Alligator Lizards in the Air: In Search of the Sublimely Awful Lyric (Revisited)

Intravenus de Milo Spinal Tap album

Intravenus de Milo Spinal Tap album

I can think of a lot of rock bands who have written some laughably awful lyrics.

So can you.

Part of rock and roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From it’s earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course The Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to…you get the picture). Eventually, the pop sensibility evolved to the point where if you substituted “rock” for “fuck” this constituted a secret decoder ring to figure out what 90% of the songs were about. Particularly ambitious bands were able to multi-task, as the eternally sophomoric Kiss epitomized when they crafted their anthem dedicated to the proposition that one could not only rock and roll all night, but party every day.

tap1

(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The aforementioned Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am The Walrus” is a million miles from…anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired –or both– wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million karaoke performances. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome . Eventually the four horsemen of the pop culture apocalypse came calling: Punk, Disco, Drug Overdoses and Rehab blew into town and burned down this overgrown forest…only to see it grow back harder and longer in the shape of a mullet less than a decade later. Regardless of how it did or should have played out, it’s impossible to imagine prog rock existing in the ’80s, just like shag rugs and Battle of the Network Stars only really exist –in our minds if not actuality– in the ’70s. And the ’70s is when rock lyric ridiculousness reached its full flowering, pulling up from strong roots in the ’60s and stretching toward the sun, leaving a shadow we exist under even today.)

So, when it comes to identifying truly awful lyrics that are the result of neither idiocy nor ambition, it’s best to consider the soft and gooey center between those two poles. It’s not terribly fun, or rewarding, to pick on the pointy headed prog rockers or the boneheaded pop posers, unless stepping on ants is enlightening. Put another way, I defend the bands who tried a little too hard and could care less about the entertainers who are genetically incapable of insight. Put yet another way, as it pertains to the sublimely awful rock lyric, sometimes having a tiny brain is worse than having no brain at all.

sharksandw

When it comes to worst ever, I can think of a lot of lyrics that might compete for the crown.

So can you.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

For starters, I can’t bring myself to beat up on the bands who crawled out of the primordial ooze in the early ’70s, hash pipe in one hand and “Lord of the Rings” in the other. I won’t even name names; I’ll simply wave my magic wand and exonerate King Crimson, Rush, ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Santana (for starters) from any alleged sins, real or imagined.

jon-anderson-yes

But one group should be singled out (with love and squalor) for elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of…real art. Of course I’m talking about Yes, whose work between 1971 and 1975 is the Rosetta Stone of our prog rock apotheosis. The jester in this court (of the crimson king) is, of course, Jon Anderson who –depending on one’s perspective– would be responsible, or guilty, for writing the lyrics. Here’s the thing: he sings them so effectively (so indelibly — yeah I said it), it doesn’t much matter what he is babbling about. And babble he does. Here is but a brief sampling of his ouevre:

Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are,
Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, show me where you are,

Lost in summer, morning, winter, travel very far,
Lost in musing circumstances, that’s just where you are.

Move forward was my friends only cry,
In deeper to somewhere we could lie.
And rest for the the day with cold in the way,
Were we ever colder on that day, a million miles away?

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.

Wish the sun to stand still.
Reaching out to touch our own being
Past a mortal as we
Here we can be
We can be here,
be here now.
Here we can be!

(From “Yours Is No Disgrace”, “South Side of the Sky”, “Close to the Edge” and “Awaken“.)

Yes has earned an unrivaled place in the pantheon, but there is no hating, here. Listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera: the words are –or may as well be– in a different language; it’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. This is ecstatic stuff and I’ll hoist my air guitar with clear-eyed pride and wonder.

Enough. Let’s get down to business.

What song contains the worst lyric of all time?

I’ll give it a shot. But again, it’s as important to eliminate the pretenders as it is to celebrate the contenders. Therefore, it’s ridiculous to consider anything filed under Hair Metal because picking on that genre is like making fun of kids at the Special Olympics. Ditto the Top 40 status seekers: that claptrap is like bad electronics, it’s designed to fall apart and be discarded after it’s been sold. And we should not confuse atrocious lyrics with unlistenable songs. There are tons and tons of terrible songs that don’t necessarily have bad enough lyrics to merit consideration (and again, bad enough meaning lyrics that weren’t written by an imbecile or someone trying to shoot higher…and that incidentally eliminates would-be prime candidates Oasis and Creed because, again, the songs have to be by bands actually worth listening to).

