Friday, August 7, 2009

My Greatest Albums List: Part 4, 170-161

170. Please Please Me-The Beatles (1963): After their early days in Hamburg and Liverpool, setting the local scenes on fire, the Beatles attracted the services of manager Brian Epstein in 1961 and spent 1962 still playing clubs and theatres as Epstein tried to secure a record deal. The group's genesis was in the Northwestern English port city of Liverpool. John Lennon had been the product of the stormy affair between Alf (Freddie) Lennon and Julia Stanley, married but more often apart than together. With his sea merchant father away involved in WWII, John stayed back with his mother until her marriage to Alf crumbled when his constant trips away drew her into the arms of another man. John as a young child was forced to choose and decided to stay back with Julia, although the home situation of her and her new husband, Bobby Dykins (nicknamed "Twitchy" by John) forced John's stern, caring Aunt Mimi- already rankled by her younger sister's free spirited rebellion- to take John into her care. Seeing the "sin" of her wild child sister and her new beau made Mimi step in to help make a gentleman out of the young boy. An artistically talented, witty, Lewis Carroll prototype as a youngster, Lennon eventually grew to be a tough lad who compensated for his clever intellectualism with a sharp, acerbic tongue and a physical chip on his shoulder. His 70s self would seem like an alien to 1950s, brashly young and immature John. He avoided his National Health prescribed glasses and lived in a manly teenager world of skiffle, birds (that's women for you cultured types), beer and male cammraderie (even that included what were, ahem, "wanking sessions" with his mates). 

Musically, he was first enamoured by skiffle but rock and roll liberated him from a world of unforgiving schools and potentially dead-end living. With his first band, the Quarrymen (partially a play on the fact he and his pals were attending Quarry Bank High School), he eventually turned his skiffle love into a penchant for performing the hits of the new American rock imports. By a mutual friend, he met Paul McCartney on July 6, 1957 at the Woolton Fete and after hearing him play and sing simultaneously on Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," invited him to join. Once other members had quit on the Quarrymen, Paul became a permanent member and brought along a young pal named George Harrison, more skilled at the lead style of guitar than the other two and who won over John with a performance of Duane Eddy's instrumental "Raunchy." Paul had been raised in situations much like John- that it to say, lower middle-class- with his parents accentuating the neater, tidier aspects of life, encouraging Paul to be educated and proper and not speak in a Scouse accent. He had lost his mother to breast cancer not too long before hooking up with Lennon and while he was also a fervent R&R fan, also displayed a love and talent for music hall, standard pop tunes and ballads- the origins of his life-long, whimsical way with melody. George had experienced a much more working class background, growing up in a semi-detached council flat that for a long time did not have an indoor toilet or heated water. 

Receiving a Christmas gift guitar at age 12 and befriending the year older McCartney were his two strokes of good fortune to get him to the Quarrymen. Various Quarrymen dropped by the wayside until it was a mere trio, absent a drummer, by late 1958. Beforehand they had managed to cut a low-grade recording at a pay-studio, which later became a collector's item (a cover of "That'll Be the Day" b/w a Paul-George tune called "In Spite of All the Danger) until formal release on 1995's Anthology, Vol. 1. Playing around Liverpool, their journey was one of meagre pay, few breaks and ill reception to their scruffy music. Dressed like "Teddy Boys" (British youths decked out in the leather and ducktailed hair of their rock icon idols), they strummed on acoustic guitars with dreams of fame, especially John who was in a rowdy, alcohol-blurred phase since the loss of his mother, run over in late 1958 by a drunk, off-duty policeman. While Mimi resented the rebellious side of John, Julia- an enthusiastic musician on the banjo and ukelele- promoted the fantastical idea of being a rock star to John and encouraged him and his band by teaching chords. John had a big sister relationship with his mother that oddly became an oepidal complex of sorts as for the rest of his life he kept the image of his mother as saintly and divinely sexual- he later confessed to scream therapy guru Arthur Janov about his sexual desires for her, to which Janov attributed his love for Yoko as a compensatory, subconscious need for a motherly figure to be his lover. But aside from his insecurities, John was a fearless leader of the group in this formative time. Paul's father had been slightly unsure of the career choice of his son, being wary of the rough n' ready Lennon as possible bad influence. Conversely, George- the truest Liverpudlian of the bunch, with the thick Scouse accent and wild wardrobe for drab Northern England in 1958- had the full support of his family. 

Experimenting with names like the Silver Beetles, Johnny & the Moondogs and Long John & the Silver Beatles, they would settle upon the immortal Beatle name by 1961- originally it had been a worry since Beatle was close to peedle, German slang for a boy's willy... which is slang for penis in England. This was only relevant because in the summer of 1960- after having fallen under the management of musical tycoon Alan Williams- they got a chance to hone their skills, cut their teeth and make some money in Hamburg, Germany, keeping the seemingly lost dream alive. John had been a terrible student by the end of high school, but through his drawing talent became enrolled in art college, where he befriended the Beatles' first bassist Stu Sutcliffe. At art college, Lennon continued to draw the ire of his headmasters, aware of both his skill and his drive to throw it away to be the next rock singing star. As a fallback, Paul had graduated grammar school before the Hamburg trip and George had quit school to take a job as an electrician's apprentice. Needing amps and a bass player for their Hamburg trip, Williams financed their new electric equipment while John convinced the even more talented painter Stu to come along as bassist, despite no musical training. Oh well, at least Stu was the movie star looker, the sexy Beatle and no doubt would've been the James Dean object of girls' affection if he had stuck with the Beatles. For drumming, a position occupied by many over the years, they settled on Pete Best whose mother Mona ran a Liverpool coffee house called the Casbah, where the Quarrymen had once played gigs. 

They were all set and the German trip prepared them for what they became, sharpened their performing abilities and introduced them to life's seamier side. Saying the Beatles of Hamburg were way snottier, rawer, wilder and crazier than in their popular days would be to put it lightly. With their hardcore Reeperbahn crowds, they were pushed to play loud, heavy beat rock while various acts of depravity and violence went on around them at the Indra and Kaiserkeller clubs. They seemed then more like what the Rolling Stones would represent as the antithesis to the Fab Four, Brian Epstein creation. Playing sets of 8 hours six days a week, with breaks in between at the four hour mark or so, the Beatles went through baptism by fire. They built up a huge repertoire while living in the squalor of the ladies washroom at a movie theatre next to the Indra. The atmosphere naturally led to hijinks and tomfoolery as the Beatles were ordered drinks by adoring Krauts who, when they weren't committing various sexual sins, watching strippers or bashing each other's heads in, were banging their glasses in time to the music. With a constant stream of beer, the Beatles also began to rely on Predulins, an amphetamine that could keep you up all night without getting tired, though the bulgy eyes and dry mouth- necessitating more beer- were the side effects. The German crowds grew to enjoy their act but their 1960 run came to an end when George was revealed to be 17, too young to play after 10 p.m. on the Reeperbahn. 

While George was being deported, the others got busted for supposed attempted arson when they lit a condom on the wall of the Indra trying to see in the dark as they loaded their equipment. Getting off the hook, they still had to escape on their own through many borders and train stops and boat rides on the way back to Liverpool. The trip ended badly but had not been fruitless as they befriended a few young Germans like artist/musician Klaus Voorman- the only fluent English speaker of their German mates, he'd go on to play bass for John on a few of his solo albums as well as design the cover for 1966's Revolver. Astrid Kirchner, who became Sutcliffe's fiancee, was another significant friend, the one who would most influence what became the worldwide famous Beatle look. Back home in Liverpool, the Beatles began to rouse up a following, playing a dingy wine cellar converted into a music venue called the Cavern Club. Formerly a jazz club, it had now made concessions to improve its gate and allowing rock acts like the Beatles proved a wise choice. A return engagement to Hamburg saw the Beatles graduate from the Kaiserkeller to the Top Ten Club and they were eventually hired to back fellow Liverpudlian Tony Sheridan on their first professional recordings. By this point, Stu had quit to focus on his art and reside in Germany with Astrid, though not before her French nouveau fashion knowledge had rubbed off. She gave Sutcliffe a haircut that echoed Roman coiffing, with the bangs parted down over the forehead. 

The style- then fashionable with artsy youths in France- would become known as the Beatle haircut which in England as of 1961, meant you were likely gay, weird or both- a far cry from ten years later when everyone grew their hair long and their sideburns out. Stu's decision eventually influenced George, then Paul, then John to follow suit though Pete Best relented the whole time. They even became suited in Cuban heeled boots and went from thuggish to androgynously cool overnight. The group's recordings with Tony Sheridan saw them billed as the Beat Brothers- still in a worry that Beatles sounded like peedles- and included a couple of their own tracks, John belting out a raucous version of the Twenties barbershop standard "Ain't She Sweet" and a Lennon-Harrison written, Shadows-type guitar instrumental called "Cry for a Shadow." In between were Sheridan sung spotlights, like adaptations of traditional tunes "When the Saints Go Marching in," "Sweet Georgia Brown" and the main feature, "My Bonnie (Lies Over the Ocean)." It did little for them financially but proved pivotal when back in Liverpool, it came to the attention of an upper middle class man in his late 20s named Brian Epstein. He caught wind of "My Bonnie" when, as manager of his family business record shop, several requests poured in for the disc from the contingent of Liverpool Beatle fans. When he later learned they were frequenters of the Cavern Club, he stepped in to see the small-scale Beatlemania in 1961 and figured he had a phenom on his hands, though few others shared his remarkable foresight and accurate impression of the untamed rockers. 

To John's consternation, he sought to reshape the Beatles so they could have broader appeal, making them bow after songs, wear ties and suits and he tempered down their manic stage work of jumping, kicking and generally creating mayhem. Epstein had limited managerial experience but was smart, devoted and creative when it came to getting them to the top of the heap. Without him, the Beatles might never have exploded onto the scene the way they did. Epstein was from a well-to-do Jewish family but carried the burden of being homosexual, still considered a clinical sexual perversion, social disease and mental disorder and therefore a criminal offense the world over. Lennon would unflinchingly tease Brian about this and behind his back make potshots about such things as his idea for a biography on how he discovered the Beatles ("What will it be called? Queer Jew?") and its eventual title too ("Cellarful of Noise? More like Cellarful of Boys!"). The Beatles still went back to Hamburg frequently, though their visit in April 1962 revealed to them that John's close friend Stu Sutcliffe had just died of a brain hemorrage, stemming from a parking lot attack fro angry ex-boyfriends in Liverpool a year earlier. Another crushing blow in a line of many for John- doomed to his own tragic fate as it would later turn out- it only was a sad sidenote to the Beatles rise to notoriety. Their sessions with Decca Records in January 1962 wound up in rejection, to which Epstein angrily replied by stating Decca had made a huge mistake passing on a group that would "Be bigger than Elvis." The reasoning was that guitar groups were a "passing fad" though the Beatles weird, unfocused mix of pop standards, their own Tin Pan Alley-type compositions and R&B and rock staples didn't do them any favours. 

Eventually getting EMI's Parlophone Records to accept in May 1962, the Beatles kept up their heavy workload of what they call gigging throughout England while headlining shows at the Cavern and the All-Star club in their town. Meanwhile, producer George Martin- a classically trained 36 year old veteran of producing comedy albums- was dispatched to get a hit out of the group. Their first session for EMI came in July and August of '62, and little did anyone know how much of a gigantic cashflow this "project" singing would one day bring. He saw something where no one else did, even being enamoured by their humour. For instance, when he asked them at the end if there was anything they didn't like about their first session, to which George quipped "Well, I don't like your tie." Martin suggested a Mitch Murray song called "How Do You Do it?" which only met with apprehension and disinterest from the band. John and Paul were now writing their own songs with great enthusiasm and increasing regularity. Some of their earlier work survived, while material like "Love of the Loved," "Like Dreamers Do," "Hello Little Girl" and "One After 909" would wait varying amounts of time to crop up on record. The Lennon-McCartney partnership only became the practice when Dick James established their publishing company, Northern Songs, at the end of 1962- though Paul felt miffed about it not being McCartney-Lennon like the liner notes of this Please Please Me album read. 

Epstein's management company was called NEMS and the Beatles were its principal stars. Brian would eventually procure several other chart-topping British acts like Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, turning the UK charts into a veritable Epstein talent show and Lennon-McCartney were supplying the steak and sizzle. During the sessions for "Love Me Do," their targeted first single, Pete Best was sacked, many feel at the behest of Martin, who felt he was a weak drummer. John didn't do the honours but agreed without any peep because of his commitment to succeed at any costs (he later admitted he starved for fame in the absence of a goal in life or real comfort and security). This went over like a lead balloon with the Beatles fan base, who had loved Pete as the Teddy Boy drummer and sex symbol of the band. His replacement Ringo Starr (real name Richard Starkey), had grown up in the same sort of conditions as George, just above the poverty line. While John and Paul had lost mothers, Ringo's father had died when he was only 3 but he kept the namesake even after his mother re-married to a man named Harry Graves. Ringo suffered through bouts of childhood illness and ailments that made him more fragile and sickly than most other kids. Ringo had drummed for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, another beat combo on the scene. He had filled in when he had a chance and Pete Best was absent, hitting it off with the Beatles. So he seemed a natural replacement, even if he resisted the temptation for a Beatle haircut for nearly a year before getting the makeover in mid-1963. 

Nonetheless, even Ringo was sidelined for perceived weakness at one session, relegated to play tambourine as veteran studio man Andy White drummed on "Love Me Do." There was another cut of "Love Me Do" where he did play. Despite all the hub-ub it was Ringo's version that won out as the single which, backed with the somewhat schmaltzy, cabaret-esque McCartney ballad "P.S. I Love You," only topped out at #17 on the UK charts. And that was primarily thanks to an Epstein-led campaign to order huge shipments of the record for sale to promote it as well as inculcate all the Beatle friends and family to make purchases and get word of mouth going themselves. Future uses of "Love Me Do," a simpleton of a pop song- catchy but rather plain, ordinary and dull- preferred the more upbeat Andy White version, first heard on Please Please Me. Failing to create much of a stir with their debut single, the Beatles then struck gold in a storybook manner. Lennon's Roy Orbison tribute ballad "Please Please Me" got a jolt of new life when Martin suggested they try it as an uptempo number. Originally brought up amidst the "Love Me Do" sessions, "Please Please Me" as a rocker had its tinkering undergone in November and this produced an exciting, fresh, insistent version that recalled the best of Buddy Holly crossed with Orbison and the Everlys, all three very big influences on early Beatles. Martin proudly proclaimed to the band that they'd just recorded their first #1, which turned out to be true (although only in 2 of 3 of the big UK chart trade papers, making it an unofficial #1 hit in technical terms). 

Released in January, "Please Please Me" put the Beatles on the map and raised their profile nationally. It would be a stiff when tried out in America on the small Chicago label Veejay Records in July, but it was the record that truly launched Beatlemania in their homeland. In those days, that kind of a smash demanded an LP release to cash in and in the UK, a good 13 or 14 tracks were required, or roughly half an hour of music. The Beatles were in a whirlwind of activity even in early 1963, despite yet truly being in the midst of Beatlemania, so in the middle of their touring- now reduced to performing shows that never stretched beyond 45 minute- they managed to squeeze in one long day of recording for Please Please Me on February 11, 1963. The LP had no overdubs, was cut live in the Abbey Road studios and it came out over a month later to record-breaking sales that saw it spend an ungodly 26 weeks on top of the UK album charts- though keep in mind, the 1963 landscape of British pop probably offered nothing in the league of the Beatles. However, it's still an amazing feat especially considering their next album was the one to knock it off #1 as the Beatles spent almost a year on top, 50 weeks before the Rolling Stones first album took the spot in April 1964. Please Please Me featured all the four singles tracks, which also included Lennon's tender, more traditional pop ballad "Ask Me Why," a Roy Orbison weeper at higher speed that was the flip side to "Please Please Me." 

The covers aren't all outstanding but still hold up as well as the originals, in some cases are better regarded than most of the originals. Arthur Alexander's "Anna (Go to Him)" is a rather melancholy, yet lively ballad of heartbreak with Lennon on vocals. There's also the Cookies' "Chains," given a typically peppy cover with George Harrison and McCartney sharing vocal duties. The Shirelles' "Boys" is a frenetic, dizzying performance with Ringo throatily belting out the lead vocals and turning the song's doo-wop origins into a Reeperbahn stage burner. Another Shirelles number, "Baby it's You" is a fantastic, aching ballad with the Beatles taking on the interplay of the Shirelles vocal arrangement, Lennon on lead vocals and the song possessing a quality knack for gentleness and a soothing pop mood. The vocal performances of the album sound a little odder than later recordings because the Beatles were feeling the effects of the winter cold, Lennon in particular having his sinuses suffer. Of course they had a huge candy jar of lozenges and cigarettes to help them- yeah somehow people thought smoking could help clear the sinuses back then. The musical standard, "A Taste of Honey" is nothing much but McCartney and the harmony vocals deliver some true emotion to it as the Beatles proved they could handle traditional standards with difficult chord changes. Their version of "Twist and Shout," a 1962 Isley Brothers R&B hit, has become the definitive version. Lennon gives his larynx a beating as it is raw and ragged after the long day's session while the Beatles deliver more power than the Isleys' original with only four instruments as opposed to their Latinized, horn-drenched recording.

In all its presence in pop culture since '63, it's easy to forget what a sensational cover "Twist and Shout" was. A three-way vocal feat of excitement, it showed there was just something extra, something untapped in what the Beatles were presenting to the youths in 1963. Of course, "Twist and Shout" would get overplayed to death thanks to the Beatles own music becoming too difficult to achieve live and their early favourites still being easy crowd pleasers. It must have been incredibly tiresome to be playing "Twist and Shout" that final concert at San Fransisco's Candlestick Park August 29, 1966 but they still did it. At that point, the Fab Four could feel the encroachment of stale repetitiveness threatening to make them redundant and old-hat, so the finalization of their touring days was doubly relieving- from a musical standpoint as well as a personal safety standpoint. As for their newest stuff, well the classic 50s rocker "I Saw Her Standing There" demonstrated their dominance of Little Richarx-style boogie as Paul delivers a rip-roaring vocal in a song of teenage love and dancing that Chuck Berry could be proud of. The Harrison-sung, Lennon-penned "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is innocent, mysterious and bubbly pop that stemmed from a memory of John's infancy when Julia sang to him a tune from the Disney cartoon Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, "Wishing Well." The desperate "Misery" is like a weeper right up the Orbison alley, with George Martin throwing in a classical piano bit that echoes classical no less and takes a new element to this Everlys-meet-Smokey Robinson delivery. 

The original cuts are highlighted, in my estimation, by "There's a Place." Another sub-2 minute inclusion, it features a tight vocal interplay between John and Paul, John's wailing harmonica interludes and an urgent, vivid chorus, plus a plaintive middle-eighth. Expert songwriting already, by two super charged talents. This is also an early hint at John's inward reflection on his unordinary genius. It beat Brian Wilson's "In My Room" by almost a year as one of the first introspective, starkly personal offerings in 60s rock & roll. Maybe the "place, where I can go" was the same tree where John professed to be in alone on "Strawberry Fields Forever" four years later ("No one I think is in my tree," which John explained was a line about how as a child he wondered if anyone was truly on his plane of existence intellectually). In 70s interviews, Lennon recalled that as a child he pondered the idea that he was either a genius or insane because he was on such a higher level of comedy and intellectualism than his peers. All in all, the Beatles made so many great albums you might as well start here because, well, it was the start! No one Beatle dominates, though it's clear to see how John is the central figure and commanding presence no matter what sort of song he's singing. Please Please Me is a more unrefined, unpolished and raw than any studio album they would ever do and it- along with perhaps the out-of-print but very worthy Live at the BBC- best captures what the 1960-63 Beatles were all about.

169. Something/Anything?-Todd Rundgren (1972): Upper Darby, Pennsylvania product Todd Rundgren had been intent on becoming a  for a living since his teens when the British Invasion inspired millions to pick up a guitar and write cool tunes to impress the chicitas. Rundgren became an accomplished axeman but also could handle drums, keyboards and other instruments here and there. He made it to a high profile gig when he was in (the) Nazz, a sort of garage-meets-psychedelic rock outfit that managed a couple classics with the yearning Motown-ish ballad "Hello it's Me" and the trippy, Zen-rocking "Open My Eyes." During 1969, Rundgren dropped out of the group, unsupportive of their direction because management tried pushing them as a teenybopper act a la the Monkees. Rundgren had arrived in the big time as part of the Nazz just a youthful, carefree musician but came out as a burgeoning studio whiz. Learning about engineering and studio fidelity, Rundgren soon branched into engineering and producing other's records. His first big job was landed as engineer on the Band's 1970 album Stage Fright. To no shock, the Band and him didn't meet eye to eye on a lot of issues but his work at the controls definitely brought a superior sound quality and a sonic fidelity to a previously dryly recorded group- check out how he makes them sound on tracks like "The Shape I'm in" and "Strawberry Wine." Later he would produce works by the New York Dolls, Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, the Psychedelic Furs and Cheap Trick among many others. When he left Nazz, Rundgren formed a trio called Runt (a play on his first name's first syllable) in order to play some softer music than Nazz let him try as well as harder rocking. Runt consisted of himself on guitars, piano and other instruments while brothers Hunt (drums) and Tony (bass) Sales rounded out the trio- both being the son of legendary comedian Soupy Sales. 


Rundgren got to more explicitly show his love of the Beach Boys, Beatles and British rock of the 60s in general not to mention his love of softer R&B (like Motown or Curtis Mayfield) and singer-songwriters contemporary to the time like Carole King and Laura Nyro, both of whom his piano chord patterns echoed very closely. He particularly was heavily influenced by Nyro, whose finger-popping "brave white girl sings Motown soul" act was a new, startling thing on the late 60s scene. He took to writing ballads a lot like hers. On 1970's Runt, later just credited to Todd alone, he explored guitar workouts at the same time- not unlike Hendrix gone demo with tracks like "Broke Down and Busted" and "Birthday Carol" (which had an eerily similar chord vamp to Van Morrison's "Moondance," also from 1970 and pledged gratitude to the work of Laura Nyro, serenading her by first name). Todd's blankety ballad style produced the unforgettable "We Gotta Get You a Woman," a top 40 hit late in the year. His 1971 followup Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren was even better, this time featuring N.D. Smart on drums for all but one cut. Still, Todd wrote the songs and laid down all the other necessary parts. The album cover displayed what would be pervasive throughout his dizzying career- a macabre, mischievous, self-deprecating sense of humour (he named an early 80s album of his The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect for example)- as we get a snapshot of Todd from behind, sitting at the piano on his stool, revealing him to have a noose tied around his neck, part of a rope hanging from the ceiling above. Incorrigible as he was, it was vintage gallows humour. It was actually designed by Ron Mael of Sparks, a band Rundgren produced in their pre-Sparks form, a group called Halfnelson. 


On Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Todd improved the sound quality while showing ability to make overdubs but keep his compositions seamless and concise as if a four of five piece band was laying it down live. Todd's studio wizardry was already evident but working on his own showed him to be gifted with multitracking superiority, earning comparisons to Paul McCartney who was giving us homespun, one-man band efforts (one, McCartney, being incredibly primitive and mostly dull and the other, Ram, being a more concerted effort to leap between styles with panache and a chameleon's touch). Toned down of Runt's harder rocking, tongue-in-cheek tendencies- though "Bleeding," "Chain Letter" and "Parole" fall in line with the hard rock of the time they are more tuneful than what came on the predecessor LP- there were even more radiant ballads like "Be Nice to Me" (a dead ringer for Carole King), "Long Time and a Long Way to Go," "Boat on the Charles," "Wailing Wall," "Hope I'm Around" and "Remember Me" (featuring stunningly good multi-tracked vocal harmonies from Todd). Meanwhile, he infused his soul leanings into harmony-driven diamonds like "Long Flowing Robe." Never again has he loaded an album of his with such tender, carefully thought out ballads. Todd also proved he was a very good vocalist too, able to tackle the Philly soul leanings of his music in a way most white singers couldn't hope to achieve. 


Critics enthused about him, but commercial success was a little harder to come by. Not that Todd wanted it because with Something/Anything?, he achieved that and then spent the next few years indulging in prog-rock, cosmic/Eastern influences and studio gadgetry that rendered him a popular cult artist and in the 80s he added multimedia entrepreneur to his resume. In 1972 Todd had the strong stockpile of songs and the confidence to go it alone, so he took to his favourite haunts- the recording studio- to churn out a sensational four sides of work, three of which featuring him on every single part. Something/Anything? earned him many accolades from those looking for a man who could bring back the finely crafted pop that made 60s radio so timeless. Elton John was rejected by purists and his comparisons to the Beatles came both in positive and negatives forms (one being that he was the successor to the Beatles, the other saying that he was nowhere near as important or revolutionary no matter how self-important or grandeur Bernie Taupin tried to manufacture). Meanwhile many glam rockers topping the headlines- Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, etc.- were considered too rudimentary and appealing to a low common denominator. Appropriately enough, Todd in 1972-73 would get caught up in the spirit, adopting very glam rock fashion by dressing effeminately in space age suits, sparkles, makeup and face paint. Meanwhile, Todd took the torch left over by the Beatles on this double LP but unlike The White Album, his filler doesn't hold up as well and who can blame him since he was writing every track himself? That's pretty much why this album doesn't muster what it takes to be top 100. 


But for every throwaway for the scrap heap, there are two worthwhile listens. And to put it bluntly, some immaculately crafted pop. Throughout the album and its liner notes, the still teenage-geared Todd, only 23 years of age at the time by the way, exudes self-deprecating wit and audacious high school humour. The real novel idea was to make side four completely live with Todd leading a rehearsed, large ensemble and so we get in-between song banter, jokes as well as mistakes, false starts and a few bum notes. Before he went straight out into left field for the incredibly bizarre and erratic A Wizard, A True Star (1973) this was the last of the softer-edged Todd people would hear for a while. His production values skyrocketed on A Wizard... until it was as if Todd had concocted a wall of sound to marinate his music in and flex his production muscles to the world. On Something/Anything? the production is great for a one-man effort but it doesn't really have to be because the quality is so above expectations. Side 1, which Todd in the liner notes anoints as "a bouquet of ear-catching melodies," has bountiful pop hooks and arrangements starting immediately with one of his great tracks, "I Saw the Light." Unlike the identically titled Hank Williams song, Todd's is a hopeful, emboldened scenario about realizing the spark through the eyes of a lover. Also in the liner notes, Todd claims to be lifting the Motown aesthetic of front loading the album with the potential hits and boy he isn't kidding. "I Saw the Light" recalls Carole King and Laura Nyro to a tee, only better and more R&B. 


A bit of George Harrison is detected in the slide guitar work and a melodically inventive solo sees Todd harmonize with his slide and non-slide playing. Todd creates perhaps his most heart-wrenching song for track #2, the Philly soul-styled "It Wouldn't Have Made a Difference," which incorporates synthesizers onto his piano based arrangement as well as gorgeous multi-tracked harmonies. It's as powerful a song about a sad, failed relationship as anything else 1972 provided (that I can think of) and Todd conjures up real blue lines like the chorus's "It wouldn't really make any difference/If you really loved me/You just did not love me." He ends his verses with the regretful remark, "But those days are through." He emulates Motown again, as well as Memphis soul, on the tribute to the namesake of the song's title, "Wolfman Jack." It would have made a great Martha & the Vandellas tune, even slightly resembling the Four Tops' "Baby I Need Your Loving" in the opening "Ooos." "Cold Morning Light" harkens back to his winning balladry on Runt: The Ballad... but there's more bittersweetness and easy listening sheen thanks to beautiful flourishes of acoustic guitar and flute. The loping, keyboard-heavy "It Takes Two to Tango (This is for the Girls)" has many untypical chord changes though it's not one of side 1's stronger inclusions. "Sweeter Memories" has the lazy autumn day feel of a Van Morrison song, only with less exerted jazz and soul influences. Side 2, "The Cerebral Side," begins with something that could easily be considered a flippant waste of time were it not for Todd's educational goofiness. It's an "Intro" where Todd guides the listener through sounds of the studio such as hiss, hum, editing and phasing. 


Then, Rundgren challenges the listener to see if he/she can pick out these effects on a gadgety little, 100% synth-based instrumental called "Breathless," which sounds like a lost track from a science fiction soundtrack or an early sneak peek at what video game music would sound like 15-20 years later. Also, as it turned out, "Breathless" was as a sign of the extraterrestrial rocket launches Todd's music would take, namely in his progressive and futuristic band Utopia- an acquired taste for those more appreciative of Todd's solo work. If you think "Breathless" is weird, skip ahead to albums like Initiation (1976) which is in the midst of a period where a lot of Todd's heavy, serious music aficionados get all dewey-eyed and swell with pride in prophetic terms about the amazing exploits of Mr. Todd Rundgren- radically announcing "Todd is Godd" as if on top of Kilimanjaro. You know. Those kinds of fanboys (or fangirls seeing as how Todd had a sort of effeminate, rascally sex appeal in his 70s heyday). It's also around the point I begin to lose interest in the guy but one can't stay on the odyssey of a wildly engaging pop music svengali I suppose (Hey, why not!? Why'd you have to be so ambitious and full of experimental gall there Todd?). "The Night the Carousel Burned Down" sticks closely to its carnival theme musically but is still indeed a cerebral ballad affair. Todd gives his first true great track since "Cold Morning Light," via the glistening "Saving Grace." Its drum beat kicks in later on as do the guitars, making it a lot like "I Saw the Light" only with more rhythmic variance and tempo switches. "Saving Grace" would have made a hit single for Todd if he'd bothered to get his label (Bearsville) to do so, but alas he's the kind of artist who can make album tracks sound like billboard chart toppers. 


Less dense is the exalted, doo-wop meets jazz of "Marlene," another prime example of Todd's superior gifts as a composer not to mention as an arranger since he drags out vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel alongside his piano. "Song of the Viking" has a sing-songy melody where Todd jumps between his normal range and falsetto. The vocal arrangement is tricky, wordy and a real neat characteristic that saves this song from the "filler" categorization. It sounds like a chestnut taken right out of the Brian Wilson songbook and that's a pretty special compliment. "I Went to the Mirror" alternates between blues-jazz piano groaner- not unlike Randy Newman gone cynical and stripped away of his New Orleans and orchestral Hollywood soundtrack structures- and dopey German oompah beer hall number. That half-cocked bridge doesn't stand out negatively and the song a reminder of why Rundgren was often favourably compared to Paul McCartney. Rundgren downplays his considerable vocal talents to sort of mutter along in a lower register for "I Went to the Mirror" which officially closes disc 1, side 2 (I'm sticking to the originally intended running order of the vinyl days because CD has robbed us of our ability to compartmentalize music by its distinctly flavoured side and disc separations. The CD age has only been beneficial for albums that were intended to be heard as one continuous whole). Nonetheless, side 2's downcast mood is livened up by side 3, a tour de force of soaring, blazing rock- a side he titles "The Kid Gets Heavy." This all kicks off with the most authentic Hendrix recreation Todd had ever put together to that point, the sexy and psychedelic "Black Maria" (pronounced mar-eye-ah though) which became a live favourite for its riff-happy, toweringly heavy sound. Yet, the recorded version is pure Todd. 


He flashes his underrated guitar skills while crafting a deceptively menacing song simultaneously rife with mistrust and fatal attraction. The folky "One More Day (No Word)" is a lot like the instrumental setting of "Cold Morning Light" only with more keyboard layering. It's another impressive album cut that gives way to the scintillating power pop of "Couldn't I Just Tell You," a song with a kinship to Big Star, a group doing similar stuff to what Todd was up to, only with guitars dominating and a disgraceful lack of national promotion that abused their deserving talents (more on them later). It's an angrier plea than what Rundgren usually did, coming off as a personal confession of a man who's sick of secrets, lies, unfaithfulness, etc. It was a very minor hit single compared to "I Saw the Light" (#16 peak) and "Hello it's Me" (#5 peak), only scraping into the Hot 100 and fizzling out a #93. It should've been a top 20 hit in its own right but hey, life ain't fair right? The song maybe doesn't have the professional touch, seemingly left in a form most would consider to be demo. That's part of its bash-and-pop charm though, featuring a boyish but insistent Rundgren singing his ass off with demands like "Why can't I talk with you?/And make it loud and clear?" "Torch Song" is a bit steep into the Laura Nyro territory but in a rather boring way as the song sounds like a third-drawer piano ballad. Hey, it's still better than 90% of what that Billy Joel churned out, and "Torch Song" is remarkably similar to what kind of singer-songwriter crud Joel was trying in his early years before realizing he needed to tap his inner Irving Berlin and Neil Diamond to move units. 


The most gobbledygook, mindless piece of enjoyment on the album is his Zeppelin-esque "Little Red Lights," chocked with a tough backbeat, fuzzy and freaky riffs and silly vocals. It borders on filler but Todd's manic delivery scores some brownie points. Side four is the brainchild of Todd's adventurous musical spirit, deciding to record live-in-the-studio songs with a variety of session musicians. He dubs the side "Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots (A Pop Operetta)." The first cut is a medley- "Overture: My Roots- Money That's What I Want/Messin' with the Kid" where we hear a lo-fi, tape recorded version of Motown's genesis hit "Money, That's What I Want" done in high school in Upper Darby, PA by a band Todd was in and done not so hot either might I add. Then comes a muffled recording of a acidic blues rocker from when he was in a band called Woody's Truck Stop, a cover of a Junior Wells number, "Messin' with the Kid." These are just Todd's own mementos of his formative musical experiences but the side four journey begins on the Leon Russell's Mad Dogs and Englishmen ringer, "Dust in the Wind." Here we find Todd at his piano backed by female singers, horns, drums, bass, guitar and an organ played by co-writer of the song Mark Klingman. Out comes Todd's wonderfully moronic "Piss Aaron," a sort of countrified comedy about someone recollecting the "Gross out king" schoolmate of theirs who seemed to have a real problem with- nay, who seemed to get a real kick out of- unloading his bladder anywhere he pleased. 


Well if you need any reason to listen to in between the songs, Todd often gives you some with his amusing off-the-cuff dialogue, such as a rant about needing a Coca Cola to stay attentive plus a line of "I'll play anything you want, just throw money! That's gonna be the title of the album, 'Throw Money.'" There's also a few false starts before "Hello it's Me" and crack-ups that get "You Left Me Sore" off to a rocky start, including one where a backup female quips "I think I'm in love with the singer." (It's not all slapdash- On "You Left Me Sore" we do get one hilarious instance where Todd takes an a capella for a singing of "you" that he extends into a self-deprecating, off-key howling moan that garners many a laugh. Just listen to the extended suite yourself for a real taste.). Speaking of "Hello it's Me," it follows "Piss Aaron" as the album's surprise smash hit, a tune that's still identified with Todd and that few know is a re-recording of a ballad he did with the Nazz. This version is sped up- a smart decision- and coated with a lot of ambience that replicates the Philly Soul of the period, a popular sound Todd was eager to catch the crest of. "Hello it's Me" is anchored by a great melody and chord structure that ties the verses, chorus and bridge in so expertly that you'd think it had been written by the Beatles. A key change near the end only furthers the pop splendor and climaxes a surefire classic and indeed it is well-remembered today, chiefly for being Todd's highest charting single (and only top 5 hit). For just a moment in 1972, Todd seemed a pop pioneer in a way Elton John could only hope to lay a finger on in all his mechanized hooks and world-worn cliches glory. 


Todd just had an unstoppable zeal on Something/Anything? that permits him try his hand at, well, anything. Rundgren lets his inner funk space child take a walk on the wild side with the tasty "Some Folks is Even Whiter Than Me" (reminscent of the long solo section the Stones did on "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?" just a year prior). It's an amusing send-up of how white guys imitate soul singers. But never fear him trying to show off that ability, as Todd boasts "I got myself stuck right in the middle and that's just where I wanna be." Todd once again strikes you with an aura of mischievous amusement at what he observes. Amidst cascading piano and wailing sax, Todd gets away from the keys to play a little gee-tar on "Some Folks" and when that happens you can bet that's when his rock n' roller persona emerges (see "Black Maria" for confirmation of that theory). "You Left Me Sore" is a spritely sort of neo doo-wop via the singer-songwriter forum. It's another tune not to be taken too seriously as Todd acts the hurt and wounded man done wrong by his lady. Still, there's not too much of a sad tinge, more of a loverlorn, jilted fool act being put on and it tickles one's funny bone to hear it expressed in Todd's tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink sort of manner. More maliciously funny is the finale, a kooky bluesy soul raver called "Slut," where Todd lists all the unattractive features of this slutty girl, but puts that all aside to focus on the wonderful virtues that make him love her ("She's got saggy thighs/And baggy eyes/But she loves me in a way I can still recognize"). 


Beefy sax once again blows through a track on this "operetta." Ultimately, we hear Todd concede "S! L! Uuu. T!/She may be a slut but she looks good to me." On that whacky, ribald note, Something/Anything? comes to an end. Though it carries plenty of minor, unimpressive tracks, it's also a bounty full of pop treasure, with Rundgren spreading his wings and coming through on the budding potential his first two albums entailed, only dropping the "Runt" angle to go by his own name. Rundgren has bedazzled ever since, though erratically with his own records and moreso for his interactive breakthroughs, riding at the front wave of many music visual functions (ie. video, CD-rom, internet). Rundgren's mentality of "the more, the better"- his proverbial lack of an internal filter or lack of the key gumption to edit his own work- gave all his warts a display on this double LP, but was the enemy of A Wizard, a True Star- a mammoth hour long record on just one LP- and the leaden 1974 double album Todd. Critics became lost and flustered with him by the mid-70s though Todd won a multitude of hardcore fans as possessive and applauding of their resident genius as anybody else's fanbase. Still, Rundgren has greeted us with a few good albums and many great tunes the rest of the way. Yet it's 1972's Something/Anything? that represents his pinnacle as well as a period where he nurtured and sustained a reputation as an unparalleled tunesmith. The pop acceptability Todd so readily encountered gave him a sort of credibility and fame that was so burdensome for him that he consciously retreated into cult worship and boldly experimental phases of artistic development. The moment his career became top 10 fare, he bolted for alternative, though not exactly greener, pastures.


168. L.A. Woman-The Doors (1971): The Doors had been the purveyors of the seamy side of L.A. rock for several years by 1971. But while nothing within the band had changed, its reputation and the state of lead singer Jim Morrison was quite different by then. Morrison had gone from a sex symbol, pin-up bad boy to a bearded, paunchy, alcoholic hooligan within 3 years. His poetic prowess remained, but his voice had hardened and become gruffer by the time recording began for the Doors' sixth studio album. Several controversial on-stage acts finally built up to an incident where the audience reportedly had Jimmy's Johnson (not the football coach) exposed to them, at Jimmy's own provocation, at a concert in Miami, Florida. After an arrest and conviction, the Doors became handcuffed themselves- when it came to performing live in the U.S. throughout 1970 that is. Following Morrison Hotel, their album from 1970 that was considered a bounce-back from the disappointment of their previous LP The Soft Parade, the Doors decided to strip back the pretension and inciting of anarchy to find their love for the blues again. This means we get some distinctively sanctifying keyboard work from Ray Manzarek and some bluesy leads from Robby Krieger. L.A. Woman certainly benefits from this return to roots and only the closer, "Riders on the Storm," echoes the scope and reach of their past, sometimes overblown epics (though it is not one of those, thank God). Morrison was still on a collision course with ultimate rock star demise, drinking like a sailor while L.A. Woman was made- one wild rumour had him guzzling 36 cans of beer in one day's session- and just months away from retiring to Paris to pursue his muse of poetry, leaving the Doors in limbo. 

