Thursday, 28 April 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 97 (Top Ten): Unfinished AAA albums

‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ should not have been the end of the story. The follow-up, ‘Bambu’, came so close to being completed for at least five years that it hurt – or at least it did for the few Beach Boys who’d ‘got’ the brilliance of this album at the time and clamoured for another album like it. And Dennis was hardly alone in the AAA kingdom – there are dozens of other ‘lost’ albums spread across the catalogues that deserve to be finished off with as much care as Dennis’ followers devoted to his albums. So what we’re going to do this week is celebrate ‘Bambu’ and 10 other projects that came close to being released. We’re just including albums that were partly completed, by the way, not those planned (otherwise we’d also have included the album that should have been for The Searchers in 1966 and ended up being a long list of wonderful A and B sides, the Grateful Dead studio album of 1971 that ended up coming out spread across the next two live records and the non-Grace Slick follow-up to ‘Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!’ that was abandoned when Signe Anderson quit the band).

1) Dennis Wilson: ‘Bambu’ (album recorded 1978-1979, finally released in unfinished form in 2006): As anyone whose seen the long list of Dennis Wilson tributes to coincide with this finally finished album will know, Dennis’ life towards the end was a catalogue of disasters and unfortunate events. ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ sold quite well – better than the Beach Boys albums either side of it anyway – and Caribou were eager for a follow-up. Music was certainly flowing through Dennis’ veins freely at the time and he put one heck of a lot of work into this follow-up, which by the sound of the session tapes would have been looser and wilder than ‘Blue’ but more or less up to the same high standard. Alas, Dennis’ money troubles caught up with him and he had to sell his home recording studio fractionally short of releasing this album (which might well have given his finances enough of a boost to keep him going for many more years). The whole thing is frustratingly like ‘Smile’, a genius forward-looking album that might have changed the world lost to something as everyday and humdrum as a bill that needed collecting. Beacuse even in an unfinished state ‘Bambu’ sounds fabulous – and parts of it are among the best, most moving pieces Dennis ever wrote. If ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ is Dennis’ lyrical, thoughtful and moody album with strings (shades of ‘Pet Sounds’ there), then ‘Bambu is Dennis’ ‘Smile’, other-worldly, alien and yet so sympathetic and accessible. And like Brian, Dennis sounds as if he knows he’s sinking and the project will never be finished (‘It’s Not Too Late’, with brother Carl offering hope to Dennis’ weary yawn, is actually saying the complete opposite of its title).  Highlights include the moody ballad ‘Love Remember Me’ as Dennis realises he won’t get love in his present or future like he did in his past, the punchy power rock of ‘Wild Situation’ and the low-down funky autobiography of ‘He’s A Bum’ that manages to be sad and self-deprecating all at the same time. It would have been a similar 9/10 classic.

2) The Beach Boys “Smile” (album recorded 1966/67, finally released in a re-recording by Brian Wilson 2004): We’ve already talked about the completed version of ‘Smile’ millions of times on this site so let me instead reiterate how exciting the news is that The Beach Boys’ original might be coming out at last. Contrary to popular belief, the original sessions saw a good 90% of the album completed – all the backing tracks and all but three pieces with vocals – and even though Brian and collaborator Van Dye Parks didn’t get their final completed sequence down on paper till the 21st century, you can still hear that Brian came blooming close. Smile is magical, music still so far ahead of it’s time that we haven’t caught up with it yet, so imagine how mesmerising all this stuff must have sounded in 1966. Hopefully the world will be able to hear that soon (if one or other of the band doesn’t cancel the project at the 11th hour – like one or other of the band always has done traditionally in the past 20 years) and will know, like me, that this is a 10/10 album. They’re all highlights really but give ‘Cabinessence’ a go to understand the concept of this album: the song casually breaks so many rules along the way and still manages to pack in a thousand years of American history in under four minutes on a song that manages to be both accessible and alien. 

3) The Beatles “Untitled” (‘Childhood’ album, recorded 1966, abandoned 1967): Moving on from Beach Boys, few Beatles fans know that during it’s first official sessions the album that came to be known as ‘Sgt Pepper’ once looked very different. The first songs recorded, ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ were intended to be the backbone of the band’s follow-up to ‘Revolver’ and were written completely independently by Lennon and McCartney. When the pair realised their synchronicity they decided to base a whole album around the themes of their childhood (‘Strawberry Fields’ being a Salvation Army Home where a schoolboy Lennon used to play; ‘Penny Lane’ being a district of Liverpool where a teenage McCartney used to get the bus into town) and even added a third song, ‘When I’m 64’, first written by Macca during his childhood (at aged 14, to be precise). Alas EMI needed a single for the Christmas 1966 market and only ‘Fields’ and ‘Lane’ were ready. Meeting in the new year, the band decided to start their album from scratch and came up with the very weird idea for Peppers – how better could it have been with a series of songs on the lines of ‘In My Life’?! 