180px-Hermit_led_zep_4

10. Let’s come out of the gate swinging and take aim at one of the most beloved radio anthems of all time: “Stairway To Heaven”. Remember that time (hopefully before 6th grade) when this song contained all the deep and murky depths of the universe? This song was about nothing less than existence, and who was that dude with the light on the inside cover? God? The Devil? Did it make more sense if you played the nonsensical lyrics backward? In hindsight, maybe.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Dont be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the may queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder…

It makes me wonder, too. Is that a bustle in your hedgerow or are you just happy to see me? To be a rock and not to roll? I have no idea, to this day, what that means, but it uses the words rock and roll, so it’s got that going for it. Led Zeppelin, despite Robert Plant’s early Tolkien obsessions, did grow in brisk, dramatic leaps like The Beatles post-Rubber Soul. Nevertheless, the ascension of “Stairway To Heaven” is, come to think of it, not unlike the ’70s: you had to be there to appreciate it but you can’t really explain why it’s so great.

9. Sticking to the ’70s (literally), a rather obscure known tune by a beloved band demands attention. It’s bad (if true) enough to point out that Kiss kept to a strict regimen of pussy songs throughout the ’70s (and I would say after, but who listened to Kiss after the ’70s?). It’s worse (and true) to point out that this was all for the better. When they attempted to think outside the box (so to speak), things got ugly in a hurry. Exhibit A is “Goin’ Blind” by noted poet and philosopher Gene Simmons. If taken at face value, the lyrics convey a self-pitying farewell from a 93 year old man who has been inexplicably banging a 16 year old girl. Creepy? Check. Weird? Check. Improbable? Check! Senior citizen statutory rape, or Simmons envisioning his post-rock, Viagra-rolling golden years?

Little lady, can’t you see
You’re so young and so much different than I
I’m 93, you’re sixteen
Can’t you see I’m goin’ blind…

In fairness, and consistent with the criteria for this list, the song is still quite worthwhile, and features one of Ace Frehley’s better early solos. (The tune was also covered in all its muddy glory by the great King Buzzo on Melvins’ incredible album from 1993, Houdini.)

8. Respect of irony prevents me from quoting any of Alanis Morissette’s signature song. Suffice it to say, yes, it is ironic (if unintentionally so) that a song about irony uses examples that illuminate the songwriter’s inability to understand what irony is. Don’t ya think?

7. Domo. Arigato. Mr. Roboto. (Enough said.)

6. Artist: Lenny Kravitz. Song: Whichever.

uf_bonostinglive

5. Bono and Sting could have a battle royale (with cheese) to see who committed the more greivous sins in the ’80s but since Bono has been more prolific, and more self-righteously insufferable, in the decades since, we may have to give him the Edge (take him, please).

Bono!

I cant believe the news today
Oh, I cant close my eyes and make it go away…

Sting!

Hey, mighty brontosaurus,
Don’t you have a lesson for us
Thought your rule would always last,
There were no lessons in your past
You were built three stories high
They say you would not hurt a fly
If we explode the atom bomb
Would they say that we were dumb?

Bono!

I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
That hold me inside…

Sting!

Don’t think me unkind
Words are hard to find
The only cheques I’ve left unsigned
From the banks of chaos in my mind
And when their eloquence escapes me
Their logic ties me up and rapes me…

kiedis

4. Poet laureate of semi-retarded rap rock, Anthony Keidis! Everyone knows this clown was known for wearing a sock over his dick. Many people would agree that his dick could probably write better lyrics. Possibilities are endless but the perusal is too painful, so let’s go with what we know:

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your mama

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your papa

What I’ve got you’ve got to give it to your daughter

You do a little dance and then you drink a little water…

3. Duran Duran. Boy did these guys make some terribly great songs (and VIDEOS) in the early ’80s. And like those commercials from the early ’80s say, “It doesn’t get any better than this” :

Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand
Just like that river twisting through a dusty land
And when she shines she really shows you all she can
Oh Rio, Rio dance across the Rio Grande…

Respect!

