May 23 – Change Was Only Roxy Music Constant

Ever-morphing and ever-popular in Europe, Roxy Music put out their seventh (and penultimate) studio album, Flesh + Blood this day in 1980. The album was surprisingly the first of their records to go platinum in the UK and the second one to top the charts there; it cracked the U.S. top 40 which they’d only done once before.

Roxy was down to just a core trio of Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera by this time but were well-supplemented with a raft of studio musicians including Paul Carrack on this one. The album was a little uneven and focused largely on love lost and also included a couple of ’60s cover songs – Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and the Byrds “Eight Miles High.” That marked the first time the band had recorded cover songs, although Bryan Ferry had put out a couple of solo albums in the ’70s consisting of nothing but coves.

Critics weren’t impressed; Rolling Stone called it “such a shockingly bad Roxy Music record” while years later would upgrade it to a 3-star rating saying “good – but lacked the spark that made some of the earlier albums so good.” Allmusic similarly gave it an unusually bad 2-star rating, surprising in that the review wasn’t all that bad really. They suggested that at its best, it was “effortlessly suave and charming”, that “Oh Yeah” was one of their best singles ever, but that the cover songs were superfluous and showed the band was running low on ideas. Ferry’s own website says of it “a record of grace and graciousness, sense and sensuality” and while top 10 singles “Oh Yeah” and “Over You” are good enough, it’s “Same Old Scene” that steals the show. Biographer David Buckley notes it was the band’s “most perfect dance record” and that a year later “the charts would be full of songs with a similar musical trajectory.”

Roxy Music came back two years later with their North American breakthrough, Avalon… then promptly broke up for years. They’d now back together for the first time in years getting ready for a 50th anniversary tour, kicking off Sep. 7 in Toronto.

May 21 – Hot Space Got Cold Shoulder From Fans

Being a successful musician seems to mean being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Being super-successful seems to involve that and being something of a magician or mystic at the same time, managing to steer the sound successfully. The problem is, once you have a following, if you keep sounding the same, people will typically get bored with you (AC/DC fans excepted) …but if you change sound, you risk alienating many of your fans who’ll long for your “traditional” sound. Few can navigate frequent change well and keep their fans. Even Queen struggled with it, as we found out four decades back – Hot Space came out this day in 1982.

It was their tenth studio album, coming about a year and change after their experimental soundtrack to Flash Gordon, and two years after their smash The Game which had elevated them to unmitigated superstar status worldwide with hits like “Another One Bites The Dust”. They were getting a bit restless perhaps, and well aware that the prevailing hit sounds were quite different than they were five or six years earlier when they were making their mark with songs like “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.” Bassist John Deacon and their star singer Freddie Mercury in particular seemed to want to shift gears with the band.

Drummer Roger Taylor says Deacon particularly was tired of their anthemic rock sound. “John’s always been R&B orientated,” he’d say a year or two after the album release, “I think we went too far and did too much.” Neither he nor guitarist Brian May liked Freddie’s personal manager, Paul Prenter one bit. Prenter apparently disliked rock and May says “he wanted our music to sound like you’d just walked into a gay bar, and I didn’t.” He further aggravated them by keeping Mercury away from reporters and rudely alienating quite a few American radio people in the process, never helpful when you want them to play your new record. For another change, they recorded it – slowly due to heavy partying – in Germany and Switzerland, no doubt taking in the latest Euro-pop sounds along the way.

The result was an interesting, but oddly varied album using far more synthesizers than they had before and fewer Brian May guitar bits. For the first time they brought in drum machines. The one real standout on the album was a song everyone already knew – “Under Pressure”, the duet with David Bowie which had been pre-released months earlier.

There were some other highlights, though opinions varied as to what they were. Brian May got to show off his guitar a little with his bluntly anti-gun “Put out the Fire”; the band did a tribute to John Lennon (with them recording the record at the time Lennon was killed) called “Life is Real,” and “Calling All Girls” was a likeable little pop song that would have sounded at home as one of the lesser tracks on The Game. Still, diehard fans found little to really cheer on and the new wave, younger crowd they were seemingly working to musically seduce weren’t interested.

Reviews weren’t terrible…unless you put it in context of them being for one of the most successful and loved acts of the decade preceding it. Smash Hits rated it 5 out of 10; The Guardian gave it just 2-stars noting “by the time (it) came out, disco had mutated into weird, skeletal dubby electronic sounds…which didn’t really suit Queen.” Rolling Stone was a bit more generous, rating it 3-stars. They opined “Queen offers a bit more than bluster” with their “funky songs”, singling out “Back Chat” as “a hot rock funk tune with guitar tracks as slick as any icy dancefloor,” but warning that “Body Language” is “a piece of funk that isn’t fun.” Later, allmusic rated it just 2.5-stars, the lowest of anything they did while Mercury was alive. They called it an “unabashed pop/dance album…devoting the entire first side to robotic, new wave dance pop driven by drum machines” before “finally getting synth-drum new wave right” with “Calling All Girls.” They summed it up by suggesting “Under Pressure” would be the only track on it fans would remember. Interestingly, to the record’s credit (well, debate among yourselves if it is that) it did have a big fan in Michael Jackson who loved it and said it was a big influence on Thriller.

