Archive for April, 2012

“Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones (1971)

Part of the film “Gimme Shelter” shows the Rolling Stones stopping between shows on their 1969 U.S. tour at the famed recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. There, they started work on some new songs, including one called “Brown Sugar.”

“Gimme Shelter,” of course, also captures the stabbing death of a fan at the Altamont Free Concert in the California desert, just a couple of days after the Muscle Shoals sessions. The fatality occurred during the Stones’ performance of “Under My Thumb,” basically in front of the stage.

The Stones weren’t sure exactly what happened until they saw the applicable footage. They did know something major went down, and they weren’t quite prepared to launch into another tune until guitarist Mick Taylor suggested one of the new songs.

And so came the public debut of “Brown Sugar,” the song that eventually opened the Stones’ first new album of the ’70s.

No one was quite sure what to expect in Altamont’s aftermath, but the band delivered its third straight essential long-player, following “Beggars Banquet” and “Let It Bleed.” Taylor’s full involvement on a Stones album for the first time serves as an added bonus for “Sticky Fingers.”

“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” which also was recorded at Muscle Shoals, still stand as two of rock’s best-known songs. Several others have been stapes of FM radio for more than four decades: “Bitch,” “Sway,” “Dead Flowers” and the extended workout of “Can You Hear Me Knocking.”

Featuring one of Keith Richards’ most memorable licks, “Brown Sugar” reportedly was written by Mick Jagger with his then-girlfriend (and mother of his daughter Karis), Marsha Hunt, in mind. He has been kind of vague on why he sings about a “scarred old slaver” and his women, telling Rolling Stone in 1995: “God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go … I never would write that song now.”

“Sway” is indicative of Taylor’s influence on the band, putting his guitar talents on full display, particularly during the outro. He also dominates “Can You Hear Me Knocking,” following a stellar saxophone part by Bobby Keys that got him work with the Stones for years to come.

“You Gotta Move,” a blues tune attributed to Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Rev. Gary Davis, also was recorded at Muscle Shoals. That’s appropriate, given the song’s raw, Southern-inspired arrangement.

The second side of the “Sticky Fingers” LP shows the Stones successfully tackling a number of other styles, from the R&B influence of “Bitch” and “I Got the Blues” to the country rock of “Dead Flowers.” The album closes with the ballad “Moonlight Mile,” which references “a head full of snow” and as a result is often thought to be about cocaine use.

“Sister Morphine” is one of the era’s more straightforward songs about drug abuse, with such harrowing lyrics as: “Well it just goes to show things are not what they seem/Please, Sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams/Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast/And that this shot will be my last.”

Another Jagger ex-girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, won composing credits to “Sister Morphine” after taking Mick and Keith to court. Taylor also has claimed to deserve credits for other material, but so far the legal system hasn’t ruled in his favor.

“Sticky Fingers” might be best remembered among the early ’70s record-buying public for its cover, the Andy Warhol-conceived shot of a male crotch in blue jeans, complete with a workable zipper. The inner sleeve featured the first appearance of the lips-and-tongue logo that have been identified with the Stones ever since.

The album needed no such gimmicks, though. The music continues to sell itself.

“Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” by Spirit (1970)

When Spirit made the switch to Epic Records in 1970, signing with the Columbia subsidiary after three releases on Lou Adler’s Ode label, the band had the added benefit of working with producer David Briggs.

Fresh off working with Neil Young & Crazy Horse on “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” Briggs helped the five members of Spirit fully realize their songwriting and album-crafting potential with “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.”

The band’s fourth effort, though, turned out to be its least commercially successful to that point. Despite critical praise and heavy FM play, “Dr. Sardonicus” peaked at No. 63 on the Billboard charts. And sadly, it turned out to be the final album by Spirit’s original lineup (except for a 1984 effort consisting mostly of remakes), pretty much closing the book on one of the more interesting bands of the late ’60s.

A rift had developed between the band’s two primary composers, vocalist Jay Ferguson and guitarist Randy California. A listen to their subsequent releases shows the divergent directions each wanted to go: Ferguson, with Jo Jo Gunne, keyed in on Spirit’s more commercial elements; California, on his solo “Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds,” pursues a decidedly more experimental edge.

Both facets are evident on “Dr. Sardonicus,” which contains some of Spirit’s most enduring work. Songs like “Nature’s Way,” “Animal Zoo” and particularly “Mr. Skin” – Ferguson wrote it about the band’s bald-headed drummer, Ed Cassidy – continue to pop up on classic-rock playlists.

