Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Beatles (White Album)

For the last couple of days I've been listening to the White Album in the car.  The Beatles are one of those groups I regularly return to, and with a long drive to and from work and a good CD player in the car, it’s been fun going through some of my favorite albums.  I've been making a chronological journey through the Beatles’ later catalog, starting with Rubber Soul and working my way toward the end.

This particular album, in my humble opinion, is quite possibly the most significant in the history of the group.  I've seen at least two different polls in which it was named their best album.  It’s sold over 20 million copies since its initial release 45 years ago, making it one of the top selling albums in history.  But, again in my humble opinion, it just might be . . . their worst album.

One thing is without dispute; in the history of this, the biggest rock band ever, it was the beginning of the end.  From their first recordings up through Sgt. Pepper and even the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour movie, it was always The Beatles against the world.  The fame that threatened to consume and destroy them was always met with a united front.  Manager Brian Epstein handled the business end, producer George Martin steered the ship in the studio, and John, Paul, George and Ringo provided the wind for the sails.

The years 1966 and 67 were full of upheaval for the band.  In ’66 they decided to stop playing live.  Their concerts were so big that they couldn't even hear themselves play, and the technology of live sound hadn't yet caught up to the needs.  Plus, they were leading an extremely stressful life, going from the road to the studio and back again, over and over without a break, from late ’62 through most of ’66.

So 1967 was a year of relaxation and reflection, and their studio time was much more leisurely.  They, along with George Martin, took the time to produce one of the most important rock albums ever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Then, suddenly, Epstein died, leaving them somewhat rudderless.  Their response was to take several tunes that had already been recorded and make a script-less movie called Magical Mystery Tour.

The movie got scathing reviews after being shown on British television the day after Christmas, 1967.  But the album stands as one of their best and was a huge hit, with several of their most popular songs, from Penny Lane to Strawberry Fields Forever and even I Am The Walrus.

When the time came around to start the next set of recording sessions, tensions inside the group were beginning to build.  They used to stand united, circling the wagons as the adoring public, the press, their competition, and everybody else came at them.  Now, with nothing to do but create, their individuality began to take over.

It would not be altogether untrue to consider the White Album to be the first solo work by each of the Beatles.  Four very creative, very strong personalities were free to do whatever they pleased.  But then each of the four was required to fill the role of back-up musician to each of the other three.  And when the slots on the album began to fill up, the dominance of Lennon and McCartney caused yet more tension.  And there was no Brian Epstein to run interference, and no tour for a distraction.

One controversy of this album is that it’s their only double album.  Many people, including producer George Martin and drummer Ringo Starr, felt that the best songs should have been used for a single LP.  I think that is the tack I am going to take here and go through the album, track by track, and designate which should stay and which should go.  Feel free to chip in your own $0.02 on the subject.



This song caused quite a stir back in the day.  A lot of people didn't like rock and roll to begin with, considering it The Devil’s Music and complaining that it was bad for the youth of the world.  Lennon’s comment in 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” didn't help.  Many of their detractors viewed this song as a smoking gun.  Anyone this immoral obviously had to be communists too, right?

Frankly, I think it was simply what it appears to be, a tribute to (and maybe even parody of) Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA.  It was written and sung by Paul McCartney.  People had known for years that the whole Lennon/McCartney thing was fiction anyway.  Sometimes the other would contribute a line or a snatch of melody or something, but for the most part their songs were written by Lennon OR McCartney.

Evaluation – Keeper.


John Lennon was in a pretty weird space by mid-1968.  His marriage was on the rocks and he had publicly taken up with Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono.  He was also taking a lot of drugs, of a lot of different varieties.  The previous year had ended with Brian Epstein’s death and the band’s famous trip to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which turned out to be very disappointing for John.

Without the distractions of the road, he had to deal with issues dating back to his childhood; absent father, raised by a strict aunt, and a free-spirited mother who never quite had it together enough to take care of him.  It has been speculated that Yoko took advantage of his Mommy issues, simultaneously controlling and liberating him.

The result was a body of work that was often unfocused but occasionally brilliant.  He was by far the most intelligent and creative member of the band, but also had the biggest issues.  Yoko arguably tied him to her and he spent the rest of his days in a rambling three-legged race to nowhere.  Even so, the postcards he sent back could have some wonderful scenery in them.  This was one of his better efforts in this collection.

Evaluation – Keeper


Another Lennon tune, and another pretty good one.  Not great, but not bad.  Letting a little of his anger out, and also playing with the Paul-is-dead idea, teasing the fans with a couple “clues.”

Evaluation – Keeper


Everybody loves this Paul McCartney composition.  It’s cute, it’s bouncy, it uses the word “bra” in a strange context.  Paul has a gift for taking some little piece of nonsense and making something out of it.  I’ll bet he made the best, and most elaborate, lanyards at summer camp.  Other moms would turn to their kids and say, “Why couldn't you make me one that nice?”

Yeah, but this song, well . . . it kinda sucks.  Paul went through a period of really being into depression-era English vaudeville and dance-hall music.  The kind his dad played.  So, he made the lanyard for his dad.  I’m impressed.

And yet, even with that . . . well, the damned thing is cute, it is bouncy . . . and frankly, again in my humble opinion, if bras aren't the greatest thing ever, they’re next to it.  ;>

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not


What, are you kidding, Paul?

Evaluation – Throw it!


This is your brain on drugs.  For those of you smart enough never to experience being really wasted, this is what happens to you.  Listening to this song again, I can describe the exact process of how it was written; somebody said something and got it a little wrong.  Bungalow instead of buffalo.  A giggling fit ensues.  Hey, Bungalow Bill!  Then, John Lennon picked up his guitar and did this.  And because he’s John Lennon, nobody had the balls to tell him to stop.  Yeah, it’s cute.  Filler at best.

Evaluation – Throw it!


