The Byrds’ place in the pop music pantheon is secure. Their folk-rock innovations of the mid to late Sixties have reverberated all the way to the present, informing genres like college rock and Americana. Their popularization of Bob Dylan’s music, and psychedelic excursions like “Eight Miles High,” were to play a big part in broadening the scope of musical and lyrical content in that decade.
Recent music documentaries have solidified the Byrds’ status: the poster for 2019’s “Echo in the Canyon,” hosted by Bob’s son Jakob Dylan, features the iconic 12-string Rickenbacker of head Byrd Roger McGuinn that conjured their famous (and much imitated) jangly guitar sound.
By the end of the Sixties, the Byrds were coming out of a long transitional period. Vital founding members Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman had flown the coop (if you will), migrating to solo projects or forming other groups in the expanding L.A. music scene. By 1970 they had settled on a quartet with McQuinn, ace guitarist Clarence White, drummer Gene Parsons and bassist Skip Battin. One big difference of this group was its more muscular sound. For the first time perhaps, the Byrds were a true concert attraction and so was fitting that for the band’s first double album, sides one and two were live recordings.
The album kicks off impressively with “Lover of the Bayou,” a new song by McQuinn and NY-based songwriter and stage director Jacques Levy that was part of a proposed musical they were working on at the time (more on that shortly). This ain’t your kid sister’s Byrds. The atmosphere is edgy, the guitars use distortion and the rhythm section is more muscular. McQuinn sings in a gruff voice that is unfamiliar but fitting for this somewhat menacing 1st person tale of a backwater baddie who “cooked the bat in a gumbo pan/and drank the blood from a rusty can.” He may also be a gun-runner but since the play was never produced we may never find out. What is certain is that this high-powered lineup, esp. considering Clarence White’s standout lead guitar, is tailor made for the louder and more ritualized concert experience taking shape at that time.
The rest of side one covers more familiar ground. There are two Dylan covers (“Positively 4th Street” and their famous “Mr. Tambourine Man”), an electrified hoedown (“Nashville West”), and savvy re-readings of “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Mr. Spaceman.” All are spiritedly performed and appreciated by the audience at the two New York City gigs where they were taped. But for many the real high point came when they flipped the record over and were presented with a 16-minute jam based on “Eight Miles High.” Nobody would mistake the Byrds for the Allman Brothers Band when it came to improvisational excursions, but this jam cooks.
The listener is pulled in with a fade-up and McQuinn plays that 4-note intro motif, one of the most memorable signifying sounds of the acid-rock era, and launches into a double-down version of his famous splintered Rickenbacker solo, the band already in high gear. White follows with a torrid solo of his own and gives way to a combined bass/drum solo which, contrary to popular expectations, is a highlight of the piece. Famed rock scribe Lester Bangs, in his Rolling Stone review, was all over this track, describing a “fine series of taut dervish interplays” and suggested that more music like this would return the Byrds to the “rock vanguard.” The intensity of this jam in fact feels like a classic bebop improv (McQuinn says his “Eight Miles” solo was inspired by John Coltrane). The whole band comes back together to build it to a climax before suddenly singing the song’s first verse (much to the crowd’s delight) and steer it straight to the big rock ending it deserves.
The studio half kicks off with “Chestnut Mare,” another song co-written with Levy. Their planned musical, a resetting of Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt” in the American West which, via an anagram, was to be called “Gene Tryp.” This likely would have been a highlight, it’s a radiant country-rock rondo about a cowboy’s pursuit of a wild horse. With its talking verses, soaring chorus and shimmering guitar fills, its more cinematic than stage bound esp. in the song’s mesmeric middle section, highlighted by the two of them magically floating above a “bottomless canyon.” The sparkling sound (“as clear as a Viewmaster slide of the Big Sur pine cliffs,” Bangs noted) harkened back to the Byrds’ 1965-68 heyday. “Chestnut Mare” became an American FM favorite and a Top 20 hit in the U.K.
The other two McQuinn-Levy numbers seem to look back ruefully on that period. “All the Things” (“I want today are all the things I wasted on the way”) and “Just a Season” have a distinct end-of-Sixties vibe while going for the classic sound of past hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The last verse is a real kicker:
“Shouting crowds and mummer’s shrouds and people going crazy Always said what was in their heads it surely was amazing I had my fun in the bull ring and never got a scar It really wasn’t hard to be a star.”
Most of rest of the studio tracks are fair to pretty good and all band members get a chance to sing and write. The material is fine but I think they suffer somewhat from being too casually performed and/or too inconsistently produced (behind the boards were longtime band associates Terry Melcher and Jim Dickson). Gene Parson’s “Yesterday’s Train” could have been a cool bonus track from the Band, Clarence White’s dolorous vocal on the cover of Little Feat’s 18-wheel tragedy “Truck Stop Girl” is truly poignant, and the lyrics of the gritty ecological blues “Hungry Planet” should have been required reading from Day One.
(Untitled) concludes with Skip Battin’s cryptic “Well Come Back Home.” Clocking in at 7:40, it’s the longest studio track the Byrds’ ever recorded, and one of the strangest as well. Battin wrote it about a high-school friend who was killed in Vietnam, but the lyric never mentions the war. The tone is both elegiac and assuring, playing off the subtle difference between “well come back home” and “welcome back home.” About half-way thru, the song shifts into an Oriental timbre and, on a bed of chiming guitars and Parson’s tireless drum fills, the “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” chant of Nichiren Buddhism starts up. In continues in various bizarre iterations as the music’s momentum builds and rides the song right off the end of the record.
Music fans who appreciate a band willing to stretch out and try new things would appreciate the idiosyncrasies of an album like this. While Lester Bangs (who was an astute critic as well as a celebrated loose cannon) acknowledged the Byrds’ taste for experimentation, also opined that it was to try and “rejuvenate a beloved but declining institution.” He wasn’t wrong; this line-up stayed together for two more albums and, after a so-so reunion record with the original line-up, the Byrds were no more. The sound they pioneered would be streamlined (stripped down for parts, some may say) by bands like the Eagles and Pure Prairie League. But as I said up top, the positive impact of their legacy can be seen all around, starting with the appropriately titled Time Between, the 1989 tribute album featuring such talented admirers as Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Thompson, Dinosaur Jr., Thin White Rope, the Chills and Miracle Legion.
Chicago’s career trajectory as a band is the equivalent of that guy you knew in college who was a bit of a hotshot and always there making his presence known at the biggest parties and campus demonstrations. When you catch up with him decades later you find he has moved to the most strait-laced town in your state, where he has ended up on the board of selectmen, voting down a new skateboard park or marijuana dispensary. Oh, how I kid the guys in Chicago. When this rock-group-with-horns busted out big-time from the Windy City, they were a septet known for their musical experimentation and leftie politics. But less than a decade later, on the cusp of the Reagan era, they were safe-as-milk mainstays of the Soft Rock category.
Yet the band’s keen pop sensibilities were already much in evidence on their dauntless debut, a double album released in April of 1969. Here, three Top 40 Billboard singles were in the mix along with the esoteric touches and long jams common to that period.
Chicago Transit Authority (which was then the band’s name until the actual CTA threatened legal action) opens with a lively mission statement called “Introduction” which is written and sung by guitarist Terry Kath. “Sit back and let us groove/And let us work on you, yeah,” cajoles the husky-voiced Kath and indeed the song’s arrangement follows what would become a tried-and-true formula they would develop with their producer James William Guercio. After a couple verses, the song takes off into an extended, multivariate instrumental section led off with by the horn section. This trio (Walter Parazaifer on sax, Lee Loughnane on trumpet and James Pankow on trombone) gave the group a jazzy cosmopolitan sheen that proved to have strong appeal. They yield to a solo by Kath, often the band’s ace-in-the hole, before coming back strong for a final verse where Terry notes on how they “turned around the mood/We hope it struck you different/And hope you feel moved.”
Well, something worked as the album’s next three songs were all hit singles and were all written and sung by keyboardist Robert Lamm. The original side one is filled out by “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings” both featuring strong melodies and vibrant playing. Listeners on the AM side may have been hearing these longish numbers in edited form as the piano prelude in the former song and the two-minute percussion outro in the latter were excised for the Casey Kasem crowd.
