Saturday, 22 September 2012
In reply to those who ask why I write this website:
I remember being aged seven and being asked by my bête noire of a form teacher to go through a long list of items and sort them into ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ items. Like my peers –and iognoring the lyrics to one of my favourite Hollies songs ‘The Air That I Breathe’ I quickly got through the usual suspects: food, sleep, breathing. There was one item on the list that screamed out to me as being the most important thing in the universe and, without thinking I ascribed it pride of place at the top of my list. When the teacher went round the class asking everyone to read their list out to the rest of the class (which in a class of 33 must have been one of the most boring 10 minutes I ever sat through) I began to fear apprehension/pride at the fact that my list was ‘different’, that I’d clearly discovered something no one else had yet. When it was my turn I proudly started off with the words ‘music’, before being told I had clearly misunderstood what a ‘luxury’ was. For the first time in my life, I refused to back down: music wasn’t a ‘luxury item’ that we could do without on a whim, it was a wholly necessary, integral part of being, something that gave me the ability to understand the world around me and the capacity to enjoy it better. I argued that although my body probably wouldn’t last long without food or sleep (I wasn’t arguing that), my mind would last an even shorter time without it. I got told I was wrong. I was attacked for speaking out of turn. I was shown the ‘book of answers’ (because the teacher didn’t have a clue about anything without the ‘book’; it was the be all and end all of life and must be ‘right’ because it showed things in print). But they never broke me, because I knew that I had found something no one else had (yet). I always vowed that one day I’d write my own book, with ‘my’ idea of what constituted the important things in life. Then the internet came along and gave my ideas possibility, reaching out towards a world wider audience I never dreamed of reaching and transcending barriers of language, nationality, race and colour. Whatever happens to this site, whether it gets taken away, closed down or left to rust I could do nothing better with my life than scratch away at it, turning the music round in my head and on the screen and understanding better just what it is about the records I play that give my life meaning and purpose.
We need our arts – whether they be music, painting, sculpture, writing, anything. We need to learn how other people approach the world in order to understand how we see it ourselves and learn how our actions have an effect on other people. The Coalition are cutting our arts funding left, right and centre. In their eyes it ‘doesn’t matter’ - or at least it matters less to them than people running round a field, earning wages for some fatcat businessman or pleasing rich millionaires who are spending lots of money abroad. If you’ve made it to this site and this far down the paragraph then clearly you are ‘one of us’ (either that or you’re computer has frozen on this page!) Well done – you’ve learnt something ‘they’ will never understand.
Talking of which latest Government faux pas for you: ‘Teachers don’t work hard enough’...said the politician with the same amount of time off in the summer, various taxpayer-paid expenses who turns up in parliament every weeks or so. Hmmm...
As per last week we haven’t got a ‘new column’ as such, just a new column featuring lots of news from various ‘official sources’, so its on with the music...
Once again we point you here to enjoy our latest weekly feast of news from all the official music sources we could think of via paper.li (its much easier and more detailed than writing it for myself!) http://paper.li/f-1347835090
♫ Beach Boys News: However there is one news item to add, with the recently reunited Beach Boys appearing on the first episode of Jools Hollands’ ‘Later’ series. Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnstone and Dave Marks haven’t been in the UK together before ever (its 1963 since Marks last toured Europe with the group!) so it should be a fascinating chance to see how the band sound with this unique line-up. The show is on Tuesday, September 25th at 10pm with an extended repeat (of a live programme?! What the...?!) on Friday, September 28th. There’s also a whole heap of Beach Boys stuff on radio 2, including a 90 minute concert and a two part documentary ‘The Beach Boys at 50’ (On Radio 2 this Monday, September 24th) and a repeat of the excellent ‘Record Producers’ episode featuring the Beach Boys from a few years back (on BBC 6 this Wednesday, September 26th).
ANNIVERSARIES: It’s another year on the line for the following AAA members (born between September 26th and October 2nd): Craig Chaquico (guitarist with Jefferson Starship/Starship 1973-88) who turns 58 on September 26th, Dewey Martin (drummer with the Buffalo Springfield 1965-68) who would have been 70 on September 30th and Phil Oakey (lead singer with The Human League 1978-present) who turns 57 on October 2nd. Anniversaries of events include: It’s now 43 years since the last Beatles LP ‘Abbey Road’ (September 26th 1969), The Hollies release their groundbreaking single ‘King Midas In Reverse’ (September 27th 1967), A and M sue George Harrison for being late with delivery of his last album for the label (George is ill with hepatitis, delaying delivery of ‘33 and 1/3rd’ till later in the year), the Rolling Stones begin their first ‘proper’ tour – supporting Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers across the UK (September 29th 1963), CSN go gold in America with their first self-titled album less than three months after its release in July (September 30th 1969), In contrast, it takes the Grateful Dead 22 years to earn their first platinum disc (for ‘In The Dark’, the same day in 1987) and finally, 63 Rolling Stones are arrested after failing to get in to see their band at a concert in Milan. 2000 fans are thought to have taken part in the riot after finding out the venue had been sold out by an overwhelming number (October 2nd 1970).
You can read 'All The Things - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of...The Byrds' by clicking here!
“The river flows, it flows to the sea, wherever the river goes that’s where I want to be, flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road to some other town” “livin’ may be easy, dyin’ may be hard, but I’m wide awake, staying up late, sending my regards” “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning burning burning, keep me burning till the end of day” “I may not be a wise man, but I know this life you’re leading, you learned your tricks from lots of other men” “When I first came to Liverpool I went upon the spree, me money at last I spent it, fast got drunk as drunk could be” “I don’t care what they might say, I don’t care what they might do, I don’t care what they might know, Jesus is just alright with me!” “You better go now, take what you want, you think will last, but if there’s something you wish to keep, you better grab it fast!” “The empty handed painter from your streets is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets” “All my life I’ve been alone, got no friends, got no home, And there must be someone I can turn to” “All my so-called friends have turned their back on me, they were lookin’ for someone I just couldn’t be, let them go and have their fun, unaware of the harm they’ve done, as there must be someone I can turn to” “I’m writing this here letter from aboard a DC8, heading into Angel Town, hoping it’s not too late, it rained in New York City, Mr Rock ‘n’ Roll couldn’t stay, the crowd was mad and we were had, chasing the sun back to L.A.” “Some of us are illegal, others aren’t wanted, our work contract’s up and we have to move on, 600 miles to that Mexican border, they chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves” “You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane, all you will be is a deportee” “Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were launched into space, millions of hearts were lifted, proud of the human race, space control at Houston, radio command, the team below that gave the go, they had God’s helping hand”
The Byrds “The Ballad Of Easy Rider” (1969)
Ballad Of Easy Rider/Fido/Oil In My Lamp/Tulsa County Blue/Jack Tarr The Sailor//Jesus Is Just Alright/It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue/There Must Be Someone/Gunga Din/Deportee (Plane Wreck At Las Gatos)/Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins
Scenario #1: It’s late 1969. You’ve just walked home on air from the cinema down the end of the road (sigh they were everywhere in those days) having seen the film ‘Easy Rider’. You don’t know much about music but together with the motorbikes and the moral messages and the semi-improvised acting the film’s soundtrack thrilled you, full of songs about freedom, wild open spaces and sticking it to the man. You strain your eyes to read the credits at the end of the film and learn that three of the songs included feature at least one of The Byrds. Best of all, you read in the press later that week that the film was even loosely based on The Byrds – or at least their prime characters, the cool calm collected Roger McGuinn (Peter Fonda) and the fiery, rebellious David Crosby (Dennis Hopper in one of Crosby’s trademark capes). Having saved up your pocket money for the film soundtrack (now, alas, a regular in charity shops and second hand shops but in 1969 a highly prized item) you hear news that The Byrds are a real live band, that they’re touring in a town near you and, best of all, they have a new record coming out one that even – glory be! – features the same name and (on first glance) what appears to be a film still on the cover. Holding the record like a new born baby you proudly walk back home clutching the record so that everyone can see it. At last, in your neighbourhood at least, you’re hip.
Scenario #2. The ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ album is the album of the summer. It’s everywhere. Even grandmas seem to be singing along to ‘Marrakesh Express’ on the radio while rock fans who normally only trust their music if its stapled together with electric bolts are loving the acoustic softness of ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and the radical hippies are falling over themselves in praise of ‘Long Time Gone’. With money to burn – and one hell of a long wait between CSN albums – you look at where the three men came from. Buffalo Springfield, alas, are defunct, but Nash’s English band The Hollies are still going; what a shame their new album ‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ is so hard to get a hold of and, quite frankly, the paisley shirts on the cover put you off (see next week’s review for more on this). No, your best bet is to buy The Byrds’ latest, a quaint little retro album named ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’. At last, in your neighbourhood, you’re hip.
Scenario #3 You’ve loved The Byrds since you were knee high to a Tambourine Man (whatever one of those is). You’ve grown up to the sound of the coolest band in the universe and even spent a year dressed in square granny specs and a long flowing cape, while desperately trying to get your hair to stick in the shape of the super-cool pudding basin hair cut like drummer Michael Clarke (only it won’t quite go). You were hip once in your neighbourhood, before the band lost their way and their members so fast it wasn’t funny. One minute it was Gene Clark, next it was David Crosby, soon even Chris Hillman was gone leaving the original Byrds a fading distant memory. You didn’t even bother buying the band’s records when they got all country – that wasn’t what ‘your’ band was about. But suddenly, joy of joys, The Byrds are back in fashion again. So many other bands – CSN included – are making folk-rock fashionable again that everyone wants to go back to the ‘beginnings’ of that sound and a new cult must-see-filmed-for-pennies road film has made them ‘cool’ again. Proudly you get your old Byrds LP covers out the loft and casually drape them around your room so all the neighbours can see through the window that, yes indeed, you are hip again.
In all those three scenarios ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ fails and fails spectacularly. Far from cashing in on the allure and escape of the film, this album is an often slow and boring plod through songs on the one hand so traditional and on the other so new and strange that lovers of film songs like ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’ don’t know quite what to make of. Even the film’s title song is re-recorded here in a far inferior, more polished version that seems like an antithesis of everything that movie was about. The CSN fans just laugh, say ‘Crosby was right to get out’, labelling The Byrds as squares who, far from kicking out a talentless troublemaker, couldn’t see the biggest talent in the group. And fans who’ve loved the band’s sound for so long are incredibly frustrated that so very little on this album sounds like The Byrds. Where is the jingly-jangly guitar? The strong songs? The effortless ability to record songs in at least three different styles at once? What do you mean I’ve waited this long to be in fashion and I’m still not hip?!
Looked at again in 2012, with the benefit of understanding where The Byrds have been and where they’re about to go. ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ sounds like a much better album than it must have done at the time. This line-up is – almost – the most stable one, the quartet who made the effortless masterpiece ‘Untitled’ the following year but who are still coping pretty well for a band who’ve rise, phoenix like, from the ashes of the old Byrds, disintegrated for good when Gram Parsons left for country rock fame, taking old hand Chris Hillman with him. Less schizophrenic than predecessor ‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’, this album is probably the least consistent the band ever recorded (bearing in mind that albums like ‘Byrdmaniax’ are at least consistently awful) but when it reaches its peaks its hard to see what all the negative fuss and feeling was all about at the time.
To be honest, though, the band don’t do themselves many favours. Only three of the songs here are original compositions and two of them (John York’s ‘Fido’ and Gene Parsons’ ‘Gunga Din’) are by writers who’d never released a solo song on a Byrds album before. Roger McGuinn is so busy with his ill-fated (but wonderful) Peer Gynt re-write of a musical ‘Gene Tryp’ (its an anagram folks!) that he gets just the one song on this album (lasting a paltry two minutes) and despite being the Byrds’ only original member by this stage often sounds like an extra on this record, which barely features his trademark Rickenbacker guitar. That means there’s a ridiculous (for the era anyway) eight cover songs on this album; when set against the almost-all original ‘Dr Byrds’ or especially the groundbreaking first CSN album, there’s simply no contest. ‘The Ballad of Easy Rider’ is a water-treading album released at a time when in musical terms anything was possible and people were covering ground no one had ever covered before, seemingly at random.
The album cover doesn’t help. The ‘Easy Rider’ film is about as dated as anything gets now we’ve had so many copycat versions and, in truth, is a plod to sit through for 21st century viewers, full of long talking sequences, forgotten politics and not enough action. But at the time, when this sort of thing had never been done before in a mainstream release– when long haired youngsters were painted as the ‘heroes’ not the enemy of America in a film for pretty much the first time since The Beatles – it must have seemed revolutionary. The Byrds’ take on the film, by contrast, is to feature a picture of a motorbike being used by part of the ‘old’ generation – drummer Gene Parsons’ dad Lem to be exact – and he’s clutching a gun and laughing, apparently straight at you. That’s not the image the hippie ethos loving film was trying to portray, in fact it looks like a straight pastiche of it and, for the band’s (almost completely) young fans it was a kick in the teeth. Even the use of the film’s name in the title is a bit ‘uncool’ for the day, a sop to non-hippie capitalism and cashing in of product (most modern stars get away with this by adding ‘as featured in the movie...’ stickers but they didn’t have those in 1969) and bound to annoy fans who thought there’s be more links to the film (why not include McGuinn’s take on Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, possibly the best thing in the film which – while a live regular – was never put on record by The Byrds)? Even the liner notes are a ‘cheat’ – asked to contribute something Easy Rider star Peter Fonda takes the ‘easy’ way out and writes a sprawling stream-of-consciousness rap about what The Byrds mean to him which is printed, mistakes and all, on the back sleeve. Compared to Derek Taylor’s groundbreaking sleevenotes in the mid 60s, its a hurried mess (not that I’m blaming Fonda – what did he know about writing sleevenotes? They could at least have asked Easy Rider writer/director and head Monkee Bob Rafelson?!)
But what is here is often great, bordering on genius. Gene Parsons song ‘Gunga Din’ is rightly hailed by fans as one of the best songs on the band’s last handful of albums. Some of the cover song choices – Deportee, Tulsa Country Blue, There Must Be Someone, a long awaited third attempt at covering Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue – are brave ideas arranged with all the aplomb and subtlety you expect from a brand like The Byrds. Even the worst songs here - like ‘Jack Tarr The Sailor’ and the latest in a long line of head-scratching closing songs ‘Armstrong Aldrin and Collins’ – are well played, with much more cohesion than the band of ‘Dr Byrds’ and ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ and on ‘Fido’ in particular sound as raw and exciting as any line-up of the band ever did. Add in a couple of the excellent bonus tracks (John York’s take on a then unknown Pentangle’s ‘Way Behind The Sun’, McGuinn’s take on a then unknown Jackson Browne’s ‘Me Jean Goes To Hollywood’ and ‘It’s Alright Ma’ from the ‘Easy Rider’ film) and you suddenly have at least a chance at one of the more successful Byrds albums of the era.
It’s a stepping stone to later success, this album, and even if it only intermittently catches fire you can at least hear that the band are getting it together. It’s sad, then, to report that this is yet another case of The Byrds in transition. He only ever had two albums to show us what he could do but, in my opinion, bassist John York is the one who ‘got away’ from The Byrds. Younger than the hardened veterans in the band, he had a great voice and a strong songwriting instinct and was badly treated by the band he was so excited to join (York adored The Byrds in 1965, as did most sensible young Americans). His paltry one song released by them (this album’s ‘Fido’) is only the tip of what he was able to achieve and he had to give many of his choice of ‘cover’ songs over to McGuinn to sing who – if you compare the two singers side by side on the deluxe CD version where York’s vocals are added as bonus tracks - comes off even worse than he does against Gram Parsons on ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ (when a contract Gram signed when he was a teenager reared his ugly head and another company claimed rights to his ‘voice’). Given what I’ve read in Byrds biogs I’m also on York’s side when it comes to the band’s fights: why should the band turn up late to gigs and then give short sets instead of ‘repaying favours’ when an audience patiently waits? And why shouldn’t the band ‘junk’ the older material if they want to be a real live fresh new band? (Only McGuinn in the current line-up had played on the songs as it was). Dismissed for being ‘unprofessional’, it was actually McGuinn and co who were being ‘unprofessional’ in my eyes and its a sad loss to music that York’s only other contribution to the music business was playing back up to Gene Clark in a much maligned revived Byrds in the 1980s. To be fair to McGuinn, he must have been wary of the competition: he’d spent three years fighting with Crosby over the band’s sound, then fought with Gram and lost bassist Chris Hillman into the bargain. He really didn’t need another young buck telling him how to think. But in that case, why on earth isn’t he back in charge in this album, dominating the band’s sound as he should?
To my ears the York-Parsons rhythm section is the best the Byrds ever had. Many fans have criticised Parsons’ drumming, which often did get a bit wayward live, but in the studio with a chance to cut re-takes his drumming is always original and rarely overpowers a song the way some drummers do. Gene has quite a lyrical style that’s quite interesting, close in fact to Paul McCartney on the few occasions he plays the drums, perhaps because both of them were guitarists and keyboardists long before they picked up a drumkit (that’s also Gene you can hear on the mouthorgan on some tracks). Clarence White, now an old hand after playing on two Byrds as a session musician and two as a member, is also more than a match for McGuinn, the source of most of the albu’s country trappings whilst still able to play as fast and as raw as any rock guitarist (‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ on ‘Dr Byrds’ is a case in point). By contrast McGuinn is nearly silent on this album, content to write one song and sing lead on that and four others. Distracted by Gene Tryp, he’s missing at the one time the band really need him to stamp his authority – its his ‘return’ to the band on ‘Untitled’ that really makes that album such a gem (and the Gene Tryp songs are the best of all).
The other major player on this album is producer Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day and the original producer with The Byrds circa 1965. Melcher left because of conflicts with manager Jim Dickson rather than any great upset with the band and got on particularly well with McGuinn. His return to the story in this period helped cement the idea in the fans’ eyes that this really was ‘The Byrds’ Mark Two (or is that three or four?!) and not just the band’s guitarist with three other guys and his desire to get back to the band’s original cross between Dylan and The Beatles gives this album many of its best moments (though surprisingly there’s only one Dylan cover – barring his possible co-write on the title track, see below – less than on any other Byrds record since ‘5D’ – and that nearly didn’t make the album). After their (largely failed) attempt to go all out country, its a relief to hear the band back in their natural environment, at least attempting to take the best of two genres without ever quite fitting with either one (again, better is still to come on the rockier and harder-edged ‘Untitled’) and thanks to Melcher’s typical sonic clarity this album sounds better than most records made and mixed in 1969 (CSN’s included), even if what we hear isn’t always that great. In retrospect its amazing he made the sessions at all: the killer Charles Manson was that year’s most talked about villain, after the Sharon Tate murders; it was an open secret that he was really after several leading musicians-come-music industry figures including Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (whose gift of hospitality wasn’t enough for Manson).
Yet again ‘Easy Rider’ is a frustratingly uneven Byrds album that could – and should – have been so much more, especially to fans around at the time who’d already sat through two albums of filler waiting for the band to get their act together. But to dismiss it out of hand would be unfair, for there is much to admire on this album. Gene Parsons’ couple of songs (one original, one a cover) are among the best the band ever recorded, McGuinn’s take on the cursed Dylan song ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ in ballad form is well worth the wait and there’s still the title track to enjoy. Better is to come – with the ‘Untitled’ album next in line my favourite of any Byrds album barring ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ – and even in dissolution, even in the middle of yet another line-up change this album paves the way back to greatness, even if it’s not entirely great in itself.
‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ is the one song on the album that does have links with the film, although its an entirely different recording from the one on the soundtrack (which I prefer, being looser and less polished than the album cut; alas it still hasn’t appeared on any Byrds CD at the time of writing). One of the strongest songs on the album, ‘Easy Rider’ is a yearning ballad similar in feel to the Byrds’ previous song ‘I Wasn’t Born To Follow’ (another song that made the film) in its depictions of freedom and space. When McGuinn sings ‘all he wanted is to be free’ he managed to conjure up the hopes and dreams of his generation, chiming with the mood of the era far more successfully than at any time since 1965 (I’m intrigued to know what old partner David Crosby made of the song, given how similar it is to his own work). However it’s probably fair to say that at barely two minutes this song is far from the epic that might have been and seems woefully light, with just two verses and (unusually) no chorus (the first verse is repeated at the end). Had McGuinn contributed another couple of verses this song might have been better still, but then again this song does have an unusual genesis. McGuinn’s love-hate (or at least fire and ice) relationship with Bob Dylan is well documented (thrilled with the Byrds’ take on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, he loathed follow up ‘All I Really Wanna Do’ and actually started promoting the rival Sonny and Cher cover over the Byrds’ own) and it comes to a head on this song. Dylan was contacted by the film makers to provide a title song and even went out to dinner with them but, being Dylan, made things as hard as possible (he was never quite sure if he agreed with the film’s message or not – especially the hippies being blown up at the end of the film), scribbling the song’s opening two lines on a napkin and asking the film makers to hand it to McGuinn to finish. He also asked for his name to be removed from the film credits – which it wasn’t, a fact that for some odd reason McGuinn got the blame for – the pair didn’t speak for quite some time afterwards even though The Byrds were largely innocent in this (Dylan’s name was removed from the record packaging, for instance). In the end it seems like an awful lot of fuss for what is such a short and simple song, even if it is head and shoulders above a good half of the album.
‘Fido’ is John York’s only original song recorded by the band and is unloved by many fans (as well as most of the band). For these ears, though, its a lot of fun, putting twist on the latest runs of Byrds odes to dogs in their country period (‘Old Blue’ et al) and giving the song the rockiest feel of any Byrds song for a couple of albums. Rather than a remorseful song about the death of an old friend this narrator is being kept awake all night by wild howling outside his door and, in effect, wishes the dog was dead (or at least that he wasn’t ‘wide awake, staying up late’). York’s vocal is strong and impressive, given the mood of the recording (McGuinn doesn’t appear) and the song really suits the rest of the band: Gene Parsons’ only drum solo (on a part written into the song especially by York who wasnted to show off what the drummer could do) is one of his two greatest moments as a Byrd (the other comes later on this same album), while Clarence White at least appears to be enjoying the chance to play rock over country. If the idea of a dog sounds corny, well, the idea behind the song at least is a good one: York wrote the song when lonely and isolated in a hotel room on a Byrds tour, unwilling to spend any more time with the others: the fact that a dog could be heard next door howling his head off let him feel he wasn’t so alone. Sure there are some clunky moments (the rhyme of ‘chick’ and ‘feeling mighty sick’ could only happen in the 1960s), but ignore the lyrics if you want; the tune to this song is a good one, with some distinctive ear-catching hooks and played with far more energy than any Byrds song since ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’. Ironically the Byrds are beginning to sound like a bona fide band again, just at the time when they appear to be splitting apart more than ever.
‘Oil In My Lamp’ is Clarence White’s vocal choice on the album and is the old traditional folk song given a new folk-rock Byrds twist. It’s certainly a lot more successful than the Byrds’ first attempt at the song (heard on either of the two box sets and as a bonus track on the album re-issue of ‘Easy Rider’) which equates ‘modern’ with noise and fire. This slower version is more subtle, held together by Clarence’s own fine fiery playing drenched in feedback and some lovely band harmonies from York and Parsons. White’s vocal itself, while hardly a strong voice in the way of the others, is more palatable here than elsewhere and his lived-in nasally quality suits this world-weary song a lot more than, say, ‘Take A Whiff On Me’ from the next album. Again, though, McGuinn is notable by his absence: should a band on only their second album together as a line-up really be spending so much time without the one link to their past sound? Considering its age and the fact that, really, ‘Oil’ is a Christian hymn quite unsuited to 1969, the song comes off quite well, sounding suitably spiritual without sounding completely at odds with other recordings of the period.
‘Tulsa County Blue’ features the return of McGuinn, but quite frankly I wish it hadn’t. The ‘bonus track’ version of the song with York in vocal is superior to this cut in every way: timing, sensitivity and tunefulness and you sense the only reason McGuinn replaced the vocal was because of the lack of belief in York rather than any belief he personally had in the song. Written by Pamela Polland, it sounds like another really old song but actually only dates back a year (its on her first album ‘Gentle Soul’) and fits the Byrds’ ‘old’ (ie Gram Parsons era) country sound much more successfully than the hackneyed attempts on the ‘Dr Byrds’ album. (In fact its not unlike the many Mike Nesmith country-rock songs he was writing and singing in this era, with its themes of waving goodbye to an old life and being lost in the present and would have fitted the wool-hatted one well). Byron Berline, later an associate member of Stephen Stills’ Manassas group, plays some fine violin and the group sound surprisingly at home throughout – especially Clarence who plays one of the definitive ‘country’ guitar solos in stark contrast to his feedback drenched solo on the last song. All that’s missing is a strong vocal from McGuinn to measure up to what the others are doing. Substitute the John York version in the running order and it sounds pretty good for a cover, though.
‘Jack Tarr The Sailor’ extends McGuinn’s love of the sea shanty, although unlike its nearest rival (‘Space Odyssey’ from ‘Notorious’) there’s no real attempt to modernsise the sound or put the sea shanty into a more modern context of space and exploration. At least the tune is slightly better this time around, although this traditional song is, like many traditional songs, uncomfortably repetitive and dirge-like for modern listening. Roger also does perhaps too good a job of getting ‘into character’ as the sailor and his vocal is impenetrable in places, with only some lovely band harmonies to add a bit of spice and colour. To be honest, though, the song isn’t that much more interesting when you do know what the lyrics are: a sailor is fooled into spending all his money, is forced back out to sea without any money for decent equipment and so makes no money whaling. On its own terms its not so bad, but if you compare it to, say, what Jack The Lad did with the similar ‘Wheary Whaling Grounds’ (a song that sounded at once contemporary and every bit in keeping with the 17th century origin) this is a disappointment, with only a mournful held organ note adding a distinctive touch. At least its fun to hear the very American McGuinn to sing the word ‘Liverpool’ (you just hope the rest of the song isn’t his idea of a souse accent!)
Side two begins with another peculiar cover, ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’, written by Arthur Reynolds and it’s another song that could have come from any era in the past 200 years but was actually first recorded as recently as 1966 (by the Art Reynolds Singers). If you think the title is an odd choice for a hip band in 1969, that’s nothing on the rest of the song which – like a noisy younger sibling to previous Byrds song ‘The Christian Life’ – is very un-Christian (at least on paper) in the way it refuses to listen to any other opinion and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. More of a chant than a song, its another track on this album that takes repetition to new heights, although at least The Byrds sound interested in the song this time around, turning in a fairly strong band performance, complete with some delightful churning bass from York and some ‘answering’ vocals from Parsons. Presumably the song points a way forward to McGuinn’s ‘new born Christian’ conversion in the mid 70s, although he was still very much a part of the ‘subud’ faith at the time (its notable how often McGuinn chooses religious songs to cover with the Byrds – and also how little of that thinking makes its way to his own songs of the period).Then again some sources have it as Parsons’ choice (despite McGuinn’s lead), a song he nudged the band into recording after playing on the original session (certainly the Byrds’ version is much better known than the original, which is a pretty obscure choice even by Byrds standards). ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ must be at least a candidate for the strangest song to ever come out of 1969 and yet it was still catchy enough to become a small hit when released as a single, although it sounded a lot better live than it ever did on record (the band generally played it with a much slower opening and sometimes with an a capella chant opening the song before the electric instruments kick in on a charge).
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ is a cursed song. The band first tried to cut it for their third single in 1965 (before adapting the superior ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’), dismissing it as ‘too fast’ (this version, released on the Byrds box sets and the re-issue of the second album, is charming but slight and far too fast). They did it again when pushed for time and material the following year before deciding it was a little ‘out of time’ (this second version still hasn’t been released). McGuinn must have really liked the song to have revived it a third time, although even he confesses to being disappointed with his performance on this record and wishes it still hadn’t seen the light of day. While it’s true to say that slowing down the tempo to a crawl does make the song a bit of a drag by the end, for the most part this arrangement of the song is sound (unlike the others its a good match down the middle of the Dylan-Beatles road the Byrds started off pioneering). McGuinn’s performance, while not his best ever by any means, is still his best on the record; the slow regret of the opening verse, accompanied by a single acoustic, making for a really ear-catching opening. The band’s harmonies are also wonderful here, the only time they ever come close to aping Crosby, Stills and Nash, with the three voices (Clarence stays quiet) actually moving together like a single ‘fourth’ voice, the way good harmonies are meant to be sung. While, frankly, 4:53 of it seems like a waste, given how short many of the other undeveloped tracks on the album are, I actually rate this version of ‘Baby Blue’ as one of the Byrds’ best Dylan covers, adding to the emotion of Bob’s lyrics without spoiling the mystery.
‘There Must Be Someone’ is better still, a moody ballad again chosen by Gene Parsons, who was a close friend of writer Vern Godsin. The melancholy of the song is true: returning home after a back-breaking soul destroying tour, Godsin returned home to find his wife and family gone, a note on the table and almost all his possessions gone except for his guitar. With nothing else to do, he sat down with his acoustic and wrote this sad and aching song, asking for deliverance from someone, anyone, whether deity, friend, lover or stranger. He then walked to Clarence White’s house (another old friend and close neighbour) and played him the song, waking him up in the process! McGuinn reportedly hated the song (he’s missing again from this version) but its actually a fine ballad, invested with real feeling by Parsons in his most world weary voice. Slow, despondent and un-repenting, its great to hear The Byrds singing it straight (it could so easily have become a ‘joke’ song OTT) and playing what sounds like a ‘live’ take of the song, without the album’s usual polish and pizzazz. In the end the only ‘mistake’ about this song was that it was placed on the album directly after ‘Baby Blue’, thus putting the two slowest recordings in the Byrds’ entire canon side by side.
‘Gunga Din’ is better still, the album’s highlight in fact and only the third band original on the album. Parsons’ semi-autobiographical, rather obtuse and confusing lyric makes sense when you figure this song is simply a ‘see life from someone’s point of view’ song and that, as in the poem ‘Gunga Din’ your perception is changed when you learn the details (chased out of town as ‘long haired weirdoes’ out to subvert civilisation as we know it, the rock and roll band on board are sophisticated letter writers, keen on art). The opening verse finds the band on board a ‘DCA’ jet (yet another reference to aircraft on a Byrds album), facing ‘the wrong way’ in a metaphor for how badly the band are feeling and playing. The end of the first verse admits that the audience were ‘had’ when ‘Mr Rock’ n’ Roll couldn’t stay’ (reportedly bill headliner Chuck Berry) and the audience were ‘mad’ chasing the band back home. The chorus (‘Got a leather jacket on, know that its a sin’) relates to an incident where York – still eager at joining a band he adored – wanted to treat his mother and take her to a fancy restaurant, who refused to serve him because – shock horror – he was wearing a leather jacket (he probably wasn’t a wearing tie either, *faint*). Figuring that the proprietors of the place had jumped to the wrong conclusion, parsons fitted it into his song about being careful to judge by appearances and, by accident rather than design, came up with only the second song on the album that ‘relates’ to the theme of ‘Easy Rider’ (where the audience is meant to ‘care’ more for the hippies after getting to know them; given how irritating their antics are by the end of the film I’m not sure this scene works as well as it should). The end result is, like Kipling’s Gunga Din, a brave statement for its time, turning the ‘hero’ of the plot into a villain and the ‘villain’ into a hero by the end. Together with a delightful flowing acoustic guitar riff, some glorious harmonies and an excellent lead by Gene, it’s no wonder that ‘Gunga Din’ is one of the highest rated songs of the Byrds’ later period (it deservedly made the Mojo ‘Guide to the music of...’ Byrds best-of about ten years ago). Clearly the highlight of the album.
‘Deportee’ is another case of right song, wrong band, wrong album. Woody Guthrie’s original is a folk classic, bravely denouncing reports of a plane wreck that casually mentioned that the death toll didn’t matter because those on board were only ‘refugees’ being shipped out the country. Ashamed at the casual racism, Guthrie comes up with a casually sarcastic song of his own, albeit turning the dead of the song into ‘real’ people, bidding farewell to their home land not knowing what’s in store. There’s a hint that modern civilisation let these people down, the first example of Western might they see (an aeroplane) causing their death. A great song, then, but goodness knows what the Byrds have done to it; this cover version plods along awfully and no one sounds at all bothered. To be fair the original works well because Guthrie sounds so detached from the people’s fate, but you can still tell the hidden burning anger at the heart of the song – the Byrds don’t seem to have quite realised what this song is about. McGuinn’s lead is particularly poor and really truly should have been re-recorded; it wanders around all over the place and sounds like the talking clock talking in a Nashville accent. The song deserved better.
The album then closes with the Byrds traditional ‘what the hell is going on?’ slot. After such oddities as a souped up ‘We’ll Meet Again’, a falling-apart 10 minute blues medley and a sea shanty in space (not to mention McGuinn’s hoover doubling as a jet aircraft) comes a short 90 second long ode to the first men to walk on the moon. A very recent song by a country musician with the wonderfully space-age name of Zeke Manners, it features a rocket taking off (a superior one to McGuinn’s vacuum cleaner this time around) and McGuinn singing tinnily in the left hand channel. A verse rather than a song, it seeks to equate the space explorer’s achievement in the context of human understanding, ‘proud of the human race’ but still only achievable with ‘God’s helping hand’. Now that Neil Armstrong is sadly no more, perhaps someone could re-record this lovely song and do it properly – for all its good intentions this version is too deliberately quirky and space age to work. Worryingly my copy of the album lists Aldrin’s name as ‘Alorin’ – honestly what do they teach these people at school nowadays?!
A weird end to a too often weird album. ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ is not an album you reach for when you want to impress people how good the Byrds are; nor is it – with the exception of ‘Gunga Din’ – an album that ever approaches their best work. However to dismiss this album out of hand would be unfair. Many of the cover song choices on this album are brave indeed and while the arrangements and performances don’t always work there’s enough good intentions and flashes of genius to help you get through the lesser moments. As we said earlier, this album is a stepping stone to bigger and brighter things and even if on its terms its not a good album it is at least an often promising one. Worth buying for ‘Gunga Din’ alone, its the sound of a band trying to work out once more what they stand for and what direction they should head in next and there’s no shame in that if the band do eventually find their direction (which they do with the wonderful ‘Untitled’ the following year). The only way you will truly be disappointed is if a) you’re a Woody Guthro fan b) you bought this album off the back of the film or c) you expect this shaky, inexperienced version of The Byrds to be as great and pioneering as they were in 1965.
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/the-byrds-five-landmark-concerts-and.html
In honour of this week’s review of an album released to cash in on a movie soundtrack (only one of these songs actually appears in ‘Easy Rider’...and then its in a different version!) here are five notable AAA soundtrack spin-off songs. Now its worth noting that we’ve already covered AAA films on a couple of other top ten articles by now, so there’s no all-one-band soundtracks listed here (no acting-with-music films like The Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, no mock-documentaries on one artist like Neil Young’s ‘Journey Thru The Past’, no all-music soundtrack albums released separately under a single artist name like Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Storytelling’ or concert films like ‘Pink Floyd at Pompeii’, because that would be covering old ground – and cheating – all at the same time). We’ve also restricted artists to one entry each because, well, to be brutally honest I’m a bit pushed for time this week what with ATOS forms and all, but we can always return to this article and expand it in the future if enough people ask for it. Right, that lot over with, here are five exclusive-at-the-time-to-soundtrack-albums for you to enjoy!
Simon and Garfunkel “Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine (Alternate Take)”/”Mrs Robinson” (Instrumental) (Available on ‘The Graduate’ soundtrack album)
The Graduate is an interesting film. Despite the hoo-hah about the poignancy and the lyricalness of Simon and Garfunkel’s recordings, I never thought they worked that well in the film (hard as it tries, ‘The Graduate’ isn’t that complex a film and doesn’t really meet the multi-generational confrontation that so often happens in the choice of soundtrack songs). That said, unless you really knew your music in 1967 chances are you’d never heard of Simon and Garfunkel and the fact that this album of orchestral instrumentals and two new versions of one old song and one soon –to-be-properly-released song charted high alongside the first three previously released S+G albums, all at the same time, means that we fans are indebted to the movie for making mainstream success of what till then had been a (still sizeable) cult. You can count on one hand, maybe one finger, the amount of ‘other’ films willing to give the whole of a precious soundtrack over to a not that well known audience and the bravery works: the film was undeniably a good thing for S+G and the soundtrack gave the film an air of respectability it might not otherwise have been awarded. Modern fans might be disappointed with the soundtrack album today, which doesn’t have much you won’t already find on the ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Parsley, Sage,. Rosemary and Thyme’ albums, but there are two forgotten gems. ‘The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine’ has always been one of my favourite of the duos songs, a sarcastic take on how the logical next step of a consumerist society is to have one big computer with buttons to press and flashing lights but doesn’t actually do anything. It sounds better here than on ‘Parsley, sage’ too, thanks to a rawer early mix complete with fuzz guitar and more of a sense of urgency. As for the film’s most famous moment, ‘Mrs Robinson’ (not written with the film in mind and originally titled ‘Mrs Roosevelt’ till the film makers asked for a change and got lucky with the song’s agenda of generational divide), you get to hear it twice – once in the single version we got to know and love that also appeared later on the S+G album ‘Bookends’ and once as a rather bare demo, a near-instrumental played to just Paul’s acoustic guitar and some do-do-do-do-do-doos for good measure. It’s well worth seeking out by committed fans, even though its barely 90 seconds long.
Cat Stevens “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”/”Don’t Be Shy” (1971) (Available on the ‘Harold and Maude’ soundtrack album and most Cat Stevens Greatest Hits Compilations)
Cat was already a star after ‘Tea For The Tillerman’, but being associated with this cult film about a teenager obsessed with death until he meets a lively elderly lady, arguably did his career no harm. Like ‘The Graduate’ much of the soundtrack is made up of previously issued Cat Stevens songs, although for my money they fit the film rather better, with Cat’s more soul-searching songs like ‘On The Road To Find Out’ and ‘Trouble’ well placed throughout the film. With only two ‘philosophical’ Cat Stevens albums to choose from, they managed to persuade Cat to fill in the gaps and he came up with two of his most childish songs, both played to just a simple acoustic guitar backing. ‘Don’t Be Shy’ is textbook Cat, quietly urging the listener on to their goals however much they might fear the hurt and rejection if things go wrong, while ‘Sing Out’ is a delightful nursery rhyme singalong about how all of us have our own destinies and we should stop trying to ape everyone around us (if ever a singer-songwriter loved the theme of ‘uniqueness’ its Cat Stevens). Surprisingly, neither song made it to Cat’s next album ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ the same year, despite the fact that – like all of Cat’s albums – it runs to not quite half an hour (at a time when most albums were 40-45 minutes). As a result they’re currently available on CD only on best-ofs – ‘The Very Best Of Cat Stevens’ is your best bet if you want to search for them.
Art Garfunkel “Bright Eyes” (1977) (Available on the ‘Watership Down’ soundtrack album and Art’s 1979 album ‘Fate For Breakfast’)
So much more than a film about bunnies (as its so often seen), the adaptation of Richard Adams’ watershed book ‘Watership Down’ is, if anything, even darker and harsher than the original. Despite the cleverly drawn details of rabbit life this is really a book (and film) about human societies living together and touches on several deep subjects – such as death. In the film Art Garfunkel’s biggest hit (in Britain anyway, it never charted in America!) comes just at the moment when warren leader Hazel appears to have died. The liveliest rabbit in the film, the thought that this most sparkling of characters might have died inspires one of Mike Batt (he of the Wombles)’ better songs, similar to his striking song for the Hollies ‘Soldier Song’. Art’s vocal is perfect for the breathy, rather dreamlike haze that fills the gap between living and dead and the result is a perfect movie moment, slightly ruined by the rather basic way Hazel comes back to life in the next scene. Huh, all that emotion for nothing! By the way, his brother Fiver is clearly the best character in the film and should have been given his own ‘theme’ (something suitably dreamlike and hallucinatory, like early Pink Floyd psychedelia). At the time the song was exclusive to either the single (with an instrumental ‘Kee-haw’s Tune’ on the back, in honour of the seagull the rabbits befriend) or soundtrack album, although Art did release it on his next record, the patchy ‘Fate For Breakfast’. Eerily, this song about death appears to be cursed, at least a little: Art’s longterm girlfriend committed suicide months after its release (see our Garfunkel review on news and music 161 for more) and Stephen Gately, the former member of Westlife who sang it on the children’s TV series re-make in 1999, died shortly after at a very young age. That said, both Batt and Garfunkel are fine at the time of writing and they are the two most associated with the song!
Paul McCartney “Spies Like Us” (1985) (Available as a single; currently unavailable on CD)
I was song to write about the superior Macca soundtrack song ‘Did We Meet Somewhere Before?’, a song from the late-Wings period that almost made it onto the film soundtrack of ‘Heaven Can Wait’ before ending up on the slightly less glamorous ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’. However, as it never appeared on any soundtrack album, I can’t currently find which Macca CD it came out on as a bonus track (I never did own most of the ‘McCartney Collection’ CDs as my copies come from the issues before that) and I’ve never seen either film I’ve plumped for a minutely more common song. ‘Spies Like Us’ is a surprisingly primitive pop/dance song from Macca that’s very mid-80s, all booming synths and drums, but still deserved better than to have been dropped from the film at the last minute (a James Bond spoof about a couple of spies, one of which is Chevy Chase, it has two good jokes an hour apart). Fans might know the song best from the ‘McCartney Collection’ DVD which features the promo video featuring clips from the film and opening with a rubber-faced McCartney back in Abbey Road being chased by the two ‘heroes’ of the film across that famous Abbey Road crossing. Unloved by many, and something of a flop as a single after the success of ‘No More Lonely Nights’, many fans will tell you this is the nadir of McCartney’s releases. That said it makes for a useful stepping stone to more successful attempts in the same medium, notably the three ‘Fireman’ albums and the under-rated 1989 B-side ‘Ou est le Soliel?’
Neil Young “Philadelphia” (1993) (Available on the soundtrack album ‘Philadelphia’)
Many film fans talked about what a brave guy Tom Hanks was to appear in a film about Aids during a period when the illness was still little understood and treated with public scorn and miscomprehension (its effectively the chronic fatigue of its day in terms of mangled misinformation and blocked research and funding and I hope the naysayers of both illnesses feel pretty bad about themselves in decades to come). What went unsaid was how brave a whole great handful of leading musicians of the day were giving their time and energy to the exclusive songs on the soundtrack and risking being associated with what could have been a deeply unfashionable film. Neil Young’s song is, naturally, my favourite moment on the album (and film) and is one of his moody piano ballads, a song every bit as good as the ‘purple period’ in Neil’s career at the time suggests. The narrator of the song thinks he knows ‘what life’s all about’ before something unexpected shakes up his life, inspiring one of Neil’s best ever vocals, sung at a higher pitch than normal and as a result more fragile and wobbly than ever. It’s a strong moment in a strong film, which sadly Neil hardly ever plays in concert nowadays and never appeared on any of his own solo albums. The soundtrack album of ‘Philadelphia’ is a fairly common sight in record shops though (especially second-hand ones) and shouldn’t be too hard to find online either.
And that’s that for another week. Join us for more music-related mayhem next week!
Wednesday, 19 September 2012
‘The ATOS Song’ (You’re Not Fit To Live)’ (Mini-Review)
Dear readers, we don’t often feature reviews of singles over albums or musicians who aren’t part of our AAA alumni. But then these aren’t usual times we’re living in and I beg your patience as to why you’re getting an ‘extra’ review this week. We are living in dangerous times, times that will in decades to come be condemned by the history books, times when we’ll look back and shake our heads over how so much good was undone in such a short space of time and how nobody except those already suffering knew anything about it. I refer of course, as I so often refer in these newsletters, to the Coalition Government and their repeated hacking away at the welfare bill. I do, of course, have self interest in what the Coalition do next, having suffered from chronic fatigue for several years and no doubt I’m passionate about the subject because I know how it’s affecting me as well as thousands of people I don’t know or half-know. But what worries me most isn’t so much what the Coalition Government are doing to take away the props that made our lives just about bearable – its the fact that the wider world either don’t know or aren’t doing anything about it. The Government’s cuts need to be talked about and need to be in the open and we need to fight against their outrageous decisions now before we add several thousand more casualties to that ever growing list of people found fit to work by ATOS ‘doctors’ who die within six months (its been getting longer and longer and longer – and longer. A quick search on a search engine will show you what I mean: http://calumslist.org/ is a good place to start). I know for a fact that the more social aware of our AAA bands would have covered this subject long ago had they been living in this era. Had The Beatles become big in this decade not the 60s they’d have hated the Coalition Government too (Ringo’s childhood attacks of peritonitis would have given him a particular insight into patient care), Crosby Stills Nash and Young would have turned it into a raging anthem the way they spoke against racial prejudice and intolerance and Watergate and Vietnam veterans and murders of protesting students and, well, just about every injustice under the sun throughout the 1970s; even the bands of more recent years like Oasis and Belle and Sebastian who don’t often ‘do’ politics might have been prepared to get their hands dirty too for a crime this big.
But alas there is no one. No big names have come forward to say ‘this is wrong’. No one (yet) has had the guts to say ‘this is unfair’. No one’s been able to influence their fanbase into taking action (one word from Paul McCartney or Neil Young and the Government would be out on its ear within a week). Which is not the fault of ‘our’ groups necessarily; they’ve fought their battles, they’ve left their home towns and often their countries long ago (frankly I’d have done the same given the chance) and any care they’ve needed for themselves or family has been treated privately so they don’t know what’s happening. Good on them – nobody could possibly ask them to put their careers on the line more than they have. But where are the younger people, the hungry young stars of today who’ve seen with their own eyes what the ‘truth’ is? To be fair, perhaps they simply don’t know what’s going on either: The media have done their damnedest to keep hidden these stories about NHS cuts, welfare work programmes and laughable ATOS diagnosis by a bunch of lawyers who have, at best, a few week’s training on every disease and ailment known to man (no wonder they get it wrong so often!) in order to talk about Olympics and royal weddings and sexy celebrities. If you didn’t know about it or knew someone who was suffering at first hand you would just nod your head, go along with the flow and assume that everyone on benefits is out to a) live off the system b) are lazy and c) aren’t trying to get better. Here’s the truth they don’t tell you on television: Welfare ‘cheaters’ are as low as 0.5% even in Government figures (and you can bet your life the figures have been fudged somewhere along the way to seem even bigger) and life is such a struggle for so many of us that asking us casually to ‘do a little something extra for the big society’ is like asking someone who works 50 hours a week to double their tally at the drop of a hat and go without their lunch break. We are suffering. We have proper, official doctors who know we’re suffering. We are too weak and tired and caught up with the art of survival to fight for too hard or for too long (though the anti-ATOS protestors are doing one heck of a job at keeping the Government scared). We don’t have the energy, the strength or the mega-resources that the Government have to fight back (yes, even in a recession – have you seen the bonuses ATOS made this year?!) But fight on we must, or worse is to come. To fight, however, we need ‘you’ lot, those of you without illness or on welfare on our side.
Which is why I implore all of you who read this not only to ‘open your eyes and ears’ like we tell you to every week. Do something constructive. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Have a look for some twitter tweets and facebook posts and youtube videos to find the ‘truth about ATOS’ and ‘Government welfare bills’ and the next time some uninformed idiot with the Daily Mail in his hand tells you that ‘all people on welfare are lazy cheats’ remind him of what you’ve read, what you’ve learnt, what you’ve seen. And tell him that only lazy cheats listen to a Government of rich millionaires from Eton who don’t understand the real world and then believe every single word they’re fed, without doing the research to back it up. He might laugh. He might sneer. He might walk away, un-listening. He might never change his mind. But when your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren ask in years to come what you did during the ‘modren dark ages’ when Fuhrer Cameron and thingy Clegg’s Coalition party tried to destroy the weak and vulnerable for the sake of a few pennies that was all the fault of some rich boy bankers then at least you can tell them that you tried. And you tried again. And at least you didn’t take what the Government told you at face value without questioning the validity of it. And if enough of us try to keep searching for the ‘truth’ then the message will, somehow, get through. We can’t win over everybody. But we can get the truth out there, somewhere, and make people think telling our vulnerable and poorly to get well by working, by pushing their bodies through more strain, by increasing the pressure on their minds and hearts and backs, by taking away their benefits if they dare to disagree and that trying to crush the life and spirit out of them is not the way a society should be behaving in the 21st century, however much money it needs to make (Think there’s no choice? Think again! We can cancel wars, weapons, projects planned but not ready to be built, MP expenses – why we could make a profit this year alone and we would put it all back into creating jobs so that less of our unemployed brethren had to suffer sanctions for not getting a job when there aren’t any. And if there was a choice, why are so many ill people bearing the brunt of what really isn’t their fault?!)
Which rather longwinded introduction leads me neatly into this week’s ‘bonus’ review. Martin Kitcher isn’t a name many of you know (unless you’ve read our last couple of issues anyway). If the Coalition get what they want, you’ll never hear from people like him again because what ‘he’ is saying isn’t the ‘right’ thing. But his ‘ATOS Song’ (You’re Not Fit To Live)’ is the song I’ve been waiting this long for, a composition that at long last tells the truth. I love it because it fulfils the most important function of music as I see it, which is to educate, to make people think and to say something important and honest that hasn’t been said before. Anyone whose ever had to apply for employment and support allowance, whose had to fill in a complicated 20 page form that still isn’t long enough to talk about our illnesses and doesn’t allow you to count ‘pain’ or ‘tiredness’ or ‘mental exhaustion’ as a difficulty, to be told they have to attend work programmes to get money to survive, that they’ll be sanctioned if they refuse or are too ill to appear, that are seen by a doctor who doesn’t care about you or your illness and simply sees you as a statistic, you will love this song. ‘We know we’ve paid for your schemes – but we’re your motherland now’ is a great opening line, bringing memories of every other unfair society that crept up on the world so slowly it took them by surprise. ‘You’ve had your chance for dreams – but they’ve all gone now’ is, sadly, a true enough sentence too. For now on for those unlucky enough to need a helping hand (of a pittance a week I might add) its all about survival; ‘dreams’ don’t come into it. Regular readers will know how badly the jobcentre want to take this site off of me and make me do some ‘real’ work that’s likely to destroy my body – I’m only grateful that I got the chance to do so much writing before it was too late.
‘And you’re not fit to live...’ Dramatic as it sounds, I’ve heard reports where ATOS medical practitioners (I’m going to give up calling them doctors!) have said this to their patients, asking suicide patients ‘why didn’t you succeed?’ and asking the parents of a downs syndrome teenager ‘when do you think he’ll grow out of it?!’ In their eyes we’re not human beings, we’re boxes ticked on a computer and if we don’t fit in the ‘holes’ they give us then, well, we’re not fit to live in their eyes. ‘Get out of our sight’ they snarl as we walk out of the door, unable to complain (or they’ll sanction us), never knowing what lottery of results they’ll award us or what we’ll do in the long term if they take our precious money away from us. Work? Who’d employ somebody with our ailments? Add to the dole queue and fit their requirements? Those lucky enough to find work in time will make their symptoms worse. Those unlucky enough will be sanctioned and have no money coming in whatsoever (a staggering 43% of people claiming esa but found ‘fit to work’ a year ago are in that very boat, unable to apply for jsa or find work, living off the charity of family, friends and, well, charities).
‘Ask all your friends. What’s that you say? They’ve gone away. Well who can blame them – who’d want a crippled friend like you?!’ Martin’s fury rises up to a crescendo in this verse. It’s a funny thing I’ve noticed that when you get ill, especially with an untrendy ‘mystery’ illness like mine, that people you’ve known for decades start believing the papers not you or your doctor. ‘It’s been on the news that the welfare bill is too high and everyone is faking it – therefore it must be true’ or ‘I’ve just read a column in the Daily Fail by somebody whose never had a day’s illness in his life how there’s no such thing as a disability- and he must know, he has such experience to back that up’. The great lines keep on coming, the friends ‘laughing at you’ as you fall down the stairs, ‘photo-shopping’ you to make you look better than you are, unable to understand what you cope with every day. And that last line about how the Government are cutting down on everyone now because they’ve run out of wars, of ‘big war bonds’ to fund their stupidity (would we all rather see money spent on helping our sick and vulnerable or spending it on nuclear missiles, trident and wars over imaginary weapons of mass destruction?) But then what else could we expect when we ‘elect’ a Government so out of touch with the real world? ‘Get a job – that’s what the Eton boys said’. If only it was that easy. If only there were jobs that didn’t make us poorly. If only there were If only there were employers willing to take employees who can’t think, can’t walk, can’t breathe, can’t can’t can’t because life is too painful, too hard, too much of a struggle to cope with. Life is all about survival when you suffer from a major illness, its finding ‘little victories’ that mean you’re getting better or finding some other means of contributing to society. Take that away and what have you got? More deaths, longer lasting illness and a rise in disability hate crime. It’s pathetic for a so-called civilised society in the 21st century. We don’t ask for much. For the most part we don’t take much. And just because the Government has magically started saying we can do things, that doesn’t mean that we can.
But still, the world doesn’t seem to be listening to me (after all, what do I know? I’m ‘not fit to live’ in their eyes as it says in the song), which is why I’ve taken this song so much to heart. You don’t have to buy it (though it would be nice if you did – its only 79p folks, profits earmarked for a charity!), but I urge you all to give it a listen as an antidote to what the Government will tell you at their next speech, what the news will tell you about the welfare state on the 10 o’clock news and, no doubt, what the jobcentre will be telling me when I do to visit them again next week. We are fit to live, whatever the Government says, we’re simply not fit to work. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Martin’s soundcloud link (for free): http://soundcloud.com/martinkitcher
Martin’s Itunes page (to buy): http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/not-fit-to-live-aka-atos-song/id562910152
We’ll join you next Monday when we’ll be reviewing the Byrds LP ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ and looking at some other film soundtrack songs. Till then, goodbye!
Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Dear all, under protest my ATOS form is done and all I have to do is wait for what fun and games my latest application for the esa benefit will inspire (remember, I still haven’t heard if I passed my second application yet despite only sending that in May, four months ago not six – what the hell are they playing at?!) However its becoming clear that doing all the different strands of this website (the news, the review and the top 10) plus living a chronic fatigue-induced life of pain that something has to give. I’ve been trying to give this a lot of thought and I’ve decided that as I love writing the reviews and I’ve been having too much fun with the top tens that it’s the news section that has to go (you may have noted its been getting a bit thinner on the ground as of late!) However, I might have just found the solution, thanks to ‘paper.li’, a website that’s allowed me to create a mock newspaper full of the news stories published on various official music websites in the past 24 hours from a total of 25 different news sources (so I’ve chosen either official website rss feeds or the official twitter feeds of every AAA artist I could think of). Now clearly this won’t cover everything (there wasn’t space to add entries from some of the lesser covered groups on this list, for instance),is rather biased towards which artists tweet/update their websites the most and it won’t add the odd TV/Radio repeat or DVD review that we’ve been offering elsewhere. However, it will cover the basics of what you readers might want to read and I can always to add to it with my own news items afterwards. Please note that, in time, you’ll be able to view ‘past issues’ by clicking on the calendar icon – I wouldn’t bother doing it now, though, because this is the first edition! – and if you want to bypass this site you can subscribe direct to the ‘paper.li’ feed and keep an eye on news stories in between issues (in fact someone seems to have done that already, which is a bit alarming seeing as the site is less than an hour old and I havenb’t advertised it yet!) Anyway, let’s give it a try and see how it works: you can read the first ever ‘paper.li’ version of our newsletter here (or alternatively have a look for it down the bottom of our home page on www.alansalbumarchives.moonfruit.com or the right hand side of the home page of www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk ):
I’ve actually been a busy bee this week and have also re-posted all of my own compositions on Soundcloud, with a link on our ‘links’ page on the blogspot site (readers of our moonfruit site can still hear the tracks via their own page) so you can all listen to some music while you read. There’s a handful of explanations I’ve cut and pasted from my old notes for the songs back in 2008 when they were first posted, but if anyone wants any more info on any tracks just let me know. Alas there isn’t enough space to post all of them but most of the best ones are there – and the bonus is you can download them to your computer’s download directory to keep or transfer to your I-pod (in fact two people have done just that – though quite what my Russian visitor makes of ‘Rain On My Window’ I dread to think; perhaps I ought to change the title to ‘snow’?!) While I’m on the subject, if you’ve got some recordings you want me to hear/comment on/plug remorselessly on this site and you’re already on Soundcloud (I always discover these great sites a year after everybody else!) then add me as a friend and drop me a note. The site is here (and my username is ‘Alan Pattinson’ if you want to add me/have a listen!)
Finally, and best of all, Martin Kitcher’s wonderful ‘ATOS Song’ (‘You’re Not Fit To Live) is being issued this week as a fully fledged download in aid of charity. The song only costs 89p to download and, as we told you last week, is well worth it, seeing as it sums up perfectly the casual way this Coalition Government are treating the disabled and vulnerable in the UK. Please buy a copy from all online music websites (and from Amazon.com if you want a hard copy) and help take a stance against this tyrannical period in our troubled Government’s history. The Itunes page for it is here if anyone wants to buy a copy http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/not-fit-to-live-aka-atos-song/id562910152
And that really is that (finally!) It’s off to our smaller-than-usualnews column for our latest radio news...
♫ Beatles News: As said above, we’re going to use this space more for radio/Tv repeats and non-CD reviews that won’t make the ‘main’ list (ie films, documentaries and DVD releases) and, as ever, its a BBC6 repeat we havwe to tell you about. This week saw a repeat of the two part BBC6 ‘Beatles at the Beeb’ series, broadcast in the station’s 3am documentary slot last Sunday and Monday. It should be available on I-player for a while and is well worth a listen if you missed it last year, being the only official place where fans can hear a good hour or so’s material of the fab four at their rawest and most powerful.
♫ Dire Straits: Another unexpected BBC6 radio repeat was a longer version of the band’s 1978 session, back when the band were plugging second album ‘Communique’. Some 15 minutes of the show was repeated back in the Spring – hence the fact we didn’t bother telling you about it – but there was one extra track at the end, a sprightly version of ‘Lady Writer’, which was cut from that repeat. It was broadcast last Thursday in the 4AM ‘in session’ slot and should be available on I-player until this Thursday.
♫ Oasis News: In a busy week on BBC6, Oasis’ show at Clapham Grand Theatre (which if I remember rightly was around the time of ‘Shoulders Of Giants’ in 2000) is being repeated this Saturday, September 22nd at 2AM in the channel’s ‘Classic Concert’ spot.
ANNIVERSARIES: Birthday boys this week (September 19th-25th) include Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who would have been 78 on September 19th and Linda McCartney Linda McCartney (Wings and various McCartney solo projects 1970-97) who would have been 71 on September 24th. Anniversaries of events include: short-flighted Byrd Gram Parsons died in the Joshua Desert in still unexplained circumstances at the age of just 27 (September 19th 1973), Simon and Garfunkel re-united on stage for the first time at New York’s Central Park (September 19th 1981), Paul McCartney is arrested for drug possession for the second time in his career after a passing sniffer dog uncovers cannabis plants in his Mull Of Kintyre greenhouse (September 20th 1972), the Rolling Stones score their last non-compilation number one with AAA review no 58 ‘Goats Head Soup’ (September 21st 1973), the Stones also become one of the first rock and roll groups ever to play at the Albert Hall (September 22nd 1966), John Lennon signs an ill-fated contract with new label Geffen Records just three months before his death (September 22nd 1980 – his ‘replacement’ Neil Young has a horrid time trying to live up to being Geffen’s ‘big star name’ and ends up being sued by his former manager David Geffen), Paul McCartney is dead – or so a writer for the Illinois University declares for the first time on September 23rd 1969 (the rumours continue to this day - you can see a three-hour documentary about it on Youtube!), 10cc chart for the first time (under that name, anyway) with the release of debut single ‘Donna’ (September 23rd 1972), ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ finally makes number one 29 years after its original release, giving The Hollies the then-record of biggest gap between number one UK records (September 24th 1988; their only other #1 is ‘I’m Alive’ in 1965) and finally, Wings get the European leg of their world tour off to a good start by playing a forgotten charity gig for the restoration of water-damaged art treasures in Venice, raising $50,000 along the way (September 25th 1976).
Available to buy now in ebook format 'Change Partners - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young' by clicking here!
“Graham Nash, David Crosby” (1972)
Southbound Train/Whole Cloth/Blacknotes/Stranger’s Room/Where Will I Be?/Page 43//Frozen Smiles/Games/Girl To Be On My Mind/The Wall Song/Immigration Man
Many fans were surprised when Atlantic chose this little known, under-rated gem from the CSN back catalogue as the trio’s representative for the record label’s 50th anniversary reissue series of 50 CDs in 1998. Surely boss Ahmet Ertegun would favour a Buffalo Springfield album (the band he first fell in love with), the original pioneering best selling self-titled ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ album or the first (and most successful) Stephen Stills album (boss and artist had always had a special bond, with Stills the golden boy until he blotted his copybook somewhere around 1974). After all, why re-release an album that had already been a fairly poor seller on CD, had taken 12 years since the invention of the CD format to appear and, even in 1972, had seemed to pick the short straw of all the fuss surrounding CSN, at a time when most reviewers and fans alike were turning their attention to higher profile releases by Stills and Young? But if you’re a ‘real’ fan of CSNY – and Ahmet Ertegun, more than probably any record label boss, was a huge fan of CSNY and a vast majority of the music he released – then most probably you too have a soft spot for the Crosby-Nash records, the quiet heart and social conscience of the CSNY back catalogue. More understated than the all-singing all dancing trio albums, under less commercial pressure than the quartet albums, less individual than the solo albums, but full of heartfelt protest and heartfelt love songs and a fair bit of pioneering work that sounds like nothing else ever made, the four studio Crosby-Nash albums are a forced to be reckoned with (Well, the first two are anyway – see our review of ‘Wind On The Water’ (no 67) for their peak as a duo). There’s only the one hit on this album (‘Immigration Man’) and by the standard of past achievements this album wasn’t a big seller, but you overlook it at your peril as it still contains some of Crosby’s most striking material and some of Nash’s deepest work. Listening now, in 2012, it seems like Ahmet Ertegun was spot on again, just as he was for pretty much all of Atlantic’s first 50 years in the business.
On the face of it things don’t look too good I grant you. One of Crosby’s songs has a publishing date of 1968 (‘Games’, a song which may well have been written for The Byrds before Croz got turfed out of them unexpectedly) and one of Nash’s 1969 (‘Stranger’s Room’, one of his first songs written to be written after leaving The Hollies) and we know for a fact that some of the other songs here had been gathering dust for a while. If these songs were any good then, surely, they’d have been released long before now, right? Well, had these songs been written by another band – or even C/N at a later date – I might well be advising you to steer clear, given our usual feelings about re-using old songs that weren’t good enough to make old albums. But the truth is that no one, not even the Beatles, enjoyed the purple patch that all of CSNY enjoyed between 1968 and 1972. It speaks volumes that, already on this site, we’ve covered every single CSNY release of the period bar a few Neil Young records – they really are all that good (give or take the lower moments of ‘Harvest’ and ‘Neil Young’ anyway). The songs that got left out of Crosby and Nash’s solo albums and the CSN/Y albums are for the most part every bit as good as the songs we all know and love. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this album – and Stills concurrent ‘Manassas’ album the same year (see review no 51) plus Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ – represent the very end of the period when CSNY could do no wrong, collectively or apart. The perfect group for the early 1970s, they fall slightly out of fashion with glam and, despite a slight rise in fortunes come 1975 for all four members, are sunk for good by punk rock come the end of the 70s. Indeed, Crosby won’t released another song till as late as mid 1975’s ‘Wind On The Water’ – an eternity for the period considering this album came out in January 1975.
That’s in the future though. For this album it must have appeared a little weird to fans that Crosby and Nash were working together again at all. Both Crosby and Nash had scored highly with their first debut albums, Crosby gathering much respect and applause for the more out-there songs that featured on the still unique sounding album ‘I Swear There Was Somebody There’ and Nash enjoying the commercial success and grudgingly good reviews for ‘Songs For Beginners’. After the heartbreak of CSNY, who promised much but fizzled out after one album as a trio and one as a quartet, why go back through all that heartbreak again? Well, technically, it wasn’t Crosby and Nash that fell out – that’s all to come later in the decade when Crosby’s drug abuse escalates – and the pair shared a special bond. For all his ‘star’ image of the long haired rebel that nobody could tame, Crosby still felt keenly the rejection from the other Byrds circa 1968 when they kicked him out of the band and, even in CSN, suffered something of a crisis of confidence when it came to writing his more original, pioneering, ‘alternatively tuned’ songs. He’s remarked many times in interviews since that it was only when Nash – a songwriter he’d long admired – whooped on hearing Crosby’s wordless spiritual ‘Critical Mass’ that he began to believe that he really was a good songwriter. Nash, for his part, found a kindred spirit who wanted more from the rock and roll industry than simply a way of making money and having some hits as he’d done with The Hollies. We’ve written many times on various Hollies/Nash/CSNY reviews what a wrench it was for Nash leaving his band, his wife and his home country to work with his new friends in 1969, but the truth was CSNY had a bigger scope and offered a louder, deeper voice than potentially any other band had ever had. To some extent money and power struggles killed CSNY off before they had a real chance to prove their mettle, but whilst Stills and Young were content to go solo for Crosby and Nash the thought of never hearing CSNY play again to that big an audience on subjects that wide must have been horrific. In short, they needed each other and its actually a surprise that they don’t work together again as a duo until 1975 (when yet another series of CSNY recording sessions falls through).
It’s important to remember that this album was the first to be recorded when CSNY’s split seemed permanent, not simply the first of many opportunities ‘wasted on the way’. In concert, at least, the pair were really prepared to develop a ‘new’ sound as a partnership, playing a fascinating series of concerts featuring a few songs from this album alongside CSN/Y and solo hits (though no Byrds or Hollies songs as yet), with no other performers except themselves. Stripping back their songs, some of which – like Marrakesh Express and Long Time Gone – had been tremendously produced in the studio, with layers of clever trickery, they seemed to find their purpose again and anyone who was there at one of the pair’s 1971 shows seems, to a man, to have experienced a life-changing experience. (Johnny Rogan, author and CSNY follower, is not a man given to hyperbole and is as likely to kick his icons as praise them, but even he has called these concerts ‘the most emotionally charged’ experience of any concert he’d been to). We can only hear it now on bootlegs, such as the notorious ‘A Stony Evening’ or its close cousin, the officially released ‘Another Stony Evening’ (as released in the late 1990s) – never the same as actually being there when some of the songs were brand new - but it’s still a revelatory experience. One of the ‘songs’ (its 58 seconds long) on this album ‘Blacknotes’ was even included from this tour. As a result there was a real buzz about this record. What on earth could Crosby and Nash do in the studio if their live shows were that good?
Well, alas, Crosby and Nash didn’t produce a record that bare. The bad news is that there are parts of ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (note the distancing from CSN in that title, which even lists the names the wrong way round!) that are as overproduced as the trio/quartet albums. Nothing, not one, performance on this album is up to the ghostly synergy of their stripped-down tours. There is also some awful filler, such as ‘Girl To Be On My Mind’ that, deservedly, never actually made the tour set list. But on a brighter note Crosby and Nash were sensible and sensitive enough to rope in ‘The Section’ a group of West Coast session musicians who will end up as the pair’s main working partners for much of the 70s. Their playing – particularly Danny Kootch’s fiery guitar and Crosby’s future writing partner, pianist Craig Doerge - is a good match for even CSNY and gives the band a solid base for their harmonies and space for their characteristically philosophical lyrics. The record also continues the tradition started on the Crosby and Nash solo albums of special guest appearances, including Flying Burrito Brother Chris Etheridge, Jefferson Starship drummer Johnny Barbata and no less than three members of the Grateful Dead.
One of the few other artists from the rock/folk world to have their work re-released in an Atlantic ‘birthday’ edition that year was Joni Mitchell. We’ve mentioned her a few times already on this site (notably on Nash’s first two solo albums, when the pair were boyfriend and girlfriend and inspired many of the other’s best songs) but she looms particularly large on ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’. Alas in this period the happy foundations of ‘Our House’ are shown to be less solid than either of them realised and many of these songs have an unusually doomy gloomy sort of feel, especially Graham’s. Many of Nash’s best songs from this vintage CSNY era were inspired by troubled and uncertain times that made him question the solidity of the world around him and fans of songs like ‘King Midas In Reverse’ and ‘I Used To Be A King’ will find much to love here. It’s worth pointing out, too, that Joni has already spurned Crosby’s affections for Nash’s as early as 1969, despite the fact that David effectively discovered her and helped her find fame and fortune during his ‘year off’ in between the Byrds and the first CSN album and that might well be her loss Crosby is mourning alongside the better known story of Christne Hinton (who died in car crash while taking her cats to a vet) that runs through the eerie sound of heartbreak on ‘Where Will I Be?’. Back to Joni, though, and the fact that the ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ record is dedicated to her shows what a spell she still cast over the pair and it’s interesting to note how similar many of the songs herein are to Joni’s own, with more acoustic instruments than usual and a rawer, confessional tone very much in keeping with Mitchell’s mega-album of that year ‘Blue’.
As for the songs themselves, well, if there is a theme that fits this album its one of confusion and loss, both personal and that felt by a generation, tiring of the seemingly endless Vietnam war and a world still suffering from the same narrow minded prejudices that the 60s were all set to solve for good. Nash, the singer usually known for his lovelorn ballads and commercial pop, is in a particularly snappy mood: the singalong ‘Immigration Man’ is as angry a song as he ever wrote despite the catchy tune, while ‘Southbound Train’ wraps seething fury in a Dylanesque ramble about things going wrong, ‘Stranger’s Room’ is a song of infidelity that finds the narrator more lost victim than preying adulterer and ‘Frozen Smiles’ is a song directed at Stephen Stills that’s as effective a ‘goodbye’ kiss off song as any you’ll hear. Crosby is more thoughtful and bewildered than angry, still feeling the loss of girlfriend and band, if not quite as desolutely melancholic as ‘I Swear There Was Somebody There’ (which is at least a nomination for the best album about coping with unexpected loss). ‘Games’ and ‘Whole Cloth’ continue Crosby’s run of songs pondering who is in charge of life and why it gets so messy, ‘The Wall Song’ is about hitting brick walls every time you think you’re close to the truth and the jaw-dropping one-two punch of ‘Where Will I Be?’ and ‘Page 43’ appears to suck all hope and optimism out of life before, joyfully, offering it all up again in the following song. Many fans and critics have lost sight of it, hidden behind the typically pristine glowing harmonies and the occasional pop hook and catchy riff, but this is a dark album. The light of optimism that burned so bright on ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ and continued to flicker throughout ‘Deja Vu’ is here all but extinguished, with Crosby and Nash admitting their dreams of a peaceful, equal, happy future for planet Earth might be out of reach. Interestingly, it took both Stills and Young longer to come to that conclusion (it’s not till the second Manassas record that Stills sounds this troubled and Young won’t get there till ‘Harvest’, released later in 1972) and it’s a measure of how brave and at times pioneering this album is for it’s day.
That said, there’s still an air of lurking disappointment in this album. At barely 34 minutes, this isn’t by any means an epic or carefully planned album. The enjoyable moments on the record are enjoyable indeed and add a good half dozen wonderful songs to the ridiculously stuffed ‘classic CSN songs’ directory. But at other times this album seems thin compared to the rich tones of both the group and solo albums Crosby and Nash had already released, missing perhaps two or three extra career-defining moments to rank alongside their best work. Fair enough, you think, as Crosby for one was never the most prolific of writers (we add again that he has a three year gap until his next album, again shared with Nash, back in an era when artists still released at least one, if not two, albums a year). What’s odd about that is how many strong songs the pair still had waiting to be used. Concert favourite ‘The Lee Shore’ popped up at nearly every gig Crosby played in the 70s so its odd to think that this lovely song about the sea never made it to a studio record until the CSN box in 1991 (there’s an even lovelier CSNY version from 1970 that still hasn’t seen the light of day!) Nash’s ‘Right Between The Eyes’ another live favourite captured on CSNY live album ‘4 Way Street’, is also a song ripe for rediscovery, a wordy Dylanesque ballad in a similar vein to ‘Southbound Train’ about how courage comes not from superhuman deeds but from the bravery of looking loved ones and enemies in the eye when we tell them home truths (there’s a lovely solo studio version of it on Nash’s box set ‘reflections’). There’s also a small handful of sketchy songs known to have been tried out at both men’s solo records (notably Crosby’s whimsical ‘Is It Really Monday?’) and in retrospect its odd that neither man ever returns to the demos created in their ‘golden period’ at all for their later albums (with the exception of this album’s ‘Wall Song’, perhaps the sketchiest of all the demos Crosby made during sessions for his solo album). Add even a couple of these songs to the track listing and the album’s looking a lot better (and a lot longer) already!
It’s notable, too, that only ‘Immigration Man’ will ever make it to CSN/Y’s regular concert setlist, despite the fond regards that band and fans have for several of the songs here (‘Southbound Train’ and ‘Page 43’, both songs played live occasionally, are high on fan favourite lists). What impressed me most about second due album ‘Wind On The Water’ – see the list of links below if you want to read that review – was it’s consistency, with every track – give or take ‘Cowboy Of Dreams’ – a highlight. This album is one of peaks and troughs, with too much filler material, albeit not just the ‘old’ songs as you’d maybe expect. Many a fan has also come to this album straight from the ‘Stony Evening’ sets (official and otherwise) and expected to be completely blown away. That said, even only half blown away this album still packs a punch and is many fan’s favourite, with Crosby at his most casually poignant and Nash at his most autobiographical and bewildered. It’s also wonderfully diplomatic and equal, with Crosby and Nash split right down the middle (aside from ther 58 second ‘Blacknotes’), in stark contrast to the CSN/Y records where Crosby – generally – gets a raw deal compared to the more prolific Stills. In other words, there’s much to enjoy on this album – but its not the career defining magical moment that fans hoped after hearing C-N in concert or longed for after hearing the greatness of the pair’s first solo albums. Still, it goes without saying that even half-cooked CSN is still better than a good 99% of all records ever released and there are many moments here that sum up better than any other record just what the soul-searching peace-seeking life-affirming CSN family were all about it, without the usual ego clashes that got in the way of many of their group LPs. No wonder Ahmet Ertegun loved it!
‘Southbound Train’ is an unusually serious place to start, a wordy Nash ballad that looks at nothing less than the history of America to date. As an ‘outsider’ Mancunian looking in, Nash must have been struck by the comparative recent history of his new homeland compared to Britain and the pride the locals felt for their heritage (as opposed to Britain, whose fading empire and the atrocities committed in its name were something to be ashamed of in 1972, not proud). Nash has revealed since that he wrote the song after thinking about the Vietnam war and the way Americans had even less sway over politics than in the UK, helpless passengers on a train running its course oblivious to public opinion (the song made a welcome return to CSNY's set list in 2006 on their anti-Bush 'Freedom Of Speech' tour, where 35 years on it sounded more like soothsaying than stark warning). The melody is much starker and sombre than is usual for Nash and sounds every bit like a slow-moving mammoth train that’s relentless in its slow swagger down the road. The lyrics are some of Nash’s most poetic, too, including a first verse that imagines the Statue of Liberty as a real person ‘laughing and shaking your head’ at the stupidity of what American politicians were doing in the name of ‘freedom’ before visiting her less well known cousins ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ in the next two verses. Nash’s vocal does a good job at sounding muted and detached, but the quiet fury of the song is there if you look for it, with such great lines as Equality ‘quietly facing the fist, angry and tired that his point has been missed’. Unfortunately there are as many poor lines as good ones, with such as odd rhymes as ‘phone’ and ‘down’ and a confusing farewell line about how the hapless passengers have ‘helped pay for a crown’ (a line surely more relevant to UK politics and wars?) Also, while the image of a train running to a set of rails that can’t be changed is a strong one, summing up man’s less humane qualities as the industrial revolution came to bear technological fruit, the idea of a ‘Southbound’ train is less ideal, sounding like a mixed metaphor where the train is heading for the ‘heart’ of America in a positive way rather than running off the rails (Nash means South as in ‘downwards’, but it’s not that strong a metaphor). Still, even if only partly successful, ‘Southbound Train’ is an undeniably strong and poignant song and gets the album off to a strong start, even with a typically out of tune harmonica part from Graham that makes for rather uncomfortable listening. Talking of poor harmonica parts, Nash was thrilled when Bob Dylan met up with Crosby and Nash backstage and asked them to sing some of their new material. Nash had just written this song and played it for him before Dylan promptly asked to hear it again. It’s no wonder that Dylan, famously unimpressed by the antics of CSNY (when asked by a reporter if he thought the quartet were right in thinking they’d helped end the Vietnam war with music, Dylan is meant to have replied ‘they always struck me as those kinda guys’), should like this song in particular, as its a song very much after his own heart, where symbols of our past speak volumes about our present and the words are arguably more important than the tune. Listen out for special guest Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel for more or less the last time on record (which is fitting, given that he first played the instrument on Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’).
‘Whole Cloth’ is the kind of song that gives non CSNY fans the jitters. Like many of Crosby’s pieces, the song has a peculiar convoluted, irregular time signature, more akin to jazz than rock and pop. It also has lyrics sketched over the top, seemingly at random rather than fitting a regular verse-chorus-middle eight sequence. The lyrics themselves are also among the most impenetrable of Crosby’s career, returning back to his favourite theme that the human race is running around planet Earth like a headless chicken, unable to progress or learn from his mistakes. If you’re a fan, though, it’s the song’s uniqueness and intense atmosphere that make it so enjoyable, one of the most Crosby-ish of all Crosby songs. Asking his audience what they ‘base their life on’, Crosby says that trying to plan our lives is futile because we can’t see ‘what’s around the bend’. His doubt about his role in the hippie ethos of peace and love comes into doubt by the last verse too, with Crosby admitting that ‘although I always thought that I meant what I said’ really all his 60s generation were doing was ‘making up’ the new rules about how to behave, carving up their own ideas out of the ‘whole cloth’ of human potential. The result is a stark, desperate song that in one fell swoop undoes all the peace and optimism of the 1969-70 CSNY releases. The song’s jagged angular feel and its relentless instrumental coda, where even Danny Kootcgh’s guitar can’t find a way out the prison of chords, offer a fine companion to the bleak lyrics and makes for one of the toughest yet most rewarding moments of CSN’s career. The song is also well arranged, starting with an extraordinary Crosby-Nash harmony part sung in their more usual sunny tones and ducked in the mix behind Crosby’s lead, like a ghost of a sound that can’t possibly live in a 1972 full of Nixon and Vietnam (the duo weren’t to know that Watergate will signal the end of Nixon barely a few months down the line, when their work starts to get happier again). A brave song which, while often a struggle to listen to, is nonetheless extraordinarily prescient and honest in its understanding of the world circa 1972.
‘Blacknotes’ is a simple, silly song made up on the spot by Nash at a CSN gig at Carnegie Hall while waiting to end his solo spot and for Crosby and Stills to walk back out on stage. The song really is played on just the black notes and is, in fact, the easiest way to learn how to write songs (the black notes on a keyboard are so harmonically in tune with each other that it’s impossible to hit a ‘wrong’ note while improvising, something I learnt during my piano lessons where ‘composing’ was always my favourite part). Nash offers this advice up to the audience in a kind of ‘Plastic Ono Band’ you-are-the-audience idea, but sadly his actual rushed playing and rather basic runs up and down the keyboards are unlikely to have inspired many wannabe singer-songwriters. It’s a curious addition to the album, lasting not quite a minute, and doesn’t really fit the album’s epic and poetic downbeat feel (it’s also odd that the Chicago CSN concert has never been released, even on bootleg – clearly the band were taping it for some project or other although to date this 58 seconds is all we have).
‘Stranger’s Room’ is the closest any song on this album comes to sounding like The Hollies and was in fact one of the first songs Nash left after leaving his first band, summing up his early years in America when his heart told him he was in love with Joni Mitchell but his head hadn’t quite caught up with that thought yet. Basically a song about adultery, with Nash waking up in the bedroom of a person he only remembers hazily from the night before and wondering how he ended up here ‘lost’. Alas the song is too short to really do the idea justice, but there are several impressive moments, from the opening delightfully subtle French Horn part (a unique sound for a CSN/Y record) , some clever lines (‘my eyes were full of morning and my mouth was full of night’) and a killer chorus complete with blistering Crosby-Nash double tracked harmonies and a Kootch guitar part that sound suspiciously like Hollies guitarist Tony Hicks. The song ends with a clever metaphor, with Nash’s narrator looking for a lightswitch, summing up both his lack of understanding of the room and surroundings and his more spiritual need for ‘enlightenment’ as to which girl he really loves. Had this song had a couple of extra surprises and lasted longer than its stingy 2:28 running time it would undoubtedly have been remembered as one of the duo’s better songs of the period.
‘Where Will I Be?’ is for me the highlight of the album, another Crosby song that breaks every rule ever made about composition and yet couldn’t sound more perfect if it tried. Like much of his solo album from the year before, ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody There’ its a near-wordless, rather choral song written in memory of Crosby’s lost love Christine Hinton who died that year in a car crash and sounds like one long musical sob. Like many a Crosby narrator, this one is looking for direction and can’t find it anywhere, but this song is much more personal than Crosby’s typical song and asks directly ‘what am I going to do?’ not on behalf of a country or a generation but on behalf of himself. A whole series of wordless ‘ahhhs’ feature next, including some of the most breathtaking harmonies Crosby and Nash ever put together, expressing in music the fear, pain and confusion that even a songwriter as strong as Crosby is unable to put into words. Full of hidden shadows, a quiet flute part and lots of twinkling synthesisers, the backdrop to this track is extraordinary and surely unique. Given the circumstances, Crosby’s lead, almost wordless vocal is exceptional, brilliant at conveying the hopelessness of the song which builds in power with every note. A spiritual prayer, seemingly made to a God the narrator doesn’t believe in, this is David Crosby at his very best. You only wish that he hadn’t had to have gone through such hardship to have been inspired to write one of the most heartbreaking songs ever made.
‘Page 43’ is for me less successful, Crosby’s ‘answering’ song to the last track, trying to imagine a mythical instruction booklet that gives all humans advice on how to cope with what life throws at them. Many fans love this song for its casual Crosby vocal and its lyrical understanding that life has to be lived whatever has happened in the past, but for me the moment is too soon, both on this record (where it undoes all the goosepimply majesty of ‘Where Will I Be?’) and in Crosby’s life, where it was clearly too soon for anyone to recover from such an awful tragedy (had Crosby been given space to grieve there’s a chance he wouldn’t have succumbed so spectacularly to drugs throughout the rest of the decade). Crosby’s wandering vocal and the slow, piano-led backing sound a little too crooner-ish in places, even if the harmonies are way above anything supposedly brilliant singers like the Ratpack members could manage. The idea of an instruction booklet granting humans ‘permission’ is a fun one, though, and to this day I often use ‘page 43’ as my random selection when trying to pick out a book I don’t know from a library or bookshop. There’s also a clever opening where Crosby’s vocal repeats the opening instrumental refrain to the letter on the words ‘look around again...’, although on the other hand his uneasy close to each verse with the lines ‘or else you’ll find [life] has passed you by’ sounds uncomfortable, ill fitting with the rest of the song’s puzzling message and leaving that threat hanging in the air at the end sits badly with such a breezy, happy-go-lucky song. Crosby later said that he wrote the song in an attempt to sound like James Taylor, a singer-songwriter he admired who based his songs around passing chords – as a result ‘Page 43’ sounds quite unlike anything else Crosby ever wrote; whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to you. For me, Crosby always sounds at his most ‘real’ on his sadder, more heartbreaking songs and Crosby’s advice that ‘life is fine, even with the ups and downs’ skates too lightly over the turbulent lives some of us – Crosby included – can lead.
Side two starts with ‘Frozen Smiles’, which sounds like a personal grievance the listener can’t join in with until you learn that the subject of Nash’s wrath is none other than Stephen Stills. With that fact in mind this is a fascinating look at the troubled CSNY partnership who often wrote about themselves (Crosby on ‘Cowboy Movie’, Stills on ‘Change Partners’ and Young on ‘The Old Homestead’ amongst others), with Nash even using Stills’ own imagery to get back at him. Many a Stills song used the metaphor of living ‘behind walls’ long before Pink Floyd made the idea fashionable and here Nash tries in vain to reach beyond Stills’ ‘walls’. He goes on to say that he dropped everything and ‘flew a long way’ at the chance of making music – only for Stills to wipe it all and reject it (presumably this refers to the troubled CSNY sessions although, eerily, it fits the later incident of 1976 – when the Stills/Young Band album was intended as a CSNY album, with Crosby and Nash abandoning sessions for ‘Whistling Down The Wire’ to fly out and work on it before having their vocal wiped in a spur-of-the-moment decision by Stills – to a tee). Nash painfully tells Stills ‘you’re supposed to be my friend’ in exactly the same huffy way as a child at a school playground, but clearly this song cuts mightily deep, Nash using the memorable image of the ‘music in my veins’ turning to ‘stone’ over the incident. The line ‘does it get you off to act so all alone?’ will strike anyone whose ever studied the career of Stephen Stills as a particularly apt one – something that Stills himself has admitted in his darker songs like ‘Witching Hour’, written in this same period for Manassas who were rehearsing their double album at the exact same time this record was being made. Nash then ends the song by asking Stills ‘to take my advice...not to take advice’ from others who don’t have Stills’ friendship at heart like Nash does and to ‘have faith in who you are...and your goodness’, a nice softening of the blow of the song that might well have inspired Neil Young’s ‘Tired Eyes’ from the following year (‘Please take my advice...’). Nash admits, though, that such temper tantrums and coldness ‘make it much too hard’ to be Stills’ friend – who’d have guessed that, in less than a year after this record, CSNY would get back together again at a Manassas gig in 1973? To be fair to Stills, he’s admitted many times that it was insecurity and a military background d-instilled work ethic that made him act the way he does and whenever there’s a CSNY row (which he nearly always causes) he’s – usually – the first one to apologise. As you can hear in the song even Nash is trying hard to make excuses for him, although there’s no denying that Stills’ ‘showboating’ during 1970-71 did put many of his friends – and even his fans – off his work (the most famous incident is Stills calling up Humble Pie, then working to a tight deadline, and telling them he’d written them a song he wanted to play on, before working for eight hours straight recording and mixing the song and passing out at the controls; bear in mind Stills had never even met a single member of the band before making the offer. There are many other favourite Stills stories doing the rounds too!)
‘Games’ is more archetype Crosby and is very in keeping with the other songs written in this ‘golden era’ (1968). Life is seen here as a ‘game’ being played, its just that none of us humans know who with or what the rules are. However, there must be rules because, every so often, we find that we’ve ‘lost’ – cue a memorable middle eight where Crosby’s narrator curses himself for having the ego to think ‘that I loved you, more than you loved me’. Elsewhere the song is more symbolic, studying the way humans behave in the 1970s: ‘The game of gettin’ money, the game of gettin’ more, the ego game of power, the ugly game of war’. Each verse is accompanied by gorgeous Crosby-Nash harmonies so tight you couldn’t fir a piece of paper between the gaps in their voices and another dreamy languid Crosby vocal. The one part of the song that doesn’t work is the ‘love you’ choruses that seem to have come in from a different song entirely (few Crosby songs are love songs in the traditional sense and this one less than most). We hear Crosby’s joking at his ego and his humility several times on later CSN albums (notably ‘Anything At All’), which seems to start here in this very painful period when Crosby had just been kicked out of the Byrds. It could be that this is Crosby’s idea of an apology for his sometimes dramatic behaviour with that band (‘the game was bein’ better, wiser than you, half an inch taller, a deeper shade of blue’ – the latter of which could be a pun on the blues); if so then its a masterstroke pitching this song straight after ‘Frozen Smiles’, a song that more or less demands an apology and doesn’t leave Stills feeling such an outsider. Beautiful in a terribly untraditional way, as only Crosby can be, ‘Games’ is a forgotten gem in his back catalogue, a lovely song that honestly could not have been written by anyone else ever.
‘Girl To Be On My Mind’ is probably the least successful song on the album, a Nash track based around a swirling Wurlitzer organ that finds Nash’s narrator at home alone on new year’s eve. Nash even namechecks his new address at San Francisco’s ‘Haight Ashbury’ , which must have been a huge culture shock for a Mancunian! Nash certainly hasd reason to feel lonely – after marrying young in the Hollies period (to Rose Eccles – note the second name borrowed for the single ‘Jennifer Eccles’) and then taking up with Joni Mitchell straight away on his move to the States, this is the first time Nash had probably been alone since his early teenage years. Nash’s doubts as to whether things will improve by the following new year’s eve are, sadly, well founded (he falls in love with Amy Gossage, a model whose sadly murdered by her own drug addict brother possibly over Nash’s refusal to pay money for his habit; you can read more of this sorry tale in our review for Nash’s album ‘Wild Tales’ and it certainly makes sense of why he takes Crosby’s drug-induced decline so hard). Alas we’ve heard this sort of thing done far better by several other people and Nash’s feeling sorry for himself simply doesn’t cut it (I mean, he’s living in the Haight in 1972, what’s not to love?!) Intriguingly, Nash struggles with his own vocal (he has problems with the rolling ‘r’s in the word ‘resurrection’ in particular) but the song suits Crosby’s vocal harmony very snugly, bringing out the delicious treacleness in his partner’s voice.
‘The Wall Song’ features Crosby at his best too, with the most up-tempo track on the album and a slightly more urgent take on his familiar ‘what the hell is going on?’ type songs (as Crosby once put it, ‘if you had lived my life you would have a lot of these songs!’) Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann from the Dead all guest, which is apt given that the song was at least developed during the infamous ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ sessions featuring members of the Dead, Airplane and CSNY (where its developed as part of a jam session) and it suits them well, especially Garcia’s darting guitar parts (he and Crosby always had a special bond). It’s a fascinating song, full of some of the best wordplay of any Crosby composition, full of satisfying lines that lead directly into the next line and a pioneering AABBBCC rhyming structure that’s unusual but works really well. You wonder if Crosby, too, had been listening closely to Stilkls’ work as there’s yet more references to ‘walls’ here and although Crosby’s never spoken about the song it could just as easily relate to Stills as Crosby himself (its also, like ‘Frozen Smile’, slightly accusatory, with the riff built around the one word ‘you’...) The wall, a ‘fence made of fears’ is every bit as scary and unrelenting as the better known Pink Floyd obstacle, a mammoth oppressive structure built from fear of rejection and suffering. Crosby introduces a ‘door’ into the wall by the last verse, with his narrator sensing how wonderful life is outside, but instead leaves his paranoid brain left wondering whether the wall itself or the world he sees outside it is real and which is imaginary. It’s a wonderful song, darker and edgier than most Crosby songs of the era, and Crosby sings magnificently, especially the last verse that seems to run forever just when the end appears to be in sight and full of delicious half-rhymes and memorable images (‘Your breath is scraping your brains into dust, your rusty old engine is ready to bust, you cannot believe it that they would not trust you’...) before holding the final line (‘What are lies?...’) far beyond what should be comfortable to sing. Exciting, deep and original, ‘The Wall Song’ is one of the more unfairly forgotten CSN songs of the period and is long overdue a revival on one of the trio’s tours. It’s a shame, too, that the Dead never adopted the song as their own (surprisingly given the two band’s close friendship they never did do a CSN song on stage, despite their love of cover material) as it suits their stop-start rumble rather well.
The album then ends on its best known moment with Nash’s ‘Immigration Man’, a surprise hit single (in America at least) and a welcome song on a thorny subject. Like all good hippies, Nash never believed the old spiel about immigration policies then doing its rounds in the media (as it seems to every generation or so) – after all, are we not all immigrants from one period or another, a mix of saxon, Viking, irish, West and East European, African, Asian, Chinese, Japanese and Indian blood that’s been mingling for millennia? The idea that there should be ‘borders’ on countries is a very modern ideal and doesn’t bear proper scrutiny. Nash was inspired to write the song after playing a CSNY tour in Canada and the quartet were at customs waiting to be let back into America. Despite his raised eyebrows at the quartet’s long hair and musical occupation, the only one he could deny entry to was Englishman Nash, because of the bizarre idea that the singer might be coming in to the country to ‘take their money’. Nash pointed out the huge amount of people asking for his autograph and proved he had the money, but the customs officials wouldn’t budge for hours. When he was finally released he returned, irate, to his Californian house and sat straight down at the piano to thump out this song, sketching the lyrics on the inside cover of a book named ‘The Silver Locust’ by Ray Bradbury (as he had no paper handy at the time – you can see this in the booklet to Nash’s box set ‘Reflections’ as the illustration to this song).
Nobody was singing songs about immigration in 1972 – few people dare even now – seemingly because people have been brainwashed enough into accepting the idea that people are always going to ‘play the system’ (the week I write this the Coalition have just, rather sheepishly announced that they over-estimated the amount of immigrants claiming benefits in the past year by a ridiculous 92%!) Together with Nash’s strongest pop sensibility on the record, some very clever and witty lyrics (‘Here I am with my immigration form – its big enough to keep me warm!’) and a catchy chorus that replaces ‘Immigration’ with ’Irritation’ Nash does more for the pro-Immigration lobby than any politician ever dared to do. A mixture of fun and fury, everything about this song is perfectly poised and features a whole range of guest musicians at their very best. That’s CSNY’s bassist Greg Reeves playing the opening ear-catching riff, Traffic’s Dave Mason playing the fiery guitar solos and the Jefferson Airplane/Starship drummer Johnny Barbata making the most of the opportunity to play on a pop song for once. Best of all, though, is Nash’s lead vocal, ably abetted by Crosby’s harmony, which is one of the best leads he ever recorded. If the Government of the day weren’t frightened by what musicians could do to oppose their policies then they should have been. ‘Immigration Man’ is pure Crosby-Nash, heartfelt, joyous, catchy and with a message no one else would dare touch, the perfect example of a pop song.
In all, then, ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ has a strong beginning and a strong ending but rather loses its way for much of the middle. Had the pair waited a few months longer before making the record and added a handful of great new songs (or even revived a couple of great old ones) we would now be talking about this album in the same breath as such highs as ‘Crosby Stills and Nash’ ‘Deja Vu’ ‘Stephen Stills’ and even the duo’s later ‘Wind On The Water’. It’s probably worth adding that you miss the voices of Stills and Young here more than the later pair of Crosby-Nash albums as a lot of the songs and production work do cover similar themes and need something extra to break them up. But, on the otherhand, when you consider that the duo had already worked on four of the greatest records of the age between them (the first CSN and CSNY albums plus their first two solo albums) within the space of two years and that much of this record features old, unused tracks left off those albums then ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ is still an impressively fascinating and consistent record containing many of the duo’s best loved songs alongside some lesser known songs that are just as good. CSNY fans really were spoilt for excellence in this period and this album really is right up there with the best of them, even though it might have been overshadowed down the years by better selling, more commercial, more worshipped albums. Ahmet Ertegun, that rare boss who used his ears when judging a record rather than his brain or his calculator, knew a good record when he heard one and ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ was a surprise to many when the re-issues series came out, but for all the right reasons. Many people didn’t even know Crosby-Nash had made a joint record this early in their career and were impressed how well it had held up in the intervening 26 years; fans had simply forgotten it, given how spoilt for choice we were back then, with a grand total of 13 CSNY albums (joint, duo and solo – two of them double sets) released between 1969 and 1972, all of them first-class. It’s not the fault of ‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ that it was simply a shining jewel overlooked in a magnificent crown.