Thursday, November 05, 2009
Here are my 15 recordings.
Unlike my swell pal, Donatello - whose 15 Recordings were published in this space yesterday - I have little formal musical training. Everything I know about the instruments I play, I pretty much taught myself. I learned from watching others, by picking up an occasional book - that's how I learned to read music, haltingly, like a first-grader trying to read Middle English - and by listening to, and trying to imitate, records.
I mention the self-serving crap above as explanation for some of the choices I've made here. I find that many of the records I've chosen to include in my 15 are those that I had on the stereo while I was learning to play. They are the records I tried to copy. Being self-taught, and wanting to sound as slick as possible immediately, some of the songs I practiced weren't what you'd call complicated. As a matter of fact, many are examples of pure bonehead rock, which Donatello gave a marvelous definition of in some correspondence we shared, to wit:
"The themes of bonehead rock are simple: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Bonehead rock artists are, in general, in favor of these things. Occasional sub-themes:
a) too many drugs can interfere with your ability to enjoy sex and rock and roll.
b) it can also be fun to go out and break shit."
Couldn't possibly have said it better myself.
Donatello hit on something else yesterday that resonated with me when he said that listening to music is similar to the sense of smell, in that it is a strong memory enhancer. True. I can listen to any of the following albums and immediately tell you where I bought the album (or who gave it to me), where I was when I first heard it, who I was with, what drugs I was taking, and all sorts of other ridiculous associated ephemera. So, these all have good memories attached and some can make me feel 30 - 35 years younger when I listen to them. Generally, when you put that up against a record that has a main attribute of masterful playing, mastery ain't gonna win. So, if you wrinkle your nose and say, "Man, Sully, you sure do have some hideous tastes in music!", I'll offer this paragraph as an apologetic. Anyway, bad musicians can sometimes be more fun to listen to than good ones. Watching a bunch of really good pilots flying in gracefully rigid formation is swell enough, but some pinhead flying too close to the sun with wings made of wax is often way more entertaining.
I found this to be a much tougher task than the 15 books. With those, I knew I wouldn't terribly regret leaving the borderline choices off. Even my favorite book of all-time (which would be Tom Sawyer, by the way) I've only read about 30 times. There are records in my collection that didn't make the top 200 here that I've listened to at least twice as many times.
These are, for lack of a better qualifier, the 15 albums I would most want to have with me if I could have access to no other albums ever again; the desert island choices, as Donatello put it. However, I'll give one more explanation concerning why I chose these 15 and not some of those given at the end as "honorable mentions". When it came time to winnow the field, I found the easiest way to do it was to ask myself if the album in question was one that I could listen to straight through and never consider skipping any cuts. I figure if I'm going to be stranded on a desert island, I don't want any vinyl wasted on cuts I'd just as soon not listen to. So, most of these - not all, but most - are records that contain no dead spots for me. That's about as good a criterion for inclusion as any.
I could go on giving more rationales for having chosen these, but I'm pretty sure I'll give more than enough within each choice, so let's get to it.
In Rock and Made In Japan, Deep Purple
Exhibit A when trying to prove to someone that there are actually good musicians plying their trade in the realm of heavy metal, these guys are easily my favorite group. I wouldn't cry if I was stranded on a desert island with 15 albums only from them. Well, okay, maybe after 20 years I'd cry a little. However, I'll get to choose some diversity after this, so I narrowed my Purple collection down to these two. They contain the best of the group: Two superb soloists (Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Jon Lord on Keyboards); the best all-around drummer in rock (Ian Paice); a solid bass player who is willing to hold everything together on the ground while the other guys go flying off to explore the sky (Roger Glover); and a vocalist (Ian Gillan) who was able to hit brilliant high screams, ON KEY, and also play a passable mouth organ when called upon.
(Purple has had other incarnations, but I feel this is the best overall congregation. More recently, Steve Morse has handled the guitar chores. I once said, in another forum - and was skragged unmercifully for it, but it's true - that if Morse and Blackmore were gunfighters, Morse would leave Blackmore lying in the street dead 9 times out of 10. However, Gillan's voice has been so shot, since the time Morse joined the group, that the Blackmore era band comes out overall winner.)
I thought long and hard about including Machinehead as one of the two, rather than In Rock, but finally chose the latter because most of the former's material can be had on Made In Japan (although I lose the absolutely stunning Blackmore studio solo from Highway Star.) The problem, such as it is, is that Purple did not replicate studio albums in concert. They were as close to a jazz band as heavy metal got, which is one of the reasons why I love them. There are no two live recordings alike. In their early days, they'd sometimes stretch numbers out to 25 or 30 minutes with improvisations and solo spots. An example of that sort of experimentation comes during Space Truckin' on Made In Japan, where Glover rocks steady while the others take turns seeing how far they can travel without a map and still find their way home.
