Wednesday, July 22, 2009

MY Greatest Albums List: Part 3, 180-71

180. Howlin' Wind-Graham Parker (1976): Having put forth demos and worked in bands while working a series of dead-end, odd jobs, such as at a glove factory, as a laboratory tester on mice and gas pump filling attendant, Graham Parker was determined for a career i rock. He caught on with Vertigo Records in the UK as of 1976. This followed a period of cutting demos for Dave Robinson at Stiff Records in 1975. During his partnership with Stiff, he hooked up with the members that would comprise his backing band. Though only their fourth studio LP together would be officially credited to as such, the six-piece act was billed as Graham Parker & the Rumour. Most of Parker's sidemen had been veterans of the pub rock scene, as Parker was, including keyboardist Bob Andrews and guitarist Brinley Schwarz from the band Brinley Schwarz which had featured Nick Lowe, producer of this album. Other members came from a former band called Bontemps Roulez, those being bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Stephen Goulding. Martin Belmont, a second guitarist, rounded out the quintet. Parker would see his records distributed in the US through Mercury Records, a relationship that would eventually sour and become a bitterly contested legal wrangle for Parker to get out from under his contract (a listen to his 1978 single "Mercury Poisoning" makes his position nakedly apparent). 

Released in July 1976, Howlin' Wind was instantly hailed as a wonderful rootsy album in the face of bloated dinosaur acts, prog rock, corporate rock and the endless supply of cheesy pop acts, some shamelessly banal and putrid. It combined all the elements of 50s and 60s black music, made it somehow new wave, fresh and with a lyrical panache delivered with a scathing tongue to boot. It earned Parker comparisons to Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, the Band and the countless pub rockers and R&B acts. Parker seemed another new hope for rock, alongside newcomers like Springsteen. Though they often were linked by pundits, truthfully the early material of Parker's rings more familiarly to Springsteen hometown pals Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (managed for a while by E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt). The debuts of Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello and others would permit more comparisons to Parker, as they were all categorized as rock's new "Angry Young Men." But there was always a dark, uncompromisingness about Parker that some feel warded off stardom and painted him into a corner where he'd never be more than a cult legend. And here we are today with his name only understood well by hardcore critics and fans, when perhaps that's just a bit of a travesty you might say. But for all the irony, wit, impish charm and the scathing, humbling way with words Parker exhibited, he was always a great songwriter at the heart of it. At the commencement of his career, Parker's biting, callous lyrical mood was not as sharp or pronounced as it would later become. Therefore Howlin' Wind is one of the most amicable, well-natured albums in his canon.

Sometimes he sounds genuinely aggravated, yet it's a mere prelude to what came later and Howlin' Wind's snapshot of Graham Parker sounds like a pussycat choirboy by comparison to the one on something like Squeezing Out Sparks. "White Honey" leads it all off and is like a vintage slice of Memphis soul, generated by six ace pub rocking English boys. "White Honey" becomes a very likable effort if you give it a couple of listens and definitely is not a shallow white boy attempt to sound black like some "Blue eyed soul" can strike you as. The slower, more grooving "Silly Thing" is another of those partying R&B raveups, like a cross-Atlantic version of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. It has a full, exuberantly chanted chorus with incredibly tight horn charts to recapture that soul sound of the 60s. That "Rumour Brass" featured saxophonists John "Irish" Earle and Ray Bevis, trumpeter Dick Hanson and trombonist Chris Gower. Meanwhile, "Nothing's Gonna Pull us Apart" is as edgy, cutting and deep a song about a strained affair as Dylan circa 1965-66 though it derives more of its sound from R&B than the Nashville-tinged Dylan of Blonde on Blonde. Few in 1976 could captivate on a love song of an undying bond like the one spoken of on "Nothing's Gonna Pull us Apart." "Gypsy Blood" is reminiscent of Van Morrison in his early 70s form, not just because it references gypsies like Van's songs tend to do, but also because it manages to act as both a fiery soul song yet with a domineering, thoughtful singer-songwriter guise to channel it through. But even Van rarely pushed the drama to such delirious highs. 

"Between You and Me" is the most tender song on the album, a bittersweet pean to a lover that sounds like the country-rock of the Eagles if they had a little more character and brutal honesty to their music. Parker's vocals are full of feeling and confidence, even moreso than one is used to if they're an avid Parker fan. If you ask me, someone could adapt it into a country heartbreaker and sell millions with it, even today. The 50s love of Parker & the Rumour shines through with the Carl Perkins-esque rockabilly that characterizes the bouncy "Back to Schooldays," a holdover from his Stiff Records days. "Soul Shoes" is a raucous, bluesy Rolling Stones styled rocker with the appropriate boogie-woogie piano and slide guitar that only the Stones could pull off with the same majesty of the black musicians who created the originals way back when. Of course, you can add the Rumour to that list, thanks to "Soul Shoes." It shows that the chops were- even in the infancy of the dream team Rumour- tremendous, in support of Parker. "Lady Doctor" recalls Van again, but Van the jazz bandleader not Van the singer-songwriter or the relaxed soul man. Parker leads everyone in a horn-punctuated blues sort of workout with the always-present Hammond organ of Bob Andrews incorporated to provide a sultry bottom end rather than peppy hooks and noodling around. Not unlike Teenie Hodges Hi Records sound. 

"You've Got to Be Kidding" is a seething, tense little rant from Parker that takes the R&B influences and fuses them into a three-chord extravaganza not unlike Bob Dylan at his most transcendent in 1966, though more in control rather than teetering on the verge of a spectacular burnout of sorts. The title track to Howlin' Wind has a jazzy ambience to its beginning with a relaxed groove and quasi-reggae being played by the rhythm section. It's more hot, dynamic work from Parker as he sings another song of passion, though few of them were bitter back then and this one is no different. When Parker forecasts "I'm gonna howl!" you are convinced quite readily by the purpose behind it. "Not if it Pleases Me" brings back the commanding country-blues that was heard in "Soul Shoes." It's a rare cut on this LP that's actually led by the acoustic guitar's strumming- Parker's forte since Schwarz and Belmont were much more accomplished players- although the rest of the musicians kick in later on with Schwarz's guitar solo being particularly searing and bluesy. The ultimate track from Howlin' Wind is the defiant, stunningly direct "Don't Ask Me Questions," an angry response to a questioning God that is sung over the kind of funky, reggae groove only the most politically outspoken Bob Marley songs contained, though its intro has a moderately tempoed, brooding rock beat that hinted at the Rumour's turn toward snazzy new wave in a few years time.

Mr. Schwarz provides some flashy, heavily vibratoed guitar leads to ram home the simmering distrust at the core of the nature of "Don't Ask Me Questions." A 90s CD remastering lends us the bonus track "I'm Gonna Use it," a honky-tonk sort of roots-rock with harmonica, exciting backup vocals and piano taking generous roles. Though Graham Parker's followup Heat Treatment wasn't as consistent as this one, it wasn't an abject failure either and is still worth seeking out. What it lacks in consistency, it almost makes up for in its quality of peaks- the title track, "That's What They All Say," "Fool's Gold," and "Pourin' it All Out" being scorching spots while CD bonus track "Hold Back the Night" (a cover of a small hit for the Trammps, they of "Disco Inferno" fame and released on the 1977 EP The Pink Parker) is the catchy, major hit he deserved but didn't get to see. Following Heat Treatment and the momentum it carried through '77, Parker seemed poised for greater plateaus. But for whatever reason, radio wasn't in to him and in the US he was still unknown because of what he felt was Mercy Records' piss poor marketing. On top of that, his fall 1977 release Stick to Me was a bit of a letdown despite being pretty darn good anyway, mainly due to gripes about its lo-fi, muddy production from Nick Lowe. It's not badly produced despite valid complaints lodged at the time, but one has to remember that at the time, most big albums were produced in big, expensive studios for 4-6 months with multiple overdubs and sonic fidelity- see Boston, Styx, Journey, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Steely Dan, etc. (all groups of varying quality but similar production values- slick, clean and detailed). 

This was explained by a rushed, week long re-recording of the album when master tapes became useless due to a mysterious oxidizing leaking from the heads of the tapes. Stick to Me gave way to a 1978 double disc release called The Parkerilla, a live recording that was concluded by a bonus, long, 12 inch remix of "Don't Ask Me Questions" for the disco crowd. As Robert Christgau said of him in 1979, "And if Graham is pissed off merely because he's not a big star yet, he translates his frustrations..." Translate he surely did on the album Chrisgau was reviewing, Squeezing Out Sparks. And yes it wasn't until that LP that Parker & the Rumour capitalized on the potential Howlin' Wind revealed, as later on you will read with my entry for Squeezing Out Sparks. Sparks was a more rock-geared, hornless synthesis of what Parker first unveiled of his talents in 1976, a charged-up, hard, subtly hooky new wave album that eschewed the most derivative elements of the initial love that Parker and the Rumour displayed for R&B, rockabilly and pub rock, streamlining them into a modern, contemporary, take-no-prisoners sound. The commercial fortunes enjoyed by Costello and Joe Jackson never applied to Parker as well. Notwithstanding that, if you're curious to explore what many called the UK's greatest representative in the New Wave explosion, then Howlin' Wind is still the most overall characteristic album to what Parker, and his early career backing group, were all about. Sparks would be the album set up to define the 80s portion of his career, though he'd spend the majority of that decade on a futile chase to replicate the success and straddled the line between artistry and good sales.

179. Power, Corruption & Lies-New Order (1983): To understand New Order, one has to understand their original incarnation as Joy Division. I could go into great detail but to get the particulars and the real analysis into Joy Division, read this post from March: New Order eventually became a blooming, radiant band in comparison to the wallowing in blackness that Joy Division excelled at. It's an apples and oranges comparison. What Joy Division lacked in diversity and peppiness, New Order made up for but New Order never had a captivating presence like Ian Curtis and their music wasn't as rich an art form, especially as they evolved into a more pop-friendly unit. Some have had the inaccurate notion Joy Division singer Ian Curtis would have hated New Order's immersion into electronica- although their turn toward being poppier and more commercially engaging than Joy Division ever was would probably not have been Curtis' cup of tea. But in truth, he was the first one in the group who espoused the merits of Kraftwerk and was positive to the idea of ushering in a keyboard element to what was a punk-derived style of playing. Joy Division's first studio experience as Warsaw in 1978 had been tarnished when the producer overdubbed zappy synthesizers onto the recordings. They had disliked the unapproved decision and the recordings never saw release until many years later. By 1979-80, they had just come off a series of wonderful singles and a superb album in Unknown Pleasures and were willing to broaden their horizons to include synths. 

It made sense, considering electronica was fast making inroads into British post-punk and new wave consciousness via newer acts like the Human League, Gary Numan & Tubeway Army and established acts like Bowie, Roxy Music and Brian Eno. Previously, synthesized performance was reserved for prog rock and disco but it became cool and hip when younger bands began incorporating it. German Krautrock groups like Tangerine Dream, Can and Kraftwerk were large movers and shakers but in England it was Eno who arguably was the ultimate torchbearer of electronic textures in rock. The more dance-oriented stuff came out of the disco world, with German-speaking, Italian-born producer Giorgio Moroder becoming the dominant figure. With various scores and assembled soundtracks, he popularized synthesizers in pop. He successfully represented the bridge between the new wavers and the art rockers, without succumbing to the numbingly banal effects of most disco and the elaborate tedium of prog rock. The early 80s were dominated by synthpop or any form of electronica you want to classify, most of it mediocre but some if it very terrific. American acts resisted for a while and it took pioneers like Devo, Laurie Anderson and the Talking Heads to get synthesizers as an equal role technological advent to guitars. 

As for New Order, they were going back to square one after losing Ian Curtis as of summer 1980. When he succumbed to his depression over his marriage being on the rocks and his epilespy worsening with no cure in sight, Joy Division seemed doomed without their unquestioned "star attraction." The suicide left many writing them off, whether they wanted to do so or not (yes even Joy Division proponents had their strong doubts). The other three eventually decided to soldier on a couple months after that black day in May of '80, renaming themselves New Order, adding Morriss' girlfriend and eventual wife Gillian Gilbert and making a remarkable recovery considering the critical loss. While Curtis became a cult icon, New Order carved out a tremendous ride of their own that may have run its course now but carried on strong in the 80s. It should be noted that New Order became really a side project over the past 20 years as following 1989's Technique they only generated 3 studio albums. They began producing themselves after working with Joy Division genius producer Martin Hannett one last time, learning enough about the studio while jettisoning him because of his strange, drug-induced behaviour that would eventually lead to his death in 1990, a bloated, overweight wreck and shell of his former self. After the dust had cleared, New Order emerged in early 1981 with "Ceremony," a track that had been written and sparingly performed with Curtis. 

The first version, known as the 7" version, was put out in March of '81 but eventually got re-recorded for release in September 1981 right around the same time their second single, "Procession," was released. Both songs continued in the vein of Joy Division, only lightened up a bit more than when Ian Curtis was around. "Procession" made heavy use of synthesizer as a chordal instrument and melodic force in a way that had never been matched by Joy Division. Perhaps Closer's "Isolation" was the only example of the synth being the driving force, as other tunes such as "Decades," "Atmosphere" and "Transmission" kept the synths to the background for ghostly textures and ambience. "Love Will Tear us Apart" had a synth part but not up front of anything else, thanks to Hook's chiming bass and Morriss's ramshackle drum rhythm. The high-tech fascination took a foreground position slowly but surely for New Order, though not with their debut album. For that first LP, late 1981's Movement, New Order sounded more like Joy Division Mark II and they received mixed reviews because of this, with Curtis' deep vocals replicated shallowly by Hook and Sumner. The album was rather anonymous compared to Joy Division with the mix somehow downplaying what could have been a very good album, as the sequencers, synthesizers, tape loops and increasingly tribal-based drums all meld into one faceless, monotonous stew that lacks the refreshing spark of Joy Division. Only "Dreams Never End," "Truth," "Chosen Time" and "Doubts Even Here" rise above the ho-hum for a B-grade worthy album. 

This was an indicator that Joy Division's natural progression would have to be abandoned and their subsequent singles began showing the change. Early on, New Order preferred not to release their album tracks as singles and to give new snapshots of their artistic endeavours with stand-alone singles. Shortly after Movement came a jarring, extremely challenging sound on the horizon with December's "Everything's Gone Green,"a hypnotically technofied tune that still managed to include the echoey guitars, bass and thumping backbeat of before only with more rhythmic panache and computer-generated synthesizer sequences that were percussive rhythms in their own right. Inactive for much of 1982 recording their followup album, they did give an even further sign they had crossed over to electronica with the mesmerizing EP featuring the hit, "Temptation." Meanwhile, the band garnered a reputation for being standoffish, almost terse and elusive because they refused to grant interviews- under the reasoning that they didn't want to talk about Curtis- and put out album artwork, designed by Joy Division standby Peter Saville, that emphasized their roles and personalities as little as humanly possible. Their live shows were mysterious and erratic too, as they learned how to deal with all the daunting technology, sometimes having the sequenced beats and licks play them out as they could leave the stage and still have the rhythmic basis for a song like "Temptation" or "Blue Monday" still going on without them in person. Meanwhile, their singles were unique, minimalist art statements too that often came in plain designs with no denotation of anything but track information.

