Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part XIII.

Sorry for the delay. (Maybe I should retitle the blog that.) Personal stuff, which I won’t get into except to say that of all the times for a manic swing to end.

080. Bob Dylan “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”
(Bob Dylan)
Available on Blonde on Blonde

Yeah, yeah, everybody must get stoned, real cute, like you’re pretending to talk about what Jesus talked the Pharisees out of doing to the woman caught in adultery, but come on, man, everyone knows what you’re really talking about. I mean, giggling during the recording is kind of a giveaway. But that’s not what makes the song great; in fact, that’s what puts the song so low on the list (I’m one boringly licit dude). What makes the song great is the lurching Felliniesque marching band behind Bobby, which sounds more sozzled than baked (which is better style anyway), the Mississippi Sheiks-like cries of the guys in the band, and the fact that Dylan had the balls to open his magnum opus with this thing. The only person who would ever attempt anything like a similar style of music would be Tom Waits, twenty years later.

079. Yoko Ono “Remember Love”
(Yoko Ono)
Available on Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins [Bonus Tracks]

Put away the pitchforks and torches; have you heard the song? This isn’t her usual tuneless shrieking (though I’d also argue that there’s nothing usual about it, and it’s some of the most important avant-garde music ever, but that’s not what this is), this is the B-side to “Give Peace a Chance,” and while its hippie-love sentiments are on a par with that (though it hasn’t had all the meaning leached out of it by nonstop references over the past forty years), musically it’s the most tender, fragile thing any Beatle was ever associated with. Predicting the most delicate 90s indie music, Yoko sings in such a hushed voice that you can hear the movement of her tongue against her teeth. It’s minimalist, it’s twee, it’s as defiantly uncommercial as her most uncompromising side-length banshee howls — and because she recorded the one, the other is more palatable. It works both ways.

078. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “The Wind Cries Mary”
(Jimi Hendrix)
Available on Are You Experienced?

When I was first trying to make some sense of this whole Popular Music thing, I read in a collection of essays about the Great American Songbook that the average rock song of the 1960s was far more melodically and harmonically advanced than the average Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, or Kern tune. This was the example they gave. It’s probably cheating; Hendrix was famous for using alternate tunings, and of course it’s easier to use odd harmonics when you’re an idiosyncratic genius writing for yourself on the guitar instead of a professional hit-making genius writing for millions of amateur pianists and the voice of Fred Astaire. The lyrics bite Dylan, but his inimitable guitar patterns and the psych-soul atmospherics make it more Pop Art. Also, listen to the snare drum rattle without being touched; was it right next to the guitar amp or something? More people should use that effect.

077. Marianne Faithfull “Sister Morphine”
(Marianne Faithfull/Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)
Available on Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits

This is where Marianne Faithfull as we know her today, the high queen of low drama, begins. It’s an eerie, half-psychotic first-person narrative that makes me think of delirious World War I soldiers recovering in shadowy, skeleton-staffed hospitals in a shelled-out Europe; or of Faithfull’s own descent into addiction and tenement-squatting in the 70s, which you can hear beginning here. The Stones put the song on Sticky Fingers, but Jagger’s too sleazily comfortable with the material: it’s Faithfull’s spooked, desperate vibrato that really sells the psycho-horror of her lyrics. A “Heroin” for Swinging London, it’s got the Stones at their most “Gimme Shelter” creepy backing her up. Sounds like, anyway.

076. The Silver Apples “You and I”
(Simeon/Cecil Taylor/Danny Taylor)
Available on Silver Apples/Contact

They say that the Silver Apples were the first electronic group, as we think of the term today. I’m not gonna say they’re wrong — what do I know? I never listened to them till about a month ago — but this song reminds me more of a Dr. Dre production than of Technotronic. Maybe it’s the way the electronic noises swirl and loop rather than lock and riff, echoing solemnly off the cavernous drums rather than filling up with BPM. Maybe it’s the post-industrial lyrics, entirely obviating any need for New Order ever. (But anyway, aren’t hip-hop and electronica the same musical movement, just with different racial masks on?) Suicide is the obvious legacy here, but all kinds of post-punk, from Gang of Four’s twitchy ryhthms to Gary Numan’s icy robo-sheen, owe these guys something. Which wouldn’t matter much if it weren’t a great song; but it’s about the difficulty of interpersonal relationships in a technocratic, constantly-mediated world of apathy and paranoia. Hell, who needs Radiohead, anyway?

075. Moby Grape “Omaha”
(Skip Spence)
Available on Moby Grape

First you hear a gradual build of psychedelic wooshing back and forth, forwards and backwards, then the drum fills hit and suddenly it's a San Franciscan Dave Clark Five. The legend goes that they torpedoed their ambitions by releasing every song off their debut album as a single, which made the underground-heads who ruled rockist opinion in those days look at them askance. “What are you, a serious album rock band or a contrived pop group?” you can hear them saying. “You can’t be both.” Which is, of course, total bullshit, but that’s hippies for you. The song, with its raucous “listen my friends” refrain, lands halfway between Crosby, Stills & Nash and Creedence Clearwater Revival on the fun-and-hook-o-meter, but barrels through with a surf-garage energy that neither of those bands could ever have attempted. Skip Spence did much more complicated, profound and insane work very soon after, but this is the single that should have, by all rights, been a hit.