The hits keep on coming at the start of side two with “Questions 67 and 68,” with lead singing shared with bassist Peter Cetera. The song is also notable for the supple, momentum-driving drum fills of Danny Seraphine, who has never really gotten his full due as one of classic-rock’s great stickmen. From here on out, though, your results may vary. There is one more chart entry, a vigorous cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” curiously released two years later as a double-sided single with “Questions 67 and 68.” Future adult-contemporary crooner Cetera helps out here with a muscular bass line and swapping out macho lead vocals with Lamm and Kath. But things also get pretty self-indulgent over the final two sides, starting with the seven-minute “Free Form Guitar.”
Terry Kath, who tragically died of an accidental gunshot to the head in 1978, was a major talent (and reputedly one of Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarists) but I’m not sure what justified this fingernails-on-blackboard exercise in musique concrete. But considering that Guercio devotes a whole paragraph to it in his immodest liner notes, I’m willing to shift the blame. It’s esp. confounding since “FFG” is bookended by two songs that showcase Kath’s torrid soloing within amenable blues-rock contexts: “Poem 58” and “South California Purples.”
After touching on the events of the previous year’s turbulent Democratic Convention in their hometown with “Someday” (with the inclusion of “The whole world is watching!” chant), the album ends with a brash free-form instrumental (credited to Pankow) called “Liberation” that clocks in at a healthy 15:41. While nowadays this jam may only appeal to Terry Kath completists and the odd speed freak, it does show a band willing to think big and take chances.
This spirit carried on to the next two albums (also double disc affairs) where adventurous compositions sat cheek by jowl with accessible rockin’ hits like “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4.” Not content with three doubles, they upped the ante with the four-LP At Carnegie Hall, a lavishly-packaged and rather self-congratulatory box that only featured one new song. Their first single disc was 1972’s Chicago V (fans would become used to the Roman numerals and the band’s persistent curlicue logo) and what, for me, was an early red-flag on the song “Dialogue.” Although written by Robert Lamm, the song features a back-and-forth between a concerned college student (Kath) and a hedonistic friend (Peter Cetera, tellingly) that comes down on the side of complacency (“If you had my outlook, your feelings would be numb,” is Peter’s crowning comment). OK, maybe I’m reading too much into it, and Chicago did have a fistful of attractive hits on thru the mid-70s, like “Saturday in the Park” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.”
But for many folks, especially rock geeks, the wheels came of the bus following the death of Terry Kath in early 1978. Although several original members remained, the band dabbled in disco but mostly became known for Peter Cetera’s treacly romantic numbers, which were indistinguishable from many other power ballads of the time from the likes of REO Speedwagon and Foreigner. Granted, this trend started before Kath’s passing (“If You Leave Me Now”) but steadily tracked downward with cliched love-song rhymes and sterile 80s production values featuring lots of electric piano. If you need examples, check out “Loser with a Broken Heart”, “Stay the Night” (don’t miss the absurd video!), and culminating in 1984’s mind-numbing “Hard Habit to Break” (from Chicago 17 if you’re keeping track). Cetera, probably miffed at having to share the profits at this point, left for a solo career shortly after.
Am I being too hard here? Chicago was not the only band from that era whose politics now seem like a fashion and whose target audience shifted from hard rock buffs to lovesick teenage girls and divorced single moms for whom songs like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” was the purest poetry. You’re supposed to get more comfortable as you get older and for Chicago that meant hitting the summer-shed tour circuit with other mellowed-out acts like the Doobie Brothers, who started life as a de facto Hell’s Angels house band. So, to tweak the analogy I started with, Chicago Transit Authority is like that old hell-raising high-school buddy that you see again for the first time at your classes’ fortieth reunion. When you ask him what has been up to since then, he replies “nothing much.”
Early on in career that spanned the years 1981-2011, Sonic Youth earned their spot as one of America’s quintessential modern rock bands and are almost the very definition of what became known as postpunk. Their three principal members, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon, migrated to New York City and found their musical footing (and each other) as the mid to late-70s CBGB heyday was ending. They got their start in the noisy No Wave scene that followed and made their first recordings on a small label started by experimental composer Glen Branca, with whom both Moore and Ranaldo had played. Shirttails and a certain ironic detachment replaced the torn apparel and sneering attitudes of the early punk days. All three wrote and sang and the two guitarists were brash but studied sound architects while Gordon gave the group undeniable sex appeal. Sonic Youth remained fiercely independent even after their aggressive sound was tempered with the more conventional pop attributes that theoretically meant a larger fan base. They stuck with smaller indie labels right through to this, their fifth full-length album. Daydream Nation is the magnum opus of both their own career and of the downtown scene that spawned them. It is widely considered the band’s conceptual peak even though there would be many fruitful years to follow.
The impressive breadth of this double disc derives from a combination of a group writing spree and encouragement to commit to vinyl (and to cassette and CD, the late 1980s being the transitional era of formats) the extended noise rock jams and feedback frenzies that were long part of their live show. From its hand-to-mouth beginnings, SY could now book three weeks of studio time in advance, co-producing with noted hip-hop engineer Nick Sansano. Daydream Nation opens with the seven-minute anthem “Teenage Riot,” its most well-known number and a favorite of college radio back in the day. After eighty seconds of free-floating guitar notes and Gordon whispering sweet nothings to the listener, it kicks into gear with a relentless forward motion that carries all the way to the finish line. “Teenage Riot” is a call-to-arms directed at bored young people that in one way harkens back to the totemic songs of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers albeit with an updated snarky attitude (“You come running in on platform shoes/With Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue”) and the attenuated values of a seen-it-all age (“It’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head/Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed”). Typical of the band’s singing, Thurston Moore delivers all this with a voice that rarely exceeds conversational volume—but when it comes to the instrumental work it’s a different kettle of fish. Halfway through the next number, “Silver Rocket,” there is a sudden eruption of overamplified six-string carnage before the determined full trot from drummer Steve Shelley’s snare kit pulls the tune back from the chaos.
Sonic Youth 1988. “You WILL like our ‘overamplified six-string carnage,'” insists Thurston Moore.
The rest of the album pretty much follows the same pattern. Razor’s edge punk riffing holds sway on a collection of mosh-worthy rockers that are often punctuated by atonal outbursts or gentler ambient passages, often as the prelude or postscript to a song. Many of feature the alternative tunings and effects favored by Moore and Ranaldo and beloved by guitar geeks not beholden to the blues-based model. There are several worthy additions to the Kim Gordon catalog of sultry/tough come-ons (in real life she and Moore had been married for four years), most notably on “Kissability” and “’Cross the Breeze”. Suffice to say when she sings, “Let’s go walking on the water/come all the way, please” it will sound as much of a challenge as an invitation.
Lee Ranaldo contributes three tracks including album highlight “Hey Joni”, a cock-eyed tribute to band fave Joni Mitchell. Although Ranaldo’s abstracted lyrics are a bit hard to get the measure of (“The time in the trees, we broke that vice/We took some steps and now we can’t think twice”) the intrigue over its subject’s transformation from Woodstock-era songbird to brittle iconoclast shows the SY’s keen sense of pop history. As if to underline it, there are also a couple of double-album gambits: a brief bit of musique concrete called “Providence” (Moore’s piano recorded on a Walkmen overlaid by a deadpan voice mail left by ex-Minutemen Mike Watt) and the closing 14-minute “Trilogy.” But no prog pretensions here when a three-parter means a patented Thurston Moore night-on-the-tiles raver, more dissonance and a Kim Gordon ditty called “Eliminator Jr.” Then Daydream Nation ends in mid-squall, as if no further concession to its own gravitas was needed.
Kim Gordon center stage as SY play CBGB in 1988.
