Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "Fly" by Yoko Ono

It takes a lot of courage to release a double album when every potential record purchaser in the country (the UK at the time) was in the process of hating your guts. Obviously, Fly was every bit the bomb that anything Yoko Ono might have put out in 1971 would have been, be it a single record or a 10 LP box set. The time was right for Yokophobia.

The hatred commonly felt toward Yoko Ono in the early seventies was a pity inasmuch as it was completely unfair, based on fallacious reports of the undoing of the Beatles and more than a little sexist, racist and xenophobic. But to a lesser extent, it was also a pity in that it blinded the public's eyes to the amazing music she was making at the time. Well, to be fair she had a lot of that coming: the public face of Yoko Ono the musician will probably remain her standing on the stage in Toronto with John Lennon and Eric Clapton, shrieking atonally over a wall of feedback for 10 minutes. There is plenty of that in Ono's initial excursions on the overlap between conceptual art and popular rock and roll. But there is also much that is much more conventionally listenable, too. Much is on this very album.

I say 'overlap', but I think that's part of the problem with Fly. It's less a double album than a collection of two single albums: one disc thoroughly grounded in then-current and then-cutting-edge rock and roll strains and one disc grounded in the avant garde. I think this failure to let the two themes properly meld allowed people to review the second disc while ignoring the first. And unfortunately a lot of conceptual art just seems ugly and pretentious when presented to people on the outside. Much of that is on this album, too. I don't know if Fly should have been released as a single or not, but I do know that this is one project where I genuinely feel that my thinned single-disc edition is not only much more playable than the double but also might have calmed down some of the spite that was felt at the time towards Yoko Ono. Or it might not have. Who knows, really.

As it turned out, Fly was, remarkably the first of three consecutive doubles Yoko released. Learned her lesson? Defiantly, no. However, she never again went into the field of 17- or 23-minute songs. Not until the 1990s, anyway.


Side one
  1. Mind Train (16:52)
  2. Don't Count the Waves (5:24)
Side two
  1. Mind Holes (2:47)
  2. Midsummer New York (3:51)
  3. Mrs. Lennon (4:12)
  4. Hirake (3:31)
  5. You (8:59)
The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Fly, Single-Disc Version «

Midsummer New York: keep (side two, track two)

On the double, this is the opening track, and it is a most fitting, purposeful album opener, too, showing that Yoko Ono did have more than a little savvy when it came to programming albums. A surprisingly conventional twelve-bar, this song contains an excellent vocal performance by Yoko, sounding for all the world like Bjork would twenty years down the line. I'm not a fan of twelve-bars, but this is just askew enough to keep my interest. It's all about Yoko here: the all-star band she's fronting here wails away convincingly, but it'd all be bar band stuff if Yoko wasn't there giving a virtuoso, commanding performance over top.

As great an opening track as I feel this is, my programming of the single-disc Fly was dependent mostly on things like song lengths and contrasting moods, so I wasn't able to keep this song at the beginning. As it is, I put it as track two of side two, which is quite a different place. At least since I put it after a mood piece, it feels like a wake-up call again.

Mind Train: keep (side one, track one)

There aren't that many 17 minute songs that keep my attention, but this one doesn't seem a minute overlong, really. I could compare this to Krautrock, and the beat does have a 'motorik' sense to it, but it's also a kind of funk, really - a great groove is established here and then ridden as far as it needs to be. People who say Yoko is not a great singer and people who say Ringo is not a great drummer both need to listen to the amazing performances given by both of them here: underdogs having the last laugh. Yoko is again compelling, with her full arsenal of sound effects on display here to give an edgy performance underscored by the jump-cut overdubbing here. It might be a study of psychosis, or perhaps just a person's volley of random thoughts put to music. Either way, it's fascinating. Art, yes, but pop too - or something like it.

I don't know that it's appropriate to start an album with a seventeen-minute track, but that's what I do here, putting this as side one, track one. It's up to the task - its locomotive feel gets the album into gear handily, but it's a bit of a risk to start off so demanding of the listener. Oh well. 

Mind Holes: keep (side two, track one)

Side two starts with this acoustic drone piece: acoustic guitars and wordless vocals. John Lennon plays very good guitar here in a manner we never hear in his own oeuvre. This is a soft mood piece, soothing and a little upsetting too, all at the same time.

I want to include this song mostly for the purpose of sonic variety. I've decided that it works as an 'introduction' well enough to keep it here as it was on the double: the opening track of side two, which now alternates down the line between soft and hard.

Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow): lose

This is probably Yoko's signature piece, by which I mean not that it's the best or most famous one but the one that perhaps in the greatest way 'defines' her. It is a holy hell of a song. I've often wondered what the hell her estranged daughter Kyoko must have thought while listening to this, the least reassuring performance ever of words of reassurance. The idiom, hard rock, is not something that I'm generally fond of, but in this case Clapton and Lennon et al get away with it, because what they're doing is providing the sounds of the apocalypse that Yoko is trying to tell her daughter not to worry about. I suppose. It's great art, no doubt. It's a great and thoroughly enjoyable song. But it's also the one that gave me greatest thought regarding its inclusion, because it's not by any means of the Fly era - it's an old song tacked on to fill up space. I enjoy it a lot, but if the Beatles had decided to stick 'Strawberry Fields Forever' on The White Album just to fill it up, would I argue for its inclusion there, great a song as it undoubtedly is? So I've decided, begrudgingly, to leave it off.

Mrs. Lennon: keep (side two, track three)

The 'single', perhaps the most conventionally 'playable' song on the package. Sonically, this is gorgeous stuff, with fragile vocals over a fragile arrangement that builds in a predictable but enchanting way. Slow, stately, elegant, graceful and more than a little foreboding, this is moving, personal art that was frankly never going to be a 'hit', however worthy it is of being one.

On the double, this follows "Don't Worry Kyoko" well, being a kind of calm-after-the-storm. Here it slots right in the middle of my side two (track three) for no real reason except to maintain the soft-hard-soft-hard-soft mood of side two. It sounds good sandwiched between its noisy neighbours, however. 

Hirake: keep (side two, track four)

This is properly funk, even more so than "Mind Train" - in some twisted universe, it could almost be James Brown. Hard to see it as the creation of a bunch of white English men and a Japanese woman. until the vocals and that discordant guitar come in, that is. This song was controversial, and censored, at the time for allegedly sexually graphic lyrics. It's tough to see what the big deal is now, but the fact remains that the edginess of the vocals and the overall feel of the track are decidedly unsexy. Confusing, frankly.

This wacked-out mess of a song gets the penultimate position on my single-album as track four on side two, and this time I think it makes a bit of sense: call it a kind of crescendo of passion before the long, sighing conclusion that follows it. 

Toilet Piece / Unknown: lose

This is what I look like when rolling my eyes. This might be a component of some installation she was working on, some conceptual piece that made sense in the gallery. But here, recording the sound of a toilet flushing and calling it a song is no way to be taken seriously. Again, it's what I've said about Fly that what is from the art world and what is from the rock world don't seem to have anything to do with each other here, and I think that cuts into the overall success of the album as a listening experience. 

O'Wind (Body is the Scar of Your Mind): lose

There's song fascinating percussion here, but the whole thing seems like a warm-up to the formal breakthroughs of side three. And the sad fact is that it outstays its welcome. Tiresome, eventually.

Airmale: lose

Side three of the double is entirely given over to a series of tracks recorded with Joe Jones featuring vocals by Yoko and all manner of homemade instruments. The idea is fascinating, but again, presenting them all together moves disc two into the realm of art documentary, not art itself. It's a bit tough listening to all three tracks back to back, though each of them is enjoyable enough by itself. To my ears, they are arranged in reverse order of interest. "Airmale" is, like the title track, the soundtrack to a movie, in this case about construction - and it does have a factory-like feel to it. Like the title track, then, it is missing something removed from its visuals. I get the feeling that "Airmale" primarily gets its raison d'être solely from juxtaposition, whereas the other two tracks try to establish distinct moods. And, frankly, it just goes on too long.

Don't Count the Waves: keep (side one, track two)

Uses echo and silence as instruments, and succeeds in evoking a kind of Star Trek sci-fi feel. This has nothing at all to do with 'popular music', but it is enthralling all the same, if you allow it to be. It slowly builds in mood and accomplishes what "Airmale" couldn't.

I put two of the Joe Jones songs on the album. Unlike the double, I thought it was important to break them up, so that they can shine in contrast with the rock instrumentation we hear elsewhere. It was probably that one decision, though, that ultimately established the entire structure of the album. The Joe Jones songs now serve as conclusions to each of the two sides, so "Don't Count the Waves" gets put after "Mind Train" as the second and final track of side one. Nowhere else made sense. 

