Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums (Revisited)

(August, 2010)

Okay.

Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced their selections of what they deem the Top 50 Guitar Albums ever.

Now, as someone who writes about music (and who has offered up a few lists of my own), I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on their list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review their Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black, 9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, 8. Cream: Disraeli Gears, 7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East, 6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II, 5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction, 4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, 2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced, 1. Van Halen, Van Halen.

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say The Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do –and you should– have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go 1-2-3.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (#15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC (Highway To Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to their mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes, The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains, I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders, Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, The Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing: James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson, Red

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you –and it never leaves. From extended workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged in version of Tommy’s “Underture), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15” (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about The Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, they actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue –at least with any credibility– that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti (#48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence?

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is The Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is The Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster (anyone not in the know of its origins, but interested, start here). This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features the solo: the impatient may proceed directly to the 3.43 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFRFtnTd620

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at their most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here and here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was better —and it was a double album) but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

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Got Mars?

So this is pretty neat, huh?

Look at us Earthlings, getting our Mars on. It’s too bad Ray Bradbury did not live long enough to see this, as he surely would have gotten a kick out of it.

To honor the occasion, and being the kind of person I am, it seems appropriate to consider the musicians who have paid musical tribute to the planet that has played such an inspired role in our literature (and imaginations).

First, props to the great George Russell for “going there” before we ever really went there. (And props to G.R. for being a genius and an American musician of the first order who does not get nearly as much love and attention as he warrants.)

How about the best way to travel? I’ll take the Coltrane. From a piece I wrote a few years back:

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

A lot more on Coltrane, HERE.

And huge props for the huge balls it took Nels Cline (another scarcely well-enough discussed iconoclast) to do an almost painfully –in a good way– faithful interpretation of Trane’s monument to infinity.

How about the man who truly did it first? Can we get some love for Gustav up in this MF?

How freaky, super-scary and intense is that noise? Classical kicks ass, yo!

And look who may have been tapping into that vibe? None other than you-know-who, the band that was originally (and, for the purposes of this discussion, ironically) called Earth.

Certainly wizards, warnings and wickedness abound on their debut, but it sounds today exactly like what was recorded: a ferocious and opportunistic young band putting everything on the table, fully aware they might never get a second shot. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music. Blah blah blah; the less said trying to explain, or even consecrate this song—and the band that made it—the better: it speaks for itself loudly and proudly. More than four decades has done nothing to diminish the devastating impact of that final solo, a speed drill aimed directly at your brain; if you survive the experience nothing is ever the same.

A lot more about this band, here.

And tying many of the threads together: a band that was inspired by Holst; so much so that they changed the name of their note-by-note “tribute” in order to avoid the pesky payment of royalties. (Something, to his credit, Greg Lake would not duplicate with ELP when he/they gave full credit to both Bartok and Ginastera. Uber-irony, then, that the ever surly and penny-pinching Robert Fripp could so shamelessly steal from the masters.)

This tune, “The Devil’s Triangle”, is ideally named. Here is what I had to say about it back in 2010, on the occasion of it’s 40th anniversary.

Album centerpiece “The Devil’s Triangle (Parts 1-3)” is an unacknowledged riff on Holst’s classical piece “Mars” (from Planets), functioning as a descent even further into the abyss, following the title track that concludes the first album. Clearly this was the one Melody Maker had in mind when they suggested, in 1970, “If Wagner were alive, he’d work with King Crimson.” Nonsense like that makes it a little more understandable why this era was difficult for so many to stomach. Featuring more mellotron than most bands could conceivably cram into a double album, “The Devil’s Triangle” utilizes a drum and bass march, balancing dread and release with wind effects and jarring foghorn cries. Adore it or detest it, most honest listeners would concede that few bands did beauty and horror quite like King Crimson.

More on that album, here.

And since we kicked it off with a nod to George Russell thinking about where we might be going, let’s close it out with Sun Ra, who knew where we’d already been.

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Black Magic: 15 Essential Black Sabbath Songs

Yes, they created the template for heavy metal and thrash, but even now it’s instructive to acknowledge just how unique Black Sabbath was; how different from anything else anyone was doing. It’s not just that Sabbath created and defined a whole new type of sound (which in turn splintered off into several sub-genres), it’s that they still make most of what came later so soulless and half-assed by comparison. This is not said to diminish the imitators; it’s meant to emphasize how unbelievably excellent and fresh their work still sounds today. Their first eight albums are not an embarrassment of riches; they are a debacle of riches, a travesty of riches.

And yet—and this is the larger and often overlooked point—the music this band made was, for the most part, dead serious: from the live-in-the-studio cauldron of blackened blues debut album, to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from their follow-up Paranoid, this was an act with a considerable chip on its shoulder, and few punches were pulled until Ozzy, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in ’79. From their eagerness to take on tough-talking politicians who can never quite find the courage to fight in the wars they start (“War Pigs”), to the dangers of hard drugs (“Hand of Doom”), to the pleasures of soft drugs (“Sweet Leaf”), to the ambivalence of drug-induced oblivion (“Snowblind”) to proto-thrash metal (“Hole in the Sky”) to all-encompassing attacks on the system (“Over to You”), it is ignorant, even a bit hysterical, to dismiss this group as a simplistic one-trick pony.

You’ve heard “Iron Man” and you’ve heard “Paranoid”, of course. Understanding those are the two most popular, possibly the most important (if not best) songs, what does the newcomer need to know? What should those familiar with the catalog remember to rejoice? From 1970 through 1978 there was little fat and less filler on those eight albums, and it’s difficult to determine the truly representative (much less “the best”) tracks. Yet, as we witness the previously inconceivable and watch the original four members getting together after more than three decades for a reunion, it seems like as good a time as any to dive into the vault and celebrate some essential Black Sabbath.

15. “Wicked World”

Their first album, a live-in-the-studio affair, back when this notion was not throwback so much as necessity, bristles with their blues roots. But in between the soon-to-be-trademark sledgehammer riffs and pitch-black rhythmic foundations (courtesy of the ever-underrated bassist Geezer Butler), Tony Iommi was already steering the ship into deeper, indefinable waters. On a first album full of guitar virtuosity (on the band’s first three efforts it is still arresting to listen and hear history being made; at the time they were simply creating the future of a whole genre of music that the most ambitious musicians are attempting, without success, to tap into four decades later), Iommi gives a short but indelible clinic of dynamics and pace on “Wicked World”. First, the man who could make a five piece drum kit sound like an orchestra, Bill Ward kicks off the proceedings with machine-gun fills while Butler ably keeps pace with his understated flair. Then Iommi introduces one of his immaculate riffs before shifting tempos, stopping on a dime and settling into the groove. Enter Ozzy, who at this point was less a singer than a street preacher, telling the hard truths in unadorned, acerbic accusations: “They can put a man on the moon quite easy/While people here on earth are dying of old diseases.” Then, for the bridge, Iommi descends into territory that could almost be described as jazz-like. The other instruments fade out and it’s only Iommi: a solo that packs a lot of anger, truth and eloquence into a matter of seconds. Then the band comes back in and delivers an outro that is as much commentary as it is a reprise of the intro: the more things change the more they stay the same.