4) Buffalo Springfield “Stampede” (recorded 1966 into 1967): Fans still argue about how close this album came to being the Springfield’s second album and how much is just hearsay, but one fact remains: the record company thought they were close enough to getting a record to commission the artwork (featuring Dickie Davis in a big hat filling in for absentee Neil Young) and there are enough outtakes and originally unreleased songs from this period to fill up a triple record. Whilst it’s clear this second album wouldn’t have been as impressive as the one we got (the delightful psychedelic collage ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’), ‘Stampede’ would nevertheless have been a great album. Whilst no selection of tracks was ever agreed it would probably have included the elliptical Young song ‘Whatever Happened To Saturday Night?’, Neil’s ‘Down To The Wire’ (released on his ‘Decade’ compilation, although a version exists with Stills on lead too), Stills’ delightfully Beatlesy ‘We’ll See’ and ‘Neighbour Don’t You Worry’, Richie Furay’s ‘My Kind Of Love’ and a lovely first version of Poco’s ‘Nobody’s Fool’, a thumping cover of pop song ‘No Sun Today’ and an otherwise unknown song given the nickname ‘Telephone Pole’, in honour of the obstacle that got in Stills’ way and caused his car to crash on the way to the session! No masterpiece, but far too good to languish in the vaults (until much of it appears on the 2000 ‘Buffalo Springfield’ box set anyway). 6/10.

5) Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Human Highway” (recorded 1974): There have been so many abandoned and unreleased CSN/Y albums down the years they even got their own top five a few issues ago (‘news and views’ no 33 to be exact). This one came the closest and should have been the long awaited follow-up to ‘Deja Vu’. The project started well enough, with all four men meeting up in Hawaii (‘by accident’ according to some reports), enjoying each other’s company and digging each other’s songs. The quartet even agreed to tour again – a well received, sell out stadium tour the likes of which had never been seen before that nevertheless caused tensions and splits between the four. The tensions grew bigger during recordings and so another CSNY project bit the dust –astonishingly it wasn’t until 1988 that the true four-way follow-up to ‘Deja Vu’ came out. Only a handful of recordings were finished, sprinkled across various solo albums and retrospectives and rarities sets and included a first version of Stills’ poppy ‘See The Changes’ (which appeared as a moody ballad on 1977’s ‘CSN’), a startling take of Crosby’s ‘Homeward Through The Haze’ (as heard on the CSN box set) and Young’s ‘Through My Sails’  (a slight ballad which appeared on Neil’s ‘Zuma’). Other songs attempted and re-recorded in different versions include Nash’s ‘Prison Song’ and ‘Grave Concern’ (re-recorded for ‘Wild Tales’), Stills’ ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ (re-recorded for ‘Stills’) and Young’s ‘Human Highway’ (re-recorded for ‘Comes A Time’), as well as an unreleased-except-on-Youtube Crosby song ‘Little Blind Fish’, the only time you’ll hear all four members of CSNY trading lines on a song. It might not have measured up to the first CSN album or Deja Vu, but it still would have been great. 8/10. 

6) John Lennon and Yoko Ono “Milk and Honey” (recorded 1980, finally released in 1983): There is a ‘Milk and Honey’ in the record shelves of all good retailers, of course, and a darn fine album it is too – Lennon heard raw, the way he was meant to be and the way he annoyingly isn’t on his ‘proper’ comeback record ‘Double Fantasy’. But how true to life would this follow-up have been had Lennon lived? Certainly John was on a roll in late 1980, recording myriad versions of dozens of songs – many still unreleased, at least in demo form, despite a cornucopia of archive and rarities sets in the years since his death. I’d like to think that he’d have seen the worth in these songs, especially masterpieces like ‘Steppin’ Out’ ‘Nobody Told Me’ and ‘Borrowed Time’ and left them roughly as they sound on the finished project. But I’m intrigued what Lennon would have done to the two ‘demos’ that did make it out on the record: the funky reggae-ish ‘Forgive Me, My Little Flower Princess’ which sounds slight on record but could have been another ‘Jealous Guy’ with more work and ‘Grow Old Along With Me’, which sounds delightful even in half-baked, piano-with-a-drum-track backing as it is on album (I really hope he wouldn’t have added the awful string arrangement that George Martin overdubs in 2000 for the ‘Lennon Anthology’). And Yoko? All of her songs allegedly come from after Lennon’s death, during those desperately sad months of early 1981 when she threw herself into her music and came out with one of her better albums ‘Season Of Glass’. Swap some of her weaker songs from the finished ‘Milk and Honey’ for that album’s ‘Mindweaver’ ‘No One Can See Me Like You Do’ and the gorgeous then-unreleased ‘Winter Friend’ (like many of those songs taken from the abandoned 1974 album ‘A Story’) and you’d have the best John Lennon album of all, with or without Yoko. A potential 9/10, lowering to 4/10 depending whether Lennon would have made his new songs sound ‘soppy’ or not as he did on ‘Double Fantasy’.     

7) Paul McCartney “Return To Pepperland” (recorded 1987): Most Beatles fans know about ‘Milk and Honey’ and ponder what it could have been had Lennon lived. Paul McCartney did live, however, and yet fell so out of favour in the late 1980s that few if anybody care for his unreleased songs from the era. That’s a shame because, while not up to his best work, there’s some interesting experiments on this forgotten project (some of which made its way to B-sides down the years, such as the under-rated minor gem ‘Keep Coming Back To Love’,  and the sessions’ best track ‘Rough Ride’ – left unchanged for the 1989 ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ album). There are stories that Paul didn’t like his new producer Phil Ramone or that he felt his material in the period was ‘lacking’. Both are probably true – the 1980s synthesiser quagmire on these recordings is worse even than ‘Pipes Of Peace’ and some of these songs truly are Paul’s worst, especially the annoyingly twee title track that’s as far removed from 1967’s adventurism as possible (’20 years later, who would have guessed? Nelson Mandela still under arrest!’) and the hideous ‘Beautiful Night’ (a 1997 re-recording makes n awful song sound even worse!) But with a little bit of work this could have been a fine album – apart from the delightfully funky ‘Rough Ride’ there’s LIndiana, one of Paul’s better love songs for his wife and the hypnotic instrumental ‘Squid’ which proves Paul was keeping up with musical trends some of the time. Unchanged this album would have sunk Paul’s stock even lower – but there is potential to this album so we give it a cautious 4/10. A word too for the original double album version of ‘McCartney II’, which makes so much more sense than as a watered down single LP, and will hopefully see the light of day once more when the ‘McCartney Collection’ release it as their follow-up to ‘Band On The Run’ later on in the year.

8) Moody Blues “Untitled” (The missing ‘8th album’ started and abandoned in 1973): I never realised until the latest Moodies ‘deluxe’ CD re-issues how close the band came to making a ‘final’ final album after the difficult ‘Seventh Sojourn’ sessions. The Moodies never did have a grand falling out, just a general setting in of ennui and disillusion, so they cautiously did start an eighth untitled album before calling it a day. Only one song from the sessions exists – Justin Hayward’s ‘Island’ – but oh what a starting point it could have been! Now unlike a lot of fans I love ‘Seventh Sojourn’ – its, pardon the term, moody soundscape and downcast weariness really suits the Moodies’ songs in this period and the band have never sounded maturer. ‘Island’ would have been the perfect starting point for a follow-up, a song every bit as good as the best on ‘Sojourn’, with a melancholy mellotron lick and an impressive set of lyrics about isolation and trying to overcome misery. Goodness knows what the other songs from the sessions would have been like (judging from the solo records the Ray Thomas ones would have been great, the Mike Pinder ones so-so and the Graeme Edge and John Lodge ones a mess) but judging by the one song that does exist it could have been the best Moodies album of all.

9) Pink Floyd “Household Objects” (recorded 1974 into 1975): By far the weirdest album on this list is the Floyd’s aborted follow-up to ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’. Looking for another overall concept they could use to ‘tag’ their songs with (ie like ‘Dark Side’s loose concept about the pressures of life and causes of madness) they turned to an album about ‘everyday life’, played on a variety of ‘everyday’ instruments’ (including wine glasses, rubber bands and cutlery). The album would have taken forever to record, snapping already strained relations past breaking point, and the few bits that did make it to record have never been released to date. It does still exist though – it’s all ‘unusable’ apparently, but that didn’t stop the Beatles’ Anthology projects – and would make for interesting listening, even in condensed form, although nobody really knows what songs would have been used for the project (the resulting album, ‘Wish You Were Here’, is pretty much started from scratch). We can’t really give this album a rating as we’ve never heard it, but let’s hope the Floyd give us the chance sometime soon!

10) Neil Young “Chrome Dreams” (recorded 1976 into 1977): We’ve already covered this fascinating unfinished album in ‘News and Views’ no 70, but this most intriguing of all unfinished Young albums is well worth discussing again. Nobody really knows what changed Neil’s mind about releasing this album and replacing over half of it with a largely unlistenable collection of half-baked country songs – but then, it’s Neil we’re talking about here so this kind of mind-change isn’t entirely unexpected. What’s frustrating is that pretty much the best songs from the next three Young projects (‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ ‘Comes A Time’ and the much-lauded ‘Rust Never Sleeps’) almost entirely come from this album’s abandoned sessions. Alternate early versions of songs like ‘Powderfinger’ ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Sedan Delivery’ exist that I think are even better than the finished version, there’s much-heralded classics such as ‘Like A Hurricane’ ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ and the under-rated Fan Favourite ‘Will To Love’ plus the title and best track from ‘Comes A Time’. Add in ‘Love Is A Rose’ and ‘Campaigner’ from greatest hits/rarities package ‘Decade’ and you have possibly the best Neil Young album of all. So well regarded is this set by fans (who either own it on bootleg, heard bits via YouTube or have reconstructed it themselves) that it’s almost counted as a ‘proper’ album nowadays (to the point where Neil named his 2008 album ‘Chrome Dreams II’). A definite 9/10 had Neil actually released it that way.

And so ends another newsletter – let’s hope that some of these classics really do see the light of day for a wider audience sometime soon! (Especially ‘Smile’!) Till then, happy listening and see you next week (when the Royal Wedding should be all over, thank Goodness!)

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