A batch of Cross Rhythms reviewers consider the merits of 25 mainstream albums
Continued from page 1
Live At Liberty Lunch
This may come as a surprise, but a lot of live albums are not that live. Yes, even the Christian ones. The band might be from one gig and the noise of the crowd might be from another show, possibly with another band. As for the music itself, it routinely gets "polished" in a studio (with lots of overdubs and sometimes even lead vocals redone). 'Live At Liberty Lunch' bucks this trend. It's authentically live and features one of the great legends of American music, Joe Ely. The Texan troubadour is famously the only man to have supported The Clash and lived to tell the tale. By the late 1980s, he had honed his stage craft to such an extent that his performances had taken on almost mythic status. This CD was recorded over two nights at the famous Austen venue Liberty Lunch and without wishing to overstate matters, both he and his band are at the top of their game. Ely sings tracks like 'Dallas' and 'Where Is My Love?' as if his life depended on it, while his hard rocking band swagger in the background. This really is essential listening for anyone putting a band together and a masterclass in how to hold an audience. From the honky-tonk of 'Are You Listening Lucky?' to the wailing harmonica in the finale, 'If You Were A Bluebird' - it never lets up.
Before 1988, Washington-based Queensrÿche had released a self-titled EP and two well-received albums but despite their tendency to offer more cerebral stimulation than most comparable heavy rock, the band seemed at constant risk of getting lumped in with the numerous forgettable 'hair metal' outfits that dominated the scene at the time. That was until 'Operation: Mindcrime' permanently established them as one of the most important bands of the decade. A devastatingly impressive release, 'Mindcrime' is a concept album, a rock opera even, that draws from the best examples of the type whilst avoiding the indulgences that had seen it fall from favour in the wake of punk during the late '70s. Think Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' or The Who's 'Tommy' rather than Yes' 'Tales From Topographic Oceans.' A concept album was a bold career move for an American rock act, considering the only successful examples in the 1980's had come from European groups like Iron Maiden and Marillion. It was influential too, virtually inventing as it did a new sub-genre that was later populated by bands like Dream Theater; part-Rush, part-Judas Priest, 'Operation: Mindcrime' was dubbed 'progressive metal.' Queensrÿche penned a powerful, disturbing narrative that follows a frustrated young heroin addict and would-be political radical named Nikki, who is recruited by the shadowy Dr X to join his eponymous "underground revolution." X and his subordinates plan to undermine the socio-economic status quo by assassinating allegedly corrupt political leaders, ushering in a new order. Nikki, under the drug-enhanced influence of X's hypnotic suggestion, becomes one of Mindcrime's operatives, murdering on command until he begins to question his behaviour. Having outlived his usefulness he ironically is set up for a killing that he didn't commit, leading to arrest and committal to a mental hospital. Whilst this dark tale is not one that would immediately seem to recommend itself to a Christian audience, ultimately Nikki is a tragic, pathetic character whose motives are as understandable as his actions are reprehensible, when confronted by (as he sees it) overwhelming social injustice and institutional hypocrisy ("Revolution Calling," "Speak," "Spreading The Disease"). Queensrÿche vocalist and chief 'Mindcrime' songwriter Geoff Tate has spoken of the palpable combination of powerlessness and apathy he perceived in American society during the 1980's, against which he (through Nikki) felt inspired to rail. The worrying factor from a faith perspective is Tate's determined inclusion of organised religion (Christianity) in the list of suspect institutions (alongside "the rich [who] control the government, the media, the law") that needed their crowns torn down. Even in 1988 televangelism was a well-established target for Nikki's condemnation; he equates it to prostitution: "Religion and sex are power plays/Manipulate the people for the money they pay/Selling skin, selling God/The numbers look the same on their credit cards". In the course of the story, 'religious' characters appear to emphasize further Queensrÿche's perception of American Christianity's institutions as hypocritical and corrupt. Priest Father William is a colleague of Dr X within the Mindcrime cult as well as an abuser of Sister Mary. A former call girl "saved .from the streets," Mary has become, in the guise of a Catholic nun, variously Nikki's heroin supplier, his confidante, William's sex slave and "a whore for the underground." Also, Operation Mindcrime's horrendous activities are constantly couched in religious terminology. Nikki calls himself the "new Messiah/Death angel with a gun." Regular visits from Mary who provides heroin (and more?) to satisfy his cravings are described thus: "I wait here for days longer/'Till Sister comes to wash my sins away." William's regular assaults on Mary are perversions of a sacrament: "He takes her once a week on the altar like a sacrifice." Mary's understanding