Friday, September 22, 2017

Drink Scotch Whiskey All Night Long


Steely Dan :


On September 23, 1977 Steely Dan released Aja, the very apex of studio crafted rock perfection; the height of jazz/rock fusion (even if that jazz veers more towards something you'd hear in a lounge rather than at the Village Vanguard.) With the help of nearly 40 musicians, Donald Fagen and the recently passed Walter Becker now come across as older, wiser beatniks without losing their sarcasm, sense of humor or warmth.

Among the album's fans was Ian Dury who said "Well, Aja's got a sound that lifts your heart up.. and it's the most consistent up-full, heart-warming.. even though, it is a classic LA kinda sound. You wouldn't think it was recorded anywhere else in the world. It's got California through its blood, even though they are boys from New York... It's a record that sends my spirits up, and really when I listen to music, really that's what I want."



From Robert Christgau's B+ review:

Carola suggests that by now they realize they'll never get out of El Lay, so they've elected to sing in their chains like the sea. After all, to a certain kind of reclusive aesthete, well-crafted West Coast studio jazz is as beautiful as anything else, right? Only I'm no recluse. I hated this record for quite a while before I realized that, unlike The Royal Scam, it was stretching me some; I still find the solo licks of Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, et al. too fucking tasty, but at least in this context they mean something. I'm also grateful to find Fagen and Becker's collegiate cynicism in decline; not only is "Deacon Blues" one of their strongest songs ever, it's also one of their warmest. Now if only they'd rhymed "I cried when I wrote this song" with "Sue me if I play it wrong," instead of "Sue me if I play too long." Preferring long to wrong could turn into their fatal flaw



Here's Michael Duffy's review in Rolling Stone :

Aja is the third Steely Dan album since songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen discarded a fixed-band format in late 1974. Since then they have declined to venture beyond the insular comfort of L.A. studios, recording their compositions with a loose network of session musicians. As a result, the conceptual framework of their music has shifted from the pretext of rock and roll toward a smoother, awesomely clean and calculated mutation of various rock, pop and jazz idioms. Their lyrics... remain as pleasantly obtuse and cynical as ever.

 Aja will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan's music is soulless, and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be. But this is in many ways irrelevant to a final evaluation of this band, the only group around with no conceptual antecedent from the Sixties. Steely Dan's six albums contain some of the few important stylistic innovations in pop music in the past decade. By returning to swing and early be-bop for inspiration -- before jazz diverged totally from established conventions of pop-song structure -- Fagen and Becker have overcome the amorphous quality that has plagued most other jazz-rock fusion attempts.


"Peg" and "Josie" illustrate this perfectly: tight, modal tunes with good hooks in the choruses, solid beats with intricate counter rhythms and brilliantly concise guitar solos. Like most of the rest of Aja, these songs are filled out with complex horn charts, synthesizers and lush background vocals that flirt with schmaltzy L.A. jazz riffs. When topped by Fagen's singing, they sound like production numbers from an absurdist musical comedy.

 The title cut is the one song on Aja that shows real growth in Becker's and Fagen's songwriting capabilities and departs from their previous work. It is the longest song they've recorded, but it fragilely holds our attention with vaguely Oriental instrumental flourishes and lyric references interwoven with an opiated jazz flux. "Aja" may prove to be the farthest Becker and Fagen can take certain elements of their musical ambition.




 Lyrically, these guys still seem to savor the role they must have acquired as stoned-out, hyperintelligent pariahs at a small Jewish college on the Hudson. Their imagery can become unintelligibly weird (Frank Zappa calls it "downer surrealism"); it's occasionally accessible but more often (as on the title song) it elicits a sort of deja vu tease that becomes hopelessly nonsensical the more you think about it. Focus your attention on the imagery of a specific phrase, then let it fade out. Well, at least it beats rereading the dildo sequence in Naked Lunch.


The last album, The Royal Scam, was the closest thing to a "concept" album Steely Dan has done, an attempt to return musically to New York City, with both a raunchier production quality and a fascination with grim social realism. The farthest Aja strays from the minor joys and tribulations of the good life in L.A. are the dreamy title cut and "Josie," which hints ominously about a friendly welcome-home gang-bang. The melodramatic "Black Cow" is about love replaced by repulsion for a woman who starts getting too strung out on downers and messing around with other men. "Deacon Blues" (a thematic continuation of "Fire in the Hole" and "Any World") exemplifies this album's mood: resignation to the L.A. musician's lifestyle, in which one must "crawl like a viper through these suburban streets" yet "make it my home sweet home." The title and first lines of "Home at Last" (presumably a clever interpretation of Homer's Odyssey -- I don't get it) put it right up front: "I know this superhighway/This bright familiar sun/I guess that I'm the lucky one."

