Saturday, December 29, 2012

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

Listening to Led Zeppelin was a perennial right of passage, starting in Junior High School, for most adolescence boys and girls, and I should qualify, for most male teens. I remember back in Junior High while living in Rohnert Park, picking up Zeppelin II and IV (The Zoso album). At the time, I was exploring what I liked, and from my initial exposure to rock and pop music, I was eclectic, absorbing everything like a sponge, and for those reasons, the passion for Zeppelin didn’t fully kick in until my Freshmen year of High School. Nevertheless, eventually, the entire body of Zeppelin’s work had a profound impact on me. Many of the songs, and the range of the songs pointed to what was possible, to new directions. Sadly, too many metal musicians would only focus on narrow aspects of Zeppelin; The hypnotic grooves of the first two records or the invention of the epic power ballad with “Stairway To Heaven” or “Ten Years Gone,” while missing far too many of the ingredients, a profound knowledge of Blues, Folk, Arabian, and classical from Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham. This deep foundation, like many 60s acts, set them apart.

My discovery of Led Zeppelin III came about in cassette form as a Freshman, and it stood out as a clear demarcation and bridge between II and IV. The music evokes certain mental images, and puts one into a particular place. For myself, it just doesn’t evoke my imagination, but recollections of my room in Corte Madera. The combination bunk bed and desk, and wall shelves to compensate for a very small room. The move from Rohnert Park back to Corte Madera had allowed for a clean slate in my life, and a complete reinvention of myself at the start of high school, after being a social outcast in Junior High, I had a wider circle of friends and the climate of High School allowed me the space to find myself, and the strength to carve my own nitch.

Of course, I became aware of the vinyl edition of Led Zeppelin III with the rolling wheel cover art. The cover represented an aspect of the band that people tended to gloss over -- their humor. There’s a sense of whimsy to be found with the designs of II and III, before the mystical aspect of the band took over. The album represented a demarcation, a breaking point from what could have been a predictable formula, and in a baffling sense both critically and commercially, the band wasn’t rewarded. Yet in hindsight, it became clear to see the third album opened the band up to other possibilities. In a 1990 interview by J.D. Considine, he commented on the bands wide range of styles, and John Paul Jones said:

It wasn’t a purist band, as you get nowadays, where the entire band listens to the same type of music. Between the blues influences of Robert and the roll & roll influences of Jimmy, who also had strong influences, the soul influences of Bonzo and my soul and jazz influences, there seemed to be a common area, which was Led Zeppelin. The fusion of all types of music and interests.

The story of the band’s origin has been told to the point of exhaustion, How Jimmy Page, an ace session guitarist, joined the Yardbirds at the tail end of Jeff Beck’s tenure when the band briefly existed as a two-guitar outfit for a millisecond before Beck’s departure, and Page recorded the Little Games album, which would act as a template of ideas that Page would further explore with Zeppelin, only to have the Yardbirds disintegrate before the start of a Scandinavian tour in 1968, yet to have Peter Grant, the fifth member, manage the band and help put the pieces together that became Zeppelin. Hints of the band’s creation could be found with “Beck’s Bolero” a track from the Jeff Beck Group’s Truth album that featured Page, John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins, and Keith Moon. There has been a dispute between Page and Beck about the arrangement for “Bolero,” but by most accounts Page was responsible for the core arrangement, which makes sense, “Bolero” has certain dynamics that fit Page’s sensibilities. In fact, Page would use a similar Bolero march for one section of Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times.” But whereas The Jeff Beck Group would act as a showcase for Beck, and would quickly splinter due to ego conflicts, Page’s Zeppelin would remain a cohesive outfit with all of the band members equal contributors.

Once they formed, and fatefully played “Train Kept A Rolling” on their first rehearsal, the band barnstormed across Europe and America with their debut album in January 1969, and followed up with Zeppelin II in October of that year. What developed with Zeppelin III was hinted at with the first and second albums – “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Your Time is Gonna Come”, the alternative tuning raga of “Black Mountain Side”, the song craft sensibility of “Thank You”, or “Ramble On”. But the mellow side of the band made them hard to pin down for critics who wanted to focus on the amped-up blues, hypnotic riffing, and for lack of a better term, the cock rock bluster that could be found on certain tracks. But acknowledging the song craft of the band, the band’s nod to The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, or Joni Mitchell, was a more dicey proposition for critics, as acknowledged by Page in Cameron Crowe’s 1975 interview:
“That’s it! When the third LP came out and got its reviews, Crosby, Stills and Nash had just formed. That LP had just come out and because acoustic guitars had come to the forefront, all of a sudden: Led Zeppelin Go Acoustic! I thought Christ, where are their heads and ears? There were three acoustic songs on the first album and two on the second.”

While accusations of hype surrounded the band, the same label of hype could be attached to Crosby, Stills and Nash, an outfit that enjoyed its elite 1960s pedigree largely due to being involved with the Woodstock festival, and this isn’t to take away anything from CSN, just an aside point. Zeppelin III’s demarcation is evidenced with the duel sides, the heavy rock and acoustic side. But that tends to simplify the intent of the material, as “Friends” is an acoustic number and the second half of “Gallows Pole” swings like mad, nothing was ever cut and dried with a Zeppelin LP.
“The element of change has been the thing, really. We put out the first one, then the second…then a third LP totally different from them. It’s the reason we were able to keep it together.” – Page 1990

In a 1971 interview with Rick McGrath, prior to the fourth LP, this is what Robert Plant had to say on the issue of the album:
“The third album, to me, was a disappointment in the way it was accepted because it wasn't given enough of a chance. After ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Bring It On Home’, and thunder which was what is was. So we say try this for size and I thought when we were doing it that I was able to get inside myself a little more and give a little more on the album. I thought the whole thing felt like that. I was pleased with it, and I’d play it now without hesitation and dig it. And you can’t always do that to an album you’ve played a million times. But I really thought it stood up and then everybody was saying, well, no, and they’d leave it and then come back in a couple of weeks time and say, well, we can see…but nevertheless, we think it’s best. But that’s what people want because the simple, heavy thunder is much easier to assimilate, much easier to react to in every way. But you can’t just do that, otherwise you become stagnant and you’re not really doing anything, you’re just pleasing everybody else.”

