Highway 61 Revisited
by Bob Dylan

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1965 Album of the Year

Highway 61 Revisited by Bob DylanSome albums are borne of the ether. Some are born of the earth. A rare few refine both into a crystallized masterpiece. Out of Bob Dylan‘s entire discography, Highway 61 Revisited stands as the brightest example of his work. It takes concepts he had experimented with previously and solidifies them into liquid gold. The contradiction in words was intentional there because Highway 61 Revisited is nothing if not fluid. While honoring his past this album also points a big bright burning finger towards works that had yet to come like Blonde On Blonde, Desire and Blood On the Tracks. Highway 61 Revisited is Bob Dylan in a nutshell, a nutshell that is inside out and bleeding right into our collective brains.

The album began its climb to creation the day Bob Dylan was born in Minnesota near the actual U.S. Highway 61, which stretched from the Canadian border north of his hometown, south through Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and all the way to New Orleans. In his mind the highway connected a young Dylan to blues legends like Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley. The blues serve as the foundation for Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan’s own angst at the time of the album’s recording served as the structure. He had recently “gone electric” at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965 and come back from a disappointing tour of England. He was looking to do something different and he had an axe to grind with the people who wanted him to stay in his folk box. When he finally got some musicians together to record this sixth studio album it came together like it was being guided by divine hands.

Produced by Bob Johnston, it only took two brief sessions and 9 days for the album to be completed. Amazing aspects of it, like the organ riff on “Like a Rolling Stone”, were improvised on the spot. Al Kooper, the musician who improvised the riff, just happened to be visiting one day and managed to play his way right into rock and roll history. While Dylan’s lyrics on the album reflect his frustrations at the time, he puts a fantastic twist on them by throwing in elements of surrealism. He evokes dreams by filling his songs with characters from history and fiction. The resulting album is infinitely more complex than anything put together in 9 days has any right to be. Every listen allows the ear to hear something new and the mind to interpret the lyrics differently. Fifty years after its original release it still stands as a perfect example of musical complexity.


Highway 61 Revisted by Bob Dylan
Released: August 30, 1965 (Columbia)
Produced by: Bob Johnston & Tom Wilson
Recorded: Columbia Studio A, New York, June–August 1965
Side One Side Two
Like a Rolling Stone
Tombstone Blues
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
From a Buick 6
Ballad of a Thin Man
Queen Jane Approximately
Highway 61 Revisited
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
Desolation Row
Primary Musicians
Bob Dylan – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Harmonica
Mike Bloomfield – Guitars
Charlie McCoy – Guitars
Al Kooper – Organ
Harvey Brooks – Bass
Bobby Gregg – Drums

Each song on this album is an enigma that you could write thousands of words about and still be no closer to truly understanding or explaining it, so I’ll leave that to someone else. The album kicks off with Dylan’s first huge hit, “Like a Rolling Stone”, which reached #2 on the US charts. The song is partially autobiographical and probably one of the best opening tracks ever and serendipitously got its signature hook when Kooper, a 21-year protégé of producer Tom Wilson, snuck in on organ and made the best of his opportunity. “Tombstone Blues” speeds up an already electric start. Like the title song, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Desolation Row” we get Dylan’s use of famous names in his songs to create a parable that feels timeless and utterly surreal. The guitar on “Tombstone Blues” is one of the finest on any Dylan album. “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It takes a Train to Cry” is a more classical blues ballad and brings in the harmonica for full effect. It’s a rare song that doesn’t overdo the instrument and makes it feel like an organic part of the sauntering rhythm and the piano has an almost ragtime quality.

“From a Buick 6” is probably the weakest song on the album since the lyrics aren’t as wild as everything else but the music is still incredible throughout. This could be one of the strongest songs on an album that wasn’t so packed with great songs. “Ballad of a Thin Man” sports scathing lyrics poking fun at everyone that isn’t in on Dylan’s jokes. This album is Dylan exorcising all his anger and frustration at everyone that didn’t get him or wanted him to be their dancing monkey, “Ballad of a Thin Man” is the keystone of the album and those sentiments. “Queen Jane Approximately” is just as scathing as “Mr. Jones” but sounds a lot friendlier due to Dylan’s lighter vocal tone. It doesn’t sound quite as menacing but it’s still talking about someone who isn’t aware of how stupid they really are. The song is believed to refer to Dylan’s fellow folk singer and ex-girlfriend, Joan Baez, but only he knows if that is truth. It is totally applicable to say this song applies to any of the people involved in the folk movement that Dylan was trying to leave. It’s also one of the most underrated songs on the album.

Bob Dylan writing Highway 61 RevisitedDylan’s opening line of the title track, “Highway 61 Revisited”, connects the route to history by pairing it with the biblical story of Abraham, while starting with a wailing police siren. “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues” is a hangover song from the opening lines which discuss being lost in Juarez, Mexico. The song also discusses how the destructive nature of all those things we think we want so much that leave us changed for the worse. “Desolation Row” is the final track and a juggernaut. It’s an 11 minute epic that manages to keep your ear interested because you want to see what’s around the next bend of lyrics. It’s got a great southwestern acoustic guitar that sounds like Dylan is singing the song in a dimly lit tavern somewhere. If “Like A Rolling Stone” is a perfect opener this is the show stopping finale that bookends the greatest of all Dylan albums.

