Taking It All Too Hard: Unironic Love For Phil Collins (Revisited)

phil-c

After taking on the “holy trinity” of classic era Genesis, wherein Phil Collins arguably got short-shrift (I mean we had to discuss Peter Gabriel!), it seemed appropriate to revisit my piece on PC from three years ago –almost to the day. So yeah, this:

There must be some misunderstanding.

Is he in or out?

(You’ve got to get in to get out…)

Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Genesis was finally –and correctly– inducted into last March (by a very nervous Trey Anastasio).

The question is: has he hung up his sticks forever? Has he set foot on his last stage, never to sing into the mic again?

(Hello, I must be going…)

It’s tough to say, based on the man’s recent remarks.

Earlier this month there were conflicting reports: is he retiring from music to focus on his family, or not? Is it temporary or permanent? And most significant: who cares? Well, I do, of which more shortly.

Last year, due to medical concerns, he disclosed that he was unable to play the drums (inviting wise-ass types to inquire how long it had been since he had played the drums anyway, if he ever did). Due to a dislocated vertebrae in his neck, his hands were affected and presumably that explained the setback. Optimistic fans could assume that once he fully recovered, he could resume his musical aspirations. The bigger question was: did he have any. Considering it was the same year his band was enshrined, it was distressing to see him mention having suicidal thoughts and expressing more ambivalence than pride regarding a career where he shares exclusive company with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for selling more than a million records with a band and as a solo artist.

Of course, some of this damage was self-inflicted (number one hit or not, you simply cannot write songs like “Against All Odds” or “Just One Night” and not expect some critical blowback, even as you laugh all the way to the bank). But once Genesis effectively closed up shop, somewhere around the end of last century Phil Collins became a living punchline and a go-to guy as shorthand explanation for all that ailed good music. This unfortunate tag was only cemented further into the public consciousness when his music was memorably satirized in American Psycho.

The ridicule and ill-will seemed to have taken their toll, best illustrated by the sensationalistic –and erroneous– headline indicating that Phil Collins has “apologized for his music career” here. For me, the low point was his being (or at least feeling) obliged to suffer the snark and unwarranted condesenscion from this jackass representing our inviolable journalistic institution SPIN. For an exhibit of insufferable disrespect and what passes these days for hipster street-cred, check out this spectacle. Suffice it to say, Collins was/is obviously not in the best of places to suffer a fool that politely, and it hurt to read. Humble and well-mannered in the finest British tradition, he was too tolerant for his own good here and deserves better.

Really, you ask?

Really, I say.

And this is coming from someone who has virtually no love for the entirety of the man’s solo career and who got off the tour bus after the ’83 self-titled release (for me the last good thing they did). Nevertheless, even in the mid-to-late ’80s when Collins was arguably one of the five best-known and best-loved musicians on the planet and made no music I endorsed, I had to appreciate the dude’s superhuman work ethic. (Full disclosure: I was never particularly fond of the soundtrack-ready “In The Air Tonight” so its subsequent ubiquity does not even provide nostalgia for Miami Vice, a show I never cared about.)

For anyone (like that snot-nosed punk from SPIN) who is too young or altogether clueless, it may be surprising to remember how huge Collins was in the mid-’80s. I don’t just mean commercially viable, I mean culturally relevant. Let’s put it this way: it was a big deal when Collins sat in for Led Zeppelin’s set during Live Aid. A huge deal. You can hear the squeals of delight once the cameras pan in on the diminutive dude behind the drum set mid-way into the song (the 6.33 mark for those playing at home), here. As an added bonus, you can revisit –or appreciate for the first time– the spectacle of a sweaty and strung out Jimmy Page drooling and slobbering all over himself: watching now it makes me marvel that the cat is not only alive, but –based on his lucid and insightful participation in the documentary It Might Get Loudwell.

And so: I reckon if no one else is going to do it, it’s up to me to defend Phil Collins.

