Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Monkees - Instant Replay (1969)

Remember three years ago back in August when I promised I'd come back with an album review that garnered something below a B?

For all two of you who read my reviews, you can finally stop holding your breath.

I'll lay off the "they weren't a real band, but they also weren't the Backstreet Boys" argument this time around - pretty sure I covered it when I reviewed Headquarters
way back in June - and instead focus on their decline.

The first nail in the coffin, despite Don Kirshner's insistence that it was his dismissal as their music supervisor, was NBC canceling The Monkees television show. The band members had grown tired of the madcap adventures geared towards 13 year old kids (keep in mind that in the 1960's 13 was equivalent to 8 years old in 2009 - I'm working on a conversion chart) and regularly challenged the show's format by the end of the second season. Rather than deal with temperamental musicians/actors, NBC canned the show.

That's one.

The second, as much as it pains me to say this, was their motion picture, Head. I'll just go ahead and say it: I have weird tastes. This manifests itself the most with my taste in movies. Yes, I would worship Charlie Chaplin if he came back from the dead. Yes, I enjoy The Godfather. Yes, I love Star Wars. But there's a lot of other "classic" films that I can't stand. There are a lot of modern movies I can't be bothered to watch. If a movie is surreal, bizarre, odd, uniquely shot/edited, abnormally colorful, or just plain funny, chances are it's one of my favorites. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is all of the above. The Beatles' films - Let It Be notwithstanding, I've never seen it, and so long as Sir Paul is alive, I don't think any of us will be seeing it (legally) anytime soon - all check off various criteria on this list. Hell, even Chaplin had some surrealistic humor in his short films.

That all said, I think Head is a brilliant movie. It was ahead of its time in the same sense as Magical Mystery Tour, much-maligned in its time but worshiped in the art-house/film school circuit, having developed a strong cult of defenders. But that was not at all what all the teenyboppers were expecting. In some television documentary on the band, Davy Jones said they should have made "something like Ghostbusters," a 90-minute version of their television show where The Monkees are the heroes on a much more grand scale than any of the Marxist (of the Groucho variety) plots of the television program.

I was really tempted to include a clip from the film...but I can't. I've got to save that for my review of the album Head. I'll just pretend I did and jump to my conclusion about their film:

He has a point.

That's two.

Then - try not to laugh - after Head flopped, plans were hatched for a television special entitled
33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, which really, really sucked. I've seen it. Peter Tork compared it to being a TV version of Head, but that's being charitable.

This was God-awful. Later in the sequence, three survivors of the first wave of rock and roll (who weren't Elvis, who ironically had his big comeback special the month they filmed this garbage), Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino play and partake in an "oldies" medley. The Monkees are treated like rock and roll's first test tube babies, appearing in segments that spoof their personalities on the original show, while in Head they played themselves attempting to escape said image.

In fact, it was such a negative experience that Peter quit.

That's nails three AND four!

So by 1969, the show was done (though even then being rebroadcast as reruns), their venture into film was befuddling to the squares and largely unseen by the acid-eaters who would have loved it, their return to television was a joke (do I need to embed them doing "At The Hop" a second time?), and one of them left after buying out his contract. The band had become a sinking ship, yet the three remaining members - Davy, Micky Dolenz, and Michael Nesmith - were constantly in the studio (separately, mind you, sometimes in different studios on the same day) recording.

In spite of the prolific in-studio work going on by the members individually, Instant Replay is a fragmented pop record. Many of the tracks date back to the early days of The Monkees in 1966, when they were a project rather than a band. Many of them were re-recorded at some point in the time that had passed, but one song indeed is a mixed, mastered track dating from before the show had even aired.

You'd think this hodgepodge compilation of songs ranging from three years to forty-five days old (yes, I looked it up - the album was released 2/15/69, the last vocal overdub was done on 1/4/69 - Andrew Sandoval, your insanely well-researched book is a Godsend!) could barely even be considered an album. Surely "real" artists (the floating quotes are meant to convey sarcasm) didn't do that, right?

Actually, it's not uncommon, for better or for worse. Tattoo You (1981) by The Rolling Stones had songs dating back to 1972 with Mick Taylor on guitar. No new songs were recorded for the album, with only vocal overdubs from Mick Jagger being the sole contributions from the band. On the other hand, there's Neil Young's lopsided 1977 offering, American Stars & Bars. The new stuff was all country music with Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt in tow, and yet among the older material on side B of the album is "Will To Love" (one of my favorites) and "Like A Hurricane," one of my favorite songs from anybody...and yet it sat for two years!

Then there's Zappa, where a guitar solo from 1974 is spliced with a bass track from 1976 and a drum track from 1977. ("The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution," anyone? "Rubber Shirt?" "Friendly Little Finger?") He called it "xenochrony," and it has since become regarded as an art all its own.

That said, Instant Replay is the musical equivalent of taking last night's dinner and reheating it in the microwave. Some bites are going to be piping hot and fresh, like it had just been prepared. Others are going to be slightly cold, making for a grating, unsatisfying clash.

01. Through The Looking Glass [9.5]
A Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart song first originally recorded in 1966, my personal favorite version, this reworked version - sounding more like a
Magical Mystery Tour outtake than the lo-fi Beach Boys-meets-Help! tone of the original - plods along with a beat you can do high kicks to. That's not a bad thing, at all. In fact, it's a terrific recording. The piano is bright and punchy, the song itself is well-arranged, and Micky's singing is top-notch. Very catchy, should have been a single. (We'll get to the actual single in a bit...)

I recognize the strangeness of my own tastes. The songs I give the highest scores to here wouldn't have gotten played on the radio, sure, but I can also take a step back from my own selfish interests and say this - "Through The Looking Glass" is the only song on this album that I can say qualifies as deserving the title of classic in The Monkees' canon.

02. Don't Listen To Linda [2]
That's right. A two. Not to be driving home a motif of things in pairs or double-sidedness, but there are two sides to the songwriting of Boyce and Hart. It was evident as far back as the band's first album. Yes, they gave us the classic "Last Train To Clarksville," but they also gave us their spin on "Yesterday" with the schmaltzy Davy Jones vehicle "I Wanna Be Free." Their dichotomous style is never more obvious than here. "Through The Looking Glass" showed McCartney-esque pop sensibilities amid some deft orchestration.

"Don't Listen To Linda" has a dumb title, clearly thought of first as the song's hook, with everything else very poorly being written to accommodate it. Whoever Linda is, I know now not to listen to her. For a pop song - actually, let me restate this with emphasis - FOR A POP SONG, these lyrics are awful. A good writer can discipline themselves by forcing five pages of text (prose, poetry) a day. Some days it probably comes easily. Other days it's probably like pulling teeth. This must have been written at a dentist's office.

Then you get someone like me, who does one of these dumb little reviews once every two weeks apparently, resulting in the written equivalent of explosive diarrhea. It goes - and gets - everywhere. I generally write these on days where I've had coffee. I think I have a problem.

The sotto brass arrangement gets drowned in a sea of Hollywood strings in the over-dramatic bridge. Not even Davy's munchkin pop singer voice can compete with the orchestration here. And that's saying something.

Before I move on from my Homeric simile on "Don't Listen To Linda," let me just say that you shouldn't only not listen to Linda, you should not listen to this song. You should package it and sell it as a sugar substitute for diabetics. This isn't pop. This is sucralose.

03. I Won't Be The Same Without Her [11]
This song was recorded, mixed, and had Mike's vocals dubbed all before the first episode of The Monkees aired in September of 1966. And yet it's one of the best songs here. What does that tell you?

That said, I love the harmonies. A perfect blend of sorrow on the verses and a catchy title-chorus. The key change in the bridge is beautiful. Sounds like California in 1966. So what if it's 1969? This calls back to a much more innocent time, back before Nixon got elected, before the political turmoil and social unrest, and before Peter Tork quit The Monkees. Wait, what?

Whatever. This is a great song. In the parallel universe where I determine the songs that will become great hits, "I Won't Be The Same Without Her" briefly dominated the radio in the autumn of 1966. Though in said parallel universe it was released by Mike & The Monkees.

04. Just A Game [6]
Micky Dolenz wrote this song, and actually demoed it back around the time of Headquarters as "There's A Way." It starts off very simple, but gradually builds with more and more instruments entering the mix. In spite of the strings and brass that come in, the song is really slight. Forgettable, even. Running only 1:48, this song either should have been fleshed out (if just a bridge to get the song over two minutes) or left in the can.

05. Me Without You [6.5]
Kinda sounds like this...

It's not a full-on carbon copy of The Beatles. That would be Oasis. But the similarities are pretty uncanny. Again, another Boyce/Hart collaboration, and while this isn't a total wash, I think they thought they were doing their best work when they aped John and Paul.

Actually...recalling all the stuff I've read, they modeled "(Theme From) The Monkees" after "Catch Us If You Can" by The Dave Clark Five, "Let's Dance On" is "La Bamba" with every single Chuck Berry riff mixed in, the fade-out of "Paperback Writer" inspired "Last Train To Clarksville," "I Wanna Be Free" clearly came out of "Yesterday," this song is son of "Your Mother Should Know." Yikes.

