has become worth 100 times that today- great business sense, Murray). Years earlier, Brian had signed off on a joint agreement to be the procurer of the publishing company with Murry and it came back to bite him (Mike Love and others were never informed and only found out when Murry was able to sell Sea of Tunes- a revelation furthering the schism between Mike and Brian). It was almost as if Murry took satisfaction in the Beach Boys being a flash in the pan without his "guidance." His reasoning behind the sale was that the Beach Boys time in the sun had ended, their music was no longer trendy nor was it profitable so might as well cash in before it was too late. Oh silly, petty Murry- who would die in 1973 and not live to choke on his words. The saga of the group- a six piece with Wilson's road replacement Bruce Johnston a permanent member in the studio too- continued through to the 70s when they straddled the line between progressive rock band and oldies act (the latter won out when their 1974 compilation Endless Summer became a smash #1 hit and gave their career a shot in the arm that unfortunately turned into a nostalgia act with albums to promote that).
But in 1970, freshly off Capitol Records, the Beach Boys made their first true good LP since Wild Honey (its followup, 1968's Friends, and the patched together 1969 LP 20/20 were slight disappointments despite housing classic tracks here and there) and their first essential work since Pet Sounds. Various sessions and scrapped releases and recordings surrounded the lead-up to Sunflower. As it turned out, the anticipation of a comeback would all be for naught when it became their worst chart showing yet. Brother Records- a label distributed by Reprise Records, itself a conglomerate of the Warner Bros. empire- got off to a horrendous start. Nonetheless, critics sung Sunflower's praises and the years have proved it to be the last great studio album the Beach Boys would produce. Its followup, Surf's Up, got the title track masterpiece as a leftover centerpiece for SMiLE, plus Brian's rumination on death and depression- a sorrowful insight into his mental anguish of the time- "Till I Die." Despite those two mammoth inclusions, Sunflower is the better of the two. I mention Surf's Up chiefly because it is now available on CD as a two-fer with Sunflower. So you can have the package and compare for yourself. A development between the headlines of Sunflower can be uncovered if one notices the role of Dennis Wilson. He had been a minor presence in the group, rarely getting a lead vocal and often being sidelined by Brian in favour of "Wrecking Crew" (the famous L.A. session men Spector had utilized) drummers, mainly the great Hal Blaine. But he turned his attentions on being a writer like his brothers and giving his songs a spin from his own personality, a hard-living, charming, charismatic ladies man.
The Wilson Brothers all used drugs but Dennis had a greater affliction with the bottle that proved deadly, though it did not affect him until he cleared 30 (he wouldn't live to see 40, drowning while swimming intoxicated outside a friend's houseboat, days before 1983 came to an end). Recent to Sunflower, he had emerged as a fairly adept vocalist and writer himself on Friends and 20/20's material but is probably, unfortunately, best known for how he associated with the Manson family and convinced the Beach Boys to record Charles Manson's "Cease to Exist" (which they re-titled with brighter lyrics, "Never Learn Not to Love" to Manson's digust). Of course after the murders, Dennis feared for his safety as well as loved ones because he thought Manson was going to come after those who had wronged him and failed to see through efforts to get him a record contract. But this didn't deter Denny from reaching a new level of songwriting ability. His first track here is the first cut of the album, the Rascals-like "Slip on Through," a shimmering, brightly harmonized soulful effort that is bettered by Dennis's vocal delivery, similar to his brothers of course based on genetics but different because of its gruff edges. "Slip on Through" seems positively ordinary next to the following cut- the extraordinary, uplifting, shifting achievement, Brian's "This Whole World." Brian has largely been an inconsistent, streaky artistic crackpot since the mid-70s when his mental illness hampered his genius.
Any Beach Boy or solo album of his since the late 70s has had flashes of the old exhilaration but Brian has mostly been drained of his old creativity by the drugs (the recreational then later the prescription medication recklessly offered to him by Eugene Landy), mental anguish and the experience of becoming a healthy, functioning member of society again. He wasn't in a cushy place in the early 70s either as his illness- in the eyes of his family and friends- went from unsettling and bizarre to concerning and dangerous to himself. Despite an ever worsening affliction with snorting cocaine and even heroin, and still taking hallucinogens while smoking a prodigious amount of cigarettes and marijuana, Wilson had greatness in him. He just retreated further from the Beach Boy life as Carl became the main producer and musical director. Any tim Mike Love nitpicked with his music, Brian took it personally and was no longer fully invested in making decisions for himself. It's as if the mental illness scaled back Brian's resolve and had him a timid, shy person and every figure of authority was one he became too scared to cross. In other words, he reacted to criticism and confrontation as if everyone delivering it was Murry. "This Whole World" has Beach Boy hallmarks like the doo-wop harmonies ("ah-um bop ditty" is another nonsensical nugget of gold from the Beach Boys) while the arrangement is like Pet Sounds in stereo with chugging drums, chimes and glockenspiel giving it the quotient of operatic pomp and circumstance it needs.
Carl, now the de factor lead singer in the group in place of Brian- who became worried about how his now grizzled voice would be received by hardcore fans of the Beach Boys- takes lead on "This Whole World." If there's any complaint, it's that the song runs an itty bitty 1:58. But it's the best 1:58 that was heard in rock since 1967's equally brief "The Letter" by the Box Tops. The Beach Boys lauded the benefits of music itself in their domestic, idyllic late 60s phase and the best of these is the lovely "Add Some Music to Your Day," authored by Brian, Mike and Joe Knott. Dennis throws some raunch in for the boogieing, Joe Cocker-esque "Got to Know the Woman," an average composition but certainly improved by the grandiose vocal arrangement. Bruce Johnston, the forgotten sixth man, has contributed to Beach Boys recordings throughout the years but I have always found his contributions to be maudlin, hack offerings that tap into the kind of audience that loves the Carpenters and Barry Manilow- and guess what? Johnston wrote Manilow's syrupy "I Write the Songs" during a the 1972-79 exile from the Beach Boys he took after clashing with the Beach Boys short-term manager Jack Reilly. He wrote it about his mentor and hero Brian Wilson but big deal. It could be about Jesus and it would still suck. Johnston collaborates with Brian for "Deirdre," a rather lush, sensitive and mainstream ballad that isn't particularly interesting, but not that bad thanks to its catchy merits. Much more captivating is the hippie rock of "It's About Time," a soulful piece with Carl singing lead, though it was written by him along with Dennis, Al Jardine and outsider Bob Burchman. It's in your face, rhythmically intuitive and makes the hair stand up on end.
Unfortunately, Bruce Johnston has an even cornier song in his arsenal with "Tears in the Morning," a rather subpar tear-jerking throwaway. It's some sort of pale Burt Bacharach wannabe composition and is best forgotten. The Love-sung "All I Wanna Do" is a floating, lazy day ballad that it's exquisitely endearing and a great example of how the Beach Boys could make positive pop music a healing experience. Surprisingly, the best Beach Boy love song of the 70s is the following cut, the gorgeous, borderline sappy "Forever." Again a Dennis composition, this time with his friend Gregg Jakobson. "Forever" has often been brought up as proof that Dennis too was a talented songwriter and it can't be denied, although his own issues with alcohol clouded what could have been a promising solo career. The constant disruption of Dennis's drunkenness cost him his spot in the Beach Boys when Mike Love fired him in 1980. But for one shining moment, Dennis was an equal in the Wilson Bros. thanks to "Forever," which offers lines full of heart and love. Often Dennis poses that if certain actions of his yielded pleasure, he would do it forever (that sounds obscene but the song actually is quite innocent and harmless), eg. "If the song I sing to you/Could fill your heart with joy/I'd sing forever" or "If the words I say to you/Could make you laugh/I'd talk forever." Dennis was quite clearly a loving, generous man but his demons stemming from his childhood trauma also made him an unreliable, impulsive and irresponsible person that let his instincts get the better of him.