You: keep (side two, track five)

The most successful of the Joe Jones pieces, in my opinion, this is an enchanting piece of art. The vocals and the instruments work together very well in the establishment of a distinct mood. And though ethereal and fragile, the mood established is also one of distinct tension. This piece just keeps building and building, all tension and no release, for an amazing six and a half minutes, before Joe Jones's most interesting 'automated instrument' lets the song slowly exhale to a halt, like Sonic Youth's "Expressway to yr Skull".

On the double, this closes out side three, but I think it is a great way to close out the whole album. I like it when an album ends in such a way that you find yourself rapt listening to the silence that follows it for a while before shaking off the spell and putting something else on. 

Fly: lose

Vocally, a bravura performance, "Fly" is: a) the soundtrack to an intriguing movie documenting a fly's travels across a woman's naked body and b) a kind of affected attempt at evoking the sound and mood of a buzzing fly using a capella wordless vocalisations. For twenty-three minutes. Yes, side four of this album is, with a small exception, given over entirely to Yoko Ono making fly-sounds and nothing else. Now, I think we need to discuss here why Yoko is so misunderstood. I think that the best conceptual art has a lot of savvy and guards itself against accusations of pretension. If you're so committed to what you're doing that you fail to consider public reaction, however, you run the risk of releasing material like this. This is guaranteed to make a fine artist into a laughingstock. That's harsh, I know, but it's true. Whatever value this has as a soundtrack, it's impossible for me to imagine anyone getting entertainment value out of it on a turntable. I guess that's the point here, really - that it's possible, desirable even, to integrate art and entertainment. But if you merely present art and call it entertainment, you won't fool anyone. 

Telephone Piece: lose

And the album ends with a phone ringing. Yay. Again... art, maybe. Entertainment? I'm afraid not.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John

I wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to do this album: it does very little for me. I don't love it, I don't hate it: it's merely there, with all of its highs and lows intact. Additionally, it tends to receive middling critical reception, which contrasts with my “they either worship them or abhor them” theory of critical reception of double albums. More to the point, critics tend to say that it has some amazing high points but a lot of filler. Which is, you know, exactly the point.

Elton John is one of the more frustrating performers out there. His purple patch, the 1970s, is about the best example there is of the underlying “Better as a Single” principle: that moderation is a virtue; that sticking five substandard songs alongside five sparkling gems actually decreases the value of those gems. Elton John was, in the 1970s, way too prolific. He has a handful of truly great songs, but a lot of dated, cheesy pieces of embarrassment and seemingly thousands of anonymous album tracks of no real merit. In his particular case, the main issue is frequently Bernie Taupin. Elton John is a composer of music who refuses to be a lyricist as well; in the 1970s he formed a songwriting duo with the non-musical Bernie Taupin, a man capable of lyrics of great subtlety and beauty, or alternately toe-curlingly poorly written doggerel. Invariably, however, Elton John songs live and die by their lyrics.

The album title, of course, references “The Wizard of Oz”, appropriately enough for two of the album's three main topical themes: one, a certain love for the cinema, for its stars and for the moving qualities of a good story; and two, a wistful appreciation for the small-town American lifestyle evoked by Dorothy's life in Kansas. The third theme, which we'll call Bernie Taupin's hatred of women, seems to rather have less to do with the children's classic, unless Dorothy was a prostitute, a lesbian or a 'dirty little girl'. It is, however, something that really prevents me from liking this album.

Messy, overly 'diverse' and filled with genre experiments, sometimes brilliant, often not... this is a double album just crying out for a good pruning. I don't really love my single-disc effort, but it's certainly an improvement. In any case, here it is: pure Dorothy and Toto with those three hangers-on ditched.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Side one
  1. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (3:13)
  2. Candle in the Wind (3:49)
  3. Roy Rogers (4:08)
  4. The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934) (4:23)
  5. I've Seen that Movie Too (5:58)
Side two
  1. Bennie and the Jets (5:23)
  2. Grey Seal (4:00)
  3. Harmony (2:46)
  4. Social Disease (3:43)
  5. Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting (4:53)

Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding: lose

I don't get this one; this is afforded a level of respect that I just can't buy into. I mean, I'm not against eleven-minute epics on principle, but it has to be quite impressive to hold my interest (“Marquee Moon” does). This one? Well, I find the first half for the most part pompous and overblown: 'prog rock' sure, but more Yes than, say, Pink Floyd. Maybe it's just the cheesy synthesisers. “Love Lies Bleeding” is a bit better, but it's rare that I'll listen to it, as I can't be bothered to make it all the way through “Funeral for a Friend”. When people realise they've been blessed with 90 minutes, not 45, suddenly 11 minutes doesn't seem too much to devote to a single track. When they've only got 45 minutes? It's the first to go.

Candle in the Wind: keep (side one, track two)

Sigh. Where on earth do you start with this: a modest (surprisingly, non-single) tribute to Marilyn Monroe that had charmed its way through the years to be an Elton John standard before morphing in the 1990s into a tribute to Princess Diana that became the best selling single of all time and something so insanely huge that it threatens to quash all meaningful commentary. This song is almost too well-known to discuss. So I'll stick with mentioning that, here, Bernie Taupin speaks from a place of humility: a mere fan looking at the screen and saying goodbye to, ultimately, a complete stranger. The lyrics here are way better than the maudlin treacle of the Lady Di version. The lyrics stick in the head, but of course they'll only do that if driven by a memorable melody. “Candle in the Wind” isn't the best melody on the album, but it's no slacker either, and it certainly does the job.

Like on the original, I make this the second track, but since you're only waiting four minutes to hear it, it's a more prominent position. As the 'keynote' track of the album, pole position is the place to be.

Bennie and the Jets: keep (side two, track one)

This has got to be one of the most peculiar hit singles out there, with a clunking, thudding tempo that hobbles along like a man with a broken leg. I can't say I'm overly fond of this song, but at least as a sonic experiment, it's intriguing. I have no idea where it got the juice to hit number one as a single, though. Lyrically, it's actually another song-about-a-person, imaginary this time, but it's a fan letter again: this time to a made-up 'glam rock' band (a la Ziggy Stardust, I suppose). Fake crowd sounds – never my favourite overdub – plus an annoying fake-stutter “buh-buh-buh” as a vocal riff plus a kind of smarminess make this song competition with “It's Only Rock 'n' Roll” for 'worst take on glam by a non-glam artist'.

Still it makes the cut though: the masses will have their way. I wasn't really sure where this song belonged, except for 'not near “Saturday Night”'. Thematically it belongs on side one to the extent that it's a character portrait (of sorts), but I've configured my side one to, in addition to being character portraits, to be a kind of mini concept suite about 'the movies'. My point is: stick it on the more grab-bag (and more uptempo) side two. And put it on as the first track of side two. To get it over with.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: keep (side one, track one)

I don't really know what this song is about, actually. It doesn't seem to have much to do with “The Wizard of Oz”, having more to do (I think) with Bernie Taupin's idealised small-town life: in this case, a person regretting giving up the small town for the big city. But it really doesn't matter; it's brought alive not only by Elton John's pretty melody but (more so) by his drop-dead gorgeous vocal performance. The falsetto is amazing and the English-putting-upon-American accent charming. The whole thing perfectly, in my opinion, evokes the kind of nostalgia the words are aiming for. An incredible performance and one of those moments that make all the banalities in Elton John's recorded career worthwhile.

Putting your album's title track on side two is daring. I guess I'm ultimately less daring. Yes, one of the main reasons I put this as the first track on the album is that it happens to share its name with the album. Additionally however it is about both wistfulness for small-town life and (in its Wizard of Oz reference) the movies. So it encompasses the album's themes. And it deserves such a prominent position, even though it's a bit of a samey one-two with “Candle in the Wind”.

This Song Has No Title: lose

A confused little filler that may have no name but is barely even a 'song', so much as a collection of barely-cohering parts. It's interesting, but it's nothing you'll find yourself whistling ever again.

Grey Seal: keep (side two, track two)

This song is apparently a rerecording of an early b-side from Elton John's pre-fame days. Rerecording your old b-sides is about as classic a 'padding' technique as I can think of; however, I do still enjoy this. Primarily it's the arrangement. The original is apparently rather generic, but this is a bizarre mix of styles that manages to be a genre of its own. It gets a bit noodly, but the wah-wah is rather exciting and it is, all in all, fun: something this album is way less frequently than Elton John probably imagined it was. Lyrically it seems to be more or less meaningless doggerel, but that's a nice change of pace too.

