Well, that was a strange year wasn’t it dear readers? Depending where in the world you live this has either been the year when things got back to normal, the year when the bad things everyone else was experiencing in 2020 came to your continent or the year when things were already impossible but your own government made everything a million times worse through incompetence (thanks Boris Johnson!) Being immune-compromised means I’ve been outside maybe twenty times in total the entire year and only twice in another building, outside my home, for my vaccines (not even the Oasis and Beatle documentaries in the cinemas are worth risking my life for, boo hoo) and yet somehow I still managed to get really ill and catch a gut infection that knocked my m.e. sideways (all because our government loves herd immunity against all scientific advice, thanks Boris, you numpty!)
Musically it’s been on the one hand a happy year with several releases we all thought at one point last year we wouldn’t live long enough to see (is this the year global warming became untenable? If so, bloody great, thanks Boris Johnson you nitwit!) and a whole pile of glorious box sets, many 50th anniversary sets delayed from last year, with a bumper crop in the re-issues column this year, the top seven of whom could all easily have been #1 in other years. In other ways it’s been a sad year, with a series of new albums best described as tepid, not to mention the undying horror that this year’s UK #1 might well be the biggest crime against humanity since The Spice Girls (a collaboration between Elton John and Ed Sheeran. I can’t find a way to blame for that yet, Boris, but I bet you like it anyway you sagging bean-bag of a man). This has been an especially tough year for those musicians we lost, drummers Charlie Watts and Graeme Edge and guitarist Mike Nesmith all going up to that great gig in the sky. Not to mention the continued shafting of the arts with something like 70% of the musicians and staff working in 2019 now in different jobs or unemployed (thanks Boris you absolute plonker!) and the continued death of new music in the charts generally (seriously, the news has all been Ed Sheeran this and Adele that, with The Spice Girls’ 25th anniversary somehow dominating the year despite the fact none of them actually did anything for it – if ever there was a sign that we were approaching the end of days it’s the celebration of the four singing horsemen of the apocalypse, plus a spare, getting newspaper inches all over again; I can’t really blame all that on Boris Johnson but I bet he didn’t help either, the ultra-maroon).
Will we ever see an end to this and get back to normal? Will this be a three-year pandemic like the 1918-1920 one? Will it instead go on for years while our governments keep messing up over and over again? Will it ever actually be safe enough to leave my house and visit a record shop instead of buying things online and making my postman grumpy? Will global warming and extreme weather get us anyway if covid doesn’t? Or will my record collection implode on top of me anyway before we even get that far? Will Boris prove to be even more insane and unstable and hold ever more life-threatening parties in 2022? Your guess is as good as mine. All I can do is wish you a happy Christmas and a survivable new year and hope we’re all back here at the same time in 2022, whatever is thrown at us in between dear reader (especially if Boris somehow gets to keep his job – the big-headed twonk!)
In other news, in between long bouts of illness I’ve been busy scribbling as part of my sabbatical from writing about music. I’ve written two new sci-fi-come-romance-via-philosophy-with-a-hint-of-music novels in lockdown and started a third; you can buy volumes one and two of ‘Kindred Spirits’ ( 'Endurance' featuring two lonely aliens and 'Insurgence'‘, featuring the Intergalactic Song Contest) in e-book or paperback formats now and find out how the ten alien entities who starred in the AAA ‘April Fool’s Day’ columns first met humanity, with a few musical references along the way because, well, it’s me. There should eventually be eight of the things chronicling the next 500-1000 years of the future with all your Clandusprod and Mrasianart and Belobrat favourites and even (in ‘Insurgence’) the world’s first Intergalactic Peace Orchestra (and, yes, they do get to play two AAA songs as well as ten others you won’t know. Unless you’re an alien. Like Boris). Right, enough of me – on with our guide to everything 2021.
Update: Almost all of these reviews were written throughout the year up to last week, when the only one I was waiting for was the release of Neil’s album ‘Barn’, which arrived characteristically late on December the tenth. Traditionally everything out for a year review is out by September anyway. However in the past week we’ve also lost a Monkee and gained a Kinks radio drama rehash of a youtube video and goodness only knows what else. Rather than re-write flipping everything keep your eyes peeled for some addendums here and there. Sheesh, you take two days off and everything happens…
(New Releases Of The Year: Best to Worst)
1) Oasis “Knebworth”
‘This is history! Right here, right now, this is history!’ This year’s review is bookended by the same gig, a longtime bootleg favourite that’s – gulp – already half as old as the 50th anniversary box sets coming up on this list. I have happy memories of being popular for a whole week in high school for having taped the whole thing off the radio and lending it round the class because nobody else had heard it and suddenly Oasis were everywhere that Autumn. Sadly my old cassette got eaten up years ago, so this release of both the Saturday and Sunday shows have been long waited for. The documentary-concert DVD (see below) is nice to have and may well be the best way to own this show, but the fact that this is one of only two full-length Oasis concerts officially available on CD (the other, ‘Familiar To Millions’, in truth a composite of various shows from the 2000 tour edited to sound like one full-length show) makes the soundtrack album particularly special. Liam is on top form, spilling his rock and roll guts out for the crowd, while Noel is not yet so disillusioned he’s stopped being mad fer it. Against the odds the rest of the band play brilliantly to their biggest crowd too (250,000 people over two days beating a Paul McCartney British record – it’s currently held by The Rolling Stones), making you wish that Bonehead, Guigsy and Whitey had hung around for so much longer (two of them split during the making of the next record ‘Be Here Now’), especially Bonehead’s whose rhythm guitar parts are on fire here. Oasis studio records already had plenty of whallop but these concerts sound like a battleground, full of staccato guitar fire and a lead vocalist’s tonsils that seem to be permanently ablaze, the difference between seeing an animal in the wild and in a zoo. Yet given the epicness of the setting it’s sometimes forgotten what a surprisingly intimate performance this one is, with Liam never more pained and emotional singing deeper band classics like ‘Slide Away’ than he is here, while the rest of the band sound as if they’re in a boxing ring compared to the chess game of the studio version.
Mostly though it’s a joyous show, with Liam’s sneer ‘you gotta make it ‘appen!’ never having more resonance for a generation than here on songs the band haven’t got sick of playing yet (‘Wonderwall’ is especially bouncy when played back-to-back with any version from any later tours). The full orchestra backing and harmonica Mark Feltham playing with the band really helps too, giving an extra texture and flavour to the familiar wall of noise, something Oasis never chose to do again much on the road (the MTV Unplugged show with Noel singing aside). Listen out too for Noel singing wildly different harmony parts across the night, as if he’s trying his hardest to sound different to the records, even while the rest of Oasis sound impressively close to the real thing considering they’re playing live in front of such a big crowd with all the fright and overwhelmingness that entails. The result is fabulous and shows no sign of aging, just as the best gigs from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80 don’t either and as much of a time capsule in its own way as ‘Monterey’ or ‘Woodstock’. This is special and a release we’ve been calling the band to put out for years so it was always going to be #1 in this list. It was our generation’s Woodstock, as Liam puts it during the trail for the DVD, a point in time people of a certain age never found again, an epoch of being in the right place at the right time. Now I understand what people meant when they said certain shows reminded them of their youth within hearing a single note – this is the soundtrack to mine and it’s never sounded better. I may well have to get back in touch with my old classmates to send them a copy of it and be popular all over again – it only happens about once a quarter century after all.
2) Grateful Dead “Dick’s Picks Volume 38”
‘When all the years combine they melt into a dream…’ The Dead’s archive bus has been unusually quiet this year – by their standards anyway – with only five sets released this year (sometimes it’s fourteen or fifteen!) This one’s rather good though, a cracking little set from Nassau, New York taped on September 8th 1973, the period when the quiet mellow highlight of the band’s catalogue ‘Wake Of The Flood’ was brand new. There’s even an ultra-rare performance of Keith Godchaux’s one and only vocal showpiece for the band ‘Let Me Sing Your Blues Away’ from that record, which if I’m right is this song’s first ever live appearance in the 250-and-counting archive Dead sets out there. In fact it’s a good show for Keith all round, his lovely rolling melodic piano really to the fore in this set, adding a more flowing flavour to these familiar songs without the stodginess that sometimes creeps into the Dead’s sets around now. Like many a Dead show this one starts off rocky (’Bertha’ nearly falls over as any times as the studio-cooling fan it was named after) but gets considerably better as it goes along and the band slow the tempo down, with a particularly gorgeous ‘Jack Straw’, a hauntingly fragile ‘China Doll’ (a year before release on ‘From The Mars Hotel’) and an achingly beautiful ‘Stella Blue’ (even if, in typical Dead fashion, it somehow ends up in a medley with a raucous ‘One More Saturday Night’!) We also get two of the ‘middle’ songs from the show played at the same venue the night before as bonus tracks to fill out discs two and three which bode well if they ever release that show complete too: a surprisingly jazzy ‘Bird Song’ and an epic eighteen-minute fly through a particularly punchy ‘Playin’ In The Band’.
Other Dead releases out this year include Dave’s Picks volume thirty-seven (another of the many so-so sets from 1978, this time in a Virginian college best hearing for passionate opener ‘Mississippi Half-step where Jerry sounds positively haunted and possibly a little drunk, but pulls off some exquisite guitar solos), Dave’s Picks Volume thirty-nine (a show from Philadelphia in April 1983 full of some real set curios like Brent’s ‘Maybe you Know’ and Bob’s ‘Little Star’, but with Garcia already audibly slowing down ahead of his 1986 coma), Dave’s Picks volume forty (an ambitious show from July 18th-19th 1990, merely a week before keyboardist Brent Mydland died of an overdose, that’s arguably the best archive release from the 1990s yet from the small handful out there, best at the start with a thrilling ‘Help > Slipknot > Tower’ trilogy, though Jerry is already struggling heavily vocally just five years before his own death) and ‘Listen To The River’ (a nice but repetitive collection of seven shows the Dead played in St Louis between 1971 and 1973 highlighted by an aching ‘Brokedown Palace’ from 1972 and Pig on particularly great form in the opening show).
3) Small Faces Live 1966
‘Youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed Looooooooooooviiiiiiiing!!!!’ Here’s a bit of long lost treasure! A very early performance by an ever-so-young Small Faces at Belgium’s ‘The Twenty Club’ on January 9th 1966, back when they were still a soulful teenage covers band trying to get signed by someone, anyone and when they still had original keyboard player (and future Dr Who actor) Jimmy Winston in the band and very much competing with Steve Marriott for control. If you only know the Face’s ‘Immediate’ hits (in both senses of the word) then you might not even recognise this as the same group at times; Steve Marriott is audibly drenched in sweat as he tries to channel his inner James Brown, while the extended band workouts (mostly on songs that will end up on the eponymous first album for Decca, but played way way longer to fill up time) are more like Barrett-era Pink Floyd than ‘Itchycoo Park’. There are some songs the band dropped by the wayside too, including such unlikely covers as Allen Touissant’s 1960 hit ‘Ooh Pah Pah Doo’ and James Brown’s ‘Please Please Please’. Neither quite sound like they fit The Small Faces’ style to be honest, but it’s fascinating to hear what else the band were playing in their early days and it’s great to hear a live document from the band’s first few months together (till now the only gig in wide circulation is one of their last, from 1968, when they sound so different it’s hard to believe they’re the same band thirty months apart).
Alas, though, the sound is badly muffled, to the point where it’s a struggle to work out what’s happening much at all, while the fact that we’ve got two short-ish sets from the same day means there are one heck of a lot of repeats here. Still, it’s a thrill to hear the likes of Marriott pouring everything he’s got into ‘You Need Loving’, while Lane, Jones and Winston play hard and heavy for what seems like hours behind him. You may be interested to know that even though this set has been around for a while (in even muddier bootleg sound) Kenney Jones (now alas the band’s last surviving member) officially released this set through his own label ‘Nice’ (as in ‘Here Comes The…’) and has signed a number of the vinyl releases to help promote it. Thankfully there are CD and download releases available too for those of us trying to keep up with the endless stream of box sets out this year. I wonder what other gems he’s got waiting for release?!? Suddenly the Small Faces’ mini-catalogue doesn’t look as tiny as it used to a few decades ago…
4) Neil Young and Crazy Horse “Barn”
‘The horse’s gait in the rhythm I feel somehow and the melody I play’ ‘Well, the jury is out…’ If I’ve learnt one thing during my time as a Neil Young collector it’s not to be surprised by anything he does anymore, but what’s most surprising about ‘Barn’ - Neil’s first album of new music in two years, a long time for him - is how unsurprising it is. In an era when lockdown has made so many musicians go inward and record solo, it really does seem a surprise that Neil has pretty much done just that. He is admittedly reunited with the new-look Crazy Horse as on last album ‘Colorado’ (with the brilliant Nils Lofgren replacing the retired Frank Sampedro again) but the band are washes of colour rather than the primal neons of old on what is primarily an acoustic album, with a couple of heavy rock numbers thrown in. Even that’s surprising in its unsurprising-ness by the way: never ever has Neil recorded two studio albums of new material back to back with the exact same line-up before and he’s made 60 records and counting now. Neil’s albums are slowly becoming simpler with this new phase of his life. His last album was titled ‘Colorado’ after the state where Neil moved with new wife Darryl Hannah and this one is called ‘Barn’ after the restored barn it was recorded in. To Crazy Horse fans of course there can only be one true barn – the one on Neil’s ‘Broken Arrow’ ranch where he once recorded ‘Ragged Glory’ among other albums. Though that barn could be seen from Neil’s house and yet inspired recordings of whole new worlds, Aztec empires and hurricanes, interestingly it’s this one located up a hill that seems to have inspired a more homespun feel; the record contains a slower, cosier world where we don’t look at the outside world that much. Practically every song here is a love piece to Darryl, Neil perhaps relieved to be singing openly about her at last after so many albums of keeping his love hidden during his marriage to wife Pegi, while the outside world only appears at key moments across the album, whistling past the barn’s windows.
If you get nothing else from ‘Barn’ you get the sense that Neil is at peace with himself, his legacy and his life the way it is, which is great for those who’ve been following his rollercoaster story for so long but not so good for his music. ‘Colorado’ was a mixed bag but the best of it felt focussed and punchy, Neil’s new life giving him a certainty and structure, with actual singalong choruses and everything. ‘Barn’ is a lot more free-form, with notes seemingly plucked out of the air and lengthy instrumental passages that clearly haven’t been rehearsed (at least given by the clips released from this album’s moody accompanying documentary film also called ‘Barn’, due in shops on Blu-Ray soon. The bits of footage we’ve seen suggest it’s the sort of rambling documentary only a fan could love – or indeed tolerate).Some fans have already compared ‘Barn’ to ‘On The Beach’, another free-expressionism album written and recorded during a time of great disaster, but that record felt like one that had a lot to say even if turning those thoughts into songs sounded like hard work. On ‘Barn’ there’s just nothing much going on in thought or execution. In fact some of this album’s lyrics border on the twee and empty, unusual territory for Young who a few years ago could record his shopping list and make it sound full of meaning: the opening track simply describes what Neil can see out the barn window – you keep waiting for a moment where the falling leaves and rippling water end up as metaphors for something bigger but no, Neil’s turned into a meteorologist for a whole song. The closing track parrots ‘don’t forget love’ so many times and so insistently you wonder if Neil’s suddenly developed dementia in the time it took to start recording it. Even in between there are lyrics recycled from old songs (‘Ten Men Workin’) lyrics that are uncharacteristically clunky (‘Shape Of You’ rhymes ‘better’ with ‘favourite sweater’) or songs that sound as if they were written on the spot to give the Horse something to record (‘They Might Be Lost’ starts off as if it’s going to be an exciting diatribe about the times we live in, but no – Neil’s Amazon delivery got delayed, that’s all. That’s what happens when you move to halfway up a mountain, Neil). Mind you, the album’s one big political statement ‘Human Race’ isn’t much better, Neil wondering how future generations will feel about this one, the ‘children of destiny’ who found the change needed to keep the world alive too hard and so gave up. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine Band Aid discussing as a sequel to ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ before dismissing as being too cliched. The album’s biggest problem is melody though: searching for a memorable tune on ‘Barn’ is like looking for a needle in a haystack, with this album possessing more noodles than my local Chinese takeaway.
When this album looks back to the past, though, it all comes together. ‘Heading West’ matches the autobiographical tracks on 2012’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’ a storming, compact rocker about Neil’s childhood memories before his parents’ divorce and his polio attack, reaching back further than ever before. In the haze of this free-form album its electric boogie storms out the speakers even more than normal, as the Horse finally break into a carefree gallop that still sounds amazing. ‘Canerican’ sounds slow and plodding, but the lyrics are fascinating with Neil celebrating the country of his birth and the country of his adopted homeland and being equally proud to be both, even if he ends with the word ‘American’. National pride has ebbed and flowed throughout Neil’s career and never got lower than it did under Trump, but now Neil is back to seeing the good things about his new home again. ‘Tumblin’ Thru The Years’ is a sort of elder man’s ‘Journey Thru The Past’, an ever-changing song that seems to keep switching track between parallel lives that might have been lived and parallel tunes that might have been written to house these words. Though it sounds at first to be as aimless as 9/10ths of this record, it’s the album’s slow grower that becomes more epic every time you hear it. Finally there is ‘Welcome Back’, an eight-and-a-half minute ramble that ebbs and flows with true Horse beauty and even though Neil promises that this is ‘an old song…one you’ve heard before’, we’ve never quite had a track like this one ever, a whisper so fragile you feel it’s about to break down a few seconds in but somehow keeps going and going. It’s the one track here to address what’s going on outside the barn-door, how ‘the world has closed us in’ and Neil’s hope that we might yet get something positive from such a turbulent time and ‘changes’ to our behaviour (with the caveat that we might not). Later on there’s a very Neil verse about how technology might be our escape or our prison warden depending how we use it, the human race caught right on the edge between evolving and devolving. Neil’s on the fence between optimism and pessimism throughout the song, as Nils Lofgren – one of life’s most naturally ‘up’ people – keeps asking happy questions of Neil’s mournful guitar licks, the two circling each other like serpents eating their own tail in a never-ending dance of the human condition.
Like ‘Colorado’ Nils is the quiet hero of this record, sublime on second guitar piano or accordion and his promotion to the Horse after poor Frank caught his fingers in the Horse tour-bus a few years ago is inspired. I just hope the next record makes more use of him and Billy and Ralph if Neil decides he’s going to stick with the Horse from now on, as at times across ‘Barn’ it feels like we’re listening to the rehearsals not the record. Sadly much of ‘Barn’ sounds like one of those Horse records Neil decided to make on the hoof, before he knows what these songs are really about yet never mind his bandmates. Long passages of this album simply meander in search of a direction that never comes and, whilst that’s not unheard of on recent Neil Young albums, usually that happens for a few tracks at a time. Here even the best tracks (barring ‘Heading West’) are meandering too, leading to an album that’s more of a hard day’s work on the farm to sit through than a second Harvest. It marks, | fear, a bit of a step backwards from the last proper run which were all unsung heroes of the Young catalogue and which I’ve praised highly on the AAA, much to the confusion of some fans who gave up long ago (‘The Monsanto Years’ ‘Storytone’ ‘The Visitor’ ‘Peace Trail’ and ‘Colorado’ were all really good albums to these ears, even if the fan base didn’t seem to like them too much or buy too many copies of them). ‘Barn’ though feels more like a stepping stone made to fill in the time till something more interesting comes along and to save Neil having to walk down the mountain and go home to the washing up.
5) David Crosby “For Free”
‘I start walking towards that sound again’. There are so many David Crosbys that I love, many of which are in the re-issue section of this year’s review: the jazz chordal free-form pioneer of ‘Déjà vu’, the beautiful balladeer of ‘Guinnevere’, the all-out rock anger of ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, the exquisite philosopher of ‘Laughing’ – over nearly sixty years of music-making I don’t think any songwriter has made me think or cry or smile as often and as hard as Croz. Unfortunately there’s one other David Crosby that feels opposite to all these things; the lush emotionless mathematical one inspired by his favourite band Steely Dan and first explored in the 2014 album ‘Croz’. And alas, on David’s fifth album in seven years, that’s all we get: bland anti-sceptic recordings apparently inspired by the first song recorded for the set, an actual collaboration with Dan’s Donald Fagen. Croz has had a fairly tough time of it lately, with the pandemic cutting off his access to touring money and streaming cutting off a majority of his access to song royalties, hence perhaps the sarcastic title (taken from Crosby’s third and weakest cover of his favourite Joni Mitchell song). So it’s perhaps not quite so much of a shock to hear him sound like everybody else around nowadays on a record fifth studio album in seven years, with no sense of emotion or dynamics to disturb the MOR balance. It is, regretfully, his dullest and least interesting album in many ways or at any rate definitely less worth hearing than his last three.
