Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream

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

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Just about every list of all-time favorite albums I’ve ever seen includes at least one LP by The Beatles.  I mean, come on.  If you can’t name one of their 13 incredible studio albums as one of your favorites, let’s face it, there’s something wrong with your musical judgment.

images-39As a Beatles fanatic for more than 50 years, I concluded that there’s no way my list can be limited to only one, or two, or even three of their albums.

Among my Top 50 LPs, I have concluded that there are four masterpieces by The Beatles that rank among my all-time classics.  And you may be surprised to hear that the revered “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is not one of them.

It’s a landmark work, no question about it, what with “A Day in the Life” as its iconic finale and all.  But I think some, even most, of the tracks sound a bit dated these days.  They reek of The Summer of Love and that very identifiable period of time, and to my ears, they don’t stand up as well as some of their contemporaneous Beatles tunes.

I submit that the two albums before and after “Pepper” are far more interesting, more diverse, more inventive, more lasting in their sheer excellence.

Before I get to the four LPs in question, a few words about the band’s early recordings (and I’m speaking of their work in terms of their British albums, as they were intended, rather than the bastardizations released in the U.S., where sequence orders were changed and songs were removed and/or substituted against the artists’ wishes, until 1967).

The Beatles’ albums of 1963, 1964 and 1965 constituted a period in their professional pic_20141020164256_x6y6r0k25ujlives — particularly the songwriting careers of John Lennon and Paul McCartney — when their music was, by and large, simple and joyous, a huge breeze of fresh air that helped transform the popular music scene in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.  It was especially catchy and eminently danceable, and it got into your bloodstream and made you want to get up and shout.

And I totally loved it.  The originals like “All My Loving,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “You Can’t Do That,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I’ll Be Back,” “She’s a Woman,” “I’m a Loser,” “Help!” and “Ticket to Ride” showed an uncommon and consistent knack for hooks, harmonies and arrangements.  Arguably just as exciting were their covers of earlier rock classics — “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Money,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Twist and Shout,” “Kansas City,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Rock and Roll Music,” Dizzy Miss Lizzie.”

But beginning with the stunning music on “Rubber Soul,” The Beatles entered a new phase that could be characterized as a quantum leap.  Their songs offered more original_450challenging melody lines, more sophisticated arrangements, and lyrics that often went beyond the customary love-and-romance topics.  It was the beginning of the demarcation between their celebrity live act as The Fab Four and their more mature ambitions as recording artists.

You needn’t look further than two tunes that were primarily the work of Lennon:  “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life.”  To this day, these tracks make me stop in my tracks whenever I hear them.  The words to “In My Life” are almost effortlessly timeless (I just heard it used as a “first dance” at a wedding last month), and the intriguing story of “Norwegian Wood” is purposely left open to interpretation, something new for a Beatles lyric at that point.

And now you could hear a sitar, for crying out loud, and a piano sped up in the studio to resemble a harpsichord.  McCartney’s new solid-body bass guitar brought forth new creativity in bass lines, including fuzz tone (“Think for Yourself”), and George Harrison began playing a Fender Stratocaster for the first time (“Nowhere Man”).  All three guitarists started using capos on their acoustic guitar-based numbers to raise their pitch as they slowed their music’s tempo (“Girl,” “Michelle,” “If I Needed Someone”).

11071McCartney has mentioned being inspired by the triad harmonies and jangly guitars of the Byrds and other American folk-rock bands, as well as the vibrant soul and R&B coming from Stax and Motown artists throughout 1965.  Songs like “Drive My Car,” “Wait,” “I’m Looking Through You” and the early peace-movement anthem “The Word” clearly reflect these influences.  At the same time, the band’s frequent use of marijuana had increased that year, broadening their palettes, imaginations and artistic interests.

I was only ten years old and didn’t really understand all that yet, but I still found the music simply irresistible.  My older sister had been a Beatlemaniac, but “Rubber Soul” was to be the last Beatles album she bought.  As the band continued to branch out and experiment with genres, instrumentation and lyrical subject matter in the ensuing years, she was among those who felt abandoned by the group they’d once adored.  Me?  Man, I was just getting started!