SteveMillerBand-01-big

2. The list, to this point, has not necessarily been in any particular order, although the final two candidates are, for my money, unassailable representatives of lyrical suck. First up is Steve “Guitar” Miller who is also known as Steve “Lyrics” Miller by exactly no one. And there is ample reason for this. He is a one man tour de force of farcical phraseology. Let’s start with the pompatus of love. Actually, let’s leave that alone: if you are cool enough to make up a word and feature it in a hit song that everyone who listens talks about, you’ve more than maximized your fifteen minutes of fame. And that was only the beginning. His 1976 classic Fly Like An Eagle is a clinic of lazy lyrics and shoehorned rhyme schemes. It could be the basis of a successful workshop (once again, there is no hatred here: it’s a very good album and the title track captures that ethereal ’70s vibe as well as any other rock tune). On that track the lyrics are facile but his heart is in the right place: I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea/Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me. “Rock ‘n Me” is another innocuous FM radio staple, and it is one of the “replace rock with you-know-what” testosterone anthems. No harm, no foul. Where the proceedings really take flight (so to speak) is on the other radio favorite, “Take the Money and Run”. This is one for the ages, where we get “watch the tube” rhymed with “cut loose” and “great big hassle” with “his castle”. Nothing to see here. But then it happens: the sine qua non of rock non sequiturs. Take a deep breath and enjoy the magic:

Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is,
He aint gonna let those two escape justice
He makes his livin off of the peoples taxes…

Texas, facts is, justice, taxes. What more is there to say? (Other than this: “Take the Money and Run” is probably the single song from the ’70s that no fans were tempted to play backwards because there was absolutely no conceivable way it could get any better than it already was; fans were afraid it would make more sense if it was played back in backward gibberish).

Miller was not done with us yet. Honorable mention could go to “Jungle Love” or “Swingtown” (Come on and dance/Let’s make some romance/You know the night is falling/And the music is calling), but special attention must be paid to “Abracadabra”:

Every time you call my name/I heat up like a burnin’ flame/Burnin’ flame full of desire/Kiss me baby let the fire get higher.

That’s nice, but this is where Miller stakes his claim for immortality. Ready or not, here it comes:

Abra-abra-cadabra
I want to reach out and grab ya.

Okay, that is bliss. That is miraculous. But it gets better. How could you possibly top rhyming cadabra with grab ya? Easy. Rhyme cadabra with…Abracadabra!

Abra-abra-cadabra
Abracadabra

amiera

1. So, it can’t possibly get better than that, can it? Oh it gets better. For their invaluable contributions to the unintentionally atrocious lyric, I nominate America for a lifetime achievement award. It’s hard (some might say impossible) to knock Steve Miller off this throne but bear with me. America did a lot with just a little and they are the gift that giveth much. (One sentence description: blending folk influences with “socially-conscious” songs, America had a string of indelible –and ubiquitous– hit songs in the first half of the 1970s.)

Exhibit A: “Ventura Highway“:

The whole song (irrepressible as it is) is dead-on-arrival, lyrically, with such gems as Joe/Snow, sunshine/moonshine, name/same. But in move that should make rhyming dictionaries illegal, America anticipated “Take the Money and Run” with the rarely-attempted four-line grand slam:

‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair
and the days surround your daylight there,
Seasons cryin’ no despair
Alligator lizards in the air…

Alligator lizards. In the air.

Or should I say: ALLIGATOR LIZARDS. In The Air!

Exhibit B: “Sister Golden Hair

In addition to a riff ripped off from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (which itself was considered a sufficiently brazen reworking of The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” that it generated a lawsuit), the lyrics achieve the ideal balance between half-assed inspiration and typical rock-star laziness:

Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed
That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed,
Now I ain’t ready for the altar but I do agree there’s times
When a woman sure can be a friend of mine…

Exhibit C: “Tin Man“:

But Oz never did give nothing to the tin man
That he didn’t, didn’t already have,
And cause never was the reason for the evening
Or the tropic of Sir Galahad.

I’m loathe to infringe upon the perfection above, so I’ll simply add my name to the list of folks who have wondered: what the fuck is the tropic of Sir Galahad? And can I find the pompatus of love there?

Exhibit D: “Horse With No Name”.

Oh God. Hold me.

