Here Are The Sonics : The Sonics (#49)

Here Are The Sonics | The Sonics (March 1965)
Etiquette(USA)
Garage Rock – 28:48

“We were just a band.”

It is easy to put too much pressure on the arts – and the artists behind them – to be something more than they are. We expect our musicians, writers, actors, painters, to place deep meaning behind their work. We want them to be tortured souls who are pouring out their inner demons as they explore the frailty of the human condition; to reflect back at us some unexpected insight of our souls. Each picture or book, every film or album, is scrutinised as we try to work out the hidden depths of a piece of work. In doing so, we can do a disservice to those who created it. Because sometimes it is possible to make a work of art simply to entertain. After all, as a wise man almost certainly never said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The Sonics fall very much into this category. At least in the original incantation, the band were the epitome of proto-punk; a bunch of teenagers who picked up their instruments and did their best to create a sound with the little they had to hand (the drumming on this album – their first of three in the 1960s – used a single microphone aimed at the drums to pick up the beat). Sadly, this aesthetic soon disappeared as the original members all went their separate ways in the late 1960s; like an early version of the Sugababes, by 1980 no original members remained. To add insult to injury, the new band were using string and horns to add to the sound. But in those first few years, The Sonics were a garage band long before anybody had thought of the genre.

Of course, being pioneers isn’t easy, even if you are keeping things basic. With nobody else to turn to for inspiration, you have to make it all up yourself. Which makes the self-titled first album by The Sonics such a surprise; there is both coherence and tightness to the sound that they produce here. Things begin with The Witch – an opening that screams the group’s style. Drummer Bob Bennett brings a force to the beat, smashing down on the drums (Nirvana front man and Grunge legend Kurt Cobain was full of praise for his style, telling an interviewer that “…it sounds like he’s hitting harder than anyone I’ve ever known”). The hitting doesn’t let up throughout the album, sounding like Bennett is trying to break through the skin of his kit. But it works well; alongside the insistent screech of Larry Parypa’s guitar and the gravelly shout of singer Gerry Roslie, The Witch sounds as if it is more than a decade early in arriving on the music scene. It would easily sit on any punk album of the late 1970s.

Many of the tracks on the albums are cover versions; The Sonics bring their own style to turn them into garage rock masterpieces. The speed at which they run through each song is perfect, never allowing any song to outstay their welcome. There is an energy to each number – as evidenced on their versions of Do You Love Me and Roll Over Beethoven – which cry out for a live performance. The whole album could easily have been recorded as live, and it certainly works well that way. True, the cover of Chuck Berry’s number doesn’t have the joie de vivre that The Beatles version has, packing a little too much anger, but it still works.

Perhaps this is what makes The Sonics sound like they are a band out of time; there is an anger underlying all their songs, not unlike the British punk movement which emerged in the 1970s. It is more noticeable on the covers; songs written by the band, like Boss Hoss – a wonderful ode to a car – or Psycho, have no other versions to compare them to. Psycho is a fabulous song whose sound reflects the desperation of the character in the song, turned psycho by his love for a woman. Before that, both Dirty Robber and Have Love Will Travel are both superb renditions of little known songs. Money once again seems to have perhaps too much anger behind it to be completely successful, but still works well. Night Time is the Right Time seems a little out of place, slowing things down unexpectedly (the backing vocals, while in keeping with the essence of the band, are truly terrible). The final self-penned song on the album, Strychnine, is another great number, which makes you wonder why so few of the tracks on the album are covers. Things come to a close with the group powering through Good Golly Miss Molly; a fun ending even if it doesn’t quite match the genius of Little Richard (although it’s hard to do much when somebody has already made a song their own).

The Sonics are a forgotten band; too heavy for their time, they disappeared after just a couple of years and three albums (the third of which even the band disowned). Louder and more raucous than many of their contemporaries, it’s little wonder that it wasn’t until the early 1990s that bands began to cite their influence (everyone from The Fall to Eagles of Death Metal have paid tribute to their sound). It is a deep shame, as this is a fantastic album that races past but leaves a lasting impression. Not to everyone’s taste – but if you like your music loud and simple, you’d be hard pressed to find a better album.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Here Are The Sonics here:

Next time: Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan

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I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail : Buck Owens and His Buckeroos (#47)

Buck Owens and His Buckeroos | I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail (March 1965)
Capitol (USA)
Country – 31:59

“I found a sound that people really liked – I found this basic concept and all I did was change the lyrics and the melody a little bit. My songs, if you listen to them, they’re quite a lot alike, like Chuck Berry.”

