May 2, 2015
I remember as a kid listening to a friend of my father’s rhapsodizing about how much Roy Orbison’s music had meant to him in his youth. He recalled being out on his paper route, riding along with a tinny little ear piece connected to his transistor radio, and becoming so absorbed by the climax of “Running Scared” that he crashed his bike into a tree. It always seemed to me a striking model of perfect attunement to music–a level of engagement that only a truly, uniquely compelling kind of song could provoke.
Many years later, in my early twenties, I had my own version of that experience. I was taking a summer class at a community college in Massachusetts, and drove there every morning along misty, unpopulated country roads. It was kind of a rough summer for me–I was nursing a broken heart, and was generally unenthused about life. Sometimes, I felt very sad. (Don’t cry for me. It all worked out okay.) Anyway, I listened to this record just about every morning on that drive, and far and away my favorite track at the time was “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” which, if it didn’t speak all that specifically to my condition, at least resonated in a general way with my profound sense of self pity. The rousing “sometimes I feel very sad” chorus was, of course, a particular highlight, and one morning I got so into it that I simply drove right off the road. Nothing happened. I was fine. I just rolled onto the grass, slammed on the brakes, collected myself, and sheepishly pulled back out onto the empty morning road. It’s not great that I actually lost control of my car, and the whole thing feels less archetypally resonant than a kid on a bike crashing into a tree. But still, on some level, I felt gratified that I had finally found a song powerful enough to lull me into that kind of singular absorption.
It was not ever thus. Compared to albums by The Beatles, for example, I had very little connection to this album as a kid. It’s not something I really grew up with in the same way as all the other albums in the top five. I first heard of it by way of my Beatles obsession, as one does, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. When I first learned about it, the idea seemed preposterous–that The Beach Boys, with their striped shirts and surf boards and squeaky clean fun in the sun ethos–should also have made an album that was regarded as something not only on par with Rubber Soul and Revolver, but as an entry in a kind of artistic arms race–a friendly competition with The Beatles to elevate the status of the pop album to something approaching real art. I was intrigued, if skeptical.
I wound up buying my father a copy for his birthday one year, since it was he who had told me about it. I don’t think he really listened to it much, since he hadn’t actually ever been much of a fan of the record–he just knew enough about it to help me round out my interest in the music of his generation. I listened to it once or twice, and was unimpressed by it. I don’t remember exactly what about it didn’t sit right with me–I guess a lot of it seemed kind of vague and unengaging, and the songs that did jump out more–like the opening track “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”–just sounded like…The Beach Boys. I didn’t get it at all.
It was many years until I came back around to it. I started hearing about the fabled Smile sessions, and tracked some of that remarkable music down in the waning days of Napster. The almost mind-altering brilliance of that music, even in murky unfinished fragments, was harder to miss, and I became an immediate convert to the idea of Brian Wilson as one of the singular geniuses of twentieth century popular music. And so naturally, I gravitated back toward this album, which, if not as jaw droppingly complex and compelling as the fragments of Smile I had managed to track down, did have the advantage of being an actual, finished, readily available album.
I’ve been a fan of this album ever since, although having backed into in that way, I will perhaps never quite shake the slight taint of feeling underwhelmed by it. To cite the most obvious (really the only truly relevant) point of comparison, it would be as though you had spent a lot of time absorbing Sgt. Pepper before ever hearing Rubber Soul. I’m a big fan of Rubber Soul, but there is some obvious sense in which it is less overly amazing than the wizardry of the later album. Now, some–quite possibly including myself–might argue that what Rubber Soul lacks in orchestral ornamentation, it makes up for in a warmer, more emotionally accessible feeling. And one could also perhaps say the same about this one compared to the album that would be Smile.
Smile is, after all, not only a good deal more overt in the brilliance of its orchestrations, but also much more psychedelically abstract in its lyrics. While Wilson was able to come up with broad strokes of what he wanted his songs to be saying, he was not a wordsmith at heart, and on both projects, he employed third party lyricists to help him realize his vision. For this album, he worked with Tony Asher to come up with a set of songs that, in the main, addressed in an intimate, almost artless way, some of Wilson’s nascent existential confusion and melancholy. That state of mind, of course, fueled by psychedelic experimentation and artistic pressures from within and without, eventually grew into the full blown mental breakdown which is the chief reason he never quite finished Smile in 1967. On Smile, he employed the more ambitious and experimental-minded Van Dyke Parks to write a suite of songs that was intended generally as a kind of fantasia of the American experience, but which is characterized especially by a very psychedelically-tinged kind of obscurity. On paper, the former sounds more up my alley–emotional immediacy over flippant, stylish abstractions. And yet for whatever reason (possibly simply because Parks was more gifted than Asher), I tend to be more seduced by the cavalcade of brilliant nonsense on Smile. God help me, but “Dove nested towers the hour was, strike the street quicksilver moon” just sounds cooler to me than, say, “I went through all kinds’a changes, took a look at myself and said ‘that’s not me.’”
Many people, of course, found this album disappointing from the opposite direction. Not everyone who grew up with “Little Deuce Coup” and “Fun Fun Fun” was willing to follow Wilson over to this more personal, maudlin kind of territory. There are even a number of critics out there who maintain that this album is overblown and overrated, and that Wilson’s genius is really best enjoyed on some of the gorgeously orchestrated but more unpretentiously themed songs in the years leading up to it, such as “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Let Him Run Wild,” “Please Let Me Wonder” and “California Girls,” the last of which, despite its quotidian subject matter, was the first song Wilson wrote under the influence of LSD. I have an old family friend I discuss music with a lot who graduated from high school (with my father) right around the time this album came out, and he has never been able to understand what the big deal is with this album. To him, it’s just less fun and less immediate than the simpler pleasures of The Beach Boy’s classic cars, surfing and girls material. And he’s not a terribly conservative, “I like what I like” kind of music lover. He just regards himself as insufficiently musically educated to understand what’s so special about what Wilson is doing on this album. He simply doesn’t hear it, and sometimes asks me to explain it to him.
It’s a somewhat daunting task that I’ve never managed to pull off to his satisfaction, which is regrettable, since that’s also the job that lies before me here. What I don’t want to do is a song-by-song analysis of the sort I’ve fallen into over the past several entries. Briefly, the only song I actively (though not intensely) dislike is “Sloop John B.” It’s not just that a Caribbean sea shanty feels out of place with the more personal nature of the album (even factoring the double meaning of the line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”), though that is part of it. It’s also that it feels like a rare misstep in Wilson’s vocal arrangement, so that the “hoist up the John B. sails” chorus feels kick of shrill and off-putting, or always has to me, anyway. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” also feels slightly out of place, as though it’s there primarily to meet the obligation for a good, accessible single rather than to contribute to the presiding spirit of the album. But it’s a good solid tune, so it gets a pass. It’s really one of the very last songs Wilson ever wrote that fits in easily enough around the teenagerly concerns of The Beach Boys‘ first and most commercially enduring period.
