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.

 

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.

~

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 in 1969

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

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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.

 

Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan

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I had the pleasure of seeing Bob Dylan live over the summer. It was a great experience, which I wrote about for Modern Rock Review. So I jumped at the chance to review one of Dylan’s greatest albums – Blonde on Blonde for Classic Rock Review. Dylan’s music has served as an inspiration to me through some dark times. EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED! Just kidding about getting stoned, but those last two sentences illustrate a good deal about Blonde On Blonde. It is a seminal album in Dylan’s sixties career that somehow balances the silly, philosophical, and melancholy. I dare say it does this a great deal better than I just did. This said, this album is not Dylan’s masterpiece. That honor, in my humble opinion, belongs to its 1965 predecessor, Highway 61 Revisited. However, these albums have been linked together as Blonde On Blonde is sometimes regarded as the third part of Dylan’s mid-1960s trilogy of rock albums which commenced with Bringing It All Back Home. The album has also been considered the first significant double album in rock music (and is the first true double album to be reviewed by Classic Rock Review.

After the release of Highway 61 Revisited in August 1965, Dylan went on some extensive touring with his new “electric” band which had so upset the audience and organizers of 1965 Newport Folk Festival. During this time he contacted a group who were performing under the name Levon and the Hawks. The band was comprised of four Canadian musicians, including guitarist Robbie Robertson, and would eventually come to be called “The Band”. Dylan rehearsed with the Hawks in Toronto on September 15, and eventually they all went into Columbia Records studios in New York City. There they recorded a hit single “Positively 4th Street” (which was not included on the album). Dylan was trying to formulate the shape of his next album, and soon became frustrated by the slow progress of the recordings with the Hawks in New York. Producer Bob Johnston suggested moving the sessions to Nashville where Johnston lived and had extensive experience with Nashville session musicians. Recordings for what would become Blonde On Blonde began there in February 1966.

Keyboardist Al Kooper assisted Dylan in the songwriting process by working song arrangements out on piano and then teaching the tunes to the studio musicians at the recording sessions. However one song, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, confused the musicians who expected to end many times before the entire eleven and a half minutes of the final recording. The final day of recording sessions ultimately produced six songs in thirteen hours of studio time, including “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, which featured a trumpet part by bassist Charlie McCoy, and the giddy, half-serious “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, where a local trombonist was recruited to join in.
 


Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan
Released: May 16, 1966 (Columbia)
Produced by: Bob Johnston
Recorded: Columbia Music Row Studios, Nashville, February-March 1966
Side One Side Two
Rainy Day Woman #12 & #35
Pledging My Time
Visions of Johanna
One Of Us Must Know
I Want You
Stuck Inside of Mobile
(with the Memphis Blues Again)
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Just Like a Woman
Side Three Side Four
Most Likely You Go Your Way
Temporary Like Achilles
Absolutely Sweet Marie
4th Time Around
Obviously 5 Believers
Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands
Primary Musicians
Bob Dylan – Guitar, Piano, Harmonica, Vocals
Robbie Robertson – Guitar, Vocals
Al Kooper – Organ, Guitar
Charlie McCoy – Bass, Trumpet
Kenneth A. Buttrey – Drums

 
The fun, if silly, song with dual meanings is about the escapism of getting stoned on pot due to the inevitability of getting stoned by society. Combine this with a wild musical ride brought about by tambourine, harmonica, clapping, hooting, hollering, piano, and the aforementioned trumpet and trombone, and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” is an extremely unique and fun song. “Pledging My Time” follows with a similar quickly-put-together sound, but without the fun of the opener. Luckily, this is followed by “Visions of Johanna”, a lyrical triumph with a simple but effective musical backing. There are some really cool effects thrown throughout the song, but it leans a bit on the lengthy side. Not that Dylan fans ever minded length very much.

The album returns from a lyrical odyssey with the fantastic keyboard-driven “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”. This song blends Dylan’s lyrics with a great musical spine. The piano drives the song up and down like rolling hills as Dylan’s voices leads the way. It also contains great lines –

And I told you, as you clawed out my eyes
That I never really meant to do you any harm
But sooner or later one of us must know
But you just did what you’re supposed to do
Sooner or later one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you…”

The lyrics point to a scorned lover, but the music keeps things up beat and mellow almost as if the music is trying to keep the scorned lover happy while Dylan breaks her heart. Side Two of this four-sided album begins the classic, simple and perfect “I Want You”. This song contains perhaps the best opening line of any song period –

The guilty undertaker sighs, the lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns, blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way, I wasn’t born to lose you…”

From here the song becomes one of the most simplistic sex songs in history. Dylan doesn’t convolute the feelings being expressed in the song and he adds little imagery to the fact that he wants the woman the song is addressing. It’s a love song without love, but it isn’t lust either. Dylan just isn’t sugar coating what he wants with hidden meanings.