of her religious status has been permanently warped by William's treatment of her: "The sins of man are all I taste./I've no more want of any faith/The blood of Christ can't heal my wounds so deep." It's clear that, with regard to the personal and social challenges presented, religion is seen as part of the problem, not the solution. Tellingly, however, Nikki's downfall is hastened by the death of Mary, his only friend throughout the entire scenario, and the loss of her affection leads to a psychological breakdown ("Electric Requiem," "Breaking The Silence") in which he finally declares "I Don't Believe In Love." It's clear though that acceptance, forgiveness and, yes, love are what he desperately needs when, in the finale, the sedated, demonised Nikki gazes lifelessly at his reflection in the hospital mirror and sees only the "Eyes Of A Stranger." The album's themes continued to resonate with Geoff Tate until recently he felt the time was right to revisit the story, leading to the release in 2006 of a well-received sequel, the unsurprisingly-titled 'Operation Mindcrime II.' Despite observers declaring it Queensrÿche's finest work for many years, this conclusion to Nikki's sad tale seems destined permanently to be overshadowed by its critically and commercially acclaimed predecessor which, according to Metal Hammer magazine, "pushed forward the frontiers of [heavy] metal."
Sign 'O' The Times
Musical geniuses are rare and even then like magnesium, they tend to burn very bright for a short period and then burn out. Think about it! '60s Beatles, '70s Bowie and '80s Prince. They all defined an era and inspired countless imitations. The problem with it is that if they stick around long enough, they'll leave their genius years behind and produce enough pap to water down their legacy. That's certainly happened with Prince. In the '90s when I was an inner city college lecturer I would do a class debate with my students, "Michael Jackson or Prince, who is better?" Without exception the class would always argue for Jacko! But what's there to discuss? Prince can sing and dance and is a compelling live performer but add to the mix that he's a prolific song writer, plays all the instruments himself and produces his own albums. In the '80s he created his own blend of rock, soul and the kitchen sink to make a style that is uniquely Prince. There is little argument against the truth that he is one of the most talented musicians of his era and able to create a breathtaking breadth of music. He has always been captivated by the twin obsessions of sex and religion and just about all of his songs fall into those categories subject wise. However this has led to problems for me when it comes to admitting my love for his music since the subject matter for the songs of His Royal Pervyness is likely to sour the milk at the vicar's tea party, for many years (including ALL of the '80s) I kept my love of his music as a sort of guilty pleasure. When it emerged as a talking point amongst my church friends back then I'd sometimes quietly admit a liking for an album or song but would face such a barrage that I soon learnt to keep my mouth shut for fear of being perceived as unspiritual! For me this album is the peak of what I'd describe as Prince's golden period or maybe that should be his purple period that stretched from 'Purple Rain' to 'Lovesexy' before he became a squiggle or got into that artist formerly known as nonsense. It was a time when it was felt he could do no wrong, re-inventing himself with every new release and always impressing with new ideas, new songs and new sounds. The sound of this album helped to define the sounds of '80s R&B with its pulsating rhythms and '80s percussive sounds, drum loops and production. Prince has always been the king of the funk so tracks like "Strange Relationship", "Hot Thing" and the fabulous upbeat jams of "Housequake" and the super funky "It's gonna Be A Beautiful Night" setting the standard here. The latter two being a tour de force in the live shows of the era. With sixteen songs, the double album has very little in the way of throwaway material. Even the hit single "U Got The Look" which features Sheena Easton is blessed with more hooks than a fishing tackle shop. Even the nonsense whimsy of "Starfish And Coffee" captivates with its innocent charm. At the other extreme, he delivers an out and out rocker "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man" which comes complete with another one of those memorable choruses and a blistering guitar solo. By the way it needs to be enjoyed in full on the album version rather than the single release. It's pure genius! Another single from the album, albeit in sanitised form was "If I Was Your Girlfriend". Prince always has a gift for looking at things from a different perspective and this song is probably the perviest of the set with some very naughty suggestions at the close of the song. To be honest it's slightly less unnerving now that I'm married but as a single Christian man, it wasn't helpful to listen to! And that's always been the issue I've had with Prince. He may manage to create art that swings from the sublimely sensual to the ridiculously religious but I couldn't easily settle those issues together in my mid twenties when this was first released. Since embracing life as a Jehovah's Witness of all things, Prince