Beyond those better known, single-type songs, I feel like part of the reason some people have trouble finding their way into this record is that it does not, truth be told, have an overabundance of what you’d call great songs on it. Certainly there are a handful. “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulders” and “Caroline, No” are both heartbreakingly gorgeous ballads, and exceptionally fine solo vocal performances by Brian Wilson. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” though it’s one close to my heart, may not in the end be a great song so much as just the “Sometimes I Feel Very Sad” part has a unique and transfixing power. And a lot of songs, like “I’m Waiting for the Day” or “I Know There’s an Answer,” while certainly nowhere close to bad, also don’t really have that immediately graspable aura of great songness about them. The one song that best matches that description and more is the magnificent “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney famously considers the greatest pop song ever written, and whose peculiar spiritual power is undiminished by the passing decades. When people say (and they do) that Brian Wilson’s music will endure in the same way that Mozart’s has, this is surely one of the songs they have most prominently in mind.
So it is, of course, not principally in the songs that this album’s greatness resides, but in its spectacularly thoughtful, adventuresome and gorgeous orchestrations and production technique. But let’s be clear–it’s not fair to say that what makes the album great is just its orchestrations, any more than it makes sense to say that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just a nice decoration. It’s really where the action is–in the ethereally uplifting vocal harmonies, in the rich tapestry of timbres and unusual instrumental sounds (marimba, bass harmonica, that clicking hooves percussion sound, and on and on). One who is confused about why this album is so important might do well to start by focusing on the album’s two instrumental tracks, “Let’s Get Away for Awhile” and the title track, since, though they could almost be dismissed as like cinematic sort of background music, one can at least more easily hear the level of thought (and playfulness) Wilson is putting into his instrumental arrangements. Indeed, though the meaning is obscured by the presence of farm animals on the album’s cover and the barking dogs at the album’s end, the title “Pet Sounds” actually refers to the specific timbres and tones that Wilson was most excited by, and lovingly wove throughout this album.
The fact of having had to defer listening to all of these emphatically great albums until the very end of the project has been a trying one, but the bang of finally being able to hear them now under more ideal sonic conditions than ever before has proved to be worth it, and never more so than with this one. I’ve long admired the gorgeous orchestration and harmonic complexity of this album, but I was never before able to hear it so clearly, and so movingly, as I was this time around. “God Only Knows” didn’t happen to make me well up with tears this time, as it sometimes does (such as, let’s face it, at the end of Love, Actually). But much of the album got much more deeply under my skin than it ever had before.
Near the end, a thought that I never imagined I would have struck with me a certain force and clarity: this album is, by a wide measure, greater than anything The Beatles ever did. I don’t mean that I like it more, necessarily, or that it has better songs on it. I don’t even necessarily mean that it’s the better pop album, since the song has always and rightly been the measure by which pop music is usually judged. But evaluating it by some other, more distant vantage point–one that extends a good deal further back than Elvis or Chuck Berry–there’s just no way to compare what Brian Wilson did here with The Beatles, or with any of his contemporaries. (Frank Zappa’s music may approach a similar degree of impressiveness, but is far less emotionally compelling.) Brian Wilson may not be a Mozart or a Bach, but he is the closest thing that music understood to be twentieth century popular music ever got.
It’s also worth noting, of course, that he was much more of a self-contained artist than The Beatles. Sure, he needed help with the lyrics, and he wrote with the voices of his brothers and other bandmates in mind, but as an orchestrator–or composer, really–he was a wholly singular artist. As The Beatles developed more “classical” aspirations, they would come up with their own general ideas of what they were looking for, but would ultimately leave the actual working out of all the parts to George Martin, who was an extraordinary producer and arranger, but ultimately more a deftly interpretive technician than a real artist in his own right. Wilson, who had a good deal less formal musical education than Martin (and no more than Lennon or McCartney), figured out every last bit of the music on this album all by himself. It’s kind of mind-boggling. Even Wilson’s hero, Phil Spector, generally relied on his arranger Jack Nitzsche to hammer out the specifics of his musical vision.
While the sort of aspirations toward art music that both Wilson and The Beatles displayed in this period pretty quickly devolved into a morass of overblown pretensions in later, lesser artists, Wilson’s work on this album strikes me as anything but pretentious. There is a kind of innocence and purity of motives one hears in Wilson’s music that has rarely existed alongside such obvious genius. Certainly this music is ambitious, but it seems to me to be an ambition of the very best kind–to express that which was within himself as clearly as he could, and to give to the world music that would be uplifting, healing, and ultimately spiritual in intent and in effect.
Source: LP. I have a Capitol copy from the 60s–maybe an original, though I’m not sure. But I have heard from a lot of people that, oddly enough, the copy they threw in as a bonus with their 1972 album Carl and The Passions – So Tough (which seems a pretty poor indicator of their confidence in that album) is regarded by many as the best this album ever sounded. When I found a copy I snapped it up, and have been eagerly waiting to hear it ever since. And yeah–it’s absolutely incredible–transparent and immediate feeling, practically glowing with sonic beauty. I haven’t done a side by side with my Capitol copy yet, but this one seems destined to become my go to.
Before I close this one out, I’d like to pay tribute to a fallen comrade of musical appreciation. Bob Fisher, who very dearly loved this album, was one of the warmest, most generous and genuinely spiritual people I ever had the privilege to meet. Though we first met in real life, I came to know him better in an online capacity. At some point, he found his way to my blog, and quickly became my most treasured reader and interlocutor. Bob was a few years younger than my father, and a good deal less cynical (sorry, Dad), meaning that he came of musical age right at about the time a lot of these great records were coming out. But, like a true and dedicated music lover, he kept right on exploring and discovering new music his whole life through. His love and knowledge of music was incredibly, often unexpectedly, far reaching. What was both wonderful and challenging about talking music with Bob was that he loved everything. Or damn near everything, anyway. He at least gave it all a good honest try. But the music of this period–and that of Brian Wilson in particular–I believe remained a particular favorite, a touchstone whose spiritual sort of beauty I think really resonated with the person that he was.
We often disagreed on the merits of any given album, since I do not love everything in the way he did. But no matter how indelicately I treated an album that he held dear, he always responded with remarkable generosity. He would often write long, articulate rebuttals to my reviews, revealing a keen intelligence, a more personal perspective than I had, and a patience with my particular musical predilections that was unerringly kind. (I only wish that he had posted them here, rather directly to Facebook, so that I could more easily access them now.) I began to listen and write with him in mind, with the result that I found myself trying (imperfectly) to approach every album I heard with a kind of generosity and curiousness. He reminded me of what the core purpose of my project really was, which was to remain as open as possible to new music, and to enjoy as much of it as I could, rather than merely to sharpen my critical acumen or develop the “right” kind of tastes. I didn’t do it as well as he did, but he helped me to reaffirm that a love of music was what was–and should be–driving me as I made my way through this project.
