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Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, The Who and the Birth of the Mega Rock Tour (Book Excerpt)

This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In the classic rock movie Almost Famous, set during the spring and summer of 1973, rock critic Lester Bangs laments “this dangerous moment” in rock history when fame and money threaten to “strangle everything we love about rock.” In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road With Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and The Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born, THR contributing editor Michael Walker uncovers the facts beneath Cameron Crowe’s thinly veiled fiction.

72_Led Zeppelin North American Tour 1973_iocero_2013_04_27_17_37_43_05fc64507551e729fb1e385It was the year the concert business went big time with the stadium tour. The crowds were bigger, the travel more decadent, the groupies more eager and the behavior of the stars more outrageous. Into this came three legendary acts touring to promote three career-defining albums: Led Zeppelin with Houses of the Holy, The Who with Quadrophenia and the original Alice Cooper band with Billion Dollar Babies. The Who, the last of the great British Invasion bands, was a critical darling after such albums as 1968’s rock opera Tommy. Quadrophenia, another concept album, was its attempt to grow and connect with a new generation that missed 1965’s “My Generation.”

Led Zeppelin, formed in England in 1968, was a commercial success (the band’s 1971 fourth album sold 32 million copies) but was dismissed by critics. Houses of the Holy, its fifth album in as many years, was its first to feature all original material. Alice Cooper the band was just coming into stardom in 1973. Like Zeppelin, it was reviled by critics — for its outrageous stage-show theatrics, including fake blood and live snakes, that anticipated David Bowie’s outre-glam and Kiss’ demonic makeup. Unlike Zeppelin, Cooper’s first two albums were commercial flops.

The 1971 hit “I’m Eighteen” and 1972 follow-up “School’s Out” changed that trajectory. With its themes of decadence and power, Billion Dollar Babies captured the zeitgeist of a country about to be engulfed in the cynicism of the Watergate scandal and reached No. 1. Shifting to an all-stadium tour, Alice Cooper grossed $4.5 million (when tickets were $6.50), drawing a then-astounding 820,000 fans and paving the way for modern tours like Lady Gaga’s $181 million-grossing Born This Way. In 1973, these three seminal acts would herald the transformation of the rock concert into the rock concert business. — Andy Lewis

Led Zeppelin crashed into the United States in May 1973 fresh off a string of European shows with Houses of the Holy on its way to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. By design, the first two dates of the tour — held in outdoor stadiums to capacity crowds in Atlanta and Tampa — were meant to convey the band’s new world-beating status and generate the respectful press that had gone to The Rolling Stones the previous year. Peter Grant, the notoriously blunt manager for Zeppelin, made as much ominously clear to Danny Goldberg, the band’s new publicist. Goldberg seized upon a brilliant strategy to link Zeppelin to rock’s ultimate touchstones. Tallying the capacity audience at Tampa Stadium, he noted that, at 56,800, it slightly exceeded the attendance for The Beatles’ record-­setting 1965 Shea Stadium show. “Of course, the contrast with Shea Stadium was a reflection of the size of the stadiums, not the relative popularity of the groups,” Goldberg later acknowledged, along with the fact that rock festivals like Woodstock had drawn far larger audiences. “But I figured those crowds had been drawn by multi-artist packages rather than single headliners.” Goldberg typed a press release declaring that Zeppelin had broken the attendance record set by The Beatles for a single-­artist concert and dropped it off at the local UPI bureau — “where it was a slow news night.” The next day newspapers around the world ran stories with headlines blaring that Led Zeppelin was now “bigger than The Beatles.”

The Who arrived in San Francisco to open its American tour at the 14,000­seat Cow Palace on Nov. 20. The band traveled with 20 tons of custom sound and lights and other staging that required three 45-­foot trailers and a 12­-man crew. Tickets for the show — as with every city on the itinerary — sold out in hours, and anticipation for the band’s first concert in America since 1971’s Who’s Next was acute. But within minutes of the group striking up “Magic Bus,” drummer Keith Moon appeared vacant-eyed, flailing at his cymbals, before passing out face ­first into the tom­-toms. As the band played on, he was hoisted as if from a fishing net and carried offstage, limp and pale as a mackerel. “When Keith collapsed, it was such a shame,” Pete Townshend later recalled. “I had just been getting warmed up at that point … I didn’t want to stop playing.”

