Pearl: 30 Years of Hysteria

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Def Leppard – Hysteria

Released August 3rd, 1987 on Mercury Records

Has there ever been a rock band as completely on-the-nose as Def Leppard is on Hysteria?  I mean really just taking the idea of Big Dumb Rock and making it Bigger, Dumber, and Rockier.  It’s not enough to have an album with the ultimate power ballad, “Love Bites” on it.  Not at all.  They also had to have the ultimate arena rock anthem, the stripped-down-to-essence rock ‘n’ roll fist-pumper “Pour Some Sugar On Me”.  And the sanitized stadium lust of “Animal”.  And the pure butter melodies of “Armageddon It”.  And the Eighties rock heroics of the title track.  And “Rocket”.  And “Women”.  It was wall-to-wall singles, all chart-reaching arena pounders without any depth beyond having a good time and sticking your fist in the air.  And yet it’s coming was as hard-won as any hardscrabble up-and-coming band’s might have been.

In 1983 the band released Pyromania.  Their previous two albums had established them as a driving force in the poppier side of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the sprawling, dank counterweight to the British punk movement that also featured Union Jack-wavers Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, from whose discography Metallica grokked most of their moves.  Pyromania was a huge success in America, driven by hit singles “Photograph” and “Rock Of Ages”; the band only released three singles despite selling towering piles of records because they didn’t want to flood the market and undercut the inevitable follow-up.  That follow-up, Hysteria, wouldn’t arrive for another four years.  The band, who had recorded with Mutt Lange for Pyromania, wanted to go bigger and tapped Jim Steinman, the songwriter for Meatloaf.  Steinman wanted to record a more visceral, in-your-face Def Leppard; the band had hired him, however, because they wanted a clean, crisp, gigantic arena rock album.  As singer Joe Elliot pointed out, Steinman wrote Meatloaf, but it was Todd Rundgren that produced him.  Those early efforts were frustrated by the gap between band and producer and then were cut short in 1984 when drummer Rick Allen flipped his Corvette on New Year’s Eve and ended up losing an arm.

The idea that the drummer from Def Leppard only has one arm is a sort of rock ‘n’ roll cliche now (thanks to the Bloodhound Gang) but getting Allen back up to speed was both time-consuming and technologically challenging.  Thankfully the band’s label was awash in money thanks to Pyromania and so the latter proved to be no serious issue.  Allen’s kit became a hybrid traditional and electronic kit, with MIDI triggers built in that would play the sounds that Allen would typically have used his left arm for.  Learning to use it was the harder part, and most of 1985 was spent just getting the band back into fighting form.  By the end of 1985 Allen was on top of his game again, and Mutt Lange had returned to produce new recording sessions.  1986 would also prove to be a challenging year, since Lange himself crashed his car (with less injuries than Rick Allen suffered) and Joe Elliott somehow managed to contract the mumps.

The end result of all of that, however, was a bona fide hit machine, a chart topper that ruled the airwaves for the end of the Eighties.  Mutt Lange has said that he and the band wanted to record a crossover album that would have wide pop appeal, like a NWOBHM Thriller, and that’s pretty much exactly what Hysteria is.  Def Leppard would hit the Billboard Top 40 with ten consecutive singles, seven from Hysteria, beginning with “Animals”.  They would never again achieve such success, although they always managed to pop up in the charts from time to time.  Hysteria is about as pop as metal got in the 1980s, scrubbed clean to the point where there’s really nothing metal about it at all. Still, it’s instantly recognizable and a pillar of Eighties production; Mutt Lange would go on to use the tricks he pulled on Hysteria to inform his then-wife Shania Twain’s country-crossover success.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of Radios Appear

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Radio Birdman – Radios Appear

Released July, 1977 on Trafalgar Records

1540 KHz on the AM band:  that was the original broadcasting position of legendary Sydney radio station 2JJ (later 2JJJ, or “Triple J” when it crossed over into the FM market).  From it’s inception it was a home for the experimental, the odd, and the alternative – stuff that wouldn’t get played on other Australian radio stations.  The growth of Australian cool starts from it’s inception in 1975, when it was founded to be a government-funded radio station meant to appeal to the 18-25 demographic.  Radio Birdman, a group of Aussie Stooges fans, were among the bands the station championed at the very beginning of the punk rock era.