Somewhere along the line, Bob let it slip that he had been diagnosed with cancer, but he seemed so unworried about it that I didn’t quite grasp the immediacy of his condition. As the project wore on, he became less consistent in replying to my posts, but would sometimes come roaring back, writing a series of passionate defenses, personal reminiscences and general appreciations of the role some of these albums had played in his life. Even where we sharply disagreed, he seemed glad to have the opportunity to reflect on the music that he loved. The last such outpouring came just a few weeks before I received word that he was within the final hours of his life. Though I didn’t even know him all that well in person, I wept when I heard the news.
The blog carried on, of course, but it never felt quite the same without having Bob there to read and offer his thoughtful replies. Though great conversations carried on with other readers, an essential voice was missing from the mix which I have missed terribly. And especially here, near the very end, and on an album I know Bob loved, I feel a real sadness that he’s not here to round this thing out with me. Best to you, Bob, wherever you are–and thank you.
April 20, 2015
So, Brian Wilson has a new album out. I haven’t heard it yet. (I’ll probably dutifully buy it and hardly ever listen to it.) But the release has occasioned a round of some pretty good interviews. In one of them, for some reason, the interviewer asked him what he thought of punk rock, and Brian Wilson says, effectively, “punk? what is that? I don’t think I know what that is.” The interviewer explains that it was a kind of loud, aggressive music popular in the late seventies, and good ol’ Brian Wilson says something like, “oh, yeah, no–I never listened to that stuff.” And why should he have? He was pretty deeply sunk into his mentally frail reclusive lifestyle at the time. But also, he was a genius–one of a handful of artists on this list who truly deserves that designation–and why should he have to expose himself to kinds of music whose virtues, such as they are, are at best irrelevant to the particulars of his genius, and by some interpretations, downright hostile to them. (Although it turns out that Joe Strummer cited The Beach Boys as one of his first and biggest musical inspirations. So what the hell do I know?)
In any event, punk is something that the rest of who are not so constituted as to find it all that interesting have to find a way to reconcile themselves to, at least insofar as we want to maintain our credentials as reasonably well rounded music enthusiasts. Because, as should be obvious by the assertion that this is the eighth greatest album of all time, the critical consensus is that punk was an important development in the history of twentieth century music–among the last and most important true musical cataclysms. Dave Marsh, a critic I love though often disagree with, called this album “the Blonde on Blonde of its generation”–a characterization that, for me, makes its ranking exactly one above that much better record that much more unfortunate. But in any event, I did my best to approach this album respectfully, mindful of the fact that a probable majority of serious music lovers and scholars believe this album to be important in a way that I ought not be so obtuse as to dismiss outright.
And happily, though it persists in not really being my kind of album, I found that I hated it a good deal less than I expected, and even found myself kind of tentatively enjoying myself on a few tracks. Part of me had hoped to be able to be a wiseass and say that I liked this double album better than Sandinista, a triple album, but not as well as their eponymous single album debut, and that that ranking was purely a function of their respective lengths. But as it turned out, this was indeed the best of the lot–an album that allows itself to sound almost like good, hard power pop in places rather than all out, nihilistically aggressive punk rock, and whose flirtations with reggae provide a welcome rhythmic contrast without tipping too much over into the kind of interminable world-musicy self-seriousness of Sandinista. Following my review of that album, one reader (and an old friend) wondered something along the lines of “You don’t like The Clash? What the hell’s the matter with you?” I don’t know if he actually ever sat through that entire long and taxing record before, but it seemed obvious enough to me that its protracted pretensions wouldn’t be for everyone. The shorter, sharper debut album had less to complain about, though its “we’re angry about stuff and all our songs sound the same” ethos was also, as far as I was concerned, not an unqualified winner. But, while I could in no way be said to have loved this whole album, I must concede that there were parts of it that reached that kind of universal-feeling appeal that might make some sense out of that question. Though more generally, I couldn’t really tell you what the hell’s the matter with me.
If it was musically less relentlessly opposed to my taste than their other albums, though, my basic disinterest in its highly political orientation and general angriness persisted. It’s been an ongoing struggle of the project, but to a large extent, I am stubbornly apolitical in my aesthetic tastes, even if the views expressed more or less cohere with my own political viewpoint. It’s probably basically a liberal guilt problem–I just don’t see the appeal of being hectored by angry-sounding people about the fundamental societal injustices that have made my life arbitrarily comfortable enough, for example, to be listening to their music on a pretty good stereo system. I’m happy enough to acknowledge it as a personal failing, but it’s just the way it is for me. Where the subject is love or sadness, I’m a heart on my sleeve kind of guy, and I have little patience for the use of irony as a distancing mechanism. But where the subject is class rage, I find the kind of earnestness these guys project to be quickly fatiguing. To the extent that I can tolerate that sort of subject matter at all, it either has to be Stevie Wonder soulful, or else employ the very kind of ironic distancing mechanisms I elsewhere eschew, such as some of Randy Newman’s brilliantly cogent eviscerations of society’s ills, in which his own liberal guilt is explicitly factored in as part of the action. That stuff works for me in a way that Joe Strummer’s impassioned whine never will.
Indeed, Strummer’s voice is among the irreducible factors that makes this music fundamentally not mine. I’m sure to many it’s a lot of the source of this music’s power, but to me it’s just bewilderingly unpleasant–an almost intoxicated sounding slurry belligerence. I don’t get it at all. When I put this record on, circumstances had conspired to make me feel a bit put upon and cranky, and I hoped that its basic angriness might agreeably jibe with my state of mind, but instead Strummer’s voice burrowed right into my existing irritability, almost making me want to kick my speakers in the nuts.
That feeling persisted through the first few tracks, even though the opening title track is one of the few songs I knew going in and don’t generally hate. But my mood was pretty well favorably stabilized by the introduction of the mellower–and slightly zany–textures of the third track, “Jimmy Jazz,” which, if not one of the major songs on the album, at least gave me some promise of tonal variance to go on. The rest of the first side rode itself out tolerably enough, with the ironically likable “Hateful” and the introduction of the record’s significant ska component on the bouncy, agreeable “Rudie Can’t Fail.”
The tiresomeness returned for me a bit with the impassioned hectoring about a long ago political situation I had no context for understanding in “Spanish Bombs.” But its follow up, “The Right Profile” kind of intrigued me on first listening. It seemed to be at least peripherally about Montgomery Clift, which is at least plausibly interesting, and it had a kind of cogent, almost poppy flavor to the music that was more up my alley than the harder edged material.
