Wednesday, January 30, 2013
DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
Back when I was in Junior High School, our dad, Norm, went to a Life Insurance sales convention that took place in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was the mid-seventies at the time, and when he got back he told Scott and I about this eccentric, tall guy he met at the Honolulu airport while waiting for his flight back to the mainland. Our dad said the guy seemed to be in his thirties, had a house on Maui, but spent time in both Hawaii and London. Our dad spent about an hour with this gentleman and became enthralled by the unique, jet-setting life that he described. He had just left one of his “girlfriends” in Hawaii, and was getting ready to fly back to London. The two hit it off at the airport, shared a drink at the bar, and eventually wished each other well and went their separate ways. When our dad got back the next day, he asked Scott and myself if we had ever heard of this strange music group called, “Pink something”? Duh, Dad, everyone’s heard of “Pink Floyd”! “Oh really”, asked dad, “well I just spent an hour with one of their members named, “Roger”!
Holy S*#t! Dear mother of God! “Dad, you’re just messing with us, right?”
One degree of separation! And the maddening part is our dad had no idea who Pink Floyd was nor had he ever heard the name of Roger Waters until 24 hours ago in the Honolulu Airport. Oh my, can life get any more unfair for my older brother and myself? This just wasn’t right that he could meet Roger Waters himself, while we sat through some dumb math class back home.
This chance encounter was a few years after Floyd had released their epic masterpiece, “Dark Side of the Moon”. It is one of the true “epic” classic rock albums ever created. I hesitate to even call it rock, because I think it is much more, “mood music” than almost anything else. Waters proposed the idea of the album to the other three members in early 1972 as having a unified theme with lyrical content that included conflict, greed, the passage of time, death, and human conflict. The sound of the entire record is very focused and mesmerizing, and established the band as having one of the most distinctive voices to come out of the 70’s.
Each side of the album is continuous, with every song being tied together by loops, effects, voices, speaking parts, and often eerie and even spooky audio. The entire work is literally breathtaking and complex. Recorded in Abbey Road studios from mid 1972 through early 1973, it found the four members of Waters, David Gilmoure, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright in a period of working together pretty well. It is well documented that Waters and Gilmoure have had a very contentious relationship over the years, but they seemed to have worked together during the making of, “Dark Side of the Moon”. It is an album that both members feel was a great piece of work, and was possibly their best as a unit. The album begins and ends with the sound of a heartbeat and explores the nature of the human experience. Classic songs like, “Us and Them, and “Money” became instant hits. The album is filled with lengthy intros, psychedelic tape loops, and echo effects that are pure, “Floyd”. “Time”, was another of the band’s songs that capture the imagination of millions of fans to this day almost 40 years since it’s release.
“Dark Side of The Moon”, became one of the top selling albums of all time. When it was released in of 1973, it only spent one week as the top selling album in the US. The interesting thing about this album was that it just kept selling and selling. It stayed in the billboard album chart for 741 weeks. It reappeared in the Billboard chart in 1991, with the introduction of the Top Pop Catalogue Albums chart. The album has sold over 50 million copies and still sells about 8,000 to 9,000 units each week. In 2006, “The Dark Side of the Moon”, had achieved a total of 1,500 weeks on the Billboard top 200. In the US, one in every fourteen people under the age of 50 is said to own, or have owned, a copy of the album.
The efforts of Pink Floyd in creating, “The Dark Side of the Moon”, has been so sustaining that the numbers are remarkable. The sound is hypnotic, spacey, repetitive, lengthy, and almost everything that today’s pop songs are not. But the work of Pink Floyd goes on, and on, and on. With all the royalty checks that continue to roll in for the band members, I’m sure Roger has been able to build on some nice additions to his Hawaii home – one brick at a time!
*Want to have your own psychedelic Pink Floyd experience? Check out your local planetarium. Many (such as the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City) have light shows set to music by artists such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeplin. No matter your age, it is an experience that is enjoyed by all who see it!
