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Monday, October 22, 2012

(42nd in a series of) Stepping Stones: "The Best Use for a Milk Crate"

Song: No Expectations
Album: Beggars Banquet
Released: December, 1968

After six albums it could be stated that for all intents and purposes the Rolling Stones remained a singles band.  Other groups, led by the Beatles, had moved on over the previous 2 years, producing high-quality and conceptual music in album-centric context.  The Stones were taking all this in and giving it a go themselves over the intervening time, but they were still a roller-coaster experience:  Their highs could be tremendously high but their lows could be awfully low as well.  Consistency was not yet in the cards, and if things had remained this way, the Stones place in history would have been relegated to 2nd tier status along with numerous other bands.

The Fab Four had one major advantage over the Rolling Stones, however:  A quality producer.  George Martin was as good as it gets and has often been described as a 5th member of the Beatles seeing as his input in the studio was clearly a critical element in their success.  The playing field was finally leveled in 1968 when the Stones brought Jimmy Miller on board.  ‘Beggars Banquet’ was Miller’s first foray with the band and the effect was immediate:  This was solid album through and through, which by this time was extremely important for the Stones, because not only were other musicians moving on….

…..so were the fans.

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Throughout this writing process, I keep coming back to an important theme: The album-centric psyche of my generation (those of us who came of age in the 60s and 70s).  This album orientation is unique to us.  The generations prior and the generations since are conditioned much more toward the single or more specifically the hit.  Today’s generation in fact can’t help themselves:  In the digital-download world everything has been condensed to the hit.  It’s the extreme opposite of my experience.  Our generation had some work to do when an album was released.  We had to be able to define a musician’s quality of output not so much in terms of parts, as in wholes.

So what is album-oriented music, and in what ways did it effect my generation?   To help answer these questions, I went down cellar and pulled out three milk crates of old LPs.  I felt I needed to do a bit of reconnecting, not only to the music, but to all the other components.  I needed to look at old album covers, hold old records, read old lyrics, and review old liner notes.  Would this bring me back to Franklin, North Adams, Ottawa and Waltham?  Would this bring me back to the core of my generation’s musical sensibilities?

I was able to scan through everything, but I’ll hone in on a handful of the revisits here:

The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’:  The first thing that comes to mind related to this album is my late-bloomer persona.  How many kids of my generation reached the age of thirteen before they were introduced to album-oriented rock…by their non-rocker parents?  I see this as a good thing though.  It means I had a great upbringing listening to old-timey stuff.  That innocence of youth just stuck with me a bit longer than most.  As for the album, I recall loving the green apple label on the record.  I also recall sensing that this was an interesting group of guys.  Lennon appeared intellectual; Harrison mysterious.  I remember asking Dad about the brass instrument in Lennon’s hand.  He said it was the French horn, one of the most difficult instruments to learn how to play.  ‘Sgt. Pepper’ flowed from song to song:  I can’t imagine these songs in any other order.  My favorite way-back-when was She’s Leaving Home.  I found it fascinating that a band could think of such a topic to write about.  It also opened my eyes to the fact that not every kid had it as good as me. 

Pete Townshend ‘Empty Glass’:  Wow, talk about brutal honesty.  Pete Townshend was in the midst of self-destruction in 1980 and somehow was able to express it creatively.  How?  Because underlying anything Townshend does is spirituality and this was even the case in his darkest of days.  The title track is my favorite song on the album; a true tearjerker about feeling empty inside.  I Am An Animal is also huge, as is Jules and Jim.  There are only two musicians primarily enjoyed by me as members of famous bands who I also appreciate immensely as solo artists.  One of them is John Lennon, and the other is this man.  ‘Empty Glass’ alone should one day get Townshend into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.

The Kinks ‘Soap Opera’: This is such a fun concept album:  The story of a self-described “Starmaker”, who decides to switch roles with an ordinary person (“Norman”) to make music from that ‘dull’ perspective. The new Norman then proceeds to get the Rush Hour Blues, work Nine to Five, feel like a Face in the Crowd, and have to deal with his ordinary wife’s fascination for Ducks on the Wall (“My babies got the most deplorable taste, and her biggest mistake is hanging over the fireplace”).  In the middle of it all, he deals with this new mundane existence in a not-so-unique way in the song When Work is Over where “he likes to hit the bar, go down the boozer, and have another jar”, followed by cheating on his wife (Holiday Romance) and then reconciling with her (You Make It All Worthwhile).  All the songs have a sing-along quality, and Jeff B and I made sure on several occasions not to pass up on that opportunity.

