Wednesday, March 31, 2010

421. Buddy Holly- Proof that rock, like most good things, was invented by nerds.

Album: Buddy Holly's Greatest hits.

Artist: Buddy Holly.

Year: 1960 sometime

Genre: Rock.

  1. "That'll Be The Day"
  2. "I'm Looking For Someone To Love"
  3. "Words Of Love"
  4. "Not Fade Away"
  5. "Everyday"
  6. "Oh, Boy!"
  7. "Peggy Sue"
  8. "I'm Gonna Love You Too"
  9. "Maybe Baby"
  10. "Rave On!"
  11. "Think It Over"
  12. "Fool's Paradise"
  13. "Early In The Morning"
  14. "It's So Easy"
  15. "Heartbeat"
  16. "True Love Ways"
  17. "It Doesn't Matter Anymore"
  18. "Raining in My Heart"

I’ve always seen the genesis of Rock and Roll as more like the invention of the wheel than the patenting of the USB-powered foam rocket launcher. The wheel wasn’t created by one guy in one place, it was conceived all over the planet out of necessity. It’s the same with Rock and Roll which had to be created to save us from listening to the alternatives for the rest of our lives. Rock didn’t spring forth fully formed it bubbled into the collective psyche through the minds and hips of a group of people who all decided to give in to their primal urges and create music. To my mind this makes arguments about who created Rock and Roll and who wrote the first rock song kind of irrelevant.

One of the many midwives who brought rock kicking and screaming into the world was Buddy Holly, who’s distinctive guitar sound and even more distinctive vocals helped to usher in the genre that we know and love today. A tragic early death might have prevented him from recording much music but what he did commit to vinyl influenced countless artists and gave us some often covered Rock and Roll classics.

But I’ve got to confess I’ve never liked him.

My problem with Holly has always been his trademark quirky vocal style. You’ve all heard That’ll be the Day a million times so you know what I’m talking about. It’s that conscious decision he makes not to hold a vowel sound but to repeat it: “That’s be the da-a-ay when I die” or in his other big hit: “My Peggy Sue-oo-oo.” And there’s that slight yelping noise he makes in the middle of a word as if he’s singing with a ferret in his pants. For no good reason he’ll suddenly sings one syllable an octave higher as if a rodent of some description has just brushed against his testicles while traveling from one trouser leg to the other. It’s weird and I’ve never understood why he did it although I do have a theory. In his early days, white radio stations would often refuse to play Elvis songs because they believed he was black. He sang “coloured music” and on first hearing most DJ’s believed he was an African-American (although they didn't use that terminology). Holly’s affected vocal twang emphasizes his Texan accent and makes him sound white. I can’t help but wonder if part of the logic behind his vocal style is an effort not to confuse prejudiced American radio stations and assure him of more airplay. Of course I could be over-thinking this and it’s possible that he’s just doing it because it’s natural and he likes it. Or maybe there really was a ferret in his trousers, perhaps those black-rimmed glasses and clean cut image were helping to disguise a rampant sex fiend who loved nothing more than recording with dacks full of rodents. We'll never know. (Actually yes we will- he didn't)

I was pleasantly surprised when I listened to The Chirping Crickets to find that Holly doesn’t feel the need to use this vocal style on every track. He’s quite happy to sing most of the album in a much straighter fashion and I found myself really enjoying his voice. He can belt out a good rocker or give some genuine emotion to a ballad. He’s actually a great singer and not just a quirky one. He can also play guitar and write a tune. Standards like Oh Boy, That’ll be the day and Not Fade Away were all tracks that I knew well but I’m looking for Someone to Love and Rock Me My Baby were both new to me and songs I really enjoyed. There’s everything you could want in an early rock and roll song: a good beat, some tasty guitar licks and refreshingly innocent vocals that suggest young love in the fifties went no further than hand holding and dancing. Of course I’m not naive enough to believe that teenagers weren’t just as randy back then as they are now but in an era when artists release songs called “I’m fucking you tonight,” it’s kind of refreshing to hear singers being so coy and reserved.

I enjoyed The Chirping Crickets a lot more than a thought I would but I was put off by the backing vocals. The clowns who sing behind Holly are a bunch of guys who clearly deserve to spend life wearing garments teeming with hungry, sharp-toothed carnivores. Every song on the chirping crickets had a group of fools wittering in the background, often completely drowning out the band who are cooking along and laying down some tasty music. The vocalists weren’t the Crickets themselves but some other guys who were dragged in to ruin the songs. Whoever was responsible for the vocal arrangements on this album had absolutely no sense of restraint or moderation. The backing group slather every moment with a series of the silliest noises it’s possible for males to make in harmony. In addition to actual words and a series of “aaahs” and “ooohs” there are the following gems which I can’t believe I actually took the time to annotate: “dum de dum dum oh boy,” “Da da la de da da la de Da da dum,” “Ba ba ba ba ba bop” and one that started with the word “Fa” and was followed by a hell of a lot more “las” than I can be bothered typing.That’s the thing with creating something new. It only really works if you’re prepared to discard the old. The backing vocals on The Chirping Crickets come straight out of the crooner’s handbook. They were probably great when backing Bing Crosby but for moderns ears they’re more annoying than a rabid ferret in the pantaloons when they clash with the downbeat and guitar breaks.

I had a great time listening to this album but I would have enjoyed it even more if Holly ditched his vocal quirks and the backing vocals were ditched entirely. (Ha! Listen to me, a talentless non-musician telling one of the biggest names in pioneer rock how his music can be improved. It's lucky for me the guy's dead because if he wasn't he'd have every right to come and deliver me a swift kick in the peggy-sues)

Highlight: Rock me my baby.

Lowlight: Peggy Sue. (and a special mention for the cover photo. Why the hell is it so damn purple?)

Influenced by: Crooners.

Influenced: John Lennon.

Favourite Amazon customer review quote: I was 7 when the original Buddy box set came out in 1979. I remember my Dad getting it as a Christmas gift from Mom. Over the years I became it's caretaker. I have loved and adored that set since it came out. I've also been bugging MCA (and anyone else who would listen) to grace us with a CD version. I've got several letters in reply telling me that due to litigation over publishing holdings it wasn't going to happen. And yet, here in time for Christmas 2009 we finally get the Holy Grail from Lubbock!

-That's a review from the box set but I had to include it because I'm so impressed with anyone who is prepared to actually put pen to paper and write to a record company.

So what do you think- Is Holly a Buddy of yours or will the day you befriend him be the da-a-ay when you die? Let me know know below.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

422- Best of the Girl groups- a lot of girl.

Album: Best of the Girl groups.

Artist: Various Artists.

Year: 1990

Genre: Girl groups.


Disc one.

1 "Leader of the Pack" (Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Shadow Morton) Shangri Las
2 "He's So Fine" (Ronnie Mack) Chiffons
3 "Chapel of Love" (Barry, Greenwich, Phil Spector) The Dixie Cups
4 "The Boy from New York City" (George Davis, John T. Taylor) The Ad Libs
5 "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)" (Rudy Clark) Betty Everett
6 "Sally Go Round the Roses" (Zell Sanders, Abner Spector) Jaynetts
7 "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (Gerry Goffin, Carole King) The Shirelles
8 "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" (Morton) Shangri Las
9 "One Fine Day" (Goffin, King) Chiffons
10 "Party Lights" (Claudine Clark) Claudine Clark
11 "People Say" (Barry, Greenwich) The Dixie Cups
12 "He's Got the Power" (Elle Greenwich, Tom Powers) The Exciters
13 "I Can't Stay Mad at You" (Goffin, King) Skeeter Davis
14 "I Wanna Love Him So Bad" (Barry, Elle Greenwich) The Jelly Beans
15 "Dream Baby" (Sonny Bono)[21] Cher
16 "Baby It's You" (Burt Bacharach, Hal David, B. Williams) The Shirelles
17 "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" (Morton) Shangri Las
18 "I Can't Let Go" (Al Gorgoni, Chip Taylor)

Disc Two.

1 "My Boyfriend's Back" (Bob Feldmam, Jerry Goldstein, Richard Gottehrer) The Angels
2 "Sweet Talkin' Guy" (Elliot Greenberg, Doug Morris) Chiffons
3 "The Loco-Motion" (Goffin, King) Little Eva
4 "A Lover's Concerto" (Sandy Linzer, Denny Randell) The Toys
5 "The Kind of Boy You Can't Forget" (Barry, Greenwich) The Raindrops
6 "You Don't Know" (Barry, Greenwich, Morton)
7 "Chains" (Goffin, King) The Cookies
8 "Popsicles and Icicles" (David Gates) The Murmaids
9 "The One You Can't Have" (Brian Wilson)
10 "Tell Him" (Bert Russell) The Exciters
11 "Don't Say Nothin' Bad (About My Baby)" (Goffin, King) Cookies
12 "I Met Him on a Sunday" (Doris Coley, Addie Harris, Beverley Lee, Shirley Owens) Shirelles
13 "Wonderful Summer" (Perry Botkin, Jr., Gil Garfield) Robin Ward
14 "It Might as Well Rain Until September" (Goffin, King) Carole King
15 "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry" (Bob Merrill, Terry Shand) The Caravelles
16 "Easier Said Than Done" (Larry Huff, William Linton) The Essex
17 "I Love How You Love Me" (Larry Kolber, Barry Mann) The Paris Sisters
18 "Johnny Get Angry" (Hal David, Sherman Edwards, Donald Meyer) Joanie Sommers

Things I learnt from listening to 2 hours of girl group music...

  • Tough bikers who lead packs hang out in Candy Stores. (The Leader of the pack)
  • The reason most girl group songs sounds the same is because they were written by either Goffin or King or Barry/Greenwich.
  • Dirty Fingernails makes a guy more of a prize (Give him a great big kiss)
  • Girls are absolutely obsessed with kissing, hand holding and dances.
  • No matter how low a girl is she can always find some friends to make la la la and shoop-de-doo noises behind her while she sings.
  • Boys are frequently bad and unfaithful but girls love them anyway and prefer not to hear anything bad about them.
  • The phrase "Do-lang" only occurs in pop music lyrics 63 times, all of them during He's so Fine by the Chiffons.
  • These songs were designed to be singles and were never meant to be listened to consecutively, two hours is a hell of a lot of girl group music for one person to take.
  • Behaving like "a cave man" is a good way to attract women (Johnny get angry)
  • The Beatles greatly improved Chains and Baby It's you when they covered them.
  • My Boyfriend's back is actually about the return of the singer's lover and not a song of devotion to the bit of him you see when he turns around.
  • Boys in the 1950's still had dueling scars. (The Boy from New York City). Dueling scars? They were fighting duels in 1950's New York?
  • That insanely annoying song by Cher isn't called It's in his kiss it's called The Shoop Shoop song and it's only slightly less irritating in it's original form.
  • I met him on a sunday contains only 48 actual words and yet it took 4 people to write. This means they averaged 12 words each.
  • The only place to have a romantic walk of any kind is on sand. Apparently it's much harder to fall in love on grass, bitumen or any synthetic surface.
  • Many of these groups are one hit wonders who formed, recorded a song and then broke up seconds after it was released. The Caravelles entire career is only slightly longer than their only hit.
  • Carol King must be absolutely loaded. In addition to all her own music she earns royalties whenever anyone buys a copy of The Beatles first album (which has Chains on it) and Kylie Minogue's greatest hits (when she covers The Locomotion) among countless others.
  • Apparently "the saddest thing in the whole wide world" is "to see your baby with another girl". (Sally go round the roses). War victims must find this comforting.
  • The sort of boys who love levis, guitars and baseball are also big fans of popsicles and for some reason icicles. (Popsicles and icicles)
  • I am not a fan of girl band music but I have to appreciate the fact that well crafted pop conveyed an era and has managed to stand the test of time. But I never need to listen to eight hours of it again.

EDIT: I'm an idiot. I wrote this review and completely failed to mention the fact that He's so Fine by the Chiffons is the song that George Harrison is alleged to have ripped off when writing My Sweet Lord. I can't believe I counted all the doo-langs and forgot to register this piece of information. My thanks to Brad who pointed this out in the comments below. For the record I can hear a slight similarity between the two songs but it's a real stretch to say there is plagiarism involved, even inadvertently. Although if My Sweet Lord included a single doo-lang it would be a different story.

Highlight: Leader of the Pack
Lowlight: The Shoop Shoop song

Influenced by: Show Tunes.
Influenced: The Beatles.

Favourite Amazon customer review quote: *sighs* I love this era. I'd be rhetorical of me to say I don't enjoy listening to these girl groups.

-Is that the correct use of the language? Or is that just a rhetorical question?

So is two hours enough girl group for you or about 20 times too much? Let me know below.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

423. The Mamas and the Papas greatest hits- Their truly great song, and some other stuff.

Album: Greatest hits

Artist: The Mamas and the Papas.

Genre: Pop.


1. California Dreamin'
2. Go Where You Wanna Go
3. Monday, Monday
4. I Call Your Name
5. Do You Wanna Dance
6. I Saw Her Again
7. You Baby
8. Dancing Bear
9. Words Of Love
10. No Salt On Her Tail
11. Look Through My Window
12. Dancing In The Street
13. Dedicated To The One I Love
14. Creeque Alley
15. Glad To Be Unhappy
16. Twist And Shout
17. Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming To The Canyon)
18. My Girl
19. Safe In My Garden
20. Dream A Little Dream Of Me

Tell me honestly- who doesn’t love California dreaming? Go on, put your hand up if you don’t feel like smiling when you hear: “All the leaves are brown, and the skies are grey.” I can’t think of another song not recorded by a muppet that's as universally loved and admired by all humans. Die-hard rock fans, gangsta rappers, the elderly and lost tribes in the amazon basin would all be hard pressed to find something bad to say about Dreamin. It’s the best use of harmony vocals in pop and the ultimate feel-good tune. It somehow captured all that was right and good with the hippy ideology without alienating those who thought the children of the age of Aquarius were little more than spoiled, unwashed brats. If the rest of this album were anywhere near as good as the opening track then this would sit happily at the top of this list by a universal vote.

Sadly California Dreaming is definitely the Mamas and the Papas greatest hit and the rest of the album is a let down in comparison. That’s not to say that it’s a painful listen- it’s just nowhere near the heights achieved by track one. There aren’t any songs written by John Phillips that approach Dreamin and their covers are all fairly pale when compared to better known versions by other people. Things probably aren’t helped by the decision to open the album with Dreamin and then follow it up with Go where you wanna go and Monday Monday, which means the three greatest songs are out of the way ten minutes into the album. But then that was pretty much the story of their career. Those three songs appear on If You Can Believe Your Ears, their debut album and a height they never approached again.

For the most part the Mamas and the Papas seemed to have an unerring knack for taking a great tune and turning into something tedious. Do you wanna dance, I call your name, Twist and Shout and Dancing in the streets are great songs when other people do them but when arranged by Phillips they become a bit bland and mushy. They sound like successful attempts to turn great pop songs into something accessible to the middle-of-the-road audience. The exception to this mushifying of great songs is Mama Cass’s solo version of Dream a little Dream of me which is a great number and shows she was a huge talent in more than just dress size.

While the middle of the album becomes a bit dull there are other great moments to be dug out in amongst the more tedious covers. Creeque alley is a rollicking account of the band’s history and is a lot of fun. Less enjoyable but still interesting is I saw her again last night, a song about how the band briefly broke up. When they started Michelle Phillips (the amazingly attractive one and the only surviving member) was married to John Phillips but was booted from the group when she decided to have an affair with band member Denny Doherty. Michelle spent a brief period of time being radiantly beautiful on her own somewhere and the band continued with a 25% drop in their level of vocal talented and a 250% decrease in sex appeal. Eventually she returned and the band continued for a few years in a state of animosity. I saw her again last night is a song recorded all about the affair. Phillips harmonises with the guy she was married to and the man she cheated on him with. How’s that for an interesting dynamic? And what does it say about the band when after their first album the only good songs they wrote were about themselves?

Mamas and the Papas greatest hits has twenty tracks, at least ten of which could be culled to make a much better listen. There are some forgettable songs here but they’re more than outweighed by the unforgettable opener.

Influenced by: The Beatles, living in California
Influenced: The bangles and pop groups in general.

Highlight: California dreaming.
Lowlight: Twist and shout. It just makes you want to hear John sing it.



So do you partake in some California Dreamin or is it all some kind of nightmare? Let me know below.

Friday, March 19, 2010

424 King of the Delta Blues singers Vol 2- The lord of the rings of the blues

Album: King of the Delta Blues singers.

Artist: Robert Johnson

Year: 1961

Genre: Blues.


1. Kind Hearted woman blues
2. I believe I'll dust my broom
3. Sweet Home Chicago
4. Ramblin on my mind
5. Phonograph blues.
6. They're Red Hot.
7. Dead Shrimp Blues.
8. Preaching Blues.
9. I'm a Steady Rollin Man.
10. From four til Late.
11. Little Queen of Spades.
12. Malted Milk.
13. Drunken hearted blues.
14. Stop breaken down blues
15. Honeymoon blues.
16. Love in Vain.

Some bands have a lot of albums on this list and some artists have every album they released but only one guy has every single song he ever recorded on the top 500 albums of all time. That guy is Robert Johnson and he invented the blues as we know it while influencing almost everyone who ever recorded a song after him. He sat in a hotel room in the mid thirties and recorded tracks that haven’t been touched since. And as if that wasn’t enough he was sufficiently obliging to die soon after and perpetrate one of the great legends of the blues.

Johnson’s story is one that you’ve probably heard a million times in different ways. A young man with musical ambition but not much talent goes on a journey that ends with him selling his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of his instrument. He uses his new gift to bedazzle all who hear him until Satan comes to claim his side of the bargain and he dies tragically young while his music lives on. Nowadays there aren’t too many people who believe that bit about the devil but back in the thirties in the rural south there were those who were pretty convinced it was the only explanation for the passion the young Johnson managed to extract from just a guitar and his own voice. His premature death by poison leant weight to those who believed his ability had a satanic origin and must have really frustrated the “He just went away and practiced a lot” faction who probably struggled to be heard. I’d love to tell you more about Robert J but I can’t because we don’t know much. He was a guy who played the blues a lot until his death meant he didn’t. That’s about all there is to say.

Thankfully he left us two sides of vinyl music to appreciate what all the fuss was about. The first was released in 1961 and the second came in 1970. This album, like King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume 1 that went before it, was re-released on CD as The Complete Robert Johnson recordings in the nineties. On those two Compact discs you will find every single note we have of the man often cited as the most influential blues player of all time.

So what’s all the fuss about then? Every song on the album is has exactly the same format- a guy singing over the top of his own guitar playing. No band, no overdubs and no fuss- just a young man, an old guitar and some timeless songs. Even if you’ve never heard Johnson play you probably know his music. The Rolling Stones recorded Love in Vain and still play it live, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers had a crack at They’re Red Hot, I believe I’ll dust my broom has been recorded by almost as many people as Sweet Home Chicago and Eric Clapton has done almost every song Robert Johnson ever wrote including Malted Milk on his million selling unplugged release.

While the Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac and countless other white boys played his songs and turned them into rocking standards the originals have a power that proves you don’t need to plug your guitar in to play what we call Rock and Roll. There are riffs, blues turnarounds and elements that we know and love from Rock and Roll all throughout this album. Lyrically it's full of mistreating women, downtrodden men and brooms that need dusting, most of which are common themes in rock today (although the maintenance of domestic cleaning tools has tended to fall away as a lyrical preoccupation in recent years).

I would recommend this album to anyone except I don't think you can buy it anymore. That's because the excellent Compete recordings is now available and has everything the great man ever did. If you've enjoyed any popular music of any description in the last 80 years then you owe Johnson a debt of thanks. And if you check out his music because of this review then you'll owe me one as well.

Highlight: Sweet Home Chicago.

Lowlight: Dead Shrimp Blues (which is still a great track)

Influenced by: The delta and a contract written in blood.

Influenced: Everyone.

Favourite Amazon Customer review quote: I kept hearing about Robert Johnson, so I decided to listen to some of his music. What a dissapointment! First of all, Johnson plays way too slow and his music has no beat whatsoever. There aren't even any drums on the record. Furthermore, Johnson doesn't even play the electric guitar so there arent any cool guitar solos. His singing isn't any better, because his lyrics are unbelievably corny and you can't help but laugh at his whiny voice. For some real blues music you should listen to Led Zeppelin because at least he has good songs like Stairway to Heaven. I know Led Zeppelin is a good guitar player because I saw him play on the Song Remains the Same and he can play really fast and good. Robert Johnson's music is completely unlistenable and a can't understand how anyone could like it.

-I believe this is what we in internet-land call "a troll". Thinking Led Zeppelin was a guy and not a band is the giveaway.

So if Robert Johnson did sell his soul to the devil did Old Nick get a bargain or a dud? Let me know below.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

425. Changesone- David Bowie

Album: Changesone
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1976
Genre: Pop.

  1. Space Oddity
  2. John, I’m Only Dancing
  3. Changes
  4. Ziggy Stardust
  5. Suffragette City
  6. The Jean Genie
  7. Diamond Dogs
  8. Rebel Rebel
  9. Young Americans
  10. Fame
  11. Golden Years
I put David Bowie in the same category as Bruce Springsteen in that he's an artist I respect and can understand people's devotion to but he does nothing for me. This album (and I'm choosing to review the original vinyl release, not any of the several CD reissues) collects his finest moments from his first, and most revered decade, so in theory it's his best work. But I just don't get it. I've got nothing against Bowie's voice (even though I struggle to take it seriously since Jermaine Clement did such an amazing impression in a Flight of the Conchords episode), he chooses talented musicians to play with him and he can definitely write a tune... so why don't I care?

I think it might have something to do with the image thing. Bowie's need to go through career phases during which he adopts different outfits and personas left me feeling cold. I've never understood why musicians need to have an image. You're a rock star- you sing into a microphone and girls want to shag you silly, there's your image right there. Anyone who needs to spend ages choosing which outfit to don is someone who is moving into fashion-model territory. I have to admire Angus Young who adopted an image in his early twenties and is still doing it in his sixties.

Bowie's reinventions are not just related to costume. He rejigs not just his style but also his voice which makes Changes sound like the work of several different men. Despite being presented in order, this album doesn't seem to show a gradual development from one phase to another (unlike Ones, the single disc Beatles compilation that charts their development) Bowie seems to reinvent himself without any reference to what's gone before. In order to be a huge Bowie fan you have to see something in the man himself rather than just his music because the only thing tying it together into a cohesive whole is the man behind the persona.

Most of the songs on this release were immediately familiar having all received fairly extensive radio play. They travel through the sci fi trippiness of Space Oddity, the glam of Ziggy Stardust, through the more conventional rock of Jean Genie and the punkish Rebel Rebel through to the jazzy swing of Young Americans and Fame. It's actually this last phase of his career that I think I respond most favourably to. Bowie really does have a great voice and to me Young Americans sounds like he's actually comfortable using it without the need to adopt affectations and dick about with it. It's American Soul which he sings without ever sounding anything other than English. It possibly helps that this is the period where Bowie let his love of the Beatles shine through: he covers Across the Universe, qoutes A Day in The Life in the title track and co-wrote Fame with John Lennon (although listening to it you wonder why it took one person to write let alone two). The final track on the album is Golden Years which is resoundingly awful and a bit of a tragic close to the disc.

Just like Springsteen there is more Bowie to come in this countdown so I will have more opportunities to experience what people see in him. The other releases are all albums and not compilations so will afford me the opportunity to examine Bowie in one phase of his career rather than hearing extracts jammed together. Before I close I should take the time to mention two Bowie releases which didn't make this list which is a pity because they're both really good. Pin Ups is his covers album which is a great listen and Let's Dance features a young Stevie Ray Vaughan, who would definitely be on the top 500 list if I was one of the voters.

Influenced by: The Beatles, soul, psychadelic drugs and a desire to reinvent.
Influenced: Madonna.

Highlight: Young Americans.
Lowlight: The Golden years.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Qoute:
I'm not usually a compulsive CD buyer, but I remember hearing a while back that David Bowie is the richest rock star in England (in contrast to Elton John, who's been playing his ass off for over 30 years and has a bankruptcy to show for it), so I just HAD to figure out what he'd done to warrant such wealth.

-What an odd reason to buy and album: This guy's rich, I wonder why?

So does Bowie deserve his fame or is he just an oddity taking up space? Let me know below.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

426. The Battle of Los Angeles- Only slightly quieter than an actual battle.

Album: The Battle of Los Angeles
Artist: Rage Against the Machine
Year: 1999
Genre: Rock

  1. Testify
  2. Guerrilla Radio
  3. Calm Like a Bomb
  4. Mic Check
  5. Sleep Now in the Fire
  6. Born of a Broken Man
  7. Born as Ghosts
  8. Maria
  9. Voice of the Voiceless
  10. New Millennium Homes
  11. Ashes in the Fall
  12. War Within a Breath

You would think after all this time that there wouldn't actually be a huge amount of original stuff you could do with a guitar, a bass, some drums and a vocalist. Les Paul decided to amplify a guitar back in the 1940's and since then it's been the basis of every single rock band (with the possible exception of Ben Folds Five) ever since. The guitar/bass/drums combo has been established in literally millions of acts all over the world. Every possible innovation was surely used up by the late sixties. When Jimi Hendrix played with his teeth there must have been someone in the audience who said: "Well that's it, there's nothing more to do, it's all just copying from here on in." In the nineties a band called Rage Against the Machine proved that innovation wasn't dead. Despite possessing the same instruments that had been around for half a century they managed to create a sound that was truly original, unusual and had never been done before.

The main thing that stands out about RATM are the vocals- they're not rap but they're not not-rap either. There's some of the rapid fire rhyming of traditional hip hop but with shouty overtones, as if Zach De La Rocha wanted to rap but was too incensed to adopt the necessary laid-back style. Choruses are usually delivered in a full-bodied shout but occasionally he drops to an effective whisper. It's not singing as you're mother would define it but then this isn't music as she knew it either. Lyrically De La Rocha isn't just singing he's railing. The band isn't called Rage against the Machine for nothing. They're clearly well versed in world events, steeped in history and angry as hell. They're not singing about a revolution they're inciting one.

Backing De La Rocha are a band who have probably grown up listening to Heavy Metal but don't want to be weighed down by it's constraints. Guitarist Tom Morello sounds like nothing else on the planet. While he's capable of crunching out power chords with the best of them his solos and lead-work sound like he gets more inspiration from dot-matrix printers than guitar heroes. Thanks to some original guitar techniques and an array of effects pedals that a centipede would struggle to operate, he squeezes sounds out of a guitar that Les Paul would never have dreamed of in his worst nightmares. It's a sonic barrage of demented, shrieky weirdness that nobody has tried before and few have managed since. While it's unconventional it's just what his lead singer's unique vocal style requires. When combined they make it clear that you're listening to something that hasn't existed before. Credit should also go to the drummer and bass player who manage to bring their fair share of original and unexpected elements to the album without ever causing the whole thing to collapse into a disorganized slop of innovation with no actual structure.

In amongst all the WTFness being flung around this album are some great songs that prove RATM were more than just a bunch of experimental innovators. The four singles (Testify, Guerilla Radio, Calm like a bomb and Sleep now in the fire) are all blisteringly good tracks that will have you banging your head and singing along. While it kicks mightily on the album Guerrilla Radio is fantastic in concert- get your hands on a live version and enjoy one of rock's great moments when De La Rocha sings "
It has to start somewhere It has to start sometime, What better place than here, what better time than now?" while an audience screams it back at him. There's no filler on the album and not a single weak track. If you like what they're doing you'll like the whole thing- then again if angry shouting over other-wordly guitar noises isn't your bag you will hate every track equally.

In their short (but recently revived) career, Rage against the Machine invented a new genre of music. There are lots of bands around who describe themselves as Rap Metal and while most of them are truly awful it's not fair to blame RATM for the atrocities of their prodigies. Probably the most glowing praise I can give this great album is to say that while I don't really like Metal and I'm no fan of rap I really like this stuff. It's original, unique, fantastic and the second best thing the band has ever done.

Influenced by: Metal. Rap. Alternative Left wing media, electrical appliances
Influenced: Everyone since who has called themselves Rap metal.

Guerilla Radio.
Lowlights: None really. But Ballad of a Broken man is my least favourite track.

Favourite Amazon Customer review qoute: "This album sounds like everything else they've ever done, and Zack de la Cockroach still sounds about as menacing as a little boy with messy diapers. If they'd get off their high horse for one second and realize that music will NEVER change the world, they might have something to offer."

-Music will never change the world? I can't help but disagree.

So which side of the Battle of Los Angeles are you on? Are you with Rage or do you side with the machine? Let me know below.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

427. Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes- Sadly lacking in ancient agrarian history.

Album: Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes.
Artist: The Ronettes.
Year: 1964
Genre: Girl Groups.

  1. (Walking) In the Rain
  2. Do I Love You?
  3. So Young
  4. (The Best Part of) Breakin' Up
  5. I Wonder
  6. What'd I Say?
  7. Be My Baby
  8. You, Baby
  9. Baby, I Love You
  10. How Does It Feel?
  11. When I Saw You
  12. Chapel of Love

I have to confess that I haven't managed to actually hear this entire album due to the fact that it's out of print. It has never had a CD release which means the only way to hear it is on something called Vinyl which can't be right because I'm sure that's what they make cheap furniture covers out of and there is no way this album was originally released as a couch. It's possible to hear tracks on compilations but if you want to get your hands on the whole thing you have to find the original LP. Good luck tracking it down though, copies change hands for hundreds of dollars. At the time of writing the going price for a copy on ebay was $199 US. You might think that not rereleasing an album that people are clearly desperate to own and Rolling Stone Magazine regards so highly is an act of madness, and you'd be correct.

The madness in question partly belongs to Phil Spector, who produced the Ronettes, married the lead singer and is madder than a talent quest in a mental home. As I write this Phil is languishing in jail serving a minimum of 19 years jail for murdering his wife. From all reports Ronnie Spector, his first wife, was lucky not to share the same fate. Phil kept Ronnie locked up in his mansion and even went so far as to hide her shoes in order to prevent her from leaving the house. He was terrified she'd be unfaithful and according to her autobiography showed her a glass-topped golden coffin that he had in the basement to house her body should she try and leave him. Phil was happy to kill her and have her preserved on display rather than lose her. Imagine living your life knowing the only way you're going to get your feet into a decent pair of shoes is if you're husband dresses you up for display in his perv-case.

Amazingly Ronnie managed to escape the clutches of Phil and presumably get her hands on some footwear. She remarried and lived a fairly normal life. Sadly the same can't be said of her sister Estelle who didn't cope with the breakup of the Ronnettes at all well. Her first move was to record a solo single called 2000 which I haven't heard but apparently is a dark song about nuclear apocalypse done in a cheery girl-group style. It wasn't well recieved although presumably not because there was a glut of upbeat pop songs dealing with radiation fallout. After her career collapsed she battled anorexia and other mental issues and reportedly spent a long time living on the streets telling people she was late for a Ronettes gig. When she encountered her cousin and former bandmate a few years after the breakup she failed to recognise her. Tragically she died of bowel cancer in 2009 alone in her apartment.

The best way to hear something close to these tracks is to get your hands on a Ronettes best-of release which contains some of this album along with some other hits which sound... exactly the same. Really it's hard to distinguish between Ronettes hits, they're pretty interchangeable. It's all so sweet and innocent which makes the fact that they were apparently the first Bad Girls of Pop so amusing. Tracks like Be My Baby are nothing compared to what the bad girls of pop today are producing. A double bill featuring The Ronettes opening for Rockbitch would definitely highlight just how far the concept of the Bad Girl has progressed, or regressed depending on your standpoint.

If you're into girl groups then you might want to check the Ronettes out. Although since it costs a couple of hundred dollars to hear this album in its original form you'd have to really be into girl groups to get your hands on a copy.

Highlight: Be my Baby
Lowlight: Presumably the tracks not good enough to make it into best ofs

Influenced by:
Phil Spector and motown
Influenced: All girl groups that came after.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote:
"i would love to buy this cd, but i have no idea how to purchase it , the company does not have an easy to use order formate. if any one ever reads this then please let me know how to order ,thanks"

-It doesn't say much for Ronettes fans when they not only can't work out how to order from the world's biggest online store but they can't even ask for help in the right place.

So would you pay $199 for the Ronettes or gladly pay $1.99 to never have to hear them again? Let me know below.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

428. Kid A. You must be Kid A-ing.

Album: Kid A

Artist: Radiohead.

Year: 2000.

Genre: Hmm… alternative alternative rock.


  1. Everything in Its Right Place
  2. Kid A
  3. The National Anthem
  4. How to Disappear Completely
  5. Treefingers
  6. Optimistic
  7. In Limbo
  8. Idioteque
  9. Morning Bell
  10. Motion Picture Soundtrack

After the huge commercial success of The Bends and OK Computer, British alternative rockers Radiohead decided to take a turn in a different direction. While their previous two efforts were guitar-based rock and roll that avoided clichés, their next effort not only avoids clichés it avoids classification of any kind.

It’s an album that generated over 2,000 reviews on amazon ranging the full gamut from raving, near incoherent "This is the pinacle of human achievement and anyone who thinks Beethoven is better is gay/retarded/deserving of death" five stars to angry, dribbly, frothy "This is unlistenable crap and anyone who says otherwise is gay/retarded/deserving of death" one stars.

Kid A is an album that would empty a dance floor, stop your dinner party cold dead, baffle anyone you were trying to seduce and terrify your neighbors. It's an album in the tradition of Dark Side of the Moon, it’s supposed to be listened to with your full attention rather than providing a soundtrack to an aspect of your life. It’s a movie without pictures. An experience rather than a background.

While I’m a big fan of Radiohead I didn’t get into them they way everyone else did. I remember hearing Creep, their first single, on the radio back when I actually listened to a radio. I hated Creep and in fact I still do. Consequently I ignored Radiohead for years until I heard a live bootleg and really enjoyed it. I hunted them out and therefore encountered all their albums up to Hail to the Thief in the one go. For me Kid A wasn’t an eagerly awaited release as much as it was one aspect of an entire career. In that respect I think I was probably lucky. A lot of people were eagerly anticipating this album expecting it to be the next step in a progression from The Bends to OK Computer, which was widely regarded as the best album of the 90's. Those thrusting this CD in their player and expecting more of the raging guitars that set Paranoid Android alight must have been devastated. The stratocasters stayed locked up in their cases and in their places was a collection of electronic sounds that baffled listeners all over the world. Even Thom Yorke's vocals were sometimes replaced with electronically treated sounds which made this album sound like Stephen Hawking's vocal debut accompanied by his own wheelchair. Reviews at the time were often of the "What the Hell is this?" variety and ranged from confusion to rage.

But seen as an album in it's own right and not a follow up to the best album of the nineties, most have reassessed this opinion and many claim it's the best album of the noughties. Lots of magazine lists that recently counted down the best albums of 2000 so far placed this release in the higher reaches of their countdown- the writers of Rolling Stone Magazine put it at number one, they weren't the only ones.

Forget anything you know about music and put this album on one evening. Don't do anything else just sit down, or lie down and listen to five guys from England have a bit of a rethink about how music works. It's a fantastic experience and highly recommended.

Influenced by: To be honest it doesn't matter because you can't hear their influences anyway. It's fresh stuff.

Influenced: Everyone releasing music for better or worse.

Highlight: The National Anthem- a sensational bass line.

Lowlight: Treefingers. Not because it's bad just because it's not really all that good.

Best Amazon Customer review quote: “If you like radiohead your stupid. Lol. You are probably some really dumb boso college student who trys to act rebbellious and just listens to radiohead for the hell of it.”

-Not worth responding to.

So is this the album of the decade or an album by dickheads? Let me know below.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

429. Grievous Angel- A little bit country and a little bit more country

Album: Grievous Angel
Artist: Gram Parsons
Year: 1974
Genre: Country.


  1. Return of the Grievous Angel
  2. Hearts on Fire
  3. I Can't Dance
  4. Brass Buttons
  5. $1000 Wedding
  6. Medley Live from Northern Quebec
  7. Love Hurts
  8. Ooh Las Vegas
  9. In My Hour of Darkness

Forgive me for what might appear to be a massive tangent but I have to begin this review by discussing a man named Robert Randolph who doesn't play on this album or indeed on any release in the top 500. He might not be a household name but Randolph is a rare musical talent who has done something that for years I didn't believe was possible: he made the pedal steel guitar interesting. Check out any live release by the Robert Randolph Family band and you will hear the humble pedal steel being taken to places you never dreamed it could go. He rocks that thing harder than anyone has ever made it move before. He stands alone with Bela Fleck as one of two people who have managed to reinvent an instrument close to the way Hendrix and Miles David did before. When he plays a furious version of Papa was Rollin stone I can't help but air guitar along- which is a bit tragic since there are few things more foolish than watching someone air pedal steel guitar. During slow songs it resembles a kind of low-key, minimalist ironing and during fast songs it looks like someone trying to frantically erase their own groin. Anyway the point is that in the hands of an innovator like Robert Randolph the Pedal steel guitar is a magnificent instrument and well worth checking out. But in the hands of anyone else it's just woeful.

Regular readers of this blog will know about the contempt that I hold for the synthesizer. It's my least favourite instrument but the undisputed holder of second place is the Pedal steel guitar, if nothing else for it's sheer predictability. There's no other instrument that is so bound in rules and conventions. If you're going to play the Pedal Steel guitar you have to provide a very staid and standard backing for the rest of the band. A mournful tone that is supposed to invoke loneliness- something players of the PSG surely experience every time they fire the instrument up. It's an instrument usually adopted by people who want to play music but can't be bothered to stand for long periods of time. Apparently it's fiendishly hard to play which I have to say I believe since it would explain why nobody seems to improvise or deviate from the standard norm when they're playing it. It's just predictable.

And predictable is what I'd have to say about the rest of this release. While some people claim it helped invent a genre called country-rock to me it's just country music. I can't find anything in it that doesn't sound like fairly standard country- as predictable and unsurprising as the pedal steel that backs it. There are some slow songs which sound like slow country songs and some faster tracks which sound a lot like faster country songs, despite an attempt to give one song a live feel by overdubbing a bunch of people pretending to be a large audience. I'm sure fans of country music (and Keith Richards apparently) love it but it just does nothing at all for me.

That's not to say there isn't anything to like. Gram Parsons has a great voice and if I'm going to listen to tedious country he'd be the guy I'd choose to sing it. It's not a twangy and annoying "Well yee-haw let's celebrate the fact that I'm a darn tootin good old boy" kind of voice it's got a lot more character and tone. It also helps that backing him on nearly every track is the ubiquitous Emmylou Harris. If you don't have a recording of Ms Harris' voice in your CD collection then you're just not trying. She's done more backing vocals than almost anyone else around. If someone needs a beautiful voice to augment their track then Emmy Lou is often the gal they go to. I don't own a single one of her albums but I've got recordings of her on tracks by The Band, Bruce Cockburn, Leo Kottke, Little Feat, Dave Matthews, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and most surprisingly Midnight Oil (seriously, I have a friend who doesn't believe me when I say this but she's clearly audible on a track called One Too many times from the Breathe album. Check it out if you don't believe me). If you ever play six degrees of separation with musical artists then Emmylou Harris a very useful person to know about.

I couldn't possibly discuss this album (and to be honest I haven't much) without discussing the strange death of Gram Parsons. Or more accurately the strange post-death of Parsons which is one of the most legendary stories in Rock and Roll. Parsons died tragically young in a hotel room at the age of 26 from a mixture of alcohol and what is usually described as a "cocktail" of drugs. He had earlier passed out and been revived by (I'm not making this up) an ice-cube enema, which I have to say would revive me from pretty much anything. If you're not going to be woken up by the insertion of a frozen lump of water up the rectum then you're just not coming back. The friends who had practiced this novel technique assumed that his awakened state was going to last the night since he was "walking and lucid" although I would have thought "walking and livid" would have been a better description. Sadly it wasn't the case and once his temper cooled off (and presumably the cube melted) he collapsed again and sadly his friends were too far gone themselves to help. He was pronounced dead and his body readied for transportation. And this is where it gets really weird.

Parsons had inherited a lot of money from his mother through (and again I promise I'm not making this up) something called The Snively Inheritance. Apparently all the Snively riches belonged to Gram who was therefore wealthy in his own right. Parsons' mother had died when he was younger and his step father's only way of claiming any share of the Snively inheritance was to claim Gram's body and take over his funeral arrangements in the hope of convincing Louisiana state authorities that he was the legitimate next of kin. The problem was that Parson had a pact with Phil Kaufman, his road manager, in which in the event of either man's death: "the survivor would take the other guy's body out to Joshua Tree, have a few drinks and burn it." Consequently Kaufman got his hands on a hearse, enlisted the aid of a friend and drove out to the airport. Despite an advanced state of intoxication (he'd got the order in the pact clauses wrong- take the stiff, then have a few stiff drinks, not the other way around) he managed to convince those holding the body that a change of plans had been made and he was supposed to take Gram away. A helpful police officer even assisted them in loading the coffin into the vehicle. Kaufman and friend then made their way to Joshua Tree National Park but not before getting their hands on a container of petrol. When they saw lights approaching they panicked, emptied the entire tank of gas into the coffin and flung in a match. Consequently Parson's wasn't cremated he exploded. His last remains erupted in a massive fireball which brought the authorities running. The eventually caught Kaufman and friend but amazingly there is no law in LA against stealing a body. The only thing they could be charged with was the theft of the coffin for which they were fined a small amount. What was left of the body eventually ended up in Louisiana where his father was unsuccessful in claiming any of the Snively inheritance. True story. Weird but true.

You can tell from reading this that I find the death of Gram Parson's a lot more interesting than this album. I've nothing against the guy I just wish his music was a bit more surprising. Maybe not ice cube-up-the-sphincter surprising but at least slightly startling.

Influenced by:
Country music.
Influenced: Keith Richards

Highlight: Medley live from NOrthern Quebec.
Lowlight: $1000 Wedding.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Everyone, everyone should own this album, everyone. Gram Parsons is/was a national treasure. Here is America, pure and profound. Here is life, pure and profound. Van Morrison, Miles Davis, Beethoven and Mozart...Gram is there. Just for Gram's inclusion of Emmylou Harris in these recordings is more than anyone could ever accomplish in their lives for invention. This is the Kind of Blues of country and like Kind of Blue, it is original American music. Listening to this no matter what your taste is to be alive."

-Okay, okay you like the album but really- Beethoven? Mozart? Is there a chance you're being a bit to generous with your praise?

So what do you think- is Parson's an Angel or is Gram just a lightweight? Let me know below.