While “Under Pressure” was one of their biggest hits, the other singles released didn’t exactly re-write the Queen song book or necessitate a lot of added cabinet space for awards. “Body Language,” with its oft-banned video peaked at #25 at home for them, doing a bit better here, hitting #11 in the U.S. and #3 in Canada. “Calling All Girls” hit #33 in Canada, but flopped in the States, the only other market it was put out in as a single; back in the UK “La Pelagras De Amor (The words of Love)” was released instead, and hit #17 and #10 in Ireland. “Put out the Fire” did well on North American rock radio, but wasn’t put out as an official single. When all was said and done, the album did top the Austrian charts and got to #4 in the UK, #5 in Germany and #6 in Canada. It stalled at #22 in the U.S., but still got them a gold record. Worldwide sales topped three million, decent but far down from their big hits of the late-’70s and 1980. The Game, for instance sold more than double that. The band’s manager, not to be confused with Mercury’s own, called it “a disaster.”

Sadly for American fans, the album’s limited appeal might have kept them from going to see Queen when they toured for it. As it turned out, it would be the last time Mercury would play shows on this continent, with their next one (and the last before he began to get ill from AIDS) being limited to Europe.

May 20 – Foos Rounded Into Fighting Form

Trying to prove he was more than just someone who knew Kurt Cobain…and succeeding! On this day in 1997, Dave Grohl put out his second post-Nirvana album as Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape. This album actually was a band effort (their debut was recorded basically as a Grohl solo) and continued to build the band’s reputation and bank accounts.

Grohl had recruited bassist Nate Mendel and guitarist Pat Smear – both of whom are still in the band – as well as drummer William Goldsmith, who isn’t. It ended up being the last album they’d do before Taylor Hawkins joined as the drummer. Sadly, as we know, Hawkins passed away recently leaving the job and the actual fate of the band in a state of flummox for now.

A couple of tracks on the record are the only Foo ones Goldsmith appeared on. When they recorded most of the album in late-’96 at a farm near Washington, Goldsmith was the man with the beat. However, Grohl didn’t like the way most of the demos sounded and re-convened the band in L.A. in the beginning weeks of ’97… without Goldsmith. He wasn’t altogether thrilled with the other’s skills and felt he wasn’t quite done with being a drummer himself, so he did most of the drumwork on the finished product. (He says now that while he liked the way it turned out, he regrets the way he handled the unceremonious dropping of the other drummer.) And while he produced the debut record himself (again – despite the name, the first Foo Fighters was truly a Dave Grohl solo work) he decided that if he added some studio musicians, it wouldn’t hurt to bring in a producer for a fresh set of ears. He picked Gil Norton, a talented Brit who came to fame working on the great ’80s Echo & the Bunnymen album Ocean Rain and had worked on a trio of Pixies records in between. Thankfully, Grohl didn’t have any real problems with Gil… he even used the British spelling of “color” (with the “U”) for the title as a nod to him. Norton was quite a perfectionist though. “It was frustrating, it was hard and it was long,” Grohl says of the recording. “At the end of the day, you listened back to what you’d done and you understand why you had to do it a million times.”

If the album was a real band effort musically, it was more of a personal work than the first one when it came to lyrics and themes. Grohl had just divorced his first wife and tried to work through the varying emotions involved on the album, resulting in the mix of hard rockers and more tuneful ballads and at times introspective lyrics. He says he even thought about putting a therapist’s couch on the cover! The therapy worked musically and commercially. It was a top 10 hit in the U.S., Canada and UK and to date is their biggest-seller in the States (at 2.4 million copies and counting.) The singles “My Hero”, “Monkey Wrench”, “Walking After You” (re-recorded for the X-files soundtrack) and “Everlong” made them mainstays of modern rock radio. Not only is the latter double-platinum as a single in the States (one of three they’ve landed), it’s also David Letterman’s favorite song and he had them perform it on his last late-night show

Reviews were mixed when it came out and if anything were more positive on the other side of the ocean. The NME rated it 8 out of 10 and declared it has “Dave Grohl established himself as a musical talent that didn’t end with being the drummer for Nirvana”, applauding “Norton’s production, providing a sheen that showcases Grohl’s knack with fuzzy guitars and bubblegum pop” and summed up by saying “it’s a record you should own.” Over here, Rolling Stone liked the “big, radio-ready modern rock sound” but called it “over-produced”; Spin put Grohl on their cover but gave the record only 6 out of 10. Although they say Dave “has come into his own”, they thought the Beatles-y tunes sounded like you’d “catch your dad whistling along while mowing the lawn” and referenced comparisons to Journey and Steely Dan – and not in a complimentary way.  Allmusic look back at it with more awe, declaring it “perhaps the best example of post-grunge modern rock.” Fans looking for the best example of this ‘best example” album might look for the 10th anniversary re-release. It included some outtakes and b-sides, two of which were of note – a popular acoustic version of “Everlong” and Grohl’s loud cover of “Baker Street.”