Radio Birdman were unlike anything else that Australian radio was playing at the time; while it might be somewhat correct to call them “Australia’s Sex Pistols”, this does Radio Birdman a disservice.  The band weren’t cobbled together, they could play their instruments, and they didn’t rely on cheap shock tactics to sell their records.  In fact, Radio Birdman’s early success was as much a result of their hands-on work ethic as it was their killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes; their records were initially sold out of their trunks, before and after shows.  The band provided the example, and from them the punk DIY ethic was born into Australia.

Those killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes, though:  Radios Appear had them in spades.  The band name and album title give key clues as to their influences.  “Radio Birdman” came from a misheard lyric on The Stooge’s “1970”, and tracks like “T.V. Eye” and “Murder City Nights” bear the scars of a definite Stooge’s obsession.  “Man With Golden Helmet”, however, shows another side of the band, one that is hinted at in the title of the album; “Radios appear” is a line from “Dominance And Submission” by Seventies hard rock icons Blue Oyster Cult.  “Descent Into Maelstrom” and “Love Kills” combine the two, marrying a harrowing, relentless beat to a more free-wheeling and progressive melody and structure.

Radios Appear is both the debut and the highwater mark for the band.  Their second LP, 1981’s Living Eyes, was released three years after the band broke up, and while the band reunited in 1996 and continues to tour intermittently, new music has been spotty at best.  For a pure rock ‘n’ roll experience – filtered through Michigan proto-punk – however, Radios Appear is one of the finest efforts of that legendary year of 1977.

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Ruby: 40 Years of My Aim Is True

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Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True

Released July 22nd, 1977 on Stiff Records

BestEverAlbums:  #329

In the early 1970s, Declan MacManus was another weekend-warrior pub rocker in the London club scene, working day jobs as a data entry clerk in order to fund both his family and his love of playing music.  The man came by it honestly; his father, Ross MacManus, played jazz trumpet under the stage name of Day Costello, and the two of them did a commercial together for lemonade three or four years before My Aim Is True thrust the younger MacManus onto the rock ‘n’ roll stage.  It was also the result of gobs of hard work, of course; the man who would be Elvis Costello spent his time after his wife and young son were asleep writing songs.  Those songs were painstakingly recorded into demos, and those demos shopped around.  Meanwhile, he continued to toil in obscurity for much of the 1970s, playing in a pub rock band called Flip City until one of his demos caught the attention of Stiff Records, an independent London label that convinced him to change his name.  Elvis, from The King, and Costello from his father’s stagename = Elvis Costello.

Success was anything but a sure bet, even with indie label interest.  At first the label wanted him to write songs for someone else.  Then when they realized that Costello’s own songs came off much better, they decided to let him cut a record and release a couple of singles from it, “Less Than Zero” and “Alison”.  Both singles failed to do much damage in the charts, but Stiff Records pressed on and released the entire album; they also went all-in with a promotional campaign that gave away free copies (special edition free copies, at that) to friends of people who bought the album.

Such tricks – great marketing strategies though they might be – are not, strictly speaking, completely necessary to sell an album like My Aim Is True.  Sure, they help, but the strengths of the album are readily apparent immediately.  “Welcome To The Working Week”, the poppiest bit of sarcastic bitterness you’ll ever hear, starts off with the line “Now that you’re picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired”.  He literally starts the record off with a crack about masturbation.  And that’s not even the best part!  Throughout the album he bangs out a series of songs that are part pub rock, part 50’s rock ‘n’ roll inspired genius (check out the Buddy Holly pose on the album cover for more on that inspiration) and all cynical asshole.  The first two are the result of his upbringing and his toils in rock ‘n’ roll obscurity.  The last goes a long way toward explaining why he was slotted in to the white-hot punk rock movement in the summer of 1977.  My Aim Is True may not have the snarl and viciousness of the Sex Pistols or the Clash, but it was just as frustrated, just as bitter, and in places just as political.  “Less Than Zero” was the anti-fascist anthem, a big concern in Britain where the economy was teetering on the edge of collapse by the late 1970s.  The song itself would become famous when Costello began playing it on Saturday Night Live, before cutting out to “Radio, Radio”, declaring that the song was meaningless in America (and earning himself a Lorne Michaels ban for nearly ten years).  “Watching The Detectives” was another such track, outlining the absurdity and obsession of TV violence while borrowing some of that Clash-inspired 1977 reggae bounce (literally inspired; the song came about after 36 hours of coffee and the first Clash record on repeat).  “Alison”, meanwhile, was a soulful ballad about infidelity that Costello claims contains a secret homage to the Detroit Spinners (and also gave the record it’s name) and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” is pure pop bliss with a sour interior.