Throughout Highway 61 Revisited the lyrics seem to be totally relatable and completely mysterious at the same time. This is one of the album’s greatest strengths. The lyrics’ meaning can never be fully unraveled, which means they can always mean whatever you think they do. Each time Dylan talks about the album he gives a different explanation for the driving motivations behind the album, the songs and the verses, keeping the mystery of the album alive and open to whatever interpretation your mind desires. Great art is always open to interpretation and that’s one of the big keys to Highway 61 Revisited. Whereas much of Dylan’s previous work was locked in a particular time, this album is completely timeless. Most importantly of all though, the music is just plain great. It’s more complex than anything he had done previously and more rewarding to listen to as a result. It’s a great album but if you want to debate me on that point, just remember to send your emails from Desolation Row.

~

1965 Page

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of 1965 albums.

 

Hunky Dory by David Bowie

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Hunky Dory by David Bowie Classic Rock Review has launched a new feature called “What Did We Miss?” to revisit some albums that we overlooked the first time through our voyage into the classic rock years. We start with 1971, the very first year we covered when we launched in 2011, and a truly amazing year for music. And so it was that we overlooked a truly great release from 1971, David Bowie‘s fourth studio album, Hunky Dory. This was a landmark album for Bowie in many ways, as a transition between his folksy origins and his movement into what would become his signature sound for years to come. Thankfully some wrongs CAN be undone and in this is a big one.

Looking at this album with a larger lens, one can clearly see that this album is not only the opening of a new phase for Bowie but a loving goodbye to the sixties and those artists who inspired him. In fact, this album is filled with artistic, societal and pop culture references. Bowie refers to The Pretty Things, Bob Dylan, and Andy Warhol in the song titles and, in turn, a later band (The Kooks) and television show (Life On Mars) took their names from song titles on Hunky Dory. There are also historical references through the lyrics that mention Aleister Crowley, Winston Churchill, Heinrich Himmler, Juan Pujol, and the society Golden Dawn.

But the real magic on this album lies in the music and melodies. The first side of Hunky Dory may be as good a side of musical excellence that you’ll find anywhere and, throughout the album, none of the songs go exactly where your ear expects them to go, as they throw in subtle or sometimes blatant changes. Co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, the album is a departure from Bowie’s previous 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World, which had a more solid rock sound. This album prominently features Rick Wakeman on piano, who comes to the forefront of the arrangement of most songs.


Hunky Dory by David Bowie
Released: December 17, 1971 (RCA)
Produced by: Ken Scott & David Bowie
Recorded: Trident Studios, London, June–August 1971
Side One Side Two
Changes
Oh! You Pretty Things
Eight Line Poem
Life On Mars?
Kooks
Quicksand
Fill Your Heart
Andy Warhol
Song for Bob Dylan
Queen Bitch
The Bewlay Brothers
Primary Musicians
David Bowie – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Saxophone
Mick Ronson – Guitars, Mellotron, Vocals
Rick Wakeman – Piano
Trevor Bolder – Bass, Trumpet
Mick Woodmansey – Drums

The album opens with “Changes”, which makes excellent use of layering Bowie’s unique voice on top of an entertaining pop rock and bluesy jazz mix. The lyrics of “Changes” evoke a sense of the upheaval of the past decade as well as the present state of Bowie himself as he would jump through multiple persona over the next few years. This is the most played radio song from the album and developed into the quintessential Bowie song of the era. “Oh! You Pretty Things” is a much softer piano-driven song through first verses but breaks into a rousing chorus halfway through as other instruments join the piano as Bowie’s vocals get more impassioned. The lyrics speak of discontent with humanity and technology in the Cold War setting,

Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use…”

“Eight Line Poem” is a short track with Wakeman’s surreal piano topped by the bluesy guitar of Mick Ronson. The animated and emotional vocals recite Bowie’s “eight line poem” and feel like they’d fit perfectly in a small beat poet performance area. “Life On Mars?” is the real masterpiece of the album. Bowie’s emotional vocals lead Wakeman’s quietly beautiful piano into a full band, jazz-infused jam before Ronson’s guitar comes in with a quick riff leading back to the piano accompanied by the drums. Wild flute sounds add depth to the song. “It’s the Freakiest Show” and Life On Mars by David Bowie“Is there life on Mars?” are just a few of the poetic lines to which every person must add their own meaning, as this is the musical equivalent of the modernism movement in literature. The song has an orchestral sounding ending like some great show has just come to its climax, after which the piano gets the final say as it quietly fades out.

