I came to the music of King Crimson in a fairly random way, I simply started buying their albums, without any knowledge of their running order, the players on the discs, or anything.
I think the first one I bought was “Red”, which I liked very, very much. Then, it was “Larks Tongues In Aspic” which had a huge, huge impact on me…and then, I bought “Islands” – which I thought was absolutely terrific, but clearly, cut from a different cloth than my first two acquisitions. After that, I have no idea what I bought, perhaps “USA” – because it was live – and that was another amazing disc – my gut feeling was, I like everything this band does (but everything this band does, is SO different) – from the remarkable and incredibly jazzy “Lizard” to the heavy prog of “Larks’ Tongues” and on up till the end – the live “USA” disk – strangely, with re-dubbed violins – we never really understood why that was.
Getting these remarkable discs out of order, willy-nilly, was probably as good a way as any to get into the band. Because it arrived very early in the rotation, “Islands” got played a lot, and I took a huge liking to it’s very honest song craft, with that AMAZING saxophonist (Mel Collins, of course!) as a guitarist, I was allegedly getting into King Crimson because of their remarkable guitarist (Robert Fripp, of course!) but I found myself really liking the bands that played behind Fripp, and not knowing what was going on at all, I could recognise the funky combo that performed on “Islands” as a remarkable working unit – a real band, which was clearly, very, very different to the african percussion and ambient percussion present on “Larks’ Tongues” – I could tell that “Larks’ Tongues” was indeed, by a very different King Crimson than “Islands”.
Of course, as time went by, I began to read the history of the band, and began to understand who it was I was listening to, was it the original “King Crimson”; the Crimson of the Big Red Face, that only existed for a mere 11 months, or one of the strange hybrids that followed on “In The Wake of Poseidon” and “Lizard”, finally settling down to a working combo for “Islands”.
And I think like many Crimson fans, I did, in the main, favour the triumvirate of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless & Bible Black” and “Red”, all with the well-known four piece of Bruford-Cross-Fripp-Wetton, and for “Lark’s Tongues”, it was slightly unique in that it featured a remarkable percussionist who left the band in the middle of their first tour, Jamie Muir.
Once you understand the chronology, it all starts to make some kind of sense, although it’s quite difficult to assimilate the “first four” or the “first five” if you add in the live, and very rare and “Import Only” “Earthbound” which I had to special order from a specialist shop to get. By then, I had everything else – so “Earthbound” with it’s absolutely searing sax from Mel Collins on “21st Century Schizoid Man”, was the missing link between “the first four” the “last three”, if you will.
It’s interesting, I think, I always call it “the first ten” because that’s the classic package, of the band that existed roughly ftom 1969 thru 1974 and then called it quits. But if you think about it, Fripp did an unusual thing – he book-ended the two different eras with a live album.
So you get the “first four”:
In The Court of the Crimson King
In The Wake of Poseidon
followed by, with some difficulty, the live album
Then you get the “last three”:
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic
Starless & Bible Black
followed by, with some difficulty, the live album
It’s an odd pattern, to say the least. Four studio albums, one very rare and hard to obtain live album, three more studio albums, followed by a brilliant live album.
That’s my classic “first 10” and for many years, that was all we had – the only other live material available was on expensive and shoddy bootlegs, and you were never quite sure about the information on such records, was it really at that venue? Was it really on that day?
Then, Fripp introduced the beautifully-covered “A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson” which gave us a lot of answers, it had an amazing booklet in it, where every gig the band ever did was listed by city and date – so that became our Bible, the only reliable, Fripp-produced list of gigs – and it was a really nice compilation, too, containing a rare demo version of one of their earliest tracks, “I Talk To The Wind” that featured Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble on vocals – who was at that time, the girlfriend of one Ian McDonald.
It was a lovely compilation otherwise, a beautiful piece of artwork, but musically it didn’t present anything much that was new – it was definitely a look back.
So I guess that is the eleventh disk of my “original ten” if you will.
Once King Crimson reformed a few times, and Fripp started releasing better-quality bootlegs of the band, the full picture of King Crimson came sharply into focus. I could revel in any number of remarkable “Islands” bands shows, including one where they actually play the title track, something they very, very rarely ever did. I could hear this very funky quintet (the firth member being lyricist Peter Sinfield, who operated the VCS3 from the soundboard) and Ian Wallace’s mighty VCS3-altered drum solo became a huge highlight of the tours.
The “Islands” band was literally a group that could play from a whisper to a scream, Mel would put away his saxes, and play the flute, ever so beautifully and gently, and vocalist Boz would sing lovely Crimson ballads from the first four albums with real intent – I love his live performances of these classics such as “Lady of the Dancing Water” or “Cadence and Cascade” – Fripp disavows them, he felt that Boz was not a good singer for the quiet pieces; but that he excelled on the rocking ones – my own opinion was the exact opposite, I’m afraid. Sure, I love to hear this band roar through “Schizoid Man” or “Pictures Of A City” as much as the next guy, but when they turned down, and Fripp consulted his personal dictionary of tasty jazz guitar chords – Boz could do no wrong, if you ask me.
So after only having “Earthbound” to represent the music of the “Islands” band, for many, many years, it was a huge deal to suddenly be able to either buy CDs of their live shows, and / or downloads – a huge deal, because the limited view of what they were capable of “live” given to us by “Earthbound” could finally be laid to rest, and we learned very quickly that this band was a stomping, kicking beast of a rocker, but it was also capable of incredible, gentle beauty, as found in the two quiet tracks I mention above, along with rarities like the live version of “Islands” itself, which is an incredibly brilliant rendition of a truly beautiful song, and features even better guitar than on the studio version. Why they removed it from the running order so quickly, I will never understand, because it was so incredibly beautiful.
I would, at a guess, think that it might have been an issue with having just two mellotrons to try and recreate the orchestral mood of the studio track, but I think they do a splendid job, with an improved guitar part, and a great vocal from Boz, too. Again – RF has said that Boz “did not convince” on the ballads – but I do disagree, I think he had a beautiful voice for both rock and ballads alike, and that his voice was a godsend – he was the perfect lead singer for that band.
In any case, they may have stopped playing “Islands” live after just a few attempts at it, but they did continue to play ballads at almost every show, and some of those recordings are incredibly beautiful – because Fripp carries the tracks with his incredible, concise guitar arrangements, while Mel just plays really beautiful flute solos and the rhythm section plays quietly and accurately – it’s really about Fripp’s guitar and Boz’s vocal (and bass playing too, I should add).
So if you do get a chance to pick up some of the live CDs by this band, I highly recommend that you find ones that include a ballad.
Back in 1978, or whenever it was – out of an entirely random series of purchases, I would buy a new Crimson record each week, I somehow fell in love with “Islands” because, perhaps, it was so, so strange, with the incredibly jet-lagged guitar solo from “Ladies of the Road” to Fripp’s vibrant harmonium playing on the title track. This album also includes one song that the band never did perform live, because it was an orchestral piece written by Fripp to serve as an instrumental introduction to the final piece on the album, the title track – so what you hear is first, “The Song of the Gulls” which is orchestral/instrumental, followed by the vocal piece “Islands” which, I should add, contains one of Peter Sinfield’s most beautiful lyrics ever – I love all of his lyrics on “the first four” – but I have a special place in my heart for the lyrics to the “Islands” album in general, and the song “Islands” in particular – it’s truly beautiful imagery, and Boz’ gentle, quiet delivery makes the lyrics hit home so hard, just really gently and beautifully sung – there’s no other song quite like it in the Crimson canon.
It is, after all, the end of an era, because Earthbound, while it does have an outrageous version of “21st Century Schizoid Man” on it, is somewhat of a disappointment – it’s not in my top ten concerts by the “Islands” band.
I think it must have been an almost random selection, let’s just pick an “average” show, one of those ones where Mel is really kicking ass – and that’s what they did.
But – there is a lot more depth and beauty to be found, if you explore the world of live shows now available from this band – in particular, I recommend the earliest shows, where they have literally just come from the studio, and the songs much more, resemble the album versions, whilst over time, they began to stray wildly from the original forms, so if you want to experience the truest approximation of a perfect Islands band live show – stick with the earliest shows – the double CD at Brighton springs to mind as a good one, but you really can’t go wrong.
Even “Earthbound” has it’s positive moments.
For me, it was really, really nice to see King Crimson not once, but three times on their most recent tour of Britain and Europe, and to see that thanks no doubt to the ministrations of young Jakko Jakszyk, that Robert has indeed, made his peace with this record that at one point, he didn’t want to think about or look at every again.
So much so, that they now play two tracks from the record live, which is an astonishing and almost impossible feat – I couldn’t believe my own luck, I was not only going to see King Crimson play repertoire from across their career(s) but I was going to hear them play two songs from Islands as well – “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” – and for me, that really felt like full closure – both Ian Wallace and Boz Burell have passed away, but Fripp in this way remembers them – and brings their amazing music to King Crimson fans via the 2015 incarnation of the band. I think that is absolutely brilliant! And the other player from the Islands band – is IN the new band, and it’s so, so lovely to hear Robert and Mel playing together again – Mel is an incredibly gifted player, and having him in the band has been absolutely brilliant.
I think that everyone knows and loves “In The Court Of The Crimson King” but then after that, doesn’t really know how to form an opinion of the band that made those next three records – “In The Wake”, “Lizard” and “Island” – each with different singers, different musicians, where only Fripp is the constant.
If we set aside the legendary first incarnation of King Crimson, and look at what happened afterwards – how the band changed in the studio – but that last incarnation, with Boz being taught how to play bass bv rote by Robert – he was originally just their singer – they couldn’t find a bass player – so he became the bass player! – they got it right, and the album they made, in 1971, still stands up today as an odd masterpiece of jazzy, blowing prog like no other. if you are not familiar with “Islands” – I cannot recommend it more highly – in some ways, it’s my favourite King Crimson album.
It moves between so many moods, the lyrics are outstanding, there are great guitar parts and guitar solos, there are great sax and flute solos – the combination of Robert Fripp and Mel Collins, both of them mellotron-playing soloists – was a very dangerous one, and one that created a remarkable record with an incredible edge – “Islands”. The record then travels through chaos until you reach the last two tracks on side two, when peace and beauty are restored in an incredible way – a truly gorgeous way.
“Islands hold hands, ‘neath heaven’s seas…..”
…being for the benefit, being rather, a review of a beautiful box set, one of two, of the remastered and expanded works of the man who started it all for “Dave from pureambient”, before Fripp & Eno, before Led Zeppelin, before Jimi Hendrix, before King Crimson – there was George Harrison – and his career after he left the Beatles was in some ways, his best work – as this beautiful new six CD set demonstrates. George was my favourite Beatle, George was the serious one, the one who played the most magical of the guitar parts, the one who brought Indian Music to the world – George really rocked my world, from the time I was nine years old, in 1967 to the present, a long time – one of the very best slide players who ever lived, with the sweetest slide guitar tone – and, a tone that was instantly, recognisably “George” – and these first few solos albums really let George soar musically – from his amazing Beatlesque vocal arrangements on the third and fourth solo albums, which also introduced us to his increased skill with the bottleneck slide; to his live performances in 1974 and 1992…to the man who created the first ever benefit concert in the form of 1971’s “The Concert For Bangladesh” – strangely, not included in this box set.
George was often mis-nicknamed as “the quiet Beatle” – but in 1970, as he started his career away from The Beatles – he was anything but quiet:
1970 – releases first ever triple album set (by any solo artist) – “All Things Must Pass” – sells millions worldwide, spending 7 weeks as the number 1 album – however, as of 2011, it has outsold both Lennon’s “Imagine” (which George also played slide guitar on in 1971) and McCartney & Wings “Band On The Run” combined – and is the most successful album ever released by an ex-Beatle – and, is the 36th best-selling album of the 1970s !!
1970-1971 – “My Sweet Lord” tops the charts – sells millions worldwide biggest selling single of 1971 in the UK, it was the first No. 1 single by an ex-Beatle – 5 million copies sold by 1978, by 2010, over 10 million copies sold! That is simply astonishing.
1971 -1972 “The Concert For Bangladesh” – the prototype of the modern-day “benefit concert” is released on another triple album, this time, the live music soundtrack and accompanying film that enjoyed a long theatrical release as well.
1973 – releases the remarkable, acoustic guitar and slide guitar-heavy “Living In The Material World” – and this was when we realised just how good George was getting on slide – a remarkable fourth studio album, and, along with “All Things Must Pass”, of course, it was the record that made me sit up and say, “I thought George was good when he was in the Beatles…but just listen to him NOW!”. Shiver-inducing slide guitar – sheer beauty…not to mention that voice…
But this is where it all started, in India, with an unusual soundtrack album…
Disc 1 – Wonderwall Music (November 1968) – re-mastered version
This under-rated, under-reported album, has the distinction of being the first Beatles solo album, by George, released in 1968, made while the Beatles were still ongoing. George had been approached about doing a soundtrack for this rather odd film “Wonderwall”, starring Jane Birkin, Jack MacGowran and Iain Quarrier, and he agreed – a lot of it was recorded in India, because this was at the time that George was exploring Indian music heavily, so, since that was what he was listening to, and the film was vaguely psychedelic in nature, too – he used a lot of Indian music, with a few remarkable “western” songs thrown in for good measure. George is said to have wanted it to be an introduction to Indian music, and to that end, the first recordings for the album were a series of ragas recorded at EMI Bombay in early 1968. The “ordinary” western songs, were recorded later in London, and one track, which featured vocals, was unearthed when George was hunting down the master tapes to give to producer Joe Massot, for the remastering of the film in 1998, the track was “In The First Place” by the “Remo Four”. It is believed that Harrison actually sang and played on the track, but insisted that he only wanted a credit for production – Massot was happy to include the track, which George had originally held back because he believed that Massot only wanted instrumental music. So this lost vocal track, “In The First Place”, finally saw it’s release in 1999, some thirty one years after it probably originally should have!
“Ski-ing” remains my favourite of the non-Indian music tracks; it features some wonderful reverse sounds, and an amazing but simple guitar riff that I love to play, with fabulous harmonies, over a wonderful raga / drone – and, one of my beloved reverse guitar solos at the end – it’s fantastic! it’s just one of those riffs that gets stuck in your head – and the album is worth the price of admission for that song alone. There are one or two Indian songs that I truly love, like the track immediately following “Ski-ing”, which is called “Gat Kirwani” – a fast gat that is 1:15 of pure sitar magic…and one or two tracks, of either variety – that are irritating to the point of – irritation. But I never skip tracks, I enjoy the whole record, and I love to listen to this whenever the mood strikes me – it’s a great little record, given that it’s a soundtrack, given that George wouldn’t have had much time to make it – I think he did a great job.
But it’s a journey everyone should take – you have to remember, that George was still a very young man, and writing film music was a new process for him – and this is very much, music for a film, rather than a collection of “songs” from a solo Beatle – there are really no “songs” of any description, the album is basically instrumental, and it’s just about as strange as the film that it’s the soundtrack for – quite odd – but, over time, it has really grown on me, and in some ways, it’s one of my favourite records of the late sixties, because it’s George, sure, but just because it captures a mood and a time in a perfect snapshot, this album screams “it is 1968” and it’s heavy Indian influence is undeniable – and very trendy at the time, perfect for a trendy, oddball film.
I recommend this album highly, and of course, I never, ever expected to own a re-mastered version of it, so that is a huge, huge bonus, and it’s a wonderful addition to the box set and to the collection of any George Harrison fan.
Disc 2 – Electronic Sound (May 1969) – re-mastered version
From the quickly-defunct “Zapple” label, which was meant to house experimental music – well, that’s what this is. George was one of the earliest adopters of the Giant Moog Synthesizer, which can be heard on [later] Beatles’ tracks such as “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, and “Here Comes The Sun” – the instrument was very new, this was one of the first “production” synths that ordinary people could actually buy – so George got one. Two long improvs. “Under The Mersey Wall”, and “No Time Or Space”, of not-unpleasant synth noise, again, nothing spectacular, but you should absolutely hear it once – a strange curiosity from the short-lived Zapple label – and, I believe, the second Beatle solo album – George absolutely had cornered the market on solo albums well before any of the other Beatles caught on. Even stranger, the presence of these two early records, means that the classic “first” George solo album, “All Things Must Pass” – is actually his third solo album !
That said, of all of George’s earliest works, this is probably the least accessible – but, if you are not faint of heart, you really should give it a go – I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not a million miles away from some of the synth warblings that we got later on by bands like Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk – it mostly sounds like sound effects, like someone showing off what a “synthesizer” is capable of. I’ve heard other synth records that are far more annoying than this one, and some of it is quite pleasant given how new synth technology was at the time it was made – not unpleasant at all. Certainly worth a listen when the mood strikes you…
Disc 3 – All Things Must Pass (November 1970) – re-mastered, expanded version
The first ever triple record set, this album sold in the millions, and it did better than both McCartney & Wings’ “Band On The Run” and Lennon’s “Imagine” combined – in retrospect – it outsold them both! People WANTED to hear what George wanted to sing about. I first heard it in the home of two Peace Corps volunteers at their home in Eastern Uganda, in 1970, they had just been to visit the States, and they had brought back the cassette version of “All Things Must Pass” with them – hot off the press. Since I hadn’t heard it yet (I knew it was out, but I didn’t own it – you couldn’t buy it in Uganda) I spent almost my entire time there, one day and one night, listening to this amazing, magical record – on cassette, no less – and I have never forgotten that day. I then had to wait many months, until we were travelling home from Uganda (where I lived at the time, with my parents) to the States, to purchase my own copy, from a very cool record store in Amsterdam. So I did eventually get my copy, at long last…and at long last, I could enjoy it any time I wanted to, and luxuriate in these amazing, personal, heartfelt songs from the mind of George Harrison.
From that gorgeous, soft-guitars opening on the Dylan ballad “I’d Have You Anytime” to the power of Eric Clapton’s solo on the amazing “Wah-Wah” – a song with one of the best riffs of all time, a classic E major riff, that is not particularly easy to play – what an amazing riff to base a song around! To the beautiful, multi-layered first version of “Isn’t It A Pity” – the opening side of “All Things Must Pass” (I mean vinyl album side, of course) is one of the most familiar pieces of music in the universe to me. As the newly-re-mastered album rolls along, I am hearing my old friends, with new sounds – and it’s a revelatory experience, and one I highly recommend – as the “main meal” of the box set, having yet another version of “All Things Must Pass” does not bother me in the slightest! It’s fast becoming my favourite version…
Also on that first vinyl side, was a little song that took the world by storm, the thinly veiled religious anthem “My Sweet Lord” which was a huge-selling single for George, and an incredibly popular song, with its “all religions together” approach to finding God – moving serenely from singing “Hallelujah” to “Hare Krishna” as the background vocals began to name all sorts of deities that mostly, you had never heard of, this song was a truly inspired and truly inspiring acoustic guitar-led ballad of the day – featuring gorgeous “twin” harmony slide guitars (that “trademark” George Harrison slide sound – unforgettable) and fantastic ever-changing background vocals, “My Sweet Lord” – whether you like it or not – you probably know it anyway 🙂 A real beauty…
But there are many, many other less-well known musical gems, hidden in different corners of this record…who knew, for example, what a complex, multi-layered, and beautiful musical construction, a song like “What Is Life?”, actually is?? The re-mastering brings out a lot of small touches in both performance and production that I’ve not noticed before, and this is the album I have probably played more times than any other in my entire collection – and, hearing this new, re-mastered “What Is Life?” is a sonic revelation, for example, while I had heard the strummed acoustic guitars clearly, I did not realise that there were ALSO picked acoustic guitars playing along quietly – I’d NEVER heard them before!
I’d heard the string arrangement, but never realised the hard left panning to some of it before, by Phil Spector, and that “wall of sound” was not so heavily applied to this song, and really – I mean, you can really, really hear everything in this new, excellent mix; including so many multiple harmony vocals from George, I don’t know if anyone else has realised this, but George was drawing directly on his experience of being “voice 3” in the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison Harmony Machine, so when it came time to lay down the vocals on tracks for “All Things Must Pass”, when it was for a big chorus like the one in this song – the layers of harmony, are built up just like tracks from “Abbey Road” and every other Beatles track prior to it – and don’t forget, in 1970, “Abbey Road” was only a year in the near past, so the experience of laying down melody and harmony vocal tracks, in the style of the Beatles, for God’s sake – was fresh in his mind.
So if you listen to something like “The Making Of All Things Must Pass”, you can actually hear this layering process – for example, that record contains several different reductions and partial mixes of “Apple Scruffs”, and you can hear George adding in his lead vocal, his “George” harmony, his “John” harmony, and his “Paul” harmony – and sometimes, there are multiples, double tracks for every part, so instead of three-part, it becomes six-part harmony or more – and if you do listen carefully to this re-master, you can hear the fully developed, finished products, mixed by the remarkable Phil Spector – the vocals of “Apple Scruffs” absolutely shine here, but that is literally because, George was just following the Beatles vocal process, but using his own voice for all of the parts – and that is absolutely amazing to think about – he was literally, besides George Martin, the only person in the entire WORLD who totally knew and understood this vocal “process” – but why not – he had paid his dues, he had started out poor and unloved, in Hamburg, the youngest and most teased of the Beatles, and worked his way up into the biggest band in the world – and he took what he learned, and applied it in his own life – on his first, and best, solo album – “best”, not because what followed was not as good, but because never again, did he amass such an amazing group of players, to play such an amazing group of songs, nor did he ever take the time again, to layer the Beatles-style vocals – sometimes, but never to the degree, never to the quality of what he accomplished on “All Things Must Pass” – which in some ways, is more “Beatle-y” than some Beatles albums – I’d much rather hear “All Things Must Pass” than “Let It Be” for example!
And Phil Spector, for all of his giant reverbs and overwrought string parts, and strident horn parts, did a great job of capturing those layered Beatle harmonies – maybe not quite to the spec that George Martin, and the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison Harmony Machine did – there will never, ever be another “Because” – but, a close second, and there are other example of amazing, multi-layered vocals a la Beatles – “Apples Scruffs” being one of my absolute favourites, where the harmonies really make the chorus, and George, in that case, and to a lesser extent in “What Is Life?” is hitting those high notes, doing the “Paul” part of the vocal – with no problem – it’s flawless, it’s perfect, and what could be better than the dreamy, note-drifting harmonies in the chorus of “Apple Scruffs”? Not much, if you ask me. What a fantastic song, and a song for the fans, for the fans that George saw every day at Apple Studios.
It’s a “famous fact” that the songs on “All Things Must Pass” were borne of George’s frustration at never getting his songs released on Beatles albums, he would get one, or two tracks at most, three in one rare case (on Revolver) and the rest, would go back onto the reject pile, in some cases, as in the title track of this album, “All Things Must Pass”, multiple times – it’s still odd for me to realise that the Beatles ran through, rehearsed, and learned this song – and then rejected it. George’s gain, the Beatles’ loss, I reckon. [Famously, one George Harrison song, “Not Guilty”, was recorded over 100 times by the Beatles – and was STILL never released – it was finally released years later on a Harrison solo album].
But regarding this “famous fact” of this alleged “musical constipation”; OK, there is perhaps, some truth to that, in any event – this is George, saying to the whole world “I wrote a LOT of songs, and HERE THEY ARE” – but also, these songs are George still at the height of his writing powers, coming off the back of tracks like “Something”, “I Me Mine”, “Piggies”, “Long, Long, Long”, “Love You To”, “I Want To Tell You”, and “Taxman”, to name but a few – to me, the songs on “All Things Must Pass” are basically, an extension of that line of song writing, and the quality of the songs on “All Things Must Pass”, is undeniably, close if not equal to that revered catalogue of Beatles tracks penned by our Mr. Harrison.
I mean, whether this album is the result of “artistic constipation” (as some have claimed) or not – it’s still an amazing record – and if you consider some of the deep tracks – like the amazing “Let It Down” – one of the most incredibly beautiful songs George ever wrote, with that deep organ chord laying across his beautiful, loving lyric – and then the power of that chorus, when the horns come in – it’s just an awesome experience musically, and then it’s followed by the twelve-string driven, shiver-inducing beauty of “Run Of The Mill” with it’s odd, Spanish sounding horn parts, funky piano, and earnest, beautiful vocal – and now, you can hear the vocal doubling in the verses properly, for the first time, too – thanks to that fabulous re-master – wonderful! Or if we move to what was on the original vinyl side four, another hidden gem of a deep album cut, “The Art Of Dying” with its driven, wah-wah guitars, I don’t know it that’s Clapton or Harrison on lead guitar (very probably, both!), but whoever it is, they are ON FIRE. That song just gives me the shivers, from the opening slide-down wah chord to the last of the dying fade out, with those amazing triplets C – A – E or whatever it is, going at Robert Fripp-like speed and with a similar precision delivery – that little song simply rocks.
Everywhere you turn, are songs that are just…good songs. In some cases, brilliantly good songs. And the one that got away, the gorgeous “I Live For You” featuring an amazing Pete Drake pedal steel guitar riff – George’s voice, on the unfinished demo, is just perfect, and the rough harmonies are absolutely perfect – I love that little track, and I am so glad it’s been re-incorporated into the album – it should have always been there, but I am really glad it’s there now – and Drake’s pedal steel solo in the middle of it is a master-class in the instrument, one thing George was always able to do, was to coax world-class performances out of his guest musicians – and on this album, that roster of guest musicians reads like a Who’s Who of 60 British rock royalty, with his old friend Eric Clapton as the main guitar slinger, there are a host of other guitarists present, and it must have been an amazing feeling, in that room, running through tracks with the giant live band, with two drummers and piano and organ and God only knows how many guitars – starting with that, and then, another layer of performance from Phil Spector, horns, strings, reverb – and, just for good measure – some more reverb.