“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” is another long one, but the funky guitar and keyboard use makes this song a lot more interesting than the goliath “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, which closes the album. I could keep putting in examples of Dylan’s fantastic lyrics, but then this review would have more of Dylan than Dylan. That was a joke playing on my middle name which comes from this very same artist. Silly yes, but needed? I think so. “Stuck Inside of Mobile…” is a lyrical jam that still feels fresh after seven minutes of run time. Especially with lyrics like –

One was Texas Medicine, and the other was Railroad Jin, and like a fool I mixed them…”

“…your debutant just knows what you need, but I know what you want…”

So maybe I lied about quoting from the songs anymore. Those lyrics are two that always resonated with me for personal reasons. Who hasn’t mixed Texas Medicine and Railroad Gin? “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” is another very Dylan song that pokes fun at the fashion industry. Dylan is commenting on the fact that outrageous fashion trends, like leopard-skin pillbox hats are fleeting and silly much like fashion as an industry which creates faux crazes over the clothes it declares to be in to rack up cash from people who can’t just be comfortable with what they want to wear. The song is great and the guitar and drums again create a topsy-turvy sense in the music.

Bob Dylan in 1966

“Just Like a Woman” has Dylan’s lyrics, but the music sounds so similar to the simple beats of “Visions of Johanna” that someone who has heard the album multiple times can get a bit bored. In order for a Dylan song to be great it must have the lyrical and musical components working together to bring about a unity of song. Not all the songs on Blonde On Blonde do this, yet none of these songs really lack lyrically. They occasionally just have overly simple beats that don’t change enough to keep a listener’s attention.

As we proceed to “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, it becomes apparent that there are two distinct sounds that make up Blonde On Blonde – the up-tempo, fun sounding sound, as on this song, and the melancholy, simple-beat songs like “Just Like a Woman”. If you couldn’t tell, I prefer the up-tempo fun sounding ones. “Most Likely You Go Your Way..” is a bit short, but still a good listen. “Temporary Like Achilles” is one of the melancholy songs. Dylan’s voice is slow and simple but the piano plays a strangely interesting melody through the first chorus, until the song slows down a bit for the duration. The album then jumps back to the fun, more pop-oriented “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, where the guitar and drums return to exciting change-up mode and Dylan’s voice is back at its peak. The lyrics also seem more interesting with a good back beat –

Well, six white horses that you did promise/Were finally delivered down to the penitentiary/But to live outside the law, you must be honest…”

Verbal hypocrisy abounds in those fine-tuned lyrics. The song even has a few jam sections spread throughout the chorus. Slight changes in instruments and times also seem to flow out towards the end of the song.

One of the few melancholy songs I really love on this album is “4th Time Around”, a loose tribute to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”, which was in itself an ode to Dylan in that it uses his language to hide a scandalous affair. I love the song because of the guitar which runs up and down through the songs. Up to this point I’ve avoided the stories surrounding Dylan’s various songs only because there are so many, but this one just seemed to cool to ignore. Onwards to another playful song – “Obviously 5 Believers” which has quite blues vibe running all the way through it. I could easily see a house band jamming out in a crowded bar to this song which closes out side three. The album closes with the side-long “Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands”, perhaps the only Dylan song from the period that I really don’t like. It is a far cry from “Desolation Row”, which closed out the prior album.

I still contend that I think that previous album is superior to Blonde On Blonde, but that does not mean that this is not a solid album with a solid place in Dylan’s sixties career. The songs that have lyrics and music are the classics here and they are the ones people remember for a reason. Then again, this is just one Dylan’s opinion. Feel free to argue the point with me.

~

1966 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of 1966 albums.

 

Nevermind by Nirvana

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Review by J.D. Cook

Nevermind by NirvanaI was born on the same day in February 1991 that Kurt Cobain, the lead singer, guitarist, and principle songwriter for Nirvana, celebrated his twenty fifth birthday. Later that same year, Nirvana released their breakthrough album Nevermind, an album which many reviewers consider a classic and some even consider “all time” material. But, even though I’m virtually the same age as the naked baby on the album’s cover (although, I assure you, it is not me), I couldn’t disagree more with this “classic” and “all time” jibberish.