 More than any of Steely Dan's previous albums (with the possible exception of Katy Lied), Aja exhibits a carefully manipulated isolation from its audience, with no pretense of embracing it. What underlies Steely Dan's music -- and may, with this album, be showing its limitations -- is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics. Given the nature of these times, this may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.





Thursday, September 21, 2017

Your Eyes in the Morning Sun




On September 24, 1977 The Bee Gees first single from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, "How Deep Is Your Love", debuted on the U.S. pop charts at #83. This would be the single that would finally knock off Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life"  from the top of the U.S.charts. 40 years later, I still never change the dial when this tune gets played on the radio.



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hitchin Up Her Short Skirt




 Boomtown Rats: the band's name says it all. Parasites amid prosperity, rodents on the make in the sewers of power, a great band name from an era of great band names. As much as Clash or Damned or Sex Pistols - or Stranglers, Buzzcocks and Lurkers - the name forever tags the band as part of the class of '77, when the barbarians finally arrived at the gates of an increasingly stratified and stultifying Rock City.
-Charles Shaar Murray, from the liner notes of the remastered CD.

In September of 1977 The Boomtown Rats released their self-titled debut album. Despite Bob Geldof's sneery vocals, the Rats owed more to the Rolling Stones than to anything the punks were up to. Something Geldof addresses in this interview:


Geldof says the purpose of new wave bands like the Boomtown Rats is to re-energize the music scene following what he describes as a blank generation between 1969 and 1975. Forget Pink Floyd, Geldof says it wasn't  until the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam, Dr Feelgood and Graham Parker came along that rock got interesting again.  Saint Bob figured The Boomtown Rats were somewhere in between the punkers and the pub rockers.


"Mary in the 4th Form" was the U.K. 15 single in the long tradition of tributes to young girls in uniforms like The Yardbirds' "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", The Mindbender' "Schoolgirl", and The Police "Don't Stand So Close to Me" . 


"Joey's On the Street Again" is less punk than an Irish take on Springsteen . True Rat fans adore the deep cut  "I Can Make It If You Can". The album peaked at #18 in the U.K. album charts,

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Breaking All The Rules




In September of 1977 Linda Ronstadt released the only album that could knock Fleetwood Mac's Rumours from the top of the Billboard album charts. With the help of singles "Blue Bayou", "It's So Easy"( its second appearance in the blog this year)  and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" (one of two Warren Zevon songs ), Simple Dreams sold three and a half million copies. The only female artist to sell more copies of a single album is Carole King and Tapestry. 


Most critics had good things to say about Simple Dreams, which made the Pazz and Jop critics poll at #27. Robert Christgau gave the album a B+ grade, writing

In which Andrew Gold goes off and Pursues His Solo Career, enabling Ronstadt to hire herself a rock and roll band. She's still too predictable--imagine how terse and eloquent "Blue Bayou" would seem if instead of turning up the volume midway through she just hit one high note at the end--but she's also a pop eclectic for our time, as comfortable with Mick Jagger as with Dolly Parton, interpreting Roy Orbison as easily as Buddy Holly. Even her portrayal of a junkie seeking succor from Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" isn't totally ridiculous. And I admit it--she looks great in a Dodger jacket.



Rolling Stone's Peter Herbst :

 The thing about Linda Ronstadt is that she keeps getting better, and we keep expecting more and more of her. She's always possessed that big, magnanimous voice, but it wasn't Heart like a Wheel that her interpretive and arranging skills (the latter, and perhaps both, due to the felicitous pairing with producer Peter Asher) fully emerged. 

With Hasten Down the Wind, Ronstadt shed some long-lived inhibitions. Given Karla Bonoff's red-hot, baldly emotional material ("Someone to Lay Down beside Me," "Lose Again," "If He's Ever Near"), she responded with her most personal -- even visceral -- singing. It doesn't quite make sense to call her highly charged performances relaxed, but certainly she was a lot less stiff than before. Ronstadt had, quite simply, become rock's supreme torch singer.

 What Ronstadt's blossoming skills suggest is a kind of latter-day Billie Holiday, a woman whose singing constitutes an almost otherworldly triumph over the worst kind of chronic pain. Throughout Simple Dreams (in which Ronstadt and Asher wisely have scaled down the production), the singer evokes a bittersweet world of disappointments, fantasies and cheerfully brazen assertions. What she lacks is the sense of humor and ironic self-effacement that made Holiday such an extraordinarily subtle and intelligent performer.