What can anyone possibly say about this song that the band does not already say in the song itself?

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

(Editorial note one: “Plants and birds and rocks and things”. Editorial note two: “The heat was hot”.)

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

(Editorial note one: “In the desert you can remember your name”. Editorial note two: “CAUSE. THERE. AIN’T. NO. ONE. FOR. TO. GIVE. YOU. NO. PAIN”.)

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

(Editorial note: “After three days in the desert fun”.)

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

(Editorial note: “In the desert you can remember your name” –in case you had forgotten, the lyrics or your name. Oh, and by the way: There. Ain’t. No. One. For. To. Give. You. No. Pain.)

After nine days I let the horse run free
cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love…

(Editorial note: Still plants and birds and rocks and things.)

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
cause there aint no one for to give you no pain…

To recap: in the desert, you can remember your name. ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.

My work here is done.

So, what did I miss?

Let’s get this party started.

Share

The Holy Trinity, Part One: Yes

yes73

Ah, Yes.

Now that Rush is rightly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it seems safe to suggest that Yes officially assumes the heavyweight crown as the most unfairly maligned band, ever.

Caveat number one. If they would (or, could) have remained broken up after 90215, they might get a fairer shake. Then again, perhaps not. Their legacy, amongst aficionados and haters, rests largely on the body of work they made during their prime: the ‘70s. As such, Yes represents many things to many people when it comes to rock music in general and progressive rock in particular.

Yes epitomizes prog-rock, which of course means they can be, depending upon one’s point of view, the pinnacle or nadir of a type of music made, mostly in the early ‘70s. Like Rush, the individuals in this band, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have played popular music.

One thing that cannot be denied, at least with any credibility: the albums Yes put out between January 1971 and September 1972 (!) represent one of the great tri-fectas in rock history. Individually, each album is a tremendous achievement; taken as a trio, they signify a band fully honing a uniquely powerful chemistry that remains inspiring and influential.

Sidenote: rather than enter the fray of whether or not Tales from Topographic Oceans is an indulgent flop or the very apex of prog-rock, I’ll opine that all of their subsequent work—with the notable exception of Going for the One—is mixed and, at times, maddening, equal parts impenetrable and opaque.

Caveat number two. The lyrics. Just as certain listeners can never get past Geddy Lee’s voice, it’s impossible to overlook the banal, nonsensical and occasionally outright silly words in so many of the songs (Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, anyone?). There are, in rock of course and prog-rock for sure, plenty of pretentious wordsmiths, but song-for-song, album-for-album, no band comes close to how consistently sophomoric—and that might be generous—Yes’s lyrics often are. In a way, they elevate ardent yet inane poetry to a level of real art.

Here’s the thing: listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera; the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds. That voice, those instruments, that compositional prowess. The music Yes made on these three albums approaches a level of euphoria not many bands have been able to approximate. As much as the individual musicians, all of whom make indelible contributions, Jon Anderson’s voice functions as another instrument, perhaps the most crucial one. The sweet schizophrenia of his multi-tracked exultations render complaints about the lyrics largely irrelevant.

When Yes entered the studio to being work on The Yes Album, two important factors influenced its eventual success. First, they’d made two previous albums, interesting but uneven efforts that allowed them to figure out where they wanted to go.

Second, guitarist Peter Banks was replaced by Steve Howe, who proved to be the missing ingredient. Going forward, he was the indispensable visionary who helped the group get to that elusive next level. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are often like algebra equations, full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from Yes’s most fruitful era.

Most people know The Yes Album thanks to “I’ve Seen All Good People”, one of the ubiquitous staples of any classic rock radio station. As usual, Anderson is on point in all his multi-tracked glory; on this, like virtually any Yes song, his range and ability are astonishing. Featuring recorders, organ and a Laúd (look it up), this song captures that Medieval vibe so many bands were tapping into circa 1971 (at least until the plugged-in, handclapped outro).

An ostensibly minor song, “A Venture” provides a platform for Tony Kaye, who ably demonstrates his keyboard skills (organ and piano). “The Clap”, recorded live, is a solo showcase for Howe, who leaves no doubts about his acoustic playing virtuosity.

