Heartbreak A Stranger

Another much underestimated era in rock music history is the 1980s. Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and Madonna were dominating the charts with a slick studio-derived product that offered more surface gloss than true substance With the burgeoning influence of MTV moving from innovation in the early part of the decade to sterile consolidation by the end, rock/pop appeared to be as predetermined, processed and expertly packaged as the product of any prior equivalent period – the early 1960s, the mid 1970s.

Pretty much devoid of any real meaning though.

But, as is always the case, underneath the surface outstanding music was still being made.

One of these artists was the Minneapolis band, Hüsker Dü, led by Bob Mould and Grant Hart. Deriving their fericious sound from 1970s punk rock but mixing this with a finely tuned pop sensibility, Hüsker Dü were The Buzzcocks of their day.

As is so often the case, this hyper-talented band burned out and the individuals began solo careers. Bob Mould began his with one of the finest ‘singer-songwriter’ records ever made by someone who would not have dreamed of being classified among the 1970s variant of that style.

“Workbook” is simply a gem, from the opening instrumental “Sunspots” (which I have heard used as linking music on NPR!), through a series of bitter/reflective songs emotionally based around the dissolution of Hüsker Dü. My favorite, if not necessarily the best, is “Heartbreak A Stranger”.

A complete gorgeous melody played softly on electric guitar and evocative lyrics. It never fails to move me and belongs to the very finest of all rock songs.

Again, another largely forgotten and ignored record – I always wonder how many more there are out there just waiting to be heard!

Here Comes The Nice vs. Waiting For The Man

1967 saw the release of two (among others) notable songs about drugs. One was The Small Faces’ “Here Comes The Nice”, the second The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man”. Both directly addressed the supplier – the pusher. But the tone taken by the two could not be more different.

“Here Comes The Nice” (“The Nice” being contemporary slang for a drug dealer) is as about as positive a song about the pleasures and benefits of illicit drug taking as you are likely to find. Listening to it today is a stunning experience, not least because of the extraordinary naivete so happily expounded by Steve Marriott:

“You know you should meet the man
The man gonna help you all he can
You don’t need money to be wise

Here come the nice (It’s understood)
Here come the nice (He makes me feel so good)
I’d be just like him (If only could)
You know you should”

Compare this to Lou Reed’s altogether more realistic vantage point:

“I’m waiting for my man
Got 26 dollars in my hand
Up to lexington 125
Feeling sick and dirty
More dead than alive
I‚’m waiting for my man”

The Small Faces song is a jaunty Stax-soul influenced rocker with silky “Who” style harmony vocals. Catchy enough to be a hit single, lyrically oblique enough to bypass the BBC music censors. A completely charming record.

“I’m Waiting For The Man” is also a mid-tempo rocker, but that is about all it shares with “The Nice”. Instead we have a driving piano driven song that would be a dirge were it any slower, with all the monotony implied by that description. In contrast to the Small Faces, money is very important to Lou Reed’s protagonist. This is strictly a supply and demand deal – no illusions here about the wonderful world of consciousness altering. Reed’s character needs his fix; without it he is going into a painful withdrawal. Not a song that got much airplay, and not a hit single in any way, but altogether a superior picture of the realities of drug taking.

Stroll On

One of the more celebrated scenes in Michelangelo Antonioni’s deeply complex study of ‘swinging London’ in the 1960s, “Blow Up”, shows The Yardbirds – the Jimmy Page/Jeff Beck Yardbirds – rocking up a storm in a London nightclub populated by an audience of jaded zombies. In barges the ‘hero’ (really antihero) played by David Hemmings (formerly a boy soprano featured in Britten’s “Turn Of The Screw” no less!!) in an effort to find a woman who may – or may not – be involved in a murder. Only when Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and throws the neck into the crowd do these coolly immobile punters let loose, and the always competitive Hemmings’ character beats them all to seize the smashed piece. He then runs out of the club, and casually tosses the fretboard aside. Out of context, it has no value.

The music to this finely acted scene is a song called ‘Stroll On’. This is nothing more than a version of “The Train Kept A Rollin'” originally recorded by the Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. The most remarkable aspect of this recording, both in the original and faithfully duplicated by The Yardbirds, is the malevolent fuzz tone of the rhythm guitar. It has a bass heavy resonance that sets it apart from more familiar fuzz tone recording (e.g. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”), and I was astonished when I finally heard the Johnny Burnette original to find that recording, made in the mid-late 1950s, has all – and more – of the sonic ambience of The Yardbirds’ own version.

Apparently an accident to Johnny Burnette’s guitarist’s (Paul Burlinson) amplifier had loosened a valve in the unit, resulting in an astonishing distorted electronic tone. That the band & producer had both the imagination and will to record this wildly unconventional sound is a testament to the surging creativity of prime 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. Essential listening.

Spirit Of ’76

It’s often said, and seems to have become part of rock history lore, that the mid-1970s were a wasteland for rock music. The big artists of the 1960s had given us their best music already, and were offering pale imitation or retreads, most often overproduced and bloated with pretension.

But this really was not the case at all if you looked anywhere below the surface. Although glam rock had largely faded, it was well into its transformation into punk rock through the vehicles of artists such as Patti Smith and The New York Dolls. Bob Dylan released his most meaningful album since “John Wesley Harding” with “Blood On The Tracks”. David Bowie was moving into the techno-disco musical world that would blossom through “Station To Station” into the stunning “Low”. John Cale & Sparks released marvelous albums. Reggae music was at a high point with Bob Marley and Burning Spear. There was a lot going on, and all of it interesting.

