Tag Archives: The Who

Song(s) of the Day: Desert Trip Edition

There have been plenty of jokes about Desert Trip being called “Oldchella”. And while all the acts are certainly older, let’s not forget that they are rock royalty and all of them in some way or another have contributed to some of the greatest albums and songs ever made. So, today’s Song of the Day is a six-pack of awesomeness in honor of Desert Trip.

“I’ve Just Seen a Face” – The Beatles 

I’m not particularly fond of McCartney’s solo works, so I’m cheating a bit here and going with The Beatles. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is probably one of my favorite Beatles’ songs and in my opinion it’s severely under-rated. It’s got one of McCartney’s best melodies and chord progressions.

“One of These Days” – Pink Floyd

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note I wrote about this song several months ago. “One of These Days” is Pink Floyd at their best: dark, mysterious and menacing all at once. As with most classic Floyd, David Gilmour conjures up some wild sounds with his guitar, but the real highlight is the double-tracked bass played both Gilmour and Roger Waters.

“Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” – Neil Young

For me, Neil Young is the weakest link in Desert Trip’s line up. He’s an old curmudgeon like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison but without the catalogue to really back it up. That said, he does have some great songs and the country-rock of  “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” would have been the best song he ever wrote, if he hadn’t recorded “Rocking in the Free World”.

“Long Live Rock” – The Who

One of the things that a lot of people often forget about The Who’s music is that they actually have a lot of funny songs. That side of them went to the wayside, when Pete Townshend decided to write “important” musical pieces. “Long Live Rock” is one of the few examples where The Who marry the muscular rock they forged in the ’70s, with the witticism of their early days. Best line: “We were the first band to vomit in the bar.”

“19th Nervous Breakdown” – The Rolling Stones

One of Keith Richards’ classic riffs – and lord know he’s got a shitload of them. But there’s something about the intro that just pulls you in and pummels you over the head. And Jagger is at his frantic best, barely able to keep up with Richards and Charlie Watts’ steady drumming. “19th Nervous Breakdown” is also somewhat famous for inspiring Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to pick up the guitar and for that we should all be thankful.

“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” – Bob Dylan

I get chills every time I listen to this song. On this monumental track, Dylan takes on society as a whole and takes down everyone within earshot. The most disturbing part about it, is that it seems to grow more pertinent with each passing year. There are tons of memorable lines, but for me the best is, “it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.”

 

The Genius and Contradiction of Pete Townshend

 

(Today is Pete Townshend’s 69th birthday.)

As a teenager, The Who was my favorite band. Their explosive combination with introspective lyrics fit the bill for a confused teenager trying to make his way through the world. At their best, they were an intellectual band that played with fury. They could expand your mind and capture your all frustrations with an un-matched aggression.

As the leader of The Who, Pete Townshend quickly became one of my heroes. But to be a fan of Pete Townshend you have to accept certain things about him. For every brilliant move he’s made, there’s always been a frustrating one around the corner.  His failed rock-opera Lifehouse was designed in part to bring The Who’s audience and the band together in some sort of rock and roll nirvana.  But at the same time, he could just easily curse out the same audience for not living up to his own expectations.  (One such tirade is captured on The Who’s 4-disc boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R&B.)  He’s also an extremely spiritual guy, who succumbed to both alcohol and drug addiction.

Unlike Bob Dylan (who is very guarded in his brilliant memoir Chronicles Vol. 1) and Keith Richards (who is very nonchalant about his addictions in Life), Townshend lays out his contradictions in Who I Am.  He’s very candid about the abuse that happened while he stayed with his grandmother as a kid and the addictions that nearly took his life in the early 80s.  But then he’ll come off as completely arrogant when talking about Lifehouse (even though it’s a failure) because he’s convinced that the audience was too stupid to understand it.

It would be easy to think of Townshend as a class-A jerk. He can certainly be that. When I first started to like The Who and discovered more about him, I became disappointed that he wasn’t quite who I thought he was. Sometimes I was pissed at him for dismissing his audience’s intelligence in interviews. Other times I hated him for being too ambitious. At first, I despised Quadrophenia because it wasn’t as simple as some of The Who’s early singles. I wanted the angst without the pretentiousness that filled most of Quadrophenia.  

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Townshend was exposing my own contradictions through the music of The Who. I wanted The Who (and him) to exist within a certain context that existed within my own mind.  I began to see many of the contradictions in my own life as result. I could be smart and intelligent, but also had a huge lazy streak that kept me from achieving certain things that I wanted.

