WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 1

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

Hey everyone, it’s 2015! Didja notice? Yep, it’s a symmetrical year three fourths of the way through the first fifth of the new millennium! I find that this is making me, and plenty of other people I’ve spoken to, think about numbers, halfway points, anniversaries, etc. For me, this year marks the major anniversary of a lot of key things in my life and career, and I plan to write about some of those right here at the Mule. It’s gonna be fun, so saddle up and take this trip with me, through the past, smartly! Not that I feel like acknowledging my age or anything, but I would say I have been a true “music fan” for 50 years now. As a bonafide baby boomer, I grew up in the ’60s listening to all that classic stuff that makes the “Best Ever” lists these days. Sometime in 1965, probably after the Beatles’ RUBBER SOUL album came out, I became aware of music in a bigger way than before. It was no longer just the radio hits my sisters were listening to incessantly on AM, now they were buying albums (mostly the Beatles at first), and the repeated playing of these began to affect my young ears with increasing intensity. I love melodies and good singing, and everyone at the time was into the Beatles. A new era was upon us, and it was exhilarating.

What I thought I would do to celebrate my 50 years of being an active listener, is pick the 25 albums that influenced me the most. Here at the Mule, we like to take things personally, that’s why a conventional list of “Best of All Time” or “Best of the Decade,” that kinda thing, is not much fun to do. Stuff like that is all over the web or in your latest issue of ROLLING STONE. And though fun, that kind of clinical exercise can get tedious. But if I tell you I’m going to make a list of 25 albums that truly affected my life, that either set something in motion, changed me or altered my musical taste in some way, well, I get all tingly just thinking about that. The list could be much longer, of course, but it’s important to have parameters. And I like the symmetry of “25 in 50,” ie: The 25 recordings that had the greatest personal impact in 50 years of listening. You will encounter some of the great classics in here, and you’ll also read about stuff you never heard of. Maybe you’ll be shocked that there are no Dylan, Rolling Stones or Beach Boys albums on my list. I’ll say it again, this is NOT a list of the most influential albums, period. It’s a list of what most influenced ME, and made my musical life what it is. This is a thoughtful, personal exercise, and I hope you’ll enjoy sharing it with me. Maybe it will encourage some of you to think about what music most made a difference to YOU, and affected your personality the most. Fun, right? Making something all about YOU is more honest and real than those tedious “Best of” lists. So, here we go. These albums will roughly be listed in the order that I encountered them, although I can’t absolutely swear to that. But… all of these works helped make me whatever and whoever the heck I am today. Enjoy!

1. THE BEATLES: REVOLVER

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

Although SERGEANT PEPPER… is usually cited as the greatest Beatles album, the 1966 classic REVOLVER had a bigger impact on me. It was the Fabs entering their psychedelic period, and my sisters, Therese and Pam, played this album all the time. I was fascinated by the unusual sounds on it (“Tomorrow Never Knows” was utterly hypnotic, as were the strings on “Eleanor Rigby”), and classic gems of songcraft like “Good Day Sunshine,” “I Want To Tell You” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” became lodged firmly in my young mind. I feel sad for people who never know the experience of growing up with a classic album like this.

How it influenced me: Gave me perhaps my first experience of enjoying an album all the way through, with melodies and sounds that seeped deep into my brain.

2. THE BEATLES: THE BEATLES (WHITE ALBUM)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

Barely two years after REVOLVER, the Beatles had evolved so much that it was almost dizzying to a budding music fan at the time. By 1968, only my sister Therese was still home among my siblings, and this album got constant play. It was a weird, unsettling, enthralling experience to listen to it back then. I vividly remember a couple of times when I fell asleep on the extra bed in Therese’s room absorbing the strange, diverse tracks on this album. Each side had a unique flow; some songs rocked out (“Back in the USSR,” “Glass Onion”), some songs were folksy and pretty (“Mother Nature’s Son,” “Julia”) and some were scary and from a place I yearned to know more about (“Long Long Long,” “Revolution 9”) What a remarkable sonic journey this double album took fans on! Nobody at the time talked about the “divisions” within the Beatles, or how “self-indulgent” the album was. We simply ate it up, listened with fascination, and marveled at the new age of rock that was now dawning.

How it influenced me: The first massive song collection I ever lost myself in, with unforgettable moments across the musical spectrum, including the first moments on record to scare the crap out of me (the moaning sounds at the end of “Long Long Long” and the entire “Revolution 9”). Hearing dark, weird sounds on a record began for me, oddly, with the Fab Four.

3. THE MONKEES: PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

In the late 60s, the Monkees were the OTHER band that captured the lion’s share of attention in my circles. We all knew the hits like we knew the shrubs in our front yard, and we watched the MONKEES TV show faithfully. This 1967 album was a superb collection of tunes that got constant play in my neighborhood. The previous Monkees albums seemed more like collections of big hits, but this one headed into some new territory. “Star Collector” was downright psychedelic, and Davy Jones sang it! “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was simply one of the best songs ever, ever, ever, one of the first songs to become a solid favorite for me. And many others stood out, like the minor-key laden “Words,” the Nesmith classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” and the Nilsson gem “Cuddly Toy,” which, decades later, would become a song I would sometimes perform live when I became a musician myself.

How it influenced me: A solid soundtrack to my childhood, full of innocence, whimsy and suburban dreams.

4. TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS: THE BEST OF…

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

From 1967 to 1970, Tommy James was a fixture on radio, with classic hit after classic hit. They were often in the summer, becoming wondrous summer classics like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Crimson and Clover.” At every swimming pool where radio was in the background, Tommy James was a part of the atmosphere. And the first song I ever declared to be my personal favorite, was “Sweet Cherry Wine.” This song absolutely captivated me, and I would sometimes wait for it to come on the radio, getting very emotional when it did. It was a beautifully produced song, with background vocals that got under my skin and never left my memory. THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS was, I believe, the first album I bought with my own money. It’s possible a Monkees album preceded it in that regard; memory can be sketchy. But it was unquestionably the first hits collection I ever bought, and the first non Beatles or Monkees music to get repeat play in my life. A soundtrack for the year 1969 in particular.

How it influenced me: The sound of the last year before I became a teenager. The first record to actively make me aware of the magic of background vocals. A collection of songs I truly, truly could listen to over and over.

5. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: BOOKENDS and BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (tie)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

If you become a musician, some influences don’t become apparent to you right away; you might have to work on developing your style and think about the kinds of songs you want to do, before the stylistic touchstones become obvious. I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, and all but their first album were regular spins at our home in Kirkwood. Most of their songs struck me as sad, intimate and evocative, and the musical personality they presented… the tight harmonies, the sometimes quirky lyrics… was vivid and powerful. These two albums affected me about equally, the former for its melancholy musings on the passing of time (“Old Friends,” “Bookends”) and quirky sing-alongs (“Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo”), the latter for its epic production and exhilarating musical dramas (“Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” “The Boxer,” the title track). This was one of a clutch of albums I listened to a great deal with an early girlfriend in 1972; such things stay with you. Years later, I fell in love with a girl actually NAMED Cecilia, and that song became significant in a very personal way. More importantly, Paul Simon’s songwriting stood out for me as artful, impactful stuff, and he is one of the composers I always mention as an influence on my own music and aesthetic.

6. CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: DEJA VU

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

They were called the “first big supergroup,” “the American Beatles” and more. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were not destined to sustain the kind of impact such lofty labels created expectations for, but they made this one incredible studio album as a foursome. It was a 1970 classic, and that year they were omnipresent. Every song was amazing, and the potency of their musical personalities was overwhelming if you were a fan of singer/songwriters. I was, and this album, plus the live album FOUR WAY STREET, essentially planted the seeds of my own desire to write songs. From the iconic cover photo to the peerless harmonies to the counterculture sass, this was an unmissable classic of its time. And that guy Neil…

How it influenced me: The songwriting. The personalities. The times!

7. NEIL YOUNG: HARVEST

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

It’s really not easy picking one Neil Young album for my list. Considering that Neil Young is one of the two most important and influential musicians in my entire life, it seems inadequate to talk about one album. It actually could have been ANY of his first four: the NEIL YOUNG debut, the epic Crazy Horse workout EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE in 1969, the popular fan favorite AFTER THE GOLDRUSH from 1970. All had an impact, but HARVEST was one of my high school soundtracks. I listened to it with my first real girlfriend. I was profoundly affected by Neil’s singing and arrangements throughout, and, quite simply, I was a different person by the time I fully absorbed this album. Neil Young was the first singer/songwriter I claimed as my own, the first to pervade my life and shift my understanding of the craft of songwriting. I memorized everything on this album; it became a huge soundtrack for me. I even liked the orchestration on “There’s a World,” which some reviewers lambasted. Everything in my music life changed after Neil Young; he’s even the artist that got me interested in reading reviews, which then led to my writing career. His influence was profound.

8. PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

If you were in high school in the early to mid-’70s, Pink Floyd were a staple. FM radio played them all the time, and the longhairs and tokers were ALWAYS talking about them. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON was one of the first albums to become a genuine phenomenon, and it was absolutely everywhere when I was in high school. I was intrigued enough by the band to research all their earlier work, and I found their 1971 classic MEDDLE. That’s the one that burrowed into my brain. The trilogy of atmospheric gems on side one: “A Pillow of Winds,” “Fearless” and “San Tropez” stirred me with their smooth vocals, melancholy arrangements and haunted romanticism. I found these tracks more than a little compelling. And, as for “Echoes,” the spacey side-long excursion that graced side two, well, it was the first immersive space rock spectacle I had encountered, a headphone extravaganza for many of us buying our first stereo systems at the time. Progressive rock had arrived, and so had a plethora of mysterious sounds we’d never heard the likes of before, us teens.

How it influenced me: The dawn of headphones-ready space rock, David Gilmour and Rick Wright creating a perfect sonic template to serve Roger Waters’ lyrical ideas, and the important notion that something could be epic and intimate at the same time in music.

9. YES: CLOSE TO THE EDGE

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

And they WERE, too. Close to the edge of sonic possibilities at the time, as evidenced by the side-long title track that pretty much blew everyone’s mind. I didn’t truly listen to Yes with any depth until 1973, but CLOSE TO THE EDGE became a staple. Progressive rock was becoming one of the most popular genres, with Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and others dominating the talk among hardcore music fans at the time. With musicianship on a scale hardly imagined before, Jon Anderson’s soaring voice and “out there” lyrics, and passages of music that were so hypnotic and evocative that they could be said to represent the beginning of the power of “ambient sound” (which would transform my life a few years later), Yes were unrvaveling layers of new possibilities in music. I ate it all up, shared it with friends, and even began trying to memorize some of the more interesting lyrics.

How it influenced me: The mystical, far-reaching “subjects,” the compelling lyrics, the incredible purity of Jon Anderson’s voice, the early ambient sounds.

10. BLACK SABBATH: SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

I was never much into what was called “heavy metal,” although both Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were huge during my teen years. I have no idea what first got me into Black Sabbath, but I listened to MASTER OF REALITY pretty often with the same girlfriend I mentioned in an early paragraph, and it had a lot of mystery about it. The heaviness of the riffs and the darker themes were quite compelling to me. I started reading some of the reviews of Black Sabbath, and by the time their fifth album came out, I was a senior in high school and a budding amateur musician. There seemed to be something of real substance to SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH to my ears at the time, and I even liked Ozzy Osbourne’s shrill voice. The oddest thing that happened, though, is that I began trying to play a couple of the songs on piano. I’d had a year or so of lessons, and I would occasionally try to just “pick out” chords or melodies from popular songs. Came up with my own versions of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and, inexplicably, “Sabbra Cadabra” from the Black Sabbath album. I was playing controlled double octaves, and I was doing it with all the energy I possessed. I had the structure of this song down pretty well! It got to the point where this was pretty impressive, I suppose, because I played it at a couple of parties and for a number of friends, who always seemed to clap. Inadvertently, Black Sabbath had given me my first taste of what it might be like to be a musician. That’s influential, ain’t it?

11. BRIAN ENO: DISCREET MUSIC

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

In a month or two, I’ll be doing a piece on Brian Eno for this site, so I don’t want to go into undue detail right now. But… people who know me, know that Eno is the single most influential musical artist of my life, just a shade more than Neil Young because of the differing STREAMS of influence he had. This 1975 album was a game changer, to say the least, and of earthshaking importance in my life. Try to imagine what it would be like to have your actual dreams and subconscious memories represented in musical terms. That’s what Eno’s first true “ambient” recording did for me. Consisting of wispy, ethereal, repeating and interweaving synth melodies, what Eno came up with was so new and different that no one really knew what to do with it at the time. I did, though. I listened to it late at night both through headphones and without. I played it any time I had a hangover, and the hangover would miraculously go away. I listened to it when I felt depressed, and I felt that, somehow, there was a force out there that understood me. “Miracle music,” I began to call this stuff, and it launched my lifetime love affair with ambient music. How did it influence me? In every possible way as a music listener. It asked questions that many people are STILL trying to answer. And a whole new world had opened up that I walked into with an open mind and open ears…

12. JONI MITCHELL: HEJIRA

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

By 1976, the legendary Joni Mitchell was exploring jazz stylings more and more in her music, and she was well past the stage of having conventional “hits” (1974’s COURT AND SPARK was her last album to feature anything like that). I’d been a fan, but HEJIRA was more than just a new album by a songwriter I loved; it was a restless travelogue by an artist at the peak of her powers. Songs such as “Amelia” (which referenced ill-fated pilot Amelia Earhart), “Song for Sharon” and “Refuge of the Road” really stirred me with their ruminations on life, memories and uncertainty, and furthered a growing desire I had to write meaningful things myself. If that weren’t enough, I fell in love with a girl not long after this that looked very much LIKE Joni Mitchell, and kind of worshipped her. So, me with my Neil Young obsession and this girl with her Joni fixation, began comparing notes and trading insights on our idols. It was heady stuff, and although it ended badly, this Joni Mitchell album in particular captured something emotionally potent that was not only on the recording itself, but echoed through my own personal life. And the lyrics of that “Refuge of the Roads” song are brilliant and sobering.

13. TELEVISION: MARQUEE MOON

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

Something strange and mysterious was going on in New York City in the mid ’70s, and my cousin Roxanne, who lived there, started talking to me about it. There were a lot of new bands playing at a club called CBGB’s, and Roxanne and I, who were already close partially due to shared letters and phone calls about relationships and the music we loved, began going to that club and others in NYC, regularly. A band called Television was getting a great deal of attention, and I didn’t think too much about this until I went to New York myself in 1977 and got to see them, with my cousin and my brother Kyle along for the experience. There’s a thing that happens when you see a band that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. You get transported, you have your mind blown, and it expands your reference points for the old sonic vocabulary. Television had two incredible guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, and the mesmerizing interplay of the two lead guitars, coupled with bizarre, evocative lyrics and Verlaine’s charisma on stage, was unforgettable for anyone who saw the band. The term “new wave” was created to try to label bands like this; “punk” just wasn’t cutting it. These guys were musicians, and they were reaching for something out there that the punk bands couldn’t care less about. Roxanne sang me her favorite lyrics from the band over and over, even my snobby brother was affected, and I was left reeling by yet another brand new rock sound. The MARQUEE MOON album came out later in 1977 and took the indie music scene by storm. Some of the best guitar work ever played was on this album.

How it influenced me: By generating understanding of the far-reaching drama that two electric guitars could generate, seeing the experience of people getting swept away by music in the dingiest of dingy Bowery clubs (at a legendary time in rock music history), and by raising the stakes for underground music, which was also to generate so much press that the mere READING of reviews and articles at this time became an experience unto itself.


DORIS NORTON: PARAPSYCHO

(BLACK WIDOW RECORDS/DISCO PIU; Italian import; reissue 2013, original release 1981)

Doris Norton cover

Unless you are a truly smug, know-it-all kinda music reviewer, you don’t proceed totally independently in this game. You wanna find other opinions of weird or obscure offerings; you wanna find out WHERE something belongs in the scheme of things, you wanna discern anything you can about the “artistic intent” of an eccentric artist. Doris Norton is not your garden variety composer, though Discogs puts her in the “Electronica” category. At times like this, I like to go to Amazon to see if any fans chimed in, And God bless “Mr. Benac” for writing the single review that appears of this PARAPSYCHO project, a reissue of a recording that first appeared in Italy back in 1981. Benac writes: “Norton is a strange, strange person and there’s a possibility she’s trying to say something here. However, I cannot grasp it.” That kind of sentiment is catnip for me, so I dove right in. After an unrepresentative, caterwauling sort of opening rocker (the title track), what follows is more or less early prog-influenced instrumental music that leans at times in the direction of the kind of film music you hear in low budget ’70s horror films. This is certainly true of “Telepathia” and to a lesser extent, “Psychic Research.”

