Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Rolling Stones: Metamorphosis (1975)

Beyond the obvious inspiration from Kafka, this album cover is unique in that it is only one of two Rolling Stones albums that depict both Mick Taylor (bottom left) and Brian Jones (bottom right), though they were not in the band at the same time. The other is Rolled Gold: The Very Best of The Rolling Stones, released that same year.
Even with the most accomplished and beloved of bands, outtakes can be very tricky turf. Witness The Beatles Anthology, six discs of rare and previously unreleased material from one of the greatest bands of all time. Taken as a whole, it is awfully uneven. The first installment features segments of dialog, presumably to make the collection feel like some sort of audio documentary, complete with obnoxious cross-fades where Paul is still talking about recording "My Bonnie" with Tony Sheridan while the song's intro plays. Someone somewhere realized this was a bad idea, as these snippets are only heard on Anthology One. All this without even really talking about the content.

On the one hand, the Anthology boasts the first official - and digitally remastered - releases of some historically significant tracks: John, Paul, and George's first recordings as a trio; selections from the Decca audition; the rendition of "All My Loving" from The Ed Sullivan Show that got the 1960's off to a start, four years too late; and the acoustic demos for The White Album recorded at Kinfauns. This makes up roughly a quarter of what can be found on the Anthology. Nearly half of the series is presentations of those familiar tunes as works-in-progress. Sometimes the differences are only of interest to the obsessed, other times we get the boys' attempt at "I'll Be Back" from A Hard Day's Night in waltz time, an even more psychedelic "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "Fool On The Hill" in a noticeably different key.

The remaining quarter, though, is what made Anthology ripe for parody, even right after its initial release in the mid-90's: an early version of "And Your Bird Can Sing" that is littered with stoned giggling, studio banter that makes the spliced-and-diced filler on Let It Be seem interesting by comparison, and the instrumental backing tracks to "Eleanor Rigby" and "Within You, Without You." Great songs, don't get me wrong, but for the casual listener, hearing those tunes without their melodies transforms two masterpieces into a melancholy British string quartet and a trip through India in 5/4 time, respectively.

Beginning with the advent of CD's and boxed sets in the early 1990's, unreleased material has gone from the stuff of legends to the expected. Retailers have adopted this into their business model, getting exclusive "Deluxe Editions" of new albums where, for a few dollars more, you can treat yourself to alternate takes, radio edits (since people LOVE censored versions of their favorite songs!), maybe a B-side, and, depending on the artist, a remix of the album's single. Boxed sets started off as collector's items, meant to be enjoyed with a glass of wine while you read the extensive liner notes on a plush sofa placed fifteen feet in front of the hi-fi system, the speakers themselves roughly twenty feet apart. The Beatles Anthology opened the floodgate, and now there is nary a contemporary release that doesn't boast a special edition in some form or another.

Funny enough, The Rolling Stones did all this first, predating The Beatles Anthology by twenty years. Granted, the Stones themselves had nothing to do with Metamorphosis, a collection of outtakes and demos, but credit is still due. A lot of these songs come from a period where Mick Jagger and Keith Richard (he dropped the 's' until 1977 - it probably made much more sense at the time) were not just competing with John and Paul in terms of who had the bigger fan-base, they were also hoping to make a name for themselves as pop songwriters. Recording information for these songs is scarce, but it is safe to say there are several tracks where you aren't even hearing The Rolling Stones at all - score one for us Monkees fans - and are instead hearing some of London's finest session players.

Somewhere along the way, manager Andrew Loog Oldham must have told Mick & Keith to diversify their interests, because there is not a lot of the Stones' early bluesy flavor on this album. Is that a good thing? Well, that depends. As both a fan of The Rolling Stones and British pop from this era, there is a lot of potential in these songs. In a way, this album presents an alternate history of The Rolling Stones. Several of these songs are so unabashedly pop - this coming from the band whose press release warned the British public to lock up their daughters - that it is not too far of a stretch to think that in some parallel universe, Metamorphosis doubles as Britpop pioneers The Rolling Stones' greatest hits.

Perhaps I am over-hyping a little too much, but I've always been a champion of the underdog. This is not an album that will blow your mind or alter your worldview. It is, however, one of the first times a popular band's vaults were opened up for public listening, and that is truly something. At its worst, the weaker tracks can be waved away with a "well, at least you tried." At its best are some fine songs to put on your own best-of mix to surprise your friends, mostly accompanied by the phrase, "Yep, that is The Rolling Stones."

On with the show.

Anyone reading this who hasn't read my album reviews before: I have a very unscientific method of rating albums where the songs are scored on a 1 to 10 scale, reserving 11 for the best track on the album, finding the average, adding a few extra points (see below after the subtotal) before racking up my final letter grade.

The songs on this album were all recorded between 1964 and 1969. For extra information about these tunes, when they were recorded, who went on to record them, all that fun stuff, check out the Wikipedia page for the album.

01. Out Of Time [10]
Imagine dropping the needle on your record player, excited to hear this new Stones album, only to be greeted with sprightly - and very British-sounding - strings. Again, I can't hate, I think this song is a brilliant pop gem. It's catchy, well-produced, and has a good beat. What more could the Ready, Steady, Go! crowd have asked for? This is one gem that should be polished off the next time a Stones compilation is being assembled.

A disappointingly inferior re-recording of this song can be heard on Aftermath and (in abridged form) on Flowers.

02. Don't Lie To Me [6]
Discovering the Stones' earliest work, after first hearing the likes of "Paint It Black," "Brown Sugar," and "Star, Star," was like hearing an entirely different band. It's like listening to The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn after hearing Animals - both great albums, but so incredibly different. That said, I love early Stones. It has a very palpable sense of danger and excitement to it that truly does explain why they were the bad-boy alternative to The Beatles.

This is not the best example of that era. The band turns in a solid performance, delivering the same menacing blues that marks so much of their early career. Ian Stewart, the sixth Stone, plays a lively piano part, while Keith turns in a solid solo, but for the song's first half, Mick sounds half asleep. It is only in the last run-through of the verse that he delivers any of his signature bravado, but it's too little, too late.

03. Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind [8]
From the "well, at least you tried" file, this marks the band's first foray into country music. The lyrics are insipid - a syndrome not unknown among Stones tunes circa 1964 - and the vocal delivery is a bit too exaggerated, but beneath it all is a sweet melody, some great slide guitar, and a subtle percussion arrangement.

04. Each And Every Day Of The Year [4]
This one is a straight-up clunker, and a waste of a trumpet overdub. The song never quite finds its footing, let alone its genre - and what was with the harp flourish at the end? Bringing the worst elements of the previous track without any of its redeeming qualities, I was reminded why the last time I heard this song was in 2003...when I took the newly-bought CD out of its cellophane.

05. Heart Of Stone [9.5]
This is a different version of an early Stones classic, an anti-love song about the joys of being a moody little womanizer. While the version released as a single in 1965 is a downbeat soul number, this outtake does an interesting bit of genre-bending. There is a countrified slide guitar solo, followed immediately by an almost note-for-note rendition of Keith's solo from the released version. For a song that sat in the can for ten years, this shows the first few baby steps towards the innovation that would dominate The Rolling Stones' career for the back half of the 1960's.

Apparently Clem Cattini, a highly valued session drummer in the 60's and 70's, is sitting in for Charlie on this one. He had played on "Tel-Star" by The Tornadoes, "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, and guested on a few tracks from The Kinks' Misfits album in 1978. Some session guy named Jimmy Page plays guitar here, not entirely sure what became of him...

06. I'd Much Rather Be With The Boys [8.5]
From the "yep, that is The Rolling Stones" file, this song could have been a Beach Boys outtake from around the same era. If anyone takes offense to the blatant misogyny of the lyrics, one fun thing to do is give it a queer reading. Suddenly the line "I'd much rather be with the boys than be with you" takes on an entirely different meaning. Gender studies 101 aside, hearing the Stones do surf music is a unique experience.

07. (Walkin' Thru The) Sleepy City [10]
A wistful melody, dulcet harmonies, lyrics about being out late at night, visiting a cafe, and a yearning for companionship - this all sounds like the making for a classic Kinks song circa Something Else or Village Green Preservation Society. The resemblance to one of my favorite bands - to the point that it rivals Weird Al's style parodies in terms of authentic aping - made this a favorite from first listen. What makes the song truly special, however, is when it was recorded: September 1964. "You Really Got Me" had been released the previous month. In other words, at the time "Sleepy City" was recorded, The Kinks didn't even sound like The Kinks...or at least not the version of The Kinks I had long thought The Rolling Stones were borrowing from.

