As we take our stand down in Jungleland

This is the fourth in a series of posts that will feature detailed analysis and commentary of some of my all-time favorite albums.

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One of life’s true delights for rock music fans is to discover an up-and-coming artist before the rest of the world catches on.  In the summer of 1975, it happened to me, and I still get chills more than 40 years later when I think about my earliest encounters with

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The E Street Band, 1973:  Clarence Clemons, Springsteen, David Sancious (piano), Vini Lopez (drums), Danny Federici, Garry Tallent

the music of Bruce Springsteen.

I was 20, just returned home to Cleveland after sophomore year of college.  I invited several friends over and asked each one to bring an album they’d turned on to over the previous six months.  Each took turns playing the best tracks from albums by a variety of great bands.

Then my friend Carp stepped up.  “You’ve all had your turn,” he said.  “Now get a load of this.”  He lowered the needle on “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” the second song on Side Two of “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.”  Seven minutes later, we all had to pick our jaws up off the floor, totally blown away by the sheer exuberance of what we’d just heard.

Finally, I managed to say, “Holy shit!  Is the whole album that good?!”  He flipped the LP over and cranked the volume on another epic piece entitled “Kitty’s Back.”  I was totally won over.  I ran to the store the next day and bought my own copy, and found another Springsteen LP there — the earlier debut, “Greetings From Asbury Park” — and bought that as well.

From that day forward, I was a disciple of Bruce.

Why had I never heard of him before this?  I learned that he was a Jersey boy, a working-class rocker with a passion for meaty rock and sweaty soul, but curiously, neither of his records had sold well.  He had, however, built a solid reputation in certain East Coast pockets and among critics, who uniformly maintained, “You gotta see him live!”

Maybe so, but I was totally taken with his records.  The first LP had some stellar moments — the wise-beyond-its-years “Growin’ Up,” the scrappy “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” the sensual “Spirit in the Night” and the sax-driven “Blinded By the Light” — but The-Wild-The-Innocent--th-017“The Wild, the Innocent” was really special, full of poetic images of romance and longing, great melodies and nearly operatic arrangements.

As Springsteen would say in his 2016 autobiography, “In 1973, I had to have songs that could capture audiences who had no idea who I was.  As an opening act then, I didn’t have much time to make an impact.  I wrote several long, wild pieces that were basically the soul children of the lengthy prog rock music I’d written with Steel Mill (an early band he led).  They were arranged to leave the band and the audience exhausted and gasping for breath.  Just when you thought the song was over, you’d be surprised by another section, taking the music higher.  It was what I’d taken from the finales of the great soul revues.  I tried to match their ferocious fervor.”

He recalled some of the album tracks this way:  “‘Kitty’s Back’ was a remnant of some of the jazz-tinged rock I occasionally played with a few of my earlier bands.  It was a twisted swing tune, a shuffle, a distorted piece of big band music…  ‘Rosalita’ was my musical autobiography up to that point.  I wrote it as a kiss-off to everyone who counted you out, put you down, or decided you weren’t good enough…  ‘Sandy’ was a composite of girls I’d known along the Jersey Shore, and I used the boardwalk and the closing down of the town as a metaphor for the end of a summer romance.”

Two songs — the marvelous “Incident on 57th Street” and the 10-minute strings-and-piano opus “New York City Serenade” — were dynamic stories of young love in The Big Apple, “a place that had been my getaway from small-town New Jersey since I was 16.”  (Another lengthy piece in the “Rosalita” vein was the rollicking “Thundercrack,” which didn’t make 120618051022-bruce-springsteen-19-horizontal-large-gallerythe final cut from the album but was eventually released in 2000 on his “Tracks” box set, and is included in the Spotify playlist below.)

Meanwhile, in spring 1975, Springsteen and his group, The E Street Band, were hard at work on their make-it-or-break-it third album, and the title track, “Born to Run,” a mini-symphony of rock perfection, had been advanced as an unauthorized single to sympathetic markets.  In Cleveland, we were blessed with one of the nation’s finest rock music radio stations, WMMS-FM, where savvy DJs treated us to fantastic new artists well before other cities played them.  One was Springsteen, and the afternoon DJ Kid Leo made a habit of playing  “Born to Run” every Friday at 5:55 pm to close out the work week.

