Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 2)

By the end of 1963, Peter Sellers was a physical and mental time bomb. He and Blake Edwards had vowed never to work together again after the second Clouseau movie,  A Shot In The Dark.

Sellers was never properly diagnosed or treated, but in examining the behavioral symptoms he began manifesting from late 1963 onward, his biographers seem to think he had schizoaffective disorder — perhaps the worst case suffered by anyone of any level of fame.

Somehow, his career continued successfully, at least for a time. Riding a wave of public sympathy after a near-fatal series of heart attacks in April 1964, and refusing to acknowledge any mental issues publicly or privately, he spent the remainder of the 1960s starring in various international productions of erratic quality but with big budgets, beautiful women, and unmistakable glamour. 

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Post-heart attack, Swinging Sellers in the Sixties, with his Swedish model wife

Behind the scenes, he was crumbling. His hasty 1964 marriage to Britt Ekland collapsed under his paranoia and abuse. His kids grew terrified of his volcanic rages on the occasions he demanded obedient visits from them. He lashed out unpredictably and threw infantile tantrums. He became totally reliant on the guidance of a bogus “psychic advisor,” Maurice Woodruff. He heard voices. He subjected colleagues to dozens of his bizarre whims. He was terrified of the color purple — it was not allowed to be worn in his presence, and his assistants would check his hotel rooms in advance and remove any trace of violet. 

In the meantime, Blake Edwards married Julie Andrews, and made one decent film (1965’s The Great Race) to his usual ratio of stinkers.

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Newlyweds Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews

Sellers and Edwards buried the hatchet to work on 1968’s The Party — an arguably funnier, or at least warmer, film than any of the Pink Panthers, but difficult to watch these days because Sellers is slathered in brown make-up and thick eyeliner. His character, the well-meaning but Clouseau-clumsy Hrundi V. Bakshi, is a thickly-accented collection of South Asian stereotypes. 

Once again, Edwards and Sellers hated each other by the end of it. 

Around the same time, the Panther series’ original production company, the Mirisch Corporation, decided that a third film in the series would be worth doing. When both Sellers and Edwards declined to participate, the project went forth anyway. The production company believed that the character of Inspector Clouseau was the true star, bigger than any actor who happened to portray him. They went into production on a new Clouseau movie without Edwards or Sellers (or Mancini). Bud Yorkin would direct.

Stepping into Sellers’ shoes as Clouseau was the rising newcomer Alan Arkin, who had received an Oscar nomination for his very first film, the Mirisch Corporation’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). 

Arkin is a great actor, but in 1968’s Inspector Clouseau he was badly miscast, failing to acquit himself convincingly as the title character. He is alternately sleepy (in an attempt to replicate Sellers’ deadpan), or shouting hysterically. His round baby face (he looks a decade younger than his 34 years) just appears wrong under the inspector’s trademark hat. Arkin aside, the film itself is not any worse than any of the other Panthers before and after, and shares several traits — overlong “slapstick” setpieces that go nowhere, clunky direction (if anything, Yorkin has a touch of subtlety Edwards lacks), and a solid supporting cast working very hard.

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Had Sellers played the part, it is likely that Inspector Clouseau would be considered a worthy entry in the series. But it was a flop with the critics, and though box office numbers are unavailable, they clearly weren’t strong. The series was dropped… for the moment.

Edwards had burned most of his Hollywood bridges with the Darling Lili fiasco, and was hunkered down in London trying to figure out how to resurrect his shattered career. Sellers hit the skids around the same time, appearing in a run of films of such appallingly low quality that one of them, Ghost in the Noonday Sun, was considered unreleasable and shelved. 

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Enter Sir Lew Grade, the British mega-mogul of ITC Entertainment, a colossus of both film and television. He wanted Julie Andrews to star in one of his TV specials, and if that meant giving her down-and-out husband a two-movie deal, it was a price he was willing to pay. The first film was another underwhelming dud (the overwrought romantic drama The Tamarind Seed). Sir Lew then tactfully suggested a return of Inspector Clouseau as the second film in the deal. At this point, neither Edwards nor Sellers was in a position to decline.

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Written by Blake Edwards & Frank Waldman

Produced by Blake Edwards for ITC Entertainment

Released through United Artists

Over the years, Return is the film in the series I’ve seen the most often. For decades, ITC held its copyright separately from every other Panther film, and as a result, it played on TV far more often than the others (which is to say, it was on a lot — the other films were certainly no strangers to TV airings). It was always my favorite. Sellers — older and a little more hangdog than in the ‘60s films — still plays the role with total commitment. He has a new schtick (briefly depicted in Shot) in these ‘70s revival films: Master of Disguise, and his elaborate get-ups can be pretty amusing. His bizarre version of a French accent hasn’t yet worn out its welcome, and he is always adding little grace notes to what is sometimes a sledgehammer style of physical comedy.

The film opens strong. The Pink Panther diamond is swiped from a heavily-guarded Lugash museum in a well-staged robbery sequence that clearly influenced later films like Entrapment and the Ocean’s series.

We then are re-introduced to Clouseau in Paris, busted down to a foot patrol officer, and he has a funny encounter with a street musician and a chimpanzee “minkey,” all while a bank is robbed behind his oblivious back.

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He is about to be suspended for six months by the still-twitching Chief Inspector Dreyfus (evidently reinstated after going off the deep end in Shot) when the call comes from the Lugashi government: they want their diamond recovered by the detective who helped find it the first time. Clouseau is bumped back up to the rank of Inspector and put on the case, all the while dodging (usually accidentally) a mysterious assassin. (And Dreyfus has a good bit of comic business with a cigarette lighter all too realistically shaped like a handgun.)

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The solid opening is marred only by another instance of Clouseau getting ambush-attacked (on his orders) by his loyal Chinese valet Cato, as usual wrecking his apartment in the process. The sequence has lots of unnecessary slow motion, is awkwardly timed and staged (an Edwards trait), and relies on nothing more than pain and destruction for humor (another Edwards trait).

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Also racism, as Cato here and in most other Panther movies is beaten, denigrated, and referred to by Clouseau as his “little yellow friend.” I don’t usually agree, artistically speaking, with judging the standards of a bygone era by the standards of a more enlightened era, but this sort of thing does make the original Panther series a tad uncomfortable to share with your kids.

The chief suspect in the robbery is the jewel thief who stole the diamond twelve years ago — Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), now retired and living in Nice. David Niven as Litton is replaced here by the younger, spryer Christopher Plummer, who does a great job in the role (ED NOTE: and died right as I was writing this — RIP), and the twist is — he didn’t do it. He flies off to Lugash to personally investigate and clear his name, and sends his beautiful wife, Lady Claudine Litton (Catherine Schell), to Switzerland to distract the dogged Clouseau, who falls for the bait without question. The film begins intercutting between the two sets of characters, and loses momentum.

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Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell as Sir Charles and Lady Claudine Litton

The sequences of Litton infiltrating the seedy underworld of Lugashi organized crime and their government’s secret police were shot on location in Morocco, and are generally pretty dull. They have no real comedic elements at all — unless you count Pepi. Graham Stark’s role here is the sweaty, sniveling, deeply unpleasant henchman Pepi, who over the course of the film, gets every finger on one hand broken in different painful ways. Again, this is Edwards’ idea of “comedy.”

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Graham Stark (“Pepi”) and Christopher Plummer

Things are livelier in the Gstaad, Switzerland location, with Clouseau infiltrating the luxury hotel where Lady Litton is staying. He first tries to inspect her room while she’s out, disguised as a housekeeper. As usual, the sequence — based around his slapstick struggle with an elaborate vacuum cleaner — goes on way too long with very little payoff.

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Much more successful, humor-wise, is Clouseau’s attempt to directly question his quarry in the hotel’s bar, disguised as a nightclub swinger (“Guy Gadoire”) in oversized shades and a blinding red sport coat, with a drooping handlebar mustache. He loses one handlebar early on (after getting punched in the face by an over-enthused go-go dancer), and continues with his usual obliviousness, much to Lady Litton’s amusement. Rumor has it that Catherine Schell as Lady Litton was genuinely laughing at Sellers’ improvised antics throughout the film, and those takes were used because it would have been the character’s realistic response to Clouseau’s fumbling.

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All these situations are eventually resolved — Clouseau is credited with the diamond’s recovery, nobody seems to bother to try and prosecute the actual thief (yes, the identity is revealed and no one seems to care), and Clouseau’s mysterious would-be assassin is revealed as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, who is committed to a padded room in an insane asylum as the credits roll.

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The funny moments of The Return of the Pink Panther are outnumbered by the unfunny moments by about three-to-one, and are usually the small throwaway jokes rather than the elaborately staged setpieces. (An example: Clouseau gets in a cab and instructs the driver “follow that car!” The driver hops out and sprints after the car on foot.) Compared to what was coming after it, Return was a masterpiece.

Upon its release in May 1975, The Return of the Pink Panther was a smash, restoring both Edwards and Sellers to bankability. They decided to go all in, and began shooting the next movie in the series almost immediately. Continue reading

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Shots in the Dark: Blake Edwards’ Problematic Pink Panther Series (Part 1)

Blake Edwards (1922-2010) was a film director. Heck, probably even a “major” film director. He may not be a household name, but most people who know a little about movies know who he is. He won a Special Academy Award in 2004 “in recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen.” That’s as may be. But if I were to ask someone familiar with that body of work to name a great — great — Blake Edwards movie, there may very well be a long pause as they struggle to think of one. 

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They will likely come up with Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Sorry, no. That’s perhaps the most overrated “classic” film in cinema history. If you want to experience the effervescent magic that was Audrey Hepbrun, watch Sabrina. Or Roman Holiday. Or even Charade. All exponentially better films than the limp, vapid Tiffany’s — and all containing 100% less Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Hepburn’s buck-toothed “Japanese” landlord — a walking, talking ethnic slur that was vulgar even by early 1960s standards (which weren’t high.)

