158. Third/Sister Lovers-Big Star (recorded 1974, released 1978): If any one album has ever sounded like a suicide note, if ever one album has struck people as depressed and hopeless, if ever one album has been a twisted admission of defeat, this final album of Big Star's 70s trilogy of glory is it. The background on Big Star is a messy, unfortunate tale that produced splendid "power pop" when rock was becoming a serious, bloated affair that forgot its past. Between the Beatles and the Ramones, rock music just became less about fun and more about high falutin' art snobbery. While groups like Mott the Hoople kept the torch burning, there were scant few others that just made damn good pop music. Sure, the Rapsberries played an Ohio adaptation of what became known as power pop, but had a few shots in the dark and were nothing much else to write home about (and any band that had schlockster Eric Carmen couldn't have been great). Big Star was a very obscure band in its time, and though it still is, it's also revered as a great influence on 80s alternative rock. The band formed in Memphis, not known as a hothouse for developing rock talents, in 1971. It was fronted by Alex Chilton, 21 years old yet also a veteran of 5 years in the business, and 23-year old Chris Bell, an aspiring singer-songwriter in the area. Chilton had defied his age with a manly, soulful husk of a voice fronting the Box Tops, a top 40 AM radio sensation that still gets heavy rotation on oldies radio mainly with their 1967 #1 hit "The Letter," recorded when Chilton was still just sixteen. Combining top 40 sounds such as vocal choruses and strings, the Box Tops at their core had a knack for light Memphis soul, with organ, funky bass and tight drumming. But to polish them off for radio, strings and jazzy horns were often overdubbed and raised in the mix.
Marketed as a teenybopper band by management, the Box Tops line-up began to dramatically change until by 1969 Chilton was practically the only remaining member from what had been a high school band that made it big locally and then broke nationally. With radio-friendly, yet still delightfully catchy hits like "Neon Rainbow," "Cry Like a Baby," "Soul Deep" and "I Met Her in Church," they could be easily taken as lightweights but few could look past the commanding presence of Chilton. Their music was inoffensive but durable pop, occasionally of stirring quality. When the group parted ways in 1970, Chilton wanted to prove he could also pen great pop tunes himself (most of the Box Tops material was written by outsiders and they were produced by famed songwriting team Dan Penn and Chips Moman). Chilton had gone through school adoring British groups and found a kindred spirit in Bell. Added to back the budding writers were bassist Andy Hummell and drummer Jody Stephens. That Anglofication of Chilton's music took many by surprise upon the release of #1 Record, their 1972 debut. Here he was, older and a bit more mature but sounding more youthful than ever, tossing away the gritty soul voice for an angstful, Lennon-esque drawl. #1 Record was such an unfitting title, you see, because sales were downright terrible. Big Star had music worthy of top 40 radio but could only attract local interest and signed up with Ardent, a rock-geared label in Memphis distributed by Stax Records. Stax was undergoing hard times financially after its 1968 split from Atlantic Records, who was its parent company in its glory days of churning out soul giants alike. Ardent had poor distribution and Big Star's record, if it sold at all, went by word of mouth.
A great rock/pop album was buried, disenfranchising its members, especially Bell who quit during the making of the followup. The followup saw Chilton make an even better album without Bell, 1973's Radio City (you'll see it later on in my top 200). Chilton turned the optimistic vibes and cheerfulness of the first one into disarrayed, jaded, quasi-psychedelic garage rock. It was a stupendous sophomore record but alas, it also failed and Hummell quit too. This brought about the dreaded third effort in 1974 but with Stax falling into bankruptcy, there was uncertainty if the record could even see the light of day. So Chilton composed an album that sounds like he knew that fact himself and that this band of his was doomed, now just himself and Stephens augmented by session musicians. With the recently departed Jim Dickinson producing instead of Ardent founder John Fry, Chilton looked to further explore the Southern soul side of Big Star but also touched upon a totally demented, helpless version of what Big Star had started out as. The album was worked on through 1974 and the attitude around the music of Big Star had become soured, defeatist and yet there was gorgeous redemption in the music. Chilton styled himself as a sort of Lou Reed underground figure with very avant-garde tendencies, sometimes bringing in soulful female backup singers to jar against the weary but furious music. As well, he let players go free to instill dissonance as acceptable, namely with the jagged piano bits- an effect not unlike the psychotic bashing of the piano by Mike Garson on Bowie's "Aladdin Sane," released just a year prior to Third's gestation. The mellower, quieter songs were piano or acoustic guitar based with string chamber quartets brought in, a classical element that recalled Michael Browne of the Left Banke, Nick Drake or Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, only way more forlorn and lost in frustration.
One could even find Drake, a clinically depressed introvert who eventually, it is believed, committed suicide, a more bright, affable fellow than Chilton here. Yet while Chilton never arrived on a collision course with doom personally, his career became a series of careless, ambivalently conceived albums with foggy, lo-fi production and slapdash retro rocking until he made a real go of clarity once more in the mid-80s. Meanwhile, Third is rife with compositions that sound ready to slit their wrists one second then devote fully to the cosmsos the next. Despite its uncommercial leanings, the album in the works was perhaps Chilton's most accomplished yet because it challenged the listener, pushed the boundaries of pop and tapped into the most disturbing side of a career in rock: The unsuccessful, unrewarding side. Whereas #1 Record got screwed by bad distribution, then Columbia stepping in to distribute Stax and neglecting to print more copies and removing existing ones, Third never even made it to the shelves. Radio City had been given the shaft when Columbia refused to spend to widely promote and ship albums by the smaller labels they distributed for. Columbia then deemed Third/Sister Lovers (the alternate title came about because Stephens and Chilton were dating sisters at the time) an uncommercial downer and it was scrapped, effectively killing Big Star for good. In various configurations it has appeared in bootleg form, yet 1992's Rykodisc version is definitive since it opts for the running order that Chilton originally wanted, while tossing in 4 bonus tracks. 1978 saw the unfinished Third/Sister Lovers released for the first time, earning rave reviews from most, though a select group of critics were puzzled and perturbed by the incomplete, patchwork madness that pervades throughout the record.
To this reviewer, that loopy anarchism is one of Third's undeniably key emotional facets. Based on just melodies and chords alone, this could have easily been another feel-good, 60s good vibe album like #1 Record and with some tight, cohesive arrangements it could've been another Radio City. Instead, it's wholly strange and altogether a distinct creation, echoing the crumbling of a once optimistic project now torpedoed by music business bad luck and bullshit. Nothing on #1 Record could prepare for this one and on Radio City there are just signs of the introspection increasing, such as on "O My Soul," "You Get What You Deserve" and "Morpha Too." Third was likely not a joyous recording process nor is it free of the same baggage that the entire history of Big Star carries for its survivors today (Hummell quit the band and music in 1973 while Bell died in a single-vehicle car crash in 1978 after a roller coaster ride where he recorded some solo albums, struggled with drugs and depression and his homosexuality, then found Christianity before taking a job in his father's Seattle-area restaurant business before his fatal collision). Their sad story is one of recording biz politics, strain, frustration, unrealized goals and hard luck that few bands could claim to empathize with... except Lynyrd Skynyrd or Badfinger, whose tragedy surpassed almost any band ever (for those of you unaware, they were Beatle proteges on Apple Records active first and foremost from 1967-75. Noted for hits like "Day After Day" and "No Matter What," Badfinger was done in by crippling bad business deals then they suffered the suicide of their top member Peter Ham in 1975. When a reunion dragged out the same issues, arguments and pressure, Tom Evans committed suicide in 1983).