This album would turn out to be Morrison's final work and was practically the end of the Doors, though they soldiered on for a couple years in vain on albums featuring a revolving cast of lead singers, and would reunite in the late 90s to undergo several moderate to low key reunion tours, without drummer John Densmore after 2001- he who objected strenuously to the Doors parading around without its spiritual core. For the reunions, star vocalists were brought on, including a lengthy stint by Morrison-esque Ian Astbury, former lead man in the 80s hard rockers the Cult. The Doors founding came in the mid-60s, out of the ashes of one of Ray Manzarek's R&B cover groups with his brothers, Rick & the Ravens. In 1965, the classically trained keyboardist ran into Jim Morrison on the beach one day and struck up a conversation, having known him as a fellow film school student at UCLA. When they got to discussing music, Morrison said he had begun writing lyrics to rock songs and sampled "Moonlight Drive," which impressed Manzarek who then discovered Jim had an eagerness for singing, a talent he had been shy about and hiding from most. John Densmore was brought in after getting to know Manzarek via yoga classes. When Robbie Krieger joined in, the future lineup was locked in. The Doors used 1966 to build themselves up from local newbies to future rock stars by year's end. Manzarek was the veteran of the band, already 26 by the time the classic lineup was formed, well older than the 22-year old Morrison, 21-year old Densmore and 20-year old Krieger. Manzarek was able to get the band as a well-oiled blues and R&B machine but it was the frontman, non-instrumentalist Morrison who was crucial in implementing his dark, nihilistic, Shaman poetry into the Doors. The group name was derived from the title to Aldous Huxley's 1954 novel The Doors of Perception

A long-winding, improvisational side of the group reflected jazz, which was in Densmore's background and tastes while Krieger brought a jazziness to guitar but in his own singular style that was fingerpicked a la bluegrass (he never used picks) and flirted with Spanish classical and Flamenco guitar. Morrison pushed the group's themes and lyrical content to the known extremities for a 1966 rock group. When the Doors were in a stint as the house band at the popular L.A. rock club Whiskey-a-Go-Go, Morrison was tripping on LSD during a particularly long performance of their apocalyptic elegy "The End," when he began improvising lines he had lifted from Oepidus Rex, specifically the aspect of it where the son wants to kill his father and copulate with his mother. The line- "Father? Yes son? I want to kill you! Mother? I want to fuck you!!!"- prompted the club manager to blackball the Doors from performing there ever again. Luckily for the Doors, small folk label Elektra had their president Jac Holzman in attendance for two shows of theirs at the Whisky, on the advice of Arthur Lee from Elektra newcomers Love. He signed the band up in August 1966 and they soon went into the studio, where they cut their startlingly bizarre and grim debut self-titled album. Using producer Paul Rothchild and engineer Bruce Botnick started what would be a fruitful teaming. Despite its nasty, ominous, unsettling edge, the album was a smash hit classic right away, propelled by the single "Light My Fire" which- clipped down to 3 minutes from 7 for radio airplay- would shoot to #1 and was also amazingly the first song written by Krieger. Morrison was no conformist or willing rock pin-up boy, even though he was a much-photographed, mythologized and revered anti-authority figure in his threateningly youthful "Young Lion" prime which included his trademark leather pants with the chain-link belt along with his wavy, long locks of hair. 

Adding to his reputation, on The Ed Sullivan Show, against the producer's requests, he refused (forgot, some say) to change the lyric from the song of "You know that I would be untrue/You know that I would be a liar/If I was to say to you/'Girl, we couldn't get much higher." Much of this was exaggerated and taken out of context in Oliver Stone's loony 1991 biopic The Doors. On record, the Doors unleashed their followup late in 1967, Strange Days, proved a strong seller too, even if critics noted it was not as revelatory as their first record and had some weak points (for instance the 1:30 a cappella spoken word maniacal raving poetry of Morrison called "Horse Latitudes"). The descent into the abyss proved rather formulaic, familiar and at times laugh out loud stupid on their next album, the mixed bag Waiting for the Sun in 1968- their only #1 studio LP by the way. Morrison's proposed suite, "The Celebration of the Lizard King," was rejected by the others and only briefly appeared on "Not to Touch the Earth," identified in the line "I am the Lizard King/I can do anything." Despite the "weird scenes inside the gold mine" as Jimbo would say, Krieger was capable of a second #1 single with the bubblegummy, acid-washed pop of "Hello I Love You," a song that divided critics and was disliked by Morrison. Amidst the blitz of fame, Morrison was beginning to cause commotion at the Doors' concerts, clashing with police and inciting riots alike. When he began to take his alcohol dependence onto the stage with him, matters further deteriorated as the formerly dependent Morrison became an unpredictable liability. He was largely distracted for their fourth LP, 1969's The Soft Parade, based on trying to get publishing for his works of poetry. This allowed Robbie Krieger to get deeply involved, writing or co-writing 5 of the 9 numbers. 

Nonetheless, it was a mediocre offering because the archetypal Doors cuts were second-rate and most of the experiments were haphazard and unmemorable. Bluegrass (the middle section of "Runnin' Blue"), soul (the rest of "Runnin' Blue"), AM radio pop ("Tell All the People"), country ("Easy Ride"), jazz-rock ("Touch Me"), classical rock ("Wishful Sinful") and baroque pop ("The Soft Parade") all meet with mixed results. "Touch Me" is perhaps the strongest track but its harpsichord, lavish strings and horns tend to distract from what's really just a jazzy, sinister standout when stripped to its core. Either way, it crept into the US top 5 when made a single and became an oldie staple, almost a sarcastic foray into the romantic, drippy pablum of top 40 radio of the late 60s. At least Jim Morrison probably felt that way. When the legal issues of 1969 arrived, Morrison reacted to it by toning down his wild stage act, dressing like some sort of homeless, wise shaman by growing a beard, wearing aviator sunglasses and the leather was ditched as well. The slithering, writhing, hopped-up stage demeanour was scaled back as he would sometimes stand lucidly or sit on a stool, though Morrison still had issues with the bottle no doubt. 1970's Morrison Hotel reestablished their blues mastery and found the poetry mixed in better than perhaps had ever been achieved by the Doors. Songs like "Roadhouse Blues," "Peace Frog" and "You Make Me Real" were a welcome shift toward harder, grungier blues rock that echoed the Stones and steered away from the Tommy James & the Shondelles territory they'd been in danger of crossing into. The mystical Doors were at their height again on "Blue Sunday," "Waiting for the Sun" and "Indian Summer." But Morrison was growing less enamoured by the rock side of his career and eventually prompted the cessation of touring for the Doors as 1971 dawned. 

Looking to score a consensus critical and commercial bonanza, the Doors took the blues to an even more dedicated level while writing their catchiest, grooving epics yet and ones that didn't rely on the hyperbole, theatrics and shock value anger of past recordings. Adding their own dirty, down home touch, accentuated by Morrison's sometimes intellectual lyrical approach to the blues, the Doors crank out solid blues-rock with the down-and-out, riches-to-rags story "The Changeling," the lead track. The gruff, perturbed vocals of Morrison work like a fine wine, or quenching beer if you prefer, that draws you in like a gravitational force. With one of the most competent blues rocking American bands behind him, Morrison has never sounded so raunchy yet relaxed, so convicted yet so laid back. On "The Changeling," the Doors smoke like the Stax Records session players (aka Booker T & the MGs). One of the three classic rock radio staples from this album is "Love Her Madly," a seductively erotic Morrison tale, punctuated by a New Orleans/honky tonk piano and organ during the from Manzarek during the middle eighth. Krieger's melodic guitar gives one of the simplest, yet deceptively catchy solos you'll ever hear. The dirty blues of the angry "Been Down So Long" goes even further than the Doors ever ventured before, cutting away any of the pretenses of unsettling poetry or drug-induced anarchy to give us the crying guitars of Krieger, one track of guitar is slide work for the first time on a Doors recording. The languid "Cars Hiss By My Window" is reminiscent of Muddy Waters' "You Shook Me" and a cover of the blues standard "Crawling King Snake" also takes the blues to a snail's pace, letting it soak in rather than beat you over the head with their jamming. 

The title track for this LP is an eight-minute suite, featuring several tempo and dynamic changes, bluesy phrasings and even rockabilly and samba breakdowns for some spice and/or variety. There's also sporadic honky-tonk piano from Manzarek to give it some 50s flavour. Morrison is in top form, heard repeatedly growling out memorable lines until they're practically mantras- for instance, "Mr. Mojo Risin'." "L.A. Woman" is Morrison's devilish come-on to a particularly alluring chick, the object of his desire... and the Lizard King could often have a huge burning desire. It's a sultry, swampy journey through the heat and the allures of the City of Angels. "L.A. Woman" is essentially one of the Doors strongest and one of its must-hear tracks. There is still enough room for the Doors to explore their artiness on L.A. Woman. The sometimes spoken-word poetic "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" combines blues with chord changes that echo a German barrelhouse Kurt Weil operetta composition, evoking memories of their esoteric cover of his "Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)" on their debut. Even more twisted is the dissonant marching beat "L'America," an avant-garde that falls short of expectations on an otherwise stellar album. The tenth and final song, "Riders on the Storm," hints at a new direction for the Doors that never came to fruition, an even jazzier vamp than anything from before. Going for a cooler, smokier, cryptic atmosphere than anything they'd ever attempted, the Doors crafted a fitting finale, though no one knew it at the time. 

Manzarek's electric piano is alternately jazzy, bluesy and classical in this song, as it washes over with grace, much like the raindrop sound effects adorning the song. A typically poetic Morrison affair, "Riders on the Storm" covers aspects like murder and the kind of advice we'd come to expect from Jimbo- "Girl you gotta love your man/Take him by the hand/Make him understand." "Riders on the Storm" is such a haunting, poignant moment that it leaves you wanting more from the Doors and Morrison, but alas this was the final hurrah, as Jim would leave the band after the sessions to retire to Paris, France with his girlfriend Pamela. Then to ultimately put a damper on talks of reuniting, Morrison died on July 27, 1971 of mysterious causes- only deemed so because the Parisian police did such a shoddy investigation. It's believed he was killed by a heroin overdose or a drug and alcohol induced heart failure, just over a month after the album's release. Morrison was not a junkie, though he did use and his alcohol and drug habits went into high gear during his months in France, no doubt brought about by being so far from the friends he had and being stationed out in Paris with his junkie girlfriend. He had followed his muse by moving there, but it would be his final resting place. Jim lived fast and died young but even if you find Jim a pompous jackass and an untalented singer or lyricist, he left an indelible mark on rock mythology whether you like it or not. L.A. Woman was the pinnacle of the Doors, a time when they had finally been through the ups and downs, the rigours of rock stardom and understood what it was that made them tick. Too bad this would have been their final album for a while and when Morrison passed away, it was the last time we would ever hear from the intact, legendary lineup. Then again, death tends to immortalize an artist to the point where their greatness is double fold because no one ever got the chance to hear a decline or a point where their artistic integrity was jeopardized (although one could argue The Soft Parade was that low moment but they rebounded from it so well).

167. Let's Get it on-Marvin Gaye (1973): After breaking the shackles of Motown's strict system (see this blog's first post from back in January about how Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye changed the approach to the LP in black music during the 70s), Marvin Gaye unleashed the highly regarded topical album What's Going on. His frank pursuit of expressing the downside of the Vietnam War made Gaye unparalleled among black musicians of his time because he decided to look at sociopolitical issues seriously instead of just as a half-baked (arguable) gimmick, if at all. But there was the steamy, sensual, erotic side of Gaye, one previously given only a tiny look at, even in his most romantic, breathlessly passionate work with Tammi Terrell in the late 60s. On this 1973 slow groove, bedroom jams collection, Gaye bares his innermost feelings, as if it was the self-centered opposite to What's Going on- though no less fearless in its scope. After the aforementioned 1971 landmark, Gaye became a highly regarded artist. Whereas he had been praised previously for his Motown assembly line hits, his sanctifying vocals and the odd songwriting contribution, Gaye had never been considered a serious artist. However, there were always signs that amidst a talented Motown roster, he was something altogether special. His voice was something to behold; vivacious, smooth, sensual, a range of over three octaves and yet wracked with pain, guilt and self-doubt, all attributes that dogged his all too brief life. He had grown up Marvin Gay Jr. in Washington DC, since being born there in 1939, the son of a minister in a breakaway sect of Christianity called the House of God- it combined teachings of Orthodox Judaism and Pentecostalism. 

His father was a strange, sternly abusive man who had cross-dressing tendencies and had the attention of his fearful son, who demonstrated a musical talent that brought him into the "New" Moonglows in the late 50s. His entry into the Moonglows came at the end of the 50s following Marvin leaving home at 17, quitting school and joining the U.S. Air Force. Doo-wop group the Moonglows had been re-modeled by Harvey Fuqua, who took the leadership reins and proclaimed it the "Harvey and the New Moonglows." Fuqua even ran his own label but came under Motown's team when Berry Gordy bought out the label and brought on some of its talent, which included Fuqua's protege Gaye (the 'e' added for a degree of professionalism plus in the spirit of Marvin idol Sam Cooke who had added an 'e' to his name after leaving the gospel Soul Stirrers for pop stardom in the mid-50s). Marvin started as a session musician drummer- he can be heard rolling on the toms on Motown's first #1 pop hit "Please Mister Postman" as well as the live #1 version of (Little) Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips, Pt. 2"- but was also being groomed as a singing star up the avenue of a Nat King Cole. Gordy had first tried to push the Motown winning pop-R&B formula on Gaye, but Marvin resisted, with his intent being to croon standards and love songs like his vocal heroes. When his debut album in the mould he chose bombed, Marvin realized that dream could never work unless he got some chart success first. 1962's "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" was his first hit, a top 50 pop charter and a top 10 R&B hit. Over the next seven years, Gaye would collect a plethora of top 10 R&B hits, top 40 pop hits and albums that solidified his status as Motown's premier male vocalist, often being paired with minor female stars to prop up their careers- first with the budding female star Mary Wells then with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell. 

Gaye's sounds would never stay the same as he was shuffled around between the cream of the crop of Motown staff writers with William "Mickey" Stevenson ("Hitch Hike," "Pride and Joy"), Holland-Dozier-Holland ("[You're a] Wonderful One," "Baby Don't You Do it," "How Sweet it is [To Be Loved By You]"), Smokey Robinson ("I'll Be Doggone," "Ain't That Peculiar"), Norman Whitfield-Barrett Strong ("I Heard it Through the Grapevine," "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby," "That's the Way Love is"), Ashford-Simpson ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love," "If I Could Build My Whole World Around You," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," "You're All I Need to Get By," "Good Love Ain't Easy to Come By"). Once in a while, Gaye would write his own tunes, such as "If This World Were Mine," sung with Terrell, and "You." But that all changed with What's Going on, an album Motown founder and Gaye's brother-in-law Berry Gordy okayed yet only after the title track became a hit single despite him claiming it was uncommercial and would never sell- his words were actually somewhere more along the lines of it being the worst record he'd ever heard, a stain on Gordy's supposed magic ear that lingers to this day. Then again, label boss genius Gordy had made a similar ruckus about Gaye's #1 hit version of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" that became the highest-selling single in Motown's history, topping the US, UK and R&B charts for several weeks in the autumn of 1968. Gaye had grown tired of the assembly line formula and after 1969 refused to continue cutting these provided tunes. He had shown where his music was going when he produced and wrote (with collaborators including his wife Anna Gordy) for neo doo-wop group the Originals, a partnership highlighted by their classics "Baby I'm for Real" and "The Bells." 

In 1970, he took a break from music, deeply affected by the brain cancer death of singing partner Tammi Terrell- not a romantic fling of his, as long rumoured. After all, Gaye was married to Berry Gordy's older sister Anna, 18 years Gaye's senior, though that marriage was now failing too. Terrell had been sick for over 2 years at the time of her death and afterward, Marvin refused to record any more Motown formula tunes from the drawer while also abstaining from live performance. He tried out in training camp with the local NFL Detroit Lions and though that failed, he befriended a couple Lions in Mel Farr and Lem Barney, who sing backup on "What's Going on." Marvin returned in late 1970 and decided to break company rules about time alloted for recording sessions and cut "What's Going on," amongst other songs, with the Motown studio band the Funk Brothers. When the single was a smash- against Gordy's predictions- in early 1971, he was allowed to cut a whole album in that style. The concept album trend was seized upon by Gaye, who had written the eventual LP's title cut after hearing of his brother Frankie's experiences in Vietnam. What's Going on- later included in my top 200- was a revelation for most, who had never heard R&B used for such musical and topical seriousness. After its release in May 1971, Gaye experienced a torrent of adoration and praise, making the prospect of following it up a daunting one. Marvin was at least now freed from the burdensome nature of Motown's structures. He was able to negotiate a new contract with Motown that allowed him complete creative control plus handed him the most lucrative deal for any soul singer or black recording artist for that matter. After scoring a jazz-based, mostly instrumental soundtrack for the forgotten 1972 blaxploitation film Trouble Man in 1972- which produced a surprise hit out of the title track- Gaye moved on with Motown to Los Angeles for his next work. 

Gaye's personal life was in crisis as his marriage to Anna Gordy was on the rocks while he developed an increasing, troubling reliance on cocaine. Gaye had a confused relationship with sex since he had gone through periods of impotence as well as recurring bouts of sado-masochistic fantasies and dreams/nightmares. A lot of baggage, in explicit terms. The move of Motown Records just took him from the relative domesticity of Detroit to the extravagant metropolis of Los Angeles, a bad change of scenery for a self-destructive individual like Gaye. By decade's end, Marvin had lost his record-selling touch, confused some of the critics and squandered his finances. He grew unfaithful to his women, moody and severely addicted to cocaine, still depressed over the emptiness he felt in the face of success. This was mostly due to his life-long insecurity with his unhappy childhood, a conflict with his father that proved fatal in the end. But in 1973, he seemed privy to do no wrong. Just over half an hour of music, Let's Get it on may not have the divine, soulful synthesis of sex, love and holy spirit that Al Green emphasized, but it's definitely more risque and erotic. Here, unlike Green's hinting and subtle sexual brooding, Gaye was legitimately trying to have the holy and the hedonistic co-exist, finding the links and the co-existence between love, sex and God, very alien to Marvin Sr.'s Fundamentalist Christian oratory that he had heard during childhood. During a brief separation from Anna Gordy Gaye, Marvin had become infatuated with the teenage model and actress Janis Hunter- her being still not yet 20 and he being well over 30, which was a near opposite example of the love he held for his wife since she was so much older and now in this case was the much older one. 

Hunter was the inspiration for this album's first cut, "Let's Get it on"- getting straight to the point as well as getting it on. This title track has become a classic ode of love and lust, as Marvin pleadingly croons his way through a sinewy, seductive groove and drippy saxophones and strings. We are dealt the usual brilliance of Marvin's vocals: cooing, crooning, grunting and groaning through the music unlike any popular singer in history had ever attempted. Despite a bevy of "Quiet Storm" lover men on the mic since, Gaye might still be the most purely sexy singer there's ever been and by this point in his career, his lyrics made those longings explicit to everyone. Later, there's even a reprise of the title song with "Keep Gettin' it on," the same tune practically, although with different lyrics and a slightly different arrangement. Marvin's primary partner on this album is Ed Townsend who contributes to all but 3 of the 8 cuts. Townsend had recently overcome his demons wirh drugs and alcohol and was determined to revive his career as an R&B producer and writer, though he had also experienced life as an attorney and as minister in an African Methodist Episcopal Church. "Let's Get it on" had started as a plea of freedom and religious purification by Townsend until Gaye confidante Kenneth Stover suggested it settle for a focus on lovemaking instead of repentance. It has gone down as a much beloved R&B masterpiece, becoming the new title holder for highest selling single in Motown history. "Please Stay (Once You Go Away)" is in a similar vein to the title tune, bubbling with ecstasy and longing. Not all the songs are uptempo and sizzling, as things get a little mellower on the intensely dramatic ballad "If I Should Die Tonight," as arresting and deathly serious a love song as Marvin ever put to tape. 

