Friday, August 14, 2009

My Greatest Albums List: Part 5, 160-51

160. Fresh-Sly & the Family Stone (1973): Sly wasn't exactly fresh off his last album when this one dropped in June of '73. Then again, it wasn't quite as long a wait as the one between the monumental Stand! and the drugged out masterpiece of demonic funk There's a Riot Going on (Fresh ending an 18-month gap, There's a Riot ending a waiting period of 29 months- unusually long intervals between LPs for the time). Sly and the Family Stone's roots came from the Stewarts, a Texas-originated religious family consisting of musicians including Sylvester ("Sly"), Rosemary ("Rosie"), Frederick ("Freddie") and latter day Family Stone member Vaetta ("Vet"). Sylvester Stewart was a proficient musician at a young age but first found luck as a radio deejay in his hometown of San Francisco in the mid-60s, even getting into producing local names on the rise- he's the man behind the Beau Brummels' "Laugh Laugh," a top 5 hit in the fall of 1964. In 1966, he formed the band that would eventually make him a household name, albeit with the altered surname of Stone. Along with his siblings Rosie on keyboards and Freddie on lead guitar, Sly and the Family Stone were one of the most important bands not just in soul music but any genre of the era. Their compositions and their defining performance at Woodstock made them signposts of the Flower Power generation, though the influence spreads much further and doesn't deserve to be pigeonholed as such a memento of the Baby Boomer generation. Hip-hoppers and DJ's owe a great deal to Sly and company as well. Meanwhile, Sly could alternate between practically any instrument and was the virtual bandleader and main vocalist. Larry Graham provided the distinct baritone vocals for the band as well as bass, becoming a forerunner of the slap technique. The band was interracial, including white members in saxophonist Jerry Martini and drummer Gregg Errico. Meanwhile, the boisterous "singer" (more of an ad-libbing shouter, hear her proclaim "Get on up and dance to the music!" on their hit "Dance to the Music") and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson rounded out the septet. 

Their early releases hinted at a unique West Coast adaptation of soul, fusing some rock elements and social messaging with the gospel and grit and giving major artistic credit to shaping what became known as funk. For a while, the band saw all the good and all the promise in people, a characteristic Hippie-minded outlook. But otherwise, A Whole New Thing (1967), Dance to the Music and Life (both 1968) were just the template for what became the truest cutting edge band in R&B, one that changed all the rules while inspiring hope and joy in young Americans of every creed and/or colour. Sly & the Family Stone's commercial fortunes were modest other than a couple top 40 hits, that is until 1969 and the uniting "We're all the same" #1 single "Everyday People." Along with its music praising B-side "Sing a Simple Song," it would be included shortly after on their fourth album in just under a full two years, Stand! (we'll get to that later). With tremendous cuts such as "I Want to Take You Higher," "Stand!" and "You Can Make it if You Try" Sly & the Family Stone expounded upon their positive affirmations on life, music and happiness. But the negativity they saw, which even when it was presented on their first three LPs seemed cheerful and sunny, became channeled into a simmering undercurrent. The topically controversial "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" (with the opposite refrain "Don't call me whitey, nigger" being two of the four lines in the entire tune) showed that the racial chaos of America was on the minds of the band members, specifically Sly. After their show-stopping gig at Woodstock came the neo doo-wop hit "Hot Fun in the Summertime" while December 1969 delivered a classic A and B side with the proto-funk "Thank You Falletinme Be Micelf Again" and the "Up with People" styled "Everybody is a Star." But after a second #1 with "Thank You," Sly and the Family Stone went quiet for well over a year-and-a-half, leaving their label Epic Records in a tizzy and forcing the release of their absolutely perfect Greatest Hits compilation late in 1970. 

After settling into L.A., drugs and ego began tearing at the group, particularly with Sly becoming increasingly reliant on cocaine. This made him constantly unpredictable, suspicious and paranoid, hiring his own personal bodyguards and running his operations like some sort of mini-mob. This, coupled with the protestations from Black Panther Party members for him to ditch the white management and members, turned Sly's music militant. He reflected this in a gloriously wasted excess of funk that was thick with weary anger and sounded, excuse the pun, completely stoned. But this worked in the short term very well. Taking endless months in the studio, often stepping in as controlling member in the band to re-record or overdub other people's parts, Sly changed the modus operandi of the group. Frustrated, Gregg Errico dropped out in 1971, annoyed that Sly was becoming like an eccentric, crackpot dictator even in dealing with his bandmates. The constant overdubbing, as well as the advent of one of the first drum machines ever captured on record, gave the eventual product There's a Riot Goin' on one of the most unique sounds of any album. Heavily compressed, high on tape hiss and low on treble due to the many overdubs, it was a record that sounded like it had been recorded in a makeshift home studio at the bottom of a pool. There is hardly anything ringing or fluid about the instrumentation either, most of it is staccato, muted and clipped judiciously compared with what Sly had generated previously. The lingering aura of cocaine and the violent breakdown of the 60s dream is all over There's a Riot and the sinewy, bubbling broil of funk rhythms and gumbo R&B sets the timbre. You'll read more later on but suffice to say, There's a Riot is a masterpiece and was lauded as such upon release, though only by a few wise critics. Quite a few hardened critics couldn't understand Sly & the Family Stone's transformation. 

Undoubtedly, taking nearly two years to resolve the anticipation after Stand! gave room for a lot of contemplation and souring on the old ideals. Sly openly questioned the old euphemisms and declared that the world view heard from 1967-69 by him and his mates was the unrealistic one. Singing of drugs, ghettos, racism, poverty and injustice, Sly asserted this was what he should have been writing about but that now he was talking about the real world in all its ugly, naked truths. Scanning the lyrics and the song titles can do enough convincing, though the proof is in the pudding. It's one thing to read or hear gossip about the hopelessness around the album, it's another to finally hear it captured on tape. Titles like "Africa Talks to You 'The Asphalt Jungle'," "Spaced Cowboy," "Luv N' Haight" and "Thank You For Talking to Me Africa" (an extended, slowed down jam version of "Than You for Falletinme" in fact) hint at the artistically riveting junkie malaise going on but they sound even stranger than first indications. My first listen to the LP was one of "Wow, this just drags on and never livens up much, does it? So why is it hailed so strongly?" Repeated listens eventually opened my brain up to what a supernaturally genuis thing Sly had pieced together. Even the odd glimpses into joy or simple pleasures are wracked with a truly frightening coat of paint- "Runnin' Away," "(You Caught Me) Smilin'," and "Just Like a Baby" make you smile, but still leave that uneasy feeling and even "Family Affair," a song dedicated to the bond of a family and its trials and tribulations, sweats and drips with some kind of drugged out, child-like bewilderment (just give a listen to how Sly delivers his vocals on the track). After this, the group didn't heal any better as Sly's cocaine addiction undermined things over the next 3 years of decreasing success. 1973's Fresh was a less fearsome, poisonous view of social matters, though it contained the same funk innovations. It was also the last great record Sly would ever cut (although he is still alive today at 65, over his drug problems but generally avoiding the limelight- you never know!). 

The clashing of wills and personalities ended up with Larry Graham quitting the band in 1972 under a scary scenario- after being roughed up along with some of his pals by Sly's bodyguards when they heard a rumour that Graham had hired a hitman to kill Sly. He would found the moderately successful group Graham Central Station while 19-year old Rustee Allen took his place in the Family Stone. With Andy Newmark now the drummer too, Sly was less intrusive and pessimistic on Fresh, but no less fucked up let's put it. There's more of an apparent gospel feel to the album, less of the druggy detachment that was both a strength and detraction from There's a Riot. Fresh definitely influenced funk directly to an even further degree than its predecessor, with traces of its music showing up not long after in George Clinton's P-Funk Empire, James Brown, Bobby Womack (a confidante and fellow cokehead buddy for Sly), Wild Cherryz (they of "Play That Funky Music White Boy" fame) and eventually Prince. It's also a much sexier, glamourous alternative to the oppressively hazy, nihilistic There's a RiotThere's a Riot's cover featured an iconic, or anti-iconic you could argue, image of an American flag altered to include bigger, differently designed stars on its banner and quite fewer of them as well. A sort of "Here's the real America" statement, done without defacing the flag and offending millions. The cover to Fresh would endure even greater, thanks to its (doctored to make it black-and-white) unforgettable image of a large-afroed, bare chested Sly delivering a karate kick across the lens in funky action hero style with deadly heeled boots on his clodhoppers. The graphics on the title and the artist name do have some colour, making it a minimalist poster presentation for the ages. Off the hop is "In Time," a nasty, menacingly grooving track at first, with some dark changes led by a weird, warped guitar riff that's darkly irresistible.

The rhythm laid underneath is that African jungle groove of funky drums and Sly's ever cherished drum machine. But it eventually settles into a laid back happening with peppy horns and Sly's vocals at their most impassioned. "If You Want Me to Stay" was the only big hit from the LP, scratching into the top 20 with one of the baddest bad lines of the 70s, courtesy of newcomer Rustee Allen. Sly provides all guitars and keyboards quite well. At one point, in his falsetto Sly gets all jazz on us and scats alongside his bluesy piano trills. It's a novel relationship song that combines the clear-headed pre-70s Sly with the brooding Sly of recent. "Let Me Have it All" brings back the female backup singers but isn't too much more than an ordinary soul vamp. The sexed-up "Frisky," another single from Fresh, is a jazz-funk event that may have had Herbie Hancock paying good attention. Sly gives the rundown of his vocal timbre, alternating from growl to soulful moan to breathy croon, while Jerry Martini steps out with a compliment of sax solo lines. "Thankful n' Thoughtful" is a routine funk exploration, notable for some of the more interweaving horn lines on the album while Sly stretches out the average melodies out with his vocal expertise. And once again, a tune about appreciation and mutual respect like the old Sly Stone, instead of a bizarre (albeit amazing) request for Africa to talk to him or to go exploring outer space. The drugs must've been less powerful this time around! On the vinyl release as it was originally intended, "Skin I'm in" begins side 2 and does it with a rush of ecstasy and excellence. Awash in the drum machine is the intro, the beats of the machine rippling like water drops echo in a cave. Then comes electric piano twiddling that would make the aforementioned Hancock proud before the horn arrangement and drums arrive in all at once. 

It's a return to Sly's positive affirming messages, though the music isn't all too jubilant and uplifting even if it is a busy, boogieing showcase. Sly uses "Skin I'm in" to announce there are no regrets and that he's proud to be black, though he wisely avoids strong, pro-Black Panther language that would alienate white folks. Vocally, it's the coup de grace of the album for Sly as his double-tracked vocals form a duet that often finds him screaming with ecstasy like a soul giant and flying his falsetto to the plateau of his impressive range. It also has the best horn arrangement of any track here, perhaps of any Sly Stone track. "I Don't Know (Satisfaction)" shows Sly's innately wonderful handling of funk that doesn't even require ore than a one or two chord vamp. With the song after that, he once again gives joyful advice to listeners, following up on the band's 1968 hit "Dance to the Music" (a refrain sung out by his women backing singers) by recommending they "Keep on Dancin'." Up-tempo, catchy dance soul is even tackled, with a mild degree of proficiency, by "If it Were Left up to Me," featuring his other younger sister Vet Stone- now a newer member to the ensemble alongside Allen, Newmark and reeds player Pat Rizzo- sharing lead vocals. Where Sly confirms the genius of his prime and the overall quality of this LP comes on "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)." It's a cover of a well-known standard, first popularized by Doris Day in the 1954 Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much. This version strips away all the "tra-la-la" hoopla and buttoned-down Middle America popular whimsy of previous versions to give a gospel charged reading that's one of the more oddly effective covers of all time. Vocally, Sly adds the preaching, gritty opposite to his sister's verse lines, sung in a peaceful, soothing manner. Without horns, "Que Sera, Sera" is led by the church-infused organ of Sly's as well as the angelic touches of electric piano. 

But not to get too fancy, there are some tasty wah-wah guitar licks thrown in and the keyboards often go into bluesy fills themselves. But it's not this moving rendition that gets to close it out, as Sly opted for the dry, haughty funk of "Babies Makin' Babies" instead. That unconventional trick takes listeners by surprise a bit, and to me it was a neat way of ending Fresh unexpectedly and reminding us that this album's shot out of left field was indeed "Que Sera, Sera" while a track like "Babies Makin' Babies" is what it's all about. Sly followed Fresh by trying to keep in touch with the changes in R&B that he was largely responsible for ushering in, stepping back into his early days a bit to bring more pop and light-hearted moods for 1974's Small Talk. It made Sly sound a lot more loving, care-free, human and content, bringing back strings to his recordings and ditching the pulsating, eerie drum machines. But it was a mirage for a career that was now beginning a downward slide. Small Talk can't be knocked for its infectious, summertime enthusiasm but its a set of mediocre, unrealized compositions except for the final Sly top 40 hit "Time for Livin'," "Say You Will" and "Loose Booty." Here was the downside of his drug-fueled creative process: He had lost the ability to write a pop hook classic, perhaps because it was a while since he'd done a tune like "Everybody is a Star" or "Hot Fun" but also likely because his creative juices were being sapped by cocaine. For live gigs, Sly was becoming increasingly unreliable and promoters became leery of booking him. A publicity stunt in 1974 at Madison Square Garden saw him officially enter that marriage on stage, attracting a larger crowd than normal. By 1975, record sales were at their weakest for the group since their inception and concert dates weren't drawing the same crowds. This caused the breakup of the Family Stone in 1975, though Sly would not let the name die after just one album as a solo artist. Dance-geared soul from Philly and cosmic, glam funk had taken over and soon disco would wipe all that away too. 

Sly had lost his drawing power and Sly had followed Fresh with underwhelming records anyway. 1975's I Get High on You, despite its cooking title track, was an attempt to stay, excuse the pun, fresh that came up short and Sly issued a few more albums with a reformed Family Stone- only original member being Cynthia Robinson unfortunately. It was a decent release, an improvement over Small Talk, but not much better than, say, Life or A Whole New Thing. After plenty of failed attempts to get his career kick started, Sly proved he wasn't over his drug usage when in 1987 he was caught by police with cocaine on him and imprisoned for a couple years. After getting out, Sly has kept a very low profile and rarely made appearances or recordings to give to the world. His 80s slump is a sad fact considering he could've been huge in that decade. After all, hip-hop came along sampling his work and writing raps based on a lot of what Sly had preached in his heyday. It did alright stuff for George Clinton but clearly Sly was another breed of funkmeister altogether, doing things his own way. He didn't need to stay in the public spotlight to stay a legend and by then preferred to be out of it. Today he makes recordings a his home and generally finds most of his pleasure in driving around on motorcycles. Once in a while he has been known to show up with a modern day version of the Family Stone when they're on tour, plus who could forget his "Here now, Gone in a Flash" appearance at the 2007 Grammys' all-star "tribute"to the pioneers of funk, sporting a blonde mohawk? One thing that'll never change about Sly's oeuvre: Fresh is his primest slice of funk, offering up his most dirty, rump-shaking masterpiece even if it isn't his most all-round accomplished masterpiece. Hey, getting to #160 is no small feat though. With different promotion of his legend and a zeal to be out in the public eye, Sly Stone would enjoy the same worship level of a James Brown and could hold esteem with the newer guard in a way Michael Jackson does (Sly's worst crime was being a druggie but he never died from his problems like MJ and never flirted with borderline sexual deviancy... that we are aware of, har har...). But his position is fitting and for those who know more than just his role to the 60s Woodstock generation, Sly was, in ways, both musically and fashion-wise like the original Prince, the original P-Funk and the original Tupac Shakur. All with an aura of goofy fashion sense, decadence and charisma that few have ever matched or surpassed.