14. “It’s Alright”

Fact: Bill Ward is the great unappreciated drummer of the ‘70s. On every Sabbath session he is nothing less than professional and it’s difficult to imagine how different (and not for the better) any of the songs would sound with a different guy behind the skins. But…as a singer? I may be the only person on the planet who feels it would have been a ballsy and possibly brilliant gambit for Sabbath to continue as a trio—after Ozzy left/got the boot—and have Ward sing instead of recruiting outside services. Evidence? His robust and winning vocals on the last song on Sabbath’s last (Ozzy) album, “Swinging The Chain” is compelling, but his brilliant performance on “It’s Alright” (from Technical Ecstasy) manages the near-impossible: a genuine ballad that rocks and further embarrasses the already lame “Changes” (from Vol. 4) which proved Ozzy could not do ballads, at least in the good old days. This song is necessary, if for no other reason, as Exhibit A for any bozo who insists Black Sabbath was a one-trick pony that was not capable of variety and understatement.

13.” Children of the Grave”

From Master of Reality, which doubled down on the sludge and slowed down the sledgehammer riffs like a dinosaur sinking in a tar pit. For the origins of “doom metal” look no further; this album is the aesthetic equivalent of Nigel Tufnel’s earnest appraisal of Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove: none more black. The effect of this one is intentionally disjointing: it’s heavy and cumbersome, but it also churns along, thanks to Geezer and Ward stoking the fire in the furnace. Lyrically, the song picks up where the better songs on Paranoid left off, with warnings about the inevitability of endless conflict and possible extinction at the hands of the “war pigs”. But instead of wallowing in Orwellian territory, the youth are encouraged to seize control of their own destiny and rebel against a dystopian future that is not necessarily written in stone. The reverb-heavy ending and whispered chant “Children of the Grave” may or may not have been appropriated a decade later as Jason’s signature theme in the Friday the 13th franchise, proving that Sabbath’s influence extended beyond even music.

12. “Cornucopia”

From Vol. 4: it only takes the band four minutes to distill the entire message that much heralded fin de siècle flick The Matrix tried to impart. Bonus, it’s actually enjoyable, and it does not feature Keanu Reeves. But seriously, check out those 20 seconds that begin at the 1:44 mark: the sludgy static of guitars, bass, cymbals and gong smashes simulate the surreal and unsettling frenzy of postmodern life as well as any movie or book; indeed this song anticipates the information overload chaos connecting computers and our minds by about three decades.

11. “A Hard Road”

From the criminally overlooked swan song (with Ozzy as vocalist) Never Say Die!, this is one of several numbers that illustrates the ways the band was branching out and incorporating new sounds and styles. It is still difficult to understand how anyone can be unmoved by this crowded pub sing-along, which showcases every member of the band lending their voice. It is a declaration of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo (2:50-3:25) that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code of Sabbath’s last, great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past/And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast—you know.”

10. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”

The title track from the band’s fifth album does not sound like too much of a departure, at first: the muddy riffing and martial beat…same—and great—as it ever was. And then the chorus hits: a sprinkle of acoustic guitars and multi-tracked electric punctuations. Sabbath had already shown they were masters of tempo shifting and inimitable segues, but this is an obvious and arresting step in the band’s ongoing evolution. Although he had already established himself as the preeminent metal singer (and/or screamer), the dramatic clarity and nuance (yes, nuance!) of Ozzy’s vocals signified another weapon in the band’s arsenal. This is the ideal opening statement for an album that found the band incorporating synthesizers (Rick Wakeman from Yes), strings (!) and a generally more ambitious compositional approach that never crosses over into pretension.

9. “Hole in the Sky”

It was on Sabotage that Tony Iommi looked backward and (once again) invented the future. After the successful experimentations of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath it was obvious that the band was ready to once again turn things up to eleven. It would seem improbable for Iommi—or anyone—to expand or improve upon the once-in-a-career sonic assault of Vol. 4 but Sabotage features some of the cleanest, hugest, most immortal riffs in Iommi’s unparalleled repertoire. Take “Hole in the Sky”; now this is how you begin an album! Ward and Butler are in typically fine form, while Ozzy’s vocal range continues to mature: his words are easy to understand—and a joy to listen to. But this is Iommi’s show and he is less interested than ever in taking prisoners. While his obvious perfectionist streak (the one that would eventually drive Ozzy to distraction, facilitating his ouster from the band) is intensifying—much to our delight—above and behind the wall of sonic embellishments is the central guitar track: it cuts through the song like a dark laser, sparks and notes falling like stars crashing into the sea.

8. “Supernaut”

Fueled by booze and Bolivian marching powder (not for nothing was the album almost called “Snowblind” after the track of the same name), there is an aggressively defiant air that permeates every second of Vol. 4. On an album chock-full of indelible riffs, “Supernaut” warrants special mention. Not one to hand out praise lightly, Frank Zappa himself allegedly declared this one of his favorite songs, and it remains one of the ultimate adrenaline rushes in rock. The entire band is locked and loaded, Ward and Butler playing as though the world might end any moment (and who knows, it may have seemed that way in the studio), Ozzy turning in one of his most ferocious vocal turns (the near-mocking boasts he spits out might make this the first, or at least whitest, gangster rap song of all time) and Iommi’s solo is the soundtrack for the coolest action movie never made. It ends with one of the most delicious verses of the decade, a middle finger to fashion and conformity:

Got no religion, don’t need no friends,
Got all I want and I don’t need to pretend.
Don’t try to reach me, ‘cause I’d tear up your mind,
I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind…

7. “Spiral Architect”

To be certain, Sabbath is never going to be for everyone. Still, there are certain tracks, like the already-discussed “It’s Alright”, as well as “Planet Caravan”, “Orchid”, “Embryo”, “Laguna Sunrise” and “Air Dance” to put on for the uninitiated listener and give them five guesses to name that band. “Spiral Architect”, the pinnacle—and finale—of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath showcases multi-tracked vocals from Ozzy, acoustic guitars galore and…strings? Simply put, as brilliant (and in some ways innovative) as Sabbath’s blues-drenched debut was, the growth and expansion demonstrated between 1970 and 1978 is as impressive and ambitious as that of just about any other band. “Spiral Architect” is a high water mark at a crucial juncture of Sabbath’s evolution: after they pulled this off, they could—and did—begin to further experiment in the studio (resulting in longer, more complex compositions like “Megalomania” and “The Writ”), and as they incorporated strings and brass into the mix, they eventually made work that even die-hard fans have a hard time getting their heads around (see: Never Say Die!).

6. “Black Sabbath”

This is it: the song that launched the debut, and a billion puny imitators, clinging like insects to the monolith they could never become. It’s hard to argue with the uncomplicated symmetry of this opening statement. Band: Black Sabbath. Album: Black Sabbath. Song: Black Sabbath. And yet…the all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn shame, it is enough to make one wish they had simply stuck with their original name. Earth, as the band was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising band. Earth is the opposite or air, the ground is not ethereal, and water turns it to mud; if ever a band basked proudly and beautifully (and always unabashedly) in the mud, it is Sabbath.

Certainly wizards, warnings and wickedness abound on their debut, but it sounds today exactly like what was recorded: a ferocious and opportunistic young band putting everything on the table, fully aware they might never get a second shot. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music. Blah blah blah; the less said trying to explain, or even consecrate this song—and the band that made it—the better: it speaks for itself loudly and proudly. More than four decades has done nothing to diminish the devastating impact of that final solo, a speed drill aimed directly at your brain; if you survive the experience nothing is ever the same.

5. “Fairies Wear Boots”

In addition to “merely” defining (and/or refining if you really want to argue that certain bands who played hard and heavy got there first) metal, Sabbath’s second album Paranoid is an inextricable part of rock history: the DNA of this music pulls the best of what came before and pumps life into so much that came after. While it is impossible, if entertaining, to try and pick the ultimate Iommi riff (or even the ten best…) there are a handful of tracks that are so unadulterated they resist explanation. As much a celebration as a song, “Fairies Wear Boots” seldom stays in the same place for too long, dodging and weaving into a weird and wonderful web of its own making. Where some tracks from the first album and (arguably) throughout the band’s career might be a tad too harsh or abrasive for certain ears, it is difficult to imagine any half open-minded listener not getting swept up in the exhilaration of this tour de force.