has himself turned his back on some of the more lewd lyrics claiming his own embarrassment over what he'd penned earlier on. Having said that, the album's closer "Adore" is about as soulful and romantic as a song can possibly get. I'm still not sure that this album is helpful to anyone trying to keep their thoughts and their life pure. And I don't think it's possible to defend it from that standpoint. However from an artistic point of view, it's amazing. For me, there have always been two standout songs that have grabbed my attention. Firstly there is the title cut with its timely cultural criticism which seems as relevant now as it was then. Prince talks about AIDS when the disease was first emerging into the public and it wasn't a trendy thing to do. Blending together a series of apocalyptic images over a stripped down sparse funk bed and still maintaining a groove and melody is no mean feat. In the midst of all the despair, the fear of nuclear destruction (which was still a reality in the mid '80s) and the observation of the gangs and drugs and poverty, there are splashes of hope in the song. Even in the midst of all the horror, there's still his desire to father children. Even "we'll call him Nate, if he's a boy" is a comment of optimism since Nate means birth. And smuggled into the middle of the lyric, there's the observation "some say a man ain't truly happy unless a man truly dies." The truth of the gospel in 12 words! The most intriguing song in the set is "The Cross" which set amidst all of the naughtiness in other songs caught me completely off guard when I first heard the album. Like the album's title cut, this once again balances the realities and hardships of modern life and points the listener to the cross! "Don't cry, he is coming, don't die without knowing the cross." The twin themes of sex/lust and religion/spirituality are played out in the one album and like Marvin Gaye before him and R Kelly more recently there's a palpable struggle here to reconcile the two themes. The conflict has led to thought provoking songs and great art if you can get past the banal lewdness here and there. I long to see Christians step up to the plate and help define the music of their era by making art as great as this.
Lexicon Of Love
The problem with pop music is that nobody takes it seriously and because there's so much rubbish around, pop usually gets tarred with a big bad brush by snobbish critics. But, in truth, sometimes the musical soul just needs something light, fluffy and fun and good pop music can give you a huge buzz! After the punk revolution of the late '70s saw the music scene dress down and put a serious expression on its face, the early '80s saw pop dressing up once again. Bands like Duran Duran, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet donned the eye liner and with high cheek bones cutting their way through the pages of the glossy pop mags of the day. Their videos helped to establish the fledgling MTV as they pouted their way to the top of the charts. And they showed how it was possible to have fun once again. My favourites, as you may have guessed by now, were Sheffield band ABC who as part of a city wide scene that included The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Heaven 17 hit paydirt with this, their debut album, in the year that I was completing my studies at Leeds University. As I entered my final year they released their debut single "Tears Are Not Enough" which promised much but it wasn't until ABC hooked up with their producer Trevor Horn that they really hit their stride musically. Horn had been a member of The Buggles and would later find fame as the producer behind all of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's huge hits in 1984. However for ABC's singer and writer Martin Fry, he was the man who would make Fry's musical vision happen. Instructing the producer that he wanted some Frank Sinatra style glamour added to the songs, the whole feel of 'The Lexicon Of Love' is of lush arrangements. It just sounds expensive. The production is very precise and with help from future Art Of Noise members Anne Dudley and JJ Jeczalik, the arrangements are perfect mixing a Chic influenced funk with an edge that owes a little to the punk music they had just transcended. There are tight funky bass lines and fabulous bits of strings and the whole album works wonderfully as a whole. The next single was the one that really put the band on the map. "Poison Arrow" is still a radio hit 25 years later, playing endlessly on Heart FM and the like. It's a perfect piece of pop from Martin Fry's over dramatic histrionic vocals to the middle section where the girl tells him "I care enough to know I will never love you". As spring turned to early summer, the house I was sharing went quite as we hid ourselves away top revise for our finals, meeting every few hours in the kitchen to let off steam. And then came "The Look Of Love", the band's third single and clearly the best so far! Funnily enough Fry wrote the song after he was dumped by his girlfriend but still managed to persuade her to add a vocal to the song saying the word "Goodbye" just like she did in real life. It's a wonderfully ironic gesture and perfectly in keeping with Fry's soul searching, yearning lyrics. Again the histrionics are in place, especially in the slightly camp spoken middle eight where he