My Aim Is True was a stellar debut, a record that made Costello feel as though, after years of grubbing away in the underground, he’d become something of an overnight success.  It would be the beginning of a run of similarly great albums that would carry the man and his burning cynicism into the mid-1980s.

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

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Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga

Released July 7th, 2007 on Merge Records

There are days – many of them – where I feel like Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga might low-key be my favourite album.  It is, at the very least, an album that I can throw on at any time and be perfectly comfortable with it being on.  It’s hard to pick out a favourite moment, too, since they all seem so great.  Is it the brash horns on “The Underdog”?  Is it the line about doing an airborne and settling in for the night (like there’s any settling after one of those)?  Is it the tube reverb that makes the guitars on “Don’t Make Me A Target” such a delight?  Is it the relentless snare in “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”?  The slinky, blatantly sexual bass line of “Don’t You Evah”?  Being a slut for the New York Times?  Maybe it’s the way the album seems sculpted to perfection, with every string, guitar, horn, and drum beat in exactly the right place.  It exudes confidence and bleeds charisma.

If there were any true justice in the universe, Spoon would be as big a band as the Rolling Stones, but instead they’re as big as LCD Soundsystem, which counts for something.  They would go on to release three more albums, of which only the last (this year’s brilliant Hot Thoughts) comes close to equaling the meticulously grooved music presented on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

Pearl: 30 Years of Sister

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Sonic Youth – Sister

Released June, 1987 on SST Records

RYM:  #214

Sister is the Great Leap Forward for Sonic Youth, the moment that their ambitions went from being grimey NYC no wave scenesters to being skewed soundscape-pop troubadours, the kind of band that would within four years be touring with Nirvana and introducing another world to audiences across North America.  There’s nothing on Sister (or much afterward) that really even passes for “pop” in a loose sense.  The song structures are chaotic, the shifts are hazy, the guitar work is seemingly influenced more by frenetic free jazz than it is by traditional rock ‘n’ roll mores.  Sonic Youth was to rock music what William Burroughs was to literature, which is to say that they cast their chosen medium in a light that was at once gravid with meaning, slick with excitement, and fractured into a rather sinister psychedelic spray.  Thurston Moore’s squalling guitar was a post-modern version of Hendrix, breaking down the sound of the guitar into it’s most basic essence and rebuilding it into forms that were only barely recognizable, especially in the anti-septic, wretchedly clean sounds of mainstream rock in the Eighties.  Kim Gordon’s drone work outdoes the Velvet Underground, and in 1987 they were really the first group that could lay claim to such an immense effort; “Beauty Lies In The Eye” is on par with something like “Sister Ray”.

Sister is an album obsessed with the ghost of Phillip K Dick, going so far as to title the album as a reference to Dick’s twin sister, who died shortly after being born and whose memory haunted the writer for the entirety of his life.  It’s a fitting subject for the music found within; Dick’s writing was often filtered through a psychedelic lens.  Flow My Tears The Policeman Said reads like it’s written in the rainbow corners of an LSD trip, and the war between reality and perception is a staple of almost all of his short fiction, much of which was post-humously filmed and turned into recognizable mainstream cinema:  Minority ReportScreamersBladerunnerThe Man In The High CastleTotal RecallA Scanner Darkly, Next, and others.  In terms of writers with Hollywood adaptations, Dick has always been more Burroughs than Grisham, of course; much of his work can be a bit impenetrable, in the same sense that Sonic Youth was impenetrable to a world where “Girls Girls Girls” was a hit single.  As a guiding light for a Sonic Youth album, there’s few brighter than Dick.

In retrospect Sister can be seen as a bridge of sorts, between the old scattershot noise-grubbing Sonic Youth and the lusher, dreamier soundscapes they forged on their breakthrough album, Daydream Nation.  A track like closer “White Kross” is as noisy and chaotic as anything they played on EVOL or Confusion = Sex, but “Schizophrenia” is deceptively gentle and uplifting.  The driving force that made Sister more coherent and “pop” than previous Sonic Youth releases was Steve Shelley’s drum work, which keeps everything grounded with deft, solid drumming.  Thus a track like “Tuff Gnarl”, which could have been soft in the middle and dripping from both ends, becomes a rock-solid (if impressively postmodern) song.  “Pacific Coast Highway”, an essential Kim Gordon song, looms menacingly while somehow remaining languid and self-aware.  The only off-putting moment is the cover of Crime’s “Hotwire My Heart”, which makes for a great standalone cut but jars somewhat as the sole straight-forward pop tune on an album that seems at times to be cut directly from the magnetic field of the Earth.

