David Bowie - The Next Day. My 10 year old daughter couldn’t fathom that this guy is 66.
Atoms For Peace - Amok. Can’t say much about it yet.
George Pellecanos - The Cut (audiobook). I realized I have spent the past few years listening mostly to local sports talk radio I don’t like that much when I could be filling my head with more books. This is a very solidly constructed crime novel, though lacking in rich prose.
Clinic - Free Reign, Free Reign II. Comfortable, kinda samey but enjoyable ’60s inspired druggy rock, with Free Reign II being the same songs remixed a little more ambitiously by Daniel (Oneohtrix Point Never) Lopatin.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - II. Also ’60s influenced, prettier.
Girls Vol. 1 OST. Very solid group of songs. I really like Icona Pop’s “I Love It” for the groove and the line “I threw your shit into a bag and threw it down the stairs” and don’t mind my daughter hearing it because I want her to know she should feel free to do that to a guy when she’s older, when he deserves it.
Spring Breakers OST - I’m not very interested in the movie but this is an excellent soundtrack, alternating Skrillex hits and new stuff with moody Cliff Martinez score and some good hip-hop. Hangs together really well.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s 1981 Spotify Playlist - I didn’t realize how much of this I knew and how incredible a year this was for music. Still potent stuff from the Stones, the Who, Kinks, Queen, with The Police, Tom Petty, The Jam, Squeeze, Blondie and Elvis Costello evolving, and the emergence of R.E.M., Dead Kennedys and tons of great songs from the likes of Men at Work, Kim Wilde, Luther Vandross, Al Jarreau, and “Bang Bang (She Shot Me Down)” from Sinatra on his last great sad songs album. And I can admit that while 1981 was the second year of my record-buying history, despite all this greatness, the three 45s I recall buying at the KorVetts department store within a Huffy ride’s distance from my house were Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love a Rainy Night/Drivin’ My Life Away”, Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5” and The Eagles’ “The Long Run/New Kid In Town”. What can I say?
Prince has dropped another song for download, this time a sexy love jam called “Breakfast Can Wait.” Based mostly around a simple drum program, funky bass and some warm electric piano-type keyboard darting around in the mix, it’s about Prince wanting one more taste of his woman before they have to get up and she has to go to work and he has to go back to writing songs about wanting one more taste of his woman, etc. It’s a solid but modest success until the last 30 seconds or so, when Prince uses his old trick of modifying the pitch of his voice really high. Instead of the sexuality confrontation of “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” here it literally sounds like a talking baby just toddled in and interrupted his parents fucking. Not that this is Prince’s most erotic song or anything—it’s actually kind of sweet, and the innuendos relating to breakfast are very tame—but it IS erotic, and that baby voice effect is like spilling orange juice in your lap.
Just started reading this excellent seven part series by Steven Hyden at Grantland, now up to part 5. It’s a pretty exciting beginning even if his reasoning for starting with Led Zeppelin rather than The Beatles or Stones is dubious, and he doesn’t write nearly as much about Zep here as he does about the other bands in the following chapters. The idea of the “winners” having to still be around in some form, and only focusing on bands rather than solo artists, is again, dubious, but there’s some very fine music writing here after those caveats. Desmond Child has much to answer for.
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Is there another major artist who has allowed his back catalog to collect dust to the point of near-irrelevance more than Prince? I haven’t heard much of anything he’s done in at least 15 years but that doesn’t matter—his body of work before that is tremendous, and I’m sure I’ve missed out on some good stuff since. But I was trying to play a few of his cleaner classics the other day, to introduce my kids to his music (from the cd of The Hits, the ’90s Best Of Warners put out) and it sounded so thin I just couldn’t enjoy it much. The drum fills on “1999” are so muffled and weak it’s like someone shook a rock inside a shoebox. I see there was one sort of odd collection in 2006, Ultimate Prince, that contained a pretty good single disc of hits and a second disc of extended versions and dance mixes, many hard to find. Since that’s the only remastering I see of his stuff, I may get that (and I’ve never heard any of those remixes), but I really wish The Purple One would settle whatever his grievances are with the label and do some deluxe reissues, box sets, etc. of his rich catalog, so another generation can get turned onto it, and I can hear it the way it should be heard, rather than on the outdated mastering technology of 20 years ago.