159. Workingman's Dead-The Grateful Dead (1970): Ok, you hear that artist name and I know what immediately comes to mind- dropping acid, endless jamming, experimentation, patchouli, marijuana and idealistic, communal living. Plus many other facets of the hippie life that are either stereotypical or truthful or even both. But the Grateful Dead- formed in 1965 and reportedly named after a chapter in the Funk & Wagnalls Folklore Dictionary- were more than that, even if 40 minute jams aren't your cup o' tea. They had chops and an understanding of Americana equal to that of Dylan or the Band, but they did it in their own pro-drug, spacey way that tapped into the counterculture so well, it spawned a subset of it called the Deadheads, a legion of fans indebted to the group and willing to follow them anywhere and everywhere. Their unwitting leader, Jerry Garcia, provided the strongest musical ability of anyone, despite not having the most accomplished voice (not that his nasal, countrified drawl was worse than other San Francisco area acts). He had been bred on bluegrass and started on banjo before moving on to become one of the better guitarists of his era, and one of the most underrated frankly. The first incarnation of the group took shape in 1964-65, a jug band of sorts known as the Warlocks. Garcia was joined by classically trained Phil Lesh on bass- at 24 by then, the oldest member by two years over Garcia- as well as rhythm guitarist Bob Weir (just barely 17 at the time), drummer Bill Kreutzmann (only 18 himself) and 19-year old blues-trained keyboardist Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan. The name change arrived in 1965 as the band consciously decided to move toward electric instruments in light of the British Invasion and the so-called folk-rock explosion of that year.

Soon the Grateful Dead became immersed in the emerging subculture of San Francisco, participating in "freak out" shows where LSD testing was conducted, at least before the drug was outlawed by the government in the fall of '65. With a melting pot of sounds, they created their own- as promoter and manager Bill Graham put it "They are not the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do." Robert Hunter became a friend and confidante of the group, becoming the resident lyricist despite not playing on any of the records. They also added 25-year old Mickey Hart in 1968 as a second percussionist, thus making them the first band to popularize the use of two drummers (which is either a regrettable occurrence or a sweet, ahead-of-the-curve idea, depending on your standpoint toward an excess of bragging via instrumental prowess). Warner Bros. Records took a liking to the band and their local popularity and signed them to capitalize on the edgy, underground hipster credit being accrued by labels for taking a chance on the new "psychedelia" sound (a diaspora including numerous subgenres like acid rock, space rock, raga rock and classical rock). Nonetheless, the Dead's first two studio albums failed to capture the energy, spontaneity and fresh, on-the-go creativity of their live shows. The Grateful Dead was a modest debut in 1967, a disappointment in light of all the other vital rock made that year and 1968's Anthem of the Sun stalled along the same path. In 1969, a breakthrough was made with Aoxomoxoa, an embrace of their country bliss and then their first of many live releases- though never topped- arrived in the form of the Live/Dead (which I'll cover not too long after this one). But the Dead stripped down their music from the ringing electric guitar crunch of their early recordings for Workingman's Dead, which came out in June of 1970. 

In the place of trippy psychedelia and acid-fried weirdness was a homier, gentler Grateful Dead that improved on the bouncy Aoxomoxoa and would, as it turn out due to their erratic output of the next 20 years, be their creative peak in the studio. Lovely harmonies and acoustic guitar jug band fun was the new advent for the Dead on this album, best exemplified by track #1, "Uncle John's Band." The philosophical, humanity nature of Robert Hunter's words can be seen as a reflection on Americana and where it had taken us by 1970, a time when many in the counterculture felt the world was on the verge of revolution and change that, if it didn't take shape soon, would take a back seat again. "Uncle John's Band" sounds like Crosby, Stills and Nash with a little bit more balls to put forth. There's not really a backbeat, just zesty Latin percussion including claves. Garcia's vocals are warmer than ever before and the harmonies would certainly have the CSN(and Y) supergroup shaking in their fancy store bought boots. "High Time" is a soulful sort of country ballad, not unlike a Flying Burrito Bros. tune or the Rolling Stones in their Beggar's Banquet mode of backwoods preaching. "Dire Wolf" is much deeper into the country mud, Garcia adding a hurting yelp into his vocals while proficiently adding licks on pedal steel guitar Nashville, eat your heart out (it must have been a strange thing for those buttoned-down country bigwigs to see how even a few scraggly, bearded longhairs from out West could play authentic C&W honky-tonk, completely ignorant of the glossy, pop oriented "Nashville Sound" or even a bit independent from the renegade "Bakersfield Sound" too). Jug band blues, again light on the drums and more of a communally spirited affair with handclaps, is done with sparkling fury on "New Speedway Boogie" while the rockabilly, train-chugging rock of the 50s is given a harmony-laced, jazzy spin by the Dead on "Cumberland Blues."

A lonely, barrelhouse sort of blues, but done on acoustic instruments, makes "Black Peter" another stellar showing. "Easy Wind," with Bob Weir's R&B vocalizing, is closer to the previous Dead rockers, combining the tough exterior of Memphis soul with the dark overtones of the blues. It's a solid reminder of how the Dead could sizzle with the instruments plugged in as well. A true hippie rock classic, and Grateful Dead standard, is the eighth and final cut from Workingman's Dead. I talk of "Casey Jones," a country ditty that makes the idea of a high train engineer crashing his train somehow sound cool and goofy. The story details how the accident goes down, with the chorus of "Driving that train/High on cocaine/Casey Jones you'd better, watch your speed" hinting at what calamity is in store. Train disaster saga aside, "Casey Jones" is a toe-tapping anthem that, alongside "Uncle John's Band," (which was one of a few singles of the Dead that cracked the Hot 100 chart) got radio exposure outside of the AOR (Album Oriented Radio) afficionados tuning in on the FM dial. The Woodstock crowd already had a soft spot for the Dead but they finally broke the bank for Warner Bros. with Workingman's Dead. The end of 1970 brought a minor gem with American Beauty, a longer record that contained more noteworthy cuts but wasn't quite as consistent all the way through. Still, the Grateful Dead looked to be heading into their prime but followed their two 1970 standouts with three straight live releases (Grateful Dead, Europe '72 and Wake of the Flood). Not returning with a studio album until 1973 was no doubt held up and made more ardous by Mickey Hart leaving (he came back in 1974) and "Pig Pen" degenerating into health problems because of his alcoholism. This caused a bout of billary cirrhosis, ushering in Keith Godchaux as new keyboardist- he who later brought in his wife Donna as a backup singer (after leaving, Godchaux died in a motor vehicle collision in 1980 which continued the disturbing trend of dead Dead keyboard players- a tradition continued by Brett Mydland's drug overdose death in 1990 and his successor Vince Welnick committing suicide in 2006. Oft contributor Bruce Hornsby has never been an official member, and for that he should be thankful!). 

"Pig Pen" would be in and out of good health but died of a gastrointestinal hemmorage in March 1973, aged just 27. The Grateful Dead stuck together through death and down time, including a 1980s bottoming out that saw them go between 1980 and 1987 without bothering to put out a studio record (and in 1987 they returned and struck a top 10 hit with "Touch of Grey," a life ruminating piece by Garcia inspired by his diabetic coma in 1986 that nearly killed him). Their critical reputation had suffered by the time of the 80s but "Touch of Grey" and In the Dark in general saw a revision and repopularizing of their work. All that trauma was survived but the Grateful Dead could not, in name at least, overcome Jerry Garcia's 1995 death from heart disease, brought on by years of struggling with drug addictions and said diabetes. Various touring configurations- first the Other Ones and then the Dead- have soldiered on over the years but the memory of the Grateful Dead is inextricably linked to Garcia. His name is kept preserved and alive by baby boomers alike, not to mention a popular Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavour! The Grateful Dead have also endured as a cultural torchbearer of their time, not just a musical one. Despite the dearth of middle-aged to white-haired fans flocking to see them, there have always been younger fans arriving in squadrons to their shows to experience the lifestyle of a hippie from a generation(s) before them. The Dead were always an engaging, revelatory act to see in concert, but they often didn't live up those results (who could? Even the legendary Who's albums couldn't replicate the spectacle of their live shows and it took Live at Leeds to perfectly capture them at their peak and prime in 1970). However, their golden trio of Aoxomoxoa, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty provided a good chunk of their classics. I opted to go with Workingman's Dead because it presented them at their very best and most natural, without the grandeur of their electric jam style, hence its inclusion over the other two. And since they really never excelled tremendously in the studio format, of course a live record is the best way to sum up their jamming style with mega-watt rock amps and equipment alike. But fear not, I'll be getting to that eventually.

158. Third/Sister Lovers-Big Star (recorded 1974, released 1978): If any one album has ever sounded like a suicide note, if ever one album has struck people as depressed and hopeless, if ever one album has been a twisted admission of defeat, this final album of Big Star's 70s trilogy of glory is it. The background on Big Star is a messy, unfortunate tale that produced splendid "power pop" when rock was becoming a serious, bloated affair that forgot its past. Between the Beatles and the Ramones, rock music just became less about fun and more about high falutin' art snobbery. While groups like Mott the Hoople kept the torch burning, there were scant few others that just made damn good pop music. Sure, the Rapsberries played an Ohio adaptation of what became known as power pop, but had a few shots in the dark and were nothing much else to write home about (and any band that had schlockster Eric Carmen couldn't have been great). Big Star was a very obscure band in its time, and though it still is, it's also revered as a great influence on 80s alternative rock. The band formed in Memphis, not known as a hothouse for developing rock talents, in 1971. It was fronted by Alex Chilton, 21 years old yet also a veteran of 5 years in the business, and 23-year old Chris Bell, an aspiring singer-songwriter in the area. Chilton had defied his age with a manly, soulful husk of a voice fronting the Box Tops, a top 40 AM radio sensation that still gets heavy rotation on oldies radio mainly with their 1967 #1 hit "The Letter," recorded when Chilton was still just sixteen. Combining top 40 sounds such as vocal choruses and strings, the Box Tops at their core had a knack for light Memphis soul, with organ, funky bass and tight drumming. But to polish them off for radio, strings and jazzy horns were often overdubbed and raised in the mix. 

Marketed as a teenybopper band by management, the Box Tops line-up began to dramatically change until by 1969 Chilton was practically the only remaining member from what had been a high school band that made it big locally and then broke nationally. With radio-friendly, yet still delightfully catchy hits like "Neon Rainbow," "Cry Like a Baby," "Soul Deep" and "I Met Her in Church," they could be easily taken as lightweights but few could look past the commanding presence of Chilton. Their music was inoffensive but durable pop, occasionally of stirring quality. When the group parted ways in 1970, Chilton wanted to prove he could also pen great pop tunes himself (most of the Box Tops material was written by outsiders and they were produced by famed songwriting team Dan Penn and Chips Moman). Chilton had gone through school adoring British groups and found a kindred spirit in Bell. Added to back the budding writers were bassist Andy Hummell and drummer Jody Stephens. That Anglofication of Chilton's music took many by surprise upon the release of #1 Record, their 1972 debut. Here he was, older and a bit more mature but sounding more youthful than ever, tossing away the gritty soul voice for an angstful, Lennon-esque drawl. #1 Record was such an unfitting title, you see, because sales were downright terrible. Big Star had music worthy of top 40 radio but could only attract local interest and signed up with Ardent, a rock-geared label in Memphis distributed by Stax Records. Stax was undergoing hard times financially after its 1968 split from Atlantic Records, who was its parent company in its glory days of churning out soul giants alike. Ardent had poor distribution and Big Star's record, if it sold at all, went by word of mouth. 

A great rock/pop album was buried, disenfranchising its members, especially Bell who quit during the making of the followup. The followup saw Chilton make an even better album without Bell, 1973's Radio City (you'll see it later on in my top 200). Chilton turned the optimistic vibes and cheerfulness of the first one into disarrayed, jaded, quasi-psychedelic garage rock. It was a stupendous sophomore record but alas, it also failed and Hummell quit too. This brought about the dreaded third effort in 1974 but with Stax falling into bankruptcy, there was uncertainty if the record could even see the light of day. So Chilton composed an album that sounds like he knew that fact himself and that this band of his was doomed, now just himself and Stephens augmented by session musicians. With the recently departed Jim Dickinson producing instead of Ardent founder John Fry, Chilton looked to further explore the Southern soul side of Big Star but also touched upon a totally demented, helpless version of what Big Star had started out as. The album was worked on through 1974 and the attitude around the music of Big Star had become soured, defeatist and yet there was gorgeous redemption in the music. Chilton styled himself as a sort of Lou Reed underground figure with very avant-garde tendencies, sometimes bringing in soulful female backup singers to jar against the weary but furious music. As well, he let players go free to instill dissonance as acceptable, namely with the jagged piano bits- an effect not unlike the psychotic bashing of the piano by Mike Garson on Bowie's "Aladdin Sane," released just a year prior to Third's gestation. The mellower, quieter songs were piano or acoustic guitar based with string chamber quartets brought in, a classical element that recalled Michael Browne of the Left Banke, Nick Drake or Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, only way more forlorn and lost in frustration. 

One could even find Drake, a clinically depressed introvert who eventually, it is believed, committed suicide, a more bright, affable fellow than Chilton here. Yet while Chilton never arrived on a collision course with doom personally, his career became a series of careless, ambivalently conceived albums with foggy, lo-fi production and slapdash retro rocking until he made a real go of clarity once more in the mid-80s. Meanwhile, Third is rife with compositions that sound ready to slit their wrists one second then devote fully to the cosmsos the next. Despite its uncommercial leanings, the album in the works was perhaps Chilton's most accomplished yet because it challenged the listener, pushed the boundaries of pop and tapped into the most disturbing side of a career in rock: The unsuccessful, unrewarding side. Whereas #1 Record got screwed by bad distribution, then Columbia stepping in to distribute Stax and neglecting to print more copies and removing existing ones, Third never even made it to the shelves. Radio City had been given the shaft when Columbia refused to spend to widely promote and ship albums by the smaller labels they distributed for. Columbia then deemed Third/Sister Lovers (the alternate title came about because Stephens and Chilton were dating sisters at the time) an uncommercial downer and it was scrapped, effectively killing Big Star for good. In various configurations it has appeared in bootleg form, yet 1992's Rykodisc version is definitive since it opts for the running order that Chilton originally wanted, while tossing in 4 bonus tracks. 1978 saw the unfinished Third/Sister Lovers released for the first time, earning rave reviews from most, though a select group of critics were puzzled and perturbed by the incomplete, patchwork madness that pervades throughout the record. 

