Hand Of God Has Struck The Hour: A Guide To Black Sabbath, Part 1 (1970-1978)

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The 1960s are a decade that has been largely romanticized by the generations that came after it.  The Boomers that lived through it carry tales about free love and smoking marijuana like we’re supposed to sit and swoon over their vinyl copies of The Beatles.  “Oh,” they say, “we had all this great music come out, and we marched in the streets and we even stopped a war.  It was such a great time to be alive.”  Everyone that comes after is supposed to chew on their envy in the corner, and there are a lot of the children of Boomers that do exactly this.  You know them as the Wrong Generation crowd.  They go onto YouTube videos and leave snide comments about how music was so much better in the Sixties and that they were born into the wrong generation, all their friends are dumb and listen to Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black.

All of this false nostalgia for a time that was never lived through is even worse given that it’s based on a series of lies.

First of all, no one listens to Rebecca Black.  I’m fairly certain that there are more people that have referenced Rebecca Black in asinine comments on the internet than have actually listened to “Friday”.  Somehow she’s become the spokesperson for the music of a generation that also includes Ty Segall, Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar, and Kamasi Washington among its legion of artists.

Second of all, the Sixties were a stressful, conflict-ridden time that ended in disaster.

It’s been 40 years and two major new wars since the Vietnam War ended in Communist victory.  The 1960s were the prime time for American soldiers dying for a geopolitical strategy that assumed the viability of preventing Asia from falling to the Communists.  Those Boomers aforementioned marched in the streets to protest the Vietnam War, and where did it get them?  They were kettled, truncheoned, gassed, and disparaged.  In the end, like at Kent State, they were shot and murdered by the forces of the State.  All that happened was that the administration and the military-industrial complex ended the war exactly when they wanted to, at the very last minute before the prospect of victory was completely eliminated.  At home, the decade kicked into gear with the assassination of a sitting President, reeled through the Civil Rights movement, and leaped headalong into the protest movement against the war.  There were fracture lines along race, sexuality, employment, drugs, and virtually every other aspect of modern existence.  It was a stressful time where revolution seemed a shout away – the French uprising in May of 1968 seemed to dovetail nicely with the American unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots at the Democratic National Convention later that year.  Bombs went off, people died, and at the very end of the decade the Rolling Stones held a festival and decided to use the Hells Angels as security.  The concert at Altamont ended up as a drunken mess where a man was murdered by the security forces, and it seemed to be an ill omen that drove in everything else that was waiting just around the corner.

That would be the 1970s, of course, and it would be a heavy economic downturn that would come about as the result of the supply shocks of the OPEC-initiated 1973 oil crisis.  Corporate profits would stagnate, Deng Xaioping would open China up for business in 1979, jobs would vanish forever, and neoliberal economic piracy became the rule of the day.  The rose colouring of the 1960s is the propaganda of the class that made it through the initial death shudders of Keynesian civilization intact or thriving.  The poor and disadvantaged of the Earth have a different tale to tell.

One such poor and disadvantaged area was the city of Birmingham, England.  Birmingham has been charitably described in the past as being an industrial hellscape, and it was dreary fifty years ago, too.  My grandfather escaped the city in order to live in Canada, but for the youth of the late 1960s the opportunities to get out were few and far between.  They worked in blue collar jobs, deadening factory work, and when they got out they drank, smoked, fucked, and listened to heavy blues music.  The paisley folksy bullshit was an offshoot of the old British Invasion but was largely an American concern.  The British kids of the mid-to-late Sixties were into the blues, and the louder the better.  Starting a band was a popular way to beat the dead-end feeling of life in working class Britain.  John “Ozzy” Osbourne was an unskilled labourer with a penchant for petty theft who’d wanted to be a rock star ever since hearing “She Loves You” on the radio in 1963.  Tony Iommi worked in a sheet metal factory (a job that would claim the tips of the fingers on his fretting hand) and was inspired to adapt his guitar style after his accident by a recording of Django Reinhardt.  Terence “Geezer” Butler was a working class Irish Catholic learning to be an accountant who found himself through LSD, Aleister Crowley, and Cream bassist Jack Bruce.   Bill Ward was a lager lad with a love for jazz drumming and the heavier, more primitively pounding work of John Bonham.  They would play in blues bands and knew each other from gigs across the city.  Butler’s first band was Rare Breed, who would also feature Ozzy as their singer.  Ward and Iommi played together in a band called Mythology.  The two groups would eventually split up, and the four would come together in a new band called Polka Tulk.

Polka Tulk began when Ozzy put out an ad at a Birmingham music shop that went “Ozzy Zig needs a gig – has own PA”.  Ward and Iommi answered the ad and, in need of a bassist, Ozzy mentioned his old bandmate Geezer Butler.  The four of them began rehearsing as Polka Tulk before changing the name to Earth (Polka Tulk being a terrible name, after all).  On 1998’s Reunion live album, Ozzy tells the crowd that they at some point decided that Earth “wasn’t a very good fucking name for a band”.  The actual truth is that there was already a band called Earth doing gigs in Britain that was a minor league success.  A name change was thus necessary.

While mulling over their options, the band went across the street to a cinema that was showing Boris Karloff’s 1963 horror classic Black Sabbath.  One thing they noticed and talked about at length afterwards was the idea that people would pay money to get scared; fear and looming doom struck right at the animal part of the human brain, and it produced a weird sort of thrill.  Horror films were always well attended, so what about making horror music?  The seeds were already there.  Iommi’s factory accident had maimed his fingers and left him unsure for a time whether or not there was a point to continuing to play the guitar.  He’d eventually hit upon a solution involving lighter strings and melted plastic fingertips he would use to press down on these light strings.  To reduce the tension and make it easier to play, he would also down-tune his guitar; the result was a much darker, “heavier” sound than was typical among even the heavy blues bands of the time.  This sound, plus the realization that people loved to get scared out of their wits, led to the band changing their name to Black Sabbath, in homage to the movie that had changed their direction – and the direction of rock ‘n’ roll – forever.

 

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BLACK SABBATH

Released February 13th, 1970 on Vertigo Records

Producer:  Rodger Bain

Peaked at #8 UK, #23 U.S.

Singles:

Evil Woman

Black Sabbath

N.I.B.

The Wizard

Right from the get-go, Black Sabbath is the sound of the disenchantment of youth exploding into its own bloody birth.  The tritone riff of “Black Sabbath” – inspired, according to Butler, by a movement in Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” – sets the tone exactly.  A thousand years prior to its release, using that kind of interval in music would likely get you burned at the stake, or hung, or at the very least chased out of town.  It’s not just the tritone, though:  it’s the way that Butler’s bass rumbles along with Iommi’s riff, it’s the tension that Bill Ward’s toms add in the fills behind the verses, and it’s the way Ozzy’s keening wail sounds like a ghost mourning it’s own demise.  It’s very rare that a band can sum up exactly what they’re about in the course of a single song, but “Black Sabbath” sets that up for Black Sabbath.  The entire history of metal came after, but I don’t think that there’s ever been a song that’s been heavier.

Of course, there’s more to Black Sabbath than just “Black Sabbath”.  “The Wizard” belies the band’s roots in heavy blues music and their love of Led Zeppelin.  The guitar work on “The Wizard” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” could likely have fit pretty well on Zeppelin’s debut album (one of the band’s favourite at the time, incidentally), but for the fact that they’re played quite a bit slower than anything Jimmy Page would have committed to wax.  It’s the slower tempo of Iommi (and the oddly fleet-fingered lumbering of Butler’s bass) that makes the difference.  Zeppelin’s heavy blues were hedonistic and airy; Sabbath’s were gloomy and filled with dread.

Another band that had a great deal of influence on the early Sabbath was Cream, Eric Clapton’s heavy blues band du jour.  It’s not just the deconstruction of the “Sunshine Of Your Love” riff that you can hear on “N.I.B.” – it’s also the entirety of side two, which is given over to a heady blues jam that may not have the grace and effortlessness of Clapton’s playing but has the verve and tenacity to match it in other ways.  “Wicked World” mines a jazz groove for some rare upbeat finger-popping, and the closing piece “Warning” substitutes raw, blistering tone and form for the innovation and progression that Cream had been famous for in the late 1960s.

Lyrically, Geezer Butler sets the groundwork for the obsessions of heavy metal lyricists for evermore (okay, him and Robert Plant) by channeling his Irish Catholic background and setting against his love of the occult, black magic, and Crowley.  “Black Sabbath” details the soul of a man being run down by the Devil; “N.I.B.” flips that around and has Lucifer fall in love with a human woman and give himself over to her.  “The Wizard” was written with Gandalf The Grey in mind, mirroring the Tolkien love that Zeppelin was also mining at the time.  “Wicked World” would be the track that pointed the way forward, as Butler would eventually get more comfortable as a lyricist and start putting his political beliefs forward more often.  “Warning”, finally, is that rare beast in the early Sabbath catalog:  a regretful love song more in keeping with the traditional lyrical matter of rock ‘n’ roll.

On a side note, I thought for years that the person standing rather creepily on the album cover was Ozzy Osbourne in drag.  As it turns out, the figure is a woman the band vaguely remembers as being named Louise.  No one actually knows anything about her beyond that tiny factoid; there is no public record of her and if she’s still alive she’s apparently taking the secret of her place in rock ‘n’ roll history to the grave with her.  Like the title track, the album cover sets up the tone of the album perfectly, another thing that would be very rare in Sabbath’s career.

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PARANOID

Released September 18th, 1970 on Vertigo Records and January 7th, 1971 on Warner Bros. Records

Producer:  Rodger Bain

Peaked at #1 UK, #12 US

Singles:

Paranoid

War Pigs

Iron Man

Fairies Wear Boots

Filling the gap between Cream and Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath’s first album was a big success, especially in their native Britain where it went to the Top Ten.  Four months after it’s release the band went back to the studio to record a follow-up, comprised mainly of songs which had grown out of the live improvisations the band did during their endless tours of the club circuits.  It’s arguably Iommi’s peak as a riff-writer:  pretty much everything on Paranoid is iconic and has been celebrated in one way or another in the 45 years since its release.  At the very least, the DNA of a lot of heavy metal that came afterward can be heard on the record.  It’s not hard to imagine the path that leads from the crushingly heavy riff of “Electric Funeral” to Alice In Chains.  The breakneck pace of “Paranoid” would give rise to a much more fast-paced form of metal when bands like Judas Priest (and, later, Sabbath themselves) would barrel ahead full-tilt.  “Iron Man” is the birth of sludge metal while “Planet Caravan” would inspire a legion of band’s bong-laden softer moments.  It’s also not hard to imagine where these songs sprang out of.  “War Pigs” was born out of jamming on “Warning”, and the slam of the main two-chord riff definitely bears this out.  “Paranoid”, written in 15 minutes so that the record label could be assured of a viable single, took a cue from the headalong power of Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”.  “Rat Salad” was a long drum solo much like Bonham’s own on “Moby Dick”.  “Jack The Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots” continues the tradition of jamming two more fragmentary songs together, the same tradition that forms the entirety of side two of their debut.  The jazzy interludes that serve as bridges are in full display here as well – the breakdown in “Electric Funeral” is jaunty, a direct contrast to the main section and “Hand Of Doom” rides a (quite a bit darker) jazz wave into a brick wall of heavy blues riffs in the same fashion that “Wicked World” did.

Lyrically, the album opens Butler up into a much more political bent than he showed on Black Sabbath.  “War Pigs” is a vicious vision of Satan rising up and claiming the souls of the rich war profiteers and politicians and generals that destroyed the world.  Familiarity has perhaps bred out the shock of what a radical call to arms it is, even among other songs of the era.  Butler points the finger squarely at the enemy, without need for metaphor or subtlety:  “Politicians hide themselves away / They only started the war / Why should they go out to fight? / They leave that role to the poor.”  Before there was Joe Strummer, there was Geezer Butler, who would later talk about how he was into how political Bob Dylan had been but missed his presence in the music scene by the 1970s.  “Paranoid” examines depression, although it’s more just the paranoia of being stoned; “Iron Man” came about because Ozzy cracked that Iommi’s lumbering riff sounded like a “giant iron bloke walking around” but it told a story of a self-fulfilling prophecy of hate and destruction.  “Fairies Wear Boots” was about Ozzy’s encounter with a pack of skinheads one night. “Electric Funeral” channeled the generation’s fear of impersonal nuclear obliteration, and “Hand Of Doom” was one of the few songs of the era to discuss the phenomenon of American soldiers coming home from Vietnam with a habit for sticking needles in their arms.  The Vietnam era in general weighed heavily on the album.  The album was originally supposed to be called War Pigs – hence the odd looking soldier with the sword and shield on the front cover – but the record executives decided that the title was too deliberately provocative for the time.

Paranoid made the band huge, and they blew the door open for every disaffected generation after.  It’s not quite hyperbole to suggest that every heavy band that came after the album stems in some way from the sludge that pours out of its grooves.  Grunge is often said to be a combination of Black Flag and Black Sabbath, but Black Flag were listening to Black Sabbath when they made their proto-grunge My War album.  The critics of the time were not kind to it, but retrospective is a powerful drug and the entire movement that has come after tends to colour perceptions a bit more.  The surface Satanic imagery of the songs would also get them on the radar of the religious factions in society, which ramped up quite a bit after a nurse was found dead by suicide with Paranoid still playing on her turntable.

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MASTER OF REALITY

Released July 21st, 1971 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Rodger Bain

Peaked at #5 UK, #8 US

Singles:

After Forever

Children Of The Grave

Sweet Leaf

After recording the founding document of heavy metal on Paranoid, there was no other real direction for Sabbath to go but heavier.  Master Of Reality is heavier.  Three of the songs feature Iommi’s guitar tuned down to C# and stripped of all reverb, producing a tone that was akin to a black hole swallowing all light.  Butler’s bass is tuned down as well, creating a throbbing rumble that feels like doom approaching.  Ozzy, meanwhile, pitched his wail up even higher, becoming a banshee howling over the apocalypse.  The critics hated it (“monotonous” Lester Bangs called it, and he was among the kindest) but the kids ate it up, and many of those kids went on to form bands:  Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and virtually every other grunge-affiliated band from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Master Of Reality is the birth pains of sludge and doom metal, as well as lighter fare like stoner rock.  “Sweet Leaf” especially is the ultimate stoner anthem, an homage to the band’s love of marijuana during the recording sessions and named after a slogan on a cigarette package.  Those coughs that open up the album are in fact Iommi choking on the smoke from a large joint that was being passed around.

Gone were the jazzy interludes that broke up the tracks of Black Sabbath and Paranoid.  Instead, every main piece on Master Of Reality hits like a ton of bricks, “Iron Man”-style.  The opening riff to “After Forever” is breezy enough but the main riff is the ultimate in caveman pounding; Brooklyn hardcore band Biohazard didn’t have to change a thing to get the same effect on the Nativity In Black tribute album some twenty-five years later.  “Children Of The Grave” burns everything in its path, melding chug-a-lug verses into a breakdown that defines what it means for a riff to bang your head for you.  “Lord Of This World” is a more amiable groove than the others, the closest to the original Zeppelin-echoing heavy blues the first two albums mined.  “Into The Void” is the real masterpiece here, though, a searing hypnotic pound through a desperate attempt to flee a war-torn, destroyed Earth.

Master Of Reality can also be considered a beginning of sorts of the hard times that would engulf the band over the next few albums.  Black Sabbath and Paranoid were recorded pretty much live and off-the-cuff; Rodger Bain would set the band up in studio and then record the results, and that would be that.  Master Of Reality was the first album they spent longer on in the studio, and the stress levels were amplified.  The drums on “Into The Void” were especially difficult for Bill Ward to nail, leading to a few outbursts about just not playing it.  “Solitude”, the lone full-length quiet track, was an exercise in multi-instrumental experimentation, with Iommi playing many different instruments and a delay effect added in the studio to Ozzy’s vocal.

The definitive take on Master of Reality remains the 33 1/3 book on the album written by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.  Unlike most 33 1/3 books, which are inflated guides to a single album, Darnielle’s take on Master Of Reality is a semi-fictional account of a young man who has been committed to a mental health hospital and uses the album to try to convey his problems and relate to people.  It’s required reading for anyone interested in the impact that Black Sabbath had on people that weren’t writing music reviews for Rolling Stone or The Village Voice.

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VOL 4

Released September 25th, 1972 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Patrick Meehan, Tony Iommi

Peaked at #8 UK, #13 US

Singles:

Tomorrow’s Dream

If weed and booze was the impetus for the band’s first three albums, inspiration took a rather different path when it came to the appropriately titled fourth album.  By 1972 Black Sabbath were a big deal – commercial successes drowning in money and women despite the critical backlash – and as was proper for the time they decamped to Los Angeles to record.  Like every other band that ever recorded in Los Angeles, the members of Black Sabbath were offered increasingly ridiculous amounts of cocaine.  They would do some lines, then they would do some more lines, and then they would get around to writing some songs and perhaps recording them.  As Iommi remembers it, half of the allotted budget went directly to cocaine and the other half was spent staying in the studio doing cocaine as long as possible.  It was very rock ‘n’ roll for the time, of course, but all that continuous substance abuse took its toll.  The band graduated from doing lines to having suitcases (and, later still, speaker boxes) full of cocaine delivered to the studio.  With the band looking to break out of the sludge-rock mould they’d pioneered, they naturally spent their time in L.A. experimenting with their sound.  Unfortunately, the sheer amount of coke being done meant that a lot of that experimentation ended up being somewhat ill-advised.  What sounds great after a few fat lines is rarely actually great while sober (as Oasis post-Be Here Now could likely tell you) and Vol. 4 is definitely that kind of album.  “Wheels Of Confusion/The Straightener” and “Cornucopia” are attempts at progressing beyond the heavy stomp of old, but they substitute sheer volume and trickery for the solid riffs that Iommi and Co. were known for.  “Cornucopia” was also frustrating to record; Bill Ward, addled and paranoid from the sheer amount of drugs he’d consumed, was unable to get his parts right on the track and was afraid that the others were going to get sick of him and fire him.  While this was probably not much of a concern (there are few hard rock drummers as deft as Bill Ward) the band also probably was pissed off at him.

That said, it was a hard time for Ward in general.  He was supplementing the cocaine abuse that he shared with the others with an increasingly heavy dependence on liquor, and his ability to handle it was slipping.  At the same time, he was going through an acrimonious breakup with his wife and his bandmates were continuing to step up their vicious pranking of him.  At one point the band found him passed out drunk in the Bel Air home they’d rented and covered him head to toe in DuPont gold spraypaint, several cans of which had come with the house.  Unknown to them, the spraypaint blocked his pores completely and he began to suffer seizures, necessitating an emergency trip to the hospital.

The only single from the album, “Tomorrow’s Dream”, was spared the confusing mess of the aforementioned tracks by being only three minutes long; it was, otherwise, a song that was almost great but too unfocused to really make the leap.  The same is true for the most part of “St. Vitus’ Dance”, although the short runtime makes for a much more satisfying listen.  Part of the problem was the coke, for sure, but it was a bit more than that.  They’d risen up from being working class folk working dead-end jobs and blowing their brains out with dirty industrial grade blues rock on the weekends to being Their Satanic Majesties.  Now they were in a city awash in money, women, and drugs, being offered anything they wanted and given free rein over a major recording studio.  It’s really the last part that signifies the problem with the record:  there was no outside producer working on it.  Production was largely handled by Tony Iommi, with some minor work done by the band’s manager, Patrick Meehan.  Rodger Bain was able to get a raw, gritty sound even out of the dry, downtuned guitar; Iommi’s work made that same tone muddy and ill-defined.  It’s also why a nothing track like “FX” was allowed to be put on – too much cocaine and too insular a bubble gives rise to terrible decisions.

Still, when Vol 4 is on it is dead on.  “Supernaut” and “Snowblind” are two stone pillars of the Sabbath canon.  The former rides a nimble riff into a blistering vocal from Ozzy, who’s honestly the best part of the entire record.  The latter is the “Sweet Leaf” of cocaine, a heady anthem that manages to sound as glacial as no longer being able to feel your face.  Amusingly, the record was originally going to be called Snowblind but the execs finally balked at that, settling for the much more straightforward and generic title it ended up with.  “Laguna Sunrise” is a beautiful composition by Iommi, written on Laguna Beach after watching the sun come up at the end of an all-nighter.  “Under The Sun / Every Day Comes And Goes” manages to conjure up that old blues-jamming feeling under the heavy sludge, and the out-of-left-field ballad “Changes” manages to bring the entire band together for one heartfelt moment.  Iommi built the keyboard work, Ozzy provided the melody, and Butler fit the words to that melody.  The words were inspired by Ward’s breakup, bringing everyone into the act.

The band would, years later, acknowledge Vol 4 as the point where the constant party stopped being so fun and started to become a drag.  The stress of needing to constantly evolve their sound coupled with the sheer amount of drugs being shoved in their direction made for an unfocused, bleary sound that fell flat after the triumph of their first three albums.  It still sold well, of course, and it for some reason became the moment that critics changed their minds about the band, but it is telling that only a couple of the songs were regular additions to the band’s setlists in the years to come.

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SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

Released December 1st, 1973 on Vertigo Records and January 1st, 1974 on Warner Bros. Records

Producer: Tom Allom and Black Sabbath

Peaked at #4 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

After an exhausting tour fueled by coke and groupies behind Vol 4, Black Sabbath decided that if it wasn’t broken they weren’t going to fix it.  They set up shop at the studio in Los Angeles, brought in Tom Allom to produce, rented another house in Bel Air, and got to work.  Unfortunately, they forgot that it was, in fact, broken in the first place, and it was even worse the second time around.  The problems began at the end of the Vol 4 tour.  Up for days on end and wired on cocaine, Iommi eventually collapsed and had to be hospitalized, necessitating an end to the tour. The band went their separate ways at the end of the tour and tried to regain some semblance of a social life back home in England, but their status as bona fide rock stars made this somewhat difficult.  Butler recalls that they’d been in a sealed bubble of debauchery for so long that when he got home his then-girlfriend didn’t even recognize him.  When they reconvened in L.A. to begin work on their fifth album, nothing happened.  The songs fell flat, the riffs wouldn’t flow, and the band was at their wit’s end.

Defeated after a month of getting nowhere in America, the band fled back to England and set up shop in the old medieval fortress of Clearwell Castle.  Supposedly haunted, the castle was a creepy old building in the middle of a forest that inspires rather dark thoughts.  It was, in other words, the perfect place for Black Sabbath to get their mojo back.  Shortly after setting up in the dark dungeon of the castle, Iommi came up with the powerhouse riff that drives “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and the rest of the album flowed out from there.  The difference between Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and its predecessor is night and day.  That riff on the title track beats out pretty much anything on Vol 4 (except maybe “Supernaut”) and is easily one of the five most headbanging tracks the band ever recorded.  “A National Acrobat” and “Sabbra Cadabra” show the power of Iommi’s twisting guitar work in completely different ways.  The latter is actually my favourite Sabbath riff to play, and the lengthy, lumbering jam in the middle of it shows how powerful the Vol 4 songs could have been with proper guidance and production.  The crushing “Killing Yourself To Live” touched on the death spiral that each of the band members knew was going on with regards to their increasingly out-of-control substance abuse issues, especially Iommi, who had basically gone out of his mind on coke by the end of the Vol 4 world tour and Butler, who had to be hospitalized at one point for kidney problems resulting from the sheer amount of liquor he was drinking.  The haunting “Who Are You?” is the result of Ozzy playing around with an early Moog synthesizer (despite his not really knowing how to play it at all) and the soaring finale “Spiral Architect”, a song about the mysteries of DNA and the human experience, featured a gigantic orchestra that necessitated a move to a different, larger nearby studio.

