Roy Orbison-Black & White Night

Roy Orbison and Friends – A Black and White Night Live

I’ve always had a great appreciation for the voice of Roy Orbison.  Yet I, like many my age, didn’t really start to learn more about his music until he’d seen a hearty career resurgence in the few years just prior to his death.  There was no shortage of established musicians eager to contribute in some way to Roy’s return to the spotlight, thus he was involved in several projects that actually didn’t make it into the hands of his fans until after Roy was gone.  One of those projects saw life both before and after Roy’s passing in the form of a television broadcast and later as a live DVD and CD.  I’m talking about the famous Black and White Night Live event, of course, and I thought I’d take an opportunity to chew up some of your bandwidth to tell you about it.

Before traveling with The Wilburys and well before investigating a Mystery Girl, Orbison worked with the illustrious T Bone Burnett on a live showcase of Orbison’s classic repertoire supported by who’s who roster of rockabilly and rock and roll legends.  This single show, captured first for posterity in an HBO/Cinemax event entitled “A Black and White Night,” was taped September 30, 1987, and saw its initial broadcast January 3, 1988.  This was one of Burnett’s first forays into wrangling dozens of musicians together for a specific project, giving him practice for later gigs such as the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou and Inside Llewyn Davis.  Thankfully, Burnett has a knack for keeping artists on task without having the whole affair devolve into some sort of embarrassing, post-award Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “jam,” and he’s easily able to direct the participants to using their talents to pay tribute to the royalty in their presence.

This could have turned into some sort of ego-fest, with each musician trying to outdo the other in their reverence, but luckily that wasn’t the case.  Seeing the list of those involved, that’s a more amazing feat than you’d think.  Aside from Orbison and Burnett on guitars and vocals, the stage was filled with the TCB Band (Elvis Presley’s legendary backing ensemble), featuring the white hot James Burton on guitar, Glen D. Hardin on piano, Jerry Scheff on upright bass, and Ronnie Tutt on drums.  The remaining space was taken by “guest” musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits, as well as Coral Reefer Band alumnus Michael Utley on keyboards, and master percussionist, Alex Acuña.  To attempt to duplicate the splendid vocal arrangements on Orbison’s studio recordings, Burnett employed J. D. Souther, k. d. lang, Steven Soles, Jackson Browne, Jennifer Warnes, and Bonnie Raitt.  If you’ve heard this recording, you know that Burnett and Orbison succeeded, and even exceeded many of the heights attained on those early ‘60s Monument Records sessions.  Let’s give a closer listen to some of the highlights.

First I need to let you know that my CD copy of Black and White Night is the original 1989 Virgin Records release, which differs from the more recent Sony version in its slightly different track list and running order.  That stated, both versions begin with the most perfect set-up for the night’s affair – “Only The Lonely.”  The song exemplifies Orbison’s secret approach to songwriting in that he separates himself from the more “macho” points of view to focus on the heartbroken.  This take is likely the reason that Orbison was so easily able to connect to female fans who found more in common with his search for the proper description of his emotions than with contemporary views of women as not much more than victims of conquest.  This live version really feels like a train set in motion; it’s pretty cool when it first gets rolling, but wait ‘til you see what it’s like when it gets up to speed!  Kudos must especially be given to Souther and Browne for their most complimentary of voices.

A somewhat plodding “Dream Baby” gives the TCB Band an opportunity to strut their stuff.  Scheff’s dusty bottom end lends support to Burton’s weepy fills and a stellar background vocal arrangement (lang, Warnes, and Raitt are fantastic together on the “Sha-la-la-la”s and the “Ah uh-huh”s).  This combo also excels on the widescreen epic “Crying.”  Orbison’s voice is at its most heart-rending above the tropical flavors of Utley and Acuña and the sweeping strings.  If you recall, Orbison’s voice drifts just slightly off-key on the song’s final note of the studio release, but there’s no such problem here.  That’s what 25 years of live performance will do for you – you get better or you get out of the biz – and Orbison is happy to show us how it was meant to be done the first time around.

I remember Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Blue Bayou” so much better than the original, but that just goes to show you I’m a child of the ‘70s, not the ‘60s.  When Orbison took control of his hit once more, he made it his own as much as was possible.  Of course, the arrangement is bigger due to the large cast of participants, but its Orbison’s male perspective that changes our understanding of the tale.  It’s just one more of those songs that future generations will remark upon hearing, “Roy Orbison wrote this one too?”  Roy also hearkens back to his time trying to cash in as a rising rockabilly star before finding fame with his ballads.  “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You” is the album’s best evidence of Roy’s willingness to “rock out” in the way he does it best.  Again, Burton shows his flexibility and mastery over early rock and roll stylings by flexing his rhythm guitar muscle in-between spiky, little solos.

All the Orbison hits you remember are here: “Leah,” “Running Scared,” “It’s Over,” “Oh Pretty Woman,” even “Mean Woman Blues,” “Candy Man,” and “Ooby Dooby” – 16 tracks in all on the Virgin version, 17 on Sony’s.  You’ll want to use this as a launching point for acquiring other Orbison material from this period that you’ve missed, such as Class Of ’55 (1985, featuring Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis),  Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988), and Roy’s own Mystery Girl (1989, now seeing a 25-year anniversary reissue).  Although Black and White Night didn’t see a commercial release until nearly a year after Orbison’s death, it’s the best testament to both his fans’ (famous and otherwise) undying loyalty and also Roy’s own feelings at being loved.  If you’re going to go, go out with a bang, and that’s exactly the way Roy Orbison left us.  If only all musicians had such an opportunity to relive and reinvent their careers before calling it a day.  Black and White Night thus serves as a perfect celebration of the works of one of America’s best pop songwriters, in that it’s not only a deep bow to the past, but a sweeping aside of the stage curtain for a legend with a few more songs left to sing to his audience before saying “Goodnight.”

-Mark Polzin

 

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Jimmy Page Robert Plant-Walking Into Clarksdale

Jimmy Page & Robert Plant – Walking Into Clarksdale

I can’t recall what I had going on when the main songwriters from the band Led Zeppelin, vocalist Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page, decided to make an attempt at a reunion during the mid- to late ‘90s, but I was obviously not paying attention.  I seem to remember a “rock radio single” or two being released, but I don’t remember hearing anything else from the duo’s only studio album of new material since the 1980 break-up of Zep, 1998’s Walking Into Clarksdale on the Mercury label.  I’m not really lamenting that the reunion didn’t turn into something more full blown, as Robert Plant’s solo material in the years following has been incredible.  But just what was it about this album and its live predecessor, No Quarter that held Plant’s interest briefly, but couldn’t keep him around longer?  Now that I’ve just added Clarksdale to my collection, let’s see if I can’t find some answers.

