Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

“The Basement Tapes” by Bob Dylan & The Band (1975)

On July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan was on the way home from visiting his manager, Albert Grossman, in the countryside near Woodstock, N.Y. He was riding on his 1964 Triumph T100, with his wife, Sara, following in a car.

What happened next remains a subject of conjecture nearly half a century later. Dylan told various people that he either hit an oil slick or was blinded by the sun. Other sources blame a mechanical problem with the bike. Whatever the case, he went down hard on the pavement, cracking a vertebra.

Rather than simply recuperate and resume his touring schedule, Dylan turned into a virtual recluse. He’d been less than well-received in many quarters since he started to add rock elements to his traditional folk-blues, with audiences on his recently concluded British tour contributing particular vitriol. Listen to the second disc of his “Bootleg Series: Vol. 6” for a taste of what he and his backing band, the Hawks, received.

So he apparently decided to lay low for a while, fueling speculation that he either was dead or close to it. Two years would pass before he released his next album, the low-key masterpiece “John Wesley Harding.” In 1969, his appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival was tremendously received by fans who thought they’d never see him in concert again. Similarly, the highlight of George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh was Dylan’s first live appearance in the United States in more than five years. And it wouldn’t be until 1974 that he toured again, with the Hawks – by then, renowned throughout the world as The Band – complementing him musically.

The reclusive Dylan kept busy, though. He and the Hawks got together during 1967, while the music world received the likes of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Are You Experienced?” and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” producing a low-key, back-to-the-roots series of recordings that ran counter to the grander explorations of the rock community at large.

“The Basement Tapes” represents Columbia Records’ distillation of those recordings, which perhaps numbered a hundred, eight years after the fact. Many of the 24 tracks on the two-record set were recognizable to listeners, either through cover versions of the Dylan compositions or tracks that the Band re-recorded for its debut album, the landmark “Music from Big Pink.” And many of the songs were recognizable because they’d been available outside of Columbia’s control for years.

“The Great White Wonder” is the name attached to what is considered as the first bootleg rock album, which surfaced in 1969. It contained a handful of songs that Dylan and the Band had cut during the 1967 sessions, along with a number of other rarities dating back to Dylan’s formative years as a musician.

At any rate, by the time “The Basement Tapes” appeared, the legend had grown sufficiently that the album went to No. 7 on the charts and drew almost unanimous critical acclaim. The dissenting voices didn’t complain about the music, per se, but about how the album was structured. Many of the original ’67 recordings were nowhere to be found, while the Band’s material given a much more prominent role, and some of those tracks had been cut relatively recently. Plus a good bit of “The Basement Tapes” had been subjected to overdubs, about which purists always complain.

Whatever the case, the finished product stands as a major document in the development and maturity of rock music, offering a series of entertaining and whimsical vignettes that examine numerous topics, often in a thoroughly obtuse manner.

The official version of “The Basement Tapes” opens with “Odds and Ends,” which may well have served as the album’s summation, if the title is any indicator. Dylan seems to acknowledge as much in the lyrics: “I’ve had enough, my box is clean/You know what I’m saying and you know what I mean.”

“Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast)” is a performance by the Band, or more accurately, composer Richard Manuel and bass player Rick Danko, who recorded the basic track in 1967. They joined with the rest of the group – Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson – to finish the track shortly before the album’s release.

“Million Dollar Bash” was familiar to fans of the British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, having appeared on that group’s third album, “Unhalfbricking,” in 1968. The song contains brilliant Dylan wordplay throughout; for example: “Well, I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist/Punched myself in the face with my fist/I took my potatoes down to be mashed/Then I made it over to that million dollar bash.”

“Yazoo Street Scandal” demonstrates why the Band became one of the most important rock groups to emerge in the late ’60s, with the elements of songwriting (Robertson), vocal delivery (Helm) and distinctive instrumentation (particularly Hudson’s organ) putting forth the tale of a rainstorm of dubious origin set against a colorful cast of characters, including a pill-popping prostitute named Eliza.

Dylan returns for the relatively subdued “Goin’ to Acapulco,” a destination for an obvious reason: “Goin’ down to see some girl/Goin’ to have some fun.” Then the proceedings shift back to the Band for “Katie’s Been Gone,” another track that would have been right at home on one of the group’s first two albums, which made such an impact in the rock world before the end of the decade.

“Lo and Behold” is another great lyrical romp that makes the listener wonder what the hell Dylan is talking about, but can’t help enjoying the song, anyway. He invokes Pittsburgh as a train stop leading up to this gem:

What’s the matter, Molly, dear/What’s the matter with your mound?
What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?/This is chicken town!

Speculation about the Band’s “Bessie Smith” places the song as being recorded perhaps two or as many as eight years after the original sessions for “The Basement Tapes.” Critics contend in that case, it doesn’t belong on the album. But it’s a suitably melodic, melancholy number that certainly fits well within the Band’s canon of subtle storytelling.