In all honesty, it was not until my freshmen year of college that I started to allow myself to like Nirvana. My pre-college hatred of the band was due entirely to their popularity, especially among a very fickle group of emo, “misunderstood” high school teens who seemed to love the band just because Kurt Cobain committed suicide. The way the man and the band is idolized because he was “brave” enough to kill himself really irks me to this day, especially when it seeps into the realm of mainstream music journalism. All of that said, when I went off to college I was able to accept the music without being confronted with teenage Goths sporting his face on their purses.

But I still contend that Nevermind is NOT a classic. It certainly has some good tracks, and maybe even one or two great ones, but as a true album it falls short of being anything beyond mediocre to OK. In the early nineties this album’s new grunge sound may have been cutting edge but that hasn’t stopped it from sounding dated and trashy today. Of course, it will always be a famous album for simply being a Nirvana album since they had such a short run before Cobain’s death. In a way this may be understandable, as the “shooting star” phenomenon has always been romanticized in rock n’ roll. But I will try to give this album as fair and honest review as any other.


Nevermind by Nirvana
Released: September 24, 1991 (Geffen)
Produced by: Butch Vig
Recorded: Sound City Studios, Hollywood, May-June 1991
Track Listing Group Musicians
Smells Like Teen Spirit
In Bloom
Come As You Are
Breed
Lithium
Polly
Territorial Pissings
Drain You
Lounge Act
Stay Away
On a Plain
Something In the Way
Kurt Cobain – Guitars, Lead Vocals
Krist Novoselic – Bass, Vocals
Dave Grohl – Drums, Vocals

Buy Nevermind by Nirvana

The album opens fairly strong with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In the past I had always viewed this song as an overplayed cliché tune, but it really is the best of that album. Further it is one of only two songs that wasn’t written completely by Kurt Cobain, as bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl share the credit (maybe that means something). Stranger still the song would be vastly improved if the lyrics weren’t completely nonsensical and hard to understand. That said Cobain provided awesome reverb sounds from his guitar, and the drums sound straight out of a garage which really works for this song. Combine those elements with the continuing changes in the songs melodies and you’ve got a hit.

The following two tracks, “In Bloom” and “Come As You Are”, contain more of the same – the guitar is crisp and fun on both, the lyrics stay nonsensical, but Cobain’s voice no longer hurts one’s ear. Novoselic’s opening bass rift of “Come As You Are” is of particular note, but it unfortunately stays mostly the same throughout the song. The guitar solo of this song is also quite fun. The song following these three solid opening tracks is Breed. There is little to nothing good about it. It is fast, it is furious, it is boring.

With “Lithium” the album returns to the sound most people define as Nirvana. The lyrics are actually discussing being on lithium pills and this lends the song a bit of lyrical meaning. Cobain’s vocals are both understandable and emotional throughout the songs various changes in pace. I especially appreciate the lyrics “I’m not gonna crack,” when placed with the various other lyrics like “I killed you”. You can really hear someone emotionally cracking and trying to pretend they aren’t. Unfortunately from Lithium the album pretty much drops into the gutter.

“Polly” and “Territorial Pissings” are both entirely forgettable. The only thing of value the songs lend to the album are an acoustic break from the fast pace in “Polly” and a bizarre intro featuring the lyrics from The Youngbloods “Get Together” on “Territorial Pissings”. The screaming on this latter song is particularly terrible.

By the time “Drain You” comes you are breathing a sigh of relief. Grohl’s drums in this song are admirable, and the crescendo within is fun, but it’s special. This is followed by the decently solid “Lounge Act”, a song with not much to it, but nothing terrible either. It is a good mid-album filler song with the exception of Cobain’s banshee vocals in the middle of the song which do nothing but make you want to skip to the next track.

Nirvana

After “Lounge Act” the album sticks to being mediocre – “Stay Away”, “On a Plain”, and “Something In the Way” are all fairly forgettable. “Stay Away” has a boring and simple drum into that leads into a decent song with an interesting dueling-voices dynamic, “On a Plain” is simply boring, and “Something In the Way” would have been a good ending had it not been so monotonous. But wait the album is not over! After waiting though ten minutes of silence there is a secret track called “Endless, Nameless”. I will simply say I was so enraged by its sheer horrid nature that it harmed my ears.

Nevermind was Nirvana’s breakthrough album and it certainly has been successful commercially. By the end of the decade, it was certified diamond (double platinum) and has continued to sell very well since. Unfortunately it just seems like Nirvana’s success is due to their folklore as much as their musical capabilities and philosophical lyrics. I guess sometimes your first impression of a band, that they were only popular because of Cobain’s suicide, is right. Nevermind isn’t a terrible album – there are some really good tracks – but much of the album is entirely forgettable.

~

1991 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1991 albums.

 

L.A. Woman by The Doors

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LA Woman by The Doors

L.A. Woman, is the final Doors album with lead singer and poet, Jim Morrison. This album encompasses a mixture of blues, funk, and rock while maintaining a sound that is still distinctly The Doors. The album strikes the rare balance of going back to basics while still exploring uncharted territory in the initial, pioneering journey of rock n roll. The music itself also possesses this simultaneous duality as it is much stripped down from the exuberant production of earlier albums, such as Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade, but is also enhanced by a new “voice” that Morrison discovered and the emergence of the bass guitar as a front and center instrument in the band’s sound.

Starting in 1967, The Doors had five previous studio albums to figure out what is necessary and what is superfluous. This is evident in every detail of L.A. Woman, right down to the album cover artwork. Gone is the image of a half naked Jim Morrison out in front of his “backing band”. On the cover of this album, an off-center, bearded Morrison is slouched down to appear smaller below the rest of the band. The cover contained a very generic look with the band name and title in uniform block lettering, omitting the use of even the band’s trademark stenciled logo. Interesting is the omission of the “The” in the band’s name, as the album is credited to simply to “Doors”, which perhaps implies that there are now several , generic “doors of perception” to be cleansed, not just these four particular ones. Whether or not this was the actual intent, there is no doubt that the band wanted to strip away any pretense of something mystical or magical and just put out an album of blues-influenced, rock music, and that they did.
 


L.A. Woman by The Doors
Released: April 19, 1971 (Electra)
Produced by: Bruce Botnick and The Doors
Recorded: The Doors Workshop, Los Angeles, December 1970-January 1971
Side One Side Two
  The Changeling
  Love Her Madly
  Been Down So Long
  Cars Hiss by My Window
  L.A. Woman
 L’America
 Hyacinth House
 Crawling King Snake
 The WASP (Texas Radio & Big Beat)
 Riders on the Storm
Musicians
Jim Morrison – Vocals & Voice Effects
Robbie Krieger – Lead Guitars
Ray Manzarek – Piano & Keyboards
John Densmore – Drums
Jerry Scheff – Bass
Marc Benno – Rhythm Guitars

 
A variety of themes permeate the album. The first track, “The Changeling” grabs your attention right away, with its addictive, funky hook accented by Morrison’s primal grunts. It is like Jim Morrison addressing the listeners about his pending move to Paris and attempt at a new life as a poet, like many of the 20th century’s great writers had done before. With his boisterous blues outburst of “see me change”, those who had watched Morrison’s career knew what he was talking about. Here was a man who had made a career out of being a chameleon – starting as a military brat progressing into a highway drifter and film student before creating the ideal “rock star” archetype that is still mimicked today, only to destroy that image by growing a beard, gaining weight, and sabotaging the band’s live bankability with bizarre on stage antics. Jim Morrison was a changeling and with the first track on L.A. Woman he was telling everyone that he was not done. This “change” theme is revisited later in the album, especially in the songs “Hyacinth House”, “The W.A.S.P. (Texas Radio & the Big Beat)”, and “Riders On the Storm”.

Riders On the Storm single

“Riders”, the album’s closer, is a unique song in the history of rock n roll. With several influences including, the traditional cowboy song “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and Morrison’s own defunct film, HWY: An American Pastoral as well as his poems. Often considered a Morrison masterpiece, because of its haunting theme and whispered background vocals, the song is really a showcase for the other three band members – guitarist Robbie Krieger, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and drummer John Densmore – who use the song as a preview of the group’s new direction.

The band already knew coming in that this album would be an endpoint on a couple of fronts. It was the last one necessary to fulfill their contract with Electra Records, and the band had already quietly agreed to a break from Morrison, as he planned to move to Paris following its completion, and continue as a trio with Krieger, Manzarek, and Densmore. In fact, a common misconception is that the late-1971 album Other Voices was made in reaction to Morrison’s death, when it was actually started prior to his passing, with some songs actually worked on during the L.A. Woman sessions.

