When I started this series on rock’s double albums a few years back I began at the beginning, with Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” Over the course of about two dozen posts I’ve looked back on both the famous four-siders and ones that have maybe flown under the radar with the passage of time. As I was recently looking over the list at double albums, I noticed several milestone titles that are yet unchecked. I wondered: do I have anything new to say about the “White Album” or Exile on Main St. at this late date?
Well, I can give it a shot or at least dig up a little factoid or two that may be interesting. And if one of your favorite A-List double albums is not here, it may be because I’ve already covered it or will do a full review in the future, that second category could include records like Electric Ladyland and The River which I hope to get to in 2022.
The Beatles “White Album” (1968)
The Beatles’ double-decker is the first and last word in rock eclecticism. I can’t think of another double album that leaps from tree to stylistic tree with such abandon and sticking the landing much more often than not. The one drawback that one usually hears is that the bulk of the album’s 30 tracks sound like solo songs with the other three as sidemen (if they even appear at all). There’s truth to that; more than half the songs originated during the band’s extended stay with the Maharishi in India earlier in 1968. The only Western instrument they had there was an acoustic guitar, giving the record a singer-songwriter feel at times.
My only beef is that the album is just too varied at times and could have been maybe better programmed. The excellent opening trio of “Back in the USSR/Dear Prudence/Glass Onion” has nice cross-fades and lead-ins. But when “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” kicks in, all bets are off. Paul’s music-hall indulgences (“Honey Pie” is another example) and John’s eight-minute tape collage “Revolution 9” are the most divisive parts of the “White Album” but there’s plenty of good stuff elsewhere, even if the pell-mell formatting of the album practically begs the listener to make their own playlist. I made a 45-minute mix-tape years ago, including a smoother transition of the soft/loud material, three of the four George numbers and Ringo’s closing lullaby “Good Night.” It’s still a favorite way to listen to the core of this great but untidy late period work by the Fabs.
Tommy–The Who (1969)
Of course, this one is so much more than just a double album. Being rock’s first popular rock opera and a touchstone of the late Sixties, it took on a life of its own. It variously got re-made into a symphonic album with a roster of guest pop singers, a Seattle Opera production, a delirious Ken Russell film version that nearly drowned Ann Margaret in baked beans, and a hit Broadway musical, among other iterations. The original album’s rep has maybe suffered a bit over time, due to the polite production values and the rather vague storyline. For me, the best way to sample Tommy is to check out the concert artifacts from 1969-70 when the Who were including plenty of material from their deaf-dumb-and-blind-kid epic in their live show. The 14-minute extension of “My Generation” on their raucous Live at Leeds LP featured bits of “See Me/Feel Me/Listening to You” and an earthquake-force excerpt from “Underture.” The 1995 CD expansion threw in a thunderous version of “Amazing Journey/Sparks.” Also, to get a full feel of Tommy’s power potential, one can check out the filmed segments of Pete and Co. at Woodstock and at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, where the “Listening to You” finale electrifies the crowd.
Exile on Main St.–Rolling Stones (1972)
The Stones’ legendary double LP from their time as tax exiles living in the South of France is definitely one of those “we-never-knew-how-good-we-had-it” albums. In an age when great rock records were coming at you from every direction, this sprawling 18-song collection had it’s critical detractors, esp. in the aftermath of note-perfect Sticky Fingers. But as Keith Richards later noted, “within a few years the people who had written the reviews saying it was a piece of crap were extolling it as the best frigging album in the world.” I didn’t own Exile at the time but “Tumbling Dice,” “All Down the Line” and Keith’s “Happy” lit up the summer of ’72 via the radio, just like the previous album’s hits (“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”) did the summer before. Nowadays, I love the four quieter songs on the old Side Two (“Torn and Frayed” has become a latter-day fave) and though things slip a little during Side Three (“Turd on the Run”??), the two closing numbers (“Shine a Light” and “Soul Survivor”) epitomize the defiant pride and staying power of this scrappy, world-weary classic.
“Songs in the Key of Life”–Stevie Wonder (1976)
If anyone was ready to foist a double album on the listening public, it was Stevie Wonder in the mid-70s. His previous album (Fufillingness’ First Finale) was his first #1 on the U.S. pop charts and he spent the first half of the decade recording an amazing string of hit singles. His creative cup was still running over but Motown head Berry Gordy was at first skeptical when Stevie first asked him about recording a four-sider. (Gordy was also notoriously skeptical about Marvin Gaye making What’s Going On, another one that turned out to be a masterwork). But after getting the go-ahead, Wonder went to town. He would sometimes spend 48 hours straight in the studio and played many of the instruments himself. Although it was more than two years between albums SITKOL was an enormous critical and commercial success, spending 14 (non-consecutive) weeks at #1 and winning four Grammies. The first disc is all but perfect, Featuring timeless hits like “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Pastime Paradise” (later adapted by Coolio and parodied by Weird Al) as well as indelible tracks like the majestic opener “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the thrilling Return to Forever-like fusion jam “Contusion” and the baroque-sounding message song “Village Ghetto Land.” The second disc, where five of the seven tracks are over six minutes, may feel a little padded out but tunes like “Isn’t She Lovely” have not lost any of their initial appeal. It would prove to be Wonder’s creative mountaintop, as deeply personal as it is profoundly universal. Stevie even treated his fans with a 2014 tour in which he performed his magnum opus in its entirety.
London Calling–the Clash (1979)
Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a varied art form, esp. since the post-Beatles era. Still, each genre has its own ideas and arguments about what elements make their sound true to form. This was certainly true in the early days of British punk rock, where the hard-and-fast sonics of entrenched protest was a bit of an orthodoxy. The in December of 1979 the Clash, after two albums of incandescent rock rebellion, released the multi-faceted London Calling. Here, the straight-ahead rockers had to share the spotlight with the adapted strains of ska, rockabilly, reggae and even lounge jazz. Sure, there was still plenty of the righteous anger their fans loved, but there were also songs about being “Lost in the Supermarket.”
It was a great leap forward for the band, but also took some time getting used to. One early reviewer professed that the powerful opening title track, an epic doom-scroll of its time, was so good that the rest of double album could never measure up (!!). I eagerly bought London Calling (which the principled band insisted be budget priced) the first week it came out. But I admit I winced the first time I heard songs like the blotto barroom ballad “Jimmy Jazz.” But London Calling would soon reveal itself as what it was. Its 19 songs are a varied and vital record of human experience and emotion in many forms and moods. These range from quiet reflection (“Supermarket”) to bristling indignation (“Clampdown” and “Guns of Brixton”), to the historical (“Spanish Bombs”) to the overarching (“Death and Glory”). And of course it also has “Train in Vain,” the “hidden” track that was included at the last minute and not listed on early pressings; it turned out be one of their biggest songs.
The willful eclecticism of the Clash would become accepted (and even expected) in later strains of popular music. I will leave you with one of London Calling’s great and simple pleasures—a party-ready dance number whose chorus extols the virtues of “drinking brew for breakfast.”
So until next time, Make Mine a Double—-Rick Ouellette