On "Forever," we fortunately hear the side of Dennis everyone raves about. The harmonies built around it are also a peak in the Beach Boys post-Pet Sounds career. It's a well arranged and produced piece too, rightly eschewing the egregious tendencies of American adult contemporary pop to mar a great song with overbearing and unneeded goopy strings, choirs and horns. It is one non-Brian written effort from the Beach Boys that deserves to stand amongst Pet Sounds' works of art. Too bad "Forever" didn't get created back in 1966 or it could've made Pet Sounds even better (not that it needed help to be recognized as indispensably essential). Brian, Carl and Al teamed up to deliver the harsh ballad "Our Sweet Love," which has a jarring key change for its transition between verse and chorus. Carl's distinct falsetto singing is a treat, especially on this one while again the harmonies are interwoven magnificently into the piece. This is one of the few songs to use strings on the LP but they provide a soothing, heavenly component. "At My Window," penned by Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, is a quaint, folksy, pastoral tune sung rather nasally and cutesy by the always cheesy Bruce Johnston and it gets just a bit granola-eating with its nature-loving, bird-seeking splendor. Still, it's a nice finger-snapper, better than "Deirdre" at the very least. The final tune added to the album was "Cool, Cool Water," written by Brian and Mike. Not quite up to the amazing standards of Pet Sounds or the long lost SMiLE, but nonetheless a meditatively intriguing piece with a kind of breathtaking gentleness that only the harmonically blessed Beach Boys could pull off, "Cool Cool Water" is a completely downplayed way to close such a layered, rewarding composition.
They were convinced to record it for inclusion on Sunflower when they played it for Warner Bros. A&R/production giant Lenny Waronker and he was knocked out by how affecting such a simplistic arrangement was. With its quarter note, jumpy piano chords (a hallmark of Brian Wilson compositions dating back to 1965) He recommended they work it into the album. It never seems to work in ebbs and flows, opting to loft along at a similar dynamic level and mood, yet one that exudes joie de vivre. Ironically enough, the song extolls the virtues of a glass of cool water- which they rave about with the phrase "It's a gas"- and could be construed as an anti-drug song. That is entirely plausible actually, because half the band (Love, Jardine, Johnston) were clean livers who rarely, if ever, drank, abstained from tobacco and drugs and enjoyed the niceties of the natural Earth. Love was a proponent of transcendental meditation while Jardine enjoyed horses and the sea and Johnston liked... er, I'm not sure but it doesn't really matter. Then again, it's a bit of hypocrisy from the drug-taking Wilsons- namely the self-destructive Dennis and Brian. Indeed, Brian had a short-lived fixation on organic health foods, opening a store selling such product while just as easily doing lines of cocaine and dropping acid on the side. Nonetheless, "Cool, Cool Water" celebrates nature in a way that continued into their next few albums although with enigmatic, controversial new manager Jack Reilly urging them to become more progressive and outspoken on political and social issues, the focus turned to raising awareness on pollution and deprivation of the planet. Sunflower is a peaceful, stoic album in spots and is essential listening for anyone who passes off the collective effort Beach Boys post-Pet Sounds. In reality, they didn't truly become mediocre and tired until 1976 or so.
186. Tapestry-Carole King (1971): As of 1970, the name Carole King was only highly relevant to industry insiders or music journalists who acknowledged how she had written pop classic after pop classic, mostly with her ex-husband Gerry Goffin, as part of the Brill Building crew, a sort of 60s edition of Tin Pan Alley. To the general public, her oeuvre would have been familiar to anyone but only if duly noted. She had tried her own hand at records but her lack of matinee idols looks and her awkward, often off-key voice didn't exactly spell fame. She still made her royalties on songs written with Goffin, whom she divorced at the end of the 60s, such as the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" (adapted for King's own version here on Tapestry), Bobby Vee's "Take Good Care of My Baby," Little Eva's "The Locomotion," the Everlys' "Crying in the Rain," the Chiffons' "One Fine Day," the Drifters' "Up on the Roof," Herman's Hermits' "I'm Into Something Good," Manfred Mann's "Oh No Not My Baby," the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday," and Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman." But she saw how the pop scene changed, how songwriting teams were becoming less needed for rock n' roll entertainers, how singer-songwriters were now the preferred method and wanted her own voice to be heard, separate from those singing her lyrics and music. Women were taking a larger, more independent role and King proved you didn't need an appealing singing voice to do it either.
Her debut, 1970's Writer, was a decent enough showing but it failed to attract commercial interest. Later in 1970, King gathered together some top notch session men like drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Danny Kortchmar, as well as plugging in guest friends like James Taylor (who took this LP's "You've Got a Friend" to the top of the charts with his own version), Joni Mitchell and famed backing singer Merry Clayton. The sessions resulted in Tapestry, a mammoth Grammy-award winning hit that has sold nearly 25 million copies to date. It's easy to overlook the music contained within the grooves but Tapestry is in truth a formidable, respectable classic of pop music in the early 70s and the singer-songwriter movement altogether. It's easily her best work, easily her most prosperous and easily one of the most beloved pop albums of the Twentieth Century (albums being a second half of the century medium, mind you) and for good reason. AM radio lapped up a few of the singles and turned them into top 10 hits. The first track, "I Feel the Earth Move," combines funky down home R&B not unlike Aretha with a sort of jazz-rock flair. It is in line with King's album-wide methodology of abandoning the peppier, commercial glaze of her past pop supplicants to other stars in favour of more grounded, high brow rock that also was abundant with rich hooks. This one was originally an A-side until radio DJs being playing "It's Too Late" instead, a more typical AM type of song. It was counted as a double A-side on the charts eventually, but on its own "I Feel the Earth Move" was the less popular of the two. King puts a lot of soul into her limited vocal abilities and her admirable effort gives the song a longing and strongly anticipatory emotion to it.
Her balladeer stance can often be fleet and nostalgic on Tapestry, with "So Far Away," being the catalyst for it all. It's a tearjerker sort of love song that speaks of the distance between lovers and the toll that it can take. It endured as one of the real favourites for the album, one of the many adult contemporary radio staples from the album- though those who covered it often failed to seize upon King's heartfelt weariness in favour of sapping it up, namely Rod Stewart. "So Far Away" is a great example of King's gospel-influenced, warm piano style too. The album's biggest hit single, and best up tempo track, is "It's Too Late," a bittersweet jazzy sort of pop that is enhanced by Toni Stern's lyrics, a step up over King's own, which can start to sound banal or unimaginative after a while. "Home Again" is another bright, optimistic track that is another nostalgic, enduring expression of longing. Toni Stern also gives "Where You Lead" some feel-good, concise lyrics to go with the song's breezy gospel soul, making enough of an impression to get Barbara Streisand to cover it to a great deal of chart success in 1972. King continues her penchant for dogged self-empowerment on the inspiring "Beautiful," which features a winding, unique chord progression and a delectable melody as per usual with Tapestry. Again she shows a strong sense of African-American Church-based music on the sunny-outlooked "Way Over Yonder," which does border on gospel facsimile or minstrel show panache but it nonetheless commendable. The most popular (and profitable) of the songs on this LP is "You've Got a Friend." It's a song of devoted, close friendship, nothing necessarily romantic or sexual involved for a change (considering lust, passion and raunch have been atypical of the standards for love songs in the rock era).
Of course, there were a plethora of cover version that hit the charts in the next year or two, proving King's songewriting was both bankable and widely respected. However, only James Taylor's version topped the charts, even though it pales in comparison to King's moving, passionate version as it's laid back, mellow, vanilla and incredibly boring I have to say. This can never change how "You've Got a Friend" is King's greatest achievement in terms of musical healing, for nearly four decades eliciting smiles and comfort to millions, whether you find it to be cornball or not. "Smackwater Jack" is a bluesy sort of faux-barroom number for the road, co-written by her ex-beau Gerry Goffin. It's probably the only mediocre song of the twelve on Tapestry. The title song is a piano-only performance but the song is as vibrant and superbly positive as any other, though it never wears on you or feels forced and/or repetitive. As with "Tapestry," King took the smart move of giving two of her 60s written smashes a pared back, solo arrangement at the piano to prove that even at its most naked, her music could sustain if not arguably increase its emotional gravitas. This results in a wonderful, milky version of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and a positively enchanting finale of "Natural Woman," where King truly shows her talent cannot be denied and her artistic vibes were too resonant to ignore. Beyond the hoopla, Tapestry is a major pop record and a statement from King. Unfortunately, her one-note sort of approach to music grew old and formulaic and Tapestry was the only great LP she ever made but there's no denying it was quite the one-shot gargantuan hit to have. It would stay on the charts for six years, the fifth longest stay of all time and second longest by a solo act. In 1971 it spent 15 weeks at #1 on the Billboard LP charts and earned her Grammys (not that those are paramount, in fact they're virtually meaningless industry pats on the back but they do represent massive feats of popularity), Record of the Year ("It's Too Late"), Song of the Year ("You've Got a Friend"), Album of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She could have retired in 1972 and never had to worry about reputation again but even subsequent duds as a solo artist couldn't cloud or hamper her 60s glory days and her artistic statement on her own.
