Monday, 3 December 2012
A Coalition Christmas
Once upon a time there was a man called Cameron. Nobody knew what he really did for a living but most of it consisted of laughing at the poor and trying to make their lives a misery. For some reason no one had tried to stop him flouting the power he shouldn’t have had despite the fact he had lots of dodgy friends, like the Beagle Brooks. He ‘worked’ in a big house in Downing Street where the people always had lots of money and most of the people he worked with had been to a big school with him called Eton and were really rich. His servant Nick Clegg wasn’t a bad sort, but he loved the warm glow of Cameron’s fire and the heat it gave off so much that he could never bring himself to stand up to his own boss and risk being kicked out into the cold. One day, on a particularly snow-ridden Christmas Eve, Cameron was in a really fierce mood. ‘No coal for the fire today’ he told Clegg ‘Oh and you’ll be in charge of running the country again. I’m taking yet another day off to play ‘angry birds’ on my i-pad, count my money and laugh at poor people’.
With that Cameron walked out of his office looking at the people around him. ‘Hmm he’s enjoying himself too much’ he thought looking at a weary old man counting his pension. ‘We’ll have to take some money off him! Oh and there’s a man with one leg staggering down the pavement in agony – he’s clearly fit for work so I’ll have a word with his boss about making him work extra hours. Aha, there’s a hardworking young lad with pocket money to spare – should I send him to the workhouse, cut his family’s child benefit or simply add more hours to his wage as a chimney sweep?!’ The whole street feared old man Cameron and backed away from him when he approached. They prayed and prayed that the old miser would lose his power and be replaced by someone with more compassion and spirit.
And then a curious thing happened. Cameron was visited by the ghost of his brother Bob Marley – the pair hadn’t really shared much in common and had tried to keep quiet that they were related for both their sakes (we’ll ignore the ridiculous age difference for now!) After playing reggae music for half an hour and much ‘wailing’ Bob told Cameron that he would be visited by three spirits who would warn him about his wicked ways. That night Cameron spent his first ever night unable to sleep and had to resort to counting his moneybags - borrowed from the goblin George Osbourne he’d appointed as chancellor to help him drift off. They showed him the past (Old Mother Thatcher’s 1980s recession filled Government and hideous riots, when she went to the cupboard and pretended it was bare, with the iron lady’s legacy in tatters as she’s stabbed in the back by her own party), the present (Nick Clegg angrily shaking his fist at him and saying that his stance on the Leveson enquiry was so stupid he couldn’t possibly agree to it, until Cameron put another piece of coal on the fire and patted him on the head) and the future (an empty land with no one in it to shout and scream at except Cameron working as a servant to his Eton friends – because everyone who hadn’t gone to Eton had died of poverty and illness and they had to take turns as slaves).
Cameron was suddenly overcome with tears. He’d been a cruel, evil, vicious tyrant. He’d tried to claw onto power even when he hadn’t actually been voted into office. He spent his whole time trying to save money for a so-called deficit which didn’t exist (or at least not compared to peaks in the 50s, 70s, 80s or 90s – look at the figures people!) but was actually being spent on laborious office parties. He’d tried to limit the freedom of the press in case they found out something awful about him. He’d tried to take away from the deserving to give to his millionaire rich buddies and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He’d tried to bully his European neighbours into doing what he wanted just because he shouted the loudest even though his knowledge of fiscal policy was naught. He’d set up computer after computer system designed to turn real people into tick-box pieces of meat. He’d bulldozed the local hospital in the name of saving money, leaving the ill to sleep on the pavements outside. He’d destroyed whole decades’ worth of progress in the name of the needy and vulnerable and left them all prey to conmen, crooks and Cameron cronies.
In a terror, Cameron woke up and stared out of the window. Please God, let all that not be true! The past, the preset, the future...oh, the horror! It was Christmas morning. The brand new i-phone with angry birds apps lay at the end of his bed as expected, even though Cameron had been a very naughty boy and hadn’t expected anything off Santa this year. And now here was the big question – how to act in 2013? Was it too late to change his ways? Would he be cast aside by an angry mob like old mother Thatcher? Would Clegg rise up to fight him and stick a metaphorical pickaxe in the back of his head? Would Cameron end up lost and alone? (At least he was used to that feeling, having regularly left members of his family behind in public places!) Or should he carry on as normal, hoping the vision in his dream had never happened? After all, he’d just that very month signed a charter to make the disabled poor work for their benefits and he couldn’t possibly sink any lower. Could he?...
As usual the news section is available by clicking this link:
ANNIVERSARIES: Birthday dates have come around again for the following AAA members born between December 5th and 11th: Bobby Elliott (drummer with The Hollies 1963-present) who turns 70 on December 8th. Anniversaries of events include: The Rolling Stones publicise their new album with a fondly remembered ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ with the world’s music press which degenerates into a food fight! (December 5th 1968); The first of seven specially made Beatles Christmas Flexi-discs is sent to members of the fab four’s fanclub (December 6th 1963); A busy day for The Rolling Stones who record their classics ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ and ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ in the space of a few hours (December 6th 1965); Four people die at a free festival – one of them murdered by the Hells Angel security - held in Altamont Speedway 40 years ago this week, headlined by The Rolling Stones and also featuring AAA groups CSNY, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane (whose lead singer Marty Balin is concussed after breaking up a fight between Hells Angels and audience; December 6th 1969 – the film of the tour, ‘Gimme Shelter’, premieres on the same day in 1970); The Beatles’ Apple Boutique opens its doors at 94 Baker Street (December 7th 1967) and finally, the NME are first to reveal that Graham Nash is leaving The Hollies to work with David Crosby and Stephen Stills in an as yet un-named band (December 7th 1967); The Beach Boys release their first single ‘Surfin’ on the independent Candix label a staggering 49 years ago (December 8th 1961); Pink Floyd release their seminal album ‘The Wall’ – it will go on to be the last #1 by anybody of the 1970s (December 8th 1979); John Lennon dies outside his Dakota Building home in New York weeks after his 40th birthday (December 8th 1980); The Moody Blues with Wingsman Denny Laine score big with their first hit ‘Go Now’ (December 10th 1964); Otis Redding dies at the age of 27 in an aeroplane crash (December 10th 1967) and finally, John Lennon releases his first solo LP ‘Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band’ (December 11th 1970).
Available to buy in ebook format 'Change Partners - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of CSNY' by clicking here!
