Not the Pazz and Jop 1974 #8

Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

The problem of small sample size has long vexed researchers. If you are trying to project results from a study onto a larger population, it’s better to have 500 participants than 20. The bigger your group – assuming it’s a representative collection of subjects – the more likely it is that your conclusions will have wider application.

The early Pazz and Jop polls, which returned after a two-year absence in 1974, reflect practically the worst case scenario, since not only were there very few voters (24 in 1974), but they were also mostly male, white, and of similar ages and cultural experiences. The result is that they shared a lot of the same perspectives about music, and this lessened the diversity of the list. Remember: in 1971, they did not include Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”, a record that I don’t much care for but which a much larger pool of voters has ranked as the greatest album ever made. This would reach its nadir a few years later when they concluded that Graham Parker made 2 of the top 4 records of that year. That opinion has not come close to standing the test of time.

I questioned whether this should continue as a Pazz and Jop or Not the Pazz and Jop series. I’m sticking with my original intent, but will drop in periodically with more of the nots that I think were egregious oversights by voters of the time. And I’m not sure if there could be a better example of them screwing up than 1974’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” from Richard and Linda Thompson, which did not make the top 30 in that year’s voting.

I don’t know why this wasn’t appreciated for the masterpiece it is on initial release. Richard was known from Fairport Convention, and the airwaves were certainly friendly enough to lame versions of the folk rock that the Thompsons were putting out. It could be one of those records that takes time to grow on you, but I sort of reject that premise, because the first song grabbed my attention and the second ripped my heart out at the 52-second mark, threw it on the floor and stomped on it for the entire three minutes that remained of the track. Is it possible that critics in 1974 were just idiots, so awash in mediocre prog rock posing as art that they couldn’t hear simple unshowy brilliance when it was right there waiting to be recognized? That’s what I’m going with.

Of course, it is actually a rather showy record, with a fanciful mix of instruments – a mandolin here, marching band horns there – played masterfully, and often elusive and allusive lyrics (yet another songwriter wanting us to know how clever he is). It’s a fairly cynical record, populated by con artists (“The Little Beggar Girl”), well-meaning but inappropriate advisors of children (“The End of the Rainbow”: “Every loving handshake/Is just another man to beat” hardly inspires one to get out of bed in the morning – with this kind of worldview, you can see why Richard sought peace in a commune a few years later) and confident but distrustful performers (“I’m your friend until you use me” sings Linda in “The Great Valerio”).

In some sense, the Thompsons, at least on this record, were more two soloists than a true duet, as there is rarely any interplay between their voices, though they did work well together on “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”, less so on “We Sing Hallelujah”, where it sometimes feels as if Linda is still learning the words. I don’t find either of their voices particularly pleasing, but they are unquestionably potent interpreters of Richard’s songs: these aren’t pretty songs, and they don’t need a pretty voice. Richard sounds much older than the 24-year-old he was, and for all the folkie elements here, Linda is best represented on a pair of “modern girl in the world”-type tracks. In “Has He Got A Friend for Me”, her work on the chorus is heart-rending: she starts hesitant and lacking confidence, then strong but wavering on the second effort, before retreating into insecurity. Richard doesn’t sing on that track – it would be an intrusion. The title track finds her liberated from the limits of folk ballads, with a modern-sounding come-hither tune about seeking liberation from a ho-hum life.

“When I Get to the Border” is a toe-tapper with the feel of an old traditional folk song, but grounded in the modern by Richard’s guitar and a steady, uncomplicated drumbeat (the unostentatious drum is also a critical element in “We Sing Hallelujah”). The mournful “Withered and Died” is another of those songs that feel like they were already 100 years old when he wrote them, traditional ballads from long-forgotten masters rescued from obscurity for today’s audience. Similarly, “The Little Beggar Girl” is a slowed-down jig – up the tempo and you’d be swirling around the floor.

