What the Beatles were doing: Playing live in clubs, "Love Me Do", "P.S. I Love You".
Top song of 1963: "Roses Are Red (My Love) by Bobby Vinton. Top movies: Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, In Search of the CastawaysSURFIN' SAFARI , The Beach Boys
The thing about the Beach Boys is that they never really expected to be "artists." They had a couple of hit singles ("Surfin'", "Surfin' Safari", "409") that combined the doo-op harmonies with Chuck Berry licks and "cars, girls and surfing" lyrics, and then Capitol pushed them to make an album every ten minutes or so, whether they had anything worthy to record or not. Luckily, songwriter and arranger Brian Wilson was a genius and had a pretty nice voice, as did the brothers (Carl, Dennis), friends (Al Jardine) and cousins (Mike Love) that made up the rest of the group.
However, their debut album makes you really appreciate the effort The Beatles and the Rolling Stones would put into their debut albums a year later. Of course, it's not really The Beach Boys' fault that their first album is basically three hits and a whole slew of filler novelty jingles. That's just the way things were done back in the day, and just about everyone did the same. The long-playing album was not really important in the teenage pop genre. Singles were what that particular scene was all about. So, in between those three hits singles, The Beach Boys offer three-chord odes to root beer and county fairs, and a bunch of other songs that sound exactly like what you would get when you ask a band with three good songs to come up with an entire album quickly to capitalize on them. The failed single "Ten Little Indians" is, believe it or not, the song you think it is with new lyrics and war-whoop backing vocals that will either make you giggle at the silliness or cluck your tongue at the racial insensitivity (I personally giggle). Mike Love takes most of the lead vocals on the album, which is either good or bad depending on your tolerance of his squeaky nasal tone, which can be heard cracking badly in the last verse of "Surfin' Safari". A cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" is not bad at all, but when one of the best songs on your album is not even your own, it says something. Of course, the songwriting and production would improve by leaps and bounds over the next few albums, but most of the stuff on this first Beach Boys album, with the exception of the instant classic "409", makes The Beatles rudimentary debut single "Love Me Do" sound like "Eleanor Rigby" by comparison.
What the Beatles were doing: Please Please Me, With The Beatles, "From Me To You", She Loves You", I Want to Hold Your Hand", "This Boy"
Top song of 1963: "Sugar Shack" by Jimmy Gilmore and the Fireballs. Top movies: Cleopatra, How the West Was One, Tom JonesTHE FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN
One of the major albums of the early sixties, and one that influenced just about every musician who heard it. Nowadays, it might be hard to understand what the fuss was all about, as it is simply one young man with a guitar, a harmonica and a gruff, nasal twang. But before this album, there literally were no songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" or "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", songs with borrowed folk melodies married to poetic, literary lyrics, songs that sounded a thousand years old and yet were, are and will always be universal. The lesser tracks may fail to impress pop fans (this is folk, after all), but "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" still sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded, and "Girl from the North Country" remains one of the most touching love songs in the Bob Dylan songbook. The Beatles, especially John Lennon and George Harrison, loved this album. If you don't like it, go argue with them. ½SURFIN' USA, The Beach Boys
The good songs on Surfin' USA are better than the good songs on their first album, but the filler might make you long for the halcyon days of 1962, "Ten Little Indians" and "Cuckoo Clock". The title track, a blatant ripoff of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen", is nevertheless the first Beach Boys song that grabs you by your letterman sweater and demands you listen to it. It's the song where the group discovers that Mike Love's twang and Brian Wilson falsetto do not really blend well, but pitted as counterpoint to each other, and backed by the rest of the group's layered background vocals and Chuck Berry guitar work, they create a whole new musical genre which can be called The Beach Boys Sound. "Farmer's Daughter" and "Lonely Sea" are two pretty ballads that show that Brian Wilson could do a lot more than just rewrite Chuck Berry and doo-wop hits, and "Shut Down", like "Surfin' USA", is not only catchy as hell but benefits from solid, imaginative production, like those faraway background vocals and that saxophone that comes out of nowhere in the instrumental section.
And that's it for their second album! The rest is filler that doesn't even pretend to be imaginative and instrumentals that sound like those generic 'rock and roll' songs you hear on old TV shows when Greg Brady or somebody would turn on the radio. It's all so uninspiring, I just had to add an extra half a star to their first album for at least trying to come up with filler that stood for something.
Surfer Girl, the group's third album, also has its share of filler ("South Bay Surfer" is set to the tune of Stephen Foster's "Way Down Upon the Swanee River"!) but Brian flair for melody has suddenly blossomed, as has his and the group's abilities to pull off complex harmonies. The album contains several classic ballads such as the title tune, the way too introspective for 1963 "In My Room" and the underrated "The Surfer Moon" and "Your Summer Dream". This was some of the most thoughful and mature rock music ever recorded, three years before The Beatles Rubber Soul.
