Archive for December, 2014


#82: “Harvest” by Neil Young

Harvest

This was a $7 Used Kids pick up this past fall one day when I was on campus killing time before my Ed Law Research class (prolly the toughest class so far in my grad program).  It is Neil Young’s 4th solo album, the 2nd Neil Young album on this list, and like so much of Neil Young’s output, it came about pretty spontaneously.  As the legend goes, Neil Young was having back problems and he couldn’t hold an electric guitar, so he embarked on a solo acoustic tour which was being recorded for an acoustic live album (the only track from those concerts that actually made the record was “The Needle and the Damage Done”).  Well, at some point Young went to Nashville to make an appearance on the Johnny Cash Show.  While he was there, he put together some local session musicians, who he dubbed the Stray Cats, and tracks they recorded together wound up becoming this album.  Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor happened to be booked on the Johnny Cash Show that week as well, so Neil Young asked them to swing by the studio and sing back-up on a couple tunes (Neil always seems to get by with a little help from his friends).

So I’ve been to Nashville.  Last summer the Princess and I spent a week down there (and in a strange coincidence, the Last Boy Scout and his fiance happened to be in town at the same time).  All I can say is that I was impressed by the quality of the musicians down there.  Every band seemed to have an awesome rhythm section, and the singer/songwriter types down there were top notch.  I can certainly see how Neil Young was able to throw a band together and still have it be good enough to record.  This album has “Heart of Gold” on it, Neil Young’s only #1 hit, and a song I remember being on the radio a lot when I was a kid.  “The Needle and the Damage Done” still resonates to this day with they number of talented artists who die from heroin addiction, most recently including Philip Seymour Hoffman.  I even read an interview with Neil Young once where he said he wished he could have talked to Kurt Cobain about the whole drugs and rock and roll and fame thing after Cobain’s first suicide attempt.  I wish he would have been able to have that conversation too.  Oh well.  Back to the album…there are also a couple of seemingly random tracks with the London Symphony Orchestra, making this a bit of a hodge-podge.  But overall it’s really good.  And the sequel to “Southern Man” is on here as well…a song called “Alabama” which rips on: you guessed it, the entire state of Alabama…a song which just sounds so much sweeter on the eve of the first ever college football playoff.  Go Bucks!

Other lists: “Heart of Gold” is #303 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  See the entry for After the Gold Rush (#74) for Neil Young’s other RS accolades.

Ch-ch-changes: This album also dropped four spots from its original position at #78 due to the addition of CCR’s Chronicle and the rise of Radiohead’s Kid A, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and James Brown’s Star Time.

My favorite track: “The Needle and the Damage Done”

Honorable mention: “Heart of Gold”

Quote: “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done…a little part of it in everyone.”

#81: “The Clash” by the Clash

The Clash

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but back when I used to teach middle school general music, I used to do a unit every year on the inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  So back in 2003 when the Clash were inducted, I picked up this album for $7 at Used Kids Records and used it for my lesson.  At the time, Joe Strummer had just recently passed, which added a little gravity to the things.  And my friend and colleague, Das Locos Fin, was a huge Clash fan, as well as being a huge punk rock fan, and he gave me a lot of history on the group and on the meaning behind the songs to pass along to the kids.  Regardless, the kids hated it and thought I was torturing them.  Oh well.  I wound up digging the album quite a bit.  It’s raw and noisy, and it’s pretty much a 45 minute blast at the establishment, mocking the police, businessmen, the record industry, England, the U.S.A., and pretty much everything else in “the system”.  It’s pretty much everything rock and roll should be, especially punk rock from one of the seminal bands in the punk rock movement.

Little did I know at the time though that this is the “American version” of the record.  The original “UK version” of the record was not deemed radio friendly enough for American listeners, so initially it was shelved with no intention of an American release.  Eventually, after the modest commercial success in the U.S. of the Clash’s second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope,  the record company decided to release The Clash.  However, to make it more radio friendly, the record company replaced four songs (“Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”) with four non-album singles (“Clash City Rockers”, “Complete Control”, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, and “I Fought the Law”) and a b-side (“Jail Guitar Doors”), and they also replaced “White Riot” with a re-recorded studio version.  The record company also changed the order of the remaining tracks.  Now, this was a common practice at the time, notably happening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on many of their early American releases, but in this case it completely changed the character of the album.  The original UK version, in my opinion, is much closer to the Clash’s original artistic vision: a short, noisy blast of non-commercial, politically charged punk rock.  The American version, in contrast, a much more commercial album, and a couple of the added tracks actually border on radio-friendly pop rock.

The irony here, of course, is that punk rock has an extremely strict set of unwritten rules, foremost of which is that in order to maintain integrity, a band cannot strive for any sort of commercial success lest they run the risk of being labeled a “sell-out” (are you listening, Billy Joe Armstrong?).  It’s an issue Joe Strummer struggled with, and generations later artists still struggle with it.  Hell, Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder and the entire Seattle music scene of the 90s were based on this very ethos.  Now, in this case I don’t think the Clash was selling-out, but obviously the record company was, and ironically one of the songs the record company added, “Complete Control”, is exactly about these kind of money-grab shenanigans. And at any rate, it worked, setting the stage for the Clash’s breakout success with the London Calling record.  For the purposes of the Rolling Stone list, it’s specifically the American version of the album that ranks at #81, but for anyone interested in the original, the UK version is now available stateside.  In fact, I just picked up a brand-new copy for $5.99 at Half Price Books just they other day.  They had it on vinyl too!  Fight the power!  Oh, and as the first ever college football playoff approaches and my beloved Buckeyes get set to play the Alabama Crimson Tide, I would like to remind the world that “I’m So Bored with the S.E.C.”…thanks Schembechlers!

Other lists: “Complete Control” is #371 and “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” is #437 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  See the London Calling entry (#8) for the Clash’s other RS accolades.

Ch-ch-changes: This album also fell four spots due to the addition of CCR’s Chronicle and the rise of Radiohead’s Kid A, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and James Brown’s Star Time.

My favourite track:  “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”

Honourable mention: “Complete Control”

Quote: “They said we’d be artistically free when we signed that bit of paper.  They meant let’s make lotsa mon-ee – an’ worry about it later.”

#80: “Imagine” by John Lennon

Imagine

“Things were different then.  All is different now.  I tried to explain.  Somehow.”, EV, Hard to Imagine (1993)ish

Edward Louis Severson III recently covered the song “Imagine” at a solo show and in doing so he called it “the most powerful song ever written.”  He’s 100% right.  Beautiful, yet controversial, the song “Imagine” is John Lennon’s masterwork.  One of the rare pop songs that truly makes a person think, “Imagine” offers a glimpse of what the world could be if the human race could ever remove the barriers the separate us (specifically: religion, politics, and material possessions).  Sure, it’s a utopian ideal, but it never fails to make me wonder if I could live without those things, let alone whether the rest of the human race could live without them.  And that is the ultimate power of the song for me…it’s more than just a vision, more than just a dream…it’s a challenge to be a better person.  To be a little nicer.  To be a bit more open to others.  To respect diverse cultures and people.  To be less judgmental.  A powerful song indeed, and it’s all wrapped up in a perfect little 3 minute pop tune with a beautiful melody and a simple piano accompaniment.

The rest of the album is pretty great too.  The yin to Plastic Ono Band‘s yang, Imagine offers the same honest, and at times scathing, look at the world, but sugar coats it in the pop music sensibilities John mastered when he was a part of that other band with which he was once associated.  The result is much less stark than Plastic Ono Band, even if the message is largely the same.  All in all, it’s an attack on the establishment, with John eviscerating business men on “Crippled Inside”, the military on “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama”, politicians on “Gimme Some Truth”, and Paul McCartney on “How Do You Sleep?”.  Yet, despite the anger, he still finds time for some honest self-reflection on “Jealous Guy”, “It’s So Hard”, and “How?”, and at the end he is even able to show just a glimpse of happiness in “Oh Yoko!” (and yes, despite her, ahem, eccentricities, Yoko made John happy [most of the time]…and she also inspired him to take his artistry to a whole new level in his solo career).  Top to bottom, the album is a masterpiece, and second in my mind only to Plastic Ono Band in the John Lennon catalogue.  Actually, these two albums were the highwater mark in John’s solo output, as sadly his next several albums were largely forgettable, but that is a story for another time and page…

As much as I like this record, I only picked it up a couple of years ago.  I was heading home from a road trip to the great northern coast and I found it for $7.99 (minus my 10% discount for being a beacon of truth to the underprivileged youth of America) at the Half Price Books in Mentor.  Actually, that Half Price Books always seems to have a great selection of John Lennon albums (I’ve picked up Shaved Fish and Live in New York City there, among other titles).  Why?  Because Northeast Ohio people get it.  Well, most of them do.  Or at least a few.  Anyhow, this album has been in my rotation ever since, along with the rest of the John Lennon catalogue.  I’ve pretty much decided he was the most important musical artist ever, and I will always thank mi madre for spinning Double Fantasy non-stop when I was a kid and the Whiskey Saint for spinning this album and Plastic Ono Band and the Great Ranch in Trumbull Township during my formative years.  As a lyricist, Lennon’s only peer is Bob Dylan.  As a vocalist, he ranks up there with both the great rock and rollers and the great balladeers.  And as a political activist, he did more for the good of the human race than any other artist I can think of (even you, Bono).  Power to the people, right on.  Lennon was the real deal, and obviously it’s a tragedy that his life was cut so short.  For the past year I’ve put together a collection of every solo album, live album, and compilation album (there are a ridiculous number of these), and even the few books he wrote.  The Princess says I am obsessed, but my goal is to make a page dedicated to Lennon on this blog sometime in the near future.  Anyway, it’s something to look forward to, I hope 🙂

Other lists:  “Imagine” is #3 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  See the very first post on this blog (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) for a list of John Lennon’s other RS accolades.

Ch-ch-changes: This album also dropped four spots from its original position at #76 due to the addition of CCR’s Chronicle and the rise of Radiohead’s Kid A, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and James Brown’s Star Time.

My favourite track: “Imagine”

Honourable mention: “Gimme Some Truth”

Quote 1: “I don’t wanna be a soldier mama, I don’t wanna die.”

Quote 2: “I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians.  All I want is the truth.”

Quote 3: “Imagine all the people living life in peace…”

 

 

Led Zeppelin II

So 3 out of the last 11 albums have been Zeppelin records.  That’s a pretty good run.  So far I think only the Beatles, Dylan, and the Stones have as many records on the list.  Good company.  And it’s a good thing I dig Zep.  After writing about the first Led Zeppelin album, I went on a Zep spree and picked up all of their classic albums.  This was one I found at one of the local Half Price Books (I think it was the Lane Avenue store) for $6.99 (minus my 10% discount for inspiring the youth of America).  And it’s probably right up there with Zep I as my two favorite Zeppelin albums.  I think Jimmy Page was at his bluesiest when Zep first started, and I just love the dirty electric blues guitar riffs on this record, especially on “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker”.  And even though Robert Plant seemed busy writing sleazy innuendos on just about every song, he takes a break from the sexual metaphors to throw in his first Tolkien reference when he tries unsuccessfully to rescue a girl from Gollum in the “darkest depths of Mordor” in the song “Ramble On”.

Page and Plant also managed to write a pretty tender ballad in the song “Thank You”.  That was a song I actually discovered through Tori Amos back in college when I was going through a Tori phase mostly thanks to the Drama Queen.  The Tori version was on her “Crucify” single, which also featured stellar covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the Stones’ “Angie”.  When Tori covers a song, she completely reworks it (another incredible Tori cover is her version of “Losing My Religion” on the Higher Learning soundtrack), but on “Thank You” she is surprisingly faithful to the original.  And speaking of covers, on the With the Lights Out boxset (which is honestly a mostly terrible compilation), there is a cover of “Heartbreaker” done by a very young Nirvana as a request at a party happened to be playing.  You can tell Cobain doesn’t really know the song, but he goes to town on the riff, and you can hear where he started to develop that fat guitar sound that he perfected on Nevermind.  The influence of Zeppelin, baby…it’s everywhere!

Other lists: “Whole Lotta Love” is #75, “Heartbreaker” is #328, and “Ramble On” is #440 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  See the entry for Led Zeppelin I for Zep’s other honors and accolades.

Ch-ch-changes: This album dropped 4 spots from its original position at #75 due to the addition of CCR’s Chronicle and the rise of Radiohead’s Kid A, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and James Brown’s Star Time.

My favourite track: “Whole Lotta Love”

Honourable mention: “Ramble On”

Quote: “Got no time for spreadin’ roots, now it’s time to be gone.  And though our health we drank a thousand times, it’s time to ramble on.”