But all of this pales to “The Calvary Cross”. Richard shows here that he is a true balladeer. After some amiable, sort of rambling guitar (that really sounds like a sitar in places), he hits with three repeated yet subtly different chords, that same steady drum backing him up. The song is dirge-like, spiritual, and rooted in Christian imagery, which may explain why it has such an impact on this lapsed Catholic. (The movie “Jesus of Montreal” similarly wrecked me on the initial watch in 1989 – resisting my innate Catholicism has been a lifelong project, it seems.) When Richard sings “scrub me ‘til I shine in the dark”, I have no idea what he’s getting at, but it doesn’t matter – it feels deeply personal to him, and I want to feel that, too. I know I’m doing a really poor job of saying why this song hits me so hard, but maybe that’s the point: the best art touches us so deep in our subconscious that efforts to articulate that feeling are no more than the wailings of an infant in an unknowable darkness.

It is the rare song that is made better by stretching it out, but “The Calvary Cross” is one such exception. The Spotify version of the album ends with a live version that falls just shy of 10 minutes. It drops the 51 seconds of noodling that starts the album version and jumps right into the three notes that crushed me so. It’s a showcase for Richard’s amazing guitar work, and a compelling argument for his position among the greatest axemen of his day.

All I can really say is that listening to this record makes me happy. I have probably played it 10 times in the past month, and “The Calvary Cross” maybe 10 times more, and even now, as I write these words with those three magical notes in my ears, I am slightly teary-eyed and feel my heart filled with joy. Music has that kind of insane power, and it would be wise not to trust it completely: it would definitely be a bad idea for me to be, say, operating machinery right now, or making an important financial decision. But we need to find joy wherever we can, especially in this darkest timeline in which we live, and so I am thankful for the Thompsons and others who can take me there. Good luck to you in finding your own “The Calvary Cross”. It’s out there, somewhere.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #20

David Bowie – Aladdin Sane

And so we end our journey through the “best” music of 1973 with David Bowie. This is the third of his albums that I’m writing about, and that would normally concern me. Since what I write is as much memoir as music commentary, I only have so many stories to tell about my connection to any artist. After all, I ran out of things to say about Jeff Beck after one paragraph.

Bowie, chameleon that he was, is the antidote to such woes. Each record (so far) has been so unique, so distinctive from its forebears, that it invites a fresh eye, and the stories just tell themselves. I don’t need to personalise “Aladdin Sane”: I need only to swim in its delights, and the pen takes over.

In places, it’s Bowie embracing his inner pop star, producing crowd-pleasing, danceable music that, after the experimentation of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, invites you to love him. And it works – if you don’t love Bowie after this record, then you probably never will. It’s more accessible even than his much bigger later hits, because those records – especially “Let’s Dance” – are comparatively soulless, the work of a slumming master.

But, because he’s Bowie – or at least 1973-version Bowie – he can’t just make a pop record. Over his radio-friendly melodies he has to lather up off-beat vocalisations, janky pianos, fuzzy guitars, and oddball lyrics. His voice is often low in the mix, fighting against the music.

“Drive-In Saturday” and “The Prettiest Star” are something of a pair, the sound of an early 1960s doo-wop band, their genre slipping into obsolescence as they try to figure what to do next to stay relevant. The latter is more his updated version of such a record, all bop bops and jazzy horns and honky tonk piano, but with the distorted guitars of a garage band reboot. The former has my favourite line on the record: “She’s uncertain if she likes him / but knows she really loves him.”

That piano keeps coming back, including on “Time”, parts of which make me wonder if Tim Curry was trying to channel this version of Bowie in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. A grander, more epic use of the instrument is found in the title track, including a completely unhinged bit of playing around the middle of the song, and the haunted “Lady Grinning Soul”. 

An almost staccato at times cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is playful, not sexy. It’s the Sheldon Cooper version of sexual attraction, so matter-of-fact that it seems carefree when it’s actually laden with mountains of insecurity and confusion. He then does his own take on a Stones tune with “The Jean Genie”, which sounds like a bluesy glam version of southern rock. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the conga drums setting the beat on “Panic in Detroit”.

This one ranks behind “Ziggy” for me, but well ahead of “Hunky Dory”. After over 50 years of people writing and thinking about his work, there is probably nothing much new to be said about Bowie, and if there is, it won’t be me saying it, or at least not yet. Luckily for me, he (probably) won’t reappear in this space until I get to 1976, which buys me some time to think something up.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #19

Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy

What kind of band, exactly, was Led Zeppelin?