When I read Who I Am, I gained a new appreciation for Townshend. He’s never been some guy who has rested on his laurels. But unlike some other rock and roll artists where it can be hard to sympathize with them, I did with Townshend.  But not because he’s had tremendous lows.  Being completely open, his memoir made him all the more human and relatable. Even after all that he’s achieved; he’s just trying to figure it out just like the rest of us.

Albums By Artist I Love, But Have No Interest In

To love a particular artist, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should consider that their entire catalogue is amazing.  Even the greatest artists have terrible albums or ones that just don’t move you.  Some of these listed are albums that are known to be terrible, others are just ones that have never quite caught my attention for whatever reason and have decided that they are not worth my time.

Elvis Costello – Armed Forces

 

I know that this supposed to be a classic Costello album, but there’s just something about it that I can’t quite get a grasp on. Maybe it’s the cold production that turns me off.  To me, the album seems stuck between the energy and anger of This Year’s Model and the go-for-broke eclecticism of Get Happy!!   It does however, contain one of the greatest opening lines in album – “Oh I just don’t know where to begin”.  I’m inclined to agree with you about Armed Forces on that one, Mr. Costello.

 

R.E.M. – Reveal

Yes, everyone knows that Around the Sun is a piece of shit.  Even the band, specifically Peter Buck.  But Reveal is also pretty terrible too. I understand where R.E.M. was trying to do, which was to make a Beach Boys-style pop record. But the songs don’t go anywhere and the harmonies aren’t quite up there with the best of the Beach Boys imitations. Ironically, they were better at this type of stuff when Bill Berry was still in the band and they weren’t trying to make a Beach Boys style album.  Up may have its faults, but at least it was interesting.

 

Outkast – Idlewild

Outkast are geniuses.  They’ve given the musical world so many great albums.  But Idlewild is not one of them.  From their beginnings right up through Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, their ability to mash styles and still be under the umbrella of hip-hop was a thing of beauty.  But Idlewild falls flat under its own ambitions: a hip-hop album with ’30s musical stylings.  Too often throughout the album, the listener is left wondering what the hell is going on rather than having their minds blown.  Outkast wisely disappeared after this album’s release ensuring that everyone remembered why they were great in the first place.

 

Bob Dylan – The Entire Christian Era

In the past few years, it seems there’s been a bit of revisionist history concerning Dylan’s ’80s albums. The consensus seems to be that they’re not that bad and that there are some good songs throughout the ’80s.  Hey, I admit to liking Empire Burlesque and Infidels and even Knocked Out Loaded has its merits (that being “Brownsville Girl” of course.)  But as far as the born-again era?  Dylan was the epitome of the counter-culture in the ’60s so who really wants to hear him singing about finding God and how those who sinned will be eternally damned?  Imagine if the Rolling Stones decided to have an album full of songs about the joys of domestic life or Rage Against the Machine put out an album that wasn’t political.  It’s the same thing.

 

U2 – No Line on the Horizon

The 360 Tour was great. U2 are always great as a live band.  But No Line on the Horizon is even worse than the misguided electro-tinged Pop.  With Horizon, U2 put out an album that wanted to please fans of their experimental side and fans of their soaring anthems.  A nice attempt that ultimately goes nowhere. “Get on Your Boots” is their most embarrassing song while “Magnificent” is half-baked re-write of “Beautiful Day”.  Say what you want about U2 but even at their worst, they’re never boring – except for this album.

Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak

 

Every once in a while, I think I should give this album another chance. And then I listen to it and I just can’t do it. West seems to think it’s a bit ahead of its time, and maybe that’s true. I tend to think it was ahead of its time even for him. The desolate and cold atmosphere was better served on last year’s Yeezus.  808s & Heartbreak finds West at a crossroad: an artist conflicted with his own image and where he aspires to be. It’s not exactly a terrible album, but it’s the only time I’ve ever been disappointed in a Kanye West release.

 

Pearl Jam – Riot Act

Pearl Jam’s 2003 Tour found the band hitting a stride. Musically they were at the top of their game, and Eddie Vedder gave some of his most passionate performances due to the beginnings of the War in Iraq.  Too bad Riot Act (the album they toured behind) is pretty much the worst of their releases.  Riot Act is the exact opposite of that tour: tired and bland.  There’s nothing majestic like “Nothing As It Seems” from 2000’s Binaural or glorious as “In Hiding” and “Given to Fly” from Yield.  The one sole rocker “Save You” sounds forced and its excessive use of expletives is downright embarrassing.

 

The Who – The Who By Numbers

For the sake of the argument let’s forget that Face Dances and It’s Hard never happened.  After the sprawling and epic Quadrophenia, The Who returned with the lackluster The Who By Numbers.  Almost all of The Who’s trademarks are gone: chaotic drums from KeithMoon, powerful vocals from Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend’s crunching power chords. Townshend wrote the album in the midst of a life crisis but unlike his solo album 1980’s Empty Glass, his anguish left him uninspired.

 

The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan

After the brilliant Elephant, The White Stripes released this mess. Get Behind Me Satan is what happens when an artist starts believing their own hype and then completely abandons the things that fans love about them. The album is unfocused and meandering.  The saving grace is “My Doorbell” but even that with its repetitive hook can get annoying after a while.

Album of the Week: “Live at Leeds” – The Who

 

07_70_live_at_leeds

 

(This post refers to the re-mastered 1995 edition.) 

It  was the thump of John Entwistle’s bass guitar that caught my attention.  The band hadn’t even begun playing yet, and the crowd was roaring in approval.  BOMP, BOMP, BOOOOMP went Entwistle’s fat bass.  His plucks couldn’t have prepared me for what came next, but knew that I was about to hear something unlike anything I’d ever heard before.

And just as I was able to catch my breathe from the excitement, off The Who went like a train about to fly off the rails. Keith Moon’s drums rolls and cymbals washes crashed wildly in my shitty headphones. There was no straight beat, and Moon played around it in every single possible way he could. Pete Townshend’s power chords sliced through the air with a vengeance. Entwistle’s somehow managed to hold the chaos together with his melodic yet aggressive bass-lines.

It was the night of my 15th birthday. My sister had given me the re-issed Live at Leeds as a birthday present.  “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Baba O’Riley” and “Who Are You” were the only songs by The Who I knew.  Before I put the CD in my disc-man in the back seat of my parents car on the ride home, I looked at the track-listing.  I was shocked to discover that none one of those songs was on the album.

I was only four minutes in and my musical world was suddenly shaken to the core.  It seems appropriate that the first song would be titled “Heaven and Hell”.  Most of the bands I had listened to previously like the Waterboys, R.E.M., U2 and the Smiths seemed like angels compared to this. Just four minutes in, without ever reading much about them (other than the liner notes) I could tell The Who were trouble-makers and loved every single second of it.

On the hour-long ride home, I was treated to aggressive takes on Who classics: “I Can’t Explain”, “Substitute”, “I’m a Boy”, “Happy Jack” and the 15 minute ear-splitting jam on “My Generation”.  Every single second I heard in my head-phones was sonic anarchy.  By the time I got home, I knew that The Who were going to be my band.

My birthday is in early December, so its arrival almost always signals the beginning of the Christmas season. About a week later, my parents set up the Christmas tree in the living room. Putting up the tree is never an easy task in my family – something disastrous is almost always bound to happen. My dad probably spent about 2 hours fiddling with the tree-stand to make sure it would not fall over. We had put lights on but no decorations – that was for the next day.

Around 6 o’clock, my parents told me that they were going out for the night to a Christmas party. As soon as they left, I ran over to the stereo in the living room and cranked it up.  Within seconds, it sounded like The Who were performing in the house. Like many teenagers I’m sure, time alone with a stereo means air-guitar. As the opening riff of “Young Man Blues” erupted behind me, I tested out a few windmills.  My right-arm never felt so alive.  I have no doubt that if Pete Townshend saw me, he would have corrected me on the proper way to do it, but nonetheless I felt like a rock-star.

Half-way through the song, I decided to be bold. There were several pictures in the liner of Pete Townshend in mid-flight. Without even thinking, I leapt into the air at the précise  moment (a Townshend-style jump must always be executed at the right moment).  As soon as I hit the ground, I heard a loud crash.

My eyes widened in fear as soon as I realized what had happened. My jump had caused the Christmas tree to fall. Shit, this is not good. I knew my parents were going to be pissed when they came back and found the tree on the floor. I tried to get it back up, but being a scrawny 16-year old, I wasn’t strong enough.  In a panic, I called all of my older siblings. Though I knew I would leave out the exact cause of the accident.

“Well what do you want me to do about it?” My eldest brother said over the phone.  “I’m 8 hours away.”

Shaken up by what had just occurred and without any help out of the situation, I thought back to “Heaven Hell” and John Entwistle’s dour warning: “and down in the ground there’s a place where you go if you’ve been a bad boy.” When my parents got home, I explained to them that I was in the room and that the tree had just fallen on its own. To my surprise, they not only believed me but assured me that everything was okay. I helped my dad put the tree back up, and that was that. And then Pete Townshend’s voice at the end of “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” popped into my head: “you are forgiven”.  So maybe I wasn’t forgiven (because I had lied), but I figured no one was none the wiser.

In the years since, my love of Live at Leeds has not diminished. It’s not only the perfect document of The Who live in their prime, but rock and roll unhinged. Other live albums try to capture the experience of a live show (and the the best do a spectacular job of that), but Live at Leeds is transcendent.  Each time I listen to it, I’m in awe of how a band could sound that fucking good live.

The aggression and sheer loudness is a huge part of its appeal, but recently I’ve been attracted to its subtleties.  On “My Generation” the band goes into several tightly controlled (yet chaotic) jams by a single cue from Pete Townshend’s chords. Roger Daltrey may not have the prettiest voice, but it takes a powerful lung to be heard over the rest of the band.  On Live at Leeds, The Who churned out several 60’s power-pop gems, but then could stretch out on “Magic Bus” and “My Generation”.  Critics of Keith Moon love to suggest that he couldn’t keep time, but listen closely to “Tattoo” from Live at Leeds and you’ll realize that his drum fills follow Roger Daltrey vocals, perfectly accenting the lead singer’s tough-guy delivery.

There are many albums I adore and love, but Live at Leeds is one of the few that changed my life.

 

{Backpages} The Who: “Long Live Rock”

This is the first in a series of posts, where I look back at artists, songs and albums that meant much to me at various time in my life and reflect on what they mean to me.  This first installment tackles the band that got me through my teenage years: The Almighty Who.  

In March of 2007, after nearly a decade of trying, I finally saw The Who in concert. As a teenager, they were my favorite band. Between the ages of 16 and 20, I would have given anything to see them.  To call me obsessive would have been an understatement.

Months prior to the show, I prepared myself by listening to the band’s catalogue.  I quickly pulled Who’s Next, Live at Leeds and Quadrophenia. Pete Townshend’s power chords brought me back to my high school days. As other kids pulled into the school parking lot listening to Sublime and Third Eye Blind, my car speakers erupted with Pete Townshend’s power chords and Keith Moon’s violet and manic drumming.

Even before I went, I knew this was going to be the best show I would ever see. It wasn’t just nostalgia. The Who were always known as chaotic and wild performers. I had heard numerous bootlegs of their shows from the early 2000s, and even without John Entwistle they could still outplay most bands a quarter of their age.

That was much was certainly true of the show I saw. The Who played with more aggression and fire than most bands a quarter their age? Pete Townshend leapt and played with usual aggression much to the crowd’s delight. Roger Daltrey was in fine form as well – still able to perform his signature scream at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. This was not a band going through the motions.

When the show ended, something strange happened: I was disappointed. The show itself was great, but after years of anticipation, I felt let down. This should have been the greatest show of my life! Pete did the windmill!  Roger swung his microphone!  They played “Baba O’Riley”! They played “Sparks”! Instead of gushing about the show afterwards, I just had the feeling of “meh”.

I spent the next few days trying to figure out what this meant. Was something wrong with me, that I no longer was excited about seeing a band?  Had I seen too many shows over the past few years?  To paraphrase Pete Townshend: was it in my head?

Feeling slightly depressed, I put on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I discovered him in college and he quickly became my favorite artist. Each time I listened to one of his songs I heard something different in the lyrics. I realized then, that I no longer felt that way about The Who’s music. They seemed to be a band for teenage angst, while Dylan tackled more complex and adult issues.

It would be another few years before I listened to The Who again.

In high school, The Who weren’t just an obsession. They were the soundtrack to my confusion and isolation.  The characters in Pete Townshend’s songs – Tommy, Jimmy, the snot-nosed and angry kids who narrate “Substitute” and “My Generation”, the young kid who discovers pin-ups and masturbation in “Pictures of Lily” – perfectly matched the awkwardness and the self-consciousness I felt.

My first real introduction to the band was through my older sister. For my 15th birthday, she gave me a copy of the band’s famed Live at Leeds album. On the way back from her house, I sat in the back of my parent’s car and put the CD in my disc man. Almost immediately, I was hooked. The opening song, “Heaven and Hell” was unlike anything I had ever heard. Keith Moon’s drums crashed wildly. Pete Townshend’s solos were fiery and chaotic. John Entwistle’s bass lines were thick and clearly audible

But it was the next song – “I Can’t Explain” that really caught my attention with its inward looking lyrics:

Got a feeling inside (Can’t explain)

It’s a certain kind (Can’t explain)

I feel hot and cold (Can’t explain)

Yeah down in my soul (Can’t explain)

No song had perfectly captured my own insecure feelings like this. Townshend’s lyrics were so simple and direct, but I felt like he wrote this song specifically for me. And the music was pummeling and forceful. I could identify with the character, but also hide behind the band’s power and aggression.

By the time I finished listening to the album, I was truly hooked. They were unlike any band I had ever heard. Every single song on the Leeds album was played for maximum impact. The power-pop songs like “Happy Jack” and “I’m a Boy” were tight and furious. In contrast the extended jams on “My Generation” and “Magic Bus” showed a band that could go in any direction they wanted.

Soon after that, I decided to pick up as many of the band’s albums as I could. I quickly added The Kids Are Alright, The Who Sell Out and Who’s Next to my collection. Within a few weeks, I had become a die-hard Who fan. Just as R.E.M. had been the band of my childhood, The Who were the band of my turbulent teenage years.

While I loved all of their albums, it was the band’s 6th album Quadrophenia that really left a mark. Through the character of Jimmy, Pete Townshend perfectly captured teenage angst. Is there a better representation of teenage confusion than when Daltrey screams, “Can you see the real me?  Can ya?!”  Jimmy’s self-identity issues mirrored my own.  Though I didn’t have the rage or drug issues that Jimmy had, I could still relate to feeling a bit adrift.  I didn’t really have a clue what life would be like after high school.  Beyond that little bubble, the world outside seemed uncertain and scary.

Though some have suggested that Townshend’s idea to incorporate the four different personalities of the band into the album, I found it to be very apt. Some days, I felt like a completely different person than I had the day before. I wanted to be liked and please many, but there was also a side of me that desperately wanted to choose my own path and not care what anybody thought.  I felt pulled in many different directions.  “I’m being pushed round, I’m being put down,” Daltrey sings in “The Dirty Jobs”.  I knew the feeling.

It was Pete Townshend’s solo Empty Glass that got me back into The Who. Even though I stopped listening to The Who, I still gravitated to this album. Unlike most of The Who’s catalogue (with the exception of The Who By Numbers and a few other songs) Empty Glass was a deeply personal album. Throughout the album, he tackles his problems with drugs and alcohol, attacks his critics and gives two of his best love songs (“A Little is Enough” and “Let My Love Open the Door”.)  It’s brutually honest and not that far removed from Blood on the Tracks and Plastic Ono Band. Empty Glass felt grown-up and real.

With a renewed interest in Townshend’s songwriting, I started listening to The Who again. The songs felt different than they had a few years earlier when I saw the band live. The teenage attachments were no longer present. I realized how much of a pioneer Townshend was.

Obviously, I knew his use of feedback, power chords and the synthesizer were ground-breaking. What really struck me Townshend was probably one of the first songwriters in rock who wanted to connect with his audience in an emotional and visceral way. True, many of his characters were fictional, and many were written outside of his own perspective, but he was constantly searching for a spiritual connection with his fans.  Though Lifehouse was aborted, its attempt was to make the music and its audience one. Townshend wanted the listeners to be part of the music and participate in it with him, not just listen to it.

Tommy’s revelation at the end of the album wasn’t just about his own journey. He fed off those who followed him: “Listening to you/I get the music/Following you, I climb the mountain, I get excitement at your feet” goes the chorus at the end of “We’re Not Gonna Take It!”  Similarly, “Join Together” demanded that the audience “join together with the band.”  Listening to The Who isn’t so much of a solo experience, but rather a communal one.

This interaction with the audience might be a good indicator of why the First Responders of 9/11 reacted with such enthusiasm when the band played at the Concert for New York City in October of 2011. No doubt that the band played their asses off. Unlike the other acts who offered reflective, somber or uplifting songs the band chose to play supercharged versions of “Baba O’Riley”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Who Are You”. As Pete Townshend flailed around on stage and struck his guitar (he didn’t so much as play as attack it) the audience roared in approval.  For those few moments, Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle proved that music is not only important but also necessary.

As for me, I doubt I’ll ever give up on The Who again. The band that meant so much to me as a teenager still has a lot of offer a 30-year old.  And if nothing else, I’m still blown away by live version of “Join Together/Road Runner/My Generation Blues” from The Kids Are Alright.

 

The 10 Most Mediocre Cover Songs of All Time

 

A while back, I wrote a list of the best cover songs. I originally intended to a follow-up highlighting the worst cover songs of all time. But, seeing as how that’s been done quite a bit, I’ve decided to go this route. The songs on this list aren’t terrible interpretations, but they don’t sounded inspired either.

“The Boxer” – Marcus Mumford & Jerry Douglas

Sirius XM station The Spectrum loves this cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”.  Douglas’ resonator guitar adds some nice country twang, and Simon himself plays rhythm guitar. But it’s Mumford who leads the song into mediocre territory. When he sings “the fighter still remains” he sounds beaten down and even bored.

“Instant Karma!” – U2

U2 recorded this classic John Lennon for a charity album to save Darfur in 2007.  The original’s chorus is U2-style catharsis, a decade before U2 made their debut. So it would seem that U2 would destined to play this song with zeal and power. Unfortunately, they seem to be on auto-pilot.

“Under My Thumb” – The Who

When Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were jailed in 1967, The Who quickly recorded “(This Could Be) The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb” in solidarity. “The Last Time” is pretty good with a neat Townshend feedback solo. Not so much for “Under My Thumb”.  Instrumentally, The Who thrash away as they was their trademark in the mid-1960s. But Roger Daltrey doesn’t sound convincing singing Jagger’s biting and scathing lyrics. Which is odd, considering he was every bit the womanizer that Jagger was.

“King of the Road” – R.E.M.

The king of all mediocre covers. R.E.M. give “King of the Road” a drunken and sloppy take. Mike Mills can be heard calling out the chords in the background and Stipe slurs the lyrics in such a manner you would assume that it was his own songs. The most hilarious moment is half-way through when the band changes key with no reason whatsoever.

“Redemption Song” – Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer

I know I’m going to get a lot of shit for this one. On paper this pairing sounds amazing. You get a country outlaw and a punk icon cutting Marley’s most enduring tune!  However, it seems forced and a tad bland. Strummer who was known for his fiery performances, comes off as reserved and humble on this track. In the last years of his life, Cash was known for many classic covers.  This isn’t one of them.  A wasted opportunity is what I’m saying.

“Raspberry Beret” – Hindu Love Gods

This one-off super group of R.E.M. (minus Stipe) and Warren Zevon give Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” some good rollicking fun. Ultimately though, it’s mostly unmemorable.

“Like a Rolling Stone” – The Rolling Stones

The world’s best rock and roll band covering the best song by rock’s greatest songwriter – should be awesome right?  The Stones never rock out or add any punch to the song, instead, just reliably sticking to the original’s arrangement. If there were any Dylan song that Jagger could get behind, “Like a Rolling Stone” would be at the top of the list. The Stones play the song as if they don’t want to mess up Dylan’s masterpiece.  Oh, the irony.

“Landslide” – The Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan gives a passionate vocal on this Fleetwood Mac classic, but Stevie Nicks did it so much better. And so did the Dixie Chicks – and I don’t even like the Dixie Chicks.

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” – Rage Against the Machine

Unlike some of the other artists on this list, Rage Against the Machine actually tried to make the song their own. Rage’s metal take is radically different approach on Springsteen’s plaintive acoustic ballad. The song’s themes of working class struggles,  seems right up Rage’s alley. Zack De La Rocha never matches the coldness and anger of Springsteen’s vocal, even as he’s yelling at the top of his lungs.

“Sister Ray” – Joy Division

The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” is one of the noisiest  and bizarre songs ever put to wax.  And like The Velvet Underground, you either love Joy Division or hate them. Their version of “Sister Ray” isn’t bad, but Ian Curtis’s distant vocals make this tale of drugs and twisted sex seem like an AA meeting.

 

Song of the Week: “Eminence Front” – The Who

As a teenager, I was obsessed with The Who.  They were in effect, the soundtrack to my high school years.  Pete Townshend is one of the few songwriters in rock and roll, that truly captures the emotions of being a teenager.  To maximize the effect, The Who played almost every single song like it was the end of the world.  And in the mind of a teenager, every little incident can certainly seem like a catastrophe waiting to happen.

For my 17th birthday, my siblings bought me the Who’s exhaustive boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R&B. For the longest time, it was one of my most prized possessions.  It was a treasure chest of previously unreleased studio tracks, and rare live performances.  Containing 4 CDs, the set was sequenced chronologically – beginning with songs when the Who were known as the R&B outfit High Numbers and ending with some tracks from their 1989 reunion tour.

The first CDs were amazing, and each song seemed to speak to different situations in my life.  As for the 4th CD, only about half of it interested me.  To me, The Who ended when Keith Moon died and I had absolutely no desire to listen to anything they put out past his death in 1978.  When I finally listened to these two albums (borrowing them from a friend) my suspicions were confirmed.  Both releases lacked the fire and intensity of The Who’s original line-up.  It seemed as if Townshend was going through the motions, and saving his best material for the solo albums he was putting out at the same time.

The guilty pleasure of “You Better You Bet” aside, “Eminence Front” is the only Who track I’ve actually cared about from the Kenny Jones era.  (And no disrespect to Mr. Jones – he was in The Faces after all!)   I wouldn’t have even given the song chance, if my older brother hadn’t insisted that I listened to it.  “I don’t believe it,” I told him.

So he put on “Eminence Front” on the CD player.  As the first swirling synthesizer notes slipped through the speakers, I forced myself to roll my eyes.  It sounded like a weak re-write of “Baba O’Riley” – and one that was made for the 1980s.  As soon as Kenney Jones thumped his way in, I knew there was something about this song that was special. The extended introduction (in which Townshend gets to demonstrate how great of a guitar player he is by alternating by rhythm and lead seamlessly) sets the tone for the haunting lyrics which depict wealthy businessmen hiding behind “white powder” to use Townshend’s words.

“Eminence Front” might not rank up with Who classics such as “Substitute” or “My Generation” but the lyrics are classic Townshend in its observation of drug-use and its effect.  Even though Townshend (and the rest of The Who) had their substance issues, Townshend was always weary of their effect, and the characters in his songs reflected that.  After being drugged by a gypsy (aka “The Acid Queen”) Tommy finds enlightenment, and Jimmy from Quadrophenia becomes violet and destructive when he takes too many pills and downs his gin.  Townshend famously chronicles his own problems on The Who By Numbers and his own solo album, Empty Glass.

“Eminence Front” shows what happens when these drugs are applied in the business world: “Shares crash, hopes are dashed.”  To Townshend, “people forget” what really matters and they’re hiding behind this fallacy.  “It’s a put-on!” He snarls in the chorus, without a shred of sympathy.

I’m not entirely sure whether Townshend is being hypocritical in this song or not.  Certainly the case could be made – his own issues, and the fact that The Who themselves are more of corporation at this point.  But as always with Pete Townshend, he’s at his best when he’s fired up and pissed off about something.  And this would be the last time he would do that within the context of The Who.

 

The Album That Got Me Through My Teenage Years: The Who’s “Quadrophenia”

Pete Townshend is one of the few writers in rock and roll who understood the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. Early Who singles such as “Substitute” and “My Generation” captured adolescent angst in way that few of The Who’s contemporaries did.  With its antagonistic lyrics and fiery performance “My Generation” was a call to arms. Even today, over 40 years later “My Generation” remains relevant whenever there’s a teenager who feels misunderstood or put down.  And Townshend’s words didn’t hit home hard enough, the sonic assault of The Who brought the sentiment home.

For The Who’s second rock opera Quadrophenia, Townshend expanded on this theme.  Tommy may have gotten more attention, but Quadrophenia is the album where Townshend truly delved into the life of a teenager.  Through the character of Jimmy the Mod, Townshend wove a tale of self-doubt, anger, drugs, love, lust an confusion that is still ever bit as potent today as it was when it released in 1973.

I was 16 when I first hear Quadrophenia, an age where I was obsessed with anything and everything The Who did.  Few artists have spoken to me the way The Who did in my teenage years. Everything I went through, The Who seemed to articulate (musically and lyrically) in a way that I couldn’t. I held off getting Quadrophenia for a long time, in part because its $30 price tag. I finally obtained the album as gift from my sister.  Upon first listen, something seemed different about this album.  I listened intently on the floor of my parent’s living room waiting for The Who to arrive. Instead, there were sounds of crashing waves and wind that made up on the first track, “I Am Sea.”  This was not what I was expecting.  Two minutes went by, and I was slightly disappointed.  Maybe there’s a reason why they abandoned this album, I thought.

The sounds of “I Am the Sea” could not prepare me for what came next – Quadrophenia’s first “proper” song “The Real Me”.  Suddenly, the sound of The Who came through like a mob crashing through castle gates.  Even before Roger Daltrey sang a word, I was transfixed.  The Who are an aggressive band, but even for them this seemed like sheer madness. Keith Moon’s are chaotic but tightly controlled, John Entwistle’s bass pounds it way into submission, and Townshend’s power chords cut like a knife.

On paper, the chorus of “can you see the real me?” from “The Real Me” seems trivial, but Roger Daltrey nails the line perfectly. It’s not a lament of being misunderstood, but a declaration of intent. To say that this song threw me for a loop it is a bit of an understatement. For a good 15 minutes, I replayed the song about 6 times before listening to any of the other songs. I couldn’t get past it, and kept thinking, “What is the rest of the album going to sound like?”

I was not to be let down.  What followed was a more than a collection of songs, but a journey.  Though the narrative is rather loose, Townshend’s lyrics were direct, honest and sometimes even brutal.  I didn’t need to know much about the Mod Scene, for Jimmy’s tale to get beneath my skin. Throughout Quadrophenia, Jimmy is let down by almost everyone – from his family, to his idols, and even the girl he dreams about from afar. Townshend used the four different members of The Who to portray the different facets of Jimmy’s personality.  Upon first listening it seems like Jimmy might be schizophrenic, as mood easily changes from depressive to insightful and back again (sometimes in the same song).  But those types of feeling are part of being a teenager – it’s hard to know exactly how you’re feeling when everything else and everyone else in the world seems to be against you.  At the end of the album, Jimmy finds solace in the pouring rain.  It’s rather open-ended. Townshend never describes what happens next to Jimmy and it doesn’t really matter.  By the time you’ve listened to Quadrophenia the whole way through, Jimmy’s journey has become the listener’s journey and what comes next is your own story.

 

2011: The Year of the Massive Album Re-issue Boxed Set

Though artists have been re-issuing many of their classic albums for years, 2011 seems to be a tipping point for the lavish boxed set.  Many of these sets are price well over a hundred dollars, and some even well above that.  The Beach Boys’ Complete Smile Sessions runs at $140, The Who’s Quadrophenia Director’s Cut Set costs $127, U2 has a “super deluxe” version that is set at $440, and Nirvana’s Nevermind re-issue is a cool $150.  All of these sets are absurdly priced (though I have to admit I do really want the Super Deluxe version of Achtung Baby which is $300 less than the “uber deluxe” and contains much of the same music). But by far the worst offender in this area is Pink Floyd.  Their “immersion” sets of their classic albums costs are listed as $119, and then you can also get the Discovery Boxed Set which contains all of their studio albums remastered.

To diehard collectors and music obsessives many of these sets might be worth every penny. In the case of Quadrophenia and Achtung Baby the music that is contained within the sets offers demos and working versions of the songs found on the original albums.   On the surface,unreleased material by your favorite artist sounds great especially if said artist has broken up, or dead in the case of Nirvana. It might offer a different perspective on an album you’ve been listening to for a long time.  But listening to some of these songs is more like scholarly work. It’s interesting to go back and listening to classic songs in their archaic versions. But for me, alternate versions are something I usually go back to – the exception being Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, but that’s a whole other issue which I could devote numerous posts to.  For the most part, there’s a reason why the albums and songs were release the way they were.  Case in point – I listened to the original mix of Nevermind on Spotify, and the album as we know it, is far superior.

At what point did the artists say to themselves, “Wow some of this shit isn’t so bad after all?” On the other hand, the lister might also say, “you know what?  Some of this shit isn’t so good after all!  No wonder they kept it to themselves for all these years.”

That being said, I am interested in hear Smile, but I think I’ll stick to the double CD version.

Remembering George Harrison Ten Years Later

When I first heard the news that George Harrison had died, I was a sophomore in college.  It was late at night and I probably should have been writing a paper, but instead I was spending the night downloading U2 concerts from their then current Elevation Tour from the internet. To pass the time, I clicked on the Yahoo news site and saw the headline that Harrison had passed away.

It seems significant now that I was listening to U2 when Harrison passed away. Without Harrison’s forays and interests in religion, U2 as we know them now would not exist.  Harrison’s quest for something more than rock and roll left a mark on anyone who has ever expressed some sort of spirituality in their lyrics. Harrison’s spirit runs throughout the soul searching of The Joshua Tree, Pete Townshend’s need to connect the audience and a higher power through much of The Who’s work, and even Bob Dylan’s Christian period.

At the time of Harrison’s death, I wasn’t as familiar with The Beatles’ catalog as I am now, but his passing still struck me.  Another Beatle had died. John Lennon was killed almost exactly a year before I was born, so for my entire life the Beatles had always been Paul, George and Ringo. Even though they were no longer playing together, the three remaining remembers sporadically got together over the years including the amazing interviews for The Beatles Anthology. There was always a sense that their spirit was still alive as long as the three of them remained.

Over the last ten years as I dug deeper into The Beatles catalogue and Harrison’s own, I realized what an interesting character, and guitar player he was. As a guitar player, he made every note count and it was executed with such precision and delicacy.  Not many guitar players are as innovative and tasteful as Harrison was.  I’ve never been a huge fan of “Let It Be” – it’s way too sincere for my tastes – but Harrison’s solo on the song has never failed to move me.  Even on the popper early singles, Harrison’s playing elevated the guitar to new heights. One of my favorite Harrison moments is his playing on “I Need You” off of Help!  where he used a volume pedal to create a sort of scratching sound that perfectly suits the plea of the lyrics.

For Harrison to be revered the way he is in a band with two absolute geniuses, is nothing short of remarkable.  I’ve often wondered what many of the songs off All Things Must Pass would have sounded like if The Beatles had recorded them. As it is though, All Things Must Pass remains one of my favorite albums of all time for its scope and beauty. Lennon may have had the more challenging career, and McCartney may have made more popper songs, but All Things Must Pass is the one post-Beatles album that really gets inside your soul.