And, with these two albums, I get two versions of Child In Time, so I get to hear THE most stunning vocal gymnastics ever, by any metal singer, both in the studio and live. Those performances, by themselves, are reason enough to take these albums to the island.
Desolation Boulevard, Sweet
If you listen to classic rock on the radio, you probably know one cut from the album - Ballroom Blitz - and maybe also the less-worthy hit, Fox On The Run, but the rest of the album is amazingly solid. It is actually a compilation of sorts, culled from a few of their British albums, but released in the U.S. as though it were just the latest from them at the time. The U.K. release is vastly different, so be sure of which one you're buying.
Side One contains Blitz and other tunes penned by Chinn & Chapman, who were their managers/songwriters during their pre-teen-aimed bubblegum phase. Some great riff rockers on this side. Side Two contains their own original compositions from after their break with C & C, and is filled with molten slabs of white hot grind (excluding the bubblegummish Fox.)
This is my favorite drumming album. Other drummers rank higher in my overall estimation as well-rounded musicians - Ian Paice, as mentioned above, for instance - but Mick Tucker, on this album, is just about as perfect as a rock drummer gets. I would unhesitatingly hand this album to anyone aspiring to be a rock/metal drummer and tell him "This is what you should be aiming for."
As well, guitarist Andy Scott sounds as though he swallowed the 1972 version of Ritchie Blackmore whole, spit out the subtlety, and then ate a side order of crystal meth before hitting the studio. It doesn't get any crunchier and out-of-control (but actually fully in-control) than his stuff on Side Two's Sweet F.A.
If you like this album, get the follow-up, Give Us A Wink. They decided to make a true studio masterpiece. By that, I mean it is layered, dubbed, textured, scrubbed and polished unlike few metal albums of the day. Truly astounding production for the 1970's.
LIVE ALBUM, Grand Funk
Every time I mention this as being my favorite bass guitar album of all-time, I know I'm not doing my reputation as a connoisseur of fine music any favors. But, it is. And it's coming to the desert island with me.
Mel Schacher's bass is just an all-encompassing, smothering, dark brown slab of vibrating goodness. There's nothing complicated here (and if you can't take a whole lot of repetition, nothing much at all) but this is the sound that made me want to become a bass player. He just crushes the audience here; annihilates them with a wall of bass. Being in the audience, at this concert, must have been a cathartic experience. This bass would have rattled your chest bones and probably loosened the plaque in your arteries.
Lots of battle-of-the-bands style tunes, designed to get a stoner audience out of their chairs and pumping their fists, and there are some high points (and low points) for Mark Farner on guitar and vocals, and Don Brewer on drums, but that bass... no other record like it exists.
The Hits, Tommy Dorsey
I tried to stay away from "greatest hits" or compilation albums, but there's little choice when you're talking about late 30's - early 40's big band stuff. They just plain didn't make long-playing albums. They released singles. The only way to get this stuff, today, is via compilations of one sort or another. And, since I wanted one big band album, that's the route I had to take.
I considered a collection of Charlie Barnet. His band was hotter overall, Redskin Rhumba is about as close to heavy metal as swing ever got, and Barnet himself, on sax, is probably my favorite soloist within the genre. Dorsey won out, however, for a few very good reasons.
1) The arrangements are better. Dorsey was a perfectionist, while Barnet didn't seem to give a damn about how songs ended just as long as they jumped and had room for a good solo.
2) Dorsey is the best trombone player ever. Okay, that's something you might want to debate, what with fellas like J. J. Johnson, Jack Teagarden, and Jimmy Cheatham having roamed the earth at one time or another, but I'll stand behind that statement. I'll pit I'm Getting Sentimental Over You, Trombonology and Song Of India against any other sackbut practitioner. Dorsey wasn't the best improv guy - he himself felt he wasn't better than mediocre at improvising a solo - but working from a chart, there was nobody to top him.
3) With Dorsey, you get Frank Sinatra on vocals for a handful of songs. That obviates the need for choosing a solo Frank Sinatra recording. You also get Buddy Rich on drums, although he's mighty subdued compared to some of his other stuff.
4) Opus One. Maybe the most perfect big band recording ever, if I'm Getting Sentimental... isn't.
Anyway, I had to have one big band recording and this one is about as good as it gets.
(It's one of four CDs included in the pictured set, by the way, but I only took the one to be fair. My apologies to Jimmy Dorsey fans.)