Now for the good news. Seems he’s making new music again, and has released a couple new songs very recently, “Rock and Roll Love Affair” and “Screwdriver.” The former is a little underwhelming in its original single edit; it’s a sweet, nonspecific love fable that sounds, to me, retro in a bad way with heavy, bland ’80s synths all over it. However, the Jamie Ellis Stripped Down Single Edit is loads better, really crisp and with some great funky guitar all over it (presumably Prince’s axework). Hopefully he keeps working with this Ellis guy, because this version sounds fresh. I also like the newest one, “Screwdriver,” which you can find in a graphic-heavy video on Prince’s website. It’s kind of a grungy stomper with a good-natured dirty hook. Maybe not classic, but sturdy and hard not to like. The site also has a trailer for an upcoming concert film shot in Montreux, Switzerland that could be promising. You only get a minute or so of a close-up on Prince’s hands playing a guitar solo, with graphics informing you it’s two shows and three hours. If it’s on blu-ray, I’m in. I know he’s a great performer and I’d like to see what the guy can do in high definition across a wide range of hits, deep cuts, whatever.
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In 1983, David Bowie made MTV his own with three big videos for the singles from this album. The videos were colorful and sexy, and Bowie had a good look for the time: short blond hair and big suits, and hey, if you weren’t into watching him, the videos had hot women, some of them topless (in the unrated versions).
I was 13 or 14 at the time, so that’s a pretty ideal age to get into Bowie. Unfortunately, aside from an RCA Best Of compilation, the current Bowie included the widely-derided, poorly mixed and culturally irrelevant live Ziggy Stardust album, and Let’s Dance.
Produced by former Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, Let’s Dance did pretty much what one can assume Bowie wanted it to do: get him back on the charts, sell a lot of units, and make him look cool and trend-setting again. The success of the album certainly must have encouraged Bowie acolytes Duran Duran to use Rodgers to remix their 1984 single, “The Reflex,” as well as producing their 1985 single,”The Wild Boys,” and “Original Sin” for INXS. Bowie had already done good work melding the warmth of soul music with chillier electronics and detached vocals, and Let’s Dance attempts something along those lines, but with quite different results than Young Americans.
“Modern Love” opens the album with a strong, upbeat rock song that flirts with music cliches about getting to the church on time, while Bowie alternates between denying the existence or being afraid of it, the implication being that despite his best efforts, love will get him in the end. It’s an immaculately produced song, with an excellent opening guitar riff that sounds a bit like an engine turning over. Good horn section, including a sax solo, and very simple but memorable keyboard riffs. it’s clearly a song that came together over time and was fussed over and polished to perfection, with Bowie perhaps keeping himself interested by adding a curious spoken word introduction about wanting to stay in and get things done that means nothing in the context of the song. It’s a song that I grew awfully tired of in MTV rotation that year, but have come to like much better now.
Iggy Pop cowrote “China Girl” and is no doubt still enjoying royalties from it today. Aside from the arguably offensive chimey Chinese riff beginning the song and appearing lower in the mix other times in the song, it’s a moodily effective love song, despite lyrics that range from cute to bizarre (“I stumble into town/Just like a sacred cow/Visions of swastikas in my head”). The sweet, simple sentiment at the heart of the song holds it together, while the guitar playing by Stevie Ray Vaughan is extraordinary.
The title track, “Let’s Dance” is another Rodgers production marvel. Today, gated drum reverb is sneered at as a dated ’80s sonic artifact, but it’s still pretty thrilling here, a great blend of Vaughan’s guitar fills, at least two different backing choruses, insinuating and passionate Bowie lead vocals, funky bass, and percussive and other effects ping-ponging across both channels. It was another perfect single (the first from the album), though I have to say the album version, which is effectively an extended mix with Rodgers providing more beat breakdown space with mutated horn solos, is just a bit too long. And that leads to the problem with the album: Bowie just didn’t have enough good material.
As brilliant as these songs are, it’s unfortunate that they make up the first three tracks, as the album really goes into a nosedive in quality for a long stretch after the. “Without You” has some nice higher register Bowie vocals, but the tasty Vaughan guitar can’t cover up the lackluster lyrics and lack of melody. It’s a listless track that Rodgers doesn’t do much to fix. This is followed by “Ricochet,” which does show more production effort, but that’s the problem: you hear the effort. It’s a repetitive track with, again, no hooks, with abrupt breaks in its “Three Blind Mice being marched to the gallows” tune to shout “It’s not the end of the world.” Frantic congas, some pointless reverbed horns, Vaughan vamping, annoying spoken word (not Bowie) and Bowie’s tortured, confused political allegory—none of it works. It’s a tune that would make an okay 30 second fadeout for a different song, not a song itself. A cover of Metro’s “Criminal World” (Bowie never having a problem resorting to covers to fill out an album if needed) follows, and it’s not a bad simmering blues/funk song, a fine but unmemorable album filler.