Dylan’s “Clothes Line Saga” evokes images of neighbors hanging out, shooting the breeze, as this fanciful exchange illustrates:

“Have you heard the news?” he said with a grin, “The Vice President’s gone mad”
“Where?” “Downtown.” “When?” “Last night”
“Hmm, say, that’s too bad”

It’s not know where this may or may not have occurred involving Hubert H. Humphrey …

“Apple Suckling Tree” approaches traditional folk in delivery, the lyrics notwithstanding. Again, Dylan appears to have great fun delivering words seemingly at random: “Who should I tell, oh, who should I tell?/The 49 of you like bats out of hell/Oh, underneath that old apple suckling tree.”

In “Please Mrs. Henry,” the narrator appears to be a drunken mess, imploring his landlady to take care of him in one way or another, like letting him use the bathroom: “Now, I’m startin’ to drain/My stool’s gonna squeak/If I walk too much farther/My crane’s gonna leak.”

“Tears of Rage” already was a widely known and acclaimed song because of its appearance as the leadoff track on 1968’s “Music from Big Pink.” Dylan sings “The Basement Tapes” version, an elegaic reading that conveys the anguish being felt by some elements of American society in the ’60s. And today, for that matter.

On the two-CD set currently in print, “Too Much of Nothing” opens the second disc with a haunting melody and matching lyrics: “Say hello to Valerie, say hello to Vivian/Send them all my salary, on the waters of oblivion.” Peter, Paul & Mary, whose version of “Blowing in the Wind” had shot Dylan, the songwriter, to superstardom, also covered “Too Much of Nothing” and took it to the Top 40 in 1967.

The rollicking “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” contains lyrics that are as difficult to fathom as the title suggests. They’re a hoot, though:

Now, pull that drummer out from behind that bottle
Bring my pipe, we’re gonna shake it
Slap that drummer with a pie that smells
Take me down to California, baby

“Ain’t No More Cane” is a traditional song that the Band played at Woodstock, in between scorching blues-rock sets by Johnny Winter and Ten Years After. The recording date of “The Basement Tapes” version also is subject to much speculation and could have been done as late as 1975.

“Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)” is based on songs about the rising of the Mississippi, with Dylan’s unique take on proceedings: “Well, it’s sugar for sugar, and salt for salt/If you go down in the flood, it’s gonna be your own fault.” The tune also was covered by Fairport Convention, appearing on the live album “A Moveable Feast.”

Manuel sings the raucous “Ruben Remus,” which may have been a “Music from Big Pink” outtake. “Tiny Montgomery” features more of Dylan’s nonsensical lyrics in a spirited romp about an ostensibly friendly fellow who may or may not be going to San Francisco.

The Byrds covered “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and made it the first track on their milestone “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (1968). Roger McGuinn described his fascination with the song in choosing it for such a visible position: “It was country-ish and had that Dylan mystique where you couldn’t really figure what he was talking about, yet the lyrics nevertheless drew you in. … I always thought it was about when Bob was laid up in Woodstock after the bike accident and sure wasn’t going anywhere.”

“Don’t Ya Tell Henry” was written by Dylan but performed by the Band on “The Basement Tapes,” in another session possibly as late as 1975. The Band also played the song at the mammoth Watkins Glen festival in 1973, an authorized version of which was released in the mid-’90s.

“Nothing Was Delivered” also appeared on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” with the Byrds making it the closing track in a grand arrangement featuring steel guitar runs and well-blended harmony vocals. The version on “The Basement Tapes” is much more raw, perhaps better conveying Dylan’s story of a drug deal gone bad using perhaps his most direct lyrics on the album.

“Open the Door, Homer” evokes a Count Basie song called “Open the Door, Richard” … actually, that’s what Dylan sings in the chorus. Thunderclap Newman covered the song on its sole album, “Hollywood Dream,” and Fairport Convention titled it using “Richard” on “Red & Gold.”

“Long Distance Operator” is a Dylan song that dates from the mid-’60s, but Manuel sings lead on “The Basement Tapes” version. It’s a blues song with a groove, carried musically by Hudson’s whirling organ.

“This Wheel’s on Fire” closes the album as another song that gained fame from its appearance on “Music from Big Pink,” along with the Byrds’ proto-metal version on “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde.” The “wheel” probably refers to the one that caused all the trouble on Dylan’s Triumph.

And by extension, caused “The Basement Tapes” to come into existence.

“Bringing It All Back Home” by Bob Dylan (1965)

Pinpointing the start of the “classic rock” era is purely subjective.

Some observers place the transition from early rock ‘n’ roll to a more enlightened form squarely on the shoulders of the Beatles, perhaps starting with their first recording session with George Martin in September 1962 or their February 1964 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The release of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” in the summer of ’64 gave early exposure to the potential of power chords and distorted lead guitar. The Rolling Stones came as close to anyone in perfecting the form with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in the spring of ’65.