After that, I rode through the rest of the album with a basic kind of indifference that was punctuated in about equal measure by moments of annoyance and moments of disarming pleasure. Some of the songs I found myself more into were among the few not to have their own Wikipedia entries, which may or may not indicate that they are of less general significance. “The Card Cheat” seemed, for example, to have a kind of sturdy, rocking pleasingness to it that attracted me, abetted by the slightly less annoying singing of Mick Jones. Jones’s voice is also featured on one of the album’s biggest hits, “Train in Vain,” which is one of the few songs I knew going in, and which I enjoy pretty much unambiguously (which I realize is a contradiction in terms, but I’m going to let it stand). “Guns of Brixton,” which seems to be frequently cited as among the album’s most essential tracks, on the other hand, made almost no impression on me at all.
More often, it was a discrete piece of something rather than an entire song that grabbed me. I liked the false “Stagger Lee” start of “Wrong ‘em Boyo” as well as its ebullient horn section. “Clampdown” did little for me as song, but it did have a kind of cool rhythmic breakdown in it. Similarly, the boring (if not inaccurate) anti-corporate sentiments of “Koka Kola” did little to arouse my interest, but I found myself impressed by the dexterity of the rhythm section–no small thing, since one of my standing complaints about punk-based music is its general devaluation of instrumental prowess. “Revolution Rock,” which structurally somewhat indistinct, also provided some compelling instrumental moments in a loose, jammy sort of way.
In the end, I can report that I didn’t hate this record, which I would regard as progress of a sort. What’s still difficult for me to reconcile, of course, is how an album that I found merely–and not uniformly–tolerable could land this high up on the list. But I get, sort of. Punk is important, even if it will never be all that important to me personally. And this album, being among the more important and critically lauded punk-related albums of all time makes a certain amount of sense as a place holder for that genre’s place in the uppermost echelons on what counts as important popular music.
On the other hand, what’s problematic about that is that it isn’t in a pure sense a uniformly punk rock album. Between its experiments with more diverse rhythms and its not infrequent concessions toward more straightforward, even radio-friendly rock ‘n roll–to say nothing of its somewhat indulgent lengthiness–it is an album that manages to push beyond the limitations of punk rock without losing its punk rock credentials. In that sense, it has been understood by many (and properly so, I think) as a “post-punk” record–possibly the first significant album of that nebulous genre. And one of the better ones, too, judging by the far more annoying entries lower down on the list to fall under that umbrella, such as Public Image Ltd.’s almost unlistenably “experimental” Metal Box. But call it what you will–punk, post-punk, ska-influenced class rage didacticism–it’s an album that’s important enough to enough people to have landed itself way up here near the top. I just don’t happen to count myself among them. And that’s okay.
Source: LP. An early pressing, if not the very first. “Train in Vain” does not appear on the track listing.
April 10, 2015
Coming up with something to say about this one feels almost like being asked to write a critical analysis of, say, the Gettysburg Address. The music contained on this collection is such an essential, enduring piece of who we are as a people that it feels difficult to find an angle on it–certainly not one that hasn’t already been gone over by the many brighter minds than mine who have tried.
I guess my main reaction in listening to this music this time around was a kind of “unbearable lightness of being” feeling. Like, how tenuous and unlikely and odd it is that this shy young mama’s boy should have it in him to make music powerful enough to alter the fabric of existence, and then that he should just kind of charm his way into a recording studio, and then that the guy who produced his records should be a genius in his own right who applied just the right sound to the unprecedented music being played in his studio to give it maximum impact. It’s all a goddamned miracle.
And sure, one could say that the effect that Elvis had on the world was something waiting to happen–a necessary schism in the zeitgeist that someone else would have ushered in if Elvis had never existed, or had never worked up the nerve to let out what was inside of him. One could also say (with greater existential authority) that the music that Elvis and his band and Sam Phillips came up with in these sessions was of a piece with larger developments–that Elvis didn’t invent rock ‘n roll, and that music of this general type would have and did come forth in other places and from other artists. But I think its also fair to say that Elvis was special and that the world I was born into would be a different place had Elvis never happened.
There are people who put forward the claim that Elvis’s version of “That’s Alright Mama” (released, I just discovered, on my Dad’s sixth birthday) is the first rock ‘n roll song, although almost any serious student of the music would take issue with that claim. Most other popular candidates for that designation, such as Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” or Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (Elvis’s version of which being, of course, one of the core tracks of his Sun recordings) were all recorded a number of years before Elvis first set foot in Sun Studios. But the real answer is that it’s probably a fool’s errand to try to assign that title to any one recording in what was in reality a long, fluid intertwinement of elements of blues, rhythm & blues and country music feeding off one another, reaching just about as far back as the existence of recorded sound. I recently heard the great Phil Alvin contend that a song Big Bill Broonzy recorded in the late 1920s (I forget the title) is his vote for the first rock ‘n roll song.
What needs a little more unpacking is the idea of Elvis as the first and best rock ‘n roller–the so-called king of rock n’ roll. It’s a contentious issue because there were a number of other artists at the time–most notably Chuck Berry and Little Richard–who were self-consciously positioning themselves as the figureheads of the new style of music that was solidifying into what we think of as rock ‘n roll. There’s an obvious racial critique here–that Chuck Berry and Little Richard wrote their own songs and played their instruments in innovative and exciting ways, but were held back from assuming a singular place in the popular imagination as the most important of the early rock ‘n roll artists at least in part because of middle America’s xenophobic wariness of their blackness. Elvis, by contrast, wrote no songs, played only a few perfunctory guitar chords, and while he met with a fair amount of his own shocked resistance from the stalwarts of American conservatism, it wasn’t all that many years before he acquired a more or less universally beloved status as a wholesome, American as apple pie sort of icon.
Certainly there’s some validity to the observation that Elvis’s success was perhaps disproportionate to the effort he put forth, and that there is a basic unfairness in the relative anonymity and lack of success endured by the many black artists whose music Elvis built his art upon interpreting. Where that criticism has gone too far, I think, is in a characterization of Elvis as an exploitive racist of limited talents, who became a huge star by appropriating African-American music without really understanding it, or giving it due respect. This line of interpretation has been largely discredited, though one still hears it occasionally repeated. Even Chuck D., who famous rapped that “Elvis never meant shit” to him and outright called him a racist has more recently recanted that position, acknowledging that actually, Elvis was incredibly well versed in black music, and highly respectful of it and the people who made it.
Unfortunately, lots of people who grew up listening to Public Enemy still parrot the “Elvis was a racist” idea, whereas he was really probably about as non-racist as a white guy born in 1930s Mississippi could possibly be. Lots of black musicians like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard were extremely fond of Elvis, and many who spent time with him early on, like Ivory Joe Hunter, reported being impressed by the depth of Elvis’s deep knowledge in particular of gospel vocal group music. In the more measured view of the situation, Elvis is acknowledged to have given black music unprecedentedly wide exposure, to have been a very fine interpreter of it, and to have been one of the pivotal figures (along with Chuck Berry and others) who brought strains of black music together with country music, helping to forge the synthesis that became rock ‘n roll.
Even outside of race-based arguments, you find a certain strain of rockabilly snob who continues to insist that Carl Perkins should have been Elvis, but missed out on being so by just a few twists of fate. Indeed, Carl Perkins was great–one of the first important songwriters of rock ‘n roll, a great guitarist who influenced George Harrison among many others, and the author of one of Elvis’s most iconic early hits, “Blue Suede Shoes.” But he wasn’t Elvis. I think lots of the early pioneers of rock ‘n roll, the aforementioned and others, were extremely good and extremely important, and the more people who listen to them and know about them the better. But none of them were Elvis, or could have been Elvis. Only Elvis could have been Elvis, because only Elvis was Elvis.
What I mean by that rather silly statement is that there is a crackle of excitement to this music that is almost without either precedent or heir. (Though perhaps Little Richard came close.) I’ve been listening to the core tracks of this collection for most of my life, but even so, I still felt that chill run up my spine listening to it this around. There’s a peculiar quality to this music–to Elvis’s singing primarily, but to the entire recordings–that I can only really think of in terms of religious metaphors. For want of a better term, it has a kind of holy ghost power that is unrivaled by almost every singer I have ever heard, black or white, before or after. Certainly there are a handful–Ray Charles, Little Willie John, George Jones to name a few–who sang with a similar degree of supernatural authority. But very, very few. And with the possible exception of Ray Charles, almost none were in the position to fundamentally transform not just music but society as a whole in the way that Elvis did. As John Lennon famously put it, “before Elvis, there was nothing.”
In the face of such a mysterious power, analysis of the why and wherefore of it seems even more than usually useless. But I will say that I think part of it has to do with the peculiar mix of bashfulness and command–of repression and the return of the repressed–busting out all over in this music. By all accounts, Elvis was an exceptionally shy, awkward young man. Sam Phillips observed that he carried with him an aura of deeply internalized inferiority. But when he opens his mouth and sings, there is such an effortless kind of authority in his voice, a sense of releasing something that he can not keep inside him, and that he knows the world needs to hear. There’s a palpable eros in this music, a Nietzschean sort of reveling in a glorious internal power triumphing over the mechanisms that would bind it, and the effect feels positively enlightening.
Elvis’s greatness in the end is not most importantly about the ways he took the music that came before and mutated it into new possibilities. That stuff is important too, in a history of western music kind of way. But in a history of western civilization kind of way, Elvis was first and foremost like a messianic avatar of pure sex dropped right into the straight laced repressiveness of 1950s America. Much in the way that LSD would open up a lot of minds to the underlying unity of all things a decade later, Elvis was a similarly transformative agent, reintroducing an entire society to its disowned erotic impulses, and boy howdy did it feel good. (I would make the more apples-to-apples comparison with The Beatles, but Elvis’s impact feels more like the direct effects of a powerful drug taking hold.) His gyrations and his striking appearance were a part of that, of course, but what’s amazing is how clearly one hears it right in the music itself. Even if there had been no visual apparatus to broadly disseminate what Elvis looked like or danced like, I believe his music alone would have achieved a similar effect all on its own.
There exists a danger in confusing charisma with genius. Jim Morrison, for example, was a charismatic, but not a genius. Brian Wilson, the opposite. But I think in Elvis we find the point where those two concepts converge in a fairly singular way. He wasn’t a genius in the same rigorous, Mozartian sense that the term is generally used, but his power as a singer and a performer–which is partly but not entirely a function of charisma–achieved effects, both aesthetically and culturally, on a level that is typically the provenance of genius alone.
I guess to some extent singing exists in a category that is hard to reconcile with other forms of talent. Singers are often given short shrift, dismissed as the guys who hang around with musicians. And yet the voice is also the most fundamental instrument, and thus the one potentially most capable of achieving deep and uncanny emotional effect. There’s a scary sort of power that a truly great singer–particularly an unschooled one like Elvis–possesses that can’t really be bested by any degree of instrumental prowess or compositional genius. And that ultimately is why I think Elvis stands as the rightful and singular “kind of rock ‘n roll” over and above more broadly talented figures like Chuck Berry or Little Richard. Not that those guys couldn’t sing like hell too. And certainly Little Richard had his own sort of jaw-dropping charisma. But none quite compare to what Elvis was able to achieve in the most visceral, basic sense of musical connection.
It must be mentioned in passing, too, of course, that it is not only Elvis that makes these recordings so great and so important. His bandmates, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, are also owed a lot of the credit for coming up with the kind of driving, propulsive sound that helped define the compelling quality of rock ‘n roll, and which gave Elvis the best possible setting for his singular talents to unfold. And perhaps even more so, one must pay their respects to Sam Phillips’s remarkable production aesthetic–that shimmering, snappy reverb sound he applied to the music, focusing its inherent excitement into an eternally pleasurable, hauntingly resonant sound. While there’s a tendency to romanticize the simplicity and rawness of 1950s rock ‘n roll versus the more refined, artier rock of the 60s and beyond, Phillips provides a fine example of the ways in which a great deal of careful aesthetic decision making–real sonic artistry–already existed at the genre’s outset.
As I’ve said, the core tracks on this album–the ten songs that comprised the A and B sides of the five Elvis singles released and the handful of other great tracks that were later released by RCA on Elvis’s early albums–were all very familiar to me, so there weren’t any huge surprises in them. I was struck by how much better “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” is than I had remembered it. What with its hokey joke intro and all I always thought of it as one of the lesser tunes, but that’s far from true. The word “Baby” must surely be one of the most overly abused in the lexicon of rock ‘n roll, but listen to what Elvis does to it on this track–“don’t that old moon look lonesome when your ba-ay-ay-ay-by’s not around.” The nuance he squeezes out of that word is staggering.
I was reminded again how “Tryin’ to Get to You”–which is not one of the tracks released as a single–is perhaps my favorite of the bunch, or close to it. His version on the ’68 comeback special is that program’s highlight to me, as he rediscovers some of the fire of his youth in that song he loved so well, after too many years lost in the Hollywood wasteland. “Blue Moon” remains the most compellingly weird of the tunes, one of the most haunting and basically puzzling. “That’s Alright Mama” continues to crackle with the excitement of discovery that makes it one of the most important of all early rock n’ roll songs. The slap bass in “Baby Let’s Play House” gives Elvis himself a run for his money as that fine song’s most compelling element.
“Mystery Train,” I must confess, still doesn’t wow me quite as much as it’s supposed to. I guess I’ve always found its vaunted hauntingness to be more of an academic idea than a visceral reality for me. The imagery is vivid, and Scotty Moore’s propulsive rhythm unerringly trainlike. But the vocal, compared to some of the other tracks, has always felt a little too thickly laid on. But shhh, don’t tell anyone. It’s too important a track to criticize so blithely. I’m not saying it’s not great–just that I like some of the other tracks better in a way that many serious critics do not.
