Monday, 11 June 2012

News, Views and Music Issue 148 (Top Ten): Notable AAA Sleevenotes

What persuades you to part with your hard-earned cash and give some album you’ve never heard of a try? Past knowledge of a band? The cover? One particular song? A glowing review you’ve read on Alan’s Album Archives?!? Chances are if you were reading this in the early 60s you might have been tempted to say ‘the sleeve notes’ or the ‘liner notes’, back in the days when packaging was minimal, lyrics and photographs were rare and designers had the space of a whole vinyl-Lp shaped piece of cardboard to fill with ideas. Alas sleevenotes are something of a dying art these days, which is why so many of the AAA examples here are so early (note, rather than make this a top 20 we’ve stuck to ‘proper’ albums not rarities, compilations or box sets although five stars for the work on the CSn box set, Hollies rarities, the Monkees Missing Links sets and the Beach Boys comp ‘California Dreamin’ – and yes, I really did buy this last one solely for the sleevenotes, although it was only 50p in a charity shop!) So, without further ado, here are eight AAA albums that either got the genre spectacularly spot on or really helped the listener cope navigate their way around a particularly difficult album – and two really bad notable failures that should never have got off the drawing board.

The Beatles “Beatles For Sale” (1964)

Tony Barrow, ‘Beatcomber’ of Mersey music paper and Beatles press officer, was the undeniable king of the liner notes. The Beatles weren’t the first artists to use the idea, but like so many things they were the first to raise packaging to an art-form, as early as first album ‘Please Please Me’. Its fourth album ‘Beatles For Sale’ (on sadly Barrow’s last set of notes) that wins our prize, however, for correctly guessing that ‘when, in a generation or so, a radio-active cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn, asks you what the Beatles affair was all about – don’t try to explain all about the long hair and the screams...The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth that we do today’. Laughed at in the day for being even more OTT than usual (in 1964 The Beatles were still a ‘pop’ band, a cult that most people were surprised had lasted the year out), sitting here in 2012 it sounds like Barrow got the world’s love affair with The Beatles and all the things they represented spot-on!

The Beach Boys “All Summer Long” (1964)

It was a toss-up between this album and ‘Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!)’ to be honest, the two albums where the band dispense with the vague generic outpourings of praise that generally appeared on their albums and wrote the things themselves. The band really become personalities in these two sleeve-notes in the way that they never had a chance to on stage or in the media (where Mike made all the noise and all the reporters looked to Brian for the soundbite anyway). Dennis starts his sleevenotes from the tail-end of 1964 with the line ‘they say I like to live my life fast...’, showing off his shallow image with talk of girls, scooters and drums (with the emphasis on girls, naturally) before showing his hidden maturity with the eerie line ‘I know it won’t last forever...but the memories will’. Carl is still in awe of the whole success machine, saying that it felt ‘just like yesterday that we started’ (well, it was only two years Carl!) and shows his nice side by praising everyone around him to the hilt, especially his brothers and fans. Al’s sleevenotes show him as the outsider from the start (his opening line is ‘I may not be in the family...’) and talks about how great being in the Beach Boys is before coming out with a long list of moans (‘2 hours of sleep each night and tranquilizers before each meal’). Interestingly only Al feels it necessary to say what he does in the band (‘I play rhythm guitar and sing various backgrounds with the fellas’) and opens the paragraph by saying that being in the band is ‘one of the greatest experiences of my life’. One of?! He was only 20 back then and was part of the then-best selling American band of all time!

Mike’s passage may well be the best of all, saying how such a ‘small space’ isn’t room to ‘express something a guy could write a book about’. He also sounds nicer than his public image, talking about his guilt at seeing girls crying because they couldn’t get a touch of their idols. He ends with the words ‘maybe I’ll get another chance sometime...’ – he only had to wait two albums! Finally, Brian has bypassed the fame, the girls, the stress and the band to talk about his writing, telling us he gets his inspiration ‘from going to school, being in love, winning and losing in sports’ (that explains ‘Be True To Your School’ – but not Pet Sounds or Smile!) He also includes the curious phrase ‘a sociologist would tell me I’m trying to create a feeling of superiority’ – where did that line come from?! Even the band sign-offs reveal their different personalities: Dennis promises to ‘see you in your town!’, Carl is ‘always’ and Brian is ‘sincerely’ (Mike and Al don’t say anything!) A treasure trove for Beacxh Boys scholars and wannabe psychologists everywhere!  

Simon and Garfunkel “Wednesday Morning 3AM” (1964)

I love the sleevenotes to the first Simon and Garfunkel album perhaps more than any others on this list. Of course they’re really not a set of sleevenotes at all, but a letter written by Art to Paul after the duo have gone their separate ways and the latter has gone to Britain to seek fame and fortune. Art is grumbling about having ‘three term papers to write’, completely oblivious to the way ‘Sounds of Silence’ from this very album is about to change his life forever, although he does ask for some chord changes to the title track so he can ‘do singles at Gerde’s for a few nights’. He does, however, go on to his task proper, offering up a ‘listener’s guide’ which he thinks Columbia ought to follow for their sleeve notes (little realising they’d be printed more or less complete). Art is, as ever, empthatetic enough to his partner’s voice to ‘get’ the songs and explain them better than Paul ever could: the ‘innocent voice of uncomfortable youth’ is the perfect summation of ‘He Was My Brother’; on Sparrow ‘the clarity of the song’s structure is matched by the simplicity of it’s subject’; Sounds of Silence is a ‘major work’, back when no one but Simon and Garfunkel believed in it at all – ‘when meaningful communication fails, the only sound is silence’.

The Byrds “Mr Tambourine Man” (1965)

I’m convinced that most of the ‘fuss’ about the Byrds from the minute they got their name comes from the sleevenotes of this first album. Billy James’ liner notes are one of the longest spent on any band in the 60s – very impressive forethought for a debut album – and straight from the headline (‘an open letter to a friend’) he ‘gets’ informal American youth of the day much better than most patronising messages left on record sleeves. His lines about the band getting ‘the beauty, the poetry, the love that’s in the best of what’s called folk...onto top 40 radio’ is as good a summation as any as to what The Byrds were all about in 1965. It’s the quotes from the Byrds themselves that really catch the eye, however: the technologically minded McGuinn compares the exciting ‘krrrriiissssshhh’ sound of ‘his’ generation to a jet airplane and the ‘rrrroooaaaarrr’ sound of his parent’s generation to an airplane, with the youth of the day very much replacing the sound of Sinatra and co. The band’s fans are on pretty good form too: ‘they’re bubbly and high and fast; rakish and raffish...they’re orange and green and yellow and near’. I can’t say I agree (because I don’t know what the last bit means!) but you know what – this sounds exciting, like a band I really want to have in my collection (actually ‘Tambourine Man’ is a bit of a let-down after reading these sleevenotes!)

The Hollies “For Certain Because” (1966)

Here’s a tip for any band that wants some sleevenotes for their new magnum opus: don’t under any circumstances get the non-writing drummer of a rival band and your publicist to write them for you because the results will be chaos. If very fun! Gray Leeds of the Walker Brothers (none of whom were named Walker and none of which were brothers, by the way) and Allan McDougal wrote some delightfully eccentric patter, which perhaps doesn’t best reflect what might well be the most serious Hollies LP of the 60s (it’s certainly the grumpiest!) The Hollies wrote all the tracks, you see, ‘as well as a railroad track, a race track and a dirt track – but we couldn’t get all those on the record, unfortunately’. Graham Nash gets called a ‘bearded balladeer’ and the pair ‘wouldn’t change the Hollies for all the Scotch and Coke in the world’. The highlight, though, is the description of the making of ‘Crusader’, one of the strongest tracks on the record, and the abandoned experiments (such as chucking peas in a box to sound like marching feet) – a great eye-witness account of what went on in Abbey Road in 1966! Sssh – shh! Don’t tell anyone, but these eccentric sleevenotes are actually pretty fine at the end of the day!

The Kinks “Arthur” (1969)

Alas I’ve given away my old CD copy and the last Pye re-issue (with bonus tracks) doesn’t include it, but if I remember rightly there was a great and sensitive set of sleevenotes about this most troubled of Kinks albums that really got into the heart and soul of the record. The album starts discussing Camelot and King Arthur before admitting that, actually, its the simpler tale of an ordinary man who’d been passed by his whole life through. His son has had enough of post-war Britain and is emigrating to Australia, leaving poor Arthur alone and wondering whether he should have done the same years ago. The story resonates all the more because a) Ray Davies did very little promotion for this album b) the album features very few clues as to what’s going on in the storyline and c) the story is real: Arthur is the Davies’ brothers’ uncle and according to Dave Davies’ book he cried his eyes out after hearing his life story put on record (the son who leaves with his son, Terry, was Ray’s closest childhood companion and his desertion for Australia when the pair were in their teens still haunts him now, I think). The ending lines of the liner notes ‘but its been a good life hasn’t it? Well, hasn’t it?!’ are the perfect tug-of-war at the heart of the album, with Arthur hard done by his whole life but unwilling to complain because he got everything out of life he was ever promised (the same house with mortgage all his friends have, the same car, the same pitiful retirement fund). The best example of how a listening experience really can be enhanced by the words written on the back of the jacket.