If some of the more soporific songs don’t hold up well (and sort of sucked, even then), at worst they seem innocuous, certainly in hindsight. And speaking of hindsight, these days I find myself likening pop stars to politicians: the more time that goes by, the better they look compared to their contemporaries.
Interesting, or not, I was just thinking of Collins the other week and this is what I had to say:
A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him.
Listen: thus far we’ve focused on the incarnation of Genesis that featured Phil as vocalist (and his solo work); not enough people understand that back in the day Peter Gabriel was the singer and Collins took care of the drums and percussion (and brilliant backing vocals). In the early-to-mid ’70s Collins was one of the best drummers on the scene, and it’s all there in the albums if you can handle the truth. For that reason alone, Collins should be spared the sort of character assasination we should reserve strictly for Huey Lewis.
Collins, in short, has nothing to apologize for. The only people who need to feel sorry are the suckers who are not acquainted with everything Collins and his mates did during that great decade of the 1970s.
Here are five reminders of why Collins can hold his beautiful bald head high, even if he has decided to hang up his spurs once and for all.
“For Absent Friends” (one of only two songs from the Gabriel era featuring Collins on lead vocals, demonstrating his impeccable falsetto):

“The Carpet Crawlers” (two words: backing vocals bitches):

“Dance on a Volcano”

“No Reply At All”

“Taking It All Too Hard”

)

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The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shamelessness and out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, accordingly and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. (However: if karmic justice could be rendered in cartoon fashion, Robert Plant should have noisily imploded the second he whined about the Beastie Boys sampling Zeppelin, appropriately on a tune called “Rhymin’ and Stealin’”.) In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

Let us give thanks for the guitar solo.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

Wherever necessary I have plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.) And bonus love, HERE.

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.) And a lot more on Jethro Tull, HERE.

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” 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”. A lot more on King Crimson, HERE. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from 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. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from 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 million 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.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its 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 the band, 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 Osbourne’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 thisaccomplished, 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. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too, irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from 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. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul. A lot more on Yes, HERE.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, HERE)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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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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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #1 (Revisited)

1. Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door (1979)

There are three distinctive types of Led Zeppelin fans. The first group knows Zep is great because of the classic songs (mostly from their second and fourth albums) that get consistent radio play. These people may also own the second and fourth album and possibly a greatest hits collection. The second group are the ones who own everything except Presence and In Through The Out Door but they don’t need to, because everyone knows those are lesser efforts and not in the same class as the early stuff, especially the second and fourth album. The third type is the fan who not only owns every Zeppelin album, but understands that Zeppelin didn’t make any bad albums. This type of fan also understands that the second and fourth albums, as great as they were, do not represent the best band besides The Beatles at their best. In fact, this small (tiny?) group of aficionados realizes that in many regards Zeppelin got better as they went along, and their final two albums are as good or better than almost anything else the band did.

Who’s with me? Very few people, I know. And I could care less. All I care about is setting the record straight: I’ve been listening to people (many of whom claim to love and really get Led Zeppelin) do everything from damn this album with faint praise to categorically write it off as an embarrassment. The only thing embarrassing about this album is how few people have heard it. And by hear it I don’t mean listened to it; I mean heard it. This might even include some members of the band who have never had many good things to say. I know Jimmy Page is not crazy about the album, which is understandable considering the shape he was in while it was made. I don’t understand why even he doesn’t realize how remarkable his playing is throughout the proceedings—as if he couldn’t help but be brilliant, not matter what his physical and emotional state of being.

It has been amply documented that while Page quietly battled his heroin addiction and Bonham steadily lost control of the alcoholism that would claim his life in 1980, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones co-pilot the blimp. Certainly this can be—and has been—called Jonesy’s album, and in many regards it is. But “even” relegated to glorified session player (a ludicrous charge in any event), Page is as much a part of this album as he was any of them. His playing is arguably more refined, and he picks his spots, but he’s all over the place. Even on songs dominated by keyboards, such as “Carouselambra” and “South Bound Saurez”, Page’s guitar is crucial. It would seem that entirely too many listeners simply can’t fathom that unless Page is out front and center, he is not being adequately represented (perhaps Page himself felt this). Gone forever are the riff-laden air guitar anthems (again those second and fourth albums) and in their place are songs that employ subtlety, depth and…(gasp) humor.