Sabbath still had one truly great album left in the chamber, but Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is where the band really began to unravel.  The group’s serious substance problems were reaching epic proportions and their in-fighting was becoming a big problem as well.  Ozzy was checking out of the group even by 1974, Iommi was annoyed at being left to handle production on the band’s end by the others (leaving him isolated in the studio while the others went out and had a social life), and Butler was aggravated by Ozzy’s seeming inability to pick up the slack on writing lyrics (even though history has proven that he’s obviously much better at it).  The writing was on the wall for the band, but they managed to prove that they weren’t completely out of it yet.

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SABOTAGE

Released July 28th, 1975 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer:  Mike Butcher and Black Sabbath

Peaked at #7 UK, #28 US

Singles:

Am I Going Insane? (Radio)

The last great Black Sabbath album was recorded in a period of time that can be charitably described as a nightmare.  Having discovered that Patrick Meehan was colluding with their record label to cheat them out of royalties, they fired Meehan and were instantly sued by him.  The recording process of Sabotage was marred by a constant litany of visits to lawyers offices, letters delivered to the recording studio, and affidavits needing to be signed, often at the mixing board according to the band. With the constant distractions it’s a wonder that Sabotage turned out even half as well as it did.  Iommi suggested in later years that actually working on music was like a respite from the constant legal wrangling that took place in 1975.  Given that the band had to spend most of their days embroiled in legal shenanigans, the nights were given over to writing and recording.  The process took longer than any previous Sabbath album, and led to grumbling on the part of Ozzy that the whole thing was taking entirely too long.

Still, the band was spot on for the most part.  “Hole In The Sky” was a headbanger second to none, and “Symptom Of The Universe” gave birth to thrash metal.  “Megalomania” expanded the band’s prog reach to its eventual extreme, pushing close to ten minutes and full of shifts between straight-ahead rock and something more approximating a boogie.  “The Thrill Of It All” rode a riff that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Master Of Reality before launching off into a synth-driven rock ‘n’ roll odyssey circa the middle of the Seventies.  The use of synth – a divisive instrument among the band’s fanbase – would feature heavily in both the oddly orchestrated “Supertzar” and the strange choice of sole single, “Am I Going Insane (Radio)”, a track that would feature very little guitar work at all.  “The Writ” would end the record with another proggy stomper, this one featuring lyrics actually written by Ozzy about his disillusionment with the record industry and with the position the band found themselves in with regards to their former management.

The record is, as I mentioned above, the last great Sabbath album.  Things would unravel from the release of Sabotage onward, and it would culminate in the seeming destruction of the band within four years.  They were holed up in the studio, angry and paranoid, seemingly under siege on all sides and still trying to do everything themselves.  On Sabotage it still worked, but the next two albums would be a different matter entirely.

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TECHNICAL ECSTASY

Released September 25th, 1976 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Tony Iommi

Peaked at #13 UK, #52 US

By 1976 the band was in need of a vacation and decided to record the next album in the sunny environs of Miami.  This proved to be a relaxing process for everyone except Tony Iommi, who was forced into the position of producing the whole thing while everyone else took a break.  Butler and Ward drank and snorted and soaked up the sun; Ozzy did the same while plotting breaking off into a solo career.  Iommi holed up in the studio, did a lot of cocaine, and chased after a rock ‘n’ roll game of Keeping Up With The Joneses.  Ozzy recalled that during the recording process Iommi was obsessed with staying modern, chasing after Queen and Foreigner to keep their names relevant.  Therein lies the real issue with Technical Ecstasy.

That issue is that the album is all over the place and at times shockingly derivative.  Derivativeness on the whole is something that Sabbath fans should be somewhat familiar with; after all, the early classics were somewhat indebted to Cream and Led Zeppelin, even if they took those influences in a much heavier, darker direction.  There are parts on this record, however, that are complete head-scratchers.  “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” is probably the most egregious of these, given that it’s a warmed-over Kiss rip-off that comes off as completely unconvincing in the recording.  “Gypsy” recycles a bunch of rock cliches that were well-worn when Robert Plant was doing them, and “She’s Gone” is a go-nowhere sort of ballad that mistakes string sections for depth.  “You Won’t Change Me” repeats the problems of Vol 4 in that it overstays its welcome and prefers to spin its wheels rather than go anywhere useful.

Like Vol 4, however, there are some very solid tracks embedded among the flailings of a band on its way down.  The opener, “Back Street Kids”, is a thundering rocker, the sort of thing that “Wheels Of Confusion” should have been.  “It’s Alright” is an anomaly in the Sabbath catalog in that it features Bill Ward singing (he has a pretty good voice, as it turns out) and it sounds like a Seventies track from one of the Beatles’ solo projects.  “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)” is weirdly funky and shows that Butler still had his finger on political concerns (the song is about a transvestite President of the United States and the inherent misogyny of America).  “Dirty Women” is a take on the same vibe that brought out “Snowblind” and has proved to be the most enduring of any of the songs off of this confused, grasping record – it was a highlight of the band’s reunion tour in the late 1990s.

The biggest failure of the album is that it largely abandons what made Black Sabbath work for the previous six years and tries to stay relevant to the contemporary music scene.  On one side, California was knocking with breezy soft rock  – Rumors was less than a year away and, at the same time and in the same studio, The Eagles were crafting Hotel California.  Both would go on to be massive sales forces at a time when Sabbath-esque hard rock was falling by the wayside.  The bands that Sabbath were awkwardly trying to ape – Kiss, Uriah Heep, the heavier parts of Bad Company, etc. – were no longer the cutting edge.  Punk rock was emerging quickly out of England, and within a year The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash would put paid to the sort of bloated rock ‘n’ roll hijinks that Sabbath had gotten mired in.  Hard rock would follow the path of Judas Priest, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal would put Sabbath riffs on speed and evolve into thrash metal, and within ten years bands would be putting on eyeliner, teasing their hair, playing pop songs and calling themselves “metal”.  It would be fifteen years before Sabbath would be a relevant cultural force again, although it wouldn’t stop remnants of the band from trying in that interval.  First, though, they had to fall apart, and the story of that destruction lies in their next album, the final of the Ozzy years.

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NEVER SAY DIE!

Released September 28th, 1978 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros Records

Producer: Tony Iommi

Peaked at #12 UK, #69 US

Singles:

Never Say Die!” (#21 UK)

A Hard Road” (#33 UK)

Black Sabbath’s original lineup fell apart for all intents and purposes during the Technical Ecstasy tour.  The infighting, the death of Ozzy’s father, and the exhaustion of doing hard drugs continuously for at least six straight years  prompted Ozzy to check himself into an asylum for a short period at the end of that tour.  Shortly after he formed a new band, Blizzard Of Ozz, and the band replaced him with Dave Walker, who had sung previously with Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac.  A few songs were sketched out with Walker, and there was even a television appearance with him on the BBC, but Bill Ward eventually called Ozzy and negotiated him coming back to record Never Say Die! with Black Sabbath.  They booked a studio in Toronto based on some sales brochures and set out to record the album in the winter of 1978.

As someone who has lived for a few years in Toronto, it’s difficult to overstate the sheer stupidity of this move.  Never do anything in Toronto in the winter.  It’s bleak, depressing, dirty, and exhausting.  It’s no surprise that the recording sessions were a confusing mess for everyone involved.

Ozzy came back but he was far from sober.  The Madman Himself was nearing the peak of his Madness and his antics drove the rest of the band mad along with him.  He refused to sing any of the melodies or lyrics that the band had written with Walker.  The band put their foot down about “Swinging The Chain” and when Ozzy refused to sing it Bill Ward stepped in and did it himself.  The winter was particularly bad in Toronto in 1978 and it dragged everyone down with it.  They would write songs in the daytime, record them at night, and patch things together at the end.  As a result, there is a peculiar feeling of the record being disjointed.  All of the finished songs are longer than they need to be, and no one seems to be willing to make an effort throughout.  The tempos are too rote, and the riffs are pastiches of other band’s riffs.  The leadoff track/lead single “Never Say Die!” retools a Kiss amalgamation into something workable, and “Junior’s Eyes” and “A Hard Road” contain the structures of much better songs.  The album version of “Junior’s Eyes” tacks on another two minutes to the version that the band played with Walker on the BBC and does nothing with them.  “Johnny Blade” awkwardly marries airy synths with stabbing hard rock chords and features a very tired-sounding Ozzy Osbourne.  “Air Dance” and “Breakout” are surprise jazz-fusion numbers that showed the experimentation that Iommi wanted from the band (and that Ozzy absolutely despised).  “Over To You” and “Shock Wave” are lethargic hard rock numbers that are easily forgotten when they’re over (although the former features some vaguely interesting piano trills embedded within).

Ozzy would go on to get fired from the band for being a drunken, drugged-out clown and in 1981 would call the album “disgusting”, but it’s not as bad as that, if we’re going to be fair about it.  The bones of very good songs are present throughout, but they’re buried under exhaustion, ego, and hazy drug-fueled self-indulgence.  There are people that actually really like it – Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, for example – and there’s a rough charm to most of it.  It isn’t actively awful.  It’s just a poor execution of decent material, and as such it’s a lowlight of the band’s catalog and an ignominious ending for Ozzy’s tenure in the band.

 

Your City To Burn: A Guide To The Smashing Pumpkins

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There’s a documentary floating about that follows Sonic Youth on their 1991 European tour. It features, amongst other bands, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes In Toyland, and The Ramones. It’s called 1991: The Year Punk Broke, and there’s a lot of truth to that title. The Nineties were, if nothing else, a massive reset to the rock and roll mythos, a rejection of the template that had been hammered home continuously since the twin Zeppelin albums of 1969. The joke, at least by 1996, was this: How many hair metal bands did “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kill off? All of them.

It’s nigh on impossible to imagine a single song having such a universal generational impact in the fractured music scene of 2016, but there it was. On one side of the divide, the mainstream music culture was listening to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Warrant, Motley Crue, Bulletboyz, et al, while a whole host of college rock heroes were toiling away behind the scenes. On the other side, punk rock suddenly became mainstream culture. Nirvana was surreptiously introducing a cohort of suburban teenagers to Black Flag, and while there was more than a whiff of metal to contemporary bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, it was a much darker, heavier metal than people were used to seeing on MTV. Gone were ubiquitous power ballads and raunchy pop songs dressed up with wild hair and shred guitar. Suddenly being dour, hopeless, and ironic was in. As the decade wore on, punk became even more obviously mainstream. Green Day, Rancid, and the Offspring broke in 1994; suddenly even kids in rural Ontario were blasting the latest offerings from Eptiaph Records in their pickups on the way to a mud run or motocross. Fifteen years prior, to paraphrase Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, if you showed your face in normal society with blue hair, or a mohawk, or piercings, you would get your ass kicked by frat boys, or the local football team. By 1996, the frat boys and the football team would be joining in, going to Warped Tour, sporting mohawks, and chanting along with NOFX.

Still, there was something to be said for the classic rock icons that the Alternative Revolution had cast aside. Underneath the heavy layers of cheese, the attractive qualities of the Sunset Strip template remained, cribbed from Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, Styx, and the rest. Big drums, big guitars, searing lead guitar solos, thumping basslines – these were all components that remained seductive long after the grind of four power chords in three minutes lost its novelty. Given the proper treatment, and a reverence for the right icons of the past, it was inevitable that someone would try to rearrange the pieces to fit the new Alternative Era. Enter The Smashing Pumpkins.

The Pumpkins begins and ends with it’s founder, and currently its last remaining original member, William Patrick “Billy” Corgan Jr. Billy Corgan’s father was a Chicago blues guitarist; despite this, he had to teach himself to play the guitar (his family dynamics were troubled) and to do so he studied the Classic Rock Canon: Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Queen, Boston, ELO, Rush, and Black Sabbath. Later in high school he got into gothic underground rock, namely Bauhaus and The Cure. This combination should sound familiar to you – it’s pretty much the basis of his band’s first three albums. At any rate, after high school he tried forming a band in Chicago, didn’t find anyone to his liking, and moved out to St. Petersburg, FL, to form a goth-rock band called The Marked. There are demos available for that band on YouTube, but they’re largely inessential. From 1985 to 1988 The Marked played small shows in and around St. Petersburg, and then disbanded. Corgan returned to Chicago in 1988, played briefly with Wayne Static in Deep Blue Dream before Static left for California and Static-X, and was then on his own.

Corgan got a job at a record store and met James Iha. The two of them began recording little goth-pop demos with a drum machine. After doing a few of these, they met waitress/bassist/tragically doomed D’Arcy Wretzky outside of a Dan Reed Network show. This trio began playing shows with a drum machine at various Chicago clubs, calling themselves The Smashing Pumpkins. The actual Smashing Pumpkins, the band whose sound would become iconic, wouldn’t truly be formed until October of 1988, when they recruited a drummer named Jimmy Chamberlin in order to get a show at the Cabaret Metro. While they went into practice with Chamberlin as a brittle goth-pop band, they soon realized that A): Chamberlin had never heard of any of the bands they were into, and B): They sounded way cooler as a heavy rock and roll band with Chamberlin pounding the skins in a serious way. With their new sound catching their interest, they released the singles “I Am One” and “Tristessa”. These caught on with the rock fans of Chicagoland and Caroline Records signed them to a deal in 1991.

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Gish

Released May 28th, 1991 on Caroline Records

Peaked at #195 US

Singles:

Siva

Rhinoceros” (#27 US Modern Rock)

I Am One” (#73 UK)

The first full length Pumpkins recording kicks off with Jimmy Chamberlin laying down a serious hard rock groove; contrary to the popular wave at the time, “I Am One” showed a band that was ready to admit to its love of classic rock.  From there, the band walks a tightrope between massive dream pop, psychedelic post-Hendrix guitar work, and hazy, shoegaze-esque sequences.  “I Am One” and “Siva” are a gigantic one-two punch of hard rock, but not hard rock as the kids of 1991 knew it.  In a time of transition between Motley Crue and Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins went in neither direction, preferring instead to dial rock ‘n’ roll back to the late 1970s.  Holed up in Butch Vig’s studio in Madison, WI, Corgan and Vig played off of each other and drove each other to more intense heights.  The drums had to be tuned just so, and had to be recorded unprocessed; the guitars were dialed to what would become Corgan’s signature tone; the overdubs had to be layered in the fashion of ELO and Queen.  Neither Iha nor Wretzky played much on Gish, a fact that caused heavy resentment from both – resentment that would not abate as the years went on.  At least Iha went on to write some songs on future Pumpkins albums; after her winsome vocals on “Daydream”, D’Arcy Wretzky would largely disappear from studio Pumpkins work.

Regardless of who played what, the album made a name for them. It became a local favourite of the Chicago press and earned them scattered fans across the United States. While most wouldn’t catch on to the album until the band’s big success a couple of years later, those that were listening dubbed it “The Next Jane’s Addiction”. Certainly there are similarities – Jane’s Addiction was mining the more out-there aspects of Led Zeppelin to create a Big Alternative Rock statement, and the Smashing Pumpkins were doing the same but with ELO, Black Sabbath, and Jimi Hendrix. The point, however, must be made that Hendrix is in that latter mix. Dave Navarro and Billy Corgan were playing in the same league, but Corgan was more willing to fill in the quiet moments with slippery riffs, and to reach for a twisted lysergic heaven in a split-second switch.

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Siamese Dream

Released July 27th, 1993 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #10 US

Singles:

Cherub Rock” (#31 UK, #7 US Modern Rock)

Today” (#44 UK, #56 US (#4 Modern Rock))

Disarm” (#11 UK, #48 US (#8 Modern Rock))

Rocket

Those drum rolls that open “Cherub Rock”, and thus The Smashing Pumpkins’ sophomore album, are iconic, of both the band and the era. They also very nearly didn’t happen. The pummeling drum work on that song, especially, were part of an intense recording session where Corgan made Chamberlin play and replay the track until his hands bled. The story of why is just one part of the circus of problems that surrounded the recording of Siamese Dream.

Following the immediate release of Gish in 1991, the press outlets that reviewed it compared it to Jane’s Addiction. By the time 1992 rolled around, of course, Nirvana had opened the floodgates of the Alternative Revolution, and one of the bands caught up in the rising tide was The Smashing Pumpkins. The appearance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio changed the landscape entirely, and the band went from being tipped as “the next Jane’s Addiction” to being “the next Nirvana”, a label that put everyone involved under incredible pressure to succeed. Chamberlin responded by getting hooked on heroin. Iha and Wretzky responded by breaking up their romantic relationship. Corgan became depressed, put on weight, developed writer’s block, and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.

When the time came to record, the band fled to Georgia, in part to avoid the distractions of familiar faces and places, and in part to try to cut off Chamberlin from his heroin contacts. Anyone who knows an addict, of course, knows that new contacts are always going to be found unless you decamp to rehab (and even then it’s not a sure thing). Thus, for much of the recording process you had the following scene: Wretzky locked in the bathroom not speaking, Iha moping around the studio not speaking, Chamberlin missing for days at a time on heroin jags, and Corgan in the studio with Butch Vig trying to put a major label breakthrough album together with his bare hands. He ended up recording all of the guitar and bass parts himself, since the others could rarely perform at a level he was comfortable with. During this time Corgan began to fantasize about suicide, planning out his funeral in his head. “Today” is about this time, outlining the moment after he’d actually decided to kill himself; ironically, it was a self-recorded demo of this song that convinced a troubled Virgin Records that there was nothing to the rumours of band dysfunction and that everything was going according to plan.

The guitar and bass parts – as well as the fantastical amount of overdubs of those same parts (“Soma” has 40 overdubbed guitars) – were one thing, but Corgan eventually had to put his foot down with Chamberlin. He forced Chamberlin to record the parts on “Cherub Rock” until his hands bled, and then convinced him to check into rehab. When the whole thing was finished, it was $250,000 over budget and shockingly late. This would have normally posed a problem for such a relatively unknown band, but it shot up the charts immediately upon release and peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200 (#4 in the UK), eventually being certified quadruple-platinum. Before Siamese Dream, they were a band on the verge of implosion; after, they were superstars.

And why not, really? Siamese Dream is easily one of the ten best records of the 1990s, a tour de force that brings together everything the band had attempted on Gish and makes it succeed. The guitar pyrotechnics of “Cherub Rock”, “Today”, “Quiet”, “Hummer”, “Rocket”, “Silverfuck”, and esepcially the barnburning motherfucker “Geek U.S.A.” brought in the fans of the post-Hendrixian work Corgan had displayed on Gish, but it is in the quieter moments that Siamese Dream really leaps forward. “Disarm” is the track that everyone remembers, with it’s strident acoustic strumming and it’s bells, but it’s the most obvious and least interesting quiet part on the album. The first half of “Soma” feels like a dream sequence, as though the listener is adrift in a sea slowly going night-black. The intro and outro of “Mayonaise” features odd tuning and graceful, clean guitar lines; the acoustic pleading of “Spaceboy”, a song written for Corgan’s autistic half-brother, hits more emotional levels than anything else on the album. The closing track, “Luna”, is the most unabashedly romantic song they’d done to date, a declartion of love for Corgan’s girlfriend and future wife Christine Fabian, featuring soft guitar, softer Mellotron, and an abundance of earnestness in a self-consciously ironic era.

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Pisces Iscariot

Released October 4th, 1994 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 US

Singles:

Landslide” (#3 US Modern Rock)

Two albums into their career, the band had enough B-sides and one-offs to gather together an entire album, and had an audience hungry enough for new Pumpkins material that the album went to #4. Unlike a lot of B-side material, there’s little here separating these songs from their album-included big brothers, rendering Pisces Iscariot an honest-to-god professional album in its own right, albeit one of reprints. “Frail and Bedazzled” would have fit right in on Gish, “Obscured”, “Whir”, and “La Dolly Vita” would blend in well both on Siamese Dream and the later Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. “Starla” was an epic rock and roll guitar jam that should have shut up any of Corgan’s naysayers, but of course didn’t. Two covers were included. One, The Animal’s “Girl Named Sandoz”, was an interesting psychedelic nugget. The other, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, became one of the most cherished moments for the band and a track that radio would eventually latch on to.

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Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness

Released October 24th, 1995 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Bullet With Butterfly Wings” (#22 US (#2 US Modern Rock))

1979” (#16 UK, #12 US)

Tonight, Tonight” (#7 UK, #36 US (#5 US Modern Rock))

Zero” (#46 US (#9 US Modern Rock))

Thirty-Three” (#21 UK, #39 US (#2 US Modern Rock))

Muzzle” (#8 US Modern Rock)

The most ridiculously ambitious moment of the band’s career was plotted out as the apex of their musical arc.  Corgan would later call it “the last manouvre of that high-flying psychedelic rock band, the Smashing Pumpkins”, but at the time he described it in interviews as “The Wall for Generation X”.  While the overarching conceptual work that Pink Floyd created in 1979 would not be exactly like what Mellon Collie achieved, in terms of musical reach and sprawling epicness it’s a close cousin.  That said, of course, the overall theme of both albums is largely the same:  youth, and the wearing nature of stardom.  What Mellon Collie has (and what dour Roger Waters lacked) was an enduring belief in the power of love.  Mellon Collie is studded with songs that are just as – if not more – earnestly romantic as “Luna”, from Siamese Dream.  “Tonight, Tonight” is the one everyone could probably name, a power ballad from outer space driven by strings, punk-esque guitar strums, and those heavy hard-charging drums.  “Love” was a stylish, pulsing number that suggest the emotion boiled down to “who you know”; “Cupid de Locke” skipped in a foppish manner while “Galapagos” ruminated in a slower, more gentle fashion.  “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” was the epic love guitar jam, plucking out a long, spacey section of lush opiate dreams before getting crunchy and squealy.  “Thirty-Three” touched on getting older, while “Thru The Eyes of Ruby” is as fine a ballad to both getting married and to everlasting youth that I can name.  For that matter, everything that comes after “X.Y.U.” on the second disc is light, gentle, and full of love.

This was only half of this sprawling album, of course. In fact, with a bit of creative reshuffling, you could easily make two separate albums out of this 28-track set. The first would be the yearning songs of love and youth (of which “1979” would be the centerpiece). The second, of course, would the really loud, really bombastic, near-metal songs – “Jellybelly”, “Here Is No Why”, “Zero”, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Fuck You (An Ode To No One)”, “Muzzle”, “Where Boys Fear To Tread”, “Bodies”, “Tales Of A Scorched Earth”, and “X.Y.U.”. This collection is as heavy as the Pumpkins ever got; Corgan’s first attempt at a comeback in 2007 would try for this vein of songwriting but fail to strike at exactly how it came out so well here. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that new producer Flood took one look at how the initial recording process was coming about and put a stop to it. Butch Vig had allowed Corgan to rule everything; Flood made sure that the band turned out a bit more democratically. James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky were allowed much more input than they had been previously; Iha actually has songs with both credit and co-credit here, and they show him to be a gentle, hushed songwriter.

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness was my first rock n roll lover. Before it, I was a kid who was sort of into the singles I heard on the radio, which in Seaforth, Ontario, meant things like “Lightning Crashes”, “Big Bang Baby”, and “Woman From Tokyo”. After getting into “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” in a big way, I borrowed the album from a friend and engaged in some of that home taping that was once fingered to be killing music. The tape – which I still have – obviously couldn’t hold the whole album; on side one it went from the title track to just before the big dynamic shift in “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans”, and on side two it went from “Where Boys Fear To Tread” to the first piano notes of “Beautiful”. I listened to that album so much I would be surprised if it still worked, over and over until I could literally recite the entire album. It spoke to me like no other album could, and I felt as though I were kin with it: both of us were angry and enamoured with big guitars and apocalyptic death rock, but we were both willing to give everything over for the youth-singularity of eternal love. In a way it’s quite painful to listen to, since it’s bound up in my mind with people, places, and events that are long since consigned to the winds, but which I remember with a desperate longing.

