Sometimes, status is everything.
If you’ve been in the game long enough, toppled enough chart records and broken enough barriers, there are few who will stand in your way of indulging your every fancy. Sometimes this a good thing, sometimes it’s hilariously bad. Either way, this lack of barriers has created some of the strangest, most left-field LPs in history, and sometimes they emerge from the most surprising of sources.
Here, you will find Frank Sinatra’s rock opera, Elvis Presley’s album of nothing but stage banter, solo outings from three of the Beatles, one of whom (McCartney) has lodged three albums on this list alone. Whether it be Dylan going gospel or Stevie Wonder going botanal, these discs are often overlooked in the great, intimidating discographies of some of the greatest artists who ever stepped in front of a microphone. All we can say is this: enjoy the trip.
Frank Sinatra is no stranger to concept albums, but even the thought of Frank Sinatra tackling a rock opera would no doubt alienate a few. Yet in 1969, Sinatra was approached by “Big Girls Don’t Cry” writer Bob Guadio to do a song-cycle about a man whose wife left him with his kids. Frank agreed, and soon was recording a disc where each song was a concise character study about small-town life, replete with electric guitars, children’s choirs, and everything else you’d expect from kitchen-sink production by Jake Holmes. With all that said, however, the set is surprisingly subdued, Sinatra belting out this post-modern pop in classic style, ranging from the overblown “What’s Now is Now” to the jazz-affected “Elizabeth”, each line depicting our unnamed narrator as a man who spends more time reflecting on his life than taking action to change it. It’s a truly bizarre, strange experience, but even with superb pocket-symphony pieces like “She Says” and “Lady Day” (the latter unrelated to the story, tacked on for hopes of raising its commercial standing), Watertown offers one of the most unique experiences in Rat Pack history: making the Chairman of the Board sound completely out of place. Evan Sawdey
“Watertown [Fan Video]”
As the early 1990s gave way to yet another generation of musical icons, rock and roll’s surviving elder statesmen settled comfortably into middle age, attempting to find that perfect middle ground between continued relevance and reliability. Always the most musically conservative of the Fab Four, Paul McCartney had spent the bulk of his post-Beatles career crafting solid pop music that largely eschewed the trendy or experimental, guaranteeing that while a new Macca album would always be something of an event for his many fans, only the hardest-core of these would argue the results were ever surprising or remarkable. Beginning the decade with a widely publicized foray into classical music with 1991’s Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio may have represented some kind of personal affirmation of maturity and credibility for the man who would soon become Sir Paul—legitimizing him to whatever larger musical community it was that still kept rock and roll at the kid’s table—but artistically it did little more than affirm his fuddy-duddiness. He soon retreated back into more typical fare with 1993’s Off the Ground, perhaps most notable for the minor hit single “Hope of Deliverance”, but out of this otherwise fairly standard McCartney outing grew something truly unexpected. Enlisting former Killing Joke bassist Martin “Youth” Glover to prepare some remixes for single releases, McCartney ended up being so taken with the results that the two eventually spun these mixes—culled almost entirely from samples from the Off the Ground sessions and incorporating some material from older McCartney recordings (1979’s Back to the Egg being the second most prominent source)—into a full length release. The result was Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, Paul McCartney’s ambient techno album.