To call them heavy metal, as many have, doesn’t meet my personal smell test for the genre. Blues rock is a better fit, and their acknowledged debt to Muddy Waters led me to listen to two of his albums, so that I am now unreservedly in love with his sound. They are certainly hard rock, but I’ve also seen them classed as folk rock, and I can hear that, too, in some songs.

They might also be the coolest progressive rock band in the world – read the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” and then try to convince me there isn’t a prog-rock masterpiece lurking somewhere in there. Some of the songs on this record – mainly “No Quarter”, with a surreal opening and acid guitar, plus the space-aged guitar, twinking keys and helium vocal of “The Song Remains the Same” – also have that feel.

But has anyone ever called them a dance band?

I loved Led Zeppelin in my teens, but not the way a lot of young guys did. I was familiar with the band’s history, of course, but that lumbering dinosaur sound of the songs I had been initially exposed to did nothing for me. My love bloomed with the 1979 release of “In Through the Out Door”, which is very much the picture of a band stepping away from its past to try and evolve a new sound. Unfortunately, it ended there. A year later, drummer John Bonham was dead, and the remaining threesome dissolved the band rather than go on without him. The next stage in Led Zeppelin’s evolution became a giant “what if..?”.

“Houses of the Holy” seems to me to have been an early effort to change what they were doing, and while longtime fans were not taken with it in 1973 (nor did they much care for “In Through the Out Door” six years later), I love it in 2022. And, in places, it is crazy danceable.

Once the sweet acoustic opening of the third song, “Over the Hills and Far Away”, passes, it turns into a thumping, very bassy record that led me to write down “there’s a great dance tune buried in here”. They completely embrace this with a full-on James Brown knockoff on the next track, “The Crunge”. It’s followed by an amazing opening pop guitar hook in “Dancing Days” that, frankly, should have been the prelude to a massive hit single: that it was only a B side was a colossal misstep by their label. “D’yer Mak’er” also has a great hook, and the closer, “The Ocean”, while more of a straightforward rocker, still gets you moving. This album changed my perception of what Led Zeppelin was. Even “The Song Remains the Same”, while not danceable, will get your blood pumping a bit harder, so it sort of counts as cardio.

My two favourite tracks are very different. “The Rain Song” is melancholy, with gently strummed guitar, faux strings, and an overall orchestral effect that is well paired with Robert Plant’s heartfelt vocal. But it is topped by the reggae-lite “D’yer Mak’er”. With a great backbeat from Bonham, and a bit of a Del Shannon feel, it could have been an overwrought 1950s ballad sung by four White guys with crewcuts and wearing ties under their letterman cardigans. It is no surprise that the guy singing this ended up fronting The Honeydrippers a decade later.

We tend to be attracted to the type of music that we first fell in love with, and especially the things we loved when we were young. “Houses of the Holy” matches, more than any of their older records, what Led Zeppelin was to me when I was a teenager, so it had an unfair edge before I even hit play. Which is fine – I am happy to do the work it can take to properly appreciate a record, but it’s nice to have the artist make it easy for me sometimes, too.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #18

Lynyrd Skynyrd – (Pronounced ‘Leh-‘Nérd ‘Skin-‘Nérd)

Let’s start with a confession: I don’t really care all that much for “Sweet Home Alabama”. Sure, I’ve sung along to it in bars, got hopped up when it accompanied a great scene in a movie, and turned it up a bit louder when it came on while I was driving. On the other hand, I have also sung along with “My Humps”, got teary-eyed to “My Heart Will Go On”, and have at least once played “Friday” not as a hate listen, but out of some sort of perverted joy. The takeaway? My opinions can’t always be trusted, and my behaviours even less so.

But something about this song has always sat wrong with me. And because of that, it polluted my view of southern rock.

First, what exactly is southern rock? It’s a descendant of blues and country, but you can say that about outlaw country and cowpunk and maybe heartland rock a bit as well. It seems like it’s a style that you just know when you hear it, though people get that wrong, too – just because Elvin Bishop played southern rock didn’t mean that “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” was, too, especially when it’s a song that you just know Daryl Hall would have absolutely crushed (and I’m saddened that he appears to have never even tried), and Daryl may be many things, but southern is not one of them.