In fact, it is perhaps the most miserable period for the careers of Chilton and Stephens yet one that can now be looked back on with a degree of satisfaction and accomplishment, for records like Third inspired as many people to join/create a band as it sold copies (The Velvet Underground syndrome of "Only 1000 people bought each of their albums but all those people went on to start bands of their own."). The Big Star period is one Chilton has never relished talking about or re-living, unless it has benefited him in the pocketbook, hence occasional tours since a 1993 incarnation of the band featuring Chilton backed by members of the Posies was formed. Heck, in between his own weird solo career are often reunion tours for Big Star or the Box Tops. So he draws on his past, correct. But only Alex Chilton has managed to remain so in the modern time while openly acknowledging his past to "hang on to those nostalgia bucks" (a line I'm stealing from a mid-90s edition of Mad Magazine that featured Simon & Garfunkel: Live in Central Park, 1981 as part of a series of CD warning labels Mad would have liked to see). He has managed to maintain indie cred all the while- a curious position for a guy who'll gladly tour state fairs playing oldies with his Box Top pals, playing to crowds who are scarcely aware of his solo oddities or Big Star and vice versa for the crowds who flock to his Big Star shows (now featuring Jody Stephens on the kit again). Now, let's focus on what truly matters: Third/Sister Lovers' music. Its very, very weird, ghostly music that's provocative in its wasted wreck and really the best verb I can use to describe it would be this: Harrowing. To finally sum up all I've been saying, this long lost but recovered album is erratic but incredible, although maybe too indifferent, too recklessly kamikazi for me to put it much higher in the top 200.
Radio City is still their peak, if you ask me. But on Third, even song titles tend to be disjunct, hinging on gibberish, although one can liken the lead cut "Kizza Me" to those intentionally misspelled, grammatically hellish songs by Slade ("Mama Weer All Crazee Now," "Cum on Feel the Noize" etc.). The lyrics of "Kizza Me" are like random thoughts splattered on a dart board, as if written on cards and shuffled around and chosen out of a bingo roller- like how the Stones apparently wrote their 1972 track "Casino Boogie"). They really set the tone for the incomplete, handmade, almost indecisive flair this album carries. For instance the second verse goes "Curse wild, windy linen/Warm life, so-and-so" before giving way to the song's coda and chorus of "I want to white out/I want to come on out/I want to feel you deep inside/Want to feel you deep insider/Want to feel you/Yeah, kizza me/Lesa, why not?"...... Come again? Ok, it's all clear as mud and rather random but it's very effective within the absolutely mental framework of the song, a blizzard of rolling drums, dissonant piano and far-from-sober vocal hysterics recalling glam rock. Chilton displays none of the yearning, congenial heart of old Big Star, sounding more like a take-no-prisoners, devil-may-care deviant. Devilish also are the aggressively bowed cello and double bass tagged onto the chorus, getting it across early that what the listener is in for is a lot of unexpected utilization of classical. Though the words are sketchy, they're obviously packed with sexual innuendo and lust. This is all great though, don't get me wrong, because "Kizza Me" manages to rise above its unattractiveness and become a rousing, fist-raised opening extravaganza for the LP. Several degrees calmer is "Thank You Friends," that, with its chiming production, fancy female backing singers and Byrds-like majesty, could be confused for a happy song but there's some tinge of bitterness to be uncovered. Chilton sings with conviction of the most elegiac kind. He comes off almost like a man who's glad the worst is behind him but while wiser for it, is also shell-shocked by his experiences. "Thank You Friends" is a great tune, more complete and realized than "Kizza Me," with excellent Beatley chord changes, triumphant strings and although it could have felt right at home on Radio City, is quite proper for Third/Sister Lovers too.
If you find anything rather sad about "Thank You Friends," well you ain't seen nothin' yet. "Big Black Car" is one of those, sounding like a precursor to all that funereal music pioneered by the Velvet Underground post-John Cale. It's a bit reminiscent of J.J. Cale's "Magnolia" only way more isolated, melancholy and defeated. It's unsettling, though quaintly moving stuff. Big Star never managed to convey expressions in their music so perfectly as on this bastard child album, a kind of failed memento that sits collecting dust and age in someone's storage room, only this one got to see the light of day. It's the kind of LP that one cannot usually hope to see from a musician, although not unless you check out Daniel Johnston, the mentally ill pop wizard who has claimed himself to be the Devil incarnate and lives now with his mother and makes lo-fi homemade albums in the basement. Back to a more shiny pop is the stirring "Jesus Christ," which actually sounds to me like a pretty Christmas carol set to guitars and of course the chorus "Jesus christ was born today" fits. One can hear what Paul Westerberg absorbed for his teenage sonatas in the Replacements some decade-plus later. But Chilton fuses together jangly Byrds-type rock, Beatles barocque pop and Phil Spector (traces of said studio genius show up in the booming timpani and sleigh bell percussion support) to create another super track. The album's likeness with the Velvet Underground- as I mentioned a few lines back- is no doubt aided by Chilton including a sheltered, haunting cover of "Femme Fatale," transposing the iciness it conveyed with the Velvets and Nico into a more floating, dreamy atmosphere with the female backup singer taking the chorus harmony of "She's a femme fatale," only providing a cultured touch to the recording by singing it in French ("Elle est une femme fatale") instead.