Even the early B-sides were consistently engaging experiments- sombre starting out with "In a Lonely Place," "Mesh" and "Whispers and Cries" before branching into upbeat, dance club powerhouse tracks like "Hurt." Posting factoids like lyrics, instrumentation, who did what and contact information was out of the question. Still on Factory Records, New Order could always be counted on for unexpected aloofness. "Blue Monday" completed the transition into 80s disco kingpins and with it being their first top 10 UK hit of any kind, remodeled the group for good and tossed away any lingering comparisons to Joy Division. Chiseling out a career as a supremely fascinating synthpop group, with several innovations made in the field of dance during the 80s it should be recognized, did not come overnight. It seems their absorption into the Italian disco sequencer beats was a conscious break from their days as post-punk gloom meisters. Sure they still sounded frequently icy, devoid of anything resembling human and jaded and joy-stunted to the core. But by 1983 the Joy Division days seemed like another time, another dimension. The way it all ended no doubt affected the band to the point where they made a clear new beginning when reborn as New Order. Until they reunited in the late 90s to record and tour again, Joy Division songs were absent live which would have irked all their fans, had New Order not been so good on their own- and guess what, many were irked anyway and those that had followed them intently as Joy Division felt a sense of betrayal or neglect. 

It wasn't until the later reunions that they realized they'd always be inextricably tied to their days as Joy Division so it might just be time to embrace that history, no doubt time had softened up the blow of losing their trusty ray of creativity (Curtis mostly wrote lyrics but had the specially in-sync ear to know which way to direct the musical ideas put forth too. Without him, there was an initial crisis of confidence as the musical wheels in motion were there but the ability to have them coexist as a clear picture with worthy lyrics and vocals on top was coming up short). 1983's Power, Corruption and Lies was a quantum leap over Movement, not just in how its content was more complex and harmonically rich but in how they gained a levity, a free spirit of excitement that was no longer clouded by the doubt, uncertainty and pall cast by Curtis's death. Their step forward also unveiled a humanity and depth in techno that no one had foreseen. You were supposed to be detached, ironic, grim and robotic like Bowie's "Thin White Duke" guise or serious as a heart attack like Gary Numan if you were to play electronica-infused post-punk. New Order decided to have a blast with their brave new world of recording and began the process of lightening up and bringing some funk, soul and fun to the table. A lot like the Talking Heads of 1983, only way more invested in the electronic equipment- any doubt on that theory should be erased when one understands that the Heads just as easily fell back on their original acoustic keyboards-guitars-bass-drums of their early stages on 1985's surprisingly excellent Little Creatures. 

But to draw a parallel, a year later on Brotherhood, New Order would drag ringing guitars back to their arsenal for several cuts, in a poppier Joy Division reincarnations of sorts, proving they could write without gadgetry and be good at it too. On Power, Corruption & Lies, the opening track "Age of Consent" combines the bouncy freneticism of Joy Division's faster compositions with the synthesizer infusing of New Order. It's still a cheery, tightly wound diamond with guitarist Bernard Sumner demonstrating his preference for both aggressively strummed rhythms and twangy riffs. Peter Hook is the main lead player of New Order though, using his bass on "Age of Consent," in an innovative way where he would noodle around in his bass guitar' higher register, making it pierce through the mix to replicate what it sounds like in the lower reaches of a guitar's range. This isn't even the most pronounced signature Hook bass part though, as in the future, he would reside the spot in a band where a guitarist would normally solo, something that Sumner would seldom do- when he was the lead instrument, it was because he was playing a simplistic, but memorably square arpeggio instead of improvising. Gillian Gilbert's synthesizer trickles over everything with grace as the main hook of the song, while Sumner's nervy, amateur vocals soar to a tenor range Ian Curtis rarely ever tried to display- indicating New Order was very likely done with deep, baritone, hollow re-creations of the arresting Ian Curtis voice.

Meditative, industrial sort of electronica is the best way to describe a cut like "We All Stand." It reminds one less of techno-pop groups than, say, the Police. Sumner's pitchy, breathy vocals constantly call out- with interesting syncopation on the syllables- "I've got three miy-als to go-oo/Three mi-yals to go-oo." A jungle of mystery, "We All Stand," richly moody as it is, is actually not one of the highlights on this LP though it might well have been on the inconsistent Movement. That 1981 debut for New Order came a year and a half earlier but it might as well have been ten and a half years and Power, Corruption & Lies is a more studious, commendable effort because it siphons out all the murkiness, ambiguity and formless monotony of Movement's shaky continuation of the Joy Division quest. The new New Order also decided it was time to slam the padlock down on the burgeoning gloom they had promoted with Curtis on board, and in light of his death it might have seemed morbid and unprogressive to continue in such a vein. Experiencing tragedy and tribulations then whining about it would not seem a proper method of exorcising the demons. One example of how New Order had transformed into such a glimmering a quartet, comes with "The Village." A shiny, electro-bubbly tune, with Sumner enthusiastically comparing "our love" to flowers, rain, sea and the hours (??? Hey, it's a good rhyme at least). Early on, Hook's bass takes the centre stage quite nicely. It's a feel good sort of dance number using the sequencer to wonderful rhythmic effect. It sounds light years ahead of Joy Division in terms of happiness and optimism, though it also seems light years ahead of Joy Division's utilization of the synthesizer.

Quite mindfully, New Order by 1983 had gone way further than even the most electronically-geared JD and it was a "love it or leave it" choice for Joy Division fans rather taken aback by the switch. Indeed, it was a New Order. New Order managed to pump out seemingly robotic music with a heart and mind that only a human could create from. "5 8 6" is a neat instrumental showing off what can be done just using keyboards and in this case it's entirely written and performed by drummer Stephen Morriss. "Your Silent Face" is a delicately layered recording with sequencers, synth pads playing chords and high-toned lead lines all contributing to a song that actually doesn't have a chorus. In reality, its chorus is wordless, actually the chordal riff recorded like a wall of programmed waves, lapping at your ears with authority. Sumner wispily and peacefully delivers his vocals on one of the more melancholy tracks off of Power, Corruption & Lies. "Utraviolence" is, as its title wound indicate, not so melancholy or peaceful. It's the hardest emotional piece here, a critique on the dangerous urban streets and the macho culture of fighting. Sumner is questioning, full of piss and vinegar and the arrangement shows it too. Another instrumental, the dance-heavy "Ecstasy"- oh how ironic- is a nifty exploration of the vocoder, used to give that rusty, computerized touch to a person's voice. The UK version only contained 8 cuts, while the American release understood it would greatly boost the album to include "Blue Monday." The eighth cut on both editions is "Leave Me Alone," a jangly, rewarding song that is fraught with almost as much moodiness and hesitance toward warmth and comfort as Joy Division songs could be. 

As Sumner opines, "But for these three days, please leave me alone" one understands that even New Order songs could deal with the all-too common state of grumpiness (yes, a major affliction that everyone must go through and there is no cure for! If you think of it that way in the first place I guess). The words are flowing, scattalogical and stern and the music attaches very well with its own seriousness, and the guitars take a greater role here than usual on the LP, giving off shades of U2's the Edge if he ditched the echoey effects pedals for straight, clean tremelo. As is to be expected, Morriss holds down the fort with computer-like efficiency and accuracy- indeed, he was known to be able to play alongside a drum programming perfectly in synch. Ending it all on subsequent re-issues of Power... was their single released a few months earlier than the album in 1983, "Blue Monday." Sharing a name with a Fats Domino song is one of the few rock connections this tune actually manages. One of the 80s most enduring releases, it became the highest-selling independent single of the decade as well as the highest selling 12" single. The original, unedited one put out, stretches past seven minutes but it's filled out expertly by rhythmic synthesizer sequencers, programmed beats and electronic drum pads that create a trance-like state, kept from becoming boring by the clever interjections of electronic noises. Taking up a melody and batch of lyrics even Ian Curtis could be proud of, to many "Blue Monday" is New Order's magnum opus and it certainly deserves such a stature. 

Sounds produced by the several parts often change their pattern or exact tone while Peter Hook's bass and Bernie Sumner's guitar take on the soloing for most of the piece. It doesn't even matter that "Blue Monday" borrows judiciously from a melodic idea in "Everything's Gone Green." The positing opening line "How does it feel/To treat me like you do?" is one of the more unforgettable lyrical phrases of the decade, delivered in Bernie's ever-endearing deadpan manner. The same tag can be applied to the drum machine (semiquaver kick drum) intro that stands as the only thing heard before the bleep-blorp synth playing the song's primary melody fades in. "Blue Monday"'s popularity has never waned, thanks to its strong presence in clubs around the world and even a Quincy Jones remixed version, "Blue Monday '88" managed to crack the top 5 in the UK where the original had peaked at #9. As has become the practice (policy?) of New Order, it has been re-released in multiple formats and with club music so often being remixed and re-modeled, even New Order hasn't officially issued all of them. All of their major singles have seen this treatment, making it truly a tough task for hardcore fans of the group to track them all down. My advice: Find whichever version you look and stick with it. Quit worrying about the dozens of others you haven't tracked down. 

The track was infamously tricky to pull off live and for every time "Blue Monday" was an exciting moment of their shows, there were a handful of times when it was a disappointment or worse yet a disaster. One of the train wrecks was when they went on BBC TV's Top of the Pops to perform it, declining to go by the show's policy of its performers "miming" (a.k.a. lip-synching) to pre-recorded backing tracks and then having it blow up in their faces. Nonetheless, "Blue Monday" is a landmark in the crossover of techno pop to the mainstream and one of the great pop singles from the 1980s, a decade of great fortunes and accolades for New Order. The "Collector's Edition" for this classic, despite its extra cost, is a superb appendage to the original album because the extra value is well worth it. If you prefer to collect all the non-LP tracks on their glorious 1987 compilation Substance, then skip it but if not, be prepared for some New Order masterpieces alongside some redundant inclusions if you're not a New Order freak. You get the 12" versions of their subsequent singles and not just "Blue Monday" but also "Confusion" in its 8.5 minute form produced by New York club impresario Arthur Baker- an exception to the rule of settling for Substance because that release goes with a re-recording of the song that sounds a lot more of it 1987 creation than what it sounded like back in 1983. In addition is "The Beach"- actually an instrumental version of "Blue Monday"-, "Thieves Like Us," "Lonesome Tonight" (these two being A and B side of a 1984 single), an instrumental single from later in 1984 entitled 'Murder," an instrumental of "Thieves Like Us" (the B-side to "Murder") and an instrumental version of the Arthur Baker produced "Confusion." 

Power, Corruption & Lies, on the heels of the breakthrough singles of 1981-82, set New Order rolling through the years with a serious bang. Their workload would be constant and thrilling until the late 80s when they began the first of what would be many sabbaticals, not releasing an album between 1986 and 1989, although churning out EPs and singles to keep their chart presence going. After their first and only UK #1, "World in Motion"- not much of a composition but decent enough to be the theme song of the 1990 World Cup held in England and that's perhaps why it was such a mammoth hit- New Order became pretty quiet on the Western front for 1991-92. Then after Republic's release and the touring to support it, they fell silent from 1994-2000 before finally returning with 2001's Get Ready. In between there were side gigs and projects, including Morriss and Gilbert in a duo humourously dubbed The Other Two. Now with Peter Hook out of the picture for whatever reason- his own decision mind you- New Order ceases to exist as the remaining members (Phil Cunningham being the third, in the place of Gillian Gilbert who eventually became Morriss's wife, now retired to family life since departing in 2001) have formed a group called Bad Lieutenant (considered officially the third incarnation of the Morriss-Sumner stable) in order to shut up Hook's protests about the lack of validity they had to carry New Order around without half their original members at that point. Whatever. Either way you slice and dice it, New Order is history. Always a band that took great pride and care in their singles, they also managed album cuts that held nearly the same prestige and Power, Corruption & Lies, though not their first great album, is arguably their best studio album and perhaps the truest representation of how phenomenal a techno/club outfit they were, just entering into their prime too.

178. More Songs About Buildings and Food-Talking Heads (1978): The incessantly quirky David Byrne had made the Talking Heads debut, Talking Heads '77, a showcase for his strange lyrics and amateurish, yet totally unique vocal technique (replete with shaking vibrato, yelps, hiccuping and a sort of talking/yelling style of vocals). The songs and arrangements weren't out of the blue or stupendous, at least no more than your average new wave/punk act. The sound was like a garage band with only a few Jerry Harrison keyboard parts to speak of. While it was a communal effort, naturally Byrne's songwriting hegemony and odd personality became the defining aspect of the group, rightly or wrongly. On their second album, the rhythmic abilities of the Talking Heads received more attention as did keyboard parts and the songwriting went even deeper, possibly thanks to Byrne and the band learning as they went along and/or Brian Eno joining on as co-producer. Stylistically, the Heads were more off-the-wall as anyone in the mainstream. The marching beat garage rocker "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" is a good choice to open this LP but their funky side was emerging as well with tracks like "With Our Love." The kooky "The Good Thing" sounds like a demented, art-punk version of Neil Young's more harmony-driven songs and shows how they approached their music with so few rules pertaining to melody. "Warning Sign" is a somewhat black, psychedelic piece that sounds like Beatles crossed with Joy Division. 

The more up-tempo "I'm Not in Love" is even stranger, using a lot of stop time before breaking off into a chugging rocker. "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls" is a bit less psychedelic but does bring up memories of a late 60s garage band act. Their signature quirky rock style is best represented on this LP by the shimmering "Found a Job," and "Artists Only" (written with Wayne Zieve, it contains Byrne's weirdest vocal part on the album which is really saying something). "Stay Hungry," co-written by Chris Frantz, incorporates some elements of funk and reggae with a novel chord progression that continues the array of lessons the Heads had been learning as a rock band and throwing courageously into their work on this seminal album. It's another piece of proof to the idea that Franz and Weymouth were the members that most heavily pushed the funk and R&B on the Heads sound. Their zeal for these black formats of jamming out would be a key component to making the Talking Heads one of the only new wave bands that an average African-American music fan could really dig. For their Stop Making Sense tour, they were outfitted with five extra members, all of whom were black and experienced with funk groups. The most celebrated track here ended up being their audacious version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" which transforms it from a Southern gospel-soul testimony to a high-steppin', mid-tempo slow funk with Byrne's goofy vocal traits pushing it further into the Heads territory. 

