“Right along, stars at dawn, and I feel like I’m broken inside, tell me I’m wrong pretty lady because the strong part of me keeps carrying on by your side” “I miss you oh how I cry, right like back when you die, my love was misunderstood, I wouldn’t leave if I could” “I thought love might be more but it hurts me at night, deeper now than before I won’t live by the light, spending all I could take baby that was my first mistake, baby please don’t hide, you’re too nice and besides that I’m going to love you tonight” “You ain’t got to hide away, you ain’t got to hide at all, if you’re wondering how I’m going to move you, it’s my slippery fingers that’s all” “Here I come again on a Saturday night after the first love that ever felt right, ask me ‘is it right to love another guy?’, at first I say ‘yes’ and then I say ‘why’?!” “Everyone’s trying to love the one I love, I don’t think they really understand love, it’s easy to fall and it’s harder to part, but my love it always comes from the heart!” “I tried hard to be your friend, love is dangerous but it’s quick to end, a friend like me is of the mind, it shouldn’t never ever have to end unkind” “I got the feeling you’re leaving, I got the feeling you’re gone!” “Don’t let girls get you down, they’re just beautiful, don’t let tears find your eyes, they’re lost ladies in disguise, don’t let crowds change your clown, desperate daughters shopping around, don’t let girls get you down, they’re just beautiful” “Hi, hello home, it’s good to be alone, hope it ain’t been hurting you this missing me, I been away so long I thought you felt wrong, play with me tonight, sing some harmony” “Now I can be your fool or I can be your friend, but I need a little love and sympathy, it’s hard to recognise that somewhere in your eyes my eyes used to dance with yours in harmony” “Seems as though each time she feels the warmth of someone kind some thing’s always happening to make her change her mind, it’s a feeling that when someone gives she shouldn’t even take, so instead of living off herself she finds someone to break, please my lord, please my lord lead her to my home, bend her heart remember that her love was just a poem” “When you cry I feel so dad, you’re the only one I had, here’s a melody to sing your feelings to...” “She cried at midnight, tears run down till dawn, hated a crowd she tried stopping but just had to keep right on, she cried for freedom, a sad sigh long with love, all you lonely people grasping things you just don’t know of” “I give me heart to you my soft fun, I’m lying, crying, God I’m dying by you, you’re not given to be such a lonely one, it hurts me inside but that’s alright” “She hides in rooms, hating her past, afraid to cry, scared to die, can’t separate this one from the rest”
NILS LOFGREN AND GRIN ‘1+1’ (1972)
White Lies/Please Don’t Hide/Slippery Fingers/Moon Tears/End Unkind//Sometimes/Lost A Number/Hi, Hello Home/Just A Poem/Soft Fun
Most of the small number of Nils Lofgren reviews around in the ether seem to start the same way: with bags of talent, tonnes of charisma and a stage act to die for, Nils Lofgren really could have been somebody. The fact that Nils played guitar with Neil Young, was a member of Crazy Horse for years, later ended up in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for most of their tours and records and later still was the only member of Ringo’s All Starrs band to last for two tours in a row makes the lack of instantly recognisable Lofgren hits played on the radio and the disgracefully small section on Nils in the Guinness Hit Singles and Albums books hard to take for his many fans. Yet it’s hard to see what else he could have done. The album we place before you for your delectation this week is perhaps Nils’ best known work, an inventive record made when Nils was still in his teens, was working with then-international superstar Graham Nash and is produced by none other than Neil Young’s comrade in arms David Briggs (virtually the only time in his long career Briggs ever thought another act was worth producing). To boot the timing of this early career peak (after a so-so first record the year before) couldn’t have been better: by the time of its release Nils had already played on most of Neil’s ‘After The Goldrush’ record (one of the must-have purchases of 1970) and the well received eponymous Crazy Horse debut album (where Nils, un-credited, co-writes one of the songs of the decade on ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’). Hearing the youthful energy on ‘1+1’ and its pioneering use of the two sides of a vinyl record as two very separate entities, a product that wouldn’t have you have to wonder why this album didn’t become a million seller, an album the equal of those made by bigger names Nils had already made his name for by giving a helping hand.