An absolutely amazing, beautiful song, and proof that George Harrison was closing the gap with Lennon and McCartney.  George’s friend Eric Clapton provided the uncredited guitar solo.  The live version on Concert For Bangladesh was great, and so is Jeff Healey’s rearrangement in the ‘90’s.  Btw, George played rhythm guitar on that recording, too.

Evaluation – Keeper


A strange, disturbing, rambling little John Lennon tune.  I certainly wouldn't release this as a single, but whether you like it or not, it drips genius.  And sometimes, genius is almost intolerable.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not



It is appropriate that these two songs, Happiness and Martha, should be placed consecutively on this album.  The former is John indulging his muse with great result but for no good reason.  Same for Paul with this song.  They were definitely headed in different directions at this time, but using the same road map.

Once again, Paul’s penchant for vaudeville comes through.  And like everything that Paul McCartney does, he worked on it really, really hard, crafting it carefully and buffing it to a high gloss.  Or, rather, making George Martin do it.

The difference is that this is a very worthy piece of music, regardless of where its inspiration came from.  You can draw a straight line from the little love songs he wrote in ’63 and ’64 to this.  The first few lines say “Tripe,” but then the song begins to blossom.  It’s really rather good.

Evaluation – Keeper


One thing with John Lennon, you don’t have to wonder what he’s driving at.  Damn, I’m tired.  I’m so-o-o tired . . . wait, not so tired I can’t grab my guitar and a piece of paper, and immortalize being bushed for posterity.  Then, the next time Bloody Damned George Martin is hounding me to do Just One More Take, I’ll sing him this.  That’ll fix ‘im!

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not


One of the most revered songs that Paul McCartney ever wrote, and for good reason.  He spits these things out like the lowly oyster spits out pearls.

Evaluation – Keeper


Do I need to bring up that Charles Manson used this song as an excuse to murder a bunch of people?  Nah, I won’t mention it.

This song puts me in an odd position.  I really like George, wish that he’d gotten more songs on the Beatles’ albums, and by the end of the group a case could be argued that he was actually the best of the three songwriters.  I also, in very general terms, agree with the theme of this song.  Rich people do tend to behave like a-holes.

Unfortunately, it’s not one of his best efforts.  My guess would be, he was just in a pissy mood and decided to get up on his Hare Hare soapbox and give a bunch of arrogant rich people what for.  Not a bad thing to do, in and of itself.  Just not a great piece of art.  Taxman from Revolver was much better.

Evaluation – Throw it


You really need to hear the early version from Anthology to appreciate this to the fullest.  A bit of stoned rambling from Mr. McCartney.  It would be easy to laugh off and dismiss . . . but it’s so damned catchy!  I've been playing it live for 40 years, and people love it.

Evaluation – Keeper


This recording is a crime.  Not because of the quality of the song, but the way it was treated.  Yeah, Ringo wasn't a songwriter, but he spent an awful lot of time with three of the best of his era.  So he tried his hand at it.  And ya know what . . . it ain't bad!  Nice simple little song, all the boxes checked, no major flaws . . . not bad at all, Ring.

And then they do THIS.  Gaaakk!  Hey, dudes, it’s the one, single, solitary piece of songcraft the boy ever contributed.  The least they could have done is give it a fair shot.  Just play it straight, two guitars, bass, and his drums.

I always liked the way the rest of the band treated Ringo.  He was the worker bee, the guy who always came up with a good drum part, the guy who always followed along no matter what and gave his best.  Listen to the latter half of Anthology, and the one constant is Ringo, nailing it, every stinkin’ time.

In return they would always let him sing a song.  John and Paul would even sit down together and write him one, usually the only time they ever actually collaborated on anything.  Yellow Submarine.  A Little Help From My Friends.  Octopus’s’ Garden.  And now, our friend, the guy who holds it all together, ladies and gents give it up for . . . Ringo Starr!!

And then HE writes something, and it’s even good enough to include, and you do this.  Might as well have rolled a calliope down a staircase.  Shame, shame, shame.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not – if Keeper, purely out of spite.


Paul’s B-side for Wild Honey Pie.

Evaluation – Throw it!!


Another little throw-away gem from Paul.  I’d like to hate it because it’s so sweet and cute . . . but it’s so sweet and cute!

Evaluation – Keeper


This John Lennon tune defines the term “achingly beautiful.”  It is, quite possibly, the best song on the record.  This, or While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  It’s the song Blackbird and I Will wish they could be.  Paul never even came close until My Love, and then barely, and never again.  And it’s not even Lennon’s best work.

Evaluation – Keeper



This should be one of the ones to throw away, but it’s so damned good!  Especially Ringo’s little solo, and the kicker back in.  Yeah, we’re goin’ to a party, party . . .

It may actually have been a collaboration, although I detect a lot of McCartney DNA.  But there’s some Lennon as well.  I've heard it speculated that there’s a Beatles song for absolutely every occasion.  It just might be so.

Evaluation – Keeper


This should be yet another for the dustbin.  There was a blues revival in the UK about this time.  John Mayall, Alexis Korner, Clapton, the Yardbirds, everywhere you looked some Brit was copping some blues record that an English merchant sailor brought back from the Colonies.

The Beatles grew up on that stuff, Liverpool being a port and all, and when it started getting really popular I guess John couldn't resist.  The trouble is, to real blues people, there was some of this British blues that frankly sounded like a bad parody.  And when this kicks off, it seems to fit into that category.

It’s one thing to pay homage to a whole musical style, something else entirely to seem to be making fun of it.  The opening bars of Yer Blues really, really sounds like some white kid goofing on the whole thing, with no understanding whatsoever of where it comes from.  It certainly doesn't ring of the respect that people like Eric Clapton, John Mayall, or even Keith Richards gave it.

But the deeper into the song you get, the more apparent John Lennon’s passion is.  Not so much for the style he’s chosen, but for the subject.  Once again, you never have to guess at what he’s thinking.  When he says; “Lonely, wanna die,” you believe him.  And that, brothers and sisters, is the blues.