Some of the songs go even deeper, with the wonderful "Come Get to This" being the most joyous of them all, a rhythm-shifting adventure featuring Marvin pledging to kiss, caress and stay through the nights. If any song makes it clear this album is an exploration of the erotic, it's Marvin's own "Come Get to This," the penultimate invitation to the bedroom from 1970s R&B. Marvin expounds on his undying appetite for the object of his affection, juggling lines together like "Come over and let me caress you" with steamier come-ons like "I want to do, something freaky to you." While "Let's Get it on" had catapulted to #1 on both the R&B and pop charts for several weeks, "Come Get to This" drew in at #21 and #3 on those charts, respectively. The dreamy, longing "Distant Lover," is an even better composition and went on to become a spotlight for Marvin to croon to the ladies with in his live sets- fittingly, a single was put out by Motown in 1974 off his live album that year and it managed to climb as high as #28. "Distant Lover" was co-written with Sandra Greene and Gaye's sister-in-law Gwen Gordy Fuqua, now Harvey's wife (how many of Berry Gordy's sisters married one of his musical employees anyway?). Even setting aside its service of getting the ladies to throw their bra and panties on stage in a fever of estrogen hysteria, it's undeniably one of his great ballads. "Distant Lover" features some simply exquisite harmonies overdubbed by Gaye himself, which was a style of vocal multi-tracking that had been crafted for What's Going on and would become one of the defining features in Gaye's music for the rest of his life. No one has done it quite the way Marvin did, as he not only harmonized with his original melody line but peppering it with vocal trills and additional lyrics or gospel exclamations (ie. "Right on!" or "Lord have mercy"). "You Sure Love to Ball" is one of the funkier rhythms of the album and though it features the strings and sultry vocals of the other tracks, is probably the weakest of a great bunch of songs. It is an explicit template for the heavy moaning and breathing of Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," and three years ahead of time too. 

As a single, it just managed a top 50 placing while going to #13 on the R&B polls, ensuring it was the third and final single to be culled from Let's Get it on as of January 1974. Most of the album depicts romance in a positive, spiritually healing light but Marvin's life of tragedy managed to find its way into his music. The final track is a disturbed, spine-tingling, sparse ballad with light orchestral touches including timpani as Marvin openly and honestly deals with his failing marriage. This was one of those early indications of the struggles he was having in his personal life and throughout the 70s, Marvin's demons and skeletons began to pour down like a deluge. "Just to Keep You Satisfied" is tinged with regret and remorse over a crumbling love as Marvin tries to find solace in what's happened, while directly addressing his wife. Marvin wrote it with the help of Elgie Stover (brother of Kenneth as both were Motown staff writers by the late 60s who had worked for Harvey Fuqua's Tri-Phi label earlier in the decade) and, confoundedly enough, Anna Gordy Gaye, his soon to be ex-wife. Backed by his favourite Motown crooners the Originals, Marvin sings often in a lush, soft falsetto over a calm, jazzy chord progression with sparse, hushed, instrumentation. He pleads for rational sanity in their union, admitting he has had to stand moaning and bitching but that he's willing to do whatever it takes to "keep (her) satisfied." It's a stunningly personal document that caps off the album in an unsettling, all too real manner. For just this track alone, Let's Get it on would have been worth it but it is even deeper in its tremendous range of emotions along the theme of sex, love and how they can often be mutually exclusive. Marvin even delivers his own purpose, motivation and idea behind the album in some greatly explanatory and philosophical liner notes. Of course, Marvin- reflecting his tragic life- brings aspects of the pain and grief into the mix for Let's Get it on. This would unfortunately not be one in a string of fantastic albums though, as Marvin's career became a little less brilliant than its potential hinted at in 1971. He would make good albums- though not better ones- and score big hits. But beneath it all, struggles with addictions and failures as a husband and lover hurt his state of mind. 

There were periods of lucidity interspersed by depression and suicidal thoughts but Marvin always seemed to pull through. These demons led to him clashing with his strict father and being murdered at the hands of Gaye the senior in 1984, a day before he was to turn 45. At one point, after being dropped by Motown in 1981 in a rare mutual parting of ways, the cocaine had been cut out of his life long enough for his career to rebound with the electro-funk of Midnight Love in 1982, following a period living in Belgium. His underrated Here, My Dear (written as part of his divorce settlement and then taken literally by Marvin as an album to analyze why his marriage failed) was followed three years later by the even more overlook In Our Lifetime? Both flatlined on the charts and came in the wake of his third and final #1 pop hit in 1977's discofied "Got to Give it up, Pt. 1" (an edit of the 11 minute album track from a studio side of the double set Live at the London Palladium). Writer's block had often crippled Marvin, resulting in a long wait for 1976's I Want You, but that lush disco-themed album was primarily written by Leon Ware and lacked the spark of any album Marvin was capable of. Even his relationshp with Hunter wouldn't pan out and Marvin began to fall into tax trouble, reduced to living in a trailer in Hawaii for a brief time. After cleaning up in 1982 and making a triumphant return, the touring and the cycle of being in the public eye dredged up the drug issues. Some of the last memories of Marvin, thankfully, came with the 43-year old knocked out audiences at the '83 Grammys during a rendition of "Sexual Healing" and a few months earlier likewise, when performing the "Star Spangled Banner" backed by a funky drum machine beat at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. But throughout 1983-84, Gaye felt powerless to turn his life around again and lost so much hope that he was living with his parents and openly defying his father for the first time in his life. A testy few days culminated with Marvin's deluded father shooting him dead on April 1, 1984, claiming to be frightened of Marvin's behaviour and looking out fo his safety. The death was a fittingly tragic yet undeserving end to an innovative R&B legend's life, with 1973's Let's Get it on standing up as one of the great testimonies to his gratifying career and impact on R&B.

166. Quadrophenia-The Who (1973): Success had come naturally to the Who in the 60s, though their business management and exorbant spending (mostly on replacing instruments that were smashed onstage) meant giant financial success was ultimately fleeting. It was hard trudging work but with their principle songwriter Pete Townshend, they always had a hit maker on board. Townshend, always a champion of pop art, sought to expand the Who's audience and artistic range to greater areas of high-minded literary work. The Who had their origins when Townshend hooked up with schoolmate John Entwistle- a musical prodigy who sat first chair French Horn in many of his school's symphonic bands and played all the brass instruments possible. He and Townshend got to know each other personally and musically in a trad jazz outfit called the Confederates. Both were high school kids and when Entwistle started his own band two years later, the Detours, Townshend was brought on as guitarist but only a few weeks after Entwistle had encountered Roger Daltrey and convinced him to come along. The Detours eventually moved toward more country and R&B covers to reflect the growing amount of youth attending the pubs and clubs they frequented. Roger Daltrey, a former boxer and machinist who had left school at 16, came on initially as a lead guitarist until Townshend's skills clearly surpassed him. With Colin Dawson on vocals and Doug Sandom on drums, they learned their craft and fell in with the Mod crowd of London. When Dawson left, Daltrey moved behind the mike. In 1964, they had become immersed in the sort of music integral to the Mod culture of Swinging London- a youth movement favourable to short, parted forward hair, polo sweaters, pop art statements and popping speed pills. 

Managed by Pete Meaden, their name became the High Numbers, their first original single, "Zoot Suit/I'm the Face" (the former a re-write of "Smokestack Lightning," the latter a re-write of "Got Love if You Want it" both with lyrics by Meaden about the Mod culture style). "I'm the Face" stuck as the more popular of the two, written in reference to the Mod slang "face" which borrowed from jazz as a term for a hip, happening person. By this point they were a full-fledged professional band. Daltrey was the oldest member at 19, a practical geezer compared to the 18-year old Townshend and Entwistle and their newest addition, 17-year old drumming virtuoso Keith Moon- a mop-haired, clownish, hardcore fan of surf rock who supplanted the outgoing Sandom in '64. They eventually retitled themselves the Who, while Meaden was bought out by young managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, brother of the famous English actor Terrence Stamp. Their show-closing ritual became an orgy of destruction of their instruments and equipment when it appeared the tactic would increase their popularity and fan worship. It all got going in September of 1964 when Townshend accidentally busted the ceiling above the stage at the Railway Tavern. Frustrated, he smashed up his guitar, grabbed another one and continued playing while the audience applauded. At the Who's next gig, fans urged Townshend to do the same, gathering to see the spectacle. Pete refused, but Moon satisfied their craving and gave into the catcalls by smashing up his drum kit. The positive response hatched their new stagecraft of utter destruction, borne out of a simple Townshend mistake. Pete also began responding to the unbridled energy brought to the band by Moon, prancing around stage with a physical, almost violent attack on guitar, that by the late 60s came equipped with leaps/jumps, feedback and distortion producing, plus kicking, sliding and "windmills." 

The windmill was Townshend's dynamic way of strumming on the guitar that involved flapping his picking arm rapidly while strumming the strings, their steel sometimes causing Pete's fingers to be shredded up till bloody and raw if he didn't aim properly. Pete claims to have gotten the idea for it when he saw Keith Richards at a Stones gig lift his arm up and down in some sort of pre-song exercise. The Who were now a stable union, at least lineup-wise since they were often feuding ego-wise, cranked up the "Maximum R&B" and began crafting their own heavy "pop art" rock that appealed to young Mods and capitalized on the British Invasion, though they wouldn't crack the US top 40 for another 2 years anyway. 1965 brought Townshend's growth as a writer coming in leaps and bounds, via the singles "I Can't Explain," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and "The Kids Are Alright" and then at the end of the year their superb debut The Who Sings My Generation. Slowly but surely they cut out the need for covers to pad out their B-sides and album tracks, mostly giving James Brown covers ("Shout and Shimmy," "I Don't Mind," "Please Please Please") that were efforted, but full of the standard white boy shortcoming when it comes to soul, nonetheless. Instrumentally, the Who were the wildest, maniacal band around, each player whirling dervish of activity. Entwistle and Moon were such a busy rhythm section that even Townshend's aerobic guitaring seemed meek by comparison. At first, the guitar pyrotechnics- namely distortion, fuzz and feedback- became the calling card of the Who. However, eventually recognized as well were the "Thunderfingers" of Entwistle and the machine-gun drumming of Moon, bringing the flashy jazz showmanship of a Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich to the Who stable. 

A few early Who records were produced by American Shel Talmy, who had brought several hits to the Kinks with his high-decibel, low quality garage rock manipulations of the studio board. By the end of '65, the Who's co-manager Lambert decided to guide them in the studio. His inexperience as well as the lack of premier engineers and studio equipment made the Who's 1965-66 work crude and sloppy compared to the regular run-of-the-mill pop. But even under these disadvantages Townshend was able to spin out primo singles, great little three minute snapshots with "Substitute," "Happy Jack" and "I'm a Boy"- a song originally intended as part of a proposed mini-opera about a future where parents can choose the gender of their children and when one error produces a boy instead of a fourth girl, the parents try to cover it up by dressing their male offspring as a precious little girl. The latter two were like wartime marches, music hall sort of jazz as the songs were charming little ditties with high Beach Boy-like harmonies, Entwistle's horn and Daltrey's soft, less rough-hewn sort of vocals. While it was not equal to the huge dent that The Who Sings My Generation created, their followup album A Quick One (alternately packaged in the US and released early in 1967 as Happy Jack) saw some wonderful nuggets o' gold, as well as Entwistle making a few songwriting appearances in his own sadistic ways- the insect tale "Boris the Spider" and alcoholic/schizophrenic saga "Whiskey Man." Daltrey, who had co-written "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," also made the old college try of his own with "See My Way." Despite some sonic experiments, A Quick One was pretty primitive and behind the 8-ball during the extraordinary year for rock of 1966. 

The supreme positive of their sophomore album was that they got to rummage around the studio and learn its role in record-making. This, coupled with being at their wit's end to come up with some original work to fill out the time requirement, resulted in a nine-minute suite that gave the album its title, "A Quick One While He's Away." Opting for an unusually long track would have been curious to their fans for sure, so Towshend decided to liven it up by making it a series of song fragments comprising one piece, not unlike classical or opera.This was no meandering, pointless jam to fill time. Nor was it a "Bull session" or instrumental to do the same, like the overworked Brian Wilson would kowtow to for Beach Boys albums pre-Pet Sounds. Therefore, Townshend dubbed it a "mini opera," which morphed into "rock opera" when the idea flowered two years later. The Who then began working doggedly to make inroads on the US market, saturated now with groups settling into a spacey, psychedelic rock that stretched the previously known parameters of rock. They got to record in the high-functioning studios of New York on several trips over during 1967, a year that kicked off with "Pictures of Lily," their innocent, ode to teenage sexual awakening that humourously dealt with a poster of a long-deceased movie damsel. In late summer, their riveting, psychedelic opus "I Can See for Miles" cracked them into the UK top 5 once again but also became their first top 40 US hit, peaking at #20. 

This was setting the stage for their first fully realized masterpiece album, The Who Sell Out, released in the fall. A Quick One was a concept album where radio jingles and ads were sequiturs between new compositions that were written like advertisements- hence, the "sell out" aspect, although today it would pretty much be accepted, if not openly encouraged in our shallow pop culture where crass consumerism and music are considered perfect bedfellows. This exposure to American audiences led to a fiendishly fun appearance on US television when they performed on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and rolled off a mimed version of "My Generation" that ended with Keith Moon's bass drum exploding with a giant boom to the horror and delight of various audience members (Moon had convinced the tech man to double the charge of dynamite after it gave a dull thud in rehearsal, then when he was unconvinced by the change, Moon secretly stuffed triple the charge in, giving off a blast that singed Townshend's nicely primped hair- though didn't cause the hearing damage that later worsened, as rumours persisted about- and caused shrapnel cuts on Moon's arms). During this time, Townshend's outlook began to change as a bad experience tripping on SPT (a hallucinogen twice as powerful as LSD) on a plane flight scared him so much that he abstained from drugs for four years, only ever ingesting alcohol to calm his nerves. In his spiritual quest, he became entranced by the teachings of Avatar Meher Baba, a famous Indian Hindu guru that had been considered a holy being on Earth since his childhood. In the meantime, he became engaged in the concept LP idea and wanted to tell the arc of a self-made story. 

After the key step of the indispensable Who Sell Out, he spent 1968-69 crafting what became Tommy, the infamous mini-opera concept double album about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard who rises to the level of celebrity before attracting his own cult and ultimately disowning his followers. In 1968, a hodgepodge bargain bin US release of rare B-sides and non-LP singles came out, the very misleadingly named Magic Bus- The Who on Tour. This was to fill the gap of the long silence the Who left between winter '67 and spring '69 but it smacks of cheapness. Still, there were occasional waves from the studio to let people know the Who were still creating. Unleashed as a single in mid-1968, "Magic Bus" had been an acoustic, commune-like recording that became a Who staple and rightly so, though live editions with Moon's thundering drums and Townshend's crunchy electric guitar were even more lively. Still, the Who continued to lag behind the Stones and Beatles in terms of British rock hierarchy, still striving for a #1. With the Who's label Decca growing impatient, an old leftover, 1965-styled surf styled rocker, "Call Me Lightning" (with its Beach Boy backing refrain of "dum dum dum doo-ay") was put out for some shits and giggles. The holding pattern was one that got everyone buzzing, expecting something unlike they'd ever heard by the Who, something that could perhaps finally challenge the Beatles and Stones' supremacy. They came very close on many fronts with Tommy, finally unleashed in May of 1969 after over a year of sessions. Some found that Tommy flew in the face of all the humourous, exciting and fun-loving Who of their Mod years, or that it was pretentious bullshit. But most critics and fans were knocked out by the album, especially when they saw it performed mesmerizingly in concert. 

They achieved their first resounding success in America and began making enough money that even the Who and their management couldn't squander it. Touring behind Tommy brought their act to a new level in concert as they slammed their Hendrixian hard, freely improvising brand of power trio rock to audiences. Whether singing or not, Daltrey had become a rambunctious sight, commanding the mic like never before with earthy, scorching singing that bludgeoned his old amateurish ways of 1964-65. An appearance at Woodstock raised their profile considerably, though Townshend was in a surly mood that night/morning. Woodstock was considered by the band to be one of the worst gigs and performances they had been involved in, in due part because of their drinks being spiked with LSD and activist Abbie Hoffman running onstage to promote the injustice of having a free rock festival while John Sinclair (a man sentenced to a ridicuous 10-year prison sentence for offering two joints to an undercover police officer) rotted in jail. Audio exists though no film footage is available (reels being changed) for the moment when Townshend cross-checked Hoffman in the head with his guitar then booted him offstage, half-understandingly adding "I can dig it," after he had hollered "Fuck off my fucking stage!" moments earlier. Tommy had given way to a period more inactivity in 1970-71, a brainstorming phase for Townshend. In the meantime, they used spring 1970 to come out with a single in "The Seeker," accompanied by a 6-track LP that is perhaps the best live rock album ever, Live at Leeds (in its recent embellished form as a double-disc, full concert review it is later included much, much further up my top 200). 1970 saw the Who at the peak of its powers and Townshend fretted endlessly trying to artistically take advantage. 

His initial bright idea was Lifehouse, a concept about a future where music was outlawed by a cold, disciplinarian dictatorship running the world. The world has been degraded by pollution and people live indoors with virtual reality grids that they experience things through. The quest for the elusive note to rediscover music is a central component to the story. However, the plan for Lifehouse to be told through a concert series fell apart when audiences were unreceptive to the storytelling and the hardcore Who fans disrupted it by calling out requests for standards. When the other members of the band objected, namely Daltrey- by now the sex symbol of the band, finally rounded into an adonis with chiseled abs wearing a fringe jacket and jeans. Subsequently, plans for a Lifehouse double album fell apart under the weight of expectations. Townshend's own neuroses- he had a nervous breakdown trying to make it all work- and the generally cold reception its complicated story received spelled the end for Lifehouse but the remnants were salvaged to have the Who remerging at their creative peak. Lifehouse became the all-time classic rock album Who's Next in 1971 and the Who were once again masters of rowdy, yet intelligent hard rock. The production was splendid but Townshend's introduction of synthesizers into the Who's lexicon proved innovative and ahead of its time. Sometimes the synths were used for melodic and soloing purposes- nothing too foreign or unknown even by 1971- with ARP synths utilized. But on a couple tracks, "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," Townshend managed to use the technology to create basic rhythmic tracks for the tunes. Playing a Lowry Organ through a VCS3 synthesizer- which cut up the sound to give it a staccato effect- gave Townshend a technique to rest his hat on that no one else could lay claim to on a popular recording. 

Lifehouse tracks would emerge on 1974's vault-raiding Odds and Sods or on singles released throughout 1970-73- "Let's See Action," "Relay," "Join Together," "Water," "Naked Eye" and "I Don't Even Know Myself" being some of those leftover goodies. The high-selling Who's Next gave the Who unanimous critical and commercial clout and wit new manager Bill Curbishley they were raring to go as a premier 70s arena touring act. Having survived the 60s, their role as elder statesmen was shared with the Rolling Stones because, alas, these two were the only ones of the 1964 arrivals that were still relevant and together some seven years later. But all this hoopla only furthered Townshend's hang-ups as he now mulled about whether to repeat the formula or go up another road. His tireless effort for something bigger turned to inner reflection, something that was heartfelt, commendable and attention-grabbing at first but became the creative nadir of the group when Townshend ran out of self-conscious things to say through the Who's music. 1973's Quadrophenia had the promise of being grand and gigantic, as Townshend sought to use the new technique of quadrophonic sound to produce the record, though it ultimately failed to come across well in stereo, which most people heard their music through at that time. The back story was that of a young, eager-to-please Mod named Jimmy in early 1960s London, a sort of imagined Who fanatic. The idea came from a Townshend idea to do a self-indulgent documentary about the group in song and on film (which did go down when the brilliant The Kids Are Alright was completed in 1979), expressed in the humourous boogie rocker "Long Live Rock." 

Even now with all the band members in their late 20s, the period of inner reflection and revisionism began, though it was mainly Townshend who took to this critical analysis of the Who, what they stood for, what they had stood for and what they would one day stand for. The character Jimmy has experiences that reflect the time of the early-to-mid 60s in London but begin to change as he develops "Quadrophenia," an affliction where four split personalities develop within him (a nod to the four Who members and their four separate personalities). Originally, some Who devotees and critics were confused and somewhat disappointed with the double LP as the focus on synthesizers, instrumental passages (the soundtrack-type inclusions "I Am the Sea," more of a sound collage that previews what will be heard throughout the double album set) and narrative, samey compositions was considered a major turn-off. Critical opinion lightened up and now it is recognized as a sort of progressive rock Who, a pillar in their catalogue and perhaps their last great album, as flawed as it could be in parts. The inability to adapt the music live and Roger Daltrey's dissatisfaction with his vocals being buried in the original mix cast further doubt on Townshend, who would resort to heavy drinking throughout the 70s to deal with his crisis of faith. When attempting to rehearse Quadrophenia for live purposes, a rehearsal row Pete had with Daltrey got so heated that Daltrey resorted to his killer right hook and knocked Pete in the face, knocking him cold, and then stormed out in a huff. H

is temper had once been a stumbling block as he would resort to physical violence when matters got ugly, until an ultimatum by the others forced him to correct his ways- he had incurred Moon's wrath in one incident in 1965 when the relatively clean and drug-eschewing Daltrey got pissed with Keith's goonish behaviour and flushed his amphetamines down the john then decked him when an irate Moon confronted him. Daltrey was now the fundamentally level-headed, straight-laced one in the group, next to drunken, druggie party jester Moon, debonair boozer Entwistle and inner-tormented drunk Pete Towshend. The touring go of it for Quadrophenia was considered an unmitigated disaster by the band since it stifled them to play so rigidly to backing tracks and effects, which might or might not work on any given night. This process had started with Who's Next but at least there they could find s way to free form around it. Not so with Quadrophenia which finally became easy enough to perform technologically when the 90s Who decided to tackle it. Still, every Who member is in prime form on Quadrophenia. Bassist John Enthwistle provides brass parts in addition to his "Thunderfingers" work on the fretboard, much as he had done throughout Tommy in its classical echoing sequences and even older Who cuts. Moon can be heard pounding the skins with the expected dose of lunacy, Townshend acts as some Hendrix understudy while adding in the synths and Daltrey's powerful, soaring range is on full display (bettered by future remasterings on CD that eliminated the problem of his vocals buried in the original mix). As had been done before, Townshend and Entwistle give some piano overdubs but mostly pros like Nicky Hopkins and Chris Stainton, formerly of Joe Cocker's Grease Band, were brought in for the complicated bits. 

As a charter, it became a #2 album in both the US and UK, their highest positions to date and the best selling studio album for many years too. Themes, passages and riffs are repeated throughout the whole set, giving it the same cohesive rock opera sense as Tommy. The riffs are in fact more complex and classically inclined than on Tommy, finding Townshend at a career peak groove somewhere between Brian Wilson and Mozart it's so frequently profound. "The Real Me" is the opening "song" of the album, a rip-roaring, savagely hard rocking exploration of the four-personality dilemma central to the album's story ("I went back to my mother/I said 'I'm crazy ma, help me'/She said 'I know how it feels, son/Cause it runs in the family'"). It's got Entwistle's nifty brass but also Daltrey's wide-ranging vocals at their finest. This segues into "Quadrophenia," which is this double's version of Tommy's "Overture" where the leitmotifs are set up as if we're in some Wagnerian opera, rock style. The mid-60s "Swinging London" of Mods vs. Rockers is portrayed through the Mod coming-of-age song "Cut My Hair," where Jimmy's relentless teenage days are spent trying to fit in by keeping up with fashions and hairstyles while trying to woo a specific girl. Townshend, as he often does on this double set, shares lead vocals with Daltrey. "Cut My Hair" also describes how Jimmy doesn't get along with his parents and enjoys clashing with the rockers at beaches. A real radio news report of one such incident is heard over a steaming tea kettle at the song's conclusion. Semi-autobiographical lyrical matter is behind the teen angst of several cuts and the revolt against a vaunted hero story of the arena rock "The Punk and the Godfather" sounds like the true experience of a rock star who came down from his lofty heights to see that his grassroots fans had become disenfranchised with him. It's much like what punk became in fact, when big label deals and huge chart success made the purist fans a of a punk band feel disgusted and betrayed. 

Angered accusations such as "Now you know that we blame you" and "You only became what we made you!" suitably reflect the backlash the rock hero receives. It stems out of a concert experience where Jimmy goes to see the Who and finds them rude. Explorations of the split personality disorder come with the tremendous, Townshend-sung "I'm One," where Jimmy tries to argue that despite his four personalities, he is one person underneath it all. He also takes solace in feeling at one with the Mod culture he ascribes to. Enthwistle's "Is it in My Head?" further pursues the mental issues plaguing Jimmy while in the boogieing "Drowned," he begins wishing to drown himself in the sea. The frustrated country-rocker "The Dirty Jobs," and the semi-classical, semi-pompous "Helpless Dancer"- a tune exploring the way Jimmy felt society neglected and looked down upon its mentally ill, homosexual and poor- are two of the weaker tracks on an otherwise gratifying album. "I've Had Enough," "Sea and Sand," and "Bell Boy" (Moon's spotlight tune and a pivotal moment when Jimmy sees a formerly renowned Mod hipster now relegated to working as a bell hop at a hotel) sort of mesh into the same sound, never fully identifying themselves as distinct but nonetheless providing crucial narrative. "I've Had Enough" is where Jimmy decides to go back to Brighton where he and his Mod friends fought with rockers, only because he finds the girl of his dreams with a friend of his. In anger, he destroys his scooter and high-tails it to find somewhere he can belong. A social observation platform is offered up by Townshend on "5:15." The song intro is the same as the beginning of the verses of "Cut My Hair" before roaring into a soulful hard rock number with Entwistle's horns laying a Motown vibe on it all. "5:15" is the bustling point of the story where Jimmy pops a bunch of amphetamines while riding to Brighton on the 5:15 train amidst everyday characters of the time and place. "Doctor Jimmy" is where drugs and alcohol begin to take their toll on Jimmy, rearing his ugly personas and causing him to have serious self-doubt. 

Jimmy decides to jack a boat, sail out to a rock in the sea and see if the seafaring life brings him any calm. The "Underture" for this album then comes in the form of "The Rock." Ending with the sound of rain, the tide and seagulls gives way to piano chords pounded out as we are led into the finale "Love Reign O'er Me." This last track is a crowning achievement in the Who's history, a sea and rain motif that is quite simply a sweeping rock epic. One of the, if not the best "Epiphany" compositions in the history of 20th Century music, not just rock. "Love Reign O'er Me" is the Who's serious, artistic side at its least forced and its most moving. With Daltrey ferociously singing, we hear the climax of the story in which Jimmy comes down from his high at sea only to discover his boat has drifted away and he is stranded at sea with no one around. As a violent storm rages around him and his life is in peril, Jimmy comes to spiritual enlightenment, a metaphor perhaps for how Pete found his way through all his hangups (though really Meher Baba did not fully solve his crises). In a swirl of snyths, there are several moments where Moon is at the height of his all-encompassing force- indeed, his death spelled the end for the Who as a band that could deliver it and showed he had really been the heart behind Townshend's brains. The cadenza features several crashes of gong, rolling drums not unlike timpani and then one final chord punctuated by Entwistle's one man brass section. With some of the chaff cut out, this double disc release could have been a true masterpiece and a top 50 album of all-time, but that would toy with the story I'm sure. Instead, Quadrophenia has to settle for just being amazing, a fairly recognized last work of greatness from the Who. 

Afterward, Pete would let his solo work fancies creep into the Who's lexicon while expressing his personal demons and concerns for the Who as a relevant creative outlet going forward. This resulted in the suicide note followup from 1975 known as The Who By the Numbers, the comedown from the incredible high rock stardom had provided. All for consumption was the Who becoming dinosaurs (punk notaries lumped them in there despite their obvious proto-punk beginnings and years later Townshend claims he felt relief that punk had come along because he had been waiting for something and dreaming up a phenomenon like punk that would wipe away the Who into age-induced retirement) as well as Townshend's alcoholism, impotence as a husband and father and bitter recollections of fame (mainly through an Entwistle tune, "Success Story"). The Who were still interesting after 1973 but much of the fun that had been their hallmark- and was fading via the sobering, arty story of Quadrophenia- began to wisp away on the winds of change and "maturity" (though Pete practically depicted it as hopeless declining). Whatever you think of post-1973 Who, their exemplary battling through stardom began to take its worrying toll as Townshend drifted further into self-reflection and as he lapsed into drug and alcohol addictions following the 1978 death of Moon, self-indulgence to varying degrees of ability for listeners to tolerate- mind you, this clicked for 1980's solo Empty Glass, but was the nadir of the lousy 1982 release All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes and undermined the majority of what Townshend has written since. Somehow, as Pete has grown into middle age and matured, he's become more studious, reserved and intuitive but overall much less inspiring. The last time he ever took on one of his expansive concepts for an album and made it an unqualified success, we were given this superb 1973 offering.

165. Strong Persuader-Robert Cray (1986): The 1980s saw a re-emergence of blues as a viable form to explore on record, dug out from its old trappings and stereotypes and the boon of 60s white boys seemingly taking the style out of the hands of the African-American masters and interpreting it themselves. However, this also made blues an underground thing once most of these blues-rock big shots moved on in their endeavors. Come the 80s, blues had taken on a more urban flavour, being popular in smoky, late night clubs. The sound was a total retro trip with luminaries like Stevie Ray Vaughn bringing back the guitar virtuosity that once defined blues. A cleaner, brighter and more contemporary sound grew in some circles and smooth guitarist/vocalist Robert Cray was one of the promising figures of this 80s blues sound. Born in Georgia, but growing up in Virginia, Cray had been learning guitar ever since his early teens and after a stint with his own cover band, Cray decided at age 20 (in 1973) to emulate his blues idols like Freddie King and Albert Collins. He would head out on the circuit and fight for 5 years before getting his voice and guitar on tape with a distributed LP. In other words, this would not lead to any immediate notoriety, though he is seen, uncredited, as the bass player in the fictional band Otis Day & the Knights in the 1978 comedy hit film National Lampoon's Animal House. By 1980, the Robert Cray Band featured Peter Boe on keyboards and Tom Murphy on drums while bass players were hired on a need-to-know basis. They got their first album out with Who's Been Talkin' that same year. The record had been originally recorded in 1978 but sat on the sidelines until the tiny label Tomato Records picked up the album. Cray found less obscurity as the 80s progressed, thanks to songwriting and production team Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker. 

With him in their saddle, the duo nurtured Cray into a great studio performer too. Cray found a creative source and ran with it. With all the machinations built for success around him, Cray rose to the challenge. He made releases for Hightone Records that Bromberg and Walker were employed by. This resulted in 1983's Bad Influence and the smoldering False Accusations in 1985. That same year he collaborated with Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins himself for Showdown! which came out on Alligator Records. But all this just hinted at what Cray could do with the blues in his hands and his confidence at its fullest. In 1986 he hit mainstream pay dirt, at least as far as a contemporary bluesman could hope to go much like Stevie Ray Vaughn was experiencing at the time. A blues renaissance of the 80s unquestionably aided in his honeymoon of praise, but Cray deserved it. Newer blues figures were respecting of him, as were older guard musicians who had long since mutated into rock stylings- Eric Clapton, etc. Strong Persuader came out in November of '86, earning rave reviews for its keen sense of the blues, infused with a kind of down home R&B grit. Almost across the board it was championed, with long time record reviewer Robert Christgau anointing it with the rare A+ grade. Cray's vocals weren't typical of the gruff, pleading role that blues artists had traditionally played, sharing more in common with Memphis soul, as did the horn parts. In fact, it was at some point in the late 60s where the vanguard of blues pioneers from the 50s began to either take on elements of soul or rock in order to sell records and connect with younger listeners. Those like Albert King, B.B. King and Albert Collins (and Bobby Bland if you're generous) gravitated more toward the grease fried R&B vein, while Chicago blues legends like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson gravitated to rock because popular artists like Cream, the Stones and Hendrix had been professing their everlasting respect and they were therefore wisely following wherever the $$$ were. 

The blues revival and explosion of the late 60s mainly occurred in England, so those who chose to appeal to American crowds were naturally less inclined to go for the rock sound. By the 80s, the two approaches became mutually exclusive in some ways, with newcomers like Cray and SRV touching on everything blues guitar related and then some. The fundamental difference with Vaughn and Cray is that Robert had the songwriting chops and ability to sound independently original where sometimes Stevie could be an extremely virtuosic, but tributing, artist. A fight with drugs and alcohol and then an abrupt helicopter crash death in 1990 when he got clean robbed us of the chance to find if Stevie Ray Vaughn had more original juice in the tank. As of 1989-90, it appeared SRV was expanding his horizons more toward a jazzier blues and a Memphis style of the blues that Cray had paved the way to. Robert Cray, thankfully for us, has lived on and thrived within his perfect niche. With crisp, clean production you'd think Strong Persuader would be too slick for the blues but the band behind him has an understated power and Cray's guitar is fiery without going on too many wild runs. In this way, it is reminiscent of laid back pickers like J.J. Cale or Mark Knopfler. This album undoubtedly stands as one of the great crossover albums from the blues to the rock/pop world and is among the prime blues studio LPs ever made. With major label Mercury Records distributing him, he had a chance to reach a wider amount of ears. He capitalized with an album that can appeal to all but the hardcore snobs in both the rock/pop and blues worlds. The songs told the usual misery and heartbreak but in a much more novel manner than the blues of the past. Cray's lyrics border on macho in their frankness about sexual relations, but he manages to come off as a man vindicating himself and jilting lovers who've done him wrong. Hey, if a sassy woman blues singer can put down her man or teach him a lesson, why can't a man do the same to a woman who's yanking him around by the collar and treating him like dirt? Cray's protagonists often snap back in the face of hardship instead of moan and wail. 

But the depictions of when wrongdoing can boomerang back on a man are here too. After all, Cray was already 33 and a learned student of what adult behaviour can do and had been playing the blues since his teens in the early 70s. Instrumentally, Peter Boe is still on board while Richard Cousins provides bass and Cray had David Olson as drummer in the Robert Cray Band. Extra help comes in the form of percussionist Lee Spath, saxophonist Andrew Love and trumpeter and trombonist Wayne Jackson. Track number one, "Smoking Gun," is a sizzling, suspicious blues rocker with Cray's gospel-styled preaching vocals at the forefront. Cray shares credit of the writing with Bromberg and Walker and bassist Cousins. It's one of those ice cold songs about a cheating romance that makes the blues worth all the hype it gets, though the dialogue between the two parties is particularly cleverly adult while most blues singers still sang of romance like it was a college fling. The instrumental track is bruising, chugging and sanctifying. "Smoking Gun," being the first cut and all, does reveal a production polish and sterility in the drum sound that is perhaps the only real beefs I have with the record. Beefy horns arrive for "I Guess I Showed Her," a perfectly Southern-fried rouser that finds Cray in a more strutting mood. It would have made a scrumptious cut in the control of a Stax Records giant of the 60s such as Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding or most fittingly Wilson Pickett. As it is, it's a no frills blues romper with the kind of horn accompaniment formerly reserved for R&B and soul. The smoky late-night funk-blues of "Right Next Door (Because of Me)" is one of the great infidelity songs, like Cray's own version of "If Loving You is Wrong, I Don't Want to Be Right," just less desperately miserable and wrought with a guilt that's more about shame and self-doubt than remorse. Cray sings a tale about laying awake in a motel room bed where he hears a couple fighting in the hotel's next room. The kicker comes when he admits it's his own fault ("It's because of me") because he's been sleeping with the married woman in question. 

The realization that his sneaky affair has been found out causes a lot of soul-searching, while Cray's character in song rests in a situation where he has narrowly avoided a confrontation, since the angry husband still does not know what he looks like. Damn, does it get more guilt-ridden or close to the bone than that? Cray shows himself to be a master of such brilliant songwriter scenarios on Strong Persuader, a title derived from a line in this song in fact and a phrase that became lifted as a nickname for Cray himself. "Right Next Door" is a story even the old Delta blues giants would have given an arm and a leg to have. Kudos should be sent the way of Dennis Walker who co-writes it with Cray. "Still Around" has a similar contemporary sound to it but is even bluesier and explores the communication breakdown of an affair, while "Foul Play" is another cheating tale done with smoldering ease by Cray. "Nothin' But a Woman" - credited to the entire Robert Cray band plus Bromberg- is a real Southern gutbucket blues, with horns offering that Memphis touch. This is the rare moment on Strong Persuader where Cray can be found extolling the virtues of a woman, accentuating the healing redemption a good woman can bring. "More Than I Can Stand" (not the Bobby Womack tune of the same name) is moreso like the Memphis soul of the 60s than any adaptation of the blues. The tempo is finally taken slow on the scorching, yet restrained "I Wonder," another of the many minor key sensual blues songs to be found on Strong Persuader. It's a good slow dance bit with chord changes not unlike a doo-wop tune or an early 60s soul progenitor's music, like Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke or Arthur Alexander. "Fantasized" gets Cray's hot guitar licks involved more, with drums providing a funky backbeat, one that would have been the basis for a fine hip-hop song of the mid-80s actually. Cray gives equal billing to his soloing rather than downplaying it as he does on some other tunes. 

It's a pure lusting song, driven by the suggestive lyrics which include a stanza of "She had sugar-sweet lips/And magical hips/Just like I fantasized/What a slow ride/She moaned and she cried/Just like I fantasized." Beat this, 50 Cent! That said, Cray might be one of the more unlikely sex symbols in pop but for blues he's a practical Adonis when put next to "hunks" like the 6'3, 300 "pounds of heavenly joy" known as Howlin' Wolf. "New Blood" ends the album but in the most true-to-form take on the blues, with Cray's vocals getting as impassioned as ever on a decent, though not extraordinary track. "New Blood" shows Robert Cray had, by 33, grasped what makes an electric blues musician and singer so great. On Strong Persuader, a record he of course could never live up to afterward despite excellent work over the years, he never gave one a reason to think he wouldn't be a dominating face in the blues field for years to come. Practically every song is a gem in its own right, with a few being more outstanding than the usual 80s bluesman's sad stories of woe. Cray benefitted from being popular in the middle of a blues revival in the 1980s but while elder statesmen like B.B. King and Buddy Guy thrived and Stevie Ray Vaughn won praise for his guitar genius and similarities to Albert King and Hendrix, Cray produced the most consistent quality of LPs. He had made strong albums before and would continue to do so afterward, but Cray will always be best remembered for Strong Persuader, a ten-song masterpiece of the blues. It's one of the great albums from a genre that typically has been defined by its best songs first and foremost, with albums being a more forgotten medium.

