Friday, 23 September 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 113 (Top Ten): Biggest AAA Stylistic Leaps Between Albums

A lot of artists soar through their musical career in perfect chronological order, with a smooth journey from r and b star/folk prophet/beat poet to psychedelic guru/singer-songwriter/rock god that makes perfect sense, taking small steps between each album so as not to scare the fans away. Others are so brief and bright in their way up and down the ladder of fame (The Small Faces, Janis Joplin Buffalo Springfield) that they don’t really have time to truly re-mould their style anyway (although all three had good goes). Others, like Neil Young, thrive on change and fans love the fact that they can’t possibly guess what they’re going to do next (who would have guessed the last run of NY albums – a concept album about an imaginary town suffering a ecological disaster, a sequel to an album from 1977 that was never released and an album about a ‘green’ car!) Others, however, find forks in the road and suddenly blossom in whole new unexpected directions, whether because of changes in society and music, changes in the band line-up or changes in themselves. Here, then, are 10 of the biggest inter-album jumps in the AAA discography:

1)    The Monkees “More Of The Monkees” (1967) > “Headquarters” (1967): A fairly obvious one to start. By the time of this band’s second album they were very much the producers’ pets, with only two writing credits between the four band members, no musical input (barring two guitar parts and vocals) and no choice over what songs ended up on album, in the TV series and on the cutting room floor. In fact the band actually had to buy ‘More Of The Monkees’ from a record store while out on tour to discover what was on it! However Monkees a combination of ‘musical supervisor’ Don Kirshner getting cocky and pushing his luck with a single made by Davy Jones without the input of the other group members or Monkee originators Schneider and Rafelson and the backlash to the revelation that the band didn’t always play on their records lead to a revolution. By the time of ‘Headquarters’ the band are doing everything, picking their own songs and writing others and playing every single note on the album bar the orchestral parts (which they notated). The result is a sudden switch from immaculate but empty teenyboppery pop songs to 14 slices of mature pop about the world as it was in 1967, while the Monkees go from cameoing on their own records to controlling their own destiny.


2)    Cat Stevens “New Masters” (1968) > “Mona Bone Jakon” (1970): The teenage Cat Stevens of 1967/8 was one of Britain’s brightest hopes, writing quirky songs about all sorts of subjects (on the singles alone covering dogs, guns and workaholics) to the accompaniment of frantic orchestral arrangements and a clean-cut new-kid-on-the-block image. But too many nights partying and enjoying his new rich lifestyle led to Cat contracting TB (that’s how he saw it anyway) and watching his career and his record contract fall apart from his hospital bed. Unable to promote ‘New Masters’ (actually an under-rated record of impressive maturity – just not as mature or as impressive as what’s coming next!), Cat changed his image, grew a beard and rented an acoustic guitar (its hard to fit a whole orchestra into your hospital room!) The change in style from deep but often funny and laidback quirky pop to the desperate heartfelt howl of ‘Lady D’arbanville’ ‘I Think I See The Light’, etc, is possibly the biggest leap of all on this list. Thankfully Cat recovered, but he kept the beard and the acoustic guitar and the lessons he learnt about what life really meanings have never left him the rest of his life.    

3)    Grateful Dead “Live/Dead” (1969) > “Workingman’s Dead” (1970):In 1969 the Grateful Dead were the live band of the age, taking off into exploratory wonder, with the band never quite knowing if they’d all end up in the same place by the end of the song. The live recordings on this eagerly awaited first concert recording are staggering: 20 minute versions of some of the band’s best loved songs all joined together as one long extended medley that takes them from the outer space of ‘Dark Star’ to the R and B workover ‘Turn Off Your Lovelight’. However a combination of hanging out with new friends CSN and the need to make cheaper albums after running up a whole load of debt with record label Warner Brothers meant the band turned instead to writing (comparatively) short, snappy folky songs about Americana old and new. Jerry Garcia in particular blossomed in this new direction, which filtered down to the Dead sound as late as their last tour in 1995, adding a whole new depth and tightness to a band that already had the improvisatory bases covered. Some fans prefer the ‘old’ sound, some the ‘newer’ – me, I love them both, especially the follow-up record ‘American Beauty’ which manages to sound nothing like the early Dead except for raw honesty, power and sincerity.   

4)    Paul McCartney “McCartney” (1970) > “Ram” (1971): If you’ve been keeping up with our AAA reviews then you’ll know that ‘McCartney’, the first solo Beatle album after the split (in fact the album that largely announced the split) is a home-spun affair. Macca, afraid of adverse publicity and too angry at Apple to use one of their recording studios, recorded it by himself at home, overdubbing bits and pieces as the mood took him (guitar, drums, bass, piano, even wine glasses!) The result is a home-made album, full of mistakes and children chatting in the background and a downbeat, melancholic feel caused by the fall-out between the four Beatles and a near-nervous breakdown. ‘Ram’ is, by contrast, the first of Macca’s really glossy albums, full of dense layers of texture and overdubs by the brightest and best session musicians around in the day on an equally bitty piecemeal album that nevertheless sounds huge. The album also has a much more upbeat we’ll-show-them feel that veers from wild anger and jealousy to determination and hope. 


5)    The Hollies “Distant Light” (1971) > “Romany” (1972): In 1971 The Hollies were exploring whole new territories unusual to them: under Allan Clarke’s lead the band were embracing swamp rock (‘Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress’, originally an album track till DJs made it something of a radio hit) and protest songs (has there ever been a song more damning about the Vietnam war than ‘You Know The Score’ and ‘Promised Land’. The band sound also dispensed with the usual sunny harmonies in favour of bluesy guitar and organ for an album largely unique to their canon. On the surface follow-up ‘Romany’ is much more traditional Hollies territory: swamped with harmonies and much closer to quiet sadness than raw anger. Only Allan Clarke has left the band for an ill-fated solo career (ill-fated commercially, that is, not artistically...both ‘My Real Name Is ‘Arold’ and ‘Headroom’ carry on ‘Distant Light’s harsher sound) and in his place is the under-rated deep-voiced Mickael Rickfors, a singer with more soft edges than a DFS sofa. The gap between these two albums is huge (it certainly put many fans off at the time) but then neither of them really sound like The Hollies of old, with only their covers (the same person in the same woodland area in Summer and Winter) and the band name to link them at all.   

6)    The Kinks “Schoolboys In Disgrace” (1975) > “Sleepwalker” (1977):In 1975 The Kinks were the best touring musical ‘troupe’ around, offering slabs of various musicals/concept albums about everything from a world in political chaos to Norman becoming a ‘star’ (see two issues back!) and, erm, this song about a schoolboy. Based loosely on the expulsion of Dave Davies for getting an under-age girl from a local school pregnant, it’s the last great gasp of Ray Davies’ theatricality, with the elder brother revelling in his roles as headmaster, schoolboy and narrator. Along the way we get a seven minute discussion as to whether education frees or enslaves the masses (the answer is that good education does the former and bad the latter), a dance song about the school idiot and nostalgia for the final school assembly. All terribly terribly Kinks and very much made for a minority English audience. All things change in 1977, though, when the band re-launch themselves for the American market with ‘universal’ songs about travelling musicians, big ugly bosses, insomnia, werewolves and love of music! The horns and backing singers have gone and The Kinks are now a streamlined five-piece, propelled again by Dave’s guitar and an electric fury not heard from the band since 1965!       

7)    Jefferson Starship “Earth” (1978) > “Freedom At Point Zero” (1979): In 1978 Jefferson Starship were a leading prog rock band, full of nonsense songs about whether the love, fires and on one memorable track skateboarding (!) with a penchant for harmonies and criss-crossing acoustic guitars. By 1979 Jefferson Starship were a leading new wave band, full of nonsense songs about love, freedom and on one memorable song nuclear war, with a penchant for angry righteous lead vocals and jagged, stabbing lead guitar. The two bands share only the slightest DNA despite Paul Kantner being the ‘boss’ of both of them, taking the opportunity of lead singers Grace Slick and Marty Balin’s departures to re-invent the band with a new lead vocalist, Mickey Thomas, and a much tougher, more contemporary sound. ‘Been too long in the green fields of rapture’ goes one Kantner track about moving on from past successes to find greater challenges elsewhere, ‘Been too long without being on the run’.   

8)    The Moody Blues “Octave” (1978) > “Long Distance Voyager” (1981):When The Moodies reunited in 1978 after a six year absence fans feared that their favourite  mystical band might have changed, especially when ‘Octave’ (the band’s eighth album) came out in the middle of punk. They needn’t have worried – despite the presence of a couple of up-tempo rockers ‘Octave’ pretty much carries on where the band left off, still trying to understand the universe, love and our inner selves and they even get the mellotron out the loft for a couple of songs, too. Three years later, though, Mike Pinder has gone, taking his mellotron with him and the band have brought in a bank of synthesisers played by Patrick Moraz. There’s never been anyone more of the 1960s than Pinder: mystical, magical, deep-thinking and with a mind so open its on hinges; by contrast  no one could be more 1980s than Moraz: big hair, a love of electronics and a style of dancing that could never come into fashion again, no matter how many series Strictly Come Dancing runs for. The songs, too, have changed – they’re now shorter, poppier, tighter (with one or two exceptions) and have a much more ‘new wave’ rock type energy than before. Surprisingly, instead of running for the hills, most Moodies fans lapped it up making ‘Voyager’ the band’s biggest selling album in the US – no wonder every album since has been a variation on it rather than their first glorious eight albums!

9)    The Human League “Travelogue (1979) > “Dare” (1981): In 1979 The Human League are a real underground act, so hip it’s a wonder their trousers don’t fall down, with three arty art students delivering sarcastic songs about the world we leave in, fronted by a bloke with two haircuts (half prog, half punk) on the same bit of head. By 1981 the band have split, with two thirds going off to form ‘Heaven 17’ and Phil Oakey (still with two haircuts) decides to form a poppier band with some new synthesiser players and two cocktail waitresses  that can sing. The difference between ‘Travelogue’ and ‘Dare’ is like that between night and day: the former record is totally un-commercial, full of shadows and things out to get you, is full of parables about how life can get you down and anger at middle eastern practices; the latter is full of pop singles (released and unreleased) about the glories of being in love, being part of a crowd and only really calms down for songs about death-by-speed (pun definitely intended) and law-breaking. Both albums have only tenuous links with each other, presumably in part because of the line-up change, but the much-loved ‘Holiday ‘80’ EP and the under-rated ‘Cruel’ (both heard as bonus cuts on the ‘Travelogue’ CD) are both pretty good attempts at bridging the gaps between the two styles.    

10) Neil Young “Trans” (1982) > “Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983): Neil Young changes every record of course, so we’ve banned any artists from having more than one entry on this list (otherwise with Neil we’d be here all night!) Possibly the biggest gap, though, comes from his early days on Geffen, with a jump between the futuristic electronic Kraftwerk-like ‘Trans’ and the retro rockabilly of ‘Everybody’s Rockin’. Both albums have come in for stick from fans (unfairly, I think, in the case of the former) and certainly both are as far off the beaten track as its possible to go without being committed in an asylum somewhere. Bizarrely, though, despite the different instrumentation, styles, performers, cover art and themes (robots versus good old rock and roll), there are some similarities: you can’t hear Neil Properly at all (deliberately on the former, an album all about how Neil’s child Ben finds it hard to communicate – so we can’t hear Neil on this vocoder-filled album either; accidentally on the latter, due to a haphazard mix), love and life are still unfathomable mysteries on each album and finally you have to suspend your disbelief about the often clumsy backing. Still, perhaps the biggest difference is Tran’s ambition – 50 minutes of almost continual assault on the senses, on some of Neil’s best ever songs about life, family and robots verses 25 minutes of tired rock and roll covers designed on purpose to annoy the record company.

And that’s it yet again. Be sure to join us next time for more news, views and music! 

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