Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Neil Young On The Beach (1974)


Neil Young’s “On the Beach” was the second entry in his famed “Ditch Trilogy”, a series of three records released in the wake of his chart-topping and critically-acclaimed “Harvest”. Named “one of the most despairing albums of the decade” by Rolling Stone upon its release in 1974, it contrasts with much of his previous work due to its crude and bleak production. Regardless, it is known to contain some of his best work and represents an important stage of his extensive solo career.

Side one opens with “Walk On”, written as a response to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, which itself was a response to Young’s “Southern Man”, which they interpreted as a negative stereotype of the South and its people. It’s a very full sounding rocker, greatly contrasting with the mellow mood that dominates the majority of the album, particularly side two. It’s certainly one of the more optimistic tracks, illustrating Young’s desire to leave his minor feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the past and move on.

“See the Sky About to Rain” is the only Harvest-era track on the album, showcasing Young’s Wurlitzer electric piano. Lyrically, it’s not the most complex, but acts very well in its respective context.

This is followed by “Revolution Blues”, the first track of the so-called “blues trilogy”. It’s a taut, tense rocker inspired by cult leader Charles Manson. It is said that when Young played it for former bandmate David Crosby (who actually played rhythm guitar on the track), he told Young not to sing about Manson, suggesting that the topic was too serious. He released the track anyway, and it certainly stands out as one of the most aggressive songs on the record, and possibly even his entire career.

Next is “For the Turnstiles”, a country-inspired track, featuring some nice banjo from Young which is complimented with stellar Dobro work from Ben Keith. Reminds me of some of the material on 1977s “American Stars ‘n Bars”, probably due to its country-sounding tone.

Then we have the concluding track on side one, “Vampire Blues”, which seems to be an attack on the oil industry at the time. Really the only part of the “blues trilogy” that sounds particularly bluesy, it consumes what’s left of the energy on the album, paving way for the moody and mellow second half.

Side two opens with the lethargic title track, illustrating the downside of fame. Emphasizing Young’s self-isolation and difficulty in dealing with the public, it easily ranks among some of his most auto-biographical work. Despairing lines such as “I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day” are truly representative of his morose state of mind after achieving fame and set the tone for the remainder of the album. Also notable in regards to the track is the inclusion of Graham Nash on Wurlitzer electric piano.

This exercise in lethargy is followed by the album’s only ballad, “Moving Pictures”, written for actress Carrie Snodgrass, who was Young’s love interest at the time. Featuring sparse instrumentation, Young sings of his own personal struggles as well as his relationship with Snodgrass. Rusty Kershaw also contributes some excellent slide guitar work, which compliments Young’s acoustic playing quite nicely.

The album closes with Young’s tour-de-force, “Ambulance Blues”. A very nostalgic piece of writing, Young recounts his early career, referencing the Riverboat, a popular venue for folk artists such as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Simon & Garfunkel. It also describes Young’s thoughts on his critics as well as the controversial actions of Richard Nixon, even going to reflect on the current state of CSNY at the time. Clocking in at roughly nine minutes, it says quite a bit about Young’s past and his current state.

“On the Beach” is one of Neil Young’s most important records not only for being the studio follow-up to “Harvest”, but for serving as a reflection of what he was feeling at the time. It ventures into topics he had yet to explore, particularly the downside of fame and self-isolation. Musically, it contains many remarkably beautiful melodies and solid guitar-work. Be aware that although it may be a very demanding listen, it is a rich experience for those who match it with a seriousness of their own. Don’t pass it up.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young On The Beach | | Leave a comment

The Who Who’s Next (1971)


I believe song sequencing is a critical – and sometimes THE critical – aspect of putting an “album” (what exactly does that mean now?) together.

In this next mix-and-match phase of music consumership, sequencing will be strictly personal. Is this progress? Sure it is, but something is always lost in the great march forward. When there is no “official” sequencing of an album, we have lost another common experience.

Coincidentally, I just received the new, lavishly expanded Deluxe Edition of Who’s Next , and with thoughts of seminal albums past swimming in my head, spent last night checking it out – LOUD. It’s still nothing less than classic.

As a critic, collector and historian, the bonus tracks, alternate takes, and especially the live material on disc 2 from The Young Vic are edifying and fascinating, but my prejudice was also confirmed: there is magic in the nine songs in the original order, flowing, commenting upon one another, the succession of tracks building a cathedral, an indivisible structure most certainly NOT granular in its holistic majesty.

I can (and do, too often) hear “Baba O’Riley” “Bargain” “Love Ain’t For Keeping” “My Wife” “The Song Is Over” “Getting In Tune” “Going Mobile” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in all their anthemic glory on classic rock radio, but each is diminished in the absence of the other.

Taken separately, out of order, in alternate versions, the songs are a series of comfortable, upscale bungalows: taken together they unitarily reach and soar above the clouds, an edifice against entropy.

Keith and John: we miss you more than you’ll ever know, but we’ll never miss you as much as Pete and Roger do – without you, The Who are just a shadow.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | The Who Who's Next | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Steel Wheels (1989)


Three years had passed since the release of Dirty Work and The Rolling Stones were smart to have taken the time off. They gathered in Barbados to record their next album which would become Steel Wheels.