To this reviewer, that loopy anarchism is one of Third's undeniably key emotional facets. Based on just melodies and chords alone, this could have easily been another feel-good, 60s good vibe album like #1 Record and with some tight, cohesive arrangements it could've been another Radio City. Instead, it's wholly strange and altogether a distinct creation, echoing the crumbling of a once optimistic project now torpedoed by music business bad luck and bullshit. Nothing on #1 Record could prepare for this one and on Radio City there are just signs of the introspection increasing, such as on "O My Soul," "You Get What You Deserve" and "Morpha Too." Third was likely not a joyous recording process nor is it free of the same baggage that the entire history of Big Star carries for its survivors today (Hummell quit the band and music in 1973 while Bell died in a single-vehicle car crash in 1978 after a roller coaster ride where he recorded some solo albums, struggled with drugs and depression and his homosexuality, then found Christianity before taking a job in his father's Seattle-area restaurant business before his fatal collision). Their sad story is one of recording biz politics, strain, frustration, unrealized goals and hard luck that few bands could claim to empathize with... except Lynyrd Skynyrd or Badfinger, whose tragedy surpassed almost any band ever (for those of you unaware, they were Beatle proteges on Apple Records active first and foremost from 1967-75. Noted for hits like "Day After Day" and "No Matter What," Badfinger was done in by crippling bad business deals then they suffered the suicide of their top member Peter Ham in 1975. When a reunion dragged out the same issues, arguments and pressure, Tom Evans committed suicide in 1983). 

In fact, it is perhaps the most miserable period for the careers of Chilton and Stephens yet one that can now be looked back on with a degree of satisfaction and accomplishment, for records like Third inspired as many people to join/create a band as it sold copies (The Velvet Underground syndrome of "Only 1000 people bought each of their albums but all those people went on to start bands of their own."). The Big Star period is one Chilton has never relished talking about or re-living, unless it has benefited him in the pocketbook, hence occasional tours since a 1993 incarnation of the band featuring Chilton backed by members of the Posies was formed. Heck, in between his own weird solo career are often reunion tours for Big Star or the Box Tops. So he draws on his past, correct. But only Alex Chilton has managed to remain so in the modern time while openly acknowledging his past to "hang on to those nostalgia bucks" (a line I'm stealing from a mid-90s edition of Mad Magazine that featured Simon & Garfunkel: Live in Central Park, 1981 as part of a series of CD warning labels Mad would have liked to see). He has managed to maintain indie cred all the while- a curious position for a guy who'll gladly tour state fairs playing oldies with his Box Top pals, playing to crowds who are scarcely aware of his solo oddities or Big Star and vice versa for the crowds who flock to his Big Star shows (now featuring Jody Stephens on the kit again). Now, let's focus on what truly matters: Third/Sister Lovers' music. Its very, very weird, ghostly music that's provocative in its wasted wreck and really the best verb I can use to describe it would be this: Harrowing. To finally sum up all I've been saying, this long lost but recovered album is erratic but incredible, although maybe too indifferent, too recklessly kamikazi for me to put it much higher in the top 200. 

Radio City is still their peak, if you ask me. But on Third, even song titles tend to be disjunct, hinging on gibberish, although one can liken the lead cut "Kizza Me" to those intentionally misspelled, grammatically hellish songs by Slade ("Mama Weer All Crazee Now," "Cum on Feel the Noize" etc.). The lyrics of "Kizza Me" are like random thoughts splattered on a dart board, as if written on cards and shuffled around and chosen out of a bingo roller- like how the Stones apparently wrote their 1972 track "Casino Boogie"). They really set the tone for the incomplete, handmade, almost indecisive flair this album carries. For instance the second verse goes "Curse wild, windy linen/Warm life, so-and-so" before giving way to the song's coda and chorus of "I want to white out/I want to come on out/I want to feel you deep inside/Want to feel you deep insider/Want to feel you/Yeah, kizza me/Lesa, why not?"...... Come again? Ok, it's all clear as mud and rather random but it's very effective within the absolutely mental framework of the song, a blizzard of rolling drums, dissonant piano and far-from-sober vocal hysterics recalling glam rock. Chilton displays none of the yearning, congenial heart of old Big Star, sounding more like a take-no-prisoners, devil-may-care deviant. Devilish also are the aggressively bowed cello and double bass tagged onto the chorus, getting it across early that what the listener is in for is a lot of unexpected utilization of classical. Though the words are sketchy, they're obviously packed with sexual innuendo and lust. This is all great though, don't get me wrong, because "Kizza Me" manages to rise above its unattractiveness and become a rousing, fist-raised opening extravaganza for the LP. Several degrees calmer is "Thank You Friends," that, with its chiming production, fancy female backing singers and Byrds-like majesty, could be confused for a happy song but there's some tinge of bitterness to be uncovered. Chilton sings with conviction of the most elegiac kind. He comes off almost like a man who's glad the worst is behind him but while wiser for it, is also shell-shocked by his experiences. "Thank You Friends" is a great tune, more complete and realized than "Kizza Me," with excellent Beatley chord changes, triumphant strings and although it could have felt right at home on Radio City, is quite proper for Third/Sister Lovers too.

If you find anything rather sad about "Thank You Friends," well you ain't seen nothin' yet. "Big Black Car" is one of those, sounding like a precursor to all that funereal music pioneered by the Velvet Underground post-John Cale. It's a bit reminiscent of J.J. Cale's "Magnolia" only way more isolated, melancholy and defeated. It's unsettling, though quaintly moving stuff. Big Star never managed to convey expressions in their music so perfectly as on this bastard child album, a kind of failed memento that sits collecting dust and age in someone's storage room, only this one got to see the light of day. It's the kind of LP that one cannot usually hope to see from a musician, although not unless you check out Daniel Johnston, the mentally ill pop wizard who has claimed himself to be the Devil incarnate and lives now with his mother and makes lo-fi homemade albums in the basement. Back to a more shiny pop is the stirring "Jesus Christ," which actually sounds to me like a pretty Christmas carol set to guitars and of course the chorus "Jesus christ was born today" fits. One can hear what Paul Westerberg absorbed for his teenage sonatas in the Replacements some decade-plus later. But Chilton fuses together jangly Byrds-type rock, Beatles barocque pop and Phil Spector (traces of said studio genius show up in the booming timpani and sleigh bell percussion support) to create another super track. The album's likeness with the Velvet Underground- as I mentioned a few lines back- is no doubt aided by Chilton including a sheltered, haunting cover of "Femme Fatale," transposing the iciness it conveyed with the Velvets and Nico into a more floating, dreamy atmosphere with the female backup singer taking the chorus harmony of "She's a femme fatale," only providing a cultured touch to the recording by singing it in French ("Elle est une femme fatale") instead. 

On "Femme Fatale," pedal steel guitar- no doubt easily available considering Big Star recorded in Memphis- brings a lonely country vibe, not unlike what Neil Young was doing around the same time with Ben Keith as his pedal steel specialist. Big Star gives their own adaptation of the rock staple of a love song directed to a specific female, with "O, Dana." Not exactly a biting, insistent love song, "O, Dana" is more of a frail, vulnerable effort that lulls along. It's not terribly gripping, but it has a je ne sais quoi about it like so many other of this album's drowsy cuts. Way before quasi-EMO, depressed and sensitive tunesmiths like Elliot Smith and early Bright Eyes' Connor Oberst, or confessional female singer-songwriters of the 90s like Sarah McLachlan or Jewel, there was "Holocaust." It's an emotional shambles, but stays on a down practically the whole way through with Chilton's shaken vocals of "Thank You Friends" put in super slow motion. Chilton's advantage over most others who've ever recorded such work is that he never layers it in self-pity, whiny neuroses or tiresome self-centeredness. A strange, nondescript elegy, "Holocaust" is quiet, sprinkled with distant guitar tone pedals and piano, yet readz off like a suicide note, a kamikazi mission from a disturbed soul. Chilton even recreates psychedelia in his image with the wonderfully trippy "Kangaroo," which explores studio trickery as well as dark chord changes and musique concrete ideas. Melletron is ushered in to provide that very ethereal, sci-fi sound that still kicks the hell out of any synthesizer from the 70s. Chilton was heading toward becoming some sort of mini-Mozart of rock, a Brian Wilson type of figure, albeit one who was performing sabotage on his career with uncompromising music. His defining anguish was not of the brain but of the soul. But he even turned his back on that, though he fell into favour with US new wavers and New York punks thanks to his lo-fi, courageous approach to music in the late 70s. 

The Vivaldi-like classical overtones on "Stroke it Noel" turn what would normally be swift folk-rock into what I'll call an inspired, bonkers Electric Light Orchestra on acid. The cult popularity is this album is quite expected because of its uncommercial, yet totally dedicated, quirks and quarks. And as we go along, Third descends further into the different with "For You," a very Anglophilic song that perfectly captures the kind of Elizabethean, classically-infused rock once tried out by the Beatles (most notably "Eleanor Rigby"), Procul Harum and the Satanic Majesties' Rolling Stones. It also strikes me as an homage to the late 60s Kinks, the Left Banke and David Bowie's pre-glam work. Actually, it's Jody Stephens who wrote the song and he takes the lead vocals with a heavy faux-English accent. "You Can't Have Me" is typical Big Star fare, only with wild, detached vocals and saxophone that you'd think resulted from Ornette Coleman stopping by in the studio- that is to say it's avant-garde, free jazz sort of dissonant, furious playing. "Nighttime" brings in the acoustic guitars, echoey slide guitar and sympathetic strings to create a moving, stirring ballad and it offers a bit more levity and contentment to an album full of harrowed, morose sentiments. "Blue Moon"- not the pop standard written in 1929- is a gorgeous piece of hushed barocque pop that recalls the lucidity of singer-songwriters but the same musical atmosphere as what Neil Young did on "Will to Love," though with better fidelity. "Take Care" sways along with almost no hope offered and though it's a decent song, doesn't stand up to the excellence that comes before it. 

However, once again the string quartet is present on top of a song that would've sounded right at home on their previous albums' mellow acoustic cuts "Give Me Another Chance," "Try Again," "Watch the Sunrise," "I'm in Love with a Girl" and "St 100/6." The Rykodisc version of Third/Sister Lovers tagged on five more seletions and though they don't match the wonder of the original fourteen, they're interesting enough to pass. We get a very low volume, classical piano-styled version of the 1948 song popularized by Nat King Cole, "Nature Boy." There's a rag-tag but very respectable cover of the Kinks' "'Till the End of the Day," easily the most uplifting thing on the entire disc. "Dream Lover," an original tune, is messier than any of the fourteen original cuts, perhaps too messy and tortured to include because it orders on one of the most tormented love odes ever written. "Downs" is one of the more incomplete things here, a demo-like, rough, Latin-tinged number that sounds like amateur night at a Caribbean bar. It's forgettable musically but hard to forget because of its off-hand quirkiness. The nineteenth and final cut is a boozy delivery of the rock n' roll classic "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going on," definitely not one of the more in-synch performances in recorded history. Nothing seems to be together, Chilton seems drunk and the mics aren't working properly but I guess if you want to see just how much of a wreck the sessions could be, try this one. It caps off what is now realized as the official, definitive version of one of rock's truly great lost albums and one of the most original, moving experiences you're going to hear on record.

157. The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1, 2 & 3-Bob Dylan (Material spanning 1961-89, released 1991)Bob Dylan throughout his career, though especially in its most revelatory periods, had been dogged by constant bootlegging. His unreleased works were traded around like kids used to trade Pogs or Pokemon cards (yes I came of age in the 90s if you're curious to know!) with the music eventually being analyzed by hardcore fans and critics, much to the annoyance of Senor Bob. What wasn't as annoying most likely- though obsessive cult fandom over Bob's lyrics and composition has repeatedly been given the backhanded slap in Dylan's occasional interviews over the years- was the adoration many expressed for these bootlegged recordings. While it was mostly his 1960s days that got the attention, he also left a lot of excellent material shelved in the 1970s and even 1980s when he was accused of being washed up and low on creative juices. So Dylan, wising up to the financial and personal satisfaction he could potentially receive, decided to load up his significant backlog of previously vaulted work and package it to the public. This was first given a go with 1975's The Basement Tapes, recordings made with The Band in Dylan's year out of the limelight in 1967. Dylan & The Band chalked up rave reviews and good record sales as a result. Dylan would often pull up old songs to record for new albums or perform in concert, but a taste of his best unreleased work was lacking. 1985's triple LP retrospective Biograph, a 45-track compilation where six of the tracks were previously unheard, attempted to quell the craving of consumers but these uncovered tracks barely skimmed the cream of the crop and for that, non-bootlegging fans would have to wait until 1991 when he began an ongoing series of released, The Bootleg Series, by putting out Volumes 1, 2 and 3 in a triple-CD format. 

Was this first dip into the bootlegs sprawling? Yes. Exorbitant and unnecessary? No sir. This collection went underneath the Dylan mystique to find just how prolific and brilliant a writer he was, culling tracks from a 28-year span (though the 1989 recording was remixed and garnished with overdubs in 1991 before the release), with a heavy emphasis on his early, one-man troubadour days. Case in point, disc 1 covers just a span of only 2 years of work (1961-63) primarily because that's the bulk of what was available in his unreleased oeuvre, though even that didn't cover it all according to Dylanophiles. We start the three-volume, three-disc package in fall 1961 as Dylan had been hanging around New York for a little under a year by that point. Now he had been noticed through his coffee house performances around the city, the majority of which were done in Greenwich Village, and seeing as how folk had recently undergone a boom with acts like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond (famous for discovering and signing acts during his career like Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Dylan and Bruce Springsteen) got him into a contract. Bob went into the studio with a litany of traditional folk and blues to try out, though few original songs of his own. This is demonstrated through his world-weary recordings of "He Was a Friend of Mine," "Man on the Street" and "House Carpenter," all omitted from the final master of his self-titled debut in 1962. From this period, we also hear a "Minnesota Hotel Tape" from November 1961, "Hard Times in New York," and the slave hymn "No More Auction Block," live from at the Gaslight Cafe (a whole CD of recordings from one of his nights there in 1962 was released in 2004, exclusively through Starbuck's Coffee Co. for a while, much to the chagrin of chain record stores).

