Monday, 29 December 2014
I Was Raised In Babylon/Big Boss Man/Dying To Live/You Are My Sunshine/Editing Floor Blues/Cat and the Dog Trap/Gold Digger/The Devil Came From Kansas/Tell 'Em I'm Gone/Doors
"Though I teach I'm not a preacher and I aim to stay that way!"
'Cat's in a cage, chained to a stone, Max The Singing Dog is outraged, with less to chew on than a bone, Cat Stevens - come home!'
I've always been fascinated by the concept of time. How it changes depending on the feelings and emotions of the one experience it. The difference between how the same time span is experienced by people looking in or looking out. That's grown all the more so as I've got older and weaker with chronic fatigue and marvel at how roughly the same set amount of activity, approximately the same number of tracks and written words, can pass by in a flash one week and on others seem like the single most difficult task set possible. Time hangs heavier over some AAA albums than others: many were written in a blaze of inspiration and fire and noise; others took longer to write, painstakingly pored over and deliberated and written from the point of view of someone whose been around a long long time. Time hangs particularly heavy on Cat Stevens aka Yusuf's latest, 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' for a number of reasons. Practically, it's the first record Cat has made after a five year-gap: a blink of the eye to someone like Mark Knopfler or Pink Floyd who like to take their time over new albums, but more than double the largest gap in either of Cat's two careers. To put that in context, when last album 'Roadsinger' came out in May 2009 Alan's Album Archives wasn't even up on the internet and came as part of News, Views and Music issue 30 (we're on issue 279 today). In that time we've reviewed no less than six new Neil Young albums, three Paul McCartneys and either two or three albums depending on whether you're supporting Liam Gallagher in Beady Eye or Noel Gallgher and his High Flying Birds. To be honest I was beginning to assume that Cat had retired or at least had too many other things on his plate because, you see, this was a songwriter who always prided himself on the speed of his delivery, who thought nothing about releasing two classic albums ('Mona Bone Jakon' and 'Tea For The Tillerman') just four months apart and who didn't spend this long between releases even when he was in hospital dying from TB.
Of course things are different now - and that's really the theme of this rather odd third record since Yusuf's comeback. Frequently across this record we get flashbacks to times that seem so long ago: old R and B songs and standards Cat would have cut his musical teeth learning to play, serious references to supposed misdemeanours from Cat's years away that got misunderstood and playful ones about Cats and dogs. If the first comeback record (the pretty awful 'An Other Cup') was an old-style Cat Stevens record seen through the new eyes of a religious convert and second album (the much superior 'Roadsinger') was an attempt to see what an 'old style' Cat Stevens record might sound like with a contemporary sheen, then third album 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' falls somewhere uncomfortably down the middle. At times Yusuf wants to be young again, to return to the joyful wilful ignorance of youth - but his voice cracks and tears so painfully on some of the older songs he'd have once sung with ease that it's actually rather painful. The new originals, meanwhile, have Cat singing newer songs in his old style, but rather than sighing about growing population and modern day fears the way he did on 'Roadsinger' Cat sounds bitter here, sarcastically delivering two songs ('Cat and Dog Trap' and 'Editing Floor') that are his wickedest since 'Pop Star', laughing at the messed up capitalist world that didn't understand why he'd left them behind and why he couldn't just be left in peace. As a result we get a record that wants to have its teacake with the Tillerman and eat it, with Cat sounding young and old all at the same time - a nice idea on paper (especially with Rick Rubin, the producer who did so much to make Johnny Cash sound old/young at the end of his life, in the producer's chair), but sadly it doesn't quite come off.
Most reviews I've seen of this record have reviewed it against everything else out at the time and come away scratching their heads. That's a bit of a danger - Cat's records never were of their time and this one is actually probably closer, if only because Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey made roots R and B 'in' again at the start of this year - but even so I'm left scratching my head a bit too. 'An Other Cup' was hopeful, bordering on naive, full of songs about how peace is still obtainable and how so many people want it. 'Roadsinger' was more realistic but mainly dealt with Yusuf's fears about growing older, family commitments, memories of lost loves and whether the world still needs an aging singer-songwriter telling it what it should already know. To take one of Yusuf's favourite metaphors, both works were fiery creations, with lots to say and an urgency behind saying it. 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' reads like another urgent album: there's one song where Yusuf actually talks about dying soon and wanting to do his best until his number is up, but the only two songs that are anything quicker than laidback and snoozy are songs answering hurts against Cat made 30 years ago ('Editor's Room') or against the Eastern world centuries ago ('I Was Raised In Babylon'). Despite having found surprising success with his modern day career, outselling records by ex-Beatles and Stones and seemingly enjoying the journey up till now, suddenly Yusuf sounds tired of it all. There's no hope across any of this record, no sudden uplifting moment of joy and even the quiet sadness over lost opportunities that was the highlight of the last two records ('One Day At A Time' 'Maybe There's A World' 'Everytime I Dream') seems to have been replaced by an anger we haven't heard since 'Izitso?' days. It wouldn't surprise me if Yusuf disappears for good after this record. Even the title, a new name Cat has given to his recycled version of traditional standard 'If I Had A Hammer', sounds like we're getting the brush-off once again just as we did in 1977-78 with the contract-fulfilling 'Izitso?' and 'Back To Earth' records: 'ahh, tell 'em I'm gone, nobody's listening anyway'. Only Yusuf seems to have signed up to a whole new label Legacy - which seems a bit mean to old label Island who stumped up the money for the last two records (which were pretty successful too - well more successful than I expected them to be). As I write this album has fared a little better in America, but a little worse in Europe and it remains unclear as to whether Yusuf will stay put, continue on one-album/two album deals or disappear again for good. The bleakness of the record and the gap since the last one suggests that if there are any follow-ups there probably won't be many, which would be sad: the world needed the 'Roadsinger' style Yusuf and the claiming balm he could offer the world; I'm not sure the world needs this new sarcastic crusader turned blues covers singer quite so much.
Admittedly the twin themes of the record - our mortality and the inevitability of death on the one-hand and our inability to record how people see us when we're gone - aren't exactly made for uplifting listening. We start with this album's scope at its biggest, with several thousand centuries of Christian rule coming to an inevitable end with another turn of the wheel towards the East, America a second Babylonian Empire waiting to fall (although lately it's seemed more like Rome). The single most openly hostile Stevens song since 'I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun' (Not that an 18-year-old Cat really meant that at the time...),Yusuf even eggs the end on, perhaps reflecting on how badly the Christian West has treated him and his reputation since his conversion ('They used to call us civilised, those days are gone' Yusuf mocks bitterly at one point). 'Editing Floor Blues' really is a blues, a chugging 12-bar that features Cat talking about his life and how now when anyone mentions Cat Stevens all they'll tell you about is his misquoted line about Salman Rushdie deserving all he got for his blasphemous comments and how even when Cat rang up to sort things out to get a 'correction - well, they never printed that!' Had this song turned up on 'An Other Cup' I'd have understood it (wanting to speak out all those years and not having the platform too), but why wait now? What good will it do? 'The Cat and Dog Trap' is a cleverer and sweeter take on the same thing, Yusuf reflecting on his younger self as 'ready to fall into any danger but about to learn'. Once again though it's a wild world out there and dogs are ready to jump on unsuspecting felines, getting them into fights they don't want to have. Finally 'Doors' returns us to the gospel of 'An Other Cup' with the idea that another opportunity will always be around when one seems to leave us and that 'another flower' will grow when one dies. It seems from the lyric as if Yusuf is finally making peace with what might happen to his catalogue if he disappears again (given the mortality theme of this record, perhaps he knows something we don't?), but even this song is scary full of long drawn out descending chords that makes even phrases like 'God makes everything right' sound like there's a zombie behind him about to kill him. 'All Things Must Pass' this isn't, but we fans have often wondered (or is only me?) what a Cat Stevens record about the afterlife might turn out to be. For the moment 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' is more a pondering over what will happen to Yusuf and his past in this world once he heads onto the next, but he's clearly heading down that path - is a Paul Simon style trilogy about death on the cards?
Even with this theme scattered throughout the songs like prayer mats across a temple, though, the result is an album that I don't quite understand. Had these songs been joined by others on the same theme I'd understand it more - an attempt to change direction 'Foreigner' style, however confusing and unliked the style might be, with a bit of 'All Things Must Style' repent-before-it's-too-late counter message that listeners can choose to take up or ignore depending on their own faith. But when Cat follows up a song about the fall of Christianity with a cover of an old blues song about being rude to your boss and later starts adding African lyrics to 'You Are My Sunshine', you have to ask what on Earth we're supposed to make of it. When I first read about this record people kept mentioning 'roots' 'R and B' 'back to basics' - all terms to excite, as even as early as the first album at seventeen Cat had outgrown his R and B phase and we never really got to hear that influence in his records bar the odd bit here and there (most notably parts of 'The Foreigner Suite' funnily enough). But this isn't 'really' a roots record: it's a couple of R and B standards played in the usual Cat Stevens vein, while the 'back to Earth' (or even 'back to 'Back To Earth', which would have been preferable) element of the lyrics really just means it's a bit more autobiographical than usual (not always in a good way). The closest thing this record is would be a call to arms to overthrow the Christian world - exactly what the powers that be feared with the first comeback album - but even that adds a bit of notoriety and danger this record doesn't possess - Yusuf's merely fed up of Western hypocrisy and just as he's always told us, doesn't pretend to know the answers or what comes next (there's less references to religion here than 'An Other Cup' too, though more than on 'Roadsinger').
Not that this is an awful record either: there's nothing here quite as bad as half of 'An Other Cup' and a handful of songs are rather good. We haven't mentioned 'Gold Digger' yet because it doesn't fit in even with the 'what the?' half theme of everything else, but it's a rather good dig at the Western world with some fancy sprightly playing that sounds like a natural progression for the younger Cat Stevens to have made. 'The Devil Came From Kansas' features one of the worst ever Cat Stevens lyrics - but comes with a catchy, singalong melody that's the single best since the return from retirement. 'I Was Raised In Babylon' might be delivered with the tired preach of an old convert but it's anger and shock at how the Western world is a brave statement made well (and again it's something the old Cat would have pointed out, though he'd have made light of the religion and politics and worried about the children instead). The Edgar Winter cover 'Dying To Live' is by far the most suitable one on this record and really sounds like a Cat Stevens song. The composition runs away from the message quickly, but the idea that some people live their lives through different views (as a training ground for what's to come, as punishment or as the only life you've got so make the most of it) is a good one, long overdue for studying in song. 'The Cat and Dog Trap' is a sweet autobiography, even with a few uncomfortable lines within the lyrics I could have done without. Even the cover of 'Big Boss Man' is quite fun in a 'bootleg session warm-up' kind of a way, even though I haven't got a clue what on earth it's doing here. The rest, though, would have been a disappointment as a rushed, make-it-while-you-can follow up a year on from 'Roadsinger' - after a gap of five years and given some of the less than salutary messages inside it seems like a slap in the face from an old friend (made all the odder by Roadsinger's quite genuine sounding warm hug).
One other point to make is the 'sound' of this record. While 'An Other Cup' didn't know what on earth it wanted and alternated solo performances with orchestra extravaganzas, 'Roadsinger' was an acoustic guitar record very much like the 'old' sound. 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' is primarily a piano record, not quite the 'rootsy R and B' style genre we were led to believe but still very much down the 'Foreigner' route of Stevie Wonder style piano with everyone else falling in place behind that. The minor keys that most of this album sound as if they're played in means this is less 'up' than soul though, being either a sad Motown album or an uptempo blues record, depending which of those two sounds least weird to you. Even that is significant: after two records of trying to show he's like us, really, Yusuf is keen to point out that he isn't 'one of us' any more, he's an outsider reflecting on a world that's made it clear it doesn't want him there. This was roughly the message of 'Foreigner' and took place in Cat Steven's lifespan just before the Muslim conversion, at a time when he was getting increasingly angry and depressed at the modern world. Personally I quite 'Foreigner', which is challenging indeed on the back of four well-loved and fairly similar sounding records, but it's a hard album to get into, with Cat screaming at his audience throughout to stop coming to him for answers and going down the path of an 18 minute title track that veered suddenly between affection, doubt and sarcasm. 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' sounds to me like another 'Foreigner' i.e. another record sent to be challenging which really sorts out the true Cat Stevens fans from the casual ones. The difference is that 'Foreigner' ended with one great message of hope (on '100 I Dream', one of Cat's greatest unknown songs): that all you had to do to find inner peace was to 'not let your weaknesses destroy you and to be true to you'. On 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' the message seems to be 'well, you're laughing at me in this world, but you wait till we're both dead and then I'll prove you wrong!' Hilarious, for the two reviewers who've probably long retired and once laughed at Cat for his part in the Salman Rushdie fatwah, but not very fair given that it's mainly Cat's fans (who never laughed at his conversion and stood by him even at his reputation's lowest) who are buying the flipping thing. Even the closing 'Doors', which badly needs to be the fond farewell Yusuf usually gives us (and which this album needs more than most) manages simply to hammer home one last 'believe in God' message before the mosque closes for business (and this from a songwriter who has the nerve to write the line 'though I teach I'm not a preacher' - anyone who categorically states that their belief system is 'right' and others are 'wrong' is a preacher in my eyes, even if I'm willing to concede that for all I know Yusuf is right; not that I'm off to train with the jihadis yet - the Western world may be unquestionably bad, corrupt, evil and threatening, but no empire in history has ever been bad enough to make it right for innocent people to die, no matter how sure of an afterlife you are. And yes most Western capitalists are innocent, whatever other regimes might think, all prisoners of the ignorant culture they were born in and guilty of nothing more than believing the garbled versions of world events they get on news reports - well everyone except possibly David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith who are guilty of everything going. And The Spice Girls).
Erm anyway, I digress. I was hopeful after 'Roadsinger' that we'd see a return of Yusuf as a voice for peace, delivering songs to remind the Western world that not all Muslims are out to kill (well, durrh, but there are a few Daily Mail readers out there who still like lumping people together) and picking up his career with the same wise, open eyes of before. Instead we get the tired harrumphing of the 'An Other Cup' convert, one who can't be bothered with all these modern hassles when there's so much more to see in the world - a fair point, but one already made far better and with more interest given over to the material than here. There are several entertaining moments, but nowhere near enough to sustain an album - certainly not a record lasting just 36 minutes (a whole five minutes longer than 'Roadsinger' but still pretty stingy). Ultimately there's not much in this record to make you want to follow Cat on the road he took to find out, because the cartoon devils and gold diggers he portrays are cheap and easy shots, not deserving of his talents, which is awfully sad. This is a return to the tired hectoring and poorly worked out songs of 'An Other Cup, a record that was bitterly disappointing after a 27 year wait, and while the lows aren't quite that low this record can't quite match the two highs of that record either ('Maybe There's A World' and 'One Day At A Time', not coincidentally the most free of religious songs there). The result is an album that I was hoping would be better because of so many things: the five-year wait, Rick Rubin working as a producer, this being the sequel to the excellent 'Roadsinger', the 'promise' of R and B given to us in pre-release interviews and the fact that the Western half of the world needs an articulate, peaceful spokesman for the Muslim half even more in 2014 than when we last saw Cat in 2009. Even taking those factors away, though, and viewed simply as yet another Cat Stevens record this one is below par, with only the occasional idea taking flight and the occasional performance suggesting that the singer-songwriter's heart is still in his 'second job'. Cat Stevens' spirit lived on in 'Roadsinger' but now I fear he's gone, man, solid gone.
'I Was Raised In Babylon' is one of the two real highlights of the album, with Yusuf well out of his comfort zone, although some listeners might find it rather uncomfortable. A short history of toppling empires and civilisations, with verses taking in Babylon, Ancient Egypt, and the Crusades before ending in the present day. The track is clearly designed to show that white man's supremacy cannot last forever, ending with the shocking couplet: 'We thought our white skins would save us - then we got burned'. Cat sings the track with the most naturally 'old' voice he's had thus far, sounding like an aged prophet of doom whose seen many sights and knows that nothing can last. Had this track been made by any other figure it would have ruffled feathers, but the hint in the song is that capitalism and Christinaity have had their day, that the new regime will soon be upon us and no amount of natural born riches or inherited powers can save us. Considering that Yusuf spends a lot of his other 'conversion' era records (especially this one) claiming that peace is the only answer, this is a highly provocative message and the closest to a 'Muslim v Christianity' fight so far in his solo career ('I thought that we were the chosen - I must have been wrong'). Thankfully this time, at least, Cat is a better writer than that and really gets the feel of decay and fading lavishness the song demands, with a clever acoustic whine that sounds as if it belongs in the soundtrack of 'Lawrence Of Arabia', packed with sand and false promises, superbly helped out by guest star and fellow Muslim Richard Thompson filling in where Alun Davies normally would. Like a lot of the rest of the album, this track sadly doesn't go anywhere interesting past the opening, without any middle eights or even a chorus to break the song up, but what is here is rather good, Yusuf finally coming out and nailing the unvoiced criticisms of the Western world that have run through his two other comeback albums. It's not the sort of Cat Stevens song that would ever become my favourite, but it's easy to admire this song's stark monochrome-ness and the impressive seriousness of the performance.
'Big Boss Man' is an old friend - we've already reviewed cover versions by The Grateful Dead (which was fun) and The Animals (which was harrowing). Yusuf's version is somewhere between the two, with a rhythm borrowed from the chain gang that sticks rigidly to the same hammered beat, but with a playful keyboard part over the top that flies away and escapes the tyranny of the track for a little while. 'You ain't so big, you're just tall that's all' cackles Yusuf as he comes to terms with the fact that the boss overseeing him is only 'human'; in the context of this album and most of Cat's work the hint is that the boss only has power in 'this' world anyway, not the next. Overall this is quite a fun cover version and it's nice to hear Yusuf going back to his roots, although compared to most versions of this song doing the rounds this is a little over-polished, with its multiple guitar parts, harmonica, violin, clattering drums and choir. Considering that the whole point of the song is that the narrator has no power except what's in his mind this song ought to be tough, brittle and self-reliant; hearing it as a sort of mass-singalong is somewhat disconcerting. Still, another of the better songs on the album.
Edgar Winter's 'Dying To Live' is another successful cover song, a pretty ballad that's sung quieter and gentler than the original. It's a highly apt song for Cat to do, sounding like a cross between 'Morning Has Broken' (the lovely piano-based melody) and 'But I Might Die Tonight!' (the lyrics). In context it's clearly about Yusuf's belief in a better afterlife and trying to work out what to do with his life in the mean time and features perhaps his most menacing line in a song ever about the decadent West: 'I wonder if they'll all still be laughing when they've died?' (Funnily enough Winter is a Scientologist, so probably wrote the song with quite a different message in mind). The chorus seems to come round again awfully quickly and soon gets on the nerves, but there's some nice wordplay in there: 'Why am I fighting to live if I'm just living to fight?' and 'Why am I trying to give when no one gives me a try?' You can certainly hear a little of the outraged, frustrated younger Cat in this song and the piece would have nestled in snugly on 'Teaser and the Firecat' especially. The older Cat must also have identified with this song's reflections on a younger, confused self who used to 'weave words in confusion' and who 'lived life as an illusion', the memories of the 'Matthew and Son' era Cat now so far away. Overall it's a nice choice of song, although the fact that already by the third track on the album we've had more cover songs than originals is a little alarming.
Astonishingly, we get a fourth. Jimmie Davis' 'You Are My Sunshine' is another much-covered AAA gem, most notably heard on The Beach Boys' 'Smile'. Yusuf's re-arranged version is arguably the weakest cover song on the album, turning what is one of the key songs of the American songbook into a religious rant, complete with an African translation of the central lyrics for no apparent reason (although as Yusuf admits in interviews, the translation came out sounding somewhat at odds with the original lyric!) The 'new' verse has no place in this happy uplifting song and sounds clumsy and patronising: 'My mama once told me what the soul should know, it's about the devil and I hate him so, he'll be crying if we don't frown, and keep on smiling, he'll stop hanging around'. The song's original floaty pretty melody has also been turned into an angry turbulent cliff-climb that ascends little bit by little bit and sounds like hard work. Thankfully some nice guitar work embellishes the track and makes it sound more interesting than it really is, but the main result is 'why?', followed by the thought that even for an album this short this song should have ended up on the editing room floor.
Ooh that's a good link if I say so myself, because here we are at the 'Editing Floor Blues', at last a Cat original although it doesn't really sound like it. Not since 'The Joke' has Cat attempted a blues song and thankfully that time the song got left behind (released only on a box set) because the style doesn't really suit Yusuf, even with some more strong guitar work to push the chugging riff along. Like 'I Never Wanted To Be A Star', but less interestingly, this song is a little slice of autobiography, telling us that Cat was 'born in the West End in the summer of '48...', while the most interesting years (1967-1970) get dismissed in a single sentence ('This boy became a star, then he dropped - but got up again'). There's a nice reference to Cat's elder brother David, early champion of younger brother's songs and the person who thought Cat might be interested in a book he'd just read on the Qu'ran which got him started ('Big brother took a trip...'), but sadly little else we haven't heard before, done better. The real meat of this song comes in the last verse when the newspapers call Cat up as a kind of go-to Muslim (with an excellent mock 70s music journalist voice at the end of the line) and asked about the Salman Rushdie fatwah (misquoted, Cat rang up to complain and tell them the truth, 'but they never printed that!' he resignedly sighs, although Yusuf's comparisons to 'Socrates' are a little over the top). Throughout the song that old Cat Stevens theme, 'the truth', keeps returning: he starts out offering 'the truth' from the editing floor where he's busy crafting his songs, but by the third verse the 'truth' about the world's religions is being 'buried' there instead, while the song ends rather oddly with the image of a 'cup spilling out on the editing floor': what does Yusuf mean by this? Has his cup of good faith overflowed? Is he reduced to begging to get his work done? Or is this the 'Tea For The Tillerman' Cat getting 'spilt'? The song that, to date, most fans and critics have been taken with, 'Editing Room Blues' isn't quite as sophisticated as it ought to be: blues songs are two a penny even if they're unusual from Cat, the autobiographical lyrics have been done before, better and the idea of the truth getting lost is only really enough to sustain one verse, not four. Also, why bring up an incident that's now old news? Had this song come out in the late 1970s (the period of the Fatwah, with Yusuf at his most misunderstood) then I'd have understood it more - but dragging up the past seems an odd move for one so keen on other songs to let past mistakes be bygones. A rather ungenerous and unlikeable track, even if the performance is nicely gritty and against the odds ends up sounding as tough as any Cat Stevens recording since 1977.
'The Cat and Dog Trap' is the second highlight of the album, a rather better slab of autobiography that tells Stevens' history as a sort of parable or nursery rhyme. Yusuf the older looks back, amazed at all he used to get up to in his first career, telling us 'There was a time when I was younger, I'd chase the tail of any danger - about to learn'. There's rarely been a better summary of Cat's mid-70s career than the last verse either: 'Cat's in a cage, chained to a stone, empty bowl at his side, just an old fish-bone, dreams of home' (we've been banging on about the recurring theme of 'Home' on Cat Stevens records for quite a few reviews now, although oddly it hasn't featured in his 'comeback' career much so far). Taken together, with a few pretty cat noises and barking dogs, this could have been a song on a par with Yusuf's best, certainly since his comeback and is undoubtedly the cleverest thing on offer here. But even then Yusuf has to spoil it: with such a career to choose from why settle for intervening verses like 'Cat jumps a fence, lands in a pram, baby screams 'mama', out runs the man, Cat gets the can' - if this was in a book of nursery rhymes I'd be disappointed. (Our sample of what might have worked better, at no extra charge: 'Then Puss got his boots, and travelled far, On The Road To Find Out, under a Whistlestar, used up his nine lives, will he be saved in the next? Still more to go in this quest...', I'm here all day, folks!) Ah well, a couple of duff verses and again a surprisingly rigid refusal to change anything in the song once it gets going (there's no middle eight and a single-line chorus of 'about to learn' tacked onto the end of every verse) can't get in the way of what's actually a rather moving and sweet little song, the one track here fully in keeping with the traditional Cat Stevens ethos (there's even an 'oohed' instrumental section in the middle, straight out of 1972-73!)
'Gold Digger' is the track that tends to stand out of the album on the first few hearings and has a nice jazzy rhythm that really suits Yusuf's deeper, older voice. There's a great production here too which again reverts back to the 'chain gang hammered-nails-in-the-ground sound and a singalong chorus that's by far the catchiest thing on the album. So why isn't this another album highlight? Dear God, those lyrics! 'Hey Mr Gold Man, where's my pay? Hey Mr Gold man, one more day, come along with us, get onto the bus!' Presumably Cat had the faults and inequalities of Capitalism in mind when he wrote this song about a bunch of gold-diggers who are bound to get burned in a something-for-nothing culture (these gold-diggers offer a service to no one but themselves and pick-sellers). That's a strong target, but this is not a strong set of words and the closing defiant gesture 'Don't come back - this is my country now' sounds rather eerie in the context of both this album and what's going on in the wider world: is this a threat from a Muslim convert to a Christian world? Normally I'd be cheering anyone who wants to point out that capitalism isn't quite the grand American Dream everyone treats it as (no other system barring dictatorships causes as much harm among innocent residents and I think the experiment has lasted long enough by now to prove it doesn't work - well, it doesn't work for the 95% trapped under the rich 5% anyway). But like much of 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' this song is woefully ungenerous in spirit: everyone gets lumped together here, with all of us the 'gold diggers' and we're all made out to be 'blind'; that's not actually the case, but the patient has very little chance of curing himself from a disease his doctor forces him to have - had Yusuf gone after reckless bankers rather than, well, all of us likely to buy this album this might have been a better song. It's still a catchy, memorable track though, which makes the weakness of the words all the worse.
'The Devil Came From Kansas' by Gary Brooker (but again with a few new additions - generally the worst bits) is another really oddball cover song whose message I can't decipher: is this is a song about Western greed in general, with Kansas - a rich state in a rich country - standing for everybody capitalist? Or is it a specific attack on someone (George Bush?) And are the confusing lines about 'silver paper' and 'cheese' a reference to Western bartering and unequal swaps for unequal goods or is it simply gibberish? 'If you really are my brother then you better start to pray' might also be the single worst line on this record, especially coming after one that says 'I'm a teacher not a preacher' because it's being exactly that: the younger Cat had eyes open to everyone and everything but his older self is telling us how to act and that sits wrongly somehow (so much for being true to yourself and finding yourself 'awake' as in the past). I'm quite happy for Yusuf to attack dated Western institutions, I'm quite happy for him to sing about his personal faith in whoever he wants, I'm even willing to listen to songs about how religion changed his life for the better - but the assumption by a convert of anything that we should all follow suit like sheep is not an idea that sits comfortably with me. Yusuf adds some lines about a monkey 'riding on my back' though he's 'no friend of mine' - a rare reference to Yusuf being less than perfect, actually, on this album to go alongside another line from this song: 'I am not a humble pilgrim' (compare to 'Roadsinger', which worked partly through it's humility). Bah! If it wasn't for another catchy melody and another strong performance I'd rate this the worst song on the record, but as it gets half of everything right I can't quite give it that accolade.
That might well belong to title track 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone', which senselessly takes the old traditional blues standard 'Take This Hammer' and, well, hammers it out of all proportion. A much repeated song that takes one line and repeats it endlessly before moving onto another, it works when most bands do it because they do it so fast you barely notice (although I must confess that even Johnny Cash's version of this song is a bit of a drag). Yusuf's version is deadly slow and the chanting mass vocals from the backing group don't help, turning what should be a resonating song that again came from the chain gang (and fits this album's theme of being tied in to some regime that isn't working) into a slow dirge. I don't want no more boring cover songs, I don't want no more boring cover songs, I don't want no more boring cover songs, take this message and take it to the captain, tell 'em if this album don't get better soon I'll be gone, woa yeah I'll be gone.
Alas the album ends on a fourth weak song. 'Doors' is a simple gospel with a profound message: that everything happens for a reason and that everything has its place. 'One door opens, another door closes', 'when a flower dies there's another one blooming', 'when the sun goes down the moon rises' etc etc. This should be a great platform for a writer who, more than any other we cover perhaps, has gone through career swings and personal shifts so huge that Yusuf's had to change his name for three separate parts to his career (sadly early talk that 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' would be the first of his 'comeback' releases under his old name proved to be unfounded, with the 'Yusuf' name bigger than ever on the sleeve). Alas we don't get 'that' song - instead we get a tired song big on metaphor and platitude but low on any actual insight or credibility. The 'God made everything just right' is also an excruciating chorus, comparable to the laughable side of 'An Other Cup' - again fair enough if it's made personal ('In my world God's made everything right' or even 'I believe God's made everything right')- but no - we get this statement unquestionably made, without any room for debate; trust me in a world with ebola, Ian Duncan Smith and The Spice Girls God so didn't get everything right! The result is a terribly twee and faceless way to say goodbye - all the more shocking if the hints of Yusuf having enough and leaving for good draped across the rest of this record make this the last song in his discography. Once again there's no change in this song and this time what's here is boring indeed, dragging long before the three minutes are up.
Overall, then, in many ways 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' is a disgraceful record: we have ideas shoved down our throats without any questioning, there are some truly atrocious lyrics and five cover songs on a short-running ten track album is appalling, really. But there is plenty of talent on display too: 'The Cat and Dog Trap' is a genuinely moving song, 'I Was Raised In Babylon' is more troublesome, but brave and courageous with it, while the best cover songs ('Big Boss Man' and 'Dying To Live') are at least suitable and rather fun. This record is less disappointing than 'An Other Cup' overall, with more good songs in ratio to bad, even if the best of them isn't quite at the same peak, but given that it came after the excellent 'Roadsinger' that in context it's probably more disappointing (we didn't know what to expect with that first comeback - we do now and to change it is fair enough if you have something new to say; the problem is Yusuf doesn't, by and large). The result is an odd little album - not terrible by any means, with much to enjoy, but full of some ghastly mistakes. Let's hope that this is just a blip and Yusuf will get on to making that R and B rootsy album we all thought this record was going to be when we read about it and that the singer once more goes back to making his songs personal statements and feelings, rather than sermons designed to tell us what to think (as Cat Stevens' superlative back catalogue deserves the tribute of a writer who can at least let their audience think for themselves).
Hello dear readers and welcome to what has now become a seasonal tradition at Alan's Album Archives, a farewell to the year filled with all the most brilliant additions (as well as the worst negative subtractions to) the AAA canon over the past year. What a year it's been dear reader - we now have half a dozen AAA books in the works, another 24 that are being worked on and As I write we're edging closer to the 300,000 hits mark (itself almost double where we were last Christmas) In addition, we now have a fan base that's now probably double compared to the end of last year (a great big hello to all our new readers and a warm festive hug to all our old ones!) and some firm new friends who've been kind enough to contact me over the course of the year (special shout out to Andrew Jackson for some lovely long emails over the course of the past year - and a warm thankyou as ever to Frank Gruber for his kind support, not to mention all those of you kind enough to retweet, favourite or comment on one of our AAA tweets over the past 12 months). Even an unexpected detour away from the internet and the television for eight weeks (sob!) didn't slow us down - erm, the site actually seemed to be at its most popular when we were away from it and not writing as much (actually I can see why now...) Still, at this rate our joke of Alan's Album Archives taking over the world (or at least the world's internet!) by about 2020 is looking more and more likely! Oh and we're even a big hit in Moldova - who could ask for more?!
Sadly while the AAA has been growing, the AAA groups have been slowing. There have been less new releases by our bands this year than at any time since starting this site in 2008 (although I seem to recall saying that last year too...) and most of what has come out has only been for Christmas at the end of the year, before we've properly got a chance to get to know everything. Even the blitz of box sets and documentaries that padded out the last couple of years and took half my savings seem to have slowed to a drizzle (good for my bank manager, a shame for my ears). Even so there's been plenty to get our teeth into during this issue, which has a new section for this year: AAA books. Yes, technically our three releases came out in the dying weeks of last year but I couldn't afford them then so they're all eligible for entry this year instead! That's in addition to our usual discussions of the top new releases, the best re-issues, documentaries, DVDs and 'Songs of the year', as well as one or two releases that were seriously under-par (we can't be nice all the time - our heads would explode!)
Usually at this point in our yearly review we say 'this year was just like....'After a run of years 'like' 1963 through to 1966 I was hoping that 2014 would be the summer of love all over again. Instead it turned out to be the summer of tough love, as 'grumpiness' seems to be the theme of the year (there's been a definite theme on the last few AAA releases of being old and grumpy - and even the re-issues, like the 1980s 10cc albums, bear this out too). In terms of music CSNY were clearly the winners, with a best-selling box set of their 1974 tour that - finally - put them back in all the music papers where they all belonged, along with Crosby's first solo CD in 21 years, Nash's first book and no less than two new studio albums from Young. Elsewhere Cat Stevens/Yusuf released his first album in a while, Oasis carried on their fine re-issue programme, 10cc finally got round to theirs and Nils Lofgren finally got the career-spanning compilation he deserved (actually a bit more than he deserved at nine discs and a £150 price tag!) The Beach Boys and The Beatles - regulars in this column over the years - were both conspicuous by their absence this year, which no doubt means they're planning something big and expensive for next year...Thankfully there's been no AAA obituaries to write this year (which makes a nice change) but at the same time we've had to wave goodbye to Beady Eye (promising Oasis spin-off band) who announced they were breaking up in October and quite possibly CSN/CSNY, who've vowed never to make any music together ever again (erm just like 1970! And 1974! And 1976! And 1982! etc...) As ever, we'll be reviewing what comes next by all our bands over the course of 2015 and invite you, our dear readers, to carry on sticking by us through the year that comes when we'll be edging ever closer to our goal of having reviews all 500 (and counting) studio albums by our 30-odd AAA bands...(just 108 to go!) Till then, have a great Christmas, hope you get the better AAA releases from this list in your Christmas stocking and see you in the new year!
THE BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
1) Nils Lofgren "Face The Music"
We spent a long time rabbiting on about how great this set was last week, so here we'll keep to the essentials: Nils Lofgren is long overdue a career respective, his albums have been spread out over so many smaller labels that collecting them all on CD has been hard work (impossible in some cases!) and the chance to finally own some of the greatest music of the 1970s on my handy portable mp3 has been the musical highlight of my year (not just 'Shine Silently' and 'Keith Don't Go' but the stuff nobody plays: 'The Sun Hasn't Set On This Boy Yet' 'Can't Get No Closer' 'I Found Her' 'Beggar's Day etc). Nils has also added a full two discs' worth of unreleased material, most of which is pretty dispensable but the best of which (a killer alternate take of 'Keith Don't Go' with early patron Neil Young on guitar! A lovely pre-fame song by first band Grin, never heard before! The moving 'Miss You C', a recent tribute to Clarence Clemons, fellow member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band!) are as great as anything with Nils' name attached to it. There are some problems: the ninth disc of DVD footage misses a lot of the important stuff (like the killer show at the Rockapalast in 1979), the later albums are here nearly complete while the better earlier ones aren't (where the heck is the 'finished' 'Keith Don't Go', half the AAA favourite Nils album 'Damaged Goods' from 1995 or one of Nils' greatest tracks 'Sticks and Stones'?!) and the packaging is a bit on the simple side for such an expensive set (£150+!) Then again, this is a special set very much made with fans in mind and currently being hand-signed by Nils. The good news - in a way, if you ignore any possible signature cramp - is that the set is selling well and finally giving Nils some of the high reputation and respect he deserves. (we won't mention that awful cheer-leading album for the Madden American Football league if you won't!)
2) Crosby Stills Nash and Young "CSNY '74"
We covered the whole of this fascinating much-delayed 40-years-in-the-making tale in a full review posted here: http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/crosby-stills-nash-and-young-csny-74.html In short, though (well, shorter) what a privilege to be able to hear foru of the greatest musicians on the planet on some of their earliest recorded live shows playing to the biggest crowd of people ever assembled in one place outside Woodstock and playing material that's otherwise unreleased to this day. Graham Nash has worked hard on this set, trying to make up for some rather ragged and raw recordings at the time by combining the best tapes from several different shows, although to be honest the raw and ragged bootlegs sound even better. We're not entirely happy with this expensive box set - the booklet has two rather odd essays, a handful of pictures and not much track information, while some key songs are missing (the explanations in the booklet aren't good enough: the bootlegs of certain songs like 'Carry On' sound great to me!) However by and large this set is a powerful reminder of what a powerful band CSNY were with some cracking live versions of some of the world's greatest music and no less than four Neil Young songs exclusive to this set. Recorded the year of Watergate and Nixon's resignation, this is CSNY at their most potent and political outside of 1970, with a job to do but with great fun doing it; suddenly a tour that once got such a bad name for excess and raucous noise seems a whole lot better. One last request though: please put the entire Wembley show from this tour out on DVD (just four songs are used for the DVD with this set): it's one of the greatest things I own, official or otherwise...
3) Neil Young "Storytone"
We've already got our 'full' review of Neil's second album of the year planned, hopefully I'll remember to include it here - if not then, oops, have a look for it on our 'Neil Young' section somewhere around the bottom of the page. A record inspired by the woe and grief of getting divorced after 37 years of marriage, 'Storytone' is a major album for Neil, if not quite up there with his very best. Guilt often brings out the best in Neil and we're right back where we were in the early 1970s, with Neil once more in love 'with an actress' and trying to come to terms with the disruptions in his life. This time of course he has a family to consider and it all seems very complicated. For the first time since 1972 Neil went back to singing with an orchestra and the results were, erm, mixed bordering on schmaltzy (the same goes for the jazz band he brought in on one song). Thankfully Neil also had the novel idea of including his rough demos of the songs on the 'deluxe' version of the album and they're a revelation: stark, honest, powerful, everything we want Neil Young to be. Not every song is great, not every idea works and the consistency of sound on either version gets a little wearing. However this is Neil back talking to us, rather than hiding behind cover songs, tracks about his car or extended moody jamming pieces with Crazy Horse. I'm still not quite sure whether this album beats 'Psychedelic Pill', but that album aside it's his best in a decade, since 'Prairie Wind' (a record with which it bears many simailarities).
4) Pink Floyd "The Endless River"
In any other year this album would probably be sitting in our 'worst releases' column - it's not very bad, it's just not very good either, a set of unreleased instrumentals from 20 years ago that weren't thought good enough to release at the time and effectively sounding like an hour's edit of 'Marooned' (the six minute track from 'The Division Bell'), but not quite as interesting. The result is cleverly edited from various sessions to sound like the band intended the music to run that way and the pair have even re-recorded a few bits and pieces for the record, but still by and large this is an instrumental record made as a 'warm-up' to a proper LP and however well dressed up it may be, it still sounds like a warm-up for a proper LP. However the fact that David Gilmour and Nick Mason are working together again is great news, the idea of this album as a 'tribute' to dearly departed keyboardist Rick Wright is a lovely notion (he's the record's undoubted star) and the closing song (the only not an instrumental) 'Louder Than Words' is 'almost' the send off Floyd deserve (they're adamant there won't be anything else with their name attached to it now). I can't say I'm disappointed with it because to be honest I expected a lot worse, but in truth 'Endless River' is worth buying only for one song, a few bits of lovely Rick Wright improvisation and to know where the opening instrumental from 'Marooned' had its original home. We certainly won't be treating it as part of the proper 'canon' in another 20 years, but as a sort of glorified bootleg it is at least a chance to hear something we fans thought we never would. If only more of this album had more lyrics attached to it...(Hint: if you want to hear this album the way I hoped it would sound send a tweet to @martink10 and he might just surprise you...)
5) Cat Stevens/Yusuf "Tell 'Em I'm Gone"
Just about squeezing onto our list - mainly because of the dearth of any albums released this year, good or bad - is Cat Stevens' third album since returning from the musical dead as Yusuf. 'Tell 'Em I'm Gone' is a woeful follow-up to the excellent 'Roadsinger' of five years ago and even lacks the (very) occasional high points of 'An Other Cup', but where this album does succeed is with the return to the R and B music that first inspired Cat to pick a guitar up some 55 years ago and some entertaining cover versions ('You Are My Sunshine' and 'Big Boss Man'). The originals are a very mixed bag: 'I Was Born In Babylon' tries to be brave but ends up patronising, a lament about how the white Christian Empire has crumbled which makes a valid point rather clumsily; 'Editing Floor Blues' is also a little dodgy in the way that Cat tries to defend himself from newspaper criticisms made 30 years ago in some cases and succeeds in sounding bitter rather than heroic. 'The Cat and Dog Trap' is a clever nod of the head to the days a teenage Cat sang 'I Love My Dog', though, and 'Dying To Live' is a rather moving look at old age and frailty, taboo for most lesser artists. At half an hour in the CD age - and after five years of waiting - this is a scandal - yes Cat's 1970s albums were all short too but contained so much emotional weight that didn't seem to matter; this record, however, is only heavy in parts (and not always successfully), with most of it about as heavy as a whiskerfrom a Firecat. Overall Yusuf sounds as confused as he ever has - the lyrics and his voice sound old and weary, but the cover silhouette sets out to make him look young for instance - but the album highlights are worth sitting through the lesser moments for.
THE BEST RE-ISSUES OF THE YEAR
1) 10cc "Ten Out Of Ten" (1981)/"Windows In The Jungle" (1983)
I still can't believe that these two 10cc albums (plus their lesser predecessor 'Look, Hear, Are You Normal?') are here, sitting on my shelves with their 10cc brethren as if owning them was the most natural thing in the world. For both 'Ten Out Of Ten' and 'Windows In The Jungle' are my favourite ever 10cc albums, recorded right at the very end of the band's original run when the records had stopped selling and the hits had stopped coming. Eric Stewart had been badly injured in a car crash in 1979 that effectively put the band on hold and they were back to a core trio of Eric, Graham Gouldmann and drummer Paul Burgess for these two records. More serious and less wacky than usual, but every bit as thoughtful, 'Ten Out Of Ten' is Graham's finest moment within the band and 'Windows' Eric's as both men come to terms with their changing fanbase and a darker, scarier 1980s than the 1970s had been for both of them. The result is a pair of quiet triumphs (after a bit of a mis-step with 'Look Hear'), much ignored by most of their fans that we liked enough to make part of our 'core' 101 album listing (I'm pleased to say that they're now officially the last AAA core albums still missing on CD: it may have taken six years of nagging - and probably had nothing to do with us at all - but we finally did it!) You see, these two albums came out in America on CD briefly some 25 years ago but never did come out in Europe and until the beginning of this year were clocking up prices of £200 secondhand on Amazon. So much love do I have for 'Windows' in particular that I nearly bought that copy myself - instead patience has been rewarded and these CDs cost a grand total of £8 each! And that's with bonus tracks - nothing that juicy, just some lesser B-sides, radio edits and live tracks - and if I was being really critical the packaging isn't up to much either. But....wow, they're actually here; I haven't got this emotion about buying a record before technically hearing it since Dennis Wilson's pair of albums came out seven years ago...
2) Oasis "(What's The Story) Morning Glory?" Deluxe Edition (1995)
Like the album itself, this deluxe re-issue of Oasis' 'Morning Glory' lacks the 'wow' sparkle and energy of the one for 'Definitely Maybe' but once again features more delights and successful pieces of vault-raiding than anything of the same generation. This three CD set includes the whole of the re-mastered album, some ridiculously impressive B-sides (although alas there's less that hadn't already been gathered up on superlative compilation 'Masterplan') and a full disc of unreleased material: demos a plenty, live extracts from legendary Oasis gigs like Knebworth and Earl's Court available officially for the first time, extracts from the MTV Unplugged show (with Noel singing everything), the 'radio one unplugged' cover of The Beatles' 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away' and the legendary and hard-to-find 'Bonehead's Bank Holiday' intended as the guitarist's 'Ringo' contribution to the album but sung by Noel when Paul Arthurs chickened out! There's nothing quite as spine-tingly as the original unedited take of 'Shakermaker' or the pre-Oasis demos as 'The Rain' included on the 'Definitely Maybe' set. But this is still a handy clue as to why Oasis were the biggest band of their generation - let's hope that the next batch of under-rated albums get similarly deluxe re-issues and the full 'story' of this most fascinating of bands can at last be told.
3) Paul McCartney and Wings "Venus and Mars" Deluxe Edition (1975)
After a tiny gap of 18 months or so, The McCartney Collection deluxe series is back in force, with re-issues of Wings albums four and five ('Wings At The Speed Of Sound' is also out). I've always had a soft spot for 'Venus and Mars', which tends to get overlooked alongside 'Band On The Run', a typically eclectic McCartney mini-masterpiece in which he tries a ridiculous amount of styles and almost all of them work (although the patronising 'Treat Her Gently' is abominable). Like most of these re-issue sets I have to take issue with the expense and the sheer amount of not-that-interesting filler included on these sets (the songs from 'One Hand Clapping' aren't that rare, while '4th Of July' isn't that long) Clips of Wings filming the awful (and thankfully unreleased-till-1986) 'My Carnival' and a TV advert for the album aren't the most interesting DVD extras either. But the chance to own a studio take of 'Soilly' (the finale to live set 'Wings Over America'), an 'early' version of 'Rock Show' and the delightfully dotty outtake 'Hey Diddle' make it all worthwhile. The better unreleased material is actually on 'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' (including demos for album singles 'Silly Love Songs' and 'Let 'Em In', a version of 'Beware My Love' with Led Zeppelin's Jon Bonham filling in for Joe English and Joe's song on that album 'Must Do Something About It' with a vocal by Paul), but 'Venus and Mars' is still a more essential purchase if you don't already own either.
THE BEST TV/RADIO DOCUMENTARIES OF THE YEAR
1) The Rolling Stones At The BBC (TV, BBC4)
This compilation of rare and not-so-rare Stones clips was rather thrown away on BBC4 and not given the publicity it deserved (and that was before it was taken off once after the sad news about Mick Jagger's girlfriend's suicide and rescheduled a month later). While not quite as jaw-dropping as similar compilations for Pink Floyd and The Kinks (please please please carry on and do some more for The Who, The Hollies and the Solo Beatle Years...) this was another excellent compilation containing footage even the band's biggest fans hadn't seen before (the brief clip of '19th Nervous Breakdown' had only just been returned to the archives, in fact, after popping up in a TV play about a pill-popping parent - yep, they should have used 'Mother's Little Helper'!) There was a nice lot of rarely seen interview footage too, with a notably thoughtful Brian Jones of whom hardly anything exists, while the compilation sensibly stuck mainly to the band's glory years in the 1960s. Perhaps one day the beeb will put all their excellent 'at the...' series out on a special DVD. Till them this is one documentary British readers ought to keep their eyes peeled for (BBC4 have a habit of repeating these things late at night...)
2) Mitch Benn Is The 37th Beatle (Radio, Four Extra)
You don't get many stand-up comedy shows about music - perhaps because your audience has to really know a subject to find it funny - but The Beatles have always been a popular choice for a laugh, woven as they are into the fabric of our times. Liverpudlian Mitch Benn knows all this and uses it to his advantage, claiming that so many other people over the years have claimed to be 'the fifth Beatle' that he may as well throw his hat into the ring. Listing all the candidates available for fifth Beatle (George Martin, Brian Epstein, even Tony Sheridan whose death in 2013 inspired the show) allows for some inspired banter and some Rutles-style songs (including one about a damaged sculpture of The Beatles in Liverpool after Ringo's unkind comments about the city: 'Someone decapitated Ringo, I know that because someone decapitated Ringo, and now he's even shorter than he was!') I've heard from others who've actually seen the show (I haven't, just heard the Radio Four Extra broadcast of it at the beginning of the year) that it rambles a bit when seen in full but the half hour I heard is the funniest Beatles comedy since Paul McCartney went out with Heather Mills!
3) A Grammy Salute To The Beatles (TV, ITV)
Screened in America in February to mark the - gulp! - 50th anniversary of the fab four's first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, we Brits didn't get to see this programme until Easter, when it was parked away late at night (although after gaining some good coverage ITV have already repeated it twice in prime time). I'm still not quite sure what I think about this documentary/concert: it was more moving than I expected to see Paul and Ringo back playing together for the first time in - another gulp! - 12 years (George Harrison's memorial concert). Both seemed to be enjoying themselves and even sat together in the audience to watch the rest of the bill, just like old times (that was the new Mrs Macca Nancy on her first 'official' outing next to Paul, while Barbara Bach was alongside Ringo as ever). The interview snippets with David Letterman (whose show now comes from what was the Ed Sullivan studio) were also moving, the pair of Beatles looking round in awe and picking out things they remembered from the day itself. Alas what could have been the TV event of the year never quite materialised - there were way too many nobody bands trying to do The Beatles (and do them badly; Annie Lennox was about the best and she was merely poor as opposed to unlistenable) and any newcomers to The Beatles (there must be some!) would have been very lost: nowhere were we told just how big the impact of the show was, the exact TV ratings for it (73 million! Back when there was 'only' 174 million Americans around to watch it - and this doesn't include 'guesting' relatives/friends not counted by the TV companies!), how many teenagers started bands immediately afterwards or the fact that this night still has the lowest crime spree of any single night in American records (because all the teenage hoodlums were inside watching the mop tops!) There was no context as to how lucky Ed Sullivan was to hire The Beatles either (his acts were booked months in advance and Sullivan only 'discovered' the band by chance after seeing screaming crowds of Beatle fans at Heathrow when The Beatles were coming back from a European tour!) A bit of a lost opportunity, but a special event all the same. Oh and a bit of history that unbelievably had never ever happened before (and didn't get as much fuss as it should!): while Paul has sung 'Sgt Peppers' live and Ringo 'With A Little Help From My Friends' this is the first time the pair have ever done the medley together (with Ringo making his entrance as 'Billy Shears'!) That alone is enough to tip this TV show into our top three!
THE BEST DVDS OF THE YEAR
1) Freda Kelly - The Beatles' Press Secretary (Documentary)
There have been so many programmes and books made by people who had very little connection with The Beatles down the years that very few of their 'inner circle' are left to talk. The Beatles' liverpool fanclub secretary is one such person, someone who took the band's privacy so seriously that her children barely knew of her 20s spent working for The Beatles and only agreed to do this film with the birth of her grandchild (so he can think her 'cool' when he grows up!) Freda played a major role in the band's story: she was there in the very early years assisting Brian Epstein, she helped confused Beatle mums and dads cope with the mountains of fan letters arriving at their houses each and every day, she wrote a regular column in The Beatles Book magazines and was one of the passengers on the Magical Mystery Tour coach. She has plenty of fine stories to tell, although you get the impression that even now she's reluctant to tell half of them, the interviewer looking on astonished as she brings out one tiny case of souvenirs from her attic and claims 'I honestly haven't looked at these in 40 years - I guess some of them might be worth a bit now!' With an impressively long running time (the BBC4 edit was an hour and a quarter, although I believe that's longer on the DVD), this is a better and more interesting documentary than many assumed, telling more on the lowest of low budgets than major chunks of the high budget 'Beatles Anthology'. As ever with the fab four, the beauty is in the small details - but Freda's largely untold story is a bigger detail than many ever give her credit for. Mitch Benn left her out when discussing the '37th Beatle' - Freda belongs somewhere in the early 20s!
2) Gene Clark - The Byrd Who Flew Away (Documentary)
Gene Clark was the quiet heart of the early Byrds - the line-up that everyone thinks of when they imagine the band. Roger McGuinn may have had the granny specs, David Crosby the cape and Michael Clarke the hair, but Gene had the songs. His solo catalogue - poor selling, largely neglected in his lifetime and still only now slowly slinking out onto CD - has always deserved better, with no less a writer than Bob Dylan calling Gene his 'only competition' (although in truth I'd take Gene's songs over Dylan's any day). While Clark's reputation is now in relatively safe hands (his 1974 album 'No Other' is nowadays regarded as a classic - it isn't quite, but several of his other solo albums genuinely are), one thing he 's always lacked is a decent documentary just about him. Sadly, despite some nice clips of archives film and some nice interview clips with the likes of David Crosby we're still waiting: 'The Byrd Who Flew Away' is one of those documentaries that has a great half hour spread amongst an hour and a half and at times moves slower than a ballad from Gene's 'Two Sides To Every Story' LP (surely the album with the slowest per song running speed of any AAA record!) 'Outsider' fans no doubt scratched their heads wondering what all the fuss was about, seeing as the documentary wasn't able to secure rights to a lot of the music and most of the second half was taken up with the sad tale of self-destruction (the cycle of abstinence, great new material/gigs, the party afterwards to celebrate, the drunken shambles repeated over and over) that made Gene look a mess, not a tortured genius. But the sheer fact that this documentary exists - and managed to be as good as it was during the better documented Byrds years - means it more than fully deserves a place in our yearly listings, a nice try on a difficult subject for which we're thankful they even tried at all. Oh and good on BBC4 for screening it, although as this documentary later came out on DVD (sadly without any extras but with an even longer running time) we've added it to our 'DVDs' list for now (that said, it seems to have gone missing off Amazon - I swear it was there last week when I researched this article though so we'll keep it here in the hope it comes back again!)
3) CSNY '74 (Concert)
Another quick mention of the CSNY box set of their 1974 tour. The box set includes a DVD of eight songs recorded at two separate shows. All eight songs are fabulous, especially the Wembley material, and had both concerts been released in full this set would be sitting at the top of our 'greatest release of the decade' review, not just the yearly one. But alas teasing us with a mere 40 minutes worth of great material when we could be seeing - gulp - eight odd hours is tantamount to torture! And oh boy is it fit to use; the material released here is amongst the weakest footage out there...
THE MOST DISAPPOINTING RELEASES OF THE YEAR
1) The Hollies "More Live Hits"
I love The Hollies in all their many incarnations down the years: with Graham Nash, Terry Sylvester, Allan Clarke, Mickael Rickfors, even the Carl Wayne years were ok...but now down to two original members (Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliott) and with a paucity of new songs (the last two Hollies studio albums have been truly dreadful, amongst the worst in my collection) and it's clear that something has gone badly wrong. Vocalist Peter Howarth tries so hard to take charge, but he's a musicals-style vocalist, not the leader of a pop band; the rhythm section try hard but the years are slowing them down; keyboardist Ian Parker is a little gem but his best work belongs to the 1980s not in the 21st century where his beloved keyboards sound dates; only the guitar work really comes to life and even then Tony seems to be having an off day by his standards. The modern day Hollies finally make only their second live LP some 47 years after their first but the differences between them are between day and night: the 1977 Hollies were a tight outfit that played plenty of hits but still had plenty to prove, with great new songs and modernised arrangements of old ones. The modern Hollies sound trapped in a permanent hell where Carrie Anne and Jennifer Eccles haunt them every single bloody night, while the presence of members past has never been more keenly felt. Yes there are highlights - Tony's autobiographical 'Dolphin Days' is the one decent Hollies song of the 21st century, there's a lovely slow folky reading of 'Look Through Any Window' and a sitar/banjo hybrid version of rarity 'The Baby' is a welcome revival for a much-loved song. But my goodness, the rest of it...what's happened to Soldier's Song? Purple Rain? Shine Silently? We're Through? Number one hit I'm Alive?!? (all of which sounded majestic even a few years ago). The Hollies' standing was never higher than with the release of the superlative 'Clarke-Hicks-Nash' set a couple of years ago, but with this release they've thrown it all away. Again. Bah!
2) Neil Young "A Letter Home"
Suddenly the past ten years all make sense: Neil really was 'hiding' something from us all these years he's been giving us non-albums and passing off weird ideas and off-centre spin-offs as bona fide Neil Young albums (just like the 1980s all over again!) 'A Letter Home' is one of the worst of the bunch so far, a deliberately poorly recorded covers album of all the acoustic songs that first inspired Neil, recorded in a replica of a mono 'soundbooth' and given added 'aged' effects. Coming on the back of the launch date for Neil's new gadget 'Pono' (his response to what the guitarist considers ridiculously low levels of quality on mp3), it seemed like a joke that got out of hand - an 'Everybody's Rockin' for the modern era (only not quite as blessedly short and without the hilarious cover of Neil as a 1950s pink suited rocker). The song choices are boring, the performances lack fire and the whole project is worth owning for just one song: Neil's tribute to fellow AAA star Bert Jansch (of Pentangle) who died in 2011 with a recording of his 'Needle Of Death' (although even this isn't a patch on the original). Must try harder, See me after class. Leave that mono sound-booth at home and stop tinkering at the back there, Neil!
3) David Crosby "Croz"
The world seemed to go crazy for David Crosby's first solo album in 21 years (although really it's the third CPR album without P!) Crosby's greatest since the 1970s, a fine return, Crosby at the top of his game...I couldn't wait to get hold of this album, not least after hearing of the horrendous money issues making it (Crosby spent most of his time making it lying on his son James Raymond's -the 'R' in CPR - couch). Our website is here to support artists through thick and thin and do what it can when an artist is brave and bold and clearly has something they need to say desperately bad. And yet...this album didn't really say anything at all, well not by Crosby's high standards. Some bland songs with bland productions that lacked the fire of Crosby from even ten years ago, the only major addition to Croz' canon was a song already premiered on a live LP. What a pity - there I was all prepared to buy ten copies to help Crosby out...
4) Pink Floyd "The Division Bell"
Before we heard news of 'The Endless River', rumour amongst Pink Floyd fans was ripe. Their official site promised the exciting news: big event coming soon. Fans held parties on the night in question sure that the band were a) touring b) had a 'proper' album in the works or c) Syd Barrett had somehow come back from the dead with his third solo LP dictated by a Pink Floyd roadie. Sadly none of these were true: their last album 'The Division Bell' was getting an expensive re-mastering and we were all asked to buy it. That was all. No bonus tracks, no unreleased material, no new cover artwork or packaging, not even a coaster (like the expensive sets of 2011). In these days that's not enough to tantalise fans so much, especially as the last time The Division Bell was re-mastered was...let me see...two thousand and flipping eleven as well!!! (Honestly what technology changed so much in three short years to warrant this?!) Of course we all know now why the band were studying these album sessions so hard, but that doesn't prevent poor 'Division Bell' from a place on our list...
5) George Harrison "The Apple Years"
We'd been asking for a decent CD re-issue of some of George's rarer albums for years: the great and under-rated 'Wonderwall Music', the mixed 'Dark Horse', the rather odd 'Extra Texture', the downright bonkers 'Electronic Sound'...it's always seemed criminal to me that records by one of the members of the most famous band on the planet should be so hard to get hold of, even if they aren't Harrison at his best. However when I asked for them, I meant individually, at affordable prices - not in some mega-expensive (£80! I was expecting £40...) box set that comes with absolutely no previously unreleased extras whatsoever, complete with an album like 'All Things Must Pass' that's been out half a dozen times on CD by now. The best you get for collectors with this set is a booklet with lots of padding and a DVD that - like the one for the 'Dark Horse' box set of a decade back - is very good for what it is but contains not quite half of everything that could have been on it. Chances are Apple are inevitably going to milk this set for all they're worth and re-release these discs separately so our advice is to wait till then and perhaps this Apple goodie won't taste quite so rotten...
THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
1) Graham Nash "Wild Tales"
The most meticulous of the three CSNY autobiographies to date (Stills is the only one not to have written a book so far!), Nash's autobiography starts with the poignant part of his life that divides the book in two: should he get on a plane to tour with The Hollies, the band he's been with for the past seven odd years and one of whom he's known since the age of five? Or should he leave for a new life in America with two buffoons he's just met called Crosby and Stills? Most of the book seems to be examining whether Nash made the right decision (a cautious yes for the most part, with some definite 'nos' during Crosby's darkest drugged up period in the 1980s), although curiously Nash doesn't spend much time on the Hollies part of the book (the lesser known half of the story). Nash's keen eye and witty observations make for a delightful companion on a busy story and Graham's well known love of photography results in some of the greatest photos in any AAA autobiography. More detail on the songs would have been welcome, but by and large this is an excellent book - one that manages to be both honest and supportive (he gets Crosby's egotism and lovable innocence spot on!)
2) Ray Davies "Americana"
As we said last week, not the book I was expecting. Ray's subtitle for his third book is 'The Kinks, Americana and Searching For The Perfect Riff' - instead it should be called 'Me Alone, With My Thoughts, In a Gloomy New Orleans Hospital, Musing About The Bastard Who Shot Me'. Ray's darker side comes through as he recounts what he thought would be the last chapter of his life: dying from a mugger's bullet wounds in a hospital where no one believes he's a real rock star and who no one expects will last the night. Thankfully that wasn't the case and Ray recovers enough to reminisce about The Kinks' struggles cracking America (they were famously booted off a plane for some old-fashioned hi-jinks in 1965 and banned from the country until 1970), his feelings for his brother and his burgeoning solo career (all about to kick-off when the mugger got involved). However again and again Ray keeps returning to the fact that nobody comes to visit, that he's burned all his bridges chasing a silly American dream he's not sure he ever believed in and his fear that he'll end up a hermit, like his friend Alex Chilton (of The Box Tops and Big Star). This is a sad, lonely book from a dark and lonely time in Ray's life and by contrast makes the first two books 'X-Ray' (an 'unauthorised autobiography' - how I love that phrase!) and 'Waterloo Sunset' (a collection of short stories based on Kinks songs) look like a 'Sunny Afternoon'. You wonder why Ray released it now (well - at the tail end of 2013 when I was too poor to afford it!) Tough going and serious as it is, though, 'Americana' is a book worthy of Ray's musical talents and a fascinating glimpse into a tortured soul at its most tortured.
3) Neil Young "Waging Heavy Peace"
Neil's book is predictably weirder than the above pair. Like the musician it tends to ramble, leaping from subject to subject and dancing through the decades to tell a single story as if the past is as alive as the present. By the end of the book you've learnt almost nothing, with the 'real' Neil cleverly hidden by typical wordplay and subterfuge, but like the records where this happens (especially the 'Geffen' years in the 1980s) somehow it's all so in keeping in character you don't mind. I'd have hated for Neil's books to tell me all his darkest secrets - he's not that sort of a writer - and given the events of this year it seems likely that Neil was simply too emotionally 'used up' to release albums like clockwork the way he always has (but still didn't want fans to guess anything was wrong). Usefully the book seems to have kick-started his creative juices ('Psychedelic Pill' is like a distillation of this book, good and bad) and is great company while listening to various Neil Young albums; less usefully there's no index, no chance of looking anything up and that scary picture of Neil on the front cover's eyes do tend to follow you around the room...
THE BEST SONGS OF THE YEAR
1) Keith Don't Go (Alternate Version) (Nils Lofgren with Neil Young, 'Face The Music' Box Set)
Fast and furious, this early take of what many consider to be Nils Lofgren's greatest rocker (not quite me: it's second to 'Moon Tears') is a revelation, not least for the fact that this song from the sessions for last Grin album 'Gone Crazy' features a certain rather famous guitarist. We fans are used to hearing Neil Young and Nils battle it out on the former's home territory: their work on the 'Tonight's The Night' and 'Trans' album are among the greatest in Neil's back catalogue, even without Nils coping with being thrown in at the deep end made to play piano (an instrument he' never touched!) for the 'After The Goldrush' sessions. Here's the return compliment - as far as we know the only time Neil turned up to a Lofgren session - and what's fascinating is how easily Neil slips in as 'one of the boys'. Neil really gets into the spirit of doubling Nils' playing on a grungy rhythm part (not unlike what Danny Whitten used to do for him) and both men do a fine job at aping The Rolling Stones (for those who don't know, this song was inspired by rumours of Keith Richards' demise and heavy drug use in the mid-1970s; Lofgren came very close to being a Rolling Stone instead of Ronnie Wood but was dropped simply for being 'American' - that band's history over the past 40 odd years could and should have been so different). The pair sound rather good on harmonies too. Overall I think I'd still take the re-recording, but this faster even angrier take (Lofgren sounds like his vocals have been sandpapered!) is a fine extra and great to hear after all these years, the highlight of the Lofgren box set 'Face The Music's impressive 40 unreleased tracks.
2) Pushed It Over The End (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, CSNY '74)
A favourite of bootleggers since the first time CSNY performed it on their 'stadium tour' of 1974, we've waited 40 years for one of Neil Young's greatest from a whole collection of unreleased songs to see the light of day. A bonkers fiery take on feminism, this ragged-but-right song might feature some very questionable lyrics ('Good looking Millie's got a gun in her hand, but she doesn't know how to use it!') but the music is a delight, tearing this way and that as if to throw off a movement too strong to back down. The 'falling down' refrain, where Neil physically keeps moving down the keys, long past the point where it's comfortable, is one of the highlights of the CSNY '74 set (even if it's still not the best version of the song doing the rounds). A shoe-in for the 'Human Highway' reunion album CSNY never quite got round to making, 'Pushed It Over The End' is testament to how powerful the quartet's music together could be at its best and can now at last be judged properly alongside it's brothers and sisters (except in Italy, incidentally, where a record company 'accidentally' leaked this song on an official release - the source of many a bootleg...)
3) Louder Than Words (Pink Floyd, The Endless River)
The one actual 'song' as opposed to not-good-enough-to-release-at-the-time-noodling on Pink Floyd's 'Endless River' album has become a major talking point with fans. It's not quite as good as it thinks it is - like a lot of 'The Division Bell' and David Gilmour's solo LPs his wife Polly Samson only partly 'gets' the band and what they stand for. No lyric could ever sum up 47 years of Floyd-dom in one go and Roger Waters is probably laughing his socks off at lines like 'world weary growth' and the rhymes of 'fire' and 'desire'. But for all that, when the chorus kicks in with all its glory, talking about Pink Floyd as a band hopeless at communicating with each other in anyway except music, and Rick Wright's much-missed organ swells up from 20 years previously like a ghost and Gilmour's guitar begins to glide and the beautiful chord changes pull at your heartstrings...somehow it works. The band are adamant that this is really it this time and after two whole decades since the last bona fide release under that name they're probably right. This isn't quite the perfect farewell that 'High Hopes' was in 1994 but it's still powerful stuff, another reminder of how expressive and telepathic their music was is and always will be. You just wish that they'd taken their own advice and left this one as pure music...
Once again we leave you with our own personal greatest moments of the year as voted for by....one of you. Again. Oh dear (perhaps we haven't done as well this year as we'd thought!) Never mind though - we agree, so here are the five most un-missable moments form our menagerie of music and madness, starting - inevitably enough - with our April Fool's Day column (which seems to get more popular - and weirder - every year!)
1) Max The Singing Dog's Scrapbook: 2099
(Published April 1st 2014: http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/max-dogs-picture-book-news-views-and.html and http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/max-dogs-picture-book-part-two-news.html)
By the year 2099 Max is a great-great-grandoggy himself (see various Youtube videos...) and content to share with readers of a 'special' #176761 edition of 'News, Views and Music' his happiest memories. He gets out his photo-album (i didn't even know he had a camera!) and proceeds to tell you all the story of how Alan's Album Archives grew to become a film franchise, release a charity single, a hit musical about the history of the AAA ('Max-A-Mama-Mia!') and organise our own spin-off version of Alphabet Soup before Max retired from a scandal-filled life full of a cane addiction to become a vicar...The bits that seemed to go down especially well were the scripts from Max's personal appearances promoting the show: he got around did our mascot dog appearing on all the greats: Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross, Question Time, Top Gear, Just A Minute, The Archers... Oh and it must all be true - we even guessed that Dr Who villain The Master would become a woman (although we were a bit out with our guess of former companion Bonnie Langford...)
2) AAA Granamas - Whoops, AAA Anagrams
Next up, some anagram unf, sorry fun, with a whole bunch of anagrams based not only on all the best AAA bands but also your humble website! Here are two to get you started: 'The Rolling Stones' = 'Get No Shrill Notes' and 'Alan's Album Archives' = 'Am An Ear's Lavish Club'!
3) Hilariously Misheard AAA Album Titles/Lyrics
Wigs at the speed of sound! Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Tim! Sitting on the back of a duck, wasting time!...yes it's an AAA top thirty 'funniest misheard song titles'/ 'funniest misquoted lyrics', a laughaminute finale to our regular 'top ten' section!
4) An AAA Guide To The Beatles' Cartoons
No one else but Alan's Album Archives could write 10,000 words on a cartoon series that has never been made commercially available and wasn't officially sanctioned by the band anyway. But we had fun writing this one and offering 'plot' summaries and bits of trivia to 'remind' people of some very cherished memories, our guide to 40 episodes (ie 80 individual cartoons and another 80 singalongs!) that range from the delightful to the diabolical, often within the same episode!
5) The Beatles "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band"
Finally, something serious! Interestingly the album review that's gained me most nice comments and general back-slapping to date isn't an album I love, or an obscure record that was one of the reasons I created this site (to plug albums other people might not know). Instead it's one of the best selling of all AAA albums and one of the most famous albums on the planet, over which everyone has already had their two cents' worth to say. I did feel on good form the night I wrote it though so who knows -perhaps Sgt Peppers really will become my favourite Beatles album after all and I just haven't caught up with my sub-consciousness yet?...
And that, as they say, is that. Not just for this article but for this year. Thankyou for supporting this site over the past 12 months! It's been a hectic and confusing but nicely productive year and I couldn't have made it without you all - here's to better health, better music and being that bit closer to our goal of having reviewed every AAA release under the sun by this time next year! Till then from the Alan's Archives team (erm, Max The Singing Dog and me!) a very happy cheery chappy not at all snappy or flappy or clap trappy Spice Girls in a nappy 2015 and see you in the new year!