So, because I didn’t like “Sweet Home Alabama”, I would hear its echoes in other songs, and pull back. It’s no tragedy: there is a lot of music out there, and you need to filter it somehow. It’s a dumb way to do it, especially since I was perfectly fine with listening to one Nickelback song after another at one point in my life (I’d rather not talk about it), but it was all I had.

Now, here I am, closer to 60 than I care to think about, and I am finding myself enjoying southern rock. The Allman Brothers’ “Eat A Peach” was a revelation, and now I can add this Lynyrd Skynyrd album to the list of southern rock that I love (total: two albums).

From the opening drums that draw you in on “I Ain’t the One” to the howling guitars that play you out on “Free Bird”, there isn’t a song on this album that doesn’t justify the time spent in listening to it. It’s a record that grabbed me on the first play, and gets richer and more interesting with each repeat. The blues influences are more prevalent than anything that could pass as country at that time (“Gimme Three Steps”, a bouncy tale of cowardice in a bar that steers into cliche but knowingly and with a sense of fun, comes closest). The playing is selectively showy: the keyboard player has some nice moments and those guitars rule the second half of “Free Bird” and in a few other places as well. And while it’s all rock, it tests different waters, from the more conventionally bluesy sounding “Mississippi Kid” to the hillbilly honkytonk of “Things Goin’ On” to the beautiful prog rock-esque “Simple Man”.

In addition to ”Simple Man”, two other songs stand out for me. I have heard “Free Bird” dozens of times without paying it the least bit of attention before now. The opening keyboards and steady, clean drumming are the definition of “spine tingling”, then are joined by cool guitar. It invokes the freedom of a wandering spirit, but it’s also a love song, with a hint of regret in that declaration, and sadness (“If I leave here tomorrow, Would you still remember me?”). It then turns into a completely different song around the midpoint, only tangentially connected to the beginning. It becomes a showcase for some blistering guitar work and pounding drums. The song races along the open road – propulsive, maddening – ripping you apart with an ending that celebrates that freedom the narrator was seeking: an exuberant roar of delight. Magnificent.

But my favourite might be (it’s close) the plaintive ballad of loss “Tuesday’s Gone”, which feels like a bridge between blues rock and southern rock. The song never feels repetitive, despite the 7-minute length and simple declarative lyrics. It’s a true epic, with an orchestral feel from the electronic strings, and some beautiful and very delicate piano just past the 3-minute mark. It will envelop you if you let it. It will likely be the first song I think of whenever I hear southern rock referred to in future.

I still don’t like “Sweet Home Alabama”, and I’m fine with that: as it turns out, you can love Lynyrd Skynyrd without liking their signature song. I might just have to give The Black Eyed Peas another chance (yeah, no way that’s happening).

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #17

Gram Parsons – GP

When I think about Gram Parsons, what comes to mind first isn’t his music, or his early death that left him outside the 27 Club by less than two months. No, what is foremost is what came after, when his road manager Phil Kaufman and assistant Michael Martin stole his body from an airport, transported it in a borrowed hearse to Joshua Tree National Park and set it on fire, thereby fulfilling the deceased’s wish to be cremated there. It’s a great story, and not even close to the nuttiest thing Kaufman was ever involved in. For that, you need to dig into his relationship with Charles Manson and his role in getting a Manson album released at the height of his infamy. Kaufman, now 86, had moves.

But this is about Parsons the musician, and, damn, that is a wonderful thing to behold. Parsons was a country rocker – maybe even the first and best example of the type – and this record leans strongly to the country side of that formula, with frequent twangy vocals, heavy doses of fiddle and pedal steel guitar, and lots of songs about lost, forlorn or forbidden love.

The album is a blend of six originals, some co-written, and five covers. The covers are a nice mix, from a classic about losing his love to the city (“Streets of Baltimore”) to a George Jones deep cut (“That’s All It Took”). My favourite is his take on The J. Geils Band’s “Cry One More Time”, a slowed down rockabilly country tune that feels like a relic from the late 1950s that could have been a hit for Fats Domino. It’s probably the least mannered vocal on the record, and includes a nice guitar bridge around the midpoint. Finally, there’s a duet with Emmylou Harris – the answer to the musical question “Who are they talking about when they say someone has a voice like an angel?” – on the we-know-we-shouldn’t-but-screw-it-let’s-do-it of “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning”.

