Animals: Pink Floyd

By 1977, the Floyd had begun to go stale. The sense of fun and experimental spirit had left, as Roger Waters’ Brobdingnagian ego slowly pushed its way to the top, leaving the rest of the group stranded. While in the past, Waters supplied the concepts and social awareness that made their earlier work with Gilmour so entertaining and memorable, there’s no doubt that Gilmour, and to a certain extent, Richard Wright, were the driving musical force. The point I’m making is, though a solid bassist and decent songwriter, leaving Waters in charge of Pink Floyd is like Pete Sinfield replacing Roger Fripp in King Crimson! Part of this is what makes Animals such a slog (the word used by Wright himself, to describe the making of the album), the fact that his bitterness and child-like whining overwhelms all else, whining about the very culture that made him filthy-rich enough to produce more overblown ‘rock operas’. Does the man want a grammy for having read Animal Farm in sixth form?! 

The album is comprised mainly of 3 long tracks, bookended by the two short acoustic tracks. Arguably, it’s this format that makes the LP such a struggle to listen to, just 10-17-minute monotonous chunks of chugging prog(ish) rock, with Waters’ and Gilmour’s distorted ‘man-in-a-box’ vocals trying to break through the mix. The second track, Dogs, does however contain some entertaining Guitar work from Gilmour, and Sheep is somewhat redeemed by some fine, jazzy electric piano work by Wright. However, this can’t save an ultimately depressing Pink Floyd album.

Best track: One of These Days. Oh….Wait…

Best lyric: “Hey, you, Whitehouse, ha ha, charade you are!”

4 Onstage gobs out of 10

Speed Kings: Deep Purple Top 5, 1970 – 73

Deep Purple ”Mk. 2” was without doubt the most energetic of what some call the “unholy trinity of hard rock” (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin). Led by guitar genius Ritchie Blackmore, they created an exciting and varied form of hard rock, finding a satisfying middle-ground between the heaviness of Sabbath, and the eclectic variety of Zeppelin.

5: Smoke on the Water, Live (Made in Japan, 1972)

The pure rock and roll energy of Made in Japan is reason to buy it alone, nothwithstanding that it also purposes as a ‘greatest hits live’, a live set including even more exhiliaratingly fast and heavy versions of the original album tracks. This version of Smoke on the Water is on the list due to an absolutely stunning organ solo from the late Jon Lord, erupting after Blackmore’s guitar solo.

4: Pictures of Home (Machine Head)

If anything in Deep Purple’s Gillan catalogue can be viewed as a direct influence on the wave of British heavy metal and hard rock of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, Pictures of Home is it, and particularly its galloping, melodic riff would be later emulated by Iron Maiden, (The Trooper springs to mind). The third track from Machine Head is also a schowcase of Ian Gillan’s powerful, operatic howling vocals.

3: Fools (Fireball, 1971)

The longest and best track off 1971’s Fireball, Fools is an epic song, including one of their best riffs, Jon Lord’s distorted organ and a growling lo-fi bassline from Roger Glover fleshing out this brilliant chunk of hard rock from an under-appreciated album in the Purps’ discography. It also features a rather ‘psyche-ma-delic ‘middle section featuring various Blackmore experiments. Fireball was the under-appreciated middle album, but it’s one of Gillan’s favourites, showing that they could branch out and innovate.

2: Highway Star: (Made in Japan, 1972)

As the concert opener from Made in Japan, Highway Star slowly builds up from a marching rythym from Paice’s snare drum, before exploding. This isn’t a ‘precursor to speed metal’, as pretentious rock historians assert, this is just classic british hard rock at its most thrilling and simple. It also features a  Bach-inspired organ solo by Lord. ‘Nuff said, if you ask me.

1: Child in Time (In Rock, 1970)

One of the great, ‘long’ rock songs, most of Child in Time is a slow-burning build-up of Gillan’s howling voice and delicate organ and cymbals, and slowly progresses, becoming more and more intense, until Blackmore’s glorious solo bursts through, maintaining his status as one of rock’s great geniuses before he went medieval on our…

That’s reason enough to buy In Rock, the album that most members of Mk II consider their favourite. “…that’s the nucleus of where we came from”, says Glover. No other song has built up so much excitement in 10 minutes as this, not even that other song by that other band. Hint: Does anybody remember laughter?

