[25 November 2008]
Before Madonna, before Sinead or Björk or Fiona or Pink or even Patti Smith, there was Janis—a hard-living, heavy-drinking Ugly Betty of a girl whose raw, visceral performance was the real deal. When promoter Chet Helms introduced her to Big Brother and the Holding Company the combination of the band’s heavy psychedelia and Joplin’s raspy throated, Texas blues powered some of the bay area’s most memorable concerts during the ‘60s. And Cheap Thrills beautifully captures the spirit of that time.
But before you even get to the music there is the cover. Hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Album Covers of all time (in the top 10), the artwork was done by underground artist Robert Crumb who, ironically, released his first issue of the legendary Zap Comix in 1968. Crumb would go on to create some of pop culture’s most memorable characters such as the “Keep on Truckin’” dude and “Fritz the Cat”. With a busty caricature of Janis holding a bottle (Southern Comfort was her favorite) the song titles and other credits are part of the art including a listing of a wide range of American songwriters not usually seen on one rock and roll record. Alluding to what would become an unusual alliance with California rock, in the bottom right corner sits the label “Approved by Hell’s Angels”.
Opening with guitarist Sam Andrew’s “Combination of Two” recorded at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, the band urgently jams as Janis declares “We’re gonna knock you, rock you, gonna sock it to you now!” And they do, immediately, with Janis’ “I Need a Man to Love” as a Hendrix-flavored guitar explodes before settling into a gentle groove between David Getz’ drum kit and Peter Albin’s bass while building up to Janis’ insistence that “it just can’t be”. Then, where George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime” would at first appear misplaced, the band surprises us with its counterpoint guitars before giving way to Janis’ freestyling vocals that make us wince in awe.
The apex of the LP comes, appropriately, in the middle with the majestic, gut-wrenching interpretation of Bert Berns’ and Jerry Ragovoy’s “Piece of My Heart”. As The Beatles made Berns’ “Twist and Shout” forever theirs, “Piece of My Heart” is forever Janis-a painful ode to love where every “take it, take another little piece of my heart now, baby” is bitten off like a sarcastic declaration of war. (Berns, aka Bert Russell, also wrote or co-wrote classics like “Here Comes the Night”, “I Want Candy” and “Hang On, Sloopy”.)
“Turtle Blues” brings things down and gives insight into Janis’ roots with her self-penned, piano blues number-a genuine bar tune complete with a smattering of applause and broken glass. And then it’s back to spaced-out, hippie rock with “Oh, Sweet Mary” as Andrew’s vocals are almost overpowered by Joplin’s punctuated improv.
Before the release of Cheap Thrills Janis had blown away 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival with her rendition of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” (with an awestruck Mama Cass in the audience). With James Gurley’s burning guitar it’s the perfect closer of a classic album combining traditional blues with the heavy guitar rock that was already growing with artists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and, of course, the great Jimi Hendrix. The pain in Janis’ voice is palpable as she asks, “Why does everything go wrong?”
Janis would go on to a successful solo career with hits like “Me and Bobby McGee”, (written by then-unknown Kris Kristofferson) but the raw exuberance of the era contained in Cheap Thrills was never duplicated. Janis’ bad habits, primarily alcohol and heroin, got the best of her before her deadly overdose in 1970.
Electric Ladyland was recorded at the very peak of Jimi Hendrix’s recording and playing powers, in a series of marathon, late-night, drug and alcohol fueled sessions, with guests including Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Jack Casady coming in, and a steady escalation of conflict between long-time Experience bass player Noel Redding and Hendrix himself. This volatile climate of hedonism, interpersonal conflict and obsessive perfectionism—Dave Mason is said to have done 20 tracks of the acoustic guitar part on “All Along the Watchtower” before Hendrix let him go—produced one of the landmark albums in guitar rock.
The album is, of course, studded with staples of classic rock radio, songs like “All Along the Watchtower”, “Crosstown Traffic” and “Gypsy Eyes”, that have become part of the DNA of every kind of hard and psychedelic rock. Yet listening it end-to-end again, after all these years, you may be struck by how odd and multi-faceted this record is. It begins in a burst of trippy psychedelia—the backwards-voices and echo of “And the Gods Made Love”, the falsetto’d daydream of “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)”—then slips into the hard-guitar riffery of “Crosstown Traffic”. “Little Miss Strange”, sung by Redding and Mitchell, is pretty close to conventional folk rock and strikingly dull, compared to the rest of the album. If you want an inkling of what Redding and Hendrix were fighting about, just listen to this Moby Grape-ish bit of 1960s-ism next to the revelatory, free-form “1983 (Mermaid I Should Turn to Be)”. “Little Miss Strange” is tightly contained within a country rock idiom, while “1983”, almost never played on dad rock stations, is gorgeously untethered to almost any convention.