Such was Townshend’s mind-set when he turned to the audience and half quipped, “Does anybody play the drums?” A cheer went up. “I mean somebody good.” In the audience near the stage was Scott Halpin, a 19­-year­-old Iowa transplant who had paid for a scalped ticket and was attending with a friend. When his pal heard Townshend’s request, he got the attention of stage security and, indicating Halpin, shouted “He can play!” The next thing Halpin knew, he was backstage downing a shot of brandy someone handed him and being escorted to the drum set. As he settled in, Townshend reached through the cymbals to shake his hand. “I’m in complete shock,” Halpin recalls.

Given the circumstances, Halpin acquitted himself reasonably well before joining arms with Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle for the curtain call. Backstage, Daltrey gave Halpin a tour jacket and pledged to pay him $1,000. Whereupon Halpin climbed into his VW Beetle and drove himself back into obscurity. Townshend sent him a thank-you note after the tour moved to Los Angeles, but the thousand dollars Daltrey promised never materialized.

Before the early ’70s, bands seldom toured with their own PA­ systems — it was the promoter’s responsibility to provide one. As late as 1970, says Cooper’s road manager David Libert, “even big bands would show up, and there would be a sound system they had never seen before. But [good] sound systems were just coming in — there were companies forming at that time.”

One of them was Heil Sound, founded by a pipe organist and electronics geek with no affinity for rock but a keen appreciation for the dynamics of sound in a live environment. In 1966, Bob Heil opened a music shop in his tiny hometown of Marissa, Ill., where he sold Hammond organs. As it happened, rock bands at the time were repurposing the Hammond B-3, a favorite of jazz and blues musicians, into a screaming lead instrument on par with the electric guitar. When Heil heard the pathetic sound systems bands played through, he scavenged two huge Altec A-7 speakers from St. Louis’ Fox Theatre and paired them with radial horns, ring tweeters and thousands of watts of amplification. In 1970, the Grateful Dead’s sound system was impounded while the band was en route from New Orleans to St. Louis, and Heil took a call from a panicked Jerry Garcia. Heil trucked his creation to the Fox and mixed sound at the concert. The Dead took Heil and his PA to New Jersey and on the rest of their tour. Word of Heil’s “really big PA” spread, and The Who ended up commissioning Heil’s unprecedented quadrophonic sound system, used on the U.K. dates of the 1973 Quadrophenia tour.

As Cooper’s band rehearsed for its tour, a massive set was being constructed on a Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank. Built on multiple levels, the stage comprised two steel cages flanking a Busby Berkeley-inspired staircase that, per Alice’s request, lit up with each step he took. Silvered bodies hung from the superstructure, and a gilded sarcophagus with lasers that shot from its eyes loomed behind center stage. Aside from Alice, the bandmembers were not consulted on the design. On a tour that would increasingly be fraught with unspoken tension over Alice’s emerging superstardom, the stage’s design had the effect, intentional or not, of diminishing the instrumentalists. “I do believe that the stage really made the band look like Alice’s backing band,” says guitarist Mick Mashbir.

When The Beatles toured in 1964, their contract for backstage amenities stipulated: “In all dressing rooms for The Beatles, the purchaser must provide four cots, mirrors, an ice cooler, portable TV set and clean towels.” Minus the ice cooler and TV, that’s more or less what the average jail cell provides today.

The entitlement that would come to define rock stardom in the ’70s — and the ostentatious luxury that embodies it — gained its first foothold in the big tours of 1973. Witness this sample from Alice Cooper’s backstage hospitality rider: “Purchaser shall provide three (3) cases of Budweiser, three (3) cases of Michelob, one (1) gallon of apple juice, one (1) gallon of orange juice, two (2) cases of Coca­-Cola, one (1) case of ginger ale and assorted fruit. This is to be placed in a cooler with ice in Alice Cooper’s dressing room. … The Michelob beer must be in bottles and the cases of Budweiser must be in cans. In states where the sale of beer must have an alcoholic content of less than 6 percent (i.e. 3.2 beer), the beer must be imported from another state.”

Bob Gruen photographed and traveled with dozens of acts in the early ’70s — Led Zeppelin, Cooper and The Who among them — and witnessed firsthand the creation of the rock-­star mind-set. “It’s contempt for everybody,” Gruen says. “It was just, ‘We’re special, we’re gods, everybody adores us and we deserve whatever we want.’ ”

On the Billion Dollar Babies tour, says Libert, “Everybody was living in this bubble. Think of it: You put your bag outside your hotel room, and then the next thing you know, it’s outside your hotel room in the next city. You go downstairs, you hop into a limo, it takes you to your own airplane, the airplane flies you to the next city, you hop out, you hop into another limousine, it takes you to the next hotel. You don’t really touch reality, and there’s people to keep everybody else away.”