Prokofiev's Second Symphony, Berliner Philharmoniker - Seiji Ozawa conducting.
I decided I wanted one classical recording, and Prokofiev (or, Procoffeecup, as MY WIFE likes to call him) is my favorite classical composer. I could live with the much lighter Lieutenant Kije Suite (which, by the way, was one of the first things other than rock I tried to teach myself on bass, and I still amuse myself by throwing bits of the Troika movement into solos) or perhaps the Fifth Symphony, which is quite bright, but my absolute fave is the Second. I've never seen it performed anywhere, so I assume it's not the favorite of anyone with verifiable taste. I love it, though, and that's all that matters here.
The Second is strident, somewhat harsh, a bit dissonant, has parts that evoke - for me, at least - 1950's horror flicks, and is, as Prokofiev himself put it, a symphony of "iron and steel." I like the first movement more than the second movement (the "variations") but they both work.
As a bonus, the CD that contains the Second, from the collection above, also has his Seventh, which is quite enjoyable if more mellow.
2 - Bloodrock
OK, back to the tripe that it seems only I like.
Bloodrock were a band from Fort Worth, Texas, and they had a very short shelf life. Their first album had some wonderful moments, and their third album had some, too, but their second (a very good reason for it's being called "2") is the only time they ever got it completely right for an entire album. And they got it magnificently right.
Between the first record and this one, they picked up a new drummer.
(Aside: I find that I have much more of an obsession with drummers than I would have previously thought. I think I've mentioned them in every review here except for the Prokofiev.)
Anyway, they had previously had Jim Rutledge both singing and playing drums. Since a singing drummer is not the most accessible of frontmen - and because Rutledge was just passable as a drummer - producer Terry Knight decided to relegate Rutledge to vocals alone and hired Rick Cobb to be the drummer. This was a great move, giving both spots a boost. Cobb's drums on this album are solid and inventive, while Rutledge's vocals are much superior to those on the debut.
The song that you may know from this, D.O.A., was probably the weirdest and most morbid charting single in the history of music. It reached #36 on the Billboard charts despite the subject matter being a plane crash and subsequent dead on arrival status of the guy singing the song. Hell of a well-constructed tune, though. And the whole album is tight, tight, tight. I love it, may the group as a whole rest in peace.
Raw Power, The Stooges
I wrote a huge overblown appreciation for this album already, and you can find it HERE if you want to have an hour's worth of reading material. Here's the synopsis:
Best rock album ever.
I'll just add one caveat for anyone who might end up being emptor: the original mix, by David Bowie, is far superior to the re-mix, by Iggy Pop, even though the original mix has a horribly weak bottom. Trust me on this. I'm a bass player, and if I'm telling you the mix with weaker bass is better, that should tell you something concerning the relative quality of both.
It's Alive, The Ramones
Sort of cheating. I couldn't decide between their first album and Leave Home, so I'm opting for the live album that contains most of both plus a serious helping of Rocket To Russia. 28 songs in less than 54 minutes, and that includes Dee Dee's "1-2-3-4" between each.
These guys were great. I saw them four or five times, back in their heyday, and left every show sweaty, grinning, and satisfied like I just had great sex.
Best Ramones tidbit: They got it completely backwards. Whereas most bands with a dead member are missing a drummer, the only original Ramone still living is the drummer. Yup. That was them all the way.
Moving Waves, Focus
The best Dutch band ever. And it's got yodeling, too.
[*blank stare from everybody*]
Huh. I would have thought that was enough. Okay, then, this is one of the great mostly-forgotten bands. Jan Akkerman is a seriously fine guitarist, and Thisj Van Leer was a good enough flute player to have ended up as a sideman for a few hardcore jazz guys after Focus folded (he also plays some tasty keyboards and has a vocal range that's astounding.) Pierre Van Der Linden and Cyril Havermans are a sweet rhythm section, playing nothing but tasteful accompaniment. The songs range from metal-tinged rockers to Rockford Files Theme Song-like instrumentals to 20-minute prog-rock blowouts to solo piano mood pieces. And yodeling. It's got yodeling. GOOD yodeling.
Geez, just buy it, will you? I guarantee you won't be sorry. I'll buy it back from you if you truly don't like it.
Paranoid, Black Sabbath
When you’re a guitarist and you chop off the tips of your fingers in an industrial accident, you have to adapt if you want to keep playing. That’s what Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath did. In the process, he pretty much invented a new musical genre.
There isn’t another musician in the world that I admire more than Tony Iommi. I mean that. If persistence alone were what counted, he’d be unanimously acclaimed as the greatest guitar player in the world. It ISN’T the only thing counted, of course, so he isn’t, but he’ll always have a spot in MY hall of fame.
Iommi was working in a factory – his last day on the job, as a matter of fact, as he was quitting to go on a tour of Germany with his current band – when he had the ends of three fingers on his chording hand sliced off by a machine. He was, as you might imagine, despondent. He thought his musical career was finished. He sank into a deep depression.
A friend of his from the factory visited him, bringing along a Django Reinhardt record. He explained to Tony that this guitarist had been in a fire and came out of it with two of his fingers fused together. Rather than forget about a musical career, however, he figured out a way around his injury, using the fused fingers to make barre chords and otherwise adapting what he had rather than bemoaning what he didn’t. Reinhardt became a world-famous guitarist. The story made a tremendous impression on Iommi and he decided to somehow figure out how to play with his truncated fingers.
At first, he just tried using them as they were, but it proved too painful. Then he got an idea: What if he fashioned prosthetic fingertips for himself? So, Tony melted down a dishwashing detergent bottle and molded the melted plastic onto his fingers in the approximate shape of his missing tips. It worked fairly well; better when he cut up some small pieces of leather, glued them onto the ends in an imitation of skin, and used some oil to soften the leather and make it more like human skin.
Now he could play a bit, but in order to make it easier on his fingers, which still hurt like hell, he de-tuned his guitar to D, loosening the tension of the strings. This was much better, and an added result was that the sound from the de-tuned guitar was darker and more menacing. He added a few toys - most notably, fuzz tone - made more extensive use of flatted fifths than anyone before him, and heavy metal had been born.
(Well, it’s probably overstating things to say that heavy metal was born then. It became more well-defined then, but there had certainly been much of the same music being played before, by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, even The Kinks, who might truly have recorded the first heavy metal song when they blew out a speaker and decided they liked the sound and recorded You Really Got Me with that blown speaker. But the Iommi story is more heroic, so let’s buy into it completely, whatta ya say?)
Be that as it may – and why wouldn’t it be? – Black Sabbath had a unique sound. Nobody was as heavy – or as moronic, for that matter, which was a plus because they became the go-to band for downer freaks the world over. And Paranoid is just chock full of sublimely dumb moments of glory, from the rhyming of the word "masses" with the word "masses", in War Pigs, to the wonderfully dopey bridge of Electric Funeral ("'lectric funeral! 'lectric funeral! 'lectric funeral!") and that’s just Ozzy Osbourne’s singing. Throw in the other three refugees from a tar pit and you’re wallowing in something so thick and gritty you feel like checking your underwear for brontosauruses.
Anyway, they’re unique and I’m hoping my desert island has an ample supply of pot, in which case I’ll be glad to have this along.
Killer, The Alice Cooper Group
I specify the Alice Cooper GROUP since Michael Bruce, Glen Buxton, Dennis Dunaway, and Neal Smith had as much to do with the oeuvre of this congregation as Alice himself did. One listen to any of his solo efforts will tell you that. Not that he hasn’t made some decent records on his own, but he’s never come close to what he accomplished with the other four guys along for the ride.
If I were forced to take the preceding album, Love It To Death, or the follow-up, School’s Out, I’d be all right with that. Any of the three is worthwhile. This is the hardest rocking of the trio, though, so it wins. School’s Out had more intricate arrangements and Love It To Death had more endearing quirkiness, but Killer is just that - a killer. From the opening guitar salvo of Under My Wheels to the spookhouse by way of Catholic Church organ at the end of the title song, it is just bursting with rock-n-roll yumminess. Snarling vocals, ripsaw guitars, jackboot drums, throbbing bass, extremely clever lyrics (Dylan once expressed his admiration for Cooper as a lyricist), and some deceptively progressive weirdness (Halo Of Flies) – this has it all.
For a short time, nobody said it better than these guys. Nobody.
Christmas Eve And Other Stories, The Trans-Siberian Orchestra
I figure I won’t be giving up Christmas on my island, so I want a Christmas album along. This will do. Nicely coherent theme album, with fine musicianship. The power of the instrumental medley of O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night is, by itself, reason enough for me to pack this for the trip.
Duty Now For The Future, DEVO
Tough call here. I knew I had to have something by DEVO, but the choice between this and their first album (Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!) was not easy. The first album is darker and...
Yes, that’s what I said. Those of you who know only Whip It from when these guys started wearing flowerpots on their heads are thinking, "Darker? Those goofballs?" Well, yeah. There was an undercurrent of perversion and general unseemliness to that first album - which is what made it great, of course.