That flaw, which was most obvious in Ronstadt's sober reading of Randy Newman's outlandish "Sail Away," is evident here on Warren Zevon's darkly ironic "Carmelita." When Ronstadt, going to meet a dealer, sings, "He hangs out down on Alvarado Street/At the Pioneer Chicken stand" without even a smirk, it sounds as if she doesn't know that a joke, however black, is being made.

 And all the way through Simple Dreams' first side (which, except for the rousing opener, "It's So Easy," is made up of ballads), Ronstadt fails to step back and take a look at herself. She's just a little too blue for comfort. But that's a piddling complaint because it's a fine side. Ronstadt sings J.D. Souther's modestly self-pitying "Simple Man/Simple Dream" with a thorough sympathy for and understanding of Souther's message -- that the lover of simple truths is easily ridiculed. She gets Eric Kaz' complex "Sorrow Lives Here" (Kaz, it seems, is getting ready to challenge Leonard Cohen as the world's most morose songwriter) just right. The lines "Everything seems to spin all around/But I can't see/Whether it happens/With or without me" unite emotional and philosophical confusion dramatically, and Ronstadt sings them as if she wrote them. "I Never Will Marry," the great traditional tune to which Dolly Parton's backwoods harmonies add a gorgeous dignity, should become her signature: it frames her independence and loneliness with enormous restraint and power.

 Simple Dreams' second side is better paced and begins with the song, "Blue Bayou," that caused me to compare Ronstadt to Billie Holiday. The transition she makes from the introduction to the chorus ("I'm going back someday, come what may to Blue Bayou") is simply electrifying. What starts out as an ordinary love song becomes a passionate cry for escape that completely transcends the song. Like Holiday, Ronstadt has developed an ability to invest her material with far more than it brings to her -- the wonderful jump to falsetto with which she ends "Blue Bayou" is a great deal more than merely wistful.



Simple Dreams could have used more rockers like the second side's "Tumbling Dice" and Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." Both are strongly male, and Ronstadt's substitution of a female presence (something that occurs throughout the LP and serves as a sort of sub-theme) is a joyous "anything you can do" statement. She moves through Zevon's role reversals convincingly, substituting a nicely assonant verse for a more graphic one that she might not have gotten away with. 

Ronstadt's well-placed grittiness on "Tumbling Dice" (whose brilliant, highly salty lyrics are finally intelligible) matches the song's sense of risk and its keenly expressed bawdiness. "Tumbling Dice" might seem a strange choice of material for Ronstadt, but what she's telling us, I think, is that she can live on the edge with the best of them. And she's damned convincing.



Finally from Playboy:

Reviewing a Linda Ronstadt album is not unlike writing ad copy for the Holiday Inn: The only surprise is that there are no surprises. Simple Dreams follows the formula concocted by producer Peter Asher almost five years ago -- a dash of country, a dash of J.D. Souther, a dash of old-time rock 'n' roll. The band sounds the same, even without Andrew Gold, and still is as good as you get. The production is the same (though this time out, Ronstadt's voice seems to be mixed above the instruments. In the past, there was a more luxuriant blend. But maybe our stereo's on the fritz). The only thing left for a reviewer to comment on is the selection of songs. The duet with Dolly Parton on "I Never Will Marry" will break your heart. (Say it isn't so, Linda!) The inclusion of Roy Orbison and Joe Melson's "Blue Bayou" and the Mexican-flavored Warren Zevon tune "Carmelita" suggests that Ronstadt is trying to follow in Jimmy Buffett's country-and-ocean wake. Her update of The Rolling Stones' "Tumbling Dice" leaves a lot to be desired: to be exact, Mick Jagger. Ronstadt can't carry the hard edge that song requires -- nor, for that matter, the irony on which "Carmelita" and another Zevon song, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," depend. Still, we'd pay to hear Ronstadt sing "Jingle Bells."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sitting Here All Alone





In September of 1977 The Babys, fronted by John "Missing You" Waite, released their  single "Isn't It Time". Commericial? Yes. And melodramatic too. But the 13 year old version of myself bought the single when he had a couple bucks to spend.

 Can you name another hit song in which the  backing vocalists sing the chorus?  Lisa Freeman-Roberts, Myrna Matthews and Pat Henderson are superb and Waite, in full glam pop attire, hits a home run.