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The Aeroplane Flies High

Released November 26th, 1996 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #42 US

In the wake of the two-disc insanity of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and the lengthy tour that accompanied it, the band issued a sort of stop-gap box set that proved that the only person more prolific than Billy Corgan in the Nineties was Robert Pollard.  The Aeroplane Flies High is five discs, each one headed up by one of the singles from Mellon Collie:  “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “1979”, “Zero”, “Tonight, Tonight”, and “Thirty-Three”.  The rest of the discs are B-sides from the original singles, as well as covers of songs from Corgan’s New Wave youth.  As a compilation of non-album tracks, Pisces Iscariot is better, but Aeroplane is still a worthy addition to anyone’s Pumpkins collection.  Be aware, however:  the original box set is long enough, but the 2013 reissue adds in a series of demos and live tracks that caused even this old Corgan fanatic to go into Pumpkins shock and reach for some Sonic Youth.

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Adore

Released June 2nd, 1998 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Ava Adore” (#11 UK, #42 US)

Perfect” (#24 UK, #42 US (#3 US Modern Rock))

Crestfallen

To Sheila

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness was an ending of the first phase of the Smashing Pumpkins in a number of ways, but the central ending event happened during the band’s massive world tour. On July 11th, 1996, in New York City, Jimmy Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin were shooting up heroin in a hotel room when Melvoin overdosed. Despite the efforts of both Chamberlin and emergency attendents, Melvoin died. Fed up with Chamberlin’s drug-addled antics, Corgan fired him; the incident would later prompt Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes to call Corgan “the most corporate man in rock and roll”. In conjunction with the loss of the greatest drummer of his generation, the band intimated in interviews that they were growing bored with rock music as the band’s sole genre; Iha went so far as to say that the future was in electronic music. On a personal level, Corgan’s mother died, and he went through a divorce from his wife, Chris Fabian.

Before release of their fourth album, the band released a pair of high profile soundtrack songs:  “Eye“, on David Lynch’s weirdo opus Lost Highway, and “The End Is The Beginning Is The End” on the regrettable Batman & Robin.  Of the two, “Eye” would be the most telling; with it’s electro beat and it’s gothic atmosphere, it was a solid harbinger of what was to come.  Devoid of Chamberlin’s services, the band – who am I kidding, Billy Corgan – opted to go with drum machines and studio drummers to fill the gap.  Given that Chamberlin was the impetus behind their beefy hard rock sound in the first place, the band reset back to their brittle gothic pop origins.  Gone were the metallic rumblings, the squealing post-Hendrix guitar solos, and the black leather rock n roll rush.  Adore presented instead acoustic songs of loss, reflection, and love, garnished with electronic influences and anchored by mechanical beats.  Mellon Collie used piano with pomp, but Adore used piano as a central element, as integral as Corgan’s guitar and considerably more used.

Adore was in a way akin to an album released six years prior – R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People. Both are albums created by bands looking to hit the reset button after a contentious rise to the top; both trade loud bombast for quiet acoustic contemplation. Neither band would reclaim the heights they once held, although R.E.M.’s reset would at least garner both sales and accolades. The critics loved Adore but the public slept on it; the radio didn’t keep anything beyond “Ava Adore” in rotation for very long, since by 1998 it had moved towards ska, R&B, and teen pop.  Still, there are a number of truly great tracks found within.  “To Sheila”, “Crestfallen”, and “Once Upon A Time” are all heartbreakers, although “heart-shatter-ers” would be closer to the mark.  “For Martha” and “Tear” bring a breathtaking sense of minimalism to a band that had been known for being thick and anthemic; “Pug” and “The Tale Of Dusty And Pistol Pete” channel the pop hopefulness that ran through “Thirty-Three” but manage to elevate it to a more adult level.  It’s a shame that sales were poor and it remains a largely ignored piece of the Pumpkins catalog, because it proves something that became somewhat dubious in the following years:  that Billy Corgan could write great, mature songs with or without his signature searing electric guitar lines.

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MACHINA/The Machines of God

Released February 29th, 2000 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #7 UK, #3 US

Singles:

The Everlasting Gaze” (#4 US Modern Rock)

Stand Inside Your Love” (#23 UK, #2 US Modern Rock)

Try, Try, Try” (#73 UK)

By 1999 the band decided to part ways. Rather than simply break up, they reunited with Jimmy Chamberlin and plotted out one final blowout album to end everything on. It would be a big, loud concept album about the outsized attention towards a band of their level, a Bowie-esque rock opera about a rock star that hears the voice of God and embarks on a radical transformation and ascendency. Partway through the recording process they embarked on a small tour to celebrate their reunion with Chamberlin, but when the tour ended D’Arcy Wretzky chose to quit. Corgan took back the reins and reworked the album, consciously choosing to strike a balance between pop sensibilities and art rock.

The problem with “pop sensibilities” – and MACHINA itself – was that by 2000 its rock ‘n’ roll associations were with the likes of Matchbox 20. Thus the production has a sheen that sounds uncomfortably like the guitars are drowning in flanger and U2-esque delay. “The Everlasting Gaze”, “Heavy Metal Machine”, and parts of “Stand Inside Your Love” attempt a return to the heavy psych that marked their most successful albums, but the results are mixed. “Heavy Metal Machine” plods on for far too long, and “Stand Inside Your Love” tries to stretch out into being an anthem and falls awkwardly short of the goal. “Raindrops + Sunshowers” marries a fairly pedestrian lyric to a bad pastiche of Millenium arena-rock tropes: guitar processed to the point of being unrecognizable from keyboards, too many effects on everything, and a drum loop that may as well have been copy-pasted from a free sample disc. “I Of The Mourning”, “The Sacred And Profane”, and “This Time” suffer from the same problem, falling into the self-created trap that Corgan must have had wherein he felt that the part of Smashing Pumpkins fans most identified with were his alien voice and his lyrics. “Glass And The Ghost Children”, a central piece of the concept (apparently), shows some of the old Mellon Collie level of experimentation with form and structure, and tracks like “Try Try Try”, “The Imploding Voice”, and “With Every Light” are among the more effective songs he’s ever written. “The Crying Tree Of Mercury” and “Blue Skies Bring Tears” add some nice Cure-esque pomp to the end of the album, but it’s not enough to save the ship from sinking. As a supposed “final statement” from the band, it wasn’t exactly going out on a high note, but it was, at the very least, a decent enough effort.

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MACHINA II/ The Friends & Enemies Of Modern Music

Released September 5th, 2000 on Constantinople Records

MACHINA, their planned valedictorian effort, was originally supposed to be a sprawling double album that summed up everything that was great about Smashing Pumpkins.  Once Adore plummeted off of the charts in rapid fashion, however, Virgin Records told Billy Corgan that he could take his grand ambitions and shove them, because they weren’t paying for it.  So instead of that mythical second Mellon Collie, we got a half-baked album of overproduced schlock that approached the melodic brilliance Corgan was rightfully known for but had none of the raw verve or high-flying hijinks that informed their best work.

Billy Corgan, meanwhile, has never been the sort of person to accept being told where his ambitions are supposed to end.  So the band returned to the studio after MACHINA to record the rest of their material, or at least as much as their limited budget would allow.  The results were put together with 3 EPs of outtakes and B-sides and released – sort of.  In terms of physical release, only 25 copies were actually made of the album (as Corgan called it, “a final fuck you” to Virgin Records).  This “fuck you” was furthered by the note included with each of the copies, exhorting the owner to freely disseminate the music on the Internet.  These owners ended up being high-ranking fans on various Pumpkins forums – let it never be said that Billy Corgan doesn’t care about his fans.

MACHINA II, as it turns out, is much, much better than its predecessor, and part of the reason lies in the relatively unprofessional nature of the production.  That irritating glossy sheen that covered every last inch of MACHINA is gone, replaced with that raw guitar sound that the band had been using since Gish.  “Ghost And The Glass Children” would have been much more palatable with “Glass’ Theme” to leaven it; the inclusion of tracks like “Cash Car Star”, “Speed Kills But Beauty Lives Forever”, and “Dross” would have made the slower parts of MACHINA (all of it, basically) much better.  Cut out “I Of The Mourning” and “The Sacred And The Profane” and replace them with “Real Love” and “Saturnine” and suddenly you’re approaching classic status.  The alternate takes of “Try, Try, Try” and “Heavy Metal Machine” do nothing to improve upon or redeem the originals, respectively, but the “heavy” mix of “Blue Skies Bring Tears” makes the song leaps and bounds more acceptable.  Including “Let Me Give The World To You” and “Here’s To The Atom Bomb” honesty might have saved MACHINA from being a dud in terms of sales, as they’re two of the biggest hits the band never released to radio.

Still, it was a thank you to the fans, and the band was done.  Sort of.

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Zeitgeist

Released July 10th, 2007 on Reprise Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Tarantula” (#59 UK, #54 US (#2 US Modern Rock))

That’s The Way (My Love Is)” (#94 UK, #23 US Modern Rock)

In the wake of the demise of the Smashing Pumpkins, the bands members kept busy in their own various ways.  James Iha joined Maynard James Keenan’s project A Perfect Circle, a gig he maintains to this day; he also released some solo work and formed a label, Scratchie Records, whose signings included Fountains Of Wayne and Albert Hammond, Jr. of The Strokes.  Jimmy Chamberlin formed an alt-jazz group, The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex.  Before that, however, he and Billy Corgan formed Zwan, who released Mary Star Of The Sea before Corgan pulled the plug, alleging sex, drugs, and bad behavior regarding other members of the band (David Pajo from Slint, incidentally).  D’Arcy Wretzky was arrested for possession of crack cocaine shortly after the band broke up; although she was eventually cleared of these charges, she has largely disappeared, showing up only twice since 2000.  The first was for a bizarre impromptu radio interview in 2009 where she explained that she was living on a farm and that her fiancee had died at some point in the past.  The second was online in 2014 in a series of postings that seemed to express concern for Billy Corgan and questioned his whereabouts; while there was no resolution to any of whatever she was talking about, she also posted some pictures of herself that seem to show that she had taken up an interest in amateur botox injections.  Corgan has mentioned in the past that after the success of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness Wretzky descended into “insanity and/or drugs (take your pick)”.

At any rate, following the debacle of Zwan and the middling response to a solo album (2005’s TheFutureEmbrace), Billy Corgan took out a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune to announce that he was putting The Smashing Pumpkins back together.  That is to say, he and Jimmy Chamberlin were confirmed to be getting back together to play music as The Smashing Pumpkins.  After getting up to speed, they began playing shows in 2007 and then announced a new album, Zeitgeist.

Zeitgeist gets a somewhat unfair reputation.  The album came out to rather negative reviews, but too many of those reviews focused on the idea that, because Iha and Wretzky weren’t participating in the reunion, it wasn’t really Smashing Pumpkins.  Anyone who knows the history of the band knows how laughable this complaint is; Corgan and Chamberlin recorded the album pretty much themselves, and they noted as they did so that it was exactly what they used to do in “the old days”.  They also pissed off the audio engineers they worked with and, to a lesser extent, the brass at their new home of Reprise Records.  The engineers by 2007 were not used to recording a band that didn’t use a click track or do a lot of editing; Corgan and Chamberlin did neither, preferring to record live and leave it at that for the most part.  Reprise suggested Rob Cavallo as producer; Cavallo had produced Green Day’s massive comeback American  Idiot and they thought the same might come true for the Pumpkins.  The band instead went with Roy Thomas Baker, an old hand who had produced The Cars among other great albums, and who (more importantly) was willing to record in analog rather than digital.

The results are pretty middling, although it’s definitely a Smashing Pumpkins album.  The best moments:  “Doomsday Clock”, “That’s The Way (My Love Is)”, “Tarantula”, and “Shades Of Black”, are all heavy, bombastic Pumpkins songs in the vein of Mellon Collie‘s “Bodies”, right down to the relentless rhythm.  Other tracks recall less savoury memories:  “United States” is as long as “Ghost And The Glass Children” (or “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans”) but not even as interesting as the former; “Bleeding The Orchid” and “Bring The Light” recall the more mediocre parts of MACHINA; “Starz” feels like a Mellon Collie B-side and “Stellar” could have been an outtake from Pisces Iscariot, in that it would have originally been left on the floor altogether.  “Death From Above” is oddly jaunty, though, and both “Ma Belle” and “For God And Country” recall the gentle, fragile melodies of Adore although with unfortunately more testosterone.

The real problem running through Zeitgeist is the lack of an integral part of the older albums:  the “Pumpkins Reset”.  For their best albums, the heavy metal barnburner tracks nearly always featured a dynamic reset that left the listener in freefall, accentuating the dream pop underpinnings that drove the band.  “Geek U.S.A.” from Siamese Dream is the best example of this – a motherfucker of a riff mined for three minutes that leads up to a spacey section that feels exactly like gravity has cut out and your feet have left the ground.  There is nothing like “Geek U.S.A.” on Zeitgeist; instead, as I noted above, there is a lot of stuff like “Bodies”, where the difference between the verse and the chorus is an extra layer of guitar and a vague sense that things are going faster.  Part of this is the insistence on live-in-studio recording:  “United States” could use some edits, and definitely a dynamic shift at some point, given that it’s ten minutes and the only real movement is relentlessly forward.  Part of it, though, is the need to prove that the band was back, and to remind people of how powerful the band could be both in studio and live.  I wasn’t completely convinced of the former, but I saw them live in 2008 and I was utterly convinced of the latter.  Billy Corgan is a guitar god, maybe the best of his generation, Steve Lukather be damned.

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Teargarden By Kaleidyscope

By 2009 Jimmy Chamberlin once again exited the band, and Billy Corgan linked up with a young drummer named Mike Byrne and decided that the future was not in album making.  Instead, they planned out a collection of 44 songs that were to be released individually over the internet in intervals over several years.  The original plan was the put the maximum amount of concentration into each song, in a process that Corgan likened to painting.  The first track released in this project was “A Song For A Son“, on December 8th, 2009, followed shortly by a pair of EPs, and then two “albums within an album”, which will be dealt with in turn.

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Volume 1: Songs for a Sailor

Released May 25th, 2010 on Martha’s Music/Rocket Science

Singles:

Widow Make My Mind

Songs For A Sailor makes tentative strides towards the future for the Pumpkins.  “A Song For A Son” is pretty good overall, although there’s more than a whiff of Led Zeppelin contained within.  The same can be said for “Widow Make My Mind”, which is a good song that could have been made great with a bit more grit in the studio.  “Astral Planes” is messy and frankly annoying, but “A Stitch In Time” is a classic Corgan acoustic song.  On the whole the first EP strives for art and ends up somewhere in the higher end of the commercial section.

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Volume 2: The Solstice Bare

Released November 23rd, 2010 on Martha’s Music/Rocket Science

Singles:

Freak” (#27 US Alternative Rock)

“The Fellowship”, which kicks off this second EP, is one of the best songs Corgan had written in a decade.  “Freak”, which follows it up, trumps it by being the best song he’d written since Adore (or, if we’re comparing apples to apples, since Mellon Collie).  If “Tom Tom” and “Spangled” seem disappointing in the aftermath, it’s only because of the preceding two tracks; “Tom Tom” would have been the best song on MACHINA and “Spangled” is a more electric take on a sort of “Sweet Sweet” type of song.  A stellar effort, and one that showed that the band wasn’t quite out of contention.

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Oceania

Released June 19th, 2012 on EMI Records

Peaked at #19 UK, #4 US

Singles:

The Celestials” (#45 U.S. Rock)

Panopticon

Following the two EPs was the announcement of an “album within an album”, a full-length recording that would nonetheless be under the auspices of the Kaleidyscope project.  How this reconciles with Corgan’s idea to spend a great deal of time on each song is anyone’s guess; certainly there is less painting going on here and more rock ‘n’ roll sketchcraft.  The album kicks off with “Quasar”, and it’s a great way to open Oceania up:  an acidic rock gallop reminiscent of the Siamese Dream sound, a nod to various gods, and then into it.  The rest of the album never quite lives up to it but – importantly – it comes very close.  Take a track like “My Love Is Winter”.  It has the sort of cringe-inducing lyrics that Corgan has been trading in since MACHINA and at first it has the same boring arrangement that album would have presented as well.  Then all of a sudden a strange little keyboard riff comes in, some dynamic shifts occur, a heartfelt guitar solo opens up a soaring final chorus, and at the end you realize that there’s an honest-to-God great song there, clunky wordplay be damned.  The effect is such that when the weirdly out-of-place “One Diamond One Heart” comes on afterwards, with it’s bizarre mix of sub-chillwave and vaporwave sounds, you just roll with it, because you remember that this is what Billy Corgan does.  He’s a psychedelic guitar god who actually really wants to be Dave Gahan and this odd duality sums up not only his career but the entirety of Oceania as well.  “Pinwheels” is another great example of this:  the acoustic sections are pure “Superboy” or “Disarm”, but there’s that galloping synth arpeggio, and that clean late-80s guitar line near the end, and a big thumping bass drum that manages to hold it all together.

Oceania is an album that finally gets Billy Corgan back into a proper songwriting groove.  All of his work from MACHINA up to Oceania have been marred by his idea that he should be writing Smashing Pumpkins material and his seeming inability to do so.  Oceania fixes that; these are undeniably songs from the same vein of material that informed his classic albums, although they don’t quite match the quality of those classics either.  Still, it has high-flying rock ‘n’ roll moments, pretty chimey ballads, gothic synth lines, and enough guitar work to satisfy any curmudgeonly old grunge holdover.

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Monuments To An Elegy

Released December 5th, 2014 on Martha’s Music/BMG

Peaked at #59 UK, #33 US

Singles:

Being Beige

One And All (We Are)

Drum + Fife

Run2Me

Another “album within an album” for Kaleidyscope, another lineup shuffle.  Gone was drummer Mike Byrne and long-running bassist Nicole Fiorentino; staying was guitarist Jeffrey Schroeder and coming in as drum mercenary was Tommy Lee, best known for playing the skins with Motley Crue, his bizarre take on rap-metal with Methods of Mayhem, and fucking his then-wife Pamela Anderson on camera during their honeymoon.  This wasn’t the oddest thing about the Smashing Pumpkins circa 2014, of course.  By then, Billy Corgan’s increasingly whacked-out politics were becoming more open, bolstered by the growth of the alt-right movement that emerged from the utter failure of the American right to unseat President Obama in the 2012 election.  A mere week after the release of Monuments To An Elegy he would go on Alex Jones’ batshit Infowars radio show to talk about how much he suffers as an artist especially at the hands of “dinosaur media” like Anderson Cooper and claim himself as “dangerous” due to his status as an “awake citizen”.  Not content to rest on his laurels, he would go on the show again last April dressed as a homeless man and spouting off about the evils of “SJWs” in America and how people like him need to combat their “brainwashing”.

It’s sad if not uncommon to see rock ‘n’ roll artists descend into vacuum-sealed nuttery; Ted Nugent claimed he would be “dead or in jail” if Obama won the 2012 election (he’s neither, for the record), Gene Simmons advocated for the corporate takeover of America, and Dave Mustaine opined a few years ago that Obama staged the Aurora, CO cinema shooting as a move to ban guns in America.  Unfortunately, much like the aforementioned three, the outing of their more obnoxious beliefs coincides with a decline in the quality of their output.  Monuments To An Elegy is a definite decline in quality even when compared to its immediate predecessor.  Oceania played with the conventions that Corgan had spent his career forging – metal barnburning, brittle goth synth lines, sweet acoustic balladry, post-Hendrix psychedelic guitar work, a healthy trust in the power of Eighties cheese.  Monuments goes half-ass on all of these, putting up just over half an hour of compact, airless alt-rock that sounds professional as hell but utterly boring.  Where “Pinwheels” succeeded as a ballsy sort of prog-ballad, “Run2Me” strips out all the grudgingly great parts and leaves the most godawful alt-ballad, the epitome of all the horrific possibilities to his songwriting that he began to reveal on MACHINA.  “Being Beige” and “Drum + Fife” both run on autopilot, seemingly more meant to be filler tracks on alternative radio playlists than the sort of “every song is a painting” type of track that they are ostensibly supposed to be a part of.  Tommy Lee does nothing to elevate these songs, either; where Jimmy Chamberlin would add in a nimble, hard-jazz inflection to give these tracks shape and character, Tommy Lee just bashes away in rhythm with Corgan’s dictates, as flat as the songwriting and just as disappointing.

To be fair, there are only a few key players from the Nineties that are still important and relevant today:  Radiohead, Beck, Bjork, Sleater-Kinney, maybe the Melvins if you stretch the definitions of “important” and “relevant” a little.  The problem here is that Corgan’s ego refuses to let him believe that he is no longer as important and relevant as he might once have been.  The self-important art projects, the full-page ads to announce the return of his band, and the multiple appearances on nutjob media all point to it, and while the outbursts are understandable they are no less of a bummer, especially taken in context with the apparent decline in songwriting.  For all of its many faults, at least Zeitgeist had some verve and life amongst the clunkery.  Monuments To An Elegy has neither, preferring to live in a weird alt-rock half-life, neither alive nor truly dead.

 

A Lad Insane: A Guide To David Bowie, Part One

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There is a song on Built To Spill’s debut album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love that contains the lines “My stepfather looks just like David Bowie / But he hates David Bowie / I think Bowie’s cool / I think Lodger rules, my stepdad’s a fool”.  It is this piece (from “Distopian Dream Girl”, for those keeping track at home) that drives a fundamental truth home about Bowie:  he’s always been a divisive figure, never more so than in the beginning of his career.  Of course a stepdad wouldn’t like Bowie.  Think about the connotations of “stepdad”.  This is a guy that comes along after your parents divorce or your dad dies/runs away and starts fucking your mom and telling you what to do.  He probably hates getting interrupted watching football and thinks that Lynyrd Skynyrd is the best example of rock ‘n’ roll he can name.  He votes for assholes because he strongly resembles them.  Meanwhile, you’ve got this alien, weird, gender-bending musician you think is the epitome of a rock star, and Stepdad thinks that rock stars should be just like him, drinking beer and chasing tail on a Saturday night.

When Bowie was getting big in the States, Southern rock and Zeppelin-inspired hard rock were what the football team was listening to; the mainstream wasn’t sure what to make of this costumed, theatrical artiste out of England.  Sure, the Beatles and the Who made rock ‘n’ roll safe for artistry and concept, but this was a step beyond.  This was a rock star who looked like a drama geek and shared a lot of similarities with them.  So while Joe Longhair might have thought that “Suffragette City” was a decent tune on the radio, it was up to the younger set – the post-hippies – to get fully into what Bowie was selling in the early 1970s.  Glam – eyeliner, stars painted on your face, stylish clothing, drama – was what set the kids of the early 1970s apart from the kids banging their heads to Sabbath and smoking joints in the bathroom at school.  Bowie brought theatrical glam to the rock ‘n’ roll world, presaging the 1980s by a comfortable margin.

Bowie’s musical tendencies were obvious from an early age.  In his childhood he showed above-average skill with the recorder and a grasp of movement that was well beyond his peers.  In his early teens he took up the ukulele and, like so many English teenagers of his generation, got into American rock ‘n’ roll bands and English skiffle music.  When the Beatles et al. popularized English versions of rock ‘n’ roll, he took up the cause, looking to provide a lean ‘n’ mean rock singer figure, much like Mick Jagger.  He bounced back and forth amongst a number of groups, growing disillusioned with the pedestrian ambitions and staid repertories of each.  He told his parents that he was going to be a rock musician; his parents told him that he was going to be an electrician.  How much of modern music would be completely different had his parents gotten their way?