However the road to stardom is rocky for almost everyone (even the Spice Girls were failures from various modelling, acting and singing jobs – although actually I can see that somehow) and despite being billed ‘as the next big superstar likely to break’ for at least the first eight years of his career it never quite happened for Nils, who chased one dream after another only to see none of them turn out quite the way he wanted. All Nils Lofgren album undeniably have something to offer, some more than others but out of all the Lofgren canon ‘1+1’ is the album that to me seems the most likely candidate for as breakthrough. There are better Lofgren albums than this around admittedly (‘Damaged Goods’ being easily the best and most consistent though not terribly representative of his sound), but ‘1+1’ sounds the most complete somehow, the record that best shows what Lofgren had to offer the world that no one else could: a winning mixture of punkish adolescence and childish naivety, dressed up in orchestral arrangements straight from heaven and rock posing straight from hell. Nils even has the maturity and insight to split these songs into two to cater for the fans who’ve fallen in love with either side of his personality, potentially the first time ever a songwriter had delivered two such contrasting sides (send me a comment if there’s an example you think I might have missed!) The Rolling Stones will take much of the credit for the idea in 1981 with ‘Tattoo You’ but that’s a special example anyway, seeing as it was cobbled together from leftovers that had been in their vaults for years. Also, unlike the Stones there is no ‘number’ on the record sleeve telling you which to play first, although both CD re-issues of the album that I’ve seen (one its own and one a two-fer-one with follow-up ‘All Out’) put the ‘rocking’ side first and the ‘dreamy’ side second.
One other reason this album could have been big was that Nils was part of perhaps his greatest ever band, Grin – a group who in truth were closer to Wings than The Beatles in democratic terms (even their name was derived from Lofgren’s own) but were a really good fit for their times in the early 70s, energetic and spirited but with a touch of depth that allowed them to make ‘symphonic poems’ and light pop ballads after 20 minutes of fierce rocking numbers. Both bassist Bob Gordon and drummer Bob Berberich share Lofgren’s eclectic tastes for lots of genres and the latter even adds his own gutsy bass rumble to a few songs for reasons of colour; certainly both musicians deserve better than to fade into obscurity after the band split in 1974 (in two records time) and would have brightened up some of Lofgren’s later, lesser bands in the decades to come. Brother Tom isn’t part of the band yet, Grin being restricted to a power trio not that dissimilar to The Jam in six years or so’s time, with Nils the main writer, singer and guitarist throughout their short run.
If there’s one thing that hurts this album it’s that it probably tries a little too hard to cover every style known to man in its 10 songs. Not content with dividing this album up into ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ numbers, Lofgren – still searching for his own style – comes up with five variations on each. The ‘rocking’ side finds Grin starting off as catchy pop-rockers with a killer riff on ‘White Lies’, turns aggressive punk on ‘Please Don’t Hide’, slips to gutbucket blues for ‘Slippery Fingers’, end up as rock Gods on the take-no-prisoners guitar showcase ‘Moontears’ and then slips into a hybrid somewhere between heavy metal and music hall on ‘End Unkind’, a song that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry (so instead it ends up with a curious sound effect that sounds like a little of both). The dreaming side is almost as schizophrenic (or should that be quintaphrenic?), the band starting with simple laidback acoustic rock on ‘Sometimes’, turning into 60s Merseybeat on ‘Lost A Number’, a sort of country-folk-rock-with-Beach-Boys harmonies hybrid on ‘Hi, Hello Home’ before turning orchestral on the final two songs, the muted ‘Just A Poem’ and the overblown ‘Soft Fun’. The first ‘Grin’ album was almost as jarring as this too, switching from a heartbroken ballad to heavy metal posing in its first two songs, but the sheer range of styles on offer here means that the listener never quite gets to grip with who Nils Lofgren is. As the decades wear on and the albums mount up Lofgren’s art will find better ways of mixing these genres into something whole, often with a blues frill to the rock and ballad leanings within, but for now this is a collection of expert ingredient styles thrown into a melting pot that doesn’t necessarily make for the most consistent or edible bit of baking.
Then again, that might be why I love ‘1+1’ so much. Albums today find artists finding one style that suits them and then sticking to that style come what may, whether it’s in or out of fashion. There’s little time or space for experimentation anymore and certainly no time for a band to find its feet (Grin were hard done by, having their contract terminated after just four albums, but in 2013 they’d be lucky to make a second one if the first wasn’t a hit) so that when you do get to fall in love with someone’ work you invariably learn all you need to know in the opening few bars. Grin date back to a time when music could have gone in almost any direction: with the 60s gone and mourned for across 1969 and 1970 (and without the Beatles left to show the music world the way forward) rock and roll did indeed become as fragmented as this. In 1971 (as a general view at least) heavy metal began to grow, rockabilly and blues made a comeback, protest was in but so was lightweight glam rock, while prog rock reached ever further into outer space and folk-rock brought us back to Earth with a bump. Nobody back then could have predicted what would be the next big thing and indeed most people interested in music squabbled about what was the music of the day. Rock and roll, in any form, had become split into lots of pieces any one of which could have coagulated into the next big movement (in the end nobody is really unified until punk, which at least split people into lovers and haters unlike the grey area of the rest of music of the times)– and almost all of those possible futures are on this record. Had I been around in 1971 I’m willing to bet that I’d have worshipped this LP, with my favourite songs from it changing on a daily (if not hourly) basis as the sounds came and went out of fashion. Hearing it in 2013 I still love it, but the whirling sea-changes from one sound to the next mean that ‘1+1’ isn’t built for easy listening.
Two things you can’t fault the album on are musicianship and melody. Some of the catchiest rock and ballad songs of the decade are on this album, from the blistering ‘Moontears’ (which contains possibly the best rock and roll riff Pete Townshend, Ray Davies and Keith Richards failed to use) and the classy gorgeous melody of ‘Soft Fun’ (a song which is terribly overdone on this album but will blossom into a real beauty on future Nils Lofgren live sets). Interestingly these two songs I’ve singled out are the only two that the casual Lofgren fan (if there is such a thing given his passionate fanbase!) might now, regulars in the live set that both grow into entirely new beasts on stage with the passing years. ‘Moontears’, here an abject exercise in Rock God posing and a lean, fat-free explosion of noise wrapped up in two minutes could sometimes last for seven or eight on stage, while ‘Soft Fun’ here sounds like a demo compared to later live versions that make the most of the song’s aching longing and risk of commitment (even though this version features everything but the kitchen sink – and probably has that low in the mix somewhere). I’ve read that the sessions for this album were hurried, small label Spindizzy clearly not having the resources or the patience to let this band hone their craft, but that small window of opportunity brings the best out of the group (which might be why this album is the second-shortest of Nils’ career, lasting just 34: 24). The rough edges left in the mix on side one fizzle and burn like all good rock bands should, with a minimum of overdubs (that curious sound effect on ‘End Unkind’ aside) and fuss, the trio clearly playing in the same room (rare for rock in 1971). Lofgren’s guitar is recorded with real clarity, his effervescent runs adding swathes of colour to the silhouettes carved out by the other two, along with occasional piano and accordion (also played by Nils, fresh from his experiences learning the former instrument overnight to play on ‘After The Goldrush’ at Neil Young’s request). The other eight songs are, to varying degrees, pretty successful to mildly successful attempts at capturing the same magic and certainly improve on the first, horribly inconsistent first album ‘Grin’ (made up of three out-and-out classic and nine cases of filler).
Talking of filler, Nils hasn’t yet learnt how to write lyrics as inspired as his melodies and the Achilles heel of ‘1+1’ is undoubtedly the words. To be fair, I’ve heard worse – especially by inexperienced 19 year olds working under pressure – but in retrospect I do wish Nils had found a writing partner in this early part of his career. Songs like ‘Please Don’t Hide’ and ‘Slippery Fingers’ end up sounding a little like generic empty rock songs, which is an awful shame given how many complex twists and turns the accompanying music goes through, while the ‘dreamy’ side (where so much emphasis is given on the vocals) is even worse. ‘Home and poem’ are rhymed at will on ‘Hi, Hello Home’, a rhyme which is unbelievably repeated again on ‘Just A Poem’, while I’m having trouble deciding if the peculiar words in the verses of ‘Lost A Number’ are an attempt to spoof early rock and roll a la 10cc (who scored big with the similar-sounding ‘Donna’ while this album was being made) or the sound of an inexperienced writer under pressure trying to sound like his heroes (and failing). However, even in the lyric department this album has its fair share of gems: ‘Moon Tears’ features possibly the best set of lyrics about adolescence not to appear on The Who’s run of early singles or ‘Quadrophenia’, ‘End Unkind’ features some clever quick-paced rhyming, ‘Just A Poem’ is the essence of a Renaissance painting in simple pop song form and best of all ‘Soft Fun’ is (on paper at least) an abstract tender poem that’s evocative and descriptive and quite unlike any other song made before or since. Frankly, if this album was written to order then perhaps Nils future record companies like A&M, CBS and Rykodisk should have followed suit.