In short, they make "Take Me to the River" their own. They don't make anyone forget Green's great version but it's a commendable, outstanding interpretation that is just as well known today and is the one song that brought them to the consciousness of most Americans circa 1978. Tense, paranoid, cerebral and goofy, it's the positives of the Talking Heads in the late 70s all rolled into one performance. Until "Once in a Lifetime" struck, this was the hallmark song for the Heads, rightly or wrongly. The final song is the ironically countryish "The Big Country" which is a slice of Byrne's fascination at looking at Americana through his own analytical, autistic-savant eyes. His odd perspective and observant thoughts make "The Big Country" as stoic and humorous as social commentaries in pop got in the 1970s. It ain't no Mellencamp, Chuck Berry or Springsteen take on America and all its adventures but you'll agree it's one of a kind. Years later, the band would pursue a medium to tell such surreal tales of American life in a 1986 movie and album called True Stories. But in 1978, international fame seemed out of the realm of possibility for some New York-based, art school dropout, CBGB favourites who were at the time likely the kookiest popular band in the post-Woodstock era. And after all these years since their dissolution, they perhaps still are, which is a very good thing in my opinion.

177. Parallel Lines-Blondie (1978): From their emergence on the new wave scene, Blondie seemed only to carry the "anything goes" mentality of punk as they were aficionados of 50 and 60s rock first and foremost. In that way they were not unlike the Ramones, only more skilled, less high-octane and not reliant on three chord structures. They knew what sold records while the Ramones were just there to have a brain-dead, slack-jawed good time! Blondie was poised to become big with sassy, sexy lead singer Deborah Harry as the pin-up poster chick and some multi-talented band members (meaning energetic musicians and able songwriters) in guitarists Chris Stein and Frank Infante, (new for 1978 bassist) Nigel Harrison, keyboardist Jimmy Destri and drummer Clem Burke. Blondie had all the tools for commercial success but as it turned out all the combustive elements of many top groups as the increasing star turn for Harry and the wandering attentions of the band members led to them being pigeonholed in their pop stylings until a 1982 dud release spelled the sad end. Back in 1978, they managed to use their third album as their breakthrough in every way possible and they crafted one of the perfect pop postcards of the late 70s. Previously, Blondie had been considered an underground act while they scored hits in Europe. In the early 70s, Blondie's roots began to take shape when Brooklynite Chris Stein joined a glammy, New York Dolls-styled band called the Stilettos and became romantically involved with lead singer Deborah Harry, herself the singer in late 60s folk-rockers The Wind in the Willows. Harry had vivacious looks and had even been a Playboy bunny, thus predating her eventual status as a sex symbol and crush for all young males.

Stein and Harry eventually found their nucleus for what was now known as Blondie by 1975 with Destri, Burke and bassist Gary Valentine on board. The name was derived from the familiar moniker men referred to Debbie Harry by. At New York hotspots like Club 51, Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, Blondie staked a reputation for their fresh, exhilarating style. This got them signed to the label Private Stock Records and their self-titled debut in 1976, while ignored in America, became a top 100 album in Britain and reached #14 in Australia. Their freely party-time approach to rock was infectious and caught on with these overseas audiences while America was too wrapped up in the early stages of disco fever. Hits like "In the Flesh," "Rp Her to Shreds" and "X Offender" appealed to the sensibilities of females thanks to Harry's tough-as-nails dueling with sex kitten poses. It was a charming little debut that showed all the band members except Burke getting in on the songwriting derby. Private Stock dropped Blondie because they were disappointed by the overall sales but UK label Chrysalis Records snapped them up in 1977 and with their superior promotion re-released Blondie's first album a few months before their sophomore try, Plastic Letters. When Valentine left, Frank Infante was added on to play bass and guitar but eventually when Brit Nigel Harrison came in he got to stick to his appealing, hook-heavy lead guitar work. Plastic Letters was a minor success in the US but became a big hit in the UK based on standouts like their cover of Randy & the Rainbows "Denis" (gender corrected and turned into an ode to a romantic Frenchman by Harry) and "(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear." Again produced by Richard Gotterher, Plastic Letters wasn't a growth or improvement on their debut but at least showed their first record was not a fluke or shot in the dark and that they were capable of delivering the goods a second time around. 

Nonetheless, many critics found Plastic Letters an inferior follow-up which had Blondie itching to prove they could go one step further in their execution and ability. For their third long player, British new wave producer Mike Chapman came in to beef up their sound and give some appeal to their brand of punky new wave pop. The jet-fuelled pop of the lead cut, "Hangin' on the Telephone," a story of a lover trying not to be jilted or ignored over the phone, sets up the tone for the album. Written by Jack Lee of the relatively unknown band the Nerves, it was also an unknown song until Blondie took it upon themselves to cover it. Harry's sometimes double-tracked vocals are slightly sex kitten here like usual, but also quite tough and nasty. She's a bombshell not willing to take crap from a man who thinks the phone gives him shelter from her bitter feelings. Blondie's well-known standard "One Way or Another" is not as good as the previous song as I see it, even if it has been used a lot on radio, commercials and in films. But nonetheless, it's a solid, gritty new wave rocker that benefits from Harry's down n' dirty singing and some dead straight, catchy riffs. It was even written by her, alongside newcomer Harrison. "Picture This," penned by Harry-Stein-Destri is also a sweet pop treasure, a sort of take on the adoring girl-group music of old with a charged-up rock setting to give it some edge compared to those glossy peans of the past. The same can be said for the gentle, nostalgic rocker "Pretty Baby," a Harry and Stein-written dead ringer for a Phil Spector hit if I ever heard one, one without that famed glockenspiel that is.

The retro flavour is no passing thing for Blondie, as evidenced by a Ramones-like cover of Buddy Holly's "I'm Gonna Love You, Too." The same could be said for the infectious "Sunday Girl," solely credited to Stein, which became a #1 hit in several countries, though not in the U.S. where it never got issued as a single. Also written by Stein is the heavenly "Fade Away and Radiate," an excellently sultry, quasi-psychedelic gem. "I Know But I Don't Know," co-sung by its writer Frank Infante, is one of the harsher songs, giving some metallic riffs and a wonderful combination of dissonance and major key melody. It's a shot of harshness amidst the sweeter taste of other tracks. Destri's "11:59" comes off well, like a British Invasion pop hit and another Jack Lee tune, "Will Anything Ever Happen?", is the punkiest fist-raised track you'll find here although the final song, Harry's "Just Go Away," is also a blistering, defiant rocker in that similar mould. But it's the new wave-meets-disco smash "Heart of Glass" that totally confirmed the enormous panache of this album. Written by Harry and Stein, its genesis was in 1975 as an ominous reggae rocker titled "Once Had a Love" (as evidenced by a 2001 bonus track inclusion of the track before it became "Heart of Glass"). Laying a hypnotizing, pulsing sequencer rhythm and a synth hook during the song's middle-eighth "da da da" breakdown, turned it into a disco song. 

It also turned it into both a monster #1 all over the world and a major controversy for the band when it came to its hardcore fan base and supporters who felt it was a sellout. That may be true, I'll give you. Considering Blondie had been a leading new wave act, a genre resisting of the facile, empty pull that the lucrative disco market exhibited, one can totally sympathize or at least comprehend the gripes of such outspoken critics. Barring that, it's still as damn impressive a sellout as you're going to hear (top that Black Eyed Peas!). Even disco naysayers might have trouble loathing this one outright. The electronic pulse of the song is not only disco conducive, but an influential aspect for future techno-poppers and dance-oriented artists to go by. Harry's airy falsetto is unforgettable and the song is toe-tappingly superb enough to make it worth its 5:50 running time, the last few minutes of which barely feature vocals. Parallel Lines is simply a supremely crafted, catchy masterpiece album for its time, yet it has endured to this day as an essential piece of late 70s new wave pop. Blondie would stay on top of their game- and on top of the popularity polls- for a while, but felt the pressure to keep topping themselves too difficult to cope with and manage- a familiar story for most pop bands not named the Beatles (who, despite their remarkable ability to keep wowing, still found pressures too much in order to continue as a unit). By 1983, Harry had done her share of high profile business, as an actress and solo singer and Blondie was finished after Chris Stein fell ill with a rare skin disorder and they had been handed a chilly, rude greeting for Autoamerican and- moreso for- The Hunter, from 1980 and 1982 respectively.

176. Safe as Milk-Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (1967): Nearly everyone is well aware of Frank Zappa, the famed cult artist/"modern classical" composer who sought to break down all sorts of rules and barriers in rock with his avant-garde tendencies and edgy sense of humour. But not nearly as many are aware of Captain Beefheart, his teenage days pal. And that's a damn shame seeing as how, if anything, he was perhaps weirder and more out there than Zappa and certainly was more appealing as a nutty personality. Beefheart had his head on straighter than the majority of conventional rock stars, though no one would think so seeing the enigmatic, mythical figure in action or hearing it at least. He may have been some kind of strange revival of the Delta blues' legendary old black men on the porch- equipped with a harmonica, a stupendously magical yet rustic guitar, a ragged, gravelly and moaning voice and a liquored-up stupor (though the real Beefheart was never known as a big boozer or anything)- but he was so scarily authentic, it made you wonder if he was an alien or dyed-in-the-wool Southern gent instead of a Californian art wunderkind. In his lack of taking aim at culture and rock music with cruel, satirist humour, he stood out from a zany entrepreneurial svengali like Zappa. And often, he could be more enticing and musically interesting than Zappa, whose artiness was his enemy as often as it was his friend. 

Zappa is a celebrated genius of modern composition, but Beefheart deserves his own share of credence. After all, this guy set the template for Tom Waits and any other madcap, half-serious, half-kidding artist who's followed. The difference with Beefheart- real name Don Van Vliet- and every other cult hero is that he always had a keen love of painting in his back pocket. Of course, with his sales always being low and his paintings showing potential for making him more money and notoriety, Van Vliet took the controversial route of retiring from music after 1982, when advice relayed to him encouraged him to drop one and go with the other. He remains retired from music to this day. However, a muscular disease has limited his ability to do much of anything so it appears a change of heart would not matter in terms of getting Captain Beefheart back into performing music, since he's too incapacitated unfortunately. Back in 1967, he was a 26-year old newcomer with his own ragtag backing group who could sound like any pop or rock group of the era then turn into a carnival-esque, madcap blues cabal in the same breath. Such was the diverse, eclectic and shaman-like power of Beefheart. Listening to his work is a testament to the unlimited parameters he believed in. In fact, with the debut record of Beefheart and the Magic Band, 1967's Safe as Milk, it captured a place in time when the Captain was at his most accessible and standard for another seven years. Two years after Safe as Milk, Beefheart would disregard all the mainstream implications and structures of popular music, drawing on his blues adoration as well as German music hall and avant-garde/free jazz for the sprawling, crazy-ass Trout Mask Replica

But none of his approaches proved commercially viable in the US, where he would go on to chart not a single LP in the top 100. The name Captain Beefheart had first been formulated by Zappa and Van Vliet as high school friends, a character named after a phrase of Van Vliet's rather sleazy uncle (who used to intentionally expose himself to Don's girlfriend while going to the bathroom- door wide open for her to see- and comment about his member, something to the effect of "Looks like a big 'ol beefheart"). His powers were like that of a comic book superhero who could make his band appear with a single sip of Pepsi-Cola. After a brief stint in college as an art major and several unproductive jobs, Van Vliet was convinced by his friend Zappa to pursue music. Van Vliet was modestly skilled as a musician, playing the odd keyboard, guitar and specializing in harmonica, but his real instrument was his voice, a four and a half octave wonder of nature that could be pleading, grunty and full of emotion one minute and then a near letter-perfect recreation of Howlin' Wolf the next. It didn't sound like a white man from the California suburbs at all. Eventually, Van Vliet was able to round up his Magic Band and the ensemble cut a few singles in 1966 for A&M Records. Then they demoed some tunes for a proposed album, which A&M found "too negative" and used as leeway to drop them from the label.

Luckily, Buddah Records gave them a chance and they could finally pursue more recording. By the time of the sessions in spring 1967, Van Vliet- or should I say Captain Beefheart- had shuffled the lineup around and it featured Jerry Handley on bass, Alex St. Clair Snouffer on guitar and John French on drums. Eventual big name producer Richard Perry, as well as Bob Krasknow, provide production duties and Perry even supplies harpsichord on some cuts of Safe as Milk. A real substantial contributor to the album was Ry Cooder, future guitar giant and promoter of blues roots music. Then 20, Cooder provided a lot of lead guitar as well as arrangements to the album, making it his biggest exposure to that point- he had just come off playing with Taj Mahal in the Rising Sons. Taj in fact provides tambourine on a couple tracks, no doubt brought along by his ties to Cooder. Even though he was younger than anyone in the band, Cooder understood the ins and outs of the blues in a way that's very conducive to what Beefheart and the Magic Band were going for. Let's have some perspective on just how singular Beefheart was and was to become in due time. In the late 60s, there were plenty of underground acts that were non-conformist and highly influential down the road, but when it comes to the top two I'd say Captain and the Velvet Underground stand out as the best of the bunch that never received commercial attention. The Velvet Underground was more prolific in their five years than early Beefheart and critics rightly have praised them more, but the Captain deserves whatever legend he has been built into over the years too. 

At this time, perhaps the Doors were the first truly dangerous and chaotic group, but a lot of that sprung from Jim Morrison's hell-bent poet/shaman character and his "live fast, die young and leave a good corpse anytime" cult of personality. A lot of the poetic, morbid ramblings of Morrison and the Doors were just silly and plastic, the stuff we could do without and scrap in favour of the great music they actually did make. But even in the revolutionary "Flower Power" days, audiences had a certain tolerance for how much freakiness they could stand and record companies proved they could only market a certain amount of it well. On one side of the mood spectrum was the Velvet Underground- intellectual, sombre, avant-garde, well-read, drug fascinated, evocatively unsettling and sinisterly dark- and on the other was Beefheart & His Magic Band- spacey, raw, untamed, odd, humourous, avant-garde but in a more lawless, limitless way than the technically primitive Velvets, who were doing interesting things but with guitar music. With the VU, the feedback, white noise and anarchy within their arrangements was quite one-of-a-kind but not totally distinct from what the Who, the Doors and other experimental rock giants were trying. Beefheart however was like a foreign concept, an alien being that seemed to communicate telepathically with Zappa but while Zappa was no doubt an earthling- a wildly creative and brainy one- Beefheart sang music like an extraterrestrial being that crash landed into Mississippi circa 1920. 

On Safe as Milk- a title I find appreaupo because Beefhart would never again be so "safe"- the Beefheart and the Magic Band legend was just getting started. There was never anything mellifluous about Beefheart and the Magic Band, but that was to their great advantage. Having Ry Cooder around helped instrumentally, as in fact the arrangement on the opening track, "Sure 'Nuff n' Yes I Do," are attributed to his name. It's a swinging and rolling sort of Delta blues that recalls early Rolling Stones while Beefheart sings in a voice like a melding of Howlin' Wolf, Elvis and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The kinetic rock of mid-60s garage rockers out West was always an underground thing and perhaps the biggest success of this movement were Paul Revere & the Raiders. "Zig Zag Wanderer" is one of Beefheart's uptempo classics, coming off like Revere & the Raiders if their singing was a thousand times raspier. It has itself dipping its toes in both the burning garage rock of the preceding years and the acidic West Coast rock of the forthcoming years. The intro is a double time fade-in until a Spinal Tap-esque gong (log drum?) and whisper of "Zig Zag" get the head of the tune going. There's even a little call-and-response for the Captain's lines and though the recording- like all of Safe as Milk- has pretty sub-par audio quality, it adds to the cultist charm of the song. Without actually being psychedelic, it rocks harder than any acid rock this side of Hendrix. 