As he bounced from band to band, looking for a leg up, he kept an eye out for someone to fulfill the manager role that Brian Epstein provided for The Beatles.  He finally found it in Leslie Conn, who managed him through three failed singles:  “Liza Jane” with the King Bees, “I Pity The Fool” with The Manish Boys (featuring Jimmy Page with a blistering guitar solo), and “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” with the Lower Third.  Conn’s contract was over after the last single and Bowie soon found himself picked up by Ralph Horton, who oversaw Bowie’s move to The Buzz, whose single “Do Anything You Say” was also a flop.  After, Horton helped move Bowie to another band called The Riot Squad, who never released a single.  Ken Pitt, an associate of Horton’s, took over as Bowie’s manager just as he decided to take his act solo.

Up until 1967 Bowie had been going by the stage name of Davy Jones.  Since this was by and large a piss-poor stage name (as well as one shared by bona fide star Davy Jones of the Monkees) he decided to name himself after an American, the Texas frontiersman and knife enthusiast Jim Bowie.  New name in hand, he marched forward to record his first solo album.

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David Bowie

Released June 1st, 1967 on Deram Records

Before there was the Thin White Duke, before the Man Who Sold The World, before Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, there was David Bowie, music hall fop.

Released on the same day as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, David Bowie’s first album was a crushing flop.  Part of the problem with it was, at the orders of manager Ken Pitt, it offered a little something to everyone and substance to no one.  The influences heard on David Bowie range wildly, from vaudeville and music hall to the more childlike and whimsical moments of Ray Davies and Syd Barrett.  Worst of all is the strong streak of flammy nonsense running through it, the sort of English novelty-pop that informed such execrable singles as “Henry VIII” and the Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!”.  That it failed should surprise precisely no one.  “Uncle Arthur” is a direct rip-off of The Kinks, “The Laughing Gnome”, with its sped-up vocals and novelty vibe, was a horrible choice as a lead single (like every previous single Bowie had a hand in, it failed), “Rubber Band” showed some promise but the tuba arrangements were amateur at best.  “Love You Til Tuesday” – which features him comparing himself to the man in the moon – is probably the worst song on the album, but it’s a photo finish either way.  That said, “Join The Gang” is a decent enough tune, although the anti-drug message pales a bit when you consider the rest of the man’s career.

David Bowie would virtually kill his career for at least two years, and when he came back to the recording world it was a much different affair.

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David Bowie / Man of Words/ Man of Music / Space Oddity

Released November 4th, 1969 on Phillips Records (UK) and Mercury Records (US)

Peaked at #17 UK, (1972 rerelease) and #16 US (1973)

Singles:

Space Oddity” (#5 UK, #124 US)

Memory Of A Free Festival

After failing to cause a stir with his 1967 debut, Bowie left music to study dance and mime under Lindsay Kemp.  Kemp lived a theatrical, Bohemian type of existence and it proved to be a major influence on 20 year old David Bowie.  Studying the avant-garde, Bowie learned to develop who he was on the inside and project it on the outside – lessons that became very obviously ingrained.  Through Kemp he met another artistic youth named Hermione Farthingale; the two would shack up and form an acoustic folk trio that played in London between 1968 and 1969. During the interregnum between self-titled albums, Bowie filmed a commercial for Lyons Maid and found some backers to produce a film called Love You Til Tuesday, which would feature Bowie’s music.  He also had a brief “silly flirtation” with heroin in 1968, a period that would both haunt and inform the breakthrough that was around the corner.  Early in 1969 Bowie contacted the producers of Love You Til Tuesday and told them he’d written a new song they could feature in the film.  The song, which would be released as a single on July 11th, 1969 – five days before Apollo 11 would land on the moon – was “Space Oddity”, an eerie tune wherein astronaut Major Tom (alleged junkie) found himself confronting the bizarre in outer space.  It would shoot up to #5 on the UK charts and provide the impetus to record a second album, which would originally be released with the do-over title of David Bowie (released in the U.S. as Man of Words / Man of Music).

The rest of the album would be hit and miss for the most part, although it was much more coherent than David Bowie circa 1967.  “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is a riot, a wild harmonica-driven tribute to Bob Dylan; “Cygnet Committee” was a prelude to the days of Ziggy Stardust, in that it was about a messianic character that broke down barriers for his followers only to have them turn on him (Bowie explained at the time that it was a put-down of the hippies); “Janine” showed Kemp’s influence in its obsession with character and persona.  The two songs written for Farthingale seem too restrained, on the other hand; both “Letter To Hermione” and “An Occasional Dream” are oddly uncomfortable, and only average psychedelic folk songs at that.  Bowie broke up with Farthingale in early 1969; by the time of the album’s release he would be dating Angela Barnett, who would later become his first wife.  The second half of the album is more miss, harkening back to his 1967 sound and tempering it with light psych-folk.  “Memory Of A Free Festival”, an homage to the arts festival put on by his Beckenham Art Lab, is the best of the lot but tends to meander quite a bit.  On the whole, however, the album did its job: it got people to notice David Bowie, and it would give him a leg up towards his next album – his first real classic.

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The Man Who Sold The World

Released November 4th, 1970 on Mercury Records

Peaked at #26 UK (1972 rerelease) and #105 US

Before the recording of The Man Who Sold The World Bowie married his girlfriend Angela Barnett.  He then took a good look at his status as a “solo” artist, realized that he hated working with session musicians (especially his session guitarist, T.Rex founder and future glam rival Marc Bolan), and set about putting together an actual band.  This band ended up being producer Tony Visconti playing bass, Mick Ronson on guitar, and (after some studio kerfuffles with one drummer) Mick Woodmansey as the drummer.  They tried calling themselves The Hype at first, but ditched it after one gig to just keep the name David Bowie.

The studio sessions for the album were mainly Visconti, Ronson, and Woodmansey jamming.  Bowie was preoccupied with being married and would merely give thumbs up or thumbs down to the jams as they began to coalesce into songs.  Once the songs were arranged, Bowie would get up from his position on the couch with his wife and rattle off a vocal with some lyrics he’d been working on during the sessions.  Bowie claims he had more input than that (especially on the chord structures) and given the next few albums he’s probably right, but his biographer says a different thing, so who knows?  Regardless of who did what, the album represented a break from the fey psychedelic folk troubadour he’d presented in 1969.  David Bowie circa 1970 was all about the burgeoning hard rock scene, seeming to take cues from the beginnings of heavy metal:  pounding drums, scorching guitar leads, and a decided lack of hippie trippiness.  “All The Madmen” seemed to be about Jimmy Page’s favourite English sorcerer, Alestair Crowley; “The Supermen” touched on Nietzsche; “Running Gun Blues” did Vietnam War disillusionment better than most American bands; “Saviour Machine” took its lead from HAL/prophecized Skynet, depending on who you ask.  The title track would end up being the most famous, having been covered by Lulu in 1974 and (more obviously) Nirvana in 1994.

It was cutting edge in 1970 and it got a lot of younger musicians thinking.  While other albums went on to become bigger draws in the Bowie catalogue, The Man Who Sold The World was paranoid, schizophrenic, and futuristic, leading it to be a major influence on the darkwave and goth movements ten years later.  It is the first Bowie album that sounds specifically like Bowie, and as such it can be considered the first “real” album in his career.

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Hunky Dory

Released December 17th, 1971 on RCA Records

Peaked at #3 UK (1972), #93 US (1975)

Singles:

Changes” (#66 US, 1972)

Life On Mars?” (#3 UK, 1973)

On Hunky Dory Bowie lightened the hard rock but kept the chord changes.  Instead of the rather monolithic sound of The Man Who Sold The World, the proceedings here are characterized by a wide array of pop sounds:  the piano bounce of “Changes”, the multi-part odyssey of “Life On Mars?”, the slow dance of “Song For Bob Dylan”, and of course the hard-charging guitars of “Queen Bitch”.  It would be a further exploration of personas, with Bowie taking on the conceit that he was “the actor” playing a multitude of roles throughout; lyrically it would deal with the shifting nature of artistic reinvention (“Changes”), further his fascination with the predictions of Nietzsche (“Oh! You Pretty Things”) and pay homage to his newborn son Duncan “Zowie” Bowie (“Kooks”).  “Changes” would be the most famous track off of the album in the end, and would provide the famous pre-film quote for John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (“And these children that you spit on…”).  Lines from “Life On Mars?” would be quoted on Bush’s “Everything Zen” (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”).

Hunky Dory returns to the sort of fey pop sounds that he had originally put on David Bowie but tempered with the sort of hard rock and odd chordings that he experimented with on The Man Who Sold The World.  Like his other albums, it didn’t sell particularly well, but through each of them his audience continued to grow.  By the time Hunky Dory had been absorbed, it became obvious to Bowie that there was budding support for him, and that it would really just take one sort of knockout punch to deliver him to the widescreen masses.  As it would turn out, that knockout was already gestating in Bowie’s head.  During promotional tours for The Man Who Sold The World in the U.S., he had become obsessed with androgyny, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, as well as the idea of creating a fictional rock star that would resemble someone who just arrived on Earth from Mars.  This character, talked about with friends and scrawled on napkins, would be called either Iggy or Ziggy.

04

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

Released June 6th, 1972 on RCA Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #75 US

Singles:

Starman” (#10 UK, #65 US)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (#22 UK)

Suffragette City

The theatrical wig-wearing and pop kaleidoscope of Hunky Dory.  The rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities of The Man Who Sold The World.  The spacey acidity of David Bowie.  It all came together in 1972 for The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, widely considered one of the best albums ever made.

And why not?  It was pure Bowie at the height of his glam-rock powers, a flamboyant rock star of ambiguous sexuality that had all the kids in his pocket.  Let the dour stoners have their Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon.  The kids whose soul yearned for the stage had their very own cultural touchstone, a whirlwind of rock operatics, loud guitars, orchestrated arrangements, and Bowie’s keening, adenoidal voice.  It’s impossible to point to a song that’s even less than stellar, and combined with the cult of personality that developed around the character of ZIggy Stardust, it changed the perception of what constituted a “rock star” forever.

Yet, underneath, it’s David Bowie.  Ziggy was a cross-dressing bisexual space alien because, at the heart of it, so was Bowie in 1972.  Ziggy came to Earth bearing the message of the alien Infinites to spread a message of hope and love after it turned out that Earth had five years to live after the resources ran out.  Eventually his own venal sins catch up with him, and he’s destroyed by the very kids he came to save.  It’s good sci-fi fun, of course, but it’s also a very pointed examination of the nature of rock ‘n’ roll fame and the way it chews up and spits out its stars.  That Bowie himself very nearly ended up mired in this fate only five years later should not be overlooked.

The character himself had a number of inspirations.  Originally a vague amalgamation of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Ziggy achieved greater solidity when Bowie met Vince Taylor of The Playboys.  Taylor, following a drug-fueled nervous breakdown, told Bowie that he believed himself to be a cross between a god and an alien – and thus, the kernel of the Ziggy Stardust story was born.  The costumes of Ziggy, however, were a cross between Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto and Texas outsider-weirdo The Legendary Stardust Cowboy:  glitter, makeup, hair dye, and wild colours, or what every rock star would look like by the mid-1980s.

The album would prove to be a massive hit in the UK, hitting #5 and staying on the charts for two years.  While it wouldn’t chart quite as high in America, Bowie’s 1972 Stateside tour would win him legions of fans and inspire the next chapter in Bowie’s exploration of personas.

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Aladdin Sane

Released April 13th, 1973 on RCA Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #17 U.S.

Singles:

The Jean Genie” (#2 UK, #71 US)

Drive-In Saturday” (#3 UK)

Time

Let’s Spend The Night Together

Aladdin Sane (“A Lad Insane”) is entirely about the duality of the mind, represented right from the beginning by the glittery red lightning bolt running down Bowie’s face on the cover.  The idea sprang from Bowie’s 1972 American tour, where he became alternately fascinated and repelled by the lifestyle he saw on display there.  On one had, the glittering opulence of American cities and the sheer variety of people to be found therein is, in itself, a shining light in the darkness of history; America is not just the City on the Hill, it’s a collection of brilliantly glittering Cities on one vast Hill.  On the other hand, the ugliness, racism, poverty, and constant drug use must have been fascinatingly disgusting.  Bowie himself said that it stemmed from a simultaneous desire to be on the stage performing and to be away from the weirdos he was forced to share a tour bus with.  He would also claim that the schizophrenia lurking behind the songs was because his brother Terry had recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Still, the American influence is undeniable.  This is an album of hard, flashy riff-rock, with strong streaks of doo wop, early rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and the post-British Rolling Stones (whose seminal “Let’s Spend The Night Together” is covered in typically balls-out fashion).  The British press cried that he was selling out, with NME going so far as to call the album “oddly unsatisfying”.  There’s a little something to this, mind you; some of the songs feel rushed, with muddy mixes on “Panic In Detroit” and “The Prettiest Star” and, on “Drive-In Saturday”, an embrace of 1950s Americana that seemed a trifle too enthusiastic.  That said, when the blues riff of “The Jean Genie” drops in, it no longer matters; if Bowie was going to embrace America, he was going to do it with confidence and aplomb.

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Pin Ups

Released October 19th, 1973 on RCA Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #23 US

Singles:

Sorrow” (#3 UK)

Bowie’s last album with the Ziggy Stardust band would be a covers album, an homage to the 1960s English bands that he was a semi-contemporary of in the days when he was putting on a Kinks-lite music hall show.  While Bowie’s penchant for covers showed up here and there in his recordings (notably “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on Aladdin Sane) an entire album’s worth of them sticks out like a purple firetruck.  They’re all perfectly competent covers, but they’re either too slow or too inappropriately glam to have a long lasting impact.  They’re raucous, but Bowie and Co. don’t do much with them beyond playing them loud and loose.  That’s fine and all, don’t get me wrong, but his later career covers – covers of American bands, as opposed to the British Invasion bands represented here – put a unique spin on the songs that is largely missing on Pin Ups.  It’s good fun, but largely inessential.

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Diamond Dogs

Released May 24th, 1974 on RCA Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #5 US

Singles:

Rebel Rebel” (#5 UK, #64 US)

Diamond Dogs” (#21 UK)

1984

After a trip through celebrating America and covering a by-then long-gone Britain, Bowie returned to the trappings of the high-concept theatre album for his last glam outing.  “Glam”, even, is a bit of a misnomer, as much of the album presages the funk and soul influences that would pepper his next two efforts.  Diamond Dogs began life as an attempt at a theatrical production of George Orwell’s 1984; after the Orwell Estate denied Bowie the use of the novel for the production, Bowie merged the songs into his own post-apocalyptic extravaganza.  The main character of Diamond Dogs is Halloween Jack, who hangs around with a gang called the Diamond Dogs in the future wasteland of Hunger City.  The Diamond Dogs – a bunch of half-starved thugs with oddly coloured hair who bummed around scavenging food and dodging the nihilism of their decayed urban existence – came to shocking life three years later when the punk movement became a thing; Bowie would later describe them as a “bunch of Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses”.

While the concept is interesting and bleak, Bowie broke up the Spiders From Mars band before he got into recording the album, and it shows.  The arrangements are all over the place, the inclusion of theatrical pieces like “1984” with more straightforward glam tracks like “Rebel Rebel’ is more jarring than it had been on Aladdin Sane, and the story doesn’t really get fleshed out much.  “Sweet Thing” is a good example of this, as Bowie decided to use the Burroughs cut-up method with the lyrics, completely obscuring any meaning that might have been gleaned from it.  Bowie’s decision to replace the lead guitar lines of Mick Ronson with his own playing produces mixed results; the scratchy sound he creates is interesting, but on the whole it feels rather amateur, especially considering the level his career had achieved by 1974.  In the end, Diamond Dogs is notable only for two things:  “Rebel Rebel” and the original gatefold, where the mutant Bowie-dog showed off a really gigantic penis.

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David Live

Released October 29th, 1974 on RCA Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #5 US

Singles:

Knock On Wood” (#10 UK)

Like the album says, Bowie’s live album was recorded in a Philadelphia suburb in July of 1974.  It was a snapshot of the Diamond Dogs Tour, which would also be filmed and later released as the documentary Cracked Actor.  The film shows the whole story, but you can use the cover of David Live to get approximately the same effect.  The cover and film show David Bowie as being nearly a ghoul:  too thin, too pale, one step away from breaking in two.  Bowie himself has joked that the title of the album should have been David Bowie Is Alive And Well And Living Only In Theory.  Part of it was the exhaustion from doing six albums – and six tours – in six years.  Part of it was the fact that Bowie’s heavy recreational cocaine use had deepened into an addiction, one which would become legendary and not peak for another three years.  The strain is obvious on the recordings as well.  The band he assembled for the American tour in the last half of 1974 is obviously competent, but they’re hampered by Bowie’s over-enthusiastic rearrangements of his older material and by the apparent exhaustion and strain in his voice.  The juxtaposition of the Diamond Dogs material with his older songs also shows how mediocre they are by comparison; “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing – Reprise” is a big boring eight-and-a-half minute blob before a run of great (but somewhat shoddily performed) songs.  The serrated-vocal effect on “Diamond Dogs” sounds somehow even worse live, and “Rock and Roll With Me” just sounds uninspired.  As an effort to capture the live show of David Bowie, it’s a failure.  As a line use to demarcate the glam period from the plastic soul period that would come next, it’s a success.  The second half of the Diamond Dogs Tour, the half that comes after this recording, would see Bowie incorporating increasing amounts of soul music into his show, a move that would continue with his next album.

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Young Americans

Released March 7th, 1975 on EMI Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #9 US

Singles:

Young Americans” (#18 UK, #28 US)

Fame” (#17 UK, #1 US)

The break in the Diamond Dogs Tour was spent in Philadelphia working on new material.  While there, the drugged-out and exhausted Bowie found a new appreciation for black American music, particularly soul and funk.  This appreciation carried through on the second half of his tour, but it really came through in the recording sessions in Philadelphia, the bulk of which became Young Americans.

For Bowie, Young Americans was a massive step away from where he’d been for his career.  He dropped the glam-rock trappings and picked up lush string arrangements, horns that sounded like the nighttime streets, saxophones that cut sharply through the mix, hi-hats like the rustle of a woman’s dress in the night clubs, and rhythms that were like slow, soulful sex.  “Win” is a sex jam the likes of which one would never have expected out of Ziggy Stardust; “Fascination” struts with the sort of funk no translucent Englishman should have ever attempted, but it works oddly well; “Young Americans” is the sound of just such, the youth on the street shuffling by the bright neon lights of the Empire as it stood on the edge of decline; “Somebody Up There Likes Me” rides a solid groove into sax-drenched bliss and features Bowie really giving his voice a workout in the lower registers.  “Fame” was the big hit, though, giving Bowie his first #1 in America, and deservedly so: it’s a the ultimate in “plastic soul”, a term he stole from the 1960s to describe the phase he was in.

The raw, sex-jam sound he found on Young Americans is largely the result of playing everything live in the studio, with as few overdubs as he could get away with.  To help with this, he recruited a number of local Philadelphia soul musicians, including Luther Vandross, Sly Stone drummer Andy Newmark, and Carlos Alomar, whom he would spend another three decades working with.  It was a visceral and overall American sound, and while Bowie would go on to really perfect his take on black music on his next album, Young Americans is a fine album that rings loudly with the sound of a vibrant artist discovering a deep and abiding love for a musical form for the first time.

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Station To Station

Released January 23rd, 1976 on RCA Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Golden Years” (#8 UK, #10 US)

TVC-15” (#33 UK)

Stay

Station To Station is the introduction of the last of Bowie’s persona-glamours, the Thin White Duke.  A hollow, empty man who nonetheless sings with the passion of the sun, the Thin White Duke is a Nietzschian superman, an amoral European aristocrat with an interest in love songs and crypto-fascist symbolism.  He is, without a doubt, the direct result of what was by the middle of 1975 a crippling addiction to cocaine.

The album was recorded in Los Angeles amidst a blizzard of coke, during a time when Bowie had been reduced to a skeleton of his former physical self and his mind had been twisted to the point where he was largely incoherent.  Drug-induced paranoia kept him indoors, where he lived on peppers and milk and hid from semen-stealing witches, spirits summoned through black magic, and Jimmy Page.  He was at the time of the creation of the Thin White Duke engaged in filming The Man Who Fell To Earth, a movie he was starring in and ostensibly making the soundtrack for (although it would later turn out that he was not to make the soundtrack, and at Bowie’s request John Phillips would compose it instead).  The recording sessions for Station To Station were cut over the course of a quick ten days, so that Bowie could begin working on the soundtrack that wasn’t to be.  The nature of Bowie’s mental state during the recording was such that he has virtually no memory of the sessions, and has been quoted as saying that the only reason he knew it was done in L.A. was because someone had told him.  Later, during the promotional tour for the album, his coke-blasted mental state would become readily apparent not only from his emaciated appearance but also from an infamous 1976 BBC interview given as news broke about the death of Spanish fascist dictator General Franco wherein Bowie makes absolutely no coherent sense at all.

Yet, somehow despite the deluge of drugs and the paranoia and insanity they caused, Station To Station remains one of Bowie’s finest efforts, an album that was at once wildly experimental and effortlessly listenable.  On Young Americans Bowie presented a straight-on take on American black music.  Here, he tempered this love of soul and funk with a newfound fascination with German prog – motorik beats and Krautrock, the sounds of Can, Neu! and early Kraftwerk.  The recording sessions, according to Carlos Alomar, were less driven by coke than by inspiration, and the prodigious coke use was the result of needing to keep up with the inspiration.  “Station To Station” begins with a cold, nearly emotionless introduction to the character and ends up being one of the funkiest, most party-ready ten-minute tracks of the 1970s.  “Golden Years” is a rougher, more aggressive take on the wah-soaked funk jam that “Fame” had been.  “TVC-15”, rumoured to be about Iggy Pop’s girlfriend being eaten by a television, bounces along on a poppy groove  and manages to be as sunny as a song about drug-induced hallucinations can be.  “Stay” delves further into the dirty funk, and a pair of ballads round out the collection – “Word On A Wing” and the Nina Simone cover “Wild Is The WInd”.

Lyrically Station To Station is a mixture of Kabbalah mysticism (see the references to the stations of the cross on the title track), Order of the Eastern Dawn occultism, crypto-fascist Nazi mythology, and dollops of Nietzsche.  By Bowie’s own admission, the title track is “the closest to a magical treatise” he’d ever written, and that the remarkably dark nature of the lyrics reflects the misery he was mired in at the time.  It’s a fascinating mixture of where Bowie had been and where he was heading, caught halfway between his admiration of American music and the siren call of something new coming out of Europe.  Within the year he would decamp to the Continent, seeking both escape and reinvention.

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Low

Released January 14th, 1977 on RCA Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Sound And Vision” (#3 UK)

Be My Wife

The Isolar-1976 tour behind Station To Station was very successful, and the remastered version of that album includes a 1976 concert at the Nassau Theatre that shows why: despite his deranged mental state, Bowie was on top of his game when it came to performance.  Nonetheless there was controversy aplenty throughout the tour; he gave a number of bizarre statements to the press, including one where he claimed that Britain could benefit from a fascist leader, and he was photographed at Victoria Station allegedly giving the Nazi salute (although the singer and several witnesses who were there claim that the photographer merely caught Bowie in the middle of a wave).  Luckily the singer avoided major controversy through the intervention of Eric Clapton, who spent the year saying even worse things.

At the end of the tour Bowie followed his Thin White Duke character to Europe.  He bought a chalet in Switzerland, cut down on the ridiculous amount of cocaine he’d been consuming, and began a regimen of consuming and creating fine art.  He got into postmodern painting, fine literature, and started working on an autobiography.  Still, he continued to be hooked on coke and fascinated by the Krautrock scene coming out of Germany, so in the autumn of 1976 he moved to West Berlin.  West Berlin had two major advantages:  one, there was a lot of highly interesting experimental music coming out of it; and two, it was not at all a major hub for cocaine.  In the late 1970s, Berlin was into heroin in a big way, and Bowie just didn’t care for opiates at all, so he could ironically get clean there better than nearly anywhere else.