The album opens with the brief, acoustic “Prelude,” which segues into “Nothing to Hide,” with California singing obscure lyrics about being “married to the same bride.” He’s much more direct on “Nature’s Way,” an early commentary on environmental problems that maintains its relevance to this day.

Ferguson’s “Animal Zoo” mines a similar vein in a lamentation about living in the city: “The air I breathe, the water I drink/Is selling me short and turning me ’round.” There’s a bit of a misogynistic twist, though, it seems: “Oh, no, something went wrong/You’re much too fat and a little too long.” That last line is chanted quite a few times during the song’s fadeout.

California and keyboardist John Locke, both of whom now are deceased, combined to write “Love Has Found a Way.” That segues into the short, plaintive “Why Can’t I Be Free,” yet another world-gone-wrong rumination.

The attitude picks up with “Mr. Skin,” which is carried by Mark Andes’ thundering bass and the use of a horn section to punctuate the quirky melody. Ferguson’s lyrics reflect the boats of some kind of larger-than-life character: “I can bring you pain, I can bring you sudden pleasure/Your life will only gain if your love’s final measure.”

Locke provides one of his many ethereal instrumentals with “Space Child,” which is followed by a couple of Spirit’s harder-rocking numbers, Ferguson’s “When I Touch You” and “Street Worm.” A trio of California compositions wrap up the album on a relatively optimistic note: “Life Has Just Begun,” “Morning Will Come” and “Soldier,” which reprises a touch of “Prelude” toward the end, bringing “Dr. Sardonicus” full circle.

California eventually returned to the Spirit fold, teaming with Cassidy to keep the band going into the mid-’90s. Unfortunately, California drowned off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii, while swimming with his 12-year-old son, who survived. Randy was only 45.

Locke, who played occasionally with Spirit after the end of the original lineup, died of lymphoma in 2006.

Ferguson went on to have a solo hit in 1978 with “Thunder Island.” Three decades later, he won a Film & TV Music Award for his score of the NBC-TV series “The Office.” Andes has played with numerous musicians over the years, including Ian McLagan, who’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Small Faces and Faces.

Cassidy, who was California’s father-in-law, was one of the senior citizens of rock during Spirit’s heyday, having started his professional music career in 1937. He’ll turn 89 on May 4.

As for “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” it remained a steady seller for Epic, eventually being awarded Gold Album status six years after its release. For fans of the classic rock era, it remains a must-hear effort.

“Head Hunters” by Herbie Hancock (1973)

Traditionalists will hate to admit it, but jazz reached its commercial zenith when combined with elements of rock for a musical style called fusion.

Whether the artistic component matched the sales is up for debate, but fusion still has plenty of fans, even though its viability petered out some three decades ago.

Keyboardist Herbie Hancock had been highly visible on the jazz scene, as a solo artist and as a member of Miles Davis’ band, since he was in his early 20s. By 1973, he was ready to embrace fusion in a manner that combined funky, synthesizer-driven grooves with inflections of traditional jazz.

The result was “Head Hunters,” a wholly accessible album for the average listener when compared with some of Davis’ pioneering forays into fusion. The album quickly raced to the top of Billboard’s jazz chart, hit No. 2 on the R&B chart and, to the great delight of Columbia Records executives, topped out at No. 13 on the Billboard 200.

All that made it the biggest-selling jazz album to date.

Of course, commercial success sometimes runs inverse to the musicianship involved, but “Head Hunters” deserves to be a part of any discriminating listener’s collection. Hancock teams with woodwinds player Bennie Maupin, bassist Paul Jackson and percussionists Harvey Mason and Bill Summers to present a quartet of expertly constructed songs.

Leading off is “Chameleon,” a group composition that features one of the most recognizable riffs of the ’70s. As Hancock and the rhythm section lay down the groove, Maupin overdubs himself to create a horn section that drives the melodic element. Hancock follows with a tasteful synthesizer solo before the song switches gears entirely.

The middle section of “Chameleon” is more reminiscent of Hancock’s highly regarded material he recorded for Blue Note, with his electric piano flowing breezily on top of Jackson’s fluid bass playing, backed by suitable synthesizer flourishes. Then it’s back to the original theme to conclude 15-plus minutes worth of jazz’s most essential compositions.

The album continues with an update of “Watermelon Man,” a song Hancock wrote for his debut album, “Takin’ Off” (1962); it later became a top-10 hit for Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria. The “Head Hunters” arrangement opens with the unconventional sounds of Summers blowing into a beer bottle before the song heads into more familiar territory, using an arrangements that’s credited to Mason.