George remarked on camera, in later years, that he wished that the album didn’t “suffer” from a cloud of reverb, from the “production values of the day” – but I disagree, what Spector did, as with what he “did”, to “Let It Be” – was what was right for that moment, for that time, and while I would like to “hear” a reverb-less version of the album, I would never consider it to be the real master – the master is this master, with its huge amounts of reverb – and I am sure that’s where I get my own propensity for drowning whole tracks in massive reverbs – it sounds fecking amazing! Try it sometime – record a song, play it back dry – then, trial some large reverb rooms on it. When you find the right one, you will know…then, turn up the “wet” control to at least 50 percent, and close your eyes. There – that’s the Phil Spector method, which I am strangely, proud to say, I often use in my ambient music – treating entire completed tracks with reverb – and it just changes everything, it makes an already-ambient track, super ambient, it just brings out some amazing reverberations, literally, and I am still fascinated with that sound – so the supposedly “over-produced” “All Things Must Pass” does not bother me in the slightest, and I think that Spector got a bad rap for it – he was hearing a sound in his head, and George trusted him, so this is the album that got made – and it’s an amazing album, syrupy strings, strident horns, waves of untrammelled reverb – it’s perfect, a perfect time capsule of 1970, and absolutely, the highlight of the box set – this album is why you buy “The Apple Years Vol. I – 1968-1975”.
If you take a track like “Awaiting On You All”, with its irresistible descending riff, OK, sure, it dissolves into a mass of reverb, but it still rocks – nothing Phil Spector did, really detracted from that fact – the songs, the performances – rock. I love that song, and if you took away the reverb, it just wouldn’t be the same – but, having said that, if you listen to this re-master, in headphones – you can hear EVERYTHING, it’s a quality mix, Spector was no dummy, you can hear everything, clearly, every tiny part – every vocal harmony – it’s simply quality. The reverb is really over-exaggerated by the press, especially now in this nice, clean re-master – you can hear that it’s only on a few tracks where he may have over-egged the musical pudding a tiny bit – but it simply does not matter! Because it’s such a great bunch of performances from a truly great band led by a truly great musician, our George.
Speaking of great performances, “All Things Must Pass” featured something I’d never seen before, and rarely if ever, have seen since – an alternate version of a track, right there on the main album. So on side one, you got the first of the versions of “Isn’t It A Pity”, and then later, on the second record, you get “Isn’t It A Pity, Version 2” – and the differences are substantial, wonderful flutes float up through this second version, and different, bluesy guitar leads appear out of nowhere, with the most subtle, beautiful note-bending I’ve ever heard – delicate, emotive – shiver-inducing again – a lovely alternate version of a great song – and that experience, prompted me to create alternate versions of my own songs much later on in life – inspired by this simple idea. As far as “Isn’t It A Pity” goes, I almost like the second version better than the “real” version, but they are both great, both have a lot to offer to the discerning listener.
“Hear Me Lord” closes out the four “song” sides, and this is a song that I played on the piano a lot, we accepted this heavy song about God as just another song, and I loved to play it and sing it, George was ever-evolving in his beliefs, and we may never know which “lord” he is referring to at any given moment, but what we did know was, just how serious he was about it – and this is a great song, with some surprising fuzz guitar layered in there, that you don’t really notice – beautiful work – and the stellar piano part is absolutely spot-on, too – a great piece of music, and a great, uplifting “anthemic” song to end the album proper with – brilliant! A giant chorus, complete with those trademark George Harrison slide guitars that we know so well, takes us out on the long fade. But it also – rocks “above and below us… out and in, there’s no place that you’re not in – won’t you hear me lord?.” The rhythm guitar part is surprisingly fierce, and again, we have carefully layered vocal work, and that astonishingly improv-like piano, just jamming throughout the track – inspirational indeed! Proving that in the right hands – even songs about God can rock. Sigh.
A word now about “Apple Jam” – originally, the “main” vinyl album had four sides, the first four sides / two LPs, were of “songs”, and a third record, sides five and six, were called “Apple Jam” – jam sessions recorded in between tracks. Growing up, this being one of very few albums I had at all, and learning to play guitar, it was “Apple Jam” that I started out with, in terms of listening to improvised guitar playing for the first time, it was the first time I’d ever head guitarists “jam” – and it was a real revelation. I still play many, many of the riffs I learned from this record, and it’s not a bad place to start – you can jam along to it pretty easily, and I grew up playing guitar much in the style of a modified Harrison/Clapton clone, and later, it was “Live Cream” and other live tracks featuring long improvs, so I really got into learning the Clapton oeuvre…closely followed by Jimi Hendrix, and that’s where I, and pretty much everyone else, lost the plot – impossible to imitate, but it sure is fun trying, Hendrix blew us all away, and Clapton and Harrison were his contemporaries, and were aware of him – so I don’t think having a load of George Harrison and Eric Clapton riffs in my head, from playing “Apple Jam” over and over and over and over when I was 12, 13 years old – is such a bad thing.
It certainly gave me a great start at improvising, and if you are going to jam with others, and they are playing some kind of I-IV-V or other modified blues – knowing Clapton’s lead lines from “Apple Jam” is an absolute boon. The whole thing is in the key of C, or C Minor for “Out Of The Blue” – and to this day, it’s a great record to put on and jam along to. It totally rocks – live, instrumental rock tracks from the best rock musicians of the 1960s, assembled in one room to make a George Harrison album – the excitement is palpable!
Sure, later on, my influences changed, and I became as much about Fripp & Eno as I did about Clapton & Harrison, but all of it is my musical DNA, I would not be the guitarist I am, if it were not for those influences, if it were not for the experience of “Apple Jam” being the first, and for a long time, only, album of improvised guitar playing I ever owned, and therefore, it became the template for all jams that I played probably from age 15 to 20 – it was what I knew, what I played – what I loved. So having the…slightly rearranged, albeit, tracks from “Apple Jam” in this newly re-mastered package, is just the icing on the cake, and I can barely contain myself, I can hardly wait until I get there, so I can rock out once again to “Out Of The Blue” or “Thanks For The Pepperoni” – amazing jams from the most amazing, giant “rock band” ever assembled – George Harrison And His Famous Friends.
Not to be missed, do not, do not, I repeat – miss this record. It’s a hugely important part of the Beatles story, and to me, it’s almost like a final Beatles record made by a different version of the band, led by and directed by George, to play George’s songs – which was NOT the avowed purpose of the Beatles – that was, to play Lennon-McCartney songs :-).
So “All Things Must Pass” is a very important part of history, and it’s now taken it’s rightful place in this amazing box of the “Apple Masters Vol. 1” – a brilliant collection showcasing the talents of the “quiet” Beatle, who in 1970, was not quiet in the slightest!
Disc 4 – Living In The Material World (June 1973) – remastered, expanded version
Then came the somewhat lower-key “Living In The Material World”, with it’s absolutely astonishing Hare Krishna artwork – one of the brightest, boldest album covers of the day – simply striking! And a visual, and auditory, declaration, from George, of his new-found love for Sri Krishna – we’d had some broad hints before this, such as the mega-worldwide hit “My Sweet Lord” from the previous record, the afore-described “All Things Must Pass” but it wasn’t until “Living In The Material” hit the record stores in 1971, that we knew, without a doubt, that George had “gone” completely Hare Krishna – and we mean, completely.
The songs – reflected this, OK, there are still a few normal “love songs” such as the very catchy, acoustic-guitar led “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” but the majority of the songs seemed to be about…Krishna. Or – how people’s perceptions of George had changed for the worse, because of his love of Krishna – as exemplified by “Who Can See It” – a song about those who can, and can’t, see the truth right in front of their noses, about Krishna being God, that is.
This very, very strong religious bent of George’s, actually, never bothered me in the least. The press had a field day with it, and I don’t think George was too pleased with some of the reactions to his new found religion. But for me – this was just a new batch of songs by George Harrison – and, it was startling in other ways – a lot of acoustic songs, but also, a LOT, and I mean a LOT, of that brilliant slide guitar, with that special George Harrison “tone”, that we’d heard hints of before, but now we were getting the real thing – and some of the songs, like “The Lord Loves Him (Who Loves The Lord)” and the acerbic “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” are almost entirely based around slide guitar riffs – and that was something new for George. Dobros and acoustic slide were appearing, too, so really, for guitarists, this is a hugely important record, because it showed us the next evolution of George Harrison, the guitarist – and this is still a great record to study if you want to learn the best slide guitar technique ever known to man, or, just how to play guitar with style, class and skill.
The album opener, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” was a substantial hit for George, a very catchy acoustic riff opens the song, and some amazing slide guitar cements it’s musical credentials, this is a quality piece of work with a beautiful, universal message – and this is the kind of thing that all Beatles seem to be able to pull off – from “All You Need Is Love” to “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” various Beatles at various times, seem to be able to talk openly about universal truth and beauty, and make it palatable to the masses – well, “Give Me Love” is just that, a song about love and peace – and in 1971, as now, the world needs more love, the world needs more peace – this message is eternal, and what a great way to start the record, too.
The acoustic feel of most of the album is, I believe, very intentional, and for me, some of those “quieter” songs are some of the most important, and most beautiful, one of which, “The Day The World Gets Round” uses guitar harmonics in a brilliant way, and I really, really love the whole feel of that track – again, and actually, I believe, for the last time, George is really paying attention to the vocal approach, and in this track, he is hitting some of the highest notes I’d ever heard him sing – and pulling it off. He really pushed himself vocally here, and there is once again, evidence of the modified “Beatles” vocal harmonies technique – what I might dub the “Wall Of Georges” – not to the extent as it’s used on All Things Must Pass, but it’s still there – whereas in all of the records after this one – I don’t personally feel that George ever matched the vocal work he did on those two records – “All Things Must Pass” and “Living In The Material World” – that’s his highest point as both vocalist and, more importantly, vocal arranger – and I think this is just a work of genius in that regard.
Not all of the songs are acoustic in nature, to appease the record company, the did do one “big production number” which is the title track of the album, which contains THE most gorgeous middle eight break, where the rock music shifts effortlessly and beautifully over to tablas and tanpuras, while George sings in a voice of heaven “from the spiritual sky, how I pray, how I pray, that I won’t get lost or go astray…” – and when you hear those tablas kick in, it’s just magic – and this is one of those amazing examples of the integration of Indian music into Western music that should not work, but somehow – it works amazingly well. And when that beautiful Indian music section ends, it just melts right back into the “western rock band” sound as if NOTHING had happened – and the song continues as a normal piece of rock – Ringo on the drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, George on electric guitars – horns, etc. – the big band sound – for “Living In The Material World” – the one “production” track on the album. That track appeared at what was the last position on the vinyl album’s “side one”, so you got four or five acoustic tracks, then this big, loud, piece of showy rock music (with, gorgeous Indian middle section, don’t forget) and then back to vinyl album “side two” another batch of mostly acoustic songs.
The album ends on a very quiet song indeed, one of my personal favourites, with some of the most moving and gorgeous slide guitar anywhere – and that song is the beautiful “That Is All” – a lovely love song of some significance. When it reaches the moment for the slide guitar solo, I just collapse in a heap, it’s so incredibly beautiful – words cannot describe it, you just have to hear it – and then it just quietly wanders off to its inevitable sleepy ending…low key, no big exit, no big statement – just, this is me, now, George-who-loves-Krishna – and you have to hand it to him – to come out like that, showing what you love on your sleeve in that incredibly public way – that must have taken some big cahones – really, it takes nerves of steel to publish a cover like that, knowing that it will probably alienate a lot of people, including a lot of your fans.
George was always a man of his convictions, and his love for Krishna to me, was very real, I knew, and I still know now, from listening to the absolutely honest and absolutely heartfelt lyrics of this record, that George truly believed in Krishna, and in the love he’d found there – and while he may have wavered later on, at this point, his faith was so strong, that he was willing to face millions of people and say “I’ve found peace and fulfilment in the Lord Sri Krishna” and being dead serious about it – not a publicity stunt, not like an early equivalent of announcing “I like, so many others, am a Scientologist” – that just makes me laugh, but nothing about “Living In The Material World” makes me want to laugh – it’s a truly important album, which is often overshadowed by it’s much, much more famous predecessor, “All Things Must Pass”, but now, I think people should really listen to this record, because it, to me, is just a logical next step, it makes sense to me – this is what you do to follow “All Things Must Pass”.
That album was a very public record, made with a large group of “famous” musician friends, while “Living In The Material World” – despite also being very public (it would be many years before every move a Beatle made, was not in the public eye) – it’s also incredibly personal and private, almost – and I think George must have thought to himself, well, if they “get it”, they will “get it” – if they don’t – they don’t – and he was willing to lose a few million fans if he had to – he was going to tell the truth (as he saw it) about his beliefs, and let people know that he now loves the Lord Krishna, and he is proud and happy about that – and he wants to let the world know about the happiness he has found there, about the personal fulfilment and joy of being a believer in Krishna.
At the same time, there is still George the man, and, George the man who writes ordinary songs about love, such as “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” or “That Is All” as well as songs that describe his new-found closeness to his new God, the Lord Krishna: “The Light That Has Lighted The World”, “The Day The World Gets Round”, “Who Can See It” and “The Lord Loves The One (Who Loves The Lord” and the beautiful, mystical “Be Here Now”, surely one of the most beautiful acoustic George Harrison songs since the brilliant “The Inner Light” – a Beatles B-side – and “Be Here Now” has a beautiful, quiet appeal that really resonates with me, it’s just a lovely little tune.
While the “ordinary” songs are seriously outnumbered by the “religious” songs, it makes no difference to me, I love all of these songs, there is wry humour as in the very litigious “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (another fantastic example of some of the greatest slide guitar playing on the planet – give this one a listen!) as well as deep, personal love songs “That Is All”.
One real curiosity is the presence of a song that was originally intended for Ronnie Spector, the cautionary tale “Try Some, Buy Some” which is very odd, it somehow works within the context of the album, but it’s strange because it doesn’t really fit the mostly acoustic mould of the record – George took the track, and recorded new vocals and I think, guitars on it – maybe this was just to flesh out what is otherwise a fairly short record, I do not know, but even this odd song has its place here, a bit of “overblown” Phil Spector string arranging for anyone hankering back to that previous record again, the Spector-produced “All Things Must Pass”. The difference in this record is simple: it’s produced by Harrison throughout – with one exception – Phil Spector on “Try Some, Buy Some”. So it does sound a bit out of place, here you have these very clear, very clean, definitely not clouded by reverb acoustic-led tracks, beautifully produced by George – and then comes the massive of reverb-y strings that is “Try Some, Buy Some” – so it does stick out, like the proverbial Spector-sore-thumb. But at the same time – it belongs here, there is no other place it would belong, and I think George does a good performance of the tune – I like this track – despite its production values being totally at odds with every other song on the record J.
The two bonus tracks that have long been associated with this record are the lovely “Deep Blue”, and the somewhat silly, somewhat…frivolous “Miss O’Dell” – a strange, unfinished sounding demo-like song where George periodically breaks down into hilarious laughter during the vocals as he attempts to sing the chorus – so in that sense, I do welcome this song, as it does provide one “light moment” in what is essentially, some very heavy, very serious musical proceedings – not to say there isn’t joy present in some of the songs, in the love songs in particular, but there is certainly nothing nearly as light-hearted (or as slight as) “Miss O’Dell” – it’s definitely unique in George’s not insubstantial canon.
It’s difficult for me to believe this, but this is only George’s fourth studio album, from the period from 1968 – 1973 – although 1971 is not represented here because it produced a live album, which you do not get in this set – the Concert For Bangladesh – which of course, doesn’t “count” as a studio album – so it’s odd to me that this fairly “late” record is already the fourth studio solo album – but there it is. No matter though, it’s a fantastic way to end the set, and despite the final track, “That Is All”, going out on a serious, quiet note – “Living In The Material World” itself is a great high point to leave the box set at, a positive record made by a man who was finding himself, finding his true beliefs, and making his way in the world – one song at a time.
I love this record, I have always loved this record, and I think I love it almost as much as I love “All Things Must Pass” – which, on recent reflection, may actually be my favourite record of all time! Because it was so important to me as a child, I really believed in George, and I felt that the Lennon-McCartney Axis Of Power gave George short shrift – that George and his songs were constantly being side-lined in favour of adding just one more “Lennon-McCartney original” to the next Beatle album…I was so, so happy then, with the appearance of these two records, both of which are crafted with so much heart – that’s one thing you can’t deny – George Harrison had heart, and on these two records – you don’t have to look far to find it.
Disc 5 – Dark Horse (December 1974) – remastered, expanded version
This was an album that I didn’t own at the time, there were a lot of records I didn’t buy, simply because I didn’t have the money. So when I went to see George Harrison and Friends, at the LA Forum, in 1974, I had no idea what to expect.
It starts out very, very promising, with a bright little instrumental called “Hari’s On Tour” which I have learned to love, despite the somewhat dated sound of Tom Scott and the LA Express’s approach to horn playing, Harrison himself is actually jamming pretty well on his slide here, and it’s worth it just for the slide playing.
Unusual, too – a Beatle starting a solo album with an instrumental? I think that “Hari’s On Tour” is an bit of an underrated gem, and if I am not mistaken, this was the piece that the band started with when I saw them – which was a complete surprise, and of course, at the time, I had NO IDEA what it was.
After this most unusual opening salvo, George moves us into “Simply Shady”, which is the first indication that something is amiss, George’s beautiful high voice is a bit lower now, there are still nice harmonies, but they are simpler – there are still really nice lead guitars, as one would expect, some nice bluesy riffs in this tune, along with bits of pedal steel guitar – again, probably a better tune than I thought.
I don’t know now, how to really react to the tracks from Dark Horse, and all of the albums that followed – I mean, it’s George, so I a part of is loyal, but another part of me longs for the deep spirituality of “Living In The Material World” or the just-freed pop/rock genius of “All Things Must Pass” – and you can tell, two songs in, that yes, it’s George – there’s a nice little blues guitar solo on the outro of “Simply Shady” – it’s pleasant, it’s well done, but some of the spark is gone.
Continuing the alliteration, probably unconsciously, we then get “So Sad” which starts out with some very Beatle-y chorused / leslied guitars, but then it sort of dissolves into standard pop fare – sure, there is a small fanfare of slide guitar in between each chorus – that’s something that seems to crop up in many of George’s songs on every album, but there is just something about the vocal delivery, it’s just not what it was, and for me – well, I feel a slight sense of loss.
George worked himself far, far too hard in 1974, to the point of exhaustion, and his voice suffered – and maybe, you can hear the beginnings of that here on the album, I don’t know – but by the time of the tour, his voice was well and truly shot, so we got to hear super-hoarse renditions of Harrison classics and newer material, which was a bit of shame – but I didn’t care – it was flippin’ GEORGE HARRISON, playing live – and I got to see it. It was an amazing concert, with Ravi Shankar and his Orchestra opening the show – and that was the experience of a life time – seeing Ravi Shankar followed by George Harrison – brilliant.
The musical excesses of the times are already starting to catch up with George, “Bye Bye Love” – a strange cover of the Everly Brothers song that all of the Beatles adored, starts with, of all things – a fretless bass. To my mind – that is just about the most inappropriate instrument you could choose – but there it is – It is a very, very, VERY strange cover, to say the least. George’s voice is more animated, he definitely sounds better on this track than on the preceding tracks, but beyond that – the fretless just ruins this for me – not my thing I guess – sure, there is a time and a place for fretless bass – but NOT when you are covering classic 50s pop.
A funky electric piano now enters about half-way through, which just further dates this to 1974, but a bit of a clichéd 1974, and there are guitars a plenty, a strange Rhodes/guitar/vocal break appears, with that inappropriate fretless getting funkier and funkier…and retrospectively, I personally would question George’s choices of musicians for this project – it was a very funky band, and sure, they were all great players – but for me, George needed a pop band, a rock band – not a funky band with Billy Preston and Willie Weeks to the fore. Like the band he had for the 1991 tour. But – it was 1974, and these were the choices he made.
It had a huge influence on the sound of the record, which then of course alters the feel of the songs, so – it’s all change, this album does not, to my ears, sound like an album made by the same musician who made the third and fourth solo albums.
“Maya Love” starts to bring things back a bit, although there is an incredibly funky electric piano and bass line to deal with, at least there is a ton of great slide playing once again – and for me, I can ALWAYS enjoy George’s slide playing, in any context, in any song – so for me, even an album like Dark Horse, I can listen to, because if I am not maybe so wild about the songs, or the vocals – I can listen to the guitars.
“Ding Dong” is another one that is up tempo and quite cheery, with the Tom Scott Overdone Horns still at it, the predictable bell sounds, but the vocals are a bit better again – although the massed vocal chorus is just plain silly. I just have trouble with this song – “ring out the old, ring in the new…” – I wish he had rung in some different “kind” of new – this new George was not really the George for me.
But – the concert was fantastic, the “Dark Horse” tour was an amazing event, even with George’s damaged voice – there was no stopping him, on with the show – until Ravi had his heart attack, at which point George moved him and his family to Encinitas, California, very near to where I lived – so he could have the best heart care available at the time. Years later – I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a private concert at Ravi’s home – and that was an amazing experience – and since he now lived in the San Diego area, this enabled me to see him perform many times, and also, to see Anoushka, his daughter, perform – and that was a real stroke of luck for me!
And I feel a million times lucky – because I got to see Ravi’s band play at that 1974 concert – before his heart attack side-lined him. Of course, he recovered fully, and eventually lived to the hearty old age of 93 – an incredible person, and as George’s mentor, one of the most amazing musicians to have walked the planet – I know, I’ve seen him play.
By the time we get to the title track, “Dark Horse” – well, you’ve now become somewhat acclimated, and actually, I find this to be one of the best songs on the album – the acoustic guitars make a welcome FIRST APPEARANCE, so that make it nice, and flutes instead of horns is a nice change, too – a very pleasant little tune, and one of the tracks I actually recall from the concert.
Then things go from bad to worse, suddenly, I feel like I’m in some seamy B-movie, as “Far East Man” assaults my ears – strange, strange, strange – funky chord progression that owes more to 70s soul than to George Harrison, rock guitarist – and it’s just so seamy, with its smooth jazz sound, it’s slithering saxophone riffs – ugh. A strained vocal, with Tom Scott on sax, answering the phrases – doesn’t help – and trying to hit the high notes, and not quite doing so – oh God, I just want it to stop – and of course, the solo is a horn solo, not a slide solo – so there is nothing redeeming here – “Dark Horse” (the song) was clearly a high point, followed immediately by this low point – OK – there is some slide guitar eventually, but even it’s not worth struggling through this terrifically dated and disturbing funky soul diva nightmare. I don’t like it, George – I’m sorry. It’s not for me.
“It Is “He” (Jai Sri Krishna)” is repetitive but anything is an improvement on “Far East Man”, at least this is more like a normal song, but I feel nothing of the devotion and love that I get when I listen to “Living In The Material World” – and the silly “gubba-dub” instrument that George plays takes any possible serious religious message and makes it seem quite silly – it’s just a stupid sound, and why George thought it appropriate for this song, or for any song – I simply cannot imagine.
And then, a “jew’s harp” – yet another cheap gimmick, appears in the very next song, the first of two bonus tracks the short and sweet “I Don’t Care Anymore” – which is, blessedly, acoustic guitar and voice mostly…a real song, tacked onto the end of an album of songs, that to me, are mostly, not real.
The final piece, and the second of two bonus tracks, is an early version / different mix of the title track – and it shows what a good song it was even early on – I do like this song, it’s the best on the album – and here, it’s just acoustic guitar, lead vocal, and a lot of nicely overdubbed vocals. So this, and the real version of the title track – are my two favourite tracks on the album!
Disappointing in many ways, I think this album had some potential, but I feel like it was rushed (and it was, they were rushing to finish it in time for the tour…so, haste makes waste, was never more true than in this case!) and that is a real shame. A couple of the songs, I find unlistenable, and one or two, are worth it – otherwise, I suggest you look elsewhere in the Harrison catalogue, and leave Dark Horse alone except for the two fine versions of the title track – which are undeniably pleasant, and show such promise…sigh.
Disc 6 – Extra Texture (October 1975) – remastered, expanded version
A rocking pace, an upbeat, up tempo track, “You”, starts us out on the 1975 George Harrison solo album, “Extra Texture” (Read All About It) – another one that I did not buy at the time, but have only heard much, much later on – and while I can’t call it a “return to form” (after the very disappointing “Dark Horse”) it certainly sounds better – except unfortunately, that damnable Tom Scott is there again, with his incessant sax riffs, and I just don’t know why George is so fond of the saxophone – but he seems to want it EVERYWHERE – and for me, well, I would probably like “You” if it weren’t for that damn sax!
Nice guitar riff, a clean Telecaster-y sounding riff, vocals back on form, hits the very high note at the end, sounding relaxed and confident – this is more the George I want to hear, but the band, the arrangements – well, they are just not up my street, and we are still uncomfortably, many light-years away from the pure genius of “All Things Must Pass” or the beautiful, quiet introspection of “Living In The Material World”…too far away for my liking.