On the upbeat side there's the jaunty "Catch a Wave" that adds those complex harmonies to a typically catchy Beach Boys rocker, and you gotta love the harp glissando - classy!.
The key to listening to early Beach Boys is to ignore the dumb-dumb lyrics that simultaneously strain to rhyme and sound like these guys knew what they were talking about when they praised surfing (aside from drummer Dennis Wilson, the closest any of the original BBs came to a surfboard was seeing Blue Hawaii at the drive-in). The lyrics don't matter - it's the blend of the voices, the earnestness of the Chuck Berry devotion, the way Mike Love's untrained voice could sell even the silliest words, and, above all, the gorgeous Brian Wilson melodies. Oh, and another tip - don't listen to early Beach Boys expecting Beatles or Rolling Stones-like musicianship. I love the Beach Boys - they knew melody, they knew harmony, they knew fun - but as musicians, at this point in their career, they were roughly equivalent to your average high school garage band fresh off reading Mel Bay's Complete Guide to Being Merely Adequate on Rock and Roll Instruments. ½
What the Beatles were doing: A Hard Day's Night, Beatles for Sale, "I Feel Fine", "She's a Woman"
Top song of 1964: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles. Top Movie: Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Goldfinger
London's answer to The Beatles, and a band that outlasted them by nearly three decades so far, The Rolling Stones were ugly where the Beatles were cute, threatening where the Beatles were cuddly, and rhythm and blues specialists where the Beatles were eclectic. They were also better musicians than the Beatles in the early days and had a stronger commitment to their material. The Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stones 2 were essentially the same album, filled with Chuck Berry and rhythm and blues covers, and chock full of nifty guitar solos, hot harmonica breaks and sly Mick Jagger vocals. At this point, the Stones were not yet the songwriters they would become, and the only really memorable original song on either album is "Tell Me", an acoustic ditty that really found its purpose in life as a soundtrack tune in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. Just for kicks, they cover The Drifter's "Under the Boardwalk" on the second album, just to show they could be as poppy as The Beatles and still not look silly.
Stone singles of this era include "It's All Over Now", "Time is on My Side" and the superb, bluesy original "Heart of Stone".
Shut Down Volume 2 is made up of three classic tracks, two above-average ones, and six of the most inane filler pieces the Beach Boys ever recorded. The album starts off with the one two punch of the energetic Chuck Berry-inspired "Fun, Fun, Fun" and the gorgeous "Don't Worry, Baby". A couple of tracks later comes "The Warmth of the Sun", one of the most sophisticated and haunting of the early Beach Boys ballads. Side Two contains the excellent cover version of Franky Lymon and the Teenages "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" and the oh so very Brian Wilsonish "Keep an Eye on Summer". All of these tracks are worthy of any good Beach Boys compilation.
But what are we supposed to do with the lame instrumentals from a band who will never be remembered for their musical chops, the awful rendition of "Louie Louie", the dumb as dirt near self-parodies "Pom Pom Play Girl" and "This Car of Mine"? It's pretty obvious that the boys had just enough material for a good EP, but unfortunately EPs were not as popular in the US as they were in the UK, where bands like The Beatles, The Stones and The Kinks would do some of their finest work. Things get so bad Wilson pads out the album with 3 minutes of mind-numbingly unfunny in-studio banter between himself and cousin Mike. The Beach Boys were many things, but Abbott and Costello was not one of them.
With The Beatles about to take over America, Brian and the boys would have to quickly learn that filler was no longer an option if they wanted to compete with the British Invasion bands. Happily, their next album would show that they could do just that.