May 19 – Solo Careers, Here We Come?

Separate ways here they came – The Smiths wrapped up recording their final album, Strangeways Here We Come this day in 1987. Few other bands split as quickly or permanently. Although their record company wouldn’t announce the band’s split until that fall, as music historian Alan Cross says “the band ceased to exist the moment Marr left the studio.”

Tensions had been high between Morrissey and Johnny Marr for months. Morrissey, surprisingly, wasn’t happy with their commercial success to that point (which seems odd given his apparent disregard for doing anything to make himself popular or avoid controversy), while equally surprising, Marr, the superb guitarist who gave them their sound was tiring of the jingly Rickenbacker guitar sounds song after song and wanted to broaden their range. He did get his way a wee bit, bringing in a synthesizer to add some string-like effects on a couple of songs, an autoharp which he played on “I Won’t Share You” and he even got Morrissey to play piano on “Death of a Disco Dancer.” They battled over the band’s plans for a tour and the “last straw”, according to Marr, was when Morrissey insisted on putting a cover song Marr hated on the B-side of the lead single, “Girlfriend in a Coma”. “Moz” got his way and won the battle, but arguably lost the war. They did a ’60s cover, “Work Is A Four-letter Word” and had it as the b-side. The song was done originally by blue-eyed soul singer Cilla Black. Marr said “that was the last straw! I didn’t form a group to perform Cilla Black songs!”

He left the day the recording finished for L.A. , “so off I went and I never saw Morrissey again.” The album did well but didn’t break any new ground for them, hitting #2 in the UK but selling less than their previous album, The Queen is Dead. In North America, it hit #27 in Canada and #55 in the U.S., their best-showing to date but still not representative of the influence and appeal they had at home. “Girlfriend in a Coma” got to #13 there, their fifth-straight top 20 hit (it also gave Douglas Coupland the title for a popular ’90s novel) and the characteristically gloomily-titled “Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me” and “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” also did OK for them in Britain, although neither gained the “classic” status that their fans decreed on most of their earlier hits.

Morrissey was quick out of the gate, releasing his first solo album in 1988. To date, he’s put out 13 solo studio albums, with mixed commercial results – three hit #1 in the UK, but others have struggled to sell. Johnny Marr’s gone on to be a part of several other bands and back up acts like the Pretenders and Bryan Ferry on guitar. Strangeways, for the record, is a notorious Manchester jail.

May 16 – No Dogs In Beach Boys Set

Film-maker Francis Ford Coppola recently suggested you can’t make art without taking risks. We had evidence of that this day in 1966 when one of the truly “classic” albums of the rock era came out – the Beach Boys Pet Sounds. But as good as we now consider the record, it wasn’t without artistic risk. The LP took a turn away from the simple, carefree sound that had dominated the band’s previous 10 albums (released in an astounding four years!) and not everyone was happy with the difference. The band’s own Mike Love, for instance, is said to have called it “S***” and some at their Capitol Records offices didn’t even want to put out the expensive and experimental album.

Pet Sounds was unquestionably Brian Wilson’s pet. He wrote most of the material, produced it and found backing musicians, using the other Boys as little as possible in the eight or so months it took to get the record together (which also cost Capitol some $70 000, a huge amount for the time equivalent to over half a million in this day and age.) Wilson was doing a large amount of drugs, primarily LSD, at the time and having some mental issues which doubtless led to a somewhat sadder and darker sound than the band had produced on previous hits like “I Get Around” and “Surfin’ USA”. Not only was the lyrical content deeper, so too was the quality of the sound and production on now-classics like “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”. Many credit it as the first concept album, something Wilson agrees with… to a degree. “It wasn’t really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album, it was really a production concept album.” Wilson had two clear inspirations for the concept- the Beatles and Phil Spector. He borrowed heavily from Spector’s huge “Wall of Sound” studio technique and was unabashedly competitive with the Fab Four. After he heard the critically-acclaimed Rubber Soul he decided to up his band’s game. “It was a challenge to me, “ he recalled, “it didn’t make me want to copy them but to be as good.” He told his wife excitedly, “I’m gonna make the greatest rock album ever made.”

Did he succeed? Some would say he did. Although at the time, response was lukewarm at home (it only hit #10 in the U.S., not as good as most of their prior albums) it took off right away in the UK, where it got to #2 and earned them their first platinum record on that side of the ocean. Spencer Davis echoed many there at the time saying “I haven’t spent much time listening to the Beach Boys before, but I’m a fan now…”

Soon many around the world caught up to Davis. It sold to platinum in the U.S. after a few years and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “Sloop John B” both hit the top 10 singles chart. Retrospective critics have been very appreciative of the band that “bid farewell to the innocent world of the Beach Boys fun-in-the-sun hits” in the words of Rolling Stone. That album twice has listed it as the second greatest album of all-time (both times behind The Beatles Sgt. Pepper…) complimenting its “luxurious sounds… deeply personal songs” which “perfected the idea (that) an album could be more than the sum of its parts.” Q and allmusic both have scored it a perfect 5-star rating and London’s the Times put it at #1 on their list of best albums ever- ahead of Sgt. Pepper. Wilson must love that one!