Which leaves two gaping mysteries: where the Hell did this song come from, and why didn't the Stones ever try anything like this again? Oh, wait...they did, and it was amazing.

08. We're Wastin' Time [5]
Meandering, unmemorable, and with a clumsily busy production, this one lives up to its name. The only thing saving this song from a rating of 3 (or worse) is its fluid and somewhat out of place guitar solo. Also, The Rolling Stones, God bless 'em, couldn't waltz their way out of a wet paper bag.

09. Try A Little Harder [5.5]
Another one that had stayed in the vault for a reason, though it boasts a beefy brass section. Sounding hesitant and limp, I can picture this song taking on a new life when performed live, with a little more oomph. Alas, it never saw official release, so it never had the chance.

10. I Don't Know Why [11]
Covering a Stevie Wonder song, the recently initiated Mick Taylor proves himself with an achingly beautiful solo, while Jagger sings as soulfully as ever. If one song from this collection deserved legitimate release, it was this one. Imagine this track kicking off side B of Let It Bleed, just before "Midnight Rambler." Oh, well, that's why the good Lord gave us the wherewithal to make iTunes playlists.

I'm limiting my rambling asides from entries past (seriously, those things got obnoxiously LONG!), but here's some Stones lore for you: this song was recorded the day Brian Jones died. As to whether the fellas laid this track down before or after they heard the news, it is up for debate. Part of me thinks the song's raw emotion comes from a very real place, but my pal Keno claims the telephone call delivering the bad news brought the session to an end.

11. If You Let Me [10]
A very sweet outtake from Between The Buttons, with a gentle arrangement and some surprisingly vulnerable lyrics. People don't typically associate the Stones with these things, and while that may add to the novelty of hearing the Stones do sweet and vulnerable, it is a great song on its own merits.

12. Jiving Sister Fanny [9]
Whoever compiled this track listing did a nice job, because I have always liked the shift from Kinks-inspired balladry on "If You Let Me" to the coked-out basement blues of "Jiving Sister Fanny," recorded only two years later. Another outtake from what would become Let It Bleed, this has all the elements of classic Stones: a driving riff, distant and incoherent vocals, and a beat you can screw to. Somehow those ingredients never get stale.

13. Downtown Suzie [8.5]
The Rolling Stones had some nasty habits - they even admitted to it on "Live With Me" off Let It Bleed - but one of their worst was frequently crediting other people's work as their own. (Don't worry, Led Zeppelin did it, too, and their manor-dwelling asses got taken to court over it.) Similarly, Mick & Keith let bassist Bill Wyman contribute an original song only once on an official release, the song being "In Another Land" from Their Satanic Majesties Request, itself a fairly divisive episode in the Stones saga.

It truly was their loss, because Bill Wyman is talented songwriter with a knack for melodies and often witty lyrics. "Downtown Suzie" is much more in the vein of classic Stones than "In Another Land," with bluesy verses and a shit-kickin' country chorus. The band sound like they're having a lot of fun on this one, which further presses the issue of why this didn't make its way to an official release.

14. Family [10]
This is the album's only outtake from the Stones' gloomy return to roots, Beggar's Banquet, a fact given away by its sparse and eerie arrangement. Lots of cymbal sizzles from Charlie Watts on the verses before kicking into a double-time rhythm on the pre-chorus. The lyrics' description of a damaged family matches its unsettling musical tone. Another one that should have made it onto the final album.

15. Memo From Turner [9]
Just like "Out Of Time" and "Heart Of Stone," this is an alternate version of a song that was given official release. I enjoy this version a lot, it's pissed-off and urgent, but it has nothing on the released version, which can be heard (and seen, in a modern precursor to the music video) in the 1970 film Performance, Jagger's acting debut. The movie comes highly recommended.

16. I'm Going Down [10]
Rounding out the album is another leftover from Mick Taylor's first few months in the band, predicting the choppy riffs that would define the band's sound for the rest of their career. Yet another masterpiece that didn't quite make the cut for Let It Bleed. Come on, guys, did "You Can't Always Get What You Want" really need that stupid choral intro? Some people...

Subtotal: 83.75% B

Replay Factor: 0.5
I have maybe listened to this album from start to finish five times, one of those instances being while I wrote this. Considering I have owned Metamorphosis for over ten years, that should tell you something. The songs are good, but there is not much of a flow to it.

Consistency Factor: 0
I'm being harsh with my factors this time around, which typically give an album extra points, but this collection of tracks ranks down low with Satanic Majesties as far as being consistent with the rest of the Stones' output.

External Factors: 2
As a warts-and-all compilation of outtakes, this was pretty ahead of its time. It also showcases the most unique examples of The Rolling Stones trying on a number of different musical hats.

TOTAL: 86.25% B

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pete Townshend: Who Came First (1972)

"Pure And Easy"

Growing up, I always thought The Who were the greatest band of all time, mostly because of the sheer amount of energy put into their music. As a young drummer, Keith Moon’s acrobatic style of playing was as much of an aerobic workout as it was a form of musical catharsis. I paid little attention to the actual content of the lyrics – sure, there was that song about pinball and the one about teenage wastelands, but what did I care? I liked it because it was loud. I liked it because Pete Townshend regularly smashed his guitar onstage. I liked it because songs like “My Generation” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” had a punk sensibility to it.
But once I finally listened closely, I was surprised when I picked up on all of the spiritual undertones (and overtones) in Townshend’s lyrics. Perhaps surprised isn’t the right word – shocked, maybe? My relationship with The Who will always be one rooted in nostalgia, occasionally paying a visit to fourteen-year-old me, pounding away behind my drum kit. It is my relationship with Pete Townshend’s songwriting that has come out on top. Once I finally subjected his work to the same level of scrutiny I had done with other musicians, I loved what I found.
After a near-death experience on an airplane while tripping on acid in 1967, Townshend became a staunch opponent of drug use, devoting himself to the teachings of Persian mystic Meher Baba. Baba himself is an interesting guy, a self-proclaimed messenger of God, but he never expressed an interest in starting a new religion. Throughout his public career, which began in the 1920’s, he sought to present a uniting philosophy for people of all backgrounds: Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, agnostic, or atheist. His message of universal peace, love, and understanding found a new audience with the burgeoning hippie movement in the late 1960’s. There was one caveat – Baba was very anti-drug. In his essay “God In A Pill,” he wrote,
“If God can be found through the medium of any drug, God is not worthy of being God.”
Baba’s spirituality was a major inspiration for Townshend, who credited Baba as a spiritual avatar in the liner notes for the original Tommy album. He also served as a partial namesake for The Who’s song “Baba O’Riley.” Townshend thought of music as potential medium that could evoke mass harmony and unity among people of all backgrounds. This theme dominated his aborted rock opera Lifehouse, which was cut down and turned into The Who’s 1971 smash, Who’s Next. While The Who got to keep the heavier songs from the Lifehouse project, Townshend kept some of the more philosophical numbers for his solo debut, Who Came First.
Playing every instrument on the album, Townshend presents an alternate universe of what his band (and yes, I’m saying The Who were and are Pete Townshend’s band – feel free to comment below) could have sounded like in any other form. Gone are the bombastic drums of Keith Moon, replaced instead by a steady, laid-back style of playing that is much better suited for the subject matter. Gone, but similarly not necessarily missing, is Roger Daltrey’s vocals. Roger is great at belting out the heavier tunes, but on the more delicate numbers his singing can be a bit overpowering. Instead, we have Pete’s gentle, welcoming tenor.
“Pure And Easy,” which opens the album, was meant to be the thematic showcase for Lifehouse, a plea for humanity to end its destructive ways. He urges us to “realize the simple secret / of the note / in us all,” pointing to our underlying common “note” as a means to bring about peace. If this all sounds too preachy, the song itself is one of Townshend’s most comforting and majestic melodies.
Though credited as a Townshend solo effort, Side A actually features two songs by two of Townshend’s close friends. The first of these is “Evolution,” a Dylanesque folk tune about reincarnation by Ronnie Lane, who played bass with The Faces, and an occasional Townshend collaborator. The second is “Forever’s No Time At All,” written and performed by Townshend’s friend Billy Nicholls. It’s a joyous celebration of love, one completely in step with the attitude of the time. Nicholls later had some success with the song “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which was a hit for Leo Sayer, Phil Collins, and Keith Urban.

"Forever's No Time At All" (Billy Nicholls)

After these two (welcome) detours, we’re back to Pete, doing “Let’s See Action,” which The Who had released as a single the previous year. This version is more relaxed, credited as “Nothing Is Everything (Let’s See Action),” and with Townshend singing it is much more fitting, documenting his own search for truth in one’s lifetime: past, present, and future.
Side B opens with “Time Is Passing,” which relates to Townshend’s oft-stated that certain notes and tones were capable of having a profound effect on him, even in his childhood. He sings, “It’s only by the music I’ll be free,” hinting at a religious connection between the man and the music. The following track is an interesting choice, recorded because it was one of Baba’s favorites, a cover of Jim Reeves’ country ballad “There’s A Heartache Following Me.” As odd as it may seem that the same guy who declared “I hope I die before I get old” would cover a song like this, it is a wonderful end result, one clearly done in earnest. Townshend’s “Sheraton Gibson” is somewhat out of place, being a bittersweet nod to life on the road, but it amplifies the themes of isolation from the previous two cuts.
The final two songs are the ones most immersed in spirituality. “Content” is adapted from a poem written by Maud Kennedy; unfortunately, an Internet search of that name is clouded by the fact that there is a French adult actress with the same name. The poem is written in the first person, presented by Townshend as being like a morning prayer, accompanied only by piano. The closing track is by far the most overtly religious, Meher Baba’s universal prayer “Parvardigar.” Townshend goes through the densely-worded devotional like it’s his own words, gaining momentum over the course of six minutes. It makes for a powerful – if slightly sanctimonious – ending to a beautiful record.
I always turn to this album, regardless of my mood. At times, it’s a much needed source of calm and relaxation, like meditating. Other times, it’s happy background music for an already perfect day. From a historical perspective, I think it’s a much more valid statement towards how humanity can continue to better itself without getting too lofty. Regardless, it is a versatile collection of songs from a songwriter whose spiritual side is often overlooked in favor of the sight of seeing the man smash his guitar to splinters onstage.

Just a quick refresher, I rate the songs on a 1-10 scale, granting an 11 trump score to the best song on the album. From there, I add up the ratings and divide by the number of tracks, which gives me the subtotal. I also include other factors, which frequently help (but can sometimes hurt) the final score. 
The Replay Factor is simple: how often do I listen to it? Do I ever skip tracks on subsequent listens? Is it only good for certain moods or seasons?
The Consistency Factor takes the artist's output into account. Is it a prime example of their work?
External Factors is my "spoiler" category, a way to justify adding or subtracting an extra point or two.
01. Pure And Easy [10]
02. Evolution - Ronnie Lane [9]
03. Forever's No Time At All - Billy Nicholls [10]
04. Let's See Action [9.5]
05. Time Is Passing [9.5]
06. There's A Heartache Following Me [9.5]
07. Sheraton Gibson [8]
08. Content [9.5]
09. Parvardigar [11]

Subtotal: 95.5% A

Replay Factor: 3
I bought this album about a year ago, and it has been in steady rotation since, putting it right into the upper echelon with my personal favorites.

Consistency Factor: 1
I haven't heard much from Townshend's solo output besides his Who demos (collected officially and unofficially on several volumes called the Scoop series) and Rough Mix (1977), his collaboration with Ronnie Lane. The demos are fantastic, boasting the same homespun charm that marks Who Came First, but Rough Mix and the other scattered tunes from the 80's that I've heard seem to be in a very different musical vein. This is Townshend at his spiritual peak, without any of the sexual and social angst that can be found elsewhere...

External Factors: 2
...but it is this album's uniqueness that makes it so damn good!  

TOTAL: 101.5% A+ 


Monday, November 14, 2011

Monty Python's Flying Circus: Season 1, Episode 1: "Whither Canada?"

This is technically a re-post from a review I wrote in March 2010, but I've made enough edits and revisions that if you were around then it's worth revisiting.

It's always strange to look at an artist (or group of artists) who made groundbreaking work in their time and know that had they been around today, they would have never been given a chance. Networks, record labels, film studios, none of them are keen on taking chances on something that deviates wildly from the norm, and the ones that do always have a hard time getting picked up by fans and critics. It took a good season and a half for the American adaptation of The Office to gain appeal, for example.

Sketch comedy is a wildly uneven bag. For every groundbreaking series like Chappelle's Show, there are dozens of copycat programs (on TV and online) that take Dave Chappelle's example of crude, shock-peppered humor but opt to leave out all the discussion-generating topics the master comedian was addressing.

In my original version of this post, I riffed a bit on Saturday Night Live - a viewpoint I will never shy away from having - but let me trim that whole argument down to me simply saying that its reputation as being groundbreaking, subversive, or cutting-edge is more or less a mythology put into its place by its creators and by contemporary critics whose other viewing options were such dreck as Happy Days and Three's Company. By contrast, early Saturday Night Live must have seemed like the onslaught of punk amidst the easy-breezy swill of California rock and the pomposity of progressive rock.

But let's just call it for what it is: early Saturday Night Live was young and energetic, like a cheetah among dinosaurs, but it didn't rewrite the book on sketch comedy. For the most part, though, the old episodes have not aged well - select segments are timeless, but on the whole it is little more than a charming artifact.

The reason I harp on this is because I don't like the comparison that Saturday Night Live was an "American Monty Python." It just isn't. These guys shook up the rules of what had become a stagnant format for televised comedy and did it in a way that truly has yet to be replicated - and, with the present state of affairs in the entertainment industry, probably never will.

For that reason, I submit to you a revised and revisited review of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Season 1, Episode 1, "Whither Canada?"

Reasons #2 through #45 shall follow on a (hopefully) weekly basis.

And so it began:

Click here if the video isn't working.

By and large, one should not judge the strength of a series by its premiere episode. With American programs, pilots are generally the first aired, and they usually suck. Even if they're "good," they pale in comparison with the rest of the series. Although not a proper pilot so much as it is simply the second episode they shot and the first one aired on the BBC, this one is no exception. Not to say it's awful, in fact, it's still very watchable - plenty of classic Python bits to be found here - but the moments where the show is off it feels like a cheap skit put on at a talent show.

The opening sequence, with Michael Palin emerging from the water as the tattered "It's" Man, takes just a little too long for my liking. Still, seeing this hairy scruffian wearing the haggard shreds of a suit emerge from the sea, only to collapse and sigh the word, "It's..." before the animated credits roll is iconic absurdism.

One of the great features of the Flying Circus series was that the troupe wanted to avoid sketch program cliches. One such cliche is that sketches are written, built up, but then brought to an end by way of a punchline, which more often than not didn't hold up to the rest of the sketch. Why end sketches in a program, when they could all be linked together, in a surrealistic stream-of-consciousness fashion?

This first time out, though, the comedic device of people sitting on pigs is a source of linking material. Frankly, I think it's poorly played the first time (not well-performed by Graham Chapman, also some poorly synced sound), though later on in the episode it's quite funny. Maybe it's the repetition.

That aside, this isn't some crummy pilot. They don't hold any punches with their first sketch, a phony program entitled It's Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, featuring John Cleese as the composer, hosting a program featuring the deaths of historical figures - why him? Why not?! It's got a dark undertone to it (a commentary on television violence, perhaps?), balanced out by the sheer slapstick of seeing Genghis Khan (Cleese in a filmed bit) die a cartoonish death by way of leaping in the air and landing on his back.

My great thesis on Python, whether it's the films, albums, or television series is that their brand of humor succeeds because it combines some intelligent, cerebral wit with simple, funny-no-matter-how-many-times-or-how-old-you-are gags. This is best symbolized by the death depicted of Admiral Horatio Nelson. You don't need to know about the Battle of Trafalgar to laugh at seeing a dummy in early 19th-Century garb tossed out of a high-rise window. That in itself is a funny visual. However, you can laugh just a little harder knowing among his last words were "Kiss me, Hardy!", to his second-in-command.

The Italian For Italians sketch is...okay. The audience laughter at Terry Jones' instructor saying he is from Gerard's Cross is something lost on me, and honestly, the only time jokes fall utterly flat for me with Python, it's usually moments like this. They also seem to make fun of a town called Dorking a lot throughout the series - is it the name, maybe? As for the Italians taking the lesson, they're played broadly, but that's the point: the Pythons are offering their own twist on the trope of using stereotypes for an easy gag. They would do it again throughout the series, and frankly, the underlying point is much more obvious in later episodes. It's amusing enough, but not a strong sketch, ending in minor-league chaos before a poor little pig is sat upon by the flustered teacher.