In the summer of 1966, The Beatles were coming to the realization that touring had become a dead end for them.  They sounded pretty bad on stage, when you could hear them at all over the din of the screaming crowds, and they were both bored and frightened by the need for constant security from the lunatic fringe.

Concurrent with their early use of psychedelics, The Beatles had discovered their love for revolverthe recording studio and its seemingly infinite possibilities, encouraged by producer George Martin and facilitated by engineer Geoff Emerick to come up with new sounds, new techniques, new sonic landscapes that couldn’t be (and weren’t meant to be) duplicated in concert anyway.

 

The apex of this recording studio wizardry, even more than “Pepper” a year later, was “Revolver,” a whirlwind of 14 daring compositions that showed a truly remarkable ability to blend rock, Indian raga, straight pop, children’s rhymes, psychedelia, ballads and more into a cohesive whole that they really never equalled again.

Previously, The Beatles’ songs had been composed and imagined prior to entering the studio, but by this point, some tracks were created, layered and pieced together almost accidentally from only the roughest of ideas.  Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” an astounding departure from all Beatles tracks that preceded it, is based on one note, on top of which Lennon envisioned “a thousand Tibetan monks chanting.”  McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” originally conceived as a piano-based tune about a solitary old woman, evolved into a portrait about death, brought forth through the use of a “Psycho”-like string quartet and chilling harmonies singing in a minor key.

Harrison’s “Love You To” marks the band’s first foray into Eastern sounds, and it’s admittedly an acquired taste, but his other two contributions, “Taxman” and “I Want to images-35Tell You,” rock out as hard as almost anything in their catalog, thanks to some fine bass work and drum fills from McCartney and drummer Ringo Starr.

The yin-yang of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting axis, which had become evident with singles like “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out,” was on full display on “Revolver.”  I am mesmerized by Lennon’s harsh guitar-driven “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert,” and the half-awake feeling evoked on “I’m Only Sleeping.”  On the flip side, there are two of McCartney’s loveliest ballads, “Here, There and Everywhere” and “For No One,” and an amazing blast of Motown-like horns that drive “Got to Get You Into My Life.”  Good God, so much great music here!

…Two years later, much had changed.  Albums were about to overtake singles as the dominant music delivery format.  The Beatles manager Brian Epstein had died, and with no one to fill the void, the group’s ship had been foundering.   The establishing of Apple Corps with a new record label and other diversified businesses — but no one really 4Images_Colourqualified to run them — brought chaos and a drain on finances.  Most important, each Beatle was becoming more of an individual with priorities that often conflicted and/or superseded the band’s overall interests.  Prime case in point:  Yoko Ono.

Still, in that tempestuous environment of 1968, the artistry of The Beatles somehow continued to grow.  Their three-month retreat to India for immersion in transcendental meditation had proved to be fertile ground for their songwriting proclivities, resulting in nearly 30 new songs as they reconvened in the studio that summer.  Martin urged them to be selective and pick the best 14 or 15 songs and make a really great single LP, but Lennon’s and McCartney’s (and Harrisons’s) egos wouldn’t budge.  They wanted to record them all and release them as a double album, which would be entitled “The Beatles” but, thanks to its stark white cover, would immediately be dubbed “The White Album.”

I was 13 by then, and I remember being (like most people, I reckon) overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new music.  If “Revolver” was diverse, “The White Album” was virtually 602567571339encyclopedic in its coverage of musical styles:  quasi-reggae (“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”), country-western (“Don’t Pass Me By”), early heavy metal (“Helter Skelter”), raw blues (“Yer Blues”), proto-punk (“Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”), solid rock (“Back in the USSR”), avant-garde sound montage (“Revolution 9”), even 1920s music hall (“Honey Pie”).

More than ever before, the tracks sounded less like group collaborations.  Indeed, some songs were virtually solo works.  “Martha My Dear,” “I Will,” “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son” feature McCartney alone on acoustic guitar or piano with no instrumental or vocal help from anyone else.  In that same manner, Lennon performed solo on “Julia.”  The nose-to-nose songwriting the duo had once done was pretty much absent.  Instead, each man’s songs had the unmistakable trademarks of their author — Lennon’s wordplay and biting vocals, McCartney’s jaunty melodies and pop sensibility.

But you know what?  It worked, and it worked because when they put their heads 640x640_9609281together on a take to play, the result was often spectacular.  Check out the coalescing of Beatle talent heard on Harrison’s finest moment, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (which also includes an uncredited guitar part by Eric Clapton, by the way).  Or the beautiful cacophony of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey.”  Or the shimmering melody/guitar/vocal of “Dear Prudence.”  Or the rollicking good fun of “Birthday.”  Or the luscious slow groove behind the album version of “Revolution 1.”

And so far, I’ve mentioned only half the tunes here.  It really was an embarrassment of riches.  McCartney’s “Rocky Raccoon” never fails to please, and Lennon’s three-songs-in-one “Happiness is a Warm Gun” ranks among his finest of all time.  Personally speaking, I think Lennon’s songs — which include “Sexy Sadie,” “Cry Baby Cry” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” — are superior to McCartney’s on “The White Album,” but the satisfying balance struck between the 30 tracks has left a lasting impact on me.

It was 50 years ago this month since its release, and to mark that occasion, Apple is releasing this week a comprehensive new package of remixes, outtakes, studio chatter and a sprawling booklet of photos and analytical text.  Merry Christmas, White Album fans!

This brings me to the fourth of my four indispensable Beatles albums, the brilliant swan song, “Abbey Road.”  Little did we fans know at the time, but the foursome had pretty much already broken up in early 1969, at each other’s throats over business differences and a need to spend time apart after the unpleasant experience of filming and recording Beatles_-_Abbey_Roadsongs for the “Let It Be” project (which was shelved for over a year before finally seeing release in May 1970).

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and they chose to reconvene one last time in the summer of ’69 to produce a “proper” farewell album with the kind of high quality material and professionalism for which they were so well known.

And boy, did they come up with a gem.  “Abbey Road” boasts the slickest production values, two of Harrison’s finest songs ever, two of Lennon’s most iconoclastic pieces, and the pièce de resistance, the eight-song, 16-minute medley that comprised the bulk of Side Two.  And it was all packaged in what turned out to be their most famous cover, capturing the foursome crossing the street outside the studio where all the magic had happened.

Harrison had been developing as a songwriter over the previous two years, a fact that became instantly noticeable in “Here Comes the Sun,” a gorgeous dose of positive vibes, and “Something,” Harrison’s luxurious ode to his wife Pattie, which Lennon himself images-38described as the album’s best song (even as it split duty on the double-A-sided single with his own “Come Together”).

I love the way Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” takes a sort of kitchen-sink approach, with slow blues, mid-tempo blues and then a compelling coda that builds and builds over three minutes from a hypnotic guitar riff into a sea of white noise before abruptly cutting off.  As much as I like McCartney’s performance on the blues shouter “Oh Darling” I’ve always wondered what it would’ve sounded like if Lennon had taken a stab at the vocals…

McCartney’s imprint on this record is most evident in the extraordinary medley and the way he and producer Martin took several half-finished songs and weaved them into a little symphony that sounds as if the pieces belonged together all along.

“You Never Give Me Your Money” starts things off as a complete song, then uses crickets to segue gently into “Sun King.”  Lennon’s two other contributions — the unsavory characters “Mean Mr Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” — come next in a one-two punch before cascading brilliantly into the delicious “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”  That would be the album’s best moment…if not for the three-song finale of “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End,” which may be the best five minutes of Beatles music ever recorded.

the_beatles___last_photoshoot_tittenhurst_park_by_felipemuve-d688omnAs you listen to those three songs again on Spotify, be sure to take note of the guitars near the end of “The End,” just before the denouement, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  It’s only nine bars long, but it perfectly showcases, and differentiates, the distinctive guitar styles of McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon, three times, in that order.  Along with Ringo’s one and only drum solo which comes just before it, this exchange is a marvelous final way to feature the foursome as they wave goodbye.

There really isn’t much to say about the brilliance of The Beatles’ music that hasn’t already been said.  Suffice it to say I’ve always been a serious student and shameless devotee of their catalog, and I’ll bet most of my readers are, too.

 

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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.