As if seduced by sheer oddity of this impromptu project, which came together over the course of just four days, McCartney shrouded the release of the album in a playful “Paul is Dead”-style mystery. Released on February 14, 1994 under the name the Fireman, the album art consisted of nothing more than a solid block of fire-engine-red, with neither artist credited anywhere on the packaging. The music contained inside was similarly anonymous: nine instrumental tracks running an average of eight minutes each, all built around a vaguely similar mixture of propulsive house grooves, repetitive synth hooks and glitchy atmospherics. Very occasional melodic variation comes in the form of some stray looped guitar riffs and shards of indecipherable sampled dialogue (McCartney’s?) that can sometimes be heard beneath the music, but the results are an album that sounds at best meticulously uniform and at worst needlessly repetitive. Still, Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest represents a rare case of McCartney exploring, however tentatively, a new era’s musical underground, and while certain elements inevitably date themselves (the Yello-esque synthetic vocal shouts that echo throughout “Celtic Stomp” would have certainly been out of style by 1994), heard a decade and a half later the majority of this album sounds surprisingly contemporary. To say that McCarthy and Glover anticipated the chilly minimalism of such later celebrated electronic acts as Boards of Canada or the Field would be embarrassingly overstating this album’s importance and innovation, but the album still stands as an interesting and actually listenable digression from an artist that we had all come to rely on for sheer predictability. (Strawberries Fields Oceans Forest is currently out of print on CD but remains available for sale on the iTunes Music Store.) Jer Fairall
“Celtic Stomp [Fan Video]”
In 1976, Stevie Wonder was the biggest pop star on the planet. His ambitious double album, Songs in the Key of Life, was the third LP ever to debut at number one on the US charts. It held that top spot for 14 consecutive weeks, making it the fourth biggest number-one record of the 1970s. He could literally do whatever he wanted at this point in his career: not only was he still exercising creative control over his records for Motown like Marvin Gaye before him, but he had the attention of an enormous cross-section of music fans from around the world: black and white, hip and square, lovers of pop, rock, jazz, soul, funk, and just about everything in between. Instead of capitalizing on his celebrity, however, Wonder took his sweet time (three years, an eternity for him in those days) to record and release, in 1979, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, probably the weirdest album to be released by a superstar at the height of his creative and commercial powers. Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, commissioned as the soundtrack to a documentary based on a book about (ahem) plants, was another double album, but this one was largely instrumental and saturated with synthesizer experimentation—the very opposite of what one would expect from the author of such radio-friendly songs like “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”. This was like the Kid A of the ‘70s, a detour so far from the commercial norm that it risked alienating scores of unadventurous listeners. This is not to say that “unadventurous listeners” were to fault for the album’s less than stellar appraisal; the instrumental tracks do take Wonder a little too far outside of his comfort zone, and as a two-LP statement, it’s the sort of bloated, occasionally worthwhile indulgence that Wonder so deftly avoided with Songs in the Key of Life.
Perhaps the most compelling case for Wonder’s popularity at the time, however, is how well the album did (at first) despite its fundamentally anti-commercial skew. Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants peaked briefly at number four on the charts and its single—“Send One Your Love”—even reached number one on the Adult Contemporary chart. Those who gobbled up the LP upon its release were rewarded with some decent pop songs after slogging through the ponderous instrumentals weighing down sides one and two: “Black Orchid”, a stately Wonder ballad; “Come Back as a Flower”, which features Wonder’s ex-wife, the great Syreeta Wright, on lead vocal; and “A Seed’s a Star/Tree Medley”, an uptempo disco-rock jam that, while not on the level of “As” or “Another Star”, shakes out some late-inning cobwebs nonetheless. Most importantly, though, this record answers the question, Where does a superstar go when he’s reached the top? Anywhere. Zeth Lundy
“Secret Life of Plants”
John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins
US: 29 Nov 1968
UK: 29 Nov 1968
Released one week after The White Album, while John Lennon was still a Beatle, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins still has capacity to shock from its cover art down. That notorious picture, a time-delay photograph of Lennon and future wife Yoko Ono fully naked in grainy black-and-white, is an appropriate visual metaphor for the bewildering sound-collages within. Lennon’s first artistic collaboration with Yoko, the 17-minute recording stripped away all the expectations that came with being one of the biggest rock stars in the world. Completed one night at Lennon’s home using tape looping, vocal effects and random plonks on the piano, the couple celebrated its conception by making love for the first time afterward. It failed as an experiment, reviled and dismissed for being formless, boring, and sounding like “Revolution 9” without the studio, even while it laughably charted on the Billboard 200. Yet for the purpose of this series, let’s throw away those tired old accusations and reconsider it as an intently personal expression. If it should never have been commercially released, it acts as Lennon’s bold inauguration into the avant garde world, showing him bravely embracing his newfound artistic creativity and eccentricity as a means to escape his boredom in the Beatles. That is not to say that Two Virgins is easy going, but it contains a special historical and artistic value in this rockstar’s life which should be acknowledged. Like John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band two years later, Two Virgins implies the question: this is who I am, and if you don’t like it… who cares? Andrew Blackie
“John, You Went Too Far This Time [Sissy Spacek’s reponse to Two Virgins]”
It is often regarded as the worst album of all time. Lester Bangs called it “the Greatest Album Ever Made.” It was pulled from record shelves after one week, shortly thereafter breaking the record for the most returned copies of a single album. No disc has ever been as love-it-or-hate-it as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, an album that—when I interviewed Lou himself about it—he described as being “just, ya know, a guitar solo.” Yet MMM was more than that: Lou basically put two amps right next to each other, guitars propped in front of them, and recorded the ever-growing feedback loops for hours on end, eventually splicing the whole thing together to create a 64-plus-minute suite of white noise. Of course, at the time, fans didn’t know what to expect: Lou was coming fresh off of some commercial success with the drug-fueled pop of Sally Can’t Dance (an album he almost entirely disowned), and would later follow MMM with the acclaimed, doo wop inspired Coney Island Baby. Yet the inadvertent effect of MMM was that it inspired countless noise-rockers in its wake, even getting the full orchestral treatment from German avant-orchestral collective Zeitkratzer in 2002 (no, really). In the end, however, the disc lives and dies entirely on the listener’s own threshold for distortion: you will either think it’s the greatest album ever made, or the worst. This is a rare niche in rock history where you will find that there is no middle ground. Evan Sawdey
“Zeitkratzer—Metal Machine Music [Excerpt]”
Slow Train Coming
US: 20 Aug 1979
US: 23 Jun 1980
One of Bob Dylan’s many decrees on 1965’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and accompanying LP Bringing It All Back Home: “Don’t follow leaders.” Not hard to see why, then, when he announced 14 years later that he had chosen the Lord Jesus Christ as his savior, that his inexplicable and earnest conversion was met with some shock. Here was an artist who had gone from being gloriously, legendarily individualistic to quoting Bible verses in his own record sleeves. Not that there was anything wrong with that in itself; Dylan had always followed through his personal reinventions with infallible confidence (see: Newport Folk Festival 1965) whether his audience liked it or not, but his sudden change of heart and desire to preach seemed slightly unreal and overwhelming—during two years on the road he insisted on playing only “what the Lord had given him to sing”.