The relationship between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards was on sound footing. Richards was functioning at a high level and would again become Mick Jagger’s partner in the studio. Charlie Watts had kicked his addiction and even Ron Wood was mostly sober. Only Bill Wyman missed significant studio time and this was relationship related. The basic tracks for the album were recorded in an intensive two month period with only time off to fly to Cleveland and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

Steel Wheels, for the most part, was a return to a basic guitar based rock ‘n’ roll sound. It would be embraced by their fans and remains a very good effort by The band. The album would reach number 3 on the Billboard charts and quickly sell two million copies.

Three of the first four songs from Steel Wheels are all out rockers. “Sad Sad Sad” is a guitar driven classic that finds Keith playing better than he had in 15 years. Check out the Flashpoint live album to hear this song in all its glory. “Mixed Emotions” was the lead single from the album and continued the Stones rock approach. “Hold On To Your Hat,” with an excellent vocal by Mick Jagger, completed this very welcome rock trilogy. The only problem was the average slow ballad “Terrifying” was misplaced as the third song and interrupted the flow.

There were a number of other highlights from Steel Wheels. “Slipping Away,” with a lead vocal by Keith, was a mature, well constructed song with sophisticated lyrics and shows his surprising growth as a songwriter. “Rock and A Hard Place” is just six minutes of flat out rock ‘n’ roll. “Almost Hear You Sigh” was a nice balled that featured an affecting Jagger vocal.

“Continental Drift” was an oddity on the album but the Stones meant well. Mick, Keith, and Ron flew to Morocco to record the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Brian Jones had recorded them for a never released album back in 1967 and now the group was down on their luck. These recordings would be worked into this song giving it a mid-eastern flavor and some royalty money to the players.

The Rolling Stones would leave on their massive Steel Wheels world tour shortly after the release of the album. They would be on the road for a year and visit 16 countries on three continents. Each of the four Stones was guaranteed 18 million dollars. Good old Ron Wood was still on salary.

I have to fess up that I missed the boat on a legendary Rolling Stones performance. I lived in Connecticut at the time and was a semi- regular attendee at Toads Place in New Haven. The Sons Of Bob were scheduled to be the opening act on August 12, 1989 for a to be named later main act. The Rolling Stones kicked of their tour in front of 700 people who each paid the entrance fee of $3.01.

Steel Wheels was an excellent comeback album for the Stones and provided a positive foundation for their tour. It remains very playable today and shows The Rolling Stones producing relevant rock ‘n’ roll again as the 1980s came to a close.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Steel Wheels | | Leave a comment

Gram Parsons: The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)


A confession: I have totally fallen for this Gram Parsons mythology. Indoctrinated by years of biased textbooks, hippies’ hyperbolic eulogies, and Entertainment Weekly features (a Johnny Knoxville/Christina Applegate biopic currently entitled Grand Theft Parsons is due next year), I have venerated Parsons to the point where, back in ’91, my Parsons figurine necklace saved my life when I should have been shot in the neck. I know he was a narcissistic, condescending, uncontrollable malcontent, probably undeserving of most of my praise. I don’t care. Every martyr has his cross. Jesus’ was made of wood; Parsons’ was made of morphine, booze, and Cosmic Morphoid Crazydust (or some such opiate).

A Harvard drop-out, Parsons met Byrds bassist Chris Hillman at an unromantic Hollywood bank, coerced him into joining the Crosby-less band in Nashville, and, amidst quiet feuding with Roger McGuinn, made what is deniably one of the Top 20 country records of all time. Today, no noteworthy reviewer is naïve enough to claim Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the first country-rock album. Instead they’ll tell you it was Parsons’ International Submarine Band’s 1968 album Safe at Home, and maybe that they even have the receipts to prove it. But, while Parsons was more of a heroin addict than a pedagogue, if he’s taught me anything, it’s that there was no “first” country-rock record. Country has always rocked. When Hank Williams sang, “I’ll never get out of this world alive,” he paved the way for Sid Vicious. If anything, Sweetheart is vastly less rocking than Merle Haggard’s late-60s albums– Parsons was simply the first to disseminate the rock to North Hollywood and Keith Richards’ mansion.

The actual album is a blindingly rusty gait through parched weariness and dusted reverie. It’s not the natural sound of Death Valley or Utah, but rather, a false portrait by people who wished it was, which makes it even more melancholy and charismatic. Between the shuffling and galloping are the astonishingly doomed harmonies, McGuinn and Parson’s hypnotic and enthusiastic vocals, and countless miles of Lloyd Green’s pedal steel. The songs, mostly covers, are equally saturated in sincerity and dedication. McGuinn had originally conceived the album as a panorama of American genres from the turn of the century through the synthesizer era until Parsons and Hillman convinced him to focus solely on country. Still, the diversity is there: a plucking Woody Guthrie, a craggy, grisly Haggard, post-motorcycle Dylan, Stax/Volt genius William Bell. But The Byrds have so totally captured a particular sound that the transitions are seamless. The righteousness of “The Christian Life” is perfectly at home on an album with a song about murdering your wife.

The crucial aspects of this particular release, however, are the extras– especially since an expanded edition already came out in 1997 highlighting some unreleased master tapes. This new double-disc version is about double the price, and somehow managed to miss a few tracks from the ’97 version. It also claims everything’s been remastered without sounding at all distinguishable from the last edition. To be fair, the second disc offers six International Submarine Band songs (three of which have never been available on CD), but even these are valuable mainly for historians and best heard in the context of the entire Safe at Home album. Suffice to say, it’s an underdeveloped band that can occasionally stun you into submission (the steaming “Luxury Liner”, or the waltzing tribute to monogamy and masculinity, “Strong Boy”) and other times sound like a disorderly, if endearing, garage-rock band with way too much emphasis on tambourine.