Some people old enough to remember it might dredge up Edwards’ box-office smash 10. But “sex comedies” have a hard time standing the test of time. Sex comedies rely on actions and reactions based around attitudes, mores, and societal standards, all of which change, sometimes rapidly. 10 is a total relic of the late 1970s — just as fossilized (and fun to watch) as your standard pile of dinosaur shit. (And be honest — it wasn’t even all that good at the time. People just lined up in their flares and Hush Puppies to see Bo Derek in beaded cornrows frolicking on the beach.)

Fewer people will come up with his true masterpiece — Days of Wine and Roses, not a comedy at all, which may be the secret to its success. Edwards was a restless, melancholy soul who fought a lifelong battle with depression, pill addiction, and deep-seated anger issues, and this harrowing look at alcoholism tapped into whatever brilliance Edwards contained as a filmmaker. And make no mistake, Edwards did display flashes of brilliance. He made some good movies in spite of his own tendencies (A Shot in the Dark is a good example.) But mostly, he was the poor man’s Billy Wilder. Top of the second tier, sure. Best of the bench players. But the inescapable whisper of “hack” hangs around his legacy like an anchor chain. Blake-Edwards-Peter-Sellers-The-Pink-Panther

But far ahead of all the Tiffanys and 10s and even Victor/Victorias in many people’s memories is The Pink Panther and its endless train of sequels…all helmed by Blake Edwards. If, like me, you’re a child of the 80s and not old enough to have seen the bulk of them in their original theatrical runs, you remember them as endlessly airing on weekend afternoon TV, and as cable movie channel staples. 

The series’ central figure — the hopelessly inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Sûreté, as portrayed by British actor Peter Sellers — has become an iconic comedic character. Austin Powers, Derek Zoolander, and Ron Burgundy are all his spiritual children. The Pink Panther movies inspired a cartoon show, and enough nostalgic affection to support a hideous 2006 remake starring Steve Martin (who should really know better), and an even more hideous 2009 sequel to the remake.

Revisiting the original films today, how do they hold up? 

Not all that great.

And it comes down to the fact that Edwards’ idiosyncratic take on comedy is completely joyless.Edwards 3“Comedy is pain” has always been Blake Edwards’ motto. I just wish he wasn’t always so literal about it. Maybe that’s why his comedies are generally so painful to watch — he includes the audience a little too much in his characters’ suffering.

In Edwards’ films, acts of physical comedy play out in long takes and wide shots. “I see things like a proscenium,” he has said. His characters are always in motion, but moving clumsily. Awkwardly. There is no comedic grace. The characters shuffle around almost sadly, and the only sounds are thuds and rustlings, and the characters’ audible exhalations and grunts as they bump into each other, inanimate objects, and the ground. Edwards might say that’s a kind of purity. But it’s labored and comes off as rather amateurish. Yes, some of the audience may laugh. But a lot of them just shift uncomfortably in their seat and ask themselves Is this supposed to be funny? There’s a reason why for every box-office success, Edwards’ filmography has roughly three catastrophic…and I mean catastrophic…bombs. Who knew a comedy could practically bankrupt a studio? (See Darling Lili. Better yet, don’t.)71CzD4L6ugL._SY445_I decided to take some of my COVID-19 quarantine downtime last summer to re-watch the whole Pink Panther series. One of the things that makes quarantine bearable is that you can still count on essential workers to bring you ridiculous shit, such as the Pink Panther series Blu-Ray set. You might have to wait an extra couple of days. (It actually got here quicker than I expected, placed with care on my porch by a masked and gloved van driver. “Essential workers” should have been Time Magazine’s Person [People] of the Year.)

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Written by Blake Edwards & Martin Richlin

Produced by the Martin Jurow for the Mirisch Company 

Released through United Artists

First off, was The Pink Panther a 1963 film or 1964 film? IMDB and Wikipedia firmly list it as 1963, which it was — in a handful of European countries, where The Pink Panther made its bow in late December of that year. It had a single showing in Boston on New Year’s Eve. But its wide British release was in January of ‘64, and its wide U.S. release wasn’t until March. The AFI and several other film websites call it a 1964 film. 

The basic outline of the story is that a French police inspector, Jacques Clouseau, is hot on the trail of an international jewel thief known as the Phantom, the alter ego of English playboy Sir Charles Litton. Litton (sometimes rendered as “Lytton”) has his eye on a massive diamond called the Pink Panther, property of the deposed Princess Dala of Lugash. Clouseau is trying to stop the Phantom before he strikes again, not knowing that his own wife, Simone, is the Phantom’s accomplice…and mistress. When everyone comes together (along with Litton’s louche and irresponsible American nephew, George) during a skiing holiday, complications ensue. Hilarity, sadly, does not. 

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David Niven

David Niven was deservedly top-billed in The Pink Panther, and his dashing character, Sir Charles Litton (“the notorious Phantom”), was envisioned by Edwards and the Mirisch Company to be the lead in a potential series of comedic heist films. A series indeed came about, but not as originally envisioned…and not with the Phantom as the main character.  

By 1963, the name “David Niven” was synonymous with class, wit, and charm, but at 53, he was getting visibly long in the tooth. Litton was supposed to be irresistible to women, but after a lifetime spent in smoky cocktail parties, Niven’s physical appearance was growing somewhat wizened. His deeply-lined face, snaggled nicotine teeth, and slight cast to his left eye make him more than a little…hobgoblin-ish. I guess his money might be irresistible. 

Apart from being something of a vehicle for Niven, the film was designed to be very much an ensemble piece, and it originally had a totally different cast. Peter Ustinov was to play the dogged-but-oblivious Inspector Clouseau (the original script indicated this was a mostly non-comedic straight role — presumably Ustinov’s portly and dignified bearing would give the character a more Hercule Poirot-style persona). Ava Gardner was to be the devious and deceptive Simone Clouseau, and Edwards hoped to get his recent collaborator Audrey Hepburn on board as Princess Dala.

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Peter Sellers as Clouseau

Hepburn, already with an eye on semi-retirement, declined the part outright. Ava Gardner accepted, then left the project when the Mirisch Company would not meet her diva-like demands for an army-sized personal staff. Ustinov bailed for unknown reasons right before cameras rolled (and triggered a nasty lawsuit). Two European “model-actresses” (Claudia Cardinale and the mononym’d Capucine) were fitted into the female roles, and at the last possible minute, Edwards offered the role of Inspector Clouseau to Peter Sellers.

As the film opens, gilded lettering spelling out “Once Upon A Time…” fills our field of vision in glorious, vibrant Technirama. Edwards can certainly set up a mise en scene, he clearly has a flair for sumptuous colors, and a good eye for widescreen framing (which can be challenging.) The rich photography in The Pink Panther as envisioned by Edwards and carried out by cinematographer Phillip Lathrop is beyond reproach. (What plays out in front of the camera is the issue.)

We begin with a prologue set twenty years in the story’s past in the fictional Middle Eastern country of “Lugash” — the king is presenting his daughter with a large diamond. It is pointed out that, like many massive diamonds, this one has a flaw. If one looks into the center of the jewel, there is a pinkish discoloration which is shaped like a leaping panther. 

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At this point, the film reveals one of its other major assets — the jazzy opening theme by composer Henry Mancini. Dominated by the tenor saxophone of Plas Johnson, it is instantly recognizable to multiple generations, and is film music at its finest. The “Pink Panther” theme plays over the very amusing title animation, supervised by Warner Bros. legend Friz Freleng, featuring a mischievous embryonic version of the Pink Panther cartoon character (at this point still very cat-like, frequently sitting on all four paws, and suavely knocking ash off his long cigarette holder). It’s easy to see how this character got spun off into his own series of theatrical shorts beginning later in ‘64, then his own long-running animated TV series by 1969. Continue reading

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 8: Sell Outs and Rave Ups

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

This is the final entry in the Spotify Chronicles…and it’s a long one — it even has an “epilogue” — but I think it’s interesting enough to justify it’s length. 

If you were listening to BBC Radio in, say, 1964, you’d never know there was a musical revolution underway. The staid, stuffy British Broadcasting Corporation offered listeners what they high-handedly judged was “good for them” (rather than what they may have “wanted.”) A slate of news, educational programs, children’s shows, classical music, and “light entertainment.” Pop music was considered the latter, and had to share the category with comedy programs, quiz shows, and variety shows. So, pop music got about six hours a week, and pop music records got still fewer (Musicians’ Union rules strictly limited “needle time” on broadcast radio). Many performers were invited to play “live in studio” (resulting in a glut of CD-era “Live At The BBC” collections put out by every major British band from back in the day). Everything was presented by very proper announcers reading from carefully prepared scripts — commercial-free. It was government-owned and funded by listeners paying a small annual licensing fee.

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Some entrepreneurial types decided to meet market demand by pumping out a steady diet of pop, rock, and soul records from ships moored in international waters, just over three miles off the British coast. These “pirate radio” stations lifted the entire format of American Top 40 radio — hip, freewheeling DJs, loud jingles, brash promos, and actual commercials (!) The signals weren’t always perfect (although on a good night they could reach over 12 million British listeners), and the rocking waves sometimes caused the records to skip, but pirate radio stations like Radio London and Radio Caroline exposed the Brits to all the latest American acts, and gave an important boost to up-and-coming British groups like the Yardbirds and the Who.

The British government passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, effectively shutting down the pirates. Luckily, the BBC had seen the light and re-organized their radio division, launching Radio 1 as an all-popular music format…and hiring many of the old pirate DJs. It wasn’t quite the same, though. The frisson and excitement associated with the pirates’ rebellious flaunting of authority was missing. 

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Which brings me to the Who. In 1967, after a few years of being a reliable singles act in Britain, the Who was finally gaining an American audience, after noteworthy performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in June and a literally explosive appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September. At a transitional time when albums were starting to eclipse singles as the preferred form of rock expression, the band went back into the studio that autumn to complete their third LP (begun in piecemeal fashion through that spring and summer), knowing it would have to outclass their first two if they were to continue their climb to the top. These recording sessions coincided with the snuffing out of the pirate radio stations. The Who decided to make an album in their honor to thank them for all they had done (the Who were favorites of the pirate DJs, and got played a lot).