Underneath the surface, however, there is thankfully a much more interesting album going on and particularly in the lyrics than the one you’ll take away on first hearing. ‘I Think I’ is Crosby turning eighty and feeling more at peace with himself than he’s ever been, confused as to how he can mess his life up as badly as he’d done down the years and yet still find contentment in his final chapter. ‘Secret Dancer’ starts off as a love song to creativity and ends up a love song for wife Jan (maiden name ‘Dance’) and the power that comes from creator and listener being in synch with each other. ‘Ships In The Night’ is David dealing with his nightly insomnia, unable to stop thinking while the rest of the world sleeps and feeling separate and apart to everyone else (traditionally the time he hits twitter these days). ‘Boxes’ deals with the way we define and categorise people, literally putting them into a box when they die and thinking we knew everything about them when human beings are such complex, multi-layered creatures who can never be fully known. As for the album’s closing and quiet highlight ‘I Won’t Stay For Long’ (actually by son James Raymond), all I need to tell Crosby-philes is that it’s another aching Crosby piece about what it means to be alive and facing death and you know you’ll love it already (see ‘songs of the year’ below). Alas, though, that’s only half the story for an album that also contains two of Crosby’s dumbest lyrics in the one-note ‘River Rise’ and the tone poem ‘Rodriquez For A Night’, both of which equal his worst work. Stripped of emotion, of proper characters, of melody, of anything much to say, even of his usual unique chord changes, everything – even the best of this record – still ends up sounding a little empty compared to the gorgeous depths of even 2018’s gorgeous ‘Here If You Listen’. Sadly too this record only seems to carry half a tune throughout and seems to be constantly played at the same slightly-slowish tempo, while the lush performances spit and polish all the energy and emotion away from even the better songs. Take the title track and Joni cover song for instance, where a moving tale of a busker making a crotchety millionaire feel embarrassed about their money worries sounds bland and boring, without the epic approach of earlier Crosby versions on The Byrds’ reunion album (1973) or the intimate performance on CSN’s live album ‘Allies’ (1983, recorded 1977). It sounds like a millionaire version if you will, even though this album was made on a shoestring budget compared to those records and alas that rather sums up the album – it tries so hard to sound contemporary it loses its essential Crosby-ness. There are enough records in the world that sound like everyone else, but precious few that sound like Crosby, because nobody else ever has. There’s a lot to admire on ‘For Free’, then (not least the Joan Baez painting of Croz on the cover or the fact that his voice is still one of the most beautiful in music, showing none of the strain of, say, Paul McCartney’s or Stephen Stills’), but alas less than usual by Croz standards to love.
6) Neil Young “Young Shakespeare”
‘You’re all university students so if you don’t know the words then hear them in the first verse then memorise them…’ Neil seems to have spent most of lockdown in his own personal vaults, judging by the sheer quantity of releases he promised us at the beginning of the year: unreleased album ‘Island In The Sun’ (at last!) which was rejected by Geffen in 1982 for not being ‘commercial’ enough and which morphed into the brilliantly wayward ‘Trans’, the unheard unbootlegged Crazy Horse collaboration ‘Toast’ which can’t possibly be as poor as the album that replaced it (‘Greendale’), live albums from 1989 and the 1980s in general (‘Road Of Plenty’) and even the full ‘Archives III’, taking the story from ‘Comes A Time’ in 1977 up to the end of the ‘Reprise’ years and ‘Re-Ac-Tor’. However, Neil being Neil, after announcing that haul we didn’t get any of that saliva-inducing material. Instead most of the archive harvest this year has been on the weaker side of what we’ve been promised with ‘Shakespeare’ the better of two very similar acoustic sets both returning to the scene of Neil’s greatest triumphs in 1970-72. This recording from a show in Connecticut only three days after the ‘Massey Hall’ gig already out has Neil in dreamy mood. As with pretty much all things from the 1972 period he’s on strong form, the setlist full of many of his career best songs and Neil enjoying his highest commercial profile before the sad death of Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten in a few months time derails all that.
It’s another really nice gig, with well played versions of many fan favourites and if you’ve never bought a Neil archive release before you’ll be well satisfied. However, I’m not sure I buy the endless trailers, press releases and youtube videos from Neil calling it his ‘most very special show’ or ‘my best’. It lacks the poignancy of the Massey Hall gig (a huge Canadian home-coming and personal triumph for Neil, with a much longer set list) and you miss the rambling intimate monologues and unexpected re-arrangements that enlivened earlier Archive sets. If you’ve never bought any of Neil’s archive shows then you’ll still be amazed at how brilliantly and poignantly these largely electric band songs sound re-arranged for an acoustic setting and how much power and intimacy Neil can deliver using just one battered guitar (or occasionally one battered piano). For the seasoned Archives veteran, however, there’s not much here that doesn’t sound like other gigs already out and none of it sounds particularly different or better (for instance the likes of album highlight ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ is still a breath-taking revelation of hurt and heartbreak without the ‘Harvest’ orchestra to overwhelm it and with its quick dip into ‘Heart Of Gold’, but I think I’d still take the even more extraordinary ‘Massey’ reading over this one). Oh and if you’re wondering about the name, no this isn’t Neil doing poetry (after all, he’s done every other genre so why not?) – the Shakespeare in the title is the name of the theatre (he’s performing in the ‘Young Shakespeare’ venue as in ‘Stratford Connecticut’ the younger cousin of ‘Stratford, England’ and the name’s not actually anything to do with Neil). Be warned then: there’s nothing rotten in the Archives yet and this is another brilliant set, but all that archives is not gold, at least if you’ve bought something similar before. In other words, if the question you have is ‘to buy or not to buy’ then personally I would wait for the Winter of our discount tents (or the Neil Young archives site) before getting this one. Exit left, pursued by a Crazy Horse.
7) Neil Young “Way Down In The Rustbucket 1989”
‘We’re going down for a pleasure cruise, plenty of women plenty of booze!’ Or an even more ragged ‘Ragged Glory’ era Crazy Horse, who are here captured for posterity semi-rehearsing for what will become the monster ‘Weld’ tour with a one-off warm-up show in Santa Cruz at the very start of the behemoth tour. Robbed of a big audience and with everyone saving their best performances for the many shows to come, this set was never going to take fire the same way that ‘Weld’ did, with its extended endings, ultra-feedback and ‘Gulf War’ CNN backdrop. Indeed robbed of all politics these performances sound almost polite, a million miles away from the ride-or-die final shows. ‘F!#in’ Up’ for instance is almost cute and at five minutes a mere strapling compared to the tour highlight that’s about to come, whilst ‘Love To Burn’ is more pretty than pretty unhinged compared to the uncompromisingly battered version of ‘Weld’. There is always something worth hearing in Neil’s archive releases however and so it is here, with our chance to be a fly-on-the-wall as Crazy Horse reunite for the first time in two years and perform quite a few handful of songs that never did make it to the final tour proper(1981’s ‘Surfer Joe and Moe The Sleaze’ sounds all the more poignant for the slower tempo and shakey vocals, with the feeling everything is in a state of imminent collapse, while ‘Danger Bird’ goes the other way and sounds way more together and polished than ever before, a pigeon rather than parrot, though ‘T-Bone’ and ‘Bite The Bullet’ still sound daft in every version).
We know how good this band will get very soon and how career-defining many of these live performances will be, but it’s fascinating to hear everyone sound so unsure of themselves as Neil tries not to spook the Horse by going too far and too intensely too fast. Even at a waddle not a gallop Crazy Horse are a fine band and when they’re on it they’re on it – it’s just that that it only happens intermittently at this show compared to so many others. This set is worth hearing then, it’s just the kind of thing you buy to hear once for mild interest rather than play endlessly on repeat (and if you do then that’s because you haven’t heard ‘Weld’ yet – if you don’t own either album then that’s the one you need to buy by the way, not this curio. Your ears will never be the same again). Interestingly this set has proven to be the biggest seller amongst the archive live series in the UK so far and the first to go top twenty in the UK (in fact at #18 lit only went one place lower than 2019’s all-new record ‘Colorado’).
8) Neil Young “Live In Carnegie Hall 1970”
‘When Will I see you again?... Oh wait, there’s yet another Neil Young album out this month?!?’ Neil’s third release of the year isn’t technically part of his ‘archive’ series and frustratingly appears officially in the ‘new’ section of his various online discographies, although it actually dates back further than either of the other two sets out this year both considered ‘archive’. It’s all part of a brand new initiative titled ‘The Official Bootleg Series’ made up of unofficial recordings beloved by fans that have been leaked down the years. Only, again Neil being Neil, he decided he didn’t actually like the bootleg from December 3rd 1970 he first considered for release and he’s released the previously unheard set from December 4th that was in his personal vaults instead. Confused? Not half as much as we are! I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve known the earlier show longer but that still sounds the stronger to my ears (not that there’s much to choose between them). In fact once again there’s not much to choose between this one and all sorts of other shows from the glory years of 1970-1972. Had it come out a few years ago collectors would have been all over this but now it feels like déjà vu (and not the csny box set).The ‘Carnegie Hall’ show is prime era Neil doing all the things prime era Neil always does – and that we’ve heard him do a few times over now, just without the ‘Harvest’ era songs of similar discs like the ‘Young Shakespeare’ one (because, err, he hasn’t written them yet).
Neil is earnest mood and sings well throughout, but he’s not very chatty (unlike practically every other archive disc so far) and has no surprises for us in the set-list. You can, of course, get lost in the occasional slight change as a fan(a held word here, a slight change in rambling anecdote there) but for the most part this gig is interchangeable with previous archive set ‘Cellar Door’ taped the same year and very similar to a good half-dozen others. I can’t even make any bad puns about the name the way I could with the Shakespeare set. Ho hum. Before Neil gets too carried away with this new series, could we please have the ‘missing’ archive releases too? (Volumes 8,10,13-15?) Next year’s planned release dates don’t include any of them – although it still looks amazing (three unreleased albums: 1976’s ‘Oceanside/Countryside’ 1982’s ‘Islands In The Sun’, and 2000’s ‘Toast’,plus seven possible live shows including a gig with Crazy Horse from 1966 titled ‘Early Daze’, Live At The Rainbow 1973, Live at The Bottom Line 1974, a Ducks gig from 1976, ‘Road Of Plenty’ – another Bluenotes set from the mid-1980s, Crazy Horse shows from 2012 and 2019, more concerts from 1971 and goodness only knows what else Neil finds at the back of his cupboards before then. Stiop press: the next announced one – coming ‘soon’ – isn’t any of these but a set of demos from 1987!), so our tip is to skip this year’s booty, save some money back for 2022 and buy these more saliva-inducing titles. Unless they all get delayed again for another year of course. With Neil anything is possible.
9) Brian Wilson “At My Piano”
‘Columnated pianos domino!’ Oh dear. There’s nothing ‘archive’ about the pristine sound on the Beach Boy’s latest album with big lockdown vibes, but you might well wish there might have been a little…something in there to stop one of the greatest, most inventive and groundbreaking catalogues in music being turned into pure lift music. It’s too soon for Brian to give us a new studio album and for someone who used to be so spooked touring there haven’t half been a lot of live albums lately too, so instead what we get this year is Brian playing thirteen Beach Boys classics (plus two oddities) solo at the piano. That’s it: that’s the album. There are no vocals, no lyrics and having seen many many bits of footage of Brian at the piano down the years I’m not even totally convinced that’s him playing (there’s none of his favoured boogie woogie style even on the tracks that were written around boogie woogie licks; long-time collaborator Darian Sahanaja’s name in the credits makes me wonder if its him playing to an arrangement agreed with Brian?) A Beach Boys album without vocals just sounds odd (yes, even with 1969’s ‘Stack-O-Tracks’ in the discography already), though I was always surprised Brian didn’t do something like this in the 1970s, if only to get around the ‘staying in bed’ era and to say spiritually to Murray ‘you see – I could have been a classical composer too if I’d wanted to be, I just wasn’t born when you were dad’. The result is kind of the opposite of Brian’s ‘Reimagining Gershwin’ album which re-did old American classics with a Beach Boysy swagger – this album is modern American classics done with an early 20th century lilt and I’m not altogether sure it works. After all, I never really felt the Beach Boys music lent itself as well to sheet music as, say, The Beatles’ catalogue: there’s always so much going on even on the simple songs and you need dog ears to hear it all and way more than ten fingers to play it; this set of arrangements, alas, simplifies everything down as much as it can go and taking away 90% of the layers also robs us of 90% of the magic.
It’s not all dismissable though. The highlights are a sea-shanty adaptation of ‘Til I Die’ that shouldn’t work as well without the underlying melancholy but somehow does, ‘Snatches Of Smile’, a fascinating medley of many of the key beautiful melodies from unfinished BB 1966 album which is sublime in any form and is heard here in an entirely different sequence to the ‘finished’ 2004 album (‘Wonderful’ sounds mighty good going into ‘Heroes and Villains’ and putting ‘Our Prayer’ at the end rather than the beginning is a masterstroke) and the oddity ‘Mount Vernon Farewell’, which is what the bonkers therapy session fairy-tale released as an extra with the ‘Holland’ album of 1973 sounds like with the lyrics and piped-piper impressions removed (it is, perhaps, the only Beach Boys song that works better without the vocals, depending on just how demented you find ‘Hey Little Tomboy’. It sounds good played on a piano not a synth too. A real shame it only lasts 75 seconds though). ‘Love and Mercy’ is the only solo Brian song here interestingly and it sounds better than most, without the very 1980s synths of the original, while the beauty of under-rated gem ‘The Warmth Of The Sun’ shines through undiminished. Some slight kudos too that even though there are four whole songs here from ‘Pet Sounds’ Brian’s at least picked some unusual ones, though the sound of him playing his ambitious outsider anthem ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ in a style that makes you expect to hear an elevator operator any moment is, ultimately, depressing. Like the similar ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ documentary soundtrack album from 1995 (which is basically the same, except for being played on a less grand piano and with some special guests and fuller vocals) and the incredibly stupid ‘The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’ album (where some surfer dudes got some badly CSO-d tuxedos added on top of their surfer shorts that really don’t fit) it’s probably not an album you’ll ever play more than once. However the best of the songs here are so good even this sort of treatment can’t ruin them altogether.
10) Mike Nesmith “Different Drum: The Lost RCA Recordings”
Note: This is last week’s review from when Mike was still alive
‘It’s a very extraordinary scene to those who don’t understand…’ This has been such a hard couple of years for Monkee fans. After the success of the ‘Good Times’ reunion in 2016 first we lost Peter and now there are fears for Mike’s health, compounded by a split in the fandom like never before. In the red-buttoned jacket corner: concerns that Mike has lost half his bodyweight in recent years, that he’s suddenly dropped contact with many fans and close friends alike and that he appears bored, listless, scruffy and half-asleep in streamed online interviews where he seems to be constantly smoking weed – something unthinkable compared to his oh-so-sharp younger self. A difficult farewell tour with fellow surviving Monkee Micky saw Papa Nez a visible shell of himself, largely sitting precariously on a stool and occasionally being coached how to sing his own songs (although, admittedly, on some songs it was as if he was still young again and nothing strange was happening, particularly the last few dates in November). Not for nothing, many fans have grown worried and rightly or wrongly date the change in Mike’s appearance and behaviour to the moment he started working with a new live-in assistant. In the bluehat corner: messages from family and fellow musicians alike that all is fine, that Mike is now 78, smokes for aches and pains, that none of us are getting younger so we should just be lucky we’re getting one last tour and that the lengthy back-breaking 36 date rota was Nez’s idea all along and he wouldn’t do it if he himself didn’t want to. Most quotes from official sources state ‘No one has ever told Mike Nesmith what to do and we’re not about to start now’. My view is that you can see this from both sides. You can understand the concerns of a particularly vocal part of the fanbase who love and care about Mike and even if this all turns out to be a hoo-hah about nothing I’ve been quite shocked at how the ‘professional’ people involved in the tour have gone after fans publicly, sometimes by name, being needlessly angry towards fans whose biggest crime is to care about the welfare an old friend who always used to be so open with us (‘they’re too busy singing to put anybody down’). You can also understand though why the powers-that-be are scared of anything damaging a tour that’s already been delayed once because of covid and where shows are still being cancelled last minute and the confusion and lack of transparency has led to fingers being pointed to those around the band by fans too. Mike’s son Christian leaving the tour midway through unexpectedly hasn’t exactly stopped tongues wagging either.
What this doesn’t answer is why both sides that support a band that once stood for peace and love and harmony have been so critical of each other; never have I seen personal assistants and managers attacked in a way they have been the past few months – equally never have I seen fans banned, blocked and socially demolished for doing nothing more than enquiring ‘is everything ok?’ Your scribe has himself got into ‘trouble’ for challenging the idea that fans are ‘attacking and shaming’ Mike, when all I see is a bunch of fans who would do anything for their hero wondering why he’s gone so far downhill so fast since the last tour (which was only at the end of 2019). For all I know everything is genuinely fine and some fans have jumped the gun a bit out of concern and worry – but if anything the constant and increasingly angry denials that don’t address the actual issue (is Mike being taken advantage of?) suggest, more than any other piece of evidence, that all is not fine at all. The tour is finished now, barring one last gig on a cruise ship, and the general consensus seems to be that Mike has grown stronger and happier with each show, which can only be a good thing. Of course there’s still a divide over whether that’s because he was right to tour or whether it was because he managed to escape being locked down at home with particular persons. In an eerie coda, just as I write this Papa Nez was heard live-broadcasting anonymously via his website where he was checking into some form of hospital environment (where his belongings were being processed) and audibly crying out for help, although as he hasn’t said where he is sadly none of us could. Hopefully next year things will have calmed down to the point when Mike starts talking to us again – the real Mike I mean, not the assistants clearly writing on his behalf or ‘quoting’ him- and we can forget this unhappy era and move on.
Anyway, all that said, the state of the Monkees catalogue has been much quieter, if not necessarily much better and whether by coincidence or not both releases this year revolve around Papa Nez. First up, fan-run Monkee label 7A Records (named after the fake outtake start of ‘Daydream Believer’) continue their sterling work into 2021, tracking down the sort of rarities that make major record labels sigh but true fans go gooey over. They’ve dug through the vaults and found no less than twenty-two unreleased rarities from the four-year six-album run of Mike’s earliest post-Monkee days (already released online in 2018 as ‘bonus tracks’ on the six albums, they come out on CD for the first time here). It seems amazing enough that Mike had time to record all these extra songs on top of the seventy-odd he released in that short prolific period and it also makes you wonder why so many of those albums ran as short as they did the first time round. Like many a rarities set this one varies from sublime recordings that truly should have made the First or Second National Band records (the lovely country instrumental ‘Rene’ makes more sense uncut, as does an epic 1973 four minute spin through ‘Listen To The Band’ that’s far more substantial than the 1970 one that ended up forming part of a medley, if still nowhere near as swinging as The Monkees cut and there’s a lovely, far more joyous first stab at ‘Keepin’ On’ that’s much more in keeping with the lyrics than the heavy sigh of the sarcastically-titled ‘And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ LP), those that sound much the same (‘Different Drum’ is clearly same band same arrangement same day as the final take, even if Mike breaths in a few different ways and ‘Texas Morning’ has Mike sing in a slightly deeper voice for slightly longer and that’s about it) and those that made you wonder what on Earth anyone was thinking even recording material this bad (‘American Airman’ is an odd and rather sarcastic tale of a country-rock drummer with a suitcase that’s ‘ten pounds overweight yet holding everything I own’ that sounds like a rather uncharitable wave goodbye to National Band drummer John Ware, ‘Six Days On The Road’ is a rather lumpy attempt to get a county band to do all-out rock that makes everyone sound drunk – which knowing Mike may or may not have been the intention - while the alternate take of ‘Dedicated Friend’ is awful, slowed to half its speed with Mike singing as if he’s about to murder an old friend/ex rather than laugh at them in a carefree manner as it does on the finished album and all the long pile of intriguing-looking unheard instrumentals that close the CD out sadly aren’t up to much).
In amongst all this divisiveness it’s sad to report that the long awaited countrified solo spin on ‘Head’ song ‘Circle Sky’ is just kind of OK, taken a lick too slow and with the pedal steels in the background, while the best song here by a – ahem – country mile ‘Some Of Shelley’s Blues’ is sadly heard here as a rather weedy demo (odd that, given that Mike had already taped the definitive version during his Monkee days half a decade earlier). Most interesting of all might well be the last track, ‘Marie’s Theme’, shortly to be the - err - unusual centrepiece of Mike’s groundbreaking book-and-album ‘The Prison’ where it does all sort of odd things with harmonics but here sounds like just another piece of National band country-rock. There’s nothing truly unmissable here and in truth there are several recordings I’m not in a hurry to hear again now I’ve reviewed them, but it’s always better to have this sort of material out legally than not and Nesmith fans, starved of new solo material since 1992, will find much to treasure here. As with all things 7A it’s all very well put together too, clearly made for fans by fellow fans, the way all good vault raids should be and fans who are forced to pass them by after paying hundreds of pounds on a ticket to see their heroes one last time aren’t truly missing much.
11) “Micky Dolenz Sings Mike Nesmith”
‘The image of you wasn’t clear – I guess I’ve been standing too near’. Back in 1966 Monkee supervisor Don Kirshner came to a decision: even though Mike had the largest musical pedigree of any of the band and would be allowed the odd cameo per album, his voice wasn’t as commercial as Micky’s or Davy’s, handing over songs like ‘Mary Mary’ or ‘Daily Nightly’ to the drummer to sing. While you could forgive Papa Nez for putting his fist through Micky’s wall in frustration, actually he saved that for Kirshner himself; in fact Mike and Micky quickly developed one of the strongest bonds within The Monkees, based on mutual respect for the talents the other didn’t have and that bond has only grown stronger the past few years since the two became the last Monkees standing. As The Monkees project wore on Mike got back control of his own songs anyway and Micky took less and less part in them, but this new solo Dolenz albums reveals what might have been in a parallel world where The Monkees had lasted into the 1970s and Micky had still been seen as the band’s lead singer. It’s a neat idea; there are some astounding gems in both the late Monkees and the solo Nesmith catalogue and though Mike isn’t involved in this album directly his son Christian did all the arrangements and Micky’s warm voice and interpretative skills have been getting better and better with each release (Dolenz’s last solo album, 2012’s ‘Remember’, with its dip into the Monkee, Beatle and even Neil Young catalogues, was a real treat I still play a lot).