074. Howlin’ Wolf “Wang Dang Doodle”
(Willie Dixon)
Available on His Best

When you read histories of rock & roll (assuming you ever indulge in such trumped-up frippery), the standard line is that after the explosion of rock & roll in the mid-to-late 50s, the artists who began it all died or were jailed or married their thirteen-year-old cousins or joined the Army and went soft. Don’t you believe it. The Wolf was there at the beginning, and he never stopped racking up monster, ear-splitting hits for Chess until well into the psychedelic era. He was always the least slick of the Chess artists (Muddy Waters was more urban, Chuck Berry more suburban), and this song finds him at his loosest and hoedown shuffly. Of course, the song’s about a hoedown shuffle, only it’s black so it’s cool. Actually, call me crazy, but I hear Swordfishtrombones in here. Marc Ribot surely studied the guitar licks off this record, just as the Rolling Stones studied its woozy rhythm, halfway between menace and party, and Eric Burdon studied the black-as-night, devil-guttural voice.

073. Bob Dylan “Masters of War”
(Bob Dylan)
Available on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Widely considered Dylan’s best political song, this is the kind of thing that Pete Seeger and those fuddy-duddies were bemoaning the loss of when Dylan when electric. But it never was covered as much as protest standards like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It never had any hit versions. That’s because Dylan was already making the political personal, refusing to talk about any vague them vs. us, instead singing about you vs. me, and piling up personal outrage instead of general complaints about war and economics (a trick he learned from Woody Guthrie’s mature style). When the song twists slowly into a revenge anthem with the final “I hope that you die” stanza, you can smell the distant pine-smoke of Harry Smith’s wild-eyed, grim-faced white gypsies.

072. Fairport Convention “Tam Lin”
Available on Liege and Lief

Of course, folk music’s always been woolly, wicked, and wild; Greil Marcus’s Old, Weird America hasn’t got a thing on the Old, Weird Europe. (Still the most violent place in recorded history: 17th-century England, and that’s without counting wars.) This is an ancient thing of no real provenance, and what the Convention do to it is considered sacrilege by all true folk-geeks. Though for all true rock-geeks, Richard Thompson doesn’t rawk enough, so there ya go. The rest of us can groove to a punchy, riffy and involved tale about fairies and people having sex and killing each other. It’d be Ren-Faire crap if it wasn’t an actual folk song, but Sandy Denny’s burr of a soprano and the whole group’s Canterbury gallop keep it from being either precious or dreary, and almost — almost, I say — make fantasy an appropriate subject for rock music.

071. The Allman Brothers Band “Whipping Post”
(Gregg Allman)
Available on The Allman Brothers Band

Point one: this is the Allmans, not Skynyrd, and if you can’t tell the difference you need to uncaulk your ears. Point two: All-American hard rock really begins here, as their dual-guitar attack cranks Memphis-style country soul all the way up into the red, giving birth to the stuff that Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Molly Hatchet, and Kid Rock would ride to fame and glory (by which time the Allmans would have already lit out for more polyrhythmic jazz territory). Still, no one ever mastered countrified polyphony like these guys. Duane’s stinging leads, Dickie’s harmonic fills, Gregg’s swirling organ: though they got more tender, more funky, and way more improvisatory, they never really got better than this. Listen to the slow, long buildup that ends the song: it’s the best exploration of tension-and-release this side of minimalism, or in the rock arena, until “Marquee Moon.” Hear Gregg’s magnificently raw voice crack on that final “sometimes I feel” — that, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s all about.

Next: 070-061. >>

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part XII.

090. The Ad Libs “The Boy from New York City”
(Georgie Davis/John Taylor)
Available on Girl Group Greats

Boasting one of the most recognizable and catchy-to-the-point-of-insanity vocal hooks (“ooh-ah, ooh-ah, cool cool kitty”) of the rock & roll era, this song is unusual in that it’s normally categorized as a girl-group hit, when in fact the group was mostly male. The guys wrote the song, produced the record, and played the instruments, which makes them more of a Real Band than a girl group. Still, it’s an irrepressibly giddy song, riding turbo-charged doo-wop to a series of soulful climaxes as the overpoweringly female lead singer Mary Ann Thomas ennumerates the superior qualities of the titular blue-state boy. She even gets incoherent at times, but hey, it’s young love.

089. The Doors “Hello, I Love You”
(John Densmore/Robbie Krieger/Ray Manzarek/Jim Morrison)
Available on Waiting for the Sun

One of the better pop songs of the decade (you can almost hear the Monkees covering it), “Hello, I Love You” is often despised by hardcore Doors fans, who prefer soggily epic pieces of crap like “The Crystal Ship” or “The End.” But the electric-harpsichord riff is indelible and the lyrics uncharacteristically sweet and organic, rather than pompous, preening, and forced. There’s a mechanical churn to the rhythm section that’s not unlike Krautrock, but Morrison puts his humorless bellow to good use for once, bringing some blue-eyed soul to the proto-new wave goosestep of the music. The world would be a better place if this was the song everyone thought of when they thought of the Doors.

088. The Kinks “All Day and All of the Night”
(Ray Davies)
Available on Well-Respected Kinks

They pulled off a notoriously difficult trick here: following up an epoch-making debut single that changed all the rules of the pop game with another that was cut from the same cloth but didn’t feel like a mere tired retread. Yes, it’s got the same basic rhythm as “You Really Got Me,” very nearly the same riff, and the lyrics could just about be scraps left over from the first song. But they’ve stepped up their game, too: note the rock-solid whomp of the rhythm section, the extended range of Dave’s guitar solo, and Ray’s increasingly sophisticated phrasing. Which isn’t to say this isn’t some of the most gloriously lunkheaded rock & roll ever recorded, an inspiration to the Stooges, the Ramones, and garage bands everywhere. Noise as pop: they invented it.

087. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles “I Second That Emotion”
(William “Smokey” Robinson/Al Clevland)
Available on The Ultimate Collection

Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson America’s greatest living poet. This song makes a good case. It’s perfectly crafted and shot through with the witty wordplay that traditional popcraft has always relied on, whether in Tin Pan Alley, Music Row, the Brill Building, or the Motor City. But Smokey’s gorgeous, honeyed voice adds an extra dimension unavailable to the average poet; he’s almost alone in being able to wring humor out of a lyric in a voice that sounds on the verge of tears. The originator, always the best: from Michael Jackson to Sisqo, no high-singing male black singer has been able to match Smokey’s nuanced narrative ability; and I’m not even talking about his writing.

086. The Association “Along Comes Mary”
(Tandyn Almer)
Available on The Association’s Greatest Hits

They like to tell a story about singing at some kind of public area, like an amusement park or something, and being accosted by a bunch of nuns who were very eager to thank them for sending “that beautiful song about our Holy Mother” to the top of the charts. Meanwhile, some radio stations were banning the song, believing the Mary in question was more of an illicit substance. (That assumption would presumably be why the Bloodhound Gang covered it.) Really, it was just a Dylan-inspired mindfuck, the airiest and most fun song by a group who specialized in almost nothing but airy and fun. Six wholesome voices can too easily sound like a glee club: to their (and producer Curt Boettcher’s credit), they sounded like an actual band.

085. Gene Pitney “Town Without Pity”
(Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington)
Available on Looking Through: The Ultimate Collection

A lot of attention is given to the high drama of the girl group sound — and Lord knows, no one really does a sobbing, anguished “parents just don’t understand” better than hormonal teenage girls — but the male contribution to the genre shouldn’t be overlooked. Pitney, of course, was pretty enough to be a girl, and young enough to sell the hormonal-teenager act convincingly, but it took a couple of professional drama queens (a Russian-born Hollywood composer and a Broadway/Hollywood lyricist) to turn out the finest song in his quavering catalogue. The overproduction is thrilling, Pitney chews the lyric properly without letting it turn into camp, and if ultimately you’re unconvinced that such a tight-assed town ever existed, at least you’ve felt his hormonal pain.

084. Mott the Hoople “Rock & Roll Queen”
(Mick Ralphs)
Available on Mott the Hoople

This is way before they hooked up with David Bowie and became glam icons; here, they’re bashing out your basic 70s hard rock, a year or two before schedule. With a Stones groove and a Who din, Mott the Hoople tear through their first classic song like a hungry young band with something to prove, which is what they were (and which, really, they never stopped being). It anticipates the New York Dolls in its cockeyed thrust, it even sounds a bit like the Sex Pistols in places. It has an extended instrumental section, but they weren’t good enough at their instruments to really jam: it’s more like amphetamined funk, riding the groove harder and harder until they achieve a kind of escape velocity. Oh, yeah, and Ian Hunter sounds like the Shropshire Bob Dylan.

083. The Holy Modal Rounders “Cocaine Blues”
(Luke Jordan)
Available on Indian War Whoop

Not the hell-raising ditty that Johnny Cash sang at Folsom Prison, this is instead an old blues song, part of what would have been called folk music in the 60s. But unlike Pete Seeger or Dave Van Ronk, the Rounders don’t have a bit of reverence for the material, and their untrained racket raises its own kind of hell, resembling Luke Jordan’s death-chant “original” only insofar as necessary to evoke the entire spectrum of maniacally-grinning, fevered, demon-possessed, entirely unsafe-for-children music that tweedy liberals called “folk.” But the church folk were right: the blues was the devil’s music, and would lead you down the path of destruction. This song is the record of the good times had in the meanwhile.

082. Elvis Presley “Can’t Help Falling in Love”
(Luigi Creatore/Hugo Peretti/George David Weiss)
Available on Blue Hawaii

Imagine he’d never done anything else, had never “invented” rock & roll (or stolen it from black people, whichever), had never gone commercial with RCA, had never joined the Army, gone Hollywood, and pussied out. Imagine he never had a late 60s comeback, never got old and fat and sweaty and dead, never was subject to the most bizarre posthumous fetishization in American pop-culture history. Imagine this was a one-hit wonder and this Elvis Aaron fellow lost to history. Maybe we’d be able to hear it better for what it is: an Italian-bistro song dressed up in touristy Hawaiian togs, sung by a guy whose low moaning voice conveys depths of who knows what unnamable sins, a classic of devotion, adoration, and just that hint of weirdness that makes it truly American. The aging couples who slow dance to this song are right: this is the Elvis that matters.

081. William Bell “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
(William Bell)
Available on The Soul of a Bell

The song has gone down as one of the great interpretive showcases of American music, 1950-1980, sung by blues, country, soul, jazz, pop, reggae, and rock singers from one end of the earth to another. But the singer/songwriter is nearly forgotten: one of the earliest soul singers to follow the lead of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, stirring a Southern, country-flecked strain into the mixture, slowing the tempo down almost to a lurch, so that the voice is always straining to get ahead of the beat, having to slow down and wait for the music to catch up; if you were so inclined, you could say that baby-making music, in the sense we know it today, began here. Except that it’s not really a celebration of romantic love: it’s a stoic, ruminative lesson on the effects of extinguished love. Yeah.

Next: 080-071. >>

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part XI.

Okay, so wow, that was more like a long weekend than a day off. But we’re (or at least I’m) back, and starting from Number One Hundred we go:

100. Funkadelic “I’ll Bet You”
(Sidney Barnes/George Clinton/Patrick Lindsey)
Available on Funkadelic [Bonus Tracks]

No, it doesn’t sound like prime Funkadelic, or at least it doesn’t sound like mature Funkadelic, ’cause it’s prime as prime can be. Eddie Hazel’s guitar is stinging and floating weightlessly around the call-response vocals, Bootsy’s bass is slippery and wet, and the drums echo mightily (surely someone’s used the opening beats as a sample). Some post-psychedelic reverb starts to soak in about halfway through, and it grows gradually more spacey and uncategorizable (though still under the general heading of Black Music). But the lyrics are more Holland/Dozier/Holland than Clintonian at this point. If you’ve never heard Funkadelic, or never been able to get into them, this may be the perfect entry point, especially for rock and soul fans.

099. The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Fire”
(Jimi Hendrix)
Available on Are You Experienced?

This is a Stax song. No, seriously, only with overcharged guitar in place of horns and the drums and bass turned up to eleven. But it’s funky, and has that hurry-up-get-to-the-chorus drive that only the truly deep-soul (Joe Tex, Edwin Starr, Clarence Carter on a good day) could get out of the Memphis charts. And, of course, it’s got Jimi’s black-boho persona all over it, not at his most lascivious (that’d be “Foxey Lady”), but at his most good-time. Too many people focus on the template he provided for hard rock, and not enough on the way he built on earlier jumping, jiving, and wailing forms. This song really belongs, not in a the fleshy hippie Woodstock mud, but in a chicken shack on a Saturday night, with Studebakers and Cadillacs parked outside, and some girls whose fire would be worth standing next to on the floor.

098. The Left Banke “Pretty Ballerina”
(Michael Brown)
Available on There’s Gonna Be a Storm: The Complete Recordings

Twee alert! From the circular, music-box piano line to the mountain-stream-cool falsetto that Spanish-born vocalist Steve Martin breaks into at the end of every verse, to the inevitable chamber-quartet middle eight, this song, even more than “Walk Away Renee,” established the prototypical sound of chamber-pop, still religiously followed in the late 90s by artists like Elliott Smith and Belle & Sebastian. Equal parts mod, Mozart, and mope, the Left Banke are one of the only (I’m tempted to say the only, if it weren’t for Brian Wilson) self-contained American bands that could challenge the most recklessly music-history-pillaging groups of the British Invasion on their own turf. Shame about Renee.

097. Jimmy Cliff “Many Rivers to Cross”
(Jimmy Cliff)
Available on The Harder They Come

This choice, coming right (okay, fairly soon) after the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon,” makes me sound like one of those people whose only reggae record they own is the Harder They Come soundtrack. Actually, I don’t own it, and only I only found out through that both songs were on the same album. Damn you, anonymous soundtrack album compiler with impeccable taste! Also, I could have sworn it was a cover of an American or British (gospel) song, but no, apparently Cliff wrote it. It must have been covers that I’ve heard. None of them have the transcendantly soulful quality that this original, church-organ-drenched one does. Jimmy Cliff would later be known for pandering reggae-pop to the white masses, but here he kicks white music’s ass.

096. The Luv’d Ones “Up Down Sue”
(Char Vinnedge)
Available on One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost and Found

Apparently Blondie had predecessors; and I’m not talking cute, pop “The Tide Is High” or “Heart of Glass” Blondie, either, I’m talking tough, raunchy “Rip Her to Shreds” or “One Way or Another” Blondie. Char Vinnedge’s voice even sounds like a young Debbie Harry’s. But there’s no way Chris Stein would ever have recorded such ear-bleeding guitar sludge behind his girlfriend; this was 1966, in Detroit, and these girls — girls! — were using plodding droney feedback before anyone had ever heard of the Velvet Underground or the Stooges. Of course, no one ever heard of them, either, so male-centric rock & roll mythology was safely preserved. The song’s another one of those “that girl’s a bitch” songs, except with surprising interest in the welfare of the bitch in question.

095. Sam Cooke “(Ain’t That) Good News”
(Sam Cooke)
Available on Ain’t That Good News

Yes, that is a banjo. And so the greatest black singer of the original rock & roll era brings American music full circle. (Of course you know that the banjo was originally an exclusively black instrument, developed by slaves to mimic the stringed instruments of West Africa, and only became associated with country music because of country’s roots in explicitly racist minstrelsy.) The song, though, is uplifting and glorious; there’s a gleam in Cooke’s eye and a quickening in his step as he’s rushing to meet his baby at the station (even the subject matter is old-fashioned; it could have been a minstrel song, if it weren’t so damn happy). When he shouts happily that he’s going to “disconnect! my telephone,” you can’t help but grin. The man deserves it.

094. Dave Davies “Death of a Clown”
(Dave Davies)
Available on Something Else By the Kinks

Cheating? Why, no; Dave released this as a single under his own name, and it’s only because it later came out on a Kinks album that people think of it as a Kinks track. But Brother Ray wasn’t the only lyricist in the group, and while the verses may owe more than a little to Dylan’s surreal image-heavy electric phase, the beery singalong of the chorus is nothing but Daviesian. Far as I can tell, it’s about a circus mourning the death of its star, and the music oom-pahs and jogs along most appropriately for a carny wake. Ray may get all the critical oohs and ahs, but Dave deserves better than just inventing distortion.

093. Amon Düül II “Kanaan”
(Chris Karrer/Dieter Serfas/John Weinzeirl)
Available on Phallus Dei

I have no idea how many times I’ve listened to this song, but I swear that every time it comes up I go, “wait, how did 80s indie get in here?” Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, the Pixies, and bits of Sonic Youth were anticipated by the original (by record-release dates, anyway) Krautrock band; not to mention, of course, thousands of others. It doesn’t have Can’s tribal-sexual build-release formal structure, or Faust’s synthesizer innovation, or Tangerine Dream’s eerie atmospherica, or Kraftwerk’s soulless robot jive, but it does sound like nothing else released during the 1960s. Dark, foreboding (so, basically just German, then) and a little bit wanky, it’s so formless and unmelodic that it could have been recorded yesterday. Yes, that’s high praise.

092. Tim Buckley “The River”
(Tim Buckley)
Available on Blue Afternoon

Van Morrison learned all his mystic jazz-shaman tricks here. Buckley’s voice isn’t as immediately captivating as Morrison’s (or as that of his own punk kid’s), but it’s a richer, more versatile instrument, and he’s a better (at this point) writer than Morrison, throwing out vast curlicues of metaphor and image that only Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were managing at this level. It’s a difficult trick to pull, bringing the ordinary natural world of grass and water into cosmic proportions, especially when the only tools you’re using are those available in your average nightclub, but his shifting, wily, smoke-like voice can pull almost any trick in the book. He was just starting to head for the outer reaches of accessibility here; but this is a song both a grandmother and a teenage punk could love.

091. Thunderclap Newman “Something in the Air”
(John “Speedy” Keen)
Available on Hollywood Dream

This is the kind of song that everyone has heard but no one really listens to, which is a shame, because when you do listen to it, you go, “why is there a post-bop ragtime piano solo in the middle of all this soft-rock pomposity?” The answer is that Thunderclap Newman was a Pete Townshend protégé band, so you could hardly expect them to be normal. From the helium vocals to the off-kilter handclap rhythm section to the, yes, the piano solo played by a fellow who looked like some sort of CPA, it’s an odd song. Catchy, yes, and even possibly Zeitgeist-capturing (for an intense experience, seek out Labelle’s 1971 version, which combines it with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and peels paint from walls), but still a distinctly odd duck. They only did the one (very good provincial-psychedelic) album, and teenage guitarist Jimmy McCulloch ended up in Wings. There were no post-bop ragtime piano solos to break up that soft-rock pomposity.

Next: 090-081. >>

Thursday, September 21, 2006

’Scuse It, Please.

No “The Beat Goes On” update today, I’m afraid. I’m exhausted (writing a description of ten songs every night can get real old real fast), and we’re just at the appropriate time to take a break. Enjoy the halftime show.

Speaking of which, here’s a grumpy self-portrait (in my Ace Terrier “style”), which I wanted to upload so that I could use it permanently on the blog. Eventually I’ll have a full profile up here. Maybe.

In other news, I’m fully aware that I skipped last weekend’s public-domain short story (even though I was the only one nagging myself about it). I figure I’ll catch up on the backlog once “The Beat Goes On” is done; why break up the rhythm?

Except for this post. Damn.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Beat Goes On, Part X.

What I’m doing, just as a reminder, is counting down my own personal Greatest 200 Songs of the 1960s, as inspired by the indie-snob gods at Pitchfork’s own list. For anyone who may just be joining us, start here.

110. The Four Tops “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”
(Lamont Dozier/Brian Holland/Eddie Holland)
Available on The Ultimate Collection

Just look over your shoulder! If there’s a specific musical identity to the Four Tops (and there should be; uniquely among soul groups, they’ve kept the same lineup for fifty years), this song captures it: the dramatic swelling, the almost-classical harmonic sophistication in the chorus, the stomping beat and James Jamerson’s smoothly percolating bass. Levi Stubbs grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let up from the moment he starts singing; unlike other I’ll-be-there-for-you classics like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Lean on Me,” there’s nothing hand-outstretched welcoming about this track. It sweeps you off your feet and insists that by God, they will be there, whether you like it or not. And of course, you can’t help but like it.

109. The Byrds “Hickory Wind”
(Bob Buchanan/Gram Parsons)
Available on Sweetheart of the Rodeo

This is harder-core country than just about anything that had been on country radio for a decade. (Assuming Hank Williams as the baseline unit for hardcore country; a fair assumption, no?) Of course, the Byrds being a Dylanesque rock & roll outfit, it’s just as much about the idea of country music (and country living, and country philosophy: for the ultimate wide-cultural articulation of the basic idea begun here, check Michael Landon’s Little House on the Prairie TV show) as much as it is country music itself. That self-awareness has always been part and parcel of rock & roll, if most frequently articulated by Dylan; Parsons’ grasp of the fact that country music could sustain similar mythologizing was his peculiar genius, and brought us where we are today, when the myth is all that’s left because the music has almost disappeared.

108. Randy Newman “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”
(Randy Newman)
Available on Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman

It’s the voice, mainly; the slovenly, straining-even-to-hit-middle-C voice. Although it’s certainly the melody too, and the strings kick in at just the right moment. And the lyrics don’t hurt. But mostly, it’s Randy Newman’s mushmouthed voice that makes this the saddest song ever recorded. You can feel the pain with every line, and at the bridge, it can hit you hard enough to make you flinch. It’s one of his most-covered songs, but the starkness and the dangerous quiet of his debut-album version concentrates every ounce of your attention on his miserable voice. Of course, there’s nothing to say that he meant this song personally (and he probably didn’t); but he’s a terrific actor, and the greatest romantic cynic in popular music.

107. Bob Dylan “Desolation Row”
(Bob Dylan)
Available on Highway 61 Revisited

Most long Dylan songs can be excerpted; Marianne Faithfull did a killer version of “Visions of Johanna” that only included about half the original verses, and of course the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” cut out all the stuff that made it about drug dealing. But this song cannot be changed. It’s not a song, in that sense, as much as it is a poem, or a short story in which nothing much happens, but the accumulation of all the little details, all the vignettes and anecdotes and attitudes and images, are all necessary; remove even one and the picture would be incomplete. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a song, too: take some time to listen to it focusing only on Michael Bloomfield’s guitar fills after every line; the degree to which he complements Dylan’s lyrics is breathtaking. Which is one reason the song never feels too long: it’s Eng. Lit. rather than pop (but good, nonetheless), and takes as long as it needs to take.

106. The Melodians “Rivers of Babylon”
(Brenton Dowe/Trevor McNaughton)
Available on The Harder They Come

The greatest example of gospel-reggae that I’ve yet heard. Yeah, of course it’s Rastafarian, but the sound of the song is as much Dixie Hummingbirds as Desmond Dekker. Anyone (I used to be one) who can’t hear the connection between Jamaican music and the American soul of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye should hear this song: Brent Dowe’s impassioned, pleading vocals speak for themselves. Although Leslie Kong’s production gets the best moment: during an apparently-extemporaneous line, Dowe’s voice suddenly splits in two, singing “brother” in one ear and “sister” in the other. Psalm 137 hasn’t sounded so good since King David hung up his harp.

105. Simon & Garfunkel “Homeward Bound”
(Paul Simon)
Available on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme

You know the dreaded second-album slump? You know, a band that’s worked their asses off for ten years records their debut album and puts the very best of who they are and what they’ve seen into it? And they strike it big, and then suddenly are in demand everywhere, and when it comes time for the second album, all they know anymore is being on the road? This is the grandaddy of all those “life on the road” songs, and Paul got it right the first time. There never needs to be another one. Ever. No, not even you. Ever.

104. John Fahey “When the Catfish Is in Bloom”
(John Fahey)
Available on Requia and Other Compositions for Guitar Solo

Apart from the cool title, there’s not a lot that makes this song special, except for what makes every John Fahey song special: the applying of a classical (or compositional) complexity and structure to American vernacular music. No one since Andrés Segovia has opened up the possibilities of the acoustic guitar as much as Fahey. This is one of his most beautiful pieces, with ideas fit for the concert hall, but retaining a down-home, back-porch atmosphere. You can tell I’m overawed — I’m starting to sound like a breathless Sixties music writer. Perhaps the highlight of the piece is the false ending, where Fahey uses the studio convention of the fade-out as a compostional tool, wrapping it up with just a few spare, elegant notes a moment later. Beautiful.

103. Merle Haggard “The Bottle Let Me Down”
(Merle Haggard)
Available on Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard

Given all the name-dropping of Elvis Costello I’ve done so far, you’d be excused for thinking I chose this song because it’s on his Almost Blue album. You’d be wrong; I first met the song on Emmylou Harris’s debut. But Hag, of course, gets it rightest. Well, he wrote the damn thing, for starters; also, it’s a perfect example of how well he always articulated country-music conventions, even while maintaining an arm’s-length distance from the Nashville oligarchy. (They’d call it “outlaw country” in the next decade; in the Sixties, it was just Hag and Cash.) Oh and one line in the song has an echo in a song futher down the list; can you guess which one it will be?

102. Sly & the Family Stone “M’Lady”
(Sylvester Stewart)
Available on Life

Their best early songs always sounded like a circus band in a discothèque; this is perhaps the pinnacle of that style, with every band member getting a little showcase between verses, from watery organ to fuzz bass to the vocal breakdowns (which heavily inspired funk-gospel a cappella group Take 6) the soprano-sax hook. Nobody’s ever approached Sly & the Family Stone’s unique combination of punchy instruments, vocal explosions, and studio finesse wrapped up neatly in a tidy single-ready package; though Sly was obviously the driving force of the band, it was as much a group effort as anyone, including the Beatles. Hell, Cynthia Robinson deserves a medal for her yowls alone.

101. Soft Machine “Why Are We Sleeping?”
(Kevin Ayers/Mike Ratledge/Robert Wyatt)
Available on The Soft Machine [I]

For a band without a guitarist, they manage to kick up an almighty ruckus. And for the record, Graeme Edge, this is how you incorporate spoken-word poetry into vaguely pompous progressive rock. Kevin Ayers is the focal point here, with his increasingly nonsensical lyrics, but the rest of the band isn’t just sitting around (Robert Wyatt’s drums deserve special mention), and the song swells, distends, and shifts like an underwater earthquake. The roar of the chorus (just the title line, but frantic) is like no other sound in rock music, except maybe bits of King Crimson. The Canterbury scene can be something of an acquired taste, but for those who can dig it, it doesn’t get better than most incarnations of Soft Machine.

Next: 100-091. >>

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Okay, We're Calling It The Beat Goes On, Part IX.

120. Them “Gloria”
(Van Morrison)
Available on The Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison

This song is all about religion, and I don’t mean in retrospect now that we know how Van Morrison turned out, nor because of what Patti Smith did with it, nor because it shares a title with that U2 song (though, come on, the gloria in excelsis reference is obvious, and it’s very Irish Catholic of him to associate religious ecstasy with sexual climax). I mean that the recurring organ line is totally Zen, the rattling percussion as it builds to a climax is garage-dervish, and the three-chord post-chorus is so modal that Ravi Shankar took notes. Oh, and yeah, Morrison does his best Howlin’ Wolf impression, which he’s been doing ever since.

119. The United States of America “The Garden of Earthly Delights”
(Joseph Byrd/Dorothy Moskowitz)
Available on The United States of America

Dorothy Moskowitz is one of the great unheralded female rock singers, the missing link between Grace Slick and Siouxsie Sioux. The United States of America only released the one album — as a student project, more or less — but it’s one of the most forward-looking records of all time. The synthesizer stabs which provide the backbone of the melody will find a new life in post-punk, and the intelligent, literate lyrics married to a doomy, unsettling aesthetic practically invents the less bleak side of goth (the Cure, Siouxsie again). I have no idea why this doesn’t regularly land on Best Albums of All Time lists; if it was anti-one-off prejudice, you’d think Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs would have been consigned to oblivion by now.

118. The Animals “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”
(Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill)
Available on Retrospective

Perhaps the Animals were the only British Invasion group that could have pulled this song off. Despite the “rock & roll is born of hard times and economic depression” line that (mostly French, for some reason) critics will sometimes feed you, most of the British rock & rollers were staunchly middle-class. (The classic line about the Stones being art-school toffs while the Beatles were dockside yobs isn’t far off the mark; except that Sir Paul was never any kind of yob in his life.) Whether the Animals actually came from poverty I couldn’t say, but they studied their American blues so hard that they were the only British group to be believable at it. Mann/Weill wrote the song as the kind of thing Johnny Cash might deign to sing; Burdon and the boys turned it into a blind roar of desperate fury at the dead-end town that was hemming them in — of course, they would never be so famous or successful again.

117. Solomon Burke “Got to Get You Off My Mind”
(Solomon Burke/Dolores Burke/J. B. Moore)
Available on The Very Best of Solomon Burke

Today, he’s the last giant standing, the only Sixties Soul Man who can still produce work that lives up to that legendary decade. Then? He was still pretty big. Rather than roar like Otis, scream like James, or shout like Wilson, he plays it closer to his chest: the song is about romantic failure, but he doesn’t sound all that broken up about it. Actually, those lyrics repay closer attention: “We had to stay together till June”? What’s the backstory there? The music is laid-back as well (a calypso version would be so easy); at a walking tempo, with different horns punctuating his lines (like Sly & the Family Stone would later do), and a female backup group that for once doesn’t sound overbearing or silly. It’s one of the slower-burners of the classic soul sides, but once it’s bitten you, it don’t let go.

116. The Grateful Dead “St. Stephen”
(Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter/Phil Lesh)
Available on Aoxomoxoa

Yeah, that’s right, the Dead. Wanna make somethin’ of it? No, seriously, we all know Deadheads are annoying (not least ’cause they’d grumble that some boring thirty-minute live version deserves this spot), but the Dead themselves are easier to swallow if you look at them as part of the continuum of San Francisco music in the late 60s, rather than being the world to themselves as they became in the 70s. This is a jazzy, twisty song, anchored by Jerry’s always-crisp guitar and never-steady singing voice, and it’s one of Robert Hunter’s finest lyrics for the band, full of memorable lines without meaning anything in particular at all. For devotees: Pig-Pen gets a surprise showcase, and check out the scream that ends the first verse. Holy Modal Rounders, Batman!

115. The Kinks “Village Green Preservation Society”
(Ray Davies)
Available on The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

This has gotta be the most raucous, ramshackle defense of traditional values ever. That is, if we take it at face value. Which I’m perfectly willing to do; aside from strawberry jam (yecch), I’m on board with preserving everything in the song, including virginity. (My hero Chesterton would see a sympathetic soul here.) But Ray Davies is a master ironist, and too many online psychoanalysts have taken him at his word and then painted a picture of a man who’d like the world to return to 1911 or so. If we did that, we wouldn’t get the amazing, shattering production here; as Davies produced the song himself, I have to think he was aware of the dissonance. Anyway, forget all that head-stuff; this is a great list song in the classic tradition, and as cheerfully anti-establishment (persecute them office blocks!) as anything Country Joe & the Fish put out that year.

114. Vashti “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind”
(Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)
Not available*

Yes, that Vashti, who five years later would add her last name (Bunyan) and record an album that’s served as ground-zero inspiration to the whole freak-folk (the New York Times, more politely, calls it fairy-folk) scene: you know, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective, that sort of thing. And here, in the middle of one of Andrew Loog Oldham’s more lugubrious overproductions, you can hear it: her voice, no matter how many French horns and timpanis are behind it, still carries within it a hushed, pastoral stillness, entirely different from the subtle theatrics of Marianne Faithfull or the dead zone of Nico; and way different from any normal pop singer. She scored a Jagger/Richards only because she was under Oldham’s thumb, of course; for years, they were the only reason anyone was interested in the song. Now, finally, she can be recognized for herself.

*Sorry, but it’s not. There are some out-of-print CD compilations that have it, and as long as you’re digging in the crates, there’s always the original 45. Then again, there’s always p2p, which is how I got it.

113. Small Faces “Tin Soldier”
(Ronnie Lane/Steve Marriott)
Available on There Are But Four Small Faces

This is hard rock. There’s no other word for it. And it ain’t blues-rock, neither: none of your Creams or Hendrixes. It’s harder than the Who ever got in the Sixties (though maybe not louder, if that’s measurable); it’s harder than anyone till Zeppelin. And it’s mod. Usually thought of as also-rans (especially in the States), the Small Faces could pack a wallop when they wanted to; there’s a reason three of them became the Faces, the hardest-drinking, sloppiest, most punk-inspiring rock act of the early 70s. The fourth, Steve Marriott, could blow Roger Daltrey out of the water at this point, and does so to impressive effect here. Although the real star of the song is keyboardist Ian McLagan, for exactly four seconds and two chords. But he’s the one who gives the band a funkiness wholly lacking from the Who. Maximum r&b indeed; this is hard rawk.

112. Mordon Feldman “The King of Denmark”
(Morton Feldman)
Available on The New York School, Vol. 2

And what? Morton Feldman was one of the greatest twentieth-century American composers. Of course you haven’t heard of him. (Unless you have. Hell, I only found out via an article in the New Yorker a couple months ago.) The song in question, one of his greatest early pieces, is an eight-minute work for percussion which is so quiet it makes Music for Airports sound like an irritable Wagner. He uses silence as a major compositional element — and with much more complexity than, like, those two seconds in Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.” There’s a narrative to the pattern, but it takes a while just to get used to listening to music pitched at this level of simplicity; it makes minimalist drones sound overproduced and schlocky. Whatever; crank it up.

111. Stevie Wonder “My Cherie Amour”
(Henry Cosby/Sylvia Moy/Stevie Wonder)
Available on My Cherie Amour

Though some may beg to differ, this is my vote for the first undeniably Stevie composition, with all the good (the sophisticated ba-da-da-da breakdown, the puckish wit), and bad (the family resemblance to “I Just Called to Say I Love You”) that implies. Also: the attention to sonic detail in the song points the way to 70s masterworks like Talking Book, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. The song’s melody is very nearly Bacharachian, but it also contains the almost mechanical funkiness that Motown found it impossible to leach out of its soul, try as it might. But most of all, it’s great to hear a French/English song that’s not “Michelle.” (Shudder.)

Next: 110-101. >>