The album was also the first Sonic Youth record to win the approval of Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau, which was a big deal considering that relations between critic and band were so strained at one point that Thurston Moore would introduce the song “Kill Yr Idols” as “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick”.  It marks the point where the band ceased being another of Christgau’s “pigfucker” bands (a meant-to-be-derogatory label that also included luminaries such as Big Black and the Butthole Surfers) and became an up-and-coming (soon to be legendary) member of the white-hot alternative rock scene.

 

China: 20 Years of Dude Ranch

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Blink-182 – Dude Ranch

Released June 17th, 1997 on Cargo Records / MCA Records

Anyone over the age of 16 who claims that Blink-182 is one of their favourite bands is solidly immature – and the older they get, the more you can be assured that they’re existing in a state of suspended adolescence that just gets sadder the closer you get to grey hair.  Anyone under the age of 16 who claims that Blink-182 is one of their favourite bands is probably riding on a crest of Le Wrong Generation smugness, hating on the musical offerings of their generation simply to be contrarian and faux-cool.  I mean, you kids know PUP exists, right?  Pissed Jeans?  There are much better punk bands out now than Blink, you don’t have to suck up to Xinneials for brownie points.

So why are we celebrating the twentieth anniversary of an album that pretty much strikes one note over and over again until you just want to scream “I GET IT DELONGE YOU MANIAC!  YOU GREW UP IN THE SUBURBS AND YOU HAD A TYPICAL SUBURBAN TEEN UPBRINGING!  I’VE SEEN CAN’T HARDLY WAIT I KNOW HOW THIS WORKS!”? Well, for one thing, it’s to say holy shit Dude Ranch is twenty years old and you are soooooo old! For another, it’s to remark that, while Dude Ranch is basically NOFX with the edges sanded off, the personification of suburban skater punk, it’s also the perfection of that form.  “Dammit” is the pop-punk song of the Nineties, and if the rest of the album is basically just fourteen more iterations of “Dammit” it’s okay because that formula works here, and it works exceedingly well.

The rest of the songs also have their charms, of course.  “Dick Lips” is about getting drunk and kicked out of high school; “Apple Shampoo” is about getting your heart broken (and about Elyse Rogers of Dance Hall Crashers); “Emo” is about Jimmy Eat World; “Josie” is about the perfect girlfriend, while “A New Hope” is about the perfect girlfriend, who just happens to be rebelicious Princess Leia Skywalker (RIP Carrie Fisher).  It’s all juvenile, of course, fitting for a band who were still mentally in high school and and for a fanset who largely were still there as well.  It’s girls, drinking, hanging out, and being goofballs – something the band would continue to tackle right up until their 2003 self-titled swan song, which should have been their Rubber Soul but wasn’t.

This is closing in on 500 words now, which begs the question, “who the hell unironically writes 500 words about Blink-182?”  I guess I do, who knew?  I will straight-up admit to unabashedly loving this album as a 16 year old, who was that age right at the time they were doing records like Dude Ranch.  I had a pirated copy, too, burned onto a CD-R that I copied from a friend long before Napster came around to revolutionize that sort of thing.  I might even still have it somewhere; it’s one of those artifacts of youth that have sentimental value, if not precisely musical.  Sometimes nostalgia doesn’t need a sacred reason; sometimes it just about where you were at when you were a kid.  I guess this is growing up.

Ruby: 40 Years of Exodus

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Bob Marley & The Wailers – Exodus

Released June 3rd, 1977 on Island Records

RYM:  #367

BestEverAlbums:  #240

The Wailers were an early ska group, originally, forming in 1963 and featuring Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh.  Seven albums later they’d morphed into the premier reggae act in their native Jamaica, but as usual with these sorts of things that just meant major change was around the corner.  Wailer and Tosh left in 1974; Marley put together a new version of the Wailers for 1976’s Rastaman Vibration while both Wailer and Tosh released their own solo albums (Blackheart Man and Legalize It, respectively, both reggae classics in their own right).  Rastaman Vibration became a major success, scoring a berth in the Billboard charts (hitting #8) and, in “Roots, Rock, Reggae”, Marley’s only American Top 100 hit.  Then, in December of 1976, Marley and his wife were shot at in an assault that likely had political motivations, since Marley was scheduled to play a concert that was a de facto rally for Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley.  Despite his injuries, Marley played the show as scheduled, because he was about as badass a performer as you’re ever likely to find.  Following this incident, however, Marley decamped to London, where he would remain in exile for two years.