But before we get to the humor and the subtlety, let’s not kid ourselves: Page is in full effect on album opener, “In The Evening”. This is, in fact, as god-like as Page ever got, and even though some may sniff at the sounds of synth in the background, they only embellish the monstrous assault from Page—and Plant. After the foreboding of the extended intro, it’s like the band is shot out of a bazooka, with Page picking up where “Achilles Last Stand” left off, creating riffs that are at once sludgy and superhuman. Of course there is the solo: from 3.43 to 4.56 that is as golden as the gods ever got, and as soulful. On album-closer “I’m Gonna Crawl”, which is most definitely a Jones/Plant joint, Page nevertheless delivers one of his most coruscating solos: it is languid and totally without frills, it is simply emotion and feeling and serves as an unintentionally perfect grace note for Zeppelin to go out on.

Getting back to John Paul Jones. It’s unfortunate enough that the band would be unable to continue after Bonham’s death; it remains tantalizing to think about how much music Jonesy had left in him, and if the band could have evolved with him taking a larger role. One of the largest misconceptions about In Through the Out Door is that it’s the half-hearted result of a band on its last legs, limping to the finish line before fading away. In reality, the band had every intention of making more music, and while Page certainly would have asserted himself more on the next effort, Jones was responsible for pushing the sound into the future. “Carouselambra” suffers a bit in comparison to other Zep epics, like “Achilles Last Stand”, “In My Time of Dying”, “Kashmir” and “When The Levee Breaks”, but it’s an ambitious, totally original composition, anticipating what music would sound like in the early part of the next decade.

The one-two punch of “South Bound Saurez” and “Fool in the Rain” are also dominated by Jones and revealing a range of influences (Latin, boogie) that Zep had never embraced so openly and effectively. On both songs Page and Bonham demonstrate that even if their heads (and possibly hearts) weren’t entirely into it, they were capable of genius by default. And while we marvel at where Jones is taking things, the unyielding force from beginning to end is Robert Plant: he never disappoints and he seldom seems satisfied. Less a bare-chested lion swinging his microphone on stage and more an elder statesman, he observes the excess and indulgence around him and always puts the music first: this is his ultimate legacy as the best frontman of the ‘70s. Even as he reigned supreme as the ultimate rock vocalist, there is always a sense of play and passion in every song he sings. That focus and flamboyance remains in perfect balance, and on each song Plant is a man spilling over, as ever, with confidence and purpose.

And then there’s “Hot Dog”. More than a few people would likely agree that this is the single-worst song Zeppelin recorded. Those people need to be reminded that Zeppelin did not make any bad songs and that, in any event, “Hot Dog” is a better song on every level than well-loved tunes like “Ramble On” and “The Immigrant Song”. On their early work Zep did not exhibit much, if any, sense of humor; certainly nothing self-deprecating. “Hot Dog” reveals the band (or more specifically, Robert Plant) at its most unguarded, and it is at once a hilarious and deeply respectful send up of older school rock. To understand—and appreciate—“Hot Dog” one needs to understand, and appreciate, Plant’s worship of Elvis. Importantly, Elvis had passed away only two years before, making this less a tongue-in-cheek tribute and than a genuine moment of worship. Also worth noting is that Page turns in one of his most truncated, but delectable solos: the mood is light, but the music is serious, and sensational.

In Through The Out Door is not Led Zeppelin’s most representative work and it is not their best work, but taken as a whole, and even song-by-song, it stands up with anything they did. In some regards it represents the band at their most mature and adventurous. It hints at what might have been, and serves as a reminder of what most definitely was. These songs are not as immediately accessible as much of the band’s work, but like the songs on Presence, they cut deeper and stay longer. They are not the songs hardwired in your mind that you nod along to on the radio; they are songs that continue to astonish, delight and, after all these years, manage to surprise. That is as close to miraculous as any rock music ever gets.

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From The Annals of Inscrutability…Robert Plant! (Revisited)

3/2/2011:

After praising The Marshall Tucker Band I reckon it’s time to break out the big guns.

