Archive for October, 2012


So this is a 2 disc box set that contains everything that Robert Johnson ever recorded (hence the title “The Complete Recordings”), and I have to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about Robert Johnson before I picked this up on Amazon for $12.66.  Fortunately, the box set came with a book that gives a biographical account of Johnson’s brief life.  Basically, he was the illegitimate child of a sharecropper who picked up the guitar to avoid having to work on a farm (I would probably have done the same thing).  He never had any real measure of fame in his lifetime, but he did have a following in the deep south.  A drinker and a womanizer (he was a musician afterall), he was eventually poisoned after a gig, probably for hitting on the wrong woman.  He died at age 27 (why is it that so many musicians die at age 27?…Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, and even just recently Amy Winehouse!), leaving behind these 29 songs (plus alternate takes) as his legacy.  Famous guitarists like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton claim that these 29 songs had a profound influence on their playing.

These songs are the blues in its purest state.  Fortunately, I had a couple of college professors that understood that the blues is the template for pretty much all American (and quite a bit of English) popular music in the 20th century, so I did spend some time studying it at OSU (thanks Dr. Gerber!).  Pretty much every song on this record follows the 12 bar structure, with two repeated lines and a third line that rhymes (the only exception is “They’re Red Hot”).  The lyrics range from tongue-in-cheek type jokes that poke fun at the unfortunate situations the singer finds himself in to straight up depressing stories about how bad life can get. Oh, and of course there is the occasional suggestive lyric as well.  The fact that the structure never varies makes all of the songs sort of blend into each other, but they are pretty good songs nonetheless.  What really stands out though is Robert Johnson’s guitar technique: he plays melody, rhythm, and bass lines all at the same time, and somehow each one is distinct.  And of course, there are the great blues licks that he plays as fill in between each lyric…I now realize what a tremendous influence he was on Chuck Berry.

Robert Johnson Box Set

Other lists: Robert Johnson is listed as the #71 greatest guitar player on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Guitar players.

Ch-ch-changes: On the original 2004 list, this set was represented with two separate albums, King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume 1 which came in at #27 and King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume 2 which came in at #424.  They were combined into this box set for the current list, and the ranking was bumped up to #22.

My favorite track: “They’re Red Hot”

Honorable mention: “Terraplane Blues”

Quote: “Ima get down deep on this connection, keep on tangling with your wires…Ima get down deep in this connection, hoo-well, keep on tangling with these wires…And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire.”

 

Ladies and gentlemen, now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the world famous Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist Contest!

So where the hell is “You Never Can Tell” on this compilation?  It’s on the Chuck Berry Definitive Collection, which is pretty much the same set of songs plus “You Never Can Tell” and “My Ding-A-Ling”.  I can live without “My Ding-A-Ling” (I always thought that song was stupid), but not putting “You Never Can Tell” on this album is a very serious omission.  Were the marketing reps worried about messing up the rhyme scheme?  Did “The Fine Twenty-Nine” not have the same ring to it as “The Great Twenty-Eight”? Sad, because “You Never Can Tell” is better than 90% of the songs on this disc.  Yes, I am biased because the song appeared in the iconic dance scene in Pulp Fiction, my favorite movie (and Second.Best.Soundtrack.Ever), and yes, I know Chuck Berry wrote the song while her was serving a prison sentence for a liaison with an underage Native American girl (hey, unlike MJ, at least he served his time), but “You Never Can Tell” is a really great song, and it deserves to be on this compilation.

Okay, I’m done now.  I’ll get off my soap box.  Let’s talk about the situation at hand.  When I was a kid, mi madre had a VHS videocassette that showed many of  the rock and roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  I think it may have been called “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (please note the Oxford comma).  Anyhow, that video was my introduction to many of the early rock and rollers, including Chuck Berry and his infamous duck walk.  That, and of course Michael J. Fox playing “Johnny B. Goode” at the school dance in Back to the Future, one of the quintessential movies of the 80s.

So I bought this album on Amazon for $5.96, and despite the omission of my favorite Chuck Berry song, it’s still a lot of fun.  Most of the songs are about cars, girls (most of them underage…which is admittedly creepy considering his conviction), high school, and rock and roll.  It all seems to be wrapped up in sort of a 1950s innocence (at least until the blatant double entendre of the last track, “I Want to Be Your Driver”) that makes me want to go get a milkshake and a burger at a local diner while I put quarters in a juke box (too bad I’m 180 miles from Eddie’s Grill right now, but its probably closed for the season anyway).  And I never knew that the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” was such a blatant rip off of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (again, creepy title dude) until I heard this album.

