Monday 2 September 2013

That's Why They Call It The Blues...AAA Top Ten

I’m feeling blue. My chronic fatigue is driving me to my distraction, this website keeps hitting sticking points, various pieces of equipment keep threatening to die on me, I’m already trying to work out how to save up enough money for Christmas and if I had a dog it would probably have died this week. So here are ten blues songs from the wide and wonderful world of the AAA – most of them using ‘blues’ in the title in an ironic sense, incidentally (There may well be another list for blues purists some other week, although I fear it will mainly be songs by Stephen Stills and the Rolling Stones). Interestingly enough, The Moody Blues have never recorded a blues or used the word ‘blues’ in a song title. Anyway, *sob* try not to get too depressed...

Blues From An Airplane (‘Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!’, 1966)

The first track on the first Jefferson Airplane record doesn’t sound like their other work – or even the rest of the first album. It’s moody, doomy and deeply pessimistic, with lead singer Marty Balin turning his usual romantic thoughts on their head after an encounter gone wrong. ‘Got no girl, so I got no world, and I got no thoughts left to say’ runs the chorus, as the band wrap around each other tighter and tighter, in stark contrast to their usual free-flowing improvisations. Things don’t get any better at song’s end, either, the band deliberately choosing to push their harmonies through on the wrong note, heightening the sense of desperation and growing bitterness. It’s a shame the Airplane never tried a song like this again, as it conjures up quite a story inside just two minutes and is one of the more traditional blues numbers on this list (if a little quicker than what most people think of as blues).

Papa Gene’s Blues (‘The Monkees’ 1966)

A favourite of the early TV show episodes, this is Mike Nesmith already breaking all the rules of pop records and songwriting as a completely unknown 24-year-old. The song isn’t a blues – it couldn’t be more ‘country’ if it was driving a tractor and dressed in a stetson – there’s no mention of the title anywhere in the song (an old Nesmith trick) and the song does not involve a ‘Pape Gene’ at all. Quite what the Monkees producers made of it is unknown, although it’s rollicking beat and country tinges made it a favourite on the TV show every time the band went somewhere rural.

Jugband Blues (Pink Floyd, ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’, 1968)

Syd Barratt’s last release for the band he formed and fulfilled almost every role for (lead writer, lead singer, only guitarist) before collapsing from a nervous breakdown (whether drug induced or otherwise) is a patchwork of many genres – but it’s certainly not a blues. An eerie coda, released as the last track on the band’s second album where the others successfully prove they don’t need him anymore, it’s a ‘goodbye’ record in many ways, a lonely ghost taking one last bow to an empty stage. ‘I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here’ could be genuine or could be sarcastic (nobody close to Syd was ever quite sure if he was treating his descent into madness as a practical joke or a cry for help, or more likely both) before setting out all the ways that his life has changed, the way the moon never ‘looked so big’ and that he’s firmly lost control, not quite sure why he’s writing anymore (‘And I’m wondering who could be writing this song...’) A terribly eccentric instrumental passage slices through the song – a local colliery band invited to play whatever they felt like and coming up with a rather sorry mess of malaise and sadness, so different from the tight dynamics of ‘A Day In The Life’ – is followed by a haunted Syd’s haunting words. ‘The sky isn’t green, and I love the Queen, and what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?’ We fans are still trying to figure this mysterious last verse out. Either way, a great song and a moving end to Syd’s Pink Floyd career (amazingly he gets it together enough to release two solo albums two years later), but a blues only in the ‘sad’ sense of the word, not musically.

Yer Blues (The Beatles, ‘The White Album’ 1968)

Legend has it John Lennon started writing this song as a joke while with the other Beatles in India. Inspired by the blues singers he listened to in his youth, Lennon wanted something simple to sing to his acoustic for the others and thought he was coming up with too many ‘happy’ songs during his time in Rishikesh. By the time he came to record it almost six full months later, however, things had changed: meeting Yoko had woken him out of his shell, a heroin addiction had nearly crippled his iron constitution and new contact with the father who’d abandoned him as a baby (or so he was always told) awakened unhappy memories. The vocal Lennon puts on this record is in no way a pastiche or a spoof but the first awakenings of the ‘primal scream therapy’ he’ll make whole albums out of come 1970, Johnny Rhythm tearing his lungs out, even – on the last verse – on a duff microphone, perhaps signifying his lack of ability to get his ‘pain’ through to anybody. For years, though, it’s been reported that this song is a ‘joke’ – because that’s how it was treated when it was first written. The lyrics clearly signify this song as a blues, but the music less so, being too fast for the traditional definition, although if anything the speed combined with Lennon’s typically torturous sea of key changes make this a more bluesy journey than anything by Howling Wolf or Ledbelly.