Much of what distinguishes “classic rock” has to do with its presentation, evolving in emphasis from 45-RPM to 33 1/3. In that context, one long-player might be considered the first of the Classic Rock Era, which takes in roughly 15 years, from 1965 through the end of the ’70s.

Bob Dylan recorded his fifth album during a three-day blitz in January 1965 at Columbia Recording Studios in New York City. When “Bringing It All Back Home” hit the shelves on March 27, quite a few fans were puzzled at what appeared to be his abrupt switch from acoustic guitar to louder instruments: He’d gone electric.

That was only partially true. Dylan first recorded with an electric band in late 1962, but the resulting track, “Mixed Up Confusion,” disappeared quickly after Columbia Records released it as a single. And while the entire first side of “Bringing It All Back Home” is electric, Dylan returns to his familiar acoustic approach on Side Two.

But no matter how it’s presented, the music on Dylan’s first album of 1965 represents a major step forward in the maturation process of rock.

His lyrics had been progressing from relatively easy-to-digest protest songs to more personal and arcane matters, such as “To Ramona” on his fourth LP, “Another Side of Bob Dylan”:

The flowers of the city
Though breathlike, get deathlike at times
And there’s no use in tryin’
To deal with the dyin’
Though I cannot explain that in lines

On “Bringing It All Back Home,” Dylan ups the ante right off the bat. The opening track, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” opened a whole new world of arcane wordplay for rock-oriented songwriters, none of whom have yet to come up with anything matching this:

Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off
Look out, kid, it’s somethin’ you did
God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way, lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skip cap in the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten

Dylan has cited Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” as a stylistic antecedent, as Bob’s fast-paced delivery is sort of reminiscent of what Chuck did with his tune. But “Subterranean Homesick Blues” also sounds like a primordial form of what would become rap, albeit without the obligatory references to violence toward women.

Whatever the case, Columbia decided to release the song as a single, and it reached No. 39 to just barely give Dylan his first Top 40 hit.

“She Belongs to Me” seems like an easygoing love song, but Dylan weaves in more than a hint of contempt for the subject: “She’s a hypnotist collector, you are a walking antique.”

Dylan’s protest inclinations manifest themselves on “Maggie’s Farm,” this time with a few twists. The electric backing provides a rollicking backdrop to provide Dylan with some swagger as he expresses his defiance of oppression, and the lyrics, while obtuse, still resonate fully with listeners. Take the description of Maggie’s brother, for instance: “He hands you a nickel, he hands you a dime/He asks you with a grin if you’re havin’ a good time/Then he fines you every time you slam the door.” You’ve worked for that guy!

“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” actually is a love song, about Sara Lowndes, later Mrs. Robert Zimmerman. Rather than serving up the usual series of platitudes, Dylan describes his future wife through intriguing pieces of imagery:

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of match sticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

Dylan’s sense of humor comes to the forefront on the album’s next three songs, which close out the electric portion of the album. “Outlaw Blues” features a series of absurdist declarations – “I might look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like a Jesse James” – before he wraps up with a cogent protest of miscegenation:

I got a woman in Jackson, I ain’t gonna say her name
She’s a brown-skin woman, but I love her just the same

By the way, Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane band, the Great Society, covered “Outlaw Blues” with Grace singing about her love for a “brown-skinned man.” Perhaps it’s best that such performances were limited to the more open-minded audiences of the San Francisco area.

“On the Road” is Dylan at his funniest. Almost. How can you not grin when confronted with lyrics like:

Well, I wake up in the morning
There’s frogs inside my socks
Your mama, she’s a-hidin’
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearin’
A Napoleon Bonarparte mask

And so it continues for two-and-a-half minutes, with Dylan questioning why in the world he’d hang around such shenanigans.

But that’s merely a prelude for the six-and-a-half minutes of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” which begins, appropriately enough, with the backing band blowing its cue and Dylan cracking up laughing. What follows is a wholly amusing deconstruction of many of America’s ills, framed against a rapid-fire twisting of words and phrases to create some type of surreal, yet believable, netherworld:

I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land
I yelled for Captain Arab, I have yuh understand
Who came running to the deck, said, “Boys, forget the whale
Look on over yonder, cut the engines, change the sail”

The narrator’s adventures go on to include a stint in jail, an explosion at a restaurant, a visit to a bank – “They asked me for collateral, I pulled down my pants” – threats of physical violence from a patriot, and his eventual return to his ship:

I saw three ships a-sailin’
There were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck”

The acoustic side of “Bringing It All Back Home” dispenses with humor for a quartet of lengthy, thought-inspiring compositions. The first, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was covered in a truncated version by the Byrds that went to No. 1 later in 1965 and served as the template for what became known as folk-rock. Then there’s the version by William Shatner … that’s a classic of a completely different sort.