One of Danny Markus’ first tasks when he joined Zeppelin’s ’73 tour was to stock the band’s suites at Chicago’s Ambassador East with stereo equipment. After going to some trouble to assemble audiophile­-level gear, Markus stopped by the hotel to check on his charges. “So I’m up in Robert Plant’s room, I think Jimmy Page was there, and I’m looking around, ‘What happened to the stereo? Did it work out?’ And Robert says, ‘Come here.’ And we go down to one of the guest bathrooms in the suite and there it was, in the bathtub, in like a foot of water.”

Gruen was struck by the immensity of Zeppelin’s success and their eagerness to indulge it. “They had the plane, they’re playing a stadium — that was something that I don’t think the bands of the ’60s would have
dreamed of,” he says. “Being in a band in the ’60s was about having fun. Rock and roll was a way to get a free drink and meet a girl. You weren’t expecting to make a lot of money, but you could have fun.” Adds Peter Rudge, The Who’s co-manager, “Woodstock made everybody aware of what the commercial potential was of what up until that time had been, essentially, an alternative culture and in many respects a cottage industry.”

The Kids Are AlrightDave Otto was a Cincinnati entrepreneur whose contribution to rock ‘n’ roll came when he perfected a technique for printing on flexible rayon with an adhesive backing. Thus was born the modern backstage pass. In short order, Otto’s backstage passes became the industry standard and a potent symbol of the stratification of rock culture as the audience-performer dynamic shifted to star-supplicant. “There was a mystique about them,” acknowledges Otto. “A backstage pass was more valuable than a front-row seat ticket.” Before long they became pseudo-­currency, and groupies deduced that the fastest route to the backstage sanctum was through a pass proffered by a roadie rounding up talent for the post-show party. And sometimes that pass would require … extra services, earning them the crude sobriquet “knee pads.”

As for groupies, “Some people took it more seriously than others,” Libert says. “One of the things these guys would do to entice a girl would be to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to such-and-such a town the next day, stick with me and I’ll take you with me on the plane.’ So I had to institute the following rules: If you take a girl on the plane, if there’s room, she had to be 18 and prove it. Rule number two: You owed her a plane ticket back to where you got her from. And if you refused to pay, you got fired. We had to protect Alice. It could jeopardize the whole tour. It wasn’t that I was so gallant.”

Although the 1973 rock ‘n’ roll tour was nominally subject to the laws and customs of whatever municipality or sovereign state through which it passed, it created its own law inside the traveling party. Behavior unacceptable to civilians was tolerated or actively encouraged within the entourage if it boosted camaraderie — a private plane is a powerful bonding device for rich young men interested in no one’s agenda but their own. “Sure, it’s expensive,” Cooper manager Shep Gordon said of AC-­1, the charter for the Billion Dollar Babies tour, “but having our own plane is good for everybody’s morale. We don’t have to f— around waiting in airports, and we can do what we want once we’re on the plane.”

Zeppelin flew the first leg of the ’73 tour in a Falcon 20, a snug French business jet. After the plane encountered severe turbulence after a gig in Oakland and terrified the entourage, Grant leased the just-­commissioned Starship, a former United Airlines Boeing 720­-B owned by teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman. Retrofitted at a cost of $200,000 with tacky-­chic ’70s delights including a water bed, shag carpeting, brass-trimmed bars and a video library stocked with everything from Deep Throat to Duck Soup, the Starship was a hit with nouveau riche rockers who could afford it — Zeppelin paid $30,000 to lease it during July 1973. “There was nothing like it on the face of the Earth,” says Libert. “It was sort of like Air Force One, but rock ‘n’ roll.”

Compared to the mighty Starship, the Lockheed Electra that transported Cooper and Co. seems barely airworthy: The four-engine turboprop couldn’t climb above 29,000 feet, which led to spectacular turbulence. Nevertheless, it was beloved by the entourage for its crash-­pad aesthetics and practicality.