Everyone can list a handful –or more– songs that have presented lyrical challenges. I can list dozens, and there are more than a few that I still am not certain about. And if I were to isolate the one band whose lyrics have been pound for pound most incomprehensible it would without question be Led Zeppelin. When I consider that they are one of my all-time favorite bands, and other than possibly The Beatles the band whose output I’ve logged more hours listening to, it’s curious, bordering on bizzare. This, of course, is not my fault; it’s on the singer. And the fact that we’re talking about one of the great vocalists ever, it is bizarre, bordering on unbelievable. This is the Golden God himself, but just because he has the best pipes doesn’t necessarily translate linguistically: it’s an enigmatic equation when snyntax meets delivery and the only thing that matters is intention: does it work; does it rock? Of course it does. And despite how impossible he often was to understand on every album after Houses of the Holy, it’s never been an issue. In fact, for all the years I struggled in vain (and without the Internets) to decipher what he was singing on songs like “Achilles Last Stand” or “In The Evening or especially (the ever-underrated) “Carouselambra”, it never hampered my experience. In fact, it just might have augmented it. And now that I can easily figure these riddles out, I’m not particuarly inclined to. Not knowings keeps that silly air of mystery alive and, frankly, after three decades and change of singing (and/or lip-synching) the wrong lines, it would at this point be like learning a new language.

I have more to say on this (in particular) and the mighty Zeppelin (in general) another time. In fact, I’m long overdue for some sustained analysis of Led Zep; after having –or taking– the opportunity to write about some of my BFFs the past several years (including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Beatles, The Who and Black Sabbath), I’ve not made it a priority to pontificate on the only quartet that can challenge the Fab Four for title of “best band ever”. So, more on that, to be certain (and that is certain to occupy some real estate in the work-in-progress on all-things-prog-rock).

For now, I want to single out (and celebrate) what might be the song that has caused me the most confusion and joy over the years: “Burning Down One Side”. It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard it, and I still reckon I could guess half the lyrics, if I’m lucky. Let’s go to the back of the rack, from 1982 (!!), and revisit the first song from Robert Plant’s first solo album (!!!) Pictures At Eleven.

Okay, let’s catch our breath and review a few key points.

One: seriously, does anyone have any idea of what he’s saying, other than the times it’s obvious what he’s saying?

Two: how great is this song? Considering the wounds from John Bonham’s death were still raw in ’82 (they are still raw today, thank you very much), it’s remarkable bordering on heroic that Plant was able, much less willing, to make music so soon. (Quick sidenote: for all the people who want to slag off Zeppelin for the myriad reasons people feel obliged to slag off Zeppelin, let’s get one thing on the table: they were the only band to hang it up and keep it hung up. This would have been a no-brainer if Page or Plant had died, but considering it was “only” the drummer, not that many people would have protested if they had made a go of it into the ’80s with new blood. Not Zeppelin: all for one and one for all; they could not imagine being a band without John “Bonzo” Bonham, so they bloody well were not a band after John “Bonzo” Bonham. And they were absolutely correct: their legacy remains unsoiled in ways that we wish The Stones, The Who and at least a dozen other middleweight contenders could claim. They were Jim Brown walking away from the NFL while he was still, by far, the best player in the league, and possibly the best running back ever. They get eternal street cred and props for this, even if none of them ever made music nearly as good again.) Plant, to his credit, tried, and even though his solo career seemed a bit…superfluous by the early ’90s, who can fault the dude for wanting to do what he does?

Three: How magnificent is that guitar? Robbie Blunt should have become much more known and beloved than he happened to be, but he positively shines throughout Plant’s debut. If you slept on this release, it’s worth it not only for “Burning Down One Side” but also “Pledge Pin” (complete with sexy sax solo!), the rocking “Slow Dancer” and especially the sublime “Moonlight In Samosa”.

Four: that is Phil Collins pounding the skins. Yes, Phil Collins. A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. More on that (and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, another band that will occupy serious screen space in the work-in-progress) soon.

Five: Isn’t it endlessly invigorating the way music (in general) and specific songs (in particular) can bring you right back to exactly where you were at a certain time in the past? I listen to “Burning Down One Side” and I can tell you precisely where I was, what I was doing, and what I was all about in January, 1983. I can tell you that I was reading Carrie by Stephen King (and missing Sissy Spacek’s unsettling but still-sexy shower scene from the movie version) while patiently waiting for Cujo to become available at the local library (and, having not read it yet, having no clue how awful the subsequent movie would be). I was in 7th grade and the two key achievements of that winter were the first games of spin the bottle and working on the wooden wall clock in shop class –the clock that still hangs at my old man’s house (for anyone reading this who went to Langston Hughes, can I get a shout out for Mr. Goss?). I was “going steady” with “G” but still hung up on “T” and probably already getting nostalgic about that first kiss with “S”. Above all, I listened to music in my room on a clock radio.

Six: I can’t figure out the words of this song, just like I can’t recapture those feelings and fears and discoveries from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is the primary reason I can’t –and won’t– look up the lyrics online: because it’s more important to feel it than to know it. Wasn’t that true of everything from your childhood? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was still true, today?

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Storm Thorgerson, R.I.P.: An A/V Appreciation

You know Storm Thorgerson.

Even if you’ve never heard his name before, you know him.

More, if you are any kind of fan of late 20th Century rock music (most especially progressive rock music) he has played a role in your world that ranges from influential to indescribable.

You see, he was the guy that introduced –and depicted– our first (and lasting) impressions of so many of our favorite albums.

He has recently passed on, more on him and his accomplishments HERE and HERE (go to that second link, scroll down and marvel at the sheer number of classic albums he designed the covers for).

His website is, obviously, the best resource to see how much enduring work he did, HERE.

It would be ridiculous to try and narrow down my personal favorite album covers; the list would be too long. And that’s just the ones he did for Pink Floyd!

(Seriously, though: while so many prog-rock avatars invited ridicule because of their album covers, Pink Floyd, thanks to Thorgerson, elevated this function to high art. Indeed, during the late ’60s and all through the ’70s what was once an obligatory vanity shot of the band became an opportunity –and a challenge– to create provocative and rewarding associations, connected to and apart from the music.)

In tribute and with respect, I’ll nominate some of my favorites, accompanied with a track from said album.

First, a trio each from a trio of some of my favorite artists, then a trio from some very diverse acts.

We must begin, of course, with the band that Storm was so closely and indelibly associated with.

Back when Pink Floyd was the biggest underground band in the world, they remained mysterious—and hip—by being invisible. With few exceptions their faces weren’t on the album covers, which underscored the obvious: it was always all about the music. For a band that would come to suffocate on its seriousness (or, the seriousness with which Waters regarded his work, and his place in the band served to suck the air—and life—out of the later work), Floyd displayed a subtle sense of humor for a spell. Take the ingenious cover for Atom Heart Mother: at once a non sequitur, it is also disarming; a close-up glamour shot of a cow, with no mention anywhere of the band. This could be regarded as the band taking the piss out of the critics (and themselves) while also announcing that the ‘60s were over not only literally, but figuratively. (A lot more on them HERE.)

Led Zeppelin

Peter Gabriel

Black Sabbath

Styx

The Mars Volta

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Robert Johnson: A Celebration in Covers

As was mentioned in the piece revisited yesterday (see HERE), Robert Johnson’s body of work was small but unsurpassed in terms of import and influence.

Perhaps the best way –aside from listening to his complete works, which I suggest you do, after acquiring them here– to appreciate how vast and crucial his catalog was, and remains, is to see the variety of legends who have bowed at his altar.

Here is a small sampler of some personal favorites, some well-known, some quite obscure.

Let me know which one(s) you like best, especially if it’s not included below.

The Rolling Stones:

Led Zeppelin:

Cream:

Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green!):

Taj Mahal:

Cowboy Junkies:

SRV and friends:

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The Song Remains The Same or, The Agony of Influence (Revisited)

Two thoughts from T.S. Eliot:

April is the cruelest month…

Whatever.

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Now we’re talking.

And here is where it gets interesting: debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of –or care about– quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version).

So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of…plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), and grapple with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves –and their jargon– ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care –or are aware– of projects such as this in the first place. (Lit-crit is not unlike Scientology in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it.)

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven, but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to The Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

Rachmaninoff:

Mingus:

All of which brings us to…Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any artists have been as controversial, or better practitioners of Eliot’s infamous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illustrate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. Their plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these –and more– but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. They have been roundly, and rightly chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled them to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as their own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, the claim –made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair– is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put their imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering, and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, they were wearing their beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the eleven minute plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out their live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding their intent: they love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shame and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have been repaid, karmically and indelibly, by being copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities. If imitation remains the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin remain the golden gods of swiping and celebrating. In the final analysis, Zep did what they did, and they did it better than anyone of their era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies. They remain the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.

At some point a truly in-depth analysis/defense of Zep’s begging, borrowing and stealing is in order. For now, here are examples of some of the more (and least) subtle uses of source material.