Southern Comfort, 1981

When a group of National Guard numbskulls go on a weekend exercise in the rural bayou country, they anger the Cajun locals and are systematically hunted in an alien environment.

While The Warriors worked brilliantly as an urban chase thriller, the script could be cringe-worthy (“I’ll shove that bat up your a** and turn you into a popsicle…”, being the only good line), and the costume designer had clearly just raided Sly Stone’s wardrobe circa 1969 (right, below), Walter Hill showed a knack for creating a truly palpable sense of pace, which he further develops in Southern Comfort, with a better cast (that, for the most part, you actually care about) and a more tangible feeling of suspense.

In fact, he reworks the exact same plot of the previous film, that of a group going on the run after provoking a more sizeable antagonist, but changes the setting and general atmosphere, in this case being the calm bleakness of the marshy Bayou, accompanied by long-standing collaborator Ry Cooder’s haunting bottle-neck score. Often seen as a metaphor for Vietnam, due to its criticism of the gung-ho attitude and American cockiness, Hill has always asserted that this was not his intention: “We were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam. The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, ‘People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.”‘ The point here, is that having a hostile, disrespectful attitude to the people that inhabit the land you are riskily treading, cannot be compatible with a lack of real ammunition and an insufficient intimacy of an alien surrounding. In other words, ‘don’t go firing blanks at people without assessing whether they can kill you.

This is definitely one of the best thrillers of its time, tightly directed and solidly acted. And it’s got Keith Carradine.

Goof: A distinct lack of Creedence Clearwater Revival in the soundtrack. ‘Born on the Bayou’, anybody?

9 Blank cartridges out of 10

Cahoots! The Band’s Top 10 Songs

Whenever I stick on a Band album, It puts me completely at ease. They were treated as legend in the music press; while it seemed the ‘thing’ at the time was to ‘take LSD, hate your parents, and don’t trust anyone over 30’, The Band’s image was that of a virtuous group of guys out in a cabin in the country, making music that brought listeners back in touch with an older, simpler vision of America (the primary theme of the Brown Album), for people who, as longtime engineer John Simon put it “felt so out of touch with their country and culture, they felt like strangers even when they were in it”. This is surprising, seeing as the Band was all-Canadian, with the exception of Levon Helm, drummer, who also juggled lead vocals with pianist Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Their often cryptic lyrics, packed with images of nature and often biblical references, also helped create this iconic image.

10: Last of the Blacksmiths (Cahoots, 1971)

Last of the Blacsmiths is a cold, cold song. Nothing like it exists on any other Band album. Thunderous piano and Rick Danko’s prominent bassline is broken up by a very strange bridge (you have to hear it to believe it), making this an interesting example of Robbie Robertson’s idiosyncratic songwriting. The pessimistic lyrics could also be an illustration of the frosty dynamic in the group at the time. A very interesting song from a somewhat forgettable album.

9: The Shape I’m In (Stage Fright, 1970)

The Band’s greatest albums were their first 2, but Stage Fright, while it doesn’t hold the same legendary status, is still a fine album. The Shape I’m In is a frantic, anxious songs, and is an example of their transition from a wholesome, rootsy rock band, to a more cynical, slick studio group. One of the best songs from their later era, supposedly about Manuel’s growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, and a great live version appears on Rock of Ages (1972).

8: I Shall Be Released (Music From Big Pink, 1968)

Originally written by Bob Dylan, the first recorded version appears on The Basement Tapes, but the band’s solo version is beautiful. A slow, soulful tune featuring stark, echoey piano and acoustic guiar, and Manuel’s charming high vocals penetrating the mix. A perfect end to what Roger Waters of Pink Floyd considers the “second most influential record in the history of Rock and Roll.” But who really cares what Roger Waters thinks.

7: When You Awake (The Band S/T, 1969)

The 4th track from probably the finest roots record cut, The Band’s self-titled from 1969, is one of the songs that is explored in most depth in the Classic Album documentary for it’s parent album (highly reccomended). It’s a story about things and ideas that are passed down in a family, and is a refreshingly relaxed follow-up to the Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a more intense and impassioned track.