The fruits of his faith in this period are specifically captured in two of his lesser-known releases, Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). To measure the bafflement of the public reception to these albums, we can look at the fact that it took Dylan 16 years afterwards to recover all of his acclaim and success. Both marked an ill-advised musical departure from his famous folk-rock-on-amphetamines style, enlisting a trio of back-up singers and Dire Straits’ guitarist Mark Knopfler to drag up Dylan’s savvy off-key wheeze out of the mire—Slow Train Coming is the R&B slow-burner, while Saved pushes him into mellow keyboard-land and church-like hymns of praise. As with any Dylan album, though, most important were his words. His self-righteousness remained steadfast throughout both, but it was intensely disappointing to hear a man that could formerly pen poetry so acute, witty and sharp drowned out chirping a chorus from the Gospels (compare “Visions of Johanna” with “Saved”). His writing was lazy by his standards, devoid of his usual cunning turns of phrase, and stuck in a repetitive Us vs. Them mindset that understandably provoked ire.
The title Slow Train Coming itself was Dylan’s image for the impending doom of Armageddon, come to clean up the hypocrites and non-believers. An acquaintance of Dylan, John Lennon’s response to the disc may be most telling; after “Gotta Serve Somebody” became the former’s first charting hit in three years, Lennon recorded an answer song, “Serve Yourself”, a bitingly sarcastic parody which portrayed Dylan’s conversion as a kind of sick joke, maybe because Lennon didn’t know how else to interpret it. As with any “Dylan phase”, though, the question now is whether he still believes what he wrote. His explicitly Christian songwriting was abandoned after those two controversial years, and neither returned to or renounced. Both Slow Train Coming and Saved are often roundly ignored and forgotten as part of Dylan’s vast canon; not even notorious like 1970’s Self-Portrait, just condescendingly put aside. Then again, if connecting with God ultimately didn’t fulfill and satisfy one of the most prominent musicians of the 20th century, at least he got a strong reaction. Andrew Blackie
“Gotta Serve Somebody [Fan Video]”
As fans of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison’s Electronic Sound can attest, the Beatles have been known to veer off into left field on their solo ventures. However, few could have called Ringo Starr’s unconventional intentions to record a full-blown country album. And that was after making his solo debut, 1970’s Sentimental Journey, which was an orchestral collection of standards! Making good on his twangy turn on the Fabs’ C&W send-up “Act Naturally” off 1965’s Help!, Ringo hunkered down in Nashville, rounded up the city’s top session players and recorded this love letter to Music City that’s as authentic as the most classic George Jones platter. Though he eventually returned to the classic Beatle-esque pop he helped construct on its 1973 follow-up, Ringo (which remains the closest thing to a full-on Beatles reunion album after their break-up), Beaucoups of Blues remains Starr’s most thoroughly enjoyable, though misunderstood, solo outing. Ron Hart
Just as he did with the break-up with the Beatles, Macca recovered from the demise of his ‘70s supergroup Wings by hunkering down in the studio and recording an entire solo album by himself. Apparently enamored with the advent of new wave, Paul made his 1980 debut for Columbia Records a platform for which to delve into his love for synths, washing his trademark harmonies in Moog burps and Korg flange, as on the notorious second track, “Temporary Secretary”. While some critics hailed the album at the time for its adventuresome and refreshing break from McCartney’s adult-contemporary pop motif of the late ‘70s, others wrote it off as a failed experiment that stands alongside the worst of the Macca catalog. However, in the advent of new wave’s recent revival, McCartney II has been lauded by a new generation as an inspirational launchpad for their own synth-pop musings from the likes of Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys and abstract beatsmith Boom Bip’s ‘80s-flavored Gnarls Barkley trip Neon Neon, who cite the album as the primary inspiration for their own debut album, Stainless Style. Whether or not Macca should take that as a complement is in the eye of the beholder, one would suppose. Ron Hart
“I’d like to do a medley of some of my biggest records for you. They were actually no bigger than any of the rest of them, they were all about the same size.”