The result, though, isn’t quite the masterpiece it sounds on paper. Though Papa Nez’s lyrics are frequently amongst the most lyrical and multi-layered in the AAA catalogue, what really worked was when he set about them with the low budget of the First or Second National Band, who often only consisted of a bassist, drummer and Red Rhodes on a continually sobbing pedal steel. Hearing them is an emotional as well as intellectual experience, as the sheer rawness of the sound and the one or two take feel in the room balances out the depth of the subjects on offer, making them feel immediate and profound all at once. By contrast Micky’s new album feels overblown and polished, these gorgeous nuggets of pop philosophy given a huge production budget that feels a million miles away from what Nesmith originally planned. So much of this album just misses the mark. Just take ‘Red Rider’, a smart-ass little rocker as a pair of lovers both think they are getting the upper-hand on the other here transplanted to a grunge-fest complete with an epic Hammond organ instrumental and what sounds like six different drummers. Or a version of grungy Monkees classic ‘Circle Sky’ that shockingly is even worse than the one on reunion album ‘JustUs’ and is given an Indian raga arrangement that really doesn’t fit. Or ‘Propinquity’, one of the most moving Monkee-related songs of them all, here turned from a simple ballad about the slow realisation of love for a friend to a foot-stomping yeehaw cowboy song that’s just totally unsuited. Or the song a pre-Monkee Mike gave away to Linda Ronstadt, ‘Different Drum’, turned from cute novelty into mega-bucks Eurovision entry. Or ‘Tapioca Tundra’, a candidate for the weirdest 1960s-released Monkees song, turned into a ragtime jazz number that leaves even an interpreter as talented as Micky vocally scratching his head, minus the sly knowing wink of Nesmith’s vocal on the 1968 original. Worse yet, the album seems to have ruffled through Nesmith’s solo canon at random, so that many of his truly best songs (‘Joanne’ ‘I Looked Away’ ‘Some Of Shelley’s Blues’ ‘Wax Minute’, even ‘Rio’) are missing, even though they’d have been a more natural fit for Micky’s still-gorgeous voice than anything here. Worst of all is ‘You Are My One’ which consists of the title being repeated over and over again while Micky’s vocal gets treated to some zany Beach Boysy 1967 effects. There are at least a hundred Nesmith songs Micky has never sung before worthier of treatment than this one.
The album isn’t a complete disaster by any means – Micky’s voice still sounds stupendous, a slower bluesier ‘Nine Times Blue’ is just the ticket (Micky’s the third Monkee we’ve had singing this lovely song now following Mike and Davy), Nevada Fighter’s ‘Only Bound’ is gorgeous and there’s a lovely little acoustic version of Monkees ‘Instant Replay’ song ‘Don’t Wait For Me’ that goes against the grain of the album by taking away from the original epic production rather than adding to it. I also have to applaud the courage of going with (yet again) ‘Marie’s Theme’ from the largely atonal book-with-album set ‘The Prison’, which desperately deserves to be discovered by a wider audience (oddly enough, it ends up becoming the most overtly country and Western song here, even though the original was probably the furthest away from that sound in the whole Nesmith solo catalogue). The album cover is quite fun too, a dazed-looking Mike in the backseat of a sort of countrified Monkeemobile while Micky takes charge and drives out into the deserts of the deep South, looking more like The Flying Burrito Brothers than any actual Nesmith image ever did. However, ultimately ‘Dolenz Sings Nesmith’ still gets more wrong than it gets right to around a two-thirds rating I feel and just feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity in the end, falling short of the triumph it could have been with just a bit of tweaking and a remix (and possibly a lower budget). We know that Mike always admired and encouraged Dolenz’s creative side too, so we can only hope for a ‘Nesmith sings Dolenz’ album in the future to redress the balance full of ‘Randy Scouse Git’ (that’s ‘Alternate Title’ to you if you’re British!) ‘Mommy and Daddy’ and ‘Shorty Blackwell’, which sounds great to me!
This week’s review: That album sounds like fun but sadly we will never hear it, or anything else, as the big gig in the sky which is getting bigger each year, gained our wool-hatted one. It’s too early to go through whether the hard tour broke our friend or breathed new life into Mike’s last days and we’ll probably never truly know what was going on those last few strange months of Nesmith’s life. One thing we do know though is that we can all unite in our grief now and mourn one of the greatest songwriters of them all. We’ll miss you Papa Nez.
12) John Lodge “The Royal Affair and After”
‘Taught in school one and one is two, but that answer just ain’t true!’ This has been a sad year for drummers, with Graeme Edge another of our much-missed AAA members to have gone up to the great percussionist paradise in the sky this year. Even before that The Moody world had made melancholy men and women of all of us the past few years. The sad and sudden end of The Moody Blues after fifty-five years has gone largely un-noticed in the music world in general though, perhaps because no one has actually got around to announcing it yet, or perhaps because we still hoped that the band would get back together again. Alas, that seems unlikely now. Of the ‘classic’ line-up Mike Pinder retired a long time back, Ray Thomas died a few years ago and Graeme had finally called it a day, revealing only in November that he hadn’t long to live from cancer and that ill health had been behind his decision. All this has lead to guitarist Justin Hayward re-considering his options and deciding that it wouldn’t be the same on the road without Graeme and that he doesn’t want to tour under the band name as just a duo. Bassist John Lodge, however, is keen to keep the band going and sees it as his duty to keep the Moody magic and momentum for as long as possible if people are still interested in hearing it. Rather than sit down and speak about it the pair have turned their latest solo singles into a discussion of this and released a ‘Blue Jays’ style debate between themselves about whether it is kinder to let a great thing die gracefully or whether it is their duty to make it last as long as they possibly can. That debate is coming up later (see the ‘songs of the year’ section), but first to promote his new single John has released a solo live album to go with it, an advert if you will about just how Moody Bluesy he and his new band can be even without Justin or Graeme there. This CD still has all the songs you would normally see on any of the many Moody live sets out there and unlike most live solo spin-off records there’s an impressive lack of ‘hey look at me, I was the real talent in the band!’ style setlists.
Even so, it’s an odd one this one, caught halfway between genuinely capturing the excitement of old and being a not-that-great tribute act. John sounds as brilliant as ever on his own songs (‘Ride My See-Saw’ especially) and the band are just about close enough to sound like latter-day Moodies. It’s when the rest of the band take over vocals for songs associated with the other band members where things go wrong: I’ve heard hundreds of cover versions of ‘Nights In White Satin’ down the years and all of them sound flat without the extra dimensions of emotion that composer Justin gives it – alas this one, featuring Jon Andersen from fellow prog rockers Yes, is no different. Equally no one but Ray Thomas will ever be qualified to sing ‘Legend Of A Mind’ and without Mike Pinder ‘Sunset’ (as performed by John on what turned out to be the final Moodies tour for the ‘Days of Future Passed’ anniversary tour in 2017) still sounds weird. Interestingly Graeme was lulled out of retirement long enough for one poem (‘Late Lament’) which does at least give this album half an air of Moody authenticity and a belated chance to say goodbye on the drummer’s last recorded contribution anywhere. It might just be retrospectively but he sounds awfully ill on it, though. There’s a welcome chance too to hear the first live arrangement of ‘Saved By The Music’ from the ‘Blue Jays’ album and given how good it sounds it’s a shame there aren’t more rare John songs on here (I’d love to hear ‘Eyes Of A Child’ or ‘One More Time To Live’ played live). Mostly, though, it’s all a bit pointless. Why buy a live album by one and a half Moodies that only lasts ten songs when so many from three, four or five members are out there to buy that last for one or two hours with almost the exact same track listing and arguably all played better than this one?
13) Paul McCartney “McCartney III Imagined”
‘’She’s acting like a starlet, but she’s looking like a harlet’. This has been an expensive year for fans, even by McCartney’s standards. No sooner had we got over last year’s McCartney III set and its vinyl re-issues of amazing pricey technicolours (there’s been a new violet variation this year by the way folks – that’s the tenth!), then we had the whole ‘Let It Be’ extravaganza (more on that story later) and two new books (Grandude’s second children’s book adventure concerns green submarines and isn’t as cute as the first, while ‘Lyrics’ is on the one hand what we’ve been pleading Paul to write on this website for years – a bona fide run down of why he wrote his songs, complete with a couple of fascinating unreleased extras found lurking in his archives including some pre-Beatle stuff thought lost for sixty years – and on the other a hundred-pound way of hearing ‘well there isn’t much of a story to this one’ a hundred times over, even when there really are great stories to hear).Have a heart, Paul. Some of us haven’t finished off paying for the ‘Egypt Station’ suitcase yet, never mind all the ‘Archive’ sets. Whatever happened to the promised ‘London Town’ and ‘Back To The Egg’ by the way?
Anyway, the one actual bona fide bit of McCartney solo music released in 2021 isn’t strictly a solo album at all. Instead, last year’s ‘Macca III’ publicity-fest against all common sense continued into this one, with a last throw of the dice for extra sales with an entire set of covers and re-workings by artists a third of the Beatle’s age (thankfully this one is only out in one colour, so far and it’s blue – which, funnily enough, will be a description of how you feel when you see the price tag for it. Why, Paul, why?) Now, this set of covers by modern artists nobody will remember tomorrow isn’t quite as silly as it might sound: Paul’s voice has been fading for well over a decade now and he’s always had a finger on the pulse of the young hip things of each passing era, however dumb that might make him and his music look to later fans (Michael Jackson in the 1980s, various trendy remixers in the 1990s and 2000s, Kanye West in the 2010s, frauds and weirdos all). Let’s not forget too that when a thirty-year-old recording of ‘Temporary Secretary’ was released to dance clubs ten years ago, unlabelled, Sir Paul was being heralded as the next big teenage hit until a Beatles fan heard it and let the cat out of the bag that his Grandad had bought it on vinyl the day it came out. This set is just another of those occasional oddities you put up with as a McCartney collector, such as Paul’s made-up big-band band-leader Percy Thrillington re-creating the ‘Ram’ in a jazz lounge setting during punk’s year zero or dressing up in a fireman’s outfit to play some ambient dance music. Unfortunately this re-make set has less Paul involvement than the others and therefore less Paul interest to collectors than his other most bonkers albums too. Alas, also, something seems to have backfired a little. While one household name took part (and in a sign of how poor Macca’s tastes can sometimes be, it’s a member of Blur rather than a member of, say, Oasis) you’d have to be a true musical anorak to name any of the others. To be brutal too the ‘McCartney III’ songs aren’t strong enough to put up with the treatment either; with the exception of the charming ‘Kiss Of Venus’ nothing on the album ended up being as good as ‘New’ or ‘Driving Rain’, if you will (though thank goodness it’s all a big improvement on the unlistenable ‘Egypt Station’). Now Paul’s been releasing remixes of songs since the ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ era, but these in particular are scraping the barrel, falling between two stools where either the tracks sound much the same anyway (‘Husbands and Wives’) or are so wildly different they could literally be of anything (I’m not sure anything of the original ‘Deep Down’ even made it to this version).
Beck’s croaky re-make of ‘The Kiss Of Venus’ is the only song here worth listening to, if only because the structure is still much the same and you get to hear it being sung with an actual voice rather than the feathery falsetto Paul used on the original. If I had to choose a second then hearing the instrumental ‘Long Tail Winter Bird’ re-cut on what sounds like a 1980s game console by Damon Albarn (who funnily enough gets the song that was all-barn and turns it into a blur! Geddit? No? I’ll get my coat…) was worth a laugh too. Elsewhere ‘Deep Feeling’ has gone from an intense eight-minute epic to a floaty barely-there twelve-minute marathon for no apparent reason, the acoustic ramble ‘When Winter Comes’ now sounds like a food-mixer playing at the wrong speed and The Queen’s Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme sounds downright uncomfortable singing ‘Lavatory Lil’ (I can just see how that conversation went: ‘An ex-Beatle? Yes of course, I’ll sing anything he wrote, no I don’t need to hear it first, it will be great…Wait, what? This was a finished Paul McCartney song? About a lavatory? Seriously?’ Thank goodness that one didn’t make it to the book of lyrics). You really don’t need to own this album in any way shape or form, just as you really don’t need to own any of the pricey multi-coloured versions of the original record from last year or, come to that, the just-as-pricey book of lyrics (assuming you have an old copy of ‘Blackbird Singing’ gathering dust on your shelves). It’s all an unfortunate advertising con from someone who used to be in one of the best value-for-money fan-friendly bands of all time (The Beatles that is, not Wings, who had their share of pricey collector sets too). In case you’re wondering I borrowed this set from a friend. Even I couldn’t bring myself to pay for yet another McCartney rip-off. After all, I‘m still saving up for the ‘London Town’ archive set when and if it finally comes out, ah that’s proper McCartney music is that…
(The Re-Issues Of The Year: Best to Worst)
1) Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young “Déjà vu”
‘I embrace the many-coloured beast…’ This has been quite a stunning year for AAA box sets with several of the albums I love the most in the whole world in this year’s list. Surprisingly I have to confess that ‘Déjà vu’ isn’t actually one of them and I’ve always seen it as a bit of a runt in the CSNY canon compared to the first and third albums, a Joni Mitchell cover and a Neil Young ballad too far to be a truly perfect masterpiece. However, this box set wins over the following ones in this list in several key ways: it’s not stupidly priced (the download is only £29 and even though the vinyl set is more expensive even that’s cheaper than the other vinyl editions here – a tragedy there’s no CD version though!), almost all the recordings on here are genuinely unheard (even on bootleg!), the packaging is truly top-notch and, best of all, I learnt so much more about the making of this album from hearing the extras, to the point where songs I thought were only kind of OK (‘Everybody I Love You’ I’m looking at you!) now sound like such true masterpieces I’m surprised I never got more out of them the first time round. We’ve often heard the stories about how all four men were hurting making this album: Crosby’s girlfriend Christine had died in a car crash, Stills had finally split up with love of his life Judy Collins, Nash was in a tough place with Joni Mitchell and Young was preparing to leave first wife Susan. You sort of get a blurry sense of that on the finished album, notably ‘4+20’ where Stills imagines life as a single lonely man in his eighties (thankfully a future that doesn’t seem like it’s going to pass now he’s about to turn 77 in January),the sigh in Nash’s vocal as he treats ‘Our House’ as a requiem as much as it’s a singalong or the cry on ‘Carry On’ that ‘love is coming to us allllll’ before a boogie-ing guitar lick knocks us off our feet and takes us somewhere darker. However hearing this album take shape almost in real time, as all of CSNY throw song after song at this project to see what sticks, gives us a whole new understanding into just how difficult making this album was for all concerned.
There’s Crosby aching with misery on a beautiful alternate take of ‘The Lee Shore’ where he sounds as if he’s about to break down and cry any minute, or Graham and Joni giggling their way through ‘Our House’ together like the pair of lovebirds they were back then, before the unheard Nash demo for ‘Question Why’ hints at the darkness going on in his life. Sadly Young, typically, chose to keep most of his contributions for his own box sets – though ‘Archive I or II’ aren’t a patch on this set I have to say, controversially – so all we get from him is a slightly tweaked ‘Helpless’. This is particularly gutting given how little from this era made it onto ‘Archives’ anyway – there is, for instance, a very different take of the baking track for ‘Cinnamon Girl’ out on bootleg with Stills’ organ giving a very different glossy-style feel to the pure boogie groove of Crazy Horse. A real pity, too, that there wasn’t room for a live CD rounding up some of the truly stunning CSNY performances taken to promote the album (‘4 Way Street’ is pretty darn good as a document of that era, but blimey there’s a great double CD set to be made there even without replicating any of the same songs).
If you’re a Stills fan though you will be in seventh heaven as he pours out his broken heart on a ridiculous array of his best songs heard and unheard, bookending his time with Judy with a madder sadder ‘Bluebird Revisited’ that takes the Buffalo Springfield original of three years before and makes that party seem a lifetime ago, sending himself up with ‘That Same Old Song’ a new self-mocking piece about how Stills has been blue ‘since the age of ten’, delivering an even sadder ‘4+20’, stripping paint with his original ‘tortured’ vocal for Joni Mitchell cover ‘Woodstock’ that knocks spots off the original (Neil, who pleaded with the others to put this version out, was right all along…), steering some lovely C and N harmonies through a sweet cover of John Sebastian’s ‘How Have You Been?’ that’s much arranged like the infamous CSN cover of ‘Blackbird’ and might well have been a ‘sorry’ for going with Neil as a fourth member after the Lovin’ Spoonful man was under consideration to join the band at one point, breaking our hearts with a medley of ‘Change Partners’ with a whole new song about Judy named ‘Hold On Tight’, sung sadly in the past tense, breaking our hearts yet more with a first haunted version of ‘So Begins The Task’ as he prepares to leave Judy behind (a longer demo than we’ve heard before which fascinatingly turns into a whole new song we’ve never heard at all, another highly revealing outpouring of grief before a last dash of hope that is an entirely different second song titled ‘Hold On Tight’), breaking our hearts yet again with a demo for ‘Church’ (here titled pointedly ‘She Can’t Handle It’) as Stephen prepares to go back to being single again despite the fact that the guitarist really gets off on ‘being part of someone’ and is desperate for someone to ‘be a part of me!!!!’, heard here as a sad slow stark dawning rather than the joyous gospel singalong of Stills’ first solo album, or best of all giving us his first stab of ‘Everybody I Love You’ not as some polished hymn to optimism and joy but as a screaming song of despair and frustration. All of these are superb and top notch and will be exhibit B (the ‘Just Roll Tape’ being exhibit A) in my argument that between 1967 and 1975 Stephen Stills had the greatest run of material of any songwriter anywhere ever.
This set is not perfect: I would have loved to have heard the full take of ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ here again as heard on the CSN box as long ago as 1990, the loss of Young’s tracks are a real blow (there are said to be many takes of ‘Hepless’ alone recorded before CSN ‘slowed down’ enough to get an arrangement Neil approved of) and it’s a real shame that more session tapes of the recordings we know and love aren’t here. However rather than extend everything the way some boxes do, even some of the ones below in this year’s list, every bit of available space in this box seems to have been crammed with goodness, with none of the pointless remixes or barely-seconds-longer takes even CSN have been guilty of in the past and several alternative albums that probably exist in some parallel universe spread out before you instead (My goodness, ‘Déjà vu’ would have made for an amazing double LP…) While the finished product was a bit diluted, made safe for big sales, this is music as raw therapy the way it was always meant to be heard and nobody knew the healing power of music or had the ability to honestly reveal their own struggles better than CSNY. The result is a monster of a box set, the rough edges of ‘Déjà vu’ sounding so much better for being left in. Yes we have all been here before, but this is somehow more than pure nostalgia – this is a time capsule of when CSNY were the greatest, most important band bar none and it’s an absolute triumph. More please – how great would it be if every CSN/Y album got this treatment from now on, the way they deserve?
2) The Beach Boys “Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions”
‘It’s fat as a cow, how’d it ever get this way?’ The Beach Boys’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-them copyright-defying sets have become a thing of legend on our annual review of the years. Where else can you hear an hour of outtakes for such priceless gems as Brian Wilson practising his cuckoo impression for ‘Cuckoo Clock’ or a full two hours of the overdubs for ‘Beach Boys Party’? After a quiet 2020 I really hoped there was going to be something covering 1970 and the band’s most unfairly overlooked gem ‘Sunflower’, which in fifty years has rightly gone from the band’s first non-charting obscurity to fan favourite. I wasn’t expecting quite this though: instead of the usual single or two disc set there are five whole CDs dedicated to that record and its better-selling but all-round weaker successor ‘Surf’s Up’, totalling a full 135 tracks (and thus pretty much doubling the entire official 1970s Beach Boys output in one go!) As with all the 1960s Beach Boys sets but even more so, just seeing how much effort went into making these albums will make your head spin as the band re-demo, re-rehearse, re-record, re-overdub and re-promote these songs over and over again.
Not to mention the sheer amount of songs that were still entirely unreleased and appear here for the first time despite the two Beach Boys box sets and three lengthy rarities compilations that already exist. You would have thought for a band that in a few years tried so hard to get Brian Wilson on their records that they practically held him down and forced him to record anything despite how ill he was that they would have returned to some of these pure Brian Wilson gems a long time ago. ‘Awake’ we’re going to look at in more detail later but it’s so Brian-y it hurts: so sweet and simplistic lyrically but coming in so many complicated shades harmonically that it makes you wonder if everything is as innocent as it seems. ‘Sweet and Bitter’ too is one of the all-time great Brian ‘n’ Mike collaborations, with Love on top form as he laments the end of a relationship that ‘rips my soul’ on a dark song a million miles away from the innocence of Beach Boys songs past (we’ve heard Brian do this sort of thing solo but to hear this sound as early as 1970 is extraordinary, like seeing the Mona Lisa with eyebrows or Liam Gallagher getting to the end of an interview without swearing or a half-decent Spice Girls song). Dennis too is on sublime form and the reason he was absent from the ‘Surf’s Up’ album was because he was trying to cut his own solo album on the side with Daryl Dragon (the Captain before he met Tennille). ‘Lady’ and ‘Fallin’ In Love’ are much-loved compilation fillers since being rediscovered in the 1990s, but to my ears the two Dennis songs here are even better. ‘Behold The Night’ is an epic in ‘Be With Me’ mode with balalaikas and harpsichords setting the scene as Dennis tries to woo his lover (of course he does, it’s Dennis), before having a full on panic attack about being tied down (because, y’know, its Dennis) which turns into a full-blown argument with his loved one (because…Dennis). This unbelievably tricky song darts from a beautiful puddle to a stormy sea and back again in seconds and is way too good to have simply put back in the box for half a century. If anything his Medley is even better: ‘All Of My Love’ is proof that Dennis could match Brian and Mike in writing template Beach Boys harmony sounds, before a charging middle eight of ‘Run River Run’ reveals how dark and scary the ocean could be in Dennis’ hands and a final celebratory instrumental titled ‘Ecology’ wraps everything up in a neat bow (sudden thought: if intended solo album ‘Bambu’ in 1979 was just a few short songs away from being completed when Dennis ran out of the money he needed to finish recording, why didn’t Dennis just stick these songs out and either pad out the album or release them separately as a single, making enough money to finish it?)
That’s without mentioning the Beach Boys gems we’ve known and loved on different releases that are more than welcome to hear again here: Dennis’ rocking ‘San Miguel’ (as sung by Carl), Brian’s uniquely childlike approach to sex on ‘Games Two Can Play’ complete with moaning about growing as ‘fat as a cow’, Brian’s we’re-normal-people-honest song ‘I Just Got My Pay’ which might not reflect the life you or I lead any time soon but is great fun all the same, the joyous harmony fest that is ‘Soulful Old Man Sunshine’ where I put it to you the Beach Boys never sounded better as vocalists than on those glorious opening seconds, the last great Beach Boys hippie song ‘HELP Is On The Way’ (via an unexpected trip to health food store ‘The Radiant Radish’), Dennis’ moody take on censorship ‘4th Of July’, Al’s cutest song ‘Loop de Loop Flip Flop Flyin’ In An Aeroplane’, Brian’s mournful tearjerker ‘Where Is She?’ and first stabs at future 1970s recordings ‘Susie Cincinatti’ ‘When Girls Get Together’ and ‘Good Time’ (no surprise, given how good everything else is here, that all three are amongst the better songs from the second half of The Beach Boys’ 1970s recordings). Realise that some of these songs were cut from ‘Sunflower’ when they could have made a genius album even better (or perhaps a triple album) and that The Beach Boys are about to take a good chunk of the 1970s off due to low sales – and weep for what might have been. If in truth there’s a lot of fertiliser to put with amongst the flowers (how did such dumb one-dimensional songs as ‘Student Demonstration Time’ and ‘Take Care Of Your Feet Pete’ end up on ‘Surf’s Up’ when its outtakes are so good?) then that’s only because this box is so colossal and the range of songs that went into making these albums so big. There are so many unexpected treats here and once again the packaging is top notch with a juicy hardback book and – unlike some of the sets on this list – no unnecessary garden gnomes or anything of the sort. We say that if you can afford it (and to be fair the £45 asking price isn’t bad for how much is here) then you should add some music to your day right now! Meet you back here for the ‘Carl and the Passions/Holland’ anniversary set in a couple of years, hopefully, now that one will be interesting…
3) “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: The Ultimate Collection”
‘I can’t explain, so much pain…’ Way back in the mists of 2008 I remember reviewing this album as one of my original ‘core’ 101 album reviews and effectively saying ‘gee, I wish all the twenty-odd variations of this album’s songs we know to exist could be rounded up into a deluxe edition one day?’ Well, be careful what you wish for because after last year’s well-received set dedicated to a lesser album (‘Imagine’) went down so well the Lennon estate (mostly son Sean these days) is back with an epic six CDs/2 Blu-Ray set costing £90-odd and dedicated to just one record. So much for this being Lennon’s back-to-basics album now it’s been given such exhaustive and exhausting treatment; never have I felt more in touch with John’s primal scream therapy than when I saw this set’s price-tag. Now a lot of these tracks have been out before (on the various album re-issues, half a CD of the Lennon ‘Anthology’ box and the ‘Acoustic’ compilation) and there’s an entire disc here that’s disposable straight-away, a whole hour’s worth of rockabilly jams played in between takes that make pretty much no sense outside the songs being recorded at the time. Nevertheless, anything from Lennon’s hands-down best and most important album is worth a listen.
However, kudos to whoever put the rest of the set together as instead of sitting through the same song being flogged to death over and over again in order we get the album tracks plus tie-in singles in order each disc in multiple different ways which is really clever and saves you getting bored: there’s a disc of demos that’s endlessly fascinating (‘Cold Turkey’ is tremendous, ‘I Found Out’ positively scary, ‘Love’ hauntingly beautiful even on fumbled guitar rather than pristine piano and ‘Mother’ featuring Lennon letting rip with a vocal of such fury and passion already, even when he knew no one else was going to hear him – well for half a century as it turned out), another disc of outtakes (‘I Found Out’ is more 1950s in feel, ‘God’ much sadder and slower, ‘Give Peace A Chance’ more desperate and off-key, ‘Mother’ again just as raw and passionate), a disc of raw studio mixes of yet more outtakes (‘I Found Out’ is utterly brilliant in its take 7 incarnation here, looping round twice and doubling in length as John barks ‘Yoko!’ as well as ‘Ow!’ before finally collapsing, exhausted, ‘Well Well Well’ even more in-yer-face without the production effects, ‘Instant Karma’ much more lively. Oh and take – gulp – 64 of ‘Mother’? Intense is no longer an adequate enough description), even the disc of ‘elements’ mixes, usually so irritating when used as filler on other sets, makes perfect sense here as we hear John’s vocals and pianos/guitar, Klaus Voormann’s bass and Ringo’s drums in full i-hi-hi-solation (worth hearing for Lennon’s vocal on ‘Mother’ alone…woooh, those screams! While ‘I Found Out’ apparently has some bongos on it I’ve never heard before and the backing track of ‘Cold Turkey’ is so raw it can strip paint). Oh and there’s an ‘Evolution Documentary’ disc too, which is basically all the bits of chats between songs and a few snippets of other takes heard in brief, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds (‘I Found Out’ for instance finds itself turning into a Chuck Berry jam before the band get it back on track).
All in all this thirty-nine minute album now runs for about seven and a half hours! I can’t say I’d like to go through for this for every Lennon album (even ‘Imagine’ was a slog to get through to be honest and I really don’t think I can stomach the sugary ‘Double Fantasy’ songs this many times over without turning diabetic), but ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ is the one Lennon solo album that’s important, powerful, brave and resilient enough to withstand all the attention and I only find myself applauding the three musicians who made it happen all the more (we said it before in our review but this is Ringo’s best work ever, seriously, Beatles included – he’s always good when Lennon wrote from the heart and never did Lennon write from the heart more than here on his most autobiographical album of all). The packaging is rather nice too with an extensive liner-note that’s more information-stuffed than some Lennon books out there (though not the AAA one, of course!) Forget the ‘Ultimate’ tag – this set is as ‘complete’ as this album is ever going to be and for the fans who love this groundbreaking, important and moving piece of art as much as I do that’s an even better word, with an old friend now sounding even more complete and as such even more brilliant.
4) The Beatles “Let It Be”
‘All through the year Let It Be, Let It Be, Let It Be…’ There are only two Beatle albums where we know for a fact every note they played was recorded: ‘Please Please Me’, mostly made in one fourteen hour session in 1963 and ‘Let It Be’, where several hundreds of hours of rehearsals were taped in January 1969 in the hope of a feature film or concert or, well, something to be decided later once the fab’s had decided what that something was exactly. In the end we got a film about a band breaking up (see the DVD section below), a quick final romp on a rooftop on a windy January day and an album that all The Beatles seemed to hate for various reasons (John didn’t like his songs and felt rushed into it, Paul hated the fact John hired Phil Spector to ‘re-produce’ it adding overdubs without his consent, George hated making it so much he walked out halfway through and Ringo was upset that his friends kept falling out). Even in 1969 ‘Let It Be’ was ‘the album that got away’ and the fans who’d heard snippets (the three singles and the rooftop gig itself) had a vision for how good the album could have been that even its release sixteen months later (and another McCartney-helmed go in 2003 as ‘Let It Be…Naked’) couldn’t dispel. Now, to go with the long-awaited much-delayed documentary film re-hashed version, we have a new box set of ‘Let It Be’ outtakes to enjoy to go on the shelves alongside the deluxe sets for ‘Peppers’ ‘The White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’.
Should they have just let it be, folks? Well, pun aside, that’s definitely a no. There has been a growing trend of thought amongst Beatlemaniacs for a few years now that the record that was always considered the unloved runt of the fab four’s litter was actually a worthy send-off. Most of the ‘Let It Be’ tapes have escaped on bootlegs where a certain area of fandom (including me) have been saying for years what a with-it, energetic, fun-loving project this was (mostly), a million miles away from the darkened-edges, doom-and-gloom image it got when the film came out (people never seem to understand why but it seems obvious to me: by the time the film footage was edited the band had officially split and a happy-go-lucky documentary would have seemed odd). Dare I say it, ‘Let It Be’ also has far better songs on it than the better received ‘Abbey Road’ (recorded a few months after and released a few months before), even if the back-to-basics approach mean this much misunderstood album is far less epic in tone. As the prime mover behind the project in 1969, Paul McCartney has alternated between tinkering endlessly with it (‘Naked’ is still the definitive way to hear this record ‘without its trousers on’, the way it was meant to be from the first) and trying to pretend it doesn’t exist (‘Let It Be’ the film has never been officially released in its finished format past its original cinema run – even now it’s symbolic that the only versions of it you can find to go alongside the new Disney Plus documentary are on bootleg). Paul had a few options here when asked to authorise a new version to go alongside the documentary film; he could have simply re-released the original album and film. He could have given us multiple expensive box sets of audio and visual footage going day by day by disc, like many of the bootleggers did. Instead we’ve got a compromise two/five disc set (depending which long and winding version you buy) seemingly compiled at random. So after all this time does ‘Let It Be’ finally live up to what it could have been?
Yes and no. There are some great bits and pieces here that might not change your life exactly but will change how you feel about this album, even if you know the bootlegs well. There are some fab alternate versions of ‘Two Of Us’ that sound much more fun to play, the best of which dispense with the acoustic arrangement and are played at a much faster lick, a great loose version of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ more in keeping with the original bluesy intention, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ from Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ album which is so new it’s composer hasn’t even got all the words yet but Paul has a whale of a time throwing in ideas and singing alongside him anyway, the ‘I Me Mine’ from the film is a furious jazzy waltz a million miles away from the version taped a year later as the last thing The Beatles ever officially did, away from the Rooftop ‘Dig A Pony’ is a real complicated powerhouse whizzing through several complex chord changes and manic wordplay and coming out the other side a far more intense ride and ‘Get Back’ is, by contrast, way more serious and controlled here in early form. Even ‘Dig It’ makes more sense when heard as a mammoth unedited jam session rather than a two minute cameo. Throw in the far superior, more in keeping with the ‘get back’ approach version of the album put together in 1969 by engineer Glyn Johns that really should have come out at the time (way better than Spector’s – I’ve always said nixing this version was a rare Beatle mistake) and you have a lot of reasons to love ‘Let It Be’ all the more after buying this set. If nothing else this box captures the spirit of the sessions equally well – there’s enough chat and aborted 1950s rockabilly jams and even a Beatle oldie or two to capture the mood, but not so much it gets in the way of the alternate takes of the songs that every fan has come here to hear.
Honestly, though, five discs is nowhere near enough and so many of these alternates play things safe (‘Let It Be’ ‘Winding Road’ and several ‘Get Backs’ sound near-enough identical to the ones we’ve loved for half a century, while there are way too many repeats from ‘Anthology’ here). There’s way too much missing that might be controversial but, equally, is now history: for instance there’s no moment when George quit the band and went home to write ‘Wah-Wah’ while saying ‘see you round the clubs’ while the others sat around the Twickenham canteen wondering if they should call Eric Clapton in, or the version of ‘Get Back’ that’s laughing at Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech; despite what you may have read the joke is that telling refugees to hop it is the opposite of the track’s message and there was never a less racist sixties white band than The Beatles. Bootleggers know the joys of stumbling across a really good version of a song we thought we knew backwards. My own mp3 player is full of about thirty ‘Get Backs’ (some slow, some fast, some bluesy, some proto heavy metal/punk), twenty ‘Dig A Ponys’ and about forty ‘I’ve Got A Feelings’, not to mention what I consider the ‘definitive’ edition of ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (with a whole harmony part senselessly cut from the final arrangement) and fascinating early takes of ‘I Want You’ sung not by John but Paul or Billy Preston and multiple songs later released on ‘All Things Must Pass’ with shaky John ‘n’ Paul harmonies where Phil Spector’s orchestra will go. There are truly some colossal oversights. In fact ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ isn’t even here bar the rooftop version (yes I know it was a B-side but it’s a key part of these sessions and taking it off the final record was another rare Beatles mistake). There’s no sign of the many improvised songs from the sessions that are actually rather groovy for being made up on the spot: ‘Watching Rainbows’ ‘Dirty Old Man’ and ‘Zero Is Just Another Number’ to name the three best of dozens. Even these Lennon-McCartney throwaway jam sessions had more worth to them than some band’s whole albums. I’d also have loved a CD of The Beatles discussing their childhood memories and trying to play what they remembered of them (Paul ever so nearly gets the theme tune to Gerry Andersen puppet show ‘Torchy The Battery Boy’) or John reminiscing with director Michael Lindsay Hogg about working on The Rolling Stones Circus the previous month (Lennon even has a stab at The Who’s tour de force ‘A Quick One’). All of these moments make the fab four sound more human and yet are also a part of history now, a time capsule of 1960s innocence that has moved more than a few fans of the bootlegs to tears. They should have been here, somewhere.
Instead of these we have…some excruciating band jams, risible 1950s revivals and masses of interrupted takes where things tend to fall apart in the guitar solos (George really wasn’t a happy bunny making this record and sounds deeply fed up throughout, even if John and Ringo sound much happier than legend dictates). All fascinating, all worthy of release and – given that this set is strangely reasonable priced for a Beatles deluxe set, at least compared to the last three – all worth owning. The fabulous tie-in book, mixing dialogue from the original’s deluxe release which thanks to poor super-gluing is now rarer than a Ringo drum solo, along with new snippets and some glorious Linda McCartney photographs, solves many of my problems by giving an even bigger insight to the album than any one box set can have. However, the definitive ‘Let It Be’ set has yet to be released to my ears and the packaging of this set is a waste because all the good stuff was being saved for the book. Will the band let it be this time? I hope not. Of all the times to go small, this wasn’t it – however in keeping with the back to basics album theme that might have been. Oh well, at least we got rid of those lush Phil Spector overdubs! Talking of which…
5) George Harrison “All Things Must Pass”
‘Thanks for the pepperoni…and the gnomes!’ All things must pass, they say, and that includes my bank balance…Covid may have pushed both sets back either side of six months, but what was planned for yuletide 2020 saw pretty much a repeat of yuletide 1970 as two ex-Beatles’ first releases went up against each other and also lingering sales of the final band album for the Christmas market. ‘All Things’ was always the lusher, posher, more elaborate of the trio and was pricey even at the time being expensively produced and a triple LP to boot (although only me and about three other people ever seem to have played the ‘Apple Jam’ disc at the end that should really have been a freebie). However, for all their differences, ‘All Things’ ‘Plastic Ono Band’ and ‘Let It Be’ have much in common: an honesty, a vulnerability, the theme of the end of 1960s innocence, lyrics that debate the importance of the truth and friends and family to your sense of self and the thought that it’s going to be alright in the end, somehow, eventually, if you survive long enough. Typically though where John’s set was all about the self and The Beatles about the physical world their fans lived in, George’s is more of a universal spiritual almanac, the closest rock and roll ever came to producing an instruction booklet for how to live your life with as little mess and as few mistakes as possible. As a result many fans including myself are super-fond of ‘All Things’ which has a unique feel all to itself and there’s always been a special interest in this era of Harrisongs, which has come to rather dominate all of George’s estate’s archive releases so far. Whether this fondness amounts to the ‘uber deluxe’ version complete with replica garden gnomes (in case you’re wondering there were four on the original cover George sat next to, his mischievous comment that he’d ‘outgrown’ The Beatles who he thought they looked a bit like) and a bookmark ‘made out of a tree in George’s Friar Park home’ retailing at nearly $1000 or not, of course, remains to be seen and it has to be said even the ‘cheap’ versions of this album aren’t that cheap, which is why this set of such sumptuous music is as low in this list as it is. That plus the fact that the price and epic-ness seems at such odds with the humility and we’re-all-in-this-together vibe of the music which makes putting the price so high even more daft than on the ‘watch out for rip-offs’ vibe of ‘Plastic Ono Band’. Well, everyone has choice when to and not to raise their prices I suppose, its you that decides to buy. And should you? Ye-e-es (though maybe not the full set with the gnomes, unless you have a very big garden).
The big talking point of the six disc set is the new mix which, like pretty much everything re-released from the 1960s and 1970s these days, is by Hollie Tony Hicks’ son Paul. It’s…controversial. Fans have long known that George came to regret getting ‘Let It Be’ mixer Phil Spector in to record this album as his trademark use of echo came to drench everything in noise and make it all sound a hundred times bigger than George’s more natural humble and homespun taste (as heard on all his other solo records). George was himself busy re-mixing the album the year before he died, but sadly never completed it, so we got a CD re-issue with bonus tracks instead (this is where the ‘My Sweet Lord 2000’ comes from, released at the time as a sample of what it would have sounded like). Many fans have been calling for a re-mix for years and many do seem genuinely to love what we have here. The problem for me is that stripping away the louder orchestral sound without re-recording the instrumental parts means that all too often it sounds as if George is shouting to himself in his living room while a band plays next door, while a handful of the surviving session musicians have gone on record saying how sad they are that their parts they played have been taken away and how they fear being whitewashed from history. I have to say I agree: I rather like the bombastic nature of the original, which makes this most humble and vulnerable dark-night-of-the-soul album sound epic and universal, as if the whole planet is feeling the same feelings of doubt and anxiety and screaming them all at once. Now it just sounds like a ho-hum singer-songwriter album, with the likes of ‘Isn’t It A Pity?’ and ‘Beware Of Darkness’ robbed of much of their charm and power (although a slightly calmer ‘Wah-Wah’ and a less pompous ‘Hear Me Lord’ at least give the originals a run for their money). Had this remix been added alongside the old version as an ‘extra’ it would have been a lot more palatable, but alas even at this high price the original mix isn’t here (I’d much rather have had it than the garden gnome). Presumably this 50th anniversary set is going to replace all other versions of this album on shelves for years to come, which means that casual fans late to the party aren’t properly able to hear what the album should have sounded like (yes, it’s mostly up on youtube still, but what fan disappointed in the bastardised version is actually going to look for what it used to sound like? CDs cost around 20p to manufacture – surely that 40p wouldn’t have killed them in a set that costs £hundreds? The tapes are all there from last time ready to go, no more work needed. Of all the times for Harrison’s estate to start copying McCartney’s on rip-off re-issues this isn’t it).
As for the extras, we get two full discs and indeed two full days’ worth of George’s demos for the album, some of which were released on the last re-issue twenty years ago but a majority of which have never been officially released till now. As well as some very different sounding arrangements for songs we know and love there are all sorts of juicy songs discarded along the way, including 1950s retro throwback ‘Going Down To Golder’s Green’, the beautiful ‘Gopala Krishna’, the trite but cute ‘Window Window’, the unfinished but promising ‘Mother Divine’ and best of all ‘Dehra Duhn’, the song George wrote in Rishikesh in 1968 busked for The Beatles Anthology in 1996 and is finally getting a proper hearing for the first time ever – and it’s a true gem (see below). How on Earth did the likes of ‘I Dig Love’ make it to the finished album ahead of it?!? In truth these two discs are heavy going heard all in one go, with George only giving his producer a rough outline of his ideas complete with flat voice and bum guitar notes, but for those who love this album even they’re great to have as a way of hearing how these songs started off in George’s head. More disappointing sadly are the final two discs, made up of only slightly different arrangements and outtakes and the odd jam far less exciting than the ones on the original ‘Apple Jam’ disc. Very little really breaks through hear and makes you go ‘wow’, though there are some bits and pieces of interest. Along the way we get a madder, sadder ‘Hear Me Lord’ played more like a raga drone, an even slower arrangement for ‘Isn’t It A Pity?’ and hear George sarcastically dealing with the end of The Beatles by busking The Four Aces’ 1950s hit ‘Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine’. None of this will ever replace the rather splendid 2001 re-issue in other words or be the definitive story of this album George’s estate clearly want it to be (all things must pass, but records like this one will always be re-issued), but new ways to view special albums are always welcome and few are more special than ‘All Things’, George’s masterpiece on aging, released when he was just twenty-seven. Now a timely re-issue of the ‘George Harrison’ album and ‘Somewhere In England’ with full extras, please – and hold the gnomes.
6) The Who “Sell Out” (Super Deluxe)
‘Keith, was that you yelling over the drums?’ ‘Noooo?’ (manic laughter)’. Though this box set has fallen to near the bottom of this year’s re-issue pile, that’s more a reflection of how good the rest of this year’s entrants have been and the fact that this is this album’s fourth issue in the digital era already (including expanded editions in 1995 and 2009) so true blue Who fans already own near enough half of this set’s contents multiple times over. So what do you get for your £60-odd that you didn’t get the last time you bought The Who’s third album, the one from the autumn after the summer of love celebrating pirate radio, starring ‘I Can See For Miles’ and crammed full of jingles in the hopes that an in-debt Who might get some free gear ? Still a fair bit actually considering how much came out last time: alongside the expanded mono and stereo editions from before there’s a bundle of new mixes (none of which are all that different mind), an extra disc of recordings made following the album in 1968 collected together for the first time (a great idea we’ve been asking for across many years on this site!), an entire glorious disc of previously unheard session outtakes and a shorter final disc of Pete Townshend demos (a few of which have been heard before on his ‘Scoop’ series, but not all by any means). Though the packaging feels a tad less interesting than previous Who super deluxes like ‘Leeds’ and ‘Tommy’ and the two 7” vinyl singles plus a billion flyers and stickers and even a replica of Keith Moon’s Speakeasy Club membership card feel superfluous somehow, it’s still all made excellently, clearly put together by fellow fans for fans with lots of unseen stuff (where were all these great photos the last three times this album was out?)
The original album is of course stupendous and one of our original ‘core 101 reviews’, with some fascinating alternate takes here thrown in from various sources: the full take of ‘I Can See For Miles’ that stops one instrument at a time a little past the fade we know and love, a shaky first attempt at the Heinz Baked Beans advert, a rather heavy version of beautiful psychedelic ballad ‘Our Love Was’ before the rough edges were softened and a first go at ‘Relax’ that’s decidedly less mellow than the finished version being just a few of the highlights. As fans who bought any of the previous three versions know though the real gems come in what was left behind on the cutting room floor: Pete Townshend’s only ‘acid trip’ song ‘Glow Girl’ sounds stupendous in two new versions, one a demo with extra lyrics and another the session tapes for the cooking backing track (see below), there’s an even more emotionally deranged ‘Melancholia’ and a bona fide advert for Sun Amplifiers that might have given The Who the album idea in the first place (odd that last one has never been out on any version of this record before). As for the demos, we finally get to hear the legendary ‘Do You Want Kids, Kids?’ which turns out to be even odder than expected, a lecture from Professor Townshend on the importance of staying alive long enough to learn life lessons rather than giving in to addictions (what on Earth did Keith Moon make after hearing that for the first time?)and the similarly unreleased ‘Inside Outside’ (a very Kinks-like song about the pressure of touring probably left out for the cheeky reference to ‘eating hash…browns’) and a bunch of old friends in demo form who as usual either sound remarkably similar to the finished product despite Pete playing all the instruments himself (an even more straight-faced version of everybody’s favourite ode to masturbation ‘Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand’) and some songs that took very different turns (a spaced-out ‘Jaguar’ and ‘Relax’ performed as a folky acoustic ballad). Throw in an utterly brilliant earlier take of 1968 single ‘Magic Bus’ that knocks spots off the rather over-cooked finished version and The Who truly rides again! Sadly there’s no free tin of baked beans as per the front cover (though there is a special limited edition tie-in from Heinz that costs, gulp, £30!) and no sign of the tie-in ‘classic albums’ documentary anywhere which there really should be at that price (that made it to TV instead, again see below). Amazingly even the fourth time round ‘The Who Sell Out’ has more than enough for fans to sell out yet again and is yet to get stale as your armpits before Odorono kicks in. Next time round though guys do you think we could give ‘Who By Numbers’ or ‘A Quick One’ their proper dues rather than another version of this album again or, say, Tommy the IXth?
7) David Crosby “If I Could Only Remember My Name”
‘Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! [weeps in Californian]’ The original is of course sublime and simply one of the best albums ever made. Even Pope Francis thinks so, listing it one place below ‘Revolver’ and one above ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ in a top ten guide to his favourite spiritual-themed albums at the Vatican a few years ago (The Pope has great taste – there’s a Paul Simon and an Oasis in the list too). Croz had just lost his girlfriend Christine in a car crash when he made this (he’s just a few months further in than he was on ‘Déjà vu’ here and still fragile) and used music as therapy, something to get up for and make it through the day, with an endless supply of musician friends helping him out along the way – the result is a truly haunting spiritual album that keeps going in different directions and sounds like your five favourite records of all time got together and had a baby. Fifty years is a natural anniversary for a re-issue and David Crosby needs the money, so I can hardly begrudge him cashing in on an album more fans need to hear in any case and a whole disc of extras would – in any other years that didn’t include the above six sets – feel generous. So why am I still a little teensy bit disappointed? Well, first off, we only had a re-issue of this album ten years ago for the 40th anniversary (thankfully that re-issue’s lone extra, the beautiful ‘Kids and Dogs’ improvised duet with Jerry Garcia is here in two different versions). Secondly, perhaps a third of the extras have been out before on various sets - notably the Crosby box set ‘Voyage’. Thirdly this set doesn’t even feature a full set of released outtakes from this record (like a different ‘Cowboy Movie’ and the alternately mixed ‘Music Is Love’, both from ‘Voyage’). Fourthly, there are literally hours of this stuff on bootleg that still haven’t had an official release yet – wonderful improvised Crosby solo songs like ‘Is It Really Monday?’ and ‘Under Anaesthesia’, not to mention some great jams with collaborators from the CSN, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane families. I’d also love to hear some ‘elemental mixes’ a la the Lennon set one day, such as those haunting vocals from ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody There’s wordless gospel stripped down one by one some day, not to mention all the many parts that went to making up ‘Laughing’ and ‘Cowboy Movie’, as if ever an album was born for that sort of attention to detail it’s this one. Presumably I’ll be meeting you back here in 2031 to discuss this album’s 60th birthday set which may or may not contain all the above (though my money’s on the 75th anniversary set in 2046).
What we get instead is more evidence of Crosby’s natural gifts for improvising with yet more of the tape recordings suddenly discovered a few years back, some of which were first heard (with overdubs) on Croz’s inspired 2018 record ‘Here If You Listen’. These aren’t songs as such but snippets of chord changes played over Croz’s favoured jazz tunings and hummed over, which would have been stunning had we not already kinda heard them three years ago already. There are some nice demos too for not only this album’s songs but other records in the works (1972’s ‘Graham Nash- David Crosby’ with a leisurely ‘Games’ and a particularly haunting ‘Where Will I Be?’ that feels much more a part of this troubled album and is almost worth the price of the set alone, plus 1975’s ‘Wind On The Water’ where ‘Critical Mass’ just suddenly ends instead of turning right into a Nash song about whales and 1976’s ‘Whistling Down The Wire’ where the under-rated wordless chant ‘Dancer’ is a only a pirouette away from completion already). In a sign of just how much input the Dead and Airplaners had on this record none of these demos sound in any way shape or form as strong or as finished as the recordings we’ve known and loved all these years, but they still sound pretty darned good. There’s also one brand new unbootlegged song: in contrast to all these other future gems ‘Coast Road’ really is a song too rather than a Crosbyian tuned monkish chant, an atmospheric if unfinished sounding track where Crosby merges with the weather over California as a fire hits the sun head-on in a collision that has Crosby wondering if he’ll even wake up the next morning. Like nearly everything here it’s all done with the same heartbreak-drenched inspiration as music comes pouring out of Croz so fast he’s not quite sure what to do with it so he just keeps it as close to the unformed source with which it arrived as possible. The contrast between this and his new record couldn’t be stronger: everything on this album, from the demos to the finished product to the album cover, is free-form and hazy and sun-kissed, drenched in inspiration and melody. In any other year that might have made that enough to make ‘Name’ our record of the year – the fact an album as close to being a masterpiece as this one is only seventh is more a sign of what a rare bonanza we’ve had in 2021 than any lack on this set, though I can’t help being a teensy bit disappointed that Crosby’s memory problems lasted to the point of forgetting most of the real best recordings from these sessions. I bet the Pope will love it if someone gets him set for Christmas, though – it almost makes up for the fact that we didn’t get a 50th anniversary edition of ‘Revolver’ in 2016 despite agreeing with the Pope that it’s easily the best Beatles album.
8) The Rolling Stones “Tattoo You”
‘Take it to the top!’ The sad and rather unexpected death of dear Charlie Watts (his last official sighting: the rather incongruous sight of him pretending to play the drums during last year’s TV lockdown show) has rather cast a shadow on all the planned Stones activity this year. We didn’t get that new album the band have been working on for years and years now, at the time of writing we’ve only just had the much-delayed tour and instead of appearing with a publicity bang this year’s album re-issue has slipped out quietly. Typically, rather than celebrate a 50th anniversary The Stones go for a 40th. Now ‘Tattoo You’ was the one Stones album I thought we’d never get a deluxe version of. Why? Well, it was a bunch of outtakes itself, dating back a decade in some cases (even hit single ‘Start Me Up’ should be rubbing shoulders with ‘Brown Sugar’ in the Stones catalogue chronology-wise) and the only song that was positively worked on from scratch was the sublime Mick Jagger solo performance ‘Heaven’. Somehow, though, the band have dug eight totally unreleased songs out of the vaults as well as an alternate take of ‘Start Me Up’ (one which actually dates from later than the ‘finished’ version as the band admitted they’d gone down a rare cul-de-sac of trying out a reggae arrangement that hadn’t really worked – and it really doesn’t). Most of these are a bit wobbly, closer to the so-so extras on the ‘Some Girls’ re-issue rather than the sublime ones on ‘Exile On Main Street’ or ‘Sticky Fingers’ sets, made up mostly of passable cover songs rather than much that’s toe-tinglingly exciting. There are though one or two gems: ‘Living In The Heart Of Love’ is a classic bit of Stones swamp that would have been one of the best things on the album had it been fully instead of 90% finished and perhaps given a slightly punchier chorus. ‘Fuji Jim’ has a great rock and roll swagger to it as well, harder edged than most Stones of the period and surely based on a real character (he may even have been Mick Jagger’s idea of what Keith was like during his heavy drug period). A third AAA stab at Mentor Williams’ celebratory ‘Drift Away’ isn’t up to Hollie Allan Clarke’s superb reading from 1972 but suits the Stones better than Ringo’s from 1995, with a very Stonesy swampy blissed out sound that really suits the verse’s feelings of boredom and disillusionment before the music pushes the band into an ecstatic chorus of joy. It might well be the best Stones cover post 1978’s ‘Just My Imagination’, not that there are all that many. Not a bad haul then, by Stones deluxe standards, though it’s a shame that so many of the unreleased songs are covers and that there’s only that one alternate take this time around.
Like most of the Stones re-issues there’s also a live disc and – again – while the Stones of 1982 can’t compare to those already heard in concert in 1968-73 or 1978 it is still well worth hearing. If you’ve heard the Stones album ‘Still Life’ (from the same tour) it’s basically a longer version of that record, highlighted by a ‘third side’ where the Stones play some rockabilly oldies (The Big Bopper’s ‘Chantilly Lace’ didn’t make that record but does make this one). Interestingly there are way more songs from 1978’s ‘Some Girls’ than the ‘Tattoo’ record the band are meant to be promoting, though the band sound sluggish on them compared to the 1978 live sets now out. Even so a nine minute ‘Just My Imagination’ that just won’t stop coming is the highlight, closely followed by a bluesy ‘Black Limousine’ that would surely have been Brian Jones’ favourite Stones track of the 1980s and one of the better ‘Satisfaction’ encores around. ‘Tattoo You’ isn’t all good (‘Little T&A’ and ‘Hang Fire’ remain amongst the most embarrassing Stones moments of all live or in the studio) but when it is (‘Heaven’ is, well, heaven, ‘Tops’ is a great character song from the Mick Taylor era and ‘No Use In Crying’ is an under-rated gem, not to mention the extras outlined above) ‘Tattoo You’ more than makes its mark, inking its way into your memory whether you know the record backwards or you’re coming to it for the first time.
9) “The Grateful Dead”
‘The bus came by and I got on, this time with a bus pass…’ Better known by fans under either of its originally intended names (‘Skullfuck’, a title the Dead knew they could never get away with and which was purely to annoy their record company Warner Brothers, and fan nickname ‘Skulls and Roses’), the latest band 50th birthday present expands the old double album from 1971 to become a double CD set with another 76 minutes worth of unreleased live material. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by other largely excellent Dead anniversary re-releases, but that’s actually a shame: the Dead’s Filmore show from July 2nd 1971 dates from a full nine weeks after the rest of the record (a positive lifetime in an era when the Dead seemed to be changing styles by the day so the setlist is hardly anything like that album) and this rather tasty show deserves better than to have been cut down to a third its size to fit on two discs. It also seems odd that the Dead didn’t simply couple this set with the original show’s outtakes (released on CD as ‘Ladies and Gentlemen – The Grateful Dead’ in 2000) and have done with it, given how long it took me to actually track a copy of that set down when I came to review it for the AAA book. So what do you get this time around? Well, sadly not the two rather fun bonus tracks from past CD re-issues, Buddy Holly’s ‘Oh Boy’ and Pigpen spoofing himself on ‘I’m A Hawg Fer Yer’. We do at least get a couple of period songs that never made it to this or – in one case - any other record in the Dead’s lifetime, a typically eclectic collection that shows off just how varied the band’s setlists were back then. These include a seventeen-minute ‘Good Lovin’ that, much like the parent album, ebbs and flows between brilliance and boringness and a ten minute slow-burning cover of country classic ‘Sing Me Back Home’. In addition there’s a different night’s stab at ‘Big Boss Man’ that’s played much slower, an alternate ‘That’s It For The Other One’ that’s similarly messy to the record but in an entirely different way and a tighter, snappier take on ‘Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad’. Sadly there’s no room for that night’s true rarities or highlights (Pig’s risqué cover of washtub song ‘The Rub’, a storming ‘Hard To Handle’, a strutting ‘Casey Jones’ and an unusually shortened but still highly impressive ‘Playin’ In The Band’), which presumably are being kept back for a fuller release sometime (this album’s 75th birthday perhaps?) The result is arguably the weakest release yet in the Dead’s ongoing 50th anniversary series, but still a set that’s just about in the pocket of the band’s golden period when everything from this road was worth travelling down. Goodness only knows what we’re going to get for ‘Europe ‘72’ next year given the Dead have already given us (literally) a suitcase full of extra material…
10) Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “Back The Way We Came Volume One”
‘Someday you might find your hero – but someday you might lose your mind…’ A special exclusive in Spring for the UK’s ‘record store day’, which seemed rather hopeful given that most UK record stores weren’t open for very long due to the usual deadly Boris Johnson procrastination techniques, Noel seems to have decided that ten years, three albums and a couple of EPs are enough to make up a double-LP greatest hits set. Which, to put that amount of releases in context, would mean Oasis releasing the same thing in 1997 shortly after ‘Be Here Now’ (or three years into Oasis’ discography). Is there enough here for fans to buy? Well, hardly. There is, to be fair, a definite normal-length album to be taken from all these releases showing off Noel at his groundbreaking best. Unfortunately Noel is not the best judge of his own material by any means and on this personally chosen selection only two of those moments of brilliance made the album: the jazzy ‘Riverman’ (despite what Noel keeps saying probably the only solo song of his so far you can’t imagine Oasis doing better) and the aching ballad ‘Dead In The Water’, the one time here Noel sounds as if he means what he’s singing (it’s a quite breathtaking performance in fact, which makes you wonder why it was only a bonus track on Noel’s weakest album ‘Who Built The Moon?’ the first time round). Shockingly, there’s no room for what really marks his greatest music of the past decade: the sly anthemic ‘Wanna Live The Dream In My Record Machine’, Oasis outtake ‘Stop The Clocks’ where dying has never been so musical, the pop production tour de force ‘Black and White Sunshine’ or the second jazzy bit of brilliance ‘The Right Stuff’, which between them would neatly give Oasis fans the only half-dozen High Flying Bird songs actually worth owning. Instead we get an hour’s worth of scissor-waving, the single most inane piece of juvenile noise I’ve heard from a halfway decent artist in the past ten years which is ‘Holy Mountain’ (‘She fell! She fell! Right under my spell!) which – dear God – has been remixed to sound even noisier, lots of songs that seem to go on for hours purely on one chord with no guitar at all and a production so busy it hurts your ears. Oh and two new songs: this year’s so-so singles ‘We’re On Our Way Now’ (reviewed below) and ‘Flying On The Ground’ (an irritating slow pop song that almost seems to admit that Noel knows what he’s writing nowadays is truly awful but that its only because he ‘got so high’ in his days of yesteryear he was always going to crash at some time with The High Flying Birds. Admittedly this would make a nonsense of the boasting going on in interviews, but then Noel has always used those to project the image of himself he wants to have, to hide the truth in plain sight – how else can I read lyrics like ‘I bet you can’t find me cos I’m upside down and flying on the ground’. And as all Buffalo Springfield fans know – and Noel is no doubt one of them given his large knowledge of 1960s pop – flying on the ground is wrong). Even the album cover is horrifically tacky, with a cheap head-shot of Noel in ugly shades making this look like one of those cheap imported American tele-marketing sets of the 1970s. Our advice: download the six tracks we mention for around a quarter of the price of this expensive vinyl set and then we’ll collectively agree as a fanbase that this package doesn’t really exist. Let’s hope the second decade for the High Flying Birds is, if nothing else, a bit more consistent than the first.
11) Pink Floyd “A Momentary Lapse Of Reason”
‘Tongue tied and twisted’ In 2019 Pink Floyd released ‘The Later Years’ box set, covering everything they released after Roger Waters quit the band in 1985. It was easy to miss – after all, we Floydians were still getting over the shock and paying off the multiple loans it took to afford all the pre-1979 box set re-issues – and by Floyd standards didn’t sell all that well. So this year the band have taken another tack, re-releasing the first disc as a standalone set. The good news is that this is more than just a straightforward remix; the band have taken out a lot of the 1980s period excesses, bundled Nick Mason into a recording studio to record some new drum parts that were once played by session musicians so that they now sound more ‘Floydian’ and delved into the vaults for some unused keyboard snippets from the much-missed Rick Wright. The Hipgnosis team who did the original front cover have even got back into their vaults and found an outtake from the original photo sessions, featuring an unseen shot taken a few seconds later than the one we know and love, when the micro-light in the sky is much nearer to the camera and the hundreds of hospital beds are much further under water (and if that sentence means nothing to you then, seriously, it’s a long story and is a Pink Floyd album cover after all – perhaps best not to ask).
The bad news is that all this effort has gone into ‘Momentary Lapse Of Reason’, arguably the only poor Floyd album there is and all the remixes under the sun can’t save an album so weak in writing and execution, no matter how many extra keyboard licks and cymbal tinkles there are. If you know the album backwards then there are at least some changes that will catch your ear (some nice extra keyboard parts on ‘Signs Of Life’ for instance that really should have made the final mix and an ‘On The Turning Away’ that’s almost an acoustic solo without all those excess synthesisers, while closer ‘Sorrow’ – by far the album highlight in any version – is more intimate and less epic, closer to how David Gilmour always envisioned it and how he’s played it since in concert). Really, though, there’s not that much here to whet the appetite and frustratingly very little in terms of extras – no session tapes or outtakes or even alternate mixes, just a ‘bonus’ DVD featuring the in-concert films from four album songs (which were only ever designed to be looked at while the band played rather than anything that exciting) and two previously-known music videos for noisy lead single ‘Learning To Fly’. Save your money for the next Floyd box set, which given that we’ve had everything else must be ‘The Final Cut’s turn by now (now there’s an album with some quality outtakes!)
12) Pink Floyd “Animals”
‘No, this is not a bad dream!’ At least ‘Momentary’ had some extras though, however useless – poor ‘Animals’ doesn’t get any. I don’t quite understand the thinking at Pink Floyd HQ, wherever it may be (Grantchester Meadows perhaps? You can tell where it is because of the flying pig over the top of it). When the three albums around ‘Animals’ were re-released a decade ago - ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘The Wall’ – we got the full works: multiple CDs, DVDS, endless demos and live recordings and even some coasters. Though just as interesting as that trio of albums the ‘Animals’ re-issue is just the album itself, re-mastered, with a new detailed book but without anything extra in terms of music. Admittedly the re-mastering is really rather good (getting the album’s tricky balance of prog and punk just right all over again) and the book excellent, but by Floyd standards they’re just not trying (surely there’s something in the vaults from this album? Heck, there is at least the quite brilliant 8-track cartridge version of ‘Pigs On The Wing II and I’ which had Snowy White playing a linking guitar piece so the album could be played constantly on a loop. That totally deserves a re-issue!) Much more entertaining than this new set is the story behind it, which as Roger revealed on his facebook page was delayed two years not because of covid but because David Gilmour disagreed with one set of sleeve notes for it praising Roger, which Roger graciously agreed to take out before it made the shops. David, naturally, says the delays are all down to Roger. Sigh, forget pigs, sheep and dogs – it turns out that the pair are still rutting stags locking antlers even forty-four years after coming to blows making this album…
The Songs Of The Year
The Songs Of The Year
1) CSNY “Know You’ve Got To Run/Everybody I Love You”
As a loose general rule the top entry in our ‘songs of the year’ list tend to be ones that haven’t been heard before, but we’re going to stretch that slightly in 2021 for a song we thought we knew but had never heard like this before. ‘Know You’ve got To Run’ is the revelation of the ‘Déjà vu’ set. For 51 years we knew this song as ‘Everybody We Love You’ a typical polished Stills medley, one of his many songs for girlfriend Judy Collins tidied up into one last ray of sunshiney hippie brilliance. Even with a more complete and austere reading of this song for ‘Stephen Stills II’ played on a banjo that we’ve known for 50 years, it still sounded more pretty than pretty revealing. But not here. For now the pain of the breakup is still haunting Stills as he leads CSNY through an angry and tense eight minute stomp that’s closer to ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’, his famous song of agony and outpouring. Verse after verse follows, all drilled through with an atypically tight and busy guitar riff that’s all doubt and darkness, a million light years away from the song of hippie love we got to end the album. We’ve long known that Stephen and Judy were ‘twin flames’, the intense lovers from very different backgrounds put into each other’s lives for learning lessons rather than stable love (think John and Yoko, rather than Paul and Linda – they were soulmates) – but never more than here. You can just hear Stills’ frustration bubbling over as he watches the love of his life waltz out of his circle forever (in real life she left Stills to marry another musician she admitted later she didn’t feel anything like the same connection with, but who was ‘stabler’ all round) and – freed no doubt by the thought that no one was ever likely to hear this first take ever again – pours his heart out like never before, a true primal scream of pain. Hearing this song like this, it’s pretty neat bow and packaging removed, helps you understand why Stills was still writing songs about his strong connection with Judy decades later and here, at the moment of parting, it almost hurts too much to bear.
It all starts off pretty and poetic, as Stills forlornly realises that he and Judy have come to the end of a beautiful road, with a showdown looming that he knows in his heart will be their last visit, ‘to never see more again!’ He tries to get into her psyche, wondering why she’s pushing him away when they love each other so hard and realises how much this relationship is going to haunt him forever. He tells Judy that his tortured soul recognises her tortured soul and how brilliant she is, noting her ‘baleful cry’, the ‘light of hunger’ for more from life that they both share and the ‘lingering’ forlorn look’ he sees ‘deep within your eye’. Suddenly, though, this meeting of minds is gone and ended, as she’s a million miles away from him now, deep in a hole of depression he can’t break through on two fascinating verses struck from the finished version. Next poor Stephen’s pondering on to how difficult it is for him to just let the connection go, figuring Judy must have cast a love potion in his sleep to keep him hanging round when she treats him so badly, trapped while she runs away from him in a desperate misguided attempt to run away from the reflection of herself she sees in him. ‘You’ll always be running, running’, Stills taunts, while the musicians fly in all directions around him. By the end of the song he thinks he’s got to the heart of what’s really going on, singing that ‘you expect for me to love you when you hate yourself my friend!’ as she runs away from him again and self-sabotages what they have, spitting out that last word in horror, realising that’s all they are to each other now (if he’s lucky). It all builds up to a terrific crescendo and one last try for love as Stills screams himself hoarse ‘open up open up baby, let me in!!!’ But to no avail, the song – and the Déjà vu set – coming to a sudden uncomfortable halt without the segue into the hippie song of promise ‘Everybody I Love You’ there just yet, the whole band clearly energetically spent. Because there’s no love here any more, no room for hippie optimism however convincing or beautiful, and this time round there isn’t even a Crosby-Nash harmony to soften the blow. The result is extraordinary and a recording that’s blown me away like few others for years now; If only CSNY had been brave enough to stick this raw and punchy version out on the album we might never have had the belated criticism that the quartet were a bit ‘soft’ around the edges; with this and ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ on the album CSNY would rightly have been hailed as one of the greatest rock bands of them all. As indeed they always were.
2) David Crosby “Coast Road”
Combining the church sound of ‘Orleans’ with the despair of ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here’, undiscovered 1971 gem ‘Coast Road’ is on a knife edge between Croz’s emotional free-fall following his girlfriend Christine’s death in a car crash and his faith that someone or something will step in and save him. Mostly a mesh of improvised overdubbed chords, suddenly two minutes in David’s vocal cuts in, free-form, as he climbs a mountain (Tamalpais?) and imagines himself merging with the sky and the sun where the two both meet. Somehow he’s leaving the fire below to start a brand new day, but it’s ambiguous as to whether he’s taking a leap of faith off the mountain or a dive to his death to end the pain he’s in. Though even less finished than, say, ‘Song With No Words’, Crosby’s special period tunings always hit my emotions in a special way and the few words there are really hit home on this special song which would have made a lovely addition to a truly beautiful record.
3) The Who “Glow Girl/It’s A Girl”
‘The wing of the aeroplane has just caught on fire – I say without reservation that we ain’t getting no higher!’ Pete Townshend was so nearly an acid casualty of a very different kind in 1967. High on LSD for one of the few times in his life on board an airplane, he was alarmed to hear that one of the engines was on fire. His trip suddenly turning bad, in both meanings of the word, Pete scribbled his goodbyes on the notepad he was carrying and had a strong vision of being reincarnated into or perhaps from a teenage girl who also faced the same aeroplane-induced fate. Hurriedly he scribbled down a description of her as he saw her in his mind’s eye (‘Woolworths makeup, several pairs of shoes’) and continued the story as best he could. Luckily the other aeroplane engines worked just fine and the plane landed safely, but the vision he got left a lasting impression on Pete, putting him off LSD for life. His notes also turned into first this ‘Who Sell Out’ outtake and later, after a change of sex, ‘Tommy (the ‘It’s a girl’ refrain of this song literally being re-written as ‘It’s A Boy’ in 1969).
Admittedly we’ve had the finished version of this song around since the 1990s and for many Who fans ‘Glow Girl’ has rightly become heralded as one of the greatest things the band did, at least in the 1960s. What’s new in 2021 though is, first of all, a cooking series of session tapes charting how this song took shape, including an utterly magnificent backing track that features the Townshend-Entwistle-Moon interplay at its absolute best (Keith plays out of his drum-skins here and the song almost levitates from his part alone). And secondly Pete’s unheard demo for the song, still so audibly close to the experience that inspired it he still sounds in half-shock as he’s singing. Running a minute and a verse or so longer, this is highly revealing magical stuff as Pete fleshes out his narrative to have the girl mourning all the objects she’s about to lose from this life: ‘My out-of-tune piano, my brand new yellow trike, my little boutique habit, TV shows we like…It’s nearly over, you can’t complain, you’ve had some good times and you’ll be round again!’ There’s then a brilliant instrumental interlude that’s even more psychedelic than the finished version as Pete’s guitar chords and echo delay pedal bounce off each other, leading up to a huge crescendo before crash-landing into the familiar ‘It’s a girl Mrs Walker’ refrain. Even then this demo has an extra surprise though, as the song starts up again and the narrator waves herself goodbye with a cry of ‘I’m going to miss you, little glow girl!’ and her identity becomes wiped out forever and she turns into someone else altogether. These missing bits really should have made the final recording and the final recording should have made the final album and then The Who would have been all but unstoppable into 1968, rather than a band down on their luck making novelty singles and throwing a last hurl of the dice with ‘Tommy’. As magnificent as that ‘reincarnation’ is, my goodness the one here takes some beating too. How I love these box sets when they make an already brilliant song glow even brighter!
4) George Harrison “Dehra Duhn”
It seems to be a rule that with ‘All Things Must Pass’ George Harrison recorded every song he had, then axed the ones that didn’t fit and were too playful or silly to make one of his or indeed rock music’s most serious of albums. It’s a real shame he never returned to some of them in later life though, especially ‘Dehra Duhn’ which is a lovely ode to a city in India nearby to Rishikesh and first busked during The Beatles’ 1968 visit there. Based on a joyous melody that bounces from one note to another, it’s clearly meant to approximate the free-flowing feel of the sitar and sounds tailor made for singing round campfires, as indeed it was. Though slight, there’s room for some lovely homespun Harrison philosophy in there too as he tries to find his way round this mysterious strange place so different to any he’d known. He’s clearly thinking past the mere roadmaps when he sings: ‘Many roads can take you there in many different ways, one road can take you years – another takes you days’. He marvels too at how people so materially financially poor can be so spiritually rich, ‘beggars in a gold mine’. George is clearly in the place his heart has been crying out to be in ever since his birth and it’s a joy to be there alongside him at last (legally). Most modern Beatle fans know this track best from the 1990s ‘Anthology’ TV extras where Paul asks George what he wrote in India in 1968 and George busks a quick version of this song, admitting that ‘I’ve never got round to recording it yet’ – he’d clearly forgotten about the simple guitar bass n drums recording he’d taped at the beginning of the ‘All Things’ sessions and I don’t know why, because once heard it’s the kind of thing that will stay with you forever.
5) The Beach Boys “Awake”
One of the reasons Brian Wilson is so beloved by Beach Boys fans is that he has the ability to see life through the enthused eyes of a child, while being able to write about it with the knowledge of a tortured adult musical genius whose seen it all. Even in a catalogue stuffed full of such examples, the new discovery from the ‘Feel Flows’ box set ‘Awake’ is something special. Brian is delighted to be awake and lying next to his loved one, with the chance to make his dreams come true come the morning. A darker turn a verse later has Brian warning us (and given the context of these being his bedbound years, surely himself) ‘you mustn’t sleep your life awake’ and that we must make the most of what life has to offer us, rather than simply going back to sleep and leaving the things we want from life undone. It sounds like a motivational speech to get out of bed next as in true Brian style he’s driven to get up not by sights but sounds – the bird song and the children singing drifting in through his bedroom window. Brian’s vocal turns from sweet to pained in the blink of an eye though as his falsetto climbs higher than Heaven and then descends to Hell, sometimes echoing and sometimes contradicting the simple piano line that weaves patterns of beauty beneath him. By the end Brian concludes that maybe this day is our day because everyone has them and ‘maybe this day your dreams come true’. Given the awful time Brian was going through in 1970 the fact he can sing these words and mean them is astonishing. Even on a box set that spoilt us with gems we’d never heard before this song is special.
6) The Rolling Stones “Living In The Heart Of Love”
Sigh, Charlie was good wannee? Particularly here on a prime Stones outtake from the ‘Tattoo You’ set that dates from 1980 but in truth could have been from any era. It’s simply the sort of thing The Stones do in their sleep: a feisty riff that’s close to ‘Satisfaction’ and all its many re-writes, criss-crossing guitars, Mick barking a daft lyric with the conviction that its pure poetry and a brilliant taut back-beat from Charlie keeping things on the straight and narrow. It’s just different enough to be a treasure though, with one of Ronnie Wood’s better guitar solos and some quite brilliant Stonesy lyrics about a girl that nowadays would be referred to as ‘high maintenance’. ‘I tried so hard to be your baby’ Mick sighs (this is early days of his frosty relationship with Jerry Hall…just saying), before telling us that he doesn’t sleep nowadays out of worry – and his lack of sleep used to be for, uhh, other reasons. There are also clues that she’s a gold-digger with lines like ‘You can keep your gold and keep your treasure but I wasn’t just born just to give you pleasure!’ The chorus is decidedly weaker than the verses (‘Living is a part of love’ repeated over and over), but heck - with that backbeat it’s all good. Stronger than a good half of the ‘Tattoo You’ album, how this song got left behind when the band were so desperate to put an album out and tour it quickly is a mystery, as like all good Stones songs its inked itself on my memory so well already I can’t quite believe I only heard it for the first time a few months ago.
7) Neil Young and Crazy Horse “Heading West”
Neil’s been uncharacteristically nostalgic of late, here remembering good times past as he gets into the family car as a ‘little boy’ and heads out West across Canada. In a sense it feels as if he’s still been travelling that same journey ever since (fans might remember the time he ‘turned West’ in his hearse and was spotted in a traffic jam by Stephen Stills prior to form the Buffalo Springfield). A sadder middle suggests that Neil has been looking for what he lost after that day when his family were all together and he was happy, before he got ill with polio and his parents split, leaving he and his brother in different houses. Still, his mother bought him his first guitar to ease the pain, sending him in a whole new direction…A messy, happy stomp similar in feel to the other autobiographical songs on 2012’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’, ‘Heading West’ will never be Neil’s most complex or sophisticated tune but it does have a lovely rolling riff, some great piano fills from Nils Lofgren and the sound of a band having great fun meeting up again post lockdown. Good old days indeed.
8) CSNY “Same Old Song”
‘Same Old Song’ is more Stills at his revealing best, ruminating once again over where his relationship with Judy Collins went wrong and concluding that it’s just another one of life’s disappointments that have been plaguing him his whole life. Looking back on when he first found deep sorrow he realises that it was ‘when I was nine or ten’ and then he laughs at himself – ‘God I was blue even then!’ - and wonders if sadness is just such an inherent part of his life he can’t but help to repeat himself, juxtaposing his past hurt with the girl whose just walked out of his present, realising that he recognised much of that same sadness in her too and that was what made the connection so special. Stills then actually apologises to the audience for the fact that so many of his songs seem to turn out the same, i.e. so blooming downbeat, but concludes that it’s because he’s still trying to work out why this keeps happening to him and until he sorts things out in his head he’s doomed to write nothing else. In the end he figures its actually some kind of ‘glory’ to ‘do everything wrong’ because that’s what’s made him famous and asks the audience ‘you know me – so tell me what on earth is going on!’ Heck Stillsy, no apology necessary when it inspires gems like this one. A rare full CSNY performance with some gorgeous Young guitar makes this feel like more of an ensemble piece than most of the ‘Déjà vu’ set’s solo sessions as heard on the new box or even three-quarters of the finished record, but once again at the heart of everything this is Stills raw and unadulterated, pouring his heart out while feeling oh so alone it hurts.
9) CSNY “Hold On Tight” (both songs)
Between somewhere around 1967 and 1975 Stills was the most prolific writer on the planet, but he always struggled with titles, be it for songs or albums. As a result fans have two very different ‘new’ songs from 1970 with the same name to enjoy for the first time this year, though both are again on the theme of his relationship with Judy Collins. The first, heard as part of a medley with ‘Change Partners’, has Stills recounting how his love ‘made me feel a man’ and ‘filled my life with understanding’. He craves that connection and how it makes him feel so badly that he hangs on tight, even after it goes sour in the next verse, with her suddenly figuring ‘I had become displeasing’ despite her former ‘teasing’. Next she’s running away from him and getting lost in substance abuse so that ‘by the morning you don’t know what you’ve done’. Still trying to come to terms with this rollercoaster of a relationship, Stills sighs that there is no rhyme or reason it’s just that ‘that’s the way it was’ and goes back round the song again, trying to work out why a relationship that made him feel so good so much of the time can make him feel so bad at others. There is no answer though: that’s just the way things were and there’s nothing he can do about it. Cue the ballroom dancing-swapping antics of ‘Change Partners’ as Stills prepares to move on... Meanwhile, on ‘So Begins The Task’ its ‘Hold On Tight’ that ends the song, following the painful realisation of a final split with one last moment of hope that it might not be as final a separation as Stills clearly fears. Shocked at how things could fall apart so quickly, Stills ponders the contradictions of his lover and wonders which version of her is the truth. ‘Was I deceived when she told me she loved me?’ he wonders out loud, ‘When she told me to go but I left her struggling there?’ In a sudden switch to a major key after a full 4:45 of misery, Stills figures that he’s been here before and it’s a dance that never seems to have an end. Wanting to do things differently this time, he tells his lover to just ‘hold on tight and never ever say goodnight!’ and somehow they’ll outlast the storms their love provokes in each other. After such a prolonged period of minor key despair this simple hope sounds like the sun coming out on a stormy day, changing everything in an instant. Stephen almost sounds like he means it too, but a flurry of hopeful guitarwork just leads him back into the same dead-end of a guitar groove as the couple burn and fall all over again. ‘Was she relieved?’ he asks about the split. ‘No she wasn’t, she worried some more…I don’t believe we can ever be lovers again, yes I am sure that’s the price we must pay’. The chorus follows again, less happy this time. By the time the song loops round a third time he sounds about ready to throw the towel in and admit defeat as he concludes: ‘Help me, please help me, my woman is crazy, one half loves me and the other half rages!!!’
10) David Crosby “I Won’t Stay Too Long”
Just when you’ve given up hope of Croz’s latest record ‘For Free’ going anywhere new, in comes the last track. Now, it doesn’t sound any different to what came before it and in feel it’s at one with many a previous Crosby track about dying, be they ‘Time Is The Final Currency’ or ‘Balanced On A Pin’. However ‘I Won’t Stay Too Long’ is the one song on the new album that builds on where Crosby has been before, with the singer standing on top of a mountain (his old meditating haunt Tampalpais?) breathing in the feeling of being alive and embracing it because he doesn’t know how soon he’ll be dead. David tells us he feels like ‘an unfinished song’ with so much left to do and so many things left unknown, before remembering lost loved ones who aren’t as fortunate as him at being alive today and looking around for the ghosts of the ones he loves most so he can embrace them too. Shock twist: it’s not written by Crosby at all but his son, James Raymond, scared of hitting sixty next year (the one given up for adoption in 1962 who came back into David’s life in 1994 and has been writing with him on-and-off since then). Which is yet more proof about genetics if any were needed because it’s oh so a Crosby song: the stumbling melody-line feeling its way out of the depths of despair, the careful thoughtful lyric and the sense of time folding in. It’s a powerful song, sadly like the rest of the album recorded in a very sterilised, emotionless way, but that only makes the moment when you realise that Crosby is back to being his highly emotional, revealing self on a quite astonishing vocal (pure, emotional but restrained) all the more powerful. Croz has done more than most with his slice of life and the hope is that the rich seam David’s been digging can still provide us with many more gems like this one before he goes.
11) Noel Gallagher “We’re On Our Way Now” (Standalone Single)
For someone who once wrote ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ Noel has been in unusually defiant mood lately, even for him. Not content with teasing us with hints of an Oasis reunion (which turned out to be just a legal way he and his brother can both use the same Oasis footage for their individual projects) and being rude about old bands (like The Stones, although is it just me or is the timing suspect now that Liam is openly dedicating songs to Charlie Watts in his live shows?) the elder Gallagher then turned the reunion idea down flat and then started talking nonsense about how Oasis are only remembered fondly now that they’ve split up (actually it was a meh fan reaction to Oasis’ last and weakest album that did that, which would surely have gone away as soon as the next album came out). He’s also been controversial, openly refusing to wear masks (until his own doctor reportedly pleaded with him to) and attacking this year’s heroes rather than its villains (Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, the idiot who let a bat out of a laboratory and tried to hush it up with tales of a wet-market). So it’s almost a relief to be able to tell you that this year’s tenth anniversary single ‘No Way Out’ sounds not angry or loony (not as much as fellow controversial rocker Van Morrison’s or Eric Clapton’s albums have been anyway) but much like you’d expect from the pre-covid era. It’s a sweet passable ballad, much more tuneful than the hideous and experimental ‘Who Built The Moon?’ album and approaching the ‘I was the only guy in Oasis whose work was worth listening to’s’ claim in the attending documentary (see below). Interestingly, it sounds like an outtake from one of Liam G’s two solo albums, with very little of the High Flying Birds sound we’ve come to know (layer upon layer of synths and female singers on one draggy chord) and it sounds much like the melodic Oasis B-sides of old. Lyrically Noel is still obsessing over the Oasis break-up ten years on and his memories of ‘walking out and saying I’ll see you later’. Noel gets in one neat dig at his brother (‘good luck in the afterlife!’) and throws in some old Oasis lyric references for good measure (‘I hear the morning sun doesn’t cast no shadow’). However, there’s notably less venom here than on similar songs by either Gallagher, with Noel content to live in his dreamy universe and let bygones be bygones. With this song much stronger than all but one track on last album ‘Who Built The Moon?’ hopes are high that Noel might yet reach a new orbit.
12) The Beach Boys “All Of My Love-Ecology”
Listening to this unheard song from the ‘Surf’s Up’ sessions you can really hear why Dennis Wilson found time to marry six times (twice to the same person!) and yet still died before he hit forty. There’s just so much passion in this track. When Dennis sings ‘all of my love’ and those Beach Boysy chords suddenly twist to those long held notes, you can hear just how much love the drummer had to give and you can truly believe that it really is ‘bigger than the ocean’. Being hit by all that romance full-on must have been a life-changing experience for everyone in its path. For the opening minute this feels like a masterpiece right up there with anything from Dennis’ solo records ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ and ‘Bambuu’, which deserve the ‘genius’ tag more than any of brother Brian’s solo records (with the obvious exception of ‘Smile’). Unfortunately though rather than sit and work at it Dennis would rather write a medley, so we end up with atmospheric ‘river run’ lines and the instruction to ‘move your body’ (which sounds like we’re in an exercise class but knowing Dennis was probably intended as something more sexual) and then we end up in a playful calliope instrumental that sounds like it belongs in an entirely different song already. As it stands, then, you can see why this track didn’t make ‘Surf’s Up’ (not least because Dennis was busy trying to put his first solo album together at the time), but oh what promise those opening chords suggest. A welcome reminder of Dennis’ talents and special, given that after two box sets, two rarities CDs and the bonus tracks on Dennis’ own albums I’d genuinely thought I’d heard all there was to hear from the middle Wilson by now.