On "Femme Fatale," pedal steel guitar- no doubt easily available considering Big Star recorded in Memphis- brings a lonely country vibe, not unlike what Neil Young was doing around the same time with Ben Keith as his pedal steel specialist. Big Star gives their own adaptation of the rock staple of a love song directed to a specific female, with "O, Dana." Not exactly a biting, insistent love song, "O, Dana" is more of a frail, vulnerable effort that lulls along. It's not terribly gripping, but it has a je ne sais quoi about it like so many other of this album's drowsy cuts. Way before quasi-EMO, depressed and sensitive tunesmiths like Elliot Smith and early Bright Eyes' Connor Oberst, or confessional female singer-songwriters of the 90s like Sarah McLachlan or Jewel, there was "Holocaust." It's an emotional shambles, but stays on a down practically the whole way through with Chilton's shaken vocals of "Thank You Friends" put in super slow motion. Chilton's advantage over most others who've ever recorded such work is that he never layers it in self-pity, whiny neuroses or tiresome self-centeredness. A strange, nondescript elegy, "Holocaust" is quiet, sprinkled with distant guitar tone pedals and piano, yet readz off like a suicide note, a kamikazi mission from a disturbed soul. Chilton even recreates psychedelia in his image with the wonderfully trippy "Kangaroo," which explores studio trickery as well as dark chord changes and musique concrete ideas. Melletron is ushered in to provide that very ethereal, sci-fi sound that still kicks the hell out of any synthesizer from the 70s. Chilton was heading toward becoming some sort of mini-Mozart of rock, a Brian Wilson type of figure, albeit one who was performing sabotage on his career with uncompromising music. His defining anguish was not of the brain but of the soul. But he even turned his back on that, though he fell into favour with US new wavers and New York punks thanks to his lo-fi, courageous approach to music in the late 70s.
The Vivaldi-like classical overtones on "Stroke it Noel" turn what would normally be swift folk-rock into what I'll call an inspired, bonkers Electric Light Orchestra on acid. The cult popularity is this album is quite expected because of its uncommercial, yet totally dedicated, quirks and quarks. And as we go along, Third descends further into the different with "For You," a very Anglophilic song that perfectly captures the kind of Elizabethean, classically-infused rock once tried out by the Beatles (most notably "Eleanor Rigby"), Procul Harum and the Satanic Majesties' Rolling Stones. It also strikes me as an homage to the late 60s Kinks, the Left Banke and David Bowie's pre-glam work. Actually, it's Jody Stephens who wrote the song and he takes the lead vocals with a heavy faux-English accent. "You Can't Have Me" is typical Big Star fare, only with wild, detached vocals and saxophone that you'd think resulted from Ornette Coleman stopping by in the studio- that is to say it's avant-garde, free jazz sort of dissonant, furious playing. "Nighttime" brings in the acoustic guitars, echoey slide guitar and sympathetic strings to create a moving, stirring ballad and it offers a bit more levity and contentment to an album full of harrowed, morose sentiments. "Blue Moon"- not the pop standard written in 1929- is a gorgeous piece of hushed barocque pop that recalls the lucidity of singer-songwriters but the same musical atmosphere as what Neil Young did on "Will to Love," though with better fidelity. "Take Care" sways along with almost no hope offered and though it's a decent song, doesn't stand up to the excellence that comes before it.