Exodus was the first result of being holed up in London, and it is thought by many to be his finest album.  Certainly his career retrospective, Legend (a staple of every dorm room, head shop, and activist squat since time out of mind) features more songs from Exodus than any of his other albums.  There are a huge number of stone classics featured here:  “The Heathen”, “Exodus”, “Jamming”, “Turn Your Lights Down Low”, and “One Love/People Get Ready” are all signature tracks.  Part of it’s appeal at the time was how different it was from the reggae music coming out of Jamaica in the late 1970s.  Exodus was more laid-back, with an increased focus on piano tones and freer, lighter beats.  There were elements of rock ‘n’ roll (especially with regard to Marley’s guitar playing – check out those opening licks on “Natural Mystic”) and the then-white-hot funk scene.  The only real connection to the reggae scene that Marley had exiled himself from was a nod to the rhythm and the liquid nature of the pulsating bass lines, something that could have been borrowed from funk music if Marley hadn’t already come from the reggae world.

It was this melding of reggae tinges with rock, funk, and blues motifs that drove Exodus, like it’s predecessor, into the Billboard charts and made an international superstar out of Bob Marley.  He would be dead within four years, a victim of a malignant cancer that first manifested itself in a tumor under his toenail in the same year that Exodus was released.  His final words – “Money can’t buy life” – are a clear statement of truth in a world increasingly bent on driving the capitalist machine into overdrive and then collapse.

GOLD: 50 Years of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Released June 2nd, 1967 on Capitol Records (May 26th on Parlophone Records in the UK)

RYM:  #22

BestEverAlbums:  #5

Listen, I’m not as much of a fan of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as you are.

People – critics and fans – have often talked about it as being the best album ever made.  It’s Boomer nonsense.  It’s a good album, to be sure, but it’s not even the best Beatles album.  It’s not even in the top five.  The official Beatles Power Ranking is:  The Beatles, Revolver, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be, Please Please Me, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Help!, A Hard Day’s Night, With The Beatles, and finally the rather leaden Beatles For Sale rounding everything out.  So without any further ado, let’s discuss The Beatles’ 8th best album.

Many consider it the first Album – rock as art.  It’s a very early version of a concept album (although I think The Who and A Quick One beats it) and it was the first album to include the lyrics, which got under a lot of people’s skin at the time as it made music purists think that these upstart mop-top boy-banders were trying to be something more than they were.  Even though I’m not a superfan of this record, it’s obvious from historical and technical context that those purists were wrong.  By 1967 The Beatles had long since ceased performing live; their last performance, at Candlestick Park in August of 1966, capped off a hellish final tour that found them chased, prodded, manhandled, and, in the American South, shot at and threatened with death.  Revolver had been released in the midst of that tour, and during it’s recording process the band discovered that the studio was far more fun than getting shot at by American white nationalists.  As a result, they abandoned performing for screaming teenagers in venues where they couldn’t even hear themselves play and fell full-on into making technical magic with “fifth Beatle” producer George Martin.

Technically, for the time, Sgt Pepper’s is a masterpiece.  Recorded using 4-track machines even though 8-tracks were available at the time, Martin and the band forged new ground in creative use of 4-track recording to get the sounds that you hear on the record.  A lot of tracks were mixed down onto a single track and then used to record more tracks, to create a huge array of overdubbed tracks that form the backbone of the dense sounds that can be heard throughout.  Many of the techniques that I and a myriad of other producers, amateur and professional, use today have their birth during the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions:  dynamic range compression, double-tracking, signal limiters, varispeed recording, and of course the term “flanger”, which came out of a joke made by Martin about Lennon’s double-tracked vocals.  In terms of physical recording techniques, the use of close-miking on Ringo Starr’s drums on the title track also became standard practice, and the use of crossfading between tracks instead of the usual hard-stop was pioneered here and became a regular occurrence on popular albums from 1967 onward.

Musically, the album is less of a success.  The title track (and it’s reprise late in the album) is a stellar bit of rock ‘n’ roll songcraft, and “With A Little Help From My Friends” is good fun (although the Joe Cocker cover is much better).  “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” has become a standby anthem for the drug counterculture but it seems in retrospect lightweight, a forced spray of psychedelia that seems more like a copycat gesture than it does a genuine integration into what the band’s contemporaries were doing.  “Getting Better” suffers from the same problem as many McCartney compositions of the era:  it’s too jaunty by half, as though the man were swaying back and forth at his piano, pounding the keys while the rest of the band plays in the background, bored stiff.  It’s also a distressingly bourgeois song:  who has to admit it’s getting better, Paul?  The poor, who were still struggling to provide in the middle of the so-called Summer Of Love?  The young Americans, who were being sent off to die in droves in the jungle?  George Harrison, who was getting ignored by the barreling Lennon-McCartney machine and was thinking of just heading back to India and staying there?  The jury is still out.