13) Justin Hayward “One Summer Day”
Though there’s never been an official announcement, it seems that we have sadly seen the last of The Moody Blues. Flautist Ray Thomas died, Drummer Graeme Edge wanted to retire and then got ill and – so the story goes – guitarist Justin would rather go solo than tour as a duo-plus-extras even though bassist John wanted to continue. Fans have debated long and hard the past couple of years about whether the split was amicable, ugly, or a bit of both. This song, the A side of a new single, suggests it was the latter sadly. The track is Justin’s first new recording since 2013 but alas it’s no ‘Sprits Of The Western Sky’, his gorgeous dreamy album that’s been a regular on my stereo since then, though it ain’t bad either. Sounding like an amalgam of all previous Justin Hayward songs, fittingly it most sweetly resembles ‘Long Summer Days’, the Moodies outtake from 1968 that was one of his first. Justin’s innocent narrator back then was dreaming of the future, with a long life ahead of him and a lot of time to waste. By now, though, Justin is 74 and only too aware that he doesn’t have time to waste anymore. Sounding like a goodbye of sorts to the Moody Blues, he laments that ‘Maybe it’s just time for us’ and that while ‘I loved you from the first’ acknowledges that you can’t continue ‘three-part harmony’ forever. Reflecting that ‘summer sun’ has tempted away a ‘songbird’, Justin’s narrator is haunted by his lost loved ones in his dreams, struggling to work out if there is unfinished business or if he should leave things as they are. This isn’t all a sad song though: these musicians are still in each other’s lives and are there for each other and there are still plans to make for tomorrow, even if the days of future yesterdays cast a long shadow. I could have done without the icky production and the noisy drums, but Justin’s flamenco guitar flourishes are always welcome and it’s a cute song this one, a fitting coda to the Moody Blues story if indeed that’s what it turns out to be. B-side ‘My Juliette’ is nice too, a return to ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably’s tale of dashing heroes and beautiful maidens and Justin’s continued surprise that he actually got to make one of those perfect ladies his wife half a century ago.
14) John Lodge “The Sun Will Shine”
John, meanwhile, has released his first new music since 2015 and it’s another of those string-laden love songs he’s been writing off and on since the 1980s. This song is similar yet darker, as he accuses an unknown other of ‘playing a game’ and ‘trying to be important’. ‘Life is not like that’ intones the lecturing chorus and the narrator hopes that things may yet turn out right and that ‘the sun will shine on you’, illuminating all the stupid stubborn reasons they have for stopping. He clearly means Justin here, though he stops just short of using the name. John’s song is bigger budget yet less memorable somehow and if Justin’s song is a pretty good facsimile of 1960s Moody Blues then this is a dead ringer for their 1980s catalogue, loud and bombastic and ever so slightly out of control. Still interesting though and for fans like me who love picking up on messages songwriters make about each other delivered in their songs (see the Blue Jays album and its notes to Mike Pinder especially) then this is a golden age, sad though it may be that its come to this. Jon Davison, former Yes member, appears on backing vocals – he’s John’s son-in-law after marrying his daughter Emily (1971 Moody track ‘Emily’s Song’ was written for her).
15) Paul McCartney “Tell Me Who He Is”
OK, so it wasn’t ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘For No One’, but the newly discovered McCartney lyric from 1960 (included in Macca’s pricey but nicey book of lyrics, which would have been great if it had included everything instead of just 154 songs picked out for him by editor Paul Muldoon; for context Macca’s released maybe 500 in The Beatles, Wings or solo. It also seems to have been picked at random: ‘Pretty Little Head’ and ‘Arrow Through Me’ there but not, say, ‘Footprints’ or ‘Winter Rose’. And how come ‘A Day In The Life’ is here when it was 90% John’s song? And frustratingly the best song from ‘Blackbird Singing’, Paul’s earlier, much cheaper go at the same idea in paperback ‘For Ivan’ – a poem for the schoolboy who first introduced Lennon to Macca – is missing. The unseen Linda Macca photos are fabulous though) is still worthy of a mention. At this stage in their career The Beatles are still known as The Quarrymen and this song is of a vintage with ‘Hello Little Girl’ and ‘One After 909’ rather than anything too profound. This fragment is even a little like an early draft for ‘She Loves You’, only with the narrator the lover whose been done wrong and wanting to know who his girlfriend has been seeing behind his back. A mention too for the long lost ‘Pilchard’, the four page beginning to a play co-written by Lennon and McCartney during time off from writing songs and much mentioned in interviews (goodness knows where the story would have gone from the bit we get, but we do know that in the pair’s original plans Pilchard turns out to be the reincarnation of Jesus. Oddly nobody talks about him being bigger than The Quarrymen). Whether that’s enough to entice you into parting with – gulp - £75 is between you and your bank manager, but an unheard bit of Beatles trivia is always welcome.
Audiobook Of The Year
1) Paul Simon “Miracle and Wonder”
Back in 1990, when ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ was new, Paul Simon embarked on what might well be the greatest AAA-related radio series of them all: The Paul Simon Songbook. Over eight fascinating hours Paul remembered writing most of his key songs, with enough input from friends and occasionally enemies (Arty really wasn’t on good terms with him back then and amazingly the producers kept his rants in unedited) to give the songs some context. Forget your McCartney lyrics book: this is someone who agonised over every word and chord choice and can still remember making these choices in detail several decades on. This new audiobook/documentary isn’t quite as good, simply because it has to cover more ground in five hours what Paul once had eight to do, but nevertheless proves again that Paul really thought about his craft a lot and can still remember every bit of it. Where this CD beats the series is that Paul plays new versions of some of his classic songs (presumably because of the rights issues to the finished recordings), throwing in a few variations that have materialised down the years (such as the ‘missing verse’ on ‘The Boxer’) and allowing the listener to hear how these songs resonate differently for Paul at 79 than they did when he wrote them at 19 or 29. This is a great solution to such a problem and hearing an older, wiser Paul explaining how he’d adapt these songs now is terrific and insightful, as all the best interviews should be. Where it loses out on the thirty-year-old show though is that interviewers Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam are from the school of music theory that is forever trying to follow their carefully detailed notes oblivious to what Paul actually says to them and they spend the first half at least sounding perpetually shocked at everything and trying to get answers that just don’t exist. For instance, Paul tells them early on that he doesn’t think about musical labels and yet there’s several minutes spent riffing about whether Paul is really a ‘folk singer’ and whether ‘The Boxer’ is a folk song or not. Paul just doesn’t care, as he tells them all over again. This is followed by a debate about where Paul’s music has its roots given the different nationalities of the musicians he’s worked with– the simple answer is that it changes with every album, if not every song and that Paul is a citizen of the universe (and a gentleman to boot). Next we get endless questions about what Paul considers himself to be and him saying he doesn’t particularly consider himself to be anything. That sort of label really doesn’t matter much to me either – I’d rather hear about what it was that sparked off such an exquisite song as ‘The Boxer’, what emotional memories and characters Paul was drawing from when he wrote it, where the boundaries between fact and fiction blur and what Arty and engineer Roy Halee thought when they first heard the song, not what style Paul thinks it’s in.
We don’t get anything quite so revealing or detailed as the questions in 1990 sadly, although Paul does his best and throws in a few snippets we haven’t heard before along the way (particularly about his childhood). I would have loved to have had more of Paul and less of the ‘context’ (some thirty hours were apparently recorded but only five are released here including the interviewers pontificating at length – did Paul spend twenty-five hours not remembering anything interesting or are we due a deluxe edition one day?) I’d also have loved to have heard Paul riff about less familiar songs with greater stories to tell than ‘Sound Of Silence’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ et al (there’s an entire box set to be had on ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ alone). For what there is, though, this is a worthy listen and Paul is still a spell-binding storyteller, with some gems to talk about and if that’s really it for new music for this lifetime now he’s retired then hurrah that we at least get some more information about some old friends.
TV/Radio Programme Of The Year
1) 10cc: The Great Stockport Bake-Off (Youtube)
Yes, that’s right, yes I am saying a low budget thirty minute video made by fans and released on youtube is the best AAA-related documentary I’ve seen all year. No, honest, I’ve not gone mad – it’s just that either you haven’t seen it yet or you just don’t care for 10cc. Either way, you’re wrong not me, honest! Let me explain: deep in the vaults of Strawberry Studios – the Stockport recording centre that 10cc owned and played in as session musicians long before their ‘breakthrough’ – there exist three master-tapes that have never been played since being recorded and which seemed about to fall apart anytime somebody tried. Nobody even properly knew what was in them till four fans spent their spare time taking lessons in how to ‘bake’ old tape at just the right temperature so that they could hold together enough to at last be played (and transferred to something digital). It was a real risk and could so easily have gone wrong, but against the odds it works and the fans revealed to the world...backing vocals from a 1970 session as ‘Hotlegs’, Graham Gouldman’s soundtrack album for an Animal Olympics animation and an advert the band made for beauty company Revlon product ‘Natural Wonder’. No, I wasn’t expecting that either. If that sounds a disappointment, well, actually it isn’t as the date on the box makes the last of these out to be quite possibly the final thing the original line-up of 10cc with Godley and Crème ever did together (the only other candidate being a half-hearted demo for ‘People In Love’ included on the box set ‘Tenology’ if you’re wondering). It also sounds like vintage 10cc, however daft the lyrics, with Lol Creme’s characteristic block piano chords, Eric Stewart’s best dreamy lead vocal, some classic ‘I’m Not In Love’ style backing harmonies and Kevin Godley doing a voiceover and trying not to laugh. When questioned later for the documentary Kevin Godley can’t stop giggling and Graham Gouldmann can’t remember making it at all (their response: ‘It’s a bit twee and simpering’ but it sounds pretty darn good to me). A most fascinating little documentary that’s unmissable for fans of all sorts of things: 10cc, 1970s studio technology and Revlon beauty products!
2) Alan Hull: Lindisfarne’s Geordie Genius” (BBC)
Turning up fashionably and characteristically late to his own party, this year would have marked Alan Hull’s seventy-sixth birthday, had he not died so tragically young twenty-six years ago (with this documentary seemingly one of many delayed by covid and one in limbo for a while as the producers of it shipped around for a buyer before ending up at the BBC). At last Newcastle’s finest got this long overdue documentary with singer-songwriter Sam Fender searching for the ‘undiscovered’ story of an AAA favourite. Now personally I know the Lindisfarne story backwards but had to spend most of the hour after the documentary searching for who the hell Sam was as I’d never heard of him. Apparently he won the BBC Sound awards in 2018 and has already had a #1 album, but that’s still not up to Lindisfarne’s heights (they had the best-selling album of 1972 y’know!) so it’s more than time we had a documentary about old Hully. It was a good one too, especially if you were new to the Lindisfarne story and learnt about it at the same time as Sam and all the other young trendy Hull cover acts heard throughout the programme. It’s lovely that Alan’s legacy has been remembered so, because he was truly important: as Elvis Costello, one of the better talking heads, put it ‘he had a way of telling you how you were feeling before you’d quite realised it yourself’. There were some great interviews (Lindisfarne’s Ray, Rod, Jacka, Billy and Dave not to mention Si on precious archive footage plus all the Hull clan), some brilliant snatches of rare footage (little bits and pieces from the BBC TV play ‘Squire’ that Hully starred in; early black-and-white archive recording studio film from the 1960s before Alan had started playing around with facial hair, lots of Lindisfarne promo shots and gigs that haven’t been seen in ages) and of course some top music (with all the hits present and correct and a run through of most solo albums, though I still say ‘All Fall Down’ is a far better single than ‘Wake Up Little Sister’ would ever have been whatever the voiceover says). Given that we had only an hour to juggle with there was a nice sense too of the many sides of this complex personality, who was equally at home as a much-loved family man, party animal, one-time mental health nurse and lefty crusader (Hull is still the only musician whose death was ever mentioned in the House of Commons thanks to his political work, although the line that our socialist hero was ‘a little West of Labour’ is regrettably a sign of our times – he flaming wasn’t at the time), with just a hint of Hull’s darker side with a catalogue of songs fuelled by excessive drinking and band bust-ups.
What we got was great indeed, a few wonky cover performances and Sting reminiscences aside – I just wish there’d been more of it. A lot more of it. Like five hours more of it. Every song, every little bit of great footage, every anecdote from a talking head passed by in the blink of an eye so that if you were like our host and had never really heard of Alan Hull you’d have been properly lost by the end. Maybe that will be put right with a DVD or Blu-Ray director’s cut one day? I truly hope so because if nothing else this documentary succeeds in making you weep for all that was lost that sad day in 1995, just as Hull was getting a fourth (or was it a fifth?) wind. Oh the music he might have written, oh the love he still had to give to a family who clearly truly loved him (a rarity in rock and roll documentaries!), oh the wrongs he would have righted (I find myself thinking a lot about what Hull would have made of David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Brexit, covid, climate change and welfare reforms and all the political rallying cries we never got to hear). Not definitive then, but still very worthy of the bonny lad himself and if this show and Fender’s wobbly but heartfelt cover of ‘Winter Song’ encourages a few more youngsters to discover one of the greatest song catalogues of them all then I will be a very happy reviewer indeed.
3) Oasis “The 6Music Artist Collection”
An impressive motley of Oasis stuff from the archives to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their all-conquering Knebworth set (see below for the DVD or above for its soundtrack), rather wasted at being put on in the graveyard slot during a random weekday night during the summer. As well as repeats of the surprisingly ahead of its time 1996 documentary ‘What’s The Story?’ (which got a lot right about the band’s importance and their legacy, given that it was recorded right in the eye of the storm as it were) and an hour of records-with-stories, we got two sort-of new programmes. The first is an hour reduction of the two hour Knebworth show which hadn’t been heard since the day a fourteen year-old me sat up listening to Radio One and trying to cut the toe-curlingly awful presenter’s chat out when copying it to a cassette and the second a rather superb dip into the BBC’s archives. The compilation ran for an hour and still only got as far as 1997, with some particularly brilliant clips from Oasis’ early days when Noel admits that ‘Sad Song’ is such a new composition ‘even I haven’t heard it myself yet!’ and he can tease Liam about only leaving home for the first time to go on tour and still bringing his washing home to their long-suffering mam. I’m still waiting for Noel’s 1995 proposed album of a series of Gallagher-produced Oasis covers by other artists though. Alongside the fascinating chat are some pretty nifty low-key versions of ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Shakermaker’ as well as fiery full-on electric performances of ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Some Might Say’. Even more than the long-awaited Knebworth gig it’s a time capsule that takes you back to a time when music was the most exciting it had been for a quarter century and no band was more exciting than Oasis.
4) Classic Albums: The Who Sell Out (Sky Arts)
At long last, we get our first series of ‘classic albums’ for a quarter century and it’s full of all the things I remember from the old series: musicians too confused/old/hungover to remember anything, engineers separating cymbal parts on a giant mixing desk and going ‘mmmm’ and people who were on last week telling you that was their album ever now telling you that they’ve changed their mind and this is their favourite album, honest. For all that, though, I love this series: where other full-band documentaries spend roughly five minutes per key albums here we get forty-five minutes per half hour albums. And as all my readers must know by now, when it comes to music detail is a good thing. No don’t cry, this review is over soon, I promise. It doesn’t say much for music in the past twenty-five years that almost all the selections in this new intermittent series date back to the 1960s-80s, but I can only applaud the fact that The Who have become the only musical act outside John Lennon to get two entries in the series and the ‘Who Sell Out’ doc is every bit as good as the one on ‘Who’s Next’. As always there’s a handle of things even I didn’t know (like Speedy Keene titling his song ‘I’m An Ear Sitting In The Sky’ but Pete mis-hearing it as ‘Armenia’ and giggling about his mistake in 2021 ‘I prefer my version!’), some classic rare historic footage (where did the video of The Who recoding ‘Mary Anne With The Shakey Hand’ come from? Or the shots of the band’s first American tour?), some witty observations (Pete: ‘We didn’t want to just release a bad album. It would have been like when you support a football team and see them having a really bad day’), Roger Daltrey spending a fun day at the mixing desk for a change (‘I can’t believe how incredibly polite it is…especially Moon. Must have been a bad day for drugs!’) and lots of background info on manager Kit Lambert, the founding of Track Records, pirate radio, advertising, that frozen baked-bean-filled front cover (‘I’d just got back from Hawaii and I was sitting in a cold bath!’ moans Roger), Monterey Pop, drugs (‘I lost so many friends’ sighs Roger) and what happened next with ‘Tommy’ (which is surely a shoe-in for the next ‘classic albums’ series, although the band did commission a documentary of their own a few years ago, so perhaps not). It all feels a bit rushed by the time we get to side two of the album (there’s a classic story about the making of ‘Rael’ involving a studio cleaner, a waste-paper basket, a mixing desk and a chair that isn’t mentioned here), but all in all this series has lost none of its sparkle and the result is a pretty unmissable documentary in any era.
5) Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “Out Of The Now” (Sky Arts)
Against all the odds, I rather liked this tenth anniversary documentary/ interview/concert. Noel is, even at his worst, brilliantly honest and full of soundbites and surprisingly perhaps has never really talked about the end of Oasis and the start of his solo career as much as his brother has. There are some nice moments here recalling how much the Birds have evolved and changed (‘It’s not like there’s an obvious line-up for a greatest hits record’ he mulls over at one point, even though that’s what we got a couple of months later), he rightly credits himself for breaking the Oasis mould on his solo highlights ‘Riverman’ and ‘The Right Stuff’ (even if he overplays the idea that nothing he writes nowadays sounds like Oasis, which 90% of it does, if less inspired), recalls sitting in the back of a car after the Oasis backstage split working out whether to carry on or go home and the fact that the lockdown has been bad for him personally, closing shops, football grounds and gigs, but great for him creatively as he’s got a pile of songs ready (where are they then Noel? We’ve only had two so far and they didn’t even have B-sides). There’s rather an endearing moment too when Noel admits to not having much of a voice or being much of a guitar player ‘so the songs had better be fooking wonderful’, which is ironic given that it’s the songs that a good 75% of the time on his four solo albums that keep letting the side down. The performances here are rather good too for the most part, with a gorgeous band performance of neglected ‘Moon’ bonus track ‘Dead In The Water’ and the rather sweet slowed-down arrangement of Oasis hit ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ alongside the usual noisy repetitive bumph featuring the Noel-Yoko waving her scissors in the air and talking on the phone (‘Holy Mountain’ sounds worse than ever). Most bizarrely, Noel throws in a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mighty Quinn’ at the end too and blow me down if this ends up being my cup of meat far more than the original or the Manfredd Mann hit version, sounding tailor made for the High Flying Birds with its mix of folk, rock, jazz, Kinks baking vocals and gospel. For the most part even an ornithology sceptic like me was won over – at least until Noel got divisive again halfway through: ‘If you don’t like it and you’re there looking for ‘Slide Away’ then next time I’m in your town then don’t fooking come!’ snarls Noel at one point. I doubt he’ll ever make it to Ormskirk any time soon, but if he does I guess that’s me out then. Unless you like tuneless dance songs with no guitar but lots of scissor-waving, that probably means you too. Given that Noel also talked at length about not caring about sales figures, I wonder if he’s noticed how much of his audience he’s alienated over the past ten years and whether post-lockdown anyone will turn up to his gigs at all?
6) Paul McCartney At The BBC
A nice ninety minute dip into the BBC archives to promote his new book of lyrics, this was part of a themed night in November alongside last year’s maddening and muddling ‘A Conversation With Idris Elba’ and the ‘wonky voiced but still a great show’ return to The Cavern Club in 2018. The compilation seemed to have been thrown together at random with clips from all over the place not in any logical order at all: one minute we’re with Wings performing live in 1976, or on Nationwide in 1979, or at the Electric Proms in 2007 or watching Jools Holland play the world’s stupidest piano solo during ‘Get Back’ in 2010 or the Cavern in 2018 (weird as that show was repeated straight after). These clips made up the welcome backbone of the programme and have been aired often. Of interest to the deeper collector though were some great clips of Wings on the Mike Yarwood Show in 1977, Russell Harty being the Abbey Road teaboy as Paul and George Martin work on ‘Pipes Of Peace’ in 1983 or Macca and band miming to ‘My Brave Face’ on the Wogan show in 1989. Some links were more tenuous (the ‘Coming Up’ promo was played on TOTP but not made for it, while Wings’ ‘Rockshow’ may have been screened on the BBC once, in a late night slot, but was hardly made for it either) but welcome all the same. Only the strained interview with Lauren Laverne making up a new version of ‘That Was Me’ together wasted tape. On the downside the caption writer was deeply pretentious about the importance of every last song though (and I mean goodness, if I’m saying that it must be bad…) but at least it was accurate (not like the ‘Biggest Hits Of..’ series, which the very same week mistook the Labrador that inspired ‘Jet!’ for a horse). A few quibbles aside, then, this was a welcome dip into a back catalogue so rich it felt like it could have gone on for at least another hour. Hopefully one day ITV will follow suit as they have even more McCartney gems in their archive than the Beeb do!