It's also pretty nakedly amateurish and while badly recorded, it was not as bad as most of VU's first album when Andy Warhol tried to be a record producer. "Call on Me" is pretty mainstream directed, with a heavy emphasis on the rhythm guitar like so many beat groups of the mid-60s out of England, but it's still a nice song. "Dropout Boogie" is buzzed up by guitar using fuzzbox as well as some jazzy electric piano breakdowns, and it generally has an avant-garde feel that slightly foreshadows what was to come just a couple years later. A polar opposite is a track that reminds one of Beefheart friend Frank Zappa's 1968 satire doo-wop album with the Mothers of Invention, Cruisin' with Reuben and the Jets. On "I'm Glad," matters are a lot less gut-busting or taking aim at the genre as Beefheart gruffly warbles out a tender plea with the high harmonies of his group- and Beefheart's overdubbed falsetto likely- adding the sugar to the salt. With romantic couplets like "We walked in the park/Kissed in the dark," it seems almost tongue-in-cheek but the exercise in 60s vocal R&B harmonies nonetheless is made compelling in its own fractured way. There's even a few horns to give it a maudlin feel, but it truly does sound like a black vocal group signed up to Motown and not the kooky Beefheart & the Magic Band. Like most pop songs of broken relationships, "I'm Glad" has the protagonist begging for a reunion but amidst that is an admission that he's "Glad about the good times we had," so he actually has few regrets and can look back without becoming upset. 

Lyrical matter like this seemed so run-of-the-mill but since Beefheart rarely ever went so literal in his words afterward, it's kind of a juicy nugget, something out of the ordinary for those more raised on an appetite of Trout Mask Replica or Lick My Decals off, Baby. If "I'm Glad" was a stab at a possible hit it failed, but Beefheart realized after the dissolution of the original Magic Band in 1974- after a couple limpid, mainstream albums- he was much better off staying within his idiosyncratic, bizarre niche. Guitars were often made suitable for the Woodstock crowd on this album with zany vibrato effects that turned them into amplified theremins right out of horror or sci-fi movies. This is best displayed on "Electricity," a 2/4 jaunt of blues with Beefheart alternately using his smoky Howlin' Wolf (Wolfman Jack?) growl alongside his own somewhat original nut bar vocal style. I suppose this was intended to be the audial representation of what electricity feels like, sounds like and the thoughts it conjures up. "Yellow Brick Road" finds the blues slant of the album modified into more of a country/jug band arrangement, with its melody being a lot more colourful than the majority of Safe as Milk. This knee-slapping, happy-go-lucky "Hee Haw" candidate would be downright hokey in the hands of most, but with the Magic Band and their leader in control it's just another mindlessly knock-around ditty full of weird homilies about discovering the yellow brick road. 

It's done in a way that makes Bernie Taupin's story for "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" look like a brain-fried, art theatre house pile of fantastical claptrap- ok sure, that's what Taupin's lyrics could often be but you get the picture. "Abba Zabba" is like blues via African or Cajun gumbo tribal music, another mism-mash of seeming nonsense. The song's title isn't gobbledygook, being the name of Beefheart's favourite candy bar when he was just known as Don Van Vliet. In fact, a proposed album title for this one was Abba Zabba. It's all part of Beefheart's world, a comic-book scene of sorts that just got stranger as the experiments became commonplace. "Plastic Factory" is pure Chicago blues, with wailing harmonica and a shuffling rhythm that also includes some thumping stop time bits that again recall the early Stones, only more accomplished and less youthfully green. "Where There's Woman" is some sort of psychedelia Moby Grape dead ringer but it's Grateful Dead-like as well, with a fine understanding of the natural common origins of blues and folk. "Grown So Ugly" sees Beefheart's vocal range in its fullness, his old bluesman falsetto and the growls, howls and shouts already heard. It's even more of a Grateful Dead bedfellow than "Where There's Woman" as the Magic Band's twisted, simple jamming continues to prove it has a place, even if not picked up with good EQ, clarity and fidelity in the recording process. 

"Autumn's Child" is the folky final track, a recollection of all those medieval English folk ballads but with a modern update. That ethereal theremin guitar eerily blares in the background while Richard Perry's harpsichord ties it closer to Sgt. Pepper territory than anything else here remotely goes. Beefheart's cryptic, virtuoso vocals are impressive again and make you wonder if there is any style of music he can't adapt to or better with his unique brand of hollering. Think Tom Waits, only with a superior ability to carry a tune. "Autumn's Child" has the airy, free-form arrangement that is not unlike the San Fransisco/Los Angeles rock favourites of the era. Here, Beefheart and the Magic Band take on the Dead, the Doors and Jefferson Airplane at their own game and nearly prevail. In addition to the wildly shifting dynamics, rhythms and ideas, halfway through, "Autumn's Child" takes a time signature change, predating prog rock's excesses of fidgeting with textures and musical theory only with more of a charismatic, outside the box mix of the gentle and angry. It's a rather new turn of events on the album and like great albums do, leaves you intrigued and wanting more. Safe as Milk ends on this note and unveiled the freaky, quasi-artiste, quasi-vaudeville Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band- practically inseparable identities until Captain began making all the personnel decisions and making it his official side band- to an unsuspecting rock audience.

175. The Rolling Stones, Now!-The Rolling Stones (1965): The early Rolling Stones records, as was the case with many British Invasion acts, were a hodgepodge of the British releases. Some albums were released with similar art package and title but different track listing and some were wholly unique to the US. This album was one of them, collecting songs that were scattered across 1964-65 singles and their second UK LP The Rolling Stones No. 2. Their self-titled debut, called England's Newest Hitmakers stateside, is sometimes a more lauded album though it lacks the consistency of this one. The Rolling Stones, Now! is the prime example of their early white R&B leanings, with their originals spiced in to prove the progression of the Jagger/Richards team. It has been passed off by some as lacking in knockout recordings, but this spring 1965 release is as good as your average early Beatle album and better than any album of the Stones pre-Aftermath. To note, everything cut by the Stones before starting their own label on Atlantic Records in 1970 belongs to Abcko, a company run by the late, famed, weaselly laywer Allen Klein who ran the Stones affairs rather unscrupulously before moving on to divide even more people over his heavy-handed handling of the Beatles. Therefore, their back catalogue is divided up into post and pre-1970 phases with Klein having repackaged the original US albums for CD release in the 80s then on SACD a few years ago (a highly recommended series to purchase if you want to discover the 1960s Stones). 

The Rolling Stones, Now! is not a mish-mash of filler like December's Children (And Everybody's) or 12 x 5. It has excellent covers, impressive self-penned material and runs the gamut of early influences in blues, rockabilly and R&B/soul. The backstory to this album is not as meteoric as the Beatles but definitely the kind of tale that would be replicated by many a rock group- the Stones arguably were the templates for 90% of the rock bands that followed. Unlike the Beatles they were put together through several mutations and before 1962 most did not know or had never even met each other. Mick and Keith had attended grammar school together but never became chums until reuniting when they were both 16 and on a train, Keith noticing Mick was carrying albums by Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry under his arm- two of Keith's youthful idols. This set off a friendship that eventually turned into musical performance when they formed a band with mutual friend Dick Taylor (who'd eventually form his own marginally popular R&B group of the era, the Pretty Things). Through exposure to the local R&B scene they encountered burly Ian Stewart- a man so square and built for rugby he might as well have been a Monty Python "bloke" character- and troubled blues freak Brian Jones, blessed with a literal genius level of smarts. Both were playing in Blues Incorporated, the group of blues veteran Alexis Korner. Jones eventually befriended the others, then fronting their own band called Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys. 

Taylor provided bass for this new sextet- which had Tony Chapman as its drummer throughout 1962- that was christened the Rollin' Stones (after a Muddy Waters blues pean to living the road life). The 'g' was added for grammatical accuracy somewhere down the road, for whatever reason. While Keith imitated the licks of his guitar God Chuck Berry, Brian Jones played the rare- for a white kid in England at least- bottleneck slide guitar and blew away on harmonica or blues harp, even teaching Mick the ropes on the instrument. Mick had limited musical training so he just beat on a tambourine or shook a maraca while gradually shedding his exterior guard, much like a snake discards its skin, and putting a shadow on his reserved upbringing to become the prototypical rock frontman of the 60s. He sexualized rock in a way no one other than Elvis ever had done before, coming on like a randy, impatient playboy who showed no signs that underneath the excitement he was a middle-class, respectable young fellow who had been to business school and really was never the scruffy thug he looked in the Stones mid-60s heyday. In other words, the Mick that has conquered many in the bedroom. Outside of there, he's a tenacious, restless, right proper gentleman, many will tell you. The necessary hard-working, straight arrow in a group of wandering spirits (to lift a title from a 1993 Mick Jagger solo record), namely Keith, his free spirited, rebellious, devil-may-care musical brother and soul mate. Before any other solely vocalist members of a group- your Daltreys, Morrisons or Keith Relfs- there was Mick, strutting, shucking and jiving in the manner of African-American R&B luminaries. 

After all, what else could one do with no instrument to take shelter behind? Black singers even with an instrument in hand could cut a rug, so naturally the singers got into the moment, choreographing steps by the 1960s. Mick took notice and tried his best to incorporate the kinetic, sweaty passion of a James Brown and Jackie Wilson or, to a lesser extent, the suave vitality of folks like Sam Cooke, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. This was rare for its time and considered crude, delinquent and silly even by some aficionados of the Stones' genres of choice. In late 1962 Taylor left to return to art college and this ushered in Bill Wyman, more experienced on the jazz circuit and by now an ex-Lorry driving, ex-Air Force, married, 26-year old "geezer." Truly, he was a bit old for a scene mostly devoted to those in or barely out of their teens. Chapman would also move on and by January 1963 the Stones had a new rhythm section when 21-year old jazz drumming cat Charlie Watts signed on- no doubt thinking it was a solid gig for a little while and blissfully unaware he was in a job that would last (to date) 46 more years and bring him worldwide fame and fortune, something he has never ascribed to or found all that "groovy" like others might. Charlie's not an easily impressed fellow, almost imitating the detached aura of cool his jazz heroes mosied around with all those years (and isn't that the highest form of flattery?). Except, that's just how Watts is and always has been. Almost like a spectator in his own band, yet the very lifeblood of them because he's the all-important timekeeper.

The Stones had played most of 1962 with a residency at London's Crawdaddy Club, attracting the interest of youngsters and/or the blues purists who didn't really gel with the high-brow, complexities of the trad jazz craze going on nor feel a groove with the highly exuberant, noisy beat group phenomenon being spearheaded by the destined-for-greatness Beatles. Also, that was more of a phenomenon of the North, which is interesting because the less working class London kids were craving music more suitable to those in dirty, unglamourous settings. Meanwhile, it was rock & roll, girl group pop and country & western that attracted the working class toughs of the North in their beat music. The Stones were just another face in the crowd when walking into the picture came an ex-publicist under Brian Epstein, manager of the said Beatles, in the form of Andrew Loog Oldham, then just barely older himself than the 19-year old Jagger, Jones and Richard- by the way, the "s" would be added back on years later and was probably dropped more to start rumours he was related to the UK's own Elvis for all times, Cliff Richard than because Keith was estranged from his father). George Harrison had recommended the Stones to Dick Rowe, an A&R man at Decca Records, a label that had famously rejected the Beatles. Though there was trepidation about the jittery, amateurish singer, Decca decided not to make the same mistake twice and inked the Stones in 1963 a few months after Beatlemania began to hatch. 

Oldham was a PR visionary, aiming to make the Stones the opposite image of the Beatles, who had become easier to digest and accept in the entertainment world for their slightly cuddly, absurdly hilarious personalities. They were so incredibly bursting with wit that their long, bushy hair and loud music could be forgiven by even the stern prudes and old mums of England. The Stones? Not so. Already they were playing blues music- then the equivalent of what white guys rapping would be perceived as today- and showed no potential to be a marketable group of misfits nor a hit factory. Oldham only sought to change the latter fact. He sought to capitalize on the delinquent side of the band. The delinquency he sought to highlight was really only minor and reflected only in the punchy, snotty Brian and the edgy Keith, whose disdain for stuffiness and conformist morality was ubiquitous in those early years and, though it's died off a bit since, is still traceable in his media barbs at others, including his less loose n' lazy friend Jagger- savaged in 2003 for accepting a CBE when Keith would just as soon see the Queen and royalty absconded with. His modern outlaw pirate image is both a caricature and an iconic reality of the (somehow) still alive and kicking Mr. Keef Riffhard. Back in '63, the Stones relied on covers and their image did the best role in promoting them with their 1963 recordings being even more primitive and less imaginative than the Beatles, whose Lennon-McCartney lent the Stones their first UK top 10 single with "I Wanna Be Your Man" in fall 1963. 

Not a huge fan of the song, and probably motivated by his subtle rivalry with and jealousy toward the Stones (part of his competitive spirit and his wish to have his untamed, threatening caustic side no longer repressed by Beatlemania), John Lennon in future reference, always deemed the song a throwaway piece of crap. In Eric Idle's 1978 brainchild film (alongside Bonzo Dog Band and Monty Python contributor Neil Innes) All You Need is Cash, a mockumentary featuring "The Rutles" in place of the real thing, an interviewed Mick, probed about the song offered up by Ron Nasty (John) and Dirk McQuigley (Paul), recalled it taking 10 minutes to write and that the end result "was 'orrible. And we never recorded it." An invisible nod and a wink to Lennon's own opinions on it and more ammunition in the friendly, yet intense, Stones-Beatles war of the wills. "I Wanna Be Your Man" was originally written with Ringo in mind and he sings it for them, but still the Stones version chewed up the Beatles' in terms of ferociousness and proved to everyone that the Beatles just didn't have it in them to sound that raw and dangerous anymore- after their Epstein-induced overhaul in 1961. Good, bad or indifferent, that's how it was and the Stones began attracting a legion of fans across the UK for this brazen contrast to the nice and harmless Beatles. It was their second single and an EP then a hugely successful LP followed. 

The musical elements weren't yet that refined and Mick sang like a bratty young wanker with what sounded like a clothespin on his nose, but it was identifiably Rolling Stones rock. The Stones right away almost made up for the production shoddiness of their early work with their technical abilities, already a bit ore advanced than the Beatles, as Wyman, Watts and Jones (who proved later on he could play just about any instrument he put his hands on) were well-schooled and adept in their instrumental crafts. Finally, after much consternation, encouraging and grumbling from Oldham, Mick and Keith became the John and Paul of the Rolling Stones, penning tunes together (though for a while compositions with everyone's input became known as "Nanker-Phelge" compositions). Even the haircuts took an alternative as instead of going for the Greco-Roman look of the coiffed Beatles- whose hair was combed down over their foreheads in a, for 1964, feminine manner- they just grew theirs long and shaggy, which was to eventually be the hairstyle of every single rock band in the world by 1968 including the Beatles. Brian Jones, always the closest buddy to any of the Beatles, finding a camraderie with Lennon in particular, had his own method toward a Beatle haircut: growing his blond hair and sideburns out while leaving his bangs cut just above his eyes. It was a highly popular look that drew the most ire from stern parents and authority figures alike for its apparent hooligan values. 1964 saw the Stones conquer the market as the antithesis to the Beatles, which of course got them scorned and heavily criticized in their homeland. 