“The Answer’s At The End” is slow, slower, almost dirge-like in comparison to the snappy opener, so the mood of the album takes a down swing right away, and that earnest, strained-voice sound starts to return, not quite as disappointing as the vocal sound on “Dark Horse”, but still, a bit troubling. This is a ballad, seventies style, full on, with cheap sounding strings, pianos, and plenty of drama…it’s OK, but I don’t really feel a huge amount of love for it – a slinky, descending piano riff suddenly moves it into cocktail lounge territory, until thank you God, a slide guitar appears, briefly, to make the rest of the song worthwhile. Even that four second solo is worth it, it sounds great, and I just wish he would play, play, play – but, he feels that he has to do these “songs” – and that’s what he does – until the end of his career. He is so earnest, it’s difficult to feel upset with him, he means so well, he wants these songs to work so badly – but as with “Dark Horse” – they have dated considerably.
More tinkling pianos take us at last, to the end of this long, somewhat tedious ballad – and then…then, we get “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying)” and indeed, the opening guitar figure, has a beautiful, beautiful tone – and we do get a lot of guitar in this tune, another serious one (with another earnest, heartfelt, vocal) interspersed with the most incredibly beautiful guitars imaginable – really lovely, and for me, this track is a highlight, even though as a song, it doesn’t thrill me – the slide techniques, the tone – it’s just unbelievable – wah slide, slide harmonies – all beautifully done – really nice work – and I love it. But that’s the big deal here – the slide guitars are ALWAYS good, even when they appear in the worst possible arrangements, even when they appear in bad songs – they are really good.
“Ooh Baby” (You Know That I Love You) starts to move us into that 70s soul again, but this time, it’s so tastefully done, that I don’t actually mind it – a very serious love song, with a sort of Smoky Robinson style vocal and approach to it – George takes this stuff so seriously – and for a sappy love song, done in a very soul style, it’s really pretty well done, and a pleasant vocal – I actually don’t mind this, oddly – because it’s really not my kind of song, but I admire the quality of it anyway.
Piano and organ introduce the next piece, yet another earnest, modified ballad – with a terrible title, “World Of Stone” – very serious stuff here, featuring some strange sounds from the guitar, wah sounds – but then, we get a very nice Stratocaster/clean guitar solo, followed by an odd chorus vocal – this is just kinda strange, but it’s OK, harmless, it doesn’t bother me, and some of the chord progressions are fairly interesting and fairly advanced, so I can admire it’s structure, even if I don’t really get it as a tune…more beautiful clean guitar soloing on the outro, with that strange, mixed-low chorus in the background – nice, nice guitar playing – I love it when he takes a longer solo like this, it’s a real beauty – and I will remember this – if I want to hear some nice, nice guitar – the last part of “World Of Stone” is the place to go – surprising, and beautiful.
Next comes “A Bit More Of You”, which is upbeat, up tempo – and you guessed it, full of sax riffs – but, surprise – it’s a musical joke, obviously, the end of the vinyl side one, it’s 45 seconds “more” of “You” – get it? So, a faded in and then faded out, reprise of that first track (to remind you of back when this album was still good?) – I don’t quite know why, but it’s more of George’s wry humour, I suppose. Good joke – “A Bit More Of You” J.
“I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” features that phrase, repeated four times, before some other lyrics appear, followed immediately by a fifth iteration. More serious, serious balladry, very very strange background vocals here, too – almost weird – and some strange chord progressions, too – but still, not a lot to recommend it – a sort of nauseating chorale sound on the chorus, which once again, features those same words, over and over and over again… not much of a lyric, if you ask me. Forgettable, but at this point, inevitable. George seems locked into this “I am a serious soul singer” thing, he has to write these super serious ballads – I don’t get it – what happened to pop music, what happened to rock and roll? It’s just not here, on these albums – it’s not on “Dark Horse”, with the possible exception of parts of “Hari’s On Tour” – otherwise – no – and it’s not here on “Extra Texture” either.
I don’t know what happened, it’s almost as if the 80s started early for George, and he went straight from 1972, to 1980 – his middle 70s, was like our 80s – bereft of most musical value J.
“Tired Of Midnight Blue” is the next aural assault on our ears, this one is a bit funky, piano led, with high pitched background vocals at first – but then, it gets better, it’s sort of like modified spy music, and it has some nice guitar work, maybe a bit “Steely Dan” if you know what I mean, interesting because it’s a bit odd. I don’t mind this one, and so far, the songs have been overall, better, and much more palatable than the songs from the last album, “Dark Horse”. Nice vocal harmonies, beautiful slide guitars – it is here, if you are patient and you know which tracks to listen to – this is one I will listen to again – it’s quite good, imagine that! Strange – but good.
“Grey Cloudy Lies” with it’s strange piano, Leslie’d (rotating speaker) guitars, and moog synth arrangement – is just odd, another ballad, another downbeat, serious track, with a serious vocal – and it just sort of drifts by it’s not unpleasant, but it’s also not terrifically memorable for any reason.
“His Name Is Legs (Ladies And Gentlemen)” is the first of two obligatory bonus tracks, funky bass, piano, funky horns, trite lyrics, forgettable tune – funky Rhodes piano – I don’t really see the point, unless this is an attempt at “rocking” – if it is, it’s a pretty lame one – I suppose I should be thankful that there is something else besides the album opener that is actually upbeat, but I don’t get a lot out of this track – it’s just OK, but I just don’t really engage with it, and the horns are too funky for my liking, and any song with a bad horn arrangement – and, in this case, a really weird vocal break, that I can’t even explain – it’s just goofy – really, really silly voice-over “comedy” I think this is supposed to be quite funny, but it’s really not, and the spoken sections do not travel well. Very silly stuff, and with such an otherwise downbeat, subdued record, its perkiness seems false and just kinda unnecessary. It’s not helping! However – his name is Legs, in case you were wondering – ladies and gentlemen. Not recommended. Not particularly funny, or particularly good – it’s just plain odd.
Our second of two and final bonus track is “This Guitar Can’t Keep From Crying (Platinum Weird Version)” – and I suppose that is as good an explanation as any. It’s sparser than the original version, much less “produced” – and, much more powerful too – much more – the original version is one of the stronger tracks on the record – which, by the way, is said to be so downbeat and low key, because George was depressed over the panning he’d received over his 1974 projects – the “Dark Horse” album and tour. If so – well, it’s not that bad – I think overall, it’s substantially better than “Dark Horse” – and this version of this song, has one of the best solos George has played in a long time – it just rocks, it has a wicked, wicked guitar sound – and I will tell you what, I would happily sit through this entire album again just to hear this rocking version of this little song. Said to be a “follow up” to the 1968 classic George Harrison song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and also, an indictment of the responses to the “Dark Horse” album and tour – but my God, the guitar playing is just amazing – when the main solo arrives, (guitarists, you do NOT want to miss this one – check it out at 1:53 – far, far better than the one on the “finished version” – far better!!) – just about knocks you out of your seat – a really nice surprise.
DISC 6 – The Apple Years DVD
The DVD is just what you would expect, it contains an “Apple Years” feature, an “All Things Must Pass” feature, some live video clips from the 1992 “Live In Japan” CD, a making-of “Living In The Material World” piece, and additional videos and features for Dark Horse and The Concert For Bangladesh – which of course, isn’t in either of the boxes!
So it’s a bit odd – the Live In Japan video clips are VERY welcome (PLEASE PLEASE GIVE US THE WHOLE CONCERT FFS!) but they actually relate to Vol. 2 of the box set – and the Concert For Bangladesh feature is in the right place chronologically, but – that album, for whatever reason, is not included in the set (because it’s live? because they didn’t have the rights?) I don’t know why – because the second box contains the live 1992 concert CD – so it can’t be that. I don’t understand the omission of the Bangladesh CD – but there it is.
Short but sweet, enjoyable, but nothing earth-shaking, and as always, you will have seen some or all of this material elsewhere – but, still, a nice addition to the box. I very much enjoyed it.
IN CONCLUSION – THOUGHTS AND WISHES, HOPES AND DREAMS…
The fact that George’s career took a bit of a hit in 1974 / 1975 does not in any way detract from what a brilliant set of music “The Apple Years Vol. 1 – 1968 – 1975” is – it’s just what happened, and I think that any lack of inspiration present on “Dark Horse” and “Extra Texture” are more than made up by the amazing music on the four albums that precede them, and you would really need them to understand the full story of George’s music.
It’s also important to hear the next phase, as represented by “The Dark Horse Years Vol. 2 – 1976 – 1992” because George did produce some better music, later on, once the bad experiences of 1974 receded into the background.
I actually felt quite sorry for George – after those first few amazing years of the 1970s, and his absolutely runaway successes – one after the other – “All Things Must Pass” selling beyond his wildest dreams – “The Concert For Bangladesh” being a huge success – two triple albums in a row…and then the beautiful, understated “Living In The Material World” – at the end of 1973, he could look back at three solid years of massive success, with his “My Sweet Lord” single eventually selling in excess of TEN MILLION copies…and “All Things Must Pass” itself, over time, outselling McCartney and Lennon’s most famous albums combined…in a way, at this point in George’s life, really, the only way he COULD go was down…and it’s was, sadly, “Dark Horse” – album and tour – that took him there.
It could have been anything – any record – any time, but, for George, 1974 was truly disastrous, and I think too, that the madness of his first three years as an ex-Beatle were probably quite wearing, quite tiring – a lot of expectation, a lot was expected of George – and he delivered, over and over and over again, how he managed to pull of the Bangladesh benefit is still a miracle to me, he managed to convince Dylan to play at literally the last minute – he just made things happen.
So I was not surprised by “Dark Horse” being not quite as good – well, to be frank – not nearly as good, as what came before. But I don’ t know if ANY songwriter could keep up with the output and the quality that George produced between 1970 and 1973 – and don’t forget, in 1969, he’d written “Something” – so you can really add that last year or two as a Beatle to this same time line, he was really on an incredibly musical high from 1963 to 1973 – a non-stop musical high, that started with his 1963 rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” (taken from the Beatles’ second album “With The Beatles”), with his somewhat famous pals “The Beatles” and ended with “That Is All” which sits nicely at the end of 1973’s fourth solo album “Living In The Material World”.
If you think about it – from the first songs that George sang lead vocals on:
“Do You Want To Know A Secret”
“Devil In Her Heart”
“Roll Over Beethoven”
“Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”
“I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”
…and, from the first songs that George wrote AND sang lead vocals on, too:
“Don’t Bother Me”
“Cry For A Shadow” (Co-written with John Lennon)
“I Need You”
“You Like Me Too Much”
“Think For Yourself”
“If I Needed Someone”
“Love You To”
“I Want To Tell You”
“Within You, Without You” (compare this 1967 track to 1963’s “Don’t Bother Me” – quite a change there!)
“Blue Jay Way”
“Flying” (Co-written with Lennon, McCartney, Starkey)
“Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” (Co-written with Lennon, McCartney, Starkey)
“The Inner Light”
“Sour Milk Sea” (Jackie Lomax)
At this point, this is where we join the “Apple Years Vol. 1 1968 – 1975” box set, where George is credited with writing all of the songs on the first solo album, the soundtrack for “Wonderwall” the film.
Then – all the songs from “The Beatles” – aka “The White Album”:
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
“Long, Long, Long”
“Only A Northern Song”
“It’s All Too Much”
“Badge” (as performed by “Cream” co-written with Eric Clapton)
Followed by the two songs from 1969’s “Electronic Sound”
“Old Brown Shoe”
“Here Comes The Sun”
“I Me Mine”
“For You Blue”
Not to mention or forget…
“Dig It” (Co-written with Lennon, McCartney, Starkey)
“Maggie May” (a traditional folk song covered by the Beatles on “Let It Be”)
Songs from the Doris Troy solo album of 1970
Songs from the Billy Preston solo album of 1970…
And off the back of that – off the back of this massive list of George Harrison penned songs – most of them, written and performed to an amazingly high standard – he went on, having JUST WRITTEN both “Something” and the amazing “Here Comes The Sun” months previously – to build the tracks that became “All Things Must Pass” – and when you look at that legacy, the whole thing (or most of it, anyway) it’s an amazing career, of amazing songs – culminating in the triple-whammy of “All Things Must Pass” followed by “The Concert For Bangladesh” followed by “Living In The Material World” – amazing, and built on a foundation of songs, the list above – that are frankly, absolutely incredible!
What a list of truly remarkable songs, and Dhani Harrison, as compiler, must be complimented for the very thorough and very high quality job he has done compiling these re-mastered, expanded albums included in the two box sets, “Apple Years” and “Dark Horse Years” – both, highly recommended!
I am so glad they appeared, and in particular, having pristine re-masters of “Wonderwall” (a personal favourite of mine), “All Things Must Pass” (George’s finest hour), “Living In The Material World” (from the Apple Box), and “Live In Japan 1992” (from the Dark Horse box – not reviewed here) – is a huge, huge deal to me – I love those records, not to mention “Cloud Nine” (also included in the “Dark Horse” box) which while a bit dated, sound pretty good still.
Of course, there was also the “Travelling Wilburys”…George’s “other” band of famous folk, which are omitted here entirely, and, the “Concert For Bangladesh”, only mentioned in passing on one of the DVDs…and not included in either of the boxes. But even without those, the six discs here, represent a fine legacy, of my favourite Beatle, and preserved in a brilliant way by his son Dhani (a talented producer, musician, singer, and writer in his own right).
A remarkable man, a very talented man, a great musician, an astonishingly innovative and unique slide guitarist – George Harrison is a musical force to be reckoned with, a songwriter beyond compare – and you could not start in a better place than his output for Apple Records from 1968 – 1975 – this was when it was all happening for George – not to be missed!!
“And that is all I want to say…
Our love could save the day…
And that is all I’m living for…
Your love and nothing more
That is all…”
Peace, love and harrisongs forever !
Now that the good Steven Wilson has succumbed to the temptation to remix almost every important pop, rock or prog band that ever existed, in glorious 5.1 surround sound, with instrumental mixes, and extra tracks galore, I am afraid that I have succumbed to a new technological phenomena – the “pre-order”.
It was probably Amazon, bless their cotton socks, that started this trend (with my personal new favourite CD Store, Burning Shed, also well onto the pre-order bandwagon): order your favourite re-master or 5.1 expanded version of your favourite re-master, or an exciting new release, ahead of time, and you have the advantage of receiving it on the release date. That’s definitely a positive, it means you can get to the important bit all that much sooner: listening.
I mostly consider this concept a boon, my pocketbook, however, views it as a curse, especially since the advent of Burning Shed here in Europe, a specialist shop featuring all of the music candy that I cannot, cannot stay away from – so now, it’s a double curse – if Burning Shed don’t have it, Amazon probably do.
This is the problem though, another part of the curse, which might be labelled as “The Curse Of The Crimson King” because King Crimson (or rather, Robert Fripp) is guilty of this as much or more than many bands, as time goes on, they re-release their classic 60s or 70s music catalogue over and over and over again; on the one hand, taking advantage of the leaps and bounds of technological advance, so we can get ever-cleaner, ever more amazing-sounding renditions of our favourite music, on the other…making us buy it over and over and over again… Sigh.
At first, it made sense – so, using King Crimson as an example – I totally understood why: in the earliest days of the compact disc era, Fripp’s record company produced CDs of the original 10 King Crimson albums on CD when CDs came out, and they did a pretty poor job of transferring this very important music – so, Robert Fripp invented “The Definitive Editions” which were the first truly good-sounding versions of King Crimson CDs, and I had no issue at all with paying again, for something I had bought multiple times on vinyl, and then, on cassette, and then, on bad transfer CD, and finally, on Definitive Editions.
The problem is, more time passes, more technological leaps and bounds occur, and it’s that time again; time to remaster every King Crimson album yet again. Until finally, in 2014, we get what really is the definitive edition: the Steven Wilson remasters, in normal or deluxe versions. We get to hear the original multitrack tapes rendered into state of the art 5.1 surround sound, by someone who if he wasn’t already, is fast becoming the guru, the master, of the arcane science of 5.1 mixing, the remarkable Steven Wilson – who started out tackling one of the most difficult catalogues of all, the King Crimson catalogue; everyone held their collective breath, but, Steven was sensitive, understanding and very kind to these songs that we all grew so attached to in the early 1970s or even, the late 1960s.
This, begins to cost some serious money, and, I am not complaining, no one held a gun against my temple, but…if I had known, I would have just kept my chrome cassette tape of my import Crimson vinyl, until such time as the Steven Wilson expanded box 5.1 surround sound sets became available; if I had skipped the first three CD generations I would have saved, literally, hundreds of dollars / pounds i.e. a shed load of MONEY, on King Crimson alone :-(. I shudder to think how much money I lost across the entire Prog genre over the years :-).
But that brings me from one of the worst curses, which is not in any way limited to King Crimson, almost every prog band in the universe has immediately jumped on this same cash cow bandwagon, from Jethro Tull to Gentle Giant to Caravan, to one of the best boons – and that is the 5.1 experience itself. Now, when I was in my 30s, I decided to invest in a 5.1 system, mostly so I could watch films with their proper sound tracks, in theatre style. Audio 5.1 was a rarity for a long, long time, I was always interested in it, but, there really wasn’t much to buy for the longest time – so we had to be content with our wonderful sounding movies…
Of course, change is good, and the change came – now, 5.1 surround sound audio is becoming as common as nails, on both DVD and even nicer, on Blu-Ray (my personal favourite format) and I for one welcome it, and I say “boon”, it’s a good, good thing, it allows you to hear your favourite music in startling new ways, ways that can make you jump out of your seat they are so surprising and revelatory, ways that I cannot really describe using words – you have to hear it. I started getting into this seriously when the King Crimson 40th Anniversary / Steven Wilson editions albums started coming out, I got my 5.1 surround sound system back out of the box and set it up, because at last, I had something to actually LISTEN to on it….
And listen I did, and I do – and the Crimson catalogue is while an early triumph for Wilson –it’s still one of the very, very best jobs he ever did of re-configuring a strange and wonderful catalogue, into the 5.1 surround sound format, and of course, at the same time, unearthing all manner of remarkable rarities, from outtakes to alternate versions to previously unearthed live versions to, in one case, on Starless (either version, either the 2-disc Starless & Bible Black 5.1 package, 2 discs, or the new 27 disc version – yes, I said 27!) unearthing a live track that no one into the band could remember. Luckily, their lyricist did remember, so now we have the piece of Prog delight that is King Crimson’s “Guts On Our Side” – a remarkable track, rehearsed for a few days, performed once, dropped from the set, forgotten for 27 years, and now – it’s back!! You want to talk about bonus material – you need to see the new giant Starless box set, it is simply amazing.
But – also – see this brand new disc, just released on October 27, 2014, and arriving on that day via of course, my Burning Shed pre-order – the 1979 classic album “Drums And Wires” by XTC. Wilson already had one XTC disc under his belt, the most excellent 1992 album “Nonsuch”, but he was just using that to warm up, and now, in 2014, he has delivered what may be his master work – “Drums And Wires”. I sat down last night, and listened to the entire album in 5.1, plus, a generous helping of B-sides in 5.1 surround sound, and then, taking up over two hours of my evening, from the Blu-Ray edition, a massive number of “bonus tracks” – sessions, live tracks, and a full rehearsal session that is every XTC fan’s dream – including discussions, instrumental run-throughs, and a remarkable timeline of music that leads up to the recording of the actual album.
In the case of XTC, that series of sessions and rehearsals was really the sound of the band transforming, butterfly-like, from the “old” XTC of the madcap organ and piano of the ever so slightly deranged Barry Andrews, to the beautiful, all guitars attack of “Drums And Wires” – with new member Dave Gregory undergoing trial by fire, learning a massive number of songs – including some, from an early session, that sound very much like the “old” XTC, and it’s a wonderful thing indeed, to hear the band evolving at speed, and to hear Dave’s contributions to the songs – and, the leap of confidence that Colin Moulding underwent, with his song writing and performance “double whammy” of “Making Plans For Nigel” and “Life Begins At The Hop” – fronting the band, and changing the dynamic once again – his songs, of which there are several, suddenly leaping ahead into a new maturity that no one really expected, while Andy Partridge, as always, up his own song-writing game by several thousand percent – as always.
But if I leave aside the glorious batch of extra songs, including several I’ve never heard, and, including two wonderful promo videos that I’d never seen – and I just concentrate on the album itself – oh my. It’s a real beauty, it really is. Everything about this already amazing sounding record is amplified, enhanced, emboldened, and I nearly did jump out of my chair at several points, surprised, because I was for one thing, hearing this music in a way I never had done before, and, at the same time, Steven Wilson had pushed certain elements to the fore in the mix, making a lot of great choices on instrument placement in the 5.1 surround sound field – an amazing job this time, maybe his best (excepting the King Crimson catalogue possibly) – a lone tom-tom hit from Terry Chambers, bounces off of the rear right speaker, into a huge cloud of reverb that then pours across to another speaker…two astonishing, unexpected cymbal crashes during the first few notes of one of the songs, scared the life out of me – I swear I have never heard those in any other version of this album I’ve owned, or rather, I’d never heard them so well.
Then there was the instrumental version, and that’s something that over time, I’ve gotten really, really interested in, and I am so glad that apparently, Steven Wilson feels the same way – for example, the instrumental version of Gentle Giant’s “The Power And The Glory” is absolutely mind-blowing, it is so powerful, so precise, and yet, so full of the joy of music – Kerry Minnear is an incredibly joyful player – and that is the sound of a band at the height of their powers, captured perfectly across five speakers by the very talented Mr. Wilson.
Of course, there are others out there, re-mastering and re-mixing prog, pop and rock classics into 5.1 surround sound, including such luminaries as Jakko Jakszyk of King Crimson, but right now, it’s all about Steven Wilson – and who knows where he will turn his ‘magic 5.1 wand’ next?
Some bands don’t seem to want to go down the 5.1 road, at least, not yet, but, they are interested in re-masters, sometimes, re-masters that we the listeners have waited for, for a long, long time – and this time, it’s Mr. James Patrick Page that I need to wag my finger at, for making us wait until 2014 to hear the re-mastered Led Zeppelin catalogue! Torture. But, worth waiting for.
The first three albums arrived a couple of months ago, but, Led Zeppelin IV (an absolute classic rock album) and Houses Of The Holy (Led Zeppelin does prog – or something akin to it, anyway) – arrived as part of the October 27, 2014 pre-order event, this time, from Amazon, and while there are no 5.1 mixes to drool over, the re-masters themselves are absolutely pristine and exquisite, done only in the incredibly perfectionist / with painstaking attention to detail, and – lots of guitars – that Jimmy Page can.
Each re-mastered Zeppelin disc comes with a second disc full of out takes, alternate takes, and various other musical delights, and as the albums have been arriving, the quality of those bonus tracks has just improved and improved, with these two – “Led Zeppelin IV”, and “Houses Of The Holy” feature the most amazing bonus material of all, from gentle acoustic guitar and mandolin tracks for songs like “The Battle Of Evermore” and “Going To California”, to instrumental versions of “The Song Remains The Same” (replete with lots of extra lead guitar – as if the song didn’t have enough lead guitar in it already!) and “Over The Hills And Far Away” – a song I used to play in Pyramid, the band I was in when I was about 20 years old – hearing just the instruments, reminds me of the hours we spent learning the song, I had to do the solo, so I spent hours and hours with this track – and I know it backwards and forwards – so it’s great to hear it, with Robert Plant set to “mute”, and just the band, and of course, Jimmy’s many, many overdubbed guitars – the master of the overdubbed guitars if anyone is.
OK, I can forgive how long it took, regardless if this was due to a small, or even medium-sized monkey on Jimmy Page’s back, or just his loose, lackadaisical way of working – but I have to smile, when I hear the alternate version of the strange, disco-funk track that is “The Crunge”, the guitar part just cracks me up, it’s so unlike anything Page played before or since – and the rhythm section rocks, as Plant moans over the top of this funky mess – and then there are those amazing John Paul Jones synthesizers, sounding absolutely astonishing in this alternate version of the song – we all used to argue about this song, was it rubbish, was it great – I would tend to vote for great, myself, and it’s fantastic to hear alternate versions of all of these songs.
Hearing the multi-tracked lead solo of “Dancing Days”, the band are just kicking it, and such an unusual rhythm, too – I’ve always loved the odd “meter” of this track, and it sounds absolutely wonderful in this “new” version, in the vocal-less “No Quarter”, John Paul Jones’ keyboard masterwork, is brilliantly renewed in this alternate mix, I’ve always loved this song, I’ve played it on the piano or on electric piano or synth, for many, many years – another very, very progressive track – and Page’s sinister guitar riff is fantastic, while Jones plays wah-wah electric piano – fantastic, and, with the vocal focal point taken away, sounding absolutely remarkable.
I can still remember the day the original vinyl Houses Of The Holy was released, in 1973 – I went to the store, which was just a department store, that had a records section, that was nearest to my house, I was still in school at the time – the store was a White Front (because, the front was white) and I was there when the opened, had to wait while the staff un-boxed the album – and, there were a LOT of boxes – and a lot of us waiting to buy the album – this would be the per-cursor to the pre-order, back in the vinyl days – going to the store on release day, to get the record within the first five minutes of it being available. Fantastic. The strange Hipgnosis artwork fascinated me, it’s a truly beautiful record visually, too – and I took it home, and played it and played it, and then – played it some more.
What had happened to Robert’s voice? In the two years since Led Zeppelin IV, something happened, it just sounded so weird, until you got used to it. Pagey and the rhythm section, as always, made up admirably for any inconsistencies in Plant’s vocal performance, but in hindsight, I think he did a great job of the vocals on this record – they are excellent, especially on the rockers – like the wonderful “The Ocean”, another one that Pyramid learned and played, an absolute BLAST to play on guitar – what a rocker. “Got no time to pack my bags, my foot’s outside the door….”