One thing we can give Boyce and Hart, no matter how derivative they may or may not have been, is "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone." Since someone who owns the rights to The Monkees - arguably one of the most visual groups of their era - ironically wants them off YouTube, here's some other versions, including the original by Paul Revere & The Raiders:

Wait, what were we talking about? Yeah, "Me Without You" is good musically - and that solo is straight out of Sgt. Pepper. I can hear George Harrison playing that guitar solo. Lyrically it's pretty banal...and it loses at least a point and a half on principle. While one could in theory make their career mimicking The Beatles, history will not be kind to you. Although if they'd tried a little harder, I would have loved to have heard The Monkees' "psychedelic" album. Can you imagine?

I smell a mixtape!!!

06. Don't Wait For Me [7.5]
I don't hate country. I just hate most of it. Then again, I feel the same way about most genres. Yeah, The Kinks, The Sex Pistols, Zappa, Neil, Dylan...all great, but then there's all the bands that literally do nothing for me. Grand Funk Railroad (whose best moment is a Rolling Stones cover) is a fine example of this. I'm not even that big on Springsteen. I don't necessarily hate them, I just don't care. It's the musical equivalent of going on a date with a bad kisser.

Then there's bands like Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Boston, and Chicago, which I equate to being like dates who have eaten garlic, suffer from meth-mouth, chain smoke, have had partial maxillofacial surgery, and are bleeding from the gums. And yet they still want to kiss you. They force their tongue down your throat.

Mike Nesmith did some great things - overlooked, even - with fusing country and rock and roll, eliminating the laughably awful middleman of skiffle from the equation and sidestepping folk so as to avoid any Dylan connection. In 1968, Mike did a marathon of recording sessions with a bunch of Nashville's finest session men, including later Neil Young producer David Briggs on piano, yielding almost an album's worth of material. Though not all of it got released while The Monkees were intact, it has all since been released posthumously on compilations like Missing Links or as CD bonus tracks. Most of it is pretty good. This one's not his best - "Propinquity (I've Just Begun To Care)" earns that title for my money, yet that went unreleased until Missing Links Volume 3? - but it's good.

Even when Nesmith falls short of his mark, it stands fairly tall on this album. I also love how genuine he sounds on these country tunes. When he does "Sunny Girlfriend" or "I Won't Be The Same Without Her," he sounds his age. But on this, he sounds like a golden-throated master, with years of experience, heartbreak, and whiskey drinking in every inflection.

07. You And I [12]
Davy dominates on this album, and not one of them score above a 6.5 except this, which is the greatest song he did with The Monkees. Hence, it is a 12. (For good measure, Davy actually has a writing credit! No fresh from the Brill Building songwriters here! Just Davy and Monkee collaborator Bill Chadwick.) This wins by a long-shot, over anything else he did with the group. Odd he would have his best moment so late in their career...and I swear to you it has nothing to do with the mystery guest on lead guitar.

In fact, I loved this song as a kid before I even knew who the guy was who played guitar. I knew his name, but that was it. We'll get to him in a second.

You know how earlier I talked about "I Won't Be The Same Without Her" takes us back to a much more innocent time? This does just the opposite as a new composition, addressing the band as having potentially outstayed their welcome:
"You and I have seen what time does, haven't we?
We've both had time to grow
We've got more growing to do
Me and you
And the rest of them, too."

Then comes the bridge, which carries the most potent acknowledgment of their own waning stardom:
"In a year or maybe two we'll be gone and someone new
Will take our place" - David Cassidy, anyone?
"There'll be another song, another voice, another pretty face..."

Wow. (See what I mean about how this couldn't have been a hit?)

Then there's the dramatic lead guitar line, provided by Buffalo Springfield's resident guy who dresses in fringe and sideburns, Neil "Mr. Soul" Young, the king of impassioned, dramatic lead guitar lines.

08. While I Cry [10]
Nesmith's last contribution to the album comes a little early, with this deceptively simple, plaintive lament for a wicked ex-lover who the narrator had been warned of. It's a beautiful song in its gentle form here, but a closer listen to the acoustic guitar in the left channel, the syncopated rim clicks in the right channel, the tremoloed electric guitar, the backing vocals on the bridge (with a slight flange applied)...just a little more voltage, this could have been a psychedelic ballad. But since it doesn't need any adornments to be a great song, it's here in its best possible form.

And the melody in the song's bridge is magnificent. Even when he's not getting his rocks off with surrealist poetry and bouncy rock, Nesmith is a Hell of a songwriter.

09. Tear Drop City [3.5]
And the sky lifts up its almighty leg and resumes urination. I always thought this sounded WAY too much like "Last Train To Clarksville" for comfort. Then I read that the song was originally recorded in a lower key.

Somewhere along the way, The Monkees got sick of being their own music supervisors, so the guy they hired suggested that by rehashing their old "sound" (thus explaining all the 1966-era material), they would be guaranteed hits. Thus, this song was sped up 9% to match the key of "Last Train To Clarksville." Listen closely to the tambourine. Unless it's a tambourine designed for a midget - note that I'm refraining from making a joke about Davy Jones been five foot three - I've never heard that instrument sound so tiny! And tinny, while we're at it.

I haven't bothered to slow this song down to its original pitch...I'm curious. The fact that I haven't yet means that it's not really been on my mind. Care to know why? It's not a great song. Then it was manipulated to make it sound MORE like their first big hit!

Okay, okay, seriously, it isn't a good song. Even if "Last Train" had never come out, this song wouldn't be that outstanding.

So, did the new music supervisor's gambit work?

Nope. It got to #56.

10. The Girl I Left Behind Me [5]
This song has a great chorus and an all-too-short 12-string acoustic solo, but the rest of the song is the kind of phony-baloney crap that would have been a huge easy listening hit in the 1970's. Unfortunately, it's from 1966. A re-recorded version from 1967 is a bonus track on the CD reissue of The Birds, The Bees, And The Monkees, and it's much better.

You know who could have done this song, obviously making a change for gender? Tina Turner.

11. A Man Without A Dream [1.5]
Somewhere I read Davy likes this song because it was more in his range as a baritone rather than as a tenor. Um, okay, the guy makes his career singing with the range and timbre of a 14 year old boy...anyway, the lyrics are stupid. ("Sometimes I think I'm a prisoner of fate / Doomed to find out things a little too late") The backing vocalists sound like they are half-awake. And the brass interlude is horribly out of place. At least with "The Girl I Left Behind Me" I can picture it being a feminist anthem for Tina Turner, produced by noted producer/murderer Phil Spector, but with this, I don't think anyone should be allowed to sing it. In fact, I'm pretty sure if you look at the sheet music (or even the master tape) directly without first praying a Latin incantation, this could happen to you:

In Hell, this song and "Don't Listen To Linda" play constantly along with "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey on the radio.

Ready for this? Boyce and Hart, surprisingly, did NOT write this song. Gerry Goffin and Carole King did. The same team that gave us "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow."

Care for any further evidence that man is inherently flawed?

12. Shorty Blackwell [10]
Micky Dolenz gets the benediction this time around, and wow...he and his sister Coco share lead vocal (and harmonize really, really well!) in this epic tale of cats, houses on hills, etc. He said it was his own indulgence to pursue a Sgt. Pepper-style sound. So, if anyone ever asks you what happens when someone has virtually unlimited studio time and access to a world-class recording orchestra, look no further. It's a goofy number, but after everything else that's befallen us for the past 35 minutes, it's welcome relief. Even on a good album, this song would remain memorable.

Subtotal: 68.75% D+

Replayability Factor: 0
Can I listen to this album again and again? No. The low points are too low.

Can I extract the best and make a playlist on iTunes? Oh, yes.

Consistency Factor: 0
It's for the die-hards, plain and simple. Davy Jones fans will probably eat this record up, but keep in mind, these are Davy Jones songs that weren't considered good enough for SIX OTHER ALBUMS before making onto Instant Replay. Just...just think about that one.

External Factors: -1
Yep. I went there. Was it out of the members' control that they had a music supervisor who said, "Hey! I know! Let's make you sound like you did 30 months ago! THAT should sell records!" ? Of course. But it still happened.

TOTAL: 67.75%, rounded to 68% D+


Friday, October 30, 2009

Dr. No (1962)

This is my first film review. Anyone visiting my site for the first time should probably know this in advance. Regular readers, I apologize. I've never written a film review before. Can you believe that, given that I studied film along with rock music in college? I can analyze movies like it's nobody's business, but I've never done an proper review.

I guess that's my way of saying you've been warned.

This probably goes without saying, but there will be spoilers in this entry.

The James Bond series is one I have such a love-hate relationship with. At its best, you have a compelling story, some great acting, and some memorable action sequences. However, at its worst, you have recycled or completely laughable stories, some so-bad-it's-still-just-bad acting, and action sequences that are laughable or just plain stupid.