The first great Beach Boys album, All Summer Long begins with "I Get Around", the kind of hook-laden, riff-happy, key-jumping harmony fest that (I'm guessing) made Paul McCartney jealous enough to write "Paperback Writer" as his attempt to capture the Beach Boys sound (close, Paul, but no surfboard). Other classics follow, such as "All Summer Long", "Little Honda", "Wendy" and "Girls on the Beach". I love The Andrews Sisters, The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers, The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, The Hollies, Simon and Garfunkel... but nobody did harmony like Brian Wilson and the boys. The minor songs on All Summer Long are not really filler, not even "Do You Remember?", the kind of self-referencing rock and roll song that that is usually grating (and would be later in the Beach Boys' career), but is saved by the inanely heartfelt lyrics and vocals provided by Mike Love and Brian Wilson ("Chuck Berry's got to be the greatest thing that ever came along!" - I'll buy that for a dollar!). The only thing that seriously mars this album, aside from the usual throwaway instrumental, is the Beach Boys' infuriating habit of padding their albums with in-studio comedy bits that were about as funny as a zombie clown at your five-year-old's birthday party. My own copy of this album sheds "Our Favorite Recording Sessions" (this album's zombie clown) and that is the version of the album I prefer to review.THE KINKS
The Kinks self-titled debut album is not a great album. A fun album, yes, but not great. The rock and roll and rhythm and blues covers are passable, but the Kinks were not the Rolling Stones (although, later on, the Stones would become the Kinks - more on that later). Ray Davies had yet to find his voice, and if Dave Davies ever had a voice... well, that's cruel, because I actually like Dave's voice, but he's really not one of the era's greatest singers. As musicians, the Kinks were merely okay at this point. Ray plays rhythm and occasionally blows a harmonica in the right direction, while Dave's guitar solos are really primitive, usually in a good way. Mick Avory, however, is so good on the drums he should have subbed for Ringo when poor Mr. Starkey had the gallopin' tonsillitis - he's got the whole "technically not a great drummer but I love the way he plays!" thing going on that Ringo made a career out up to about 1973 or so. If you don't understand what I am saying, it boils down to "He sounds like Ringo, and that's a good thing." Ringo was a kick-ass drummer, and so was Mick Avory.
But The Kinks is important for two reasons. One - "You Really Got Me", a song so compulsively catchy, hard driving and loud, it still gets played on classic rock stations across America, when you can find one. Legend has it that Dave punctured his amp speaker to get the gravelly sound to the main guitar riff that is not just the hook to the song but really the entire song. Ray sings the song with more conviction than anything else on the record, and Dave's guitar solo is a classic for the ages - it literally sounds as if his fingers are speaking in tongues, and it is so wild that it has nowhere logical to go and just suddenly stops when the main riff (the only riff) comes back. This song not only paved the way for the Kinks success but for other bands, such as The Who, who heard this song and said "Hey, we know at least three chords too and can play even louder!"
Secondly, several of Ray Davies original songs are Beatlesque classics, especially "Stop Your Sobbin'" and "Just Can't Go To Sleep". Two early Davies songs, "You Still Want Me" and "You Do Something to Me", released as failed singles (and not included in their debut album, but I want to mention them anyway), sound as if they were donated to the Kinks by Lennon and McCartney. "Decca Audition" era Lennon and McCartney, but still catchy as hell. ½
Bob's fourth album and last completely acoustic album for several decades, was written and recorded at a time when he was being hailed as the king of the whole folk/protest movement and best topical songwriter since Woody Guthrie. So what does he do? Records an album of confessionals, comedy songs, jaunty foot-tappers, blues and beatnik lyrics. It was the first time he would lose some of his hardcore fans while at the same time creating a whole slew of new ones, but certainly not the last. The album is certainly a classic of its genre and is probably the one most responsible for creating the era of the singer-songwriter that would soon flourish. But time has not been kind to Another Side of Bob Dylan. There's no doubt that "All I Really Want to Do", "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "I Don't Believe You" stand with his best-recorded work, and there are hidden gems like the Jerry Lee Lewis-sounding "Black Crow Blues" and the tender country waltz "To Ramona". But Bob recorded the entire album in one night, and several songs could have used retakes. "My Back Pages" and "Chimes of Freedom" are two superb songs, but Bob sings them without any energy or enthusiasm, making them a chore to sit through. Several other songs, meant to be funny (and probably funny at the time) now just fall flat. And the long confessional "Ballad in Plain D", an exercise in tedium with some of Bob's worst lyrics ever, is one of his most embarrassing tunes. ½
What the Beatles were doing: Help!, Rubber Soul, "We Can Work It Out", "Day Tripper".
Top song: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones. Top Movies: The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, ThunderballBRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME, Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan goes electric! Now, that doesn't sound as as shocking today as it must have been in 1965, but imagine if the news came out that Britney Spears was scientifically shown to have even one-millionth the singing talent of Patsy Cline (or Patsy Kelly for that matter) and you might understand the fuss over Dylan suddenly becoming a rock and roll star. It was big news, they tell me and so I've read. America's most famous serious young man with a folk guitar and adenoid problems suddenly plugs in an electric gee-tar and records fast, fun songs with other like-minded musicians. All you need to do is listen to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (you may know it as "Johnny's in the basement") and you'll know it was one of Dylan's better ideas. Even today, Bringing It All Back Home is a blast, at least until the second side, where Dylan turns serious again and hits you in the throat with four long, poetic and stone-cold acoustic classics, beginning with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and continuing with the inscrutable "Gates of Eden", the vindictive "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and the accusatory "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". One of music's best album sides.
