A recurring theme in my walk through The Beatles’ discography and therefore their history too, has been the mythic quality of their story. For me and for many fans, The Beatles are more than just a rock group. They were a generational ideal, or at least representatives of what talented people could do when they came together to form a common identity.
When we think of any band we love, this is often the common denominator; that in the making of art, mortality is subverted somehow. The Beatles went beyond the realm of the musical in this. They were cultural paragons, and collectively a symbol for that which can potentially change the world for the better. That’s a lot of pressure on four musicians in their twenties. It couldn’t last. Nor did it.
It’s been noted by both McCartney and Starr that when The Beatles recorded Abbey Road, they weren’t doing so with the idea that they’d never record together as a band again, as bad as things were getting by 1969. Maybe in retrospect it just seems like it. But there is something of the journey to Avalon about this record. Read more
Listen to this track by eclectic London punk rock folk heroes The Clash. It’s “Guns Of Brixton”, a key track as taken from their landmark 1979 album London Calling. The song was the product of a songwriting and vocal effort of bassist Paul Simonon, shown on the front cover of the album giving his bass guitar an introduction to the ground in what looks like an uncontrolled act of rage. Yet on this song, that bass is used very productively indeed, even if the rage is still boiling under the surface.
By the time the band recorded this, their third album, they’d strayed away from the straight-ahead punk rock on their first album. Reggae was only one musical style to be found on London Calling, although “Guns Of Brixton” is where they get to the heart of that style more so than ever before. Simonon in particular was inspired by the cult film The Harder They Come and its main character actually referenced by name on this song. All of the violent imagery and paranoia found here comes from that same mythology found in the movie.
Having said that, it also sprang directly from the experiences and sensibilities of its writer, born and raised in Brixton and very aware of the tensions that were growing there by the end of the seventies. In this, the song was very prescient in what would happen in that very neighbourhood not long after this song was released. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Townes Van Zandt padawan turned gritty country-rock veteran Steve Earle. It’s “Hard-Core Troubadour”, a cut as taken from his 1996 album, I Feel Alright.
This song and the album off of which it comes emerged out of an era that was less than stellar for their creator personally speaking. By the early 1990s, Earle’s relationship with drugs landed him a prison sentence, of which he served 60 days plus a stint in rehab. He knew quite a lot about being under the thrall of substances, and of making some pretty bad decisions as a result. After four years passed, he realized how important it was to stick to his art as a means to keep him grounded. I think the title of the record is very meaningful in the light of that. This album, and yet another album that same year Train A-Comin’, was a sign that he was ready to be creative again, edging away from his more self-destructive impulses.
Maybe it’s this that gives this song such a gravitas, a story that concerns itself with an unreliable and intoxicated character and about the woman in his life who must make a choice about what she wants her life to be like. In a way, this song is also about Steve Earle himself. Read more
Listen to this track by mighty Motown hit machine Diana Ross & The Supremes. It’s “Someday We’ll Be Together”, a smash hit single from 1969 and found on their LP Cream Of The Crop.
The song has the distinction of being the last number one single on the R&B charts of the 1960s, while also being the first number one single of the next decade, too. It was also the group’s swan song, with Diana Ross leaving for a solo career by 1970. This gave the song’s refrain a kind of weightiness that seemed to go beyond the story depicted in it.
The song had actually been recorded previously in 1961 by doo-wop group Johnny (Bristol) & Jacky (Beavers), the team who also wrote it. Bristol oversaw the Supremes recording too. You can hear him singing backup, although that session was meant to be a demo with Bristol’s interjections as vocal encouragement in order to get the right take. When Motown honcho Berry Gordy heard it, he liked Bristol’s backing that offset Ross’ lead voice. Ironically for a swan song of a massive pop group like the Supremes, or “Diana Ross & The Supremes” as they became known, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson aren’t featured on the track. This was indicative of the state of the union of the group at the time. Besides that though, this song always struck me as a swan song of another kind; that of childhood itself. Read more
Listen to this track by jam-oriented power trio supergroup Oysterhead. It’s “Oz Is Ever Floating”, a cut off of their sole (to date!) album The Grand Pecking Order from 2001. The song was a highlight on their associated tour around that time, having played it on their Late Night with Conan O’Brien appearance, among other musical locales.
The band was comprised of some very heavy hitters, instrumentally speaking. On guitar and other (sometimes very bizarre) stringed instruments was Phish head boy Trey Anastasio. On bass was Primus main mover Les Claypool. On drums was Stewart Copeland, sticksman for The Police and well-known film and soundtrack composer by the beginning of the century. His film and TV work was his day job, involving very meticulous processes and meetings with directors in order to satisfy its demands. Not very rock ‘n’ roll.
It would take a brash proposal to get Copeland out of film-and-TV-score land, and to get him behind the kit again, a role he’d virtually ignored for almost a decade.