Other lists: The following songs make the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: #7 “Johnny B. Goode”, #18 “Maybellene”, #97 “Roll Over Beethoven”, #129 “Rock & Roll Music”, #277 “Sweet Little Sixteen”, and #383 “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”.  Chuck Berry is also listed as the#41 Greatest Singer, the #7 Greatest Guitarist, and the #5 Greatest Artist of All Time.

My favorite track: “30 Days”

Honorable mention: “Roll Over Beethoven”

Quote: “If I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge, I’m gonna take it to the FBI and voice my grudge.  If they don’t give me no consolation, I’m gonna take it to the United Nations.”

 

I was about 7 years old when this album came out back in the 80s, and I remember the videos being played constantly on MTV.  And I didn’t like them much.  This was back when MTV was still fairly new and interesting, and Michael Jackson was one of their first major breakthroughs.  But yeah, I didn’t really like it much back then.  Having led a fairly sheltered life, I didn’t get why two people would want to hand-cuff themselves together and have a knife fight in the “Beat It” video, and actually I much preferred Weird Al Yankovic’s parody “Eat It”.  I wasn’t much into werewolves or zombies either, so the “Thriller” video never did much for me either.  And well, I was just simply too young to understand “Billie Jean”.

As I got older, Michael Jackson just got weirder.  I remember the hype surrounding the premier of the “Black or White” video, and then just thinking afterwards that the video was bizarre.  Then of course there was the strange skin color change, the eight million plastic surgeries, and of course the scandals involving underage boys…all of that was rather off putting to say the least.  So it wasn’t until my adult professional life that I had a good experience with Michael Jackson.  Shortly after his death (I was at Comfest, a local festival, when I heard the announcement that he was dead), several of my show choir students started texting me messages that they wanted to do a Michael Jackson song.  So I found a choral arrangement of “Thriller” and our choreographer lifted the dance straight out of the video, and voila…we had a hit.  The kids loved it (well, most of them) and it wound up being the centerpiece of our competition show that year.  We took the show to competition in Virginia Beach that spring and we won a gold medal, a moment which has truly been the highlight of my professional career.  So I guess that MJ did something good for me and my kids, and I will try to be objective about the music, despite my aversion to his personal life.

So I picked up this album for $7.97 on Amazon.  It’s an older edition, which is just fine by me, as I had no desire to shell out the money for the more recent anniversary edition with the bonus tracks and such.  So this is the album as it was released in the 80s, and it still sounds like the embodiment of the 80s.  Actually, I was slightly disappointed in some of Quincy Jones’ rhythm tracks on this record, as some of them sound like bad 80s synth-pop.  But those tracks are mostly on the songs that Michael Jackson didn’t write (“Baby Be Mine” and “Human Nature” come to mind).  The songs that MJ wrote, such as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”, have very vibrant and dynamic rhythm tracks, combining elements of good funk, soul, R&B, and rock into an undeniably catchy dance groove.  But as important as the rhythm tracks are on a dance record like this, it is Michael Jackson’s singing that makes this album memorable.  Light and flexible, MJ could transition from his famous falsetto to his guttural grunts and interjections almost instantly.  And, despite his effeminate speaking voice and mannerisms, MJ’s full-voiced tenor had a very masculine intensity to it.  And even though the big 3 songs (“Thriller”, “Beat It”, and “Billie Jean”) have been elevated to legendary status, there are some other decent songs on this record too, like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”.  And Paulie even makes an appearance on “The Girl is Mine”.

Other lists: “Billie Jean” is #58 and “Beat It” is #344 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  Michael Jackson is #25 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #35 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.  “Thriller” is listed at #7 on the list of the 100 Best Albums of the 80s.

My favorite track: “Billie Jean”

Honorable mention: “Beat It” (and btw, by playing the solo in this song, Eddie Van Halen gets himself on the chart at a much higher spot than anything he did with his own band!)

Quote: “And mother always told me be careful of who you love.  And be careful of what you do, ’cause the lie becomes the truth” (ironic, eh?)