The originals include the languid south-of-the-border feel of “The New Soft Shoe” and “A Song for You”, the latter being the most heartfelt of a collection of fairly impassioned ballads. “She” offers up a sentimental idealized version of the American south, and a bit of slander of the Christ-loving central figure, who “wasn’t very pretty” but “sure could sing”. The highlights are the opener “Still Feeling Blue” and the closer “Big Mouth Blues”. The first blue song has a jaunty hepped-up bluegrass feel with the heart-crushing line “Every time I hear your name I want to die”, while the last is an upbeat rocker about urban malaise that would serve as a great encore tune, sending the audience out into the night in a good mood after all the sadness that preceded it.

Parsons didn’t make much of a dent on the culture during his lifetime, but left behind a half dozen records, including his work with The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, that proved highly influential. His songs have been covered by Harris and such diverse artists as Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Whiskeytown, Band of Horses and Yo La Tengo. “GP” straddles two worlds, and remains faithful to both rock and country. It’s a record I know I will keep listening to, and that’s as good a marker of greatness as I can imagine.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #16

The Wailers – Burnin’

After my previous encounter with a reggae album, I promised myself I would be better informed about the genre the next time such a record came along. That didn’t happen. So, after multiple plays of “Burnin’”, I finally did it. I listened to albums from Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, and The Upsetters. And now, having been exposed to a broader selection of what the genre has to offer, I’m still not sure how I feel about reggae. I can, however, say one thing with a fair degree of certainty: I don’t much care for Bob Marley’s form of reggae. (A hush falls over the room.)

Not liking Marley can be a problem if you’re new to the genre, because he towers over it: the top five albums on Acclaimed Music are his. No one else dominates a genre the same way (though Springsteen comes close, with five of the top seven heartland rock records, which isn’t entirely a fair comparison, since it seems to have been invented just to give rock critics a box to contain Bruce). Unless you actively seek it out – at least so far as Canadian mainstream radio goes – you will hear Marley, and then more Marley, and, hey, let’s play some Marley.

There is no shame in that confession. Discernment is a big part of our experience of culture. I keep listening to Marley’s music and I just don’t care. This isn’t the distaste I feel for Jethro Tull, or the deep anxiety caused by most metal, or the loathing of everything related to Ted Nugent. I just don’t see anything to get my blood up about. It is pleasant enough to listen to, but doesn’t engage me – it’s just one song after another that sounds like the last one and the one that comes next. I wish it wasn’t this way – I may be missing out on something marvellous. But, like classical music and a lot of jazz, I am probably without that tiny strand of DNA that gets Marley. Marley sounds the way he sounds, and that’s just how it is. Just because a ton of other people love an artist does not obligate you to do the same. There are lots of celebrated rock/pop artists towards whom I am lukewarm: Dylan, The Who, Joni Mitchell, The Band, The White Stripes, Foo Fighters. I make different choices: give me more Elvis Costello, Fountains of Wayne, Mitski.

What I have learned is that there is a lot of fun music under the reggae banner. It isn’t all the plodding, uninteresting-to-my-ears work of the King. The Upsetters play dub, a reggae subgenre, and it’s playful and goofy and just a delight. Tosh’s record (“Equal Rights”) was very political, but it doesn’t get in the way of some lovely and really interesting beats, and Toots & the Maytals had me bouncing around my house.

As for “Burnin'”, “Get Up, Stand Up” is a justifiable classic, but I much prefer the version from Tosh, who co-wrote the song with Marley. I also prefer Eric Clapton’s (even though he is a racist POS) version of “I Shot the Sheriff”. And the rest is what it is. Like all reggae, it makes me feel like I’m by the pool with a rum cocktail in my hand as I drift off, feeling more relaxed than I have any right to be.

I know there will be more Marley in my future, and I will listen to it multiple times and write about it in this space, God willing. Maybe something will click. Maybe it won’t. But I’ll give it its fair due. Because that’s all any artist has the right to ask of us, and the one thing we should be willing to give them back.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #15

Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters

This site is called PopNotes for a reason. Pop music and it’s many subgenres and fusion genres – and, to a lesser extent, popular music – is the type I’m most familiar with and most enjoy. It isn’t MetalNotes or RapNotes or SkaNotes. (Hmm, sister site branding opportunities galore.) Give me a great pop record and I have more to say than I can comfortably ask you to endure. With many other genres, my ignorance of the art form, that lack of historical perspective, can leave me ill-equipped to write intelligently about a record.

