I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like

On the face of it, it really makes no sense.

How is it that a 76-year-old man can successfully do what amounts to an aggressive 90aerobics workout while leading his band of septugenarians through a kickass two-hour performance of classic rock and roll?

I saw it, along with 60,000 other Rolling Stones devotees at the Rose Bowl last week, but I wasn’t quite believing what I was seeing.

(Let’s get my age-related joke out of the way right here:  At the merchandise booths before the show, alongside the tongue-and-lips t-shirts and hoodies, I was almost expecting there would be Rolling Stones walkers and canes for sale.  Boom!  I’ll be here all week…)

Seriously, though, if I were Mick Jagger’s doctor, I’m not so sure I would have given him the green light, following heart surgery only three months earlier, to run relentlessly across the stage like the 25-year-old he isn’t anymore.  Then again, Jagger is and has always been his own man, and I don’t imagine he needs anyone’s permission to do whatever he wants, even if it’s just to go down to the Chelsea Drug Store to get a prescription filled.  Clearly, he loves to perform, he wants to perform, and he is still very good at it, so he WILL perform, whether it’s as a street fighting man, a man of wealth and taste, or as a man stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As for his Glimmer Twin, the indestructible human specimen called Keith Richards, he too has the rock and roll gene buried deep in his DNA, but he appeared far less enthusiastic about the need to continue going through his paces on stage.  He was smiling now and then, and just might have been enjoying himself, as he chipped in some p1090321-e1566672054326monster guitar chords just when you thought he might doze off.  But for much of the night, he seemed bored and uncaring, and more than happy to turn over most of the guitar duties to his younger teammate, the 71-year-old Ronnie Wood.

And wow, what a 180-degree difference!  I went home from the show with a revived respect for Wood’s contributions to this band.  He did almost all of the heavy lifting, from some inspired slide guitar playing to quicksilver lead guitar runs, all the while demonstrating an impish playfulness in the way he carried out his assignments.  Not to mention, he’s a lot easier on the eyes than Richards, who looks these days as if he’s wearing a rubber mask that was left out in the sun too long.

Drummer Charlie Watts, meanwhile, was… well, critic Chris Willman from Variety put it beautifully:  “He’s still our darling, sitting at a minimalist kit and moving even more minimally with his casual jazz grip, looking like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”  The 78-year-old guy didn’t appear to even break a sweat as he unfailingly laid down the beat for 20 Stones classics for more than two hours.  Me, I get winded going up a few flights of stairs.

At a stadium show like this one, most people are so far from the stage that they can barely see the performers, and if not for the four truly astounding visual screens that hung behind the stage, they wouldn’t know for sure it was the actual Rolling Stones and not some paid actors.  I beat-opener-stage-bb5-2019-billboard-1500don’t know who the art director is who was responsible for the spectacular graphics and visual content of these displays, but if you ask me, he should be paid as much as Jagger and Company.  The audience (unless you were those fortunate few in the first 30-40 rows) spent the entire evening watching the concert via the screens, and believe it or not, this was not a bad thing.  Unlike the simplistic, average-quality visuals I’ve been forced to watch at many other stadium shows, these were state-of-the-art, presenting the four featured players in as favorable a light as you could possibly imagine.

The camera people didn’t neglect the other musicians who added significant parts to The Stones’ live stage presentation.  Darryl Jones, who has been handling the bass guitar parts in the touring band since original member Bill Wyman’s departure in 1994, had several moments in the spotlight, most notably as he carried the day on an extended rendition of “Miss You.”  Similarly, veteran keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who has toured with not only the Stones but also The Allman Brothers for decades now, offered some integral piano work on crowd-pleasing selections like “She’s a Rainbow” and the anthemic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Most photogenic, though, was 37-year-old Sasha Allen, making her debut appearance in place of long-time touring vocalist Lisa Fischer to belt out backing vocals and, most significantly, the Merry Clayton vocal solo during “Gimme Shelter,” which still sounds as threatening and chilling as the original did 50 years ago.

Those uber-professional screens, by the way, proved to be far better stage accoutrements maxresdefault-28-560x416than the silly cherry pickers and inflatable penises The Stones previously trotted out as concert spectacles.  I had been a witness to both of these laughable visual props at the 1981 “Tattoo You” arena tour and the 1989 “Steel Wheels” stadium tour, respectively, and I can tell you I would have much preferred these quality screen shots of the band members doing their thing.

