I Just Got Out My Little Red Book

Part of the fall-out from taking a Beatles’ class last spring was the accumulation of vast amounts of 1960s music that I have barely listened to since. Amongst this are a couple of CDs that I found at Collector’s Choice music store reissuing Manfred Mann’s first four U.S. LP releases.

I finally gave myself a little time today and listened to them properly.

Anf what gems they were. Admittedly, I am an absolute sucker for early/mid 1960s British R&B (Rolling Stones, Them, Yardbirds, Pretty Things etc.), so these hit the spot as well as anything but what impressed me is the drive and power of this oft-regarded pop band. The usual suspects appear – “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Smokestack Lightnin'” etc. – but they are performed with a fire and verve which belies the more commercial (but still satisfying) public image of the band (“Pretty Flamingo”, “Do-Wah-Diddy” etc.).

Paul Jones is an excellent R&B belter, easily as impressive as Jagger of the period, and the band plays with a smooth sophistication behind him. A personal favorite – “I’m Your Kingpin”.

But in the midst of all this up popped an unexpected song – “My Little Red Book”, a prime slab of Burt Bacharach songcraft. Unexpected because I know this song from Love’s garage/punk rendition that elevates the hurt & ‘mistreated’ guy protagonist to near-paranoid levels. Manfred Mann’s version is much more cool but equally valid. Very fun to hear, and another reminder of Bacharach’s skill. No wonder he appears on the cover of the best Oasis album “Definitely Maybe”. But that’s another topic.

Smile

Had the good fortune to catch Brian Wilson on his ‘Smile’ tour at the Orpheum Theater last night. The highlight was a complete rendition of the recently completed album, finally finished after all these years after 1967.

It was a flawless performance by an extremely accomplished band. The only missing element was the unique voices of the Beach Boys in their younger days. Brian’s voice is that of an old man, gruff and limited in range. The other singers in the group cover the gaps here, and do it perfectly satisfactorily if a trifle anonimously. But one cannot remake the past, and the greatest thing about this tour and the album released in 2004 is that this wonderful music is here at last, put together as it should be.

Just what effect this album would have had if released in 1967 as planned is hard to say. It’s whimsical, often very funny – and really does make you smile – as well as inventive and powerfully poignant with songs such as “Surf’s Up”, “Child Is Father To The Man”, “Wonderful” and “Cabin Essence”.

Now much of this material has leaked out on various Beach Boys’ albums beginning with the enigmatic “Smiley Smile” that was squeezed out to replace the collapsing “Smile” project. In most cases, the Beach Boys renditions are equal to that on the new record, surpassing the newer recordings quite clearly on “Surf’s Up” and “Good Vibrations”. But The Beach Boys never gave proper context to this material and on “Smile” it has precisely that. Consequently it is a treat to hear all of these songs sequenced and bracketed by thematic cross-references precisely as Brian Wilson intended.

So hearing “Surf’s Up”, a certain prime candidate for the greatest pop/rock song ever written, was magical even if Brian could not match Carl’s affecting vocal on The Beach Boys’ 1960s recording. Other songs, such a “Wonderful”, “Child Is Father To The Man”, and “Heroes And Villians” were also given fresh power. And of course there was the unreleased material, all of which fitted seamlessly into the whole.

“Smile” would have been my favorite Beach Boys album if it been released as intended. It would have been better than “Sgt. Pepper” as a prime artifact of the wildly inventive psychelidic mid-1960s. Ultimately, it probably would not have eclipsed “Pet Sounds”, much as “Sgt. Pepper” has been finally overshadowed by the mighty “Revolver”. But it would have been loved.

So here we today, enjoying a miracle as Brian Wilson overcomes his personal mental illness to perform live – something that really seemed completely off the table for the last three decades of the 20th century. In doing so, Wilson has moved “Smile” completely into the present where it is just as magical as it ever would have been in the past. There are few things out there that one can be more thankful for.

Rock Is dead: Long Live Rock

The demise of rock as been predicted, determined and lamented ever since the days of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s easiest to do when you stop listening to new music and start focusing on the past. As the music is so closely tied to most people’s youth, age tends to fossilize the listener’s interests into that same music. Thus ears close and new artists remain unheard, unconsidered or rejected out of hand. One only has to turn on the various age-specific rock radio stations to become aware of this acute stratification.