wonders out loud if he'll ever find true love. I know it's only pop but somehow even that sentiment touched my brittle 21 year old heart as the biggest relationship of my life had broken up somewhere in the months between their first and second singles. The album's opener "Show Me" kicks off with a fabulous orchestral overture which breaks out into a slap bass led funk drenched cut that sums up the uncertainty of the early days of a relationship. "Many Happy Returns" also maps out some of the politics of relationships but contains some of Fry's brilliant witty lyricism. "Like a phoenix coming back from the ashes / I Know what's good but I know what trash is." He had a way of writing memorable couplets with images that just stuck out and forced you to pay attention. Another highlight, "Date Stamp" was a classy stab of funky pop that again seemed to suit the moment of my fledgling romance with its chorus of "love has no guarantees". On the album it is quickly followed by the band's fourth hit "All Of My Heart" which has become another standard on Heart FM where Fry describes giving his heart to a girl but ending up just as friends. "What's it like to have loved but to lose her touch?" he asks. The '80s had many fine pop albums but I'd like to suggest that this is the best of the lot. The band spoilt it somewhat by trying to go gritty, edgy and serious on their second album 'Beauty Stab' so that they never repeated the glories of this perfect release. I can't think of a better example of '80s pop than this one. Others came close but the combination of songs so completely devoted to the subject of love and the pop music so brilliantly carved out of the ether by Trevor Horn, make this an outstanding release.
The Complete Buddy Holly
This six LP box set brings together the works of one of the 20th century's most influential yet short lived artistes in a way that was chronologically lacking in the majority of the compilation releases that followed Holly's untimely death in 1959 at the age of 22. Although not complete in the sense that more of Holly's unreleased works have been discovered since, 'The Complete Buddy Holly' is a testimony to a man who challenged the musical norms of the time by being a songwriter as well as a front man, dabbling in studio experimentation and not being afraid to venture into different genres of music. In addition, Holly influenced the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dylan and countless other musicians - perhaps more so than any other artist of his time. The hub of this collection (records three and four) chart Holly at his most successful and inventive. By this point, Holly and his group the Crickets had unsuccessfully auditioned for the Decca label but had been noticed by Clovis, New Mexico based producer Norman Petty who, in exchange for a substantial share of any takings, more or less let the boys have free reign in his studio under his watchful eye. As a result, these discs contain a myriad of top quality songs - each different from the other - and form the bedrock of not only Holly's back catalogue but of modern music as we know it today. Rock n roll standards such as "That'll Be The Day", "Oh Boy!" and "Rave On" sit comfortably with the delicate "Everyday" and the acoustic folk tinged song of defiance "Well.All Right". Elsewhere, Holly delves into the world of pseudo gospel with Bobby Darin's "Early In The Morning" before finishing up with four orchestra backed tracks (including the stunningly poignant "True Love Ways" and "It Doesn't Matter Anymore") that would signal the end of his studio recording career. What made Holly's songs stand out from his contemporaries was his willingness to include instrumentation and techniques that wouldn't normally be found on the bog standard rock n roll release of the time. Prime examples include the use of a celeste on "Everyday", Jerry Allison pounding out a Bo Diddley beat on a set of cardboard boxes on "Not Fade Away" and, of course, the iconic lead drumming of "Peggy Sue." The remaining four parts of this box set are as intriguing as the middle two are inspiring. Discs one and two document Holly's pre fame days with rough demo recordings of country songs written and performed with school friend Bob Montgomery before taking us to a handful of rock n roll demos recorded with nothing more than a reel to reel recorder in a front room. Unfortunately, these tracks were unwisely overdubbed by session musicians under the supervision of Petty shortly after Holly's death to make them more commercial - as a result, a lot of the raw quality contained on the originals was stripped away. Nonetheless, a couple of posthumous hits were registered as a result of these overdubs - namely "Bo Diddley" and a cover of Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" and evidently Holly had something special from the outset. Disc two features the Decca audition songs and these songs support the theory that Holly's prospective label were aiming to water down his talent (compare the pre audition version of band mate Sonny Curtis' rockabilly classic "Rock Around With Ollie Vee" with the lacklustre arrangement of the Decca demo as a case in point.) The remaining two records contain songs from arguably Holly's most touching sessions. Newly married to Maria Elena who was expecting their first child, Holly had been starved of royalties from his now former manager Norman Petty. Holly was forced financially to go on the lowly Winter Dance Party tour of America in the cruelest of winter conditions that would see him board a small aeroplane with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens in a desperate attempt to get to his next venue early to pick up some mail and wash some laundry. Tragically, the three men and their pilot never made their destination, crashing in a field shortly after take off. Just weeks before his death, Holly had chosen to record half a dozen new songs (and his takes on other artistes' work) in his New York apartment using his trusty reel to reel recorder. Such songs include "Peggy Sue Got Married", "Crying Waiting Hoping" and "Learning The Game" and, if once was not enough, the majority of these apartment demos were then overdubbed by two different sets of session musicians in order to increase sale-ability and cash in on Holly's death. However, the real treasure in the trove is contained in the last segment of this collection - simply called 'The Collectors Buddy Holly.' Contained within are the untouched versions of some of Holly's apartment recordings and there is an unmistakable poignancy and eeriness as Holly strums out his last ever songs. As if leaving buried treasure for the music world to discover, these songs point towards Holly's burning passion to develop himself and write music no matter the circumstances. The question remains of what this down to earth Lubbock boy would have gone on to achieve had he been given the chance to go in the musical directions he must have been mulling over following his split from the Crickets. Although no collection can ever truly be complete, what 'The Complete Buddy Holly' does is allow the listener to gain perspective on the depth and breadth of Holly's work. This, coupled with a fantastic pictorial book of unreleased photos, extremely informative liner notes and recordings of live appearances, session tracks and interviews, makes this one of the most important releases in the history of popular music. Time for everyone involved to get over their contractual differences and for this to be finally released on CD.
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Ever since the 1960's popular musicians with something worth saying have tended to work alone. It all began when Bob Dylan, Barry McGuire and Donovan topped the charts and the press labelled them as protest singers. By the end of the decade when Joni Mitchell and James Taylor hit the airwaves they were more grandly known as singer/songwriters - a term which has very much stuck right through to the present day. Of course, ever since the Beatles writers in bands have also come up with profound lyrics but, as John Lennon proved, they only tended to grow as songwriters after going solo. To my mind, the one exception to rule are Crosby, Stills and Nash. Already established as top musicians in the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies they came together as the world's first supergroup in 1969 and, with Neil Young from time to time on board, they have spent the past four decades touring the world with their songs of social reform. Whilst Young's better work can be found on his numerous solo projects the rest of the band have performed better together - as their 1977 album CSN clearly show. It includes "Just A Song Before I Go" which became their first multi-platinum single, and their highest-charting track, reaching #7 on Billboard's Hot 100. Written by Graham Nash, the band's lone Brit, it typifies his ability to write simple radio-friendly songs of love, won and lost, with a dash of northern charm - West Coast music at its best! Stephen Stills, oddly a Monkees' reject, and David Crosby wrote the albums more mystical songs - probably inspired by the books they read as they sailed the Caribbean on the schooner on the album cover. They wrote of strange dreams and chance encounters. Crosby mocks his own importance in "Anything At All" whilst Stills writes of the pain of a broken relationship in "Run From Tears"'. Nash, on the other hand, has always been considered the band's lightweight - probably because he was responsible for chart songs like "Marakesh Express" and "Our House". Yet, paradoxically he was the writer of "Teach Your Children" which examines the generation gap and penned the immortal words "Rules and regulations - who needs them?" Hence, it should come as no surprise that Nash turns his attention to organised religion on the song "Cathedral". Inspired by a visit to Winchester Cathedral he contrasts the historic splendour with the ordinariness of the women who clean the chancel and arrange the flowers. Then his mood changes as he notices a statue of Christ and thinks of all the evils done in the Saviour's name. This is compounded when he sees all the grand memorials to soldiers who have died in battle across the centuries. Small wonder that he declares that "too many people have lied in the name of Christ that I can't believe it all." For Nash, the Cathedral is a symbol of all that he despises in religion. Hurrying to leave he declares faith to be an illusion. Although a pampered rock star, I believe that Graham Nash speaks for many who simply cannot equate the Prince of Peace with the militaristic pomp that is still part and parcel of some parts of established religion.