“Fixing A Hole” suffers a similar fate, in that it’s a McCartney song that feels a little too knowing; there’s a good song in there, but the decision to play it in a sort of stiff half-time renders it more wooden than it should be.  The production is top-notch, but the structure itself is lacking.  “She’s Leaving Home” manages to right the ship, with a classic Lennon/McCartney combo melody that takes “Eleanor Rigby” to a new level.  Unfortunately, Side One doesn’t end there; it ends instead with Lennon’s second fey kaleidoscope-psychedelia composition, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”, which revels in Edwardian pomp without saying much of anything (see David Bowie’s first album for more like this).  Side Two doesn’t start off much better.  Harrison’s sole contribution, “Within You Without You”, is a faux-raga obsessed with India that substitutes foreign exotica for psychedelic trippiness.  It’s a decent enough attempt at trying to break the mold (especially for a class act songwriter who was growing bored with Beatles-as-usual) but it’s woefully out of place on the record, and it seems like an unnecessary expansion on something they’d already perfected (“Tomorrow Never Knows”).  “When I’m Sixty Four” is the nadir of the album, the worst of McCartney’s Vaudeville-inspired jaunty bullshit; it was reportedly written in McCartney’s teen years, when the band was still pumping out amphetamine-fueled rock ‘n’ roll in Germany, and it probably should have been buried there.  “Lovely Rita” is better, but still has that same goddamn bourgeois bounce that features Paul trying to out-jolly everyone in England with a vengeance.  “Good Morning Good Morning” is the return of the slightly more sober John Lennon, and although it’s a bit hamfisted it’s also a righteous bit of rock ‘n’ roll.  The “Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise is top-notch, and “A Day In The Life” is of course one of the band’s all-time great songs.

In a sense, Sgt. Pepper’s was a rough draft for what the band would go on to do with Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles.  As an alleged concept album it’s mostly a failure.  The “military band” idea that spurred the recordings only shows up twice, and the rest of it bears no resemblance to the concept whatsoever.  Instead, it’s a collection of bold experiments by a band that knew they wouldn’t have to perform these songs live.  It builds on the studio techniques they started playing with on Revolver, but the songs on Revolver are much stronger.  It’s an interesting junction point in the band’s career, but not for the usual Rolling Stone cover-story reasons; it represents the moment that their ambition outstripped their actual abilities, a problem that would be quickly rectified over the following three years.  1968’s The Beatles would be the perfection of what they tried to work out here, although Sgt. Pepper’s would be the key album of the Summer Of Love, such as it was, so in terms of eventual influence they’re equal.  In the end, though, regardless of any of the problems or artistic over-steppings that occurs on the album, “A Day In The Life” is one of the best songs ever written and is worth the price of admission all on it’s own.

GOLD: 50 Years of Absolutely Free

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The Mothers Of Invention – Absolutely Free

Released May 26th, 1967 on Verve Records

Of the first three Mothers Of Invention albums, Absolutely Free tends to be the forgotten middle child, stuck between the white-hot innovations of Freak Out! and the balls-out satire of We’re Only In It For The Money.  It’s a little more free-wheeling than either (if you want to split hairs) and lacks the conceptual focus that either of it’s flanking albums have.  What Absolutely Free does have, however, is internal cohesion.  It’s an album made up of two mini-suites, with call-backs to themes throughout.  Musically it’s an early Frank Zappa album, meaning that it’s continuously balancing on the edge of free-form jazz, skipping from idea to idea with the impetuousness of the creatively uninhibited.  There are references to Stravinsky and Holst; there are callbacks to previous soundtrack work Zappa had done; there is an admonishment to eat one’s vegetables because they’re good for you.  “America Drinks” and “America Drinks and Goes Home”, the bookend tracks of side two, are tongue-in-cheek references to Zappa’s days playing lounge music; “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” paid homage to President Johnson’s fashion faux pas of the day, matching brown shoes to a grey suit.  The most impressive part of the album is the opening, where Zappa goes fifty years forward in time to find a President Of The United States who can only communicate by bleating the main riff to “Louie Louie” in a cracked, off-key voice.  NATO heads of state can probably relate.