Sue Me Sue You Blues (George Harrison, ‘Living In The Material World’ 1971)

Talking of The Beatles, their split in 1970 hit them all pretty deep but in very different ways. George Harrison for one was deeply troubled that a band that met at school and went for weeks being paid a pittance in Hamburg should suddenly be forced into a position of suing each other and hiding behind lawyers. Hence this sardonic comment, inspired by a particularly troubled meeting at Apple (perhaps the last one the Beatles attended earlier in the year) which fits neatly into George’s overall album concept that ‘John and Paul live in the material world’. George turns the song into an evil square dance, with lawyers taking musicians by the hand ‘with all that’s left to find yourself a new band’. Again, not really a blues – more a slow, sad rock ballad given a bit of a kick from a horn section.

Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues (The Kinks, ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ 1971)

Ray Davies is in a bad way on this, the bleakest of all Kinks albums, and no more than on track two when his narrator is too afraid of the world to even step outside his door. He’s far from alone – his doctor says he’s ‘just one of the many cases of acute schizophrenia he sees’. Sung straight on the album, the song sounds even better in one of its many live outings down the years, where Ray adds more of a tongue-in-cheek edge to the track. The band sound worse for wear on the record, barely keeping it together to the end of the track, which only adds to the desperation and hopelessness of the song. Like many of the Kink’s best work, this song really tells it how it is by exaggerating the pain and misery – but there’s no denying that the pain and misery is very much there. One of the closest songs to a traditional ‘blues’ on this list – but when did you last hear a blues played with a brass band accompaniment?

Bluesman (‘Stephen Stills/Manassas’ 1972)

The first Manassas album is a sprawling epic of the highest order, separated into four very different sides and covering just about every genre under the sun. ‘Bluesman’ is the 21st and last track, an eerie coda after the eight minute jam histrionics of ‘The Treasure’, as if Stills has just come back out solo and spent, busking his way through a final song for us. ‘Bluesman’ is one of Stills’ best acoustic songs, with his gnarled vocals perfectly suiting this song that’s written not for the bluesy Stills himself but ‘three good men never seen again’ who’d all died in the past 18 months (including Canned Heat’s Blind Owl Wilson and his close friend Jimi Hendrix). Stills is usually at his rawest and most emotional on his acoustic songs and this one is no exception, Stills’ guttural howls saying more than words ever could. A blues song for blues singers, this song is straight from the old deep country tradition of blues as a genre to pour your troubles out into and a fitting tribute to those lost trying to navigate life’s often difficult waves.

Paranoia Blues (‘Paul Simon’ 1972)

That nice Paul Simon is having a rough day. His smiling friends turn out to be two-faced (‘they’d like to stick it to me, yes they would’), he gets singled out at JFK airport by customs and excise who assume that all musicians must use drugs and where people are always hitting on him ‘for an extra dime’. It seems that it’s his home city of New York that’s getting Paul down so much: John Lennon too is busy calling it a ‘bad ass city’ the month before this album is released. Paul gets extra bonus points for being the only entry on our list to use a proper traditional slide guitar (though George Harrison’s ‘For You Blues’ would also count had we had space to include it), but again the brass section and mammoth production number do move this song away from traditional blues. It’s still a good song though and deeply under-rated like many on Paul’s first solo album.

Ventilator Blues (Rolling Stones, ‘Exile on Main Street’ 1972)

Why is this curiously lopsided blues-rock song got such a funny title? The Stones were recording ‘Exile on Main Street’ in a rented villa in the South of France during the Summer when it got extremely hot – sadly the air conditioning had to be turned off every time they tried to record! A long list of complaints, apparently collected at random after sheets of couplets were thrown into the air and placed in some form of order, it’s one of the strongest songs from what many fans regard as the best Stones album, simply because of the pounding beat and oppressive backing (the album is deliberately mixed to keep in the blurred edges, which makes it hard to hear the lyrics anyway). Mick Jagger rounds off the song with a ‘what can you do?’ shrug of the shoulders, but his sheer unsettledness against Bobby Keyes’ saxophone slurs hint at the level of frustration in this deeply unsettled period of Stones history. Not as traditional as many of the ‘pure’ blues songs the Stones were singing in the beginning of their career, perhaps, but it’s easy to see the link between the blues format and the Stones’ fans’ demand for something more contemporary.

Vampire Blues/Ambulance Blues/Revolution Blues (Neil Young, ‘On The Beach’ 1974)

‘On The Beach’ is a very troubled record, even for Neil. A seven song slice of heartbreak and unhappiness, it’s the middle part of his infamous ‘doom trilogy’ inspired by the breakup of his first marriage and the loss of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten to a drugs overdose. None of the songs on the album are ‘blues’ songs in the traditional sense, but they’re certainly all ‘down’ in their different ways and Neil is clearly having fun adding the ‘blues’ moniker after so many of them. ‘Vampire Blues’ is a lazy slow song, the closest to a blues here, although ironically this tale of the narrator so tired and drained he’s sucking the energy out of everyone around him is probably the most ‘up’ song on the album! ‘Revolution Blues’ is a harsher, more electric song about serial killer Charles Manson, imagining him in the act and maybe even sympathising with him a little bit as well as laughing at him. Neil lived not too far away from Sharon Tate, the most famous Manson victim, and knew Manson through his good friend Dennis Wilson who’d let the Manson ‘family’ stay at his estate for some time. Neil, suggesting that Manson is an unavoidable part of the 1970s failure to make good on a youth ‘revolution’, is surely undermining the song’s fright factor by inserting the word ‘blues’. Finally, the album closes with ‘Ambulance Blues’, a hazy stream-of-consciousness song of all that’s on Neil’s mind: CSNY in-fights, Nixon and Watergate, the poverty he sees around him and everyone’s inability to do anything to stop the onslaught of doom and gloom (‘I’d rather start all over again’). One of Neil’s strangest and heaviest songs, it’s more a lament than a blues but any blues singer would surely go through any amount of pain and misery to come up with the song’s most quotable couplet: ‘It’s hard to make a good thing last, an ambulance can only go so fast’.

U.S. Blues (Grateful Dead, ‘From The Mars Hotel’ 1974)

The Grateful Dead came up with more ‘blues’ titles than any other AAA band (there’s ‘New Minglewood Blues’ ‘Cumberland Blues’ and ‘Blues for Allah’ in addition to this one) – none of them even close to traditional blues songs. I’ve plumped for this one to talk about because it’s the least blues-like of them all. A comical series of vignettes about the ineptitude of the American Government, this song started out life as a mock-reverential song named ‘Wave That Flag’ before getting funnier and more vague in the re-drafts. Claiming that liberty ‘has been hiding out in a rock and roll band’, Jerry Garcia (using Bopb Hunter’s words) then imagines himself as a brave soldier fighting some unnecessary war, chosen as the best of the best, sir: ‘Give me five, I’m still alive! Ain’t no luck – I learned to duck!’ he drawls. The song is even funnier if you know that Garcia really was in the army for a short time before they kicked him out and he found music! Not a blues at all, this is really a ragtime chuckle with scathing words about the American world circa 1974 buried under a lot of clever one-liners.

King’s Cross Blues (Lindisfarne, ‘Back and Fourth’ 1978)

There are many subjects to get depressed about: poverty, homelessness, corruption, desperation, despair, injustice, the rich-poor divide, prejudice and politicians scamming a country for everything it can get. Lindisfarne, however, recorded their blues about an overcrowded train. Yes, its King’s Cross Blues back on one of our lists for the third (or is that fourth?) time, a sleeping Ray Jackson bemoaning the chatter around him as he tries to sleep (‘I don’t function till at least a quarter to three!’) We never find out what the narrator is commuting for or whether the end destination is worth it, but it’s easy to imagine him composing this rollicking folk-rocker while trying to drown out the rest of the world around him. Not really a blues again musically and the words are perhaps too funny for a blues song too, but then Lindisfarne had form with songs like these: see the equally split tragedy-comedies of ‘Uncle Sam’s Blues’ and ‘Knacker’s Yard Blues’.

And that’s that. Whether you’re mood is red, white or blue at this time we hope you’ll join us again next week for some more news, views and music-cing!

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