The album opens with “Immigrant Song.” a white noise count-off leads to the main riff, with some spry bass work by Jones. In spite of its references to Nordic Viking legends, the track was inspired by the band’s concert in Iceland, June 1970, Plant has acknowledged it was ‘supposed to be powerful and funny’. Which also brings up to another aspect, and misconception of the band, that they lacked humor on account of the mystique and mysticism that had been built up about them. There’s a certain whimsy to be found on the Zeppelin II and III albums, and while that humor might have been more sly and didn’t fit the mold of the Beatles / Monty Python sense of humor, it was still there.

After another chattering false start, “Friends” features an alternative acoustic tuning by Page. The strings aren’t played by Jones, but was arranged and conducted by Jones with Indian musicians at a studio in India. Its lyric’s seem to be a plaintive appeal for connection. A sliding synth drone connects the track to “Celebration Day”, a technique that was cleverly utilized to mask a recording debacle. Page seems to use a baritone Guitar for the spry introduction. It has been recalled that members of Zeppelin’s road crew, in a drunken stupor while listening to the playback of “Celebration Day” late one night with the band not present, accidently erased the opening bass and drum tracks, forcing Page to do some clever editing. Its lyrics, in the tradition of “Living Loving Maid,” seem to be a scathing critique on an aging groupie, but it could also be acknowledging the price paid for the life of a touring band.

For a band that was noted, or accused of being over-produced with the instrumental layering that Page was keen on displaying in the records, it is surprising to find most of the rock numbers are fairly spare with guitar tracks. Page seemed to always understand that a song will eventually tell you what is needed, and to his credit the tracks on side one aren’t dense with sound, unlike many metal bands that double the rhythm guitars to such a degree that there’s no room to breathe. It should be noted, that while the albums, and Page’s production innovations were important, the real measure of any band was in their live performance, and the band was fairly consistent in that area. Yet, it is important to note that Improvisation was a crucial component, and the band, following in the tradition of great Blues and Jazz improvisation, excelled in this area, often with a fearlessness that most contemporary bands never display.

Page has described “Since I’ve Been Loving You” as progressive blues, and the track remained a concert staple, even appearing in their 2007 reunion London gig. Jones Organ work anchors the track while Page delivers a hybrid of blues and Spanish flamenco with fire and flare.

“Out on the Tiles” is something else altogether, a boisterous rocker with an interesting origin. The main riff was actually written by John Bonham, as recounted by Jason Bonham, a vocal melody sung by Bonham in his barroom carousing that the band transformed with a new vocal line from Plant.

Before I continue with the second half of the album, I feel that context is in order, and to offer speculation about situations that might have impacted the meaning of certain songs. Plant had commented in the Cameron Crowe interview from ’75, regarding their first tour in ‘69:
The states were much more fun. L.A. was what L.A isn’t now: L.A. infested with jaded 12-year-olds is not the L.A. that I really dug. It was the first place I ever landed in America; the first time I ever saw a cop with a gun, the first time I ever saw a 20-foot-long car.

But the band also experienced the flipside of that American experience–they had been spit on, had guns drawn on them and were heckled at airports, as well as witnessed the treatment of Viet Nam protesters by Police, as well as fans being mistreated by Police at their shows. Robert Plant had acknowledged thus:
“We’ve been to America so much and seen so many things that we don’t agree with, that our feelings of protest have to reflect this in our music.”

Based on examples of their tour itinerary from ‘69 through early 1970, it stands to reason they toured several southern states in America, and probably witnessed, not only racial tension, but the hostility towards long-haired hippies in certain southern cities, which was effectively illustrated in the 1969 film Easy Rider. These experiences probably formed the intent that one could find in several of the acoustic songs that comprise side two of the album.

I would be remiss to not address the cottage location in Wales that Page and Plant used for inspiration, the name Bron-Y-Aur which means “The Golden Breast”. As Plant clarified to Cameron Crowe in 1975:
“It was time to step back, take stock and not get lost in it all. Zeppelin was starting to get very big, and we wanted the rest of our journey to take a pretty level course. Hence, the trip to the mountains and the beginning of the eternal Page and Plant. I thought we’d be able to get a little peace and quiet and get your actual Californian, Marin County blues, which we managed to do in Wales rather than San Francisco. It was a great place.”

One important feature was the role of Jones’ mandolin, which would remain an important standard feature on future Zeppelin tracks. “Gallows Pole”, which was based on the folk song “The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” opens fairly plaintively, changes tempo and builds up to a manic pace, along with Page’s debut on Banjo, and ends with his lead fuzz box guitar. “Gallows Pole” offered a template for what would follow with “Stairway To Heaven”. It is surprising that “Tangerine” was never released as a follow up single to “Immigrant Song.” After a false start, the track laments about the loss of innocent love. The origin of the track dates back to a song written by Page and Keith Relf titled “Knowing That I’m losing You” from the final Yardbirds sessions. The band’s song craft can be found in spades with this material, and it would be difficult to argue that they lacked substance or melody.

My personal favorite, and probably the album’s highlight was “That’s The Way”, another atmospheric tune with another alternative tuning from Page, and some distinct electric dobro slide work, addressing southern segregation and conservation issues. “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” opens with some nimble guitar work from Page before kicking into jaunty gear, in an homage to Plant’s dog. “Hat’s Off To (Roy) Harper” is a slide blues credited to Charles Obscure, a duet with Plant’s vocal treated with a vibrato for an eerie effect, and a somewhat cryptic closure yet one that falls in line with the band’s blues tradition. Roy Harper was already a rising name on the music scene when the band issued their nod to him in 1970. Many might remember that Harper eventually sang the lead vocal on Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” within the space of five years later.

Yet the story about Zeppelin III isn’t exactly complete: at least three other tracks were written and recorded during this period. The “Immigrant Song” B-side, “Hey Hey, What Can I Do” was a sought after track for years, and I have heard it in rotation of classic rock radio stations. It’s also a highly radio-friendly, catchy acoustic rock number that reflects their love of melodic folk rock.