The Abbey Road album had two of these types of songs, one by Paul called Oh, Darling that comes off as even more of a parody than the first verse of this; and another John composition, I Want You, that’s another passion-and-angst song, but for my money not quite as good as this one.  You want to hear the Beatles try and do the blues?  This is it.

Evaluation – Keeper


Another perfect little jewel from Paul.  Not the depth of Julia, but certainly the skill, and flawless execution.  The Beatles started out as a hot little R&B band, but then Paul wrote Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby.  By the time they followed the Maharishi to India, they had become comfortable with the acoustic guitar.  Many of this album’s acoustic songs were written there.

Evaluation – Keeper


This should be John’s version of Wild Honey Pie, an easy call to make.  But it’s not, dammit.  You got to give it to him, when he’s on, he can’t fall off.

Let’s face it, if he wasn't John Lennon, there’s a lot of songs nobody would have ever heard.  Things like Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite, and Tomorrow Never Knows were fine buried deep within an album full of number-one singles.  They could be ignored until one got to really know an album, and then they would creep into your consciousness.  This is one of those songs.

Evaluation – Keeper


This was where John chose to spit his venom regarding his disappointment with the Maharishi.  The Hindu holy man was caught making sexual advances toward actress Mia Farrow, who had made the pilgrimage along with the band.  At that point everything the man had said became suspect.  The incident should serve as a warning to anyone professing adherence to a moral standard; physician, heal thyself.

John’s sarcastic wit is at its sharpest here.  Unfortunately, his feel for the craft of songwriting is not.  The music is clever, but disjointed, and I’m afraid it fails as a song.

Evaluation – Throw it


This was the other song used as a teaching tool by His Holiness Charles Manson.  It’s really an homage to a popular carnival ride.  It’s also Paul’s attempt at capturing the burgeoning style known as heavy metal.  Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and the like were just beginning to make an impression.  It’s not really that bad a song, but it’s not really that good either.  U2 did a much better version, without even practicing it.  Find that on Rattle & Hum.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not


George Harrison actually did two solo albums while still with the Beatles, Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound, both quite experimental.  After the breakup of the band he did his first proper solo album, a three-record behemoth called All Things Must Pass.  Many of those songs were written while with the Beatles, some dating back to 1966.  Those songs had all been rejected by Lennon and McCartney.

Many people, including myself, think All Things Must Pass is the best album by any of the former Beatles.  This song sounds a lot like much of that album.  And frankly, it probably would have sounded better if he’d saved it for later, produced by Phil Spector and featuring the Mad Dogs And Englishmen band.  It’s a darned good song, and the Beatles did a pretty good job on it all the same.

Evaluation – Keeper



Legend has it that this song was born of a luncheon meeting between John Lennon and Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippies and a leader of the American revolutionary movement of the ‘60’s.  He was one of the Chicago 7.  Anyway, he was sharing his ideas on the socialist revolution that he, Abby Hoffman, and others were leading.  Then a young waiter came to his attention and the great revolutionary starting hassling him.  Lennon protested, saying that if the revolution was real, then it was for the benefit of people such as the young waiter.

What this song says is that Lennon agreed with the basic premise of the movement, but didn't appreciate Rubin’s hypocrisy any more than he did the Maharishi’s.  John objected to the way the rich and powerful ran the world, but saw that the revolution might just replace one set of arrogant despots with another.  Power to the people, right on.

John wanted to release this song as a single, but the others thought it was too slow.  So a faster version was recorded, one that never appeared on a proper Beatles album but that Capitol eventually put out on its Hey Jude/The Beatles Again album.  They also did a video for release to the Ed Sullivan show.  After they gave up playing live, Sullivan became their favorite outlet for these videos.

I have to say, I do like the faster version better, but this one is worth including.

Evaluation – Keeper


Paul McCartney’s jones for ‘30’s dance hall music found no greater expression than right here, with the possible exception of Your Mother Should Know from Magical Mystery Tour.  Hey, I’m as sentimental as the next guy, but c’mon already!

Evaluation – Throw it


Another Harrison tune.  He had learned his craft well, but that didn't always translate to a good song.  This is an example.  We’re dealing totally in the realm of my opinion here, but George, bless his heart, had a number of songs that were well done, good melody, proper chord structure, but . . . well, they just didn't work.

Old Brown Shoe from Let It Be is a good example.  It seemed like, for every If I Needed Someone there would then be a Think For Yourself.  To me, this falls into the latter category.  Play it back to back with While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and you’ll see what I mean.

Evaluation – Throw it


A rather strange little Lennon tune that seems to have no beginning or end.  What we are left with is a pleasant little romp of a song that’s really a lot deeper than it initially seems.  It’s one of those songs you almost don’t notice, but keep coming back to later.  Still, if trimming this album down to a single LP becomes too difficult, this is one that wouldn't be too badly missed.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not


Musique Concrete is a genre that uses snippets of recorded sound, speech, and whatever to create its compositions.  Lennon had liked avant-garde art long before meeting Yoko Ono.  This piece was his way of introducing a wider audience to the style.

It’s difficult to know how to approach this, and most other of its ilk.  It doesn't use melody, harmony or rhythm the way “normal” music does.  You can just let it play in the background and allow it to invoke an emotional response, or you can listen carefully and attempt to analyze it and try to discern any meaning.

The latter approach makes it an interesting listen, although I've been doing it for 45 years and am no closer to figuring out what the hell he was trying to say.  With the former approach, it’s just unpleasant.  Still, it’s instructional.

There’s also the place it holds in the Paul-is-deal lore.  As the story goes, Paul McCartney allegedly died in a car accident in 1966.  The Beatles and their management, fearing the derailing of one of the greatest gravy trains ever, replaced him with a lookalike.  I’ll spare you the rest, which probably is laid out in a wikipedia article anyway.

But Revolution 9, especially if played backwards, supposedly contains many clues.  It escapes me why they would do such an elaborate cover-up, and then sprinkle all their albums with clues regarding the deception, but there are still people who actually believe it.  Somewhere I've a cassette with a recording of the piece played backward.  The clues as described in various sources can be identified, but for the most part it sounds a lot like it does when played forwards.

It’s important to note that all their albums before this one were done with a simple 4-track reel-to-reel deck at Abbey Road studios in London.  Sgt. Pepper was recorded on two machines that were then synced by hand, by George Martin, for the mastering process.  When the boys showed up to begin these sessions, they discovered a spanking new 8-track machine that hadn't even been taken out of the box.  The insisted it be set up, and it was used for everything else they ever did at Abbey Road.  That deck made Revolution 9 possible.  Thank goodness it wasn't all they did with it.

Evaluation – Throw it


A pretty little lullaby with way-too-lush orchestration by Sir George Martin and sung by Ringo.  If we’re trimming, it can go with no tears.

Evaluation – Throw it

And so we are left with the following keepers:

Back In The USSR
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Martha My Dear
Rocky Raccoon
I Will
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except for Me And My Monkey
Long Long Long
Revolution 1

Hmm . . . that’s 15 songs.  But there’s 30 to start with.  George Harrison went on record as being one of the ones lobbying to make it a double album, because they had so large a backlog of songs.  It’s hard to believe they left so many of his songs off and chose to include things like Why Don’t We Do It In The Road.  Ah, well.

It’s tempting to simply trim it down to what would fit on a single CD.  This is impossible with the entire original White Album, because there’s 93 minutes of music.  If you wanted to go that route, you could probably include all the Maybes:

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Happiness is a Warm Gun
I’m So Tired
Don’t Pass Me by
Helter Skelter
Cry Baby Cry

That would allow you to pull off the real drek, and I suppose you could even keep sentimental favorites like Bungalow Bill or Savoy Truffle.

But it should be remembered that in 1968 the album that George Martin was lobbying for would have had to fit on a vinyl record.  That means an absolute maximum of around 50 minutes, as opposed to the 80 of a single CD.

This raises a controversy that followed the band’s early career; the difference between the UK and US versions.  Up to and including Revolver, the UK and US versions of each album was different.  Invariably, the US album had fewer songs.  The songs left off were later put together as albums that didn't exist in the UK.  This is where the US got records like Something New, Beatles ’65, Yesterday . . . and Today, and others.

One reason was pure greed.  Everything with the name Beatles on it sold in huge numbers.  At one point, the Beatles occupied the top three spots on the album charts and the top five places on the singles charts.  So Capitol records would take the Parlophone album of 12-14 songs, pull off 2-4, re-order what was left, and presto.  Do that a couple of times, and the leftovers got released as yet another album.

But there were other reasons as well, and pretty valid ones considering.  One was that an album with fewer songs on it could be mixed to have more bass response.  Bass notes take up more space, because the grooves had to be wider.  This meant, fewer grooves would fit on a vinyl record.  And so, the US releases tended to sound just a little better than the UK ones.

Plus, Capitol never just chopped off the last couple songs on each side.  They were carefully chosen, and then the remainder were put in a different order.  In my opinion, the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver were just better albums than the UK versions.  And for those who absolutely had to have everything, the leftovers eventually got put out there anyway.

At any rate, the album that George Martin imagined would have fit on one vinyl disc, preferably coming in around 40 minutes or less, for release in both markets.  Still, the fifteen songs I've picked would come out to about 46 minutes, which is doable.  If you wanted to cut a few in order to improve the bass response, I’d recommend Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey, and Long Long Long.  And maybe Martha My Dear.  But you could just as easily leave all three.

Ringo’s idea was to release the whole thing, but as two separate albums; The White Album, and The Whiter Album, as he put it.  The smart play, of course, would be to mix Keepers with Tossers.  But if you make the first one with the list I've provided, that makes the second one;

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Happiness Is A Warm Gun
I’m So Tired
Don’t Pass Me By
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road
Sexy Sadie
Helter Skelter
Honey Pie
Savoy Truffle
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution 9
Good Night

Now, think about it; on what planet would that be considered a proper Beatles record?  How does that lineup stack up against Revolver?  Or Abbey Road?  Or Rubber Soul?  Granted, in this setting, it sure makes Helter Skelter and Ob-La-Di look pretty good, but is this what we expect a Beatles album to be like?

What I’m saying, and what George Martin was trying to say, is that there was a lot of stuff on the White Album that isn't up to the Beatles’ usual standard.  This is all stuff that belonged maybe on Anthology, or Past Masters Volume 3.  These are the outtakes.

For that matter, look at the list compiled for the first one.  The keepers.  Now imagine going through Abbey Road, or Let It Be, or Magical Mystery Tour, or even Meet The Beatles.  Which songs off those acknowledged classics would you replace with anything on my keeper’s list?

Which finally brings me back to my original argument; that this could well be the Beatles’ WORST album.  In all their history, from their first recording session in 1962 up to the end of the sessions for Abbey Road, the White Album is the worst collection of songs they ever put together.  Even compared to their earliest stuff, which was a gaggle of their singles, from two really young guys still learning how to write songs, interspersed with covers and other filler.

And yet, even if it IS their worst, it just goes to show how truly great the Beatles were.  There’s a reason that, more than 50 years after Love Me Do, they are still the biggest band ever.  Even their worst album is pretty damned good.  And 45 years after its release, I’m digging it out for yet another play through, not even skipping Why Don’t We Do It In The Road or Wild Honey Pie.

As Paul McCartney famously said for the Anthology TV specials; It’s good, it sold, it’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album.  Shut up.

So this is me, shutting up.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Last Hippie Muses

Titles for instrumentals I don't remember writing:

Furby's Last Friend

Lisa Marie's Deep Brown Crown Victoria (for which she traded an old Mercury Montego before finding out it was really a used police car)

Tickling the Nickels

Buried Beneath Somebody Else’s Barn

Jerry Orbach’s Car (We’d have called it Jerry Orbach’s Eyebrows, but we don’t know anything about his eyebrows.)