With the addition of bass player Trevor Bolder, all the members of the band that would become known as the “Spiders from Mars” were in place. On “Kooks”, this band shows their versatility as the pleasant traditional-sounding English pop song contains apt acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and melodically dances on the drum beats of Mick Woodmansey. It has a certain sort of grooviness to it as horns and violins enter into the mix. The words “A Trumpet you can blow” lead to the sound of a trumpet. The song was written for Bowie’s newborn son, Duncan Jones, with the “kooks” being Bowie and his wife Angie. “Quicksand” concludes the fantastic first side as a steady, dark folk, featuring double-tracked acoustic guitars and a string arrangement by Ronson. This song’s sad but beautiful melodies are accented by an ever-increasing intensity in the backing music and lyrics referring to occult magicians like “I’m closer to the dawn immersed in Crowley’s Uniform”. The theatrical inspirations come through on this song and if this album was a character’s journey, this would be the moment when the character hits rock bottom.

David Bowie band 1971

The album’s only cover song is the upbeat and philosophical jazz dance of “Fill Your Heart”. This old-time, sing-songy tune with piano, saxophone, driving bass, and especially pitched vocals by Bowie. There is a bit of a psychedelic bridge into the next track, “Andy Warhol”, using spacey synths and a vocal collage. When the song fully kicks in, it has a Spanish acoustic drive throughout with some creative percussive sounds by Woodmansey.

“A Song for Bob Dylan” is interesting because it refers to Dylan as a separate mythical character apart from Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan’s actual name). It’s an interesting reflection of him as his legend certainly grew beyond his control in the sixties leading to his famous slaughter of his folk only persona at the Newport Folk Festival. It would be hard to believe that Dylan’s own experimentation with changing persona didn’t directly influence Bowie’s future work. As Bowie states in the song,

Now, hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you about a strange young man named Dylan, with a voice like sand and glue
Some words of truthful vengeance that can pin us to the floor…”

The album winds down with a couple of more unexpected twists. “Queen Bitch” is highly influenced by the Velvet Underground, but with their overall effect brought to the next level. This song sounds like it could have been fresh and new six or seven years later and may well be a precursor to “Rebel Rebel” on 1974’s Diamond Dogs, as both seem like anthems of strong women you’d dub punks in the best way. While this song features overt textures of acoustic and electric guitar, the song is real showcase for Bolder on bass. “The Bewlay Brothers” sounds like a quiet acoustic post party song when it starts but it gets louder as it goes. You can almost picture Bowie walking down a quiet street after a wild night before singing it. The multiple voices that suddenly break in are oddly disconcerting near the end of the song, as this masterpiece of an album concludes as oddly as possible.

Hunky Dory was not an immediate hit upon its release but it reach the Top 5 following the commercial breakthrough of Ziggy Stardust in 1972. “Life on Mars?” was released as a single the year after that, reaching #3 in the UK. Wakeman was not around to directly enjoy this success, as he had moved on to join the band Yes and make an immediate impact on their album Fragile. In short, Hunky Dory is a sublime listen and it feels like the true start of David Bowie’s super-stardom. It is a must listen for music fans of all kind.

~

1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s “What Did We Miss?” series, looking at 1971 albums.

 

About Face by David Gilmour

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About Face by David GilmourThere are some musical creations that are astoundingly forgotten. David Gilmour’s 1984 solo album, About Face, is one of these. This is sad considering it just might be one of the better albums produced in the 1980s. Of course, it is impossible to discuss this album without touching on the era in which it was put together, as About Face was forged in the fire of Pink Floyd’s darkest hour. The band’s internal tensions had reached all-time highs and Gilmour was feuding internally with Roger Waters, after the latter accused the former of not contributing enough to the band. This was sadly ironic for Gilmour because he had complied (and even agreed) with Waters when he decided to kick Richard Wright out of Pink Floyd prior to the release of The Wall in 1979, for basically the same reason. So, in a true bout of rock and roll rebellion, Gilmour went off and created a solo album which served to prove Waters wrong by establishing that he could create music on his own and channel his anger about the situation at the same time. The result is nothing short of superb.

Co-produced by Bob Ezrin, this is the second solo record by Gilmour following his self-titled 1978 debut. The album is filled with great and diverse music and, in contrast to the recent Waters-dominated Pink Floyd era, it is not concerned with creating giant lyrical operas, just a solid collection of songs. Change is consistent throughout as each song goes in unique directions that are unexpected and pleasing to the ear. Gilmour explores sounds that he probably could not explore within the confines of Pink Floyd. The lyrics are soaked with subtle references to the Waters’ feud and many of the songs reflect the conflict.

Gilmour was backed by a solid core of musicians and also invited some famous contemporaries to work on the album with him, adding depth to his artistic work. A bit uneven sequentially, the earlier songs on the album are slightly superior to the closing tracks, but none of the tracks are by any means boring or without merit. With that in mind, let’s dive into the individual songs.


About Face by David Gilmour
Released: March 5, 1984 (Harvest)
Produced by: Bob Ezrin & David Gilmour
Recorded: Pathé Marconi Studio, Boulogne-Billancourt, France, 1983
Side One Side Two
Until We Sleep
Murder
Love On the Air
Blue Light
Out of the Blue
All Lovers Are Deranged
You Know I’m Right
Cruise
Let’s Get Metaphysical
Near the End
Primary Musicians
David Gilmour – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass  |  Ian Kewley – Piano, Organ
Pino Palladino – Bass  |  Jeff Porcaro – Drums, Percussion

The album opens with “Until We Sleep”, a great jam with some really fantastic guitar. The lyrics are a straightforward call to action, essentially saying to live your life to the fullest before you sleep, which is taken as meaning both literal sleep and metaphorical death. “Murder” may be the best overall song on the album. It starts off as a very somber folk song with some excellent fret-less bass by Pino Palladino. Then it crashes into a crescendo as other instruments join the fray. About three quarters of the way through the song it takes an abrupt change as the guitar becomes more pronounced and reverberates through the song. The lyrics describe Gilmour’s anger over the murder of John Lennon.

Both Pete Townsend (lyrics) and Steve Winwood (organ) worked on the third song, “Love On the Air”. Its opening is reminiscent of Townsend’s own solo work, while most of the song sounds a bit more like a Townsend song viewed through a Gilmour prism as a great combination of the two artists’ work. After this comes “Blue Light” with a super jazzy intro. The use of horns in the song adds an unexpected and welcome element to the song that elevates it. This song is a great example of why someone like Gilmour does a solo album since I can’t imagine this song being done by Pink Floyd. Winwood also gets a great moment to shine while playing a smooth organ solo during this song.

 
Following “Blue Light” is another song with blue in the title, “Out of the Blue”, a slow, reflective piano-driven melody, led by keyboardist Ian Kewley. In the middle section of the song it picks up a bit but still relies on Gilmour’s vocals and the piano. “All Lovers Are Deranged” is the second Townsend-written song on the album. It is a wild counterpoint to “Love On the Air”, in title as well as music, as this song itself sounds a lot more like Gilmour’s own as he jams on the guitar throughout. “You Know I’m Right” is slower than other works on the album but has a lot of interesting layers to it, despite sounding a tad dated. Lyrically, Gilmour takes a direct shot at Waters, discussing one person who is unable to see another point of view in an argument;

Why should you bother with the other side / when you know that yours is right…”

“Cruise” is one of the most interesting songs on the album, as a tongue-in-cheek love song dedicated to a ballistic missile. With some Paul McCartney influence musically blended with 1980s elements like Palladino’s fret-less bass and a great Hammond organ by Kewley, the song unexpectedly adds some reggae elements near at the end, led by the drumming of Jeff Porcaro. Next comes a fantastic instrumental, “Let’s Get Metaphysical”. It starts with only an electric guitar and a piano, evoking a wonderful sense of the classical and modern coming together. Later, the song feels very orchestral in a great kind of way as it builds layers, almost as if Gilmour is telling the listener a story with instruments alone as he leads the listener through the different movements of the song. The album closes out with “Near the End”. There is an interesting use of bells in the song which add to its lullaby feeling. Again, the lyrics seem to directly address Roger Waters with lines like, “And there’s a stranger where once was a friend”. The song not only serves to end the album but in its own way it speaks to the end of the previous era of Pink Floyd.

In the thirty years since About Face was released it seems to have relatively vanished from many music lover’s horizons. This is a tragedy as the album not only encapsulates some of Gilmour’s finest work but also a dramatic period for him and Pink Floyd. His solo work is great and Roger Waters’ solo work has its merits as well. Although I must admit my personal opinion is that Gilmour’s focus on music makes his work superior to Waters, as Waters seems to focus a bit too much on his grand concepts that all seem to revolve around himself. That said the tragedy of this album and the situation as a whole for Pink Floyd is that none of them seem to recognize that their best work was done in a period when they all shared an equal amount of the creative process. Gilmour’s focus on music combined with Waters’ grand concepts created multiple masterpieces. That said, this album seemed to prove exactly what Gilmour wanted it to prove.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1984 albums.

1984 Images

 

In the Court of the Crimson King
by King Crimson

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In the Court of the Crimson King by King CrimsonSeldom does a band release a debut album as critically and financially successful as In the Court of the Crimson King, an Observation by King Crimson. Released in the winter of 1969 the album is filled with echoes of the darkest parts of the decade. Interestingly, although the album had existed since that year, it was not until 34 years later, in 2003, that the true album would be heard. The original recordings of the album had been lost during production, resulting in the release of a musically imperfect composition. This version of the album was the only one available until the master tapes were rediscovered.

King Crimson has now existed for forty six years going through eight different band iterations but this is the only album released by the band’s original line up. Almost immediately after In the Court of the Crimson King was released founding members Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left the band. Greg Lake followed them out of the band a few months later leaving only Peter Sinfield and Robert Fripp in the band. Sinfield would only last until the first day of January 1972. All of the members of the band would go on to achieve success outside of King Crimson, with the exception of Fripp who remains the keystone of the band to this day.

McDonald went on to found Foreigner, Giles became a session drummer, Sinfield wrote songs for other artists and Greg Lake went onto fame with Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He also had a successful solo career, producing Big Blue Bullfrog‘s 3rd best Christmas Rock Song of all time, “I Believe in Father Christmas”. So it can be argued that In the Court of the Crimson King is the only actual album by King Crimson as the band lost so many members afterwards that it is hard to call it the same band, although Fripp obviously does.


In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson
Released: October 10, 1969 (Island)
Produced by: King Crimson
Recorded: Wessex Sound Studios, London, July-August 1969
Side One Side Two
21st Century Schizoid Man
I Talk to the Wind
Epitaph
Moonchild
The Court of the Crimson King
Group Musicians
Greg Lake – Lead Vocals, Bass
Robert Fripp – Guitars
Peter Sinfield – Lyricist
Ian McDonald – Keyboards, Woodwind, Vocals
Michael Giles – Drums, Percussion

 

The album opens with what could arguably be its best song, “21st Century Schizoid Man”. An image of the song’s namesake appears on the albums cover. The song opens with a burst of horns and drums before Greg Lake’s distorted voice kicks in with eerie vocals. Fripp’s guitar solo in the middle of the song might be it’s highlight but there are many to choose from. The innovative use of woodwinds is certainly another huge one. The lyrics read a bit like nonsense except for the line, “Innocents raped with napalm fire,” which is a clear nod toward the Vietnam War. It finishes in what can only be described as a mad crescendo of wicked and wild sounds. As expected, it is fantastic.

From here the album goes in a completely different direction. “I Talk to the Wind” is a slow mellow tune one would expect to hear while relaxing in a meadow. Greg Lake’s voice has a majestic feeling here and Giles drums are subdued into a jazzy rhythm. The flute is given center stage throughout the song by Ian McDonald who provides an enchanting melody. The listener almost feels transported into the magic forest of Shakespeare’s A Midsummers Night’s Dream. Lyrically it sort of seems like a different take on Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”. In that song Dylan uses the line ‘the answer is blowing in the wind’ as a metaphor for the ignorance of society. Sinfield uses ‘wind’ itself as a metaphor for essentially the same thing.

Sinfield’s lyrics continue the anti-war themes with “Epitaph”. It is here the album really takes on a dystopian feeling. Lake’s voice is melancholy while Fripp’s guitar returns to add acoustic picking in certain sections. The line, “I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying,” really illustrates the bleak nature of the Cold War. Overall, the song is an extremely pessimistic take on the era but it is wonderful in its darkness.

“Moonchild” is probably the least interesting song on the album. The song essentially describes a perfect and peaceful woman. In many ways this song should have just been called flower child as it is essentially describing that. It is very similar to “I Talk to the Wind” and “Epitaph” in musical composition but adds a symphonic section that simply goes on too long. It takes up most of the song and just doesn’t do enough to entertain the ear.

The album ends with its namesake, “In the Court of the Crimson King”. Musically, the Mellotron is used to its full potential here. The entire song is essentially a fantasy tale involving the Crimson King. The name of the character was chosen because it was given to any monarch who reigned when there was a great deal of bloodshed and civil unrest. This links the song to the albums antiwar concept and the lyrics of it seem to be a metaphor for the band member’s perceptions of the Western World in the late sixties. Near the ending, when the song gets quiet and has only one instrument take center stage, it is really haunting.

In the Court of the Crimson King, an Observation by King Crimson is an extremely interesting work. It inspired many future artists including some out of musical genres. Inspired by this work, Stephen King named his primary villain in the Dark Tower Series the Crimson King. The album is essentially an anti-war album disguised as a fantasy concept album. The deeper meaning of the songs is interesting but a little too obvious in places and none of the songs really say anything different. The message of every one amounts to,” war is bad.” That said, there is a large amount of room for interpretation. It can be said that the album borrows a bit too much from the Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed, even down to the trippy art work of the 21st Century Schizoid Man on the front cover. Despite this,  there may not be an album that does a better job of conveying the sense of doom that loomed over people living during the Cold War.

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1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 45th anniversary of 1969 albums.

 

Tommy by The Who

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Tommy by The WhoIf any humble reader seeks to be enlightened to the ways of spiritual rock and roll I’d suggest they start with Tommy. The fourth studio album by The Who is a masterpiece that seamlessly blends both music and storytelling. It is far more developed than the Who’s 1967 concept album, The Who Sell Out, and more immediately accessible than their 1973 classic, Quadrophenia. Like all of the group’s late 1960s works, the album was produced by manager Kit Lambert and composed by guitarist Pete Townshend, whose writing was inspired by Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who had passed away earlier in 1969.

I first encountered this album in its movie form of the same name. That movie starred lead singer Roger Daltry along with a star-studded cast, and could easily fill up its own review based on musical arrangements and cultural importance. I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old at the time but it somehow drew me right in. The impression of the film lasted into my years of teenage angst when I would rediscover the film and album by extension. This would lead me to my ultimate transcendental knowledge of The Who in all their magical glory. Now I will lead you my dear reader on the beginning of your own journey into the Who, or if you already know their might, perhaps you will simply enjoy reviewing this jewel of rock opera!

Rock opera you ask? Musically, Tommy includes many throwbacks to classical opera. The album starts with a broad overture that includes themes that will appear later in the album. This is a staple of opera to this day. It dates back to at least the 17th Century but the Who were the band that brought it into 20th century progressive rock. Later in the album there is a track called “Underture” but this is not connected to classical opera as far as I know. It is an invention of Townshend’s, which essentially acts as a dividing instrumental in the album. Nevertheless, it adds to the album’s operatic vibe. Each character that appears in the album has their own song associated with them that gives the listener a good feeling for their essence portrayed both in music and lyrics. But on the subject of character I suppose we should move into this opera’s narrative.


Tommy by The Who
Released: May 23, 1969 (Polydor)
Produced by: Kit Lambert
Recorded: IBC Studios, London, September 1968-March 1969
Side One Side Two
Overture
It’s a Boy!
1921
Amazing Journey
Sparks
The Hawker
Christmas
Cousin Kevin
The Acid Queen
Underture
Side Three Side Four
Do You Think It’s Alright?
Fiddle About
Pinball Wizard
There’s a Doctor
Go To the Mirror!
Tommy Can You Hear Me?
Smash the Mirror
Sensation
Miracle Cure
Sally Simpson
I’m Free
Welcome
Tommy’s Holiday Camp
We’re Not Gonna Take It
Group Musicians
Roger Daltrey – Lead Vocals, Harmonica
Pete Townshend – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
John Entwistle – Bass, Horns, Vocals
Keith Moon – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

 

Tommy is a young boy born to Captain Walker and his wife prior to World War I. During the war, Walker goes missing and his wife takes up with another man. This leads to disaster, when Captain Walker returns from the war alive confronting and killing his wife’s lover. The parents tell young Tommy not to speak of the murder, which he witnessed, causing him to go into a catatonic state (deaf, dumb, and blind) for the majority of the album. He goes through various trials and tribulations as his parents cope with, and try to cure, his condition. During this time, the world catches wind of him as sensational pinball player. Finally, he regains awareness near the end of the album and attempts to spread what he learned from the experience only to find most people less than receptive to his teachings. It is a fairly straightforward plot and most listeners should have no problem following Tommy on his journey through the album, even if they have to refer to the song’s titles for guidance occasionally.

Musically, the album varies but it is very hard to take individual songs and separate them from the larger narrative. “Pinball Wizard” is a rare exception to this, as it stands fairly easily on its own as a singular song. Also, the song “Christmas” developed a life of its own, even being included on my countdown of the Top 12 Christmas Rock Songs of all time on BigBlueBullfrog.com. It perfectly captures the spirit of children on Christmas while it also concerns Tommy’s parents worrying over their son’s inability to accept Christianity into his life.

“1921” has some amazing vocal work and is the true start of the album as it is where Tommy’s parents tell him to “never tell a soul” of what he saw. The best singular song on this album is “Sally Simpson” even though it is something of an anomaly on the album, as it does not directly concern Tommy nor is it told from his point of view. Instead, the song provides a side story involving a young woman who becomes infatuated with Tommy on a superficial school-girl level. She pays for the crush when she gets knocked out by security for rushing the stage. The song seems to be a warning against becoming obsessed with a cult of personality and carries a much clearer moral lesson than other tracks on the album.

The Who utilized a variety of new musical arrangements and sounds throughout Tommy. Keith Moon‘s drums seem somewhat subdued on most of the album but when they show up, you definitely know it. As he had in the past, bassist John Entwistle added brass instrumentation in strategic points on the album, even in a somewhat unnerving effect on “Fiddle About”, a song about Tommy being molested by his “wicked” Uncle Ernie. But Townshend is the true driving force behind the album, first recording the entire album with an acoustic guitar, giving it a somewhat lighter touch and organic feeling than many of the other Who albums. This also adds a sense of weight when the electric guitar shows up in songs like “Go to the Mirror”. Townshend also adds piano, which serves a large role throughout most of the album. It is prevalent in the short song, “There’s a Doctor”, (a role amusingly played by Jack Nicholson in the film).

Tommy serves as a keystone for The Who’s career, successfully bridging their earlier work and their more serious and musically ambitious later works, and is certainly a classic of rock and roll being released in the famed year of 1969. At Woodstock, the group performed songs from the album, which some said were the highlight of that classic festival. Serendipitously, the sun rose as Daltrey sang, “See Me, Feel Me”, leading Entwistle to joke that, “God was our lighting man”. For his next project, Townshend would attempt another Baba-influenced rock opera called, “Lifehouse”, which never quite worked out as intended, but morphed into the fantastic 1971 album Who’s Next.

Tommy is a must hear for music enthusiasts, is historically significant to the annals of rock and roll, and is immensely satisfying to both your ears and your mind.

~

1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 45th anniversary of 1969 albums.

 

The Kinks Are the
Village Green Preservation Society

Buy The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society

Classic Rock Review 1968 Album of the Year

The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation SocietyAlthough it barely made a ripple critically or commercially upon its release the concept album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society would go on to become one of the most influential in rock history. Like many great works the album was born out of a series of “happy accidents”. The band’s composer and front man, Ray Davies, had originally wanted to do a concept album about life in London but after a trip to rural Devonshire, England he decided to work on the “village” concept instead. Also, by 1968 the Kinks had begun to experience diminished chart success with pop singles, so they made a concerted change  towards more substantial musical art. While most bands of the era were into their psychedelic phase and experimenting with newfangled sounds, the Kinks went back to their English roots and thoughtfully reflected on the loss of rural England to the modernization of the swinging sixties. They composed songs that blended the best of their rock and roll sound with various ethnic instrumentation and the result is a masterpiece that sits at the crossroads of rock history. So, despite the plethora of great albums during the year of 1968, we chose this Kinks work as our 1968 Album of the Year.