The acclaim greeted DN may not have exactly resulted in sales that would warrant chart placement, but the increased stature of the band eased the move to David Geffen’s DCG label for the 1990 follow-up Goo. That yielded the signature smash “Kool Thing” whose alluring video was an MTV staple. Through the 90s the cult status of Sonic Youth grew from its base of late baby boomers (like themselves) to include many of the kids who hit their twenties just in time for the grunge scene. Daydream Nation started appearing on numerous all-time best-of lists as the group stuck to its guns like true believers of the rock continuum. As middle age approached, Moore and Gordon repaired from lower Manhattan to the calmer (but still hip) hinterlands of Northampton, Mass. By 2002, their daughter appeared on the cover of late-career highlight Murray Street. Although the couple (along with Sonic Youth) split up in 2011, the various members have kept their irons in the fire with other bands, solo records and (in the case of Kim Gordon) a high-profile memoir. Daydream Nation will likely continue to be a noise-rock touchstone as long as there are teenagers who need to riot.
The big duality of the 1960s was the great aesthetic leaps made in music, film and other artistic fields, countered by the social and political upheavals of the time. Of course, the former often fed off the latter but there was also just a lot of great escapist entertainment. Then came 1968, a year marked by escalation of the Vietnam War, assassinations, violent clashes between police and political demonstrators and the election of the divisive Richard Nixon to the U.S. presidency.
For rock musicians, recognized to be in the vanguard of the era’s youth movement, it was time to stand up and be counted. And so it was for the New York-based Rascals, who had recently dropped the “Young” from their band name. They had spent the previous few years as top-line hitmakers who combined infectious blue-eyed soul with progressive pop values. The AM radios of the day were often graced by their presence, from party anthems like “Good Lovin’” and “Mustang Sally” to sweet summery treats like “Groovin’” and “It’s a Beautiful Morning.”
NEW YORK CITY – JUNE 28: (L-R) Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish of The Rascals attend Martin Luther King Jr. Benefit Concert on June 28, 1968 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage) *** Local Caption *** Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, Eddie Brigati;Gene Cornish
But the spring of 1968 was not the time of escapism. In the wake of the killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the band (vocalist Eddie Brigati, keyboardist-singer Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli) released “People Got to Be Free” a song that sounded both sobering and uplifting in its aspirational optimism. It became one of the hallmark songs of that era, staying at #1 for five weeks that summer and eventually selling some four million copies worldwide. Soon, the Rascals were in the studio for the follow-up album named Freedom Suite, released in March of ’69. It was a lushly packaged double-decker album that would pair up two sides of more conventional tunes with a second record of instrumental numbers.
It was a curious volume, perhaps an effort by the group to be taken more seriously as album artists at a time when rock’s horizons were broadening. Freedom Suite starts out strikingly with “America the Beautiful.” Not exactly the patriotic standard—though they do quote it and give credit to the original composers—but a reworked version that gives voice to the inequalities and injustices that have smeared that sunny vision. After a symphonic stating of the theme and Danelli’s drummer-boy snare work, the tune takes on a ragtime feel as Cavaliere sings of how a nation he loves has strayed, esp. noting the failings of the War on Poverty from an Establishment for whom “the dollar bill is as far as they can see.” This kind of social commentary is echoed on several other songs. Most notable is the remarkable “Look Around” whose uplifting melody (a Rascals specialty) is tempered by woke lyrics (“hate and fear got ten million votes this year”) and sound effects of sirens, gunfire and marching soldiers. But typically for Cavaliere and Brigati, who penned this and were the group’s primary writers, the emphasis is on working towards positive outcomes and the song ends with a burst of children’s laughter.
This positivity shines brightest on “People Got to Be Free,” included here towards the end of side two. “If there’s a man who is down and needs a helping hand/All it takes is you to understand and/To pull him through,” the song gently implores, while its memorable chorus promises a “lovely, lovely world” if only everyone could practice this golden rule. Interestingly, the song was only partly inspired by the MLK assassination that spring. Around the same time the group’s van broke down in rural Florida, leading them to be hassled for being no-good long-haired hippies, a la “Easy Rider”. And so it goes.
Elsewhere on Freedom Suite, the Rascals revert to old ways with Eddie Brigati cutting a rug and proclaiming “Any Dance’ll Do” and Felix going full soul-revue on “Baby I’m Blue.” Guitarist Gene Cornish also contributes two tunes and really shines on the nostalgic waltz-like number that recalls a time when “Love Was So Easy to Give.” The second disc is a whole other ball of wax. The guys did have bona fide jazz influences and experience in high-profile house bands, three of them having played with Joey Dee and the Starliters at the famous Peppermint Lounge in Times Square. But the stretching out here (two of the three cuts here clock in a way over ten minutes) could have used more focus. In fact, “Boom” was a 13-minute Danelli drum solo, without even the benefit of an opening and closing band theme. Dino was a legit jazzbo, having played with Lionel Hampton and Red Allen, and the playing is great but this is pretty indulgent even by late Sixties standards. The full band is present for the sidelong “Cute” which works better. There are fine solos by Cavaliere on organ and Cornish’s needling lead guitar, and a drum-and percussion workout (with Brigati on congas) that could have replaced “Boom” altogether.
This double album would prove a tough sell for casual fans, many of whom already owned the #1 single from several months before. Freedom Suite peaked at #17 (and at #40 on the R&B chart) but slipped away not long after and two additional singles from it cracked the Top 40 but not by much. The Rascals continued making high-quality music but without the commercial success they were used to. In 1971, after the departure of Brigati and Cornish, a new line-up put out another double LP (Peaceful World) that continued, with the help of greats like Ron Carter, Alice Coltrane and Pepper Adams, with the jazz explorations and sometimes fantastically so, as on the 21-minute title track.
Shortly after the release of Freedom Suite, Felix Cavalier told Billboard magazine, “We don’t believe in violence and we don’t believe in utter passivity. We want to point out a middle road to satisfy both extremes and solve the problems.” Worthy sentiments in our current American era, one that is so divisive that the current president makes Mr. Nixon look like Mr. Rogers (almost). The Rascals legacy of affirmation and compassion, mainly carried on by oldies radio and CD re-issues, got a big boost starting in 2012 with the “Once Upon a Dream” reunion concert and multimedia show that featured all four original members. Produced by “Little Steven” Van Zandt and his wife, Maureen, it brought the group’s good vibes and useful messaging into a 21st century that sorely needs it.
In the broadest sense, Joni Mitchell’s career can be broken down into three parts. From her debut album in 1968 through to her commercial high-water mark with 1974’s Court and Spark, she was one of pop music’s most beloved singer-songwriters. Her soulful insights into the complex nature of modern relationships where free love and feminism intersected were treasured by lyric sheet-devouring fans and fellow performers alike, her songs eagerly covered by everyone from Judy Collins to Nazareth. Likened to a “Nordic princess” by Girls Like Us author Sheila Weller, the Canadian-born Mitchell also stood out as a flaxen-haired beauty and muse of the age, feted in song by paramours like Graham Nash and James Taylor, as well as by admirers like Led Zeppelin. Since 1980, in the wake of changing musical fashions, Mitchell has been more figurehead than superstar, releasing an album about every three years (until 2007) while navigating the twists and turns of a compelling personal history. In between was a fascinating transitional time where she hoped to keep her public while branching out from her folk-rock base, delving into jazz, ethnic rhythms and more ambitious narrative structures.
Smack dab in the middle of this 1975-79 period came this high-sailing double LP. Caught between possessive audience expectations and the higher critical standards of the time, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was widely dismissed upon its release, although her hardcore fan base was still large enough to make it go gold, Mitchell’s last album to do so.
An unsavory aspect of the “Don Juan” album is that Mitchell posed in blackface for the cover. I didn’t even realize this until decades after the record’s release and I bet I’m not the only one.
