The Velvet Underground: “Rock And Roll” (Loaded, 1970)

When I told my wife Lou Reed had died yesterday, we had this moment where I’m pretty sure we were both thinking the same thing: “That’s crazy. Lou Reed can’t die.”

That’s not a joke about him surviving his lifestyle in the 70s. It’s more the sense that Reed is so much a part of what the world looks and sounds like today that it’s hard to imagine all of it without him. He had a public image unlike anyone else—the dude was so cool that everything he did looked like a pose, but it was actually just him being himself.

Reed was never comfortable just being agreeable—he’d push back at interviewers and critics and pretty much never gave a stock answer or said what you figured he’d say. He could seem ornery for the sake of it, he intentionally made one of the most unlistenable albums ever produced, and he could be maddeningly inconsistent from project to project, but the underlying humanity of his work was never far from the surface.

I think that’s why “Rock & Roll” is my favorite Lou Reed song, with VU or otherwise. His songwriting was illuminating, and hell, it’s probably the only exposure a lot of people have had to drug culture, drag culture, and the thought processes behind modern art. This song ties all of that together without bothering to get into the details. 

"Her life was saved by rock and roll" is essentially autobiography—music was the thing that lifted Reed out of a life that included being forced into shock therapy to "cure" his bisexuality and put him in the driver’s seat. In some ways, the song seems light, almost a lark, but I think that everything else Reed ever wrote about is embedded within it. With VU, Reed was one of the people who did the most to stretch the definition of rock and roll, and I think that all the drugs and lives he wrote about were facets of his own definition of rock and roll. All of it was rock and roll. All of it was what saved him.

The girl in the song hears the music, and her life is saved. Reed claimed that rock and roll was his god, so salvation here can assume a sort of literal meaning if you want to read it that way, but I think there’s room in this song for anything, from a particular type of music to movies to painting to hiking to whatever else might be the thing that gives your life direction and meaning, to be your rock and roll, the thing that saves you.

Plus, it rocks. Long live Lou Reed.

Electric Light Orchestra: “Fire on High” (Face the Music, 1975)

Where was I when I first heard this? Probably in my bedroom, maybe doing homework. The classic rock station used to play an edit that eliminated the spooky intro with the “Hallelujah” choir and the back-masked talking. I think this version was the U.S. b-side of “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” which came out three whole years after this was originally released as the lead track on Face the Music

I knew and loved the edit for quite a while before I finally heard the album version, which WAQY would only play in the middle of the night. I guess they thought the intro played better in the dark. While I can’t disagree, I also think it’s madness to drop the intro, because the intro is freaking great. 

That’s drummer Bev Bevan saying, “The music is reversible but time is not. Turn back.” It was a deliberate swipe at idiot religious nuts who were attacking rock and roll for containing hidden messages (they’d gone after ELO’s own Eldorado LP); I imagine a lot of FM stations delighted in playing it when it was was released for that very reason. 

The song itself is pretty epic, in scope if not length, but I think that, unlike a lot of 70s prog and pomp rock, it was pretty well aware of its own built-in ridiculousness. It goes through the whole composition once with strings, and then does it all again with a choir on top, because hey, why not? The choir’s in the budget.

I like the harpsichord/anthemic guitars bit, but the part that really grabs me these days is the bit where Bevan’s drums crash back in and they are just way too loud. And there are violins and cellos squiggling around just trying to get out of their way. The guitars in that part have a really odd sound, too, like there are about a hundred acoustics all playing the same thing, but a little out of sync so it turns into a big wall of strumming. 

This was released long after the heyday of the instrumental hit, but it got stuck in a lot of classic rock playlists on light rotation anyway. I’ve tried to figure out if that means anything about what it took to have an instrumental hit in the mid-70s, but about all I can come up with is, “make it sound cool.” Which Jeff Lynne and company dutifully did. 

George Jones: “The Grand Tour” (The Grand Tour, 1974)

No one did heartbreak quite like George Jones. It’s hard to think of another songwriter that got dumped so regularly and with such exquisitely detailed emotion.