Bob would pump out a glut of recordings for his second album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Original plans for a late 1962 followup were scrapped as Dylan was unsatisfied with what he'd accumulated. It wasn't until May 1963 that Columbia finally followed up his first record and by then he had grown in leaps and bounds. While a few dozen tracks from the full year of sessions were worthy of release, only 13 made it and there were some questionable inclusions considering what he laid down, although an early pressing of Freewheelin' had an alternate track listing. While there was his kooky humourous side on his self-penned songs "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues," and "Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues," there was his down home, rowdy and fun-loving side with "Quit Your Low Down Ways" (with Dylan's raspy falsetto fully on display), the traditional "Worried Blues" and "Walkin' Down the Line," a traveling saga, a sort of portrayal of the wayward life. He also showed a more serious, wise ability for folk with the stirring "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," the traditional folk tune "Kingsport Town," and "Walls of Red Wing," a song with a political bent, which became Bob's calling card throughout 1963. That becomes obvious through his The Times They Are-a Changin' sessions, which is represented by the piano-based "Paths of Victory"- part of the same session where he plays piano versions of "The Times" and "When the Ship Comes in," both included afterward. Through a couple Carnegie Hall recordings, we get a topical protest song in "Who Killed Davy Moore?" a methaphorical "Who dunnit?" on the tragic death of a boxer. Representing the political tenor of his audiences in particular is an applause reaction to a line where he says Cuba is a place "Where boxing ain't allowed anymore." 

Less severe news is delivered through Dylan's wonderfully hilarious "Talkin' John Birch Society Paranoid Blues," a half-scathing, half-kidding satire on the era of the "Red Scare" when anti-Communism became a sort of social disease, headed by pariahs and uptight sharks from across the political spectrum. On "John Birch," Dylan sings of all the increasingly overzealous ways he- as a Commie hater in character- tried to track down "Them Reds," to varying degrees of silliness as the audience laps up his charm. It's a hilarious little song that expertly captures the mood of a live Dylan show in 1963, certainly less raging and challenging as the 1965 shows he did and less enormously tense than his epochal 1966 shows. Left off the final master of The Times... were two lost gems, Dylan's "Only a Hobo" and the even more prized recording is his traditional adaptation of the riches-to-rags alcoholic tale of agony, "Moonshiner." Disc 1 concludes with a seven minute-plus spoken-word "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," a long, vivid poem by Dylan that he could not find the song to set to. He reads it to a live audience at NYC's Town Cafe and if the listener is like me, they will sit with jaw-dropped astonishment at just how lengthy and vivid the poem is, the words hardly referring to Guthrie when all is said and done. Disc 2 begins with his own "Seven Curses," a tune that heavily borrows from an ancient English folk song that tells a Medieval tale of deceit, crime and punishment. That said, it would have made an unforgettable impact had it been kept for his The Times... in favour of some of the more ordinary cuts. Also prominent and left off that album is "Eternal Circle," and the goofy, botched take "Suze (The Cough Song)." 

Then the music begins to reflect on Dylan in the midst of a flux where he transitioned from the deeply rooted folk and socially conscious lyrics to more personal, introspective, non-political subject matter, even if his music was still using the same solo acoustic presentation. Though later covered by many, Dylan's oft-covered in future "Mama You Been on Mind" from the marathon June 9, 1964 session that produced Another Side of Bob Dylan, was given the axe in another curious decision. Sure Dylan was a bit wasted as the sessions progressed, but here it's not as noticeable as with "My Back Pages" or "I Shall Be Free No. 10." The final shred of the acoustic days come from January 1965 takes of "Farewell, Angelina" and a solo "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Dylan brought in his first electric side band for the sessions for Bringing it All Back Home which gives a startling change from what's been heard previously. Dylan's own "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" would be turned into a hit by Manfred Mann several months later but his own version is a bluesy one with "top 40 hit" written all over it, from the catchy chorus and wispy harmonica to the relationship issues worked out in the lyrics, though in a much more mature, sardonic manner, full of backhanded compliments that only Dylan can pull off. The electrified setup of Dylan's old folk and blues ways was assailed by folk purists as a sellout while rock audiences found it a brave new sound, though they didn't flock in droves and the reception wasn't universally loved until the acid rock era was in full swing. By the 70s, all the artiness and serious creativity achieved by rock was being heaped upon Dylan as if he had been responsible for it all, which he did not want to hear considering vagaries like prog rock and long, endless jamming (a jazz staple but not considered a noble choice for rockers until Dylan began stretching his songs out past 6-7 minutes to as many as elevan- though he did precious little "jamming" to pad it out in reality). 

"Sittin' on a Barbed Wire Fence" is a send-up of the blues in a way, featuring Dylan's comically exaggerated lyrics. But the tough backing group used on Highway 61 Revisited gives the song some bluesy swagger, namely Michael Bloomfield's hot guitar leads. Also from these sessions is Dylan at the tack piano, playing a sort of demo of "Like a Rolling Stone," in an intriguing 3/4 time signature too and an up-tempo rocking version of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," which would turn out to be a slow, honky-tonk sort of blues on the album cut. As Dylan's music became more progressive, original and earth-shattering, the outtake material furthermore consists of high quality music too. While a 1965 solo acoustic version of the song appears on Biograph, this Vol. 2 "I'll Keep it with Mine" contains one with a band supplying support, though in more of a guided manner as Dylan sings at the piano. The take begins with chatter, sporadic contribution and distant vocals from the mic before picking up and ending abruptly, making it a clear rough mix. Also slapdash but immediately drawing of your attention is "She's Your Lover Now," a very worthwhile piece to check out even if it seems half-formulated. Dylan acidly reads off a very wordy set of lyrics that were perhaps some of the strongest putdowns to an anonymous woman (perhaps Joan Baez? Perhaps not) ever heard out of Dylan. The song goes along at a rapid pace, even faster than "Absolutely Sweet Marie," the fastest song off of Dylan's seminal double set Blonde on Blonde, the album that these January 1966 sessions in Nashville contributed to. After this, Dylan suffered a near-fatal motorcycle crash in August 1966 that shelved him from his career for over a year. In this time he would make hours of musical treasures with The Band at their Woodstock, New York cottage ("Big Pink") that he lived nearby of. 

Of the many unreleased tunes from these basement tapes, some were still absent from a Dylan album as of 1991 so we hear the much-anticipated original of "I Shall Be Released," one of Dylan's epochal anthems, a grainy recording yet beautifully captured is the emotional significance and weight of the song while Richard Manuel's falsetto harmonies slice through clear as day. A more laid back, minor treat is "Santa Fe," a kind of country affair with a sing-songy melody that has Dylan somewhat incomprehensibly singing his lyrics. There's even a chorus that seems incomplete, interspersed with "Doo doo doo"'s. This is the point where gaps start to show up in years between the tracks as it's not until 3 years later that we hear something else. Of course, the 1969-70 sessions for Self Portrait and then New Morning were raided on the unforgivable (mercifully not on CD) Dylan, a 1973 album of terrible outtakes released as a cash-in/revenge act by Columbia when Dylan signed with Asylum Records to distribute his albums in 1973-74. Still, a warm and inviting take of "If Not for You" is included, featuring Dylan's friend George Harrison on slide guitar (he who would cover it as well as co-write "I'd Have You Anytime" with Dylan for his excellent Dec. 1970 triple LP solo debut All Things Must Pass). Also, 1971's the dance request "Wallflower" finds its way onto disc 2. It's nothing special but still manages to be a memorable country waltz composition in the midst of a time period (late 1970-early 1974) when Dylan produced a very low amount of new music, possibly due to writer's block or simple malaise. He would do a few new tracks (though songs written during 1967) for his 1971 hits package, a mostly instrumental soundtrack for a movie he appeared in, 1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and a single, "George Jackson," but overall, Dylan seemed lost in the wilderness.

Dylan began a flurry of creativity in the mid-70s starting with his underrated collaboration with The Band, 1974's Planet Waves. From those sessions, only the rather lo-fi recording of the minor countryish love song "Nobody 'Cept You" is represented. This 1967-74 period is skimpy at best but when Dylan's marriage troubles spurred on his most personal, stirring work yet in 1974, he regained his old powers for a spell. In December 1974, Dylan famously recut Blood on the Tracks so a new, better one could hit the market, finding a particularly convincing critique from his younger brother David Zimmerman when he visited Minnesota and was told that the album sounded monotonous and not broken up in mood. Out in his home state, Dylan would re-record a few tracks. Test and promotional copies that featured the original order and setup were scrapped, only leaking out in a handful of bootleg discs. The first edition originally featured only acoustic arrangements with no backing band and all the guitar parts, save a few songs, were tuned to open E, giving the album a sort of one-dimensional chord sound. Dylan re-recorded four tracks with a rhythm section in Minneapolis while the recalled copies became treasured items. Here, they see the light of day again as the alternate, longer versions of "Tangled up in Blue," "Idiot Wind," "If You See Her, Say Hello" (the first track off of Vol. 3) and "Call Letter Blues" (really just a different version of "Meet Me in the Morning") are included, now cast in totally different lights. While it can be debated if the songs hold up better than the Blood on the Tracks versions, I will say that the mix of the arrangements is what makes Blood on the Tracks work. If all the songs were the New York session versions, it would be an unfortunately monotonous experience. But hearing those shelved versions is another thrilling element to this extraordinary boxed set. 

More of the sadness is brought on these versions, except for the released "If You See Her, Say Hello" which is "Call Letter Blues" still features a band and electric guitars and is very similar to "Meet Me in the Morning." Not included is another song that got re-written for Blood on the Tracks, "Up to Me" (which became "Shelter from the Storm") which found its way onto Biograph itself. For the sessions of his next album Desire, Dylan was prolific again, scrapping Biograph's brilliant "Abandoned Love" as well as the shuffling, eased up "Golden Loom," with Emmylou Harris's harmony providing great colour. Less stellar, but certainly more tongue-in-cheek is his song "Catfish," a tribute to New York Yankees baseball pitcher "Catfish" Hunter signing a then-lucrative $1 million contract. It almost seems done on a whim, never intending for it to be a serious contender. The Rolling Thunder Revue tour came out of Desire, a traveling troupe of musicians backing Dylan, an ever growing sideshow as it chugged along for almost a year. Many of the recordings were eventually compiled for a Bootleg Series, Vol. 5. But here there's a glimpse into it with the looping, somewhat busy-sounding "Seven Days," a rather spirited performance with Dylan still hoarsely shouting vocals in a declamatory way, much like he did on all his music in the mid-70s for whatever reason (not complaining though because it was a step up over other periods of singing from Dylan, namely his droning, lazy ramblings from the 80s). There's another gap between recordings as the next inclusion comes from 1979, the sessions for Slow Train Coming, his dedication to his Christian re-birth that created shockwaves for its candid expression of devotion, faith, spirituality but also bitterness, hate, frustration and dogmatic intolerance of all things Dylan caught in his sin-detecting radar. 

That religious transformation left "Ye Shall Be Changed" on the sidelines, and it fails to cover the more bitter side thankfully, being a buoyant, country-rocking pean of Christian faith. A riveting experience of his Christian gospel days comes with "Every Grain of Sand," here in a 1980 publishing demo home recording (or some variation as we get to hear background noises such as a barking dog). Though rough, it's just as touching as the polished studio version that made 1981's sub-par Shot of Love. In fact, 1980-81 found Dylan writing plenty of decent tunes, which makes the double disappointment of 1980's pure gospel devotional Saved and the improvement, but still mediocre, Shot of Love all the more perplexing. Proof of that is in some material that made Biograph ("Caribbean Wind" for instance) as well as this Volume 3's wonderful "Angelina." Less impressive is the bluesy "Need a Woman" (an example of Dylan's 80s fixation with using black female backup singers) and the propulsive, God-praising "You Changed My Life." His sessions for Infidels were much more prosperous, finding Dylan still in a grumpy mode but seemingly shed of his previously all-encompassing religious conviction. With Mark Knopfler back as producer- like with 1979's Slow Train Coming- Dylan has a more rolling blues and country feel to his music, mainly thanks to the guitar virtuosity of Knopfler. But also welcome in Dylan's best studio band since the early 70s are Mick Taylor and rhythm section Sly & Robbie, reggae giants in their own career(s). With the religiosity peeled back, Dylan generated two certified 80s classics with the vitriolic, harangue on corruptness, "Foot of Pride" and the powerful, sparse ballad "Blind Willie McTell." 

The latter song was a curious choice for being kept off Infidels as it is perhaps one of the top 10 songs he wrote post-1974, an imaginative composition where Bob's ragged vocals actually work to good effect and he plays a full, pounding piano part along with delicately picked acoustic guitar from Knopfler. But Dylan's a hard to pin down character and just felt, for whatever reason, that inferior tracks like "Man of Peace" and "License to Kill" should stay and not be sacrificed. Both these songs would have made Infidels a masterful album instead of just the very good one it turned out to be. Infidels' sessions also produced "Something's Got a Hold of My Heart," basically an early version of "Tight Connection to My Heart"- a track off of his 1985 LP Empire Burlesque- with different lyrics. "Tell Me" is a fairly average leftover but the piano-driven spiritual "Lord Protect My Child" is a delightful treasure uncovered for this collection. Dylan recorded a wealth of material from 1984-86 for his next three LPs, though not much of it was very special as he bounced around from producer to producer with a vast amount of session musicians and guests behind weak material from an artist who even in his own mind was judged to be past his prime. A 1985 session featuring members of the E Street Band and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers produced "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky," a track from Empire Burlesque that was quite embarrassingly trendy. As opposed to this bootleg version, the released version was in a minor key, featured the cheesiest of synthesizers, electronic drums and keyboard horns and even a flashy music video to boot. It was all quite indicative of how lost Dylan was in the 80s, as well as major 60s artists in general, even though Empire Burlesque was the 3rd best (of seven) album(s) he did in that decade. However, this version of "When the Night..." is an elastic, barreling rocker that is a rare moment of transcendence from 1977-90 Dylan, a man seemingly devoid of many of the powers he possessed in his heyday and with only a few songs showing he had ever been that essential to start with. 