The album I chose, their second, is not quite so bizarre, but it is bizarre enough and has better songs besides. The jagged and jarring guitar solo on Blockhead; their catchy Secret Agent Man cover (with some changes in the lyric from the Johnny Rivers version); the hellish Swelling Itching Brain (which no doubt would give you one if you listened to it too many times in a row); and the funny, and driving, Smart Patrol/Mr. D.N.A., with it’s, well, goofy lyrics...
I’ll be honest with you (but aren’t I always?) and tell you that I enjoyed this album the first time while I was on an acid trip. That may have colored my perception of it. However, it’s MY desert island and I’m taking this one with me, no matter what YOU think of it.
Raunch N Roll Live – Black Oak Arkansas
Sometimes, you just love something even when most other folks think it’s ugly. There’s little you can do to explain love to someone who doesn’t feel it. Maybe you love this album the same as I do. If not, I’ll try to explain why I do love it. I doubt I’ll be successful, but I’ll try.
First off, Jim Dandy Mangrum has a voice like no other in rock; maybe like no other in the world. The sole exception might be some of the practitioners of Tuvan throat singing. If you’ve heard that, imagine that voice coming out of a sort-of hick prototype of David Lee Roth. That’s Jim Dandy Mangrum, the sexiest man ever to strut a stage.
Sexy? Did I just say that? Yeah, I guess I did. Mangrum’s stage presence was beyond anything previously seen in 1970. He strutted and pranced and danced and twirled and thrusted across the stage in sprayed-on white spandex pants, shirtless, with his long blond hair falling down to his extremely good-looking ass in back.
Yes, I’m straight. But I’d have to have been blind to not notice this guy and the effect he had on the women in the audience. See, here’s the thing: When I started out in bands, as a singer, I wanted to be Jim Dandy Mangrum. I wasn’t near as good looking; I had red hair, not blond; and I was heavier in places where he was lighter and lighter in places where he was heavier; but I wanted to be him. From his stage mannerisms to his unique voice to his rapport with the audience – which was substantial, both male and female – I wanted to be that guy.
Well, I wasn’t him and my attempts to be him were probably ill advised. But, damn, was that man a fantastic performer with absolutely no fright in him. And the voice? Unlike any other, as I said. That was both good and bad, of course. You either love Jim Dandy’s voice or you hate it. I love it. I think it’s about as perfect a voice for rock as has ever been. Your mileage – and the mileage of many others – may vary.
The rest of the group was interesting in their own way. There were three guitars, bass, and drums, playing southern rock of a not overly complicated or ambitious a nature, but endearing in a clumsy sort of way. And – one more drummer for me to tout – Tommy Aldrich was one of the earliest to use a double bass kit and he was really, really good. His solo on this album, which you wouldn’t know unless you saw the group live like I did, three times, was played with only his hands – no sticks – for the last two minutes or so, and the cymbal crash at the end comes when he PUNCHES it. Two of the guitarists would often swing their instruments like baseball bats, smashing them against each other, during the final number. Combine that with Mangrum’s theatrics and it was one fun show.
I miss these guys, a lot. I truly do. There was no other group like them then and there still isn’t today. They were clowns, in many ways, but they also had a great deal of heart and they weren’t afraid to wear that heart on their sleeves.
Here’s how much I like this album: If I had to limit myself to ONE recording to take to the desert island, it would be... Made In Japan. Or Raw Power. I almost said this one, though. Almost.
(There’s a version of this called The Complete Raunch N Roll Live which is a double CD with the full two shows from which the original single record was culled. You don’t need anything more than the single record, if you’ve never heard it before, but if you already own the original, it might be worth your time to find it.)
And that’s that – finally. I know I went on and on, but this was great fun for me to do, if heartbreaking when having to leave off some of those that didn’t make the cut. As Donatello did, I’ll take the liberty of naming some honorable mentions here (15, as a matter of fact) that I didn’t mention during any of the above.
Trilogy – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Aqualung – Jethro Tull
Alive! – KISS
Impeckable – Budgie
II – Chicago
The Magician’s Birthday – Uriah Heep
Ted Nugent – Ted Nugent
Tuff Darts – Tuff Darts
Trooper - Trooper
Purpendicular – Deep Purple
Come Blow Your Horn – Maynard Ferguson
Greatest Hits – Sly & The Family Stone
Cosmo’s Factory – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Jesus Christ Superstar (original recording, Ian Gillan as Jesus)
Vincebus Eruptum – Blue Cheer
Please, please, please do this list yourself. I would absolutely love to read your picks and what you have to say about them. Even more, I would love to be directed toward a lost treasure or two that you might turn me on to.
Thanks for taking the time to slog through it all.
Soon, with more better stuff.