He did that for about sixty years, and along the way his voice became the prototype for hundreds of other country singers. He had a great voice, but his songs worked as much for his delivery, which felt honest no matter how cleverly the phrase it was carrying turned.

He was 81 when he passed away yesterday. I’ve seen a lot of people express surprise that he made it to such an old age, but what can you say? The man’s liver was stout, and his songs turned the tables on everything awful about life with subtle humor. Let a few tears fall in your beer and raise your glass to him.

jonathanbogart

Hey, so: what’s your favorite music from 1977?

jonathanbogart:

(Songs, albums, compositions, whatever. If you have any. If you even consider music in chronological terms.)

'77 was a pretty outstanding year, so because I haven't been around here for a while (end of semester craziness), my 35 favorite LPs, alphabetically:

Arvo Part: Tabula Rasa
Ali Farka Toure: Africa & the Blues
Ambassadeurs International: Mandjou
The Ashantis: Ashantis Disco Play
Augustus Pablo: East of the River Nile
Bayon: Bayon
Bebeto: Esperancas Mil
Blue Oyster Cult: Spectres
Bob Marley & the Wailers: Exodus
The Cars: The Cars
Congos: Heart of the Congos
Culture: Two Sevens Clash
David Bowie: "Heroes"
Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue
Erkin Koray: Tutkusu
Errobi: Errobi
Ersen: Dunden Bugune
Fela Kuti & Africa 70: Expensive Shit
Fela Kuti & Africa 70: Zombie
Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson: Bridges
Heart: Little Queen
Isley Brothers: Go For Your Guns
The Jam: In the City
Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express
Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan: Violin
National Health: National Health
Neil Young: American Stars ‘n’ Bars
Parliament: Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome
Peter Gabriel: [1]
Pink Floyd: Animals
Surprise: Assault on Merryland
Talking Heads: '77
Wire: Pink Flag
VA: Saturday Night Fever OST

Stray tracks:
10cc: Good Morning Judge
Alain Clavier: Metadata
Althea & Donna: Uptown Top Ranking
Amit Kundar & Sulakshana Pandit: Kya Jane Yeh Duniya Kya Jane (composed by Bappi Lahiri)
Bow Wow: Silver Lightning (tip o’ the hat to Nate Patrin on this one)
Caravelli: Metamorphose Demintielle
Dragon: America
Goblin: Suspiria Main Title
Jackson Browne: Running on Empty
Joni Mitchell: Dreamland
Jose y los Reyes: Gitan Poete
Judas Priest: Sinner
Kishore Kumar/RD Burman: Bachna Ae Haseeno
Les Volcans: Edio, part 1
Mohd. Rafi & Asha Bhosle/RD Burman: Hum Kisise Kum Naheen
Nick Ayoub Jazz Quintet: Desert Boots
Procol Harum: The Mark of the Claw
The Prophets: Babylon A Fall
The Soft Boys: Wading Through a Ventilator
Steely Dan: Peg
Tamrat Ferendji & Sensation Band: Antchin Yegegnulet
Tangerine Dream: The Sorcerer Main Title (Betrayal)
Uele Kalabubu et sa Tribu: Sassa Boumbitumba
 The Who: Who Are You

The Temptations: “Law of the Land” (Masterpiece, 1973)

Last week, we lost both Richard Street and Damon Harris of the Temptations. Both were members of the group during the early 70s, when Norman Whitfield used them as one of his vehicles for psychedelic soul experimentation, and they can be heard trading lines on classics including “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)” and “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On.”

Harris was brought into the group to replace Eddie Kendricks, whose distinctive falsetto was a centerpiece of some of the Tempts’ biggest hits, and he stayed for four years, long enough to make a big mark. It must have been amazing for him-he’d started his career singing in a group called the Young Tempts, a Temptations tribute, and he was the kid of the group nearly ten years younger than the rest. He was born Otis Harris, but changed his name to Damon to join the group—Otis Williams wanted to be the only Otis.

Street joined in 1971, replacing Paul Williams, whose deteriorating health and spiraling addiction forced him out of music and to a tragic early death by his own hand. He’d been with Motown for a while by that point as a member of the Monitors and a staffer in Quality Control, and believe it or not, he was the first native-born Detroiter to sing with the Temptations. Everyone else had been born in the South. 

While Harris’ tenure with the group was brief but brilliant, Street remained through 1993, staying through some of the group’s leanest years after joining them near their peak.

By most reports, the Temptations didn’t really enjoy singing Norman Whitfield’s message tracks—the longer-tenured members especially preferred singing harmony, and Kendricks left the group over the direction Whitfield took them in. You wouldn’t naturally guess that from listening to the way they attack storming funk numbers like “Law of the Land,” and this phase of the group’s career was arguably more influential than the pre-“Cloud Nine” string of harmony-laden hits they had in the mid-60s. 

Harris had some minor success in the late 70s singing with Philly soul outfit Impact, then left music for a decade to go to college. He and Street were reunited in the 90s singing together in a Temptations revue that toured separately from the official group. Harris also founded his own cancer charity after being diagnosed with the prostate cancer that finally took his life last month. He was 62. Street was 70.

Kevin Ayers: “Interview” (Bananamour, 1973)

I was sad to hear of the death of Kevin Ayers last month. Ayers was one of the great eccentrics of pop music, the kind of guy who’d make whatever record he felt like making and let it sell if people wanted to buy it. He didn’t enjoy self-promotion and became a sort of archetypal cult figure because of it.

I went back and forth over which song to feature in his honor, and finally decided on “Interview,” a song about hating self-promotion and the rigamarole of life as a professional musician. It’s not bilious like so many songs in this vein, though—Ayers keeps it playful, implying that he’ll give a better interview in exchange for a bribe.

Ayers’ solo career isn’t perfect. His albums have a lot of oddball ideas on them, and they don’t all fly, but they do sketch out a charming vision of a world in which psychedelia never lost its grip on the pop charts and skewed humor was a coin in the everyday currency of rock and roll.

Whimsy was important to Ayers’ music. He came from the so-called Canterbury scene,where he spent the mid-60s playing in The Wilde Flowers, a band that at various points also included the founders of Caravan, Gong, and Soft Machine, which Ayers was a member of for two years before striking out on his own.

These groups played cerebral rock music that drew heavily from jazz for its structures, but for all its up-front virtuosity, it was mostly lacking in the overt masculinity most of the era’s prog and blues rock. It was whimsical and witty, given to abstraction and occasional nonsense, and not afraid to give an album a title like “Bananamour.”

If you can’t see it in the jpg on your feed, yes, the cover does feature two bananas in love in the lower right corner. For a while, Ayers referred to his band as “The Whole World,” as in “Kevin Ayers and the Whole World,” which I always loved as a band name because of the way it includes the listener in the creative process.

Ayers spent much of the 90s and early 00s sequestered in southern France, but came back in 2007 with the poignant farewell LP The Unfairground, which featured old colleagues as well as large cast of younger indie rock musicians. Never much of a touring musician, Ayers let it be the final word. He died in his sleep on February 18th, back in southern France.

natepatrin

natepatrin:

500 Favorites, #008: Pink Floyd, “Dogs”

(from Animals, 1977)

"Dogs” is the first real big thematic track on the album, and it says something about the band’s outlook at the time (or mine now) that I can’t really separate the idea of its critique of capitalism from the idea that they’re singing about actual organized crime figures. (“You’ve got to be trusted/by the people that you lie to/so that when they turn their back on you/you’ll get the chance to put the knife in” — sounds more like one of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels than an issue of Fortune, but that could be the narcissism of small differences.) David Gilmour’s got this great haunted, shaky cast to his voice, more so than usual, and he can turn on a dime from that unsettled mode into something more theatrically aggressive (the way he snarls “put the knife in”) or plummeting into oblivion (the third verse-ending line “just another sad old man/all alone, dying of cancer”). So it’s easy for him to make legitimate business sound like “legitimate business.”