Part of the sound on Low can be traced back to the soundtrack he’d presented for The Man Who Fell To Earth (like Station To Station, the cover of Low is a still from the film).  The director had ultimately rejected the haunting ambient sounds Bowie had created in favour of John Phillip’s folk-influenced work, and so Bowie intended to recycle the sounds for his next album.  A bigger part of the sound involves the collaboration with former Roxy Music keyboardist and ambient music enthusiast Brian Eno, who would become an important player in the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of which Low would form the first part.  Together the two would tease out an exploration of ambient music, and make pioneering steps towards the establishment of a type of man/machine hybrid that would later be termed “New Wave”.

Low was released in 1977, the same year that the Sex Pistols and The Clash first started throwing fire in the UK, the same year that the CBGB establishment of NYC bands like the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Television, et al. became talked about outside their dank Manhattan circles.  Boredom with the rock ‘n’ roll establishment had become palpable; while the die-hards wanted to fight against other forms of music, forward-thinking rock artists were already looking towards both the cold machinery of nascent electronic music and the utterly human freedom and abandon of the exploding world of punk rock.  Despite his 1960s rock world bona fides, David Bowie was oddly enough on the cusp of the divide in popular music.  Take a group like Talking Heads.  Their debut, Talking Heads: 77, is a relentlessly moving mixture of stiff-armed funk, black American music filtered through more world-oriented Afro rhythms and Krautrock-influenced white boy awkwardness.  This is, in other words, pretty much exactly what Bowie was doing on Low.  The major difference is that while David Byrne learned to do it from David Bowie, David Bowie was David Bowie.

The first half of Low is the experimental Kraut-funk section, kicking off with the extended riff-mining of “Speed Of Life”.  The other tracks – especially “Always Crashing In The Same Car” and “Be My Wife” – all follow along, working that jerky dance-move line like the NYC scene was no big thing.  The fragmentary nature of the tracks adds to their disheveled punk-era mystique, as though Bowie had not only cast off the chains of staid 1970s rock formulas, but also the formulas of accepted hit songwriting as well.  The second half is a series of explorations of atmosphere and synthesizer work – here the collision of Eno and soundtrack is the most apparent.  If they sound fairly ho-hum by today’s standards, it’s only because the rest of the ambient world used it as a beacon to direct their work.  Critical response was at first divided, praising the front half while confused about the back half; as time has gone by, critics have rightfully come around on the album, especially given how many later post-punk and New Wave bands (Joy Division among them) have made the album a touchstone.  It remains a pillar of Bowie’s career, a daring experiment in music-making that correctly anticipated the direction of rock music as an art form, something most of his contemporaries could not do.

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“Heroes”

Released October 14th, 1977 on RCA Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #35 US

Singles:

Heroes” (#24 UK)

Beauty And The Beast” (#39 UK)

If Low was the sound of a man in a melancholy place expelling his melancholia through sheer experimentation, “Heroes is the sound of a man having expelled all of it, and expressing the sheer passion and joy that a new lease on life can give you.  “Heroes” is a further development of the sound of Low, except that the pop songs are fully developed and the ambient pieces are more chilling and complex.  “Beauty And The Beast” kicks the album off in riveting fashion; NME (who named the album their top pick of 1977) remarked that the single version was the “most menacing track of a menacing year” (1978).  Like the rest of the album, it can be taken in two ways:  it’s either about Bowie looking back on his life in 1975-1976 and expressing amazement that he was still alive, or it’s about the Cold War divide that was exemplified by the Berlin that he was living in at the time.

Either way, it was the sound of Low with a relentless groove behind it, a joyous collection of music that “reflected the zeitgeist of West Berlin and the Cold War” – especially given that the studio “Heroes was recorded in was a mere 500 yards from the Berlin Wall.  Also of note is Bowie’s choice of studio guitarist:  King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp, who had declared his retirement three years previous after Red.  Fripp was surprised by Bowie’s request but flew out to Germany anyway and nailed his parts in a single day; his guitar lines on “Beauty and the Beast” were recorded immediately upon arrival at the studio, and done in one take.  Like Low, the second half of the album is largely ambient soundtrack-type work, but rather than the drawn-out proto-dungeon sounds of Low there is more texture, with colours of rainstorms and the neon scrawls that decorated the western side of the Wall.  Bookending the second side are “V-2 Schneider”, an homage to Kraftwerk, and the jaunty, upbeat “The Secret Life Of Arabia”, which closes the album out on a hopeful note.

Taken in conjunction, Low and “Heroes” are a two-part album of Bowie’s adventures in Berlin, soaking up Krautrock and ambient experimentation in equal measures, and leaving 1977 as the high point of his career.

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Stage

Released September 8th, 1978 on RCA Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #44 US

Singles:

Breaking Glass” (#54 UK)

For the Isolar II tour, Bowie took out a rather disparate group of musicians.  In addition to his regular Berlin recording group of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, and George Murphy, Bowie recruited Simon House of Hawkwind, Roger Powell from Utopia, and Adrian Belew, one of Frank Zappa’s players, who would later go on to work with King Crimson, Talking Heads, and Nine Inch Nails.  The stellar lineup (whom would go on to record Lodger with Bowie the next year) combined with Bowie’s sense of freedom in relative sobriety, made for a legendary set of performances.  The songs captured on Stage, recorded from concerts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Providence, do not entirely capture the full experience of the Isolar II tour but they come close.  Part of the problem is the way the album is structured, with fadeouts between tracks like a traditional studio album.  Another part is actually normally a blessing for live albums; the instruments and vocals are recorded direct from the mics, so that everything is clear and immediate.  This would normally be perfect, but since Bowie didn’t change the arrangements around much (unlike David Live), it comes off more like a more forcefully played version of the studio recordings.  The 2005 reissue of the album fixes this problem to a certain extent, since it reconfigures the track listing to be more like the actual concert setlists, and adds on parts the original left off:  a second disc that features a run through roughly half of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars as well as several tracks from Station To Station.  As live albums go, it’s better than most, certainly better than David Live, and a worthy document of the Bowie’s Berlin period.

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Lodger

Released May 18th, 1979 on RCA Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #20 US

Singles:

Boys Keep Swinging” (#7 UK)

DJ” (#29 UK)

Yassassin

Look Back In Anger

Recorded in the middle of the 1978 Isolar II world tour, Lodger shares similarities to many other albums recorded in the midst of long-haul touring:  it’s open and expansive, befitting songs rehearsed and sometimes recorded at soundchecks; it’s obsessed with being in motion, with a relentless kinetic movement borne of touring; and it’s disjointed, both in the songs and in the album as a whole.  The front half is wildly uneven, with “Fantastic Voyage” and “Move On” being quality songs, and “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” being ill-advised forays into a sort of shambling world-funk.  The back half is wall-to-wall brilliance, containing a powerful, emotive ballad in “Look Back In Anger” and, in “Boys Keep Swinging”, a song that is easily one of Bowie’s best.  The disjointed nature leaks through even here, however.  “Repetition” is a mutant slice of New Wave funk rendered sinister only through the inclusion of Bowie’s lyrics, which trace the path of domestic abuse in particularly chilling fashion.  “Fantastic Voyage” is a breezy bit of pop that nonetheless lays bare Bowie’s fear about the possibility of nuclear war.  The music seems almost too jaunty for the subject matter, although in a way that’s David Bowie in a nutshell.

The giddy sense of experimentation from both Low and Heroes continues onward on Lodger, although the ambient moments courtesy of Brian Eno are gone and there is a much more defined sense of guitar-pop music that harkens back to his work in the mid-1970s.  Despite Eno’s work on the album, he had more or less checked out by the end, feeling that the so-called “trilogy” had petered out by Lodger.  Still, there was enough oddity going on throughout the album to let it stand alongside the previous two albums:  instruments were swapped, old songs were played backwards, previous compositions were given new life with lyrics, and impressionist guitarist Adrian Belew played his lines against tracks he’d never heard before recording (which gives us the brilliant squealing solo on “Boys Keep Swinging”).

Lodger is a lot better than contemporary critics would have you believe.  While many at the time were negative on the album, with Rolling Stone going so far as to claim that it was his “weakest effort yet” (as though Diamond Dogs hadn’t existed).  It certainly sold less than his previous albums, despite two very strong lead-off singles.  As per usual it was the kids that would remember the album fondly:  Doug Martsch reminisced about the album in the line from “Distopian Dream Girl” I quoted at the top of this guide, and Moby got his first job in order to get the money to buy Lodger.  His turn towards pop at a time when many of those he’d influenced (David Byrne and Gary Numan among them) were mining the work he’d recorded in 1977 is perhaps the real reason behind the rather muted enthusiasm for the album, although pop would be the direction Bowie would be heading in for the remainder of the next decade.

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Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

Released September 12th, 1980 on RCA Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #12 US

Singles:

Ashes To Ashes” (#1 UK)

Fashion” (#5 UK, #70 US)

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” (#20 UK)

Up The Hill Backwards

RCA marketed Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) with the tagline “Often Copied, Never Equaled”.  The reason for this was that by the second half of 1980 New Wave was ramping up towards its peak, and a number of artists were gunning for David Bowie using the sounds that he’d pioneered on Low and Heroes.   His previous album, Lodger, had failed to ignite the charts, and he had, throughout the end of 1979 and the beginning of 1980, begun the process of divorce with his wife Angela.  Despite the successes he’d minted three years before, he found himself at another career crossroads.

Scary Monsters seems like both a step forward and a retreat.  It’s a retreat in a sense that, even more so than Lodger, it does away with the ambient Eno-collaborator experimentation that characterized his 1977 work in favour of more commercial melodies and straightforward arrangements.  Unlike the futurist work of Low and HeroesScary Monsters is very much an album of 1980: spiky New Wave rhythms, smooth synth pads, and movement more at home on the dancefloor.  As a balance between commercialism and artistry it works extremely well, and it fittingly looks both backwards and forwards simultaneously.  The vocals on “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” revisit the serrated-vocal effect from “Diamond Dogs”, to greater effect; “Fashion” seems built as the template for edgier New Wave for the next five years after; “Ashes To Ashes”, catchy enough to hit #1 in Britain, brings back the character of Major Tom and playfully references the old adolescent theory that “Space Oddity” is about heroin.  The outlook on a lot of the songs seems angry and a little defensive about the future:  the opener, “It’s No Game, Part 1” is awash in semi-violent imagery – fingers broken, stones breaking on the road, gunshot suicide – and makes oblique reference to his own fascist controversy from four years before.  “Up The Hill Backwards” seems as though it’s made to address his divorce, and “Teenage Wildlife” – a dead ringer for “Heroes” – seems like a letter to the up-and-comers that were taking a page from his discography to forge their careers, Gary Numan chief among them.  “Scream Like A Baby” reads like a dispatch from a fascist societal crackdown, and “Because You’re Young”, a tale of hard and violent love, contrasts “a million dreams” with “a million scars”.

*Scary Monsters* is the clearest division point for Bowie’s career; three years later he would enter the world-straddling megastar phase of his career and every album he would release afterwards would be compared to it, for better or worse.  Any time Bowie achieved a certain level of critical success, the words “his best since Scary Monsters” would appear in the review.

 

Bang The Head That Doesn’t Bang: A Guide to Metallica

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Metallica is the starter pack of metal.  Every 14 year old kid in the free world with darkcore inclinations and a penchant for marijuana gets introduced to Metallica, by their friends, their older siblings, their parents, and in some early-starting families, possibly even their grandparents.  They’re sufficiently edgy without actually possessing any edge, and they’re about as subtle as a hammer in the face (even in their quieter moments), so they’re perfect for raging balls of horomones.  All their friends will love them, too, so they’ll be a common link in that outcast group of proto-stoners gathering around the smoking pit outside your local high school.  One of those kids will be disdainful and claim that “real metal” lies in the death and black underground.  While that kid is right, they’re also kind of annoying.

When they got together, though, way way back in 1981, Kiss and Deep Purple were about as heavy as widely accepted mainstream rock got.  Sure, you had your Black Sabbaths and your Judas Priests as well, but they weren’t really “mainstream”, in the way you think of them now.  Hell, even punk rock was a strange and scary type of music back then, the sort of thing social outcasts, junkies, and psychos in back alleys and dank underground clubs listened to.  Nowadays every frat kid slaps on his Vans and goes out to Warped Tour, but back then (to paraphrase Social Distortion) if you listened to punk rock you were likely to get your ass beaten by frat kids.  Metal had a similar type of distinction.  If you listened to bands like Venom, or Saxon, or Metallica’s favoured Diamond Head, you were a greasy stoner lurking in shop class, ready to die in a drunken car accident or to become a petty criminal.  The long, unwashed hair and penchant for leather likely did not help in this regard.

So, in that fabled year, James Hetfield, son of Christian Scientists, answered an ad in The Recycler for a guitarist who could jam on some New Wave of British Heavy Metal – specifically Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, and Iron Maiden.  The man who placed the ad was Lars Ulrich, the Danish son of a pro tennis player and godson of jazz legend Dexter Gordon.  Ulrich had first been introduced to the power of rock and roll at the age of 9, when his father had used one of his five free passes to take his son to see Deep Purple in Copenhagen.  By the time he came to America, at the age of 17, he’d already been playing drums for five years. Somehow, despite this early start, he’s never quite figured out how to play them well.  Ha, I kid.  Sort of.  Hetfield and Ulrich began jamming and eventually reached out to find a lead guitarist.  When I say “eventually”, what I really mean is “because Lars asked the founder of Metal Blade Records if he could record a song for their upcoming Metal Massacre comp without actually having a band first”.  The guitarist they found was Dave Mustaine which, as anyone familiar with Mustaine knows, was a colossal mistake.  They also needed a name, of course, so Lars stole one.  Literally.  A friend of his was starting a metal zine and had two names picked out:  MetalMania and Metallica.  Lars told his friend that Metallica was a terrible name in order to turn around and nick it for his band.  Intellectual property theft is okay as long as you’re the one doing the theiving, right Lars?

Still, they recorded a song (“Hit The Lights”) and found a regular bassist in Ron McGovney.  They recorded a demo called Power Metal, which of course nowadays is the term for cheesy heavy metal about dragons but back then probably sounded pretty cool.  After cutting the demo they stumbled across a righteous dude by the name of Cliff Burton, who was playing bass in a local band.  Out went McGovney, in went Burton, and they would record a couple of further demos, including the famous tape-cassette circuit favourite, No Life ‘Til Leather.  Right Lars, trading music for free is only cool if you’re benefiting from it.  Finally a concert promoter by the name of Johny Zazula would sign them to his nascent Megaforce Records and the band would move to record their debut.

KILL ‘EM ALL (1983)

Look at the back of this album.  Look at it.  These guys are basically kids.  The acne hasn’t even left their faces yet.  They’re so amped up on their own youth and it comes across in the recording.  This is mile-a-minute heavy metal that would, a year later, be termed “thrash metal” by Kerrang!.  Hetfield’s voice hasn’t really come into it’s own yet, more of a strangled yelp than the Danzig-esque sing-shout he was going for, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t still a huge amount of power in it.  If you’re looking at the back of it, you’ll also notice that Kirk Hammett is there, and not Dave Mustaine.  The reason for this is that, while the band was in Rochester, NY recording the album (which was to be called Metal Up Your Ass, charmingly enough) Mustaine’s alcohol and drug addictions, as well as his penchant for being a complete belligerent asshole, became too much for the band to bear.  Now, think about this for a second.  This is a band that has been nicknamed “Alcoholica” and is legendary for the amount of booze they’ve ingested over the years.  For a band of complete alcoholics to kick out Mustaine for being too drunk should tell you a little something about Dave Mustaine.  Mustaine would go on to cry endlessly about this ‘betrayal’ for the rest of his career, despite his finding fame and fortune with his own band, Megadeth.  Hammett terk his jerb, stole all his guitar work, and on and on.  The first part of most of the solos are Mustaine’s work, of course, but Hammett trained under guitar wunderkind Joe Satriani and proved himself more than capable of filling the role.

As for the album itself, it and Slayer’s Show No Mercy are the birthplace of thrash metal.  Technically precise riffs, blazing guitar solos, relentless energy.  The band veered away from their contemporaries, however, by embracing a more punk rock-like attitude towards the lyrics at the same time as they nicked the speed and attitude from it.  Check out something like “Hit The Lights”, “Jump In The Fire”, and “Seek and Destroy”, and compare it to what Slayer or Iron Maiden (or, Christ, Mercyful Fate) were singing about at the time.  The band appealed to stoner kids who weren’t D&D nerds too, which gave them an important edge over their mystical, fantasy-obsessed brethern.  Still, there is something exhausting about the album; that relentless energy flags a bit when you’re no longer cruising on horomones and there’s little to break up the album dynamically, aside from a moody Cliff Burton bass solo partway through.  Plus, those drums.  I’m pretty sure you could replace Lars Ulrich with a well-programmed drum machine and no one would tell the difference.  Still, it did it’s job, and it provided a solid foundation for the quantum leap of their second album.

 

RIDE THE LIGHTNING (1984)

If the rating didn’t clue you in, here’s the thing:  I LOVE this album.  Unequivocally.  As far as thrash metal goes, it’s the tops, with Reign In Blood coming in a close second (and this album’s follow-up coming in third, natch).  This was a massive reinvention of what Metallica could accomplish, an admission that they were the best thing to ever exist in heavy metal.  Classical flourishes, harmonized leads, melodies, actual choruses, and, in “Fade To Black”, their first and best power ballad.  Themes.  There are themes here beyond Kill ‘Em All‘s dicta of “Bang The Head That Doesn’t Bang”.  Most of the songs here deal with events spiralling out of one’s control, whether through nuclear war (the thrash epic “Fight Fire With Fire”), capital punishment for a crime you didn’t commit (“Ride The Lightning”), the horror of modern war (“For Whom The Bell Tolls”), suicide (“Fade To Black”), being “Trapped Under Ice”, “Escape”ing…I mean, you get the idea.  “Fight Fire With Fire”, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, and “Creeping Death” are the metal classics; “Fade To Black” starts off as a minor key ballad and gets blown wide open by Kirk Hammett’s masterful electric soloing; closing number “The Call of Ktulu” is a blown-out full-blown instrumental epic that signalled that this was a band that could conquer the world.  Hell, even Ulrich’s drumming is passable, although the sheer fury with which Hetfield carries the rhythm work probably helps in that regard.  Hetfield once said of this album that “You have 18 years to write your first album – and six months to write your second”.  They spent those six months well.

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MASTER OF PUPPETS (1986)

Master of Puppets is Metallica’s last truly great album.  Look at the release date and think about that for a second.  Three years into their career, 28 to go.  Oh boy.

This is the consensus pick for best Metallica album, aside from the drunken yahoos who pick the Black Album.  The reason is that this is the apothesis of their abilities.  They would get more intricate on their next album, but there are of course some…problems…with that album.  Master of Puppets is eight tracks of forward-thinking headbanging thrash metal, with a majestic sense of dynamics.  The theme here is power and control:  Drug addiction, madness, ordinary soldiers at war, evangelical religion.  “Battery” is the greatest thrash metal song of all time that isn’t “Angel of Death”.  “Master of Puppets” is eight minutes of instantly recognizable fist-in-the-air metal.  “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Welcome Home” are a welcome dynamic shift, adding a creepy, eerie vibe to the proceedings that makes the atmoshpere.  “Disposable Heroes”, “Leper Messiah”, and “Damage, Inc” are lethal slabs of explosive guitar work.  “Orion” is a sad note on the album, as it features some sublime work from Cliff Burton.  While on tour for Master of Puppets in 1986 (with Ozzy Osbourne) the band would get into a bus accident in Sweden and Burton would die.  You will notice that they didn’t make a truly great album after Burton’s death.  I don’t think that this is a coincidence.  Burton was a master, a great bassist with eclectic taste in music that drove the innovative part of the band’s career.  After he left, that innovative soul left them, and they slowly ossified into the walking cliche they are today.  He left behind a legacy of great music, and his presence would be sorely missed over the following 28 years.

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…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1988)

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh where’s the bass?  I’ve often wondered if this wasn’t the band’s ultimate gesture of disresepct for their new bassist, but longtime producer Fleming Rasmussen attributed it to his not being present during the mixing process.  Still, the album sounds weird.  The tone is dry, sterile, with clicks for drums, thin guitars, and no bass.  Newsted recorded his bass separately from the band and it was mixed into the same frequency with Hetfield’s guitar.  Still, for all of that, this is the album that proves that Metallica can play this shit sideways.  These are lengthy, intricate songs that, if they were produced properly, would be the absolute pinnacle of thrash metal.  This is progressive thrash, the kind of thing that had both punk and metal bands sitting up and taking notes on.  It was also the mainstream world’s first real look at the band; perennial crowd favourite “One” had a music video made for it, and it got some serious play on MTV courtesy of Headbanger’s Ball.  In terms of themes, it was heavily political, painting a picture of an America where justice had been sold to the highest bidder, warmongers ruled over all, and the government was in collusion with moneyed intersts.  Twenty years later, in an interview with German-language television network 3SAT, Hetfield would try to claim that the band was apolitical because “politics and music, at least for us, don’t mix”.  Ha, good one James.

This album is also totally to blame for the way I wrote songs when I was 14-15.  Everything had to be modular, with airtight riffs, and there had to be at least two guitar solos in the course of every song.

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METALLICA (1991)

This album is the 800 pound gorilla of the hard rock world.  It’s sold 30,000,000 copies worldwide, including the super-fancy Diamond level of sales from the RIAA in the U.S.  It’s a staple of every rocker, from acne-scarred thirteen-year-olds to grey-hairs convinced that they still rock hard.  Ask any long-haired, vacant eyed adolescent male about their favourite albums and this will be listed.  You’ll hear a certain inflection when they talk about it as well:  “The BLACK album”, as though the cover sums up all the light-eating qualities they ascribe to the album.  It’s become a fetish amongst a certain demographic, a beacon for a time that was less complicated and more rock ‘n’ roll.

Unpopular opinion time:  it’s also shockingly mediocre.

The band pushed the reset button after …And Justice For All, trading in the intricate, sprawling progressive thrash they’d perfected for much slower tempos and much more introspective lyrics.  That slower BPM is the biggest problem with the album – it thuds and plods in more places than is strictly comfortable, and while some of the riffs stand the test of time too many others seem content to crawl along and get by on the weight of Bob Rock’s production.  It comes off like the band made a conscious decision to change their sound up but flubbed the delivery because they weren’t really sure how to play slowly and menacingly.  “Enter Sandman” has a classic riff, but “Sad But True” ages badly, marred perhaps too much by Kid Rock’s sampling years afterwards.  “Holier Than Thou”, “The God That Failed”, and “My Friend of Misery” are clunkers unless you are wrapped in a cloud of either heavy nostalgia or adolescent hormones.  “Don’t Tread On Me” brays senselessly, echoing the Gadsen flag’s slogan without any sort of real bite and unwittingly becoming an anthem for the American Tea Party’s reactionary politics twenty years later.  “The Unforgiven” still holds up well – that spaghetti-western guitar line still gives me chills to this day – but “Nothing Else Matters” has become somehow even more boring nearly a quarter-century later.  It’s the sort of song that screams class to people who think tuxedo t-shirts are the height of formal wear, a pseudo-profound ballad that untold numbers of teenage couples have had their first dance (vertical or horizontal) to since it was first released.  I have heard any number of Metallica defeners get belligerent about how the song is this complicated icon of how worshipful Kirk Hammett is as a guitarist, despite the fact that its oh-so-stately opening measure could be finger-picked by a monkey with a lobotomy, and the fact that he still can’t play his way out of a pentatonic scale.

