Bowie, Dylan, Little Richard Among the Best Pop Music Boxed Sets

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Here are some of the most notable boxed sets this year in rock and pop...

David Bowie, Five Years 1969-1973 (Parlophone, $97)

Bowie had spent the five years previous to this boxed set trying to break out as a theatrical crooner in swinging London. “Five Years” documents David Jones’ transition into rock with the 1969 “David Bowie” album, which included his first hit, the poignant yet otherworldly “Space Oddity.” He enlisted a band with guitarist Mick Ronson and did some myth-building. He appeared in drag on the cover of “The Man Who Sold the World,” impersonated a rock messiah from space in “Ziggy Stardust,” and announced “the last show we will ever do.” In addition to six studio albums and two live recordings from the era (all previously available), “Five Years” includes two discs’ worth of singles and rarities, notably early takes on “Hang on to Yourself” and “Moonage Daydream” released in 1971 under the name The Arnold Corns.

Bob Dylan, 1965-66 The Cutting Edge Deluxe Edition: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 (Legacy, $100)

In the 15 months of recording sessions documented on these six discs, Dylan cranked out three masterpieces — Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde and Blonde. During this time, he completely committed to electric rock instrumentation after years as an acoustic troubadour, switched producers and studios, and experimented with elastic, surrealistic wordplay and different lineups of musicians (everyone from fledgling organ player Al Kooper to Nashville session pros). Many of his best-known songs went through a series of changes before settling into their finished form, notably “Like a Rolling Stone.” An entire disc is devoted to tracing the song’s transformation from a leaden waltz into a modern classic based on gospel/blues call-and-response patterns. A looser, funkier, grittier “Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence” outstrips the rarity presented on the first Dylan bootleg box in 1991, with Michael Bloomfield’s guitar snapping like a Doberman and Dylan’s voice spiked with screams and wicked bravado (“Well she’s good alright / But she ain’t as good as this guitar player that I got right now”). And Dylan cracks up when he tries Kooper’s slide whistle for the first time on Highway 61, a new toy that puts the finishing touch on this biblical tall tale.

There are also some telling insights into Dylan’s relationship with the Hawks, who later became known as the Band. While the Hawks proved extraordinary foils for Dylan on stage, particularly as he rampaged across England in 1966, the results were far more problematic in the studio, particularly as they wrestle with “Visions of Johanna.” The Hawks jump into the tune eagerly, but never quite nail its sense of longing to Dylan’s satisfaction, and the singer eventually settled on a far different take with different musicians. These revelatory recording sessions are also available in several versions: a compact two-CD or three-LP set and a 379-track, 18-CD cinder block.

Little Richard, Directly from my Heart: The Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years (Specialty, $23)

No puny piece of vinyl could possibly contain the fury and flamboyance that was Richard Penniman in his prime. But his ‘50s singles for the Specialty label slammed like a wrecking ball and emphatically announced the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Amid peak moments such as “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” this three-CD set sprinkles in some filler. But even on throwaways such as “Heeby-Jeebies Love,” Richard sounds like he’s having more fun than anyone alive. His career derailed when he briefly devoted himself to gospel, and his ‘60s return to rock on Chicago’s Vee-Jay label was overshadowed by artists who had been influenced by him, including James Brown and the Beatles. He’s even reduced to imitating Brown on his final hit, “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got but it’s Got Me,” notable because the session guitarist is a new kid named Jimi Hendrix. Unfortunately, the annotation of the recording sessions and liner notes is skimpy compared to “Little Richard: The Specialty Sessions,” the boxed set issued in the wake of his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in the ‘80s.

Them, The Complete Them: 1964-1967 (Legacy, $25)

Dublin’s Them was essentially a rotating cast of journeyman locals backing a prodigiously talented teenage vocalist named Van Morrison. Leaning hard initially on Chicago blues, Morrison used Them as a vehicle to flirt with flinty garage rock and experimented with the folk-soul merger that would inform his first solo masterpiece, “Astral Weeks.” He wrote and sang “Gloria,” replicated by Chicago’s Shadows of Knight in their hit version, and presaged the greatness to come with performances that encompassed a rueful interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the towering anticipation of “Here Comes the Night” and the eerie boldness of “One Two Brown Eyes,” which brings an almost Latin feel to a hypnotic blues track. And the guy who wrote the liner notes? None other than the normally reticent Morrison himself. He provides an insightful and even occasionally humorous overview of the times. Of Them’s high point, a Los Angeles residency with the Doors as opening act, he writes: “There was a lot of stuff happening on the dance floor that added another dimension.”

Staple Singers, Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976, (Concord Music, $52)

The four-CD set goes back to the Staple Singerson the gospel circuit and chronicles the family’s critical role in the emerging civil rights and protest music era and its ascent to national hitmakers in the ‘70s at Stax Records with soul-funk classics “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” The music makes the case not only for Mavis Staples’ enduring power as a vocalist but in affirming the status of family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples as a 20th century musical visionary.

Various Artists, Ork Records: New York, New York (Numero Group, $35)

The small but influential output of the New York City punk label founded by Terry Ork makes for a great ‘70s time capsule. Ork, part of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and confidante to a gaggle of poverty-stricken poets, rockers, filmmakers and dreamers on the city’s Lower East Side, was a key player in a scene that spawned Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Ramones, the Feelies, the Dead Boys and countless others. The singles released on Ork provide a stirring snapshot of the era: the taut tension of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel,” Hell’s defining “(I Belong to the) Blank Generation,” the post-Big Star shake, rattle and grime of Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok,” critic Lester Bangs’ Capt. Beefheart-isms on “Let it Blurt.” Just as valuable is the brick of a book about the “world’s first punk label” authored by Numero co-founders Ken Shipley and Rob Sevier.

The Velvet Underground, Loaded Re-Loaded 45th Anniversary Edition (Cotillion/Atlantic/Rhino, $68) and The Complete Matrix Tapes (Universal, $45)

Each of the first four Velvet Underground studio albums created their own worlds, capped by Loaded, released in 1970. It finds Lou Reed making one last, ultimately futile quest to break the band into the mainstream with a series of his most undeniable melodies: “Sweet Jane,” “Rock & Roll,” “Who Loves the Sun,” the anthemic “New Age.” It’s probably the easiest entry point for Velvets/Reed newbies, an homage of sorts to Reed’s love of the sweet melodicism and innocence found in doo-wop, early R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. The demos on the six-CD “Re-Loaded” include early takes of songs that would surface on Reed’s solo albums, including “Satellite of Love” and “Sad Song.” But with drummer Maureen Tucker largely absent due to the impending birth of her first child, the band loses part of its identity. The “Re-Loaded” package includes a previously unreleased recording of a concert in Philadelphia as well as a remastered version of the “Live at Max’s Kansas City” performance, and Tucker’s absence robs the group of some of its essential power and personality.

The Complete Matrix Tapes, a four-CD chronicle of four sets performed in 1969 over two nights in San Francisco, is a far better representation of the Velvets at the height of their powers, in their second incarnation with Doug Yule stepping in for John Cale. It’s one of several excellent live recordings culled from the Velvets that year, as they road-tested songs destined for “Loaded” while surveying their early albums, notably radical reinventions of “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Venus in Furs.”

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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