It is also, naturally, a study in the extended possibilities of the guitar. In 1968, Hendrix, along with Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton and others, was fairly inventing the sound of the electric guitar, up to that point mostly used as a louder version of the acoustic. Although his playing style was based in traditional blues, he was among the first to augment his capabilities with distortion and effects. “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, recorded with Steve Winwood on organ, closes out the album with one of the 1960s great wah wah guitar solos. Joe Satriani, himself no slouch at the solo, called it, “just the greatest piece of electric guitar work ever recorded. In fact, the whole song could be considered the holy grail of guitar expression and technique. It is a beacon of humanity.”
Throughout the recording, Hendrix was moving away from his all-white, hits oriented trio of Redding and Mitchell towards the freer, more authentic blues and jazz influenced style of his last years. Hendrix brought in Buddy Miles, who would be his Band of Gypsies drummer, for “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining Still Dreaming”. He himself played bass for “All Along the Watchtower”. Redding, frustrated with the slow recording process, had slipped out for a beer.
The pleasure of listening to Electric Ladyland lies in rediscovering its deeper, weirder tracks and in re-hearing its more familiar cuts in their original context. Most people, at this point, have heard “All Along the Watchtower” hundreds of times, on the radio, in films and documentaries, just about any time anyone wants to signify the 1960s. Yet the Dylan cover retains its force here, sandwiched between the incandescent “House Burning Down” and the twitchy, talking guitar glories of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. The song itself, with its crashing guitar chords and soaring, electric solo, remains a tense and hallucinogenic monument, one of those rare covers that eclipses the original.
Even Dylan himself has recognized the power of Hendrix’s cover. “It overwhelmed me, really,” he said in a 1995 interview with the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. “He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
Electric Ladyland was the last Hendrix studio album to be released during his lifetime and his most successful one, reaching #1 in the US and #5 in the UK in 1968. Later materials, recorded with the Cry of Love band and the Band of Gypsies, were released after his death in 1970, but to many, this remains his definitive achievement and one of the best guitar rock albums of all time.
Jimi Hendrix - All Along The Watchtower (Live! Isle Of Wight)
You could make the argument that, as much as things have changed over the past four decades, in some ways we’re still seeing things through the prism of 1968. In music, especially, many of the still-popular forms and genres people work in were either established or exemplified in 1968, which makes it even more interesting that one of the best loved and lauded albums of the year is one that is almost entirely a one-off.
There is enough background information about the writing, construction, performance and so on of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks out there if you’re curious, but for our purposes it’s enough to note that even Morrison either couldn’t or wouldn’t follow in its vein. The startlingly accomplished and at times even avant-garde arrangements of Astral Weeks (the seemingly random harpsichord hits and verbal explosion of “Cypress Avenue,” the dense, cyclic arrangements of “Ballerina” and the title track), the impressionistic haze and harrowingly emotional tenor of the lyrics (on which Lester Bangs wrote movingly in an essay you should seek out if you haven’t), even the record’s privileging of emotional impact over songcraft—none of this was ground to which Morrison would really return (or at least return successfully) in the future.
As great as Moondance is, it’s a pop record as opposed to a folk/soul/jazz odyssey. It has singles, whereas with the possible exception of “The Way Young Lovers Do” (which still works better in the context of the album) it wouldn’t make sense to package any of Astral Weeks separately.
And you don’t really hear Astral Weeks’ influence directly in the music that’s happened since, unless you want to count people reaching for and failing to grasp Morrison’s ability to flip between ecstasy and devastation without seeming insincere, the music’s perfect balance between genres (never do the arrangements seem awkward or mongrelized), and particularly his stunning verbal/vocal performance. Anyone can scat, repeat words, skew their lyrics towards the poetic/mystical/opaque, but no-one has made it sound as natural or even elemental as Van the Man did.
This is most striking and obvious on the three epics Astral Weeks is built around, the title track, “Cyprus Avenue” and “Madame George,” but even on the more immediate likes of “The Way Young Lovers Do” and “Sweet Thing” Morrison’s vocals bear more resemblance to an invocation or a dream than to a pop song.
