Saturday, February 22, 2014

57. Beggars Banquet (1968) The Rolling Stones

1. Sympathy for the Devil
2. No Expectations
3. Dear Doctor
4. Parachute Woman
5. Jigsaw Puzzle
6. Street Fighting Man
7. Prodigal Son
8. Stray Cat Blues
9. Factory Girl
10. Salt of the Earth

Some bands are lucky enough to have a classic album in their catalogue. A select few can manage two or three. The Stones not only have (at least) four great albums to their name, they were fortunate enough to have them in a row. The run of albums that they started in 1968 hasn't been matched by anyone, with the possible exception of their Liverpuddlian rivals, before or since.

After the misstep that was 1967's psychedelic pop experiment For their Satanic Majesty's Request, the Stones decided to forgo any attempt at mysticism and get back to what they did best: riff based rock and blues based ballads.

Anyone who was still smarting from the disappointment that was Satanic Majesties must have entered the Banquet with a sense of trepidation. An opening track called Sympathy for the Devil would seem to suggest more lame psychadelia. How wrong they were. Sympathy is just magnificent and it's testament to how good the Stones are that this isn't universally acclaimed as their best song. If it was recorded by any other band it would be their signature tune that stood head and shoulders above all else but it comes from the same group who gave us Jumping Jack Flash and Satisfaction which means it's up against some fairly stiff competition.

Sympathy has a roaring groove and lyrics that are just insanely fun to shout loud. I've got dozens of live versions of Sympathy and in every one you can heard the audience go nuts when that opening drum beat sounds. When Mick kicks in with a "wow" it's just electric. "Pleased to meet you! Hope you guess my name!" if there are words more fun to shout out loud then I'm not sure what they are. I love this song so much that not even the 7,000 "woo woos" at the end get repetitive. It's just golden all the way and for anyone worried by the previous effort it sent a loud and clear message: the Stones are back.

Further outstanding blues riffage is available courtesy of Street Fighting Man which opens side two with some more explosive brilliance. Street Fighting is a powerhouse rock and roll track which picks you up, slaps your around the face for a bit and then deposits you satisfied in your furniture. It sounds like a band who have studied the art of combining force with groove and mastered it quickly.

There's a lot of fairly low key Stones songs on Beggars, probably more than any other album. No Expectations is one of their most overlooked ballads which is a pity because it's phenomenal. Mick's brash attitude and sleazy blues credentials made him a difficult thing for a lot of people to accept in the late sixties but if he'd had angelic looks and a clean cut image this track would have received a lot more attention. It's a blinder.

Jigsaw Puzzle deserves to be liberated from it's current status as mere album filler. It's a great chance for Charlie Watts to show off his drumming skills and even though Nicky Hopkins sounds like he's still playing Sympathy for the Devil on piano it's still a great chance for him to demonstrate his much missed ivory tinkling abilities.

Unlike Sticky Fingers, Beggars does have a misstep or two. Most notably Salt of The Earth which is a woefully patronizing attempt to idolize the working class. It's a horrible piece of shlock songwriting which should have been forgotten about completely but their occasional attempts to revive it in a live setting have never served to turn it into anything more palatable. It didn't work back when The Stones were struggling artists and it works even less now that they use private jets to fly between their multiple mansions. The same can't be said for Factory Girl which is always a treat when it gets a surprise run during a show (and even when it was rewritten as Glastonbury Girl for their 2013 Glasto debut).

If you only know the Stones from their multiple best-of albums you deserve to check out their four album run. Beggars, Bleed, Fingers and Exile are four albums who have to be heard in their entirety to appreciate what an incredible run this band was on back in the late sixties. It didn't matter that their founding member was sliding out of their musical sphere, all that mattered was Mick and Keith's incredible songwriting ability, which for a few years eclipsed anyone else writing music anywhere in the world.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review: "Even though I don't like much of the Stones' work I know that, at lest to me, all music is good to someone, even if I don't like it. I gave this five stars because I myself trying to write songs, know that I would hate to have a LP that didn't get any reviews."

-That's kind of sweet. I don't like this but I gave it five stars because I know songwriting is hard. Presumably he's given a five star review to every album on amazon then?

