Friday, May 31, 2013

96. Tommy (1969) The Who


1. Overture
2. It's a Boy!
3. 1921
4. Amazing Journey
5. Sparks
6. The Hawker
7. Christmas
8. Cousin Kevin
9. The Acid Queen
10. Underture
11. Do You Think It's Alright?
12. Fiddle About
13. Pinball Wizard
14. There's a Doctor
15. Go to the Mirror!
16. Tommy Can You Hear Me?
17. Smash the Mirror
18. Sensation
19. Miracle Cure
20. Sally Simpson
21. I'm Free
22. Welcome
23. Tommy's Holiday Camp
24. We're Not Gonna Take It

Rock Opera: none of what makes Opera good mixed with the worst aspects of Rock. Two great genres combined to make a new, third genre which should never exist.

Still if you're going to listen to Rock Opera then you might as well listen to the best of them. The Who's Tommy is the tale of a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball. It's one of the first albums to ever aspire to the title Rock Opera and definitely the best the genre has to offer.

It's still crap though.

Tommy is just deplorably awful which is a pity because The Who aren't. They're one of the most talented quartets of their day (only Led Zeppelin could match them instrument for instrument) and they wrote some great songs. Their next album after this one (Who's Next) is a magnificent collection of rock and roll music and if they needed to get this nonsense out of their system in order to record it then we should be grateful that Tommy exists. But that doesn't meant I need to actually listen to it.

Like all good operas (and bad ones too) Tommy opens with an overture which outlines the musical themes the listener will encounter if they can endure the entire thing. Then it launches into the story which is reminiscent of the sort of thing 12 year olds write when they sit down to write something just for the sake of testing out a fancy new pen, or it would be if 12 year olds had an understanding of LSD, prostitution, murder and sexual abuse.

A young boy named Tommy witnesses his parents committing murder and as a result loses his ability to see, hear or communicate. He takes LSD and has sex with a prostitute, gets hooked on pinball, recovers his abilities and starts a cult. Does any of that have anything profound to say about hero worship, perception, experience or even arcade-hall amusements? Probably not, which is something we could easily forgive if it had riffs, hooks, solos and songs that got stuck in your head. The truth is that there's not really much on the album that would stand alone outside the overblown concept-album approach. The obvious exception is Pinball Wizard, a staple of classic rock radio and deservedly so. You're singing it now in your head. In fact you started as soon as you saw the title of this post. You're not only singing the lyrics you're making that silly dum-dum sound people make when trying to verbally replicate guitar riffs: "That deaf dumb and blind kid Sure. Plays. A. Mean. Pinball! dum dum dum dum dum!" Go ahead. Take the time to enjoy it. I can wait.

Sadly the rest of the album is nowhere near half as good and is often unintentionally hilarious. Even the opening It's a boy! sounds more like a band trying to send up bad musicals than an earnest attempt to create rock and roll. It's hard not to laugh at a lot of Tommy and the effect is cumulative so the listener finds themselves giggling right up until track 12 which totally wipes the smile off your face.

Before he regains his ability to see, the title character has two unpleasant encounters with two unpleasant relatives. His cousin tortures him for fun, which is fairly nasty, but definitely topped by his uncle who sexually abuses Tommy when left in his care.

Now I'm not sure when the sexual abuse of children is an acceptable topic for popular music to address but I'm fairly sure that when it is it should be roundly condemned. Aerosmith tackled it in Janie's Got A Gun and explored the idea that abuse could destroy lives completely. Steven Tyler and Co didn't really shine much light on the issue but at least they didn't appear to revel in it. The Who turned molestation into a catchy sing-along: "Down with the bedclothes, Up with your nightshirt! Fiddle about, Fiddle about, Fiddle about!" Modern listeners can't help but be uncomfortable with this as a concept but it must have been jarring even back in 1969 surely? Was everyone really that jovial about sexual abuse back in the late sixties? Could we turn it into something fun if we made it melodic? Seriously?

Fiddle About might be enough to make some people stop listening to Tommy which means it's technically doing them a favour. True they'll stop listening one song before the album's highlight but it won't be long before you hear Pinball wizard on the radio anyway so it's no great loss. You also won't be missing out on the compelling narrative which just tootles along aimlessly until its conclusion anyway. You can give the whole thing a miss and opt for a Who best-of instead.

Rock Opera. Stop it, it's silly.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Tommy was just done brilliantly by the Little Theatre of Alexandria in Virginia, and I enjoyed it immensely, several times. Hoping to buy a CD of the music they used, I bought this one. Immediately I was disappointed."

-Apparently The Who aren't quite as good as The Little Theatre of Alexandria. I hope they tour beyond Virginia because with that recommendation I'm keen to try them out.

So do you enjoy Tommy or would you rather hear a version performed by a community theatre company from Virginia? Let me know below.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

97. The Freewheelin Bob Dylan (1963) Bob Dylan

  1. Blowin' in the Wind" – 2:48
  2. Girl from the North Country" – 3:22
  3. Masters of War" – 4:34
  4. Down the Highway" – 3:27
  5. Bob Dylan's Blues" – 2:23
  6. A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" – 6:55
  7. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" – 3:40
  8. Bob Dylan's Dream" – 5:03
  9. Oxford Town" – 1:50
  10. Talkin' World War III Blues" – 6:28
  11. Corrina, Corrina" (Traditional) – 2:44
  12. Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" (Dylan, Henry Thomas) – 2:01
  13. I Shall Be Free" – 4:49

The Freewheelin Bob Dylan begins with Blowin in the Wind and boasts Masters of War, Girl from the North Country, A Hard Rains Gonna Fall and Don't think Twice It's Alright in its tracklisting. With those five songs the rest of the album could be filled with the sound of Dylan rhythmically slapping his own forehead and it would still be great. Blowin in the Wind alone is enough to ensure it's place on the top 500 list somewhere,  lord knows there are other albums which are propped up by a lesser tent pole of a song. The good news is that there's more to Freewheelin than just the well known songs, the bad news is that it could have been even greater. 
When Dylan recorded his first album the year before, he churned out 17 songs in two days that were culled to make his debut release. When he came to record his second he recorded over two dozen songs in sessions spread out over an entire year which meant he eventually had two albums worth of material to try and cut down into one. Volumes have been written trying to work out what Dylan was thinking when he sat down and tried to cull 46 songs into a 13 song album. A lot of effort has spent working out whether he dropped Talkin John Birch Blues because of record label pressure or because of a self-imposed desire not to become too defined by "finger pointing songs". For audiences in 1963 the loss of a blatant  and barbed dig at communist paranoia deprived them of a statement that needed voicing, but for modern audiences it's no great loss. John Birch is not one of Dylan's finest songs and in an era in which communism seems more quaint than threatening, its lyrics have a lot less impact. It's hard to appreciate the genuine fear which Dylan is satirizing when he talks about Reds Under the Bed, which apparently was a really big issue at the time (couldn't they have just put down mousetraps?) 
Much easier to accept is the fear apparent in Let Me Die in my Footsteps in which Dylan declares he won't hide in a bomb shelter if war broke out but die on his feet instead.  I'm firmly of the opinion that if Bob had included Let Me Die in my Footsteps on Freewheelin instead of ditching it altogether it would be considered one of his masterpieces along with this album's big five tracks. Footsteps is a brilliant piece of songwriting with some truly arresting imagery and words that linger like nuclear fallout ("Instead of learning to live they are learning to die"). It's a magnificent song but was not only left off Freewheelin, it stayed unreleased until 1991 when it finally appeared on the first volume of his official bootleg collection. Not for the first or last time, the public was left wondering what the hell Bob Dylan was thinking. Footsteps is the first great Dylan song left off an album but it definitely wasn't the last (Blind Willie McTell, Series of Dreams etc). Let me Die in my Footsteps is one of the first songs he recorded for Freewheelin and by the time it came to choose the final tracklisting he'd played it so often on stage it was starting to bore him. It's a mark of an exceptional talent when you can actually be bored by greatness. 
It's a shame Bob didn't have a greater tolerance for his own work. Personally I've heard Footsteps a hundred times and I'm less bored with it than I am with Down the Highway, for example which is a massive drop in quality from the highs of the first three tracks. 
By the time he came to assemble the album, Bob was obviously equally bored with Sally Gal, Rambling Gambling Willie and The Death of Emmett Till which in some ways is a pity because Till's story is one that deserves to be heard. Till was probably rejected for the same reason The Walls of Red Wing was given the boot: both sound extremely familiar. Emmett Till sounds a lot like House of the Rising Sun and Red Wing sounds like every folk song you've ever heard. Dylan was never shy about stealing chord progressions from folk classics but he was probably keen to avoid the entirely obvious.
If you get your hands on a copy of The Bootleg Series 1-3 you can enjoy many of these outtakes for yourself and make your own mind up as to whether Dylan made the right decisions or not. The one thing we can all agree on is that Girl from the North Country is just beautiful, Don't think Twice it's allright is one of the most scathing break up songs ever written ("you just kind of wasted my precious time") and Masters of War is sadly still relevant today. We can also agree that A Hard Rains A-Gonna fall boasts some of the most amazing lyrics anyone has ever recorded: "I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin" who sings that in 1963? Bleeding hammers? Nobody else would dare bring up the image of murder by hammer in a popular song (...except the Beatles obviously. Does Maxwell's Silver Hammer make anyone else feel uncomfortable or is that just me?). A Hard Rains A-Gonna fall has words that you can pour over for months and still get new things out of. It's a song that has no one meaning but dozens of interpretations with new ones being concocted whenever Dylan revolutionizes it as a living piece of music in concert.  For me it's the standout track of the album and it's one that literally stops me if it randomizes its way into my life via an mp3 player. I can work to most music but Hard Rain demands my full attention.
The Freewheelin Bob Dylan has it's fair share of flat spots and songs that haven't dated well. They're made all the more annoying with the knowledge that other highlights were ejected to make way for them. In this era of playlists and compilations you can assemble your own version replacing your least favourite moments with the pick of the outtakes which would create an album that deserves to be even higher on this listing than a lowly 97. Either way it's classic Dylan and has some of his greatest compositions and most arresting performances.
And Blowin in the Wind. It's got Blowin in the Wind as well.

    Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Blowin in the wind may be the Folkies only good tune ever he is just terrible and for 1963 Losers that were beat up by the Football teams back in the day that were cool."

    -Guys who write comments like these need a good smack from an entire football team.

    Friday, May 17, 2013

    98. This Year's Model (1978) Elvis Costello

    1. No Action
    2. This Year's Girl
    3. The Beat
    4. Pump It Up
    5. Little Triggers
    6. You Belong to Me
    7. Hand in Hand
    8. (I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea
    9. Lip Service
    10. Living in Paradise
    11. Lipstick Vogue
    12. Night Rally

    Listening to this countdown has been an effective introduction to the career of Elvis Costello, an artist who I'd previously only had a passing acquaintance with. I've now heard all the albums people recommend and I can conclude I've got a real respect for the guy. He can write a tune and put together a good set of lyrics.

    This Year's Model is his second album and the highest placed Costello release on the top 500. It's also got his best song in Pump It Up which is a fantastic three minutes of rock and roll. Pump it Up has a riff and a relentless beat which Costello uses as a base to rapidfire some lyrical phrases with some clever rhyming and his trademark word play. It's a great song and listening to it on repeat a few times I drove myself nuts trying to work out what it reminded me of. When Costello was rapid-rhyming there was another song that wandered through my head but would dance away whenever I tried to put my finger on what it was. Eventually I realised it was Wild Wild West by The Escape Club which was a big hit when I was 15 and would surely have had everyone who was 15 when this album came out crying "plagiarism" whenever it comes on. It's impossible to listen to Wild Wild West and not believe Pump it Up played a big part in the songwriting process.

    The rest of This Year's Model doesn't quite live up to the highs of its lead single. It rocks when it's fast  but when it slows down it's not as effective. Little Triggers would be the album's lowpoint wherever it came on the album but straight after Pump it Up it's slightly lower still. Costello is such a misfit he's  at his best when he's not quite fitting into any kind of genre. I Don't Want to Go To Chelsea is clearly reggae influenced by it's too fast and rocks too hard for traditional reggae. It doesn't seem to know what it is and Costello clearly doesn't care and neither should you. It's a great song whatever it is you have to wonder what the American record label was thinking when they dropped it from the US release because it sounded "Too English". Idiots.

    My main criticism of This Years Model is that the songs aren't really given enough time to breathe. They're mostly around the two or three minute mark and tend to launch straight into the vocals, hurtle through the verses and chorus and then end almost as soon as Costello's final lyric has died away. A bit of an introduction and coda along with an instrumental break somewhere in the middle might give the album a bit more impact and made some of the tracks a bit more memorable. But this was all recorded in 1978 when punk was king and nobody was playing solos anywhere on records. There were gangs of punks roaming recording studios searching for anyone who knew how to play anything more than three chords so they could safety-pin them to their amps and spit on their heads until they promised never to try and play a lead break again.

    Elvis Costello definitely deserves to be more than just a blip on your musical radar. He's a real talent and his albums have a lot of hidden gems beyond the singles that were getting any airplay. Track him down and give him a listen

    Here's Pump it Up for those that haven't heard it...

    And for those who'd like a point of comparison here's Wild Wild West. Sound familiar?

    Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Pop rock at its late 70's heights shows a thinking man's Bruce Springsteen continuing to harness amazing energy and tight interplay out of proportion to many of his peers, furthering an already torrential amount of praise only after this sophomore release."

    -I think you've just annoyed a legion of Springsteen fans.

    So... this years model or yesterdays papers? Let me know below.

    Friday, May 10, 2013

    99. There's a Riot Going on (1971) Sly and The Family Stone

    1. Luv n' Haight 
    2. Just Like a Baby
    3. Poet
    4. Family Affair
    5. Africa Talks to You 'The Asphalt Jungle'
    6. There's a Riot Goin' On
    7. Brave & Strong
    8. (You Caught Me) Smilin'
    9. Time
    10. Spaced Cowboy
    11. Runnin' Away
    12. Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa

    Sly and The Family Stone were theoretically a band but in reality weren't. They were basically Sly and whatever he let any of his family members do. On There's a Riot Going On he wrote everything and recorded all the instruments and would occasionally call on a sibling to play something which he'd inevitably overdub anyway. He'd fling on bits of his own and then remove them and overdub other things and delete them too and treat the whole thing like a massive work in progress. Apparently it's the constant overdubbing and editing that has given There's a Riot Goin on its notoriously muddy sound. There's a lack of clarity in everything that reminds me of the old days when you'd copy someone's tape and then someone would copy yours and you'd lose a degree of fidelity every time (I'm sure I had some tapes that were copies of copies of copies and they sounded terrible, but in those days it was all I had).  There's a Riot Goin On is so swampy at times I struggled to work out whether Spaced Cowboy actually had deliberate backing vocals or not. There appears to be some backing singing goin' on but it's so low in the mix it sounds to me like bleeding from other microphones rather than deliberately mixed in. It's entirely possible that there was actually a riot goin' on at the time and protesters outside made their way onto the master tape somehow. Although I should point out that it's hard to focus on what's happening in the background when all you can hear in the foreground is a black guy yodelling. Seriously. I can't think of a single other album in which a black guy yodels. This may well be the only recorded instance in which an African American has been moved to yodel. And if it, is I can see why.

    Much of the overdubbing comes in the form of percussion which Sly felt would be better if it was played by a machine. There's a Riot Goin on features some of the first ever electronic percussion ever put on record and to be honest you can clearly hear it's technology in its infant stages. It sounds more like a guy playing around with a machine than a live human who understands what the word "groove" means.

    There's a riot Goin On is given an extra layer of murkiness thanks to it's subject matter. While other funksters were just obsessed with being funky, Sly was starting to get political and felt the need to write lyrics which (if you could hear them) are apparently politically charged firebombs of latent social-justice fury. Although the murky production means the album is a bit like having someone tell you about bad things while buried in a swamp.

    The general consensus among many of the record buying public is that There's a Riot Goin On isn't as good as Stand! and I'd have to agree. Stand! is just straight ahead funk and seems to have a genuine sense of purpose. It wants you to move your feet and shake your body and sing at the same time. It's a disco inferno of your very own to light up your house. There's a riot Going On sounds like someone trying to create their own sound collages while changing the world one mind at a time. There are none of the highpoints that Stand offered and the  alleged "standout" track here is A Family Affair which gets tiring in a hurry. Brave and Strong is a much better song with a lot more funk and groove packed into it's short running time.

    There's a Riot Goin On also has the worst song I've ever heard Sly and The Family Stone commit to vinyl. Runnin Away is just awful and sounds like what would happen if 12 year olds tried to write and sing funk music. I can't identify the gender of the lead singer and it's possible they don't actually have one and hover somewhere between the two sexes while being rejected by both. The crap little sing-song rhyme that whatever it is sings is occasionally interrupted by a muted trumpet, and when I say muted I mean severely muted. It sounds like horns being played by a mattress.

    The final track on the albums is Thank You For Taking to Me Africa, a self-tribute to their earlier hit Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). I say tribute, I think what I really mean is "watered down version". The band takes the mighty bassline from the original song and slows it down until it's tedious and repeats it over and over again. It's an interesting statement but basically ruins one of their best songs.

    There's a Riot Goin On is probably my least favourite Sly and The Family Stone album on the countdown. It's still worth hearing but it's nowhere near as good as Stand! which I still highly recommend.

    It's not my favourite track from the album but here's the lead single and the one everyone knows: Family Affair.

    Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "This album must release enzymes every time I play it. It's like a full body massage from the inside. "

    -A massage from the inside. What a great phrase.

    So is this album a riot or just a bunch of people throwing stones at the police? Let me know below

    Friday, May 3, 2013

    100. In the Wee Small Hours (1955) Frank Sinatra

    1. In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning 3:00
    2. Mood Indigo 3:30
    3. Glad To Be Unhappy 2:35
    4. I Get Along Without You Very Well 3:42
    5. Deep In A Dream 2:49
    6. I See Your Face Before Me 3:24
    7. Can't We Be Friends? 2:48
    8. When Your Lover Has Gone 3:10
    9. What Is This Thing Called Love? 2:35
    10. Last Night When We Were Young 3:17
    11. I'll Be Around 2:59
    12. Ill Wind 3:46
    13. It Never Entered My Mind 2:42
    14. Dancing On The Ceiling 2:57
    15. I'll Never Be The Same 3:05
    16. This Love Of Mine 3:35

    In The Wee Small Hours was Sinatra's third album after signing a new record deal and the one that proved he was, and always would be, a singing talent first and an actor second. It was a smash hit that proved he was an adult talent and one of the biggest stars of his day and chances are you don't know any of it.

    I certainly didn't. When I saw Frank's name appearing on the charts I thought: "Sinatra? Cool. I did it myyyyyy waaaaaaaay!" It turns out My Way isn't on Wee Small Hours (I think it's more of an afternoon song) and neither is any other Sinatra song I'd ever heard.

    The Wee Small Hours is actually the world's first concept album, which I'm not sure is something it should be proud of. The linking concept is the fact that Frank is Sad. Frank is Sad because he's a self described manic depressive so he's often a bit blue at the best of times, he's sad because his singing career isn't at the height it once was and he's sad because his tv career flopped (although this melancholy might have been tempered a bit by the fact that his acting career had just produced a series of awards including one Oscar and a further nomination). But most of all he was sad because of Ava Gardner. His second wife was Hollywood star and Femme Fatale Ava Gardner  with whom he enjoyed a tumultuous affair quickly followed by a tumultuous marriage and then completed the tumultuous trifecta by having a divorce heavily steeped in tumult.

    As Sinatra entered the studio to record In The Wee Small Hours it was clear that he and Gardner had no future together as a married couple and he was going to have to let her go. Just to put this into perspective, Frank was saying goodbye to a woman who looked like this. I'd be pretty broken up too.

    So either in the interests of personal integrity to his current mood, or in an attempt to cash in on the moods of those who had a similar experience (the number of males lamenting an absence of Ava Gardner in their lives was a large enough target market to aim for), Frank recorded an album made up entirely of "I'm so blue and lonely" songs. 16 tracks of music for the jilted, dumped, despondent and crestfallen in a loveless way. An album linked by a common theme.

    Consequently In the Wee Small Hours is a fairly depressing listen. It's a cheerless collection of slow numbers with no respite from the doleful tone. In any other hands it would be the most dreadful album ever to wallow in self pity but Frank has Frank's voice and he has Frank's soul and he doesn't have Ava Gardner.

    You can really feel the sadness when Sinatra sings. Despite the fact that he's accompanied by a large band and a string section, the loneliness pours out of him and infects every note. He has a beautiful voice which is gold to listen to and he can inject feeling into everything he does. It doesn't sound like someone making a record for the money or to reinvent his career, you could easily believe that if he wasn't singing in the studio he'd be standing at his window looking out at the rain and singing these songs to himself. It's musical therapy.

    There's no doubt the breadth of Sinatra's talent means this album isn't just for those who've reached an advanced age where they need a wee themselves in the small hours of morning, it's timeless stuff. But it's kind of hard to enjoy in one sitting if you're not in the same place Frank was. It starts well but 16 songs with a similar theme, mood and tempo gets a bit draining after a while. The last 15 songs feel like lesser versions of the first and it's a bit of a relief when it ended.

    Of course my view could be tempered by the fact that my wife was in the room with me and I was cleaning when I heard it so I wasn't really in the right frame of mind. If it had been 3am and not 3pm and my wife had left my life instead of just left her shoes in the middle of the floor I might have suddenly become Frank's target audience and it might have been the right album in the right place at the right time.

    In the Wee Small hours is probably the most perfect album for the lonely male I can think of. If you're a lonely male I can't recommend it highly enough. If you're not then you might want to keep it in reserve just in case but listen to something else in the mean time.

    Here's the title track to enjoy.

    Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "The arrangements are top-heavy and Sinatra himself seems to be led by the orchestrations, rather than the other way around."

    -How does an orchestra get led by a musician? Can you jam with a full string section? Is that even possible?

    So do you listen to this album In the Wee Small Hours or not at all? Let me know below.

    A 500 Horizons Announcement

    After 4 years and 400 albums I've finally reached the top 100. Having heard the also rans, near things and bubbling unders, I've finally come to the century of albums that Rolling Stone Magazine have decided are the best recorded by anyone anywhere; a 99 step journey to the album they've decreed is better than anything else ever put down by a musician on planet earth.

    At my current rate of two albums a week I could whip through this final 20% in a year but I've decided to give the last fifth of the countdown a bit more time. From here on the reviews will be a bit longer, more detailed and contain a slight format change. These are the biggest releases of all time and deserve more attention than the ones who went before.

    Consequently reviews of the top 100 from now on will be posted once a week on the weekend instead of "randomly twice a week" which has been the pattern so far. 

    For those of you who have been faithfully following this blog since its launch back in 2009: I can't thank you enough. Your comments have kept me going on this project for the last 4 years despite a change of job and the birth of my two children. It's been fun and I hope you enjoy the next two years as we head towards the number 1 position.