What I had never heard was a lot of the supplementary material this particular collection offers up–a treasure trove of alternate takes, rough early tracks and some live performances from around the same era. I often have limited patience for that sort of box-set exhaustiveness, and indeed, some of the stuff on here did drag on a bit. There was maybe one or two too many alternate takes of “You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone” to wade through. But to a surprising extent, a lot of it was really quite revelatory and interesting to hear. Some of the studio banter and the different approaches they tried on various songs drives home the human element of this music–a couple of guys in a studio, probably somewhat aware they were doing something special, but with no idea of the massive reverberations it would have. The earlier cut of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was especially cool to hear. It’s not nearly as frenetic as the familiar single version, and while it doesn’t lock into that transformative rock ‘n roll sound in quite the same way, it’s well on its way. I almost prefer it. At the conclusion, someone remarks “Wow, that’s really different–that’s like a pop song!”
I had my doubts about the live tracks going in, but I found that they rounded out the collection nicely, and provided a glimpse of the kind of excitement that Elvis was capable of generating as a live performer from the very beginning. There are also a couple of songs I’ve never heard him perform elsewhere, like Laverne Baker’s “Tweedle Dee Dee” and The Jewel’s “Hearts of Stone.” The latter in particular offers up a striking example of the constituent parts of early rock n’ roll, with this fairly deep cut r&b song being performed with a really frenetic pedal steel solo in the middle.
Many of the songs on this collection–which are helpfully front loaded on the first disc–are ones that I have listened to and loved since I was a kid, and I have no doubt that I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. This particular collection did a great job of fleshing out the broader context in which that hallowed, immutable music was made, bringing it back to its frail origins as the uncertain labor of mere mortals. Though you’d still be forgiven for mistaking Elvis for some kind of a god.
Source: CD. A friend recently gave me a nice vinyl set of the Complete Sun Sessions, and I reckon that’s the one I’ll listen to next time. But this particular collection, as far as I know, is CD only.
November 11, 2014
The day I was to listen to this album, I received in the mail the long anticipated, lavishly complied collection of the complete Basement Tapes of Bob Dylan and The Band. As my kids went down for their afternoon naps, I was eager to dig into the set, but knew I should get through this album first. (Duty calls…) So I imported the discs of that collection to my computer as I listened, and looked forward to the much better, more significant music to come once this album was done. Instead, just as this album’s penultimate track–a superfluous if harmonically accurate live cover of “Bye Bye Love”–concluded in the formidable roar of an appreciative crowd–I heard my older daughter screaming in agony in her room. I rushed to her, and found her on the floor, blood everywhere. In lieu of sleeping, she had climbed a piece of furniture (now removed) in her room, and had slipped, biting through her lower lip as she hit the ground. She’s healing up nicely, and I know that there’s no rational sense in which the incident was Paul Simon’s–let alone Art Garfunkel’s–fault. But now, instead of thinking of this album (if at all) as a good enough piece of amiable folk-rock product, I will forevermore associate it with my darling young girl lying bleeding in uncomprehending agony on the floor. Thanks a lot, Paul Simon. You monster.
No, no. It was–not a bad record. In general, my feelings toward Paul Simon have gone from mild annoyance to outright antipathy over the course of this project, so that I came to this album disinclined to approach it with a generous spirit. But even under those circumstances, I found it to be a more focused, evenhanded and listenable album than all the prior Simon & Garfunkel albums on the list, all of which were somewhat jarring in their disorderly sense of overreaching in various, disparate directions. Though remnants of that unfocused ambition lurked around the edges of this record, for the most part, it made comparatively good sense. That’s not to say I loved it, or will necessarily ever listen to it again, but it went down easily enough.
The title track kicks off the album, which seems slightly odd placement for such a heavy, maudlin piece of work, but I guess they figured they’d lead with the strongest material. It’s a song I have no particular relationship too. The first version I ever heard was by Jim Nabors, so I tend to think of it as a kind of corny, bathetic showpiece. But I know a lot of people feel very deeply about it–it wouldn’t be such a timeworn chestnut if they didn’t. I’ll concede that Art Garnfunkel’s vocal on it is quite pretty, though not quite pretty enough, for me, to override the sodden sentimentality of the song. Ultimately, I’m more or less neutral on the song, mostly by virtue of not having had to listen to it very much. I think if I had been alive during its period of maximum cultural saturation, I would likely despise it. As it is, though, I’m fine with it, although they lose me at the “sail on silver girl” part, where both the lyrics and the arrangement slip over into just the kind of poorly wrangled pretentiousness that weighs down so much of Simon & Garfunkel’s work.
Next comes “El Condor Pasa,” which I was oddly eager to hear, never having heard the original. I knew it from my youth as arguably the most bizarre track–which is saying something–on the Del Rubio Triplet’s album I had. My only other point of reference is that I once remarked to a friend that without fail, the Peruvian flute dudes in the subway always seemed to be playing “The Sound of Silence,” and he responded, “Really…not ‘El Condor Pasa’?” The song in itself was fine, I guess–just an another competently executed bit of cultural appropriation on Paul Simon’s part, not loathsome enough to get angry over, but without much clear purpose either. Although I just learned that he ripped off the melody from a Peruvian musician whose son unsuccessfully sued for royalties, so I guess it’s kind of loathsome after all! In any event, I still prefer The Del Rubio Triplet’s version.
Third was “Cecilia,” which is one of those familiar Paul Simon tunes that’s relatively hard to argue with. I actually like the arrangement a lot. A kind of poorly handled quasi-experimentalist production style has been the most jarring and unwelcome aspect of many of Simon & Garfunkel tracks, but this one actually works. Its junk wagon, found-sound percussion style is actually kind of cool, and elevates the song a bit from a merely pleasant melody. My only real concern is over this lyric:
Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia
Up in my bedroom
I got up to wash my face
When I come back to bed
Someone’s taken my place
Washing his…face? The most charitable interpretation is that Simon is slyly suggesting that he is an avid cunnilinguist. But I think what’s actually happening is that he’s getting up to wash some more relevant parts of his anatomy, and is just making a polite, kind of timid excuse, not just to his lover, but to the broader listening public. The whole thing thrusts the listener into the uncomfortable task of having to consider the specifics of Paul Simon’s post-coital ablutions, and if too heavy dwelt upon, it really drags the entire edifice of the song down. We’re not, I suspect, actually supposed to dwell on it that much. The justification I’m sure would be that it’s just a tossed off line, an employment of a simple rhythm–face and place–to economically describe a scene. And yet I can’t let Simon off that easily. He has so clearly spent his entire career campaigning to be considered a genius that this kind of sloppiness ought not be allowed to stand. I recently came across that description of genius as “an infinite capacity for taking pains.” I think there’s some ineffable, possibly innate quality–which Paul Simon is also lacking– besides that that would round out a more comprehensive understanding of what constitutes genius. But if he can’t even make the effort to avoid such jarring clumsiness, on what grounds does his implicit claim possibly rest? Would it really have been that hard to spend a bit more time coming up with a more elegant way to depict the titular character’s faithlessness? Or, maybe by “making love” he really did mean “going down on,” in which case, good on him, I guess.