Highway 61 Revisited is even better. A richer, fuller sound with pianos and organs added to the mix of electric instruments, and stronger singing from Dylan, who spends two entire long sides hurling insultments, warnings and surrealistic mini-stories every which way but loose. It opens with the six-minute "Like a Rolling Stone", always a top candidate for greatest rock song ever, and ends with the aptly named "Desolation Row", an eleven minute catalog of the doomed and the damned, a catalog which includes the likes of Cinderella, Ophelia, Einstein (disguised as Robin Hood) and T.S. Eliot. This is serious, outstanding rock, the antithesis of the pop music of the day. As he would so often do in the sixties, Dylan drew a line in the sand and stood alone on one side of it, waiting to see who on the other side would join him. If you are a fan of serious rock music and you don't own this album, I hereby officially revoke your fanhood. Even if you can't stand Dylan, you must own this album. On vinyl. And it must be on display somewhere. The greatest rock album ever, as far as I'm concerned.
I have to apologize at the outset - I've never quite cared for The Byrds, and I have heard quite a lot of them, including two volumes of their greatest hits. I don't dislike the band (I reserve that emotion for The Greatful Dead and Pink Floyd), I just find them a little dull overall compared to the other bands of the sixties. Still, I respect their importance and, even more, their talent. Singer/guitarists Roger McGuinn (also known as Jim), Gene Clarke and David Crosby are the three band members most people will remember, but Chris Hillman (bass) and Michael Clarke (drums) were also vital to the unique sound of the band. Any rock fan worth his or her salt know that The Byrds took their love for Bob Dylan and traditional folk music and their love for The Beatles and the whole Merseybeat scene and fused them together to create "folk-rock". Their signature sound was the jangly (can't avoid the word with The Byrds) 12-string guitar, which opened many of their greatest songs. It's a sound that is all over this album, starting with the opening number, a cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man". Stately, refined, passionless and a smash hit. I've never been a huge fan of The Byrds' Dylan covers, always preferring the originals to the jingle-jangle pop versions of this band, although I do like their version of "Chimes of Freedom", found here. Much better than "Mr. Tambourine Man" is Gene Clarke's very Merseybeat "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better", maybe my favorite Byrds song, which could have fit easily on any Beatles album of the time (I can just hear John singing it, and its got those dour lyrics Byrds fan George Harrison would have loved.). "The Bells of Rhymney" is a beautiful, if again stately, folk song, written by Pete Seeger, but the moment when they sing "Why so worried, sisters, why" - the only time they abandon the main melody for some personal expression - makes me love the whole song. "I Knew I'd Want You" is interesting mostly because they would take the basic melody and chord progression and turn it into the classic "Eight Miles High" a year later. "It's No Use" starts with one of the grooviest guitar riffs ever committed to vinyl - you could put it on a loop and go-go dance forever! If nobody told you it was The Byrds, you might suspect "It's No Use" was an outtake from Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow album, released two years later. I don't know how they did it, but The Byrds actually sound like Marty Balin and Grace Slick on this one, and the guitar solos are just so 1967!
Certainly an interesting, tuneful and groundbreaking album. I just wish I could appreciate this group more.
1965 - the year Dylan went electric, the Stones wrote "Satisfaction" and The Beach Boys discovered the heady exhilaration that only our friend Mr. Exclamation Point can bring.
Like Bob Dylan with his Bringing It All Back Home, Brian Wilson devised his first album of 1965 as two separate sides. Not that side two of Today! has anything like "It's All Right, Ma" or "Gates of Eden" on it (imagine? "I've seen girls from Hong Kong to Sweden/but nothing beats the girls at the Gates of Eden [gates, gates, gates gates of Eden]") but it is clear that side one is the bouncy Mikeloveian side side and side two is the introspective Brian Wilsonian side. It's not that Mike Love sings all the songs on side one and Brian all of side two, but there was a growing tension in the band between Mike Love's craving for more peppy hits and Brian's quest for the Lost Chord. So this is the "peppy/wimpy" album. This was not rock and roll's first concept album, because, while the Beatles were complaining about George Martin's tie, the Beach Boys were already making albums centered around single concepts. Sure, those concepts were surfing, cars and girls, but still...credit is due where credit is due.