While the visual presentation is always important (why else go to a concert in the first place?), equally crucial is the song list the band decides to perform.  Most classic rock bands still out there on the road have chosen to play it safe by limiting themselves to the hits everyone supposedly came to hear, and in that regard, The Stones did indeed stick to the tried-and-true standards.

I look at the Stones’ music in four distinct eras.  First there’s the early years (1963-1967), from their humble beginnings covering old blues tunes through their first attempts at writing their own songs, some of which become huge Top 40 hits in the UK and the US alike.  From that period, they offered three tunes at the Rose Bowl show:  the vaguely menacing “Paint it Black,” the flower-power curiosity “She’s a Rainbow” and the most durable war horse of their whole catalog, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Then, there’s the glory years, from their “Beggar’s Banquet” LP in 1968 through “Exile on Main Street” in 1972.  This is when The Stones were truly “the greatest rock and roll band in the world,” especially in the studio, writing and recording some of the most amazing music in rock history.  This period was, as expected, broadly represented at the Pasadena show:  “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter,” “You Got the Silver,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Midnight Rambler,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Brown Sugar,” “Dead Flowers,” “Sweet Virginia” and “Tumbling Dice.”

It was during “Midnight Rambler” that Jagger whipped out his harmonica and helped make that song the winner of my “best moment of the evening” contest, although it won by only a fraction over a mesmerizing, hypnotic “Sympathy for the Devil.”

desert-trip-2016-003The third era of Stones music I’ll describe as the erratic years, when the group’s records meandered between average ambivalence (“Goat’s Head Soup,” “Black and Blue”) and meaty masterpieces (“Some Girls,” “Tattoo You”), and this wild swing in quality was a frustrating time for Stones fans.  From this period (1973-1986), last week’s show included only three selections:  The not-to-be-denied disco stomp “Miss You,” Richards’ defiant “Before They Make Me Run” and their final #1 hit single, 1981’s “Start Me Up.”

The fourth era, if you can even call it an era, is everything from 1989 to the present.  It’s a pretty lame 30-year stretch that included just four LPs, and only one of those (“Steel Wheels”) was anywhere close to the high standards they’d laid down in their best days.  Not surprisingly, we heard only one track from this period, the so-so “You Got Me Rocking.”  (Wouldn’t “A Rock and a Hard Place” have been a better choice?)

When you analyze the setlist in this way, it’s clear to see that The Rolling Stones in 2019 choose to present themselves pretty much as The Rolling Stones of 1969 or so, concentrating on the finest songs they ever wrote.  And why not?  I mean, hey, if they’re going to continue to tour well into their 70s, they might as well put their best cards on the table.  The audience, largely made up of longtime fans also in their grey-haired years, wants to hear the songs they know and love best.

Me, I’m a rock writer and veteran rock-concert attendee, and I would’ve frankly preferred to hear a few more of the less obvious choices. I guess they did go out on a limb when they moved down the catwalk to sit down and try their hand at “unplugged” tunes like “Sweet Virginia” and “Dead Flowers.”  But I don’t know, it seems to me they could have taken a chance or two with the set list during the meat of the program. Maybe drop “Honky Tony Woman” and make room for “Monkey Man” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.”  Or even go deep and offer up “Respectable,” or “Too Much Blood,” or “Slave.”

images-59Understand, I’m not complaining.  It was fun to hear Jagger make references to L.A. landmarks and neighborhoods like “Thursday night’s turtle races at Brennan’s” (in Marina Del Rey), or unsuccessfully searching for their star on Hollywood Boulevard (inexplicably, there isn’t one, guys), or being unable to get a reservation at Spago’s (it’s been closed since 2001).  And we were all reminded of our mortality when he said it has been 55 years since The Stones’ first Los Angeles concert, and 25 years since they’d last played the Rose Bowl.

I was thoroughly entertained, and who knows if these guys will still have enough in the tank to show up in town again four or five years from now for another go round.  If so, I suspect I’ll be here, “just waitin’ on a friend.”

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The Spotify playlist below offers the songs from the August 22nd Rose Bowl show in the order they were played, followed by a few other gems from their catalog I would have loved to have heard…

 

 

 

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Sitting back trying to recapture old days

It’s “lost classics” time again, as I take another deep dive into albums and singles from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

There was so much great music made back then, and only a fraction of it ever ended up on the radio or the top reaches of the sales charts.  The rest went under the radar of most record_collection_672_x_377_1024x1024folks.  Hack’s Back Pages is here to remedy that situation.

I find it a labor of love to listen to my LPs and CDs from days of yore, searching to find lost classic songs that you may have forgotten all about, or perhaps have never heard until I brought them out into the light to savor now for the first time.