185. Wish You Were Here-Pink Floyd (1975): A long stint, after the unfortunate departure of early day leader and creative force Syd Barrett, found Pink Floyd emerge as an underground favourite, a forerunner of the dreaded (or if you like that kind of stuff, the sacred) prog/art rock. Barrett's mental collapse into a sort of catatonic, wildly unpredictable state insufficient for being am active musician, profoundly affected the band in the future as well as the present and his LSD-induced step into a sort of madness led to his dismissal midway through 1968. He would record two highly eccentric, yet simplistically presented albums in 1970, aided by members of Floyd, before disappearing into a quiet, comfortable life in Cambridge where he was supervised to treat his mental problems before dying in anonymity from cancer, though with much press around him posthumously, in 2006. The members of the group only saw him once more between his exit and his death and it came during the sessions for this (at the time) eagerly anticipated followup to the mammoth The Dark Side of the Moon. With David Gilmour giving them an even more capable guitar hero, they were able to stay in a rock vein most of the time, especially when he was writing or singing. After A Saucerful of Secrets, their 1968 sophomore release that only featured Barrett on one cut, they took psychedelia in an even further descent into the abyss.
Floyd's artistic muse from 1968-72 saw them branch into folkier territory when they weren't shunning the conventions of rock. They often spent the pre-superstar years preferring to experiment with pastoral sounds, avant-garde tendencies and at times the harsh, frenetic style of classical from the Twentieth Century (such as musique concrete). Stockhausen was a clear parallel in terms of classical composers. This resulted in much beloved- but not by critics at the time, or the general public outside the UK- underground/cult albums like the double Ummagumma (1969) and Atom Heart Mother (1970), an inaccessible, complicated album practically disowned by some of Floyd's members as the years have passed by. In addition, they made the soundtracks More (1969) and Obscured By Clouds (1972). After Dark Side put them on the map commercially (see it's entry in the albums list 160-51), the group was forced with the unenviable task of creating a well-received followup. Through a series of sessions to work on proposed songs, Pink Floyd eventually settled on another concept album, this one being a sort of pean to Syd Barrett and in general a diatribe on the dangers of fame in the rock business. The centrepiece to the album is "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," a suite split up into parts. Parts I-IV open the album as a 13.5 minute epic that touches on some of the kind of music used on Dark Side but an increased sense of drama as expressive synthesizers deliver a lot to the musical palette.
In some segments, "Shine on..." (credited to Gilmour-Waters-Wright) is a decidedly jazzy piece, though it's choruses are unmistakably Floyd's grand type of rock. Much of these 13 and a half minutes revolve around enthralling instrumental passages, more extended than anything they'd done since the twenty-three minute "Echoes" from 1971's Meddle. Synthesizers are heavily invested in for the next track, Waters' "Welcome to the Machine," a vivid, positively chilling listening experience with plenty of white noise, bleeps, blorps and buzzes provided from Richard Wright, the all-out star showman of the album when you think about the many keyboard textures the songs are based on. Gilmour sings with a desperate intensity on a composition that scathes the record industry's controlling, overbearing obsession with making money and its ignorance of actual art and creativity. Lines like "What did you dream?/It's alright, we told you what to dream" certainly lend credence to the idea this song was a blast on record executives' puppetry over its star acts. Possibly, Floyd could also be bemoaning how an eccentric like Barrett wasn't made for the greedy, corporate world of the music business. Running at 7.5 minutes, combined with the lengthy "Shine on," "Welcome to the Machine" is the second of two tracks on the vinyl side one, though current CD editions let the tune segue into "Have a Cigar," the third cut on Wish You Were Here. "Have a Cigar" is an even more thorough rip on the music biz, one that'd make even Van Morrison blush. For this album's standard, it's kind of a funkier excursion where guitar gets more of a starring role.
Roy Harper, a friend of the band and English folk luminary (recall his name being paid tribute to by Led Zeppelin on "Hats of to Roy Harper" from 1970's Led Zeppelin III) guests on this tune by handling the vocals since Waters felt his vocals were too strained from "Shine on, Parts I-IV." "At 5:08, "Have a Cigar" is the shortest track on this LP and, when it comes to Pink Floyd, has a quite average running time. The revealing line is the final one of each chorus: "And they tell you the name of the game, boy/They call it riding the gravy train." It's basically an attack on how everyone only loves you when you're the cock of the walk, filling their pockets with cash. At this point, pessimism, paranoia and anger were seeping into Pink Floyd's messages, namely with Roger Waters whose input was getting more swaying. He was exerting a leadership role that would eventually alienate the others and cause the collapse of the group in 1983. By their 1977 followup Animals the change from observant of the dark abyss into fighting and protesting against the abyss, was complete. "Wish You Were Here" is the most purely mellow thing Floyd had done in years as of '75. Basing the song on acoustic guitar, with Gilmour's electric guitar leads being country and blues inspired, helps usher in a measure of gentleness. Gilmour even acts on a jazz trick of scatting along with the instrument by imitating his guitar soloing vocally, with his falsetto I should add. "Wish You Were Here" is another admitted Syd Barrett tribute, lyrically telling of the wish to reacquaint with an old friend gone by the wayside. Never mentioned by name, it's obvious who's in the back of their minds and in their hearts when they assembled the song.
The lyrics for "Wish You Were Here" are provided by Waters, meaning he gets a collaborative credit with Gilmour- something that would not be nearly as common down the road when Waters' influence began to override the others and become the propelling force that arguably made Floyd more oppressively bleak, an uncompromisingly outraged group. "Wish You Were Here" begins with a switch from "Have a Cigar" to the sound of someone scanning the radio dial before finally resting on the opening chords, which is processed to seem like it's coming from a radio and then a studio-overdubbed lead plays alongside it until the whole track becomes entirely studio derived. "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" returns for parts VI-IX, a denouement of the themes expressed in the first five parts. It's a lot like the first five but shifts time signature and tempo quite a bit, providing a close to the concept LP over 12:22 of music, yet another extended, typically jazz lengthy track from Pink Floyd. Though this is their best work, a fabulous album then as it is now, you can see why punks raised and fed on rebellious, filthy garage rock would hate Pink Floyd, what with their serious, weighty subject matter, their pomp, elegance, semi-classical, semi-jazz method of songwriting and their ridiculously long arrangements that skimped on actual vocals a lot. Floyd was also pumping out albums where anything over 7 tracks meted out was considered generous. Nonetheless, Wish You Were Here captures Floyd in their prime, just before a sense of disdain and anger stemmed out of Waters with each passing release and the group became too big for its own quality control. The vastly overrated- in my view- and impenetrable double-disc The Wall became their last triumph upon its late 1979 release.
The Wall hit a chord with listeners and continues to be played and praised into the ground, but the making of it took more out of Floyd than it did good for them. It saw ideas other than Waters' pushed to the backburner and Richard Wright phased out then fired for his disruptive cocaine addiction. Worst yet, their eventual followup, 1983's revealingly titled The Final Cut, was a commercial and critical disappointment that saw Pink Floyd end with a leaden dull thud. This was because Waters declared the band a dead issue, a finished entity, as he embarked on a solo career. This irked and alienated Gilmour and Mason who did not want to let the band end because they felt they still had creative juices flowing as a unit, and of course we can't discount their wish to keep using the namesake for the expansion of their personal coffers too. Just the name Pink Floyd alone is an excuse to print money, which is probably why Waters fought tooth and nail to prevent them from using it. After surviving many court battles with Waters, Pink Floyd still remains a sporadic touring act as they were able to reform in 1987 with Wright back in the fold, conquered of his drug habit and safe within the confines of the band he once was a major force behind. Over the last 20 years, the band's relationship with the absent, wayward Roger Waters has been, at least on a professional level, acrimonious to say the least. Wish You Were Here is Pink Floyd the way most would like to remember them, at their least off-putting and diffusive, just before super-confusing concepts, too intelligent for their own good, became their fatal flaw in the eyes of a few fans, critics (including this one) and others not named Roger Waters.
184. Marshall Crenshaw-Marshall Crenshaw (1982): Not getting out an album until 28 years old, Detroit's Marshall Crenshaw had bounced around in bands locally before leaving for New York where he managed to get into the cast for a run of Beatlemania playing the part of John Lennon. Often compared to early Lennon for his sharp, cutting, girl group inspired vocals, Crenshaw held a deep respect and longing for 50s and 60s pop, namely the rocking kind. Owing a lot to the British Invasion and the acts that inspired it, Crenshaw was a throwback when most musicians seemed to act like fashion-conscious robots playing robotic music devoid of any spunk or original pizzazz. Crenshaw shared a musical kinship with Buddy Holly but drew comparisons to Holly more for his bespectacled look than for his songwriting. He came upon the music scene and invoked memories of a time when pop songs were like teenage hymns or psalms, innocent and exhilarating and never much more than three minutes at best. There was still an irony, a modern edge to Crenshaw so that he didn't seem too passe or too much of a nostalgic, like some rockabilly revivalists of the time. Of course he has never received the sway commercially that he holds with critics, and is often compared on the low end of the fame spectrum to Elvis Costello, a nerdy looking guy (much uglier was Elvis though) cast out of the same stone. Elvis overcame and defied his nerdish appearance in song, while Crenshaw's stage life as a Beatle and his intelligent, savant of vintage record collection knowledge were defining features of the guy. Because there was no one marketable tag to attach to him, record companies have always failed to know how to get Crenshaw's name some headway.
Marshall never seemed to cast doubt upon or relegate this plain, studious demeanour he exuded. Destined to become a cult power pop icon- like a Big Star for instance- he eventually faded from regular charting by the 90s. Upon his arrival in 1982, he radiated someone cool and someone melvin simultaneously (not quite "geek chic" but close) and was not atypical of the personable, garish, preening and photogenic pop stars being run out of the mill and onto the manufacturing floor for the emerging MTV. In an entertainment landscape still waiting for the next meal ticket after the disco phenomenon died down, when fashion, dance and pop culture je ne sais quoi roared into full gear with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Duran Duran and the like, guys who let their records and musical knack speak for themselves were rendered creatures of the old-hat, considered aimlessly prehistoric, irrelevant and unconformable. Few acts have bucked the trends since 1981 and lived to tell about it, at least on a great scale of popularity. Music videos could help, but not enough to auger platinum sales and bankrolling in the millions, unless of course there was something salable within the grooves, the only constant in the industry since it took shape at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. While several took music videos to their advantage as a viable art form and key feature to express the artistry of the person(s) in question, the bottom line was that these clips were nothing but promo tools, designed to cast a spell over the impressionable youth demographic who beforehand couldn't ever be bothered to care about every new band trotted out for their approval on top 40 radio and on TV. So where did Marshall Crenshaw fit in? Did he have to? Answers being not really anywhere visible and no.
Underneath it all, Crenshaw's debut showed someone very much in tune with the rock n' roll and R&B of the pre-psychedelic times. He managed to have these influences streamlined into a more new wave approach thanks to production techniques of the day, but the basic gist of the album is undeniably retro nonetheless. Despite the comparisons to classic artists he admired as well as accusations he was a backward-thinking, stylistic copycat, the truth of the matter is that Crenshaw's career has been frequently brilliant, give or take a few albums. He has long been a composer of complex, detailed, yet unabashedly gleaming pop-rock. You almost wish Paul McCartney's solo career could have gone the way Crenshaw's has. Next to Crenshaw, 70s and 80s McCartney- not terrible by most standards- looks like a drippy hack a la "Barely Manenough" Barry Manilow. On his 1982 debut, after years of cutting his chops, the sign of a pop extraordinare is quite evidently emitted on Marshall Crenshaw. I can safely say there is simply not a bad cut the whole way throughout it. Marshall evokes memories of early Beatles in the varied tastes he brings to the table while never getting pretentious or overly ambitious in doing so. He does what he loves, what he wants and knows he can bring out the cheeriness and rich beauty in any song, self-penned or not. The best track here is "Someday, Someway," which had already been unleashed on the public in a single from a a year earlier by retro rockabilly singer Robert Gordon. Crenshaw's version is even better, a bouncy, catchy, fun pop tune that belies the pondering nature of its lyrics.
"Someday Someway" conjures up memories of early John Lennon vocals and Crenshaw manages to sneak in duck-walking, rockabilly guitar and buttery harmonies that were better than 99% of his contemporaries. The lead cut is not too shabby itself, with "There She Goes Again" playing upon that "She used to be my girl" outlook from a guy, now tortured by watching her go "again with another guy," which begs the question "Will her heart ever be satisfied?" In the Beatley bridge, Marshall finds an ounce or two of strength by insisting he "know(s) just what (he) oughtta do," resolving to "find someone better" while telling his ex-girl that he "can live with you." There's not letdown or disappointing slide following such an outstanding start, as "Someday Someway" comes right after. Other tunes here bathe in the glow of puppy love, heartbreak and earnest longing and you find yourself hooked in by Crenshaw's complete control of his medium. Also, he's a melodic, creative guitar player, you find after repeated listens. The more modern, 80s cuts on this album would be the cheeky yet sexually restless "Girls" (where Crenshaw claims all he can think about is girls, girls, girls whenever he does simple stuff like turn on the TV- and if this is no joke, the guy should've invested in porno to cure his urges methinks). He likens their allure over him to red wine going to his head. "I'll Do Anything," is a gutty, Police-like new wave rocker, albeit with the expected dose of sweetness from Crenshaw. Lesser, but still enjoyable tracks that evoke memories of the golden era of AM radio pop would be the dizzyingly exciting "Rockin' Around in N.Y.C." and the rockabillying "The Usual Thing," which is Carl Perkins via the Beatles.
Two more pop winners come back-to-back, first off with "Cynical Girl." It could never have been written in the more innocent, straightforward mid-60s so you know it's a love song that takes into consideration all the nuance opened up by pioneers like Dylan during the previous 15 years rather than act like they never happened. All about tracking down a cynical girl, as if sung as an advert for some matchmaker to intervene with, Marshall finds it a preferable alternative to date one because they'll "Be lost in love" and "have no use for the real world." It's a good little wink from Crenshaw and the drums-bass-electric guitar setup is for one of the few times on the LP deviated from in order for a Spector/Springsteen-esque glockenspiel. "Cynical Girl" trails "Someday, Someway" closely for excellence marks, while he opts for an open, heartfelt pledge with "Mary Anne," the next song. "Mary Anne" is about an affair currently happening, rather than one being wished for or recalled fondly or not so fondly. The 50s "at the hop" excursion "She Can't Dance" is another inventive slice of old wave and "Brand New Lover" is perhaps the most average thing here, but is still delicious enough to warrant a run through. There's even an admirable cover of Arthur Alexander's "Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)," a cover right up the Beatle alley since 1994's Live at the BBC documented that it had been covered for the Beatles' radio program in 1963 with Lennon singing lead.
"Not for Me" has a turn during each verse into minor key ground, but is overall pure Lennon pop a la A Hard Day's Night. It may not be the catchiest recording on the album but demonstrates Crenshaw's underrated, understated guitar once more. The album is remarkably straightforward in spite of the odd excursions into high-minded new wave sheen. It's a lot like the 1962-64 Beatles, as it rarely uses any instrumentation outside the guitar-bass-drum format. Crenshaw, as alluded to, proves himself to be an adept, melodically daring guitarist but all without actually resorting to any lengthy solos to prove so. His reedy voice may sound dinky and innocent but really contains a good dosage of soul and feeling, wonderfully loading beared by his overdubbed harmonies. His debut is a must if one enjoys those bright, irresistable days when the British Invasion brought hope and smiles to people all across America or when Buddy Holly was worming his way through sounds never before tapped into by rock & roll music. Too bad the recording biz could no longer find that stuff promotable, even if shaped to suit the tastes of 1982. Their loss, the cult fandom of Marshall Crenshaw's gain. Following this album, he was labelled a "can't miss" by some, but despite a crossover bid on 1983's Field Day, this did not come to pass. Field Day brought aboard famed producer Steve Lillywhite, who muscled up the sound behind Crenshaw's trio with an emphasis on presence, echo and especially oomph on the drum sound. The snare crackles like a whip throughout, which may be an 80s production obsession but never detracts from Field Day's stunning brand of pop power that represents Crenshaw's peak and greatest work (read on into the top 100 to find out), which is foreshadowed on the magical Marshall Crenshaw.