How much would it take for you to sell out? It’s something which I have often wondered – that hypothetical moment when I’m offered a lot of money in exchange for my personal creative freedom. Do I struggle through to have my own voice heard in the medium I have chosen – be it the written word, the moving image, or my musical stylings – or do I accept a wad of cold, hard cash and opt for an easy life churning out mediocrity for the masses? I’d like to think that I would try to retain some form of artistic integrity and suffer. But I know, deep in my heart, that should that moment ever happen, I would grab the money in exchange for my creative soul. After all, it is a lot easier to ride out those accusations of betraying your roots if you’re doing it from behind the security fence of your 10-room mansion.

Part of the problem lies in a belief we sometimes have that our artists must make sacrifices for their work. We find it difficult to accept that, just possibly, they are trying to earn a living and so are more likely to accept the offer of a large pay day every time. Perhaps we worry that, in seeing others exchange integrity for money, should we ever be in their shoes, we would do exactly the same. It was something that Buck Owens came across in his own career. In the late 1950s he had been at the forefront of a new style of country and western music, known as the Bakersfield Sound. Named after the area in California that it originated from, it was to country what punk was to rock two decades later – rejecting the big production numbers for a more earthy, natural sound. But as the 1960s progressed, the acclaim that Owens had achieved for his music became tainted. He faced criticism for liking music outside the genre (he was a big supporter of The Beatles who clearly reciprocated the love by recording one of his biggest hits, Act Naturally). But even worse than this, he began presenting a television show in 1969 called Hee Haw which, despite starting off well, soon began to eat into his credibility as a musician. He stayed with the show until 1986, by which time he freely admitted it was more about the money than anything else: “I thought, hell, it’s an easy job and it pays wonderful. I kinda just prostituted myself for their money.”

It’s a shame when somebody’s artistic career becomes overshadowed simply because they want a regular income and a better quality of life for themselves. And while the quality of Owens’ work may have declined for a long period (before he was rediscovered in the late 1980s and saw a fresh surge), it is fair to say that – if I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail is anything to go by – his earlier work is rather wonderful. True, it is never anything particularly ground-breaking but it is still worth a listen.

Owens was heavily influenced as much by rock and roll as he was by country, and this is evident throughout his 1965 album. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that The Beatles were happy to cover him, given that the music was closer to a slightly countrified rock than a full one country and western album. There is always a twang of the hillbilly sound underlying his work, but Owens is smart enough to blur the lines between the two genres. A Tiger by the Tail is one of those moments when it would be safe to say fans of both styles should be happy. Things begin with the title track, a fun romp about a man who suddenly discovers he has bitten off more than he can chew with the woman in his life. A combination of witty lyrics and a great piece of guitar work helps to make this a number which gets the album off to a good start. There is a strong feel of country – an aspect which remains for much of the album – but it never feels overpowering. I’m not sure how Owens has managed it but it never feels like anything overtly of that genre. Trouble and Me, the second track, is of a similar ilk – easily defined as country and western, and yet sounding soft enough that it never becomes off-putting.

Slowing things down with the third track, Let the Sad Times Roll, the style is suddenly at the forefront. Fortunately it has a wonderful hook in terms of a chorus – short though it might be – which keeps you listening. The distinctly inappropriateness of Wham Bam brings with it a wry smile; the subject matter may be country but there is enough humour in its short run time to keep it bubbling along. Perhaps this is one of the beauties of the album; no track on I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail is more than a couple of minutes long (in fact, this one is two minutes exactly). The songs roll along at a dizzying speed, never leaving time for you to get bored. Even duller songs – such as If You Fall Out of Love with Me – a gone in the blink of an eye (thankfully, in this case). Fallin’ for You and We’re Gonna Let the Good Times Roll are both wonderful numbers – the latter has much more of a rock and roll vibe to it; you can even imagine it being covered by a group such as The Band (albeit as a minor track).

Skipping past the decidedly below-average The Band Keeps Playin’ On, and the album reaches the classic country song Streets of Laredo. Sounding like the theme to a John Wayne movie, this is considered to be one of the standards of the genre. And this is where problems arise for me; when Owens is moving away from country, his music is bearable. This song, however, is so steeped in the traditions of the style, that it becomes a rather dull and insipid affair. It’s not helped that Owens sounds as if he is falling asleep himself as he sings the number. It is a shame that, towards the tail end of the album, the songs are not quite as good – Cryin’ Time never really takes off and, while A Maiden’s Prayer is an interesting instrumental number, it never manages to be anything than an oddity. Only final track, Memphis, saves it – another rocking number with a fantastic guitar rhythm. At least the album ends on a strong number, even if it is a little too late to completely save it (and ends rather abruptly for the final track).

A mixed bag, then, for I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail. It’s easy to see why Owens divided so and fell out of flavour – he never really appeals enough to those on either side of the rock and country line. However, when it works, this is a great album with some fun numbers; they just about outweigh the weaker tracks. Worth a look but don’t expect to be blown away. If nothing else, it’s worth digging out to hear a more mainstream attempt at country and western – a step in the right direction even if it is never going to convert me.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Tiger by the Tail here:

Next time: Live at the Star Club, Hamburg by Jerry Lee Lewis

The Rolling Stones : The Rolling Stones (#46)

The Rolling Stones | The Rolling Stones (April 1964)
Decca (UK)
Rock and Roll / Rhythm and Blues – 33:24

“If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

What do you do when you know you have a talent but don’t have any way of proving it? You know, deep down in your heart, that you have an incredible ability – a God-given gift – that you want to share with the world; a gift that, should it ever be revealed, will bring you hordes of admirers. All it will take is a little effort and you can revel in your new-found fame – if only you had a way of showing the world that this is what it was waiting for. Take musicians, for example; you could be a guitarist or a drummer or even a singer with enough talent to start a musical revolution. But if you don’t have the material, you are never going to be able to convince people that you really matter. It is a problem which many artists starting out have faced – not least of whom were a band who would go on to be one of the most successful on the planet.

As The Rolling Stones prepared to release their first album in 1964, they were faced with a lack of decent material. They had written a number of songs but, as their recording date approached, they feared they were not suitable for the image they wanted to create and passed them on to other musicians instead (in this case Marianne Faithful and Gene Pitney). Even the three that they were satisfied with, only one of them would bear the name of the musicians who wrote it (Jagger and Richards’ Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)). The other two were credited to Nanker Phelge, the name given to any track written by all members of the group – a tactic designed to give all of them an equal share of any royalties. But an album cannot consist of just three songs running to a little over nine minutes in total. More songs were needed to showcase the five boys’ abilities.

The answer was to delve into the Rhythm and Blues heritage which many of the band loved and knew so well. As has been pointed out by other writers far greater than me (in this case, Bruno MacDonald in 1001 Albums…), greats such as Sinatra and Elvis never had any problems filling their long players with covers. So why should it worry The Stones. After all, there was plenty they could do to make their mark on them and call them their own…

Things kick off – literally – on their debut album with a version of Bobby Troup’s Route 66. While there is nothing special about the arrangement, it clearly sets the blueprint for all future Stones’ songs; this is loud, raucous and slightly dirty. By focusing on the blues, Jagger, Richards et al were declaring themselves to be more dangerous than their counterparts The Beatles (ironic, given one of the Stones’ first hits – I Wanna Be Your Man – had been given to them by the Fab Four). Although it is played fairly straight, there is no denying that the statement being made by the Stones’ – this is a band that is here to play rock ‘n’ roll at full volume; it is a band determined to have a good time.

The second track, I Just Want to Make Love to You, is closer to the Muddy Waters original than Etta James more sanitised version – and it is all the better for it. The fuzzy guitar, harmonica and the Jagger voice all combine to create a sound that is dripping with sexual energy. It is little wonder that the Stones were so often viewed as dangerous when they were recording songs like this. While the third song, Honest I Do, sounds out of place as it slows things down a little too much, their version of I Need You Baby is superb. Having only ever heard the pop recording by Craig McLachlan and Check 1-2 back in 1990, it was a shock to discover it was a cover (I’d always believed it had been written by McLachlan for some unknown reason). But hearing the Stones’ take on it, with the slow drawl of the guitar and Jagger’s vocals over the incessant beat of Charlie Watts’ drums, it becomes apparent why it always sounded good. The Stones are able to wipe clear any memories of Neighbours stars attempting to launch pop careers.

Given the musical talent in the group, it is perhaps little wonder that the first track to feature that had been written by the band is an instrumental. Now I’ve Got a Witness is great showcase for the boys to demonstrate how their own talents as writers was already developing to match their heroes. Little By Little is equally good in revealing their skills at writing, even if it is a little too derivative of its roots.

Side two begins with I’m a King Bee, a classic blues song that never really takes off (like many traditional blues songs, it doesn’t seem to go anywhere and simply repeats the most basic of beats and lyrics). Fortunately, it is swiftly followed by a cover of Berry’s Carol, a fine rendition that nicely pumps its way through its short running time. Perhaps most revealing is Tell Me (You’re Coming Back) – the first song to be credited to Jagger/Richard (the ‘s’ was absent from Keith’s name until the late 1970s in the songs he was credited with writing). It is clearly trying to copy some of the popular Merseybeat sounds – something it doesn’t quite achieve – but there is also a hint of songs to come. You can almost hear some of the future classics in the guitar work of Richards; there are strands of Heart of Stone or Play with Fire in the gentle acoustic sound of his instrument. It may not be at the level of the songs to come, but it lays on plenty of suggestions of the brilliance that would soon emerge. The album ends with versions of Can I Get a Witness (excellent) and You Can Make it If You Try (dull) before rounding things off with the brilliant Walking the Dog.

The Rolling Stones’ first album may not show off the songwriting skills that, in particular, Jagger and Richards would go on to demonstrate in just a few short years. But it does lay down the band’s intent to rock, no matter what people may thing. This is a sexy and brilliant debut from a band that would go on to dominate the world. Listening to this album, it isn’t hard to see why.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to The Rolling Stones here:

Next time: A Look Back at 1960 to 1964 in Music

A Girl Called Dusty : Dusty Springfield (#45)

Dusty Springfield | A Girl Called Dusty (April 1964)
Philips
(UK)
Pop – 32:54

“I try to be as unsexy as possible.”

Growing up, it isn’t always obvious the importance of who you are listening to. When you’re young, your frame of reference is naturally limited – you have no cultural baggage and, unless an older, wiser music lover takes you by the hand to guide you through recent pop history, you have to assume that everything you hear is completely fresh. As a pre-teenager tuning into Top of the Pops, you assume that these bands have not only been around forever, but this is the music they have been creating all this time. It makes no difference if these are legends who have craved out a long and illustrious career – for a 12-year-old kid, this is the pinnacle of all they have created, simply by virtue of being the only thing on the radar.

A case in point for me was Dusty Springfield. Forget all the music she had recorded throughout the 1960s; the place she had carved for herself as a cultural icon. As far as I was concerned, back in the late 1980s, my entire knowledge of her was through the work of the Pet Shop Boys. True, it’s not a bad way to be introduced to a legend; the band even have work appearing later in this run-through of ‘Must Listen…’ albums. But her performance on What Have I Do Deserve This (one of PSB’s best tracks) actually gives a very warped impression of Springfield; she comes across as essentially a background singing disco diva. The truth is very different…

There are two distinct versions of Dusty Springfield. Firstly, there is the Dusty who would throw songs up the Hit Parade during the 1960s. These were throw-away numbers; songs like I Only Want To Be With You – her biggest hit – were nothing more than bubblegum pop. Admittedly, they were competently put together with Dusty giving a performance worthy of the songs themselves. But there was another side to the singer; in heart, she was really a soul singer – and there is no doubt on albums like A Girl Called Dusty and the later Dusty in Memphis (which we will get to in due course) that she was able her talent, easily standing alongside the star-studded geniuses of Motown and other American stables. It was just a shame that she was rarely given the chance to demonstrate her ability to a wider audience. A Girl Called Dusty shows us what we were missing as a result.

Things start off with Mama Said which, while not the strongest track, displays the power of Dusty’s voice. It isn’t a bad song, and there is a lightness that helps to draw you into the album. If the standard of songs were of this quality throughout, this would be filed under ‘close but no cigar’; good but never achieving brilliance. All that changes with the second song – You Don’t Own Me. Dusty puts her all into a song that could be seen as a cry not just for women’s rights but for those studio executives trying to restrict her musical output. Regardless of the multiple readings, this is an incredible song which shows off the true sound of Springfield. There is a bitterness and anger, but topped with a determination to her vocals which begins to show a rawness that singers like Sam Cooke revealed in their live numbers. From here, we find the wonderful Do-Re-Mi, a fun and sparkling number that Dusty seems to be having a whale of a time singing. There is an infectious quality to her style, matched by the piano solo on this number, that gets you wanting to dance along.

Musically, the next number could easily be sung by a Phil Spector band such as the Crystals; it says something that Dusty is able to emulate any style to fit the tune. While neither When the Lovelight Starts… and the following track, My Colouring Book, are not among my favourites, that isn’t to say they aren’t any good and Dusty continues to display her seemingly limitless talent. In fact, she puts her all into My Colouring Book, giving a sense of loss and hurt in her voice. Mockingbird also seems out of place here; much like the opening number, it’s a good song yet seems too light for Dusty’s voice and ability.

With her version of Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa, we are back on track. It is always something special when you hear a song which has been completely owned by another singer being performed by someone else and sounding better; it’s certainly the case here. Gene Pitney may have had the bigger hit with his take on this, but it is Dusty who gives a definitive version. You can sense the pain at making the decision to leave her lover for another man. Her brilliant performance of Anyone Who Had a Heart is equally powerful, displaying emotion in her voice that tells more than the words alone. While the tempo of Will You Love Me Tomorrow? is the faster speed, rather than superior slower version as performed by Carole King on Tapestry, it still manages to sound good. Rounding off the album is the light pop of Wishin’ and Hopin’ and the sexy Don’t You Know, a fantastic ending number that allows Dusty to let loose, screams and shouts included.

Artists are too often pigeon holed into a genre which they aren’t suited; A Girl Called Dusty shows what happens when they are given permission to push into a style they prefer. Dusty had the talent and voice of an incredible soul singer; while she was given more scope to explore this with Dusty in Memphis, her debut album revealed a passionate and gifted singer. It may not see her at her creative peak, but it nonetheless stands head and shoulders above most albums not just of 1964 but in the five decades since. A joyous treat and a must-listen album – a truly exceptional release.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Girl Called Dusty here:

 

Next time: The Rolling Stones by The Rolling Stones

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

Getz/Gilberto : Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto (#41)

Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto | Getz/Gilberto (April 1964)
Verve
(Brazil/USA)
Jazz / Bossa Nova – 34:02

“That’s the most seductive music ever.”

There is a definite difficulty in listening to certain albums. The more you try to concentrate on the music, the harder you find it to keep track. Simply put, it can be too easy to drift off into a daydream while the music washes over you. It isn’t just the obvious albums; I’ve known myself to put on a hard rock album and, 30 minutes later, be shocked that it has finished without being aware of actually hearing any of the songs. But some albums are harder to listen to coldly and objectively. It is not because they bad; far from it, the music reaches deeper into your soul and touches you at another level, allowing you to glide away into your own personal world. Getz/Gilberto is one such as this.

It cannot be underestimated the importance of this album. It isn’t just the fact that it was the first non-American album to win a Grammy. In reality, it was the one which kick-started the bossa nova craze across North America. Bossa nova (which literally means ‘new sound’) was a combination of jazz and samba, which began to find popularity in Brazil during the 1950s. But it took the combination of American saxophonist Stan Getz, Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto, and composer and pianist Antônio Carlos Jobim to launch it into the stratosphere. Much of the credit must go to the brilliant writing of Jobim. But perhaps the masterstroke, the key to its massive success, all lies with the first track on the album – and the second most recorded song in the world (240 cover versions to date); the wonderful and timeless Garota de Ipanema – better known as The Girl from Ipanema.

The Girl from Ipanema was a real woman; 17-year-old Brazilian model Heloísa Pinto. Jobim and his lyricist, Vinicius de Moraes, would see the teenager walk down to the beach, past the bar where he sat, every day. It wasn’t long before inspiration hit; years later, he wrote that he had been moved by “the paradigm of the young Carioca: a golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone—it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow.” Originally written in Portuguese, it became a hit when it was sung in English on the album Getz/Gilberto by Gilberto’s wife, Astrud. And while the explanation by Moraes may seem overly-elaborate, there is a beauty and ethereal quality to the song.

It is this quality which continues throughout the album. The gentle strum of the Spanish guitar, matched with Getz’s saxophone, combine to create a soft and subtle sound that draws you in to a dreamlike world. There is a wonderful charm to the album, which conjures up an image of sandy beaches under a hot sun; of a paradise world, that may not exist outside of a travel agent’s imagination. Regardless, this is an album which virtually demands that you sit back, close your eyes and allow it to work its magic upon you. It exudes a calm which belies the brilliant musicianship of Getz and Gilberto. It is easy to understand why this album was the starting point of the bossa nova craze. Among the stand-outs are Desafinado, which combines the guitar with a light piano that brings a smile. It doesn’t matter that the lyrics are incomprehensible to anyone unable to speak Portuguese; the sense of the song is conveyed through the music itself.

By combining to separate sounds – jazz and samba – Getz and Gilberto have managed to not just create a whole new genre, but one that proved popular. It may have fallen into the realm of lift muzac on occasion now, but that is an unfair fate to a breathtakingly and achingly beautiful sound. In fact, the combination has even allowed me to actually like a ‘jazz’ album, even if it is one that is not a pure form of the style. Regardless, this is the perfect soundtrack to lazy Sunday mornings or warm evenings on holiday. Timeless may seem an overused word, but this is one album which has certainly lasted the test of the last 50 years.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Getz/Gilberto here:

 

Next time: A Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles

Live at the Apollo : James Brown (#40)

James Brown | Live at the Apollo (May 1963)
King
(USA)
Soul – 31:31

“When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy.”

Gigs can be a spectacle to behold. Dancers shimmy their way across the stage, their bodies creating wondrous shapes as they spin from one side to the other; costumes accentuate their lithe moves, adding everything from colour and sparkle to sophistication and effortless cool; the sets are lit by endless displays of warm lighting; and the lead singer, dripping in charisma, draws it all together, resulting in something far greater than the music alone. There is more to just the sound in the staging of some live shows. All of which makes it hard to translate a live gig on to a record – how do you convey the overall experience on a medium which relies purely on sound and nothing else?

It is a problem which plagues James Brown’s first – and most famous – live album, Live at the Apollo. James was the consummate performer. It is not for nothing that he was described as the hardest working man in music; for Brown it wasn’t just about standing in front of a crowd and singing his hits. He would wear elaborate costumes (all the while insisting his backing singers dressed in tuxedos), and even had an entire routine involving being wrapped in a cape as part of one of his numbers. On top of this, he would incorporate dance steps into his performance, choreographing intense routines for him to break into as he sang. He even once said that his aim was to make the audience as exhausted as he was by the end of a concert. All of which makes it hard to get a true sense of the experience of seeing Brown in the flesh when all you have is the audio recording of his performance; from the start, you are lacking an essential ingredient in the guise of the visuals.

In some ways, Live at the Apollo does not help James Brown in the claim that he works hard; the entire album lasts just 30 minutes (it takes me longer to write a blog post!). Add into the fact that there are numerous breaks between the songs and you are suddenly left with a live performance that has the named singer only taking up two-thirds of the entire recording. Call me picky but a 20 minute act doesn’t seem like a particularly arduous workout. Indeed, if anyone deserves the accolade, it should surely be the backing band, who play throughout the entire show without a break, sounding tight throughout. There is a playfulness and energy to their performance which is infectious, helping to push the show along and keep the crowd excited (screams can be heard puncturing the music throughout the half-hour running time). Add to this Brown’s backing group, The Famous Flames, and it seems the Godfather of Soul has little to do.

Another problem that I have with Brown is the lack of variety to his lyrics in a song. Most of the tracks seem to consist of a single line or two being repeated over and over again; there is no complexity or soul-searching lyrics, but merely repetition, occasionally broken up by a grunt or a scream. I admit he has a powerful voice; songs like Lost Someone display his ability to its full extent. But there needs to be more than simply screams; he comes across as some sort of over-the-top American evangelist, constantly shouting at his congregation ‘Can I get a witness’ rather than a singer. It means that, quite quickly, the tracks begin to roll into one. It comes to something when the instrumental breaks are the moments you find yourself waiting for in order to get some variety. Given that this is the second live album by a young black artist in the space of three album reviews, Sam Cooke certainly blows James Brown out of the water.

Brown was a hard man to work for, insisting perfection from his backing vocalists and band. He was known to fine those who displeased him – whether it was from turning up late, failing to shine their shoes sufficiently or singing a duff note. He would even incorporate certain hand movements into his dancing, to let those on stage his displeasure immediately, even if it was mid-concert. Perhaps if I was able to watch the show rather than simply hear it, it would make more sense and I would see what the fuss is about. However, as a solely audio recording, it lacks the punch it presumably had when performed in the flesh. Based on this alone, it seems more of a throw-away moment than an historic one, and leaves me feeling exhausted with disappointment rather than exhilaration.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Live at the Apollo here:

 

Next time: Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady : Charles Mingus (#39)

Charles Mingus | The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (July 1963)
Impulse!
(USA)
Avant-garde Jazz – 39:25

“Touch my beloved’s thought while her world’s affluence crumbles at my feet.”

The arts have always been seen as an effective form of therapy for those facing mental health issues. Whether it is painting, acting or music, there is something deeply therapeutic about expressing your emotions through the medium of creativity. When words fail you, knowing that you can still find a way of venting those frustrations, fears and follies can be liberating. It perhaps comes as little surprise to realise that many of the great artistes – in a variety of fields – have all suffered from some form of mental illness. In modern music alone, such big names as Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Kurt Cobain and Syd Barrett have all struggled as a result of conditions such as bipolar disorder. A 2015 survey by Help Musicians UK found that 60 percent of musicians suffered from depression, with 70 percent saying their mental health had taken a hit as a result of touring. It is a shockingly high statistic, but perhaps unsurprising given the nature of art (in a wider sense of the word) and the type of people it attracts.

It probably shouldn’t come as a shock then to learn that Charles Mingus used his own compositions as a way of finding therapy. He suffered from depression, with his output fluctuating between short bursts of extreme creativity that briefly punctured long periods of inertia. By the time he recorded The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady in 1963, Mingus had shortly come off of a disaster with the infamous Town Hall Concert; his attempt to record a free-style live concert in 1962 – a dream of creating a working document of a true jazz workshop – had ended in chaos. Undeterred, he pushed on with his next record, putting The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady together in just three months. Clearly, this was his way of shaking off the demons; if any doubts remain, Mingus asked his psychotherapist, Edmund Pollock, to help pen the linear notes on the album sleeve. Interestingly, each of the four tracks is also given a subtitle, perhaps indicating that Mingus wasn’t always confident that people would interpret his music in the way he wanted.

There is no escaping that this is a true jazz album; like many of those which I have already encountered, it is a difficult one to penetrate and I still feel lost in the genre. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was envisioned as a type of ballet across four tracks and six movements; there is certainly a vibe of movement throughout – from the calls and responses of the brass instruments on the opening track (Track A – Solo Dancer) to the flamenco guitar of track three (Track C – Group Dancers). But there is no consistent theme; rather it seems to change direction at random during tracks. Perhaps this is an indication of Mingus’ mind – one that was constantly looking to create new sounds and follow new ideas. However, to a non-musical ear, it often sounds like a mess. Once again the quality of the musicians’ abilities cannot be doubted – the stand-out of the group is the wonderful Spanish guitar playing of Jay Berliner. But strong musicianship is not enough and this is an album which I cannot hear holding together.

Once again I feel let down by my musical knowledge. I want to be able to appreciate jazz; to feel that I am getting something out of the experience of listening to it. But whether my ears are simply not attuned or I do not possess enough theoretical understanding – whatever the reason, I find the genre too difficult to access. Within jazz circles, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is regarded not just as Charles Mingus’ masterpiece but as one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded. Yet I still feel I am missing the point. This is a difficult album to listen through to the end, and sadly is not one I intend going back to. I end up more confused than satisfied, and this is not always a good thing. I hadn’t realised until embarking on this project how prolific jazz was in the early 1960s. I’m just thankful that, as we reach the mid-1960s, it had reached its peak; this may be its finest moment, but I regret that its perceived brilliance has all but passed me by.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady here:

 

Next time: Live at the Apollo by James Brown