It was an instant anthem, with a Phil Spector-like layered arrangement, a relentless full-band sound, and desperate lyrics about getting the hell out of town and “wanting to know if love is real”:  “Baby, this town rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we’re young, ’cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run…”

As Springsteen put it, “I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, the last one you’d ever need to hear.  It used classic rock ‘n’ roll images — the road, the car, the girl — but to make them matter, I knew I had to shape them into something

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The E Street Band, 1975:  Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, Clarence Clemons, Springsteen, Max Weinberg, Steve Van Zandt, Roy Bittan

fresh.  It took six months to write, slowly, searching for words I could stand to sing.  Then we struggled for a while to make what worked so well on stage get properly recorded in the studio.”

He was broke, he was on borrowed time, and he pushed his band to the limit.  He severely tested his friendships with longtime friends Garry Tallent on bass, Danny Federici on organ, Steve Van Zandt on guitar and Clarence Clemons on sax.  New members Roy Bittan on piano and Max Weinberg on drums must’ve wondered what the hell they’d signed up for.

The finished album, “Born to Run,” is one of a handful of rock albums that can truly be called a masterpiece.  To my ears, there’s not a wrong note, not a weak lyric, not a single moment you wish was recorded differently.  Indeed, it’s difficult to pick the best tracks, because they comprise a song cycle that segues beautifully, “a series of vignettes taking place during one long summer day and night,” as Springsteen put it.

220px-Born_to_Run_(Front_Cover)Let’s let the songwriter tell the story:  “‘Thunder Road’ introduces the album’s central characters and its main proposition:  Do you want to take a chance?  It lays out the stakes you’re playing for and sets a high bar for the action to come.  Then comes ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,’ the story of a rock ‘n’ soul band and our full-on block party.  Pedal to the metal, we steam into ‘Night,’ followed by the stately piano, organ and broken friendships of ‘Backstreets.’  Side top opens with the wide-screen rumble of ‘Born to Run,’ sequenced dead in the middle of the record, anchoring all that comes before and after.  Then the Bo Diddley beat of ‘She’s the One’ before we cut to the trumpet of Michael Brecker as dusk falls and we head through the tunnel for ‘Meeting Across the River.’  From there, it’s the night, the city and the spiritual battleground of ‘Jungleland’ as the band works through musical movement after musical movement, culminating in Clarence Clemons’s greatest recorded moment, that solo.  The knife-in-the-back wail of my vocal outro, the last sound you hear, finishes it all in bloody operatic glory.”

Wow.  I’ve loved every second of this record from the day I bought it, but hearing Springsteen describe the songs like that helps me see the whole package with a new perspective.  Just brilliant.

Let’s not forget the inspired album cover, which, truth be told, is best viewed when you Born+to+Run+gatefold+coveropen it to reveal the front and back cover together in one iconic photograph.  It established Clemons as “The Big Man,” Springsteen’s second in command, on record and in concert, and cemented the twosome’s friendship and partnership in a very public way.

To top off my indoctrination into the World of Bruce, I was fortunate enough to see the band in concert in a 3,000-seat hall in Cleveland on August 10, 1975, just two weeks before the release of the “Born to Run” LP, and six weeks before he appeared screen-shot-2015-02-05-at-9-41-53-amsimultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines.  I felt as if I’d been admitted to a special club, like I’d bought stock in Springsteen just before it went through the roof.

The critics were right.  Springsteen in concert was exponentially more exciting than the tremendous albums.

A lengthy contractual dispute kept him out of the studio for more than two years after that, hurting his career momentum somewhat, but he came roaring back in 1978 with the powerful, hard-edged “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”  Some Bruce fans I know (including my wife) prefer “Darkness” over “E Street Shuffle,” but she’s five years younger and related more to the later album because it came out as she was graduating high school.  I like the album fine, certainly better than the bloated double effort “The River” in 1980, or really, just about anything since then.

300aaaSpringsteen, one of the most prolific songwriters rock has ever seen, has put together an extraordinary body of work, including many dozens of songs recorded throughout his career that didn’t see release until decades after they were recorded.  There are songs on every single album that are worthy of your attention.  But for me, he was never better than when he was young and hungry, embracing a do-or-die attitude, trying to go “on a last chance power drive.”

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The Spotify playlist below, in addition to every track from “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” and “Born to Run,” includes four bonus tracks.  “Zero and Blind Terry,” “Thundercrack” and “The Fever” were recorded in 1973 and slated for “E Street Shuffle” but didn’t make the final cut.  (“The Fever” was one of several songs Springsteen gave to his friend Johnny Lyon for use on the 1976 debut LP of his band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, “I Don’t Want to Go Home.”)  “So Young and in Love” from 1974 was originally supposed to follow “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” on “Born to Run,” but Springsteen ultimately nixed it.  All these tracks can be found on either the “Tracks” box set or the abridged version of the same package.