Still, there are classic hard rock songs here:  “Enter Sandman”, “The Unforgiven”, “Wherever I May Roam”, “Through The Never”, and “Of Wolf and Man” all stand up.  This counts for five songs out of the twelve on display, of course, but it’s better than a lot of their hard rock contemporaries could manage.  Does that fact alone mean it deserves its legendary status?  God, no.  Forcing themselves to slow down and play something besides progressive thrash was an interesting decision, but they fumbled it.  Stacked against the rise of college alt-rock and the decaying forces of Sunset Strip glam-metal, it was a beacon of heavy music that caught a fire amongst disaffected adolescents.  This fact – that the album was in the right place at the right time – tends to cover up the more glaring bits of cringe that runs roughshod through the album.  Put simply:  the album is truly great only through consideration of nostalgia.

LOAD (1996)

“Oh my god Trevor, did you really just rate Load better than the Black Album?  They went grunge!  They cut their hair!  They betrayed their trve kvlt rvvts!  RHUBARB! RHUBARB!”

To be fair, a change had to be made.  The band had reached the apex of their take on New Wave of British Heavy Metal by 1988 and there was simply nothing left to be done without devolving into self-parody.  With Bob Rock at the helm and a newfound focus on mid-tempo traditional biker metal (a la Judas Priest) Metallica found worldwide success despite all of the leaden problems I outlined above.  After touring the shit out of their Black Album they finally released a follow-up five years later and took a lot of heat for it.  The problem, of course, was that they had found mainstream success in 1991, before Nirvana, with a set of wooden, stodgy heavy metal numbers that were honestly pretty awkward to bang your head to.  By the time Load came out in 1996 grunge was over; Kurt Cobain had been dead for two years and the specter of Creed was not far off.  Metallica tempered their trad-metal with a bit of swing – southern rock and the bluesier side of Black Sabbath – but so had everyone else.  To the clueless ninth-grader and his old-school rockin’ uncle of 1996, it sounded at first blush as if the band had forsaken true metal for a kick at the Stone Temple Pilots/Pearl Jam can.  The fact that they had cut their trademark long metal locks in the interim did not help matters.  I had long hair in the ninth and tenth grade.  When I finally cut it short in the eleventh grade, one of my best friends accused me of “going Metallica” – which is how deep the betrayal went in the high school stoner subculture.

The facts, though, tell a different story.  Load was an album that followed directly from the Black Album, although a distance of eighteen years is helpful in realizing this.  The songs are just as heavy as anything off of the Black Album, but they’re played mercifully looser, with more swing and a bigger spark of life.  A song like “Struggle Within” or “Holier Than Thou” is wooden and uncomfortable; a song like “Ain’t My Bitch” or “King Nothing” coils and strikes with grace.  The band takes chances, with lengthy side closers “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn” eating up minutes and combining a bluesier approach to guitar playing with crushing choruses that evoke actual emotional intensity.  This intensity is helped along by Hetfield’s focus on introspection when it comes to his lyrics; he’s still nowhere close to being the world’s greatest poet but the lack of cheese that infested the Black Album is a welcome change.  Even the token ballad is miles beyond what had been offered five years previous; while “Mama Said” is not in the same league as, say, “Fade To Black”, it beats out “Nothing Else Matters” by virtue of that same emotional connection that Hetfield achieves throughout Load.  It also serves as a great reminder of country music’s place in the history of hard rock.  The main problem with the album is the lengthy running time; at nearly 80 minutes (they filled the capacity of a compact disc) it gets a bit exhausting, although the next year would show why cutting it back would have been impossible.

Load makes one thing clear:  there are really two Metallicas.  One started off with a young, brash, awkward album that told everyone within earshot that this was a thrash metal band.  The other started off with an older, more conservative awkward album that proclaimed the band to be the epitome of traditional heavy metal.  The second Metallica would be much more scattershot.

RELOAD (1997)

As the name implies, Reload is made up of the leftovers of the Load sessions.  The band had recorded so much material that it was able to make two very lengthy albums out of it. That Reload is not quite up to the same standards as Load is perhaps inevitable, since it’s populated by the B-list side of the sessions, and a lot of the songs could easily have been left comfortably in the vault.  “Devil’s Dance”, “Better Than You”, and “Slither” crawl on for far longer than they need to.  The cringe factor returns to the lyrics, notably on tracks like “Bad Seed”, “Carpe Diem Baby”, and “Fuel”.  At the same time, “Fuel” features a great guitar solo, a future-ready melody that sounds like it was lifted whole out of a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk video game.  “The Memory Remains” is a stellar southern rock gothic, featuring a spine-tingling vocal melody from Marianne Faithfull.  “The Unforgiven II” is largely unnecessary but at the same time it’s a testament to the power of big gestures and bigger guitars.  “Low Man’s Lyric” employs a hurdy-gurdy to craft the band’s most eclectic ballad to date, and the closer “Fixxxer” is an epic crunch-fest that rivals Load‘s “The Outlaw Torn”.  Besides those tracks, however, the band rehashes the southern rock groove that lay at the heart of Load, only with less success and more repetition.

GARAGE, INC (1998)

Metallica has always had a sweet spot for covers.  Their 1984 “Creeping Death” single featured a Diamond Head cover that would become part of their regular repertoire, and 1987 would see them release the fabled $5.98 EP, whose five covers are reprised on this compilation.  Following the Load/Reload releases, the band retreated to the garage to record a full album of covers, and to compile the covers they’d released for various singles.  The result is really the highlight of the post-1988 era, an album where the band lets go and plays with abandon.  Garage, Inc. introduced a generation of stodgy adolescent fans to bands that they might otherwise never have been exposed to:  it’s where I found out about Discharge, Nick Cave, the heavier side of Blue Oyster Cult, and where I gained an appreciation for early Mercyful Fate.  Their version of the classic Skynyrd ballad “Tuesday’s Gone” gets a little long-winded, but their take on Bob Seger’s road-weary “Turn The Page” is spot-on.  The second side compiles the “Creeping Death” single, the $5.98 EP, the “Harvester of Sorrow” single (where we all learned to appreciate Budgie), the b-sides to “Enter Sandman” and “The Unforgiven”, and a quartet of hard-hitting Motorhead tracks that close out the album in a big way.  It’s a good reminder that the band were fans before they were world-spanning rock stars, and it helps to put their career into perspective.

S&M (1999)

Jason Newsted’s final album with the band was a live effort, a pairing of Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Metal has always had a fascination with orchestral suites and classical composers – witness the entirety of symphonic black metal – and there has always been a parallel tendency to think in terms of large pieces.  With Metallica in particular, Cliff Burton had been a big fan of classical composition, including Bach, and the album’s conception was in a way an homage to his memory.  The actual execution is a bit hit and miss; the classic thrash metal songs pair well with a symphonic accompaniment, especially set opener “The Call of Ktulu” and the ever-popular “For Whom The Bell Tolls”.  Some of the tracks fall a bit flat even with accompaniment:  “Devil’s Dance” is still a clunker no matter how many strings you pile on, and “Hero Of The Day” seems strangely diminished.  “Nothing Else Matters” comes off much better than the original, however, as the orchestral accompaniment adds in the meat that the original was missing.  The album included two new tracks, neither of which are particularly essential.  “No Leaf Clover” got some radio play after the album was released, and “- Human” was included in NHL 99, but of the two only the former is still played in concert.  All in all S&M shows off the power of the band live, especially with the boost brought by the orchestra; as far as live albums go, you can do a lot worse.

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ST. ANGER (2003)

St. Anger is a confusing record, largely because it’s trying to be a lot of different things at the same time.  It’s the first album without Jason Newsted, who left in 2001 due to some personal issues and the band’s rigorous touring schedule.  Around the same time, the original recording sessions for the album came to a screeching halt after James Hetfield entered rehab for addictions to alcohol and other substances.  Even after Hetfield returned to the group, the band faced internal problems (the kind you get when your band consists of two assholes and a wishy-washy lead guitarist) and hired a personal coach to help them get over themselves.  These group therapy sessions (as well as the album recording sessions) would be recorded and later form the basis for the metal therapy documentary Some Kind Of Monster.  The film is really only worthwhile for one scene, the one where Dave Mustaine cries about being kicked out of Metallica way way back in the 1980s.  The album itself is an attempt to play catch-up with the metal world, which had moved on past heavy groove-rock by the time the 21st Century was underway.  It’s notable that the tempos on St. Anger are much faster than anything they’d recorded since …And Justice For All, although the riffs are nowhere near as complex as that watershed point.  Instead, the band sort of speed-strums through the fast parts while Lars wails on the drums in a manner which can be best summed up as a clatter.  Literally:  he forgot to tune a snare in the recording at one point, discovered that he liked it, and decided to record all of the drums as though he were playing a gigantic metalworks, or a bunch of copper pipes.  I made jokes back in 2003 that he’d taken inspiration from Stomp.  The problem with all this is that there’s no real definition to the speedier parts of the songs – it’s all fierce attitude without craft, and it’s only the dynamic downshifts that really save the songs from being second-tier thrash metal.  There’s also a notable lack of guitar soloing, as though Bob Rock and Ulrich/Hetfield decided that guitar solos weren’t cool anymore because the kids weren’t playing them, and in my mind the songs tend to suffer somewhat from a lack of orgasmic release that the solos usually provided.  It’s not anywhere near as bad as Brent DiCrescenzo made it out to be, though, and while it’s not the best album the band ever did I actually prefer it to most of the rest of the Bob Rock era.  The fanbase, of course, thinks differently; people really dislike the album, which I find a little confusing because it’s not actively offensive for any particular reason.  Some of it may be backlash for the band’s hypocritical stance on P2P sharing and the Napster debacle, but I think that a lot of it can be summed up by the fact that metal fans are fucking weird.

DEATH MAGNETIC (2008)

It’s tempting to call Death Magnetic a comeback, because that’s really what it feels like.  It’s a definite break with the era that came before, and it’s telling in the two people who aren’t present for the recording.  Bob Rock, the producer who helmed them from the Black Album through to St. Anger, was replaced by Rick Rubin, who of course not only produced a slew of great hip hop albums (including some definite comebacks) but also kept Slayer on course for their career.  Jason Newsted, who joined them before …And Justice For All and left just before the recording of St. Anger began, was finally, permanently replaced by Robert Trujillo.  Rubin radically redid the band’s tone, scrapping the muddled, everything-in-the-middle production of St. Anger with a sharper, clearer style (albeit one that falls into the same ultra-compressed Loudness Wars problem as every other major label recording of the time).  Trujillo’s presence seemed to spur the band to revist their musical direction as well.  After spending nearly seventeen years following mid-tempo trad-metal that grew increasingly indistinguishable from heavy alt-rock, and capping it off with a stripped-down album of Slipknot-level riffs, Death Magnetic marks a return to the thrash metal stylings they last visited on …And Justice For All.  The most notable signifier of this is the return of Kirk Hammett’s blazing guitar solos; the warp-speed fingering that rockets out of “That Was Just Your Life” is all the more mind-blowing for the complete silence that occurred on St. Anger.

My thoughts on the Bob Rock era are pretty clear, I think.  To me it feels as though the band wandered through a wilderness from 1991-2003, chasing mainstream rock acceptability and arena rock crowds.  Mid-way through the 21st Century, sober and at peace for the first time, it felt as though the band came full circle back to the music they made their name on in the first place.  They were scarred, sure, but they’d learned something about shading, subtlety, and dynamics in those years as well that allowed them to take their burning thrash to the next level.  A song like opening track “That Was Just Your Life” barrels along like they decided to cover Slayer, but “The Day That Never Comes” combines “Fade To Black”, “The Unforgiven”, and the ballad experiments they tried out on Load/Reload to great effect.  It feels like a logical progression from 1988, and is a welcome addition to the thrash metal canon.

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LULU (2011)

Lou Reed and Metallica.  What, exactly, were people expecting?  Lou Reed didn’t give a fuck anymore by this point.  He said in an interview for the album’s release that he’d chased away any fans he’d had with 1975’s Metal Machine Music, and that he was doing music mainly for fun by 2011.  Lulu is a messy album, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.  It’s more of a work of art than a piece of commercial music, and this sort of thing usually makes people angry, because most people don’t really get art, and those that do are not normally in Metallica’s target audience.  So, there’s the thing.  It’s a set of songs originally written for a play called Lulu, which amalgamated two German plays.  This alone will make the typical acne-riddled Metallica fan’s eyes glaze over.  It comes off as metal-backed poetry, kind of like…well, like Lou Reed collaborating with Metallica.  The real problem is that most of the songs come off as two different songs layered on top of each other; the execution is clunky, and in the end I think that the outcome is alright, but Metallica was probably the wrong band for the project.  Fun fact:  the recording sessions were apparently fairly relaxing except for one moment where things got so intense that Reed challenged Lars Ulrich to a “street fight”. That’s the kind of stuff you would get into when you hung around Lou Reed enough.  At the time of the album’s release, many said that it was the end of Metallica, a final joke that would kill off the band.  People take this stuff way too seriously.  Interestingly, critics like Robert Christgau opined after Reed’s death in 2013 that the album hadn’t gotten enough love; avant-garde mag The Wire gave it their #9 spot on their year-end best-of list.  As divisive as anything you’re likely to find in modern mainstream music, Lulu shows the fault lines where music-as-art butts up against music-as-entertainment.

HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT (2016)

★★★★

Eight years after Death Magnetic and thirty years after Master Of Puppets, Metallica found themselves back on the road they had left twenty years prior – only this time they weren’t alone. When Death Magnetic came out the metal world was largely dominated by metalcore groups like Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch or melodic death bands that bordered on metalcore (Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, In Flames). By 2016, though, thrash had made a comeback of sorts; bands like Municipal Waste, Power Trip, and Iron Reagan were making noise like it was 1982 all over again and in comparison it’s hard not to see Metallica as going grey. Sure, they brought the riffs to this double album. Hetfield brings the growl (and, unfortunately at times, also brings the grunge-esque howl we all hoped he’d left behind in the early 00s). Hammett, despite having lost 250 riffs he’d earmarked for the album when he’d lost his iPhone, brings off-the-cuff squalling guitar leads that complement rather than interrupt. Lars…does his thing. Still, the band seems to have slowed a step, which is expected and, honestly, would have seemed odd otherwise.

Despite the alleged slowdown, this is still very much the equal of Death Magnetic as the finest Metallica album since …And Justice For All. If it loses half a star over it’s predecessor, it’s likely because two albums of continuous heavy riffing starts to get overlong, and because Hammett’s presence is diminished from the previous album. Still, if you have the longing for those heady old riffs from days gone by, you can do a lot worse.

When We Hit The Twin Cities: A Guide To The Hold Steady

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There’s this band, you know?  They play downtown alot, and maybe they’ll change your life.  But you’ll only be into them for a little while before the scene will start getting dark, and druggy.  Kids will get stabbed at townie parties, those guys with the same tattoos as Gideon will start hanging around, and that guy who always shows up in sweatpants starts packing hard powders for the people that are looking for it.  This is pretty much the core tenet of Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady, a hard-drinking band of classic-rock afficionados who just recently passed the ten-year mark.  Anchored around Minneapolis transplant and former Lifter Puller leader Craig Finn’s densely woven tales of teenage sinning and repentance, the band embraces the power and theatricality of working class youth.  Kitchen work, hard drugs, nights at the bar that go on too long, Catholic confessions of love and lust:  these are the milieu that the songs operate in.  In the early days, their MySpace slogan was “For people who thought that New Wave was pretty lame, then and now”, which should of course be tempered by the fact of Lifter Puller’s existence.  The band came about from an idea that Finn and Lifter Puller / Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler had while watching The Last Waltz – an idea of a lost art of rock ‘n’ roll that would be blended with the searing punk rock that Finn and Kubler grew up on, like fellow Minnesota natives Husker Du.  Their work has classic touchstones (Zeppelin, the Stones, Seventies pop like Cheap Trick and ELO) and Kubler consistently proves himself to be one of the better guitarists of his generation (especially on jaw-dropping moments like Stay Positive‘s “Lord I’m Discouraged”) but they never stoop to slavish imitation of the past.  Instead, the Hold Steady uses them as a reference point to anchor much more recent memories of debauchery. Ten years on they’ve become a band that deals in mythology: the massive nights, the doomed affairs, the booze and the hangover. The bands and the scene.  Hold steady.

Almost Killed Me 

Released March 16th, 2004 on Frenchkiss Records

The album kicks off by telling us the backstory: we went from the Crash and the Depression to the Second World War, and from there into a glittering atomic future that got ugly and druggy by the time the Seventies were closing out and then the Eighties almost killed us, let’s not remember them quite so fondly. The resulting guitar pyrotechnics following the implosion of the dot-com bubble scrub away any trace of hip irony or awkwardly angular New-Wave possibilities, and leave the remaining nine tracks to carve out a peculiar sort of Midwest mythology. On “The Swish” Finn sings that “it was a bloodsucking summer, I spent half the time trying to get paid for my saviour” and throughout the album you can never quite tell if he’s talking about Jesus or Charlemagne the drug dealer. It’s an album of drunken swagger, a loud recollection of all the parties you got way too drunk or far too high at. You get blackout drunk and wake up with a straightedge band in Ybor City, FL. The ending track (the first in a series of epic closers the band would do) remains the greatest “last- song-of-the-festival-show” song you’ll ever here: it rides in on a bassline that pairs well with the setting sun, and reminisces about the good times that were had while simultaneously admitting that at one point you almost died and found out that maybe it wasn’t worth all the good times after all.

– “Positive Jam”

If you want to figure out where you are, the first thing you have to understand is where you come from. “The Eighties almost killed me, let’s not remember them quite so fondly”

– “The Swish”

“It was a bloodsucking summer, I spent half the time trying to get paid for my saviour. Swishin’ through the city centre, I did a couple favours for these guys that looked like Tusken raiders”

– “Most People Are DJs”

Hold steady Ybor City, you’re up to your neck in the sweat and wet confetti. Take off your beret, everyone’s a critic and most people are DJs. It’s a song that excellently conveys how tiring – and pretty sweet – the constant party scene can be.

– “Certain Songs”

I guess you’re old enough to know. Kids out on the west coast are taking off their clothes, screwing in the surf, and going out to shows. The confident piano chords here (courtesy of keyboard wizard Franz Nicolay) conjure up an idea of Billy Joel, but a Billy Joel where the kitchen workers and the bartenders are doing cocaine out of sight of the patrons and every night is redeemed by those certain songs – you know the ones. The ones that have been scratched into your soul.

– “Killer Parties”

The first place you’ll hear the line “if they ask about Charlemagne, be polite and say something vague”, a topic that is revisited on the next album. The bassline rolls into this song like far off thunder and the feedback-guitar echoes like distant heat lightning. The entire album is summed up in one line here: “Ybor City is tres speedy but they throw such killer parties. Killer parties almost killed me.”

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Separation Sunday 

Released May 3rd, 2005 on Frenchkiss Records

A concept album, of sorts, the band’s best album follows four main characters: The Narrator, Charlemagne the dealer, Holly / Halleluiah the scenester/addict/party girl (and – spoiler – a hoodrat), and Gideon, a tattooed skinhead. They kick around the party cities of the United States and use the backstreets of Minneapolis as a home base of sorts. Holly admits at the very beginning of the album that “there’s going to come a time when I’m going to have to go with whoever’s going to get me the highest”, leaving the door open for drugs or religion. It is an album that is primarily concerned with the loss of innocence and the idea of repentance; Holly gets druggy, gets born again at a revival camp on the Mississippi River, gets druggy again, wakes up in a confession booth, and asks the priest if she can tell his congregation how a resurrection really feels. Charlemagne does a brisk business but ends up getting high too often on his own supply: “He asked what happened to Charlemagne. She just smiled all polite-like and said something vague. She said Charlemagne got caught up in some complicated things. She wiped at her nose and she winked.” There is a rough yearning implicit in the hard-scrabble tales of adolescent fuckery contained on Separation Sunday, a nostalgia for a bad time that didn’t seem so bad when you were in the midst of it. Holly finds religion in the end but you know it isn’t going to stick around long enough to make a difference, and this is fundamentally where Finn differs from Bruce Springsteen, another songwriter obsessed with youth and the possibility of salvation. Finn makes it clear that salvation, even when found, is never a permanent thing. Salvation is found in drugs, in friends, in music, and in God, and none of them will last forever.

– “Hornets! Hornets!”

“She said always remember never to trust me. She said that the first night that she met me. She said there’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get me the highest” – this lone voice is how the album starts, and it sets the scene for every bloody moment that is to come.

– “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”

The band’s “breakthrough single”, so to speak, is a deceptively straight-ahead palm-muted power chord song that hits like a switchblade in the ribs up in Penetration Park. “I hate all the things that she sticks into her skin, like ballpoint pens and steel guitar strings. She says it hurts but it’s worth it.”

– “Stevie Nix”

An exuberant riff-riot of late nights, and about how sometimes the ER seems like an after-bar. It’s also a treasure trove of some of Finn’s best lines. “When we hit the Twin Cities, I didn’t know that much about it. I knew Mary Tyler Moore, and I knew Profane Existence.” “You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young: you got passion and you think that you’re sexy, and all the punks think that you’re dumb.” Plus midway through is another one of those gorgeous, thrilling Franz Nicolay piano sections that seem to sum up all of the yearning emotions that run through Craig Finn’s songs. Lord, to be 17 forever.

– “Multitude of Casualties”

“She drove it like she stole it. She stole it fast, and with a multitude of casualties.” Also, “at least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.”

– “Don’t Let Me Explode”

Here’s where it all falls apart: Holly and the Narrator come back from their trip through America, wasted and exhausted. Charlemagne is gone, a victim of the habits he was peddling. “We didn’t go to Dallas because Jackie Onassis said it wasn’t safe for Catholics yet. Think about Kennedy, and then think about his security, and then think about what they might try to pull on you and me.”

– “How A Resurrection Really Feels”

Separation Sunday‘s Big Closing Moment is a swooning, staggering number where Holly wakes up in a confession booth after a bloody, druggy, ugly party. She’s wearing broken heels and a crown of broken glass. Is Holly a stand-in for Jesus? At the very least, she’s the titular hoodrat from earlier in the album. The coda is gorgeous, a mixture of guitar, horns, and that piano, and it carries the album off into its own uncertain future.

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Boys And Girls In America 

Released October 3rd, 2006 on Vagrant Records

Peaked at #124 US

It’s not a concept album like Separation Sunday, but it may as well be. Holly says that “words alone could never save us” on “First Night” and it’s practically the theme; the album kicks off with doomed poet John Berryman diving into the river after realizing this very thing. It also starts off by admitting that Sal Paradise was probably right: boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. Throughout the rest of the album the band outlines exactly what they mean by this appropriation of Kerouac: the hookups, the drinking and drugs, the parties, the manipulations, the loneliness. The gang from Separation Sunday appear again in places, mostly on “Same Kooks” and “First Night”, but the stage is given mostly to
others. “Stuck Between Stations” gives us Kerouac and Berryman; “Chips Ahoy” features a psychic girl with a few problems of her own; “Party Pit” and “You Can Make Them Like You” posit the loneliness that lies at the heart of the party scene. “Chillout Tent” is perhaps the most ambitious of all of these remarkably ambitious numbers; we’re told of a rock festival in western MA and of two people who have bad trips on drugs and hook up in the chillout tent afterwards, amongst the OD’d and the medics. The album is immediately more massive-sounding than either of its predecessors; the guitars surge, the pianos soar, and every song sounds like the soundtrack to an epic night out that resulted in some uncomfortable tragedy. If Separation Sunday felt like Craig Finn’s novel about a little scene and its central characters, Boys And Girls In America feels like his Great American Novel about ALL of the little scenes and the wild characters contained within them. That the album ends on “Southtown Girls”, a song about finding salvation in loyalty instead of flash, is indicative of the
idea that the only way out is to settle down; the party pit may be lonely in the end, but you don’t have to be lonely forever.