Dylan's vocals are surprisingly excited, raw and declamatory as the band chugs along with greater and greater authority as the song progresses. Ok, you could say the tempo gets rushed but it's no biggie. Dylan hit writer's block after the mid-80s, especially before 1996, and as of 1989 had gone on the road as often as ever, suffered a severe hand injury, starred in a big screen bomb in 1987 called Hearts of Fire and not really recorded anything substantial since 1986. Daniel Lanois had garnered big sales and praise for people like U2 and Peter Gabriel and seemed destined to do it for Dylan. While Oh Mercy was indeed a return to form, it didn't take him back all the way and Dylan followed it up with the pedestrian Under the Red Sky a year later under the recently magic handed Don Was. The formula of big sidemen and slick production had clicked for Bonnie Raitt but failed Dylan. Needless to say, Oh Mercy seemed like heaven by comparison. One track shelved for Oh Mercy was "Series of Dreams." Touched up with orchestral overdubs of synthesizer among others, "Series of Dreams" was re-done in 1991 for inclusion here. What results is a masterpiece and a wise method for finishing the album. "Series of Dreams" belies its simple chord structure, beefed up by Lanois ethereal production of tribal drums, wavy guitars and grand cymbal crashes. Dylan's vocals are croaky, low and scratchy but being like this and locked into one octave became his style of the 90s. The lyrics are a great mix of imagery and world-weary values. It ends The Bootleg Series, Vol. 3 and the triple-disc set, which is perhaps the best retrospective of an artist's unheard work ever assembled. Its liner notes, photos and essays are required reading too. 

The first three volumes of the fabled Bootleg Series helped redefine Dylan in 1991, a time when he riding a low ebb, at the commencement of a 7-year drought from original recordings and a time when it was tributes not relevancy that dogged his career- witness a 1992 Thirtieth Anniversary gala at NYC's Madison Square Garden thrown by parent company CBS or the 1991 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (after just one statuette up to then, the award was presented in a long, gushing suck-up by Jack Nicholson to a disheveled-looking Dylan, with his curly, floppy hair under a stetson hat and a gaudy purple suit jacket over a black T-shirt. Dylan, perhaps a bit inebriated, accepts the award rather sheepishly and after a few nervous tics and adjustments of his hat manages to say "You know, my father said to me before I left home, he said 'Son...'" After an awkward pause of almost 10 seconds, he stammers his way to saying "My father, he said a lot of things, you know..." which sends the audience into a howl of laughter. Then all of a sudden recalling those words, he mutters "He said 'Son, it is possible for you to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. But if you do, God will see to it that you mend your ways. Thank you." An aloof, hilarious, somewhat incoherent, but definitely memorable speech that was unfortunately marred moments earlier in the show by a horrid, slurred and mumbly version of "Masters of War," dug up in light of the Gulf War raging at the time). On the road to varying reviews, still drinking like a fish and struggling at every turn, he would turn around after this triple-CD set and record two handmade traditional folk cover albums with 1992's Good As I Been to You and 1993's evocative World Gone Wrong. But as for his own work, well it would take a while to get off the ground and since 1997, he seems to understand that waiting at least 3 years will provide a substantial quality of songs in time. That's policy could have made his 80s LPs worth waiting for. Still, we know what gems lurked beneath the surface and this triple-disc offering is uncommonly rich with previously hard to track down gems.

156. Off the Wall-Michael Jackson (1979): By age 21, Michael Jackson was willing to start up his solo career again. Already a wealthy young man thanks to success with his brothers in the Jackson 5, he had been maturing as a singer and performer ever since first stepping on stage at age 5. But the early fame at Motown had dissipated when the hits began drying up. By 1975, the Jackson 5 longed to have control over their own material and write their own material too. Motown balked so they high-tailed it for Epic records in 1976. Now they were known as the Jacksons, with youngest brother Randy  in the fold because Jermaine stayed at Motown, sticking with his then father-in-law Berry Gordy. After a few albums that regained the Jacksons commercial strength, Michael teamed up with production legend Quincy Jones and kicked off a phenomenally successful career as "the King of Pop." Looking to make an appealing, fun album of unforgettable grooves that could cut across all barriers, Michael showed off his new confidence as a singer by introducing his signature crooning, attitude, grunts, whoops, hiccups and falsetto. Listening to what became Off the Wall managed to convince even some of the biggest doubters- ones that found his talent undeniable but his output a glut of teen idol shlock closer to Donny Osmond than to Stevie Wonder- that Michael was for real. He proved had supernatural ability coursing through his veins and reverberating through his bones, plus the pull and drive to command songwriters of the highest order. Off the Wall was a definite welcome change from the teen idol records he'd cut at Motown in his adolescence. 

Signaling the arrival of a grown up R&B artist, it was a great smash hit though not quite as huge as future releases would be and there were good reasons for that. Amidst all the adoration and press, going through to the heart of the music proves it's an extremely amiable stew of prime disco, funk, soft jazz and teary ballads. Quincy Jones's sure-handed production and the absolute best of the best of L.A. session musicians means quality performance is not in question. The most purely disco track is the opener, Jackson's self-penned "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough," a percussive, rhythmically powerful energy booster that manages to have hard rock guitar, horns and strings co-exist easily. Brother Randy, on percussion, is one of several musicians on the #1 smash. Michael's double tracked falsetto vocals are seamless and almost effortlessly done. It's the ultimate dance floor boogie for 1979 and it topped both the pop and R&B charts of course. Michael delivers a spoken word intro above just a shuffling percussive rhythm-featuring cowbell- and a quietly plucked funky bass groove. Speaking in his feminine voice that would make girls swoon but draw parodies from most everywhere else, he talks of "the force," and no it isn't some Jedi teaching but rather Michael letting his feelings about music flow forth. And he readily admits that when that force kicks in, it makes him want to whoop with joy. So he does, right as the drums kick in and the oscillating strings too. It's one of those musical dynamics and ideas that can get an album going in breathtaking fashion and "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" is only heightened by its reserved opening that builds the drama of cutting a rug for fun.

More laid back would be another of the top 10 hits, "Rock with You," a more sultry, midnight hour groove that makes use of mutliple vocal overdubs of Michael. It recalls the more mainstream side of funk, such as Earth, Wind & Fire only more relaxed and masterful in its glistening appeal. Jones had provided the cream of the crop for L.A. session men, as mentioned, but also helped present the work of ace songwriters like Rod Temperton who wrote "Rock with You," and other tracks covered just a little later on in this review. Temperton would return to provide material for the followup Thriller but really it's his Off the Wall contributions that stand as his best donation to an MJ record. "Rock with You" could fool someone for a light jazz recording, something by George Benson perhaps. It even has an uncommon occurrence for a pop hit: a flute solo. There are no brass horns but a light bottom of electric keyboards and one of the typically tight bass lines for a late 70s "El Lay" R&B tune. A bit lightweight compared to some hardcore grooves on this LP, but enjoyable nonetheless and it clicked with consumers too. It has always managed to make compilations over the years as the "other" hit from Off the Wall. Despite the potential for falling into a syrupy ditch, Michael astutely knew how to steer any song into any territory he wants it to go and offers the right compliment of masculinity and femininity to the song, a line he straddled superbly for years despite being quite fey in person. Temperton also contributes the torrid disco rave-up "Burn This Disco Out," and while all the dance-focused cuts are inferior to the hot first track, they all in their own way show an understanding and innate flair for the club scene in a way that reveals just how bald faced and mediocre most disco bands/singers really were.

Even Paul McCartney lends a hand with his soft, bubbly mid-tempo tune "Girlfriend," which works for a guy like Michael but- surprise surprise- is a bit of a treacly ballad when Wings recorded it as a 1979 B-side that is available on bonus track versions of the Wings finale, 1980's lousy Back to the Egg. It was the start of a profitable and productive partnership, both pricately and professionally (wow, that's an alliterative tongue twister, ain't it?) for the two. But that came to a screeching halt over the infamous incident when the Beatles song catalogue came up for auction in 1985 and Michael, taking Paul's advice about how song catalogues were lovely investments if you had the moolah to acquire them, outbid Paul for it (As Paul recalls, Michael grinningly explained "It's just business, Paul." Buuuurn!). His $46 million acquisition turned out to be well worth the price tag- though we'll see if Paulie can get it if it comes on the auction block during the sale of Michael's assets and the sorting out of the late pop king's estate. As of 1979, the old king of pop was lending support to the about to be crowned new king of pop. A match made in record company profit heaven, indeed. Tom Bahler is credited for the first-rate tearjerker "She's Out of My Life," a bit of a man-child performance by Michael. It verges on the maudlin, but Michael's vocal talents rescue it and make it a weepy moment to remember, nearly breaking down in tears at the end. More lively and spellbinding though is Stevie Wonder and Susaye Green's funky, seductively grooving jazz-pop, "I Can't Help it." Michael's singing on the softer tracks is never better than it is here, as he explores the fullness of his vocal range and adds some breathy melisma runs to further win merit for the song. 

"I Can't Help it" has the ring of a Stevie song because of the wall of synthesizers, an instrument only Wonder could make so expressive and emulate the sounds of anything you can think of with. However, he doesn't play on it and I sort of wish he tackled it himself since it would've greatly aided the sub-par quality of Stevie's own 1979 release, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Subtle string chording stays to the background and it proved enduring enough for it to be sampled liberally be the hip-hop group De La Soul in 1989 for their track "Breakadawn," which combines the introductory keyboard bassline of "I Can't Help it" with and Smokey Robinson's "Quiet Storm" refrain section of "Break of dawn/Break of dawn." David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager, two successful but vapid professional pop writers, chip in with "It's the Falling in Love," the weakest track here because of it's overt cheesiness and saccharine nature (but what else have people come to expect from Foster and Sager over the years?). Still, the musicians provided steer it clear of mediocre hack pop while Michael's vocals again achieve a wonderful mastery of the art form, like on practically every track here. Michael also gets writer's credit on the relentlessly funky, almost Afro-Cuban dance track "Working Day and Night" (a verse melody line that sister Janet somewhat "plagiarized" for her 1997 cut "Go Deep") plus co-writing credit with Louis Johnson for a fairly pedestrian dance selection called "Get on the Floor." Even those who aren't fans of such pop music can appreciate Off the Wall, a good reminder on why Jackson was such a pop culture giant before his bizarre personal life became the headline news. Of course, it was a prelude, the veritable calm before the storm to Thriller, which in 1982-83 took off with a blast-off to rise his star to meteoric proportions, the likes of which the entertainment world has rarely seen in this century.

155. Too Tough to Die-The Ramones (1984)Very few rock bands have ever started a career with as great a run as the Ramones, whose first four albums traversed the territory of punk rock while drawing on pre-psychedelic sounds such as garage rock, surf rock and Phil Spectorish pop of the early to mid 60s. The formula sort of wore thin and a collaboration with Spector himself on 1980's End of the Century resulted in their first true less-than-amazing album. Their next couple of LPs, 1981's Pleasant Dreams and 1983's Subterranean Jungle, were improvements but not on the level of their quartet of 70s classics. More in-depth reporting on the interregnum of 1979 to 1984 (Too Tough to Die) can be found in album #173, Road to Ruin. While the Ramones would somewhat wear out their welcome and go on for several years past their prime, they were still a vibrant group through the first half of the 80s. Their 1985 hit "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg (My Brain is Hanging Upside Down)" was a Reagan bashing rant (that dedicated Republican Johnny Ramone begrudgingly went along with) that is their last essential, classic song, while 1984 saw their last classic album, Too Tough to Die. With original drummer Tommy (Ramone) Erdelyi back as producer after a three-record absence, and Marky (aka Marc Bell) Ramone replaced by Richie (aka Richard Reinhardt) Ramone, the Ramones return to their strengths, update themselves for the 80s and, with some outside help, craft respectable stabs at the pop market. The hard rock riffs and hooks take on a more metal slant rather than punk, but the attitude, snarl and unabashedly gleefulness is unmistakable Ramones. Heck, slabs of hardcore punk are handed out, mostly with Dee Dee mouthing off his vocals in his distinctly ugly "singing" voice.

Lead singer Joey takes on a growling holler of a voice for many tracks on the LP, namely the power-charged opener "Mama's Boy." It would have made a killer cut for your Motley Crues, Def Leppards or Metallicas of this world in '84, I'll tell you that. Joey dishes out an insult ridden song to a total pain in the ass who is, to boot, a mama's boy (or as Joey yells, a "Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-Mama's boy!"). With some "heavy" riffs at the start, we see that all the bottled up fury from the past 5 years was being unleashed in spectacular form. The Ramones' view of the world shines through on the dark, defiant "I'm Not Afraid of Life." The catchy, tongue-tied rocker "Too Tough to Die" shows just how resilient and resolute the Ramones felt, also highlighting Joey's way with vocal hiccuping and artful stuttering over words and/or syllables. Vintage Ramones in its bare bones instrumental form is showed with the vocal-deprived "Durango 95." They try their hand at hardcore punk with the goofy, beer soaked "Warthog," led by Dee Dee Ramone on vocals (think of a raspy shoutin' New Yawker with a clothespin stuck on his nose, or as Robert Christgau likened his singing to: "Bugs Bunny on steroids"). Also in that vein is the furious "Danger Zone," a breakneck-paced punk rocker that almost sounds like speed metal with the volume and distortion toned down a tad. Joey, like Dee Dee, almost drunkenly slurs and grunts his way through the vocals, but it's a controlled sort of mayhem, considering the music could have allowed for inane hollering. Later on, they go for some thrash punk on "Endless Vacation," a raring-to-go song with several tempo changes and Dee Dee's hopped-up vocals. 

They borrow the same three chords for "Blitzkreig Bop," though in a different key at a lower octave, for "Chasing the Night," an uptempo, delicious pop-punk track that even used some synthesizers without offending most punk purists. An even bigger shot at a top 10 hit is "Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)," a surprisingly monumentally infectious track, produced by Eurythmics' Dave Stewart who adds in the beefy rhythms, pronounced electronic keyboards and arean sensibilities of his own work without traipsing all over the Ramones style. Joey sings a melody reminiscent of the greatest early 60s pop, the tune showing that the 70s Ramones and their primitive way of singing that great American AM radio music could be updated for the 80s and still bowl the listener over. "Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)" stands as one of the Ramones' last great songs. Still, it's a song that, despite its arena friendly production, reminds you why they were such a revelation when they burst onto the scene in 1975-76. And it even goes on past four minutes without tiring, an ungodly length by Ramones standards and expectations. The momentum doesn't let up on Too Tough to Die thanks to the treble-charged "Daytime Dilemma (Dangers of Love)" and the garage rock-meets-alternative rock of "Planet Earth 1988," a sort of Alice Cooper-esque, outraged and dramatic song. It's a very politically themed song that seems to take stances not exactly wandering through through the mind of Johnny Ramone, a man passionately raised and bred on Republican values. The Ramones bring out their environmental consciousness in a fictitious imagining of where Reaganite America was going to take America by 1988. Yeah, it was nail-biting hyperbole but Joey was clearly a staunch liberal who spoke on out on political corruption and the degradation of nature.