Personally, I take credit for The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society becoming Classic Rock Review’s Album of the Year for 1968. As an avid fan of the group’s 1981 album Give the People What They Want, I decided to explore further Kinks songs in my father’s vast music collection. I listened to a few tracks from this album and, what really ingrained the piece in my head was when I watched Edgar Wright’s film Hot Fuzz a day or so later. It contains two tracks from this album, and they fit perfectly into the film. So suddenly reminded of the album, I endeavored to listen to it again and I found myself no longer liking it but loving it!

The Kinks were one of the most prolific bands of the sixties producing an album every year from 1964 onwards, producing yearly releases through the mid seventies. The album immediately prior to the Village Green was 1967’s Something Else by The Kinks which was the last time the Kinks worked with American producer Shel Talmy, clearing the way for Ray Davies to explore with more creative freedom. Prior to 1968, concept albums were not known to be commercially successful and The Kinks knew this better than most, as their earlier concept album Face to Face did not do well on the market, but Davies was driven to give it another try.

The concept of the album is a nostalgic look back at rural English life. Each song deals with a particular part of that life gone by. I will discuss what I believe each song is saying a bit farther down. The album is the last to include the original four members of The Kinks, as bassist Pete Quaife left the group in early 1969. Due to the arrangements of these songs, Quaife’s role was diminished on this album.Now onto the individual songs!

The title track is a call to arms to preserve the rural English way of life. Which brings up the question would the album be better suited if the title track was the last song on the album instead of the first, seeing as it’s a sort of culmination of the themes on the album. That said, there are really no other lingering questions I have about this album.


The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks
Released: November 22, 1968 (Pye)
Produced by: Ray Davies
Recorded: Pye Studios, London November 1966–October 1968
Side One Side Two
The Village Green Preservation Society
Do You Remember Walter?
Picture Book
Johnny Thunder
Last of the Steam-Powered Trains
Big Sky
Sitting by the Riverside
Animal Farm
Village Green
Starstruck
Phenomenal Cat
All of My Friends Were There
Wicked Annabella
Monica
People Take Pictures of Each Other
Band Musicians
Ray Davies – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Harmonica, Sccordion, Flute, Horns
Dave Davies – Guitars, Vocals
Nicky Hopkins – Keybopards, Mellotron
Peter Quaife – Bass, Vocals
Mick Avory – Drums, Percussion

 

The opening title track is also perhaps the most entertaining song on the album. The song opens with a fairly simple but catchy melody involving a guitar, flute and drums. The lyrics are a call for preservation;

God save little shops, china cups and virginity…”

This gave rise to fans shouting “God save the Kinks” in the years following the album’s release. Despite my wondering how the song would work closing the album out; it does a wonderful job of drawing the listener in and establishing the themes and tones of the album. The second track, “Do You Remember Walter?”, was recently mentioned by Edgar Wright on twitter as basically describing Gary King, the main character of the film The World’s End;

The song is about a man who was very popular in his young years but who has obviously not achieved much in life beyond having a good amount of fun in his younger years. The singer laments the fact that he and Walter wouldn’t even know each other if they met in the modern day. The song ends on the line, “People often change but memories of people can remain,” this is similar to the lines in a later track called “People Take Pictures of Each Other”. Musically the piano intro almost sounds like ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” for a moment before the drums and Dave Davies‘ guitar rolls in. Despite the slightly melancholy subject matter of a person growing up and becoming little more than a cog in the wheel of the world, the song remains fairly upbeat.

After this comes “Picture Book”. Mick Avory‘s drums in this song have an almost garage band feeling to them and it’s wonderful. It stays connected to the albums theme of looking back at the past as “Picture Books” are obvious ways in which we categorize and view the past. It’s a really fun song that I could easily see being played over a commercial for cameras. Even though cameras are slowly dying as their inclusion on cell phones has rendered them all but obsolete. Strangely that makes the song work even better for the album in some ways. “Johnny Thunder” seems to be a about a man who escaped his small town and spent the rest of his life on the go. “Old Johnny vowed that he would never / Ever end up like the rest / Johnny Thunder rides the highway”. The acoustic guitar introduction to the song has an exciting quality and Ray Davies’ vocal pitch changes when the backing vocals come in and are a fun musical aesthetic that is almost never heard in music anymore.

The best part about the next track is that the way it builds up ‘steam’ seems to mirror the songs title “The Last of the Steam Powered Trains”. A harmonica is employed in the song as well. It’s both a nod to vagabonds riding trains and a somber sort of sendoff for the dying technology. The drums are steady but increase in speed and you can almost visualize them as the train’s wheels turning faster and faster. The song just gets better and better as it builds steam. It adds in a few more instruments and even some clapping. As the song reaches its climax you can picture a train mounting a hill and building energy as it does only to crest the hill and coast for a second before it starts to power itself again. The song paints a wonderful visual picture with music and is an absolute joy to listen to. On “Big Sky”, Ray Davies does a sort of narration throughout the song instead of singing. I’m not completely sure what the song is saying. I believe it’s essentially commenting on the fact that all of our human problems are essentially pointless when faced with something as big and majestic as the sky but that is just my guess.