A runaway pig from the tallyboard, where dead piggy #3 is crossed off, marks the debut animation from Terry Gilliam. Even in the weaker shows, the cartoons never cease to amuse. Explaining what all happens would suck the fun out of seeing it. It leads to a phony commercial for Whizzo Butter, "containing 10% more less," a product that brings with its purchase admission to Heaven. Pitchman Palin is seen with the other four actor Pythons (Idle, Cleese, Jones, and Chapman) all dressed in drag as middle-aged housewives. These little wenches are called "pepperpots," dubbed such in Cleese's pre-Flying Circus special How To Irritate People, relating to the shape of their bodies. The term has since become a fixture of the Python fan's glossary.

The pepperpots can NOT tell the difference between Whizzo Butter and a dead crab, and this is apparently a good thing, although they threaten Palin that if he's one of those television pitchmen trying to get them to compare Whizzo Butter to a dead crab, they'll slit his face.

Unfortunately, the Whizzo bit ends in a very un-Python manner, with a hard edit to the credits for It's The Arts. (According to Kim Johnson's marvelous Python book, The First 28 Years of Monty Python, quite a few sketches were cut from this episode, many to be seen in future episodes, which may explain the edit.) The first segment of It's The Arts features a great lampooning of the formality of names and nicknames, with filmmaker Sir Edward Ross (Chapman) being called a litany of names: Ted, angel-drawers, Franny-knickers, and everything in between. Storming off the set, Ross is summoned back by Cleese's Tom (don't bother with the "nonsense" of calling him Thomas!) with a serious question about his latest film, leading to a pleasant destruction of an anticipated punchline.

Eric Idle, who I now unfortunately think of as the Python with the honor "Most Likely To Ride Python All The Way To The Bank," gives his own variant nickname-based interview. While Cleese's interviewer tries so desperately to be polite and personable with his subject, Eric is a cheeky smart-ass in his interview with composer Arthur "Two-Sheds" Jackson (Jones), who earned his nickname not by actually having a second shed but rather by simply thinking of building a second shed.

This doesn't keep Idle from asking if Jackson wrote his latest symphony in the shed. He drives him to his breaking point, turning from sheds to inquiring about Jackson's interest in trainspotting. After a snippy, ready to crack retort of "What's that got to do with my bloody music?", Cleese's Tom joins Idle in booting the irate composer off-set. Again, another sketch ended before getting stale (maybe even a little early) and without some silly punchline.

The final bit of the It's The Arts segment centers around Pablo Picasso's latest painting, which is being done whilst riding a bicycle. If this notion isn't delightfully silly enough, the entire thing is played out with the detailed enthusiasm of a sportscast. Picasso's route is outlined, the model of bicycle is explained, and in one of the best moments of the episode, Cleese presents an on-the-scene report while a laundry list of famous artists (dead and alive) zip by on bicycles. Palin's surprisingly informed pepperpot tells Cleese that it's Vassily Kandinsky he's seeing and not Picasso, later correcting Cleese that the (dead since 1948) Kurt Schwitters was German, not English.

What makes the scene, beyond the incongruity of Palin's middle-aged housewife displaying a good knowledge of 20th-Century art is more than just the attention to detail. It's Cleese's performance. He delivers his lines at a mile-a-minute, like his head is ready to's one of those things, you can't explain why it's funny. It just is.

How does this build-up climax? With the absurdist logic that makes Python so great: Picasso falls off his bicycle, unseen, the details of his painting unknown. We are informed, thankfully, that the artist is unharmed, "although the pig has a slight headache." One more piggy pops its head up from under the desk as Palin's host bids us goodnight, right in time for the end credits (around the 21-minute mark) if this were American television.

With the lack of commercials from the BBC at that time, we've still got nine minutes to go! We get another wonderful cartoon, featuring what I consider Gilliam's staple art: animations of vintage photographs. It's twisted and slightly disturbing, but it's marvelous. And to think this was on mainstream television some 40 years ago!

The show ends this week with an extended sketch, featuring the world's funniest joke, which induces fatal laughter. The film version of the sketch's first half featured in the 1971 film And Now For Something Completely Different is performed a little better - notably in the joke's author and his mother's deaths from reading the joke - but this is a fairly important sketch for the lads. It seems all three writing teams (Chapman/Cleese, Idle, and Palin/Jones) all contributed their own bits to it, and while there are no animations, Gilliam appears on-screen in two minor roles.

Rounding out the rest of the show, the segment lags at times (mainly in the battlefield scenes), but its high points more than make up for the bumps. Terry Jones' dorky, unsuspecting Army test subject and his tittering demise still makes me laugh, Cleese makes for a great Nazi, and the scene where the defense ministers laugh themselves to death (on the other side of a guarded door) is a beautiful stroke of macabre humor. History geeks will appreciate the stock footage of Chamberlain declaring "Peace in our time!" as Idle mentions "England's great pre-war joke."

Idle's narrator wraps the segment with a solemn tribute at the burial site of the Unknown Joke, before a quick cutaway to stock footage of a ref blowing his whistle and a title frame saying "THE END". As a long-form sketch, this showed a sense of ambition from the get-go that the group had some interest in collaborating on long-form sketches; this approach, where Idle, Jones/Palin, and Cleese/Chapman all had a hand in the conception and delivery of the "World's Funniest Joke" sketch, would set the tone for their feature films in the 1970's and 1980's. While that is still 44 incredible half-hours of sketch comedy away, it marked the planting of a very important seed.

Cutting back to the beach, the "It's" man is roused by way of a pointed stick (an incredibly specific prop we'll be seeing and hearing of again in future episodes) and he drags himself back out into the surf as the end credits play.


Low Points:
+ I feel like the first few episodes of this series treat Cleese as if he were the leader of the troupe, for better or for worse. He'd enjoyed the most success already by this point with At Last The 1948 Show, The Frost Report, and his TV special How To Irritate People (which plays like a really, really bad episode of Python.) He certainly seems to elicit the most laughs from the audience.

+ Parts of this episode's first portion, before we get to It's The Arts, come across as wobbly.

+ The piggy gag - not unfunny, but a weak running gag.

High Points:
+ This episode is kind of like "I Saw Her Standing There," the first song from the first Beatles album. It's hard to define the inaugural quality of "Whither Canada?", as the show most definitely picked up some serious momentum in the episodes to come, but damn if it doesn't make me happy every time I see this and know this is where it all started.

+ Cleese's stream of ridiculous nicknames for Sir Edward "Ted/Eddie Baby/Sweetie/Sugar Plum/Angel Drawers/Frank/Fran/Frannie/Little Frannie/Frannie Knickers" Ross.

+ Idle's ribbing of Arthur "Two-Sheds" Jackson.

+ Cleese's sportscaster, forerunner of so many classic Cleese moments.

Best Lines:

"We are proud to be bringing to you one of the evergreen bucket kickers. Yes, the wonderful death of the famous English Admiral Nelson."

"He say, 'Milan is better than Napoli!'"
"Oh, well, he shouldn't be saying that, we haven't done comparatives yet!"

"I don't like being called Eddie Baby!" - this implies he's been called this before...

"I'm going to get rid of the shed. I'm fed up with it!"
"Then you'll be Arthur 'No Sheds' Jackson."

"In 1945, peace broke out."

SCORE: 84% B

In future reviews of the show, I'll be sure to go into some detail on each member of the troupe, using a key performance as a springboard (like the "Nudge, Nudge" sketch to talk about Eric Idle) for the information.

I also plan to keep a tally on two on-screen occurrences throughout the series. The first is the number of times John Cleese appears in drag. Seeing this freakishly tall man dressed as a woman is one of the funniest sights, ever. The other is the number of times Terry Gilliam appears on the show. As the animator, he didn't fancy himself as much of an actor, but when it came time for bit parts and/or the occasional grotesque, Gilliam was perfect.
John Cleese in drag count: I
Terry Gilliam count: II

I'm Ba-a-ack.....

More to come. Soon, baby.

Monday, July 26, 2010

My Podcast



Tuesday, June 29, 2010

R.I.P. Peter Quaife (1943-2010)

I don't have good luck in being around to catch bad news. This past Thursday, Peter Quaife, the original bassist for The Kinks (1963-1969), passed away of kidney failure.

Even if I'm out and about all day, I always come home and check email and, as perverse as this may sound, I also check Wikipedia's page for recent deaths, sadly, as many of my musical heroes are approaching senescence. Funny enough, knowing Pete was ill and on dialysis was one of the reasons I always checked.

But where was I this past Thursday? En route to a mini-vacation upstate with my girlfriend and some of her friends, with no Internet, no TV, and no cell phone reception. I had a wonderful time - although my mom wanted to get a hold of me and when I couldn't, she made the casual and logical assumption that I'd been tortured to death at a crack den. But that's a different story.