So is this a Banquet you'd like to be invited to or not? Let me know below.

Friday, February 14, 2014

58. Trout Mask Replica (1969) Captain Beefheart

1. Frownland
2. The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back
3. Dachau Blues
4. Ella Guru
5. Hair Pie: Bake 1
6. Moonlight On Vermont
7. Pachuco Cadaver
8. Bills Corpse
9. Sweet Sweet Bulbs
10. Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish
11. China Pig
12. My Human Gets Me Blues
13. Dali's Car
14. Hair Pie: Bake 2
15. Pena
16. Well
17. When Big Joan Sets Up
18. Fallin' Ditch
19. Sugar 'N Spikes
20. Ant Man Bee
21. Orange Claw Hammer
22. Wild Life
23. She's Too Much For My Mirror
24. Hobo Chang Ba
25. The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica)
26. Steal Softly Thru Snow
27. Old Fart At Play
28. Veteran's Day Poppy

I promise I'm not making any of this up. I know this will sound like I'm freeforming the plot of a bad novel but all of the following is genuinely true...

The strange but true story of Trout Mask Replica, the unlistenable album that is apparently the 58th greatest of all time.

Don Van Vleit, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart wrote almost all the tunes for this album on a Piano. An instrument that he didn't know how to play. He would sit at a piano and poke at the keys until he heard something he liked. He would then ask his drummer (who was named John French but who Beefheart called Drumbo) to transpose the tiny, six note noodlings into musical annotation. They then took the tiny annotated musical doodles and smooshed them together into something that could be called a song but was really a lot of small phrases one after the other.

The collected noodly bits were then given a silly name by Beefheart and some lyrics that made no sense and then taught by French to each of the band members. Beefheart's lyrics are the sort of thing you would expect when you see the list of song titles: Dachau Blues, Hair Pie: Bake 1, Pachuco Cadaver, Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish, Ant Man Bee, Orange Claw Hammer etc etc. It's the sort of stuff you'd expect from a guy who told people not to disturb him at night because he was levitating. It's the product of a mind who tells people he once slept for a year and half by eating only fruit (without ever explaining how he ate fruit in his sleep). It's bonkers stuff.

The band then spent eight months living in poverty in a communal house while they rehearsed the tracks for 14 hours a day living off meagre rations. They survived on soy beans and stolen food and were constantly verbally and physically assaulted by Beefheart who was... and there's no other way to put this... kind nutty. He had a sharpened broomstick which he used to attack musicians who didn't play well enough even though the demands he made of them could sometimes be considered a bit esoteric. French was physically thrown down a flight of stairs for not being able to "Play a strawberry" on the drums. Beefheart apparently studied mind-control techniques rather than music while preparing to make the album and verbally abused his band to break them down and bend them to his will. The experience of rehearsing together in the house was so traumatic that the band couldn't listen to the album for years afterwards. French was so traumatised by the process that he was suicidal for months and ducked if anyone waved their hands because he'd been hit so often. The lead guitarist tried to write his autobiography and recalling the experience of recoding Trout Mask made him so unwell he threw up.

Beefheart would rehearse the band constantly and if they weren't rehearsing he'd gather them together for extended meetings in which he would berate the musicians and make them turn on each other thanks to his tendency of telling them what they'd all said to him in what they thought was a private conversation.

After months of rehearsing, the band went into the studio to record. The process of writing  was so avante garde and out there so Beefheart needed a producer with a traditional set of studio values who could ground the entire project. Instead he chose Frank Zappa whose love of musical experimentation and avante garde lunacy was just what the project didn't really need. I've spoken often about what a genius I think Frank is and how I love his music. He's also a notorious control freak and totally in command of every project he's been involved in so it's impressive that Beefheart managed to convince Zappa to take a back seat and give the Captain total artistic freedom and authority.

Once the band had recorded the basic tracks (in four and a half hours apparently) they were set free to go and rock quietly from side to side muttering to themselves and screaming occasionally. Beefheart then set about recording his vocals which he did without listening to the tracks they'd recorded. He went into a soundbooth in front of a microphone but instead of wearing earphones he just let loose when he thought it was appropriate. Beefheart claimed to have a five octave vocal range but that doesn't mean he could sing sonorously at either end of it. His deep voice is a growl and his high range is a kind of screech. The stuff in between is fairly inaccessible as well.