The bile only got worse when they made the rounds in the US, where the Mid West and Southern dates they played allowed for heaps of insults along the lines of them being "fags," "queers," "fairies" and a variety of other mean digs tied into the homophobia still inherent in conservative America at the time. All this for playing music, looking different and dressing different. Crap, today you can get away with anything in those three fields as long as you don't blatantly offend, spread hate speech or encourage general decrepit immorality of a grand, perverted scale. Ok, ok scratch that you can. But just make sure it's nothing like Neo-Nazism or racism and you can still get by in entertainment. The Stones did, despite being on the cusp of inciting a teenage riot across the world, one that even Sonic Youth could never imagine. Still, their debut The Rolling Stones spent 12 weeks at #1 on the album charts in the UK and they racked up top 5 hits while making some chart inroads in America and recording at Chicago's Chess Studios in their summer stops in the Windy City- practically hallowed ground according to the guys in the band. Their cover of Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now" soared to #1 in the summer of '64. The US distributors of Decca, London Records, gathered enough material for a fall release called 12 X 5, predating their UK followup by a couple months. 

The Stones' popularity skyrocketed in the UK to the point where their purely devoted blues take of Howlin' Wolf's "Little Red Rooster" hit #1, taking their streak to three consecutive chart-toppers and showing the potential to challenge the Beatles string of numero uno's (as it happens, they fell short by half of what the Beatles managed in doing as the Fab Four charted 11 straight UK singles to #1 between 1963's "Please Please Me" and 1966's "Paperback Writer"- "Love Me Do" and "Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane" being the failed bookends). The Stones had adults in a tizzy about what to do while Jagger-Richards became the main challengers to the crown of Lennon-McCartney. Of course, this began the creative phasing out of group founder Brian Jones, then sinking into drug addiction and already troubled enough to have fathered four children by four women since age 16. All this despite an intelligence on a genuis level and a musical ability common amongst classical players but unheard of in rock. What a waste! Indeed, Jones had it all but threw his pearls before swine (a line offered up by the Stones themselves in 1968's "No Expectations," one of Jones's last appearances on a recording of any kind). The Stones' output from 1964-65 gave us a sensational US-only release that represented best what the five bad boy were all about back then. 

They channel Chuck Berry through chugging covers of his "You Can't Catch Me"- laid down in the very same Chess studios Berry worked out of- and "Down the Road Apiece"- a boogie-woogie song of novelty songwriter Don Raye who wrote it in 1940 for big band purposes but saw it changed radically into a rock standard by covers like that of Amos Milburn and Chuck Berry. For the Stones, the number was well-known to them thanks to Berry and given new life on his 1961 blues-themed LP Rockin' at the Hops. Both covers feature Keith getting the Berry lead style down pat. With younger, strutting guitarists all over the radio replicating him, it seemed Berry's duck walks, greased pompadours, big sideburns, pencil-thin mustaches and pinkle winkler shoes were no longer necessary nor did they click with the record-buying audience of teens. And yet, these young'uns were buying records by people mostly doing bald-faced imitations of him. Solomon Burke's soul classic "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" gets a five minute reading from the boys, although Abcko's first CD issuing of this album promoted it as the 2:58 version and not the long one we actually get, which came off of Rolling Stones No. 2. Meanwhile they also give some truly stellar white R&B interpretations of soul singer Barbara Lynn Ozen's "Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin')" and the blissfully aching Otis Redding ballad "Pain in My Heart" (written by Naomi Neville, a pseudonym for monumental New Orleans arranger, writer and pianist legend Allen Toussaint). 

They give a blues spin to Leiber-Stoller's humourous "Down Home Girl"- originally popularized by the Coasters, of knee-slappers like "Yakety Yak" and "Love Potion Number Nine." In addition, this album finds the Stones' incredibly authentic take on "Little Red Rooster," which they managed to take to #1 on the UK charts- a tremendous feat considering the song is pure Delta blues and also a sign of the Stones growing, immense popularity in England during 1964-65. Jagger-Richards get involved in writing the blues with their own "What a Shame" and the British Beat-influenced "Off the Hook," which sounds less like the typical Rolling Stones fare of the period and more like the Who, then raising their profile throughout London in hopes of challenging the Stones one fine day. The melody is pretty pedantic and accentuated by Mick but hell, it's also very catchy. Also beat-driven is their "Bo Diddley Beat" on the cover of his "Mona (I Need You Baby)," actually a holdover from their first British album. The percussion-heavy arrangements of some early Stones tracks may have been an accident by just getting Mick to get involved and beat or shake something. Or not. After all, Motown was charging up hits for the youth with tambourines and xylophones cutting through the noise from the back. In this way, we can also hear how skiffle- a mid-50s craze in the UK involving school boys on home-made instruments playing a rudimentary, long forgotten, train oriented folk format- was the impetus to give fast-paced R&B such a percussive tone. The same sort of amphetamine-driven mood characterizes the overlooked, rousing final track "Surprise Surprise," not actually released in the UK until being put on the B side of a Stones single on Abcko in 1972. It captures Keith in guitar-pickin' splendor while the vocal is one of Mick's fiercest to that point- although in three years it would pale even next to his most boring vocal parts. Such was his growth as a frontman over the mid-60s. 

The true classic from the album is the Jagger-Richards story of a ladykiller who finds a woman who he just can't hurt in "Heart of Stone." Then he finds the tables turned on himself as the moment of ultimate hubris. A haunting mid-tempo song, "Heart of Stone" features one of the stronger vocals from Mick in this early period, though a close listen shows a tambourine slapped quite out of time with the beat. The verses are like some hollering, love-starved country honky-tonk but the rest is pure 60s soul urgency. The guitar solo, long thought to be provided by then in-demand session guitarist Jimmy Page, is also a memorable moment on this classic. Just about every track delivers the goods on The Rolling Stones, Now! and the Stones would eventually increase their in-house writing on subsequent singles and albums in 1965-66, putting them on fast track to become known as "The World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band." It would be a journey fraught with peril and politics at every turn but would all work out for the best- except for those such as Brian Jones who could not survive the crushing ride to the top and staying there. The competition- whether conscious or not- drove the Stones to begin layering their songs with more sweetness and less of the snarl that had made them the polar opposite of the Beatles broad marketability. While Between the Buttons was nearly beating the Beatles at their own game, Their Satanic Majestie's Request proved that psychedelia should be left mainly to groups not blessed with the talent to channel the blues into something tangibly different. In between, a marijuana drug arrest charge nearly incarcerated Mick and Keith for several years were it not for celebrity and rock star efforts to go easier on the two. The bitterness from the slap to the face by authority would seethe through on Beggar's Banquet and beyond. The Stones lived and learned and stuck together somehow to re-emerge finally the equal to the Beatles in 1968-69, at least as far as I see it.

174. Dummy-Portishead (1994): When American hip-hop crossed over into the UK in the 80s, it spawned the Isles' response to the new art form of the street by the end of the decade. A thriving dance/club/techno scene had been happening in England since disco died, revived from its glamorous, vain, decadent dead-end in the mid-80s by acid house, the star attraction being the Mancunian ravers, the Happy Mondays. Of course, since 1980 there had always cutting edge New Order, never unpopular enough to be a cult band and not popular enough to be trendy sell-outs destined to last only until its time had run its course. Some high-profile artists based in England, namely Lisa Stansfield, Soul II Soul, Seal and Neneh Cherry, brought hip-hop together with urbane, laid-back, neo-classic R&B. Those artists branched off into sounds not influenced by dance though, while the club scenes still shifted and shaped the great house music to come. The two nations' spins on hip-hop/R&B converged for a smoother, darker, more esoteric, multi-layered style that was captivating through the first half of the 90s. Imagine Ten CC's 1974 classic "I'm Not in Love" with tinny, thumping drum beats, eerie strings and more bass and you've got an idea of Portishead at its smokiest, jazziest and most sedately creepy. "I'm Not in Love" could be the first unintentional trip hop recording I can think of actually.

Drawing on the funk and energy of the British house scene and the rhythms and sampling proficiency of US hip-hop, this phenomenon became known as "trip-hop," brought out to the fore by many popular acts like Massive Attack, Tricky and this trailblazing group. Of course, it was a genre that served to influence the insane amount of sub-genres that followed, like drum n' bass or acid jazz for instance. Bristol's Portishead made the biggest commercial impact of any of these trip-hop luminaries but in addition turned the critics' heads. The band consisted (and still does) of Geoff Barrow (programming, keyboards), Adrian Utley (bass, guitars) and Beth Gibbons (vocals) though they do hire plenty of session help. The trio stayed low-key, limited their public appearances and interviews but yet they still struck a hit with Dummy. They even shot a short film called To Kill a Dead Man (the cover of the album is a still shot of Gibbons from that film) that used cinema to showcase their very soundtrack-like music, and indeed many of the tracks on this LP utilize spy soundtrack guitar flourishes and alerting horns. The album is produced as a captivating, at times claustrophobic, paranoid and freaky soundscape that's unsettling and spacey, much like an interstellar trip. Samples, studio effects (echo, distance, delay, phasing, tape hiss, crackles and pops not unlike vinyl, phone scratch- you name it they try it, laid out like an audial exploration of the modern world while re-creating the mythic recording sounds of old better than almost anyone could have imagined) and hard-hitting, yet never truly harsh or aggressive, backbeats define the album. 

On Dummy, there are dense, theatric moments yet sparse, primitive ones too, sometimes within the same track as Portishead can seemingly lull you into one groove or sequence before unleashing another one out of the blue. For these reasons, it's a significant release in trip-hop and a postcard of that underground movement that has been cherished for years now. Because the members of the band could play several instruments- well ok two of them- they don't rely on sampling as heavily as hip-hop acts do. But those hip-hoppers are trying to make the basics of a song string together and need to draw from other records to do so. Conversely, the few samples used by Portishead are like small delicacies to be enjoyed and they serve a better purpose in their infrequency than if they had cluttered their own playing with a drastic amount of samples. Less is more, in the case of Dummy. It's a record that lives off of its hushed, icy textures and a meagre supply of samples helps keep that mood. "Mysterons" leads off the album with, well as the title indicates, mystery. It's a cold, floating, distant vamp that is made all the more trippy by its use of wobbly electric piano and theremin which- for those of you uneducated on obscure instruments- is the electronic device where hand positioning fidgets with the electric wavelengths of the emitted noise. This determines the pitch and frequency of the sound so it's an early synthesizer you might say, but requiring much less musical ability. 

You'd be quite aware of the theremin's sound if you watch any sci-fi or horror films of the 50s and 60s and it's a high-pitched, ethereal sound that's been closely associated with Halloween ever since. But aside from Portishead, you'll rarely hear theremin in rock, although the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" is easily the most famous inclusion of theremin heard in the rock era. The drum beat is funky but with a sort of New Orleans touch to it thanks to a marching drum roll. The second track, "Sour Times," is a true spy movie excursion and this is strongly affected by the inclusion of a sample taken from film composer Lalo Schifrin's "The Danube Incident" originally heard on the classic television program Mission: Impossible. "Sour Times" has a chiming sort of tower bell ringing throughout it plus Gibbons' sweet, melancholy, songstress vocals give it a depressed, mellow vibe. Her moaning of "Nobody loves me, it's true/Not like you do" is a chilling highlight of the album and one that doesn't smack of wallowing in self-pity as much as you'd think by reading the lyric sheet. The spy soundtrack guitar (a part-surf, part-country twang) is a perfect component to what could have been turned into an unbearable cry of misery by any ordinary group. "Strangers" is an audial journey because segments of the song feature a mono, cavernous sort of lo-fi quality with jazzy guitar and Gibbons' vocals breaking out through the murk. It samples from 70s jazz-fusion group Weather Report's "Elegant People" but tosses in the kind of electronic backbeats that made trip-hop so unique and, to me, artistically challenging. 

Even that much better is the fourth selection, "It Could Be Sweet" which might just be the most successful foray into an alien territory here, this being what you could call electro (or house) jazz. "It Could Be Sweet" combines Gibbons breathy vocals with a hypnotic drum programming backup and a swank Fender Rhodes electric piano chord progression from Barrow that recalls Miles Davis's fusion period, Sun Ra and/or Chick Corea. It's a fantastic song in its own right but with the right tinkering could be regarded as a modern day jazz standout if only someone gave it a chance. Gibbons' vocals are more folk than jazz but one could easily see it be adapted to a lounge jazz setting but it feels just as at home in this trip-hop format. "Wandering Star" is a slow, mechanically lurking track with a snapping drum crack in the background, funky guitar lines and turntable scratching, while samples are heard from time to time from Eric Burdon and War's 1970 jam "Magic Mountain." "It's a Fire" is a bit funkier than what you come to expect through the first five tracks, lending a bright melody to an optimistic, yearning track that, while not stupendous, is a change of pace from the unsettling dirges heard prior. That style returns a little with "Numb," which marries "It's a Fire"'s kooky funk with the expected icy beats, turntable scratching and Hammond organ. Meanwhile Gibbons delivers arguably her sassiest vocals on the entire LP. Gibbons' saddest delivery comes via "Roads," a cinematic, tragic performance of stunning proportions as her higher register soars over a Rhodes electric piano on heavy tremolo and sympathetic string accompaniment. Hmm, maybe they mispelt it and the song was meant to be called "Rhodes." No mention of roads or Rhodes is in the song, so title is strictly arbitrary.

"Roads" has a classic, old-fashioned minor-key chord progression but stays modern enough thanks to the drums supplying the role of a great, hip-hop beat again. "Roads" is a testament to Portishead's surprisingly emotional adaptation of trip hop, a refusal to give in to defeat and it was widely recognized as the top moment from the album, becoming arguably the most well-liked track from the album while being featured in several TV and film projects since and deservedly so. In this author's humble opinion, it's the best thing off of Dummy and one of the actual pop classics from the year 1994. Fortunately, Dummy doesn't really sag after this like it could easily have done after such a home run hit. Ok ok, so "Pedestal" and "Biscuit" aren't among the best this album offers, but they are interesting enough to merit mild praise as far as I see it. They could have done far worse. Of note, they're also the 6th and 7th songs that feature just one word names, another aspect of how abstract and weird Dummy can get- fitting though, because even the album's title is a mere single word. "Pedestal" features vocals right out of the sky while it incorporates the fuzzy, scratchy hip-hop element to a stronger degree than any other song with a trumpet even offered up. Meanwhile, "Biscuit," has the most innovative rhythmic setup of any of the Dummy songs, with a low, jazzy electric piano riff that includes a beep-like series of notes, plus a fuzzy, static drum track and a lo-fi, compressed sample from Johnny Ray's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." 