While the original three members always contributed their share to the music, newest member Richie provides "Human Kind," a decent throwback to their earliest days when they expressed at times a more angstful style. When Sire Records repackaged the Ramones catalogue on CD in the late 90s there were a slew of bonus goodies provided and this album has several demo and alternate versions of songs on the album plus enjoyable theowaways like Richie's "Smash You," "No Go," and "Out of Here" (which is basically a total rip-off of their own "I Don't Care" from 1977's Rocket to Russia). It was a relief in 1984 to hear the Ramones go back to greatness but the success would not continue for many years. A year later they would have a tremendous single (an import for American audiences actually) in "My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)" a biting critique of Ronald Reagan's decision to visit the Bitburg Cemetery where many S.S. war heroes of Germany lay to rest. As a Jew, Joey probably felt more outrage over the matter than most others, though the Nazi fascinations of Dee Dee and Johnny bothered him even if they weren't endorsements. Johnny often used his hobby as a way to tease and rankle Joey, the one member he feuded with the most. Their 1985 album Animal Boy continued in the heavier rocking direction but 1987's Halfway to Sanity was the first dud of their career. When Dee Dee left for an ill-fated, ill-conceived career as a rapper named Dee Dee King in 1989 (replaced by CJ Ramone), the Ramones fall from brilliance was complete, although they were still a wonderful reminder of the punk era and a nostalgic live act. 

Their 1996 tour was their final and though they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, Joey had died the year before at age 52, of a non-Hodgkins lymphoma brought about from years of smoking and former struggles with the bottle, and wasn't there to enjoy the reunion. Johnny, who used the induction to proclaim "God bless the United States of America and God bless President Bush," was sick with prostate cancer that would take his life a year or so later at age 53 while Dee Dee was a few months away from a fatal overdose of heroin at age 51. Tommy and Marky went into the hall with them and remain with us today. But the classic Ramones period was capped off by Too Tough to Die. It was a fine way for them to peak, though their best and most influential work was in the 70s, and after their prime (1976-85), although many bands have copied them since their arrival, few if any have topped them. While a Green Day looms as big shot rock stars with their politically active punk-pop, making millions on each record they wait 4 years to release, the Ramones probably made half that money in their entire career. And justice not for all! But I'm sure if they had to, Green Day would cut a cheque for the Ramones if they ever wanted the money, because they sure as hell owe them for the path they blazed so that others could hit the jackpot.

154. At Fillmore East-Allman Brothers Band (1971): After their 1969 debut, the rock world was on alert about a collection of Southern boys with a sizzling mastery of the blues, an extra special grasp of how to imitate and emulate the black cats who originally farmed that terrain. Hell and you could make a case that with their free-form jams and guitar harmonic intuition, they even a solid comprehension of recent (in a late 60s context) major jazz work. Brothers Duane (lead guitar) and Gregg (lead vocals and keyboards) were Floridians, but came from the northern part that is generally considered to be part of the Deep South. They were closer to Georgian boys than your typically well-to-do suburbanized Floridian of the post-war years. They weren't the only things worth writing home about in the band that bore their (sur)namesake, as co-lead guitarist and vocalist Dickey Betts, double drum crew Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson and bassist Berry Oakley solidified an outstanding instrumental sextet known as the Allman Brothers Band. Duane and Gregg had participated in a power trio called the Hourglass, a band dabbling in a heavy sort of blues-rock like Cream but more tied to a pure understanding of traditional electric blues (not to say Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton weren't into the blues or attuned to it inferiorly, but beyond some tracks on their first album Fresh Cream, they mainly pioneered harder, more radical electric fuzz that did more to engineer the beginnings of heavy metal than it did to change or revolutionize the blues). The Hourglass may have been such copycat proprietors of their blues faves because they didn't really write much of their own stuff but hinted at what was to come. The Hourglass was dropped by its label Liberty Records after 1967-68 reaped no benefits from their work commercially, working out of Los Angeles. While Gregg stuck around because Liberty felt there was star potential with him, Duane went back to their stomping grounds and carved out his name amongst the best session guitarists in the country.

Sticking to the South, Duane began showing up on records by bluesmen like John P. Hammond, Johnny Jenkins and the group Cowboy while also starring on records by soul giants like King Curtis ("Games People Play," "The Weight"), Arthur Conley ("Stuff You Gotta Watch"), Aretha Franklin ("It Ain't Fair"), Clarence Carter ("The Road of Love") and Wilson Pickett ("Hey Jude," "Born to Be Wild"). He even did work for rockers like Ronnie Hawkins and even Boz Scaggs, who cut his debut album in 1969 at Muscle Schoals studio in Memphis and had Duane take the 13-minute blues "Loan Me a Dime" to a fantastic stratosphere. Gregg returned when Duane got together some players to form their own band, which was signed up by Capricorn Records in 1969. The Allmans succeeded in carving out a stand-alone identity because they balanced quality originals with lightning hot covers, rather than the latter more than the former and rather than employing their own work to a wildly streaky degree. The Allman Bros. Band's first two albums showed they possessed a good in-house songwriting chemistry but their forte still lay in adapting the blues into something so momentous it made Cream look puny by comparison (to be fair, they had six musicians to Cream's three- an orchestral-like advantage they utilized to its fullest). But as of 1971, they had still yet to achieve an ideal representation of that on record, seemingly being hindered by studio limitations in a way that all top drawer live acts have been. Their self-titled debut was better than most debuts for sure but wasn't them at their best, as it turned out. Still, any band that starts their recording career with a powerhouse, monstrously badass showstopper like "Whipping Post" deserves a second listen and fair shake. 

"Whipping Post" had a standard, slow-simmering 4/4 chorus but based its verses on the 12/8 time signature, while "Dreams" was written in 12/8. Their more grooving, laid back blues side shone through on a few choice covers in addition to "Dreams." In the early years of the group, Gregg Allman took lead on 90% of the cuts, only occasionally acquiescing to someone else's voice- that somebody usually being the honey-dipped, backwoods frog-in-the-throat Dickey Betts (think a true Southerner who sounds like Dylan on Nashville Skyline). Gregg had a voice with a narrow range and only the strong ability to holler and shout, but he made good use of his limitations like so many popular rock singers over the years, while also closely resembling your average African-American bluesman's vocal inflections too. The 1970 sophomore release, Idewild South, was an improvement especially in how their original song turned out. They went beyond the blues on gospel-leaning rock like "Revival" that in some sections was highlighted by the challenging, dueling guitar harmonics of Betts and Duane and in most other parts was a hearty campfire type of country-rock that recalled Delaney & Bonnie, a duo Duane had played for. There was also the much covered "Midnight Rider"- a bigger hit when put out by Joe Cocker then Gregg himself as a solo artist- was a precursor the Southern Rock later made famous by Lynyrd Skynyrd- a band often confused with and linked to the Allmans despite being a very different band that was less schooled on blues and jazz and more on redneck rockabilly, country, R&B and hard rock. Idewild South also showed their ability to carry a track without vocals, namely "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," a tough to play jazz sort of composition by Betts that unloaded a whole round of ammunition of smoky, Latinized riffs, solos and harmonic ideas. That changed when they released a five-track, double album set of one of their shows at New York's Fillmore East in March 1971, one of the venue's last major shows before it was closed down by its owner, promoter Bill Graham, in favour of focusing on the Fillmore West in the blooming West Coast rock scene (and the Fillmore West stands to this day as part attractive rock venue, part shrine to its rich history). 

The album shows the Allmans flexing their improvisational talents and utilizing that magnificent guitar duet technique that involved Dickey Betts and Duane Allman playing in harmony like Charlie Parker had done, first with Dizzy Gillespie and later Miles Davis- who even continued the practice with John Coltrane in his ensembles. It was a true representation of just how good the Allman Bros. could be, coming off as the penultimate blues-rock band that could jam for 20-30 minutes and still keep you listening closely for what came next. Duane was by this point well-regarded and popular for his slide mastery and his overall technical abilities, having been hired by Eric Clapton to provide guitar overdubs for Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek & the Dominoes just months earlier. Sadly, it could never be this way again as Duane and Berry Oakley were killed in separate motorcycle accidents in Macon, Georgia, just blocks away from each other in location; first Duane in October 1971, hitting a truck that rolled into his path as he tried passing a vehicle at an intersection and Oakley in November 1972, swerving to avoid a truck delivering fruits and slamming into a bus that had come to a halt instead. Yeah, speed kills (and not just the drug). With the classic, definitive lineup of the Allmans on display, At Fillmore East culls a few songs from their recorded oeuvre as well as tunes previously unheard on record. It pulls no punches and spares no expense at representing the scorching stage craft of the previously underrated, overlooked band. Their rousing rendition of "Statesboro Blues" here smokes the original one of theirs from their 1969 debut, with Duane Allman's specialty, slide guitar, satisfying and then some. He was nearly as fluid and technically accomplished as Clapton without slide, but with it he blew anyone else on the rock scene away, save maybe for Ry Cooder (whose style was more variable because it could handle all blues plus Hawaiian, Carribean and other indigenous musics as well as some jazz). 

Duane does more of the same with the shuffling blues "Done Somebody Wrong." Gregg's gritty, Southern-honed vocals are also in top form throughout the album, providing the vocal warmth needed for such an electrifying band to be a complete, all-round, well-oiled machine. They also give a smoky, graceful reading of T-Bone Walker's blues classic "Stormy Monday" just to show they can even do the blues with restraint, poise and relaxed soul instead of at full throttle. "You Don't Love Me/Soul Serenade" is a foot-stomping twenty minute standout itself but it's the second disc that really shows the Allman Bros. Band playing their asses off. "Hot 'Lanta" is a stunning instrumental that doesn't just deliver the soloing goods like the others, it also bowls the listener over with the perfectly locked-in, duetting guitars of Duane and Betts. This gives the song its distinctive character while the arrangement veers into jazz, minor-key territory before ending in a very jazz fashion with rolling drums, floating Hammond organ chords and twangy bass. Oakley's bass work proves he could do more than just play a lock-stepped 12-bar blues, stepping out like some sort of twangy, Jaco Pastorious colouring. Still, it's the awesome performance of Betts' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," that clinches the album's crown as a live record masterpiece. Because of its length, there exists more room and space for the Allmans to play around in ways that any audience member couldn't have suspected even after repeated listens to the released studio version. There's the usual melodic guitar dramatics but also you'll catch yourself enticed by the active drumming with Trucks providing some power and Johanson chiming in with polyrhythms, jazzy Latin sort of fills. 

Gregg provides a competent role with some odd flourishes and solos here and there but "comping" the whole way through for the most part (comping meaning playing the chords as he sees fit, in order to provide rhythmic and harmonic support). The fellas stretch it to 13 minutes but it's never a tedious experience that winds along for much too long, like perhaps some live Cream recordings did. The powerhouse ending comes with a song that takes up the entirety of side 4, a 23-minute showstopping version of "Whipping Post," perhaps their greatest song and certainly their most well known at the time of the Fillmore recordings. The original is a rock classic but the studio quality tends to sap a little of the vibrancy from the song. The restrictions aren't really a problem for the stage performance of the Allmans and here they give more and strive for a more scintillating reading of their signature song. They surely accomplish that and make "Whipping Post" a supreme achievement that caps off a great double LP. It's a lot of time to only catch five different tracks, but worth it. The rock press had been on the Allmans' side before, but At Fillmore East got them even more notoriety and managed to please many critics who had grown sick and tired of the Woodstock era's obsession with jams and endless freakouts to drug-addled fans. The Allman Bros. became like the Southern equivalent to the Grateful Dead, although both bands got by on live reputation and failed to churn out a consistent supply of fine studio albums. But the attempt to build off of what At Fillmore East paved, was struck down by the quick and tragic death of Duane. Soldiering on was considered commendable but many wondered what the point was in both continuing with the Allman Bros. name and not replacing Duane. Most of the tracks from early 1972's Eat a Peach, their best studio album in this writer's opinion, contained Duane's work, although some were absent of his input or had gone incomplete before his death. 

On a Duane-less track like "Melissa," the presence of just one lonesome guitar was poignant, as if it was a melancholy memorial to their fallen friend. Down the road, the Allmans songs would contain the same dueling guitar sound but with Dickey Betts providing both and it was as if Duane had never gone. 1973's Brothers and Sisters lacked Duane as well as Oakley, but the resilient Allmans still managed their biggest hit yet, their only top 20 charter, with "Ramblin' Man." But further and further it became obvious how the losses were affecting the creativity of the group. Gregg's personal life, marrying Cher in 1975 for instance, began to overshadow things and he was in the midst of what became a lengthy battle with drugs and alcohol- partly a byproduct of the rock lifestyle but also no doubt enhanced by the loss of two friends and bandmates, one being his older brother. Oakley had been replaced by Lamar Williams while Chuck Leavell came on as a second keyboardist but the band was in a state of turmoil by the mid-70s though, and while Brothers and Sisters might have been their best charting and well-received studio album, it wasn't followed up well. Win, Lose or Draw met with mixed reviews while the live release Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas was also poorly received. The group broke up in 1976, but with a new bassist and second guitarist reformed in 1979 for what has been an off-and-on functioning group ever since, more prominent for its arsenal of amazing guitarists than its new releases (Duane's legacy was followed richly and deservedly by Warren Haynes and virtuoso Derek Trucks, nephew of drummer Butch Trucks and a childhood prodigy who grew up as a sideman for the Allmans before becoming a full-fledged member in his teens). Now, usually live albums are symbolic, mere postcards of the road to show how a band/artist sounds in front of a live crowd. The rarities are albums like At Fillmore East, easily one of the top 10 live albums ever released in the rock era.

153. Radio City-Big Star (1974): As of 1971, Memphis native and aspiring songwriting mastermind Alex Chilton had suffered an acrimonious ending to his time in the Box Tops, which had essentially by the end had become a Chilton vehicle with a bunch of studio pros backing him up since members began leaving left, right and centre. As you might have read in #158 Third/Sister Lovers, the Box Tops were an initial burst of fame and fortune for Chilton, though he never really benefited greatly financially and the time was a rocky one that was hard to enjoy to its fullest. It turned out to be the highest profile Chilton would ever have in music, meaning his teenage years- Chilton was still 16 when they cut their first huge hit in 1967 with "The Letter"- were the prime of his money-earning years. He has used these years as a springboard for his artistic ambition and surely having your vocals over AM oldie faves like "Cry Like a Baby," "Soul Deep" and "Neon Rainbow" can't be all that bad. Chilton's solo career has been a diffuse one, often wavering back and forth between inspired brilliance and careless mediocrity. His greatest rock respect though comes from his short-lived, largely ignored (in their time) Big Star, considered the progenitor band of power pop, a genre considered rock oriented but full of commercially appealing hooks, melodies and singing. Their attempt to be an American answer to the Beatles, considered their creative touchstone, seemed doomed from the start. Signed to Ardent Records, a rock subsidiary label of Stax Records, Big Star was billed as a surefire high-selling rock outfit. The band was based out of Memphis, yet only slight touches of R&B/soul would show through in their music and unlike Chilton's Box Tops days, he now sang like an Anglophile rocker, forgoing the gritty, masculine vocals that defied his teenager status in favour of a youthful moan. 