As part of my never-ending effort to be a more rounded listener, I have been playing more jazz. To the extent I’ve played such music previously, it’s definitely leaned heavily on the smooth or easy listening side. Guided by sites like Acclaimed Music, I’ve checked in on classics from folk like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. That’s not how I got around to Herbie Hancock, of course, but “Head Hunters” is certainly not my usual fare. My wife made that point when she heard it playing on arriving home yesterday. Of course, exposing myself to “not my usual fare” was sort of the reason this site came to exist in the first place. 

But is this jazz?

If you punch “Herbie Hancock” into Google, the sidebar on your iPad will tell you he’s an “American jazz pianist”. Google has that way of reducing things to their finest point. Or maybe not so finest: Clint Eastwood is “former Mayor of Carmel-by-the-sea” (I was expecting “American actor”, thus ignoring his two Oscars for directing), Mother Teresa is “Saint” (the details are a bit more complicated), and Jesse Jackson is “former Shadow US Senator”, the meaning of which escapes me. And sometimes it leaves out critical information: Tucker Carlson is an “American television host”, instead of the far more accurate “racist entitled POS American television host”.

The point of this is that I, too, would describe Hancock as a jazz musician, despite the one track I knew by him being absolutely not jazz. The “experts” who pick the Grammys called it rhythm and blues, which is so, so wrong. I’ve also seen “Rockit” described as electro and jazz hip-hop, which gives you a sense of the challenges that come with such labelling.

When I think of jazz, this album is not where my head goes. My first impression is that it’s more of a funk record, but that’s too simplistic. Jazz fusion is probably the most accurate term. It starts from a jazz base, but there are rock and funk and soul elements and probably a dozen other things I haven’t noticed yet.

Someone – the source is very uncertain – said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Part of that is about the subjective messiness of taste, but it’s mainly a comment on the challenge of using one form of expression to explain a different form. My solution to that problem has been to try and filter my experience of a piece of music through some connection to my life. It can be a difficult trick when dealing with something completely new, so then it becomes about how the music makes me feel. In that vein, the almost 16-minute long opener “Chameleon” is the track that shines most for me. It feels fun, fresh, alive. Your stride turns into a strut and you may even feel like doing a spin. You feel like you have an edge on all the poor bastards who aren’t listening along with you. I felt fitter, more dapper. I felt cool, in a way that I really am not, like I had the answer to a question that I’d never before thought of asking. As weird as all of that may come across, it isn’t about a sound – it’s a vibe. A mood. A spirit.

None of the above probably helps that much in deciding whether you want to spend 42 minutes listening to “Head Hunters”. All I can offer in the way of assistance is that I loved it, but it took more like 126 to 168 minutes to get comfortable with the record. I did that at the expense of spinning a Ben Folds or Elvis Costello favourite for the 500th time, but I’m okay with that: it’s just part of the tradeoff in becoming “more rounded”.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #14

The Who – Quadrophenia

When “The Breakfast Club” was released in early 1985, I saw it in the theatre twice during opening week. I was 20, floating in life, a university dropout, underemployed, pining for an embarrassingly long time over an ex-girlfriend (first heartbreaks are hard – I’m not crying, it’s eye sweat!), and connected intensely with the confusions of characters just a bit younger than me. Then I saw it again a few years later, and, having gotten my shit together to some degree, their constant whining annoyed me to no end. Stop complaining, I thought. Do something about your problems.

For me, “Quadrophenia” is “The Breakfast Club” of rock records.

Let’s step back for a moment. Growing up in the 1970s in Cape Breton, I had a passing familiarity with The Who. Radio was where I mostly learned about bands and I just don’t remember them being that popular with the disc jockeys at CJCB. They weren’t very prolific, so hits were spaced out and not numerous: there was the weirdness of ”Squeeze Box” and the obviousness of ”Who Are You?” and I don’t recall much else. Culturally, I knew that Keith Moon’s death was significant, and the tragedy at Riverfront made for a compelling episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati”. But I simply did not appreciate what a big deal they were.

In September 1982, I moved to Ontario to attend university. That fall, The Who were on a farewell tour (the first of several such “you’ll never see us live again” tours) that was set to end in Toronto on December 17. My roommate was a big fan, and while I can’t remember if he had tickets to the concert, its mere existence was an enormous deal to him and his circle of friends.

If I were a different sort of person, I could tell here the story of how I then became a fan of the band, and have in the almost 40 years since dug deep into their catalogue and charted their subsequent comings and goings. Alas, I am not that kind of person, so this will not be that tale. Instead, this will be the tale of how “Quadrophenia” blew me away on first listen, but I have become less and less enamoured of it with each repeat play and dig into its back story.

Rock bands often seem to go off the rails when they take themselves too seriously, and a rock opera is about as self-important as a band can get. The line between creative genius and self-indulgent pretension is razor thin and overreaching can sully a nice collection of songs by trying to make them seem like more than they are. What works as a guiding principle should probably not evolve into a mission statement. The original release of ”Quadrophenia” included notes explaining the plot for journalists, which might be a clue that maybe the songs haven’t accomplished what you set out to do. It’s the story of a disaffected mod struggling with mental health issues, drug abuse and a series of personal failures. So, maybe not someone you want to spend an hour and a half with. 

None of the songs really stands out – they don’t pop, which is likely why the singles that came off the album failed to become even modest hits. (“Love, Reign O’er Me”, easily the most impressive song for me, peaked at #31 in Canada, and much lower in the U.S.) They’re all good, but none of them are great or at least not great in the way that makes you want to keep hitting repeat. It isn’t prog rock, but there is a sameness across the record, an almost blandness that comes perhaps from the attempt to create a unity that ends up shaving off those rough edges that can make a great record so invigorating. (Pete Townshend’s demos, which come with the ”Super Deluxe Edition” of the album, made more of an impression on me.) It’s, well, pleasant to listen to, which is a pretty damning statement about a rock record. The Sex Pistols are not pleasant. Nirvana is not pleasant. The Who shouldn’t be either.

In the end, I don’t feel any connection to this album. The air of youthful confusion, of trying to find your place in the world, is palpable, but not anything that I’m all that interested in. I really should have encountered this in 1982, or 1985. I have bigger concerns right now.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #13

Paul McCartney & Wings – Band on the Run

The Beatles were the first band I loved, so I can’t really say why I had so little interest in their solo work. I definitely want to blame one of my younger uncles – I can’t remember which one, so all are both tarred and unsullied by this comment – who said we couldn’t play his Beatles records anymore after they broke up. I usually liked their singles that I heard on the radio, but only bought two of their records: a 45 of John Lennon’s “Imagine” years after it was released, and George Harrison’s “Somewhere in England”, which I wanted for his John tribute “All Those Years Ago”. Later, I owned Paul McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt” on cassette, but that arose not out of fealty to Paul but because I wanted to hear what his collaboration with Elvis Costello had wrought.

Over the past year, I’ve started to make up for this lack. It turns out “Somewhere in England” is not a very good record, but George’s “All Things Must Pass” is brilliant. John’s “Imagine” annoyed me immensely but I was floored by “Plastic Ono Band”. Ringo Starr’s “Ringo” was a frothy delight. And now, we come to Paul.

I had measured expectations coming in. As a solo artist. Paul always felt to me as someone who too often accepted mediocrity. For every great single (“Live and Let Die, “Band on the Run”, “Let ‘Em In”), there would be treacle (“Silly Love Songs”), silliness (“Coming Up”), or whatever we want to call the utter abomination that is “Ebony and Ivory”. And that Costello collaboration? Meh.

So my absolute joy over this album is beyond reason. I won’t call it perfect, but there isn’t a skippable track here, and that’s the next best thing.