For this reviewer, the closing track is the third best thing about Dummy, behind "Roads" of course, as well as "It Could Be Sweet." This number I speak of is the majestically swank, cool and swinging "Glory Box," which heavily bases itself off of a sample from Isaac Hayes's "Ike's Rap II" from his famed, slick Black Moses LP. Using that crisp, cinematic 70s sample helps make "Glory Box" so catchy, but Beth Gibbons does her part with easily her jazziest vocal lines during the verses and a pleadingly performed chorus to contrast. Barrow takes care of the programming while Utley gives some angstful elements via his crunchy guitar-bended chords and a sludgey, wah-wah guitar solo that is both tasteful and basted in greasy funk. It's a relaxed groove, yet with a ferocious intent as Gibbons sings a love plea of true gravity from the point of view of a proud, self-aware woman. Dummy gets a finish worthy of its consistent intrigue and as these trip-hop, studio-proficient bands go, Portishead has infrequently unleashed new music since their debut, with 1997's self-titled LP and 2008's Third being the only things dropped by the band since Dummy. The members pursued other projects in the intervening years but their next two efforts after Dummy never proved to be nearly as good or worth the wait in comparison.

173. Road to Ruin-The Ramones (1978): Rock and roll had hit one of its inevitable stagnant periods. As mentioned throughout my reviews of anything mid-to-late 70s, pop radio was a bottomless pit of dullness while anything considered rock was usually boring, monotonous, gigantically overblown and joyless compared to what it had been a mere decade earlier. Beacons on the horizon like Bruce Springsteen arrived to convince many that rock could indeed turn itself around and be relevant, vital contribution to art and culture again. Above all, it could again be fun and imaginary and frequently danceable. But the return to simple, bare bones guitar rock that could be played in a garage by any bunch of gung-ho amateurs came in early 1976 from a strange, identical looking bunch of fellows from Queens. Armed with long, bowl-cut hair, leather jackets, all black by the way, and ripped blue jeans, they were known as the Ramones (an inside joke based on how Paul McCartney's early stage name in Hamburg was Paul Ramon). Still fond of everything R&R from the 50s and 60s, they eschewed the bombast of 70s rock and turned the clock back to days of 2 minute ditties, minimal chord changes, no guitar solos and picked up on proto-punk Detroit bands such as the MC5 and Iggy Pop & the Stooges. Those two bands were of the psychedelic era, were big into drugs and mayhem and yet did not replicate the production elaboration of the era. It was a vicious, red hot rock assault but foreshadowed the angrier side of punk. The Ramones were not seriously jaded or on the verge of a riot, despite having an angry sound at times and being anything but malevolent. 

The Ramones took their influences and then spun it in their own loony way, with tales of boredom, sniffing glue, hanging out in the streets, enjoying records and maladies with love. Their origins started in the late 60s when guitarist John "Johnny Ramone" Cummings and transplanted Hungarian Jew Thomas "Tommy Ramone" Erdelyi, the drummer, played in a high school band called the Tangerine Puppets. Jeffrey "Joey Ramone" Hyman was a Jew himself, but grew up in a dysfunctional family that slanted his warped outlook in the future. He sang in a short-lived glam rock band Sniper in the early 70s- glam not being totally disliked by the Ramones because it had a fashionably good time while playing kinked-up rock and R&B. Recently arrived to America was bassist Douglas "Dee Dee Ramone" Colvin, who grew up a military brat while his father was stationed in Germany. He brought the band its Ramone moniker plus its flirtation with Nazism, long believed to be an appreciation for it when in actuality it was just a morbid interest in its brutal representation to society. In the cartoonish glee of the Ramones, Nazis were just another superhero world baddie, like an arch enemy of Batman or Superman, ie. the Joker or Lex Luthor (as it was when they held the Ku Klux Klan in poor regard, because they stole the protagonist's girlfriend in 1981's "The KKK Took My Baby Away"- actually Joey's viewpoint of how Johnny was now dating his ex-girlfriend at the time). Colvin occupied bass and often contributed backing vocals, a few leads too, and counted in ("1, 2, 3, 4!") a majority of their songs. 

Formed in 1974, two years later they had turned everyone, who was listening at least, on their heads and despite a low profile in the US were hugely followed in the UK, spawning the first monster acts of punk rock to come out of the woodwork shortly after. Joey was the original drummer but had to vacate the seat when he realized singing at the same time was too difficult. By August of '74, they had moved up to Manhattan's CBGB's to perform, sometimes playing Max's Kansas City. Because of their speedy performances and short song durations, average sets of the Ramones barely made 20 minutes. By 1975, they had touched off interest from Sire Records, headed by Seymour Stein whose wife Linda scoped out their performances before they were signed on. In fact, Linda Stein later co-managed them with Danny Fields. Though Sire would stand by them, the Ramones retrieved little commercial success out of their legendary punk rock. Songs were entirely credited to the group, though Dee Dee was the main writer, for their 1976 debut Ramones. More on that later, I promise you that. The album failed to chart as did its two singles "Blitzkreig Bop" and "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." The critics proclaimed a new future for rock, but the rest of the country wasn't quit catching on, as a Youngstown, Ohio gig in June drew a mere 10 people. But a month later, they arrived for a stint opening for the Flamin' Groovies at London's The Roundhouse theatre, selling out and attracting local musicians looking to make their break in punk too. Back in America in August, they found a devoted following gathered to watch them in Los Angeles with the same double bill at the Roxy. 

Though not as rewarding, their second album Ramones Leave Home arrived early in 1977, yet it did not improve their sales bracket. Later in 1977, they finally cracked the market with a top 50 album in Rocket to Russia. It would prove to be the highest charting release they ever embarked upon though. Praised even more than their debut at the time of its release, Rocket to Russia was a swift amalgamation of all the elements that made the Ramones great. In a year dominated on the charts by disco, the truly everlasting music was produced by the Ramones and various UK punk rockers. They even charted with the singles "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" (#81) and their highest charting hit ever, "Rockaway Beach" (#66). But midway through 1978, before going back to the studio, Tommy Ramone dropped out because of the constant touring wearing him down. His replacement was Marc Bell, recently ex of Richard Hell & the Voidods, one of the few well-known, strictly punk groups in the US before 1979. Re-dubbed Marky Ramone and outfitted in similar decor, he was a change from Tommy's bass thumping rumble not unlike the Velvet Underground's Maureen Tucker. He was more of a timekeeping guy, with the odd bursting-with-energy fill, comparable to the Clash's Topper Headon though with less of the funky versality. Tommy, under his birth name, stayed on as producer for their fourth straight class A album, a particularly outside-the-box venture for the Ramones. They dusted off some nice melodies that allowed Joey to show his softer vocal side. Joey was unlike any other frontman, singing in a nasal, hiccupy style that recalled Buddy Holly but also the English-accented British Invasion singers. 

While every other singer was trying to be a strutting bundle of excitement like Mick Jagger or a screeching longhair like Robert Plant, Joey Ramone was a unique one. Erdelyi produced the fourth LP alongside Ed Stasium, who brought along his arena rock sensibilities. With this team, the Ramones sought to give a more mainstream, ear-fetching album to build on what they'd done with Rocket to Russia. These events conspired to bring us 1978's Road to Ruin- yeah, another Ramones LP with the "R" first letter and a sort of named brother for Rocket to Russia(Note to self: I wonder if proposed titles for the fifth album included Ride to Rwanda? Rally to RaichmanoffRoute to Respiration? Or if it could become a series like those vintage Bob Hope-Bing Crosby pictures. Well, witticisms aside, they ended up calling that 1980 numero cinco End of the Century). Road to Ruin brought more pop structures, although this was nothing foreign to those who listened intently and carefully to their first three albums where undercurrents of Spector-esque girl group pop and British Invasion rock were noticeable. They only made those features more nakedly apparent on Road to Ruin, bringing in slower tempos- yes you could even call them ballads- acoustic guitars, romanticism and even guitar solos (overdubbed by Stasium and Erdelyi among others, but not Johnny Ramone who preferred his rapid, buzzsaw strumming to any leads). The Ramones were not even photographed for the cover, but rather depicted in cartoon form. But alas, there was less of the cartoony Ramones, as they exhibited their more serious intentions, downplaying the whole gonzo depiction of teenage life's angst and insanity angle a little more, though not completely. 

Dee Dee and Joey shared songwriting duties for the album, as they usually did, and both showed their songwriting crafts were both similar and wonderfully catchy in their punkish regalia. "I Just Want to Have Something to Do," a number penned by Joey, cuts the tempo down a tad from the typical one for a Ramones tune and even stretches out past 2.5 minutes of pop hooks framed within some delectable hard rock hysteria. The song is about sedentary, stationary life being a total bore and wanting something to do for a change. The lyrics of the Ramones were always spare and straightforward, hence "Tonight, tonight, Tonight/Tonight, tonight, well alright" is the veritable chorus, unsurprisingly so, of the song. The verses are barely less primitive. The smashing balls-to-the-wall Ramones rock returns for Dee Dee's "I Wanted Everything," a song describing greed and selfishness, though not in a celebratory light. Even jangling pop-infused music wasn't off limits, though Johnny was the one member that often expressed dissatisfaction at any hint of abandoning their razor's edge. This happens in the form of Dee's Dee's "You Don't Come Close," a very folk-rocking ditty that is one of the more introspective pieces the Ramones had ever tried to attempt. They make it work, despite the awkward way a song like that could have fit them. The Ramones even cover the 1964 Searchers hit "Needles and Pins," written by Sonny Bono and longtime sessionman/arranger/producer legend Jack Nitzsche. Sung with hurting emotion by Joey, it's less wrapped up in drama than the Searchers original smash version but comes off as a fine foray into the rare ballad terrain for the Ramones. 

The Ramones versions of "Needles and Pins" shows that even punks had a heart that could break and feel sorrow over something with. Yeah, even they get the blues! Another of the Ramones pro-active songs that set out their opposition to certain societal ills is "I'm Against it." Co-written with Joey by Johnny Ramone, it's 2:07 and the shortest track on the album, a contrast with their previous three records where 2:07 would have represented an average running time. Road to Ruin was their first disc to not include a track shorter than 2 minutes! The best synthesis of the two dichotomies comes on "I Wanna Be Sedated," one of the most well-known, popular tunes they ever wrote. Forerunners of the pop-punk sound, the Ramones deliver a funny social commentary written by Joey that is marked by a key change in the middle and memorable lyrics about atypical Ramones concerns: going crazy and being locked up. Ok, so not so much within the realm of everyday normalcy. But hey, those things do happen to people and half of the Ramones always had mental instability on their minds, suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder while Dee Dee was bipola. But unlike giant multimedia acts like Pink Floyd, he took a gonzo approach to the subject, not getting bogged down by dour, wastefully hard-thinking pretension. "I Wanna Be Sedated" was no doubt was strengthened in its pop culture significance when the Ramones made a mid-80s music video for the song that got a fair amount of rotation on MTV. Whatever you feel about video clips, since 1981 they surely have ended up contributing more to careers than a radio DJ- the former conduit for creating interest- ever could. Style over substance? Sure. But it's the nature of the beast and, unfortunately enough, nobody really lets the music do the talking anymore. 

Then again, the Ramones couldn't tap into wider appeal even before MTV so the cases of overlooked sensations and undeserved, platinum hacks were still a common thread through pop music. If anything, MTV was a more receptive platform them as their indelible image became seen on a wider base that drew more fans than ever before on the concert circuit). Even Dee Dee endorsed the rampant portrayal of lunacy, or as the next track puts it "Go Mental." But even Dee Dee had ballad ability, evidenced by the thoughtful, mellow "Questioningly," a pointedly tender moment for a band usually full of testosterone and fraught with shot nerves. Exuberant pop that recalls the Ronettes or Shirelles- in more updated terms the more sickly sweet Abba- is on the menu for Joey's "She's the One." Underneath it all are the roughly picked guitar and bass power chords that defined the Ramones from the outset. Another "mental" song is Dee Dee's "Bad Brain," a throwback to the simplicity and dryly engineered sound ofRamones. "Bad Brain" comes across like a 12-step program to songwriting, the specialty of the Ramones in their "backward is moving forward" mentality. More tuneful is the twelfth and final track, "It's a Long Way Back," which is Dee Dee's creation and the references to traveling back to Germany confirm this 100%. The most recent CD reissuing of Road to Ruin is loaded with bonus tracks, as are the other albums from their twenty two year existence. There are two early outtakes of End of the Century tracks' "I Want You Around" and "Rock n' Roll High School" (a straight copy of their own "Rockaway Beach") produced by Ed Stasium. Even a tidbit from the film Rock N' Roll High School- an of-its-time, 1979 teenage culture film- is included, an 11-minute live medley "Blitzkrieg Bop/Teenage Lobotomy/California Sun/Pinhead/She's the One." 

Medleys were a frequent method for the Ramones to cram in a bunch of their songs without hardly taking a breath and by 1978 they surely could, in the time it would take Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band to wrap up a minimal length marathon show, perform their entire catalogue plus their repertoire of covers. For the expanded Road to Ruin there are also demos under alternate titles than what they came out as on Road to Ruin. "Come Back She Cried a.k.a. I Walk Out" is a tune that was "It's a Long Way Back" in its formative stages and likewise "Yea, Yea" is "She's the One." The Ramones made a go for increased sales with Road to Ruin and they sure travelled the road, as all hopes were ruined when the album failed to crack the top 100 somehow. This failure convinced Sire that slicker production more in tune with rock radio was needed, so rather than fall back on strengths, the Ramones pursued the pop sound even further, mixing their love of 60s covers and their own superb originals to varied results on the otherwise (by everyone else's standards) pleasing Phil Spector produced End of the Century, Graham Gouldman produced 1981's Pleasant Dreams and 1983's Subterranean Jungle. The Ramones had a good relationship with management at Sire but became frustrated at the endgame after each release. Meanwhile, the band had internal issues as clean-living Johnny, also a rare staunch conservative in the rock field, began clashing with Joey over politics and private matters too, namely stealing his girlfriend. That incident broke their relationship down further to a point where they would hardly ever speak to each other. 

Worse yet, OCD stricken Joey was boozing it up alongside Marky, who was ousted and replaced by Richard ("Richie Ramone") Reinhardt in 1983. Of course, an alcoholic Joey would never fall on the sword or it would have meant the finalization of the band. Marky would clean up enough to return for good in 1987. A return to large critical approval occurred when Erdelyi returned to produce 1984's quasi-metal classic Too Tough to Die. Aside from the Johnny-Joey feud, Dee Dee began abusing heroin more frequently as the years ticked by, which eventually killed him in 2002, a year after Joey Ramone died of lymphoma and a year before Johnny died of prostate cancer.The series of deaths shockingly robbed us of 3/4 of the original group and leaving us with former drummers Tommy (the light not snuffed out from the original foursome), Marky, Richie and Elvis (a short stint by former Blondie drummer Clem Burke. Short because Burke could not keep up with the zany tempos of live Ramones performance), former bassist C.J. (Christopher Joseph Ward, who replaced Dee Dee in 1989 when he left for a rap career first, then fronted a few hardcore punk bands next). But also an untouched legacy amongst punk rock and a pivotal position as true trendsetting originals in the annals of rock & roll. By 1996, into their 40s and sick of each other and touring and recording without receiving a huge profit margin outside of their hefty earning merchandise. They would have an effect on nearly every rock band to follow, mainly but not solely involved with punk as even the speed metal genre and yes, even those horridly irritating punk pop bands like Fall Out Boy, owe a large debt of gratitude to one of the most important bands hat ever emerged from rock.