Of course, this album is best known, especially amongst fans, for its three mini-epics. Album opener “Yours Is No Disgrace” is prog-rock being shot from a cannon, on fire from the first second to the final, echoed note. One thing the best progressive rock bands (like Rush and the various iterations of King Crimson) have in common is remarkable rhythm sections. Bill Bruford (drums) and Chris Squire (bass) represent possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard.

It’s players like this that best illustrate what The Beatles helped begin, carrying it to another height: the bass and drums are not keeping time; they are making time, inserting themselves forcefully, logically, into the fray. The interplay Squire and Bruford display on this, and the next two albums, remains a benchmark for any band.

A few more words about Steve Howe. You can hear the sounds guitar players as disparate as Alex Lifeson and Ace Frehley were emulating (and imitating) throughout these proceedings.

Of special note is the two minute clinic Howe performs beginning at the 4:47 mark of “Yours Is No Disgrace”: a blitzkrieg assault (with beautiful bombs being dropped everywhere by Bruford) gives way to a succinct acoustic interlude, which segues into some Hendrixian phasing and finally, a tasty jazz-like solo that is short as it is sweet. It’s exhilarating and instructive; a range of so many sounds guitars are capable of making, the way no one else had ever made them, all in one song. On the barn-burning finalé “Perpetual Change” Howe contents himself with “merely” playing a scorching, straightforward rocker.

Special mention, of course, for “Starship Trooper”. One of the great things about live music is the opportunity to see art unfold in real time. The element of surprise and awareness that what’s happening can never be recreated the same way before the same people in the same place makes it a unique experience.

One of the great things about recorded music is that it can be savored any time: a perfect series of connected moments that will, of course, affect the listener in different ways depending on mood or circumstance. This is how certain, favorite music becomes familiar, and part of one’s life.

With a song like “Starship Trooper” we have art that always feels fresh and revelatory, it remains (like so many other prog-rock masterpieces) emblematic of the year it was made, yet still seems ahead of its time; ahead of any time. Put another way, this song alone could—and maybe should—put Steve Howe on the Mt. Rushmore of rock guitarists.

The big change for the follow-up, Fragile was the recruitment of keyboard prodigy Rick Wakeman. As commendable as Kaye’s efforts are throughout The Yes Album, his playing often provides embellishment; Wakeman is a presence, not unlike Keith Emerson. Now Yes had a veritable genius on each instrument and were fully prepared to make their best work.

Caveat number three. Fragile, though perhaps Yes’s best-loved or at least most popular album (in large part due to the FM-friendly classic “Roundabout”), is not a perfect album. The band get their indulgence on with the featured “solo” tracks, none of which (excepting Howe’s acoustic gem “Mood for a Day”) is especially memorable. “Cans and Brahms” (Wakeman, having fun with Johannes Brahms), “We Have Heaven” (if there was ever too much of a good thing with Anderson, it might be this one), “Five Per Cent for Nothing” (a throwaway by Bruford) and “The Fish” (an excellent coda to “Long Distance Runaround”) serve as digestifs in between the heavy hitters.

If “Roundabout” functions as a seminal prog-rock touchstone, it’s the other extended tracks that make Fragile far greater than the sum of its parts. Closing out side one, “South Side of the Sky” reveals the ways Yes benefited from Wakeman’s presence: his organ manages to invoke the extremes of warmth and cold described in the lyrics; but it’s the piano solo that serves as the centerpiece (of the song; possibly of his career). The blend of instruments and voices during this middle section epitomizes the aforementioned musical ecstasy: was any band ever this confident, this capable?

Album closer “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. He is so naturally gifted and expressive you feel like he could phone it in and still be better than most other singers; on this song there is no question he means it, and every word is invested with passion and purpose. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but few—if any—of them pack the emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, it still manages to delight, even surprise, four decades on.

Yet, even the high points of Fragile might be seen as setting the table for their tour de force; the previous two efforts a trial run for the perfection of Close to the Edge, arguably theprog-rock album for all time. Featuring the first, and by far the best, of their side-long suites, the title track of Close to the Edge is, in this writer’s opinion, as good as progressive music ever got.

This song (and aside from the fact you can either add or subtract points for the fact that the lyrics are inspired by Hesse’sSiddhartha) really does go places no other band has gone; or rather, it’s the gold standard that has never been surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning buildup, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes (Steve Howe doing the musical equivalent of the first round from the epic Hagler/Hearns fight), to the operatic (yes, I said it) majesty of the middle section (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out.

