Monthly Archives: August 2010

“Highway 61 Revisited” Turns 45

Cover of "Highway 61 Revisited"

Cover of Highway 61 Revisited

(Weekly song selection will continue tomorrow.)

Today (August 30th) marks the 45th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Being only 28, it’s impossible for me to imagine the impact that it had on music and popular culture at the time of its release.  But Highway 61 seems to exist on its own time-line.  It is at once the product of its times, and also timeless.  “Like a Rolling Stone” is the tipping point where rock came into its own existence. Almost every single artist at the time became influenced by the 6 minute single.  But no one could better it, because “Like a Rolling Stone” changes every time you listen to it.  Each time the put downs get far worse, and Dylan’s sneer gets more demonic.  “How does it feel? is both sympathetic and damning.

And even if that was all that Dylan recorded for “Highway 61” he would have left a mark on popular music.  If were left wondering about “Napoleon in rags and the language that he used” at the end of “Like a Rolling Stone”, Dylan had an entire albums worth of Biblical, historical, and literary figures doing all sorts of bizarre things.  Every single song on Highway 61 is a masterpiece because every single song contained multiple layers – “Highway 61 Revisited” could either be the most hilarious song Dylan ever recorded with lyrics about Louis the King having “too many red white and blues shoe strings and a thousand telephones that don’t ring” or the most perverse depending on how you read into the lyrics about the second mother being with the 7th son.

And of course, Dylan was always quick to dismiss his critics before they even could even take a shot at them.  “Ballad of a Thin” goes beyond a fuck off.  Dylan embarrasses his victim (a would-be journalist according to legend) by having him ridiculed by freaks – the lowest form of society.  And freaks are also the center-piece of “Desolation Row”, the 11 minute track that closes the album.  Everyone from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, to Robin Hood, and even Ophelia are stuck on Desolation Row – a place where all of these “lame” people are damned to, and cannot escape.  Dylan himself is there at the end of the song – it’s unsure whether he was put there or not – but it’s as if he was saying that he aligned himself with these literary characters.

I’ve often said that I am blown away by both Highway 61 and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. While The White Album or Abbey Road might be better albums – though not by much – Astral Weeks and Highway 61 Revisited were created by one man.



1965 Songs: “Play With Fire”

“Play With Fire:” is a under-rated and forgotten gem in the Rolling Stones’ vast catalogue.  Its sparse production, simple acoustic arrangement, and Mick Jagger’s haunting vocals easily distinguish it from the rest of the songs that the Stones were putting out in the early 60’s.  But the lyrics are of course, all Jagger who warns his target: “don’t play with me, cuz you’ll play with fire.”  It doesn’t matter anymore if Jagger could go his satisfaction, he’s going off the rails against girls with diamonds and bows who get chauffeured around.  One has to wonder if Jagger is calling out girls who tried to think they were cool by being part of the underground movement, but were really just stuck.

Although the song is credited to Nanker Phelge, the bands’ pseudonym for when all members of the band received writing credits instead of Jagger/Richards, they are in fact the only two songs that appear on the track.  Phil Spector handled bass, and Jack Nietzsche played the signature harpsichord part.

“Play with Fire” was used in the 2007 movie “The Darjeeling Limited”, which I how I first it.  (Terrible I know, considering that the Stones are among my favorite groups.)  Lil Wayne was also sued by the Rolling Stones for using portions of the song without permission.  What’s interesting about the lawsuit was the Stone’s Abkco’s reaction:

Abkco also said that Lil Wayne’s version uses “explicit, sexist and offensive language” and could lead the public to believe the company and the Rolling Stones approved of and authorized the new version.

“Play With Fire”

1965 Songs: King of the Road

Short post.  Until I looked up songs from 1965, I had no idea this song was actually from 1965.  I really thought it was from the late ’50s.  Shows you what I know.  When I was younger, I also found it hard to believe that the Rooster in Disney’s Robin Hood, was also the same guy who sang “King of the Road”.  “Not in Nottingham” ranks up there with “King of the Road” as far as I’m concerned.

King of the Road:

R.E.M.’s hilarious and beer-fueled cover of “King of the Road:

1965 Songs: “Gloria”

(Before you read this, I’m aware that I might technically be cheating as “Gloria” was recorded in 1964, and released as the B-side of “Baby Please Don’t Go“.  However, it gained popularity when it rereleased in 1965 as an A-side, thus making it  a song of 1965.)

“Satisfaction” and “You Really Got Me”, “Louie, Louie” be damned, “Gloria” is the ultimate garage anthem.  The song is propelled by a distinctive three-chord riff that accentuates the ode to sex and lust.  Throughout the first verse, most of the tension is built upon Morrison’s growling Howlin’ Wolf imitation.