Full Post

Nate’s 500 Favorites series is only nine entries in and is already full of great writing and ideas. I enjoyed reading his take on Pink Floyd’s “Dogs,” a song I’ve listened to too many times to count—it’s fun to follow along as someone who’s obviously thought about it as much as you have rattles off an interpretation you never arrived at yourself. 

I also like that Nate takes the time to talk about David Gilmour’s singing—I think he’s a very effective vocalist if not a spectacular one. It’s easy to overlook that next to his guitar playing. Which, hey, is amazing on this song. The first solo is pretty crazy stuff, a left hook at the end of the verse that I still remember hearing for the first time, almost twenty years ago. But it’s not just the solo. That open, rhythmic strumming behind the opening verses, and the big, electric chords he layers on top of it have their own genius to them—they make a polemical screed go down like candy.

Shiver: “Tough As Nails” (Shiver, 1972) 

I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, but as I got older, I developed a taste for heavy rock. It wasn’t something I ever liked when I was younger. I listened to tons of classic rock, but didn’t start liking Led Zeppelin until my mid-20s. My friends’ metal albums in high school and middle did nothing for me (that hasn’t changed much, honestly).

It feels like I’ve done this backward—you’re supposed to get into all this loud, thundering music when you’re young, disillusioned and rowdy, except I’ve never been rowdy at all, and I’ve always felt that I had a pretty healthy relationship with my disillusionment. Outside of Hendrix, Nirvana, and maybe Pink Floyd’s “The Nile Song,” straight-up hard rock just wasn’t a thing that interested me when I was supposed to be interested in it. I got into it through the back door beginning in my late 20s, when my interest in old psychedelia and progressive rock led me to a few bands, and then I sat down and really listened to Black Sabbath and could hardly believe I’d been ignoring them for so long.

So it was with a historian’s ear that I first probed the depths of late 60s and early 70s hard rock, with a sampling of the 80s and 90s thrown in. I followed recommendations, took shots in the dark, and listened intently, trying to figure out what was going on in there that I suddenly liked so much. And then a funny thing happened: I started just enjoying it on the visceral level you’re supposed to enjoy most of it on. Like, just cranking the heaviest stuff I could find in the car and feeling it surge through me and trying to remind myself not to speed too much. 

It’s a good feeling for someone who’s made a life out of over-thinking everything. Let go. Feel the music instead of considering it. I guess I did that with funk first, but funk and hard rock fill two different holes in my life, with maybe a little bit of overlap. This is different from giving in to the emotion of music—I’d been doing that since I spent all those cumulative hours lying on my bed listening to “Wish You Were Here” detail-for-detail as though it would somehow help me merge with the great weight of longing at its core, which felt oddly similar to my own feelings about what I wanted out of life.

Today, I found this track by San Francisco’s Shiver, recorded in 1972, but hidden from the world until Shadoks put it out decades later. It’s a ragged, raging, live-in-the-studio instrumental, and when I first listened to it, all I could do was wonder where it had been all my life. They play with the kind of abandon I wish I was capable of, out of control, but totally in control. It radiates confidence, and it is teeth-cracking, wall-smashing heavy

Shiver was a power trio of guitarist/screamer Frank Twist, drummer Don Peck, and bassist Neil Peron—they were fried hippies playing brutal music in a city burning out on peace and love in Nixon’s America, their music more in tune with the blasted hard rock coming out of places like Detroit than anything you’d tie to Saturdays in the park with Timothy Leary. If they had local heroes, it had to be Blue Cheer. 

They had a fourth member before they made these recordings, a guy with a hook for a hand who used the hook to play slide guitar, which is something to visualize. From the sound of “Tough As Nails,” Twist did not need another guitarist in the band. The guy could shred. The whole band could play, but none of them ever seem to have gained much of a profile outside Shiver, which was a blip on the 70s rock radar that an air traffic controller could have easily dismissed as a wayward chickadee. 