The outro of the alternate UK mix in progress of “The Ocean” is absolutely amazing, with Plant singing in a very high register indeed – vocals that do NOT appear on the original album, but that are quite brilliant – so singing live, in this mix in progress, we catch a glimpse of the erratic vocal genius of Robert Plant – a great set of extra material this time, on both of these new Zeppelin re-master releases – they just get better and better and better. I am really amazed, and I really give Page a lot of credit for taking the time to produce this catalogue, and, to do such a meticulous, pristine, careful job of it – Jimmy Page is probably / possibly the 1960s equivalent to today’s Steven Wilson, maybe. Or maybe, Steven Wilson is the 2010’s Jimmy Page – who knows?
I don’t know about you, but personally, I can’t wait for the re-master of Physical Graffiti – that should be another event entirely – and, for me, it’s the last “good” Led Zeppelin album – after that, they were never the same. But this period – 1971 to 1973 was awesome, two of their very best records, while really, from 1970 to 1974, was ALL sheer genius, on the road, and in the studio – well, really, starting with Led Zeppelin III – for me, this is the Holy Trinity of Led Zeppelin albums:
This is the 1970 – 1975 version, which does give a good overview of the changes the band went through…
1) Led Zeppelin III
2) Houses Of The Holy
3) Physical Graffiti
Or, the “Super-Purist” Led Zeppelin Fan version which covers the timespan 1971 – 1973, and this was an amazing short period of sheer creativity, on a scale that they never really got back to after delivering these three amazing records:
It was at the end of this period, in 1973, that I saw the mighty Zeppelin, live at the San Diego Sports Arena, getting to delight in a tour that was half a tour in support of “Led Zeppelin IV” and half, the tour that saw some of the tunes from Houses Of The Holy being previewed for the first time ever. I then saw them again, twice in one week, remarkably (due to insane levels of ticket demand – on a Tuesday night, and then, on the Friday night of the same week – in 1975, which gave me the view from Physical Graffiti looking back). Both tours were amazing, and unforgettable, and the 1973 concert, also happened to be the very first rock concert I had ever attended, at the tender age of 15, but I was already rocking then, and starting out with Led Zeppelin live is not a bad way to start at all – it has stayed with me, and I try to remember that youthful energy now when I play the guitar – a few years on. 🙂
But, whether I like it or not, whether it is a boon, or a curse, or both (probably both, I am betting) the pre-order is here to stay, at first, I did tend to resist it, but now, I take advantage of it every time, so I can get that “waiting for the store to open to pick up my new album, by my very favourite band at the time” feeling again. Wonderful days, when I just had The Beatles, and then Led Zeppelin, and not a whole lot else, to listen to.
Starting out as a lead guitarist, for me, Led Zeppelin was a great grounding for the aspiring rock lead guitarist, learning all of those songs – some, simple enough, sometimes, it’s quite easy to imitate Jimmy Page (say, on “Tangerine” or “The Ocean”) – including some really difficult ones, like “Ten Years Gone” from Physical Graffiti, in trying to learn that bastard of a song, my respect for Jimmy Page went through the roof – he was really a very, very serious guitarist capable of a huge range of expression, and he wrote some cracking good songs, too!
Will we ever see or rather, hear, Led Zeppelin on 5.1? I don’t know. But I do know, now that I have a collection of 5.1 audio discs started, that I would probably be the first 15 year old kid, in line at a digital “White Front” called “Amazon”, no longer in 1973, to get my brand new shiny 5.1 version of “Houses Of The Holy”. I will be there.
Meanwhile, I would have to agree that pre-orders; re-masters with expanded bonus tracks, sessions, mixes, takes – are both boon and curse, the curse being, I haven’t really got the kind of money to buy all the AMAZING stuff that is coming out on CD – for example, I have my eye on the new five CD box from original Genesis guitarist Ant Phillips – but I don’t know if I can afford it, so I have not yet ordered it. I can’t decide, I know I would like it, that’s not an issue, it’s just the cost. So the curse, which started with having to buy multiple versions of the same King Crimson albums, over and over again, year after year – now continues with a positive river of reissues, re-masters, 5.1 expanded editions, box sets and rarities collections – and my mind says “I want it all, all of it” but my pocketbook does not agree with me, it does not automatically say “yes” to every new release.
Would that it would or could. But hey – if I skip one five CD set, maybe then I can afford a nice affordable 2 disc set? Or, I can save up to buy REV, the latest software instrument for Komplete / Kontakt, that I have had my eyes on for several months – I really should just lay off of CD buying for a while.
But – I probably won’t, because invariably, burning shed will send me an email, with just ONE thing I want, I will go to the website, and find another four or ten things that I really, really want – and I try to compromise, maybe buy two, or three, but not eight, or ten or 12.
This is so complicated. Almost like a Complicated Game. And then, you get pre-orders. Sure, they are handy; they mean you get the disc quickly, you can also get special promotional items if you are one of the first to order, I have both a beautiful “The Power And The Glory” postcard from the Gentle Giant set, and, a beautiful “Drums And Wires” postcard, personally autographed by the good Andy Partridge. That can go with my full set of autographed 2009 XTC re-masters, I suppose. Except…they are re-mastering them again. With the right music, with more of the music, much more, with the right artwork – I am so, so glad that Andy Partridge created APE records, and has put right the many questionable activities of his former record company Who Shall Remain Nameless.
And perhaps the one thing that APE records and Andy Partridge have “put right”, is in creating this absolutely powerful new version of “Drums And Wires”, which is visceral as all hell, and so powerful when rendered into 5.1 surround sound by the good Mr. Steven Wilson, I was truly riveted throughout both the 5.1 album version, and the 5.1 instrumental mix – utterly fascinating, and it really does give you an absolutely new appreciation for the songs, you really do “hear things you’ve never heard” when you hear a good Steven Wilson 5.1 mix.
In my humble opinion, not speaking as a musician now, but just as a fan of music, and a fan of the band XTC for many years – I was so, so lucky, to see the very last live show the original quartet (the one with Dave Gregory, so not the original, the almost-original, quartet) in San Diego, before Andy packed it in for touring – that this 5.1 version of “Drums And Wires”, is, to date, the BEST of the Steven Wilson 5.1 mixes.
He takes a great, well-made album, and turns it on its head, making you hear things that were there all along, but, that you never quite appreciated because you were too busy listening to Andy sing or listening to one of Dave’s incredible solos…but, the amazing musical touches of the original production team, and in particular, the power and majesty of the now long-departed Terry Chambers on drums, coupled with the rapidly becoming-McCartney bass playing of Colin Moulding, well, those two are an INSPIRED rhythm section, and you don’t realise just how good they are, until you hear this in 5.1 – providing the perfect rhythmic bass and drums “bed” for the two guitarists to work over – and, work they do.
A supreme effort for Mr. Wilson, then, (and a proud rendering of what is almost certainly the band’s masterpiece) and I for one, offer a tip of the hat for his amazing work on this disc, it floored me, I am so, so glad I opted for the Blu-Ray, it just sounds SO incredibly good – it really does.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming:
October 27, 2014
Three Pre-Orders Arrive in One Day:
1) XTC / “Drums And Wires” – The Surround Sound Series – Steven Wilson 5.1 Mix
2) Led Zeppelin / Led Zeppelin IV – Re-mastered by Jimmy Page and expanded with a full second CD full of alternate mixes and bonus tracks.
3) Led Zeppelin / Houses Of The Holy – Re-mastered by Jimmy Page and expanded with a full second CD full of alternate mixes and bonus tracks.
CDs for the collection, or rather, four Led Zeppelin CDs and one XTC Blu-Ray full of 5.1 mixes and bonus tracks, and one XTC CD – so, five CDs and a beautiful Blu-ray – not a bad evening at all, a very nice thing to come home to, I should say!
And I do say.
Let’s have then, next, along with the obviously-hopefully-forthcoming Physical Graffiti from Mr. Page, how about XTC – The Big Express – followed by XTC – English Settlement – two of my personal favourites, from Mr. Wilson?
This would be a boon to my ears, and a curse to my pocketbook – but never mind, it is all about the music – and it is the music that matters, as you will know, if you regularly hang around in the land of pureambient as I do.
I guess I will continue to do pre-orders; which means that more and more, I will be expecting x number of items to arrive on a certain date, which will mean then, an evening of listening, learning and exploring – for example, I saw two videos that I’d never seen, and I heard several XTC songs that I had never heard before, when I sat down to explore the “Drums And Wires” Blu-ray at some length – and that was a wonderful experience, the videos were hilarious, with our heroes goofing around in classic style, but again, it was hearing all that music, music I’d never heard, early sessions, a rehearsal – so much effort going into the preparation of the album – and finally, making the album, with a long series of abandoned tracks and ideas scattered in their wake – but, still ending up with a couple of dozen truly excellent, and often startlingly innovative, tracks, enough for the album and for any number of B sides as well – plenty of songs to go around.
Well – when you put it like that…OK, dammit, boon. Not curse, boon. Sigh.
[expensive boon?] 🙂
After a childhood dominated by the Beatles (I only had four long-playing vinyl LPs – all by the Beatles!) and their music, when I returned from Africa in 1971, armed with a rudimentary, self-taught knowledge of the guitar, one of the first things I did, was seek out other musicians to work with. it came as no surprise, somehow, that we already had something in common – we all loved the songs of the Beatles, and in almost every band I was ever in as a young teenager, we tried to learn Beatles songs – with varying degrees of success, I must hasten to add.
Two early bands, both joined when I was still in Junior High School, provided the vehicle – and I was one of the few who purported to play lead guitar (and I could, but, very, very haltingly, and, very, very slowly, and…not very well at this point in my life, age 13 – 14) I was “in” – it’s difficult to recall, and in fact, I have no idea what the name of either of these bands are, but for the sake of reference, I will call them the “Mike Lewis Band” and the “Stafford / Monaco” bands, respectively, because those were the alleged “leaders” of the two budding beat groups 🙂
There is even a recording of the “Stafford / Monaco” band, an amazingly good cassette tape (considering the age and the quality of the tape – recorded by my older brother John on a poor quality 120 minute tape, no less) of a live performance, where we tackle some Beatles numbers, and I even have a go at singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” – the verses only, no bridge 🙂
This is a perfect example of great enthusiasm for the material, from a group that did not have the chops or ability to play the songs particularly well – but – we were all just thirteen, so, I don’t really expect much out of either of these bands, to be honest! So if a few of our songs were missing bridges or the odd verse, it’s just the way things worked out…
I think the “Mike Lewis Band” was the first band I was in, Mike was a gregarious, friendly bass player / acoustic guitarist who spent his entire life forming bands, writing songs, and playing in bands – he was determined if not incredibly talented. I remember though that he and I did reach some dizzy heights, such as our attempts to play the beautiful acoustic guitar balled “Julia” from the Beatles “White Album” – I am happy that there is no tape of that ! But we even took turns singing the verses, so we could do the overlapping vocal bit – very sophisticated. But – “Julia” was not part of our repertoire, Mike and I would tend to play acoustic guitars just for fun, playing the songs of the day, and singing, and I can remember we learned and played “The Needle And The Damage Done” by Neil Young, which was also very popular at the time.
In the “Mike Lewis Band”, we started out as a three-piece band; I think, with Mike Lewis on bass and lead vocals, Mike Brooks on drums, and myself on lead guitar. Then Mike announced that he was going to bring around this amazing pianist that he knew of, to see if he would join our band. That was when I first met Ted Holding, who later on, would become my very best and dearest personal friend, but at this point in time, Ted was quiet, unassuming, with his long, straight blond hair hanging in his face – but when he sat down at the piano – it was a different story.
Ted had the voice of an angel, a far, far better voice than Mike (which I am sure didn’t please Mike too much) – but, Mike was smart enough to know that bringing in someone of Ted’s calibre truly strengthened the musicality of the band, so he set aside any feelings of inferiority – he had such bravado anyway, that he would probably never admit that Ted was miles beyond us all in terms of ability and talent. Ted on the piano – even at age 13 ! – was a revelation, and as we grew up together in the early 70s, I was privileged to watch Ted graduate from pop music, Beatles music, on through (of course) Elton John, and then, onto prog: learning the music of Genesis, ELP and so on, on the piano. I watched, I imitated, I begged him to teach me songs – so really, my own keyboard ability came along in leaps and bounds directly as a result of working with Ted – may he rest in peace.
I don’t remember that the “Mike Lewis Band” played a lot of gigs, although we must have played some, I’m really not sure – I remember practicing in the back bedroom at Mike’s parents’ house, spending a lot of time there either with the band, or working with Mike on new repertoire for the band. And that would have included some Beatles covers, although with this band, since it’s the farthest back, I literally cannot remember a single song that we actually played – the memories are gone, I’m afraid.
But – I do remember the “Stafford / Monaco” band a bit better, partially because of the taped show, and because it was later – I don’t know what happened to the “Mike Lewis Band”, but I ended up joining up with this kid Rick Snodgrass, and many an hour was spent at his parents’ house, learning songs and working out our repertoire. I brought along one of my new pals, who lived in my neighbourhood, around – our drummer (who also sang) – the very talented Brian Monaco.
Our set list included everything you would expect from a cover band in 1971: the Beatles (of course!), Creedence Clearwater Revival (of course!), the aforementioned John Lennon (and our half-cover of “Imagine”), and Santana, that kind of thing. For a band whose four members age was all exactly 13, we were remarkably accomplished. In those days, as was always the case in the early days of most bands it seems, there was a shortage of bass players – so we just didn’t have one. To compensate for this, we went from a standard two guitars and drums to a really confusing three guitars and drums – but somehow, we made it work – Rick brought in a friend of his on third guitar, so we had one rhythm guitarist (Rick) and two lead guitarists (myself and Tommy). Rehearsals could be a real row if we weren’t all in tune !
Excerpts from this rare concert are available on the pureambient blog companion page, where you can actually hear the “Stafford / Monaco” band’s primitive renditions of Beatles and other popular songs of the day – here are the tracks that have been uploaded so far (the rest will probably not be uploaded – but maybe someday), but even this partial set list is stacked very, very heavily in favour of our favourite band – the Beatles:
3 Back In The U.S.S.R. – drums & lead vocal, Brian Monaco
7 Imagine – (the verses only, no bridge) – guitar & lead vocal, Dave Stafford
16 Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds – drums & lead vocal, Brian Monaco
17 Honey Don’t – acoustic guitar & lead vocal, Rick Snodgrass
22 Evil Ways
Tracks 1, 9 & 16 – Lennon / McCartney
Track 7 – Lennon
Track 10 – Fogerty
Track 13 – Hartford
Track 17 – Perkins
Track 20 – Medley / Russell
Track 22 – Henry
Now, one shouldn’t approach this as a great musical tribute to the Beatles or any of the bands we covered, we were very, very young, very inexperienced, but I will say, we were enthusiastic, and Rick’s parents were endlessly supportive, too, giving us advice, listening, and making suggestions – it was a very positive experience overall. What we lacked in experience and proficiency, was made up for by our burning desire to play the music that we loved – and, in later years, when I was in my late teens, I did participate in Beatles covers that sound much, much better than these very primitive versions, with typical very-old-cassette bad sound quality. When I hit 19, 20 – I was playing in cover bands, and playing Beatles songs, reasonably well, every night for a couple of years.
But – learning these songs – what a struggle it could be ! I think what amazes me most about the the “Stafford / Monaco” band’ set list is the fact that we tackled two very musically complex tracks; one from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and one from the “White Album” – which, for a group of 13 year old boys, was incredibly ambitious. I am especially proud of Brian Monaco, for his remarkably accurate drumming and his lead vocal on the rather difficult to play “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. I only wish the guitars were even close to the original – they are not ! But Brian’s performance of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is really remarkably good, all things considered.
The earlier Beatles tracks and covers that we did, were not much easier to learn – I do recall that our instrumental arrangement of “And I Love Her” – an early favourite track of mine, was especially arranged by myself for the band, and we worked very, very hard to be able to perform this song as well as we did on the cassette. Of course, the straight-ahead rock numbers are a little bit easier to learn, the bread and butter of every cover band that ever existed – “Honey Don’t” featured Rick, while “Twist And Shout” was another Monaco lead vocal – a real rocker!
The inclusion, oddly, of Glen Campbell’s huge hit, “Gentle On My Mind”, is down to Rick, who was a huge fan. While it’s not a track I would have picked – it actually works quite well.
Santana, of course, were huge at this time, so our final track of the evening, “Evil Ways” – again, featuring the unstoppable Brian Monaco on drums and lead vocal – made good sense.
There were several Creedence numbers in the set, of which “Born On The Bayou” was one of the most popular, this band had just skyrocketed to fame, and every band of teenagers with guitars was learning this now-classic piece of rock music – ourselves included. This was one of the first proper “lead solos” I learned – two notes of it, anyway.
I cite these two bands as the earliest examples of myself learning Beatles music, a process that began when I was 13, and continues to this day (I recently recorded, but did not release, a live cover of “I’m So Tired” on piano – piano and voice) – and I plan to work on the track until I do get a releasable version – so even now, in my mid-50s, I am STILL learning, playing and singing songs by the amazing Beatles. As I got older, my ability to play the guitar improved somewhat, and by age 16 0r 17, I could do a much better job of covering a Beatles tune than my 13 or 14 year old self could – that’s for sure! By age 19, I could confidently reel off a three part Beatle medley that was part of the repertoire of another band I was in – Slipstream.
By the time I was 20 or 21, I had learned so much from the remarkable Ted Holding, that my piano playing skills were way beyond what they had been – which of course, opened up opportunity to learn Beatle songs on the piano, too – a whole new world of songs.
So where did this go next? Time passed, school went on, friends, and fellow musicians, came and went – in fact, for example, I was in many, many different bands formed by the also-unstoppable bass player Mike Lewis – we remained friends, and he would pretty much bring me into every band he formed for a number of years (whether I really wanted to be in that band or not, sometimes!). Some of these, unfortunately to my ever-lasting shame, were Christian rock bands – a place that neither Ted nor myself belonged or felt comfortable in, but – we did it for our friend, Mike. Later on, in high school, we teamed up with a new rhythm section, Mitch and Kent, and that was yet another Christian rock band, with the horrific name of “Soul Benefit” (and we could not play soul at all, so a complete misnomer) – but, Ted and I did it for our friend Mike, and, to play with superior musicians – Mitch played bass far better than Mike, so Mike switched to acoustic guitar/lead vocal/rock star, and Mitch took over the bass parts, Kent, the drums. We were together for a couple of years, needless to say, except for “fun”, we didn’t cover the Beatles in those two bands 🙂 I do remember us playing “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple really, really loud one night rehearsing in a church!
Mike had a system, he really, really needed Ted’s talents on piano and vocals, so in order to convince Ted to join whatever crazy band Mike was forming this week; Mike would first get me to agree to be in the band, and then, we would work on Ted, get him to come along, and then, and only then, things would start to sound really good. Ted’s ability on piano absolutely took off; he progressed far beyond his years, and his voice also just got better and better. To be frank, he made Mike look pretty bad, and his piano playing was far, far beyond any of us – we were not as skilled on our chosen instruments.
The years after Junior High school are more of a blur, for my 14th year on the planet, I would have been moving on from those earliest bands into more sophisticated bands, and while I still worked with Mike Lewis on his many projects, I began to work more directly with Ted Holding, who happened to also love the music of the Beatles. I began to hang around at Ted’s house, and we worked on music incessantly – all the time, for hours and hours and hours, usually just the two of us– I would play bass, or guitar, or even organ – and Ted would play the piano. We would sing Beatles songs – Ted singing lead, me attempting harmonies – and it was just fantastic fun.
This became several different bands, some quite imaginary, like “Ted & Dave” (also known as: “Holding & Stafford”) and others more substantial, like “Ted & Dave & Rick & Jennings” (also known as: “Holding”, “Stafford”, “Corriere” and “Morgan”) – I was in a lot of configurations of these “for fun” bands – and it was enormous fun! It really was. “Ted, Rick and Dave” (also known as “Holding”, “Corriere” and “Stafford”) was probably my favourite, but who is to say – no, wait, my absolute favourite had to be the “Ted & Dave” configuration, because we could play every kind of music possible, from Elton John to the Beatles to Ted’s own original songs and so on – an absolute blast and one of the happiest times of my life. By the way, Rick Corriere was a junior high friend of Ted’s and mine, an accomplished drummer, and when we were all about 18, 19, 20 years old, we would stage “progressive rock” style improv sessions in Ted’s studio that were just amazing – please see the pureambient audio companion, see the entry for 1977 – for more on this particular prog wannabe band.
One day, in the “Ted and Dave” configuration, Ted and I decided to try and work out a favourite Beatle track of ours, the beautiful, heartbreaking “No Reply”. We decided we would record it (we must have been about 16 by now) on Ted’s brother’s reel-to-reel recorder, which had an amazing ability that was new to me – “multitracking”.
So we laid down basic instrumental tracks, Ted on piano, myself playing nylon string classical guitar (my first acoustic guitar purchase – a beautiful little guitar that I still have to this day) and we worked very hard to get it sounding just right. Then – we overdubbed vocals. When I say we…I mean, mostly Ted, I think I do sing on the track (I don’t actually know, it hasn’t been transferred from analogue yet) but I think he does the majority of the voices – and trying to work out the exact harmonies that the Beatles sang, was difficult, challenging, and exhilarating at the same time – we were so pleased with the result – it really sounded extraordinary to us – I mean, multitrack tape – incredible!. Once this is eventually converted, I will add a link to the “Ted & Dave” version of “No Reply” – for now, I don’t have the track available – yet.
I hope one day to go through the reel to reel tapes (which Ted gave to me many years ago, because I wanted to preserve this music) and present this piece – but it is on a long list of analogue-to-digital conversions that need to be done, and I do not have a reel to reel deck set up at the moment. So it’s a minor mystery, does it really sound as good as my memory tells me it does? Hopefully, one day, I will find out.
But it was the process that was so fascinating – when you “took apart” any Beatles song, to try and learn the parts – first of all, it always amazed me how quite tricky many Beatles tracks are – not easy to learn, deceptively difficult, and maybe you would know the chord sequence, but for some reason, even though you THINK you are playing the exact, right chord sequence, it never sounds quite as good as the Beatles version!
Next up, was one of the more challenging Beatles tracks for me, this was still early on, I was probably 15 or 16 at this point, back in the famous downstairs bedroom studio once again and not yet such a great lead guitarist that I could easily learn the quite tricky solo in “Ticket To Ride”. I remember struggling mightily with it, but luckily, Ted saved the day, he worked out the exact notes, figured out where and when to bend the strings – and eventually, I got it – I was so pleased! I can remember him standing in front of me, almost WILLING me to learn it, telling me when to bend, pointing at the guitar neck to show me what note to play next – my first true decent almost-right lead guitar solo – and, I get to do it twice during the song (or was it three times? – not sure – that’s the problem with memory).
Another memory from this time involves a different session at Ted’s house, this time, a couple of years later, aged, approximately 17 – and, we’d moved from his large downstairs bedroom studio, into the much larger garage space, probably because Ted was also working in other bands, often with his then brother-in-law, Joe Norwood. One day, Ted and I were trying to learn “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” and Joe, who was a few years older than we were, and himself, an extremely good lead guitarist (from whom I learned a lot) – stopped by – and then to our amazement, joined in with his guitar, working out the Eric Clapton parts that I was really not-quite-yet-able to emulate – so I happily switched to rhythm guitar, and held down the basis of the song with Ted, provided vocal harmonies, and let Joe wail away a la Clapton.
That was the beauty of being a young musician, with a lot of really quality musician friends, you always ended up playing music, often, with players far better than you (and for me, both Ted and Joe were far beyond my modest abilities – as pianist, and as lead guitarist) – Ted taught me almost everything I know about piano – that I didn’t teach myself, and, I learned a lot from watching and listening to Joe play lead guitar, and also, he spent time explaining a lot of things to me, about music, about guitar, and I owe a debt of gratitude – here was this really cool older dude (he was probably like, 19, or 20, maybe 21!) and I was a scruffy 17 year old wannabe lead guitarist – but Joe Norwood very kindly and patiently shared his knowledge and expertise with me – a good friend, and a great blues guitarist, by the way. a video of Joe’s music can be found here. Joe also sold me one of my best guitars, my Ibanez destroyer, which I still play to this day.
It was fantastic fun, “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” is certainly one of George’s best-known tracks, and I think, quite a remarkable tune. It’s very difficult to play well, the basic riff is one thing, but that bridge “I don’t know how, nobody told you…” is so, so hard to sing – George’s voice was really at his best in 1968, he was still young enough to hit some really high notes with relative ease, yet by then, he was an experienced enough lead singer to really write and sing some amazing songs – and on the “White Album”, George’s range of song contributions is absolutely remarkable: “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps”, “Piggies”, “Long, Long, Long”, “Savoy Truffle” – you could not get four more “different” songs – the sadness, longing and truth of “Guitar Gently Weeps”, the wonderful harpsichord and political satire of “Piggies” – incredible creativity there, and sense of humour; “Long, Long, Long” one of George’s unrecognised masterpieces, a love song of such beauty and intensity (I remember performing “Long, Long, Long” at a wedding reception with my friend, drummer Rick Corriere) that I really feel it’s an overlooked masterpiece, and George’s ode to Eric Clapton’s chocolate addiction, the wonderful, rockin’ “Savoy Truffle”, with it’s almost sleazy horn arrangement and awesome lead guitar work from George – and that sinister vocal “you know that what you eat you are, but what is sweet now, turns so sour…” – brilliant, ominous – George at his cynical best!