Anyway, Side One is the happy and peppy and bursting with love side ("Do You Wanna Dance?", "Dance Dance Dance", "Help Me Rhonda", "When I Grow Up to Be a Man") and Side Two is the beautiful ballads side ("Please Let Me Wonder", "She Knows Me Too Well"). Side One features an interesting and long-forgotten song titled "Don't Hurt My Little Sister" (how's that for happy and peppy?) which is kind of forgettable except for the fact that later that year Brian, to ease his hurting brain, would take the chorus and rewrite it as the classic "California Girls". Side Two kind of blends together, with several Brian ballads that are not among his classics but all work together to provide a satisfying aural experience. Sadly, the album ends with something called "Bull Sessions with Big Daddy", which features interviews with the band members. Why? Ask Brian, Capitol Records or God, because I don't know. You would think these guys would have been able to whip up at least another dismissible instrumental rather than resort to ending their best album yet with this kind of boring crap.
Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) is a slight step backwards, but
a perfectly fine followup to Today!. (But why are there only four Beach Boys on the
cover?). At this point in his career as head Beach Boy,
Brian Wilson was getting a bit scary with his talent for
writing classic after classic and just throwing them at you one
after the other, as if to say "Catch my genius if you can!
You dropped one! Puny pop fan!". This album features "Girl
Don't Tell Me", "Help Me Rhonda" (remake), "California Girls" and "Let
Him Run Wild"... all in a row! Meanwhile, singer Mike Love was
demanding more stereotypical Beach Boys songs about cars and girls, as
if musical revolution and innovation wasn't happening all around him,
there are still dumb-dumb songs
("Amusement Parks USA", "Salt Lake City") and dumb-dumb lyrics - my
God, Mike Love actually sings the words "rollie coaster!" - but
what sells the album,
besides the usual angelic voice arrangements, is the cleverly
layered production provided by Brian Wilson. By 1965 he
had already had his first of many "stop and smell neurosis" moments in
the form of a nervous breakdown brought on from the pressures of
touring and writing, and so, while the boys were on the road with Brian
Wilson's tour replacement, the talented Bruce Johnston ("Just like
sane!"), Brian concentrated on taking his music and his band to
the next level of musical sophistication. His efforts would peak
in 1966 with Pet Sounds, of which Today (exclamation point) and Summer Days (and Summer Nights) (double exclamation point) were lovely, danceable precursors.
Oh, and is it me, or do "Girl Don't Tell Me" and the Beatles contemporaneous "Ticket To Ride" sound like the same song? Both are in A-Major and feature a start-stop chorus ("Girl, don't tell me you'll wr-hi-hite", "She's got a ticket to ri-hi-hide") and the riff in "Girl Don't Tell Me" sounds like the one in "Ticket To Ride" except chopped in half and put back together backwards. Did somebody hear somebody else's acetate and rip it off or is it just mere coincidence? The "Help!" and "Summer Days" albums were roughly recorded and released at the same time, and The Beatles recorded in England while the BBs recorded in America, so who knows? A subject for further investigation if I ever saw one.
Oh, and this: you gotta love the moment in "Amusement Parks USA" where the carnival barker starts talking about Stella the Snake Dancer: "She walks, she talks... she's got the biggest..." and the voice fades away before we find out what she has the biggest of. A rare example of naughty humor from the upstanding, God and Country, Be True to Your School, Spirit of America boys.
Oh, and more thoughts about this album: What's up with "I'm Bugged At My Old Man"?, Brian's fifties parody that nevertheless addresses the problems he (and presumably his brothers) had with their father Murray. It's not much of a song, but it actually sounds like a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band parody (think "Death Cab for Cutie", featured in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour TV special), especially the flat backing vocals (when Brian complains of Pop boarding the windows shut, the boys chime in with "Gosh, it's dark."). But the Bonzos didn't even record until two years later. Nice work, Brian.
Oh, and one more thing: Mike Love wanted more typical Beach Boys songs? Everybody remembers "California Girls" and "Let Him Run Wild" but who remembers "Amusement Parks USA" and "Salt Lake City"?
Oh, and finally: it must have been great to be
Capitol Records during the sixties. You owned The Beach Boys and
the American rights to The Beatles, plus for the older folks, you had
your enormous back catalog of Sinatra, Judy Garland and Dean Martin.
Wow. You were the greatest label ever, Capitol!
Even more of the same from the Rolling Stones - more Chuck Berry covers, more old rhythm and blues stuff - but who's complaining? They were still the best band around, and this time they sound almost menacing. My buddy John L. once described the album opener, "She Said Yeah" as the most low-tech recording ever, sounding like "a transistor radio broadcast, as recorded by a little cassette recorder condenser mike." And at the same time, it sounds like something the Stones could have recorded yesterday. Their sound really hasn't changed much over the years, it's just that in the current radio market, there is no room for a Rolling Stones hit single and hasn't been for years. "She Said Yeah" may be low-tech, but, and this is important, it still kicks major booty, as does the rest of the album. All the bands of the time covered Chuck Berry, but the Stones interpreted him. The Beatles playing "Roll Over Beethoven" or "Rock and Roll Music" were a fantastic band having a grand time playing songs they dearly loved. The Stones, however, took "Talking' bout You" apart like Buster Keaton disassembling a movie camera, and then they put it back together in a brand new way. It's albums like this that probably convinced Ray Davies that The Kinks could not compete as rock and rollers and decided to instead celebrating all things British. Which probably helped keep The Kinks from being a major force in the States. Poor Ray.