– “Stuck Between Stations”

The piano that runs through this song really drives its power home. “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian. She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t really wasn’t that great of a girlfriend.”

– “Hot Soft Light”

It started off recreational, and it ended in a hospital. Finn claims to never be at the incident, on the advice of his attorney. “The band played Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, you said it was stormy and adorable.”

– “First Night”

An aching ballad about looking back and realizing that you can never get that high again. Features the return of Charlemagne, Gideon, and a hospitalized, newly religious Holly. Features the greatest lead-up and coda the band will likely every record.

– “You Can Make Him Like You”

A song about using people to get along in life. “You don’t have to deal with the dealers, let your boyfriend deal with the dealers. It only gets inconvenient when you want to get high alone.” It’s always on the boys, and you can make them like you.

– “Citrus”

A rare acoustic track. “Hey citrus, hey liquor, I love it when you touch each other.” “I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere.”

– “Chillout Tent”

A soaring number about finding love in the medic’s tent at a big festival. “It’s sexy…but kinda creepy,” Finn sings, probably while winking.

– “Southtown Girls”

The Epic Closer, a song about settling for loyalty and comfort. Features some soaring guitar work that carries the album off into the horizon and a vibe that approaches southern rock in its genial embrace of the interplay between guitars and padded keyboards.

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Stay Positive 

Released July 15th on Vagrant Records

Peaked at #30 US, #15 UK

Stay Positive found the band stepping even further into an embrace of an imagined limelight, building songs that sound gigantic and taking risks with added instrumentation – the harpsichord on “One For The Cutters”, the (gasp!) New-Waveish synth on “Navy Sheets”, the banjo that legendary indie rocker J. Mascis is plucking on “Both Crosses”. The band claimed, then and now, that the album is about “ageing gracefully” although the songs themselves don’t quite bear this out. The album is about ageing, certainly, but it never seems very graceful. The opening track, a slash-and-burn Husker Du-referencing number, is about waking up no longer young in a dead-end town and trying to make something of it before it’s too late. “Joke About Jamaica” is about a bar girl who wakes up one day to find that the “bands are getting louder” and she’s getting older and no one wants to take her home anymore. “Lord I’m Discouraged” revolves around a woman the narrator loves that has fallen into deep addiction with no real hope of ever getting out (it also features Tad Kubler’s best guitar work and indeed the best guitar solo of the entire 2000s.) Elsewhere there is a sort of a theme running through the songs – not to the extent of something like Separation Sunday, but close. “One For The Cutters” sketches the story of a college girl who gets bored of her freshman boyfriends and starts partying with townies instead. She has a better time with them right up until the point where one of the townie kids stabs another townie kid. Several other songs make reference to the incident, either overtly or using the metaphor of a crucifixion. Stay Positive is more subtle in some ways than earlier Hold Steady albums; there is more loving interplay between instruments, and Finn’s lyrics get to stretch out a bit and revel in the detail more than previously. Franz Nicolay claimed it as his favourite Hold Steady album and left in 2010, stating that he’d achieved everything he wanted to achieve with the band.

– “Constructive Summer”

The band always has stellar opening tracks but this might just be the best. “Let’s raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer, I think he might have been our only decent teacher”

– “Sequestered In Memphis”

Angry and scared, the narrator recounts to the police everything he knows about a girl he met at a bar. Rocks and swings like a vintage E-Street Band number

– “One For The Cutters”

A heavy story about druggy times – like most Hold Steady songs, but this time with more overt murder and cover-up.

– “Lord, I’m Discouraged”

Like “First Night” it’s a ballad, but it’s much heavier and hopeless, except of course for the pyrotechnics that result mid-way through when Kubler conjures up the ghost of Slash’s career.

– “Stay Positive”

A retrospective and a fan thank-you, of sorts. “The kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own, and the sing along songs will be their scriptures”.

– “Joke About Jamaica”

A song about growing older and no longer fitting into the scene you once did. “They used to laugh when she said ‘dyer maker’, all the boys knew it was a joke about Jamaica”.

– “Slapped Actress”

Man, we make our own movies.

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Heaven Is Whenever 

Released May 4th, 2010 on Vagrant Records

Peaked at #26 US, #48 UK

Heaven Is Whenever is a complicated sort of record. On one hand it’s very easy to hear the absence of departed keyboard wizard Franz Nicolay; there is very little piano on this album, and the atmospheric flourishes that he brought to tracks like “Stuck Between Stations” or “Stevie Nix” are sorely missing. On the other hand, Kubler steps in to fill the void admirably, largely by virtue of knowing when not to fill in the void. A lesser band would have attempted to fill the holes with noise, cramming riffs into every nook and cranny in the songs. Kubler shows restraint instead, choosing to forge ahead with a more straight-forward guitar-rock cribbed directly from the Boss and Thin Lizzy. Most of the songs are built around bouncy riff figures that breathe rather than oppress; a track like “Rock Problems” seems exuberant despite its troubled protagonists and his tasteful ghost-notes in the background of “We Can Get Together” add a sort of the atmosphere that Nicolay would typically have brought. Lyrically the album still deals with late-period American observations of wasted youth although there is a sweetness present, a hope that the doomed characters of previous albums never really had. Interviews for the upcoming album (Teeth Dreams, out March 25th) indicate that the album was rushed (which they were trying to avoid this time around) in order to provide an excuse to go back on tour; this likely explains the similar sheen surrounding several of the tracks and the simpler, more straightforward nature of Finn’s lyrics.

– “The Sweet Part Of The City”

The album’s lead-track strikes a deceptively laid-back Stones-esque country-rock vibe.

– “Soft In The Center”

You can’t get every girl – you’ll get the one you love the best. You’ll love the one you get the best.

– “Rock Problems”

A bouncy little number about first world problems of the young and drunk.

– “We Can Get Together”

A sweat-drenched ballad with a lot of musical touchstone. “Utopia is a band, they sang “Love Is The Answer”, and I think they’re probably right”

– “A Slight Discomfort”

Featuring some epic drumming and crashing guitar-and-keyboard to bring the whole thing home.

Teeth Dreams

Released March 25th, 2014 on Washington Square Records

Peaked at #28 US, #50 UK

When I did this guide originally, Teeth Dreams was a couple of months out from release. It was 2014, four years since Heaven Is Whenever, the longest gap between albums in the band’s career. They had been accused of rushing that album as an excuse to get back onto tour; for Teeth Dreams they went the opposite route, drawing it out and making sure they were getting the songs right. As most any critical fan can tell you, they didn’t. It’s an uneven album that tries to replicate their past successes without tinkering all too much with the basic framework. To be fair, it was their second album without their chief experimenter Franz Nicolay; his texture fills are sorely missed between the trad-rock guitar riffs that fill up the album instead. In many ways it’s the height of the Hold Steady as an arena-rock band: the arrangements are stripped back to provide as much room as possible for the guitar dramatics. The problem with that is that a lot of the album sounds like it’s been done before, and better. “The Ambassador”, for example, sounded more urgent when it was “First Night”, or “Lord I’m Discouraged.” “Spinners” has a great vibe but you can’t help but think “Chips Ahoy” covered the same sonic territory with a more interesting lyric. There are great, classic Hold Steady moments, to be sure: the opening song “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” created expectations that were perhaps too high, pre-release, and “On With The Business” has an all-time classic Hold Steady refrain. The biggest issue is that it’s a merely good album, and the second such in a row. In their review for 2021’s Open Door Policy, Paste Magazine refers to Heaven Is Whenever and Teeth Dreams as a “two-album stale patch a decade ago” and that’s an unfortunately accurate assessment of the two albums. “Stale” sums up a lot of it, and the long gap between albums didn’t help much in that regard. By 2014 it seemed like Franz Nicolay was right; when he quit the band he said that he’d accomplished everything he’d wanted to with them, and in retrospect it seemed like he knew how to leave a scene before it got druggy and ugly.

“I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”

A great addition to the overall story the band had been spinning for more than a decade. The narrator brings his unnamed romantic partner back to the Twin Cities and runs into some people from his past – Cityscape Skins he used to go to those all-ages hardcore matinee shows with that are now getting back together and doing some sinister and disturbing things (it’s never outright said, but there’s probably more than a fair whiff of the racist movement involved as well). His lover, clearly unused to the sketchier side of life, gets scared by their demeanor and their talk and wonders how their partner could have ever been an associate of theirs.

“The Ambassador”

I know what I said, some of it was true. This is the big ballad of the album and while I stand by the fact that it was done better on better Hold Steady records it’s still a banger of a track in the context of the record. Plus it obliquely talks about the Cityscape Skins and Gideon, a fixture from previous albums, during his time at a Michelin shop in Bay City, Michigan.

“On With The Business”

“Blood on the carpet, mud on the mattress / Waking up with that American sadness.”

Thrashing Through The Passion

Released August 16th, 2019 on Frenchkiss Records

Peaked at #22 US

Back on Frenchkiss after 14 years, and back with Franz Nicolay after 11, the Hold Steady circa 2019 seemed to show sparks of creative life again. The two year lead-up to the album’s release saw many of the songs – all of the best ones – released as a series of singles paired A/B. They showed a band once again firing on all cylinders, discovering that they have aged and running with it as a new muse. The album itself features seven of those songs, out of ten total. The three non-single tracks on the album – “Epaulets”, “Traditional Village”, and “Blackout Sam” – are all fine, but the fact that “A Snake In The Shower”, the B-side to the clear best track on the album (“Entitlement Crew”), was not included borders on criminality. Still, these were the most consistently great set of songs the band had written since Stay Positive; both of the albums of their ‘stale period’ had some standouts but on Thrashing Through The Passion they finally wrote an album where it was mostly standouts again. “Blackout Sam” threatens to drag a little but Finn manages to keep it afloat through sheer force of melodic will. The album proved to be their highest-charting effort yet, proving that the lost decade the band went on through the 2010s, with diminishing musical returns and Finn’s solo run, wasn’t a detriment to building their legend. Part of it is the keyboard gloss that Nicolay adds (especially in the coda of “Entitlement Crew”), but part of it is that they sound like they’re having fun again, cutting loose in that old way they had before the characters got old, and scarred, and ran up against the brick wall of their own dead-end lives. The Hold Steady of Teeth Dreams couldn’t have written “T-Shirt Tux”, but the band from Separation Sunday definitely could have.

“Entitlement Crew”

“Now here’s a church, here’s the steeple / I like the party favors but I hate the party people.” Seriously, the end of this song is such a rush of 2006-era nostalgia that it’s surprising that this isn’t a B-side from the “Stuck Between Stations” single.

“A Snake In The Shower”

I don’t care if this song isn’t actually on the album, it should have been.

“A boy and a girl were draining their beers / He said “Stalin was a weatherman to start his career /
And Johnny Cash was in the service when the news came through the wire /
And it’s weird how you feel when bad people die” /
She said “Yeah, I guess, whatever / All your fun little facts are never going to keep us together””

“Confusion In The Marketplace”

Hold Steady finales are always an event, some greater (“Southtown Girls”), some lesser (“Oaks”). “Confusion In The Marketplace” falls in the former. “Scoping out some dynamite and seeing if it detonates / People take advantage of confusion in the marketplace / You can turn the circles, yeah, and I can pull the parking brake / Princess on the payphone with an angle on some Western states.”

Open Door Policy

Released February 19th, 2021 on Positive Jam/Thirty Tigers

The band’s eighth album, Open Door Policy, was recorded in the last half of 2019 but a lot of the themes – the insidious creep of technology, the struggle with mental health, the trap of consumerism, and the potential of escape through fandom and the scene – just hit different now, in Year 2 of the Plague. In a way it’s quite difficult to listen to a Hold Steady record in lockdown; the band writes songs about the sacred and profane things that happen when we get together and when we can’t get together it gets difficult to remember what that feeling is like. “She said I’m glad to see you’re still in a bar band, baby / I said it’s great to see you’re still in the bars,” is a line Finn wrote scant years after 9/11 and it sometimes seems like the whole ethos of the band has been just that: glad to be surviving, glad to still be playing in a band, glad there are people who want to see them play. Open Door Policy finds them slowing down a little without sacrificing any of the cutting, working-class lyricism that underlined their older, more punk-inflected material. A track like “Heavy Covenant” would have, ten years ago, been a more fist-in-the-air type of song; in 2021 it’s more of a stomp, one that still has the core of youth embedded in it but simultaneously aware that dancing all night while soaking up liquor is a younger person’s game. Same goes for “Spices”, which would have been a “Chips Ahoy” type rocker in a past life but is now a moody, tense thriller of a track that bursts into life just as Finn shouts his protagonist’s drink order (“Vanilla vodka and a Diet Dr. Pepper”, itself a complicated tension between youth and the vagaries of age). A song like “Family Farm” drags out the ghosts of the past but now the past is a novelty in a band that has decided, finally, to evolve their sound out of the doldrums of the early 2010s. They’ve figured out how to use their six-piece lineup to their advantage, with the horns taking on a more important role at times and Nicolay bringing out some rather interesting synth pulses to complement his galloping piano runs. “Unpleasant Breakfast” shows off their willingness to experiment with their sound, adding some electronic influences into the mix; “The Feelers” and the closer “Hanover Camera” delve further into their roots, with the latter riding a breezy golden era Fleetwood Mac-type bassline into the sunset. The net effect of Open Door Policy is that the band is capable of aging gracefully; this is not something that was a sure thing, back in those heady scene days of Boys And Girls In America.

“Unpleasant Breakfast”

It is an admission of middle age when you can write a line like “That girl in last year’s picture / Is now haunting her own hallways / I no longer see the romance in these ghosts.”

“Heavy Covenant”

The way that Franz Nicolay’s keyboard layers play off of that pounding bass drum makes this song just as much of a life-affirming headbanger as those old Frenchkiss days, but with a bigger dollop of the wisdom that hard-won age brings.

“Lanyards”

The protagonist of “Lanyards” got lost in all those hot soft lights, trying to find his dreams in California; he talks about people trying to get all kinds of wristbands and then a girl he knows gets a bloody one.

Tramps Like Us: A Guide To Bruce Springsteen, Part 1 (1973-1984)

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In his day Bob Dylan was referred to as the heir to Woody Guthrie.  The singer’s early days – simply chorded folk tunes that gave shape to the musical expression of the political fervour of the time – were certainly influenced by the fellow Minnesota native.  As the 1960s progressed on into the 1970s, however, Dylan lost that sense of Everyman solidarity in favour of psychedelic word vomit, Nashville love songs, Christian revivalism, and eventually himself.  Bruce Springsteen arrived in the middle of this slow transformation bearing more than a bit of Dylan influence on his sleeve; his wordy songs were folk-inflected sketches of regular life in his New Jersey homeland and they reveled in pure language as much as they did in Atlantic seashore touchstones.  Unlike Dylan, however, Springsteen never held himself aloof; where Dylan fell into the hype of being THE preeminent poet of the rock ‘n roll generation, Springsteen retained his common touch – his sense of wonder in the ordinary – despite the rapid explosion of his career.

Bruce Springsteen – nicknamed “The Boss” by his bandmates because he was the one who collected the money and distributed the pay – arrived on the scene as one of John Lennon’s Working Class Heroes.  His songs were caught up in the struggles of ordinary people and he rarely deviated from this course.  He wrote about the American Dream, for sure, studded with muscle cars and aching for the freedom of an open highway, but he also chronicled the collapse of that dream.  When the factories began to close down and the good jobs began to flee to places where they could be performed for exploitative levels of pay, Springsteen was there to sing about how hard it was to find work you could support your family on.  His characters struggled to make ends meet, got pregnant too early, joined unions, and wrestled with the problems of life as powerless but hopeful people.  In an era when rock ‘n’ roll had developed a sense of elitism about itself, he was the antithesis:  a working class joe singing about other working class joes with same sort of theatrical flourish that trust-funded hippies used to sing about themselves.

Springsteen, then, could be considered the real heir to Woody Guthrie – at his heart, a folk singer who wears his class and political affiliations on his sleeve and reaches out to everyone in his songcraft.  There are a great number of people who don’t really get what the Boss is all about; there are large swaths of the population who think that his biggest hit, “Born In The U.S.A.”, is the same sort of unthinking American jingoist patriotism that Toby Keith is seemingly made out of.  The lyrics, of course, prove that to be a lie almost immediately, but it didn’t stop Reagan from trying to appropriate it for a Presidential campaign and it doesn’t stop people from thinking that the man is a flag-wrapped Republican even today.  This guide is for those people:  the people who need a working class hero, the people who remember the American Dream, and the people who feel that it might be a lie after all.

When I first wrote this guide, eight months ago, I took a trip across the border to buy some crap in Niagara Falls, NY and I stopped at a Days Inn near the border crossing for a quick beer and lunch. The lounge behind the built-in Dennys was this artifact from the early Eighties: the tables and walls were vintage from the late Seventies, and the atmosphere screamed “we just banned smoking indoors yesterday”. There was a pinball machine on one wall, and next to it an aged jukebox, which was playing Born To Run.

I kind of had to at that point.

Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. (1973)

Released January 5th, 1973 on Columbia Records

Singles:

Blinded By The Light

Spirit In The Night

After kicking around the New Jersey rock circuit for five years, Springsteen was offered a record deal with Columbia.  The album was originally recorded quickly and cheaply, so that as much of the major label advance could be pocketed as was possible.  The result is a folky, roots-inflected rock ‘n’ roll album with a lyrical and vocal style that is heavily reminiscent of Bob Dylan.  Columbia president Clive Davis gave the usual complaint that he “didn’t hear a single”, however, so the band wrote and cut two of the best tracks, “Spirit In The Night” and “Blinded By The Light” last minute.  It’s a tribute to the boundless energy and resilience of youth, with a steely-eyed sense of humour and a busy rush of imagery that carves out an image of a time and a place as well as any novel about the Jersey Shore in the early 1970s ever could.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjxbOe7p8C0]

The original never graced the charts once, although Manfred Mann of course took their cover of it to #1 late in 1977.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5E2HGJA2nzo]

A slow, aching ballad that unfolds like a dream.  “But on your bed, Mary, I can see the shadow of a noose / I don’t understand how you can hold me so tight and love me so loose”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iu8vpwiDFsA]

That smooth sax intro is the most startling thing on the album, aside perhaps from the narrator and Crazy Janey makin’ love in the dirt.

The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973)

Released September 11th, 1973

Singles:

4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

The second album followed the same commercial fortunes as the first:  it was critically acclaimed, but sold in middling-at-best quantities.  It was quite a bit different from the debut, however:  it cuts down a bit on the folk influences, adds in elements of jazz, funk, and R&B, and stretches out in a big way.  To say that the album sprawls is a bit of an understatement; several of the songs top seven minutes, and the closing track, “New York City Serenade”, runs just shy of ten minutes.  In retrospect, it loses focus here and there, but the the standouts here are some of the best work ever made in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.  It was a grand statement, a kiss-off to the Jersey Shore scene he’d been birthed from and a summation by a man who would soon leave to find his own way in the world.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgFHM8HMbWQ]

A long tribute to love, freedom, youth, and the boardwalk scenes that he’d grown up in.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtPEZX6wAzg]

Nearly eight minutes of teenage-dramatic switchblade-studded street fight poetry

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXWVSussrt0]

A swinging number that used to close out the band’s concerts until the mid-1980s.

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Born To Run (1975)

Released August 25th, 1975 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #36 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Born To Run” (#23 US)

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (#83 US)

The juggernaut that really launched his career, Born To Run took forever to record when compared to the first two albums.  The studio sessions were reportedly tense and Springsteen was angry that he couldn’t properly translate the sounds he was hearing in his head to what was coming out on tape.  In the end, though, they nailed it:  there is a wild, free sound prevalent through the album that makes you want to clutch a fist to your chest and fall to your knees.  The characters on Born To Run are drunk on possibilities and all too aware of their own failings.  Salvation, when it even can be found, lies in the prototypically American freedom of an open road and a fast, muscular car that can take you anywhere in that wide-open land.  In the end, though, that freedom of youth and possibility ends in darkness and despair:  see the side-closers, “Backstreets” and especially the epic “Jungleland” for further details.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMB3M43AEpc]

I keep coming back to this song, over and over again.  Whenever anything seems overwhelming, or whenever life seems to be heading down a downward spiral, I put “Thunder Road” on.  It offers hope, after a fashion:  the only salvation that is offered lies beneath this dirty hood, so let’s just get in the car and **drive**.  Destination not necessary.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL-HL3ELvFI]

Notable for the sax work of the late Clarence Clemons and for the first appearance of Steve “Little Steven” Van Zandt, who helped arrange the horn section on this track.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3t9SfrfDZM]

“The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive / Everybodys on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JR_0nbEzVdY]

About as theatrical as Springsteen has ever gotten, the closing track on Born To Run is an epic sweep of desperate characters trying to make good one last time and getting cut down for it.  “Outside the street’s on fire / in a real death waltz / between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy / And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all / they just stand back and let it all be / And in the quick of the night / they reach for their moment / and try to make an honest stand / But they wind up wounded / not even dead / tonight in Jungleland” was the first encounter I ever had with the Boss, as it’s used for artistic effect as a poem at the beginning of the unabridged version of The Stand.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)

Released June 2nd, 1978 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #5 US

Singles:

Prove It All Night” (#33 US)

Badlands” (#42 US)

The Promised Land

This is where the endless dreams of youth ended for Springsteen’s characters.  They’re still desperate to grab life and shake it for all it’s worth, but life has already grabbed them and is in the slow, painful process of wearing them down.  Idealism and dreams turn to sour betrayal:  the hardships of love, the drudgery of the factory life, the terrible things you sometimes have to do to make ends meet.  There can be redemption, in the end, but it has to be worked for, and in the end it may not even be worth it.  Still, you work it, because in the end there’s nothing else you can do.  It was aided by Little Steven’s tight production work, which brought the edge out with a vengeance.  Tellingly, while the album sold (and continues to sell) quite well, there weren’t any real hit singles:  the buying public of the disco era wanted nothing to do with any song that wasn’t starting a party.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TF1jH6Cv0tk]

“You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come / Well, don’t waste your time waiting”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yx1N3Kjx1OU]

The band evokes every bit of tension and longing implicit in the lyrics with just hi-hats and piano for the first 45 seconds.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecunQO_uoIg]

One of the two epic side-closers on this album, “Racing In The Street” tells the tale of what happens when the fire that runs through the blood sacrifices everything, even love.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zS5qRG_no-I]

“Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny / Something that they just can’t face / Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it / they carry it with them every step that they take / ’til some day they just cut it loose / cut it loose or let it drag ’em down / Where no one asks any questions / or looks too long in your face / in the darkness on the edge of town” – My favourite song they do, by a country mile.

The River (1980)

Released October 17th, 1980 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Hungry Heart” (#44 UK, #5 US)

Fade Away” (#20 US)

I Wanna Marry You

Sherry Darling

The River” (#35 UK)

Cadillac Ranch

Point Blank

The River is a stretched-out double LP that combines two disparate albums:  one, a collection of songs that continue the hard-luck, working-class hell stories of Darkness On The Edge Of Town; and two, a collection of songs that feel lighter, poppier, and more like the fun and joy-filled moments that made their contemporary live shows such a sprawling blast.  The two combine to make something epic, mature, and capable of salvation; the expert mixture of the light and the dark evokes a more three-dimensional view of the world that Springsteen’s characters inhabit.  The world isn’t all fun and games, but neither is it a working-rut drag of bad luck and hard money.  The result is a disillusioned yet gentle playfulness that struck a delicate balance amidst a brutal recession on the cusp of the Reagan Eighties.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdhLhWLmeAE]

Originally, the album was supposed to be a single disc (the post-Darkness album) and this was to be its title.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8yphj2hUI8]

I’ve always thought of this track as the lighter flip-side/precursor to Nebraska‘s “Atlantic City”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQSn26zCXYQ]

The band’s biggest hit to that point in time, it hit #5 on the U.S. singles chart.  Not bad for a song that had originally been written by Springsteen for the Ramones.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAB4vOkL6cE]

The most emotionally effective song on the album, by far.  “Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote / And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnAJlJHXn_M]

Originally recorded for the Darkness sessions, although it comes off as too weary and gentle for that album, in the end. Still, “There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnHy_46DfiE]

This song would later go on to inform the writing sessions for Tunnel Of Love; it was also used in Cop Land, if you remember that movie.