The stylistic “excesses” of DJRD did not materialize out of thin air. A vocalist, wordsmith and musician of uncommon and uncompromising talents, Mitchell’s adventuresome streak was already evident on her #2 hit Court and Spark with the elaborate time signatures of “Car on the Hill” and the verbose bebop of “Twisted.” By the following year she recorded “The Jungle Line”, a nearly unclassifiable mix of emphatic Burundi drumming, buzzing Moog synthesizers and lyrics suggesting global cultural interconnectedness and 1976’s Hejira was a sophisticated series of jazz-tinged tone poems inspired by a cross-country drive. But it looked like a case of ambition gone awry when Don Juan ushers itself in with the signifying “Overture” as Mitchell sets a stark mood with several alternately-tuned acoustic guitars while bassist Jaco Pastorius eventually enters with a coiling flurry of notes. This sound is as intriguing as it must have been befuddling for many fans at the time. Pastorius, the celebrated four-string master from Weather Report, would be the main collaborator for this album’s often-sparse soundscapes. But the material is not as unapproachable as was once claimed. This is still Joni Mitchell, the famous “romantic freelancer” as termed by critic Timothy Crouse, and the remainder of side one shows it. As ever, she’s stepping out and open to fresh discovery (“Cotton Ave.”) and wrestling with the possibilities of new love, taking forms both anxious (trying to coax a Mr. Mystery out of his shell in “Talk to Me”) and hopeful (the open-hearted “Jericho,” reprised from 1974’s live double Miles of Aisles).
Four decades removed from the bad press (the headline of Creem magazine’s write-up was “Don Juan Says He Doesn’t Know You”) most of this album proves to be a pretty appealing listen. At 59 minutes, DJRD its not time demanding and it gradually reveals its charms, even if they are sometimes held out at arm’s length. The glittering/tawdry Miami Beach vignette “Otis and Marlena” is a top-notch example of Mitchell’s descriptive powers (“the street lights fade away/on louvered blocks in sea green air”) and if the seven-minute percussion instrumental that follows seems a world away from “Both Sides Now” it doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. The heady rush of words on the title track proves that Joni can still write with the best of them, even the vintage Dylan that it resembles. The 34 year-old Mitchell is taking stock (“Last night the ghost of my old ideals/Reran on channel five”) of both her life and her artistic image, flatly stating, “There is danger and education in living out such a reckless lifestyle.” These sentiments, and the hint of retreat from her jet-setting aura, also run through Don Juan’s magnum opus, the sixteen-minute “Paprika Plains.” On either side of its long Aaron Copeland-channeling middle section, writ large for orchestra and Mitchell’s emphatic piano, are lyrics where our ambivalent heroine cinematically steps out on a balcony to escape a “stifling” high-society affair, the better to dwell on the simpler times of her childhood on the Canadian prairie. “I take my sharpest fingernail and slash the globe to see/Below me, vast Paprika plains”, Mitchell sings, before the daydream dissipates and she’s obliged to head back inside.
But it wasn’t really Mitchell’s choice to leave the party that was her long run of popular and critical success. A proud, headstrong artist who was stung by the reception afforded this ambitious album, she soldiered on with an unusual collaboration with jazz giant Charles Mingus before the onset of semi-obscurity. Mass audience openness to pop innovation that had started around 1967 had now waned but Joni, who had long railed against the machinations of the music industry, remained true to her unpredictable imperatives and causes. In her footsteps followed the likes of Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, the Indigo Girls, Joanna Newsom and countless others. Later years brought challenges to Mitchell beyond the romantic arena that she had chronicled so acutely. Since the 1990s she has acknowledged her health problems, has established a relationship with her adult daughter (who she gave birth to in 1965 but then gave up for adoption) and lent her voice to issues like environmental awareness. The future cares of later life seem to inform the closing moments of this intriguing and peculiar album. “In my dreams we fly” she sings as if about her generation’s heyday, but then notes that to make it over the long stretch of a lifetime, “we’ll have to row a little harder.”
Elton John had a very peculiar sort of fame when his pop stardom was at its apex in the early to mid-Seventies. He was a short, bespectacled, closeted gay man whose teenybopper audience was as expansive as the literary/musical ambitions of him and his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin. From 1970-72, they rung up seven Top 40 hits in the U.S. (it would have been eight if “Tiny Dancer” hadn’t stalled at #41). It was an eclectic bunch of songs that included romantic swooning (“Your Song”), Fifties revivalism (the #1 “Crocodile Rock”), atmospheric balladry (“Daniel”) and Band-styled Americana (“Levon,” named after guess-who). While Elton increasingly became identified with his catchy melodies and oversized sunglasses, there was a lot going on just below the surface. Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, for example, once remarked about how songs like “Levon” (who after all “was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day/When the New York Times said ‘God is Dead’”) were like a side door into a world of “adult concerns.” In 1973, the already prolific John-Taupin team had extra writing time when the production schedule for their seventh studio album was pushed back. When all was said and done, the pianist-singer and his crack band had enough material for a 17-track double album and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road would be the final step that would insure Elton’s place up on the mantle of that decade’s topmost pop idols. He hasn’t been down from there since.
Elton in action, 1973.
The album was recorded in two weeks in May of 1973 at France’s renowned Chateau d’ Herouville, the so-called “Honky Chateau” of a previous EJ album title. It was written almost as quickly—during a brief stay in Kingston, Jamaica where John and Taupin were holed up while trying to make arrangements (ultimately unsuccessful) to record there. The alacrity with which Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was conceived and committed to tape is pretty remarkable and may suggest a unifying theme. And while it is not strictly a concept album, the title and the cover illustration—Elton in satin jacket and platform shoes is seen stepping off a gritty sidewalk and onto that pedestrian byway that leads to the Emerald City—gives you a pretty good idea of the record’s semi-fixation on the fantasies and illusions that emanate from the silver screen.
Like many a double album, GYBR starts grandly, with the instrumental prelude “Funeral for a Friend.” This synth-heavy processional gains steam after a few minutes and segues into the end-of-the-affair rocker “Loves Lies Bleeding.” This emphatic up-tempo number is just the kind that John and his band started excelling a couple of albums before: propelled by his vigorous rhythm section of bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, and complemented with flashes of Davey Johnstone’s lead guitar. The album is front loaded with some of its most well-known tunes. Side one fills out with the Marilyn Monroe tribute ballad “Candle in the Wind” and the glam-rock spoof “Bennie and the Jets.” The colorful but rather plodding “Bennie” was a #1 hit in the U.S. and Canada (in Elton’s native England is was relegated to the flipside of “Candle”) and its teen-dream lyric about the fictional Bennie (“She got electric boots and a mohair suit/You know I read it in a magazine”) shows that John and Taupin were cued in to the whole T.Rex and Bowie-Ziggy scene. In fact, Elton himself was joining that club with his increasingly outlandish stage show.
The title track kicks off the old side two, another huge hit and one of the songwriting duo’s most noteworthy collaborations. Against Elton’s rich, brooding piano melody, Taupin’s deft lyric of Tinseltown disillusionment (as reflected in the title) bears a passing resemblance to the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard with its stark depiction of the dark underbelly of Hollywood. Here, a kept man likens the town to a place “where the dogs of society howl.” Unlike Marilyn Monroe in “Candle”, who never knew “who to cling to when the rain set in,” our determined protagonist declares “you can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough.” This is definitely the Lincolnshire-bred Taupin talking here, but whether the ex-farm boy or his pal Elton can ever escape the stardust allure is still open to question, as John’s dreamy ah-ah-ah harmony at the end seems to confirm.
This mood has its bookend in the smoky barroom ballad “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” that closes the first half of the album. In between are two songs of clear-eyed affirmation and self-knowledge that are GYBR highlights (“Grey Seal” and “This Song Has No Title”) and a regrettably snarky one (“Jamaica Jerk-Off”) that will preview the shortcomings to come on sides three and four. The melodic rocker “Grey Seal” is esp. great with its simple wisdoms (“On the big screen they showed us a sun/But not as bright in life as the real one”) born of nature. The band has never been as sharp, Dee Murphy’s percolating bass and Nigel Olsson’s galloping beat are infectious and Davey Johnstone’s guitar filigree matches the piano between chorus and verse for the right reflective touch before they join in a bust-out jam to close out the number.