The Last Hippie Muses

". . . and that's when the Illuminati had him assassinated," the Last Hippie said solemnly, punctuating his statement with a long pull on the fat doobie in his hand.  "Stupid bastards . . ."

We sat nervously, not sure whether to believe a word the scraggly old freak was saying.  It didn't matter.  He kept right on saying it.

"The Secret Army was never really behind him anyway," he said, blowing out the lungful of smoke.  "Half of them thought he was crazy, and all of 'em were just there for the free donuts.  But the Navy . . ."  Another drag.  ". . . They were the real deal.  They believed."

The Last Hippie shifted in his chair and examined the glowing end of his joint.  "Of course, the Colonel was a hundred percent behind it.  He even paid for the training.  I think what it was, people called him the King for so long, they got to believing it."

He sighed, the smoke now thick in the air.  "Anyway, after the funeral, the Army just disappeared.  You find one of them rats now, they'll deny everything.  The Navy hung in there as long as they could, but with nobody making the loan payments the banks eventually took the pontoon boats.  It didn't matter.  Elvis never told 'em where he buried the ammo anyway."

He got up and strode slowly to the window.  Then he laughed.  "Jimmy Carter still has no idea how close the bullet was that he dodged."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Songwriting, part N to the 14th power

Well, shucks, haven't written anything here in the longest damn time.  Dug out a cassette - you remember cassettes?  Got a car with a cassette player and it makes you take a trip through the past.  Good thing I don't have a car with an 8-track player!  Anyway, dug out a cassette I compiled many moons ago, called "Lesser Yes."

Now, those of you who know me at all know how much of a Yes freak I am.  So if your eyes are now glazing over and you're looking for something else to do, I'll understand.

ANYWAY!  I took a bunch of songs off the Yes albums that didn't sell so well, or weren't so highly regarded, but had what I consider to be some great tunes on them.  Big Generator, Close Your Eyes, ABWH, Tormato, the like.  Hearing these generally hidden classics reminded me of seeing Jon Anderson solo at the Flying Monkey a couple of years ago.  GREAT SHOW!!

The coolest thing was that I had no idea what to expect.  Was he going to have a band behind him, or what?  Was he going to play a bunch of odd instruments, or have taped backing tracks?  After all, of all the musicians who have gone in and out of the revolving door that is Yes over the years, he is the ONE that would NOT be considered a virtuoso musician.

So he came out with an acoustic guitar and held a symposium on how to write some of the most magnificent music of the twentieth century.  He also played a little keyboard and something I've heard called a "music stick," basically a dulcimer with a small, triangular body held like a guitar.  It served to remind that he co-wrote most of their music over the years.

We got to hear bare-bones versions of tunes like "Roundabout," "Starship Trooper," and "Owner of a Lonely Heart."  It made me come home and dig out my old Yes sheet music books and take another look at some of these songs.  "Yours is No Disgrace" has always been one of my favorite songs.  It was a little startling to realize that it's only two verses.  The live version on Yessongs lasts 15 minutes.

My problem is that I'm not actually able to play most of their music.  I just don't have the chops.  I've got sheet music for everything they did up until Drama in 1980.  Every now and again I'll break out the book and stumble through a couple of things.  I think once I figured out the opening lick to "Siberian Khatru."  I've since forgotten it again.

What we got to hear that night was the versions of the songs as Jon Anderson himself presented them to the rest of the band.  I know a lot of the "Classic" Yes material is credited to him and Steve Howe.  I would guess that Howe took the basic musical idea and bounced it back and forth with Jon, or just sat down and messed around with it himself, until it was closer to the form we find on the recordings.

An instructive example is their reworking of Paul Simon's "America."  You can see how the song changed from the Simon and Garfunkel version to Yes' version.  Sometimes songwriting is a process as original ideas get hammered into shape.

I know in my experience that a lot of songs come as sort of organically complete things, written as they wind up with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  After that, it's a matter of going back and cleaning up clunky lines, chord progressions that don't work, or whatever.

The process as described by a lot of Prog acts like Yes, Rush, Kansas, etc. is more like what I learned in classes at college.  Classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, etc. would take a melody and wring more out of it.  Rush starts out with a Neil Peart lyric, which he hands over to Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee.  Lee has to sing it, so he goes back with ideas and suggestions on changes.  He and Lifeson work off the rhythm of the lines and emotion of the imagery to build the music.

What it tells me as a songwriter is to not give up on a song just because it doesn't fall into place quickly.  I've got notebooks full of verses that never went anywhere, but that I like and keep coming back to.  Guess I'm going to go back to them again.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Weekend Update

And now with your weekend update, your humble correspondent, Rikki-poo.

Thanks, Megan - or . . . whatever.  >sigh<

Okay, just wanted to throw something out there without smearing it all over facepagetuber.  I know I haven't been putting much on here lately.  But I HAVE been busy, and creative.  The Rick Clogston Band (which has REALLY got to get another name) played at the Green House last weekend, and we rocked!  In my humble opinion, and strictly because of the incredible people I'm playing with, and probably in spite of the trite songs I wrote for them.  It felt so good to hear my own music.  We're looking at recording something, somewhere, this summer.  Hope hope hope.

The other big project on right now is a novel.  I've got 22 chapters written, and it's probably a little more than half way through.  It's been running out of me like a great river.  I've shared the early parts with half a dozen people, and none of them have gotten back to me yet.  If you're interested in reading part of it, let me know.

And that's about it for now.  Be good and keep rockin'.


Thursday, March 07, 2013

Thoughts on Alvin Lee

The other day I was at work and felt like listening to some music.  So I got out some CD’s that I had with me and selected one I hadn't listened to in quite some time; “A Space In Time” by Ten Years After.  The next thing I did was check my email open a news feed we regularly get, and there was a small headline that said “Legendary Woodstock Guitarist Dies.”  You can imagine the chill that ran down my spine when I opened the link and found out who it was.

