As I was preparing for my last post, listing 100 Artists Who Belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was struck by how much I just didn’t know. Frankly, I was feeling like a bit of a fraud for masquerading as a rock and roll expert- even though the truth of it is that my knowledge of popular music is based on following 3 artists fanatically, 10 other artists closely, listening to Oldies radio as a boy and a teenager, and being a historian of 1960s and 1970s America. Not the worst pedigree, but certainly not the best. But I got to thinking: there were so many classic albums that I had never listened to. Indeed, in my thirty years on earth, I have not listened to a studio album by the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Elvis (Presley or Costello), The Moody Blues, The Supremes, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Genesis, etc, etc.
1. To explore artists that intrigue me in greater depth
2. To do credit to all-time greats whose music I still don’t know as well as I should
3. To look at albums that were popular during my preteen and teenage years (mid-to-late 90s) that I just didn’t listen to at the time, since my friends and I were putting Rubber Soul on the turntable and acting like self-aggrandizing jackasses.
4. To give artists I’ve ridiculed mercilessly their last chance to win me over (looking right at you, Rush, Kiss, etc.)
So- let’s begin. As we go along, I try and listen to 100 new albums in the next 100 days, and I’ll give you my impressions as I go along. Only a few rules: I cannot have listened to the album in its entirety before, only one album per artist, and no greatest hits albums.
1. Linda Ronstadt- Hearts Like A Wheel (1974): I knew Linda Rondstadt was good, but I had no idea what a magnificent artist she was until I started my project with this record. While she rarely writes her own stuff (a criticism, by the way, that we never direct toward The Temptations, The Supremes, The Grass Roots, etc.) she is a first-rate interpreter. With a fantastic backing band that understands country and gospel idioms but keeps the album rooted in rock, Ronstadt’s powerful, expressive vocals are at the center of the record. It pleases the ear and the soul without pandering or compromising artistic vision. A fantastic, fantastic way to begin this project.
2. Green Day- Dookie (1994): With the exception of Real McCoy, the Gin Blossoms, and Weird Al, I was almost completely removed from music scene at the time, except when Top 40 radio played during woodshop class. Anyway, in our Middle School choir in 7th grade, there was an 8th grader named Todd who sat directly in front of me, and he wore his “Dookie” t-shirt, well, about as often as I wore my “Abbey Road” t-shirt. Seriously, I can still recite the entire track list for the album even though I never listened to it until this week. Being almost entirely unfamiliar with punk, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. It wasn’t made to be, I think, good or anything like that. Like much of punk, the musical chops are beside the point- it is resentment and cynicism driving the music. And I reflected how much the music would have resonated with my peers in the mid-90s. Green Day’s angsty schtick hit on the head the immature attempts at relationships, frustration with parents with awkward two-part harmonies. In a way, its brilliant in how it captures an earlier point in our lives, in the same way that the wordly Hamburg-Germany veteran Beatles managed to write some of the most innocent songs of the 1960s. It’s a fantastic sleight of hand. While nobody will mistake these guys for geniuses, their ability to encapsulate the discontent of 14-year-olds in Poughkeepsie or some other semi-prosperous backwater is truly remarkable.
3. Dusty Springfield- Dusty in Memphis (1969): What a ballsy move it was for an English pop singer to hightail it to Memphis and record an album in soul music that goes toe-to-toe with Aretha at her peak. I’m not totally convinced that the 3 different guys producing the record (including two all-time greats, Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler) did the album’s m.o. justice– the strings and the horns are a bit intrusive, and Springfield’s voice has plenty of expression but does lack Aretha’s raw power and pipes. And I deeply suspect that her well-deserved but ultimately premature induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (class of 1999- same as McCartney, Springsteen, and Billy Joel) owed more to her ties with Atlantic Records, which has had an absurd level of success getting their guys in the Hall of Fame.) But man, this album can be easily and breezily sexy in its way- “Breakfast in Bed” and “Just a Little Lovin'” do so much with implication, while always staying in the realm of the innocent. And that goes double for the album’s best-known track, “Son of a Preacher Man”, where we forget that the song is about the titular son teaching young Dusty about sex.
4. Fairport Convention- Liege and Lief (1969): I was not very familiar with Fairport Convention, but kept hearing their name mentioned in conversations about electric folk. I put on what appears to have been their best-received album and did some cursory research, and was quite impressed. Folk, as it turns out, means something very different in the English context, and the entire album runs on moorish-highland and English countryside dalliances. But what makes all this the more remarkable is the musical chops behind it. I’m not totally sure how much I care for Sandra Denny’s voice, but the other members of the group throw in lutes and flutes and viols and play them with the jam-mentality of, say, the Grateful Dead’s records. My favorite tracks here were the Medley and Matty Groves.
5. Booker T. & the M.G.s- Green Onions (1962): This band has gotten an absurd amount of respect from a lot of musicians I care very much about- from Neil Young to John Lennon to Sam and Dave. When George Harrison made a trip to the U.S. to visit his older sister on the eve of British Beatlemania, one of the first things he did was buy a copy of this record. The house band for Stax Records, the title track is by far their best known number, and their only hit. Still, listening to this album made me realize the consummate talent at work here. If you’ve listened to “Green Onions”, you might guess that the electric organ plays a great tole in their music, and you’d be right. Booker T. uses the instrument as if it were their lead vocalist (and indeed, every song on the record is an instrumental). But guitarist Steve Cropper is no slouch either- compare him to any of the early 60s or late 50s rock and roll guitarists, and he surpasses everyone except Chuck Berry. In fact, this would be a great time to mention that Booker T. & the MGs is one of the first integrated rock band- and being based out of Memphis, and as a soul/R&B outfit, this was a greater artistic liability for its two white members than its two black members.
6. Christopher Cross- Christopher Cross (1979): So, you have an entire 50 minutes filled with banalities like “say you’ll be mine until the sun shines.” There’s no edge here, there’s only the most manufactured of soulful expression on here. As it turns out, it is possible to make a record with fewer meaningful things to say than Dookie. But this album and Green Day’s forebears in the punk movement have more similarities than either would care to admit. Both are, in their own manners, coping with the malaise, directionless nature, and overall depressing qualities of the late 1970s. Some grew angry, brash, and resentful- and others, like Cross, dumbed themselves down, stopped commenting on social issues, and did low-key, easy-on-the-ear music with lots of swooping orchestras, plenty of soprano sax solos, with electric guitars severely reigned in. Different strokes for different folks I suppose, but this soft AM-radio is as much a product of its time as anything.
7. War- The World is a Ghetto (1972): So much more to this band than their best-known song, “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” which isn’t on this album. Instead, you get a fantastic funky urban record with long, extended jams, and plenty of Latin influences. The great thing about The World is a Ghetto is that it can be appreciated at multiple levels- there’s social commentary, if you are willing to dig for it, but it also works just as well as great atmospheric music.
8. Duran Duran- Rio (1982): The first appearance from the 1980s in this project, I was struck at how aptly this album brought together radio-friendly synth-pop with decent chops as a band. Duran Duran’s various members named Taylor (at most, there were three, and none were related) keep a sharp beat going. While not every track is a winner (“Last Chance on the Stairway”), there are some nice pieces (“New Religion”) to go alongside the title track and “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
9. Blood, Sweat & Tears- Blood, Sweat & Tears (1968): This sophomore release by the band shows how they are kind-of Chicago’s twin. They were both, by this time, jazz-rock bands on Columbia Records, both were produced by James W. Guercio at this stage. And yet, I am reluctant to say this, but this record is better than any single Chicago record- and Chicago is my third-favorite artist. This band has chops, soul, and creativity in addition to blood, sweat, and tears. David Clayton-Thomas is one of the forgotten greats among rock vocalists, and the song’s arrangements have plenty of clever touches: the gospel elements of “God Bless the Child”, the sharp tempo changes of “Spinning Wheel”, the Copland-esque additions to Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die.” And yet, the Chicago comparison is flawed: Chicago was a rock band trying to be like Duke Ellington. Blood, Sweat & Tears is more of a jazz outfit trying to sound like The Band.
10. AC/DC- Back in Black (1980): And here, our project enters metal territory for the first time. Let me say this: metal is not for me. I listen to music for tranquility, for harmonics, and for perspective. Perhaps more Nietzchian forms of metal can provide the last of these, but AC/DC does not. The lyrics are ruthlessly stupid, with one badly thought-out sexual metaphor after another. Somehow, though, it is almost a platonic ideal of a metal album. The hooks are memorable, the musicianship is proficient, and Brian Johnson fills in nicely for their recently-departed lead singer, Bon Scott. To its credit, the band realizes with almost a sly wink that they are none-too-bright Aussie knuckleheads- and it works to great effect. There’s a great dissertation waiting to be written on gender roles and gender expectations in their songs, though, and their startling immaturity make it clear why “Spinal Tap” had to happen. Yet, so help me God, I liked this album, partly because it owns its limitations so well. And it reminds me of going bowling with the guys on my dorm floor at a Christian university. Our RA was trying to get us to watch documentaries connecting rock and roll with Satan worship, and sure enough, the bowling alley had an AC/DC cover band playing when we arrived.
If I had to rank these ten records based on how much I enjoyed them: Hearts Like a Wheel, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Liege and Lief, Green Onions, The World is a Ghetto, Back in Black, Dusty in Memphis, Rio, Dookie, Christopher Cross.