Given the sheer scale and range of the album it’s hard to find a coherent message in this album, but the theme of loss keeps cropping up again and again. I don’t know for certain but I’m willing to bet that Nils had his heart broken at least once during the preparation of this album (or, possibly, that this hurried second album was inspired by events from earlier in his past only briefly touched on in ‘Grin’) because, like ‘Pet Sounds’, it feels as if there’s a chronological story of heartbreak somewhere in these grooves but that the order of the story is missing. It could simply be that there is no connection between the songs and that its all imaginary but, well, that’s boring so I’ve had a go at coming up with my own story: It could be that Nils’ narrator falls in love (‘Sometimes’ and ‘Just A Poem’), offers his declaration of devotion (‘Soft Fun’), only to lose his girlfriend’s telephone number (‘Lost A Number’), fails to track down his beloved (‘Please Don’t Hide’) only to find out that she’s keeping out of his way deliberately (‘Slippery Fingers’), spreading nasty rumours (‘White Lies’) and breaking his heart (‘after the first love that ever felt right’ ‘Moon Tears’) before giving up the pursuit entirely (‘End Unkind’). Meanwhile Nils gives up looking for his love and return home, shattered, vowing that ‘home is where the heart is’ and that he’ll never go out searching for happiness again. Even if I’m only partly right, it still sounds as if a still teenage Nils is suffering by someone’s hand, cautiously trusting his beloved just long enough to open his heart and have it hurled into the fire of heartbreak in spite of his courage. As ever with songwriters, you sense we’re not getting the whole story here (‘Lost A Number’ is the only song at fault and ends bizarrely, the girl seemingly knowing that he’d lose the number but track her down anyway so she moves house, taking the time to pin a picture of ‘her two beautiful rainbow eyes’ to her living room wall and trusting that the new residents won’t mind or take it down – which sounds like a cover up for something Lofgren doesn’t want to think about to me). Well, hey, at least the plotline for this story hangs together better than ‘Mama Mia’ or the Spice Girls’ ‘Viva Forever’!
Overall, then, ‘1+1’ isn’t a perfect album by any means. Even treated as a second album made to a tight deadline it doesn’t have the insight of ‘With The Beatles’, the intelligence of the Moody Blues’ ‘In Search Of The Lost Chord’ or the sheer power of Oasis’ ‘What’s The Story Morning Glory’. I’ll tell you something though – if I’d been part of the music business in 1971 and got hold of a copy of this album then I’d have joined every other music critic of the day, chomped on my big cigar and said ‘this boy’s got talent and a real future’. oR, to put it another way, had I been Neil Young and Nils had bravely knocked on my stage door and asked to sing me these songs I’d have hired him on the spot too (although arguably I wouldn’t have made Nils learn to play the piano from scratch), assuming I hadn’t been scared of the talent on show. To put Nils’ achievements in context the only other AAA stars to have come up with an album this good at such a young age are Lulu (15 when she scored her first hit, as we’ll be seeing next week) and The Small Faces (who were 19 and 18 when they made their first album for Decca), neither of whom were doing any songwriting at that age. Yes there are holes on this record – and we have indeed picked at one or two – but there are a million reasons why this record isn’t the best thing ever made. What’s amazing in retrospect (given the date of the recording, the age of the participants and the speed with which things happened) is how much of it works and works very well, inventing a few new concepts (such as the two themed sides) along the way for good measure. The worst of all this talent on display is that it never quite works out this good again for Nils, who really should have blown the world away on ‘1+1’s release and that of all his 18 studio albums to come only ‘Damaged Goods’ truly makes good on the promise shown on this album – and then by going in probably the only directions this eclectic album doesn’t cover (think John Lennon’s primal scream album crossed with an old blues singer with a taste for hip hop! but so much better than that description makes it sound...)
Note: as explained above, there is no ‘side one’ or ‘side two’ with this album, merely ‘rocking’ and ‘dreamy’ sides so can be heard in either order. However seeing as both CD copies of this album have put the ‘rocking’ side first that’s where we’re going to start with- please skip to the track ‘Sometimes’ if you wish to hear this album the other way around!
‘White Lies’ fulfils the ‘rocking’ remit rather well, being a pounding, breathless, exciting rock song that changes keys almost as often as the lying lover of the narrator changes her mind. Taken at a blistering pace, ‘White Lies’ really shows off Grin at their best, with the best group harmonies the band ever did (sounding very Beatlesy), surrounding a rough and gritty Lofgren vocal. The backing track is quite special too, dominated by Nils’ acoustic guitar but with Bob Gordon’s high bass work giving the sound much of its to-and-fro tension, the slightly breathless feeling you get travelling over bumps in the road, unsure where the band are going to land next (if indeed they land on their feet at all). Nils’ acoustic solo in the middle is less impressive (he’s not quite the guitar king he’ll be later in the decade) but even that gives the song a polish and maturity that shows off this band’s eclectic nature at its best. The lyrics work less well, being rather empty generic pop about lies between boy and girl friends, but that said even these are deeper than they first appear. You’d expect from the rather angry mood of the song that Nils’ narrator was fed up of being lied too, but it’s actually more complex than that – the chorus actually runs ‘don’t stop telling white lies’, because the truth of having all his faults laid bare is too much for the narrator (Lofgren will go on to develop the idea on one of his career best songs ‘Sticks and Stones’ from ‘Silver Lining’, where name-calling will always hurt). If the lyrics were written after the music then despite being rather obvious they’re a good fit – both the words and music to this song are seeking for the truth, hauling the listener down various cul-de-sacs on the way and switching this way to avoid hearing the truth. An energetic and impressive start to the album.
‘Please Don’t Hide’ dispenses with all those smooth edges at once, an angry, angular rocker that’s not too far astray from the punk songs to come at the end of the decade, with only a very Neil Young-ish guitar part to add the colour. Grin are at their primitive best on this song, pounding out the narrator’s please of wanting to get next to the girl of his dreams with suitable desperation and anxiety. There’s even a repeat of the central guitar riff from ‘White Lies’ stuck in the middle of the song, linking verse and chorus, which is interesting because it’s almost the same song in reverse (the teller of the ‘white lies’ trying to get the narrator to come out of his shell and face the truth, with the desperate plea ‘I’m going to love you tonight’). Nils’ vocal is even better than on the last song, with real sawdust in his voice, howling out his belief that their love ‘was misunderstood’ and vowing to spend the rest of his life trying to woo his loved one out of her shell. So convincing is the performance you reckon he’s probably still there in his old age, camped outside her door (even though she probably moved out decades ago). Again, if this song has a fault it’s the lyrics, most of which you could probably guess already from this outline if you haven’t already heard the album (‘I miss you oh how I cry, like love inside when you die’), but for a second song in a row there are enough melodic twists and turns to keep our interest and a towering performance saves what could have been a mediocre song in another’s hands. Listen out too for Nils’ guitar work on this recording, which is the first real time he develops his trademark sound of a fizzing Stratocaster played with a distinctive ‘slide’ sound, merging the notes together in an other-wordly howl (the ending of the song shows this especially, the rest of the band coming to a full stop with Nils’ guitar reverberating on into the ether, an unstoppable force of nature).
‘Slippery Fingers’ is a chance to take pause for breath, a gutbucket blues taken at a slower tempo than the other songs on this ‘rock’ side and with the deeper, gruffer, rawer tones of drummer Bob Berberich singing lead. A slightly seedy tale of a woman being pursued even after she’s said ‘no’ several times over, the narrator reveals that once she feels his ‘slippery fingers’ she won’t want to slip away at all. Poor Berberich was born in entirely the wrong era – both his vocals and his powerful drumming belong in the punk and new wave era – and sound a little at odds with the rest of the album and still sounds most unexpected now, never mind back in 1971 when ‘punk’ was still a term for a ‘whippersnapper’. The vocal and the lyrics are hard to hear anyway, even with Nils’ harmony so what we have to study really is another fine melody and backing track. Nils picks away at his guitar with style on what must have been a difficult backing track to create, while the two Bobs are impressively tight together considering that Bob Gordon had only been in the band a few months by this stage (replacing original bassist George Daly on the eve of the first Grin album). The riff is a good one too, dirty and dangerous and way better than any of the pale re-treads bands like Slade and Kiss will come up with in a few years’ time, genuinely intoxicating with their slight whiff of feedback and relentless power and urgency. Overall ‘Slippery Fingers’ isn’t one of the album’s better tracks but it’s interesting to hear the band try something different.
‘Moon Tears’, on the other hand, is the album highlight, a storming demented rocker played at double-speed that reaches so many peaks inside its two minutes that’s it almost a relief when it ends. Nils’ classic song about rejection really deserves to be better known, the narrator revealing to us that his latest girlfriend, ‘the first love that ever felt right’, has broken up with him too, leaving him downcast and crestfallen, ‘here again on a Saturday night’. She asks him if it would be alright to see ‘another guy’ – being a nice guy the narrator says ‘yes’ before walking home alright and wondering ‘why?!’ Cue a fabulous chorus where Nils is either doing a bit of astrology (being a Cancerian, albeit on a Leo cusp, he is a ‘moon’ baby and perhaps too nice and reasonable for his own good), calling out to the traditional symbol of romance the moon or simply reflects on how isolated and desolate our satellite looks, sorrowfully following the bountiful planet Earth around in the sky. A second verse then reaches even higher, the wronged adolescent declaring that no one else will ever understand her like he would have done and arguing ‘sometimes I think I’d feel better dead!’ Having reached another peak, Nils then hollers ‘come on!’ and flies into one of the best guitar solos ever recorded, a howl of despair that sounds like its ready to fall apart at any time before a second overdubbed guitar part joins it in its wail and the two chase each other back to earth, overlapping each other’s parts in superb style (in concert this part was played by Nils and brother Tom leaning over to play each other’s guitars! Fab!) Complex and clever, this solo is nonetheless perfectly cast for the song and the sound hovers during the third and final verse, a roar of feedback waiting to pounce. Opening with ‘listen!’ that final verse then tries to come to terms with the tragedy , reasoning that ‘it’s easy to fall and it’s harder to part’ before turning one more twist of the knife with the line ‘but my love it always comes from the heart!’ Having thus presented his case for why ‘he’ should be a candidate for true love the song has nowhere to go and simply falls back unexpected to a gut-wrenching wordless wail from Lofgren as he slumps in the corner, his energy spent. I feel as if I haven’t done it justice here, but ‘Moon Tears’ really is a fascinating, hard hitting song that’s still among the best Nils has ever written. This short but fierce original recording is arguably still the best, a ridiculous display of technical ability as if only by pulling off the impossible will Nils’ narrator ever see his girl again – however this song sounds pretty special in concert too, slowed down to a slower tempo and spending more time between the peaks, with the solo generally played while Nils bounces upside down on a trampoline! (for the best example see Nils’ 1979 gig at the Rockapalast, for my money the best concert he ever gave).
After this ‘End Unkind’ seems like a let-down to end the side, but this song is not without its plus points too. A snarling, up-turned guitar riff and an interesting, jazzy hi-hat ‘sneeze’ drum part makes for a strong ear-catching opening which puts the song somewhere between fierce and comical, with the song possessing a distinctive lopsided waddle. Berberich is back on lead vocals for the second and last time on the album and does a good job, criss-crossing with Lofgren for a mesmerising middle eight where the pair re-enact the less than fond farewells of the two spurned lovers (‘I got da feeling you’re leaving!’ ‘Well I got da feeling you’re gone!’) However if the other songs on this album are too quick to throw their bag of goodies across the recording, this one arguably leaves it too late – the song takes its time to reach its climax point and then is left rather unsure of where to go, simply repeating the verse and chorus we’ve just heard. There’s also a lyrical ambiguity about whether the narrator wants the relationship to end in the first place. In the first verse he’s despondent, warning the listeners that ‘love is dangerous and quick to end’ and that he’s done everything he can to keep together with his beloved, upset more at the fact that the relationship has ended so nastily than that it’s ended at all. However by the second he’s as over-the-top as the narrator of ‘Moon Tears’ saying it doesn’t matter anyway (‘It doesn’t matter if I live or die’), while the rhyme of ‘unable to unwind’ is less inspired by the first verse (‘A man like me is of the mind things should never ever have to end unkind). Nils and Berberich both put in a sterling performance in the solo, Nils building up steam slowly before unleashing his guitar into a mesmerising sequence of twirling notes while Berberich perfectly times the switch from slow carefully plodding into sheer Keith Moon-style mayhem. However, the tack piano part seems out of place here, a little too close to music hall for the heavy rock feel the band are going for and overall there’s something uncomfortable about this song, which doesn’t know whether to pounce or pause. Things aren’t helped by the demented laughter that ends the song (and simply keeps going until you take the needle off the record if you happen to own this record on vinyl) which like the rest of the song doesn’t know whether to cackle in triumph at the fact the pair have split or to sob in horror that the relationship parted as it did. Intriguing.
The ‘rocking’ side is arguably slightly stronger than the ‘dreamy’ side, perhaps because Grin sound like a band rather there rather than leaving Lofgren to do most of the work. ‘Sometimes’ is a rather limp opener to the second side, with some of the dodgiest lyrics on the album (‘Don’t let jealousy win or you’ll fly straight to sin’) and a rather arch style that sounds wrong after hearing Lofgren pouring his heart into the opening five songs. That said, however, ‘Sometimes’ has a lovely melody line, one that’s almost McCartney-esque in the way it sounds so obvious someone surely should have thought of it in several centuries of musical composition. The song also has a lovely middle eight where Nils drops his songwriting workshop and sings from the heart, notably with more another moving verse about loss (‘Upon reflection I notice reaction every time I’ve been received, just because you’re sharing doesn’t mean someone’s caring’) and a partnership that only works one-way. Had the song been more like this it would have been one of my favourite songs on the album; unfortunately its a passing moment in a song that lazily tells us ‘don’t let girls get you down – they’re beautiful’ and ‘don’t let life get you down – it’s wonderful’. There is one good line, however, Nils going all alliterative for the satisfying description of girls out for love and who don’t actually care about the receiver: ‘Desperate daughters shopping around’. Listen out for Nils’ accordion work – the first instrument Nils learned to play long before he discovered rock and roll and the guitar which gives the song a traditional, folk song feel.
‘Lost A Number’ is a bit of an oddball, the sort of novelty pop song Neil Sedaka or Paul Anka rattled off at the end of the 1950s (there’s even a little of ‘Calendar Girls’ in this song’s bounce). However neither the song nor Nils’ performance of it feels like a novelty, despite some daft words about the narrator falling in love, writing the girl’s phone number down and then finding ‘the wind went and stole it when I wrote it down’. Most of the song is dreamlike, with the accordion back again and louder than ever, and Nils sounds either deeply in love or hypnotised until bursting forth on a very Merseybeat pop chorus complete with Beatlesy harmonies (‘Have you ever lost a number? It’s like losing your world. Have you slept on a cloud when there’s thunder? I need a shoulder – I lost a number’) The song then gets surreal, the narrator spending ‘three weeks’ searching for her door in between ‘tears’ (‘which made it hard to discover’) although we never find out how (did he check a phone book? Work the clues out Sherlock Holmes style? Or did he already have an idea of where she lived?) On tracking her house down he finds that she’s moved (inside three weeks?!) and ‘much to my surprise’ (and ours too) ‘on every wall and every room she’d hung a picture of her two beautiful rainbow eyes’. Eh?! I’m just about willing to buy that the love-struck narrator can remember his true love’s eyes after just one meeting, but – what the? If she cared about him that much couldn’t she have called him? Wouldn’t she just assume that if he hadn’t called her he didn’t care anymore? Couldn’t they both have gone back to the same place they met and saved the struggle present in the whole song? Why on earth did the landlord leave the pictures up after she moved out or if there’s new tenants didn’t they mind? I’d dismiss the whole thing as a bad spoof of some already pretty bad novelty songs if it wasn’t for a real depth of feeling in parts of this song. The unusual, dissonant harmonies on ‘I lost a number’ gives this dream-like song a real feeling of urgency and elsewhere there are some lovely little touches throughout. I think what we have here is the beginning of the real tale of how Nils met the girl he’s been writing about the whole album through but, hit by the realism that he can’t give the song a happy ending and keep it ‘real’ anymore he goes the other way and covers it up with the daftest ending he could think of. Bizarre.
‘Hi, Hello Home’ sounds like an early Hollies song, so it was no surprise when years after getting to know this LP I discovered that the harmony voice on this track is by none other than Graham Nash. Dear Graham – of all the musicians we cover on this site no one was (is?) better at talent spotting and offering a helping hand when its needed (a few examples – telling the Kinks’ management on a pre-fame package tour to ‘stop bullying them’ because they ‘already have the sound they need to make it big’; telling a dejected Crosby that the Byrds are made for kicking him out and that even if no one else does at least he ‘gets’ Crosby’s weird-tuning songs; various interventions and offers of support for Crosby, Stills and Grace Slick among others). Nash came across Nils via Neil Young and – intrigued that the more, shall we say, self-centred Neil should have been interested enough to help in anyone else’s career – listened out for Nils and even gave him $200 for an aeroplane flight he needed to see his future bosses at SpinDizzy for a contract. Nash stayed in touch and (un-credited originally) spent a day with Grin re-arranging the harmonies to this song and adding the high pitched wail. Those strong chorus harmonies are the highlight of a sweet little song about a road-weary musician coming back to his beloved home and vowing to never leave again. Along the way we hear about Nils’ country hick narrator being ‘lost’ in the big city, meeting so-called ‘friends’ who ‘lock me in rooms dark in misery’ ordering him to come up with some hits (hmm, perhaps the SpinDizzy meeting didn’t actually go that well after all?) and some more doomed romances (in one of the best lines of the album Nils recounts: ‘I’ve met all kinds of girls, some had claws, some had curls’). There’s a lovely moment too when, fed up of being surrounded by people but still desperate to make music, Nils sings his heart out in his house, the echo from the walls offering ‘harmony’ in more ways than one. You can see why the equally road-weary Nash took to this sweet little song, which could be seen as The Hollies’ ‘Look Through Any Window’ from the outside looking in, celebrating the safe haven of the home and turning its back on the busy, exciting world outside the door. The only shame is that the two never worked together again (as far as we know), as Nils and Nash have a lovely blend in their voices and a similar jubilant joi de vivre little dipped with melancholy about their work.
‘Just A Poem’ is an impressively mature piece from someone not quite 20 at the time of the recording. If the rest of the album has predominantly found the narrators feeling guilty about a break up and anxious to tell us how they tried hard to stay kind even to the bitter end, ‘Just A poem’ is a reflection that, however tight we hold on to friendships and loved ones sometimes these relationships are simply destined to fly away of their own accord. Nils the poet is still asking for the ‘Lord’ to send her home to him, but he’s already recognising that that will never be and instead asks for her to be happy and that he’ll remember her love like a ‘poem’ , something to learn from every time he thinks it over. The first verse, too, recognises that Nils’ narrator’s own kindness might be to blame, offering up too much kindness and not enough independence, with a self-destructive partner who always going to ‘break’ simply because she could. The orchestral accompaniment is a little on the twee side (especially the ending, with a harp and triple-tracked flutes playing a ‘cute ‘ phrase) but full marks to the engineer for keeping Lofgren’s voice central to the song and the strings ducked down low. The melody, too, is superb, full of rain but looking for the rainbow, full of sudden reaches upwards to the heavens and some earthly sighs too. Listen out for the repeat of the word ‘Sometimes’ - I’m convinced that ‘1+1’ is a concept record in some sense, dealing with the same relationship over a good 8 out of its 10 songs. ‘Just A Poem’ is probably the best song on the album barring the two more famous works ‘Moon Tears’ and ‘Soft Fun’, gorgeous and sensitive in equal measure.
‘1+1’ then ends in fine style with ‘Soft Fun’, the ‘epic’ of the album. Sadly after nine almost spot on performances Grin rather wreck this song, Lofgren peaking too early and screaming his vocal for the most part so that the song gets on your nerves rather than envelopes you in its beauty. The orchestra don’t help either, sounding like a Mantovani re-recording of ‘The Sound Of Music’ and rather blowing their big chance in the middle (where a guitar solo would have done the job far better). That said, I still love ‘Soft Fun’ as a song (and on its many live recordings), Nils’ narrator offering one last chance at reconciliation. The song opens with the unexpected sound of two rather bored children speaking the rather childish opening lines (written as a lullaby or nursery rhyme) but they make perfect sense in the context of the song, Nils saying once more that he hates to see anyone hurt and that if even if the only thing he can do to make us feel better is write a song then, by golly, that’s what he’s going to do. He then paints the tale of a broken, dispirited woman searching for meaning in her life; crying from midnight ‘until tears run down at dawn’ after another rejection, picking herself up because there’s no one there to take care of her, wanting nothing more than ‘freedom’ from her troubles. ‘Afraid to try, scared to die’ runs the second verse, with no way out the depression. Nils then offers his sympathy in the chorus, saying that he too is a ‘lonely one’ and that even if all he can do is cry with her than at least she isn’t alone (‘so that’s alright’). In this cleverly constructed song Nils could be talking about himself, the mysterious girl who crops up on all these songs (Nils perhaps imagining her life without him) or the listener themselves if they’re going through a hard time. The ‘Soft Fun’ nickname is even harder to work out: there’s nothing ‘fun’ about this song, which is more about the hard knocks in life (although the ‘soft’ part goes back to ‘Moon Tears’ savage destruction of everything kind within the narrator because he knows it only brings him pain). There’s certainly no doubting the strength of feeling in Nils’ vocal, Nils all but bursting into tears himself on his ‘believe me when I tell you...’ finale telling us we’re not alone. Admittedly, this overblown overcooked arrangement on the record places a whacking great veil over its true beauty, but ‘Soft Fun’ is a lovely song, Lofgren coming to terms with the darker side of life but meeting it head on, telling us that we’ll all survive the slings and arrows of life somehow if we open our hearts to each other. One of those songs that can be done in any number of different ways, it’s a shame that Nils isn’t yet experienced enough to know that less is more and that the best performances of this song in the future will nearly all be sung to just the one acoustic guitar. Still ‘Soft Fun’ is a likable song and a fine conclusion to the album and remarkably impressive for a 19 year old who could have taken the easy way out and simply wrote mindless rock songs for a living.
Overall, even though 1+1 doesn’t quite equal 10/10, there’s much to admire. The mistakes that are made are only made out of youth and tight deadlines and there’s a reason that musicians of the calibre of Graham Nash, Neil Young and David Briggs believed so strongly in Nils Lofgren and his band. Sadly Grin were never given a real chance – tied to a small record label with a low advertising budget, a style that’s inconsistent from one song to another and no hit single (though ‘Moon Tears’ would surely have done well if chosen) they ended up merely another really really good band in an era of geniuses. Heard now, some 40 odd years later, Grin have lasted better than many of the records around them, less tied to the times and with a more powerful imagination than most of their one-note contemporaries, but sadly life simply isn’t fair sometimes – co incidentally the theme of much of this record. Fans nowadays can hear these songs as part of either the ‘Best of Grin’ album that sold surprisingly well a decade ago or as a single CD with third album ‘All Out’ on the back, a more polished and thoughtful but less consistent album already covered on our site. The songs from ‘1+1’ more than hold up their own, so much so that you wonder how it all went so wrong so fast, Grin splitting after a pretty awful final album ‘Gone Crazy’ in 1973. Still, if they couldn’t break through to the big time with an album as good as this one then they were probably never going to. Of course there are things that need improving, ideas that are only half baked and some overblown orchestral arrangements to navigate but you have to say music-buyers in 1971 missed a trick with this album, which is one of the biggest forgotten gems of them all. Overall rating: 7/10.
Other Nils Lofgren/Grin reviews from this website you might be interested in reading:
'All Out' (G 1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/news-views-and-music-issue-54-nils.html
'Flip!' (NL 1984) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/news-views-and-music-issue-120-nils.html
'Damaged Goods' (NL 1995) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-97-nils-lofgren-damaged-goods.html