“Bron-Y-Aur” is a Page acoustic fingerpicked instrumental that eventually appeared on Physical Graffiti, and “Poor Tom” was a guitar and Harmonica folk number driven by a New Orleans shuffle that appeared on Coda. Like The Beatles there has been so much erroneous mythologizing about the band, and a lot of negative assumptions built up, it becomes hard to discern where the truth lies within that myth. I have seen Zeppelin III lumped in with the more mystical aspects of the band, whereas the evidence doesn’t support that assumption. There are no references to the occult in the lyrics, other than the Crowley quote to be found in the inside groove of the Vinyl edition–Do What Thou Wilt. I would argue that the mystical aspects of the band didn’t really come into play until Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy, and Physical Graffiti.

Certainly Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods helped to codify some of the more negative perceptions and feed certain myths while not offering much context. Then there was the music press, and notoriously Rolling Stone, that heaped scorn on the band from the outset. I could understand Lester Bangs’ mixed review for Zeppelin III, as Bangs held little affinity for a lot of progressive rock, and preferred the directness of the 3-minute single format.

But John Mendelsohn’s ’69 reviews were inexcusable, dismissing the band with accusations of them lacking wit, melody, vocal harmony, and expression, Mendelsohn seemed to hold a benchmark that every band needed to follow The Beatles’ melodic power pop format, which was a ridiculous standard indeed. Mendelsohn also displays an ignorance about the very idiom of the blues, which often holds a limited musical vocabulary, but often focuses on emotion, mood, and placing the listener into a certain mental state, all aspects that Zeppelin utilized effectively.

On a simplistic level, Zeppelin represented a changing of the guard in 1969, and to the elite music press and critics that had propped up many of the stars of the late sixties, this change was a threat. But the press, driven by ideals, wasn’t accessing the merit of the music, which should have been their role to do so, but used Zeppelin to make a sociological argument.

Some of the accusations of ‘hype’ might have had a fraction of merit, but there was a deeper issue at hand there. Zeppelin faced an image problem driven by Peter Grant’s business deals and record contract terms that gave Page and the band creative control. They set the terms of when they would tour, selection of album art, and which tracks would be chosen as potential singles. For the elite underground scene, who mistrusted power and wealth, the critics viewed the band as mercenaries before a note was played. Shunned by the English underground elite, Peter Grant and the band had to rely on America.

There was also a trickier element to the Zeppelin story; the band captivated a younger audience than the generation that embraced the cultural and political sensibilities of 60s artists. As noted by critic Jon Landau, who would go on to manage Bruce Springsteen by the 70s:
“Zeppelin forced a revival of the distinction between popularity and quality. As long as the bands most admired aesthetically were also the bands most successful commercially (Cream, for instance), the distinction was irrelevant. But Zeppelin’s enormous commercial success, in spite of critical opposition, reveals the deep division in what was once thought to be a homogeneous audience.”

Speaking for myself, these issues have prompted a deep distrust for critics, and a complete lack of regard for their role. Music, Film, Novels, Art and Theatre are subjective in nature, and individualistic, and I never vault a critic any higher than someone who is merely paid to offer an opinion. Frankly, In my personal travels, I have known a couple of established critics, and have found most to be thin-skinned, and self-important, easily driven by hubris after the praise of sycophants, and while many might begin their careers with the intent to serve the public, they seem to serve their own self interest and write for their fellow peers more often than not. The deep, dirty secret, that most critics bluster over, is the fact that their role won’t be important in the annals of time. They operate with a self-delusion they cannot admit openly.

Therefore, I cannot blame Zeppelin’s hostility towards the music press. Having said that, the band wasn’t immune to criticism. Peter Grant’s circle of employees did behave thuggishly and it was documented that writers and hangers-on were manhandled. The band did indulge in their excess with parties, drink, and drug use. Page allowed his dalliances with Crowley to feed the occult rumors, which members of the band probably sensed was good for business, and to cultivate the mystique. The problems that developed for the band after 1976, with countless setbacks, might be viewed as karmic payment, but might have been just random happenstance. Nevertheless, there had been so many distortions and embellishments about the mystique of Zeppelin from Groupie Mud-Shark antics, underage dating, Robert Johnson-flavored deals with the devil, backwards masking, and Tolkien references, that it has only been in the last two decades that their music, and its important role, has been accessed.

Their legacy should never be in doubt, and Led Zeppelin III serves as part of that legacy.

Producer: Jimmy Page
Arrangers and Composers: Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and John Bonham
Engineer: Andy Johns
Cover: Zacrom

Side One:
Immigrant Song
Celebration Day
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Out On The Tiles  

Side Two:
Gallows Pole
That’s The Way
Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
Hat’s Off To (Roy) Harper  

Next up: Queen II (1974)

You can download the album from iTunes, or order it from Barnes and Nobel.

The bulk of the information comes from a series of Rolling Stone articles by Mikal Gilmore, Cameron Crowe, J.D. Considine, Andy Green, the on-line reprint of Rick McGrath’s work, and the 1990 Box Set. Special thank you to XScribe for editorial proofing.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Beatles: "Revolver" (1966)

The Beatles have always been a part of my consciousness in one form or another since I was very young. I remember my first exposure to them being at that house in San Rafael, when my mom had the vinyl Capitol prints of the “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” soundtracks. My Dad held a certain leeriness about their earlier bubblegum pop years, and he really only connected with them during their mid to late sixties period, as their writing evolved into something more sophisticated and varied. Years later, while we were living in Rohnert Park, near Santa Rosa, my middle brother stayed with us for a spell and he had Japanese import copies of the early 60s Capitol era. I remember owning the Red and Blue compilations while living in Rohnert Park, during Jr. High. It wasn’t until I was a High School freshmen that I really started to connect with their material, starting with Rubber Soul.