Beyond the four members of The Doors, there were two addition musicians involved with the making of L.A. Woman, bassist Jerry Scheff who played on every track and blues guitarist Mark Benno, who played rhythm guitar on four of the album’s tracks. Scheff, who was Elvis Presley‘s regular bass player at the time, was as much a part of the music on L.A. Woman as any of the “regular” Doors (a defacto “fifth Door”), being right out front in the mix and providing the memorable riffs for some of the most memorable songs.

Benno added his talents to the album’s title song along with “Been Down So Long”, “Cars Hiss By My Window”, and the cover of the John Lee Hooker song “Crawling King Snake”. These tracks also happened to be the same ones where Morrison best used his new found “blues” voice, a vocal style unlike any he had presented before, but did with exceptional talent and ease, especially on “Cars Hiss by My Window” – a song in which Morrison’s vocals shine on two levels, the straight-up singer voice, and the wild-mimicked bluesy-harmonica sounding “voice” solo that ends the song. Although Benno had never even heard of The Doors before being booked for these sessions, he and Morrison became fast friends, going to lunch and drinking together between recordings.

Aside from the well-received title song, these extra-bluesy songs that Benno worked on have been commonly knocked by die-hard Doors fans as the “filler” on L.A. Woman, but, although they may not quite match the rest of the album, they certainly do not detract from the album as a whole. Lyrically these songs may not quite be the high points of the album, but the only real filler is the odd-marching, quasi-psychedelic “L’America”, which sounds like an incomplete experiment that should have been left for the box sets decades later.

Love Her Madly single

Thematically, L.A. Woman is not an acid trip, an orchestral, or a poem, but is quite simply the completion of the band’s take on blues rock that started with their previous album, Morrison Hotel in 1970, but it is not a pure blues album. In fact, one of the band’s finest pop songs is present in “Love Her Madly”, which sounds like it could of fit well on Strange Days in 1967. It is perhaps the best audio evidence that this is, in fact, The Doors we are in listening to.

The band was not looking to explore new musical themes or expand consciousness – they just wanted to record an album and the result was a magical capture of lightning in a bottle. Certain unforeseen situations led to this confluence. Longtime producer Paul Rothschild had disagreements with the band on their approach and walked away from the project early on, leaving the production to engineer Bruce Botnik and the band members themselves.

The album was recorded at the band’s rehearsal space on Santa Monica Blvd, in a building that was once an antique store. Botnik converted a bathroom into the vocal booth for Morrison and used just an 8-track recorder, which is incredible considering the depth of the resulting sound. This location was chosen after the Doors decided to forego professional studio costs and considered a number of locations including Robbie Krieger’s beach house, which was decorated with several hyacinth plants.

“Hyacinth House” is an oft-overlooked gem on L.A. Woman with Krieger’s folksy guitars, Morrison’s calm yet desperate pleads of paranoia and need for change and, most especially, Ray Manzarek’s virtuoso work on the organ where he subtly mimic’s a piece by Chopin. Another interesting piece on the “second side” of the album is “The W.A.S.P. (Texas Radio & the Big Beat)”, a spoken-word poem that at once pays homage to Mexican pirate radio of the sixties while taking the listener on an undecipherable poetic journey, all above a funky-riff that could have been used for a Sesame Street learning experiment. It is hard to think that anyone but Morrison himself truly “got” this song, but it does add a nice bit of balance to much of the rest of the album.

The Doors in 1970

Speaking of “sides” of the album (for those of us old enough to remember such things), one of the flaws of L.A. Woman is the fact that it reversed what should have been the extended closing number of each side – the 7-plus minute songs “Riders on the Storm” and “L.A. Woman”. The title song, with its movement and rhythm, and nearly constant build to a crescendo, is the undeniable climax of the album and would have worked best as the last song on the album instead of “Riders On the Storm”, which kind of drip-drops its way out. As a matter of fact, both these songs were included in the high-selling Greatest Hits compilation in 1980, with “Riders” finishing side one and “L.A. Woman” wrapping up side two. Was this the quiet recognition of an original faux pas in song sequence by the band?

But no matter where it sits in the song sequence, the song “L.A. Woman” is a masterpiece, just like the album of the same name is. Every track is musically crafted to near perfection without being over-produced nor overdone. This is probably due to the fact that The Doors were just looking to make music with this album and not accomplish any loftier goals. They simply wanted to jam and move on to the next phases of their lives and careers. Tragically, there would not be much of that life left in Jim Morrison, who died at the age of 27 on July 3, 1971, just three months after the album was released.

~

Contributers:
J.D. Cook
Ric Albano

1971 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversay of 1971 albums.