This is a great shame because it cuts the listener off from a lot of music, much of which is just as good as whatever he or she listened to as a teenager. But there is no doubt it takes a more conscious effort of will to expose yourself to new rock when removed by age from the teenage peer-group influence that is perhaps the most powerful introductory force for new music. There is also a second issue that colors post-youth appreciation of rock; the knowledge of and familiarity with much of the music that influences later artists. It is much easier to see the roots when you know those roots – something that only the most musically inquisitive teenager is likely to be aware of. Thus an element of freshness is removed. As freshness is a prime quality of the greatest rock music, this makes it that much harder to appreciate the new music.

All of these thoughts come to mind when I listen to artists that were – and are – part of the 1990s phenomenon called ‘Brit-Pop’. Blur, Oasis, and perhaps best of all, Supergrass, have created a melodic series of well-crafted pop songs that owe much to no less than two great prior eras in rock music – the 1960s and 1970s. It impossible to listen to this music without hearing echoes of The Kinks, The Beatles, The Jam, Squeeze, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, The Who, The Move and many other accomplished pop-smiths. And speaking of Smiths, let’s not negate the massive artistic shadow of that mighty 1980s band.

So it requires a conscious effort of will to put these influences aside, but it’s worth it. For the best music that these 1990s bands have made appropriates in wholly fresh and exciting ways the innovations of the past. Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is that those earlier bands and artists were no less accomplished borrowers and recyclers – it’s just that the music they sprang from was largely unknown to ears coming across it for the first time.

Listening now to “Supergrass”, a record not even acknowledged to be the band’s best, I am feeling the same surges of excitement and pleasure that I felt in the past with the music of the artists referred to above. That is as much as anyone can hope for, and much more than is usually delivered.

Your Call Is Very Important To Us

Popular music encompasses a large number of artists who seem perfectly content to plough their own path, regardless of commercial success – sometimes in spite of it. These are the people who make much of the most interesting music (although by no means all – it is perfectly possible to be innovative and commercial, witness the supreme example The Beatles). One band, essentially a duo, that has been around since the beginning of the 1970s and falls solidly into this class is Sparks.

Ron and Russell Mael have produced a consistently subversive and entertaining body of work over this considerable lifetime. Their most recent CD, 2002’s “Lil’ Beethoven”, is no exception and stands in comparison with their best.

“Lil’ Beethoven” is an instantly attractive and seamless series of witty off-center songs that utilize all the clichés of popular (as in well-known) classical music, easy listening and elevator music, even heavy metal, to produce a satisfying whole that really should not be so! Using extensive looping, sampling and repetition allied to a rhythmic sensibility derived from European techno and trance music, the band create a powerfully motoric pastiche that is tied to strong melody.

These are irresistable songs, however many times you hear the same repeated phrase – and some songs consist of barely more than one or two lines – and the reason why is the relentlessly inventive arrangements that surround them.

Just one example is “Your Call’s Very Important To Us. Please Hold.”, a satire based the corporate conceit that that the customer really matters when companies consistently fail to employ sufficient customer relations personnel. The entire song is based around little more than the words of the title, but the surging ostinato string accompaniment punctuated with classical kettledrums pulls you willingly into this treatise on the meaningless of modern life. You emerge wiser and renewed without really knowing why. The other songs have a similar impact.

“Lil’ Beethoven” is a very important work – one that will probably be ignored by most record buyers, but will be gobbled up by musicians. Definitely one to hear.

Free

Two 1960s bands made a special emotional claim on me as a young man. They were by no means the artists I listened to most often, nor were they necessarily the best representative of my tastes. But they latched onto me in a unique way. One was The Beatles. The other was Free.

Free formed in 1968 and lasted until 1972, with a series of personnel changes towards the end. The singer and drummer, Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke, went on to form the massively successful band, Bad Company, while bass player Andy Fraser drifted away from the scene and guitarist Paul Kossoff died of drug related heart complications.

Free were by no means great lyricists, concentrating on relatively simple soul and blues derived sentiments, but they were adequate. What was special about them was their sound. Each player had an individual style that blended into a very satisfying whole, much as the case of The Who. Paul Rodgers was – and still is – an outstanding 1960s soul influenced singer who gave the words weight and emotion. The music that the band made – full of space and restraint – was proto-hard rock, but with a subtlety that most other bands playing in that style never approached. Their best songs were very strong melodically and surged with a funk-influenced rhythm. Everyone has heard “All Right Now” and it is deservedly considered a classic rock song, but most of their output is in the same league and sometimes better. “The Stealer”, “Wishing Well”, “Mr. Big”, “Trouble On Double Time”, “Easy On My Soul”, “Mouthful Of Grass” are all evocative and moving songs. There are many others.