“Gates of Eden” is shrouded in mystery as far as lyrical meaning, combining plenty of Biblical allusions with modern imagery, most notably “the motorcycle black Madonna, two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver-studded phantom cause.” Perhaps the final verse best sums up the song’s intent:

At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means
At times I think there are no words
But these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden

“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is a strikingly foreboding composition that addresses the tensions ready to boil over in the mid-’60s:

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Made everything from toy guns that sparks
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

Dylan counters such start portrayals with the figurative shrugging of shoulders: “But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life and life only,” which would seem to represent less of protest than resignation to inevitability.

“Bringing It All Back Home” closes with a diatribe against an unknown subject, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Speculation has run rampant over the years as to who Baby Blue might be, but Dylan has kept his mouth shut. The song remains one of his best-known and most-covered tunes, with Jerry Garcia singing it with the Grateful Dead off an on for the better part of 30 years.

Despite the electric/acoustic dichotomy, or perhaps because of it, “Bringing It All Back Home” became cracked the Top 10 for Dylan, peaking at No. 6 in the spring of 1965. By then, he was steeped in another project that would raise the rock music bar one more notch.

But that’s another story.

“Rubber Soul” by the Beatles (1965)

A good argument can be made that every Beatles album, at least the ones over which they had creative control, should be on any list of the all-time greats. My erstwhile colleague Brad Hundt, a talented entertainment writer and lifelong Beatlemaniac, no doubt would do so on his list.

But as a reminder, Harry’s Hundred combines my respect for an album’s merits, my familiarity with its contents and how much I enjoy listening to it. So it’s not exactly a “greatest” list; if so, stuff like “Golden Earring Live” would be nowhere near it. But that ain’t a bad album, and I still like it a whole lot 35 years after its release.

So I’ve narrowed down my Beatles selections, and here’s where we start, at the juncture when the Beatles evolved from pop to art, when they demonstrated once and for all that they weren’t just some British guys with long hair and Edwardian suits making a bunch of noise.

What’s remarkable about “Rubber Soul” is that the Beatles and George Martin recorded it on deadline, trying to rush-release it before the holiday shopping season. The band had just returned to England from another North American tour full of fans screaming so loud that the musicians couldn’t hear themselves. Rather than take time off, as they’d do following their final tour the following year, they plunged headlong into writing new songs.

What emerged was a departure from most of the love-song music they’d made to that point. Sure, boy-girl relationships continued to be a prominent theme, but in a much more creative manner.

The opener, “Drive My Car,” is indicative of the new direction: John Lennon draws from the Robert Johnson “Terraplane Blues” songbook – Robert Plant later would use it to optimal effect on Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot” – to equate sex with operating a vehicle, and this time it’s the woman who’s enticing the man.

Lennon explores the male-female dynamic with sophistication previously unknown in the Beatles canon on “Norwegian Wood,” which turned about to be the veiled story of his affair with a journalist. Musically, the song also marks a major step forward, as George Harrison plays the sitar for the first time in rock music history. (Outtakes, such as the one released on “Anthology 2,” show the instrument to be much more prominent in the mix than on the official version.)

Paul McCartney joins the fray with “You Won’t See Me,” a commentary on his relationship with Jane Asher, one that would end a couple of years later when she caught him red-handed with an American woman named Francine Schwartz. As for the song, it displays a certain amount of petulance not found in previous McCartney compositions: “When I call you up, your line’s engaged/I have had enough, so act your age.”

“Nowhere Man” joins previous classics “I’m a Loser” and “Help!” as explorations of Lennon’s self-doubt, a condition that would manifest itself considerably in the coming years. The opening a cappella recitation of the lyrics stands as one of the most striking examples of the Beatles’ vocal abilities, and the song remains one of the most revered in the band’s catalog.

“Think for Yourself” demonstrates why George Harrison felt slighted when it came to the paucity of his compositions on Beatles albums. By any measure, it’s an exceptionally advanced composition for 1965: The lyrics resonate fully almost half a century later, what with the utter vapidness into which popular culture has evolved, and the frightening implications that has for the future of the world. Instrumentally, McCartney’s fuzz-toned bass guitar is at once innovative and another step toward what would become hard rock.

Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” became one of his best-known anthems. But he explored basically the same theme two years earlier with “The Word,” which also shows the Beatles’ overall sound becoming harder-edged as the ’60s progressed.

OK, so why do I rank “Rubber Soul” at a spot where 36 albums are ahead of it? Sorry, I’ve tried to warm up to “Michelle” for decades, but it’s one of the few Beatles songs that leaves me cold. Sure, it explores traditional French themes as opposed to the standard pop/rock of the time, which is interesting from a musical standpoint but hardly endears it to listeners who are prefer something a bit heavier.

Ringo Starr’s first Beatles co-composing credit appears on “What Goes On,” a relatively nondescript country-flavored tune that has its charms but isn’t quite the remedy for getting back on track after “Michelle.” Neither is “Girl,” though you have to like the “tit-tit-tit” backing vocals that escaped the censors.