Big Star consisted of Chilton and Chris Bell on guitars and lead vocals, sharing songwriting credits even though they both owned singular, differing visions for Big Star. Drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel contributed the odd backing vocal or credit but Big Star started as the Chilton-Bell show. Their first album, titled #1 Record, did not chart. It failed to break even based on what was spent to record and distribute the LP. The band felt Ardent let them down with its poor distribution and promotional efforts. The album would later be seen as a seminal work for all alternative rockers and power pop rockers. In retrospect, it was a fine album but it had a few average track that kept it from being a total major statement in my estimation. Nonetheless, in a music scene where only the dreariest of banal pap could top the charts, it's a damn shame #1 Record didn't catch on or generate hit singles (of which it had a few potential ones, such as with "Feel," "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Thirteen," "When My Baby's Beside Me" and "In the Street" which became the theme song for TV's That 70s Show two-and-a-half decades later). The followup found Bell absent, having quit the group in frustration (he would cut some solo work to no fanfare and was sporadically involved in music until dying in a car crash in 1979). Now the sole creative force, Chilton spun the group in a more demented pop direction, 1974's awesome Radio City being a wildly erratic, irritated, darkly tinged and doggedly idiosyncratic record. Where #1 Record could be inviting, enlightening and happy, Radio City could be off-the-wall, loony and yet more compelling. As you might know if you've read my synopsis on Third/Sister Lovers, there were more harrowing experiences on the way but Radio City still struck people as a bitter reaction to the failure of the toe-tapping #1 Record

With a little help, Chilton was the guitarist on the album but essentially it's trio performing fleshed out by overdubs. All this talk of warped rock headed toward the void isn't to say there was nothing but seditious, manic music being made, but the opening cut shows how Radio City could be unsettling. It's the twisted, strangely funky, off-kilter "O My Soul." It's a song that's like the Who mixed with early 70s James Brown heard in the scratch guitar chords, all with the vocals of a discontent Chilton griping over top of it. The angstful, harmonica-laden "Life is White" shows how well Chilton could channel 60s influences into his own, fusing Beatle glory with Neil Young introspectiveness. "Way Out West" is like a hazy, depressed sort of Byrds folk-rock jangler. The same could be said for "Daisy Glaze." "What's Going Ahn" is an alright song, coming off more like #1 Record's heartfelt acoustic work, but there's still a hint of bitterness in the singing and mood. "You Get What You Deserve" is perhaps the most intriguing track here, a fabulously bizarre pop gem with odd chord changes that make it sound like a lost psychedelic rock classic, except it was written after that era of experimentation. On said song, Chilton can be found showing off his diverse songwriting and arranging skills and showing them off well. Even more disturbing is the soft, alluring piano ballad "Morpha Too," which is friggin' suicide-inducing stuff, yet also a delicately beautiful composition from Chilton. Big Star can even get into dirty, carefree hard rock, beating Humble Pie at their own game with "Mod Lang." Chilton reminds one of the Beatles most, on "She's a Mover," which sounds like a Rubber Soul or Revolver outtake if I ever heard one. Shimmering pop-rock that sounds like it could have been modern in the 90s defines "Back of a Car" and the album's enduring pop statement, "September Gurls." 

Perhaps Chilton's best written song, it has had longevity as a great early 70s pop classic that went unnoticed in its time, an unforgettable sort of anthem akin to anything the more successful yet inferior Raspberries (they of "Go All the Way" and led by Eric Carmen who became the insufferable sap behind "All By Myself," "Never Going to Fall in Love Again" and "Hungry Eyes" from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack). More heartwarming is the solo spot closing track "I'm in Love with a Girl," a strong testament to the travails of teen angst, the adrenaline of love and the innocence of youth. Chilton sounds fragile, loverlorn and tragic all at once and the song was somewhat quoted in the Replacements 1987 tribute to him and his work, "Alex Chilton" (Paul Westerberg singing "I'm in love/What's that song?/I'm in love, with that song"). #1 Record had more focus, more ambition and a clear hunger to sell some units. But it seemed Chilton threw caution to the wind with Radio City where he streamlined the Anglo-adoring pop-rock of his to take on a more edgy manner, hoping it could attract more edgy listeners and serious rock fans instead of knee-jerk record buyers. But this resulted in even more lack of attention and weaker sales but ultimately the best album Chilton would ever be associated with. While it was overtaken in weirdness by the final Big Star album, Third/Sister LoversRadio City is still the most accomplished LP from one of the 70s great cult bands. 

152. The Dark Side of the Moon-Pink Floyd (1973): Blasphemy? How dare I (a.k.a. you)? Why no. 151 for the greatest, most innovative album ever made? Millions with their headphones on or their quadrophonic speaker system blaring (although the quadrophonic mix was scrapped until popping up some 30 years later on a boxed set of rare goodies for Floyd fanatics and/or audiophiles) while baked on some primo grass or tripping on 'shrooms, have enjoyed and worshipped this LP. Millions others simply found it cinematic rock creativity that was worth going out to get to play on turntables at their parties. Yes, The Dark Side of the Moon has stood the test of time as an adored album. Is it really among the very best? Well, nearly 30 million purchasers could tell you no otherwise. But, really? In exclusive company with the works of the Beatles, Dylan or Hendrix? Well, unless you're the most hardened of punks and rock revivalists, it can be taken at face value as a monumentally conceived, yet rewarding album with lots and lots going for it. But it's pomposity and grand ambition can be its own worst enemy at times and I don't find effects-drenched, densely produced, acutely trippy art/progressive rock albums to be my cup o' tea, nor the pinnacle of rock music genius like so many claim. But this one I can enjoy for what it is and put it in its rightful top 200 positioning. The fact remains that Pink Floyd achieved such a realized synthesis of their music that they went from just another psychedelic cult band at the start of 1973 to superstars by year's end. They were like some clinically depressed equivalent to the Beatles, heirs to the throne of "World's Best Band." 

The Dark Side of the Moon is streaked with themes of greed, boredom, death, insanity, mental fatigue and fear. Many of the songs tie in to each other thematically and the whole album is one of those good ol' song cycles, with certain refrains or bits repeating throughout the nine tracks. Having focused their avant-garde tendencies more constructively in song formats on 1971's Meddle, Floyd saw they could go down a new path (My review of Wish You Were Here tracks the events well from Syd Barrett's days as the leader to multi-platinum sales coming their way). Bassist Roger Waters had become the messenger of the group, crafting eery, cold, dark, philosophical lyrics and music- and not the same psychedelia that had defined popular work of theirs like "Set the Controls to the Heart of the Sun" or "Astronomy Domine"- that became the focal point of the band's next decade, while Gilmour steered it toward something more resembling of blues-rock, a blunter side to the artsy-fartsy stuff. Waters's lyrics almost educate on the vagaries of cripplingly public fame- which he would soon discover on a totally higher stratosphere thanks to Dark Side- and life in general. The way original guitarist/writer Syd Barrett, who made them one of the first true psychedelic pop masters from the UK in 1967-68, had cracked mentally through schizophrenia and excessive LSD use left an indelible mark on the other three in the group, especially Waters (Gilmour was Barrett's replacement). It would contribute to the subject matter and pessimism behind a lot of Floyd's most well-known music. Richard Wright plays a pivotal role as the keyboards become more varied in the number used and Wright's dry, English-inflected vocals are a suitable inclusion, especially when meshed with Gilmour's similar voice.

Using famed recording engineer Alan Parsons and a new, previously unused 16-track state-of-the-art studio at Abbey Road in London, Pink Floyd had their chance for a real breakthrough. Meddle had made some headway but still had lengthy instrumental passages centered around the more melodic ideas, including the ridiculously long, 23-minute "Echoes." There are 9 tracks on Dark Side and they manage to not veer into the double digits minute-wise. The album begins with "Speak to Me" (credited to drummer Nick Mason) a song that begins with a collage featuring a heartbeat- actually a bass drum treated to resemble such- that leads into a cacophony of all the outside, overdubbed sounds that will be heard throughout the album, a sort of overture of non-instrumental sound effects before a fade-in of instruments and maddened, yelping screams from Clare Torry. The following instrumental passage brings along the languid kind of depressed country of "Breathe," essentially a continuation of "Speak to Me" only with vocals. "Breathe" (Gilmour-Waters-Wright) is a track that shows the cinematic scope of Pink Floyd was going to be quite grand on Dark Side. Heck, they even subconsciously made the album line up perfectly with the action of The Wizard of Oz (seriously, consult your internet rumour sites and try it out- it's sccaaary!!!). "Breathe" concludes by segueing into the instrumental electronic piece "On the Run" (Gilmour-Waters) which is a lot like the early tests and demos done in the infancy of the synthesizer, this one being with the Synthi AKS, VCS3 among others. It comes off like Pete Townshend's ARP loop basis for "Baba O'Riley." This sequencing of it allowed for the synth noises to be processed into a rhythmic riff that becomes like a whirling raga especially when stereo panning makes it swirl around the channels and the sound of someone panting and running around (apparently a studio engineer in an echo chamber) gives the piece its title. Also dotted within the track are a hi-hat machine, backward guitar effects that, along with a certain synth, sound like an aeroplane flying directly overhead, reinforced by a female voice announcing flight information over a P.A. 

The soundscape makes you think of someone on the run to catch a plane, in essence. You see, elements of musique concrete (an avant garde style of classical that used tape loops, sound effects and other natural sounds not created by instrument- think the Beatles "Revolution 9") pervade through this album as we get sound effects and spoken voices interjecting into the mix every so often, adding some character and a human element to the whole torn n' frayed, mental illness angle of Dark Side. After "On the Run," a chorus of chiming clocks usher in "Time" (credited to all four) which unveils a new sense of grandiose from Floyd as they bring in female backup singers a la Joe Cocker. This is a deep look at mortality and the way life can slip away on someone. It's a multi-faceted song that even reprises part of "Breathe." This eventually segues into the penultimate cinematic song of the LP, the sweeping instrumental "The Great Gig in the Sky" which features the desperately soulful, wordless singing of Clare Torry (co-credited with Wright as of a 2005 lawsuit to win royalties). It could be accused of being over-the-top but "Great Gig" is perhaps the most riveting, gorgeous piece of music on the whole album, perhaps in Floyd's career. The scathing "Money" (Waters) is the attack on financial greed and evil that everyone knows by heart now, thanks to classic rock radio. Beneath all that airplay, one finds a complex composition with a blistering guitar solo segment in 4/4 time, countering 7/4 the rest of the way as they managed to get the coin and cash register sound effects to line up and become the rhythmic basis. A bit of musique concrete, which was all the rage in those days.

With its immortal walking bass guitar hook, wah-wah effects and percussive backing, "Money" is as funky as Floyd can get and in addition, as hard rocking as this album gets. Heck, there's even a snarling sax solo from Dick Parry to give it more of a bluesy edge. On "Money," Gilmour showed his chops were quite good and should be highlighted more, though his mighty guitar solos weren't considered signature, as they're thought of now, until after the next three Floyd LPs of the 70s (Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall). Of the vocal tunes, "Us and Them" (Waters-Wright) is perhaps the best, a look at class differences with Wright's vocals echoing back to him in the calmer, darker verses, that are often soothed by the voiceover effects and saxophone. It's chorus is a stark contrast however, since it's as big, epic and heavenly as "Great Gig." "Us and Them" is a tune that sounds like the Beatles of '67 if they'd gotten all serious, ponderous and thoughtful about life instead of seeing it in acidic, candy-coloured glasses before abandoning psychedelia altogether. The next track, "Any Colour You Like" (written not by Waters but by the other three) is a somewhat hypnotic, funky instrumental with echoey synthesizers being shown off at the heart of the track. "Brain Damage" (Waters) has some lurking, frighteningly real moments as it deals explicitly with the kind of mental wear and tear that claimed Syd Barrett, exemplified by the raving testimonial voices and deranged laughing amidst an unforgettable guitar arpeggio. Waters actually gets to sing on it, something he'd do more later on when he had the confidence. But ultimately the song is the wall of sound finale, the light at the end of the tunnel of darkness as a full chorus of singers joins in on the chorus that ends with "I'll see you on the dark side of the moon." 

Eventually, it segues seamlessly into the ninth and final song, "Eclipse" (Waters) basically a reprise of all the album's themes and elements rolled into one stream-of-consciousness melody featuring all the involved backup singers, the omnipresent Hammond organ of Wright and Mason's booming drums. The song ends with the line "And the sun is eclipsed by the moon" and as the volume fades, the album's opening "heartbeat" returns as the old man voice heard earlier on the track "Time" explains how there's no really no dark side of the moon, because it's all dark in fact (some kind of metaphor or just worldly wisdom from the Irish doorman at Abbey Road interviewed for the voiceover portions). All in all, a suitable ending for a terrific progressive rock album. I will spoil your adventures through the top 200 and outright tell you that other than the two Floyd albums you've already read about (Thought bubble: Yeah, I said already? Fingers crossed- Oh but do they really like me!?) there is nothing that you would regimentally consider progressive rock. Art rock can sometimes blur the lines between glam and prog so you will often find albums in the list by "art rockers" like Roxy Music, David Bowie, Brian Eno and so forth. But prog? Pink Floyd is, in my opinion, of that genre but on the more appealing fringe, a representative that was not as intense as, say, ELP, Genesis, Curved Air or King Crimson. If you're okay with such weighty ambitions, Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon manages to live up to them all even if it sounds a bit full of itself. 

151. The Blue Mask-Lou Reed (1982)After a rocky 1970s, Lou Reed had gained a reputation for frustrating inconsistency, considered a disappointment in light of his groundbreaking work as the main songwriter- and after John Cale's departure the leading force- in the Velvet Underground. He scored some good solo albums, though few hits ("Walk on the Wild Side" was a top 40 hit that came to be his defining song with the public). Reed's effusive, rather bold nature had gained him few friends although he was an underground hero to many and a particular source of interest to critics, namely rock journalist Lester Bangs who found praise for Reed even at his most savagely decadent and banal and wrote a series of nutty, hilarious articles with Reed as his interviewee. When I last discussed Lou (for my #161 album White Light/White Heat), the Velvets were a reformed bunch with Doug Yule stepping in for John Cale. Reed's compositions became less abrasive, more open to the garage rock he enjoyed and had written for as a staff writer for Pickwick Records. On The Velvet Underground, he showed he could write tender, quiet, solemn tunes with ease too. The change to a gentler, soothing rock style was not the turning point they had hoped it would be, the album failing to chart at all. New management under Steve Sesncik and a label change to Colliton Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, prompted the band to aim for some ear-catching potential hits. Lou took up the task and produced his most hummable, simple to warm up to songs. The sessions were stop-and-go and finally was about to come out when Lou quit. He later griped about several edits and remixing moves and tried to disown himself from it. But Doug Yule has maintained that Lou knew about many of these mixdown decisions before leaving. The Velvets carried on without Maureen Tucker, now on maternity leave after barely contributing to Loaded, and Sterling Morrison became the last original member to leave, pursuing a P.H.D. in university that would lead to his second career as a college professor. 