As I customarily do, I have provided a playlist via Spotify so you can hear the songs as you read about them.  I hope you enjoy them!

Rock on!

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“The Nightfly,” Donald Fagen, 1982

Donald_Fagen_-_The_Nightfly-1Steely Dan went on hiatus after their seventh LP, 1980’s “Gaucho,” primarily because co-founder Walter Becker was struggling with personal issues.  His partner Donald Fagen stayed busy writing a cycle of songs that paid tribute to his recollections of growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s.  The album, “The Nightfly,” sounds every bit like a Steely Dan record, thanks to Fagen’s vocals and jazz-pop arrangements, and it earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.  The single, “I.G.Y.,” reached #26.  I’ve always enjoyed the title track, which centers on Fagen’s memories of a hip disc jockey at an all-night jazz station he used to listen to when he found rock ‘n roll had become too repetitive:  “An independent station, WJAZ, with jazz and conversation from the foot of Mt. Belzoni, sweet music, tonight the night is mine, late line till the sun comes through the skylight…”

“Tenderness on the Block,” Warren Zevon, 1978

LLZevon was highly praised as a songwriter of strange, macabre pop songs with deadpan humorous lyrics, and when he teamed up with L.A. wonder boy Jackson Browne in 1978 on his major-label debut, “Excitable Boy,” the result was both commercial success and critical acclaim.  “Werewolves of London” and the title track may have received most of the airplay, but I found tracks like “Tenderness on the Block” (co-written by Browne) the most appealing.  Savvy lyrics about a teenage girl trying to find her way in a challenging world make it one of the standout tracks in Zevon’s catalog:  “She’s all grown up, she has a young man waiting, she was wide-eyed, now she’s street-wise to the lies and the jive talk, she’ll find true love and tenderness on the block …”

“Take It As It Comes,” The Doors, 1967

220px-TheDoorsTheDoorsalbumcoverThere are very few bands in the history of rock who came exploding out of the blocks with a masterpiece on their very first try, and The Doors are one of them.  In addition to the anthemic  “Light My Fire” and the ferocious “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” the album runneth over with one great song after another:  “The Crystal Ship,” “Back Door Man,” “20th Century Fox,” “Soul Kitchen” and the terrifying finale “The End.”  Easily overlooked is the penultimate track, “Take It As It Comes,” with Jim Morrison’s vocals alternately sweet on the verses and fierce on the choruses.  Keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore (and an uncredited Larry Knechtel on bass) played like a tightly oiled machine on this and every track.

“Lovers’ Day,” ‘Til Tuesday, 1986

51x216Uff6L._SY355_One of the best songwriters of the ’80s/’90s was Aimee Mann, who spearheaded the alternative rock band ‘Til Tuesday through the 1985-1989 period before she went solo.  The band won Best New Artist at the MTV awards in 1986 on the strength of their #8 hit “Voices Carry.”  On the group’s second LP, the excellent “Welcome Home,” Mann wrote several songs that veered more toward mainstream pop (“Coming Up Close,” “Will She Just Fall Down”).  One track, the mesmerizing “Lovers’ Day,” harkened back to the New Wave-ish debut LP, with lyrics that drove home the reality that “there’s no way to betray and still be true.”

“Supertwister,” Camel, 1974

192562094198-cover-zoomThis British progressive rock group, which dabbled in rock, folk, jazz and classical, played largely instrumental songs written by guitarist Andrew Latimer and keyboardist Peter Bardens.  The group never caught on much in the US, but English fans loved them, putting six of Camel’s first eight LPs into the Top 40 on the UK album charts, beginning with 1975’s impressive “The Snow Goose.”  Just before that LP came “Mirage,” which was very popular on West Coast FM stations.  One lively track, “Supertwister,” offers some dazzling flute work by Latimer that’s reminiscent of mid-’70s-era Jethro Tull.

“Trouble Man,” Marvin Gaye, 1972

marvingaye_troubleman12_89taWhen Marvin Gaye’s name comes up, many people gravitate to the many outstanding hits he churned out as a leader of Motown Records’ stable of recording artists in the 1960s, tracks like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” and duets like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “It Takes Two.”  Others linger on Gaye’s brilliant early ’70s anthems like “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me.”  Sometimes forgotten is a track like 1972’s “Trouble Man,” a dreamy piece written and recorded by Gaye for the somewhat cheesy crime drama film of the same name.  The song actually charted well, reaching #7 in early 1973, but you don’t hear it much anymore.  Until now.