For whatever reason, Bowie rerecords the theme to “Cat People” that he and Giorgio Moroder did for that soundtrack over a year before, but this time much faster and more aggressive. It’s at least basically a good song and survives this arrangement, though I prefer the original. At least he sounds committed on it, which can’t be said for the album closer, “Shake It,” which honestly sounds like an early version of “Let’s Dance” with temporary lyrics (“Shake it, shake it, baby”). It’s almost the same tune, arranged the same way, just not nearly as interesting. Were we not supposed to notice?
This many years later, in the digital age, it doesn’t much matter that only half the album is good. What’s good is very good, and the rest is forgettable. Non-completists can rest assured that they need only download the first three songs and this (and the soundtrack) version of “Cat People” and they’re all set on this period of Bowie. He would go several years and several albums not getting close to this percentage of good material.
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First track and first single, “For Tomorrow,” lets listeners know that Blur has changed their sound and their focus. Gone are the baggy beats and reverb, replaced by crisp acoustic strumming and clipped electric chords from Graham Coxon, and clear, nasal and very English vocals from Damon Albarn. Lyrically, Albarn has apparently abandoned the self-pitying first person who is vaguely detached from the world and those around him. Now he’s scoping around London for inspiration, referencing John & Cynthia Lennon’s 1964 home in Emperors Gate but singing more of a Kinks-y song of two young lovers trying to hold on for a better future. It’s not totally an upbeat song, as it portrays the present as undesirable, but still, there’s hope if we can just get through it. It’s not that surprising it wasn’t a big UK hit, stalling near the bottom of the Top 40, as it’s not that slick and a little awkward in its execution (the “ta-mah-rohhh!”s), but it would gain in reputation over the succeeding years to be one of the most beloved British singles.
It would seem that “For Tomorrow,” which was a late addition to the album when the record company listened and felt there were no obvious singles, would become the representative track of Modern Life Is Rubbish (and indeed, the lyrics provide the album title), as the rest of the album is rife with observations of Londoners and British life and landmarks. “Advert” finds a man contemplating his burned-out existence on the London underground, wishing for a holiday that never comes. It’s a sturdy enough punk rock song, sung by Albarn with some Lydonesque overkill he would thankfully drop before long, that finishes within 20 seconds or so after the riff becomes irritating.
“Colin Zeal” is another third person song, this about a self-satisfied man living an unexamined life. It’s a more developed song than “Advert,” with Coxon providing more clipped chords and then layering them with some good old rocking out. “Pressure on Julian” is notable for supple Alex James bass playing and some surreal, ugly lyrics about pissy yellow water. It’s supposedly about Julian Cope, Food Records head Dave Balfe’s old A Teardrop Explodes bandmate, though whether it’s a tribute or a knock is unclear. There’s similar imagery in a later track, “Oily Water,” about someone with a sense of himself being in decline, dour sentiments from Albarn, and no wonder he chose to express them through a Lennon-style megaphone-like treated vocal.
“Starshaped” continues the queasy album theme of someone unsure of themselves, worried about where they are in life and looking for direction or support. The character is making plans…to become “an unconscious man,” almost like Colin Zeal before, bucked up and pleased but resisting self-reflection lest the delusion shatter.
“Blue Jeans” is one of the best tracks on the album, a stately love ballad about a guy who hasn’t quite made up his mind about taking a relationship to the next level, but who’s very happy to keep things status quo for the time-being: “I want to stay this way forever/You know it’s to be with you.” It’s followed by another highlight, “Chemical World,” which has great Beatlesque harmonies and, like “A Day in the Life,” elliptical lyrics about holes. “They’re putting the holes in.” Where? What holes?
Blur received many comparisons to the Kinks on this album, though there are echoes of early Bowie and Marc Bolan as well. The Kinks are maybe the most obvious signifier, due to the Anglocentric lyrics and the newfound music hall touches like rattling piano and the skeleton of a concept album or theatrical piece with some musical interludes. Remember that Blur were initially seen as latecomers biting on the waning Madchester sound, so suddenly changing their sound to one with echoes of Swinging London was seen by some as cynical. Some found it bracing while others were slower to realize how good they were at it and how much better they had gotten at playing and writing. “Sunday Sunday” is the most ’60s sounding song on the record, but maybe the best, tripping through elegiac lyrics about English traditions and simpler times, dropping in an unabashed “Penny Lane” type of horn chart and somehow walking a line between nostalgia and scorn that, yes, Ray Davies would be proud of.