“Stephen Stills” (1970)
Love The One You’re With/Do For The Others/Church (Part Of Someone)/Old Times Good Times/Go Back Home//Sit Yourself Down/To A Flame/Black Queen/Cherokee/We Are Not Helpless
‘Stephen Stills’ the record comes right in the middle of arguably the greatest run of form of any AAA member. Released in November 1970 (eight months after CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’, 17 months after ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’, and with three classic Buffalo Springfield records shortly before that and both ‘Stephen Stills II’ and the first Manassas record waiting in the wings in 18 months’ time, AAA gems all) Stills is at his peak, scoring his only solo hit with the catchy ‘Love The One You’re With’ and winning critics over with the best reviews of his career. In truth, we should have covered this fine album alongside Stills’ other greats on our original ‘core’ reviews list, but I had fears it was all getting a little Stills centred (we already covered ‘Stills II’ ‘Manassas’ and ‘Stills’) and ‘Stephen Stills’ is arguably the best known and best covered of all of these albums, hence the fact that I’ve delayed writing about it till now. But why is it so special and why is it this album out of all the fine CSN works together and apart that regular appear on ‘classic album’ lists?
Apart from the obvious (great songs and fine musicianship) here’s my theory. There’s a contradiction in Stephen Stills’ writing that I love. On stage he’s brash, arrogant, fiercely in control even when working with egos the size of Crosby Nash and Young’s and he’s the kind of person you imagine has skated through life without any inner doubts or sleepless nights whatsoever. Everyone has their own favourite Stephen Stills moment. Mine is the day he ‘dropped in’ on a Souther Hillman Furay recording session in 1975, totally re-arranging their song and adding piano guitar and harmony vocals and completely renovating the drum part before spending several hours behind the mixing desk working on the track as everybody else went home. It was only after the trio left that they found out Stills hadn’t even been invited to work on the song (though he’d worked with both Furay and Hillman in the past) and hadn’t even introduced himself to JD Souther who is reputed to have asked ‘who was that?’ on his way out the door. It turns out Stills had gate-crashed the session in his delight at finding his old friends at work and never even considered that they wouldn’t want his input or want to do the song ‘their’ way. And unlike, say, ‘Sting’ (who Pete Townshend famously called ‘the only writer I know who doesn’t have any self-doubt at all’) or Bono, it wasn’t a case of Stills trying to show off and thinking he’s God – he genuinely thought he was trying to help and that his ideas were better. After all, In Stills’ eyes he’s the guy who suggested adding the pedal steel to ‘Teach Your Children’ and turned ‘Long Time Gone’ from a rather ponderous David Crosby demo into one of the greatest songs of the late 60s, not to mention being lauded by so many critics of the day as the real talent in the trio. In his eyes it just seemed likew the friendly thing to do.
But you don’t have to look very far through Stills’ work to realise what a shivering bag of doubt and fear exists under that unruffled persona and how often those concerns rise to the surface. Stills is hardly alone in this – by their very nature songwriters have to sing about themselves and they’d soon have run out of material if everything in their life was one big party. Ray Davies, for instance, is a unique mix of on-stage extrovert and off-stage introvert, spending hours in concerts swilling beer over the front rows of his audience while unable to even look them in the eyes when meeting them outside ‘work’. Pete Townshend, too, is far from the aggressive wind-milling brash arrogant punk his stage persona projects (in fact it’s the sudden switches between his own fears and doubts and his acted-through-Daltrey swagger that’s the secret behind all The Who’s best songs). But Stills is a special case because you sense that sometimes even he doesn’t seem to have worked out the discrepancy within himself. There’s a point on this album, on the song ‘To A Flame’ where Stills waves goodbye to an old lover, wishes her well in her new life and whispers to the audience‘...lucky for me I’m not a jealous man’. This line comes after four minutes of the most achingly heart-wrenchingly soul-destroying lyrics in the AAA canon, related to a smothering smoky ballad that’s as musically claustrophobic as being stuck in a room with the Spice Girls, all about how great she is and how he can never, ever say goodbye (Stills still writes the odd song about the person behind this song even now). That line is not sung in jest either, a jokey self-reference to his own excesses - Stills means that line exactly the way it’s sung and this is just one example of the gap between the Stills on record and the Stills persona given to the world; there are oodles of other ones in Stills’ work, especially in his solo career and especially across this album.
For the moment, that’s a plus. Few writers have a heart big enough and a brain literate enough to translate these feelings into songs as good as the ones here and Stills’ lyrics are rarely better than this, even in his CSN/Y eras. ‘Do For The Others’ could easily be a traditional song passed down the centuries, full of winning little alliterative touches and a lyric that neatly suits its cyclical melody without trying as hard as other songwriters would. ‘Church’ is one of Stills’ deepest songs, combining the religious feel that he gets when with someone he loves and understands well and wondering why ‘God’ deserts the couple during the times he simply doesn’t understand his loved one at all. ‘To A Flame’ is a sizzling romance that sounds like it comes from some film noir French movie, but infinitely better, the closest in musical terms to the rhythmic ebb and flow of the Russian writers of the 19th century. ‘Cherokee’ admits to the discussion we’ve had above, that ‘nobody knows’ the real Stills apart from his ‘Raven’ while simultaneously telling the story of the misunderstood American Indian tribe. Even ‘Black Queen’, simple as it is, has fooled many of my friends over the years into thinking it’s a genuine 19th century traditional blues song, like the sort of thing the Stones covered once an album in the 70s or The Animals covered to fill out their records. ‘We Are Not Helpless’ is the one song here that possibly over-reaches itself in ambition, seeking to relate the sentiment of the 60s youth movement growing up into adulthood and asserting themselves, although even here lesser writers wouldn’t even begin to realise that there was such a movement to write about. The scope of these songs really are tremendous.
Throughout the lyrics crop up the usual Stills references which long-term fans probably know already, but they’re worth spelling out here as they turn up an awful lot even for Stills on this record. ‘Birds’ have long been a Stills symbol dating back to the Springfield’s ‘Bluebird’ and isn’t so much a cockney slang term (‘oo seen me bird, gove?’) as a metaphor for their beauty, their independence and their ‘flightiness’. In Stills slang a ‘sparrow’ is singer-songwriter Judy Collins (see ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and both versions of ‘Bluebird’), Stills’ big muse who plays hard to get for much of the second half of the 60s before disappearing for good come 1970 (‘To A Flame’ is, probably, her ‘goodbye’ song). ‘The Raven’, as featured so often on this album, is singer-songwriter Rita Coolidge, who ornithologist Stills will still be trying to capture with a net come his Manassas days. Coolidge, best known in Britain for her single ‘You’ve Lifted Me Higher and Higher’, also played hot and cold with Stills before breaking his heart and marrying Kris Kristoffersen in 1973. For this record the raven is an optimistic metaphor: she’s the ‘soulmate’ in ‘Cherokee’, the only one who really understands the narrator; she ‘burns her wings’ trying to fly away in ‘To A Flame’ before realising her mistake and the pair are sharing their lives together on ‘Sit Yourself Down’ (as well as ‘growing just a little each day’). By Manassas the raven has become dark and ominous, more akin to the Edgar Allan Poe metaphor of the raven as a harbinger of doom, inspiring a whole side long suite of love-sick farewells (although it’s fair to say that 90% of the Manassas album is about her) – but for the moment the raven means hope and happiness and for now its just nice to hear Stills so happy.
