Author: IFHTB

[Interlude 02]: Electric Light Orchestra

I wrote this rather epic-length piece as part-discography, part-history, part-critique, and part-review of ELO in 2018. It’s a lengthy mind-purge, a musical data-dump of my thoughts about this band. As I continue to take a break from the primary mission of this web site’s writing series, I am posting it here just to get it out into the world.

But first: our last visit from Dazzler! It’s that sound engineer’s job to fix those “P” plosives, not Dazz’s. Get a pop filter on that mic, duder! [From Dazzler #22, ©Marvel]

It was roughly forty years ago that I acquired the first two rock albums that I can remember owning: A New World Record by Electric Light Orchestra (henceforth referred to as ELO), and Rock n’ Roll Over by Kiss (henceforth not referred to at all). It would not be fair to say that these records were the sole vector leading to my eventual decision to pursue music recording, live sound, and occasional musical performance as a career, but they were both certainly a small but integral part of a vastly bigger canon of influence.

It’s a rather unlikely eventuality that these records have remained at all meaningful to me today. Shortly after bonding with them, or imprinting if you will – the way a baby bird imprints on its mother – my tastes veered away from the classic rock pantheon towards the more edgy punk, post-punk, and new wave genres before drifting away from rock music completely. If we consider some other bands that ELO fans might like, let’s say (I’m completely guessing here) Boston, Supertramp, the Moody Blues, Styx, or Steely Dan, I have never been a fan of any of them to any real degree. Only the Moody Blues have ever graced my record collection, and in their case it was a passing fancy. But somehow, even as my young tastes moved into Joy Division, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, Devo, and The Clash, and then into classic jazz and jump blues, world music, electronic experimentalism, and various roots genres – basically anything but modern rock and pop – ELO has remained a stalwart if incongruous wildcard in my lifelong playlist.

During the past few years, the music of ELO has drifted back into a phase of prominence in my (blue) world. Part of the reason for this must have to do with the notion that Jeff Lynne, the co-founder, lead vocalist, sole songwriter, guitarist, and producer of all of the ELO records (except for the first one, on which he shared the above duties with Roy Wood) has recently made a rather high-profile and successful decision to resurrect the band after decades of inactivity.

ELO was formed in 1971 by Lynne, Wood, and Bev Bevan, all of whom were then members of a successful pop band called The Move. ELO was to be a side project of The Move, inspired into action by the increasing presence of orchestral instruments in rock and pop recordings. Motivated by certain orchestrally ornamented Beatles records, Lynne, Wood, and Bevan wanted to incorporate a full-time string section into a rock band. This idea hadn’t really been tried before. Surprisingly, no one of note seems to have repeated the idea since ELO’s initial efforts drew to a close in 1986. The band’s first album was Electric Light Orchestra (1971; called No Answer in the U.S.). It consisted of long meandering prog-rock pieces, which were in vogue at the time. Anchored by cellos scraping away relentlessly (seeming to have been lifted straight from The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus), ELO’s debut single 10538 Overture served as a strong statement of purpose amid an otherwise unremarkable album.

The follow-up album, ELO2 (1972), contained more of the same: five lengthy songs rambling along without much direction, punctuated by the novelty of strings combined with synthesizers: old meets new. ELO2 was given a breath of life via a rousing cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, which became the band’s traditional concert encore right through 2018. Wood left the band near the beginning of the album’s recording sessions, while bassist Richard Tandy was wisely promoted to keyboard player. His contributions to the band over the next fourteen years would be second only to Lynne’s. ELO’s On The Third Day (1973) had even less going for it than the mostly-forgettable ELO2, milking the prog angle until its last dying breath. Only Ma-Ma-Ma Belle – an energetic single featuring guest guitarist Marc Bolan of the band T-Rex – showed signs that the band were actually awake during the record’s production.

With the prog angle played out and the band seemingly bored with itself already, ELO should, by all rights, have been relegated to rock history’s footnotes: “Short-lived side-project of The Move” is about all they would have mustered at this point. But then Jeff Lynne, who had become the unquestioned driving force behind every ELO song, came up with a great inter-album single (Showdown) and then ditched the prog elements of ELO to focus on that other great trope of 1970s rock music: the concept album. Seemingly overnight, he elevated his production chops considerably, and decided to unashamedly embrace his love for the less weird and more pop end of the Beatles canon. He began to write lushy produced and insanely well-crafted pop songs. The result was Eldorado (1974), an album of loosely connected songs about a man quixotically daydreaming of bygone heroes such as “Robin Hood and William Tell and Ivanhoe and Lancelot” (as on the album’s biggest hit, Can’t Get It Out Of My Head). Along with rousing numbers like Poor Boy (the Greenwood), Boy Blue, and Eldorado’s title track – on which Lynne first unleashes his inner Roy Orbison, belting out dramatic lines with a powerful chest voice that had remained subdued in all previous ELO releases – this was a man who had finally found his footing.

A man. Not a band. There could be no doubt after Eldorado that ELO was all about Jeff Lynne. The others were along for the ride. Although Bevan and Tandy were still aboard, the string section had been swapping members in and out of the ensemble this whole time. After Eldorado, ELO finally landed a fairly stable trio of two cellists and a violinist (Hugh McDowell, Melvyn Gale, and Mik Kaminsky), and a permanent bassist (Kelly Groucutt), finally stabilizing the classic lineup of ELO by 1975. They soon recorded the first truly great ELO album, Face the Music, featuring the hit singles Evil Woman and Strange Magic. With all pretenses towards art-rock out of his system after Eldorado, Lynne devoted himself with laser-like focus to writing pure pop songs. By 1980, ELO had charted fifteen Top 20 hits in the U.S. (plus another five in the bottom half of the Top 40) and twenty Top 20 hits in the U.K., thus racking up more Top 40 hits than any other band in history. Another piece of trivia: they also hold the record in the U.S. for being that band who have had the most Top 40 hits without ever having had a #1.

Looking back on ELO’s output, this was never a band who were concerned with virtuoso musicianship, even during their prog phase. Lynne, Bevan, Tandy, and their crew always got the job done, presenting a level of playing that was solid and professional, but never impressive. Musically, the strength of ELO records was always in the arrangements, which included complex vocal harmonies mixed with a rock rhythm section, synthesizers, studio effects, and increasingly large string and choir sections, if not entire light orchestras. With Tandy and orchestral arranger Louis Clark helping him out, Lynne’s simple pop songs and uncomplicated musicianship were ornamented with deeply impressive layers of sound, interlocking melodic counterpoint, and sonic ear candy pulled from his endless supply of inventive ideas. Witness the soaring cosmic atmospheres that open A New World Record, the haunting ambient intro to Fire on High (the first track on Face the Music), and the gentle mockery aimed at legislators trying to ban “backward masking” on rock records such as Secret Messages (the backwards bit rather innocuously says, “welcome to the show”).

A lot of this inspiration came, once again, directly from The Beatles, who Lynne has been unflinching about praising as mentors. Returning the favor, John Lennon was once quoted as saying that if the Beatles had stayed together past 1970, they would have sounded like ELO. High praise for Lynne indeed, and in retrospect it seems perfectly natural for ELO to have taken over the Beatles’ mantle, releasing the first ELO record just a year after the Beatles dissolved. Considering the sheer number of hits produced, the penchant for studio experimentation, and the quality of the songwriting, ELO were truly the keepers of the Beatles’ flame.

Lynne would of course get to repay his heroes in the future: during his heyday as an independent producer in the 1990s and 2000s, he would oversee records for Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison – all three surviving Beatles – as well as playing with Harrison in the supergroup Traveling Wilburys. As an encore, Lynne would produce a 1995 Beatles reunion on which McCartney, Harrison, and Starr played along with two archival tapes of the late Lennon singing, to create the first new Beatles songs in 25 years. We’re unlikely to witness a repeat of this feat, especially with Harrison now gone.

Unlike the frequently poetic Beatles however, Lynne’s lack of interest in showy musicianship seemed to be a character trait that carried over to his lyrics. The man never seemed to have much of a point of view. He certainly had no Revolution in him – at least not without Wood around. In the Wood era, songs like 10538 Overture tell the story of an escaped prisoner, Kuima (from ELO2) laments a lost soldier, and In Old England Town unflinchingly catalogs various scourges upon modern life. Roy Wood’s influence resulted in the recording of obvious prog tropes like The Battle of Marston Moor (on Electric Light Orchestra), but ELO completely ceased to be the slightest bit political after Wood’s departure very early in the band’s history.

Case in point: Roy Wood’s influence on the first two ELO albums resulted in lyrics like

My, my Kuiama, don’t break your heart tryin’

To say how your Ma and your Pa passed away

And they left you to wander in the ruin and decay

Real mean, that bullet machine

Kuia I just shot them, I just blew their heads open

And I heard them scream in their agony

Kuiama she waits there for me

True blue, you saw it through”

and:

Down, down, at the launching pad

Giant phallus stands erect

Ten thousand tons of waste throb then eject

Look out space, we’re gonna change our place

Down, down, in old England town

There was air and now there’s smoke

Let’s build more cars and drive away before we choke

Suddenly it’s always night time”

This all stopped after Wood took a powder in favor of lyrics that become more trite with each passing album – resulting in progressively bigger hits. Later in the band’s career, when Jeff Lynne wanted to stick it to the man in 1983, the best kiss-off he could come up with was “welcome to the show”.

Not only that, but post-Wood ELO records are remarkably cool in tone. When Jeff musters up just a little bit of grit in his voice during Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle, that’s one of the very few times in the ELO catalog that we hear him threatening to sound like a hard rocker. We do hear him getting a little bit rowdy on Do Ya’ (1976), but that’s a recycled Move song from his youth, which was apparently rather tame. Even while listing his grievances against the titular woman who done him wrong in Evil Woman, he sounds conspicuously composed. With that song now more than forty years old and with the two generations of feminism having come and gone since it was a hit, Evil Woman is the only post-Wood ELO song I can think of that might be considered even vaguely impolite, even by today’s rather tense standards. Consider that ELO’s commercial heyday precisely coincided with punk, and this relaxed demeanor seems even more surprising if not downright anachronistic (as opposed to anarchistic).

Lynne also comes across as rather quiet in his infrequent interviews, and strikes me as being a remarkably humble man. Perhaps even quite shy. Is the lack of any real lyrical point of view in the ELO catalog part of an unwillingness to raise controversy because he’s just a gentle man, or was it to make sure that record sales were uninhibited by the slightest hint of offense to anyone, anywhere, ever? Maybe this is another reason for the recent resurgence in the band’s popularity: Lynne’s unwillingness to risk offense or controversy works well within the current zeitgeist. This is the man who was so polite (or skittish) that he sang “one of these days you’re gonna break your glass” in Don’t Bring Me Down, because he was clearly not comfortable singing “ass”. Rather, he built a career singing about loneliness and lost love in a retro-1950s style reminiscent of his other heroes, like Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, and Del Shannon (all of whom he would work with post-ELO when not busying himself with Beatle members). Perhaps the reason why Lynne’s considerable talent was dismissed for so many years after the dissolution of ELO is precisely because of this. While bands like the Clash or Elvis Costello or Gang of Four sang about things that mattered, Lynne seemed to studiously avoid releasing anything other than carefully crafted electric light entertainment.

When you get right down to it, Jeff’s lack of lyrical ambition was so profound that he resorted to singing about the weather with shocking regularity. The Beatles were not completely immune from this habit either: witness Here Comes the Sun, I’ll Follow the Sun, Sun King, and Good Day Sunshine. Conversely, ELO seemed far too melancholy for so much sunshine, so Jeff typically sang about the rain: Rain is Falling, Love and Rain, and the entire Concerto for a Rainy Day – including Standin’ in the Rain, Big Wheels, Summer and Lightning, and Mr. Blue Sky. Lynne also sings of the rain during Ticket to the Moon, I Need Her Love, Kuiama, and of course in Showdown, where it’s “raining all over the world”, and Evil Woman in which we learn that “there’s a hole in my head where the rain comes in”. So that’s where all this rain comes from! Oh wait, the Beatles also did a song called Rain. That’s ELO’s whole career inspiration right there in that one song. If we wanna go really dark here, ELO’s weather report got pretty grim with Laredo Tornado and the forecast even calls for meteor showers (in Here is the News).

If Jeff Lynne was obsessed with rain, he was even more taken with the color blue: Mr. Blue Sky, Midnight Blue, Boy Blue, Blue (yes, just “blue”), Birmingham Blues, Bluebird is Dead – and its apparent prequel Bluebird – plus the album Out of the Blue. Not to mention singing of “my blue world” in Turn to Stone.

ELO’s science fiction themes (or really, lack thereof) are interesting to dissect as well. Although the band is deeply associated with intergalactic iconography, this material is completely absent in either lyrical content or album cover art until we pick up the discography where we left off above (after Face the Music), and come to the band’s sixth album, the holy A New World Record (1976). It is here that ELO’s iconic spaceship logo – inspired by the design of a Wurlitzer jukebox – first appears. The album hints at something slightly otherworldly on the closing track of side one, Mission (A New World’s Record) but the sci-fi references begin and end there. The follow-up record (and ELO’s commercial peak) Out of the Blue (1978) presents the spaceship logo on both the inside and the outside of the double-LP’s gatefold sleeve, now fully realized as a complexly rendered working interstellar craft. But there isn’t a single word of space fantasy present within the lyrics of any of Out of the Blue’s seventeen songs. The Out of the Blue stage show was semi-legendary for having a mechanical spaceship descend from the lighting truss during the gig (it is said that the band needed seven trucks just to carry that set-piece from city to city), but it doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the music.

The next record, the very disco Discovery (1979), also ignores any sci-fi trappings within the songs, and reimagines the spaceship logo as some sort of glowing art object being discovered by an Aladdin-like character. A little drama plays out on the front and back covers of the album sleeve: on the front he’s stealing the object from a treasure chest, while on the back he’s being chased over a dune by Arabs with scimitars. Next, ELO took some time to write five songs for the Olivia Newton-John movie Xanadu (1980) about a Greek muse with an affinity for roller skating who appears in California to help a painter.

It isn’t until the next proper ELO record, Time (1981), that the band fully embraced their interstellar legacy. Interestingly, the spaceship logo was retired for Time’s album art, but the music returns to the concept album format, this time dealing with time travel to the year 2095, tickets to the moon, robot girlfriends, and prisons on “satellite two”. If ELO are forever to be associated with science fiction or outer space, this is the record that justifies it. We could strongly argue that the conceit of a concept album was well past its expiration date by 1981 (although Styx did fairly well with Kilroy Was Here two years later), but ELO made Time work. The 1970s ELO hit machine seemed to have run its course after Discovery and Xanadu however. In a clear reaction to the new wave records that were all over the charts by 1981, Lynne tried to keep ELO relevant on Time by firing the string section – the element of ELO that initially inspired the band’s very existence – and letting Tandy’s synthesizers come to the forefront. The video for the single Here is the News shows the entire band simultaneously playing keyboards. Although Time’s singles aren’t as well-remembered as some of the band’s previous work, it is a strong record when taken as a whole, and may be their most underrated album. Their most over-rated? I’m just gonna say it: Out of the Blue has a fair amount of filler, and all of the songs sound too samey for my taste. It would have made a phenomenal single-LP, but the double format doesn’t work as well for me as it might.

The final two records by the original incarnation of ELO were Secret Messages (1983) and Balance of Power (1986), neither of which returned to any science fiction themes in either the songs or the cover art. But somehow, this band are nonetheless remembered for the spaceship.

After a fifteen year break during which he racked up many of the aforementioned production credits, Jeff Lynne unsuccessfully tried to resurrect ELO in 2001 with an album called Zoom. The record flopped and a planned tour was canceled. A video of a studio performance in California exists, and the cover art for both the DVD of that show and the Zoom CD featured a fresh take on the spaceship idea. The album art for several subsequent ELO compilation albums used new variations of the spaceship art prominently, such as All Over the World – The Very Best of [ELO], Ticket To the Moon – the Very Best of [ELO] volume 2, the Flashback boxed set, and Mr. Blue Sky – The Very Best of [ELO].

That last one featured brand new re-recordings of ELO’s hits performed by Lynne solo in the studio. The official line was that he always felt that he could have made the original recordings better, but the real scoop probably has something to do with the notion that he owns the masters to these new recordings, so he makes more money when the songs are licensed to films, television shows, and video games. In the 21st century music economy, licensing brings in far more money than record sales or live performance, so it’s only natural that Lynne wanted to avoid sharing that sweet cash with his former record label. Many other bands have used this ploy of re-recording their hits once their label contracts have expired. Off the top of my head I can think of the albums Spot the Difference by Squeeze, Forgeries by Def Leppard, Return the Gift by Gang of Four, and Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux by Blondie. There are hundreds of others. All of these records have attempted to sound like the original recordings in exacting detail so as to give listeners as much of the nostalgic original magic as possible, while still making bank for the artists who can now license the new master instead of the old one, which may be owned by a prior record label.

Between the release of the eleventh and final original ELO album (Balance of Power, 1986) and the doomed Zoom in 2001, a group of former ELO members (including Bevan, Groucutt, Kaminski, and Clark) had been touring as ELO Part Two with a new frontman (a Lynne look-alike no less), and they even released two albums worth of new songs. Lynne was not happy about this, but since Bevan was a founding member of ELO, he had legal rights to hit the road playing Lynne’s songs under a variant of the ELO name. And let’s face it, none of the other guys in the band were making even a tiny fraction of Lynne’s income, since he got all of the songwriting royalties, which were further bolstered by his magnificently successful career as a producer. The other lads presumably needed the cash.

When Bevan finally retired ELO Part Two in 2000, he sold his share of the ELO name to Lynne. Now sole owner of the brand, it is probably safe to assume that this turn of events inspired Lynne to release Zoom within a year. Lynne’s return to the band – his band – which had been in Bevan’s custodianship for some fourteen years was short lived. Save for a guest appearance by Tandy on one song, no former ELO members were invited by Lynne to participate in the making of Zoom. The failure of that record seemed to signal the end of ELO for good. ELO seemed to be relegated to the ranks of 1970s has-beens and bands who no one seemed very interested in discussing. ELO were considered deeply uncool at that point, and to say that they were ready for a critical reappraisal in 2001 would have been premature. The band’s classic hits needed to marinate for quite a bit longer before they matured to classic or legendary status instead of being simply dismissed as old or irrelevant.

ELO’s time for renewed respect finally came in 2014. The BBC persuaded Lynne to do a one-off show in London’s Hyde Park on September 14 of that year. The phenomenal success of that gig made Lynne realize that the time was finally right to give ELO another shot. In 2015 he did another seven shows in New York, Los Angeles, and London, and recorded Alone in the Universe — another record written, performed, and produced solely by himself (now as “Jeff Lynne’s ELO”) with virtually no other musicians. Even Tandy – the sole classic ELO member to participate in the 2014 and 2015 gigs – was conspicuously missing from the record. Lynne supported Alone in the Universe in 2016 with 24 U.K. and European gigs (plus L.A. and New York), and then just four U.K. gigs in 2017. Sadly, Tandy’s health precluded him from being present for the 2017 shows. Lynne turned 70 that year, and was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Wood, Bevan, and Tandy.

The thirty-six gigs during the four years from 2014 to 2017 were all sell-out shows in arenas every bit as large, or larger, than the ones that ELO hauled their model spaceship to in the 1970s. The last of the 2017 gigs was recorded for a double-CD and DVD/Blu-Ray set called Wembley or Bust, and showcased Lynne and his thirteen-piece band of highly skilled session players performing in London. The line-up seen in the Wembley video has been stable since 2015, save for replacing Tandy with an understudy in 2017 and swapping in a new string trio in 2016 (this band has worse luck retaining string players than Roxy Music had with bassists – they had a different bass player for every single album). Naturally, the latest version of the spaceship appeared on the album cover, even if it didn’t show up above the stage at the gigs, except perhaps as projected on video. During the live shows that happened in 2014 through 2018, rear screen projection featured heavy use of outer space footage: galaxies, asteroid fields, and voyages through the cosmos. But lyrically, the record ignores the subject in the same way that every record except Time has, preferring to focus on Jeff’s old standbys: loneliness (see: album title), the weather (Love and Rain and The Sun Will Shine on You), and blue (Blue).

And now in 2018, here is the news: a proper U.S. tour would be staged, the first one in 37 years. Twelve shows. So, let’s forget Jeff Lynne’s career for a moment and talk about mine. After three decades spent working in the music industry, and after having worked on some two thousand live gigs in my career (ELO Part One only did 669, according to setlist.fm!), it’s pretty hard to get me excited about a concert. But somehow, I was inordinately giddy about this tour. The only question was: Tandy? The answer: No. His health was still not up to it. Nonetheless, after being vaguely aware of the Time tour happening in 1981, but being too young to go (my first concert would be a certain new wave band in early 1984), I finally had a chance to see ELO this year. Tickets were procured for the Chicago show, and for good measure I’d be attending a New York gig as well. I’d never visited Madison Square Garden before, and I had an $11 flight (using frequent flier miles) and a friend who’d let me crash at her house, so the trip to see the second show was a fun adventure.

Having spent essentially my entire life listening to the eleven original ELO records, and knowing all of them by heart – even the crappy songs on Secret Messages or On the Third Day – there was a sense that this show would bring one aspect of my life, and my career, full circle. I’d started off listening to A New World Record around 1978, and now, exactly forty years later, I’d finally be adding ELO to the very very long list of artists I’ve seen live. Interestingly, I’d seen ELO Part Two in 1998, at exactly the midpoint in this timeline. With four important classic-era members in that band (Bevan, Groucutt, Kaminsky, and Clark) ELO Part Two had much more ELO DNA in the band than Jeff Lynne’s ELO does, even if Jeff is absolutely and inarguably the only completely indispensable member of ELO. And with Tandy missing from the 2018 shows, there was definitely a sense that I was essentially going to see an ELO cover band.

But Lynne and his well-rehearsed team of professionals delivered a tight show consisting of seventeen ELO classics, plus the traditional Roll Over Beethoven cover, and a Traveling Wilburys tune. The U.S. tour was slightly pared down from the twenty-four song set list heard at the 2016/2017 shows. The 2018 gigs featured more or less the same set list, but subtracted five songs. U.S. audiences this year missed out on Xanadu, Last Train to London, Prologue/Twilight, and Ma-Ma-Ma Belle. Oddly, the immortal Strange Magic hasn’t been played since the 2014/2015 gigs.

Watching videos of very early ELO (back when Roy Wood was still in the band), we see some of the lads wearing animal masks (bizarre, and hard to find justification for), while the string players ran around the stage, rockin’ out just like the guitarists. It’d be unfair to expect that level of goofiness or raw energy from a show today; Lynne is now almost 71, and his players all appear to be in their forties or fifties. And let’s face it: so is his audience. There were almost no people who appeared to be much younger than their late thirties at the Chicago show. In New York a few more people seemed to have brought their teenage kids, but certainly there were very few people present under the age of forty whose presence was anything other than a placating gesture to their parents. The Chicago audience spent most of the show seated, which was a little frustrating; I wanted to be on my feet and grooving a little bit. The New Yorkers were better about that: all of old folk sat down to rest during the ballads, but were up on our feet for at least two-thirds of the show. Comparing this to the rock shows of my youth where the whole audience would be standing on our seats, dancing in the aisles and making a ruckuss, seeing the Electric Light Orchestra was an experience closer to seeing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra than to being at a rock concert. But, I’m positive that a lot of the audience preferred it that way. After all, it’s fair to say that most of the people present weren’t operating at the energy levels we were enjoying in the 1970s or 1980s.

Given that the band are older and the audience is older, the lack of energy coming off the stage was noticeable. Lynne’s large and very professional band delivered note-perfect renditions of nineteen songs. All of them were flawlessly performed, sounding precisely like they did on the classic records. None had the arrangements updated, and none were extended into longer jams or condensed into medleys. There was no showy virtuosity, and none of the members got to take a longer solo or improvise at any moment in the show. Note-perfect classic ELO, just how we remembered it from our youth, except played by different people. Like, again, an extremely well rehearsed ELO cover band.

The light show was great, and the five rear-projection banners behind the band were filled with predictable if quite welcome images of (are you sitting down?) outer space. If Jeff forgot a few lyrics here or there, or his voice is becoming too tired to deliver a full set every night, his backing singers were there to cover for him (one of the singers showed a bit of range by covering vocal parts originally sung by three rather diverse singers: Roy Wood, Kelly Groucutt, and Roy Orbison). If Lynne’s guitar playing isn’t as strong as it once was, his two guitarists have him covered. Even the mighty Richard Tandy required no less than three keyboard players on stage to adequately replace him (ok, one of them was doubling the string players to beef them up…). I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got a little choked up during the Chicago show, and only slightly less so at the identical New York gig. Even having spent about $400 on the two tickets, I’m absolutely glad I went.

And yet I wonder what the show would have been like if Bevan, Tandy, or even Mik Kaminsky (the longest-standing of ELO’s many string players) were there (Groucutt died in 2009). Would we have seen tired old men dialing in a barely adequate performance? Or would the show have contained more of the strange magic that made ELO great, rather than the cold precision of Jeff Lynne’s crack team of hired guns? We’ll never know.

Having seen other reunions of old-timers in the past, I’ve experienced shows put on by people who were better off not having bothered, and I have also seen some surprisingly satisfying performances. Speaking strictly about bands whose entire classic line-up was present, I caught the first of several Wire reunions in 1987, and the original Buzzcocks way back in 1989. But these shows happened only a handful of years after the dissolution of bands that are a generation younger than ELO. Putting a little more time and life experience into the breakup/reunion gap, I’ve seen the original X a few times, a Bauhaus reunion in 1998 that was memorable, and one-off tour from the original Gang of Four lineup in 2005 that was very good. Ultravox reunited a few years ago, but didn’t tour the U.S.; their show on video was decent (but their album sucked). The Fixx are still completely intact and were satisfying to see live (for free at a street festival no less) in 2012. A Dead Can Dance show in 2005 was a disaster, as was the second Bauhaus reunion that year. But certainly, none of these projects had ever toured arenas. Bands with most of the original lineup are legion; I’ve seen 80% of Devo three or four times, I saw the original Duran Duran once in 1984, and various combinations of that band several times since then. There are plenty of other partially-intact classic bands. Lots. Some of them do bring the goods.

But these are bands associated with the punk, post-punk, and new wave genres. What about 1970s stadium rock? As I said in the beginning of this essay, I moved away from that fairly early on in life, and there aren’t that many bands of that era that I care about. And they’re also all even older than the new wavers, so there are even fewer of them alive. Maybe Rush. But they just disbanded, like last year. I said I wasn’t going to speak of Kiss again, but in 2000, I saw the sixth-to-last show their original lineup ever did. That was pretty spectacular, but again, that was nearly twenty years ago. What kind of energy are they bringing now (and with Peter Criss and Ace Frehley gone, why bother)? So I’m writing off stadium rock as an option.

Of bands that I liked in my youth, who might tour large venues, and who are all still alive, I’m struggling to come up with any further names that would reel me in. Every band I can think of has either lost members to the reaper, or they’ve already reunited, for good or for ill. Except one. After a fair amount of reflection, there is only one band – one – that I can think of who have never reunited, who are all alive, who could fill large venues, and who I would go to see for sure. One band.

The name of this band is Talking Heads.

With the exception of their 2002 show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, they haven’t gigged since 1984. I have almost all of their records, and I enjoy them. I’d go to a Heads reunion with some level of enthusiasm. All four members have remained active in music, and the quality of classic-era Talking Heads shows is semi-legendary (see their film Stop Making Sense, which is objectively a strong contender for being the best concert film ever). But there are two things at hand here: Talking Heads have been offered a lot of money to tour many times in the past 34 years and have always turned it down. Seems unlikely that they’d suddenly start accepting offers. And more crucially to the point of this essay, I just don’t have the emotional connection to that band that I have with ELO.

So, disregarding the complete lack of original members currently performing in ELO (aside from Jeff Lynne of course), the antiseptic quality of the slick performances, and my recent musings on Lynne’s repetitive themes and lack of ambitions as a lyricist, seeing a version of ELO this summer was truly some sort of bookend in my life as a rock music fan. It’s vastly overstating the case to say that my interest in the rock music of the past and present has suddenly reached a standstill and that I’ll be burning all of my old records… and CDs… and digital files… but it feels like there’s nowhere left for my interest in this sort of music to go from here. I’ve come full circle somehow, and seeing these ELO shows this summer definitely felt like I was reaching the end of a very long phase in my life.

What’s next?

[Interlude 01]: Einsturzende Neubauten


What the hell does Dazzler have to do with Einsturezende Nuebauten?
Everything!
and
Nothing.
Roll with it.

---

As promised - or threatened - last time, a bit of a break is in order before I continue my march through the classic rock canon ....from a post punk perspective.  May is interlude month.  Below is something I wrote for an art history course.  We had to discuss an early artistic influence and track how our perspective on it has changed over time.  Felt like it was worth sharing with a wider audience.

---

1.
As a teen in the 1980s, my circle of friends were drawn toward post-punk music. This style flourished during the late 1970s and early 1980s, feeding upon the new energy of punk, but funneling it into music somewhat more concerned with quality musicianship, a wider sonic palette, and lyrics leaning toward the political or self-reflective. Bands like Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Joy Division, and Wire could be fairly abrasive at times, but this artfully moderated dissonance felt appropriate to disaffected youth of the 1980s who sought to reject what Bruce Springsteen and Phil Collins were producing.  

German ensemble Einsturzende Neubauten emerged around this time. They took discord to unheard of levels. Their instruments included sledgehammers on metal, chainsaws on oil drums, and guitars abused in ways that would make Les Paul weep. All of my friends had Neubauten records, but no one ever listened to them. Neubauten were just too relentlessly abrasive, even for their target audience. They had dispensed with harmony, melody, rhythm, or any sense of musical structure, and were making music by applying power tools to chunks of concrete salvaged from collapsed buildings.

Nonetheless, this band became a symbol for a subculture across the western world. It was less about Neubauten's art, and more about what their work represented. Neubauten's distinctive logo was many people's first tattoo, and was painted on many a guitar case or leather jacket. But no one could name one of this band's songs. Woe be the poseur, however, whose record collection was devoid of the token Neubauten album: always the first and most visible in the stack of records, but always last on the playlist.

And yet, I sensed that there was something more in Neubauten, something hidden, something that I wasn't quite getting. And this difficult German name?  What does it mean?  Turns out that Einsturzende Neubauten translates to "Collapsing New Buildings". Destroying structures.

Here, they perform "Autobahn" at one of the construction 
sites for the then-new titular German super-highway.

_____


2.
While exploring Berlin in the 2000s, I developed insight about Einsturzende Neubauten, who - at that time - I hadn't thought about for quite a while. A deeper reading of the subtext revealed that the group's members were born in the shadow of the Berlin wall in the late 1950s. After the defeat of Germany in World War II, the division of their nation into two politically different entities, and an occupation by no less than four foreign governments, the country began to rebuild. Fast cheap housing was needed for those displaced by the allied bombing of Germany's cities. These high-rise concrete apartment blocks came to be known as "neubauten". That's literally "new buildings", but in context, it refers specifically to post-war German housing developments. Block after mile of them, none built to last. In essence, "neubauten" - in mid-century German vernacular - was equivalent to "the projects" in the U.S. This certainly adds intrigue. We're not just talking about any "new buildings"; we're talking about "the projects" and all the baggage that comes with that.

Reading into "einsturzende", or "collapsing", are we simply observing that these cheaply built post-war neubauten were rotting (collapsing) by the late 1970s, or are we actively taking part in physically destroying the depressing results/reminders of a nation's dark past?  Is "einsturzende neubauten" a complaint about urban decay, or a manifesto toward change? Both?

________


3.
As an adult in the 2020s, it has become clear that Neubauten's early work was more than just abrasive noise. This was assaultive performance art, every bit as valid as that of contemporaries such as Marina Abramovic (who had emerged just a few years prior). The video of Neubauten essentially performing a construction site (not performing "at" a construction site) is a demonstration of their frustration: growing up in poverty under the thumb of the occupying allied forces, born of parents who had been terrified children when Berlin was being bombed, and probably dealing with the shame of having some number of Nazis as ancestors (remember, however, that not every German citizen was a member of the Nazi party). 

"Autobahn" should therefore be read as a performance piece about post-war urbanity, about the creation and destruction of the urban environment - and by extension the environment - and about industrialization, occupation, and poverty. Of course these angry young people wanted to "collapse" what they saw around them. Variations on these feelings are universal even when circumstances are vastly different: "Destroy the Projects" seems like a perfectly apt name for an American hip-hop album today.

Although Neubauten were marketed like a "band", nothing in the "Autobahn" video supports that perspective, aside from the guitar hung around the vocalist's neck (which he only plays for a moment). They're dressed like construction workers, and one of them is even "playing" a shovel (I dig it!). Perhaps if they'd prioritized positioning themselves in the art world, we'd be studying them as part of a pantheon that includes Luigi Russolo (author of the 1913 Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises), Pierre Schaeffer (inventor of musique concrete in the early 1940s), controversial composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, and yes, John Cage (in the sense of, say, his works for prepared piano), or confrontational performance artists of the era such as Carolee Schneemann or Abramovic. (It should be noted however, that in ensuing years their work became increasingly musical and accessible).

As for Neubauten's influence, it is only in the past year or two, after being aware of them for nearly four decades, that I have begun to understand the legacy of my early exposure to this work. Instead of tolerating it for social status as a teen, and then ignoring it for a very long time, I now respect and admire it, and perhaps even draw inspiration from certain conceptual aspects of this art.  Some of my own art is made of sounds that "dispense(s) with harmony, melody, rhythm, or any sense of musical structure". Sound familiar?  Scroll back up to my third paragraph. 

I've always felt that effective sound art doesn't need to be abrasive (although so much of it is), so the dissonance and implied violence of Neubauten is not at all appealing to me. But it might be said that Neubauten planted a seed that helped foster a desire to reject traditional musical forms, and to start looking for a sonic muse beyond just music. There was more to sound, it appeared, than Kraftwerk (another German act who wrote a far more accessible but equally influential piece of music about the Autobahn), or Depeche Mode. It seems clear (in retrospect) that growing up among the collapsing industry of the rust belt while being exposed to Neubauten's ideas and working methods had a slowly creeping philosophical influence that I didn't recognize or understand for several decades.


Next: 
[Interlude 02]: Electric Light Orchestra, a rather epic-length appreciation.

25. Genesis

How can we resist more Dazzler? This moment in love is from issue #22, © Marvel, etc.

.

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Genesis? The original band were Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, and Peter Gabriel. If there were any other people involved, I don’t know about ’em. Genesis played lauded prog rock with elaborate stage shows. Gabriel split to go solo; I know his material well. His first two albums each have some good moments, but I don’t adore them. His third and fourth are both really super good. He also did a movie soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Passion of the Christ. If we ignore the content and topic of the film and enjoy Gabriel’s instrumental score as a stand-alone work, detached from the movie, it’s also really good. I have to admit that it was a go-to make-out album in the 1990s… provided my date didn’t associate the music with the film. That would have been a mood killer. After that, Gabriel kind of lost it, making a series of increasingly slick and significantly less interesting pop albums.

I’ve never heard a note of Gabriel-era Genesis, even though I’ve been aware of it for at least four decades. I’ve really been resisting the idea of listening to Genesis for all these years due to Phil Collins’ solo career in the 1980s. I was Not. A. Fan. This guy was on the radio constantly when I was an adolescent, and his songs were pretty much guaranteed to get the station changed, every time. He was a driving force in driving me toward college radio before I was old enough to drive. Genesis were also still making records at that time, in tandem with Collins as a solo artist; the band’s records in that era were almost as disposable as Collins’ solo work. I’ll bet they don’t play “Illegal Alien” at their shows anymore. Embarrassing, guys. So, Collins turned me off of ever wanting to listen to Genesis, even the potentially interesting early stuff. I’ve struggled with ol’ Phil’s appearances on records by people who I do like, such as his pal Peter Gabriel, or Robert Fripp, or the unimpeachable Brian Eno, but I guess the middle-1970s records by those people featuring Collins were made quite a while before his years as a pop star. This feeble justification is all I can muster, even while acknowledging that Eno did some signal processing work on The Lamb Lies Down… in exchange for Collins drumming on Another Green World. There was something in the air. If nothing else, there’s some Eno DNA in today’s listening, although that’s not always a guarantee of good music: Eno has produced some of my favorite records (as a producer and/or an artist), but to be fair he did also produce Coldplay.

Well. Genesis. This is the place, and now is the time. As always, I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today (everything above is what has leaked into my skull via cultural osmosis). Going in with nothing else, I’m taking the music at face value. The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. If I change my mind later, you’ll never know. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Genesis
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)
Version: VJCP-98019 (Japan, 2007)

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway
Twiddling quasi-classical piano. Who is the keyboard player? Rutherford or Banks? For some reason, I want to say Banks. Does this band have a full time bass player or is that Rutherford? So who is on guitar? Ok, now we get Gabriel’s unmistakable voice. This song does feel like something that would fit well on one of this first two solo albums. The mix is murky. After the noteworthy clarity of last post’s Van Halen recording, the thumpy upfront bass on this one combined with the guitar and keys getting lost within each other are diminishing the impact of the playing. This could be cleaned up. Sounds like a job for Steven Wilson. Or me. What’s this song about? Seems like we meet the denizens of Manhattan at night (including Rael, a graffiti artist; he’s the only one with a name), and something magical is about to happen. Is there a Christian allegory here? I don’t know much about Christianity, but there’s a thing with a lamb, right?

Fly On A Windshield
We segue right into the next song. Mellotron choirs. Are we into a concept album here? It’s got that vibe. The first tune felt like a bit of an overture, it set the scene, and now we’re into some storytelling. Something ominous is happening to our magical Broadway. Those dissonant strummed chords, atmospheric organ. A sense of tension, then – BAM – it gets huge. Not entirely predictable. Guitar solo is suitably melodic. I don’t hate this. This title; did Depeche Mode rip this off for “Fly on the Windscreen”? Seems likely; their song has some thematic similarities (“Death is everywhere / there are flies on the windscreen… and later “lambs for the slaughter”).

Broadway Melody Of 1974
Didn’t miss a beat, straight into the next song. At first, I didn’t notice that we were into a new song. The transition happens at kind of a random point. More evocative lyrics about New York, and a bunch of people get name-checked: comedians Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx, plus media theorist Marshal McLuhan, millionaire Howard Hughes, and murderous kidnapper Caryl Chessman. But also: the Madonna. Suppose I’ll have to resign myself to missing the point here. But one should expect religious allegory form a band called Genesis, yes?

Cuckoo Cocoon
As we merge right into the next tune, there’s some kind of flanger on Gabriel’s voice. Warm flute solo gets a little lost in the mix, which is still a little murky. Really, this could also be the arrangement too. The players might just be getting in each other’s way. Maybe sorting their parts out a little better would help. There have only been a few spots so far where any instrument got to shine or take center stage. Oops, this one is over already…

In The Cage
…and we’re into a heartbeat bass throb, Mellotron choruses, and some Hammond. Seems like Gabriel is singing about someone with a booze problem. This whole album is lyrically dense. Probably in a good way. There’s no way to interpret these words while listening to the music and writing all at the same time. This blog project is all about recording immediate impressions in real time. This record probably does have a bit more to unpack. There’s a lot of stuff flashing by really fast. It’s one of the few records heard for this project so far that immediately demands another pass. Perhaps. But, I mean, Phil Collins (shudder). But… Gabriel. And Eno. Wow, out of nowhere a synthesizer solo, pushed right up front and center in the mix. The solo is striking in quality (even if it does over-reply on arpeggios), but just materializes with no warning. This sounds like it is coming from a different record. We haven’t heard any obvious synth on this record so far, and now it’s the dominant thing in the mix for a fairly substantial section. Then some other stuff and another synth solo. There is a lot going on in this album, and I’m sure I missed a lot of it. This band doesn’t seem to rest for a moment, they’re always moving things forward and almost never repeat themselves, even within a song. There haven’t been many obvious choruses and certainly nothing at all resembling a pop hook. As we discussed with a few of the other bands in this series who have done concept albums, the pitfall of through-composing, and in particular chaining the songs together like this, is that the music can seem rambling and unfocused, while incomplete ideas can pass for songs simply by sandwiching them between two other maybe-finished (maybe not) ideas. I’m going to have to listen to this one again to really get a grip on it but so far it seems like perhaps Genesis had a bit more direction with this record compared to the results of some of the other prog-conceptual records heard recently. Provisionally. A fade… and so ends side one.

The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging
So… conspicuous consumerism?

Back In N.Y.C.
Early use of a sequencer in this one. Not bad for 1974. This album and Autobahn by Kraftwerk came out the same month. We might also be hearing some kind of square wave pulse triggering a gate. That was a way of getting sounds that we associate today with “sequencers” before there were sequencers. Our lead character Rael is back in this one. Maybe he’s been the protagonist all along. He is behaving rather poorly this time out.

Hairless Heart
Another proto-sequencer, this time much more relaxed in timbre, leads this mostly-instrumental track until Gabriel tells us:

“That night he pictured the removal of his hairy heart
and to the accompaniment of very romantic music
he watched it being shaved smooth
by an anonymous stainless steel razor. “
Yup, we can all relate(?)

Counting Out Time
This one has a really different feel, it almost feels like a proper pop song. Was this the result of record label pressuring the band for a single? Well, the lyrics aren’t precisely pop material. Rael is singing about finding himself a girl. Maybe there’s some humor here – in addition to a super-goofy sounding bridge section, the lyrics seem to imply that our boy is learning how to excite a girl via a book, which didn’t work? Failure to get good results from a copy of Kama Sutra or The Joy of Sex isn’t a common song topic. The seriously goofy carnival tone that the song modulates into halfway through probably isn’t helping the narrator get laid. Is that some kind of dopey masturbation theme?

Carpet Crawlers
Another stand-alone tune with a little more accessibility. More of a ballad. Did Genesis have any success in America before this record? There is a lot of American imagery in these lyrics. Had they toured here? Was it a reaction to the U.S., or an impression of it? There’s a floaty ambient thing here, but once again it seems over-arranged, or just messily arranged. This would work better if everyone was playing a little less. When the drums come in toward the middle, they’re super-buried. Really they’re not necessary at all. Some woody hand percussion would have sufficed here, if anything. Is the mix engineer slowly fading the hi-hat up? It’s distracting. Oh, there is a little teeny bit of conga buried in the right channel. I’d be interested to hear a version with more of that conga audible and none of the drum set.

The Chamber Of 32 Doors
We finish with another stand alone quasi-ballad that picks up a bit halfway through, the builds to a suitably big finish. This is fine. I’m not inspired to say more. And…. it turns out that this is the end of disc one, but there’s a second disc. I don’t especially fucking hate this record, but I can’t deal with writing about disc two. I’ll listen to it later.

Song for the IFTB Mix tape:

It’s full.

After dutifully posting one of these meandering investigations twice a month for just over a year, I’m kind of fried. Feels like I’m repeating myself, and it feels like I’ve explored the chosen topic fairly thoroughly for now. I don’t want these writings to become rote, or to bore you… or to bore myself. So I’m gonna take a break.

Before leaving you all, I’ll post two more things over the next month, which are already written. Both are very tangentially related to this series, really only because they’re about music. First will be something that I wrote for my MFA program about Einsturzende Neubauten (who are about as far from the topic of this blog as we can get!), and then an epic musing of 4000+ words about my oft-mentioned childhood faves, E.L.O., which I wrote upon seeing them play back in 2018.

Then we’ll observe and maintain radio silence for a bit. If and when I pick this series back up, some artists who are/were in the queue are:


J. Geils Band
Styx
Thin Lizzy
Tom Petty
Billy Squier
Blue Öyster Cult
Led Zeppelin
The Cardiacs
Van der Graaf Generator

…time will tell if we end up exploring their work.

Next: [TANGENT A] Einsturzende Neubauten, coming May 01, 2022

24. Van Halen


Yes!  For her third consecutive appearance - all completely unrelated to this blog - we have Dazzler again, this time rocking backing vocals with her pal Vanessa, and discovering the wonders of technology.  They better bring Dazz into the Marvel Cinematic Universe soon, or it's gonna be clobbering time.
From Dazzler #17, ©1982 Marvel.


And now:
The larch.
The.
Larch.


Or, at least Van Halen, anyway.


Off the top of my head, what do I know about Van Halen?  During his heyday, guitarist Eddie Van Halen was considered to be one of the greatest instrumental performers in popular music, while his frontman David Lee Roth was equally as well known for either his charisma or his juvenile antics, depending on your perspective.  Eddie's brother Alex was in the band, along with Michael Anthony (maybe?  Not sure).  Not bad; it's been a long time (if ever) since I've been able to name all of the members in one of the bands I'm discussing here.  Roth eventually left the band, to be replaced by Sammy Hagar, and then some other guy.  

Many of their songs are familiar to me; albums like 1984 and its many hits were inescapable when I was in middle school.  But as commonly stated within this series, I went really far out of my way to avoid Van Halen and their fans, after throwing my lot in with a group of friends more attuned to Talking Heads, Japan, David Bowie, and Joy Division.  I've never heard a Van Halen album all the way through.  Their big 1980s pop-oriented hits are still of no interest (i.e. "Jump" or "Hot For Teacher"), but perhaps their first album (which also had no shortage of well-known songs such as "Runnin' with the Devil", "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love", and "Jamie's Cryin'") will reveal something worthwhile.

Also, many people have told me that I look like Eddie Van Halen, and/or David Johansen from New York Dolls.  So if you want to know what I looked like as a younger guy, imagine some mash up of these two, but without Eddie's shaggy mane or David's glam-rock makeup.  Can't say that I see the resemblance, or that I ever got into either of these lads' bands, but whatever.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Van Halen
Van Halen (1978)
Version: Warner Brothers HDCD, 9 47737-2 (2000)




Runnin' with the Devil
The sound effect at the beginning of the song is totally gratuitous.  The big spacey album opening is something that E.L.O. started doing, and soon everyone else started ripping them off until it became a mandatory fixture for late 1970s records.  This is a super-perfunctory effort; it just sounds like a slowed-down backward cymbal or something.  But then we get into a moderate throbby groove with a little swagger.  Not a lot.  Just enough.  This record sounds pretty good for a 1978 debut.  The reverb sounds nice, but it's a little heavy for its era.  I don't want to say Van Halen were purposely predicting the reverb-drenched 1980s; its more like they just got lucky.  The record sounds a little lopsided with the guitars all panned left.  Since there isn't a second guitar, or any keys, or horns, there's nothing much happening in the right side.  But then these little mini-solos come in on the right, much too loud and seemingly out of nowhere.  It's a bad mix decision on a record that's otherwise pretty good sounding.  As a song, I find this one uninspired but adequately crafted.

Eruption
I seem to recall that this instrumental guitar solo is what first gained Eddie his reputation for popularizing the hammer-on technique that made him famous.  He certainly demonstrates it confidently, and also abuses the crud out of his whammy bar. It's a bold move to put 102 seconds of mostly-unaccompanied guitar wankery (there are a few staccato hits from the rhythm section) as the second track on a debut album.  This is the kind of thing that would normally be buried somewhere on side two as filler; any sane band would have followed "Devil" up with another strong rock song.  Actually, any sane band would have just included "Eruption" as a solo section within a complete song.  But this risk seems to have worked; Eddie definitely got people's attention.  Masturbating in public has that effect.  "Eruption"?  This should have been called "Erection" because it's nothing but the man wanking (ok, fine, rather skillfully wanking).

You Really Got Me
Can't go wrong with a Kinks kover.  But we're three songs into this record and so far we only have one proper Van Halen song.  How strapped for material were these guys?  Did they get signed before they'd written more than a handful of songs?  This time, Roth's densely layered backing vocals take up space in the right channel, balancing the guitar a bit, but the record still feels lopsided to me.  Eddie does another solo here, and once again it was probably pretty radical and inventive for it's day.  Having recently listened to Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and (a bit further back) Aerosmith and Uriah Heep, it is crystal clear that Eddie's guitar style was really fresh in 1978.  His playing was aped mercilessly for the next decade (or two) (or three) until the majority of the youth audience stopped focusing on rock music.  Roth gets into some auto-asphyxiative vocal histrionics after the guitar solo and then we're over and out.

Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love
Finally, another actual Van Halen song.  There's this weird slap echo in the right channel.  It's like a woody eighth-note delay on the snare.  It's distracting.  While this band are rockin' out, I just picture David Lee Roth in spandex mugging for a camera, being goofy. I wonder if I'd hear this record differently if I didn't know what this guy looked like.  I can't really take him seriously.  Eddie stomps on a flange pedal in the bridge.  That's not a real tape-flange.  It's easy to tell.  Too controlled, too precise, and too trebly.  Doubled guitar solo in each channel.  Eddie absolutely shines on this record.  His rhythm tone is razor-sharp (if a bit brittle at times) and his many leads are mapping new territory.  And there's no one competing with him.  Just a bass player and a drummer holding down the beat leaving Eddie and David Lee to take turns showing off in very different ways.  Neither of these guys got enough attention as children.  Their mamas ain't talkin' 'bout love enough when they were kiddies.

I'm the One
This one is a fairly frenzied rocker, fast and a little less controlled than the others.  Do I hear a double-kick drum?  That was also a fairly new trick in 1978.  Later acts would EQ all the low-end out of the double-kick so it was easier to really hear the rapid attacks of the beater on the drum head.  That clicky kick sound of the 1980s came from here, and is still used in speed metal.  Hey wait, a nearly a capella do-wop section comes out of nowhere in the bridge.  That's kind of fun, then we're right back into the chaos.  Seems like the band are having fun.  Overall, on this record they sound tight and rehearsed.  They don't have a lot of songs, but it seems that they've played the ones they do have enough times that they're locked in.  I don't enjoy them, but it is clear why this band became huge, they had their shit together.

Jamie's Cryin'
Another bit of swagger in this groove.  One of the problems with hard rock or metal guitar is that the leads and solos are often more preoccupied with demonstrating dexterity than with developing melody.  So few rock guitar solos are actually interesting as music.  Come to think of it, all the riffs from this record are already fading; none of them stick with me.  Eddie brings the innovative technique, but the hooks in the songs all come from David Lee's vocals.  There's no iconic guitar riff on this album like "Smoke on the Water" or "Iron Man" (as heard in recent posts for this series), or (say) "Back in Black" by AC/DC.  But this song's riffage comes closest to being memorable.  And once again, the right channel is used for secondary guitar parts, while Eddie is spending most of his time on the left.  Honestly a little Hammond or a sax or something would help round this band's sound out a bit.  But I can't see Eddie giving up any ground.

Atomic Punk
This one is a bit heavier, a little harder, kind of spirited.  More of the same otherwise.  Kind of fun.  I'm just listening, there's nothing new to add.  David's screams are funny.  None of these songs are over four minutes.  Was this even legal for bands in this style in the 1970s?  A bit like Boston (previous post), these guys seemed laser-focused on the charts, and got there.

Feel Your Love Tonight
Yeah, this is the song that wasn't a hit.  There are eleven songs on this record: eight shortish Van Halen songs, a guitar solo, and two covers.  All eight of the originals are attempts at commerciality, and three of them succeeded.  The rest are the almost-rans.  Still, three hits off this record is nothing to complain about.  There's not much to say about this music; there just isn't much substance to it.  Same thing: Roth is having fun goofing off, Eddie is biding his time between solos, the other guys are enjoying the ride.

Little Dreamer
I'll reiterate that this record is recorded well even if I don't agree with the lopsided mix and occasional excess reverb.  The mixes are consistent though; every song has the same tonal balance and the same soundstage.  They got tones they liked and then laid it down eleven times.  This doesn't sound like a first album.  The band are very confident, and there was a budget.  It's a little brittle sometimes though; I'd warm it up a notch.

Ice Cream Man
If I'd had to guess in advance which Tom Waits song* was most likely to be covered by Van Halen, this probably would have been it, largely due to the raunchy double-entendres.  Here's that warmth: a woody acoustic guitar and vocal.  Rhythm section took a coke break.  Until halfway through... then it's suddenly Van Halen again.  Tom's version definitely didn't have this solo on it.  In my post about The Eagles, I mentioned that Tom Waits probably makes more money from the many, many people who cover his 1970s songs than he does from sales of his own albums.  We can calculate how much Tom made from Van Halen's cover.  When this album was released in 1978, the songwriter's publishing royalty rate was 2.75 cents per song (the performer gets a different rate, see below).  Having written one song from the first Van Halen album, Tom got 2.75 cents for every copy Van Halen sold.  By law, this rate has increased steadily over the years; it is 9.1 cents today.  This album has sold 15.5 million copies.  That means at 2.75 cents per copy, Tom made $426,250.  At 9.1 cents per copy, that's $1,410,500.  Thus, his real pay has been somewhere between those two numbers, but probably closer to the low end, since presumably the record was selling better when it was newer.  He probably has to split that money 50/50 with his publisher, and then pay income taxes on his cut.  At the very least, he's netted $159,843 (half the lowest possible publishing rate minus a total guess of 25% tax rate), but it's probably a bit more than that since some portion of the records were sold after the royalty rate started going up. 
Compare that to how much Tom made for selling copies of his own Closing Time (1973), the album "Ice Cream Man" appeared on.  For performing on that record, Tom got a rate negotiated with the record label.  A good guess is 8% of the wholesale price; that was common for young emerging artists.  Albums cost about $7 then, so figure a $3.50 wholesale price.  The record went gold, meaning it has sold between 500,000 and 999,999 copies.  At an 8% rate for 500k copies at $3.50 per copy, that's $140,000.  He also got that 2.75 cents for writing the songs, times 12 songs on the album. So that's another 33 cents per album, times 500k albums, or $165k (to be divided by half again, as above).  That's a total of about $222,500 for writing and performing on 500k copies, double that if he sold closer to 999,999, and remember that he's earned more for copies sold more recently.  From that money, he had to pay the record label back for recording costs, his manager took a cut (10% usually), and he had to pay income tax.  It's hard to definitively state whether he made more money from Van Halen covering one song than he did from selling copies of his own album, but consider that "Ice Cream Man" is blues standard now, many people have performed it, and Tom is making cash from every one of them.  So for sure he's doing better from other people playing it than he himself has. (Also, that song came out in 1973, so all this theoretical cash has been trickling in slowly for 49 years).  
How much has Van Halen made from Van Halen (1978)?  They got zero for writing "Ice Cream Man" (because Tom wrote it), but if they got an 8% performance rate in 1978 (a reasonable guess), when records cost closer to $9 ($4.50 wholesale), that's about $5,580,000.  Subtract 10% for the manager, subtract recording costs (reported at $40k for this record), and divide by four (each of the four band members would get a quarter of the net total), and we're at about a million bucks per guy after taxes.  Plus the publishing money for the songs they did write themselves, but this gets complicated because each band member might own a different percentage of each song.

On Fire
Another uptempo rocker, the band pull out all the stops here and finish the album on a relatively thrilling note.  But the fade at the end is tragic.  This one really really needed a big finish and a cold ending; all the others on this album had one except "Jamie's Cryin'", which probably needed its fade for radio play.  Van Halen's debut shows them tight, confident, and forward-thinking right out of the gate.  They sound like a band who know each other's idiosyncrasies, and are able to function effectively as a unit. Having heard this album for the first time, I can't say I'm a fan, but it does show a high level of craftsmanship, and perhaps art in Eddie's guitar innovations (which I don't ever need to hear again).

________

*Post-posting research:
Yeah, I thought the lyrics on "Ice Cream Man" were different from Tom's, but that's artistic license for you.  Turns out that Tom was credited with writing "Ice Cream Man" on Closing Time, but there is also an older and conceptually really similar song  called "Ice Cream Man", written by John Brim.  So that brick of text about royalties?  Well, Tom didn't make squat from Van Halen, but John Brim did.  But as an example of how this crap works it holds up in theory so I'm'ma leave it up there for you.  At least six other bands have written songs called "Ice Cream Man", but the similarity between the Waits and Brim versions is worth noting; they might have both pinched it from some traditional blues thing that's been passed around like a social disease since the late 19th century century.  Like a "Stagger Lee" kind of thing (look it up, I'm out of here).


Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
I'm going to go for something obscure and loose.  "Atomic Punk" or "On Fire" both sound like the band are having fun.  Another quick listen... "Atomic Punk".


Next: 
Genesis, coming April 15, 2022

23. Boston


This image has nothing to do with this post. But it's so nice to see an artist giving props to her sound engineer.  Comic books are not reality.  In reality, no fucking artist ever gives props to their sound engineer.  But sound engineers always totally imagine they're either crushing someone's head or tweaking their nipple when giving the "OK" sign.
From Dazzler #16, ©1982 Marvel Comics.


And now on to our post...

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Boston?  This band are oft-discussed in sound engineering circles: apparently band leader Tom Scholz recorded most of the band's debut as essentially a solo act in a home studio, playing most of the instruments himself.  That sort of thing is commonplace today, but it is impressive for 1975; at that time the technology to get the results he did was difficult and expensive to come by.  Some other musicians hung out at a pro recording facility to appease Scholz's record label, fooling the label into thinking they were a full band making the record in the approved studio while Scholz secretly did his thing at home.  Eventually, Scholz got another guy to sing on his completed instrumentals, so the album was effectively made as a duo.  Lots of people have been in the touring band over the years, but it's really Scholz's thing.  This record sold something like 17 million copies, but Boston has only made a few further records.  The only song I know off-hand is "More Than A Feeling", but I suspect that I'll recognize a few of the others.  That's all I've got, but it's more than I know about most of the other bands subjected to my scrutiny for this project.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).


Boston
Boston (1976)
Version: Epic (Japan) 25•8P-5192 (1989)



More Than A Feeling
Yeah, this does sound damned good for a home recording.  I'd turn the bass guitar down a notch.  I wonder how much of the legend about the making of this record is strictly true.  Stories tend to get exaggerated, blown-up, and mutated over time.  A lot of these lyrics are pretty unintelligible.  All these years I had no idea what he was singing, other than something about a Marianne.  I used to tour with a certain rock band whose singer was named Mari Anne.  Our road manager used to sing her name using the melody from this song.  He'd never just speak her name.  He'd always sing it, even if he was saying her name in the middle of a sentence.  So this song.  It's a competent arena rock song.  It has enough changes to keep it interesting and enough dynamics to make the big parts seem big.  Well recorded, mostly well mixed.  Catchy hook.  I've just heard it too damned many times to remain as objective as I try to be for this writing series.

Peace Of Mind
OK, yeah, this one sounds familiar too.  Not surprising.  I want to say that "the band" are doing a spirited take here, but I guess it's all Scholz, playing all the instruments, recording them layer by layer?  Well maybe it's all the more impressive that he made it sound so energetic.  I have personally recorded music as both an engineer and an artist in this way, and it's hard to find a way to replace the spirit of a group of players vibing off each other.  That's a really big deal.  Can't overstate that.  The guitar tones Scholz gets on this record are so much better than the ones I recently heard on more guitar-focused bands like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. He's got them dialed in.  But - ack - those parallel 4ths (or 5ths) here.  Can't escape them.  Maybe that's the single best part about having rejected this whole style of music as a youth.  None of the punk, post-punk, synth pop, or new wave canon uses this guitar technique at all.  But in these classic rock records, it's everywhere.  That guitar playing style is the line in the sand.

Foreplay / Long Time
Ha, I know this one too.  Used to hear it on AOR radio when it was current... and then for years afterward until I switched off any radio frequency higher than 92.1 FM.  It was all about the left end of the dial - college radio and NPR - for me from my early teens onward.  That clavinet riff in "Foreplay" is ballsy.  Ok, at about 2m 30s this "Foreplay" instrumental ends, and we're into a song.  Yes of course I know this one too.  This album really did spawn a lot of hits.  They're a bit formulaic; all three sound kind of samey.  Big harmonies, handclaps, acoustic guitar accents, powerful power chords, and some keys for accents.  Maybe the reason that I didn't remember having heard so much of this record is because the songs are kind of indistinguishable.  It's like one long rock song, custom-tailored to be broken into chunks, each of which was lined up and aimed like a "la-zher" at the 1976 pop charts.  Well, with each new take on the same old formula, Scholz kept hitting bulls eyes, so good for him?

Rock & Roll Band
Are we going to hear the same well-crafted song a fourth time?  This one is not sounding familiar so far, except in the sense that it sounds like the other three, but faster.  This lyric sucks.  The "story of the band" lyric is almost as lame as the "two lovers on the run" lyric.  I've mentioned the later trope a few times in previous posts.  Haha, in the third verse, our vocalist sings "sign a record company contract" in a falsetto voice that we haven't heard from him before.  That's because said record company has his balls in a vice.

Smokin'
This one is has looser boogie woogie beat with a little southern vibe, and a vocal that is significantly more buried in the mix than the other songs.  This one seems like filler; it's clear that they didn't spend as much time on it.  Are they singing about weed?  Scandalous!  What is Scholz's main instrument?  His drumming is uncomplicated but solid; his bass playing is perfunctory.  Come to think of it his keys and guitar work are also both fairly nondescript, but by no means poor.  He's good at playing everything, but he isn't outstanding on any particular instrument.  The solo section toward the end has a few surprises in it though, that's kind of fun to listen to.

Hitch A Ride
Seems like they front-loaded the hits on side one of this record.  Wonder how many people played side one to death and played side two like twice, ever.  Spreading the hits out is a less fan-friendly way to sequence an album, but it's a more art-friendly approach.  Make the kids listen to all the other stuff between the hits.  This tune has a bit of a gentler feel, until it explodes into a power chord and Hammond freak-out.  There is nothing about this album that sucks.  But by the same token, it feels a little calculated and kind of bland. I'm starting to appreciate some of the artists who take more risks.  There have been some phenomenal failures on some of the records I've listened to for this project, but ultimately, I suppose I admire the bands who at least tried to stretch out a little bit and do something new.  Boston were aiming at the top of the charts, they got there, and they got there with music that is competent but not impressive.  The record shows a high level of craftsmanship, but very little art. There isn't a single musical risk on this entire album, nothing that reaches for genius (with the definition of genius being: a truly original thought).  A bit like The Eagles (see my post on them), in that sense.

Something About You
All right.  I'm done.  The big parallel 4ths (or 5ths) right from the get-go.  Make it stop.  Have I heard this song before?  Does it sound familiar because it was a hit, or because it just sounds effectively identical to all of the hits?  Same as it ever was: spirited take but somehow also passionless, skillfully workmanlike in execution.

Let Me Take You Home Tonight
This herky-jerk rhythm in the intro of this song threatens to dare to be different.  Naturally, they get over it pretty quick and go into the ninth and last identical pop song for this record.  Parallel 4ths (or 5ths) and all of the other tropes from this band's limited bag of tricks are dutifully trotted out.  

One of the benefits of having four or five (or more) people in a band is that there are more people to come up with diverse and challenging ideas.  Even if we have one person who writes all the songs, the other players will flesh out the material with their own little details, contributing the peculiarities of their individual playing styles.  Scholz really needed to have some other people's personalities on this record.  It feels too homogenized.  There's no one for him to spark off of, to push him into new directions.  People who have devoted themselves to the mastery of one particular instrument could have brought more innovative or surprising moments to the music than one person who is "good enough" on many instruments (Scholz).  With Scholz on every instrument, the songs become super-predictable after hearing just a few of them, because we've only got one person's ideas across the board.  On top of that, there was clearly no effort being made to expand the boundaries of music, at all.  Not one note on this record is anywhere except exactly where we expect it to be.  It's a snoozer aimed at the masses, and the work of a craftsman of great skill, but not a true artist (if we concur with the idea that true art is not so different from true genius in that it must always surprise us).

Song for the IMDB mix tape:
We ought to go with "More Than a Feeling", but maybe "Something About You" would be good because it sounds like one of the hits but I'm not as sick of hearing it.


Next: 
Van Halen, coming April 01, 2022

22. Moody Blues

This image has nothing to do with this post; I just thought it was funny. But it is from Dazzler #5 (©1980 Marvel Comics), and Dazzler is an X-Men character, and I mention X-Men below, so maybe it’s all related. Whatever.

Onward….

I wanted to take a break from really aggressive stuff for a sec. Moody Blues were in the queue and their number is up. After Deep Purple and Moody Blues, maybe I should listen to Simply Red, Green Day, Yello, and… is there an “orange” band? I did Black Sabbath, so maybe Average White Band, Grey, and James Brown too?

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Moody Blues? Their singer is Justin Hayward. No idea who any of the other players are. There is an awesome record called Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. This two-LP set dramatizes H.G. Wells’ famed novel about Martian invasion, set to anthemic symphonic rock music that seems lifted right from the heyday of Jeff Wayne’s almost-namesake Jeff Lynne. Richard Burton narrates it, and Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy plays a part. Justin Hayward does some of the vocals. Other than that, the only times I’ve heard Hayward’s voice is on “Nights in White Satin” (which has a nice wintery atmosphere to it), “Tuesday Afternoon”, and a much later track “The Voice” which I kinda like because it may as well be an E.L.O. tune (speaking of Jeff Lynne…). Oh, and this band had a really syrupy ballad that was a hit in the middle 1980s. What was that called? Maybe I don’t want to remember.

Chose Days of Future Passed (1967) because it has both “Nights” and “Tuesday” on it, and because it was clearly an inspiration for one of the most famous X-men comic book stories of the 1980s (not to mention one of the X-men movies), Days of Future Past (sic). I read X-men religiously from about 1979 to about 1997, so I’ve been curious about what might have inspired X-men scribe Chris Claremont to borrow the title. Yes, so it only took me like 40 years to get around to finding out.

As always, I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today. Going in with nothing but the meager info about this music that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I’m taking it at face value. The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Moody Blues
Days of Future Passed (1967)
Version: DERAM 4767 (1997); this version wasn’t carefully selected, it was the one that happened to be available.

The Day Begins
Ok, judging by these song titles, it looks like we’re in for a concept album about – let’s just say it – “A Day In the Life”. Days of Future Passed came out in November, 1967, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles had been released in May of that year. Clearly 1967 was the year of peak Beatles, and they were influencing everything. This borrowing of ideas seems a little blatant on Moody Blues’ part though. But we’ll try to listen to it as its own thing. First ten seconds: nothing. Then – as if we’re slowly waking up – a really slow backwards cymbal swelling into a lush orchestra. Full pop orchestra. The orchestration feels a bit cinematic. Well-recorded. Present and clear, with just enough ambience. Material is vaguely sentimental though; I suspect this will be the tone for the whole record. Yeah, these skipping strings and happy flutes are already starting to creep up on being a bit “mid-century musical theater”. Just a little. Nice presence in the basses and cellos though. The winds and the strings give us a little melodic preview of “Tuesday Afternoon”, and then “Nights in White Satin”. Maybe they gave us a preview of the other songs too, but I didn’t recognize them. But where’s the band? We haven’t heard them yet. Four minutes in, we get a snippet of the same spoken verse that we’ll also hear in “Nights”, then some other bits of poetry. This feels a little self-serious. A shade pompous. Maybe the artist is trying too hard.

Dawn; Dawn Is a Feeling
More of the same, then, finally the band. Piano, drums, voice, bass. This piece still seems to be all about the voice and orchestra; the singer is really way out front. The rest of the band seem perfunctory, until 1m 50s, when they finally come to the fore. At that point, the voice becomes really thin and super-sibilant, and the strings get pulled back a bit, but then after a bit the old mix comes back. That’s weird. A bad edit or a dodgy artistic choice? It doesn’t work. Really jarring and it just sounds bad. Then the band vanish altogether and the instrumental orchestra comes back. We’re almost ten minutes into this record, we’ve heard the band for less than two minutes, and they’re not doing much.

The Morning; Another Morning
More sprightly flutes and harps. Some of this feels like it’s going to veer into Bob Thompson territory. A real populuxe vibe, like “Starfire” or “On the Rocks”. The song moves into double-tracked and hard-panned vocals about being a kid and flying a kite, with a vaguely country bass line. Ha! He sings “Her palace is an orange box” – there’s my orange! Speaking of oranges, isn’t it lunch time? This record isn’t doing a lot for me. The tone is just so campy. Mid-century mood music, a decade after its sell-by date. It’s like something that Danny Elfman would parody in a Pee-Wee Herman film score. Maybe it will pick up after lunch.

Lunch Break; Peak Hour
Oh man, this is even more Bob Thompson-ish! This belongs on one of those great 1990s Ultra-Lounge CDs from Capitol. There is a time and place for that stuff (vintage lounge and exotica is great to listen to when working on bigger writing projects), but the pop musicians called The Moody Blues and their songs are being totally sidelined here. Where are THE MOODY BLUES on this record? What exactly did the The Moody Blues have to do with this record? What was their contribution? Someone orchestrated this material and had Hayward(?) sing on it a little, and then let the band into the studio to do a few distant overdubs that are really inconsequential. It would not be surprising at all if this material had already been scored for some other project and was sitting on some composer’s shelf, and they just repurposed it when they got the gig to orchestrate this record. Ok, this is totally jarring: at 1m 52s the space-age lounge pop orchestra fades out (we’re still in the same “song” here though) and the band actually kicks in, for real, for the first time on this record. They’re playing something absolutely, totally different from the random lounge orchestra music that lead into this. They sound like an average 1960s pop band, bathed in reverb, playing a forgettable song. The band reach a climax, really rockin’ for the only time on this record. They’re recorded poorly, in stark contrast with how nice the orchestra sounds. This may be the only song on the record with electric guitar on it.

The Afternoon; Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?) – Time to Get Away
This must be the beginning of Side Two. Here we are right into “Tuesday Afternoon”, with no extended orchestral stuff, just the song. This is a modestly pretty ballad, a product of its time. Acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and Mellotron. My regular readers know that I’m always up for a Mellotron. Then acoustic piano, all heavy left hand in the right channel, while Hayward sings in the left channel, before he’s quite conspicuously panned center, mid-word. Geez. Lay off the drugs guys. That doesn’t sound good. At 4:09 the band are abruptly cut; mid-phrase the orchestra picks up the song and carries on. This time, the orchestra is definitely playing music written specifically for this record, the melodies and harmonic structure are clearly the same. But it’s just not a great idea to have a band play for four minutes and then have them stop while the orchestra starts, in the middle of a bar, within the space of a beat. This record is so piecemeal. Fragmented, random. The orchestral stuff sounds nice, and the orchestrator and conductor knew what they were doing, even if their arrangements were a decade out of date. The issue here is that the band is not integrating into it. It’s like two very different records that were hamfistedly merged. After a bit, the orchestra vanishes again as band come in with another ballad, a completely different song. This one is a bit dark; Hayward is singing about the evening even though the next song is called “Evening”. He is also singing falsetto, with a melodic jump of a full octave that just sounds weird (between “live – all”, “see – where”, and “real – ly”). When the drums kick in and the tempo picks up, there’s a weird jerky rhythm; the tambourine is out of sync with the drums.

Evening; The Sun Set – Twilight Time
This one gives us another ultra-lounge theme with the orchestra then some interesting ethnic percussion. Sounds like an African talking drum and some kind of really high metallic-like thing. Hayward gives us an odd monotone vocal, then there’s some strings… weird squealy Mellotron, flutes, this song is odd and surprising. It also integrates the orchestra and band better than on any of the others, even if the band are playing unusual things that veer pretty far from pop or rock (with the band being simply percussion, bass, and Mellotron). This gives us a bit of an orchestral exotica flavor, once again recalling styles from the previous decade (listen to some 1950s Yma Sumac or Les Baxter). The song switches up again, with a groove that reminds me of “Don’t Bring Me Down” by ELO, a filtered vocal, and a soup of swirling layered reverberated backing vocals. This three-part segment of the record (it’s unfair to refer to it as a “song”) is the most interesting and musically diverse piece, from both a musical and sonic perspective. Then we get another clumsy fade out of the band and into the orchestra. Man, these people were really, really over-reaching. As this album progresses, I think I’m getting a grip on what they were trying to do. It’s ambitious and probably worthwhile, but due to either limits of 1967 technology, or limits on the musicians or technicians’ own skill sets, it just doesn’t work. It jumps all over the place really haphazardly.

The Night; Nights in White Satin
Here’s the big ballad. So much reverb. So much. But it works. The song has a fair bit going on, but also so much space. Those Mellotron strings. Acoustic guitar lost in space. The drums are way back there on the moon. A flute solo. Where’s Ian Anderson when we need him? (Oh, he’s in post #17). For once, the orchestra and band are playing together here, and this is really the only time on this record when it works. For the rest of this album, they either alternate, or one is maladroitly overdubbed on top of the other. There are some clashes between the Mellotron strings and the live string players, and the mix really is a struggle, but here at the end, someone is getting a grip on how to make the idea of this record work. But it’s still not quite there, and these efforts are too little too late. At about 4m 30s the band vanishes again, and the orchestra takes over until it’s time for another poetic voice-over. Really, when the orchestra plays by itself, this is an impressively well recorded record. But the parts with the band are the exact opposite, they sound so messy. Maybe it’s for the best that the band don’t do that much. If we got rid of all the orchestral bits, it seems like the band bits wouldn’t even fill one side of this album. Then this poem, so self-serious. The dramatic music that ends the album seems like it’s inspired by “Mars” or some other part of Gustave Holst’s The Planets. Actually wait, that ultra-lounge space-age pop stuff is, in itself, sometimes reminiscent of Holst’s “Jupiter” movement. Maybe that was the actual inspiration. It’s all coming together. A big cymbal crash ends the record as it began, and reminds us of the big piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life”. We could loop this record, fading the starting and ending cymbals in and out of each other to make a continuous… no, let’s not.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape: I’m not sure if that’s applicable here.

Next: Boston, coming March 15, 2022

21. Deep Purple

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Deep Purple?  They're a hard rock band from the U.K. who are often held up with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as the three bands who really laid the foundations for heavy metal.  It's likely that I've heard a few of their songs, probably many times, but I couldn't name any of them for you.  A few of the members' names are probably familiar... but I'm drawing a blank right now, aside from Ian Gillan, whose name came on my radar two weeks ago while I was looking into Black Sabbath (Gillan played with Sabbath for a bit after Deep Purple).  Last post, I also made a guess that Ritchie Blackmore is in this band.  That's probably right.  I do know that This Is Spinal Tap was famously influenced by this band (although - also reported last time - the famous Stonehenge gag from Spinal Tap came from a real event on a Black Sabbath tour; so these bands are intertwined in several ways).  Anyway, that's all I've got.

Have to pick an album to hear.  My web-search for "Best Deep Purple album" yielded the usual array of a few dozen listicles.  But first of all, this album cover is fucking hilarious:



...it makes me think of stoner girls in the 1970s with candles and incense and floaty scarves like Stevie Nicks and a boyfriend with a bitchin' Camaro who can barely grow a moustache.  Roach clips with little synthetic feathers on the end.  Bell bottoms.  Feathered hair.  Blue eye shadow.  All that shit.

Ok, but should I listen to it?  I can't take this seriously.  This cover is just so funny to me.  Also, according to a dozen listicles on the internet, this album, Burn, and a record called Fireball usually flip back and forth in the #3 and #4 positions in the Deep Purple catalog, while the records In Rock and Machine Head usually alternate in the #1 and #2 positions, with In Rock being #1 slightly more often.  The cover of In Rock shows the lads carved into Mount Rushmore.  So lame!  What a bunch of doofii.

Wait, I just remembered: "Smoke On The Water".  Yes, of course.  That's Deep Purple.  That's a huge one.  Which album is that on?  Machine Head.  Ok, Machine Head is just a tad below In Rock in the rankings, but we'll give it a go.  It's always good to have at lest one familiar song when I do these things.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today, aside from picking a record to hear.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).


Deep Purple
Machine Head (1972)
Version: Warner Brothers (Japan) WPCR 12255 (1996 / 2006)



Highway Star
Driving beat with tight playing right off the bat.  Can't help comparing this record to last post's Black Sabbath experience; after just moments it is clear that Machine Head is already a better record than Sabbath's Paranoid.  The difference in base-level musical competency is clear, and the production is better too.  Good driving rock with a dirty Hammond and some grit in the singer's voice.  That's Gillan.  Lyrics about a girl and a car call back to the Springsteen post last month.  The song's bridge has some interesting effects and an organ solo (mixed a little loud, and mostly consisting of arpeggios).  Band remain tight and this take seems energetic and committed as we go into a guitar solo that's also placed a little clumsily in the mix.  It's more interesting than the Hammond solo was, in that it's at least somewhat melodic... until the second half, during which the player resorts to weedly-weedly arpeggios even more egregiously than the Hammond player did.  Yes, it's fast but it's less interesting than the earlier, less manually challenging part.  Song finishes with a concert-style ending after six minutes; not sure this song needed to endure for quite this long, but I wasn't bored.  This song could be paired up with almost anything from Springsteen's Born to Run album, plus Rush's "Red Barchetta", and Queen's "I'm In Love With My Car" (and probably a bunch of others) as a 1970s homage to the waning years of 1950s car culture.  Worshiping these machines and forming some kind of emotional bond with them seems so out of date today.

Maybe I'm A Leo
Little bit of a cocky mid-tempo groove here.  This song just kind of chugs along.  Does its thing.  Playing and recording are both competent, nothing wrong with this record, but not enough right.  Once again, the dirty Hammond solo, and interesting kind of tremolo processing on what might be a Rhodes solo.  Good to see the keyboard player getting some space to shine in music this heavy.  Heavy?  It's really not that heavy at all, by today's standards.  Just sounds like basic rock.  But I guess in 1972, this was a bit weighty.  That Hammond is really adding a lot of the weight.  It's so distorted, in a nice way, but it's taking up more space in the mix than the guitars.  Keyboards really got pushed out of metal music for a long time, but in this case, this Hammond is doing more to fill up these mixes with crunchy goodness than the guitars are, byny a wide margin.  Then, once again, we have a guitar solo that begins with some feel and some melody, and then fades.  Hm, I kinda wanted to see where it went.  A great solo should reach a peak, a conclusion.  But we just get a fade.  
Super trite, low-effort lyric:
"Acting like a fool, I had to make her cry
Maybe I'm a Leo but I ain't a lion
I'm hurtin' for her so bad
I want her now".

Pictures Of Home
Back to a more energetic tune.  The organ player switches from a moderately gritty tone to a ridiculously distorted one at key moments; he's threatening to drown out the singer in the second chorus, and even fights with the guitarist during the solo.  Back off the otherwise effective Hammond, guys!  Drummer is on point, and drums are recorded as well as can be expected for 1972.  We're a couple of years out from the golden age of drum recording, which coincided with 24-track tape becoming standard just a little while after this record was made.  The narrator of this song is at the top of a mountain, cold and alone, missing home.  Seems like a song about loneliness, but verse three introduces some further themes:
"Here in this prison
Of my own making
Year after day, I have grown
Into a hero
But there's no worship
Where have they hidden my throne?"
Ah, the old "it's lonely to be successful" trope.  Yes indeed, it's rough and isolating to be famous.  Well, watch what you wish for, you just might get it.  This song is another tightly performed rocker, but it throws some surprises at us toward the end.  An organ solo is overdubbed atop the original organ (and guitars) giving us several layers of distorted Hammond; we don't hear that very often.  Then: a bass solo.  No.  Ack!  It's only eight bars long, but is there a more cliched bad idea than a bass solo?  This leads into a little bridge, a build, a pause... leaves us hanging in an effective way... and then into another guitar solo to fade.  Once again, this song needed to climax, not fade. Otherwise, there are enough little changes and surprises to keep this one interesting, even if the lyric is a bit trite.

Never Before
Funky, herky-jerk intro groove gives way to a pretty straight-forward rocker with few surprises, but nothing embarrassing about it.  Once again: this lyric.  Charitably, it may be construed as simple and heartfelt, very emotionally exposed... or it can be considered super-low-effort.  How long did it take our lyricist to come up with:
"Somebody, somebody
Come to my side
I'm tired, I'm crying
I'm sick inside
My woman, that woman
Just wasn't right
Help me, now
Please, my friend
I never felt so bad before
Never, never before"
I mean, we've all felt this way, but these guys are reasonably decent musicians, so a little more ambition with the words would have gone a long way toward elevating this music.  Did Gillan improvise these live while recording a first take, and then just leave 'em as-is?  These words feel like someone's first effort at writing a song... ever.  Any fourteen-year-old with the tiniest fledgling ability for self-criticism would have taken a look at this and thought "yeah, maybe I can do better than that".

Smoke On The Water
This guitar riff.  Nothing short of iconic.  What are the top ten legendary rock guitar riffs of all time?  This one must be on that list.  The band knew it too.  At the top of the song they play it over and over with very little else going on - like a freakin' manifesto - for almost a full minute.  It comes back a few times later in the song as an instrumental refrain.  This is yet another song that's been bouncing around in the background noise of my life since I was old enough to know what music was.  It's always just sort of been there.  But like just about all of the other bands discussed in this project, I've been doing my best to ignore it for the past four-plus decades.  Until today, I never listened to the words, at all.  These lyrics?  Are they true?  It seems like it's a narrative of a memorable event during the making of this record.  It's true that the Rolling Stones had a mobile recording truck that they leased out.  Did the band really witness the burning of a lakeside casino during a Zappa concert while making this record in Switzerland with the Stones' truck?  The song is a bit longer than it needs to be.  They get a whole lot of mileage out of their riff.  Weird phase-flange on the drums at the end.  Cool.

Lazy
Are we in church here?  Organ solo.  Their Hammond is clean for once; good, you have to give us the clean version in order for the grit to have impact.  And then... they fade in the grit, and some phase effects.  Then we hear it clean again.  Then dirty.  Then clean.  Someone was stoned, but it works.  In concert, this 1m 23s Hammond intro probably lasts for like ten minutes as an extended solo.  When the band finally kick in they screw around with some bluesy staccato crap for a bit, then finally move into a bluesy boogie-woogie groove.  Couple of solos, and then another super-lame lyric fails to thrill us, accompanied by a twelve-bar blues groove from the rhythm section.  This jam is 7m 21s and feels like album filler.  They didn't have enough songs.  Cranking out a generic blues thing to soak up part of side two is an all-too-common cop-out.  Can't help but to point out that the song is called "Lazy".  Yup.  The last minute picks up the tempo and shows some spark, but still, this one is a big nope.

Space Truckin'
This song is a bit more lighthearted, a fun little rocker about partying in outer space.  Hate to say it, but as goofy as the words are, they're still the most creative lyrics on this album.  
"Well we had a lot of luck on Venus
We always had a ball on Mars
We meet with all the groovy people
We rocked the Milky Way so far"
Yeah... that's as good as this band can do, lyrically.  Sorry.  Gillan goes up into a shrieky falsetto for a few lines, a sound that would define metal music for the next twenty years.  Gotta love the timbale (or just high toms?) solo out of nowhere.  This 4m 32s song wears out its welcome a full minute before it ends; it was fun for a bit but doesn't know when to stop.  

-------

Some post-posting research: 
Of course, the "Smoke On The Water" saga actually happened.  Crazy!


Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Tricky.  "Smoke on the Water" would be the obvious choice, but it's a bit long for a mix tape. It's tempting to go with "Pictures of Home" - trite lyric, bass solo, and all - but it's only 35 seconds shorter than "Smoke".  Maybe a quick edit of one of these?  Are there single versions out there?


Next: 
Moody Blues, coming March 01, 2022

20. Black Sabbath

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Black Sabbath? This is Ozzy Osbourne's band, but I think he quit after a bit.  I think Tommy Iommi is in this band.  Or is he in Deep Purple?  For some reason I get these two bands mixed up.  I know, I know.  Is Ritchie Blackmore in one of these bands?  He's Deep Purple, I think.  Eh, who cares.  Black Sabbath songs: "War Pigs" is famous, but I can't think of how it goes.  "Iron Man" is theirs, and also "Paranoid".  That's all I've got.

Have to pick an album to listen to: my web-search for "Best Black Sabbath album" yielded the usual array of a few dozen listicles.  There doesn't seem to be a consensus at all on their best record.  A bunch of titles all seem to jumble around for the top few spots.  Turns out that all of the Black Sabbath songs that I know are on their second album, Paranoid, which is occasionally at the #1 spot in rankings (and always in the top four at least), so that seems as good as any.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today, aside from picking a record to hear.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

But first...
What''s up with this?

The source image for both of these covers was clearly the same.  Look at them; the position of the fingers, and everything else.  Even the negative space between the baby's left pinky and shoulder is the same shape.  This is the same piece of art, re-purposed in two very different ways.  And both of them are creepy as hell.  There's got to be a story here, maybe this piece of art in its original unaltered form was famous in Thatcher's Britain. The Black Sabbath record is their album Born Again (1983). But Depeche Mode used this horrorshow first (1981) with the 12" version of their second-ever single, "New Life".  These bands couldn't be more different.  Aside from being British, I don't think anyone ever claimed that Black Sabbath and Depeche Mode had anything in common, whatsoever... and now they are forever united by deeply questionable choices in their album art. 

OK, and now we present...

Black Sabbath
Paranoid (1970)
Version: Japanese SA-CD, UIGY-9034 (2010)



War Pigs
This title is famous, but this song doesn't seem familiar at all.  We've got these big grindy chords played over a sort of loping rhythm section (really thin and badly recorded); then a siren comes in.  This whole extended section feels like it's leading up to something, like this is not the song, it's a teaser.  Not even an intro per se, just a kind of vamp while the band hunts for a song.  I'm thinking that just the band name "Black Sabbath" was probably a huge contributing factor to the whole "Satanic Panic" thing in the 1970s and 1980s.  Lots of bands got called out for their supposedly satanic content. There was no shortage of radio, television, and print hysteria over our kids being corrupted by the devil's music.  While parents were on a witch hunt against the relentlessly wholesome Electric Light Orchestra for their supposed backward messages (the band responded by putting completely innocuous real ones on their next album) a band called Black Sabbath just seem to be screaming for the attention of parents and preachers to piss off.  Ok, after this extended intro we get Ozzy singing nearly a capella lyrics that seem to be nearly a manifesto for this band:
"Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death's construction"
Got the checklist handy?  We have witches, black masses, evil minds, sorcerers, death, destruction.  It's all right there.  Everything your parents and preachers are gonna hate.  But Ozzy keeps singing, and it turns out the lyric is a very plainly worded screed against war.  There's no poetry here, no metaphor, no subtext, no wordplay (I mean, he has already rhymed "masses" with... "masses".  Nice one, Oz).  He just says what's on his mind in a manner that couldn't be misconstrued by anyone:
"Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor"
Well, that's a message few parents or teachers or anyone remotely sane would actually disapprove of, unless your parents are these titular war pigs.  Well played, Ozzy.  Since we can't actually fault Black Sabbath's message, it seems that the people obsessed with saving our children had to pick on the band who wrote "Mr. Blue Sky" instead.  What the fuck were they thinking?  These religious-wrong nutjobs didn't have enough real social problems to tackle, so they went after music?  All of this said, this song is pretty dull.  Yeah, the guitars sound big, but the song is kind of tedious.  Not a whole lot happens, and it's got no energy, no spark.  It's got a lot of space, but not in a cool atmospheric way.  More like a "we couldn't think of anything good to play" kind of way.  This album is a cornerstone of metal, but the band just seem bored.  There's very little of musical interest.  The song is nearly eight minutes long, but what it has to say, musically or lyrically, is all said within three minutes.  A pop-single edit wouldn't cut anything really important.  The rhythm section is sloppy, as are synchronized guitar solos for the last two minutes.  Around 7m 17s, the guitarists get sloppier, fall way out of sync, and then just give up.  There may not be a more anti-climactic ending on record.  Ha, at the end there's an effect where the tape speeds up.  That's the best part of the song.

Paranoid
Is this the song during which Ozzy allegedly bites the heads off of live animals during concerts?  Who knows if that actually happened.  Probably not.  Maybe they were props, fake animals.  I can't be bothered to research that.  This song is also pretty thin on ideas, but if you have little to say musically, it's best to play faster so the few ideas are closer together and seem like more ideas.  I just made that up, but maybe I believe it.  Man, for music that's supposed to make you want to pump your fist in the air, make devil horns with your fingers, break shit, and be mad, this is really kind of tepid.  The band really sound like they're holding back.  And they really just aren't very good players.  There's a lot of slop here and the solos kind of suck.  But wait, this guitar tone in the solo, it's kind of twisted.  Honestly it sounds like something that early Devo would use (if the only Devo you know is "Whip It'" you have no idea... go listen to the album Duty Now For the Future).  Might be an Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer or some similarly obscure and arcanely designed guitar pedal.  The mastering on this song is completely different from the rest of the album.  Way bassier, with a low end murkiness that doesn't need to be there.

Planet Caravan
Ah fuck, a ballad.  This is not what I want to hear this from this band.  I'm really really shocked to discover that one of the records that birthed metal is so fucking boring to listen to.  If this were a different band, I'd like the woody percussion on this song, and... oh.... wait.  This is also interesting vocal processing.  Sounds like maybe they ran his voice through a Leslie (the special type of loudspeaker usually used with Hammond organs) and some kind of filter.  Wait, then there's some weird electronic effect.  This is kind of trippy.  I kinda like this actually.  Completely not what I expected, at all, but these kinds of surprises are exactly why I'm doing this project. This almost sounds like Can or something.  Longish guitar solo kind of sucks though.  Go figure.  Sounds like a totally different band, but one I like better.  If they made a whole album like this, I'd be into it.

Iron Man
See, this is what I was looking for.  This one brings that bombastic heavy power to the music.  The sense of weight that gives this genre of music its name.  The recording is better than on the other songs too.  They spent more money on this one, it's easy to tell.  They knew it was going to be the iconic one.  But it's just as repetitive and thin on musical ideas as the others.  Ozzy just sings along with this repetitive guitar riff, over and over, it doesn't develop.  What is this song even about?  Certainly not the titular super-hero.  Seems like it's about a giant robot who was sent into space and has now returned as an enemy?
"He was turned to steel
In the great magnetic field
When he traveled time
For the future of mankind
Nobody wants him
He just stares at the world
Planning his vengeance
That he will soon unfold"
Maybe this is a metaphor for something, perhaps some kind of social isolation.  Ozzy normally doesn't like to get that arty with his writing.  He normally doesn't like to get arty at all.  Is this lyric a rare example of euphemism from the Oz, or just something he found in an issue of Amazing Stories, transcribed for our pleasure?  You decide.  Ah, then this tempo-change mid-song.  Things pick up, some new ideas come in.  Bass player is reaching a bit, trying to do something more interesting, but struggling.  Guitar solo is just as lame as the others.  But again: some more ideas here: after going back to the main verse, there's another tempo thing, and then another whole new section.  This is easily their most inventive song.  I'm still amazed that the playing on this album sucks so bad, but this song is one of the tighter efforts.

Electric Funeral
Here's another war tune, this one appears to be describing an atomic bomb blast.  Same as the others though: repetitive and simple.  The arrangement gets so amateurish toward the middle, with some even messier playing as Ozzy repeats the title over and over.  That part of the song feels more like a preview of some especially sloppy garage punk that would come along by the end of the decade.

Hand Of Doom
The biggest surprise on this record are how socially conscious the lyrics are.  We've had at least two anti-war tunes so far, and now we're unambiguously warning kids away from drugs, during the peak of their era of glorification.
We get:
"First it was the bomb, Vietnam napalm
Disillusioning, you push the needle in
From life you escape, reality's that way
Colours in your mind, satisfy in time"
And soon:
"Oh you, you know you must be blind
To do something like this,
To take the sleep that you don't know
You're giving Death a kiss
Oh little fool now"
Maybe Ozzy's absolute refusal (or failure) to employ any sort of allegory in his music works in his favor here.  These lyrics are too plain in their intent to miss.  Fifty years ago this music may have seemed intolerably noisy and offensive to authority figures, but these lyrics are unimpeachably pro-social.  It's like the band's name and all the dark imagery was there to lure the malcontented kids in, but then the record is almost as full of messages as positive as anything by the mostly-insufferable Howard Jones.  Anyway, this is another long song (7m 8s) and it's boring as hell.  The second biggest surprise on this record is how dull it is musically.

Rat Salad
This is a quick instrumental.  Instrumentals are a bad idea for this band; they need Ozzy's words to add another layer of interest (such as it is) to partially bolster the instrumentalists' lack of musical invention.  The drum solo in this song is one of the worst in history.  It's just super lame.  Rote and sloppy.  And it lasts for nearly a minute of the 2m 30s song.  Man...

Fairies Wear Boots
Alrighty.  Fun delays on the guitar foreshadowing U2's The Edge, and then the album closer is about... well, let Ozzy say it:
"Yeah I looked through a window and surprised what I saw
A fairy with boots and dancin' with a dwarf,
Yeah, fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me
Yeah I saw it, I saw it, I tell you no lies
Yeah Fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me
I saw it, I saw it with my own two eyes".
This basically repeats for more than six minutes, until we get the big moral:
"So I went to the doctor
See what he could give me
He said "Son, son, you've gone too far.
'Cause smokin' and trippin' is all that you do."
Ok, yeah, whatever.  Nothing new to say about this song.  Same as the others.  Inexplicably, the playing is a notch tighter.  Wait, so is the mix.  This whole song feels like it wasn't just placed last on the album, but recorded last too, and by the end these guys got warmed up and figured out how to play their instruments better.  And they're sounding a little more inspired.  Still not a great song, but why didn't they have their shit almost-together to this degree on the other songs?  I'm also not crazy about the trite lyric, but musically, this is one of their better efforts.  The fade-out at the end is lame though.  They needed to just bring the song to a climax and end it properly.
___

Ok, I had to look a few things up after the fact.  Yeah, Ozzy left the band eventually, and was replaced by Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, who we'll be listening to next time.  During their 1983-1984 tour, Black Sabbath also used Bev Bevan, drummer from Electric Light Orchestra.  Maybe these rather different bands were in cahoots over the whole Satanic messages thing, or maybe its because both bands were from Birmingham.  During that tour, there was a mix-up about the size needed for a Stonehenge set-piece, which directly inspired one of the most memorable gags in the rock-mockumentary film This Is Spinal Tap, released within a year of the tour's conclusion.  

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
It should be "Iron Man", but that one is too long for a mix, so we're going with "Paranoid", and maybe we'll hold "Planet Caravan" in reserve for a mix of trippy / ambient tunes. 

Next: 
Deep Purple, coming February 15, 2022

19. Bruce Springsteen

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Bruce Springsteen? He comes from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and is proud of it. That should tell you something right there. I’ve been to Asbury Park, and I even played a gig there as a musician. It’s fucking dump. It’s the kind of place you leave as soon as you’re able to. It’s not the kind of place you sing about unless you’re singing about how depressed and depressing it is. What else? He calls himself The Boss. Forget that. He’s sure not the boss of me! His band are the E-Street Band, but the only band member I can name is Clarence Clemons on sax, and I already ripped on that guy a few posts back. His sax style is the worst. I want to punch it. It is not my wish to personally hurt Mr. Clemons per se, but I want to take a big metaphorical fist and punch that whole style of sax playing.

As for Springsteen’s songs, his Born In The U.S.A. album was a big deal when I was a teenager, so the title track and “Dancin’ in the Dark” and… was it called “Glory Days”?… those were on the radio all the freakin’ time. I was not amused. Did he also have one called “I’m On Fire” around the same time? In my world, it would have been much cooler to have Gang of Four or Fad Gadget on the radio, but that sure as hell wasn’t going to happen. In the Great Lakes region of the U.S.A., I would have settled for Depeche Mode at that time, but they were still too weird and underground at that point. They didn’t get any U.S. airplay for quite a while longer. I’m sure I’ve absorbed some of Bruce’s other music along the way, unfortunately. But I have to admit – this hurts, but I’m gonna be real vulnerable for you people – I kinda like the song “Born To Run”. I know, I know, this is costing me a lot of my counter-culture cred here. I’ll discuss that tune below since it’s the title track from this post’s album choice.

As always, this series is all about tabula rasa listening. I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today. The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions,written as the record was playing, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I’m taking it at face value with no baggage. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Version: this time I’m listening to the HD Tracks master in 24-bit resolution and 96kHz sample rate. Let me tell you a few things kids: this HD audio shit is snake oil. I’ve been working in pro audio since 1989, and I teach digital audio theory at a college level. In a double-blind listening test (with playback levels matched and when you don’t know which version of something you’re hearing at any moment) you can’t tell the difference. These high-res files offer no boon to the listener. It’s a sham for the audiophile purists who also think mistakenly think that buying golden audio cables or something is going to make their home hi-fi sound better. It’s all placebo effect. There is actually a lot of benefit to doing the recording and mixing of an album at a higher resolution (I always do), but once the record is done, there is nothing lost by bouncing it to so-called “CD quality” (16-bit, 44.1kHz) for distribution and playback. The benefit in higher resolution is only gained during editing, processing, and mixing, and doesn’t offer anything useful during playback. (That said, data compressing to a lossy format like MP3 absolutely does degrade the audio noticeably). But the people who do the mastering for the HD Tracks releases sometimes take a fair amount of care with their work, and also get less pressure from record labels to detrimentally screw around with the dynamics (I have also heard HD tracks releases that were brick-walled, so there’s that). If these high resolution records sound better to you than normal resolution records, it’s because the people mastering them know who their audience is and they aren’t screwing around. But it isn’t actually because of the resolution. We would live in a much better sounding world if the better HD Tracks masters were just downsampled to CD resolution for all releases instead of… ok, I’m gonna rant about record labels, amateur engineers, and the loudness wars here. No, I’m not. I’m gonna stop.

Let’s torture ourselves with some Springsteen instead.

Bruce Springsteen
Born to Run (1975)
Version: HD Tracks (2014)

Springsteen

Thunder Road
Ha! Right before playing this record, I was listening to the mighty Roy Orbison. Took Roy off, put on Bruce, and the first stanza on the first song of this record colors its narrative with the line “Roy Orbison singing for the lonely”. We’ve got voice, a piano, and some harmonica in the intro as we meet the narrator and his girl Mary. Band kicks in right on schedule, but the piano doesn’t give them any room. The mix engineer needed to have dipped the piano down a bit when the rest of the band started playing. It overwhelms the arrangement for the rest of the song. The piano needed to have been up and in front when it was the only thing accompanying Bruce’s voice, but when everyone else starts playing it’s just in the way and distracting. Even Bruce’s voice is struggling to be heard above the piano. Later in the song when the dreaded Clemons sax is meant to be featured, it is barely audible. What’s going on with the lyrics… this is a pretty wordy song full of some quasi-evocative imagery, but some of it hasn’t aged well. Bruce is asking his girlfriend (who has had her share of suitors) to go for a ride in his car because life sucks and going for a drive is the answer. I guess in 1975 that might have seemed like a good idea – we were still under the sway of the dregs of the American mid-century car-culture, encapsulated in the idea that the road is freedom. In 2022, this idea just seems dated, like he’s going to blow a lot of carbon into the atmosphere for no good reason. Take fewer trips people. Drive less.

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Unlike “Thunder Road” which felt like a warm up for “Born To Run”, this one has an R+B feel, with an attempt at a bit more of a groove (not sure if it succeeds) and a widely-panned horn section. Having those horns spread out so widely across the stereo field is distracting. I’d pan them so that they feel more together, tighter, like a horn section would be on stage, and then maybe balance them opposite the piano, to be positioned on the other side. Bruce’s voice sounds like he’s straining. It rough, gravely, and expressive, but still kind of controlled. Like he’s fighting himself. Song doesn’t really go anywhere. Just does one thing for a while, except for this weird reverberant bridge where Bruce starts hollering “And I’m all alone, I’m all alone” as if from down the hall, and in a really odd tone of voice. This song is filler. Adjust your car use so that you fill up the tank less often.

Night
This one jumps right in with a big drum fill and another feel similar to the title track. Thematically it’s the same: working a shitty job, daydreaming of your perfect Stepford girlfriend, and looking forward to taking off with her in your car. The band are tight and energetic here. The performance isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of diversity in the musical arrangements and lyrical ideas. I’m already kind of over this record. Two of the three songs have been functionally identical, and the title track is destined to be more of the same. The mix is just crap. Everything is just kind piled on top of everything else, there’s very little separation or clarity. The overall tonality is mid-rangey and murky. Geez, how would a worse master of this record sound? Bruce would want you to buy an electric car. Everything is moving in that direction.

Backstreets
Another wordy song with a long intro and a more portentous tone. Bruce and his friend or girlfriend (or maybe his friend who he wanted to be his girlfriend) Terry are growing up on the streets during “one soft infested summer” (what does that even mean?). Seems that growing up, or maybe the presence of another fella, pulled them apart. Their cars are mentioned. The track has that melancholy nostalgic feel to it, your first heartbreak and all that jazz. Band are tight once again and build the track adequately. This whole song is a murky mess though. This record is awful sounding. That slap-delay on Bruce’s voice toward the end of the song is just clumsy. Fossil fuels are killing us all.

Born to Run
At risk of repeating myself: one thing I never noticed about this song is how miserable the recording is. Someone really fucked this record up. Seems that Bruce wasn’t exactly a superstar yet when this was made, but it wasn’t his first album either; there must have been some budget in place. What works for me in this song is the exuberance and energy that the band bring to the recording. They have sounded (at the very) least awake – and usually much better than that – on all of the songs so far, and on this one they really turn in a heartfelt performance. It’s all drive (ha) and energy. Hearing it in context with the rest of the record for the first time ever, it does seem like the lyrics are just more twists on Bruce’s same themes, and the arrangements bring back the same sounds that we keep hearing. Really, I wish I hadn’t listened to this album. Experiencing all the second-rate attempts at essentially making this same song over and over sort of diminish the impact of “Born to Run”. Lyrically, we’ve got repeats of the go-to concepts of car culture, freedom from a dead-end life, and another dream-girl (this one is Wendy; we met Mary and Terry in two previous drafts of this song). Bruce even name-checks the American dream in this one. This final draft of his thesis is the strongest version of Bruce’s obsession with chasing these ideas over and over again. Even little moments like the key change when he sings “Sprung from cages out on Highway 9” are effective songwriting tricks that he could have employed more often. Bringing the Hammond in mid-verse (when he sings “Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims”) are the super-common little ideas that add musical interest. The glockenspiel is a nice arrangement touch that gets us one step away from rock instrumentation without going further than would be appropriate for what this band does. Gotta love the tremolo rockabilly guitar too, and the wah-wah guitar that comes in at 2:11 (“Beyond the palace…”). The drummer shows his worth in the bridge beginning at 2:37. Bruce has been polishing this idea for a while (maybe even on prior albums? I don’t know), and his warm-up efforts are found all over this album. Here the ideas come together in their best version. All he wants to say on this album is encapsulated in this successful song, and the rest of the sketches songs really become redundant. Increased public transportation infrastructure is one of many paths toward our survival as a species.

She’s the One
Another tragically shitty recording that really feels unnecessary after everything we’ve heard so far. Over nice Hammond arpeggios that later turn into piano arpeggios, Bruce tells us about meeting the perfect girl, but this one doesn’t get a name. But he does mention her French cream and her French kisses. What’s he doing with a socialist from Europe? She probably rides the Metro. Bruce needs to get back to the freedom-loving ‘Murican girls and their cars. But, in the long run, the object of your desire is going to be more impressed with your heart and your mind than with your fancy car.

Meeting Across the River
This one starts off as a pretty slow ballad. It would have been nice to hear this one right after the balls-out intensity of “Born To Run”. Then they can sequence “She’s The One” after this one. That would flow better. Accompanied by piano and a very distant and reverberant trumpet (conspicuously distant and reverberant… clumsily distant and reverberant…) Bruce’s pal Eddie replaces his quartet of girlfriends. Oh wait, seems that one “Cherry” left him. And he needs a ride, so apparently he doesn’t have his car anymore. Nice job, Bruce. Bruce wants to go through the tunnel “to the other side”. Yes, Bruce, that’s usually what happens when we go through a tunnel. We get to the other side. New Yorkers disdain the so-called “bridge and tunnel” crowd invading the city looking for fun on the weekends, and guess what: Bruce Springsteen is that guy. Stay in Jersey, Bruce. Once again tonight is “the big night” in a Springsteen song. The night it’s all gonna change, the night life is going to become worth living, the night fortunes will smile upon the dissatisfied. That’s his big theme, but these lives never really change, do they? Wanna change life? Electric vehicle charging stations grew by 64% last year. They’ll be everywhere before you know it. Invest in this tech.

Jungleland
This long album closer starts with strings (of course; a prerequisite on the epic album-closer) and a tinkly piano. The 9:33 running time makes it 15 seconds longer than “Free Bird” which closed our Lynyrd Skynyrd experience (previous post). But is it a better song? Well it develops in more dynamic and interesting ways, and the lyrics are more evocative, even if Bruce’s same-old themes are here once again: cars, the streets at night, hope in a darkened heart; dancing, getting laid, getting shot. All in a night’s work. There is, however a sax solo that goes on for more than two minutes. No, Clarence. Just no. On my time, John Coltrane can do that. Charlie Parker can do that. Several others can too. But not the inventor of the hideous 1970s/1980s rock sax sound. I gots other stuff to do. During this saxual assault, the rhythm section have the good sense to change things up a few times in an attempt to keep the song relatively interesting. At the end, the band invest a full half-minute in letting the dense arrangement die away to almost nothing (effective) and then another half-minute doing basically nothing (edit that!). Then Bruce comes in with his efforts at poignant lyrics as the song’s protagonist is carried away by ambulance, and no one cares. But don’t worry, “they wind up wounded, not even dead / Tonight in Jungleland”. Whew!

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
"Born to Run", clearly.

Next: 
Black Sabbath, coming February 01, 2022




18. Lynyrd Skynyrd

Dude. 
(I had to begin a post about fuckin' Skynyrd with "dude").  
If any band epitomizes the inverse of my taste in music (especially in my teens and twenties), it's Skynyrd.  This band symbolizes the reason I got into Bauhaus and Talking Heads.  They're an icon for my decision to turn off classic rock and look toward Magazine.  They're an icon for everything I was rebelling against upon hearing Entertainment! by Gang of Four - or The Man Machine by Kraftwerk for that matter - or anything by Dead Kennedys - and fucking rejected not just Lynyrd Skynyrd, but everyone who liked them and everything they stood for.  Fuck this band.  Fuck their fans.  Fuck YOU.

OK, I'm'ma' calm down.  I'm fanning myself with one hand as I type this.  I have three hands.   So, eighteen posts into this series, I'm gonna tackle the band who wrote "Free Bird".  I've been working as a sound engineer for thirty years.  Every god damned night of my life, some stupid pinhead yells out "Freebird!" at whatever concert I am mixing.  It doesn't matter if it's a rock gig, a jazz gig, or a fucking gospel gig, someone without any sense at all thinks it's clever to yell "Freebird!" at some point in the show.  Every.  Night.  About three times out of the 2000+ live converts I've engineered, some smart-ass band has actually started playing it, and every single time, the audience has been dumbfounded.  Not because the band have the audacity to play the song, but because few of the people present actually understand that "Free Bird" is a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Usually, the dipshit who requested it doesn't even realize it's a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  They seem to think that "Freebird!" just something you're supposed to shout at a concert to show everyone what a jackass fratboy date rapist you are.

So yeah, fucking "Free Bird".  What else does this band play?  I dunno.  Is "Sweet Home Alabama" theirs?  I think so.  Man, this post is gonna be a slog.  What else?  "Gimme Three Steps"?  Is that Skynyrd?.  Oh and "What's Your Name Little Girl"?  That's them, right?  That's all I've got.  What else do I know about this band?  Not a lot.  Maybe one of the main guys is Ronnie van Zandt (is that spelled right)?  I wanna say a couple of the lads died in a plane crash.  The Big Bopper, Richie Valens, and Buddy Holly.  No, sorry, that was the real plane crash.  The O.G. rock n' roll plane crash.  

All right, I had to pick a Skynyrd album to listen to, because I hate myself, life, and everything about the universe, and listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on purpose is the only way I can truly perform an adequate act of self -harm horrific enough to express my deep inner turmoil.   A quick web search for the oxymoron "best Lynyrd Skynyrd album" reveals that their 1973 debut Lynyrd Skynyrd (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) is universally in first place, followed by their 1974 follow-up, Second Helpings.  Third place album varies widely.  So Pronounced it shall be.  As for versions, the Songs of the South, MSFL, and AP pressings are well-rated, as are the original MCA pressings from Japan (but not MCA pressings from USA).  Sadly(?) I couldn't find any of the desired pressings, so I had to go with an MCA pressing from the U.S.

This series is all about tabula rasa listening, my friends.  As usual I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life (above), I'm taking it at face value with no baggage.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd (pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) (1973)
Version: MCA 088 112 727-2 (2001)

Skynyrd


I Ain't The One
The first thing we learn on this record is that at least one band member can count to three, but apparently he couldn't manage four.  Then we get backward drums.  That's a surprise.  Definitely unexpected.  Turns out these backward drums continue playing through the whole song.  They become gimmicky and annoying, and are often the loudest thing in the mix.  This is a ham-fisted and clumsy use of a (usually) always welcome production trick.   The normal drums stay buried in the mix, throwing it all off-kilter, mix-wise.  This guitar work reminds me a lot of The Eagles.  That is not a surprise.  Almost completely expected.  Vocalist is really buried in this mix; is it that he can't sing or is it that what he's saying isn't important?  At 0:55 his voice suddenly and noticeably drops even lower, and stays there for the duration of the song.  He mentions a gun at one point.  I wonder how many of these songs will do so?  So far these guys sound like a typical southern bar band.  The playing is competent but not special.  Song is completely forgettable.

Tuesday's Gone
By chance, I'm writing this one Tuesday!  Wow, that means there must be supernatural cosmic forces at work!  This guitar lead already reminds me of "Free Bird".  So does the vocal cadence.  This band are showing limitations already; it's already clear that they have a fairly narrow palette of ideas to draw from.  There's a really chimey guitar in there with an interesting tone (good), an acoustic guitar that's all pick and no body (bad), and some strings in the left channel (and then the right, they move) that could be Mellotron.  Wait, one of these guys was smart enough to master use of a Mellotron?  There's an extended instrumental section that shows a little ambition, but definitely feels like a bit of detritus from the recently-concluded 1960s.  The oft-repeated refrain is "Tuesday's gone with the wind. My woman's gone with the wind."  Man, that's freakin' trite.  This song is pretty long at 7:32 but seems to run out of steam a bit after the 5:00 mark.  Doesn't really do anything new after that.  Further noodling  reaches a dynamic peak at 6:06 and then breaks down and keeps going; they definitely should have ended it there if not much sooner. 

Gimme Three Steps
This song is ostensibly about a conflict between two men.  One wants to shoot the other for dancing with his wife.  The man with the gun pointed at him seems to imply that the woman never told him she was married, and he wouldn't have approached her if he knew.  This is a very noble perspective and shows some level of integrity on his part; we wonder if the gunman let him go.  Can we assume that "cutting a rug" (dancing) is a euphemism for doing something significantly more naked?  If not, is dancing all that bad?  Maybe it was 50 years ago... but then again, that era was much closer to a time when partner dancing was far more common than it is today.  These days lots of people just jump out on the dance floor solo or with a group and shake it.  Really, this song isn't about a conflict between two men.  It's about a duplicitous woman who lied to our poor narrator.  She needed to have told him she was married, or turned down his advances.  Her dishonesty and selfishness is about to get this dude killed.  The song is throwing light upon some of the more dire consequences of lying.  Do I believe that?  Probably not.  But it's worth thinking about.  "Well the crowd cleared away / And I began to pray / And the water fell on the floor."  Is he crying, or did he piss himself?  The song is another moderately competent little rocker with a sing-along chorus and way too much of the congas in the mix.

Simple Man
Simple song, simply lyric, simple man.  When any lyric starts off with any variant on the theme of "my mama told me" you know we're in for something about being a good person and letting your troubles go.  I want to hear a song that's like "my mama told me to do drugs, fuck, and drive faster, and that was great advice".  Yeah, go write that one, I'll wait.  Halfway through "Simple Man", the mix engineer cranks up the reverb on the snare drum for a dramatic effect, but then leaves it on for while.  Sounded good for the dramatic part, but after that it just sounds awful, draws attention to itself, and murks up the mix.  Later, they crank it up on individual drum hits at the end of each phrase.  It sounds so cheesy, so bad.  It's like this guy just got out of sound mixing skool and wanted to play around with these effects, but had no sense of how to use them with any grace or subtlety.  This drummer is serviceable at best, but between these reverberation shenanigans and the backward stuff on "I Ain't The One" he just can't get a chance to play drums without this freakin' D-list mix engineer monkeying with his tone.  The rest of the song is our vocalist warbling trite platitudes like "Be a simple kind of man / Won't you do this for me son, If you can? "  Life-changing advice there, mom.  Surprised she didn't advise him to buy a gun.

Things Goin' On
This sounds like a southern rock stereotype.  It's like what someone from Massachusetts might think southern rock sounds like.  "Too many lives they've spent across the ocean. / Too much money been spent upon the moon."  Interesting and topical lyric there.  I guess one of these guys is capable of reading a newspaper.  Or at least listening to gossip.  We can guess that the "across the ocean" line was in reference to war, or (being 1971) Viet Nam in particular.  And of course this record was made two years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and during the years when five subsequent moon landings were happening.  I reckon the moon landings to be one of the great achievements of both science and of the human spirit, one of mankind's finest moments.  But it's also true that lots of people were against it at the time (as is clearly the case with this band's lyricist) because of the expense and the perspective that NASA is nothing but an extension of the military-industrial complex (a view which I understand but don't agree with; wars are destructive and vile, while space exploration is vital and life-affirming).  "They're goin' ruin the air we breathe" (true 'dat, but listen, we're all helping them to do so), and "I don't think they really care / I think they just sit up there / And just get high."  Yeah, the southerners and northerners can agree on one thing: shit's fucked up.  It's just the specifics of what is most fucked up, and the why, and and the best methods of fixing it that no one can agree on.

Mississippi Kid
Ha, this acoustic bluegrass number starts off with a very Chuck Berry type of riff played in parallel on a banjo and an acoustic guitar.  This tune sidesteps the southern rock cliches of the previous tune and goes straight for something resembling traditional Appalachian folk music.  It isn't a remotely engaging tune, however.  There's no melody or instrumental hook.  Just a 12-bar blues pattern and a generic lyric.  Indeed he mentions his pistols (four times).  A slide-guitar solo is buried in the mix, and is a pale imitation of anything that the greats of mid-century country or the best players in western swing might have come up with.  It's another amateurish moment that feels like somebody young experimenting with things they haven't mastered yet.  That's totally cool, everyone needs to experiment, explore, and grow as an artist, but I don't want to listen to it.  Master your craft and then record, kid.  Acknowledging that this is their first album - and therefore they have growing to do - I'll also point out that it is near-universally considered to be their best album.  Are we to understand that this band continued to get worse after this?  One shudders.  At the end of the song, there's this weird random processed/delayed snare effect.  It comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit at all.  There isn't any snare drum in the song otherwise.  That engineer is the one "sitting up there getting high", apparently.

Poison Whiskey
After the bluegrass we get a riff-heavy rocker.  This a cheerful song about a man whose father drank whiskey (specifically Johnny Walker red) until it killed him.  "Take a tip from me, people... brothers can't you see / Ain't no future in ole poison whiskey."  This was clearly more advice from his sweet mama.  Moralizing aside, this this song is a tight little rocker, but the guy runs out of lyrics so he just keeps telling us not to drink whiskey.  But, you know people use this as a joyous drinking song and have probably probably spent the past five decades playing it on jukeboxes all over Alabammy and Mississippi while downing shots.  We get a little Hammond organ here, but the tone is a bit thin with some tricky resonance.  That amateur mix engineer needed to have spent his time EQing the organ instead of fucking around with clumsy drum processing.

Free Bird
"FREEEEEEE BIRRRRRRRD!".  
This is a song that came out when I was a toddler, and that I have subsequently spent my entire life trying to ignore.  Today is the first time I have ever listened to this song on purpose, the first time I have ever made a deliberate choice to play it, and to listen to it carefully.  So right off the bat we get this Hammond again.  A little gritter tone this time.  Better-sounding than on the previous tune.  There's also piano: how did the keyboard player pull this one off live?  Did one of the other guys help out on second keys?  The keyboard player gives up completely, and the guitars take over.  The vocalist sings four stanzas, and they don't melodically or dynamically develop at all.  It's just the same thing four times in a row, so it's a bit monotonous.  The singer's pitch is unsteady, he's having trouble holding the sustained notes.  He's all over the place.  Then he repeats "And this bird you can not change" bunch of times, while he and the band build things a bit, and the mix engineer fucks around with drum reverb again.  The band just waffles after that.  More slide guitar, which we heard in the intro, and it isn't super interesting.  No one in this band have any ideas.  None of them impress in either their performance or their innovation.  Second verse is the same as the first.  Same repetitive monotone melody that refuses to develop in any meaningful way.  But we do get Mellotron strings.  That's definitely Mellotron.  This singer keeps singing "And this bird you can not change. / Lord knows, I can't change." over and over again.  And this song won't fucking change.  There is a bit of a build and a dynamic peak after each of the two verses, but other than that we're into nearly five minutes of repetitive dirge.  Change the key, change the melody, change the tempo, change the freakin' hi-hat pattern... anything.  And this song you cannot change.  Lord knows, this band won't change.  Finally at 4:40 the song kicks into a more sprightly tempo and lifts itself out of the slog it has subjected us to for the past 280 seconds.  Those were 280 long and slow seconds, my friends.  The song is only halfway over, but it has nothing left to say.  No more words.  The band just jam out.  They sound excited and tight in this second half; they want to be playing this song.  It's a good take, but it's fairly empty musically.  It's just their guitarist(s) waffling for an intolerably long time.  At 6:31, the rhythm section play staccato breaks, while two guitarists just play stupidly tedious arpeggios for a full 30 seconds.  It's so deeply lame.  This is bullshit.  This is not great guitar playing.  It's just a bunch of diddling.  Find me development.  Find me inventiveness.  Find me melody.  All we have here is guys who can wiggle their fingers real good.  This is why punk decided to skip guitar solos altogether.  If you're not a great player, don't even pretend.  Make your point and then get out without subjecting us to your masturbation.  All the young punks said: we can't sing either, and we can't play guitar either, but we do have something important to say.  So they took a lesson from Lynyrd Skynyrd and learned to say what they had to say in two minutes of energy, and got out of dodge before the song wore out its welcome.  Brevity is the soul of wit.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Let's go with "Poison Whiskey".  It's a quick banger that's relatively fun to listen to.

Next: 
Bruce Springsteen, coming January 15, 2022

17. Jethro Tull

What do I know about Jethro Tull?  Ian Anderson is famous for being one of history's few highly-regarded rock flutists ("flautist" is not the preferred term).  I don't know if he is also the singer, but I think he is.  No idea who any of the other band members are.  I know their song "Aqualung", and I've also heard "Living In The Past", which Midge Ure of Ultravox / Visage / Rich Kids did a mediocre cover of on one of his solo albums.  I don't think I know any of their other songs or anything else about this band.  Seems likely they were named after the 18th century agriculturist who invented machines to make seeding easier.  This guy made our lives better, but also laid foundations for the industrial revolution, which has now now lead us directly into the climate emergency... but also modern health care technology.  It's complicated.  But the band chose the name in like the late sixties.  Let's consider their choice in the context of their era.  Is this going to be hippie rock about growing plants?

As always, the only research I did before writing today was a quick web search for "best Jethro Tull album".  Didn't even read the reviews, just skimmed the album titles, so that I'd remain in the dark as much as possible before listening.  This series is all about tabula rasa listening, my friends.  See my C O N T E X T  post for details.  Clicking on the first seven listicles that popped up, I found that Aqualung and Thick As A Brick always occupied the top two spots, with Brick having a slight edge, occupying the #1 spot four times.  Six different albums occupied the third-place spot; only Songs From The Wood held the #3 slot more than once.  It would seem that listening to Thick As A Brick today would be a no-brainer, but a little bit of key information did manage to work its way into my grey matter while skimming these lists: Thick As A Brick is one long song, divided in half (one half on each side of the original LP).  Yeah, I'm not really up for that.  The title track on Aqualung is one of the two Tull songs that I'm familiar with, so we're going there.

As for the chosen version, there are a bewildering number of reissues of this record.  The Steve Hoffman remaster from 1997 (DCC GZS-1105) is by far the best-rated; this is unsurprising since Hoffman generally does good work, and the late 1990s were a golden era for good mastering (see my Aerosmith post for a little more on this).  

If you can't find the rare Hoffman master, the other two best regarded versions seem to be Chrysalis  610 016-217 (Sanyo variant; 1986) pressed in Japan for the Euro-market, and Chrysalis CDP 32 1044 2 (Swindon pressing; 1994)... which is called the 25th anniversary edition, even though it is the 23rd anniversary edition.  The real 25th Anniversary Edition was also released by Chrysalis, just a year before the Hoffman master: Chrysalis 7243 8 52213 2 3 (1996).  It is widely regarded as trash.  So much for relying on 1990s masters.  This is way too much drama to manage for a record I've never heard and probably won't like, but we have to wonder why this record was completely remastered in 1994, 1996, and 1997, among many other efforts.

...ANNNND, the other go-to version is the 2016 Steven Wilson remix, which Tull fans seem to be losing their minds with joy over. That's shocking.  You'd think  that purists would eschew disruption of the holy relics.   But we all know that Wilson has a reputation for doing a nice job remixing a lot of classic records (such as by XTC and Ultravox within my usual listening realm, and lots more).  His work is of high quality, but more often than not, I'd prefer to hear a great mastering job on the original mix of a record I like or love, rather than someone messing with the original mix.  For today's listening,  I wanted to hear the original mix in its best possible master of a record I have no opinion about at all.  So it's the Hoffman '97.  If I end up liking this record, perhaps I'll listen to the Wilson mix.


Jethro Tull
Aqualung (1971) 
Version: DCC GZS-1105

JethroTullAqualung

Aqualung
So there's this creepy homeless guy on the front (and back) cover of the album.  The title track launches directly into describing this man's life.  Sometimes seen as someone deserving of our sympathy, he's also painted as a perv watching the young girls run by.  Many of us view people like the titular Aqualung with a combination of pity and revulsion.  Is that the guy's name?  Wonder why Anderson chose that name?  Aqualung.  Not a common name.  If it's a metaphor for something, I'm not getting it.  Maybe Anderson is considering our own judgmental nature here; the singer calls Aqualung his friend and acknowledges that he man is in pain and dying; perhaps the bit about watching the kids is an example of the aspersions that we cast upon the homeless so we don't feel bad about not helping them.  This opening guitar riff is iconic.  There's some stuff happening in the background with acoustic guitar and keyboards that feels messy; maybe it's so low in the mix because the arrangement wasn't really working.  When a second guitar comes in it overpowers the first; this also feels like a bit of slop in the mixing.  The two electric guitars needed to have been the same volume, blending together as one.  Ok, now I wonder if Steve Wilson fixed that [edit: he did!].  Then the song breaks down to a radically quieter vibe and a heavily filtered "radio voice" with lots of delay effects.  Yes, it seems that the earlier bit is our view of the homeless as sinister, then we get so the sympathetic part.  The tempo picks up again and the song almost becomes joyful as the singer describes Aqualung's physical pain.  Maybe these three sections represent the evolution of our perspective from mistrust to empathy to hope for his survival.  The guitar solo that comes in next is fairly rote.  There is nothing wrong with it, but also nothing about it that earns its length.  When the rhythm section switches groove halfway through (4m 12s), it gives the extended instrumental some legs, but still this solo needed to have been half as long as it is (or less).  Now some "dee dee dee" vocals, and a bit more sentimental well-wishing for our poor old pal.  Then the rockin' part from the beginning comes back; it feels like they cut-and-pasted the first verse in here.  Today that would take ten seconds in a DAW; in 1971 it would have taken about ten minutes cutting tape.  Not a difficult process in either case.  The lyric of Aqualung is complex, with a few possible interpretations, and it certainly covers infrequently trod ground.  Musically the song has many ideas, but none of them are especially interesting... except for that iconic six-note guitar riff.  It is prog-ish in that it utilizes a lot of parts and changes and bits.  It keeps us on our toes by constantly switching direction.  But after listening to Meat Loaf for my previous post it feels like Jethro Tull needed to take a page from Meatloaf songwriter Jim Steinman's playbook when it comes to keeping long and multi-segmented songs engaging (I never, ever thought I'd find myself typing these words).  This one has the constant changes, but not enough ideas to fill those many segments with.  Fewer parts but with more good ideas per part would have been a better way to go.

Cross-Eyed Mary
Ah, so here is Anderson's lauded flute, with strings no less.  Ohh, are those strings from a Mellotron?  Gotta love a Mellotron.  Can't go wrong there.  This sounds like a psychedelic-era Beatles out-take.  Throw some backwards stuff on there, and it could be a b-side to "Strawberry Fields Forever".  So, that intro was interesting musically.  When the song kicks in, it really feels like an extension of "Aqualung".  Oh wait, this lyrical hook sounds familiar.  Was this song a single?  I think I may have heard this.  Is this song about a schoolgirl who hooks up with older men?  That's kinda gross.  Poor old Aqualung gets name-checked: he's watching the action.  Cross-Eyed Mary might be one of the little girls that Aqualung has been checking out.  So we've got kind of a seedy Jethro-verse of interrelated characters here.  We've already met more screwed up people in two songs than in a whole side of a 1970s Tom Waits album.  Actually, this album came out right around the same time as the first Waits album.  I wonder if Tom grew up listening to the first few Jethro Tull albums?  It's possible.  But he certainly doesn't seem to have drawn anything from Tull musically.  The alternating flute and guitar solos are nice.  Panning them opposite works.  At the end of the song they go into a more complex and more interesting version of that idea, expanding on it, but adding riffs from the piano and drum kit too.  Kinda cool.  This section could have gone on just a bit longer.

Cheap Day Return
This is a quick 85-second fragment of a folk song that seems to be a poignant little vignette about fame.  The singer meets a nurse and gives her an autograph, but wonders if she's equally enthusiastic about her patients.  Layered acoustic guitars and something else... maybe that Mellotron again?  The drum set and electric guitars are gone.  It's like a different band.  But thank Hoffman they got the mastering right.  How many albums have I listened to for this series while complaining that the acoustic numbers were too loud compared to the electric jams?  Several.  This one is balanced properly.

Mother Goose
This one has a bit of a Celtic feel.  These flutes.  They might be Anderson's flute layered, but really they sound like our old pal Mr. Mello again.  Could be a blend of both.  And this woody percussion.  Almost like an inexpertly played tabla. This band is like prog-folk but with Mellotron.  The tonality of this record is nice.  It's warm and woody with a lot of space in it; the fuzztone psychedelic guitars are using sparingly (such as the "Aqualung" riff) and provide effective contrast.  And, as if on cue, they pop up halfway through this tune, riffin' away.  Lyrically, is it possible that this song is told from the delusional Aqualung's point of view? Wandering the town, causing mischief but not realizing the implications, watching laborers and not participating in their work, thinking he's a schoolboy (disassociating from his current predicament and remembering his happier younger life), and looking at the schoolgirls (again with the schoolgirls; I'm starting to worry about getting arrested for playing this record); but maybe poor ol' Aqualung sees a better version of his life in them.  The girls are all sobbing "I don't believe they knew I was a schoolboy".  He was once one of their ilk.  But now his appearance makes them cry.  

Wond'ring Aloud
After "Aqualung" I thought I was in for a solid prog record, but the past three tunes are really folksy.  Well-recorded for the most part.  The acoustic guitar, piano, and strings on this song are smooth and warm sounding, and blend well.  Gotta cut that lip smacking at 1m 18s though.  I hate that.  Like "Cheap Day Return" this one is in and out in less than two minutes.  Say your piece and get out of dodge.  This is a sweet little thing about waking up in the morning with your sweet little thing.  You can't hate it, it's too kind-hearted a song, but it also avoids being too syrupy.  That's hard to balance.

Up to Me
We've got the acoustic guitar, hand percussion, and flutes again here, this time playing a kind of riffy acoustic groove.  The electric guitar just adds a few little moments, barely there.  This is like acoustic prog.  We don't hear that a lot.  As we reach the end of what was once side one, this music has some nice individual moments, but I'm not hearing any genius here.  Reasonably intriguing lyrics, enough studio trickery to keep it sonically interesting (and relevant to its times), nothing offensive about the playing or engineering, and I'm not hating it for being mawkish or low-effort (the people here meant it), but... the essential spark that might make it special isn't here.  That said, I'm starting to suspect that this is the kind of album that would get under one's skin after repeated listenings.  It's simplicity might be deceptive.  With the song "Aqualung" they might have been overreaching; when they're writing simpler songs with warm acoustic arrangements they seem to be channeling something more honest and seem like they're not trying so hard.  It is entirely possible that the music in any of the sixteen posts that preceded this one would also grow on me with time (well, except for Marillion), but in most cases I fairly seriously doubt it.  There seems to be an integrity to this music that belies its simplicity.  

My God
Ehhhh.... right.  I was just starting to consider that in the future I might possibly be on board with this band, but now we're getting a warning light.   This song appears to be about how modern people have corrupted the word of the Christian god or Jesus to fit their own needs.  That's all well and good, but I'm really not interested in religious lyrics.  I don't happen to be a Christian, and when we go down this lyrical road it really pushes me away.  Gods of any sort almost certainly do not exist.  One person trying to tell another that their ideas about how to interpret words written by archaic men but attributed to metaphorical supernatural beings is pretty much a futile philosophical path.  It's like trying to justify the notion of having a serious critical debate about your fantasy football team.  The music on this track goes back into some more rockin' territory with a pretty virtuoso flute solo in the middle.  It is impressive playing; this is the bit that probably earned Anderson his reputation.  There's a really obvious edit at 3m 42s though [another type of edit: the Wilson mix smooths it out a little], and then some choirs and overdubbed extra flutes are added.  It's pretty clear that the beginning of the flute solo was recorded at a completely different time and place compared to the second half.  The whole segment (which lasts a full 1m 50s) memorable musically, but the choirs reinforce the religious textures in this track.  The next song is called "Hymn 43", so I really hope we're not in for a suite of Jesus music here.  

Hymn 43
Yeah, we're in for a suite of Jesus music here.  "If Jesus saves, well He'd better save Himself / From the gory glory seekers who use His name in death".  So, more lyrics defending Jesus from those who corrupted earlier versions of their pretend friend's words.  You know, the words that weren't written down for 300 years after this death, and have been translated from one langauge to another a half-dozen times.  Was there any point at whic they weren't corrupted?  Same fairly predictable rock track backs it all up.

Slipstream
Another folksy quickie at just 76 seconds.  These guys give The Ramones a run for their money in the short songs department.  Ramones were always a great go-to for mix tapes when there wasn't enough tape left for a longer song at the end of a side. This band have two speeds; they're either playing essentially the same rock song over and over, or the same folksy thing over and over.  The last thirty seconds of this one consist of some queasy strings that sound like the transition between songs on an E.L.O. record... except in this case, they miss the opportunity to actually be that.  This band haven't done any segues between songs, but the outro to this song was a perfect opportunity to start.

Locomotive Breath
Speaking of Tom Waits, this one starts with a blusey barroom piano that seems lifted straight from early Waits.  Maybe the title of this one is also a description of Wait's hygiene during his prime drinkin' and smokin' years.  This tune has more religious metaphor.  Old Charlie appears: that's the devil.  The train that won't slow down is a description of your sins, Christians.  Ugh, I really spoke too soon when listening to "Up to Me" and saying that this record might grow on me.  Side two of this record feels like the same songs over and over but with church lyrics.  The flute solo in "My God" is something worth hearing, but other than that I may just listen to Wilson's mix of side one and then permanently lay this record to rest.  Ok, wait, this song jams a little toward the end.  There's another nice flute solo with some interesting studio effects behind it; layered guitars and maybe even a synthesizer for a sec.

Wind Up
Yeah, more God stuff.  Fuck.  I didn't know I was going to have to go to church today.  That's what I get for writing about these records without researching them first.  My idea of going into these records completely blind and writing my real-time impressions has resulted in some nice surprises, but this isn't one of them.  This shit is intolerable.  Can't even focus on the instrumentals; they're repetitive and the ones on side two are not even as interesting as the only marginally interesting stuff on side one.  Get me outta here.  Ok, this song is more than six minutes long.  I must stay here.  I must listen.  I'm not going to go pee.  I'm not going to look at my email.  I'm going to keep listening.  Are you reading this?  Fuck you.  Go away so I can cheat and stop typing.  How much of this song is left?  God damn, almost half.  Jesus fuckin' Christ.  This shit is from hell.  Ok, I'm gonna go fix typos in the previous parts of this post while this bullshit song runs out. 
Bye.
Ha, he exclaims "Euuuuggghhh!" in the middle of the song.  
Yup.
Bye again.


Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Well, the title track is too long for a mix tape.  And its got this weird vibe that's just got too many moods to make it fit in with mix jams.  "Cross-Eyed Mary" might actually do the trick, but a deep cut like "Up to Me" could be the winner.

Next: 
Lynrd Skynrd, coming January 01, 2022

16. Meat Loaf

What do I know about Meat Loaf?  Well, he was in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I saw a million times in the 1980s during those golden years when my pals and I were old enough to stay out late but not old enough to go to bars.  That's about it.  I don't even know the guy's real name.  Is Meat Loaf the singer's stage name or is it the band name (kinda like how Debbie Harry is emphatically not "Blondie", and there's no one named "Leonard Skinner" (sic)...)  Well, I dunno.  Hey wait, it says "Songs by Jim Steinman" on the cover.  Maybe Steinman is the guy who appeared in Rocky Horror as "Meat Loaf"?  I'm going with that.  It'd be so easy to look this up, but that's just not how this blog rolls.  

How does this blog roll?  I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).


Meat Loaf
Bat Out of Hell
Version: Cleveland / Epic / CBS  #WEK-34974 

Meat Loaf

Bat Out Of Hell
Wow, this intro is like a boogie woogie jam played at 45rpm instead of 33rpm.  Then it crashes into something more moderate.  This feels like an overture.  Is this a concept album?  The playing is good.  That drummer is rock solid.  But these guitars: parallel 4th or 5ths again!  This is, what, the 4th or 5th post in a row where I had to suffer through this sound?  This whole record sounds is a bit heavier than I expected.  The cover art (more on that later) suggests a metal album, but the one song from this record that I already know ("Paradise By The Dashboard Light") is more middle-of-the-road.  Oh man, this big chorus, it totally sounds like a showtune.  No wonder this guy got cast in Rocky Horror.  Well, that came out before this record.  But he must have roots in musical theater.  It's got that vibe, but it is much more hard rockin' than the average musical.  Lyrically, it seems like he's trying to get laid here: 
"I gotta break it out now, 
before the final crack of dawn. 
So we gotta make the most of our one night together. 
When it's over you know, we'll both be so alone."  
Then he's gonna be gone, like a bat out of hell.  Oh, this break: it's kinda cool.  Flanged guitars and a chattering rock-n-roll 8th-note piano triplets like Jerry Lee Lewis or something.  A good effective bridge, a little change-up. Song seems like it's over around the 6m mark, but then there's this impossibly dirty dense crunchy guitar (almost like a motorcycle?) and we get a coda... this is where the dancing happens in the stage musical.  Then more verses.  This song has a new mood every 45 seconds, and it goes on for nearly ten minutes.  But it keeps up its energy and sustains interest for the whole time.  It was written by someone who knows what he was doing.  This Steinman character.  He's definitely written a couple-few songs before.  I guess that's why he got props on the album cover.  Like a showtune writer really.  They always get that credit, every bit as much as the actors or the writer of the book ("the book" is the play's story, in musical theater parlance).  Seems like Steinman and all of the players were all pros when they started this project.  Not a full-time band per se, but a careful assemblage of session players.  The way they're playing has that session player feel to it.  Hard to pin down why, but I can tell.

You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)
Oh, this spoken-word intro.  I've heard this.  Again, it's very theatrical.  And the reverb on their voices.  Digital reverb was in its very infancy when this record was released (1977).  We're hearing a chamber reverb.  They actually ran the vocalists' voices through a big empty room to get that reverberation, and miked the result.  I wanna know which studio this is.  It's a nice-sounding chamber.  Oh, this vocal hook, I have actually heard this song too.  So there's two songs that I know on this record.  But most of this song seems otherwise unfamiliar.  It didn't get anywhere near the airplay of "Paradise".  Or, I was able to turn it off faster.  This song has a lot going on.  Choirs, glockenspiels, sleigh bells.  A little Motown-style drum beat in sections.  Those glocks give a little Motown feel too.  This song and the past one both seem to be about this lusty guy.  Lots of pent-up adolescent tension here.  
"Now my body is shaking like a wave on the water; 
And I guess that I'm beginning to grin; 
Oh we're finally alone and we can do what we want to; 
The night is young'".  
This record is one of the best-selling of all time.  That's kind of surprising, given the heavily theatrical feel to it (then again, the South Pacific original cast recording was the single best selling record of the 1940s, so there's that).  The songs are also very long - but that said, it was released at the height of the prog era so people were used to hearing longer songs (but these Meat Loaf tunes definitely aren't prog tunes).  Still, this music was assembled with care.  The playing is good, the arrangements stay interesting, and so far we have two long songs, both of which sustain interest.  This fade though.  The hand claps and the otherwise a capella coda work, but the song still had energy, even after a bit more than five minutes.  They needed to bring the band crashing back in for a big finish then fade it.

Heaven Can Wait
Ah, the ballad.  Of course.  
"I got a taste of paradise, 
that's all I really need to make me stay".  
Yeah, this whole album is about the pursuit of some booty.  I know what's coming up lyrically with "Paradise By The Dashboard Light", and so far we're three-for-three with songs that foreshadow that theme.  There's a solid list of songs from the 1970s that use a very specific sort of faux-Baroque french horn arrangement style.  It was a trend back then.  There's a subtle use of it in this song, but it makes the list, along with "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" by Kate Bush and a whole bunch of others that I can't think of right now.  This song is kinda dull though.  Ballads can be great, but this one isn't holding me.  Still, it was assembled with the same care as the other songs have been.

All Revved Up With No Place To Go
This sax.  I really really hate this rock sax sound.  The guy in Bruce Springsteen's band is the worst.  Did he start the mania for this 1970s/1980s rock sax sound?  Ech.  I don't know where it came from.  The component of R+B that fed into early rock and roll used a sax like this, but those old-timers made it work (Louis Jordan, I'm looking at you, and with great fondness), but after laying low for a while it came back, but just... wrong.  Like the new Star Wars movies or something.  So much potential in the originals, but a new generation who just didn't get it ended up making it annoying.  Yeah, I fucking hate this sax tone so much.  When did it go away again?  Late 1980s?  Geez, I am surprised - quite pleasantly - that it hasn't come back again.  Anyway, the singer is still horny in this one.  
"Every Saturday night, 
I felt the fever grow; 
Do ya know what it's like, 
all revved up with no place to go".  
Got it.

Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad
Speaking of sounds I hate: this acoustic guitar.  They used a high-pass filter to get rid of everything below like 900 Hertz.  It sounds thin and chimey.  It's the worst. The rest of the mix is fine.  Actually the mixing on this whole record is just as competent as the playing and arrangement are, but we're into another limp ballad here.  
"I want you, I need you, 
but there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you; 
don't be sad because two out of three ain't bad".  
That sounds like a country lyric.  But still, yeah, we have a whole album here about a guy who just wants to get some.  This song reminds me of that DJ Drama & Plies rap where Akon is singing all slow and tortured and sensitive, but addressing a stripper, auto-crooning: "I wanna fuck you".  First time I heard that one was in 2008 at a konbini (convenience store) in Tokyo at like midnight.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  This passionate ballad about how much he wants to pork a pole cat.  It's so ludicrous, it must have been a parody.  But it's not, and hearing it in the context of a Tokyo konbini's tinny sound system made it all the more surreal.  Akon delivers his plea so sincerely, with great yearning.  Anyway, this Meatloaf song is really the same thing.

Paradise By The Dashboard Light
Aside from way too many screenings of Rocky Horror, something else that happened about a million times in my youth was hearing "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" on FM radio.  It was kind of inescapable back then, but I don't think I've heard it in decades.  Somehow, I've managed to outrun it or something, perhaps with a mental motorcycle even more ridiculous than the one on this album cover.  And look at the guy riding it.  Is his spine broken?  He looks like he's in pain.  OK, I guess he was just in hell, so maybe he's not doing so well.  But he's escaping at least.  He should look happier, being recently de-helled and all.  Maybe he just broke his back.  The pose and the look on his face both support that theory.  Or yoga.  This guy got kicked out of hell for doing too much yoga.  Who painted this?  It looks like Richard Corben, who did a lot of stuff in good ol' Metal Hurlant around this same time period.  Anyway, this song spends a lot of time - 8m 28s - building a case for an essential truth about adolescent male sexuality, which is that a pubescent boy will say or do any fucking thing he has to in order to get laid.  All the young dudes are programmed that way by their very DNA.  They are biologically compelled by the most ancient forces of nature to fuck as much as possible.  From an evolutionary point of view, it is why he exists.  But modern life makes it so hard.  Heh.  So hard.  Quite so.  In the case of this song, the poor lad gets what he wants, and he regrets it when his girlfriend goes on to drive him crazy.  Lyrically there's a big punch line here, which is pretty obvious in retrospect, but hearing this song so regularly for so many years kind of diminishes the impact.  I'm surprised and not surprised that I could (if I wanted to which I don't) sing along with all of this.  The mix on this one sounds even more expensive than the others.  They put some effort into this.  And some cash. I'm listening to the drums during the "love scene" (where the baseball announcer is doing his thing).  This drummer is killing it, laying back on the groove after the snare on the four-beat, with that open hi-hat.  It's so simple, not showy, but it's all skill.  Subtle.  Then he wails on the fills at this section's er... climax.  This piano player is working hard too.  Lots of inventive stuff in the arrangement.

For Crying Out Loud
All right, so this guy finally got some, and regretted it.  Now we get a ballad.  This boy has exhibited a perpetual refusal to commit or open up to any emotions over the course of this record, always just wanting to get laid.  I predict he is going to crack by the end of this song and he's gonna fall for the girl.  That's the happy ending right?  Well he got the "happy ending" in the previous song.  But then he was sad about it.  
"I was cold and you were fire"  
Yup, here we go.  
This ballad is going to also build into a big album closer, I can feeeeel it.  
"For crying out loud, you know I love you"
There it is.  He's crabby about it, but he cracked.  Now he's really screwed.  A pause, some strings, a verse, and then - woah - at 4:36, we have the mother of all mid-ballad bombastic lifts.  The thing just gets huge.  This songwriting trope is predictable well beyond the scope of being a cliché, but this whole record's vibe has been about going big with the production, and they do indeed do.  Indeed.  But the mastering here... who the hell fucked this up?  It so so clearly and obviously distorted.  Someone totally fell asleep at the wheel on this one.  Complete and absolute fail.  Sounds like my loudspeaker is broken... but it's not.  The fucking mastering industry is broken.  Oh wait, the song has mellowed again.  Yeah, I can't even focus on this one anymore.  Ok, must focus.  So the lyrics in the last few minutes of this also-epic song (this one is 8m 43s).  Seem to be almost religious.  There's some stuff here that can easily be construed as him singing to his lord rather than the girl.  Maybe he dumped the dame and found Jesus.  

I don't really like this record, but I respect it.  Everyone involved - from the writers to the performers to the original engineers - were at the top of their game.  It's quality.  But I just don't dig the musical theater vibe.


I rarely do this, but after writing all of the above I had to look some stuff up:
Turns out that Jim Steinman is not Meat Loaf.  Michael Lee Aday is Meat Loaf, and yeah, he was in the original stage cast of Rocky Horror.  Makes sense.  The female voice on a few songs is the noted Ellen Foley.  Lo and behold, this record was produced by the admirable Todd Rundgren, with members of his band Utopia playing on it... as did a few guys from Springsteen's band.  But not the sax clown.  That's Edgar Winter playing that yakety sax on "All Revved Up".  Sorry Edgar.  Go away.  But I was in the ballpark with the Springsteen thing, and: "Rundgren found the album hilarious, thinking it was a parody of Springsteen."  Shit, Springsteen is his own parody.  It was recorded in several places, including Rundgren's Bearsville Studio in upstate New York.  No word on whether "You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth" was mixed there though (to get that reverb sound), but apparently Rundgren did mix that track so it's likely we're hearing Bearsville.  Steinman was a composer, lyricist, record producer, and playwright who also produced Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" which you'll never, ever, ever read about again in this series.  He died in April of this year [2021].  Corben did indeed paint the album cover.  His Den character in Metal Hurlant was always kind of lame anyway.  I was more of a Moebius guy.


Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Ok, this album is like 47 minutes long (pushing the limits for the carrying capacity of a vinyl record in its day; the rule of thumb was to max out around 22 minutes per side before we start losing sound quality).  Three of the songs are over eight minutes.  This isn't really a mix tape friendly songwriting style.  It's a freakin' miracle that "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" was played on the radio.  It's as long as three regular pop singles.  I dunno.  Maybe "Hot Summer Night "... or we can end the mix with "Paradise"?


Next: 
Jethro Tull, coming December 15, 2021


15. Uriah Heep

I don’t know anything about this band other than – I suppose – they got their name from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Last post, we heard Aerosmith, who (maybe) took inspiration for their name from Sinclair Lewis. Bands with literary references in their name. It’s a theme. I don’t know who any of the players in Uriah Heep are, and I don’t know any of their songs. A quick web search for “best Uriah Heep album” yielded a few dozen listicles with staggeringly consistent opinions: Demons and Wizards (1972) is their best, with Look At Yourself (1971) always at #2, and The Magician’s Birthday (also 1972) universally in the #3 slot. These records were all made in less than two years, just about 50 years ago. This band still perform and still record, but I guess they really hit a sweet spot in 1971/1972. All righty then. I don’t know if this is southern rock, metal, prog, pop, or hippie-land. Going in totally blind here.

The master: my rule of thumb is that for CDs and all streaming media (in other words, anything in the digital realm) a 1990s master is your best bet more often than not (see my Aerosmith post for more on this). If I’m taking a wild guess, I go 1990s. Although the “big three” Heep albums were remastered and expanded with bonus cuts in 2017, I ignored that and went straight for the older Mercury records release (812 297-2).

As always, I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today (other than choosing an album to hear). The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Uriah Heep
Demons and Wizards (1972)
Version: Mercury 812 297-2

The Wizard
Ok, right off the bat: we’re looking at a Roger Dean cover with a kind of butterfly-wizard guy on it. That and the song titles make me think we’re in for some serious prog here. I can deal with prog sometimes. Rush had their moments, but honestly I like them better when they were a little more concise; Permanent Waves through Signals are my faves. King Crimson are another prog band who I often have time for. But if you look into the early days of this blog, you’ll discover how deeply I loathe Marillion. They’re really a problem.
So: Uriah Heep.
Clean acoustic guitars. Well recorded. Nice and open with a good tonal balance. A little wary of this lyric though. I mean the song is called “The Wizard”, but yeah, they’re literally talking about meeting a wizard… and getting drunk with him. The delay effects on the voice are fun but a little heavy handed; even more so at 0:50; they’re messing with the modulation controls there. Then the song gets a little heavier. It would be effective to duck the acoustic guitars a little and let the electrics come forward a bit. The mix can build better by not leaving the acoustics static. Push the Hammond too. And that synthesizer: it’s playing one sustained note for like 35 seconds or more. Gettin’ some milage out of that one, buddy. Musically I don’t hate this song, but I’m not convinced yet. Big harmonies. And that soprano! Woah. Singing way up there, like his balls are in a vice. Wait, now the song is fading? It’s just getting going. No, this sounds incomplete. The song still had places to go. Well, better to be left wanting more than for it to have worn out its welcome. Needed a better climax though.

Traveler in Time
Boom, this one slams in at full throttle. Distorted guitars, wah-wah guitars, and then it settles into a semi-falsetto vocal. What is this, Sparks? A sci-fi lyric: a traveler in time trying to pay for his crime. This band’s sound doesn’t offend me. The arrangements are ok, the mixing is adequate for its era. We went from wizards to time travelers though. These themes always feel a little juvenile to me. Even if the words are a metaphor for something more grounded, it’s hard to really connect with these sorts of lyrics. Nice extended press roll by the drummer leads into a Clavinet jam mixed with Moog effects and a really fried-sounding guitar. That’s nice stuff. Does it predate Roxy Music’s “Re-make, Re-model”? Similar concept there… and both were recorded in London during March, 1972. Hmmm…. something was in the air (aside from weed). Ah, but this one ends in an odd spot too. This band’s weakness is song writing. They’ve got some fun creative musical ideas, but nothing that sticks.

Easy Livin’
This one also launches right in with maximum velocity, and gallops along at a good clip with dense fuzzy guitars, more nice gritty Hammond, and no room to breathe. Trite lyric, but at least they’re singing about the real world instead of wizards and time travel. Wow, then this falsetto thing again, and – why not – tubular bells. Kinda bonkers. These songs have all been pretty quick for a prog act. This one is in and out in a furious 2:38. Was this the album’s single? That’d be my guess. It’s trite but I don’t hate it. Let’s face it though, lots of music I do listen to regularly and by choice is also lyrically trite.

Poet’s Justice
Big choral effects. Powerful. Enough breaks and surprises to keep things interesting. These guys are good enough players to pull off what they’re trying to do, but not good enough to compete with the real kings of prog. They have an enthusiasm and an intensity to them, a nice sonic palette of sounds, and some level of musical ambition. It’s clear why they’ve been liked enough to hang around for all these years, but it’s also clear why they never really achieved the heights of contemporaries like Yes or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. But at 2:28: we’ve got the parallel 4ths again. This is the third post in a row that we’ve been subjected to this [see The Eagles (post 13) and Aerosmith (post 14)]. And so damned loud in the mix. I really hate that sound. But then: more really dirty Hammond, more ball-crushing sopranos, more guitar wankery, more more Hammond, then more more guitar wankery.

Circle Of Hands
This Hammond again. So crunchy. Great tone there. Then we dive into lyrics that flirt with feel-good hippy shit but narrowly avoid mawkishness. Good, I was really hoping these guys wouldn’t get deep into Marillion territory. They’re oozing in that direction here. But they don’t quite cross the line. Big vocals, big riffs. Harmonies that remind me a bit of Pink Floyd. This song is much longer than any of the others so far, but it does tread water in a few places. Some of the manic intensity of their other stuff is missing here. There’s bits where the Hammond just lays on big blocky whole note chords for a long time, and nothing else happens. Cut that shit. We might say that it leaves itself room to breathe, or we could say that the arrangement needs to be tightened up. The song doesn’t quite earn its 6:27 running time though. You wanna talk about mixing or mastering errors? Those guitar squeals at 4:56, 5:09, 5:22, 5:59 etc. can easily be fixed, including with 1972 technology. They’re painful. Notch-EQ, my lads. The rest of this record seems to have been made with some care (really it sounds better than last post’s Aerosmith album, which presumably had a much bigger budget) but they dropped the ball on making this guitar solo work. For the 2017 remastered version, do we fix those squeals 45 years after the fact (super-easily done, today), or leave them in for purity’s sake? I’m not gonna track down the 2017 version to find out.

Rainbow Demon
Big dark into. This Hammond player really squeezes a lot of mood out of his organ. Oh my, that kinda sounded naughty. Onward. We got the wizard in the album’s first track, and now we have the titular demon. As advertised. There’s a crazy tremolo effect on the backing vocals. Are they singing that way, or running their voices through processing? This one, along with “Circle of Hands” create a longer respite from the intensity of the first few tunes. But these lyrics, ahhh, sorry, they went there. “Rainbow demon, pick up your heart and run. Rainbow demon, looks for his soul and his gun.” Nope, sorry, cheese alert. Is there also a little bit of “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent in here? A little influence in the basic riffs and the mood? That tune came out like two months before “Rainbow Demon” was recorded. I’ll bet Uriah Heep were listening to the Argent record around the time they recorded this.

All My Life
This one is another quick and intense burst, with our vocalist moving abruptly from singing about demons to talking about how much he loves his girlfriend. No comment. A straight up love song wasn’t what I’d been expecting from these guys, and hearing these really straightforward simple lyrics over the band’s standard musical intensity is jarring. They’re in and out in 2:47. These guys are probably also in and out in 2:47 with their girlfriends. “I wanna make love and it’s gonna be you”. Then these big choral “I. Will. Love. You. All. My. Life.” backing vocals while the soprano guy does his thing, then comes back in his normal voice, but stuttering. Stuttering. Yeah, fuck off; there’s nothing wrong with a love song, but this obvious bit of filler sucks a lot of ass.

The Spell
Had to happen. This song is 12:42. It is against the laws of prog rock to not include at least one song this long on all records, and of course if there is only one of them, it’s gotta be the side two closer. This track starts off with the tubular bells again, acoustic guitars, reverberated vocals, and a lilting feel as the guy sings about losing his girlfriend. Easy come, easy go. Well, if he sang the previous song to her, he shouldn’t be surprised that she left. I woulda’ left him too after that limp attempt at a serenade. Maybe if his love lasted longer than 2:47 he wouldn’t have a problem either. We’ve also got to examine the metaphor here: the song about the exuberance of the happy part of the relationship is only a fifth as long as the rather tedious and needlessly protracted song about the subsequent break-up. “Where’s the love we talked about, where’s my sunny sky”. Ack. Fine, they did it, they went Marillion on us. Two voices are alternating lyrics, ping-ponging between the left and right channels. Not sure if it’s the same guy. But it kinda works. Could be gimmicky, but they pull the idea off, even if the lyrics are at the level of an eighth-grader. Then they add the flanger.

Of course.

The flanger.

Used judiciously, a flanger is a wonder to behold. My rule of thumb is that any band, in any style of music, is allotted precisely one huge, epic, full-mix flange per album. More than that becomes cloying, like the little kid who says something funny and then keeps repeating it all damned day. Using it less than that – less than once, that is – is a waste of a perfectly good opportunity to use your one allotted huge, epic, full-mix flange. The band use their one crack at it here, to good effect.
Then:
No.
I’m not buying this. At 5:10 the song randomly fades out in the middle of their huge, epic, full-mix flange, and a completely different song fades in mid-stream. It sounds totally random, and it doesn’t work at all. I’ve heard proggers stitch some unrelated ideas together while trying to fabricate an epic out of a bunch of half-baked ideas (er, Pink Floyd, I’m looking at you), but this attempt is epic only in its clumsiness. These guys had been pulling off some interesting sonics and some occasionally surprising musical moments, but this transition is just a wreck. Whatever they were going for is not convincing. At 6:57 a third idea comes in. It is executed a bit more convincingly, and sounds like Heep channeling Floyd again. If their extended album closer is to be a multi-segment suite, then so be it, but they really didn’t assemble this one effectively. A fourth segment brings us back to the story of the wizard, perhaps. Is the spell cast by the wizard in the first song actually the spell of love that is now fading? This narrator is seeming ever-more resolute about this break-up. Finally, at 11:20 we get into something happier sounding, this kind of boogie-woogie thing. “I will leave you now but you won’t defeat me” and “love and truth will follow me, an army of reality brought from every corner of the world” and “let us not begin this fight we cannot win”. So, are the demon and the wizard the battling couple?
Ah, who fuckin’ cares.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
I’m going to go with “Easy Livin'”, in spite of the low-effort lyric.

Next:
Meat Loaf, coming December 01, 2021

14. Aerosmith

These posts have become really long, mostly due to me choosing extensive greatest hits packages from the bands I'm writing about.  I want to make these posts a bit more concise, and I also want to get away from broad career overviews and into listening to single specific key albums.  We're gonna do that starting right now, with Aerosmith.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research into this band at all before listening today.  In fact, I've spent my life trying to ignore them, so whatever I know is what I've picked up via cultural osmosis.  The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

What do I know about Aerosmith?  Steve Tyler is the singer, Joe Perry is the guitar player, and I have no clue who the other guys are.  Three of their hits from the 1970s are familiar to me ("Walk This Way", "Dream On", and "Sweet Emotion"), then they had a 1980s comeback after Run-DMC invited Aerosmith to do a rap-rock collaboration, covering "Walk This Way".  The band then had some cheesy MTV-era hits, like "Love in an Elevator".  That's all I've got.

A quick web search for "best Aerosmith album" gives us an almost universal first-place choice of Toys in the Attic, with Rocks almost always coming in second.  Rocks seemed more intriguing since it had no real hits on it, but still ranks so highly.  My intuition is that perhaps its popularity is due to it being more of a complete artistic statement, rather than the source for the big hits.  Perhaps it's the real "best" Aerosmith album.  But I went for Toys; two of the three songs familiar to me from their classic period are on it, so I've got that to anchor my listening.

I've complained about mastering issues in some of my older posts.  One thing that hasn't been mentioned in those posts is which master I select to listen to.  So, from here forward, I'm going to note which master I've got.  Speaking as someone who has worked as a mastering engineer, it is abso-fucking-lutely pathetic how many "remastered" records come out sounding way worse than the originals.  I could spend a few hours discussing why (and there are several different reasons all compounding each other), but suffice to say my rule of thumb is that for CDs and all streaming media (in other words, anything in the digital realm) a 1990s master is your best bet more often than not.  If I'm taking a guess, I go 1990s.  This time it's the Columbia Records CK 64401 (1994), part of their MasterSound 24-Karat gold disc series. The gold disc is all marketing by the way. It doesn't do jack for the sound.


Aerosmith
Toys in the Attic (1975)
Version: Columbia CK 64401 (1994), MasterSound 24-Karat gold disc. 

aerosmith


Toys in the Attic
Wow, right into it.  No spacey intros, just bang, rockin' right in your face.  Then this vocal comes in.  It's not grabbing me though.  This song has energy but it's treading water musically.  The chorus: "toys toys toys" hard-panned and reverbed.  That's a lame chorus.  Then these verses again.  They sound like Cheap Trick out-takes.  Actually this whole song sounds like something Cheap Trick would have done better.  The way it's mixed is sloppy: everything louder than everything.  The guitars compete with the bass and drums, and then the vocals compete with the guitars.  There are ways to make this happen without everything being so murky.  The mix stops slamming and just gets messy.  But whatever, the song isn't there.  It's a lame song.  Maybe it works live though.  Might get the crowd going.

Uncle Salty
A better mix right off the bat, but man this song is fucking generic.  This is Aerosmith's best album?  I shudder at the very notion of hearing their worst.  The bridge ("ooh, it's a sunny day outside my window") has this reverb on the voices.  Like the choruses in "Toys".  They like to play with that.  Guitar solo is short and tasteful.  The "sunny day outside my window" lyric comes in again.  The panned vocals starting at the 3:00 mark, alternating channels, playing off of each other.  Those are kinda fun.  Yeah, the best part of this song is the end.  Take that any way you want to.

Adam's Apple
This band are just uninspired.  It's like the whole record is filler.  These songs are just low-effort.  Their playing is fine I guess, neither good nor bad.  The production is similarly fine, not impressive, but fine.  But the songs just aren't here.  Wait, listen to that baritone sax in there.  That's a surprise.  I like it.  Even if he's only playing like three notes.  Ah, parallel guitar solos.  I hate to say it, but after listening to The Eagles do this last time (Post 13), I gotta say that even the evil Eagles do that sort of thing better than Aerosmith does.  Hey, what the fuck does "Aerosmith" mean?  Never cared enough to wonder.  Some kind of airplane mechanic?  Or a play on the Sinclair Lewis novel Arrowsmith?  That's probably it.  Is this song still on?  Ack! That falsetto scream!  No.  

Walk This Way
Ok, here's the hit.  Reverb on the drums.  And the vocal.  All of the mixing is much tighter, the whole song is mixed better than the other three have been.  They knew this one was going on the radio, so they spent more money on it.  Oh, and that cowbell.  I got a fever, I need more cowbell.  The band sound way more energized here, and the song itself is significantly more catchy than any of the other three.  Maybe the lyrical substance is no better, but there's a guitar hook here, and a sort of proto-rap thing in the voice.  It's clear why Run-DMC were attracted to this.  If you're gonna do a rap-rock hybrid, this one already has a vocal suitable for that.  This song does have an exuberance in the performance that the three other tepid tracks on this record so far have been missing.  Like the band are excited to be playing this song, but were as bored playing the other ones as I was listening to them.  As the song progresses, the mixing becomes more sloppy though.  Guitar levels are all over the place.  Like the producer and mix engineer made the mistake of letting the band into the studio during the mix and people just started pushing themselves up whenever they felt like it.  Most of the songs on this record sound this way.  

Big Ten Inch Record
This is a cover.  The original 1952 version by Bull Moose Jackson is a raunchy jump-blues R+B classic.  It's funny to hear Aerosmith trying to swing though.  The baritone sax is back, and there's a little piano in there too.  It's a lame cover though.  It would have been way cooler if Aerosmith were just playing it in their style instead of trying to make a freakin' swing record.  The point of doing a cover is to make the song your own.  A hard rock band playing an old R+B thing in an ersatz neo-swing style just doesn't fit on this album.  This harmonica solo.  It needed to have been Joe Perry's guitar.  

Sweet Emotion
I've never really taken the time to pay attention to this song.  This intro is interesting, a little bass ostinato with vibro-slap, ambient effects, and some talkbox effects.  Kinda fun.  When the drums kick in it's the closest this band have come to grooving. Oh, and backward drum effects in the bridge.  All that gratuitous studio trickery gets me every time.  It's a bit heavy-handed in this song, almost too loud.  It shouldn't draw attention to itself at the expense of the song.  But backward drums man.  Love it.  Interesting song structure here too. We've got these semi-rappy vocals again for verses, and then the guitar riff with the backward drums in place of a real chorus.  But the refrain of "sweet emotion" that only happens a few places in the song; it's not even really a chorus.  So they really screwed around with structure here.  It works though.  Then this bridge/solo... which ends up being the end of the song.  Yeah, this songwriting is kind of insane. But like "Walk This Way", they clearly shot most of their wad here.  It's an unlikely choice for a single given how wonky the structure is, and also because it has no real chorus, but it's clearly an inspired moment for these guys.  There was creative potential exhibited here that they don't seem to have tapped into often enough.

No More No More
This title describes how I feel about hearing the rest of this record.  Now that we've got the two big hits and the unfortunate cover song behind us, we're back into the territory of filler cuts.  This one has more going for it than the first three songs on the album.  A little boogie woogie style piano in there, and a bit more energy.  The song "Toys in the Attic" was trying to rock and rock hard, but it just didn't.  This one is a considerably less heavy, but it's got a stronger sense of feel, a better performance, and more authentic energy to it.  It's the best of the non-hits so far.  Nothing special, just a competent mainstream rock song.  It does go on a bit too long though.  This 4:34 song just waffles for the last minute.  An earlier fade would have helped this one.  Did they have a guy who switched between piano and second guitar?  Maybe Tyler handled some of that?  Wondering how they pulled some of this stuff off live.  

Round and Round
Ok, this one is big n' heavy.  But going nowhere.  He's singing about something over this repetitive plodding riff.  See, this songwriting is crap.  It just goes... um... round and round... without really doing much.  Sounds like a jam they never developed into something stronger.  Their producer needed to have helped them develop this song further.  That's a big part of his fuckin' job.  Then these splattering guitar solo-ettes.  They're so far on top of the rest of this murky gooey mix that they sound like they're in a different recording.  This song sucks ass.  Easily the worst on tis album.  Man, we're only 3:15 in, and there's another two minutes to go.  Ok, I'm gonna sit here and twiddle my thumbs for a while.  This is fucking tedious.  Even the production effects aren't saving this one.  When flanged backward modulated stuff still doesn't pull me in, then you know the song is worthless.  Maybe this one is good if you're really high?

You See Me Crying
This title describes how I feel about hearing the rest of this record.  Hearing this piano and this string thing after the dark bombast of "Round and Round" just isn't working.  It doesn't flow.  There's some straight-up Queen here.  Is this Steven Tyler singing?  Where's the rasp?  Oh there it is.  Yeah, this song is Aerosmith trying so hard to be Queen.  Well it ain't working.  Do they have a whole orchestra in there?  Sounds like it.  Someone spent some money on this one.  Were they pushing this song as a third single?  Maybe it was.  But I've never heard it.  What the fuck is he doing with his voice at 2:28?  It's like a parody of Tom Waits at the end of "Shore Leave" or Donald Duck or both.  Then the big grand guitar solo and orchestra.  Ok, there is lots of production value here.  This is where the ambition comes back.  They're trying here.  This orchestra is really doing a lot. Someone kicked the producer in the ass after "Round and Round" and told him to get to work.  And he did.  Most of what we're hearing on this tune is the work of the producer or arranger.  None of the guys in the band had anything to do with this orchestration.  This is Aerosmith as puppets.  It's huge though.  They built up some bombast.  The playing is fine.  But it's still just not a great song.  After an instrumental bit, the song is ending and I can't remember the vocal hook at all.  Already.

Selection for IFHTB mix tape:
Hate to say it, but the only true draw for this record are the two big hits.  The orchestration on "You See Me Crying" is nicely handled, and there are pleasing moments on "No More No More" and maybe on the title track, but "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion" are undoubtedly the standouts.  I think I prefer "Sweet Emotion", but "Walk This Way" is probably a better vibe for a mix tape, so there ya' go.


Next: 
Uriah Heep, Coming November 15, 2021


13. The Eagles

Today, we’re going to fly like an Eagle. No, we’re not going back to the lame warblings of Steve Miller (Post 01), but rather, we’re going to delve into one of the best-selling acts of all time, The Eagles. If any band could be said to epitomize the mandate of this series, it might be The Eagles. Just as the eagle is a symbol of The United States, we can look at The Eagles as a symbol of everything that my pre-adolescent self found detestable in the classic rock canon. It could be said that The Eagles – and the people who liked this band – were a primary motivating force in pushing me straight into the chilly synthetic embrace of Magazine, Ultravox, and Kraftwerk. Are friends electric? Mine were.

What do I know about The Eagles? They’re Glen Frey, Joe Walsh, Don Henley, and some other guys. Don, Joe, and Glen all made solo records. One of them did “Dirty Laundry” in the 1980s, right? I think so. That Joe Walsh song, “Life’s Been Good” was hilarious when I was like nine years old. No idea who the other players are, no idea if the band had many (or any) line-up changes, no idea when they got together or broke up, but clearly the 1970s in toto were their heyday. Oh, and I guess they hate each other, because their reunion record (or was it just a tour?) was called Hell Freezes Over.

The logical place to start would have been with Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), a record that spent five weeks at #1 on the U.S. charts, and haunted that document of debatable merit for 239 weeks. It was the first album ever to go platinum, it was the best-selling album of the 20th century, and it remains the best-selling album of all time, although Michael Jackson’s Thriller overtook it in 2009 before dropping back to the #2 slot by 2018.

I’ve never heard it.

That said, I’ve probably heard – and ignored – most of the songs from that record at various points in my life. As I mused when discussing Fleetwood Mac, these songs just exist as part of the background static of our lives, and even if we’ve never made an effort to listen to them, we can all probably hum along with “Hotel California” or “Life in the Fast Lane”. But The Eagles had a career that continued well past 1975, and it seemed journalistically prudent to explore a bit of that. So I selected Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits (2003). This two-CD set duplicates all ten tracks from Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) and adds 23 more. That presents another problem: I don’t want to listen to 33 songs by The Eagles.
Ever.
In my life.
I just don’t hate myself that much.
Abridging Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits down to a sort of a customized expanded version of Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), it’s time to fly.

As always, I’m listening some of this music for the first time ever, and am actually paying close attention to the rest of it for the first time ever. The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written while the record was playing, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

The Eagles
Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits (2003) (excerpts)

Eagles LP cover

Already Gone
I’m already thinking back to the first post in this series, Steve Miller. There’s a similar bluesy vibe here with hard-panned guitars. These guitars are recorded much better than Steve’s though. The arrangement and mix are fine, but I can do with less hi-hat. Why do so many bands of this era mix the hi-hat louder than the lead vocal, guitar, or snare drum? Anyway, the song. We’re near the guitar solo already. The lead guitarist sounds very comfortable. Is that Joe Walsh? He sounds like he’s playing, in the real sense of the word. No struggling at all, not fighting his instrument. Just making it do what he wants it to do. Those parallel 4ths (or 5ths, whatever) that come in next always sound goofy to me. It’s like a Spinal Tap level of cliche. Song builds and then fades when it needs to. Nothing challenging here, just a pop package wrapped in a bit of rawk.

Best Of My Love
These acoustic guitars. My word. So in your face. Pull ’em back a bit, and give them some ambience. This song wants to be gentle, but those heavy akus won’t let it. That ambient slide guitar in the background is tasty and atmospheric, so someone in the mix room that day knew something about depth and space in a mix; but this recording needs more of it. The singer needs to be heard. This isn’t post punk (damned right it’s not), we don’t need to bury the vocal here. But again: the song. I dunno. It’s dull. It just kind of does it’s job of being universal enough to have been a big hit. Maybe that’s what we’re in for here: music made with quality, but that staunchly refuses to challenge us… which is exactly why it was so popular. The bass player is the only one who isn’t plodding along on the quarter notes. Come to think of it, a little more bottom would help this song. Really, if I were the arranger, I’d dump the snare and hi-hat in favor of some more woody-sounding percussion. Warm it up.

Desperado
Eh, the heart-rendering piano and string ballad. Plodding along. He’s singing about some dude who needs to let love in. But his woman wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand, shouldn’t understand: He’s a loner. A rebel. No, really, this sentimentality sounds forced. This band are so contrived. I haven’t heard anything sincere from them yet. Hmmm, I wonder if someone else we know could do a much more real and convincing job of delivering the message to “let love in”. Hint hint. Oh my lord, that huge drum fill comes in exactly where it is supposed to. Fucking hell, it’s like this song came from a template. Ack, and the backing choir. No, just make it stop. This is the kind of thing that wins awards from the songwriter’s hall of fame, not because it takes risks and pushes the art of songwriting forward, but precisely because it doesn’t. It plays it safe all the way, and has sort of polished and re-tooled, safe and comfortable format to it, to the point where the lowest common denominator can absorb the song and message without effort. Keep writing the same song until all the flaws, imperfections, and quirks are gone… but it’s those things that make a song interesting.

Heartache Tonight
Right. This one is showing signs of life. A big opening, but then a little fake-out as the arrangement drops back down to a floor tom beat with an electric clap(?) and a capella vocals. This works. Then this bass player again. Right in the pocket. He’s doing a lot more for the groove in this song than this stiff drummer ever could. The guitarists are laying back and keeping things minimal, leaving room for development in the choruses. The three songs before this one were really crispy sounding, too much so really. That might be bad mastering. Or just playing to this band’s aging audience by overcompensating for the age-related hearing loss that we all face. But this one is more murky. Opposite extreme. There’s a little nonsense at like 200Hz that needs to be notched out. I despise this song less so than the previous two.

Hotel California
Ok, the big one. Was this their biggest hit? Well, maybe it’s their most iconic song anyway. The spacey effects behind the guitar arpeggios work. Wow, there’s a real reggae-influenced groove here. Never noticed that before (because, as I’ve oft stated, I’ve been trying really hard to ignore this song since the day it came out, when I was a freakin’ toddler). Bass player is on point once again though. He’s consistently got a good tone too. Good arrangement in this one. If nothing else this band often do a good job staying out of each other’s way and letting the songs breathe (“Best of My Love”, are you listening?). Oh, starting at 2:20, we hear the guitarists (both of them) subtly foreshadowing the material they’ll play during the song’s extended solo section. Nice. See, that’s what this band can do when they try to do something other than pandering to the lowest common denominator. And it was a still a huge hit. Still no idea what the lyrics are about. Does anyone? Is this hotel a portal to hell or something? Ok, now we get into two solid minutes of guitar wankery. Oh crap, the edit at 4:46? Who the fuck is responsible for THAT? Dude needs to have his razor blades revoked. Yeah, the guitarists are having a good wank. I really don’t like this kind of self-indulgent stuff. Then at 5:30 we get into the stuff foreshadowed earlier. Those parallel 4th (or 5ths… I’m bad at hearing harmonic intervals) again though. They’re just goofy and sometimes give me a headache. The fade doesn’t work either. This song needed a proper ending. The bass tone gets weirdly resonant too. A little EQ is needed.

I Can’t Tell You Why
Ack, the mastering here! No! Turn this whole song down like 3dB or more. And this snare drum. Sounds like a machine, and who thought it would be a good idea to jack up the low end of the snare so much? I can’t focus on anything else. Wait, that Hammond organ tone, wayyyyy in the background. That’s nice n’ grainy. But the snare drum. And the drumming in general. Fuck. And those string pads. That’s a keyboard, not a real string orchestra. And it’s just holding those chords forever. There’s nothing interesting happening there. Pull those back and let that Hammond shine. The Hammond is doing the tasty bit. This song really needs to have been mixed better. I guess it’s a nice little ballad though. Better than “Desperado” for sure. The melodic hook on the pre-chorus is what makes it work (“Every time I try to walk away / Something makes me turn around and stay.”), and then that little instrumental question/answer with the Rhodes piano. Then, toward the end, we get more guitar noodling for a while. This is the part where you make out. But: the song has no climax, and you don’t get one either if anything by The Eagles is your go-to make-out record. Who’d want to fuck an Eagles fan? Not me.

In The City
This sounds familiar. Up until this one, I’ve heard all of the songs before. This one, I wasn’t sure about. But yes, for sure I’ve heard it. Is that Joe Walsh singing this time? This one is especially dull. Just repetitive and nothing much going on. Oh yes, this chorus, I know it. This song is just generic. Was it a big hit? Musta’ been if I’ve heard it. At 1:20 we get this bridge with slide guitar. Seems like that’s what Walsh is known for? If it’s his thing, he’s gonna feature that on the song he sings. Well, this one is recorded and mixed with a baseline level of competence. Mastering doesn’t suck. But the song and the performance are uninspired and uninspiring. I always tell my sound engineering students that it doesn’t matter how well we record, edit, mix, and master something, if the thing we’re recording isn’t any good to start with. Although I can’t help but to be critical of the production value of the things I listen to, I’d still always rather hear a bad recording of a good song than a good recording of a bad song (if I had to chose between the two). A good recording of a good song is optimum of course. This song isn’t bad. It just isn’t good.

Life In The Fast Lane
Here’s a bit of cock rock. Real macho riffing there at the beginning. And a little clavinet in the background. I could stand to hear that a shade louder. Or really, pulling the guitars back a notch would work better. The clav is always good for a little funky sleaze. The interplay between the guitars continues to be a strength for this band. But the solos are mixed a little hot. That’s not surprising though. I’m not engaged in this lyric. The device of two lovers in trouble told from a third-person perspective is always kind of tired. It was tired the first time. Ever. Woof, that huge flange on the entire mix at 3:39. I’m a sucker for a judiciously applied flange. Bring it. In this case, it provides an effective moment of suspense before the instrumental outro of the song. Looks like another noodling fade for this band. This band loves the noodling fades instead of proper song endings or repeating vocal choruses. But once again we’ve got at least three guitars and they’re managing to avoid stepping on each other, so there’s that.

Lyin’ Eyes
Here’s another one I wasn’t sure if I’d know. It kinds sounds vaguely familiar. Ah yes, the chorus, I’ve heard this one a little bit. Nothing new to add here. This one feels like “Best Of My Love” from a production standpoint. Much faster, different vibe, different tempo, but the same in the sense of the over-loud acoustic guitars, and the density of a mix that needs to have some space and breathing room. The mastering thing too. Whoever assembled this compilation has no understanding of dynamics. The ballads need to be a little lower to give some room for the rockers to have impact. The ballads all feel too loud and in-yer-face, which is the opposite of what we want from a ballad. I keep wanting to turn the ballads down, or the rockers up. That’s wrong. This dynamic variation needs to be baked into the way the record is mastered. The ballads shouldn’t overpower the rockers. Well anyway, this song is fucking generic. If it never existed in history, no one would have ever noticed.

New Kid In Town
Oh, is this The Eagles? Man, these guys did have a lot of hits. They were doing something right. Really, I think I covered it already. Don’t get too complicated, don’t get too challenging, and pump out crowd-pleasers. Well, nothing to say about this song that I haven’t said about this band already. What they do is pretty repetitive, pretty consistent, be it within a single song, or across their catalog. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Ol’ 55
Before this song started, I was hoping that it would be a cover of the song by the untouchable legend Tom Waits. Indeed it is. A little treat here. Tom’s 1970s material is good, but for me his sweet spot is Swordfishtombones (1983) through Mule Variations (1999). A sixteen-year run is a hell of a sweet spot. But it’s his 1970s material, like eight albums worth, that keeps a roof over his head. This is the material that heavy hitters like Eagles, Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones, Rod Stewart, Queens of the Stone Age, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Tori Amos keep covering, and those lucrative publishing royalties probably provide Tom with more income than his album sales do.

One Of These Nights
Ha, this intro. Modest Mouse totally ripped it off. I never noticed until now that this is where the Mouse got this bass riff from. That’s Modest Mouse’s best song too. They sound a little like Care-era Shriekback on that one. And now my friends, you have read the only sentence in history that mentions Shriekback, Modest Mouse, and The Eagles in one breath. Oh right, we’re supposed to be talking about this Eagles song. I dunno. Sounds like the rest of them. I was reading about surrealist filmmaker Maya Deren last week. I’ve seen the entirety of her small catalog of works several times over the past few decades, but it turns out that October 13th is the 60th anniversary of her death. That’s today (for me). I planned to watch her best film, Meshes of the Afternoon, today. I’ve got seven more Eagles songs to get through and I’m losing objectivity already. It’s all sounding the same. So hold the phone, I’m gonna go watch a Maya Deren movie and eat some food.

Ok, So back to the Eagles. Between the drum beat, the tempo, and the falsetto backing harmonies, I swear this is like The Eagles making a concession to Disco. Not as egregiously as Kiss on Dynasty or E.L.O. on Discovery, but still… a little…?
Yeah, it’s there.
Deal with it.

On the Border
This one is funny. It’s got this big heavy riff, but then the electronic clap button again. Then another cock rock groove. That guitar on the left sounds like another clavinet. Was that the guitar doing the clavinet-type sound on “Life In The Fast Lane”? And those little guitar ganks on the right. So funny. Is this song supposed to be funny? I don’t think it is. But it’s kinda musically hilarious. That one big again clap at 1:44. And the baritone backing vocals at 1:55. It’s like these guys are trying to so hard be funky but they just can’t do it. Now I get it. This is why all their songs are kinda samey. They can’t do anything else. When they try it’s just… wrong. Really guys, don’t do funk. Ha, another break at 2:48, with the fake clap and the porno guitar in the right channel. This is cracking me up. It’s so bad.

Peaceful Easy Feeling
Ah, more acoustic guitars right in our face, and mastered too loud. Once again at least it can be said their their strengths and weaknesses are equally consistent. This acoustic guitar is all pick and no body. Well, this is a pleasant and happy little tune. The vocals are recorded well. Harmonies sound nice. Singer is having a little trouble with the low notes. Listen to “what a woman can do to your soul” at 1:15. He’s struggling there. This song just chugs along. Not much in the way of dynamics or variation. Someone somewhere loves this song a lot. It isn’t me.

Take It Easy
What do you get between “Peaceful EASY Feeling” and “TAKE IT To The Limit”? “Take it Easy”, of course. They can’t even give us much variation on song titles. This song has got a bit of country in it, and a production style similar to “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, but a little better balanced. There’s a guitar solo with some fast banjo arpeggios behind it. Didn’t see that coming from this band, but somehow it works. Banjo keeps going. Band sound a bit lively on this one. This take has some spark. I wonder if some of the other songs were the result of too many takes. The search for some kind of technical perfection in performance can definitely have an impact on the soul of a song. Assuming a song has been well-rehearsed before recording, a third to fifth take or so on recording day tends to have the band warmed up and comfy with the tune, but not yet feeling mechanical, bored, or tired. If you can get a keeper in that zone, you’re doing it right. Things often get stiff or lose energy after more than a half-dozen takes or so. But it’s not always easy to get a take, unless you take it easy. See what I did there?

Take It To The Limit
Yeah, so this is the 16th Eagles tune I’ve heard today, and 14 of them were big enough hits that I knew the hooks and the tunes, even though there has never been a moment in my life – until today – when I listened to The Eagles on purpose. That’s really saying something. There’s no doubt that this band were a big deal, but their music is just kind of boring. These guys show some life when they rock out, but when they do ballads or middle of the road lite-rock or country-inflected tunes they’re just an insanely boring band. Feels like The Eagles were all about this three-way guitar assault, but when the hits started coming, their record label made them do these lame-ass ballads with the syrupy string section behind them. That has always been a bad idea. Even Frank Sinatra was better when backed by a big band or a jazz quartet; when the string orchestras started showing up on his records, his days were numbered. Listen to “Hotel California” or “Life in the Fast Lane” and then tell me that’s the same band who did “Take it To The Limit”. Fuck no. Where are those interlocking guitar riffs? Not here. It’s like some label exec and a producer got an anonymous rhythm section to back up the string players and then threw one of The Eagles singers on top. Did the rest of the band even have to show up? I wouldn’t have. I don’t even like this band and I’m still offended at what a bunch of sell-out horsecrap this song is.

Tequila Sunrise
Tequila? Wait, are we back to Steely Dan? Neh, I guess other bands can sing about booze. That bendy acoustic guitar break is weird. Maybe in a good way. Maybe not. Is this song still on? I’mm’a go take a nap.

The Long Run
All righty, I’m awake now. So is the band. See, this is what these guys are good at. This one happens to be at a more moderate tempo, that’s fine, but they sound like they’re The Eagles being a band, rather than functioning as a cog in the MOR (Middle Of the Road… a 1970s / 1980s radio marketing term, kids) record company machine. Their hooks are better and their songs are more memorable when they’re loosened up. The instruments get to play instead of being buried under a string section or a relentless wall of multi-tracked quarter-note acoustic strumming. This isn’t their best song though.

Witchy Woman
Oh good, last song, this is almost over. Wow, reverb. This band have never been big on reverb. The drum sounds on all of these songs have been so tight and try. They still are here. All the ‘verb is on the vocals here. No, I mean that ALL the verb is on the vocals. Tone it down man. Are they trying to be spooky because of the song title? That’s trite. This reverb and this witchy woman are not making you Eagle people goth. Nothing could make you Eagleoids goth. That is for the best. Really, don’t even try. This lyric sounds like something Stevie Nicks would have discarded.
Fly away, Eagles, I’m done with you.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape:
Let’s narrow it down.
The songs that do the best job of avoiding the MOR machine are:
“Already Gone”
“Heartache Tonight’
“Hotel California”
“The Long Run”
“Life In The Fast Lane”
From their ballads, the production on “I Can’t Tell You Why” is so bad, but the song there. Really, that may be one of their best songs, from a songwriting perspective, but it’s probably their biggest disaster sonically. We don’t do ballads on mix tapes anyway, “Hotel” is too long, “Long Run” is kinda boring, “Already Gone” is kinda lame, so we’re going with “Life in the Fast Lane” or maybe “Heartache Tonight”.
With reservations.

This series has veered toward pop a bit. I want to steer it back toward sweaty long haired guitar rock. So we’ve got Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Meat Loaf, Billy Squier, Van Halen, Blue Öyster Cult, Uriah Heep, and Led Zep on deck for the coming months, and then some stuff that gets a little lighter again, like Styx, Boston, J. Geils, Moody Blues, and Tom Petty. That’s your playlist for the next six months, kids.

Next: Aerosmith, coming November 01, 2021.