And I blame the producers. Bigger isn't always better. They learn this and re-learn it time and again throughout the existence of the super-spy's film franchise. Every Moonraker is followed by a For Your Eyes Only, but eventually they start beefing the films up and next thing you know Bond is fighting an axe-wielding Christopher Walken atop the Golden Gate Bridge while one of the replacements from Charlie's Angels squeals like a stuck pig.

It doesn't help - or maybe it does - that I'm also working my way through Ian Fleming's novels. Through the summer and early autumn I got through the first five, and oddly enough got to Dr. No before school work began to (appropriately) become my primary focus. The literary Bond isn't a wise-cracking womanizer. He's a rather cold employee of Her Majesty's Government, not enamored with his job, but dedicated to his duty.

The books have their drawbacks, which become more and more glaringly obvious as time marches on. Fleming was upper-class and English...and a man. So there's sexism (though not much eroticism, thankfully) and racist attitudes scattered throughout. It isn't uncommon for someone to be described first as being French or having traits "like all Frenchmen...". To me, it's just the words of an Englishman in the dying days of colonialism in the British Empire.

Deborah Lipp wrote a wonderful book of lists and reviews of the series. She runs a great blog site that features all things Bond. In her book, I feel she is a little too harsh on Fleming's racial attitudes. They're worth pointing out and calling them for what they are, but sometimes she's a bit too politically correct. (Other than that, though, she's a terrific writer and a very courteous site-runner. She warded off some pesky 13 year old who started a petty argument deftly.)

Her book, which I picked up in Dallas this June, inspired me as a pop culture junkie, to re-watch and reevaluate Bond. I hadn't seen any of the films since middle school, but I recalled watching them almost religiously. I also recall that Timothy Dalton's two films were my standout favorites. Of course, this eventually got displaced when I discovered Monty Python and their Flying Circus.

So, here goes. My first film review on this blog.

DR. NO (1962)
I really don't know why this was the first choice. Bond had actually been introduced to us on the CBS series Climax! in an adaptation of the first novel Casino Royale, with Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre and American (!) actor Barry Nelson playing Jimmy "Card Sense" Bond, a CIA agent...

...think about that for a minute. James Bond as an American. Oh, wait...

Anyway, the first Bond novel having already been put onto the screen, albeit on American television in the 1950's, was sufficient grounds for them to choose a different story. The books are in an entirely different order from the film series, which continues to baffle me. I've taken the liberty to list them here with their order in the films in parenthesis:

Casino Royale (21st)
Live And Let Die (8th)
Moonraker (11th)
Diamonds Are Forever (7th)
From Russia With Love (2nd)
Dr. No (1st)
Goldfinger (3rd)
For Your Eyes Only short story collection, which included
+ For Your Eyes Only and Risico, which combined to form the story for the film For Your Eyes Only (12th)
+ From A View To A Kill, which minus "From" was the title - and little else - for the 14th outing
+ Quantum Of Solace (22nd, though again, none of the story is on the screen. Just the title.)
+ The Hildebrand Rarity (incorporated into Licence To Kill, the 16th film)
Thunderball (4th)
The Spy Who Loved Me (10th)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (6th)
You Only Live Twice (5th)
The Man With The Golden Gun (9th)
Octopussy & The Living Daylights (13th and 15th, respectively)

What the Hell? Seriously! Oh, well.

I'll warn you this may just turn into "the rantings of an angry fanboy."

Whatever the case is, Dr. No lends itself to being a simple, yet effective, narrative. A field agent is killed and Bond is sent to investigate. It really does play out like a detective story...and that's kind of a drawback. We know Bond with 20/20 hindsight as a globetrotting secret agent, so why is he doing what seems like police work? Because that's how he worked in the novels. This is one of the closest adaptations we'll see in the franchise of the source material.

We first see Bond from behind, playing cards opposite the lovely Sylvia Trench, and in our first glimpse of the ruggedly handsome Sean Connery he gives us his iconic introduction while lighting a cigarette: "Bond. James Bond." It's so strange to think Fleming wanted the most ordinary name possible, because as you're about to see, those two simple syllables are pretty bad-ass:

See what I mean?

That said, (and this is my second draft of this review when I realized I was simply summarizing the picture without any opinions) I like this movie. But I don't love it. As an introduction to Bond, it is pretty good. However, this could have been any generic cop/CIA man following the clues...until he gets to where the clues take him.

I bitch a lot about the lack of realism in the films, but what makes Bond so special is that it's realism...with a twist. He exists in the real world, yes, but a dash of fantasy - just enough to make you think, "Could this actually happen?" - gives these films their oomph. So it is largely a cloak and dagger film, just set in Jamaica.

But then we get to where this search for clues is taking us.

Bond's journey eventually leads him to the lair of the title villain, Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman), a mysterious half-German, half-Chinese with artificial hands. As far as Bond villains go, I like him, but several factors leave him very open to parody. It doesn't help that just about anything remotely ridiculous we see in the 1960's Bond outings was later made into comedy in the Austin Powers series, because Dr. No pretty much is Dr. Evil. He speaks in a robotic, monotonous tone, wearing a Nehru jacket with matching trousers, and he does little other than demonstrate that his artificial hands can do some serious damage. Oh, and they are both doctors - maybe they went to the same Evil School?

As menacing as he seems, he doesn't get much screen time. He's really only in two scenes. One is where he and Bond size one another up. And re-watching it, Dr. Evil be damned, Wiseman makes every second count!

(The armed goon with one line we'll see again later, much later, in The Spy Who Loved Me as the stumpy but formidable Sandor.)
He anticipates Bond's every move, even telling him to put the knife he'd hidden in his sleeve back on the table, while Bond does his best to verbally wound his adversary. It's here that Bond shines, because too much in this film does he come across as kind of a brute, body-slamming a thug and snapping "Get up!" as he wipes his hands with his handkerchief, throwing Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) around before learning he's a friend and not a foe, and his seduction of Miss Taro (Zena Marshall).

But in this scene, he shows that his greatest asset isn't his hand-to-hand combat skills or his seductive charm. It's his brain. We're meeting 007 not as some rookie eager to get his hands dirty; rather, he's a seasoned veteran. This tactic of being a smart-ass is one he'd clearly used before, and it had worked for him. But not this time. Dr. No even tells him it's to no avail, deriding him as "a stupid policeman" after offering him to join an organization called SPECTRE.

Thinking of it in 1962 terms rather than our post-post-modern outlook where nothing is sacred and everything is ridiculed, Dr. No is a chilling villain, an adversary intellectually and physically.

As for the girl, Honey Ryder (played by German actress Ursula Andress and dubbed by some English lady whose name I don't really feel like looking up) I think she's kind of overrated. Beautiful, yes, but iconic or memorable? Sorry, not really. A lot of the early Bond girls were dubbed and while this was probably a wise foreign-accent-masking move, I feel this gives them little presence.

The Department of Henchmen wasn't fully fleshed out in this first excursion, and we can forgive that. Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) is well-played, but everything about him from his voice to his demeanor seems to say "THIS IS A VILLAIN, HE IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED" from his first appearance. This really does remove some of the suspense before we see him report to Dr. No that Bond is an enemy to be feared.

Thankfully, there are some great allies here. Straight out of the novels are Felix Leiter (played here by Jack Lord, later to start in Hawaii Five-O) and Quarrel. Leiter is Bond's CIA counterpart, just as well-dressed and cool. I like Jack Lord's performance, although I feel he's underused as far as the film's action goes. Quarrel adds some comic relief, and he's very likable...but he also has the misfortune of being a black man in a film made in the early 1960's based on a novel written by an upper-class Englishman in the 1950's. He's pretty...token, prone to superstition, and when Connery says "Quarrel, fetch my shoes!" I really wish the guy would say back, "Fuck you! Get your own damn shoes!"

The action sequences are real hit and miss. Bond's car chase with the Three Blind Mice assassins was shot in a town called Rear Projectionville, and it's a bit much when their car goes off road (hitting NO bumps, mind you!) and bursts into flames. Then again, I say this without thinking to mention that instead of gasoline, cars in the early 1960's ran on nitro glycerin.

But then there's the scene where Bond has a tarantula crawling up his body in bed. What makes this so great is this isn't sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads (man-eating fish would become a Bond trope after being effectively used in the Bahamas-centered Thunderball). No, it's a spider. And it's so well done, because it's a real threat, and Connery's sweat-drenched face is pretty damn convincing that Bond is legitimately frightened.

The final showdown, when Bond sabotages the operation, goes too fast. Everyone immediately evacuates. Maybe it's just badly shot. However, there is a deal of tension during his fight with Dr. No, one reason being that a single carefully aimed blow from his opponent's metal hands and Bond's head would look like a crushed watermelon. The other is that they're on a platform lowering into a nuclear reactor which is quickly reaching critical temperature.