To much lesser effect, side two is rounded out with the uncharitable “Jamaica Jerk-Off.” The plans that Elton and Bernie had for recording this album in the land of reggae seemed to be based solely on the fact that they liked the Stones’ Goats Head Soup, which had been largely made at Dynamic Sound studios in Kingston. They found the facilities there not to their standards (an inadequate piano and only “one microphone”) and ditched the idea. Instead of responding to this snafu by maybe admitting their lack of advance work, they took the opportunity to make a faux-reggae number depicting the people as lazy and rude. This unfortunate tune says a lot more about spoiled rock stars than it does about Jamaica, a very small and poor country which has sustained an amazing musical culture for decades. It also previews the lyrical pettiness that informs much of the second disc.
If I still had GYBR as a double LP instead of a single CD (where its 76 minutes are a snug fit) I wouldn’t have much use of side three anymore. Three of its four songs are misogynistic portraits of women (or girls) that are extremely unlikable tunes when one gives them more than a cursory listen. “Sweet Painted Lady” is a rank reminiscence of a harborside hooker where the sailors “leave the smell of the sea in your bed” and where observations like “many have used you and many still do/there’s a place in the world for a woman like you” passes as philosophy. “All the Girls Love Alice” sounds like a nifty up-tempo number but then there’s the lyrics: Alice is an underage lesbian temptress in London’s Soho district who ends up getting murdered in the subway. This doesn’t prevent her from being called “a sixteen year-old yo-yo” in the following verse. And the less said about “Dirty Little Girl” the better, unless your thing is physically abusing street waifs (“Someone grab that bitch by the ears”).
I mean seriously, WTF? Amazingly, in our supposed “woke” age, you’ll never hear a peep about any of these tunes. You can scroll down the comments on any of them on YouTube and all you’d hear about is how they’re “underrated,” that is, not a hit single. Paradoxically, it was in pre-PC era that these songs could spark contempt. In Rolling Stone’s Nov. 1973 review, eminent rock scribe Stephen Davis called these tunes “misanthropic in their anger” and took particular offense at “Sweet Painted Lady.” Said Davis: “Elton and Taupin have a repository of nerve just to record this; amazingly they get away with it.” Forty years later, in a piece about this album’s deluxe re-release, the same magazine gushed its uncritical praise and spent several sentences fawning about how non-entities like Ed Sheerhan and Fall Out Boy contributed to a bonus disc of cover versions. Yes, music journalism has come a long way in the wrong direction.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road does rebound on the old side four, starting off with two high-energy numbers, “Your Sister Can’t Twist” and the hit “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” The latter song shows a more successful model for songwriting, with Bernie using the wild weekends of his provincial teendom as specific yet universal inspiration. But the appeal of the “Roy Rogers” may just depend on your penchant for old Westerns and the ho-hum drinking song “Social Disease” suggests again that this songwriting team didn’t quite have the surplus of great material that they thought. The album closes somewhat satisfactorily with the attractive ballad “Harmony.”
Far be it from me to counter the old adage that nothing succeeds like success. GYBR has sold some 30 million copies worldwide and its reputation as Elton’s best album is not about to shake loose anytime soon. Take the best material off this and his previous four albums and you’ll have a compilation of some of the best pop-rock of the early Seventies. But the excesses of that same era drag down the highlights of this double album, though you may never know it in our present time, where critical thinking on these matters has gone by the wayside.
The sessions that produced this landmark double-album by Miles Davis, released fifty years ago this week, began precisely one day after the Woodstock festival concluded. On August 19, 1969 at 10 AM—exactly 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix concluded the events in upstate New York with his legendary set—the 43 year-old Davis and his talented cast of young sidemen shuffled into Studio B at Columbia Records down in Manhattan to start work on Bitches Brew.
The timing has a nice symbolic ring to it. Bitches Brew has always been seen as a touchstone recording that fused the worlds of modern jazz and heavy rock. Actually, Miles had been leading up to this magnum opus with the four studio albums he released in 1968 and ’69, especially In a Silent Way and Miles in the Sky. Electric instruments and groove-like jams became more predominant and the players he had under his wing (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul and others) would all become key players in the jazz-rock “fusion” genre that took flight in the Seventies.
Bitches Brew even today sounds adventuresome in an almost eccentric way. Many jazz purists were skeptical or downright hostile, rock fans were more welcoming. Weaned on the improv excursions of Cream and Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies, they helped get the album up to #35 on the Billboard pop charts. Over time, of course, it would be generally recognized as a masterwork. But not classic in the sense that Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue is viewed. The more traditional Blue is the best-selling jazz album in history, while it took Brew thirty-four years to go platinum.
Thanks to this ten year-old issue of Jazz Times for many of the anecdotes in this post.
The 20-minute “Pharaoh’s Dance” takes up all of the old side one. It kicks off with a steady cymbal-riding rhythm, plus the brooding bass clarinet of Bernie Maupin and the whirling keyboards of no less than three electric pianos, played by Zawinul, Corea and Larry Young. Davis enters the picture at 2:30 with a trumpet solo that grows in volume and burns with intensity—a far cry from the cool and controlled tone he was once known for. Here he is blowing his horn over two sets of crashing drums (Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White) and the fevered conga slaps of Don Alias. At around seven minutes, John McLaughlin makes his presence known with some nervy electric guitar fills before the piece slips into a trippy section marked by Miles’ echoed trumpet.
That brief passage is an early indication (at least for the layman’s ears) of one of Bitches Brew central features: the use of editing and loops to mold a finished product from the extended sessions where producer Teo Macero let the tapes keep rolling (he an Miles would piece together the finished product later). This use of the recording studio as an “instrument” had been popular in rock music at least since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper but was pretty unusual (even controversial) for jazz, where an organic group effort would work in unison for a best take.
As Davis leads “Pharaoh’s Dance” to its dynamic conclusion with some sharp staccato runs, you get the full sense of just how big this post-bop wall of sound is. This track features three horn players, three keyboardists, two drummer, two percussionists and both acoustic and electric bass. The rest of the LP features the same massing of players, a clear departure from be-bop’s quartet and quintet conventions.
Next up is the alpha-dog title, another side-filler, this one at an envelope-pushing 27 minutes. The famous opening theme is a “tempo rubato” set piece with reverb-soaked electric piano and Miles’ stentorian trumpet blasts. It sounds like a clarion call from a distant planet. At the three-minute mark a groove starts up—you can hear the leader snapping his fingers in time—with clarinetist Maupin and bass guitarist Harvey Brooks kicking it in (Dave Holland plays the stand-up bass). It predictably builds up momentum in the tenacious, if occasionally disheveled, manner of this album. Miles lets rip another upper-register solo until overtaken by McLaughlin’s guitar and a return to the rubato. Another jam follows with noticeable edits until the clarion blasts return to end it.
The whole effect is bracing, radical and a little disjointed. But Bitches Brew was the was the whole package, otherworldy right from Abdul Mati Klarwein’s Nubian fantasia gatefold cover art down to the very last groove etched into the vinyl. Still, some listeners likely had jumped off the bus by this point. Donald Fagen, whose Steely Dan was a rock band informed by its love of jazz, has said that the album “was essentially a big trash-out for Miles. It sounded like he was trying for a funk record and just picked the wrong guys.” Davis also took plenty of heat at the time from his colleagues. Holland has told Jazz Times of a backstage scene at the Village Vanguard club in New York. “His older friends (were) telling him he was destroying jazz. But Miles stuck to his guns.”
That, of course, was just like Davis. He was an uncompromising, sometimes menacing, personality, whose life mission seemed to be staying one step ahead of everyone, all else be damned. His influential, forward-thinking sensibility can esp. be heard on side three’s “Spanish Key.” Here is a more straightforward avant-funk jam, the kind that would go on to inspire future R&B and hip-hop artists. It’s also a coming-attractions showcase for future fusion stars, featuring brilliant solos from saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Weather Report), Chick Corea (Return to Forever) and John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra). The next track is even named for the guitarist, a piquant guitar workout that, at 4:36, is the only cut that is less than ten minutes.
The aptly-named “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is a stunning 14-minute number whose smoky groove makes it initially sound like one of the LP’s more laid-back tracks. Here both Holland and Harvey Brooks take up the electric bass, Don Alias joins Jack DeJohnette on drums and Maupin’s down-low clarinet completes the rock-solid rhythm section. Miles’ skittering runs eventually build-up to an exciting (if chaotic) plateau with Corea and Joe Zawinul soloing simultaneously on electric piano before Davis re-enters with his some of his most sensuous playing on the album.