Due to contractual obligations, Lee Hazlewood, founder of the LHI label, took all but three Parsons tracks off the original album– although, by all accounts, he was the auteur of the entire recording. Parsons has come back here with a vengeance: For starters, 19 of the 28 supplementary tracks feature Parsons on lead vocal. Whether you think this package is worthwhile is entirely dependent on whether you think Parsons deserves this much credit. On the album itself, McGuinn’s belabored, satirical vocal on “The Christian Life” is adequate, even beautiful, performed like a pop star who sings odes to woe while showering in hundred-dollar bills. Conversely, Parsons sounds like he’s had a bloody nose for a week on the bonus track presented here, giving the song a more sincere read than McGuinn’s obvious pisstake. He’s also drunk and has the stuttered, cracking delivery of someone who was self-schooled in a sand dune (which is strange considering he was a spoilt egoist). Of course, this begs the question of who exactly needs four relatively-similar sounding versions of “The Christian Life” or “One Hundred Years from Now”. Well, I do. I’ve been listening to those songs on repeat for years now. Finally, I can mix things up a bit.

While there are significant, if not epiphanic, variations in the second disc’s working demos and rehearsals, the causal Parsons fan will certainly be satiated by the ’97 single disc. If you’re a Gram man, on the other hand, listening to the gradual development of the plaintiveness on “One Hundred Years from Now” or the original sluggishness on “Life in Prison” is equivalent to bowing at Parsons’ altar. Only die-hards will find the second disc worthwhile. But then, everyone should be a die-hard.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Gram Parsons The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti (1975)

0aa778ea0846d8365d1fb0f19a71f8aba5669446From Rolling Stone

They’ve sparked riots from Boston to Milan, sold out concerts from Hong Kong to Hamburg. Each of their five previous albums has gone platinum, selling more than one million copies; one, Led Zeppelin (IV), has sold more than three million. They’ve set new records for U.S. concert attendance, drawing 56,800 to a single show in Tampa, Florida, in 1973 and 120,000 to six concerts in the New York area in 1975. On paper at least, Led Zeppelin is unquestionably the world’s most popular rock band.

Yes. But is it the world’s best rock band?

That the question should even arise reflects not only this band’s status, but also the current state of the music. What’s the competition? The Rolling Stones. The Who. And?

Moreover, with the release of Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin’s sixth album, the question has actually become relevant. This two-record set, the product of almost two years’ labor, is the band’s Tommy, Beggar’s Banquet and Sgt. Pepper rolled into one: Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin’s bid for artistic respectability.

In a virtual recapitulation of the group’s career, Physical Graffiti touches all the bases. There’s a blues (“In My Time of Dying”) and a cosmic-cum-heavy ballad (“In the Light”); there’s an acoustic interlude (“Bron-Y-Aur”) and lots of bludgeoning hard rock, still this band’s forte (“Houses of the Holy,” “The Wanton Song”); there are also hints of Bo Diddley (“Custard Pie”), Burt Bacharach (“Down by the Seaside”) and Kool and the Gang (“Trampled under Foot”). If nothing else, Physical Graffiti is a tour de force.

The album’s — and the band’s — mainspring is Jimmy Page, guitarist extraordinaire. It was Page who formed Led Zeppelin in 1968, after the model of such guitar-oriented blues-rock units as Cream, the Jeff Beck Group and the Yardbirds, where Page, a former sessionman, had first come to prominence. And it is Page who continues to chart Zeppelin’s contemporary course, not only as the group’s lead guitarist, but also as the band’s producer.

His primary concern, both as producer and guitarist, is sound. His playing lacks the lyricism of Eric Clapton, the funk of Jimi Hendrix, the rhythmic flair of Peter Townshend; but of all the virtuoso guitarists of the Sixties, Page, along with Hendrix, has most expanded the instrument’s sonic vocabulary.

He has always exhibited a studio musician’s knack for functionalism. Unlike many of his peers, he rarely overplays, especially on record (and Led Zeppelin has never indulged itself with a live LP). Most of his playing instead evidences the restraint and rounded style of his avowed influences: the brooding, involuted blues lines of Otis Rush, the finely filigreed acoustic form of Bert Jansch, the echoed, subliminally driving accompaniments of Scotty Moore (behind Elvis Presley) and James Burton (behind Ricky Nelson) on early rockabilly records.

A facile soloist, Page excels at fills, obbligatos and tags. Playing off stock riffs, he modulates sonorities, developing momentum by modifying instrumental colors. To this end, he uses a wide array of effects, including on Physical Graffiti some echoed slide (“Time of Dying”), a countryish vibrato (“Seaside”), even a swimming, clear tone reminiscent of Lonnie Mack (the solo on “The Rover”). But his signature remains distortion. Avoiding “clean” timbres, Page usually pits fuzzed out overtones against a hugely recorded bottom, weaving his guitar in and out of the total mix, sometimes echoing Robert Plant’s contorted screams, sometimes tunneling behind a dryly thudding drum.