In “Gloria” isn’t just telling you that he got laid, but rather is sticking it to you about how good it was.  “Like to tell you about my baby,” he declares at the beginning of the song, as if you actually asked.  “She make me feel so good, she make me feel alright,” is the kind of line where you tell the person to shut – that they’ve given away too much information.  Who wants to hear the details of sex?  When Morrison first spells out Gloria’s name – it seems like a kind of joke.  But when he blows through it the second time – there’s a menace and lust.  It’s as if by shouting her name, he’s taken possession of her.  By publicly declaring her name in the streets, she is his.  Later she appears at his door – and she makes him feel alright again.

Them: “Gloria”

Van Morrison Performing “Gloria”:

“Gloria” has been covered many artists, and it has become a concert staple for many groups because of its sing-a-long chorus.  Patti Smith completely rearranged the song – transforming it into a punk anthem. U2 frequently performed ‘”Gloria” (not to be confused with their own completely different song “Gloria”) at the tail end of their song “Exit” during the Joshua Tree tour.

And then of course there’s Bruce Springsteen cover “Gloria” with the best-bar in the world:

1965 Songs: Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

I first heard this song when I was about 8, and was confused by the title and the final line.  Where the hell did that bird come from?  He never mentioned it before! Having an English mother, I really should have known that “bird” was slang for a girl.  Even if I had known that “bird” meant girl, I wouldn’t have gotten the subject matter.  Lennon covering up his extra-marital affairs with a pretty melody isn’t exactly kid’s stuff.

“Norwegian Wood” is one of the Beatles’ most famous and revered song and for good reason.  Even 45 years later, it still doesn’t sound like a pop-song.  It doesn’t contain a chorus, and its main melody comes from a very un-rock instrument at the time: the sitar.  The lyrics describe Lennon’s encounter with a girl one evening, and the inevitable aftermath.  Everything starts off well (“we talked until 2”) until the woman decides that it is time to go to bed.  Lennon’s delivery of the line “she told me she  worked in the morning and started to laugh” makes his would-be lover sound sinister, and almost devil-ish.  It’s unclear where his reply(“I told her I didn’t”) was meant as another come-on or a snide retort.  Either way, he climbs into the bathroom and falls asleep by himself.

The last line on the song has been one of the most debated in Beatles (and perhaps rock itself).  Does he burn the house down in revenge?  Or does wake up, feeling like shit over what just happened and light himself a joint?  Are both interpretations correct?  Paul McCartney himself had this to say about the song:

Peter Asher [brother of McCartney’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher] had his room done out in wood, a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It waspine, really, cheap pine. But it’s not as good a title, “Cheap Pine”, baby. So it was a little parody really on those kind of girls who when you’d go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood. It was completely imaginary from my point of view but in John’s it was based on an affair he had. This wasn’t the decor of someone’s house, we made that up. So she makes him sleep in the bath and then finally in the last verse I had this idea to set the Norwegian wood on fire as revenge, so we did it very tongue in cheek. She led him on, then said, “You’d better sleep in the bath.” In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge … so it meant I burned the fucking place down ….[1]

Norwegian Wood:

This Week’s Theme: Songs From 1965

I’ve been digging the new season on Mad Men lately, and since this season takes place in 1964, I thought it would be fun to devote this week’s list of songs to 1965.  I don’t see Don Draper drinking himself to sleep while listening to Dylan or the Beatles, depending on your viewpoint “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” may or may not be his personal motto.

Clash Week, Friday: “The Call-Up”

The Clash followed up the magnificent London Calling with one of rock’s most interesting and frustrating albums –Sandinista! A triple disc, 36 song set Sandinista! found the Clash taking the multi-genre experimentation they explored on London Calling and taking it to its (often illogical extreme).  It’s been called the punk-rock White Album due to the few numbers of great songs piled in between loads of filler.  I’m not quite sure I’d agree with that – I’ve grown to like The White Album more in recent years, and Sandinista! just seems misguided, and egotistical to me.   The one thing I really do like about the album overall though is the production.

That being said – there are shades of brilliance, and “The Call-Up” is the best example of that and ranks among the Clash’s best work.  Musically, “The Call -Up” is one of the Clash’s better reggae/dance experiments.  It’s almost danceable, and its laid back and dreamy groove almost entirely glosses over the bitterness in the lyrics.  It’s a rallying cry for blind-patriotism that often sends young kids to their death  “You must not act the way you brought up,” Joe Strummer sings softly, almost with a hint of sympathy. Later he laments,  “All the young people down the ages/they gladly marched off to die/Proud city fathers used to watch them/Tears in their eyes.”  Sometimes The Clash could be too specific in their attack, but lines like these transcend time, and still applicable almost 30 years later.