There is a grand total of four Jagger-Richards originals on Out of Our Heads, including "Heart of Stone" and "I'm Free", plus the semi-forgettable "Gotta Get Away" and the semi-memorable "Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man".
Stones singles of this period include "The Last Time" (my all-time favorite Stones song - it's my cellphone ring tone!), "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", "Play With Fire", "Get Off of My Cloud" and "As Tears Go By" - all original Jagger-Richards compositions. Not a bad year at all, eh?
in 1965, out of nowhere (actually, Shepherd's Bush, West London) came The Who, a hard-driving, hard-rocking band made up of four distinct individuals. There was writer, singer and guitarist Pete Townsend who could write hummable, catchy pop tunes with the best of them and seemed to know every single variation of every guitar chord ever; singer and front man Roger Daltrey, who never let a delicate, beautifully turned lyric get in the way of his memorably bombastic singing; bassist and sometimes writer John Entwhistle, who may have been rock's greatest bass player ever; and drummer and full-time madman Keith Moon, who showoffy "never just play the beat" style of playing helped make The Who one of the most exciting rock bands ever, whether on record or in a live setting.
Like The Kinks, The Who did some of their best work on singles, but unlike The Kinks, The Who did not try to imitate anybody on their first album, except, ironically, The Kinks. "I Can't Explain", the first of dozens of classic Who songs to come, was actually inspired by the simple power-chord happy songs of The Kinks like "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night". Ironically, Ray Davies would return the complement ten times over in the 70s and 80s, starting many unfortunately forgettable songs with variations of the "I Can't Explain" riff. But the album's title song, "My Generation", is not an imitation of anybody, though it has itself been imitated ever since. It is simply a rock and roll anthem for all time, with its thundering guitar riff, wild bass solos, mad drumming and stuttering lyrics. "Hope I die before I get old!". Head-banging noise at its best, and yet musically sophisticated enough to feature three or four key changes.
One of the things that made the early Who so much fun was songs like "The Kid are Alright" (on the album) and "Happy Jack" (not on the album). Bouncy, tuneful pop songs that would have been classic anyway had they been done by any other band of the time, be it The Beatles or Freddy and the Dreamers. But The Who weren't content to record mere pop songs. In so many of their early songs, like "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere", a single of this period, they would always make room for brain-pounding breaks featuring Entwhistle's booming bass lines, Moon's speaker-busting drumming and Townsend's slashing and hacking guitar riff and chords. Amplifier feedback was occasionally served up as just another musical element. They had the talent to be The Beatles or the Stones, but they wanted to be The Who instead. And we should be grateful for that, even if we know "Squeeze Box" and "Athena" are lurking somewhere far into the future. ½
What the Beatles were doing: Revolver, "Paperback Writer", "Rain".
Top song: "I'm a Believer" by The Monkees. Top Movies: Hawaii, The Bible, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Oh, my. Just look at the cover. Is it me or is Bob on something? Just kidding, of course. Everybody knows Bob didn't do drugs (cough). Anyway, most of Blonde on Blonde, Bob's seventh album, is the man at his wackiest, trippiest best, with a crack Nashville band providing the perfect pop and blues accompaniment for the rock and roll bard's increasingly surrealistic trips through the smoke rings of his mind. You'll recall some of these songs: "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35" (you know it is "Everybody Must Get Stoned"), "I Want You", "Just Like a Woman", "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again". There's also Dylan's greatest song ever, "Visions of Johanna", and his best comedy song, "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" ("I saw you making love to him/you forgot to close the garage door"). Bob used to write these songs in his hotel room, organist Al Kooper would take the chords and the melody with him to the musicians so they would have some basic idea of what they were going to play, and then Bob would show up hours later and they would just start recording. And wouldn't you know it, the musical backing on each and every track is superb, with everybody adding their unforgettable little riffs and moments in between Bob's lyrics (tons and tons of lyrics) and Kenny Buttrey's rat-tat-tat drumming holding it all together. Blonde on Blonde was the first double album in rock and roll history (Frank Zappa's Freak Out came out a short time later) and still ranks as one of the best double albums ever.
