Monday, 14 April 2014
Stephen Stills "Thoroughfare Gap" (1978)
You Can't Dance Alone/Thoroughfare Gap/We Will Go On/Beaucoup Yumbo/What's The Game?//Midnight Rider/Woman Lleva/Lowdown/Not Fade Away/Can't Get No Booty
I read an interesting article yesterday about the 'twenty Disney characters most in need of a hug'. While I dallied with writing an AAA version for our top ten (which basically came down to deciding whether Roger Waters or David Gilmour would most benefit from a hug during Pink Floyd's most difficult years), I thought people might get the wrong idea. Not to mention there's too many obvious candidates who might have to be left out including one very obvious musician having a particularly bad time in his life and career. Poor Stephen Stills. No sooner had life seemed to have worked out at last after a decade of occasional ups and severe downs (see our review of the mature family man record 'Stills', one of his greatest achievements with or without CSNY) then it all came unravelled again - suddenly and unexpectedly by the sound of the music Stills made at the time. Taking on board the sad outcome of the will they won't they relationship with American singer Judy Collins (she didn't), Stills decided to go for greater committal with his second significant other French singer Veronique Sanson and proposes early on in their relationship, doing his best to avoid the 'mistakes' of years past. In Still's eyes the relationship was perfect, his newborn children were perfect and - shock horror - even Stills suddenly seemed to be perfect, with career-high songs about life with the family after years on the road and how blissful life could be when understood properly by Stills as an older, wiser human being. After so many years (and albums) of unhappiness, any fan with any empathy at all is rooting for Stills to finally get the happiness he deserves. But no - the 'Stills' album ended ominously with Sisyphus forever doomed to overcome the same emotional hurdles in his life every time he hurls a rock up a mountain and follow-up records 'Illegal Stills' and 'Thoroughfare Gap' trace the rock's sad journey downwards just as success and happiness looked inevitable. Even by Stills' standards 'Thoroughfare Gap' is one of his most painfully honest and heartbreaking records about the disintegration of that longed for marriage and Stills' discovery that he hasn't 'come of age' after all as he once promised us. So why isn't 'Thoroughfare Gap' held up as a masterpiece in his canon, as an epic of singer-songwriter doom or an example of why Stills can pack an emotional punch like no other writer?
Because 'Thoroughfare Gap' also happens to be Stills' disco album. Yep that's right - the genre that more than other seemed designed to be empty and artificial and which every other songwriter had given up dabbling with once 'Saturday Night Fever' fell off the charts in 1978 (and 'Grease' took over). The genre that would be the most toothless of rock and roll's extended family, were it not for the fact that most of the people who recorded disco songs had so many teeth (it wasn't just the medallions that people copied when The Bee Gees suddenly became hip again). Never one to do things by halves, Stills even took the no doubt expensive step of hiring arranger Mike Lewis (who worked on the 'Saturday Night Fever' soundtrack) and younger Bee Gee brother Andy Gibb. You're probably backing away right now - either in horror or to find where you've stored away your platform boots and mirror ball, depending how you feel. As a result 'Thoroughfare Gap' has been laughed at even some of the most committed CSN fans who think 'American Dream' was a positive listening experience and is generally considered as a bit of a mistake, a sad case of a pioneer riding other people's bandwagons (riding is a key theme of this record, as we'll see), as the nadir of Stills canon. But 'Thoroughfare Gap' isn't like any other disco album I've ever heard - hard as it tries to be energetic and intoxicating the 'disco' parts of this album are absolutely integral, the still hopeful side of Stills' nature relishing in being single all over again - even though it doesn't take an awful lot of digging through this album's lyrics to prove that he'd rather be anything but single again right now. What's more disco isn't an alien a landscape to Stills as it was to so many other musicians of the 1970s: his 'latin' songs feature similar emphasis on rattled percussion and sweeping strings and Stills had written a song about 'dancing' before (even if 'Change Partners' is actually about Victorian ball-rooms not John Travolta posing). 'Thoroughfare Gap' is easily my favourite of all the AAA disco albums, not that that's much of a caveat and not that there's all that many (it's a bit like saying that George Bush Senior is the more intelligent of the two or that 'Forever' is the best single the Spice Girls ever released - most people have stopped caring long before you reach the end of the sentence). Released at just the wrong time - when like anything that starts off being 'hip' and 'trendy' with youngsters disco suddenly started being recorded by lots of people who should know better - 'Thoroughfare Gap' was always going to struggle in the record market of 1978 and was slaughtered by record critics who wanted to have a go at bashing prog rockers.
Not for the first or last time, they were wrong. 'Thoroughfare Gap' isn't close to Stills' best work from earlier in the decade (what is?), but I find a lot of depth and a lot of heart in this album that other people just don't seem to see. Maybe it's my funny ears - or maybe it's the disco lights blinding everybody to the truth. You see, 'Thoroughfare Gap' is the fascinating sound of a musician in denial. Having built most of his career on songs moping how things never seem to turn out, Stills is desperate for things to turn out differently this time, that there will be a happy ending somehow, as much for himself as for his audience. I get the sense that across this album Stills is desperate to pour out his heart to his old audience, but he doesn't quite want to admit to himself just yet how desperate things really are just three years after that positive 'it'll be like this for the rest of my life' statement on 'Stills' (a case of - pardon the CSN pun - déjà vu for him and us both). No doubt record company pressure on Stills to come up with something faintly 'commercial' after the disappointing sales for 'Illegal Stills' have something to do with this album too. As a result, 'Thoroughfare Gap' is a particularly fascinating record because it tries so hard to be 'happy' when in its heart is anything but. Sometimes the facade works: 'You Can't Dance Alone' is a thrilling opening, all whoops and disco lights and Andy Gibb vocals (the sound of 1978, along with his Bee Gees brothers) and it's only afterwards you realise how much of that energy has come from the backing and not from Stills at all. A second disco song 'We Will Go On' features Stills singing about his broken heart while a disco goes on in the background, as if trying to distract our ears from what's going on. The rest of the record doesn't try quite so hard, but it's interesting quite how different this record seems if you get to know it from the lyric sheet first instead of the music: perhaps the biggest case of 'denial' in the AAA canon (we weren't kidding when we told you about that hug).
Unable to believe that what inspired such great songs about stability has turned out to be a deeply unsettling and shaky experience, Stills picks and chooses his moments to let us peak into his heart on this album, but when he does it's more of a shock than on earlier albums: how was such a positive force who made expressions like 'carry on, love is coming to us all' a rallying cry for a generation reduced to writing the morose and bitter 'Lowdown'? How did Stills come to re-write 'Not Fade Away', of all songs, as a vehicle for how desperately he feels over the death of something that seemed so permanent? How did the playboy of America's West Coast (after Crosby and Nash anyway, who both set new records) end up sighing 'I Can't Get No Booty'? The result is a schizophrenic record that bounces between energetic enthusiasm and hopeless lethargy, making for a much more believable glimpse of Stills' confused state of mind than any full on confessional or all out disco record could have been. There's a 'Thoroughfare Gap' between the two sides if you will that whether by intention or by lucky accident seems to be pitting the highs of the 'chase' of a romance and the 'lows' of mundane reality once the chase is over that actually makes the record sound a lot deeper than everyone suspected at the time (at least to my ears). Notably the one song from this album that made it to last year's Stills compilation 'Carry On' was 'Lowdown', one of the few songs from this album to truly tell it like is and is easily the most depressing song Stills ever wrote (although 'In The Way' from 'Stills' and the 'Deja Vu' classic '4+20' do cut it close).
The 'real' heart of this album - the key lines around which the whole record revolves - are even sung in Spanish, as if to make sure that as few fans worked out what was going on as possible and as if even their creator can't cope with the magnitude of what he's trying to say (a trick Stills has been using ever since Judy Collins made Stills go all Cuban at the end of 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes'). While it would be a mistake to assume every character in song is a real person, who else can 'Woman Lleva' be but Sanson herself, a mysterious exotic foreign lady who blows hot and cold throughout a tempestuous relationship and the song's middle eight - translated into Spanish by Stills and back into English turns out to be "This woman has lied to me, as a woman you're a girl, lives in a world without walls , Inocentemiento not you think dear". No I don't know what 'inocentemiento' means either (innocent?) but look at how Stills has also given us his personal 'stamp' here with his most used and most quoted line 'without walls' (a favourite of many a Stills song), as if to prove how personal this line is. Back in the days when google translators only existed only in Asimov novels, you had to be able to speak Spanish or know someone who did to work out what Stills is saying (equally most of his love songs for Sanson - on 'Illegal Stills' especially - are written in her native tongue French, as if they're too personal for our ears; just in case you think Stills is simply making his ex out to be a monster Veronique is also probably the 'bayou woman' who 'treats me nice and makes good gumbo' in 'Beaucoup Yumbo'). The key album line that a majority of Stills fans can actually understand? 'To forget about loving you at all is beyond me, I cannot understand'. Lines like that are what hugs were made for. Hidden as it is by glitter and glamour, betrayal is the real theme of this record and props up in the unlikeliest places - a middle eight here, a line there - only rewarding you if you're paying full attention. 'Thoroughfare Gap' may not be the best Stills record - it lacks the verve of 'Stephen Stills', the intelligence of 'Stephen Stills II' and the eclectic consistency of 'Manassas' - but there's a case to be made that, far from a nonsense album stuffed with disco, 'Thoroughfare Gap' is actually the most multi-layered of Stills solo albums.
In other ways, though, 'Thoroughfare Gap' is also the boozy young teenage record the teenage Stills never got the chance to make (even his earliest songs for the Springfield sound like a man wiser than his years). Like Lennon on his lost weekend, the loss of a stable family life in a world where nothing else makes sense and the example of David Crosby's increasingly out of control drug habit seems to have made Stills turn his back on the mature reflections he made just three years earlier and admit that he hasn't quite grown up yet. Heck Stills even works with Andy Gibb (then aged 20) across this album, the latest in a long line of Stills protégés who cut their teeth on his records and who seem to be getting younger by every LP. The song 'Can't Get No Booty' is unique in Stills' canon: a silly, boozing, drunken rambling track that pricks it's author's king-size ego when he realises that none of the 'chicks' surrounding him at the local disco are attracted to him despite all the great 'moves' he's made - and 'what a waste' it all is (it's the earthy yin to 'Anything At All's philosophical yang, the David Crosby song from a year earlier that appeared on 'CSN' - the one on the boat as fans the world over know it - that equally made fun of Crosby's ego now sales are slow and the one-time biggest band in the world have been forgotten). The result is a bit like hearing Cat Stevens' 'Father and Son' - Stills has tried the 'mature dad' bit on 'Stills' and when that relationship didn't work out tries to undo it as best he can with a younger view on this record, with only the title track (which had been written a few years earlier) sounding like the Stills of old.
Although betrayal is this album's key theme if you scratch the surface, most fans heard three things: disco lights, dancing and riding. The disco bit we've explained, but the other two links are more interesting. 'Dancing' had only appeared once in Stills' catalogue as part of the delightful but rather stiff and proper 'Change Partners', which made ballroom dancing hip 30 years before 'Strictly'. Stills revisits his lyrics here across the album - most obviously on 'You Can't Dance Alone' - as if desperately looking for future partners. In a way it's as if Stills has sped up the messy matter of falling in love by condensing it into a thrilling four minute dance - and then moving on (note how a good half of that songs plays on without Stills providing a single note in voice or guitar, with a whole energetic coda that leaves the 'ending' unsaid before finally, limply, fading out with the narrator apparently a wreck). On 'Can't Get No Booty' for one, the posing fails and Stills' narrator goes home empty handed (oh alright then - one last hug!) without any partners to 'change' to. If 'dancing' is one central theme to this record then another is 'riding'. The striking sleeve for 'Thoroughfare Gap' features Stills riding one of his beloved horses, Major, at full gallop and wearing a rather fetching bobble hat - he's clearly trying his best to look like a jockey. Stills has since admitted that horses were his 'escape' when life was getting too tough both at home and in his career ('Major' fulfilling pretty much the same purpose as Crosby's boat The Mayan) and it is perhaps significant that the horse appears on the front of this album rather than any other. Gregg Allman's 'Midnight Rider', though, is probably closer to the truth, featuring a shadowy narrator whose clearly on the run from life and vows not to get caught (Stills probably learnt it from a cover his good friend Buddy Miles recorded in 1971, although he did add in a 2009 special on which the Allman Brothers appeared that he was around when the band first recorded it in 1970 and always loved the song). 'Thoroughfare Gap' even sounds like a horse's gallop, although it's actually a song that features Stills comparing himself to a steam train and navigating the chasms around him.
I've made my argument, then, that 'Thoroughfare Gap' isn't the low point of the Stills canon (that's 'Manassas Down The Road' in terms of missed opportunity and a fight between 'Stills Alone' and 'Man Alive' for both being depressingly average). But even I can't argue that 'Thoroughfare Gap' came at a time of great ideas and is in many ways the beginning of the end for the great man's career. This is the last time Stills appears on a studio record until 1982 (with only the CSN reunion on the 'No Nukes!' concert album in between). Four years seems nothing now (it wouldn't surprise me at all if Adele's next record was titled '40'), but for 'Captain Manyhands' Stills - who'd been ridiculously prolific across the first half of the 1970s - this seems like a 'Thoroughfare Gap' indeed. Only six years ago Stills was releasing 'Manassas' as a double set, having been part of no less than seven albums in the previous four years. Notably Stills receives only co-writing credits for two of this album's songs (the first time this had happened since the Manassas days) and the album contains two covers (albeit one with new words added to it). Was the creative well drying up? Sadly yes. Is 'Thoroughfare Gap' responsible as people say? Yes, but for all the wrong reasons - it's not the 'disco' that did Stills so much harm in the long run but the nagging feeling on this record that Stills has been through so much heartbreak already in his early career he's rather written himself out and is in danger of repeating himself. The few attempts to do something different on this album either only work for this album (mainly the disco songs that turn sour when you bite into them) or turn out to be dead-ends. It's interesting (well to me anyway - you've probably all got homes to go to so I'll keep this short) that a good half of all the 'decent' Stills songs to come ('Southern Cross' 'Grey to Green' '50/50' 'Haven't We Lost Enough?' 'Only Waiting For You') have learnt something from this record's honesty, feeling of 'deja vu' or the fact that happiness comes round so infrequently that you have to seize the moment. 'Southern Cross' would not have existed without this album - as indeed 'Thoroughfare Gap' wouldn't have sounded half as good had Stills not got there first with 'Myth Of Sisyphus', his pained 'final' song about the Judy Collins years. I still want to give him that hug, by the way.
So is 'Thoroughfare Gap' worth buying? A definite yes but you have to be a listener with emotional investment in Stills. This isn't quite the CSN equivalent of 'Lennon Plastic Ono Band' but you have to approach 'Thoroughfare Gap' in the right autobiographical sense to make the most out of it - otherwise it is just going to sound like an occasionally silly disco record padded out with a couple of covers. Give it time, though (and maybe buy the other Stills albums first - or make sure you listen to this one last if you own it as a three-album set with 'Stills' and 'Illegal Stills') and there's much to admire: the high octane whirlwind pursuit of 'You Can't Dance Alone' , the sadness so thinly coated in artificial happiness of 'We Will Go On', the lyrics to 'Thoroughfare Gap' that aren't a patch on 'Helplessly Hoping' but offer a similarly posh and poetic wordplay, the heartbreak of 'Lowdown', the demented vocal on 'Midnight Rider', the ever inventive re-casting of 'Not Fade Away' to sound contemporary and the sheer self-effacing silliness of 'Can't Get No Booty'. There's not much here you'd want on a single CD Stills best-of, but there's nothing awful on this album either - which is by itself more than you can say about any other disco album released between 1977 and 1978. Yes 'Thoroughfare Gap' needs a couple of songs with the stature and gravitas of 'Daylight Again' or 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' to be truly essential, but compared to 'Manassas Down The Road' and parts of 'Illegal Stills' Stephen is back to putting his all into his music and is in full charge of his destiny, releasing an album on a major record label fully on his terms for more or less the last time. Forget where the journey ends up, however - for now it's about the distance and the ride.
Some fans say that 'Thoroughfare Gap' is an album lacking in energy, which is true for the most part but opening song 'You Can't Dance Alone' rattles out the blocks like RedRum on rollerskates. My candidate for album highlight, it knocks spots off anything the Bee Gees came up with for 'Saturday Night Fever, with Mike Lewis' strings and horns swooping around Stills' earthy double-tracked vocals for a backing track that's easily one of CSN's most sultry and sexy. Lyrically this song is a less stately, more modern version of 'Change Partners', Stills' narrator out for a night on the town and falling in love. The title hints at the famous line 'it takes two to tango' even though, technically, everyone can dance alone - it takes skill to dance with someone else (as I know from experience - I have a rhythm all of my own and dancing is easier lying down anyway, as Grace Slick will tell you). Restricted to short sharp staccato lyrics to fit the disco tune, Stills strips away much of the poetry from his work for a set of words that are big on erotica rather than romance and sound as if they've been written for the '50 Shades of Grey' film: 'fingertips, electricity flowing, rollin' hips moving to me slowly, lips touch lips - you can't dance alone!' Just to prove he hasn't lost his touch, however, listen out for the very Stills line that promises the un-named dancing partner everything she's missing in life: 'sunshine and a smile'. Best of all comes in the second half of the song when Stills stops chatting his girl up and swoops the girl into his arms for an extended dance and all that built-up energy and tension finally gets a release from easily Mike Lewis' greatest arrangement. Most instrumentals come in the middle of songs for variety's sake, but it was a masterstroke putting it at the end here, with wave after wave of romantic strings and parping horns bringing the song to an exhausting close (although it's a shame the end itself is a rather limp fade rather than a full on ending). Unusually Stills doesn't appear to play on his own songs, the stars of which are the orchestra and the rhythm section of old hands George Perry (who adds some very McCartney-esque bass riffs which never go where you expect them to) and Joe Vitale (whose 'Latin-style' drums recall the Manassas albums). If the soundtrack of 'Saturday Night Fever' had sounded more like this I might have actually enjoyed the film (Andy Gibb's backing vocals mean this song would have slotted in there nicely). Too many fans have dismissed this song simply for jumping on the disco bandwagon, but to my ears they're missing the point: Stills was never afraid to tackle a new genre (there wasn't a genre invented by 1972 that Manassas didn't cover) and the guitarist's ability to master them all is rarely displayed better than here. How so many people dismissed this genuinely exciting and energetic song I'll never know, but then again stylistically in October 1978 - a full year after 'Saturday Night Fever' - Stills couldn't have made a worse choice; had this record come up during the first half of the year. however, I sense it would have been a very different story.
'Thoroughfare Gap' itself is the only song on the album that sounds very much like a traditional Stills song, which is arguably because it was written as early as 1972 (Chris Hillman remembers working on an early version for the first Manassas album that Stills was never happy with). Stills' first overtly country song for some time, 'Gap' features yet more strings but here played in a 'country hoe-down style' rather than disco. In stark contrast to 'Dance Alone' the lyrics are some of Stills' most poetic (and pretentious!), comparing the journey of his life to a steam locomotive soon doomed to be obsolete but chugging along dependably even so. The best lyrics come from the second verse, with Stills wondering about 'what lies beyond?' which sound genuinely inspired (Stills considered this his best ever lyric at the time) and could easily have become a 19th century romantic poem. However the song has nowhere to go by verse three and sadly turns into a travelogue full of rivers and forests, while the idea of the 'Thoroughfare Gap' the narrator sees behind him as his early life disappears from view is a lovely idea that's never quite fully explored. The end comes rather suddenly too, cutting the train off in its tracks, although Stills gets full marks for his closing remarks summing up what life is about: 'It's not the distance, it's the ride'. Musically, too, this song has some good ideas and it's nice to hear Stills doing something different (the layers of percussion added to make the musicians sound like a train is the best use of this on an AAA song since The Who on '5:15'), but there's sadly little variety here with four very long and static verses and no middle eight or even a chorus to shake things up. Dare I say it, 'Thoroughfare Gap' comes dangerously close to being boring for a Still song even if you have to applaud Stills' attempts to grow as a writer and a reminder that he started his musical career at high school, setting poems he had to study to music ('Helplessly Hoping' was inspired by similar memories).
'We Will Go On' is the album's second disco song but one that cuts a bit deeper than 'Dance Alone'. This sounds like the first real statement from Stills on the album, revealing his pain and confusion over this sad passage in his life in the verses that are tremendously affecting, with a 'future that grows darker every day' (listen to the way a 'second' Stills adds a sad 'ye-ah' to the line 'To forget about you at all is beyond me, I cannot understand', which adds much pathos to the opening of the song). The sudden unexpected switch to the major key takes us straight back into disco (Andy Gibb, horns, strings, rattled percussion - you name it!) but the effect isn't as jarring as it sounds on paper - this is a narrator who, despite his grief, vows to 'go on' and find happiness with someone else (although he's too broken-hearted to know quite how just yet). I'd be intrigued, though, to know whether the 'disco' part was there on Stills' demo or earliest takes because the sentiments on the chorus are every bit as real ('It may be my naiveté but life is real and not a game, together we will go on'). Best of all, though, might be the middle eight which charges out of nowhere and slows the song down to a crawl, pleading with someone (almost certainly Sanson) that he still loves her: 'It is good, can you feel it? It is strong, cannot defeat it'. Stills then adds one of his few guitar solos on this album, one of his loudest and angriest sounding of his career, although sadly it gets very little space to do anything before apparently causing a musical avalanche and causing the whole lot of musicians to come crumbling down in one peal of wonderfully chaotic noise. An unusual track, 'We Will Go On' is Stills trying to reconcile his breaking heart with his commercial responsibilities and while 'We Will Go On' isn't one of his very best songs it does cleverly manage to sound both catchy and heartfelt - not an easy task.
'Beaucoup Yumbo' is another interesting track co-written with percussionist Joe Vitale that sounds like it dates from a happier period in Stills' relationship with Sanson. A slow burning bluesy ballad, it combines a very American setting (references to a 'Bayou woman', a 'gumbo' stew originated in Lousiana made up of stock, meat and vegetables and the 'Yumbo' half of the title, a city just North of California) with French (the 'beaucoup' half of the title, which means 'many' and the line c'est ma femme je t'aime' - Stills often sang to his wife Veronique in her native French, especially on 'Illegal Stills'). Reflecting on the peace and harmony of this more peaceful way of life, Stills sounds contented and at home, enjoying the slower way of life and even giving us the audacious rhyme of 'Yumbo' and 'gumbo' (which must surely be unique amongst song lyrics!) This song would have made a nice addition to the 'Stills' album which is full of warm songs about family life like this, although given lyrics across the rest of the album it's also rather sad to hear an audibly pained Stills singing 'when I'm with my woman makes me sure and more together' now that they're apart. Good on Stills for keeping his song whole, though, despite the painful changes in his life - the line 'she'll lead the way once you know where you are going' is one of his most romantic lines and tells us more about the pair's relationship than any number of hokey love lyrics. Unfortunately this is another strong lyric given to us as a pair with a melody that simply doesn't cut it: to stand up to a tempo this slow and laidback a melody has to be really strong and too often it sounds as if Stills is simply singing a poem to whatever music comes into his head. A ramshackle performance doesn't help matters much either, although Mike Finnigan's first appearance on a CSN album on the honky tonk piano part (he'll be a key member of their sound into the 1990s, especially Stills') is certainly memorable, if a little busy. A poor recording of a sweet song, it's a shame that 'Beaucoup Yumbo' wasn't saved for a later album when Stills might have been able to distance himself more from his clearly painful memories; then again with sluggish solo sales and another CSN split Stills may have been recording this song for posterity in case he never got another chance (indeed there isn't one till 'Daylight Again' in 1982!)
'What's The Game?' ends the first album side with 'Thoroughfare Gap's third and final overtly disco song. Stills' best vocal on the album by some distance (it's the only one on the album not double-tracked), the high key pushes Stills to his limits and gives this song a nicely rough and earthy feel that compensates for the most intrusive of the three disco arrangements. In a prequel of 'Southern Cross' the narrator is 'lost in a voyage at sea' where it hits him just how much he's losing if a relationship goes under and how badly he wants his missus back. The line 'I was waiting for you and me to remember just how it was, so that we can sing together' makes it clear that this song is about vocalist Sanson again but again Stills keeps his rage at bay, berating himself as much as her for having taken so long to realise how much the partnership means to him. Stills tries every trick in the denial book here to get her back - laughing with her ('When will you realise I am one of your stronger guys?'), pulling on her heart strings (the tree where their names are carved together is now 'blackened') and ending in anger ('The reason for your game is clearly quite insane!'), but you sense he secretly knows that the relationship is over and that nothing he does or says will work. Once again the only real disco element of the song comes in the chorus (which makes you wonder if it was added belatedly), but isn't as obtrusive as it sounds - on a song about 'playing games' it makes perfect sense that Stills is covering up his real feelings to make the song catchier and more commercial. Listen for yet another appearance of Stills' favourite lyrics, with emotions 'hiding behind walls', this time extended into a fun middle eight that like the narrator sounds like a stuck record, rhyming 'walls' with 'halls', 'called' and 'all' before finally ending on a scream on the word 'insane!' A strong song with a memorable riff inspires a terrific performance from the backing band although it's Stills' turbulent screaming guitar solo and his massed falsetto backing vocals (which sound so much better than the Bee Gees) that steals the show. One of Stills' most unfairly neglected tracks, 'What's The Game?' sounds like a hit single (sadly there never was a single taken from this album) but one that's also open and honest - a tricky feat to pull off.
Side two begins with 'Midnight Rider', the first non-Neil Young cover on a Stills album since the Manassas days. The most famous song the Allman Brothers wrote, Stills was apparently there for the original recording and loved the song from the first (a full three-part harmony version of this track was allegedly under consideration for the ill-fated CSN 'covers' project a few years back). Stills' version is a little more 'pompous' than the original and strangely the main hook of the song isn't performed as well (although Stills' arranging genius is still clear in the 'ain't gonna let them catch me, no!' round at the song's end). It's easy to see why this song about galloping away to goodness knows where on your only faithful companion - a horse - would have appealed to Stills in this period and the lyrics are actually very Stillsy ('I've got to run to keep from hiding' - see 'Know You've Got To Run' - all we need is a mention of 'walls' and this could easily be one of Stephen's lyrics). The lyrics about being reduced to having nothing (well, 'one more silver dollar' as the lyrics put it) but a secret joy at having to start again must also have appealed to Stills. You can't tell this isn't a Stills song though: the melody doesn't have the range or the variety of Stephen's work and the vocal strains his voice terribly, while the backing track plods away rather than gallops. Many commentators at the time called this the best song on the album - actually it's easily the worst, a one-trick pony without much to say past the opening couple of verses and the performance here doesn't do even this song the justice it deserves. One of the album's lesser moments.
'Woman Lleva' is a younger sister of 'Cherokee', the song of burning passion for Rita Coolidge on the first Stills LP, with the same charging horns and the same feel of fire and wrath. My guess is that 'Lleva' is another pseudonym for Sanson, however, and the sudden translation of the middle of the song into Spanish rather than French isn't fooling anyone: this is actually Stills' biggest emotional statement on the record. Another curiously constructed song, 'Lleva' seems to revel in the sort of mind games 'What's The Game?' hated so much, moving without warning Stills sadly singing about his girl whose 'lost and gone away' before sighing on the riff 'wo-o-o-man' which takes the multiply double-tracked backing singer Kitty Pritikin and Stills down nearly an octave every time they sing it and falling uncomfortably on that Spanish section: 'This woman has lied to me, as a woman you're a girl, lives in a world without walls , Inocentemiento not you think dear'. Stills thus goes from sensitive singer-songwriter to bluesman to cackling demon within the space of about a minute, before a piano part by Alby Galutin soothes the song down and let's it spiral off again. Uncomfortable, un-natural and wakwardly angular, 'Woman Lleva' is a difficult song to listen to but it successfully conjures up the drama of Stills' life in this period. A better guitar solo (this one is too quiet in one of the album's rare 'mixing mistakes') and a horn arrangement up to the level of 'Cherokee' might have made this one of Stills' most striking songs - sadly the effect doesn't quite come off despite all the audible hard work. According to the sleevenotes Stills also plays 'moog' on this track for the first time in years although I can't hear it myself (there is an organ part played by Mike Finnigan mixed very quietly - it might be that people can hear).
'Lowdown' is even sadder, Stills trapped in a heavy-sounding riff he can't escape from and with a lyric that borders on the suicidal. Like 'Cold Cold World' from the 'Stills' record but more so, this is Stills trying to come to terms with his recent heartbreak but still feeling too much anger about it to be as sad as the setting demands. 'Feel such misery and I don't know why!' he cries, even though he seems to know exactly why just a few lines later: 'Guess that's what it's like when you see different things'. Most of the lines in this song are what you'd expect from a song with that kind of a title ('Feel so bad I'm surprised I'm not condemned to die'), but there a few memorable images here: Stills' narrator imagining himself being hanged from a tree that's already dying is an unusually graphic ending to this song and one of the album's best couplets that says so much about Stills' schizophrenia between commerciality and honesty: 'Sadness and anger only things keeping me going, tired of nothing but my outsides showing'. Stills brightens up the track with another wonderfully unhinged guitar solo that, predictably, ends up back where it started and just as trapped by the time it's over, but sadly the song's slow tempo and self-indulgent angst prevents this song from getting as exciting as it ought to be: 'Spirit movin' at a dreadful pace' sings Stills at one point and he's not wrong. The decision to add a mass choir to this of all songs is also a strange move: 'Lowdown' should be quiet and broodingly intimate, not treated like a singalong. However of all the songs on this album it's the title track and this one people seem to have identified with and 'Lowdown' became a surprise choice as this album's lone representative on the 'Carry On' box set; if this song is all you know from 'Thoroughfare Gap' don't let it put you off - 'Lowdown' isn't a bad song but it's a clumsier expression of feelings that Stills expresses much better elsewhere.
'Not Fade Away' is a fascinating choice to cover for this LP: one of Buddy Holly's better known songs, Stills' version is like a pumped up discofied version of the Rolling Stones' 1964 cover. However Stills adds quite a lot of new lyrics to this song including a whole second verse ('Can't you see that there's a good reason for being together just to be pleasing? Stomping, shouting, carrying on, you and me baby we could have more fun!') It's as if Stills desperately wants to hear the message that his love is 'forever' but he can't bring himself to lie so instead he 'borrows' one of the most famous musical statements of longevity and pitches a few of his one lines into the mix to show how 'personal' this statement is. This cover version predictably riled the few music journalists who were bothered to listen to this album and most fans have followed suit. However, Stills is one of the best arrangers of other people's material in the business (including Crosby's 'Long Time Gone' and Nash's 'Teach Your Children' which in truth both deserve a Stills co-write) and his adaptation of 'Not Fade Away' manages to sound both faithful and contemporary. The grungy guitar riff Stills adds is ear-catching, his slightly more 'normal' bluesy guitar solo spot on and the presence of a very Manassas like backing (heavy on percussion and keyboards) maintains the hypnotic rhythmical feel of the original. Yes I'd rather Stills had written his own song about permanence instead of relying on a cover, but the guitarist does a good job at making such a renowned song his own here and the cover does seem to 'belong' to this album about characters who don't always say what they mean.
'Thoroughfare Gap' then ends with its silliest moment, 'Can't Get No Booty' (co-written with guitarist Danny Kortchmar, interestingly, better known for his work on the 1975 and 1976 Crosby-Nash records). Although featuring the closest to a traditional rock and roll set up of any song on the album (with Stills himself playing the wonderfully inventive driving bass part), this song was clearly written with half an ear on the disco market, Stills spoofing the 'Saturday Night Fever' film and its many copycats while complaining that posing on the dance-floor doesn't work for the narrator. It's rare to hear Stills laugh at himself quite this much and the result is a delight cod-rock and soul song where 'no matter how hard I try to shake my tail feathers in your face' the girl he's trying to chat up is deeply unimpressed. The narrator overcomes his bruised ego by blaming everything: his tattoos, his accent, his clothes, his hair-cream, anything to prove to himself that he's simply 'out of style' and has still got what it takes to pull the birds. Stills even gets in a rare risque joke: 'It's not the inches, it's the engineer!' he winks knowingly at the listener as his partner turns him down in bed. As good a response as any to punk and the theme of rockstars growing older, there's a real groove behind 'Can't Get No Booty' that would have worked just as well with 'serious' lyrics, making the joke all the funnier because the narrator isn't knowingly laughing at himself. A neat bookend with 'You Can't Dance Alone's effortless way with the ladies, 'Booty' is a clever song that proves that you can dance alone if no one will dance with you! Yes it's silly and frivolous compared to the true Stills classics of old (and future - the astonishingly ,mature 'Daylight Again' is near enough the next Stills song to be released after this one and the contrast between the two couldn't be bigger) but 'Booty' is a lot of fun and it's nice to hear Stills stepping so far out of his comfort zone after such an intense, often painfully serious album.
Overall, then, 'Thorughfare Gap' has much about it to enjoy, even though in truth it doesn't sound much like the earlier Stills solo records. The disco and soul trappings, the re-written cover songs and the references to dancing and 'booty' get in the way, but if you get past those then 'Thoroughfare Gap' is every bit the same earnest and honest Stills we fans have always known and loved. On many levels 'Thoroughfare Gap' was a failure: it killed off any chance in Stills' solo career (his next record won't be till 1986 and then it's released on a smaller label) and many a fan was turned off by the disco trappings which were just six months too soon after the point where the album became 'unhip'. Heard back to back with 'Stephen Stills One' or 'Two' or the first 'Manassas' album it's problems are clear: once the most effortless and eclectic of writers, Stills is now having to keep within the same narrow commercial considerations as everyone else. However I've never understood why this album is quite as hated as it is because Stills doesn't ignore his past either, opening his heart to us in several of his most moving lyrics, adding a couple of fiery guitar solos as good as any in his past and offering up unusual arrangements that actually make perfect sense within the context of the songs. While I'd never lay claim to 'Thoroughfare Gap' being Stills' masterpiece, it is still a very good album and the real thoroughfare gap for this record is the difference between how it was made and how fans have always perceived it: far from being an empty album 'Gap' is brimming with honesty, heartbreak and emotion; Stills' biggest mistake on this album was hiding that so cleverly behind 'walls' of disco lights and party songs.
Dear all, it's horses for courses this week as we follow up Stephen Stills' pony pursuits with his horse Major (the only horse to make an AAA album cover) and ask why so many AAA members ride those crazy horses. Yes that's right - get on the saddle because this week we're taking you for a ride on our little AAA ponies! Or are we just horsing around?! (Neigh! Err I Mean nay - no we're not!) What's the deal with sitting on a poor defenceless animal anyway - why not sit on a cow, they're much more my speed. Humans are weird. Still, there's no denying people's fondness for their pet horses, including these ten (black?) beauties. Interestingly the kings of racing, who must surely have all been brought up on farms and lots of empty desolate countryside turn out to be... Mancunians The Hollies with three entries (two of them made our list - there's also 'Ride Your Pony', a cover from last year's BBC Sessions CD we left out simply because most of you won't know it). Anyway you know the score by now: 10 AAA songs about horses in strict chronological order, it's as simple as that. Hi ho Silver, awayyyyyy....
1) Stewball (The Hollies, 'The Hollies' 1965)
Peter, Paul and Mary's song about their dreams of a perfect pet horse is, in truth, a bit of a dirge. More of a canter than a gallop, it's almost painfully slow but is rescued by some sterling Hollies harmonies. Stewball is kind of the 'David Watts' or horses - far too good to be true - with a mane of silver and a bridle of gold and a million stories that can 'never be told' apparently. However is there a darker side in all this because Stewball sounds a bit of an alcoholic too: 'he never drank water and only drank wine'. I'd keep that nag in the stables if I were you
2) Pegasus (The Hollies, 'Butterfly' 1967)
The Hollies' second magical horse really is magical with wings that allow him to fly. Tony Hick's first solo composition is a lovely song about all the mythical and mystical places Pegasus can fly to and makes this Greek legend sound totally in keeping with the psychedelic era. The song is a kind of mid-paced trot with a lovely flowing trumpet riff that sounds just like Pegasus whinnying!
3) Dig A Pony (The Beatles, 'Let It Be' 1970)
John Lennon was, by his own admission, writing about nonsense here, taking a title phrase that's meaningless out of context and writing a sub-I Am The Walrus song about how words only have meanings because of some pact across humanity but by themselves mean nothing at all. Ponies, though, have quite a history within the Beatles: most of the group learnt to ride in childhood and even poor Ringo - who'd never had a go - somehow learnt to stay upright for the 'Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields' promo where the fab four ride horses around London. Paul McCartney even owned a handsome collection of horses himself after he and Linda spent their early days togetherhorse-riding. Lennon's last great Beatles riff sounds like quite a (night) mare to ride and tries hard to throw the Beatles off-course throughout the song (no wonder they all went to so many takes!)
4) Chestnut Mare (The Byrds, 'Untitled' 1970)
Roger McGuinn had a great idea in 1969 to re-write folk tale 'Peer Gynt' in a modern America setting, the outlaw finding he has to become a politician and make changes democratically to create the 'great future' he believes in. 'Gene Tryp', as the character became in anagram form, had to be given a more modern form of companion than the deers in the Norwegian original though - and what better choice than a horse, the animal that had helped define America more than any other? 'Chestnut Mare', the most famous song from the unfinished work, has Gene taming a wild horse to be his companion and some unfortunate comparisons between the horse and his wife. Still, the flowing middle eight where the chestnut mare suddenly leaps off a cliff and time stands still may well be the single most beautiful bit of music McGuinn ever wrote and 'Chestnut Mare' deservedly became by far the most successful 'horsey' song on this list and the Byrds' last top ten hit.
5) Wild Horses (Rolling Stones, 'Sticky Fingers' 1971)
Keith Richards had just become a father in 1971. Just think about that for a minute: Keith Richards. As your dad. 'Don't do that? Oh what the hell - if it's against the system do it anyway!' The birth of son Marlon clearly brought out his sentimental side and some of his greatest ballads. The title actually comes from the line when asked if he was going to the hospital to see the birth despite having to leave a Stones tour in the middle: 'Wild horses wouldn't drag me away'. Apart from the melody and title, however, much of the song is Mick Jagger's and may well be about his then-girlfriend Marianne Faithful (legend has it the song was inspired by her attempted suicide and his struggle to get her side in a hurry - the first time, at least). A lovely stately melody with a gleam in its eye, many consider this the finest horse in the Stones' paddock.
6) Dark Horse (George Harrison, 'Dark Horse' 1974)
George Harrison loved the phrase 'dark horse'. Many reviewers of Beatle albums had called the 'quiet Beatle' just that and the phrase stuck after George came from nowhere to become the ex-Beatle with the biggest solo career in the early 1970s. George even named his own record company after the phrase, although sadly most records on it seemed to be cancelled or delayed so that 'Dark Horses' became a very rare breed indeed. The best use, though, comes when George finally turns the phrase into a song for his third solo album and is by far the album's best track. A sprightly runner, with a cute tune, 'Dark Horse' is a beast that will go his own way oblivious of what people assume about him, a 'dark horse running on a dark race course' that always wins against the odds long after everyone has forgotten about him. Sadly most fans know this record as 'Dark Hoarse': George wore his voice out on his tie-in tour and didn't regain it in time to record the album!
7) One-Trick Pony (Paul Simon, 'One-Trick Pony' 1980)
Paul Simon's One-Trick Pony is nothing of the sort: he whoops, he glides, he somersaults and goes through more changes of speed than most professional jockeys do in a career. The title track of not just Paul's fourth solo album but a film as well, it's actually 'sung' by Paul's alter ego Jonah: a failed singer-songwriter with one brief hit to his name who doesn't know when to give up a career that gave him up long ago. Poor Jonah needs to prove that he is much more than a one-trick pony and can live in an age of modern music he doesn't understand (the B-52s make their first ever appearance in a cameo in this film, making Jonah's retro 50s music seem even more hopelessly dated). The 'other' dark horse of the AAA pack, this is an animal you underestimate at your peril, by turns running with the wind and away with the fairies.
8) All You Horse-Riders (Paul McCartney, 'McCartney II' Deluxe Edition, recorded 1980 released 2011)
Part of Macca's original and superior double-album version of his most out-there record McCartney II, this song was one of the few that probably should have been dropped when the album was shrunk to a single set: in truth this nag is a bit lame. Still, though, 'Horse-Riders' had to make this list as the only AAA song to actually re-create a true horse race - complete with spoof commentary from a deranged sounding Paul - and the 1980s synths do a marvellous job of sounding like tiny horses hooves trying to jump over a set of elaborate sounding jumps. The song falls apart at the end and segues into the much better 'Blue Sway' after this: are we to assume that the horse fell at the final water jump?
9) Don't Spook The Horse (Neil Young and Crazy Horse, B-Side 1990)
Neil's always liked using 'horse metaphors' for his longterm sideband in song but no others are as blatant as this song, recorded during the 'Ragged Glory' sessions but abandoned on a B-side and record for being too similar to other album songs (Neil cheekily sent this song out to some reviewers instead of the record, telling them it contained all they needed to know about the album). Why does Neil play such simple, sometimes plodding songs? In case it 'spooks' his backing band, who turn in one of their trademark three-note jams across the entire seven minute song. Listen out for some of Neil's silliest lyrics, with a last verse that repeats the entire song about a 'horse' from the point of view of a wife , no matter how daft the comparisons ('Make sure she ain't rolled in shit!' in this song's unique closing line). A bit of a clown, this horse - I'd keep him away from the others in case he upsets them...
10) Judy and the Dream of Horses (Belle and Sebastian, 'If You're Feeling Sinister' 1996)
Many early Belle and Sebastian songs are based around 'Judy', Stuart Murdoch's female alter ego who feels hopelessly out of place in modern life. Trapped on all sides Murdoch's gentle narrator longs for her to feel free and encourages her to 'be' the person she can only be at night: free from everything and at one with another being, even if that being is a horse. Clearly inspired by Murdoch's years struggling with chronic fatigue and confined to his bed, this song is actually more about the powers of dreams when you don't have any than the horse itself. There's no denying, though, that 'Dream of Horses' is a pretty creature and one that, although timid, would be sure to win any horse beauty pageants (perhaps even 'horse most like it's owner?!)
And that's enough horse-puns for another week! Trot along by next issue to read more news, views and music. Whinny!