164. Urban Hymns-The Verve (1997): The early 90s were a heyday for trippy guitar music in England, springing up from the mishmash of trip-hop, electronica, techno and neo-psychedelia that crept into British music as a reaction to the ever-glamourized techno of faceless, banal acts like Duran Duran. This all factored into a sort of "shoe-gazing" rock that was heavily influenced by club life, deep thinking and recreational drugs. Verve (the "The" only came in 1995 under threat of lawsuit from American label, Verve Records) formed under these influences, playing music awash in a heavy haze of psychedelia, fuelled mainly by cocaine, ecstasy, speed and hallucinogenics rather than the heroin and pills that creatively fueled some grunge musicians. Either way, it was a druggy haze that the Verve operated under. Their early days showed promise, though they tended to make music that wandered and lost its focus in the drug haze. Principle songwriter and frontman Richard Ashcroft demonstrated he had the soul of a classic British songwriter as the band matured and explored what the studio could generate for their sound. Bassist Simon Jones, guitarist Nick McCabe and drummer Peter Salisbury rounded out the group. After forming in 1990, they quickly attracted attention in their native Wigan, Great Manchester. A small UK indie label, Hut Records, signed them up in 1991 and their debut release, an EP simply titled Verve, came out in 1992. On these early cuts- "She's a Superstar," "All in the Mind" being standouts- they showed how their music was awash in grungy guitars, echos, spacey concoctions from studio gadgetry as well as simple guitar effects pedals. It was like listening to U2 if they all of a sudden were institutionalized and then heavily sedated while being in a padlocked room with time for their minds to wander. The Verve's LP debut came in 1993 with A Storm in Heaven. Quality wise it's a pleasant enough debut, but the lofty grandiosity is sometimes the album's enemy.

A Storm in Heaven such an appropriate title because really, if there are storms in heaven, this is what I could contemplate them sounding like. The work of the Verve on their first album showed promise, yet they had a sort of aimless jazz mentality by painting soundscapes with the production but not going for anything cohesive or intrinsically melodic. There was none of the simmering paranoia, distrust, fear or urgency that buttered up their future recordings for greatness. A Storm in Heaven is sparkling escapism, a sonically exalting dichotomy yet uncomfortable and a feeling out process when you take it in as a whole product. Navel-gazing doesn't even begin to describe how inwardly projected this kind of rock was, hence them being lumped in with other groups as "shoegazing" rockers. Their 1993 premiere is a lot like what was defined as alternative rock for the 90s, with only a few cuts hinting at a pop crossover ability- "Blue," "Slide Away," "Make it Till Monday"- and many others bathing in the supernatural and cosmic values that psychedelia brought to rock. It's not a stretch to say that frequent ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms and LSD could be the factor behind a lot of this trippy atmosphere. But if it worked for the Verve and didn't kill anybody, who can frown on it too much? The negative about this record is that it can't be enjoyed too much without the influence of drugs and tends to get boring for the sober listener. Comparing the two, one can reasonably gauge how Oasis borrowed the white noise guitar assault of the Verve for their own records and the fact the relatively unknown Oasis played gigs opening for the Verve throughout 1993-94 might confirm that tie. The Verve still got mainly positive write-ups for it but took their star turn on its followup A Northern Soul in 1995. 

They demonstrated a measured improvement over everything done to that point, though still left room for even more to put out onto the table. A lot of the psychedelic edge was taken off, replaced by a more traditional rock academia being flaunted with breathless flair. Their new awareness of crafting a timeless record pushed the band hard in the studio, coming off months of touring the States that may have hardened them up but also wore them down. Still, the Verve used their sophomore release to create the past of rock's more messianic, symphonic excesses in their own image. And it worked like a charm, producing a near quintessential album on nearly all fronts. There's a harshness peeled back to be revealed for all to see on A Northern Soul, as Owen Morris's production brought out the dirty, nasty side of the group. Ashcroft had performed admirably on their previous recordings but amidst the fish tank production sound had his vocals often buried. We get a full frontal helping of Ashcroft and that's a good thing because he was an underrated, sensational voice in 90s rock. The Verve brought themselves into the "Britpop" consciousness with successful singles in the morose "On Your Own," the sweeping "This is Music" and the arch-classical, quasi-Procul Harum effort, "History." Despite creating an album they very much admired, and one that put them on the map with UK critics as a force to be reckoned with, it had been an arduous process that exposed wounds. McCabe and Ashcroft clashed often over direction and position within the band. McCabe no doubt didn't see eye to eye with Ashcroft but also probably had the lurking fear that Ashcroft's songwriting exploits would reduce it to him and a bunch of backing musicians, collectively calling themselves the Verve. The hours spent in the studio gave (not so) safe haven to this increasing friction, worsened by chemical dependencies. A few months after A Northern Soul, the Verve called it quits in late 1995. Not even a month into the acrimonious and stunning split, Salisbury and Jones re-united with Ashcroft to record and rehearse. After going through former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, they turned to Jones and Ashcroft's high school buddy Simon Tong. 

They would spent 1996 barely, if ever, playing in concert but basically putting down stuff to tape, primarily Ashcroft tunes, in the general aim of being pat of his ensemble of musicians for a solo record. At some point in late 1996, Ashcroft realized he wasn't so keen on the idea of recording an album with 3/4 of his old band and not calling it the Verve, so he asked McCabe to return. By summer 1997, they had completed the making of their comeback album, Urban Hymns. It was released in September to universal approval and the Verve were being hailed as Britain's #1 band, supplanting the now low-key Blur and the tiresomely egotistical Oasis in the popularity polls and on the charts. How, really, does the Verve stack up with their "Britrock/pop" peers? Well, the Verve were a more serious, grandiose and symphonic alternative to the reckless abandon of other acts during that era of the mid-90s. Somehow, they seemed even more impenetrable than Radiohead, who had started off as disaffectedly youthful but no doubt accessible before veering off into uncommercial waters that, because of their Pink Floyd-esque ability to make the disturbing an appealing beautification project, actually strengthened their reputation. The internal conflicts of the Verve- a feature largely absent in the functioning unit of Radiohead, est. 1992- played the biggest role in its destruction(s) but overall you got the sense that they were a group built not to last. It hinged on personalities that could not stay on the same page and wanted to do their own thing whenever possible. With Ashcroft at the helm, it was tough to have a mutual ground to stand on for the figure he butted heads with constantly in Nick McCabe. Now, when I say there is nothing tangibly inviting or friendly about their music, that's not to say that the Verve didn't play with brightness, as they usually preferred it vividly loud, droning and heavily guitar-oriented. Those aren't all anti-conformist policies, right? 

But there was no brash electricity running through their pores, not the knife-sharp ruthlessness or boozy, charged up tempos of an Oasis or to a lesser extent Blur. However, the Verve also spliced in some electronic, orchestral and folk elements as they went along. After being heaped with praise from UK music media publications and fans alike, the Verve were also blessed with a breakthrough to the US market. This was primarily achieved through the top 20 hit, "Bittersweet Symphony," a landmark 90s classic that seemed an orchestral-pop mix beyond this world, though it was marred by a rather unfair legal battle when Allen Klein's Abcko sued and won all royalties for itself and Mick Jagger/Keith Richards when it came to songwriting credit. Other royalties were of course divvied up amongst the classical session men, Andrew "Loog" Oldham, etc. This left not even a penny for the Verve to savour. This was because the song's infamous violin melody had been borrowed from a classical version of "The Last Time," lifted from a 1965 middlebrow classical album of Stones hits credited to Oldham, then Stones manager. Despite not being able to reap the royalties of this smash hit, the Verve still deserve credit for making it their own creation and an instantly identifiable opus that is still recognized today as one of the best rock/pop singles of the last 25 years. Keith Richards didn't do himself any favours or endear himself to many when he gave a "so what? Tough luck" sort of response about it, suggesting that maybe the Verve write another hit but this time do it without lifting stuff from other people's songs. Rich, coming from a guy whose band copied and stole from blues musicians without having to pay a red cent for so many years. What's a million to Keef anymore? Well, it would certainly have been nice for the Verve to see the fruits of their labours, but nonetheless they are continually seen as the band behind the violin melody on "Bittersweet Symphony" anyway. More folks are familiar with that song than "The Last Time" in any of its incarnations... and I'm saying this as a giant Stones fan who believes they were even better than the Verve by far. Hip-hoppers have done a lot less and gotten more praise because of the lack of a lawsuit. 

Anyway, most respectful fans of music know that the Verve are the primary minds behind the timeless "Bittersweet Symphony," a rumination how in life we are all slaves in the end, immortally tied to the dollar bill while Ashcroft urges he will "take you down the only road (he's) ever been down." The protagonist behind the words on "Bittersweet Symphony" does maintain that he can change his ways and be a chameleon to survive the grind of life. It's a deserving lead cut for this album, but not the only great composition. There is also the string-adorned "Sonnet," a mellow, incisive and mesmerizing tune. It manages to be a moving, powerful production that shows how underrated a singer Ashcroft was and continues to be. Hardly anyone could make better use of a seemingly plain voice as Ashcroft in the 90s. He overcame his lack of range with a slightly English-accented, hurting, quivering, nerve-wracked delivery that could very often emote better than technically adept singing peers of his. On "Sonnet," he brings a vocal dramatic to the devotional, matured rock of the arrangement. Arguably superior- for its unique viewpoint of death and sorrow- is the acoustic guitar-and-strings-dominated "The Drugs Don't Work." Rather than a disapproving commentary on recreation drug use, as some people have suspected it is, "The Drugs Don't Work," by the Verve's claims, is a contemplation of death, aging and despair, an unforgettably wise and philosophical inclusion to their repertoire. The use of strings is never done soppily or in poor taste here, and that is the case throughout Urban Hymns. There's very little Bono or Chris Martin fronted (U2 and Coldplay respectively) messiah complex to this blown-up vision of rock for the mid-90s crowd. As fate would have it, Martin has continually expressed his love of Ashcroft and the Verve, citing them as perhaps the most major influence on Coldplay and letting Ashcroft open for shows on their recent world tour. 

Martin is such an avid fan, he doesn't care if it raises eyebrows- or at least just draws some guffaws- when he introduces Richard as "the greatest singer in the world" (which he did when he invited Ashcroft to duet with him as Coldplay covered "Bittersweet Symphony" at the Live 8 Fesitval in 2005). Ok, we get it Chris, you love him nearly as much as Gwyneth but "Viva La Vida" makes "Sonnet" sound positively low-key. I'll have to rightly defer to the Verve as the originators of Coldplay's "Storm in Heaven" values, thank you very much. And to add to the connections, the next track, "Lucky Man," is one that highly-esteemed honourary Saint Behind the (Sun)glasses Bono once pointed to as one of the top writings of the last 25 years that he wishes he'd come up with. High praise, though not the gushing type of Coldplay, is often something Bono reserves for people fighting poverty and hunger rather than fellow musicians but he chucks out a compliment or two when he's really bowled over I guess. That is what Bono usually does, unless a general secretary of the UN or Tony Blair or some other dignitary stops in for a cup 'o tea, a photo op and a cheque made out to the people of the Congo I suppose. As for musically, "Lucky Man" is again a string-happy production but again it's done with class, poise and innate understanding of what makes a good pop record. "Lucky Man," emits off of a genuine, joyful feeling next to the rather glum first three cuts. You won't often find the Verve so upbeat and full of zest for life. It's an atmospheric, slightly trippy song that manages to contain a positive outlook- though it's anyone's guess what Ashcroft means by "Cause I'm a lucky man/With fire in my hands." 

One can't deny the zeal with which he sings it though. Like on "Sonnet," he vocally pushes along with the music in a sort of an extended, healing prayer. He calls out lines ad nauseum in the closing- "It's just a change in me/Something in my liberty" as well as "Got a love that never dies." "Lucky Man" is another surefire classic from this LP which is jaw-droppingly impressive through the first four selections. These songs were certainly progressions on A Northern Soul, but the trippy psychedelia of old is not absent. There are variations of it, such as the experimental, jazz-tinged, esoteric track "Catching the Butterfly," a band-written piece, the soulful, Peter Gabriel ringer "One Day," the funky, spacey sort of trip-hop attempt "This Time," the countryish "Velvet Morning," the subdued, techno-centric "Neon Wilderness" (probably the hardest song to sit through on an otherwise solid album and Nick McCabe's solo songwriting co-credit) and the electronica snippet "Deep Freeze" which is a sort of "bonus" track after "Come on" ends at 6:38 (between there is a 6.5 minute wait, which is why it's a little nourishment at the end, an easter egg- hidden extra feature- as they call them on DVDs). The band-written "The Rolling People," "Weeping Willow," "Space and Time," and band written "Come on" are unmistakably the Verve, straight ahead rock replete with a full bodied production, wah-wah guitars, pounding drums and Ashcroft's soaring vocals. A basic fleshing out of what they traipsed upon for A Northern Soul. What hurts Urban Hymns from being even greater is its 13 track length, some of which tends to navigate the same territory as others and get stale. At 10 or 11 tracks and this would have been an A+ and one of the top 100 LPs on my list. 

As it stands, Urban Hymns gets by on pure exaltation alone, granted the first four cuts are as good as the start of any 90s album and do a whole lot toward getting Urban Hymns as high as it gets. You might consider them unoriginal, familiar or trumphed-up compositions, but to me they represent the most sonically aware, smart rock radio slices bestowed on people in the decade. The 90s saw the industry changing, usually for the worse, but 1997 was a blip on the radar from when grunge died and left the vacuum for a gauntlet of crappy corporate rock and top 40 commercialism. Not only did Radiohead step out and wow everyone bu the Verve climbed back from the edge of dissolution to give a glimpse into what could have been. Touring throughout 1998 just aired out more of the same squabbles. A final concert in August 1998 was followed by inactivity until the Verve were officially done in April 1999. But unlike the previous time, there would be no shimmering reunion. At least, not for a while. The fact there was one is a minor miracle considering Ashcroft tongue-in-cheek once quipped that it would've been easier to get four Beatles back together on stage. Ashcroft underwent a high-profile solo career and struck a critical and commercial home run with 2000's Alone with Everybody. Followups have been less praised and he's no longer the looming figure cast over the rock world of the UK that he was from 1995-2002. The Verve undoubtedly shocked quite a few when they reunited in 2006, then recorded their long-awaited followup. Released in 2007, Forth was far superior to the usual releases we get sucked into caring about, but for the Verve it was a rather pale way to come back. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and many other critics did so too in the UK music press, always close allies of the Verve. That microscopic focus and the Verve's weighty expectations were thrust on others after 1997, such as Radiohead, Travis or Supergrass. 

Before an answer to the question "How do the Verve go (excuse the pun) forth from here?" could be generated, the Verve once again closed up shop. Recently, Jones and McCabe have expressed disenchantment with Ashcroft and the reunion, viewing it as a vehicle by Richard in order to get his solo career in gear again. This is the publicly expressed opinion so if other reasons are behind it, we aren't aware yet. But the finality of this tension is that the Verve have broken up for a third time. Who knows if they'll bury the hatchet again. But each time they band together, it seems to result in interesting material at the very least. They didn't have a real prime because of the distractions and dissolutions. Recall a time when the Verve were neck and neck with the aformentioned craniums of the dial (aka Radiohead) in a year where Blur was undergoing some tension and Oasis' momentum stalled after being crowned Kings of Britrock. For a period that lasted all too soon because of another split, the Verve were riding high. Urban Hymns is a great place to start with the Verve, unless you seek to check out their entire oeuvre. In that case, go back to the beginning with their 1992 EP debut but be cognizant that Urban Hymns is their peak and also the most daring, adventurous album of the Britrock era, outside of OK Computer that is. Don't just settle for "Bittersweet Symphony" because there's more where that came from.

163. OK Computer-Radiohead (1997): The Britpop- or Britrock if you want to narrow it down- explosion of the mid-90s perhaps brought no band arguably more unconventional, more experimental, more influential, than Radiohead. A lot of detractors have deemed them an arty, perpetually depressing throwback to the anti-edgy prog rock lynchpins of the 1970s. They've had accusations toward them that claim they excel in tedium and boring melodrama for tree-hugging simps who are unsure of their own psyche. Detractor's words, not mine. It's unfair to label them just another Genesis or King Crimson, wanking about on their instruments to the strains of fairy tales, English folk stories or Medieval scrolls. Radiohead is not as meandering, time consuming or deeply into their own complex, classical-esque structuring as those prog rock heroes were. The roots of Radiohead stretch back to 1985 when they were all students at the same school in Abingdon, Oxfordshire in the Southern part of England. They formed a group called On a Friday and their playing opportunities were disrupted by the majority of the members finishing university. By the time 1991 rolled around, they had secured a six-album deal with EMI and changed their name to Radiohead. To this day, they have maintained their inaugural lineup of vocalist Thom Yorke, lead guitarist/keyboardist Johnny Greenwood, rhythm guitarist Ed O'Brien, bassist/keyboardist Colin Greenwood (older brother of Johnny) and drummer Phil Selway, their current eldest member at 42 years of age- Greenwood is just under 38 and their youngest. Their start came on a 1992 EP called Drill. A late 1992 single "Creep" landed without much fanfare but took off after the release of their debut LP, Pablo Honey. This inauspicious arrival had not given many signs of their future abilities, coming across as shoe-gazing, young man (teenage as well) moping. 

"Creep" bore the brunt of criticism, with many finding Radiohead an insufferably downcast bunch that just seemed depressed about everything. Pablo Honey was characterized by angstful heavy rock not unlike the grunge movers and shakers from the U.S., only an aura of sensitivity, sheltered fear, depression, detachment and disillusion was present. Johnny Greenwood- always the most innovative instrumentalist in the group- dominated with his guitar pyrotechnics that were part of a whole school of British guitarists following in the footsteps of U2's Edge. Their 1993 beginning sounded as if Tears for Fears had picked up the guitars, thrown out the synthesizers and drum machines and turned up the volume and distortion. Even Kurt Cobain would have trouble aspiring to the insecurities and fragility displayed by the shy, introverted lead singer Thom Yorke. Yorke comes off singing like Bono on the debut, but lacking the pretensions Bono carries. Radiohead's debut was the hardest they would rock by far, and may have give them a top 40 US hit but it was one that pigeonholed them. "Creep" smacked of overnight success and disappearance, a one-hit wonder in the offing. In the UK, it merely transplanted them on the map with a slew of similarly disaffected bands taking alternative rock into the 90s with what seemed a continuation of where post-punk had left off at before dying off sometime around 1982-83. The band, in particular Yorke, dealt with fame badly, often hiding behind shades not to seem cool but to avoid making eye contact and being personable with the round of interviewers asking him question he's heard a thousand times already. He didn't want to be at the front of the MTV eye-candy machine and the critics' idea of Radiohead being "nirvana lite" didn't help. 

Radiohead hasn't spoken too fondly of their debut but it was of its place and time, capitalizing on the market for self-loathing, slacker anthems like Beck's rather sarcastic "Loser." The 1994 EP My Iron Lung found bitterness and the band reacting to their touring crush and the success they had found. Scouring old photos of Radiohead show Thom to be like that artistic, geeky kid in school who kept to himself but tried to be somewhat anti-authority in his own quiet way while making fashion statements like dyeing his hair blonde or spiking it up. And somehow this made the girls interested in him, transfixed by his kindly, thoughtful, outspoken ways. Yorke's nasal, mumbly vocal delivery became more pronounced on future albums, but on Pablo Honey and their breakthrough sophomore effort, 1995's The Bends, he showed a little clarity, as gloomy as it could be. You cold almost say he regressed in his vocal clarity, the opposite of Michael Stipe's early days- Stipe, by the way, has been a longtime friend and supporter of Yorke and Radiohead. Yorke, definitely aided by a democratically run band where everyone got fair input, also proved with his songwriting expertise that he was not exactly a melancholy wrist-cutting drama queen either. Both albums weren't slam dunks in this author's opinion, often hampered by heavy-handed misery and woe emoting, though critical opinion in the UK, especially for the second album, was quite high. When it came out in spring 1995, The Bends made Pablo Honey seem like rehearsal. Many singles endured and scraped the lower reaches of the US charts while creating huge buzz in their home country. They flirted with psychedelia on tracks like "Planet Telex," "(Nice Dream)," "My Iron Lung" and "Black Star" (a great dead ringer for Neil Young & Crazy Horse). Truly bone-rattling darkness crept into the music via the absolute gem "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," "Bullet Proof... I Wish I Was" and "Bones." 