Neil Young “Decade” (1977)

Neil is a witty writer when he wants to be – I for one can’t wait for his autobiography due this October – and nowhere is there a better example than his hilarious trot down memory lane for his first compilation album celebrating 10 years of releases (well, 11 actually by the time it came out!; there’s so much ‘new’ music on this set, though, we’re treating it as an ‘official’ release!) The most quoted statement comes from hit single ‘Heart Of Gold’: ‘This put me in the middle of the road – travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there!’ There are other gems too, though: ‘Burned’ was Neil’s first vocal ever professionally recorded (‘The boys gave me some uppers to get my nerve up. Maybe you can hear that’); ‘Cinnamon Girl’ (‘I wrote this one for a girl on Peeling Pavement coming at me through Phil Ochs Eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.’), ‘Helpless’ (‘Recorded at 4 AM when everyone [CSNY] got tired enough to play at my speed’) and ‘Ohio’ (‘Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning’).  Let’s hope Neil’s book is typed when it arrives though: some of his handwriting on this album is really really hard to read!

Belle and Sebastian “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” (2005)

We covered this one pretty fully in News and Views issue 139, but here’s a bit more for you anyway. Among his other talents Stuart Murdoch is a fantastic sleeve writer, managing to say everything without really saying anything, suddenly leaping off at random to talk about his favourite words, Thin Lizzy lyrics, waiting at bus-stops and days at the job centre. Alas the Belle and Sebastian albums have got slightly worse over time after their brilliant start in 1995 (see review no 98 for the reasons why), but Murdoch’s sleeve notes have got better and better. This 2005 version is the best of all and extended to a record five pages taking in everything from chicken licken and Glasgow’s ‘indie playground’ (not a band but the way the green of the grass gradually turns into the same shade of brown as the buildings in the Autumn) to man’s inability to express his emotions and John Peel’s Christmas party to being a photographer to Murdoch’s top five pieces of clothing to a tale of him posting a jacket through the Royal Mail because it got too hot to carry around with him to the two towers in the Lord of the Rings. Oh and Murdoch’s favourite word, which is naturally enough ‘creepeth’ (of course it is! Anything more obvious would spoil the whole thing!)  Strange subjects all, but they sound natural the way Murdoch tells them. Very like the album, actually, which is to date the last great B and S moment, full of pathos, powerplays, disillusionment, entrapment, courage and suffering, an extraordinary album for ordinary people.

The Byrds “Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965, first pressings only)

And now we’re on to the two worst examples. Thankfully the album was pulled very quickly, but the original sleeve notes on The Byrds’ second album (and unsanctioned by them, it must be notes) ran. ‘Beg steal or borrow a copy. See that blind man over there? Mug him and maybe you can buy it!’ Predictably there was an outcry and the notes got pulled. Let me just run that past you again – yes the back of the record really did give permission to teenage hoodlums to rob a harmless disabled man of his money so that you could hear the record. Even for the Byrds surely that isn’t worth robbery? Definitely a case of a sleeve writer going too far with the demands to get record-buyers to purchase this particular album before the Byrds go out of fashion. But why didn’t anyone stop him before the outcry? Not the band’s greatest moment, especially the following sentence which tells the hapless reader to ‘make sure you put the boot in...’

The Monkees “More Of The Monkees” (1967)

And finally, what do you do when you’re Don Kirshner, musical director of The Monkees empire and under orders from your boss to let the band record more of their own material and have a bigger say in the songs you choose for them to sing? You take up the whole of the album’s back sleeve talking about what a wonderful guy you are of course, thanking each producer and composer in turn and drawing attention to the very musical scandal (the band not playing on their own albums) that the company is trying very hard to cover up. Note also Don Kirshner’s rather large credit on the top of the sleeve which is bigger than that of the names of any of The Monkees, who were themselves forced to buy this record from a local shop whilst on tour because no one thought to actually give them a copy of ‘their’ record...

And that’s that for another issue. See you next time around at News, Views and Music!   

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