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

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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