Re-introducing Page and Plant to the masses begins with one of those “rock radio hits,” “Shining In The Light,” the lead track on the CD.  To my ears, the song fits in well with the Zeppelin catalog, but it’s not some sort of first wave of a heavy metal onslaught.  Those familiar with Zeppelin’s recordings, not just the radio hits, will know that the band had nearly as many acoustic-based numbers as they did rockers.  Therefore, the acoustic guitar setting up the rest of the song does not alienate the converted, but may prevent those looking for the next “Rock and Roll” or “Black Dog” to keep on surfing.  I have a quibble about the drum sound as well.  While it’s next to impossible to find a percussionist that can keep to the metronomic pace set by the late John Bonham, I don’t know why the drums on this song sound as if they were played by a robot with faulty wiring.  We can only blame Page and Plant, who produced the album, or Steve Albini, who engineered the thing, and we can only question their motives.  We can’t fault the performer, the late Michael Lee, because I imagine that he and bassist Charlie Jones were just damned glad to be sitting in with some legends.  Although the rhythm section shares songwriting credits with Page and Plant, I doubt either of the younger musicians was calling too many shots.

The other “rock radio hit” that I’d heard was the highly unusual “Most High,” which shows up as track 6 on the CD.  This song is more interesting than the other single due to Page’s dark and surprising chord changes as well as the Middle Eastern instruments featured alongside the conventional rock sounds.  Think of when you used to hear the song “Kashmir” on the radio, and you found it to be exotic, unnerving, and possibly a bit frightening.  That same vibe is captured with “Most High.”  The musicians just keep on playing, despite producing a song that may be considered to be too noisy to Western ears, and certainly unlike anything being played on the radio in The States.  I don’t know if we’ve now absorbed enough elements of other world cultures that we can’t get as creeped out as we were decades ago, but “Most High” certainly does make its best attempt to unsettle the listener.

The tilted blues via The Cure that comprises the album’s title track is one more good example of how Page and Plant delight in circumventing conventions.  Reminiscent of some of the start-stop cuts on Led Zeppelin’s Presence album; it demonstrates that both Page and Plant felt they had plenty of new ideas to expand upon should they continue on the reunion path.  The song does beg questions, however, and these same questions likely weighed on Plant’s mind as well.  Where can you take this music?  Does it just keep growing and growing until the band has to tour stadiums in order to satisfy the audience?  And does that happen sooner rather than later because this band consists of half of the band (and associated fame of) Led Zeppelin.  With these thoughts staring Plant down, he knew that he’d have to scale everything back until he was once again performing to audiences of a size that felt more comfortable to him.  With Jimmy Page sharing the bill, that was going to be impossible.  You can almost hear those thoughts crossing Plant’s mind as the album wears on.

But the duo does choose to go out on a high note.  The album’s last two cuts are two of the best.  “House Of Love” is another one of those blues askew songs that Page seems to have in limitless supply.  Again, the drums are a little annoying as they approximate an industrial rhythm, and never do start to sound organic before the song ends.  But Page’s cascading changes and Plant’s exploration of his range are two elements that remind us why we’re still interested in hearing what these artists are up to after all those years.  “Sons Of Freedon” gives drummer Lee the break he was waiting for, and the odd, Bonzo-esque rhythm comes blasting out.  Page’s highly unconventional directions and Plant’s ramble without rhythm provide for a “Crunge”-like feel to the track, and leave us excited for anything that may follow.

Unfortunately, there was nothing to follow.  All the money in the world cannot persuade Robert Plant to tour behind the Led Zeppelin banner once more.  And, seriously, why would we want him to?  The style of music that he performs these days is a far cry from the Caligulan excesses trotted around the globe when Led Zeppelin was at their peak.  What he’s doing these days is very engaging, and certainly more heartfelt than the songs he’s being begged to sing again.  I applaud him for not bowing to pressure and refusing to grab the easy paycheck.

Page and Plant’s body of work to this point stands for itself.  We should be thankful that the duo was open-minded enough to give it one last go-round, and that Walking Into Clarksdale is neither an embarrassment, nor a rehash.  On the right day, you might find that some of this material stands well along deep album tracks from Led Zeppelin.  Yet you’ll also realize the obvious, just as did Robert Plant.  You can’t try to maneuver circumstances to replicate the success reached by Led Zeppelin in the 1970s.  That trick is doomed to failure.  Instead, we should kick back and thank the boys for getting it right in the first place all those years ago.  So few bands can even make that claim.  

- Mark Polzin

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Roy Orbison-The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964)

Roy Orbison – The Monument Singles Collection (1960 – 1964)

I don’t usually take the time to write about greatest hits packages.  It’s not that I don’t like them, but it’s more like “here are all the songs you might possibly know by this artist” – big deal, not much of a story.  But I’ll make an exception to that rule if there’s something very outstanding about the package.  As I’ve been writing about the legendary Roy Orbison lately, it feels like the right time to tell you about one of those extraordinary packages.  The Monument Singles Collection (1960 – 1964) was released in 2011 on Sony’s Legacy label in celebration of what would have been Roy’s 75th birthday.  A two-CD, one DVD set, it collects Roy’ biggest hits of his career, which coincided with his stint at Fred Foster’s Monument label.  Disc 1 collects all the A-sides from this period, while disc two corrals the B-sides, very orderly and also (mostly) chronologically.  The DVD is a real treat, as it features concert footage of Roy in his heyday (such footage is typically under ownership by European companies), tearing it up in front of a gymnasium full of Dutch fans as presented on the television show, Combo on March 25, 1965.  To top it off, the package includes a booklet listing production credits, recording dates, release dates, chart positions, and musician credits for each track.  Let’s dive in and give a closer listen to the material.

As you may know, stereo recordings were in a theoretical development stage in the early ‘60s, so mono recordings were really the only way to go.  There had been problems in trying to adapt mono recordings for stereo systems in the past, which sometimes drastically altered the sound of the mix.  Instead of making that same mistake, Sony presents these recordings in stunning mono!  Flatter than stereo, true, but this is the way we remember these songs to sound, so why mess with perfection?

Disc 1, the A-sides, runs down an incredible list of 20 singles of varying success, all remarkably sung by our hero from Wink, Texas.  Leading off with “Uptown,” the rockin’ country shuffle featuring the unmistakable Floyd Cramer tickling the ivories, we’re reminded that such a string of hits is really only attributed to a few artists in rock history.  Think of “Blue Angel”, where Cramer is joined by another legendary session performer in Boots Randolph, their sax and piano add flourish while Roy takes a breath, the gorgeous string arrangement sighing behind them.  Or the chilling “It’s Over,” Roy’s plea for acceptance of the reality of a lost love.  The song, like so many others by Orbison, allows the listener to paint their own picture of a man on the verge of breaking down, lending cinematic characteristics to pop songs.  While Roy’s penchant for this kind of romantic drama is evident, what’s also on display is the sheer variety of these singles.  From rockabilly to ballads, from up-tempo blues to lusty, sexy lion growls, Roy liked to mix it up, and all of us benefitted from his flexibility, talent, and sense of humor.

Disc 2, the B-sides, is where we really start to learn about this material.  I was unfamiliar with all but a handful of these tunes, so it felt like I was privileged to crack open a vault containing hidden treasures when first giving a listen.  But those wise souls who bought the singles on 45 rpm,  50 or so years ago knew these songs all too well.  Great finds for me include “Here Comes That Song Again,” the flipside to 1960’s “Only The Lonely”.  I often wonder if a coin toss decided which song became the single and which the B-side, because “That Song Again,” with Boots and Floyd and the strings, and similar sad guy lyrics, could have instead climbed to #2 had that coin flipped otherwise.  Dig also Roy’s take on the Gene Pitney swinger “Today’s Teardrops,” originally backing “Blue Angel” in 1960.  Some of the musician credits are missing here, but the song includes wicked, little sax and guitar solos in a very perfectly produced attempt at another hit.

That “Summer Song,” backing the non-charting single “Lana,” in June of ‘61, was not chosen as the A-side is a complete mystery to me.  Roy may have been trying to diversify his output to radio, but “Summer Song” ranks right alongside “It’s Over” and “Crying” when it comes to his brand of big-stringed sadness.  Monument followed the flop quickly with what became a double-sided single in “Crying/Candy Man” later that month.  Both songs remained fixtures of Roy’s live set until his death, and definitively proved that Roy’s B’s were almost as good as his A’s.  A conundrum is found later on the disc in “Distant Drums,” listed as the B-side for both 1961’s “Let The Good Times Roll” and 1963’s “Falling,”  As “Distant Drums” wasn’t recorded until 1963, I question the accuracy of the package’s archivists, but that’s neither here nor there.  It’s a neat song, and I could agree with Monument’s decision to use its military parade through the tropics sound on two different releases, if that’s how it actually happened.

“Only with You,” paired with “Goodnight” in January of 1965 was, I believe, the last single released by Monument.  Roy’s delivery is strong, but I detect that both he and the musicians had fallen victim to formula, hence the single’s failure.  And that may have been what marked the end of the relationship between Orbison and Monument, that it’s damn hard to hop off of the big hit treadmill to walk a different path for a change.  Some spice to the mix could have kept the artist-label bond stronger, but alas, it was not to be.  A couple of other songs to marvel over are found in Roy’s take on the Stephen Foster classic, “Beautiful Dreamer,” the B-side to 1963’s “Pretty Paper.”  This is Roy in full-on crooner mode – a lullaby more gorgeous than the sappiest songs in his catalog.  Roy also made an attempt at popularizing a new dance craze in “The Bug” released alongside 1959’s “Paper Boy.”  Alright, it wasn’t quite up to the standards of “The Twist,” and sounded a heck of a lot like “Splish Splash,” but it’s a fun nugget to unearth.

Lastly, we turn to the DVD content.  Although only 25 minutes in length, Roy and his band crank out 9 songs in that time, and apparently held scores of Dutch teenagers in rapt attention throughout.  This isn’t a full run-through of the set, as it’s edited to list song titles before the performances, and spends quite a bit of time ogling the expressions of the subdued audience.  Understand also that Roy and his band considered themselves to be highly professional, so you won’t see anyone going off the rails and busting into a flaming guitar solo or anything.  The band is tight after playing these songs hundreds of times, and it’s evident that the set didn’t vary from night to night.  With that in mind, it’s pretty damn cool to hear Roy work his way through Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” with such a solid rhythm section behind him.  You can also just about see the goosebumps rising when the band brings it down low during “Dream Baby.”  And Roy won’t leave until he’s brought a chill with a heart-stopping rendition of “It’s Over” and a rousing “Oh, Pretty Woman” with goofy-looking, but vocally sound keyboardist, Bill Dees lending harmonies.

In the 21st Century, this is the way to best enjoy these blasts from the past.  The only way to do it better would be to take your turntable with you in a time machine so you could seek out the original 45s and hear them in the context in which they were released.  Yeah, I’m fresh out of time machines too.  Therefore, you and I can instead thank Sony for presenting so much more than another run of the mill “best of” set.  I think I’ll go give these another spin, this time in celebration of Roy’s, what would it be, 78th birthday.  Cheers!

-Mark Polzin 

 

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Jethro Tull – Crest Of A Knave

by TW on April 10, 2014

Jethro Tull-Crest Of A Knave

 

Jethro Tull – Crest Of A Knave

I’ve finally added an album to my collection that contains some historical significance for all music fans, not just longtime Tull fans like me.  You see, 1987’s Crest Of A Knave actually won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock or Heavy Metal Performance, defeating the album that was considered a shoe-in, even by the members of Jethro Tull and their record label at the time, Chrysalis, Metallica’s …And Justice For All.  I was big on both records, having recently discovered speed metal and having followed Tull since I was in grade school.  But frankly, in retrospect, there are significant problems with both albums that should have prevented either from receiving Grammy honors.  The better hard rock album of the two is clearly Metallica’s, but that’s because I wouldn’t, even on the angriest of days, consider any of Jethro Tull’s albums to be “hard rock,” and definitely not “heavy metal.”  So, what makes this record historically significant is that it’s Exhibit A that the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences is a complete pile of crap and they don’t really take on the responsibilities that you’d expect an organization wielding such a name to assume.  They want to tell you which records are the best, but they don’t really even care.  Taste is subjective, so make your own judgments, and ignore the Grammys.  If you’re going to buy Jethro Tull albums, do it because you like Jethro Tull music, not because they were handed this dubious award.

That being said, Crest Of A Knave is a solid Tull album, fitting comfortably alongside other ‘80s, synthesizer-driven albums from the group, now consisting of vocalist/flautist/acoustic guitarist, Ian Anderson, lead guitarist, Martin Barre, and bassist, Dave Pegg.  My failure to pick this one up sooner than 2014 is embarrassing, so I’ll try to make amends by offering a more accurate description than the one offered by NARAS.

Starting way back in 1979, Ian Anderson had started toying with the idea of abandoning the name “Jethro Tull,” largely because his own musical ideas were beginning to conflict with what he himself considered to be the band’s sound, and also because the line-up of that band was changing significantly.  Programmable synthesizers seemed to offer a solution for replicating keyboard parts in the live setting for both of the departing keyboardists, but Anderson’s sound experiments led to those synthesizers contributing sounds that were not familiar to longtime Tull fans.  What to do?  Those of us that stuck by the band through this time realize that Anderson just embraced the change, as did the band’s fans, but the group’s widespread appeal began to diminish.  Fair weather fans took a pass.  Nearly a decade on, and following a three-year gap since the previous studio album, Crest Of A Knave was released to mixed reviews.

“Steel Monkey” leads the pack of 10 songs listed on the 2005 EMI CD version, which includes the bonus cut “Part Of The Machine,” not found on the original vinyl.  If you didn’t know this was a Jethro Tull song, that likely wouldn’t be your first guess as “Steel Monkey” gets swinging.  The electronic rhythm track, while gelling nicely with the lower register of Anderson’s voice and Barre’s strangled solos, probably felt very modern at the time, but now just sounds dated.  This kind of update was also applied to contemporaries such as Dire Straits and ZZ Top to similar effect.  Great music was created by all of these artists at this time, but most of the organic pulse was sacrificed in order to do so.  And yet underneath it all are Anderson’s insightful lyrics discussing, of all things, construction workers.  Despite the electronics, Anderson’s charisma permeates and draws us in deeper.

“Farm On The Freeway” follows, and continues Anderson’s preoccupation with American blue collar workers.  This time the focus is on the common landowner’s dilemma.  When the land itself is the single most valuable thing that the famer owns, is it wise to sell in order to increase one’s personal wealth?  Questions of birthright and what constitutes true ownership burrow to the surface amidst Anderson’s recitation of the line, “Now all I got left is a check and a pickup truck.”  This is the kind of writing that has kept Tull fans engaged for decades – outstanding!  The electronics are held in check as well, helping to emphasize the philosophical battle being waged in the protagonist’s mind.  “She Said She Was A Dancer” provides one more example of the way Anderson tames his lyrics to introduce us to fascinating characters that we’ll never hear from again.  This time, two flirting drunks dance around each other, and the truth, over cocktails.  Their conversation reveals only what they’d like uncovered, leaving far more questions than answers as the couple bid their adieu at the song’s end.

“Mountain Men” also starts us down a path of serious reflection, this time about modern warfare.  There was a time, decades and centuries past, when enlisting in Her Royal Majesty’s service was a romantic and adventurous proposition.  But as the world grew smaller, and the lives of its citizens across the globe were shown to be more similar than first believed, we need to ask if that noble service to the crown was truly right.  The song’s protagonist has some nagging doubts as to whether he was actually in service to God and Country, or someone else’s business concerns.

The original release closed with another lyrical topic familiar to Tull fans – a train.  “Raising Steam” draws parallels to a locomotive building energy and someone heading out into the world to accomplish a dangerous set of tasks.  Anderson’s positioning of technology amidst dusty, grimy workers sets the tone, encouraging use of society’s advancements and cautioning us on its cost.

There’s nothing all that exceptional about Crest Of A Knave, aside from the fact that it’s the 16th studio album from a band with a number of excellent studio albums.  Knave will not leave the listener with the same sense of awe that follows exposure to Aqualung, Minstrel In The Gallery, or even the criminally overlooked Songs From The Wood.  In fact, it’s that “woody” sound, accomplished only with the use of acoustic instruments and analog technology, for which Jethro Tull is best remembered.  We can therefore forgive Anderson, Barre, and Pegg for trying something new in an attempt to steer clear of being pigeon-holed.  The performances, lyrics, and vocal delivery will always be excellent, whether given NARAS acknowledgment or not.

- Mark Polzin

 

 

  

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Jesus Christ Superstar

by TW on April 7, 2014

Jesus Christ Superstar Cast Recording

Jesus Christ Superstar (1970 Decca Records)

Taking a look at my calendar and then outside…then back to my calendar, and things don’t seem to jibe.  Winter will never end in Wisconsin despite our dreams of a spring thaw.  So, we think warm thoughts and try to remember what spring was all about.  We turn to our record collections for something to take our minds off of the latest snow event.  Let’s see, the next holiday coming up is Easter.  Easter?!?  I’m going to have a tough time finding an album with an Easter theme, but I’ve succeeded, and it’s a cracker!  The season means different things to different people.  To some, it’s the promise of the return of a savior.  To others, it’s ducks, bonnets, bunnies, and plastic grass.  To the unfortunate, it’s a time to stock up on allergy relief medication.  Jesus Christ Superstar is an album that nods to the first group’s version of Easter, which is great because an album’s worth of sneezing or quacking wouldn’t allow for a very favorable review.

21-year old Andrew Lloyd Webber and 25-year old Tim Rice had a brainstorm.  They wanted to create a “rock and roll” musical that told the biblical story of Jesus Christ from the point of view of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot.  But they didn’t have the funds for a full stage production.  Right!  Jesus…Judas…rock musical.  And these dudes were in their 20s?  It’s all true, including their plan to record the musical as an album in the hopes it would lure funding for a bigger production.  Some pooh-poohed the idea, but who’s laughing now?  Certainly not Webber and Rice’s bankers!  And so it began, the casting and preparation of what could easily have turned out to be a huge waste of time and money.  But they did find folks at Decca Records to be game, and the details began to solidify.

To the fella in our audience that’s wise-cracking about me reviewing a recording of a musical for a classic rock website: Read on, brother!  You’re about to be shocked!  What I mean by that is that the works of the cast and primary musicians on this record are VERY well-known to fans of classic rock.  The album lists their names on the back cover credits, and in the beautiful 28-page libretto included in the record’s original packaging, but only a few of them are easily recognizable.  First up, the role of Christ himself, and this is where you get your first shock, is played by none other than Deep Purple’s eardrum-busting lead vocalist Ian Gillan.  And don’t scoff, Purp fans, this is seriously one of the best things Gillan has ever lent a scream to.  The tale’s villain and observer, Judas, is played by none other than Murray Head (yes, the guy who sang “One Night In Bangkok” for the musical Chess by Tim Rice and Benny and Bjorn from Abba).  Jesus’ companion and confused love interest, Mary Magdalene, is played by Yvonne Elliman, who had a Top 40 hit with a song from the record, the ballad with a double meaning, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.”

So far, the only rocker on board is Gillan.  Read further to find that the part of King Herod is played by Mike D’abo, who was the second fellow to serve as the lead vocalist in the band Manfred Mann, and sang lead on “Mighty Quinn.”  Victor Brox’s turn as Caiaphas is maybe the biggest surprise.  Not only is his performance spectacular and edgy, he was moonlighting from his job as a premier British blues singer, second in popularity (but not delivery) only to John Mayall.  The part of Simon Zealotes brings another surprise as it’s ably handled by Johnny Gustafson, a well-established bass player who’s done stints with the Ian Gillan Band, and Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, but is best remembered for delivering the goods on Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” later in the decade.  The best surprise, as far as the vocalists go, is saved for last.  The part of the High Priest was played by a guy named Paul Raven, which was one of the first stage names used before he became famous (and then very infamous) under the name Gary Glitter.  No kidding.

This was supposed to be a “rock musical,” so alongside the orchestra were a few musicians who knew exactly how to rock out.  There was a core group of musicians featured throughout the recording, as well as dozens of support musicians and background vocalists.  That core group may also be remembered as Joe Cocker’s Grease Band: Neil Hubbard and Henry McCullough on guitars, Bruce Rowland on drums, and Allan Spenner on bass.  Keyboards were provided by Peter Robinson, who’d done work later with Brand X and some Genesis side projects, as well as Bryan Ferry and Stealer’s Wheel.  All in all, their performances are great, despite the inability to improvise on the score.  It’s a bit difficult to pick out exactly who plays what, and that’s further complicated by the laundry list of extras in the studio.  Amongst the better-known are British jazz bassist, Jeff Clyne, future Soft Machine alumnae, Karl Jenkins on piano and John Marshall on drums, and veteran guitarist Chris Spedding.  The “rock” elements sound somewhat dated at times, but quaintly so.  I blame Webber for this, not the musicians, as he seems to have composed in the style of the time, rather than attempting to craft something more timeless.

It’s not really necessary for me to break this record down by specific tracks.  This is a full story, subdivided into 23 segments, which happen to be individual songs.  Much of it won’t make sense when taken out of context, so you’ll really want to listen straight through.  And, don’t worry about needing to be religious in order to understand, or in sensing sacrilege at some of the elements if this story is part of your faith.  One thing that Webber and Rice tried to do, successfully so, is to make the story something that anyone regardless of religious affiliation can appreciate.  Stodgy, old church-goers with an absolute adherence to the precision of ritual weren’t the target audience anyway, and there’s likely none matching that description reading this blog.  This is the story of “the Passion of Christ,” which is probably fairly well-known to even the heathens amongst us (Heathen #1 is the guy typing this blog entry).  No one’s trying to convert anyone to a set of beliefs here; they’re just trying to tell a familiar tale from a different point of view and in a very unique manner.

2012 saw an updated reissue of this album.  I haven’t heard it so that I can make a comparison, so I’m relying on my 1970, double album vinyl copy for the details.  I’m not sure if that re-release was some sort of 42nd anniversary deal, or what, but I’m glad to see that the music is still available and is getting the clean-up treatment.  I do wonder if a younger generation can appreciate the music as I did, but I hope they’ll give it a listen.  Besides, what else are you going to listen to when it’s almost Easter and you want something “seasonal.”  Well, more seasonal than the snow, or ice rain, or wayward polar vortex is making it feel outside, that is. 

-Mark Polzin

 

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Ah, the 1980s. New Wave, pop metal, MTV and the Top 40. Forget tracking likes and shares on social media to understand a slice of a target audience. When something was a hit, the whole country knew it — whether or not everyone liked it. Educational publisher Scholastic, for one, had mid-80s kids all figured out, and B.K. Taylor, Samuel B. Whitehead and Jovial Bob Stine (R.L. Stine of Goosebumps fame) had their fingers on our funny bone. They created huge sheets of 80 stickers lampooning video games and our favorite music, and Scholastic sold them for $1.50 through its highly anticipated monthly book orders in 1984-85. We plastered them all over our book covers, our folders, our notebooks, our sticker books, and yes, even our Trapper Keepers. 

The humor on these gems still holds up, especially for GenXers, but certainly today’s music connoisseurs can find the humor in those that poke fun at superstars Michael Jackson, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Def Leppard.

If kids today don’t know who the Go-Gos, Elvis Costello, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, The Police, John Cougar (Mellencamp) or the Cars are, well, here’s an opportunity for some cross-generational bonding — and much laughter, especially if, during your reminiscing, you can find old Solid Gold clips, ads for Walkmans and pictures of people fawning over Huey Lewis. Those were the days.  

Some things don’t change, though. What kid today won’t be able to identify with “If it’s too loud, you’re too old?”

Here are 75 of the 80 stickers from that “Rockstickers” poster, copyright 1984, Scholastic, ISBN 0-590-36822-2. Click on each one to see it up close and personal.

And now MTV isn't even radio.

And now MTV isn’t even radio.

scholastic003

In the grand scheme of things, we do live next door to Mars. Is this also the
world’s only Tito Jackson sticker?

scholastic004

The 30-minute “Thriller” video was less creepy than this sticker.

scholastic006

When’s the last time you even pondered Adam Ant?

scholastic007

If only the mystery sticker would have had us
Guess Who the rock star was… it would have made more sense.

scholastic008

Change Walkman to “earbuds” and this one translates just fine. 
I have often wondered who taught Def Leppard to spell.

scholastic017

Pick up some vinyl at your local record store on Record Store Day this month
(or make any day Record Store Day) and scratch that itch!

scholastic018

That explains those chiseled features…

scholastic019

Duran Duran – the jokes here are the same same.

scholastic020

If you close one eye, does it still sound the same?

scholastic021

Some questions just shouldn’t be asked.

scholastic022

Is this supposed to be a compliment to the band?

scholastic023

As opposed to a Big Mac attack, I presume. Better than having a heart attack, though it’s possible that’s going on as well, here. Maybe he just found out his
copy of Rumours isn’t collectible.

scholastic024

Do you suppose anyone ever followed the instructions
and slapped this sticker on Billy Idol?

scholastic025

Remember when Marilyn McCoo was everywhere?

scholastic026

Chuck Berry: “Do as I say, not…”

scholastic027

Wait, I thought Billy was her idol…

scholastic028

What do you suppose tops the charts in Egypt?


- Cathy Jones
www.bernardyjones.com

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Yes – Yesshows

by TW on April 4, 2014

Yes-Yesshows

Yes – Yesshows

I’ve always been a big fan of the band Yes, and all their various incarnations and side projects.  But the band has built quite a sizable discography in their 40-some years of existence, so I’ve got a few holes in my collection.  I took a stab at filling one of those holes recently when I picked up the 2011 CD version of Yesshows on the Friday Music label.  This double-live album was originally released in time for the Christmas shopping season in 1980. The new CD version corrects a ridiculous flaw found on the vinyl version and also adds two bonus tracks to the double disc set that were not found on previous CD versions.  Yesshows is typically not as well-regarded as the band’s first live album set, Yessongs, and there are good reasons for that fact, but when I dove in to give it my first listen, I was very pleasantly surprised at the outstanding performances therein.  In the next few paragraphs, I’ll let you know what you’re in store for if you plan to buy this set, and I’ll also fill you in on the criticisms leveled against the record so you can decide for yourself if it’s one you’ll want to own.

In 1980, Yes was in the process of falling apart after a successful world tour with a new line-up.  In an odd twist of fate, the two members of the new wave group, The Buggles (of “Video Killed The Radio Star” fame), Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes found themselves “replacing” vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman.  The sole studio album with this line-up, including founder Chris Squire on bass, Alan White on drums, and Steve Howe on guitars, was 1980’s Drama, a very heavy and very satisfying session.  But Horn’s desire was to return to music production and his newly formed ZTT record label.  Squire and White also left, setting out on the winding path that would eventually lead to the next incarnation of Yes.  This left only Howe and Downes, who’d abandon the Yes banner, moving on to form Asia soon afterwards.  Situations such as this cause panic in the minds of the bean counters at record labels, so Atlantic cobbled together stored live recordings from an aborted attempt at another triple record set (like Yessongs) and foisted it on the unsuspecting moms and dads trying to buy Christmas presents for their kids.  First, the band had absolutely no participation in the approval of Yesshows’ content.  That may be a cause for pause amongst purists.  Second, the album includes songs recorded between 1976 and 1978, from tours for different albums and with two different keyboard players, and includes absolutely no material from the then current line-up of the band.  There’s one more criticism that has to do with one of the performers, but I’ll address that in just a bit.  Criticisms aside, Yesshows is really an excellent document and includes thrilling execution of complex material throughout.