McCartney redeems himself considerably with “I’m Looking Through You,” another jab at Jane through a relatively complex set of lyrics. Two distinct versions exist of the song, with the one that first was recorded serving as a sought-after collector’s item for decades, until “Anthology 2” made that moot.

Lennon’s much-heralded “In My Life” is one of the first of his many trips down memory lane, a bit more upbeat than, say, “Mother,” but still containing a fair amount of poignancy. “Some are dead and some are living,” for example, refers to Stuart Sutcliffe; it’s been conjectured that John always shouldered some of the blame for Stu’s early death.

When the Beatles were writing and recording what became “Rubber Soul,” they managed to come up with 13 new songs. The 14th, “Wait,” was an outtake from the “Help!” album, but the track tends to mesh seamlessly with most of the newer material.

Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” while not quite reaching the heights of “Think for Yourself,” still shows that he would have been the chief songwriter in just about any other rock band of the era.

The album closes with the tongue-in-cheek “Run for Your Life,” which is about as far removed thematically as you can get from tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Lennon, who admitted nicking the opening line from Arthur Gunter’s “Baby, Let’s Play House” (as sung by Elvis Presley), ended up despising “Run for Your Life.” We’ll blame that development, like many others, on Yoko’s influence …

For the record (pun intended), the American “Rubber Soul” LP is a substantially different album from its British counterpart, containing two songs from the U.K. version of “Help!” – “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” – while jettisoning “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” and “If I Needed Someone.”

By opening the album with “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” which sounds somewhat like Paul Simon compositions of the period (or vice versa), Capitol Records made the U.S. “Rubber Soul” appear to be more of a folk-rock album, to compete commercially with the likes of Bob Dylan and the Byrds on Columbia. Like the Beatles needed help with sales!

Seriously, whatever the version, “Rubber Soul” went to the top of the charts around the world, proving the Beatles could appeal to a more serious, mature audience than the screaming teeny-boppers who packed their concerts. In turn, that made the band members realize they probably didn’t need to be trying to perform in front of screaming teeny-boppers.

But that’s another story.

“Physical Graffiti” by Led Zeppelin (1975)

The playlist of a Pittsburgh radio station served as the impetus for a game.

“Try this,” I told my son. “Guess how many songs until Led Zeppelin comes on again. I’ll say three.”

He said four. Two songs later, “The Immigrant Song” came blasting out of the speakers. So I guess I won.

Later, he told me he and his friends had gotten into the habit of playing the Led Zeppelin game. The winning number never was very high.

The radio station’s persistence helped skew my view of Led Zeppelin. Drummer John Bonham drank himself to death three weeks into my freshman year of college, and my roommate, Mike, and I decorated our dorm-room door to pay homage to the fallen Bonzo.

Eventually, though, I heard Zeppelin so often that I started to avoid it. Over the next few decades, I took the attitude that I’d pretty much heard all I needed from Bonham, Jones, Page and Plant.

Then came the release of archival material, “The BBC Sessions” and particularly “How the West Was Won.” Listening to the band beyond the context of its original discography reinvigorated my enthusiasm.

My favorite album from Led Zeppelin’s days as an active band is “Physical Graffiti,” and not just because it’s a two-LP set. The album is suitably eclectic: epics, toss-offs and solid pieces of songwriting demonstrate Zeppelin’s breadth as a recording unit.

Among the epics, the most enduring is “Kashmir” (which happens to be one of the songs I got tired of hearing on the radio). The Middle Eastern themes complex time signatures and effective use of varied instrumentation all serve to create what just might be Jimmy Page’s best all-around work, or at least his most original.

“In My Time of Dying” is an old blues song that came by way of Blind Willie Johnson and Bob Dylan, but their versions sound nothing like the 11-plus minutes that Led Zeppelin poured into its interpretation. Page’s slide guitar and Robert Plant’s howling vocal lead the way into a heavy, largely improvisational jam that concludes with a fit of coughing and some studio banter.

Another lengthy tune, “In the Light,” opens the third side of the LP (or second CD) with John Paul Jones’ ethereal synthesizer strains, eventually punctuated by Plant’s double-tracked voice: “And if you feel, that you can’t go on …” The sense of foreboding eventually eases with a major-key bridge with a relatively cheery, wordless Plant singalong, until the main theme returns.

Following “In the Light” is a brief acoustic guitar number that turns out to be one of the highlights of “Physical Graffiti.” Page recorded “Bron-Yr-Aur” way back in the summer of 1970, during the sessions for what became “Led Zeppelin III,” and the piece takes its name from the cottage in which the band was staying during those recordings.

Next is “Down By the Seaside,” another acoustically oriented songs, the origins of which date to the sessions for “Led Zeppelin IV.” Two other songs that eventually ended up on “Physical Graffiti” – “Night Flight” and “Boogie With Stu,” featuring the late Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart – also were recording during preparation for the fourth album.

The single taken from the album for the American market – the band never released a 45 in its native Britain – was “Trampled Under Foot,” an upbeat song highlighted by Jones’ Hohner Clavinet D6. The B-side, “Black Country Woman,” was recorded in a garden at Mick Jagger’s house!

One more song of particular note is “The Rover,” which stands as one of Plant’s periodic explorations of his ’60s roots and the ideals therein, as he implores: “If we could just join hands.”

Several months after the release of “Physical Graffiti,” Plant nearly was killed in a car crash in Greece. Two years after that, his son, Karac Pendragon Plant, died of a virus while the band was on its final American tour. A year later, Sandy Denny, the former Fairport Convention vocalist who’d sang harmony on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, died after falling down a flight of stairs.

Then came Bonham’s demise.

So “Physical Graffiti” in many ways stands as the high point of Zeppelin’s career, as an artistic achievement and before tragedy tore away at the band and eventually broke it.

Thirty-two years later, you still hear Led Zeppelin on the radio quite a bit. And contrary to what I might have thought at one point, that’s not a bad thing!

“White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground (1968)

One of the many effective gags in “This Is Spinal Tap” is Nigel Tufnel and his amplifier that “goes to 11.”

A decade and a half before Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer came up the Spinal Tap concept, an actual rock band was in the studio, pushing their amplification to its absolute limit.

The Velvet Underground first gained notoriety as part of Andy Warhol’s multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable, with German chanteuse Nico (the late Christa Päffgen) adding a stunning visual element to the band.

Sometime around the release of the debut “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” the band parted ways with Warhol and Nico. The remaining members – Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker and the late Sterling Morrison – started exploring a more conventional musical direction, as evidenced by demos that later appeared on the all-encompassing box set “Peel Slowly and See.”

But when the Velvet Underground entered the studio in September 1967, Reed and company decided to see how far they could push the envelope when it came to making noise.

That was nothing new in the Velvets’ repertoire. Another “Peel Slowly and See” track, “Melody Laughter,” is an excerpt of the type of distorted improvisations the band often veered into during performances.

The resulting album, “White Light/White Heat,” sounds absolutely nothing like anything that preceded it, an amalgam of loud guitar, at one point even louder keyboards, thoroughly bizarre lyrics and the sound of a project with which existing recording technology couldn’t really cope.

The late Tom Wilson, who had made his name working with such acts as Boby Dylan and the Mothers of Invention, took on production duties (has he had for “Sunday Morning,” the most sonically advanced song on the debut). But he was lucky to capture much of anything on tape that wasn’t pure distortion.

The album opens with the title track, which picks up where “Heroin” from the debut left off, a narrative about intravenous amphetamine use with suitably rush-inducing guitar riffs. The song later became a vehicle for extended jamming, as best captured on the live compilation “1969.”

Cale’s contribution is “The Gift,” which basically is his short story accompanied by chaotic instrumentation. That fits the subject matter well: Cale’s narrative tells the tale of a young man who mails himself to his girlfriend’s house, with less-than-deal results.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation” mainly features the relatively dulcet vocals of Cale, with Reed’s rougher-edged commentary popping up here and there. The lyrics tell of a transvestite who’s undergoing a certain type of operation, when: “The ether tube’s leaking, says someone who’s sloppy/The patient, it seems, is not so well sleeping/The screams echo off the walls.”

“Here She Comes Now,” credited to all four Velvets, is by far the album’s most straightforward song, a relatively soft number with oblique lyrics that, in the most elemental analysis, might just refer to a female orgasm.

Side Two of the LP kicks off with Reed’s “I Heard Her Call My Name,” a slice of heavy rock during which Reed cuts loose with a couple of piercing guitar solos that seem to pay no attention to rhythm or chord structure. The woman referenced in the title appears to be deceased, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s made it thus far through “White Light/White Heat.”

The album concludes with one of rock’s groundbreaking performances: Seventeen minutes’ worth of “Sister Ray.”

The band decided to record the song in one take, live in the studio, with Reed and Morrison on guitars and Cale playing organ through a guitar amp. The results, as Reed explains in an interview for a publication called The Stranger:

“When we did ‘Sister Ray,’ we turned up to 10 flat-out, leakage all over the place. (Wilson) asked us when it would end. We didn’t know. We were doing the whole heavy-metal trip back then. If ‘Sister Ray’ isn’t an example of heavy metal, I don’t know what is.”

About the lyrical content, he says, “The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”

Sex, drugs and (distorted) rock ‘n’ roll. That was the Velvet Underground, turning it up as far as it would go.

“Elephant” by the White Stripes (2003)

During the recent Grammy Awards show, I opted instead to watch Jefferson Starship and The Contemporary Youth Orchestra on HDNet Concerts.

Yes, I heard a few chuckles when I mentioned that in the office the next day. But I could sing along with the Starship songs. I’ll guarantee I had no clue whatsoever about anything that was going on at the Grammys.

I’m a dinosaur. What can I say?

I didn’t watch the Grammys in 2004, either, but I was very familiar with one of the winners, for Best Alternative Music Album.

“Elephant” was the White Stripes’ fourth album and major-label debut, and Jack White made the most of the opportunity to make him and sister Meg major rock stars.

I’d heard of Jack as a damned good guitar player but had no idea about his prowess until I heard it for myself. Carrying the musical load in a classic power trio, with bass and drums, is difficult enough. Doing so with the backing of a minimalist percussionist is one exceptional feat.

Oh, and I’m not the only dinosaur. To quote Chuck Klosterman in Spin magazine: “Elephant was recorded entirely on pre-1963 analog equipment, and it sounds like heavy metal for the Great Depression. … Like his idol Bob Dylan, Jack White starts everything on the page, letting the lyrics, and the ever-shifting persona they articulate, shape the music.”

So Jack reached back to the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll for his 21st-century masterpiece.

“Elephant” opens with a song that also won a Grammy, for Best Rock Song: “Seven Nation Army” If you watch Penn State football, you’ve heard the band play the aggressive main riff when the Nittany Lions are on a drive; in fact, it’s become an anthem of sorts around the world, at sporting events and beyond. Including Arab Spring.

The lyrics certainly convey a strong sense of defiance: “I’m going to Wichita, far from this opera for evermore/I’m gonna work the straw, make the sweat drip out of every pore/And I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding/Right before the lord.”

Dylan might’ve been envious …

The other 13 songs on “Elephant” might not have such an international impact, but each is effective in its own way, as the Whites explore a variety of styles.

That includes the blues, which Jack blasts in a fury of bravado during “Ball and Biscuit.” (Yeah, that’s shown up in Captain Morgan commercials. Yuck.) He conjures the spirit of Muddy Waters and company by proclaiming himself “the seventh son,” then continues with pure macho swagger: “You read it in the newspaper, ask your girlfriends and see if they know/That my strength is tenfold girl/And I’ll let you see if you want to before you go.”

Muddy would’ve been proud …

Jack can express vulnerability, too, such as in “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” and “The Hardest Button to Button.” And he has a sense of humor, as evidenced by “It’s True That We Love One Another,” which plays out as a conversation between Jack, Meg and British singer Holly Golightly:

“Jack I think your pulling my leg, and I think maybe I better ask Meg/Meg do you think Jack really loves me? You know, I don’t care because Jack really bugs me/Why don’t you ask him now? Well I would, but Meg, I really just don’t know how/Just say ‘Jack, do you adore me?’ Well I would Holly but love really bores me”

Meg, by the way, does her debut as lead vocalist with “In the Cold, Cold Night.” Her voice has been compared to that of the late Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico of Velvet Underground fame. Yet more connections to the ’60s!

Maybe I’ll try to pay more attention to the current state of music so that I can prep for the 2013 Grammys. But unless another “Elephant” comes along, the odds of me watching something like Jefferson Starship again are much better.

“Blues for Allah” by the Grateful Dead (1975)

When the late promoter Bill Graham organized a concert he called SNACK – that stood for Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks – to benefit after-school programs in the San Francisco area, he corralled a bunch of his heavyweight buddies to participate.

How about some of these names: Bob Dylan, Neil Young (backed by The Band), Santana, Jefferson Starship, Joan Baez, Tower of Power and the Doobie Brothers.

Also part of the March 25, 1975, extravaganza, coming out of “retirement,” was a group of Graham’s oldest friends, the Grateful Dead.

The Dead ostensibly had played a series of farewell concerts at Graham’s Winterland in October 1974, part of which later appeared in “The Grateful Dead Movie” and the poorly mixed “Steal Your Face” album, and still later as a much-better-sounding five-CD soundtrack to the movie.

At any rate, when members of the Dead reunited for SNACK, they performed perhaps the most esoteric set of their 30-year career: a half-hour-plus instrumental jam of music that was new to the band’s repertoire, neither the psychedelia of the ’60s nor the roots-rock of the ’70s. This was a jazzier version of the Dead, augmented by keyboard player Merl Saunders and anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. And of course, the late Jerry Garcia’s fluid guitar playing helped weave everything together.

Even for a San Francisco audience, those in attendance at Kezar Stadium must have been mystified by the proceedings until Bob Weir sang the familiar “Johnny B. Goode” for the encore.

The bulk of the performance laid the groundwork for what became the Grateful Dead’s “comeback” album, “Blues for Allah.” Unlike its approach to previous studio albums, the band woodshedded for three months at Hart’s house, formulating new music throughout.

The finished product kicks off with a three-song medley that served as a highlight of many a Dead show for the next 20 years: “Help On the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower.” The relatively complex rhythmic patterns of the first two sections give way to a three-chord progression that benefits significantly from Garcia’s tasteful picking.

An instrumental medley, “King Solomon’s Marbles/Stronger Than Dirt or Milkin’ the Turkey,” incorporates themes that were prevalent at the SNACK show, with the rhythm section at full power.