183. Give it up-Bonnie Raitt (1972): In 1971, Bonnie Raitt, a young lady schooled on the delta blues of people like Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin' Hopkins, released a thoroughly engaging and splendid debut. It was not entirely a great album but showed a feeling and confidence for the blues that few 21-year old women had shown, or have shown since (and being the daughter of Broadway singing star John Raitt only made her emergence all the more intriguing). She identified not just with the men of the blues but the women too, the kind who sang city blues and later R&B such as Ruth Brown, Sippie Wallace or even Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. Most female stars were popping up from the singer-songwriter movement and few, outside of people like Carole King (with gospel and doo-wop) or Laura Nyro (with neo-classic doo-wop and uptown R&B), showed a penchant for taking on strictly black forms of music. Raitt was a welcome addition to the field of women in rock. Janis Joplin had been a bit older when fame struck for her and always sounded pained, ravaged and caught up in real life blues whereas Bonnie Raitt sounded like a pure devoted fan above all. Raitt's career has seen very little of her own penmanship because she is a master interpreter and slide guitarist first and foremost who owns a warm, broadly appealing set of vocals.
Raitt had been raised in a Quaker family, although the evangelically vigilant and caring purpose behind Quakerism translated more to her political views than anything religious. She attended Harvard's Radcliffe College, majoring in African studies and planned to go to Tanzania to offer humanitarian aid for the new democratic socialist government, all in a conscious effort to undo damage that Western colonialism had wrought over centuries. Raitt later would apply this activist spirit to her rock career, naturally. But fate had other plans when Raitt began playing in clubs around the Boston area, opening for and mingling with blues legends thanks to her ties to blues promoter Dick Waterman. An opening gig at New Yorks' Gaslight Cafe for bluesman Fred McDowell got exposure for her when a journalist from Newsweek attending the show was knocked out by the opening act. Various record companies began scouting out her shows until Warner Bros. stepped in to offer her a deal first. After her debut perked up many an ear, she set out to woo listeners not entirely interested or at ease with her pure blues and heartbreak moaning background. Still just 22, her second album, 1972's Give it up, is a transition into her future work that found acceptance from the Southern California rock crowd. Alongside longtime backing musicians like Freebo, Raitt got help from blues harpist Paul Butterfield, guitarist Amos Garrett and Eric Kaz, one of the writers she covers on the album.
Bonnie Raitt did not just stick to a love of the blues, showing she could tackle the traditional New Orleans jazz and right away she does so with the Dixieland of the opening track, her composition "Give it up or Let Me Go." Warner Bros. eased Raitt more into contemporary sounds, trying to get her into the West Coast California rock kingdom. It worked well at first, though future forays proved dodgy and lost her some favour with critics too (Recall her incredible comeback in the late 80s, early 90s and understand that it was her first time tasting the fruits of commercial success on such a mammoth level). Her James Taylor-esque folk stab, "Nothing Seems to Matter," outclasses anything Taylor could do, even with a somewhat overbearing saxophone in the background distracting attention from a finely fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Her cover of Barbara George's "I Know (You Don't Want Me No More)" shows a keen understanding of the funky vibe one can find in a gospel choir in a black church and it's greasy, gutbucket style is hard to resist. Her cover of the R&B standard- written by a man named Rudy Clarke- "If You Got Make a Fool of Somebody," brings out a soulful, bluesy heart to the tune and Raitt's singing again earns- or at least should from those critiquing- thumbs up across the board. Her excellent choice of covers continues with Chris Smither's "Love Me Like a Man" (substituting gender roles when needed as the song was originally from a male perspective and titled "Love You Like a Man"). "Love Me Like a Man" finds her occupying her own space as a woman demanding proper attention and handling, which blues mamas had done for years before her. She picks up on the sassy, feminist traditional streak running through the blues and gives it a measure of delicacy on this superb cut.
Joel Zoss's "Too Long at the Fair" brings a change of mood as it is a folky, string-adorned number that comes off like those jarring transitions on Aretha Franklin's best albums to sweet, smooth, ballad pop from Southern fried R&B and gospel. Jackson Browne's debut album from the same year saw his composition "Under the Falling Sky" done in a zesty percussive, Latin-tinged manner. Here on Give it Up, Bonnie turns it into an exalted, bubbling rocker with the usual blues hard-as-nails front tossed in for good measure. Already her third Sippie Wallace cover, "You Got to Know," (co-written with a fella named Jack Vertiel) features the style of city blues and Dixieland meshed as clarinet (John Payne), tuba (provided by Freebo) and trombone (Amos Garrett) make it harken back to jazz's roots just like the first track of the album does. Her own "You Told Me Baby" sounds like a great take on Memphis soul with some components reminiscent of reggae too. But the final song sees Raitt again take another's song to new heights, in this case Eric Kaz and Libby Titus's much loved standard "Love Has No Pride." One of the great 70s songs, "Love Has No Pride" gets a tremendous reading from Raitt that is similar to the more popular Linda Ronstadt cover, only a bit more authentic and powerful despite Raitt not possessing the pipes of Ronstadt. It's probably the sizzling dynamics and soaring clarity of Ronstadt's vocals that draws away from the song's sweetly caressing pull on her own rendition, but to each his own. It's hard to ruin such a lovely ditty. Without the power generation of a voice that Ronstadt owned, Raitt could only do so much to counter. But she does a reasonably sweet and sanguine job at it. This "Love Has No Pride" is a fitting end to Give it up, her first brilliant LP that also remains her best to this day even if it is not the one that comes to mind right away in the general public (thanks to her late 80s renaissance that netted her Grammys, platinum records, a ton of radio airplay and a new fanbase).
Moving forward after the 1971-72 burst of minor stardom, Raitt would lean on the same compliment of covers of rather unknown singer-songwriters' tunes, covers of well known singer-songwriters' tunes and covers of obscure (to the majority of people, anyway) R&B and blues songs throughout the years. Often, she would not bother to write a song for one of her records. This keeping up with the contemporary and the past made Raitt a must to seek out in the 70s. Starting on 1974's Streetlights, more of a commercial, adult contemporary element began to creep into her music. Her poppier records from the back half of the decade are hit-and-miss, and with the quality of the albums it gets that way too- Streetlights and The Glow being rather timid affairs but Home Plate and Sweet Forgiveness turning out alright- the latter in spite of including her first major hit in a cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway" that was disparaged by most critics, though this listener will just concede it as a boring, cliched California rock take on the rather haunting, lunatic oldie. Before becoming the toast of the veteran worship elite thanks to her renaissance under producer Don Was with Nick of Time (1989) and Luck of the Draw (1991), Raitt had to first learn hardship as her sales dried up and she bottomed out artistically and personally. This was via her albums coming sporadically (just three between 1978 and 1988) and her struggles with alcohol and drugs weighing her down. Yeah it was a mega hit but Nick of Time in fact may be one of her least artistically rewarding LPs of the past 20 years. It does enough to please but Luck of the Draw is probably the second best Bonnie Raitt album, a full 2 decades after he debut. It's not that her later albums weren't special in their own right, but Give it Up will always show what Raitt could have been if she'd stayed an underground artist never prompted to mainstream her ambitions to make some more bucks.
182. Imperial Bedroom-Elvis Costello & the Attractions (1982): As you may have read about in the review not too many spots back for King of America, Elvic Costello was riding a whirlwind tidal wave of approval, but this was mainly becoming true of his critical rep and not his sales. His constant forays into alien territory were accepted until he befuddled people with the pure country homage Almost Blue late in 1981. Through 1982, he looked to make a rhapsodic pop album that drew a lot more on jazz, classical and mellow 60s soul than he had led on before. It would be an album more esoteric than Trust, more diverse than My Aim is True while less boisterous than most of Get Happy!! and less pent up, geeky and raving mad than Armed Forces or This Year's Model. Because of the many studio hours that would be spent overdubbing and tinkering with the sounds, Costello took more of a production role himself while putting former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick in charge, rather than his standby Nick Lowe (who also hadn't worked on Almost Blue because Elivs stepped in to Nashville and only needed a couple weeks to reel off that LP and Lowe had been on call for the other ones because they were recorded in jolly ol' England). The pub rock overtones were taking a back seat true but Elvis decide that- no offense, of course- Lowe would have no tolerance for the dithering and experimentation Costello knew he was in for. "Basher" would return for Elvis's Blood and Chocolate four years later, but 1982 marked the end of their inseparable, long-term partnership.
Imperial Bedroom was another long, single-disc statement that stretched to 15 tracks, the length of an album you'd expect from a punk band with their brief, curt proclamations but alas Costello has quite a few tracks that stretch past four minutes, a very un-punk thing to practice. No one other than Todd Rundgren ever jam-packed his music onto albums to such an insane degree that tested the limits of fidelity on vinyl. Of course, CD rectified all that but an album can still be too long at 15 tracks so Elvis's tendencies weren't rocked by the digital age. And thanks to B-sides and unreleased material in abundance, Rykodisc's 2002 bonus disc edition provides some excellent nuggets. Though these "special" extra features didn't figure in to my placing of this album, I will discuss them in some brevity later on. Imperial Bedroom represents a new plateau of serious professional regard for Costello, who today is regarded less as a rock artist than as a modern composer, somewhere in between in the stratosphere of modern pop legends- half pop chameleon like Paul McCartney and half prodigal whiz like Frank Zappa. Elvis maybe blew his wad before 40 because since the late 80s he's been stretching himself thin with his prolificness and his seemingly played out wanderlust on the musical spectrum- to wit: How long can you go releasing at least one disc per year with 50+ minutes of content in every style imaginable (although all sung with that same genuinely interesting barking, reedy, nasally drawl that reminds one of a howling mutt or a jazz singer with a sinus infection. In other words, Costello's singing voice isn't reshaped or adapted for different songs. It's just his own and he never deviates from it much)?
But in 1982, Costello was still just 27- though with his thick-framed bespectacled visage, his gap-toothed scowl and receding hairline he may as well have been 47. His status as a new wave hero was fading but in its place was a growing chatter amongst music critics that maybe this guy was more the next Paul McCartney or Van Morrison than he was the next Dave Edmunds or Graham Parker- aka, pub-crawling roots revivalists with an edge. And that he wasn't exactly going to fade away like any other UK late 70s rags-to-riches story (as in, what ever happened to Dr. Feelgood? Wreckless Eric? When did they stop making hits?). The Stiff Records utopia produced Elvis indeed, but he outlasted and outshined all of his stablemates, sometimes to a gigantic degree. Many cuts on Imperial Bedroom have a weary R&B slant to it and perhaps because it wasn't the jacked-up party mood of Get Happy!!, this fact gets overlooked. Musically, other than the horns and strings previously foreign to his music Elvis- who seemed to hold out on fattening up his musical sound (perhaps so he didn't phase out or bother the Attractions?) while others like the Clash and Graham Parker couldn't resist the allure- displayed less of his electric guitar work than ever, going for acoustic strokes that showed how as a guitarist he had been unfairly ignored. Nonetheless, as always it's keyboardist Steve Nieve who gets the all-star bits and Lowe had long allowed room for his classically trained Beethoven crossed with Ray Manzarek to reign on Elvis albums numbers 2-4. But while his trashy organ sound was an iconic feature to Elvis's work (who could forget the incessant chords of that organ on "Pump it up," "Radio Radio," "The Beat" or "Watching the Detectives?"), his piano called even more attention to itself.
Almost completely absent from This Year's Model, Nieve split his time between the acoustic piano and plugged-in keyboards for Armed Forces, giving a noticeably different feel to "(What's So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," "Chemistry Class," "Accidents Will Happen" (which has both an organ and piano part) and especially "Oliver's Army," where the fortissimo chords pounded out by Nieve are semi-classical, but also involve a near identical quote from Abba's "Dancing Machine," just at nearly twice the speed. The majesty of Nieve's piano took a back seat for Get Happy!!- save for "High Fidelity," and "King Horse" where it steals the show- and Almost Blue where the music demanded less skillful playing from the Attractions (slow, honky-tonk country is as base and rudimentary as the entire genre of C&W gets- and that's not a bad thing at all). But the piano returned to high priority for Trust, adding a sort of Latinized Horace Silver spot on "Clubland," a hypnotic effect for "Lover's Walk," a rightfully off-the-wall support for "Pretty Words," a bashing chordal arrangement for "Strict Time," and a part from right out of British music hall tradition on "Shot With His Own Gun." After all that, Nieve struck upon what turned out to be the ceiling of his piano player potential- for a consistently essential role on a Costello LP- with Imperial Bedroom. On the flip side, in addition to Elvis's electric guitar mashing, Bruce Thomas's glissando bass stylings and Pete Thomas's usually rip-roaring drum assault were scaled back more than usual for Imperial Bedroom- or if you want to see it in a positive way, they adapt to the new ground being tread upon as Costello delicately fingerpicks on acoustic guitars, Thomas plucks out his notes with heady force and Pete Thomas throws a little jazzy technique into an arsenal that had largely been predicated on being fast, full of attitude and scorchingly Keith Moon-ish.
The album opener, "Beyond Belief," is perhaps the best ever lead track on any Costello album, a fully bracing assault of nerves, tension and dark, brooding jazz-rock of sorts. The jazziest thing about it isn't the unsettling vamp or the sideways, fractured chords but Costello's serene, almost sedate vocal line. No longer hollering or crooning all the time, Costello hits upon a vocal part that's gentle but almost disarmingly languid, as if he's a man facing the end of his tether and not giving a damn about it. The song is layered in textures that mangle up the ears at times, namely the ogreish blasts of distortion that act as a percussive noise, definitely a feature of studio mastermind Geoff Emerick being the producer and not the easygoing Lowe- with his lo-fi sound that took as little advantage of stereo technology as possible. "Beyond Belief" does have a chorus that livens things up with some harmonies and dramatic energy, but otherwise it's perhaps the first poetically demented Costello tune and the first of the beautifully ugly variety. "Tears Before Bedtime" is blue-eyed soul of the best kind, like Hall & Oates if they laid off the airy keyboards and overproduction that dogged their hitmaking days. It's also buttoned-down in the English way, sort of a reserved take on the Northern Soul music that had been so popular off and on since the mid-60s. Again his vocals take a cool, undisturbed tone as he harmonizes between his deepest baritone and his highest falsetto (other than those wheezy, girlish screeches/squeals he's known for).
Costello from the start has excelled in writing pictorial framings of women in distress, whether it be about their self-induced wallowing in the gutter as Elvis describes their tortured shades of melancholy or whether it be about sadness brought on by the outside forces of bad love, careless husbands and/or a society ill-willing to understand. Unlike a slew of rockers of his generation, Elvis comes off as more of a novelist, a tacit sympathizer rather than a chauvinistic, brutish jerk (a role punks could revel in or even "angry young men" like Graham Parker). Of course, misogyny has long been one of the nastier parts about testosterone-fueled rock and roll but even some of the biggest macho punks have seemed enlightened and some reform themselves- witness John Lennon go from a rather jealous, controlling meanie to a thoughtful, extremely vocal respecter of women- no doubt the result of Yoko's feminist resolve and strength, which had to leave poor mistreated Cynthia Lennon wondering where was women's lib for her? Even Elvis had gotten hung up on women of the daft, venomous and crazy types with putdowns like "This Year's Girl," "Lipstick Vogue" and "Big Tears." In his personal life, he even strayed and been unfaithful to his first wife, but in recent years has shied away from his old geeky "women aren't to be trusted" ethos. His best "damsel in distress" composition is arguably Imperial Bedroom's third track, "Shabby Doll," which features Nieve's effervescent piano giving classical colour to an otherwise drab- but very competent- folky song.
The music hall/classical streak of this album is wonderfully incorporated into "The Long Honeymoon" as well, where Elvis spins melodic ideas that make even his late 70s period seem pedantic and shapeless by comparison. There's even a hint of Elvis's fondness for French chansons not unlike the material of Edith Piaf. The very Parisian presence of an accordion only adds to the resemblances while a castanet (one of those devices with beads you caress around a winded surface to make a sort of shuffling, papery noise) solemnly flickers in the background. "Man Out of Time" is brimming with Beatley wonder, sounding straight off one of their 1965-67 cuts when they flirted with moderate to slow tempos and unplugged, middlebrow elegance. At least, that's for what comes between the intro and outro edited into the song, these being a viciously punky, caterwauling piece of ax-wielding terror that was recorded during the rather wasted sessions for Trust. Elvis's murderous, femininely screechy shouts are rather gaudy and hard on the ears but fit in with the maniacal edge to the section, a clear and present juxtaposition of what's actually just a middlebrow stroll through the proverbial dimly lit cobblestone English street. It does not really contain the jazz cool or chord changes of other similarly free and easy tracks on the LP but at least that supplies listeners with something new and bold. The real glum, smoky jazz piece from the wee small hours is his Chet Baker knock-off, "Almost Blue"- which obviously didn't fit on the album of the same name yet lent its namesake which confused plenty I'm sure). It has become somewhat of a modern jazz standard, as hard as that would have been to conceive of when brash, nerdy Elvis arrived in 1977.
There were faint signs of this interest before, primarily traced through Elvis's demos and live versions of standards like "My Funny Valentine." Of course, "Almost Blue" is where his long-time relationship with jazz was born on record. A year later, Baker himself was a guest on the even better, less overtly jazz-based "Shipbuilding." Meanwhile, Steve Nieve's all-star piano is again at the centre of things on "Almost Blue," toned down quite a bit- though even based on the standards a purebred, tranquil jazz composition his playing is gregarious and showy. Costello brings his tender little croon- a Northern Englishman's Chet Baker- out from the shadows but overall, "Almost Blue" really does earn its stripes as a hushed, evocative jazz ballad worthy of dozens of covers. Elvis's kind of jazz that he has been pursuing ever since lines up with this tune, as on record he has usually favoured 50s and 60s jazz developments to anything before it. This has played itself out to varying degrees of success- for example, try sitting through all of 2002's North without getting lulled to sleep by its samey, romanticized glaze of the loverlorn. North was inspired by personal events as, in life imitating art in a sense, Elvis married renowned Canadian "jazz" vocalist Diana Krall (I say it in quotes because she's more of a pop singer playing jazz. She's Elvis's muse nowadays but her place in the music scene compared to his is minute. In summary, Krall plays a competent piano, has a distinct, yet limited husky voice and pumps out traditional classics we've heard a million times before but sells in the platinum range with it because: A. Her management must be extremely good and B. She's mildly attractive with a sexy singing voice, tomboyish face and blonde hair. There are thousands of more talented lounge jazz instrumentalists and vocalists who'll live in obscurity for their various reasons so let's not put Diana on the same pedestal as the real jazz giants of the modern era.).
Back to this album after that educational aside. Elvis changes gears immediately following "Almost Blue" with the fair orchestrally-based "... And in Every Home" where we get a 40-piece orchestra hauled in- after all, this is known to be Costello's Sgt. Pepper- and E.C. crafts an attempted opera melody and comes off sounding like he spent a fulfilling night guest conducting the London Symphony Orchestra to his whim on bended knee. And yet, it's a bit stodgy and self-assured rather than epic. It's no classical home run, more of an infield hit (I enjoy my sports metaphors so lay off!) that is more Andre Lloyd Webber than the Wagnerian cosmic star turn he was I'm sure hoping for- of course minus the anti-Semitic undertones of Wagner because hey, that's the last thing Elvis wanted to be associated with after his Ray Charles insult. "The Loved Ones" is perhaps the first song in the track listing order that could well remind one of even the last proper studio record by Costello & the Attractions, Trust. That is to say, it's uptempo and bursting with energy, maybe even a bit of snarl amidst a more suit-and-tie gala than ever before. Nieve's descending choppy chord pattern is one of his many classically-trained hooks on the album but the song has a cuddly pop dynamic that would have fit in with mid-60s Swinging London. "Human Hands" contains a psychedelic breakdown of drum crashes leading the rhythm and in there to pique the ears is an electric sitar. Otherwise, "Human Hands" freely enters back into the spritely reggae-rock Costello had touched upon starting with "Watching the Detectives."
Early 70s R&B, gospel and classical all find a rendezvous point for the ever-conscientious musical mastermind of Costello on "Kid About it." Featuring a solo organ for a few seconds, it reminds me of the Stones' "I Got the Blues" just for that one moment, but in its entirety is rooted in the French chansons music Costello streamlined into "The Long Honeymoon." "Kid About it" is as nifty and heartbreaking as the other narratives of the album and is most accordingly one of the top 5 cuts off Imperial Bedroom (behind "Almost Blue," and "Beyond Belief" and ahead of "The Long Honeymoon" and "Man Out of Time"). The spring-in-the-step of the Attractions is absent for much of this sedate, intricate album but "Little Savage" recalls the 1979-80 work of the group, only without a very far from sober Elvis crowing hatefully. "Boy with a Problem" is more full-bodied instrumentally than "Almost Blue" but you can see it being in the same vein if all but the piano was stripped away. It's that 1950s, late night Stan Getz-Chet Baker-Miles Davis jazz that Costello has always been fond of and when he dabbles in jazz he vocally touches upon Baker, Sarah Vaughn and the early rock balladeers like Gene Vincent. "Boy with a Problem" uses all the same chromatic chord changes as most other songs on Imperial Bedroom, but is even more bleak and dreary sounding. The lyrical matter on this album is Costello's least frightful and vitriolic to that date, yet the music doesn't always match. "Pidgin English" is the most hard-hitting track on the album as Elvis & the Attractions play a song very typical of their style, only that orchestra is back to give it a regal sophistication. "You Little Fool" is not unlike the Beatles' take on Motown R&B, though the fancy studio techniques once cutting edge in the 60s are used here to give it that Sgt. Pepper feel- an album that producer Emerick engineered don't ya know.
The fifteenth and final number on Imperial Bedroom is "Town Cryer." It uses the strings loudly bowing as high up their fretboards as possible to create a whirling accompaniment that's like fingernails on a chalkboard- to specify, not the annoyance factor of that but a similarly rough, high frequency tone. These strings sound oddly like the ones we associate with disco and the song is more engaging and pop-friendly than others, but its moderate tempo and artsy tendencies immediately negate any commercial fortunes. 1994 saw this album, alongside a huge backlog of Costello's other releases up until the early 90s, reissued by Rykodisc with bonus tracks. In 2002 Rykodisc delivered one carrying a whole extra disc of bonus tracks. This 2002 edition mostly contained demos and early versions of tracks. The 1994 re-release unveiled mostly new, minor delights that undercut the highbrow glamour of the initial Imperial Bedroom. Like his effortlessly cool soul covers of "From Head to Toe" (Smokey Robinson), "The World of Broken Hearts" (a standard written by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus), "Night Time" (a jazz song written by Patrick Chambers), and the very Beatle-soundalike"Really Mystified" (a 1964 tune by mildly popular beat group the Merseybeats, whose "I Stand Accused" was covered by Elvis on Get Happy!!). His own work is surprisingly good for previously vaulted works, take for example the waltzing folk number "The Stamping Ground." "I Turn Around" and his "Seconds of Pleasure" (the namesake for an album by Rockpile, a band featuring his friend Nick Lowe on bass) are ultimately forgettable while the instrumental "Imperial Bedroom" is pastoral but not much to rave about.
An alternate version of "Shabby Doll" is alright but clearly the inferior of the two and was rightly shelved in favour of the one we identify on the LP now. 2002 did at least provide some curiosities like "The Land of Give and Take"- an early gestation period snapshot of "Beyond Belief"- plus tracks that popped up on later Costello B-sides, albums or compilations with "Little Goody Two Shoes" (released around the same time as Adam Ant's smash hit by coincidence) and "The Town Where Time Stood Still." When it comes to Imperial Bedroom, critics were quick to rave as it topped many "Best album" polls for 1982, a year though where there weren't as many great albums as there had been going back to 1975 when quality started taking a sharp upturn after the dregs of 1973-74- though the upturn was gradual unti 1977 when the rock scene exploded with creativity akin to almost any of the banner years from before. Indeed, on my list there are only four other 1982 albums- one, Marshall Crenshaw, you already know of. Of course, no singles from this album made much of a dent on the charts in either the US or UK and the album peaked at #6 in the UK but only to fade within a month. It was still a rosier picture than Trust, which had none of its singles chart somehow. That disappointment could be what motivated Elvis to make the slick, poppy horn-studded Punch the Clock which brought him two of his only three top 30 UK singles from 1981-83 (#16 "Pills and Soap" and #28 "Everyday I Write the Book"- his first top 40 US hit of two, the other being 1989's "Veronica" which placed at #19). Imperial Bedroom was a remarkable occurrence for Elvis as he elevated his writing to a more mature, sophisticated plateau and though he'd bestow upon us some nice albums, this is the one of the last times he'd truly have the critics heads turning.
181. Fear of Music-Talking Heads (1979): The Talking Heads were arty new wavers who sprung from the thriving New York punk/new wave scene of the mid-to-late 70s and seemed to contrast that grimy, razor-sharp urban setting with their high-minded, bitterly sardonic, garage-borne rock. Three of its members were college dropouts of Rhode Island School of Design while Jerry Harrison- the oldest member, born in 1949- had been a Harvard student when he found a rock career playing in Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers. The early years of their act centered around punk hotspots like CBGB's. After their first two albums set them apart from most in their field- thanks to their wiry, madcap song structures, David Byrne's herky-jerky vocals and the colourful touches of funk that would soon become a full musical basis for their direction- the Heads decided to become a little more unsettling, daring and jarring. In a single genre definition if you need one: Post-punk. If you don't and you want a single word description to summarize them: Weird. If neither is necessary, well who care since I just handed out both options anyway! Rather than just make another goofy, pop art album with the simple guitars, bass and drums trotted out on their excellent debut and sophomore efforts, they brought in master of the esoterically electronically attuned Brian Eno (a former member of Roxy Music and by this point a highly regarded producer, arranger and solo composer).
They were able to go beyond their original strange endeavours by bringing in Eno for production and he makes their third album a mysterious, harrowing journey into the strange. Eno had already led a career, both solo and as a producer, with stunning vision for how to use electronics and he brought this unique abilities to utilize synthesizers to the Heads. The detached, almost random nature of the lyrics remained from before, as did the quirkiness. But it was all now coloured by dark, eerie blotches not unlike Joy Division, the giants of Krautrock or David Bowie's Berlin period (no coincidence because Eno helped produce the trio of album's Bowie recorded in Germany). The tight, almost trance-like funk of the opening track "I Zimbra," full of lyrics that seem like pure gibberish- something the articulate but meticulously geeky Byrne loved to do by the way- but are actually lifted from German dadaist poet Hugo Ball's poem "Gadji beri bimba." Ball receives a credit alongside Byrne and Eno despite having been dead for 52 years at that point. Musically, this track is the first indication of David Byrne's growing interest in World music, notably African rhythms. The Africanization of the Heads was never as pure as Byrne's own solo work, which began in the space between the Heads' Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues, though he would later begin to domineer and steer the band in his own direction before their acrimonious split in 1991. With Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz, big followers of the funk and non-disco dance going on at the time, there's a funk element to be found in "I Zimbra." It's a whirlwind series of repetitive, fetching riffs overlaid on top of each other, highlighting the band's love of guitar scratch chords, Tina Weymouth's clipped, funky bass and their knack for an Afrocentric percussion attack that only grew from this point on.
The spacey, paranoid synth settings Eno infuses are heard wailing like sirens at the end of "I Zimbra"- with Robert Fripp, an Eno compadre, guesting on guitar- but are even more present on the next track, peppering the fantastically creepy, analytical "Mind." The lyrics are like a listing off as Byrne names off all the greatest factors of life and how they actually won't change you (or perhaps the "you" addresses someone in particular within the song's story). "Mind" is perhaps a song about brainwashing, with Byrne droning "I need something to change your mind," possibly from the point of view of the authority figure trying to worm his way through a person's steely resolve and resistance to being strung along like a blind, faithful citizen. The demented carnival-esque "Electric Guitar" and the mechanically unsettling finale, "Drugs" also find synths playing a large part. The upbeat zaniness of their first two LPs is still there, only now more wild, unpredictable and innovative than before. Take the memorable "Life During Wartime," with its famous chorus of "This ain't no disco/This ain't no party/This ain't no foolin' around." The song has bubbling synths, a positively rambling intellectual narrative from Byrne and yet it still manages to be a dance groove, though I must say it is perhaps bettered on their live releases. It speaks from the point of view of a single man living in the midst of social chaos of eithr mechanized warfare or civil unrest. Byrne wrote the song with happenings on his mind like Patty Hearst- who made news in 1974 for being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and then being photographed helping them during a bank holdup- and Baider/Meinhof- a West German revolutionary faction that advocated a sort of communist terror campaign.
"Life During Wartime" is actually credited to all four of the Heads and it sees them also drop in references to the Mud Club and CBGB's just to give a nod and a wink to their beginnings. The spirited "Cities" is a bit funkier even than "Life During Wartime," a slapdash, nutty parade that pinballs around, as wild a ride as you'll find in song. It's no less breathlessly stressed out than "Wartime," sounding again as if it was sung from the point of view of a social outcast. A rarity for most popular music recordings, the song is led off by a fade-in and is one of those numbers enhanced by the dictatorial style of singing by Byrne. "Paper," "Memories Can't Wait" co-written by Byrne and Harrison, and "Animals" are funk-laden songs derived from jams like the majority of Fear of Music, only these one seem more grounded in the original jamming. With the usual kooky Byrne lyrics and vocals, they also get by on weirdness rather than amazing arrangements or melody. But this is what is considered filler for the Talking Heads, so that only speaks to their enduring excellence. "Heaven" is one of the few truly melodic tracks, one of the few major key chord progressions on the album. Written by Byrne along with Harrison, it's a plaintive song describing how boring and uneventful certain heavens can be, calling it a "A place where nothing ever happens." Some phrases are as plain and generic as "Everyone is trying to get to the bar/The name of the bar/The bar is called Heaven." It follows on More Songs About Buildings and Food's "The Big Country" when it comes to prodding America's supposed greatness as a facade for consumer waste to keep people interested and subservient. In short, Byrne's qualms, points of dissatisfaction and lack of amusement at America. Yet another spaced-out song of a paranoia worth mentioning is "Air," featuring the, as it happens, airy backing vocals of "the Sweetbreathes" on the title refrain.
On "Air," Byrne sings about how the air causes a multitude of worries but does warn that it "can hurt you too." As is his lyrical style, he drops in the observations and warnings of other people, reporting "Some people tell you not to worry 'bout the air/Some people've never had experience with air." There were some critics and fans who found the change to disturbed paranoia a little off-putting, maybe conscious and phony even. But to most, Fear of Music is a directional change for the Talking Heads, set to re-define people's concept of the group. It was not to be their major commercial breakthrough as an album- that would come in 1983 with Speaking in Tongues and the subsequent tour that produced the highly memorable concert film Stop Making Sense- nor did it produce any hits to break them through on the singles charts- that would come a year later with "Once in a Lifetime," a song no doubt pushed higher by its ambitious and loony (seen as kitsch and nerdy today) music video. Though it produced a few classics, Fear of Music was a transitional album that worked marvelously, setting the table for a five-star, undoubtedly great follow-up in 1980. Adding electronic elements to their music would set the Talking Heads to the future with a purpose and transform the band largely remembered for "Psycho Killer," at least before the decade where they expanded their creative powers and popularity. After Stop Making a Sense, a Jonathan Demme-directed piece of ruthless excitement that saw the Heads at their peak, would be the zenith of their fame. After the 1985 gem Little Creatures, they descended into squabbling when Byrne's goals overtook the others' and their albums reflected it with average results on True Stories (1986) and Naked (1988). Today, it seems a reunion is even more far-fetched a dream than the one about the Police getting back together to tour. Well yes that happened, but Sting and the guys weren't on nearly as bad terms when they went on indefinite hiatus as when Byrne had his falling out with Weymouth and Franz.