Overall, Dr. No is entertaining, with some good dialog and a smattering of tense action sequences, but it's not the first one that comes to mind if I want to see Connery at his best.

Score: 84% B

PS - Bond sleeps with three women in this movie. Yes, this was the era of JFK bedding anything that walked. This was the era of Mad Men.

PPS - How did you like my first film review? I thought it sucked - definitely not as good as my album reviews - but then I think all my stuff sucks.

Movie Reviews

I'm about two minutes away from writing my first movie review. Unlike albums, which I have a really bizarre algorithm set up for, I realized that with movies I simply can't do that.

With music, it's pretty simple, since the lineup of songs (and a runtime between 35 and 90 minutes in most instances, the occasional 3-LP epic - I'm looking at YOU, Thing-Fish! - notwithstanding) makes an album episodic. What, then, for movies? Scenes? Moments? I'd probably go crazy trying to figure out some sort of algorithm for film reviews.

Oh, wait, I have been trying to figure it out and I am crazy!

Anyway, it's kept me from doing movie reviews for too long. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Neil Young - Re-Ac-Tor (1981)

Moving is a pain in the ass. I'll just go ahead and say that. Just sleep on a mat, wash the same outfit every night - and who needs technology? Right?

Guess it's a necessary evil if you want to be able to see the world.

After EIGHT WEEKS without my computer, which I was putting music from home onto right until the morning I left for New York, it finally came in the mail. Of course, six of those weeks were spent in a setting where I couldn't exactly unpack. I had promised to write a review of a bad album, but I couldn't resist this. The tunes from this album were stuck in my head for me to ignore the need to do it, so here it goes - the 1981 album Re-Ac-Tor by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

This album is held in fairly low regard, I've noticed. It isn't as controversial and divisive as Trans (1982), Everybody's Rockin' (1983), or Old Ways (1985), nor is it as hated as Landing On Water (1986) or Life (1987), but all across the board - at least in my experience in reading reviews of the album - it seems like a low-tier Neil Young album, like The Rolling Stones' Black And Blue or any post-1975 solo Beatles album...inconsequential and "just kinda there."

At, Re-Ac-Tor has a rating of two stars, the lowest score awarded to any of his records, and tied for such a distinction with Trans, Everybody's Rockin', Landing On Water, Arc (which is a 35-minute sonic experiment of song fragments, feedback, and the guys in Crazy Horse tuning up - naturally, the mainstream critics hate it and I think it's wonderful), and the 2002 album Are You Passionate?. Not even the real shit-storm records (American Stars & Bars, Hawks & Doves) are that low, each garnering a three-star rating.

Then again, the overrated and overproduced Harvest, the best-selling album of 1972, is given FOUR AND A HALF STARS. For real.

And yet I think this treatment of Reactor (I know the title is hyphenated, but for ease of typing I'll just type it out like a normal word) is unfair. Maybe it's because the reviews had my expectations so damn low that I didn't know what to expect other than 40 minutes of ass-crap. My affection for the record was probably also boosted because I had listened to it alongside Hawks & Doves (1980), which like American Stars & Bars (1977) before it had a good side and a bad side. While the a-side of Stars & Bars featured Nashville-ready country music - not really my thing, but I can listen to it in the right mood - that I consider inferior to its flipside (which includes the majestic yet raucous masterpiece "Like A Hurricane," which I consider one of the best songs ever), the a-side of Hawks & Doves features some wonderful, gentle acoustic Neil.

It wouldn't classify as folk or country, just "acoustic." Those songs are gorgeous, and for my money he does some of the best singing of his career on songs like "Little Wing" (no relation to the Jimi Hendrix tune of the same name) and "The Old Homestead." But then comes the b-side, which features the hokiest crap passed off as country music since...well, I don't know since I'm not a country buff. Still, it's awful. When it isn't cheesy ("Stayin' Power," "Coastline") or head-scratchingly odd ("Union Man"), it features our hero espousing some pretty blatant jingoistic praise towards the United States.

Nothing wrong with celebrating life in the land of the First Amendment (though even that has been taken away from us...thanks, Dubya!), but this is the guy who wrote "Ohio." The guy who wrote "Southern Man." And not only that, the songs themselves are...just...bad. "Boy, this country sure looks good to me!" - That's bad writing, friends. He could have been taking a piss on the Reagan administration (he didn't - he liked the bastard) and I would have thought that was a bad lyric.

So back-to-back, I have an album that starts off really well, I thought, only to go right down the tubes in its latter half, followed by this album, Reactor. How did it stack up?

Read on.
01. Opera Star [10]
Maybe I was expecting some truly bad 80's rock (not naming names...), but when this came on, I cranked it the Hell up! The song kicks off with a catchy riff, and Neil rattles off the first verse like it's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Too Much Monkey Business," with a string of lyrics about a jilted lover. Those "whoo-whoo" backing vocals remind me of "Sympathy For The Devil," one of the innumerable factors leading to my dad hate-hate-HATING what I consider one of The Rolling Stones' best moments.

Just listen to the band, and you'll hear guitar tones that we'd first met on Rust Never Sleeps, which I love. This album greets you like an old friend. It wasn't just the contrapuntal experience of hearing rightist jingo country back-to-back with this neanderthal rock. I've re-listened to Reactor several times, and "Opera Star" is fist-pumping rock, with Crazy Horse living up to the equine connotations by charging out like a race is on.

This song also confirmed what I suspected since I first heard Rust, and that is that Neil had to have heard Cheap Trick during this period. Had to. Between the driving tempo, the singing, the guitars, and the comical "ha-ha-HA, ha-HA!" at the end of every verse, he's rocking that same combination of rock and roll delivered with a knowing smirk rather than a pretentious sneer.

"So your girlfriend slammed the door shut in your face tonight, but that's all right
Then she took off to the opera with some highbrow from the city lights.
Well, you grew up on the corner, you never missed a moonlit night.

Some things never change,
They stay the way they are

(Ha-ha-HA, ha-HA [ho-ho-ho])

You were born to rock, you'll never be an opera star!

That's the first verse and the chorus. I detect a bit of self-mockery. Just a few months back I read a guitar magazine where Neil talked about his playing and said something to the effect of how he plays with intensity and passion, only to add, "But I suck. I've heard myself!" He has a very wry sense of humor, and it's no more obvious to me than it is on this song, where the rock 'n' roller gets ditched for some opera-going schmuck. The idea of low art versus high art is something that belies serious discussions of rock and roll (or for that matter, in many circles still, popular culture studies in general), that "It's only rock and roll" or "It's only jukebox music" (these Kink references come left and right when I'm talking about anyone but The Kinks!). To avoid a blog post-derailing tangent, let me just say that thought is pure nonsense.

The sustained notes coming from the synthesizer - and again, not an intrusively obnoxious brassy synth that one would expect on an 80's album - are in a string voice. Maybe it's the Stringman synth we first heard on "Like A Hurricane." Still, it reminds me of some Sleepwalker-era Kinks (they were probably not the first, but it's the memory I associate with that tone).

Oh, and he says "fuck" in the second verse, making references to "gettin' fucked up in that rock 'n' roll bar / And you never get tired 'cause all your drugs are in a little jar." He later did a song called "Fuckin' Up" on Ragged Glory (1990), but it caught me off-guard in the best possible way. I'm not endorsing booze and drugs as a way of life, and even with Neil - who makes drug references in this song and the next - he's got a stance against "hard drugs" (see "The Needle And The Damage Done" and all of his so-called "Ditch Trilogy") while still advocating marijuana use. McCartney has the same position. Still, it's shocking to hear Neil mention drugs without talking about someone dying "out on the mainline" or how he "watched the needle take another man." Then comes that great guitar solo, heralded by Neil's declaration "I was born to rock!", showing Neil favoring the flannel/t-shirt/holey jeans image on this disc, rather than the tasseled-jacket and cowboy hat-donning bard of his softer modes.

One of the best opening tracks ever. It's defiant, it's mildly profane, and it's fun. I'm still really weird about live albums, even if Rust Never Sleeps was originally live but heavily overdubbed (or, in the case of some of the side A tracks, leftovers from the aborted Homegrown album or 1978's Comes A Time). For me, this is the first time we've heard from Crazy Horse in the studio since "Like A Hurricane," and even that was recorded two years before it was put out - a candidate for Homegrown and possibly Zuma (1975).

02. Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze [9]
This song keeps a fun, this-album-should-be-played-at-parties vibe going. The chorus beckons us to join Neil and the Horse "for a pleasure cruise / Plenty of women and plenty of booze." Though there's little significance to the nomenclature, it's allegedly a playful ribbing of Reprise honchos Joe Smith and Mo Ostin. Of all the songs on the album, this one, "Southern Pacific," and "Shots" are largely praised as the ones worth a damn. Alexis Petridis, in his entry on Neil in the Kill Your Idols series, blasts the rest of the album in favor of this song.

Maybe it's the guitar solo.

The reason this song, as much as I enjoy it, merited a 9 rather than a 10 is because it borrows a little too much from two other, distinct songs: "Proud Mary" by Creedence Clearwater Revival in a quick blast before the first verse and, surprisingly, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by The Beatles during the verses and solo, with that minor-key descending pattern ringing just a little too familiar. But it's too damn fun for me to demerit it to anything below a 9.

03. T-Bone [10]
"The night we recorded that we didn't have anything else happening [...] I just made up the lyrics and we did the whole thing that night. It was a one-take thing. It seems the lyrics were just on my mind. It's very repetitive but I'm not such an inventive guy. I thought those two lines were good." -- Neil Young

The two lines, that make up the entire lyric for this sprawling 9-minute, 15-second jam?

"Got mashed potato, ain't got no t-bone!"

I wish I was making this up. Neil considers this his favorite off the album, not unlike his favoring of "Union Man" off Hawks & Doves. The more I learn about the guy - in early November I'll be speaking on Rust Never Sleeps at a popular culture conference in Boston, so Neil's been on the brain of late - the weirder he gets! With Zappa, you expect weirdness and instead find a very articulate composer masquerading as a rock guitarist. But with Neil, it's this weird dude from Manitoba who - as if genres are really worth a shit - is as much garage rock as he is folk/country, with notable forays into electronica, rockabilly, Stax-ready R&B, brassy jazz/blues...and that's just his oeuvre.

This is saying nothing about the man behind the sideburns. Eighteen days into a three-month tour with The Stills-Young Band, he asked his bus driver to turn around from Atlanta and take him to LA, leaving a note for Stephen Stills that read:
"Dear Stephen,
Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way.
Eat a peach,

Um, huh?

"T-Bone" presents Neil at his head-scratchingly weirdest thus far, with Crazy Horse providing a hypnotic garage drone while he solos away, occasionally stepping up to the mic to remind us that he still has no meat entree to accompany his starchy side-dish, and in no uncertain terms.

Now, I can see the potential for why any sane individual would hate this song. But that's where John Q. Public and I differ. When I think of this song as a logical treatment of minimalist aesthetics, with a static background to support Neil's wonderful improvisations as he increasingly distorts his guitar tone, it's bloody brilliant. Give those guitar solos a chance...he does some interesting things.

Bottom line: they're having fun. If this had turned up on a concert bootleg, critics would fawn over it as a deft guitar workout. We're all fickle little bitches.

04. Get Back On It [5.5]
The first two seconds, with its chugging snare pattern and galloping piano, paired with that title, almost immediately made me think of The Beatles' own "Get Back," which McCartney had described as "a song to rollercoast to." Thankfully, Neil has already made a Beatles quote once already, before we climbed that musical Everest that is "T-Bone." The song quickly turns into a song's about driving to escape something. Not quite sure what. Neil hadn't toured in three years by this point, so unless this rather inconsequential number had been in the can for a while (though this sounds more like hastily-written filler), it's just a ditty about hitting the highway. It's harmless, kind of a 12-bar blues pattern set to an accented 16th-note snare beat, but it's short and a little too static (yeah, because "T-Bone" wasn't static - not at all!).

Throw in that it's closing an otherwise stellar A-side and the fact that Neil just sounds tired here (must have worn himself out lamenting for a damn t-bone!) and, I'm sorry, we have a dud. I don't hate it, I won't skip over it in the course of listening to the album...but it's just kinda there.

05. Southern Pacific [10]
Remember under "T-Bone" when I talked about how weird Neil is? Neil owned a stake in Lionel Trains until last year. Maybe he's just an overgrown kid - bringing us to the stage show that accompanied the Rust Never Sleeps tour...but I'll save that for the conference speech... - but that's alternately cool and just plain odd. It's one thing to write songs about cars. They're manly, and while I don't consider myself a "car guy" I still recognize makes and models, and yes, driving is fun. I kind of miss it here in New York. So it's not at all odd for Neil to sing about hitting the road, it's not even all that strange that he took a 1959 Lincoln and had it engineered to get over 100 miles per gallon. It isn't even that strange that he wrote an album about it...but trains? Trains?

Hmm. It almost - ALMOST - suffers from having the same beat, just a hair slower, than on "Get Back On It," but the rest of the group is in great form. Then there's the lyrics, where the narrator is a train engineer forced into retirement due to bad vision (as you know, Neil was 65 years old at the time and a former train engineer himself. Not really. That's what makes it so WEIRD!) and ruminates on who/what he used to be. It's essentially a folk tune, championing the working man, but set to thumping, brooding music. And his guitar growls and screeches like a locomotive.

"Now I'm left to roll / On the long decline" - what a heart-wrenching stance on the protagonist's forced retirement.

Naysayers of this record be damned!

06. Motor City [9.5]
A double-time electric country, its main lick cribbing both Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire" and a drop of "It Ain't Me Babe" by Bob Dylan. Ignore that, though, it's a funny song, about a cranky feller upset to hear that Detroit isn't the heart of car production, that there's "too many Datsuns / In this town." He favors driving around an old army jeep that "ain't got no digital clock" while the backing vocals add, as a comedic aside, "ain't got no clock." It rollicks along until the chorus, where Neil sings quite well - a bit of an oddity on his heavier albums - and aside from the occasional blast of what I call Neil's "farting guitar tone" (see "Hey, Hey, My, My") this is a fairly clean number. A very memorable song, unique for not being the overdrive-based rock that propels most of this album, but also for clever lyrics and a dual solo between Neil and rhythm guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro.

I should also give props to Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, respectively on bass and drums, who make up a rhythm section as solid as concrete. They give old Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts a run for their money, except Mr. Molina doesn't have the jazz training of Charlie Watts, making Crazy Horse's backbone almost unrepentantly solid. The phrase "no bullshit" is used - by me - to describe their playing, and I mean that with the utmost respect.

07. Rapid Transit [10]
The reviews of Reactor I've read all mention this song for being Neil's venture into New Wave; the reactions of the writers vary. Some think he's taking a swipe at the music, but having read the (fairly minimalist) lyrics, I don't quite see that. That staggered riff smacks of "I'm A Man" by The Spencer Davis Group, while Neil's absurdist "R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rapid transit" (rolling his r's) and his other stuttering intros to each line channels David Byrne of Talking Heads.

He sings "Every wave is new until it breaks," after a repeated phrase of "Hang ten pipeline, let's go trippin'!", but again I don't think that's a dig at New Wave. This is the guy whose "Sedan Delivery" on Rust Never Sleeps some two years prior, melding the electric amphetamine Dylan with punk, with another memorable "What the Hell?" Neil lyric to boot. To me, that line about new waves is more about the term itself. It's a dumb name...much like in the art world how "Modernism" was a trend, only now we've since had "Post-Modernism" and "Contemporary" arts. I've mused to Shelley that in another ten years it will be "New Art," then "Just Made Art," before we eventually return to just calling it art.

Perhaps it's a warning, and why not? He asked before if Johnny Rotten would go the way of Elvis in "Hey, Hey, My, My" after declaring in its acoustic counterpart that it would be, imparting that old versus new is simply a state of mind. Neil was all of 36 when Reactor was released, but he'd lived a lifetime in the 1970's. He'd been lumped in with the darlings of singer-songwriters because of Harvest's runaway success in 1972, created among the most harrowing music in the rock world with Time Fades Away, On The Beach, and Tonight's The Night, never mind his earlier outings with Crazy Horse, where their garage-ready sounds (they literally recorded their first album, when they were called The Rockets, in a garage) proved a perfect match after Young quit Buffalo Springfield.

"Every wave is new until it breaks." Separate that from the music. It's a profound statement on the impermanence of life, hinted at on "Southern Pacific" and played up a great deal on the bookending tracks from Rust. That's a line just as striking as "Once you're gone / You can't come back / When you're out of the blue and into the black."

In short, since there's only one song left, I don't think it's any sort of rockist indictment of New Wave music. If he'd had some bone to pick he would have found himself rendered irrelevant in the late 1970's, when all the lads from his generation had to prove their worth against the young upstarts and art students at CBGB's, the politicized English punks, and the even more diverse punk scenes on the West Coast. And seriously, if Neil hated New Wave, I don't think he would have done it while paying homage to the band I consider its poster child: Talking Heads.

So there.

08. Shots [11]
And here we are at the album's feels like I'm talking about an action movie, but it is quite literally an explosive tune, with gunshots and other violent sounds throughout.

Neil breaks out the farting Rust tone again on his guitar, at times indiscernible from the guns and machine noises. He solos at every possible chance, and in what I consider a compliment, his vocal is reminiscent of Pete Townshend's. Molina's marching cadence sustains for the song's entire 7:40 run-time, and yet the song never drags or feels stagnant. With or without the gunshots, this is epic music that even haters of "T-Bone" can enjoy.