Nebraska (1982)

Released September 30th, 1982 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Atlantic City

Reason To Believe

Nebraska is a haunted album, driven by the ghosts of petty criminals and murderers and sung in a hushed tone.  It’s also a rather large anomaly in the band’s career:  Springsteen recorded the demos for the album at home on his 4-track, and the band later cut several of the tracks in full arrangement.  The decision was reached to use the demos, instead; apparently a full-band recording of the album exists somewhere, but it reportedly pales in comparison to the version that was released.  Nebraska is simply Bruce Springsteen and an acoustic guitar, and it is probably the most powerful record he has ever released.  It brings a cap to the dark path his writing had been going down ever since the Rat was gunned down in the tunnels uptown in the climax of “Jungleland”; Charles Starkweather rampages through and is exectued at the end of the title track, the no-good relatives of police officers cause problems, criminals are caught and put away for life, and a man shows up at his father’s door only to find that his father had been gone for years.  It was the direct opposite of the radio-buster that would come two years later.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iir_xAbt-ak]

The darkest thing the man has ever recorded, following the exploits of mass-murderer Charles Starkweather

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3eu1gW-bQ8]

Mob trouble on the boardwalks of Atlantic City, and all our protagonist wants is to carve out a life for him and his girl.  Too bad he’s got debts that no honest man can pay.  This has been covered about a million times.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-wPDmQEy2Y]

Sometimes, you just have to cover for family.  Nothing feels better than blood on blood.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbA_5IpiAyU]

I don’t get to spend nearly as much time with my father as I’d like, so this one always hits me like a slap in the face.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qc4UopypcT8]

Somehow, after all the drudgery that gets thrown their way, these characters seem to still have faith and hope.  This would be the final remark for the album, and it’s theme would continue on into the next.

Born In The U.S.A. (1984)

Released June 4th, 1984 on Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Dancing In The Dark” (#4 UK, #2 US)

Cover Me” (#16 UK, #7 US)

Born In The U.S.A.” (#5 UK, #9 US)

I’m On Fire” (#5 UK, #6 US)

Glory Days” (#5 US)

I’m Goin’ Down” (#9 US)

My Hometown” (#9 UK, #6 US)

After the dour, dark days of Nebraska, Born In The U.S.A. was a massive, modern rev of the E-Street Band engine. The production took a leap into the Eighties, with massive synths, huge drums, and a larger-than-life approach to Springsteen’s songwriting. In contrast to those earlier albums, the songs here featured characters who had come through the fire and were still willing to keep going, with their verve and humour intact. It exploded in the mainstream radio of the day, shooting off hit singles like a heartland rock ‘n’ roll Thriller. It was designed to appeal to everyone, and it did, becoming a cultural touchstone for the Eighties like no other. It would be the height of their commercial success; the next twenty years would see them fade into the background as Generation X took hold of the mainstream, with Springsteen transforming into a sort of elder statesman of rock.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPhWR4d3FJQ]

Reagan didn’t get this song, for whatever reason, and tried to co-opt it, much to the amusement/horror of Springsteen, a staunch Democrat and unionist.  On the surface, if you just listen to the chorus, I guess you could mistake it for an ultra-patriotic song.  It is, but not for the reasons that people often think.  It examines the legacy of Vietnam, and of the veterans who came back to no jobs and no hope.  Sadly still relevant today.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGtE42NYtes]

Has that good-time vibe like one of the upbeat tracks from The River, but it ends with one of the characters chained to a state trooper’s car.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nc_mv46NwT4]

More hard-luck, world-weary lyricism, like Darkness or Nebraska, but the state-of-the-art studio work made it sound like the most massively exuberant story of being left by your wife ever.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrpXArn3hII]

About as intimate a song of desire as you can get with slam-bang Eighties production.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD3DdskaPhs]

No retreat baby, no surrender.  You may remember this one from John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential campaign.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fdZWbIsrFk]

Ah, to be young and in love again.  Now I’m just sort of young and in love.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vQpW9XRiyM]

Nothing’s worse than reliving old memories because you don’t have anything new to relive.  Great song about the people who peak in high school.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=129kuDCQtHs]

Courtney Cox, come on down!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CSFSX-Qh54]

It will have been twenty years since this song next year and it still holds true.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus: A Guide To The Rolling Stones, Part 3 (1983-2005)

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Undercover (1983)

Released November 7th, 1983 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #4 US

Singles:

Undercover Of The Night” (#11 UK, #9 US)

She Was Hot” (#42 UK, #44 US)

Too Much Blood

The band’s first original recordings of the 1980s found them in a creative tug-of-war between Keith Richards, who wanted to stick to the band’s core strengths of blues and rock, and Mick Jagger, who wanted to continue on with his reggae and dance experiments (experiments which, by 1983, included the sharply angular music of New Wave).  It’s a decent enough album, but it’s ultimately inconsistent, populated with half-hearted attempts at breaking their mould and some weakly sub-par material.  The production tends to bring the material down perhaps a bit more than normal, reliant as it was on the audio idioms of the day; many of the songs have that sound you can point to and say “yeah, that was 1983” even though the songs themselves are rooted in much older traditions.  It’s also singularly nasty, reeking of kinky sex, political corruption, madness, and suicide; the leadership struggles in the band at the time play out perfectly in the recordings, and whether or not this is ultimately a good thing is left up to the listener.

Dirty Work (1986)

Released March 24th, 1986 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #4 US

Singles:

Harlem Shuffle” (#13 UK, #5 US)

One Hit To The Body” (#80 UK, #28 US)

Winning Ugly

By 1984 Mick Jagger was distancing himself from the Rolling Stones, working instead on his first solo album.  The reins of the band were largely passed to the mostly-sober Keith Richards, who worked closely with Ronnie Wood to craft Dirty Work.  The results stick to what Richards’ has always watned for the band:  roots-rock with no side-journeys into dance music.  As far as it goes, however, it is an undistinguished affair, with nothing really essential as far as the bands catalog is concerned.  Jagger’s work on the album is more or less phoned-in, with lead-off track “One Hit (To The Body)” being really the only exception.  One can surmise that he was saving his best lyrical and vocal work for his solo albums, although if one listens to his solo albums they can perhaps be forgiven for wondering how this could be.  Like so many other great bands of their era, the Stones seemed to finally be slipping into the malaise of mainstream rock in the Eighties.

Steel Wheels (1989)

Released August 29th, 1989 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Mixed Emotions” (#5 US)

Rock And A Hard Place” (#63 UK, #23 US)

Almost Hear You Sigh” (#50 US)

Terrifying

Steel Wheels is notable mainly for being the album on which Jagger and Richards managed to get back to getting along.  It feels like a reunion album, and in many ways it is.  The band seemed to get back to doing what they do best:  rocking, affecting ballads, and the odd Jagger-based experimentation (kept on this record mainly to “Continental Drift”).  It’s very much a professional album, however; everything seems calculated to scream “Rolling Stones” to whomever listens to it, and there isn’t really anything here that feels off-the-cuff.  That being said, it’s a decent enough sort of album, hardly essential, but hardly bargain-bin material at the same time.  The mainstream rock world may have by and large passed the band by at the end of the Eighties, but Steel Wheels found them in fine form regardless.

Voodoo Lounge (1994)

Released July 11th, 1994 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Love Is Strong” (#14 UK, #91 US)

You Got Me Rocking” (#23 UK)

Out Of Tears” (#36 UK, #60 US)

Sparks Will Fly

I Go Wild” (#29 UK)

By the mid-1990s, most bands that came of age in the 1960s were either long broken up or relegated to the nostalgia-tour circuit.  Not so for the Rolling Stones, though; even though they weren’t making the greatest music of their career, they were making something that definitely approximated it, even without bassist Bill Wyman, who had left in 1991.  Although Voodoo Lounge is five or six songs too long (it is a product of the CD era, after all) there are about ten songs on here that, taken together, make one hell of a roots-rock album.  It’s not Exile On Main Street or even Tattoo You, but it holds its own and proves itself to be more than a tour souvenir.  They were brought back to the basics by then-hot producer Don Was (everybody get on the floor…) who even convinced them to break out the acoustic guitars for some of the sinister English folk they hadn’t played around with since the late 1960s. Jagger, of course, hated it, and insisted that they return to out-there grooves, African rhythms, and other grandiose accouterments on their next album.

Bridges To Babylon (1997)

Released September 24th, 1997 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #6 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Anybody Seen My Baby?” (#22 UK)

Flip The Switch

Saint Of Me” (#26 UK, #94 US)

Out Of Control” (#51 UK)

Jagger got his experimental grooves back, but it all still sounds like a classical revival of traditional Stones albums; it was not earth-shattering or original, but it did rock on a nice, solid plateau.  Looking for some modern cred (and having enjoyed their work on Odelay) Jagger brought in the Dust Brothers for three songs – lead single “Anybody Seen My Baby?”, “Saint of Me”, and the slippery, vaguely nasty “Might As Well Get Juiced”.  Nothing exceptional, a couple of good singles, and off on tour again:  Bridges To Babylon in a nutshell.  The sound of the elder statesmen of rock ‘n’ roll slipping gracefully into old age.

A Bigger Bang (2005)

Released September 6th, 2005 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Rough Justice

Streets Of Love” (#15 UK)

Oh No, Not You Again

Rain Fall Down” (#33 UK)

Biggest Mistake” (#51 UK)

After nearly twenty years (!) of okay-not-great albums the Stones finally came out with what is, if not a classic Stones album, a pillar of their latter-day career.  After eight years of touring, the band was tight, and it shows on the recording:  the riffs slice like knives, the rhythm section is solidly in the pocket, and all of the sleaze and blues are intact from decades of being mined for inspiration.  Put simply, there is no reason why a band of 60-year-olds should rock this hard, and yet here we are.  It still devolves into generic filler and auto-pilot Stones Rock(TM) but there’s less of it than you might imagine and it’s not as objectionable as it logically should be.  It’s not their best, but it’s certainly their best since Some Girls, and that’s saying something.

Their Satanic Majesties: A Guide To The Rolling Stones, Part 2 (1968-1981)

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Beggars Banquet (1968)

Released December 6th, 1968 on Decca/London Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #5 US

Singles:

Street Fighting Man” (#21 UK, #48 US)

After the poor reception to their studio experimentation of 1967, the Stones returned to their roots and never left them thereafter.  Beggars Banquet represents a stark reset, a largely minimalist, acoustic album of slack, drawn-out  Delta blues dread.  It kicks off with the calling-down-the-darkness voodoo vibe of “Sympathy For The Devil”, which manages to completely wash out the tired-hippie schtick of Majesties in favour of stark, subtly violent tones.  The tone of the decade itself was turning decidedly more violent itself; the Vietnam war ground on, youth revolts were taking place in France and America, and many thought the West on the verge of a genuine conflict.  “Street Fighting Man”, kicking off side two with electric verve, reflected this perfectly.  The real star of the show, though, is the slide guitar that features prominently on many of the songs.  Most of it was Keith Richards, although the fat, looping slack on “No Expectations” was one of the last constructive things Brian Jones would contribute to the band.

Let It Bleed (1969)

Released December 5th, 1969 on Decca/London Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Honky Tonk Women” (#1 UK, #1 US)

Let It Bleed” (Japan only)

Let It Bleed rung in the bad times; the day after it’s release, the incident in concert at Altamont would bring the curtain down on the era of Love Is All You Need.  The dread-evoking, devil-calling Delta vibe they summoned on Beggars Banquet was the core of this, although it was more electric, more hard rock than the largely acoustic previous album.  “Gimmee Shelter” warned that rape and murder were “just a shout away” while the album’s lone cover song, Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”, evoked the original’s whisky-soaked lamentation of a lost mind.  “Midnight Rambler” conjured up a serial killer, and “Monkey Man” wondered if they might not be “a trifle too satanic”.  The gospel-shrug of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” marks a perfect end to the whole deal, coming to a final resolution with the high-minded ideals of the time by saying “just get by, Jack”.  As far as cultural touchstones go, it would presage the disappointment and disillusion that the 1970s would bring, and remains a vital document of the moment the cultural mood shifted in the West.

Sticky Fingers (1971)

Released April 23rd, 1971 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Brown Sugar” (#2 UK, #1 US)

Wild Horses” (#28 US)

For the Rolling Stones, the 1970s would be a decade of excess, starting right from the beginning with an album of slow, druggy, sexed-up blues numbers and weary, country-tinged ballads that count among rock’s most eloquently emotional songs.  Sticky Fingers would be the band’s first album after leaving Decca (flinging off the guaranteed-to-be-rejected single “Cocksucker Blues” to fulfill odious legal requirements) and the excitement and joie de vivre that the band’s new life as their own masters generated is palpable.    For an English band, it was a very American record, deeply rooted in primitive bluesmen and the lonesome cowboy records of dusty country music.  “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” shows a willingness to extend that into the Mexican diaspora; although its switchblade riff is classic Keith Richards, the coda is a heart-on-sleeve love letter to Latin music.  It’s a monumental effort and an album that can always find an occasion.  Love, sex, and death; it’s music designed to hit you right in the id.

Exile On Main Street (1972)

Released May 12th, 1972 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Tumbling Dice” (#5 UK, #7 US)

Happy” (#22 US)

The Stones left England one step ahead of the taxman in 1971 (where’s George Harrison when you need him?) and settled in the south of France, putting a mobile recording studio into Keith Richard’s basement.  Mick Jagger was newly married, and Keith Richards had decided to make his heroin usage into a habit; the scene at his French villa was so legendarily drug-heavy that William Burroughs showed up at one point.  Out of these sunny climes and druggy times would spring the pinnacle of expression in the realm of American rock ‘n’ roll.  Exile On Main Street is a lived-in distillation of country, raw blues, dirty soul, and soaring gospel.  It heaves, struts, and exhales weary smoke; Jagger’s voice is mixed low, one more part of a tobacco-stained jukebox kicking out tunes in a hot southwestern bar.  People were lukewarm on it when it was first released; it has very few hit singles (“Tumbling Dice”, mainly) but it contains a staggering amount of memorable songs, including the steam-on-tarmac Texas blues of “Shake Your Hips”, the shrug-and-bear-it hurt twang of “Sweet Virginia”, and the smoking Robert Johnson cover “Stop Breaking Down”.  As a double LP it’s exhausting, in the best way, with a length that runs into the monolithic.  This would be Keith Richards’ finest moment, his supreme statement of American roots music; his heroin addiction would worsen as the Seventies dragged on and the reins of the band would pass on to the more sober Jagger and drummer/band anchor Charlie Watts.

Goats Head Soup (1973)

Released August 31st, 1973 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Angie” (#5 UK, #1 US)

Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” (#15 US)

After Exile On Main Street there was really nowhere for the band to go but down.  That being said, Goats Head Soup is still a solid album, it just finds the band all too willing to indulge in decadence and willful vulgarity.  In the face of the seemingly casual toss-off of brilliance on the record before, this one seems too deliberate, almost calculated.  Jagger had taken over the musical direction of the band and this meant a more mercenary look at expanding their musical horizons, although this falls a bit flat at times (as on “Dancing With Mr. D”).  This expansion was likely aided along by the bands newfound exile to record in Jamaica, one of the few nations on earth that would hold Keith Richards for a long enough period of time to make an album.  “Angie” is the ballad that makes the album, a heartfelt declaration of love in fine Stones lovemaking form.  “Star, Star” represents the flipside of this; it kicks into a filthy Chuck Berry groove and rolls around in the mud in the most blatantly nasty way possible.  In all, not a stumble, but definitely a step down.

It’s Only Rock And Roll (1974)

Released October 16th, 1974 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” (#10 UK, #16 US)

Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” (#17 US)

It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll follows in the same vein of elegant decline as Goats Head Soup, but with a bit more, er, rock ‘n’ roll.  The sharp edges of 1968-1972 are worn down, so that it comes off as an album knocked out by a touring rock band who wanted some new material (which, in essence, it was).  It’s the sound of a band accepting their mass appeal and their arena-star status, leaving behind was made them truly appealing in the first place.  There are tracks here that rank among some of the best they’ve done (mainly the title track and the Supremes cover, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”) but for the most part it’s a collection of comfortable, unsurprising, unexciting rock tunes speckled with some half-hearted attempts at genre experimentation (as on the reggae-tinged “Luxury”).

Black And Blue (1976)

Released April 23rd, 1976 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Fool To Cry” (#6 UK, #10 US)

Hot Stuff” (#49 US)

The lowpoint of the Seventies, Black and Blue is an album comprised more of studio jams than it is of actual songs.  A lot of this is due to Mick Taylor (who’d originally replaced Brian Jones) leaving the band; several guitarists show up on the album, and Keith Richards has since disparaged it as being an album that was mainly about auditioning replacements.  Ronnie Wood (who played a 12-string guitar on “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” originally) would win that particular sweepstakes, just in time for the band to come out of its funk for the next album.  There is nothing essential about Black and Blue, but it does showcase the band as a primal force when it comes being a cohesive whole, and as a band continually willing to experiment with the evolution of black music (as on the reggae cover “Cherry Oh Cherry”).  In that, I suppose, it becomes an interesting artifact of the era, if nothing else.

Some Girls (1978)

Released June 9th, 1978 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Miss You” (#3 UK, #1 US)

Beast Of Burden” (#8 US)

Respectable” (#23 UK)

Shattered” (#31 US)

The opening salvo in the generational changeover was fired by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones in 1977; at the same time, pop music was spending a lot of time dancing in the flashy, coked-up discotheques of the day.  In between, traditionally blues-based rock ‘n’ roll was feeling the squeeze and would never really recover the heights it once held.  Some Girls, though, was an artillery flash in the night as the fortress began to fall; seen as a response to the new youth movements, it showed the Stones as the best they’d been since Exile On Main Street.  It’s hooky and flashy in the best Stones tradition, and there’s some real seed and real grit in tracks like “When The Whip Comes Down” and the title track.  “Miss You” shows their mastery of the new disco wave, although as an extension of funk this should never have really been in doubt.  Jagger took the reins again, guiding a vision of New York City as he’d fallen in love with it; Richards, having barely dodged a Canadian heroin bust, would play with newfound exuberance and force.

Emotional Rescue (1980)

Released June 20th, 1980 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Emotional Rescue” (#9 UK, #3 US)

She’s So Cold” (#33 UK, #26 US)

The Goats Head Soup to Some GirlsExile On Main Street, Emotional Rescue is a collection of mainly filler with a few strong tracks.  It follows a similar path as before, but adds a sheen of decadence that prevents anything from really taking off except for the title track and maybe the old-style rocker/second single “She’s So Cold”.  It was the first album to really point to a serious decline in quality for the band, although the next album would mitigate that decline to an extent.  As far as their catalog goes, file it under “unessential”.

Tattoo You (1981)

Released August 24th, 1981 on Rolling Stones Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US

Singles:

Start Me Up” (#7 UK, #2 US)

Waiting On A Friend” (#50 UK, #13 US)

Hang Fire” (#20 US)

The last real pillar in the Stones’ canon (you can make arguments about A Bigger Bang or that “Doom and Gloom” single) finds them reveling in solid hard rock on the first side (some of the most consistent work they’d done, in fact) and meandering through some so-so ballad work on the second side.  Most of it was rejects and cast-offs from the Some Girls, Black and Blue, and Goats Head Soup sessions (as was much of Emotional Rescue) but it serves to further affirm how white-hot the band had really been in the late Seventies.

With Endurance Like The Liberty Bell: A Guide To Guided By Voices, Part 2 (1992-1996)

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Propeller (1992)

This was supposed to be the last album.  Having spent five years playing to handfuls of people, selling albums in the hundreds, and getting into debt, they released *Propeller* in a pressing run of 500 copies, each of which bore a unique cover hand-crafted by the band, their friends, and family members.  These albums would circulate and gain the band a larger following, which would snowball in each subsequent year from then on.  *Propeller* is the beginning of a stellar period of extremely fertile creativity for what is considered the band’s classic lineup, featuring the band’s only other real songwriter, Tobin Sprout.  It’s the first album to really exemplify the “GBV sound”, which combined basement recording with tight, heavy guitar work juxtaposed with lighter-than-air songcraft.  The initial “GBV! GBV!” crowd chant at the beginning (fake, of course – the band had never played in front of that many people) would be replicated at every show thereafter, and the sledgehammer that many of the songs wield make it feel like the biggest arena show you’ve ever heard through the living room wall.

Standouts:

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Vampire On Titus (1993)

A very abrasive album recorded after Pollard decided to keep going with GBV but before he re-solidified the classic lineup.  It’s a notoriously noisy album that will prove to be a difficult listen for casual fans, but it’s fuzzed-up, blissed-out tracks will yield their secrets for the patient.  “”Wished I Was A Giant”” sounds like a bootleg of the greatest arena performance ever recorded from the roof of the stadium.  “Marchers In Orange” proves that there’s melody even in the midst of layered tape hiss.  Not their most accessible album (maybe their least accessible, in fact) but fascinating nonetheless.

Standouts:

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Bee Thousand (1994)

This was supposed to be the last album.  After catching some interest with *Propeller* and *Vampire On Titus*, the band was still in debt and Pollard was facing demands to focus on his family and his teaching career.  The band threw together *Bee Thousand* in a very informal, very spur-of-the-moment fashion.  The album caught the ear of the thriving indie rock underground and word of the band spread.  They began receiving notice in large publications and people actually began to show up to their shows.  As a result, Matador Records (who had handled the distribution of *Bee Thousand* through the small Scat label) offered to sign them and they became critical darlings.  *Bee Thousand* is one of the most well-regarded albums of the last thirty years and regularly makes the cut when it comes to the listing games music critics like to play.  The secret is of course in the songwriting; the album feels like a cut-and-paste collage of the best moments of what Pollard calls the “four Ps of rock”:  Pop, punk, progressive, and psychedelic.  In the vein of that last genre, the album is absolutely chock-full of strange, noisy moments; during the recoring, the band members used tape manipulation, edits, and noise effects as instrumentation, resulting in what often seems like the aural equivalent of DaVinci’s sketchbook.

Standouts:

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Alien Lanes (1995)

Their first album for Matador was a continuation of the style they had really hammered out on *Bee Thousand*:  short, sweet bursts of songwriting gold with a ridiculously high percentage of catchy winners.  The percentage is perhaps not as high as *Bee Thousand*, but *Alien Lanes* also out-numbers the previous album, 28 tracks to 20.  The seconds-long sketch-tracks can be a bit useless at times (especially “Gold Hick”) but they do provide valuable contrast to the longer tracks, making the album feel like you’re flipping through a particulary fertile stretch of radio dial.

Standouts:

Under The Bushes Under The Stars (1996)

For their ninth album, the band decided to go the professional route again, something they hadn’t attempted in a decade.  They recorded a number of sessions on 24-track, and enlisted several producers, including Pixies bassist Kim Deal and noise-auteur Steve Albini.  The result is an album studded with solid nuggets of pure pop framed in punchy rock ‘n’ roll.  The art-collage sensibility is largely done away with, in favour of well-executed songs that, in a just world,  would have been hits on rock radio. As it was, it would be the last album the classic lineup would record for sixteen years.  Tobin Sprout left the band to puruse being a father, and the rest of the regular players drifted away.

Standouts: