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Stevie Wonder: Inside The Epic Magnum Opus ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ (1976)


How singer-songwriter returned from brink of retirement to create painstaking, groundbreaking 1976 release

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision,” Stevie Wonder once said, a warning to any who doubted the potency of his imagination. In the first half of the Seventies, he had visualized an untried musical path, one that took him far from the assembly line pop of his “Little Stevie, the Boy Genius” era during the early days of Motown. This road ultimately led to 1976’s majestic Songs in the Key of Life, a multi-disc 21-song collection that would be the 26-year-old’s crowning achievement. It’s the sound of a creatively emancipated young artist coming into his own, surrendering himself to his ambition and harnessing his power and potential.

The high watermark of Wonder’s so-called “classic period” – an unparalleled streak also encompassing Music of my Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), and Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) – it was the culmination of all that came before. “He took his life experience and put them all into Songs in the Key of Life,” Motown founder Berry Gordy reflected in a 1997 documentary. “And it worked.”

Wonder had been under contract to Gordy’s label since he was just 11 years old. Now a self-assured adult with a steady string of hits stretching back a decade, a “quarter life crisis” malaise began to take hold. The superstar began to openly discuss quitting the music industry altogether and moving to Ghana, where he believed his ancestral lineage could be traced. There, he planned to devote his considerable energy to assisting handicapped children and other humanitarian causes. Brightly colored dashiki tunics replaced his standard Motown-issue mod suits, an outward expression of the changes he felt within.

Wonder briefly touched on his fascination with the African nation in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, and soon these abstract notions began to solidify into something more concrete. During a press conference in Los Angeles the following March, he tentatively announced a final concert tour slated for the end of 1975 – when his recording contract was set to expire – with all proceeds earmarked for Ghanaian charities.

“I’ve heard of great needs in that part of the world, the African countries,” he told the Associated Press. “I believe that you have to give unselfishly. … You can sing about things and talk about things, but if your actions don’t speak louder than your words, you’re nothing.” The words were admirable, but some took the cynical view that this dramatic farewell tour was merely a ploy to put pressure on Motown when renegotiating his new contract.

He hardly needed the leverage. Gordy’s empire had taken a beating in first half of the decade due to changing musical tastes and economic depression. Knowing that he stood to lose his most consistent seller to a life of philanthropy – or lucrative offers from rivals at Epic and Arista Records – the label chief was prepared to move mountains of cash.

Wonder sent high-powered lawyer Johanan Vigoda to discuss his lengthy list of stipulations with new Motown president Ewart Abner, and board chairman Gordy, who described the negotiations in his memoirs as “the most grueling and nerve-racking we ever had.” When the dust cleared and the papers were signed, Wonder had a seven-year contract that promised him a $13 million advance (with the opportunity to net up to $37 million if he delivered more than his album-per-year minimum), 20 percent royalties, and control of his publishing. At the time, it was the biggest deal that had ever been done in the music industry. Time magazine noted that it was more than Elton John and Neil Diamond’s contracts combined.

“In those days $13 million was a lot of money,” Gordy wailed in the 1997 Classic Albums: Songs in the Key of Life documentary. “I’d heard that was an unprecedented deal, the most that had ever been paid. But I had to do it, because there was no way I was going to lose Stevie. … I was shaking in my boots!”

In addition to the financial windfall, the contract also offered Wonder the creative freedom to work anywhere he wanted, with any artist he desired, and veto power over any potential singles. A forthcoming triple-disc greatest hits package was canceled at the artist’s insistence, with all 200,000 copies sent to the incinerator. Most remarkably, Wonder’s permission was now required if Motown was ever to be sold in the future. The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra: None of them wielded that much influence on their own label. The deal was the ultimate testament to Wonder’s status as Motown’s supreme talent.

“He broke tradition with the deal – legally, professionally – in terms of how he could cut his records and where he could cut,” Vigoda told Rolling Stone‘s Ben Fong-Torres. “And in breaking tradition he opened up a future for Motown. They never had an artist in 13 years. They had single records, they managed to create a name in certain areas, but they never came through with a major, major artist.”

The contract did a lot for Wonder, but Motown had done a lot for him. The imprint was a shining African-American success story.

“I’m staying at Motown, because it is the only viable surviving black-owned company in the record industry,” he said in a statement announcing the deal. “Motown represents hopes and opportunity for new as well as established black performers and producers. If it were not for Motown, any of us just wouldn’t have had the shot we’ve had at success and fulfillment. It is vital that people in our business – particularly the black creative community, including artists, writers and producers – make sure that Motown stays emotionally stable, spiritually strong and economically healthy.”

Three decades later in the Classic Albums documentary, Wonder remained appreciative of Gordy’s trust. “He was brave enough to take the chance – to take that challenge to say, ‘You know what? I believe in him enough to do this. I believe in the gamble.’ And he was a smart man.”

With the technicalities in place, Wonder immersed himself in a new project – his 18th album since 1962.

He had momentum from his previous record, 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. It was a comparatively somber assortment brimming with self-reflection and even traces of anger (see the Nixon blasting “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”). The disc was originally slated to be his first double album, and when those plans failed to materialize he announced that the excess tracks would be issued on a sequel, Fulfillingness’ First Finale Part II (or, naturally, Fulfillingness’ Second Finale).

Wonder previewed the work-in-progress to writers from Crawdaddy and Melody Maker in late 1974, playing a track called “The Future,” which included the cautionary line: “Don’t look at the world like a stranger, cause you know we are living in danger.” The gloomy song was “fantastically influenced” by the televised police ambush of the Symbionese Liberation Army – a far left revolutionary group then on the run with kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst – in which many members were killed. “Livin’ Off the Love of the Land” is hardly any sunnier, containing lyrics like “Seems the wisdom of man hasn’t got much wiser,” and “Seems to me that fools are even more foolish.”

Perhaps aware that such caustic songs could alienate his audience and compromise his commercial performance, they were shelved and Fulfillingness’ Second Finale was abandoned. He vowed to start fresh on his next project, which was temporarily known as Let’s See Life the Way It Is. The final title came to him in a dream: Songs in the Key of Life.

For Wonder, the banner was a personal dare to expand his compositional range. “I challenged myself [to write] as many different things as I could, to cover as many topics as I could, in dealing with the title and representing what it was about,” he says in Classic Albums. “The title would give me a challenge, but equally as important as a challenge it would give me an opportunity to express my feelings as a songwriter and as an artist.”

It was a challenge he met head on, working to the point of obsession. Nonstop sessions stretched across two-and-a-half years, two coasts, and four studios: Crystal Sound in Hollywood, New York City’s Hit Factory, and the Record Plant outposts in Los Angeles and Sausalito. More often than not, he could be found in one of those spaces, sometimes for 48 hours at a time, chasing his muse with a rotating crew of engineers and support musicians. Over 130 people were involved in the recording, including Herbie Hancock, George Benson, “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow and Minnie Riperton. “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak” became Wonder’s mantra.

“It went on for two years almost every day, many hours and huge amounts of material,” recalls John Fischbach, who co-engineered the majority of the sessions with Gary Olazabal. “I guess it was really his most prolific time. He did more songs in those two years I think than he had done before.”

Though the exact count is unknown, Wonder claims to have recorded several hundred tracks during the Songs in the Key of Life sessions – nearly all of which remain in the vault. The Prince-like figure is corroborated by Fischbach, who puts the number at “something like 200 songs” in various stages of completion. “Some would be sketched out, some were more finished than others and we just kept working until he had what he wanted,” he says.

Olazabal describes Wonder’s working methods as “frighteningly spontaneous,” often resulting in late night (or early morning) calls to collaborators. Gary Byrd had a particularly harrowing experience while co-writing the lyrics to the track “Village Ghetto Land.” He had labored for three months perfecting the words to what he believed to be the complete song. Then Wonder called him from the recording studio and casually informed him that he had added another verse. Could he whip up some more lyrics in the next 10 minutes? The band was waiting.

“There are ‘sessions’ and then there’s Stevie Time,” laughed keyboardist Greg Phillinganes on WBEZ’s Sound Opinions podcast in 2006. “We didn’t have formal sessions. We went to the studio and that was where you were.”

In addition to his loyal crew, Wonder had a secret weapon: a state-of-the-art analogue synthesizer called the Yamaha GX-1. The enormous instrument boasted three keyboards, multi-octave foot pedals, ribbon controller, a galaxy of buttons to recall sounds and modulate pitches, and even a built-in bench. “It could house a family of eight,” Phillinganes says with a touch of hyperbole. “It was huge.”

Along with the gargantuan size came a gargantuan cost. The GX-1 retailed for a staggering $60,000 (or $320,000 adjusted for inflation). Intended as a prototype for future consumer synths, only a handful were ever made – let alone sold. Most landed in the hands of industry heavyweights like Keith Emerson of prog rock legends Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, and ABBA composer Benny Andersson. Wonder bought two.

The GX-1 had much to recommend itself to the multi-instrumentalist. Realistic (for the time) instrument samples allowed him to single-handedly layer complex orchestral beds. And unlike others synths available in that era, it was polyphonic, which allowed him to play multiple keys at once and create lush backing tracks in a fraction of the time.

Wonder dubbed the metallic behemoth “The Dream Machine,” and promptly put it to use on many of the album’s tracks – most notably “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise.”

The latter opens with an insistent cartwheeling fugue that borrows its first eight notes from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Prelude No. 2 in C Minor.” Intended to mimic the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” the anxious instrumental phrase is made even more disorienting by the sound of a backwards gong that anticipates the chanting of Hare Krishnas heard on the fade out. The devotees were pulled in off the street on in a spur-of-the-moment burst of creativity.

“Gary [Olazabal] rounded them up on Hollywood Boulevard,” Fischbach recalled to Sound on Sound. “We had decided it would be great to have them on the song, so he went and talked to a bunch of those people and made arrangements for them to come to the studio.”

Crystal Studios was located in the east side of Hollywood, not far from the local headquarters. “They walked in line all the way from the Self-Realization Fellowship,” Olazabal added. “There must have been about a hundred of them, chanting and praying as they showed up to perform on the song, but Stevie never showed up. We didn’t know what to do, and so we just let them go into the studio. The main room was not very live-sounding, but it was very big. Well, they were in there for hours, chanting – they didn’t really interact much in any other way – and when Stevie didn’t appear we knew they’d have to walk all the way back and return another day.” Despite Wonder’s no-show, the Hare Krishna’s remained positive. “There was not a lot of hostility,” Olazabal says. “Except from us. It wasn’t easy to listen to that chanting for hours on end.”

The West Angeles Church of God Choir was also mixed into the outro, performing a version of the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” that weaved in and out of the Krishna’s incantations. The blend of higher consciousness and social consciousness, the eternal and the urgent, gave voice to the dreams swirling inside the young maestro.

But it was another vocal cameo that hit closest to home. Wonder became a father on February 5th, 1975, when partner Yolanda Simmons gave birth to Aisha Morris. “She was the one thing that I needed in my life and in my music for a long time,” he told Women’s Own magazine soon after. “Isn’t She Lovely” – a joyous celebration of parenthood – is perhaps the most obvious beneficiary of Wonder’s new inspiration. While actual birthing sounds edited onto the song’s intro are from another infant, Aisha can be heard laughing splashing around the bathtub with her father on the extended fade.

Wonder’s sister Renee Hardaway also makes a vocal contribution to Songs in the Key of Life, delivering the scornful “You nasty boy!” that punctuates the album’s lead single, “I Wish.” The final track completed for the project, its lyrics originally dealt with war and “cosmic spiritual stuff” until Wonder attended a Motown company picnic. The label had effectively served as a grammar school for the former child star, and the fun afternoon triggered a wave of nostalgia. He hastily scribed new lyrics about those early days, and at 3 a.m. called bassist Nathan Watts – who had just arrived home from a long day of recording. “Stevie called and said, ‘I need you to come back,” Watts told Bassplayer. “I’ve got this bad song!”

“Saturn,” a track on the album’s bonus EP, A Something’s Extra, also began as a fond look backwards. The lyrical location was originally “Saginaw,” Wonder’s Michigan birthplace, and intended as homage to his home in the mold of the Jackson 5’s “Goin’ Back to Indiana.” But the song was shifted into outer space when guitarist Mike Sambello (later to score a hit with the Flashdance favorite “Maniac”) misheard the title as the ringed planet. Much like the past, it’s described as an idealized utopia just out of reach.

Traces of Wonder’s family and personal history can be found all over the album. Wonder’s brother Calvin Hardaway co-wrote “Have a Talk With God,” and his former wife Syreeta Wright provides backing vocals on “Ordinary Pain.” Some even believe that “Ebony Eyes” – with its reference to a “Miss Beautiful Supreme” – is an ode to Wonder’s childhood infatuation with elder Motown labelmate, Diana Ross. “I had a crush on her,” he admitted to Vanity Fair in 2008. “When I came to Motown, she walked me around the building and showed me different things – she was wonderful.”

There’s also a compelling theory that the tune is actually a tribute to another Supreme, Florence Ballard, who had died in February 1976 of cardiac arrest at the age of 32. She had been fired from the trio nine years earlier for erratic behavior stemming from substance abuse and resentment over being usurped by Ross’ as the band’s frontwoman (it was she who came up with the group’s name). Her career remained mired in a morass of lawsuits, domestic-assault incidents, poverty, and alcoholism, never to recover.

Wonder would have been well acquainted with Ballard. A subtle nod to her premature passing would be in line with his mission to write about all aspects of life – even death.

Mortality, and musical immortality, is central to a much more blatant tribute, the jubilant “Sir Duke.” The song honors the jazz legend Duke Ellington, a formative influence on the young Wonder, who had died in 1974 before they were ever able to work together. “I knew the title from the beginning but [I] wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us. So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation.” He namechecks Count Basie, Glenn Miller and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald in the pantheon of greats, perhaps suspecting that his own name would one day be among them.

If it wasn’t already. Sessions for Songs on the Key of Life yielded some of the finest songs in his entire canon, including the celestial “Knocks Me off My Feet,” the intricate harmonies of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and the Herbie Hancock-assisted “As.”

After basic recording was complete, Wonder insisted on endlessly remixing the tracks in an unlimited series of configurations. “It was a marathon, and at times we wondered if it would ever finish,” says Olazabal. “We had T-shirts with ‘Are We Finished Yet?’ printed on them, as well as others with ‘Let’s Mix ‘Contusion’ Again.’ Without exaggeration, we must have mixed that track at least 30 times. It became part of the joke of our lives.”

Wonder took to wearing these T-shirts around Motown headquarters to tease the supremely stressed-out executives who had never waited anywhere near this long for a product. “Nobody thought this project would go on as long as it did,” confirms Fischbach. Deadlines came and went with little concern from the artist, as the label made do with over a million advance orders on an album that didn’t technically exist.

By the fall of 1976, Wonder was ready. He had completed a double LP and bonus EP bursting at the seams with musical innovation. Songs in the Key of Life was a groundbreaking blend of funk, soul, pop and jazz, seasoned with cutting-edge technology. Amazingly, this bumper crop of forward-looking musical brilliance had its grand debut in the pastoral paradise of Long View Farm in rural North Brookfield, Massachusetts.

But that was just the final step in a long journey. The world press met in the lobby of Manhattan’s elegant Essex House on September 7th, 1976, at 7:30 a.m. There they gulped down a quick complimentary breakfast before being ushered onto three buses that drove them to Kennedy International Airport – but not before passing through Times Square for a peak at the $75,000, 60-by-400-foot billboard that had trumpeted the album for the past four months. Soon they were airborne in a chartered DC-9, well stocked with champagne and appetizers. Once the plane touched down at a small airport in Worcester, Massachusetts, the journalists were loaded onto a fleet of school buses for a short ride to the listening party.

Long View Farm was a 143-acre equestrian ground that had recently been renovated to include a world-class studio (used by the Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band, among many others). Guests were treated to hearty meals of roast beef, pie and more champagne while waiting for Wonder to make his entrance. He arrived resplendent in a gaudy cowboy get-up, complete with 10-gallon hat, leather fringe and a gun holster emblazoned with the words “Number One With A Bullet.” The whole gala cost Motown upwards of $30,000.

“Let’s pop what’s poppin’,” he announced as he hit play on the reel-to-reel tape machine, unleashing the music that had been gestating in the studio – and his soul – for so long.

Wonder’s opus popped immediately to the top of the charts. It became the third album in history to debut at Number One, remaining there for 14 weeks. It also earned him four Grammys, which he accepted via satellite while he was visiting Nigeria to explore his musical heritage. The experience was only slightly marred by a poor connection signal, prompting presenter Andy Williams to clumsily inquire, “Stevie, can you see us?”

Four decades have failed to dull the album’s power and awe-inspiring scope. It’s been cited as a favorite by figures like Prince, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey – and Wonder himself.  “Of all the albums, Songs in the Key of Life I’m most happy about,” he told Q magazine in 1995. “Just the time, being alive then. To be a father and then letting go and letting God give me the energy and strength I needed.”

January 22, 2022 Posted by | Stevie Wonder Songs In The Key Of Life | | Leave a comment

John Mayall – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (1966) – Classic Music Review


Before I shower Eric Clapton with encomia, allow me to point out that there were a few other guys who had something to do with making Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (BBEC from now on) one of the most enjoyable blues records around. The rhythm section of Hughie Flint and John McVie is rock-solid, handling the in-flight rhythm changes featured in several tracks with relative ease. Many of the rhythmic changes appeared in the original version of the cover songs, but here they help enhance a pattern of sonic diversity that characterizes the album, where each track serves as one tile in a multi-faceted mosaic of varying dynamics, tempos, instrumentation and recording approaches. Blues Breakers has far more diversity than the typical blues album, and if you ever get into an argument with someone who claims the blues is a highly limited form of music, this is the album you want to use to counter that argument. In the right hands, blues is a happy marriage of the familiar and the unexpected, and Blues Breakers reminds you of the innate flexibility and extensive possibilities of the genre.

Though Clapton has garnered well-deserved attention for his contributions, much of the credit for the album’s timeless listenability goes to the master of ceremonies, Mr. John Mayall. Doing his best imitation of Peter Sellers, Mayall played multiple roles—songwriter, arranger, organist, pianist, lead singer, harmonica player, second guitar, facilitator—and he was also the guy who thought it was a good idea to bring in a horn section on a few tracks to strengthen the links to Chicago blues. His unflagging enthusiasm for the music infuses the album with energy while setting a high bar for excellence in execution.

And speaking of excellence . . . BBEC was more than Eric Clapton’s coming out party. When you listen to the track that convinced Mayall, McVie and Flint that Clapton would be a good fit for the band (The Yardbirds’ “Got to Hurry”), you hear a highly competent, comparatively nimble lead guitarist who has obviously spent some time studying the work of the great blues guitarists—a solid performance but hardly game-changing. On BBEC, the power and clarity of his sound is shocking, especially when considered in the context of his times; the only comparison I can offer is the early solo work of Louis Armstrong with the Hot Fives, where the cornet sounds like full-on sunshine breaking up a dark, cloudy day. Just as jazz would never be the same after Armstrong, Clapton’s work here redefined and expanded the role of lead guitarist, leading to multiple generations of guitar heroes (and a whole lot of wannabes). The sound from that Les Paul plugged into a prototype Marshall on overdrive was stunning in itself, but even more importantly from a musical perspective was the quantum leap in Clapton’s phrasing skills—like the great lead singers, he frees himself from the tempo and plays to the feel of the song instead of always trying to be a good student and hit the right notes at the right time.

One note about the source recordings: the album was recorded during the time of transition from stereo to mono. The original album came out in mono; there was a stereo release in selected countries a few years later. I personally don’t think you get all that much from the stereo version, as Mike Vernon did a fabulous job producing the album, but they’re your ears, so go with what sounds best to you.

The Otis Rush piece “All Your Love” serves as a good warm-up number, delivered in a slower tempo than the Rush original and without the horn support that makes Otis’ version an incredibly sexy dance number. Without the horns and the more assertive drums of Rush rendition, it falls upon Clapton to shoulder the load, and he starts out with straight-up supporting fills in response to Mayall’s vocal. His moment in the sun is counter-intuitive—he gives his nimble left hand a rest and gives us a deliciously slow, lingering arpeggio in the luscious, thick tone made possible by the Les Paul-Marshall combination. The sound is so fascinating that Clapton actually slows down, falling behind the beat, savoring each and every note like he’s sampling a vintage Château Margaux, letting each sustain fully run its course until the full chord slide that heralds the ending of this magical moment. The band then shifts to double-time, where Clapton snaps out of his sonic reverie and lets it rip.

“All Your Love” is just the foreplay that leads to the orgasmic experience of “Hideaway,” the Freddie King number that inspired young Eric to take up the guitar. Both the original and the tribute are instrumental masterpieces designed to brighten your mood and get you to shake your fanny, legs and whatever else you’ve got. The essential difference between the two is in the attack—Freddie takes a more laid-back approach, leaving more room for the rhythm section to drive the song, whereas Clapton sees it as his opportunity to leave it all on the field. After years of intense practice and deep study of guitar and scales, and following the ultimately dissatisfying experience with The Yardbirds, Clapton finally found someone in John Mayall who was more than willing to give him the chance to release his incredible potential. On “Hideaway,” Mayall made sure that the rhythm section (Mayall on organ, McVie on bass, Flint on drums) provided a solid foundation while doing nothing to draw attention to themselves, rather like the foundation of the house that does its work with invisible efficiency. This is Clapton’s moment in the spotlight, and he fucking nails it.

The solo integrates the prominent patterns of the original, all presented with more oomph thanks to the Les Paul-Marshall sound. The first verse is pretty close to Freddie’s version, but Clapton’s greater dexterity is clearly audible in the additional notes contained within the runs and the quick full chord downslide that doesn’t appear in the original. At this point, I’ve already concluded that the teenage guitar players of my dad’s era who wanted to emulate Clapton after hearing “Hideaway” were the most hopelessly naïve human beings our species has ever produced: they simply didn’t have a fucking chance. In the second verse, Clapton follows Freddie’s lead and clips his notes; the difference is that Clapton not only varies his attack but produces a greater number of notes to clip. When we arrive at the “catchiest” phase of the song, Clapton plays the slower boogie-woogie variant riff with absolute precision, letting the fat sound carry the load. When we return to the verse structure, the two versions take different paths, with Freddie staying down low and Clapton letting it rip. On the next verse, Clapton plays tribute to the original by duplicating the partial chord attack but while Freddie disappears into the rhythmic support role, Clapton uses those bars to add a set of very tasty riffs. Mayall’s band executes the boogie-woogie stutter on the next segment with greater precision than Freddie’s combo, with Clapton backing off to reproduce the main theme. At this point, Freddie repeats the first verse pattern whereas Clapton launches an all out assault that leads to some of the sweetest high note bends on record, finishing up with yet another extraordinary rush high on the fretboard. I invariably want to scream when this piece ends because it’s so damned short (a little over three minutes) and like a great orgasm, I wish the experience would go on forever.

In the Mayall original “Little Girl” we hear some of the best band work on the album, spiced with a couple of in-transit duets that knock my socks off. The first is the opening duet featuring Mayall on organ and Clapton on lead where they match each other note for note before heading in separate supporting directions. The second comes at the start of Clapton’s solo, when John McVie steps out of the shadows and supports Clapton’s pizzicato attack with some of his own before both guys start flying all over their respective keyboards. McVie remains prominent for the rest of the song, and lo and behold, Hughie Flint slipped in some shimmering cymbal work while Mike Vernon wasn’t looking (Vernon had allegedly instructed Hughie to stick to the high hat). All things considered, “Little Girl” is probably the best ensemble number on the album.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of John Mayall’s most regrettable compositions. This is one of two rescue songs on the album, both written by Mayall, and both display to varying degrees the obtuseness of the unenlightened men of the era who never really got their heads around the immense socio-cultural impact of The Pill. “Little Girl” is the worst offender, and how you measure its offensiveness depends entirely on whether or not you insert or omit a comma between the words “love” and “child.”

I’m gonna give you a love, child, you won’t feel bad again
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again

Since the magical effect of one fuck is unlikely to last a lifetime, the more plausible interpretation dispenses with the comma, because when you have a kid, well, it’s a lifetime kind of thing. Here are the full lyrics, sans comma:

You’re gonna be mine, little girl, you’ve been through 18 years of pain (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again

You’ve been mistreated, little girl, but I swear, I swear it’ll be outgrown (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, something you’ve never known

You’re gonna be mine, little girl, even if I can’t have you by my side
You’re gonna remember the love child, that made you satisfied (2)

Wait . . . what? Let me try to get my head around this. You’re going to cure my PTSD—no doubt the result of a lifetime of male-initiated abuse—by knocking me up and then hitting the road? So, going through the physical trauma of childbirth and becoming a single mother with non-existent self-esteem and no source of income is supposed to make me feel better? Really? You really think that? Well, sonny, you better hit that fucking road right now because I’m about to kick your nuts so hard you’ll never make an appearance inside any woman’s pussy as long as your sorry ass inhabits this earth . . . which I hope won’t be for very long.

Even if you insert the comma, it really doesn’t change the interpretation much. Any man who thinks he’s such a stud that he can transform a woman’s future with a one good fuck is a narcissistic asshole who deserves a good whack in the balls as much as the love child guy. We have too many of those assholes in the gene pool already.

Mayall does much better when he changes the subject to the cherished Southern tradition of sending black men to jail on little more than a racist whim. “Another Man” is extreme Delta style—harmonica, vocal and hand clapping, no guitar. The song conjures up the image of a man crouching in the cotton fields sharing the latest news with his friend once the overseer is out of sight—“another man done gone . . . he’s on the county farm . . . I didn’t know his name” are all the words we need to put the story together, a tale of intimidation and oppression where your best chance of survival means knowing nothing and saying less. We’ll hear a second exploration of this theme on Side 2 with “Parchman’s Farm,” but this is a brilliant little piece by Mayall that earns him partial forgiveness for whatever the hell he was thinking when he wrote the words to “Little Girl.”

“Double Crossing Time” was allegedly written in response to Jack Bruce’s sudden flight to Manfred Mann. Rock star gossip aside, Mayall does an excellent job tinkling the ivories, with just the right amount of touch and sensitivity to the rhythmic flow. Clapton opts for a contrasting aggressive approach, bursting out of the background with a screaming solo featuring exceptionally long sustains. Mayall’s vocal mirrors Clapton’s anger, resulting in a solid and intense performance that probably helped them get over the Bruce fiasco pretty quickly.

Producer Mike Vernon really didn’t want Mayall to do “What’d I Say,” feeling that going up against Ray Charles was a losing proposition—and he really resisted the idea of a drum solo for Hughie Flint. Hughie wasn’t keen on the idea either, but Mayall argued that the song always elicited a positive response from a live audience. If that’s the case, they should have done a live recording, because this piece goes nowhere in the studio. Mayall is competent on the organ, and Hughie’s solo isn’t that bad, but it lacks the exciting spontaneity of the Ray Charles original.

Side 2 opens with a bright horn combo, the intro to our second rescue song, Mayall’s “Key to Love.” Unlike “Little Girl,” the guy isn’t itching to saddle a broad with a kid, but seems more like the hanger-on who thinks the babe will eventually change her mind and spread. My main quibble here is that the horns bury a brief Clapton solo, which contradicts the notion of Clapton as featured artist. Next up is a version of Mose Allison’s adaptation of Bukka White’s “Parchman’s Farm,” a euphemism for the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It’s actually John Mayall’s adaptation of Mose Allison’s adaptation, as Mayall chooses to drop the key closing line in Allison’s version where the convict admits he killed his wife and replace it with a repetition of the closing line of the first verse: “ain’t other done no man no harm.” I suppose that could imply “but I have done women harm,” but Mayall’s translation clearly calls out the injustice of the too-frequent occurrence of the innocent black man winding up in jail. Mayall’s musical interpretation is actually light-hearted, a speedy run through the spare tale featuring high-speed harmonica—and I love hearing John Mayall defy the physiological limits of human breathing as he attacks a harp.

The horns that open “Have You Heard” are absolutely first-rate, featuring a marvelous high-end tenor sax solo from Alan Skidmore that stretches the scale and threatens to go free-form from time to time. The horns shift to unison in Stax mode during the second verse, and unlike “Key to Love,” they balance out Clapton’s fills without drowning him out. When Clapton steps up for his solo, he is in full command of the instrument’s voicing, expressing all the pain and anguish of lost love with a combination of soul-ripping attack and high-end bends. This would compete with “Little Girl” for best ensemble piece on the album had the horns actually played with the rest of the band, but I will compliment Mayall and Vernon for some damned solid post-production work.

Eric Clapton’s debutante moment also featured his first lead vocal. Unfortunately for those who like their triumphs to arrive free of flaws and disappointments, Clapton chose to do Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” a song requiring far more vocal talent than Clapton would ever develop. I appreciate his deep admiration of the King of the Delta Blues, but I wish he’d chosen a different way to express that admiration. Nobody does Robert Johnson like Robert Johnson.

Fortunately for the listener, Clapton steps away from the mike, grabs his Les Paul and leads the band through Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out.” Here there can be no comparison to the original since Memphis Slim was a piano player, so Clapton has only the musical structure to guide him on his journey. He takes a spirited approach in contrast to the late-night naughty tone of the original, with a dazzling variety of bends, off-rhythm phrasing, licks within licks and complete command of the blues scale. Of the two songs on the album mentioned by my dad as practice pieces for budding guitarists, I think “Steppin’ Out” is the more useful lesson because of its relative faithfulness to the blues scale. Master the opening riffs and you’ve learned half of two blues scales (C and G) in one sitting! And guess what? If you keep moving your fingers up or down a fret and play the same notes, you have the essence of all the major blues scales! Amazing! It would be a really good idea if you took the time to master all the scales in their entirety and ponder how the structure of the scale gives a song a certain feel, but if you just learn the two scales on the intro, I guarantee that you won’t embarrass yourself the next time you jam with the gang and someone shouts “Blues in C!” And with lots and lots of practice, you may be able to duplicate Eric Clapton’s agility and broad understanding of music just about the time old-age arthritis sets in. Good luck!