The rest of side one was rounded out by a pair of kind of cheeky, aren’t I clever type songs, “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” and “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.” Historically, these kinds of cutesy, not actually funny songs of Paul Simon’s are even harder for me to swallow than his more preciously self-serious stuff, much in the same way that it’s easier to nod solemnly at awful poetry than it is to fake a laugh at something that is supposed to be funny but really isn’t. The strawberry feeling stakes are that much higher. But that aside, I guess these songs were okay. The latter was at least kind of pretty.
Side two opens with the album’s other big song, “The Boxer.” It’s one I’ve always professed to like, except immediately after actually hearing it. My dislike for Paul Simon is grounded in an acknowledgement that he wrote a bunch of pretty good songs, and had a gift for a pleasing melody, and I generally chalk this up as one of those pretty good, melodically satisfying songs. But maybe I’m of thinking of someone else’s version. Bob Dylan famously, inscrutably covered it on his widely-loathed Self Portrait album, but I don’t think that’s the version I’m thinking of. Maybe just a busker or someone at camp once sang it. But the version on this album is kind of terrible. Once again, Paul Simon can’t help but fancy himself a creative genius producer, and so adds a wheezy bass harmonica and lots of overbearing percussion to the mix, as though he’s trying to be Brian Wilson on top of trying to be Bob Dylan. Then there’s that kind of clunky line–again, redolent of a kind of unbecoming timidity about “taking [his] comfort” from the “whores on Seventh Avenue.” (Critic Dave Marsh chimed in, “wonder if he fucked ‘em?”) So I never feel very good about this song after actually listening to it, although it eventually resets itself in my mind as a good enough little tune. It mostly makes me think of the opening scene of Intolerable Cruelty, as a vulgar, pony tailed Geoffrey Rush speeds around Beverly Hills in his convertible singing along with “I am just a poor boy but my story’s seldom told…”
The rest of the second side failed to make much of an impression on me, whether for good or bad. I suppose my attention drifted. I gathered that the one I was supposed to take seriously was “The Only Living Boy in New York,” but it didn’t wind up engaging me on this listening, which I suspect was probably for the best. Then, as I said, I was thrust into a traumatic situation just before the record ended. My wife, who is a doctor, wanted me to bring our daughter down to her office to make sure she didn’t need stitches (she didn’t), so I had to ask a relative to watch the younger one, and find a cab willing to drive me and my crying, bleeding daughter the length of Manhattan island at rush hour. Many hours later upon returning home, I dutifully played the album’s slight final track, “Song for the Asking,” and actually found it rather pretty and soothing after the afternoon’s tumult. So I guess the album redeemed itself a little by the end.
Source: LP. Looks like a copy from the 80s.
I’ve listened to this album many times over the space of a couple of decades (almost), but I think I enjoyed it this time more than I ever have before. Perhaps “enjoy” is the wrong word, but I, uh, dug it in a way that I have not ever quite managed to previously. It is without question the most difficult of Sly Stone’s important albums–a sludgy, druggy, disordered sounding collection of songs that feels about a million miles away from the uplifting, conciliatory pop soul he and his group had been making up to this point. It is a brutally honest accounting of where Sly was at as an artist and a person, and the dire state of things in America–and especially black America–as the dream of the 60s gave way to the depressing realities of the early 70s. The optimism he managed to summon on his earlier records is gone, the tone drifting instead between grim sonic commentary on the state of the world and the messy escapism of persistent heavy drug use. Some years later at the start of their recording career, the band Devo defined their music as “the sound of things falling apart.” Though the musical style and cultural context here is quite different, that would be an apt description of this album as well.
Much of the album’s perceived critical importance is sociological in nature–the ways in which it eschewed Sly Stone’s hopeful vision of racial unity and peace through funky music on albums such as Stand! in favor of a more forthright acknowledgement of how resolutely fucked up everything was. And certainly that feeling is clearly evident in listening to this record. But part of what’s amazing is how effectively this message is communicated in a largely nonverbal way. With the exception of the album title and cover art, there is very little explicitly political content on the album. Most of the lyrics range between the druggy and the incomprehensible, with an inevitable amount of overlap between the two. Even “Family Affair,” the album’s single and one of its most cogent songs, resists a politically meaningful interpretation. When asked if the song was a metaphor for the instability of his group and the pressures he faced from inside and outside it–including from The Black Panthers, who made an effort to steer Sly’s thinking in a more militant direction–Sly snapped back “song’s not about that. Song’s about a family affair, whether it’s a result of genetic processes or a situation in the environment.” It’s really only near the album’s end, on the tracks “Runnin’ Away” and “Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa,” that the lyrics start to reflect more explicitly the darkness expressed elsewhere on the album purely by its foreboding, messy sound.
Historically, it has not been the darkness of the record that has left me slightly nonplussed so much as it is the sloppy, intoxicated feeling of the music. Sly’s genius for tight, inventive rhythms and tasteful, funky orchestration, so evident on both his earlier records and on 1973’s Fresh, is forsaken in favor of something much more unhinged and irreducibly fucked up sounding. I generally think of Sly’s drugs of choice as tending toward uppers (“I switched from coke to pep and I’m a connoisseur,”) but this album has a distinctively narcotic feel to it–a nodding, nauseous, enervated quality. And indeed, the first lyrics sung on the record, “feel so good inside myself, don’t need to move” corroborate that feeling of opioid inertia. The feeling is intensified by how basically shitty the record sounds from the standpoint of conventional sound quality. There’s a murky, hissy sound to it, the result of Sly straining the tape to its breaking point with excessive rerecording.
And yet this time around, those qualities came together into something I actually really liked listening to. In part, it was the simple pleasure of reacquainting myself with this music, which despite my ambivalence got a good amount of play in my early 20s, and, with the exception of a few tracks that made it on to my iPod, has been far less of a staple of more recent years. I think hearing it on vinyl too made a big difference–something I will dwell on further in the source notes. But beyond these contextual trappings, I simply found myself poised to better enjoy the music than I have before. Although it is far sloppier than his other albums, Sly’s genius percolates through the muck every bit as convincingly as on his more cogent efforts–perhaps even more so, since he is the only musician to appear on much of the record. It is unhinged, and badly distorted by whatever pharmacological cocktail he was on, but his insistent, blazing musicality shines through nonetheless. I was especially struck by his bass playing–the way in which it functions not only as the anchor of each track, but how it almost leads everything, communicating his deep, seemingly endless sense of groove, the clearest imprimatur of his musical personality.