Side One of the LP concludes with “The Music Never Stopped,” with lyricist John Perry Barlow capturing the Dead’s essence of “a band without description, like Jehovah’s favorite choir.” The original version clocks in at 4 1/2 minutes, but later concert versions often stretched beyond the 10-minute mark.

Side Two consists of an esoteric but rewarding sequence of songs, starting with the deceptively relaxed “Crazy Fingers,” which on closer examination contains a series of unconventional key changes, built around an arcane Robert Hunter poem.

Weir contributes an acoustic guitar instrumental, “Sage & Spirit.” According to longtime band associate Rock Scully in his book, “Living With the Dead”:

“Bobby wrote ‘Sage & Spirit’ while my daughters, named Sage and Spirit, were jumping on his bed and generally trashing his hotel room. He was trying to play his guitar and came up with the rhythm for this from their jumping. The flute (played by Steven Schuster) mimics their laughter.”

The album closes with another medley, “Blues for Allah/Sand Castles and Glass Camels/Unusual Occurrences in the Desert,” which fully exhibits the band’s experimental orientation. Supposedly the compositions were supposed to be the next in line among epic Dead concert jams, from “Viola Lee Blues” to “The Other One” to “Dark Star” to “Playing in the Band.” But the group played it live only a handful of times before abandoning it.

“Blues for Allah” is one of the Grateful Dead’s most fully realized studio projects, and one that stands up under scrutiny better than the band’s subsequent albums in the ’70s and ’80s. The title medley might be a bit of a challenge for the listener, but the other songs are among the Dead’s more memorable in the course of the long, strange trip.

When Don McLean’s “American Pie” was dominating the airwaves 40 years ago, we youngsters got a kick out of rhyming “Chevy” with “levee” more than trying to decipher deeper meanings.

At the time, I might have heard of Buddy Holly, but my first encounter with the Big Bopper wasn’t until “Chantilly Lace” appeared on the “American Graffiti” soundtrack the following year. And I’m not so sure about Richie Valens.

At any rate, “American Pie” kind of chronicles the state of rock ‘n’ roll from the airplane crash of Feb. 3, 1959, through the end of the ’60s. Despite urban legend, the song title is not the name of the plane.

My main question about the tragedy: Why were they flying around the Midwest in the dead of winter? Aviation wasn’t all that advanced 53 years ago, and when that plane – it was a Beechcraft Bonanza, with no specific appellation – took off from Clear Lake, Iowa, it didn’t travel too far before killing everyone on board.

In remembrance of the three musicians who were among the toll, here are a few nuggets pertaining to their careers and “the day the music died”:

  • Waylon Jennings, who was a member of Holly’s backing band the Crickets at the time, gave up his seat on behalf of the Bopper. (Waylon did die in February, but 43 years later.)
  • Tommy Allsup, another Cricket, flipped a coin with Valens to determine who would fly. Allsup lost. And won. He still is with us, at age 80.
  • Charles Hardin Holley (sic) was only 22 years old at the time but already had established himself as a premiere performer-songwriter in the nascent world of rock ‘n’ roll. His death was part of a series of events – the drafting of Elvis, the “retirement” of Little Richard, the cousin-marrying scandal of Jerry Lee Lewis and the jailing of Chuck Berry – that threatened to derail the new type of music.
  • A group of guys from Liverpool, UK, decided it would be cool to name their band after an insect, in the fashion of the Crickets. They didn’t decide on “Beetles,” though.
  • Holly’s “Not Fade Away” was the first American hit by a band named after a Muddy Waters song, the Rolling Stones. It later was played more than 550 times by a band that got its name from the dictionary, the Grateful Dead.
  • Richie Valens’ last name actually was Valenzuela. No word on whether he was related to baseball pitcher Fernando, but Richard Steven had yet to reach his 18th birthday when he died.
  • The Big Bopper’s name was was Jiles Perry Richardson, and he was a ripe old 28 at the time. He wrote the novelty song “Running Bear,” which to the best of my knowledge still is recorded to this day.
  • Dion DiMucci, who also was part of the Winter Dance Party package tour with his band the Belmonts, recalled in a 2009 interview: “I remember just sitting there alone on the bus, and Buddy’s guitar was on the back seat, Ritchie’s outfit was hanging from the luggage rack … There was the Big Bopper’s hat, just sitting there.”
  • Buddy’s pregnant wife, Maria, miscarried soon after the wreck, ending that part of the Holly family tree.
  • Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minn., attended a Winter Dance Party show on Jan. 31, 1959. Forty years later, as Bob Dylan accepting a Grammy, he recalled about Holly: I was three feet away from him…and he LOOKED at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was — I don’t know how or why — but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”
  • Buddy Holly had a single on the charts at the time of his death. It reached No. 13 in the United States and No. 1 in the United Kingdom. Its title: “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”