And yet, even as Astral Weeks refuses to conform to the sort of shapes and forms expected of it (and it’s an open but interesting question as to what extent this is deliberate or a product of Morrison’s youth and relative inexperience) it remains immediately, viscerally compelling. It’s probably not played at as many parties as Moondance is, but Morrison is enough of a craftsman that nobody seems to have trouble getting into what honestly could have been a fairly obtuse listen. The emotional impact of the songs on Astral Weeks, and the album’s overall power, are immediately accessible to the listener, even though you can easily spend months or years exploring how exactly Morrison and his band did it.
At one point during “Sweet Thing” Morrison sings “Just to dig it all and not to wonder, that’s just fine / And I’ll be satisfied not to read in between the lines,” and that’s the perfect description of what Astral Weeks can do to the listener (even if it turns out reading between the lines in this case ca be pretty interesting). It’s a fugue, a daydream, a harrowing journey, a fond remembrance. That most of its putative offspring can be reduced down to mawkish faux-soul singers trying to emote over limp folk-jazz backings is in a way a testament to its irreducible, ineffable greatness.
“This world is big and wild and half insane…”
It was the album that Ray Davies had been building toward since shifting the direction of his R&B based band. It was almost their last stand. Eventually it would be viewed as the song cycle that would forever redefine the Kinks as the rightful heir to the throne of true English rock eccentrics. A year before, their brethren the Beatles took a loosely based concept about a group of lonely hearts’ troubadours and turned it into the anthem for the Summer of Love. The following year, as they wallowed in discontent, Davies drove a tweed and Earl Grey stake directly into the center of their psychedelic-based babble.
The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is one of the boldest statements by any act of the modern music era. It’s so focused on its own idiosyncrasy that it avoids the dated trappings of most ‘60s recordings to perfectly capture a man and his mood. Having pushed his brother Dave and the rest of the band toward a more refined, folk-ish approach, Davies’ songwriting was reaching new heights of stunningly sophisticated simplicity. It had been evidenced early on, with standout tracks like “The World Keeps Going Round” from The Kink Kontroversy (1965) and “Sunny Afternoon” from Face to Face (1966).
The latter album was even important, as it represented Davies return to performing after a nasty nervous breakdown. The pressures of stardom saw him turn inward, wistful for a time and a country that was traditional, tempered, and taciturn. So while the Fab Four explored the studio as a means of expression, the Kinks broadened such horizons by merely looking out their backdoor. Something Else arrived during the after burn of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s celebration, and fans were not quite ready for twee tracks about Waterloo sunsets, afternoon teas, and a head boy at the school named David Watts.
The Village Green Preservation Society faired no better. While viewed as a masterpiece today (and rightfully so), its British-centric themes and understated ‘golly gee’ subtleties were lost within all the sex, drugs, and flower power. Davies claims the album-length look at UK hamlet life was inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood as well as a growing discontent within the band. Fearing this would be the last Kinks album, he tinkered with it feverishly, including and then dropping the sizable hit “Days”. As the amount of material grew, the frightened frontman saw it as a kind of swansong—to fame, to fortune, to a forgotten way of life.
Indeed, all throughout The Village Green Preservation Society, Davies outlines the basics of his lost England. The title track asks an uncaring god to bless “the George cross”, “little shops, china cups, and virginity”. Later on, he would lament the “Last of the Steam Powered Trains” and the easy, superficial trappings of celebrity (“Starstruck”). Tossing in a few fairy-style stories along the way (“Phenomenal Cat”, “Wicked Annabella”) and odes to that most instantaneous of memory makers—the photograph (“Picture Book”, “People Taking Pictures of Each Other”), he created a kind of revisionist regression. Davies now thought it was hip to be square, and wanted to share said sentiments with a hopefully accepting audience.
The musical method he chose, however, would ring hollow in the ears of eager listeners. The Village Green Preservation Society avoided the power chord chug of the early Kinks hits (“You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night”) to explore more acoustic, orchestral settings. Strings and keyboards cascaded over carefully strummed guitars, and when a tad more meat was needed in the mix, the charges were more considered and compact. This is especially true of the terrific “Big Sky”. While Davies sing-speaks his soul searching stanzas (“Big Sky feels sad when he sees the children scream and cry/But the Big Sky’s too big to let it get him down”), a veritable overview of British music circa the late ‘60 swirls around him.
