Make Mine a Double

Make Mine a Double #18: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973)

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.

When Miles Ran the Voodoo Down: “Bitches Brew” at 50

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”

Make Mine a Double #16: Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” (1975)

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.
—Rick Ouellette

Make Mine a Double #15: Notorious B.I.G.’s “Life After Death” (1997)

“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.
—Rick Ouellette

Make Mine a Double #14: The Prog Years, Part One

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.

Grade: A
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.
Grade: A-


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.

Grade: B+
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.

Grade: C
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.

Grade: B-
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.

Grade: C-
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

Make Mine a Double #12: Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” (1970)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is one of the most beloved and critically lauded of rock albums and it’s not hard to see why. It conflates two of the form’s most cherished devices—red-hot electric guitar solos and verses filled with vivid romantic disappointment, and achieves high-water marks in each, especially on its titanic title track. Most true-blue rock fans already know that as the Sixties drew to a close Eric Clapton was deep in the throes of a hopeless infatuation with Patti Boyd, already married to his close friend George Harrison. And that by 1970 Clapton was at a career crossroads. He had made his name as one of rock’s most exalted guitar heroes not long after moving to London from his native Surrey, first with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, then especially with groundbreaking power-trio Cream. But Clapton soon grew disillusioned with the lengthy (and often overblown) jamming and psychedelic left turns of the virtuosic threesome—not to mention its fractious mix of personalities.

After Cream’s famous farewell concert at the Albert Hall in November of 1968, Clapton was at a bit of a loss. Hard-wired to a belief in the overarching integrity of American blues and averse to the type of adulation that would have hippies tagging London walls with the catchphrase “Clapton is God,” he rummaged around for the right musical fit. Next up was Blind Faith and although Eric may have been musically and personally simpatico with co-leader Steve Winwood (the group also included Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech) the band collapsed under the weight of its own supergroup industry hype after only one album. By the end of 1969, Clapton was content to be a sideman with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, playing his searing lead guitar lines from sidestage while the group’s namesake married couple held the spotlight. His first, eponymous solo LP came out soon after but before this became his chosen career path, there was one more go at working within a group format. Recruiting three members of the Delaney & Bonnie touring group and settling on a band name that obscured his role as frontman, the newly christened Derek and the Dominoes repaired to Criteria Studios in Miami during the summer of 1970. Soon after arriving their producer Tom Dowd suggested they check out a hot new group from Georgia who were playing a gig nearby, a specific request from their Cream-fan lead guitarist.


“Duane should be right along.” From l to r: Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle

Even without the addition of a second guitarist of equal high standing, the Dominoes would have likely enjoyed a good measure of creative success. Clapton’s three full-time bandmates—keyboardist/vocalist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon—were a highly skilled supporting cast well versed in the soulful, Southern-fried rock and gritty R&B impulses of the Delaney & Bonnie/Leon Russell/Joe Cocker axis so popular at the time. But after seeing the Allman Brothers Band in concert, a mightily impressed Clapton quickly befriended (and recruited) lead guitarist Duane Allman, adding a whole new dimension to a project with a lot of upside already. Although the Allmans, like Cream, often pushed songs past the twenty-minute mark in concert, the jazzy blues improvisations of the Macon-based outfit seemed more organic and less show-offy than the famed British trio. Allman was, according to Clapton in his 2007 autobiography, “the musical brother I never had” and this was borne out by their complementary styles. The stinging tones of Clapton’s trusty Stratocaster meshed perfectly with Allman’s distinctive bottleneck slide sound and of course there would also be the sort of scintillating, fleet-fingered dual soling that would pass into guitar-geek legend.

Allman’s inspiring presence was timely. Clapton admitted in his book to going into the Layla sessions with only a couple of originals (eventual LP opener “I Looked Away” as well as a rough draft of the title cut) and a few blues standards he was keen to cover. But the material came fast and furious over that late summer and fall until it filled four sides with some of the most passionate rock music ever recorded. “I Looked Away” opens the album with a lilting country-rock groove that belies the emotionally-fraught soundscapes ahead, but it doesn’t take long to get a taste. The one-that-got-away lyric isn’t exactly groundbreaking but the vocals, with Clapton’s tenor trading verses with the deeper and somewhat gruff voice of Whitlock, are a marvel. This gambit (nearly as crucial to Layla’s success as the Clapton-Allman alliance) was said to be in emulation of Memphis R&B greats Sam & Dave, quite plausible considering the Stax Records background of fellow Memphis native Whitlock.

One can imagine the legions of guitar-loving rock fans, in the fallout of the psychedelic Sixties, having their ears prick up to this earthy and emotionally direct new music, especially after the two great tracks that follow it. The charming alliteration of “Bell Bottom Blues” came to Clapton after Patti Boyd’s request that he buy her a pair of designer flares when he got to the States. From that we get an absolutely tortured depiction of a spurned lover so in thrall to a woman that he would “crawl across the floor” and “beg you to take me back” for just one day so as not to completely perish from the scene, complete with a delicate upper-register guitar solo so heartfelt that its highlight are the notes almost too painful to play. But self-encouragement soon follows in “Keep on Growing” with Clapton and Whitlock again singing alternating lines of love lost (and offering supportive shouts of “yeah-yeah” when it’s the other’s turn) before the hopeful chorus and a liberating instrumental finish where an army of overdubbed Erics (there’s no Duane on this and two other tracks) lead the charge with the other three in full gallop close behind. In light of the originality of these three tracks, the side one closer—a conventional cover of the blues standard “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out”—can’t help but pale in comparison.

But in the “Assorted Love Songs” of these four sides, fresh approaches far outnumber the inveterate twelve-bar tendencies that once prompted Rolling Stone critic Jon Landau to dub Clapton the “master of the blues cliché,” a comment that deeply upset the guitarist, then still with Cream. The other three Clapton-Whitlock collaborations (“Keep on Growing” was the first) add new hues to the old blues, the vibrant vocal tag-teaming and lofty instrumental constructions don’t let up thru the determinedly soulful “Anyday,” the chugging rocker “Tell the Truth” (a much faster version produced by Phil Spector had been released as a single) and the tour de force “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?” In this Southern-style rave-up, a near-frantic Clapton rails against romance’s age-old injustices, as well as its confusions: “Won’t you show me a place/Where I can hide my lonely face/I know you’re going to break my heart if I let you.” Most anyone with a pulse has felt at least once in their life “like a song without a name/I’ve never been the same since I met you” though it’s one of the tunes that seems most specific to Patti Boyd: “I can’t keep from singing about you.” With volume levels that could have stripped the paint off Criteria’s studio walls, Duane solos throughout the song with an intensity that is almost superhuman. When Eric joins in, the notes seems to be coming at you twenty different directions and it all ends with a decelerated, Allman’s style outro, a sweet-toned reprieve after the cathartic emotions are fully exorcised.


This YT video of “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad” features lyrics on the screen and a fine photo montage of band members as well as Patti Boyd.

What’s amazing is that all this creative outpouring took place against an admitted background of such prodigious alcohol and hard drug intake that in our own relatively temperate age it would practically constitute a national crisis. Clapton was by now well down the road to the heroin addiction that would derail his life and career pretty much until 1974. And when the original songs ran out the covers that sat beside them were mostly first-rate as well. Their amped-up version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” may lack some of the gentler appeal of the original but the heraldic power chords, ardent vocals and Jim Gordon’s complex drum fills transform it into stirring tribute to Eric’s friend who died during the making of the album. The nine-minute take on Big Bill Bronzy’s “Key to the Highway” is more guitar-duel nirvana and the country seasoning added to Chuck Willis’ R&B stroll “It’s Too Late” made it the perfect choice to perform when the Dominoes made a well-received appearance on the Johnny Cash TV show. The best straight blues here is probably “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” with Clapton’s torrid between-the-lines soloing and its relevant love-triangle lyrics that, though written by Billy Myles, seem to cut straight through to the Eric-George-Patti situation: the obsessed but conflicted narrator backs out of a potential affair with his best friend’s old lady.


Live on the Johnny Cash Show in 1971 doing “It’s Too Late.”

Patti Boyd was first seen by the greater public when, as a young London-based model, she got to play one of a group of uniformed high-school girls flirting with the Beatles on a train ride in A Hard Day’s Night. George asked her out on the set but had to wait a few days for a yes. A toothy, girl-next-door blond beauty who was never quite exotic enough for significant modeling success, Boyd was top shelf as a rock-chick muse. Married to Harrison in 1966, her husband’s deepening devotion to Eastern mysticism may have strained the relationship but they remained married until ’74 and Boyd was the inspiration for several George-penned Beatles tunes, most notably “Something.” Although Eric was convinced the couple were on the outs by the time he and Boyd met and although feelings may have been mutual, it would a long agonizing wait for him.

“What’ll you do when you get lonely/And nobody’s waiting by your side,” began the song he wrote about Boyd that he came to Miami with in an unfinished state. Although directed at the object of his desire, Clapton could just as easily be talking to himself and the mix of self-pity and admonishment in “Layla” is made even more urgent by the relentless repetition of the song’s famous signature riff, reinforced with a reputed six tracks of guitar. Tom Dowd was a key player throughout these sessions and not just for his incandescent production. He was a fatherly facilitator for the self-doubting Clapton and helped build what began as a ballad into a rock juggernaut, especially after Allman came up with the totemic seven-note figure. The missing piece of the puzzle was found when an elegiac piano piece written and played by Jim Gordon was added as the instrumental “coda” (it takes up more than half of the seven-minute running time) renowned for its aching beauty.

In the documentary film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, the late producer sits in front of his mixing board and deconstructs the song, isolating elements like Allman’s ghostly slide guitar sound and noting that both he and Clapton were playing notes that were “off the top of the instrument.” The quieter second section suggests that the spurned lover of the last four sides finally turns away from the woman who has “turned my whole world upside down” and heads off alone into the sunset (listen for Radle’s “walking” bass line) while Allman sounds his famous “bird tweets” in a majestic fade to black. But wait, there’s more. As if playing over the closing credits of a movie, LP closer “Thorn Tree in the Garden” makes for a fitting and intimate ending, a melancholic acoustic-guitar ballad by Bobby Whitlock that Dowd recorded by having the group sit around a single open mic.


Master producer Tom Dowd on the making of “Layla” from the highly-recommended documentary “Tom Dowd: The Language of Music”

If ever an album had a postscript—or, indeed, many of them—it’s Layla and Assorted Love Songs. First off, the album did well initially (#16 in the U.S.) but the title track only achieved its status as a ubiquitous radio classic after several fits and starts and re-releases over the next few years. The LP didn’t even get its own review in Rolling Stone, instead being twinned with the Allman Brothers’ Idlewild South in a write-up that betrays the higher critical standards of the day (“Bell Bottom Blues” is “filler”?!). Duane Allman, who was only able to squeeze in a few dates with the Dominoes on their subsequent tour, died in a motorcycle accident near his home in Macon less than a year after Layla’s release and a month shy of his 25th birthday. Carl Radle kept in contact with Clapton during the latter’s three-year layoff while battling drug addiction and was with him for the 461 Ocean Boulevard comeback album and tour in 1974—then succumbed to liver disease in 1980 after being unable to conquer his own substance abuse demons. Jim Gordon, the golden-touch session drummer whose voluminous list of credits ran the gamut from Bread to Frank Zappa, developed a severe case of (undiagnosed) schizophrenia and murdered his mother in 1983 in a delusional state that was discounted at trial due to changes in California law—as of January 2019 he is still serving a sixteen-years-to-life sentence. Thankfully, nothing tragic happened to Bobby Whitlock, unless one counts the fizzling-out of his Seventies solo career; he’s still in fine form whenever he resurfaces.


The only other official D&D release was this live album released in 1973, two years after the band broke up.

And what of Mr. Clapton? Everyone knows of his successful run as a solo artist and his elevation to one of rock’s elder statesmen. He got together with Patti Boyd soon after her divorce from Harrison and the two were wed in 1979, an era that produced perhaps the last well-known ode to her, the hit single “Wonderful Tonight.” But in her own autobiography called “Wonderful Today,” Boyd doesn’t pull her punches in recalling how quickly the union hit the rocks, the bottle quickly replacing the needle as Eric’s habit of choice. Her husband certainly has not denied just how far he fell during that period and the couple divorced in 1989, the final straw being Clapton fathering a child with another woman (Boyd was unable to conceive). Still, the ideal of the song she was most famous for inspiring stayed resilient: even his tepid “Unplugged” performance of “Layla” on MTV couldn’t kill it—indeed, it snagged Clapton one of the six Grammy awards he won in 1993. (Co-writer Jim Gordon shared the award but of course was not in attendance, neither was he mentioned in the acceptance speech). Many have commented over the years about the permenance of great art and its ability to rise above the many vagaries of its creators and creation and so too will Layla and Assorted Love Songs forever stand tall over the inauspicious circumstances that trail behind it.

You can check out an excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
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Make Mine a Double #10: The Damned’s “Black Album” (1980)

(An occasional series delving into the wild and woolly world of rock music’s notable double albums)

Give the Damned their due. They spearheaded England’s punk revolution, releasing the scene’s first single (“New Rose”) in October of 1976, and had an LP out the following February, months before London’s famously raucous Jubilee summer. While news of this upheaval was still being absorbed across the Atlantic, they were racking up another milestone by being the first such band to play in the States. And in a movement brimming with maverick characters, the Damned were no slouches—featuring a bassist who went by the name Captain Sensible but was known to perform in a tutu, a drummer dubbed Rat Scabies who wasn’t afraid to leave his seat behind the kit to scrap with audience members and Dave Vanian (as in Transylvanian), the lead singer who transitioned into the music business from his previous job as a gravedigger.

In the early days with original guitarist/songwriter Brian James, the sound was archetypal—full of buzzsaw guitars, turbo-charged drumming and declamatory vocals on songs with signifying titles like “Problem Child”, “Feel the Pain” and “Machine Gun Etiquette.” Although both intense and irreverent, the Damned never gained the socio-political cache of the Sex Pistols or the Clash. By 1980, they had slipped from the head of the pack (even referred to as “the Darned” by waggish record-rater Robert Christgau), fated to cut their own peculiar, semi-famous course. Hence The Black Album, their fourth LP, cheekily recalls the Fab Four’s sprawling 1968 classic as a reference point for their own double disc.


The Damned, circa 1980

There were two strong sides of conventional-length songs, an impressive 17-minute epic named “Curtain Call” that pointed the way towards the Damned’s imminent proto Goth-rock sound and a fourth side of early favorites performed live in-studio for a group of fan clubbers. They are quick out of the gate with rallying rocker “Wait for the Blackout” with Scabies’ dynamic drumming and some great Townshend-esque guitar flourishes by Sensible, who moved up to six-string (and keyboards) after Brian James’ departure while Paul Grey ably took over the bass duties. The opener also conveys the Damned’s increasing tendency to be champions of all things nocturnal with Vanian’s invocation of “the darkness (that) holds a power that you won’t find in the day.” Sure, there are a few of the witty, up tempo bursts of energy that were a punk-era calling card (“Drinking About My Baby”, “Lively Arts”, “Therapy” and “Sick of This and That”) and others like the Sensibly-sung “Silly Kids Games” that showed the band’s classicist side: in the spirit of mid-Sixties Who or Kinks, using a chipper tune to deliver serious lyric concerns—in this case, the core absurdity of avarice.

It’s little surprise, though—for a group that named themselves after the 1960 creep-out classic Village of the Damned and that featured a lead singer who looked like he wandered in off the set of Dark Shadows—that their more cinematic and macabre side would begin to take precedence. This more melodic bent, marked by Vanian’s newfound crooning vocal style, is heard to great effect on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (“I try to be true, he tries to be cruel/I’ll hold you gently, but he’ll smother you”) and “13th Floor Vendetta”,” with their acoustic guitar and keyboard shadings. The band itself grumbled a bit about Han Zimmer’s booming overproduction on the otherwise astute “The History of the World (Part One),” even though they are listed as co-producers, but no such complaints can befall the side-filling “Curtain Call”, where the group went balls-out to stake a new course that had more in common with the art-rock show-offs that the unschooled punks were rebelling against not long before. Its doomy minor-key ambience is perfect for Vanian to take center stage in a benchmark performance that directly or indirectly informed the subsequent legions of a darkly-clad and black-fingernailed subculture (“We’re coming up from the deep, the lizard sheds its skin/Night obliterates the day, and all the fun begins”). The long interior instrumental section also excels, especially a shivery, suspended passage that feels like getting lost in the woods before a piercing violin splits the fog and the Captain’s fright-film keyboards and nervy guitar solo summon back Vanian for the conclusion (“Tragedy, love all lie within/Each player takes his chance to play/And lives to fight another day”). “I like the fact that we push things a bit,” Sensible said later, dismissing the flak that “Curtain Call” caught from some of his contemporaries. (”They can bog off.”)

Despite something of a career setback in the years after The Black Album, this individualistic streak stood them in good stead in the decades (yes, decades) that followed. By the mid-80s, established as Goth-rock pioneers, The Damned scored hits with tunes like “Grimly Fiendish” and “Eloise,” with its strange Brian Wilson-meets-Bela-Lugosi vibe. They may not have “made it stinking rich/straight up there without a hitch” as they once ironically predicted on “Machine Gun Etiquette” (re-titled on the live side here as “Second Time Around”). But onward they skulked into the new millenium with Vanian as the constant member, always joined by either Scabies or Sensible if not both. On their 35th anniversary tour in 2011 they were even doing a 25-minute bog-off medley of “Therapy” and “Curtain Call”. Live to fight another day, indeed.


The Damned on stage today. Original members Capt. Sensible on left and Dave Vanian, middle.<

Make Mine a Double #9: Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” (1978)

“I guess I’ll have to say this album is dedicated to you/though perhaps I may not be happy/This is what you want, so I’ve conceded.” Musical dedications and poison pen songs are well-established pop conventions but it’s doubtful anyone else combined the two with such chutzpah as Marvin Gaye did in 1978 with the divorce-themed concept album that began with those lines. While in the legal process of ending his marital union with Anna Gordy Gaye, the sister of Motown boss Berry Gordy for whom he recorded, the financially and psychologically troubled Gaye was ordered to funnel much of the proceeds of his next album to his wife and son as part of the settlement. Gaye resisted his initial temptation to toss off a “lazy” record. Instead he dug in his heels and crafted a highly personal and idiosyncratic exploration of his failed marriage—some of the lyrics could have been lifted from the pages of a court deposition—and “wedded” it to some of the strongest instrumental tracks of his later career. Here, My Dear is not the easiest record to warm up to. It initially sold well enough to his loyal fan base (peaking at #4 on the soul charts and at #26 on the pop) but likely left a lot of bemused listeners in its wake. Originally derided by many critics as self-indulgent, its reputation has improved over time as a fascinating (if troubling) late chapter in the rocky life and times of one of R&B’s most beloved singers.


Marvin and Anna Gordy in happier times (I’m assuming).

Gaye met Anna Gordy, seventeen years his senior, soon after he signed on with her brother in the early days of Motown. By the singer’s own account, she lit a fire under a promising but underachieving young talent. They were together through Gaye’s remarkable string of over twenty major hit songs in the Sixties, either on solo records or with duet partners like Tami Terrell or Mary Wells. But as the decade turned and Gaye reached new artistic heights with What’s Going On, a landmark album of black social protest, the marriage had hit the skids. After the table-setting title track of Here, My Dear, Gaye proceeds with his highly-personalized dissection on the second song with “I Met a Little Girl”, a bittersweet recalling of love’s early bloom that abruptly jumps ahead to 1976’s very public falling out. This is directly followed by “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” (Gaye is so locked into his lyrical quest to get at what went wrong that he doesn’t get around to the titular refrain until the song has nearly exhausted its six-minute running time) and “Anger” (an candid internal conversation where he strives to overcome his inner demons and “reach that wiser age”).

For Gaye, that last task always would prove a tough one. Raised in Washington, D.C. by a strict and domineering minister father, the higher aspirations of a Christian faith were pitted against an abusive home environment. The effects of this would appear to carry over into his tumultuous adult relationships, both personal and professional. Typically, Gaye doesn’t shy away from the fact that his life often resembled a lurid soap opera (“What I can’t understand is if you love me/How could you turn me into the police?”) and while he may vent about his wife’s expensive tastes inflating the alimony (“You’ve got a flair for style and you’re styling all the while”) he does not ignore his own exorbitant drug habit. With this much blame to go around, the atmosphere can become a bit oppressive but Gaye takes a recess from the musical divorce court of his own making for three consecutive tunes halfway through. Here’s a return of the more altruistic Marvin of the early 70s with the thoughtful yearning of “Sparrow” and the dogged self-encouragement of “Time to Get It Together”. And “Everybody Needs Love,” with its quiet-storm instrumental vibe and buttery vocal overdubs, could have been the hit song that Here, My Dear needed. But the only single released from it, the entertaining “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” did not fare well. It’s a bit of a departure from the classic-sounding soul jams that filled most of these four sides. With its slinky bass line, trebly rhythm guitar and Gaye’s own fulsome synthesizer fills, it suggests that the man was familiar with the jaunty sci-fi funk of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic collective. In this escapist fantasy, Gaye may be liberated by time travel, getting down with a new lover on his “space bed,” but the cold reality of his tangled affairs on the home planet soon come creeping back.

A review of Here, My Dear would not be complete without mentioning the exceptional (if suitably downbeat) cover art. Painter Michael Bryan had done album sleeves for the likes John Lennon, Rod Stewart and Bootsy Collins and his idea of incorporating Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss was met with approval by Gaye (“Put me in a toga”). The singer solemnly stands aside the iconic couple whose image is repeated on the back—this time they’ve caught fire inside the ruins of a columned courtyard while another statue, a grinning beast, sits on a pedestal bearing the legend “Pain and Divorce.” That’s only half of it. The inner gatefold shows a man’s hand giving over a token-sized LP to a woman’s hand above a Monopoly-like game board. Below her hand are gobs of cash, a house and a Cadillac. The male hand presides over a piano, a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a single dollar bill. Ouch!


A 1978 TV commercial for the album gets you up close and personal with Michael Bryan’s distinctive artwork.

In this tangled web of personal grievances and court orders, Here, My Dear was fated to be a flop. First off, if Berry Gordy was unenthusiastic about What’s Going On (and still professed to not understand it even after it became a worldwide smash) what was he going to do with a double album that all but declared open season on his own sister? Secondly, Gaye seemed to lose interest in the record once he got it off his chest, while Anna Gordy (perhaps paradoxically) pondered an invasion-of-piracy lawsuit to stop the LP that was mandated to make her hundreds of thousands of dollars. After the initial sales spike, Here, My Dear died on the vine and was quickly out of print. A couple of years later, his brief second marriage to Janis Hunter (the inspiration for “Let’s Get it On” as well as this record’s “Falling in Love Again”) also hit the rocks. Dogged by the scourge of a hard drug habit and pursued by the IRS (he owed a fortune in back taxes) he relocated to Belgium and recorded his final big hit, the sublime “Sexual Healing.” But the old demons quickly caught up with him on his return to the States and, a day before what would have been his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father after a domestic dispute, the last terrible chapter in a life filled with destructive personal relationships.

Make Mine a Double is an ongoing series that explores the wild and woolly world of rock’s most notable double album’s. Up next: “Layla.”

Make Mine a Double #8: The Minutemen’s “Double Nickels on the Dime” (1984)

Double Nickels on the Dime is a landmark post-punk album that was reportedly inspired by another brilliant two record set, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, recorded earlier that year. The Minutemen, a trio that proudly hailed from the working-class San Pedro area of Los Angeles, were an aptly named group—-both for the brevity of their songs and their readiness to confront the forces of oppression with the chosen weapons of their day. On Double Nickels, singer/guitarist D. Boon rails against government malfeasance and media brainwashing as if on a set schedule. But the group’s dry sense of humor never abandons them through these four dynamic sides and the overall feel is more conspiratorial than preachy. This is an album treasured by a considerable number of 1980s indie/underground rock fans and is essential for younger listeners of a similar bent. Besides, it’s hard not to love a record with such song titles as “There Ain’t Shit on TV Tonight”, “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”, “The Roar of the Masses Could be Farts” and “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”

The Minutemen directly followed the first column of punk rockers and they give shout-outs to Joe Strummer, Richard Hell and X’s John Doe in “History Lesson-Part II,” perhaps the most well-known song here. But they are no back-to-basics purists. Boon’s fleet-fingered fretwork is as skillful as many of the Sixties’ axe heroes and the versatile rhythm section of bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley are as adept at swinging as they are at pile driving.

There were forty-five tracks on the original vinyl, though CD editions usually omit a couple to shoehorn it onto one disc. Only one cut was more than three minutes long and most were under two, meaning more than the usual amount of opportunities for double-album stretching out. There’s a countryish song, an acoustic guitar interlude, passages that resemble free-form jazz and several numbers of slam-poetry-with-musical-backing featuring acute social commentary, often emanating from the pen of Mike Watt.


The album’s much-loved cover photo (and its title) was a snarky reference to the recent Sammy Hagar hit “I Can’t Drive 55.” It shows Mike Watt driving his VW Beetles at exactly 55 MPH, heading for the San Pedro off-ramp.

Casual listeners may be put off by what seems more like underdeveloped sketches than full-bodied songs. But the Minutemen’s minimalist mindset reveals its skewed genius gradually, whether it is the hazardous intersection of romance, religion and workplace politics depicted in “Jesus and Tequila” or the great deadpan cover of Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu.” The symbolically charged year of 1984 saw President Ronald Reagan get reelected and the deep discontent of the creative underclass with that topdog-loving society infuses much of the material here. This is made crystal clear in the fantastic video the band did for the fist-pumping anthem “This Ain’t No Picnic.” Footage of Reagan the actor as a World War II fighter pilot is used to make it look like he’s strafing the band with machine-gun fire. He finally resorts to bombing but our rock heroes emerge from the rubble, little the worse for wear and still shouting the chorus.

“Our band could be your life,” the opening line from the autobiographical “History Lesson-Part II” (and later used by author Michael Azerrad as the title for his great book about that musical era), at first pass sounds like a boast but stands as a message of solidarity to all those who would come after them. And though the Minutemen would prove to be influential, their own career would come to an end with the tragic death of D. Boon in a van accident just before Christmas 1985. A depressed Watt and Hurley thought about leaving music but were encouraged to return, forming the well-regarded fIREHOSE. Mike Watt in particular has remained active over the next two decades and eventually joined the re-united Stooges in 2003. He’s dedicated every project he’s been involved with to the memory of his childhood friend from San Pedro, where he still resides.

For those who want to see the story of the Minutemen on film, I would recommend the excellent documentary We Jam Econo. I also would, as usual, recommend my own book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above to see a 30-page excerpt.

Make Mine a Double #7: The Kinks’ “Everybody’s in Showbiz” (1972)

“God Save the Kinks” read the buttons and the wall graffiti of a long-ago age. Few other bands earned such a loyal and dogged fan base or needed as much saving (if only from themselves) as did the group from North London led by singer-writer Ray Davies and his lead-guitarist brother Dave. Bursting onto the scene in 1964 with their world-beating power chord prototype “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks went on to produce an impressive string of hits in their homeland while morphing from beat-heavy rockers into piquant social commentators. But the group became almost as well known for their intense in-fighting as they were for songs like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Days,” considered among the most beautiful in the pop cannon. During that late Sixties creative peak, the band were all but forgotten in America while they waited out a four-year ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians after a rancorous1965 tour. Everybody’s in Showbiz was a sort of culmination of their early 70s stateside comeback that started with the #5 hit “Lola” and carried through to this double album. One disc captured their current live act with a Carnegie Hall concert excerpt while the studio half pondered life on the road and negotiated the tricky intersection of celebrity and identity and featured “Celluloid Heroes,” the latest “Kink Klassic” and one of their first explicitly American-themed tunes.

Ray Davies, as the compassionate, ornery and nostalgia-prone leader, had guided the band into adopting a quintessentially English persona, often based on music-hall traditions and a yearning for a pre-industrial age. But as with most British bands, the oversized aura of America’s musical heritage (and vast legions of rock-loving youths) was alluring and inescapable. A couple of years of touring the States was enough to remove the Kinks from the splendid isolation that produced obscure masterworks like Village Green Preservation Society, prompting a new set of lyrical concerns on this album’s studio tracks. Showbiz opens with the restless rocker “Here Comes Yet Another Day” the umpteenth song of that era describing the downside of hectic touring schedules even though Ray can employ his unique descriptive wit to describe just how bad it can get (“no time to comb my hair or even change my underwear”). The theme continues with “Maximum Consumption” wherein the modern musician is likened to a machine-like “high-grade performer” fueled by roadside cuisine—cataloged right down to the anchovies on the pizza and the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie. We’re enlightened to the dubious thrills of “Motorway” living (“never thought I’d travel so far to work”) and go backstage to meet the hangers-on and industry types in “Unreal Reality.” Even Dave, in his sole songwriting contribution here, taps into the same paradox, acknowledging the anonymity sitting just below the surface of stardom in “You Don’t Know My Name.”

The above material, while enjoyable enough, paled in comparison to the group’s recent work and the unfashionable vaudevillian atmosphere (they recently added an old-timey horn section) was just enough to save them from any more mass adulation to contend with. But luckily the studio set also contained a couple of saving graces. The tender depiction of the star qualities of everyday people and the fragile personalities of Hollywood icons in “Celluloid Heroes” was the type of ruminative songwriting that would elevate the group’s status in years to come. At that time, however, RCA didn’t even release it as a single (due in part to its six-minute length) opting instead for the droll utopian escape of “Supersonic Rocket Ship”.


Ray and Dave in action in the early Seventies.

Just as affecting as “Celluloid Heroes,” and more of a revelation for casual fans, is “Sitting in My Hotel.” Like the former song’s view of Hollywood Blvd. as a place where “success walks hand in hand with failure,” here Davies takes stock of the trappings of fame built around the phrase “if my friends could see me now.” They would what? Be green with envy? No, “they would laugh” and say “it’s not really me.” The fancy limo waiting to take the group to the concert is likened to a “chauffeur-driven jam jar” and the posh seventh-floor suite is merely an outpost from which to gaze down at the sensible everyday world and daydream about sunlit June afternoons in the countryside. With its wistful verses and soaring choruses, “Sitting in My Hotel” is one of the more honest and fully realized looks at this age-old subject. It remains especially relevant in an age where even an ignominious turn in the spotlight—being a contestant on a condescending reality TV show, say—has been fetishized beyond all hope.

Given all this ambivalence to fame and life on the road, one might expect a perfunctory live disc but the Kinks come roaring out the gate with a fully-invested performance, notably on the opener “Top of the Pops.” Powered by the double-time drumming of founding member Mick Avory and Dave’s crunching chords and feedback-laced solos, Ray embraces the vicissitudes of impending success with the right mix of ego and bemusement (“I might even end up a rock and roll god/It might turn into a steady job”). Much had been made of the Kinks’ checkered past onstage (especially in John Mendelsohn’s liner notes to the Kink Kronikles compilation, also released in 1972) with the members’ unstable personal chemistry and supposed inebriation being at issue. But here the band is finding its feet (maybe literally) with an act that mixed high-energy rock with snippets of Ray’s innate Cockney theatricality. By this time the band was a must-see item for the counterculture cognoscenti of the Left and Right coasts and the boys didn’t disappoint. The front row of this Carnegie Hall date featured a number of New York’s famous drag queens (Holly Woodlawn and Jayne County among them) that Ray plays up to with fey repartee and snippets of show tunes like “Mr. Wonderful” and “Baby Face.” He gets the whole crowd howling in response to the dramatic re-figuring of “Alcohol,” gloriously milking the woeful gin-soaked tale about the downfall of a middle-class executive as he goes from a life of “prominence and position” to passed out on Skid Row in three easy verses. If the live half of Showbiz has any problem is that it’s top-heavy with several tracks from Muswell Hillbillies, the critically lauded album from the year before. It’s good stuff, but not the smattering of past classics that newbies to the Kinks camp may have hoped for.


The old demon alcohol claims another victim.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Everybody’s in Showbiz touched off a much-debated phase of the Kinks’ career marked by a series of full-blown theatrical productions. While the Preservation, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace shows are fondly remembered by the hardcore fan base that saw them, it seemed the mixed reception these works received were set to forever relegate the band to cult status. But after signing to Clive Davis’ Arista Records in 1977 and agreeing to a more streamlined approach, the Kinks finally got the arena-sized audiences of their old contemporaries like the Stones and the Who. By that time, many of the lovable quirks of this album were very much part of their concert routine, including rapturous readings of “Celluloid Heroes” and the “Day-O” chants and “Lola” sing-alongs that debuted here. It was “God Save the Kinks” for a whole new generation and a run that lasted until the Davies brothers dissolved the family firm in 1996.