Then there's the lyrics. It's a plea for unity - "Who knows where or when old wounds will mend?" - and also a proclamation of hatred for the ills of the world, from sexual infidelity to border disputes to the "shots" he keeps hearing. In spite of the song's musically brutal nature, there is some sense of beauty in such a frank artistic expression. There's passion in this song. Unlike too many other songs that run over six minutes in length which go flat like Diet Coke in a warm can (laugh if you want, try it - in fifteen minutes you'll be holding aspartame-sweetened caramel-flavored acid in an aluminum can), this stays interesting without shifting direction or tone.

Sure, that guitar tone is the exact same six-stringed buzzsaw we heard on "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)," but damn it's good.

Subtotal: 93.75% A

Replayability Factor: 3
I could replay this album again and again. And I have. In the week that I've had my desktop back I've heard this record three times. It's terrific, and while it's hardly the only Neil album I can do this with - Rust, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Time Fades Away - it certainly bears an elite status as being something that doesn't drive me up the wall. Okay, maybe it does...but in a good way. (See "T-Bone.")

Consistency Factor: 1.5
Pegging Neil down is tricky. Don't even try. You think you have him figured out, but then you pick up Trans and go, "Oh. Sounds like Kraftwerk. Neil Young sounding like Kraftwerk?" and promptly phone up the Devil and ask how he's faring amidst the massive snowfall that has hit the Kingdom of Hell. But as far as the true essentials - one column I do enjoy at The A.V. Club is their "Gateways To Geekery," where noobs are given a bit of guidance in terms of approaching what would be an otherwise daunting source of entertainment; they've done French New Wave cinema, Kiss, anime, etc. - and I say this with "Gateways To Geekery" firmly in mind as the standard, I'd say the essential Neil Young is the stuff just about everyone seems to agree upon. This omits Harvest right out if you ask me, but I think we can all agree on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Tonight's The Night and even Rust Never Sleeps, each for their own merits. I wrote about Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere a small eternity ago, but I can still say it's probably the safest catch-all "Here you go, let me know how you like it" album in his catalog.

That said, and I apologize for one of my tilt factors being so overlong, I would say Reactor straddles being among the immediate runner-up tier and the "for the fans" tier. It's somewhere in between those two; if you liked Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, you'll probably like Zuma as well as Reactor (that's why I'm so shocked by the dislike awarded to this album, to me it feels like a logical continuation of manifesto-free rock and roll from those two earlier ones!) I guess this means I have a new numerical ranking, the 1.5, the rating for albums with "if you liked album X, then you'll probably like THIS."

External Factors: 2
Maybe I'm over-sensitive about this, as someone who has settling down and raising a family in the (still somewhat) distant future, but Neil and his wife Pegi's son Ben was born with cerebral palsy. He became the center of the world, and somewhere in the midst of that Pegi had a brain operation done to save her own life. That he focused on being a caring, devoted husband and father to a physically handicapped child is most noble and admirable. His music took a back-burner on this album and the last, although the song "Staying Power" was a salute to his and Pegi's marriage, which is going strong in its 31st year as of this writing.

At allmusic, William Ruhlmann rather cruelly concludes his review of Reactor with this:
"Still, he might have been better advised to have suspended record-making for a few years instead of turning out half-baked efforts like this one."

The idea of turning to art (music, prose, painting) as therapy or escape is one of the fundamental purposes of art, neck and neck with portraying beauty or what one's definition of beauty is. Who the Hell are we to say Neil Young should have taken a hiatus from doing what he loved?

Beyond the personal reasons there's the fact that this album doesn't suffer sounding like the 1980's. It could have been a shelved Crazy Horse album from 1978. Or 1976. Much further and their heavy tones would have been brand-spankin' new, especially in the wake of punk.

Total: 100.25%, rounded to 100.3% A+

Welcome to The 100 Plus Club, Neil. I am no doubt in the minority holding this disc in such high regard, but we mustn't forget this is and not

On a slightly personal note, it's good to be back, with my feet firmly on the ground and my iTunes library just a few clicks away. Soon to be unearthed and listened to (probably not until after the conference in Boston) are Buffalo Springfield, who come highly recommended from Glenn Gass himself, Todd Rundgren's work beyond the coked-out A Wizard, A True Star, Patti Smith, Love, Be Bop Deluxe, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, The Moody Blues, Smashing Pumpkins, never mind the artists I already know and love, but just haven't gotten to yet...I promise I'll get to The Residents, eventually. It's just the album I'm really keen on, The Third Reich And Roll (1976), is hard to write about being two separate LP-side length sound collages.

And seriously, Dylan.

Be back again soon.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Been Busy

Things are hectic, as can be expected. Guess this will have to suffer a little as a result.

So it goes.

Anyway, I was looking at my tags for entries...there are FIVE A-pluses. FIVE. The worst grade anything has gotten was my first review, which earned a B-plus.

I hope you realize what this means. I need to get some neutral, bad, and/or disappointed reviews up here. It's a shame my last review was for a Stones record, they're the big offenders in this realm.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Rolling Stones - Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

This is the one where I piss off a margin of Stones fans, earn the respect of another (considerably smaller) margin of Stones fans, and find myself on the receiving end of sheer indifference from all other Stones fans.

This album is one of the most divisive records ever put out. My father calls it "A poor man's Sgt. Pepper" and notes that the use of drugs is a lot more obvious here than on The Beatles' album (I disagree with the quote, but he's probably dead right on that last one.) For its defenders, it was a step in the logical direction after Aftermath and Between The Buttons, a sign of their edge for experimentation. For others, this is proof that the band had lost their way, trying a little too hard to keep with the times.

Yes, and what was Some Girls? Oh, wait, that was just more of what they SHOULD have been doing instead of the aimless mid-tempo sludge that dominated their 1970's output and earned them the disparaging dinosaur title from the punks.

(Gee, you really need to guess where I stand on Their Satanic Majesties Request?)

I love this album. Get these notions of Pepper or Forever Changes or even Safe As Milk out of your head. Hell, if it helps, pretend it's NOT The Rolling Stones. If this had been some one-off by a British underground band, it would be the object of the respect it deserves. Anyway, do whatever it takes to approach this album with an open mind, because there's not a trace of the band's blues roots to be found.

And that's okay.

Maybe this album's bad reputation says more about the average (let me emphasize AVERAGE) Stones fan than The Rolling Stones themselves. There's something to be said about the resemblance between "Brown Sugar" and "Rough Justice" or the fact that damn near every album since Let It Bleed has featured some rewrite of "Gimme Shelter" - though "Brown Sugar," "Rocks Off," and "Dancing With Mr. D" are all great in their own regards - in one shape or another, yes, but they also play to audience expectations. Here they are, sounding unlike their previous works...and it stands hated, in the shadow of its (overrated, but still good) cousin, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The album spent a long time gestating in the studio, mainly because of Mick, Keith, and Brian all enjoying their share of legal troubles. It was during this period that the notorious bust - on orders to "wait until the Beatle [George Harrison] leaves" - on a party at Keith's home caused a massive scandal, thus beginning The Rolling Stones' career-spanning affair as tabloid fodder (I recommend David Dalton's 1981 book for its compilation of Stones tabloid headlines - amazing stuff), from where Marianne Faithful put that Mars bar to what Mick Jagger was doing with it...yeah.

By this point, Brian Jones was on the brink. His legal tangles kept the band from obtaining travel visas to the States, which on some level I'm led to understand played a small role in the case for his dismissal in 1969. He makes some great contributions to this album, but after that his role in the band is fairly dubious. A slide guitar here, an autoharp there...but that was it. He withered away, and it really was tragic. I can be a cynical asshole (as I was in my entry on Aftermath) and say it was his fault for squandering his talent, but at the end of the day it won't change the fact that his own demons ended his life at 27.

One of Keith's best moments (which is saying something) is in this 1973 interview, himself in the throes of a heroin addiction and discussing Brian's passing:

This album really does mark the end of an era for them. More so than Altamont, I think. For me, Altamont didn't end the 1960's - it was the beginning of the 1970's and the image The Rolling Stones had as this dangerous force, quite possibly with the Devil on their side. This is The Rolling Stones' dying days of the innocence of their youth. Until this point, they'd been troublemakers, the scruffian alternative to The Beatles, and one of the best blues bands in England. They partied, they did drugs, but at that point in time it was all still fun and games. No one had died yet.

The high point of the album comes with "2,000 Light Years From Home," which I interpret as an illustration of the dark side to the so-called rebellion that came with turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. You find it gets awful lonely, so many light years from home. For me, there was always something inherently nasty brooding underneath the surface of flower power. It would come to manifest itself with the great unrest of 1968 in Chicago, Memphis, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Prague. It was as if The Rolling Stones were able to see through the bullshit and know that this wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

All this, without becoming washed-up acid casualties in the process, some great work still ahead of them.

01. Sing This All Together [10]
This song is great fun. As its title suggests, it isn't too hard to sing along with. There are some great African-derived rhythms (no doubt influenced from Jagger, Richards, and Jones' trip to Morocco) on this track in the interlude, with some buried fuzz guitar. The brass arrangement is both punchy and a perfect tone to accompany the song's middle section. It doesn't grab you and shake you by the collars the way Sir Paul introduces the boys from the Lonely Hearts Club or Billy Shears, but it works in its own way. The Beatles want you to sit back and watch the show, but The Rolling Stones want you to join in on the fun, "Open [y]our heads and let pictures come." Hell, they even have Lennon and McCartney joining in on backing vocals!

02. Citadel [9]
This song is a great mix of some great guitar riffing (I especially love the second guitar that drops in for a little bit in the left channel), sax, mellotron, I think some flute, harpsichord, an atmosphere of percussion, and Charlie Watts playing a staggered drum beat like a warped twist on "My Obsession" from the previous album before hitting his stride in the majestic choruses. Who said psychedelic music had to be all "Nights In White Satin" (one of the best songs of its genre) or "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" (blech - more like "A Whiter Shade Of Pail," which I usually need nearby when that snooze-fest comes on) or "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"? This song rocks, just try to ignore the lyrics:

"Candy and Cathy, hope you both are well
Please come see me in the citadel."

Yikes. Not quite the Carroll-esque imagery of Lennon's psychedelic compositions (which I rank as his best right behind his "I just discovered Dylan" phase, which I mean as a high compliment), now is it? At least the music paints a wonderful picture.

Since YouTube has been the subject of scrutiny from the legal teams at more than a few major labels, I couldn't find every single song from this album. So, here's The Damned doing their cover of "Citadel."

03. In Another Land [10]

Uh...whoa. That was definitely The Rolling Stones on "Citadel," and we could at least pick out Mick Jagger on "Sing This All Together," but who the Hell is this?

This is actually sort of a big deal, being a song written and sung by bassist Bill Wyman. That's right, folks, the band was so keen to experiment in the studio that Mick and Keith let up their monkey grip (get it?) on the songwriting end that they let someone else have a go. The story goes that Bill, the straight-edged member of the band (in all fairness, this was a dual title held with Charlie until the 1980's when he quietly checked himself into rehab for a drug & drink addiction; to further counter that, though, sticking up for my drummer brethren, Charlie has the distinction of being the only monogamous Stone) was the only member to show up to the studio.

He laid down this song just the same, with some help from session man Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and two members of The Small Faces, Steve Marriott (who played acoustic guitar on the song as well) and Ronnie Lane (later to join The Faces with another guy named Ronnie and a guy named Rod). It turns out Mick and Keith liked the song, and it wound up on the album after they added backing vocals alongside Ronnie and Steve, Charlie added drums, and Brian added a mellotron part.

That in itself is one thing, but how is the end product?

It's actually a fabulous song. Bill has a good voice, though he's effected the shit out of it here. With the chant-like lyrics of the opener and the pure psychedelic gloop that make up the words to "Citadel," you might not expect much. Don't short change yourself, these lyrics are tongue-in-cheek. I've always seen this as a send-up of the psychedelic mode of songwriting - especially the third verse, where he twists the dream imagery of the earlier verses of everything being blue and feathers floating around everywhere:

"We heard the trumpets blow and the sky turned red
When I accidentally said
that I didn't know
How I came to be here
, not fast asleep in bed.
I stood and held your hand.

And nobody else's hand will ever do
Nobody else's hand.
Then I awoke, was this some kind of joke?
I opened up my eyes.
Much to my surprise."

The song ends with the sound of Bill snoring, tacked onto the song as a joke by Mick and Keith, who recorded the bassist snoring when he fell asleep during a late night session. A truly unique moment for the band, and one of their most memorable songs.

[Side note: Bill Wyman was the first Stone to put out a solo album, then a second, even a third before Mick or Keith got sick enough of each other to do their own. In fact, all three of these albums - Monkey Grip (1974), Stone Alone (1976), and Bill Wyman (1982) can all be found on one collection, The Bill Wyman Compendium. It had the misfortune of being released on 9/11/01. His solo material is quite good, but only on the grounds that you don't expect to hear Stonesy songs with a different singer. He's also got a keen sense of humor, and as the band's historian has published two excellent books, Stone Alone and Rolling With The Stones. He quit the band in 1992.]

04. 2000 Man [10]

(Yes, this was the only clip I could find. All I can say is I love the Internet.)

Back to Mick and Keith, and this one's got some weird lyrics..."I am having an affair with a random computer." It's about life in the future, but apparently it's okay to have sex with computers. It starts off with a tentative folky feel before its rocking second half. Kiss later covered it, cock-rocking it to the max, and I don't mean that in a good way. The nuances of the original are nowhere to be found in their less than delicate treatment. Oh, well. The original is great, making me wonder just how this would have been done live had they been able to tour. I bet it would have been one of the showstoppers.

05. Sing This All Together (See What Happens) [7]

Is anyone else experiencing deja vu? Not just with this song being a meditation on the opening track, but with The Rolling Stones ending the otherwise stellar A-side of an LP with a song that is maybe a little too long?

In all fairness, it isn't as bad as "Going Home." It isn't great, but it's certainly not awful. One thing I'll give it is that it is really well-done as a work of production, with all these musical colors drifting in and out without drowning the production. (I should probably go ahead and mention that Mick and Keith produced this album alone.)

First of all, listen to this song with headphones. You'll just notice more, like for example at 0:22 in the song, you can hear Mick say, "Where's that joint?" A perfect summary of the next eight minutes. Very trippy, druggy number. It has the feel of being in the desert at night, just you, the sand, and the stars...that or doing lots of drugs. Plenty of good instrumental moments from the mellotron, some guitar/brass interplay, a glockenspiel, and a piano dueling with a spaghetti western flute. At the seven-minute mark, the verse from the opening track is resurrected before the song ends with forty seconds of white noise.

It's a trip, not always enjoyable, but solid.

06. She's A Rainbow [10]

I still have no idea what the Hell is going on with this song's intro - is it a carnival game? Ah, it doesn't matter. This is a terrific little pop song, dipped in a bottle of lysergic and served to you on a sugar cube. Ok, it isn't really that psychedelic, but it wouldn't fit in anywhere else in the band's catalog.

How do Stones fans feel about this song? I shamelessly love it, the innocent piano from Nicky Hopkins, some well-used strings in the verses, some must-have-been-embarrassing-to-record backing vocals, and a mellotron that up until (literally) three minutes ago I had always thought was a saxophone. But then I heard an instrumental mix of this song from the sessions...nope. Definitely a mellotron. Good drumming here, too, nice fills. There's a beautiful piano/string solo spot in the middle of the song, and I love the pomposity-deflation that occurs with the violins sawing around the stereo soundscape around 3:55.

Pop music was never really The Rolling Stones' thing...but damn, they NAILED it here!

07. The Lantern [5.5]
Maybe the reason I thought Aftermath had such a dull B-side was because this album has two back-to-back clunkers on its flipside. This one suffers from a horrible production job, to the point that I could chalk it up as being an error in the mixing. But it isn't. The drums and piano in the left channel are barely there, and it doesn't sound good. This means that even though the guitar might really be just a hair too loud in the right channel, with the other instruments so...absent, the guitar might as well be gunshots. Very jarring. Pretty subdued brass contribution - they sound dazed, drugged-out...if that was their intention, they did too good a job with this overlong number - though it boasts some nice brass parts at the end - that never really gains momentum, let alone that it can barely maintain what little momentum it has. Ho-hum.

08. Gomper [7]

This song is unremarkable for the first 125 seconds. It isn't terrible, but it certainly isn't memorable, never quite capturing my attention. Its Indian roots are a little too obvious a cue from The Beatles, I guess. But then at 2:05 comes a really cool jam, led by a flute. The best part? The entire jam was played by Brian Jones via overdubs.

Lots of world music flavor, showing broader influence than - dare I say it? - Sgt. Pepper! (Cue suspenseful music.)

No, seriously, it's got some great motifs of African and Middle-Eastern music. The trip to Morocco, where Brian and actress Anita Pallenberg broke up and Keith took up with her - Brian's own behavior being so boorish apparently that Mick, Marianne, Keith, and Anita ditched Brian without any prior notice - must have had a profound effect on their musical interests.

Even long after the psychedelic Stones were dead and buried...Hell, even on the opening cut of Beggar's Banquet, the incomparable "Sympathy For The Devil," what starts the song but the percussion of conga player Rocky Dijon? The prototype of "Brown Sugar," a song co-written by Mick Jagger and Jones' replacement Mick Taylor called "I'm Going Down" (heard on the 1975 Decca cash-in Metamorphosis) has a dense conga arrangement near the end. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" off Sticky Fingers has a pretty good layering of percussion throughout its jamming coda.

09. 2000 Light Years From Home [11]

The Rolling Stones' psychedelic masterpiece. It's got a great message on the savage underbelly of the idealism of flower power: "It's so very lonely, you're a hundred/six hundred/a thousand/two thousand light years from home." The rest of the song is about space travel...but this isn't the goofy retro-futurist space travel we saw in 1950's sci-fi. No, this was the dark, gloomy outer space, the realistic visions of alien landscapes as bleak and desolate as anything on Earth. The lyrics were written by Mick Jagger during his stint in jail amid all the drug trials of the time, further underlining the sense of isolation.

After the eerie intro of backwards piano and a guitar riff accompanied by mellotron, off we go, the engines of the band thrusting us onward and upward. This is the first time since "Citadel" that they actually sound like a band, and that feels like ages ago by this point. "2000 Light Years From Home" is the only song on Their Satanic Majesties Request that lives up to the sinister implications of its title. Amazing. Truly amazing.

Long, long ago when I was in elementary school, my 4th grade class did a play called "Food Wars," a nutrition-centric spoof of Star Wars. Our teacher asked us to bring in "outer space music" to use as intro and outro music for our performances. I brought in this song. I was told it was too weird. What did she choose instead? Why, Meco's disco-tastic treatment of the Star Wars theme, naturally!

Their loss.

10. On With The Show [9]
This song isn't as memorable as I once thought it was. Otherwise it would be a ten, hands-down. It is much-needed after the last song, Mick putting on the affect of a posh cabaret emcee - "We've got all the awnsuhs!". There is a little break at 1:05, before the song can really go anywhere, I'm assuming to emulate a striptease act? The song's last minute also carries on the same vibe, with plenty of indiscernible bar chatter. My favorite is at the end where a lady says with a Texan accent, "I hope you didn't record any of this!" and Mick's prompt reply is, "No, we didn't." And that, friends, is every reason why I love The Rolling Stones.

Subtotal: 88.5% B+

Replayability Factor: 1
It had been three years since I last heard this album, popping into my head only because I found myself wanting to hear "Citadel" again. I really have to be in a specific mood to hear it. As just background music - though many Stones albums DO make for perfect background music - it's got too much going on, deserving a closer listen. Besides, if you aren't in the mood for this sort of thing, "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)" can be the most annoying shit in the world.

Consistency Factor: 0
Um...sorry on this one. My guideline is that an album earning "It's for the die-hard fan" status gets zero points for this tilt factor. I think it's a great album...but it doesn't stand for comparison to something like Sticky Fingers. That's like comparing Rubber Soul to Never Mind The Bollocks. Two great albums, but in wildly different ways. And Stones fan or not, this is not an accessible record. There are albums by The Residents more accessible than this.

External Factors: 1
Not giving them the two was difficult, based solely on the merits of "I'll give you an A for effort." This is a mesmerizing album, the last of their great innovative works. They push the envelope as much as possible, more than a few of these songs actually possessing what Frank Zappa called "NO COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL" on The Mothers' first album, Freak Out!

Unfortunately, sometimes they go too far. Not in terms of them getting too experimental, but the self-production (most noticeably on "The Lantern") was a sign that the boys shouldn't venture over to the other side of the control room window alone. They'd have Jimmy Miller for the next few albums, maybe you've heard them?

Beggars' Banquet
Let It Bleed (1969)
Sticky Fingers (1971)
Exile On Main Street (1972)
Goats Head Soup (1973)

Mick and Keith would man the production chair again on 1974's It's Only Rock 'N' Roll, and guess what? It sounds like shit. Thankfully, they got a little better at producing in time for Some Girls. Anyway, the production is at its best really bold (in the case of the layering of "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)" and the chilling work on "2000 Light Years From Home") and at its worst unnecessarily and unintentionally lo-fi dreck ("The Lantern," the first half of "Gomper.")

This also marked their first release without Andrew Oldham in the picture. He left as their manager mid-year. It's strange, the bizarre parallels with The Beatles: both groups lost their managers and proceeded with what most writers consider missteps (this album, with The Beatles it was Magical Mystery Tour) that I somehow think are overlooked and underrated. One major difference, though: while The Beatles, depending on which member of the band you asked, were doomed the moment Brian Epstein went the way of the Norwegian Blue parrot (I don't agree with that at all), The Rolling Stones flourished in the new-found freedom that came without the control Mr. Oldham had exerted on the band.

Two steps forward: great album, ditch the manager...and one step back: crummy production job and some unimaginative lyrics/songs.

TOTAL: 90.5% A-

Singles / Non-LP:

Before we do the singles, let's visit a US-only compilation entitled Flowers, released in August 1967. I don't want to go off on some stupid rant, but the US/UK disparity in releases for The Rolling Stones is Byzantine. Buy all the UK albums, you're still missing a good chunk of songs, from songs released only in the US (there's a few) to different mixes to, oh yeah, the singles. No "Paint It Black." No "Ruby Tuesday." Buy all the US albums and you're missing about an album's worth of songs trimmed from the UK releases to make room for the singles. Plus, you're buying more albums, and albums around 30 minutes in length, at that. In short, ABKCO was run by a crook - a feller by the name of Allen Klein, you may know him for some of his other exploits - and they did very little to remedy this problem with the CD reissues.

God, at least with The Beatles we had Past Masters, which gave us the singles, the ONE exclusive EP's worth of tracks, and the ONE US-only tune ("Bad Boy") in two healthy installments. (By the way, two days from now the remasters are coming out. Holy Shit.)

That said, Flowers was surprisingly balanced for a US compilation. Sure, the US listener had "Ruby Tuesday," "Let's Spend The Night Together," and "Lady Jane" from the albums, but "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?" was given a proper release, along with ALL of the songs trimmed off Aftermath (all five of them) and Between The Buttons, plus three unreleased songs for good measure. I'm enumerating them based on their track listing on the original LP.

06. My Girl [7]
Dating from the early/mid 1965 sessions for the Out Of Our Heads album (their third UK album, their fourth in the US), this is the "My Girl" you're probably thinking of. It's pretty faithful to the original, though the string break is nowhere near as ornate as The Temptations' version. Mick doesn't have the inflection or emotion of the original, and the song drags as a result. But it isn't a terrible cover, though history would not have been kind to it had it been given a proper album/single release, as the original "My Girl" has entered the public lexicon as one of the best popular songs to come from America, ever.

11. Ride On, Baby [9]
Recorded for Aftermath in late 1965, this shows just how far they'd come from doing soul covers in their spare time. This is a driven, rocking number, with some kick-ass timekeeping from Charlie. This should have been on the album! As with "Out Of Time" and "Take It Or Leave It," this song was done by Mick Jagger's friend Chris Farlowe.

12. Sittin' On A Fence [9]
The Rolling Stones do The Kinks? Though it's a Jagger/Richards original, this song could have been plugged into a certain little green amp (but keep the harpsichord) and wouldn't have been at all out of place on (sigh, I hate this title) The Kink Kontroversy or Face To Face. Comparison to The Kinks aside, this is a lovely little acoustic country song, with some nice finger work on Keith's part and Brian on harpsichord. This, too, should have been released. It was a hit for Immediate Records duo Twice As Much. They didn't go too far.

Next comes the actual single from the time...

01. We Love You [10]
This was Mick and Keith's message of thanks to their fans and friends in the press who voiced their support during their drug trials. John and Paul are present on backing vocals (on both side of this single, in fact). The Who pledged to keep releasing their own takes of Stones songs until the two were released (managing to squeeze out "Under My Thumb" b/w "The Last Time" before they indeed were free men). Monkees Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz wore black armbands in support of Mick and Keith during their tour of England.

Great. So how's the song? Amazing! The drums, the mellotron, the backing vocals, it's all one big sound. Very cacophonous production, perfect for the song.

Try not to look directly into Brian Jones' eyes. You might catch a contact high. Jesus.

Here it is again, shorter, with the image flipped horizontally, but it's IN COLOR! That's another thing, can they not just put this stuff out on a DVD? I guess that would make too much sense, wouldn't it? Wait till I put up the promo film for "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

02. Dandelion [10]
In the midst of the "Summer of Love," The Rolling Stones pulled off a song that teeters on being kick-ass rock and acid-soaked naivety. It's a beautiful song - love the oboe solo - and there really is an innocence to this song, however imagined it might have actually been, that showed just how much respite there truly was to psychedelia, with the death of Camelot and Watts on one end, and all the turmoil of 1968 through Watergate and Hanoi on the other side. Hunter S. Thompson put it best:

"...[t]he middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run... but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant...

There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave..."

Though the late Mr. Thompson's quote ties more into the culture of America than England, its message is universal. Idealism reigned supreme. I guess knowing what horrors lurked around the corner from the peace and love scenes of 1967 gives such a bittersweet air to a song as pretty as "Dandelion." Who cares? I was born twenty years after it was released, and that's how I always knew it. I recall hearing it and thinking this song was quite happy for a band with such a dark and murky story. I was nine years old, and I knew it then.

"We Love You" b/w "Dandelion" is a Hell of a single, better than "Penny Lane" by a long shot. If only the middle of side B of Satanic Majesties had carried on the momentum, there wouldn't have been any doubt that The Rolling Stones put out two marvelous albums in 1967. Oh, well. It was what it was, love it or hate it. I'm sticking to my original statement: I love this album.