The title and first few free-floating minutes of “Sanctuary” give the impression that Bitches Brew will go out on a (relatively) reflective note. But nothing on this revelatory record is that simple and when the clattering drums enter the picture you realize that there is no easy sanctuary in this world and the abrupt ending is as enigmatic as the man would have it.
Most of the standard 2-CD editions of Bitches Brew include the excellent add-on track “Feio.” Naturally, there are a few kitchen-sink BB box sets to choose from, centered on the 40th and 50th anniversaries. One related release that I like is the one-CD Bitches Brew Live. It is split between Miles’ July 1969 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival (one month before the BB sessions) and his full August ’70 set in front of 600,000 rock fans at England’s Isle of Wight.
The career of Miles Davis took a typically unusual turn not long after Bitches Brew. Next up was the even more rockist Jack Johnson and a few similar releases. But not long after the poorly received (initially anyway) On the Corner, Miles took a five-year hiatus, saying he “couldn’t hear the music anymore.” (A typically strange but astute but Miles-ism). After his self-imposed exile, Davis retained his popularity if not his cutting-edge status; that period is perhaps most known for his crowd-pleasing versions of such pop hits as Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” In concert, he still could rip it up as I witnessed when I saw him at Newport in 1989, two years before his passing. He had the hipsters in awe and many of the wine-and-cheese blanket-sitters scratching their heads, a true maverick right to the very end.
–Rick Ouellette 4/4/2020
This is #17 in my “Make Mine a Double” series. Next up: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
More of an urban legend than a recording that people listen to in any conventional sense, Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music may be the most uncompromising album in the annals of “rock” history. It consists entirely of shrieking guitar feedback and high-pitched processed electronic noise. In its original vinyl form, each of its four sides ending with an abrupt tape slice at a listed time sixteen minutes and one second. With this work, Reed took the concept of “full artist control” to its defiant extreme, although exactly why has been the subject of a decades-long debate. Was it a giant F-U to RCA Records, who was pushing him to release a new record when he felt he wasn’t ready? Was it an earnest tribute to electronic music pioneers like LaMonte Young? A perverse attempt at career suicide? During his lifetime, Reed variously implied “yes” to the first two questions (while many pundits in 1975 suggested the third), the real motives behind this sonic assault may never be fully resolved. All for the better: both reviled and revered for pretty much the same reason—namely, that it ever saw the light of day bearing the imprint of one of the world’s biggest record companies—Metal Machine Music remains one of rock’s great conversation pieces, even if the number of folks who have listened to all sixty-four minutes could fit comfortably inside a minivan.
If you want to claim a place inside that minivan, here’s your chance.
Of course, Reed was no stranger to controversy before this. He was a primary figure in the Velvet Underground, the legendary band that countered the prevailing Aquarian ethos of the late 1960s with odes to heroin, S&M and the gritty New York City demimonde in general—pre-figuring punk by a full decade. Anyone that’s heard the atonal rave-up at the end of their first album, or the transgressive 17-minute anti-epic “Sister Ray” on their second, knew that Reed was an envelope pusher. But that stuff sounded like the Carpenters compared to MMM, where the last vestiges of actual music was swept away in favor of pure ear-splitting white noise. Reed took variously-tuned guitars, set them to face directly into their own amps, then fed the resulting feedback into a self-generating loop of reverb, ring oscillators and God knows what-all, then mixed it for maximum effect. The media response was swift in coming though not all had the expected reaction of scorn or disbelief, as seen in the initial Creem magazine review.
In a rebuttal review for the March 1976 issue of Creem, uber-critic Lester Bangs called it “the greatest album ever made” (his Number Two? Kiss Alive!, of course) and listed 17 reasons to back up his assertion. These included the album’s handy application as a “guaranteed lease-breaker” or as a way to “clear all the crap out of your head.” Metal Machine Music became a bit of an obsession with Bangs who, like Reed, was apt to stretch the boundaries of his chosen craft. In the same magazine a month before, in a piece called “How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying”, the two of them tangled in an interview where Reed shifted effortlessly from monster to mensch, while making a series of outlandish claims about a record he thought was one of his best. Supposedly there are sections of MMM where there are 7,000 different melodies going on at once (anyone care to count?) and Reed also insisted he wedged snippets of Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven into this unholy squall. A little more plausible is the assertion that he snuck onto the record “dangerous frequencies” banned by the FCC, which likely had a subliminal appeal to the “hate buffs” and “drug-numbed weirdos” that Bangs saw as the albums natural constituency.
Lou and the Metal Machine trio, performing in 2010.
Love it or hate it, it’s clear that in his own way Reed took this work seriously even if he couldn’t always bring himself to say so at the time. Nowadays, when anything this radical wouldn’t rise head high above the underground (never mind emanate from a major artist on the imprint of a media conglomerate) MMM will always get its props in certain circles. When pop mediocrity is usually what one gets from the “major artists” ruling what is left of the charts, the creative audacities of a lost era become greatly enhanced. Even Reed’s Berlin, his 1973 exquisite downer of a concept album about doomed junkie lovers (which upset Rolling Stone’s reviewer so much that he professed a desire to kill its maker) is now performed as if in repertory and made into a concert film. Metal Machine Music is too wickedly spontaneous to get that treatment, though in 2010 Reed did perform with an avant combo called the Metal Machine Trio, inspired by you-know-what. Like the endless locked groove its maker slyly worked into the end of side four of the original vinyl edition, this work has stubbornly held its ground and been reflected in the noisy experiments of everyone from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Sonic Youth to Radiohead. It has thrived in the Internet age, bringing out the wise guy in everyone. YouTube comments range from “Does anyone have this transcribed for ukulele” to “Kids today don’t understand great music like this.” Middle-aged respectability is probably something Reed never expected for this record when he foisted it on world so long ago.
“You walk down the street, you get shot.” Donald Trump’s one-sentence summation of America’s inner cities, derived from equal parts of heartless manipulation and baleful ignorance, was a well-known refrain from 2016’s soul-killing presidential race. Yet the cheapening of public discourse through self-centered exaggeration is hardly the domain of one man. Republicans have pedaled racial animosity and anti-altruism while soft-soaping lower-income whites with the everybody-can-be-a-billionaire canard to justify massive tax cuts for the few who actually are. The last thing I would think they needed was help from the same people they are targeting.
But that’s what came to mind recently when I became re-acquainted with rapper Notorious B.I.G’s double-album Life After Death, when I chose it for my latest entry in this ongoing series on pop music’s most notable double albums. It was released in 1997, just two weeks after he was killed in a Los Angeles drive-by shooting, a still-unsolved homicide that took place in the midst of the infamous East Coast-West Coast hip hop feud. In the aftermath of this tragedy, his sophomore effort became an instant milestone of rap and sold nearly 700,000 copies in the first week it was out. The title always seemed less tragically ironic and more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that seems a little harsh, it also seems self-evident on an even casual listening.
A haunting outtake from photographer Michael Lavine’s night shoot for the album cover, taken at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill Cemetery
The Brooklyn-raised Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls but born Christopher Wallace) is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee this year. He was a foremost proponent of smooth-flow East Coast style that was rife with lyrics depicting gang violence both real and imagined. For Biggie, who may have never outgrown his earlier days as a drug dealer, this world was more real than it was for others and was not overcome easily and only seemed to get more dangerous once he started selling boatloads of records (Biggie’s first CD, Ready to Die, was already double platinum by the time he was working on this follow-up). Paranoia, retribution and excessive braggadocio mixed with fatalism dominate these 24 tracks and despite the talent and ambition behind it my one big takeaway from Life After Death was, “You walk down the street you get shot.”