It’s not all progress, though. “Miss America” is a drizzly plod with twangy, discordant guitar that might be a shot at the U.S. if Albarn could summon the energy to write proper lyrics. It should be noted that the new sound was spurred by a disastrous U.S. tour amid the full flowering of grunge, so the album is partly a reaction against that sound. Oddly enough, “Chemical World,” to me, bears similarities musically to a quasi-grunge ’90s band like Everclear if you take the vocals out.
“Villa Rosie” finds Albarn wanting to connect with people through that most English pastime of going down the pub, though true to form, he finds a way to be miserable and plagued by self-doubt over whether he’s wasting his time. “Coping” is about pretty much what it says, not being happy but trying to pull it together enough to keep trying. It’s got some of those laser gun-sounding synths that Blur would use even more on their next album, Parklife, and they show up again to start off “Turn It On,” which is another coping song, though both are catchy and musically upbeat. “Resigned” ends the album on an uncertain note, as the title suggests, not going forward but accepting one’s fate, and sung by Albarn in that kind of flat, detached way that ironically often signifies some of his most heartfelt subject matter. On the other hand, musically the song does point towards progress, which a dense mix of melancholy, topped off by an accordion sound on the melody that Albarn would go on to explore with melodica with Gorillaz.
The bonus disc starts off with “Popscene,” which was actually intended to be the first single for the album but its lack of chart success caused the band and the label to rethink things and drop it from the album entirely. It’s actually a good song about corporate music packaging, a subject the band would revisit years later in the song, “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.,” and it would eventually become recognized as one of the first “Britpop” songs. We follow with fine but indistinct b-sides, “Mace,” “Badgeman Brown,” and “I’m Fine,” before we get to what might have been a throwaway Graham Coxon guitar jam, “Garden Central,” but the heaviness of the chord progression and the eerie Albarn and Coxon vocals take hold in the consciousness. Then there’s an extended version of “For Tomorrow” with a more dramatic arrangement in parts, but the farty horns aren’t totally successful, and the whole thing would have been better with the vocals beefed up rather than pushed down.
As for the rest, well. Unlike the Leisure b-sides and outtakes, the Modern Life leftovers mostly feel like they just weren’t good enough to make the album. Some of the Leisure stuff, if used in place of a few tracks, would have made for a stronger, more varied album. Aside from a greater use of phasing and other stylistic dead ends—the “Reworked” version of “Chemical World” sounds like an ill-advised nod towards grunge; you know, the sound the band was rebelling against?—the songs are mostly in line with the tracks on the album. It’s just that the tracks on the album are almost uniformly better. It’s not that these aren’t good; in fact, most of the songs are better than most of the Leisure leftovers and better than most of the songs that made it onto Leisure, but a lot of it has to do with better musicianship and production. A lot of them are more like sketches, Albarn’s lyrics often really repetitive, both within the song and just thematically: he really likes to right about one specific, important moment when he realizes how lost he is, how he’s never loved this girl, how he’s floating away, etc. I did like “Young and Lovely,” a very strong pop song with Albarn concentrating more on coming up with a good melody than profound lyrics, and “My Ark,” which is notable more for Coxon’s riffing in a way that, again, wouldn’t be out of place on a Soundgarden record from this era. The less said about the band’s cover of Rod Stewart AM radio classic, “Maggie May,” the better. The disc finishes with two more covers, both nods to English music hall, “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Made for Two)” and “Let’s All Go Down the Strand.” These might have made sense on paper, possibly filling out an album so steeped in Britishness, but fortunately the parties involved seemed to realize that the tracks, while played enthusiastically, were just too camp for a band trying to make a name as serious artists.
Half my reviews seem to start with a variation on how I was ignorant of the subject at hand or hadn’t watched/listened to it in so long I’d forgotten enough to be pretty ignorant of it. Blur is a little different, in that I’ve listened to many of their albums many times over the past couple decades, but this early stuff, it’s been a long while. But I was excited to get the new Blur 21 box set (all seven albums in two disc editions, plus two discs of rarities, three DVDs of live performances, one rare vinyl single facsimile and a hardback book in a clothbound cube), and am looking forward to digging into all this material again over the next couple weeks.