172. Veedon Fleece-Van Morrison (1974): Van Morrison had been on a tear ever since Astral Weeks (read for more on that, what came before it and what followed). When Moondance broke him through to the charts in 1970, he was restless to pursue his music with some financial security under him for a change. He quickly responded later in '70 with His Street Band and Choir, a superb LP in its own right (keep on reading and you'll find it on my list in fact) that took a relaxed, unpretentious, contagiously vibrant look into the American soul music unveiled as a source of endless inspiration to Van on Moondance. Residing in upstate New York, near a town called Caledonia, Van merged the domestic, country ease of his new life with the musical spirit burning fearlessly within him since first choosing performing as his lot in life. This was evident in the albums he cut in America from 1970-73 and soon his branded "Caledonia Soul" was drawing raves for its life virtues too. Critics at evry rock mag or publication gushed forth about "Van the Man" and even when he didn't knock everyone's heads off- like with 1971's Tupelo Honey- he still was in an almost ungodly position of brilliance. That 1971 LP saw his songwriting at its least serious-minded and breathlessly enchanted. He no longer sounded like a man with an itch to scratch or an undying will to search, to scour and to push hard through his musical journey as well as the perils of his industry- though years later Van had the stomach to reflect back on his time in the business with scathing words for the executives, media and various factors of the system. Almost too much of an appetite for it in fact and it made him an old grump before he even hit 50. 

Tupelo Honey was his most overtly Country & Western-sprinkled LP ("Starting a New Life," "[Straight to Your Heart] Like a Cannonball," "When That Evening Sun Goes Down," "I Wanna Roo You [Scottish Derivative]" and the multi-faceted suite finale "Moonshine Whiskey") and contained just a few of the similarities to its predecessors (the sumptuous title track and "Old Old Woodstock" re-imagined the tranquil romanticism of "Crazy Love" or "Brand New Day" from Moondance). Even his former love songs/ballads never got as personal or unashamedly loving as the tugging (insipid? You be the judge) "You're My Woman." Van's happiness bordered on the unbearable at times, but his musical gifts harnessed him from the edge where artistry plunges into banality. There was still room for the horns but their only important roles came on the final half of "Moonshine Whiskey" and the colourful, hustling "Wild Night," the opener of the album. "Wild Night" showed he still had commercial appeal, making the US top 30 and earning the strongest kudos of any tracks from Tupelo Honey. The album's cover even showed him in the throes of a steady-bonded, peaceful and nutruring union with wife Janet (Planet) Rigsbee mounting a horse, aided by a bearded, long flowing haired Van- the only time he has had shoulder-length hair in his life thanks to male pattern baldness of course. But in 1972, he re-focused himself on th Celtic bard side of his personality for the stunning Saint Dominic's Preview which continued a lot of what he'd been perfecting since the fallout of Astral Weeks' commercial nothingness. Yes his wholly identifiable folk-country-soul ammalgamation (or if you prefer, Bob Dylan meets Hank Williams meets Ray Charles) was well represented by the title track, not to mention "Redwood Tree," and "Gypsy." But for one of the few times as of 1972, he shed some rays on his passion for jazz, namely the big band, late 40s style. 

With his unparalleled record-making know-how, Van made out like a jazz-soul extraordinaire via the hopping, finger-snapping "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)." It would have been a huge hit in the 30s or 40s but this dedication to a soul singing fave of Van's was another stroke of marvelosity, clocking in at under three minutes like any special hit parader would. Hell, we even were graced with the naturally bluesy "I Will Be There," earmarked for a vocalist like Billie Holiday in her prime. Acoustic guitars were frequently hauled out even for Van's beefier, harder soul but on just a scant number of occasions had they been the single, overwhelming lead on a Morrison piece. After Astral Weeks, no one heard much of what had made that album so simultaneously rustic and classically inclined. The Irish acoustic leanings of Van were yet to appear but he decided to forgo the inclusion of strings and bring ambiently jazzy touches to his work, and that occurs with "Listen to the Lion" and "Almost Independence Day" which close sides 1 & 2 respectively. They share with jazz also on their arbitrarily conceived lengths, stretching to past 12 minutes and 10 minutes.... respectively. But instead of bore or wander woefully, they are magnificent though "Listen to the Lion" way moreso. Of the softer, quiet Morrison recordings, "Listen to the Lion" could be the very best, a truly spine-chilling and essential 20th century creation that stands alongside the top tracks of Astral Weeks. What eventually became his very worthy live representation of this extremely fertile period- 1974's concert LP It's Too Late to Stop Now- was put on display for his 1973 touring. With an ensemble including string and horn players, Van took to the road with almost a couple dozen backing musicians he named The Caledonia Soul Orchestra- later shortened down in size to an Express. While, as has always been the case, he could be curt, shy and irritiable in his performing, there were times when Van commanded in the same way his best songs did on record. 

He tried to expand on the rather unstructured, unfiltered steps taken on Saint Dominic's Preview for 1973's Hard Nose the Highway. What emerged was not quite unlistenable or even mediocre, but was certainly not the level of achievement you'd expect from who was then rock's deserving peer to Bob Dylan. Since Van could do as little as wave a finger on come up with gold, it wasn't hard for the album to get uniformally good reviews. But later years saw the album exposed as a failed sidewinding trek into pastoral, unchallenging folk settings, like Van's first real easy-listening record. There were interesting things about almost every track- the Oakland Symphony Chamber Chorus's ghostly effect on "Snow in San Anselmo" being a good example- but aside from maybe the title track and definitely "Warm Love," none of it was top drawer material. This B-grade release makes it C or D grade for a king like Van Morrison. Besotted by vagueness, dullness, a lack of an emotional core and songs that didn't rise above their earnest, simplistic arrangements like they could have on previous albums, Hard Nose the Highway is head-scratching in portions and rather lacking in initiating the listener. And yet, Van would claim it to be the first album he produced in complete control. Hmm, I guess outside help wsn't so bad after all and maybe Van's first leap into the unknown was an atypical letdown for someone making such a transition. 1973 was a heady year as Van scrapped many tunes for a potential album from sessions late in 1972 that extended into '73 and most of these would pop up a couple decades later on 1998's vault-raiding double-disc The Philosopher's Stone

Sure, it was a bustling year in the career of Mr. Morrison but not entirely satisfying from a personal standpoint as his marriage to Janet Planet quickly dissolved and then became a thing of the past. Two years prior he had been riding horseback with her, now it was over?- pffft, women! Am I right? Har har har... Anyhoo, Van tried to get the acrimony out of his head by packing up from his adopted U.S.A. home to return to his original home of Belfast, North Ireland.... on vacation at least. He toured the countryside for inspiration and most of the songs for his next LP came from this October 1973 sojourn. This piqued his interest in impressionist, poetc folk again but this time he toned down the classical and jazz elements a bit to make it a settled, mellow affair that could be transifixing to listen to on a cold, wintery night besides the fireplace with a glass of wine. Not upper crust or for sophisticates, just a remarkably probing, illuminating look into his state of mind and his Irishness. This was the backstory to 1974's misunderstood- but now ultimately understood and well-regarded- Veedon Fleece. So, what the heck's a "Veedon Fleece"? Well Van claims to have made it up to find a destination/object for the lyrics of "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push the River." But one can interpritate it as an item that's a metaphor for the culmination/assemblance of all his spirutal quests and journeys of previous albums. Like Van's own Irish-embodied version of the Holy Grail. Nonetheless, the line in "You Don't Pull..." was loaned for the title as well. Veedon Fleece contains another wonderfully skilled group of backup musicians and for the first time Van opens up to Celtic-flavoured flute, recorder (provided by James Rothermel) and strings. Piano virtuoso Jeff Labes appears on "Bulbs" and "Cul De Sac" (as do bassist Joe Macho, guitarist John Tropea and drummer Allan Schwarzberg) having previously played on Hard Nose the Highway and Moondance and a part of Van's touring band through 1970 before a return. Along with Van, he arranges the woodwind and strings on the album. 

The remainder of tunes saw the ivories handled by James Drumbo, drums by Dahaud Shaar (aka David Shaw) and bass by David Hayes- who would perform on nearly every Van album of the next dozen years before returning from a long sabbatical from Morrison by appearing on all his solo albums except one during this decade. Cellist Teressa Adams, violinist Nathan Rubin and soprano sax on "You Don't Pull..." by longtime Morrison collaborator Jack Schroer round out the appearances from his Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Outside the group we get the flute and recorder, the "Bulbs" and "Cul De Sac" players and some lead guitar work by Ralph Wash alongside Van's acoustic strumming. Like all his albums, this one mainly featured American musicians but starting in the late 70s, Van would begin to record again in the UK and Europe as he had moved back to the British Isles for good after mostly residing in California in the mid-70s. He divided his time between locations but as the 80s wore on most of his LPs were turned out in the UK and he was able to attract more Ireland compatriates to his albums where before he had been the only bearer of that Irish musical identity. When discussing any Morrison album, the support musicians matter a whole hell of a lot and their chemistry and traits as dramatic, gratifying tellers of story through song are fundamentally responsible for a lot of what the final product is, though obviously Van's musical mind makes it all come together. On Veedon Fleece, the session players he assembles mostly provide a restrained, hushed beauty but history has taught us that Van Morrison always manages to direct his musicians immaculately and compliments himself with performers of the highest order and to the liking of his musical olfactory senses. It's a deceiving start to Veedon Fleece, one that gets some listeners- even a few Morrison disciples I am sure- reckoning they're in for a smooth, blue note cocktail jazz night of heart-t-heart with Van on the mic. 

Yes, you know a kind of black-tie/white tux affair of gauche and oblivious spinnings of loquacious but hollow poetry, politeness, cozy folkiness and vocalizing excesses that Randy Bachman made so sellable and witty on his Bachman-Turner Overdrive #1 "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" that very same year. But no, one would have to wait till the 90s to hear Van fully embrace jazz in the true sense and the guy's so good that even if he did cut such an LP- as can be said of his supper club soothers Poetic Champions Compose and Avalon Sunset from 1987 and 1989- he gives you moments worth grasping onto anyway. The opener I refer to is "Fair Play," a chilling, sleepy track that may not be among his greatest but sets the twilight reeling with infinite class and wordsmith, free-flowing brainstorming. Ok, the wordiness can be overwrought sometimes as Van tends to lose interests when he tries his hand at atmospheric poetry. Plus, he initiates his future willingness to name drop and reference his selected writers of influence and their great works- here, he sings "Tell me of Poe/Oscar Wilde and Thoreau" with an innocence and craving foreign to his m ore love-attentive writings. At the time, his namedropping was nothing major but by the 80s, Van had to tell the world what he was reading and why to the point where you wondered if he could write with straight forward lyrics anymore. But you can get away with it a lot if your music delivers the goods. "Fair Play" reveals Van trying to search the width of his vocal range but if there's one thing about this album, besides words, that pales next to Astral Weeks (then again, what doesn't?), it's his vocals. They often waver and struggle to stay on-key but the urgency and emotional palpability earn an A for effort. 

Even when he was in control of his pitch, Van never put so much into his vocals between 1969-73 and never again would he push himself this far, though his late 70s period could be argued to be the tail end of his singing prime instead of past it, an argument I can get behind to tell the truth. Van has always been a great singer but as he's aged, there's less his vocals have been able to muster in order to better songs and rescue filler from the trash bin. And as he's piled upt he massive song catalogue, it's been harder to write songs that are savable by that soulful, innovative voice; Van admitting as much in interviews of recent years where he's pointed out that once you've written hundreds of tunes, it becomes increasingly difficult to top yourself or tread ground you've never thoroughly investigated before. Still, he's adequate enough in 2009 for me to hear him sing the phonebook and be entertained. Plus one can welcome his deeper bellow as a vocal trait brought about by maturing and besides, he has claimed the singing in an upper range after a while can damage the vocal cords so he prefers it the way it is. The pitchiness looms on "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights" but the threat of it hampering the recording never follows through and it's a grand, sweeping composition that recalls soldier's songs or English folk tales of murder and deceit. With a cascade of Chopin-esque piano from Labbes, it could be mistaken for a classical sonata at first and later its strings hint as such a similarity, but Morrison's vocals are unmistakably his own, an R&B exalted evocation of his Irish roots and his American R&B fancy. 

Nonetheless, he is very alive and on pins and needles delivering it, as if he was nervous about getting it right or someone had a gun pointed at his dog (yeah and one of those furry Irish Wolfhounds he sits between on the album cover too!). That sense of fright is actually of great benefit to the song, written with an anti-hero in mind. This anti-hero is an Irish immigrant in 19th century San Fransisco who reacts to his unfair predicaments and treatment with violence and hides away to escape the justice and vengeance. "Linden Arden" gives way after a mere 2.5 minutes to "Who Was That Masked Man?" a much more R&B oriented- though not electrified- recording that somewhat shares from the melody of "Linden Arden" and even re-uses its line: "When you're living with a gun." "Who Was That Masked Man?" is one of the only, and perhaps the last, Morrison track where he sings primarily in his underrated and overlooked- and I'm talking by his own self even- falsetto range. Some criticisms say/said that this second track was hurt by Van's pitchy falsetto, but I'm in disagreement with such claims. For me, the actual issue is how highly mixed it is. It gets grating to hear because it's too upfront but otherwise I hear no difference in this vocal track than in the one he gave for "Gypsy Queen," a falsetto standout that critics all seemed to be highly satisfied with just four years prior. When Van was paying homage to his heroes, critics were fine but. But when he attempted his own Celtic folk path, a lot of people balked at it and got turned off. As for this Celtic bard's inspirations for settings to write about on Veedon Fleece? Well the natural landscapes of his native Ireland had not totally been appreciated or discovered by Van, having moved away in 1967 and in his career as a lyricist had mainly been focusing his memory banks on his adolescence. 

He was remembering of his urban situation in Belfast and what his boyhood brought, but the green, picturesque, ancient splendor of the Irish and Northern Irish countrysides moved him to write "Streets of Arklow." With a penny whistle (flute?) constantly in the background, the acoustic-set piece builds up from its smooth start to incorporate darting, mercurial strings as well as tingling piano support and one of Van's finest, most consistent vocals on the album. The stirring gentleness is contrasted by the strings and their sense of imminent spiritual awakening as Morrison's lyrics this time tell the story instead of go over and over his muses in life- although he does describe gypsies for about the millionth of a billion or so times in his career. All kidding aside, "Streets of Arklow" is adorned in such a naked, peaceful way that its subtle but ferocious conquest comes as a lurking surprise that only the Belfast Cowboy himself could purport to. Its fetching pursuit of spiritual purity is 100 times better than the majority of songs that partake in the "nature loving" circle of hippiedom. The next cut, the near 9-minute "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push the River" was reportedly borne out of Van's interest at the time with the alternative psychoanalytical treatment called Gestalt Therapy. But lyrically it's the same few verses and the same punctuated cry of "You don't pull no punches, but you don't push the river" while Van tells a childhood story of a woman he knew when she was a tomboy. He also describes literary figures, as in the line "William Blake and the Eternals/Standing with the Sisters of Mercy." 

His unquenchable thirst for that musical healing is revealed in the line "We're going out in the country to get to the real soul/I mean the real soul, people." The string arrangement is haunting and takes you by the throat, veering from staccato plucking of the strings to madly bowed oscillations toward higher notes. The intro contains a muted, blue sort of piano arpeggio from James Trumbo plus a drum beat that often goes into jazz figures to push the rhythm along with urgency. After such a trip through the cold, steely grip of Morrison's folk-jazz, comes "Bulbs," a way warmer, inviting tune with more of a country edge than any of the songs coming before it. It has a quick time rock beat and Van's vocals are ostensibly fiery, unanimously engaging and empowered. It's also the first of just a few instances where electric guitar features in the recording, and the same goes for "Cul De Sac." At about half the tempo of "Bulbs," it does share a common link in that both discuss emigration to America and coming home again- something Van was undergoing when he wrote the tracks so in a sense they're autobiographically based in spite of their rather abstract purpose or story. "Cul De Sac" is a bit less country than "Bulbs" and the blues quotient is stronger, with Van giving his most rock-typecast vocals ever because he begins wailing and screaming at the end. A piano melody in the closing sequence is replicated vocally by Van in his gruff vocal trick which he does in a scat right through to the fadeout. At points in "Cul De Sac," he also invigorates further by striking upon Astral Weeks levels of repetition of lyrics and phrase, a Morrison trademark you'll find. 

After the unrelenting roll since the start, Veedon Fleece tails off, albeit only to a minor degree. "Comfort You" is relaxed, homestyle offering of love and comfort (duuuh!) that is another exquisite vocal from Van while the strings provide a sweetening, gorgeous counterpoint to Van's strong, forceful singing. Van even recalls a famous song of his upstate New York compadres the Band, though in reverse fashion, when he promises, "I'll put the weight on you" (earlier stating "You put the weight on me"). "Come Here My Love" is recorded at a hush, nothing over a full track like anyone had ever heard from Morrison before 1974. Intimately quiet, "Come Here My Love" is ostensibly a solo effort just with acoustic guitars ringing out from the din. It is set up with chords that make one think of a Tim Buckley ditty, but Van's sedate, pledging vocals are nothing like the double-wrapped, hypersensitive swan song productions of Buckley, who sang "Come Here My Love" music in a shy, plum splendor that perfectly suited him as a mundane, buttery marshamallow soft, crooning puss that comes off more like a neutered Donovan than a Nick Drake or Bert Jansch (Side Note: Unlike many, I am not amused by the early days of Buckley where he to me was just Roy Orbison as folk dramatist junkie. I prefer his grinding, sexed-up lover man persona on Greetings from L.A. where he turns into a scatting, tongues talking Jim Morrison archetype who transforms his vocal talents into an instrument of candid, hilariously self-aware histrionics). Anyways, next to the mushy folkies of the era, Van on "Come Here My Love" seems decidedly like a brutish monster a la Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. A real macho man you might say. But for him, it's a step back into rather unguarded romanticism and his previously mentioned vocals are another change of scenery. 

To play devil's advocate though, the song doesn't flesh out things too terribly much. In other words, a bit on the boring side. Superior is the pastoral, elegant Irish folk of "County Fair," which brings in the penny whistle again and is something rather different compared to Van's acoustic music that people had become used to. "County Fair" is reserved but touchingly quaint and Van paints imagery through his words and arrangements so well that "County Fair" was the kind of recording he'd strive for several times in his 80s days, though with varying results when propped up next to a nostalgic, velvety ditty like "County Fair" which is peaceful beauty, blanketing a listener with a gallantry of sorts. Van fosters such eloquence on Veedon Fleece in a way that even his tremendous gauntlet of albums in the early 70s never could prepare one for. And wouldn't you know it, critical reaction was mixed with most major outlets passing off the LP, but years later it became known as the last album in Van's golden era that began in 1968. Some of Van's most ardent advocates seemed to sour on him, fearing he had begun to recycle himself and make bald-faced tries to revive what he had done so well with Astral Weeks, only fixing up a hollow disappointment instead. That confused reaction was reflected on the charts too, being Van's worst seller since Astral Weeks and showing that when he strayed too far from the R&B good times he cultivated on well-liked fare such as Moondance, he risked a backlash on his success. The cruel sting from the dismissal caused Van some worry as he sank into writer's block that held him back from releasing an album for three years (though he attempted to in 1975 and gave up on it, the results of which later appeared on The Philosopher's Stone). 

Soon enough, slowly but surely he would begin impressing again, creating a masterpiece with Into the Music (1979). It had not seemed like he could bowl anyone over in such a way when he returned for 1977's sketchy, hard hitting R&B exploration A Period of Transition and then followed up by a rewarding from benefits reaped via 1978's Wavelength, his biggest hit album to that date and one that went gold within months of release. Wavelength had critics applauding even if it was a mainstream leap of faith that featured for the first time, synthesizers and burning hot guitar solos on a Van Morrison solo album. Though not everyone was totally on board because it was nothing even compared to his 1968-72 run, though Wavelength's select best (the title track, "Kingdom Hall" and "Hungry for Your Love") were as good as any of his 70s cuts. There were signs of coming back to form but funnily enough a Christian rebirth led to a musical rebirth for 1979 and Van had new purpose. This was not always a good thing as wildly artistic ambitions became his forte in the 80s, to varying degrees of quality though far from weak and bordering on the great at times. Common One, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher were likely his most strident, ambitious works of all time but all three suffered to certain degrees with formless meandering and pomp (Common One being too focused on lengthy rambling, No Guru on boring and esoteric nostalgia despite some real high points and Inarticulate Speech hampered by several lousy New Age instrumentals and glib synthesizer soundtrack pieces). Other times, he'd do quite well but play it safe, such as on Beautiful Vision and Poetic Champions Compose. Only on the decade closer Avalon Sunset did Van combine his mysticism and his easy listening vibe to great effect. Veedon Fleece is still one of the most urgent things he ever laid down, unsurpassed since in its arresting search for cosmic enlightenment.

171. Speaking in Tongues-The Talking Heads (1983): When we last left you discussing Talking Heads, they had just shifted gears on the synthetically alarming, but also coo coo for crackers Fear of Music. Their music having taken a spacier turn toward new plains- thanks to Brian Eno in particular- they took 1980 to make their quintessential work, Remain in Light. Not only was it unanimously approved by critics, nearly topping many year-end polls- were it not for London Calling perhaps they could have- but it also gave them newfound chart power thanks to "Once in a Lifetime." That all-time art rock favourite was greatly enhanced- at least at the time- by its quirky, complex video that, although it seems pedestrian and stupid-looking next to all the CGI effects we're accustomed to now, did a huge favour in promoting the band, the song and the LP it came from. After touring through 1981, the group took a sabbatical to pursue side projects. Byrne and Eno got together to collaborate on a couple albums while Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth shuttled off to make a highly enjoyable album as a band called the Tom Tom Club, which generated a couple surprise hits with "Wordy Rappinghood" and the top 10 heavenly funk of "Genius of Love." The couple perhaps indicated that the Heads' fascination with funk came from them and not necessarily the maestro leader David Byrne. Returning in 1983, the Heads staked themselves to some even greater record sales, their first top 10 hit in the US with "Burning Down the House," a single that sank without a trace in most other countries. A much more high-budget, innovative video designed for MTV audiences also made a big impact in getting "Burning Down the House" to #9. 

Synthesizers played a more light-hearted, off-kilter role on Speaking in Tongues- this being the title based on how Byrne gave nonsensical lyrics to the songs before settling on the words- and without Brian Eno, the Heads sought to prove they could be acutely experimental and daring on their own. This is downright fun Talking Heads material, less sinister and terrorizing than Remain in Light or Fear of Music, less hectically off-the-wall than More Songs About Buildings and Food, less artfully primitive than Talking Heads '77, less wearied than Little Creatures and less tired and going through the motions than what was to follow that. Speaking in Tongues could have you fooled for a black band, albeit the college-minded origins of the group are har to cover up. Helping in set that 70s P-Funk vibe is an alumni of that George Clinton stable with Bernie Worrell contributing his exemplary synth and treatments. Also, they get synthesizer support from Wally Badarou and at various times, a member of the Head works the keybs themselves. Meanwhile percussion is supplied by various members of the group though the expert stuff is handed by Raphael DeJesus, Steve Scales and David Van Tieghem. Any sax comes from Richard Landry while famed violinist Shankar is dispatched to work as well. For some funky soul beef, the Heads get backing vocals from Donette McDonald and former Labelle member Nona Hendryx. For those choppy funk guitar pyrotechnics, Alex Weir makes appearances, he formerly of the Brothers Johnson (remember "I'll Be Good to You" and "Strawberry Letter #23"? Ok well no slight on you if you don't cause the group wasn't all that special frankly). 

For those interested, Worrell, Scales and Weir are featured among the touring band of the Heads in their 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. The hit the Heads scored with leads off this LP and it's a low-down, kooky groove replete with Africanized percussion and percussive synthesizer arrangements that serve a purpose less for melody than for rhythmic punctuation. "Burning Down the House" finds Byrne settling into the style of singing that would become well known with the public, a nerdy lunatic yelp. With this as his cavalry going into good rockin' every night, Byrne is the antithesis of a sharp frontman, though really sharp was his wardrobe at times on stage. Call him an anti-singer or worse yet a piss-poor singer, but he conveys his lyrics with such frothing braininess that anything less would be a cop-out for the Talking Heads and in their history, never was even the second most capable vocalist- Tina Weymouth- ever given one line of her own to sing. Byrne has long held steadfast to his belief that an ordinary, bizarre, somewhat limited singer is easier to believe the lyrics from. A thinker way outside the box is an apt description on Byrne and his work in the Talking Heads is a good background check if you want to know what you're dealing with. Testimony to that comes through Speaking in Tongues better than maybe any Heads album because here he's got the band on a high plateau full of electronic gadgetry and hijinks without the aid of a pro like Eno. Don't misinterpret me here, since the other three do their part and shouldn't get short shrift next to the enigmatic Byrne and his off the beaten path creativity. "Making Flippy Floppy" is disco the way it should've been, a party funk that nicks the bass line from Rick James's "Give it to Me Baby" and is as danceable as the Talking Heads had ever sounded to that point, giving them crossover potential into the crowds that frequented disco clubs across the world in 1983. 

"Girlfriend is Better" is a mechanically funky, jiving festival of hard-hitting riffs and scratch chords amidst the array of synth noises. Byrne's lyrics are also random, non-linear and somewhat impressionistic yet quite charmingly off-kilter- witness the refrain of "As we get older and stop making sense/Stop making sense/Stop making sense!" which lent itself to the vaunted concert movie of theirs a year after. "Slippery People" is a snappy, more seductive and pared down dance funk, leaning on the powerful vocal attack of Byrne and his hearty backup singing ladies. This is reminiscent of gospel, or to cut closer to rock circles Bob Dylan's setup of those years when the black church-trained women shared in his choruses and harmonized cheek to cheek with him, only better and more pleasuring to hear and not really haggard and cranky. Also not driving or insistent is"I Get Wild (Wild Gravity)," a laid-back one that crosses robust post-punk with the spacious, aloof electro-funk the Heads were fooling around with throughout Speaking in Tongues. "Swamp" is a real pleaser, a sorcerous achievement that bridges said electro-funk with an almost Devilish blues, like it's in need of severe exorcism, not unlike snaky, one-chord preachings of a John Lee Hooker at his slyest, most hellfire-ish. "Swamp" is a damn fitting title because this is swamp music, at least with modern- for the 1980s, let's not forget- electronics and technology padding its blues stew. Listening to this, one can picture wild dogs howling, voodoo seances and witches cauldrons on a hot, steamy night in the Mississippi mud, which is a huge nod of respect to the earthily gratifying fright of this album's sixth selection. "Swamp" is a keeper, bar none. 

The rather Michael Jackson-ish club extravaganza "Moon Rocks" overcomes its somewhat anonymous funk exterior thanks to some curious sounds- the real mystery here being the synth(???) that replicates the sound of a blues harp as if routed through an amp. "Pull up the Roots" is a relentless, headfirst plunge into upbeat dance floor 80s disco-funk that makes "Making Flippy Floppy" seem a tame step through the door. It takes the thumping dance edge of the preceding tracks and sets it afire with some of that Talking Heads flair for the groovy. "Pull up the Roots" makes a candidate for a Michael Jackson album track if I ever heard one from a bunch of art design white folks. They slide into more of a British-tailored snyth dance piece with the wonderfully moving ninth and final cut, "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," which builds up from one rhythmic keyboard part into multiple keyboard riffs that function to heighten the plush softness aimed for. The vocal lines are marvelously achieved with the great backing singers taking Byrne's vocals to new heights of soulfulness. This sounds more like the poppy tones of Motown or blue-eyed soul than the brazen funk flourishes of the other eight songs, which isn't a bad thing when you've got a closer this intimate and wistful. The "Naive Melody" is determined as such by Byrne who says that it refers to how the guitar and bass parts never change on the recording. Anyone who detests synthesizers glossing up rock bands can still take this for what it's worth and find redeeming value from "This Must Be the Place." A self-admitted love song of Byrne's- not exactly a common theme for him despite its endless usage in pop music forever and ever- it is a yearning for escaping the vagaries of hustling, bustling life in order to settle down in the comforts of home, where everything can be a lot less oppressively worrying. 

In Stop Making Sense, it's a nicer break from Byrne's more hostile lyrical matters or the juicy, pumped up physical assault the music is in its visual presentation. It's a show stopper with its projector images on the background wall as well as a dimly lit furniture set with a lamp that Byrne uses as a prop and eventually dances with in his oversized suit, thanks to some great on stage puppetry inspired by both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. "This Must Be the Place" does justice to an already great album, letting everyone see just how in control of their artistic vision the Talking Heads were. Nonetheless, many saw Speaking in Tongues as an inferior disc after such a surefire classic with Remain in Light. Ok, I tend to agree but not with similarly curt tough love toward this 1983 return of the Heads from a break. You see, Speaking in Tongues is its own beast, an opposite field adventure that widened the Heads' appeal while also showing that as a dance pop outfit, they could still be cool and on the fringes of normality in the rock world. Plus, who can resist "Burning Down the House," I mean, honestly now? The Heads would revert back to their traditional guitar-bass-drums by the time their next LP was to roll around, but that would be the last gasp of their greatness unfortunately. Speaking in Tongues is the place for anyone to start if they are wary of disliking the Talking Heads abject weirdness and want to know if the group really was ever good at crafting party time pop. That answer lies on this album with a resounding yes.

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