My first experience with the band was with their ultimate album, “Heartbreaker”, a record that is not truly representative of the organic sound that they developed in their early days (Andy Fraser had left the band at this point) but is nonetheless a masterful album. It was this record that forged such a special emotional link with me at the time. Working backwards towards the band’s beginning only reinforced this.

Thus I was fully primed for Bad Company to continue this illustrious road when they first appeared, but it soon became evident that replacing Paul Kossoff with Mick Ralphs and Andy Fraser with Boz Burrell could not rekindle the magic of Free. I was very disappointed, but in truth Bad Company faced an impossible task. Free was as about as perfect a band as one could hope to find.

Teenage Depression

One of the more puzzling aspects of growing up during the oft-described ‘golden age’ of pop/rock – i.e. the 1960s and early 1970s (much of which still provides the basis of what we hear on the radio today) is that by the time I actually ‘matured’ into a teenager, very little of this music seemed relevant or particularly exciting.

At that time it was possible to relegate whole areas of rock music to yesterday’s news in the space of a year or so – rock was still moving fast then. But by the mid 1970s, stagnation was evident all around. This was the time of the birth of arena rock. The first signs of the fossilization of hard rock were evident – evidenced clearly in the fate of the superbly soulful and inventive 1960s band Free as it mutated into Bad Company. Bad Company made more money and sold infinitely more records than Free ever did, but by their second album they had essentially run out of ideas. The 1970s saw a lot of this – artists recycling music that had seemed vital and growing in the 1960s into a stale copy. But many people loved this stuff, so there was plenty of incentive to keep it going.

In 1976, a review in New Musical Express of an EP by a London pub rock band called Eddie & The Hot Rods, that suggested that a whole new game was brewing. I bought this little gem – Live At The Marquee. This was the first record that revealed the true energy of the new movement that was going to become punk. Although I had already heard The New York Dolls and Iggy & The Stooges and knew that the style was out there, neither of those bands existed by 1976, and besides they seemed remote and out of reach to me. Not so with the Hot Rods – this was a local band. This record simply blistered – I imagined that if I had been there to witness the concert I would have been in a daze for a week afterwards.

The truly interesting thing about “Live At The Marquee” today is the solid line it joins between the 1960s garage band movement, rock and roll, the astonishingly vibrant singles put out in the pre-psychedelia 1960s and 1970s punk. Covers of “96 Tears”, “Satisfaction”, Bob Seger’s 1970s rock ‘n’ roll obscurity “Get Out Of Denver” and the quintessential early punk-pop standard “Gloria” (which had also kicked off Patti Smith’s “Horses”) were rendered with the lo-fi speed and energy that would mutate with only marginal modification into the music of The Clash, The Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols. Ironically, this embrace of 1960s music hurt The Hot Rods as the more militant bands that followed publically strove to distance themselves from this earlier music (while all the while drawing on the same musical roots). Within a year or so, The Rods were passe, despite two extremely strong LPs, and the band broke up not long afterwards.

Sad, but a story no different from many others. At least the music is available from Captain Oi! records in the UK

The power of familiarity

Driving through the northern reaches of Québec province, where the radio stations play mostly a strange yet familiar French form of Nashville-style Country music, I would sometimes hear a Beatles’ song.

“I Want You” and “I Am The Walrus” were two that I remembered, and the emotional effect of hearing these songs, albeit as background music in a swimming pool and a restaurant respectively, was to rekindle an emotional link back to the world I had temporarily left behind.

I didn’t like this.

I felt like I was being manipulated against my will into a frame of mind that I did not wish to embrace at that time. There is no doubting the power of those familiar Beatles’ songs – I was cast back into a host of memories, past and more recent, that I associate with those songs. But this was not the time for memories.

Perhaps this is why I cannot bear to listen to rock music radio, unless it is transmitting only new and unheard music. The ‘oldies’ format that is evidently vastly successful worldwide gives me the shivers. I prefer to listen to music that has accompanied me as I have grown on my own impulse and at my own discretion.