As an effective solo effort, it belongs in the company of other works of studio wizardry in the R&B field by artists like Stevie Wonder, Shuggie Otis and Prince. And yet because it so evidently the product of an addled mind, it also shares something of the quality of Skip Spence’s Oar or some of the sweet, meandering fragments Brian Wilson came up with in the years following his mental breakdown and the abandonment of his would-be masterpiece Smile. And yet for all that, it also hangs together reasonably well–better than I had recalled. A surprising number of the songs on here–a majority, really–actually function pretty well as songs. Though rendered in a disorderly, deeply idiosyncratic fashion, many of them have the same kind of satisfying hooks and winning pop sensibility that predominate on his more focused efforts. “Runnin’ Away,” in particular has a tight, almost cheerful sound to it that provocatively belies its brutal lyric.
In the years since I made this album a more regular part of my musical diet, I have developed a bit of a chip on my shoulder about it. I’ve harbored a suspicion that its high critical standing has less to do with the actual music on it than its uncompromising honesty in reflecting ugly social realities–that it is a darling of the sociological minded more than true music lovers. I’ve taken exception in particular to the high praise heaped upon the closing track, “Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa,” the most unwieldy thing on the record, as though the virtues of dark, sloppy strangeness on the record are most laudable at their most extreme. But in this listening, a lot of those conceptions fell decisively away. I even liked the almost torturesome, slow burning cynicism of the closing track more than I might have imagined I would. Although its striking difference from what came before (and after) is part of the fascination this record exerts, I think it best not to dwell on that difference too much in the listening. There is nothing on here that can rival the radiant, soul-pop mastery of “Everyday People” or “Everybody is a Star,” nor the maniacally brilliant rhythmic schemes of “In Time” or “Frisky.” But taken as a discrete entity, it is a fascinating portrait of an artist in an extreme state–one that, just as importantly, still manages to groove like hell.
Source: LP. This was the first time I’d ever heard it on vinyl, and it made all the difference in the world. Most of my listenings were on the old, original CD, made back before digital mastering had really come into its own. Even the more recent copies I’ve heard have been unsatisfying. I recently bought a high resolution digital copy, and the sample track or two I listened to felt all wrong–it was so clear sounding that it wound up obscuring the feeling of the album. My fondness for vinyl is generally a function of perceived superiority of sound quality, but in this case, the limitations of the source material–the murky quality of the recording–felt more at home in the naturalistic, open spaces of an analog format. This album was among those radically improved by hearing it on vinyl that I’ve encountered, but for reasons not quite consistent with my usual fondness for the medium.
A decade or so ago, I was watching a documentary about the making of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (the #2 album on this list). In discussing his masterpiece, Brian Wilson, in his endearingly slurry, post-medicated (?) way of speaking, said something like “Yeah, it’s a pretty good record. A lot of people think it’s the best record of all time…Phil Spector’s Christmas record is my favorite, but a lot of people like this one.” I think I laughed out loud. I had never heard of this record, knew nothing of its import or awesomeness, and just thought it was a delightfully eccentric choice for someone’s–let alone a bona fide genius’s–favorite record. I’ve since gotten to know Phil Spector’s music, this album included, quite a bit better, and see now the very direct line of influence his sound had on Wilson’s own production style. That he would pick this album, with its seasonally appropriate feeling of uplift, seems to fit with Wilson’s almost religious conviction about the healing power of music.
It also, of course, turns out to be a really great album–probably the finest album Spector ever made, since his gifts generally tended more toward the art of the single. The sound is consistent with those singles–the fabled “wall of sound” is in full effect–but studded with sleigh bells and other seasonally appropriate effects that lend it a cheerful air. The album was a failure upon its release, in part because it came out the same day that Kennedy was killed, but its influence has become clearer over time. It seemed to usher in a more modern, urban (even urbane) sense of Christmas music, and, indeed, Christmas spirit. The song selection is overwhelmingly secular, and veers almost toward novelty in places. “White Christmas,” which opens the album, is about as reverent as the album gets. “Silent Night” closes the album, sort of, but its lovely harmonies are overshadowed by an address from Spector himself to his public–a misplaced little bit of self-promotion that would sound creepy even abstracted from the cavalcade of Spector’s personal strangeness that would eventually come to light.
In between is a delightful mix of mostly light, festive numbers that evoke the exhilarating splendor of Christmastime in the city, sung by various of Spector’s core artists. Whenever I hear the famous “ring a ling a ling a ding dong ding” refrain of The Ronette’s “Sleigh Ride” I always imagine an impossibly steep escalator, crawling up through a massive urban department store decked out for the holidays. It must be from a movie. The music is great, and the feeling is uplifting, in the way that the lights and sparkle and general atmosphere of good cheer amidst the carnival of commerce truly can be.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t remind me much of the Christmas of my youth, and, much as I enjoy the album, it doesn’t really resonate with my deep down wishes for what Christmas music should be. Though I live in New York, I’m a New Englander at heart. My two favorite Christmas songs are “O Holy Night” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” songs that aren’t represented on this album, and even if they were, they would be jazzed up beyond meaningful recognition. There is simply nothing on the album that captures either the spiritual (as opposed to secular) uplift of the former or the melancholic undercurrent of the latter. I like “In the Bleak Midwinter” too, which has both those things. That general range of tone is pretty absent from this record.
Though I’m not a religious man, neither am I a big shopper. And while I don’t think shopping is what this album is really about, its version of seasonal uplift is inextricably allied with that sense of what Christmas means. It’s not, in any event, a record all that consistent with the spirit of reflection and something like spiritual reverence I like to feel (or try to feel) around the holidays. It puts me in a tricky spot–this album isn’t really appropriate for year round consumption, and yet neither is it actually a record I get all that much out of listening to in the month of December. I usually play it once or twice, but retreat to mellower fare thereafter. This past Christmas, I essentially broke my rule about not listening to these albums before there time, although I skipped “Silent Night” so as to slide by on a technicality. I feel as though I might have pushed harder in my project to get this album to line up with the holidays, but as it happened, I got to it on St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday to which I feel no connection at all.
One song on the album, at any rate, exists outside all of these considerations for me, which is “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the album’s best song, and I believe the only one written specifically for it. I’m not sure it puts me overwhelmingly in a Christmassy mood either, but it sure as hell is a great, soulful R&B song–one of the strongest performances from Darlene Love, the most talented artist in Spector’s stable. I think it’s among Spector’s very best tracks. It’s one I could easily enjoy at any time of year, and yet, although the core sentiment (baby please come home) is more broadly applicable, it’s nice to have it reserved for Christmas. It taps into the powerful sentiment of unfulfilled longing that underlies so much of the Christmas feeling. It’s not unlike “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in that way. And while that song’s comparative peacefulness feels more like Christmas to me, Love’s performance (and Spector’s production) make this a very special track–one worth either listening to year round, or else expanding my view of what constitutes ideal Christmas music to incorporate. One way or another, it’s a song that needs to be heard more than just once a year. Merry Christmas, everybody. Oh, wait…
Source: HD Tracks (96 kHz, 24 bit)