 

 

 

 

 

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Really don’t mind if you sit this one out

This is the third in a series of posts that will feature detailed analyses of some of my all-time favorite albums.

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My first encounter with the music of Jethro Tull was when I heard their debut LP, presciently titled “This Was,” in a Cleveland record store in 1969.  It offered a quirky mix of straight blues, rock, jazz, drum solos and, most of all, an ever-present flute played by a wild-looking dude named Ian Anderson.  A more refined, melodic sound followed with jethro-tull_1972their excellent second effort, “Stand Up,” and then their hardest rocking LP yet, “Benefit.”  These three early Tull albums charted well in their native UK (indeed, “Stand Up” reached #1 there), but in the US, the band remained mostly a warm-up act for bigger bands.

That all changed dramatically in 1971 with the release of the superb “Aqualung,” an eclectic collection of hard rock classics with intermittent acoustic folk numbers to keep everyone guessing.  Anderson wrote all of it, music and lyrics, peppering nearly every track with amazing flute passages, and anchoring everything with an unusual, commanding vocal presence.

This album rarely left my turntable for the first six months I owned it.  From the haunting “My God” to the gentle “Wond’ring Aloud,” Tull’s music thrilled and soothed me, and totally fascinated me.

220px-JethroTullAqualungalbumcoverNearly 50 years later, the title track remains one of the linchpins of classic rock radio, carried by what rock writer Dave Weigel called “the greatest six-note opening riff in the pantheon of rock music.”  The song — which, like the album overall, alternates between aggressive rock and delicate folk parts — tells the tale of a homeless man trying to stay warm as another England winter approaches.  The album cover art (front and back) emphatically drives home the compelling image of this street person, alternately threatening and pitiable.

Because three tracks — “My God,” “Hymn 43” and “Wind Up” — feature lyrics that focus on Anderson’s contempt for organized religion, the “Aqualung” LP has widely been regarded as a concept album, which Anderson has always denied.  “A concept album, in my view, aqualung22would have to be a complete song cycle in which all the songs relate to a central theme.  More than half of these songs have nothing to do with religion or God.”  Nevertheless, critics regarded it as “one of the most cerebral albums ever to reach millions of rock music listeners.”

While it’s true that Anderson has always been the dominant center of Tull’s music, the contributions from the other band members mustn’t go unheralded.  In particular, lead guitarist Martin Barre weighs in with one of rock’s greatest solos in the middle break of “Aqualung,” and keyboardist John Evan provides classical and jazz influences throughout, particularly on “Locomotive Breath” and “Wind Up.”

As Tull fever finally caught on in America, the band became headliners, touring relentlessly in the US and elsewhere.  FM stations regularly played “Aqualung” album taab72tracks, and revisited the earlier LPs as well.  (Top 40 stations all but ignored Tull, except for the few pop tracks in their catalog like 1972’s “Living in the Past” and 1974’s “Bungle in the Jungle”).

It was at this point in the band’s development that Anderson, both amused and annoyed about “Aqualung”‘s concept-album tag, decided to undertake a massive project.  “They want a concept album, do they?  Well, let’s give them the mother of all concept albums!”

That album would be “Thick as a Brick,” a groundbreaking, 45-minute piece of music spread over both sides of the LP.  The centerpiece of the new work was a lengthy poem Anderson wrote that explored all sorts of topics from father-son conflicts to ineffective government.

It’s interesting to note that Anderson and his bandmates had been big fans of the bizarre humor of the influential British comedy troupe Monty Python, and that fondness for parody informed the album and its concert performances in a substantial way.

“Monty Python lampooned the British way of life,” says Anderson. “Yet they did it in such a way that made us all laugh while celebrating it.  To me, that’s what we as a band did on thick-as-a-brick-cover‘Thick as a Brick.’  We were spoofing the idea of the concept album, but in a fun way that didn’t totally mock it.”

The album cover unfolded to become a 12-page newspaper, full of strange articles and farcical features typical of local British papers of the day.  On page one, there was mention of how an “epic poem,” ostensibly written by a precocious 12-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock, had caused a stir in the community.  Of course, this was merely a fictitious character created in fun by Anderson himself.