Almost stealing the show was the ballad "High and Dry," where Yorke showed off his silky falsetto and Radiohead began to show they could beat U2 at its own game. Still, Yorke despises the song to this day, feeling he was pressured into putting it on the album and that he choice eventually became out of his control. More stark and lovely is the closer, "Street Spirit (Fade Out)," a sad, Zeppelin-esque funeral march that showed just how original Radiohead could be when they clicked on all cylinders. Only the spitting "Just" recalled the hateful blues of "Creep," only this time outwardly targeted. The music videos made for the singles rarely put Radiohead on a pedestal but were highly innovative and oddly disturbing at times too. Whatever the case, they raised Radiohead's profile around the world. The arrangements, epic as they could be, were delivered by a straightforward rock setup, big on guitars and vibrant production that bordered on U2 levels of pretension and artificial importance. It was often hard to find joy or even be able to stomach this growing unit and their fascination with moping and whining. But underneath it all, Radiohead were becoming their own masters and disassociating themselves with the mainstream while managing to be part of it at the same time. Today, this mid-90s phase that spawned Coldplay and soft, easy-going noodleheads of their variety, is not held on to much by Radiohead for they feel little affinity with all the bands that the music press liken to the Radiohead circa The Bends. Their awaited 1997 album was a change of scenery for Radiohead as they experimented with the studio, tried alternate time signatures and explored dark territory in a way that made The Bends simply look like hypersensitive, EMO posturing. OK Computer, dished out in June 1997, found them touching on global and social themes for the first time in such a consistent fashion. 

The fear of technology's rise and our complete dependence on it is central to the album, one where Radiohead diversified its instrumental arsenal to a large degree. Here it's Radiohead, still in a rather perverse, cryptic mode, expanding their horizons and cutting out the weightiness that bogged down The Bends at certain points. The electric guitars were toned down, though not eliminated, while acoustic instrumentation came to the plate a bit more, as well as electronica, jazz and soundtrack compositional influences. The guys recorded the LP in a mobile studio out in the countryside, meaning we here tracks that were performed in a ballroom, rehearsal room or outdoors. Initial reception, especially in the UK, was incredibly positive and glowing, so much so that it became a bit overbearing and hard to stomach, even for the band as Thom Yorke struggled with depression and writer's block leading up to its 2000 followup Kid A (in some ways a more interesting and adventurous album even if the tunes didn't hold up to the same lofty standard). Some people called it "post-rock" or "post-modern rock," but Radiohead's style on this collection is like a Britrock giant such as the Verve or Oasis if they were out of anti-depressants or amphetamines (Radiohead being notorious for keeping it relatively straight and clean, staying together and not dissolving in a druggy mess like most others). Say what you will about the album, but the UK press and fans have taken to OK Computer in an embracing way that's almost as out of hand as the long-time praise for Dark Side of the Moon. Hyped or not, OK Computer is a stellar breakthrough for a band that named themselves after a 1986 Taking Heads song- so fitting considering Radiohead emerged as an experimental beacon to behold much like the Talking Heads had in the late 70s. Only they were the Heads of the introspective 90s, bereft of the same quirky humour, aptitude for funk and penchant for melding visual delights with musical ahead-of-the-curve innovation. 

After all, in the digitial age, what has soul or feeling anymore? And that's Radiohead's ultimate gift for these times; it's ability to detach from warmth and humanity in ways that make them astute observers of the modern fright we all have in the back of our minds. On this album, there's a focus that never wavers, unlike their first two records when they were just finding themselves. OK Computer is the crowning achievement of a group that above all has remained hell-bent on going to dark corners of the psyche in musical form, whether or not that alienates its fanbase or the critics in their side pocket. Moody, downcast rock like the opener "Airbag" shows how the Radiohead of The Bends had become more cerebral and inaccessible, yet of a higher quality. It was written primarily by York- though every Radiohead track receives the band name as the writer- about the fatalistic thought that every time one heads out on the road in their automobile, they risk death.  In 1998, it was the lead attraction on an EP that collected B-sides of the singles derived from OK ComputerHighlighting that change of pace for Radiohead is "Paranoid Android," a more minor hit than "Karma Police," but no less influential. It's always nervy rock, but the tune veers from folkish to cosmic, supernatural, satellite ambience as well as charged-up hard rock. The beginning has one ready for a sort of demonic folk-rock track with fingerpicked acoustic guitar stylings that are soon darkened up by the falsetto quaver of Yorke. It's exceptionally underground work and yet mainstream all at once, highlighting Radiohead's winning flirtation with practically uncommercial, defiant work. It's four separate tunes stuffed together, a movement or suite not unlike the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun" or Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." After the spacey folk of the first portion, it gives way to a Beck-like rave-up with Johnny Greenwood ripping into his guitar a la Mick Ronson circa 1972. 

The third is a sort of victory celebration, albeit with unsettling harmonies and countermelodies that equal some of the Beach Boys' best shifting epics. The fourth section flies back into the out-of-their-heads rock blitz of the second section with synthesizers joining in on the fray. In the musical shape-shifting, there are tempo and meter changes, namely one stretch where the meter bounces back and forth between conventional 4/4 beat to a 7/8 beat, not unlike Pink Floyd's "Money." Lyrically, it's recollections of Yorke from being in an uncomfortable situation at an L.A. bar where he was surrounded by strangers high on cocaine, including a woman who flew into an inhuman frenzy when somebody accidentally spilled a drink on her. The song was written as a bit of a joke piece, mashing together anything-goes jamming on a larf that actually translated to listeners quite well. "Paranoid Android" has been praised as the most intriguing cut on OK Computer, a semi-classical achievement of excellence that capitalized on the singular dynamic that the five-piece Radiohead possessed. Avant-garde, spaced-out futurist rock is the order of the day with the wondrous, cosmic floating of "Subterranean Homesick Alien," where the narrator wishes to go into outer space via alien abduction in order to see the Earth as he'd like it, an orb in the cold, lonely, infinite sphere of the universe. Incredible is the demented lullaby-ish "No Surprises," which is again similar to Brian Wilson's mid-60s operettas, only a lot more nervy and agitated. With a beautiful palette of acoustic guitar, glockenspeil and a music-box guitar arpeggio- inspired, ironically enough, by the intro to Wilson's "Wouldn't it Be Nice?"- "No Surprises" is haunting, ethereal and yet soothing as an ocean's tide. The isolated, quiet, deathly still of "Exit Music (For a Film)" comes across well even if it was actually intended for a film, showing up in the closing credits of Baz Luhrman's 1996 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet but was left off the soundtrack per Yorke's request. 

Take heart those of you resistant to experimentation, because there is still enough to remind one remotely of The Bends- the folky, strained "Let Down," the raging, herky-jerky attack on politics, "Electioneering" and the brooding, airplane crash survival tale of "Lucky" in particular would have been studs on that 1995 release and fitting for that album's style. Maybe the most conventional song here is "Karma Police." Its conventionalism is still ironed out into something memorable and classic. It cuts to the heart of Radiohead's affecting detached eeriness. "Karma Police" is not unusual in its production or chord progression- at least except for a middle eighth that states from the point of view of the Karma Police "This is what you get/When you mess with us"- and sticks to acoustic guitars and piano as if rooted in singer-songwriter textures from the early 70s. That all goes out the window with some decidedly post-modern howls of disillusioned freaking out, with the odd distanced guitar slide noise (perhaps just a synthesizer mode) and an ending of computerized feedback on Ed O'Brien's guitar that fades out the track. "Karma Police" assails the working world of capitalism with its magnifying glass bosses, cold and cruel emphasis on generating cash and the insanity it an drive people to (hence the refrain "For a minute there, I lost myself"). Yorke comes alive for the final minutes, blaring the aformentioned refrain in the middle of a swirl of guitars, some overdubbed- though it should be said that 80% of OK Computer was done live in order to carefully, authentically capture the essence of Radiohead's zeitgeist circa 1997. Radiohead is subdued, but no less eerie, with softer fare such as the swamp blues-meets-electronica (in other words, Eno produced Talking Heads) of "Climbing up the Walls," replete with strings and rumbling processed sounds. 

To show just how willing they were to go to extremes, Radiohead even tosses in a strange, for-hardcore-fans only piece called "Fitter Happier," a swirling, unsettling techno-based track that is spoken-word through a computer speech processor about the political game, how capitalism encompasses all and how political slogans just brainwash and divert attention from where it should be laid. The twelfth and final track is "The Tourist," a rather relaxed, non-aggressive turn for the album right at the very end. Mainly created by Johnny Greenwood, it's a jazzy, late night mood that stands out from the rest enough to be the natural choice for closer. It does so without representing a gasp, but more like a deep sigh or relief at the conclusion of an intense, commanding work. On OK Computer (title alone gives it away), Radiohead performs the tough task of abandoning the human element behind the music, almost discounting how human expression can work into society, in favour of making a statement on the robotic, computer-controlled, technologically reliant nature of the world as it was in 1997. It echoes Joy Division, Kraftwerk, Nirvana, Husker Du and German Kraut Rock of the 70s and to a lesser extent Pink Floyd, Primal Scream and New Order, among others. The message has been a central one behind their career since, but this still stands as their most complete statement, a perfect synthesis of their dark views and their unique approach to music. I will state that what resulted from their 1999-2000 sessions produced the electronica-invested blackness of Kid A (2000) and the sprawling, icy crunch of Amnesiac (2001) and if you chop out the filler on those two albums, you get the best Radiohead record in my opinion. But OK Computer is the best thing to seek out by them, as a whole product. Really, the cynicism Radiohead expounds upon is less grounded in reality than purveyors of gloom from the past. Radiohead finds those aspects worth exploring, but brings our fascination with high-end technology to the discussion too.

162. White Light/White Heat-The Velvet Underground (1968): Forming in 1965 in the soft underbelly of New York, the Velvet Underground would go on to five-year existence where record sales proved elusive but critical adoration did not. And as the expression goes: A thousand people bought the Velvet Underground's albums, but every one of them formed their own band afterward. In the controversial, boundary-pushing art world of Andy Warhol's mid-60s NYC, the Velvet Underground found a place where they belonged. In the world of rock, they were at first too bizarre, dangerous and avant-garde while after John Cale's departure they simply lacked polish or prowess in the face of lightning rods like Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience and a recording company willing to lay their neck out on the line to promote them. Lou Reed, the primary figure and creator behind the Velvet Underground, had always been a true New Yorker and during his formative years had become invested in listening to rock n' roll as well as doo wop. However his personal life was fraught with strained relations with his parents, affluent Jewish folks who became deeply worried about Lou's homosexual tendencies as a teen and sent him for radical electroconvulsive therapy. They were going on advice and wanted the best but the electroshock deeply affected Lou while traumatizing him and causing a rift between him and his parents. Like with other cases, it affected Lou's short-term memory for months to follow. Attending university in the early 60s, Lou became intrigued by the world of poetry, mentoring under Delmore Schwartz while fancying the druggy underworld to broaden his horizons and ease the burden of his dysfunctional youth. He hosted a late night show on radio at Syracuse University and soon realized all the journalism and film directing he had been pursuing was a prelude to what he was meant for. 

Ultimately, he worked toward a B.A. as an English major before the musician's life came calling for good. After and during his time in post-secondary, Lou began writing songs in the style of garage rocking American bands of the time, penning rather unpoetic yet out-of-the-ordinary numbers for people while staffed as a writer at Pickwick Records starting in 1963. One such goofy number was "The Ostrich," a parody of all the dance craze tunes being doled out in the early 60s. A band given the song when Pickwick brass decided it had commercial potential was the Primitives, who had John Cale as a member. Cale was a classically trained wonder, a much more advanced musician yet one who shared progressive, radical ideas with Lou. Cale was a Welshman who was professionally working out of NYC and had been trained on piano and viola but learnt the bass because he found that rock was a more receptive medium to try his ideas out on. Cale had been a disciple of La Monte Young and John Cage, the avant-garde classical composer who would push the barriers of classical taste and reason (Cage flirted with musique concrete, also being a provocative genius too, once composing a tune called "4:31" where he would announce the title, then sit down at a piano and not play any notes. As he would sit there silently, teasing audiences with the prospect of touching the ivories, the silence would eventually get people grumbling and chatting amongst themselves in confusion. By the end of the 4 minutes, 31 seconds the composition would have been painted by the noise of the anticipating then disappointed crowd). Cale followed in similar footsteps by giving shows where he would perform a piece then demolish his piano with a sledgehammer right after.Cale was accomplished at piano but even moreso on viola, but his role in the rock group with Reed was to play bass. Assembled to round out a new group Cale and Reed hoped to get going were percussionist Angus MacLise and guitarist Sterling Morrison, a classmate of Reed's who he had played with before. La Monte Young's fixation with droning chords was admired by Cale and he found Reed enjoyed this raga style too, as he would give full-bodied alternate tunings to his guitar- even one where he tuned all the strings to the same note. 

This group called themselves the Warlocks before that moniker gave way to the Falling Spikes. They settled on Velvet Underground, named after a book by Michael Leigh about the sexual underground of the early 60s that a friend of Cale's had shown to them. In mid-1965, their early manager, music journalist Al Aronowitz, secured a $75 "purse" for the band to play at the high school in Summit, New Jersey. Sensing a chance to be financially rewarded for their pastime, the band gladly accepted, all except for MacLise who deemed the move a sellout that betrayed his steadfast commitment to their music as art for non-profit. He would depart, forcing the Velvet Underground to search for a new drummer. The search didn't last long as Sterling Morrison enticed the band to hire Maureen ("Moe") Tucker, the younger sister of his friend Jim Tucker. Tucker was no technical monster on the kit but turned out to be a pioneer for rock drummers, by being both a woman and a primitive with her equipment and technique. In this way, she was ideal for the avant-garde tendencies of the band because her unorthodox stylve involved playing an upturned bass drum and tom-toms with mallets as well as sticks and generally she avoided snare drums or cymbals. Her rhythms and beats held a lot in common with rock artists like Bo Diddley but also harkened back to African tribal drumming and classical symphonic percussion simultaneously. Tucker looked like a British Invasion idol, with a mop head of red hair but this was all the more unique because she was a tomboy. On top of that, she also played standing up. Andy Warhol became the band's manager later in the year, having all the hook-ups for the top cultural touchstones in NYC and exerting influence in the art world. Reed wasn't totally sold on Warhol's guidance, expressing hesitance to ideas such as letting German-born ice goddess singer Nico front the group, even if for just a few songs. The Velvets got their widest exposure by playing as part of Warhol's touring multimedia cavalcade, the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable." 

The bulk of the recordings for their 1967 debut The Velvet Undergrond & Nico were made in New York in April 1966 at the rundown, third-rate Scepter Studios. Columbia Records sales executive Norman Dolph would help Warhol finance the sessions and engineered the taping of it alongside John Licata. Dolph peddled the tapes to his superiors at Columbia, who weren't interested as were Atlantic and Elektra. MGM's Verve Records accepted the challenge of signing the Velvet Underground and assigned them veteran producing legend Tom Wilson, who had just jumped ship from Columbia, coming off work for Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. Re-recorded versions of several of the takes from Scepter were made, with only "Sunday Morning" sounding remotely polished and presentable for radio. Warhol was finally credited as producer, though it turns out he did very little compared to the band, Licata and Dolph or Wilson. Reed has found the silver lining in that Warhol did not interfere, acting more as a watchful eye to see how his pet project was going but not willing to bug them about it. The music was a collaborative effort, though headed by Cale and Reed, while the lyrics were mostly Reed's baby. He wrote with the inspiration of all his literary and poetic heoes but made the clear point of tackling controversial subject matter. Not merely acknowledging it, Reed's words stripped it bare for all to understand. With a title like "Heroin," what else could a song be going toward? Drugs, prostitution, sadomasochism and sexual deviancy alike were behind the tales of the VU on their debut. A lot of what arrived in the underground music of the 70s and 80s can be traced back to the Velvet Underground, who may not be one of the most tuneful or adept rock n' roll bands ever but are certainly one of the most important. The unpredictability of the group was the thing to watch for early on. One second the VU could be soft, plush and esoterically dreamy- "Sunday Morning" being the most blatant example, a celestial and lush production number that recalled what Tom Wilson had done for Simon & Garfunkel. 

But others were tender in their own way, usually being with the bewitching, heavily accented Nico on vocals- her appearances come on the golden batch of "Femme Fatale," "All Tomorrow's Parties," and "I'll Be Your Mirror." Then they could be abrasive and hideously limitless the next (the funeral pyre, droning mourn of "Venus in Furs," "Heroin" and the Dylanesque "Black Angel's Death Song"). Fuzzy rockers like "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Run Run Run" and "There She Goes" dealt more with the R&B touch that proved to be Reed's forte in the long run, lending support to theories that the real core of strangeness had come from Cale, furthered by the fact the Velvets scaled back the classical avant-garde nuances when Cale left. These three tunes, much like other tracks, were also essays on the drug culture, which were never wholeheartedly endorsed but certainly romanticized. To top it off was the speed-freak rush of "European Son," a cataclysmic finale of rough guitars and overbearing sound effects. Reed being a frequent user who eventually settled into his own substance problems and addiction to shooting speed intravenously in the 70s, makes one believe the voice behind the stoned experiences that cut to the chase big time. When Lou wasn't writing about scoring or taking drugs, he was commenting on the various creatures of the underworld to be encountered at Andy Warhol's "Factory," a collection of talent and/or characters from every alternate walk of life. There were many names, to many to go into great detail about (for an overview look elsewhere or just listen to the words of Lou's lone hit song "Walk on the Wild Side" from 1972's Transformer). But simply put, it was a hangout for all social rejects or outsiders, a bohemian refuge where Warhol titled his interests "Superstars." 

From homosexuals to drag queens to transsexuals to painters to musicians to film directors to poets to mere junkies looking for a place to belong, The Factory housed it all. Most of the oddities there would live cursed, troubled lives and die young in some sort of tragic epitaph (even the band wasn't immune as Sterling Morrison, a rather clean living guy by his middle age, succumbed to Hodgkin's Disease in 1995 while Nico, after years of mental issues and heroin addiction, died in a motorcycle accident in 1988). Even Warhol nearly lost his life when a deranged Factory hanger-on Valerie Solonas shot him several times in 1968, marking the end of the innocence you could say, as security and accessibility became much stricter. Reed wasn't enthralled by everyone hanging out in Warhol's large studio apartment, but he definitely found great source material for his songs. Out in March of 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico (wait for more explanation and in-depth analysis than I just gave in this inclusion much later on in this top 200) was challenging music, ahead of its time and destined to be eternally ugly, serving to first and foremost shock before entrancing the listener, whether that was the intention of the people behind its making or not. My own first listen to the album at 13 years of age had me recoiling in horror at the audial sludge that got five stars everywhere I looked. While no one else in my house opened up to the work of the Velvet Undrground, I eventually came to appreciate the vivid horror and terror the band could relate to and express with such stinging precision. 

Repeated re-visits taught me it was a masterpiece and one of the more revolutionary albums I could ever hope to stumble upon. When I sifted through the days of punk and post-punk and avant-garde noise rock that followed, I discovered just how much the Velvets canny stance toward rock had permeated generations of against-the-grain musicians and how it laid its tentacles through osmosis on any uncompromising rock to be made post-1960s. Just as much, if not more, influential is the Velvet Underground's affect on serious artful rock than the psychedelic era Beatles or gritty blues potion makers the Rolling Stones. Even Lou Reed's fine solo career could never cast off the shine and stigma that he had been a pivotal force in the most under appreciated rock group of the convention-smashing late 60s. Naturally, Verve did little to promote an LP that was being banned or refused stocking in most record stores due to its rated X manner. Their debut peaked at a paltry #171 on the charts, probably largely because of Warhol's influence and nothing else. Rolling Stone magazine was still a handful of months away from coming into existence and if they were able to rave on the Velvet Underground, perhaps more national consciousness could have been formed. Instead, to know that such a band existed and that they had a record out would have required intensive searching through magazines, newspapers and leaflets to pinpoint reviews or recommendations. It wasn't until the breakup of the Velvet Underground that everyone fully began to grasp what had occurred and what they had ignored. But as of 1967, the Velvet Underground was touring, playing shows wherever they were wanted, which usually wasn't in a venue of great capacity. At this point, the VU got a bit peeved at the sales for their debut and felt they were better off without Warhol now, deciding they could let their music do the talking and not have their management be another branch on a multimedia tree that could simply overshadow them in the end. 