Or so they say. Me, I think it runs out of steam on side three, right at the beginning of "Temporary Like Achilles", a dull rewrite of Dylan's earlier acoustic blues "It Takes a Lot to Laugh". This one song drags the entire album to a halt, and even though the next three songs are rather good, I just lose interest. Because I also know what's coming: "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", or as Dylan called it, Side Four. One song taking up an entire side - quite a Dylanish idea, and a pretty song it is, too, with a beautiful, enveloping sound and a chord sequence that reminds me of Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love". But it tries too hard to be important, and the words are practically meaningless, beginning with "With your mercury mouth in the missionary times" and getting even more obscure from their. It's twelve minutes of Bob at his most self-indulgent, and even the lovely melody starts to pale after the second verse. We're talking only two songs I don't care for, but one of them ruins an entire side and the other is twelve minutes long, so I take an entire star off the ranking, leaving The Beatles "White Album" as rock and roll's greatest double album.
Aside from Jennifer Garner massaging my feet while reading Joe Adamson's Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo to me out loud from cover to cover in a sexy voice (I need help), I can think of few more pleasant ways of spending some spare time than listening to The Beach Boys Pet Sounds. The story behind this album is legendary, but in case you don't know: Brian Wilson thought the Beatles' 1965 Rubber Soul album to be more than just a collection of songs but rather a group of compositions that worked together to make a complete work of art, or something to that effect. As Brian later described his feelings at the time: "If I ever do anything in my life, I'm going to make that good an album." And so he did.
Once again, while the rest of the boys were on tour, Brian busied himself writing new songs and recording elaborately orchestrated arrangements. By the time the boys got home, they found a complete Beach Boys album awaiting nothing but their vocals. Some of them felt slighted that they had zero input into the album, but the results speak for themselves. Before I had even heard Pet Sounds, three of my favorite Beach Boys songs had been "Wouldn't It Be Nice?", "Sloop John B" and "God Only Knows"... and they're all on here. They are matched by every other song on the album, including two beautiful and peaceful little instrumentals featuring, I guess, no Beach Boys at all. And the melodies are all pure Brian, and, even better, Mike Love had little hand in the lyrics. I may put Mr. Love down in some of these reviews (I have my reasons) but I should say that when given some beautiful tunes with intelligent lyrics such as "That's Not Me" or "Here Today", he doesn't sound half bad at all.
Also legendary is what happened after Pet Sounds. Paul McCartney loved it (still does to this day), and it was one of the inspirations for his work on 1967's Sgt. Pepper album. Meanwhile Brian began the process of trying to top Pet Sounds with a project he called Smile, but somewhere during those sessions, he heard advanced copies of some of the Pepper tracks, and his brain popped out of his head and went on near permanent sabbatical. And the Beach Boys were never the same again. Although they did some fine work after Pet Sounds, by the 70s, they had basically become an oldies band way before their time. So much potential, and what's the result? Mike Love parading around stages all over the world pretending to be The Beach Boys, simultaneously sullying their image while exclaiming he is protecting. Since this is the last Beach Boys album I will probably review, that is my last dig at Mr. Love. He may commence suing me.
It took The Kinks three albums to work out that they were not The Beatles nor The Stones, but rather an excellent, eccentric little singles band with a promising songwriter in Ray Davies. Like Brian Wilson, Ray Davies had a breakdown from the pressures of the business and used his recuperation time to write music. Tiring of rewriting "You Really Got Me" for the umpteenth time, Davies discovered his true talent - wry observation set to good-timey, sometimes derivative music, establishing a formula for Kinks albums that the group would follow for the next twenty years, far past its expiration date. The big hit on Face to Face, "Sunny Afternoon", had already been released as a single and had done surprisingly well in the U.S., despite, or perhaps because of, its music hall melody and ironic lyrics about a down and out wife-beating drunk. (It was the last top 40 hit for the group in the U.S. until 1970's "Lola"). The album's tracks were originally supposed to be linked together by sound effects, which explains the ringing telephone before the album's opener, the raucous "Party Line", as well as the rain and thunder found elsewhere around this album and its outtakes. The record label would have none of that, and so what was to be a concept album became a mere collection of songs.
It would take Davies one more album before he truly perfected his songwriting, so several of these songs sound like filler ("Session Man") or pleasant near-hits in search of that one elusive hook, like the acoustic "Too Much on My Mind", a nice tune with an achingly pretty vocal duet in the middle eight with gruff voiced Dave harmonizing with nasal voiced Ray, a combination that somehow worked magically for decades. There's also half-hearted psychedelia from a band who, despite the album's cover, were one of the least influenced by flower power and peace and love. But that is not to say the songs are no good, just not as good as what was to come with the next few Kinks albums. Like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Ray Davies had a habit of writing character assassination songs about people that irritated him, and the catchiest song, "Dandy", is one of those, although Ray's idea of character assassination at this time rarely drew blood. "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" is one of Ray's best early compositions, and quite interesting in that it looks at the tale of a runaway from the point of view of the parents, a year before Paul McCartney did the same with the Sgt. Pepper track "She's Leaving Home". Knowing how Paul soaked up musical influences like a Sham-Wow® in the mid-sixties, I wonder if Face to Face was ever on his turntable in 1966. Speaking of The Beatles, I also enjoy the Face to Face album's closer, "I'll Remember", which rips off the riff from the The Beatles "If I Needed Someone" as cheerfully as George Harrison ripped off the riff from The Byrds' "Bells of Rhymney" when he wrote "If I Needed Someone". It's the riff that was heard round the world! Don't believe me? Check out this short mp3 sample of all three songs in order. Actually, George nicked The Byrds' riff and then Ray nicked George's melody, but, three great songs in any case so no harm done.
In and around Face to Face, The Kinks also
released several excellent single sides such as "I'm Not Like Everybody
Else", "Dead End Street", "Big Black Smoke" and "Mr. Pleasant", perhaps
the quintessential mid-sixties Kinks song in that it takes Ray's
wacky musical hall ambitions and bent social commentary to infinity and beyond and then some.
Like the Stones, The Who, and The Beatles, The Kinks did
some of their most important and ambitious work in the singles
format, which is why it is essential to own a good compilation album (The Ultimate Collection is
a superb one that takes you from 1964' "You Really Got Me" to the final
Kinks hit, 1984's "Do It Again") if you really want to know what made
this band so
great in its heyday. The difference between the Kinks and the
other bands mentioned is that the other bands made albums that were
great even without big hit singles, while The Kinks first
were all kind of spotty, while their 1964-66 singles were as good as
anybody's. Weird band, as just about any Kinks fan will tell you.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richard finally compose an album entirely by themselves, and low and behold, like the Beatles, they manage to come up with several album tracks that would have been good enough to be singles (and were in the USA) - "Mother's Little Helper", "Out of Time", "Under My Thumb" and "Lady Jane" are tuneful, catchy and well-produced songs that would become staples of rock radio. The rest of the songs, though not on the same level, are all fine, although I can never quite get into the eleven minute blues jam "Goin' Home", groundbreaking as it might have been at the time. The problem with this album, if there is one, is that the boys did not understand the importance of proper song sequencing. Three of the four above-named songs are among the first four songs on the album, and "Out of Time", maybe the best song on the album, shows up early on Side Two. "Mother's Little Helper" is the perfect album opener (unless you have the US version, in which case it's "Paint It Black"), and there's no doubt in my mind that "Out of Time" would have been the best choice to close the show. So what to Mick and Keef choose to end on? The inconsequential "What To Do", which is a fine song if you're looking for something that sounds like an Everly Brothers b-side but is just awful as an album-closer. Oh, well, I won't take any stars off for bad sequencing, since this group of songs show the Jagger-Richards songwriting team to be varied enough to write Olde English Ballads ("Lady Jane"), Dylanesque social commentary ("Mother's Little Helper"), down home country ("High and Dry"), barroom blues ("Flight 505") and enough mysoginistic lyrics to beat the girlfriend... er... the band.
UK version of Between the Buttons
long as you want, you won't find anything close to being a
hit. It's got campy music hall numbers ("Cool, Calm,
Collected", "Something Happened To Me Yesterday"), catchy mid-tempo
rockers ("Miss Amanda Jones", "Connection", "My Obsession") and even a
new genre of music we
could call "Psyche-Diddley" ("Please Go Home"). It's got a
fun Dylan parody ("Who's Been Sleeping Here?"), and the prettiest
ever written about a guy telling his mistress to back off ("Backstreet
Girl"). It's got songs that probably should have been given
to lesser acts ("Yesterday's Papers", "She Smiled Sweetly", and... aw,
heck, almost all of the tracks). But it doesn't have a single
on it, not even one obvious track that might have
been a hit
if it had been pulled from the album and released as a single.
The American version of this album drops a couple of tracks
tacks on both sides of their fabulous 1966 single "Let's Spend the
Night Together"/"Ruby Tuesday"), but that decision actually takes away
from some of the charm of this album. With those two tracks
included, the rest of the album sounds like the pure filler
really are. On the original UK album, all the half-hearted,
under- produced tracks support each other like drunken tunes
musical AA meeting. The throwaway quality of most of these
are what give the album its oddball charm. It all sounds
was supposed to be a Kinks album but that band was off somewhere
being whimsical and British and the Stones were called in at the
minute to do the album. So, if you can approach it from that
angle, it's a whole
bunch of warped fun.