We have all the crucial elements of a classic track: a young band, hungry and confident, yet still unsure of its future and swinging for the fences. It’s a rock and roll home run in all regards: Bill Ward’s dexterous drumming and Butler’s ever-supple bass stylings, all in blistering pursuit of Iommi’s ubiquitous lead runs. Add to this the Butler’s assertion that the lyrics are allegedly taking the piss out of skinheads (bringing the boot-wearing bullies down a notch or three by calling them “fairies”). The last song on their second and most revered album: this is the moment there was still a tiny air of innocence and adventure. After this the band had little choice but to take on—and conquer—the world; there was nothing left to do.

4. “Symptom of the Universe”

Give this one a whirl and see if it doesn’t make almost everything you hear today and a great deal of the good stuff from back in the day, sound safe, generic and half-ass: behold, the birth of thrash metal. The band would make still make unbelievable music after Sabotage (including, of course the album that supposedly sucks but most definitely does not: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/144890-ten-albums-that-supposedly-suck-but-do-not/P4), but they never sounded quite this deliberate or undaunted again. Any long-haired singer or guitarist from the ‘80s who claims they were not influenced by this song is in denial; anyone today who would like to think they are not walking in its shadow simply don’t realize the bands they do worship have already tried to appropriate this unsurpassable exaltation. Bonus: one of Ozzy’s all-time great vocal performances.

3. “Into The Void”

The Alpha and Omega of the metal riff. Buzz Osborne of The Melvins has made a career out of this sound, proving that you can still find inspiration in a black hole. It never got darker, or bleaker than “Into the Void”, and yet it somehow still gets the blood pumping. It is the beginning of so-called Doom Metal, but there is nothing terribly gloomy or negative about this song. In fact, like much of Sabbath’s material, it’s neither resigned nor nihilistic—despite what the uninformed haters might claim—but instead is a no bullshit call to arms. In an era (then, now) of plugging in and dropping out, Sabbath’s message is like a blast of fresh air, albeit from a smoky furnace, reminding anyone still listening to take whatever control they can and make a better future than the one society already has written. Meanings and messages aside, the riffs throughout this song are so sick, so scintillating, so redemptory that any young person’s musical experience is lacking without them. Older and wiser, the ones who figured it out early return to it often so they might remember what it’s like to be innocent, unsatisfied and yearning for a different reality to master.

2. “War Pigs”

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? Nothing. Listen: the lyrics may be somewhat unsophisticated, but then again we don’t need flowery language or overly refined sentiment to discuss young soldiers being sent to die in pointless wars. Take Dylan’s “Masters of War” (from 1963)? Okay, fine; how about War Pigs? Any questions about where we stand here, circa 1970? In the fields the bodies burning/As the war machine keeps turning. Forty years and more than a few quagmires later, this is still arguably the most prescient and devastatingly succinct lyrical couplet in rock. And the forceful words are matched by the fury of the music: from the air-raid siren to Ozzy’s unrivaled snarl to the rat-a-tat fills from Bill Ward, approximating the figurative cannon fodder of soldiers from so many wars, this is angry music, but there is a method to this madness. Idiots hear the word “Satan” and stupidly associate this song with the facile depiction of this band as devil worshippers. Of course, as the song concludes we get the image of the war pigs, on their knees as Satan licks his chops to welcome them to a world they no longer control. From Ozzy’s lips to God’s ears. Above all other concerns, this is a song that refuses to age softly or lose its edge: it is yet another historic occasion where we are treated to Tony Iommi inventing heavy metal in real time.

1. “Wheels of Confusion”

Not one of Sabbath’s most cherished songs (though it should be); not from their most beloved album (though it could be), why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Ozzy’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns: his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded this accomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment:

So I found that life is just a game
But you know there’s never been a winner;
Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser
The world will still be turning when you’ve gone…

It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!” it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of Black Magic.

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Happy Halloween: Black Sabbath Style

This is (Black) Magic. Sabbath in ’70, live.

I’ve had plenty to say about Sabbath (here, here and here).

If you are not the link-clicking sort, here are some key takeaways:

A case could be made (and I have made it) that Sabbath is by far the most misunderstood and underrated band. Ever.

The all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn (albeit not a crying ) shame, it is enough to make one wish they had simply stuck with their original name. Earth, as the band was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising band. Earth is the opposite or air, the ground is not ethereal, and water turns it to mud; if ever a band basked proudly and beautifully (and always unabashedly) in the mud, it is Sabbath. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music.

And yet—and this is the larger and often overlooked point—the music this band made was, for the most part, dead serious: from the live-in-the-studio cauldron of blackened blues debut album, to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from their follow-up Paranoid, this was an act with a considerable chip on its shoulder, and few punches were pulled until Ozzy, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in ’79. From their eagerness to take on tough-talking politicians who can never quite find the courage to fight in the wars they start (“War Pigs”), to the dangers of hard drugs (“Hand of Doom”), to the pleasures of soft drugs (“Sweet Leaf”), to the ambivalence of drug-induced oblivion (“Snowblind”) to proto-thrash metal (“Hole in the Sky”) to all-encompassing attacks on the system (“Over to You”), it is ignorant, even a bit hysterical, to dismiss this group as a simplistic one-trick pony.

Sabbath, not Zeppelin, had more to do with establishing what came to be known (however lazily) as heavy metal. And that is not a slight on Zeppelin; indeed, it is a compliment. To pigeonhole their blues and folk-based sound, as well as the possibly unrivaled virtuosity of Jimmy Page and severely under-appreciated compositional acumen of John Paul Jones is a disservice on several levels. More to the point, there is little, if anything, on any Zeppelin album that sounds like what most people call (or called) heavy metal.

Sabbath, on the other hand…

Like Zeppelin, their early material was heavily grounded in blues, and both of their debuts were recorded virtually live in the studio without overdubs. Both bands were restless and productive, and within a few years each had cultivated a sonic template that substantially exceeded –and improved upon– the uncomplicated formula of their early work. Where Zeppelin began incorporating folk, country and even reggae into their increasingly technicolor albums, Sabbath found its sweet spot in the black and white riff-centric blitzkrieg. That sound, raw and hungry on the first album, irresistibly flowed with the current into heavier and darker waters, culminating in the visceral assault of Vol. 4. After the transitional, and experimental (and quite successful) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the band upped the ante on Sabotage and in the process, created a song that launched a thousand imitations.

Enough. Let’s go to the videotape. Thanks again, Internets!

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #2

2. Black Sabbath, Never Say Die! (1978)

Maybe Ozzy really did sell his soul to the devil. How else to explain his solo albums getting more love—even amongst old school Black Sabbath fans—than the last album he made with his first band? It is genuinely inexplicable, and more than a little exasperating. There is no need to diminish the moments of excellence contained in those first two solo albums, which briefly brought Randy Rhoads the mass audience he deserved and should have had for many more years. However, it has to be said and without the slightest bit of hesitation: nothing Ozzy did after 1980 can hold a candle to anything he did with Sabbath, and none of those solo albums (even the first two) belong in the same conversation as Never Say Die! which is not only a near masterpiece, but boasts some of the band’s best playing and Ozzy’s all-time best singing.