I don’t know if it’s true that no blues album would be complete without a least one Little Walter number, but I’d be fine with that criterion. “It Ain’t Right” was a high-speed rocking blues Little Walter put together when his Chess mate Bo Diddley was making a name for himself in rock ‘n’ roll circles, and the Mayall version is pretty faithful to the original. The guitar on both versions is a frantic, barreling boogie riff that requires tremendous discipline, fast fingers and intuitive knowledge of the fretboard—a difficult proposition indeed. Clapton, of course, nails it with ease, committing himself fully to the supporting role. Mayall has a great time trying to emulate one of his harp heroes, and manages to get pretty damned close to a very high bar.

Wow! This was fun! BBEC is certainly an uplifting experience, an album of good vibes, great energy and best-in-class musicianship. John Mayall is all about the music, and I always approach a Mayall album with a positive orientation because I know he’s going to give it all he’s got and bring in musicians willing to do the same. And though I abhor the whole Clapton-is-God thing as much as he does, his performance on BBEC changed musical history, so the adulation is somewhat understandable . . . but I think the story is much more meaningful if we attribute the result to the hard work and absolute dedication of a living, breathing human being.

January 22, 2022 Posted by | John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton | , | Leave a comment

Mott The Hoople Wildlife (1971)


THE OUTCOME of the battle has yet to be conclusively determined, but my scorecard gives the race for “The Most Beloved Rock And Roll Band In All The English Isles” to Mott The Hoople by two full lengths over Free.

On this, their third album, they apparently feel sure enough of themselves to venture away from the piano/organ dominated sound which initially distinguished them (and invited all those Dylan comparisons). Instead we hear the country overtones of ‘It Must Be Love’ and ‘Original Mixed-Up Kid’. While this move (in light of all that has come since that first acidhead stumbled upon Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison) might seem to play on some familiar pretensions, our boys have both the taste and knowledge to keep their experiments in the proper perspective. So both the aforementioned songs, although comparatively thin-sounding, are well played and pleasant enough in a loosely relatable Mott the Hoople context.

More important, they’ve found new ways to arrange their instruments and the effects are felt throughout the album. The driving toughness of guitarist Mick Ralphs, as previously seen in ‘Rock And Roll Queen’ and ‘Thunderstruck Ram,’ has mellowed some. His ‘Whiskey Women’ elucidates the band’s new approach at its best: a lighter touch but just as powerful a punch. Yet despite this change in attack (most often seen in the use of acoustic guitars), they still produce a remarkably full sound, traceable to their staunch musical intelligence: when they add additional instruments they do not merely pour them over the existing sound (a common rock pitfall), but after that sound to accommodate them.

‘Angel Of Eighth Avenue’ finds the haunting melancholia of pianist Ian Hunter’s ballad style at its most convincing. (Hunter, it will be remembered, was the man around whom the early Dylan associations were inevitably focused.) His emeryboard voice, which has a nasty habit of faltering under the strain of the uptempo, is infinitely better suited to the slower paced delivery which songs like this demand. And the country influence so obvious on side two is better acknowledged in things is subtle and engaging in a neighborhood Hoople devotees will find more familiar.

But lest the whole affair get weighed down with self-importance, a problem which threatened the first two albums, they’ve thrown in a couple of change-of-pace surprises. Closing out side one is an energetic rendition of Melanie (!) Safka’s ‘Lay Down’ and, the cut’s musical excellence aside, it feels good just to hear this kind of an emotional breakout from Mott The Hoople. The second, ten live minutes of ‘Keep A’ Knockin’ which concludes the album with some two-fisted rock and roll, is the stuff of which their English reputation was made; they remind me more than a little of the early Who.

Now that they have apparently captured the British crown, isn’t it about time they were given a shot on this side of the Atlantic? There is more than enough solid music on this album to warrant it. Take side one and the live cut for their well defined and satisfying brand of rock, and then make up your own mind about the country experiments on side two. And fear not; Mott the Hoople has clearly gone beyond any Dylan comparison you might have heard. Ah, had only Dylan this much fresh energy…

January 22, 2022 Posted by | Mott The Hoople Wildlife | | Leave a comment

Buddy Guy Sweet Tea (2001)

From 2016

Nice to see Buddy Guy getting a ‘Best Blues Album’ Grammy for Born To Play Guitar.  But listening recently to his 2001 album Sweet Tea does rather put his latest outing in perspective.  Because as enjoyable as BPTG is, Sweet Tea is a whole other ball game.

If you’re already familiar with it then you’ll know what I’m talking about.  If not, then it’s worth telling you, because it’s not exactly widely available, and unless you get a used CD you’re likely to have to shell out 20 quid for it.  I got it partly out of curiosity, because Ian Siegal’s collaborator Jimbo Mathus features on rhythm guitar.  What I got for my money though, is a monster of an album.

Recorded while he was still signed to Silvertone, Guy may have been 65 at the time, but this set doesn’t present him in the cheerful old grandad mode that seems familiar now.  Even the cover photos set a different tone, with a frizzy haired Guy in half shadow, and looking as moody and enigmatic as Miles Davis wondering if he’s left the oven on.

The album was recorded at the Sweet Tea recording studio in Oxford, Mississippi, and produced and mixed by the studio’s owner, Dennis Herring.  Unsurprisingly then, most of the nine songs here are drawn from the North Mississippi hill country canon.  Four of them are by Junior Kimbrough, who famously said: “My songs, they have just the one chord, there’s none of that fancy stuff you hear now, with lots of chords in one song.  If I find another chord I leave it for another song.”  Which maybe provides a clue to what has been described as “a hypnotic, grooving type of blues”.

Buddy Guy isn’t from Mississippi, of course.  He was born in Louisiana, before moving to Chicago.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the style explored on Sweet Tea represented some kind of weird experiment for him.  John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillen’ was one of his inspirations as a youngster, and while Hooker grew up near Clarksdale he learnt guitar from his stepfather Will Moore, who came from Louisiana.  Moore, according to blues historian Robert Palmer, was brought up on a brand of “hypnotic, one-chord drone blues”, with songs “that fitted traditional and improvised lyrics into a loose, chant-like structure”.  And if you listen to Louisiana’s Tony Joe White, from a later generation, what you hear is again a mesmeric, seemingly endless groove.

So the album opens with ‘Done Got Old’, with Guy playing solo on acoustic guitar.  But if something like ‘Come Back Muddy’ from his latest album has an air of sentimentality about it, this is dark, sombre, and reflective.  It’s a downbeat opening, drawing you into the mood.  The band then kick in on the following ‘Baby Please Don’t Leave Me’, which sets the template for much of what follows.  A doomy rhythm sound is the foundation for a simple lyric – forget about verses and choruses, you get a repetitive refrain, delivered in a plaintive wail, around which Guy weaves a succession of howling guitar fills, with swathes of reverb and hints of distortion to twist the knife even further.This, I may tell you, is merely the little brother of the seventh track, ‘I Got To Try You Girl’, a 12-minute mantra of concentrated, determined lust.  Twelve gripping minutes, the overall effect of which is somehow primitive and timeless, but at the same time stratospheric and revolutionary.  It’s as if Guy has managed to vault back in time, dig up the very roots of his blues, then travel forward to the Sixties and fuse it with his own influence as a kind of proto-Hendrix, before re-emerging in the 21st century.  It is, as they say, something else.

In between there are examples of the more shuffling, syncopated side of hill country blues, such T-Model Ford’s ‘Look What All You Got’, and ‘She’s Got The Devil In Her’ with its relentless, buzzing bass riff.  The latter comes from the pen of Cedell Davis – who has had releases in recent years produced by none other than Jimbo Mathus.

Tour de force, blockbuster, call it what you will, Sweet Tea really and truly demonstrates Buddy Guy’s genius.  Somehow I doubt that he’ll be playing much of this stuff when he tours the UK this summer – but it would be incredible if he did.

January 21, 2022 Posted by | Buddy Guy Sweet Tea | | Leave a comment

The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)

From May 2021

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit the cosmic country rockers’ 1969 debut, a strange, short-lived truce in the long battle between hippies and squares.

One of the first times Gram Parsons played an open-mic night at the Palomino, a dive in North Hollywood that, in the late 1960s, was patronized mostly by hippie-hating country-music fans, a bar regular approached him right after his performance. “I want you to meet my three brothers,” the man said to Parsons, who was wearing his favorite pair of satin bell-bottoms and whose chestnut hair was longer than pretty much anyone else’s in the place. “We were gonna kick your ass,” the man continued, “but you can sing real good, so we’ll buy you a beer instead.”

No response could have flattered Gram Parsons more. The grand aim of what he would come to call his “Cosmic American Music”—an aural/spiritual fusion of country, R&B, gospel, rock, and good ol’ Southern charisma—was to find subcutaneous common bonds between people who, on the surface, seemed to be at odds. And in the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War raged and the generation gap widened, that kind of unity was hard to come by. But Parsons sought to bridge divides. He wanted to convince more conservative folks that unshorn draft-dodgers couldn’t be all bad if they could appreciate, say, the bottomless pathos of a George Jones ballad or the glittery grit of Buck Owens. And on the flip side, as the writer John Einarson put in his 2008 book Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons was also interested in “educating the hippie masses on the wealth of wonderfully authentic American music hidden right under their noses.” Parsons had lofty goals for his art. A superstar in his own mind before almost anybody knew who he was, he believed fervently that his Cosmic American Music could deliver nothing short of salvation.

“Cosmic American Music?” Chris Hillman, Parsons’ co-frontman in the first incarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers, scoffs in Einarson’s book. “What does that mean? It’s the stupidest term I’ve ever heard. It means nothing. It didn’t make any sense then and it still doesn’t. We were just trying to be a country band with a little more backbeat.”

Throw these two perspectives together—the idealist and the pragmatist; the bullshitter visionary and the no-bullshit workhorse—toss in no small amount of drugs, as well as a pedal steel virtuoso who never quit his day job as a claymation animator on Gumby (!), and you get all the tension and late-’60s weirdness that resulted in an imperfectly near-perfect record, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 cult-favorite country-rock touchstone, The Gilded Palace of Sin.

“Among the worthy, lasting, and influential albums of the last 40 years,” David N. Meyer writes in his 2007 Parsons biography Twenty Thousand Roads, “it’s hard to find one more shoddily produced or sloppily performed than The Gilded Palace of Sin.” That’s quite a claim, to which I could easily throw at least half a dozen counter-examples if I were in the mood to argue (how about every Velvet Underground album and every Beat Happening album, just to start). And although it does have a certain ramshackle energy that suits the band quite well, I’m not here to suggest that the production on Gilded Palace is especially rich. (A&M’s house producer Larry Marks, assigned to helm the debut album of his label’s newest signees, later described his role on Gilded Palace quite humbly, as more of a “hall monitor on the job [to] make sure the album got finished and things didn’t get out of hand.” In that sense at least, mission accomplished.)

But there’s a strange vitality to this record that makes its supposed imperfections feel charming, even meaningful. Many people close to the band believed Marks never got the vocals to sound quite right. Certainly one of the strangest and most polarizing choices he made was, on the many songs that employ the Burritos’ Everly Brothers-inspired two-part harmonies, to split the frontmen’s voices into separate stereo channels: Parsons’ high lonesome drawl on the left, Hillman’s earthy croon on the right—and your impressionable skull in between. But that means listening to the record on headphones gives the intimate and uncanny feeling that you’ve got a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each murmuring their conflicting advice right into your ears before joining together in the mellifluous conclusion that maybe they’ve both got some pretty good points after all.

Parsons was born, infamously, into a wealthy family that controlled one-third of the citrus crop in Florida. But in the words of a Porter Wagoner classic he’d later cover, one rich man in 10 has a satisfied mind—and not one of them seemed to be in Parsons’ family. Both parents drank prodigiously and neglected their kids’ emotional needs. Parsons’ father killed himself two days before Christmas, when Gram was 12. He left his son a generous but haunting Christmas present: A reel-to-reel tape recorder—a rare thing to own at the time—on which Gram’s father had left a recording telling his son he’d always love him. For a young Parsons, the table was set for recording and self-documentation to become a lifelong repository of unbearable pain and vulnerability.

Around the same time, across the country in San Diego County, Hillman’s idyllic middle-class childhood had become saturated with cowboy imagery and country music. He learned to play mandolin as a teenager and gigged with bluegrass bands like the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and the Hillmen. But then Hillman’s own father died when he was 16, and unlike Parsons, that meant he had to transfer to night school and work a day job to help support the family. From that divide came the lopsided work ethic that would later define their band.

In mid-1968, though, Parsons and Hillman found themselves with quite a bit in common. They’d both just exited serious relationships and they’d both quit the same band, the Byrds. Hillman had been a Byrd since his late teens, and he’d been around for the band’s sudden success. Parsons was a late-comer. His stint in the group lasted less than a year, but he had helped steer them in a new, countrified direction on 1968’s prescient country-rock landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn was never sure that was the right direction—“He turned out to be a monster in sheep’s clothing,” he notoriously said of Parsons, “And he exploded out of that sheep’s clothing. Good God! It’s George Jones in a sequin suit!”—but now in their own band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons and Hillman were finally free to be as twangy as they damn well pleased.

One of the first and finest songs they wrote together was “Sin City,” a mournful ballad that blends Biblical imagery and vivid psychedelia; a smoggy cast of late-’60s-California impending doom holds the whole thing together. “This whole town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in, if you’ve got some money to burn,” the boys begin in tandem. In this song at least, “Sin City” is not the town of latter-day Elvis and roulette tables, but Los Angeles, the dreamscape that each of them had migrated to, hoping in vain to satisfy their earthly desires.

Parsons and Hillman wouldn’t always get along—but they did then. When they were writing some of the songs that would appear on Gilded Palace of Sin, Hillman described them as “two heartbroken bachelor guys sharing a house together.” They rented a three-bedroom rancher in Reseda, far enough from the Sunset Strip to stay focused on writing and relatively out of trouble. Hillman has called it the most creatively productive time of his and Parsons’ lives. “We woke up in the morning and would write as opposed to the usual being out until five in the morning,” he said. “We were writing every day on a spontaneous schedule. I’ve never peaked like that, working with other people.”

With Parsons and Hillman both playing rhythm guitar and splitting up lead vocals, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ sound had room for a lead instrument. Enter “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, a visual effects animator who moonlit around L.A.’s country bar circuit as a well-respected pedal-steel player. He joined the Burritos shortly before they hit the studio in late 1968. (Among many, many other surprising claims to fame, Sneaky Pete wrote the original, distinctly psychedelic Gumby theme song.) Parsons and Hillman had both wanted Kleinow to join the Byrds on the Sweetheart tour, and McGuinn’s refusal was one of the many reasons they both left. Putting such emphasis on Kleinow’s instrument was certainly a gamble. To rock audiences of the time, pedal-steel was the cilantro in the soup—a single element with the dubious potential to overpower everything. Its horizontal frame and tumbleweed wail connoted country conservatism strongly enough to disrupt the delicate balance of opposites the Burritos were trying to achieve.

But, as it takes a certain unbridled mind to look at an emerald glob of clay and bring forth Gumby, “Sneaky” Pete was no ordinary pedal-steel player. He used unique, unorthodox tunings and ran his instrument through a fuzz-box as though it were an electric guitar. The 16-track console at A&M Studios allowed Sneaky to experiment with space and time more than he ever could on stage, overdubbing lacerating licks and layered textures at the forefront of songs like “Christine’s Tune” and “Hot Burrito #2.” “Country is a music of traditional forms; Sneaky Pete played a classically country instrument in an entirely new way,” Meyer notes. His distinct signature blazes through Gilded Palace of Sin like wildfire.

Mississippi-born bassist Chris Ethridge rounded out the band’s original lineup. (They had trouble finding a drummer in the beginning, and a handful of different session players contributed to Gilded Palace.) He, too, was a fruitful writing partner for Parsons: Together they composed two of the record’s most beloved songs, “Hot Burrito #1” and “Hot Burrito #2.” (“I don’t know why we called them that, as a matter of fact,” Ethridge told Einarson. “We did consider other titles.”) The Burrito suite contains Parsons’ only solo lead vocals on the album, and taken together they’re two sides of the same coin—the glinting fool’s gold of human desire.

“Hot Burrito #1” is a swooning, barroom-piano ballad that Parsons animates with a wrenching vocal performance. “I’m your toy, I’m your old boy, but I don’t want no one but you to love me,” he croons, grasping in the direction of something—someone—just out of reach. It is sad-boy canon, so much so that Elvis Costello later added it to his repertoire. Then a song later—as Ethridge’s melodic bassline kicks off “Hot Burrito #2”—he’s got the girl he wanted and now he’s restless as hell, dissatisfied with the sudden demands of domestic life. “When I come home/Carrying my shoes/I’ve been waiting/To tell you some news… And you want me home all night?!” he hollers, in passionate disbelief. It would seem that the burrito is always hotter on the other side.

For a wannabe rock star, Parsons innately understood the power of spectacle. Before the album cover shoot, he took the band to be outfitted for custom Nudie Suits, by the legendary country-spangled tailor Nudie Cohn. Each member’s outfit reflected something of his personality: Hillman looks regal, if a little stiff, in blue velvet, Ethridge plays Southern gentleman in a long floral-embroidered jacket, Sneaky Pete asked for a velvet sweatshirt with a huge pterodactyl on it, because why not. The pièce de résistance was Parsons, who, ever the purveyor of self-mythology, requested a personalized collage of all his vices: Marijuana leaves, pills, pin-up girls, and sugar cubes dotted with acid proudly besmirch the pure white sleeves of his suit.

One good thing about discovering Gilded Palace of Sin long after its 1969 release is that it was not really one of those “you had to be there and see ’em live” things. By most accounts, you did not. “I cannot recall one performance that the original band did where I wasn’t embarrassed to tears,” Sneaky Pete told an interviewer in 1999. It was difficult to replicate all those pedal-steel overdubs on stage, yes. But also quite often various band members would be… well, “high” goes without saying, but sometimes high on different drugs, which makes staying in rhythm a real adventure. (A coked-up lead singer and a bassist on downers is what we call a complicated time signature.) This original incarnation of the Burritos was generally a mess on the road, which did not do much to put them in their label’s good graces. Slashed promotional budgets followed, and though it earned some critical acclaim and coveted co-signs (“Boy, I love them,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone, “Their record instantly knocked me out”), Gilded Palace sold only about 40,000 copies in its first run and peaked at No. 164 on the Billboard chart.

When he co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons already had a reputation for leapfrogging unceremoniously from band to band. He left the International Submarine Band before their first album even came out to join the more successful Byrds, and an accelerating factor in his abrupt departure from the Byrds was the fact that he’d suddenly befriended members of the even-cooler Rolling Stones. When Gilded Palace flopped and it became clear that the Flying Burrito Brothers weren’t going to be his ticket to overnight stardom, he veered sharply into self-sabotage until, inevitably, Hillman kicked him out of the band. They continued releasing tighter, if less soulful, records with various revolving-door lineups; a version of the band with no original members and only vague connections to the original name is still making music. Parsons’ drug problems, on the other hand, worsened. He continued to live hard, fast, and impatiently; he died of a morphine overdose in a Joshua Tree motel room when he was just 26.

“How can you compete with a dead guy?” future Eagle Bernie Leadon, who joined the Burrito Brothers before their much lesser second album, 1970’s Burrito Deluxe, asks in Einarson’s book. “You just can’t. It’s the martyr thing. Gram fell on his sword so he’s a dead hero.” It is certainly true that there is a particular and very specifically annoying type of Gram Parsons Dude out there, who glorifies Parsons’ drug use, mythologizes his callous behavior and trust fund, probably rides an expensive motorcycle and thinks it’s really cool that some of Parsons’ friends stole his corpse and lit it on fire in the desert to let his spirit fly free of his body or something. (Admittedly, I think it is kind of cool that they did that. Fucked-up, but cool.)

Gilded Palace of Sin would not exist without Chris Hillman, and for that he deserves infinite credit. It was no small feat to keep Gram Parsons out of his own way for a few focused months in the fall of 1968; the unfortunate failures and tantalizing what-if’s that marked the rest of his recording career are a testament to that. But it’s also true that on this wonderful record Parsons is clearly able to access a current of emotion and vulnerability that still remained elusive to Hillman. “They did the same thing,” Byrds producer Jim Dickson reflects in Meyer’s biography, “but Gram was willing to put feeling into his songs and Chris never was.”

Such opposing forces were destined to fall out of balance, but frozen in time on this record, they hold each other in check. Perhaps because Gilded Palace did not become successful enough to remain forever tied to a certain cultural moment, something about it feels enduringly present-tense. Plenty has been said about this album’s influence on the country-rock of the ’70s and the alt-country boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but I perceive its echoes in even more recent events. In Post Malone’s penchant for unholy Nudie Suits, sure. But also in Kacey Musgraves’ embrace of psychedelia to blur the edges of country on her 2018 masterpiece Golden Hour, and even in Lil Nas X’s bold stare-down with the gatekeepers of country-music purity until they realized he wasn’t bluffing. What is “Old Town Road” if not the 21st-century embodiment of Cosmic American Music?

Parsons’ mid-’70s solo records, GP and the posthumously released Grievous Angel, have an almost talismanic power, but when listening to them it is difficult to forget that you are hearing someone who is slowly dying. Such is their cult appeal. Gilded Palace of Sin is different: Thanks to the stabilizing forces that temporarily surrounded Parsons, it is a snapshot of a more lighthearted and hopeful moment of possibility. The last track on the record, “Hippie Boy,” captures that. It is at once the least and most serious song in the Flying Burrito Brothers’ arsenal—a spoken-word imagined conversation between a long-haired youth and the sort of seemingly close-minded guy Parsons might have encountered at the Palomino bar. Hillman plays both parts, though Parsons directed him accordingly (“He has to drink a fifth of scotch before he does it to feel the whole thing,” he insisted at the time. “He can’t smoke an ounce of grass.”) “Hippie Boy” is a utopian vision of togetherness, so sincere it has to be played a bit ironically. As the song, and the record, concludes, a drunken chorus of off-key voices join together to sing a few quick lines of the old hymn “Peace in the Valley.” It’s a beautifully stirring moment, and it ends too soon. The cosmic promise of a better world streaks momentarily across the sky, and then in an instant it’s gone.

January 21, 2022 Posted by | The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace Of Sin | | Leave a comment

The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

From Rolling Stone August 14, 1968

The Byrds, during the not-so-Great Folk-Rock controversy, attempted to qualify their own individual transition by saying: “If only one line of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (which they had just recorded) gets through to the kids it’ll have been worth it.” The Byrds had all been Folkies and their subscription to Dylan’s new method of “getting the message across” (something Dylan himself denied trying to do) was of no little significance. What Barry McGuire, Jody Miller and the Byrds were doing was sacrilegious to the hard-core Folkies. Not only were they put down severely at first by Sing Out! and Broadside, the Bibles of the Guthrie generations, but to some, like Randy Sparks, former leader of the New Christy Minstrels and Back Porch Majority, what they were singing (as ascribed to McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction”) was “fodder for the communists.” Folk-Rock, such as it was, made the “Folks” uptight.

In light of the former faux-pas, it is suggested that no purist C&W fans listen to Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the Byrds’ latest transition. The Yin-Yang cycle of the musical flow continues to hold true. From straight, unamplified Folk, to Folk-Rock, to Rock, to Acid-Rock to semi-C&W-Rock, to affectedly-straight C&W — the next step appears all too obvious. But what we’re confronted with at the moment is the current product.

The new Byrds do not sound like Buck Owens & his Buckaroos. They aren’t that good. The material they’ve chosen to record, or rather, the way they perform the material, is simple, relaxed and folky. It’s not pretentious, it’s pretty. The musician-ship is excellent. (They had to practice before playing the Grand Old Opry.) The songs are, with the exception of the Dylan tracks “You Ain’t. Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered,” all standard ballads. “Blue Canadian Rockies” is an old Gene Autry tune, “Pretty Boy Floyd” was written by Woody Guthrie, “Life In Prison” is a Merle Haggard number and their arrangements of “The Christian Life” and “I Am A Pilgrim” (not the Merle Travis version) are in the traditional C&W storytelling vein.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is the finest cut they’ve done since “Old John Robertson” on the Notorious album. But its really more standard Bob Dylan than standard C&W. Buck Owens or Charlie Pride would never refer to Genghis Khan in a song. (Even Johnny Cash will sound a little silly singing it.)

Dylan has found his corner of C&W to relax in. With “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” he proved he could master any Folk or Rock idiom, and with “Nowhere” — he’s identified himself as a valid songwriter in a medium that he’d apparently spurned long ago. The Byrds are gallant interpreters of his lyrics — “My Back Pages” was probably their most genuine effort. The other Dylan-penned track, “Nothing Was Delivered,” starts out innocently enough with steel guitar backing, but following the first “are-you-true-to-me” verse it breaks into a rock chorus worthy of Sonny and Cher, It’s plain enough otherwise, and does the job.

The dedication to simplicity is reflected best on “I Am A Pilgrim,” a really sweet song rearranged by Roger (Jim) McGuinn and Chris Hillman. It includes only one minor repeated guitar run and the rest of it is reminiscent of Dylan’s uninspired folk-strumming of “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” days.

“Blue Canadian Rockies” is a particularly nostalgic track for all old Gene Autry fans. To hear that “the golden poppies are bloomin’/’round the banks of Lake Louise” brings back visions of Ol’ Gene and his horse Champion loping along the prairie.

“Rockies” sounds much more honest than their rendering of Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison,’ a much more citified contemporary song. The Haggard tune sounds too professional, too well laid out and unsympathetic with the plight of the unfortunate guy who murdered his girl-friend. It would be better to listen to Haggard himself do this — it’s not that much better but at least it’s honest.

The Byrds have made an interesting album. It’s really very uninvolved and not a difficult record to listen to. It ought to make the “Easy-Listening” charts. “Bringing it all back home” has never been an easy thing to do.

January 21, 2022 Posted by | The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo | | Leave a comment

Stevie Wonder Characters (1987)

From Creem, March 1988

This is almost as satisfying a return to form as Sugar Ray Leonard’s victory over Marvelous Marvin Hagler and practically as much of an upset.

After all, Stevie’s really been on the skids since 1976’s Songs In The Key Of Life, and even that wasn’t up to the mind-altering troika-plus-one of Music Of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Now that was a streak of creativity combined with commercial success the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson still aspire to.

So it is no small praise indeed to say that Characters, Stevland Morris’s first effort since 1985’s In Square Circle, favorably evokes those halcyon days of ‘Superstition’, ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ and ‘Living For The City’. In fact, the new LP opener, ‘You Will Know’ is a spitting image of the latter, complete with its landscape of those “using pharmaceutical extractions to find the paradise” and “single parent(s) trying to raise their children.” It’s not surprising to discover that a number of the tracks on Characters – my guess is ‘With Each Beat Of My Heart’ and ‘Cryin’ Through The Night’, with the last-named sounding much like ‘Sunshine Of My Life’ – have been plucked from Stevie’s supposed storehouse of half-formed song ideas and demos. Whatever the case, they are timeless Stevie Wonder ballads that resonate emotionally with our memories of other, warmly familiar numbers from the past.

Characters is the first Stevie Wonder album in recent memory which arrived without both fanfare and frustration on the part of Motown over delays by its perfectionist genius. The two years between In Square Circle and the new LP are downright miniscule compared to the five-year wait which separated the former from its predecessor, 1980’s Hotter Than July. The lowered expectations result in a more ready acceptance of Characters‘ relaxed nature, while the album’s concept of shifting masks and personal identities is a far more effective frame than In Square Circle‘s abstract equations. In fact, the lilting township shuffle of ‘Dark ‘n Lovely’ and the playful funk of the first single, ‘Skeletons’, can’t hide the fact Stevie’s laying some heavy statements on us about apartheid and government interference with personal liberties, respectively. This is a welcome return to the old Wonder turf of hope and despair existing side by side against a decaying but colorful urban backdrop.

As prolific as Stevie Wonder is, it’s a crime the guy doesn’t release at least a record a year. Recently, Stevie announced that Characters would be the first of a proposed trilogy of records dealing with man’s self-image and conflicting roles which would take him into the next decade. Like Sugar Ray, Stevie Wonder has come back to prove he’s still capable of delivering a knockout punch. He might not dazzle technically like he used to, for now, Stevie Wonder prefers effortlessly employing the tools of his trade to create something more important than mere electronic wizardry. On ‘With Each Beat Of My Heart’, he incorporates his own heartbeat by miking it and using it in the mix of the song, and that’s getting closer to the point of Characters. Whether he’s jiving with Michael Jackson on the duet ‘Get It’ or wrestling with the ghost of Prince on a one-man effort like ‘Galaxy Paradise’, Stevie Wonder’s still the class of the (heavy) weight division. The man has returned to reclaim his crossover throne. And not a moment too soon…

January 20, 2022 Posted by | Stevie Wonder Characters | | Leave a comment

Paul McCartney: Wings Band on the Run (1973)

From Chris WelchMelody Maker, 1 December 1973

“IT’S NOT A concept,” says Paul McCartney, but there is a thread to Wings’ newie Band On The Run. The feeling expressed throughout is one of happy, almost exhultant freedom, in which the music is open, un-pressured and eminently satisfying. It epitomises what Wings are all about. They soar sunward and revel in light and warmth.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the album is the breadth of sound they achieve, when one considers that most of the instrumentation is in the hands of the three surviving members. With Denny Seiwell and Henry McCullough out, Paul had to take over the drum duties as well as playing bass guitar, and the rest of the instruments are played by Linda McCartney and Denny Laine. There are some fine songs, as one would expect, including the delightful ‘Blue Bird’, with its hint of Bossa Nova rhythm, and the title track which sets the pace for richly melodic and memorable material. A lazy guitar and synthesiser statement opens proceeedings with Paul and Linda singing of being “stuck inside four walls,” which alludes to captivity and subsequent escape. A touch of orchestra leads into doubled tempo, which is increased yet again for the high flying ‘Jet’, which shouts of freedom. After ‘Blue Bird’, ‘Mrs Vanderbilt’, begins with the classic Charlie Chester line “down in the jungle, living in a tent.” Paul says you “don’t need money, you don’t pay rent.”


I think Charlie used to conclude, “better than a prefab – no rent.” The message here is not to worry, not to hurry, a creed to keep successful rockers sane. ‘Let Me Roll It’, has an almost Plastic Ono quality about the hard and sharp guitar riff and strong use of echo. The bass line here is beautiful, and simplicity of production stunningly effective. This could become a rock standard, or at least a single. Side two opens with the sea, where life began, and Paul’s warning on ‘Mamunia’, not to complain about the rain. There is a slight amount of conga drum but certainly not a great deal of African influence, as was expected from the location of the sessions, in Lagos. Again, the production is beautifully simple, with the bass most to the fore, and gentle acoustic guitar additions behind the sparkling harmonies. ‘No Words’ is a romantic ballad with dramatic orchestral interjections, courtesy of Tony Visconti. The beat is more pronounced and the twists and turns of the arrangement always resolve in an interesting, rewarding fashion. The guitar solo is faded, which is a shame, but it has to make way for the measured strides of ‘Drink To Me’. It reminds me a bit of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, and has a couple of devices oft favoured in Beatle days, the lugubrious tones of a clarinet and some interspersed radio commentary.

There is a reprise of ‘Jet’, which comes in with cunning logic, before ‘Drink’ spills over into party mood.

‘Nineteen Eighty Five’, streaks ahead with a driving piano pattern over descending chords, that terminate abruptly for a Hollywood choir, only to return with renewed energy.


The drums stomp and the lead guitar howls in ever-increasing excitement, and as the orchestra joins in with great bellowing shafts of sound the effect is hypnotic. Then tension is released by a return to a few bars of ‘Band On The Run’. Wings’ understanding of a proper balance between the use of melody and arrangement, complexity and simplicity, should serve as a lesson to all those groups who force themselves into impossible postures and teeter off-balance. And with this album. Wings prove they are not just a flutter, or plaything, but a highly valued addition to the ranks of music makers. “IT’S NOT A concept,” says Paul McCartney, but there is a thread to Wings’ newie Band On The Run. The feeling expressed throughout is one of happy, almost exhultant freedom, in which the music is open, un-pressured and eminently satisfying. It epitomises what Wings are all about. They soar sunward and revel in light and warmth. One of the more remarkable aspects of the album is the breadth of sound they achieve, when one considers that most of the instrumentation is in the hands of the three surviving members. With Denny Seiwell and Henry McCullough out, Paul had to take over the drum duties as well as playing bass guitar, and the rest of the instruments are played by Linda McCartney and Denny Laine.

There are some fine songs, as one would expect, including the delightful ‘Blue Bird’, with its hint of Bossa Nova rhythm, and the title track which sets the pace for richly melodic and memorable material. A lazy guitar and synthesiser statement opens proceeedings with Paul and Linda singing of being “stuck inside four walls,” which alludes to captivity and subsequent escape. A touch of orchestra leads into doubled tempo, which is increased yet again for the high flying ‘Jet’, which shouts of freedom. After ‘Blue Bird’, ‘Mrs Vanderbilt’, begins with the classic Charlie Chester line “down in the jungle, living in a tent.” Paul says you “don’t need money, you don’t pay rent.”


I think Charlie used to conclude, “better than a prefab – no rent.” The message here is not to worry, not to hurry, a creed to keep successful rockers sane. ‘Let Me Roll It’, has an almost Plastic Ono quality about the hard and sharp guitar riff and strong use of echo. The bass line here is beautiful, and simplicity of production stunningly effective. This could become a rock standard, or at least a single.

Side two opens with the sea, where life began, and Paul’s warning on ‘Mamunia’, not to complain about the rain. There is a slight amount of conga drum but certainly not a great deal of African influence, as was expected from the location of the sessions, in Lagos. Again, the production is beautifully simple, with the bass most to the fore, and gentle acoustic guitar additions behind the sparkling harmonies. ‘No Words’ is a romantic ballad with dramatic orchestral interjections, courtesy of Tony Visconti.The beat is more pronounced and the twists and turns of the arrangement always resolve in an interesting, rewarding fashion. The guitar solo is faded, which is a shame, but it has to make way for the measured strides of ‘Drink To Me’. It reminds me a bit of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, and has a couple of devices oft favoured in Beatle days, the lugubrious tones of a clarinet and some interspersed radio commentary. There is a reprise of ‘Jet’, which comes in with cunning logic, before ‘Drink’ spills over into party mood. ‘Nineteen Eighty Five’, streaks ahead with a driving piano pattern over descending chords, that terminate abruptly for a Hollywood choir, only to return with renewed energy.


The drums stomp and the lead guitar howls in ever-increasing excitement, and as the orchestra joins in with great bellowing shafts of sound the effect is hypnotic. Then tension is released by a return to a few bars of ‘Band On The Run’. Wings’ understanding of a proper balance between the use of melody and arrangement, complexity and simplicity, should serve as a lesson to all those groups who force themselves into impossible postures and teeter off-balance.

And with this album. Wings prove they are not just a flutter, or plaything, but a highly valued addition to the ranks of music makers.

January 20, 2022 Posted by | Paul McCartney & Wings Band On The Run | , | Leave a comment

Pete Townshend The Lifehouse Chronicles (1999)

From Charles Shaar Murray, MOJO, December 1999

Some day all music will be made this way. In 1970 it seemed so barking mad the band asked him to drop it. Now, Pete’s vision of a third millennium world united by a global network sounds surprisingly apt.

File under ‘just one of those things’: Just because a project is 30 years in the making doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to arrive late.

Case in point: Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse. The massively complex and ambitious putative follow-up to Tommy made its predecessor look like a knocked-off B-side, and both Townshend and The Who almost sank under its weight before band and manager pulled the plug, took its creator to one side and suggested that he simply took the best songs from the project, dumped the conceptual scaffolding and cut a ‘regular’ Who album instead. The result was the awesome Who’s Next, still considered by many to be the finest studio album The Who ever cut, plus a fistful of stand-alone singles (including ‘Join Together’ and ‘Let’s See Action’) and assorted extras that ended up on subsequent albums, such as The Who By Numbers and Who Are You.

For anybody else, this would have constituted a serious result. Nevertheless, Lifehouse continued to haunt Townshend and, despite periodic attempts to lay the ghost, it’s taken until now for Lifehouse to make it from inside Townshend’s bonce to an objective existence in the outside world.

The original concept involved the then-new technology of programmable synthesizers and the then-nonexistent notion of an electronic network – which is now a part of millions of daily lives as the Internet – linking people confined by a manmade disaster (industrial pollution, nuclear fallout) to their homes. As the human race is atomised and alienated, The Lifehouse – then a band, played by The Who, now a mysterious hacker DJ – summons people to get together physically in one place, to congregate, in order to reassert their collective humanity once more by participating in the creation of a piece of art. The idea was that each person would supply information about themselves which would be expressed as code and programmed into the synth to generate a musical composition which would represent each and every one of them.

Lifehouse now exists as a radio play, adapted by Jeff Young from Townshend’s script, which will be broadcast by Radio 3 on December 5. This play, in turn, makes up two of the seven CDs in this package. Does it work? Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, because as this issue of MOJO goes to press, these two CDs are still unavailable for review. We do, however, have Townshend and Young’s intriguing script (soon to be available in paperback from Pocket Books at £ 7.99), though without Townshend’s introductory essay. The 1999 version of the story finds protagonist Ray in pursuit of his estranged daughter as she heads for the Lifehouse, and attempting to come to terms with the fragmented memories and broken dreams of his younger self.

So, we hear you asking, what do we have? (After all, you’re asking us to read a review of something you haven’t actually heard.) Well, we have two CDs of Townshend’s original demos, some of which surfaced on albums 15 or so years ago and some of the early synth experiments which were included, rather more recently, on PT’s Julie Burchill-inspired concept album Psychoderelict. We have a third CD which includes some recent live recordings from a show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the most spectacular of which is a devastating version of ‘Who Are You’ featuring a pile-driving rap and some of the most boggling guitar Townshend’s ever played, which sounds at first exposure as if he’s channeling Hendrix but in which he ultimately channels himself.

Then there’s a sixth CD of orchestral music, including huge chunks of Scarlatti and Vivaldi and almost 10 minutes’ worth of an orchestrated Baba O’Reilly. A limited-edition deluxe version of the box – to be called The Lifehouse Method – will contain, among other goodies, a seventh CD which preserves a radio documentary, Lifehouse: The One That Got Away, produced by John Pidgeon and introduced by Townshend, recounting some of the project’s convoluted history, and yet another CD incorporating software which will enable the ‘netted-up to contact a website which will attempt to realise the original Lifehouse intention of enabling us to contribute to the ultimate group composition.

The first, and most obvious, reaction to all this is that Townshend deserves to share a pedestal with William Gibson – author of Neuromancer and all manner of other good stuff – for inventing the internet in terms of metaphor and malaise: the latter as an insidious illusion that tells us that there’s something (as he puts it in our interview which you’ll find immediately below this review) “better than life”; as something which pretends to offer a solution for our alienation (the pollution and fall-out are spiritual, cultural and political rather than literal) but which in fact makes the problem worse in our wonderful modern globalised, New Labourised world.

The second is to restate a boring old humanist truism which is, nevertheless, true: in other words, that we need each other, that our inner voids can only be filled with other people, that none of us are truly complete when we’re alone. Our own culture has always told us this: from the Mod Clubland of Townshend’s youth, through Woodstock and all the other rock megafests right up to today’s rave scene, that we like to be together, that we need to be together. Watching TV these days, we seem to be told twice a night that what we’re really most interested in is upgrading our homes and gardens and tinkering with our own little private environments.

Lifehouse, ultimately, is an examination and exploration of the eternal dialectic between inner and outer worlds, and what each has to contribute to the other.

Thank fuck it’s finally finished.

Pete Townshend talks to Charles Shaar Murray.

Wossitallabout then?

“Congregation is the most important thing that we humans have – particularly for artists – the importance of congregating to enjoy the response of others. At the same time, what’s actually paying the bills is a kind of network, fucking network proliferations. Money making money, flotations making money, shares making money, ideas making money, but with very little substance, in a sense. I find it ironic, and quite cruel, and in a way I’m glad that the play doesn’t concern itself directly with the details of what’s going on in society at the moment. We felt that if we said, Listen this is what’s going on today, as I did back in the ‘70s – I was trying to say to people, Listen, this is what’s gonna happen in the future, and I would have been partly but not completely right – then people would shut down. They wouldn’t hear it. There is wholesale apathy, a sense that we’re powerless.

“The predicament I find myself in is that I’m uncomfortable as an artist living in the world today. The only thing I can be certain of is my process, and I’m not sure about my interaction, my interface with the world.

“Like Bowie and like others, I’m fascinated by the potential of a network, a way that we can communicate. What would be great for the internet would be to use its intimacy. You do performances, you do gatherings, you set a date, you say, ‘At such-and-such a time, something will be happening, please join in. Be present. Observe. Communicate. Interface.’ For performers who have become remote, like The Who, because their mythology is bigger than their reality, the intimacy offered by bringing people into a place where you can say, ‘This is how we are today; it’s not who we were, but this is where we’ve arrived at’, that this intimacy offers a potential for an artistic process: a performance, a response, an ever-echoing fashion…but it doesn’t work. It promises to work, but it doesn’t.

“Why the internet is so intoxicatingly powerful is that the one thing that it doesn’t trouble you with is another human presence. When you’re in the presence of another human being you have to deal with things in the moment. You can’t suspend time.”

How come Lifehouse stayed with you so long?

It’s a very far-reaching idea. It was ambitious. And in some respects it was ahead of its time, and so it’s travelled with time. I have let it go a number of times, but it’s always come back, and sometimes other people’s interest has brought it back. [Film producer] Jeremy Thomas brought it back in 1978, and Michael Hurst, who wrote Eureka with Nicolas Roeg. But usually it’s the music: every time I hear or play one of those songs – ‘Baba O’Reilly’, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ – I think, These songs are great, but they’re out of context.”

So after planning it as a movie, how did it end up on radio?

“Partly because I wanted to do it in the UK, and partly because I felt that the film I had in my head could only be made if the idea was allowed to land as a narrative. What’s strange about the story of Lifehouse is a kind of double irony. I was conscious of the first irony, but not the second. I was attempting to tell a story about a time in which there were only stories and that, to some extent, in Hollywood, has already happened. What I feared was that narrative and story would undermine the passing of the moment, and that the principal form which would suffer is music. Because what narrative is about is that it replaces a moment of your life: it’s better than your life, you prefer to live in that story. At the heart of Lifehouse is this notion that we are today, and have been for a long time, losing sight of where the fiction ends, and where life takes over.

“In music and in painting and in poetry and in dance, none of this really matters. I had to get the story behind the story properly nailed down, and when I wrote the first script, I was just down on narrative, on plot. I’d never written a plot in my life. When I wrote my short stories I absolutely refused to plot: I used any process which would avoid me having a beginning, a middle and an end. In Tommy, I didn’t plot. In Quadrophenia, I didn’t plot. I did not want to go to fucking Hollywood. The decision to do a radio play was because radio would force me to get the story sorted out, without any falling back on animation, images, trickery, special effects, esoteric sci-fi computerised bollocks. What was it about?

“What we found out was that the story was about me, my childhood, and kids like me. It’s an immediate postwar story, about a kid who is born after the war and has a vision of the future which is disturbing but exciting. He realises as he grows up that he is not going to realise his vision. He has had a wonderful, almost utopian, vision: he sees that there is danger of pollution, of nuclear proliferation, but also of the watering-down of art. He hears this fantastic music in his head, as I did, and what I used to fear was that I would never hear that music when I became an adult, and I haven’t. The hero grows up and wants to have that back, and realises that he’s in a time when the generation after him, his daughter and her boyfriend, are going to do something about it: they’re gonna stop the rot. And he desperately would love to be a part of it, but it’s too late.

“What Lifehouse is about on the radio, and what’s timely about it in this millennium year, is: why does the Labour government feel that it has to put on a Big Show? It’s because Big Shows are fucking important. It’s not gonna be very good, but going to the Big Show, showing up, getting off your arse, going somewhere, buying a ticket, being with other likeminded people, hoping for the best…is what congregation is about. And the story has to talk about it, rather than demonstrate it. What makes it work as a radio play, as with all radio plays, is that it leaves a lot of pictorial and graphical stuff to the imagination. The music’s not particularly vital to it, but when you hear the play in the full package with all the original demos, then the music will fit in in a more tangential way. It’s like having a DIY musical.”

You and William Gibson both helped ‘invent’ fictional internets: to what extent does the real-life Net compare to your ‘grid’ and Gibson’s Matrix?

“Well, I wrote a mischievous piece for The Guardian suggesting that if the two biggest searchwords are ‘sex’ and ‘MP3’, then Prince should be selling more CDs: the stuff he sells on his own site is selling incredibly well, but not in the shitloads that’d be worthy of an impish, rather perverse genius. What’s missing is the human connection. What would get me onto that site would be the sense than I was going to get something from Prince that no-one else was going to get, and not some fucking sarky remark, which is what I normally get from him. Why is it that when I see him play, I get that? Because my experience is unique. What’s happened to recordings is that they’re no longer about interpretation and response.

“The impersonal selling machine of the internet is very one-way; it’s the artist instructing the audience. You can send e-mail, but that’s as far as it goes. What Bill Gibson talks about in Neuromancer and what I talk about in Lifehouse is a myriad dreamlike experiences so highly compressed that you could live many virtual lifetimes in one lifetime. I’m a 21st century creature in that my addictive process begins with a physical hole in my chest, and I want somebody to fill it: a low-level process. What society offers is a quick-fix: we can fill that hole in your chest. If that can be filled physically, then the process is complete. But the artistic process comes from the mind, from the unconscious, and that is a much higher process. When I described my ‘Grid’ in the original Lifehouse, it was something reprehensible that would come under the control of governments and corporations. The Russian internet’s only been up six months, and their first 150,000 customers are the people who run the fucking bent orphanages.

“My feeling was that this was going to destroy the human race. Not because story-telling is bad; I was on a spiritual journey and looking for a metaphor like the Tommy one, where I wanted to describe how we’re spiritually so shut down. It’s my responsibility as an artist that drives me to restate it. It’s not a paranoid vision any more: where the Internet today fails is that it’s not a psychedelic dream like Neuromancer or an apocalyptic disaster inherent in my script in 1971… but politicians and media power-brokers would realise that they had the power to manipulate people spiritually. A good artist is someone who has absolute ego, absolute humanity… at the same time.”

January 20, 2022 Posted by | Pete Townshend The Lifehouse Chronicles | | Leave a comment

Jimi Hendrix: Blues (1998)

From Charles Shaar Murray, Guitar World, 1998

Let’s get the paradoxes out of the way right up front: the blues was a musical space to which Jimi Hendrix would always return in order to recharge his musical and spiritual batteries but, once refreshed, he generally couldn’t wait to leave.

The blues was ever-present in everything he did; it was something that traveled with him into musical realms unimaginable to others, something he carried with him into songs and pieces which had nothing whatsoever to do with the conventional structures and themes of the blues, into worlds which the music’s traditional grandmasters wouldn’t recognise as blues – or even as music. When he started out from a classical blues theme, he as likely as not ended up with something else entirely; but when he began with something strangely, terrifying, beautifully alien, it always turned back, one way or another, into the blues.

This collection of vault-gleanings – some never before released, others disinterred from long-deleted vinyl, all new to the US CD market – can therefore tell us only part of the story of Hendrix’s complex love affair with the blues. Mostly jams and outtakes, they find Hendrix with his pants down: goofing, exploring and just plain havin’ fun. We get two versions of ‘Red House’: one a jam with organist Lee Michaels, the other from the original UK version of Are You Experienced and, for my money, an infinitely deeper and funkier take than the one on the current CD. There are two radically different versions of ‘Hear My Train A-Comin’’: an impromptu 12-string acoustic performance which provides a vague idea of how Robert Johnson might have sounded if he’d smoked a lotta weed and lived to hear James Brown, and a monumental 12-minute live jam marred only by severe tuning problems and the fact that the rhythm section – Billy Cox (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums) – drag the tempo down a notch as soon as they make their entrance. There’s an early take of the slow-blues version of ‘Voodoo Chile’, the one just before it coalesced into the monumental performance you can hear on Electric Ladyland. There’s an ear-opening romp through Muddy Waters’ ‘Manish Boy’ – better known to Bo Diddley fans as ‘I’m A Man’ – which gets the same uptempo funkanisation that Hendrix gave Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’ and B.B. King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’ at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. There are a couple of intensely variable slow blues efforts, ‘Bleeding Heart’ (a.k.a. ‘Blues In C Sharp’) and ‘Once I Had A Woman’, the former a fine and funky performance with the Experience and the latter flawed by some truly rotten mouth-harp and the audible wax-ing and waning of Hendrix’s interest in the proceedings. And there’s an insanely bouncy 12/8 shuffle, ‘Jelly 292’, which – along with the Are You Experienced ‘Red House’ – should be this album’s first port of call for Stevie Ray Vaughan fans. There’s another Muddy dive with ‘Catfish Blues’, similar to the cut on Rykodisc’s Radio One CD but with the added bonus of a revved-up ‘showtime’ finale.

And then there’s ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’. This Albert King standard, custom-composed for the late lamented Big Guy by Booker T. Jones and William Bell in 1967 and covered by Cream almost immediately after its original release, starts out as you’d expect, with Hendrix putting his own unique spin on Albert’s time-honoured licks and bends, but before he even has an opportunity to open his mouth and sing the song, the Strat runs away with him. That riff becomes the springboard for some of the most thoroughly ‘outside’ stuff Hendrix ever played, a full guided tour around the musical attic where Hendrix kept toys old and new. You can leave if you want to – just jammin’ is all – but you won’t want to. Tone, timing, phrasing, attack, sense of space: if anyone needs reminding that Hendrix had it all, here’s your wake-up call.

Needless to say, some of this stuff is rough as hell: as well it might be, since most of it was never intended for release. Fluffed words, out-of-tune guitars and dropped beats fly all over the place, and if that kind of stuff upsets you, consider this a 3-star album and stick to the regular Hendrix albums. This one is for blues buffs and Hendrix freaks, and for them – or should I come clean and say us – this one earns all of its five stars.

This music was made around a quarter of a century ago. Nevertheless, despite all that’s happened since in the guitar world via the Eddies and Randies and Yngwies and Stevie Rays and Joes and Steves and Nunos and Dimebags, Hendrix still sounds like a contemporary. And a leading, cutting-edge contemporary at that. If you play blues and you want to step up to some new ways of approaching traditional materials – or if you play rock and you want to inject some tough new blues into your musical muscles – just walk this way.

January 20, 2022 Posted by | Jimi Hendrix :Blues | | Leave a comment