Listen to this track by British folk-rock-with-sophisti-pop leanings singer-songwriter Tom Robinson. It’s “War Baby”, a 1983 single which also appeared on his album Hope and Glory released by the next year. That full-length record is also known as War Baby: Hope and Glory in some quarters.
This single performed exceptionally well on the British charts, reaching number six and serving as a positive turn in Robinson’s fortunes. By 1982, Robinson had moved to Germany in a fit of low feelings in part brought about by debt and by the end of his former musical outfit Sector 27. It was a significant move. Relocating to a new country and social context shook up his worldview, bringing out certain geopolitical dynamics in his music. This was particularly when doing shows in Berlin, a place known for the infamous wall that bore its name; a physical metaphor for the cold war itself.
This political edge is very evident on this song, which is about war and about love at the same time. Maybe too, it reveals just how similar love and war are emotionally speaking, or at least how disturbingly interchangeable they can be. Read more
Listen to this track by canny pop song strategists and performance art doyens The KLF, featuring the First Lady of Country herself, Tammy Wynette. It’s “Justified & Ancient”, a tune that features on their 1991 album The White Room and on its own as a single version. After this song was released with notable chart showings all over the world, there were no more singles from the group at all. In fact, they deleted their own catalogue in the UK!
The KLF was a meta pop group more so than the real thing. The whole project seemed to be an active parody of the pop industry process, inventing a whole vocabulary and mythology around itself. The “band” was made up of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, both of whom were on the British music and theatre scenes at various levels since the mid-1970s. They started this project under the name JAMs (that’s Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu) by the late eighties.
By 1991, this single referenced their history and was something of a closed circle for them as their last ever single connected to the JAMs/KLF project. It certainly had a positive impact on Tammy Wynette in a very measurable way, while also being indicative of an approach to pop music as art where Drummond and Cauty were concerned all around. Read more
John Lennon famously said that if you listen to The White Album, you can hear The Beatles breaking up. You can certainly hear that each member had a lot of things to say, and with many different ways to say it musically speaking, from traditional rock n’ roll, to wistful bucolic folk, to quasi-baroque black humour, to proto-prog excursions, to noise-rock, to the churning collage approach of avant garde, and beyond. The fact was, the band was going through a metamorphosis even as the political and cultural landscapes were changing all around them, drifting into darker territory from the multicoloured promise of the hippy dream just one year before.
They’d drifted pretty far from those shores themselves since their manager Brian Epstein died, the man who kept them together as a group with a common purpose. They’d come to find themselves on different paths from each other, too. Even in the band photos on the inner sleeve of this double disc magnum opus, there isn’t a group shot to be found. Rather we find John, Paul, George, and Ringo in separate quadrants looking a little worse for wear. Even in the middle of all of that, they made one of their most striking and influential works, even if on some tracks they performed as solo artists who used “The Beatles” as a banner under which to produce their individual material, rather than as a band. So what you can also hear on this record is them trying to find their voices as individuals, all the while using any voices they had to hand.
Among many other things which The Beatles represents, my friend Graeme and I are joined once again by musician, podcaster, and critic Alex Kennard who celebrates this album as his favourite of their catalogue. As usual, we discuss our favourite tracks, and we talk about how to approach this listening to this album given its magnitude. Unusually, maybe, we don’t talk about whether the record should have been a single disc. Because that would be dumb.
And Alex has a pop at Clapton, and praises “Revolution 9” to the skies.
You can decide if he’s right yourself by listening to the episode right here.
Listen to this track by throwback ragtime guitarist and singular “character” Leon Redbone. It’s “Lazy Bones”, a cut off of his 1975 debut record On The Track. That album contained several renditions of pre-war tin pan alley, jazz, and country blues tunes like this one that are so authentic sounding that you can practically hear the surface crackles on them.
For all of the retro-style textures from decades ago that artists today reference in their own music, Leon Redbone preceded them all. Like an artist today might reference a sound from the seventies, Redbone in turn reached back into the 1930s and even earlier to remind his audiences that the nature of pop music hadn’t really changed that much in terms of form in that they were still short little aural slabs of joy that are designed to get stuck in your head. The album even scored an #87 on the top 100 Billboard pop album chart by 1975.
Much like the dusty musical forms he traded in, Leon Redbone was an enigma. Like the blues itself, no one really knows where he came from, and not just in a showbiz sense.
Listen to this track by rock n’ roll and pop powerhouse Pat Benatar. It’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, a gargantuan hit single as taken from her breakthrough 1980 record Crimes Of Passion, her second and biggest selling album to date.
The song was a top ten hit in on the US charts, and scored similar success around the world, being a hard rock song with a pop aftertaste while never sounding corporatized or manufactured a la the profusion of corporate rock at the time. The album was huge, scoring a number two placement on the charts, only bettered chartwise by John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. She even got a Grammy for best female rock vocal performance of the year in 1981 .
One thing that stands out to me past the lyrical surface of the song, and past the mainstream success the song had, there is an important subtext to be found here that goes well beyond the material as it was written. Read more