One last bit of evidence about how good the album was- a song Wilson was working on during the recording, with a 43-piece orchestra, didn’t end up on the album. It eventually was finished and released as a single later on. That song was their biggest hit, “Good Vibrations.

May 13 – Curnin’s Band Would Soon Be A Fixx-ture On American Radio

Yesterday we mentioned that there seem to be quite a few British acts that enjoyed more success on this side of the Atlantic than at home. Today we look at the debut of one of those acts, The Fixx. Their Shuttered Room album made its first appearance this day 40 years back at home; in North America it arrived later in 1982.

The Fixx had formed in London as The Portaits three years earlier and had put out a couple of indie singles as such. By the beginning of ’82, they’d signed to MCA and changed names (originally to The Fix, but then to the double-x after the company worried the name could be too druggy-sounding) and got their first album ready, with help of well-known producer Rupert Hine. Singer Cy Curnin was the primary writer, but most versions of the release credit the other four members as well.

The Fixx had a then-contemporary “new romantic” look and a somewhat typical sound of London in the early-’80s… synthesizer pop with bits of edgy guitar, in their case by Jamie West Oram, added in. Allmusic described the album as “generic new wave,” though they credit Hine for turning it into “engaging synth pop.” Cryptic Rock compared the album in places to Duran Duran, Alphaville and Japan and sum it up as “elements of a typical post-punk, new wave (album) – upbeat tempo, angular rhythm guitar, ubiquitous synthesizer melodies, driving basslines and frenetic lead vocals.”

The album had 10 songs on it, though the European version was different than the American one. Both had the same eight songs but the original one had the added songs “Sinking Island” and “Time in a Glass” whereas they were absent on the later American release, replaced by “I Found You” and “the Strain,” a previous single b-side. Completists can take comfort, several CD versions include all of them.

The album didn’t exactly take the music world by storm, hitting #52 in Canada and #54 in their own UK. Curiously, that would end up being their best showing at home, but over here they’d score big the following year with Reach the Beach, platinum in both the U.S. and Canada. This one introduced them to North American new wave and rock fans though. “Red Skies” did OK on rock and college stations and “Stand or Fall” kicked off a run of seven-straight top 20 Mainstream Rock hits for them in the U.S. and made it into the overall Canadian top 40. both singles were , “singled” out as the most noteworthy on the album by allmusic. Cryptic Rock added in “Cameras in Paris” as a highlight but agreed with the common perception that while the bulk of the remainder of the album was quite decent, most of it wasn’t overly memorable.

The Fixx split for some time but have been mostly an ongoing effort since, with their 11th studio album, Every Five Seconds, expected out next month. The quintet consists of four of the original members; only bass has been a bit of a changeable position, with them utilizing a number of different players through the years including Chris Tait of Canada’s Chalk Circle in the ’90s.

May 13 – 30 Million Sales Proved Band Name Inaccurate

One of the decade’s biggest and best records came out this day in 1985. Or strike that, one of the biggest and best CDs. Dire Straits  Brothers in Arms was recorded digitally on a 24-track Sony digital recorders, one of the first done that way. It was fittingly also the very first release to sell over a million copies on CD…which was the way the band intended it to be heard.

Producer Neil Dorfman said “one of the things I totally respect about (Knopfler) is his interest in technology as a means of improving his music.” Dorfman seemed to share those traits; the talented studio hand had previously worked as an engineer on Dire Straits great Love Over Gold, as well as albums by Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Tyler and Gary U.S. Bonds’ big comeback, Dedication. The LP copy of Brothers... actually had shortened versions of several songs, including the title track and “So Far Away” because the full 55-minutes wouldn’t fit. The album took the already popular band into the musical stratosphere, eventually selling upwards of 30 million copies. In Britain it was the biggest-seller of the whole decade and is in a virtual tie with Dark Side of the Moon for eighth best-seller of all-time. Having four top 20 singles off it there helped; in fact the fourth, “Walk of Life” was one of only a pair of songs they had that rose as high as #2 in Britain.  In Australia it is 17X platinum; in Canada it’s diamond status and spent 19 weeks at #1. There it was the third biggest-seller of 1985…and again in 1986!

Stateside, it hit the top for nine weeks and sold 9 million+ copies, thanks to the great music- and MTV fave video “Money for Nothing.” That song would be their only #1 single in North America. While the video was fun as opposed to sexy, the song itself owed a little to another set of popular MTV videos – the ones for ZZ Top’s Eliminator. Knopfler is said to have loved the guitar sounds they got for that record, and wanted something similar for “Money for Nothing.” They played around with different guitars, and mic placement in the studio, and when he tried using his Les Paul, a studio tech heard a great effect as Dorfman was moving mics around. He told him to hold it there, and they recorded it, resulting in the fuzzy sound we learned to know and love on the hit.