Everybody who’s ever heard of Alvin Lee and Ten Years After will now pony up and give their thoughts on him and his music. And, I guess I’m going to do it, too.  Probably won’t be much different for me, just that when I was starting to play he was one of the players I most admired.  And, really, I still hear a lot of his style in my own playing.  Nowhere near as good, of course.

All the things I’m reading about him refer to TYA’s performance at Woodstock.  That was a heck of a show.  There were big names whose performances there didn’t really go well, and some didn’t even make the movie.  Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead.  Some big names got to add Woodstock to an already impressive resume, like Jimi Hendrix and The Who.

There were other acts whose career got kick started by being on the bill, in most cases during the day when the “lesser” acts – at least, lesser known – took the stage.  Santana and Richie Havens both got their first national attention there, along with Sly and the Family Stone.  And of course, Ten Years After’s “I’m Going Home” was an often-referred-to highlight.

In truth, they already had a couple albums out by the time they played the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in August of 1969.  They sold reasonably well in the UK, but barely made a ripple here.  That changed, of course.  The timing was good as well, as their first few albums weren't nearly as good as the ones that were to come.  Oh, the first few, Watt and Stonedhenge and Shhhhhh were all right, and they’re enjoyable to listen to even now.  But the production quality was haphazard and the performances were spotty.  Still, as icons of the British Blues movement they hold up well against contemporary albums from Fleetwood Mac and Savoy Brown.

With the Cricklewood Green album, things began to change.  Everything from the songwriting to the sound of the records took a big step forward.  The next album, A Space In Time, contained their biggest single, “I’d Love to Change the World.”  That album and the two that followed, Rock and Roll Music To the World and Positive Vibrations, were arguably just as good.  Captured Live was also very good.

At this point Alvin Lee apparently got the urge to move on.  Before Positive Vibrations he did a live double album with a whole different band backing him up, going out as Alvin Lee & Co.  It sold fairly well, but I never really liked it as much as any of the TYA stuff.  He continued making solo albums with different musicians that didn't do really well or sound nearly as good.

It always seemed funny that he would feel it necessary to go solo in the first place.  He was the sole songwriter for Ten Years After, did all the singing, and played all the leads.  If ever a band could be considered no more than backing musicians, it was TYA.  And yet, somehow, he never sounded as good with anybody else.

The ultimate confirmation came in 1989 when he got back together with TYA and did a reunion album called “About Time.”  It was as if they never left.  It’s a really good record, and if you ever get the chance to hear it, you’ll understand.  I guess since then he’s been in and out of the band and has kept recording and touring.

To be honest, I’d kind of lost touch with Alvin Lee for a long time.  I have all the TYA stuff and a few of his solo albums.  Every now and then I’ll get the urge and break one out, the way I did the other day at work.  He was a big hero of mine back in the day.  I always felt kind of bad that he faded away the way he did.

I often wonder about people like him.  He was so big, and it looked like Ten Years After was secure in its place in rock history.  Look at the other acts that made an impression at Woodstock.  The Who and Santana are still around, as are Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (together and apart).  Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are gone, but their music lives on and is as popular and respected as ever.

Then there’s acts like Ten Years After that flashed, burned for a while, and then petered out.  I don’t really know a lot about Alvin Lee’s life, so I don’t know if he was bitter about that.  You hear every now and then about “rock stars” that have a big hit, and then the ride ends and most of the band goes back to something like a regular life.  They go back to school, or start a business, or just get a job and that rock star period is a footnote of their lives.

And there’s always one guy in the band who thinks he can make lightning strike one more time.  He keeps playing, keeps making demos, keeps showing up on VH1 Classic or Entertainment Tonight as “Joe Blow, formerly of That Group.”  Is that what Alvin Lee’s life was like since the mid 1970’s?  Was he a pathetic Once-Was who was eternally trying to recapture the glory days?  Hey, didn't you used to be Alvin Lee?

I've seen pieces in the last couple of days that suggest that he actually stepped away from the spotlight on purpose, and that his leaving TYA was the means of doing it.  He liked playing music, and was good enough and fortunate enough that he got to do it for the rest of his life.  He kept playing live, kept making albums, and kept being respected for his considerable talent and accomplishments.  He just didn't need the whole star trip.

I hope that’s the way it was.  It seems consistent with the man who wrote:

Everywhere is
Freaks and hairies
Dykes and Fairies
Tell me where there’s sanity
- "I’d Love to Change the World", from A Space In Time

In the early ‘70’s he did an album with Mylon Lefevre called “On the Road To Freedom.”  Mylon is a well-known star in the Contemporary Christian Music scene who, before he “got religion” used to open for people like Clapton, etc. etc. etc.  I got to hear Mylon speak at the Creation festival back in the ‘80’s, and somebody asked him about whether or not he ever heard from any of the rock star buddies from his early days.

He reported that his old friend, Alvin Lee had accepted Jesus and become a born-again Christian.  That would be consistent with the man who wrote this:

I can’t relate to any power structure
Where ego is the driving energy
I let mine go a long, long time ago, now
When I decided that I would be free.
- "Religion", from Positive Vibrations

Rest in peace, Captain Speedfingers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013


It’s kind of difficult to break the Santana band’s catalog down into particular eras.  Musically, the elements present on their first album in 1969 are intact on their latest release; lots of Latin percussion, and Carlos’ guitar.  Their musical journey has been evolutionary, with those two factors as the constants of their universe.

The clearest break in their history was the departure of Greg Rolie and Neal Schon after their fourth album, Caravanserai.  That represented probably the most radical change in the band’s sound, and many would say that they’ve never been as good.  Their first three albums especially had a fire and a raw energy that few if any of their later releases possessed.

As a package, these first three albums are an interesting study, especially taken in light of the ’97 release of their ’68 live set at the Fillmore, along with their famous performance at the Woodstock festival.  On the Fillmore album they are young and raw, still finding their way.  By Woodstock, only about a year later, they were much tighter and the songs much more fleshed out.  The first album hadn’t even been released yet, but the incendiary footage of “Soul Sacrifice” put “Santana I” high on the chart.

Still, this first album, as hot as it was, only showed their potential.  The second, Abraxas, was better, and the third album arguably better still.  Among Santana fans, the debate will surely rage until the Second Coming whether Abraxas or III was the better album.  Some say Abraxas was too raw, others that III was too slick and too mellow.  I’m still deciding, so please put them both back in the CD player, thank you.

Now, it is widely known that the band were using a lot of, ahem, recreational chemical enhancement during this period.  Carlos has admitted in print that he was very, very high during the Woodstock set and alleges to not remember a lot of the details.  He has been quite unapologetic about the use especially of psychedelics, claiming that they “opened up” a lot of possibilities creatively.

Somewhere between III and Caravanserai, he seemed to suddenly get a deep interest in a more spiritual way of life.  He gave up drugs, and according to reports was introduced by fellow guitarist John McLaughlin to the Indian spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy.  It would appear that this created a lot of tension in the band, and after Caravanserai Rolie and Schon left to form Journey.

I have to say, I feel a lot of sympathy for Greg Rolie.  He was one of the driving forces behind the early Santana sound, writing many of the songs and acting as keyboardist and lead vocalist.  He and Schon left just as the band was reaching the pinnacle of success, the beginning of a period of almost two decades when everything the band released went at least gold.

Early Journey, on the other hand, languished at the bottom of the charts through their first three albums.  People expecting more of the Santana Latin sound were sorely disappointed to hear what now sounds like second-rate jazz-rock.  It took the addition of lead singer Steve Perry to finally break through.  Unfortunately, their success took the band in a direction where Rolie did not want to go, and was not needed.  Again, he left a band just as they were getting huge.  He’s had two bites of the apple, and so far has never gotten another.  But stay tuned, because he will reappear in this story.

Anyway, Carlos started hanging with Sri Chinmoy and accepted a new spiritual name, Devadip, much as John McLaughlin added Mahavishnu.  The two proceeded to record an album together, called Love, Devotion, Surrender.  On the cover they are both wearing all white and short hair.  It was quite an image for the Santana fans used to the wild, long-haired young man in the black leather vest from Woodstock.

For guitar junkies, it was a feast.  It’s largely just two shred-meisters jamming, but MAN!  What jamming!  There’s, again, a lot of debate about this album.  Fans of each guitarist tend to claim their man as “the winner,” as if it were some kind of high-end head-cutting contest.  And, in some ways, that’s exactly what it was.  Rock vs. jazz, America vs. England, white vs. Hispanic, trained vs. untrained.  Carlos famously does not know how to read music, McLaughlin came from stints with jazz heavies like Miles Davis.

It was surprisingly democratic, however.  Both bands contributed, and both soloists got plenty of showcase time.  No one style, group, or soloist particularly dominated the sessions.  Which is exactly what I think they were striving for; a spiritual coming together of two massive talents, the likes of which is rarely seen.

It is interesting forty years on to go back and give it a listen.  Despite their unity at that time under Chinmoy’s big umbrella, their individual styles come shining through.  In a way, it was McLaughlin’s chance to school the street-educated rocker how to play “proper” music.  But while Mahavishnu’s playing is precise and expertly constructed, Carlos just burns with joy.  The jazz man is making all the changes and pushing the rhythm section while the rocker belches flame all over it.  And it’s a clear, shining flame that leaves no smoke and consumes all.  You could argue that Mahavishnu played better, but Devadip clearly had more fun.

And so begins the “post-Rolie” period, which pretty much continues through hills and valleys and around corners in various directions to this day.  The band’s next album, Welcome, continued the new Chinmoy theme with an all-white cover.  Signifying spiritual purity, y’know.  It was so pure, it was downright somnambulistic.  Actually, the music is damned good and pretty hot in places, but there are absolutely no burrs or dirt on it whatsoever.  Tom Coster, the new keyboardist, proves to be twice as good and half as interesting as his predecessor.  And at the end of the sessions, drummer Mike Shrieve, who made a name for himself at Woodstock with one of the greatest drum solos ever, left the band.

By now the roster was on revolving door mode anyway.  Upwards of thirty or more musicians and singers have claimed membership in the band over the years.  And every one of them has been top grade.

Essential albums:

The first three, for sure.  These are what the legend is built upon.  Welcome is good, Borboletta is better and rocks more.  Amigos is quite good, getting into more of a funk mode.  Yeah, it’s a little too cheery and light in places, but it cooks.  One of Carlos’ solo albums, 1979’s Oneness – Silver Dreams, Golden Realities, has some interesting stuff on it.

From the later ‘70’s, Moonflower from 1977 is a must-have.  It’s a double album with studio and live tracks mixed together.  Inner Secrets (1978) and Marathon (1979) are also worth a listen.  There’s a live album from 1975 called Lotus that is well worth tracking down.  Originally released only in Japan as a three-record set, I found it at a store specializing in imports.  It’s great, and a nice broad snapshot of the band in the Welcome era.  And it’s available now on 2 CD’s.

The ‘80’s started off well with ‘81’s Zebop, but after that things kind of tapered off.  They started using more synths and even synth drums in the studio, and the writing could, frankly, have been better.  The band started getting its groove back with 1990’s Spirits Dancing In The Flesh.  There was a long hiatus from the studio, but the live Sacred Fire is quite good.

And then came Supernatural.  Their biggest selling album, and surely one of the top 25 of all time.  It was a huge collaboration with a half dozen famous young guest stars, including Rob Thomas, Dave Matthews, Lauren Hill, and some old guy named Eric Clapton.  It sold over 15 million copies in the US alone and took every Grammy you could name.