7) John Lennon: A Life In Pictures (BBC)
Quite a clever way to give us a new twist on old stories this one: ten literal snapshots of John are delivered to us as ten snapshots in time, taking him from childhood up to the last photo taken before his death (that awful one where he’s singing an autograph for his killer, who’d chickened out of why he was really hanging round the Dakota by asking for one before he came back an hour later with his gun). They’re not always the pictures I expected either, in fact so much so that I do wonder if this documentary was more based on which photographers were still around to tell the tales rather than the ten images that genuinely sum up John’s life. For the record the photos are: the one of John laughing with mum Julia in her back garden, a Mike McCartney shot of John, Paul and the back of George’s head rehearsing in 1958, a moody Astrid Kirchherr shot of John and Stuart in Hamburg, baby Julian looking shocked as mum Cynthia and dad John grab a mop and a hoe at their Weybridge Surrey house, a weary Lennon backstage on tour of America in 1966 (the rarest shot here), John and Yoko smiling in front of the wreckage of the car Lennon crashed in Scotland putting them both in hospital, John and Yoko in matching suits the day they applied for citizenship of America in 1972 despite Dickie Nixon being, well, a dick (the best interview comes from John’s solicitor Leon Wildes and son, who remembers getting them into suits and wanting them to look like a ‘professional couple’), a ‘Lost Weekend’ era John getting thrown out of The Troubadour Club for harassing a waitress, a beaming John in a kimono holding baby Sean and of course that awful final image. All in all, not a bad selection, although it seems odd that – say – the album covers for ‘With The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Peppers’ ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Imagine’ aren’t there. As part of a larger series (this is episode five: other episodes were on the unlikely quartet of Muhammad Ali, Elizabeth Taylor, Tupac Shakur and Freddie Mercury) it worked well, with a lot of very thorough and fascinating research, though very much made for a general audience rather than a Beatley one.
8) “Looking For Lennon”
I feel a bit mean putting this documentary so far down the list, as it fared worse only thanks to what was clearly a much smaller budget that didn’t even amount to any actual Lennon music, bar an opening burst of ‘Working Class Hero’. Some of the interviews were a bit on the rambling side too. However, full marks for spending a full ninety minutes just on Lennon’s childhood and tracking down lots of his old school-friends who haven’t really talked before (at least on film). Though the documentary is wide enough to take in familiar stories such as the death of his mother and ends with The Beatles going to Hamburg, it’s the middle part on John’s school days and art college era that spring to life here. There are lots of tales of childhood antics at Dovedale Road Primary, Quarry Bank High and The Liverpool College of Art including John’s love of surrounding himself with gangs of boys like his fictional hero Just Wiliam, the terrible day his ‘number two’ Pete Shotton discovered that John’s middle name was ‘Winston’ after Churchill and how he suddenly went from big bad John to ‘Winnie’ over night and a classmate at his art college lessons remembering John making everyone giggle and him being impressed with the fact she’d once drawn the real Lonnie Donegan. Fans will also enjoy reminiscences of Strawberry Fields salvation army children’s home, John’s friends buying records especially for him to hear, Woolton village fete where John first met Paul and memories of The Beatles hanging around in art college lunch breaks and eating sarnies and fish and chips. Yes there’s a lot of repetition and I’m not sure this documentary ever gets deep enough to really ‘look’ for Lennon the way some other docs do (there’s not much on Aunt Mimi or Cynthia for instance, the two biggest influences on John between his mother’s death and the arrival of Stuart Sutcliffe to the Beatle story), but there’s a lot of good stuff too including some very rare class photographs and images taken from John’s scribbled childhood newspaper ‘The Daily Howl’.
9) “The Cavern Club: The Beat Goes On” (Sky Arts)
It’s more than time that we got a documentary about the Merseyside’s premier music club, which has a long and varied history even without the obvious Beatle bits. The Searchers, The Hollies, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who – loads of this website’s bands played there at one time or another. However, you wouldn’t know that from this programme as, despite a generous 70 minute playing time (minus adverts), this documentary never quite hit the spot. Admittedly the film-makers were rather hindered by how much actual footage there is of the original Cavern (though there is a brief bit of The Beatles performing ‘Some Other Guy’ just after Ringo joined) and the differences in the ‘modern’ version where much of it was filmed and how it looks now (the Cavern is across the road because Merseyrail decided they needed extra ventilation for their underground trains. Go figure). They have got a number of talking heads, but not many of them are musicians and a lot of what they say is either rambling or repeats what someone else has just said. It also felt strangely edited, with as much time spent on the Cavern’s jazz beginnings in the 1950s and the legal wranglings and various re-openings as a trendy nightclub in the 1970s on as its 1960s heyday. Still, there were a lot of enjoyable moments in this show – particularly the concert posters - and it’s nice to see 8th Dr Who Paul McGann as the presenter who does a good job all told (although I can’t help but feel he’s here just because he’s a Liverpudlian and his name starts with ‘Paul Mc’). The best bit? A brief story of Paul McCartney taking new wife Linda round incognito in 1968 where she promptly took over the bar and he the piano, as he debuts ‘Hey Jude’ to anyone within earshot. Thankfully Linda also took some polaroids to prove it, as featured in the documentary. It’s rather typical though that this fascinating story lasts around a minute and is then followed by five minutes of studying the paperwork that passed hands during The Cavern’s sale.
10) Paul McCartney ‘This Cultural Life’/‘Front Row’
Macca hasn’t half plugged his lyrics book this year, particularly on the radio. As well as his editor Paul Mulhoon telling us all how it came about on ‘This Cultural Life’ (which was interesting, particularly the parts about what exactly Paul does have in his collection, but not as insightful as a McCartney interview would be) we got Macca himself discussing eight of his songs (which basically amounts to him reading out eight pages of the new book). This was a mixed bag, a bit like the songs chosen. Paul spoke more about how ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ was inspired by drugs, after letting the cat out of the bag for the first time during ‘Anthology’, spoke with eloquence about the elderly lady he used to run errands for who partially inspired ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and was most interesting when discussing ‘Junk’, an outside candidate for the series if ever there was one (I had my money on ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Let It Be’ to close the series with). Unfortunately Paul also misnamed ‘William’ Brambell, his fictional Grandfather from ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ when speaking about how Steptoe and Son’s junkyard was in his mind for that song, stirred up all the Lennon hostility again with ‘Too Many People’ (which very much sounds like a scathing directed dig at John to me, however much Paul was downplaying it) and even after an hour or so still hadn’t told us much we didn’t know. A little like the book itself. Whether these eight snippets are, as I suspect, part of a longer audio book covering all 154 songs due in the future or not I can’t tell you yet, but the eight programmes are still there on the BBC Sounds app if you want to give them a go.
11) The Kinks “Lola v Powerman and The Money-Go-Round” (Youtube/BBC)
Last week’s review: I’ll be honest with you – I didn’t understand what this official youtube video re-promoting last years’ box set of ‘Lola Versus Powerman and The Money-Go-Round’ this January was about at all. Which is a shame, because it wasn’t up for very long and I can’t go back to watch it again, something that in this day and age is rare (now I know what fans of the 1960s used to feel like after one-off broadcasts that were never seen again). Anyway, it was a sort-of play sort-of by and sort of about Ray Davies (in sort-of collaboration with Paul Sirett, who also wrote the disappointing Radio 4 play based on previous Kinks LP ‘Arthur’) here re-named ‘Everyman’, this time sort-of based on the ‘Lola’ album that sort-of featured the characters from the songs all living in one sort-of big universe sort-of inside Ray’s head. Unfortunately, it only sort-of worked: it was more like a piece of fan fiction that had you waiting for certain characters to turn up than a full-blown story; you know ‘Here came The Apeman who gave Lola a banana which saved him-her from the evil Powerman. Oh no! Rats! I coulda been a Contender!’ (Actually Lola turns out to be the friend Ray turns to when he comes under great pressure to complete a concept album and the only reference to her gender is when she takes him to a strip club and he’s struck by how ‘real’ everyone is compared to the people playing games in court, which wasn’t really something I took from the original’s lyrics). Ray could just as easily have been pouring his heart out to an Apeman to be honest. Yes that’s right, this is one of those kind of plays.
Sadly the whole thing was read very stiltedly by the usually reliable Ben Norris without much actual Kinks presence, so even the bits that could have worked fell flat (the ‘songwriter’ is Lee Ross, the sublime TV series Press Gang’s sub-editor, not that he comes out of this mess any better). Ray’s ‘unauthorised autobiography’ (!) ‘X-Ray’ told most of these stories about Ray’s art school and early Kinks days with far more panache (right down to the ‘self interviewing self’ bit) and possessed a much better grasp of character than the caricatures you get here. You can’t help but think that, following the flack the ‘Arthur’ play got, that the BBC didn’t want to risk commissioning a sequel but Ray and Paul were too far through one to stop it and did it through Youtube instead. That’s a shame because, much like last time, there’s an astoundingly brilliant humanistic emotional new piece work to be made from these two albums, but the story that ended up being taken from them isn’t the story I would have chosen at all and what could have been a huge artistic statement based around a quite brilliant album just ended up as some extra plugging for a box set. Which was not at all what the original the-record-business-is-all-nuts ‘Lola’ album was about at all. Powerman 1- Lola 0.
This week’s review: OK, so they did get this play to the Beeb after all! Blimey, out of nowhere this hour-odd (and we do mean odd) video became a full blown ninety minute play broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on December 11th. While it still doesn’t really work, the extra running time does at least give a bigger sense of scope, character and plot and makes a lot more sense. You get more of a feel for why Ray sold his songs off as eagerly as he did, given his backdrop of failure with the girls at art school and his dad on at his back to make money. Unfortunately it also leads to longer cover versions of Kink songs (not just from the ‘Powerman’ album either but the ‘Storyteller’ tour and even quick bursts of ‘Tired Of Waiting For You’ and ‘Set Me Free’; the heavy metal ‘Rats’ is particularly awful - once again Ray really doesn’t understand brother Dave’s songs). All of this extra work, with each song re-recorded by the cast under Ray’s supervision at The Kinks’ own Konk studios, is pointless. With all the love in the world Ben and Lee are actors, not singers (to quote the record itself ‘he don’t know the tune and he don’t know the words and he don’t give a damn’) and as this is an ‘official’ release why can’t we just have the songs as they featured on the record in full instead of those irritating snippets Ben sings over? We all know the character is meant to be Ray Davies, however much you pretend he isn’t. There’s also too blooming much history here: it’s a full seventeen minutes before we even get to ‘You Really Got Me’ for goodness sake. Even I was nearly falling asleep and I love stories about The Kinks’ unlikely early years – goodness only knows what your average un-Kinky radio four audience made of it all. Even later the more interesting section (Ray feeling the pressure, becoming a dad before he’s really ready, ending up in court and having a nervous breakdown) is far more suited to a play about the album ‘Face To Face’ than ‘Lola’. There are two great gags though: ‘The Money-Go-Round is turned from song into daytime quiz (penalty for losing: ending up back at the dole queue) and the line ‘you’re confused’ as said by Lola after a particularly gruelling cover version of ‘Starstruck’ –‘this song wasn’t even on the album!’ (She’s right too, it’s on ‘Village Green Preservation Society’!)
I can’t say I know Ray any better after hearing this play, just as I really didn’t know Ray’s Uncle Arthur any better after the last one. Perhaps obfuscation is the point though? ‘Lola’ was always an album Ray found problems talking about, full as it was of bitterness at his betrayal from father substitute figures and fans alike. It still seems an unlikely album for him to have made a play about fifty years on. A shame though: it coulda been a contender. Meet you back here next Christmas for the inevitable follow-up play about ‘Muswell Hillbillies’. My money’s on the plot involving Uncle Son helping women escape from Holloway Jail and suffering from acute schizophrenia paranoia blues while his nephew tries to buy a new house outside the part of London he grew up in and comes to terms with feeling as if he has been born in the wrong century, oh and drinking endless cups of tea…
A quick mention too for the AAA TV moment of the year, with BBC4 giving The Kinks Old Grey Whistle Test concert its first repeat since 1977 in October. Bravo: do catch it on I-Player if you live in the part of the world that has access to the BBC, it’s a stunning 40 minute set of mostly songs from ‘Sleepwalker’, played live with a humanity and pathos that was lurking underneath several layers of production gloss on the finished album. Although, technically being a repeat, it doesn’t make the official list, this was a joy to see in full again and is what made my Kristmas a Kinky Kristmas.
Special Mention) The Beatles “Get Back”
Here it is at last. An alternate version of perhaps the rarest Beatles project, missing on DVD, made fifty years ago and unseen officially in forty (when it was repeated the night John Lennon was murdered). Delayed for another year because of covid. Split into not one documentary but three. Directed by the award winning Peter Jackson, who said this is the film he always really wanted to make it and that everything he’s done till now has been leading up to this moment (insert joke about ‘Lord Of The Ringos’ ‘Indiana (Go To Him) Jones’ or ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For The Planet Of The Apes Re-Boots’ here. Actually it was ‘Lord Of The Rings’ that first put him in contact with The Beatles’ Apple company. Brian Epstein secured the rights to Tolkein’s books when the fabs started discussing making it as their new film in 1967 if ‘Yellow Submarine’ wasn’t up to snuff and held onto it. When Peter wanted to make his own version thirty years later it was The Beatles he had to go through in order to make it). Millions of Beatle fans the world over saw the quite brilliant trailers on youtube (that first run through ‘Get Back’ sounds sooo good and the moment John and Ringo hug each other and walk out the room is already an iconic fab four image), became thrilled when we learned that the running time was a whole eight hours (the film isn’t quite eighty minutes), breathed a sigh of relief that maybe this wasn’t going to be such a horrid year after all and then we all read the news that this series was getting its exclusive release on…Disney Plus?!? What the?!? No I’m not paying £silly money a month for the privilege of seeing it once when it will surely be out on DVD for next Christmas anyway.
So far I have it on good authority from various friends that it’s the most brilliant Beatles documentary ever, rather good and worth the money or the first time the fab four have ever been deadly boring. The reviews I’ve read are similarly mixed: I’ve read people who weren’t Beatle fans in awe at songs like ‘Get Back’ suddenly arriving nowhere on camera, those who were fascinated by the off-centre stories like Yoko’s quiet presence, the future Linda Macca’s attempts to strike up conversation with anyone and everyone or roadie Mal Evans’ big warm heart for his pals, or those who felt it was so incredibly slow it made even ‘Lord Of The Rings’ look fast and punchy. A quick squiz of the transcripts online suggest that it might well be both: I’m sad that many of my favourite parts from bootleg are missing (John and Paul trying to remember how the tunes to Gerry Anderson’s children’s TV theme tunes go), can’t wait to actually see other parts I’ve adored listening to for years (John and Paul doing ‘Two Of Us’ in broad Scouse, Scottish and as ventriloquist dummies!) and I’m still curious as to how other bits will go down (the full story of George quitting the band in the most English and undemonstrative way possible, which was a bit hyped up in the ‘Let It Be’ film). Most of all, though, I’m frustrated that was once promised as a film we could all buy and own has turned into a condition of signing up to a streaming service that, the last time I tried it, refused to honour the cancellation of my contract. This is a huge deal in The Beatles world and The Beatles are a huge deal to the whole world, still the landmarks of music around which everything turns, however slow these days. Everyone should get to see it, not just people who sign up to one of those money-grabbing mickey mouse (literally) streaming services. Who signed this flipping contract? Goofy?!?!? To be continued when and if this set does come out on DVD, probably next Christmas…
DVD Of The Year
1) Oasis “Knebworth ‘96”
Ah, Knebworth. Roughly a quarter of the UK’s population in 1996 applied for tickets and only (!) 250,000 of them got in, over two nights. For 25 years now older fans have been boasting to younger fans that they were there, the band have been boasting to us ‘we didn’t even use our best songs – no ‘Rock and Roll Star’ and there’s been a big hole in the Oasis discography where a live album by the original line-up – give or take the drummer - should have been (amazingly there’s only ever been one official Oasis live album, from the 2000 era when Andy Bell and Gem were still settling in and which was arguably their weakest tour, give or take the final one).Oasis still seem impossibly young two years into their career ‘proper’ (Noel’s actually twenty-nine here, but looks about twelve) and yet they’ve already written about 70% of their best songs. So what’s not to love? I’ll be honest with you, there are better Oasis gigs: ‘Live By The Sea’ is a much more entertaining set with an on-fire band, either of the earliest two Glastonbury sets in 94 and 95 also knock this one out of the park and I would even take the acoustic MTV Unplugged gig with its curio setlists over this one. Even so, ‘Knebworth’ is definitive Oasis. From Noel and Liam’s opening cry (on Sunday) of ‘This is history – right ‘ere, right now, this is history, so let’s all go to history for the weekend to watch Oasis!’, this is the moment the best British rock band for twenty years also happily coincided with being the biggest thing in the land (let me tell you that never happened at any other point in my lifetime; the other best things from the past thirty-ish years have all been cult favourites ignored on release. Like post-Oasis band Beady Eye, for instance. While the most celebrated things have been empty vessels like *shudder* The Spice Girls).
By August 1996 Oasis are at the end of their second lengthy tour and know their setlist backwards. Liam never sounds better and is for once mixed to perfection, Noel plays out of his skin (his guitar solos towards the end of Sunday are stratospheric), Bonehead keeps everything together (despite Noel teasing him in the documentary for ‘getting emotional’ on connecting with the crowd), Whitey pounds the drums like a man possessed, guest Mark Feltham plays some haunting bluesy harmonica, some extra female violinists add colour and depth and poor Guigsy is in there somewhere (both cameras and sound mix seem to ignore him, sadly). The Saturday is the more consistent of the two shows, but what’s great about having both gigs complete is comparing and contrasting between the two, with Oasis hitting some dazzling highs from about a third the way into Sunday night. Everything here feels big, grandiose and epic yet, unlike other big shows, Oasis are too authentic to ever fall over into parodying themselves or lose the emotions that made them write these lyrics about living, loving and loathing in the first place. For now, Noel means every word he writes and by tandem that means Liam means every word he sings to an audience of thousands who identify with every word they say and they sing along to it all, even the (relatively) obscure B-sides. Even lesser songs like – ominously – the two previews from ‘Be Here Now’ in ‘My Big Mouth’ and ‘It’s Getting’ Better Man’ (neither of which seem to be going down at all well with the crowd), Hello!, Roll With It and dare I say it ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ have a crispness and brutal energy about them that makes them sound light years stronger than they ever do on record. Sometimes, as with Liam shouting himself hoarse through ‘Slide Away’ or Noel nailing a gloriously uncomfortable ‘Masterplan’, Oasis also manage to be intimate in front of such a giant crowd. Some of Liam’s stage repartee hasn’t aged too well (several precious minutes are wasted booing man United football fans, something that might take a lot of explanation in a hundred years’ time), the video screen seems so poor to modern eyes it’s risible and the cinematography is occasionally odd (we see more of Stones Roses guest guitarist John Squire on two songs than we do bass player Guigsy across two nights).
Mostly though this is an excellent pair of gigs, with a moving well-made documentary presented on the first disc that includes around a dozen fans recalling not only what it was like to be there but what an event it was even getting there, with memories of hitting their landline phone’s redial button for eight hours straight, rushing round record shops to buy up spare tickets, being stuck on a deadbeat bus singing Oasis songs or trying to cut out the inane chatter from the radio one DJs broadcasting the gig while stuck at home (I sympathise). Some fans, bitten for life by the Oasis bug, get poetic: one recalls her last precious moments singing ‘Live Forever’ with her brother weeks before he got sick; another recalls the sudden rainstorm at the end of Sunday’s show as ‘washing away my youth after one last moment of celebration’. The world has changed a lot in 25 years and mostly not for the better, but for one precious moment Oasis had the keys to a door to a better future that promised so much and were beckoning us through. Time and tide and drugs and excess and a band split and a difficult third album and the bad timing of Princess Diana’s death making everything in the arts small and humble just when Oasis had gone for loud, big and crazy put paid to that, but enough of what things were like before that happened was captured on film to remind us all of what was lost. Who would have thought it would all go wrong in less than a year? None of the 250,000 people in the crowd, that’s for sure. For now Oasis are their heroes who have got them out of a 1980s Thatcher-laden doom and shown them a whole new way to live where you didn’t need to be rich or die young and angry to live your true life. Watching this DVD, just for a moment, suddenly 9/11 didn’t happen, Tony Blair didn’t sell us all off for money and greed, there’s no such thing as Conservative-arranged austerity, there is no sign of a pandemic or social distancing in the biggest music crowd ever assembled across two days in the 20th century and you and I really do feel like we’re gonna live forever. Perhaps the saddest thing about watching ‘Knebworth’ now is that it was all a false dawn and even in 2021 Oasis still are our last great important rock band while any fan whose got more used to seeing the Gallaghers in the past two decades than their early years will be shocked to see Noel even playing a solo; even so, none of that is Oasis’ fault and having an official copy of this gig on the shelves where it belongs makes me mad for this band all over again.
That’s all for another year dear readers – see you in 2022!