6: Stage Fright (Rock of Ages, 1970)

Bassist Rick Danko’s powerful, yet plaintive voice (which Eric Clapton supposedly found inspirational) fits the title track perfectly, without doubt the best on the whole Stage Fright album. The most enjoyable version, however, appears on Rock of Ages, the band’s 1972 double live album, where they’ve rarely been a tighter rock unit. Check out ‘Ol’ Brother Garth’s’ gliding keyboards on this one.

5: Jawbone (The Band S/T, 1969)

Richard Manuel’s Jawbone is one of the few tracks in their catalogue to be performed in an uncommon time signature, 6/4, making it an interesting transition from the energetic rock and roll of Look Out Cleveland towards Unfaithful Servant on the second side of The Brown Album.

4: Acadian Driftwood (Northern Lights – Southern Cross, 1975)

Chronicling the ”troubled history of Nova Scotia and Acadia” this absolutely sublime Robbie Robertson-penned song from the Band’s album from 1975 following a short hiatus, is an example of the laid back feel of Northern Lights – Southern Cross, due to their relocation to Malibu. “We had to escape Woodstock…”, says Robertson in the liner notes of my Capitol reissue CD. A good choice it was, too. According to the Rolling Stone Record Guide (Yep, that’s right), Acadian Driftwood ‘reaffirms Robbie Roberton’s status as one of rock’s greatest songwriters.’

3: To Kingdom Come (Music From Big Pink)

To Kingdom Come is one of the band’s least-known songs, packed with cryptic biblical references, it’s the exemplary example of their brilliant lyrics and songwriting. It sums up what Big Pink was all about.

2: Genetic Method/Chest Fever (The Last Waltz, 1968)

Garth Hudson, the secret weapon, is unleashed on this cracking rock song, his growling organ being the highlight. The lyrics make no sense, as the band are willing to admit, but it’s the lo-fi driving force of this track that makes it so special.

1: King Harvest (Has Surely Come), (Rock of Ages, 1972)

The final song on one of the greatest LPs of the 60’s is one of the funkiest in The Band’s catalogue, a story of a farmer frantically trying to save his crops, proud to be a ”union man” but ashamed of his current status (“just don’t judge me by my shoes…”). King Harvest is an impressive rock song, growing increasingly desperate as the song reaches its climax. The most fully realised version of the song appears on Rock of Ages, where Robertson’s guitar solo absolutely pops. Pure genius.

The Weight’s pretty good as well.

Little Feat: Feat’s Don’t Fail Me Now

Little Feat’s fourth is arguably the archetypal Little Feat album, as it encompasses all the genres that they explored in their diverse 9 years of recording. Rock and Roll Doctor is a perfect example of Lowell George’s soulful eschewing of the boogie, whereas the funky Skin it Back would have been a natural addition to the band’s previous album, Dixie Chicken, a primarily New Orleans R’n’B-based record, as could Spanish Moon. The Fan, a song featuring a more complex time signature shows sign of what would come, with the band’s foray into Jazz fusion (Time Loves a Hero, Day at the Dog Races). And to finish off, a medley (!) of their earlier, more raw songs.

This is the example model of a Feat album. Varied, funky, gritty and sincere, but despite it’s quintessence, it’s the least interesting of their classic LPs, but this still doesn’t take anything away from the fact that it does contain some of the band’s best known songs. Everything fits on Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, each song fully fleshed out, Bill Payne’s keyboard hooks, Sam Clayton’s funky congas, and the wonderful backing vocals of Country queens Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris, so it’s no wonder why Little Feat would use it as a protoype for their career, packed with many of their live staples.

This is an ideal entry point, and one of the most satisfying rock albums of it’s time, before things began to disintegrate. And by the way, what went down in the Spanish Moon, stays in the Spanish Moon….

Choice cut: Down the Road

Best Lyric: “Runnin’ around in the shoes of a clown”

Goof: This album is due a remaster/reissue:

8 Rock and Roll Doctors out of 10

Brand X: Masques

Brand X’s 3rd album finds the band returning to the kind of jazz fusion of the debut, Unorthodox Behaviour, following Moroccan Roll (which in reality couldn’t be further from the title pun), an album that explored lighter eastern sounds, which is surprising when observing the album cover of Masques. The LP is also the band’s first without Phil Collins, who temporarily buggered off to work on that appalling piece of work with that other band…Hint: One of them squonked off on a solo career, while the other three were left in the wuthering winds…

Collin’s temporary departure from Brand X probably explains the distinct lack of humorous song titles. No more Smacks of Euphoric Hysteria or Noddy Goes to Sweden.

Masques was arguably their most accomplished album up to that point, an album of varying textures, and yet great coherence, the highlight being Percy Jones’ melodic, squirting fretless bass that acts both as a lead instrument while also fleshing out Goodsall’s guitar and J. Peter Robinson (accompanied by Morris Pert who, as a multi-instrumentalist himself, has been promoted to keyboards, after his previous role, which according to the liner notes of Moroccan Roll was: “percussion and a vast number of bits and things that he hit while the tape was running, including: The QE2, Idi Amin, and undiscovered parts of Scotland”). The first song, The Poke, is a simpler track, predominantly in 4/4 time, Rock plus Rhodes, if you like, and also a showcase of Chuck Burgi’s tight, precise drumming, but the stand-out tracks for me are Black Moon and Deadly Nightshade, the former a move towards the smoother side, while Deadly Nightshade is simply one of the best songs in the band’s catalogue, 11 minutes and 22 seconds of brilliant keyboards, crazy riffs and run-downs and tight musicianship, things that sum up what Brand X were all about.

Best Track: Deadly Nightshade

Goof: Earth Dance sounds like a Mahavishnu Orchestra Song. It should have been called something like, “Slaps of Blissful Hilarity”, à la Unorthodox Behaviour

7 Black Moons out of 10

The Definitive Led Zeppelin Live Album?….

    

Ah, Led Zeppelin. It’s the general consensus that there was never a fully representative live recorded statement of one of the great live acts of the 70s. Due to their immediate success live, they were also one of the most prolifically bootlegged of their era, along with that other band that doesn’t really count… Hint:

Anyhoo, The Song Remains the Same (1976) was a film whose purpose was to show the inner workings of a rock band on the road. A proto-Spinal Tap, if you will, minus the mockery, and plus pretentious dream sequences! Surely this is the perfect recipe for a thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack? They kick off the live album (2007 Version, the one to get!) with probably the best version of Rock and Roll, far more exciting than its studio counterpart, and a great show opener, one of the definitive songs from the IV-to-Houses (1971-3) era of the band, which Page considers the height of the band’s creative output. It’s hard to disagree when listening to this gargantuan 3-night set at Madison Square Garden. The setlist, however, is simply not as varied as it could be, and even with bonus tracks added in between to flesh it out, while a great live album in itself, it doesn’t display the lighter side of Zep, which is an essential element of their sound. Still, damn fine.

Choice Cut: Stairway to Heaven. Does anybody remember laughter?

Seemed like a good idea at the time: 27 minute version of Dazed and Confused.

7 Black dogs out of 10

How The West Was Won

Why wasn’t this released before! Was Jimmy Page saving this for later as something to ‘dig up from the vaults’? Who knows.

LA Drone, a 14-second piece of layered feedback creates a nervous ambient atmosphere, then penetrated by John Bonham’s drum cue for the Immigrant Song, a thunderous live version that gives the listener an ‘in-your-face’ onslaught of pure hard rock, followed by the extended version of Heartbreaker. While Page’s guitar and feedback can be over-long, what we sense here is the Zep at their height of experimentation and creative ability. Plus, unlike the other album, it’s got some fine acoustic songs; a gorgeous Going to California, and That’s the Way. They were capable of both light and dark, or rather easily inhabited the entire spectrum between.

Choice Cut: Dazed and Confused/Walter’s Walk/Crunge MEDLEY!

Goof: 15 minutes of Bonham + Timpani.

9 Dancing Days out of 10

WINNER : How The West Was Won, the definitive Zep Live Album!

(As if anybody really cares…)