Opening with an excerpt from Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” the band joining in to play along as they mount the circular stage, the energy shifts to the bass-heavy, Squire-written, “Parallels.” From a November 1977 show in Rotterdam, the group, especially the rhythm section, are in splendid form.  Wakeman accompanies them on keyboards at this juncture, playing a wild synthesizer solo and providing melodic support during Howe’s incendiary turn in the spotlight.  There’s nothing routine about “Parallels,” but the band is so incredibly tight that they make the song sound as if anyone could play it.  The band then scales it back for the Anderson song, “Time And A Word,” a more lightweight piece, the likes of which caused great unhappiness with band mates Squire, White, and Howe.  Knowing this, you can tell that Wakeman is doing quite a bit to buoy somewhat restrained solos from Howe and Squire’s bass line isn’t as free and easy as it may have been had he written the tune.  The difference a year makes is evident, as this performance is from London in 1978.

Without warning, mind-bending slide guitar alerts us to the start of “Going For The One,” the title track to that studio album.  Howe is again aflame, but then again this show was during the 1977 tour, when he seemed to be more comfortable with the band’s direction.  It may be that the album’s assemblers sequenced the songs to disguise the band’s growing discontent, but I’m unsure if it was intentional or haphazard.  In any case, Howe’s soloing is unbelievably fast as he demonstrates just how he became included in the pantheon of legendary rock guitarists.  You will be hard-pressed to find anyone with a similar approach to Howe’s, he’s that unique and distinctive, and his live performances can put studio recordings to shame.  The first disc concludes with the near-23 minute “Gates Of Delirium” in its entirety.  Co-written by the band’s 1976 line-up, which included Patrick Moraz on keyboards during a Wakeman hiatus, it’s as complex and engaging as any of their material from earlier years.  I’d been warned that Moraz was a poor substitution for Wakeman, but that warning was totally unnecessary.  The two men have different styles, neither qualitatively better than the other’s.  The major difference is that Moraz tends to favor synthesizers more than Wakeman, but that’s only a quibble.  Based on Moraz’s performance at Cobo Hall in Detroit back in August of ’76, I’m certain we’d have been dazzled by other contributions had he stuck around longer.  In fact, his preference for the synthesizer gave an important balance to the grumbling, churning rhythm section while adding a futuristic element to the piece.  This is one of Yes’ most amazing compositions, and I dare say this may also be the best version available.  The deliveries are chillingly perfect on the section where the band strips things back to allow Anderson some time in the spotlight.  Deftly placed bass tones, stinging and retreating guitar in the higher register, cymbal rolls for emphasis, and a ghostly set of synthesizer chords provide exactly what is necessary and nothing more, letting Anderson’s voice ring out devoid of competition.

Disc Two begins with the Anderson/Squire composition, “Don’t Kill The Whale.”  Anderson had always been accused of including hippie-dippy concerns into his lyrics, and this one seems truly borne of the “Save The Whales” campaign stemming from the ecology movement during the ‘70s.  It’s only with decades more to reflect on this topic that we understand Anderson to be right.  The destruction of peaceful cetaceans, with their alien yet detailed methods of behavior and communication, amounts to near-cannibalism.  Hippie-dippy that!  This song and the one that follows, the 28-minute “Ritual” were also recorded in London on the day after the “Time And A Word” performance.  And here’s where we can thank the folks that oversaw the latest CD version.  The original double album split “Ritual” over Sides 3 and 4 of the record.  That lack of care smacked more of this release being nothing more than product instead of an artistic statement.  By properly splitting the record’s contents over two CDs, “Ritual” is featured in its entirety, providing better context for the otherworldly percussion solo, and there’s even room at the end to include some extra material.  This provides for uninterrupted enjoyment of yet another lengthy, detailed song, which probably hastened the punk movement just a smidge more, but I digress.  If you’re reading this, you’re not put off by the “jazz odyssey” noodlings of a proper prog rock ensemble, so this is a feast for you and me, and hopefully a final call for anyone owning Yesshows on vinyl to knuckle under and upgrade.  The Anderson song, “Wondrous Stories” finishes out the original contents of the package, and is culled from the same night’s set in Rotterdam from which “Parallels” was taken.

If an unblemished “Ritual” isn’t enough to convince you to upgrade, consider the bonus cuts.  If you look at the list of songs so far, you’ll notice there are no “hits”.  This is another thing that makes record label types cringe, so our extra tracks are “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Roundabout,” which ought to elicit a cry from the casual fan of “Oh, yeah!  Those guys!”.  “People” is pulled from the same night in London on which they performed “Ritual,” so it’s not like the label tacked on a random version from just anywhere.  “Roundabout” comes from the same tour, but was the version heard by the crowd in San Francisco, or rather the Oakland Coliseum.  You know both of these songs, so there’s really no description necessary.  I’ll just add that “People” sounds very different without the recorder and with the crowd clapping along to the beat on the “Your Move” section, but you can actually hear Chris Squire’s background vocals much better.  Also, Howe totally nails that weird solo, but I can do without the cliché band introduction where each player does a riff in response to Anderson’s calling out their names.  “Roundabout,” however, sees the band beat the living piss out of the song in a very brutal, both good and bad, reading.  Everyone’s in fine form, but they are probably becoming a bit bored with playing the song every night.  This results in a rude run-through which accents the portions that require muscle, but sounds a little sloppy when finesse is needed.

So, warts and all, that’s Yesshows.  I’m very glad that I bought it, but I’m not a rabid Yes fan.  I’m not quite so picky about the line-up or the song choices, because I know that the quality is quite good overall.  If you’re in my tree, you’ll add this one to your collection as well.  If you’re a more casual fan or a die-hard, you’ll either pass it by or pick it up in order to complain about it.  It’s your money.   

-Mark Polzin

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Roy Orbison – Mystery Girl

by TW on March 31, 2014

Roy Orbison-Mystery Girl

Roy OrbisonMystery Girl

Yes, I’ve been on a bit of a Roy Orbison kick lately.  Coincidentally, I’ve just read about the 25th anniversary re-release of his 1989 masterpiece and return to solo material in the months shortly before his untimely death, Mystery Girl.  It looks like there are some goodies involved with the new package, but I’m not sure they’re enough to make me double up on my own copy of the original (a Virgin Records cassette).  But anyone that still owns tapes like I do will hear them break down over time, so who knows?  While I debate the merits of an upgrade, let’s take a trip back in time to check out the reason for the reissue in the first place – this is an outstanding album.

Established artists were tripping over each other to line up gigs with the newly energized Orbison.  Several of them managed to hop on board the Mystery Girl sessions, which had a number of different folks sitting in the producer’s chair and Roy’s wife, Barbara serving as the Executive Producer.  No matter whose turn it was to record their contribution, everyone stepped forward with the intent of honoring their hero while crafting music that was not drastically dissimilar from the sounds that made him famous.  Case in point: the opening track and big Top 40 hit, “You Got It” was penned by Roy in collaboration with ELO leader and fellow Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynne and another Wilbury alumnus, Tom Petty.  So 3/5 of the Wilburys on guitars and vocals, with Lynne playing nearly every other instrument, was enough to ratchet up another win with radio listeners.  With Orbison wandering purposefully up and down his considerable register, the song fell right in line with Orbison’s catalog and included nods to some of his dramatically-charged weepers from the ‘60s.

Later into the side, the then-current guitarists from Fleetwood Mac, Billy Burnette and Rick Vito, plugged in for a run through Burnette’s “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You”, with the differently-spelled T Bone Burnett at the controls.  With another T Bone, Wolk this time, on bass and Mickey Curry on drums, Burnette and Orbison go off on a rockabilly tangent, leaving a whole lot of “sha-la-la-la”s behind them in the vocal mix.  Lynne later returns to the booth to capture the sweeping showcase for Orbison’s amazing tenor, “A Love So Beautiful.”  Anyone familiar with some of the extravagant synthesizer and string arrangements Lynne created with ELO (the album, Out Of The Blue, in particular comes to mind) won’t feel too out of place when hearing this one.  It’s pretty much devoid of anything you might call “rock and roll”, but Roy’s old pal and (yet another) Wilburys member, George Harrison strums some wonderful acoustic guitar in support to make up for it.

Two tracks on Side 2 are bound to make the biggest impression on listeners, however.  The opener, “She’s A Mystery To Me,” the title track of sorts, is also a bit of an experiment for longtime Orbison fans, Bono and The Edge from U2.  While the Irishmen co-wrote the song together, The Edge was nowhere near the studio.  Instead, it’s Bono himself at the controls, and only he and Orbison playing guitars!  With then-Heartbreakers Howie Epstein on bass and Benmont Tench on piano and string arrangement, and ably backed by session veteran and Wilburys drummer Jim Keltner at the skins, it’s a track that takes us in some unexpected directions – all of them revealing.  There’s a bit of gloom hanging in the air that might have crept in from David Lynch’s use of “In Dreams” in his film, Blue Velvet, but that darkness works a magic spell on us, drawing us in closer, and then steaming up the windshield in front of us.  My hope was that we’d hear Roy put his voice to use in situations similar to this on future recordings, freeing him up from an occasionally stifling style developed in decades past to update and modernize his music.

Next up is another stunner – Roy’s reading of Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians.”  If ever a song was written with a specific singer and delivery in mind, it’s this one.  Costello’s homage to “Running Scared” is complete with teenage drama and the mildly acidic observations of someone becoming sick of hanging with the same old crowd of idiots.  The contrast between the flashing lights of the song’s carnival setting and the heartbreak of the song’s protagonist are classic Orbison as is his powerful delivery at the song’s close.  The record would definitely not feel complete without this song’s inclusion.  T Bone Burnett whistled up the hired hands in the guise of David Rhodes, Mitchell Froom, Jerry Scheff, Keltner again, and the ubiquitous Mike Utley of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band arranging strings.  The song was carefully crafted by disciplined session players and Burnett and Orbison could have rested on their laurels had this been the only song they’d completed together.  Phenomenal!

Those are really the highlights of Mystery Girl; more than enough to interest me into making a purchase back in the day.  So, what’s the deal with the reissue?  As I understand it, Roy’s sons have actually cobbled together a new song from their dad through the wonders of studio technology.  So, there’s that.  The package also includes demo versions of most of the record’s tracks, so this is always a lure that pulls in those that must leave no holes in their collections.  But what actually interests me more is a bonus DVD which includes a documentary on the making of Mystery Girl and a handful of promo videos for the singles released from the album.  There’s so little archival footage of Orbison available to the public that these inclusions make it feel more like Sony’s having an appropriate celebration.  Join in if you missed out on this record the first time around, or bust out your old copy like I did for some fond memories of a sadly missed legend.

-Mark Polzin

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Smithereens-Beauty and Sadness EP

The Smithereens – Beauty and Sadness EP

One of my guiltiest pleasures while serving as Music Director for a college radio station in the mid-‘80s was the music of an outstanding quartet from Carteret, New Jersey, The Smithereens.  In 1986, their debut album, Especially For You, was released on the then-hot indie label, Enigma Records.  Overflowing with a new blend of power pop heavily influenced by The Beatles, with a muscular guitar sound and the rich, smoky voice of lead singer, Pat DiNizio, that record led to the incredible follow-up, 1988’s Green Thoughts.  While I did everything I could to wear out the promo copies of these releases, I do still own them, in playable condition.  So, the other day, while taking a spin through the tracks, which have held up extremely well over the decades, a feat that can’t be matched by too many of The Smithereens’ contemporaries, I remembered a mystery I’d once been unable to solve:  Where the hell is Beauty and Sadness

Three years prior to releasing their debut album, the band cobbled together a four-song EP called Beauty and Sadness, which was subsequently released by Enigma.  My college radio station never received a copy, and I never saw one turn up at any of the record stores I frequented.  As my near-obsession with The Smithereens wore off, I all but forgot that I desperately wanted to hear and own that EP.  Flash forward to the Age of The Internet and my search was on once more.  The EP is readily available on CD, and in two different versions, no less.  The 1988 Enigma version preserves the EP’s original four-song running order, while a 1992 re-issue on Capitol (the label that gobbled Enigma) adds an instrumental version of the title cut.  Woohoo!  Success at last!  Let’s give a listen to the thing now that I’ve had a chance to let it sink on in.

If a band ever proudly wore their influences on their sleeves, it was The Smithereens on the cut “Beauty and Sadness.”  From the opening guitar strain which approximates “She Said, She Said” to the drum pattern that liberally borrows from “Ticket To Ride” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” we might be fooled into thinking this four was also fab, then DiNizio’s pipes open up and we definitely know they are.  His warm baritone is infinitely appealing as he sings this tale of a forgotten love.  If there were no other songs on this EP, I’d still consider my purchase to be money well spent.  It forecasts the directions that the band would take on (at least) the majority of tracks recorded for Especially For You and Green Thoughts.  The remainder, though not as strong, are great filler pieces showing off the solid songwriting from DiNizio and the infectious background vocals courtesy of drummer Dennis Diken.

Track 2, “Some Other Guy,” is another love song, or rather a love gone wrong song, which incorporates jangly, Byrds-like guitars from the underrated Jim Babjak and effervescent bass playing from Mike Mesaros.  There’s always a film of regret and longing draped over Smithereens songs, with a hard-to-pinpoint “’60′s vibe” flowing underneath.  “Some Other Guy” thus falls right in line with so many other great tunes in The Smithereens’ catalog.  It’s followed up by “Tracey’s World,” which spreads out a bit more during its 4-minute length than the EP’s other songs are allowed.  DiNizio takes full advantage by using more time to describe the object of his obsession, blowing some tasty harmonica, and adding in a gut-wrenching, minor-key pre-chorus to keep us engaged.

The EP closes with a rather uncharacteristic track for the band in “Much Too Much.”  This song is rockabilly all the way, right down to the honky-tonk guitars and the gang-chanted background vocals.  Obviously, this was our heroes having a go at a style they didn’t intend to maintain, but the fun they had while putting the song together implies we may hear other “experiments” like this one when we least expect it.

And there you have it – the review of the EP that confounded me for over 25 years.  If you’re already a fan of The Smithereens, get this one written down on your “must have” list, if only so your collection is complete.  If you’re a passing Smithereens fan, you can let this one go as you won’t hear enough here to convert you to our cause.  And some advice to myself – get yourself some more damn Smithereens albums, man!  They’ve been relatively active all these years.  Though the highly animated Mike Mesaros is no longer with them, they’ve been releasing albums all the way up until 2011’s collection of new studio tracks, simply called 2011.  They’ve done collections of Beatles covers (two of them), their own version of Tommy, and even a Christmas album.  I’ve been missing out, but no more.

 - Mark Polzin

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Dexys Midnight Runners - Searching For The Young Soul Rebels

Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebels

I know what you’re thinking -  ‘80s one-hit wonder.  But if that’s all you’re thinking, you’ve sold yourself short, music fan!  I welcome you to also perform a reappraisal of this band, just as I did.  What caused me to do so was hearing music from the first album released from a version of Dexys (the name they go by these days) in 27 years, 2012’s One Day I’m Going To Soar.  You’ll not find a more enjoyable adult pop record on the racks, let alone one released in the 21st century.  And as that album’s hooks wormed their way deep into my cranium, I began to wonder if my impression of this band had been horribly skewed by the five zillion times I’d heard “Come On Eileen” over the years.  Ashamedly, I admit it is so.

To properly understand what Dexys is all about, you have to learn about two essential elements of their sound – the voice of singer Kevin Rowland and the influence of Northern Soul music on young folks in the U.K.  Rowland, the only constant member in the band’s 36-year history, is also the band’s primary songwriter and a man capable of delivering the words with an unmistakable warbling croon that effortlessly dips down in smokier moments and rises to a falsetto when he’s clowning around.  This is his band, despite the contributions of guitarist Kevin Archer, who’d co-formed the outfit with Rowland.  But both men were seeking a sound that defied contemporary punk and pop standards, yet paid homage to the Northern Soul legends they’d heard play in their youth.  Northern Soul is not a term that means much to Americans, but it defined a music scene originating in 1960’s England that centered on just about any American R&B or soul acts that WERE NOT signed to the Motown label.  That influence can be heard in the music of Paul Weller, whether with The Jam, The Style Council, or his solo work, and also recordings by The Smiths, Pulp, and other similar, adventurous groups.  Though Dexys would alter their sound as time wore on, the influence of Northern Soul is felt most heavily on their debut record, 1980’s Searching For The Young Soul Rebels.  Hopefully that title makes more sense to you now that you know that Rowland and Archer were attempting to connect with an audience of like-minded young Brits.

Kevin Rowland was always sold on the idea that his band needed an image.  Aside from the strict practice and performance regimen (members were not allowed to drink or take drugs before or during performances), he also imposed his fashion sense.  Though we’re all familiar with the dungarees, unkempt hair, and bare feet from the video for “Come On Eileen,” that was actually two “looks” after the one used on the debut album, that of New York dock workers, with donkey jackets and wool hats.  I know, go figure!

But the look has never mattered squat to my appreciation of a band’s sound, so I dug in deeper and found that Soul Rebels is an album full of pop hooks and the meaty performances that present them.  Dexys’ sound was altogether different from what you think it was, too.  The violin-centered sound of “Eileen” was new for that record; Dexys used to have a kick-ass horn section in their original eight-piece line-up.  Not only that, but while we may think of them as a one-hit wonder here in The States, “Come On Eileen” was actually the band’s second number one single in the U.K.  The first, “Geno,” is on Soul Rebels, and it had served to prime England’s youth for a possible Dexys takeover.  Unfortunately, the band never managed another #1, but their albums are full of songs at least as good as the hits.

Beginning with a random scrolling through a series of sad, fuzzy radio stations, Soul Rebels soon afterwards gets down to business on “Burn It Down.”  Rowland and Archer know when to step back and let the band do some work, and that restraint works to great effect as organist Pete Saunders sets the mood while trombonist Big Jim Paterson, tenor sax player Jeff Blythe, and alto sax man Steve Spooner spray brassy honey.  Enough cannot be said about the skills of drummer Stoker, who also showed brilliant restraint with his tasteful fills and his concentration on the main responsibility of the person at the kit – keeping time.  The lineup was rounded out by longtime bassist Pete Williams, the keystone to a very sturdy foundation.  Rowland’s lyrics are excellent as he criticizes a fellow young rebel about throwing out the babies that are poets and novelists with the bathwater of today’s consumer-driven media output.  All to a danceable shuffle complete with trombone solo and breezy falsetto voice.

The sound stays consistent on “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green,” and the lyrics turn toward the unseen forces and people that are holding Rowland back from living his dream.  You know, shaking your fists towards “the man” and all that – typical angry young man fare, but sung through a soul filter.  “I’m Just Looking,” shakes things up in a different way, with softness, slowness and stabbing horns accentuating Rowland’s emotional croon.

Soul Rebels includes two hit singles: The aforementioned “Geno” and “There There My Dear” (peaking at  #7 in 1980).  Videos for both are tacked on to the EMI CD re-package from 2000, but they’re only playable through your PC.  Sorry Mac fans!  These are definitely worth watching to see how an 8-piece combo kicks it out on stage, and also to puzzle at Kevin Rowland’s bizarre, goose-stepping dance moves.

Soul Rebels also includes many a nod to the odd literary figure, beatnik, or jazz man, but Rowland’s poem, “Love Part One,” delivery spoken with spastic sax wailing away in the distance as the only accompaniment, tries to present a serious counterpoint to the serious fun had elsewhere on the record.  It baffled listeners with 1980 ears, but bare-assed as it is, it reveals the sensitivity and deep concern of a young man just finding his place in the world.  To think they’d thought about not including it in the first place!

I won’t prattle on about how you need to change your ways and get you some Dexys pronto, but I will say this:  Screaming guitars are not all there is in the world, though we love to hear them.  Hyperspeed delivery or disconnected prog noodling have their places as well.  But when you want to hear how a band crafts an original sound based on an older style without blatantly ripping it off, you can’t do better than Dexys.  And forget about Eileen.  She seems like a nice enough girl, but I’ve become a bit too familiar with her and so has the rest of the world.

- Mark Polzin

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