“Train in the Distance,” Paul Simon, 1983

R-3188782-1319723769.jpegFollowing the unqualified success of the 1981 reunion event, “Simon & Garfunkel:  The Concert in Central Park,” the duo headed into the studio to collaborate on a new S&G studio LP, their first since 1970’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  Garfunkel provided vocal harmonies to a handful of tracks before the duo had an acrimonious split (again), and Simon went on to develop ten songs as his next solo album, 1983’s “Hearts and Bones.”  A favorite from this mostly overlooked Simon project is “Train in the Distance,” one of three songs that delve into Simon’s short, stormy marriage to actress Carrie Fisher:  “Two disappointed believers, two people playing the game, negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one in the same, everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks it’s true…”

“King of Hollywood,” The Eagles, 1979

220px-The_Eagles_The_Long_RunComing up with a worthy follow-up to the mega-success of “Hotel California” proved an arduous task for The Eagles, particularly songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey.  They admitted that tour burnout and excessive coke use brought on a case of writer’s block that delayed recording sessions for many months.  Perhaps the best track that emerged on the final product, 1979’s “The Long Run,” was the Henley-Frey collaboration “King of Hollywood,” which criticized movie and record producers for their demands for sexual favors from struggling actresses and artists.  This one could’ve been about Harvey Weinstein:  “Now look at me and tell me, darlin’, how badly do you want this part?  Are you willing to sacrifice? And are you willing to be real nice? All your talent and my good taste, I’d hate to see it go to waste…”

“Fat Lip,” Robert Plant, 1982

1200x1200bbAll eyes were on Plant when he made his solo debut on the first post-Led Zeppelin album, “Pictures at Eleven,” in 1982.  Guitarist Robbie Blunt had big shoes to fill, and he contributed admirably with strong guitar riffs and helped Plant write the bulk of the songs.  The singles released from the album — “Burning Down One Side” and “Pledge Pin” — fared well on US Mainstream Rock stations but stiffed on the pop charts.  I think the better choice would’ve been “Fat Lip,” which offers an almost pop sensibility set against some Zep-like vocal acrobatics from Plant.

“Michelle’s Song,” Elton John, 1971

41LdDSwOU2LThe prolific songwriting team of lyricist Bernie Taupin and Elton John cranked out several dozen great songs in their early years together, most of which turned up on Elton’s debut LP (1969’s “Empty Sky”), the phenomenal “Elton John” album and the concept LP “Tumbleweed Connection,” both in 1970.  During that period, John and Taupin had also agreed to write songs for an obscure little French film called “Friends,” about a young pair of neglected teens who ran away to the French countryside, had a baby and attempted to start a life together.  The title song “Friends” was a minor hit with a wonderful sentiment (“If your friends are there, then everything’s all right”), but another tune from the film soundtrack I have always loved is “Michelle’s Song,” with a gorgeous melody line and a chorus that soars.

“The Lee Shore,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1971

913m0mfP6AL._SL1425_Following the March 1970 release of “Deja Vu,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were pretty much the hottest band in the country, with hits like “Teach Your Children” and the ripped-from-the-headlines “Ohio” on the charts as they toured the land.  Sadly, their egos and jealousies proved to be insurmountable obstacles, and they broke up only three months later.  In the fall of 1971, Atlantic Records released “Four-Way Street,” a double live album of acoustic and electric performances culled from that shortened tour.  Some tracks exposed how ragged their harmonies could be in a concert setting, but others were true diamonds in the rough.  The best, I think, is Crosby’s stunning, previously unreleased “The Lee Shore,” with just Crosby and Nash weaving a delicate harmonic web.

“Light Shine,” Jesse Colin Young, 1974

R-9281118-1477867152-2367.jpegIn the late ’60s, Jesse Colin Young and Jerry Corbitt co-founded The Youngbloods, a folk rock act that had success with the Chet Powers song “Get Together” (“Come on people now, smile on your brother…”) which became a bellwether of the Woodstock generation.  Young soon went solo and established himself as a superior songwriter and arranger of light pop/jazz tunes like “Ridgetop,” “California Child” and “Songbird.”  The title song from Young’s 1974 LP “Light Shine” picks up where “Get Together” left off, radiating positive vibes with lyrics that encourage peace, kindness and love:  “We all got a light inside, people how can we survive if we don’t let it shine on all night and day, you know the world is dark with fear, people scared to let you near, they need you to shine on, shine on all day…”

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