The album would win a Brit Award for Best Album and the Grammy for best engineering. Although it was recorded exceptionally and had solid songs, it’s not widely considered their best work. Melody Maker thought it well made but “it sounds just a bit too like the last Dire Straits album…which sounded like the beginning of a hugely successful and very lucrative plan to take over the world known as AOR.” Likewise, Rolling Stone said of it “record is beautifully produced with Mark Knopfler’s guitar work catching the best light” but noted the songs “aren’t as interesting as they used to be” . About three decades later, that publication would include it among the 500 greatest albums of all-time, liking how it “shows off Knopfler’s incisive songwriting”. Also years later, allmusic would give it a good 4-star rating, which is less than the predecessor, Making Movies though.

Although Knopfler adopted digital technology early, it’s worth mentioning that there is also a very old-fashioned, low-fi side to him. The striking cover of the album features a beautiful 1937 National Style O Resonator guitar he played on parts of it. After a 200+ show tour and appearance at Live Aid, the band was worn out and essentially broke up except for a few one-offs such as Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party in London.

May 8 – Second Generation Cali-pop Gold

You never go too far wrong with some lovely ladies harmonizing nicely on simple love songs. Nor do you usually go too far wrong having all the right connections in music. Wilson Phillips learned that with their stroke of genius – or beginner’s luck – almost three decades back. they put out their self-titled debut album this day in 1990.

If ever there was a group which was well-groomed to become makers of melodic pop, Wilson Phillips would be it. The female trio consisted of Carnie and Wendy Wilson, daughters of Beach Boy Brian, and Chyna Phillips, daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, two groups that more or less defined California soft rock in the ’60s. At the time this record came out, the three were each 21 or 22 years old and had grown up together, hanging out, singing, and being inspired by all the famous musical talent around their houses when young. It took very little time for them to get a contract (with SBK Records, at the time a new spinoff owned by Columbia) when they announced they were writing some pop tunes and wanted to record; it took them even less time to be featured in Time and Vanity Fair, both of which ran articles about them before the record was released.

SBK went all out for the record, not too surprisingly. they used several of SoCal’s best studios to record it They brought in top-flight producer Glen Ballard (who a few years later would go on to team up with Alanis Morissette on Jagged Little Pill) and some fine session musicians including Joe Walsh on guitars. The effort and expense paid off.

Wilson Phillips was a breezy, pleasant collection of 10 love and love-lost songs that would’ve felt at home on their parents’ records. At least their parents’ B-sides. It dominated adult contemporary and pop radio for close to a year, hitting #2 in the U.S. and topping Canadian charts, going 5X platinum or better in both. It achieved that by being a steady seller for a year, based on five singles, the first two of which (“Hold On” and “Release Me” ) both went gold at home. The latter hit #1 in both the U.S. and Canada, while “Hold On”, co-written by Ballard, was not only a #1 single, it ended up being the biggest-selling single of ’90.

Although the public liked it, reviews were middling. The Village Voice for instance, gave it just a “C”. Later, allmusic would post a confusing review of it. they graded it 4-stars – very good for anyone. However, the written review slammed it, saying it was “about as lightweight and sophomoric as it gets” and suggesting even Debbie Gibson or tiffany had musical “bite” compared to this.

Their 1992 follow-up, Shadows and Light , still sold to platinum levels but totalled only about a quarter of the debut’s 10 million copies and it yielded only one, somewhat forgettable top 20 single. Chyna Phillips, who pointedly let Rolling Stone know in a 1990 story about them that she didn’t appreciate their parents’ bands being referenced, decided to go solo, breaking up the group after only 3 years. Her solo record flopped, as did (more surprisingly) a ’97 album entitled The Wilsons that the other two girls did with their dad, Brian Wilson. As a result (perhaps) they reunited in 2001 for a Beach Boys tribute concert in New York and they’ve worked, and recorded together off-and-on since. They have yet to come close to the gigantic success of the opening shot however. But “Hold On”… maybe they still will!

May 7 – The Turntable Talk, Round 2 – Live Albums Encore

Today we finish our second instalment of Turntable Talk. We hope you liked the first one we ran last month which dealt with why the Beatles were still relevant. This time around, we’ve had six guest writers discuss The Live Album. Some people love ’em, some hate ’em. Some musicians put out some of their best work in live, concert recordings, others seem to use them as a stopgap to fulfill contractual obligations and little else. So we’ve asked our panelists to discuss live albums, however they see fit. Do they enjoy them? Do the records live up to the experience of seeing an act play live? What are their favorites? So far we’ve had rave reviews of live records by the likes of the J.Geils Band, Who and Aerosmith.

Today, we wrap it up with a few thoughts about the concept from me here at A Sound Day:

 

I want to thank our six guest contributors this week who’ve looked at the Live Album, and shared some of their favorites. It shows that some bands can indeed put out great records straight from the stage with a minimum of studio enhancement, and at their best they can really give listeners a sense of the excitement of being there as well as great music to listen to for its own enjoyment.

For the most part, I share the sentiment a few of our other contributors had – I’m not usually a big fan of live albums. I’ve bought quite a few in my day, and had a big percentage of them gather dust more than most LPs or CDs in my collection. I think there are several reasons for this.