Thursday, January 24, 2013
LED ZEPPLIN II
I had to call my good friend in Dallas, Odie, and ask him which of all the great Led Zepplin albums was the most influential. Now mind you, Odie isn’t your run of the mill Classic Rock fan. He started as a touring drummer back in the 70’s, and then worked up the ladder of the record store business (kids, you probably don’t remember record stores!). After that, he worked for the biggest record labels of the day including CBS Records, Sony Records, and eventually as a VP for Universal Music. Odie knew many of the greatest artists through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. I could tell immediately that my Led Zepplin question challenged and intrigued my good friend, but he couldn’t come up with a quick answer. Our conversation lasted about 10 minutes, and by the end of the call, Odie had narrowed it down to either Led Zepplin II, or Led Zepplin IV. If I could give him 24 hours, he’d get back to me with his answer.
The next day, I received a succinct email. It said, “It’s almost a dead heat, but since I have to go with one, it would be Led Zepplin II”.
Several years after the release of “LZ II”, Robert Plant reminisced about the importance of the album at that point of the band’s career by saying:
“Led Zep II was very virile. That was the album that was going to dictate whether or not we had the staying power and the capacity to stimulate. It was still blues-based but it was a much more carnal approach to the music and quite flamboyant. It was created on the run between hotel rooms and the GTO’s, and that was quite something”.
A little "Rambling" to listen to as you read
Led Zepplin’s sophomore effort was literally produced on the fly. Most of 1969 saw the band touring the US and Europe in support of their debut LP, and the songs for “II” were mainly written in hotel rooms, backstage, buses, and planes. Many of the riffs and licks that guitarist Jimmy Page developed came from extended jams and improvisation that was taking place on their tours that year. Because of their hectic schedule, much of the recording took place wherever they happened to be at the time. Many of the songs were pieced together from one studio to the next, and the band recorded the album in London, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York, and an underequipped studio in Vancouver that they nicknamed “The Hut”. Jimmy Page received all the production credits, but this album also saw a prolific and productive working relationship with new engineer Eddie Kramer, who had been producing the Jimi Hendrix sessions. The results were a very raw, stripped down, blues driven rock, but “Led Zep II” was the breakthrough that would clearly establish the band as one of the best ever. It is still considered Zepplin’s heaviest rock album, and has also been called the “template” sound for future heavy rock acts.
The album starts off with one of rock’s most famous songs, “Whole Lotta Love”. Page’s simple, raw guitar intro is still considered one of the top rock guitar riffs ever written. The spacey, drawn-out middle section is pure Page and engineer Kramer, who later said, "The famous ‘Whole Lotta Lov’e mix, where everything is going bananas, is a combination of Jimmy and myself just flying around on a small console twiddling every knob known to man."
Kramer also later said that although the album was recorded, “piece-meal”, and in, “cheap studios”, in the end it, “sounded bloody marvelous”. The album is known for a production quality that still sounds fresh today.
If Jimmy Page came of age as a producer with this album, then singer Plant also started to truly hone his unique vocal sound and startling range on these songs. “What Is and What Should Never Be”, and “Heartbreaker”, were great follow up songs on the LP, but the way that they have endured the test of time is amazing. The same can be said of, “Living, Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)”, and “Ramble On”, each of which are played, copied, and repeated every day all over the world. I played “Ramble On” in bands for many years, and with different arrangements. It is one of my all time favorite Zepplin tunes, as I love the wonderful acoustic intro and versus, which then transition to a John Bonham driven bombastic electric chorus.
Led Zepplin was the definitive “riff driven” band that just keeps getting better with time. “Led Zep II”, was the stripped down, raw and hard bluesy album where the band really took off in popularity and put them into worldwide prominence. The album went to number one in both the US and the UK, and has been a best seller ever since it’s release in October of 1968. Odie told me to sit down and listen to the whole thing again, and it still sounds great! Future Zepplin albums became a little more adventurous, but few of them had the direct sound and impact of their second effort. “LZ II” just might be Zepplin’s best– at least until I write my next review on “Led Zepplin IV”!
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The Doobie Brothers
The Captain and Me
The Doobie Brothers had two distinctive lives. Initially, it was the Tom Johnston period. After 1976, the band morphed into the Michael McDonald era.
The Doobies initially rose out of San Jose, California in the early 70’s as a hard driving but sweetly melodic guitar band that honed its chops playing clubs in the South Bay. Led by Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, the Doobies had a perfect blend of grit and sweetness. It’s the early period of the Doobies that I fell in love with. When Tom Johnston had to leave the band during a tour in 1975 due to health reasons, the addition of singer and keyboardist Michael McDonald changed the sound of the band dramatically. While very successful in terms of record sales, the new direction alienated me. It became much too commercial, slick, and “pop rock” driven. While I can certainly respect the talent of Michael McDonald, I’m going to risk the ire of many readers by admitting that I just never got into the Doobie Brothers after McDonald became the driving force. The early Doobie Brothers were a gritty, guitar driven rock band. The Michael McDonald Doobies became a “keyboard, hits driven” polished outfit that didn’t interest me.
“The Captain and Me”, was the Doobies third studio album that was released in 1973, and it still holds up as one of the better rock albums from an American band in the 70’s. 1973 was also the early beginnings of “AOR” (Album Oriented Rock). Radio stations in the early seventies began to start playing songs deep into albums, and not just a single or two from the album. They were a distinctly American band, with straightforward, hard rocking songs, to bluesy jams, mixed with a southern rock influence. The sound of, “The Captain and Me” was distinctive and one of my favorite albums as a young listener. I rate “The Captain and Me”, and the follow up album in 1974, “What Were Once Vices are Now Habits”, as the two best Doobie Brothers albums that were produced by the group. Both albums show a great depth of songwriting and the material is strong throughout both albums, from start to finish.
The album was recorded at Warner Bros studios in 1972 and 1973, with famed producer Ted Templeman at the helm. Many of the tunes originally came from jams and old bits and pieces that Johnston or Simmons had developed over the last few years. One of Tom Johnston's songs, "Osborn", had been an improvisational piece that the band played live. After laying down the track, according to producer Ted Templeman. "We still really didn't have it, and I said, 'Make it about a train, since you have this thing about "Miss Lucy down along the track."’ So he came up with Long Train Runnin'."
The third track, “China Grove”, is a straight forward, three-chord guitar driven song that has now become one of the most played classic rock songs in history. It is still at the top of classic playlists to this day. The pure simplicity of the song is clear, but the result is dynamic, and seems to always bring a smile to your face when you first hear the raw, opening power chord riff. Pure, simple, and classic! Another similar hard rocking song influenced by Johnston is, “Without You”.
Now, for those of you who still remember the experience of LP’s, you also remember how wonderful it was to listen to side one, then actually have to remove the stylus, and turn the record over to then listen to side 2. It made the experience of listening to music interactive and involved the listener in the process. I love iTunes, but it is sad to reflect what we’ve lost, and why music meant more to previous music generations than today. Digital music is much more “disposable” to consumers today. But before I digress too far into the evolution of music over the last 40 years, the reason I bring all of this up is because, “Without You” was the perfect hard rocking song that kicked off side 2 of the LP. It signaled, “get ready, cause the rest of this album is going to kick some ass”! Tom Johnston stated, "It was kind of a tribute to ‘The Who’. We did it in concert for quite a while." Listen to it, it “totally rocks, dudes”!
“The Captain and Me” is littered with fantastic acoustic numbers, many highlighting the great guitar playing and styles of Patrick Simmons. “Clear as the Driven Snow,”, and “Ukiah” fit this description, with lilting, but intense acoustic lines interspersed with a tinge of acoustic southern rock. “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” was a bluesy number by Johnston that was a tribute to B.B. King, and “South City Midnight Lady” featured, as a special guest, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan. He would become a full time member of the Doobies by the next album.
Early Doobie Brothers recordings are a must for the classic collector. They still sound great today, so make it part of your collection. Take it from a Winger Brother -
(But I recommend only pre-1976 Doobies!).
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
THICK AS A BRICK
I can still remember the first time that I heard “Thick as a Brick”. Scott and I were in the back of our grandpa’s truck on a camping trip, driving from Salt Lake City to Fish Lake. It was either 1973 or 1974. My brother, Scott, had just gotten a cassette tape of this wild haired, flute fronted rock band from England and wanted to play for me the craziest new album.
ONE SONG! . . . Forty-three minutes long!
One song on the whole album. How audacious. Crazy?
Kind of cool though.
And the second I heard it – BRILLIANT! Beautiful, melodic, soaring, gritty, funny, technical.
