15 December, 2012

Here In My Car Again ... and Again...

Electric Ladyland - Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
I was given this album, the British import version with the controversial nudes cover, for my 18th birthday in Nov 1977. I have to admit, I rate it slightly lower on the quality scale than the Experience's debut LP, Are You Experienced? (1967), but it's still pretty fabulous.
The story of the album's making is one of late-night party sessions in New York's Record Plant studios. Hendrix would drag friends and hangers-on into the studio after carousing at his favourite New York clubs. This annoyed bass player Noel Redding so much he stopped bothering to turn up! The album features guest artists such as Steve Winwood; Jack Casady; and Dave Mason. And if Brian Jones had been less comatose, it would have been his piano on All Along the Watchtower.

Overall, the album is pretty even in its quality, with two killer standout tracks that close out this double-LP: All Along The Watchtower; and Voodoo Chile (Slight Return). Jimi's playing is sensational, as you might expect, and he makes use of some innovative production techniques that enhance his guitar work - like phasing back and forth between stereo-left and stereo-right.

Like I said, Are You Experienced? is more deserving of the classic label, but this was all Jimi's and you've got to love it for that too.

Harvest - Neil Young (1972)
It was one of my sisters' boyfriends who left this at our place in 1973. He never came back for it. I'd heard of Neil Young but knew nothing about him. And even being a Dylan fan didn't prepare me for Young's idiosyncratic vocal style. I thought he was kidding.

But Harvest has a haunting quality to it and beautiful production values. The crew for Young's third solo album features identities such as Linda Ronstadt; James Taylor; and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Harvest's opening track, Out On The Weekend, combines Young's folk and country influences.

There are a couple of overblown dirges that fans of this LP never mention (There's A World; A Man Needs A Maid) but everything else hangs together beautifully: the shuffling title track with it's plaintive pedal steel; the timeless trilogy of Heart of Gold, Old Man, and The Needle and the Damage Done; and two standout rockers in Alabama and Words.

The album's ubiquity has probably worked against it somewhat - you need to take it out of the record rack and play it right through, and all the reasons why you liked it so much in the first place will come flooding back to you.

Who's Next - The Who (1972)
This was one of the five albums my older sister bought for $5.95 all up when she joined the Australian Record Club in 1972. I was thirteen and loved it right from its first spin on our new second hand record player.

The Who needed a follow-up to their ground-breaking double-album rock opera Tommy and Pete Townsend, at his creative peak, had another massive work in mind. The Lifehouse project was designed to be another rock opera but when no-one else could understand what Pete was on about, it "fizzled out" into nine terrific songs and one of the all-time great albums.

If you ever doubted Keith Moon's place in the pantheon of great rock drummers, this is the album to turn you around. You can listen to him right across the whole LP and damned if he isn't doing something breathtaking at all times. And that probably goes for the rest of the group too.

The album opener, Baba O'Riley (and I don't mind if you only know this as oh yeah, that-CSI-Miami-teenage-wasteland-music) is a killer, with atmospheric synthesizers and an electric violin giving it an almost eastern European undertaste to its hard rock. All of the tracks are great - if there's a weak one, it's probably the six-minute Song Is Over that closes side one but Pete could probably explain why it belongs there even if I can't. The iconic Won't Get Fooled Again is just one of the brilliant songs on this album that also includes Behind Blue Eyes; Bargain and the John Entwistle-composed My Wife. Fabulous, all of them.

As an exercise, don't play this album for a number of years and then see what happens when you listen to it again: it'll be like a reunion with a long-lost best friend with whom you don't know how or why you ever lost contact.

Bang - James Gang (1973)
My first encounter with the James Gang happened back in 1976 when my stoner next-door neighbours moved out and left me all their records. This was one of the few playable ones, and the only reason I put it on for a listen was that it featured guitarist Tommy Bolin, who had just moved from the James Gang to Deep Purple to replace Richie Blackmore.

Bolin's playing is highly distinctive and he's capable not only of ripping it up like any 70s guitar hero, but also of great subtlety and charm. He begins the album using an echo-phaser for the intro to the opening song, Standing In the Rain, a great song.

There are purist James Gang fans who won't listen to anything post-Joe Walsh but this album is very consistent and the rhythm section of Jim Fox and Dale Peters, permanent band members through a passing parade of lineup changes, deserve plaudits for their outstanding work.

Vocalist Roy Kenner has a very distinctive style, highlighted on his multi-tracked a capella signature tune Rather Be Alone With You, while Bolin handles the lead vocals on Alexis, a ballad that builds while showcasing his repertoire of licks and tricks.

The James Gang were a really good band and, like the Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers, more than just an early staging post for prominent guitar players. It's a shame this lineup didn't put out more albums than this one and its 1974 follow up, Miami.

Countdown To Ecstasy - Steely Dan (1973)
What a tape of this album was doing on the car stereo of one of my dedicated heavy-metal fan best friends back in 1978, I'll probably never know. But it's a safe bet that the musicianship and songwriting on this album would sway even those least likely to appreciate Steely Dan's particular style of jazz-influenced soft-rock. And please, not that there's anything wrong with that...

The album opens with the near-manic Bodhishatva, and if this is your first taste of Steely Dan, the timing shifts and interweaving piano and guitar runs are bound to make a solid first impression. Even 40 years after its release, this album's high production values give it an immediacy that even Steely Dan's harshest critics (too LA-session-muso-slick, no rawness they would say) couldn't deny. The boppy autobiographical My Old School, a minor hit on US FM radio, evokes a universal nostalgia for lost youth that is thankfully unsentimental.

Despite the album's overall quality, none of the other tracks quite measure up to the elite standard of these two tracks, so it might be tempting for the listener to consign Countdown to Ecstasy to the too- readily-disdained "easy listening" category.

I think that would be selling it short though - there's just too much  going on with this LP.

Stormbringer - Deep Purple (1974)
I was one of those purists who wanted nothing to do with any Deep Purple lineup other than the classic Mark II (Ian Gillan; Richie Blackmore; Roger Glover; Jon Lord; and Ian Paice). It was a short-sighted stance, because the lineup featured on Stormbringer (with David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes replacing Ian Gillan and Roger Glover on vocals and bass respectively), produced two significant albums: 1973's Burn; and this superb outing, set to be Blackmore's last before founding Rainbow.

As with Burn, Coverdale shares vocals with bassist Glenn Hughes and their voices are highly complementary. Although the cock-rock flavour of songs like Lady Double Dealer and Hi-Ball Shooter  may make it all seem a bit dated, that minor sticking point aside, the album hangs together as more than just a collection of really good songs. The album's highlights are its more ballady numbers like the exquisite Gypsy, Coverdale's melancholy Soldier of Fortune and the Hughes-led Dear Prudence homage, Holy Man, but unlike a great many acknowledged classic albums, there are no weak songs on this LP.

Blackmore, Lord and Paice are as good as ever on Stormbringer, and even though Richie is a little more subdued than on previous Purple albums, the overall sound doesn't suffer.

I must confess to not expecting much from Deep Purple's least heralded album - but it's the one I now consider their most thoughtful and creative.

24 August, 2012

The Thin Envelope II

All that came out of that envelope was a single sheet of paper. No colour-coded reams, like the other guys were sifting through. I wondered what the hell was going on, so I started reading. It was a terse, badly typed standard letter that went something like this:

Dear Mr and Mrs Litter, (scrawled in biro)

Your son Lad (again with the biro) will not be offered a place in Form Five for 1976. His behaviour and attitude during the course of this year have not met the standards we require at Cheap and Rundown Inner City Catholic Boys College.

I will be available by appointment should you wish to discuss this. However, this decision has been made after careful consideration, and the school is convinced that Lad would be best advised to seek educational opportunities elsewhere.

Yours Faithfully,
Br. Vindictican

As you can no doubt imagine, there was a fair bit going through my mind once I'd got to the bottom of the page. My school life was flashing in front of me and I was starting to overdose on the dread of what my parents might say and do. Not a spare thought for how my parents might feel, mind you, just how I'd cope with their reaction. Any sensitivity I had was solely concentrated on my own feelings. There wasn't so much as a skerrick of room for concern about what it might mean to anyone else.

What to do? Go home. Slowly. Try to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. I can't recall speaking to anyone on the way out the door but as I entered the bluestone lane leading away from the school there were two classmates of mine lounging against the paling back fences, smoking and looking worried.

Turns out they'd both been handed thin envelopes too. These guys weren't particular friends of mine but the collective sympathy was what we all needed. We smoked and talked briefly out of long, ashen faces about our questionable futures. One of them thought he might cop a physical battering once his old man got the news. At least I was going to be spared that. We went our separate ways at the end of the lane and I headed off to the bus stop at the corner of Rathdowne and Park Sts in North Carlton.

I was quite relieved to see Elizabeth on the later bus that evening, although she didn't detect anything like relief in my demeanour.

"Are you alright? You look really pale."

I told her about the letter and how I didn't care about getting flicked from school, but felt pretty apprehensive about how my folks' would take the news. She went to a local Catholic girls' school - and seemingly without any effort at all made their frumpy uniform exceed its design specifications by a long way - but it was her genuine concern that really brightened things up for me.

"So why did they kick you out?"

I tried to explain how I hadn't done anything really bad, but had a poor attitude and had made no effort to improve in any way. Tried to slip in the growing feeling that I might have been a bit hard done by, but that my folks would never believe that.

She thought it sounded plausible and urged me to just tell mum and dad the truth and they'd understand. I don't know if she ever realized how much she helped.

I had a short walk from the bus stop to our Ascot Vale home and I'd resolved to follow Elizabeth's advice and hope for the best.

It was about all I could do.

24 May, 2012

Community Groups Urge Carlton Supporters to Dispose of Membership Cards Responsibly

*An edited version of this little piece of smart-aleck-ery has also been posted at satirical football website The Daily Maggot.

Carlton supporters have been urged to ensure they act responsibly when disposing of membership cards in the wake of Sunday’s dispiriting 69-point loss to Adelaide. In an unprecedented joint statement released to the media last night by Clean-Up Australia; the Australian Conservation Foundation; and the Australian Council of Social Services, significant community groups have joined forces to avert the potentially disastrous environmental fallout from a spontaneous event that now embarrassingly overshadows themed rounds in the AFL’s pantheon.

“We were ready to be proactive when the Blues were defeated by the Bombers in Round 4," the statement read, "but fortunately for the environment that 30-point loss was misinterpreted by Carlton people as a one-off and so didn’t have the usual triggering effect it did during 2008-10. But now that Carlton’s hubris has been confirmed as entirely misplaced after successive defeats at the hands of St Kilda and Adelaide, we don’t want charity bins and inland waterways clogged with tonnes of navy blue plastic.”

Carlton CEO Greg Swann confirmed that additional casual staff on well-below-minimum wages would be ruthlessly exploited to deal with the expected deluge of lost and damaged card applications when Carlton’s fortunes take even the slightest upturn. “The AFL have reminded us of the need to be proactive on all levels about this sort of thing, and we have been,” Swann said this morning. “For example, in anticipation of a loss to Melbourne next week, not only has our major sponsor VISY seen fit to divert funds from Chris Judd’s under-the-table payments to research and development into sustainable membership card recycling solutions, but flying squads of trained counselors will be stationed around the ground to deal with any depression hot-spots..”

However, a spokeswoman for the Beyond Blue Foundation denied any involvement. “Look, apart from their annual begging expedition to have us come on board as major sponsors, which we strongly suspect might end up involving us in money-laundering, we haven’t heard from them at all. So in all likelihood, they’re just skirting around the edge of the issue. Like their midfield.”

18 May, 2012

The Thin Envelope I

Our boys, Moe, Larry and Curly range in age from 14-18. They’re good lads, as they say. Show me a teenager who doesn't cause issues for his parents in some way and I'll show you a teenager who's been replaced by an alien clone. But there's plenty about them to make a parent feel greatly relieved: they don't hang around with dickheads; if their mates act like knuckle-draggers, as they do now and then, they don't join in; and they have loving if occasionally humourously adversarial relationships with parents and siblings.

In short, they haven't given their folks even a skerrick of the hassles their dad caused for his parents. For that alone, I'll always consider myself very fortunate. Okay, theyre inclined to be bone lazy when it comes to study, but there are swings and roundabouts.

However, let's just pop into flashback mode for a bit and check out what their dad was up to at around the same age...

The end of a fairly eventful school year was coming up. My inner suburban Catholic boys' school was experiencing some of the cooler days that had been the signature weather pattern of that November in 1975. What was hotting up though was anticipation: we were counting down the days to the school holidays and quite a few of our Form Four class were already aware that they wouldn't be coming back.

Some had secured apprenticeships, including a couple of good mates of mine, while others had opted to seek educational opportunities elsewhere. Guys who in some cases jumped before they were pushed. Because as the school's higher-ups had been stressing all year, there was going to be something of a cull at the end of Fourth Form. Quite a few of us would not be taking our place in the senior wing for 1976, as the school's administration had droned on and on to us during the year.
There was nothing for me to be apprehensive or even mildly concerned about though, I reasoned. Maths and Italian I'd written off at around the mid-point of the year as not being worth my energy, so I'd almost deliberately failed them. But there were As in English and History and a mix of Bs and Cs for the rest. Alright, teacher comments indicated a lack of effort and application but overall I thought it was a nicely balanced report. And that might have been the problem: I had very limited reasoning powers. No fucking idea, in fact.

Although self-conscious, I wasn't self-aware, so I thought that my place in the scheme of things as a kind of forthright smartarse made me a likable sort of young fellow on the way up. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I was a pain in the bum on just about every level imaginable in almost every instance – to teachers and fellow students alike - a compulsive shit-stirrer who gormlessly believed that was an okay thing to be.

Inevitably, there was some alarming news making a bee-line for me. News that I hadn't really anticipated at all.

With about three days of school to go, large envelopes were given out in class. My classmates tore theirs open to reveal a mass of coloured paper detailing what looked like booklists, subject requirements and the like. When my name was called, the first thing I noticed was my envelope’s lack of bulk and weight. It was thin and floppy.

There'd been a mistake, surely.

11 May, 2012

Classic Albums Augmented III: Revolver

Yes, the third in a series that adds artists' hit singles left off their contemporaneous album releases and looks at the likely ramifications. Sorry folks, but it's kind of for fanboys only.

The Beatles:

Revolver - Paperback Writer; Rain

It's a tough choice, but this August 1966 release is my favourite Beatles album. And I'm not going out on a limb there either: you won't meet anyone who doesn't at least like it a lot; and Rolling Stone magazine placed it at 3 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

All that said, it's a fantastic collection of songs and hangs together beautifully. The US version differed from the UK and Australian LP releases in two key ways: three John Lennon songs, I'm Only Sleeping; And Your Bird Can Sing; and Doctor Robert were all left off in its stateside form. And the US mix gave you a stereo separation that put vocals and a small amount of instrumentation on one side exclusively, with the remainder on the other side. Sounds weird, I know, but I really liked that dichotomy between left and right, and the separation suited the material. The CD re-release mixed it in a much more orthodox way and seemed to sacrifice the immediacy of the original.

The album represented a consolidation of what the Fab Four had started on their previous LP release, Rubber Soul: multi-tracked overdubs; sound effects; backwards guitar; a plethora of unusual influences; and additional instrumentation beyond what the Beatles could provide themselves. And the enigmatic cover, with its combination of photomontage and line drawings, was probably the first album cover to be pored over in search of hidden meanings.

It's been described as the first psychedelic album and that is arguable. I'm inclined to think of it as more of a proto-psychedelic album - the kinda trippy one immediately before the really trippy one. It opens with what was George Harrison's most exciting composition to that time, Taxman. Straight away you know you're hearing something special – the production values are bright, clear and timeless and the sinewy guitar lines echo those of the Paul McCartney song Baby, You Can Drive My Car from Rubber Soul.

Next up is Eleanor Rigby, with its Psycho-influenced string quartet backing - a stunning blend of form and content that made the music “establishment” really sit up and take notice of the Beatles’ creative abilities. I’m Only Sleeping is a wonderfully dreamy John Lennon ballad and Here, There and Everywhere is as lovely as anything McCartney has ever done. There’s a dark edge to Lennon’s She Said, She Said, commonly thought to have been inspired by a girlfriend of Peter Fonda’s, who took acid with the group during some down time in California and kept saying over and over “I know what it’s like to be dead...”

McCartney segues from the likely lad style of Good Day Sunshine to the poignant For No One and then George manages to squeeze in a third cut on the album with the Byrds-influenced I Want To Tell You. McCartney's Got To Get You Into My Life has always sounded rather Broadway to me but it's Lennon's album closer, Tomorrow Never Knows, that has become the album's signature track. With lyrics based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and a droning, modal, raga-like feel, this song boasts sound-effect loops that were played like keyboards. Most listeners are surprised to learn that it stays on a C chord for its entire duration. It's been cited  as a profound influence by many mid-60s luminaries including Roger McGuinn and Jefferson Airplane as a liberation from the tyranny of the three-minute hit single.

So, how is it then that someone's favourite Beatles album could possibly be made even more favouriter?

I'm so glad you asked:

The Beatles' May1966 single release Paperback Writer opens with a killer guitar riff and an incoming bass run that should put any doubters straight about what a great bass-player Paul McCartney is. Paul's fast-paced lead vocal is augmented by John and George's high pitched Frere Jacque vocal inserts. The song's genesis is believed to have been inspired by an aunt of McCartney's who asked him "Wha doan't yew do one that's not about loov lahk all the rest?"

Rain is a hidden gem among Beatles songs that would sit nicely with all of the other surprises on Revolver. Lennon wrote it as a counter to constant complaints about the weather - and cited Melbourne's wintry blast on their 1964 arrival at Essendon airport as a catalyst. And just to make things a little interesting, it has backwards vocals and deceptive tempo changes.

So Which Tracks Would Miss Out?

None - even with two additional songs, Revolver's duration stays under 45 min