There are a lot of comps of 60s and 70s rock bands that never put out a record during their time together, and I have listened to a lot of them. More often than not, it’s pretty clear why the music was previously unreleased. But every now and then you get one like this, where you can only imagine reasons the band never got out of the starting gate. Shiver seems to have been a wrong place-wrong time proposition. They gave it everything they had when they got their one chance to put their troglodytic bomp on record—Twist shouts so hard on the vocal tracks that his mic feeds back. 

I had problems with a mild heart condition when I was a teenager, and ever since, there’s rarely been a moment when I wasn’t aware of the base biology of my body—keeping track of my own blood moving through my vessels makes it hard to get to sleep some nights, and the aches and pains that come more frequently as your age gets higher have exacerbated that tendency. Somehow, the blood pumping through this music, so close to the surface, makes me feel more comfortable with that. I’ll bet that’s something Peck, Peron and Twist never figured on when they rolled the tape and played their guts out back in ‘72.

Mandrill: “Hang Loose” (Composite Truth, 1972)

One of the three brothers who founded the great funk band Mandrill, Louis Wilson, died yesterday. Lou, Carlos, and Rick Wilson were the core of the band, and also its horn section/vocal section. Born in Panama, they grew up in Brooklyn, and all three of them were still involved in Mandrill, as were several of the non-Wilson original members. 

The band showcased a pioneering blend of swampy funk and rock pyrotechnics that samplers simply loved in the 90s. Any cursory trawl across a half-dozen hip-hop records from the first half of that decade will turn up a snippet of at least one of their old tracks. The “Peace and Love” suite has been sampled at least a dozen times. 

I can’t think of anything that samples “Hang Loose,” so somebody really ought to get on that. I love that knocking rhythm. And the Wilson brothers’ horns play things so cool against their traded-off vocals, which get gritty talking about poverty. They give guitarist Omar Mesa plenty of room for a burning solo in the middle.

If I have no idea if the band will keep performing live without one of the Wilsons gone. It’s hard to imagine them stopping—they’ve been at it for so long. If they do keep going, it won’t quite be the same without Sweet Lou.

Genesis: “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” (Foxtrot, 1972)

School starts again tomorrow for what should be my penultimate semester working toward a master’s degree in urban planning (summer project notwithstanding). I’ve enjoyed studying the subject and will hopefully be able to find good work in the field at some point this year, beyond what I’m doing now. 

On my last free weekend before heading back, I figured I’d have some fun and put together a mix of urban planning-related songs that I’ll post a bit later this evening. For the moment, though, a song that I cut from the mix to get it down to CD length.

Genesis often hid social commentary in lyrics that seemed to be about science fiction and fantasy. “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” is one song where they didn’t hide it very well—it’s transparently about the common practice of large British landlords in the 60s and 70s of winkling. 

Winkling was essentially an end-run around controlled rents. Landlords and their agents would evict tenants or coax them to leave so they could jack up rents for the next people who moved in. Often, they’d pay an honorarium for the tenant to move somewhere else—in the song, the landlord’s agent finds poor Mrs. Barrow a place to move to. Later in the song, the same landlord buys that place and raises her rent again. 

This is the kind of problem that planners are often called upon to address, or, in some notorious cases (such as Yonkers, New York’s zoning policy in the 80s), they’ve actually had a hand in reinforcing exclusionary housing policy. 

Planning is sort of a vaguely defined field, but that’s by necessity. Generally, we deal with the uses of land, but it’s never as simple as putting some lines and pretty colors on a map. People live on that map, and any time you move a line or change a color, it’s people you effect.

I love the depth and nuance of the way Peter Gabriel’s lyrics use storytelling to illuminate a genuine and pressing problem in British housing policy. The rest of the songs I chose all address the relationship between people and spaces in one way or another. Some are explicit, some more subtle, and they wander from the ghetto to the burbs and back. Check the next post for the link.