Surprisingly, "Isn't It Time" barely cracked the UK Top 50. It went to #13 in the US and #1 in Australia.




Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Gift of the Wind





On September 16, 1977 Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane released Rough Mix, an album the two collaborated on with the help of Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts. I picked up a cassette copy of this album at a Reno pawn shop for a couple of dollars in 1981 while I wS on a bit of a run on Who albums. It is clearly a high point for both artists, even with its relaxed atmosphere.


The album may sound relaxed but not all of the sessions were. Although both were followers of the Meher Baba, Lane had a mouth on him and he and Townshend got into at least one fight that got physical. Road crew member Russ Schlagbaum recalls running into a studio to fund Lane curled up in a ball and Pete Townshend kicking him with big Doc Martin boots. Rough Mix indeed.



It was during the February 1977 sessions that Ian Stewart and his wife convinced Ronnie to see a doctor. Ronnie would wake up mornings with his hand too numb to hold a pen. He blamed all of his physical ailments on drinking and was shocked by the MS diagnosis even though his mother had it. He would live for 21 years with the disease.


Rough Mix was released to critical praise and low sales.

Robert Christgau was among those who loved the album, giving it an A- grade and writing:

Meher Baba inspired psalmody so plain and sharply observed, maybe he was all reet after all. Three of Townshend's contributions--"Keep Me Turning," "Misunderstood," and an unlikely song of adoration called "My Baby Gives It Away"--are his keenest in years, and while Lane's evocations of the passing scene are more poignant on his Island import, One for the Road, "Annie" is a suitably modest folk classic. Together, the two disciples prove that charity needn't be sentimental, detachment cold, nor peace boring. Selah.



 Rolling Stone's  Dave Marsh was also a fan of the album, which received a 5 star review in one of the Rolling Stone Album Guides.  He wrote:

It's almost impossible to avoid describing Rough Mix as devotional music, but it's equally difficult to reconcile that description with some of the album's components. Townshend's stinging guitar on "My Baby Gives It Away," the chugging. Faces-like title instrumental and the wailing saxophone coda on Lane's Fifties-style "Catmelody" are hardly typical of spiritual music. But then matters meditative have never before been fully integrated into the ugly, angry sounds we call rock and roll. Their juxtaposition here, in fact, might be one meaning of Rough Mix; it certainly ain't smooth. 




 The Who's Townshend and former Face Lane come by their rock and roll inclinations honestly, and obviously, but spiritual inclination is their long suit here. Both men are followers of Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master who died in 1969, and this has given the album a sort of humility — not to say modesty — which is its special virtue. 

 Not surprisingly, almost everything Townshend does here owes a debt to the Who. "My Baby Gives It Away" is one of his improbable sexual misadventures, like "I'm a Boy" or "Pictures of Lily." "Misunderstood" is more understated musically — just voice, guitar, harmonica, cowbell and a drum machine — but belongs with his best boasts, in the tradition of "My Generation." "Just one want to be misunderstood/Want to be feared in my neighborhood." Ten years ago, this probably would have been called a Dylan parody, but the resolution of the lyric is actually a lot closer to the self-doubt of The Who by Numbers

 "Street in the City" is helped by Townshend's marvelous acoustic guitar, but it is dominated by an utterly unlikely horn and string arrangement. It is schmaltzy enough to pass for an outtake from Days of Future Passed, and as the album's longest track, it is simply its most vexing. 




 "Keep Me Turning" is a spiritual parable that is undoubtedly much clearer to its author than to any other listener. The organ, guitar and drum interplay makes the song exciting, but what draws me back time and again is the yearning and vulnerable quality of Townshend's vocal. This is spiritual rock and  roll in the very best sense: it doesn't always make sense except in the heart, which won't ignore it. Its wit and charm strike beyond the confusion of its verses to the heart of the chorus, where the devotional imagery is most complete, and the guitar part at the bridge, which is among the most supple and liquid Townshend has ever done.

 Lane's songs reflect his recent work with Slim Chance; his last album, which has not been released in the U.S., had a hint ("Harvest Home") of what is fully realized here. Lane has moved past straight rock and  roll — although he makes his share of it on "Catmelody" and "Rough Mix" — into a merger of rock with Irish ballads and Scottish and English folk music. There is a kind of wisdom and assurance to these songs, and when he sings, "God bless us all," or, of "all of my family and all of my friends," he does so with sincere conviction. More wonderfully, there is no distance, no sense of trying to recapture something lost in a modern age. In addition, as John Prine once said of Jackson Browne. I don't know where Lane gets his melodies. but I'd sure like to go there. 

 Lane makes his music with guitars, fiddles, banjos, drums, harmonica, electric bass. Although that sounds like a formula for folk rock, there is nothing of the haunted quality or joyousness of the greatest folk rock. Instead, there is a meditative air to the music, captured eloquently in the opening verse of his best song here, "Annie," which might merely be "Harvest Home" with lyrics:

 Old rocks stand tall, Annie 

Seen the world grow small, Annie 

 But when they fall, Annie 

 Where will they be? 




 What Lane does is hardly unprecedented. Dylan's soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Eric Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard, even Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" share a part of its wise and ancient spirit. (Clapton brings a blues guitar to "April Fool" that is its prettiest touch.) Townshend has made his share of songs with a similar feeling — silly as it was, The Who by Numbers' "Blue, Red and Grey" had it — as has Lane himself: listen to the Faces' "Debris." What's important is that the dedication and beauty of the music is as crucial as the homage it pays to its masters and traditions. 




 So the final numbers on Rough Mix, among the few true collaborations on the record, have a special flavor. Don Williams' "'Til the Rivers All Run Dry" is a country love song, but in this context — and considering Baba's love for Jim Reeves' "There's a Heartache Following Me," which Townshend did on his first solo album — it is clearly a tribute to the master.

 "Heart to Hang Onto," written by Townshend but on which Lane sings the verses and Townshend the choruses, wears an even thinner veil. There's a brutal war going on in the song's midsection between Townshend's Tommy-like guitar and John Entwistle's brass arrangement. This is the perfect musical expression of the cosmic quest — this is the real "The Seeker." The lesson here is stated through a series of metaphorical characters, the most tragic of whom is Danny: "Danny, he wants to save for a new guitar/He's gonna learn to play but he won't get far." Implicitly, Danny's not going anywhere because he hasn't made the connection; he has no "heart to hang onto," which is to say he lacks the spirit to make the music move.




 The glory of this album and of the work of Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane throughout their careers is that art and the deepest spiritual aspiration are completely intertwined. Often, of course, that makes for a rough mix, and a rougher life. But it's worth the turbulence, for it touches closer to the heart of the rock & roll experience than almost anything I know.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Death of a Cosmic Dancer




[Purchase]

In the early morning hours of September 16, 1977 , T.Rex star Marc Bolan was killed when the car his wife Gloria Jones was driving slammed into a sycamore tree. The self-titled "elder statesman of punk" had re-energized his career in 1977, touring with The Damned in March and hosting a TV show, Marc, on Granada Television. He was 29 years old.


He ended each show with the line "Keep a little Marc in your heart. See you next week, same Marc time, same Marc channel".



Bolan's funeral was attended by David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Tony Visconti, and Steve Harley.  A swan-shaped floral tribute was displayed outside the service in recognition of his breakthrough hit single "Ride a White Swan". 


Notably absent from the funeral was Marc's common law wife who was still in hospital, with her jaw wired shut and a cast on a leg. It wasn't until the day of the funeral that her brother told her her about Marc's death. She would move back to the U.S. with their son.

Baby Rolan Bolan is now 42 years old.
Marc never got his own drivers license. He told friends he was afraid he'd die in a car accident. On tour in 1967 he told his manager Simon Napier-Bell. “Of course, I’d have to die in a car crash like James Dean or Eddie Cochran then my records would sell much more.” 
“In a Rolls-Royce?” Napier-Bell asked. 
“No,” he replied, “in a Mini.”

It was the car's passenger side that took the brunt of the impact, killing Marc instantly as it tossed him into the back seat of the little car.


There are many hip Americans who still haven't heard of T.Rex. My introduction was the song "Jeepster", which Martin Scorsese used in his film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. That led me to ignore the Rolling Stone Record Guide's three star review when I found Electric Warrior in a used record store. It has been one of my favorite albums ever since.


After Electric Warrior, I travelled backwards in time to pick up a cut out record featuring older T.Rex tunes like "Debora", "Salamanda Palaganda" and "Ride a White Swan".


Eventually I bought The Slider, probably thanks to Lloyd Cole's indulgence in covering the tunes for B sides.


My 12 year old son's favorite T.Rex song is "I Love to Boogie", thanks to Billy Elliot. I think it's great he even has a favorite T.Rex song at that age.



The crash site has become home of a memorial. I'll probably never visit, so I'll just crank Electric Warrior all day.