One other thing that’s so impressive about this album is the dynamic range. Stills is a master at building up steam across a song and letting them build gradually and he never did better than the 10 tracks here, all of which build to a certain intensity by the end of the recording, getting louder and louder past the point where you think they’ve already reached a maximum. Hearing 10 songs doing that across an album could be considered boring – but each of them manage to pull that trick off in different ways thanks to the different styles so that the ‘folky’ ‘Do For The Others’ loud booming chorus sounds entirely different to the frenetic electric guitar blues work out on ‘Goin’ Home’. ‘Sit Yourself Down’ even builds a whole song around this idea, the narrator crying out to be slowed down and take stock of life (a familiar Stills phrase later heard on tracks like ‘Singin’ Call’ and ‘Johnny’s Garden’) on the muted verses and then losing control in the chorus thanks to the joy of his discovery about rest and relaxation, inspiring a killer power chorus about, erm, being quiet. By the time we reach last track ‘We Are Not Helpless’ with its string and brass sections and its even bigger and booming power chorus the whole experience sounds epic. A handful of other AAA albums have handled similar sort of tricks down the years but few, if any, manage to achieve the same pitch as ‘Stephen Stills’.
Of course this album is perhaps most famous today because of who else appears on it. I can’t remember which quiz it was now but years ago I came across the question ‘Which 1970s singer-songwriter album is the only one ever made featuring guitar gods Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton on the same record?’ The answer – in case you didn’t know, hadn’t guessed or haven’t actually worked out what album we’re reviewing yet– is ‘Stephen Stills’. Stills and Hendrix were friends dating way back, long before either man was famous, and wasn’t without its share of trouble for Stills (who risked his neck to play with a black musician in the deep South of America in the 1950s when segregation was still rife). Somewhere out there somewhere there’s meant to be a great tape of these two teenage wannabes duelling with each other – sadly the closest I’ve found is a poorly recorded jam session by the pair re-creating the CSNY Joni Mitchell cover ‘Woodstock’ (about the festival which brought both men to fame). Alas we don’t really get a chance to hear Stills and Hendrix together here either – Stills sticks to playing organ and letting Jimi steal the guitar hero limelight (though the pair had loose plans for an album of guitar duels in 1971). Which, alas, brings me to a second music quiz question – ‘Stephen Stills’ also features one of the very last (possibly the last) studio recordings Hendrix ever made, the guitarist dying six months after recording this song and barely weeks before the album release. A heartbroken Stills took the call that his friend was dead, phoned up Atlantic to get them to add a last minute dedication to the record (‘To James Marshall Hendrix’) and then spent the day in a haze of tears and booze climbing a mountain (well, it worked for Crosby that Spring when he climbed Mt Tampalpais on hearing the news his girlfriend Christine had died in a car crash; perhaps the pair climbed it together?) Notoriously the Springfield and CSNY might never have existed had another phone call made in 1965 got through (Hendrix really wanted Stills to join his Experience band on bass but couldn’t trace his old friend, who was actually in the a capella Au Go Go Singers and had temporarily given up rock and roll at the time).
As for Clapton, he does get to duel guitars with Stills on the fiery ‘Go Back Home’, a song possibly written by Stills to sound like the heavier riff-based songs of ‘Cream’ (who’d broken up in 1968). The pair didn’t know each other as well as Stills knew Hendrix, but this was Eric’s ‘personable’ period when anyone and everyone approached him to appear on record, before drink and drugs got in the way of his story too. Many ‘slowhand’ aficionados rate his mesmerising solo at the end of this song as among his best work, improvising his way past the song’s sluggish tempo and restrictive riff to find the real outpouring of passion and emotion the song calls out for after four minutes of carefully built tension. Frankly its a shame that the pair haven’t worked together again, as Stills clearly brings out the best in Clapton here – and Stills’ own solo in the song is one of his strongest, as if he’s been inspired to raise his game in response.
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the shadow of CSNY hanging over this record. Like Neil Young’s contemporary ‘After The Goldrush’ Stills is still friendly enough with his old colleagues to invite them along and Crosby and Nash crop up so many times in the backing vocals that at times this does sound like a CSN record. However, the biggest link for true CSN fans is yet another song about the group, specifically Stills’ comforting song of empathy with Crosby after the tragic loss of girlfriend Christine Hinton in a car crash(see our review of Crosby’s contemporary solo album ‘If Only I Could Remember My Name’ for more on this). ‘Do For The Others’ even sounds like it’s been written in one of Crosby’s eccentric jazz-style guitar tunings, as if Stills was trying to tune into the grief of his partner and makes for an interesting comparison to Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, a song written in this period for Graham Nash after his split with Joni Mitchell. CSNY really were a ‘family’ back in 1970, when even the ‘Deja Vu’ era split earlier in the year was deemed only temporary and caused by spending too much time together (the quartet weren’t to know they wouldn’t record a full album together till 1988).
A quick word too about the cover and packaging. For reasons best known to himself Stills appears on the cover in the snow outside his ‘cabin’ in the Colorado mountains (see various Manassas songs for more on this legion and the part it plays in Stills’ life) with a serious look on his face – and a toy giraffe at his side. The theme, of sorts, is that Stills is the kind of musician who’ll play a song anywhere at any time (even in a heavy ankle-deep fall of snow) – though the reason behind the giraffe is less clear. More serious is Stills’ use of an actual poem for his record, Charles John Quatro’s ‘A Child Grew Up On Strings’ which was probably added at the same time as the dedication to Hendrix. The tale of a character brought up on music as the alternative to a more restrictive, more uncomfortable way of life and clearly had a significance for Stills (this may well be where his obsession with ‘bluebird’ comes from, after the line ‘this child grew into a bluebird, because he grew into his music’. Indeed, this poem could well be about Stills, so close is it to his life, fighting his way out of the ‘Deep South’, ‘losing his rhythm’ but playing on regardless, ‘growing wild’ before music pulls him back in line. However the key line is ‘He sang his fears out of his mouth’, a line which more or less reflects what we wrote earlier and which takes place several times across Stills’ career and particularly this album. Interestingly it was Nash, not Stills, who ‘discovered’ Quatro and produced an album for him.