With the cutting loose of ties with Warhol also came the end of the use of Nico as a lead vocalist. In fall 1967 they returned to the studio to deliver an album that would compromise nothing and not ever deliver the gorgeous, tender moments of gentility and coy vulnerability sometimes (capitulated to?) on Velvet Underground & Nico. The result is the vicious, salacious White Light/White Heat, released in January 1968. Another Tom Wilson production, it was nonetheless as poorly recorded as most of its predecessor but it can be seen as a precursor the 80s/90s lo-fi production craze. The title track arrives first and is an out and out endorsement of the sensations given from taking amphetamines, namely injecting them ("Ooo, I sure love to watch that stuff work its way in"). Cale and Morrison provide R&B counterpoints with their backing vocals. Lou bashes out some Jerry Lee Lewis styled chords on the piano throughout while the vocal is his most insane, cocksure to that date. A buzzing, tribal instrumental setting provided the backdrop for "The Gift," a radical piece featuring Cale in his Welsh accent reciting spoken words of a poem written by Reed. Why Cale? Well, if I were to guess I'd say it's because his deadpan, neato accent made for better drama than hearing Lou in his New Yorker accent drone it out in morose, flippantly cool mannerisms. The music stems from an onstage jam the others wrote called "Booker T." because it reminded them of the Memphis soul instrumentals of Booker T. & the MGs. It came from a span of a few weeks earlier in the year where Reed was battling hepatitis and Angus MacLise had filled in while Maureen Tucker moved to bass. Therefore, all four band members are credit. "The Gift" is one of those "Ludicrously/Comedically tragic" narratives, in this case about a young man named Waldo who is engaged in a long distance relationship with his girlfriend. This is because their school terms at college have ended, and back in his native Pennsylvanian town, Waldo Jeffers begins to fear she could be unfaithful to him. 

Lacking the money to fly to Wisconsin and visit her, he devises a plan to mail himself in a big cardboard box so he can surprise her and also keep an eye on her. Naturally, we skip ahead to the Monday after he mails himself (a Friday) where with her friend Sheila Klein, Marsha Bronson, his girlfriend, is discussing the man she slept with the night before, Bill. In other words, his fears are confirmed. Just then, the package arrives but the two have difficulty opening it because it is wrapped so elaborately. As an anticipatory Waldo waits inside, Marsha resorts to retrieving a sheet metal cutter from her basement and gives it to Sheila to use on the box. She then cuts through the package but, unbeknownst to the girls, sheers off Waldo's head as well... Oops. Lou no doubt had a way with grisly, utterly tragic denouements. "The Gift" sets elegant poetry alongside R&B/rock improvising, delegated to the right channel as opposed to Cale's storytelling on the left side of the stereo mix. It also extends past eight minutes, yet this is not even close to the longest track here a you'll find out. The only tune where Cale took lead vocals throughout follows, in the form "Lady Godiva's Operation," a heavenly, mysterious brooder based on an old folk tale first, then describing surgical procedure gone wrong second. Lou later chimes in to duet while the musicians create noises through feedback and manipulation of the strings to mimic the sounds of surgery (the sickest outtake Simon & Garfunkel ever recorded by the way). Its texture are solemn and reserved but nonetheless there is a nihilism and a rejection of beauty. It's quite the experience, if you can get into this sort of thing. The guitar weaving is drop dead superb for "Here She Comes Now," the shortest, quaintest and most impressive track here in my mind. Lou groans out a song of sexual lust and waiting, not as promiscuously based as "The Gift" but with palpable sexual urges no doubt. 

What Lou is referring to when he says "Here she ever comes now," could be anything, from your most dirty, naughty thoughts to something about a man getting impatient that his girl won't arrive to satisfy him sexually and that she's too stiff and boring to do so anyway ("She's made out of wood"). What's it about isn't as important as what it represents and it's a stellar, festering patchwork of thoughts laid out in the usual meditative drone the VU had perfected. It might be the only truly accessible thing here and forecast where the group was headed under Reed's guidance, although Cale and Morrison also get credit for it. Cale can be heard on viola subtly bawling out a melodic parallel to Lou's vocals. "Heard Her Call My Name" has the garage rock/girl group method of call-and-response backing vocals, but overall it's a hodgepodge mania of free-form, acerbic guitar solos with the distortion turned up real high and Lou's wild vocals almost unintelligible. As such, it is a throwaway but a hell of a memorable one, though it fails to capture the excitement of a live VU performance while the production sinks the rest of the instrumentation into the murk behind the searing solos. All the stops are pulled out for side 2, which contains only one track, the sixth and final number, "Sister Ray," a 17-minute wild ride about a scene of debauchery and decay that Lou wanted to depict so graphically, involving drag queens picking up sailors then engaging in an orgy after shooting up on smack. Yes, a good 'ol Lou Reed setting where everyone's in a big heroin orgy and the cops arrive and someone dies, etc. etc. "Sister Ray" refers to one of the characters, a transvestite heroin dealer, and we hear Lou make barely audible references to drugs toward the end while the constant refrain is "I'm searching for my mainline/I said I couldn't hit it sideways." In the final verse, there's a continual cry of "Too busy sucking on a ding dong/She's too busy sucking on my ding dong." 

Meanwhile, the band creates amplified chaos with pure noise that comes through distorted and crackling, with Morrison and Reed trading leads. It's a lot like the blues rock of Dylan's 1965 work, but much more on the edge and threatening. Cale is heard above the din playing a Vox Continental Organ plugged in through a guitar amplifier to give it some presence, much like what Deep Purple's Jon Lord would do with his organ a few years on. "Sister Ray" tests the patience of many, even those who enjoy extended jam freakouts. It concludes an album that's even tougher to crack than the Velvet Underground's debut, but when one delves beneath the surface they find a bold, groundbreaking record from a band that would never go this far again. Famed music writer Lester Bangs ranked this album as one of his all-time favourites and it shares more in common with the caustic free jazz going on around the same time via people like Ornette Coleman, latter day Coletrane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The fact that the Velvets retreated fro this intrinsically harrowing rock was the case because the power struggle between Cale and Reed axed Cale from the group before the recording began for their self-titled 1969 followup (see later). With his avant-garde sensibilities gone, songwriting took a front seat role. The VU became a prototype of indie bands you hear today on 1969's The Velvet Underground, with a winning precociousness and gentleness that struck a chord and carried them through to their ultimate split by the time 1971 rolled around. Sadly this didn't help their dim commercial prospects much as White Light/White Heat was the second and last of their albums to crack the top 200, nosing in at #199. Even the rockers were hummable and straightforward while Doug Yule replacing Cale gave them a stronger second vocalist and a talented multi-instrumentalist. But we'll get to that later, believe you me. As for White Light/White Heat, it could very well be the best avant-garde rock LP you'll ever hear, or ever want to hear.

161. Beatles for Sale-The Beatles (1964): When we last left off with Please Please Me, the Beatles were entering their unparalleled period of fan worship and success. Beatlemania had run rampant through Europe in 1963 but had yet to catch fire in the market where the true test lay, the U.S.A. A few singles bombed on Vee Jay Records as major US labels continued to shun the Beatles music as some UK phenomenon of guitar groups that never would transfer to America, where rock was dead and had been dead for a few years doncha know? With their relentless pace of touring going on, the Beatles in 1963 still managed to fit in time to records the #1 singles "From Me to You" b/w "Thank You Girl" put out in May, and "She Loves You" b/w "I'll Get You" in August, which became the highest selling single in the history of the UK record industry. A whole entire roster of talent grew up around the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, with Brian Epstein's NEMS also behind the rising fortunes of Gerry & the Pacemakers, Cilla Black and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. Their domination on the charts continued into the winter months with a performance for the Royal Command Concert being seen by millions on TV. In December they came out with their second album With the Beatles (see later), and simultaneously a smash single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" b/w "This Boy." Plans were underway for a feature motion picture starring the Beatles, while they became the toast of Britain. Meanwhile, the US's Capitol Records, owned by EMI, in January agreed to distribute the Beatles "I Want to Hold Your Hand," followed by a promotional blitz to massively hype the Beatles arrival, all hell broke loose. When radio stations and publications began getting in on the act, there was an enormous anticipation and fanbase waiting for the Beatles when they arrived in early February 1964. 

Within a few months, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was a runaway chart topper, the Beatles were greeted as heroes upon their plane's arrival, merchandise sales went through the roof and the Beatles charted a record thirty singles in the calendar year of 1964, breaking Bing Crosby's 1930 record of twenty nine singles on the chart. The Beatles came to national consciousness by three consecutive Sundays on CBS's The Ed Sullivan Show, the top variety and entertainment program going at the time. Amidst this was their first concert tour of the US, lasting all month until they returned to England at the end of the month to begin filming of their movie. On the charts, they also broke Elvis Presley's record for record sales in one year (previously set in 1957), most songs in the top 10 at one point (seven) and being the first- and only to date- to hold the top 5 spots on the Billboard Hot 100. That 1964 still stands as an unprecedented flurry of fame and an embarrassment of riches as the Beatles in twelve months managed to break several records, play sold-out shows all over the US and abroad, film and release their autobiographical film classic A Hard Day's Night and still find the time to produce new work with two LPs, three singles and an EP. The second LP of the two was Beatles for Sale, only put out in the UK at first but released on CD in the US in 1987 and the officially recognized release now. Late June marked when A Hard Day's Night was flashed across the silver screen, a postcard of the times, a behind-the-scenes view of the hectic life of the Beatles but also a damn good film, a black-and-white gem that has attracted film critics' approval over the years (Roger Ebert called it a nearly perfect comedy film and uses it as a tool in film classes he has taught). The soundtrack is arguably their best early mop top days album, although the US version featured 6 tunes and a whole cheap-ass B side of soundtrack instrumentals. Such was the case with their American Capitol releases (found on the box set The Capitol Albums) which pried singles, EPs and album tracks off their UK material and made the LPs as skimpy as possible, usually 10 or 11 tracks spanning 23-27 minutes or so. 

Squeezed out (from 1964-66) were, in order: Meet the Beatles (a rehashing of With the Beatles), The Beatles' Second Album, Introducing the Beatles (actually a Vee Jay release from 1963 put back into print when Beatlemania arrived and Capitol tried to make it irrelevant with their 1965 release The Early Beatles), A Hard Day's Night, Something New, Beatles '65, Beatles VI, Help! (again with the non-soundtrack side sacrificed for instrumentals), Rubber Soul (edited down to from 14 to 11 tracks), Yesterday... And Today and Revolver (absent tracks used to pad out the recent Yesterday... And Today). The Beatles got some time off after the rush of attention following their film, but in late August it was over and they had to get out for their first American tour, a madcap, hysteria experience of screaming girls, motorcades, hotel rooms but also an opening up of the mind when Bob Dylan introduced them to marijuana during their stay in New York. In the gaps between touring and other promotional appearances, plus the weeks leading up to their US tour starting, they conducted sessions for their Christmas album. This helped generate their Christmas single too, the more R&B-tinged "I Feel Fine" b/w "She's a Woman," which found them fiddling more with distortion and hot guitar licks. The B-side was McCartney's raunchy blues a la Elvis Presley. Beatles for Sale is their fourth album in 22 months and is a title that sounds like a tongue-in-cheek statement on how commercially viable they'd become and how they'd been turned into public property. It is overlooked in light of their other early albums but it stands as their roots record, a more complete representation of their love for 50s rock than even their cover-heavy debut album was. The rush of fame and demand meant even Lennon-McCartney couldn't come up with enough goods and George Harrison's few composition tries at the time weren't up to par, so they dipped into their repertoire for some stupendous covers. The weary-looking Beatles of the cover are a good indication at the burnout they were feeling at the end of '64. Still, many of their originals actually expand on their old recordings, finding them moving away from the songs written to make girls hearts flutter toward their studied sides, going introspective and ponderous. 

This is especially true with John Lennon, who had done anything it took to become rich and famous but now was discovering the emperor had no clothes. He saw the vapidity of stardom and how the music was taking a backseat when the Beatles went out to tour in front of mass throngs of hyper, fanatical girls drowning the Fab Four out. George Harrison had become entranced by Bob Dylan first, while the Lennon-McCartney combo eventually came around to finding Dylan's exploration of personal thoughts a novel, visionary one. Even the songs of heartache sound more bitter and suspicious, with John's noted real life jealousy poking through on "No Reply," a song of a betrayed lover who spies on his girl's actions. It's Dylanesque in both Lennon's husky vocals and its deep-seeded paranoia, though in a more unsettling way than Dylan's wit or humour. Paul helped out by contributing the bouncy middle-eighth ("If I were you/I'd realize that I/Love you more/Than any other guy" etc.) and the harmonies between the two rvial their best duets. "I'm a Loser" was the second and most poignant track, one that few knew was John honestly writing about himself as a clown, a poser, that "beneath this mask (was) wearing a frown" and was "not what (he) appear(ed) to be." When one understands that, it becomes a vivid portrayal of his lifelong struggle with a turbulent childhood followed by some setbacks where a close friend (Stu Sutcliffe) and his mother Julia left his life via death. The only animosity to be traced comes from Lennon's feelngs toward himself. Lennon was hardly kidding when he wrote it, though he buried the confessional a bit under a jolly arrangement and lyrics referring to being overcome by a cheating woman's ways. The comparisons to Dylan on this one are no doubt enhanced by John's breezy harmonica solos. Some of the Lennon-McCartney numbers are unabashedly great pop songs- album tracks for the Beatles but prime cut tunes for any mere mortal. The collaboration "Baby's in Black" isn't amazing but their use of waltz time, harmony and gloom masqueraded by spritely textures is another series of compositional hooks to rest their hat on. 

George infusing it with the country-and-western styled Chet Atkins picking he was so keen on at this time provides more rockabilly flavour. The line "Oh dear, what can I do/Baby's in black, and I'm feeling blue" may seem simplistic but is one that I'm sure even Dylan could've been satisfied with. Paul's softer side during his time in the Beatles was a nice streak in the group and nowhere near as treacly as it was on his own. Take "I'll Follow the Sun" for example. It's a bittersweet, acoustic, Latin-flavoured ballad that features an abscence of drums and a rather old fashioned, minor key pop melody in the middle-eighth. Incredible to know is that the song was written by McCartney in 1958 when he was just 16, thinking of playing music parlour pop like what his father had raised him on. Another joint venture is "Eight Days a Week," later fobbed off as a trite, innocent-minded tune by John when it was actually just a fine, deliciously simple and tender love song in reality. It even shows the Beatles ingenuity through beginning via fade-in. It became a #1 single in the US, where it was released as a single in February 1965. It came off another of Ringo's malapropisms about how busy the Beatles schedule was in those days. "Eight Days a Week" is the usual helping of two-part harmony, punch drunk lovey-dovey lyrics and superb guitar riffs. Practically all of John and Paul's true teamings work on this album, the last of which is "Every Little Thing," a pop treat that spices up the usual four-piece combo with piano and timpani that moves in fragments of catchy splendor ("When I'm walking beside her..." verses, the chorus and the samba-esque closing). Paul's "What You're Doing," is one of his first looks at a relationship from a frustrated angle and features George playing a great guitar arpeggio riff on his jangly Rickenbacker that he'd begun playing with for A Hard Day's Night. Paul presses for commitment and communication with lines such as "Would it be too much to ask of you?" but insists "Should you need a love that's true, it's me." Likely addressed toward his sweetheart of the time Jane Asher, it proves Paul wasn't quite the lightweight people claim him to be. 

Deeper regret, hurt and insecurity is unearthed by John for his "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," an unexpectedly swinging country impresser.  It combines the country of a Buck Owens, Chet Atkins or Johnny Cash with the Beatles worn-on-their-sleeves influences of the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins, three artists who started out playing something defined as the outlaw fringe of country before rock & roll was as a genre was ever coined. Like the Everlys, John and Paul harmonize perfectly in synch and George gives his melodic, underrated guitar support, playing the Atkins role to a tee (and also doing it on a Gretsch Tennessean Atkins model that Chet customized). Despite almost half the album not being made up of original stuff, it is perhaps the best, rawest representation of their stage act from the studio. The covers are almost as consistently rewarding to tell the truth. Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" isn't as country or Hawaiian inflected as the original but there's some boogieing down on the lower keys of the piano from a trio of John, Paul and George Martin. Ok, their cover of "Mr. Moonlight" doesn't work, coming off more as cheesy vaudeville sort of music. It wasn't that interesting when done by Dr. Feelgood and the Interns but clearly the Beatles felt it harboured some comedic quality and it's performed with a high amount of whimsy, with a loopy, theatrical Hammond organ breakdown and Ringo slapping the bongos. Luckily, the side 2 closer is a redeeming show stopper. The lads tear the place up with their version of Little Richard's medley "Kansas City/Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!"- learned when they witnessed him perform it in Hamburg in 1962 and they were his opening act, leading the flamboyant one, in future, to declare he had discovered them). It's a keeper, buoyed by Paul's strong, throaty vocals, not unlike Mr. Richard Penniman. It would stay as a staple of their live shows right up until their retirement from the road. All of the Beatles save Ringo harmonize in Buddy Holly accents for a sparse, countryish classic cover of "Words of Love." Abandoning drums, they go for a stripped-down, campfire type of arrangement that has just George's double-tracked electric guitar, Paul's bass, handclaps by the four of them and Ringo playing on a packing case for the rhythm. I'm surprised they didn't haul out the trash can lids for cymbals! 

That's part of the draw toward their abilities to cover, specifically here on "Words of Love."Their "Words of Love" is a near copy of Holly but a well-intended tribute to a hero of theirs and it has its giddy little charm. Having taken a vocal on their first two LPs plus a track off of their March 1964 EP Long Tall Sally, Ringo got skipped over for A Hard Day's Night. He returns for a cool, finger-snapping, toe-tapping extraordinaire "Honey Don't," a Carl Perkins standard that backed his 1956 landmark hit "Blue Suede Shoes." Ringo's no Sinatra, as we're often reminded, but his attitude and energy don't let down the rockabilly swing provided by the others. George hadn't gotten anything to the point of release but "Don't Bother Me" from 1963, so had to settle with singing lead on John's A Hard Day's Night minor track "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You" and here, he takes the only vocal on a boogieing finale of Carl Perkins' "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby." George always had an ordinary, flatlining voice but makes it work alright. The Beatles don't tear the roof off the sucker with "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" but its numerous guitar solos are rewards from the cover. All in all, it's astounding they could put together such a purely fun and engaging album in such short time for the Christmas market (they'd have to churn out next year's Rubber Soul in an even shorter span of time), with Beatles for Sale paying tribute to their heroes and favourite tunes while also showing they were making remarkable progression as serious songwriters in their own right. The gestalt of their rock chops was almost indisputable by this point and there was nowhere else to go but in several upward trajectories, like fireworks of creativity shooting off from the ground they had established. They abandoned their 50s/early 60s tastes and listened to contemporaries in order to keep the ball rolling and keep everyone guessing. Others in the business would find the next 5 years a damning task when it came to just keeping up with how high the Beatles were pushing the bar.

2 comments:

  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


    Betty

    http://electricguitarhowtoplay.net

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  2. Thanks. Check back on the old album list ones. I've edited them and also changed some albums, putting some new ones in and taking out old ones.

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