“Band on the Run” has always kicked ass, and I have a new appreciation for “Jet”. But what’s really fun about listening to an album like this is discovering songs you never even realised existed. Why isn’t “Bluebird” a staple of easy listening radio? It’s a wistful and delicate love song with a jazzy horn break and an air that is so tropical you can almost feel the warm breeze. “Mamunia” has a similar feel, but more uptempo so that you’ll be bobbing your head in pace with the music by the end. I love the guitar in the chorus to “No Words” and the rollicking piano of “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five”, which ends with saucy horns before sending us off with a snippet from the title track. And the old-timey “Picasso’s Last Words” is probably the most Beatlesesque track, the kind of song that manages to be both simple sounding and pretentiously complex at the same time.

The standouts for me are “Mrs Vandebilt” and “Let Me Roll It”. The former is a bouncy romp (kitchen dancing!) that is the most fun song here, with the “ho hey ho”s of the chorus and snappy horns. (The cackling at the end was sort of creepy, though.) The latter has my favourite vocal on the record – an impassioned and committed tear through the song, joined by uncomplicated guitar work that cuts through you and pairs well with the emotion in the singing. My favourite moment comes with the addition of subtle bass picking and light snare drum leading up to the three-minute mark, which filled me with delight.

If there is one trend in these listening sessions, it’s learning, week after treacherous week, that I formed some flawed ideas about music earlier in life and, despite my belief that I am open to the new, I am as stuck in my listening patterns as the next guy. With every new record, I am taught anew that I need to try to abandon expectations before hitting “Play”. Today, it’s Paul McCartney. Others will soon follow, I’m certain.

Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #12

Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells

Sometimes on this journey I listen to an album and have to ask myself how it is that a consensus was reached that placed it among the top recordings of a given year. The most obvious example to date is everything recorded by Jethro Tull. We can now add “Tubular Bells” to that list.

Now, that does not mean this isn’t a worthy album. (Unlike, for example, Jethro Tull’s records.) But here is a partial list of 1973 records that I won’t be writing about (at this time, anyway) because, at least in part, “Tubular Bells” grabbed a slot in the top 20:

  • Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy
  • Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle AND Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.
  • Sly and the Family Stone – Fresh
  • ZZ Top – Tres Hombres (what a great record this is – so much better than the stuff that came later when they were making hit singles)
  • Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
  • Tom Waits – Closing Time (which made me regret not starting to listen to him much, much sooner)
  • Paul Simon – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
  • Donny Hathaway – Extension of a Man
  • Jackson Browne – For Everyman
  • The Rolling Stones – Goats Head Soup

So, yeah, it was a pretty good year.

I don’t listen to a lot of instrumental recordings: if a rock band puts more than one such track on an album, I’m enormously disa­ppointed by the waste of good real estate. Contradicting this, I greatly prefer instrumental jazz to its vocal counterpart. I’m a complicated guy.

Part of the reason for this is that you can’t sing along with an instrumental track. (My wife says I actually do this all the time, but I don’t think such gibberish really counts.) My voice is no great treat, but I am a good imitator, so, vocal limitations aside, my “Nights on Broadway” sounds like a Bee Gees song, my “Alison” sounds like an Elvis Costello song, and so on. I don’t need to put my own stamp on a song when I sing along – I am slavish in trying to replicate what the masters already did. I’m a parrot, not a songbird.

A big part of the problem is that I lack the musical vocabulary to articulate what I think about a record like this. (Are there other records like this? God, I hope not.) I can usually put pop music into context, connect it to other things in the culture, call back to how it felt when a song came on over the radio as my friends and I drove around a quiet city at 3:00 a.m. (I’m looking at you, “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys.) But when a record consists of two long tracks almost 25 minutes in duration each and NO SINGING, I am lost – it is that foreign to the music I love. So, I can listen to something like “Tubular Bells”, (sort of) appreciate it, and still be left with nothing to say about it other than to comment on my inability to say anything about it. (If this gets any more meta, it will be a Charlie Kaufman film.)

In the end, it was kind of fun to listen to, for no reason other than I never listen to stuff like this. It’s definitely an interesting record, with seemingly countless instruments used (the honky tonk piano with a humming choir around the 14-minute mark of side one is my favourite section), and there are echoes of so many styles and artists. That opening bit is definitely creepy, and this is from someone who has never seen – nor desired to see – “The Exorcist“. I suspect it’s a record that would reward repeated listens. I also suspect that I don’t care enough to bother – there’s already too much great music that I love that needs to be replayed, and an even bigger volume waiting to be discovered.