Overall ‘Stephen Stills’ is a fine album and a likable record at that. It shows off Stills’ ability to be both loudmouthed and subtle, charismatic and powerful on the one hand yet sensitive to the feelings of those around him on the other. They say that the key to a good writer is his (or her) ability to turn characters around in the light, showing new sides to their character as they re-act to new situations but with these new developments being plausible and believable given what we know of them in the past. ‘Stephen Stills’ is a musical case in point, going somewhere new with every single track and developing our ideas of who Stills is. In short, this record is a true solo album, despite the many special guests spread across the album, developing what we know of Stills without any input from C-N-Y or Buffalo Springfield members to get in the way. Few albums manage to pack as much into a single album as this one does (and that goes ‘double’ for the later two disc set ‘Manassas’ by the way), taking in breezy pop (‘Love The One You’re With’), folk (‘Do For The Others’), gospel (‘Church’), traditional blues (‘Black Queen’), modern blues (‘Go Back Home’), smoky ballads (‘To A Flame’) and soul (‘Cherokee’). No other Stills record manages to reconcile so many characters on one record – and yet the album does manage to hang together awfully well. For my money I still prefer ‘Manassas’ for its sheer bravado and the amazing lack of filler compared to other double albums, ‘Stephen Stills II’ for the brilliance of its high points like ‘Word Game’ (even if its average strike rate is a tiny bit lower than this record) and ‘Stills’ for its optimistic, hopeful tone. But that shouldn’t get in the way of how great a record ‘Stephen Stills’ is and how impressive it is that Stills sustains his craft through so many styles across almost the whole LP.
Much has been written about why Stills’ work declined so rapidly after sustaining such a ridiculously high standard. Some people have said Stills burnt himself out, others that drink and drugs got in the way, other more sensitive souls have added that after Stills’ second muse (Miss Cootlidge) walked out of his life without the happy endings he wrote about that he lost his main incentive to write. The fact that Neil Young’s star rose despite no effort or plan whatsoever whilst Stills’ workaholic-induced mountains of efforts ended up counting for naught past about 1975 probably didn’t help matters much either. All these theories sound true as far as they go, but I would add another. There’s a marvellous song called ‘Witching Hour’ Stills recorded late on in the Manassas sessions which wasn’t released until as late as ‘Pieces’ in 2009 despite being one of Stills’ greatest ever songs. Reading between the lines the song probably got left off the album because it revealed a little too much about the psyche, even for a Stephen Stills song (although, typically, Stills didn’t stop fellow Manassas man Chris Hillman from releasing his own cover of the song on one of his solo albums in 1976). The burst of third solo album ‘Stills’ aside, it’s arguably the last truly great song Stills wrote (at least until co-writing ‘Haven’t We Lost Enough?’ in 1989) and suggests that Stills has finally come to terms with the contradiction in his nature and so has nothing left to write about. After all, few songwriters have ever matched the scope and range of Stills’ records in this 1967-72 period.
‘Love The One You’re With’ is Stills’ most famous solo moment and arguably the most ‘hippie’ song he ever wrote, advertising the joys of free love and the value of love whoever you’re with, however deep it goes (despite being in one of the world’s premier ‘hippie’ bands Stills’ military family background and Texan roots often stop him getting as ‘mystical’ as his compatriots). You sense, too, that despite this song’s verve and joy it was probably born of frustration. Stills has spent the past few years chasing Judy Collins to no avail and is now chasing Rita Coolidge to the same ends; hence the actually rather doom laden imagery of ‘If you can’t be with the one you love...’ The song doesn’t sound doom laden though; on the contrary its a rare release of joy and abandon for the usually serious Stills and its bouncy Spanish-ish guitar riff and its breezy, bright melody is as infectious as anything CSN ever wrote. The song actually started life when Stills, who loved to hang around with other musicians, overheard Billy Preston singing the line as part of one of his songs and asked if he could use it; tickled by the offer after years of working with the Beatles and Stones (the biggest rip off merchants in the business) Preston agreed (or at least that’s long been the story – I can’t actually find the lines in any Preston song and I do know most of them). Either way, the song builds up steam very slowly from an interesting organ lick to a guitar riff to Stills’ voice to a powerhouse chorus comprising Crosby, Nash. The Lovin Spoonful’s John Sebastian and – erm- Rita Coolidge (you wonder why Stills asked her to sing on ‘this’ song, about the only one on the LP not about their relationship? The lyrics are a bit of a slap in the face – or was that the idea after years of chasing from Stills’ point of view?) Infectious, joyous and full of clever snappy lyrics (the eagle flying with the dove is a particularly memorable image – and a refreshingly original rhyme for ‘love’ considering that song had been ‘used’ at the end of so many lines in so many songs by 1970!), its easy to see why ‘Love The One You’re With’ was such a hit. It stayed in the CSN/Y set lists for longer than any other song from the album too, along with this song’s moody polar opposite ‘Black Queen’.
Talking of CSNY, ‘Do For The Others’ is – along with ‘Change Partners’ – the only song written by Stills about his curious relationship with his CSY brethren (the others have written lots – Neil Young in particular). A gorgeous muffled folky ballad, it’s as austere and cold as the last song was vibrant and alive. The song was written when Crosby’s girlfriend Christine died in a car accident, taking the family’s pets to the vets (the police later assumed that one of them got loose, causing her to crash) somewhere late on in the CSNY ‘Deja Vu’ sessions. Crosby was understandably distraught and in fact was never the same again (he was still writing about the incident on his CPR albums in the 1990s). This song was Stills’ attempt to feel his brother’s ‘pain’ and its unique in the Stills canon, showing his soft, tender side (Crosby will return the favour with ‘King Of The Mountain’ released on the Crosby box set ‘Voyage’, perhaps the best song about Stills that Stills didn’t write). Stills even sounds a bit like Crosby here, thanks to the gentle acoustic strumming and the unusual jazzy guitar tunings (most Stills acoustic songs are all about rhythm and often about anger; this one is all about atmosphere and tuning in true Crosby style). The words are painful to listen to at times when you know the story, so successfully do they conjure up Crosby’s lifestyle and personality and especially his inability to come to terms with his loss, pretending he’s alright when he clearly isn’t (‘He cries from the misery, he lies singing harmony’ ‘Loving people everywhere, but where is she? She is not there), but throughout there’s the sense that this is a ‘traditional’ song, as if Crosby is going through loss as written about since time immemorial and that this sort of cruel, evil event is a natural part of life. Legend has it Stills re-recorded this song to make it ‘fit’ with the rest of the album, adding electric instruments and lots of overdubs before settling for this really early ‘acoustic’ mix of the song and junking several days’ work. He’ll be pleased to know it was the right move, ‘Do For The Others’ being a song calling out for a low key delivery. Sweet, subtle and truly heart-warming (Stills offers Crosby the ‘strength of his brothers’ at one point, clearly meaning him and Nash), this is one of Stills’ best ever songs and one of the highlights of the albums. It’s just a shame that the song is so short and that, at barely two verses (there is no chorus or middle eight) it could have been even greater with a little something extra.
‘Church’ is the opposite extreme, a booming bombastic song with a church organ and a gospel chorus that clearly does sound like ‘church’ – and yet the lyrics are actually quite similar to ‘For The Others’, albeit from a personal, more autobiographical view (my guess is that ‘church’ is the name Stills gave the song when he wrote the melody, but that the words took him in quite a different direction). The only link between them is the idea that the individual needs a ‘congregation’ of people and needs ‘to be part of someone’ in order to understand themselves. This song is clearly one written for Rita Coolidge (despite the unusual lack of ‘raven’ imagery) and about how Stills has ‘opened up’ entirely for the first time with her – and is wondering whether she might do the same? Even here, though, love is not entirely easy: the chorus isn’t how great it is to be together or sharing a love, instead it runs ‘It’s hard...yes it is! It’s hard yes it is!’ and sounds like a ticked off parent telling off their offspring (and about as far from the casual acquaintance of ‘Love The One You’re With’ as you can get). Stills even turns, to some extent, on poor Rita, imploring ‘you’ve got to tell me baby – is it your ‘thing’ to be part of anyone?’ Fans have long admired this track which simply should not work – the gospel chorus is oversized compared to the rest of the song, the tempo slow and ponderous and the melody not that grand by Stills standards. But a combination of a terrific vocal and a clever deft arranging touch (the quiet, humble organ part, the only constant in the song, is a neat trick) pulls him through. Note, too, that Stills manages to sing a whole song about ‘church’ without mentioning religion or anything connected with it once.
‘Old Times, Good Times’ is the Hendrix collaboration and finds the two guitarists in nostalgic mood. Despite the pair being just 27, this sounds like a real ‘middle aged’ song, Stills remembering ‘old times’ learning to play the guitar and playing for people in public for the first time. It’s unclear whether Stills wrote the song to give Hendrix something to play or whether he only asked his old friend to play when he realised how apt the words were for both – either way, it’s a curiously eerie way for Hendrix to bid ‘farewell’, summing up his own life quite neatly, getting out of new York ‘before I got old’. Sadly the story runs out partway through – we don’t get to hear about Stills and Hendrix’s adventures in England for instance (both men becoming anglophiles in the late 60s) or both men being ‘discovered’ in the mid 60s. The song, for all it’s worth, also sounds like a bit of a throwaway, short even for this album and without the pristine arranging touches we know Stills is famous for. Worst of all, Stills sticks to organ throughout so that we never get a chance to hear these two old friends ‘bouncing off’ each other (that said, Stills’ organ part is terrific, caught somewhere between heavy rock and soul, smothering the vocals with a blanket of frustration and determination). For me personally, I’ve never much enjoyed Hendrix that much as a guitar player – sacrilege I know – and his playing was falling part long before his untimely end, as shown by the rather scattershot quality of this performance (perhaps if he’d set his guitar alight during the recording?...). However I’ve always loved his soulful voice (which, curiously, Hendrix hated and did his best never to use where he could use his guitar); sadly he keeps quite on this recording too although I can imagine his and Stills’ vocals going together quite well. Overall, then, its a sad place for Hendrix to say goodbye and for this long-lasting partnership to end – but then, well, neither man knew this would be their last work together, they thought they had all the time in the world back then, for all their ‘talk’ in the song of ‘old times’ (from barely 10 years before!)
At least Eric Clapton has plenty of space to show off his playing on ‘Go Back Home’, a bluesy song that really brings out the best in Stills’ vocal (this is the first time he really sings deep rather than tunefully – and it’s still nowhere near the vocal on ‘Black Queen’!) This isn’t so much a song as a list, the first four verses repeating their lines over and over in the blues tradition before Stills finally reverts to his more common writing style on the fifth and final one. There’s an intriguing line in the fourth verse about ‘people trapped in fear – and you can’t get near’, summing up the mood of the last song, but otherwise the song is ust another generic blues workout. In the last, more ordinary verse Stills wakes up alone, rings his girlfriend’s house and gets no answer before being told ‘there’s no one home’. Confused, Stills pleads with his girl ‘baby, what does this mean?’ before his rhythm playing hits the song’s angular riff and Clapton takes off to goodness knows where just past the 3:30 mark, improvising for a majestic 2:30 more at full flight, clearly finding more worth in this blues-based song than even Stills has (1970 was, more or less, the period he met Patti Boyd at George Harrison’s house – is this song an early hint at unrequited anguish before Clapton gets the courage to sweep her off her feet in the late 70s?) Or at least, that’s the way the ending seems on the album – there’s an outrageous edit at 5:20 that suggests this section is actually taken from a longer jamming session which rather mars the end of the song. Again, by Stills’ standards this song is considerably weaker and certainly less original than his normal style, but the head-scratching down-plunging riff is a good one and the performance of it exemplary, with Clapton showing why he has such a high reputation and Stills making magic with his voice. The painful sound of a break-up, the playful opening is walloped over the head by the end, with the listener left in no doubt as to what ‘game’ the girl in the song is playing.
‘Sit Yourself Down’ was the last song recorded for the album and may well be the best – I was always surprised this song didn’t do better as a single in the wake of ‘Love The One You’re With’. As a chronic fatigue sufferer I can certainly identify with this song – Stills sings about how he’s a changed man, how he’s going to take slower and relax more and not work himself into the ground so much before he burns himself out. Unfortunately he gets so carried away with the delight of not having to work so hard that by the chorus he’s already in true blues-hollering mood, shouting his new found discovery from the rooftops. Unable to slow himself, even when another power chorus intones ‘How many times? Sit yourself down, take a look around’, Stills has great fun with the vocal, improvising shouts and yells and putting his all into this song about, er, not doing much. Not for the first or last time Stills promises us that he’s done with the busy city life and is going to settle in the country, ‘growing a little each day’ with his loved one by his side (and we all know who that is when Stills adds ‘me and the raven make our way’ – this is another song Rita Coolidge sings on, incidentally). However, you don’t have to be clever to work out from the sound of the song that this is never going to happen – for all his talk Stills clearly thrives on the pace and speed of life in the fast lane and would vegetate in a second without it. A very clever song, ‘Sit Yourself Down’ is perfectly poised between the melancholic minor key verses and the optimistic major key chorus, switching between the two with sudden acceleration and decelerations of speed that are perfectly handled by Stills’ cast of regulars. Crosby, Nash, Sebastian and Mama Cass Elliott (on one of her last recordings before her death, sadly – is this album cursed?!) join Rita on the power chorus. It’s interesting to note that this ‘looped’ song ends not on the power chorus but on yet another switch-down to the verse, ending with an unresolved question mark – has Stills changed his ways at last? Has his body let him down? Or is this yet another false dawn?
‘To A Flame’ is a gorgeous, aching love song and shows Stills at his all time best in the melody stakes, with a slow aching weary climb upwards only to fall on an awkward single line that knocks the narrator’s legs from underneath him. Another song of confused love, presumably about Rita Coolidge again, the girl in the song is ‘drawn to the flame’ of love like a moth, unable to avoid its bright enticing light. However it isn’t true love – she’s simply drawn to anyone who loves her. The narrator knows what is going on but he’s powerless to do anything about it and can ‘only watch, out of touch, out of my mind’ (note that last phrase, which Neil Young turned into a song in the pair’s Buffalo Springfield days and is an unusual phrase for Stills to use). He even adds that ‘when this party’s over I will lose her to another’, acknowledging her flighty nature, but that doesn’t stop him caring about her and falling deeply in love. There’s a clever last verse, amongst Stills’ most quoted that sums up the dual feelings of the partnership, him wanting her to come back to him but not get hurt in doing so because he genuinely cares for her (‘Go ahead, break your heart, but don’t fall apart – it’s like saying goodbye to Paris for the first time’. Ironically Stills’ next love is Veronique Sanson, a French singer-songwriter from that very city and Paris will crop up on quite a few more Stills albums before the decade’s out). The orchestration on this song by Arif Marden is superb, full of mystery and suspense and clearly trying to sound like some smoky smouldering romantic film score (had Dr Zhivago sounded like this I might not have hated that film as much as I do, the biggest atrocity of the cinema after ‘Braveheart’). However Stills is superb here too, adding some perfectly judges piano, some nicely strummed guitarwork and a double tracked vocal of such longing and heartbreak that it ranks alongside his best, even if the smoky atmosphere means you don’t always understand the lyrics. Even Ringo, guesting on drums, almost plays well, with some uncharacteristic rattles across his set in stark contrast with most of his Beatles work. A real success story and one of the best songs about Stills and Rita’s on-off relationship, sung with a little bit of hope that things will work out right – but not all that much.
‘Black Queen’ is the album’s second most famous song and is known to most CSNY songs as a noisy electric guitar freakout that Stills poured his heart and soul into onstage several times across the 70s. Heard here its a simple acoustic blues, recorded one night when Stills was ‘drunk as a skunk’ at the end of the session for ‘Go Back Home’ with Clapton passed out in a taxi on his way home (the album’s frequently hilarious credits note that this song is ‘courtesy of Jose Cuervo Gold Label Tequila’ in the same way that other songs note that certain artists appear by courtesy of some record company or other). Stills’ vocal is deep and growly, sadly a familiar sound now after 40 more years of toil but outrageous back then. Both song and performance sound like an old blues game, a ‘song about a card game’ where a ‘black queen’ beats any hand the hapless narrator tries to play (no prizes for guessing who she’s based on...) Stills ‘ lyrics are in full keeping with the spirit of the old blues singers (Robert Johnson, for instance, would have made a great version of this song) but the best parts aren’t the words but Stills’ scat singing, humming along with his playing and suddenly leaping forth into yelps and screams. A completely one-off performance, that could never have been repeated, ‘Black Queen’ is an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary song, perhaps too raw for everyone’s taste but a clear reminder of how deep Stills’ well of passion and emotion really was and it goes without saying that, even whilst hideously drunk and with the odd mistake as a result (listen out for the wrong note at 5:09), Stills’ guitar playing is fantastic. Eric Clapton, by now fast asleep in his taxi, must have kicked himself for missing out on this song by a matter of hours as it’s perfectly up his street!
‘Cherokee’ is one of Stills’ favourite songs of his - despite being about as close to ‘filler’ as this album comes – and was re-worked by him in 1979 to have the distinction of being the world’s first ever digitally recorded song (the LA Record Plant – Stills’ usual hangout in this period – had just bought a 32 track digital recorded, the world’s first, and as the plant’s biggest name regular user with a love of technology Stills was an obvious choice for testing it). Heard in 1979 ‘Cherokee’ is a clunky, curious rocker that never quite takes off; here in 1970 ‘Cherokee’ is a breezy, infectious little rocker that’s still curious, combining the intriguing double stories of persecuted Cherokee American Indians and Stills’ hopeless quest for Rita Coolidge. Everything is packed into this tiny song. Booker T Jones, formerly Otis Redding’s keyboardist, gives the song a soulful edge and Stax horns dominate the sound (more on them on next record ‘Stephen Stills II’...), but there’s also a cute flute part courtesy of Sidney George and a sweet almost folky interlude in between all the power and noise. The lyrics are few and far between, Stills realising that ‘all this time I’ve been loving blind’ but refusing to give up his dreams, crossly arguing with fate ‘but, like, the Raven, she knows me!’ ‘We’ve got to move on!’ Stills sings at the song’s end, urging the pair to move on, but the song’s hypnotic riff still has us in it’s spell and it’s musically rolling off a cliff, getting more and more fraught before finally collapsing on it’s root note and gradually running out of steam. Listen out for Stills’ psychedelic guitar part, by the way, which is a neat mimic for Tony Hicks’ flower power banjo parts on several Hollies records circa 1967-70 and quite unlike anything Stills has played before or since.
The album ends on ‘We Are Not Helpless’, a song many people took to be a reply to Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’, one of the most loved songs from CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’ album. Despite the close timing (‘Deja Vu’ came out in May 1970, this album in November the same year) apparently that isn’t true: Stills- a prolific reader- was inspired to write the song after reading the novel ‘Failsafe’ by Euegene Burdick and Harvye Wheeler. The story from 1962 concerns the cold war and the idea that the destruction of mankind could be caused by some kind of unfortunate accident or ‘failsafe’ in machinery in either power’s hands that causes nuclear missiles to launch (think a low budget version of the film ‘War Games’ but with a caretaker, not an army, desperately trying to shut the computers off). In actual fact if it’s a ‘sequel’ to anything this song is a sequel to ‘Carry On’, Stills rousing song of determination from ‘Deja Vu’ about how love is ‘coming to us all’ if only we can hold out long enough to welcome it; in ‘We Are Not Helpless’ Stills urges us not to end our civilisation because, in true hippie style, ‘everyday we’re learning how to live’ and our differences with different pockets of humanity ‘can still be set aside and ended’. The song then ends with a brief resurrection of ‘America’s Children’, the political manifesto that used to change every night in concert and was most commonly heard in a medley with ‘For What It’s Worth’, urging the youth movement of the 1960s to make a difference. Telling us that we can all make a difference, Stills warns ‘the new order is upon us now – and only blind men cannot see’, ending the album on a rousing, optimistic note as the strings sail on past the vocal and seemingly up to heaven, the same way they did on ‘Carry On’ a few months earlier. Unfortunately Stills can’t quite marry the 60s spirit section (guitars, bass and drums) with this new grand, orchestral sound and – unusually for this album – the song is stronger than the performance which is often hard to hear and often succumbs to cliché (‘Right on!’ intone the latest power chorus of familiar voices, much more obtrusively than they did elsewhere). Incidentally, listen out for Stills’ name for the 60s movement, the ‘children of the Everlys’, equating the 60s movement as a genesis from the Everly Brothers, not Chuck Berry Buddy Holly or Elvis as others might. Ringo again appears on the song, with a typically Beatles-ish rattle near the end of the track, as does Rita, John Sebastian, Crosby and Nash, Booker T Jones and Mama Cass, a sound that neatly represents a great deal of the ‘Everlys Generation’ and sounds like a gospel choir.
Overall, then, ‘Stephen Stills’ reaches for the stars by covering so much ground and by luck, judgement, emotion and guest artists by and large achieves its lofty ambitions. There are mistakes, naturally, for a project this bold: a sort of lifelessness about ‘We Are Not Helpless’, a lack of fire on ‘Old Times, Good Times’ and three or four songs that might have sounded even better with an extra verse or two. There’s also no absolute 100 carat gold gems on this album like ‘Word Game’ on ‘Stills II’ or ‘So Begins The Task’ on ‘Manassas’ that knock your socks off in every department. And yet there are fewer mistakes here than on any other Stephen Stills record, with an energy intelligence and commitment throughout that few other sing-songwriters can match. Stills should be proud of this record and even prouder of the fact that it’s just one of several highlights in his impressively strong run of form between the first Buffalo Springfield album in 1966 and his ‘Stills’ album in 1975. The guest artists on this album almost all give their best work (even Ringo’s more palatable here than normal), but no one shines brighter on this record than Stills himself, pouring his heart and soul into songs that feature some of the greatest melodies, empathetic lyrics and passionate vocals he ever made. There are many greats in the CSN canon between 1969 and 1977; you’ll know that its a great compliment when I end this review by saying that this album is one of the greatest.
Every so often a band will take it upon themselves to re-record one of their ‘classic’ songs, usually with disastrous results. All the nuances that made the originals so entertaining and memorable – a vocal line here, a sensitive backing there – will be ‘updated’ to sound more contemporary, even though the original was pretty timeless in the first place. There are several reasons why AAA bands might choose to re-record a classic: some do it for big anniversaries, some do it to make a statement about the differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’, some do it for fun – and some are simply doing it to chase record sales.Anyway here, this week, is every instance we can think of where a band returns to a past classic in chronological order of re-recordings (note: live recordings, demos, alternate takes and remixes don’t count!)
The Beach Boys “I Get Around/Little Deuce Coupe” (originals released as singles in 1964/63 and re-recordings released on ‘Beach Boys Party!’ 1966)
‘Beach Boys Party’ is a strange record. It was recorded in a frantic evening in the studio when Capitol told the band they were taking too long to finish ‘Pet Sounds’ and they needed a product now. Rather than compromise on his vision Brian led his fellow Beach Boys and various family and friends into some acoustic unplugged versions of several songs they loved (including three Beatles songs) and then ‘overdubbed’ fake party sounds over the top (if you listen hard you can hear Mike Love having a conversation with himself as one point!) Running out of other people’s material to cover, the band hit on ‘covering’ their own and treated two of their best loved (and easiest to play!) songs to an acoustic reading. The band aren’t taking things seriously and end up on the floor in a heap of giggles and gibberish, not to mention forgetting the words to a song they’d played every night for two years (‘I’m not bragging babe...oh yeah!’), but its still fascinating to hear such a different version of the song. With the electric noise removed these two songs stop sounding like bragging teenagers and already sound like more adult, sighing works, the nostalgia in the room clear for everyone to hear.
Nils Lofgren and Grin/Crazy Horse “Beggar’s Day” (originally released on the ‘Crazy Horse’ album in 1971, re-recording released on Grin’s ‘Gone Crazy’ album in 1973)
Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten was in a bad way in 1970-71 after becoming a drug addict almost overnight (he’d die of an overdose in 1972). He needed propping up from someone – and Nils, younger and bouncier, the yin to Whitten’s worn out yang, was the perfect discovery. Nils had first come to the band’s attention when he turned up backstage at a Neil Young gig and played for the maestro his first batch of songs (mainly recorded on the first ‘Grin’ album). After Crazy Horse were ‘sacked’ during the making of ‘After The Goldrush’ Nils stayed friends with the Horse and agreed to help out on their first LP when it became clear that Whitten was struggling. Beggar’s Day, one of three Lofgren songs that made the album (he co-wrote its most famous song ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ un-credited) is perfect for the Lofgren-Whitten pairing; it’s a snarling anthem about bad luck that’s perfectly balanced between the more hopeful Lofgren and the seemingly doomed Whitten that’s one of the three great classic songs from the album. Nils was running short of material by the time of his fourth LP ‘Gone Crazy’ in 1973 (his last with his first, rough and ready but under-rated band) and recorded this song again. Slower-paced and less direct, it doesn’t have the same impact as the original but is interesting for fans to hear as Nils more or less sings Danny’s parts from the original version (with his younger brother Tom singing his old harmony parts), like as treaty on life being passed down to a younger more naive generation. This second version, recorded a year after Whitten’s death, is depicted as a ‘eulogy’ to Nils’ lost comrade on the original sleeve.
Lindisfarne “Lady Eleanor/Fog On Tyne/Meet Me On The Corner/Run For Home/Warm Feeling/Clear White Light” (all released between 1969 and 1978, re-recordings released in 1987 on ‘C’mon Everybody”)
As we mentioned a few issues back, there are several great reasons for recording a record – and some really bad ones. Someone told Lindisfarne they could make a bucket load of money re-recording old 50s classics for the low budget company K-Tel who even provided a cheesy record cover and a truly mind-bogglingly awful TV advert to go with it. Needing the money, the band complied on a spirited but awfully misguided plod through three ‘medleys’ of hoary old classics whose only bonus for Lindisfans is that it gave old boy Simon Cowe and new boy Marty Craggs the rare chance to sing on a few songs. Slightly better was side four (this being a double set back in the days of vinyl) which featured re-recordings of seven Lindisfarne classics. Recorded in a hurry, with some twee synthesiser chirping in the background, none of them come close to eclipsing the original, except for a note-for-note re-creation of ‘Warm Feeling’ which makes you wonder why they bothered. However the closest to being a necessary part of your collection is a heavily re-arranged ‘Clear White Light’, whose extended 1980s re-creation, complete with a new hookline for the vocal, is at least worth hearing alongside the earlier, close to perfection original. The album flopped, the band got even further into debt with their credibility smashed and the only real good thing you can say about this entry is that we managed to avoid a whole article without mentioning the ‘other’ Lindisfarne re-recording travesty: ‘Fog On The Tyne ‘91’ with footballer Paul Gascoigne!
The Searchers “Needles and Pins” (original released as a single 1964, re-recording released as a single in 1988)
The Searchers celebrated their 25th anniversary with a rather drastic and awfully 80s version of one of their most lasting songs. Alas everything that made the original so compelling – jangly guitar, sensitive lead vocal, subtle backing – is replaced by a noisy, ineffective synthesiser that makes the real emotion of the song sound cold and lifeless. To be fair, everything sounded like this back in 1988 so The Searchers can’t be held wholly to blame and frankly it was just welcome having The Searchers making a record again – but its a shame the band chose one of their deepest and best recordings for the re-make rather than their effortless pop (a 1980s ‘When You Walk In The Room’ or even ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ would have been great!)
Lulu “Shout” (original released as a single in 1964, re-recording released as a single in 1988)
WE-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ell you know this recording makes me sick, the Lulu of 1988 representing everything the Lulu of 1964 would have hated. To be fair Lulu’s career had been out of control for a while and it wasn’t her faut, poor thing, after a horrible decade where everything that could go wrong did go wrong (her blossoming in the 1990s, especially as a writer for the first time, is a joy to behold). I guess this record’s biggest claim to fame was that it helped kick-start the boom for nostalgia in the 1990s, which saw outtakes sets greatest hits compilations and box sets become the norm for old recording artists, although its not the best hook to hang a decade’s worth of inspired re-releases for the collector on. Interestingly this single was by the far the biggest seller out of all the re-recordings on this list barring George’s – proof perhaps that the original record really was a masterclass in the right singer taking on the right song at the right period, even if by 1988 the 15-year-old Lulu’s masterclass in singing seems a long way away...
The Hollies “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress” (original released on ‘Distant Light’ album 1971, re-recording released on ‘The Coconut Collection’ in Germany 1993)
The Hollies only ever released this song in Germany as an oddity on an album of remixes, so we shouldn’t be too cruel to them. However, it’s probably fair to say that fans around the rest of the world aren’t missing much by not owning any of the ‘Coconut Sessions’. Hideously 80s (despite the 1993 release date), Clarkey has to compete with a bank of synthesisers for his lead vocal, while the classic Hollies harmonies are missing. Even worse, the spidery but powerful guitar hook that makes the track has been watered down to the extent that its gone from being one of the most thrilling rockers of the 1970s to sounding like the junk everyone else was producing in this anonymous style in this period.
10cc “I’m Not In Love” (original released on ‘The Original Soundtrack’ in 1975 and the re-recording released on ‘Mirror Mirror’ in 1995)
At least 10cc were trying to do something different with their re-make of probably their best known song. Reducing the velvety smooth production and epic orchestra of voices sound of the original to a bare-bones acoustic guitar and two vocals means we concentrate more on the clever lyrics and Eric Stewart’s lovely tune rather than the gimmicks, but sadly without them much of the mystery and the twists and turns in the song (when it becomes more and more clear the narrator doesn’t believe a word he’s saying) don’t show through as well. This version –labelled as ‘Acoustic ‘95’ - isn’t a substitute for the original then, but it does offer a new way of hearing the song and, judging by Youtube at least, seems to be very popular as lots of people have re-arranged the song that way.
The Monkees “Circle Sky” (original released on ‘Head’ in 1968 and the re-recording released on ‘JustUs’ in 1997)
The Monkees surprised many when they reunited as a full four-piece in 1997 for the first time, recording their first album as a quartet since ‘Head’ in 1968 and a bizarre TV special. Best of all The Monkees were back playing their own instruments for the first time since ‘Headquarters’ in 1967 and cooked up quite a storm – unfortunately the songs they wrote for this album were atrocious. The best actual ‘song’ by a country mile was Mike Nesmith’s ‘Circle Sky’, a song last heard on ‘Head’ all those years ago and best played by the band as a powerful rock trio. I haven’t got a clue what the words mean (reputedly they were made up by Nesmith on the spot to give him something to sing) but the riff is a good one and its good to hear the band have a second crack at it. Alas this re-recording is a bit too ‘grungy’ and overladen with booming echo for its own good, slowed down to a crawl at times, the band slurring their words and trying to make a ‘statement’ – this song sounded better as a pure rock and roll slice of nonsense.
George Harrison “My Sweet Lord” (original released on ‘All Things Must Pass’ 1970 and re-recording re-released as a single in 2000)
George Harrison knew he was dying when he re-released his most famous solo track ‘My Sweet Lord’, even sticking in a risqué joke with the publishing credits (RIP Publishing). However his intriguing half-remix, half-re-recording showed he wasn’t losing any of his artistic abilities as it’s arguably one of the better ones on this list. Like many a 1990s song the track feels like a collage of lots of genres stuck together, with an opening sampled burst of synthesiser and lots of wacky overdubs that the 1970 George wouldn’t have considered. It sounds like a less earnest but still entertaining record that made for an interesting moment 30 years on from its original release, so close to the millennium. The best thing about the single was the re-worked cover art, however, with George’s tranquil garden filled with gnomes now facing onto a concrete jungle of roads and roundabouts! The single even made #1 in the charts – though probably more out of sympathy with George’s admission of cancer and his scare with the burglar who broke into his house and tried to kill him.
Cat Stevens/Yusuf “I Think I See A Light” (original released on ‘Mona Bone Jakon’ 1970 and re-recording released on ‘An Other Cup’ in 2005)
‘I Think I See The Light’ is one of my favourite Cat Stevens songs in the original recording, contrasting a dark, troubled world with the brightness of realisation, with a magical hook and one of the best vocals Cat ever recorded, making the most of his octave range. The re-recording is less successful, partly because of a slower tempo but mainly because Yusuf (as he now was) is less elusive about what light he’s actually seen. When he recorded the original Cat was recovering from a nasty bout of tb that killed off his career and left him bedridden, with the new songs Cat was writing nearly about redemption and about getting down to the things that matter in life before they’re taken away. By the time he retires in 1978, however, Cat has converted to Islam and this 2005 version is clearly all about religion. It’s still a great song though, too good to be ruined whatever is done to it as a re-recording and its welcome that Cat recorded one of his comparatively obscurer songs rather than giving us ‘Peace Train’ or ‘Morning Has Broken’ yet again.
That’s all for this week. We’ll see you next issue when we’ll be celebrating the success of this column by re-recording our first issue (only joking – we’re going to wait for an anniversary to peg that on!)