Who cares that Ozzy was a miserable mess during the recording, or that he left (or was fired) after its release? Who cares that the album did not have any big hits (though it could—and should—have), and who cares whether or not any of the actual band members rate this as highly as the others? On any objective and rational level, the songwriting is for the most part heads and shoulders above the previous effort, Technical Ecstasy (which, while having some outstanding tracks, is the closest Sabbath every came to mediocrity in the ‘70s). It is, in many ways, easy to compare Never Say Die! with the soon-to-be-discussed In Through the Out Door: both albums represent the last recordings by the original band, and each one is largely dismissed not only by the majority of the critical establishment, but more importantly, the fans themselves. In the case of both records, some of the band’s best work appears and it is because it is a departure from the “classic sound” of earlier albums that less adventurous, not to mention less astute, ears can’t hear the myriad glories contained in each.

Taking it on a song-by-song basis, it’s not even necessary to bring in the last couple of songs: the brass-heavy “Break Out” (which is nothing if not an interesting departure) and the album-closer “Swinging The Chain” (which features robust, if unfamiliar vocals from drummer Bill Ward—a curiosity that many folks can’t get behind). I may be the only person on the planet who feels it would have been a ballsy, and possibly brilliant gambit to carry on as a trio and have Ward sing for Ozzy instead of recruiting outside services (no hatred here for Ronnie James Dio, but anyone who compares anything the band did with him with anything the band did with Ozzy is kidding themselves).

What I’ve never been able to reconcile is the general indifference and/or disdain with which this album is met. It can’t be the musicianship, which is not only up to par, but as good as anything the band did. In fact, the production is a marked improvement over most of their work, and the listener can fully (and finally!) appreciate the intricacies and delights of Geezer Butler’s bass playing. Bill Ward is the great unappreciated drummer of that decade: on every Sabbath session he is nothing less than professional and it’s difficult to imagine how different (and not for the better) any of the songs would sound with a different guy behind the skins. But the real head-scratcher is why this album is not worshipped (by Sabbath fans, but also by everyone) as one of the all-time great guitar workouts. Tony Iommi is second only to Jimmy Page in terms of the sheer quantity—and quality—of riffs and melodies, and his playing, the fast, the furious, the subtle, the sweet, inspired a literal generation of imitators. On every single song here he unleashes solos that are blistering but logical; sizzling but soulful. Even Ozzy, as truculent or burnt crisp as he may have been, managed (or was prodded) to deliver some of his most affecting vocal work.

The title track should have been an anthem; of course it’s more than a little ironic that the resolve and exultation it depicts turned out to be the swan song of a band about to splinter. The keyboard flourishes on both the adrenalized “Johnny Blade” and the almost elegant “Air Dance” (this features Ozzy and Iommi as good as they ever were) may alienate fans (though those same stylings were evident on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath not to mention Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy). How could anyone argue with the scorched earth celebration that is “Shock Wave”? What could anyone possibly find underwhelming about “Junior’s Eyes”, from Geezer’s funky fingerwork on the extended intro to the multi-tracked layers of guitar sounds to the way the song builds to a shrieking climax (Iommi!) and then, instead of fading out, doubles down? And finally, how can anyone be unmoved by the crowded pub singalong of “Hard Road”? This last song, which showcases every member of the band lending their voice, is a tour de force of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo (2:50-3:25) that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code to Sabbath’s last great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past/And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast—you know.”

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Every Day is Earth Day (Redux)

 

I’m so proud of my Pops.

Last night, quite out of the blue (or, out of the black as the case may be), he said he had to ask me a “technical question”.

I braced myself, prepared to disappoint him. A “technical” question had to mean he was going to ask about computers and I would have to remind him that, despite working closely with them for almost two decades, I probably know less about the inner workings and mechanics of these things than the average ten year old.

To my considerable relief, it was a question about music.

To my considerable delight, it was a question about Black Sabbath.

“So I heard a Black Sabbath song on the radio the other day…they were actually a really good band huh?”

“Are you kidding? They were a great band.”

“But I mean, they were seriously good musicians…”

“Arguably some of the best, instrument for instrument, in all of rock.”

“That drummer…he is pretty impressive!”

“Bill Ward is a very bad man.”

I asked him what song he had heard, assuming it had to be “Iron Man” or “Paranoid”, as those are the only two Sabbath songs I’ve ever heard on the radio. I dared to hope that maybe, somehow, some station had sagely determined that “War Pigs” would, in fact, be a very welcome addition to the heavy rotation so many other lesser songs enjoy on classic rock channels. He could not confirm what song it was, and I remain intrigued, because I’m pretty certain he would recognize the first two songs. And other than “War Pigs”, I can’t think of another song that seems commercial enough for even more progressive-minded classic rock station to consider. But there are certainly plenty that could be.

And therein lies the rub. There are tons of Sabbath songs that could peacefully exist with the largely underwhelming and predictable numbers you hear every time you listen to the radio. (The other issue, of course, is whether or not anyone actually listens to FM radio anymore. Well, my old man does.) It’s not a quality issue; if that were the case, we could discuss the dozens of bands who get little to no airplay (King Crimson, Captain Beefheart and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to name a few). And it’s not an issue of accessibility: even the acts who do get plenty of airtime (Yes, The Doors, Rush, Neil Young), it’s for the most part a surface-level shuffle of their half-dozen most successful and/or “popular” songs. I think I’d drive off the road if I ever heard Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”, but at least when the firemen showed up to pull me from the wreckage I would have a smile on my face. The point, then, is not that FM radio, for mostly understandable (if ceaselessly self-defeating) reasons, plays it safe and consistent; that could be an entire discussion in and of itself.

Give this one a whirl and see if it doesn’t make almost everything you hear today, and a great deal of the good stuff from back in the day, sound safe, generic and half-ass:

Question: Is it possible that a band could sell over one hundred million albums, be referenced constantly by groups spanning multiple genres, and whose very name is considered synonymous with an entire type of music be underrated?

Improbable as it may sound, Black Sabbath is quite possibly the most misconstrued super group of all time. This certainly is not to imply anyone should feel sorry for these very loved—and very wealthy—avatars of heavy metal. Shed no tears for Tony Iommi. He is widely—and appropriately—acknowledged as one of rock music’s seminal guitar gods, the architect of a sound that, while distinctly his own, is anything but stagnant or formulaic; indeed, his body of work, considering only the music he made in the ‘70s, is varied, nuanced and deep. No, really. Of course, he’ll always remain in the shadow of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—just to name two of the undisputed heavyweights (not unlike Ray Davies will forever play bridesmaid to Lennon/McCartney and the Glimmer Twins). And that is as it should be. Still, there are two crucial elements working against a more sober and salient appraisal of his genius: the name of his band, and Ozzy Osbourne.

The all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn (albeit not a crying ) shame, it is enough to make one wish they had simply stuck with their original name. Earth, as the band was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising band. Earth is the opposite or air, the ground is not ethereal, and water turns it to mud; if ever a band basked proudly and beautifully (and always unabashedly) in the mud, it is Sabbath. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music.

But nevermind all that crap. Here is some truth, if you can handle it:

Sabbath, not Zeppelin, had more to do with establishing what came to be known (however lazily) as heavy metal. And that is not a slight on Zeppelin; indeed, it is a compliment. To pigeonhole their blues and folk-based sound, as well as the possibly unrivaled virtuosity of Jimmy Page and severely under-appreciated compositional acumen of John Paul Jones is a disservice on several levels. More to the point, there is little, if anything, on any Zeppelin album that sounds like what most people call (or called) heavy metal.

Sabbath, on the other hand…

Like Zeppelin, their early material was heavily grounded in blues, and both of their debuts were recorded virtually live in the studio without overdubs. Both bands were restless and productive, and within a few years each had cultivated a sonic template that substantially exceeded –and improved upon– the uncomplicated formula of their early work. Where Zeppelin began incorporating folk, country and even reggae into their increasingly technicolor albums, Sabbath found its sweet spot in the black and white riff-centric blitzkrieg. That sound, raw and hungry on the first album, irresistibly flowed with the current into heavier and darker waters, culminating in the visceral assault of Vol. 4. After the transitional, and experimental (and quite successful) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the band upped the ante on Sabotage and in the process, created a song that launched a thousand imitations. Behold, the birth of thrash metal:

And yet—and this is the larger and often overlooked point—the music this band made was, for the most part, dead serious: from the live-in-the-studio cauldron of blackened blues debut album, to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from their follow-up Paranoid, this was an act with a considerable chip on its shoulder, and few punches were pulled until Ozzy, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in ’79. From their eagerness to take on tough-talking politicians who can never quite find the courage to fight in the wars they start (“War Pigs”), to the dangers of hard drugs (“Hand of Doom”), to the pleasures of soft drugs (“Sweet Leaf”), to the ambivalence of drug-induced oblivion (“Snowblind”) to proto-thrash metal (“Hole in the Sky”) to all-encompassing attacks on the system (“Over to You”), it is ignorant, even a bit hysterical, to dismiss this group as a simplistic one-trick pony.

Consider “Cornucopia” from Vol. 4: it only takes the band four minutes to distill the entire message that much heralded fin de siecle flick The Matrix tried to impart. Bonus, it’s actually enjoyable, and it does not feature Keanu Reeves. But seriously, check out those 20 seconds that begin at the 1:44 mark: the sludgy static of guitars, bass, cymbals and gong smashes simulate the surreal and unsettling frenzy of postmodern life as well as any movie or book; indeed this song anticipates the information overload chaos connecting computers and our minds by about three decades. Granted, their music is not for everyone, but in this iPod age it would be a compelling experiment to cue up a track list that includes “Planet Caravan”, “Orchid”, “Embryo”, “Laguna Sunrise”, “Don’t Start (Too Late)”, and “It’s Alright”, then give an uninitiated listener ten guesses to name that band.

Indeed, if you can’t play “Air Dance” — a truly moving song (!) about an aged ballerina (!!) — for your significant other, it might be time to reconsider that relationship. A more sustained — and entirely subjective — analysis of Sabbath’s magnum opus, Never Say Die! is overdue, but for now, this track can represent the whole. “Air Dance” features some truly astonishing work by Tony Iommi, who was increasingly able to add nuance and texture to his multi-tracked guitar parts (check out the jazz guitar and piano interplay, and then the calibrated frenzy of the final solo, and then…is that brass being deftly applied to embellish the coda? You better believe it is.) Simply put, as brilliant (and in some ways innovative) as Sabbath’s blues-drenched debut was, the growth and expansion demonstrated between 1970 and 1978 is as impressive and ambitious as just about any other band’s, including you-know-who.

Once Ozzy exited the picture, it is fair to assume that the band would have faded into the void if they had made the courageous decision to soldier on with drummer Bill Ward assuming vocal duties (the aforementioned “It’s Alright” and the last song on the last album, “Swinging the Chain”, offer evidence that this experiment may have worked out quite nicely). It was never going to happen, but they would have arguably made better albums in the Ozzy aftermath if they had given it a shot. Instead, with the very unsatisfactory Ronnie James Dio grabbing the mic, the good old bad days stayed in the ‘70s.

Looking back, one wishes they had just pulled a Brian Wilson and gotten Ozzy his own sandbox, or let him work the wet bar in the caboose of his custom-made crazy train. But then, he had to leave; it had to end so we could have the subsequent Behind The Music special. Without Ozzy hitting rock bottom there would be no rebirth, no Randy Rhoads, no PETA protests, no reality TV show. The Sabbath singer had worn out his welcome, but Ozzy’s work was not yet done: there were ants to snort, dove’s heads to decapitate, and most significantly, the Alamo to urinate on (and let’s face it: someone had to urinate on the Alamo).

And so, in the end, it is as it should have been: one band, one decade, one legacy—everything that came after comes with an asterisk. Nevertheless, the records need to be set straight: Sabbath is one of the very few bands that is actually better than it sounds. And we haven’t even begun to talk about Bill Ward’s (overlooked) drumming and Geezer Butler’s (criminally overlooked) bass playing…Still, with a name like Black Sabbath, it is tempting to associate the music with a band that only comes out at night. Nonsense. Looking at the sad state of affairs in our wicked world, we need them now more than ever.

Got no religion, don’t need no friends

Got all I want and I don’t need to pretend

Don’t try to reach me, ’cause I’d tear up your mind

I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind…

True in ’72; true today. And when you look at it that way,  every day is Earth day.

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Steven Wilson: The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much (Part Two, The Fury)

Many of Steven Wilson’s mostly accurate, but increasingly tedious denunciations of inferior audio can be attributed to genuine motivations. He really does despise digital downloads and looks askance at those who would abuse their ears (and his art) by listening to them. You can usually ascertain if someone’s agenda is disingenuous by the amount of money they stand to make; in Wilson’s case, sniffily censuring consumers for their philistine proclivities is certainly not going to line his pockets. Bully for him; his browbeating-bordering-on-bullishness comes from an uncorrupted heart. Still, fans that are sufficiently removed from the sullied means of production and procurement Wilson whines about might hope he can avoid becoming known more for his crankiness than his musical proficiency.  

It’s not that he’s a snob, these fans could claim; it’s that he really cares about music. (His already notable street cred as a proponent of progressive rock was augmented by his recent undertaking to remaster–for the umpteenth time, it might be noted–the (brilliant) back catalog of King Crimson; suffice it to say, this is not a task the merely passionate producer assumes, this is an obsessive labor of love.)  

So what are we to make of Wilson’s latest jeremiad in Electronic Musician, “In The Mix: Everyone’s A Critic?” A knee-jerk analysis might be that the self-appointed physician who would ameliorate all that ails us might want to turn some of that attention inward. It is by now abundantly clear that Wilson would prefer that more people shared his opinion on how music is made, received and enjoyed. (An exalted regard of his own judgment includes Wilson in an artistic community that is neither exclusive nor in danger of diminishing its numbers.) What is striking –and slightly unsettling– about his new piece is the implication that Wilson might prefer that a great many people have no opinions at all.  

Check it out: in an observation only slight more earth-shattering than the proposition that digital files suck, Wilson rues the reality of our Internets allowing every yahoo to have a voice. Once again, Wilson’s essential position is incontrovertible: there are a disconcerting number of uninformed, semi-literate, sensationalistic folks out there blogging, tweeting and e-scribbling their two cents. It long ago ceased being news (if indeed it ever was) that anyone with web access can become a critic, and anyone who happens on their site, however unintentionally, might become, however briefly, an audience. It’s not unlike the blowhard at every dinner party over the course of several centuries, multiplied by the speed of Google.  

So…what is Wilson actually saying? Well, he spins himself back down the years to the (good old) days of our youth and name-checks the estimable Lester Bangs. (One wonders aloud what Bangs would have made of Porcupine Tree, and if perchance an unkind appraisal from Mr. Carburetor Dung might complicate Wilson’s nostalgic approbation.) Great music journalism, Wilson asserts, “reaches out beyond the music to the core of the human condition, just like the music it is about.” (One also wonders what Bangs would make of that sentence, and that sentiment.)  

As is the case with honest music reproduced on machines designed to authentically transmit it, there is little to quibble with here. An LP (or CD) played on a receiver through decent speakers is the real deal, and even the most recalcitrant hipster would likely hold his Pabst Blue Ribbon aloft in solidarity to this sentiment. Quality music journalism, like quality literature (or quality music for that matter) is always something to savor, and there is seldom an overabundance of it. The only thing worth noting is that this has always been the case (indeed, one could easily make a compelling case that the sheer volume of words being written in 2010 means that there is, pound for pound, better music journalism than at any other time in our history; of course there is many times more crapola); hence the proposition that opinions are like arseholes: everybody’s got one. The Internet, naturally (or, perhaps more to Wilson’s putative point, unnaturally) has enabled every a-hole with web access to let those opinions pollute the public spaces. So what?  

Paraphrasing won’t do it justice, so let’s smell what Wilson’s stepping in:  

Albums are praised one minute as an artist’s best, then trashed a minute later by someone else as the worst—both opinions expressed as irrefutable truth. The quality of writing rarely rises above comparisons to other bands and liberally applied superlatives. Only now, these so-called reviews are broadcast the world over, giving influence to their authors no matter how narrow their frame of reference or biased their agenda.  

Really? You mean unlike the halcyon days when artistic assessments were reached by consensus? (Or do we even want to fantasize about a fascistic purgatory where only the anointed Wise Ones determined what made the cut? We’ve read that book before, and it had something to do with Atlas Shrugging while Orwell imagined a dystopia that Ayn Rand appropriated and Neil Peart wrote a concept album about. Or something.)  

Wilson’s (somewhat surprising, considering his band’s underground origins and the semi-cult status it still retains) despair at the millions of uncultivated impressions exposes an aloofness he is perfectly entitled to possess. Unfortunately, it discounts a rather serious underlying issue: until fairly recently, the same hegemony that governed the music industry also controlled the publishing world –including, and especially, magazines. As such, there were only a relative handful of “legit” voices allowed (e.g., able) to opine, and set the agenda. If history is written by the victors, the present is written by those with entree. Often –too often– these insider types were influenced by personal relationships with bands, and integrity was just as often tossed into the paper bag with the vials and the Quaaludes.  

Does Wilson fail to see even a little bit of irony in the fact that Led Zeppelin, a band now generally regarded as golden gods, was largely reviled by the rock establishment throughout the ’70s? Ditto Black Sabbath and Rush. How many times, for that matter, was King Crimson on the cover of Rolling Stone? A conservative estimate: about 7,000 times less than U2 has been. (If you think the reason U2 has graced that exalted space so often  is because the editors genuinely believe they are the best band around, and not because Jann Wenner gets wood every time he can converse with St. Bono, I’ve got booth space at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I’d like to sell you. Check that: the editors at Rolling Stone probably do think U2 is the best band around.)  

Obviously, our Internets have allowed every self-proclaimed prophet to shout from the highest rooftop, even if that rooftop is in their mother’s basement. But the cream generally rises, as it did even in the days when Cream made music and CREEM wrote about it. What Wilson, bizarrely, seems to overlook (and this complements his intransigence on the many positive aspects of digital technology) is that what is going on in the publishing world right now is very similar to what went down, a little over a decade ago (and is, of course, still unfolding) in the music industry. For all the shoddily crafted or hysterical hyping (and/or bashing) blogging empowers, the web is also a vehicle for dedicated, deadly serious endeavors that would have been all but inconceivable a generation ago. And for every imbecile who doesn’t think twice about submitting one-star reviews at Amazon or dismisses a particular album with unoriginal and spell check-free snark, there are music aficionados who are taking the time (and making no money) to promote the discovery of unheralded acts.   

(Speaking of blogs, it would seem remiss to not make brief mention of the fact that the haughty dismissal of these independent and/or underground ventures –however forgettable many of them may well be– calls to mind a similar, much more grave phenomenon. It’s hard to not think about the ongoing, albeit increasingly less credible grousing from the mainstream media regarding blogs and various other unsanctioned sources of news and opinion, particularly as it relates to international and political affairs. Reading Wilson’s piece, his superciliousness sounds distressingly congruent with the Bad Old Boys club of inside-the-Beltway elitism that has sought to marginalize the voices that dare dissent from the already-established narrative. These interloping hordes of “non-traditional” media types have only augmented their collective credibility as we see how supine and/or asleep our ostensible watchdogs have been for far too long.

These recalcitrant –and often unpaid– reporters and bloggers were roundly dismissed –and ridiculed– as shrill Chicken Littles by those same sober and serious denizens of the D.C. dinner party circuit. Those same well-placed (and remunerated) stenographers who breathlessly informed us of the WMDs, the trivial costs –in financial and human terms– of our imminent international adventures and the revised political and religious aligments (which anyone with a modicum of knowledge concerning the long and extensively documented history of the Middle East sniffed out on sight) that would fall neatly into place like so many shocked and awed dominoes, and turned out to be wrong, about everything.)

Would Wilson really want to roll the dice and insert himself back in a time when the prospects were a hell of a lot less salubrious for unorthodox and unsigned bands? Today, there are illimitable sources of opinion, and taste making is as democratic as it’s ever been, in part because of the abundance of voices and agency. On balance, this is undeniably a good thing, for artists and audiences. If it’s easy to get buried in this blizzard of evaluations, it’s pretty painless to seek out consistent and respected sources of guidance. The bile and disposable flame-fodder quickly dissipate into the ether, dragged down by their own ineptitude; kind of the way calculated chart-seeking detritus slinks quietly into the slipstream.

The reason bands find an audience is because they offer something of substance, something that speaks to a disparate crowd who may have little else in common. The way a writer attracts a readership is by engaging honestly and intelligently with the material at hand, respecting the intelligence and integrity of the artists who create and the people who support them. In the better tomorrow we’re always working toward, tolerant and receptive minds will eventually; inevitably find each other –either in the real world or the electronic one.

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Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums

Okay.

Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced their selections of what they deem the Top 50 Guitar Albums ever.

Now, as someone who writes about music (and who has offered up a few lists of my own), I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on their list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review their Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black, 9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, 8. Cream: Disraeli Gears, 7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East, 6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II, 5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction, 4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, 2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced, 1. Van Halen, Van Halen.

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say The Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do –and you should– have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go 1-2-3.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (#15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC (Highway To Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to their mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes, The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero.  His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

 

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains, I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders, Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, The Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing: James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson, Red

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you –and it never leaves. From extended workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged in version of Tommy’s “Underture), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy”  to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15” (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about The Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, they actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue –at least with any credibility– that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti (#48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of  the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence?

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is The Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is The Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster (anyone not in the know of its origins, but interested, start here). This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features the solo: the impatient may proceed directly to the 3.43 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFRFtnTd620

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at their most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

 

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here and here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

 Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was better —and it was a double album) but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

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Paint It Black (Sabbath)

sabb

I’m so proud of my Pops.

Last night, quite out of the blue (or, out of the black as the case may be), he said he had to ask me a “technical question”.

I braced myself, prepared to disappoint him. A “technical” question had to mean he was going to ask about computers and I would have to remind him that, despite working closely with them for almost two decades, I probably know less about the inner workings and mechanics of these things than the average ten year old.

To my considerable relief, it was a question about music.

To my considerable delight, it was a question about Black Sabbath.

“So I heard a Black Sabbath song on the radio the other day…they were actually a really good band huh?”

“Are you kidding? They were a great band.”

“But I mean, they were seriously good musicians…”

“Arguably some of the best, instrument for instrument, in all of rock.”

“That drummer…he is pretty impressive!”

“Bill Ward is a very bad man.”

I asked him what song he had heard, assuming it had to be “Iron Man” or “Paranoid”, as those are the only two Sabbath songs I’ve ever heard on the radio. I dared to hope that maybe, somehow, some station had sagely determined that “War Pigs” would, in fact, be a very welcome addition to the heavy rotation so many other lesser songs enjoy on classic rock channels. He could not confirm what song it was, and I remain intrigued, because I’m pretty certain he would recognize the first two songs. And other than “War Pigs”, I can’t think of another song that seems commercial enough for even more progressive-minded classic rock station to consider. But there are certainly plenty that could be.

 

And therein lies the rub. There are tons of Sabbath songs that could peacefully exist with the largely underwhelming and predictable numbers you hear every time you listen to the radio. (The other issue, of course, is whether or not anyone actually listens to FM radio anymore. Well, my old man does.) It’s not a quality issue; if that were the case, we could discuss the dozens of bands who get little to no airplay (King Crimson, Captain Beefheart and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to name a few). And it’s not an issue of accessibility: even the acts who do get plenty of airtime (Yes, The Doors, Rush, Neil Young), it’s for the most part a surface-level shuffle of their half-dozen most successful and/or “popular” songs. I think I’d drive off the road if I ever heard Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”, but at least when the firemen showed up to pull me from the wreckage I would have a smile on my face. The point, then, is not that FM radio, for mostly understandable (if ceaselessly self-defeating) reasons, plays it safe and consistent; that could be an entire discussion in and of itself.

Give this one a whirl and see if it doesn’t make almost everything you hear today, and a great deal of the good stuff from back in the day, sound safe, generic and half-ass:

No, the issue here is of and about the band Black Sabbath. A case could be made (and I have made it) that Sabbath is by far the most misunderstood and underrated band. Ever.

I wrote (in a piece I now notice went live on my father’s birthday last year, causing me to consider if larger forces are at work here) that the band’s name, which certainly caught people’s attention, also has always worked against them:

The all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn (albeit not a crying ) shame, it is enough to make one wish they had simply stuck with their original name. Earth, as the band was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising band. Earth is the opposite or air, the ground is not ethereal, and water turns it to mud; if ever a band basked proudly and beautifully (and always unabashedly) in the mud, it is Sabbath. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music.

Sabbath, not Zeppelin, had more to do with establishing what came to be known (however lazily) as heavy metal. And that is not a slight on Zeppelin; indeed, it is a compliment. To pigeonhole their blues and folk-based sound, as well as the possibly unrivaled virtuosity of Jimmy Page and severely under-appreciated compositional acumen of John Paul Jones is a disservice on several levels. More to the point, there is little, if anything, on any Zeppelin album that sounds like what most people call (or called) heavy metal.

Sabbath, on the other hand…

Like Zeppelin, their early material was heavily grounded in blues, and both of their debuts were recorded virtually live in the studio without overdubs. Both bands were restless and productive, and within a few years each had cultivated a sonic template that substantially exceeded –and improved upon– the uncomplicated formula of their early work. Where Zeppelin began incorporating folkcountry and even reggae into their increasingly technicolor albums, Sabbath found its sweet spot in the black and white riff-centric blitzkrieg. That sound, raw and hungry on the first album, irresistibly flowed with the current into heavier and darker waters, culminating in the visceral assault of Vol. 4. After the transitional, and experimental (and quite successful) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the band upped the ante on Sabotage and in the process, created a song that launched a thousand imitations. Behold, the birth of thrash metal:

To plagiarize again from the earlier piece:

And yet—and this is the larger and often overlooked point—the music this band made was, for the most part, dead serious: from the live-in-the-studio cauldron of blackened blues debut album, to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from their follow-up Paranoid, this was an act with a considerable chip on its shoulder, and few punches were pulled until Ozzy, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in ’79. From their eagerness to take on tough-talking politicians who can never quite find the courage to fight in the wars they start (“War Pigs”), to the dangers of hard drugs (“Hand of Doom”), to the pleasures of soft drugs (“Sweet Leaf”), to the ambivalence of drug-induced oblivion (“Snowblind”) to proto-thrash metal (“Hole in the Sky”) to all-encompassing attacks on the system (“Over to You”), it is ignorant, even a bit hysterical, to dismiss this group as a simplistic one-trick pony.

Consider “Cornucopia” from Vol. 4: it only takes the band four minutes to distill the entire message that much heralded fin de siecle flick The Matrix tried to impart. Bonus, it’s actually enjoyable, and it does not feature Keanu Reeves. But seriously, check out those 20 seconds that begin at the 1:44 mark: the sludgy static of guitars, bass, cymbals and gong smashes simulate the surreal and unsettling frenzy of postmodern life as well as any movie or book; indeed this song anticipates the information overload chaos connecting computers and our minds by about three decades. Granted, their music is not for everyone, but in this iPod age it would be a compelling experiment to cue up a track list that includes “Planet Caravan”, “Orchid”, “Embryo”, “Laguna Sunrise”, “Don’t Start (Too Late)”, and “It’s Alright”, then give an uninitiated listener ten guesses to name that band.

Indeed, if you can’t play “Air Dance” — a truly moving song (!) about an aged ballerina (!!) — for your significant other, it might be time to reconsider that relationship. A more sustained — and entirely subjective — analysis of Sabbath’s magnum opus, Never Say Die! is overdue, but for now, this track can represent the whole. “Air Dance” features some truly astonishing work by Tony Iommi, who was increasingly able to add nuance and texture to his multi-tracked guitar parts (check out the jazz guitar and piano interplay, and then the calibrated frenzy of the final solo, and then…is that brass being deftly applied to embellish the coda? You better believe it is.) Simply put, as brilliant (and in some ways innovative) as Sabbath’s blues-drenched debut was, the growth and expansion demonstrated between 1970 and 1978 is as impressive and ambitious as just about any other band’s, including you-know-who.

Finally, from my previously mentioned piece, I conclude thusly:

Once Ozzy exited the picture, it is fair to assume that the band would have faded into the void if they had made the courageous decision to soldier on with drummer Bill Ward assuming vocal duties (the aforementioned “It’s Alright” and the last song on the last album, “Swinging the Chain”, offer evidence that this experiment may have worked out quite nicely). It was never going to happen, but they would have arguably made better albums in the Ozzy aftermath if they had given it a shot. Instead, with the very unsatisfactory Ronnie James Dio grabbing the mic, the good old bad days stayed in the ‘70s.

Looking back, one wishes they had just pulled a Brian Wilson and gotten Ozzy his own sandbox, or let him work the wet bar in the caboose of his custom-made crazy train. But then, he had to leave; it had to end so we could have the subsequent Behind The Music special. Without Ozzy hitting rock bottom there would be no rebirth, no Randy Rhoads, no PETA protests, no reality TV show. The Sabbath singer had worn out his welcome, but Ozzy’s work was not yet done: there were ants to snort, dove’s heads to decapitate, and most significantly, the Alamo to urinate on (and let’s face it:  someone had to urinate on the Alamo).

And so, in the end, it is as it should have been: one band, one decade, one legacy—everything that came after comes with an asterisk. Nevertheless, the records need to be set straight: Sabbath is one of the very few bands that is actually better than it sounds.

So, in sum, what Sabbath do you need? Eventually, you’ll want all of the stuff from the ’70s, but most people start with Paranoid and go from there. And remember, Never Say Die!

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See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me…Sell Me

There is a reason The Beatles are considered the greatest band ever. It’s simple, really: they are the greatest band ever. After them, it’s a fair fight for second place, and fans of The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and The Kinks can duke it out for eternity. (And that’s just the British bands.) It would not be terribly enjoyable, or edifying, to argue about which band warrants consideration as runners-up, but since The Stones tend to be the ones most often considered just under the fab fours’ thumbs, how about The Who? Who knows what might have happened if Keith Moon had not kicked off for that great pub in the sky? (Based on what these other bands did, or did not do, after 1980, it’s safe to propose nothing terribly earth shattering was portended.) But the output from their first decade goes toe-to-toe with any of these other bands’ best work. And if you want to go deep, what tri-fecta can possibly touch Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia? In terms of albums released in a row, that is a tough list to top. The Stones, of course, came close with Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street (and in terms of the precursors, I would personally rank The Who Sell Out as every bit as good, if not slightly better, than the somewhat overrated Beggar’s Banquet). What else do you got? I wouldn’t fight to the death arguing that Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper aren’t the most important (if least perfect) consecutive albums to drop in rock history. Of course there is also the entirety of Hendrix’s studio output (while he lived, that is; the good, the bad and the ugly that still spills out of the vaults is a mostly positive mixed blessing), Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland. Fans of the underdogs will get plenty of mileage endorsing The Kinks’ Face to Face,  Something Else by the Kinks and The Village Green Preservation Society.

Inspiring? Pete Townshend, arguably, is the ultimate rock hero. He had the Lennon & McCartney songwriting skills, he was no Hendrix but he played the hell of those guitars he ultimately smashed into splinters (still more punk rock than some poser spitting into the crowd); he had Ray Davies’ lyrical chops and he represented the blue collar sensibility of the down-and-out working stiffs many years before the blokes from Birmingham called themselves Black Sabbath and took on the world one sacred cow at a time. And he was always a thinking man’s Keith Richards, content to swim in the scum but never letting it stall his creative engine. He makes those siblings from Oasis seem like the sissies they are: for all their squabbles did either of them ever beat the other into the hospital as Roger Daltrey did after Townshend whacked him with his guitar in the studio? And I love him for kicking Abby Hoffman offstage, literally, during Woodstock when he interrupted The Who’s set to rant at the crowd (nevermind the fact that his whining was well-warranted, since he was calling legitimate attention to John Sinclair’s ludicrous imprisonment, and nevermind that Hoffman later claimed the incident did not go down the way it was portrayed, begging the question of how and why the audio could have possibly been altered or misconstrued).

Influential? This, of course, was the band that made an album entitled The Who Sell Out. Aside from the fact that it was, in many ways, a blueprint for their subsequent masterpiece Tommy, it was an incredible album in its own right. Also important, it displayed the restless sensibility of the band’s principle songwriter, who always had his foot on the pulse and remained a step or two ahead of the crowd. A few years after he sang about hoping he died before he got old on “My Generation” and a few decades before he did get old, and began selling his songs to the highest bidder, he predicted all of it. Of course, he did so tongue very much in cheek, his sardonic wit and impish eye for human foibles firing on all cylinders. The band actually recorded mini commercials in between tunes (cool) that were actually fucking brilliant (cooler). In addition to the one that still scorches, “I Can See For Miles”, the album was brimming with inspired, offbeat slices of life. Consider “Odorono” or “Silas Stingy” or the not quite fully baked but enduring “Tattoo”. Or this personal favorite, which manages to hint at all the grandeur just over the horizon, “Someone’s Coming”:

Indeed, if there had been no Tommy, the bet here is that The Who Sell Out would be considered one of the seminal mid-to-late ’60s rock documents. As such, it is easily counted amongst the band’s better work and has been cited, covered and worshipped; it even inspired one of the truly eccentric yet satisfactory experiments of the new century. Petra Haden (daughter of Jazz legend Charlie Haden) had the audacity to record an entirely a cappella reimagining of the album, naturally entitled Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. To say this would not be everyone’s cup of chai is understating the obvious, but for those with a more adventurous sonic palette, its joys are bountiful.

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”:

Led Zeppelin, to their eternal credit, did what The Who were unable to do when they lost their drummer in the late-’70s: they stopped making music. As such, their legacy is intact, and they can take credit for never making a sub-par album. The Who, on the other hand, plowed ahead (and who could blame them, then or now? Not me) and made some mediocre albums before they pulled the plug. Little did anyone know that The Who were about to sell out (literally and figuratively) in 1989, going on the road once again to celebrate their 25th anniversary (and who could blame them, then or now? Not me). As far as I’m concerned, if bands want to play and people want to pay to see them, rock on. It was, nevertheless, a bit pitiful to see the man who crowed about selling out and dying before he got old turning his “rock opera” into a family-friendly Broadway production in the ’90s. And then there were the commercials. I don’t exactly lose sleep over old rebels letting their back catalogs get pimped out by rapacious PR firms, but I believe Bill Hicks delineates what is at stake better than anyone else could.  

So Pete Townshend wants to allow his songs to be used in order to hawk Hummers or HPs or… high performance headlights? Whatever. No matter how old and opportunistic he becomes, nothing Townshend can do will dampen my enthusiasm for his earlier work; that is the stuff that matters: the rest is between his soul, the devil and the deep blue sea.

Still, it was disconcerting to see Townshend get his knickers in a bunch when Michael Moore asked to use “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the conclusion of Fahrenheit 9/11. Don’t get me wrong, I often find the oleaginous Moore as nauseating as the next guy does, and I agree with his politics. I ultimately think he’s a cause for good, and many Americans would do well to recall that he was among the first, and loudest, public critics of the Iraq catastrophe long before the supine mainstream media took it upon themselves to connect the obvious dots. A man who makes movies like he does (ham-fisted and disgustingly self-satisfied) warrants a regular and healthy dose of ridicule, but he was targeted for telling the truth and for that alone he has eternal street cred. Plus, his movies contain gems of insight that usually emerge from the gratuitous commentary, too-cute-by-two-thirds editing and distracting presence of a man who should stay behind the camera at all costs.

Townshend, taking time away from his research project, made a big fuss about what a hack and a charlatan Moore was, which sounded like he was protesting a tad too much. However, whether he intended it, or whether he likes it, coming as it did in the summer of an election year, he gave the Republicans considerable fodder. That was unconscionable. For a man who was at one time progressive to license his songs to sell SUV’s is lame enough; to take a principled stand against a filmmaker who is trying to expose the lies and crimes that were, at that time, killing hundreds of American soldiers (not to mention the countless innocent Iraq lives) each month, is a large, ugly stain on Townshend’s legacy.

 

Which brings us back to the future. To see (and hear) “Won’t Get Fooled Again” being used in the latest Will Ferrell production, a remake of ’70s TV show Land of the Lost is…disappointing. Aside from the fact that the film looks predictably terrible, the idea that Townshend is happy to sell it is…revealing. Listen, I could care less if Townshend decided he was a hardcore conservative (though he may not appreciate the way Republicans in this country would have treated his little kiddie porn peccadillo); certainly it would sting a little bit to see him embrace the ultimate intellectual devolution. Again, it would not distract me in the slightest from worshipping the music he made when he still had a brain. But to allow a song that allegedly meant something to him at one time (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”, albeit a precious sort of political song, is still a timeless indictment of the system and our endless capacity for using our illusions) to shill mindless Hollywood dross? It’s more than a little disgusting.

And yet, in the final analysis, there is something quite appropriate about this turn of events. The movie is about dinosaurs and perhaps Townshend recognizes that he too is a dinosaur. He used to roam the earth and lesser creatures trembled at his presence. Now, his integrity is extinct, and he is himself a bit of a cartoon, alive mostly through memories and on TV, via the songs in the commercials that pimp product. And of course he will live forever inside the machines that play music, keeping his former soul safe and enshrined.

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