Monday, 22 December 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 17 (Intro)

Ho! Ho! Ho! Welcome to the second, final and

                        distinctly seasonal AAA Christmas special of 2008.

                   Just the thing for music lovers who are patiently

                   waiting for their online and mail order presents to

               arrive, for the turkey to shrivel enough to fit in the

               oven and for the local carol singers who’ve called at

              your house five times already this week to get

             laryngitis. Have you all been good boys and girls this

       year? Well, alarmingly, so have the AAA musicians who have

      been uncharacteristically quiet this yuletide – let’s hope

      they’re up to something interesting in the new year. In the

         meantime, enjoy your presents, especially the ones that

         are CD-sized, and we’ll see you in 2009. Keep rocking!

Beach Boys news: Brian Wilson has just announced that a DVD filmed on his latest tour will be available on January 27th next year. The DVD, to be named ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ is based around Brian’s latest solo concept album of the same name (released in the Spring of 2008, but don’t worry if you missed it because it didn’t stay in the shops for very long and so did I). Like Brian’s last two live-in-concert DVDs ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’, Brian will be backed by his band The Wondermints. It has not yet been revealed if there will be any ‘bonus’ features on the disc – more news next year.

Moody Blues news: Seasonal greetings Moodies fans not only from me but from original band keyboardist Mike Pinder, who is celebrating the festive season with the release of a new song ‘Peace Planet Proclomation’ and video celebrating the very Moodies-like theme of a universal peace this Christmas between all nations and races. The video     is available to watch at youtube (

 Look out too for the release of an album earlier in the year by Mike Pinder’s son     ’ (with Mike as guest – his first recordings for quite some time).

Top Of The Pops 2 News: Some programmer at the BBC seems to have been hit with the ghosts of Christmas past this yuletide, as the history of this year’s festive Top of the Pops Specials sounds like a multimedia Charles Dickens novel. Not content with cancelling the programme five or so years ago, the BBC announced in November that they were also planning to cancel the annual Christmas TOTP special which they had promised in lieu of continuing the series. The public complained in such numbers that the BBC put it back on the schedule – agreeing instead to cancel their planned series of TOTP2 compilations of older material. The public complained in large numbers again so, like Scrooge transformed, the BBC have decided to show no less than seven TOTP/TOTP editions this Christmas. This marks, by my reckoning, the first ‘new’ (ie new collections of old material) showings of TOTP2 on our screens since early 2006. AAA artists set for screening this yuletide include Paul McCartney on 23rd December, 7.30pm on BBC2 (most likely the ‘Wonderful Xmas Time’ promo seeing as it’s a ‘Christmas’ edition of the show), John Lennon on Christmas Eve at 11.15pm, The Kinks on Christmas Day-into-Boxing Day at 12.55am and The Who on Boxing Day at 12.40pm. Hurrah!

Happy yuletide-week birthdays go to Ian Burden (Human League 1979-80) who turns 51 on Christmas Eve, Mike Pinder (Moody Blues 1964-78) who celebrates his 66th birthday on December 27th and fellow Moody Ray Thomas (Moody Blues 1964-2004) who also turns 66 on December 29th. Anniversaries of events this week include the 29th anniversary of the Kampuchea Benefit concerts at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, starring The Who and the last performance of Wings as well as an all star ‘rockestra’ performance (December 22); the release of ‘Hey Schoolgirl’ written by two teenage performers Tom and Jerry (better known as Simon And Garfunkel – December 23rd 1957) and it’s a quarter of a century since Beach Boy Dennis Wilson drowned trying to rescue possessions thrown off his houseboat (December 28th 1983). For those of you who have a birthday during the next fortnight when this site is temporarily closed, fear not – there will be a special three-week version of ‘anniversaries’ in our next issue. 

News, Views and Music Issue 17 (Top Five): AAA Xmas Songs

Not many AAA artists have issued Christmas-                        

                                      themed albums (so watch us struggle filling these 

                                   pages this time next year!) But loads of them seem

                               to have issued at least one festive-related single at

                        some point or another. So, with the special exception of the

                       Beach Boys’ Xmas repertoire (discussed above) and the

                        Moodies’ Xmas album ‘December’ (which disappeared from

                       the shops quicker than you can say ‘snowflake covered

                       mellotron’) here is a handy guide to every AAA-related

                  Christmas song we can think of – and where to find them so you

              can make your own Christmas Compilation:

                 Beatles: The fab four released a special fans-only Christmas

                 flexi-disc every year between 1963 and 1969, delivered free to

                 members of their official fan club every year and – amazingly – even Apple haven’t got their hands on the copyrights for them yet, so they’re unlikely to see a proper re-issue any time in the next few years. However, only one issue (the 1967 disc) comes close to sounding like a proper festive ‘song’ (most of the rest sound like a hilarious drunken Christmas party with a few pantomimesque spoofs thrown in – usually by Lennon). That song is ‘Christmas time Is Here Again’, a track credited to all four Beatles which un-surprisingly comes out sounding a bit like all of the festive songs they did solo (Lennon’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, Macca’s ‘Wonderful Xmas Time’ and Harrison’s ‘Ding Dong’, not to mention Ringo’s rarely heard and poorly received Xmas record). Ringo takes the lead on the Beatles’ composition, a song that’s hardly a missing classic but still has just enough goodwill and Christmas cheer to overcome the fact the band actually recorded it in September at Abbey Road studios. You can find an edited version (the original kept getting interrupted by lots of sketches and fab four banter) on ‘Anthology Two’ (EMI/Apple, 1997).     

George Harrison: Well, actually George released a new year song but as it’s the only AAA-related one we could find we’ve added it to our Christmas list instead. ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’ has a mixed reputation among fans, thanks to its rather odd mix of repetition and invention. Based around the sentiments ‘ring out the old, ring in the new’, George actually ‘stole’ most of the lyrics from lines that had been dotted around George’s Friar Park home and had originally been written by its delightfully dotty architect. Find it on: Dark Horse (EMI/ Apple, 1974).

Kinks: The 1977 novelty single ‘Father Christmas’ is very odd as seasonal songs go and yet somehow very Kinks-like too. Like many of the band’s late 70s/ early 80s material it matches a very dry wit with an honest compassion at (yet another) worldwide recession. The song is narrated by a little boy who doesn’t want any toys this year and wished his father would be given his old job after his redundancy – but rather than a tearjerker in the Johnny Cash mould this is a savage song, with a group of bullies attacking Santa and telling him to save his toys ‘for the little rich boys’. This song - which never appeared on an album ‘proper’ - is still blooming hilarious when seen in Kinks concerts of the day, however, thanks to the sight of Ray Davies dressed up in a Santa suit and his brother Dave trying not to keel over with laughter at the sight of him. Find it as a bonus track on the Kinks CD ‘Misfits’ (Konk/Velvel, 1978/re-issued 1998).

John Lennon: ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ is probably the best known song on this list, charting on three separate occasions. Typically for the Ono-Lennons, however, this song started its life as something of an obscurity, released too late in the day for the 1972 Christmas market and at the time was one of the lowest placed singles of Lennon’s solo career to date (it was beaten by everything but ‘Woman Is the Nigger Of the World’). A 1973 re-release really caught the mood of the nation in the middle of the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam and Korea wars, however and it became firmly lodged in the public’s Christmas sub-conscious. This lovely song also became a worthy last choice in the rush of Lennon ‘tribute’ re-releases that came out after Lennon’s death in December 1980, finally reaching #1 the third time around. Lennon always said that he wanted this song to become an ‘alternative’ to record buyers bored of hearing ‘White Christmas’ over and over – more than any other song in the rock and pop market, it’s Bing Crosby’s closest challenger. Find it on any self-respecting Lennon compilation (the 1970s ‘Shaved Fish’, 1980s ‘Lennon Collection’ and 1990s ‘Lennon Legend’ are the best places top start).