So how does the album sound? It sounds exactly like you would expect an album to sound if it was written on a piano by a guy who couldn't play the piano, performed by emotionally unstable musicians who hated each other and sung by a madman who wasn't listening to the backing track at the time. It sounds like the sort of album that David Lynch would love (and apparently he does)

There are those who claim Trout Mask Replica is utterly brilliant, it just requires multiple listens to actually appreciate. Once you immerse yourself utterly in it a few times you begin to understand you're in the presence of genius. There are others who claim it's unlistenable nonsense and anyone who claims it isn't is fooling themselves.

Personally I brought Trout Mask Replica in my early twenties when I was trying to get my hands on everything Zappa had touched. I took it home thinking to myself "I will love this because it's Zappa and I'm clever enough to appreciate the avante garde". I don't think I'd ever heard it all the way through until I forced myself to for this blog. I've tried several times before but it's like trying to read Ulysses. It just gets too much after a while and wears you down. It gets to the point where you think it might grow on you if you listen to it ten more times but it's just not worth the effort. Why subject yourself to multiple listens just so you can say you don't hate it anymore?

If you love Trout Mask I would genuinely love to hear from you below. I've read the positive reviews but I'd like to hear more because I'd love to understand it's appeal.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Either my ears have fallen off or this is just another overblown tree hugging recording of pure rot gut excuse for music."

-Tree Hugging? Where do you get Tree hugging from?

Have you actually listened to Trout Mask all the way through? If so please let me know below? I'm desperate to hear from you.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

59. Meet the Beatles (1964) The Beatles

Meet the Beatles was America's 1964 attempt to catch up with the Fab Four. By the start of 1964 The Beatles had released two huge selling full length albums and some hit singles in the UK and finally the Americans were starting to realise that the guys over the pond had something that might be worth hearing.

Consequently Capitol Records, who had the US rights to The Beatles catalogue, sat down with the master tapes of everything the Beatles released in 1963 which they were then able to cherry pick for a US album release. Rather than just submit Please Please Me and With the Beatles for their nation's approval, they decided to create their own compilation tape which is basically most of With The Beatles with singles tacked on the front.

Here's my review Track by Track (with some comments shamelessly cut and pasted from my earlier review of With the Beatles, my views haven't changed)

1. I Want to Hold Your Hand

Isn't that sweet? The Beatles want to hold your hand. The Rolling Stones want to do all sorts of nasty things to you involving Mars Bars but the Beatles want to tentatively reach out to your hand and clasp it tightly but nervously in theirs. It's nonsense of course. The Beatles were much more interested in other body parts and were just as horny as the Stones but had better suits and a manager who kept saying "Don't look sexual" before every interview.

Still it might be an untrue sentiment but damn it's a good song. I want to Hold your Hand was the first song that made America sit up and realise what they were missing. It's a slice of perfect pop and incredibly infectious. It's no surprise that US audiences heard it and thought: "We want more!"

2. I Saw Her Standing There

And there was more. All they had to do was flip over the single and find the other A-side. I saw her Standing there was the flipside of I Want to Hold your Hand which proved they weren't just a one hit wonder. UK audiences had already enjoyed Standing as the opening track on their first album. Standing is just perfect. From it's raucous opening to "Well my heart went boom" and everything else in between. It's just joyous and it sounds great on a crap old radio or a shiny new system or headphones or even in your own voice in the shower.

3. This Boy

America's first chance to really appreciate the famous Beatles harmonies. John, Paul and George lift what might have been a fairly average tune into something much greater through the use of their vocal harmonising. Full credit to George Martin here for teaching the boys how harmony worked. They picked up their live performing skills in Hamburg but the clubs they played in weren't really the best venue to learn close harmony in.

4. It Won't Be Long

A With the Beatles song that John wrote to try and replicate the success of She Loves you. This song is so damn… Beatley. A catchy chorus, harmonies, yeah yeahs. It even finished with a big “oooo” sound the likes of which drove kids wild. You might not know it but if I played it in your house you could identify the authors within the first four bars and your toes would be tapping four bars later. The album version is Take 17 with some overdubs recorded in the same day.

5. All I've Got to Do

A song John wrote two years earlier and had lying around before digging out for With the Beatles. A slower number but still oozing fab-fourness. If beatleness was liquid this would flood your bedroom before the second verse started and you’d have a great time drowning. They laid down the entire track in under an hour. After a few false starts they played the track six times, chose the best version, recorded an overdubed backing vocal in one take and then moved onto something else.

6. All My Loving

This is 50 years old but it’s fresh and sparkly and new and fab every time you hear it. Try not to sing along. Go on try! Put your hand over your mouth and clench your teeth and try not to join in. Futile isn’t it? Paul wrote the lyrics while shaving and then later put it to music. They recorded it in the same session that produced It won't Be Long with only 13 takes required.

7. Don't Bother Me

A rare Harrison original. Early on in his career George couldn't write as well as the others but in only a few short years he was cranking out something like Something which is really something. It’s like great song-writing is contagious and over constant exposure to two carriers George caught it (but somehow Ringo was immune). Unlike most of the rest of the album, the Beatles took two days to record this track instead of one. They weren't happy with it after a run through on September 11th so they returned to it on the 12th. The final version on the album is Take 15 which they overdubbed with Claves, tambourine and bongos. Personally I prefer Take 10 without any overdubs at all.

8.  Little Child

For the Beatles this is just an album filler but for any other act in the sixties an original composition like this would have been an instant single. And it would have charted as well. I may be spoiling some illusions here when I tell you that this track is constructed rather than performed. The basic take was taken from the seventh take. They then included some harmonica from the 13th take, the harmonica solo from take 18 and some piano from take 15. They were talented guys but John had yet to master singing while playing the harmonica at the same time.

9. Till There Was You

The Beatles were so damn good they could even cover tunes from musicals and make them rock. That’s true talent. This song is a ditty. I don’t know what makes a ditty and what makes a song but this is definitely in the ditty camp. Paul’s voice suits it perfectly and George’s solo is so good there were many who assumed it was played by a session musician. Thankfully the band included it in their live repertoire which gave George a chance to prove who was really responsible. The take on the album is from the second session they attempted this track but I prefer live versions without overdubs. Surprisingly this is the only cover on Meet the Beatles. Considering how definitive their renditions of Twist and Shout and Money are you'd think they would have included them instead of some of the lesser tracks like Little Child but instead they were left off. Odd.

10. Hold Me Tight

The lowest point on the album. An unconvincing song that Paul sings without any sense of conviction. It’s like he knows this isn't going to make it on the album. Imagine his surprise when it did. The band actually tried to record this for their first album but decided it wasn't worth pursuing. I wonder what made them change their mind a few months later? I've got a version which has been remixed slightly Out Of Phase which highlights the bass but still does nothing to redeem it as a song.

11. I Wanna Be Your Man

A song that Lennon and McCartney knocked off quickly in the presence of the Rolling Stones who were trying to learn to be song writers. They gave it to Jagger and Richards as a gift and then to Ringo as his song to sing on the album. Letting Ringo out from behind the drums for one song on every album was a masterstroke- he always sang as if he was so happy just to be given a microphone.To be honest he was probably thrilled to be in the band at all. He strikes me as the sort of guy who would be delighted just to be let into a lift. The version included on the album was recorded within a week of it being finished. I prefer live versions recorded later when the band and Ringo were more confident and capable of making it rock.

12. Not A Second Time

More piano than in the other tracks and a nice showcase for George Martin, the fifth Beatle and justifiably the most famous record producer who ever lived (or at least the most famous record producer who didn't attract fame by killing people). This track is the source of the famous Aeolian Cadences quote that gets mentioned a lot. A music critic from The Times praised John's songwriting especially his use of Aeolian Cadences. John said years later that he still had no idea of what an Aeolian Cadence actually was, claiming they sounded to him like a kind of exotic bird. It's a great example of how the Beatles caused professional music critics to witter about their abilities even though they had no formal musical training.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "The Beatles are arguably the most over-rated band in the world."

-Whenever I read a review that starts like that I immediately stop reading.

So are you happy to meet the Beatles or not? Let me know below.