Yet Revolver was the album that really stood out for me, and I remember listening to the Capitol vinyl edition on a regular basis. When CD players affordably went on the market in the late 80s, the Beatles catalog was the first sets I invested in, and I was even more blown away by the UK edition of the album. While countless artists shaped the sound of rock ‘n roll in the fifties, the Beatles expanded the vocabulary of Rock and pop in ways that were profound. Yet what were the circumstances that made them so profound? Did the band even understand fully their impact? I doubt it, as they were probably just doing their thing and being in the moment. When you consider the statistical odds of a band forming, much less connecting at the level they did so, between John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it seems almost miraculous that these four individuals converged in post war Liverpool and the same time and place, yet they did so.

In essence, it becomes the chicken or the egg argument, was their greatness already there, was it preordained (an argument I’m suspicious of)? Or did they simply rise to the occasion with each success? I could well imagine that Revolver must have been a shock when it was released, August 5th, 1966. But there were ample clues that the band had evolved enough to be able to release such a title. There writing had become more sophisticated, the subject or romance had already become ambivalent, as early as late ’64 they had started to veer away from the bubblegum pop format, and the writing became more varied, as evidenced with several tracks off of Beatles For Sale – “Baby’s in Black, I’m A Loser, I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party”, and this sophistication was further evidenced with Help – The flute ensemble of “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, and the string quartet of “Yesterday” or the heavy rock of “Ticket To Ride”.

While Rubber Soul might have been a revelation as far as an album filled with quality material, the conventions of the album, their standard rock instrumentation of guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, excluding the exception of George’s Sitar on “Norwegian Wood”, had remained intact in principle, even if the writing had grown by leaps and bounds. Rubber Soul was also a more organic sounding album, with its emphasis on acoustic guitars, whereas Revolver, in a sense, was an electronic album, and the first true studio only release.

One also should bear in mind, two events sandwiched between the pre and post release of Revolver. One being the infamous Robert Whitaker, ‘butcher babies’ photo sessions that seemed intended to smash their clean cut image, and during the final tours in 66, the frightening Philippines / Manila incident where Imelda Marcos claimed The Beatles snubbed her, when they had previously declined to attend a breakfast, although Marcos wasn’t informed of the decline. The diminishing returns of their bubblegum image, and the growing security risks of touring due to Beatle mania, probably shaped their confidence they could continue as a recording only band.

While Norman Smith had managed some great technical feats for The Beatles in 65, Geoff Emerick role as an engineer was probably the most significant development to evolve for the Beatle’s 1966. Paul’s Bass sound alone was a vast improvement, with more presence and fullness, it allowed Paul to treat the bass as a lead instrument. Geoff Emerick from his book: “Here, There and Everywhere” in 2006 made the following comments about how he arrived at the Bass sound:
“But before he got down to the brass tacks of teaching the others their parts (for “Paperback Writer”), Paul turned to me. “Geoff,” he began, “I need you to put your thinking cap on. This song is really calling out for that deep Motown bass sound we’ve been talking about, so I want you to pull out all the stops this time, all right, then?” I nodded an affirmative…It occurred to me that since microphones are in fact simply loudspeakers wired in reverse (in technical terms, both are transducers that convert sound waves to electrical signals, and vice versa), why not try using a loudspeaker as a microphone?...I broached my plan, gingerly, to Phil McDonald…Over the next few hours, while the boys rehearsed with George Martin, Ken (Townsend) and I conducted a few experiments. To my delight, the idea of using a speaker as a microphone seemed to work pretty well.”

Ringo’s drum’s also benefited from Emerick’s techniques including close miking the bass drum. The guitars themselves took on a more heavier sound, while The Who and The Kinks had already broken new ground with a heavier rock sound, The Beatle’s refined those innovations and laid the groundwork for the power pop single, and this could be demonstrated with such tracks as “Taxman, She Said, She Said, And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Doctor Robert”.

This was further demonstrated in their single recorded during this period, “Paperback Writer / Rain”, overdriven brisk guitars, very present bass and drums, complex vocals, and in the case of “Rain”, a backing track that is slowed down and their first use of backwards vocal. “Paperback Writer” should have been seen as the first signal of the new identity, the fab four, bubblegum pop sensibility had ended. Paul McCartney has observed in 1997:

“One day I led the dance, like “Paperback Writer”, and another day John would lead the dance like “I’m Only Sleeping”. It was nice, we weren’t really competitive as to who started the song, but the good thing was if he wrote a great “Strawberry Fields”, I’d try and write a “Penny Lane”. So, we kept each other on our toes”

This change was also very evident in the Klaus Voormann cover, Voormann had been a long time friend from their Hamburg days, and he would go on, in the space of a few years to play bass on John and George’s solo albums. The cover also managed to hint at their sense of humor, and their interest in pop surrealism, sans the band name, which one could say was a reflection of their already iconic status, and the fact that their individual persona’s had become more pronounced. It is also worth noting that the title could have a double meaning – it could be referring to Long Play 33 1/3 Rotations Per Minute, the speed that a vinyl record has to properly play, or it could be a word play on ‘Evolve’. John observed in 1969 and 1975:
“The sixties saw a revolution among youth – not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking. The youth got it first and the next generation second. The Beatles were part of the revolution, which is really an evolution, and is continuing…We were a part of it and contributed what we contributed; I can’t designate what we did and didn’t do. It depends on how each individual was impressed by The Beatles, or how shock waves went to different people. We were going through the changes, and all we were saying was, ‘It’s raining up here’ or, ‘There’s land!’ or, ‘There’s sun!’ or, ‘We can see a seagull!’ We were just reporting what was happening to us.”
After a brief introduction – an audio loop, a cough, the chirp of a guitar, and the count-off, “Taxman” kicks things off, it’s a testament to George’s development as a songwriter that his track would lead off the album. Yet, ironically, it is Paul that plays that blistering lead guitar. “Eleanor Rigby” is significant on several fronts, one being the composition, the narrative description, the classical motif, and the willingness for the band to step out of themselves, to step out of their positive outlook, and acknowledge that there were a lot of working class people, that were leading lives of quiet desperation – those lonely (and lovely) people. That track alone – “Eleanor Rigby” would set up a template that other writers would follow, including Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles, all of the way through to Aimee Mann. Geoff Emerick also made observations about the sonic innovations with “Eleanor Rigby’ after Paul had specifically instructed that he didn’t want the strings to sound like Mancini:
“String quartets were traditionally recorded with just one or two microphones, placed high, several feet up in the air so that sound of the bows scraping couldn’t be heard. But with Paul’s directive in mind, I decided to close-mic the instruments, which was a new concept. The musicians were horrified! One of them gave me a look of distain, rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and said under his breath, “You can’t do that, you know.’”
One has to bear in mind that in the late fifties as Rock N’ Roller’s like Elvis or Buddy Holly started to go pop and use string sections, the strings often sounded banal, and generic. Something that McCartney was probably instinctively fighting to avoid, but McCartney and Emerick’s instincts were correct, and revolutionary.