“Sly” takes its title from one of Hancock’s prime inspirations for “Head Hunters.” As he wrote in the liner notes:

“I started thinking about Sly Stone and how much I loved his music and how funky ‘Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself’ is. I was hearing that song over and over and over again. Then I had this mental image of me playing in Sly’s band, playing something funky like that. Then the next image that came to me was about my own band playing in Sly Stone’s musical direction.”

The song “Sly” opens in a fairly relaxed manner before picking up the tempo with a section featuring Maupin’s fluid horn playing. Hancock keeps up the pace with an electric piano solo before the song concludes in the way it started.

The final track, “Vein Melter,” wraps up the album in a slow, steady rhythm that allows soloists Maupin and Hancock to play some of their most expressive melodies. Columbia released an edited version of the song as a single.

“Head Hunters” is in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, a fitting place for an album that stands as perhaps fusion’s defining moment.

“Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One” by the Kinks (1970)

One of the quirkiest hits of the Classic Rock era is “Lola,” Raymond Douglas Davies’ tale of an encounter with a transvestite. It reached the Top 10 despite its subject matter and continues to be a listener favorite four decades after the fact.

The album for which “Lola” sort of serves as the title track also brought the Kinks back to commercial viability in the United States, where the band had been absent from the charts for a few years. Much of that can be attributed to the refusal of the American Federation of Musicians to issue permits for the group to perform, but that situation was rectified in 1969.

“Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One” (there never was a Part Two) takes shots at the recording industry as something of a concept album, particularly the first side of the LP. Songs like “Denmark Street” and “Get Back in Line” reflect the odds against a young songwriter making headway in a tough business. “Top of the Pops” chronicles the path to chart success, but much of that is dashed in the brief but stinging song that follows, “The Moneygoround”:

“Eyes down, round and round/Let’s all sit and wach the money go ’round/Everyone takes a little bit here and a little bit there/Do they all deserve the money from a song they’ve never heard?/They don’t know the tune and they don’t know the words/But they don’t give a damn.”

Tell us how you really feel, Ray!

Beyond the industry-ripoff theme, “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One” is loaded with strong material, starting with “Introduction,” which turns out to be a snippet of the album-closing “Got to Be Free.” The first proper song, “The Contenders,” is a prime slice of Kinks’ power pop that in part serves as a commentary on the partnership between Davies and his brother and longtime bandmate, Dave: “We’re not the greatest when when we’re separated/But when we’re together I think we’re going to make it.”

Dave Davies takes one of his two songwriting turns on “Strangers,” which also seems to address the sibling relationship with the key line “We are not two, we are one.” On his other track, Dave cranks out some heavy rock with “Rats,” a metaphor for the inconsiderate attitude inherent in society.

Ray addresses that same topic in one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Apeman,” in which the subject longs to be part of a simpler way of life: “The only time that I feel at ease is swinging up and down in a coconut tree/Oh, what a life of luxury, to be like an apeman.”

That song complements “Power Man,” which takes the opposite approach with its invoking names like Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler in examining money as the root of all evil.

Ray continues in an escapist vein on “This Time Tomorrow,” a melancholy ballad about getting away “on a spaceship somewhere sailing across an empty sea,” or at least by means of an airplane. “Got to Be Free” also falls into that category, as Davies sings, “We’ve got to get out of this world somehow.”

Despite the seemingly depressing subject matter, the Kinks make “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One” by employing mostly upbeat music to the lyrics, and by Ray’s vocals conveying a general tongue-in-cheek attitude. The real strength of the album lies with the songs, themselves, which represent a strong, cohesive set of material.

The band was able to sustain its momentum for the follow-up, the country-flavored “Muswell Hillbillies,” before lapsing back into commercial semi-obscurity until the late 1970s, when albums like “Low Budget” and the live “One for the Road” became top sellers.

By that time, the song “Lola” was firmly entrenched in the pantheon of memorable rock songs. Many of the other songs on “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One” deserve to be there, too.

“#1 Record” by Big Star (1972)

The concept of Fox’s “That ’70s Show” didn’t appeal to me at first.

I’d given ABC’s “The Wonder Years” a try and found that Fred Savage’s portrayal of early-teen Kevin Arnold brought back too many not-so-fond memories. So I anticipated more of the same.

As soon as I heard the theme song, I knew I was going to enjoy “That ’70s Show.” The creators chose Big Star’s “In the Street,” one of my favorites songs by the legendary group fronted by the late Alex Chilton.

I’ll nitpick a bit. Fox didn’t pony up for the Big Star original, opting instead for a version performed by Todd Griffin during the first season and – I guess the budget grew – Cheap Trick for the final seven. Chilton, who co-wrote “In the Street” with the late Chris Bell, told Rolling Stone’s John D. Luerssen about the royalties per episode:

“It’s actually ironic that the amount is $70,” Chilton said. “To me it’s ‘That $70 Show.'”

Anyway, “That ’70s Show” is set in small-town Wisconsin, and I kind of doubt that the characters actually would have heard of Big Star, let alone sing along to one of its songs on the car radio. The band’s three albums at the time experienced notoriously poor sales, suffering from lack of distribution and promotion.

Then again, some copies of Big Star’s albums probably made their way to the Land of Cheese. They did get around enough way back when to influence such fledgling musicians as R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Matthew Sweet and the members of Minneapolis’ the Replacements.

Personally, I was barely aware of Big Star until Fantasy Records and Rykodisc started releasing the band’s material on compact disc in the early ’90s. I promptly purchased everything available, starting with the debut, “#1 Record.”

Actually, the CD pairs that album is paired with its successor, “Radio City,” so I tend to consider the two as a single package. When it comes to separating them, I give the first a slight nod over the second, because of its song selection and the presence of Bell on his only Big Star album.

Ten of the 12 compositions on “#1 Record” are attributed to the songwriting team of Bell and Chilton. The two often cited the influence of the Beatles, and they decided to follow the Lennon-McCartney model of crediting.

The debut’s first five tracks fall under that category, and they introduce Big Star as a band with an apparent formula for success: tightly constructed songs featuring memorable guitar hooks coupled with appealing harmony vocals. The songs alternate between heavier rock, starting with the descending-chord lamentation of “Feel,” and softer ballads.

Speaking of which, “The Ballad of El Goodo” contains one of Big Star’s most enduring melodic lines with its chorus of “There ain’t no one gonna turn me ’round,” and sets a template for the band’s followers with a defiant attitude: “Years ago, my heart was set to live, oh/But i’ve been trying hard against unbelievable odds.”

“In the Street” is familiar to anyone who’s watched the aforementioned Fox series. But do yourself a favor and listen to the original, which takes a subtle approach when compared with the bludgeoning the song takes at the hands of Cheap Trick. (And don’t listen for anyone chanting “We’re all all right!”)

Chilton used to introduce “Thirteen” as a song he wrote when he was about that age. Whatever the case, it stands as perhaps the ultimate statement on early-teen relationships, with its lyrics nailing the tentativeness and confusion of boy-girl encounters: “Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of/Would you be an outlaw for my love?/If it’s so, well, let me know/If it’s “no”, well, I can go/I won’t make you.”

Then it’s back to a harder approach with the rocker “Don’t Lie to Me,” which serves as a counterpoint to “Thirteen” with its braggadocio: “Don’t cross me, babe/Think you won’t, don’t do it, for sure, for sure/Don’t cross me, babe.”

The band’s bassist, the late Andy Hummel, contributed “India,” a fanciful tune that conjures exotic images lyrically and by employing a recorder as one of the instruments.

“When My Baby’s Beside Me,” which opens Side Two of the LP, was selected as the single from “#1 Record.” I’ve always considered that to be somewhat curious, given the strength of some of the other material, but the songs does stack up well against some stiff competition.

Big Star’s harmonies shine through in Bell’s optimistic “My Life Is Right,” which dovetails into the plaintive “Give Me Another Chance” and “Try Again.” Following is the acoustic “Watch the Sunrise” and the brief “ST 100/6,” which wraps up the album with some Beatlesque singing.

As great a pairing as history has made Bell and Chilton, by the time of “Radio City” was recorded, Bell no longer was with Big Star. He was working on a body of solo material before he died in a car crash at age 27; Rykodisc released it about 15 years later as “I Am the Cosmos.”

Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens and Hummel (replaced by John Lightman) continued as Big Star for a few more years, adding the enigmatic album “Third/Sister Lovers” to the discography. Reunions in the ’90s and ’00s resulted in a live album, “Columbia,” and studio effort, “In Space.” In 2009 came “Keep an Eye on the Sky,” a four-disc, 98-song retrospective featuring plenty of previously unreleased material, including a 1973 concert.

On March 17, 2010, Chilton died of a heart attack at age 59. Hummel died three months later, leaving Stephens as the sole survivor as one of rock’s shining documents in “#1 Record.”