Venus And Mars
This 1975 release from Paul McCartney's post Beatles band saw Wings at the pinnacle of their lifespan with the classic line up of Paul and Linda, Denny Laine, Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English (the latter going on to become an '80s CCM star of course). Recorded in New Orleans and noticeably influenced by their musical surroundings, McCartney achieved in this album what he failed to do in any of his preceding solo releases - a collection of quality and entertaining songs with absolutely no filler. The main reason for this was McCartney's natural ability to draw upon a myriad of musical and cultural influences, spinning an artistic and commercial success in the process. There are hints of his Beatle past - the very nature of the opening two songs - the title track documenting the anticipation of a fan in a sports arena prior to a gig which leads into the appearance of a fictitious band in the raucous "Rock Show" is reminiscent of Sgt Pepper whilst, in the Eastern tinged "Love In Song", McCartney intriguingly draws on some George Harrison influences and uses the type of beefy horns on "Letting Go" that featured heavily on Harrison's early solo releases. There is a real sense in 'Venus And Mars' that McCartney and company are on the crest of a wave. Not only is their sound bigger than before (reflecting their new found success on the live stadium circuit) but there is a confidence contained within each song that backs up McCartney's belief at the time that Wings could be even more successful than his former band. Amidst the hype and the success, it is evident from this release that things were starting to get out of hand. It would be six years before McCartney would be incarcerated in Japan for possession of marijuana and only four years before guitarist McCulloch would die from a heroin overdose. Ironically, McCulloch penned a fine anti drugs song for this album but there are several drugs references throughout - "Rock Show" talks about "scoring an ounce" and "preparing to shoot up with the city" whilst "Spirits Of Ancient Egypt" is a trippy piece of post psychedelic rock. In McCartney's work before and after 'Venus And Mars', there is occasionally a feeling that he believes in something bigger than the here and now. However, despite the Roman Catholic undertones of his upbringing and his Maharishi dabblings in the late '60s, it is nigh on impossible to put a finger on where he stands in terms of the bigger picture and there is a sense that perhaps he doesn't even know himself. Confused theories emerge throughout the album with reference to mother nature in "Letting Go" and astrology in the title track whilst the hit single "Listen To What The Man Said" continues the Beatles' theory that love itself is the answer. The latter song could be seen to be pointing to a Christ-like figure but in truth it never reveals who "the man" actually is - perhaps due to McCartney's overriding agnostic stance on matters concerning the existence of God. In the scheme of things, it is surprising that the majority of these songs failed to lodge themselves more in the public's consciousness given the inclusion of classics such as the soulful "Call Me Back Again" and the Marvel Comics inspired story song "Magneto And Titanium Man." This does not take away from the fact that 'Venus And Mars' sees McCartney at the peak of his post Beatles career.
Fresh from the waking nightmare that was the filming and recording of the 'Get Back' sessions (later to be repackaged as their final release 'Let It Be'), the fab four set about getting back to basics and recording their swansong with long term producer George Martin at the helm once again. In many ways, it is miraculous that 'Abbey Road' sounds so cohesive given the bitter implosion that was happening to the group amidst their business, relationship and musical differences at the time but their final work is nothing less than a celebration of what made Beatles albums great - a collection of varied songs, recorded with humour, love and creativity. 'Abbey Road' is very much a game of two halves with the first side being a collection of what could well have been solo releases by John, Paul, George and Ringo with the others merely acting as backing musicians. The flipside is a collage of songs written during the 'Get Back' and 'White Album' sessions, joined together by both Lennon and McCartney in one last act of musical unity. In truth, this album was very much about how the individual Beatles were dealing with the oncoming separation. It seemed all members wanted the band to end naturally with the exception of McCartney who, at points, was desperately trying to find ways of preserving the group he had joined in his teens. It is therefore perhaps ironic that proceedings kick off with Lennon's "Come Together" given the lack of accord in the band at the time. Nonetheless, this is a classic piece of neo-swamp blues from Lennon before leading into arguably one of the most celebrated love songs in history. It is rumoured that Harrison's "Something" was originally a dedication to Krishna but it is also widely thought that this is an ode to his wife to be Pattie Boyd. If proof were needed, it showed that the quiet one had almost reached the standard of his two heavyweight writing contemporaries. McCartney checks in with a couple of lightweight numbers ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Oh! Darling") and his contribution doesn't really get into gear until side two. However, the main surprise is the charming escapism of Ringo's "Octopus's Garden" - written at a time when Starr was so disillusioned with all the business wrangling that living under the sea seemed like a better option. To close the first side, Lennon's guitar driven and minimalist "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" has the band at their tightest with layered guitars and white noise acting out a requiem to the dying band. Side two opens with the sheer optimism of Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun" - a song of hope that their dark final days would soon be over before. From then on in, it's an exhilarating rollercoaster of unfinished and co-joined tracks largely dominated by McCartney's songs. It is testimony to the Beatles' geniuses that many of these songs were regarded as throwaways yet they still work within the confines of perhaps the greatest band in history. The inclusion of Lennon's frivolous caricature songs "Mean Mr Mustard" and "Polythene Pam" hint towards his desire to shy away from the responsibility of being in the Beatles whilst McCartney closes the album with the poignant medley of "Golden Slumbers", "Carry That Weight" and "The End." It seems a fitting end, not only to the album but also to the Beatles' recording tenure, that McCartney should sing the lines "once there was a way to get back home" signalling an end to a beautiful relationship and a point of no return. Strangely, "Carry That Weight" has the boys at their most interactive with Ringo's only drum solo and Paul, George and John trading guitar licks in the way they would have done before they were famous. The closing line on the album "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make" can either be seen as one of McCartney's throwaway lines or as something incredibly deep. Regardless of either point of view, it is symbolic of their belief that love is everything and this theme runs through their back catalogue from roughly 1965 onwards. As Steve Turner said in his seminal book The Gospel According To The Beatles, the apostle John declared that "God is love" but the Beatles attempted to turn this on its head by saying that "love is God" ("Within You Without You" and "All You Need Is Love" are prime examples of this theory) and therefore implying that no saviour is needed if you can access "love" directly. With the release of 'Abbey Road', the Beatles at least achieved some closure and certainly rose to the occasion to ensure that their last recordings together were memorable. In doing so, they ended their careers as Beatles on a high note and with one of their strongest albums ever.
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles had been through a tough time: John had said that they were more popular than Jesus. Then said, "I'm sorry I said it," the Vatican accepted his apology, but the big US Bible belt Baptist's (SBC) did not. Concerts were so rowdy and PA systems so poor that it was hard to hear the band playing. Finally after the band had been ignominiously expelled from the Philippines during a contentious tour, McCartney decided enough was enough and from that point on the Beatles became a studio only band. They set about their next project with renewed relish and of course plenty of time. 700 hours went into the recording sessions for 'Sgt. Pepper', it was always going to be a masterpiece. Every song was strong, though the concept theme of the Beatles playing as the alter ego band (title) goes somewhat adrift as the album progresses. It revives towards the end with the reprise of the first track, "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", which helped give the album its "show" feel, which was the original idea of the LP. The art work for the cover has been the subject of much speculation, not least the "Paul is dead" theory. Lots of (what could be) mourners all standing round (what could be) a grave with its flowers and what looks like a statue of the Hindu goddess Kali the destroyer pointing at Paul. On the back cover Paul is the only Beatle who is facing backwards, it was a conspiracy theorist's dream, and they quickly said, "You can't see his face because he's dead." Spirituality was part of the feel of 'Sgt. Pepper', Jesus was part of the inspiration for George Harrisons' "Within You Without You", which includes the lyrics "We were talking - about the love that's gone so cold and the people/Who gain the world and lose their soul." This was a time when it was suggested that God could be found through drugs and references to drugs also seemed to be in the LP: "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", had LSD as an acrostic in its title but (according to John) it was purely coincidental and the title of the song is about a painting that John's four year old son Julian did of his school friend Lucy; that's what John said and he stuck with his story. Denying other references on the album isn't so easy, yet the Beatles had a good go at denying them. Maybe Paul really was referring to "Woodbines" as the smoke he had when he went into a dream ("A Day In The Life"). Paul's bass playing is magnificent throughout the recording, it's melodic yet punchy and holds the rhythm together. In fact the bass was mixed 2dB higher than the other instruments which was innovative at the time and helped push modern music to where it is now. The cataclysmic song "A Day In The Life" has John's gritty mean-edged vocals and lyrics complemented by Paul's bridge, which were originally two different songs but juxtaposed for 'Sgt. Pepper'. The songwriting is first class, I've sometimes wondered how much producer George Martin added to the structure of the songs - maybe he hasn't got named the fifth Beatle for no reason. 'Sgt Pepper' certainly played its part in pushing popular music onto the next level.
James Brown At The Apollo
When I first heard the 1959 R&B million seller "Shout" by the Isley Brothers I had what can only be described as a secular Damascus Road experience. Here was a record and, as I soon discovered, a whole music form which was so frenetically abandoned that it lifted the listener to exciting heights like nothing I'd ever heard before. Bit by bit over the following years I discovered that this music, by the '60s referred to as soul music, was closely connected to black church music. In fact more than that in terms of vocal styling, it was identical to the hard gospel quartets of the '50s. But whereas that music relied on an organ or guitar for an accompaniment, the secular gospel acts like the Isleys and Ray Charles had whole, fat bands behind them. And no band was fatter and hipper than the sassy combo who played with James Brown & The Famous Flames. When this album came out it hit me, hit me, HIT ME! (sorry, I'm just getting into the vernacular) with all the impact of a baseball bat. Because of my gospel music voyage of discovery I'd gotten used to singers who not only sang melody and improvised endless grace-note extravaganzas but screamed in unbridled frenzy. (I was already cutting my musical teeth on the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.) But when all this barely-in-control emotional power and vocal theatrics were harnessed to a pumping, braying band with a brass flourish for every grunt and scream, a socking backbeat that never let up, and the Famous Flames who coo'd doowop harmonies as a counterpoint as the "Hardest Working Man In Show Business" went crazy, the effect was beyond excitement. What put everything in its context was of course a live recording at New York's famed ghetto theatre. Here was an audience which responded with all the uninhibited joy of a storefront church congregation. Growing up a British white boy, I wasn't familiar with James' "hits" presented here ("Please, Please, Please" from 1956, "Try Me" from 1958, "Think" from 1959, "Bewildered" from 1961 and the pumping instrumental-with-screams revival of Jimmy Forest's "Night Train"). But like that secular congregation on the record, I became part of the audience, thanks to my bedroom record player, and was up there (metaphorically) shouting my responses. I may not have understood all the ghetto slang in the improvised monologues "I'm so tired, I'm so tired, but I'm clean" was, I later learnt, to do with James' dapper stage appearance rather than the singer emerging from the shower. But the album was, and I believe still is, a stone classic which today still retains much of its sweaty, abandoned, soul power.
John Lee Hooker
The Folk Lore Of John Lee Hooker
Back in 1962, before most of my friends were discovering the first fruits of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I was firmly on my own musical journey of discovery. Thanks to my school friend Dennis Powis I'd stumbled across the heady delights of "rhythm and blues" which back then was a term which covered everything from the early church-based soul music of the Isley Brothers, the sophisticated pop of Motown and, like this album here - the first John Lee Hooker album ever to receive a British release - the broodingly powerful blues. When I got this for a Christmas present from my parents I was hardly prepared for its sheer, turbulent, raw, eerie power. I knew John Lee's swaggeringly sassy "Boom Boom" as one of the 400 or so Brits who'd bought the single on Stateside, little imagining that decades on a mass audience would be enjoying the track on TV commercials. But the punchy boogie with John aided by the Motown sessioners the Soul Brothers was one thing. But some of the raw, primeval recordings here were something else with the droning one chord improvisations of The Hook seeming to be music from another planet, so strange and savagely intense. Each play though took me deeper into its brooding internal world of bad women and bad whiskey, where the Flood of Tupelo, Mississippi was a mystical metaphor for man's misery, where "boogie" was revealed in all its stark, sexuality. It became an album I played every single day. Whether the Detroit bluesman sang with a socking band ("I'm Going Upstairs"), played with an acoustic guitar ("Tupelo") or droned over that over-amplified guitar which could fill a whole track by itself, this was music of intense, cathartic power. 'The Folk Lore Of John Lee Hooker' was a misleading album title. This was no bluesman, prettied up for the recently discovered white folk audience. This was a bluesman who still played small clubs to a black audience. The always opportunistic Vee-Jay Records put the "folklore" bit in the album title when the "hootenanny" folk craze was raging. Within a year or two John Lee was embraced, not by the folksters but, of all things, by the youth of Britain who momentarily put another of his endless supply of rolling boogies, "Dimples" into the UK pop charts. And decades on of course The Hook was acknowledged as one of the icons of rock with Rolling Stones and everyone else lining up to play on his records and eulogise him as a musical giant. In his own way John was a religious man (he was a Jehovah's Witness). For me, now a Christian, his music will always be uplifting. John's lyrical preoccupations of an unrelenting libido, in truth, sometimes sit uncomfortably with me today. But without him, and all the hundreds of other blues giants who came before him, there would be no rock'n'roll and, I suspect, no Cross Rhythms.
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