Once I cleared all that up and we got back to the city, my girlfriend and I hung out at her place. Being as our relationship is still in a very early stage, we're still at the point of introducing our favorite bands and songs to one another.

I played her some Kinks. She had a few from a compilation, but I decided to skip the "classics," which are all phenomenal tunes, and go straight for playing my straight-up favorites.

The first song I introduced by saying, "Let me play you the one song I use as my example of the genius of Ray Davies as a lyricist." I went on to say how it is an accurate description of young romance, realistic rather than entirely smitten, with the key line in it all coming at the end of the bridge: "I wonder how long it will last."

The song? "Something Better Beginning," from 1965's Kinda Kinks:

Second was "This Is Where I Belong," the b-side of "Mr. Pleasant" from 1967:

Then I played "She's Got Everything," which I introduced as being "a love song with a delicate guitar solo."

I ended with what will, hands-down, hold a place in the five best songs I have ever heard in my life.

Now, make no bones about it, I love - LOVE - The Kinks throughout the years. For me, there's no better storyteller than Ray Davies, no better harmony vocalist than Dave Davies, and no better string of albums than what they had through the 1970's. But I realized that when it came down to introducing the Kinks songs that meant the most to me or that I found the most immediately accessible without simply running through the greatest hits, what songs did I pick? I didn't pick any of Ray's more cynical numbers like "Yes Sir, No Sir" or a preachy song like "Live Life." I didn't go for something too out there, but still amazing in its own way, like "Money And Corruption / I Am Your Man" or "Second-Hand Car Spiv." Didn't pull out anything from Sleepwalker or Give The People What They Want.

No. I chose songs from those truly sublime years in the band's history. Pete's last album with The Kinks was The Village Green Preservation Society. In my experience, the fans splinter from there. It's quite obvious in the contemporary reviews - John Mendelssohn goes from "God Save The Kinks? Nah, more like God Bless 'Em" in The Kink Kronikles in 1972 to taking a massive dump on the group and their present direction in the following year's The Great Lost Kinks Album, for example - and even today it seems that the only things the critics and fans can universally agree upon is that Face To Face, Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, and the singles from that time period are definitively essential, classic Kinks.

It might not be mere coincidence that with Pete's departure, Ray's creative control over the group increased dramatically. Arthur is a potent, at times grim, album, which is why I love it...but the same reason my father wasn't thrilled about it. Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround is a scathing attack on the record industry - but some contend it's too bilious. Again, same reason I love it. With the band's tenure at RCA, each record seemed to be an artistic endeavor of one kind or another. I think it's great, but for others it's self-indulgent crap. Their sound continued to change, yes, and one more time for the world - that's what makes them as a band so damn great to me; it was their versatility, along with Ray being such a wonderful writer. But, as a band's sound changes, it will lose and gain followers. It happens.

The point I'm trying to make here is that when push came to shove, I went for introductory listening material from a time where one could safely call The Kinks a band. I don't want to disparage later line-ups of the group, but there was a greater deal of collaboration, and in Dave Davies' heartfelt message board post about Pete he suggests as much.

So, that said...and if you're a Kinks fan reading this, it's probably the 1,000th time you've encountered this touching video, especially if Dave links this to his fabulous Kinks site...this one's for you, Pete:

At the beginning of "Days," for a reason that I'm sure will be obvious, I choked up.

God Save The Kinks.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Beatles - A Hard Day's Night (1964)

"The Beatles well what can I say now there's a band." [sic]

So goes Glenn Gass' recollection of a student's paper from many years ago, when his class on The Beatles was small enough that he could assign papers in it. He even specified the lack of punctuation.

Anyway, he admitted he's such a pushover for Beatles love that all he could say in reaction to that opening line of an academic paper was, "Yes! Brilliant! That says it all!"

That's about how I feel regarding this album. What can I say?

First of all, A Hard Day's Night is a groundbreaking piece of cinema, and not just because The Beatles are in it. I don't want to get hung up on who the proper claimants should be for inventing music videos - musical shorts have existed since the dawn of talkies, so Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong are just as much of contenders for this coveted title as The Monkees or The Beatles - but Richard Lester's editing style was remarkably innovative.

What set it apart from conventional cinema is that his background was in television and commercials. He applied that rapid-paced aesthetic to a feature-length film, especially with the musical sequences, and along with the influences of French nouvelle vague and Italian Neorealist cinema created something truly unique.

Go see the movie if you haven't. You won't regret it. And don't let the fact that it's black and white steer you away. It's marvelous. Each member of the group has their own distinctive persona. John is the cheeky one, Paul is the long-suffering - but cute - straight man (due in no small part to his pain-in-the-ass grandfather stirring up trouble wherever he goes), George is the one with the deadpan and dry sense of humor, and Ringo is the lovable goof. These personae were played upon more in The Beatles cartoon series on ABC, although the lads themselves had nothing to do with it. I've seen a few episodes, and they're not so great.

Of course, there IS one Beatles cartoon that is positively sublime, but I'll leave Yellow Submarine for another day. It's one of my favorite movies ever, and watching it even as a little guy ranks among my earliest (and fondest) memories.

Frankly, Help! is even better, and not just because it's in glorious Technicolor. I think the humor is even sharper. Still, from a movie geek's perspective, it's A Hard Day's Night, hands-down.

Of course, the avant-garde film lover in me has a special place in my heart for the deliciously weird Magical Mystery Tour. That's 60 minutes of psychedelic heaven.

I'm getting off-topic, though a book about The Beatles' films would make for an interesting project.

The second point worth making, and I don't want to spend a year and a half on my opening statement before going to the tracks, is that this album was an early masterpiece for the band. Consisting entirely of Lennon/McCartney originals (which was a HUGE deal in 1964; The Stones and The Kinks wouldn't do that until 1966 with Aftermath and Face To Face, respectively, while The Who didn't have an all-originals album until 1971's Who's Next), this is the peak of the band's early pop sound. For me, everything they had done from "Love Me Do" onwards was building up to this. There's the distinct Beatles sound, yes, but they're able to incorporate the feel of those early rock and rollers and the various Motown tunes they covered on singles, With The Beatles, and the Long Tall Sally EP (included at the end of this review, along with a pair of singles).

I would say this album is just as important for The Beatles and the world of popular music as Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Its musical influence was felt in subsequent releases by bands both in the UK and the US, including a new batch of musicians who were just as into The Beatles as they were with Bob Dylan; the album's inception, a solid collection of pop songs with very little filler material - and again, this cannot be overstated, ALL-ORIGINAL SONGS - would also pave the way for the paradigm shift that bands who didn't write their own stuff wouldn't make it. At least for a period.

That line in the sand was definitely drawn by Rubber Soul, and when I inevitably get to that fine record I'll have more to say about what a game-changer it was, but it happened here first. It was a momentous occasion for John and Paul, that's for damn sure. Of course, having George on only one song (singing only, he didn't write it) and nothing from Ringo are things I will hold against it, but these are minor drawbacks.

01. A Hard Day's Night [10]
02. I Should Have Known Better [9]
03. If I Fell [10]
04. I'm Happy Just To Dance With You [9]
05. And I Love Her [10]
06. Tell Me Why [9.5]
07. Can't Buy Me Love [10]
08. Any Time At All [7.5]
09. I'll Cry Instead [9]
10. Things We Said Today [11]
11. When I Get Home [8]
12. You Can't Do That [10]
13. I'll Be Back [10]

01. I Want To Hold Your Hand [10]
02. This Boy [10]

01. Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand [N/A]
02. Sie Leibt Dich [N/A]

Long Tall Sally EP
01. Long Tall Sally [10]
02. I Call Your Name [8]
03. Slow Down [10]
04. Matchbox [10]

I'll go ahead and point out that, to my eternal annoyance, the DVD of the film features the songs at their original speed. Yes, they were slightly sped-up for the album. I don't know why they did this on the DVD, because as a result the songs don't completely synch up. Whatever.

01. A Hard Day's Night [10]
This, friends, is how you start a movie:

This song starts with an instantly recognizable bang, the musical equivalent of a gunshot at the beginning of a race. It's a song full of energy and movement. Listen closely for the bongos under the verses, adding a busy edge to the rhythm. Paul does a great job singing on the bridge, or as they called that section of their songs, the "middle eight."

During the solo, the instrumentation is George on 12-string guitar (more on that instrument later) and producer George Martin doubling the line on piano. It's a very unique sound.

Fantastic song, what can I say? It's a classic. It was also their first big hit in America after "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and a clear sign they wouldn't be going away anytime soon.

02. I Should Have Known Better [9]

Although there's a lot of early Beatles songs featuring the harmonica - "Love Me Do," "From Me To You," "Please Please Me," "Little Child," and so on - this is the first instance of John playing the harmonica in the style of Bob Dylan, whose 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan marked the beginning of his influence on The Beatles' approach to songwriting. The song itself isn't like anything Dylan was doing at the time. He was still very much rooted in the folk-protest movement, so the harmonica is, if anything, just a sly nod and wink.

This one's really catchy. I love when they sing this song in the movie and the schoolgirls watching them swoon. One of those girls, Patti Boyd - the blond with the gappy teeth - later became Mrs. George Harrison in 1966. Speaking of George, that solo features the 12-string guitar. I won't go into the mechanics of what gives it such a unique sound, all one needs to do is hear it to know what I mean by the 12-string guitar having a "jangly" quality. This particular instrument would be a trademark in the sound of The Byrds.

03. If I Fell [10]

During one of VH1's all-important countdowns of the greatest albums of all time, Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day said about The White Album that every song on it seemed to inspire the entire careers of later groups. The same can be said about any Beatles album, it seems, and this is no exception. I don't have any quote or any sort of evidence to back this up, but this song had to be a major influence on Ray Davies from The Kinks.

I say this because it's a pretty frank description of venturing into a new love while still tending to a broken heart. (Not to get too personal, but quite honestly, I can easily relate to the sentiment behind this song.) Everything seems to begin with the word "If": "If I give my heart to you...", "If I trust in you...", "If I fell in love with you..."

There's a massive sense of insecurity in this song, asking, "You're not going to hurt me like she did, will you?" There's also a hint of bitterness: "And that she will cry / When she sees that we are two." One other influence this may have had on The Kinks extends beyond the lyrics, but in the music itself. The high/low harmonies shared by John and Paul wouldn't be out of place between Ray and Dave Davies.

It's a beautiful piece of music, a melody that sticks with you, and a genuinely heartfelt message. Amazing.

04. I'm Happy Just To Dance With You [9]

I'll just go ahead and get this out of the way before I say this on every single song, but this album features John and Paul's best melodies, hands-down. They aren't getting too experimental with harmonies (not in the vocals, anyway; musically, there's some downright bizarre stuff going down with the chord changes, but it works and it sounds marvelous), and each one of these songs can be easily whistled. Think of some of John's later stuff - don't get me wrong, he only got better as a songwriter - but whistling the melody to "I Am The Walrus" is like trying to whistle a rap song or something. He began to favor a minimalistic approach, saying a lot with a little, and it's great, but here he's firing on all cylinders.

Of course, the lyrics here are a bit simple, it's about sharing a dance with a girl and then realizing you love her. Basic pop stuff. George sings it, and he does a really good job. Apparently he was still self-conscious about his songwriting abilities (even though "Don't Bother Me" is one of their greatest early songs). Seeing as he had only written that one song (although there is a George tune called "You Know What To Do" on Anthology One, and it's nothing to write home about) by this point while John and Paul were able to write chart-topping hits in their sleep, and not just for The Beatles, but for other artists, too, it's easy to conclude George was probably somewhat intimidated.

Anyway, good song, nothing earth-shattering, but a memorable melody and well-played.

05. And I Love Her [10]

The lyrics are simply beautiful. I love the "Bright are the stars that shine / Dark is the sky" passage. This is pop balladry at its absolute best. There's a Latin flavor here, thanks to the percussion (Ringo on bongos and claves) as well as the mellow tones of George's acoustic solo. "And I Love Her" is another example of many early Beatles tunes where Paul brought a near-complete song to the table and John finished it off by writing the middle eight, or vice versa. Here, John wrote the "A love like ours / Could never die..." bridge, supposedly, although Paul claims this song is all his. I can't blame him, I wish I could write something this stunningly gorgeous.

This tune also stands out as being only one of three (out of thirteen songs overall on the album) where there's just solo vocals and no harmonies.

06. Tell Me Why [9.5]

John wrote this song to try and imitate the sound of a black female vocal group. And it shows, which is why I absolutely LOVE this song. It's got the earnest sincerity and sweetness of an early 60's pop record. The call-and-response vocals, with John singing a line and Paul and George singing a follow-up to it, sounds like something right off of a single by Diana Ross & The Supremes. This stands as one of my favorite overlooked early Beatles songs.

07. Can't Buy Me Love [10]

If that scene doesn't make you smile, then get out of you here, because you clearly don't have a heart. It's one of my favorite scenes of all time.

The song is bloody brilliant. It's a big kiss-off to materialism, no doubt written as a result of The Beatles' new-found fortune and fame: "I don't care too much for money / 'Cause money can't buy me love." It's true. Think of how many pop songs out there state that message again and again. I guess that's what makes love so great: it's free.

Anyway, this is just a fun song. Paul sings like his life depends on it, George's guitar solo is perfect, and the band stops and starts on a dime. I LOVE that scream before the solo. Yet another classic Beatles tune.

08. Any Time At All [7.5]

With side B of the original album, we get to the songs that weren't in the original film. I have a stronger case with the Help! album, but the same applies here: a lot of these songs have been lost in the shuffle of time, overlooked in favor of the certified classics on side A, which are made all the more iconic by being in the movies.

Of course, I'm not a huge fan of this song. I think it's just a little sloppy. It feels like John is exerting himself to get all the words in when he sings "Any time at all / All you gotta do is call", but the verses are good. Additionally, the middle eight was supposed to have lyrics, at the 1:30 mark. It clearly doesn't, resulting in what I always thought was a fairly awkward musical interlude.

It isn't awful. But I wouldn't be putting this on a "Best of Beatles" mix CD anytime soon. It's forgettable.

09. I'll Cry Instead [9]

This photo-montage was included on the 1982 home video release of "A Hard Day's Night," but is nowhere to be found on the DVD. Bit of a shame, because I grew up with this clip being almost like a teaser for the rest of the film.

In his early years, John had a bit of a nasty streak. He had some serious jealousy issues, and wasn't above mean-spirited comments or jokes at others' expenses. This song provides a glimpse into John's darker side. Here, he sings about having his heart broken - hence the crying in the song's title - before warning "You'd better hide all the girls / I'm gonna break their hearts all around the world / Yes, I'm gonna break 'em in two / And show you what your lovin' man can do." Yikes.

And yet, despite his dastardly scheme to inflict his wrath on other girls, he admits he doesn't like to cry in front of other people. This is a hint of things to come, with John's increasingly candid, personal, and brutally honest lyrics. My only complaint is that the song's too short.

10. Things We Said Today [11]

When I was much younger and I first heard this song, I didn't really bother to comprehend the lyrics. Besides, I misunderstood a lot of what they were singing because of their accents. Anyway, as a kid, I always this was a break-up song. It feels like it is, because most of the song is in a minor key, rather than a major key.

Now, as a grumpy old man at age 23, these lyrics are among the finest Paul McCartney ever wrote. That's saying a lot, considering how early in his career this is, and what other masterpieces he would go on to write. It's from such a unique point of view, with two young lovers looking ahead to the future:

"Someday when we're dreaming
Deep in love, not a lot to say
Then I will remember
Things we said today"

That's beautiful. Although there is some tight competition for being the best song on the album, I will staunchly defend this song as my choice.

11. When I Get Home [8]

This one's another misfire. It's catchy, but I don't like the intro. Otherwise, this is a song that catches Lennon in a Motown-ready mood. I just feel like it doesn't succeed on all fronts. It needs more, some layered handclaps, some double-tracking, percussion, maybe a piano? I don't know, it just seems to be missing several components. The vocals on the verses are a little thin, the chorus is slightly off, but that bridge! WOW. It's the song's saving grace, and wonderfully done.

12. You Can't Do That [10]

Another delicious 12-string guitar lick, with plenty of cowbell. It's another slightly mean-spirited song of John's, rooted almost certainly in his own jealousies, but in a general context it could just be about a guy with an untrustworthy lover. John plays the distinctive, noisy, choppy guitar solo in this song, a mark of his later simplistic take on rock and roll.

Great song...and it was supposed into the finished movie, during the big concert at the end:

13. I'll Be Back [10]

This almost got the 11 ranking as the best song on the album. It's a moody song, from one lover to another, about no matter how awfully they'll be treated, he'll be back. It is never specified why, but it's again a subtle hint at some sort of weakness. Simply beautiful. I love the harmonies, the bridge, the overall feel of the song.

And, just for fun, here are two early versions of the song. This first one is in a different time signature (6/8), and it actually works quite well during the verses before falling completely apart at the bridge. It isn't perfect.

Here's another early take of it, done in 4/4 time.

It's great to hear this AMAZING song as a work-in-progress. I think this song is quite overlooked and underrated. And yet, I would rank it among their best. It's kind of a surprising choice to end the album, but at the same time...I like it like that.

Subtotal: 94.62% A

Replayability Factor: 3
This is a fun album, and it can be played anywhere.

Consistency Factor: 2
After the big ones, the ones that all the critics (deservedly) worship - Rubber Soul, Revolver, Pepper, The White Album - get this one.

External Factors: 1
No Ringo, and only one George song. Poo-poo.

TOTAL: 100.6% A+

Now for the singles:

01. I Want To Hold Your Hand [10]

I always point to this as one of their most banal pop songs, but it's SO damn good! Love the shift to a minor key in the bridge. Fantastic, catchy, it's a quintessential pop song.

Oh, yeah, and this was their first American number one. This was a tremendous achievement for an English artist - let alone a rock and roll band - to top the charts in the States. So, in short, this song started Beatlemania in the US.

02. This Boy [10]

Beautiful three-part harmonies, with a memorable solo performance from John.

01. Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand [N/A]

It's "I Want To Hold Your Hand" German.

02. Sie Leibt Dich [N/A]

It's "She Loves You" German.

Now, the Long Tall Sally EP. This is the only Beatles EP that features songs not found elsewhere. The Kinks had two EP's like this. The Who had one or two...and The Rolling Stones had a few. It's like a single, but with an extra song on each side, so roughly a third of an album.

01. Long Tall Sally [10]

McCartney at his manic best, with the band playing like the building is on fire. Jaw-droppingly good. The original was done by Little might also know him as God.

02. I Call Your Name [8]

This John song was given a new life when Mama Cass from The Mamas & The Papas had a hit with it. It's good, but not outstanding. I do like how the song shifts to a shuffle beat in the guitar solo, before going back to straight time. That's pretty cool.

03. Slow Down [10]

One of three songs by Larry Williams, a rather obscure 1950's rocker, covered by The Beatles. John's performance here rivals Paul's on "Long Tall Sally." Just phenomenally great.

04. Matchbox [10]

Ringo sings this song, originally done by Carl Perkins. Perkins, along with Larry Williams, is the most-covered artist on official Beatles releases. Ringo also sang "Honey Don't" on Beatles For Sale, with George (who idolized Carl Perkins) ending the same album with "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby." A great little rockabilly number. I'm a sucker for great little rockabilly numbers.

Rock on.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Kinks - 'Sleepwalker' (1977)

This three-month sabbatical has been pretty wild. Not that my personal life is the focus of this blog (that would be the other one), but my fiance and I broke up. It was my call.

Between that and my semester ending, I've had a lot more time to just sit and listen to music. It's been a real renaissance for me.

But enough about me in 2010, let's go back to me in 2001, when I first heard this album. I picked it up in May, along with Misfits (1978), and I really feel like those two albums are brothers, in the same sense that George Harrison once said, "Rubber Soul and Revolver could be 'Volume 1' and 'Volume 2'." Granted, these two albums have different tones to them. Misfits is a little more playful lyrically, more whimsical. Sleepwalker is a darker today's context, with death metal and everything, it's about as dark as Times Square at midnight, but the songs are largely unhappy.

What I love about The Kinks - besides everything, of course - is that you can't pin them down as having a particular sound. Since they were in such a constant state of flux creatively, there aren't any transitional albums, either. No Beatles For Sale-like album that shows where they've been and where they're headed. None of that. Instead, each album seems to catch Ray, Dave, and the boys in different musical settings. Hell, even Preservation Act One and Preservation Act Two are markedly different stylistically.

The one precursor I have for all this is a simple one:

Some albums just have connotations to them, and it all goes back to when it was that I first got into it in a big way. For me, Rubber Soul is a very autumnal album. Tonight's The Night is a winter album. This is a late-night summer drive, with a full moon out, maybe even some lightning, out in the middle of nowhere.

Putting this album in context within The Kinks' career, this was their first disc after all the rock operas and concept albums that began with Arthur back in 1969. Depending on who you ask, this is either a perplex, inaccessible period in the band's story or some of the greatest music the group ever did. I fall into the latter, but I don't wish to disparage Sleepwalker in any sense. They came off the whole rock opera thing with a tightly-packed album containing what I think Ray does best: character sketches.

I'm sure I'll repeat this several more times when I talk about the songs, but I'd love to sit down with him and find out what inspired the stories on this album. It's surprising to read that such fairly oblique jabs like "A Well-Respected Man" and "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" stemmed from incidents where someone pissed Ray off, very specific events. At the same time, however, he truly is an expert storyteller, and some songs just come from the top of his head.

In a way, each song is like a little movie all on its own, a 3 to 5-minute summary of what could unfold as a great novella. Additionally, every song on the album is at least partially in the first person. Ray seemed to be returning to a more introverted literary persona, rather than the deliciously bawdy showman we encountered on Everybody's In Showbiz or his Mr. Flash get-up on Preservation Act Two.

This is a terrific album, and one I always point to as proof that, unlike what most publications would have you believe, The Kinks were still producing art worth a damn long after "Lola."

01. Life On The Road [9.5]
02. Mr. Big Man [9.5]
03. Sleepwalker [10]
04. Brother [8]
05. Juke Box Music [10]
06. Sleepless Night [9]
07. Stormy Sky [10]
08. Full Moon [11]
09. Life Goes On [9]

The songs hyperlinked above are from the band's appearance on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' in April 1977. The user who posted the (extraordinarily high-quality) videos doesn't have them available for embedding.

01. Life On The Road [9.5]

It starts off nondescriptly enough, maybe even a little too quiet as far as the mix goes. Still, Ray daydreams of venturing to London over a delicate organ/piano arrangement. Right at the one-minute mark, it turns into an upbeat rock song. It's at the perfect tempo, capturing the excitement detailed by the narrator.

The strange thing is, this is a subject Ray has tackled before, on Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround and on Everybody's In Showbiz; what makes it so strange is that it doesn't seem stale. He's approaching it from a different angle. On Lola it's a band rising to fame, on Showbiz it's about what happens once a band has achieved fame, but here it's about a kid hitting the streets and seeing the seedy underbelly of the world: "I didn't know then that the dives and the dens / Would be so vulgar and wicked and wild...", his failed encounters with "stuck-up city ladies" yields him nothing more than a cold, he naively gets seduced by a gay muscleman while "hanging out with the punks."

His quest for success gives him holes in his socks and bloodshot eyes. At the end of the song he yearns for home, hoping to "Say goodbye to a world that's too real / Goodbye to a world that's forgotten how to feel," confessing it's taking its toll on him, he sometimes hates it, but it's all he's ever known. When he sings the chorus - "But I'm livin' the life that I chose" - he has such a sense of resignation that it's like a reluctant sigh, something he tells himself in the mirror every morning, before launching back into the chorus at full-speed.

The song's musical energy is a nice displacement to what is a fairly downtrodden tale, one I'm sure Ray had witnessed after 15 years in "the business."

02. Mr. Big Man [9.5]

This one HAS to be based on someone in Ray's life. It isn't Tom Robinson, though we'll talk about him a little later.

In the YouTube comments, someone claims it's about John Lennon. While John did act like an ass towards The Kinks at the 1964 NME Poll Winners' concert, this is 13 years later, never mind smack in the middle of John's "house-husband" phase. I doubt it...but it could be about anyone who let fame get to their head.

Anyway, this is a pretty grim song, about a former friend whose lust for money and power has made him a crooked, intimidating figure in the business world, although in the final verse, Ray suggests a far more sinister path: "Your enemies and foes / Are all stacked-up in rows / Eliminated one by one."

There's a lot of passion in the music, and a palpable sense of hurt and anger in Ray's vocals. This album and Schoolboys In Disgrace have some of Ray's best performances as a singer. He's quite underrated in that regard.

03. Sleepwalker [10]

That is some damn funky drumming from Mick Avory on the intro. Good, catchy riff, too.

This was the big single from the album, and their first hit in some time. It almost reminds me of "Lola," in that both songs have a slightly twisted lyric wrapped up in a catchy-as-Hell rock song. The stuff about sleepwalking seems fairly harmless until he starts talking about "Better close your window tight / I might come in for a bite," or at the end, when he says "I'll even come to your home / If you're ever alone." I read somewhere that an extra verse was cut out of the song with an overt sexual reference. I can't find any record of what the extra lines were, but I'd love to know. Whatever it was, I have no doubt that it was removed with the idea of the song being the album's single in mind.

And how about Dave's dueling guitar solos? Listen to that with headphones for the full effect.

Because I like this song so damn much, here it is again, and in an entirely different mix:

04. Brother [8]

This could have been the single, but Ray resisted and held out for "Sleepwalker." I can see why. I used to dislike this song, I thought it was too schmaltzy. But, as is the case with a lot of Kinks songs, a close reading of the lyrics shows something much different than the music suggests.

"You're my brother / Though I didn't know you yesterday"

This isn't a celebration of Ray and Dave's relationship - which is an amusing, at times sweet, love/hate sibling affair - it's about how the world is going to Hell, with people "...breaking off relationships / And leavin' on sailin' ships / For far and distant shores." There is an odd sense of impending doom in this song, something we'll return to later on the album, as if everyone seems to be fleeing from some sort of cataclysmic event. While I'm glad this wasn't the single - it's too repetitive, I think - it is a good song.

05. Juke Box Music [10]

This is a masterpiece. Never mind the lyrics - for now - but musically, the way the song builds up to an intro, with a guitar solo that sounds like it was plucked from the clouds...and whatever sort of synthesizer John Gosling was playing sounds fantastic. Sounds like the Stringman synth Frank Sampedro plays on Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane." Those short bursts of guitar solos at the end of the choruses is a pretty, melodic bit of playing. And again, Ray sounds great; so does Dave on the last chorus.

Then there's the lyrics. It's a character study of a woman at a dance club who pumps quarters into the jukebox to simply listen to the music she loves, like an addiction. She doesn't dance, she doesn't interact with anyone else, just listens to the music. Ray assures us, the listener, that "It's only jukebox music!" After that stellar guitar break in the middle, the lyrics get personal, compounded by it being Ray and Dave singing these lyrics, seemingly to each other:

"It's all because of that music
That we're slowly drifting apart
But it's only there to dance to
So you shouldn't take it to heart"

Maybe it's because there's so much meaning in Ray's lyrics, maybe it's because Ray stands with George Harrison and Frank Zappa as one of the great idols of my youth, but there's such irony in Ray Davies telling us that his music is only there to dance to. Perhaps it's a comment on the direction they were taking, opting for a more commercial sound upon signing to Arista Records in 1976.

It's one of the best examples of Ray Davies the storyteller, and I love how he brings it full-circle to briefly reflect on his relationship with Dave. Classic Kinks.

06. Sleepless Night [9]

Looking through all these videos, I have to paraphrase something Glenn Gass said about The Beatles in 1966: The Kinks circa 1977 look so cool. When I was younger, I thought Dave was the shit. I still do.

Dave takes the lead vocals on this song (although Ray gets two lines in the bridge), and he sounds great. There's something about the timbre of his voice that I just love. When I first heard The White Stripes, I thought, "Wow, this guy sounds like Dave Davies!"

Anyway, the song is a great showcase for some backing vocal harmonies, organ, and Dave's guitar. I'm a big sucker of this, although other musicians I know think it's a cheap trick, but I love when a drummer switches to playing in double-time. That happens at the beginning of the song, it lumbers for a second, but then Mick kicks it into high gear and away it goes.

It's a funny story, although if it were a situation happening to me, I wouldn't be laughing. The song's hero is kept awake by his neighbors having loud sex. That's already a pretty bad situation, but then in the bridge comes the critical line:

"Once I was her lover
It was so good to be
Now she's got somebody else and I can't sleep
Nothing hurts people more than other people do
But what can you do?"

Good song.

07. Stormy Sky [10]


This is a tender love song, for the most part. There's two of those great Davies twists, little lines that throw the song's balance, if one is focusing on the lyrics: "Perhaps it's a sign of what we're headed for" and "There's nowhere we can hide," both suggesting apocalyptic doom, much like in "Brother."

The group is running on all cylinders, too: Ray goes from a sotto near-whisper at the beginning to a full-voiced bellow at the end. Fantastic. The band plays with a great deal of temperament, all building up to the 2:45 marker, where the song stops for just a second and Dave ushers in the song's coda with a great high riff. It ends perfectly, slowing down to a halt, almost like the end of a violent storm.

08. Full Moon [11]

But we're not out of the woods just yet. This is one of Ray's best songs, period, and the easy winner of best song from the album. It's almost like the spiritual invert of "Stormy Sky." Where the previous is a dark, stormy night shared by two lovers, this clear night with a bright full moon shining down is one of solitary torment.

Everything about this song is perfect, the way Ray asks, "Haven't you noticed a kind of madness in my eyes?", confessing to all these character flaws and quirky mannerisms as being the result of a full moon. The melody is simply beautiful, and the band does the song justice; like the last song, there's a sense of reserve until the coda. The piano break near the end brings in the big finale, where Ray is singing like his career depends on it. It's a beautiful point when the backing vocals hearken back to "Johnny Thunder" from The Village Green Preservation Society (at the 3:22 mark), it still floors me.

Songs like this are the only reason I need to defend my choice of The Kinks as my favorite band of all time.

09. Life Goes On [9]

I used to hate this song, and let's face it, "Full Moon" is an incredibly difficult act to follow. I also used to hate any song that openly acknowledged one's own mortality. Now, though, the line "And one day when you are gone / You know that life will still go on" sits fairly well with me.

Some great Ray one-liners here, "Life goes on / It happens every day," "Get that frown off your head / 'Cause you're a long time dead," and "No matter how hard I try / It seems I'm too young to die." I really like that bridge where he talks about his own suicide attempt, how he planned to gas himself to death, but hadn't paid his bills so his supply was cut off. As I've gotten older I've developed more of an appreciation for such bare-faced morbid humor.

And on that note, I have to say, where else could we go after a song like "Full Moon" but to a meditation on life and death?

Subtotal: 95.5% A

Replayability Factor: 3
I can listen to this album anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

Consistency Factor: 2
For a band with such a long career, it's easy to pick the immediate classics. I don't think too many people will disagree with me if I say your first Kinks album should be Village Green, Something Else, or Arthur. But as far as second-level Kinks listening goes, I put Sleepwalker very high up as a sign that they still had it.

External Factors: 2
It's a great example of Ray's songwriting reaching new heights as far as storytelling and painting pictures of people, whether sympathetic ("Juke Box Music") or less so ("Mr. Big Man"). There's a lot about sanity, things taking a toll on one's psyche, so it's lyrically one of the more harrowing Kinks releases. It just happens to be wrapped in a deceptively gorgeous musical package.

TOTAL: 102.5% A+

And now, since there is a single to cover plus some outtakes that I think are worth mentioning, let's go into the bonus round.

01. Father Christmas [11]

This is my favorite Christmas song of all-time. It's hilarious, and it gives a good glimpse into what the holiday is really about for the Western world: greed. It's also punk, through and through.

Also, does that video not look like the best party ever? I'd hang out with them.

02. Prince Of The Punks [10]

And speaking of punks, this is the best diss song since "Positively 4th Street," an almighty "fuck you" to Ray's former protege Tom Robinson, who apparently decided to go into punk music because it was the "thing" at the time. Even without any knowledge of what/who the song is really about, it's a pretty pointed barb about the guy we all know who tries too hard.

All I know is I would never want Ray Davies pissed off at me.

01. The Poseur [10]

This was originally going to be the title cut for the album. I don't quite know why it got trimmed, it's a really good song, a bit different in style from the rest of the disc, but in a good way. I mean, you can DANCE to this! Pretty unique song, nothing else quite like it in the canon.

02. On The Outside [9]

While I like this song, I can definitely see why it wasn't on the finished album. It might have been better-suited for Misfits or a Ray Davies solo release. It isn't bad at all, maybe a little too much on the side of easy-listening. Still, the song was dusted off in 1994, polished with some new tracks, and released on an EP featuring a newly-recorded version of "Waterloo Sunset," the aptly-named Waterloo Sunset '94. The version here is from 1977.

03. Elevator Man [10]

Oh, my God, this song.

I'm so proud that I have a copy of this tune. Assuming my friend Dave Emlen at the greatest Kinks site in the universe posts this review on the "News & Rumors" feed, this will hopefully mean a batch of Kinks fans are hearing this ditty for the first time. It's a funky little rocker, about an elevator operator who sees all sorts of people.

I like it.

On that note, if you bother to click through on the YouTube link for "Elevator Man," you'll notice it was posted by one Sleepwalker1977.

That's me. That's how much I love this album. My old email address is Sleepwalker_1977 [at], so yeah...Sleepwalker is an album I enjoy very much. It's super-dorky, but what can I say? I'm a dork.

Good to be back. Hope to see you again soon.