Doris Norton (photo courtesy: musikresearch.com)

Doris Norton (photo courtesy: musikresearch.com)

It helps to know that Norton was sponsored by Apple Computer in the ’80s, and evidently created a music program for IBM USA. Almost all the music here was made on early synthesizers or keyboard programs, and it has that analogue sound that can sometimes sound quaint or simplistic. However, this is mostly listenable stuff. “Ludus” is a perfectly fine cinematic instrumental just a stone’s throw from MORE-era Pink Floyd, at least until a bit of wah-wah at the end. “Tears” is a straight-up European film music cue (presumably for a non-existent film) that features beguiling wordless female vocals. “Obsession” contains everything both annoying and promising about keyboard-heavy prog in one zippy three-minute burst. And “Precognition,” the last and possibly best track (and a bonus to this 32rd Anniversary Edition), enters Kraftwerk territory, with its forward-thrusting sequencers, occasional robotic vocals, and underlying sense of “something going wrong with machines,” with the ascending alarm-like sound at beginning and end somehow punctuating this. Honestly, this stuff is NOT that strange; Mr. Benac needs to come check out MY record collection sometime. Most of Norton’s stuff sits comfortably at the intersection of European film music and somewhat generic sequencer-based prog. Sure, the curiously titled “Hypnotized By Norton,” at just under 10 minutes, does a mash-up of new age, indie rock and prog that is all-over-the-map kooky, and the previously mentioned title track clubs you over the head in a manner not typical of the rest of what’s here. But I gotta admit, I kinda like most of these tracks. There is purposefulness and, more importantly, a playful, open attitude that comes through in Norton’s performances. I detect, also, a little bit of humor in her attitude towards the vast possibilities of the new technology emerging in music at the time. Come to think of it, most of the titles reflect something having to do with how music and immersion in technology may not always be a good match (“Tears,” “Obsession,” “Parapsycho” “Hypnotized… “

Doris Norton (uncredited photo)

Doris Norton (uncredited photo)

Maybe I’m reaching here, but I’m betting that Norton is not so much “strange” as perhaps a woman who just travels to a different mental and emotional space when she makes music, and determinedly shuts out her husband, kids and everything else that gets in the way until she’s damn well satisfied, sonically. I don’t know her story overall, but she came up with some good stuff, only crossing the line into cloying self-indulgence a few times. Hell, if I were a film director, I’d give her a shot. “Controlled unpredictability” is a good trait in my book.


SARA RENAR: JESEN (AUTUMN)

(AQUARIUS RECORDS EP; Croatian import; 2014)

Sara Renar cover

Reviewing a singer/songwriter from another country, singing tunes in their native language, pretty much forces you to concentrate on the pure sound of their offerings, since you can’t follow along with the lyrics. Although I have listened to a fair amount of unique stuff from Europe, Sara Renar is the first singer I’ve listened to from Croatia. So I don’t have many reference points for her 7-song EP titled AUTUMN, or JESEN in her native tongue. I certainly wasn’t expecting a somber 2-minute ambient instrumental to kick things off. The title track was a bit plodding and not very original, but “Trag” was a bit more interesting, repetitive in a good way and using its two-chord simplicity to good effect. Another mid tempo vocal track, then a rather delicate piano and guitar instrumental called “Post Sezona” pretty much lets you know you’re listening to something rather unusual, aesthetically speaking. “Razmak” offers another surprise by beginning with squiggly sounding synth and drum machine and actual lyrics in English. But lest you get too comfortable, Renar switches back to her native Croatian, although the arrangement and feel of this track are so lithe and appealing by this point, you don’t really care. It’s a strong, energetic track. Things close out with an a cappella version of the title track, with two different vocal lines competing for your attention. It’s striking, and a good reminder of how much power the simple human voice can have when singing with conviction and this kind of potent drama. Renar has emotions to spare, and it’s a real kick to hear her going full tilt like this. I didn’t really need to know WHAT she was singing, I could simply tell SHE was into it, and that was enough.

Sara Renar (photo credit: DOONJA DOPSAJ)

Sara Renar (photo credit: DOONJA DOPSAJ)

Hard to say if Renar is an important artist on the basis of this EP, but one thing’s for sure, it does NOT follow a predictable formula. It’s a burst of somewhat nervous energy, with an exploratory feel, and it is curiously asexual in nature. Mostly, I liked it. I hope her next full-length will answer some of the questions that, creatively, this disc leaves hanging.


HELDON: ALLEZ-TEIA

(SUPERIOR VIADUCT/URUS RECORDS/DISJUNCTA RECORDS; vinyl only reissue, 2014; original release, 1975)

HELDON cover

No matter how much you follow music, no matter how well you think you know a certain genre, you can always be surprised by something previously unfamiliar. I am a long-time devotee of ambient and electronica, always have been, but somehow Heldon escaped my notice. The French prog-tronica pioneers made a clutch of well-received discs in the ’70s, and founder Richard Pinhas has released a ton of discs under his own name since then, as well as various collaborations with Merzbow, Pascal Comelade, John Livengood and others. But until this reissue of their amazing 1975 album, ALLEZ-TEIA (their second effort), I’d never heard of either Heldon or Richard Pinhas. That’s a shame, ’cause this is amazing, hypnotic stuff. In the early to mid-’70s, new and powerful sounds were beginning to permeate the fields of prog and electronica. With European artists such as Can, Neu, Kraftwerk and Cluster changing the sonic landscape, the possibilities for modern music expanded a hundredfold. Brian Eno and Robert Fripp blew more than a few minds with their static early ambient explorations on NO PUSSYFOOTING and EVENING STAR, and that’s a good starting point to talk about the music on ALLEZ-TEIA. The opening track is even called “In the Wake of King Fripp,” showing the group’s reverence not only for Fripp’s early innovations on guitar, but his continuing sojourns with King Crimson, obviously one of the most important progressive bands of that era. Another track,”Moebius,” is undoubtedly named after Dieter Moebius, one of the founding members of German electronic pioneers Cluster.

Heldon (Richard Pinhas and Georges Grunblatt) (uncredited photo)

Heldon (Richard Pinhas and Georges Grunblatt) (uncredited photo)

That Fripp and Eno sound, particularly as heard on EVENING STAR, is overtly referenced here; no attempt is made to hide how much Heldon loves the evocative but sometimes brittle sound Fripp conjured, especially when Eno got ahold of those repetitive tape loops and put entrancing layers of twinkly synths below them. In “Omar Diop Blondin,” anyone but the most avid Fripp connossieur would guess it was the maestro himself playing here, so close is the patented Frippertronic sound to what’s going on; the song, in fact, is dedicated to the pioneering ambient duo. But Pinhas starts playing this hypnotic little 5 or 6-note repeating sequence that the showier electric guitar glides and buzzes above in flashy style, and then something genuinely unique results. I’m surprised by how nostalgic this stuff makes me for an era long gone. The 12-minute “Fluence,” a slowly building classic of ’70s sequencer/synth trance, has an organic purity to it that sucks you right in; it never calls too much attention to any of its components the way a lot of overproduced similar stuff of later decades tended to do. And “Saint-Mikael… ” (the title is actually much longer than that, but I’ll spare you from the unwieldiness of it), probably the penultimate track here, is just smashing, an intimate close dance between guitar and ambient synth that truly wants to make you float away in relaxed ecstasy. The surprising switch to dual acoustic guitars at roughly the 7-minute mark is wondrous; in fact, Heldon’s use of acoustic guitars on a few tracks is evidently something of a rarity in their early recorded work.

Heldon (Georges Grunblatt and Richard Pinhas) (uncredited photo)

Heldon (Georges Grunblatt and Richard Pinhas) (uncredited photo)

One thing’s for sure; this music deserves to be heard. Pinhas and company had not only the chops, but the understanding of what makes trancey instrumental music work: the mood created, the graceful interplay of the instruments (so important when you’re dealing with technology that can be cold or overly detached sounding), and good editing instincts. This isn’t a long album, and it’s actually quite a breezy listen; even non prog-tronica fans could enjoy it. Nor does it sound dated, even though its references are mostly from decades past. ALLEZ-TEIA is highly recommended for any fans of that early ’70s electronic music genre; it’s a work of great, to use a word King Crimson loves, discipline. And for me, an Eno and ambient fanatic, this disc was a genuine revelation. It’s something I look forward to hearing multiple times, and I definitely don’t always say that about reissues like this.


100 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME (ACCORDING TO ME), NUMBER 99

If you’re here looking for a Jann Wenner/ROLLING STONE/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame style affirmation of how great Bruce Springsteen is, move on… there’s nothing here for you; Springsteen’s indecipherable vocal grunts have never appealed to me and – like Kurt Cobain’s – his lyrics are a tick (well, okay… several ticks) below that “Friday” girl (Rebecca Black). So, with that out of the way, I can pretty much guarantee that this list will not look like any other such list. Why? Okay, while there are albums that are obviously classics, landmark releases or “must hears,” most of those don’t manage to meet my stringent requirements for this list. Do I like Miles’ BITCHES BREW, Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED or the Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON? Absolutely! And, just for the record, I do actually like a lot of Nirvana’s stuff, IN UTERO being my favorite. But, and here’s the major prerequisite for this list, how often do I listen to them? Not as often as I listen to the records that made the cut and, to these ears, that’s what counts. So, there you go… that is my stringent requirement: How often do I listen to the album and, to a lesser extent, how vehement am I about forcing said album on everyone else with whom I come into contact. A few minor things to consider (or not): There are no live albums (that’s a completely different list); these are all full-length releases (no EPs or singles); every album on this list is an official release (no bootlegs or “promotional only” items); “Greatest Hits,” “Best of… ” and singles collections are strictly verboten.

Ask me again next week and this list will probably look quite different; in fact, it’s already changed significantly since I decided to do a list. I started at 20 (in line with my list of favorite live albums). The list quickly ballooned to almost a hundred before I started whittling it back down to 50. I then found myself adding, deleting and substituting the other nearly 50 albums, so… what’s a music lover to do? The answer was obvious: Make the list a firm Top 100, regardless of the massive undertaking. If you wanna call this a “guilty pleasures” list, if that’ll help you sleep better at night… that’s okay with me. What I hope to accomplish with this list is to get you to take a closer look at some albums you may have crossed off after a spin or two or to get you to check out something that you may have never even been familiar with. It ain’t rocket surgery, kids; it’s just me telling you what I like and why – maybe – you should like the stuff (or at least give a listen), too. With that said, and heading from the bottom of my humble list to the top of the heap, here’s…

(99) LUCIFER: BLACK MASS

(UNI RECORDS; 1971)

Lucier cover

One look at the name and cover of this record generally sent parents to their clergy, asking if an exorcism may be required to save little Billy or Sally from the hellish claws of Old Man Scratch. Despite the name and the tons of negative karma (it seems that the name alone was enough to cause it to sink from public consciousness almost before it was even released) that accompanied the release of BLACK MASS, the album is no more evil or Satanic in its scope or intent than the soundtrack to one of those great Hammer horror movies from the ’60s and ’70s. So, then, why should you care and why should the record rate as one of my 100 greatest of all time? Well… because, despite the name, the album is no more evil or Satanic in its scope or intent than the soundtrack to one of those great Hammer horror movies from the ’60s and ’70s. Oh… and it sounds really good and there are parts of it that still manage to scare the crap out of some people when I play it for them. Oh, and… it was one of the first ever electronic albums, by a true pioneer of the genre, Mort Garson (the guy who wrote “Our Day Will Come” for Ruby and the Romantics, as well as theme songs and incidental music for a bunch of game shows).

Mort Garson (publicity photo)

Mort Garson (publicity photo)

Garson became a disciple of the Moog synthesizer early on and a guru of electronic music upon the release of the 1967 album, THE ZODIAC: COSMIC SOUNDS (a couple of years later, he would expand this idea with twelve full-length records, each featuring music inspired by the individual signs of the zodiac). By the time BLACK MASS was released in 1971, Garson was well ensconced in the world of experimental electronic music, utilizing the synthesizer and other cutting edge sound inducers. “Solomon’s Ring” opens the album with some now-standard Emerson, Lake and Palmer/BRAIN SALAD SURGERY synth blasts (a couple of years before that record was released); somehow, though, those sounds are more beastial, more seductive here. The track reminds me of one of those movies where a virgin is sacrificed to the Dark Lord or Daniel Emilfork (look that one up) or some such totally evil atrocity. There’s chanting, singing, various “jungle noises” and tribal percussion laced throughout the slinky, oscillating groove of “The Ride of Aida (Voodoo).” “Incubus” is a trippy kind of BARBARELLA romp, complete with synthesizer-produced moans and groans. Despite some deliciously dark moments evoking the title demon, this song is pretty light sounding and fun. The titular number features tolling bells, chanting, wind blowing, a cathedral organ and a whole slew of creepy electronic noises. Even with all of the amazing technological advances in instruments, equipment and electronic music over the past forty plus years, I’ll still stack “Black Mass” up against just about anything since. The record’s first side closes with “The Evil Eye,” which is sort of a continuation of “Incubus” that quickly turns into the science fiction equivalent of a Voodoo curse.

Side two opens with “Exorcism.” The track has a kind of urgency and chaos (in a very organized sort of way) that lends a certain credence to its title, even if the odd, pastoral middle section does seem rather out of place. There’s a wicked sense of playfulness on “The Philosopher’s Stone” that belies the evil intent of the music. “Voices of the Dead (The Medium)” is kind of a lullaby for the criminally insane. If this cut makes you uneasy, you probably don’t qualify as a member of that very select group. Except for the creepy electro-percussion middle section, “Witch Trial” could have come from the soundtrack to one of those cheesy early ’70s made-for-TV movies about witch habitations or haunted lawn gnomes… heck, maybe it did come from one of those infernal things. The basic theme is a classical piece that I’ve always been too lazy to look up. The very short (less than 30 minutes) BLACK MASS ends with “ESP.” The track sounds kind like a swarm of wasps in flight or, maybe, the inside of an active hive; at just over a minute in length, though, it’s hard to make more than a general assumption.

Mort Garson, manipulated (photo credit: GUY WEBSTER)

Mort Garson, manipulated (photo credit: GUY WEBSTER)

Of all of Mort Garson’s releases, this one remains the holy grail (the unholy grail?). It has only been reissued three times since its original release – in 1973, when Uni’s parent company MCA moved all catalog releases under the umbrella of the mothership; 1977, when MCA launched a short-lived budget label called MCA Coral; and, finally, in 1980, when they moved everything back under the MCA tent. I’ve had several copies of the MCA versions of this record, so I have never actually seen a Uni version, but I understand it came with a custom inner sleeve with liner notes giving descriptions (and the reason behind the titles) of each piece. I have no idea who currently holds the rights to this masterpiece of electronic music (Garson ceased to exist in 2008, at the age of 83), but it definitely deserves a proper reissue on CD. Call your elected officials and demand they pass a law forcing the release of a definitive version of the 99th greatest album of all time!


THE SOFT MOON: BLACK

(CAPTURED TRACKS; 2014)

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More than two years after his second album, 2012’s ZEROS, Luis Vasquez is back with a stunning new track, “Black,” in advance of the March 2015 release of the Soft Moon’s third album, DEEPER. The song, like the album, is steeped in nightmare scenarios, Gothic imagery and industrial brutality. Here’s the official video of the track to whet your whistle while you cool your heels waiting for the ferryman to deliver DEEPER. Enjoy.


ORENDA FINK: BLUE DREAM

(SADDLE CREEK RECORDS; 2014)

Blue-Dream-Orenda-Fink

BLUE DREAM, the third solo album from Azure Ray’s Orenda Fink, is a catharsis for loss and a balm for the grieving soul. In this instance, Orenda is writing as a means of coming to terms with the death of her beloved Wilson, her pet and friend for sixteen years. I’m not going to tell you that I understand that concept but, what I do understand is loss; there’s a process that we all go through when we lose someone or somebeing that we love deeply… I’ve been through that process more times than I like. Dealing and accepting the loss is part of that process; writing music is Orenda’s way of dealing. This is a deeply personal collection of songs and, I must say, it surely took a lot of guts to release them to the world.

The record’s first single (and lead-off track) is “Ace of Cups,” with a slow, grinding groove that I find reminiscent of those ’80s and ’90s MTV and radio hard rock/electronica hybrid ballads. The song features a memorable bass line and a powerful, swinging guitar solo but, it’s the brilliantly ethereal vocal delivery that makes the song work for me. “You Can Be Loved” is a mid-tempo piece of heavy atmospherics with a slightly detuned guitar figure running through it; there’s still a driving, forceful vibe to the tune, thanks in large part to the authoritative drumming of Bill Rieflin. With “This Is a Part of Something Greater,” I’m kinda reminded of the noises made by Berlin on the COUNT THREE AND PRAY album (the one that featured “Take My Breath Away” from the TOP GUN movie). The instrumentation hums and buzzes, with throbbing bass and understated percussion, highlighted by a killer, feedback-drenched guitar solo. With heartfelt (if a little creepy) lyrics like, “You know that my Love will never die,” I can almost hear Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush wrapping their vocal chords around this one. “You Are a Mystery” is a short blast of distorted girl group pop, utilizing Greg Elsasser’s saw as the prime instrumental impetus. A lullaby for the lost and grieving, “Holy Holy” is a song that comes from a very dark, lonely place but finds a voice as it moves into the light of acceptance.

Orenda Fink (publicity photo)

Orenda Fink (publicity photo)

The album’s title track is a funeral dirge for happiness and is one of the most upbeat songs on the record. The shiny guitar and keyboards that lurk just beyond the periphery add to the subterranean depths of despair. “Sweet Disorder” picks up the tempo but not the somber tone, as these lyrics show: “Crazy sweet disorder love/I believed in nothing/And in the end, that’s what I got.” “Poor Little Bear,” a number specifically referencing her loss, features Orenda’s gauzy voice over a lone acoustic guitar. “Darkling” is a chilling and enduring reminder that the monsters in the room aren’t under your bed, they’re in your head. Finally, with “All Hearts Will Beat Again,” that sense that things will never get better is replaced by a sense that things will go on and that, mostly, love is the only thing we have to hold on to. Working her way through the grief of loss in a cathartic exercise such as the ten cuts offered on her new record should go a long way in spiritually healing those still-open wounds. Has BLUE DREAM purged and cleansed Orenda Fink’s pain? We really won’t know the answer to that question until her next record.


GREAT LIVE ALBUMS (17)

Live recordings have been a part of the music industry since day one of the crude technology of the earliest devices. In fact, since there were really no studios available for recording purposes, all of those early “records” were “live recordings” in the strictest sense. However, the live album, as we now know it, is a completely different animal. That animal came into its own in the rock era and exploded with the release of ALIVE, a 1975 album by KISS, (a career making release with an overabundance of what has come to be known as “studio sweetening”), and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE in 1976 (also hurtling “the face” and former Humble Pie guitarist to superstardom). With the unprecedented success of Peter Frampton’s fifth solo release, everybody and their brothers were releasing these documents of their latest tours (sometimes used as stop gaps between studio albums; sometimes used as a means to gain an artist’s release from a record label contract, commonly referred to as the “contractual obligation” record).

A lot of people don’t like live albums. I’m not one of those. Some of my favorite records were recorded on the road. Here’s a list of 20 live albums that I think are the best. These records are all official releases, not bootlegs… that’s a whole other list (and one you may see somewhere down the line, as well). I had a hard time keeping this list to 20 (it started out as a “Top10”) and, I’m sure that your list would look very different from this one. But, that’s what makes these things so much fun, right? So, here’s the next in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:

(17) GARY NUMAN: LIVING ORNAMENTS ’79 AND ’80

(BEGGARS BANQUET RECORDS; English import box set, 1981)

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In the United States, Gary Numan (barring a miraculous surge in record sales) will always be known as the one-hit wonder guy, thanks to the number one 1979 psuedo-techno classic, “Cars.” Those of us with an adventurous disposition (at least where music is concerned) know that – as good as “Cars” was – it is nowhere near the best song Numan ever recorded; we also know (as do his legions of fans in Great Britain and Europe) that – even though he retired for a short period of time to race cars and fly planes – he has hardly been quiet since the song went viral (well… whatever the comparative term for viral was back then) upon its initial release. THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE, the album that featured “Cars,” was Numan’s third in two years (the first two marqueed by his then-current band, Tubeway Army) and the similarly dystopian TELEKON was just a few months away. In September 1979, Numan was moving away from the Tubeway Army sound and name; THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE was still two months from release. The live show still relied very heavily on the popularity of the group’s name and music, but this newer, tighter band was already exploring new territory and introducing Uk fans to the music from Gary’s first solo record; by September 1980, the band had a tougher, futuristic sound as it toured to support the just-released TELEKON.

In an unprecedented move, early 1981 saw the release of two live albums documenting both the 1979 and 1980 tours. This may have been intended as a stop-gap, offering Numan’s loyal fans something with which to remember the tours, before he released the jarringly different DANCE in September; maybe the releases were intended to appease those loyal fans because the next album would be a departure from the sound they’d come to expect from Numan and his well-oiled machine-like band. Whatever the reason, it was soon decided to offer the two records together, in a box set. That box set, not available except as an import in the US, lands the number 17 spot on my list of great live albums. Here’s why:

Gary Numan, 1979 (Cedric Sharpley, Paul Gardiner, Chris Payne, Billy Currie, Rrussell Bell) (uncredited photo)

Gary Numan, 1979 (Cedric Sharpley, Paul Gardiner, Chris Payne, Billy Currie, Rrussell Bell) (uncredited photo)

The 1979 album was recorded on the group’s second night at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, September 28. LIVING ORNAMENTS ’79 has a very disjointed feel, as Numan rearranged the track order and cut the show down from the 21 songs performed to nine on the released version; due to that editing and shifting, there are fade-outs (and -ins) on many of the tracks, which disrupts the live feel. The quality of the music and performances, however, were never in question. Side one opens with the instrumental “Airlane,” which served as album opener on THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE. The track features a cool synth groove and an awesome power-chording guitar from Rrussell Bell. The worldwide number one hit, “Cars,” is sped up in this live setting. Though Numan’s voice has a rather chilling, robotic feel on the studio version, his performance here may not exactly be dripping with emotion, but it does exhibit more emotion than most are expecting from this period in his career. The Tubeway Army B-side “We Are So Fragile” shows a punkier – dare I say, fiercer – Gary Numan on display. The bass by Paul Gardiner is a definite plus here (and throughout the record). The song, “Films,” features another accelerated tempo, as Gardiner and his partner in rhythm, drummer Cedric Sharpley, are locked into one of those pockets that only a bass/drum tandem can really fall into. Numan’s voice is the disinterested and robotic instrument that we know so well. “Something’s In the House” comes from Tubeway Army’s debut album and has Numan sounding snotty and punky again. There is some amazing interplay between Bell, Sharpley and Gardiner, proving that – regardless of detractors comments – this is a real band… a very solid performing unit. The only problem seems to be a completely out-of-place keyboard/synth solo. I can’t tell if it’s in the wrong key or the wrong tempo or exactly what the problem is; I just know that it doesn’t fit.

Gary Numan, 1979 (uncredited photo)

Gary Numan, 1979 (uncredited photo)

My Shadow In Vain,” more spooky punk from the TUBEWAY ARMY album, is the first track on side two. It features a deranged Numan searching for answers, for dead friends and for his shadow… all in vain. I was surprised by the similarity (particularly the bass, guitar and synthesizer melody lines) with the Knack’s “My Sharona,” which was recorded and released a full year after Tubeway Army’s debut. “Conversation” is another quirky tune from THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE (are there any other kind?). Sharpley and Gardiner are in another syncopated groove and Numan’s vocals are “best-of-show” on the track. Billy Currie’s violin coda at the end of the song, as well as the melody line would show up three years later in Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.” The existential punk of the TUBEWAY ARMY cut “The Dream Police” is highlighted by screeching, scraping violin and viola (by Currie and Chris Payne, respectively) and a repetitive guitar riff from Rrussell Bell. “Metal” sounds very much like a leftover from REPLICAS, as it seems to share that album’s cyborg/human machine thematic concept. It does feature the droning synth and machine-like drumming adopted on the next record.

Gary Numan, 1980 (Cedric Sharpley, Rrussell Bell, Roger Mason, Gary Numan, Paul Gardiner, Chris Payne) (uncredited photo)

Gary Numan, 1980 (Cedric Sharpley, Rrussell Bell, Roger Mason, Gary Numan, Paul Gardiner, Chris Payne) (uncredited photo)

LIVING ORNAMENTS ’80, recorded on September 16 (the second date of a four day stand at the Hammersmith), has more of a live feel, with crowd noises connecting the cuts instead of the off-putting fades (even though the ten tracks were – like the ’79 edition – re-ordered and edited down from the 19 actually played that night). The band line-up has shifted slightly, with Numan now adding synthesizer and guitar duties to his singing and Roger Mason’s keyboards replacing Billy Currie’s keyboard and violin. Set opener “This Wreckage” also opens side one. The still-to-be-released single has the more industrial sound of TELEKON, the album this tour was in support of. A throbbing synth gives way to a pumping bass line and a swinging drum groove brings Numan to the stage, with his disconnected lyrics and disinterested vocal that somehow drips with more emotion than most balladeers can muster. The then-current single, “I Die: You Die,” follows. A sparkling keyboard, Gardiner’s fretless bass and electronic drums from Sharpley are deceptively inviting; a punky guitar slashes and snakes just under the surface as Numan delivers brutal, venomous lyrics about love, lust, lonliness and vengeance: “They crawl out of their holes for me/And I die; you die/Hear them laugh, watch them turn on me/And I die; you die/See my scars, they call me such things/Tear me, tear me, tear me.” An almost majestic sounding tune, “ME” features soaring keyboard and synthesizer. Again, the lyrics focus on death and isolation, a constant theme, especially in Numan’s solo work. The man’s vocal sounds frenzied and a little crazed… in a robotic kind of way. The song continually threatens to fly apart, but Ced Sharpley’s spectacular drumming holds it all together. “Everyday I Die” is one of the few holdovers from the debut Tubeway Army album on this tour. Numan’s vocals have a staccato quality, as he continues to express feelings of lonliness, this time, seemingly, the result of a love lost. The sparse instrumental accompaniment adds to the disturbing tone of the lyrics, making them somehow more frightening. “Down In the Park” is a part of REPLICAS, a grand punk opera about a growing sub-species, more machine than man. It’s a Tubeway Army song, but in name only; a beautiful piano intro gives way to stark, hollow instrumentation and wickedly unemotional vocals.

Gary Numan, 1980 (uncredited photo)

Gary Numan, 1980 (uncredited photo)

The final side of the box set, actually side two of the ’80 record starts with “Remind Me To Smile.” The TELEKON track is about the price of fame, way before the paparazzi were such a prevalent thing: “Get off the car/Get off the phone/Move from my window, leave me alone.” The band participates vocally, with a call and response chorus. “The Joy Circuit” is mostly instrumental… anthemic with hyperkinetic synth and bass. Even through the droning guitars and looped effects, the song somehow has a… happy feeling. “Tracks” starts with a solitary guitar, eventually moving into a synth-driven soundtrack kinda music. The tune could be about drugs or growing old or missing an older constant (parent?) that’s no longer in your life. Aside from “Cars,” “Are Friends Electric?” may be Numan’s best known song in the States. Numan’s spoken word vocals stab and the guitars slash at and through the sci-fi oriented keyboards and synthesizers, giving the tune a distinct Floydian sound. The final number, “We Are Glass,” is another TELEKON cut. It’s one of the more melodic songs from this early stage of Numan’s career, but the creepy REPLICAS cyborg thing is definitely in the lyrics, with such lines as, “We are cold/We’re not supposed to cry” and “You are replaced.” Over a three or four year period (say, 1979-1982), there were a lot of bands that excelled at the type of music pioneered by Gary Numan… at least in the studio; very few were competent enough to pull it off in a live setting. The band that toured with Numan during this time period proved themselves more than capable of bringing Numan’s dark visions to the stage and that’s why the special edition box set, LIVING ORNAMENTS ’79 AND ’80, is one of the greatest live albums ever.

Gary Numan, 1980 (uncredited photo)

Gary Numan, 1980 (uncredited photo)

The latest versions of the albums were released separately in 2005, but still no American editions. The ’79 album has reconstructed the entire show in the proper running order on two CDs; the two CD edition of the ’80 record features the original released version followed by the entire concert, again, in the proper running order. The full show is sourced from the stage monitor mix, which definitely gives you a different listening experience. Bass player Paul Gardiner died of a heroin overdose; drummer Ced Sharpley passed away in 2012 from cancer. During their time with Tubeway Army, Gary Numan’s solo bands and Dramatis (the samae band, minus Numan), they comprised one of the most potent rhythm sections in all of rock and roll. They are missed.


THREE LEGGED RACE: ROPE COMMERCIAL, VOLUME ONE

(UNDERWATER PEOPLES RECORDS EP; 2014)

Three Legged Race cover

Three Legged Race has been the recording project of artist and former Hair Police member, Robert Beatty, since 2002; ROPE COMMERCIAL, VOLUME ONE is his first since 2012’s PERSUASIVE BARRIER and the first in a proposed series of EPs. Beatty has also upped his game for this release, adding acoustic instruments to the mix and warping and processing everything to the point of nearly total inarticulation from the original source. There are certain aspects of the forward-thinking pieces that similarly hearken back to some of my favorite outre noise projects of the ’80s and ’90s, to wit: Skeleton Key’s clanky, creepy debut, FANTASTIC SPIKES THROUGH BALLOON; the industrial sounds of Wisdom Tooth; COMPASS (KUM’PAS) from Dalek I (later, Dalek I Love You).

Robert Beatty is Three Legged Race (publicity photo)

Robert Beatty is Three Legged Race (photo credit: JAIME LAZICH)

All Ajax Dial” is a discordant, clangorous metallic cacophony of noise, quite reminiscent of the previously name-checked Wisdom Tooth and Skeleton Key (without the vocals). Things are definitely off to a great start! After the first track, “Aside From Each Other and Together Overnight” is almost calming… almost. It features so many different textures and sounds, that it is impossible to compartmentalize. It has what sounds like distorted bells and a toy piano with some otherworldly synthesized howls, shifts to a science-fiction like soundtrack (or maybe something from THE EXORCIST, with all the bells) before it takes on an aquatic sound, almost like an exhausted swimmer sinking to a watery grave. As the howls come back in, they’re joined by some indecipherable babbling, sounding like a transmission from another dimension… all in right around six minutes. “New Government” is the sound that you hear when the record’s groove runs the needle into the center label. Add a few little Dalek I like noises bubbling just under the surface to the implied percussive impetus of that needle run out thing (and the return of the piano forcing its way to the fore toward the end of the piece) and it turns into an utterly creepy and highly listenable affair. “The Humidity Mascot” is a collection of computer blips and skrees and odd modulations over the top of a backward tape loop that sounds like a train or heavy city traffic. Beatty saves the most “musical” piece for last. “Rope Commercial” has an Indian percussion sort of thing happening, with weird, cartoony music and sound effects running over the top. The whole record is over in 18 minutes, leaving me wanting more and craving the second installment of the ROPE COMMERCIAL series. The EP is available only as a 12” picture disc; for this and more incredible music, visit the label website at underwaterpeoples.com.


GEORGE HARRISON: THE APPLE YEARS, 1968-1975

(CAPITOL RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP, 7 CD/1 DVD Box Set; 2014)

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For whatever reason, the quiet Beatle’s solo records always seemed to get the short-shrift in the good ol’ US of… with, not only fans of the Fab Four, but with the critics, as well. I guess a lot of people found the albums a little… patchy. That’s a fallacy that persists still, maybe because George wasn’t as outrageous or outspoken as John Lennon (comparatively, his solo material and career was wildly more uneven); wasn’t as “Aw, shucks” self-effacing as Ringo Starr; wasn’t as readily accessible as the Pop Meister General (some would say, the Schlock Meister General), Paul McCartney. He was just… well… George. Honestly, some of the criticism can probably be traced back to George’s first two solo records and, maybe, his embracing Hinduism at a time when such spiritual enlightenment was not readily accepted by America’s Christian majority. This beautifully produced set (including a hard-bound book) should go a long way in dispelling the belief, by some, that George Harrison’s music was somehow… less. Here, we’re going to examine each of the records singularly and on their own merits, beginning with…

George Harrison, 1967 (photo courtesy of and copyrighted by THE HARRISON FAMILY)

George Harrison, 1967 (photo courtesy of and copyrighted by THE HARRISON FAMILY)

WONDERWALL MUSIC (1968)

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Somewhere out there, there exists a movie called WONDERWALL, starring the beautiful Jane Birkin as, somewhat fittingly, Penny Lane. Birkin was probably best known for being a scenester and, generally, for being a scantily clad (if clad at all) scenester; she famously appeared nude with an equally nude Brigitte Bardot in a bedroom scene for a 1973 movie called DON JUAN (OR IF DON JUAN WERE A WOMAN) (I know that most of you men are currently away, Googling the movie title for pictures of that scene… I’ll be here when you get back). But… I digress! As there was a movie called WONDERWALL, it seems only fitting that there should be a WONDERWALL soundtrack. And, there is.

George Harrison WONDERWALL MUSIC (photo credit: ASTRID KIRCHHERR/photo courtesy of and copyrighted by GEORGE HARRISON ESTATE)

George Harrison WONDERWALL MUSIC (photo credit: ASTRID KIRCHHERR/photo courtesy of and copyrighted by GEORGE HARRISON ESTATE)

WONDERWALL MUSIC, aside from being that soundtrack, is an historic piece of musical history: Not only is it the first solo album by George Harrison, it is the first solo album by ANY Beatle, as well as the first release on the lads’ own Apple Records imprint. Even more history-making is the fact that George doesn’t play on the album; he’s credited with writing, arranging and producing only (kinda like John Williams on his numerous soundtrack albums). However, several experts on the Beatles and their music (including Bruce Spizer in his book, THE BEATLES SOLO ON APPLE RECORDS) cite Harrison as providing guitar and mellotron, as well as mentioning appearances by Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Peter Tork (yes… THAT Peter Tork!). The album was recorded at the end of 1967 (and released a full year later, about a month before the movie opened), so George’s work here is heavily influenced by Indian music, into which he had immersed himself after a trip there earlier in the year. There are more than a few of the traditional, droning Indian ragas on display here and, even within the more Western-oriented rock music (credited to the Remo Four), it’s an integral part of the mix (the lone exceptions being the aptly titled “Cowboy Music” and the langorous, piano-driven gypsy love theme, “Wonderwall To Be Here”). Most of the tunes don’t really stick around to be too annoying and too interesting (12 of the original 19 tracks are less than two minutes each), but a couple of those shorter numbers, I wouldn’t have minded to see fleshed out a bit (“Red Lady Too,” “Guru Vandana” and, a track purported to feature either Clapton and Harrison or Clapton alone, “Ski-ing,” which couples with a much more traditional Indian piece called “Gat Kirwani”). Of the longer tracks, “Drilling a Home,” with its jaunty, playful tin-pan alley sound and “Dream Scene,” which is studio deviltry from Harrison – taking three distinct pieces (recorded in London and Bombay), splicing, dicing and looping them together, with various instruments dubbed over the top. You’ll get a very definite “Revolution 9” vibe from the track, which was apparently recorded some months before the Beatles recorded their trippy sound collage. WONDERWALL MUSIC may not be as readily accessible as some of George’s later albums, but it is still quite listenable. Which isn’t bad, considering that, by all accounts, the movie it provided the soundtrack to was virtually unwatchable.

The Remo Four WONDERWALL MUSIC (publicity photo)

The Remo Four WONDERWALL MUSIC (publicity photo)

Of course, then, there are the bonus tracks, because… well, there are always bonus tracks, right? The Remo Four provide “In the First Place,” a wholly Western, mildly psychedelic George-as-Beatle track (which features an odd, very wobbly piano sound, compliments of Tony Ashton). It’s the only true vocal number recorded for the soundtrack and could very well have been a hit single if it had been released in 1968. “Almost Shankara” is a spry, bouncing Indian tune. I could imagine this one popping up in some period movie, as a sheik brings in dancers to entertain his dinner guests. What I’m guesing must be the original, instrumental version of “The Inner Light” completes the trio of bonus tracks. Without Harrison’s vocals, it almost sounds like a completely different song than the version first heard as the B-side to the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” single.

ELECTRONIC SOUND (1969)

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Barely six months after breaking ground with WONDERWALL MUSIC, the quite Beatle is back with another, even more experimental album of solo music. The music on ELECTRONIC SOUND was so experimental, in fact, that it barely even touched the outer fringes of what was then considered music (even by drug-addles hippies), forcing Apple Records to create a subsidiary label – Zapple – just to release it (as well as John and Yoko’s UNFINISHED MUSIC NUMBER 2: LIFE WITH THE LIONS). I guess when you’re a Beatle, though, people give you a bit more latitude than if you were one of Freddy’s Dreamers.

George Harrison ELECTRONIC SOUND (uncredited photo)

George Harrison ELECTRONIC SOUND (uncredited photo)

Thirty-five years later, though, and music’s kinda caught up with George. Listening to the two long tracks (“Under the Mersey Wall” is almost 19 minutes long; “No Time Or Space” comes in a tad over 25 minutes) in a world that has since brought us such obnoxious oddities as Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber and music by such outre artists as Throbbing Gristle, the Residents and Tangerine Dream, the album sounds pretty darn good. So, what, exactly was going on in the mustachioed dome of Beatle George that prompted the recording of these noisy soundscapes? Well, as we are all wont to do when we get a new toy, we wanna play with it; George was no different. Having acquired a Moog III synthesizer, he fully intended to put it to use. The first piece, “Under the Mersey Wall,” is the better of the two tracks. It’s more cohesive and, as befits George, is a little more pastoral. When the piece was over, I wasn’t even aware that I’d been listening for over 18 minutes. The second piece is another animal all together. While I generally like the skrees and electronic farts of such music, I found it hard to listen to; at one point, I actually thought that the track must be close to being over, only to discover that there was barely seven minutes gone.It ain’t awful, it just seems to stay a bit too long. Interestingly enough, an electronic innovator and musician named Bernie Krause claims that “No Time Or Space” is actually him teaching George the ins and outs of the Moog III synthesizer. Krause further claims that he didn’t know that he was being recorded until the album was released. The album credits do read, “Recorded in California; with the assistance of Bernie Krause,” so there is some validity to the fact that he did at least work with George in some capacity on the track. I’m guessing that these two numbers were the only ones created/recorded for the album, as there are no bonus tracks on the new reissue. That really doesn’t matter, though, if you’re into this very early, psuedo-Krautrock stuff.

ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970)

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Harrison’s third album is, for all intents and purposes, his first proper solo album, filled with the sort of tunes that one would expect from a now-former Beatle. The album was a sprawling three-record set, comprised of (mostly) unused songs written for latter-day Beatles releases. George has been quoted as saying of the set, “I didn’t have many tunes on Beatles records, so doing an album like ALL THINGS MUST PASS was like going to the bathroom and letting it out.” While the record may not be perfect, it’s hardly filled with disposable (or flushable) material… though there are those that would question that remark as regards the third record’s “Apple Jam.”

George Harrison ALL THINGS MUST PASS (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

George Harrison ALL THINGS MUST PASS (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

By the second song, “My Sweet Lord,” it’s obvious that this is going to be a special album. Released as the lead single from the record, the tune marked another milestone: It was the first solo Beatles single to reach number one in both the US and the UK (it topped the charts worldwide). The production, a joint effort between George and Phil Spector, is everything that John Lennon had hoped for when he and Spector began work three years later on what would eventually become the ROCK ‘N’ ROLL album. The sound of ALL THINGS… is as sparkling and vibrant as one would expect from a Spector production, highlighted by Harrison’s airy vocals and brilliant slide guitar work. And, of course, as mentioned elsewhere, being a Beatle (or, by this time, ex-Beatle) does have its advantages; George had the cream of the crop to pick from, as far as musicians to help bring the record to fruition: Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker, Dave Mason and Alan White (the former Plastic Ono Band and future Yes drummer) all make appearances alongside, seemingly, a cast of thousands. The album has plenty of now-familiar highlights, including “What Is Life,” the loping Bob Dylan tune, “If Not For You,” the light country lilt of “Behind That Locked Door,” the Dylan-esque paean to adoring fans, “Apple Scruffs,” the strident, almost giddy pop of “Awaiting On You All,” and the rocking “Art of Dying,” which seems to be the inspiration for the BAND ON THE RUN tune “Missus Vanderbilt.” As far as the “Apple Jam” segment, it is exactly what it sounds like: Harrison jamming with Clapton, drummer Jim Gordon, bassist Carl Radle and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, the players that would go on to become Derek and the Dominos. As a piece of rock history, I suppose it has a place here but, as I was never a big jam band kinda guy, these tracks don’t get much playing time around here.

George Harrison ALL THINGS MUST PASS (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

George Harrison ALL THINGS MUST PASS (photo credit: BARRY FEINSTEIN)

There are bonus tracks – the same five (demos, alternate takes and a totally disposable 2000 remake of “My Sweet Lord”) that have been on most CD reissues since the remastered version from 2001, which brings me to my primary problem (the only problem, really) with this version of ALL THINGS MUST PASS: I don’t like the sequencing. I don’t really care for bonus material showing up in the middle of things; I would much rather see such things nailed to the end of the original album. I have a couple of fixes that would have worked better for me: First, the first two albums fit nicely onto one CD (trust me, I’ve done the math), which leaves the looser “Apple Jam” material of the third record and the bonus tracks for a second, shorter CD; second, you put the first three sides of the original on disc 1 and the final three (with bonus material) on disc 2, allowing for a more even distribution (time wise) of the material. I would probably opt for the first solution, for exactly the reasons stated; it just makes more sense to me.

LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (1973)

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After two albums of experimental music and the three record set ALL THINGS MUST PASS, which was comprised mostly of songs left over from his time in that other band, as well as the enormous undertaking that was the Concert For Bangladesh relief effort and a world tour, our George was ready to get back to the business of making (new) music. It took nearly three years to follow up ALL THINGS… with the spiritually upbeat LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD. Although the album is highly enjoyable and features a few exceptional tunes, the strain of filling an entire album alone shows. The one consistent running throughout the record’s eleven tracks is the exceptional guitar playing; George has always flown under the radar, talent-wise, because he was surrounded by players like Eric Clapton and Dave Mason or the overpowering personalities of McCartney and Lennon in the Beatles but, the fact was: George Harrison was one of the best guitarists on the face of the planet, mastering and artfully playing in any style the song and the arrangement dictated.

George Harrison LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (uncredited photo)

George Harrison LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (uncredited photo)

The opening track, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” a great song with a hopeful message – and reminiscent of “My Sweet Lord,” both melodically and lyrically – was another number one single for George. Possibly the best tune on the album, “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” is a murky, stomping rocker with a swampy slide slithering through out and a great boogie piano over it all. The lyrics are a reaction to the various legal actions taken by the four Beatles, their various management teams and shared holding companies (Apple Records and Apple Corps among others). It stands as one of the meanest (in the nicest kind of way) lyrics ever written by George Harrison. Other stand-out numbers include the pumping title track, the beautifully lilting acoustic love song, “Be Here Now” and the majestic “Try Some, Buy Some,” highlighted John Barham’s soaring orchestration. Overall, the set does tend to an awkward sameness, but is saved by George’s imaginative guitar work and vocal sincerity.

George Harrison LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (photo credit: MAL EVANS)

George Harrison LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (photo credit: MAL EVANS)

The bonus tracks are the two B-sides from the 2006 reissue, “Miss O’Dell,” from the “Give Me Love… ” single and “Deep Blue” from the “Bangladesh” single. As an added bonus, the A-side of that single is presented for the first time anywhere since the 1992 reissue of Apple’s THE BEST OF GEORGE HARRISON package. I must admit that though there are fewer bonus cuts here than on ALL THINGS MUST PASS, this is definitely the better selection, particularly “Bangladesh.”

DARK HORSE (1974)

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With DARK HORSE, George is back in the saddle (so to speak), after a busy year touring, writing and recording, all the while producing several outside projects. The wear and tear was showing, as George fought a worsening bout of laryngitis that drastically affected his vocals. The record may actually give some an indication why George never had more than a couple of songs on the Beatles’ albums; DARK HORSE ain’t all great, but…it ain’t all bad, either. It definitely has problems. This is an instant where Harrison may have been better off staying away from the studio, giving himself time to heal and to write a few more songs to choose from; a writing partner may have helped at this juncture in George’s career, as well. But, having said all of that, let me add that the stuff that works tends to work very well.

George Harrison DARK HORSE (uncredited photo)

George Harrison DARK HORSE (uncredited photo)

The record starts strong with “Hari’s On Tour (Express),” a complex instrumental that coalesces funky rock and boogie woogie with a little country honk with some “smooth Jazz” horns over the top. There’s a very odd, virtually deconstructed cover of the Everly Brother’s “Bye Bye, Love, apparently a shot at Eric Clapton and George’s ex-wife, Patti, who both inexplicably appear on the album. I gotta be honest: That one is hard to listen to. These, on the other hand aren’t: “So Sad,” a jangly Wilbury-esque mid-tempo rocker; “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” a moderately rocking, rather nonsensical song that mysteriously gained an additional “Ding Dong” in the three days since the song was released as a single; the title track, also released as a single, is a solid rocker, with George’s voice sounding very ragged, which actually helps here. There are moments on the other four tracks where you’ll think, “Okay, that sounds pretty cool.” The problem is, those “Oh, wow!” moments aren’t sustained for the entire song.

George Harrison DARK HORSE (photo credit: TERRY DORAN)

George Harrison DARK HORSE (photo credit: TERRY DORAN)

Things are a bit short on the bonus material, but one, a strong acoustic demo of “Dark Horse,” has never been released and, the other, “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the B-side to the “Dark Horse” single in the States and the flip of “Ding Dong” just about everywhere else, is seeing its first CD release. Both are worth a listen.

EXTRA TEXTURE (READ ALL ABOUT IT) (1975)

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So, maybe, in retrospect, a layoff to recover from laryngitis wouldn’t have been a good thing. EXTRA TEXTURE (READ ALL ABOUT IT) sees George morphing into a Vaudevillian version of James Taylor. There is probably a really good album between DARK HORSE and EXTRA TEXTURE… because, again, there is gold amongst the dross.

George Harrison Extra Texture (photo credit: HENRY GROSSMAN)

George Harrison Extra Texture (photo credit: HENRY GROSSMAN)

The first UK single from the album, “You,” is a strong opener, with a ’60s American pop music vibe featuring horns and that charging Motown percussion sound. “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying),” the first US single is a “sequel” to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and, despite the goofy name, features some nice piano and an awesome slide solo from George. It’s probably most evident here than any other track on the record that Harrison is suffering some lingering effects of his illness. For whatever reason, George invisioned himself a soul crooner on “Ooh Baby (You Know That I Love You),” aiming for a smooth Teddy Pendergrass or Smokey mid-’70s soul vibe. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. At all! The sound of “Tired of Midnight Blue” moves between an archetypical soft rock piano thing and a bluesy, hand-clapping guitar groover with the bass laying down a funky underpinning that is hard to ignore. There are some good ideas floating around in there which would probably make a couple of pretty decent songs. As they are, “Tired of Midnight Blue” is just a jumbled mess of missed opportunities. “Grey Cloudy Lies” comes on sounding like a slowed down, more somber mix of “Hey, Jude” and “Let It Be,” the doleful tone creating one of the most memorable songs on the entire record. One of the better tracks, album closer “His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen)” is a heartfelt ode to George’s long time pal, Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It’s a goofy, jiving number that brings back memories of the fun-loving atmosphere of the Beatles’ A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP! Movies and features Legs himself, doing his Doo-Dah thing.

George Harrison EXTRA TEXTURE (uncredited photo)

George Harrison EXTRA TEXTURE (uncredited photo)

The sole bonus track is a “reconstructed” demo, originally offered to Dave Stewart in 1992, a reiteration of “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying).” It features George’s acoustic accompaniment and vocal tracks, Stewart’s overdubbed guitar from ’92 and, from a session in 2002, drums from Ringo, guitar from George’s son, Dhani (of which, more later) and vocals from Kara DioGuardi were added. On the whole, this version is superior to the original, as it features a stronger vocal performance from George and heavier, more substantive backing. Harrison’s solo on the original and Stewart’s here… well… it’s a toss up; both are of the finest kind. Had the majority of EXTRA TEXTURE had this sound (or, at least, a close 1975 technological approximation), it may have fared better over the years.

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The exclusive DVD features plenty of archival material, most of which seen (and heard) before as bonus material on various reissues of the individual album. It’s kinda cool to have them all in one place, though. The highlight is, of course, a new seven-and-a-half minute feature called (what else?) “George Harrison – The Apple Years,” lovingly directed by George’s wife, Olivia. While all of the albums are housed in extravagant replicas of the original sleeves, the DVD is cradled in a beautiful book with new essays and rare images.I can’t honestly say that this DVD is worth the price of admission alone but, as you can’t get it anywhere except THE APPLE YEARS, 1968-1975 box set…

Dhani Harrison (uncredited photo)

Dhani Harrison (uncredited photo)

The entire project, meant to complete and compliment THE DARK HORSE YEARS, 1976-1992 set released in 2004, was overseen by George’s son, Dhani, and ably assisted by Olivia. Dhani comments: “I am so happy that what we started a decade ago by releasing THE DARK HORSE YEARS… is now complete with the release of his first six albums as THE APPLE YEARS… .” Dhani spearheaded a premier group of engineers as the music was digitally remastered from the original analogues. Each album is released individually, as well, with the upgrade in sound, for those fans who already have one or more on CD already or for the casual listener who may not want to jump in with both feet on such a huge package.