You know what you’re in for right from the front-cover photo of the unsmiling and physically imposing Biggie leaning against a hearse. Like many sweeping double albums before it, Life After Death begins with a prologue. It’s like a movie that shows a bit of the final scene before jumping back to the chronological start: our protagonist is in an emergency room, an EKG machine ominously beeping, as a friend encourages him to try and pull through. You hardly have time to ponder the disheartening real-life parallels before you’re right in the thick of it as the first song has him typically declaring “If I gotta die, you gotta die.” Things lighten up a bit with the hit single “Hypnotize” with its playful girl-group refrain. And you got to give props to his randy duet with R. Kelly. It features the Notorious chorus “I’m f#$%ing you tonight,” which finally just comes out and says what thousands of pop songs through the decades have only broadly hinted at.
Beyond that, it’s mostly “American Carnage” time (if I may borrow a charming catchphrase from Trump’s Nazi-lite inauguration speech), with endless recriminations followed by gun violence. The mayhem, to my ears anyway, is redundant and dulling when it’s supposed to be visceral and shocking. Over the album’s two hours there are more dead bodies left in its wake than a spaghetti western. But after all the implied castrations, anal rapes and murdering people in front of their screaming children, the fundamental disconnect of Life After Death is this: the complete and utter vacuum that exists in this world between poverty and excess.
It’s easy to fall under the sway of Biggie’s dexterous rhymes and silky rhythms. “Miss U” sounds like a classic soul jam from the 70s (elsewhere he name-checks the O’Jays and Stylistics) except for the part where a half-dozen bullets rip thru the side of his car, killing his (hopefully) fictional girlfriend. Still, it shows a more humane approach on an album often lacking in basic empathy.
In Biggie’s worldview, going from the mean streets of Brooklyn to a self-defined state of materialistic supremacy is the only thing that matters: there’s nothing between that Point A and B, least of all an African-American middle class. This observation may seem too trite, too white and altogether immaterial to his biggest fans, but any other mention of it might be helpful. Instead, this album has received almost unanimous, reflexive praise across the spectrum of the music press—look up the “Professional Ratings” on its Wikipedia page. I would hate to sound like the type of “Playa Hater” so disparaged in the lyrics. But Biggie’s perpetuation of lose-lose income disparity, between hopeless poverty and perilous success, ill-serves his target demographic in the worst way, even if it’s subliminal. Words matter, and these are not the “best words.” The overweening cartoon consumerism is seen by Biggie himself as its own ball-and-chain (see: “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems”), creating a bunker mentality caused by jealous enemies. It’s a dangerous game that is a literal dead end (“You’re Nobody Til Somebody Kills You”).
Of course, not every rap act is required to mine the social consciousness that informs the work of, say, Public Enemy or Wu Tang Clan. As with rock music, for every thoughtful performer like Bruce Springsteen there’s a bunch of nitwits like Motley Crue. Except Christopher Wallace was no dummy, and was in fact an English prodigy in his schoolboy days. This makes his constant victimizer/victim spiral so confounding and depressing. Christopher Wallace, the real man behind this persona, must have been smart enough to realize that the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats is the one true way out of this fatal game that he witnessed from both ends of the ladder. It would have been interesting to see how he would have evolved as an artist—hopefully moving way beyond the woeful narcissism and dangerous rhetoric our current president will drag with him into his own grave. Hopefully, I said, because there’s precious little hope to be found on this record.
This series on rock history’s prominent double albums has shown time and again that the four-sided album (or two-disc CD) is the chosen platform for some of popular music’s most ambitious projects. That is not always the case: a band may have a backlog of unrelated songs or chose to package a studio record and a live one together. But just as often it can be a case of a confident group or solo artist in a self-defined peak, pushing their conceptual prerogatives to the limit. This latter possibility is more likely in the lofty dominion of progressive. Oft-maligned and often misunderstood, these bands, as a longform outgrowth of the psychedelic era, tended to fantasy concepts and extended, often complex, instrumental arrangements. As drummer Bill Buford put it, recalling the time he joined up with King Crimson: “I knew this was not going to be three chords and a pint of Guinness.”
So there will be plenty of ambitious undertakings to review, yet it is interesting to note the changed dynamic of these types of outfits releasing epic works. Back in the Seventies, titles like Tales from Topographic Oceans (Yes), The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis) and The Wall (Pink Floyd) were major releases into the general rock canon. More recently, we have the “neo-prog” groups sometimes releasing several double albums and since, in this Internet age, they are marketing more directly to fans, flying under the radar of most music fans. We’ll look at both kinds since the Prog Years really run from the late Sixties to the present.
Tales from Topographic Oceans—Yes (1973)
The idea that a “lengthy footnote” from a book called Autobiography of a Yogi would inspire one to write an 80-minute song cycle is about as far away as you can get from rock ‘n’ roll’s “let’s party” birthright without sneaking up on it from the other side. But those were the times. The ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford got married in March 1973 and at the reception Yes singer Jon Anderson was told about Paramahansa Yogananda’s famed memoir by King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir. Anderson, like many others of the era, was inspired by Eastern spiritualism. Before a month had passed, he and guitarist Steve Howe were writing the esoteric lyrics. After months of painstaking composing, rehearsing and recording this veritable War and Peace of rock was released in December of that year. (A detail of Roger Dean’s handsome artwork on the cover is seen above).
Like Tolstoy’s epic book, Tales from Topographic Oceans would prove rough sledding even for some pre-disposed to like it. Side one (dauntingly titled “The Revealing Science of God”) starts with a Buddhist-like chant that draws us up from the primeval ocean and resolves into a heraldic 3-note guitar figure. It then unfolds like much of TFTO. It’s a lush instrumental sound that builds up from reflective stanzas of Anderson’s questing poetics through several segueing sections before building to a soaring climax. These up-tempo sections were a highlight for many, led by the galloping rhythm section of bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White, over which would ride Howe’s nervy lead guitar or Rick Wakeman’s bounteous synth fills. To my ears, this plan of attack works best on the exalted second side (“The Remembering”) and while sides three and four (“The Ancient” and “Ritual”) may get a bit bogged down in instrumental excesses, both resolve beautifully: with Howe’s classical acoustic guitar and the stand-alone ballad “Leaves of Green” in the former and the gentle, piano-led paen to home and hearth that closes the album.
As was often the case in progressive rock’s heyday, many of the critics were unabashed in their unkindness and Tales from Topographic Oceans remains a wedge issue to this day with fans in online discussions. But in a 2016 interview, Steve Howe looked back on Tales as “a wonderful project where we went to the end of the earth to do it. There was often a feeling that disaster was about to strike, but we got there in the end.” (In fact, dissension during recording prompted Rick Wakeman after the supporting tour). It could be a sublime listening experience in the days of real stereos and inexpensive weed, dropping the needle on your favorite side. In concert, where the album was played front-to-back in 1974, it could be a patience tester even for the die-hards (sample stage patter: “We’d like to carry on with side three”). It was a long march to the “Roundabout” encore. Circling back to TFTO now—-standing on “hills of long-forgotten yesterdays”—-as the lyrics would have it, it feels like an experiential marvel. In an age of digital dissipation and global polarization, the plea for a spiritual evolution to dispel “cast-iron leaders” and “warland seekers” is a balm. Our common humanity succeeding against all the corrupting forces of the world may sound naive, but it’s also intrinsic to the nature of all good people. When they sing the musical question, “Ours the story, shall we carry on?” the answer is easy: Yes.
Iconic Prog Element: Every good 20-minute song needs a subtitle. From side one to four they are: Dance of the Dawn, High the Memory, Giants Under the Sun and Nous Sommes du Soleil.
Into the Electric Castle—Ayreon (1998)
Are you a lover of classic prog looking for something of more recent vintage? Ayreon, my wayward son. Musical mastermind Arjen Lucassen formed his group project around 1994, in order to “fill a need to create rock operas.” (progarchives.com) The Dutch multi-instrumentalist and vocalist turned out to be an amazingly ambitious songwriter and conceptualist and ever since then he has fulfilled his musical and lyrical visions with an ever-evolving cast of singers and players. His first (but certainly not last) double album is proudly called “A Space Opera” on its front cover. Many classic rock operas, from Tommy on down, tend to be diffuse in their plotting but not this baby. Into the Electric Castle, like most Ayreon albums, has a tightly structured storyline and a cast of characters each voiced by a different guest vocalist. A group of eight archetypes (Knight, Highlander, Barbarian, Roman, Futureman etc.) are led into another dimension by a forbidding deity, in a test of human progress vs. self-destruction. It is melodic, esoteric and ultimately poignant. Ayreon’s prog-metal sound is tempered by a classic 70s flavor with Lucassen dishing out plenty of mini-Moog and mellotron stylings along with his usual stellar guitar and bass work.