In the Orwellian referencing “Animal Farm”, the break before the last verse seems to resonate the loudest:
Girl, it’s a hard, hard world, if it gets you down,
Dreams often fade and die in a bad, bad world,
I’ll take you where real animals are playing,
And people are real people not just playing.
It’s like a reality check slamming into the then current Carnaby Street din, describing in a set of straightforward words the pitfalls of getting twisted inside the era’s scattered idealism. For Ray Davies, his time in the limelight started out with a bang. But ever since making the grade, he was melancholy over the price—personal and professionally. The Village Green Preservation Society was a warning of where things were going. Too bad too few paid attention at the time.
The Kinks - The Village Green Preservation Society
It was 1968 and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The world of rock music was caught up in a fervor and transition that both suited the times and matched them, upheaval for upheaval.
The Rolling Stones, after years of hit singles that hewed to radio formula, were in something of a creative cul-de-sac. Her Satanic Majesties Request, released in 1967, was a blatant attempt to ride the psychedelic coattails of the broad appeal of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The work of prog-rock explorers like Pink Floyd, and the release of Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience were changing the vocabulary of music.
It was time for something new.
That something new—created in a world in utter disarray, and growing instability within the band itself—was Beggars Banquet, the Rolling Stones album that is one of the band’s three or four best recordings. To these ears, it’s the best work of the original Stones lineup: culturally grounded but sonically adventurous, literate, passionate and, with the death of the Stones’ brilliant original guitarist Brian Jones less than a year after release, tragically moving. Here the Stones helped change rock music as heard on the radio, breaking with the three-minute diktat that largely imprisoned rock during the 1960’s.
But Beggars also showed the Rolling Stones willing to play against the prevailing trend: As grandiose, multitracked psychedelia made its assault on rock culture, the Stones pivoted back to basic American roots music—a cultural anchor in the face of swirling change. Beggars Banquet was the anti-Sgt. Pepper.
The opening track, “Sympathy for the Devil” was an experiment in both length and subject. Mick Jagger was said to have been inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a novel that posits Satan’s return to our world in a number of guises. Jagger’s acid first-person statement of the human condition, an indictment of the cult of personality—the same one that imprisoned him in an evolving celebrity culture—remains one of rock’s lyric masterpieces.
With tracks like “Prodigal Son” and “Dear Doctor”, the Stones ventured into country and blues like never before. “Prodigal Son”, a blues song by Mississippi bluesman Rev. Robert Wilkins in the 1930s, was reworked by the Stones as a folky shuffle, a hallelujah romp straight from the Delta. “Dear Doctor,” a wry tale of nuptials gone awry, borrows from the hill-country music of Appalachia.
For all its wry humor and surreal comic turns, there’s a shadow over this record. You hear it on the plaintive ballad “No Expectations”. It’s there we’re witness to the twilight of Brian Jones, by this time a man near the end of the rope. Jones, a drug casualty on a long downward spiral, performs slide guitar work here that’s harrowing in its emotional honesty. Forty years on, it can still break your heart.
His lead work on “Parachute Woman” and “Jig-Saw Puzzle” is as lean and inventive as anything he’d recorded before. And listen closely to “Street Fighting Man”—in some ways the song that embodied the year 1968. Inspired by the student protests in Paris, it captures the spirit of chaos that made the song possible… and throughout, you’ll hear the sinewy thread of Brian Jones’ sitar, the kind of singular, inventive touch that confirms again his singular contribution to the Stones.
There’s a before-Beggars version of the Rolling Stones and an after. As much as anything, it was Jones’ slow fade from his role as the band’s visual symbol and musical polymath—a process made permanent when Jones died on July 3, 1969—that marks the dividing line between one iteration of the Rolling Stones and those that followed.
There were later high points in the Stones career: Let It Bleed, the first Stones album with Jones’ able replacement, Mick Taylor; Exile on Main Street, the sprawling tribute to soul, gospel and the rhythms of New York City; Tattoo You, a testament to the jaded but vulnerable creatures of rock’s demimonde.
But Beggars Banquet is that first point of departure—the pivot point that separated the Stones from being just another British Invader and being a group to be reckoned with, on its own creative terms. As a musical statement of simplicity in the face of complexity, order in the face of turmoil, with lyrics Oscar Wilde might have appreciated and music that still moves you, it more than holds its own—a document, a soundtrack for an era.
—Michael E. Ross
Rolling Stones - Sympathy for The Devil ( Live 1969 Altamont)