“Siberian Khatru” (your guess is as good as mine) is another “mini” epic that practically turns into a pas de deux between Howe and Anderson, the latter thrusting and parrying the former’s increasingly intense and complex guitar peregrinations. Likewise, “And You and I”, while featuring critical interaction amongst the others, serves as the ultimate vehicle for Anderson and Howe, the yin and yang of Yes.

It might be suggested that neither sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. Throughout the proceedings there are no pauses, wasted moments or miscues: everyone assembled works in service of the songs, resulting in a unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

Try as they might, Yes was never this consistently great again (though, as indicated, Going for the One offers none of the difficulties presented by Tales from Topographic Oceans or Relayer). In addition to being one of the pivotal bands of the early ‘70s, Yes perfected prog-rock as a kind of performance art in sound, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it.

There’s something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/the-holy-trinity-part-one-yes/

Share

Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

hendrix_axis_bold_as_love

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!

Share

The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull (Revisited)

Jethro-Tull-em-19721

I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

Share

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!

Share

The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull

I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that  they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull  and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

Share

The Holy Trinity, Part One: Yes

Ah, Yes.

Now that Rush is rightly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it seems safe to suggest that Yes officially assumes the heavyweight crown as the most unfairly maligned band, ever.

Caveat number one. If they would (or, could) have remained broken up after 90215, they might get a fairer shake. Then again, perhaps not. Their legacy, amongst aficionados and haters, rests largely on the body of work they made during their prime: the ‘70s. As such, Yes represents many things to many people when it comes to rock music in general and progressive rock in particular.

Yes epitomizes prog-rock, which of course means they can be, depending upon one’s point of view, the pinnacle or nadir of a type of music made, mostly in the early ‘70s. Like Rush, the individuals in this band, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have played popular music.

One thing that cannot be denied, at least with any credibility: the albums Yes put out between January 1971 and September 1972 (!) represent one of the great tri-fectas in rock history. Individually, each album is a tremendous achievement; taken as a trio, they signify a band fully honing a uniquely powerful chemistry that remains inspiring and influential.

Sidenote: rather than enter the fray of whether or not Tales from Topographic Oceans is an indulgent flop or the very apex of prog-rock, I’ll opine that all of their subsequent work—with the notable exception of Going for the One—is mixed and, at times, maddening, equal parts impenetrable and opaque.

Caveat number two. The lyrics. Just as certain listeners can never get past Geddy Lee’s voice, it’s impossible to overlook the banal, nonsensical and occasionally outright silly words in so many of the songs (Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, anyone?). There are, in rock of course and prog-rock for sure, plenty of pretentious wordsmiths, but song-for-song, album-for-album, no band comes close to how consistently sophomoric—and that might be generous—Yes’s lyrics often are. In a way, they elevate ardent yet inane poetry to a level of real art.

Here’s the thing: listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera; the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds. That voice, those instruments, that compositional prowess. The music Yes made on these three albums approaches a level of euphoria not many bands have been able to approximate. As much as the individual musicians, all of whom make indelible contributions, Jon Anderson’s voice functions as another instrument, perhaps the most crucial one. The sweet schizophrenia of his multi-tracked exultations render complaints about the lyrics largely irrelevant.

 

When Yes entered the studio to being work on The Yes Album, two important factors influenced its eventual success. First, they’d made two previous albums, interesting but uneven efforts that allowed them to figure out where they wanted to go.

Second, guitarist Peter Banks was replaced by Steve Howe, who proved to be the missing ingredient. Going forward, he was the indispensable visionary who helped the group get to that elusive next level. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are often like algebra equations, full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from Yes’s most fruitful era.

Most people know The Yes Album thanks to “I’ve Seen All Good People”, one of the ubiquitous staples of any classic rock radio station. As usual, Anderson is on point in all his multi-tracked glory; on this, like virtually any Yes song, his range and ability are astonishing. Featuring recorders, organ and a Laúd (look it up), this song captures that Medieval vibe so many bands were tapping into circa 1971 (at least until the plugged-in, handclapped outro).

An ostensibly minor song, “A Venture” provides a platform for Tony Kaye, who ably demonstrates his keyboard skills (organ and piano). “The Clap”, recorded live, is a solo showcase for Howe, who leaves no doubts about his acoustic playing virtuosity.

Of course, this album is best known, especially amongst fans, for its three mini-epics. Album opener “Yours Is No Disgrace” is prog-rock being shot from a cannon, on fire from the first second to the final, echoed note. One thing the best progressive rock bands (like Rush and the various iterations of King Crimson) have in common is remarkable rhythm sections. Bill Bruford (drums) and Chris Squire (bass) represent possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard.

It’s players like this that best illustrate what The Beatles helped begin, carrying it to another height: the bass and drums are not keeping time; they are making time, inserting themselves forcefully, logically, into the fray. The interplay Squire and Bruford display on this, and the next two albums, remains a benchmark for any band.

 

A few more words about Steve Howe. You can hear the sounds guitar players as disparate as Alex Lifeson and Ace Frehley were emulating (and imitating) throughout these proceedings.

Of special note is the two minute clinic Howe performs beginning at the 4:47 mark of “Yours Is No Disgrace”: a blitzkrieg assault (with beautiful bombs being dropped everywhere by Bruford) gives way to a succinct acoustic interlude, which segues into some Hendrixian phasing and finally, a tasty jazz-like solo that is short as it is sweet. It’s exhilarating and instructive; a range of so many sounds guitars are capable of making, the way no one else had ever made them, all in one song. On the barn-burning finalé “Perpetual Change” Howe contents himself with “merely” playing a scorching, straightforward rocker.

Special mention, of course, for “Starship Trooper”. One of the great things about live music is the opportunity to see art unfold in real time. The element of surprise and awareness that what’s happening can never be recreated the same way before the same people in the same place makes it a unique experience.

One of the great things about recorded music is that it can be savored any time: a perfect series of connected moments that will, of course, affect the listener in different ways depending on mood or circumstance. This is how certain, favorite music becomes familiar, and part of one’s life.

With a song like “Starship Trooper” we have art that always feels fresh and revelatory, it remains (like so many other prog-rock masterpieces) emblematic of the year it was made, yet still seems ahead of its time; ahead of any time. Put another way, this song alone could—and maybe should—put Steve Howe on the Mt. Rushmore of rock guitarists.

The big change for the follow-up, Fragile was the recruitment of keyboard prodigy Rick Wakeman. As commendable as Kaye’s efforts are throughout The Yes Album, his playing often provides embellishment; Wakeman is a presence, not unlike Keith Emerson. Now Yes had a veritable genius on each instrument and were fully prepared to make their best work.

 

Caveat number three. Fragile, though perhaps Yes’s best-loved or at least most popular album (in large part due to the FM-friendly classic “Roundabout”), is not a perfect album. The band get their indulgence on with the featured “solo” tracks, none of which (excepting Howe’s acoustic gem “Mood for a Day”) is especially memorable. “Cans and Brahms” (Wakeman, having fun with Johannes Brahms), “We Have Heaven” (if there was ever too much of a good thing with Anderson, it might be this one), “Five Per Cent for Nothing” (a throwaway by Bruford) and “The Fish” (an excellent coda to “Long Distance Runaround”) serve as digestifs in between the heavy hitters.

If “Roundabout” functions as a seminal prog-rock touchstone, it’s the other extended tracks that make Fragile far greater than the sum of its parts. Closing out side one, “South Side of the Sky” reveals the ways Yes benefited from Wakeman’s presence: his organ manages to invoke the extremes of warmth and cold described in the lyrics; but it’s the piano solo that serves as the centerpiece (of the song; possibly of his career). The blend of instruments and voices during this middle section epitomizes the aforementioned musical ecstasy: was any band ever this confident, this capable?

 

Album closer “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. He is so naturally gifted and expressive you feel like he could phone it in and still be better than most other singers; on this song there is no question he means it, and every word is invested with passion and purpose. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but few—if any—of them pack the emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, it still manages to delight, even surprise, four decades on.

Yet, even the high points of Fragile might be seen as setting the table for their tour de force; the previous two efforts a trial run for the perfection of Close to the Edge, arguably theprog-rock album for all time. Featuring the first, and by far the best, of their side-long suites, the title track of Close to the Edge is, in this writer’s opinion, as good as progressive music ever got.

This song (and aside from the fact you can either add or subtract points for the fact that the lyrics are inspired by Hesse’sSiddhartha) really does go places no other band has gone; or rather, it’s the gold standard that has never been surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning buildup, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes (Steve Howe doing the musical equivalent of the first round from the epic Hagler/Hearns fight), to the operatic (yes, I said it) majesty of the middle section (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out.

 

“Siberian Khatru” (your guess is as good as mine) is another “mini” epic that practically turns into a pas de deux between Howe and Anderson, the latter thrusting and parrying the former’s increasingly intense and complex guitar peregrinations. Likewise, “And You and I”, while featuring critical interaction amongst the others, serves as the ultimate vehicle for Anderson and Howe, the yin and yang of Yes.

It might be suggested that neither sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. Throughout the proceedings there are no pauses, wasted moments or miscues: everyone assembled works in service of the songs, resulting in a unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

Try as they might, Yes was never this consistently great again (though, as indicated, Going for the One offers none of the difficulties presented by Tales from Topographic Oceans or Relayer). In addition to being one of the pivotal bands of the early ‘70s, Yes perfected prog-rock as a kind of performance art in sound, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it.

There’s something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

 

http://www.popmatters.com/column/the-holy-trinity-part-one-yes/

Share

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.

Share

Ten Songs That Never Fail

With the emotional baggage associated with things like Mother’s Day and my birthday, it’s nice –and necessary– to step back and fully appreciate my family and friends.

This was my birthday message, via Facebook to that extended network: I’m blessed, to the point of embarrassment, by the number of amazing, generous, inspiring people I’m fortunate to call friends. I love all of you!

And so I do.

But sometimes even that considerable bulwark against negative thoughts is not enough.

Fortunately, for me, I always have music. Let me say that again: I ALWAYS HAVE MUSIC.

(When all else fails (and all else always fails) there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002 was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall (or half-recall) the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: driving from father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The emotions and sensations would become overwhelming at times, and there are those interminable hours when you are not even certain what is real or who you are. During one of these episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I had not been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.)

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such a beautiful, irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Which is why I make a request to my friends, family and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m already in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.

Here are ten of the best things that have ever happened to me. The sounds never cease to make me smile, and restore me. Naturally I could list many thousands of alternatives (and have done so, on this very blog, over the years). Here are ten special ones that help me help myself.

(Let me know which ones you would pick!)

1. Ornette Coleman, “Congeniality” (more on Coleman HERE):

2. Bob Marley, “Coming In From The Cold” (more on Marley HERE):

3. The Allman Brothers Band, “Jessica” (could have easily gone with “Revival” here, as well):

4. Black Sabbath, “A Hard Road”:

(Here is what I had to say about this song, in 2011: 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.” More on that album HERE and a lot more on Sabbath HERE and HERE.)

5. Beethoven (Yes, I just went from Black Sabbath to Beethoven; that’s how I roll!), “Les Adieux Sonata, 3rd Movement”:

6. Mozart, “Piano Concerto No. 27, 3rd Movement”:

7. John Coltrane, “Cousin Mary” (A lot more on Coltrane HERE):

8. The Mighty Diamonds, “Pass The Kouchie” (more on the Might Diamonds HERE):

9. The Pretenders, “Stop Your Sobbing” (a lot more on Chrissie Hynde and crew, HERE):

10. Yes, “Awaken”:

(Here is what I had to say in 2011 when I declared this the #11 prog song of all time –the entire list can be found HERE:

1977 was not only about clothespins and green-toothed sneers: just as punk was gaining steam, Yes, the band that represented everything everyone hated about “dinosaur rock”, returned with their best album in ages, Going For The One. “Awaken” is, along with the aforementioned “Dogs” and “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres”, one of the last (near) side-long epics of the era. It would be difficult to deny that this track features the most compelling (and convincing) work both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman ever did. Many people did—and do—instinctively retch at the idea of Wakeman playing a pipe organ (recorded in a cathedral) and Anderson’s sweet schizophrenia of multi-tracked exultations. Their loss; this is prog-rock as opera, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it. There is something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.)

Share

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.)

Share