A new generation of tour managers like Gordon entered the business, and they questioned the wisdom of delegating blind trust to local promoters. By carrying their own sound and lights instead of relying on sketchy rentals, they enhanced the quality of their productions while taking a profit center away from the promoters and turning it into a recoupable expense. “We would bring our own sound and lights and charge the promoters, and the promoters would go crazy,” says Libert. ” ‘I can get that for half the price!’ Well, take it or leave it.”

As arena rock took off, the managers pushed back. Flat fees gave way to guarantees and percentages. Zeppelin’s opening show at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium with 49,236 in attendance, half of them sprawled on the baseball diamond’s grassy infield, grossed $246,000 (the same show would earn more than $1.2 million at 2012 ticket prices).

Selling out 17,000­-seat arenas gave the new managers the leverage to demand transparency from notoriously opaque box-office accounting. Earlier in his career, Tom Ross booked Olympic figure skater Peggy Fleming into municipal arenas and got to know the building managers. When rock moved into those same arenas in the early ’70s, he was uniquely qualified to call bullshit on promoters who were padding their expenses. “A lot of the costs that promoters would charge us — ­for catering, for limousines –­ were actually companies they started and owned,” Ross said. “So they were making a profit from little ancillary businesses that they used to farm out.”

Chip Rachlin worked for ICM as a booking agent in the ’70s, where his clients included The Eagles and Billy Joel. “I was leaving the agency business and my last show date was in D.C.,” Rachlin says. The promoter was Jack Boyle, whom Rachlin knew well. “Charming rogue, great guy, used to hang out with the Kennedys. He said, ‘I’m going to let you ask me any question you want tonight. Just one. I said, ‘Show me where you cheated.’ ” Boyle led Rachlin to the dressing room, where the post-show catering was laid out. “At the center of the dessert section was this five­-gallon tub of ice cream. You wouldn’t think anything about it. He said, ‘Take a spoon. Put it into the ice cream.’ So you get it down about half an inch and you scoop that into the bowl. He says, ‘Try and get ice cream below the half inch.’ You couldn’t — it was plaster of Paris. He said, ‘That put three kids through college.’ ” Rachlin observes, “The ice cream would show up as a $74 charge. If you do 200 shows a year … who knew how many other cement ice creams he had around the building? I guarantee you, no tour accountant, nobody would catch that.”

The ’73 tours had consequences that changed the lives and careers of all three acts. The rest of the ’70s were an unfolding nightmare for Zeppelin. In 1975, Plant and his family were severely injured in a car accident in Greece, forcing the cancellation of an American tour and delaying their seventh album. Before a New Orleans show in 1977, Plant received the news that his son, Karac, had died suddenly of a viral infection. The band never again played in the U.S. In the summer of 1980, Zeppelin planned a month­long return to America in October to promote In Through the Out Door, but during rehearsals, drummer John Bonham was discovered in bed at Page’s home, having choked to death on his vomit after consuming, it was later determined, more than a liter of vodka. He was 32.

Cooper’s band had scarcely unpacked from the Billion Dollar Babies tour before they were back at work recording a follow-up. Alice’s isolation was now exacerbated by an aggressive bodyguard who shadowed him everywhere. The band decided to take a one-year hiatus, and Alice recorded 1975’s solo effort Welcome to My Nightmare. After that, there was no more talk of the original band regrouping. “Now what do you got?” says band publicist Bob Brown. “You got a person named Alice Cooper and a band named Alice Cooper.”

The Who played out the ’70s after Quadrophenia amid personal upheaval and public and private tragedy. Townshend wrestled with drink and drugs. The Who by Numbers was released in 1975 to indifferent reviews and sales. After a three-­year hiatus, the band recorded Who Are You, but within a month of the album’s release, Moon died suddenly after an overdose of the drug meant to wean him from alcohol.

Excerpted from What You Want Is in the Limo by Michael Walker. Copyright (c) 2013 by Michael Walker. All rights reserved.

December 22, 2013 Posted by | Book What You Want Is In The Limo by Michael Walker | , , | Leave a comment

Michael Walker On Rock Stars And ‘What You Want Is In The Limo’ (2013)

Photo of Robert PLANT and LED ZEPPELINFrom

By Christine Rendon
July 26, 2013, 10:12 a.m.
The year 1973 was a wild ride — three wild rides, actually, according to “What You Want Is in the Limo.” The book by Michael Walker details the tours of three enormous rock bands — Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who. Groupies, jets, managers, buses, crystal balls of cocaine: Walker’s got a backstage pass to them all.

Walker, the author of “Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood,” will be reading from “What You Want Is in the Limo” at Book Soup on Saturday at 4 p.m. He spoke to us via phone about his new book.

One of the bands you focus on is Alice Cooper. You wrote that he had a great rapport with the press. How did that come about?

The band had a meeting early on with a publicist named Pat Kingsley. And Pat Kingsley went on to become the most powerful Hollywood publicist in history, but back in 1970 or whatever it was, when Shep [Gordon], Alice Cooper’s manager approached her, she was just a publicist starting out. She met with the band, and said, “Shep, tell the guys to step outside for a few minutes.” And she said to Shep, “Look, five guys named Alice Cooper, I don’t know what to do with that. You give me one guy named Alice Cooper, that I can sell.” So Shep went out into the hallway and said, “One of you guys has to be Alice Cooper.” And the guy that got the nut was Vincent Furnier — he was already the lead singer, but everything they did going forward would concentrate on him and the Alice Cooper character because it’s an easier story to sell to the press. There’s a band that was working the press from day one. In the ’73 tour Shep had the road manager tell the rest of the band they weren’t welcome at press conferences anymore because they didn’t know how to get good press, they didn’t know what to say. So Alice became the personal superstar and they kind of got left behind.

Why do you think Led Zeppelin had a bad relationship with the press? You say their music didn’t resonate with Rolling Stone?

The big rock critics at Rolling Stone venerated the ’60s bands a lot: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane — all the great ‘60s bands were what they knew, what they approved of. They did not approve of Led Zeppelin at all.

The fan age of Led Zeppelin was far younger than they were accustomed to and Led Zeppelin was commercially successful independent of them. Here comes Led Zeppelin who, in their opinion, is doing pretty crass music — crass, commercial, just unredeeming. They thought the music was bombastic, simplistic, it was way too derivative of stuff that had already been done and better by bands they liked.

Simultaneous with Led Zeppelin’s arrival around 1969 and 1970 was the rise of the FM radio. FM radio hadn’t really existed before, at least for promoting rock ‘n’ roll, and it came on in a big way. Led Zeppelin very insidiously courted FM radio; they didn’t court the rock press, they just went completely around them. They got their album on the radio without the help of the press.

The third thing that hurt Led Zeppelin was they signed with Atlantic Records for what was at the time a very large amount of money, a $200,000 advance I think, and therefore they were a hype band. Back in those days that mattered –the fact that they extracted such a large amount of money out of Atlantic Records, they were automatically suspect.

what you wantRobert Plant cultivated his stardom very, very carefully and really, really wanted it. Robert Plant was way too earnest, and that’s kind of what also killed it. Because reporters want to be in on the joke, and Alice Cooper let them in, he basically said, “This is all ridiculous, we couldn’t get arrested three years ago, now we have the No. 1 album in the country. You do the math.” He was a really charming guy, I interviewed him for the book, he’s hilarious, he knows exactly what to say.

You write that in the 1960s, the music industry was free and open, while in the 1970s the industry refocused to being more about money and consumption. What do you think caused this shift?

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about the year 1973 — I think it is a dividing line between the values and culture of the 1960s and the 1970s. What interested me about that year is that the ’60s aren’t quite over yet.… At the same time the decade the ‘70s would become wasn’t quite invented yet; it was starting to get there, you’re seeing signs of it. So you have this year that’s got one foot in the ‘60s and one foot in the ‘70s; I thought it would be interesting to take three bands that were formed in the 1960s and were helping define what the 1970s would be.

In the late ‘60s, Woodstock happened, and no one had really known how big the audience was for rock music until that show — 300,000 people show up on a side of a hill in New York: it opened everybody’s eyes. What had been a cottage industry, the record business back then, it didn’t sell that many albums… in the early ‘70s record companies began to consciously go after money in ways they had not before.

There was another thing…the second half of the baby boom generation was coming of age in the early 1970s — 18 million people had been born in 1957, which made them 16 in 1973; all of the sudden teenagers have allowances and part-time jobs and they’re buying albums as never before. There’s also a change in attitude, when the big money started coming in, people at the record companies began to realize how big this business could be and it changed things.

Also, the drug menu was changing. In the ‘60s it had been marijuana and acid, drugs of inclusiveness and sharing; cocaine was coming in in 1973, and that was the opposite.

In the book you mentioned that one of the music PR firms displayed a crystal ball of cocaine.

Yeah, that was Gibson & Stromberg in L.A., it was a cut crystal ball — the only rule was you couldn’t take it with you. You couldn’t scoop it up and use it later that night.

Can you explain how women were involved? This time in history they seem caught between the sexual revolution and this male-dominated industry.

I very much wanted to include what women were doing on these tours and how women were being treated in the industry at that time — and it turned out there was more involvement than I thought. There were women publicists who weren’t fantasizing about sleeping with Robert Plant, they were there to work for him. There was Mary Beth Medley, the right-hand to road manager Peter Rudge, and she ran the tours as much as he did. Women were not just being groupies, they were working it. There’s a part of that in the book.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

December 22, 2013 Posted by | Book What You Want Is In The Limo by Michael Walker | , , , | Leave a comment

Yes Close To The Edge (1972)


Okay, I can’t stand it any longer, I just have to go out and say it. Jon Anderson is a graphomaniac whose only purpose in life seems to be penning pretentious, cosmic, universalist, but totally absurd, senseless and bland lyrics and singing them with his voice which I’ve already complained about a dozen times. I don’t even hate the guy – I’d rather pity him. It’s more of a medical problem than of anything else. If the stuff he’s singing is supposed to have some real meaning, I’ll just have to suppose that in his previous incarnation he was a master cryptographer; I’m not even trying to decipher any “messages” in these lines…

That said, Close To The Edge is definitely a good album – while an older state of this here review hardly did anything but bash it up, which explains all the further disagreements and hatemail below, I think I’ve grown mature enough to tolerate it and even teach myself to like parts of it. Thus, in the new review I will try to concentrate on both the good and the bad sides of the story, as it is indeed a very complicated one.
The main problem of the album as I see it now is that there are only three songs on it. Three, you get it? And one of them takes up an entire side. Now that could be small tragedy, since there’d already been a few precedents (Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick the most important of those), and the length of a tune, be it fifty minutes or even more, isn’t necessarily a fault by itself. But the main fault of the title track, as well as the two lesser ones, is that it uncompromisingly refuses to present us with a sufficient quality of original ideas. Basically, what you get is what you already know by heart if you ever bought Fragile a few months before: rapid, flawless riffing a la Howe, fluid synth parts a la Wakeman, immaculate drumming a la Bruford, fantastic bass lines a la Squire and the well-known tenor robotic singing a la Anderson.

The same old story. Technical perfection, this time around complemented by far more moody synth and organ effects than before; Close To The Edge tries to recreate the atmosphere of Yes’ “metaphysical fantasy world”, and so the pure musical parts alternate with ‘beautiful noise’ and environment sounds like birds chirping, etcetera. However, when it comes around to the actual playing, I always tend to get bored rather quickly because there are not enough themes. Yep. The title track, for instance, has (a) the intro part, (b) the main melody, (c) the ‘middle’ part of ‘I Get Up I Get Down’. Everything else is just minor variations or ‘noise breaks’. All of these three themes are decent (even if we manage to overlook the fact that the main theme is nothing but a recycling of the old standards, borrowing extensively from both ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’ and ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’), but taken together, they could have easily made a five or six minute long tune. Sure, it would not have the epic swirl it has on this record, but it also would not cause me yawning in distraction as they sing the same verse melody for the quadrillionth time. For comparison, the first side of Thick As A Brick alone had at least six or seven different musical themes going on, not counting the breaks in between; same goes for Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ and even – shudder – Van Der Graaf Generator’s ‘Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers’.

More or less the same accusation can be hurled against the two songs on the other side: both the mellow ‘And You And I’ and the more rocking ‘Siberian Khatru’ do not at all justify their running length by the number of musical ideas contained therein. When they play a melody, they mostly repeat one or two main themes that are, once again, quite good (the main riff of ‘Khatru’ in particular), but there’s just about too much of them; when they don’t play a melody, they just sit around and make noise that’s kinda inessential.

One might make a good counterpoint: ‘Yeah, but that’s not their point. They don’t go for diversity, they go for atmosphere’. So maybe they do, but that brings up another problem – what atmosphere? When it comes down to atmosphere, objective criteria cease to exist altogether and it all comes down to whether the noise you’re listening to touches some of your particular nerves or whether it doesn’t. In my case, it doesn’t – well, not particularly. I definitely feel there are moments of beauty on the album; definitely so. In particular, the ‘I Get Up I Get Down’ section of the title track is gorgeous beyond words, and one of the few cases when I don’t feel like complaining about Anderson’s singing at all. And when Anderson sings ‘not right away, not right away’, there is something utterly pretty there too, although hell if I know what. And there is a stately synth/guitar-led climax in ‘And You And I’ (also reprised twice, by the way) that can easily qualify as the most defining moment of pure heavenly majesty in the entire Yes catalog. But when we have to deal with all the other musical sections that are not self-consciously beautiful, it’s another story. I, for one, really cannot force myself to think of a reason why more or less the same musical piece should be given three different subtitles – ‘The Solid Time Of Change’, ‘Total Mass Retain’ and ‘Seasons Of Man’ – and played thrice on a nineteen-minute long track. Not to mention that it is not atmospheric at all: it rocks pretty hard, but with no special effects or diversifying gimmicks, and it even sounds kinda reggaeish to me, at times. What a strange bunch of dudes.

These two problems – not enough musical ideas and “atmosphere = acquired taste” – are a serious blow indeed, and I don’t see how rabid Yes fans can actually overlook them, especially since next to this album in their collection sits Fragile which successfully resolves both of them. On the other hand, after a long battle with myself, I decided that the album is still a big achievement for Yes. Actually, I think that if only the huge songs were ‘cut down’ and reduced to a short fifteen- or twenty-minute EP, it would possibly be the best Yes EP ever. Because, like I said, most of the actual musical themes range from decent to gorgeous; and when it comes down to musicianship, the band shows itself on such a tight level as never before or after. They play as a well-oiled, powerful unit, in which the members never overshadow one another and never disappear from sight. Perhaps the best moment to demonstrate it is the intro theme to ‘Close To The Edge’ that can be taken as a kind of ‘band anthem’: Bruford displays his polyrhythms, Squire is quietly blazing out his speedy zoops ‘in the corner’, Howe is playing an energetic solo, and Wakeman gets in with finger-flashing ‘rainy’ synthesizer patterns which actually sound like a tape loop to me but probably aren’t – after all, wasn’t the man supposed to be reproducing them live? And there are many more moments like that on the record.

Thus, in the end the immaculate musicianship and the goodness of the themes makes me overlook most of the album’s flaws. No, I will never totally get into Yes’ fantasy world, as inviting as it is, because these guys don’t even give a hint at what kind of world it really is, bar the ‘And You And I’ climax, of course, but out of pure respect for the guys’ blending together really well, I give it an 11… with no chances of growing further, but it’s already grown as high as it could grow. After all, like I said, atmosphere is subjective. Any listener can fill this thirty-seven minute long “form” with any spiritual content his heart desires; isn’t music in the mind of the listener? If I can’t fill it with spiritual content today, it’s my current problem and nobody else’s. It would be a different thing if there were no form at all – just lengthy noodlings made on the spur of the moment. “Hey Jon, heard that these Tull fellows just released a 45-minute song?” “No kidding!” “Yeah, they did just that, here’s the album…” “Hey Chris, Rick, Bill, whatcha waiting for? Get down to business, we need to scramble enough bits to make at least a sidelong piece! How come we hadn’t thought of that ourselves?” “Well, I did suggest we join ‘Starship Trooper’ and ‘Perpetual Change’ in one, but you didn’t listen…” “Yeah, yeah, I know, I was a jerk. All right, we need to toss off something real quick right now, but we’ll still beat these guys in a year or so. How ’bout a double album underway?”

I sincerely hope nothing like the conversation above actually took place – Close To The Edge sounds a fairly normal and expected sequel to Fragile. It’s a well thought-out, excellently produced record with a lot of care and philosophy put into it. And, after all, the lack of diversity speaks at least for one important thing: it’s an extremely coherent album. ‘Supper’s Ready’ and ‘Thick As A Brick’ are both classics, and they are both linked with several musical and lyrical ideas, but they still sound very much like just a bunch of short numbers strung together; you could easily insert some pauses in between their parts and nobody would pay a lot of attention. You cannot do the same to any of the CTTE numbers – they all form an unbreaking continuity. And maybe this is Yes’ greatest merit about this record – it is the first (and last) Rock Symphony in the truest sense of the word.

December 22, 2013 Posted by | Yes Close To The Edge | | Leave a comment

Lou Reed Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal (1974)


Isn’t it ironic that Lou Reed’s best-selling album was a live one? And not just a live one – an album packed to the brink with live versions of old VU standarts. Apparently, this was the public’s muffled expression of what it really felt about Lou disbanding VU. Of course, it’s soothing to see that Lou wasn’t going to discard his past and saw no problem in taking his VU legacy on board. But the funny thing is, this doesn’t sound like the VU at all! Oh, how the clever nostalgic public was probably disappointed (and how the not so clever contemporary public was probably filled with awe).

Instead, Lou goes for a gimmicky, loud and dazzling sound – most of the entertainment is provided by constant guitar duels courtesy of hired-guns Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. It isn’t even mentioned in the liner notes if Lou plays guitar himself – I highly doubt it, seeing as he rarely played anything on his previous solo records. And on both the front and back covers he is pictured as a show-off-ey, highly maked up, well, ‘rock’n’roll animal’. This is definitely a glam show, and a glam rock record – the guitar sound is heavy but not thoroughly sincere, and from the very ‘Intro’ where Hunter and Wagner enter the stage playing dazzling (and highly professional) guitar licks off each other, you’re in for a true show – the songs take on an almost ‘monumental’ feel, most of them being sped up, cranked up, puffed up and blown up. Yeah, that’s right. All of this is just spectacle, of course, but, as with the best examples of glam rock, it’s high-quality and extremely entertaining spectacle.

A metallized, arena-rock-adjusted version of ‘Lady Day’ is the only Lou Reed solo tune that made it to the album (more of his solo numbers cropped up on the later Lou Reed Live, though), and it’s easy to see why: the general mood of the ‘brilliant show’ is in no way compatible with the quiet, stripped-down, modest moods on his solo records. ‘Lady Day’ is, in fact, the worst cut on the album, especially if compared with the far superior studio version on Berlin. On the other hand, the VU tunes have suddenly proved to be much more adaptable – the two short and the two long numbers on here rock mercilessly and are thoroughly enjoyable even in their lengthiness.

Of the short numbers, the speedy, raving, punkish version of ‘White Light/White Heat’ is the best, with enough kick-butt energy to equal and probably surpass the studio version – I mean, instead of the Velvets’ intentionally sloppy, dirty approach, you witness a tightened up, crunchy rocker, with an almost AC/DC-like riff holding up the song; but ‘Sweet Jane’ is quite decent as well, once you’ve gotten past the lengthy intro featuring the guitarists’ talents. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the two lengthy cuts – ‘Heroin’ and ‘Rock’n’Roll’. While I can’t admit to liking this version of the latter too much, and the repetitive jam at the end gets way, way too long, I certainly lift my thumbs up in favour of ‘Heroin’ – the version here is much more thought out, inspired and professional than the sloppy original.

The multiple sections of the song are quite diverse, the famous speeding up on the refrain is exercised in a series of different ways, and the song’s twelve-minute length is almost perfectly justified in that you never know what is going to happen next. Crisp, hard-hitting guitar parties abound, the occasional organ solo (Ray Colcord is on keyboards) is cute, and Lou’s vocals are sharp and distinctive as well. If anything, the song receives a real ‘rock-out’ treatment – a thing that was sorely lacking on the original; I know VU purists might crucify me for this statement, but unless you’re a VU purist (and most VU purists I’ve had the chance of meeting on the Web were absolute freaks, so I’m not speaking on their behalf), you’re bound to agree with me.

As for ‘Rock’n’Roll’, it kicks just as much ass as everything else on here; I’m not too sure if there was any real point in extending the song so drastically – Hunter’s repetitive wah-wah riff, for instance,
simply has no reason to stick in your ears for so long without any other instruments backing it – but on the whole, it forms a dazzling and highly suitable ending to the show that’s supposed to highlight Mr Reed as the Rocker to outrock everybody else. Who could have thought that this highly commercial, so straightforwardly crowd-pleasing record would be followed by Metal Machine Music just a few years later?

So, even if the album is by no means essential, it’s probably a must for all Lou Reed studiosos – turns out that the man’s live edge and studio edge around 1973-74 were two different things. And if you’re dissatisfied with Reed’s German-style ditties or pretentious conceptual musings, this is the album to own – flashy and kick-ass. Rock’n’roll, dude, rock’n’roll to the core. Plus, the production is near-excellent (funnily, it might even be better than on his contemporary studio records), and the coolest thing – which often goes unnoticed – is that Lou never even says a ‘thank you’ to the audience. Snubby son of a bitch, ain’t he?

December 22, 2013 Posted by | Lou Reed Rock 'N' Roll Animal | | Leave a comment