However, once again the string quartet is present on top of a song that would've sounded right at home on their previous albums' mellow acoustic cuts "Give Me Another Chance," "Try Again," "Watch the Sunrise," "I'm in Love with a Girl" and "St 100/6." The Rykodisc version of Third/Sister Lovers tagged on five more seletions and though they don't match the wonder of the original fourteen, they're interesting enough to pass. We get a very low volume, classical piano-styled version of the 1948 song popularized by Nat King Cole, "Nature Boy." There's a rag-tag but very respectable cover of the Kinks' "'Till the End of the Day," easily the most uplifting thing on the entire disc. "Dream Lover," an original tune, is messier than any of the fourteen original cuts, perhaps too messy and tortured to include because it orders on one of the most tormented love odes ever written. "Downs" is one of the more incomplete things here, a demo-like, rough, Latin-tinged number that sounds like amateur night at a Caribbean bar. It's forgettable musically but hard to forget because of its off-hand quirkiness. The nineteenth and final cut is a boozy delivery of the rock n' roll classic "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going on," definitely not one of the more in-synch performances in recorded history. Nothing seems to be together, Chilton seems drunk and the mics aren't working properly but I guess if you want to see just how much of a wreck the sessions could be, try this one. It caps off what is now realized as the official, definitive version of one of rock's truly great lost albums and one of the most original, moving experiences you're going to hear on record.
156. Off the Wall-Michael Jackson (1979): By age 21, Michael Jackson was willing to start up his solo career again. Already a wealthy young man thanks to success with his brothers in the Jackson 5, he had been maturing as a singer and performer ever since first stepping on stage at age 5. But the early fame at Motown had dissipated when the hits began drying up. By 1975, the Jackson 5 longed to have control over their own material and write their own material too. Motown balked so they high-tailed it for Epic records in 1976. Now they were known as the Jacksons, with youngest brother Randy in the fold because Jermaine stayed at Motown, sticking with his then father-in-law Berry Gordy. After a few albums that regained the Jacksons commercial strength, Michael teamed up with production legend Quincy Jones and kicked off a phenomenally successful career as "the King of Pop." Looking to make an appealing, fun album of unforgettable grooves that could cut across all barriers, Michael showed off his new confidence as a singer by introducing his signature crooning, attitude, grunts, whoops, hiccups and falsetto. Listening to what became Off the Wall managed to convince even some of the biggest doubters- ones that found his talent undeniable but his output a glut of teen idol shlock closer to Donny Osmond than to Stevie Wonder- that Michael was for real. He proved had supernatural ability coursing through his veins and reverberating through his bones, plus the pull and drive to command songwriters of the highest order. Off the Wall was a definite welcome change from the teen idol records he'd cut at Motown in his adolescence.
Signaling the arrival of a grown up R&B artist, it was a great smash hit though not quite as huge as future releases would be and there were good reasons for that. Amidst all the adoration and press, going through to the heart of the music proves it's an extremely amiable stew of prime disco, funk, soft jazz and teary ballads. Quincy Jones's sure-handed production and the absolute best of the best of L.A. session musicians means quality performance is not in question. The most purely disco track is the opener, Jackson's self-penned "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough," a percussive, rhythmically powerful energy booster that manages to have hard rock guitar, horns and strings co-exist easily. Brother Randy, on percussion, is one of several musicians on the #1 smash. Michael's double tracked falsetto vocals are seamless and almost effortlessly done. It's the ultimate dance floor boogie for 1979 and it topped both the pop and R&B charts of course. Michael delivers a spoken word intro above just a shuffling percussive rhythm-featuring cowbell- and a quietly plucked funky bass groove. Speaking in his feminine voice that would make girls swoon but draw parodies from most everywhere else, he talks of "the force," and no it isn't some Jedi teaching but rather Michael letting his feelings about music flow forth. And he readily admits that when that force kicks in, it makes him want to whoop with joy. So he does, right as the drums kick in and the oscillating strings too. It's one of those musical dynamics and ideas that can get an album going in breathtaking fashion and "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" is only heightened by its reserved opening that builds the drama of cutting a rug for fun.
More laid back would be another of the top 10 hits, "Rock with You," a more sultry, midnight hour groove that makes use of mutliple vocal overdubs of Michael. It recalls the more mainstream side of funk, such as Earth, Wind & Fire only more relaxed and masterful in its glistening appeal. Jones had provided the cream of the crop for L.A. session men, as mentioned, but also helped present the work of ace songwriters like Rod Temperton who wrote "Rock with You," and other tracks covered just a little later on in this review. Temperton would return to provide material for the followup Thriller but really it's his Off the Wall contributions that stand as his best donation to an MJ record. "Rock with You" could fool someone for a light jazz recording, something by George Benson perhaps. It even has an uncommon occurrence for a pop hit: a flute solo. There are no brass horns but a light bottom of electric keyboards and one of the typically tight bass lines for a late 70s "El Lay" R&B tune. A bit lightweight compared to some hardcore grooves on this LP, but enjoyable nonetheless and it clicked with consumers too. It has always managed to make compilations over the years as the "other" hit from Off the Wall. Despite the potential for falling into a syrupy ditch, Michael astutely knew how to steer any song into any territory he wants it to go and offers the right compliment of masculinity and femininity to the song, a line he straddled superbly for years despite being quite fey in person. Temperton also contributes the torrid disco rave-up "Burn This Disco Out," and while all the dance-focused cuts are inferior to the hot first track, they all in their own way show an understanding and innate flair for the club scene in a way that reveals just how bald faced and mediocre most disco bands/singers really were.
Even Paul McCartney lends a hand with his soft, bubbly mid-tempo tune "Girlfriend," which works for a guy like Michael but- surprise surprise- is a bit of a treacly ballad when Wings recorded it as a 1979 B-side that is available on bonus track versions of the Wings finale, 1980's lousy Back to the Egg. It was the start of a profitable and productive partnership, both pricately and professionally (wow, that's an alliterative tongue twister, ain't it?) for the two. But that came to a screeching halt over the infamous incident when the Beatles song catalogue came up for auction in 1985 and Michael, taking Paul's advice about how song catalogues were lovely investments if you had the moolah to acquire them, outbid Paul for it (As Paul recalls, Michael grinningly explained "It's just business, Paul." Buuuurn!). His $46 million acquisition turned out to be well worth the price tag- though we'll see if Paulie can get it if it comes on the auction block during the sale of Michael's assets and the sorting out of the late pop king's estate. As of 1979, the old king of pop was lending support to the about to be crowned new king of pop. A match made in record company profit heaven, indeed. Tom Bahler is credited for the first-rate tearjerker "She's Out of My Life," a bit of a man-child performance by Michael. It verges on the maudlin, but Michael's vocal talents rescue it and make it a weepy moment to remember, nearly breaking down in tears at the end. More lively and spellbinding though is Stevie Wonder and Susaye Green's funky, seductively grooving jazz-pop, "I Can't Help it." Michael's singing on the softer tracks is never better than it is here, as he explores the fullness of his vocal range and adds some breathy melisma runs to further win merit for the song.
"I Can't Help it" has the ring of a Stevie song because of the wall of synthesizers, an instrument only Wonder could make so expressive and emulate the sounds of anything you can think of with. However, he doesn't play on it and I sort of wish he tackled it himself since it would've greatly aided the sub-par quality of Stevie's own 1979 release, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Subtle string chording stays to the background and it proved enduring enough for it to be sampled liberally be the hip-hop group De La Soul in 1989 for their track "Breakadawn," which combines the introductory keyboard bassline of "I Can't Help it" with and Smokey Robinson's "Quiet Storm" refrain section of "Break of dawn/Break of dawn." David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager, two successful but vapid professional pop writers, chip in with "It's the Falling in Love," the weakest track here because of it's overt cheesiness and saccharine nature (but what else have people come to expect from Foster and Sager over the years?). Still, the musicians provided steer it clear of mediocre hack pop while Michael's vocals again achieve a wonderful mastery of the art form, like on practically every track here. Michael also gets writer's credit on the relentlessly funky, almost Afro-Cuban dance track "Working Day and Night" (a verse melody line that sister Janet somewhat "plagiarized" for her 1997 cut "Go Deep") plus co-writing credit with Louis Johnson for a fairly pedestrian dance selection called "Get on the Floor." Even those who aren't fans of such pop music can appreciate Off the Wall, a good reminder on why Jackson was such a pop culture giant before his bizarre personal life became the headline news. Of course, it was a prelude, the veritable calm before the storm to Thriller, which in 1982-83 took off with a blast-off to rise his star to meteoric proportions, the likes of which the entertainment world has rarely seen in this century.