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Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967

The result was my all-time favorite album by the Who — The Who Sell Out, released in the waning days of 1967, and a pop-art masterpiece. The album’s concept was that it would replicate a pirate radio station broadcast — right down to the jingles, promos, and commercials. (The initial intention was to actually sell advertising space between songs.) 

The material that chief songwriter Pete Townshend came up with for this set is melancholy and yearning, eschewing the band’s usual heavy sound. Drummer Keith Moon’s typical wild-man flailing is kept on a short leash. The love songs “I Can’t Reach You” and “Our Love Was” have moments of ethereal beauty, and showcase the Who’s underrated harmony-singing skills. The delicate “Sunrise” is just Towshend and a 12-string acoustic. In fact, Townshend’s thin, fragile voice gets more leading roles on Sell Out than any other Who album. Even when usual lead vocalist Roger Daltrey appears with his more powerful “rock” voice, he’s alternating or singing in unison with Townshend, as on the organ-driven “Relax” and the irresistibly melodic duet “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” about a girl with a certain skill that raises more than just eyebrows. Two songs, “Tattoo” and “Odorono,” are perfectly conceived little short stories, with dramatic arcs and sympathetic characters. “Tattoo” is a coming-of-age tale about two teen brothers getting their first ink, and “Odorono” is, well…read on.

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The iconic Sell Out album cover. No one bothered to warm up the refrigerated beans — Roger Daltrey came down with pneumonia

Bassist John Entwistle contributes another macabre fantasy character vignette, “Silas Stingy” (similar to his earlier “Boris the Spider” and “Whiskey Man”). The album closes with “Rael,” a sketchy condensement of a much longer “rock opera” about a dystopian conflict between the Communist Chinese and Israel in the distant future of 1999. The long-form rock narrative/musical story format was something Towshend had been tinkering with since the nine-minute “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” on their previous album. (As for the under-six minute “Rael,” Townshend lamented “No one will ever know what it means, it’s been squeezed up too tightly to make sense.”) Some musical themes from “Rael” would be recycled for their next album, Tommy (1969), where the rock opera concept achieved its full fruition.

There are two exceptions to the overall gentleness displayed on Sell Out. The opening track “Armenia City in the Sky,” was written by Townshend protege Speedy Keen (later of cult favorite Thunderclap Newman) and performed by the Who as a trippy, dissonant, thumping wall of sound and echoes. Then there’s the album’s centerpiece, “I Can See For Miles,” in which all the trademark moves of the Who — full-cry volume, Daltery’s menacing snarl, Entwistle’s bass guitar rumblings, Towshend’s windmill guitar-thrashing, and Moon’s cataclysmic, cannon-fire drumming — are on conspicuous display in a proto-metal howl of betrayal and recrimination. (Townshend’s bragging in an interview that “I Can See For Miles” was the “loudest, rawest, dirtiest” song ever recorded goaded Paul McCartney into writing “Helter Skelter.” Check and mate.)

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Interspersed between these songs are all the trappings of a pirate radio broadcast. The promos and jingles are the real deal, from actual Radio London broadcasts. When the idea of selling commercial space on the album quickly fell through, the Who concocted and performed original ads. They vary in length and style. Some are fragments lasting a few seconds (including spots for Rotosound guitar strings, the Charles Atlas workout program, and the Who’s favorite after-hours hangout, the Speakeasy Club). Some, such as “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Medac” (promoting a pimple cream) are catchy, minute-long novelty songs. And one was a full-length, heartbreaking tale of ambition and rejection, set to one of Towenshend’s most beautiful, lilting melodies…all to advertise the underarm deodorant, Odorono.

The Who Sell Out is often regarded as one of the first “concept” albums. But for whatever reason, the Who opted to only use the “pirate radio broadcast” concept through the first half of the album. Side two, with the exception of Entwistle’s “Medac” song/commercial, has no ads or jingles. This was rectified with an excellent 1995 CD reissue where the idea was finally carried through to the end of the album by adding some more Radio London jingles, repeating some slight variations of side one ads, using some outtake ads the Who recorded but didn’t use for the album, and digging up some radio ads they recorded earlier that year intended for actual broadcast. When I speak of Sell Out as my favorite Who album, it’s really this CD reissue I’m thinking of, where the concept runs to the finish.

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The Yardbirds fascinated me as soon as I heard of them. Here was a band that provided a launching pad for three of the greatest British guitarists ever — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. They weren’t in the band all at the same time, of course. The universe couldn’t handle that degree of awesomeness without tearing itself asunder. (Beck and Page did overlap for a few brief months.) Clapton left early, and Page came late, leaving Beck in the lead guitarist slot through most of what could be considered the Yardbirds’ “classic” period.

R-4237397-1447215065-2562.jpegThe Yardbirds discography was a mess for a long time, their relatively small output licensed over and over again for a parade of cheap reissues. My first Yardbirds CD was one of these “budget label” compilations. Part of Pair Records’ “Best of British Rock” series, the cover had a photo of the Beck-era band, with Clapton very clumsily pasted into the image so it looked like he and Beck were in the band together. Nowadays, the band’s digital-era discography has been squared away considerably. All of their pre-“Roger the Engineer” (see below) output can fit easily on two discs.

If there’s a downside to listening to the Yardbirds, it’s that every pre-“Roger” Yardbirds recording currently available is of dubious audio quality. It’s partly due to lack of access to the original masters, as a variety of companies have claims over various recordings, and it’s said that EMI is still refusing to turn over certain master tapes to compilers due to an unpaid studio bill from 1965 (that may be nothing more than an “urban rock legend” at this point). And it’s partly (maybe mostly) due to the recordings being made in a hurry and on the cheap in the first place.

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 7: The King, Queen, and a Prince

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020.

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

As I add my little autobiographical notes, try not to get chronological whiplash as I wildly veer back and forth between modern-day, my college years, my middle school years, and pre-school…

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were the best American band of the last four decades. Fight me.

Notice I didn’t say “greatest.” They had no interest creating moments of “sweeping grandeur” or delivering Major Statements. I didn’t say “innovative,” either. Several bands can probably top them on that. No, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers simply settled for being the best, especially when you consider the length of their career. (Yes, best vs. greatest is a distinction I make in my own mind, but I think you know what I mean.)

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They were always getting left out of the conversation because they made it look too easy. Whenever there would be debates about “best bands,” and people would be throwing around their R.E.M.s and Radioheads, it would always be up to me to say, “What about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers?” There was always a short pause, then a lot of nodding and people murmuring “ohhh, yeah…” They were never #1 on anyone’s list, and often forgotten about…but no one could deny the goods they brought to the table, year in and year out.

Petty’s first two albums without the Heartbreakers — Full Moon Fever (1989) and Wildflowers (1994) also generated tons of favorites. In fact, the casual listener might be more familiar with Petty’s solo work than his Heartbreakers stuff. “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and several other radio staples all came from his solo work. Wildflowers is probably one of my top ten albums of all time (I haven’t ranked them in quite awhile), and Petty was working on an expanded, deluxe, remastered re-issue at the time of his death. (It finally came out on October 16th of this year.)

I’m convinced any doubters would be turned into Petty fans if they took the time to sit through Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, perhaps the greatest (now I will say “greatest”) rock documentary ever if you have anything approaching an attention span. Behind his laidback demeanor and crooked grin, Petty ran the Heartbreaks like a benevolent dictator, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Always collaborative, always respectful…but undoubtedly always in charge. He had a steely resolve and a stubborn streak, but was one of the most principled and generous people in the rock & roll pantheon. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was the “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — underrated and overlooked, never getting his due as one of the best guitarists of the modern era. Keyboardist Benmont Tench was valued for his keen wit, his unerring taste, and reliable bullshit detector, not to mention his formidable, classically-trained musicianship. 

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To my (incredibly over-biased) ears, even their lowest moments never dipped too far below their high bar. Yes, the loose concept album The Last DJ (2002) didn’t really coalesce all that well, Mojo (2010) suffered from bloat, and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) — the lowest of their not-that-low — sounded exhausted even in its title…but that’s about it. Three clunkers in forty years. I’ll take it. (OK, four clunkers — Petty’s third and final solo album, 2006’s Highway Companion, didn’t quite do it for me.)

Anyway, Tom Petty is really the founder of our little feast here. His death in October of 2017 spurred me to sign up to Spotify and begin laboring over my in-tribute playlist. He is one of the few artists to earn “100 song” status, and it’s still the playlist I’m proudest of — the perfect blend of major hits, deep album cuts, live tracks, obscurities, and side-project stuff. 

huge_avatarAs much as I hate the trite term, seeing Tom Petty in concert was on my “bucket list.” I somehow kept missing him. I’d seen the Stones (twice). I’d seen Dylan (twice). I’d seen the Who (still with Entwistle). I’d seen McCartney. Petty was the only empty spot on my trophy shelf. The closest I came was when the woman I was dating in 2006 got us tickets, but we broke up before the concert. She ended up going with her ex-husband. So it goes.

For his 40th Anniversary Tour, I was gifted tickets by my wife Shannon’s family as an early birthday present. Just in time, too. Petty had been hinting this would be the last time he toured on this scale. The show was going to be at Sacramento’s brand-new Golden 1 Center, and was scheduled for August 25, 2017 — then was cancelled at the literal last minute. My in-laws were already on their way up from the Bay Area to join us when we got the alert on our phone — “As Tom Petty heals from laryngitis and bronchitis, he has been advised to take additional days off before performing.” My in-laws had to settle for dinner and a movie.

The show was re-scheduled for September 1. The in-laws made the trek east into the Sacramento Valley once more. This time, they were plunged into a pit of hellfire. I was afraid the respiratory-challenged Petty would cancel again — the air was soupy and almost unbreathable. Raging wildfires are now a seasonal event here in California, and we had a lively one going up in Butte County not too far away. The temperature hovered around 100 as the sun set, visible as a fiercely-glowing coal on the western horizon through layers of gray ash. Several people milling around the exterior of the Golden 1 Arena were actually wearing masks — an unusual and almost comical sight…at the time.

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The Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

Settling into my arena seat with a beer in hand, the conditions outside were forgotten. The opening act was a group of young Petty proteges from L.A., the Shelters. The sound was horrendous, but those kids were clearly having a blast being a rock & roll band, leaping around the stage and striking poses for the still-filling arena. 

