For several years now, mega-conglomerate Universal Music has been releasing the pompously titled Millennium collections, which in all cases compile 11 or 12 tracks by a performer and present them in a standardized silver and gray cover design. The dignified, uniform packaging is presumably necessary to give such artists whose fame will last thousands of years such as the Oak Ridge Boys, the Fixx, and Klymaxx (to choose a few at random) their eternal due and to certify we don’t underrate them in comparison to the other millenary artists. Whether you are Buddy Holly, Bing Crosby, or Uriah Heep, you get the same treatment, and assume the same stature. It’s both peculiarly democratic and completely ludicrous at the same time.
Universal knows there is no quicker and easier way to make money than to plunder their vast vault of proprietary music and re-release them for that short-sighted and impatient group who makes up the market for greatest hits product, those who make their music purchases in Wal-Marts, truck stops, or bargain close-out stores following some benighted or nostalgic impulse that temporarily makes them forget they are better served by oldies radio. More than anything else, the surprise of hearing some particular forgotten song gives it its momentary ability to satisfy—when one can play it whenever he wants, it typically languishes in the archive.
Still, the music company business practice of re-packaging old material, while obviously exploitative, is sometimes useful for the concise, convenient look at the artists being re-sold. But the practice becomes unethical when a collection that purports to span a career actually focuses on a small, unrepresentative portion, as is the case with the recent Rick Nelson: Millennium Collection. This compilation satisfies neither the serious fan searching for a comprehensive retrospective, nor the dilettante. Not only does it fail to include his biggest, most familiar early hits (“Travellin’ Man”, “Lonesome Town”, “Poor Little Fool”), but it deviously includes others (“Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart”, “Believe What You Say”) in countrified live versions. Instead of a true greatest hits, what we have here is a heterogeneous mix of tracks dictated primarily by what Universal owns. Half the tracks here date from Nelson’s country era, in which he presented himself as mellow, Glen Campbell type. These are joined, somewhat incongruously, with the last few jaunty hits from his pop era: “String Along”, (basically a re-write of the superior “Pool Little Fool”), the unremarkable “For You”, and ill-conceived up-tempo versions of the standards “The Very Thought of You” and “Fools Rush In”, the latter featuring a high-octane “Bossa Nova Baby” arrangement utterly out of keeping with Nelson’s laconic style.
Also included is “Mystery Train”, which compares unfavorably with Elvis’s definitive version, and isn’t really quirky enough to warrant attention, and a pleasant cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” that manages to be gentle without sapping entirely the bitter sentiment in the lyrics. In that regard, it prepares the way for Nelson’s comeback hit, “Garden Party”, which closes the CD. Perhaps his most recognizable song to non-oldies radio listeners, “Garden Party” recounts his experience playing his country music to an audience anticipating a rote recitation of his hits. “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself,” Nelson decides, adding “if memories are all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.” Coy meta-music which slyly refers to other musicians with punning nicknames or awkward metaphors is frequently mawkish, if not downright detestable (as in the case of “American Pie”), but Nelson acquits himself tolerably well with this genial lesson in individualism, which manages to ring true despite coming from Ozzie and Harriet’s son.
But the true highlight on this collection is Nelson’s first hit, “I’m Walkin’” from 1957. Yes, this is one of the earliest examples of an undeserving singer scoring a hit because he was a TV star, and yes, this is one of the more outrageous appropriations of black music to benefit white entertainment industry folk, but nevertheless, the guitar solo at the heart of this take still carries the wild excitement of all the new possibilities rock and roll opened. Placed as it is here right next to his hits from five years later, one immediately hears how quickly rock had been domesticated.
Through no fault of his own, Nelson has always been considered one of those figures who denatured rock’s subversive power and made it bland, safe, and marketable. Little here changes that assessment, but listening now one may discover how pleasant, comfortable, and soothing that safe product can be. Once you begin trying to “please yourself”, you really have no proper place in the music industry, which serves to condition audiences to be pleased in certain specific, predictable ways. So strong is that conditioning that the songs on this collection please almost precisely in proportion to the highest Billboard charting. And there’s ultimately something depressing about that realization, that behind the machinery that made hits like these—the hype, the discipline, the grooming—there might not be anything at all to discover. Despite his later efforts, Nelson still disappears into the vacuum of his own celebrity.