Leisure came out in 1991, produced largely by Stephen Street, (along with Steve Powers and Steve Lowell, Mike Thorne, and Blur themselves on “Sing”) who up to this point was defined mainly for his work with the Smiths and Morrissey. A classy, refined producer, Street was something of a counterintuitive choice for Blur, whose label, Food, was pushing them to make the most of the already-peaked Madchester sound, with its shuffling ‘baggy” beats and druggy guitar drones and reverb. I was still a fan of Manchester or Manchester-inspired bands like Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and The Charlatans, and of course the U.S. was late in recognizing when something was over (just like with punk rock in the late ’70s), so I greeted Leisure eagerly after hearing the single, “There’s No Other Way.” The song had a funky guitar figure and James Brown beat, good harmonies, and an organ backing that sounded like The Charlatan’s “The Only One I Know.” But as it turned out, I tired of the CD quickly, and since I was at the time working at a music store, I returned it and got something else.
21 years later, did I make a bad decision? Not really. While Blur would make a quantum leap on their second album, with main writer/frontman Damon Albarn finding his voice and all members pushing themselves further with each subsequent release, Leisure is a classic case of a band booked for an album without having an album’s worth of good material, and without having a clear sense of the type of music they really wanted to make. Or is it a classic case of a label presenting a very narrow picture of a band for the purposes of an easy sell? More on that later.
“There’s No Other Way” and “She’s So High” were the rightfully chosen singles, and there’s not much else to recommend aside from “Sing,” a six minute slab of psychedelia that comes out just on the right side of a battle between blissed-out and ponderous.
The other tracks do vary between dancey rockers (“Bang” and “Come Together”), somnolent anthems (“Repetition”) and chugging, droney tracks of unconvincing anger and ennui (“Wear Me Down”). “Slow Down”, “Bad Day”, and “High Cool” would have made fine b-sides, but pale as album tracks because they sound like less successful rewrites of “She’s So High” and “There’s No Other Way.” And the less said about the dreary, whiny “Birthday”, the better.
One can criticize Street’s and the others’ production, but it would seem they were under a mandate to make Blur sound like the latest variation on what was popular at the time. Just like you can hardly blame the producers of mid-’60s Kinks or Hollies for trying to sound like The Beatles, you can’t blame Street for the samey quality of the record, although it sure would have helped if the record label got Graham Coxon a different guitar for some tracks or a couple other instruments were used to add color and sonic variety. Lyrically, Albarn doesn’t help much, as he was apparently writing many of the lyrics in the studio. The results do sound tossed-off and, fittingly, often centered around dislocation and detachment (from girls and the world around him). He can’t connect with the girl because “She’s So High” and in “There’s No Other Way,” he’s reduced to a passive observer (“all that you can do is watch them play”. And those are the songs that really work. It’s not an embarrassment by any means, but undercooked enough that the band was lucky they had enough success in the U.K. to get a second chance, and that that second chance showed enough growth and promise to get them a third chance.
The Special Edition, like all the others in the box set, has a second disc of rarities, many of them previously unreleased. There are two remixes of “There’s No Other Way” that aren’t terribly different, although the “Blur Remix” has an icy elegance with the drones stripped out. “Bang” gets an Extended Mix as well. “I Know,” which was used on the U.S. edition of the album in place of “Sing” is presented here in an Extended Mix that seems to take its lead from The Stone Roses. “Down” and “Won’t Do It” are reverb workouts no better or worse than what made the cut of the album, but the rest of the disc makes an argument that Blur had a little more range already. “Luminous” and “Berserk” are more delicate stabs at psychedelia than “Sing,” “Mr. Briggs” seems to be Albarn’s first attempt at an observational English song, and, while rough (some demos, some fan club songs), “Close,” ”I Love Her,” “Day Upon Day”, “Uncle Love” and “I’m All Over” show a greater range of lyrical interest, pop-punk energy and rhythmic attack than most of Leisure, and it doesn’t hurt that many of these songs arrive without the enervating sludge of all that reverb being added. Certainly there’s not a great, lost album here, but Leisure would have benefited from three, maybe four of these tracks replacing album tracks like “Birthday,” “High Cool”, “Repetition” and “Wear Me Down.” While Leisure, even with its supporting bonus disc, is still probably Blur’s weakest outing, it’s got its charm. Many careers start from less than two hits and a memorable album cover.
Recorded 4 September 1962, just like “Love Me Do”, “How Do You Do It?” was meant to be the b-side. The song, written by Mitch Murray, was brought to producer Ron Richards, who thought it was a hit but it wasn’t until this Beatles session when he thought he’d found the right group to do it justice.
The problem was, The Beatles didn’t like the song, and wanted to do perform their own compositions as much as possible. This was unusual for new, early ’60s bands, and as much as I’ve read about The Beatles, I don’t know that anyone has sufficiently explored just what pushed Lennon and McCartney to start writing their own songs from such a young age. In fact, the band wanted to record “Please Please Me”, but the song wasn’t quite ready to go, or at least Richards and/or George Martin didn’t think so, preferring “How Do You Do It?” They were right and they were wrong; “Please Please Me” would be The Beatles’ second single, but the song was given to other Mersey group, Gerry & The Pacemakers, who took it to #1 in the U.K. for three weeks in 1963.
The band cited peer pressure for not wanting to record the song; apparently Liverpudlian bands took some pride in doing their own stuff, and besides, The Beatles felt the song was too slick and somewhat old-fashioned. They were after a new sound, even if they were making it up as they went along.
The Beatles’ version would eventually be released in 1995 on Anthology 1, and since it had had decades of bad press as “the song The Beatles didn’t want to do”, it doesn’t really disappoint. The Beatles do a professional, but uninspired, job of it. They would release maybe one or two worse songs than this, and give some piffle to other artists, but this is one of their least memorable recordings.
“Love Me Do” was the first single released by The Beatles, released on 5 October 1962, backed by “P.S. I Love You”. It peaked at #17 on the UK charts, and would be #1 in the U.S. when it was released in 1964, after Beatlemania was in full swing.
The song, written in 1958-1959, mainly by Paul during a day he skipped school, then finished by Paul and John, has about as rich a recording history as any Beatles track. It was first recorded 6 June 1962, with Pete Best on drums. This version would not be heard until 1995, when Anthology 1 was released. The Beatles came to London from Liverpool, rehearsing six songs, including “Please Please Me”, but this wouldn’t be recorded as the arrangement wasn’t settled yet. They would also record a cover, “How Do You Do It?”, as producer George Martin had yet to see convincing evidence that they could write hit singles on their own, and so was following standard practice of the time of using available songs by other professional songwriters. It’s not surprising that the song went unreleased for so long, as it’s a pretty poor version. Best’s drumming is very plodding, and McCartney, assigned the lead vocal for the song for the first time, as Martin felt Lennon couldn’t segue between singing and playing harmonica smoothly enough for record, sounds flat in spots.
Stories differ, but it was felt that Pete Best wasn’t cutting it, and so on 4 September, the song was remade with Ringo Starr on drums. This would be the version used in first pressings of the single, although Martin (and McCartney) weren’t terribly impressed with Starr’s drumming, probably due to his being underrehearsed. So one week later, on 11 September 1962, Ron Richards, in charge of the session in Martin’s absence, brought in session drummer Andy White, whom he’d hired in the past, and the “final” version was recorded. This would be the one used in most pressings of the single, and on their album debut, Please Please Me, no doubt to Ringo’s chagrin. As Starr was officially part of the group by this time, he was present during the session with White, and actually played tambourine on the track, though it’s hard to make it out. So, yes, Ringo is actually on any single version of the song, but not necessarily on drums.
The song remains a classic and it’s a great early example of Lennon and McCartney synthesizing their influences into something fresh and new. The rhythm has that old skiffle sound, while Lennon’s chromatic harmonica parts show his admiration for Bruce Channel’s hit of the time, “Hey Baby”. As to whether the Starr or White version is superior, it’s a matter of preference. The White version has probably more inventive and aggressive harmonica playing by Lennon, while the Starr version has somewhat livelier Lennon/McCartney harmonizing, bouncier and louder drumming, and that classic splash cymbal after Lennon’s last harmonica solo.
The Beatles have never been above a little history maintenance, and so the remastered Please Please Me contains the Starr version of the song, as it probably always should have. One can also find a live-in-the-studio version with Starr recorded 10 July 1963 on the Live at the BBC album, and the band would revisit the song in a slower, bluesier arrangement during the Get Back sessions, though that take has not been released.