Page’s instrumental cohorts are John Paul Jones and John Bonham. Jones, another studio veteran, contributes keyboards as well as bass and is responsible, via his use of synthesizer, for bringing fullness as well as funk to the band. Bonham, on the other hand, is a steak-and-potatoes percussionist, handpicked, one assumes, for his ability to supply a plodding, stolid, rock-solid bottom — no one has ever accused Led Zeppelin of swinging.

Fronting the band onstage and sharing the spotlight with Page is vocalist Robert Plant. Like the Who’s Roger Daltrey, he is a singer of limited range and feeling, but he projects himself with an irrepressible flair. Plant’s acrobatics in fact complement Page’s preoccupation with sound. Not only does Plant warble limply as well as scream, he also adds yet another gravelly component to the band. In his production of Plant, Page constantly plays on this grittiness, the vocal counterpart to the distorted sound of his own guitar.

Although Zeppelin at the outset hewed closely to the standard blues-rock format of the late Sixties, the band soon abandoned blues retreads to concentrate on their own brand of hard rock. The group’s first album, Led Zeppelin, already contained such departures as “Dazed and Confused,” a searing wall of sound that inspired a generation of heavy-metal rockers. “Communication Breakdown,” also on the first LP, showed off the uptempo side of the Zeppelin format, with Page unleashing a blizzard of choppy chords. The jerky meter and crude attack remain favorite devices of Page, who, like Leiber and Stoller with the Coasters, understands the art of contriving a raucous sound (consider “Rock & Roll,” Zeppelin’s other masterpiece of distilled freneticism).

Thanks to Page’s production, Led Zeppelin quickly outdistanced such predecessors as Cream and the Yardbirds. Not only was Plant a stronger singer than the Yardbirds’ Keith Relf, but Page, in contrast to Clapton, Bruce and Baker, grasped the importance of crafting a coherent ensemble approach. Taking his cues from old Sun and Chess records, he used reverb and echo to mold the band into a unit, always accenting the bottom (bass and drums), always aiming at the biggest possible sound. As a result, Zeppelin’s early records still sound powerful, while Cream tracks like “White Room” in retrospect sound pale and disjointed. On such classics as “Whole Lotta Love,” Page’s production set new standards for recording hard rock.

By 1971 and the release of the fourth Led Zeppelin album, Page and the band had broadened their approach to include acoustic ballads and folk-derived material, a side of the band introduced on Led Zeppelin III. “Stairway to Heaven,” the band’s most popular song, delicately balanced acoustic and electric elements before climaxing in a patented fuzz assault. Plant’s controlled singing and Page’s development of texture both distinguish this track, which to this day confounds critics who denigrate Zeppelin as a band schooled only in the art of excess.

But in fact an attention to detail and a sense of economy and nuance have become hallmarks of the Zeppelin style. “Four Sticks,” from Led Zeppelin IV, to take a trifling example, sustains momentum by alternating a distorted electric riff with an acoustic progression doubled on keyboards. The percussion recalls Elvis’s “Mystery Train” more than Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and it adds just the right touch of elegance to an otherwise elementary cut.

Physical Graffiti only confirms Led Zeppelin’s preeminence among hard rockers. Although it contains no startling breakthroughs, it does afford an impressive overview of the band’s skill. On “Houses of the Holy,” Plant’s lyrics mesh perfectly with Page’s stuttering licks. Here again, the details are half the fun: Bonham kicks the cut along with a cowbell while the two final verses add what sounds like a squeaky chorus of “doit”s behind the vocal; Plant meanwhile is almost inaudibly overdubbed on the song’s central chorus, underlining the phrase “let the music be your master.”

Throughout the album, Page and the band tap a strange lot of sources, although the result is always pure Zeppelin. On “Ten Years Gone,” a progression recalling the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” resolves in a beautifully waddling refrain, Page scooping broad and fuzzy chords behind Plant, who sounds a lot like Rod Stewart. Elsewhere, the band trundles out the Marrakech Symphony Orchestra (for “Kashmir”), Ian Stewart’s piano and even a mandolin (both for “Boogie with Stu”). Small matter: Jimmy Page could probably arrange a quartet for finger cymbals and have it come lumbering out of the loudspeakers sounding like Led Zeppelin.

Naturally, Graffiti is not without faults — Zeppelin is too intuitive a band to cut a flawless album. Although Page and Bonham mount a bristling attack on “The Rover,” this track, like several others, suffers from Plant’s indefinite pitch. Other cuts, such as the ten-minute “Kashmir” and “In My Time of Dying,” succumb to monotony. “In the Light,” one of the album’s most ambitious efforts, similarly fizzles down the home stretch, although the problem here is not tedium but a fragmentary composition that never quite jells: When Page on the final release plays an ascending run intended to sound majestic, the effect is more stilted than stately.

Despite such lapses, Physical Graffiti testifies to Page’s taste and Led Zeppelin’s versatility. Taken as a whole, it offers an astonishing variety of music, produced impeccably by Page. Not that this album will convince the doubters. Anyone with an antipathy to the posturing of Robert Plant or the wooden beat of John Bonham, be forewarned: A Led Zeppelin is a Led Zeppelin is a Led Zeppelin.

Physical Graffiti will likely also disappoint those who prefer their rock laced with lyrical significance: Led Zeppelin no more articulates a world view than Little Richard (or Cream) did. Yet while Zeppelin’s stature as cultural spokesmen can be questioned, their standing as rock musicians cannot.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti | | Leave a comment

Neil Young On The Beach (1974)


Sling this album on the turntable and you’re seeing a famous nervous break down. Neil’s most incoherent ramblings for sure, and full of distanced imagery. On the front, he’s standing on a grey beach looking out to sea and half a submerged Cadillac lies almost buried beneath the sand. Even the sleevenotes by Rusty Kershaw, his occasional fiddle player and slide guitarist, seem to be there for their sheer incoherence. Warner Bros hated it so much it’s still not available on CD and it was released in 1974. The songs are despairing after the Manson Family murders and Neil was at a career high when all this weighed him down. He seemed to enter an inchoate state on many of the songs, and yet, rambling toward his messiah, he conjures up reams of crazy surreal images. The songs show Neil dissatisfied and displaced, and even his greatest r’n’r is simplistic in the face of this abrasive, melancholy paranoia.

The album opens with the relatively up sound of the sentimental, backward-looking ‘Walk On’, before steering a down course into the melancholy of ‘See the Sky About to Rain’ which takes a line through pop-rock and mystery propelled by its Wurlitzer piano and mournful peddle-steel guitar. ‘I was down in Dixieland, played a silver fiddle, played it loud and then the man broke it down the middle’. The stuttering minor key ‘Revolution Blues’ follows with the superb rhythm section of the Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm bubbling and tumbling and pattering then pounding as Young tells the tale of Manson’s dune-buggy outsiders coming to kill the Laurel Canyon rock elite. Then it’s into the banjo and dobro-driven ‘For the Turnstiles’, in which Neil and Ben Keith, his omnipresent multi-instrumetalist, howl and whoop about how even ‘though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Vampire Blues’ is an anti-corporate rant about the oil companies ‘suckin’ blood out of the earth’. This simple 12-bar is slow and drawling, almost drooling, and Young makes use of one of his most underplayed guitar solos of all time. One note played slow and jagged and low on the wound strings staccato-driven and almost sleepwalking over the organ, bass and drum accompaniment. That’s side one and that’s the optimistic side.

Side two is the most low-key Young ever got. The three long tracks are inward-looking and openly self-pitying and Young is so strung out that even the most sensitive listener has to open his heart in order not to want to kick his ass and say ‘Wake Up!’ It was the seven minutes long title track which caused the Saturday Night Live crowd to parody Young with the classic ‘Southern California Brings Me Down’. But once you stop laughing and accept the minor chords and so sorry lyrics and seagull guitar solos, then you have to just wonder how the sense of late sixties loss must have made the sensitive close to suicide. ‘I went to the radio interview, I ended up alone at the microphone’ he repeats again and again. ‘Think I’ll get out of town’, he repeats even longer. ‘Motion Pictures’ follows at even slower speed and even less accompaniment, and the lyrics come so slow you can guess the next one for what seems like hours before it comes. Then it’s into quiet harmonica and you wanna laugh, it’s so sad. ‘I’m deep inside beside myself but I’ll get out somehow’.

‘Ambulence Blues’ is the closer. It’s nine stark lonely minutes of acoustic-only daymare with the standard funny lyrics: ‘Back in the old folky days’. The traditional chords should make it easier to take, but Young manages to throw in such lyrics as ‘old mother goose is on the skids’ and ‘it’s hard to see the meaning of this song, an ambulance can only go so fast, it’s easy to get buried in the past’. Best of all, he sings ‘You’re all just pissing in the wind, you don’t know it but you are’, following it with splendid sucks and blows on the harmonica which double for a guitar tuner.

If Young had sunk into the abyss after this album, we’d have been bemoaning his loss as another Skip Spence. But, of course, he resurfaced and got even stronger. But how pertinent to see the lows of our biggest stars reach such truly abject lows. And, of course, it’s more inspiring than the brain-death songs of Syd Barrett and Skip Spence because it was only a temporary rubbernecking. The patient recovered to full health and no-one actually died.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young On The Beach | | Leave a comment

Van Der Graaf Generator H To He Who Am The Only One (1970)


They picked it up. And, in all sincerity, they really picked it up – without a doubt, H To He (the title refers to the fusion of hydrogen from helium, so there’s nothing particularly flabbergasting about it) is the best prog album of 1970, which is saying something, because the competition was quite strong. However, where their main competitors were still learning (Genesis with Trespass, Yes with Time And A Word), or indulging in ultra-complex affairs that threatened to have too much ideological content and too few musical substance (Jethro Tull’s Benefit, King Crimson’s Lizard), VDGG suddenly made a definite breakthrough and demonstrated all the ample possibilities of the genre in one go. This is “glam-prog theatre” at its most elaborate and immaculate, and I really have a hard time trying to come up with any specific complaints about this record – apart from certain overlong sections and a couple instrumental and vocal melodies that come off a wee bit more thin than the others, this is a prime progressive album.

For starters, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better multi-part progressive anthem than ‘Killer’. Maybe I’m not too imaginative – the song is indeed considered by many to be the band’s peak and is the critics’ favourite, and maybe it’s the only possible VDGG song you’ll ever hear played on the radio. But hey, what can I do? It’s not too often that you hear a band like VDGG come up with a brilliant riff like that, and set it to such positively frightening lyrics sung in such a positively frightening voice: ‘So you live in the bottom of the sea, and you kill all that come NEAR YOU-OOO-WHOO-OOO… but you are very lonely, because all the other fish FEAR YOU-OOO-WHOO-OOO…” Not only that – the intro and the opening verses might be the most epic and memorable moment on the album, but the mid-section, with the ‘death in the sea death in the sea’ chantings, is also prime stuff. Wow dude, what a song. I find myself coming back to it all the time, again and again; VDGG might have easily earned themselves a place on this site if they’d never done anything else. This is where it all comes together, and where ‘White Hammer’ was the nadir, almost a self-parody, ‘Killer’ is the zenith, symbolizing the band in full flight and Peter Hammill as a completely idiosyncratic, self-assured writer making a brilliant artistic statement. With ‘Killer’, the band finally proves that there was a reason of its existing in the first place.

And to top it off, ‘Killer’ is immediately followed by what I consider VDGG’s best ballad ever – the operatic, yet strangely sincere and moving ‘House With No Door’. It’s a little Bowie-like, which isn’t a compliment – I don’t usually like Bowie doing that stuff; but since the melody is a bit better than, say, Bowie’s ‘Time’, and Hammill’s singing is far more elaborate than David’s (no offense, Bowie fans – Hammill has got a voice quite worthy of an opera singer), I can forgive the theatricality. The song’s structure is immaculate, too: a sad, melancholic verse, a rousing chorus, a gentle flute solo, and a good buildup throughout – when Hammill screams out the last chorus in desperation, it’s as if you could already predict that. For me, it’s kinda comforting.

The next two tracks, dominated by guest star Robert Fripp’s guitar playing, are a bit of a letdown, but not a serious one – they are just overshadowed by the previous two masterpieces. It’s absolutely clear that for this album the band had really spent a lot of time carefully working out the song structures and thinking about setting Hammill’s lyrical imagery to some real music instead of sonic drones. So ‘The Emperor In His War-Room’ makes heavy use of the flutes; the entire first part is set to a steady, clever flute rhythm, and wisely alternates from super-slow and gentle to martial rhythms to anthemic heights. Unfortunately, Hammill does go overboard with the lyrics, but I hardly pay attention to these, preferring to concentrate on the cool melodies. Then it all dies down, and the drums kick in the second, faster part, where Fripp finally comes in and gives us some much needed guitarwork. Wow.

‘Lost’ comes next – again, Peter is the main star, this time mainly pulling out the song based on the strength of his singing. The melody is far too convoluted and twisted, with time signatures flashing like cards in a dealer’s hand and never giving you much time to enjoy them all; but whenever that gorgeous voice comes in and chants ‘I know I’ll never dance like I used to’, there’s some lump coming up my throat that almost makes me cry. Or when he intones in that super-duper pleading intonation: ‘…somehow I don’t think you see my love at all…’ This is not just rock theater; this is something far above. I still haven’t found the term for it, but for now, I’ll just say that Hammill’s vocal performance on ‘Lost’ gotta rank as one of the most magnificent uses of human voice (at least, from a technical sense) on a rock record. And, quite unlike the previous track, it’s just a… hell, it’s just a love song. It’s only a love song, get it? It’s not pretentious. It’s just a little suite that Peter probably cooked up to be sung as a serenade under someone’s window. Why don’t you try singing it to your girlfriend? (Hmm. On the other hand, I can imagine her reaction when you say ‘oh, it’s just a Van Der Graaf Generator song’).

And how do we finish this minor masterpiece? Why, with ‘Pioneers Over C’. Which is everything ‘After The Flood’ wanted to be, but failed. On here, Hammill tackles the traditional art-rock thematics of space travel – but it’s not the lyrics this time, it’s the atmosphere and the musical stuffing that makes the track so thoroughly unforgettable. Especially that cute little bass/sax riff in the middle of each verse to which Hammill tries singing in unison. And all the sections are just so dang cleverly constructed – I tip my hat to the masters. Fast, slow, moody and relaxed, energetic and fast-paced, and never getting boring.

I’m still a bit puzzled as to how the hell could this group come up with such a consistently great record, especially considering that it’s sandwiched by two considerably more weak efforts. Where did these killer riffs (actually, ‘Killer’ riffs, heh heh) come from? How come they didn’t do any more shattering ballads of similar quality? Where did that grandstanding operatic voice disappear afterwards? How come? Whatever; the band was definitely on a roll and it shows; the record’s currently one of my Top 10 Prog albums of all time, and I heavily recommend it to all progressive lovers out there. And kudos to producer John Anthony who didn’t bury Hammill’s voice too deep this time around.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator H To He Who Am The Only One | | Leave a comment

Van Der Graaf Generator The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (1970)


I have a very, very tough time trying to like this one, or even to come up with some positive ideas about it. Okay, let’s try this: how about a brief and concise summary of a telegraphic character? An album with six lengthy drones, hardly any interesting melodies in sight, no memorable guitar or organ lines, lots of pretense and fake mysticism, atrocious production (they really got let down on this one – Hammill’s vocals are even hardly noticeable at all most of the time), and a deadly serious atmosphere with not even an inch of relaxation. Aaahhh…

Okay, so there is a dim of light even in the darkest corners. I’m referring mainly to the two gentle ballads on here; somehow Mr Hammill comes off as more sincere and emotional when he tries to be tender and caressing than when he’s impersonating an old Biblical prophet or an angry cabbalist. ‘Out Of My Book’, with its pretty medieval flutes and gentle acoustic rhythms fluttering around Peter’s pretty love lyrics, is oddly beautiful, even if the main melody is not too memorable. Dylan would probably have treated this material more subtly, rendering it even more personal and intimate; for the lack of Dylan, here’s Hammill to you. But an even better treatment is ‘Refugees’, one of VDGG’s stage favorites – the last time in a long, long, long while that Hammill would actually be tackling subjects remotely attached to the problems of real life instead of indulging in fantasies. (Not that indulging in fantasies is condemnable, mind you – but too many fantasies do make you lose control, now don’t they?). It’s a sad, gorgeous tale of people separated from their homeland and lamenting the fact even if their current life conditions are rather improved; I have no idea if the ‘West is Mike and Suzie, West is where I love’ line actually refers to real people and means something to Peter, but it might as well have, and if there is one VDGG song to bring a person to tears, it’s this one.

But then there’s the problem of the ‘heavier’ stuff. And oh man, is it boring. Boring, dull, and bleak without a point. One possible half-exception is the album closing number, ‘After The Flood’: with its apocalyptic imagery and a nice psychologic buildup throughout, it comes close to being endurable. I’d even exceed certain limits and go as far as to say that its chorus, umm, err, is catchy – ‘and when the water falls again, all is dead and nobody lives’, I find myself repeating these lines all the time. But even so, it’s marred by idiotic gimmicks – the chaotic jam in the middle is pedestrian and primitive, and sounds like a half-assed rip-off of similar King Crimson jams; the electronic encoding of Hammill screaming ‘ANNIHILATION’ is a banal cheap trick that probably sounded dated way back in 1970; and for no specific reason, Hugh Banton steals Hendrix’s ‘Love Or Confusion’ riff for the organ in the coda.

And that’s it. The three other drones I could easily live without. ‘Darkness’ seems to be a fan favourite, but I still can’t see what’s so special about that one – it sounds like an inferior rewrite of something like ‘Octopus’ with far poorer production and far less interesting things to offer us second time around. The vocal melody clearly centers around the lyrics, not containing even a single eyebrow-raising hook, and the organ/sax interplay is blurry, smudged, and essentially atmospheric – the melodic lines aren’t even complex, they’re just… they’re just there. Other bands like the already mentioned King Crimson, or even Genesis, were far better at capturing this somber autumnal mood, anyway, and they actually relied on chords, not just vague atmospherics. Meanwhile, ‘White Hammer’ is just everything bad about VDGG poured in one place: abysmal lyrics (so they’re based on historical facts – as if I cared, gimme ‘Return Of The Giant Hogweed’ over this any time of day), complete lack of melody (I’m no musician, but I could certainly write something like that in half an hour) and an eight-minute running time; when you’re suddenly ground into the ground with the furious thunderstorm coda, it’s way, way too late, since nothing can really pull me out of the induced slumber. Yeah, the coda is good, even if it is also heavily influenced by King Crimson; but that doesn’t save the song. What would have saved it would be a memorable riff or an unexpected vocal twist instead of the predictable “now we’re quiet, yet ominous ==> and now we’re loud and scary as hell” development.

Finally, ‘Whatever Would Robert Have Said?’ is just more of the same – hell, Peter, if you bother writing lyrics like “I am the love you try to hide, but which all can understand; I am the hate you still deny, though the blood is on your hands”, you might as well bother setting them to a real melody, not just a random set of chords which could have as well been selected by a computer.

So you get my drift. I mean, something just happened, didn’t it? Somewhere along the way Hammill and Co. just forgot all about the music. They went for the atmosphere and for the pretense, they went for the kill, and they got themselves a duffer. Something tells me Hammill must have been jealous of King Crimson’s debut, and he just had to overcome them in the self-indulgence department. He probably did that in the lyrical sense – Pete Sinfield can go sulk in the corner – but, unfortunately, the music on this album leaves a lot to be desired. Ah well. That’s the usual trapping of prog-rock, after all, so I guess there’s nothing to be terribly surprised about.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin The Song Remains The Same (Blu-ray) (1976)


For lovers or big-screen rock excess, the late ’70s was the absolute golden era. For whatever reason, during that period Hollywood became obsessed with bringing music to the box office masses, and unleashed an avalanche of ridiculously conceived pop spectacles starring a bizarre cross-section of performers that had no business getting anywhere near the silver screen. On any given weekend, bumping shoulders (and grinding pelvises) at the local multiplex were acts as disparate as the Village People (‘Can’t Stop the Music’), ELO (‘Xanadu’), the Bee-Gees and Peter Frampton (‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’) and even Sweden’s biggest music export, ABBA (the immortal ‘ABBA: The Movie’). It was a virtual cinematic car crash, with one spectacular disaster after another going down in flames.

It’s surprising in hindsight, but rock gods Led Zeppelin somehow got caught up in all of this hysteria, and in 1976 they released their own big-screen epic ‘The Song Remains the Same.’ Part concert movie, part “dramatic interpretation’ of their music, it’s not jaw-droppingly awful on the level of, say, a ‘Xanadu’ (this is the Zeppelin, after all, not ELO), but the movie is ill-conceived enough that you have to wonder what the Led boys were thinking. Were rock egos that big in the ’70s that a top act like this thought it prudent to appear in something this grandiose and pretentious?

According to the film’s original promotional materials, ‘The Song Remains the Same’ was intended to be “…the band’s special way of giving their millions of friends what they had been clamoring for — a personal and private tour of Led Zeppelin.” The end product, however, turned out just a little bit different. Originally conceived as a straight-ahead concert film, the bulk of the movie was shot during a three-night stint at Madison Square Garden during the band’s hugely successful 1973 world tour. Unfortunately, much of the material turned out so poorly that it was virtually unusable, and the band was also unhappy with many of its performances. So the the film’s producers hastily came up with a solution — scrap most of the movie (including firing the original director, Joe Massot, and replacing him with Peter Clifton) and reconfigure it from top to bottom as a more traditional narrative, albeit with some concert performances spliced in.

Suffering from all of the bloated pomposity of the ’70s “prog-rock” era, the “dramatic” segueways added to ‘The Song Remains the Same’ are virtually interminable. After a long opening sequence of the band arriving by plane (that sets up some forgettable plot about a robbery — yawn), we’re treated to a series of downright loony “fantasy” interludes that are supposed to give us insight into the personalities of each of the band members. There’s John Paul Jones, reading “Jack and the Beanstalk” to his daughters. John Bonham drag racing to the tune of “Moby Dick.” Jimmy Page climbing a snow-capped mountain in search of a hermit (seriously, I’m not kidding). And Robert Plant getting to ride a horse across a wind-swept landscape, his flowing locks making him look like a lost hippie Prince from an abandoned Disney theme park ride. It’s all meant to “symbolize” something, but in such an overt and heavy-handed way that it inspires laughter more than profundity.

Thankfully, ‘The Song Remains the Same’ also features concert performances of nearly a dozen classic Led Zeppelin tunes, and that’s the reason to see the film. Although the band would subsequently reshoot some of the close-ups and other insert shots on a soundstage (leading to a few glaring continuity errors), it is these scenes that prove without a doubt that Zeppelin is arguably the greatest hard rock band in history. During the 1973 tour the were often at the peak of their powers, and indeed few other acts can touch them even now. The interaction of the band members achieves an intensity that borders on the orgiastic at times, and moments in “Black Dog,” Whole Lotta Love” and of course “Stairway to Heaven” deliver genuine goosebumps.

Unfortunately, one must still endure a great deal of self-indulgent dreck in order to enjoy those moments of musical nirvana. Die hard Zeppelin fans won’t need any arm-twisting, of course, but if you’re only a casual admirer of the band — or you’re still confused as to what all the fuss is about — you may find your finger twitching on the remote’s fast-forward button through a good portion of the film’s runtime. Watched as a greatest hits collection of concert performances, ‘The Song Remains the Same’ is absolutely essential. As a piece of rock cinema, however, it’s a pretty miserable failure.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Led Zeppelin The Song Remains The Same DVD | , | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin Celebration Day (2012)


The stakes couldn’t have been higher.

When the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin took the stage at London’s O2 Arena in December of 2007 — 27 years after playing their last show under their sainted name — they had to live up to a legacy of muscle and finesse barely matched in the last half century of music.

Eyewitnesses — which, tragically, did not include yours truly — swore up and down that the trio, with drummer Jason Bonham subbing for his late dad, did their storied past proud. But the grainy snips available on YouTube provided no proof. Which tested the faith of the 20 million fans who applied for tix, only to have all but 18,000 of them turned down flat.

Starting tomorrow, no one will have to leave the show’s reputation to hearsay. “Celebration Day,” which captures the two-hour concert, plays for one night only, on Wednesday, Oct. 17, at multiple area theaters, before coming out on DVD and CD Nov. 19. The richly photographed, shrewdly focused flick proves that, if anything, those who mooned over the original show understated it.

This concert kills.

Director Dick Carruthers kept his camera right where he should: onstage. Few crowd shots turn up, and not a single glimpse outside the hall or interview with the band interrupts the music’s flow. Often Carruthers places his camera right between the musicians, the better to catch every ricochet and volley of their dynamics.

From the start of the 16-song set we see the players primed to exploit the limits of their connection. This isn’t just a bunch of pros faithfully delivering the material. It’s a reanimated, organic band, rediscovering the energy and flair of their old songs in real time.

Bonham, who shares his father’s meaty paws and double-bass-drum-style, looks like he’s about to eat the kit. He plays ravenously. The oft-overlooked John Paul Jones shows the full jazz of his bass work, navigating the abstractions of “Dazed and Confused” with as much invention as star player Page. In “Trampled Under Foot,” his keyboards give the song its boiling funk.

While Plant has often held his voice in check in his post-Zep projects, he scales a vintage Golden God yelp in “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” He shows his intuitive play with Page with each charge to “push, push.”

If anything Page’s riff-work in “The Song Remains the Same” outpaces his original lightning-fast runs. All his stop-start riffs carry thunder and sex.

Back in 1976, Zep released the meandering concert film “The Song Remains the Same.” Decades down the line, the sinew and elaboration of the new movie puts that old one to shame. With no plans for a Zep tour, “Celebration Day” stands as a one-night-only ticket to see rock’s great lions roar.

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Celebration Day | , | Leave a comment