I was completely engrossed in the artistic masterpiece, the stunning transitions from soft acoustic guitars to hard electric riffs, to orchestral passages that literally float away. The contract between acoustic and electric in this album is second to none.
This was Tull’s real transition from being a blues based band to being considered one of the leaders of the “progressive” rock world. It all started out as a parody, conceived by leader and songwriter Ian Anderson (who many thought was actually “Jethro”), in response to the audacious progressive rock being produced by groups like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer. The lengthy lyrics were also supposed to have been written by the fictional character, Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock, a nine-year-old boy from St. Cleve, England. Anderson's response to the critics was: "If the critics want a concept album, we'll give the mother of all concept albums, and we'll make it bombastic and so over the top."
The album was recorded in a whirlwind fashion in December of 1971 at Morgan Studios in London. The whole album was written by Ian, and pieced together by the band at essentially the same time. Ian would spend the evenings huddled away alone writing the next several passages of music and lyrics, then bring it the next morning to the rest of the band. The band would rehearse the new sections and promptly lay down the new passages on tape. Through this process they spliced together the whole album to make one long song, labeled as “side 1” and “side 2”.
“Thick As A Brick” charted to Number One in the Billboard 200 in 1972. Radio stations at the time would typically play the opening “single edit”, that clocks in at 3 minutes. It is still played worldwide on classic rock stations. Even more, it holds up today better than ever. To really capture the breadth of TAAB, one has to devote the time to sit down and listen to the album from top to finish, which is a commitment that few have in these days of hectic schedules and “Attention Deficit” digital media disorders. The varied instrumentation of the album is impressive – guitars, flute, timpani, xylophone, violin, lute, trumpet, saxophone, and a string section – and went to establish Jethro Tull as a band second to none when it comes to musical proficiency, technical prowess, and creativity.
Here is 23 minutes of part two. See how long it can keep you entranced.
And there I sat, listening to TAAB with Scott from a small cassette deck in 1974 in the back of our grandpa’s pickup camper truck, travelling to Fish Lake in central Utah, mesmerized. This was the album that really made me a Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson fan for the rest of my life. I had to get a copy of my own! So I got back home and bought the album. It was then that I found out that the album packaging was as creative and brilliant as the music itself. The album cover was designed as a multi page small town newspaper – The St. Cleve Chronicle. Hours of fun reading to be had if you dig into the tiny details, all in the very English Monty Pythonesque style.
I still remember grabbing an acoustic guitar in my room and beginning to pick apart the opening riff. Capo on the 3rd fret, major key picking soft opening passage, followed by the vocal refrain of “Really don’t mind if I sit this one out…”!
In 1972, Tull embarked on a worldwide tour where they played the entire album start to finish. The performance got huge attention because of their musical prowess and the theatrical aspects of the band, especially the wild-eyed, long-haired Ian Anderson. He was establishing himself as one of the consummate entertainers in rock, and is still going to this day. I remember vividly one of my first Tull concerts, and the image of Ian stepping out on stage to begin the night picking the opening acoustic riff to “Thick As a Brick”, and instantly getting goose bumps.
Jump to 2012, and with the 40-year anniversary of the album’s release, Ian Anderson wrote a follow up to TAAB, promptly titled TAAB2. It is a concept album that takes the juxtaposition of, “whatever happened to little Gerald Bostock” (now that he is approaching 50). The musical technicality of Ian and his current band are stronger than ever, and there are many great moments on the album (I give, it’s a CD). I definitely have a copy on CD and iPod, and it is good listening - but it doesn’t quite capture the lilting structure and grace of the original.
What was brilliant, however, was the 2012 World Tour of Ian Anderson, where he played the original TAAB in its entirety, for the first time since 1972. Scott & I were able to get great seats to the show while on their US leg, and while Ian has lost his hair and some of his voice, the musical show was still majestic and far beyond what you will find in most concerts today. Even my wife (who is not a big progressive rock fan) came out of the show shaking her head saying she couldn’t believe how good that band was and how detailed the music and performances were.
So there it is. It’s one of my top 5 albums of all time. When you have 43 minutes to spare (a rarity, I know), it’s worth every minute. It’s also a great driving song on your next road trip.