Counterbalance No. 130: Aretha Franklin's 'Lady Soul'

You told me to leave you alone. My father said come on home. My doctor said take it easy. But the pull of the 130th most acclaimed album of all-time is much too strong. A 1968 soul classic is this week's Counterbalance.

Aretha Franklin

Lady Soul

US Release: 1968-01-22
UK Release: 1968-01-22
Label: Atlantic

Klinger: OK, so here we are with another slab of impossibly sweet 1960s R&B from the Queen of Soul, and I am at somewhat of a loss to talk about it. Much like our previous foray into Aretha Franklin’s work, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Lady Soul is so consistently good and so completely worthy that it's hard to even think about covering it. It's like when Michael Jordan won an MVP award or when Meryl Streep gets nominated for an Oscar—it just seems like a given.

Sure, it’s no surprise that the mathematical wizard behind the Great List has given us another Aretha Franklin album to grapple with. Lady Soul is brilliant. Aretha Franklin is great. Pretty much what we talk about when we talk about soul music. "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman"? Iconic! Is there much more to say? I suppose there has to be. So take it away, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: I think you covered it pretty well, Klinger. Normally I would go after an album just for the sport. But not Lady Soul. I can't. I just can't. Franklin's voice is unstoppable. The Muscle Shoals contingent backing her are on top of their game -- a step up from their work on I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which is hard to top despite my prior weak complaints. Let's chalk up another win for Franklin, call it a week, and go get a taco.

We can just fill out the rest with some artisanal filler text. It’s full of buzz words and hipsterism. No one will notice we are gone. "Blog narwhal squid, DIY carles disrupt williamsburg single-origin coffee portland whatever american apparel swag trust fund direct trade. Post-ironic fixie wolf four loko kale chips, occupy trust fund synth ...”

Klinger: Hold it right there, Mendelsohn. Back that up for a minute. Don't start trying to hoodoo me with your Brooklyn jive. Did you say that Lady Soul is a step up from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You? I mean, I get that the tracks on this album are a bit more energetic, but I Never Loved a Man was a revelation. Lady Soul is great from start to finish—in fact, years of hearing "Chain of Fools" had eroded the song's impact for me until I really leaned in this time to hear it—but it lacks that sense of discovery that we talk about on occasion. It's that feeling of hearing a completely new approach to song craft that separates the towering achievements (the Top 100) from the regular great albums.

Mendelsohn: Aww, c'mon! Tacos, Klinger, tacos! No? Fine.

Yeah, I said it. Lady Soul is a step up from I Never Loved a Man. I Never Loved a Man was the album that broke down the door for Franklin and every female artist to follow. It was a record that wowed the criterati and deservedly is lodged in the Top 100. Franklin brought a new approach to her music that completely transformed the way future artists—and not just women -- approached their work. You'll get no argument from me on those points.

Lady Soul was round two—a record that saw Franklin grow as an artist and really broaden her artistic sensibilities as she pushed further into the realm of rock and rhythm and blues. Lady Soul has rock and roll swagger. Look at the cover of I Never Loved a Man. What do you see? Aretha Franklin done up beautifully, floating in the clouds. That's what you get on that record. A heavenly piece of pop and soul that floats on piano strains from song to song. Now look at Lady Soul. You have Franklin, looking just as fine, absolutely radiating rock and roll swagger. And it shows on the record. "Chain of Fools"? More intimidating than "Respect". "Groovin"? Positively salacious. "Money Won't Change You?" Puts the godfather of soul to shame. "Niki Hoeky" and "Come Back Baby" fill out the rock quotient of this record. Add "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and "Since You've Been Gone," and this record is stronger than I Never Loved a Man in almost every corner.

This album rocks harder and the Muscle Shoals contingent finally get to flex their muscles. How can that not be considered a step up?

Klinger: Well, that's fair, I reckon. This could end up being a little like arguing over who our least favorite fascist is. I do want to go back to something you said about "Money Won't Change You" as it relates to James Brown's original. When you compare JB's version to Aretha's, you really understand what we mean when we say an artist makes a song her own. Brown's version is a relentless push on the main riff, as compact and tightly wound as the man himself. Aretha and her band give everything room to breathe—there's an ease and lightness to her style that makes it feel like a different song altogether.

And while I'm on the subject, I think a lot of that comes down to her dazzling interplay with her background vocalists, Aretha's sisters Carolyn and Erma (who recorded the original—and to my ears definitive—version of “Piece of My Heart”) plus the always-welcome Sweet Inspirations. All throughout Lady Soul, these women comment, cajole, push, and pull their way through Aretha's lead, bringing each song to heights that they might not have reached on their own. Listen to the way they drop a perfectly placed "busted" into "Niki Hoeky" or the way they subtly reference the Mamas and the Papas in "Groovin'". As I understand it, a lot of those arrangements were assembled by Carolyn Franklin—if that's the case then I'd say she's as much an architect of Aretha's sound as Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd.

Mendelsohn: Behind every king there is a king-maker, or queen-maker in Aretha's case. As much as Wexler and Dowd did to really help bring Aretha into her own, the one constant standing behind her was always her younger sister Carolyn. So you might be onto something there, especially when you consider just how much of the backing vocal work acts as its own instrument throughout this record. Listening to "Niki Hoeky", there is no doubt these ladies have no problem holding their own space within the arrangements as Carolyn and the Sweet Inspirations play a call and response game with the horn section, outshining them at every turn. On "Chain of Fools", it is Aretha's older sister, Erma, anchoring the backing vocals with her signature deep and husky voice, working as a perfect counterpoint to the soaring vocals of Aretha and the sugary inflection of the Sweet Inspiration.

And while it was not on the original recording, the unedited version of "Chain of Fools" truly is something special. The extended, bluesy intro that sees Aretha doing a slow dance with the guitar really changes the tone of that song, making it just a tad bit darker and all that much sweeter once they get rolling.

Klinger: Mm, yes, that is a quality bonus there. But I had another thought that occurred to me throughout all of this. This whole Counterbalance project compels us to spend most of our time listening to some of the greatest albums ever made, often to the exclusion of much else. But part of understanding what makes art great (to my way of thinking) is to take time to compare it to lesser works and see what sets the truly great apart—and that includes works by more workaday artists and relatively minor efforts by performers within the canon. As we spend so much time with masterpieces, it's easy to forget that some of these artists have made a few missteps along the way. Much as it's instructive to watch Meryl Streep in It's Complicated or watch Michael Jordan play baseball, we can also look to Aretha Arrives, which was released between I Never Loved a Man and Lady Soul, for insight.

Aretha Arrives was released to tepid reviews, and we seldom hear much about it today. Aretha takes on a few rock covers ("Satisfaction", "96 Tears") and seems to be struggling to get her head around them. Overall, her singing comes across as more mannered, as if she's basically an assembly line worker applying a coating of Aretha over whatever comes in front of her. It's not bad; it's just not great. But when you hear it, you gain a better understanding of what it means to have Aretha and her band firing on all cylinders. Relistening to Lady Soul after that marks it as the revelation that it is, and must have seemed back in 1968. Of course, it's also a thrilling testament to her talents on its own.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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