Boogie With Stu:

Ooh My Head:

Hats Off To (Roy) Harper:

Shake ‘Em On Down:

Bring It On Home:

Bring It On Home:

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Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: Part Two

Picking up where we left off yesterday (which, in case you missed it, is HERE) and continuing the celebration (of the lizard), let’s pick five more vintage vinyls.

If your parents didn’t have a copy of this one, we now know why you turned out the way you did (just kidding…sort of). Too many slices of perfection to pick from, but I have to go with my go-to anthem: when all else fails, I have my books and my poetry to protect me. Preach it, Paul!

Ah, Yes. (Much more on them in THIS series.) This is another one from my grade school boy’s old man, bless his soul. I snatched this one up for the FM staple “Roundabout” but was quickly converted to the greater glories of prog-rock masterpieces “South Side of the Sky” (Wakeman!) and “Long Distance Run Around” (Wakeman!), but the one that does it best, to this day, is “Heart of the Sunrise”. Not for nothing was Fragile one of the first CDs I acquired. I still have it; I still listen to it. A lot.

The Runt! This is one salvaged from my friend’s attic. Here is one I wish I had been “of age” in the 70s to properly enjoy. Having this one, on vinyl, back in the day? The only thing slightly less satisfying is having it on vinyl, today. And no way I can only choose one from this double-LP, so one from each record (sides one and four for anyone keeping score at home). Two slices of pop perfection: BAM!

“I Saw The Light”:

“Hello, It’s Me”:

I originally acquired their fourth album for “Stairway To Heaven” and eventually understood that it was the eighth best song on the album (just kidding…sort of). I saved up my money for Physical Graffiti (I still remember the day I got that: during the first quarter break in 8th grade, at the Waxie Maxies in Sterling, next to the double-decker McDonalds…I KNOW!) so I could have “Kashmir” to listen to and enjoy anytime I wanted. I eventually understood that it was the best song they ever did (not kidding…maybe). Pound for pound, and there is tonnage on this baby, this gives me as much joy as practically any album I’ve ever owned. It’s so wonderful to know I still have the original in my milk crate. One from each record:

“Houses of the Holy”:

“In The Light” (which kicks off one of most sublime sides of any album from any era by anyone):

Okay. Now we are getting into the belly of the beast. This was what I wanted for Christmas in 1978 (3rd grade) and this is what I got. Kiss was my first love, and I will always praise my parents for indulging me. By 4th grade I had moved on to The Beatles and in 5th grade the trifecta of Zeppelin, Hendrix and The Doors put me off (or on?) the grid forever. But the gateway to more meaningful music (yeah, you read that right) began with a bunch of New Yorkers who wore make-up. Kiss was arguably the biggest (or at least hottest, as in, YOU WANTED THE BEST AND YOU GOT THE BEST: THE HOTTEST BAND IN THE WORLD, KISS!) band going, so it was an embarrassment of riches when they dropped solo albums. The audacity! The ambition! The…horror. Other than Gene’s, which was tolerable, Peter’s (unsurprisingly) sort of sucked, and Paul’s (surprisingly) really sucked. But Ace’s was a revelation. It sounded incredibly, unbelievably good, then. It still does, today. I’d go toe-to-toe with anyone who wanted to debate the merits of this semi-masterpiece. Even if he was already greasing his own skids into drug-induced oblivion, Ace never sang or played more clearly or convincingly. Indeed, the entire album is a clinic of dexterity, pop-craft smarts and irresistible sing-along anthems. It’s a gem that still sparkles, shamelessly, in my collection. Sidenote: I still hear the epic solo in the first track with a jarring pause, because my original copy had an unfortunate skip (something we must acknowledge even as we extoll the glories of wax: sometimes brand new copies came defective). I listened to it so many times back in the day that even when I eventually upgraded to CD, I did –and do– still hear it the wrong way, and if that’s wrong I don’t wanna be right! Sidenote two: I’m inclined, on principle, to embed every single song from this fucka, but I intend to eventually do a proper assessment of this album, so be warned!

Bonus album: long live the inside cover gatefold, ’60s style!

“Summer’s Almost Gone” (7th grade and Susie Willess…yes, I’ll name names. Oh my God. OH MY GOD.)

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