Rock ‘n’ Soul : Solomon Burke (#44)

Solomon Burke | Rock ‘n’ Soul (November 1964)
Atlantic
(USA)
Rhythm and Blues – 34:06

“I want to be a soul singer.”

History can be cruel. It is littered with stories of men and women who should be remembered with pride for their achievements; they should be the names which fall off the tip of the tongue. Instead, throughout the story of mankind, those who have pushed back the boundaries and helped to move things forward are easily forgotten. It can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time – or, in the case of Solomon Burke, singing the right song. Because, while his contemporaries such as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke have achieved the status of icons, Burke has always missed out. Yet, the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul is widely held to be one of the most influential singers in the genre; he just never found that killer song which would sear his image on the public consciousness. His impact is seen as vitally important to modern music – it’s just that nobody realises it.

King Solomon produced a strange hybrid of music. He was uneasy with the labeling of his style as ‘rhythm and blues’, believing that it implied a dirtiness to the songs which he insisted wasn’t there. Instead he was happy to coin the phrase ‘rock ‘n’ soul’ – and give himself a title which reflected it – in order to reflect the sound he felt he produced. Burke claimed that there was a strong link between rock music and soul music which he wanted his songs to show. In reality, there is as much a mix of gospel (unsurprisingly given his time as a TV evangelist), blues and even classic 1940s numbers which permeate through the tracks, making it hard to pin down where he wants to place himself. If Rock ‘n’ Soul was a statement of who Burke was, it delivers a mixed message.

There is a gentle sensuousness to the songs that sounds almost old fashioned; it is easy to hear any number of other singers as you listen to the songs. It may be that is a reflection as much on Burke’s own influence as much as how much he took from others, but it makes the whole sound derivative to a modern ear. That’s not to say that it is a terrible piece of work; rather it gives an air of having been done before. Things begin with Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye), a wonderful song with some truly fabulous backing on guitar. You can hear the strength and passion on Burke’s voice. Perhaps, as we have seen elsewhere, the backing vocals do not help to age it well; they sound as if they belong to a different record. It is probably my biggest complaint about the album; it would sound so much better if it was just to rely on the power of Burke’s own voice. There is no denying that his vocals are tremendous and he shows real range in his ability. There are times – and the opener is a prime example – when he brings out the preacher inside of him, giving extra resonance to the lyrics.

The second track, Cry To Me, follows in the style of other soul singers; it says something that it was actually covered by The Rolling Stones – these songs can easily fit into either rock or soul stylings. It is credit to Burke that he keeps them balanced between the two (even if there is a slight leaning towards soul over rock). There is more wonderful guitar playing in Won’t You Give Him (One More Chance), but it is another song which feels let down by the backing vocals which sound completely out-of-keeping with the overall feel. It undercuts the mood created by the instrumentation and the sound of Solomon’s voice, giving it less emotional impact. His cover of the Wilson Pickett penned If You Need Me shows he was every bit as talented as his contemporaries, only adding to the sense that he was unfortunate to never find a song which would give him the wider recognition. His version of Hard Ain’t It Hard – originally by Woody Guthrie – comes close, but even that fails to reach the heights it probably could have achieved.

The whole album feels as if it never quite reaches the potential that it deserves. Solomon Burke is a talented singer who had the right passion to his gifted voice; it is a strange quirk that he was never able to capitalise on it. Rock ‘n’ Soul goes some way towards suggesting why: he never recorded any songs which became synonymous with his voice alone. Just Out of Reach sounds like it belongs a completely different album (more Andy Williams than soul), and while other numbers like You Can’t Love Them All and album closer He’ll Have To Go are more in keeping, there are times when you can imagine someone like Elvis Presley or Tom Jones recording more definitive versions (even though they never did). It is a shame that artists weren’t always given the work which showed off their full potential, particularly in the early 1960s. Solomon Burke may be the forgotten soul star of the decade, but Rock ‘n’ Soul is not album that proves it should be otherwise. Instead, it reveals the best description of the man himself – one which never lives up to the legend it wants to be.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Rock ‘n Soul here:

 

Next time: A Girl Called Dusty by Dusty Springfield

Olympia 64 : Jacques Brel (#43)

Jacques Brel | Olympia 64 (1964)
Barclay / Universal
(Belgium)
Chanson – 48:12

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”

Ahh – Paris. A city of philosophy; a city of revolution; a city of culture; a city of love. And, unfortunately for me, a city which speaks a different language. Literally. My attempts at French finished 20 years ago, when my GCSE in the language came to an end (with, it must be said, a respectable B grade). Since then, it has fallen by the wayside; like so much of my education to that level, a subject which I learned in order to pass an exam before promptly forgetting everything about it. Having not been to France since my mid-teens either, I’ve had no cause to remember it. Instead, aside from a few pointless phrases (“Ou est la gare, sil vous plait?” – not helpful when you can’t understand the response), I have erased it from my mind. Which causes a problem when it comes to understanding anything about Olympia 64.

Singer Jacques Brel is considered to have been one of the world’s greatest chanteurs. Born in Belgium, by the mid-1960s he was revered in both his native country and his adopted one (France) for his performance of chansons. For those not au fait with this particular genre of music, it is a French style originally dating back to the Middle Ages; epic poems performed to simple tunes. By the middle of the last century, they had developed in content, but the essence remained; they were masterly written poems of love, loss and death. The lyrics are a vital part of the style – and therein lies my problem. If the words are central to understanding chasons, then my lack of French knowledge is a major hindrance in my appreciation of the tunes. Unless I learn the language very quickly, Brel’s interpretation of the poetry is completely meaningless.

Digging on the internet and in books (my copy of 1001 Albums… being one of them) has revealed the meaning behind some of the tracks: essentially they cover the topics of either sex or death (and usually both). The occasional word will seep through and there is the sudden glimmer that you may actually understand part of a song (“I think this one is asking the way to the railway station…”), but within the space of a few notes, you are back to listening to an incomprehensible language. Which should mean that I don’t like it – how can you appreciate something that you don’t understand? But unlike jazz (which I want to like but struggle to comprehend), Brel’s performance on Olympia 64 is rather beautiful. Because while I don’t understand the words, I can hear the passion.

Brel was a consummate storyteller and his ability to turn a yarn is evident on this album. Perhaps it is the fact that it is a live album which gives him an extra passion, but even without knowing what is said, you can understand the emotions behind the words. There is a line in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) puts on an opera record featuring two women which is heard in the prison yard; fellow inmate ‘Red’ Redding, on hearing it, says:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

The same is true for me and Jacques Brel; I don’t know what he’s singing about, but there is a beauty to it. You can create your own stories from the music and Brel’s passionate singing. Sometimes all you need to appreciate good music; the voice of a singer who truly believes in the words he is performing – a man who is living the stories in his songs. And Brel does this to perfection.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Olympia 64 here:

 

Next time: Rock ‘n’ Soul by Solomon Burke

A Hard Day’s Night : The Beatles (#42)

The Beatles | A Hard Day’s Night (July 1964)
Parlophone
(UK)
Rock / Pop Rock – 30:13

“Don’t take that tone with me, young man. I fought the war for your sort.”

Pop stars can come a cropper when they try to branch out; many a singer has discovered that the talents which they believed they possessed in the arts were, in reality, limited. They may be able to sing, but beyond having a good voice, they were nothing special. Even the greats like Elvis discovered that looks and sound did not necessarily mean anything. In fact, by the early 1960s, it seemed that both the songs selected for The King, as well as his choice in movie scripts, were scrapping the barrel – of the 31 films made by Presley, only three or four register any recognition with the modern movie-goer, while the tracks were not so much throw-away as pure rubbish. It was a waste of fine talent; a studio determined to milk a star for everything he was worth. Pop stars made films so their labels could make money, not so they could prove artistic integrity. But, as they did with so many other things, The Beatles were happy to prove the rule wrong.

A Hard Day’s Night proved the Fab Four were more than just another boy band out to create disposable pop music. John Lennon was determined to make something which was far superior to the usual run-of-the-mill pop star movie vehicle (his exact words of how the film should turn out were slightly bluer than those you’d expect from the refined image the band were cultivating at that stage of their career). The film, of course, is fantastic; director Richard Lester created a documentary-style drama that resulted in portraying a stylised image of the band that has endured for more than 50 years. But this isn’t a blog about movies; this is about the records. And it is safe to say that the soundtrack to the film stands up just as well after five decades as the cinematic vision it showcases.

Tellingly, after two previous albums, A Hard Day’s Night was the first album by the Beatles which featured songs entirely penned by the musicians themselves. Of the 13 tracks, 10 are by Lennon with the remaining three (And I Love Her, Can’t Buy Me Love and Things We Said Today) written by McCartney (Harrison, whose first written song had featured on With The Beatles, would not feature as a songwriter again on a Beatles album until Help! was released in 1965). If that was not a statement of intent – that the band would have control of its own output – then I don’t know what is. It was also a good way for the group to ensure that the songs they performed were not interpretations of other people’s hits, but showed their own prodigious talent. Fortunately, Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting was up to the task.

Things kick off with one of their biggest hits – and the title track of the album – A Hard Day’s Night (the title came from one of Ringo’s many malapropisms when, after a long night shoot, he declared to the others: “Well, that’s been a hard day’s night.”). As George’s guitar crashes in with a single chord, there is a declaration of the band’s intent – this is a deafening cry of their skill as both writers and performers. It is a blast from start to finish; a heady mix of great beat, crunching guitars and beautiful harmonies. It is everything you expect from a Beatles’ song and it hits all the marks. It is a fantastic introduction to the album. There is confidence in the material which continues into the second song, I Should Have Known Better, with John starting things off on the harmonica. It is interesting looking back now to this album – within a couple of years the band would be pushing the boundaries with their work, and yet this seems very much a product of the early 1960s. Of course, this was the first album to rest entirely on the shoulders of their own songwriting abilities, so you can understand not wanting to be too experimental. But songs like If I Fell and I’m Happy Just to Dance with You seem throwaway efforts; yes, they are great songs, but seem to belong to a different era. And after those two, the first side drags to a close with the rather dreary And I Love Her before Tell Me Why, a piece of fluff which is perhaps one of the most mediocre that the band has ever recorded (a huge criticism for a group that regularly displayed genius in their natural state).

Fortunately – and going against the norm – it is the second side (the additional tracks written for the album rather than the movie) which is the best. Most of the time, the second half of an album can contain more fillers than classic tracks – this is far from the case with A Hard Day’s Night. Unusually, it is the other two Paul McCartney tracks which also prove the best (I admit that I often find his songwriting a little too twee), particularly the fantastic Things We Said Today. It seems a lost classic – it was relegated to the B-side of the single version of A Hard Day’s Night. It is a beautifully written piece which deserves to stand alongside some of the Beatles’ more famous numbers. McCartney’s opener for side two, Can’t Buy Me Love, is also a wonderful rock ‘n’ roller, getting the feet tapping and leaving you humming it happily for the rest of the day. Lennon matches his band-mate’s rock classic with Any Time At All while I’ll Cry Instead features fantastic lyrics of a man determined to prove an ex-girlfriend wrong by making a success of himself – but only once he’s spent some time crying. The album ends with a trio of crackers – When I Get Home is another fab rock ‘n’ roll song with its cry of ‘Whoa whoa aye!’ giving a pleasant jarring sound to the track; You Can’t Do That sounds both lyrically and musically like a precursor to Run For Your Life (from the Rubber Soul album); and closer I’ll Be Back (another declaration that this was just the beginning) is ends by demonstrating both the band’s songwriting skills as well as their beautiful harmonies.

As a whole, A Hard Day’s Night is both a visual and musical feast – the music complements the movie. True, there are still weaker songs on it but given that the worst that can be said of them is that they are average for The Beatles is hardly an indication that they aren’t very good (although I could live without hearing And I Love Her too often). But it certainly showed that Lennon and McCartney were a songwriting force to be reckoned with and revealed the confidence which would allow them to create even greater tracks in the future (many of which will turn up on this list). And when the pair do write a great song, it is an instant classic. The Beatles did better albums, but that doesn’t stop this one from being more than worth a listen.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Hard Day’s Night here:

 

Next time: Olympia 64 by Jacques Brel