If you’re curious to know what Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music sounds like, pick any three minutes of that double album, listen to them, and wonder no more. You can use the same method with Having Fun With Elvis on Stage. It’s billed on the cover as “A Talking Album Only;” if only that were true. In addition to talking, there’s laughing. There’s Elvis turning the word “well” into a multi-syllable incantation worthy of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There are awkward silences and bad edits. And most frustratingly, there are generic introductory bars to songs we never get to hear. And trust me, you’ll kill to hear a one-minute autopilot version of “Hound Dog” or “Big Hunk O’ Love” to break up the monotony.
Midway thru Side A, Elvis tells the story of making his first record, being a relatively local success, “and then I met Colonel Parker.” Laughter ensues. But if the audience had known the Colonel was going to thank them for their patronage with Having Fun With Elvis on Stage, a positively shameless piece of product even by Elvis’ occasionally dubious standards, they would’ve kept quiet. What’s really amazing is that, although RCA has seen fit to release hours upon hours of outtakes and alternate versions, and repackaged the Elvis catalogue in dozens of permutations, they haven’t bothered to put Having Fun With Elvis On Stage on CD. But that’s okay; the bootleggers have picked up the slack, and released several sequels on top of it.
In hindsight, some of these are probably drug-induced ramblings, and although Elvis gets a few genuine laughs (“I’d like to walk around for a second, get my breath back. See my breath over there?”), it’s mostly a sad reminder of what he became. Tom Useted
“Elvis Having Fun Backstage”
The Who Sell Out is arguably the Who’s greatest album, but certainly its oddest. The greatness comes from its transcendent psych pop classics “I Can See for Miles”, “I Can’t Reach You”, and “Mary Ann with the Shaky Hand”, the oddness from the fact that these are book-ended by radio jingles and commercials. Between “Tattoo”, one of Townshend’s prickliest and most perceptive considerations of what it means to be a man, and the gorgeous “Our Love Was”, for instance, listeners are exhorted “Radio London reminds you / Go to the church of your choice”. Later, on side two, you cannot listen to “I Can’t Reach You” without first experiencing a silly Charlie Atlas commercial. Indeed some of the ads have become as famous as the songs themselves; there is something iconically Who-like about the photo of Roger Daltrey submerged in a bathtub of Heinz Baked Beans and the Entwhistle-penned jingle that accompanied it—the combination of trickster art and goofiness that distinguished this band from other late 1960s innovators.
When they made Sell Out, the Who was, in fact, in the process of selling out, recording a series of ads and jingles for a London-based pirate radio station. When the station was shut down in August 1967, the band decided to put the leftover material on its upcoming album. Radio London later sued over unauthorized use of its jingles. Although Sell Out is studded with some of the Who’s best and best-known songs, it was only a modest commercial success. The album’s biggest hit, “I Can See for Miles”, peaked at #10 on the UK charts, a result so disappointing that Townshend began to consider abandoning the three-minute pop songs that had been the band’s staple and try more extended compositions. “Rael”, which closes the album, is one of his early attempts at rock opera, and a foreshadowing of what the Who would achieve later with Tommy and Quadrophenia. Jennifer Kelly
US: 8 Jun 1970
US: 19 Nov 1973
Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait was rather infamously greeted by Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone with the following question: “What is this shit?” Anyone who bothered to read further was treated to a far-ranging series of meditations about the relative merits of the double album, as well as an attempt to figure out Dylan’s motives. In other words, Marcus tried to answer his own question, and in the process managed to make Dylan’s most superficially boring album to date considerably more interesting. (He also laid the groundwork for his landmark Mystery Train, but that’s another story.)
For all its sprawl, for all its lack of what usually makes Bob Dylan great, and for all the vitriol heaped upon it, Self Portrait is by no means an unlistenable or awful album. On the contrary, like Nashville Skyline before and New Morning after it, it’s a warm, not-always-unintentionally humorous collection of songs, one that might be best experienced and understood as a contained world. In a sense, it’s a lot like the sessions that produced The Basement Tapes, as Dylan originals sidle up alongside a wide range of covers, mostly from the traditional and country bags but occasionally dipping into pop, and often the distinctions between them are difficult to determine. Like The Basement Tapes, too, Self Portrait showcases material that doesn’t always work, but that still contributes to the little universe of the record and helps illuminate the more successful pieces.
An oddity among Dylan albums to date in that it was recorded over the span of almost a full calendar year, Self Portrait was also the first Dylan album to boast not a single stone-cold classic. That said, its relative highlights are many. The opening “All the Tired Horses” bears no trace of Dylan—sung, as it is, by a bunch of female vocalists—except in the two-line lyric: “All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I supposed to get any riding done?” If you hear “riding” as “writing,” consider the record summarized. And yet, even if it’s a slight non-song, the string arrangement is gorgeous, and you have to admit it’s a pretty mysterious first track. The gold-rush story-song “Days of ‘49”, a hilariously sloppy “duet” on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”, the instrumental “Wigwam”—which wouldn’t sound completely out-of-place on the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack—and the deceptively cheery-sounding “Living the Blues” are more than worthy as well.
Ironically, although Self Portrait is an unrepresentative Bob Dylan album overall, the title is pretty accurate for what the record is: a snapshot of Dylan at a particularly uninspired period of his career. An even more definitive sounding but far less accurate title graced a similar album several years later. When Dylan briefly left Columbia for Asylum, his old record company assembled Dylan, a collection of nine outtakes primarily from the New Morning sessions. Anyone who loved rock’s greatest songwriter tackling Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” on Self Portrait should have been pleased as punch to hear him do such contemporary hits as “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Mr. Bojangles”, the latter drawn out for five-and-a-half minutes of chirpy lady vocalists and an exhortation of “Yeah, dance!” from Dylan. And the less said of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue”, the better.
But Dylan, the only one of his albums not currently available on CD, is in some ways even more pleasing than Self Portrait. Sticking to covers and maintaining a fairly consistent sonic palette throughout, the record manages a few surprising pleasures. A long take on “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and the waltz-y “Mary Ann” are stronger vocal performances than anything on Self Portrait, at least on Dylan’s part; the background singers are especially nasal on “Mary Ann”, and it’s hard not to wish these were somewhat less polished recordings.
Self Portrait and Dylan have been regularly maligned as two albums that added very little to the Dylan canon, but this is perhaps slightly unfair, especially in the case of the former. If Dylan came into existence purely out of spite, Self Portrait was very much a creation of the artist himself, and although it might not belong in the hallowed company of much better but equally messy double albums like The Beatles or Exile on Main St., its charms are just as beguiling, and its narrative just as labyrinthine. It is long overdue for a re-evaluation. Tom Useted
Why Paul McCartney decided in 1971 to hire top studio musicians (including bassist extraordinaire Herbie Flowers) to record a full-length instrumental cover version of his then-unreleased second solo album, Ram, complete with swing-band orchestration, liberal use of flanger effects, tuba jams, and a boy’s choir, will perhaps remain forever inexplicable. Why he decided to shelve the record, only to release it six years later under an alias—a made-up Irish bandleader/socialite whose back story McCartney contrived to have planted in British newspapers—with liner notes penned by McCartney under another pseudonym (Clint Harrigan) is equally obscure. But the utter improbability of Thrillington‘s genesis makes the record seem a kind of miracle, or at least testimony to what whimsical lengths a pop star will go in order to amuse himself after his fame and influence have already become immeasurable and he has little left to strive for.
Even for those who don’t know Ram well, Thrillington has some novelty appeal—it’s impeccably recorded and never dull—but fans of the album are better equipped to appreciate the radical transformations that the homespun, humble songs have undergone via conductor Richard Hewson’s elaborate arrangements. Parts that McCartney scatted out or seem to whip up provisionally on guitar appear here as full-blown contrapuntal string-section duels, and submerged hints of melody on the original are brought to the fore, often courtesy of the Mike Sammes Singers, who supply the nonsense-syllable hooks. This wouldn’t be the last bizarre album McCartney would release under a pseudonym—his ambient electronica albums, credited to “The Fireman”, were yet to come—but unlike his later asides, it suggests a different direction he might have taken post-Beatles, if he had truly chosen to repudiate rock (something of which he is often fallaciously accused) and give full play to his to his fixation with music-hall traditionalism and nostalgia. Instead, we were lucky to get Wings. Rob Horning
// Notes from the Road
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