Another earlier recording / jam session back in Ted’s bedroom studio focussed on the fantastic pop song, “I Should Have Known Better” – with Ted on piano, and myself on guitar and harmonica – and, we shared the vocal duties. I loved playing this tune, it’s always been a favourite, and it was easy enough to learn (for a change!) and it was fun trying to play harmonica and guitar at the same time – because I didn’t have one of those harmonica holders – I never have had one. But that didn’t stop us, we just…did it, somehow. I loved doing harmony vocals to Ted’s confident lead vocals, “and I do – hey hey hey – and I do !” – and, I got to play the fab guitar solo, which was fun to learn and even more fun to play.
When I look back at this time, from 1971 to perhaps, 1979 – so basically, the 1970s – I was 12 when they started, and 21 when they ended – I am looking back at one of the most creative, fun, exciting times in my life, and during those “difficult teenage years”, I was too busy playing guitar, playing piano, singing, and just having a great time playing music, with so many different bands and players – it was an absolutely amazing time to be involved in music. And while the Beatles had broken up at the beginning of the 70s, their music had had such an incredible impact on the world, we were still reeling from the shock of their transformation, from innocent 50’s rockers, to 60s pop icons, to the musical revolution that was the “Beatles Studio Years” – beginning with “Rubber Soul” and carrying on through “Revolver”, and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the “White Album” – the sheer musical change that the band underwent was absolutely astonishing, and I think the world was still absorbing this, sort of thinking “what the hell did they DO?” – how did they GET from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in just three years’ time??? How could a band of self-taught teddy boy long-haired art-school drop-outs from Liverpool, end up in Abbey Road Studio No. 2 with a 40 piece orchestra, recording the incredibly complex and musically amazing “A Day In The Life”?? How can this have even HAPPENED?
It’s almost enough to believe that at some point in 1965, aliens landed, and planted seeds in the Beatles’ collective brains, which sent them on the musical journey that they then embarked on. OK, maybe not aliens, but certainly, Bob Dylan, who introduced them to…”tea”, had an influence, but it can’t just be the ”tea” – surely, that music was already somewhere deep inside the Beatles, it just needed the right catalyst to bring it out. In my opinion, one of the biggest and most significant catalysts was none other than the good Sir George Martin – who had the most influence over the Beatles, and encouraged them, even from the earliest days, to try new things. And try them, they did.
So when it came to “Rubber Soul” – they tried new things. Acoustic songs, folk-rock songs, volume-knob lead guitar. But to my mind, the biggest transformation is “Revolver” – from that first count-in preceding George’s “Taxman” (which of course, is not from “Taxman”, but never mind – it was added in to the front of the song, later on) to the dying notes of “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, curiously, was last on the album, but recorded first in the album sessions).
I personally think that “Revolver” may be the “best” Beatles album (if such a thing is even possible!!!). It’s certainly one of my very, very most favourite records of all time, not just, favourite Beatles record. Favourite records, full stop!
Almost every Beatle album has any number of unusual or interesting musical facts about it, and George’s brilliant tirade against the 95% tax imposed on early Beatle earnings, has the curious story as told by one Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, who, upon finally meeting George Harrison after many, many years, the first thing out of Lindsay’s mouth was “George, I loved your amazing guitar solo on “Taxman” – it’s fantastic!” to which George laconically replied “oh – that was Paul, actually”.
And that story, amazing as it is, was heartbreaking even for me, although it made my admiration for Paul McCartney increase, I had, like Lindsay Buckingham, for 20 years or more, had always thought that since it was George’s song, and George was the lead guitarist of the Beatles – that George had played the amazing, Indian sounding solo – only to find out years and years later, that it was the very capable McCartney who had actually done so!
But if you step back, and think about Beatle repertoire, and think about the content and song structure of “early” Beatles work, and then, compare and contrast that to some of the startling new kinds of music that began emerging on ““Revolver” in particular – I mean, even Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby” was a complete shock, like nothing else the world had ever heard – some say it’s a successor to “Yesterday”, but in my opinion, while “Yesterday” is a deservedly famous and uncontestably beautiful ballad, with a lovely string arrangement, “Eleanor Rigby”, by comparison, is high art – a heart-wrenching story-song, and George Martin’s string arrangement here, is absolutely sublime – so incredibly beautiful (which I was absolutely delighted when they included the live take of the strings alone, as recorded in the big room, Abbey Road Number 2 studio, on “The Beatles Anthology” – what a sound!).
So what happened in Paul McCartney’s brain, that he would be able to write “Yesterday” one year, and the next, come up with something that is an order of magnitude more intense, more complex, and is certainly more musically amazing: “Eleanor Rigby”. It’s almost like two different people, as if his brain did a re-boot and said “what if I wrote a song like THIS…” – and the rest is history.
“Revolver” also gives us Paul‘s astonishingly tender and beautiful “Here, There & Everywhere” – surely one of the best love songs of ALL TIME. A song that John Lennon so liked, that his only comment was, “I wish I’d written it”. One of Paul’s very best and most beautiful songs, with a vocal that is just heartbreaking (including John’s delicate harmonies…”watching her eyes…”) and the chord progression – wow – this is not actually that easy to play, either.
And yet – “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There & Everywhere”, for all their increased sophistication – are not even the “unusual” or “different” or “strange” tracks on “Revolver” – they are the “normal” sounding tracks !!!! The most normal of all the tracks on the record.
Something definitely happened in Paul McCartney’s brain, but at the same time, both John and George were experiencing a remarkably similar brain transformation. “She Said, She Said” with it’s odd time signatures, and fabulous, distorted guitars, is one of John’s best and most amazing tracks, I love the whole sound of it, it just takes me somewhere, immediately – and when I think’I want to hear “Revolver”‘ it’s usually “She Said, She Said” that I am thinking of – but when I get to the album, it’s then generally going to be George’s songs that I actually start with – “Love You To”, “I Want To Tell You” and the redoubtable “Taxman” – three of George’s very best Beatles songs, and, that amazing combination of heavy fuzz guitar and Indian instrumentation on “Love You To” just knocks me out – it’s an amazing idea – mixing traditional classical Indian instruments with rock music – but it works, and, it works really, really well.
John’s brain was maybe the most altered of all, and besides the aforementioned “She Said, She Said”, his contributions to “Revolver” are among his very, very best Beatles output: the incredibly beautiful “I’m Only Sleeping” – where George spent ages recording two “reverse guitars” – and that song is responsible for my own obsession with playing reverse guitar (or – “backwards guitar” – which is now available at the touch of an effects pedal) – which, in 1966, could only be achieved by turning the tape over, playing “forwards” while the song played “backwards”, then, turning the tape back over (I know this, because that is how I had to record reverse guitars in my own music for many, many years -a great technique!), and HOPING that your resulting melody line “forwards”, has resulted in a musically pleasing “backwards” guitar – a very hit or miss proposition; but Harrison painstakingly wove two guitar tracks into one of the most beautiful examples of reverse guitar ever created – and while many have tried, no one has every really quite captured the beauty of reverse guitar in the way that George Harrison did on John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” – which is an incredible song in it’s own right, the reverse guitars are just the icing on a very, very sweet cake.
Even though Lennon dismissed it in the “Playboy Interviews”, he was also mostly responsible for one of my very favourite Beatle tracks from “Revolver”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, with it’s amazing dual lead guitar part that just drives the song so beautifully, when I first heard this song, I could not BELIEVE the guitar parts, and to this day, I still can’t quite imagine how they worked this out! The interplay of the twin guitars with the rhythm section is just perfect, and Paul’s bass just soars in between the cascading, rising and falling lead guitars – plus, one of the best harmony vocal works on the album, I love the vocals on this song too – they just fly over the top of those guitars, which seem to be playing almost continuously throughout the song – and again, I can’t imagine how they worked out the vocal parts – but the end result is astonishing – a great song, often overlooked.
It’s no accident that this part of my memories of the early days of learning Beatles songs suddenly has become dominated by a somewhat-useful-but-far-from-complete review of the “Revolver” album, but, it does tie in (believe me, it really does!) because I would cite “Revolver” as the album where it first became utterly impossibly to replicate the songs live – well, some of them could be rendered, maybe, but in the main – they have become so complex as to not be easy to replicate on stage, or, by other musicians either.
So – none of my bands, ever played anything from “Revolver”, although I do recall privately playing “Got To Get You Into My Life” with Ted on piano – just for fun. And I spent a lot of time studying the chords to, and learning as best I could, Paul’s very lovely “Here, There & Everywhere” – a truly beautiful and remarkable song. I’ve also played and sang “I’m Only Sleeping” on acoustic guitar, and I learned the main riff of “And Your Bird Can Sing”on a Guitar Craft course (at the 21st anniversary course in Argentina, no less), in the new standard tuning for guitar, no less! That was hugely fun, playing “And Your Bird Can Sing” with other guitarists, “Crafty”-style – remarkable – a totally unique and unforgettable experience.
But most of “Revolver” – especially songs like “Love You To”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” were so advanced, even “She Said, She Said”, were so incredibly strange and new, and so musically intriguing – that you can only really listen, you can’t really imitate – sure, Paul has now performed some of these songs with his live band, in the 2000s, but, it’s not the same, really – and while he has every right to play Beatles material live in the here and now – it’s never going to sound like the original sound of “Revolver” – one of the most distinctive sounding Beatles records of all time, and in my mind, the “turning point” from normal rock music, into the exciting and mostly uncharted territories that they experimented with from “Revolver” on out.
It is remarkable then, that at age 13, in 1971, the second band I was ever in, the “Stafford / Monaco band” played one track from the “White Album” and one track from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – two records made after the turning point, and while our versions are not musically accurate, the fact that we even TRIED these songs is remarkable – we tried! It was down to a shared love of the Beatles, and to be honest, almost every musician I ever worked with in the 70s, loved the music of the Beatles.
Almost every drummer in almost every band, would at some point, sit up a bit straighter on their drum stool, and bash out a version of Ringo’s famous drum solo from the end of the “Abbey Road Medley” – every drummer worth his salt had learned that solo, inside out – and it was instantly recognisable – so there was a great love for the Beatles, and for Beatles music, in the musical community that I worked with in the San Diego, California area in the 1970s.
The Beatles were the benchmark to which every other group would be compared, even if that group broke a Beatle record, I don’t mean vinyl here, I mean, for example, that a band like Creedence Clearwater Revival might have surpassed Beatles sales figures from the 60s, in the 70s – certainly, bands like Led Zeppelin surpassed a lot of the Beatles‘ accomplishments, such as “largest audience”.
But the interesting thing here is, such news was ALWAYS announced, with a backwards reference to the Beatles, so it would be “In 1973, hard rock band Led Zeppelin sold out a show in Tampa, Florida, with over 56,000 people in the audience – the largest audience at a rock gig since the previous record set by the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965”.
Every new sensation, every new “record” was always compared back to the originals, to the masters, to the boys who did it first – the Fab Four. It always amazed me, for example, Zeppelin were (rightfully) very proud of the fact that they had broken a record set by the Beatles – it was an honour, somehow.
Everything was bigger in the 1970s, in the 60s, large concerts were a thing of the future, and as the infrastructure of rock grew ever-larger in the 1970s, it was unavoidable that most of the then-rather amazing records that the Beatles did set in the 1960s – were easily surpassed by their more sophisticated 1970s successors – like the incredible Led Zeppelin – who for example, did no less than NINE US tours between the years of 1968 and 1971. In the 70s – all records were utterly blown away by the eventual emergence of “stadium rock” – with Led Zeppelin leading the way to ever larger and larger productions.
The Beatles never had that infrastructure, and the technical aspects of their live performances were pretty primitive and often, quite dismal, with underpowered PA systems and insufficient monitors, you can see them in the film of the Shea Stadium concert, struggling to hear themselves sing and play over the screaming. But of course, the screaming was always there, and that did eventually cause the Beatles to lose heart in the idea of live performance – which, while heartbreaking for the legions of fans who never got to see them play live (myself included, sadly) was actually, very, very beneficial – because escaping the terrors of the road, and moving permanently into Abbey Road Studio No. 2, meant that the Beatles could now blossom creatively – and by God, blossom they did. An explosion of growth – demonstrated by the insanely fast musical progress made by the Beatles, across the albums spanning 1966 – 1969, a musical journey of unprecedented scale and scope – leaving one of the most remarkable catalogues of music ever created in it’s unstoppable wake.
Note: I have actually seen three of the Beatles live, but, as solo artists; first, George, at the Forum in Los Angeles with the Ravi Shankar Orchestra and Billy Preston in 1974, then, “Wings Over America”, Paul, at the San Diego Sports Arena, either in 1976 or 1977, and finally, twice, Ringo‘s All Stars, sometime in the 1990s, one of them featuring Todd Rundgren.
Every year, we would be treated to a new Beatles album (just one now in most years; not two a year as Brian Epstein and the record company had pressed the Beatles to do back in the early 60s) and each year, it would be a totally different musical experience – and if again, you step back and look at it – it’s absolutely astonishing; I view it like this:
1965 – “Rubber Soul” – the beginning of “the change”, Lennon starts singing and writing in a much more personal way, under the influence of a) Bob Dylan and b) ”tea” supplied by Bob Dylan – with songs such as “Nowhere Man”, “Girl” and the amazing “In My Life” – a complete and radical re-invention of the man & musician, John Lennon.
1966 – “Revolver” – a radical re-imagining of rock music, including heartbreaking string arrangements, classical Indian instruments integrated with heavy guitar rock, progressive bass playing, and the one-chord / one-note drone / raga style music concrète” sonic experiment, “Tomorrow Never Knows” – which was actually the first piece recorded for the new album – a groundbreaking record in so many ways
1967 – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – the world’s first concept record, with the famous photo montage on the front cover – and the lyrics on the back (a world “first”, there, too!) but to me, it’s just a bunch of truly great songs – and some of the best moments are maybe not the most famous, for example, the detuned and distorted lead guitar solo in “Fixing A Hole” is absolutely astonishing in it’s complexity and beauty, for a guitarist like myself, it was a revelation – and while after this, everyone began to use detuned guitars – created via a device called “Automatic Double Tracking” or ADT – the birth-device that all flangers and choruses since, have come from – the Beatles were really the first to come up with this kind of radical guitar sound in the studio – absolutely marvellous. George and John begin to experiment with truly distorted and detuned sounds after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform – and you can hear it on tracks such as the reprise version of the title track – the lead guitars are really powerful. And of course, the closing song is the absolutely unbelievably beautiful “A Day In The Life”, featuring what is surely one of the most beautiful John Lennon vocals ever recorded – George Martin said about John’s dreamlike vocal on the track – something like: “a voice…from the heavens”. I agree with Sir George Martin – a truly beautiful song with an incredible Lennon vocal.
[1967 – “Magical Mystery Tour” – OK, this year, they made two records. “Magical Mystery Tour” is highly underappreciated, I absolutely love it – especially the wonderful “Hello Goodbye”, the title track, the wonderful only-instrumental “Flying” and even “Your Mother Should Know” – there are no bad songs on this record – much overlooked and underappreciated. But then, “Sgt. Pepper” and then, the “White Album” really stole MMT’s thunder – hard to compete against those two behemoths.]
1968 – “The Beatles” (aka The “White Album”). A complete change. Minimalism. Stark white cover. The pageantry and grandeur of “Sgt. Pepper” is wiped away, by 30 darker, more experience-driven songs, a strange batch of songs, no doubt, but with that amazing diversity that you get when you have three strong players and three strong singers and three strong writers in the band – and I shouldn’t downplay Ringo – he very much tried to hold his own (imagine, having to complete with the two impossibly powerful songwriting teams, the “Lennon-McCartney” team AND “Harrison” who was practically a team in his own right – that can’t have been easy !!!) and this album has two cracking Ringo tracks on it, “Don’t Pass Me By”, and the really beautiful “Good Night” which is maybe one of his most beautiful vocals – a lovely tune.
[1969 – “Yellow Submarine” – honourable mention. OK, they made two records this year, too.]
1969 – “Abbey Road” – I am intentionally leaving out “Let It Be” because of it’s chequered past. I love “Let It Be”, but, even though it was recorded before “Abbey Road” – it was then shelved, and eventually emerged in 1970, hanging it’s head in shame, but, gloriously re-invented by Lennon and Phil Spector as a grandiose strings and choir kind of record. However, I think that “Abbey Road” is truly the band’s swan song and legacy – they went into the studio, stopped arguing (for the most part) and recorded an album of songs “like they used to”. The album was a compromise: to please John, side one of the vinyl LP was “songs”, to please Paul, side two of the vinyl LP was a suite of “connected” songs, the so-called “Abbey Road Medley” – which is a minor masterpiece in it’s own right. The maturity of songwriting on display here is absolutely startling, especially in George (who, at this point, is about to blossom musically with his upcoming triple album “All Things Must Pass” – but that’s another story for another blog) who produced not just the awe-inspiring love song “Something”, but also, the fantastic, irrepressible “Here Comes The Sun” – featuring the Moog synthesizer, and the most beautiful, sparkling guitars imaginable – a great song, one of George’s best, and personally, I probably actually like and respect “Here Comes The Sun” actually more than “Something”. (I should give honourable mention for George’s guitar solo in “Something”, however; it was played live by George during the strings overdub on the song, remarkably – beautifully underpinned by one of the best, most melodic bass guitar parts ever recorded – really incredible work from Sir Paul).
I’ve played both pieces many times, usually, I play “Something” at the piano, while I would always play “Here Comes The Sun” on guitar – and I love them both – but it’s difficult to say which one is “better” – they are both fantastic, and showed the George could actually compose right at, or even better than, the level that John and Paul had been composing at all along. He caught up, and in a way, with those two tracks, even surpassed John and Paul – and certainly, his first solo album, the redoubtable “All Things Must Pass”, shows us even more examples of his songcraft, and overshadows all of the debut solo releases by all of the other Beatles – it basically wiped the floor with the other Beatles’ post-Beatle output, selling millions – I bought two or three copies over the years in various formats.
Right up to the end, the Beatles kept writing and producing the most amazing catalogue of original music in the world of rock, that the world had ever seen. Songs that became more and more sophisticated, and for musicians such as myself, became more and more difficult to play, or imitate – but it was sure fun to try !
Over the years, I’ve played a LOT of Beatles songs, a huge range of them, and learning them, was often quite a bit of work, but once learned, playing them was just sure joy. Just for fun, I’ve attempted to write down every Beatle song (including both songs that they composed, and, their cover versions of songs that they also performed) that I’ve ever learned, and / or, performed or recorded – just to see how many I can come up with:
Baby It’s You (with the Mike Packard Band – successor to Slipstream – circa 1979)
Twist & Shout (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)
I Should Have Known Better (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)
I’ve Just Seen A Face/Ticket To Ride/Help! Medley (with Slipstream – circa 1978 / 1979)
And I Love Her (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)
No Reply (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)
Eight Days A Week (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)
Honey Don’t (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971 – and other bands, too)
I’m Only Sleeping (solo acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)
Here, There & Everywhere (solo piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Got To Get You Into My Life (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)
A Day In The Life (solo piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Back In The U.S.S.R. (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (w/ the Holding / Stafford Band feat. Joe Norwood- guit. – circa 1973)
I’m So Tired (solo piano & vocal – unreleased – 2013 live -in-the-studio piano & vocal demos)
Blackbird (solo acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1968 – the first“finger-picked” song I ever learned; summer 1968)
Rocky Raccoon (solo acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)
Julia (acoustic guitar duet & vocal – circa 1972 – the second “finger-picked” song I ever learned, circa 1972 – with Mike Lewis, acoustic guitar and vocal)
Helter Skelter (electric guitar – various times, 1970s – present)
Long, Long, Long (piano & vocal – with Rick Corriere, percussion – circa 1970s)
Cry Baby, Cry (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Something (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (electric guitar & vocal – w/ Jim Whittaker, guitar – circa mid 1970s)
Here Comes The Sun (acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)
You Never Give Me Your Money (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Golden Slumbers (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Carry That Weight (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Two Of Us (acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)
Let It Be (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
The Long And Winding Road (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
So – remarkably, thirty one songs – which surprises me, I would not have thought it would have been as many as that, but it’s also NOT surprising, because, the Beatles‘ catalogue is something that musicians almost always “fall back on” at one time or other in their careers, and if you cover Beatles‘ songs, you are guaranteed that at least people will know the song, although they may not love your version of it – or, they may – but they are one of the groups most “covered” over time – not to mention, that in a list of the top ten covered songs of all time, the Beatles not only hold the top two spots, but they actually have four tracks out of the ten, plus, John Lennon’s “Imagine” makes five – so, either the Beatles or a Beatle own the record for most covered song, for HALF of the top ten – amazing!
Before I continue, I have to say, that even to the present day, there is nothing more satisfying than sitting down at the piano with a Beatles songbook, and having a go at a Beatles song you’ve never tried – or, for that matter – one you’ve played a million times. Or – get out your electric guitar, turn up the distortion, and work on your Beatle rock riffs – “Hey Bulldog”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Helter Skelter” and so on. And of course, that makes me realise that there are actually probably quite a few “partial” Beatles songs I know, or just the main riff, and, a few that I have learned and then completely forgotten because I didn’t keep up with them (including the amazing “Yer Blues” – with the guitar solos actually learned from tab – brilliant tab! – something I never normally use, tabs, but this one was spot-on – excellent) – but I REALLY wanted to learn that solo. So really, “Yer Blues” makes it 32…but if I start adding in fragments of songs, I will never finish the list – so there it shall sit 🙂
I would say, that growing up, for those nine or ten years from 1971 to 1979, learning, singing, and playing Beatles songs, along with a healthy helping of Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and so on, was the best musical education I could get – far better than going to music college, instead, just dive in and learn the music that you love. That’s what I did – and I am glad of it. Huge chunks of Led Zeppelin I are still in my fingers’ memory, and huge chunks of Hendrix music, too – I could play those two bands’ music all day long, along with the Beatles But, the Beatles had the most profound impression, because of their incredible melodic values, and the hard-won vocal harmony which really, were what set them apart at first.
So while Cream and Zeppelin and Hendrix really, really rocked, they never quite had the songwriting skill and stamina that Lennon, McCartney, or Harrison did (and that may be why I found myself drawn to progressive rock fairly early on – seeking better songcraft – and often finding it) – although some of the late Cream and later Zeppelin, are pretty musically advanced. But those are the successors, the Beatles, I think, wisely disbanding before the heavy metal bombast of Stadium Rock took over the world – by then, they were gone…
Having the Beatles so central to my education, music or otherwise, was hugely important, and it’s also simply given me a world of personal satisfaction and enjoyment, I will never forget the day I finally mastered Paul McCartney’s quite difficult “Blackbird”, the first guitar piece using fingerpicking that I ever learned, at age 10, no less – it took me a couple of weeks (being taught by a 16 year old girl, who had in turn, been taught the song by somebody else…) but eventually, I “got” it – and that was wonderful, because any time I was out with an acoustic guitar, I could play it – and everyone around me INSTANTLY recognised it, and responded positively – I never got a negative response to playing a Beatles song – ever. People in general, either really like them, OK, maybe some younger people, don’t really know their the Beatles were the best band in the world, from 1963 to 1969, unchallenged.
At the same time, during 1969, was that “other” best band in the world that I like so much, King Crimson – whose leader, guitarist Robert Fripp, has described a personal, musical epiphany that he had one night, hearing back to back on the radio first, music by Bela Bartok, and then, the last part of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – with “A Day In The Life” – and it was the impetus of that, that eventually led him towards the pursuit of the creation of King Crimson – so, unlikely though it seems, one of the heaviest and most complex of all “progressive rock” bands – actually started out by a young guitarist being utterly struck with the incredible piece of music that the Beatles‘ “A Day In The Life” is.
I can just imagine Fripp, in his car, as the final orchestra part builds and builds, so loud, overwhelming the whole song…and if you think about it, on the first few Crimson albums, of course, the dominant sound (besides Fripp’s amazing lead guitar) is the mellotron – which they had two of – and they used it to create Beatle-like string sections in live performance – so again, inspired by “A Day In The Life”, young Robert Fripp imagined a band with two mellotrons in it – and then, he built it. Repeatedly.
It’s amazing the number and diversity of musicians either directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles, some of them wearing their inspirations out on their sleeve, others, are more hidden or difficult to discern – but they are still there. So, you get a band like Oasis, who unashamedly try to sound like a modern day Beatles (and mostly fail at it, in my opinion) although I quite like a lot of their songs anyway, on over to a band like Klaatu, who people thought might BE the Beatles, secretly reformed and making records under a mysterious new name in the 70s. As it turns out, Klaatu are just some guys from Canada, who made Beatlesque music (I really enjoy Klaatu, especially their first three albums).
There are so many others who obviously admire the Beatles, from Todd Rundgren, his first band The Nazz, and the latter-day versions of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, to any number of other latter-day Beatles soundalikes – the Raspberries in the early 1970s, Badfinger – an Apple band, discovered by the Beatles, and far too many others to even mention. Perhaps I will attempt a “list of bands that sound suspiciously like the Beatles” – but I am not quite sure I can do such a thing. I will have a “think” about that…meanwhile, back to the subject of cover versions…
Here are the Beatle tracks and their positions in the list of “most covered songs of all time” – of course, these lists change all the time, and it was very difficult to find a list that seemed properly representative – this list, from 2008, contained no less than 5 Beatle-related tracks as “most covered”:
1) Eleanor Rigby ***
4) And I Love Her
6) Imagine (John Lennon)
Apparently, for a long, long time, “Eleanor Rigby” was second to “Yesterday”, it was only in recent years when it knocked “Yesterday” out of the top spot.
I was surprised to NOT find George Harrison’s “Something” in these lists, I had thought it was one of the highest covered songs of all time – but I might be remembering that old Frank Sinatra joke, where he introduced “Something” as the finest song ever written by Lennon-McCartney – in all seriousness, he actually did not seem to know or realise that it was written by George Harrison. That’s a famous story there!
***However…the Wiki contains some conflicting information here, because it also states, on the page for the song “Something”, that the song has more than 150 cover versions, which means it’s the second most-covered song after “Yesterday”. So somebody needs to do some counting, and really find out a) what the top ten most covered songs of all time REALLY are, by all artists, and b) what the top ten most covered Beatles songs are – what song is REALLY, currently in the top spot – make up your minds !! 🙂
For those who might be interested, there is a very interesting page here on Wikipedia, that lists many of the most significant cover versions of Beatles songs
When I say significant, that refers to all of the real musicians in the list, it does not, however, actually refer to the included “group” called “Alvin and the Chipmunks” who did a whole album of Beatles covers in 1964, so they have twelve entries in the chart ! I am sure that’s a really, really good album (if you are a fan of sped-up vocals, that is). But – it’s an interesting list, Chipmunks aside…and it includes some of my very favourite cover versions of Beatles tracks: containing everything from:
Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass to 10cc to Bela Fleck & The Flecktones to Adrian Belew to David Bowie to The Carpenters to Johnny Cash to Cheap Trick to Bryan Ferry to Neil & Liam Finn to Peter Gabriel to Jimi Hendrix to Allan Holdsworth to Eddie Izzard to Tom Jones to King Crimson to Sean Lennon to Marillion to Pat Metheny to Keith Moon to Nazz to Harry Nilsson to Oasis to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to Phish to Radiohead to Red Hot Chili Peppers to The Residents to Todd Rundgren to The Sandpipers to Santana to Peter Sellers to The Shadows to Sandie Shaw to Frank Sinatra to Elliott Smith to The Smithereens to Soundgarden to Stereophonics to The Supremes to James Taylor to Teenage Fanclub to They Might Be Giants to Richard Thompson to Transatlantic to Travis to Ike & Tina Turner to Utopia to U2 to the late, great Sarah Vaughan to The Ventures to Rick Wakeman to Paul Weller to Jack White to Roy Wood to XTC to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Yellow Magic Orchestra to Yes to Neil Young to Dweezil Zappa to Frank Zappa and I told you it was a great list – this is just a tiny portion of artists represented on the entire list.
A truly interesting resource for an incredibly diverse set of Beatles covers – and the diversity of artists who have covered the Beatles is immense, yet, they all share the same love we feel for the band – a love for Beatles music, reflected in the fact that they took the time to learn, perform, or record a Beatles track or tracks. Shared love = love of the Beatles‘ music = All You Need Is Love – that’s an equation that I can understand and believe in – and I do.
“Love, love, love – love, love, love
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung…”
– from “All You Need Is Love” – June 1, 1967
see you next time ~~~~~
“whisper words of wisdom…”
Impressions, feelings, memories. a journey made by my favourite band of all time – King Crimson – across the USA and Canada – ending in some professionally recorded gigs and ultimately, to that final gig, on July 1, 1974, in New York’s Central Park – the end of an era – the end of the original King Crimson which had existed in one form or another since 1969.
Ten very diverse albums, embracing prog, jazz, rock and musics in between; countless tours, one of the most road-tested bands of all time – and in many cases, Fripp, the band leader, would work in reverse: instead of recording an album and then going out and playing it, he would “rehearse” the band by going on the road, and then once the songs were worked in, then it’s time to record them – a wonderful way of working, a method which gave us “Starless and Bible Black” – a studio album that is mostly live.
“The Road To Red” if you haven’t heard, is Fripp’s latest “attack on culture”: simply, it’s as many of the 1974 live shows, from the US/Canadian tour, that could be eked out of whatever tapes existed, brought together on 21 CDs for your listening pleasure (yes, I said 21) – if you have a few days free to listen! It’s an impressive feat, and actually, given that some of the source tapes are dodgy bootleg cassettes, the set as a whole is extremely listenable, because, the occasional lapse in sound quality aside, this band was on fire – they went out each night to try and change the world, just a little bit – and every night, they were rewarded with something memorable.
now, we are reaping that same reward, but with the added time, these performances seem even more extraordinary – this was a band with a particular musical vision, and they stuck to that vision – night after night.
It’s not all perfect – things happen, as Robert once said “a foot slips on a volume pedal…” but it’s pretty damn consistent, and given that they were using not one but two of that most temperamental of instruments, the mellotron, it’s amazing that things didn’t break down more than they do.
There are no surprises here in terms of musicianship, except perhaps how very effective David Cross could be with his extremely distorted electric piano, or in occasional quiet moments, on the violin, there is almost no need to describe just how incredibly well the rhythm section play on this set, it’s an object lesson in power and precision, the Bill Bruford / John Wetton team, topped with the amazing guitar histrionics of Mr. Robert Fripp himself – soloing with passion, power and even humour – there is one moment during “Easy Money” where Fripp tries to get Wetton to laugh, and it’s there in almost every take of the track, Wetton trying to sing but instead, listening to and laughing out loud at whatever silly riff Robert has inserted into “Easy Money” on this particular night.
I said there were no surprises here, but what I mean by that is that there are no surprises that these four players play so, so well, individually, and as a unit, but, there ARE surprises, sometimes, something will happen one night that doesn’t happen on any other night. Perhaps it’s the guitar solo in “Lament”, which may sound much the same from night to night until one night, when Fripp decides it’s time to try something completely different, and holds one note for ages as the start of his “solo” – and then plays a blinder that is nothing like previous “Lament” solos. The next night – back to the “normal” solo.
Or, Robert might decide that tonight, the guitar solo for “Easy Money” is going to be done double time, and when he comes in with said solo, the ferocity, the determination, is truly awe-inspiring – the band are very comfortable with these tracks, and they don’t mind deviating from the script – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – and from night to night, each of the four will change up their parts, just for the sheer joy of seeing what might happen…
And sometimes, what happens is remarkable. There are some truly beautiful renditions of King Crimson classics here, and it’s especially gratifying to have so many versions of “Fracture” and “Starless” to luxuriate in – personally, I can’t get enough of either track.
For me, too, often, it’s the “Improvs” that make these shows truly interesting, where the band goes completely off-script, and sometimes, the results are truly inspirational – stunning, loud, fast, amazing, slow, beautiful, peaceful – these improvs can be almost anything, and it’s fantastic that the band includes them in every show – they break up the sets beautifully, often providing a springboard in or out of one of the pieces in the set list.
Maybe the best anecdote that sums up the professionalism, the camaraderie, the teamwork, of King Crimson Mark 3, as Fripp calls this band – is the story of the “John Wetton Save”. This occurs early on in the set, near the end of one of the versions of “The Night Watch”. The piece is nearly done, Fripp is on his own, playing the short, repeating mellotron chordal section that leads up to the final violin melody, which then leads to the song’s end.
Fripp is playing away, the revolving mellotron part, when the band all seem to realise that there is no violin coming in (apparently, it had broken down completely) so what happens next is astonishing: Fripp decides to play the part a second time, so another few bars of music go by, when once again, the moment has come for when the violin solo should come in.
But what happens instead is, we hear John Wetton playing the violin melody as a bass solo, with feeling, playing it note perfect, slowly, deliberately, as if it were MEANT to be a bass solo (even though it’s NOT a part he is required to know – somehow, he knows it!) which then brought the band to the end of the piece perfectly – without missing a beat – and a successful conclusion, sans violin, to a beautiful piece of music.
And – it’s a bonus, it’s the ONLY time you will hear Wetton playing that particular melody anywhere on record – it was a demand of the moment, an equipment failure causing an unscheduled bass solo emulating a missing violin solo…brilliant !! It could only happen in King Crimson, and it’s to Wetton’s credit that he picked up that melody so quickly and perfectly – saving the day and rescuing our distressed violinist.
I could sit here and write about each disc of this set, exhaustively, pointing out certain gems and certain gaffes (not too many of those, actually) but I think it’s best if I just keep this concise and say, if you like King Crimson live, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this beautiful box set, which comes with all kinds of goodies, a huge booklet featuring the good Sid Smith; excerpts from Fripp’s diary, photographs, and various facsimile lyric sheets and so on – a really, really nice package, which also includes a treasure-trove of DVD and blu-ray material.
Another nice feature of this set is the fact that five of the shows were recorded professionally, multi-track, so that means those five shows can be presented in extra pristine sound quality versions. You even get two different mixes of one of those shows – the Asbury Park show – one mix from Robert Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton, the other, from Ronan Chris Murphy.
The presence of the high quality recordings near the end of the set nicely balances out some of the less high fidelity moments earlier on, so you actually end up with increasingly better sound quality as the set goes along (with the exception of the final Central Park concert, where we sadly, must return to a cassette source).
That’s a bonus you don’t get in most live series, professionally recorded shows – but this was intentional, and all of the material for the official live King Crimson record of the day, “USA”, is culled from those shows. So really, this record might have been called “The Road To Red And USA” but I guess that doesn’t really have the same ring to it!
Disc 21 is the culmination of the “road” – a new 2013 mix of the studio album “Red” which followed this tour – mixed by the unstoppable Steven Wilson. So you get to hear the live shows that lead up to the recording of “Red”, so you can feel the energy that was in the band when they went to make that record. It’s no wonder that the studio version of “Starless” is so incredible, being built on the back of these live performances – that is proof that the rehearse-on-the-road method really works when it needs to.
For a fan like me, ordering this was an absolute no-brainer, yes, I did have a few of these shows already, but this brings them all together in perfect chronological order, so it’s nice to have them all in one set. Some of this material was released on the most excellent “Great Deceiver” set (but, only in part) and others were variously, DGM CDs or DGM downloads – but, to be fair, there is also a fair amount of previously unreleased material, which makes it an absolute “must have” for the voracious King Crimson fans – of which, I am admittedly one.
This set rocks, I’ve sat for the last two days, playing disc after disc, hearing the band get better and better at the tunes, and hearing the improvs develop – and I can tell you, the conclusion of “Starless” night after night, does not get ANY less beautiful or inspiring, it’s just incredibly beautiful, and Fripp’s final lead solo at the very end of the song, is soaring, searing and intensely, intensely beautiful – that one note just rings and rings…and then fades away as the mellotrons also fade. it’s starless…and bible black.
I am surprised, I would have thought that after about ten discs, I would be getting tired of hearing “Lament” or “The Talking Drum” over and over and over again, but I absolutely do not, because interesting things happen – different things happen from night to night, show to show, venue to venue, and it’s fabulous hearing the band experimenting, trying out new ideas, as they tour across North America.
Then, finally, July 1, 1974, live in Central Park – the great Crimson beast of 1969-1974 was finally laid to rest – the last live show ever by this line-up, and the continuous series of various “King Crimson’s” finally brought to an end – and at that time, of course, we didn’t know that Crimson would indeed re-emerge, re-built from the ground up, in 1981 – but for us, suddenly in 1974 to find that Crimson was no more! – this final line-up was probably the best line-up, it’s arguable either way, many cite the 1969 line-up that only existed for 11 months as the “best”, or, this final quartet that worked for about 18 months (from 1973 through half of 1974) – I am not counting the 1972 – 1973 period when they were a quintet with Jamie Muir.
I think that this band had a better chance to really work out their repertoire, and they actually had material that stretched from Larks’ Tongues through “Starless and Bible Black” – two full albums (and, two of their most adventurous, complex, mature works from which to draw on) – plus, they played old worlde Crimson pieces such as “Cat Food”, “Peace – A Theme” or “21st Century Schizoid Man” – and, also, odd unreleased tracks such as the illustrious “Doctor Diamond” which was never recorded in the studio (I think).
It was great fun, for example, hearing Wetton tackle the vocal to “Cat Food” – that is really something (not found on “The Road To Red”, but available on earlier live recordings) – and this band’s take on “Schizoid Man” is not to be taken lightly. “Schizoid Man” isn’t played at every gig on “The Road To Red” but when it is – you notice 🙂
I am staggered, though, just listening to a randomly selected version of Fracture, first, at the complexity and maturity of Fripp’s biggest challenge to himself (of the time) – and second, at the world class, incredible fuzz bass and loud distorted bass and beautiful soft bass that John Wetton plays during “Fracture”. Yes, what Bruford and Cross do in “Fracture” is very important, I am not downplaying that – but what Wetton does with this piece, you can hear him, hanging on for dear life, trying to follow Fripp on his cosmic guitar journey – and then that bass solo at the end – it’s fracking impossible – he rips it off like it’s nothing – and then right back into that climbing coda.
All four players have their moments, and all of them can solo like four houses on fire, but for me, this set gives you John Wetton, one of the most powerful bassists in rock music, in all his glory – loud, belligerent, confident, capable, subtle, and always, always present, always in the moment.
I don’t feel like I can really critique the guitar playing of Robert Fripp, occasionally, equipment gets the better of him, there’s one awkward silence where something goes wrong and he actually stops playing for a few seconds – but then, consummate professional, comes back in as if nothing had happened. Some guitarists have criticised his tone, his endless distortion through wah pedals and so on – but I really put any such problems down to the equipment of the time – and really, with Fripp, you aren’t there to hear a bitchin’ tone, you are there to hear him play. And play – he does. With blinding speed, with innovative ideas, with surprising and strange note selections – always questing, always pushing the limits, and it’s a joy to hear him work his way through this amazing catalogue of music on the live stage – absolute genius at work.
Not meaning to ignore the good drummer – to me, this tour just shows what an incredibly good decision it was to quit Yes and join King Crimson – to me, Bruford was BORN to play drums with John Wetton – and there has never, ever to my mind, been a better pairing. They just work perfectly together, and no need for more than that. The perfect rhythm section, which made things much easier for Cross and Fripp, the two soloists – because they know they can depend on the Wetton-Bruford powerhouse – which can also transform into the most delicate, beautiful sounding accompanying bass and percussionist imaginable, and on some of the very pastoral, violin-led improvs, where Wetton and Bruford are both playing so carefully and gently – you can’t really believe it’s the same band that had just been belting out “21st Century Schizoid Man” at full volume four minutes beforehand !
But there it is – a band capable of great dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream – and I love both of those bands – the quiet, gentle melodic King Crimson, and the hard rocking, jamming, improvising King Crimson.
You will find both aplenty on The Road To Red.
Available in fine music shops everywhere.
sam phillips writes and performs pop songs of the highest quality, often using the simplest of tools, but there is definitely wizardry afoot (albeit of a different nature to todd’s) – and when she brings in other players to flesh out her acoustic guitar/voice or piano/voice compositions, a lot of really interesting things begin to happen. first of all – only sometimes, do they perform the traditional roles of backing musicians, and as time goes on, they are called upon to contribute more and more unusual items – van dyke parks‘ contributions to “the indescribable wow” being the first of many.
THE EARLY YEARS
but I will start at the beginning. once upon a time…there was a young singer who was part of the then fairly significant christian music scene. at that time, sam was known as “leslie phillips” – and in 1988, roughly coinciding with a major change in her music, her fourth and last album for myrrh (purportedly one of the main christian labels responsible for what was known as contemporary christian music) delivered, and she wanted to distance herself from the “leslie phillips” persona – so her forename changed: from “leslie” to “sam”.
because of the timing of this, that actually makes it very easy to delineate the two main parts of her career – part one, leslie phillips, christian record labels, devotional/pop music, part two – sam phillips, secular themes with a strong undercurrent of faith – less devotional, darker, but still amazing pop music.
I don’t believe that I have every leslie phillips or sam phillips song in my music collection, but I have most of them, and I enjoy them all. the oldest record I have is “dancing with danger”, which is from 1984 (this is her second album for the myrrh label – I was never able to locate a copy of her first album, “beyond saturday night”) and despite the sheer beauty of the then young “leslie phillips” voice – the arrangements cannot, unfortunately, help but sound VERY dated – not just because of the sound of 1980s synthesizers (mostly, not good sounds) and string machines, but also because for some weird reason, “christian artists” were expected to sound a certain, very well defined “way”. production values, on christian pop records from this era (not just leslie phillips albums, but pretty much all christian artists – with of course a few exceptions), are strange – well – just sort of stilted, predictable, as if every song is a power pop ballad whether it is or not, or worse, they take a smarmy pop song…and somehow, god only knows, they make it sound MORE smarmy…by (over) “producing” it (shudder).
leslie was never comfortable with the image that the christian labels had given her, calling her (bizarrely) “the christian cyndi lauper” – odd, since her music sounds NOTHING LIKE cyndi lauper. but – that’s what they did – and I think she suffered it for four albums, and then finally said goodbye to myrrh and the idea of working as a “christian artist” – she needed to express herself simply and clearly, and for that, she needed a new partner in crime – and that turned out to be legendary producer t-bone burnett.
so on some/most/all of the earliest material, there are issues with the arrangements, issues with good songs being arranged with the “I am a christian artist” sound, which to my mind, unfortunately, makes what could have been quite beautiful, very, very difficult to listen to and enjoy in 2013. of course, there were obligatory duets with male christian singers, and, nothing wrong with a duet, but that again, was part of what the christian labels expected, and possibly demanded, from many of their artists…
interestingly, “dancing with danger” ends with a special reprise version of “by my spirit” – the “radio version” – and instead of the routine, obligatory duet-with-male-christian-singer version – you get the whole song sung just by leslie (thank god, another chance to hear this song – without the annoying “duet” format!!!)
however – having said all that – I can still listen to “dancing with danger”, and it’s follow-up, 1985’s “black and white in a grey world” – which I prefer to “dancing” – in fact, really, sam is one of those artists that literally got better and better with each album. but – be forewarned, if 1980s production values, PLUS christian-label production values drive you mad…you may have difficulty listening to these records 🙂 when I do listen to them, I have to ignore a lot, and concentrate on the quality of the songs, and sam’s voice – not the production values, which are downright upsetting in some cases, such poor choices are made, production-wise. oh – they are slick, they are clever – but very dated sounding now, and I doubt sam phillips, 2013, would disagree…I do not know 🙂 I can tell you – starting with “the turning”, things begin to sound much, much better. and, most of “recollection” does not suffer from overproduction. all albums “the indescribable wow” forward have production values that you would expect of their time – not bad ones, just, of their time – and that is a good, good thing.
despite the very dated, very christian-label production values, there are some truly spine chilling vocal performances from sam on these early albums; and even the occasional great lead guitar solo (such as one of those aforementioned duets, an early version of “by my spirit”) – which also has a FANTASTIC vocal from leslie…really beautiful, and worth the pain of admission just to hear this track. her voice is simultaneously the strongest, the most passionate, and at the same time, incredibly vulnerable sounding in the world – an extraordinary sound. so if you seek this particular track out, ignore the obligatory male duet vocalist, ignore the arrangement, and just listen to leslie’s voice and the guitar solo. goose bumps – almost guaranteed.
I should spare a few moments for 1985’s “black and white in a grey world”. it starts with the almost funky title track, with leslie singing as if her life depended on it, with a strangely desperate / urgent sound to her voice – and, a really good lead guitarist, dan huff, trying hard to keep up with her vocal. in some ways, this record is just a continuation of “dancing with danger” – it does share a very similar ethos, although the production values are better, less disastrous, which makes it simultaneously much less dated sounding than “dancing with danger” and therefore, a lot more listenable.
I personally really like this record, and it contains the early, “produced” versions of some of the very best songs on “recollection” (including “when the world is new”, “your kindness”, “walls of silence” and “love is not lost”), so it’s nice to be able to compare and contrast them – fully produced versions on “black and white in a grey world” – demo or alternate versions on “recollection”. for me – the demos and stripped down versions are ALWAYS going to win – always.
what you are also witnessing, if you listen to these records in chronological order, is the amazing growth of sam phillips as writer, performer, engineer and producer. with each step forward, slowly at first, but gradually gathering her own momentum, until she eventually broke her relationship with the christian record labels – I assume because she realised how much they were dictating, and that she wanted her records to express her personality, her writing, her songs – so she took action. she moved to a different producer, and got away from the christian labels. and that saved her career, if she had continued down that road, I believe that the christian labels would have just ground her down until she quit or gave up in utter disgust.
luckily for us, sam’s determination and will are strong, very, very strong, and once she moved from the christian music world to the “secular” music world – well, amazing things began to happen, and also, we began to hear the real sam phillips, rather than the leslie phillips trapped within a sort of strange christian…wall of sound – and that’s when and where it all starts to really happen for her…
it was in 1987 that she had her first breakthrough, still as leslie rather than sam, but a transitional record, perhaps – which is a very remarkable album – strangely, a collection of demos and early works, called “recollection” that finally brought the “real leslie phillips” to light.
LOVE IS NOT LOST
“recollection” is the record that made me sit up and say to myself – this girl has something special. at first, it was little things that I noticed, such as the incredibly beautiful backing vocals on “love is not lost” (the version on “recollection”, I mean, not the one on “black and white in a grey world”) – this was the first time (and possibly, only time…) in my life that I ever felt chills from a BACKING VOCAL ! it was uncanny, and then I started noticing other very carefully worked out backing vocals on other tracks, and for myself, I found that the sound of this “leslie phillips” singing passionate melodies over the most incredibly beautifully crafted backing vocals in the universe – so five or more “leslie phillips'” at once…shivers, chills, and pure emotion put into music – incredibly stripped back versions, guitar, bass, drums, a bit of backwards guitar – and you have a work of true genius… “love is not lost”. indeed.
the lead vocal of “love is not lost” was smoking hot too, it’s a beautifully concise, really driving pop song – and for me, the best of the leslie phillips era, is mostly encapsulated on “recollection” – a fantastic collection, and stripped of much of the unnecessary “production”, the songs are startling in their simplicity, straightforward, girl-with-acoustic-guitar who wants to change the world – and does. repeatedly. over and over again. if any song every could be described as having “pop urgency” it’s “love is not lost”…a pop gem, and the haunting voice of leslie-soon-to-be-sam is chillingly beautiful in both the lead and backing singer roles…like a wave of beautiful vocal energy.
while I may prefer the later records, if you like sam’s music at all, you owe it to yourself to seek out these older records, despite the best efforts of the christian record labels to bury sam’s voice in some incredibly overproduced pop monsterpieces, there is still a huge value to going back and listening to these early, devotional pieces – she means every word, and her voice is just an incredible instrument of beauty.
released as “leslie phillips” –
beyond saturday night (1983)
“dancing with danger” (1984)
“the turning” (1987)
THE BEGINNING OF THE CHANGE…THE TURNING
“the turning” is exactly that – her fourth album for christian label myrrh, but her first collaboration with producer, and future husband, t-bone burnett. so despite still being on a christian label, “the turning” is a very, very different sounding album to any of it’s predecessors, burnett bringing out the very best in leslie. no more over-produced christian label induced musical nightmares, the album seems (to me anyway, but I am an atheist, so I am probably incorrect about this) mostly secular in it’s themes, with a few obvious exceptions such as the not particularly inspiring album closer, “god is watching you”, which strangely, was penned by burnett.
besides that, the songs on “the turning” are once again, straight from the heart, straight to the heart, hard hitting, serious, beautiful pop music – the first of many successful burnett / phillips collaborations. obviously, 1987 was a pivotal year for sam – she released two albums, began a relationship with burnett as both producer and romantic partner…change was in the air, and in my personal opinion – it was all change for the better. leaving myrrh was the one of the best things that ever happened to phillips, from what I can tell…
the album also contains one of my favourite leslie phillips performances, the lovely “libera me” (also penned by burnett – but this time – a cracking little pop song) – a track that also appears on “recollection” in a different guise.
in fact, there are a large number of songs that phillips has recorded, re-recorded, and then released a demo or alternate of – as if she is never, ever satisfied – every year, she tries again, to see if she can get a “better version”. but that “never satisfied” thing is good for us, the listeners, because sometimes it means you get two or three different great versions of a really good song – such as “love is not lost”, “libera me”, “walls of silence” and many others – she just seems to want to “better” the previous version each time, so I would count this obsession of hers as a positive…and I hope, for her sake, that if she has “re-done” one of her songs two, three or four times – I hope that she is happy with at least one of the versions! my tendency is to like all the versions, but not equally. when in doubt – the version on “recollection” will be the best 🙂 I can pretty much guarantee that !
“the turning” was decidedly different, it did very well both in the christian and the secular markets, and some folk feel that it is her “high point” – the album that she cannot “top”. I am not sure I agree with that, I am mightily fond of certain later albums – in particular, “martinis & bikinis”, and, more recently, “don’t do anything”. but if we are just talking about the leslie phillips era (and not considering her later output as sam phillips) – well, I would rate “recollection” as number 1, with “the turning” a close second. which really makes “the turning” first – because “recollection” is, after all, “just” a collection / best of (but…what a collection it IS !!!).
as her final album in her “overtly christian” phase, as leslie phillips, “the turning” still contains songs of faith, but you can feel change in the wind, the songs have an edge to them not previously notable beneath the massed christian / production values. as noted above, and there is some song recycling going on – notably, one of my favourite of leslie’s songs, “love is not lost” appeared first on 1985’s “black and white in a grey world”; again, reworked, for 1987’s “the turning”, and, in still a different form, on 1987’s “recollection” – but I don’t mind that in the slightest – I absolutely love and adore that song, so I am happy because I have three versions instead of one! the more the better, when it comes to leslie or sam phillips tracks…and on all of the versions of that song, the combination of her lead vocal and the flowing, liquid beauty of her backing vocals all melt together in one absolutely stunning pop confection – wow. what a beautiful vocal arrangement.
“the turning” is also the only “leslie phillips” album that was re-released later under the name “sam phillips“, which is interesting, because that shows that, moreso than the first three records, that “the turning” is important to sam, or more important, than the first three – and she wanted it recognised to be part of the “sam phillips” era rather than the “leslie phillips” era – so to me, that says that in her mind, it was her first “true” record, the first one where she felt as if her personality and her actual self were finally coming through in the music the way she wanted. it’s also odd, because I personally always felt that “the turning” had more in common with the albums that came after it – “the indescribable wow” being the first one to follow it (the first for virgin, the first more secular album, the first where her name is sam not leslie) – than it ever did with the previous three records. it just…belongs with the sam phillips (and therefore, does NOT belong in the leslie phillips) catalogue. that makes sense to me, musically, too.
burnett’s production style, as we have learned over the past several years since he’s become much more high profile, was an absolute boon to phillips. burnett instinctively knew how to get the best out of her voice, and his arrangements (some of which are quite strange and unorthodox) – were an absolute breath of fresh air compared to the first few myrrh releases. suddenly…we could REALLY HEAR sam, and what she was saying, more importantly, we could hear her vision for her songs, as interpreted through burnett (who basically, I think, stood back and let sam do what she wanted…and captured it on rolling tape) and it all just became so much clearer…everything became clearer. not dissimilar to a famous 1968 david crosby moment, as producer of her first solo album, when crosby had joni mitchell play and sing for a few of his (very lucky) friends for the first time…saying to them “listen to THIS….” – a shiver and a sigh. burnett would have known that with phillips, he was on to an extraordinary talent, while working with burnett gave sam the freedom to express her true self on record for the first time. and what a powerful musical cocktail that is…shaken, not stirred 🙂
leslie’s lead vocals seem higher in the mix; the title track has a wonderfully stark feel to it, and burnett’s contributions (excepting the rather predictable “god is watching you”) – a co-writer on the beautiful album opener, “river of love” and the writer of the very poppy “carry you” – adds another element to a great batch, the final batch if you will, of ten songs from leslie phillips. from my viewpoint – well, there is value in all of the “leslie phillips” catalogue, but I can recommend first “recollection”, and then “the turning” – as the most developed, least overproduced of the lot – well worth a listen – recommended most highly. “recollection”, in particular, is essential listening…
THE BIG CHANGE
and that brings us to the moment of the big change. 1988, free of myrrh, and newly signed to virgin records, “leslie” is reborn as “sam”, and sam phillips moves gracefully, almost unnoticed, from “christian artist” to mainstream pop artist on major label. her first record for virgin, 1988’s “the indescribable wow” is a fantastic debut from what must have seemed to the world like a “new artist” – the leslie phillips persona played down completely, and sort of “starting over” with a new forename, a new record label, a new producer and husband in t-bone burnett, and, a new record.
ten new songs (no re-runs here!!), eight from sam, and two co-written with t-bone burnett. burnett would, in the end, go on to produce every sam phillips album from 1987’s “the turning”, to 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” – and here was literally, a perfect marriage of producer and artist – in the studio, and in life – a fantastic musical couple. I like this first album for virgin a lot, but I will say – it’s the same effect – beginning with “the indescribable wow” – each record just gets steadily better and better.
the urgency of the lead vocal on the second track on the album, an urgency that now seems purer, less desperate than before… “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you”, with yet again very beautiful backing vocals…is startling, her voice insistent, you can feel the sense of being ripped apart, the fact that she literally cannot say goodbye to someone she loves – for three minutes and nineteen seconds…you are there, you are feeling those feelings – everyone has lost someone they love – and letting go, as we know…is incredibly difficult. sam takes that age old struggle – and turns it into a three minute pop masterpiece. to me, a song like “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you” is damn near as perfect a piece of pop music as you can get. and her voice… indescribable, vulnerable, anxious, urgent, hurting…unable to let go…but knowing she has to. awesome!
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
and that brings me to an odd observation about the music of sam phillips. sometimes, not always, she does something that shouldn’t really be possible. she takes a serious lyric, about a serious topic, that perhaps represents disappointment or fear or unhappiness – and dresses it into an upbeat, positive sounding (musically, I mean – major key, bright, etc.) pop song. so the words are “down”, but the melody and chords and arrangement are “up” – so you get this weird, indefinable melancholia about some of the songs…a very sad lyric wrapped in a very happy “sounding” piece of music. a wonderful musical dichotomy.
I think that’s a great quality, and not ever pop writer can do this – usually, pop songs are either up (think, the beatles, “ob—la-di, ob-la-da”), or down (think, the move, “blackberry way”) – more rarely do they embrace down lyrics with up music. but somehow, sam does this not once, but often – and it’s just brilliant. certainly “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you” falls into this strange “lyrics down / music up” container, with it’s uber thin beatlesque guitar figure and lush background vocals, and chiming finger picked guitars – and the most insistent snare drum beat – and when that bridge hits you, her voice is just so full of pain and hurt – and the music is…happy ! it’s the oddest thing, but I love it.
a few other tracks on this and on other albums – “I can’t stop crying” is another one, although it’s not quite such a dichotomy, it’s more like “down lyrics with neutral music” 🙂 but I think this is genius, when it hits the chorus, it’s a bright, positive melody as she is singing the words “I can’t stop crying” – brilliant! dark against light, or light against dark…
“flame” is clearly the son of the beatles “and I love her” – and while this is a sam phillips tune, the arrangement seems pure t-bone burnett to me – and it’s a great atmosphere – first, just the verse, with only one voice – the percussion tapping gently away to sam’s strummed acoustic guitars, lead acoustic guitar, and then…the magic starts to creep in, first, a stunning bridge, with one of those goose bump-inducing vocal melodies…then back to our gentle chorus…with great guitar accents added in, a really, really beautiful song despite it’s strong resemblance to a certain beatles song !
and then we have something new, in a song like “remorse” – a rocking, hard hitting band – who play at speed – sam can barely spit the words out the tempo is so demanding – but the background vocals, again, steal the show – spine chilling beauty each time they appear…what an amazing vocal sound, so now we have really hard hitting power pop, flying bass, snapping snare drum – and sam – flying in over the top – and when those waves of backing vocals arrive – and later on in a really strangely syncopated break – wow, it really is the “indescribable wow” – a fantastic major label debut – “and me so sorry…”.
fantastic guitar, both rhythm and lead – take the song to a strange instrumental plane, there was NEVER a “leslie phillips” song as strange as this! really amazing guitar work from t-bone burnett, who is surely one of the most underrated guitarists around. then, the last part of “remorse” is this strange, languid guitar instrumental – that’s just weird – definitely not part of any “formula” pop song with a verse / chorus / verse / bridge / chorus / verse arrangement.
“what do I do” is another oddity, super multi-tracked vocals atop a moving bed of strings – a hundred sam phillips floating above this strange bed of acoustic guitar and strings…I’ve never heard a pop song as odd as this before. every song on this record is like a little mini pop symphony, but burnett always wisely showcases his new secret weapon: the awe-inspiring vocal chords of ms. sam phillips or maybe I should say “ms. sam burnett” 🙂
once again, perhaps even moreso than on “the turning”, sam’s voice is front and centre, burnett making the most of her incredibly expressive pipes. “the indescribable wow” is an absolute success – a fantastic achievement and a great introduction to sam “definitely not a christian artist anymore” phillips, and her beautiful pop songs – a really lovable record, and always a favourite. it’s strange too, because while burnett produced both sam’s last christian record and her first “secular” record the next year – those two albums could not really sound much more different! OK the answer to that mystery might be right there in the sentence, one of them is christian, the other “secular” – but even production-wise, they are very, very different animals – a lot of “the turning” is somewhat stark, while a lot of the indescribable wow is very lush, layered and sporting a new melodic and harmonic beauty that was only glimpsed before – now, it invades practically every song 🙂 – and that is a good thing
“the turning” is serious, moody, intense, while “the indescribable wow” is a bright, poppy, snappy kind of record – possibly the “most upbeat” record sam has ever made…but lyrically, still fairly dark and always inquisitive – always questing, always questioning – that’s always been the way. and this difference is just one example of sam moving from style to style, musical persona to musical persona – in an almost bowiesque way – well, perhaps not as extreme as that, but each new album brought something new to the table, as both phillips and burnett hone their respective roles as artist and producer…although t-bone really almost always seems to end up playing some instrument on some songs on his production projects.
having produced, basically, six albums over six years – five for myrrh, one for virgin, finally, a gap appeared between albums. this is a healthy sign – no artist or band can produce an album a year for long, without burning out or becoming very repetitive – so I for one was happy to wait a couple years for sam’s next album to arrive. and when it did, I was not disappointed – because once again, while “the indescribable wow” is a very good album, sam’s sixth studio album, “cruel inventions”…is even better. well worth waiting a mere two years for.
POP INVENTIONS AND AN ELVIS SIGHTING
starting out with a truly awesome guitar riff, the lead off-track of sam phillips‘ sixth studio album “cruel inventions”, entitled “lying”, let’s us know right away that sam has undergone yet another miraculous musical transformation – on the first track, she starts out the lead-off song singing in a really strangely low pitched voice, which only rises up for the “I’d be lying…” chorus – then, more great lead guitar (this time, on this new sam phillips record, it’s both burnett and the great marc ribot on guitar – but, as it turns out, it’s none other than elvis costello playing the awesome guitar riff on this track!!) – and then, suddenly, the very, very strange “bridge with strings” comes out of nowhere – but, those strings aren’t strings – well, they are, sort of – they are created from a keyboard called a “chamberlin” (a relative of the mellotron) as arranged by and played by the remarkable van dyke parks – and how burnett and phillps managed to get parks to not just arrange, but to actually play on their album – well, that ups “cruel inventions” musical ante considerably, as amazing “cellos” and virtual “string sections” appear from nowhere, not to mention eerie chamberlin flute and voice clones as on the title track…
and all over this remarkable record. the presence of parks, and the chamberlin, puts this particular phillips release into a class of it’s own – and the “string” arrangements here, are not like any others…beautiful work.
the second track on “cruel inventions”, “go down”, is so incredibly wonderful and strange, I seriously doubt that I have words to describe this piece – which, strangely, among many odd musical events – features background vocals that are panned hard to one side (something I’ve never noticed before on any record – fabulous idea!!) and a circular vocal that can only be described as being like the sam phillips version of a gentle giant circular vocal – except instead of five gentlemen from portsmouth singing in a modern day “round”, it’s five sam phillips’, singing an incredible vocal creation – just fantastic.
more highly developed, circular and just plain beautiful vocal harmonies abound on this record, again, on the very catchy “standing still” (one of my favourites from the album) – this is an album of vocal and instrumental experimentation, and it’s wonderful hearing sam sing through a thick flanger, in the very cool “tripping over gravity”, which also features a very innovative vocal arrangement; where a chorus of “sams” is dropped into a huge delay over and over again – while the dry flanged lead vocal soars far above. “missing….logic….tripping over gravity” – a very atypical and very unexpected piece of music, unlike any song sam has done before or since. if I didn’t know better, I’d almost think it was inspired by progressive music – but who knows what music sam listened to at this, or any time – you can’t really tell by listening to her records, because she is a force unto herself – she’s sam.
the presence of marc ribot also increases the musical cache of this record, his guitars are tasteful, beautiful, and essential to the success of this record. “tripping over gravity” becomes a hypnotic, almost ambient ecstasy; the delayed voices joined by beautiful, beautiful chamberlin strings…a mesmerising chorus that seems to go on forever and ever and ever…which then suddenly ends with two or three very odd loops playing out the tune – absolutely bonkers arrangement, more science fiction than normal pop music…if there was such a thing as “progressive pop” – this song would probably qualify as the first proper example of the genre…
“now I can’t find the door” – a tale of insomnia, not induced by alcohol, but by some kind of night time anxiety – this is a straight ahead rocker – with it’s beautiful “away from you, comrade…away from you, baby”… fantastic lyrical imagery, delivered with a strange throwaway quality, but underpinned by the classic phillips vocal urgency. sam’s voice, now more mature, so world-weary, always filled with passion, the human embodiment of the perpetually-broken heart – and this mostly drumless piece rocks, s0 when the snare does finally enter – more circular gentle giant style vocals appear on an unexpected, beautiful centrepiece / bridge – music magic from phillips and producer burnett.
“raised on promises” features a sinister spy movie / sci fi guitar riff, and a bittersweet voice that is possibly singing a bit autobiographically…with terrific “ahhhhh” background vocals – brash and impudent backing voices – then, as the song builds up, more and more vocal harmonies are added in, until the “massed sams” absolutely overwhelm the listener, with their insistent beauty. when the bridge arrives, the secret weapon appears again – van dyke parks and his chamberlin – with 17 seconds of incredibly beautiful orchestral sound – and then he’s gone again, or at least, mixed back down…these sudden mysterious bursts of chamberlin just add to the mystery and beauty of this record.
the album’s closer, it’s the string-driven van dyke parks “miracle string sound” again, with “sam phillips pop song” dropped on top – it’s almost as if she wrote the songs to fit the strings, rather than writing the song and then having parks add the strings – this string arrangement is really cool, and the title-as-chorus really sticks in your head “that’s where the colors don’t go” – and another amazing bridge, with fabulous orchestrations – and then, van dyke parks “takes a solo” – and you get four bars of absolutely amazing orchestra (via the chamberlin keyboard, of course) including, a “penny lane” style “trumpet” as the chorus repeats in an endless, joyous fade out – an amazing juxtaposition of pop song, amazing pop singer, amazing pop producer, and genius string / orchestral arranger – working in perfect harmony.
THE BASS MAN COMETH – LIGHT INTO DARK
for the next album, 1994’s “martinis & bikinis”, the longest gap between phillips albums ever, a full three year pass before this masterpiece is unveiled. and that says it all – the album opener, a very short track called “love and kisses”, which contains the title in it’s lyrics (“martinis and bikinis for our friends…”, well let’s put it this way, I love that little song so much, that I actually did a cover of it on my TEAC 3340S, which has never been released. that’s the only sam phillips cover I’ve ever done, and I did a very, very faithful rendition of it – all 0:56 seconds of it. one of the most enjoyable mini projects I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on.
viewed by many as her musical high point (particularly, within the “sam phillips” years), again, some say that “martinis & bikinis” is the height of sam’s achievement, and in some ways, I can’t really argue with them. featuring an even more amazing band than last time, this time, there is no van dyke parks (well, one cameo role, he arranges the strings on “baby I can’t please you” – but other than that, nothing), but, along with phillip’s stalwart sidemen t-bone burnett (guitars, basses, and many others), mickey curry (drums), david masfield (violin, multi-instrumentalist) and jerry scheff on bass, is added the suddenly out of work colin moulding , of XTC (coming off of the 1992 pop XTC masterpiece, “nonsuch”), getting melodic pop bassist extraordinaire moulding was an absolute coup. he was free – sam asked him to play on the album, so he did.
that might not seem like a big deal, but the bass guitar playing on this session, practically drives the entire album – it simply rocks, in a “I am the OTHER paul mccartney” way – moulding at this point, was a very accomplished bassist and writer in his own right, confident, melodic – and knowing a thing or two about pop music, too – and he also is the only other producer that sam ever worked with during the t-bone burnett years – colin co-produced the very infectious pop single “baby I can’t please you” – which, had it been sung by andy partridge or colin, would have sounded somewhat like a lost XTC track.
but the poppy then moves to the deadly serious, as “circle of fire” with it’s shockingly odd guitars, sticks in your brain, and the biting, deadly, sinuous vocals, with their tight harmony – followed by the most spastic slap back echo guitar solo I’ve ever heard – it’s absolutely over the top –and is PERFECT for the song – meanwhile, mickey curry on drums is working in perfect rhythm with colin moulding’s flying bass…it’s just perfect, the perfect rock vehicle for sam’s strident, serious tune. her voice sounds quite brittle on this track, I love it when she really reaches for a low note – and nails it..fantastic.
then we have one of the most beautiful sam phillips songs ever, the delicate, heartbreaking “strawberry road” – which again, contains instrumentation that had not previously been featured a lot on sam phillips records: harpsichord, hammond organ, and cello – and used to great effect, I love the harpsichord part in this piece, and her vocal is heartbreakingly beautiful…leading us to the road – the “strawberry road, where the dream fades, down between our longing and desire…”
beautifully chorused guitars work with organ, and then cello, for a very serious, almost pseudo-classical coda, that gradually fades to nothing. a pop gem, a really lovely little song…oddly peaceful, like a personal song about a place of sanctuary.
then comes what is another of my favourites from this record, or rather, (along with the aforementioned “love and kisses”), and that is the pop master class of “when I fall”. sam’s trademark “chorus repetition”, a constant ride cymbal, colin moulding on the bass…simple, straightforward guitar lines and leads, but it’s that voice, something about the way the second and third “when I fall” is sung, something catches in my throat, and I can almost feel sam falling – you almost feel how hurt and lost and frightened she seems, and her desperation to not fall, but she knows she is falling – but, “I think you’ll be there when I fall…” so there is hope…but it’s tenuous. the sound of sam’s voice on this song is a heart stopping sound…really sensitive and really lovely.
amazing “ahhhs” appear from nowhere, more insanely beautiful backing vocals – for the lovely little bridge, which is followed by really beatlesque / xtcesque lead and reverse guitar solos…leading to the final verse and chorus, colin’s bass climbing around subtly in the background, the hammond reappearing to give it some glory, the beatle guitars chiming…it’s fabulous!
more beautiful backwards guitar in the repeating chorus coda, and a long fade with hypnotic guitar and organ finally takes “when I fall” to it’s lovely conclusion.
“same changes” is another real rocker, with colin’s bass pulsing and throbbing beneath another fabulous tight harmony chorus from sam, her voice so confident on this record, just singing her heart out, and making her songs come alive with the help of the best band she ever had – I mean come on, colin moulding of XTC on bass !!!!!, mickey curry on drums – and t-bone burnett – yes, there are additional players, but that “core band” – they just rock – and “same changes” is one of the best, love the drum part, love the bass, love the guitars, love sam’s massed vocals…including a strange circular bridge where the band hangs back, and then dives into a great lead solo, that just rocks – a fantastic tune – including some trumpets mixed in there for effect! very strange.
then…comes the moment of terror, with the truly frightening “black sky” – a flat out dirge/tirade against the culture of nuclear war, and “diggers, drillers and sellers…” – with the clear message of the chorus:
“we won’t stop…until we’re underneath the black sky”.
the ultimate destruction of mankind via the horrific weapons that mankind invented – missiles are mentioned, but the craziest thing is this “la la la” chorus that follows the chorus proper – it’s so dark, there is none of the characteristic sam phillips here, especially in a song that contains the line “the forest raped into desert” – you can tell that in this case, this isn’t a light pop song, but a deadly, deadly serious, questioning, warning song – utterly apocalyptic – that warns us, that if we continue down this path of weapons and oil, money and not taking care of our planet – that we WILL end up with nothing, having destroyed everything via our greed, and our desire for power.
against an eerie backing of strange, strange guitars and throbbing drums, and not much else, sam’s stark warning vocal just stops you in your tracks – the album having gone from pop / happy / light to darker than dark in the space of one song – “black sky”. heed it’s warning, there is nothing frivolous about this lyric, or this amazing vocal performance…and once again, sam has come up with a song unlike ANTHING she ever, ever did…before or since… a true one-off, an utterly unique song and performance, which I think is fantastic.
“the black sky” is so strange, so unique – and that’s the genius of sam phillips – you are listening to a great pop record, everything bright, happy and positive – and then suddenly, you are plunged into the pitch black darkness, the world ends with a black sky, the stars gone – and it’s of course, all down to what mankind has been getting up to…and sam’s voice is the voice of truth, chilling truth, and when you hear the condemnation, the summing up of the crimes – well, be prepared, it isn’t pretty – not at all.
TRIUMPHANT… JOYOUS… YET LONGING
sam then returns to pop mode with the most excellent “fighting with fire”, which is then followed by another real favourite track of mine, the obviously (at least somewhat) autobiographical “I need love” – which follows the sam phillips pop song formula perfectly, but the urgency of her voice on the “I need love” chorus grabs you right by the throat and doesn’t let go – and interestingly, we have one of the few open references by sam, regarding her departure from the christian labels when she sings “I need God…not the political church” – in a somewhat “telling” variation of the chorus.
“the wheel of the broken voice” to me is a strange choice of penultimate track, but over the years I’ve grown to love it – I think it’s more about burnett than phillips, but that’s just an impression I have – I could be entirely wrong. it used to be my least favourite song on the record, but now I like it a lot, so – go figure. it’s perhaps a bit rhythmically strange, so placing it that near the end maybe harms the perfect, driving pace of the record up till this point.
ALL I WANT IS THE TRUTH
then, to finish off this most remarkable of albums, sam does something completely unexpected: she covers a john lennon song, turning in what must be one of the very, very best covers of this song out there, the hard-hitting “gimme some truth” (from the “imagine” album) – which lyrically at least, fits right in with the themes of this record. not an easy song to cover, and burnett wisely chooses to not even attempt to emulate george harrison’s amazing slide guitar parts, instead opting for a lovely, psychedelic pop version – and he let’s sam’s voice carry the arrangement.
which it really does, I mean, no one can hope to “top” the vitriol and anger that john put into his original version (which is purported to be about the vietnam war – which is believable, given the time frame of it’s writing, 1971), and I don’t think phillips and burnett are in any way trying to “top” it, but you do feel that sam agrees very much with the sentiment of the lyric – and when she gets to that chorus, practically spitting out the words, “just gimme some truth” – even though it’s the (normally) gentle, lovely voice of sam phillips – the anger at being lied to, by the government, maybe by the church, or by people she trusted who let her down – comes through loud and clear. “just gimme some truth…all I want is the truth…”
“martinis & bikinis” might well be my favourite sam phillips recording, and possibly my favourite sam or leslie phillips recording…it’s difficult, I change my mind all the time, one day it’s “recollection”, the next, it’s “martinis…” so I will just have to leave it open-ended for the time being. but I do recommend this album to anyone who loves good quality pop music, and, the presence of xtc bassist colin moulding gives it that extra pop sheen that for me, is irresistible.
not to mention, it’s a collection of some of the very best songs ever written by sam, and it’s just outstanding in terms of composition, arrangement, performance and mixing – a great record, a classic pop masterpiece. with one terrifying break in the form of “the black sky”, this is an album of urgent, driving pop music with some of the most beautiful vocals you will ever hear, underpinned by one of the masters of melodic bass playing – you can’t really go wrong.
FROM DARK…TO DARKEST
it was another two years to the next sam phillips record, during which time, once again…everything changes. “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” has to be the oddest of the odd within this collection of pop albums. it’s the most “difficult” of albums for me to connect with personally, it’s very, very much of it’s time, and it embraces technology as only an album made in 1996 can – wholeheartedly. in an ever-not-so-slightly over-the-top way. so for those of us who had grown familiar with the sam phillips catalogue – it was a shock to the system. a complete change.
gone are the gentle acoustic guitars, the pianos, the lovely background vocals – and in their place, a stark sounding, almost alien sam phillips sings strange melodies over odd, electronic, robotic backings – album opener “entertainmen” is a perfect example…this is not the sam phillips we were just getting used to – this is yet another sam phillips, electronic music explorer extraordinaire.
now, if I detach myself from the history, if I set aside all of the albums from 1987 – 1994, if I put “martinis & bikinis” out of my mind, and I listen to “omnipop” as if I’d never heard sam phillips before – well, I would probably like it a whole lot better to begin with! it’s not a user friendly album, and I’d be curious to hear what sam has to say about it now, in 2013.
the dissonant musical slap in the face that is “plastic is forever” is another strange entrant to this new “just how strange can this get” song writing competition, and while it’s clever, it’s not particularly melodic or memorable. speaking of memorable, the third track, “animals on wheels” is certainly that, and the mental imagery that this odd song creates is certainly unique – and odd though it is, it’s quite catchy, and you do find yourself singing it for the next few days after listening to the album. it’s the first song on the album that really appeals to me, so it’s a bit less strange and more recognisable – but just barely. almost a melody…
the rest of this album is like a blur to me, when I play it, I remember the songs, but when I leave again – they are instantly forgotten, expect perhaps for the catchy “animals on wheels”. even the jaunty rhythm of “zero zero zero” fails to move me, and I just find myself wanting to move on through the tracks – yes, there are some decent songs, some even great vocal performances, but overall – this album is just a bit strange for my taste.
“help yourself” is really, really too much for me – with a very, very dissonant arrangement of jazz instruments, that grow horribly out of nowhere, over and over again. “your hands” has a beautiful vocal, but the melody seems flat, dead – terrorised. on “your hands”, her voice feels choked and halted, and I just don’t connect with these rather strange arrangements of potentially good songs – it’s definitely a “kitchen sink” approach – they had all kinds of awesome new studio technology available – and by god, they were determined to use every bit of it. and sometimes, sam’s lovely vocal, just gets swallowed up and lost in all the tech.
finally, “power world” actually sounds like a sam phillips song again – thank god, an ordinary pop song, with drums, bass, guitars and vocals – love it. a bright spot in an otherwise odd sea of musical ideas -“our ideas of perfect are so imperfect…” – how beautiful is that? I think that is a great line, a great lyric – so there is some redemption, but why do we have to sit through six very, very weird songs to get to something recognisable? that makes “omnipop” hard going.
and then you get to something like the song “(skeleton)” – which, if it were on an adrian belew album, would make perfect sense – but as a sam phillips track, it doesn’t really convince…first of all, it’s instrumental, and I love it – but it just seems misplaced.
“where are you taking me” is another return to pop form (or at least, pop form 1996 style), and includes some great flute mellotron or chamberlin, but as a song, it’s a bit scary – sam sounds simultaneously terrifying and terrified – a very, very odd song – with some great guitars, but not a song you want to put on if you feel you need cheering up 🙂
then you get an odd little pop gem like the also out of place “compulsive gambler” – which at 0:48 seconds in length, is basically over before it starts – but I love it.
“faster pussycat to the library” is a cool and intelligent pop song (great title, too – I love the way she titles her songs), another improvement, with beautiful carnival chamberlin (or similar) sounds atop a sparse rock backing. a lovely vocal, too, but as a tune – nothing you can whistle along to…”if you don’t know what to do, I’ll make it up for you…” – lovely strings and flutes, warped and crazy…kind of cool.
album closer “slapstick heart” is slinky, and features a beautiful vocal – in fact, even though I find this record to be a bit strange, I can’t fault the sound of her voice – which is always compelling, no matter what the musical context.
if you bought all of the other sam phillips records and liked them all – then there will be a lot for “omnipop” to offer you – but if you are not a die hard fan, this might be the one album you might give a miss – but you would be missing out on something that is utterly unique and of it’s time – and with a title like “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” – well, that should be warning enough not to expect a “typical” pop album – and indeed, this is about as atypical as they come.
COMPILING, COMPILING AND COMPILING…
a previously unreleased track called “disappearing act” starts us out on our first collection of sam phillips song’s, “zero zero zero” from 1998. a strange reverse guitar, an oddly wailing female voice in the background, and sam’s voice with a lone bass and acoustic guitar…it’s a nice little song, a pleasant start to a somewhat odd journey through the last few albums.
moving from the new to the strong, the powerful “I need love” from 1994’s “martinis & bikinis” gets us off to a good start – a good choice from her strongest album.
this is followed by “holding onto the earth”, from “the indescribable wow”, another nice bit of phillips musical history. this is presented in a very different musical arrangement from the original album version, although it’s not marked as “alternate”, I believe it is…another example of sam re-writing her own history, by making changes to songs over and over again, always seeking that perfect version.
next is another pop masterpiece from “martinis & bikinis” – the very catchy “signposts”, again with that trademark colin moulding bass line – brilliant.
an alternate mix of the lovely “where the colors don’t go” follows – but, not terrifically different to the album version – just subtly different, but again, she can’t resist to do something different with an existing song, which I think is so cool – and I’m very pleased to have two different versions of this lovely song, taken from 1991’s “cruel inventions” album.
next, representing 1996’s “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” is the very strange but very catchy “animals on wheels” – a very cool and very odd song.
leaning heavily on the brilliance of “martinis & bikinis”, a third track from that record, the previously described anti-war dirge “the black sky” – a chilling condemnation of nuclear war and other related sins of mankind. this is an essential track, so I’m very glad it’s included on this compilation – a good choice.
next is another remix, this time, another track from “the indescribable wow”, the intensely beatlesque “flame”, and while it’s not miles away from the original mix, it’s great to have two different versions of this excellent early sam phillips track.
then we have something very, very unusual “ribot tripping over gravity” – “ribot” referring to her lead guitarist, this some kind of very cryptic, odd mix featuring his guitar, but again, at 1:15, it’s more of an impression of a song rather than an actual song – and it bears very little resemblance to the original “tripping over gravity” – an enigmatic, strange remix – just adding to the mystery and privacy that surrounds phillips’ music – closed sessions, no cameras – just musicians (which is really how it should be, probably…).
this is followed by an odd little song, “hole in time”, that I wouldn’t have chosen, but again, this is not your typical compilation, it’s very, very unusual, and the strange choices of songs along with the enigmatic remixes, alternates and altered versions – makes “zero zero zero” a must-have collection.
the next track, entitled “you lost my mind”, is another unreleased piece, with a driving drum beat, and a lovely fast shuffle feel, it feels more like a demo than a finished track, but it’s raw, it’s real, and it fits right in on this strange, strange compilation. a great harmony vocal bridge graces the centre of the piece, which has a really snappy rhythm section – love the bass and drums, whoever they are played by…
the very poppy title track of 1991’s “cruel inventions” is next, with an almost fripp-like repetitive guitar riff, which is quickly overwhelmed by beautiful chamberlins and massed sam phillips background vocals – this is a great pop song, with it’s fabulous hand claps and melodic guitars…
another one that I would not have picked, “fighting with fire”, which is a great song, but it might not be my first choice for a “best of” – but “zero zero zero” is really not a “best of” – it’s a compilation, and these unusual track choices, odd remixes and so on, make this such a unique and excellent record.
an alternate version of “lying” is next, with that trademark elvis costello guitar, is an absolutely spot on choice, another one from “cruel inventions” – a great song in any version, fantastic lead vocal – love it. happy to have two versions of this one, too…
finally, bringing all of these disparate musical strings together with one beautiful, anthemic song – the only song, the only possible choice for the final position – the exquisite “strawberry road” – just a lovely, lovely song, and a vocal to die for – sweet with a sense of longing – what a perfect way to end 1998’s “zero zero zero”, and the string arrangement is just heartbreaking, as are sam’s amazing backing vocals…just stunning song craft, I wish I could write a song half this good.
INTO THE VOID…
then…silence. touring, living her life, no more albums from virgin, who had by this time, dropped sam – five years pass.
after the odd mis-step of 1996’s “omnipop”, “fan dance” is a return to roots, a back to basics record if there ever was on, so now we have an almost complete absence of technology – it’s just lots of acoustic guitars, and sam’s now mature voice – a lot less vibrato, and a new purity – the lead off track, which is also the title track, is like a palate refresher, instantly washing away the excesses of the virgin years, and giving sam a fresh start – and it feels great, her voice is in perfect shape, and the stripped down arrangements really suit. compared to the work of the late 90s – the albums made after 2000, mostly are much starker, the instrumentation is careful, never overdone, really appropriate and well-chosen. sam obviously learned a lot from her long association with t-bone burnett, and she has put it to good use ever since.
this track has an almost oriental feel to it, “when I do the fan dance…” and I love the sound of it, it’s just so pure, and so real – it’s like we just got back the sam phillips of “martinis & bikinis” or “cruel inventions” – and it’s nice to have her back.
“edge of the world” starts with a piano, which leads the piece, an absolutely beautiful sound– an old upright (or digital version of an old upright) – and the chorus “at the edge of the world looking up…” a beautiful descending melody – I can’t say enough good about this fantastically beautiful piano and acoustic drama, great vocal, evocative piano, the simple arrangement – it’s truly, exquisitely beautiful – a hidden gem in sam’s catalogue – and the sudden, odd piano ending is breathtaking. exactly three minutes long – the perfect quirky, wonderful pop song.
“five colors” is just bass and acoustic guitar – and that VOICE. when the harmonies come in, when the “massed sam phillips voice choir” brings in that undeniable harmony – it’s just all about the shivers and the goose bumps, and it’s really more about these songs, which are so good – this song almost sounds like a beautiful crowded house or finn brothers song – and the vocal harmonies are absolutely exquisitely beautiful. I can’t say enough good about this song or about this album – it’s back to basics, back to reality – and it’s all about the songs…and that voice.
a strange ambient non-solo takes us out, to the end of “five colors”, and onto the next track, which is the string quartet “wasting my time” – which again, is a great device, we’ve moved from acoustic guitar, to piano led, to acoustic guitar, and now, for the fourth track, it’s a string quartet – so a different approach for each track, but still a back to basics technique, and it works great – her voice sounds amazing atop the strings, and there is no other pop song in the universe quite like it – and the string arrangement, which is quite odd, a bit quirky in places, is a unique musical experience in itself…and the string outro is just the weirdest thing yet…
next comes “taking pictures”, which is dark and mysterious, with piano, guitar, some kind of leslied guitar or similar, this is quite beatlesque and is just pleasant and lovely – “places I go are never there…” and “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” are just two of the lyrical ideas here, and the whole beatle-y mood of the piece is quite compelling – and, at 1:53, it’s gone before it really gets started.
“how to dream” – acoustic guitar and vocals, lots of harmonising vocals “when we open our eyes and dream…” – straightforward acoustic guitar song, with beatlesque over tones, bass guitar, minimal drum kit – it’s all about the voice, and when the harmonies are present, the voices – a really catchy chorus, and those “ahh, ahh, ahh ahh ahhs” are simply to die for…I absolutely love this song, with it’s weird guitar sounds, and super tight harmonies – it’s exquisite.
then comes something completely different, the very unique “soul eclipse”, an odd bluesy guitar atop a noisy plodding rhythm, sounding like a scratchy 1930s blues record, racing along, with some suddenly appearing then disappearing again, great fuzz chords dropped in – and all the while, sam’s voice floats over the top – calm, reasonable, questioning…a fantastically odd arrangement, but it works. one of the very oddest of all sam phillips songs, but somehow, it works…
“incinerator”, a title I might expect from rammstein, but not from sam phillips – but there it is – another one with an odd, vintage, old-timey feel to it’s backing – which features a lot of stuff going backwards, while an oddly-thin-strangely-EQ’d guitar line travels along – the whole EQ of the piece is odd, with only sam’s voice sounding like it should – the backing is purely strange, but absolutely perfect for the song, I love this odd, odd track – which clocks in at just over two minutes and then is suddenly gone.
back to beatlesque pop, with acoustic guitars, bass and drum kit – the exquisite “love is everywhere I go” – a really, really beautiful song – possibly the most beautiful on the album – it totally channels late 60s beatles, really beautiful overlapping vocals, with a really simple chord progression – then, a mind-blowingly unique and wonderful bridge takes us right back to that irresistible chorus – genius, and again, at just over two minutes, nothing is wasted.
“below surface” is next, and it sounds like it’s title – tremelo guitars in a huge reverb room, and even sam’s voice is partially overwhelmed by the underground cavern feel, the entire song seems to be drenched in this wonderful reverb, giving it an odd other-worldly quality – and this one again, at 1:41, is gone before it gets started.
“wasting my time” returns in it’s “reprise” version, is the next to penultimate track on “fan dance”, which I tend to prefer to the “real” version, this time, no strings, but just a great straight ahead pop band: drums, bass, guitars, and reverse guitar I think – I love this version, it’s very beatles, and I think that this should be the real version, and the string quartet version should be the reprise – but it’s not up to me 🙂
the penultimate track, has a fantastic home made, demo feel about it, and a strange title to go with it, “is that your zebra” is a great little calypso / pop song, with a lovely whispered vocal, which is more about formless “ahhs” than actual lyrics, given this track a wonderfully unfinished feel – almost an afterthought – a great way to end the album.
the album closer, “say what you mean”, is a dark and lonely, sad blues song, slow, dirgelike, but utterly compelling – this reminds me of a song from godley & creme’s “consequences” – entitled “sailor” – which has a similar chord progression and lonely, sad, ethos – here, beautiful, clean, bluesy / jazzy lead guitars grace this very serious piece of blues music – something new for sam phillips, but she sings it like she’s a world-weary 1940’s chanteuse – with grace, passion and sorrow.
what a fantastic album, not a bad song on it, and yet, it remains one of her largely more-unheard works. there is no other record like “fan dance”, which I cannot recommend highly enough – it’s a real beauty.
LOSS AND LOVE
“I was broken when you got me” is the opening line from “how to quit”, the first track from 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” – another low key, acoustic affair, three years on from “fan dance” – and sam is still, thankfully, staying away from the tech excesses of records like “omnipop”, and instead, still sticking to what she does best – sings. so this record is mostly about acoustic guitars and vocals, both of which have come on from “fan dance” – a few more years’ experience, with every album, you can hear sam’s confidence grow, and both her ability on guitar (and piano) – not to mention orchestration, production, engineering… and her voice, just gets better and better each time.
the internet is not entirely forthcoming about the actual chronology of events, but it seems that phillips and burnett divorced in 2004, yet, he stayed to finish the album (“a boot and a shoe”) and they have worked together since the divorce, so while sam’s lyrics do suggest a painful, difficult separation – they still seemed to remain in contact. it seems to be generally acknowledged that “a boot and a shoe” is her record about the divorce, but how much is autobiographical and how much is musical fiction, we will probably never know. sam phillips is a private person, and I think it’s wise that we respect that privacy and not pick at the details of the divorce, except to say, she seemed very “broken” by it – hence a lyric like “I was broken when you got me…” which is heartbreaking on so many levels. I have always tried to judge “a boot and a shoe” as the next sam phillips album, and not colour it as “the break-up album” but that’s not always entirely easy to do.
“all night” is a strange one, with it’s thumping bass, and sharply strummed steel string acoustic guitars, a sort of sordid tale of woe, “all night, all night, all night I’ve been looking for you” being the repeated chorus, a mysterious little pop song – full of desire, “ I’ve been wanting to touch you since we met – you don’t give a girl a chance to forget…” and longing. this piece does take repetition to the very limit (if sam has a downfall, it might be, sometimes, just a little bit, repeating chorus a few too many times in one song…) but it’s still cool, with a great bass part, too.
“I dreamed I stopped dreaming” is a lovely, jazzy tune, with beautiful orchestration, a lovely, lovely piece – maybe my favourite track on the album – another short, enigmatic piece that clocks in at 1:51, but in it’s brief course, it moves you and touches you – and is gone before you know it.
“open the world” follows, another amazing harmony vocal – with the barest of accompaniment, acoustic guitar, bass, drum kit – and the voice from heaven. her voice is so beautiful on this, any imperfections in the song are just overlooked, because of that voice…a great, slow, beautiful, reverberant lead guitar solo takes over briefly, before the incredible harmonies return – and again, before you realise, 2:18 – it’s over.
“red silk #5” is another one that seems almost unfinished, more like a thought than a song, and I love the fragmentary nature of this and some of the other pieces, almost as if it’s not quite a song, but it was too good of an idea not to put forward, so they do a rough sketch, and that gets released – although this piece is probably more finished than I think. sam’s voice is sultry, dark, full of promise, full of mystery – “red silk five….” – talk about enigmatic!
“reflecting light” takes us back to the land of major key, pop, with lovely strummed acoustic guitar chords, a wistful vocal, “I’m reflecting light…” – accordion or something similar, sweeps along behind the mcartney-esque bass guitar and strummed acoustics – “now that I’ve worn out, I’ve worn out the world…” the imagery in this song is just gorgeous. a string quartet enters to take the place of a “lead solo”, playing a lovely middle section, until sam’s vulnerable voice returns, full of hope and joy and fear and a little bit of magic – “stand alone and misunderstood…” – this is a beautiful, wistful, sad, joyous piece of music.
another one with a title that seems more rammstein than phillips, “infiltration” is a face paced shuffle, with string quartet shoehorned on top (somehow) while the drum kit drives the piece forward. sam’s voice is somewhat overwhelmed by the odd instrumentation, but she holds her own – and somehow, this odd arrangement works beautifully, it’s inexplicable – it seems like it shouldn’t work – but it does.
“drawman” is next, another one that sounds more demo than complete, with a great, shuffling, bluesy acoustic guitar feel, and a thin, distant vocal – “hey baby, you’re a drawman…” this piece has a relentless beat, and a lovely 1920s feel to it, a lot of the songs on this record sound like period pieces from a long gone age of acoustic music, and this one has a bit of a shock – an utterly distorted fiddle solo – which is not what I would have expected, but fits in perfectly – it sounds like it came straight off of a 78 rpm record recorded in 1914, and was pasted over this decidedly more modern track – and it reoccurs near the end of the song again.
“I wanted to be alone” follows, a slow waltz with great stereo drum kit (including the best crash cymbal ever recorded – it’s just sublime), bass guitar and acoustic guitars – for this tale of lovers who want to be alone with different partners. a formless, solo-less section forms the ending – and it’s gone.
“love changes everything” is an upbeat, pop song, with down lyrics “we can’t fix what’s broken…” and a great “ba ba ba ba” chorus, just irresistible. another very straightforward acoustic guitar, bass and drums arrangement, as always, simple yet effective – and sam has clearly realised, during the course of recording both her last record, 2001’s “fan dance” and this album, 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” that it’s best to stick with what you are best at – and a straight rendering often is the key to the more successful sam phillips songs.
next comes the simplest arrangement of all – acoustic guitar, voice and later, strings, for “if I could write” – which has a great, simple vocal, and a lovely string arrangement…this could easily have been produced by sir george martin – and it’s a lovely, lovely song. “don’t think I’m coming back…coming back…coming back…”
next up is “hole in my pocket”, a modified waltz as played on acoustic guitar, which then mutates into a really beautiful pop song, the waltz figure starting out each verse, which then moves into time, and sam’s beautiful, clear voice really carries this tune, which is another incredibly short piece of music – gone before it really gets started.
“one day late” – another one of those sam phillips songs where you wish it had just a few fewer repetitive choruses, a lovely enough little song, light hearted, and with a beautiful vocal – but I do feel that the chorus outgrows it’s welcome, after about the fifth repetition, but other than that, I have no complaints, it’s a nice little song.
so as “a boot and a shoe” is the final album in a long string of sam phillips records produced by t-bone burnett, stretching from 2004 all the way back to 1987’s “the turning” when sam was still leslie phillips – a seventeen year collaboration between musician and producer – which is not something you see much of in the music industry.
SAM AS PRODUCER
an “a cappella” beginning, starts out the 2008 album “don’t do anything” – and, with another four years gone by, now divorced from burnett, this is sam’s first self-produced record, and this opening track “no explanations” has an ominous, marching drum beat, distorted guitars, and a creepy, sinuous vocal – a very striking song, and a great way to start the record – with ominous menace.
“can’t come down” follows with it’s fantastic “ I’ve got a great work to do, and I can’t come down” couplet, with sam using that lovely, deep, low pitched voice that she can now conjure up with such ease – acoustic guitar, bass drum, electric guitar – a pretty simple arrangement, but also a bit strange – some odd percussion sounds support more ordinary drum sounds – a non-solo takes the place of a guitar solo – and as with many of the tracks on her previous album, this one clocks in at less than 2:00 – just suddenly stopping at a point you would not expect.
next comes “another song” which starts out with a very distorted sample of a piano song – which then disappears, and turns into an “in the present” piano song, with it’s heartbreaking “did you ever love me” line – this is a really sad little song – and it has some odd time signature changes which are really lovely.
the title track, “don’t do anything” has the best lyrics ever, the amazing “when you’re useless – I love you more – when you don’t do anything” and as a song, it’s tremendous, with glorious strummed guitars, orchestra, and pounding drums, it’s an absolute triumph.
“little plastic life” follows, which is another piano tune, with a great vocal melody that then dissolves into the most amazing harmonised chorus ever, “burned it all, to the ground…burned it all..to the ground” – that is the most shiver inducing, goose bump causing moment, it seems like a jaunty little pop song – and then, slam, “burned it all – to the ground” flies out – and once again, I’m gobsmacked by the pop genius of the mind of sam phillips – it’s brilliant – with it’s telecasting guitars and final piano chord – wow, what a song.
“my career in chemistry” is even better – a rocking little song, with great lyrics, and a really exciting drum part, a drum part that seems to start up over and over again, but never really takes off – the lyrics are so clever, with another of those “ba ba ba ba ba” bits that just rocks – I’m not sure, but I think it might be sam herself playing the drums – and if so, it’s fucking genius. even if not – it’s fucking genius. I really love this amazing song – a show-stopper.
“flowers up” is the beautiful piano ballad, and is a song so beautiful, I don’t know if I have words to describe it, beatlesque, a perfect vocal, a perfect string arrangement, and a song that’s just pure beauty – with a “la la la la la” part that is again fantastic, this is a song you have to hear “diamond eyes spread in silk…” … “day palms and wind machines…” – imagery, vision, sound, beauty – maybe the most beautiful song yet from this remarkable young woman, fading out as the string parts overtake the rest of the song…
“sister rosetta goes before me” – another sam phillips acoustic guitar waltz, precedes the quite shocking “shake it down”, with it’s wonderfully distorted electric guitars and risqué lyric…this record is so personal, so real, that when I first got it in 2008, I really could not stop listening to it for many weeks…an unlikely banjo solo, then back to the five chord wonder that “shake it down” is.
next is “under the night” – more wonderfully distorted electric guitars follow the acoustics, and a low level, low pitched vocal is barely audible behind the wall of guitars, at least until the harmonies come in, when things become more audible. this is a dark arrangement, dire, dreach, and moody – not to be trifled with.
“signal” is another hybrid string quartet/acoustic guitar waltz (which sam seems to really favour on this record – but not necessarily a bad thing!) with a lovely vocal, a really beautiful vocal melody against the acoustic guitars “I gave you who I am…” – wow, that’s fantastic “looking for a signal, underneath my face…” – beautiful string arrangement too.
“watching out of this world” – back to the distorted electric guitars again, a strange, up and down in mood, odd anthem, with a really catchy chorus – if you can make it out underneath the dirtiest electric guitars ever recorded on a pop album – the arrangement threatens to bury the beautiful vocal, but luckily, the vocal wins.
this is a moody record, a very, very personal record, and it finds sam exploring some new techniques, and using a lot more distorted electric guitars on her backing tracks, as well as work with strings and orchestration – but overall, it’s a very, very beautiful record with a lot of naked emotion, and incredibly moving vocals, with very personal arrangements from sam.
it was at this point in time, 2008, that I temporarily lost track of sam’s music, although I continued to play “don’t do anything”, which I picked up on a trip to california in 2008 (sam phillips CDs being a bit rare here in scotland), quite a bit over the past few years, and of course, I am always willing to dip into the back catalogue at any time too…
until a few days ago, when john relph, curator of chalkhills, and many others, casually mentioned that sam phillips “long play” subscription service was about to close down…and so many people responded, that the website actually crashed (it’s being rebuilt now as we speak…seems to be OK now) and I was one of those “better late than never” subscribers, I’d heard about “long play” back in the day, but hadn’t acted – but now, realising I might miss out on three years’ worth of sam’s work – it was a no brainer decision to download the “long play” series.
I downloaded “long play” but I’ve only heard it twice in it’s entirety – and all I can say is…it’s incredible, it’s beautiful, creative, and fascinating, and I am so glad I decided to get it….but, I will have to continue this dissertation on the music of “long play” somewhere down the road, once I’ve had a chance to hear and become familiar with the five EPs, one LP, and several singles that sam released to subscribed fans since 2009 – it was originally meant to run for one year, but ended up existing all the way up to may 1, 2013 – which is good, because that gave those of us who missed it the first time around, a chance to get “caught up” with sam’s music. I for one am the gladdest of all – because while “don’t do anything” is a great, self-produced album, the body of work represented by “long play” is even more musically rewarding – and best of all, there is no record company involvement.
you pay the subscription directly to sam – and she gives you…music. funded by you, written for you, really.
my first (and second) impressions of long play is that it is gobsmackingly beautiful…it is really, really a remarkable body of work, and over the three years it was recorded, sam developed, and matured and grew as a musician in an incredible, but unsurprising way…it’s really so lovely – even after just two “listens”, I can absolutely recommend it so, so highly. a work of incredible beauty.
but I am not surprised 🙂 because, her entire career before her, where she progressed musically not in a linear way, but almost by leaps and bounds, embracing, then rejecting, technology, and always returning to what is key, what is at the heart of the music – her voice, the guitar, the piano – the simple arrangement, the honest song…so I am unsurprised now that the more mature sam phillips, is both master of her craft, and master of her instruments.
in the meantime, at least in this blog, I’ve thoroughly covered the records made between 1987 and 2008, and in part two, of course, I will cover 2009 to the present (whenever that might be) 🙂 I will see you some time in 2014 with the second instalment, I recognise that absorbing and becoming familiar with “long play” is going to take me some considerable time 🙂
starting out with “recollection” by leslie phillips, and eventually growing to a personal collection that contained the majority of her albums under both the leslie phillips and the “sam phillips” names, I’ve really enjoyed being on this particular musical journey…
to me, sam is both a serious songwriter, and a pop genius, with a truly unique and beautiful voice (not to mention great skill at vocal harmonies and vocal arrangements, too) and if you are a fan of quality pop music, then you will probably like some or all of her music, too. her records are always engaging, interesting, covering a broad range of production styles and mixing techniques – and she is without doubt, one of the most unique and interesting voices, with a remarkable catalogue of music, in our time, that I know of.
please give her a listen if you get the chance…you may be pleasantly surprised!
released as “sam phillips” – the “secular phase”
“the indescribable wow” (1988)
“cruel inventions” (1991)
“martinis & bikinis” (1994)
“zero zero zero” (1998)
“fan dance” (2001)
“a boot and a shoe” (2004)
“don’t do anything” (2008)
EPs and LPS from “long play”:
“hypnotists in paris EP” (2009)
“cold dark night EP” (2009)
“magic for everybody EP” (2010)
“old tin pan EP” (2010)
“cameras in the sky LP” (2011)
“solid state: songs from the long play LP – compilation” (2011 – compilation of the best songs from across “long play”)
“long play” chronology (in reverse chronology, most recent first):
October 1, 2011 plastic is forever – alternate version
2011 Single I don’t know why – what it all means – trouble live
August 11, 2011 “solid state: songs from the long play”
February 12, 2011 “cameras in the sky” – full length album
December 8, 2010 single it doesn’t feel like christmas
2010 single go on alone – when you’re down
August 24, 2010 “days of the one night stands EP”
June 18, 2010 “old tin pan EP”
2009 single when you’re down
2009 single I need love – 2009 version
(thanks to john relph for the basis of the above)