John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” is a whimsical acoustic pop number with George’s crisp, distorted guitar fills and the introduction to backwards guitar. When the Anthology CD’s were released, this is one of the tracks presented a different arrangement including vibes, this being indicative of this period, where the Beatles by ’66, had the luxury of not settling for one arrangement and then moving on, but could find the ideal voice of a song. George’s cavalcade of guitar at the end of the track, segway’s nicely into his own track.

George’s “Love You To” was his first proper attempt at an Indian composition, although it isn’t pure replication being that an acoustic guitar, and some heavily distorted guitars drive the rhythm, Tabla player Anil Bhagwat adds to the track, and Jimmy Page would eventually do the same on his “Black Mountain Side” on the first Zeppelin album – but the track was an important template, the blending of rock, pop and world music would become commonplace. Peter Gabriel would build his entire career on the merging of such sensibilities, as well as Paul Simon.

In many respects Paul is one of the most natural melodic songwriters, putting forth a melody seems to second nature to him, and this strength was never more evident in “Here, There and Everywhere”; one of his most liked, and highly regarded tunes, and one that John would eventually site as a favorite.

“Yellow Submarine” is in essence a children’s tune, written by Paul and John for Ringo, the inclusion of topical sound effects set another precedent, and Pink Floyd, the band that fittingly Norman Smith was assigned to produce by the end of 1966, would take these techniques to new heights. It should be noted that Syd’s final Pink Floyd track, “Jugband Blues” (1968) shares a similar structure with a marching brass band interlude, but the sentiment was darker, surreal, and disturbing. John’s “She Said She Said” is one of those few mid tempo acid rock numbers, inspired by an LSD experience, John’s overdriven guitar, and George’s heavy fuzz lead weaves together nicely. Paul observed in 1997 about “She Said She Said”:
“Very much John. It’s a nice one. I like the title “She Said She Said”, which I think was made up on the session. John brought it in pretty much finished, I think. I’m not sure but I think it was one of the only Beatle records I never played on. I think we’d had a barney or something and I said, “Oh, fuck you!” and they said, “Well, we’ll do it.” I think George played bass.”

Geoff Emerick has also revealed that “She Said She Said” was the last thing recorded for the album, when they were a track short from the standard fourteen track long-player.

Often Rubber Soul is dubbed the pot album, and Revolver is dubbed the LSD album, but I feel that overstates and simplifies matters. While the drugs may have inspired the band to take more risks and become more fearless, McCartney and Lennon have admitted they were never able to function properly in the studio, nor be productive while under the influence, yet there remains this romanticism about playing while stoned.

It needs to be noted that we have only discussed the first seven tracks, and already the album has shown a staggering range, the second half is no less full of surprises. Paul’s “Good Day Sunshine” was written in the spirit of The Lovin’ Spoonful, Triad Jazz as Paul has described it, what is interesting about the piano work is one can’t tell if it was all Paul, several of the more bluesy riffs sound like John’s playing style, which would later be evidenced in his Plastic Ono Band and “Imagine” album. John’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” is the most brisk rocker from the album, and attempts a harmonized lead. Again it should be noted that the version heard on the Anthology CD, was altogether different – the 12 string jangle arrangement.

Paul’s “For No One” – like “Here”, is the other highly regarded track, also cited by John as a favorite, and features the first classical solo featured on a Beatles track, played by Alan Civil, it wouldn’t be the last. John’s “Doctor Robert” was inspired by a real event, and seems a sly dig at the Hollywood prescription drug chic that was prevalent in the day.

Something needs to be said about George’s songwriting output during this period, it has been noted that if George were in any other band, he would have been regarded as a very good writer, but had to compete with the giant talents of McCartney / Lennon. George’s third offering, “I Want To Tell You” manages to tuck in an unusual chord, and perhaps the track influenced the sustained / augmented chord choices one could find with contemporary alternative or the art rock scene. George observed in his 1980 book:
“I Want To Tell You is about the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit…the mind is the thing that hops about telling us to do this and do that – when what we need is to lose (forget) the mind. A passing thought.”
Paul’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”, a clever ode to pot nonetheless, might be responsible for shaping the careers of bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, and Earth, Wind & Fire, with its jazzy, biting, horn quartet. Geoff Emerick observed in 2006 after commenting on Eleanor Rigby:
“No one had heard strings like that before, and neither had they heard brass the way I recorded it on “Got To Get You Into My Life”. Again, I close-miked the instruments – actually put the mics right down into the bells instead of the standard technique of placing them four feet away – and then applied severe limiting to the sound. There were only five players on the session, and when it came time to mix the song, Paul kept saying, “I wish we could make the brass sound bigger.”…That’s where I came up with the idea of dubbing the horn track onto a fresh piece of two-track tape, then playing it back alongside the multitrack, but just slightly out of sync, which had the effect of doubling the horns. I loved Paul’s singing on that song, too – he really let loose.”
Yet is was John’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” that broke the most ground - built around a processed drum and bass track, with a hint of organ, the swirl of tape loops was a sonic revelation, with a little dose of George’s backwards guitar, and a little jangle piano for good measure, the track laid the groundwork for an entire new genre, although it would be decades before that would be realized.

Not only has Revolver remained my personal favorite, and many music writers have arrived at the same sentiment, I would have to argue, it had the most profound impact. For decades, Sgt. Pepper was hailed as the most important rock album, and most profound by many critics, but upon closer scrutiny the second half of the album doesn’t hold up as well. While Sgt. Pepper enjoys the highest ratio of ‘firsts’, the first – loosely – concept album, the first to include lyrics, the cover and gatefold, George Martin’s orchestral arrangements and production. The second half of the album is guilty of filler with “Good Morning, Good Morning, Lovely Rita” and there’s a good argument for the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise, and is only held together by John’s profound “A Day In The Life”, but Revolver is filled with great songs, it remains interesting and varied, and leaves you wanting more.

This brings us the thrust of the point; that Revolver set up the template for countless bands, pointing musicians to new directions with where they could go. The power pop of Cheep Trick, Sweet, Def Leppard could be found with “Taxman, She Said She Said, And Your Bird Can Sing, Doctor Robert”. The singer / songwriter, balladeer of Billy Joel, Carol King, Adell could be found with “Eleanor Rigby, Here, There & Everywhere, Good Day Sunshine” and “For No One”, or rock and progressive rock’s dalliances with classical with “Eleanor Rigby”. The aforementioned “Love You To” and it’s influence on world music, and the tape loops of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, which would lead to trance, ambient, techno, or the experimentation of Miles Davis with his 1972 album, On The Corner.

The tree that is Revolver branches off with its influences on countless bands, in so many directions, that such a list would be profound and encompassing. While I consider the entire Beatles catalogue essential listening, Revolver deserves the credit it enjoys, and should be reassessed by every generation of music fan.

Producer: George Martin
Arrangers: The Beatles, George Martin
Composers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison
Engineer: Geoff Emerick
Cover: Klaus Voormann

Tracks: Side one (UK version):  
Eleanor Rigby  
I’m Only Sleeping  
Love You To
Here, There and Everywhere  
Yellow Submarine  
She Said She Said

Side Two (UK version)  
Good Day Sunshine  
And Your Bird Can Sing  
For No One  
Doctor Robert
I Want To Tell You  
Got To Get You Into My Life
Tomorrow Never Knows

You can download the album from iTunes
Or you can order it on-line from Barnes & Nobel
Next up: Led Zeppelin III

Monday, January 23, 2012

Frank Sinatra: "Watertown" (1970)

Certain albums grow in you and become a part of your psyche; I have always held a strong connection to this album. My mother is an avid Sinatra fan, always was so, and still is. I remember her playing this record in the 70s when I was a kid, quite young, I remember being transfixed by the album, even if I was too young to understand it fully.

I remember studying the gatefold sleeve with embossed text and silver leaf ink, the feel of the textured cross-etched cardboard, back in the days of vinyl LPs, the ink sketches on grey paper, that depicted a train station adjoined to the main street, the inner gatefold that depicted a bed filled with a family album, letters, cards, things that make up a life of memories, the art-work embossed with silver tint, as well as the fold out poster, in black and white with a silver tint, a somber photo of Sinatra at railroad tracks, looking reflective.

I still have vivid memories of living in the complex house in San Rafael, CA above a flower shop, with a giant backyard and a giant tree that became my entire world when I was a boy, and so a part of me always will connect this album to my childhood in the 70s. Setting aside that connection, the very reason why this album is the first cited, it is simply an undervalued gem, a masterpiece of post modern pop music. Frank Sinatra had spent the better part of the sixties delivering a string of hits for Reprise, I Get A Kick Out Of You, Luck Be A Lady, The Way You Look Tonight, My Kind Of Town, The Best Is Yet To Come, Fly Me To The Moon, before releasing a series of ‘event’ records, It Was A Very Good Year, Strangers In The Night, Summer Wind, That’s Life, Something Stupid, and My Way. Sinatra had personified urban cool all through the 50s and 60s.

But by ’68 Sinatra was in transition while going through a divorce with actress Mia Farrow. After the release of The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper, the music scene had changed so drastically with the heavier sounds of Jimi Hendrix, and The Who, that many of the old school pop artists had trouble adapting.

It was within this climate that Sinatra threw down a gauntlet, defying the expectations of his standard fan base, by seeking a collaboration with Frankie Valli’s (of the Four Seasons fame) partner, Bob Gaudio, to do a contemporary piece that was unique for Sinatra, Gaudio and Sinatra met around mid-1968 to discuss the project. Guadio brought in Lyricist Jake Holmes who had worked on the Four Season’s Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. Holmes had started his career as part of the comedy team Jim, Jake, Joan (with Jim Conell and Joan Rivers). Interestingly enough, it has been rumored that Holmes was the original writer of “Dazed and Confused” which Jimmy Page, and Led Zeppelin, allegedly nicked.

After the team recruited arrangers Joe Scott, and Charles Callelo, Gaudio and Holmes stayed in Montclair, California and wrote the album in the space of six weeks. The Orchestral tracks were recorded in New York City, July 14-17, 1969, where Sinatra was present, and the vocals were finished in Los Angeles between August 25-27.

What Gaudio and Holmes brought to Sinatra with Watertown, was a harbinger of the post-romantic movement in popular song, and one that explored its subject without so much as blinking over the changing social climate of the era. Watertown isn’t an easy album to take, it has an austerity, bleakness, and an introspection that was uncharacteristic for Sinatra. It doesn’t fit in with the Ring-a-Ding sensibility that Sinatra personified, and these songs are not in a heroic vein. The songs shared the stylistic flavor of Jimmy Webb (Wichita Linemen, MacArthur Park suite), and the arrangements shared a similarity to the late 60s / 70s waltz’s of Brian Wilson, or the pinnacle of his Pet Sounds / Smile era.

Watertown is a concept album in the true sense, and subtitled as ‘A Love Story’, and broken into two parts, it could be summarized as a tale of love gone awry, but there is something much more layered, subtle, and complex about the album – this material ends up being all subtext.

Opening title track set’s up the mood for the album, it establishes the place, a small town, languid, quiet, and the track follows in the tradition of such songs as “Lazy Afternoon”. The opening bass feels a little behind the beat and accented by a clipped guitar line, the song is basically a Tin Pan Alley blues, the type of material Sinatra dealt with early in his singing career. Yet the lyric hints of something not quite right: “It can never be a lonely place / when there’s the shelter of familiar places / who can say / it’s not that way.” Gaudio described the track as something that would run as the opening credits of a TV special. Of special note should be that wonderful, slinky clarinet solo.

“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” sets up the major characters, our protagonist who is not named performed by Frank, and his wife, Elizabeth, who informs him at a coffee shop with cheesecake and apple pie that she is leaving him for the big city. Yet, there no emotional outbursts, just a devastating event that plays out with little notice from anyone around them, yet relationships simply don’t just end out of the blue, there are usually warning signs, as portend in the verse: “Just Two always strangers / avoid each other’s eyes / one still make believing / one still telling lies.” The track opens with a classical guitar figure and builds from there.

The bulk of the rest of the album is told as a series of soliloquies from our protagonist. “For A While” speaks about the fleeting aspects of grief within these vignettes of day to day life, as Jake Holmes described in the following interview:

"I’ve always felt that there is that moment in your life, when you forget something that is really terrible. For five minutes the sun is shinning and everything is beautiful. Then all of a sudden you realize that the person you cared out is gone, and it all comes back. It is one of the terrible things about grief – one of those little holes in grief when it becomes even more painful."

The orchestration of “For A While” boarder’s on schmaltz but also captures fleeting moments of hope, as if our protagonist is trying to move on. “Michael & Peter” in many respects is the emotional centerpiece of the album, a tour de force, that appears to be a simple letter written to the wife. The opening stanza’s, while universally relatable also hint that our protagonist is using a dose of manipulation – “Michael is you / he has your face / he still has your eyes / remember. / Peter is me / ‘cept when he smiles / and if you look at them both for awhile / you can see / they are you / they are me.” This is accompanied by a classical guitar, before the piano that drives the bulk of the track.

The rest of the lyrics indicate some time has passed, the weather, roses that were planted, Elizabeth’s mother taking the boys, “when ever she can, she sure needs a man.” A line that has been interpreted as chauvinist, yet could also be seen as sympathetic. It is also revealed that our protagonist works for Santa Fe, and complains about not getting a raise in pay, but the revelation comes in Sinatra’s vocal, where emotions are bubbling to the surface, he can only engage in small talk, where there’s really so much more that’s needed to be said.

“I Would Be In Love (Anyway)” would appear to be a throw-away, a light pop ballad at first listen, but there’s a tragic double meaning in the lyric. The sentiment seems nice until you realize our protagonist is admitting he wouldn’t, or couldn’t change any of the things that drove her away to begin with. What is worse is the fact that he’s oblivious to what he is saying. Yet there are moments of remorseful anger that wells up about his inability to change. Jake Holmes comments on the song are interesting to note:

“I’s that you can’t regret where you are even if life takes you someplace where you don’t want to be. In a strange kind of way, it was this guy trying to let go of this woman without being angry at her. You know, throughout the story, he was never really angry at her. He kind of understood; she had to go.”

Part II opens with “Elizabeth”, a lush orchestral arrangement, that evokes another sunrise in this small town with a beautiful jazz guitar solo, again this could edge into schmaltz but is balanced by Sinatra’s read. A poetic rumination on the wife, in certain respects our protagonist is acknowledging that she was out of his league: “When you came to me / I found it could never be.” Yet the sentiment is an idealized, and poetic memory of the girl, the recollections become more specific with the next track. As a sidenote, Sinatra performed the song for Elizabeth Taylor for her birthday around this period.

“What a Funny Girl (You Used To Be)” paints a more specific portrait of Elizabeth, as a more full bodied young woman, some of it seems unintentionally dismissive as well, but what becomes tragically apparent to the listener is the fact that the portrait painted is when Elizabeth was a younger girl, our protagonist’s memory isn’t focused on the woman she grew into, while Elizabeth probably matured and evolved, he is still locked into the ideal of her youth. Again this track opens with a Jazz Guitar accompaniment.

It’s one of the great problems or dilemmas with long term relationships, when couples do not evolve at the same rate. Jake Holmes in commenting on the song:

“It was a retrospective song...They were probably kids together. I wanted to give the sense that they had gone to school together. They had fallen in love and married quite young.”

“What a Funny Girl” illustrates just how effective and distinct the musical arrangements are throughout the album. Often the arrangements will act counter to the narrative arch of the story, adding a tension or disquiet, there’s a harmonized, dissonant set of phrases between Sinatra’s vocal lines that helps to spell out the subtext, yet it also feels inevitable.

I should comment on the Gaudio, Callelo, Scott arrangements which combine the usual strings, brass, woodwind instrumentation you’d expect from Sinatra, with the more contemporary rock instrumentation of drums, electric bass, keyboards, guitars, and more exotic sounds of a bellzuki, and harmonicas. While the arrangements share similarities with the techniques of Brian Wilson, they also share a similar approach to Gil Evans, the combination, and blending of odd instruments to craft a new sound.

“What’s Now is Now” get’s to the meat of the problem, and why Elizabeth left. Our protagonist learns she had an affair, but of course, usually affairs are a by product of greater problems. On the surface, the song seems romantic and understanding, yet upon deeper analysis, it also show cases just how disconnected our protagonist is to the root of their problems. But there’s a hint he is opening up. “Now” isn’t the greatest example of the material from the album, and inexplicably, this is the only track that appeared on the Reprise compilation issue, “Greatest Hits Vol.2”

“She Says” is the strangest track on the album, minimal accompaniment that is slightly dissonant; guitar, along with a marimba / vibes type instrument, and flute. His appeal must have worked, because she reveals she is coming home, amongst the small talk, but the husband, nor the kids, whom are represented by a pair of boys, trust the letter.

“The Train” is the most deceptively up track on the album, and the arrangement, featuring an electric harpsichord is the most dated. Jake Holmes best summed it up with his comment:

"’The Train’ is the story. We find out that he really didn’t communicate anything to her, and she isn’t coming back. Although we’re getting all of the story from him, she never got any of this. If she had heard the album, she might have come home. She never say this side of him. When I think about this in retrospect, there is so much that is not done. There is so much that is unfinished. It gives the story a very deep resonance."

I recall years ago, that I assumed that she had returned, but that we, the listener, were left hanging.

I have yet to comment on Sinatra’s vocal performances, as writer Ed O’Brien described; Sinatra makes mincemeat of the material as well as myself agreeing with O’Brien that there was an ineffable rightness to his interpretations. Sinatra wasn’t happy with his singing during this period, admittedly one can hear examples of vocal strain on certain tracks, and yet those circumstances were perfect for the character that Sinatra was interpreting. The husband was the personification of everything that was pedestrian in this small town, a desperate man, from a certain generation, who could not, or would not adapt to a changing culture.

I have heard some demo acetates of the project that demonstrates how important Sinatra’s role was with interpreting this material, it would have taken on a different character if delivered by anyone else, as demonstrated here.

As someone who grew up in an urban environment, I have driven through countless small towns, and rural areas, and I could completely understand why Elizabeth could grow restless. I could not see myself living in an isolated small town, especially before the internet age, personally, I would find it too stifling.

Yet there was one more coda that appeared in the mid nineties reissue of Watertown, a track titled “Lady Day” that Sinatra re-recorded later as a tribute to Billie Holiday. “Lady Day” was approached by Sinatra in the third person, and summarized by Jake Holmes in the following comment:

“I saw the woman as someone who had talent. She wanted to be an artist or a singer. He was a hometown person. His whole orientation was family and business. He was the kind of guy who really lived in Watertown. She was more restless – a more contemporary woman. She wanted to do other things. She wasn’t liberated enough to tell him, and she didn’t think he would understand. He was basically a good guy, but she wanted more. She abandoned her family and went for a career. The postscript was whether or not she got it and was it worth it.”

I have come across some criticism from feminists that the album feels self pitying about the husband, but I don’t agree with such a read. The story isn’t so much assigning blame, but revealing the anatomy of a relationship. Another major complaint about the story is the notion that the woman would abandon her children, and that it’s not plausible, I disagree, I have seen countless examples in my personal life of women will leave their children with the husband, and again, it is not as though Elizabeth has left her children in any jeopardy, Michael & Peter are well cared for in this close knit community, her mother is present, and while this development was fairly unprecedented in 1969, it has become more commonplace, the subject was brought to the forefront in 1979 with the film Kramer Vs. Kramer. As a child of divorce, I understand the impact that such events can have.

Some of these criticisms reveal a certain blind side. While the feminist movement was completely necessary, in their zeal, there’s a certain tendency for some feminist to gloss over the impact, and tangible ramifications of divorce, which can be as traumatic as the birth of a child, or the death of a family member, there’s also a tendency for some more zealous feminists to vilify the male, and trot off clich├ęs to assign blame, when we are dealing with grey areas while blame could be assigned to both sides, if needed. I think the album reflects this aspect well.

Another interesting hypothesis that should be addressed is the notion that Elizabeth died at the beginning of the album, and that the album deal’s with grief that the husband can’t directly face. While it is a credit to the complexity of material that it would be open to such interpretation, I don’t agree with it. I feel this is a straight forward tale of the ending of a marriage, which was a still potent subject to address in 1970.

While a creative labor of love, and a gamble for all parties, the album wasn’t well received by critics or the record buying public upon its release, its success was elusive, but a fervent following of ‘in-the-know’ Sinatra connoisseurs, and music fans kept the album in the consciousness of the public. As revealed by Bob Gaudio, the album was supposed to be launched with a television special, but due to Sinatra’s unhappiness with his signing, the special never materialized, and the album was released with little fanfare.

The long standing, ardent Sinatra fans, the ‘ring-a-ding’ crowd never embraced the album, and the elite ‘hipster’ rock press dismissed it as Sinatra attempting to do ACR pop. But the hipsters ended up completely missing the point, Adult Contemporary Rock implies something passive, bland, or safe, for example like Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”, and there is nothing safe or comforting about this album upon close inspection.

To summarize, I would argue that Watertown is an pop-rock album that non-Sinatra fans could appreciate, an undervalued gem, and it’s an important work in the canon of music history. I would also argue that is the last great Sinatra album, although some might make a case for 1979’s Trilogy, this album was at the pinnacle of Sinatra’s powers. While the nineties reissue has been discontinued, and it is hard to track down, other than a European import, its merits are many and worth looking into, haunting, unforgettable, recommended.

Title listed atBarnes and Nobel

Happily you can download the entire album from iTunes.

Producer: Bob Gaudio
Arrangers: Bob Gaudio, Charles Callelo, Joe Scott
Composers: Bob Guadio, Jake Holmes
Engineer: Frank Laico
Cover: Ove Olsen

Part I
Goodbye (She Quietly Says)
For A While
Michael & Peter
I Would Be In Love (Anyway)

Part II
What a Funny Girl (She Used To Be)
What’s Now Is Now
She Says
The Train
Lady Day (bonus track)

Next up: The Beatles – Revolver (1966)

While there’s a high ratio of ‘YouTube” clips featured in this piece, it is to highlight the merits of this release, we have tried to comply with “Fair Use” copyright, and use this material to help promote this hard to find title. Such a high ratio will not be the norm with future critiques.

The bulk of the information comes from Ed O’Brien’s footnotes and interviews with Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes from the Reprise mid nineties reissue, other sources that shaped this piece include Andrew Hickey, Brian Noe, and the writers from Electric Roulette.

Friday, January 6, 2012


While working on such a blog might seem indulgent, self important, or ego driven, and I am all too aware of these points, I felt this was the right time to organize such musings. I’m a big believer in sense memory, that one’s initial first exposure to a piece of music, the context of where one was at the time they first heard a piece of music, or an album, has an impact on how one will associate themselves with that music. In essence that one creates mental pictures about the memories of their past, that they link to a certain album, or song.

The other goal of this blog is to expose other’s to records many might not otherwise aware of. Many will be obvious titles, and others will be more obscure. If this blog achieves any goal, it would be to force the reader to rethink their assumptions about certain titles, or turn them on, so these reviews will run the gambit.

The goal of this blog is to be part music review, part advocacy, part diary, and part musicologist. I can only hope this will interest. - Matt Allair