Aside from a chapter in any John Lennon or Harry Nilsson biography, the famous “lost weekend” of several months where the two drank and caroused in Los Angelesyielded this album. With other partying buddies playing along, like Ringo Starr, Lennon produced Nilsson on a record notable perhaps more for the story behind the recording, and the fact that Nilsson nearly ruined his voice working on it, than for the songs themselves.
The stories vary, but one account has it that Lennon and Nilsson had a kind of screaming contest, a test of vocal cord resilience. Lennon, a veteran of full-bore vocals on songs like “Twist and Shout”, “Yer Blues” and “Mother”, seemed to suffer no ill effects in his subsequent albums, but Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord during the sessions and persevered, not wanting to disappoint his friend, his voice noticeably damaged on several songs. As such, Pussy Cats joins a group of albums seen as painful, somewhat ghoulish curiosities, alongside Syd Barrett’s acid-damaged The Madcap Laughs, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon or Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer, where one listens intently to the vocals and parses the lyrics for evidence of mental instability.
However, after listening to this album a few times, it seems that the poor quality of Nilsson’s voice has been exaggerated. To be sure, it’s very husky or hungover-sounding on several songs, worst on the miserable Tin Pan Alleyesque, “Old Forgotten Soldier”, standing out in sharper contrast there to the generally high quality of musical backing, but elsewhere there is that same honeyed tone as on earlier records, if maybe a little more whiskey-tinged. Also, as the album is definitely produced to sound like as much of a party as was going on in the studio, with lots of chatter and conversational bits, sound effects, and a few covers of good-time songs like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and children’s song, “Loop de Loop”, one is inclined to be more forgiving of loose, raw vocals than on something more slickly produced.
The album sounds like Nilsson had a handful of good originals and took the opportunity before him of Lennon being able to produce, so he agreed on the fly and then had to fill out the record with some covers and song sketches not quite worked out. In fact, the first two tracks are covers, a ragged but soulful arrangement of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” and then a near-throwaway rave-up on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. The first original to appear is arguably the best song, the heartbreaking, “Don’t Forget Me”, though its idiosyncratic lyrics (“I miss the alimony, too”) prevented it from being a much-covered ballad. Still, it’s a song of real need and pathos, its character accepting that the relationship is over—indeed, that all love ends—but just begging that his ex acknowledge that she still thinks about him from time to time. One feels that he would accept a lie. The next track, “All My Life”, though suffering from a somewhat muddled funk-and-strings arrangement, is one of Nilsson’s more autobiographical songs, regretful of all the years he’s spent abusing various substances and hoping he can make a change, though of course, this wasn’t happening anytime soon given the notorious indulging going on at the sessions.
Though the title sounds more like a Ringo song, “Mucho Mungo” is a collab between Nilsson and Lennon, the only Lennon songwriting credit on the album. It’s a gentle, dreamy love song, pleasant but inconsequential. “Loop de Loop” is an enjoyable enough all ages party song but Nilsson’s vocals are perhaps intentionally drowned out with the chorus, horns and rhythm section. “Save the Last Dance for Me” is given more sensitive treatment, and appears twice here including a bonus, previously unreleased version. “Black Sails” is a portentous, melancholy song, one of the better ones on the album, though it serves to underscore how uneven and inconsistent the record is. In other words, it’s harder to take this very serious song to heart when it follows “Loop de Loop”, which sounds like what it is, an easy song for drunk/high musicians to play to help fill out an album. Also, although good, “Black Sails” doesn’t really go anywhere. It stays within its simple, string-saturated melody and never changes.
A fast rip through chestnut, “Rock Around the Clock” virtually defines “throwaway”, and would be a dispiriting end to the album proper. Fortunately, there are a handful of bonus tracks, including the aforementioned alternate take on “Save the Last Dance for Me”, an early, Hawaiian guitar-accented take on “Down by the Sea”, which would show up on 1975’s Duit on Mon Dei, and a runthrough of “The Flying Saucer Song”, from Sandman (also 1975), not so much a song as a tedious comedy bit where Harry the bartender tries to serve drinks to aliens while Harry the drunken customer gets in an argument and gets kicked out. Knowing Nilsson’s drinking problems, it’s not much fun to hear him fake being drunk, plus there are a number of other conversations going on in the “bar” that just become distracting. If anything, although a few more songs are welcome, they only make the overall experience less consistent, and point towards Nilsson’s dissipation of his talents on the next few albums until the record companies lost patience and interest.
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