The real challenge of the project was for Anderson and the band — guitarist Barre, keyboardist Evan, bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, drummer Barriemore Barlow and string/brass arranger David Palmer — to create this musical behemoth.  “I suppose I have to admit that I really imposed the whole idea on the other guys,” Anderson recalled.  “But, for whatever reason, they went along with it, and actually warmed to the task once we got into it.”

“It’s only in recent times that I’ve appreciated how complex the music is,” admits Anderson.  “I was only 24 at the time we began to put this together.  Yet there are so many weird time changes and musical innovations on the album.  I would venture to say that what we were striving for was more sophisticated than the usual riff rockers you’d find on the scene, and certainly more involved than anything we’d done before.”

p19dlqa12m1knbhsi1pm213bppf83Anderson’s method of composing would be to write a three- or four-minute section, then bring it to the band to arrange and rehearse the next day.  Then he’d write the next section, and the band would arrange and rehearse that, then play everything cumulatively.  The piece went through more than a dozen passages, segueing one into the other, sometimes referring back to previous sections or lyrical phrasings.  After about six weeks of intense work, the recording sessions for the opus were completed, and the album was unleashed on unsuspecting audiences on the radio and in concert.

In light of my infatuation with “Aqualung,” I ran to the store and bought “Brick” on the day of release.  My initial reaction?  Puzzled.  Overwhelmed.  Intrigued, but disappointed.  It simply seemed to be a bit too much to chew on.

But it’s always been my experience that the best albums, the albums that last, the albums that continue to satisfy many years later, are the ones that take a little while to grow on you.  “Thick as a Brick” is perhaps the best example of this.

The opening passage, which was sometimes played as a separate “song” on the radio, was immediately likable, and wouldn’t have been out of place on “Aqualung.”  Subsequent 635960663201743212-721024-03sections took longer to assimilate, and maybe one or two seemed too jarring and out of place.  But over the course of 1972 and into 1973, I became so obsessed with the album that it evolved into what I consider today as my very favorite of all.

If you listen to the Spotify playlist at the end of this essay, you’ll find that “Thick as a Brick” is now available as eight separate tracks of five or six minutes each (“The Poet and the Painter,” “Tales of Your Life,” “See There a Son is Born,” and so on), which might make it more easy to digest, especially upon first listening.  Still, the tracks flow seamlessly from one to the next so it can be heard in the way it was originally intended.

Shockingly, this difficult-to-absorb LP reached #1 on Billboard’s Top Albums chart.  “I must admit to being a little surprised that we got to the top of the charts over there,” says Anderson. “But everything had been building for us.  ‘Aqualung’ sold steadily, so either ‘Thick as a Brick’ was going to take off, or we’d just sink.  However, I’m not sure our American fans fully understood the humor behind our live performance on the subsequent tour.”

Indeed, the band opened each show with “Brick,” and the live version — complete with ringing telephone interruptions, a scuba diver traipsing across the stage, and other Python-esque touches — clocked in at over an hour.  Upon completion of the lengthy piece, Anderson would say, “And now, for our second number…”

Some critics regard “Thick as a Brick” to be the ultimate progressive rock album, and Anderson replies, “Well, a job done, I’d say.  We set out to make the mother of all concept records, and if that’s the way people see the album after all these years, then we achieved the ambition.”

I mustn’t fail to mention that Tull followed up “Brick” with another daunting 45-minute piece of music, “A Passion Play,” in 1973.  Incredibly, it too reached #1 in the US, but critics turned on the group, finding the album pretentious and unpleasant.  I strongly disagree; its subject matter — the afterlife — is darker than “Brick,” and there are some ddc93ea64b7edd8e2579de128721bglaringly abrupt transitions between sections.  But like “Brick,” “A Passion Play” is well worth your time if you give it a chance.  The musicianship is phenomenal.

While I acknowledge that Jethro Tull’s oeuvre is not everyone’s cup of tea, I firmly stand in the band’s camp.  Anderson, of course, is best known as “the pied piper of rock” for his spectacular flute playing, but I would argue that Anderson’s songwriting is even more impressive, and ranks among the very best in rock.  Although Tull is considered to be in the “prog rock” genre that includes Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, I submit that Tull’s music has always been much more than that.  It includes Elizabethan madrigals, hard rock, Celtic ballads, basic blues, classical motifs and even psychedelic moments and straight pop.  Two dozen studio LPs, several live albums and a few box sets over 40-plus years, and I find damn near all of it to be worthy of your attention.

But start with “Aqualung” and “Thick as a Brick.”