All this transformed the once-heady group into a Velvet Underground in name only, run by Doug Yule until it was finally put to sleep in 1973. It took a long time for anything to arrive until Loaded (so named for its quest to be "loaded with hits") came out in September 1970. It was released with the news in mind that Lou had quit the group, a decision made a month earlier based on frustration and disillusion with the direction of the band and his place in the music business monster. He felt there was no reason to stick around if profit was scarce and interest was minimal. Lou retired to his parents' home and worked for $40 a week as a typist at his father's tax accounting firm. But a year later he had obviously begun itching for a chance to record again and signed up to a contract with RCA Records, resulting in his self-titled debut in June 1972. Many of the tracks included were leftovers from then-unreleased Velvet Underground recordings, such as "Lisa Says" and "I Can't Stand it." Critics found it a fine showing, though one that still missed that Velvet Underground spark. Soon, Lou began seeing the fruits of his labour in terms of big rock stars espousing the merits of his music. He was no longer ignored by most in the way he had been in his old band and David Bowie and his right hand man Mick Ronson approached Lou with the intention of producing his next album. Quickly, he cut his sophomore effort, the unforgettable Transformer, put out in December. Songs such as "Perfect Day," "Satellite of Love" and "I'm So Free" were a lot poppier and fancier than what Lou's fans were used to, using strings and the same bouncy pianos and flashy guitar powerage that was contributing to Bowie's rising star at the same time.

But it was "Walk on the Wild Side," a real life portrayal of the "superstars" from Andy Warhol's Factory, that hit the oil patch. "Wild Side" was a strange departure for both Reed and Bowie, employing upright bass, female backing singers, smooth strings and jazzy sax. It became the onl top 40 hit of his career but saw its popularity grow even greater after its initial release. Lou is known best for this song, even by people who have never heard his other material or even of the Velvet Underground altogether. Needless to say, with a slave to the art guy like Lou, this was more of a stigmatism than a boost to his career. The success of Transformer tied him to the glam rock craze, somewhat unfairly might I add- and Reed worked hard to unburden himself of it. In his stage persona afterward, Lou let his homosexual tendencies out of the closet, taking to performing in street punk clothes, dyeing his hair blonde, cutting it very short and often wearing makeup while performing somewhat fey dance steps on stage. The level of camp and theatre brought to Lou's music wasn't the same bookish high-mindedness of his Velvets days but was intriguing in its own glam chic. He was no longer preening on stage amidst a sloppy rocking group of ragtag college kids, but darting around without an instrument most of the time, hiding behind shades and often making his references to the scummy side of life no mystery, feigning shooting up on heroin while performing "Heroin" itself. But Lou wanted to stick to his poetic stories of desolate characters and grimy darkness so 1973 saw him have a creative falling out with Bowie and a switch to more harrowing themes. This gave us Berlin, a sprawling mess that is obviously Lou's attempt at the most ambitious, overarching record of his career, but it fails from a lack of a producer along his mindset. Bob Ezrin layers it with several components of piano, strings and 70s lead guitar that clouds what could have been great. 

Many maintain that Berlin is the jewel in his canon and an essential LP but many others have bombed it for its excess and murkiness. Even on its best cuts, such as "How Do You Think it Feels?" there's just too much pomp and circumstance going on. Ezrin's heavy dose of instrumentation and volume worked for another high-theatre entertainer in Alice Cooper, but felt tacked on and phony for Lou Reed's music. The story of two drug-addled bohemian lovers in Berlin, paralleled a bit by Bowie's torch anthem from four years later "Heroes," Berlin has lived on as a musical of sorts, a concept album that has been ripe for stage and film interpretation of late. Lou was stung by the complaints to the album- which Lou echoed in later years by saying his own lack of control stemmed from being a bit naive out of his band element and working one-on-one with other musicians and producers when he wasn't in the greatest shape to do so, nurturing a nasty addiction to shooting speed. But being the kind of guy that could give a shit about what anyone else thinks, this didn't matter much going forward. The ill-suited production didn't get rectified for 1974's Sally Can't Dance, a blatant commercial attempt in the wake of Berlin sinking like a stone in the charts. It's an attempt that falls on its face and smacks of unfocused fluff. It sounds like cutting room floor crap from T. Rex most of the time, junked up with horns and distracting lead guitar lines. From a financial standpoint, this was moot since it cracked the top 10 and provided Lou with more ground to stand on in terms of the public's receptiveness to his music. Critics who had once ridden his cape to whatever summit Lou took to were now bashing his music however. Even an impressive live release like Rock n' Roll Animal, also from 1974, found detractors just because it was a more mainstream Lou Reed, complete with the guitar heroics of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (a popular duo who had been together for a while, first attracting attention as part of Mitch Ryder's group Detroit and even finding praise from Lou Reed who remarked that Ryder's Hunter-Wagner dominated version of "Rock & Roll" was more like how he had originally wanted it to sound than it came out on Loaded). 

A pleasing live LP like this showed Lou could still command a reputable presence in concert, though his records were streakier than hell. In response to Sally Can't Dance, Lou gave the proverbial middle finger to his record company, record distributors and the consumer public by putting out the 1975 double LP Metal Machine Music. He was under considerable pressure, compared to previous in his career, to churn out some more hits and gave RCA his terse response in the form of an hour of unabashedly chaotic noise that proved both the limits of an artist's gall may have been higher than previously thought and that even in the worst hiss that passed for compositional ork, there could be redeeming value. Both horrific sludge waste of vinyl and genus, art-rock undertaking, Metal Machine Music used white noise, feedback and other unattractive tones to create one of the most challenging, uncompromising albums released by a major artist. Lou was dead serious, even if many accused him of doing it on a larf. The fact it's four sides of the same thing is why it's not much more than a curiosity and not a consistently engaging piece of art but it's surprisingly musical when you consider the criticisms levied upon it were about how it was atonal garbage and pure pretentious, talentless gunk. Certainly Lou made one of the gutsiest moves possible considering he had just enjoyed his first, and only, top 10 LP. Lou claims to have been pretty stoned in making the homemade "music" but it's not the worst thing you could possibly hear. Underneath the maximum volumed cocliar assault were snippets of classical melody and one could compare the music to psychedelic ragas or experimental tape loops. It was like rock's version of free jazz or avant-garde musique concrete. Years later, bands like Sonic Youth painstakingly hammered out rock with such a dissonant, take-no-prisoners sound so even when he was delivering a giant "Fuck you" to his haters, Lou was paving the way for someone or something. 

A return to his Velvet Underground days of testing boundaries, Metal Machine Music was way more daring than anything anyone could have imagined and must have had John Cale going "Now, why didn't I think of that?" Maybe it says a lot about my tastes being open to anything but the very mainstream, but I'd rather listen to this album than anything by Celine Dion ever. Yeah, I am that responsive to even the most screeching, cat-torturing music committed to tape over the well-loved and platinum selling stank of a Dion or any American Idol's victory single (usually a power ballad of the most lame, cheesy, predictable and bombastically offensive style possible with lyrics even a five-year old could have thought up in kindergarten one day). Miraculously, Lou wasn't dropped by RCA and made up for any transgressions a year later with Coney Island Baby. Not stifled by the leaden production values of his previous two proper studio LPs, Coney Island Baby hinted at the mature, lucid Reed of the 80s, though still wrapped up in his druggy stupor as ever. A near classic, it put the honus back on songwriting rather than glitzy performance and technical achievement. The production is a little thin but a lot more intimate and what Lou should have been doing for everything after Transformer. Lou could step into his R&B and rock & roll shoes and it would work, and he reflects his favourite doo-wop on a few tunes, while the melancholy ballad title track is one of the more moving pieces he's ever written, candid to hear too, from an artist as notably cynical, terrifying and druggy as Lou had been. Even the most arena-ready tunes, "Nowhere at All" and "Leave Me Alone," sound fresher and more like the proto-punk of the Stooges and MC5 and what was around the corner too. It was somewhat of an update of his Velvets rocking ways combined with the hard rock of his 70s stuff. 

But the tantalizing sage of Lou Reed in the 70s took the (by then) expected turn toward mediocrity again later that year on Rock n' Roll Heart. RCA finally had determined him somewhat of a risk and terminated his contract, leaving Lou to be picked up by Arista Records. 1978's Street Hassle was a considerable improvement, finding Lou in a spitting, smouldering mood again, on tracks like "Dirt" and "I Wanna Be Black" (where one of the reasons he does want to is so he can "Shoot ten feet of cum..." Wow, good for you Lou). The title track was a three-part suite that brought in classical chamber music as its basis, not unlike "Perfect Day" though scaled back in grandiosity for sure. One of his arguable masterpieces, "Street Hassle" made the album worth getting on its own but it was a consistently good album outside of that 1o-minute suite. It seemed as good a release as Reed had done since leaving the Velvet Underground. But the 1978 live album recorded at NYC's The Bottom Line, Live: Take No Prisoners, was another detour of sorts. Lou turned what normally would have been a standard concert album into something less of a musical showcase than a comedic harangue during several monologues where Lou got stuff off his chest, including his beef with rock critics (referencing Robert Christgau: "Imagine working for a full year on an album and some asshole in the Village Voice gives it a B+?" So I guess Lou did care!). It was strange and profanity-laced honesty from Mr. Reed but it didn't make the album soar nonetheless. 

In 1979 he put out The Bells, a return to keyboard textures of othee 70s albums. Lou let the guitars take a back seat to a rather adventurous, funky outing. On The Bells, he channels the loopiness of new wave as well as the unbridled excitement of Patti Smith's rock, that owed a bit to Lou himself. He also recreates the party-going, sax-led rock of the late 50s and early 60s which makes me wonder if Lou could have scored one of those retro-50s movies they used to make back in the 70s. It's not a stunning work at all but beats out the boring, difficult Lou of Sally Can't Dance and Rock & Roll Heart and even the overly dramatic Berlin. The closing track, "The Bells," capped off his 70s with radically experimental zest, employing the trumpeting of renowned jazz player Don Cherry. While featuring a livelier Reed than usual, attributed to him trying to clean up and ween himself off drugs. Growing up in Public in 1980 was more of a holding pattern and was Lou's last album with his old touring band, for Arista Records and before going clean and sober and marrying a woman (Lou had been dogged by rumours of him being gay though he just considered it healthy bisexuality and had openly dated and lived with a transsexual at one point). As Reed pulled out of his drug stupor, he was able to channel his artistry and become more menacing, raging and to the point with his music. He also touched on more down to earth issues, relevant ones for a man approaching 40 and embracing heterosexuality again. The fruitful days that lay ahead would wind up with Lou ultimately disowning drugs and brushing his 70s period as unfocused and unassertive times. Lou didn't back down or shy away from his outspokenness and was no angel despite the needed changes, but we all benefitted with superior music. 1982's The Blue Mask was a comeback in many senses, a brilliant combination of Reed's measured garage rock and his brutal poetry. 

Now married to Sylvia Morales, seemingly putting hectic life behind him, Lou gave notice he was back in a big way for the 1980s, as told through the track batting leadoff, the moving "My House," a rumination on his new beginnings and a tribute to poet Delmore Schwartz, a University professor that mentored and taught Reed. Lou's lines come from the heart, even when they're insider allusions ("'My Dadalus to your Bloom' was such a perfect wit") and especially when they're wry and worth a chuckle ("He's dead, at peace at last, that wandering jew"). The song is a tale of how at Lou's nice estate he and Sylvia pulled out a Ouija board and discovered that Schwartz's spirit was in their home. True or not, it makes for a lovely story. The Blue Mask is stripped down compared to most 70s releases by Lou, but it's not dry or hollow sounding. Feedback and guitar noise is often utilized, helped out tremendously by second guitarist Robert Quine, the first time Lou had found a guitarist more in tune to his fuzzbox, buzzsaw style and the partnership is like buttah, as they say. The Blue Mask often juxtaposes the harsh with the heavenly, in fact there's a song called "The Gun"- a slow, brooding tune with Reed singing a song of violence, threats and hostage-taking sometimes taking the point of view of the gun holder- and one called "Heavenly Arms"- a heartfelt love song to new wife Sylvia, mentioned by name in the song, with a Prince-like falsetto in the climax just to illustrate that point. Reed almost seems to be poking fun at his reputation for bisexuality with a plain, dedicated song called "Women," a rather laid-back ballad where he bluntly claims "I love women/We love women." Grim stories from the underbelly have a sense of focus here that was lacking on the drugged-out, insolent albums Reed would cut in the 70s. Stuff like the alcohol abuse story "Underneath the Bottle," the bloody murder saga "The Blue Mask" (the most feedback and distortion filled song on the album) and the vicious "Waves of Fear" crackle with a driving spark that was once absent from some of the post-Velvet Underground efforts. 

Lou's humour shines through clearer than ever on the sheepishly honest "Average Guy," where Reed takes on a character or interpretation of himself as completely average in every way, as he takes the time to thoroughly explain. Lou lists the ways he is avergae but also points out "I ain't no Christian or no born again saint" and "I ain't no criminal or Reverend cripple from the right/I'm jut your average guy trying to do what's right." This everyman quality is a lot different than the bohemian hipster speedhead he exuded in the 70s, that's for damn sure. The song is the usual simple chord arrangement though it has a slight R&B touch to it. The lighter songs, some already mentioned, show a tender, introspective but still tough side of Reed. "The Heroine" is one of those and the autobiographical "The Day John Kennedy Died" works even better. In it, Lou describes dreams of being President then contrasts that with memories from the day of JFK's November 22, 1963 assassination. Reed conjures up memories of people's reactions on that day in a way that doesn't come off as corny, maudlin or even a tribute to Kennedy, but more a transport to a pivotal time and place in American history that Reed was alive for. His singing on this album is also stronger and more confident than ever. Now 100% into his music, Lou wails, croons and hiccups with his vocals and improves on the ironic, fey and paranoid vocals that often were a problem on his 70s records where producers often filtered his vocals or double-tracked them for no gain at all. The Blue Mask was a great re-birth for Reed creatively, sort of saying goodbye to his old self (the cover acknowledges the past as it's a blue-lit version of the picture of him in his glam stage taken for Transformer) and he'd go on to do some more stellar albums over the next decade and continues to be an elder statesman worth keeping an eye on. But this 1982 album is still the perfect Lou Reed post-Narcotics album indeed. And overall, his best post-Velvets affair if you ask me.