Into this dropped Spirit’s “Spirit Of ’76”, a sardonic look at the bicentennial through the prism of some of the most radical music of the 1960s. This double LP really struck me, not least because it was the first record I had heard since Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” that managed to recapture the loose adventure and something of the sound of that album. Finally, today I picked up a BGO CD reissue of this album. Very satisfyingly, it sounds just as fresh and exciting as when I first heard it.

The album is very much of its time, being a seemingly undisciplined mish-mash of science-fiction spirituality (thanks to the interjections of a certain “Jack Bond”), genial & reflective compositions by Randy California, and a series of cover versions. It’s the cover versions that give the record its backbone, through both the choice of song and the interpretation. Thus we hear “America The Beautiful”, “The Times They Are A-Changing”, “Walking The Dog”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Happy”, “Hey Joe” & “The Star Spangled Banner”.

Two songs associated with The Rolling Stones, two with Bob Dylan, two with Jim Hendrix and, overlapping, two patriotic anthems. Given the affinity of Hendrix himself for Bob Dylan (think “All Along The Watchtower”), we start to see wheels within wheels of influence at work here. Randy California and Ed Cassidy – essentially the entire cast of Spirit at this point – confirm and then subvert our expectations. “Like A Rolling Stone” is given a full Hendrix-style workout, yet “America The Beautiful” and “The Star Spangled Banner” are given unaffected, straightforward interpretations miles removed from Hendrix’s own transmutation of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Although none of these covers surpass the originals, neither do the originals surpass these covers making this one of the most satisfactory albums ever made based on the covers alone. But the other material, strange and quirky though it be, perfectly complements these songs both in musical and lyrical substance. “Spirit Of ’76” is not only the best Spirit album made after the breakup of the original 1960s band, it also rates very highly in comparison to those magnificent early records.

Thus it is a shame that it has fallen so far into the cracks of rock history that it is only available in the U.S. as an import on a label specializing in rare releases. At least it is available though – thank you BGO.

Flamingo

Popular music in the United States before the emergence of rock and roll in the mid 1950s is often characterized as being bland and sentimental, devoid of drive and real emotional content. Although that might well be a true description of much of the ‘white’ pop that dominated the airwaves and mainstream record stores, it certainly was not true of the rapidly diversifying independent radio stations, small record companies who in turn supplied many of the singles that filled regional jukeboxes. In other words, if you chose to turn your ears away from the beaten path, you would hear a very different animal.

One of those was black music. This is a far broader definition that the simple ‘rhythm & blues’ identifier that has become synonymous with pre-rock and roll black music. Music ranging from that with little differed from mainstream white pop (Nat King Cole being a prime exponenent) to the earthiest of electric blues (Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf) was part of this continuum. Sophisticated to primitive, it was all there. All that tied it together was that it was recorded by and marketed to African-Americans with little thought that it had any wider import.

One of the most interesting black artists of this time is Earl Bostic, not least because all of the above traits can be found in his recordings. An extremely accomplished jazz saxophonist who passed through Lionel Hampton’s band among others, Bostic could be sweet or sour with equal effect. No song better represents this than what is his most famous cut, “Flamingo”.

A mid-tempo jazz ballad with a steady swing rhythm, smooth vibraphone chordal accompaniment, and a beguiling melody – none of this would matter were it not for Bostic’s completely captivating saxophone solo that combines an extraordinary degree of r&b roughness (as pioneered by Illinois Jacquet) into a beautifully paced solo on the alto saxophone. The sound is truly evocative, a window into an another world.

4 Sea Interludes & Passacaglia

Listening to the 4 Sea Interludes & the Passacaglia from “Peter Grimes” from a Collins Classics disc containing the Symphonic Suite from “Gloriana”, all conducted by last night’s conductor, Steuart Bedford.

The first of these, “Dawn”, was the first Britten I heard that actually meant something to me. “The Young Person’s Guide” had left me cold, and I was startled to find that this elusive music, that I had heard many times before I knew what it was, was by the same composer. It remains a favorite to this day, even as I have come to appreciate the three other interludes and the passacaglia.

I heard them as orchestral pieces many times before I heard the opera itself, so much so that I regarded them exclusively in such terms. Thus it was a shock and surprise when I finally heard the complete “Peter Grimes” to find that they sounded better in the context of the opera than on their own. It’s hard to hear them now without wishing for voices!

Gloriana

Had the great good fortune last night to attend a performance of Benjamin Britten‘s “Gloriana” at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. A wholly gripping performance from start to finish, beautifully conducted by Steuart Bedford (for whom Britten is second nature). Queen Elizabeth I was wonderfully characterized by Christine Brewer, a performance that deservedly received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Just as fine was Brandon Jovanovich as Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex. His portrayal of what was essentially a barely competent hot-head who, through passion and good looks captivated his queen, was a well-considered contrast to that of the Queen, for whom statecraft and loyalty to her country was paramount. There were no weak links in the supporting cast either, and the chorus and dancers were superb.

Considering I had been looking forward to this opera for a year with high expectations, there was most definitely the danger that it would not match them. Happily, this did not come to pass.

I had played the Mackerras recording of “Gloriana” a couple of times shortly before seeing the opera, and I am very glad I did. The music of “Gloriana” is essentially a mid 20th century reworking of Elizabethan styles, and is much more 20th century than Elizabethan (the opera was written in the early 1950s, before the move to ‘authentic’ performance styles became popular). Consequently, there were thematic and harmonic components that owe much to post-Wagnerian opera, and it was fun following those through the performance. Britten’s musical voice is determinedly his own, and it is one that I find highly attractive. Despite its conservative veneer, it never seems hackneyed nor sounds dated in any way. In many ways it sounds a lot more modern than much music of today that falls into the Neo-Romantic style.

Wonderful stuff.