Once they wrapped up and cleared the stage, it wasn’t more than a few minutes before the house lights dimmed. (That’s what I love about attending concerts with an audience that skews, shall we say, older. They always start on time, because everyone wants to be in bed by ten-thirty.) Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone came out to huge applause. He settled himself onto the drum stool, and gave his bass drum a few tentative kicks. I could feel the reverberation in my breastbone. Oh, this was going to be loud. The the rest of the Heartbreakers wandered onto the stage, putting down water bottles and picking up instruments. Then, in an instant, the house lights dropped altogether, the stage was awash in green and blue lights, and the Man Himself was before us — heavily bearded and in shades, blasting out the opening chords to “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from their 1976 debut album.

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Onstage at the Golden 1 — September 1, 2017

It was definitely a “greatest hits” type set, and fully half the songs were from his solo albums, a testament to their overall popularity. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” closed with an appropriately psychedelic extended freak-out, and Mojo’s “I Should Have Known It” pulsed with new life, re-interpreted as a Clapton-style blues guitar showcase for Mike Campbell. The sound was still a little muddy (basketball arenas are not concert halls), but the power and authority of the performance was towering. I emerged into the dark, smoky air deliriously happy, the encore “American Girl” still ringing in my ears. I looked forward to seeing Petty again someday in what he said would be his new concert incarnation — smaller, more intimate venues, stripped-down, Deep Cuts.

Petty played four more shows after Sacramento — the KAABOO Festival in Del Mar, then three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Then he died on October 2, 2017 from a cardiac arrest triggered by an overdose of pain medication. The night I saw him, he was likely in agony the whole time from a fractured hip, but soldiered on and played a great show. He kept quiet about the hip injury in order to finish the tour and keep his band and his road crew employed.

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(Pointless aside — according to my research, it is more stylistically correct to keep the article “the” before a band name lowercase unless it starts the sentence. It’s “the Beatles,” not “The Beatles,” despite what 9 out of 10 websites and even many professional writers go with. So I’ve been sticking to that rule. Unless the band name follows an ampersand. I don’t care what’s stylistically correct, “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers” just looks wrong to my tiny mind. It’ll be “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” here.)

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 6: Radiohead Revisited (A Reassessment in Nine Movements)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

A patched-together overview of some of my Spotify artists’ playlists in roughly alphabetical order…

It was some time around the tail-end of the holidays, 1995. We (that is myself, WH, and our mutual friend Allen) were on one of our many record shopping excursions in Sacramento. Our route always began out in suburbia with Tower Records on Watt Avenue, then we worked our way into the city center by way of The Beat on J Street, and we usually ended up on K Street in the heart of downtown. Like many hearts of many downtowns, Sacramento’s K Street has faced the usual challenges of street crime and homelessness. It may have been at its lowest point on that cold, gray day as ‘95 changed over to ‘96. Someone in an army overcoat was loudly telling sinners to repent on the corner of 7th and K, and the scent of fortified wine and urine was in the air as we walked by huddled, sleeping figures, and slipped through the seedy doorway of 708 K Street. A former saloon, the address still boasted a flophouse hotel on its upper floors.

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The old K Street Records building as it appeared in 2011. It now has a new facade as part of the K Street renovation project.

But its ground floor was home to K Street Records, one of the most gloriously disorganized and haphazard retail establishments I have ever had the pleasure to peruse. Stacks of vinyl lined the walls with no rhyme or reason, and even the supposedly alphabetized bins of CDs were a crapshoot. To make up for it, a very friendly mottle-coated cat offered an almost deafening purr in exchange for an ear-scratch, which may have been the best deal in the place. Nick Cave was playing on the store’s sound system that day.

Even more stock was available down in the basement, but I don’t recall ever going down there. It may have been closed to the public entirely at that point. Local legend states the basement of K Street Records was haunted by the spirit of a lady (“Gertrude,” I’m told) in a Victorian dress who could be a tad hostile. The establishment is also semi-famous for being on the cover of DJ Shadow’s breakthrough sample-fest Endtroducing…, a photograph taken not long after this day’s visit. One has to assume a lot of the vintage vinyl that comprised the Davis native’s debut album came from K Street. 

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DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… album cover, 1996

We didn’t find anything at K Street Records, so we moved on down the block to another Tower Records. The K Street Tower Records was the venerable chain’s third Sacramento location (after the Watt Avenue and Broadway stores, both dating from the ‘60s), which opened in 1973. The entryway was decorated with a massive, funky, very ‘73 mural.

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Former entrance to the K Street Tower Records, c. 2011, where the Holy Bee was drafted into the Britpop Wars back in ’95. The foyer floor still believes it’s the 1950s and “Burt’s Shoes” is the proper occupant.

We weren’t there long before WH waved me over. “Come here.”

I did so.

“Hold out your hand.”

I did so.

He dropped two brand-new, shrink-wrapped CDs into my open palm.

“Buy these today. Thank me tomorrow.”

That’s how I came to buy Oasis’ 1994 debut Definitely Maybe and their new release (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. And WH was right. I had no regrets. Oasis rocketed to the top of My Favorite Bands list before Definitely Maybe was halfway over. (My other purchase from that day, Southern Culture on the Skids’ Dirt Track Date, ended up getting sold off within a few months.)

Oasis’ formula was simple: Build a song solely around its best parts — the big riff and the catchy chorus — and repeat them as loud as you can. It’s really not much different from AC/DC’s approach, but Oasis added just a splash of Beatles/Kinks melodicism. I derived immeasurable joy out of those first two Oasis albums. My white Dodge Colt (with the black left front fender) soon boasted an Oasis sticker in the back window. They were all I wanted to listen to in the first few months of ‘96 (well, them and Tom Waits, and the Pogues — see below — but I was never able to find a good Pogues sticker for the car).

[Sacramento’s K Street has been undergoing renovation and renewal for several years now, aided by the development of the adjacent Golden 1 Center basketball arena. The old K Street Records building now houses the stationary bike gym All City Riders. The Tower Records mural has been painstakingly restored, and the space is now occupied by Solomon’s Deli, named after Tower Records founder Russ Solomon. Unfortunately, the pandemic shut-down has hit K Street businesses pretty hard.]

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Tower Records K Street reborn as Solomon’s Delicatessen, 2018.

The “Britpop Wars” broke out around this time. It was Oasis (simple, working-class) versus Blur (nuanced, middle-class). It was the noisy pub versus the quiet university common room, and each band’s fanbase was very opinionated. Naturally, I was in the Oasis camp, and had many spirited debates at the local coffee shop with the snobbish and pretentious Blur crowd. In retrospect, Oasis and Blur weren’t really all that different. 

The true polar opposite to Oasis — musically, philosophically — is Radiohead. 

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Radiohead — more fun than a barrel of monkeys

I am dedicating the next portion of these Chronicles to a band that will probably not be getting a playlist. For a little over fifteen years now, I have declared Radiohead to be absolutely, without a doubt, the most overrated band in popular music history. But it’s been awhile since I voluntarily listened to them. Now it’s time to see if I need to eat my words. I have announced to certain members of the Idle Time collective, who never fail to quiver like jelly and sigh in ecstasy whenever Radiohead’s name is mentioned, that I would use some of my quarantine time this past summer to clear my mind of prejudices and preconceived notions, and listen to each and every album in the Radiohead catalog as if I’m hearing them for the first time (which, in the case of their last two albums, is literally true). 

Here we go.

Pablo Honey (1993) 

Radiohead.pablohoney.albumartRadiohead’s debut album is the one most likely to be dismissed as sub-par (especially by the band themselves). I thought it was pretty good, although the oppressive sulkiness of the lyrics precludes me from saying I “enjoyed” it. The production team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade were chosen for their work with the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. and it shows. The quiet/loud/quiet dynamic of the Pixies (also used by Nirvana to great effect) and guitar crunch of Dinosaur Jr. are the dominant modes of Pablo Honey. The band were still clearly wearing their early influences on their sleeve. In addition to the aforementioned acts, there is a very healthy dose of early U2 all over the place, particularly in Thom Yorke’s Bono-channeling vocal gymnastics.

Ironically, as later releases would downplay the dominance of the six-stringed instrument, Pablo Honey may be one of the best “guitar albums” of the 1990s. Clear, ringing chords and arpeggios reminiscent of the Smiths or XTC are neatly interwoven with the fuzzed-out distortion of grunge — causing the album to be (unfairly, in my opinion) lumped in with the many other grunge knock-offs in the post-Nirvana world of 1992-93. (Remember, early Radiohead weren’t copying Nirvana, they were copying the bands Nirvana copied. There’s a difference.) What sets Pablo Honey apart from the more pedestrian knock-offs were the little sonic surprises that littered the first half, such as the stately piano that wanders into the last few seconds of “Creep,” the massive hit single that made the band instant stars and MTV darlings, and the song the band has worn like a millstone around their necks ever since.

Pablo Honey’s music itself is often quite sprightly, even though the lyrics wallow in alienation and self-pity, always warning the perpetrators of their torment that some kind of personal or spiritual retribution is coming. At times they sound like Material Issue’s depressed, vindictive British cousins. The album does suffer from second-half fatigue. (Certainly not the only album guilty of this — many artists and their production teams beginning in the CD era felt it was best to front-load albums with the strongest stuff to keep short attention spans from punching the skip button too early.) As the album winds down, it gives us a run of mid-tempo odes to self-loathing that blend into each other with little to distinguish them. The closer, “Blow Out,” has a nice, hushed urgency, and reminds me a little of Television. Overall verdict: A solid, but at times gloomy and derivative, debut with a great guitar sound that elevates it slightly above its post-grunge peers. 

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 5: The Hollies Get Their Due (and Satan Pays a Call)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020.

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

(Despite these Chronicles being based around the concept of online streaming of music, I’m starting to notice them developing into a love letter to the CD era.)

File under Still Making New Discoveries of Old Stuff…the Hollies. 

44168615._SX318_If there’s one website that is more rambling, disjointed, and long-winded than this one, it’s Alan’s Album Archives. (“If A Review Doesn’t Reach 7,000 Words, We’re Disappointed.”) He has even spun it into a little cottage industry, self-publishing $7 e-books that collect all his reviews and essays on a particular artist. For the most part, his tastes run parallel to mine (and when we diverge, we widely diverge), so I happily bought a few to support a fellow enthusiast. I don’t think even Alan himself would deny he needs an editor for simple fact-checking. He mishears lyrics (sometimes to hilarious effect), struggles with understanding American vernacular (not his fault, he’s a Brit), mixes up names and timelines with annoying frequency, and I know he knows better. His stuff is just so long even he doesn’t want to go back and read it a second time. His Beatles book is a non-stop litany of glaring factual errors. In fact, Kindle tells me I’ve only made it 42% through it. I keep trying, I make it through a couple of pages, then come across another howler and have to slam it shut again. And he doesn’t seem sure what a pedal steel guitar actually is. (No, that’s not a “pedal steel” on “I Need You,” it’s Harrison playing his 12-string Rickenbacker with a volume-swell pedal*. I mean, come on, Alan…)

In both Alan’s Beatles and Stones books, he mentions the Hollies on every few pages in the same breath as the two great titans of British rock…as if they were somehow equal or something. (“If not the greatest band of the 1960s then arguably the most consistently great band of the 1960s” made me blurt-laugh out loud, not only for its hyperbole, but for its weird semi-redundancy.) Were they actually comparable?

Short answer: Not even close. Long answer…read on.

The Hollies consisted of Graham Nash (rhythm guitar, vocals), Allan Clarke (vocals, harmonica), Tony Hicks (lead guitar, vocals), Eric Haydock (bass), and Bobby Elliott (drums). Bernie Calvert replaced Haydock on bass in mid-1966. All were very good instrumentalists — Hicks was a particularly nimble lead guitarist for the early 60s beat-group era (I love almost all of his solos, even if the song itself is a dog), Haydock pioneered the use of the six-string bass, and Elliott’s tumbling fills kicked pretty damn hard. The three vocalists were each capable of taking the lead (Clarke’s soulful, mid-range voice most often), but harmonies were their trademark. 

The Hollies shared a label (Parlophone) and a studio (Abbey Road) with the Beatles. Beatles producer George Martin’s assistant, Ron Richards, was the Hollies’ long-time producer. Richards had a good ear, a solid technical background, and worked hard to present the Hollies as best he knew how. But he was not a musician as Martin was, and he was not a boundary-pusher. 

Maybe due to this too-close-for-comfort proximity, the Beatles themselves never cared much for the Hollies — Lennon in particular thought they were saccharine and twee (the Beatles would never stoop to doing a song as stupefyingly cringe-worthy as “Fifi the Flea”), and copied the Beatles’ three-part harmonies a little too slavishly. Harrison said they were “all right musically” (meaning they were skilled players, which they were, see above), but “did their recordings like session men who’ve just got together in a studio without ever seeing each other before.” A little harsh, but yes, there was sometimes a lack of cohesion. And he called their cover of his “If I Needed Someone” “soul-less.” Which it sort of was, but give them credit for the audacity of recording a Beatles song before the original was released (presumably Ron Richards got them an advance copy of the song to work from, and at least two Hollies were under the very mistaken impression that Harrison had written it specifically for them). 

Instead of blazing their own trail, the Hollies seem preoccupied with giving listeners what they think they would want, which is admirable in a way, but not a Path to Greatness. It’s ironic that their second album was called In the Hollies Style, because the Hollies had no discernible style for most of the Sixties, and spent the decade casting around — at times desperately — for a unique voice. 

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Like most early British Invasion bands, the first couple of Hollies albums were filled with watered-down, very Anglicized R&B covers, but they certainly didn’t lack for energy. By the time of their third album, original compositions began sneaking in, which was good news. The bad news was that a lot of their early originals weren’t all that good, making their albums very patchy indeed.

The Hollies were irrevocably a singles band. And they were great singles. From their third single (a raucous cover of Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ “Stay”) in late ‘63 through to “Listen To Me” at the end of ‘68, the Hollies ripped through nuggets of 45 rpm ear candy at a rate of about three per year, including two of the Holy Bee’s all-time favorites — “Bus Stop” and “Carrie Anne.” And most of the B-sides were just as good as the As. To be fair, until Tommy, the mighty Who were “just” a singles band too.

They never really took off in the U.S. at that time, except for the Top 5 “Bus Stop” in the summer of ‘66. Just when things were starting to get interesting (their two 1967 albums, Evolution and Butterfly, are quite good forays into lightweight psychedelia), just when their original songwriting was coming into focus — co-founder and band visionary Graham Nash quit, bored by the band’s old-fashioned traditionalist attitude, and turned off by their showbizzy audience pandering. (The first album after he left was The Hollies Sing Dylan.) He moved out to California and became part of the three-headed ego monster known as Crosby, Stills & Nash, who would stop squabbling every seven or eight years to bore us with another Laurel Canyon soft-rock yawnfest.

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The Hollies soldiered on (with former Swinging Blue Jean Terry Sylvester in Nash’s place), and finally found American success with syrupy, mawkish ballads like “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” and “The Air That I Breathe.” Their highest-charting U.S. single was “Long, Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” such a blatant rip-off of Creedence Clearwater Revival that many people to this day don’t know that it’s not actually CCR yammering about “working for the FBI” with “whiskey bottles piling high” over swamp-rock guitar licks. (Credit to Clarke and Hicks for combining to form a single John Fogerty with a fair degree of accuracy.) 

So…no, the Hollies could not match the flat-out genius of the Beatles, nor the dark, menacing magnetism of the Stones, nor even the fractured, intermittent brilliance of the Kinks. But in exploring these questions, I grew to like the Hollies much more than I thought I would, and ended up giving them a playlist — but only through the Nash years. If I never hear “The Air That I Breathe” again, it will be too soon.

When I was doing my old iPod playlists a decade ago, I learned a valuable lesson about two important artists: I don’t need any more Billy Joel or Elton John than what is available on a good, solid, well-compiled two-disc best-of. The gold standard of that format were the “Essential” sets. Remember those? Sony used to do ‘em back in the CD era, and any major artist who is or has been on a Sony-owned label — which is about a third of them (Columbia, RCA, Epic, Legend, several more) — have one. Almost all of them were double discs, and I always thought they were very thoughtfully put together.

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Many will argue, but I did not find a lot of unheralded gems buried in John’s or Joel’s albums. Their hits were undeniable monsters, but their obscurities are probably obscure for a reason. 

Someone once told a story on a podcast — it may have been NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour — about meeting & interviewing Elton John in his luxurious hotel suite several years back. Elton’s management hinted that Elton would be happy to play him a song after the interview. The intrepid young podcaster, wishing to impress Elton, picked something from side two of Madman Across the Water. When the song was requested, Elton roared “Are you fucking kidding me? I haven’t played that song since I recorded it forty-five fucking years ago! I have no idea how it goes!” He then proceeded to play “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for presumably the 14,000th time.

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 4: “Heroes” and Rumours

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

Continuing a COVID-quaratined, too-much-free-time glance through just a few of my Spotify playlists, in roughly alphabetical order…

To re-iterate, a lot of this is adapted and expanded from material originally posted on the Idle Time messaging app in March/April. The Holy Bee is a proud recycler. That’s why when some artists are under review (eg. Fleetwood Mac), the focus is on a single song — it’s a holdover from our lengthy “Billboard Hot 100” discussions.

I have probably taken more abuse from the Idle Time guys for liking the Black Crowes than for any other reason. (Although just as I’m typing this, WH messaged me that he may never forgive me for putting “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News on our collaborative Best of the 80s playlist, which evidently represents a new low for my group contributions. WH has always been deeply suspicious of fun and joy.)

I’ve always admired and respected David Bowie more than I actually enjoyed listening to him. Something about his mannered vocals, his multiple irony-drenched personas, and cool detachment left me a little put off. He’s another one of those artists that everyone in my peer group loves, and I just don’t “get.” He’s obviously very gifted, eager to experiment, never bound by convention, but…I don’t seem to feel that special resonance that so many revel in. Camp theatricality was never my preferred mode of artistic expression. I gravitated toward the earnest straightforwarndess of Springsteen and Petty, or the evocative wordplay of Dylan.

I have been reading Rob Sheffield’s book-length fan letter On Bowie, and it brought things into a little more focus. What self-conscious adolescent hasn’t experimented with looks and personas, discarding them as soon as a new one springs to mind? Who hasn’t covered their desire to belong with a mask of cool detachment? Bowie was a voice for any kid who struggled with their identity, their sexuality, or the hurt of being an alienated outsider of any stripe. And maybe that’s why his material never resonated with me. Any teenager or young adult will have their moments (or months or years) of feeling rejected and unwanted, and I certainly did. But I was never cut to the core by any of it. My issues were few and I was always comfortable in my own skin. So Bowie was not speaking to me on that frequency.

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David Bowie first made a big national splash in the UK on a 1972 episode of Top of the Pops, performing “Starman.” Sheffield goes on to note all the young and impressionable kids watching that day: “Every future legend in the British Isles was tuned in. Morrissey was watching. So was Johnny Marr. Siouxsie was watching. Robert Smith was watching. Duran Duran were watching. So were Echo and the Bunnymen. Dave Gahan…Bauhaus. Jarvis Cocker. Jesus, Mary, and their Chain…”

To a name, all of them artists I am either lukewarm on, or really don’t much like at all. That’s what Bowie’s legacy has been to me.

But what of the music itself? What better time than during a pandemic-enforced, in-home exile to give Bowie’s catalog a re-listen? Wait here.

[Three days later.]

OK, done. I decided not to start at the very beginning, but jumped right in at what Sheffield considers his peak run — 1975’s Young Americans through 1980’s Scary Monsters, and then circled back to his earlier material.

I have mixed feelings about Young Americans. David Sanborn’s attention-hog of a saxophone is all over this pastiche of “Philly soul.” (Both Springsteen and Bowie are guilty of being waaay too in love with the saxophone, which I have an unshakeable prejudice against, at least on songs recorded by white dudes after 1963. What’s a way to make an otherwise good song sound totally stupid and corny? Throw on a big, dumb ol’ sax solo.) The cover of “Across the Universe” makes me cringe — Bowie spends the whole tuneless song sounding as if he’s got something unpleasant caught in his throat. When the album does coalesce, it showcases two of my all-time favorite Bowie songs — the excellent title track, and the equally-excellent  #1 single “Fame” (a collaboration with John Lennon, who must have at least tacitly endorsed Bowie’s “Across the Universe.”). Then there’s “Fascination.” Something about “Fascination” made me prick up my ears, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, then I realized it was a re-working of Stevie Wonder’s “Supersition.” Bowie is a musical magpie, taking shiny bits and pieces from other sources, and adapting them into his own vision.

I found myself enjoying almost every track on Station To Station, which is frequently described as the transitional album between the glam/soul style of his early 70s work to the Krautrock and electronica-influenced “Berlin Trilogy” of the late 70s, when the cocaine-addled Bowie fled the L.A. scene to get his head together in the austere German capital.

The Berlin Trilogy (Low and “Heroes,” both 1977, and 1979’s Lodger) represents Bowie at his most sonically experimental (for now). All three albums utilized the same core rhythm section, which never failed to play with urgency and a peculiar, visceral crunch. Brian Eno provided his trademark spacey keyboard texturing. On the first two albums, there is a clear divide between side one — all propulsion, energy, and mini-hooks — and side two, a sequence of ambient soundscapes with minimal vocals.

If you’re like me, and even the words “ambient soundscape” inspire an inner eye roll, at least it can be said that Berlin Trilogy’s ambient soundscapes are probably the best of that particular style you’re going to hear. There are nice world music flourishes, and the momentum never wanders off into ethereal noodling.

Lodger doesn’t adhere to that format quite as much, and I feel it’s the weakest of the trilogy overall. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), recorded back in London and New York, ups the ante on the world music flavor and the artiness of the “art rock,” and coats it with a commercial sheen that foreshadows the next album. 

I extended my initial listening one album past Scary Monsters to 1983’s Let’s Dance, where Bowie’s shifting personas finally coalesce into their final form — the confident, hit-making, MTV-friendly pop star in the natty suit and loosened tie. Produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, Let’s Dance was made to sound great on the radio, and spin off multiple singles. There were the inevitable cries of “sell out” from the type of unpleasant person who likes to cry “sell out,” but this may have been Bowie’s master stroke. And there was nowhere to go but down. 

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At this point, I backtracked to the start of Bowie’s career. His actual debut album, 1967’s David Bowie was considered such a colossal embarrassment by all parties involved that he named his 1969 follow-up…David Bowie, as if to erase the existence of the previous version. The second incarnation of David Bowie, an acoustic-textured blend of hippie folk sounds and wordy prog-rock lyrics, was re-released in 1972 and re-named after its title track (and far and away its best song): Space Oddity. 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World is more of the same, with an overall darker tone, more electric guitar, and a heavier emphasis on the bass end. (Nirvana did a terrific cover version of the title song.)

Hunky Dory (1971) trades acoustic guitar for jaunty piano as its primary instrument, and showcases an entirely new cabaret-pop style that gave Bowie (“Space Oddity” aside) his first clutch of truly memorable statements — “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life On Mars?,” among others.

Then came his “glam rock” trilogy: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), and Diamond Dogs (1974), which made Bowie a global superstar. (1973’s Pin-Ups was an all-covers album, and interesting in its own way.) Ziggy is a true concept album, with a loose narrative based around the messianic title character. The two follow-ups abandon a cohesive narrative, and are instead a series of observational sketches seen through the eyes of a Ziggyesque “alien outsider” character. (Ziggy himself “died” onstage each night during Bowie’s ‘73 shows, and was retired at the end of the tour.) Each album rocked a little harder than the one before. The sound of Ziggy was still essentially the bottom-heavy folk-rock of Sold The World, cut through with Mick Ronson’s stinging lead guitar, but by Dogs the sound was full-on hard rock. 

I saved the long decline (and bittersweet comeback) for last. Bowie himself pretty much disavowed all his ‘80s material after Let’s Dance. He threw in the towel on solo work and formed a four-piece, no-frills hard rock band called Tin Machine in 1989, which seemed like a great idea…if only they’d had any decent songs. They disbanded after only three years and two pretty bad albums. His solo work in the ‘90s and early ‘00s was even more experimental than in his prime, fully embracing industrial, drum-and-bass, and electronica, but it was often unfocused and unmemorable. A heart attack in 2004 sent him into retirement…

…or so it was thought. In 2013, he put out the recorded-in-secret The Next Day with no promotion or fanfare whatsoever. Re-purposing the cover art of “Heroes,” Bowie sounds jolted alive, and presents us with a cohesive, coherent art-rock album that could easily stand alongside his classics, and includes “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” his best song in thirty years. Its 2016 follow-up, Blackstar, carries the burden of being the album written and recorded as Bowie was fading away from cancer. He died two days after its release, and naturally, all of his fans cherish this as his final gift to them.

And here’s where I make the blasphemous confession that will forever bar me from true Bowie fandom: I don’t like Blackstar all that much. 

I enjoyed my deep dive into the Bowie discography, and I think I made a pretty good playlist, but the experience didn’t move the needle very much on how I feel about him. Admiration and respect, always, but it’s not passionate love. We can just be friends.

Anything that needs saying about the Byrds, well…I already said it, at my usual length, here and here.

When Johnny Cash re-emerged in the ‘90s thanks to his work with producer Rick Rubin, everyone was retroactively horrified that his record company of 25 years, Columbia, heartlessly dropped the legend in the mid-1980s. Having listened to his early ‘80s output, however, I can only wonder what took them so long. I still love Cash, but navigating his post-Folsom Prison, pre-Rubin discography was a Sisephyan task of getting through an album full of unfunny novelty songs, ponderous spoken-word narrations, turgid gospel, and quasi-misogynist my-woman-is-my-property “love” songs. Then doing it all over again with the next album. Then you find a nugget like “Far Side Banks of the Jordan” on 1977’s little-remembered The Last Gunfighter Ballad, and it feels worth all the trouble.

The Clash…I don’t listen to them nearly as often as I should. Every time I choose to put them on, I’m always glad I did. I bought MMDG’s old Toyota Corolla off him in 2007. He had covered the rear window and bumper with stickers. Tastefully monochromatic, mind you, not garish, and aligned with geometric precision, but it was a very guy-in-his-20s look, and I was by then in my (very) early 30s. So I scraped them all off — except the Clash, which retained pride of place in the back left of the rear window for as long as I had the car. 

The Last Gang In Town purports to be the Clash’s “definitive biography,” but the last ⅔ of the book is author Marcus Gray needing a bucket to carry the amount of butt-hurt he exhibits because the Clash turned out not to be actual committed socialist revolutionaries after all, but just a great rock band.

Creedence…I do not need all nine minutes of “Susie Q.” Luckily, the radio-edit version is available. I do not need a single second of their eleven-minute version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine…”

[The next day.]

OK, I caved and put “Grapevine” on the list. They build a pretty hypnotic groove.

Bob Dylan…he released a seventeen-minute song early during this quarantine…there was a snippet of Idle Time chatter about it on the IM app…

BC: …which features the lyrics “rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul.”

WH: He’s still got it.

Once you get into the Beatles, it’s a pretty short hop to getting into the Byrds, and from there, an even shorter hop to Dylan. 

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.3: Even More on The Beatles’ U.S. Albums, and How the Young Holy Bee Became a Beatles Collector

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The new year 1966 dawns. A suitable Beatles film project could not be agreed upon, so there was no soundtrack recording or movie shooting to take up three months of their time, giving them their first extended break in years. They vacationed, relaxed, gave interviews, and had an infamous photo session in March, where they posed for Robert Whitaker’s camera clad in butcher’s smocks, draped in pieces of raw meat and clutching dismembered baby dolls. 

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Then it was back to Abbey Road in April for the next round of recording, which would last until June, once again cutting sixteen tracks — fourteen for the album and two for a stand-alone single.

Tracks as yet “un-albumized” by Capitol will appear in bold, even if they’ve had a Capitol single release.

Capitol, as usual, was eager to get more product onto U.S. shelves in the summertime, when teens with summer jobs did most of their spending. (In both ‘65 and ‘66, they put out an album in June and an album in August.) Still unreleased on a Capitol album were There’s A Place, Misery, From Me To You, Sie Liebt Dich, Can’t Buy Me Love, A Hard Day’s Night, and I Should Have Known Better. In the fast-moving world of 60s pop music, these were now “oldies,” never under serious consideration at this point, even for the most careless Capitol throw-together. Of a more recent vintage, they were sitting on I’m Down, Yesterday, and Act Naturally from the Help! sessions, the We Can Work It Out / Day Tripper single, and the UK Rubber Soul leftovers Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, What Goes On, and If I Needed Someone. For some reason, Capitol decided to totally disregard I’m Down, and put it out of the running forever after. I have no idea why. It’s a great song, and the Beatles themselves obviously liked it, selecting it to be performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and using it as their big closing number in concert for two straight years. But Capitol nixed it, and decided they had only eight usable songs for the next album.

Which led to the now yearly tradition. Sometime in early May, Capitol contacted the Beatles for additional material. The band shipped over three finished tracks from their current work in progress — I’m Only Sleeping, Doctor Robert, and And Your Bird Can Sing. All were Lennon songs, as he was the only one to have any fully completed recordings at the time of the request. Paul was still tinkering with his material. (Actually, they had also finished Harrison’s Love You To, and a copy of the master was prepared, probably for shipment to Capitol, but it went unused. Its exotic Indian instrumentation would have been out of place among the straightforward pop-rock of Yesterday And Today, and was better-suited to the more experimental Revolver.)

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Yesterday And Today (June 15, 1966)

  1. Drive My Car (UK Rubber Soul)
  2. I’m Only Sleeping (UK Revolver)
  3. Nowhere Man (UK Rubber Soul)
  4. Doctor Robert (UK Revolver)
  5. Yesterday (UK Help!)
  6. Act Naturally (UK Help!)
  1. And Your Bird Can Sing (UK Revolver)
  2. If I Needed Someone (UK Rubber Soul)
  3. We Can Work It Out (single — double A-side with “Day Tripper”)
  4. What Goes On (UK Rubber Soul)
  5. Day Tripper (single — double-A side with “We Can Work It Out”)

This is the one everyone remembers as initially having the famous “butcher” cover, from the photo session described earlier. Some have speculated that the cover is the Beatles’ commentary on Capitol “butchering” their albums for the American market, but it was really just avant-garde surrealism on the part of the photographer. (The Beatles had no say in which of their songs went on U.S. albums, let alone what cover photo was used.) Whitaker designed the shot as part of a larger social-commentary photo essay that he planned for the group called A Somnambulistic Adventure. It got no further than the first round of pics (the Beatles got bored with pretentious bullshit like that pretty quickly — at least in those days), and those photos were just added to their press kit with the hundreds of other band pictures. Someone in Capitol’s graphics department grabbed the photo from their files, either due to a dark sense of humor, or (more likely) figuring one picture of the group was as good as any other. It may have just been the most recent set on the pile. And off it went. 

Butcher

Anyway, about 60,000 “butcher” sleeves made it to distributors and radio stations (not quite to store shelves) before outcry over the “tasteless” cover art from said distributors and radio stations caused Capitol to recall the album at great expense, and issue it with a replacement cover (with bored-looking Beatles posed around a steamer trunk.) Some lucky folks decided to keep the butcher version instead of returning it to Capitol, and mint copies are worth a fortune. (A few thousand copies of the butcher cover made it into stores with the new cover simply pasted over it. It could be recovered through various painstaking methods. Those copies always sustained a little damage in the process, and are worth slightly less. My own vinyl copy has a little tear in the sleeve from me checking to see if the butcher cover was underneath, not realizing as a little kid I was the owner of a factory-fresh, circa-1983 reissue.)

The Paperback Writer / Rain single came out on May 30, 1966 in the U.S., and on June 10 in the UK

The British Revolver came out in the UK on August 5 with the following tracklist: Taxman / Eleanor Rigby / “I’m Only Sleeping” / Love You To / Here, There And Everywhere / Yellow Submarine / She Said She Said / Good Day Sunshine / “And Your Bird Can Sing” / For No One / “Doctor Robert” / I Want To Tell You / Got To Get You Into My Life / Tomorrow Never Knows.

It came out three days later in the U.S. The only alteration Capitol made was the removal of the three Lennon songs that had just come out on Yesterday And Today. The resulting American Revolver is very lopsided, a McCartney-heavy album (he also wrote the Ringo-sung “Yellow Submarine”), with Lennon represented by just two songs (even George got three), closing each of the album’s vinyl sides with a blast of proto-psychedelic weirdness. 

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Revolver (August 8, 1966)

  1. Taxman
  2. Eleanor Rigby
  3. Love You To
  4. Here, There And Everywhere
  5. Yellow Submarine
  6. She Said She Said
  1. Good Day Sunshine
  2. For No One
  3. I Want To Tell You
  4. Got To Get You Into My Life
  5. Tomorrow Never Knows

In a telling indication of the role reversal of the importance of albums and singles by this time, instead of putting a single on an album, Capitol released a single from the album. “Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine” missed the top of the charts (barely), but when, in a spirit of experimentation, Parlophone also released the songs as a single, they got a #1 in Britain.

Unlike 1963 (in Britain), ‘64, and ‘65, there would be no end-of-year album in 1966. The Beatles were hard at work on what would become Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, which would not be ready until the following spring. To fill the void, Parlophone put all the A-sides of British singles to date (minus the first two, which were available on the Please Please Me album, and including the popular “Yesterday”…and for some reason, “Michelle”) on the Beatles’ first greatest hits collection — A Collection of Beatles Oldies, which undoubtedly nestled under many a British Christmas tree. They even threw in “Bad Boy,” establishing the tradition of a greatest hits album including a previously unreleased “bonus track.” The U.S. market went Beatle-less that December. (A stereo acetate of their ‘64 and ‘65 concerts at the Hollywood Bowl was made in late September, seemingly for a live album, but the idea was dropped for the moment. It eventually came out in 1977.)

In early 1967, their original recording contract with EMI expired. In renegotiating a new one, they now had the clout to make absolutely sure that Capitol Records would release their albums with the same packaging and track listing that they had in Britain in no uncertain terms, unless they gave their specific approval. This was their art, dammit, and it was not just commerce for them. EMI agreed to the new deal..

Thus ended Capitol’s slicing and dicing of Beatles albums for the American market. When Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in June, it was the first time a Beatles album made it across the Atlantic unaltered. (If Capitol were still cutting up albums, and I were in charge of Pepper, I would dump the dated, weepy melodrama “She’s Leaving Home” with its Mike Leander [not George Martin!]-arranged strings, and the dippy “Lovely Rita” and replace them with “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” both of which were originally intended for the album. Just my two cents.)

Now if they put out a stand-alone single, it was a stand-alone single in the U.S. as well. And there were three stand-alone singles in 1967:

Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever (February)

All You Need Is Love / Baby, You’re A Rich Man (July)

Hello, Goodbye / I Am The Walrus (November)

After Pepper, their next project was Magical Mystery Tour, a surreal, largely improvised, self-made psychedelic hot mess of a TV movie which ran on the BBC on December 26. It bombed, and was not widely seen in the U.S. until the home video era, but the music from it, as usual, would be in wide demand — Magical Mystery Tour, The Fool On The Hill, Flying, Blue Jay Way, Your Mother Should Know, and I Am The Walrus. 

The six songs from the TV movie were not enough to fill an album, so Parlophone put them out in the UK in a very awkward format — a double-EP. It sold well enough, but it was the sort of thing that wouldn’t work at all in the U.S.

This time, at the end of 1967, when Capitol issued a U.S.-only album, it was based on a relatively decent idea: A full-length album, with all the TV movie songs on one side, and all the 1967 singles rounded up on the other. Since this went out under the terms of their new contract, the Beatles did grudgingly agree to the expanded packaging, and accepted the realities of the American market, where the movie was not aired and a double-EP would be commercially risky. (They were particularly miffed about the inclusion of the pre-Sgt. Pepper “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” single.)

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Magical Mystery Tour (November 27, 1967)

  1. Magical Mystery Tour (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  2. The Fool On The Hill (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  3. Flying (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  4. Blue Jay Way (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  5. Your Mother Should Know (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  6. I Am The Walrus (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP and “Hello, Goodbye” B-side)
  1. Hello, Goodbye (single)
  2. Strawberry Fields Forever (single — double A-side with “Penny Lane”)
  3. Penny Lane (single — double A-side with “Strawberry Fields Forever”)
  4. Baby, You’re A Rich Man (B-side to “All You Need Is Love”)
  5. All You Need Is Love (single)

The album was so successful that EMI eventually issued it in Britain in 1976, and it’s been part of the “official” album canon ever since, the old double-EP long forgotten. The Beatles themselves eventually warmed up to it. John Lennon even pronounced it his favorite Beatles album “because it’s so weird.” (He went back and forth between this and the White Album.)

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.2: More On The Beatles’ U.S. Capitol Albums

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

Continuing our in-depth examination of how Capitol Records handled the Beatles’ output in the U.S.A…

Tracks as yet “un-albumized” by Capitol will appear in bold, even if they’ve had a Capitol single release.

The Beatles had gone into the studio from February 25 to March 1, 1964 to finish their next single and the songs that would be featured in their film A Hard Day’s Night. They got under way by completing work on Can’t Buy Me Love, which they had started in EMI’s Paris studios during their residency at the Olympia Theatre the month before. It was definitely planned for inclusion in the film, but released as a single well before the film’s release. That way, the film could boast an already-proven hit song on its soundtrack. The single’s B-side “You Can’t Do That” was recorded as well. Its possible inclusion in the film was not assured, and it was snapped up by Second Album’s compilers. (In fact, a “You Can’t Do That” segment was filmed for the final concert sequence, but cut.) The songs intended for performance sequences in the movie were also recorded at these sessions — And I Love Her, I Should Have Known Better, Tell Me Why, If I Fell, I’m Happy Just To Dance With You, along with possible stand-alone British single “Long Tall Sally” and “I Call Your Name” which were quickly shipped stateside to be on Second Album.

The Beatles filmed A Hard Day’s Night through March and April under the working title Beatlemania. The film’s much-improved final title was thought of (based on a line in a Lennon poem, in turn based on expression of Ringo’s), and UA producer Walter Shenson asked the band to come up with a song to match. A Hard Day’s Night was rush-recorded towards the end of film shooting on April 16.

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United Artists had no claim over the soundtrack’s release in the UK. As far as Parlophone was concerned, A Hard Day’s Night was first and foremost the Beatles’ third album, and a soundtrack by happenstance. But what they’d recorded so far would only fill one side of an LP. Parlophone needed side two…and Richard Lester indicated he needed one more song to finish off the film.

So from June 1-4, 1964 (after a well-earned break for most of May), the Beatles went back into the studio and recorded I’ll Cry Instead (the track they planned to give Lester), Any Time At All, Things We Said Today, When I Get Home, I’ll Be Back, and two covers: Ringo singing Carl Perkins’ Matchbox, and John tearing through Larry Williams’ Slow Down. (The raucous, wild-man Williams was considered New Orleans’ answer to Little Richard, and was a long-standing Beatles favorite.)

I’ll Cry Instead was dispatched to Lester, busy in the editing room, and UA made careful note of its inclusion. When Parlophone was prepping the British version of the album, they discovered if they included the B-side “You Can’t Do That” and dropped the two cover songs, making the overall album one track shorter (at 13 songs), they could call it an all-original album — every track by Lennon-McCartney!

As they held off releasing the album until the film was ready, Parlophone decided to fill BeatlesLongTallSallyEPthe demand for new Beatles product by expanding the potential “Long Tall Sally” single into an EP — an “extended play” four-song 45-rpm, a format that was quite popular in Britain but never caught on in the States.

The Beatles’ EP Long Tall Sally, featuring “Long Tall Sally” (from the U.S. Second Album) “I Call Your Name” (likewise), and the two covers cut from the album, Matchbox and Slow Down, was released in Britain on June 19. 

UA wasn’t scheduled to release the film A Hard Day’s Night in the U.S. until August 11, but they were getting antsy to cash in on the soundtrack, so they put it out super early, on June 26. They had distribution rights only to the eight songs actually in the film, so they created a full-length album by adding four segments from George Martin’s score, which were orchestral re-workings of other Beatles songs.

  1. A Hard Day’s Night
  2. Tell Me Why

    Hard_Days7_album_cover

    NOT Capitol! United Artists

  3. I’ll Cry Instead 
  4. “I Should Have Known Better” (orch.)
  5. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You
  6. “And I Love Her” (orch.)
  1. I Should Have Known Better
  2. If I Fell
  3. And I Love Her 
  4. “Ringo’s Theme (This Boy)” (orch.)
  5. Can’t Buy Me Love
  6. “A Hard Day’s Night” (orch.)

UA put the soundtrack out so early, I’ll Cry Instead remained on the album even though Lester dropped the song from the film at the last minute. (He didn’t think it was high-energy enough to match the action sequences it was intended for — either the frolicking-in-the-field segment, or the police chase segment — so he just used Can’t Buy Me Love twice. No one seemed to mind.)

So…EMI controlled these songs, and gave UA certain rights to them in the U.S., but what did these rights entail? It certainly seems the rights were not exclusive, because Capitol sure as hell went ahead and released them in various formats that summer. (And EMI eventually bought out the UA catalog in 1979, so all subsequent U.S. reissues of A Hard Day’s Night would be under the Capitol banner.)

The best explanation I’ve found is from the Beatles Music History website (great info, but the usual classic-rock website eyesore): Capitol could use the eight tracks in question — as long as they did not explicitly refer to or advertise whatever they put them on as a “motion picture soundtrack.” With that caveat, Capitol now had some choices to make as far as their third Beatles album was concerned. 

The British version of A Hard Day’s Night came out as the Beatles third Parlophone R-649306-1391254571-9166.jpegalbum on July 10, 1964, with the following track list: A Hard Day’s Night / I Should Have Known Better / If I Fell / I’m Happy Just To Dance With You / And I Love Her / Tell Me Why / Can’t Buy Me Love / Any Time At All / I’ll Cry Instead / Things We Said Today / When I Get Home / “You Can’t Do That” / I’ll Be Back.

Several writers have remarked that the Beatles’ musical growth was so rapid that the difference between Parlophone’s A Hard Day’s Night side one (recorded mostly in February) was quite noticeable from side two (recorded mostly in June).

A single can’t be a “soundtrack,” right? Capitol figured as much, and put out A Hard Day’s Night / I Should Have Known Better as a single on July 13. (Parlophone put out the title song as a single in the UK too — the “no singles on albums” rule in Britain didn’t apply when the singles were tied to the marketing of their films.)

Capitol desperately needed a third Beatles album out for the summer market. The six songs from the first three British singles, and the ten songs recorded for the first British album waaay back in early ‘63 were still part of Capitol’s legal wrangle with Vee-Jay Records (see previous entry.) Capitol had enough muscle to use them if they wanted to (and occasionally did), but they still regarded this stuff as not really worth the trouble.

That leaves the two German-language songs Sie Liebt Dich and Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand recorded in January ‘64 for the German market (an experiment not to be repeated), Matchbox and Slow Down from the British Long Tall Sally EP, and, technically, everything on the newly-released British album A Hard Day’s Night. 

It was immediately decided that A Hard Day’s Night would not be included. Capitol had already capitalized on it as a single, and it skirted too close to UA’s “soundtrack” turf. Its Capitol B-side I Should Have Known Better was tossed, too, for no reason I can see. Maybe it was too closely associated with the movie’s title track due it’s being on the single’s B-side. Nor was Can’t Buy Me Love or I’ll Be Back considered. I have no idea why. Even with those omissions, that still left just enough gas in the tank. 

The-Beatles---U-S--Albums---Something-New 

Something New (July 20, 1964)

  1. I’ll Cry Instead (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  2. Things We Said Today (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  3. Any Time At All (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  4. When I Get Home (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  5. Slow Down (Long Tall Sally EP)
  6. Matchbox (Long Tall Sally EP)
  1. Tell Me Why (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  2. And I Love Her (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  3. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  4. If I Fell (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  5. Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand (German-language single on EMI’s Odeon Records, 2/4/64)

The cover is another shot from the Ed Sullivan appearance. The title seems a touch ironic as almost all of side two had been available to U.S. record buyers on the UA soundtrack for almost a month. The soundtrack kept Something New out of the #1 album spot, showing that the fans drew no distinction between UA and Capitol product.

And I can kind of follow Capitol’s logic in terms of song choice through this whole process…until the end of side two here. Why the hell did they include “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” when they still had other stuff to choose from? I can only guess as to why better options weren’t chosen instead. I’ll Be Back is a brilliant song, and would have made an infinitely better choice. I suppose it may have been a little too downbeat for an album that already included melancholy songs like “If I Fell” and “Things We Said Today.” Capitol was still trying to sell the Beatles based on excitement (!!) after all. Probably someone at Capitol thought the German song would be a fun novelty for the kids. (They used to put shit like that on early Beach Boys albums all the time). Actually, anything from the ‘63 sessions would have been a better call than that Teutonic atrocity. Continue reading

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.1: Mono and The Beatles’ U.S. Albums

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

“‘Revolution’ was a heavy record [in mono]…stereo turned it into a piece of ice cream.” — J. Lennon.

Hmmm…no mono Beatles on Spotify? Mono Beach Boys, sure. Mono (early) Stones, even. But no mono Beatles.

As I was making my playlists, it came to my attention that the Beatles catalog on Spotify was available only in stereo. This is not a big deal to most people. Two separate channels of sound emerging from two speakers (or headphones or earbuds or “airpods”) to create a kind of audio widescreen is the primary way music has been listened to for over fifty years now. I was certainly reared on stereo recordings of the Beatles (via their American albums, see below.) But that wasn’t always the case, and when you’re talking about recording artists of the caliber of the Beatles, there should at least be a conversation about what kind of mixing better suits their music.

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Mixing a song is a vital part of the recording process. Vocals and instruments are initially recorded across multiple tracks of audio tape, and a good mix ensures the sounds are properly balanced against each other. You can write a great song, perform it flawlessly in the studio…but a bad mix can ruin it. The Beatles and their producer George Martin lavished hours of attention on the monaural (single audio channel) mixes of their songs, because that’s how 90% of their initial audience would hear the music until about 1968 or so. Through one-speaker portable record players, one-speaker transistor radios, one-speaker car radios, one-speaker jukeboxes. “Stereo” in the 1960s was for classical music freaks, jazzbos, and “hi-fi” fanatics with record players housed in polished wooden cabinets the size of Buicks, and shelves groaning with “LPs.” The Beatles did release their stuff in stereo, but stereo mixing was usually a hurried afterthought. The Beatles did not bother to attend their stereo mixing sessions. Even George Martin would sometimes skip out, leaving it in the hands of assistants.

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1960s — what mono meant

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1960s — what stereo meant

As stereo pushed out mono by the end of the ‘60s, the Beatles’ catalog stayed in print, selling quite well, and demand kept the record plants pressing out vinyl. As a kid, I was still buying factory-fresh, brand new copies of Beatles albums in record stores as late as 1988. All stereo by then, and the vinyl LP’s center label was no longer the classic Capitol Records black ringed by a rainbow, but an ugly, bruised purple (indicating a re-issue pressed between 1977 and 1983). 

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1960s Capitol label and 1977-83 reissue label (supposedly a “throwback” to pre-1960s 78 rpm labels)

Work had been done on more careful stereo re-mixing in dribs and drabs beginning in the late 60s and through the 70s, and by the time I heard the stuff in the 80s, it sounded fine. Some horrible over-separation had been fixed, Dave Dexter’s dated, splashy reverb (again, see below) had been cleaned up, and stereo is how my ears were raised on Beatles music. (My generation of re-issues had “New Improved Full Dimensional Stereo” written proudly across the top of the jacket). When the Beatles’ catalog was reissued on compact disc in 1987, the stereo versions of the UK albums were made official canon, and anything still out there in mono — along with the old American albums — vanished. (The Beatles themselves still didn’t like the fresh stereo mixes the CDs were given. They’ve been re-mastered and improved since, but if you were to ask the Fab Four themselves — mono forever, baby.)

In the early 2000s, demand for the release of the original mono mixes by Beatles purists grew, and their wish was granted. In 2009, The Beatles in Mono CD box set was released. Every song re-mastered in their original, glorious mono. Even as a 13-disc collection that sold for as much as my first car, it made #40 on the album charts. I didn’t rush out and buy it, but I knew someone who did, and he was nice enough to loan it to me for a good long time. And…I still prefer stereo. I guess I’m a philistine. But for playlist-assembly purposes, it would have been nice for Spotify to offer the option. What’s more frustrating is that I’ve heard that the mono stuff was on Spotify briefly, but removed. (And if you think my stuff is over-detailed, at least one entire book has been written about the differences between the Beatles’ mono and stereo mixes.) 

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Another thing now available on CD but not on Spotify is the early Beatles albums as issued in the U.S. by Capitol Records.

The Beatles’ American albums on Capitol were often quite different from the “official” British releases on Parlophone from 1964 through ‘66, and were pretty much the only way American consumers could experience the band’s pre-1967 material for over twenty years. They are not included on Spotify. Like the mono thing, this doesn’t bother most listeners. The British albums were how the band intended their stuff to be presented anyway, and the group was generally horrified by Capitol’s seemingly careless re-sequencing and repackaging.

How did Capitol Records’ Beatles discography come about, and how and why did they make the decisions they did? It’s complicated, and sometimes their choices are logical, and the results work. Sometimes they seem clueless and totally wrong-headed. Continue reading

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Filed under Music -- 1960s