Paul McCartney and Wings: Macca, too, got his timing all wrong with this single-only release – the last release by Wings, just before their un-announced split in 1980, there was no band left to promote it bar one slightly dodgy promo video that gets shown every year. Out of fashion for only the second in his long career, this song also got eclipsed by the re-issue of Lennon’s Christmas song he following year. The cheesy synthesisers and (by Macca standards) simplistic tune and woolly lyrics probably didn’t help either, although like many of Wings’ songs the production is fantastic. Against all odds, however, this song has been experiencing a comeback recently, nearly 30 years since its release – proof that Christmas really is a time for forgiving after all. Find it on the ‘McCartney Collection’ CD re-issue of ‘Back To The Egg’, along with the song’s undistinguished instrumental B-side ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae’. (EMI, 1979 re-issued 1990).   


Monkees: Tucked away at the tail-end of the Monkees’ second TV series is a Christmas special is a moral-booming, morale-boosting tale about the band looking after a child who doesn’t believe in Christmas. Never one to short-change their fans (whatever the press of the 1960s believed), the band added a late Christmas present in the shape of a jaw-droppingly beautiful a capella rendition of the traditional Spanish carol ‘Riu Chiu’. Annoyingly the band never issued the song at the time – indeed, this TV version of the carol is only available on the DVD soundtrack – but there is an equally thrilling alternate take available on the band’s out-takes collection ‘Missing Links Two’ (Rhino, 1990).

Simon and Garfunkel: Equally forgotten and neglected are two originally unheard carols sung a capella by two of the finest harmony singers on the planet. ‘Star Carol’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ are among the more understated of S and G’s work but no less beautiful for that – the unusual ‘rounds’ harmony arrangement of the latter is especially thrilling. These two uplifting carols also make for a nicer contrast to the only official ‘carol’ in the S and G canon, ‘Silent Night’, recorded as a peaceful contrast to a fictional news broadcast full of horror, terror and fear at the unsettling events of the late 1960s. Alas, classic as this track is, the original unadorned version of this carol still lies unreleased. You can find the former two tracks on the box set ‘Old Friends’ (Capitol 1993) and the latter on ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ (Capitol 1967, re-issued most recently in 2006).    

And that’s it for this year! We at the AAA wish you a merry Christmas and a musical new year and look forward to seeing you all again next year. And what a year 2009 promises to be – a Beatles CD re-issue bonanza, a CSN concert and possibly a Kinks re-union are all on the cards. See you then!   

Beach Boys "Christmas" (1963) (News, Views and Music 17)

It’s worth the wait the whole year through just to make happy someone like you and I’ll never outgrow the thrill of Christmas day”

“Beach Boy’s Christmas” (1964)

(Revised edition published June 6th 2014)