And the album?  Well, it’s . . . pretty good . . . I guess . . .  Actually, the first song, Da le Yaleo, smokes!  Old school Santana at its best.  From there, it kind of slides downhill rather quickly.  Such is the nature of collaboration, I’m afraid.  Rob Thomas’ “Smooth” is the high point, and there’s some other tunes that work pretty well, some that don’t . . . on the whole it’s rather spotty.  But the good stuff was great, and the lesser stuff didn’t exactly suck.  I bought it, and I still play it.

The idea behind it, and the two albums that followed (Shaman and All That I Am) was to show how great Carlos is when he’s working with interesting people on interesting songs.  But the best example of this, the album that I think showcases his gift, the 2010 collection, Guitar Heaven.  Carlos and the band, with a smattering of guest singers, cooking as only they can cook on some rock classics.

Their version of Def Leppard’s “Photograph” is worth the price of admission, along with the AC-DC cover, “Back in Black.”  It was also an inspired choice to let Joe Cocker sing “Little Wing,” and this version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is, maybe, even better than Jeff Healey’s.  Truly inspired, front to back.  Every bar band should own a copy.

And if we’re going to talk about essential Santana albums, we should mention the one that Carlos is NOT on!  Remember, I said we’d get back to Greg Rolie?  Well, in 1997 he got together most of the original Santana band, including drummer Mike Shrieve, guitarist Neal Schon and most of the percussionists, and did an album called Abraxas Pool.  Like secretarial pool, but with people that were on Abraxas, get it?

For those who think Santana was never as good as on the first three albums, this one will justify their position.  It absolutely smokes, and with Schon on guitar you hardly miss Carlos.  It’s the album that Caravanserai never got to be.  Trouble is, it came out just before Supernatural, and promptly disappeared without a trace.  That’s a shame, because it’s twice as good.  Anyone into Santana should have it.

So Who Is This Guy, Anyway?

That’s a good question!  Carlos Santana is one of the few front men in rock history that was NOT a singer.  Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray, they all sang.  Carlos holds court from behind his Paul Reed Smith guitar, while the singers, from Greg Rolie through Leon Patillo, Greg Brown, Alex J. Ligertwood and others, come and go.

There’s a lingering impression that Carlos has always been a sideman in his own band.  Greg Rolie sang and wrote much of the material on the first set of albums.  Tom Coster came on board just as the band’s direction was changing, so it was assumed that he was leading the charge.  On the cover of Love, Devotion, Surrender, we see that McLaughlin has an arm around Carlos, as if he were the guide and teacher.  And then there’s the whole life-changing relationship with Sri Chinmoy.  It would be easy to think that Carlos was being led around by the nose.

But wait just a conga-thumping minute, there, bucko.  What’s the name of the band?  Not Rolie, or Coster, or Devadip.  It’s SANTANA!  In the beginning it was the Santana Blues Band.  There’s a good reason for that.  You scratch a little below the surface and it’s pretty easy to see who the he-bull is in that pasture.  Carlos and Rolie started disagreeing over the band’s direction, and it was Rolie who left.  Eventually he had a falling-out with Chinmoy, as McLaughlin had years earlier, and the band never did change its name to Devadip anyway.

As a band leader, Carlos most resembles Miles Davis.  The famous jazz trumpet player and composer surrounded himself with talented people, and then took advantage of all that talent to make HIS band better.  Whether it was John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter, Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock or John McLaughlin or Marcus Miller, no matter how well they wrote or played, no matter how much each in turn dominated the sound and direction of the music, there was never any question who was the boss.

It was Carlos who decided to mix rock with latin, move on to jazz, then funk, then experiment with electronica and then break out his rolodex and invite the younger generation to his party.  And it was HIS party.  Everybody’s interviews after the Supernatural sessions was about how honored they all were to be let into his world, to see what The Master would do with the raw materials they brought to his forge.  It’s Carlos’ world, everybody else just dances their funky booties off.

And frankly, I can think of worse places to be.

The way to catch Carlos is live.  It’s where the whole reputation was built.  I understand it was Bill Graham, their long-time manager and former owner of the Fillmore and Fillmore East, who convinced them to not randomly jam so much.  He felt that they should concentrate on songs.  You can hear the difference on the ’68 Fillmore album, mentioned above.  It comes from the days when they were more interested in showing off their chops than making cohesive music.  Good call, Bill.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing them in concert twice.  The first time was 1978 at the old Boston Garden, for the Inner Secrets tour.  Great show.  Just after the heavy Devadip period, but he was still hanging with Chinmoy.  He did a thing that night that apparently he didn’t normally do.  Whenever he was getting ready to really rip off a solo, he would quickly lick the fingertips of his left hand.  I know several people who’ve seen him live, and also quite a bit of footage of him, and nobody’s ever seen him do that.  Cool move, though.

The second time was at the 1982 or 1983 California State Fair, in Sacramento California.  Remember, the California State Fair lasts for about a month.  They have a big concert every night of the fair, plus lesser acts during the afternoon.  That year, Bill Graham Productions was booking the shows, so it was logical that Carlos and the gang would be there.

What was NOT logical was the situation they’d find themselves in; as the OPENING act for The Police.  Now, this was just as the Synchronicity album was topping the charts, so it’s understandable that they’d be the headliner.  But with a month of shows, nobody could figure out why Carlos was opening.  After all, Sacto is practically his back yard, and Bill Graham was his manager.  It was anomalous enough that there was speculation in the newspapers as to why it was.

The impression of coercion was not dispelled by the show itself, either.  Santana came out and did their scheduled 45 minute set, and just about burned the place down.  And when they were done . . . they were done!  No encore, no goodbye, nothing.  The place went nuts!  Out came the Police, who actually put on quite a good show, but nobody cared.  By the second song half the crowd had left, and most of the rest were screaming “Carlos!!”

Sting indeed!

So Carlos hit 65 last year.  If he comes to your town, go see him.  You’ll kick yourself if you don’t, especially if you like his music well enough to read this far.  Don’t miss the opportunity.  And if they finish with Toussaint L’Overture, don’t bother getting out your lighter.  He’ll burn brightly enough without it.