One is that most are merely live sets of songs we already knew. If they play the song like it was on the original record, it rarely sounds as good … it always sounds just a bit “off” compared to what we “know” it should sound like. The vocals are off a little or the drums are too prominent, or they add in a few extra bars of the bridge that jar my ears. But then, if they reimagine the song and make it something entirely different-sounding than the song we “know”, usually it seems wrong too. And then there’s the whole fact that while being at the concert is probably fun, hearing it later doesn’t match up. We might be happy and love hearing the singer scream out “hey Winnipeg, how ya doin’? Who wants to rock” if we’re in Winnipeg in the crowd and want to rock, but after hearing it a hundred times on the record later, it tends to get a bit tedious. And all the more the singers who break in the middle of a song to tell some story. Fun in person, annoying to listen to repeatedly, yes, Gord Downie notwithstanding. Funny, unexpected, adlibs or side stories are great when you’re there…but get tiresome when you hear the same adlib every single time you hear the song. Even the crowd noises often come across as distracting and superfluous.

All that said, there have been a few live ones I’ve listened to a lot and liked. Early on, two of the ’70s biggest come to mind – Cheap Trick at Budokan and Peter Frampton‘s Frampton Comes Alive. Both were huge sellers and I loved both. One reason for that is to me, they were new artists. I hadn’t heard the originals of the songs so the live ones sounded right. To this day Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” should be the Budokan one, not the rather sleepy studio original from a couple of years earlier. Same goes for Frampton and songs like “Show Me The Way”. Plus, his talkbox feature on the guitar (best heard towards the end of that track) was undeniably cool…it would get tired fast if every guitarist decided to use it, but it was a novelty that worked.

Earlier this week, Christian wrote about a live J. Geils Band album, Full House. In the early-’80s, I became a big fan of them through their (overdue) commercial breakthrough hit albums, 1980’s Love Stinks and especially ’81’s Freeze Frame. So I quickly grabbed a copy of Live Showtime, their 1982 live album (the third of their career). It had been recorded on the Freeze Frame tour earlier in that year, and it turns out probably was a mere place-holder. Like many live albums, its primary purpose might have been to buy the band some time between releases and fulfill a contractual obligation to EMI Records. Singer, frontman extraordinaire Peter Wolf had quit the band after that and they were scrambling to come up with a new direction and new album, so they put out another live recording. But to me, it was a rather cool, energetic effort. While the versions of the singles “Love Stinks” and “Centerfold” both suffered compared to the studio originals I knew, most of the other songs were new to me – even though old, and showcased how good a live act Geils had always been. I especially took to the new single off it, “I Do”, an old ’50s R&B song, and “Land of A Thousand Dances”, a song popularized by Wilson Pickett two decades prior. To me, the band seemed almost dual-personalitied… smoothly produced, fun pop singles (like “Centerfold”, “Come Back”) in studio and high-energy, party rockers and on stage. If not for this album, I might have missed out entirely on that other part of their presence.

Close to the same time in the ’80s a couple more live albums caught my attention and hold up well to me. One was Roxy Music‘s The High Road, which was really an EP more than an album…a four-song release. It appealed to me because I was really getting into Roxy Music at that time and had seen them on the same tour (for Avalon) which was the first real concert I went to. So there was a sentimental component for me but it was a good record and it had the advantage of having a couple of “new” songs on it, their cover of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” and the John Lennon cover “Jealous Guy.” They played both all through the tour. Now, before you British readers shout at me, let me point out that they had a #1 single there with the studio cut of “Jealous Guy”. But it wasn’t on an album of theirs and unfortunately flopped in North America, so it was pretty much a new song to us over here. Another was U2‘s Live Under A Blood Red Sky. U2 is a bit of a rarity among “new wave” bands or those labeled as such by being one who had a reputation for putting on exceptional live shows – high energy, interesting commentary from Bono. This one showcased them at their best, at least for the early part of their career, and at least one track, the singalong  “40” their traditional closer in that time period, seems to be a lot stronger and more emotional than in its studio version.

One more recent live album that I, maybe to my own surprise, like a lot and have listened to frequently is The Stranglers Friday the Thirteenth, a ’97 release. It was the ninth live album put out by “The Men In Black” which gives an indication that their fans really like their live sets. I saw them twice in concert, once in the ’80s and once in the early-’00s. Both times they were fantastic live players and a fun show. But as I’ve pointed out, that doesn’t always translate onto live records. But with The Stranglers, it often does. I think that is primarily because of the nature of the band. Unlike most rock (or punk if you prefer) acts, they’ve always been dominated by bass and keyboards rather than guitars and drums. J.J. Burnel plays the bass like a lead instrument and is wildly entertaining to watch as was the late Dave Greenfield in his jet-cockpit like bay of keyboards he spun around to play simultaneously. Often though, their contributions were muted a little in the studio mixes, but on their better live recordings they really come through front and center. This album also had a string section behind them, which added another layer to a few of their songs that worked nicely. Any fan of the band needs at least one record with their live version of “Down in the Sewer” (a possibly tongue-in-cheek “punk” anthem which has always been a standout in their concerts), for me this was mine.

That all said, there have been a number of other acts that I absolutely love, and in some cases enjoyed seeing live whose live albums really… well did very, very little for me (except at times curse myself for spending money on them.) I won’t bother to badmouth any of them, because as I said, they’re acts who do a lot of things right. Just putting out live albums isn’t one of them. So for me, my final take is, live records can be good and on rare occasions can outshine the studio originals. But it takes a certain flair and energy on stage, good recordings and perhaps a set list that isn’t merely one old hit single after enough to make them memorable or worthwhile. That’s my take, I’d love to hear yours, dear readers.

May 6 – The Turntable Talk, Round 2 – Jammin’ A Lot Of Pearls Into One Set

Today we continue our second instalment of Turntable Talk. We hope you liked the first one we ran last month which dealt with why the Beatles were still relevant. This time around, we’re pleased to have six guest writers discuss The Live Album. Some people love ’em, some hate ’em. Some musicians put out some of their best work in live, concert recordings, others seem to use them as a stopgap to fulfill contractual obligations and little else. So we’ve asked our panelists to discuss live albums, however they see fit. Do they enjoy them? Do the records live up to the experience of seeing an act play live? What are their favorites? So far we’ve had rave reviews of live records by the likes of the J.Geils Band, The Who and Aerosmith.

Today, we jump forward a couple of decades from those and have Lisa, from Tao Talk, talking about Pearl Jam. Lisa a poet who writes about quite a range of topics ranging from foreign movies to current affairs to examples of her poetry at her site, which we encourage you to check out! Here’s what she’s got to say about Eddie Vedder and the boys-

The moment Dave named the topic of live albums, I knew that I wanted it to be one of Pearl Jam‘s, but I wasn’t sure which one to choose. Probably my most favorite one is Live at the Gorge, a “seven CD box set that documents the band’s three performances at the Gorge amphitheater in George, WA in September, 2005 and July, 2006,” but that one seemed a little too ambitious to write up, so instead today’s essay will be about the two-disk, Live at Benaroya Hall. The benefit concert was done on October 22, 2003, to raise funds for youthcare, an organization to end youth homelessness in Seattle, Washington. What makes me love PJ’s live albums are Eddy’s comments between songs. He’s a preacher in his own way and his flock are adoring of his pronouncements.

I decided to put this essay in a format where I will listen to the disks and while doing so write whatever bubbles up during the listen. Notes will be made on Eddy’s comments between songs, as I will also do for audience response. The plan also developed into including what album, if any, each of the songs are on and any orienting tidbits for each of them.

Disc 1 of 2

Of the Girl”

Gossard wrote this one and describes it (elsewhere) as “pretty somber.” And the crowd goes wild. The Jamily is feeling blessed that they are there with the band.

Low Light”

On the Yield album, this is bass player Jeff Ament’s first lyrics contribution. Listening to a live Pearl Jam album is like going to church. Every member is “on” and tweaking it with the vibe of the audience. I love the sound of the wood resonating in the rhythm guitar. Now here comes McCready with his soul-driven flourishes. Eddy’s singing like the benevolent God that he is. There truly is nothing other than the now of the music.

Thumbing My Way”

From Riot Act. “I love you, Eddy!” someone shouts from the audience. Too many hoots and cheers to count. This song is an anthem for every traveler going through this world.

Thin Air”

On the Binaural album. There is something about “Thin Air” that is deceptively simple yet deep and profound. The wordplay and the delicate manifestation of the melody brings tears to my eyes every time. One of the most magical things about live music is that you’ve got thousands of listeners communing with the band at the same time. “taken on on on on” crooned by Eddy urges an almost orgasmic experience. Multiply that by so many supercharged people in the audience and the energy of resonance has got to be off the charts. For those of us listening to a recording at home, we are aural voyeurs that feel it less intensely but are still satisfied. Where’s my cigarette?

Eddy comments about hearing beforehand about the good acoustics of the venue (Benaroya Hall) and talks about his mistake on the “Thin Air”. He introduces a new song, “Fatal,” that is coming out soon on, Lost Dogs, which is a collection of b-sides.

Fatal”

Written by Gossard. From the Lost Dogs album. Previously unreleased and was an out-take from the Binaural album. Lost Dogs is an often-overlooked album, and it shouldn’t be. It’s one I’ve listened to just as much as any of the others. There is more of a potpourri aspect to it than any conceptual thread, but that’s ok. It’s like walking around an amusement park.

Some loudmouth in the crowd is screaming unintelligibly. There is one in every crowd.

Nothing as it Seems”

Written by Ament, from the Binaural album. Rocking sweet McCready solos. Those long, lonely notes. Many audience members are howling and screaming.

Eddy says that Tim Burton sent “Big Fish” to PJ and asked them to write an ending song for it. They had just recorded it a few days before; they asked Tim if it was OK if they performed it at the show and he was ok with it. The song? “Man of the Hour.”

It appears on the “Man of the Hour” CD single. The chord progression in “Man of the Hour” is another one of those songs that seems to squeeze the tears out of my eyes.

Immortality”

On Vitalogy. Rhythm guitar jamming out. Bass prominent. Eddy waffles on whether or not this song was about Kurt Cobain (but not at this concert.)

Off He Goes”

From No Code. One of my most favorite of the favorite of their songs. How many of us have known someone like him? How many of us are him? McCready wails on his guitar to show support for our sorrow and for his lonely way of being.

Around the Bend”

From No Code. Such a sweet serenade! Written by former drummer, Jack Irons, as a lullaby for his son.

Eddy says that one of ushers notified him that someone wanted to talk with him. The person verified he was Eddy and then the man tried to serve Eddy legal papers. Eddy comments that it was, “the most punk ass mother fuckin’ move I ever heard of.”

I Believe in Miracles” (This is a Ramones cover.)

Appears on the 2003 Annual Vinyl Single. How this bridge starts and goes sends me into orbit: I close my eyes and think how it might be. I can’t tell you the number of times this one has done an earworm on me.

Sleight of Hand”

From Binaural. Existentialism is best not dwelled upon too long. McCready uses his wah wah pedal. The acoustics in Benaroya Hall are excellent.

All or None”

From Riot Act. It’s open to interpretation. Extremes are to be avoided in my experience.

Lukin”

From No Code. Stone Gossard introduces the song. The song is short, sweet, and damned intense. It’s about when a woman was stalking Eddy to the point that he was avoiding his own home. Also it is reported that it’s short and sweet because someone criticized PJ’s songs as being too long. Funk dat!

Disc 2 of 2

Parting Ways”

From Binaural. Looking through some comments on websites about this one, there are interesting theories but the consensus seems to be this was about the imminent breakup between Eddy and Beth.

Eddy gives a Public Service Announcement (PSA): 60,000 young adults have been helped through Youthcare. Eddy asks for a round of applause for the staff and the kids involved with the organization, and then to the audience for supporting them.

Down”

On the Lost Dogs album, written by Gossard, McCready, and Vedder. Originally on the, “I Am Mine single”. An up-tempo song with a line that is also the title of a Howard Zinn book, You can’t be neutral on a moving train.

Encore Break 1

Can’t Keep”

From Riot Act. Eddie on ukelele, singing about going to “the other side,” and the refrain is, “you can’t keep me here.” There is a definitely mystical aspect to this song.

Dead Man”

Included on the Lost Dogs album. Originally from the “Off He Goes” single. Originally intended for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, but passed over in favor of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walkin.” (Wrong choice, in my opinion.)

Masters of War”

Written by Bob Dylan, I wish I could say this song is obsolete. It feels ever-fresh with new blood being spilled. Why young people continue to choose to die to serve their world chess playing masters is one of the great mysteries of our species.

Black”

This may the best known Pearl Jam tune. It’s unquestioningly one of their signature tunes. The poetry of the lyrics, the way Eddy sings it, and knowing he poured his all into it, trying to get over the one love of his life. Many times he sings with every drop of raw emotion. This time he sings as if the sting of anguish has subsided and it’s more in retrospect. Eddy invites the audience to sing along and it gives me the goosebumps to hear it sung in unison with Mike’s accompanying soulful guitar.

Crazy Mary”

One of my personal favorites. Surprisingly not written by PJ but by Victoria Williams. If you can listen to this song and not feel at least a little compassion for Crazy Mary, you have no heart. I also like the mystical aspect to this one. I wrote a poem in honor of Crazy Mary a few years ago. You can read it here.

25 Minutes to Go”

Johnny Cash wrote this one. It’s about a guy facing capital punishment by hanging. Eddy does it up right with some real nice flourishes by McCready on guitar.

Daughter” A quote from Eddy about it:

“The child in that song obviously has a learning difficulty, and it’s only in the last few years that they’ve actually been able to diagnose these learning disabilities, that before were looked at as misbehavior; as just outright rebelliousness, but no one knew what it was. These kids, because they seemed unable or reluctant to learn, they’d end up getting the shit beaten outta them. The song ends, you know, with this idea of the shades going down—so that the neighbors can’t see what happens next. What hurts about shit like that is that it ends up defining people’s lives. They have to live with that abuse for the rest of their lives. Good, creative people are just f***g destroyed.” – from Jones, Allan. Pearl Jam – The Illustrated Story, A Melody Maker Book. Hal Leonard Corp, 1995.

Eddy introduces the members of the band (Gossard, Ament, Cameron, McCready, and “you know my name, look up the number…”) He sings a few bars of “You’ve got to hide your love away.” and then sings, “you don’t have to hide your love away.”

Encore Break 2

Yellow Ledbetter”

Another song of theirs that got a lot of radio play. About a guy whose brother who has gone off to fight in war and the guy hopes he doesn’t come back in a box or a body bag. The guy gets a letter saying his brother has been killed.

OK, there you have it, a template for how I grok live albums, or at least how I grok live Pearl Jam albums. The musicianship is superior, they sound just as good live as they do on their sanitary studio versions, and you just never know what Eddy is going to say.

Thank you for the prompt, Dave. I enjoyed writing this very much.

I was going to link each song separately, but I found the whole concert out on youtube. There is a track listing where you can click to each song, which is always helpful.

https://youtu.be/mpygOcZYIws