My single-disc take has, in addition to too many slow songs (mostly on side one) a handful of songs that seem like they might have been slow but somehow aren't. Here's another, actually representing a gearing up after “Bennie and the Jets” as track two on side two.

Jamaica Jerk-Off: lose

What, this album is devoid of filler? Utter garbage, this crass little pseudo-reggae is about as annoying as it gets. You could fill a whole CD with cheesy white-English-men-do-reggae songs of this vintage that are, in my opinion, about as wack as it gets (the CD would also include Eric Clapton's take on “I Shot the Sheriff” and 10cc's horrid “Dreadlock Holiday”). Horrid, horrid, horrid.

I've Seen That Movie Too: keep (side one, track five)

It's funny: I think even at this early stage in Elton John's career, he's chafing at the public's perception of him and eager to overcome the idea that he is a purveyor of widescreen, orchestrated ballads of an uncommon grace. This is why there are so many genre experiments on this album. And by largely abandoning the experiments in favour of the tried-and-true, I may appear to be giving a one-sided impression of Elton John. But the simple fact is the man is very good at what he does, and the reason why it's the piano ballads that become the evergreen chestnuts is the fact that they tend to be the best ones. This song works its plodding tempo for six minutes and could be a terrible bore, but it is nothing of the sort. The orchestration is amazing, the dynamics well-constructed... the lyrical conceit is lovely, and in keeping with the 'cinematic' overtones of the album. All told, this is very good work. This is what the album really should be filled to the brim with, even if it makes a more one-dimensional result.

This song is really too 'big' to be anything but a side closer. And as a summary of the 'cinema suite', it brings my side one to a close (as track five) artfully.

Sweet Painted Lady: lose

With this, we start the almost-entirely-useless third side of this album. Third sides are inevitably the weak point of double albums, but here it's even more so. Four songs and nothing overly enjoyable among them. In fact, with the exception of Danny Bailey, it's really an entire suite of misogyny. I have no idea whether or not Elton John was 'out' to his songwriting partner of the time, but if he wasn't, it must have been tough to stomach all of these macho expressions of gynophobia. “Sweet Painted Lady” is actually the most attractive of them, musically being a rather accomplished pastiche. But the lyrics, a crass reflection on prostitution, remove the song of any value it might otherwise have had.

The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-1934): keep (side one, track four)

Bernie Taupin writes about an imaginary gangster-type from prohibition era. Ho hum. Yes, cinematic. Yes, a character study: all things that 'hold' this album together, to the extent that this album holds together at all. But this song is about the music: Elton John's deft recollection of past eras in a song that otherwise seems entirely 1970s, and the amazing crescendo it builds to. Again, very cinematic. And the only worthwhile thing on side three of the original album.

This is the single 'yes' vote I'm least enthusiastic about (save “Bennie and the Jets”), but it does at least put a bit of a pulse onto my otherwise sleepy side one (where it's track four). The extent to which side two has a quicker average BPM than side one bothers me a little, but I can't really see any way around that.

Dirty Little Girl: lose

Sonically this might be vaguely interesting pulsating piano, organ and fuzztone 'hard rock' (more than a little derivative of “Bennie and the Jets”). Hell, it could be the most amazing melody and arrangement in the history of music and it would still do nothing to redeem the lyrics. More hatred-of-women with absolutely nothing in the way of humour or even hurt to justify it. Just pure sour lyrical garbage. A song that is very difficult to listen to from start to finish. Why did Bernie Taupin hate women so much, and why was Elton John so willing to give these diatribes credence by putting them to music?

All the Girls Love Alice: lose

Okay, let's take a minute to figure this out: here is a gay man singing words written by a straight man that are condescending towards gay women. Did we get that? Er... well, I don't really care either way. This doesn't really have musical merit to overcome the ugly lyrics, which appear to posit lesbianism as a kind of upper-class pursuit for bored housewives (Alice herself is a teenager but her conquests are married women). There is not only sexism but also homophobia going on here, and by this point in side three, it's really more than anyone can stand.

Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rick 'n Roll): lose

A 'tribute' to 1950s rock and roll so bland and insincere that it gets boring before even a minute has finished. No better than Sha Na Na or the “Happy Days” theme song. A good deal worse than the Stray Cats. Worse, also, than “Crocodile Rock”, which I also don't care for.

Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting: keep (side two, track five)

I sometimes wonder if Elton John was ashamed of who he was or just unaware of his strengths. From an admittedly eclectic album whose best performances are inevitably the softer singer-songwriter stuff for which he remains best known, he released as singles the rockish “Bennie and the Jets” and the outright-rock “Saturday Night”. He didn't release “Candle in the Wind.” Why? A good many commentators admire the hard rock sound of this track. I can appreciate it, but I'm not all that taken by it. The guitar plays a cute little riff but sounds tinny, the lyrics are belligerent 'tough boy' bollocks that sound ridiculous coming out of Elton John's mouth, the whole thing goes on a bit too long. Oh, and it reminds me of Paul Shaffer from David Letterman's band. Shudder. Anyway, I guess it's not quite abhorrent and, importantly, it does a bit to break up the admittedly monochromatic tone of my single-disc GYBR.

I like the idea of using this song to conclude the whole album. It's rather harder than anything else, but that just leaves the album on, pulse-wise, a high note. Additionally, as a song for a Saturday afternoon (he's not drunk and fighting yet, but talking about it, so he's preparing to go out), it concludes the album with an implied continuation (going out on the town). I like that. Plus it's too jarring to put between tracks.

Roy Rogers: keep (side one, track three)

This might well have been the very song Elton John submitted to Disney to show he had the chops for soundtracking... it is truly 'cinematic' not only in lyrical thrust but also (and more importantly) in melodic feel. This is, musically, a very pretty song. It's got country overtones (obviously) but it's not a country song. It might be a bit hokey in its 'cowboy' feel and glassy-eyed admiration for Roy Rogers, but it does the job.

I've put this as side one, track three, which I admit undermines it a little, coming after two slowies. Its different instrumentation makes it stand out, but it doesn't quite achieve the widescreen vista that it might in another track position. Oh well. What's done is done.

Social Disease: keep (side two, track four)

While this song is an entirely hokey take on the smalltown American redneck archetype that seems to intrigue Bernie Taupin so much, I have to admit that, while only half-listening, I found myself taken by the synthetic banjo groove it creates. The song starts out unassuming (actually, it starts out an eye-rolling stereotype complete with animal sounds) and slowly builds until suddenly it's got a decent groove and you never saw it coming. Clever. Yet another 'experiment', but one that manages to bring a smile instead of a scowl to the lips. Silly, sure, but silly can be worthwhile. Sometimes. Even the quasi-yodel on the title.

I include this song, but damned if you can find a good place for it. I think using it as a bridge between the rest of the album and “Saturday Night” as side two, track four makes sense though: building the tempo in steps and moving into the 'experimental coda' section of the album.

Harmony: keep (side two, track three)

Surprisingly brief on an album filled with tunes that outlast their welcome, this is a pretty melody with gorgeous harmonies (ha!) wrapped around nautical lyrics that make no sense to me. It's kind of a more-of-the-same track that, on the double, still manages to stand out, since it comes after a few not-more-of-the-same tracks. But it's a bizarre album closer, being in no way a 'statement' or anything that in any way sums up or completes the album. Apparently it got airplay at the time. I guess I can see why, though to my ears it's more 'good album track' than 'potential single' material. But the singles from this album were weird choices, to say the least.

I think this fits way better mid-stream than as a terminus. Side two, track three is normally the most severe of the doldrums, so I think its harmonies work well here to keep attention going.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "Rattle and Hum" by U2

This is the album that almost killed U2. In short, they recorded an album called The Joshua Tree that did rather well. Once it had been canonised by critics, U2 found themselves with a few ideas: Let's go on tour in the States. Let's film that tour. Let's record some songs in tribute to American musicians of the past. Let's takes these incongruous ideas and throw them together into a big-screen production mess of live performances, studio noodling and whatever-else, with an accompanying double-album.

Rattle and Hum is a textbook case in the failings of the double album: the expanded pallette so often does not allow for a fuller realisation of potential so much as a dramatic overshooting of the target, to the point that the single album of worthwhile material is so buried by the unneccesary filler that the whole project turns out looking overblown. And in this case it's such a pity.

After the big album, U2 could have recorded an intentionally small-scale album and let it find its own audience. It would have subverted the need to follow up an epic with something even more epic, and avoid the risk of failing at that ambition. It would have kept them in the public's eye but not in a white-hot, due-for-a-backlash fashion. It would have made them, dare I say, 'established artists'.

And the thing is that they did record that album: that's the album I'm presenting to you today, a quiet, unassuming studio album undiluted by histrionic overblown live performances of such stunning pretention that it leaves you shaking your head. All hum, no rattle. It would have been great...

So this is a bit of a trick this time out. It's not that I'm taking the best songs. It's that I'm taking the studio recordings, the single-album's-worth that exist here, and dumping the live tracks. With few exceptions this turns out to be the same thing (most of the live recordings are dreadful) and not only does it give the album much more focus but it also gives it a more realistic scope. If they had put this out instead of the double-album-movie-monstrosity, pergaps the backlash would never have happened.

Of course, then we'd never have Achtung Baby. Well, you take the good, you take the bad, I guess.

Rattle and Hum

Side one

  1. Van Diemen's Land (3:05)
  2. Desire (2:59)
  3. When Love Comes to Town (4:15)
  4. Hawkmoon 269 (6:22)
  5. God Part II (3:15)

Side two

  1. Angel of Harlem (3:49)
  2. Love Rescue Me (6:24)
  3. Heartland (5:03)
  4. All I Want is You (6:30)

Helter Skelter: lose

I think it's a terrible song in the Beatles' version and just as terrible here. Shrill where it hopes to be heavy, it's the ultimate blowhard's-exercise. It has absolutely nothing to say (as much as Charles Manson once hoped differently) and U2 attempting to 'steal it back' from Manson by performing it in concert is completely ridiculous. As an album-opener it is every bit as pretentious as U2 and the album as a whole were seen as being.

Van Diemen's Land: keep (side one, track one)

About as understated a song as you could imagine, it sounds very much like a demo. The Edge's halting vocals are actually a highlight, as it gives the whole recording a fragile quality that suits it. A perennial 'album track', I'm sure there were no plans to ever put this out as a single. But it is enjoyable in its own way, and understated: the very thing that Rattle and Hum is when it's at its best and isn't when it's at its worst.

There's a perversity to the way the double starts off with 'Helter Skelter', 'Van Diemen's Land' and 'Desire' that I like. I think that 'Desire' is such an obvious album-starter and 'Van Diemen's Land' is so obviously not one that switching their 'natural' order around has a perverse logic to it. Starting the album with such a slow burning sigh of a song strikes me as bizarre but worthwhile.

Desire: keep (side one, track two)

Bo Diddley beat, clanging guitars, not much of a melody, less than three minutes: a big hit. It would be pretty perverse not to include this song, the best-known on the album, but it feels a little bit huff-and-puff to me too, like "Helter Skelter". It's not as 'big' as it hopes to be, not as powerful as it hopes to be, not as sexy as it hopes to be. But it's not bad either.

I wouldn't mind if you got rid of the crap interview bit between these two songs. But going BANG-BANG-BANG after 'Van Diemen's Land' is, in my opinion, a good idea that bears repeating.

Hawkmoon 269: keep (side one, track four)

With a title like that, U2 prove that they can make any old thing pretentious. Still, this is kind of the keynote piece on what might have been the understated Joshua Tree follow-up. It's another drone piece, with lyrics that don't mean much but are well sung by Bono (he gets grunty but not intolerably so). Back-up singers show up out of the blue to give the song a bit more 'resonance'. It's not bad at all, not overly memorable, but a nice sounding thing. And that says a lot on Rattle and Hum.

The ideal location for this song is 'far away from "Love Rescue Me"'. Too similar to be back-to-back, they sit in similar positions on each side. I think the penultimate track on side one is a good place to house longer, exploratory songs that don't belong on side two, so that's what I've done here.

All Along the Watchtower: lose

"This song Jimi Hendrix stole from Bob Dylan, and we're stealing it back..." Interesting inclusion in their attempt to nick from all of the greats of American rock music history in that both Hendrix and Dylan appear on this album already. Can you say 'superfluous'? I certainly can. Nevertheless, it's a competent reading that doesn't particularly embarrass anyone (and might merit inclusion on my single-disc if it weren't a live recording)... until... no, Bono, don't do it... "All I've got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth." What the hell is that? How ugly, how obnoxious, how insulting to Hendrix, Dylan and the whole audience. Why does Bono keep declaiming things like this? Why doesn't he know when to shut up?

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For: lose

By far the best live track on the soundtrack, perhaps because it's the one with the least U2 involvement? "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is one of those Joshua Tree songs that rides the balance between heartfelt and pretentious quite well. Bono sure does love his Jesus, and for better or for worse this is a gospel song, so giving it a full gospel treatment makes sense. It's performed very well, it's a completely credible revision, and it's authentic so avoids much of the pretention that's so endemic elsewhere. This is a better performance than much of what I've included. But I'm making a studio album, and this is a live track. A live version of a song that just appeared on their last album, mind you.

Freedom for My People: lose

Yay! A busker! That's exactly what I just paid $20 to hear!

Silver and Gold: lose

To be honest, I don't know how U2 could have failed to see the extent to which this crosses a line of good taste. It's very strange: the movie catches U2 performing "Sunday Bloody Sunday" the day after the Remembrance Day massacre, and the intensity of that performance and the very rightness of Bono's spoken mid-song rant do everything to remind you that politics do have a place in rock and that U2 are capable of making 'righteous' listenable. Yet that performance doesn't show up on the soundtrack, and instead we get this pompous, stick-up-the-ass blowhard babble. "Am I bugging you?" he beggars belief by asking. Yes, you sure as hell are. And you are destroying one of your best solo compositions in the process. "I don't mean to bug you" he says, presumably in jest or irony or something. Because if you don't mean to bug us, then don't.

Pride (in the Name of Love): lose

Faithful to the original. So it doesn't make me want to gouge Bono's eyes out, but it has no real reason to exist either. Just filler, and the fourth of four straight live performances too. For a mixed live/studio creation, the mix is hardly homogeneous. There still seem to be some lumps left.

Angel of Harlem: keep (side two, track one)

Finally, 10 tracks in, proof that U2 can be a great band if they want to. Vindication. etc. Almost 'worth the price of admission', this beautiful tribute to Billie Holliday is on a very short list of my favourite U2 songs. They get a few things right here that they get so spectacularly wrong throughout Rattle and Hum: to start with, this is a proper tribute: a recording meant to glorify its subject, not to glorify U2 by association with its subject. It doesn't attempt to greatness itself (and so comes close to achieving it), and it actually allows for a bit of joy. And lightness. And an un-self-conscious sexiness. Plus horns. Which never hurt. All told, a great success. The highlight of the album.

I've always thought that one of the best places to put a mini-anthem, if not the opening track of side one, is the opening track of side two. It reinvigorates the album, gets the 'second act' starting after the intermission, and establishes what is usually a twenty-minute diminuendo. 'Angel of Harlem' fits the bill well. Of course, if you're not talking foot-long slabs of vinyl, the point is moot.

Love Rescue Me: keep (side two, track two)

Bob Dylan is a man of such presence that any song he contributes to becomes undeniably his own, and he shows up U2 here as the pretenders they really are... except really. Bob Dylan both co-wrote and performed on this song, apparently, but I can't hear him anywhere at all. In any case it's another of those slow-burning ones like "Hawkmoon"... way too tasteful to have anything bad to say about but also just too darn tasteful for their own good as well. It's a pretty enough song. It lasts six and a half minutes and then it goes away.

I'm not a big fan of my side two - a sustained series of samey mid-tempo songs is not the greatest of ideas, but neither is randomly mixing them amidst the uptempo songs either. Call it a 'suite'. Yeah, that's the ticket. Anyway, it carries the brass from 'Angel of Harlem' onward.

When Love Comes to Town: keep (side one, track three)

Ah, electric blues. My favourite... I guess I just need to be a different person than I am to appreciate songs like this. All I can say is that it seems like a successful enough genre exercise. U2 don't embarrass themselves or anything. BB King does what, as far as I can tell, is the only thing BB King has ever done his whole life, and does it as well as he ever does. But it does not move me. And yet it was a 7" single. Hmm.

For those who find it a fingerpoppin' 'barnstormer', it makes sense not to bury this song too deep. So I let it follow up 'Desire's burst of energy. If I could get enthusiastic about this song, I'd say that's the perfect place for it.

Heartland: keep (side two, track three)

You have to wonder why a band decides that a song is not good enough for one album but suddenly is good enough for the next one. Can an 'outtake from the previous album' be anything but filler? It's certainly intriguing to hear the very distinctive Joshua Tree sound crop up out of the blue on a different album. It's a good song, but ultimately it's just so very U2-by-numbers. They could have written 10,000 songs exactly like this, and probably kept selling records. I guess it's a tribute to them that they didn't, but all in all "Heartland" is one of those many songs on this album that, upon close listening, are not bad but en masse contribute to the ultimatel feeling that this album is just overlong, overstuffed and boring.

Yes, it beats a dead horse putting this between 'Love Rescue Me' and 'All I Want is You'. In my defense, though, I can say that the tangibly different era 'feel' of this track does break up the monotony a little. Plus, what's the second-last track position of an album for if not your weakest track?

God Part II: keep (side one, track five)

By now what gets the press about "God Part II" is its sound, how it's meant in some way to be a prequel to Achtung Baby. I don't buy that, but it is sonically an interesting track. In fact it should have been an instrumental: the lyrics do little more than crib John Lennon and Bruce Cockburn to no real end. And Bono gets annoying-screechy as opposed to emotional-screechy. It's a song that never convinces you it has any real reason to exist. But it sure does sound good.

'Striking' enough to lead to side one's inner grooves, it also sounds good after 'Hawkmoon's kinda overwrought conclusion. In the post-vinyl era, we can call it a bridge between the meandering 'Hawkmoon' and the tight 'Angel of Harlem'. Everyone's a winner.

The Star Spangled Banner: lose

"Edge, Larry, how can critics call this a pretentious album? Honestly, what's pretentious about including 40 seconds of Jimi Hendrix doing the American national anthem at Woodstock on our album as a lead-in to a live performance of one of our songs? Honestly."

Bullet the Blue Sky: lose

A live performance that entirely succeeds in transforming the original's mood and feeling into a stadium setting. Whatever "Bullet the Blue Sky" is on The Joshua Tree it is here too, just louder and longer. Oh, did I mention that it's my least favourite song on The Joshua Tree? An annoying song at the best of time, it really is faithfully performed here. And if a song has Bono-preaching included in its studio version, obviously live performances will take that particular ball and run with it... into the arms... of Americah...

All I Want is You: keep (side two, track four)

Aren't strings lovely things? Isn't U2-by-numbers still a wonderful thing when it's done properly? Why does it take 17 songs for U2 to realise this? The Edge is as U2 as he's ever been. Bono certainly grunts in classic U2-style. It could be overblown like "Bullet the Blue Sky" or inconsequential like "Heartland". But for a band that constantly is aiming for majesty but so rarely achieving it, here's one time where they truly are majestic. The strings definitely help, but I think it's just commitment. Hell, I don't know what it is. I don't know why U2 can be so great or so horrible and have no idea which is which. All I know is it leaves it to us to filter through. Which is really the only way to appreciate U2. This gorgeous song, at 6:30 not a second too long, leaves this bloated double-album on a high note - and convinces you that the hour plus that preceded it truly wasn't primarily filler. Oh, and the video? Love, suicide and dignity in the circus? U4 doing nothing more than waking on a beach? Majestic. And gorgeous. And everything that the Rattle and Hum 'rockumentary' wasn't.

Obviously this song, with its lengthy conclusion, is ridiculous as anything other than a set-closer. U2 themselves saw it, I saw it back in the day maing mixtapes for friends, and you and I see it together now. Into the good night go U2, strings a-playin'.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "London Calling" by the Clash

So what does a punk band do once they discover that they have ambition? It’s a tough call: risk being a sell-out or risk being a cliché. Two things that the Clash would rather die than be.

So ultimately, London Calling is a story of a band quietly accepting that they’re not really any more punk than the Stranglers, and being cool with it. Famously, the Clash managed to shaft their record label into putting out a single-priced double by asking if they could include a free single with their next album, then asking if that single could be a 12”, and then asking if it could run at 33 rpm. CBS Records, it would appear, are profoundly stupid.

Nevertheless, the additional disc did offer the Clash the chance to stretch out a little. Whether or not that was a good decision is subject to critical interpretation. While there are dissenters who consider this album overrated, by and large critics worship this album. In their wisdom, you will find critics who rate this both as one of the best albums of the 1970s and one of the best albums of the 1980s. How many other albums can claim that?

And I have to be honest here: “this record changed my life” is a horrific cliché, and while I won’t claim to be eking out a different existence than I would were it not for Messrs. Strummer and Jones, I must confess that this record was indeed terribly important to me during my teen years. So I might just tread lightly. Except as regards “Lover’s Rock”. Nothing excuses that.

London Calling is 65 minutes – hardly twice the length of punk albums. It turns out that 12 songs is a decent number for a punk album, so it’s what I’ve set my watch by. This means that only 7 songs get cut, meaning that after all London Calling kinda is what CBS were duped into believing it was: a full-length album plus an EP. Oh, those crazy record labels…

London Calling
Side one
  1. London Calling (3:23)
  2. Death or Glory (3:57)
  3. Spanish Bombs (3:21)
  4. Hateful (2:46)
  5. Brand New Cadillac (2:10)
  6. Clampdown (3:52)
Side two
  1. Lost in the Supermarket (3:50)
  2. Wrong ‘em Boyo (3:13)
  3. I’m Not Down (3:07)
  4. Train in Vain (3:11)
  5. The Card Cheat (3:53)
  6. The Guns of Brixton (3:13)

The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» London Calling, Single-Disc Version «

London Calling: keep (side one, track one)

Okay, I won’t be so churlish as to drop the title track, lead single and – arguably – most popular song. But I have to confess to being rather less enthusiastic about this song than many of the others on the album. I’m not quite sure why that is. I think it’s mostly to do with the chop-chop-chop riff. And perhaps the cock-a-doodle-doos. However, awesome bassline. And pleasantly neo-apocalyptic lyrics that definitely do sound thirty years old. Plus, plenty of other people do seem to like it. Who am I to tell them differently?

It’s the album’s statement of purpose, its clarion call. So just as it heads off the double, it should head off the single too. Logical is logical.

Brand New Cadillac: keep (side one, track five)

Year Zero, my ass. Whatever was great about rock and roll is what was great about punk. The gap between the Sex Pistols and the Stray Cats is way, way smaller than anyone would ever pretend it is. The Ramones knew this and revelled in it. The Clash knew it and tried to hide their embarrassment about it. But this is a great cover, full of life and energy and all that, even if ultimately it’s just filler.
I was on the fence about this song, but it’s the energy that wins me over. But I think that track two is a bit early and a bit prominent a position for this song: it makes for a bit of a letdown after “London Calling”. So I put it on one of the typical cover-version slots: the next-to-last song on side one.

Jimmy Jazz: lose

A queer little what-was-that pseudo-jazz ditty that doesn’t seem to realise just how silly it is, even once we get to ‘zay-ay-zed-zed’. Full marks for effort, I suppose, but ‘effort’ isn’t what convinces us to put needle to vinyl. Nothing, as far as I can see, convinces me as regards this song, which would have been overlong if it were only 40 seconds long. At 3:18, he says “and then it sucks”. Yes indeed it does.

Hateful: keep (side one, track four)

Don’t want to be the classicist condemning all the Clash’s efforts to expand their sound while defaulting back to the power-pop they were known for. But they do do it so very well, you know. And while this Bo Diddley stomp is every bit the filler that the silly song that comes before it is, ultimately it’s less ‘hateful’ and much more ‘what I enjoy listening to when I play the Clash’.

I started the album with three back-to-back ‘anthems’, so it falls to this song, at track four, to really start introducing the ‘body’ of the album. I think it really keeps up the energy levels on my all-out side one.

Rudie Can’t Fail: lose

A confused little song that works its ska-ish groove as decently as it can, but ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s the kind of song that’s not exactly bad so much as ultimately pointless. Music doesn’t always need a point, of course, but ultimately this is just filler. And ‘you’ve been drinking brew for breakfast’ is a ridiculous line.

Spanish Bombs: keep (side one, track three)

When I first heard this album, it was this song that, ultimately I think, made me a Clash fan. All that is magnificent about the Clash, all that explains why people felt that the Clash ‘mattered’ is here. It’s terribly exciting, and it all sounds like the work of men who are much smarter, much more sincere and have much more unimpeachable politics than you. The Spanish Civil War is not normal subject matter, but here it sounds like the most natural thing to sing about. Over those amazing, rolling drums and those not-very-punk organ chords, Joe Strummer’s vocals hit home the lesson that, somewhere out there, are people fighting for worthy causes. Commemorating them seemed half as brave as doing them, and enjoying the commemoration? Well, to a suburban kid with a record player, it sure as hell felt like something.

The original’s side two is wonderful, and “Spanish Bombs” is an amazing place to start that run. But this song is too great to be buried too deeply in, so I thought it was important to include it in the album’s sustained three-song introductory ‘statement of purpose’, as the third song on side one.

The Right Profile: lose

I’m a bit undecided about this song. I can recall that I used to like it, coming as it did in the dead centre of that amazing rush that is side two. Plus, lots of lovely horns. But, at the same time, ugly sax solo. Rather meaningless lyrics about an old drug-addict film star. And the same chop-chop-chop of “London Calling” masquerading as reggae but not really.

Ultimately, though, I decided it didn’t make the cut. There’s something ultimately unsatisfying about it, I think. Even when surrounded by two of the best songs the Clash ever did.

Lost in the Supermarket: keep (side two, track one)

Jesus Christ, when the hell did punk rock get so heart-on-its-sleeve, so sensitive, so brave? This absolutely stunning song somehow seamlessly mixes discontented memories of a suburban youth with discontented fragments of modern consumerist life. Mick Jones manages to sing Joe Strummer’s highly personal lyrics as if they were his own, a performance of amazing depth. Much, much more ‘pop’ than ‘punk’, this song has a kind of warmth to it that is as disarming as it is frankly gorgeous. A highlight of any album, single or double. Even if, in all honesty, it does go on as much as a minute and a half too long…

Side two of my one-disc version is rather more introspective than the anthemic side one, so this particular masterwork is the best way to get that second side started: still up-tempo, but less upbeat.

Clampdown: keep (side one, track six)

One of the album’s singles and most covered songs, too. Musically it’s got that Clash-crunch that you need. It’s also one of the rare songs on the album that, when it goes a bit weird toward the end, doesn’t become significantly worse (a good deal of the songs on London Calling have annoying breakdowns). The lyrics are a bit troubling; I have a sense they weren’t thought all that well through. By and large it seems to be typical anti-capitalist aggression, which is all well and good, but the first verse seems to have something to do with Nazism too. “Taking off his turban, they said ‘is this man a Jew?’” is the first line on the song – a line that isn’t really appropriately explained, and even if the intent is resolutely anti-prejudice, I wonder if all of this song’s fans were sure of that.

An interesting sequence here in comparing the two versions: a three-song set on the double becomes, here, the first song on the second side, the last song on the first side, and the last song on the album. “Clampdown” shouts out ‘side closer’ to me, especially if you envision these as 12” discs that eventually run the needle silently to the inner groove, where some mechanics on the turntable cause the arm to rise up and go back to its holder.

The Guns of Brixton: keep (side two, track six)

You do realise that Paul Simonon can’t sing, right? It’s tough to give this song quite the ‘legendary’ status it frankly deserves with such bad singing on it. But… the bass, the bass, the bass. More bass playing, Mr Simonon, less singing. Yes, the Clash can play reggae. This is not exactly reggae, but it has much of that genre’s energy. Too many stupid ‘boi-oing’ sound effects, but it’s still a great, hard-as-nails song – exactly the kind of song that made the Clash seem so ‘important’ at the time. Well, I assume. I was four years old. It’s been perhaps too heavily praised since then to be appreciated on its merits alone. But it is still a great song, and an almost-great recording.

I’m not quite sure why I wanted to end the album with this. I knew I didn’t want to end it with “The Card Cheat”, but I didn’t want a poppish or a typical punkish song either. So this cod-reggae gets the nod for ‘album closer’. Where I’m sure it would be happy to sit.

Wrong ‘em Boyo: keep (side two, track two)

Ska is a wonderful genre that unfortunately is bogged down by the mere existence of plenty of god-awful neo-ska bands or non-ska bands doing ska songs. Rare to see someone get it so right. The Clash also covered Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”. In both cases, the results were lovely. This song is filled with an exuberance that, oddly, brings out the morality of the message. And starting off with a tidbit of this song’s prequel, “Stagger Lee” that breaks down and instantly becomes this song is a brilliant touch.

Side three is always an iffy thing on a double. In this case, the Clash manage to overcome the side three curse by (a) making it incredibly short (less than 13 minutes) and (b) stuffing it up the wazoo with brilliant songs. The double starts disc two with this song, which is a very clever choice. I wanted “Lost in the Supermarket” to get act II up and running, but after that, this light-footed song fits just fine.

Death or Glory: keep (side one, track two)

Okay, I have to get a bit personal here. Whatever the ‘punk spirit’ really is, it reaches people in different ways. London Calling was, for me, a yard-sale purchase for a dollar, bought on the basis of a few books or magazines or whatever where I’d read about it. The second disc was cracked all the way from one edge in to the label, yet miraculously it still played. This song, very simply, slaughtered me. A newly politicised pre-teen, this song seemed to represent everything that was worth struggling for – or rather, struggling against (as the song is actually about ‘selling out’). The song is built on a knife-hard guitar riff, though it’s not as ‘hard’ as some punk. I don’t think I realised that in many ways the Clash was saying goodbye to music that sounded like this – all I knew was that it spoke to me, and I wanted more. A few of the lines in this song also knocked me out in their telling of hypocrisy among pseudo-rebels and former rebels. Gave me much to chew on.

Inasmuch as disc two was kind of the ‘let’s rip off our record label’ scam, disc one does kind of play like a complete record. It’s surprising to me, then, that they didn’t include this song on the first disc. Its anthemic qualities are so clear that it seems like a real set-opener. I think bringing it all the way forward to track two is a bit of a surprise, but I think it really states the album’s themes and purpose properly.

Koka Kola: lose

I suspect that the Clash could have written five hundred songs exactly like this if they’d wanted. I love the fact that, unlike so many songs on London Calling, it’s no longer than it needs to be. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a song: no melody, no real structure behind it. The only thing it has going for it is well-spat lyrics. They seem to describe something, but ultimately don’t. Cute pinball bass line though.

The Card Cheat: keep (disc two, track five)

Awesome, awesome, awesome. If you have to let your ambition go wild on your double album, at least have the decency to listen to this song. It’s here and now that the Clash ask all of their punk fans to decide whether they’re willing to go on the full journey with them or not. Reggae? Of course. Ska? Sure. 1950s rock? Okay. Spectoresque everything-bigger-than-everything-else majesty? Er… well… that’s a tougher question. There’s even a fanfaring trumpet… But here’s the thing: the song is astounding, magnificent, gorgeous. The vocals are practically sobbing over top of the big-bigger-biggest instrumentation. The whole thing is just so huge, and it’s all absolutely gorgeous. Whatever yobbish punks out there pissed off by songs like this were probably people the Clash could afford to lose anyway.

Obviously this could only come toward the end of the album. I didn’t want it to be the final track, but I think next-to-last is a good place for it, giving “The Guns of Brixton” the job of ‘bringing people back from the spell this song casts’.

Lover’s Rock: lose

Ew. Ew. Ew. The Clash sing about sex just as well as Prince would sing about the Spanish Civil War. While I think you could argue that the Clash’s death-or-glory rebel-music pose was indeed sexy, this song about sex is the least sexy thing I’ve ever heard. Horrifying.

Four Horsemen: lose

The Clash were a great band, with the unfortunate tendency to tell us on a regular basis how great they were. Another bit of self-mythologising is this particular little ditty: not a bad song but not a great one either, one that sounds like too many other songs on this album. You know the deal: would have made a decent b-side if London Calling had been a single. Still and all, I might have included it here if it had ended at about 1:57. Instead we get a whole one-minute breakdown of no value whatsoever except for the nifty way it leads into the next song.

I’m Not Down: keep (side two, track three)

Side four tends to fly by in a series of ho-hums. This is largely typical ‘I will survive’ stuff, but it does have the kind of energy levels to make ‘true believers’ out of its listeners. And belief is, of course, the Clash’s stock in trade. So let’s let them have a moment here to state their M.O. For the court, etc.

Side two, track three. I’m happy to include this song, but I find I have precious little to say about it. Which is why albums have a position called ‘side two, track three’.

Revolution Rock: lose

You know, the Clash could cover reggae songs. Very well and convincingly, in fact. In a perfect world, their amazing cover of “Armagideon Time” would be sitting here in the penultimate slot of this album, while “Revolution Rock” would be sitting, ignored except by fanatics, on the b-side of the “London Calling” single. It would have been so easy. Instead of convincing reggae, then, we’d get this rather embarrassing version. At five and a half minutes long, it’s the longest song by fully a minute and a half on an album of overly-long songs. And oh my is the ending boring and embarrassing. Stop trying so hard, gentlemen.

Train in Vain: keep (side two, track four)

And by now the Clash have just become an excellent pop group. This peerless song is 100% pop, no more, no less. It deserves to be every bit the hit that it is (based not on chart measurements but by just how many people know the song: i.e. everybody). The whole hidden-track, NME stuff is an interesting story, for people who care about such interesting stories. But ultimately it’s just everything a pop song should be: simple lyrics about love (in this case about heartbreak), a catchy chorus with a catchy riff, and a three-minute song length. I know such simple and direct statements might contradict the punk ethos; however, ultimately I don’t know much about punk, but I know what I like.

This song got its placement as the final track on the original only because it was included on the album at the last minute. While we’re all used to hearing it there, I don’t think it really is an album closer: it belongs somewhere in the middle, in a rush of songs, I think. I let it lead into “The Card Cheat” on side two, track four, so in a way it’s still ‘terminal’. But not the end of the story. Not anymore.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "Blonde on Blonde" by Bob Dylan

In the introduction to this blog, I condemn the lazy critical platitude “It would have been better as a single album” while, ultimately, agreeing with it. I think that this critically-worshipped album is an example. I have to presume that its double-album status has helped raise its critical reception from ‘excellent’ to ‘exalted’, but I’m not at all convinced that the added running time has really added much to Blonde on Blonde. Had Columbia refused to make it a double, Dylan would surely have just stripped some of the songs off, to become cherished ‘cutting-room floor’ mementos in later years, like “She’s Your Lover Now”, recorded during the sessions and superior to most of what made the cut. Blonde on Blonde has many great, amazing moments. But the added running time really just waters those down, leaving an album that is ultimately a less satisfying listen than, say, Highway 61 Revisited.

I can’t say much about the rapturous critical reception this album enjoys. No best-of list is complete without it and, at the risk of killing sacred cows, I don’t understand why. I can think of so very many albums I prefer to the (admittedly excellent) album we’re looking at here. And I defy anyone to listen to “Pledging My Time”, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Fourth Time Around” on repeat for half an hour and then tell me they’re listening to popular music at its rarest and best.

Even though Blonde on Blonde has a shorter per-disc running-time than most Dylan albums, my one-disc version features precisely 7 in 14 songs: half the album. But in fact, it’s rather more than half the album as, atypically for me, I include all three of the albums seven-minutes-plus epics. Here is the tracklist of my single-disc take:

Blonde on Blonde

Side one
  1. I Want You (3:07)
  2. Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine) (3:30)
  3. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (7:05)
  4. Visions of Johanna (7:33)
Side two
  1. One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) (4:54)
  2. Just Like a Woman (4:52)
  3. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (11:23)
Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35: lose

Being perhaps the album’s best-known and maybe best-loved song, it might seem perverse beyond degree to ditch this song. The facts, though, are as follows: what I like about this song is the brass band and the rather genuine ‘stoned party’ atmosphere. I accede that it’s an arresting opening track and, to a degree, ‘statement of purpose’. Unfortunately, ultimately I think that’s about all I like about this one-joke novelty song. Yes, it went to #2 on the charts, but “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” actually went to #1, and that doesn’t stop it from being an annoying novelty. My main problem with “Rainy Day Women” is that it’s lyrically nothing more than a single joke (Whoah! ‘Stoned’ has two meanings!) over uncertain instrumentation (are those the worst drums ever to grace a Top 5 hit?). Ultimately a silly drunken chant, it appeals to people who don’t really like music very much. This album has too much more to offer. Still, the brass is nice.

Pledging My Time: lose

Bob Dylan has rather famously praised the ‘wild mercury sound’ of this album. The first 100 times I listened, I had no idea what he was talking about. I think that’s because if you ignore “Rainy Day Women” as a novelty, this is your first taste of Blonde on Blonde. And it’s a horrible-sounding song, with some of the most annoying harmonica I’ve ever heard. Those who worship at the altar of this album rate this song highly, but I swear I can’t see why. The blandest of twelve-bars, boring lyrics, and, oh, did I mention that harmonica? Rather comically, this was the b-side of “Rainy Day Women”, making for one of the least pleasant seven inches Bob’s ever put out.

Visions of Johanna: keep (side one, track four)

Blonde on Blonde’s biggest fans will salivate at the mere mention of this song. Yet for the first time on the album so far, they are absolutely correct to do so. “Visions of Johanna” is the kind of song that Bob Dylan was created to write. With a beautiful, slow-building dynamic, this song carries on at its own pace, painting a picture as evocative as it is ultimately abstract. Sure, there are characters, events, a handful of those infamous Dylan aphorisms – but I think the song works better if you avoid literal interpretation and take it as a mood picture of rueful disappointment and loss.

I programmed this song to finish off the first side due to its similar feel to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. I wanted each side to end on a note of poetic mid-tempo, especially after the relative bounciness of the rest of my side one.

One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later): keep (side two, track one)

Perhaps Dylan’s most unknown a-side, “One of Us Must Know” was the commercial flop that “Rainy Day Woman” by right should have been. Swimming with that ‘wild mercury sound’ despite being the only BoB song not recorded in Nashville, this song has an amazing structure of rises and falls, led (as all great Dylan songs must be) by an organ line. Dylan sings the song beautifully, with force and with regret. In many ways, “Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks is a continuation of this song, with the same mood of bitter regret and analysis of a love gone cold. Even the melody is similar. But this first time treatment has a specialness that is all its own, all the more so for being such a forgotten song.

I start the rather moody side two with this song, which is more morose than sluggish. Side two presents three different takes on relationships with women, and this is perhaps the most spiteful of them.

I Want You: keep (side one, track one)

If only radio could always be like this. This song is, in its own way, the most perfect pop song Dylan has ever recorded. Lighter in tone than such classics as “Like a Rolling Stone”, “I Want You” is amazing for sacrificing none of its depth or ‘poetry’ to the more radio-friendly mood. This song has it both ways: subtle, sophisticated and fascinating lyrics (that supposedly stab at Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones) over a joyous, breezy melody that sounds great on a beach or a barbecue or wherever true ‘pop music’ is required. No one in the mid-1960s was able to do this as well as Dylan. Perhaps the relative simplicity of the chorus has denied this song the ‘classic’ status it deserves, since by rights it should be a mainstay of ‘classic rock’ radio stations, and it isn’t quite that.

I open the entire collection with this song. I think it’s at least as good a ‘statement of purpose’ and, of course, a much superior song. It sets a standard for the album with its rush of energy and unashamed poetry. And it’s exciting as hell.

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again: keep (side one, track three)

I wasn’t entirely sure whether this song would make the cut. Dylan loved it enough to put it on his erratic but rewarding Greatest Hits, Volume II, despite its ‘extreme’ length, and to later put out a live version as the a-side of a single. Ultimately, it’s clearly good fun but clearly a pile of meaningless nonsense too. The question, then, is: ‘does this matter?’ John Lennon, sore from being dissed on BoB perhaps, was critical of this song for its ultimate meaninglessness. It’s my guess that people would find meaninglessness something to scorn since, in 1966 at a peak, people were so obsessed with analysing every word out of Dylan’s mouth for ‘hidden meaning’. It’s only now that so many years have passed and we don’t expect cryptic life-lessons from every Dylan song that we can appreciate this as a wild fairground-ride of enjoyable gibberish with great organ backing. It does perhaps go on too long, but then again that’s the point. You get the sense that Dylan could have made this song 20 minutes long, or written 20 others exactly like it, if he so chose. Maybe we should see “Memphis Blues Again” as a symbol of restraint.

Ultimately, it made the cut, as the ‘centre point’ of side A. Two seven-minute monstrosities back to back might seem silly, but this song is so different in tone to “Visions of Johanna” that ultimately length is all they have in common, and the contrast is nice. 

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat: lose

Why are all the twelve-bars on this album so damned weedy? And after the horrible harmonica on “Pledging My Time”, why the horrible guitar here? Yes yes, Robbie Robertson is the genius everyone sees him as. But the guitar here hurts my teeth. This was a single too, and it has many people who praise it. But I get bored before this song even ends. It sounds like any old improvised blues song, has nothing to say, and outwears its welcome even at less than four minutes. Maybe I just don’t like electric blues…

Just Like a Woman: keep (side two, track two)

First of all… Okay, yes, this song does seem to stereotype women in a less than flattering light. It is, in other words, sexist. For an awful lot of people, that alone is enough to dismiss this song.
However, there is a lot of ‘however’ here. First of all, this is probably the most classically gorgeous composition Dylan has ever made. For someone as guilty as Dylan is of ignoring structure for feeling and for borrowing folk melodies instead of writing his own, this song is a particular gem. No one can listen to this song and say Dylan is not a first-class composer. The feel of this song is amazing: gentle, lyrical, graceful. Dylan sings it beautifully, and it is that rare song whose middle eight actually increases the value of the song. In fact, the stretch from middle eight through final verse through conclusion is completely fabulous: emotionally devastating, gorgeous, entirely beautiful. It’s a real pity that the platitude ‘just like a woman’ has rendered this song of questionable political correctness and, thus, prevented it from achieving the fame it deserves.

I’m not sure that the penultimate position is necessarily the best place for this song. But I think it works well in the company it keeps: Dylan let it conclude the first record, but required it to follow the terrible “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. Here, I think it’d like its bedfellows better.

Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine: keep (side one, track two)

Oh my. Side three. My biggest case against Blonde on Blonde’s mythical status is the fact that fully one-quarter of the disc is filled with middling songs that no-one’s ever heard and no-one feels too strongly one way or another about. Honestly, has anyone ever gone to a Dylan concert hoping he’ll break out “Obviously 5 Believers”? Side 3 is always a danger with double-albums, and this one is certainly no exception. But this overly-long-titled song has more going for it than the rest of the side. One of the better twelve-bars here, it is much that “Rainy Day Women” isn’t. Brass instruments show up in a fun but non-intrusive way, the whole song rides a good groove, and it has great drumming. It’s great fun and simple without being simplistic. Plus it’s one of the few songs on Blonde on Blonde that are relatively unknown but deserve to be known better.

I think it’s the brass that makes me see this as kin to “Rainy Day Women”, and I think that’s why I want to front-load the song. After “I Want You”, I think it makes a great one-two punch of high-energy pop.

Temporary Like Achilles: lose

See, I really don’t have a natural antipathy toward all twelve-bars. I actually like this song, in a passing, nondescript forgettable way. Try singing it from memory, I dare you. There is so little that makes it stand out that you’ll be left with “which song was that?” Best to remember it as ‘That one that sounds exactly like “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”’. If I could have fit one more song onto my single album, it would be this one. Still, no huge loss.

Absolutely Sweet Marie: lose

Side three writ large: not bad, not memorable either. Exactly the kind of song that makes singles into doubles. Good organ, good energy. Little else. A lot of people like this song, including George Harrison, who performed it at BobFest (where John Mellencamp, incidentally, did “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”). But it’s ultimately an empty experience, I’d say.

Fourth Time Around: lose

In my opinion, the single best case against deifying Blonde on Blonde. Famously, this song is a parody of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (apparently this has never actually been verified, but it couldn’t be more obvious, I think). As parodies go, it’s relatively deft, evoking the song without copying it and using absurdity to send up the original’s perhaps overwrought ‘poetic’ lyrics. But a parody is ultimately an empty experience, seems a bit like sour grapes (“Norwegian Wood” is a very good song), and outlasts its welcome. Okay, so Dylan didn’t like that Beatles song much, and took it as a copy of Dylan’s style. Does it take four and a half minutes to say that?

Obviously 5 Believers: lose

I defy anyone to find anything at all to say about this song. Okay, I’ll give it a try: neat little harmonica riff. That’s all. Coming at the end of a string of nondescript songs and with one of those “bet you forget which is which” obscure titles Dylan fancied at the time (Hey! An adverb!), it is classic “I need a few more songs to make this a double!” material.

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands: keep (side two, track three)

Wow, with the ‘side three of underwhelming songs’ and the ‘really long song taking up all of side four’, Dylan had a grip on the dynamics of the double album before it had even really been invented. Minds were apparently blown in 1966 by the idea of a side-long song: minds who perhaps did not have stopwatches, since “Sad-Eyed Lady” is not actually a huge monster of a song: the previous album, Highway 61 Revisited, had a song of equal length sharing a space with three other songs on its side two. Really it’s just an excessively short side (making the whole second disc barely 33 minutes and only a few minutes longer than a single side of Desire). But whatever. It’s beautiful. Way too long, of course, but it sets a mood and just rides that mood. It’s another set-piece. All that matters, really, is “this is a love-song to my new wife”, and Dylan’s love songs are better when mysterious than when sardonic. It goes on and on and on, but the added time just gives more of a chance to soak in the atmosphere (even with the shameful hatchet job most Columbia CDs gave it, cutting off the better part of a minute).

No surprise where I put this song. It couldn’t be anything but an album-closer. As it is on the double, so it is on the single.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

History of the Double Album

The very word ‘album’ goes back to the early days of vinyl, when 78 rpm records were capable of holding little more than about four minutes per side and so, when documenting longer musical productions, had to be collected as groups of four or more records inserted in a book-like package that resembled, say, a photograph album. Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads is one of the more well-known examples of this kind of release.

The ‘album’ itself, then, has its origins with multi-disc sets. But by the 1960s, when the album started to be appreciated within the rock world as a medium of its own as opposed to a collection of singles, an album was very clearly a single 12” record running at 33 and a third revolutions per minute, clocking in at somewhere between thirty and forty-five minutes and containing 12-14 songs in the UK, 10-12 songs in the US. That was the medium that came to dominate rock music toward the middle of the decade: the medium on which an artist could expand his creativity as far as it could take him. By the end of the 60s, thanks to Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan, even that was not enough, as artists took to proclaiming the depths of their muses by doubling the length of their statements of creativity. Thus the birth of that most magnificent and most heinous of things: the double album.

The 1970s were, among other things, a decade of excesses. As rock became a big business, concerts filled stadiums, tours travelled continents, and the largeness of the spectacle simply had to be documented on vinyl. The glut of multi-disc sets in the 1970s was in many cases merely records of so-and-so’s latest crowd-filled live sets: documents of hubris. What interests us, the studio double, also existed, much the way that those initial releases at the end of the sixties did: as a display of the artist’s uncontrollable, unstoppable creative flow.

The 1980s saw the birth of the Compact Disc, a medium whose maximum length of 74 minutes (slowly, somehow, expanded to 80 minutes over the following decade) was allegedly decided in order to accommodate Beethoven’s 9th symphony but also served the purpose of approximating the typical length of a double-album (give or take a few minutes: some early 2LP, 1CD combos had songs shortened or removed to squeeze onto the single CD). Somewhere around 1990 or so, the CD’s playing time became the industry’s norm, so that 75 or so minutes, once a rare expression of an artist’s creativity, became de rigueur album length. This lead, of course, to the monstrosity of the double CD, an unparalleled exercise in hubris that would run two and a half hours or so. By the end of the 1990s, the rap world in particular was swamped with these padded monstrosities.

By now, of course, the ‘album’ as a whole is really dying, and as we enter the world of non-physical media, it’s tough to know just what, if anything, a ‘double album’ would represent (unless it’s something like the very strange album I am… Sasha Fierce by Beyoncé, which puts a single album’s worth of material onto two CDs for no reason I can comprehend). Thus, most of the releases we’ll be looking at will be, how do you say, old. What can I do? I discuss a dying medium…

Friday, July 31, 2009

Better as a Single: Introduction

“It would have been better as a single.” That’s the classic critical riposte to the double album. Any time an artist releases a studio double, someone somewhere will immediately talk about how it has filler and would have been more effective a release if the filler had been trimmed away.

Personally, I love the comment: it is, ultimately, as meaningless a comment as it is an obviously true one. If you take any collection of works, be it music or anything else, the average quality would be improved by pruning out the items of lower quality: the Louvre would have a higher average rate of quality per painting if it were half its size, right? I mean, inarguably that’s true, even if it’s not quite the point. Each double album would be better as a single album, each single album better as an EP, each EP better as a 7” single, each single better as a ringtone…

The interesting thing about double albums is the polarizing effect they have on the critic. By and large critics will tell you they disapprove of double albums, yet a good many of those greatest critical darlings that regularly top best-of lists are doubles. On Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 best albums of all-time, for example, the top six are all single albums, but then back to back the next four, numbers 7, 8, 9 and 10, are all doubles. Critically reviled? Clearly not.

Yet at the same time, most of those albums that critics would put on worst lists are also doubles: examples of ambition gone wild, egos unchecked, etc. etc. Both Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder are cases in point: in both cases, both their most critically lauded and their most derided albums are doubles. 

Generally, I have to agree with the criticism. Most of the time, an album has little to say that can’t be said in 40 minutes, really. Most double albums really are guilty of too much ambition and too much bloat. Most really do become better albums when shaved down to half their lengths. The purpose of this blog is, every now and then, to show exactly how by re-envisioning some of the most well-known bloated double-length albums as svelte singles: removing the flab and revealing the muscle, so to speak. Generally this serves either to puncture the inflated ego of over-exalted classics or to do the silk-purse-sow’s-ear treatment on some of the most strongly condemned releases. In either case, sit back and enjoy the results of this SlimFast take on records great and not-so-great.