Iconic Prog Element: The godfather of Dutch art-rock, Focus frontman Thijs van Leer, shows up to play flute on several tracks.
Focus III (1973)
Speaking of Focus, the Amsterdam-based quartet had been making a splash in Europe since 1969 (and in the U.S. with their #9 single “Hocus Pocus”) and by the key prog year of 1973 were ready for a twin killing with their third album. The band was a mostly instrumental outfit, with a keen compositional sense that included elements of rock, jazz, folk and classical, sometimes accompanied by the yodeling and scat singing of their ostensible leader, keyboardist/flautist Thijs van Leer. Acclaimed guitarist Jan Akkerman, who could both shred like a demon and pluck a lute like an angel, was also a key component. This was also the classic line-up with the talented rhythm section of bassist Bert Ruiter and drummer Pierre van der Linden, so they could hardly go wrong. The best known song on Focus III is the exuberant “Sylvia” as good a piece of chamber pop that you’re ever likely to hear and their biggest Continental hit, though it stalled out at #89 in the States. Elsewhere, the group show their knack for jaunty workouts like “Carnival Fugue” and “Round Goes the Gossip” as well as for lovely acoustic miniatures, represented here by “Love Remembered” and “Elspeth of Nottingham.” The middle of the album does get a bit long-winded with jam-band marathons, though there are no shortage of highlights mixed in, esp. Akkerman’s searing leads and van Leer’s punchy Hammond organ solo on “Anonymous II.” Focus III would go gold in the U.S., maintaining the band’s American foothold on prog’s momentum waned in the late Seventies.
Iconic Prog Element: The 27-minute “Anonymous II” is so long it takes up all of side three before spilling onto side four.
Works, Volume 1—Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1977)
Everything Emerson, Lake and Palmer did was big. Their top-selling records featured grandiose fantasy themes and their stage act showcased a revolving drum kit, a piano spinning end over end thirty feet above the stage (with pianist aboard) and dazzling pyrotechnic displays. But by 1977, having spent the better part of a decade coming across as triumphant warriors, ELP were in danger of being conquered by their own egos. Only hubris combined with internal dissension could produce an LP like Works , Volume 1, essentially three twenty minute solo records followed by a side featuring the “band.” Emerson’s contribution is a fully scored piano concerto. Although there is plenty of impressive work on the ivories here, an orchestrated concerto would prove to be an impossibly hard sell to all but the group’s most hardcore fans. In a similar vein, the insertion of an orchestra on drummer Carl Palmer’s “Tank,” a vigorous instrumental showpiece first heard on the group’s maiden album, gave the re-make a distinctly watered-down feel. Past ELP albums were known for having one track devoted to the radio-friendly balladry of singer/bassist/guitarist Greg. Lake. With a whole side of contributions here the results, typified by the gauzy single “C’est La Vie”, are listenable enough but don’t nearly match the artistic and commercial success of past hits like “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning.”
On side four the guys revert to old ways on two extended cuts. First with one of the amped-up classical adaptations that always worked well for them and here the honoree (some might say “victim”) is Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” ELP return to their typically exotic subject for the mini-epic “Pirates,” akin to Procol Harum on steroids. By 1977, with punk rock well and truly arrived, critical opinion of the band hit an all-time low (“Works, but only as a Frisbee,” was Creem magazine’s take) though it still made #12 in the States. Yes, there was a Works Vol. 2, a considerably more concise single album released later that year. But after 1978’s unfortunate Love Beach, ELP broke up and only re-surfaced after classic rock became institutionalized in the Nineties.
Iconic Prog Element: Let’s just say “Piano Concerto No. 1”
Sounds Like This—Nektar (1973)
Nektar were a group of Englishman originally based in Hamburg, led by guitarist-lead singer Roye Albrighton. They established their acid-rock bonafides with a way-out live show; their liquid lightshow guy was a full-time member. A first album in 1971 was called Journey To the Center of the Eye and the second one was suggestively titled A Tab in the Ocean, both were marked by sci-fi themes and lengthy compositions. Nektar gathered in the studio in October ’72 with the rather odd notion of simulating a live show in the studio, complete with improvisational jams. Dissatisfied with much of the results, they went back for a partial do-over in early ’73. They ended up with a double LP where the stretching out (three tracks in the 12-14 minute range) alternated with a clutch of progressive pop songs of more traditional length.
The album opens with its strongest track. “Good Day” should have been a hit in a fair world, with its filigreed guitar hooks and a dramatic buildup to an optimistic sing-along chorus. “New Day Dawning” follows in a similar winning style but side one closes with a hard-rock boogie called “What Ya Gonna Do” which is about as original as its title. From there, the album alternates between jams that sound more like their heavy-hitting contemporaries like Deep Purple or Mountain and the more written-out shorter material, like the ballad “Wings.” I prefer the latter, but the longer cuts are a fun listen. Albrighton was not really known as a guitar-hero type but he certainly is one here, ripping off any number of screaming leads on solo-heavy workouts like “1-2-3-4” (keyboardist Allan Freeman also shines here). In retrospect, Sounds Like This seems like a “let your hair down” diversion and Nektar would revert to form later in 1973 with the accomplished concept album Remember the Future, that gave them their biggest U.S. success (#19). That was short-lived but the group stayed popular in Europe and, despite a few sabbaticals, they continue to record and perform, even after Roye Albrighton’s passing in 2016.
Iconic Prog Element: Halfway through “New Day Dawning” the band seamlessly shifts into the first verse of “Norwegian Wood” just because they can.
The Astonishing—Dream Theater (2016)
The Long Island-based Dream Theater are one of those prolific and restlessly creative groups that have emerged from the neo-progressive and prog metal movements of the last thirty years or so. (The Flower Kings and Big Big Train are two others that come quickly to mind). This 130-minute behemoth was their second double concept album, coming a full fourteen years after the first, 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. True to its title, that album explored various states of psychological struggles over the course of a half-dozen tracks—one of which, at 42 minutes, took up the whole second disc. Still, the relatively tight focus of Six Degrees stands in sharp contrast to the operatic sci-fi sprawl that is The Astonishing. The cover art shows a squadron of robotic orbs hovering over a futuristic city. After the “Dystopian Overture” we learn that in a distant future music, while not said to be explicitly banned, is something that people have “no time for” anymore. Instead, the orbs (called NOMACS) beam down their dissonant playlist of bleeps, blurps and technological babble. But if there is any oppression here in futureland (how much is not clear) it is challenged by the emergence of Gabriel whose messianic status seems based on the fact that he’s the only left who can carry a tune.
If you detect a note of skepticism here, go to the head of the class. The band’s synopsis of The Astonishing runs a full six paragraphs, but just listening to the album it’s hard to discern any storyline at all. Almost every song is based around general platitudes that could easily make up an album of unrelated tracks. Lead singer James LaBrie has a great set of pipes but lacks the versatility to spread them over several different characters. Before long we are getting sub-Andrew Lloyd Weber “showstoppers” like the soapy “Chosen” (“Against all hope we found a way/And it is all because she trusted me”). It’s too bad—Dream Theater founder-guitarist-lyricist John Petrucci has all the chops and ambitions in the world and the music here is played expertly but without much personal distinction. Yet the band has pulled off this kind of thing before and may well again in the future. The Astonishing, however, hardly lives up to its title: it’s all reach and no grasp.
Iconic Prog Element: The NOMACS get five brief tracks all to themselves and are often more interesting than the human characters.
Follow this blog and you’ll be notified when Part 2 of this post comes out. Featured will be 2-disc bad boys from Soft Machine, Can, Mike Oldfield, the Flower Kings and others. Thanks, Rick Ouellette