Joe Jackson ‘Look Sharp’:  A very early purchase, ‘Look Sharp’ gave me the realization that a punk’s point of view is universal.  Joe Jackson was thin, short, wiry, and ready to take on anyone who stood in his way.  “What are you looking at” seemed to scream out at you from every song.  The attitude also came across in Jackson’s image on the back cover. One of my favorite all-time songs is One More Time, but the entire album flows like any good album should.  ‘Look Sharp’ introduced the world to Joe Jackson: The bass playing of Graham Maby alone was worth the price of admission. 

Lou Reed ‘New York’:  I felt pretty cool catching on to this LP at the time of its release in 1989.  I knew it was a game changer, and the album-centric tour that followed proved my instincts correct:  Lou Reed was taking it all very seriously too.  If you want a reality slap on how those folks on the other side of the tracks live, listen to this album.  There’s no relief… anywhere.  But it is an amazingly written and produced album.  Busload of Faith; Dirty Blvd (Gem Music Video # 54) and Last Great American Whale are just the tip of the iceberg. 

The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’: Such an iconic cover: The Beatles at the end of their own long and winding road, walking across a road.  And there were many crazy folks like me interpreting it all.  Why were the Beatles trying to depict Paul McCartney as dead?  After all there was Lennon in the front, dressed like a preacher man.  Following him, was Ringo Starr, dressed like a pallbearer perhaps?  Behind Ringo was Paul, “last cigarette” in hand, walking out of step, barefoot no less… all signs of a man in a casket.  And bringing up the rear, George Harrison, dressed like a gravedigger.  In reality it was just 4 cool guys in a very cool band dressed in whatever way they wanted that day, but it was fun to read into it all.  ‘Abbey Road’ was indeed the Beatles last album, and my personal favorite of the lot.  What a way to go out.

Neil Young ‘Time Fades Away’:  When I first purchased and listened to this Neil Young album, I had no idea of its uniqueness:  A live LP of completely original material.  How many original releases can make that claim?  The cover was pretty cool:  A nice photo of the crowd as viewed from the musician’s point-of-view; tossed rose in the foreground on the floor of the stage, a bearded fan giving the peace sign.  The band for this 1972 tour was the Stray Gators, which included Jack Nitzsche, Ben Keith and Tim Drummond.  Special guests for the recording included David Crosby and Graham Nash.  I love the title track, and have not had the chance to hear it in quite some time.  Why?  It turns out this is a rare album, never re-released on cd. 

The Who ‘Quadrophenia’:  Pete Townshend tried to load a whole bunch of concept into this tiny stretch of space and time, and I can feel it just looking at this album.  For one thing, he was working with the idea of a character, Jimmy, with 4 personalities, each personified by a member of the Who.  Roger Daltrey took offense to his character trait, that of the “Tough Guy”:  One of the many things Townshend had to deal with while bringing this album together.  Oh, but what an album!  Every member of the Who are at their best here.  If you want to hear some of the best bass lines ever put to track, listen to ‘Quadrophenia’.  Same goes for the drums, guitar, vocals and lyrics.  The story works very well with the music.  As for the cover, the Who images in the scooter’s 4 rear-view mirrors are classic.  And the last bit of liner notes about the story is always something I’ve found both comical and well meaning:  “No one in this story is meant to represent anyone either living or dead, particularly not the Mum and Dad.  Our Mums and Dads are all very nice and live in bungalows we bought for them in the Outer Hebrides.” 

Bob Dylan and the Band ‘The Basement Tapes’:  This is one of my all-time favorite album covers, showing Dylan and the Band, apparently in the basement of “Big Pink” in Woodstock New York with a bunch of circus performers.  The image in the way back, partially blinded out by the dull light?  I’m betting on Neil Young.  Anyhow, the album, which was released many years after the fact, was simply toying with the clandestine nature of these recordings, which originally were never supposed to be released.  Thank goodness they were, however.  This is a timeless, beautiful album.  Very little makes sense, and yet all makes sense.  The first 2 songs, Odds and Ends and Orange Juice Blues are my favorite.  Bessie Smith (GMVW # 87) is magical.  And when Richard Manuel sings Katie’s Been Gone, the pain in his voice is palpable. 

The Beatles ‘The Beatles’ (aka ‘The White Album’):  So plain the cover, but the simplicity spoke volumes to a young teenager, which was my age when I opened this album for Christmas.  I’m not sure what Santa was thinking of.  He could have given me a simple album like ‘Meet the Beatles’ or ‘Rubber Soul’.  Instead, he gave me a complex album of a band turning into individuals, and in the throes of a whole myriad of life-complicating problems, which they were not hesitant to communicate to the masses.  I’m not complaining at all about Santa’s choice for me, however.  I thoroughly enjoy thinking back to how this album grew on me. It’s an album that is all over the place in terms of song meaning, but somehow, inexplicably coherent. My favorite song on the album?  Believe it or not, its Harrison’s Long, Long, Long, with Martha My Dear a close second.

The Who ‘Who Are You’: I’ve already said plenty about this album (see GMVW # 74).  I’ll just add a few thoughts here about the cover.  It’s one of my favorite, bringing back memories to when I first received it as a birthday gift from Brother Joe.  If any band should be photographed being surrounded by high-voltage electrical equipment, it’s the Who.  And the “Not To Be Taken Away” wording on the back of the chair that Keith Moon is sitting in is a harbinger of what would prove to be just the opposite reality at the time of the album’s release (Moon’s death).

Bob Dylan ‘Blood on the Tracks’: With this album in my hand, I can almost feel the music oozing out of it.  As I look at the cover, I find it hard to believe how much was packed on it.  This is because there are so many avenues to go down: Tangled Up in Blue is only the beginning.  Try Sheltered From the Storm for good measure.  Or how about the period piece ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ .  But it’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ that conjures up the most poignant of images on this massive, massive album.  Dylan was raw and deeply personal for the first time (but not the last) in his career.  It all worked masterfully.

The Beatles ‘Revolver’: I do not have my original copy of this album, but I wish I did.  My current copy has the order of songs completely different than what I recall.  Was there a British version and American version which were eventually combined?  I’m not sure.  All I know is that I was once addicted to a track list that appears to no longer exist.  ‘Revolver’ was the very first album-oriented rock album.  It still remains one of the best.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono ‘Double Fantasy’:  Well, of course this album will always bring back the memory of Lennon’s murder.  I recall listening to Watching the Wheels for the first time just after I first heard the horrible news.  When I picked up the album not soon after, I listened to it incessantly for months.  I even put up with the every-other track Yoko songs.  This was the first album by a Rock Star admitting to the fact that he was entering middle age. 

The Who ‘Face Dances’:  Such a great, great cover: Sixteen artists painting the individuals in the Who: 4 paintings of each member.  And the paint tubes on the back listing the songs?  Very original.  You Better You Bet is likely the only tune I ever sang comfortably in front of a crowd (Karaoke style).  Daily Records and Don’t Let Go the Coat are brilliantly honest.  There’s something different about this album that I still cannot put my finger on in terms of cohesive meaning, though I know it’s there for the taking with enough effort.  I’ll enjoy future listens until the time I finally nail it all down. 

The Rolling Stones ‘Beggar’s Banquet’:  The Rolling Stones appear to have had a lot of confidence during the making of this album. This is somewhat hard to believe as the Stones had some serious internal strife going in 1968:  Brian Jones was not working well as a band mate anymore and was on the cusp of getting tossed.  The assurance must have come from knowing that they now had that final piece of the puzzle, that being a great producer in Jimmy Miller.  Confidence came across in many ways, including medieval photography of the band as well as in the brash decision to put a graffiti-laced bathroom stall on the cover.  But it was the music inside that really exuded confidence:  A back-to-roots blues sound that found the band in great form.  This is the Stones coming of age.  They were part of the album-oriented rock aristocracy now.  They would never look back.

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So back to those questions:  What is album-oriented music, and in what ways did it effect my generation?  Well, in terms of the first question, this remains somewhat hard to define.  Album orientation does not necessarily have to mean a heavy concept or consistency in musical style (for example a great album can have both great blues sounding songs and great folk sounding songs).  Then what does it mean?  I believe the answer comes from the fan side of the coin.  A great album is what we make out of it.  How we are willing to discuss it.  What it means to us.  If an individual song means something to us that’s one thing.  If an album means something to us, that’s quite something else.  It’s a lot of hard work for the artist paying off in a big way.  It’s more range of meaning; an exponential number of avenues to explore compared to the single.  

As for the second question, I’ll continue to write about this one, but at this stage I can say this:  I think it made many of us deeper thinkers.  It also may have helped foster the notion that the world is not painted in black and white.  There are many shades of grey.  My generation has that figured out for the most part. 

This week’s Stepping Stone is No Expectations ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhk-ojOaopQ ).  It’s a great tune on a great album.  For the Rolling Stones, it was the first time those two ‘greats’ could be mentioned together into one overarching statement. 

It would not be the last.

-          Pete

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