Ah yes the Beach Boys. California sun, long summer days (and summer nights!!!), driving down to beaches in little deuce coupes to meet surfer girls with good vibrations under full sun. I'd never really stopped to think what those same sun-loving Beach Boys did when Winter arrives and the sun set early, leaving Californian beaches cold. It seems to be a curious quirk of the band's singles discography that they always seemed to sell more records at the end of the year anyway between Autumn and Winter - which just goes to show how few of their fans listened to the records while surfing and how many used them as escapism.
However in a masterstroke of reinvention and with a little nudge from a record contract that just wouldn't give them a moment's peace the same Beach Boys ended up releasing one of the most yuletide-friendly snowscape-making themed albums of all time. Now let's look at this fact in closer detail: festive-themes albums were something your parent's favoured singers and big bands did: released to a market who could afford to buy LPs they only listened to for one month out of twelve and who didn't seem to mind that they'd already heard most of the songs performed only slightly differently by a whole host of competitors each year. Festive albums makes sense for established acts as they can be recorded quickly with less effort than writing a full album of material  and even though they generally get recorded somewhere around September time before the Xmas vibe has really set in they tend to be made by hardened musicians who are used to singing all sorts of things they don't actually mean at the time. However Christmas albums are rare in rock and roll. I made it a policy early on in the life of our site to 'save' our Christmas reviews for Christmas week - before I realised how few there actually were (and how many years of writing I actually had ahead of me!) The trouble is most of the AAA festive records only come late in life, from acts like The Moody Blues and, erm, some guy named Brian Wilson sometimes in the 21st century when acts are in their late 50s and 60s. There are only three AAA albums to come out of the 1960s and 70s, two of which involve The Beach Boys! (We even temporarily abandoned a rule about reviewing unfinished LPs in the case of their second one from 1977) The 'odd one out' is an even odder album by Art Garfunkel on an all-star cast album re-telling 'The Nativity', making 'The Beach Boys Christmas Album' the only really traditional AAA album recorded before 2003: compared to the sheer scale and size of the 'big band' Christmas records, this is what pretentious labellers of festive food officially refer to as 'trace' - too small to be scientifically measured.  The fact is that your traditional rock and roll collector didn't have the spare cash in the 1960s to buy an album he had to put away for eleven months of the year (festive singles were more likely but not exactly common; besides The Beatles released an album every December between 1963 and 1965 so most fans were buying that instead) and later, when rock and roll became heavier and harsher, soppy Christmas records were exactly the sort of things rock and roll was meant to be rebelling against.
So how did this album come about? Blame it on Phil Spector's album 'A Christmas Gift For You' released in 1963 - the same week as 'Little Saint Nick'. Brian had long been a big fan of the producer and his ability to drench echo over everything - and the fact that Spector had somehow managed to drench mistletoe over everything as well must have had an impact. It may have tickled him, too, to see Darlene Love suddenly promoted to lead singer in a desperate attempt to get her a 'hit' after a series of flop albums throughout the year - Brian knew all about keeping singers called 'Love' happy! Projects like these really need someone in charge of them, who can arrange and produce and organise projects - with the possible exception of George Martin, no one else in the 1960s rock scene apart from Phil and Brian could have made that album. The difference is that had someone told McCartney or more likely Lennon to write a bunch of festive songs in 1964 they'd have no doubt told the asker to get lost; the Beatles were all about changing the face of traditions and bringing in the 'new'. With The Beach Boys it's more complicated than that: Brian was just as steeped in harmony tradition as he was in rebellion (I'm amazed the Four Freshman never made a Christmas album - it would have been right down their street) and a Christmas album wasn't as big a no-no in America as it was in Britain. Add in too the fact that the Beach Boys kind of started at Christmas family get togethers (the only time of year the Loves and Wilsons regularly met up) and you can see why the band might think more fondly of a Christmas record than their competitors across the pond (who made do with fanclub flexi-discs showcasing their humour instead). After all, they're a 'family' band - and nothing says family more than Christmas (or did in 1964 anyway).
One of the few exceptions to the rule that rock and roll and Christmas doesn't mix was 'Little Saint Nick', a big hit for the band in Christmas 1963. A rocking song guaranteed to make even Scrooge smile, Brian and MIke wrote it when they realised that Christmas was drawing nearer and they were running out of ideas for yet more songs about sun and summer. It was meant to be a one-off joke - the Beach Boys singing about snow - and that was that. But as 1964 began to wear the band down a full 'Christmas' album looked like a good idea - it gave Brian the breathing time he needed to make the marvellous 'Today' album (released in March 1965) and gave him a break from finding yet more variations on the same formula. There was clearly a market for it after 'Little Saint Nick' and a feeling that The Beach Boys were so popular they would still be able to sell enough songs to fans (or more likely their parents: The Beach Boys were one of the few bands of the sixties quite fondly regarded by mums and dads, at least in 1964 before they 'got weird').
Which makes 'The Beach Boys' Christmas' rather a unique record. What's interesting is how untraditional this one sounds at times too: the general rule on festive favourites is that the original songs are kept to a minimum and if you really want to be daring you either sing a carol in traditional Spanish or German or dig up an obscure one from the Victorian era or earlier. Several perfectly respectable Christmas records have been made to that formula over the years - most of them by The King's Singers (one of the few acts who can actually match The Beach Boys harmonies, in their early days at least). However even under record company pressure to come up with a - gulp - fourth album that year Brian Wilson doesn't take the easy way out, writing five of the twelve album songs. The only festive album I know that exceeds that is, erm, the unreleased 'Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys' recorded at a time when the band had more time on their hands (way, way too much time!)
Unusually this Christmas record is divided neatly in two. The first contains all of the originals and is more what you might think of as a 'Beach Boys' record. The band play on all the songs and if you know 'Little Saint Nick' you'll know what to expect: the usual Chuck Berry fast-walking-pace beat with stunning Beach Boys harmonies as normal, just with sleigh bells attached. In fact, take the percussion away and you could be listening to a 'normal' Beach Boys record on this first side (you can do just that on 'Stack-O-Tracks', by the way, where Little Saint Nick can be heard as an instrumental) - albeit one that's even more fully developed than normal: some of the harmony arrangements on this album are stunning. Alas the Beach Boys of late 1963 were far more inspired than the Beach Boys of late 1964 and none of the other original material on this album comes anywhere close (that's why you never 'The Man With All The Toys' on the radio very often, despite the fact the band's fame propelled it all the way to #3 in the US charts - the same position as 'Little Saint Nick' the year before). There are only two truly great addition to the Beach Boys canon: the funky 'Santa's Beard' about a dad dressing up to fool his young boy that Santa really exists which comes complete with powerhouse Beach Boys vocals and a neat version of 'Jingle Belles' played by Carl Wilson's 'surf' guitar; and the rocky 'Merry Christmas Baby', the perfect mixture of the usual Beach Boys sob story and festive cheer, which is one of the few rock and roll xmas songs I don't mind hearing every year. 'The Man With All The Toys' and 'Christmas Day', though, are worse than a double helping of sprouts.
I'd rather go through cold turkey - in both meanings of the phrase - than sit through side two too often, however. When the band knew that a  Christmas record might be on the cards Brian got plotting and came up with the idea of recording with a full orchestra and making The Beach Boys record sound like the ones made by Sinatra, Crosby, Perry Como etc. Legend has it he approached Spector first in the wake of that successful record but was told to 'get lost'; instead he turned to Dick Reynolds, the arranger on the vast majority of the Four Freshman records. In theory this should be a good move: the two band's harmony styles are similar and all Reynolds should have to do is do his usual job. However while hearing the band occasionally reach back to their past (as on their two Freshman covers 'Graduation day' and 'Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring') is one thing; it's quite another to sit through a whole album. Reynolds clearly has never heard a Beach Boys album in his life - there's no sparkle, no twinkle, no energy and the arrangements get slower and slower as the second side progresses. Now, the Beach Boys can do slow: 'Surfer Girl', for instance, is a pure Four Freshman influenced ballad. But they need something to pick up the tempo and the horn-drenched 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' isn't it; The Beach Boys have never sounded as dreary as they do here and I've never felt more un-festive towards them as I do when they stretch 'We Three Kings' out to somewhere close to half-an-hour (actually its 4:03 but time definitely slows down when the song is on...)
Revealingly, the CD issue of this album also features a period interview from Brian where he explains that the first side is for the fans and the second for the ‘mums and dads’ and all too often that shows: this 20 minutes is not easy going for anyone used to the Beach Boys' usual fire and pizzazz. The effect is of slowly sinking under ten foot of snow - at first it's fun to be doing something so different but you quickly tire and long for someone to light a fire. There are two plusses in this side's favour however – one is the chance to hear an alternate universe, where Brian finally gets ‘his’ group to agree to becoming a fully fledged Four Freshman copycat band. The second is the sheer glee in Brian’s voice. Unusually, he handles pretty much all of the lead singing here and never does he sound happier or more confident, without either cousin Mike Love or dad Murry Wilson getting in the way of his vision. Brian’s fingerprints are all over the first dozen Beach Boys albums in more ways than just the vocals and writing credits – but this is the first time on record where Brian is unquestionably the leader and is finally getting the vision in his head and his ears to sound on record the way he wants it to.     
What's worse is how rushed this album sounds. Increasingly across 1964 The Beach Boys are being forced to make do with second-best and something inevitably gives on each of their early LPs (until Brian finally gets the time to make 'Today'). However this record seems more rushed than most: Mike fluffs his double-tracking on 'Santa's Beard'; Al Jardine seems to have never seen the lyrics to 'Christmas Day' until the moment the song is given to him to record; most famously Dennis fluffs his biggest moment yet on a Beach Boys record during his closing speech for 'Auld Lang Syne ('If you hap, err, happen to be listening to this right now...' - even the line is suspect, of course I'm listening to that line now or I wouldn't hear you! I think what Dennis was meant to say was 'if you happen to be listening to this on Christmas Day' before realising that the line he had to speak made no sense!)  Even the backing tracks on the first side and the harmonies o the second aren't delivered with the usual Beach Boys spit and polish. Ah well, that's what happens when you're forced to make Christmas records in September...
As a result 'Beach Boys Christmas' is a strange hybrid. All the right elements are here: sleigh bells, carols, festive songs about toys and Santa plus orchestral arrangements heard on every festive album ever made by 1964. But for some reason it feels like a Christmas get-together you don't quite belong to; you're suddenly spending Christmas with strangers that you used to think you knew really well. Despite all the box-ticking 'Beach Boys Party' is more of a 'festive' album than this one: it's bright, cheerful and full of the atmosphere of friends having fun; by contrast too much of 'Beach Boys Christmas' is a slog and way more traditional than it needs to be. In short, it's the Queen's Speech of festive television, not the Doctor Who special - full of anachronisms that should have long been buried and which have no bearing on our lives but which everybody goes through just because that's how they've done things every year even though a better alternative is already taking place on the other channel. Goofy as it is, unfinished as it is, I'd take the unreleased 1977 Beach Boys album over this one anyday (or at least the second side!) Bah! Humbug! What's that, ghost of Christmas reviews from the future? However much I hate this record it can't possibly be as bad as The Moody Blues' 'December' or Art Garfunkel's 'The Animals' Christmas'? Alright then spirit, I promise to amend my ways in the next half of the review and find something nice to say!
...erm...err...'Little Saint Nick' is good, I like that one. 'Santa's Beard' and 'Merry Christmas Baby' aren't bad. Err...(long pause)...did I mention how mercifully short this album is? Or how pretty the album cover is? (A hilarious shot of the Beach Boys decorating a tree in matching festive jumpers knitted by some indulgent wardrobe mistress at Capitol - Wilson mum Audree's knitting was far better than that!) What's weird, of course, is that Al Jardine apart this could be a 'real' Beach Boys family Christmas picture, not just a bunch of musicians standing in front of a backdrop sometime in August. That leads to me another thought: Christmas presents were easy for the band that year weren't they? 'What did you get me this year, Al?' 'Why, Carl, I bought you a record I think you might like...a copy of the 'Beach Boys Christmas Album!' 'Gosh, how thoughtful - you shouldn't have. No I mean it, you shouldn't have. Guess what I got you?...' Another thought - do you think Dave Marks - who'd been forced out of the band at the beginning of the year - got a copy that Christmas?!
The Songs:
The best known tracks – and not coincidentally – the ones that work the best are those that mix tried and tested Christmas sounds (mainly borrowed from Phil Spector’s echo-friendly record ‘A Christmas Gift For You’) with typically Beach Boys sounds and influences. The 1963 hit single ‘Little Saint Nick’ is a case in point – in typically Beach Boys vernacular Santa visits your ‘pad’, his sled is led by ‘old Rudy’ and best of all Santa’s magic powers mean the sled ‘walks a toboggan with a four-speed stick’ which means ( I think) that’s she’s pretty darned fast. Please, Santa, if you’re listening, I want a Little Deuce Coupe sled this year too! Like the best of this album, somehow this delightful pastiche of both Christmas and the band themselves is more heart-warming than a mince pie round the fire. Indeed, it was the surprise hit status of this 1963 track (which reached #3 at a time when the band’s sales were slowly beginning to take a nose dive in the wake of the Beatles’ sudden success in America) that inspired this whole album – and while nothing else on the album quite matches it, very few other band have ever quite matched the sheer fun and frolics of this festive cheering track either. CD re-releases of the Beach Boys' Christmas material inevitably contain the single mix from 1963 (with even more sleigh bells) and a curious rendition from two days earlier set to the tune of 'Drive-In'. A joke (as Brian's giggling at the end suggests?) or a proper first attempt at the song? Either way it's a good version - easily the second best Beach Boys xmas recording from the 1960s.
'The Man With All The Toys' was meant to be the 'big hit' from this album that the band spent most time on and comes closest to merging the 'Beach Boys' and 'traditional' sides together; it did well too, reaching #3. However by the band's high standards the track is lifeless and limp, perhaps its filled with so many traditional Beach Boys reference points and Christmas lyrics - a snowman that's been out in the sun too long. The story follows a young child who wakes up early one night and actually sees Santa. Surely that's a good strating point for a fun and exciting song - instead the band sound as if they've been woken up early out of their Christmas morning sleep and want to get back to bed as quickly as possible. There's an annoying (huh!) counter-riff (huh!) that keeps (huh!) popping up (huh!) out the blue (huh!) for no (huh!) apparent (huh!) reason (huh!) which really (huh!) gets on your nerves (huh!) by the end of the song (huh!) Mike Love sounds bored out of his skull on the verses (never have I heard someone sing the word 'thrilled' less thrillingly than here), Carl sounds uninspired on guitar and even a stunning harmony part from the whole band can't make this a Christmas classic no matter how hard they try. A solo Brian Wilson re-recording for the album 'All I Really Want For Christmas' in 2005 somehow manages to be even worse.
'Santa's Beard' is much better, despite the weird title. The song is another silly little bit of fluff about a boy ('five-and-a-half going on six') desperate to meet up with the 'real' Santa Claus. He's not fooled by his dad dressing up either or the Santa at his local store, but peace is restored when the narrator adds that he's 'Santa's assistant' (Ho ho ho! Clever!) There's a great simple walking bass riff to this one and the Beach Boys are born for harmonies like this: Mike turns in a terrific lead vocal (he does a pretty good impression of a whining kid too)  and a great bass part while the others all join in behind (Brian adding a falsetto counter-melody on the line 'he shouldn't have pulled Santa's beard'). We've already mentioned Carl's neat rendition of 'Jingle Bells' in the solo - in fact this recording is a delight for the band all round: that's Al on bass, Brian on piano and Dennis on drums. All in all a great little Christmas package.
One that's equalled by ‘Merry Christmas, Baby’, a Brian Wilson original that sounds even more like an evergreen Christmas classic than Old Saint Nick did. The backing is decidedly upbeat but the lyrics aren't: the narrator's just broken up with his girl ('why'd she do it this time of year?' Probable answer: so the old scrooge didn't have to buy you a present!) but he's confident they can make it up before Christmas Day - because that's what the season is all about.  Lead singer Mike Love is on sterling form –Christmas seems to bring the best out in the singer who sounds more at home than the others, 'All The Toys' aside– and Brian’s cheeky answering yelps (a rocking 'ah-ha!' early on) and the band’s most glorious block harmonies (dominated by Carl, for once) make this song seem like Christmas no matter what time of year you play it. The band sound like they're having, fun, especially Dennis who turns in some terrifically powerful drum patterns to the bottom of the sound. All in all this song should be the most recognised Beach Boys Christmas song after 'Little Saint Nick', although frustratingly it was only ever released as a single in Germany in1967!
 ‘Christmas Day’ is stretching the formula a bit thin however – Al Jardine’s first lead on a Beach Boys record suggests that its one of the few songs here that composer Brian didn’t consider turning into a hit. The song simply ambles along in true Perry Como fashion, only with the greatest respect to Al Jardine his 1965 self isn't a strong enough singer to pull it off. To be fair I'd have hated to have sung my first lead in a band that can sing that well, so no wonder he sounds nervous (Brian must have liked it though, picking Al to sing 'Help Me Rhonda' a few months later). This song about keeping the Christmas spirit into adulthood (the first appearance of 'age' on a Brian Wilson song, a theme that's going to dominate the following year of 1965) really needs an enthusiastic vocal from Mike or Brian to come to life - Al is enthusiastic in a quiet, emotionally controlled way and is simply cast wrong for the song. The end result is a song that wouldn't have been that memorable with the usual singers taking part but here sounds positively ordinary.
Right, we can't put it off anymore so here we go with side two. A chirpy 'Frosty The Snowman' isn't actually that bad - although it has the unfortunate effect of making The Beach Boys sound like extras on their own album. In truth this could be any vaguely talented band singing - the harmonies are the simple sort that suited The Four Freshman but are a tad pedestrian by Beach Boys standards (Reynolds arranged them not Brian- which was good in terms of his health and pressure on it but not terribly good for us) and are mixed too low behind the orchestra in any case. And oh yes that 41 piece orchestra: we called the one on 'Pet Sounds' over-lush which makes this one positively verdant and what's worse is there's none of Brian's love of unusual sound combinations, just a heavy kind of mush that sits over proceedings however unsuitably, like an overly fat fairy balancing on a tiny Christmas tree. The result is a passable version of 'Frosty The Snowman' which left to their own devices the Beach Boys could have done so much better.
The worst recording here though is a torturous 'We Three Kings Of Orient Are'. This has never been my favourite of carols but at least most versions have a kind of teasing cat-and-mouse quality, a slow and stately trot turning into an overly excited chorus where even Royalty can't wait to meet the new Messiah. This funeral-paced version of the carol makes them sound as if their camels have got stuck in a camel jam. Amazingly some Beach Boys fans really rate this recording: it does offer you a rare chance to hear them singing throughout, after all, and the slow tempo means you can really study how their voices mould together without the band's usual energetic pace. For me, though, this is a terrible rendition which features all the worst excesses of the Four Freshman (slow pace, lack of variety, overly enunciated vowels) without any of the high points (the storytelling; the fact that these harmonies don't suit the Beach Boys' voices quite as well). There is at least a nicely suitable oriental feel about the beginning of the song - but even that's gone by the time the band open their mouths. Hurry up Boxing Day, that's all I'm saying.
'Blue Christmas' has become something of a rock and roll standard at Christmas, with covers by Elvis and Shakin' Stevens (now there's a duet I'd have paid to hear! 'Uh-huh!' 'Wooh!') Most versions of it are sad, but this version is positively melancholic: Brian sings alone on a tempo caught somewhere between 'heavy snowdrift has stopped all traffic' and 'a sled pile-up on the motorway'. The orchestra is terribly OTT, turning what should be a nice little cameo into a full production number complete with dancing girls (or at least dancing snowmen). That's a shame because Brian clearly loved the song - this is only is second solo vocal ever on a Beach Boys album and he still talks about this song being one of his favourites now. It's a shame he didn't re-record it for his solo xmas CD: it would have suited his older, deeper voice much better; this one is too earnest and young to do the song justice.
'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' is comparatively a great arrangement, if only because The Beach Boys get to add some of their own touches; the interplay between Mike and Brian is great here and the overall upbeat mood is much more suited to the Beach Boys sound than all this festive misery. There's a nice a capella opening that simply soars before the orchestra cuts in to pull us back to Earth: while still clearly a very Four Freshman-style arrangement from Dick Reynolds this is the kind of thing the Beach Boys could always do better than their heroes - making a song come alive with nothing more than their voices. However the orchestration is still completely unsuitable, even taking a side-route into 'Pop Goes The Weasel' for no other reason than Reynolds thinks this is being 'wacky' and 'silly'. As we've often seen already, things go wrong when The Beach Boys try to pull off 'whacky' and 'silly'.
'White Christmas' is a Bing Crosby standard so drilled into the Western world's consciousness that every single later cover version falls short. Brian sings lead once again on this one but, great singer that he is, he doesn't have the ease and cool-headed charm of Bing: instead he ends up sounding like a wannabe carol singer, trying too hard to do justice to a 'standard'. The orchestration is again horribly over-souped (if this was a 'Little Deuce Coupe' the engine would have overcooked before it even got out of the garage) and the fact that the band are being made to sing like the Four Freshman reveals - Shock! Horror! - a few faults in the band's sound. I first owned 'The Beach Boys Christmas' album on cassette nad had convinced myself it was getting 'wowy' (ie running slow) during the opening line because The Beach Boys could never possibly sound that flat (well not until '15 Nig Ones' in 1976 at least). Horror of horrors though: it's on the CD version too!
'I'll Be Home For Christmas' is another hideously overblown ballad - what is it with sad songs about Christmas on this album? Reynold's arrangement hasn't taken on board any of the Beach Boys' characteristics: instead the band sound dreary and slow without their precious backbeat. Even Bing Crosby never quite got this slow dirge of a song right - arranged to be slower, with even less charm than the original, The Beach Boys have no hope.
The album closes with traditional Scottish hymn 'Auld Lang Syne'. This is surely the best and most fitting use of Beach Boys harmonies across the whole album - a classy soaring blend of five voices weaved around each other like a festive scatter-cushion. But wait, what's that? Dennis Wilson keeps muttering something over the top of it and the one truly evocative moment on this album's second side is ruined. He even fluffs his lines midway through (were the band really so rushed they couldn't do a re-take?) and the lines sound terribly insincere ('it's been a great pleasure for all of us to bring you this Christmas album and we hope that you will al treasure it like we will'; huh have you actually heard it guys?! By your standards it's rubbish!)  Thankfully a remixed version for the CD re-issue took out Dennis Wilson and left us with just the vocals. Now that's what I call a Christmas gift!
So, like every Christmas, there are gifts that we could have done without and gifts we can’t believe we spent the year without. Not everything on it is perfect, but the CD compilations of it and the band's 1977 recordings do at least show the care and effort the Beach Boys deserve  (there’s a booklet with liner notes on every song plus photos) but sadly ran out of time to actually show across the original record. Too many of the recordings leads me into that old Christmas chant of saying ‘you shouldn’t have’, while being blooming pleased that somebody really did. Christmas without the Beach Boys? Why that would be like, err…Summer without the Beach Boys! Unthinkable!


Monday, 15 December 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 16 (Intro)

Ho! Ho! Ho! Welcome to the first of our two Christmas special newsletters which have been carried to you by virtual reindeer sitting on a virtual sleigh, pulled by the members of Slade as penance for that Xmas single that seems to be everywhere again this year. Well, there’s not much news to tell you about again this week - except that Christmas is coming and the Spice Girls’ wallets are getting fat. Again. Still there’s enough material here to fill a Pink Floyd concept double album, so if you’re still in search of some CDs to fill some stockings stay tuned for our handy guide to the best AAA releases of 2008!

Beatles news: Firstly, though, a small addition to last week’s article about the Beatles I-tunes downloads saga. Paul Gambacini was debating the issue on his radio two programme on Saturday night and guest Pete Waterman had some unusually interesting comments (alongside the usual plugs for Kylie and Jason Donovan). He said that if the Beatles do issue all their material in one go as planned then we could well see the first ever top 20 or even top 50 chart filled by a single artist, possibly for weeks on end if enough Beatle fans have converted to using MP3s and suchlike. It would be interesting to see which Beatles track comes top too as fans and newcomers should have the whole of the fab four’s 1960s catalogue to choose from (we reckon it’ll be #1 Hey Jude, #2 Yesterday and #3 A Day In The Life). Alas, though, the EMI/ Apple dispute is still going on, making this whole paragraph redundant for the time being the EMI/ Apple cry seems to be ‘don’t let me down’(load)! (Why haven’t the BBC used that joke yet? Do they not know any Beatles B-sides for goodness sake?!)

CSN news: Crosby, Stills and Nash will be touring in America next year, but with a very interesting difference. Like the Rolling Stones before hand they are inviting fans to nominate their favourite songs now for inclusion in their set lists next year – only this time it won’t just be one song that’s chosen from a handful of selections but a more or less complete gig. I know we Brits won’t get to see them perform on their American tour but a) this site might make it to a worldwide search engine over the Winter without me realising and b) chances are the trio will follow it up with a British/ European tour, hopefully following the same idea. So get your nominations in now and visit            . Personally, I’d love to see the band revive Crosby’s ‘Laughing’ (not performed regularly since Crosby-Nash’s concerts in the early 70s), Stills’ ‘Word Game’ (which was last a setlist regular in 1976 and – to the best of my knowledge – only performed on Stephen’s solo tours) and Nash’s ‘Another Sleep Song’ (which was most likely only performed once, for Graham’s solo appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1974). What other CSN songs would readers like to see them do? And is anyone lucky enough to get tickets?

Hollies news: Sorry for the late mention, but guitarist Tony Hicks made a rare radio appearance as Suzi Quatro’s guest on Radio Two last Saturday. Speaking about his influences, Tony chose the music that had inspired him, including the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Monday Monday’ (he and Graham Nash attended the recording session apparently – I’d not heard that story before!), Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Don’t Run And Hide - a Hollies cover from the rare Everly Brothers album ‘Two Yanks In England’ (on which the duo are backed by the Hollies, along with guitarist Jimmy Page) and, err, a meandering song by Foreigner. We in Britain haven’t heard Tony talk at this length about his music for ages (though he used to be on German radio a lot not long ago I believe) so this was a welcome early Christmas present from Radio Two (I think its still available from the BBC’s online I-player for a couple of weeks if anyone missed it).    

It wasn’t mentioned on the above programme, but Tony Hicks (Hollies guitarist 1963-present) is also celebrating his birthday this week (he turns 65 on December 16th), along with Keith Richards (Rolling Stones guitarist 1963-present, although if you needed me to tell you what group he was in you’re probably looking at the wrong site!) who also turns 65 on December 18th (who would have thought looking at them that baby-faced Tony Hicks was the elder of the two?!) and Carl Wilson, who would have been celebrating his 62nd birthday on December 21st. Anniversaries of events this week include: George Harrison’s deportation from Hamburg after being found playing with the Beatles in a Hamburg club while under-age, an event which effectively splits the group up for a couple of months (December 16th 1960); The Who call it a day – for the next seven years at least – after playing a ‘farewell’ gig in Toronto on December 17th 1982 and the Beatles begin their first and only stage show, ‘The Beatles Christmas Show’, with a performance at Bradford Gaumont on December 21st 1963. Forget the lukewarm reviews of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ on telly at Boxing Day – this forgotten segment in the fab four’s history was actually the first poorly received Beatle enterprise in the general public eye and it too has a Xmassy link. , Alas, though, us post-60s fans will never know for sure – unlike the godawful Take That and Girls Aloud concerts on over Christmas this year no one thought to record it for posterity!

Last Minute Yoko Ono News: Mrs Lennon is celebrating 50 years of being an artist with an exhibition of many of her works in London (Gateshead I think, but my shorthand let me down taking down this news item this morning!) Lots of the displays will be well known to Beatle fans, including an ‘Imagine Peace’ banner, a video of the JohnandYoko Amsterdam bed-in for peace and, most movingly, a step-ladder leading up to the word ‘yes’ written on a ceiling (the art piece that brought the pair together at a similar back in 1968). Sadly, there has been no mention of the Yoko trademark ‘grapefruit’ on any of the news reports – get that book reprinted Yoko! Whether your avent grateful or avent garde a clue (joke copyright George Harrison 1969) it might be worth a trip if you’re a fellow Beatlesnut.

News, Views and Music Issue 16 (Top Five): Releases Of The Year 2008

♫ We end this newsletter and wave an early goodbye to 2008 with our latest top five – the best releases of the year. It’s not been a vintage year for fans of AAA artists by any means, but we have had a smattering of juicy re-issues (with an emphasis on complete unreleased live performances this year I’ve noticed) and a few return-to-form new releases to savour throughout 2008 and beyond.

5) “Bark”/ “Long John Silver” (Jefferson Airplane, 1971/72). It may seem strange that I’m listing probably the two worst records out of a handful the original Airplane ever made as one of the best CD sets of the year – especially as this set has no bonus tracks included - but there’s a reason for my madness. These two sets may not be vintage Airplane but they are far too good to have waited a staggering 21 years since the first sale of a CD player to be re-issued and re-released, especially ‘Bark’ which has more than its fair share of minor gems lurking between the filler material. Both albums are also a case in point for how good CD mastering can be when it’s done right – both albums sounded horribly, often unplayably murky on vinyl, as if the Airplane’s fine band interplay was going on down a wind tunnel somewhere just out of ear-shot. While neither album sounds ‘clear’ in the traditional sense on CD, it’s still nice to hear them in their ‘true’ state at long last and both of these neglected and rather unloved sets are in firm need of appraisal. Alas, though, it’s a sign of our times that I never saw this set in the shops even once – I had to order mine from a mail order catalogue and even that doesn’t seem to be listing this CD set anymore.It’s worth seeking out though, if only to hear Grace Slick insulting the world in German – because, as she correctly guessed, the American censors would be too lazy to translate it!  

4) “The Present” (Moody Blues, 1983). Another album long long loooong overdue for a proper CD re-issue (it came out as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it set in the late 80s which I have never seen once in 15 years of collecting all things Moodies, even at some exorbitant price in a second-hand shop), this set and its two companions (‘Octave’ and ‘Long Distance Voyager’) are often overlooked in the Moodies’ back catalogue. None of these first three reunion sets can compare to the band’s original seven – but then what can? ‘The Present’ is a particularly sturdy set, full of glorious Justin Hayward ballads, a classic moody Graeme Edge piece, some of the better uptempo John Lodge songs of the later Moodies era and Ray Thomas seemingly going mad at the end of the album – all pretty much for the last time, sadly, as in my opinion only Hayward seems to be intermittently on form on any of the band’s later albums. And like all good Moodies releases, it’s commercial and catchy without sacrificing depth; full of then-contemporary technology without sacrificing the classic late 60s sound that the Moodies mined better than pretty much everyone in their day. Alas the bonus tracks on all three sets were a bit of a let down but, hey, it’s Christmas, forgive and forget.   

3) “Déjà vu” (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young DVD, 2008). Social commentary is always a hard thing to control in popular mainstream music – ignoring issues going around you for the whole of your career can make an artist seem ‘soft’ and unimportant, while throwing yourselves into a cause head-first puts off all of your fan-base that don’t think the same way as you. But CSNY at their best – whether solo, in pairs, as a trio or, rarely, as a quartet – have always done their best to reflect their times and give their fans a voice that otherwise might not be heard. For the first time in too long, this Neil Young dominated DVD finds the band flying head-first down the ‘social comment’ road, with every song on this 2006 tour a dig at George Bush’s ‘fake’ presidency somewhere down the line. The audience at the concerts don’t know what to make it, half of them cheering and half of them jeering, but for CSNY fans with open minds this tour souvenir was a welcome reminder of how brave and how special this band really are. All together now, ‘Let’s impeach the president for lying…’

2) “Electric Arguments” (The Fireman aka Paul McCartney and Youth, 2008). I doubt they’ve even heard of my website, but since my review for this album (newsandreviews 13a) every critic in the land seems to have joined in and called this album ‘McCartney III’ in honour of the two experimental, improvised albums that came out either side of Macca’s Wings discography. Temporally escaping from his world tour band for the first time in three albums, this is the special, experimental side of McCartney’s character that we don’t get to see very often and – after more or less 15 years in the wilderness – few of us ever thought we’d see throughout a whole album again. Performing under a pseudonym and giving full reign to his improvisation skills seems to have given Mr Macca new lease of life at long last, freed of his huge overbearing weight of a musical past and allowing him to go back to actually enjoying his music. Linda, always the biggest supporter of Macca’s more eccentric tastes, would have been dead proud. Heather Mills, on the other hand, seems to have been uncharacteristically stunned into silence after the release of this album and its uncharitable Mills-slaying opening track. More please Macca!

1) “Pacific Ocean Blue”/ “Bambu” (Dennis Wilson, 1977 and unreleased recordings, mainly from 1979). We Beach Boys fans have waited for a proper CD release of this album for so long, it positively hurt. And, unlike many ‘lost gems’ (Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ firmly excluded) this album didn’t disappoint. Here’s drummer Dennis Wilson at the crossover point of his life – his voice already gruff and lived in after years of excess and success, but still functioning well enough to put his sorrows into words and with oh so much on his mind. The second CD, full of tracks from an unfinished but still album-length follow-up release ‘Bambu’, is just as good if not better. Taken together, these two projects sounds like Tony Asher’s confused and lovestruck lyrics from ‘Pet Sounds’ set to the raging, ever-changing and always engaging music of ‘Smile’, all set to heartbreaking orchestral accompaniment, Dennis’ razor-sharp heartmelting voice and a large dollop of help from fellow genius and baby brother Carl Wilson. Which, as almost any Beach Boys fan will tell yopu, as good as music is ever going to get. Take ‘Smile’ out of the equation (and the Hollies’ long-lost 1973 album ‘Out On The Road’, issued in the UK for the first time in 2005) and this album is a strong candidate for best release of the decade by any artist. It was certainly the highlight of my year.      

Other new releases of the year you might have missed:

♫ Belle and Sebastian “The BBC Sessions”

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Déjà vu Live” (soundtrack CD)

♫ David Gilmour (and Rick Wright) “Live In Gdansk

♫ Graham Gouldmann and Kevin Godley aka 10cc “Clever Clogs” (live DVD with new material)

♫ Grateful Dead “Live In Egypt 1978” (previously unreleased live recording)

♫ Jefferson Starship “Tree Of Liberty” (a series of covers of ‘influential’ songs)

♫ The Kinks “Music Box” (6 CD box-set with a dozen unreleased tracks)

♫ Moody Blues “Octave” and “Long Distance Voyager” (first proper CD issues of old material)

♫ Oasis “Dig Out Your Soul”

♫ Rolling Stones “Shine A Light” (DVD and live soundtrack CD)

♫ Cat Stevens “Tea For The Tillerman” (Deluxe Re-issue)

♫ Brian Wilson “That Lucky Old Sun”

♫ Neil Young “Sugar Mountain” (one of Neil’s ‘Archive’ live recordings from 1968)

 Well that about wraps it up for another issue – see you next week for our last newsletter of 2008 and our last here at the AAA before our Winter break (set to include the top five AAA-related Xmas songs!) Happy listening till then!


Johnny Cash "The Xmas Collection" (News, Views and Music 16)

“There’s a choir outside of my house singing ‘Silent Night’, for any little thing that’s gone wrong Christmas makes it right”

 “The Christmas Collection” (Johnny Cash, compilation first released in 2003 containing music recorded between 1963-1980)

R.I.P. Woolworths, beloved shop full of bargain CDs unavailable anywhere else. Survivor of almost a century of changing public tastes, numerous recessions (don’t belive a word of the press reports that are making out the credit crunch to be the ‘worst in living memory’, it’s not even matched the 1991 early 90s recession yet) and the poor sales of the Spice Girls Greatest Hits CD. Never more will cash-castrated music fans like myself hunt down your shelves for an exclusive bargain, never more will we find ourselves automatically drifting off to the Woollies shop doorway even though we are meant to be going somewhere else (hey, I can’t help it – I just feel this shop calling to me sometimes). How apt, then, that the last item I will probably buy in one of my favourites shops is one of the last reviewed for this year’s newsletters.

Alas, though, like many a cheap discounted Woollies CD, what we have is not so much a missing, neglected gem as a small handful of missing neglected gems nestling amongst several tracks that should have remained hidden. Johnny Cash has appeared in Woolworths more than most down the years, mainly because his early material is already out of copyright and cheap to re-issue and, alas, a quick catch-all of any artist’s early recorded-in-three-days repertoire is unlikely to be their greatest work. This set is slightly different, with the majority of Christmas-related songs released in the 1960s rather than the 50s and a couple dating from as late in the Man In Black’s career in 1980. What we get is a potpourri of Cash’s Christmas-themed records, including the poorly-received ‘Christmas Spirit’ (1963), the marginally more popular ‘Christmas and the Cash Family’ (1972) and a handful of flop singles. Christmas never seemed to suit the dark tones of Cash in the eyes of the public but Johnny never pretended to be a Perry Como at Christmas – what we get here are mainly dark cautionary tales told in a gravel voice, with a few up-tempo tracks to interrupt the flow.

None of these are among Cash’s best works, but then neither are most Christmas-themed records – what we get instead is affordable background music for when we wrap our presents and fall over trying to put an angel on the Christmas tree yet again, just like we did last year. The most interesting pieces are Cash’s own and a handful of these deserve to be better known – the bouncy set closer ‘That Christmassy Feeling’, the moody ‘Christmas As I Knew It’ and especially the brief but compelling ‘Who Kept The Sheep?’ sound the equal of many of the better-known (too well known?!) carols included here. Alas, the rest of the CD is Cash getting his tonsils round some particularly dreary arrangements of all the old suspects – ‘O Come All Ye Faithful, a particularly funeral ‘Joy To The World’, ‘Away In A Manger’ (which seems to have become ‘Away In A Mangle’ given Cash’s torturous vocal here), ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ – even the usually upbeat carols like ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Silent Night’ sound faintly depressing in their new setting here. A surprisingly sprightly ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and the lesser known ‘Peace IN The Valley’ are easily the highlights of the usual suspects, with a pace and power missing from many of the other seasonal over-produced tracks here, especially given the no-good-narrator in the latter track looking forward to happier times, a precursor of the persona that’s going to serve Cash well at his peak during his prison concert albums of the late 60s. Still, though, there’s no getting away from it - if it’s a miserable Christmas you’re looking for this year, look no further than this set. Opener ‘Blue Christmas’ is about the most happy-go-lucky track here! If only Cash had covered some of the more unusual and too often forgotten carols in his gorgeous gravely tones  – ‘The Star Carol’, ‘Riu Chiu’ and especially the drop-dead beautiful why-the-hell-don’t-more-people-record-it-even-outside-Christmas ‘I Wonder As I Wander’ – this set could have become a late contender for re-release of the year.

The biggest Christmas Turkey of all, though, is wife June Carter’s how-can-Johnny-keep-a-straight-face, my-folks-were-poor-and-still-gave-us-love monologue ‘Ringing The Bells For Jim’. Yep, that’s right, the family have no money but still manage to give most of that away to a family who lived down the street with even less and the narrator tells us verse after averse that he fought his brother but still gave him his treasured whistle for Christmas to tell him that he loved him. Half of me still wants to go ‘aaah’ after writing that list, but hearing all this delivered in a monotone vocal for the longest three minutes of your life, well, it’s enough to make you choke on your brussel sprouts. But Christmas is a time for forgiving and there is still much to enjoy on this CD. Cash’s vocals are never less than magnificent and are often better than that, his songwriting is at its best on many of the later self-written tracks and the choir who keep sticking their noses in every time a track from the 1963 album crops up aren’t as irritating as many a Christmas Choir. If you like Johnny Cash this album is worth standing in a long Woollies closing down sale queue for – it just might not be the first thing you bring down out of your loft come next year. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫ (4/10).


Monday, 8 December 2008

News, Views and Music Issue 15 (Intro)

December 8

Welcome to the latest issue of the AAA, a special wow-we’ve-had-50-views-even-though-at-least-30-of-them-were-me-checking-on-the-site edition. As a result, we’ve been getting philosophical about life and so – as a special treat (for those of you with insomnia) - we will be discussing where the human species is going and where it came from later on in this issue (ha, bet the spice girls have never even given the matter any thought!) We’re still waiting for our site to turn up in some search engines too – maybe after Christmas our site will be famous (or infamous!) and people might actually know what you are talking about when you log on. Like most people/events/new releases just before Christmas, there isn’t much to tell you about this week in terms of AAA groups – perhaps they’re all gearing up for their Christmas parties and haven’t got time to appear in the news. Anyway, here’s a quick (if short) round-up of what there is…

Beatle news: …Err, one item only this week I’m afraid. Despite an announcement last Christmas that the complete Beatles 1960s catalogue would be available for download from I-tunes sometime in 2008, it doesn’t look like its going to happen between now and the new year, thanks to a dispute between I-tunes and the two Beatles’ record labels, Apple and EMI. Apple, of course, is the label started up by the band in 1968 (who released all Beatles goodies and solo records from 1968-74), but even these albums were distributed by EMI who can lay some claim to ‘owning’ the copyright too. The Beatles remain pretty much the only ‘important’ ie major-selling group not to be legally available for downloading somewhere on the net – but I think I’m right in saying that the proposed Beatle I-tunes deal (where all of the Beatles’ works are available for download sale from the site) would be a first, although its not clear whether the ‘Anthology’ , ‘Love’ and ‘Beatles at the BBC’ projects would be included in the downloads. Roll on 2009, that’s what we say – although true Beatlenuts might want to hang on to their Christmas money to buy the Beatles CD re-issues due in batches of four next year (with ‘Please Please Me’ through to ‘Beatles For Sale’ available as soon as Easter, possibly).  

Moving swiftly on, here are this week’s anniversaries of all things bright and beautiful from yesteryear. Happy birthdays this week go to Bobby Elliott (drummer with the Hollies from 1964 right up to the present day), who turns 66 on December 8 and Frank Allen, bass player with The Searchers (also from 1964 to the present interestingly enough) who turns 65 on December 14th. Anniversaries of events this week: the sad and untimely deaths of two quite different AAA giants – John Lennon on December 8th 1980 and Otis Redding on December 10th 1967, tragedies both. On a happier note, this week also saw the first ever release of a Beach Boys single, Surfin’, on December 8th 1961 (it did well locally in California but never made the American charts as a whole); Pink Floyd play what is generally regarded as their first ‘proper’ concert – an Oxfam charity gig at the Royal Albert Hall on December 12th 1966; the infamous and unscreened (for 33 years at least) Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus is filmed during one huge 20-hour marathon at Wembley TV studios, a show also featuring The Who, Jethro Tull and John Lennon taking part in a one-off all-star performance (mainly recorded on December 12th 1968); exactly a year later Lennon’s hastily convened Plastic Ono Band play their first gig at the Toronto Peace Festival and finally The Who become the first rock and pop act ever to perform at an opera house, suitably performing their ‘rock opera’ Tommy during a well-received gig at the London Colosseum Opera House on December 13th 1969.

News, Views and Music Issue 15 (Top Five): Why Are We Here? Where Are We Going? And How Come We Never Get There At All?

And just in case you thought that review was long-winded, it doesn’t have anything on this next section….yes, we’ve gone all out in our latest ‘top five’ this issue, planning to put to rights nothing less than the questions that have been perplexing mankind for centuries, with the aid of just a typewriter and a CD player. No, the question isn’t ‘when could anybody possibly think that the spice girls were a good idea?’, we mean the the other big question. So here it is – our guide to understanding the ideas ‘Why are we here?’, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘Why do we never seem to get there at all?’ In short, here are five arguments put forward on AAA albums for the origins of our species….maybe. If nothing else, music is here to raise discussion points so even if you don’t agree with any of the five arguments raised here (and to be honest there’s no reason why you should as they all could be right…and they all could be wrong), take them with a large dash of salt and (Sgt) pepper. After all, we will never know the answers, but thinking about the question is arguably about the most important thing we could be doing – depending, of course, on what the answer actually is. 

5) We have all been here before. At least, that’s the view of David Crosby on the seminal Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album ‘De Ja Vu’ (see review no 34) which is – among other things - a study of how mankind repeats his mistakes in cycles (just check out that cover, where the quartet are dressed in garb from the American Civil War era, even though one of them is Canadian and another comes from Blackpool). Mankind isn’t ‘evolving’, if you like, just chasing its own tail through crisis after crisis. The title track goes even further, being a Crosby epic about re-incarnation and the idea that our souls are returned to different bodies time and time again down the generations until we get it right. According to Cros’ autobiography, David dallied with the idea of past lives very early in his life when, still a toddler, he found he instinctively knew how to sing harmony notes along with his parents and brothers’ singing and when – at the tender age of 11 – he appeared to know the uses of every sail and mast when taken out sailing one day, despite having never been on a boat before. This ‘déjà vu’ theory would also explain the feelings of many of us that we have been to certain places and done certain things already even though, in our current lives at least, we’ve never been anywhere near. I can’t remember the exact figure, but an overwhelming number of us feel this at some point in our lives, so there. We reckon the Spice Girls have been here at least a hundred times before and they still haven’t got it right.

4) We have all been here before – and we messed it up big time. At least, that’s the view of Paul Kantner during all of his songs for the Jefferson Starship’s 1984 album ‘Nuclear Furniture’ (see review no 87) – we’re not sure if he ever told the rest of the band what he was doing, but their songs seem to fit the overall concept somehow too. The idea is this – picture a George Bush figure ruling over some past highpoint of civilisation, his finger poised on the nuclear device ready to send us to oblivion. Only, in our past life, this figure actually presses the button (no democratic victories for Bracak Obama in this timeline) and suddenly thousands of centuries of human civilisation are knocked out in a stroke. There are huge hints out there that our ancient past was as great technologically if not greater than our own (the true dating of the Sphinx and the earliest pyramids for starters – ie they are still here 4000 years, possibly 7000 years on when most of our buildings from only a century back are in severe disrepair). There are huge hints too at some cataclysmic accident, whether natural or manmade or caused by Bush’s ancestors, that wiped out our species to its very dregs and caused us to start again. Could our mythology be telling us a garbled version of our true past, like some generations-long version of ‘chinese whispers’, dating from a time when mankind had to start all over again and lost the ability to write things down? It’s no surprise that the ‘Nuclear Furniture’ album is also full of (then) topical songs about 1980s culture when it seemed mankind was showing its violent side again (Cold War, violence on television, money-loving yuppies, etc), juxtaposed against protest songs telling us that one day we might be back to the very beginning, ‘huddled in their caves like animals, not human’. This was the period when, just like the aftermath of 9/11, we genuinely feared we might wake up one day to find half the world missing, maybe even the side we were living on. There is a happy ending on the ending, though, thanks to Rose, the charismatic leader, who puts mankind back on their feet again in a much more peaceful, positive manner than the society they left behind so that – in another 7000 years – mankind is still at peace.

3) We haven’t been here before and our past has been leading us up to this point in time. Ah yes, Darwin’s theory of human evolution and the origin of the species which, by it’s author’s own admission, was as full of holes as a Swiss cheese – although still more accurate than any theory up to that time. Let’s look at this theory in greater depth – if survival of the species continues to this day, then where on earth did George Bush and the Spice Girls come from? Anyway, whatever the side effects, it seems to make sense that mankind would learn something from his past, although strangely there were less musical candidates for this commonly-held theory of the origins of humans adapting and learning how to cope with life than you might think. After toying with various Monkees-growing-into-men concepts we’ve plumped for the Moody Blues album ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ LP, one which dates back to the tail-end of the 1960s (the last point in time when you could argue that the human race was moving forward at any speed). As the album puts it, ‘we go higher and higher now we’ve learned to play with fire’, with mankind a species determined to master everything in his power even if it leaves him isolated and confused (is a bigger brain really better in evolutionary terms? Are we the only species that has suicides, needs psychiatrists or cries buckets of tears on a regular basis? And no lemmings don’t count – all that cliff-jumping is a myth I’m afraid). And yet there’s also something deeply uplifting about a good half of this album, with mankind ever looking forward to the next big project. That next big leap for mankind that might – just might – unite us all in delight at our bravery and daring and truly bring the human race up to an evolutionary peak. Now that would be nice wouldn’t it, but somehow this theory seems the least believable of all the five put forward here!  

2) It’s not what we were before but what we grow into during our life on this planet that matters and our soul will live on after our death, depending what we did with it on Earth. The ‘death’ issue of this argument was dealt with by Hari Krishna convert George Harrison on his seminal album ‘All Things Must Pass’ (see review no 42). Often overlooked is his follow-up album ‘Living In The Material World’ (1971) which carries on this story, telling us what happens after we die and what we should have done during our life. This album has taken plenty of stick in the past (mainly from me) over its desire to lecture and convert us all to Hari Krishna far less subtlety or movingly than its predecessor did, but this album is also full of glorious songs about how our spiritual side should be nurtured and cared for at the expense of the ‘material world’, which is surely something that many an AAA reader wishes (anyone with an over-riding interest in music seems to share these views to some extent, however lightly or strongly, so it seems). The title track for one contrasts the messy business dealings of the end of the Beatle days with the ‘spiritual sky’ Harrison felt at the beginning of his solo career and is probably the best AAA evidence out there to becoming small and humble against the sheer magnitude of the world and how determined we should be to follow ‘the right path’ for others as well as for ourselves.

1) We weren’t here before and we’re only here thanks to some helpful aliens carrying out genetic experiments. When younger Kinks brother Dave Davies released his album ‘Chosen People’ in 1983 fans gasped. Well the couple of hundred who bought the album did anyway, because record label Warner Brothers seemed determined to bury the thing (to date, less than half the tracks have appeared on CD and then only the less controversial ones). You see, according to Dave’s brave and revealing autobiog ‘Kink’, he was visited by aliens telepathically during the early 1980s – a time when he was fed up and quite badly depressed over all sorts of things in his personal and musical life. The aliens, who mentioned that they had been looking after us for some time and even stored a data bank full of the actions of all of us during our lives, said that they had tried to talk to our world leaders to steer us a path for the greater good but had failed (seeing as Reagan and Thatcher were both in power at the time, that’s probably no surprise). Instead, they were communicating with certain artists, ones whose message could be heard by anyone should they choose to listen to their music, read their books or study their paintings. Most usefully, the aliens also told Dave that humans had failed to awaken their spiritual side and showed what that 70% of the brain we don’t use is for – telepathic abilities that allowed Dave and his partner of the time to dispel clouds of negative energy from those around them, making them feel happier about life (nearly all the concerts where Dave used this trick have gone down in history as the Kinks’ best shows – well those since 1982 anyway). Unfortunately, the aliens could do nothing about Warner Brothers record executives who buried the thing stone dead (the ‘Dave Davies Anthology: Unfinished Business’ is your best bet for listening to most of these tracks – although sadly you won’t find the album’s lynchpin ‘True Story’, a song where Dave recounts his strange tale before shaking his head and asking why the aliens should talk to him because ‘I’m just a poor boy’). Read the book and hear the album and the whole thing seems unnervingly plausible. Err, don’t look now but does that moon look red to you?

Don’t have nightmares though, stick on a soothing AAA record instead and, until next week, keep rocking! See you for issue 16 – on which we’ll be celebrating the best releases of the past year.