The Kinks, 1968

One of my many favorite tracks on this album is “Sitting By the Riverside”. It’s a completely different type of song from the first six songs on the album. It has a similar theme to “Big Sky” as it conjures the image of a person relaxing on a riverside and enjoying the beauty of nature. I also tend to think of Gondola boat drivers singing in Italian to their passengers when I listen to the song. It’s interesting that at two separate points in the song it feels like it’s about to go in a radically different direction musically but quickly returns to the main flow of the song. It’s amazing to listen to how much of this song is done with Ray Davies’ vocals. “Animal Farm” is after this and it has a completely upbeat tempo throughout. The song seems to comment on the idea that rural life is simpler and more peaceful than city life. The whole song seems like an optimistic and idealist view of a farm from the perspective of someone who longs to live on one. I believe the mellotron makes its first real appearance in the background of this song.

My favorite track on the entire album is “Village Green”. This was the earliest song, recorded during the sessions for Something Else, and set the theme which inspired everything on the album. A large amount of wind instruments create a stirring, slightly melancholy beginning to the song. The character of the song first describes the town he came from and his past happiness there with a woman named Daisy. He then spends the rest of the song lamenting leaving it as it has become a tourist trap and “Daisy’s married Tom the Grocer boy”. The wind instruments really lend a sort of sad vibe to the song that allows you to slip right into the feeling of it. Conversely, I’m not really sure how “Starstruck” fits into the albums concept. My guess as to how this really connects is that big cities have a tendency to chew up innocent people from small towns. Musically, Avory’s drums take center stage through most of this song.

The album goes through a radical music change with “Phenomenal Cat”. The song starts with what sounds like a wood flute solo that reminds you of something you’d hear in a forest. The entire song has a dream like fairy tale mood to it. It seems to be touching on small town’s penchant for myths that spring up around certain characters, people or even animals that reside inside of them. The ‘la la la’ sections of the song sound like the vocalist was inhaling helium before takes but it helps to add to the strange quality of the song.

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society continues to change as the next song starts off with an accordion dance number. “All of My Friends Were There” reminds me a lot of the Pennsylvania Polka but that’s just because I’m used to hearing the accordion within it. It’s only fitting that an album about rural England would contain an accordion number as that was long known as the instrument of common rural Europeans. The lyrics themselves point to the embarrassment that can come from standing out or performing in a small town where you know every member of an audience. Ray Davies even sings as if he is covering a European folk song.

“Wicked Annabella” returns the album to its more rock oriented roots but it still has some tricks up its sleeve. Dave Davies is the lead vocalist on this track and there is an echo on Davies’ voice to give it a spooky impression. The guitar on the album is heavily distorted to add to the spooky nature of it. The lyrics deal with a woman who is the town black sheep and because of her reclusive nature she has become the town witch and boogey man who people tell their children about to scare them into falling asleep at night. Every small town does seem to have someone like this.

Once more the album does a ‘180’ with the next song, “Monica”. The character of the song’s title is the complete opposite of Wicked Annabella so it makes sense that the song would be completely different. Monica is the girl every guy wants to marry in the town. The song has a Latin jazz feel to it which fits perfectly with the idea that everyone wants to love the character of Monica.  I love the fact that all of the characters in this album seem to be representations of people every small town has. “People Take Picture of Each Other” is a fun ending to the album that sort of blends “All of My Friends Were There” with some of the albums other influences such as “Do You Remember Walter?”. It is a pretty literal song as it is about people taking picture of things to remember them. It might not be the albums strongest act but it holds up when compared to the rest of the album.

Upon its original release, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society only sold about 100,000 copies and, 45 years after its release, it has yet to reach Gold record status. The Kinks continued to be an extremely dynamic band that adapted to three decades of rock and roll changes, constantly evolving and doing what they wanted to do. In 1973 and 1974, the group released the albums Preservation Act 1 and Preservation Act 2 respectively, which Ray Davies later acknowledged as sequels to this album, when he referred to the three as his “Preservation trilogy”. In many ways, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society stands out in 1968 for innovating via the use of classic sounds and instruments. Along with that the Kinks presented a clear concept album which contains themes and messages that should be clear to anyone who comes from a small town even up to the modern day. This wasn’t something that was done a lot as many of rock and roll’s first forays into concept albums were a bit confusing and disjointed. Unfortunately in a strange twist of fate this Kink’s album has become something that needs Preservation itself. It has been dubbed a ‘cult classic’ but anyone with ears should be able to hear it’s simply a classic. People should discuss the Kinks as one of the great bands up there with the Beatles, and the Stones. So let this be the first act in the movement that will bring about this album’s very own Preservation Society!

God save the Kinks, china cups and virginity!

~ J.D. Cook

1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 45th anniversary of 1968 albums and our Album of the Year for 1968.