I’ve got to admit that “The Call-Up” didn’t even really register on my list of songs from Sandinista! until I saw the Pogues a few years ago.  The connection between the Pogues and The Clash is no secret.  Shane MacGowan is known to have attended their shows in the late ’70s, and Joe Strummer took over the singer’s duties when he was forced out of the band.  Before the show started, the PA blasted “The Call-Up” and I realized how powerful of a song it was.  It’s dark groove proved a perfect introduction for the Pogues – fun sounding songs with serious lyrics.  As John Lennon once said, “Imagine was an anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.”

The Call-Up:

Clash Week, Thursday: “London Calling”

The Clash have two of the best opening songs on an album: the aforementioned “Safe European Home”, and the title track off their third LP, London Calling. Its famous guitar line charges along and seers through the speakers.  For a band known for anthems of defiance, “London Calling” is a true call to arms.  “London Calling” is a punk rock version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.  Joe Strummer spits out the venomous lyrics, and lays waste to what he sees an injustice society.

I’ve often thought of “London Calling” as the last manifesto of a radio DJ.  He knows the world is falling apart, and he’s going to air it all out – if the Thames floods all of London will be fucked, nuclear disaster is imminent and  -“London Calling to the faraway town,” is the sign-on.  In fact the phrase “London Calling” was used during radio broadcasts during World War II – further identifying the song with the apocalypse.

As if the song weren’t gruesome enough, the middle-section contains a breakdown where Strummer lets out his inner-beast with a series of wolf-like howls.  It’s hard to guess whether Strummer made it up on the spot, but the song wouldn’t be the same without it.  (In fact, he repeats the howls again just before the final verse.)  The songs ends rather suddenly, just as Topper Headon swings into a drum-roll, over which Strumme half finishes a lyric: “I never felt so much a-like…” In the background there’s an echoing of morse-code – the DJ’s final cry for help.

The first time I heard “London Calling” was on a mix-tape that my sister made for my mother back when I was a teenager.  It’s thrashing chords felt out of place on a tape that was filled with songs from the Waterboys, U2, Van Morrison, and the Chieftans.  I’m not exactly sure why it was on there, but it quickly grew to be my favorite song off that tape.  It would be years before I fully got into The Clash and understood the importance of “London Calling”, but even as an early teen it struck a chord with me.

“London Calling” has frequently been cited as not only one of The Clash’s best songs, but one of rock’s best as well.  Rolling Stone named it #15 on their 500 greatest songs of rock and roll.  (London Calling the album was also named #7 on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)  It also one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.

Videos galore, dear readers!

Studio Version of “London Calling”:

The Clash performing “London Calling” Live:

Joe Strummer & The Pogues:

And finally, Bruce Springsteen putting his own spin on “London Calling”:

Clash Week, Wednesday: “Safe European Home”

“Safe European Home” is without a doubt the best song off The Clash’s second LP “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”.  Even if the rest the album were good (which it’s not) it would be hard to follow “Safe European Home”.   It’s a bit more polished than the songs off The Clash, but it’s harder hitting.  Topper Headon’s opening drums commands you to listen – and if you’re not Mick Jones’ power chords will pull you in.  By the time you’re hooked, Joe Strummer is back from the place he never wants to go again, but ready to relay the story back to you.

The story goes that Joe Strummer and Mick Jones took a trip to Jamaica, and felt out so out of place that they came home and wrote “Safe European Home” is response.  “I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” Strummer laments in the chorus.  “And sitting here in my safe European home, I don’t want to go back there, again.”  The Clash have sometimes been described as naive in some instances, and this is one instance where I can say that critics might have actually have a point.  Bob Marley was shot a year or two before Strummer and Jones arrived in Jamaica (depending on the time-frame) for trying to ease political tensions at a free concert.  Did Strummer and Jones expect to be welcome with open arms because they talked about world issues and played reggae music?

But Strummer and Jones’ misfortune made for great music.  Like John Lennon who turned his marital issues into the great (and perhaps under-rated) “Ballad of John and Yoko”, Strummer’s first person account in song was at times self-deprecating.  Strummer spits out each line with venom and Mick Jones calls back, “Where’d you go?” after each line.  It’s as if he can’t believe that Strummer actually went.  His calls demand Strummer to finish the story.    Strummer ends his tale stating, “I’d stay and be a tourist, but I can’t take the gun-play.”

The break-down in the second half of the song sounds like an escape.  Jones strums his guitar in a repeating crunch.  Strummer starts mumbling and scatting about “rudie can’t fail” (a theme that would be explored later on “Rudie Can’t Fail”) as the band tries to regain itself.  Topper Headon brings tension, by creating some of the best drum rolls ever put to record.  But ultimately, Strummer (as one most Clash songs) steals the show through his combination of Springsteen-sincerity, Dylan-esque sneer, and Lennon self-deprication showcased in this song.

Safe European Home: