Well, that was another strange year wasn’t it dear readers?!? Here we are in year 3 of the pandemic (sorry to burst your bubble but yes covid is very much still out there – and the damage it’s doing to us all long-term is scary; have a read up on it if you can and take it from someone who was already sick from a virus just how these things can mess up your immune system and give you lots of other nasty things), year whatever we’re in of an ongoing climate crisis (sorry to burst another bubble but this year might have been our very last chance to put things right and our leaders muffed it up. Again. Why are the worst possible people to save us in many a long year in charge just when we need somebody courageous enough to see the bigger picture?) and potentially year one of the first war on European soil for many a decade (sorry to…no, actually things are looking quite grim for Putin at the minute, so sorry not sorry. And I stress Putin not Russia. I would hate to be blamed for what my crazy leaders up to). Thank goodness for music, eh?
Because if you could, y’know, ignore the impending apocalypse and end to civilisation as we know it there were still a lot of reasons to be cheerful in 2022. In fact this was a really vintage year, as we caught the harvest of all those re-issues that were planned and worked on during lockdown (one quite literally in neil Young’s case) and the benefit of the first stirrings of musicians of going back to work (though not touring for the most part where it’s been a rotten year – sadly most of the AAA alumni who were still going at the start of the year announced their retirement and those that didn’t often cancelled their shows; get well soon Belle and Sebastian!) Anyway what a year review it is dear readers: new albums, new live sets, pricey deluxe archive sets, unheard tapes from deep in the vaults, whole abandoned albums from yesteryear, re-re-re-re-issues, a literal crate of 7” singles, the first entirely new Pink Floyd single for twenty-eight years (of sorts), the first official release for a 1964 vintage blues tape featuring two future legends and one spouse clacking away on a typewriter in the corner and no less than seven Monkee and ten Neil Young related releases, this year’s had a bit of everything. Still no new Rolling Stones set though (that’s been pushed back yet another year. Just like last year, 2020 and 2019 all) and no sign of the long rumoured Kinks or Oasis reunions (which have been pushed back to, well, the end of time if we’re lucky. Which might turn out to be next year if, y’know, we’re not).
As for me I’m still on a pause from music writing after the heavy 2008-2020 years of running this website. I have however still been as busy as my m.e. and now covid-wobbly health will allow by writing another two books in my ‘Kindred Spirits’ series (‘Endurance’ ‘Insurgence’ ‘Province’ and ‘Ensconce’ are all available now) and confused the hell out of my neighbours by recording audiobook versions of them all in the middle of the night when the traffic was quiet; these are set for release next year (featuring sound effects alien voices and International Peace Orchestra music!) so watch this space. I haven’t neglected filling my head, heart and ears with music entirely though, as you’ll see from this year’s bumper crop of reviews below. Oh and assuming twitter survives into the next year please join me for the song of the day over at @alansarchives where I’ve been running through the highlights of my collection in alphabetical order. It’s been running nine months now and I’m still in the ‘A’s! Well, there’s a lot of great music to talk about isn’t there? Talking of which let’s jump right into…
(Best to Worst)
1) Liam Gallagher “C’mon Y’Know”
Actually, Liam, there’s a lot of people who are beginning to wonder if they knew you at all: weren’t you the feisty one, the troubled one, the angry one? Why are you singing about spiritualism and fate and acceptance instead of sex and drugs and rock and roll? Wasn’t that a song about loving everyone and giving the world a hug that came on just then, the sort of thing that would have been laughed out the room as ‘absolute nonsense’ in the olden days? And isn’t that – good God – a children’s choir?!? Well, it is but y’know, I rather like it. I’d heard for months that the heavily eyebrowed one from Oasis had come up with something ‘really new’ and ‘trippy’ for solo album three and thought ‘yeah, right – it’s Liam, he changes his socks more than he changes his style, so what everyone probably means is that we’re just slightly down the trippier Beady Eye end of the spectrum and people just weren’t paying attention to the last two albums properly’. The two singles didn’t exactly change my mind either: both are angry ranting stompers common to Liam’s first two records, especially his under-rated first ‘As You Were’. However, I was wrong dear reader and pleased to be so. ‘Y’know’ doesn’t just dip its toes tentatively onto new ground it hurls itself headfirst, going where no Oasis album has ever been before into spiritualism, doubt and acceptance. The affect must have been akin to Beatle fans hearing ‘All Things Must Pass’ for the first time or Ray Davies dabbling in semi-autobiographical concept albums, only more so because we’ve had coming up to thirty years od records to navigate by to prepare ourselves for this, not ten. Top marks for bravery then, but better still this album isn’t just a pioneering rule-breaking one but a listenable one too that’s as chockfull of all the tunes and riffs and mad fer it roaring vocals that made all of Liam’s past work great too.
It also makes perfect sense if you’ve been following the story closely, the logical end to a spiritual path the Oasis singer has been following for a good decade now as he moves from being wounded victim to wise shamanic healer, even if I’d long assumed that Liam would never have the guts to go all out there as he has done here. On the two Beady Eye albums and his twin solo albums so far Liam has been slowly coming to terms with having his world turned upside down, losing his wife and his band in quick succession in the 2000s, alternating between a series of ferocious stinging attacks against everyone who ever did him wrong with songs that express a new sense of vulnerability and hurt, a dark tea time of the soul with tambourine as it were. This album still has bursts of that old anger and bravado but it’s a stage further along the healing process that, by its own admission, is looking for a hug more than it’s looking for a fight and is more likely to play the acceptance than the victim card. Liam has found true healing, the power of gratitude and the healing balm of love (thanks to manager and soon to be third wife Debbie and his solo work’s deservedly warm reception from fans). ‘Look how far you’ve come’ sings Liam at one stage ‘Further than the damage done’, before admitting to us that despite his tough stance on most of the past four records he was actually ‘about to break’ while making most of them. Despite the plethora of co-writers (there are even more than last time) this is the most confessional, autobiographical Liam album yet, a spiritual soul-seeking album that roars at the universe not with pain but gratitude.
It’s also an album that’s not afraid to change our perception of the singer who is, after all, a different man compared to the one he used to be: more vulnerable, more loyal, more able to laugh at himself, more worldly wise, more courageous deep down as he strips away all his usual barriers between us (even the guitars and the Oasisy ‘wall of noise’ for the most part). I mean, this album flipping starts with a children’s choir of all things - it’s not hidden away in the middle of the second side, it’s literally the first thing you hear - and not a tacky children’s choir either but a perfectly cast last breath of innocence to start an album that screams being grown up. Elsewhere Liam’s vocal frequently hangs in the air rather than roaring across it, sometimes the only thing that’s there, sometimes a black hole around which the album’s electronic effects rotate but never overshadow. Usually, even on his other solo albums, Liam is part of a gang but here he’s facing his demons alone. This is a man who doesn’t just sing about his demons in a rock and roll way anymore – he’s sat with them, understood them, come to terms with them and invited them round for one last party before they get banished forever and he goes home to live with the angels. And that’s so, so wonderful for both Liam and his music as he finds peace after ten years, maybe even twenty years, of constant war. It’s all very ‘Pass’ actually, a humble quiet album about humility and personal experience that’s absolutely yelled to overcome both the surroundings and communicate with the world outside to sound like a universal message.
Those hard times aren’t just medals to be worn round the neck too, but scars to be learned from with lessons to pass on. You don’t usually go to Liam’s work primarily for the words but this is a real exception and there are so many nuggets of wisdom cast across this record, words meant to inspire that are worthy of any other songs we’ve ever quoted on these pages: ‘Even if you don’t get the girl you want, you get the girl you need’ is a line that gives me chills every time I hear it, ‘Try to hold your head high above the chatter’, ‘The universe will provide’, even ‘You are no island’ as Liam at last, after so many barbed attacks in song, accepts his part in his own downfall. I’m not so sure about ‘I’m walking circles round the park, I’m a lion floating in the ark’ but hey, you can’t have everything. Mostly, though, Liam takes everything he’s learnt and reaches out to those whose strength he admires too including from his own audience, offering protection and love where he once felt mistrust and hate, celebrating maligned misfits everywhere ‘stronger than the damage done’, telling them that ‘they belong here as much as anyone’ but reminding them to recover not by getting revenge to those who bullied them but by passing on love to those underneath them because they know better now what suffering is. That’s a huge life lesson right there, perhaps the biggest one there is.
Liam’s also wondering about fate and who or what led him to this point in his life where the questions got big and scary. He reaches out to others for help on this album so many times, to his wife, to his fans, to his brother, even to…well, he doesn’t ever use the term God but there’s an unseen spiritual source that runs through most of the cosmic madness on this album, the pilot that’s showing Liam where to travel even when ‘I have my hands upon the wheel’. Life turns out to be showing him lessons his younger self could never have understood and it all feels as if he was fated to end up here, surviving the darkness so he could understand and embrace the light. Finally there’s that moment, the one we thought we’d never get, as Liam turns to brother Noel in truce; a real one this time, not the half-hearted, taunted ones of albums past. ‘I can only offer you my love’ Liam sings, Michael Jackson style, but with the difference that he knows he has no power to heal anyone hurting except himself (until the bonus tracks at least, when the brotherly un-love becomes the punchline for a joke instead: ‘My brother hates me! But who threw the first stone?’ cackles Liam in memory of the stone-filled plum that was hurled backstage at what turned out to be the final Oasis gig).
It’s an ever changing, shifting collection of styles this record, which moves on from Liam’s understandable fascination with the 1960s (rock’s most interesting decade) into 1970s prog rock and reggae, 1980s trance, 1990s trip hop and the 21st century’s love of orchestral pop ballads. It’s as if Liam was ordered to have another rummage round his record collection past his beloved Beatle and Stones albums to stretch himself on this album, rather than fall into the usual ‘difficult third album’ syndrome of backing yourself into a predictable corner (something Oasis themselves did with ‘Be Here Now’, under-rated as that complicated album is too).Or maybe he wanted to show his brother that being ‘adventurous’ didn’t mean hiring a bird to play the scissors, throw away your entire style and forget how to rock and roll. There are so many sounds we have never heard before but which sound perfect for Liam’s new world, tough and soft all at the same time. The children’s choir that starts the album already suggests that this going to be something a bit different, but we get the prog rock strings of ‘Moscow Rules’ (a sparse song that a lesser vocalist wouldn’t have been able to pull off), the mouthorgan blues riff that runs through ‘World’s In Need’, the fuzzy synths of ‘Oh Sweet Children’, the convincing modern pop of bonus track ‘Wave’ that works far better than a fifty year old trying to keep pace with his children’s record collection should, the genre-defying title track that sounds like it has the sounds of every decade since the 1950s stapled together (the handclaps of the 1950s, the psychedelia of the 1960s, the punk of the late 1970s, the synths of the 1980s, the Britpop power chords of the 1990s and the production techniques of the 21st century). Only the pure noise and rap-yelling of ‘I’m Free’ doesn’t quite come off.
As for the actual songs there are many highlights here. Opener ‘More Power’ is about the wisest and probably most surprising, as Liam begs for forgiveness in his role prolonging fights instead of letting things be and understands that the people around him are only human, fighting their own battles too. As much as Liam longs for control or power over his life, he knows that he never will have. The juxtaposition of the innocence of the children representing the way he used to be with the aging soul in front of us is goose-pimply good. Close behind is ‘Too Good For Giving Up’, a slow ballad in a long standing Oasis tradition that reaches out to anyone listening that’s going through hell and about to break and urges them to keep going. Even though it’s a sensitive ballad, though, Liam’s vocal roars most brilliantly as he pleads with us to have a second go, praising us for surviving and telling us it’s all going to be better soon, honest. Or how about ‘It Was Not Meant To Be’, a pretty folky ditty about the slow realisation that the person Liam thought was the love of his life wasn’t the best person for him and how, ‘subtle as a heart attack’, the notion that he should let go of the one he loved more than he knew was possible broke his heart but was not meant for him, no matter how much he wanted her to be. Or the clever allegory ‘Moscow Rules’ which on the surface seems to be a song about the cold war and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, picturing Putin as a lonely soul standing round a table of fired world leaders who don’t believe him and desperately trying to control circumstances no one man should have control over. Only if you’re the sort of fan who pays close attention you’ll recognise the lonely soul as a neat match for Liam’s breakthrough song ‘Born On A Different Cloud’. I would bet my balalaika that both figures are meant to be brother Noel, in control of a ‘masterplan’ that only he understands and gradually pushing anyone who can help with it away even though all they want to do is make his vision even greater. Or how about the trippy delights of ‘World’s In Need’, a song about the world re-discovering community in a post-covid universe with a fabulous bluesy stomp that, typically for this album, inverts the clichés and becomes a happy song. Or ‘Don’t Go Halfway’ which finally makes good on the trance-groove promise of Oasis song ‘F!#*in’ In The Bushes’ but gives it a clever sassy set of words (‘I was spangled like a flag in America!’) about the end of Liam’s marriage as he stares into ‘a beautiful light on the horizon’. Or the fittingly ‘Revolver/Tomorrow Never Knows’ psychedelic stomp of ‘Better Days’ that entices us out to dance, a call to arms like the early Oasis days when they filled stadiums and made us want to live forever.
Those are just the near-perfect songs on the album too. The rest of the record is almost all pretty decent, even if the other songs play things a bit safer (and ‘Everything’s Electric’ is a fine Oasis style stomper, just to prove to anyone that Liam can still rock it at fifty). Only the slightly dodgy lyrics on ‘Diamond In The Dark’ (which still grooves along nicely with another classic Liam sneering vocal), the modern tuneless ‘I’m Free’ and the one final Noel taunt ‘The Joker’ that seems like another lifetime ago (sensibly relegated to ‘bonus track’ position) fall down and then only comparatively. Thrilling. Even the best songwriters seem to dry up ever so slightly around their 50th birthdays, stumbling for new ways to say similar things (think Macca’s ‘Off The Ground’, The Kinks’ ‘Phobia’, The Stones’ ‘Voodoo Lounge’, Pete Townshend’s ‘Psychoderelict’ or Neil Young’s ‘Broken Arrow’) but Liam’s found a whole new way of saying new things without losing touch with the road he walked down. Is it as good as his other records? Well, I’ll always be fond of his Beady Eye period (even though nobody else seems to be) and his first solo album ‘As You Were’ is a masterpiece in how to re-launch yourself to a new audience without selling out the old one. I’m still not quite sure where this one sits, though I’d definitely take it after the second records by band and solo and anything from the second half of Oasis’ career.
That sort of thing could have gone oh so wrong. It could have flopped if handled differently, if heard against a typical Oasis backing as if nothing had changed or sung in a crooning whisper that would have been fitting but wrong, but Liam’s far too authentic for that. The great thing about this album is that Liam doesn’t pretend to be anybody else. He still vocally gnashes his teeth and roars his way through these lyrics as much as he did songs past, sung through pain and scars and hardened realisation and tough tough battles. Reach up and be your better self, this album keeps demanding, even when the people around you go low – even brother Noel whose treated with love and understanding as much as derision this time round. It’s going to hurt, you’re going to get scarred, people will treat you differently, but you’ll like yourself more in the process. Liam sounds as if he’s been in therapy at times: ‘I don’t hate you’ runs the single ‘Everything’s Electric’ ‘But I hate that feeling you make me feel’. ‘I’ll admit that I was angry for too long’ Liam sadly shrugs on ‘More Power’ (a song that’s really about not wanting any power at all and learning to ‘let it be’, see songs of the year below), before nagging us not to take things as seriously as he once did because ‘it’s all a pantomime’ (on a song ‘Don’t Go Halfway’, that urges us to make the most of every second chance we get, instead of holding onto the first so tight we can never let it go). ‘Better Days’ promises ‘If you’re lost, I’ll find you’ on a track that, like many on the last couple of records, reaches out to fans and promises us, mid-lockdown, that the world will recover and things will get better (not sure that’s true just yet, as the world sticks its fingers in its ears and goes la-la-la over a pandemic that still rages unchecked and kills in the millions, but I appreciate the gesture – not least because it’s not the sort of thing Liam’s known for delivering before). ‘Look how far you’ve come’ Liam then pats himself – and by association us – on ‘Too Good For Giving Up’, a song full of platitudes and reaching out a hand in the darkness; this is a long way from the early Oasis days when the darkness was a thing that happened to other people, that could be held at bay if you wished hard enough and hoped enough. This album is someone who realises – perhaps for the first time deep down - that he isn’t going to live forever and that he doesn’t want to carry a chip on his shoulder or regrets around with him to the end of his life. The song also includes the album’s best line, ‘you’re stronger than the damage done’ – you must be if you’re still here. That’s a singer whose lived, man, not a youth doing records in between the parties. Not to mention the shocking admission that ‘I’m fed up of being tough – c’mon, gizza hug!!!’
Is this really the singer who boasted of being the world’s greatest rock and roll star, the idol who was going to live forever and what’s more be cool forever? Well yes, yes it very much is and this is no sell out of integrity here – Liam’s most definitely hasn’t gone soft, he’s just become more human and rounded, with all the old snarls and bravado here, but tucked away into the background. And that’s even cooler. Come on, even though it’s a natural step down this path, which of us was really expecting that even a few years ago y’know? No wonder this album has surprised so many. With this record released a few months short of his fiftieth birthday this is Liam older, wiser, more dignified, yet hitting the second half of his life as hard as he ever hit his first with the courage of Johnny Cash in his later years but still all his old raw power. It took a long time to get here perhaps but what a thirty-year-arc that was, from Lennonish angry young man sneer to, well, Lennonish middle-aged peace guru. Given where we were with the last two Oasis records and Beady Eye reduced to playing tiny clubs the huge success Liam’s had lately is hard-earned and better yet Liam is humble for it second time round too with every gold record a bonus to a busy life, not the whole point of it. ‘C’mon, y’know the drill by now: an album is special when I write this much about it at such length even in my ‘retirement’ years and it’s a triumph – an album with hidden depths, made for thinking to as much as for drinking to and a worthy successor to all that brilliant music that came before it definitely, no maybe about it. Round of applause right there for our kid. It’s not been easy this success and it’s been hard fought for. More like this please. Oh and blooming well done.
2) Belle and Sebastian “A Bit Of Previous”
Belle and Sebastian must be a candidate for the most nostalgic act ever. Most of the band’s recent records have carried a sense of being haunted by the past, of the early days when eight college students who barely knew each other formed a band almost by accident all based around the fairytale romance between recovering m.e. sufferer Stuart Murdoch and his younger, hipper girlfriend Isobel Campbell. Even on their first record, though, they’re haunted by pasts and paths that might have been, with ‘Tigermilk’ dominated by stories of school, teenage anxieties and desperate confusion as to how to fit into a world that doesn’t seem to want you or to understand why you’re there. All B and S music, then, is haunted by their bit of previous, of the past that influences how you act in the present and how it makes you feel about the future which makes the theme of nostalgia a fitting one. Just check out the four different formats this album is released on featuring a subtly changed ‘ghost’ on the cover, a different phantom of what might have been captured in a slightly different moment had life turned out a little bit differently. As a record dominated by old-worn themes (Stuart and Isobel’s eventual breakup twenty years ago, how messed up the world is, how doing your own thing is hard but still better than following the herd) ‘A Bit of Previous’ frequently seems like the most Belle and Sebastian album ever, the album’s tagline ‘We’re all in thrall to the past’.
And yet, like Liam, this is a band that have been growing and heading out in directions they’ve never been before. Uniquely in the B and S canon I can’t hear any characters or story-songs here at all, with no allegories or metaphors for what the band are going through. Instead we have their most openly confessional, semi-autobiographical record yet and one that’s determinedly set in the current era, with narrators that are middle aged and juggling work, families and a sense of futility over how short life seems suddenly after it once seemed to stretch out forever not so long ago. Mostly ‘Previous’ is a sad, melancholy album – a surprise really given the trajectory of recent B and S records (2015’s brilliant ‘Girls In Peacetime Just want To Dance’ as well as a trio of patchy EPs and a film soundtrack, all of which were much bouncier than this). Sometimes life is a grind, as it is on album highlight ‘If They’re Shooting At You’, or lamenting a present that suddenly collapsed on ‘Deathbed Of My Dreams’ or calling up an old flame on ‘Prophets On Hold’ just to remember how an alternate history might have played out in a different universe where bad things didn’t happen. The record even starts with the pure nostalgia of ‘Young and Stupid’, a song that tries hard to point out all the ways that life sucked then that it doesn’t now main writer Stuart Murdoch is older and wiser and has more going for him, even though the sheer joy of the backing track suggests he’d give up being old and wise for being young and stupid anytime. Like Liam there are nuggets of wisdom scattered across this record like confetti: ‘Find a new path, leave the games behind’ urges ‘Unnecessary Drama’, as it looks back dismayed at how much the narrator used to care about nothing; ‘Nothing matters at all so don’t worry’ runs the unexpected return of the first spoken word track since the band’s early days on ‘Young and Stupid’. Sometimes for variety the album sounds like it’s all like the old days, fun and games, with catchy riffs and energetic production numbers. However, that’s just window dressing as all the songs look back on the past with a wry shrug. It’s still quite edgy and dark too; the major difference between these two albums it that Liam is finally at peace and content, but Belle and Sebastian still sound haunted by mistakes of the past, threats in the present and fear of the future, as if they’re a life lesson or so behind.
Musically, too, this is not like any previous B and S record. When the band got ‘professional’ around 2003 (i.e. when they joined record label Rough Trade from indies Jeepster) they started filling out their sound more, with keyboard player Chris ‘Beans’ Geddes getting more and more to do to the point where his signature sound all but dominated the past few records. Here that’s true more than ever, with every song pretty much infused with a 1980s slather of keyboards that would have been unthinkable in B and S’ early days. The sound is more ‘pop’, more ‘up’, more radio friendly than ever – not for a few songs here and there this time, but everywhere. There’s barely any guitar on this record and even less drumming, the B and S harmonies are used sparingly and often Stuart’s vocal and Beans’ swirling synths are all we get. B and S albums tend to be on the busier side, so full of ideas your ears are still teasing bits out hundreds of listens on, but here – as with Liam – everything is sparse and feels as if Stuart is in a room on his own, with other instruments drifting around him as the mood takes them. In many ways that’s just how this record was made; plans to make the band’s first full album in America in 2020 were dropped because of covid (Stuart’s m.e. making him particularly vulnerable and immune-compromised – the band just cancelled their tour due to illness so I really hope he’s alright). Instead the band returned to the Church in Glasgow where Stuart used to live and where many (most?) of their first three records plus EPs were made, their first ‘homecoming’ in a quarter century. At times the band could only record their contributions individually and it sounds like that somehow; I miss the ramshackle camaraderie that was the band’s signature sound, even if the past three records were heading here anyway. Surrounded by the past recording songs about the present: though unplanned, actually that was the perfect circumstances to make this record, however difficult it proved to be co-ordinating a band who had long since fled the Glasgow nest.
By now there’s very little of the original B and S sound left. Which in some ways is sad – not least on such a nostalgic record – but at the same time it fits this album’s theme of time passing on and evolving to keep pace with it. With both ‘new’ styles together ‘Previous’ feels like a whole new style - so much so that Stuart actually apologised on his twitter feed that fans might not recognise much of their early sound, the album’s other tagline in the press ‘time corrupts what you thought you knew’. Much of the album sounds like a debate on that line (which doesn’t actually appear on the album but ought to). You can hear it on the songs of the wounded lover wondering where his marriage went wrong, or when he calls up an ex just to connect with someone who once used to care, or the memories of being young and stupid when you felt invincible before life got in the way to remind you that you were only human. At times the past is a life-raft the narrators cling to out of desperation, a reminder of who they used to be when things made sense in a world that’s suddenly unrecognisable, a moment of sweetness and light to carry around with them in the hope that one day life will be every bit as good because it happened once by accident and they’re actively searching for that contentment now, so why not? At other times they’re a mirage, a façade maintained through naievity about what the world could do to you, a fantasy that was never meant to be, an impossible measuring stick that distracts the narrator when he knows he should be feeling gratitude for the life he has now. After all life should be better: the knowledge that his music worked out, that he had the child his younger self longed to have and that he has roots that now reach down further into the soil. So why does the past still hang quite so heavily? It’s a debate that’s still being raged across this album by the end, unsolved, whether it is better to be living in the past enticed by the promise of the future or in the present haunted by the past.
That contradiction runs right the way through this album like a stick of rock. ‘It wasn’t like this yesterday’ sighs Stuart on the opening ‘Young and Stupid’, a song that’s really nostalgic about how much better life used to be, an ‘easy start to things’ for him, his band and his audience who are ‘growing old with creaking bones’. The song uses the first spoken-word passage since 1995 as a fan tells us about wishing they hadn’t wasted time worrying about something stupid in the past ‘because what does it matter?’ The fact that the next eleven songs are all occupied with the past in some way or other points out how hard this is to do though. ‘Talk To Me, Talk To Me’ goes further, revealing just why Stuart is so determined to stay locked in the past – because the present is scary. ‘I lived my life so desperate to be in control, so scared of getting hurt again’ sings Stuart at his most vulnerable, though like so much of this record it’s singer-wongwriterly angst is lost against a backing track that’s unusually contemporary and almost aggressively pop. ‘Reclaim The Night’ promises to never look back again, that ‘I’ve got the world to see’ and that guilt and memories are holding the narrator back; switching the song to Sarah (Isobel’s replacement in many ways, even if they were in the band at the same time) cleverly makes it sound as if this is her song to him, not his to her – but whoever it is singing to us, their protests about the other being ‘a footnote in my biography’ never quite ring true as the narrator denies the importance they hold in their life too many times fort comfort. This is a couple that still miss and think about the other a lot. ‘Do It For Your Country’ is an even more direct sequel to many songs Stuart has written to Isobel since their split, a thankyou apology and a warning all in one, wishing her peace and a second chance to shape the world, envying her freedom from being a ‘lobster in a music pot’ so many years after her last record, yet still confused as to why she had to leave at all. ‘Hey give the boy a break!’ laughs Stuart, referring to himself in the third person just like he used to on albums old. ‘Prophets Of Old’ is even more of a reunion, of sorts, the first time Isobel’s character turns up in a song in the present day. Stuart calls up an ex after a long time and asking for…well what is he asking for exactly? Sometimes its absolution, ‘to allow me to sleep’. Sometimes it’s company in the presence of someone who knows him ‘so I feel less alone’. Sometimes it’s for salvation, Stuart building his absent partner up in his mind until she becomes ‘God or an angel’ before he realises with a start that this person he still feels connected to is ‘merely a person’ flawed like him. It’s a sweet song, at last an actual meeting of equals after two whole decades of power-struggle-songs dealing with anger, guilt, shame, worry, doubt, fear and hope.
That said ‘Unnecessary Drama’ undoes all that work as Stuart receives a letter from an ex (surely Isobel again) boasting about her new happier life. The narrator isn’t quite sure why she’s making him cross as he can see through the subtext to how miserable she is and the ‘sea of douchebags lining up to play their stupid parts’ – and it makes him cross in a whole other way, because surely she knows that he knows her well enough to see through her lies? ‘This is my life’ he retaliates ‘This is my so-called life’, with memories of a ‘shell’ of a girl who was nothing before she met him and who understands the world better than she does and the way it can end ‘with a suddenness that can be cruel’. We’ve had anger on B and S records before of course, but never quite like this – it’s usually a quiet brooding very British anger, hidden by beautiful melodies or pop smiles; this one is very American (just check out the very un-Murdoch word ‘douchebags’), still too fresh to be subdued by prettiness and still too raw to be disguise the pettiness. And yet, immediately, we’re back to ‘Come On Home’ and a healing as Stuart reaches out to Isobel’s successor Marisa (cover star of ‘For Fans Only’ and ‘The Life Pursuit’), no longer the new girl she was in so many songs as they too celebrate ‘twenty years around the sun’ together, with a collective past of their own. Stevie then picks up on the album theme (as he always does), with his own similar-but-different memories of bunking off school and his memories of the life he was going to win – realising retrospectively of ‘the deathbed of my dreams’ the minute he spoke them out loud. Like many a Stevie song he loses the girl he was talking to, the camaraderie of his school chums and everything goes wrong the minute he grows up (see most of his under-rated solo album ‘I can’t Get No Stevie Jackson’). And yet, much like Stuart, he senses a fate that lies beyond what he did or didn’t do and no longer fears the future because even if he didn’t get what he wanted he got what he needed – a band and a wife to make future dreams come true. It’s one of his better songs on paper, even if again the backing is wholly new for B and S, a country track with a pedal steel that, along with Stevie’s lone voice, will make many fans wonder if they’ve put the wrong record on.
Mostly the album is good, often very good, with only the ordinary ‘A World Without You’ and unmemorable closer ‘Working Boy In New York City’ letting the side down. The album highlight is surely ‘If They’re Shooting At You’, the song that best finds its way to dancing somewhere old and somewhere new as Stuart Murdoch will break your heart like never before as he sings of how life has got to him and all but broken him, but the love of family keep him pushing on. ‘Sea Of Sorrow’ isn’t far behind, a song clearly inspired by the meditation sessions Stuart’s been running on twitter during the pandemic. Outside his head the world is corrupted and messed up, causing him to feel anxious and stressed as he ‘wrecks himself’ on ‘imaginary rocks that never really existed’, all while trying to feel zen. The sparse synth-heavy backing – which, again, is very different for B and S, Scandinavian with its big wide open spaces and switches of dynamics (think Bjork) – really works well this time too, a modern world that keeps trying to drown out an oh-so Murdoch sighing melody line that’s so fragile it feels as if anything could blow it away, never mind a production job this heavy. Ultimately though he’s strong enough to fight back against the tide with thoughts of peace and calm, a contradiction that’s right at the heart of this complex and fascinating album and a natural fit with B and S’ natural style.
So does ‘A Bit Of Previous’ live up to that previous? Yes, mostly. It’s certainly a lot more convincing than the 2017 filler EPs ‘How To Solve Our Human Problems’ and the hit-and-miss 2019 soundtrack album ‘Days Of The Bagenold Summer’ suggested, even if it pales against ‘Peacetime’, the last true B and S album (one that is like this one in so many ways but with a dash less production and a soupcon more reality, while the bit of previous on that record was Stuart remembering how the band started and why rather than relationships). In the (to be honest rather odd) publicity for this album a voiceover tells the world (or the part of it that watches the bellesglasgow youtube channel at least) how the band made every album for ‘one person and that one person changes with every record’. This album isn’t for me then; by turns it’s too 1980s (the synths) and too 2010s (the incessantly upbeatness of the backing) for my tastes, but that’s OK. So many of those old records did feel as if they were made for me, with their 1960s and 1970s styles, complex characters and health issues and I’ve had my go, it’s right and proper that the band should try to find pastures and fans new. There’s still enough here for me to enjoy that I can look on to other fans enjoying a record made just for them and to hope that one day it might be my turn again, with another ‘Tigermilk’ or at any rate another ‘Peacetime’. Till then time is just an illusion – during a pandemic doubly so - and this album, balanced so finely between the past and future, is more than worthy of its illustrious heritage with just enough previous to keep old fans like me happy.
3) Neil Young “Toast”
‘All I got is a broken heart and I don’t try to hide it when I play guitar…’ Only Neil did. Again. As with 2020’s long lost 1974 ‘Homegrown’, ‘Toast’ is a fully unreleased album from Young’s archives that never even made it to bootleg but one that he borrowed from heavily for other releases: in this case specifically the ‘stale bread’ of 2002’s ‘Are You Passionate?’ As with ‘Homegrown’ the album was shelved not because it wasn’t any good but because it put a bit too much of the real deal Neil out there for comfort and Young wasn’t quite ready to confront the truth of his disintegrating marriage (to wife Pegi) in public yet. So, in a typical Neil move, on the verge of releasing this record he fired Crazy Horse (don’t worry, they were used to it by the 2000s), hired Otis Redding’s backing band Booker T and the MGs, added another seven songs to ‘dilute’ the feeling and re-recorded some of what he had already made using what can best be described as a ‘character’ voice to make it just another record. In case you hadn’t guessed it, it’s Neil’s marriage that’s ‘Toast’ here and he’s trying hard not to get burnt. In this way a lot of fans were fooled that all was well at home, just as they had been with ‘Homegrown’ (which detailed Neil’s breakup with previous wife Carrie) when in reality this album reveals that his marriage was, well, toast. However, whilst ‘Homegrown’ was a complete surprise (a whole fourth album of misery to add to the ‘doom trilogy’!) you could kind of see where ‘Toast’ was heading, even though we’d never heard it. Indeed, I took a lot of flak from Neil Young fans for my review of ‘Passionate’ and my argument that Neil was already in two minds about staying in his marriage or running off with some mysterious new lover (which is exactly what Neil did do with Daryl Hannah - eventually); this album pretty much confirms the two were an item back then. Times have changed in twenty years though and Neil has that whole new life that he was only sketching in record here and Pegi’s death means he has no one left to protect, so he’s dispatched the entire album as part of his ongoing ‘archives’ series for fans to judge complete.
Or semi-complete anyway. At twelve songs, most of them lengthy, ‘Passionate’ always felt a bit too big and sprawling. At seven songs (albeit most of them still sprawling – this album is a healthy thirty-seven minutes) ‘Toast’ feels more like a bread-and-butter release – even more so if you own ‘Passionate’, which re-records a full four album tracks (and ‘Goin’ Home’ sounds more like a different mix to these ears rather than a full alternate take as it supposedly is). Though shorter ‘Toast’ still thumps it’s ‘replacement’ album in every way though. We joked in our review that the problem with ‘Are You Passionate?’ was that Neil was singing so strangely/blandly that the answer to the title question was a big fat ‘no’; well, that’s not a problem with ‘Toast’, where Neil has dropped any pretence at the ‘Geffen’ era genre character-acting and sings right from the heart, staring at us face on instead of slyly glancing at us from the side. He’s also working with Crazy Horse, who suit his style much more than Booker T and co ever did (and I say that as a huge fan; they just never found enough common ground to fully connect and the cancer diagnosis of bass player Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn that killed him a decade later during the sessions can’t have helped either. Though after so much time and expense you can see why Neil didn’t want to scrap a second album). There were rumours that Neil fired the Horse for playing poorly (he’s done it before, folks!) but that seems to be just a rumour as playing the two albums side by side reveals again why the Horse were the perfect steed for Neil: Frank Sampedro, particularly, nails every rhythm guitar part and is right with Neil in every dark place he travels to while the whole band just understand him better, improvising with him in a way only a band who’ve played together years can do. Best of all though the songs are simply better, the two completely unheard tracks ranking amongst the best Neil’s put out this century so far (with anyone else we’d be asking why, but it’s typical Young behaviour: they just gave too much of the ‘truth’ away, which is exactly why they’re such great songs). Spookily too the Horse are joined by a fifth member, as wife Pegi adds her own glorious shimmering harmonies to most of the songs here, as if commenting on the action herself even though she’s the wronged party, hovering like a ghost (Neil will return the favour on her own solo albums where he performs much the same role). Admittedly Pegi is on much of ‘Passionate’ too, but there she’s one of several voices – here, with the Horse vocally mute, she’s the only other sound you hear and it works brilliantly by making the album seem like a dialogue rather than a monologue, like the final Richard and Linda Thompson records or the period when John and Yoko were splitting up.
‘Standing In the Light Of Love’ is a typical ‘Ragged Glory’ era Horse stomp, but it’s far darker and deeper than anything on that album, as Neil rehearses for the day he has to tell his wife it’s over. ‘I don’t want to get personal’ Neil starts, but you can’t help but be personal delivering a message like ‘I want to split up’ and Pegi’s ghostly voice adds a whole new dimension to the song as her voice hangs in the air, her words just out of earshot. Neil recounts how he feels adrift, the ‘sea’ that’s often a metaphor for love in his work leaving him a drowning man, before switching to the idea of ‘marching’ against his will to a destination he fears. However the light of realisation is too strong for him to bear right now so he ducks into the shade, this angry minor key song suddenly, unexpectedly, switching to the major key verse (and it’s a stroke of genius having Pegi’s harmonies more or less dictate that switch, as if providing the ‘permission’ or ‘absolution’ Neil desperately seeks). It’s a mesmerising track, as dark in its own way as anything on ‘Homegrown’ or ‘Time Fades Away’ but with an unexpected urgency compared to Neil’s other songs about being ‘lost’ where he’s happier to stumble blindly for a while; here he’s desperate to escape and get back to solid ground. ‘Timberline’ is the other completely unheard song and another gem, as Neil recounts an entirely new life – as a lumberjack! Despite the Monty Python vibes, however, this song is another impressively dark and serious track, an angry angular riff backing a song that’s surely about Neil’s ‘real’ career as a writer. I’m not sure whether he’s singing to us or Daryl as he tells about us ‘seeing the signs’ and his defensive remark that he’ll ‘blow your head off’ rather than let us take his old life away from him. It’s worth pointing out that one of Neil’s favourite past-times on his beloved ‘Broken Arrow’ ranch (which Pegi ended up with as part of the divorce settlement) was breaking logs. Far from being an imaginary song about an imaginary man losing an imaginary career (and Neil has written a lot of those too), this is a man in hiding again, who knows all too well what’s at stake if he admits his feelings and loses everything. There’s a brief moment where Neil vows to do it anyway, to ‘go back to school and show them what I’ve learned’, but by the end he’s changed his mind and is chickening out again. Interestingly he claims to be ‘fooled by the Lord’ so ‘puts his faith in Jesus’, but given that it’s hard to believe in the latter without believing in the former, is this a comment on resurrection, that he doesn’t agree with fate but he does think he will rise again and recover from it all? (After all, the debate of whether Jesus’ miracles can be taken at face value or are stories is a key theme of Neil’s 1970s work, particularly ‘Soldier’ and ‘Star Of Bethlehem’, which are really about whether to have faith in love – indeed this track is a bookend to ‘Bethlehem’ and whether the star was a religious symbol guiding him and worth sacrificing everything for or just a meteorological phenomenon, a song which would have been written around the time Neil and Pegi met).
‘Gateway To Love’ has been sort-of released before. It made it to one rare double vinyl edition of ‘Passionate’ (and appears amongst the post-it notes on the back cover of the album where Neil was seemingly trying out the new running order), as well as being the only song on the whole of ‘Toast’ to have been played in concert past 2002, as far as I know. It’s another brilliant song from these sessions, even though this version isn’t as pretty or as personal as some of the live recordings out on bootleg where Neil sounds as if his heart will break. Here, as with much of ‘Passionate’, he’s singing through gritted teeth, just trying to survive long enough to make it to the end. The earlier recordings of ‘Passionate’ songs here are almost as much of a revelation as the ‘new’/old songs too. ‘Quit’ is truly heartbreaking, sounding far more like a Neil Young song than the sort of scarred R and B that the MGs re-arrange it to and which they made their name with. Neil sings it like he means it here, pledging to never quit on his marriage ‘even if you quit me’, while Pegi’s ghostly harmonies repeat ‘don’t say you love me’. She’s acting for the released record, but here it sounds all too real as she’s not angry or cruel, just disappointed. Talking of which, the first version of ‘Mr Disappointment’ is here rather defensively titled ‘How Ya Doin?’ The answer is badly by the sound of things. Mercifully, there’s none of the gruff spoken-vocal on this earlier version and no attempt to mimic the MG/Otis hit ‘Mr Pitiful’ as per the ‘Passionate’ record. Instead this is Neil being Neil, the song taken at a much slower and sadder lick, the feedback fairly growling from his guitar as he remembers a ‘happy glow’ from ‘long ago’ that’s long gone. As for ‘Goin’ Home’ – easily the best thing on ‘Passionate?’ – this recording isn’t too different, but does at least come with a full ending rather than sliding to a clumsy halt. Interestingly it still feels like the odd one out on this album too (it’s not just down to it being the only ‘Horse’ recording, as it was on ‘Passionate), perhaps because it’s the one song on ‘Toast’ that isn’t about marriage. It is, however, about intuition and the feeling that comes out of nowhere that you have to get out if you want to survive, a theme which is much bigger on ‘Toast’. We start with General Custer escaping the Indians by the skin of his teeth and end with a character that seems like a modern day Boadicea, on the phone from her cell and waiting for the day she can be out in battle dress again. Now that I’ve heard this track in its new context it must a metaphor for the choice Neil is making, between the ‘old’ regime that keeps him safe on the one hand and the ‘new’, temporarily blocked from Neil’s life on the other. I think I was wrong before, this isn’t Neil fighting with both, it’s the two characters at war with the other as Neil is forced to choose between them before ultimately staying put. ‘Going home!’ he finally cries over and over ‘I’m going home!’ Fascinating. That just leaves ‘Boom Boom Boom’ or ‘She’s A Healer’ as fans of ‘Passionate?’ will know it. Though easily one of the weaker songs on both albums – and a poor choice of closer on each – this earlier version does at least have more ‘soul’ with the Horse than the Memphis Group and Neil sings from the heart rather than his idea of ’crooning’. Though it reads like a tribute to Pegi with its tale of not wanting to ‘let the good times go’, the wording about this ‘blue-eyed healer’ is ambiguous at best (both Pegi and Daryl have blue eyes after all and Pegi’s ghostly harmonies can be either sweet or scary, depending on the verse). No idea why it’s called ‘Boom Boom Boom’ by the way: the lyrics are pretty much identical in the two versions, the only differences being what Neil repeats over the elongated fade
Overall, then, ‘Toast’ is a cracking album. It’s not quite as exciting as ‘Homegrown’, if only because we’ve heard more of it before and there are less new songs to love. You could argue it’s only toasted on one side, being so short and with so many repeats. It’s an important album, though, in a way that ‘Passionate?’ never was and it sounds even more now as if the albums between ‘Passionate’ and 2014’s ‘Storytone’ (when Neil finally comes out and chooses Daryl) were vamping to an extent, hiding the ‘truth’ from us while Neil made up his mind about what to do (it could be argued every album since at least 1997’s ‘Broken Arrow’ was leading here too). Neil wasn’t sure in 2002 which side his toast was buttered and if his bread was going to land the right way up; he does now, which leaves all of this album as a history lesson. You could argue that we don’t need to care now that Neil has finally made his choice and that this album doesn’t have the same impact in 2022 that it would have had in 2002. But time always works in mysterious ways in the Neil Youngiverse and one album feeds into the next more than it does with almost any other artist (‘It all sounds the same’ ‘It’s all one song!’ as the dialogue from ‘Year Of The Horse’ puts it). This was a colossal missing piece of the jigsaw for fans and it’s great to have it on the shelves at last for that reason alone; the fact that it contains at least four of the fifteen-twenty essential Neil Young songs from the past twenty years makes it even more so.
4) Rolling Stones “Live At The El Mocamaba”
I often find myself wondering ‘what would Brian Jones think?’ every time a new Stones release comes out. ‘Not much’ is usually the answer, with the Stone least likely to fall into parody no doubt laughing his angelic wings off at Jagger and co from off of his cloud (probably with Charlie there to watch with him stone-faced nowadays too). Brian would have adored this one though, a live set that we’ve been screaming for on this site for some time: an honest-to-goodness back-to-basics intimate gig from 1977 played at a Canadian tavern in front of a crowd of just 650 lucky local fanclub prizewinners (as opposed to the tens or hundreds of thousands the band were playing to around the same time). The Stones brought a very different vibe to this unusual unique gig, which became a trip down memory lane rather than a greatest hits routine that’s high on the blues covers and obscure songs the band didn’t often play live. Stones aficionados already know part of this gig – four songs ended up on the third side of contemporary concert release ‘Love You Live’ (i.e. ‘the good one’), all of them blues covers that either the Stones had only sung in their very earliest days. All of them are fabulous and sound even better in their proper context.
The rest of the setlist isn’t quite that unique but it’s still a mighty relief after half a century of collecting live records with the same old tired hits on them. For instance there’s a welcome ‘Route 66’ from the first Stones album, the unique-to-this album ‘Worried Life Blues’ (a song so old it’s one of those nobody is quite sure who the writer is any more – it’s at least as good as the four covers that made ‘Love You Live’), two semi-rare songs from ‘Exile’ (an energetic ‘Rip This Joint’ and ‘All Down The Line’), one from ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ (a sweary sweaty ‘Star Star’), two obscure songs from 1974’s ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ that were hardly ever played (but sound great!), one song that will remain unreleased until 1981’s outtakes set ‘Tattoo You’ and six songs (six!) – a full 75% of the then most-recent Stones LP ‘Black and Blue’. If that lot doesn’t sound too enticing then, well, the performances here are enough to make me see probably my two least favourite Stones LPs in a whole new light. ‘Dance Little Sister’ pirouettes and twirls, a totally different creature to the stationary lump that made the record, ‘Luxury’ prowls with a new-found certainty, ‘Melody’ is much tighter than it was on record with Billy Preston’s angelic tones a good match for Mick Jagger’s devilish drawl, ‘Hand Of Fate’ rocks with a raw punk energy most unlike the bloated studio take and this ‘Hot Stuff’ is hands down the most impressive stab at reggae the Stones ever came up with, unlike the studio version which was just an embarrassment. Best of all ‘Worried About You’ is a revelation, extended to eight minutes of hand-wringing as Mick despairs over his marriage while Keef and Ronnie’s waving guitars walk in circles around him, trying to find a solution.
At times you can tell Keith is struggling – no surprise I guess, given that by 1977 he was ingesting more drugs than air. He’s still functioning though, propped up by the rest of the band. Ronnie Wood is only on his second tour with the Stones and his enthusiasm is still infectious (what on earth happens from 1979 onwards?) as he leads from the front throwing off the sort of virtuoso solos we expect from the Mick Taylor era. Keyboardist Billy Preston is brilliant as always, getting more to do than most of the band, except when Olly Brown is on stage (Mick jokes that the younger sideman is ‘still living with his mum so isn’t allowed to bring any girls back, sorry!’) Mick is on top cheeky form throughout in fact, asking ‘is everything alright in the critics section?’ before teasing ‘I’m so happy I want to stroke everybody!’ and inviting the audience round to Ronnie’s flat afterwards for a drink (‘Bring your own booze though, he’s tight like that’!) Bill and Charlie are having fun too, belying Mick’s joke that the latter is a ‘jazz drummer – he does this for the money!’ The result is a great show, beautifully recorded and impressively crisp considering its forty-five year vintage and up there with the ‘Live At Leeds’ disc tucked on the end of the ‘Sticky Fingers’ re-issue and ‘Some Girls – Live In Texas’ as the best of the Stones archive sets so far, a delightful reminder of just how bold and brilliant the Stones could be in the right setting in front of the right people (this is also famous as the gig where Justin Trudeau’s wife Margaret turned up, fuelling rumours she was having an affair with Mick or Keith or both – though probably not true she did consider herself enough of a friend of the band to have helped keep Keith out of prison, a potential life sentence cut to playing a benefit gig – she’s most likely the ‘Margaret’ mentioned by Mick from the stage here, though for all I know all 650 prize-winners were called Margaret too). This club environment just suits the Stones so well – as Brian Jones well knew of course, given the years he spent trying to get ‘his’ band to play just these sort of songs in just this sort of way. You were right again, Brian.
5) Janis Joplin/Jorma Kaukanen “The Typewriter Tape”
This home-made tape is a charming bootleg getting its official debut after fifty-eight years, even though chances are every Janis or Jefferson Airplane out there has already owned at least three unofficial copies of it. Both these future stars had been playing together across San Francisco off and on since 1962 (when Jorma’s day job was giving guitar lessons) and thought it would be a good idea to record an informal tape to capture how they sounded in folk clubs. However Jorma’s first wife Margareta wanted to type a letter to a friend in the same room so this demo became known as ‘The Typewriter’ tape in honour of her clacketty percussion in the background. Both Jorma and Janis are a good two-three years from finding fame and fortune but already sound like experienced blues legends and the surprise isn’t that they made it so much as why they didn’t make it together (Jorma seems a natural fit for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s blues-rock, while Janis was the only other singer in the world who could have kept step with Grace Slick in the Airplane!) Both are on great form: a 21-year-old Janis doesn’t quite sound like herself yet, but she’s already at home on the blues and sounds as if she’s lived a lifetime of grief already (if the biographies are right, she probably had; this tape and working with Jorma in general was a huge step towards her finding herself – sadly not long after she’ll get sick, her friends will get worried and pay her bus fare back home where her parents insist om her getting a secretarial job and getting engaged to the handsome upper-class boy down the road. It won’t end well). Jorma has always been one of my favourite guitarists, full of such passion and originality, and he already sounds a master of the art at 24 with his sound fully recognisable from the early Hot Tuna albums particularly.
There are only six songs on the tape, which lasts barely past twenty minutes, but then that’s historical artefacts for you – this was taped in a hurried lunch hour in between gigs after all not made for mass consumption. However every single one of these songs are great and, oddly enough, never returned to by either artist. ‘Hesitation Blues’ wins by a nose, subtler than most of the other blues songs here with Jorma already stretching out into the wild acoustic blues improvisations he will make his own in the Hot Tuna years (there’s also a great blues solo outbreak on closing ‘Daddy Daddy Daddy’ that’s so good it makes Janis giggle!), while Janis gets to show more subtly and character. What a shame the pair didn’t do any of the pile of original songs they were already building up though: how I’d love to have heard Jorma interpreting Joplin’s earliest surviving original ‘What Good Can Drinkin’ Do?’ or Janis giving her take on Jorma’s dryly sarcastic ‘Uncle Sam Blues’. You so wish you could go back in time and get these youngsters to record another session or ten together – but alas, the clock was ticking for a gig in the afternoon and tape reels were expensive, so instead the pair ring off with a chuckle, little realising the time capsule they’ve just created for us 58 years later. The re-mastering is great too by the way, certainly better than any bootleg copy I’ve ever heard, with the typewriter lower in the mix than ever before (although I’ve played this great tape so many times I almost miss it!) Anyone who says the 1960s weren’t that special, just marketed better, have no idea: it’s staggering to think there was so much talent round in the coffee houses in 1964 that this pair didn’t even stand out to people signing artists. What talented blues stars did we never even get to hear, I wonder, whose reel to reels are still in lofts?
6) Bert Jansch “Bert At The BBC”
A pricey (£95) but comprehensive set celebrating the many (many) appearances the guitarist made with and without Pentangle in tow for BBC radio or TV, which cover every era from the early days (three songs from 1966!) up to a couple of years before Bert’s death (a 2009 folk award session). There are in fact no less than 140 songs (plus spoken word ‘introductions’) complete on eight CDs or 4 LPs with an exclusive ‘link’ to even more content: a further six hours that can be downloaded (and mostly feature alternate versions of songs already featured on the box; nice for us completists though!) There’s some gorgeous stuff here: the foreboding of a 23 year old Bert treating folk song ‘Whiskey Man’ as a joke about three discs before he becomes an alcoholic for real; a glorious 1970 Pentangle session for radio one, as a guest on ‘Folkweave’ in 1977 that was broadcast on the BBC World Service, an emotional and haunted ‘Is It Real?’ from the otherwise empty period of the mid-1980s, two surprise covers of Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ from 1982 and 1992 that works well as a folk lament, Holst’s gorgeous Christmas carol ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ from near the end in 2008 that’s born for that Bert combination of dour vocal and wintry guitar and a cracking ‘60th birthday’ gig from 2003 that’s here complete. Yes there are some downsides (even with so much repetition taken out already I never want to hear Bert cover ‘Blues Run The Game’ again, while it’s odd that the past decade or so of Bert’s life is here complete rather than other, perhaps more interesting eras). However this is a grand set that we Pentangle aficionados have been dreaming of for some time. Though you suspect Bert himself would have baulked at the cost and all this attention a decade after his death, this BBC set is a great tribute to a brilliant musician and like all the best BBC sets offers a fascinating ‘alternate timeline’ from across a career that enables us to enjoy everything all over again but differently. Now please do a Pentangle at the BBC set to go with it and I’ll be happy! Although good news: apparently the next big BBC set due for release next year will be for Lindisfarne in May…
7) Neil Young “Citizen Kane Jnr Blues – Live At the Bottom Line 1974”
At long last after thirteen years of releases, fifteen standalone ‘archive’ sets, a further five ‘official bootlegs’ (see below for two more) and two full boxes we get the crop (or at least one of them) from Neil Young’s unharvested live recordings. Nicknamed ‘Citizen Kane Jnr Blues’ after an improvised introduction for ‘Pushed It Over The End’, this show from May 16th 1974 has become a much beloved bootleg by fans who see it as the missing link between the ‘Doom Trilogy’ dour Neil of 1973-1974 and the ‘stadia’ Neil of 1974-1975 when he’s back making headlines with CSNY and Crazy Horse. This is a solo gig though, from a time when Neil is audibly trying to pick himself up and put himself together again. With his audience having all but disappeared, put off by songs of confusion and depression (this is the eras when bandmate Stephen Stills started recorded Neil’s songs on his solo albums just to remind people he was out there, bizarre as that seems now) Neil takes more chances than ever, dispensing with almost all his hits and singing what would have been almost an entirely new set for his audience (just listen for the rapturous applause for ‘Helpless’, the only song here most fans would have recognised unless they’d been at the ‘Tonight’s The Night’ shows). Neil might have been a Citizen Kane style former millionaire recluse at the time he makes the quip that gave this album its title, but unlike the film there are already the seeds for Neil’s recovery here, both in his humour and in his new songs. Nominally Neil is plugging ‘On The Beach’, an album recorded sparsely a few months earlier and here played even more sparsely with no other musicians around and Neil doesn’t just go for the easy songs either, with an intense ‘Revolution Blues’ invoking Charlie Manson despite only having an acoustic guitar as a weapon, an even more intense ‘Motion Pictures’ where Neil gets vulnerable over his split with wife Carrie and a full nine minutes of ‘Ambulance Blues’ where survival isn’t guaranteed and ‘an ambulance can only go so fast’. Neil’s clearly not in that headspace fully by the time he played this show though, teasing the audience with a surprisingly authentic rendition of Henry VIII’s ‘Greensleeves’ (well, that’s what it says on the sheet music anyway and I’m not risking my head by arguing, even if he has been dead 480 years), a preview of ‘Long May You Run’ a full two years early and a gorgeous ‘Pardon My Heart’ which will end up on 1975’s ‘Zuma’, here introduced as ‘a love song I learned recently – I wrote it too, one of the saddest love songs I’ve ever heard’. Throw in two songs that were unreleased for aeons (‘Pushed It Over The End’, finally released as a live electric tune on ‘CSNY’74’ forty years later but here an even more barbed acoustic song and the perennial concert favourite ‘Dance Dance Dance’ finally released on the first of those Archive box sets in 2009 and released a third time on yet another NY archive set this year) and you have several reasons fans used to pay above the odds for this set in muddy sound. Nowadays, of course, we just pay over the odds for it in pristine sound, such is the Neil Young way, but the bottom line this time is that, unlike perhaps as much as 2/3rds of the other archive and official NY bootleg releases, this one is worth every penny.
8) Micky Dolenz “Sings Mike Nesmith E.P.”
Just before he died at the end of last year the final studio recording Mike Nesmith gave his blessing to was a series of re-recordings of his solo songs his old Monkee bandmate Micky Dolenz made with Nez’s oldest son Christian. It was a nice idea done rather oddly – a big budget recreation of songs that worked better in their original stripped-down forms and with the track selection taken pretty much at random. We said in our yearly review of 2021 that there were so many Nesmith songs we were dying to hear Micky sing that they should make another volume just to put that right – well, we haven’t got a full album but this EP includes two of our suggestions, an ‘extra’ song we moaned should have been on the album and an oddity written by Mike during the big Monkee year of 1967 but unreleased till now. ‘Soul Writer’s Birthday’ is grabbing all the headlines and so it should: it might well be the last Nesmith original we ever get to hear. It’s a good but odd song though, especially done like this with the drums and synths up high and Micky’s vocal buried deep in the mix (see more in songs of the year below). The other three songs are less interesting but more listenable. ‘Some of Shelley’s Blues’ (from ’Ranch Stash’, although you can find a Monkee-era version from 1969 on ‘Missing Links Two’) is one of my favourites of Mike’s solo songs (and no there isn’t a real Shelley…Well, there is, but she wasn’t called Shelley, I suspect this song is about the impending split with first wife Phyllis, or perhaps Mike himself is Shelley as he calls himself out for wanting to leave a marriage without good reason) and Micky is born to sing it, all grand gestures emotion and hidden subtexts. The backing is way too country-rock cliché for my tastes, all banjos and campfire singalongs, but works better than most of the main album did at capturing an authentic Nez cowboy feel. ‘The Grand Ennui’ (from ‘Tantamount To Treason’) is an urgent cowboy song with apathy as a relentless criminal out to steal your life, released as a ‘digital bonus’ when the album came out last year. It’s a fine song Micky has a lot of fun with that’s perhaps a shade too slow to rock (this is a song that needs to be gabbled at high speed). Best of the lot is ‘The Crippled Lion’, another 1969 composition Mike recorded under the Monkee name during his last days with the band which was considered for ‘The Monkees Present’ at one stage (and can be heard on ‘Missing Links II’). It’s the best recording of the entire sessions by far, a typically intelligent and dense song about regret and loss that still has all the emotion Micky needs to make it soar, treated to a sumptuous re-arrangement that’s slower and bigger yet fully in keeping with the original mood. It’s hard not to feel sad, too, over lyrics where the narrator bids us goodbye and sets out to pastures new whose ‘path is planned but not rehearsed’. As for Micky, the way he sings ‘I am finally alone’ as the last Monkee standing – even though he wasn’t at the time he recorded it –is powerful stuff indeed and makes you want to give him a cuddle more than ever. A big improvement on the full record, then. Had the rest of the parent album been as good as this it would have been our release of 2021; as it is this EP is still one of the better releases of 2022.
9) Grateful Dead “Dave’s Picks Volume Forty-Two”
This hasn’t been a classic year for Dead archive sets (heck there’s only been four of them this year, which by their standards is taking it easy. Mind you, one of them was a twenty-six LP set…) However pretty much any 1970s Dead show is worth hearing and so it is with this gig, the second show in the band’s 1974 tour, taped on February 23rd. This is the last tour the Dead recorded before their hiatus and fittingly its recorded in the same arena, California’s Winterland, where they will famously put their career on pause eight months later (as seen in the ‘Grateful Dead Movie’, a surprise but welcome addition to the sky arts channel this year).This is a year that tends to get overlooked by Deadheads, lost between the really popular 1968-1972 epoch and the 1977 era most fans consider a truly special run. That’s unfair though: Keith Godchaux is no longer the new boy struggling to fit in and not yet the addict struggling to keep up and his twinkling piano is the perfect foil for Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. The band’s infamous mobile wall of sound gives everything an extra power and clarity, even by Dead standards. And the songs are of course superb: a couple of them are making their debuts (we get the second ever ‘Ship Of Fools’ and – on the ‘bonus disc’ of highlights from the February 22nd show - the very first, as well as the band debut of Jerry’s solo song ‘It Must Have Been The Roses’ and the ‘completed’ version of ‘U.S. Blues’) and some of them their farewells (this is one of the last complete ‘Weather Report Suites’ and - *sob* - the last performance ever of ‘Here Comes Sunshine’, perhaps my favourite of all the Dead live songs, until the 1990s when the band’s final keyboard player Vince Welnick asks the band if they can start playing his favourite Dead song live again; what with all the rare Beatle covers that suddenly turned up in the setlists in that era too man did Vince have taste). ‘Sunshine’ is the tastiest thing here, a tighter and less fragile version than many, followed by a playful ‘Dire Wolf’ and an achingly beautiful ‘Stella Blue’. This isn’t one of those Dead shows that cause your jaw to drop with extended jamming (the second set is much patchier than the first, which is unusual for them) and given how many of the best things on it are from the bonus disc (including a gorgeous rendition of Bob’s ‘Black Throated Wind’) maybe it would have been better to have had the more historically interesting gig from the 22nd complete rather than tacked onto the end of the 23rd. However, it’s another good show with the whole band on form, something you can’t say too often from this era onwards.
In a mixed bag of Deadheading other shows released this year include the famous quartet of London Lyceum gigs from May 23rd-26th 1972 (released in their own right after being included in the - literal - suitcase made up of the band’s entire 1972 European tour, which is great but no better and not by Dead standards terribly different to the other European shows out already; the last of these shows is also out individually but it’s probably my least favourite of the four and a good third of it is on the original ‘Europe ‘72’ set anyway, which makes it rather a daft choice. Also, it’s a shame that this set effectively replaced the 50th anniversary deluxe edition of ‘Europe ‘72’ in the otherwise fine selection of the band’s half-century-celebrating re-issues), Dave’s Picks Volume Forty-Three (two unheard sets apparently taken from sealed boxes in engineer Bear’s personal archives from November and December 1969, which are oddly static for their vintage although an early version of the Dead’s ‘unplugged’ show, a unique cover song, George Jones’ ‘Seasons Of My Heart’ and a nearly 25 minute ‘Dark Star’ are all well worth hearing), Dave’s Picks Volume Forty-Four (a so-so set from February 23rd 1990 with some semi-rare songs for long-timers such as Brent’s ‘Far From Me’ and ‘Blues For Allah’ centrepiece ‘Crazy Fingers’ that’s weak on the rockers and strong on the ballads, with Jerry on emotional but croaky form with a moody bluesy ‘The Wheel’ and a heartbreaking ‘Morning Dew’ standing out most) and ‘In and Out Of The Garden’ (six successive shows at New York’s Madison Square Gardens across a massive seventeen compact discs – with two concerts apiece between 1981 and 1983 – not my favourite period, with Jerry already audibly struggling and not even my favourite of the era’s gigs, although there’s a pretty nifty ‘Lazy Lightning > Supplication’ during the 1981 show, a stunning ‘Scarlet > Fire’ and only the third ever performance of ‘A Touch Of Grey’ back when it was a spring chicken during the second 1982 show as well as a sparking ‘Help Is On The Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower’ from the second 1983 show that’s a bold move given the shape the band were in back then. For some reason the 1981 shows are out as an individual set, but not the others as yet).
10) Neil Young “World Record”
You may have noticed lot of Neil in this year’s list, dear reader. It’s still only semi-official but it’s looking likely as if Neil has retired from touring, after more constant years gigging than just about anyone I can think of, as Neil instead retreats to his home, his new wife, his barn and his archives. In amongst the ten (!) revived or regenerated entries on this list from yesteryear here is the one truly new record of his in 2022. ‘World Record’ is much like the last two studio albums, with the same personnel of Crazy Horse plus new/old boy Nils Lofgren in place of retired Frank Sampedro – indeed, if my maths is right, this is the first time Neil has ever worked with exactly the same line-up for three records in a row his whole career. The result, then, sounds much like 2019’s ‘Colorado’ and last year’s ‘Barn’, with a bunch of only slightly rehearsed slow songs surrounding one epic album highlight in the middle – though as the punning title suggests this is a more outward-looking record than the last two. It is effectively the first NY full-on climate change studio concept album (after near misses with the live ‘Earth’ CD, the GM crop-baiting ‘Monsanto Years’ and bits and pieces on Neil albums stretching right back to his debut in 1968), full of tales of how we got here, how to get out of it and warnings of what might happen in the future. The ‘new’ part comes from producer Rick Rubin, he of the superb Johnny Cash ‘American’ series at the end of his life, and something of a slap in the face to CSN who split up while working with Rubin in 2012, the results unfinished and unreleased. Not that you can tell much difference from other Ny records mind you and this is sadly far from the career re-write of the Cash records, even if they share the same focal point of an aging legend growing scared in his old age: just as with the album Neil made with similar name producer Daniel Le Nois, there’s not much here you wouldn’t be able to predict really – oddly so really given how much Neil used to thrive on change. It’s as if he’s become comfortable, writing similar albums about how the world has become so uncomfortable and unpredictable lately, keeping everything the same except the environment and the production team.
At first this album sounds kind of small, with Neil’s voice more alone and vulnerable than usual, as if he’s a lone voice singing to an empty room – even when the Horse are galloping alongside him. Many of the lyrics too are from Neil’s suddenly smaller world as he observes changes on his ranch, in his friends, on the internet as everything re-acts to a dying planet. The more you listen, though, the more you get a sense of scale and particularly time, as if Neil is trying to put the current climate crisis in context of the human race – the bill that was always going to be paid by the next generation for the past generations having fun. ‘Time was when we were all children’ runs ‘This Old Planet’, a planet where the sun was guaranteed to rise every morning, but now things no longer feel so secure. ‘It’s too soon’ sings Neil, wondering why leaves are falling like Autumn when its Springtime, an excellent metaphor for the way the world seems to be heading to the end of days fast just as things seemed to be getting better. Neil includes pictures of his mum and his dad and his brother in the album’s packaging along with the dates of their birth (that’s his dad Scott on the cover, looking particularly Neil-ish in the 1940s and not Neil in his Shocking Pinks outfit as some fans have wondered). ‘These are the things we’ve done’ offers Neil in ‘Walking To The Future’ as he gives the world one last final chance to get it together or else all the things not just Neil but his parents and by association their whole generation ever achieved will all be for nothing, lost in a maelstrom of political dithering, short-term greed and ignorance. Many of the album’s lyrics deal with how we seem to be sleepwalking into chaos as a planet, with too many aging ignorant Donald Trumps in power rather than the Greta Thurnbergs who are young enough to actually have to deal with this mess one day. It’s a record of past and future, rather neatly intertwined.
Unfortunately it’s the present where ‘World Record’ often falls down. Like ‘Colorado’ and ‘Barn’, but more so, this is an album that would have benefitted from some extra takes, or even a rehearsal or two. Neil wrote the album in just a few days while out walking in nature and hired Crazy Horse in a hurry to get it all down (which is one up on ‘Greendale’ at least, written in the car on the way to the studio each day), aiming to deliver an album that was hot off the press, ‘not much thinking but a lot of feeling’ as Neil’s put it in interviews. The Horse are used to working this way of course and famously run scared at too many takes, but Neil’s gone way too far the other way now, to the point where even musicians as brilliant as Nils, Ralph and Billy sound as if they’re just about hanging on rather than flying. Neil’s vocals too are all over the place, as if he hasn’t finished writing these songs himself yet and doesn’t quite know how they go and it all sounds that little bit unfinished. The result all sounds oddly quiet too for some reason, even when played loud, as if we’ve switched from F1 engines to E racing’s silent engines in our quest for a different source of energy.
Or maybe it’s all that recycling? ‘I Walk With You’, for instance, subconsciously nicks from the 2000 CSNY song ‘Looking Forward’ but without the harmonies it reveals just how shaky Shakey Deal is these days. ‘Love Earth’ is a hippy-dippy ballad full of hope you can imagine Fred Astaire dancing to, but it’s so seriously off-key and off-kilter that you can’t decide if Neil is being deliberately off-key compared to the rest of the world going to Hell, sarcastically optimistic or just having an off-day. ‘The Long Day Before’ ought to be a powerful piece about how you never hear about climate change n the media, because people are too scared to listen, but we’re all going to have to deal with the effects one day. Unfortunately it comes over as one mad old man singing to a pump organ he doesn’t seem to have learnt how to play (oh how you’ll get sick of that pump organ, it’s on this album more times than the guitar!) You can barely even hear Neil on the mournful reprise of ‘This Old Planet’, a song that’s chilling on paper, a warning and later in part two a requiem, but just sounds like some mumbling over an out-of-tune piano on the album. Like so much of ‘World Record’ these songs are powerful on paper and really ought to work, but they feel like huffing and puffing over nothing when heard as full songs – a coal mine churning massive amounts of fuel to light just one small flickering flame rather than a fire. Often on records past the bum notes and missed cues help make Neil’s emotional albums sound all the more urgent, but all too often this is an ugly sounding album about an ugly situation often sporting a deliberately ugly set of lyrics just doesn’t quite come off.
I’ve yet to hear a Neil Young album that was hopeless, however (well not since ‘Greendale’ anyway) and ‘World Record’ is no exception. There are a strong trio of songs making up the backbone of this CD, all of them harder-edged songs where that Crazy rawness fits the album theme best and all of them more hopeful than the rest of the record. Along with the front cover ‘Overheard’ recalls ‘Prairie Dream’, Neil getting a message in a dream from a loved one (his dad) he can’t quite decipher. He takes it as a warning from ancestors past about how we’re living ‘day to day, one foot in front of the other’ without knowing that the path is broken. Neil, now in love again, is desperate to walk properly this time and wants us all to overcome our obstacles and soar so we can get a second chance and reason for living like him, coming up with a fun walking pace riff that suddenly stops dead in its tracks in a middle eight that sees him die and be reunited with his old Lincoln convertible that is most affecting. The bluesy feedback-driven ‘Break The Chain’ has Neil sighing about covid and the need to ‘stay inside for all eternity’, while simultaneously grateful that he got to do most of his living in the era before this so this misery only came along at the end of his life, when he wanted to stay at home with his new missus anyway. ‘It’s like I’m dancing’ he sings as the song takes off on an angry stomp ‘But am I dancing with death?’ The backing has it both ways, an angry snarl that’s either resilient or frustrated or both. ‘Chevrolet’ is the one moment of brilliance, the album’s central song in so many ways (see songs of the year below): car-lover Neil goes to the dealership and sees a vintage automobile he’s always wanted to own, but he can’t bring himself to buy it because he’s suddenly aware of the cost to the planet if he buys something that guzzles all that fuiel and realises that humanity needs to think a different way and live in a different time now, still casting one longing look over his shoulder at how good it all once was. Its one last roaring sneer of electric horsepower before the engine gets put back in the garage one last time. Lyrically I’d put ‘This Old Planet’ in there too, even if the usually reliable Nils Lofgren accordion and Neil’s vocal is so horrifically off-key I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it on the soundtrack to a horror movie.
As for the rest of the album, though, it’s a collection of slow, mid-paced and clod-hopping songs that either sound like something we’ve heard a hundred times before or a promising idea performed so badly it’s barely there. It’s not the sort of album you put on for fun, but nor is it the sort of record driven by wild passion and fury as so many Neil records are – and unlike many fans and reviewers I’ve kind of enjoyed them all, as recently as under-rated sets ‘Monsanto’ (23012) and ‘The Visitor’ (2017). This one though can’t even match the plodding stomp of ‘Barn’ or the intermittent sparks of ‘Colorado’ for the most part, with forgettable delivery of forgettable songs, even though it might well have more promise lyrically than either of those CDs. To be fair to it, ‘World Record’ is a grower, with Neil a solar panel in a world of cloud we could all do with right now. I couldn’t stand it’s tinny production rough notes and shambolic performances on first listen, was still bitterly disappointed on second listen, wasn’t too keen on it third fourth or fifth listen, but here we are on a sixth time round for this review (one I was dreading to write to be honest) and I can suddenly start hearing the subtle differences between the songs and my foot has suddenly started tapping of its own accord. Maybe if I hear it a hundred more times it might yet make it onto our ‘best albums of the decade’ list of 2030 despite its lowly status in this year’s list? (If we all live that long?) Somehow, oddly, that seems only right and proper. This isn’t an album about easy solutions or beauty or speed, but despite the horror of impending cataclysmic apocalypse present on pretty much every track, still the central message to take away from ‘World Record’ is that there is still, for now, a tiny kernel of hope we can somehow yet get it together and ‘forget our bad turn’. Ah and occasionally, just occasionally, it feels so good…
11) David Crosby “Live At The Capitol Theatre”
‘This could be a really good night!’ quips Croz early on in this show, where he’s equalled – as opposed to backed – by the collaborators on his past flurry of albums dubbed The Lighthouse Band. What he didn’t know at the time was that it was also, to all intents and purposes, the last night: nobody on stage or in the audience knows it but covid is waiting in the wings and, now aged 81 and with travelling so dangerous, Crosby has semi-officially retired from live shows. While most musicians who call it a day do so with a greatest hits or career look back, Croz and co were still fiercely creating towards the end and getting more and more prolific with every year (there’s yet another studio set waiting to come out next year too). The vast majority of this live set comes from the past four Croz albums, the oldest only a decade or so old, all effortlessly recreated and sounding impressively like the records. Although of course the down side of this is that, as with old bandmate Nash below, unless you were at one of the gigs you’re probably better off just putting the records on than hearing them re-created. That said, a couple of the performances are better than on the records: ‘1974’ was a Crosby demo fragment Becca Stevens stumbled across on Croz’s hard-drive and named for the year it was composed (the aborted CSNY reunion record ‘Human Highway’ year, for context). She built up into a song by overdubbing lyrics on top of a thirty-three-year-old Crosby’s chants; this version features a real live 81-year-old Croz singing along and interacting which makes it sound much more like a ‘real’ song. ‘The Us Below’, not one of my favourites of recent Crosby songs, really takes off on this version too, Crosby’s more emotional and human vocal really embellished by the trio of singers around him.
There is older material too, but not much of it and it’s a mixed bag: ‘Laughing’ is gorgeous, a solo Crosby rendition similar to the way he used to sing it in 1970 (as heard as a bonus track on the CSNY ‘4 Way Street’ set) but better, with the extra wisdom of a half-century’s experience. ‘Carry Me’, one of the most autobiographical of all Crosby songs, is also spellbinding, another solo acoustic rendition-with-harmonies without the poppier edges of the ‘Wind On The Water’ album of 1975 as Crosby relates three relationships of sadness all tinged with hope for better days. Alas ‘What Are Their Names?’ is the a capella chant arrangement from the CSNY ‘Freedom Of Speech’ tour in 2008 and it’s a nothing song without the fire of Jerry Garcia, Neil Young, Grace Sick et al behind it as per the 1971 original. ‘Déjà vu’ and ‘Guinnevere’ too should be right up this jazzy band’s street but they’re pale shadows of old glories from the full on CSNY onslaught to the spookier Crosby-Nash renditions. ‘Janet’ really is the worst of all modern Croz songs too and it’s rocky ‘Karen’ vibes sound even more out of pace here than it did in the hippie ambience of ‘Here If You Listen’. I’m not sure the companion DVD really adds much either: this is one of those bands who were all about the music and never came with extra dancers/light shows/flying pigs so you don’t see anything you couldn’t better imagine by listening to the CD with your eyes closed. All that said though, this is a fine concert and additionally one that’s impressively different to all previous Crosby live sets (the last of which was with CPR in 2002, so it’s been a while). Not everything works but mostly this is a fine band playing fine material and if this really is the end, then it’s a most capitol way to go out. Late news: David’s tweeted just today that he’s changed his mind and feels like going back on the road again soon. I can’t keep up…
12) Graham Nash “Songs For Beginners/Wild Tales – Live”
One of the biggest ‘inventions’ of the 21st century live show is for musicians to revisit not just a ‘greatest hits’ show but entire beloved albums from their back catalogues. As far as I can tell The Who were the first, reviving ‘Tommy’ more or less complete in 1989 but it really took off later when you could see Pink Floyd touring ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, Brian Wilson touring ‘Pet Sounds’, The Moody Blues touring ‘Days Of Future Passed’ and The Who touring ‘Tommy’ (again). Poor ‘Songs For Beginners’ got a bit lost in amongst all the other more famous CSNY solo albums of 1970-1971 (‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ ‘Stephen Stills’ and ‘After The Goldrush’ to name but three) even though it’s the equal of any of these, a powerful poignant collection of singer-songwriter angst as Nash moves to America, becomes an international star with his CSN buddies, falls in love with Joni Mitchell – and then promptly loses band and soulmate in quick succession. Nash was never more open, more vulnerable, more wise than here and yet his knack for capturing life changing nuggets of wisdom in catchy three minute pop songs was never better either. As brilliantly consistent as ‘Beginners’ is, though, the best parts of sequel ‘Wild Tales’ from a couple of years later are even better than that, particularly ‘Another Sleep Song’ which may well be the best thing he ever wrote. This time round Nash has just seen CSNY break up a second –or is it a third? – time and seen his new girlfriend Amy murdered by her own brother and, yet again, sought to put all that existential questioning into sound. I’m very grateful for the new attention given to two of the best AAA records that casual fans don’t know since Graham toured these albums in 2019 and giving more curious fans access to them can only be a good thing, while I heard firsthand from several fans what a moving show this was.
However, the problem with this record is the same as with all of these many concert re-creations down the years: who exactly is it for? If you’re a fan who was there then hearing these songs live for the second, third, fourth or more times is never going to have the impact of the first. If you were a fan who wasn’t there then you can just buy the original albums cheaper and hear those instead (and let’s face it, good as Graham’s band is, they don’t sound as good as the musicians on the records – and the boast in the publicity that the band only had three days of rehearsals seems more of a shame than a blessing to me). If you were fan who weren’t there and you wanted to know how it sounded…well, I guess this album’s for you. But is there really such a market? Especially as Nash doesn’t do what so many of his peers have done (stick a load of hits onto the end as an encore to lure the audience in that way). The plusses here are that you get to hear Graham older and wiser, which suits many of these songs. The re-arrangement of ‘Better Days’ finds him deeper in both voice and thought, while ‘Simple Man’ and ‘I Used To Be A King’ hit differently with Nash approaching his eighties than they did in his late twenties, with so many extra broken relationships and friendships along the way (not least the one with Crosby). Against this, however, nothing here matches the originals and so many songs just don’t work the way he did with his younger, sprightlier self: ‘Grave Concern’ is a noisy shadow of its former glory with corny spoken words extracts from lots of newer politicians to run alongside Nixon as per the record and Nash has never sounded more out of tune than he does on the three slight country-rockers on ‘Wild Tales’. Worst of all, both Sleep Songs are all but thrown away here, now that the songs waving hello and goodbye to Joni are more distant memories (and the less said about the replacement for Joni’s graceful phantom wail on the sequel the better). The show already feels like more of a time capsule than the original timeless albums too, with their asides about Donald Trump (this is a compilation of fours shows from Nash’s 2019 tour, back when we only had a megalomaniac in office to worry about rather than a pandemic that seems to have outed all sorts of little megalomaniacs). There’s a nice album cover though, a third self-portrait to go alongside the original two. Not bad for a ‘beginner’!
13) John Entwistle “Rarities Oxhumed Volume One”
The good news: unlike some rarity sets out there, this one really is rare with thirteen unreleased recordings from two demos, three live tracks and eight studio outtakes. The bad news: they’re mostly from the 1990s when The Who’s bass player was turned down by most every record label, mostly for good reasons as you can hear with most of these tracks forgettably simple synth MOR rather than bass-heavy Who-like multi-layered life-changers. There are some real finds here though that are well worth digging out: there’s a first bash at ‘Bogey Man’ with an unusually subdued Keith Moon on drums from towards the end Moony’s life, a moving 1990s ballad titled ‘Back On The Road’ about John’s need to perform ‘kicking my heels at home waiting for the phone to ring’, a snarling live rendition of ‘Who Are You’ song ‘Trick Of The Light’ edging even further towards heavy metal and an eleven minute cover of Roger Daltrey’s moving tribute to Keith ‘Under A Raging Moon’ (which, truth be told, was always more John’s natural unhinged style than Roger’s anyway). Oh and a clever album cover that features lots of suitably Ox-like imagery from skeletons to bass-trees. As for the heavy metal rendition of ‘Shakin’ All Over’, the Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song that became synonymous with The Who though: horrible, everything John’s old band wasn’t. If you’re new to the Ox I certainly wouldn’t start here because you’ll never get to the end of what’s all in all a pretty uninspired disc (debut ‘Smash Your Head Against The Wall’ is probably the best place to go), but for those of us who’ve been starved of anything new since his sad death twenty years ago, we’ll take anything and a lot of this stuff will do nicely.
14) Neil Young “Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 1971”
Well, here we go again. Neil was on a roll in 1970-1971 performing several superb concerts with glittering new songs from ‘After The Goldrush’ and ‘Harvest’. He never sounded better – solo anyway – so it makes sense firstly that so many 1970s bootleggers would seek to release these concerts as soon as they could and that Neil would consider them for release fifty or so years on as part of his ongoing ‘archive/official bootleg’ series (and it seems to be a lottery which Young shows end up in which pile though you might well know this show under the bootleg title ‘I’m so glad y’all came down!’, which Neil drawls a few songs in). The problem is though Neil’s set was so good and his performances so consistent that there’s very little to choose between this year’s batch of concerts and those released in 2021, 2020, 2019…You get the picture. Discarding the very-similar acoustic shows from 1968 and 1969 and there are now seven of these shows recorded somewhere between mid 1970 and early 1971 with even aficionados like me struggling to tell one show apart from one another. Mostly the differences in this Los Angeles show (at a theatre named after one of the fundraisers for the LA Philharmonic Orchestra) comes in the stoned humour: Neil tells the audience they don’t have to ‘waste their energy’ clapping his new songs – ‘Just do it all in one go in the end, it’ll be cool’ he deadpans, not realising he’ll be dining out on these songs for the next half century and counting. Otherwise it’s another brilliant show, effortlessly played by a consummate professional during a golden age – alas so consummate and so golden that it feels as if we’re revisiting it in real time nowadays; actually scratch that because it feels as if we’ve been stuck in an eight month timewarp for three years now. For the record ‘Old Man’ sounds particularly strong tonight and ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ achingly powerful (but then didn’t they always?), while a slightly slower ‘Sugar Mountain’ tops eight minutes, a solo acoustic ‘Ohio’ is very different to its CSNY single version (though even that arrangement seems overly familiar these days) and a pre-release ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ is the rarest thing here (though even that song from ‘On The Beach’ is on its third live appearance already). Please, Neil, move onto another year!
15) Neil Young “Royce Hall 1971”
For instance, guess how many songs Neil plays at this California University Campus show which he also played at the Chandler Pavilion one? Fifteen! On a sixteen track album! The only obvious difference between the two shows is the banter (less interesting here, as a nervier Neil talks about ‘Sugar Mountain’ being recorded ‘by mistake’ and tries to get the audience to sing along, pushing the song towards a nine minute running time) and a lone extra song ‘Down By The River’. The sound quality is better on this set – stunningly so in fact, as if Neil is in your living room – but the performance is just a fraction lower in intensity and brilliance (though is still pretty breathtaking). Interestingly its ‘Down By the River’, which Neil seemed to ‘forget’ to play at the Chandler, that wins the prize here, slightly slower than normal and full of confusion and shock rather than malice or guilt as per other versions closely followed by the same suspects as last time. Oh and a spookily powerful ‘Needle and The Damage Done’, but then you already knew that – this is the famous version of the song that ended up on ‘Harvest’, with the audience applause somewhat more muted on this copy oddly. Despite having heard five or six versions of it recently on these archive sets Neil/David Briggs picked the right one – this is a keeper and all the more startling for coming near the end of a show where Neil has already given his all.
16) Neil Young/Promise Of The Real “Noise and Flowers”
In 2019 Elliot Roberts died, after half a century of being not so much Neil’s manager so much as his bulldog, fighting for his client like no other and filling the hole where record producer and mentor David Briggs had been. Neil’s response was to his death was to go out on the road with his new band, The Promise Of The Real, with a picture of his manager taped to his guitar case for company and including many of Eliot’s favourite songs in his setlist. Now, Elliot had good taste – many of these songs would stack up against many other Young fans’ favourite songs too and at times Neil sings them from the heart even more than usual. However, that good taste meant that Neil always relied on Briggs and Roberts to suggest what albums he should and shouldn’t putout (even if Neil always has the final word they were the only people who could ever say ‘no’ to him) and you suspect that Eliot really wouldn’t have wanted this album out. For a start, the sound quality is awful – how typical of Neil that he should have spent the past two decades railing against the low sound quality of digital music (even creating his own ‘pono’ device) only to release an official live album that sounds as if it was recorded on a cassette in the back seat of a particularly echoey arena. Secondly, Promise Of the Real are no Crazy Horse and without much rehearsal time really struggle to keep up with Neil on songs they don’t yet know inside out. The tracklist, too, is way too ‘safe’ for a Neil live album; at least the 1970/1971 sets above has the excuse that Neil hadn’t got many songs to choose from yet but being a 2019 recording this album has no excuse for the fact that every song bar ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ can be heard on at least two other official live albums out there. We’ve also had a live Promise Of The Real album already and while ‘Earth’ wasn’t much cop either at least it had its share of surprises and an audience comprised of cows, chickens, bears and grasshoppers. This one just has a human audience and a noisy one at that whose applause is louder than everything Neil plays.
The set isn’t completely without worth (which puts it half a star above, say, ‘Road Rocks’ at least): ‘Waiting For You’ has been – aptly –a long time coming to the live shows after being released as far back as 1968 and works well re-cast as a brutal, guttural howl of pain. Neil’s solo particularly is haunting, so desperate and primal as it tries to fly away over the noise, with forlorn hope all the narrator has left to cling to. There’s a neat moment at the end of ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ too where all the band take a solo – I’ve never heard that before despite the fact that Neil’s played this song on practically every tour since 1988 (prefaced by Neil’s on-stage dig at the ‘orange Lucifer’ Donald Trump reviving interest in this song again). You can tell how well a band are coping by how they tackle Neil’s other oft-heard song ‘Mr Soul’ though, which has been played in a different way by pretty much every band since Buffalo Springfield. This version is the worst yet, a proto-punk version that’s oddly low on energy, blundering around on one drum note and two guitar notes until it falls apart, while ‘F!#in’ Up’ is too fucked up to get off the ground at all 9and not in a good way either). Throughout musicians miss their keys, the drummer misses the beat, Neil comes in at the wrong pitch and the harmonies make Crazy Horse sound like CSNY. Yes, this is live and Neil was stingy with rehearsal time even by his standards so you can see why the Real might struggle. But there’s such a thing as keeping it too real and with so many other archive sets out this year we really didn’t need to revisit this one. I suspect that, had he been able to have one last talk with his manager, Elliot would have told Neil much the same thing. The deluxe version includes the actual visual film of the show, by the way, but somehow that’s an even worse way to experience what was already one of Neil’s more static shows: I even think I hallucinated the picture of Elliott putting his hands in his ears at one point. Flowers there might have been on stage, but for this soundtrack all you get is noise and not the good ‘Weld’ kind of noise either. If love is a rose then this is a venus fly-trap sucking all the goodwill from the fanbase. Sorry Neil, all the other nine releases of yours this year have been at least good but with so many other stunners still left in the vaults this one should have been left behind. These flowers need pruning.
(Best to Worst)
1) The Beatles “Revolver”
Of all the quadzillions of records in my collection I have a special bond with ‘Revolver’. We go way back: my earliest memory in fact is of struggling to learn to walk (or rather waddle) around a table decked with Christmas food, while my dad put a random record on and hearing the ‘1-2-3’ Taxman count-in and recognising it already as my favourite Beatles album even if I didn’t know what it was called yet. It’s the anticipation I remember most you see: the Christmas to come which I only vaguely remembered from the year before, the fact that soon I would have my freedom to walk anywhere (well, sort of…I never did get the hang of it completely) and most of all that the next half hour would be spent in the company of the greatest band on Earth in their greatest period. The album may have been around twenty years old even at that time but somehow ‘Revolver’ still sounded like the future – the sort of music that would be with us one day if only everyone else got on with it and caught up and what an enticing prospect that was dear listeners, in the days of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan and all. Another 36 years later and for my money still nobody else has quite caught Revolver up either. Instead it sits in time, in the middle of the 1960s, as an artistic crest in the middle of the decade of arguably the middle decade of the 20th century, from which we’ve since devolved. In all those interim years favourite albums have come and gone but ‘Revolver’ still has a special place in my heart and even though forty years have passed and I have grown more anachronistic and useless to the world, a 78 shellac disc lost in a world of mp3s, ‘somehow ‘Revolver’ still sounds timeless and more than a little bit shiny-new.
Anticipation is a good word for how I’ve felt watching other, lesser deluxe editions come and go the past few years, by everybody but particularly the fab four, while I’ve been screaming at Apple to re-release ‘Revolver’. It’s not just that it’s the best Beatles album (yes I’ve read lots of fans explaining why other fab four albums are your favourite and I know music is a subjective thing but honestly you’re all wrong: this album has ‘Eleanor Rigby’ ‘For No One’ ‘Here There and Everywhere’ ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ on it for goodness sake, five of the best songs ever made and the rest isn’t that far behind), it’s not just that ‘Revolver’ is one of the best albums by anyone and a defining moment of its era far more than ‘Peppers’ could ever be. No, it’s that thanks to bootlegs we know that so much exists in the vault that’s so different to the record and almost all of its fabulous! Forget your overblown ‘Abbey Road’ and undercooked ‘Let It Be’ sets (even if the ‘Peppers’ and ‘White Album’ ones were pretty great to be fair), this is the real test of The Beatles’ catalogue. Oh and just to point out I’m reviewing the full deluxe issue of four-discs-plus-an-EP here, even though there’s a rather good two-disc set out for the casual fan too.
And like all those other sets some of it is perfect and some of it is very very wrong. Let’s start with the new mix by Giles Martin. Usually I don’t comment on mixes in these reviews because not every fan is as big an anorak as me to notice changes, most new mixes sorta kinda get the job done even if they never sound as good as the one you grew up on whatever era that may be from and, well, it’s best not to get too upset because odds are there’ll be another new mix along in a few years anyway. With The Beatles it’s all slightly different though because of how well we know these albums, how quickly each mix seems to replace the last one available (why not include the last stereo mix as a bonus disc alongside the new one? – and no, the mono doesn’t count. Even in 1966 fans felt that hearing it was like re-sculpting a 3D model in 1D) and how few people involved in the originals are around to sign off on them. New technology (pioneered in the ‘Get Back’ documentary soundtrack last year) has enabled the Abbey Road boffins to cut the different instrument parts up, even when they were combined together on one channel on the old mastertapes and make it easier for them to be separated and moved around and thus changed around. However, just because technology allows you to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. There’s a reason every decision was taken in 1966 to make this album and while you can play around with stuff as extras, effectively replacing one version in the catalogue that gets deleted with another seems odd. Only two of the five people who signed off on these albums (and then only the mono edition – George Martin did the stereo editions on his own back then) are still here and while Paul and Ringo seem to be happy with guitars whizzing left and right all over the place I’m not convinced the more cynical John and George H would have been somehow. It seems to have split a lot of fans down the middle this new way of combining tracks together and personally I hate it, even if I admit most casual fans probably won’t see a difference; it all sounds like an attempt to make a timeless album sound as if it fits in with the loud brashness of 2022 so it won’t catch anybody’s ear by sounding out of place when streaming. Which is a stupid idea, especially when the next fad comes along in half a decade or so or they change the sound balance on Spotify and Apple Music et sequence. Now I’m all for new mixes when they make the old ones clearer, but this one feels like meddling with perfection. Ringo’s drums no longer purr throughout (this being his best album as a drummer by far) but sometimes clatter noisily drowning out the Rickenbacker guitars which have lost a slight sense of edge and danger (particularly tie-in single ‘Paperback Writer’, which sounds awful), bits of stray sitar sensibly cut from the ‘proper’ 1966 mix appear at random and the tape-loops of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ sound more slapdash and a step away from the future. There’s a reason George Martin came up with the final mixes he did and even though it’s his son presenting this new version I’m not so sure dad would approve fully – not without his original stereo mix alongside to compare to anyway. Then again I didn’t like the ‘Love’ remixes either and they always went down well with fans, so maybe it’s just my ears.
As for the ‘extra’ tracks the track listing seems to have been chosen more via Russian Roulette than anything else (perhaps a fitting metaphor given that the name is ‘Revolver’ after all). On some songs we get presented with a full backing track, on others session overdubs, others plentiful outtakes heard and unheard and others nothing at all, even though they could have presented us with a breakdown of everything a la the recent Lennon sets (I never thought I’d want to hear more of ‘Good Day Sunshine’, always Revolver’s weakest link, but seriously, not even a backing track?) A lot of these recordings have already appeared on ‘Anthology’ after all, as with all the Beatles deluxe sets, which leaves us all short-changed to begin with – and not even all the eligible tracks are here (where’s the ‘Taxman’ with the ‘gotabitamoney’ harmonies? I thought the bootlegged tape loops for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ would be a shoo-in too. I mean, we got lots on the past Beatle deluxe sets of this sort of thing and even though as an earlier album ther were less studio hours for ‘revolver’ and less to pick and choose from, this is where the new technology could and should have been used, to bring us a new way of looking at the album we’d never had before. When I first heard about the ‘separation’ technology I thought that would be an obvious thing to do with it, far more than a new mix.
So what is this re-issue doing at the top of this year’s re-issue pile I hear you cry? Well, it’s Revolver’ for starters so they would have to muck it up pretty bad for it not to be the best release of the year. Plus what we do get that’s new though, well…it’s truly a treasure trove and well worth buying this set for even despite the other caveats above. There’s so much more than we’ve ever heard before or knew existed, even on bootleg and better yet it changes how we view an album we thought we knew (often quite literally) forwards backwards and upside-down. Understandably it’s the Lennon demo for ‘Yellow Submarine’ that’s been making all the headlines because that’s the biggest surprise, the chance to hear how Ringo’s novelty song about nautical escapism started off life as a depressed John demo about Liverpool in self-pitying ‘Help!’ mode (‘In the land where I was born no one cried, no one cared’) before Paul re-built it into something prettier and lighter (with a second demo demonstrating how quickly songs could change back then, one containing a similar mood but with almost the revised lyrics intact featuring John, Paul and one acoustic guitar, no Ringo in sight and an added ‘lookout!’ hook that’s very 60s).
Not far behind though are the session tapes for ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (where Paul and George Martin change that famous string arrangement pretty much on the spot), a funky ‘Doctor Robert’ before the sweetening overdubs, a minute fragment of the band working on ‘I Want To Tell You’, yet another arrangement for ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ (recorded in between and sounding pretty much halfway between the folky take on ‘Anthology Two’ and the Motown punch of the album version), the original arrangement of ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ (but with ‘proper’ Lennon-McCartney vocals this time instead of the stoned giggling of Anthology, though that’s here too) and a sparky, angular and acerbic backing track for ‘She Said She Said’ cut at the last minute after the band thought the album had been finished (and, contrary to popular rumour, Macca didn’t walk out in a huff – he’s clearly present on the session tapes). The song that’s served best of all though is ‘Love You Too’, an early Harrison highlight heard in three different versions: a demo, a rehearsal and an alternate mix (with, alternately, a George with John and Paul acoustic version that sounds not unlike the Phil Spector demos for ‘All Things Must Pass’, an early 90 second sitar pass at the first of George Harrison’s ‘Indian’ songs as an off-mike George nervously guides a bunch of confused session musicians from Bombay out of their comfort zones and into the counter-culture and some intriguing ideas planned for the final arrangement cut out along the way),
At least a few of the things we fans loved from bootlegs are here officially at last too: the rough Lennon demo for ‘She Said She Said’ that’s even more of a practice for his ‘primal scream’ solo album on acoustic guitar, the blistering backing stop-and-start backing track and the gorgeous vocals-only for contemporary single ‘Paperback Writer’ as well as – the other set highlight – B-side ‘Rain’ back at the ‘correct’ speed (it’s a very different feel without being slowed down to mimic that sense of depression and oppression, with Ringo’s cymbal slashing practically punk). The ‘Anthology’ outtakes are almost all present and correct too featuring some very alternate versions of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ Got To Get You Into My Life’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ as well as a cut marching opening to ‘Yellow Submarine’ only ever released on the ‘Real Love’ single they really should have kept (we love it!) There are two great alternate mixes too that fans have long sought after and which are always a popular bootleg filler – ‘Tomorrow’ with tape loops arriving and departing in slightly different places and what for my money is the definitive mix of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ (marked RM1 or Re-Mix 1), a ‘first attempt’ with extra lashings of backwards guitar that sounds even more other-worldly (so yes, George Martin didn’t always get it right, point taken). I know I’ve been critical but even what we know contains a few surprises that EMI didn’t ‘have’ to give us. The Anthology take of ‘Life’ lasts a few seconds longer, fading on a swirling organ note and Ringo drum thump. A take of ‘Love You To’ includes some very unflattering harmony vocals from Paul probably left on the cutting room floor and a manic raga sitar-tabla ending that really should have made the album. The ‘proper’ ‘Rain’ has a suitably thunderous full ending collapse, faded down for the record. The ‘Void’ version of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from ‘Anthology Two’ features Lennon improvising some rather out of place crooner-ish ‘dah dah dahs’ after the backing track has finished rolling that got mixed out in 1996. Paul seems to bang a finger during the rehearsal of ‘Love You Too’ and emits a loud ‘ow!’– odd to think that any of The Beatles ever did anything quite so…human while making this record. Oh and it almost goes without saying that the packaging is pretty gorgeous too (though admittedly it should be for that price, which as usual with 21st century Beatles is at least twice as much as it ought to be, unlike the value-for-money 20th century Beatles).
What we get, then, is a flawed but still pretty darn good version of an album that skirts as close to perfection as any album ever got, with John at the end of his creative peak and Paul and George at the start of theirs. This is a record where everything works, give or take ‘Good Day Sunshine’. Even Klaus Voormann’s collage cover is the best the band ever had, especially in terms of matching the mood (all the more impressive given their old Hamburg pal only had time to hear it a couple of times while putting it together). If you haven’t heard it at all then, well, even the new diluted two-disc version is probably a bit too pricey to be honest and you’re really better off buying an old mix of it cheap (make sure you buy it in some format though, it will change your life. Seriously). If you have heard it before then, well, once again Apple are taking us for a ride but somehow I feel better about blowing so much money on this set compared to the other deluxe editions – after all, the others were important but this one is the pinnacle. Will you and I still be around for a super deluxe edition in another forty odd years, perhaps a 100th edition one that includes truly everything this time instead of another all too stingy pick of the vaults? When I have forgotten how to walk all over again?! Tomorrow Never Knows, although one thing’s for sure – I will still love this album and still be finding new things in it and no doubt it will still sound like the future in 2066 too. Though perhaps it will be even more unrecognisable in the new mix by Giles Martin’s grandchildren. I tell you, I saw another kind of mind there and didn’t always know what I would find there. Revolver, did I tell you I need you? Even if I’ll be paying you off every single day of my life…
2) Neil Young “Time Fades Away”
‘Time Fades Away’ was the first official Neil Young live release out of (count them again just to make sure because there’s probably been another six since the last time I looked) 28 official concert recordings and is easily the most important, if not necessarily the best. Recorded on a huge stadium tour and released hot on the heels of ‘Harvest’ fans expected a cosy comfy celebratory kind of live album full of hits, but that wasn’t the headspace Neil was in at all (for a start this live album is all new songs). His Crazy Horse bandmate and good friend Danny Whitten had just overdosed, fired from these concerts for the drug addiction that would kill him (legend always has it that he overdosed using the money Neil gave him for his plane ticket home from the tour). Suddenly those bright lights and applause didn’t seem like something to celebrate anymore, so Neil decided that instead he would show touring for what it was like: ugly, rough, raw, monkeynuts and kind of out of tune, selecting his more pained, paranoid newer songs performed on the tour to match. To make matters worse his new band, The Stray Gators, were not happy campers and at one point went on strike for more money; drummer Kenny Buttrey was sacked and replaced by CSNY and Jefferson Airplaner Johnny Barbata at a late stage, while Neil’s longstanding friendships with other band members never quite recovered. A last minute call to Crosby and Nash saw his old friends rush out to help Neil in a rare show of brotherly love, but even they sound half-crazed and as rough and ready as they ever would here.
The idea of releasing an album from this of all tours seemed suicidal (not least because Neil was already taping almost everything for his archives and had another ten prettier live albums all but ready to go) – however Neil has never been about doing what people thought he should be doing but what he felt like doing most and never was that muse stronger than with this album. At the time of release almost everybody hated ‘Time Fades Away’, ironically assuming that drugs had gone to Neil’s head too, instead of seeing it as the sobering painful cry for help it was and perhaps because of that it’s the last of Neil’s albums to ever be released officially on CD, a full thirty-six after the first of his went on sale and a mere decade after the previous batch of debut appearances (‘Hawks and Doves’ ‘Re-Actor’ and ‘On The Beach’ itself). Even nowadays, when fans know it as the beginning of the ‘Doom Trilogy’, ‘Time Fades Away’ still doesn’t get the respect or the kudos that ‘Tonight’s The Night’ or ‘On The Beach’ do. In some ways you can see why; as an album it’s less thought through than its doomy companions, with a few lesser songs that snuck in to fill up space along the way (the slight piano ballads particularly). However at its best ‘Time’ is Timeless, a brave dangerous and endlessly fascinating record that takes no prisoners in its dissection of stardom, drugs and human frailties. It’s an album quite unlike any other that begins with a mother’s pained cry for her drug dependent child to come home, ends with a nervous breakdown at the thought of being trapped in a 9-5 job on a Monday morning (‘Last Dance’ makes you feel every last one of its 68 ‘No No No’s!) and in the middle contains ‘Don’t Be Denied’, a devastating piece of autobiography where Neil remembers how he got started in music, recounts how corrupted his vision became and wonders why he still bothers to struggle on at all. The result is a dark, scary, brutal, raucous, tuneless, courageous, forgotten album that deserves a re-release more than practically everything Neil’s given us since the CD age. How typically Neil, then, that he finally releases this album on compact disc just as the medium becomes a dying art and vinyl records take over once again. But then you know how time fades away.
3) Pentangle “Through The Ages 1984-1995”
Though even their biggest fans concede that Pentangle’s 1980/90s output couldn’t match their 1960/70s work for eclecticism and courage, I’ve always felt that the band’s reunion albums have been unfairly overlooked. Unlike some other reunion albums I could think of a lot of the original spirit and sound of the band survived the breakup years intact and even if the band had less to prove beyond paying the bills they remained a talented, pioneering bunch throughout. There were, after all, four of the five original members here (John Renbourn attended rehearsals, then split on the eve of recording ‘Open The Door’), then three (as Danny Thompson quit before ‘In The Round’), then two (with Terry Cox disappearing before ‘So Early In The Spring’) but that’s still two members more than most reunion bands and those two members were, let’s not forget, the golden-vocalled Jacqui McShee and the folk genre’s greatest guitarist Bert Jansch. Newer members like Jethro Tull’s Gerry Conway and Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements alongside John’s replacement the under-rated Nigel Portman-Smith were all worthy and fitting replacements too. The five studio reunion records might not have effortlessly merged folk with jazz or psychedelia or blues or true rock and roll or catchy pop the way the original band did, but they still played folk-rock better than anybody (except perhaps Lindisfarne). As in the olden days their original songs still had new things to say while sounding as if they’d been around centuries and their revivals of century-old songs still sounded contemporary, without Pentangle ever falling fully into the 1980s and 1990s production pitfalls of lesser acts.
‘Open The Door’ (1985) is the most consistent of these records, with no bad songs to be found highlighted by Bert’s fed-up breakup song ‘First Taste Of Love’ (which now tastes bitter and taints everything that came afterwards), the beautiful ballad ‘Child Of Winter’ and ‘Street Market Song’ (a more epic variation on ‘Market Song’ that kick-started the ‘Sweet Child’ album). ‘In The Round’ (1986) is a rollercoaster ride, with Pentangle’s most anonymous polished production values and their most boring material nestling amongst killer classics every bit as good as their heyday, particularly Bert’s poignant ‘The Open Sea’ (‘Take care!’ he sings to us newbies, as a sailor whose used to drowning in life’s emotional waves) and the single best version of the oft-covered spooky folk classic ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ I’ve ever heard. ‘So Early In The Spring’ features the greatest of all these reunion recordings – the title track, itself recorded by Jacqui a capella for the live half of the ‘Sweet Child’ album in 1968 but now a full band production that’s achingly hauntingly beautiful (and, indeed, the very recording that got me hooked on Pentangle in the first place, long before I got to know their ‘classic’ stuff), even if the rest of the album is more so-so. ‘Think Of Tomorrow’ (1991) has no similar highlights and yet there’s not a bad thing on this record either, with some delightful guitar interplay between Bert and Nigel Portman-Smith and some brilliant use of the contrasting ‘Summer sunshine’ of Jacqui’s vocals with Bert’s Cold Winter (never better than on opener ‘O’er The Lonely Mountain’). Only finale studio album ‘One More Road’ (1993) and concert set ‘Live 1994’ suggest that the band had maybe run its course with only yet another re-make (‘Solomon’s Seal’s ‘Willy O Winsbury’) living up to old standards, Bert retreating to his solo career soon after and leaving Jacqui to re-group the band as McShee’s Pentangle from then on (another under-rated band, if not up to the one here never mind the original). All these albums are improved by a generous helping of bonus tracks too, made up of contemporary BBC sessions and live shows, particularly on the first two discs when Danny and Terry are the sort of rhythm section every live band needs to push themselves, though the longer extended ‘Live 1994’ works better uncut too.
You’re not getting a perfect set that’s brilliant from first note to last then and if you’re new to Pentangle then ‘The Albums 1968-1972’ is where you want to start (I wouldn’t say that one was brilliant from first note to last either but, boy, the five of them give it a blooming good try). However for us collectors who know those six original albums backwards it’s an absolute joy to have these hard-to-find albums back out on CD and the improved sound and extras leave a much more rounded impression of what the band were capable of beyond their tweer folk songs the reunion band became known for. I rather like the new cover too, the familiar Pentangle logo made out of stained glass, as if this all a relic from yesteryear. Which in a way it is. Something deeply traditional yet groundbreaking that the light shines through despite the cracks: that sounds like Pentangle to me!
4) The Beach Boys “Sail On Sailor 1972-73”
This year’s annual copyright-extending six disc dip into The Beach Boys’ vaults via ‘Carl and the Passions’ and ‘Holland’ doesn’t quite have the Razamatazz of the ‘20/20’ or ‘Sunflower/Surf’s Up’ sets from years past but still maintains the run’s ridiculously high standard. You can see why: after the resilience and high optimism of the past few years the 1972-73 period was a very different era: sales were tanking, morale was low, Brian Wilson was out to lunch, Dennis Wilson was off trying to make albums on the side and suffering from a damaged hand that meant he couldn’t play drums and Bruce Johnston had quit. Rather than spend extra hours in the studio cutting dozens of quality songs destined to be stuck in the vaults for half a century as with releases past the band were making most of their money on the road with the benefit of two new members – a future Rolling Stone and a future Rutle – both subbing from promising band The Flame, a Carl Wilson discovery who’d just released their debut on Beach Boys label Brother Records. It’s Blondie Chaplin and Ricki Fataar who star across this set: the majority of the unheard recordings are their songs and most of the ‘ooh’ moments come from hearing Blondie soar – whether on a capella mixes or new details thrown up by new mixes. However there’s less of a band feel to these sessions and the jury is still out about whether Blondie and Ricki’s soul-gospel sound belongs in the eclectic Beach Boy mix at all. Unlike every previous set time sometimes drags on this one, with the same epic running time stretched across thinner material. Alas two full discs are spent on a complete gig from Carnegie Hall, strangely un-plundered for the official ‘In Concert’ album of 1973 but really not that different from it (it was taped the week after Passiac shows that make up the backbone of that double LP after all). Though the band are in fine form – especially Carl – and throw in a couple of surprises like a medley of ‘Smile’ song ‘Wonderful’ and Flame song ‘Don’t Worry Bill’ (the only recording from the show previously heard, on 1998 rarities set ‘Endless Harmony’) and a spirited encore of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, of all songs, with Mike Love’s finest vocals the entire set, it’s not two hours you’ll want to hear too many times in a row.
Even so, the studio highs across this set are very high indeed and still put most rarities sets to shame. Most songs from ‘So Tough’ benefit hugely by the extra dip into the vaults: the almost unlistenably messy ‘Mess Of Help’ sounds like a much more complete song heard as a backing-track-with-backing vocals without the drunk ‘n; sober Carl trying to sing in synch, ‘Make It Good’ gets its deleted Darryl Dragon piano intro reinstated, the gorgeous ‘All This Is That’ is represented first by a sweet Al Jardine demo before the others, namely Carl, got hold of it and shaped it into a masterpiece (he’s got the ‘that makes all the difference’ hook and some of the words but not much else yet – he confesses nervously to his band members ‘think of it as a poem, rather than a song’ at the end) and then a sumptuous vocals-only mix with extra ‘oohs’ and ahs’ (more impressive than that might sound as these are Beach Boy oohs and ahs after all!); this is beaten by a capella mixes for the stunning ‘Marcella’ with its overlapping harmonies, amongst the most impressively complex recordings this most impressively complex of singing bands ever did, and a ‘Cuddle Up’ that fades out, section by section, to take away the orchestra and then the Boys to leave just composer Dennis singing alone to us, vulnerable and open, as he pours his heart out like never before. Sensational.
‘Holland’ doesn’t come to life quite as strongly on the alternate versions, almost all of which consist of backing tracks followed by vocal mixes that drag (especially ‘Steamboat’, which is basically two minutes of de-tuned drums without the vocals, although you do get a surprise extra line from composer Dennis cut from the finished product: ‘Honey, don’t get me wrong!’), with the exception of ‘Funky Pretty’, this album’s ‘Marcella’, which again show off just how many lead singers were in The Beach Boys at this point, all competing for space (but with Carl winning from Blondie in silver and then the others tied for bronze). There’s also madcap Brian Wilson fairy tale/childhood reminiscence ‘Mt Vernon and Fairway’ which gets broken into parts without manager Jack Rieley’s narration (although you do get to hear a thirty second outtake from that too). I’m still convinced that what Brian was writing about on this tale of pixies coming to life in his boyhood radio was his subconscious sadness that the band he used to be solely in charge of are now making inspired music of their own without him and that the ‘magic spell’ that caused everything to come without effort and led him to feel special and gifted is now such hard work. He’s probably right, too, given the creative rolls everyone else seems to be on with Mike and Al’s ‘California Trilogy’, Dennis’ ‘Only With You’ and Carl’s ‘Trader’ all particularly special.
You can hear just how much of a struggle music is for Brian is on a revealing songwriting tape for ‘Sail On Sailor’, recorded by lyricist Van Dyke Parks and referenced in Brian’s own (or should I say disowned?) autobiography ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ but never heard till now. ‘Hypnotise me Van Dyke, tell me I’m not crazy’ deadpans Brian, before being urged to sing what he’s got of the song so far: not much in truth and Brian keeps breaking off in a panic, as if the music that’s been his tonic for all his life is now something bringing him pain. It’s still a hugely powerful song already though, for all its stops and starts, and all the more fitting for its themes of resilience and struggle. A 1974 Christmas single aside, this was the last Beach Boys recording for three years, demanded by Warner Brothers after noticing just how little involvement Brian had on ‘Holland’. The song that sadly got kicked off to accommodate it(barring rare first pressings) was one of my favourites, ‘We Got Love’, perhaps Blondie and Ricki’s finest song, unheard officially in 49 years and thankfully restored to this set (although the live version from ‘In Concert’ might have the edge on it all the time anyway). The duo also have another pair of unheard songs here: the rocky ‘Hard Time’ (which is pretty much a simpler ‘Sail On Sailor’) and the boogie woogie ‘Oh Sweet Something’, which are fine but lack that distinctive Beach Boys spark – mostly because there’s no room for the band’s mass harmonies. There are also two very different versions of the much-bootlegged cute but silly Brian ditty ‘Out In The Country’ – one an instrumental and another with Al on vocals (though I’m sad a third version, with lyricist Dan Fogelberg on lead, isn’t here), the minute long Brian demo snippet ‘Little Child’ that could have been quite something with its portrayal of parental-child relationships but isn’t here yet, a first very rough Brian Wilson piano draft of ‘Susie Cincinnati’ before Al knocked it into shape for ’15 Big Ones’ in 1976, one of many eccentric 1970s Brian Wilson cover song re-arrangements, this time for The Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ which will finally metamorphosise into ‘Walkin’ The Line’ on his debut solo in 1988 but here just sounds weird and best of all Dennis’ attempt to write in the Blondie/Ricki style ‘Carry Me Home’ (see songs of the year below). In addition, we get three unfinished instrumentals with very Brian Wilsony chords, the organ-based ‘Spark In The Dark’, the more piano-y 1950s style ‘Rooftop Harry’ and 1970s style ‘Body Talk’, which are hard to judge without any lyrics or vocals. As for the new mixes of both albums: hmm, I’m not a fan really, as like ‘Revolver’ this set insists on making everything loud and it feels more like an attempt to keep these songs in line with 2022 spotify tastes when everything has to be at a similar audible level than to maintain the feel of a timeless classic, although at least this time there is less jiggery-pokery and a majority of the band are still around to sign off on it.
The result is another fine set from an under-rated period in The Beach Boys’ history. What it isn’t is a six disc set stuffed with the revelations of last year’s ‘Feel Flows’ twist on Sunflower/Surf’s UP or 2020’s take on, umm, ‘20/20’. For all the essay’s attempts in the otherwise superlative packaging to make this out to be a time of growth and re-birth for The Beach Boys, in truth they’re a band on their downers here after the revival highs of 1971 and even gaining two extra members and moving halfway round the world to Amsterdam didn’t see them raise their game so much as slow down and lose their way. Still, though, I’ve always considered ‘Holland’ one of the many unsung heroes of the Beach Boys discography and though it’s not as strong the best of ‘So Tough’ ranks alongside the best the band ever did too. That’s kind of true for this set also: quite a bit of it is forgettable, a majority of it is pretty good, some of it’s unmissable, a couple of pieces (‘Carry Me Home’ and ‘the ‘Sail On Sailor’ tape) are astonishing. Now time will tell what happens next. Is that it now, with an end of the unbroken ‘classic’ run of Beach Boys albums to re-issue? Do we follow the real Beach Boys discography of thirty years ago and get a three year gap? Do we still get sets marking what will now be two very different albums alongside each other, go for a more streamline one for each or stick the four 1970s sets into one? Or do The Beach Boys sail on into the ether again with the release of a set named after what could be their theme song, just as we did back in 1973? Answers in a ship’s bottle please…
5) The Monkees “Headquarters – Super Deluxe”
Some box sets are born great (because of the brilliance of their source material). Others have greatness thrust upon them (because of the value of the extra material available). And others are, well, money for old rope really. The new edition of The Monkees’ third album is a bit of all three. This is the fourth time round for this album now, extended to four shiny discs and 7” single, and it makes my job difficult, with different responses for every set of fans who know this stuff backwards or are coming to it for the first time. The problem with this set is that its a highlights edition of a previous one from 2000 best heard complete, with some discarded stuff added instead that really is not as good or as interesting. If you don’t have this stuff already beyond the original LP then this set is a revelation, the moment when Micky Mike Davy and Peter went into a studio and played music together without anyone else around, not just for the first but – as it turns out – the only time till the 1990s. ‘Headquarters’ is, after all, a magnificent creation: the lunatics left in charge of the asylum in response to all the they’re-not-real-musicians bumf going on from music papers who couldn’t get their heads round the idea that The Monkees was first and foremost a TV show. The band were free to pick their own producer (Turtle bassist Chip Douglas), their own material and their own arrangements and get each of these spot on, delivering one of the tightest, electric, eclectic twelve-track albums around (plus two bits of Monkee goofing around). The original 1990s Rhino CD with bonus tracks was pretty darn good (all the earliest Rhino Monkee sets are sublime), but the ‘Headquarters Sessions’ set of 2000 made a great album even greater: three discs of The Monkees trying out lots of ideas for arrangements that got abandoned on the way (check out the original idea for ‘Randy Scouse Git’ before the kettle drums came along: a folkie burst of ‘I Was Born In East Virginia’), abandoned cover songs (‘Masking Tape’ would have been one of my favourites, if finished) and yet more evidence of Monkee goofing around, with Douglas smart enough to allow his protégés time to cool off and jam together, building up their musical bond even while expensive tapes were rolling. The result is one of my favourite of all the box sets I’ve ever owned because, like all great re-issues, you learn so much you never knew at the time as it all takes place beyond you almost in ‘real time’ day by day and by the time the finished masters roll round at the end you appreciate them all the more for all the bum notes, abandoned ideas and mis-steps that went towards making them. I only ever had one issue with that set: that it was a limited edition, so relatively few fans ever got to hear just how great it was.
Since then, in 2007, we’ve had a two-disc ‘deluxe’ edition of the album that took most of the good stuff away and replaced it with the session just before ‘Headquarters’ when original ‘musical supervisor’ Don Kirshner was still in charge of things and they sound like the product of an entirely different, uninspired band, with Micky and Davy forced to sing a bunch of loopy 1950s-style teen pop songs without the depth or adultness of the material they picked for most of ‘Headquarters’. Only even that wasn’t complete, making that whole CD a bit of a write-off. This time around things are better but not best; we get a four-disc set that sort of combines both, but one that skips a lot of the interesting stuff from the band sessions in favour of yet more Kirshner stuff and is again a limited edition that few fans will ever get to hear, this time at an astronomical price. The good news is that, this time around, the packaging is even better: glorious photographs, many of them unseen, alongside extra detailed session notes and a handsome box to keep everything in (the ‘Sessions’ set was held together by a single clip of cardboard that mimicked the studio doors that read ‘no admittance’). Some of the new finds are gems too: demo tapes for abandoned single ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’ and ‘All Of Your Toys’, which mark the absolute first attempt at Monkee creative freedom; groovy Kirshner backing tracks for ‘Gotta Give It Time’ (as finally finished with vocals for ‘Good Times!’ in 2016) and ’99 Pounds’ (as finished in 1970 for ‘Changes’), which beats all that guff about tying Mustangs down and Sally being a real ball of fire that were picked for release last time around and are here again; the classy backing track for #2 hit ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’, no less than seven unheard Kirshner backing tracks of which the Linzer and Randall-penned ‘Sugar Man’ is the most Monkee-like and ‘I Wanna Be Your Puppy Dog’ the cringiest; a demo of Davy singing Buffalo St Marie song ‘Until It’s Time For You To Go’ as picked and previously recorded by Mike; a rehearsal for abandoned Tom Paxton cover ‘The Last Thing On My Mind’; yet more of Micky having fun with a zither recording his mum Janelle’s song ‘Pillow Time’; yet another band jam ominously titled ‘Detuned 12-Bar’; the isolated partying backing vocals for ‘No Time’ that are great fun, some abandoned backing vocals on ‘You Just May Be The One’ and a different vocal take of ‘Early Morning Blues and Greens’. Best of all is a ‘Sunny Girlfriend’ backing track with a guide vocal from Mike that makes one of the band’s most ‘garage’ songs sound even more rock and roll.
All are nice to have, sort of but so much is missing from the ‘Sessions’ box set that for the price really ought to be there: the joy of hearing the band finally nailing ‘For Pete’s Sake’ as their persistence pays off, the ‘acoustic’ remix of ‘Sunny Girlfriend’ that might not be how the song was ever intended but is still my favourite version, the four separate vocal tracks for spoken word track ‘Zilch’, the full unedited take of ‘Band 6’, the fascinating tracking session for ‘Mr Webster’, the beautiful backing track for ‘Shades Of Grey’ and so many many more. As nice as it is to hear so many Kirshner-era songs for the first time, in no way shape or form would any Monkee fan who knew both sets want them to replace so many of the ‘Sessions’ songs of the band playing themselves. Though the two sessions have been separated there’s also none of the sense of progression with this set, no feel of The Monkees working towards a final goal and living and breathing it with them while they play – this is just a bunch of bonus tracks, some stapled together and edited, some slightly longer, seemingly at random. As for the new mix (which regrettably is again here instead of rather than as well as the old one) it also sounds worse to my ears, hard and flat and often oddly loud compared to all previous mixes, with little tiny details deliberately buried in the mix in 1967 for ambience now put forward and centre where they just don’t go (though ‘Blues and Greens’ sounds pretty tasty in this new version, that said). Had this been part of a five-disc version that included everything including past mixes and available to all, rather than just the 4000 lucky few with money in the bank in time for pre-orders with this exclusive release only available through The Monkees’ website, then this box could have been a true champion amongst champions. Instead it feels as if Rhino – usually such masters of quality and price - are for once monkeying around and already with half an eye on a ‘super super deluxe’ edition sometime in the future. Even so, the actual band session tapes are still brilliant and the packaging lavish enough to lift this set into the top five for this year, a worthy release if you missed the ‘Sessions’ set but not worth buying if you’ve heard it already.
6) Neil Young “Official Release Series Volume Four”
As well as all the many many albums in this year’s new releases list, Neil’s also been busy getting on with the re-releases of the records that did see the light of day, each one back on vinyl with the sort of Young-friendly super-duper digital re-mastering you’d expect. This series generally gets short shrift from us, what with the lack of any extras and the eye-watering price tags, but at last we’ve got to an era that’s more interesting than most. Sadly Neil seems to be skipping the Geffen era (copyright issues?) so instead we have the next four Reprise studio albums from either side of that point in time: ‘Hawks and Doves’ (patchy), Re-Ac-Tor (noisy and patchy), ‘This Note’s For You’ (consistent but a pale shadow of what might have been compared to the live shows) and ‘Eldorado’. Yes, Eldorado, at last, making its first official release outside Japan and even that was last released back in 1988! For those who don’t know ‘Eldorado’ for Neil Young fans was only slightly less mythical than the real thing, a much discussed but rarely heard five-song CD EP from the heavier side of the Neil oeuvre (indeed, its the closest he ever came to making a heavy metal album), played as a power trio with the much-missed Rick Rosas on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums. Then, after taping it, Neil changed his mind and decided that rather than make yet another genre LP that would have got ‘lost’ he would rather make a comeback album with a ‘bit of everything’, taping some ballads, some epic production numbers and topping and tailing the record with studio and live cuts of new song ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ for release as ‘Freedom’, one of the truly great moments in his back catalogue. Three songs from ‘Eldorado’ got cut down to size for the record – mercifully in the case of already-long Spanish bullfight tale ‘Eldorado’ and Drifters cover ‘On Broadway’ but that’s always been a massive shame for break-up song ‘Don’t Cry’, which has an extra 45 seconds or so sizzle and fire feedback in its original form here, as Neil tries his best to stay calm and, well, fails quite spectacularly. It’s still one of the most emotional moments in his vast catalogue now and all the better in its purist unedited form. There are also two equally brutal (if not quite as good) songs that have never been issued in any other form till now: ‘Cocaine Eyes’, which is long thought to have been about Stephen Stills and played in the manner of the Crosby-baiting ‘Hippie Dream’ as Neil wonders how someone who once seemed so alive could lose so much sparkle and life to drugs and ‘Heavy Love’ which is, well, heavy with lyrics about falling out of love drowned out by rapid feedback and a relentless drum beat that makes you go cross-eyed. This isn’t the melodic, lyrical Neil of most of his other albums and heard across half an hour this is a brutal brutal record, so much so it’s probably a blessing it didn’t get ten minutes added to turn it into a normal-length record so you can catch your breath. It is, however, far too good to have been left an un-findable curio in Neil’s catalogue for most of the Western world for so long and indeed the other three records in this set pale by comparison (are we going to get a standalone release? Sigh, don’t hold your breath, though it might end up in the Archives V box one day).
7) Davy Jones “Manchester Boy – Personal File”
More good stuff from 7A Records, the Monkee record label that prides itself on digging out rare material. A lot of this set, for instance, was released on volumes 1 and 2 of Davy’s ‘Just For The Record’ compilations in the late 1990s but good luck tracking those sets down these days and if possible a bunch of lesser heard alternate demos have been used here anyway. It’s a compilation of two halves this set, one of them excellent and the other less so. We start with ‘Manchester Boy’, the crop of the Davy solo catalogue for me, a moving and oh so Davy song about putting on a show on stage with references to the much sadder real life going on behind the scenes (Davy’s dad getting sick and moving abroad with all the worries about never seeing each other again, tinged with pride at making his da happy). Next we’re in 1966 when a fresh-faced Davy has just left his successful stint as The Artful Dodger in ‘Oliver!’, having been second on the bill to The Beatled on The Ed Sullivan Show and thinking ‘I want a bit of that!’ only to realise just what a wrench leaving home to follow his dreams will be. Then Davy calms himself down by remembering that he’ll carry his heritage and memories around with him wherever he ends up. It’s a gorgeous, classy, very Davy song well worth seeking out. ‘King Lonely The Blue’ too; this song missed the charts completely on first release but is a snappy bit of mid-1960s memorabilia. We then move on to 1970 when Bell Records kept Davy on after he and Micky ended up there, cast off from parent label Colgems despite the Monkee years at the top. Paul McCartney’s ‘Man We Was Lonely’ was at the time a brand new song, fresh from the Beatle’s debut solo album and its forced cheeriness in the face of despondency makes it the perfect fit for Davy’s charm and sadder surroundings. Moving back in time, we get a Davy-penned demo from the Monkee years, one which I’ve long considered amongst the un-sung gems of the Monkee catalogue: ‘If I Knew’ is delightful and somehow purer without the production razzmatazz.
Alas this is one of those sets where all the good stuff is at the beginning and after those four must-haves it all rather falls apart: the other cover songs from the Bell era can’t match ‘Lonely’ or the ‘Davy Jones’ album that came out in 1971, while the 1979-1980s demos are – for the most part – slight songs without much to distinguish them and recorded simply (except for a couple of 1980s pieces, where simply would have been a good thing). Of these only ‘Can’t Believe You’ve Given Up On Me’ catches the ear, a powerful ballad that’s unusually vulnerable for a singer who prided himself on always putting on a brave face and one that even finds Davy ticking himself off for wanting revenge on an ex, although it’s hard not to shed a tear at the end as Davy bids us ‘goodbye’ (even if he hasn’t yet got many words to go with the sentiment). Had the best of this set been put with the best of Micky’s ‘Demoiselle’ (see further below), the unreleased Nesmith stuff (see not quite so far below) and Peter’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ stuff from the 1990s (see even further below) then there’s a cracking album to be had there. Even so, five brilliant songs isn’t bad odds for a catch-all unreleased set like this and this stuff is too good to be stuck in release limbo. Also, as with all things from this label the packaging is stunning: a twenty-eight page booklet, rare photographs and (if you buy this version) even the coloured vinyl looks rather good, though quite why they went to all that trouble to give it a ‘splash’ effect when that isn’t anywhere on the packaging or in the lyrics is anyone’s guess.
8) Mike Nesmith “Tantamount To Treason”/”And The Hits Just Keep On Coming”/”Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash”
Well, I was right that fan-run Monkee re-issue label ‘7A’ would put a load of Mike Nesmith out this year after the wool-hatted one’s sad death right at the end of 2021, but I was wrong which albums we would be getting. Instead of the famous-if-low-selling first three National Band records or the rare seventh-to-eleventh albums we get the three in between. ‘Tantamount’ is the weakest of the ‘normal’ (i.e. not orchestral re-recordings of Monkee songs, film soundtracks or books-with-soundtracks) Papa Nez albums, an oddly rock-heavy set that barely takes a breath that’s highlighted by the more lyrical poetic songs like the gorgeous ‘Wax Minute’ or the 1950s-by-way-of-the-1800s throwback ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’. There are five previously unreleased bonus tracks: Mike’s favourite warm-up ‘Circle Sky’ from Monkees film ‘Head’ here played in the same wobbly and oddly static way of most of the album that rocks but never quite rolls, the woozy ‘Six Days On The Road’ where Red Rhodes’ pedal steel seems to have been drinking heavily, a honky-tonk re-make of ‘Listen To The Band’ that never quite hits the spot either, the groovy but slight instrumental ‘Tan My Hide’ that could have been something but that something isn’t quite here yet and an alternate backing track of ‘You Are My One’ that’s about a million miles faster than the one that made the album. All of these extras are nice to have but they don’t prevent ‘Tantamount’ being tantamount to Nex’s weakest album, if that’s not a treasonous thing to say (many fans seem to love it, I’m never quite sure why).
‘Hits’ though is a much better album all round, a lighter album in writing and execution, partly thanks to the themes of forgiveness and understanding in the lyrics and partly because the Second National Band had split up shortly before recording, leaving Mike to tackle the songs near-solo with Red’s pedal steel the only dash of colour. Record label RCA weren’t in a patient mood either after falling sales, hence Nez’s self-deprecating title and rushed recording sessions. It’s probably the most consistent of Mike’s solo LPs with every song at least a minor gem with ‘The Upside of Goodbye’ (which tries to find solace in new beginnings), the beautiful ‘Harmony Constant’ (where even the bad times are good when shared with the right person) and ‘Two Different Roads’ as written in 1965 and recorded by Linda Ronstadt before Mike had even auditioned for The Monkees, amongst the many highlights. Bonus tracks this time around include an oddly recorded version of ‘Some Of Shelley’s Blues’ that sounds as if Mike is in the bath (re-recorded for the next album, it was first taped towards the end of The Monkees run and an outside contender for ‘Monkees Present’), another unreleased instrumental ‘Cantata and Fugue in C&W’ which is really pretty and two alternate versions of album tracks: ‘Keep On’ (a more ‘dramatic’ arrangement without the released versions’ constant flow) and ‘Roll With The Flow’ (a rockier arrangement that doesn’t quite flow right either).
Finally ‘Ranch Stash’ always gets overlooked even though it’s probably my favourite album of Nez’s, the one RCA record that contains a bit of everything in its purist form: rock, country, folk and those Nesmith songs that defy description, with repeated themes from albums past. ‘Continuing’ is a great song about the need to push on, the third and final bash at ‘Shelley’s Blues’ confused hurt is a masterpiece and the switch from the rambling near-improvised train song ‘The FFV’ to the sudden full-speed-ahead charge of ‘Uncle Pen’ is glorious and still catches me by surprise every time even years after I fell in love with this album. Sadly this album has the stingiest bonus tracks of the three re-issues with just one** extra song, an early and more ‘normal’ version of ‘Marie’s Theme’ aka ‘The Lamp-Post’, soon to be the cornerstone of Mike’s book-with-soundtrack ‘The Prison’. All three albums include a full glossy booklet with unseen photographs and like all things 7A are very nicely done and a worthy tribute of a true talent, taken from us far too soon, although I’d hang on to your money if you already own them in some form already. After all, you’ll need it for all the other Monkee items on this year’s list including…
9) “Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart”
At last, one of the AAA studio albums we keep pleading to have a re-issue of (only once out on CD – and that was seventeen years ago!) alongside an even rarer live album. If you don’t recognise the name then, well, it’s The Monkees – or at any rate two of the ‘guys that sang ‘em’ alongside two of the ‘guys that wrote ‘em’ to complete the cover original blurb. Critics pointed out at the time that it was lacking two of the guys that had the most integrity for ‘em’ as well, but with Mike Nesmith a recent millionaire from his mum’s liquid paper fortune and Peter Tork still recovering from a spell in prison for drug addiction and desperate to start over with a new stable life as a teacher, a full four-way Monkee reunion was never going to be on the cards in 1976. Somebody had to go play to the new markets that had opened up for the Monkees in the six years they’d been away though – the main problem with this band, though, was they had two. On the one hand their original audience had grown up and were feeling nostalgic and were eager for a band that reflected their older, maturer lives. On the other repeats of the Monkee TV show on Saturday mornings and a sudden huge interest in Japan gave the band a whole new audience all over again who were too young to remember the originals and wanted them to return to the poppier them they were when they started. Rather than do what they did last time – fight hard for their independence, create a suicidal postmodernist film and watch the world’s critics misunderstand what they were doing – Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart took the easy way out and offered up both selves, side by side, with poppy silly teenagery sounding songs about being older. It makes for an uneasy, schizophrenic listen and – by Monkee standards – not a terribly impressive one considering this band features not only the guys who sang The Monkees Theme, Last Train To Clarksville and Valleri but the guys who wrote ‘em too.
The quartet’s one and only album really could have been something though with just a few changes. Boyce and Hart are brilliant writers and while most books tend to dismiss them as nothing outside the band, if anything being associated with The Monkees killed off a quite promising career that was running happily alongside it (the duo were also big enough stars in their own right to appear in a very weird episode of ‘Bewitched’ for instance). They’re pretty decent under-rated singers too. Micky still sounded great (come to think of it, he still sounds great now) and Davy was still barely thirty and still cute enough to win over younger fans. It should have worked – and intermittently it did. ‘I Remember That Feeling’ is the equal of any of the Monkee reunion singles and is a rare song to feature both Davy and Micky singing, swapping verses and choruses as they celebrate coming back together again on a song that could have been cliched but instead captures the sheer joy that came from Monkee music perfectly. ‘Moonfire’ is a daring attempt at the sort of prog rock that hadn’t been around in The Monkees’ day, a daring swirling effect-laden piece about nature, moons, starbirds, thunder and prophets being born – it’s the single most Pink Floyd moment in the Monkee canon and all the better for it. ‘Sail On Sailor’ is the one song that features all four singing and it’s a beaut, a three-way reflection of ex lovers from around the world that makes for a universal lament. Then there’s the original, superior take on the world’s only Micky and Davy collaboration ‘You and I’, here sung by the former not the latter and given a ‘proper’ backing rather than the rough and ready one it will get on Monkee reunion album ‘JustUs’.
Yippee you might be thinking, take my money now! The problem is you also get the rest of this album. I thought the creepy cover of ‘Teenager In Love’ by a bunch of lecherous middle-aged men was the most awkward thing I’d ever heard – and then ‘Along Came Jones’ trumps it, a Leiber-Stoller cover mined for every last reference to Davy they can fit in (even if none of them fit at all – lean and lanky? And no self-respecting Brit ever says ‘that’s not cricket, old chap’. Well, no one except me I admit. Top hole!) And then? And then? Well, not much really – half a dozen forgettably bland pop songs not worthy of the Boyce and Hart name never mind the Monkee one. You can’t help but think that, given the talent involved that it should and could have been better, or that everyone involved was keeping their best efforts back for a more serious higher profile reunion that never quite happened.
As for the live show, it was recorded cheaply in the hope of selling it alongside the studio album but poor sales meant that Capitol refused to release it anywhere except Japan (where it became a huge seller and much sought in the Western world ever since). The sound quality is more like a bootleg (there’s a girl screaming for her mommy most of the way through a version of ‘Daydream Believer’ that’s worse even than your karaoke nightmares), Micky and Davy sing flat for most of the night and the attempts at comedy are every bit as cringeworthy as those on the studio album, while even the best and most famous Monkee and Boyce-Hart songs are heard only as medleys for the most part oddly. And yet it’s the only place you can hear Davy and Micky singing harmony to one of Boyce and Hart’s better solo tunes ‘I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight’. It’s also the only place where you actually get to hear the writers perform ‘Steppin’ Stone’ ‘Clarksville’ et al. The DJB&H songs sound a lot livelier than they ever did on album. The live band features Paul Revere guitarist (and occasional Monkee sessionman) Keith Allison, whose a true star even if the rest of the band can’t quite cut it. This is not the sort of thing you want to pay over the odds for, which for many many years we Monkee fans had to. It’s probably not the sort of thing you’d want to play over and over either, unless you’re particularly masochistic or still in love with Davy. It is, however, exactly the sort of something 7A records should be doing, re-releasing rare Monkee stuff that would only ever cater to Monkee fans but dressing it up to the nines with a new booklet longer than some books in order to make it feel as special as it ever will. This is, too, an important part of the Monkee story and it deserves its time in the sun, even if only maybe four of these twenty-five songs come anywhere near close to capturing anything truly Monkees-like. For us guys who buy ‘em and don’t have a full band to release new things anymore, that’s enough reason to fork out alone.
10) Micky Dolenz “Demoiselle”
It might look from the past two yearly reviews as if - sob! – our one remaining Monkee is busier than ever, but it’s more due to Monkee record label 7A digging through the vaults, alas. This album, for instance, was recorded on and off across the 1980s and ‘should’ have come out in 1990 in between the Monkee reunion albums ‘Pool It’ and ‘JustUs’. It did, briefly, surface in 1998 via mail order before disappearing for pretty much a quarter century, so much so that even many Monkee fanatics never tracked down a copy. ‘Demoiselle’ (or ‘Demo I sell’, given that this is as far as the album got the first time round – some bootlegs call it ‘To Be Or Not To Be’) has been partly available unofficially pretty much since it was recorded and while it’s always better to have music officially released than not the general feeling amongst fans is ‘gee, that was a lucky escape’. Now, Micky is one of the world’s greatest pop singers. On his day he’s one of pop’s greatest writers too. Away from The Monkees, though, he never quite found his niche. ‘Demoiselle’ alternates between 1980s synthesiser pop and the 1950s non-synthesiser revival songs that had become big back then briefly (I blame ‘Grease’). By this point Micky was in his late forties but despite this record’s reputation as a ‘semi-autobiographical’ album of pain and heartbreak inspired by a divorce (working title: ‘Turning Pain Into Profit’) the material he’s writing is far more juvenile than the stuff he was making in his early twenties as a Monkee and I think it’s fair to say the drum machines and synth-saxes mean nothing here is anything like as timeless as the records of his youth.
Well, it was just an album of demos I suppose – more interesting perhaps might have been for 7A to have funded a full budget recording session where these songs were recorded ‘properly’. To be fair the three songs that later ended up on ‘JustUs’ are much stronger here, ‘Dyin’ Of A Broken Heart’ really suiting the retro 1950s vibe more than the grunge one, whilst ‘Never Enough’ is less drunk and more, well, sober. Still not good, mind, but less OTT anyway. ‘Regional Girl’ is still a weird, weird song though, even with the swearing turned down. Monkeephiles will also recognise Buddy Johnson cover ‘Since I Fell For You’, which Micky sometimes did in concert (often with Davy in tow) and also recorded for his bluesy covers album ‘Out Of Nowhere’ album, though to be honest it’s no great shakes here in another live rendering from ‘nineteen ninety-something’ (according to the otherwise informative sleevenotes). My favourite song is the (original) opener (here moved to song two) ‘It’s The Season’, with its haunting synth lick (oh to have heard that on Micky’s 1967 moog!) and its elder twist on ‘I’m A Believer’ as Micky realises he’s found a stable love to last throughout every season after assuming he would always end up alone. The Monkees should have re-recorded that one for their reunion album instead! ‘Lonely Weekends’ too has a certain style and class and even though reggae will never, ever suit The Monkees’ style it gets closer than flipping ‘She’s Movin’ In With Rico’ ever did. As for the two songs recorded a little after the rest of the album, in London rather than LA, they’re both pretty awful: ‘Beverly Hills’ is a lifestyle song about waiting for a call to go back to work while enjoying paradise but not watching your bank balance dwindle that sounds more fun to live through than to listen to and as for ‘Piston Power’, well, that’s the lamest ‘car’ song I ever heard and I sat through flipping eight Beach Boys albums of the stuff! This edition adds three songs that were never on the ‘mail order’ version or bootlegs, all of which are cover songs sadly, even if Micky is at pains to point out that they were recordings submitted for the album and thus not heard anywhere else, though only ‘My Heart Is Failing Me’, an Albert Hammond ballad about loneliness, is any good (though no ‘Air That I Breathe’). A mixed bag, then, to say the least, but two or three decent songs and that golden voice is enough to make it worth a listen or three and if you do want to own a copy of this rare and valuable Monkee artefact then there has never been a better time, what with the thirty-two (!) page booklet and all.
11) Peter Tork “This Stuff Never Gets Old”
Even Peter, the most ignored Monkee, gets a new release after his death and he got precious few in his lifetime, worse luck. Alas it’s only an EP of four songs and is yet another limited edition: a mere 500 CDs or 800 LPs this time around. Three of the songs date back to 1988 and are soundboard recordings taped at New York’s Speakeasy, a warm up for a full intended album that sadly never came. They’re, well, not what I expected – very unlike Peter’s later rockabilly comeback with Shoe Suede Blues (not a misprint!) and three very different songs in three very different styles. I rather like ‘Sea Change’, a sea shanty love song no less, as Peter longs to get shipwrecked and lost in the watery depths of love over a fun rumble-tumble backing. ‘Miracle’ though is just noisy thrash metal that makes Monkee garage reunion album ‘JustUs’ sound subtle, while ‘Vagabond John’ is practically Celtic, dominated by a squeaky fiddle. That just leaves the title track, taped in 2016 for the next Monkee reunion album ‘Good Times’ and probably sensibly left off that album in favour of the prettier ‘Little Girl’, even if it’s a bit more ‘normal’ than the other songs here. Full marks for bravery though: Peter’s career might be more overlooked than his bandmates but I’ve long found him the most fascinating of all The Monkees and somehow it’s not a coincidence that of all the four solo Monkee sets out this year his is the most daring, eclectic and intriguing, even if it’s somehow no surprise that yet again he got the short straw with only four songs rather than a whole album. Worth buying? Well, it’s not as essential as the other three lots of solo stuff perhaps, but for fans it’s still a definite Torking point.
12) Mark Knopfler “The Studio Albums 2008-2018”
The first of two volumes of Knopfler solos on vinyl slipped out so quietly at the end of last year I confess I didn’t even notice it; even this sequel (made up of ‘Get Lucky’ ‘Privateering’ the double album ‘Tracker’ and ‘Down The Road Wherever’) seemed to slip through the net rather. That befits an artist whose done his best with his solo career to get away from the sheer hugeness of Dire Straits to do something more simple, humble and authentic. The best of these albums (the death-memory ‘Before Gas and TV’, the memory-nudging ‘The Car Was The One’, the cute love song ‘Long Cool Girl’, the moody and magnificent ‘Mighty Man’, the gun-toting ‘.38 Special’) are as great as anything Mark ever made and while the albums are inconsistent at best they all have something worth listening to. Better yet for the collector is the addition of a ‘bonus’ disc full of all the B-sides and rarities, which have mostly never been out on vinyl before. They’re an even more inconsistent bunch but again the best of them (the mournful bartering waltz ‘Occupation Blues’, another Celtic old age blues ‘Follow The Ribbon’) are more than up to the standard of their parent albums and maybe even a little better. There are two entirely unheard songs included too that are, well, odd to be honest. ‘Back In The Day’ is full-on big band jazz, a genre Mark has been skirting with for a while but never quite as head-on as he does here, set to a lyric that’s a potted history of the music of the first half of the 20th century up to rock and roll. I didn’t like it at all at first, but I admit it’s been growing on me. As for ‘Precious Voice From Heaven’ it starts off with the bluesy guitar from the soundtrack of ‘Local Hero’, falls into another sad ballad about aging and ends up switching gears midway through into a happy-go-lucky love song (for some fallen musical hero? I can’t tell which one) and ends by repeating the riff from ‘Les Boys’ of all songs. I’m not sure the mishmash quite works, but the individual parts are all there. Overall, then, a lovely set at a surprisingly kind price for those who missed these albums the first time around – although with such an extremely boring cover (lettering over clouds, in a very un-Knopfler pink) I can’t quite bring myself to fully recommend it either.
Even better is the first volume of 2021, which looks even uglier (embossed letters over a blue sky, with clouds) but features Mark’s best three solo albums so far ‘Sailing To Philadelphia’ ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream’ and ‘Kill To Get Crimson’ alongside the more forgettable ‘Golden Heart’ and ‘Shangri-La’ as well as a similarly mixed collection of B-sides and bonus tracks (though no unreleased songs this time around): ‘I’m The Fool’ ‘You Don’t Know You’re Born’ and ‘Heart Full Of Holes’ are our go-to picks for this one.
13) Neil Young “Harvest 50th Anniversary Edition”
Neil’s really stuck in his 1970-1972 period, huh? Maybe that’s because the biggest revelation of this simple re-issue set is how much fun he seems to be having. Mere months before the overdose of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, the ‘Doom Trilogy’ made in mourning and the first murmurings of Watergate and Neil is as relaxed and together as he’s ever been. You could sort-of hear that in the album, in between the songs about America’s broken racial system, broken hearts and broken down pick-ups. You can definitely hear it in the album’s cute bonus track ‘Dance Dance Dance’, surely one of the happiest of all Neil songs but one with an unhappy history (it ended up on the first Crazy Horse album where poor Danny sounds as if he’s about to expire any second before being re-written as the considerably darker ‘Love Is A Rose’ and finally ending up in this identical version on Neil’s first Anthology box). Now you can see it too, in both the much-loved oft-repeated BBC In Concert show and an entire two-hour documentary that got shelved when Neil’s life, mood and career took a darker turn. As for that darker turn, it’s here already on the other two bonus tracks, also taken from the Anthology box, the earlier jazzier version of ‘Journey Thru The Past’ and the exquisite ‘Bad Fog Of Loneliness’, a mournful push-pull love song for first wife Susan that’s always worth another release (‘So long baby I am gone so much pain to work through…Come back baby, I was wrong!’) Us British people know that live backwards it’s been repeated so many times and doubtless you foreigners will know it from youtube, particularly the performance of ‘Heart Of Gold’; in case you don’t, it’s a terrific gig as Neil breaks out nearly an entire set of new songs: three from ‘Harvest’, two from ‘Time Fades Away’ and yet again ‘Dance Dance Dance’ (affordable official releases for obscure Neil Young songs are like busses; you wait fifty years then two different versions come along at once). Better yet are the mumbled asides to the audience which are Neil at his most open, talking about losing his harmonicas through the holes in his pockets and how his ‘life is like a movie’ before a piano rendition of the most exquisite ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ you’ll ever hear. The only downside is that it lasts all of half an hour in an era when Neil’s shows were already three times that.
As for the new documentary, it’s the dictionary definition of rambling, as Neil admits openly that he has no definite plans what to do with the material he’s shooting (‘Maybe it’ll make the cinemas one day?’ he muses at one point, which it will – just not for half a century). To be honest the best bits of it (Neil buying up his own bootlegs and arguing with the oblivious record shop boss that he shouldn’t stock them; Neil walking round his Broken Arrow ranch; Neil strumming his acoustic lying down; working on overdubs with Stills, Nash and – all too briefly - Crosby) we’ve already seen in ‘Journey Thru The Past’, the much darker and more surreal replacement film which is like ‘Head’ to The Monkees’ TV show, all edgy symbolism and analysis where once there was laughter and fun, but all the better for that if you’re in the right mood. There (in as much as the film was about anything at all) the jokes were about fame and how easily you can get sucked into it and lose your way, jokes made at everyone’s expense from Neil on down from the vantage point of an older, wearier self; here, though, Neil seems to just want to catalogue a rare moment in his life when everything is working and he’s happy just to amble on through letting good things come to him. If you’re enough a fan to know where the road turns soon after shooting then it’s power stuff seeing this stuff unadulterated and without explanation, although even Neil’s biggest fan might want to keep the remote’s skip button handy as he honestly doesn’t get up to anything all that interesting and even the bits that should be, watching ‘Harvest take shape, drag. And that’s your lot: no session tapes, no alternate takes, no backing track/a capella remixes, no separate live recordings, not even an album re-mastering (though access to a hi-res version is available on download; why are these things never included in pricey sets any more? It costs 20p to manufacture a disc guys!) A rather anaemic Harvest then, almost as if it was something of an afterthought compared to the other Neil sets this year, but some great stuff officially available for the first time all the same.
14) The Kinks “Muswell Hillbillies/Everybody’s In Showbiz”
An unexpected double-set re-issue of the two most recent ‘deluxe’ Kinks re-issues, with some extras that weren’t in either set previously (despite how much the dratted things cost!) As well as reproductions of both the vinyl and CD editions of the two re-issues there’s a 15 minute long Blu-Ray featuring Ray’s home movies of the ‘Showbiz’ tour (most interesting for his sardonic commentary taped in 2022; a shame the original documentary TV show meant to accompany the album isn’t on here – I know it never made it to ending but it sounds as if some of it at least was filmed. Has all the stuff been wiped?), a ‘tour montage’ featuring snippets of songs that never made the ‘Showbiz’ album but are very much in keeping with the spirit of the album (a full set would have been even nicer; perhaps that’s being held back for a deluxe deluxe deluxe edition one day?), eleven remixes (nothing earth-shattering sadly), two unheard so-so songs in ‘History’ (an audio walk round a museum full of British history, where Cromwell anachronistically shakes hands with Boadicea, which should be the most Kinks thing ever but is strangely dull and ends with more shouted ‘alrights’ than even the Kinks B-side ‘Alright’) and ‘Travelling With My Band’ (see below), a big thick book, an underground poster for Kinks tourists who want to visit Muswell Hill and surrounding areas and a neat badge. Now really most of this stuff should have been on either of the two last deluxe sets and I for one would be much more interested in a deluxe re-issue of the next Kinks albums in line to get the deluxe treatment (‘Preservation’) but if you missed either set the first time then this is the way to go. The biggest question mark though is why these two albums have been singled out for combining, as it were, when they are complete opposite bedfellows (‘Muswell’ is all stark monochrome, figures battling against a cruel world while ‘Showbiz’ is a colourful work of showbiz excess, glamour and celluloid fantasy, originally intended as a documentary soundtrack); no two consecutive Kinks albums ever changed style quite this much, so quite why this new line started with these two is anyone’s guess. The best thing about this set? The marketing! Specifically the website that invites you to brew a cuppa tea with a ‘digital timer’ that plays a different song from the album(s) depending how strong you like it. Very Kinks! Though it leaves me with a dilemma: my favourite songs are ‘Celluloid Heroes’ and ‘20th century Man’, both of which run for six minutes but which I want to hear more than the two minute bit of fluffs like, umm ‘Have A Cuppa Tea’. I guess I’ll just have to start taking my tea strong…
15) Paul McCartney “The 7” Singles Box”
Well, this wasn’t the Christmas release we were expecting was it? Not a greatest hits but a crate-ist hits: a massive wooden box of eighty vinyl singles covering eighty years of life and fifty-two years of Macca’s solo and Wings career. Hopes were high for Archive releases of ‘London Town’ and ‘Back To The Egg’ (the next obvious entries in the long-running if pricey series of re-issues) and instead we got, well, a bit of everything (an even pricier limited edition of 3000 copies which is due to sell out any minute at the time of writing, though mercifully all this stuff is up on streaming sites too). Thankfully ‘London Town’ and ‘Back To The Egg’ cover more than a few of these 159 songs between them and sound particularly good in newly remastered form. Indeed they’re amongst some of the best things here (well, not Baby’s Request’ obviously, but the rest) along with famous highlights like ‘Listen To What The Man Said’ ‘Coming Up’ ‘Pipes Of Peace’ ‘No More Lonely Nights’. Better yet are the rarer, surprise flop singles that only true fans know but more should – mini-masterpieces like ‘Goodnight Tonight’ ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Stranglehold’. At it’s best for newcomers this set gives a stronger flavour of just how wide and varied Paul’s career has been, from under-rated political heavyweight songs like ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ and B-side ‘Big Boys Bickering’ (truly a sign of our times) to epic dramatic powerhouses (‘Live and Let Die’), sleepy romance songs (‘My Love’), prog rock epics (‘Band On the Run’), natty rockers (‘Jet!’), children’s rhymes (‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’), conservation anthems (B-side ‘Long Leather Coat’), Scottish bagpipe dirges (‘Mull Of Kintyre’), powerful emotional rollercoasters (‘No Other Baby’), angry songs with murderous intent (‘Oh Woman Oh Why’), reggae (‘Love Is Strange’), feminist anthems (‘Another Day’) and freak-out weirdy songs no other mainstream artists would put their name to (‘Check My Machine’ I’m looking at you!’)
True fans have always known that some of the best of Macca’s career ended up as B-sides (‘Country Dreamer’ ‘The Mess’ ‘Soilly’ ‘Girl’s School’ ‘Daytime Nighttime Suffering’ ‘Tough On A Tightrope’ ‘Back On My Feet’, all fabulous) while there are a dozen or so B-sides that haven’t been re-issued in decades (‘Flying To My Home’, at last!) and a sprinkling of rarities and surprises here, including the first official re-pressing of abandoned Wildlife single ‘Love Is Strange’, ‘Temporary Secretary’ (which till now has been a 12” but not a 7”), unfairly forgotten film theme song ‘I Want to Come Home’, fairly forgotten theme song ‘Spies Like Us’, the noisy Bob Clearmountain mix of ‘Figure Of Eight’, and Thatcher protest cover song ‘All My Trials’, which died a death when the Iron Lady stood down soon after release. Biggest surprise of all: two abandoned early 1990s singles both taken from the Liverpool Oratorio: ‘The World You’re Coming Into’ and ‘Save The Child’, plus their planned B-sides ‘Tres Conejes’ and ‘The Drinking Song’. Not terribly exciting unless you like the classical side of Macca’s output (and you can still buy the full Oratorio set anyway), but interesting that Paul at least seems to think of them as a ‘proper’ part of his official discography (note that there’s nothing from his other classical works here like ‘Standing Stone’ or ‘Ecce Cor Meum’). Not to mention some rare(ish) versions never pressed on CD: the flutey instrumental version of ‘Give Ireland’, the bonkers ‘video promo’ mix of ‘Pretty Little Head’ that makes even the ‘Press To Play’ version sound almost normal, the curio ‘Ode To A Koala’ which basically consists of Paul wanting to give a bear a hug, the 90s acid song ‘Party Party’ only ever released in a rare promotional box for ‘Flowers In the Dirt’ and with an ‘etched picture’ on the back, video game theme song ‘Hope For The Future’ and, umm, the ‘hummed’ version of ‘We All Stand Together’ with a choir of children going ‘ee ee eeeee’ and ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reggae’ (yes it really is a reggae instrumental of ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’ but no, it’s even worse than it sounds).
That’s one hell of an output for one man (give or take Linda, Denny Laine, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson et al) and the use of different picture sleeves from around the world (including an Israeli edition of ‘My Love’, a Swedish version of ‘Live and Let Die’, a Spanish version of ‘Helen Wheels’, a German ‘Jet!’, an Australian ‘Listen To What The Man Said’, a French ‘Silly Love Songs’ and a Japanese ‘maybe I’m Amazed’) means there are some images here even I hadn’t seen before. Oh and, always a musician with one eye on the collectors, each set includes a rare test pressing provided at random, which could be of any single in the box taken at random (my sympathies if you got The Frog Song). Of course, Paul being Paul, he released one heck of a lot of rubbish as singles too and although this set might be as varied as any career overview out there, it’s not the most consistent. I would gladly go the rest of my life without hearing ‘Uncle Albert’ ‘Baby’s Request’ ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ ‘Ebony and Ivory’ ‘My Carnival’ ‘Beautiful Night’ ‘Jenny Wren’ or anything off ‘Egypt Station’ ever again (my seven least favourite Macca songs all in one place, aaaagh!) and some of the releases are filler at best (a noisy live version of ‘Birthday’ is pointless without Lennon’s 50th to tie it in to; anything off ‘McCartney III’ which was still being re-issued as recently as January this year seems overkill too). The crate is also pretty basic (wood with lettering – it looks like the sort of thing you stick in the loft to collect dust) and the booklet is also disappointing for a set that costs so much even Elon Musk would think twice about buying it: a short, flimsy interview with Paul, a not very revealing essay and pictures of some more singles from around the world. I mean, that’s a cool two million dollars Paul’s picked up just from the 3000 limited editions alone, he could at least have made it look as nice as the archive sets do. Good, if sprawling, as it all is, spare a thought Paul, some of us are saving our money for other things that we really want. Like a deluxe re-issue of ‘London Town’ for instance…
16) Paul “McCartney I/II/III”
Well, this was kind of inevitable wasn’t it? Even though there’s nothing really in common with the three ‘McCartney’ volumes except the name and the person who recorded them, here they are back on vinyl again as a ‘limited edition’, with fancy new artwork at an extortionate price because, y’know, there are enough Beatle collectors out there for Paul to get away with it (this makes it the seventh way of buying Macca III on vinyl alone following the red, blue, yellow, green, pink, white and black variations released between 2020 and 2021). So what do you get for your – gulp - £115? Some nice packaging re-creating the original albums. No extra songs though – not even the extra songs already out on B sides and/or the archive boxes (had this been the first time they’d stuck ‘McCartney II’ together as a double album record, the way it was originally meant to be heard, rather than making us re-program it and keep skipping the discs I would have at least given it a half star, but noooo!) For the record and any new fans just discovering this stuff ‘Macca I’ is great but patchy, alternating nuggets of genius where Paul proves his innate musicality and multi-instrumental prowess on powerful, emotional songs like ‘Every Night’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ with instrumentals re-creating primitive tribal sounds just seen on TV and the sound of wine glasses being rubbed with a wet finger. Macca II is way better than reputation suggests, mostly thanks to singles ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Waterfalls’, but Paul cut all the wrong songs to make this fit into a commercial single album rather than the pioneeringly dotty double it might have been. As for Macca III, it’s a step in the right direction over ‘Egypt Station’ but only ‘The Kiss Of Venus’ hits the spot and Paul’s voice is long shot. In other words there’s a terrific album across the three sets, but two pretty awful ones as well. Bearing in mind that at least the first two albums probably cost less than £115 to make even accounting for inflation this is a rip-off, good and proper. Now hurry up with that ‘London Town’ archive re-issue Paul, please and stop procrastinating!
17) “Sounds Of Summer – The Very Best Of The Beach Boys”
For The Beach Boys’ fiftieth in 2012 we got lots of birthday goodies: a new studio album (which was actually auto-tuned and pretty awful but hey, it’s the thought that counts), a new live album, a tour, a whole load of album re-issues and a fifty-track hits compilation ’50 Big Ones’ that surely was as comprehensive as anyone could want, itself replacing the pretty darn comprehensive thirty-track ‘Sounds Of Summer’ released for the 40th. For the BB’s sixtieth birthday we only get the best-of, this time back under the 2002 name and running to…eighty tracks (I guess ‘Eighty Big Ones’ didn’t look right on the packaging). Which is probably the point at which we should stop calling this set a ‘greatest hits compilation’ and treat it more like an ‘everything you ever wanted to know about The beach Boys and have been suckered into buying thirty times already’ set. Oh yes, I nearly forgot: the selling point for old fans this time around is a whole bunch of new mixes –a quarter of the album in fact, including a handful of early stuff that’s only ever been released in mono till now (mostly because Brian’s duff ear means he can’t actually hear in stereo). The Beach Boys (well OK, Brian Wilson) were always big on re-mastering and it’s a trick that’s been pulled on a few Beach Boys compilations, rarities collections and box sets before now. Good news: sometimes, especially on the earliest songs, it does sound pretty amazing (as with all these bands it’s incredible how much younger and fresher the music sounds every generation, even as its creators get older and greyer). Bad news: Sometimes it sounds terrible, as poor as any officially released remix I’ve ever heard. #
I’m beginning to wonder if Brian’s hearing is still OK in his good ear to have signed off on some of these mixes, which have been routinely trounced by fans. Weirdly too it’s the later-ish songs that are perhaps most in need of tweaking that come off the worst: basically anything off the synth-heavy ‘Beach Boys Love You’ album from 1977 (Dear God, they actually made that album sound worse! The shot-gun drums that ring out throughout ‘Let us Go On This Way’ is a guarantee of a migraine even on a low volume). Anyway, even if it had been the best mix ever, the reasoning is flawed: why not remix the whole lot if you’re going to make that sort of thing a selling point? (Hey one day if they keep re-mastering random songs I might even live to hear what they’re actually singing in ‘Mess Of Help’!). Plus the whole execution is a little wonky: by all means thread some of the rarer Beach Boys songs back in amongst the hits so more casual fans can discover and fall in love with them (it’s not like the BB back catalogue is short on neglected treasures), but what’s the point of sticking most (but not all) the hit singles on a separate disc and then putting everything on all three discs out of sequence so that you don’t get any real feel for how The Beach Boys evolved as a band? After all, the Brian-led band of the surfing shirts era is a completely different beast to the daredevil who created ‘Smile’ (impressively represented by five songs, though why no ‘Cabinessence’?!) and so different again to the Brian’s-in-bed, tug-of-war-for-dominance of the 1970s or the Mike-Love led madness of the 1980s (yes of course ‘Kokomo’ is here. No of course it’s not last, where it should be, both chronologically and so you can skip it – its track 25, in between, um, 1979’s ‘Good Timin’ and 1968’s ‘Do It Again’).
As for the song choice, it’s a tale of two halves – major plus points for including Dennis’ beautiful ‘Baby Blue’, the sweet Sunflower love song ‘All I Wanna Do’, the unreleased-till-the-1990s song collage ‘Can’t Wait Too Long’ and the overlooked 1972 epic ‘Marcella’. But ‘Everyone’s In Love With You’? ‘San Miguel’? ‘Farmer’s Daughter’?!? And ending on the unreleased-till-the-00s ‘California Feelin’ is a really odd move (it’s actually not a bad song but every time we hear it, it seems to be in amongst a group of acknowledged classics where anything would sound disappointing). The packaging ain’t all that either, certainly compared to the excellent two-fer BB CDs fans love so much – if Capitol wanted to embellish the original compilation why not make a start on that boring front cover of some dude with some surfboard? (A picture that represents maybe 10% of the songs here which move way beyond surfing). If you want to embellish anything, why not 1974’s ‘Endless Summer’, a compilation that’s genuinely popular and got this sort of rummaging through the past spot on? In other words what we get is an album that will confuse potential new fans, make old ones curse over having to fork money out for old rope again, put everyone off a back catalogue that’s oh so worth more time and trouble than this and we will all get to reconvene here for the 70th in ten years time, when we cross our fingers that everyone might just get it right. Though based on past experience they almost certainly won’t.
Songs Of The Year:
1) Belle and Sebastian “If They’re Shooting At You”
Stuart Murdoch can use minor key chords like no other writer and boy does he use them here on a song that takes us right back to the loneliness and despair of the band’s early days, before the unexpected magic wand that brought a fanbase, success, happiness and health. Here Stuart is having a midlife crisis and worried he’s back in the same place with nothing all over again, as he sighs over a ‘life I once knew’, swept away in a long list of ‘jobs to do that would make you dizzy’, pressure, fear, loneliness, a ‘coldness’ that’s come over his relationships, the feeling that he’s always failing and falling below his high standards. He’s at the precipice of despair, convinced he’s going to die lonely and unloved, but an oh so B and S trumpet (the return of Mick Cooke at last!) and an unexpected gospel choir puts things in a new perspective. Suddenly realising that the closer he gets to the truth the less people can handle it, suddenly Murdoch hears a voice: ‘Come to me, I will cure your pain, I’ve got you now’. Past B and S albums would suggest it’s God (and maybe it is?) but it’s also the son he thought he would never have, back in the pre-B and S days when he was confined to bed and his life seemed over, the offspring from the relationship he assumed he was never going to have, supported financially by singing in the band he never thought he’d get to be in. Finally, after a beautifully delayed key change, we reach the promised land of a major key and the song rights itself into becoming a joyful singalong about faith, of holding onto precious light even in the blackest of times. It’s a sequel of sorts to another of our yearly review highlights, ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ from the last B and S album ‘proper’ ‘Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance’ from 2015, where Stuart starts writing one of his typical characters, lost and lonely and confused, before realising how far he’s come and how he can afford up some of his own story as faith that things come out right in the end, that he has things to live for. Only this time he’s doing it not for us, but himself. Here it’s his turn to get buoyed by life just as he was close to giving up, feeling cold, ill, stressed and unlived. ‘Got you now’ his saviour says to him, as he once said to us. ‘It’s going to be alright’. The gospel choir is unique and the synth sound a recent addition to B and S records but that vocal and that Mick Cooke trumpet solo could have come off any previous records for a highly emotional modern-day B and S classic that’s the equal of any bit of previous.
2) Liam Gallagher “More Power”
Similarly, Liam’s really been through it as he claws back his fanbase and his self respect after ten years in the wilderness shunned by his brother and divorced from the wife he thought he was going to spend the rest of his life with. On his past two records Liam has come out fighting, but this song is more about acceptance that there are things at work bigger than him and that maybe things worked out better this way, in giving up control (and it is control Liam means I think, when he sings of ‘power’). Many fans have compared it to The Stones’ ‘Let It Bleed’ in general and closer ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ in particular. For good reason too: both songs find singers who are used to having everything at a click of their fingers suddenly realise the world doesn’t work like that, even for them, with references to how you carry wounds around forever, ‘they heal just enough to stop the bleed’ and how ‘you can’t get the girl you want, but the girl you need’. Hearing Liam turn philosopher must give the same thrills to modern music fans that those in 1969 got when Mick did the same: we’ve never heard anything as brave as this, as a children’s choir offer innocence to contrast with Liam’s battle-scarred tones. He even calls on, depending how you hear it, the Lord and Mother Mary or his parents, admitting his mistakes and that ‘I’ve been angry for too long’, singing from place of belligerence not beauty. Finally, though, Liam has seen the light and he accepts everything that life has to teach him (‘Is this is what you came for?’ he screams to himself as he discusses reincarnation at the end, sobbing about lessons learnt the hard way) before this sweet understated song builds to a fiery climax, burns out in a sea of electronic noise and feedback, only to be resurrected with one last gasp of heavenly strings as spirit protects Liam, picks up and dusts him down for life anew. Gorgeous – if this had been by any band this would be a song of the year but the fact it comes from the last person you’d ever expect to make a song like this – and the fact Liam was brave enough to make it the opening track - makes it all the more special. Many of the songs on Liam’s new album are great, but this is genius. How I wish there were more songs like ‘More Power’.
3) Neil Young “Chevrolet”
A true song for our times, this one. Neil’s always been a huge car fan and he’s just seen an old gas-guzzling Chevrolet. It’s a proper gorgeous Beach Boys-type car with a loud engine and a great suspension that Neil wouldn’t have thought twice about buying in years gone by. But now, in the era when global warming is no longer something in the distance but right here, it feels like a wrong turning and he can’t bring himself to spend money on something that bad for the planet and drives off on a guilt trip about all the cars he bought without thinking in the past instead. What could have been a silly song about not buying a car suddenly becomes an anthem, a ‘shift of gears’ that we’re all going to go through as a species as we put our selfish desires (‘but it felt so good!’) to one side to become more responsible. ‘That’s the road we can’t go back on’ Neil sighs on what comes across as nothing less than a requiem for an entire way of life, one that our children and grandchildren will never know – if the planet lives long enough to even have them. Neil’s been writing ecology songs for years (there’s even one on his solo debut from 1968) but this is the most desperate any of them have sounded yet, as if we’re in the ‘fuel gauge empty’ stage of a world crisis rather than just dipping into the red. Behind him Crazy Horse sound as great as they ever did on a song that comes with all their characteristic gallop and horse-power, Nils Lofgren stepping brilliantly into Frank Sampedro’s shoes as they all improvise wildly between each verse but totally in tune with one another, making the song feel more and more epic as it stretches out to fifteen minutes. This song’s own music video confesses that ‘this song has nothing to with the rest of the album’, but that’s the loss of ‘World Record’ in general, not this fine track. Had the rest of the album been up to this song it would have topped our list for sure.
4) The Beach Boys “Carry Me Home”
There aren’t as many unreleased songs on this year’s Beach Boys copyright-extending set as in other years and to be honest most of those don’t sound much like The Beach Boys, with short-term member Blondie Chaplin taking lead on most of them. This song of Dennis Wilson’s, though, only starts that way: it sounds to me as if it was written to give Blondie one of those soulful spiritual-like songs from the ‘Flame’ LP released on the band’s ‘Brother Records’ label (an LP which brother Carl, for one, had a lot to do with so Dennis probably heard it a lot). So far so nice – evidence of the Wilson clans’ keen ears for other genres and somehow make them all turn out Beach Boysy. But then something happens halfway though as we hit an awkward stumbling minor key chord change out of nowhere and Dennis himself takes over the vocal. Suddenly the narrator is no longer an everyman singing to God for help in the future but a broken desperate man crying out for salvation right now. It’s chilling indeed hearing Dennis confess ‘I guess I won’t grow old…I don’t want to die!’ and how afraid he is of what comes next a mere decade or so before his untimely death in 1983 and his cracking, haunted vocal surrounded by all that lush, polished backing comes as a real shock, even after reading just how bleak things were for the drummer in this period (the main reason Blondie and bandmate Ricki turn up in the band at all was to cover for Dennis breaking his hand in a plate-glass window in a drunken rage and being unable to play, though having a pair of songwriters to fill in the hole where an ailing Brian would be probably helped too. Was this song a ‘thankyou’ to Dennis’ new bandmates, written in their style?) Dennis wasn’t around for the ‘So Tough’ or ‘Holland’ sessions much and the recordings he did contribute tended to be done separately to the rest of the band but here he uses his brothers, friends and cousins quite brilliantly as a backing band straight from Heaven. How this didn’t make the final record is anyone’s guess (maybe the world just wasn’t quite ready for messages to God from upstart popstars in 1973?) Dennis will continue talking to his ‘maker’ across his solo albums, but never tries anything like this with ‘his’ band ever again. Sadly.
5) Rolling Stones “Worried Life Blues”
Every bit the equal of the blues covers that made it to the ‘Love You Live’ set, this Sleepy John Estes song is the Stones getting back to basics and sounding as if they’d been cutting this sort of thing all their lives. Everything about this track works: Mick’s purist blurry blues vocal promising devotion, the Keith ‘n’ Ronnie art of guitar weaving at its best, Charlie’s swingtime sticks (no wonder Mick introduces him as a ‘jazz drummer’, though he’s clearly not just ‘doing this for the money’) and ‘eighth (?) Stone’ Olly Brown twinkling the ivories beautifully (and sounding much like founding Stone Stu; it’s a surprise he wasn’t at this gig as its right up his street). The only person missing is Brian and if his ghost was ever going to turn up for a jam with his old band it was surely going to be on this song, which is everything the early Stones stood for. The fact this recording didn’t make the final cut on ‘Love You Live’ when those wretched live versions of ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll’ ’Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ did makes you wonder what the heck the band was up to in 1977.
6) Micky Dolenz/Mike Nesmith “Soul Writer’s Birthday”
Well, it’s not every day you get a new unheard Mike Nesmith song and – alas – we won’t be getting any more of them any time soon, so ‘Soul Writer’s Birthday’ was always going to make the list, even if ultimately it’s a confusing curio rather than a classic. This song has been compared to the songs from ‘Pisces, Aquarius’ – mostly I suspect because that was the Monkee album being made when it was written – but it sounds far more like a fast-paced National Band tune than a Monkee one. It’s a nonsense tune, which is unusual for Mike even if his lyrics often pushed the boundaries of comprehension, a Lennon-ish ‘Walrus’ like tale of prima donnas on donkeys and a ‘canyon house with whirlybirds’. The song feels like it ought to have a key to unlock it; parts of the song sound as if it’s based on Peter, whose haphazard partying lifestyle the more careful Mike always viewed with suspicion (not least the address and compare with Micky doing exactly the same on ‘Shorty Blackwell’ in 1969, a song we do know is in part about Tork). However, the one thing that’s clear in this song is the subjects’ birthday, the 25th June, which very much isn’t Peter’s (he’s February 13th and – though I wouldn’t put it past Nez to misremember – birthdays would have been big news in the Monkees canon at the time they were working out their star signs for the ‘Pisces’ album title). Having looked up a string of people who have birthdays on that day I’m none the wiser – George Orwell sounds like the sort of person Nesmith would have read and admired and wanted to write a song about, but as far as I know he was never blind in one eye or lived in a canyon house; similarly I doubt it’s a then four-year-old George Michael; all the other possibilities seem too obscure, which suggests its someone Mike knew well and ‘we’ didn’t. The barbed song doesn’t suit Dolenz’s friendly voice at all but it’s easy to imagine Nez’s wisecracking vocal having a bash at a country-rock version of it and it’s a worthy find that really should have been on the album. Had we got this song back in 1967 I suspect it would have been annoying; but now it feels like an unexpected gift. Somehow it’s fitting too that Nez’s last ‘gift’ to us is an impenetrable puzzle of an outtake we weren’t expected to solve, dressed up by his bandmate and family to be shoe-horned into sounding like a pop song, as that’s pretty much where we came in, in 1966.
7) Mike Nesmith “Tapioca Tundra”
One of the surprise TV hits of the year was the final series of ‘Better Call Saul’, a much improved spin-off from the unwatchable ‘Breaking Bad’ crime series which has become known for its gritty montages set to unexpected bits of music. In the big finale (series 6 episode 11) Monkee fans got a huge shock when an unheard acoustic demo of Mike Nesmith’s 1968 Monkee song (flipside to final big Monkee hit ‘Valleri’ and ‘Birds, Bees and Monkees’ album track) turned up, set to a montage of main character Gene’s realisation that he’s wasted his life cheating people out of their money instead of creating trust and friendship with his fellow man. It turns out that writer/director Thomas Schnauz is a huge Monkees fan and desperately wanted the song but felt the rather archly sung Monkee recording wasn’t quite right for the mood (he’d already used the Monkee recording of B-side ‘Goin’ Down’ in an earlier episode); on contacting Nez’s estate he found that they still owned the demo and granted him the use of it. The result is a revelation: a ‘proper’ version of what always sounded like one of Mike’s more melancholy songs, without the goofy vocal effects, tuneless whistling or sarcastic delivery. Instead Mike sounds genuinely sad as he sings one of his more poetic lyrics: ‘Waiting hopes cast silent spells that speak in clouded clues’. With Mike’s sad loss last year any new discovery is welcome and we can only hope that we’ll get an official release of this fine demo one day soon on a Monkee product rather than the official Better Call Saul soundtrack CD.
8) Micky Dolenz “Tis The Season”
The best song to come out of all four solo Monkee sets/re-issues out this year is surely Davy’s ‘Manchester Boy’, a charming and poignant take on how the boy had to leave Manchester to find fame and fortune but they never took Manchester out the boy, no matter how far from home he went. That song’s one that’s been around for years though and got quite a write up in my Monkees book, so with so many other Monkeeshines to write about here’s the second best. In terms of composition ‘Tis The Season’ is right up there with Micky’s best work. He’s spending Christmas at home – the first for a very long time – poised on the knife-edge of two different years, a past that broke his heart and torn between still being in love and ‘needing to be on my own’ and a future that promises freedom and better times. There’s a great little riff that runs throughout this demo; it’s just unfortunate that it was recorded in the 1980s so instead of being played on a groundbreaking moog like the olden days it’s all performed against a casio keyboard that probably took more power to record this song than a second on an app on a modern phone. Still sweet though.
9) Peter Tork “Sea Change”
Meanwhile it’s the 1990s for bandmate Peter but he’s in much the same boat, driving Shoe Suede Blues through a quickstepping sea shanty that very successfully sums up the stormy period of his life he’s experiencing. He used to live on calm seas but love upturned his boat and now the depths are calling to him ‘take me down!’ Somehow, though, Peter sounds more excited and alive than scared, eagerly throwing himself into this song and this situation with gusto. Easily the most complex number Tork came up with post Monkees, this rocker is great fun and only a squeaky violin part prevents it becoming a top tier classic.
10) Graham Gouldman/Brian May “Floating In Heaven”
I like to think that I’ve been writing these yearly reviews for long enough now (14 years!) that I can forsee patterns: yet another pricey McCartney re-issue here, a bonkers radio play based on an obscure Kinks album there, alternating Gallagher brothers spitting feathers at what the other said in song about them last year, multiple fifty-year-old albums stuffed into a pricey box set to dodge the bootleggers when all this stuff goes out of copyright and, of course, that old guessing game ‘which Beatles album are they going to make us buy for the twentieth time this year?’ However this is one song I definitely didn’t have on my 2022 bingo card: a collaboration between the Queen guitarist and 10cc’s stalwart bassist inspired by a new telescope. While Brian teased us at the start of the year that he was working with Graham (for one brief hilarious moment it looked as if Graham was taking over from Freddie Mercury in a Queen reunion!), I still didn’t quite believe it when this song quietly dropped in mid-July. Brian is, as many of you will know, a passionate scientist and astronomer. Graham can write a song on any subject and make it sound ‘human’. The result of a collaboration between the two – old friends who’d always meant to work together but never got round to it till now - is a song about the James Watt telescope, of all things, and how small the Earth looks when viewed as part of the bigger cosmos as Graham’s narrator – representing the whole of humanity – leaves the planet ‘in search of pastures new’. It was inspired by a truly awe-inspiring set of pictures of the universe that go further back in time than we’ve ever been before, to the creation of the universe (which, interestingly, looks exactly like the opening credits to Peter Davison era Doctor Who). Insert joke about two old-timers being chosen to write a song about looking back in time here. It kind of works though as a distillation of two styles and re-pays the debt that Queen always owed early 10cc (seriously, where do you think those harmonies in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ came from? Or that quirky humour? Or those production gimmicks? The two bands are closer than many realise – although frankly 10cc have the better songs, by light years). As a result we get that famous guitar sound, those famous one-note ‘I’m Not In Love’ ahh-ing harmonies and a big catchy tune that could have been by either band but which sounds particularly like the sort of thing Gouldman used to write for his own sixties group The Mockingbirds. It’s a little clunky in places (the rhymes of ‘it makes us seem so small’ and ‘floating in an Earthly ball’ heard on all songs like this are present and correct – I’m blaming the Brian May side of the songwriting table), but also full of surprises including a great angsty middle eight that comes out of nowhere (surely Gouldman’s work). Not quite out of this world, then, but on a par with Graham’s fairly-decent 21st century solo albums then, as well as being automatically the single best thing any member of Queen did. Ever.
9) The Kinks “Travelling With My Band”
The one totally new song on the deluxe ‘Muswell Stars’ re-release is an unheard Ray Davies song from the studio sessions for ‘Everybody’s In Showbiz’ that celebrates the live side of the album. A casualty of yet another planned Kinks documentary TV special that got shelved at the last minute, it practically screams to be set to a montage of live footage as it mentions all the ‘freaks’ the band met on and off stage and lots of mad things that happened (so much so I’m amazed no one’s done that on the Kinks official youtube channel yet).Ray’s built up some memories that will last his whole life, but now it’s time to go home and rest and you can really feel the mixture of pride and relief on this song at finally getting to the end of a tough era, as The Kinks take one last encore and fond farewell (after all, it wouldn’t be The Kinks without nostalgia for something). The song is lacking a little something to make it sparkle and in 1973 the band were probably right to shelve it as an album closer in favour of ‘Celluloid Heroes’. Certainly the song works better being re-written as ‘You Can’t Stop The Music’ on 1974’s ‘A Soap Opera’, where it celebrates all musicians rather than just touring ones as here (and, weirdly, the only lyrics it keeps the same are ‘being punched and spat on’ even though both songs are mostly ‘upbeat’). However, like all things Kinks in the first half of the 1970s, there’s a sort of casual magic sprinkled over the top: Dave’s gritty guitar combined with Baptist’s honky tonk piano and the Kinks horn section at full tilt makes for a truly wondrous sound and the restless, adrenalin-fuelled, half-speed riff was always a fun one for the band I wanted to hear more of. Easily the best thing on the new set, though still not quite worth that hefty price tag.
10) Justin Hayward “Living For Love”
Well, it’s official. We said in last year’s review that The Moody Blues were all but broken up in name, with Justin and John at loggerheads about whether they ought to continue the band after the sad death of drummer Graeme Edge. Now it’s a fact and Justin’s released a second song to follow 2021’s ‘One Summer Day’, a standalone song (without a B side this time) to further explain where his head is at. Justin takes a ‘walk’ down memory lane, imagining that he can ‘feel’ his old friend’s presence (though whether it’s Graeme or flautist Ray Thomas, who died in 2018, he never specifies). Justin becomes nostalgic for the band’s early days of ‘innocence’ and admits it won’t be long before he too gets to see the next chapter, The Moody Blues ‘aligned’ in Heaven. The song ends there but the hint is that this song is a riposte to John’s ‘The Sun Will Shine’ from last year, saying that The Moody Blues have a ‘duty’ to their fans to play to the bitter end; for Justin this is the bitter end right now, with only ghosts to surround him on stage. There are some lovely ideas in this song – there’s a great singalong chorus, some fan-pleasing references to old songs and albums (The past is ‘the land where wildest dreams were found’ while the afterlife has Justin ‘In days of future symphonies’) and Justin’s voice and guitar are amazingly strong considering he turned 76 this year). Like last year’s single, however, its lacking that little something extra to rank amongst Justin’s best and just kind of ends despite the promise of the beginning starting out on a ‘journey’. Or maybe that’s because the journey is still ongoing after all, despite what he says?
11) Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “We’re Gonna Get There In the End”
‘It’s only a demo!’ said Noel defensively when he stuck this song up on his youtube channel on new year’s eve last year (just past the cut-off point for the 2021 AAA year review!) However ‘End’ is the best Noel song in nearly a decade, an actual song for once with a melody and guitar work and optimistic lyrics and everything we’ve been nagging him to do since the first solo album came out. It’s clearly written ‘to’ a generation in a way that Noel hasn’t been since the Knebworth days (perhaps the Oasis concert film reminded him of what he used to do for a living?) and he addresses the last tricky couple of years it’s been for everyone. Noel’s long been a covid and lockdown sceptic (though thankfully a passing chat with his own doctor made him shut up a bit) and tells us ‘we’ve spent too long inside – let’s take a walk outside’. Which is OK, as long as he doesn’t go down the pub or anywhere indoors I guess. It’s a bouncy song about how, even when life seems to be set on pause, you should hold on to your dreams because things haven’t been cancelled, just delayed, and anything is possible and risks are worth taking (because ‘life isn’t a trip you get to take twice’). A bit hopeful given that we’re still deep in the midst of a pandemic, but this is what songwriters like Noel were put on this Earth to make, songs that bring us hope and shine a light in the darkness, not nonsense songs on one line or messing about with scissors. It will sound great on stage if Noel ever makes it to Knebworth again like his brother did this year. The song was pressed as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exclusive vinyl release for record store day in April with a far moodier yet similarly impressive B-side ‘Trying To Find A World That’s Been And Gone’ attached. A tribute to wife Sarah, it’s the downside of change when everything looks bleak and scary but how the narrator has been through so many changes he ought to know by now who the constants in his world are. It’s too short to make the full impact it needs to (the title lists it as ‘part one’ and it is indeed the sort of song that needs a ‘part two’), but again it shows way more promise than 9/10ths of last album ‘Who Built The Moon?’ Both Gallaghers on top songwriting form – this has been a cracking year for Oasis fans! I mean, when did that last happen? 2010? 2005? 2002? Ever?
12) Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds “Pretty Boy”
A bit less memorable but still evidence of an upswing, ‘Pretty Boy’ is the lead single from Noel’s fourth post-Oasis record, to be released next year. Like much of ‘Who Built The Moon?’ Noel seems to have forgotten how to write chord changes and the song stays rigidly in the same place for nearly five minutes, but there are some interesting sounds over the top this time and – at long long last – some fiery guitar playing. The lyrics too are interesting, if you can look past another ‘yeah yeah’ riff that’s been designed to be the song’s central hook, a lyric that seems to be addressed to both brother Liam and a ‘fan’ perhaps standing in for all his other ones (possibly the fan in ‘Talk Tonite’ who persuaded Oasis not to quit during Oasis’ first American tour when they were right on the verge of fame). The bad news is that Noel’s absolutely drawing a line in the sand here, refusing to go back to the olden days under circumstances, asking either or both to ‘delete my number’ and taunting Liam to ‘get your head down pretty boy’ because Noel isn’t going to live off his Oasis days the way he thinks his bro still is. There’s even a dig that Noel isn’t going to change his mind despite being a Gemini, claiming that ‘I wanna change my star sign ‘cause it don’t suit me’ – this songwriter is not for turning any time soon. The good news is that, for the first time since the jazzier songs on second album ‘Chasing Yesterdays’, Noel sounds as if he has a real bona fide direction to go down at last instead of just making non-Oasis sounds his reason for playing. A whole album of this stuff might get old quick, but if there are another 9-12 songs that stretch out in other new directions without just copying this one we might be onto something good here.
13) Neil Young “Gateway Of Love”
Most of ‘Toast’ lands butter-side-up, but none more than this song. It’s a fascinating surreal sprawl through Neil’s inner mind, as (like much of this record and quite a few of the ones to come, it has to be said) he spends a song rehearsing how to tell wife Pegi things are over. Neil wants to find the perfect time, where he can speak ‘filled with need and filled with truth’, but keeps darting backwards, telling us that no – he doesn’t really mean it, he’s just a ‘drifting soul without too much to say’ (it might be worth noting that ‘Driftin’ Man’ is the name of the one fly in the ointment on ‘Harvest Moon’, the track that’s not about love for Pegi – or children, or past friends, or pets – and despite the sweet tone is actually about a stalker-murderer who can’t be trusted). So Neil procrastinates as only he can, stretching out for one lengthy guitar solo after another in between verses, before trying again. Interestingly the last verse recalls ‘Wrecking Ball’, perhaps Neil’s earliest song (‘Freedom’, 1989) about wanting to experience Heaven with a mysterious ‘other’ away from his marriage. Once again, though, Neil bucks the idea for now and figures that even if Heaven is filled with the angels he senses in his mind’s eye ‘I’d rather stay down here and try to love someone’. Note that word ‘try’ though; Neil still isn’t sure so sets off on yet another guitar solo while he ponders all over again, more desperate than the last, as tight riffing from the Horse’s rhythm section Billy and Ralph lock him into another box he feels the need to escape from. Neil then sighs that he wishes life could be just as easy as writing a song, that ‘I could wake up some day and the pain would all be gone’ – but he knows it never will be until he finally makes up his mind. So he sets off playing again, searching for an answer that never quite arrives. This has everything that makes Neil and the Horse great: it’s never fast or flashy but still sounds gloriously epic as the musicians have a sixth sense when to play loose and when be tight, bouncing like a pinball along with Neil’s indecision as he works out which of the two keys will best fit the lock of his heart.
14) John Entwistle “Back On The Road”
The Ox is cooling his heels at home, all the passion and vibrancy of life on the road gone, twiddling his thumbs while waiting for the call to get back on the road again. Ironically though ‘all the world’s a stage and I am just a player’, it’s when he’s inside his four walls at home that he feels a nobody and he’s tired of sitting around being quiet when he could be standing on stage making noise. He’s nobody without music, struggling to exist as a human being when he’s so used to being a bass player, a sentiment many musicians surely agree with. ‘Cut my strings’ he says, holding out his bass ‘and I fall down!’This is far from the greatest song John ever wrote but there’s a pretty tune here and some thoughtful words and in amongst the riff-heavy rockers of the 1990s this tinkly piano ballad really shines out as a highlight.
15) Pink Floyd/Andriy Khlyvnyuk “Hey Hey Rise Up!”
One of the biggest news stories of the year was Russia’s unexpected invasion of their neighbours Ukraine, a mere twenty years after his seemingly genuine attempt to integrate Russia intop the modern world (remember him dancing to ‘Back In The USSR’ in 2002 after Inviting Macca to Russia?) The invasion is either a noble act to rid them of Nazi interference (according to the Ice Bear) or an attempt to destroy a country that had successfully rid itself of the shackles of its own empire as it sought to embrace democracy (according to the rest of us). Whatever the flash cause behind it (Ambition? Greed? Fear over what a coalition of countries might do to Russia if they gang up? Genuine but misguided attempt to fight corruption? Putin has a terminal illness and is tired of waiting for the empire he’s wanted for so long? Revenge for its athletes being made to compete under a neutral name at the Olympics after a doping scandal? Russia didn’t like how Ukraine voted in last year’s Eurovision?) the end result is a dispute made worse by propaganda (theirs and ours) that came dangerously close to being a world war and still yet might at the time of writing. I still firmly believe that all that’s needed to solve this crisis is the assurance to Putin that nobody is out to ‘get’ Russia and that all countries are free to join NATO, including them and I’m still quite shocked that no one has given it yet. Or – given the precedents in past history for this sort of thing – fully called Russia’s bluff by agreeing to stand in unity with Ukraine en masse to kick them out, rather than just hand out weapons. What should have beens are of no use to a nation who have lost their homes, their livelihoods and in many cases their lives, though, for yet another war that really didn’t need to be fought.
One of the stranger twists in an already unlikely story is the re-emergence of Pink Floyd, eight years after we were told that definitively there would be no more new music, ever (which is quite quick by their standards anyway!) Guitarist David Gilmour’s daughter-in-law is Ukranian and she was moved by an a capella piece of music Andriy, one of her favourite musicians, had recorded before joining the Ukranian army. David was shocked that he recognised him (Andriy’s band Boombox had supported Gilmour’s band in 2015) and how different he looked in military fatigues. Wanting to do something practical to help the war effort – and no doubt annoyed like the rest of us at how little was being done by the people who actually had the power to intervene – David sought to finish the track off for him, to help raise both money and publicity for the cause. Amdriy was in hospital with a shrapnel wound when he got David’s request to overdub the song and, rather bemusedly, gave his blessing. A quick phonecall to Nick Mason resulted in some drum overdubs too, resulting in the first started-from-scratch Pink Floyd song in twenty-eight years (plus Guy Pratt on bass, his thirty-five year stint with the band now technically longer than Roger Waters’).
Only of course it doesn’t sound much like Pink Floyd. That famous guitar sound is in there of course and I’d recognise Nick’s drumming from a mile away too, but they’re guests on ta song that isn’t theirs really. Out of context it’s really not much of a song either – though based on the Ukranian anthem, written in 1914, it sounds like the sort of thing doodled off backstage between gigs with the worst excesses of the modern Floyd: it’s bombastic, OTT, has an unnecessary collection of backing singers and was accompanied, on their official website, by no less than six pieces of tie-in clothing, a tote bag and a fridge magnet. ‘Rise Up’ is really not the sort of thing to make Floydian hearts a flutter and is easily the weakest musical thing they’ve made since ‘A Momentary Lapse Of Reason’ and yet somehow none of that matters. This is a band that have long tried to do the right thing and give a voice to those in need and the single did indeed do a lot of good and raise a lot of money.
Of course, a Pink Floyd release wouldn’t be a Pink Floyd release without some controversy and Roger Waters has been making the news for heading in a completely different direction, not only to his old band but pretty much everyone that doesn’t have the surname Putin. Famously anti-war, his take on the war is that Ukraine ought to give in to Russia’s demands pronto, at any cost to their liberty. This has led to his live shows being blacklisted in European countries and a lot of ragging on social media. To be fair, though, there is some truth in Waters’ take on the war – at least the part that the war is being extended by oligarchs the world over who are making money from it – and his anti-war youtube videos (including moving correspondence with a Ukranian fan who had been studying Roger’s lyrics at university and wanted his advice, even if it wasn’t the advice she expected) feel more at one with the anti-war spirit of the Floyd. You would have thought, though, that Roger had dealt with enough megalomaniacs to see through this one though: if any leader of the 2020s has a spot reserved in ‘The Fletcher Memorial Home’, the Floydian home for incurable tyrants, then surely it’s mad Vlad.
Documentaries Of The Year:
1) Liam Gallagher: 48 Hours at Rockfield
Not the most in-depth documentary you’ll ever see but jolly good fun, as we follow Liam and his increasingly bemused sons around preparing for a new album and tour and a 50th birthday party bash at Mustique (the old Oasis hang-out, where much of ‘Be Here Now’ was written, by the pool). ‘I’m still dressing the way I did when I was twenty so no’ reflects Liam when asked whether he feels any older, before pausing for a bit ‘Though I do make a terrible noise now when I bend down to touch my shoelaces’. His sons Gene and Lennon find all this hilarious and all but steal the documentary with their rolling eyes to camera when Liam’s old mates talk about him being a ‘character’ or commenting on their dad when he gets lost on holiday walking away from the camera ‘It’s dementia kicking in – he still thinks it’s Knebworth!’ As for Liam he claims that he’s looking after himself and is more professional now with age, though he can’t resist quipping to camera ‘I still don’t do yoga or eat tofu though – I’m not staying alive just to punish myself!’ You sense that the documentary makers really want to know about how Liam made the new album, but other than offering surprise that his solo career is going so well the singer isn’t in nostalgic mood, instead looking forward to his upcoming party in September. ‘I’m going to get me mam down and have a big bash because I never had one for me 21st’ says Liam, who was indeed busy with early Oasis back in 1993, with no reference to whether brother Noel gets an invite. Maybe he did, judging by the philosophical tone of the new album, much of which was premiered here but sadly don’t sound as grand on the stage as they did on record, though judging by Noel’s songs he probably didn’t show up. However Liam’s band positively spark on two old Oasis classics ‘Supersonic’ and ‘D’Yer Know What I Mean?’, a song which even the original band struggled to pull off live. Equal parts mad fer it and just plain mad, this documentary will never rank alongside ‘Lord Don’t Slow me Down’ or ‘Right Here, Right Now’ in Oasis fans’ affections but it’s still worth a watch and a hilarious reminder that even the coolest kids of their generation get laughed at as decaying has beens by the next.
2) “My Life As A Rolling Stone”
‘I’m tired of the old clichés and myths turning up in documentaries’ growled Mick Jagger on the trailer to this four-part series, created to mark the Stones’ 60th anniversary in July this year (although Bill and Charlie hadn’t actually joined at this stage, something the documentaries always seem to gloss over – the drummer in early 1962 was none other than Mick Avory and his next gig was spending twenty years in The Kinks). Which was a particularly odd thing to say given that, far more than ‘Crossfire Huricane’ (the documentary put together for the Stones’ 50th) the clichés and myths were mostly what we got. How did Brian Jones feel about not writing songs? Was the whole bad boy image just a construct by Andrew Loog Oldham? How did you get sent to prison? How did Altamont go so wrong? The only thing missing from documentaries like these were the wives and girlfriends (by and large – Marianne gets mentioned in passing and Shirley Watts gets to speak about Charlie). What did work was interviewing the band separately, in four chunks (sorry Bill!) giving more space to those who don’t normally get to speak. This really worked well with the episode on Charlie, who spoke to us via previously recorded interviews (even though, bizarrely, Sienna Miller’s voiceover referred to him in the present tense – was it recorded before Charlie’s death and before he was able to give an interview? If so that’s the wrong way round, surely!), anecdotes from those around him and family and friends going through his impressive and immaculately catalogued archives of drumkits, suits and even touring teasets. There was some glorious footage of Charlie backstage too, rehearse-drumming to jazz, in the only room on the Stones tour for snoozing not partying. Ronnie’s episode, too, was an unexpected treat as we got more air time to discuss how he kept the Stones together by being practically the only person who managed to stay friendly with Mick and Keef in the 1980s and his own demons (when even Keith Richards tells you to clean up your act, you know you’ve got a problem!) However, by comparison Mick’s interview went nowhere new and Keith’s was a lot less interesting than the ones he gave while plugging his autobiography a few years back. Weirdly most of each documentary included bits of the other three Stones talking too – not just about the Stone in the spotlight either, but the ‘era’ represented by each documentary (confusingly Keith’s spent most time talking about the bands’ childhood and how the Stones met, even though it was broadcast as episode two; Mick’s mostly concentrated on the 1960s heyday even though it was first and Ronnie – episode three – took up the story from the early 1970s, even though he only joined in 1977!)
While I sympathise with the need not to tell the same story four times over, this was always going to be a flawed idea which by necessity took ‘one’ view of the story as the ‘truth’: for instance, we never get to hear what Mick thought about his old school chum Keith walking up to him and asking to see the blues records tucked under his arm at that fateful train station where the glimmer twins re-connected, or how Mick ‘n’ Keef thought Ronnie’s arrival changed their playing and behaviour. Equally we don’t really hear Keith’s take on being locked up by ‘the establishment’ (it’s one of the biggest differences in band history – Mick’s moved on to the point of accepting a knighthood and Keith still resents it bitterly), while Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and even Bill Wyman – key players in the Stones story – barely get a mention, while Allen Klein and ‘Stu’ don’t even get that. Bizarre. The result was a documentary that felt as if it didn’t have enough to fill four hours yet also barely scratched the surface, as well as one that was so determined not to tell the same old story it left key bits out, without really offering up anything that new in its place. There was at least some great footage on show though, most of it in Mick’s episode, of really early black and white stuff with a posh sounding Mick trying to say that he’s not the antichrist, just a very naughty boy and admitting that press conferences are a drag. Still not enough though given tjhst we were promised ‘lots’; to be honest fans have seen 99% of this before and anyone who didn’t know would have been so confused by the time-travelling that they’re probably not even sure who Brian is or just when exactly the band formed and why (as that part’s glossed over in seconds). Oh well; best of all perhaps, this birthday bash gave the BBC the excuse to exhume some fascinating archive live shows from 1995 (‘the ‘Totally Stripped’ docushow), 2003 (New York) and 2011 (‘Sticky Fingers Live At The Fonda, L.A.), which did the talking about why the Stones were at least one of the two greatest rock and roll bands of their era far more than this documentary ever did.
3) “Rolling With The Stones At Sixty”
A two hour radio special that was overshadowed by the all-singing, all-dancing, multi-trailered TV one but which came out more or less the same. On the plus side this show was thematic rather than ploughing through the chronology four times over (so much so that we were still on flipping second single ‘I Wanna be Your Man’ when we broke for the news halfway through!), we had full songs rather than extracts including some key influences from Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters and best of all we had Bill Wyman back. As usual he remembered more than the other Stones combined and was a lot more fun in his choice of anecdotes too! What you didn’t get – even compared to the TV version - was any sense of why the Stones mattered, why they sold so many records and why, so many ‘bad boys’ later, the establishment was genuinely scared that of all the rebels out there down the years the Stones had the power to tear them down. Some of the song choices were odd too to say the least: ‘Bright Lights Big City’? ‘C’mon’? When you only have time to play maybe eight actual Stones songs they need to be chosen with more care. Once again there was very little on Brian and even less on Mick Taylor, though we got oodles of Ronnie across the whole story, even though he didn’t become a full time member until flipping 1978! Still, even if this documentary rehashed a few stories and gathered more than its share of moss along the way, it was a welcome addition to the Stones archives and made more sense than the TV one.
4) “Crazy Horse - A Band A Brotherhood A Barn”
‘With Neil I just anticipate learning…’ This seventy-five minute documentary, screened in cinemas in 2021 but available on Neil Young’s youtube channel from Janaury this year and apparently released on blu-ray though I can’t find it anywhere, follows Crazy Horse recording their second album together since Nils Lofgren joined/rejoined the band (i.e. he played with them on their debut album in 1971 after Neil introduced them, but Neil himself wasn’t there; he was on ‘Tonight’s The Night’ in 1973 though, after and indeed about Danny and before Frank joined the group). This time the Horse are – rather fittingly - in a barn recording a new album under a full moon and Neil’s new wife actress Daryl Hannah brought a camera along to film them. The bad news is that it’s not *that* barn (the famous one on Neil’s Broken Arrow ranch where so many of his old classics were made; this one is a renovated 19th Century one in Colorado), it’s not *that* moon (it must be a ‘Strawberry Moon’ as Ralph Molina celebrates his birthday during the sessions and he’s a Gemini – a Harvest Moon is in September) and Daryl doesn’t seem to have brought an editor along with her. So what we get isn’t really a concert or a documentary but Crazy Horse playing, without context, over and over again with fluffs and jokes and comments from the engineer between songs. Which isn’t as exciting as it sounds: most recording sessions are made up of waiting in between the magic and this one hasn’t taken much of that waiting out. Given how ‘Barn’ was one of Neil’s sleepier, more rambling albums anyway it doesn’t exactly make for dynamic viewing and the biggest ‘drama’ here is whether the band are going to remember all the chords (and, y’know, this is Crazy Horse, so the answer’s probably no). This would be better if we just had the songs back to back– the discussions of technical points with the engineers quickly become wearing, while the repetitive lengthy cutaway shots of the outside of the barn made me feel more like a battery hen than a loving fan.
That said, the best parts of this documentary are unmissable: the chance to see album highlight ‘Welcome Back’ suddenly spontaneously come together with the Horse improvising and watching each other like hawks is mesmerising (and really does feel like the pay-off for sitting through the first fifty-five minutes to get there) and the moment half an hour into the film when the Horse take a coffee break and start reminiscing about touring ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and how it shaped their collective philosophies on playing live is delightful (Nils: ‘I remember the part we played…’ Neil: ‘On the other hand you could just ask ‘what did I do there? And make it up again’ Nils: ‘I’ve been doing that since I came here!’) In terms of Neil Young concert-documentaries it’s no ‘Year Of The Horse’ (1998) never mind ‘Muddy Track’ (the 1987 Horse concert film that still hasn’t been officially released yet) ‘Weld’ (1991) or ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (1980) and Billy and Ralph are all but mute, but I’m glad it was made, I’m glad Neil is still making music like this and I’m very glad to see him back with the Horse, even with Frank Sampedro missing. Now if only Daryl can hang around to film the making of a brilliant album rather than a patchy one I’ll be happy.
DVDs Of The Year:
The Monkees “Live Summer Tour ‘01”
Amazingly, this is the only officially sanctioned live Monkees concert that you can actually see as opposed to just hear. I say ‘amazing’ because, by Monkees standards, it’s probably the least known or regarded tour they did on their many ‘comebacks’. Sandwiched between the ‘JustUs’ one of 1996 (with Nez back in the band and a new bona fide record to plug) and 2011 (when it seemed we might never see any of the band together again), this one with trio of primates rather gets lost. It was a sort of running joke between The Monkees that a different one in the band would put them back together and be ‘in charge’ of proceedings next time. This tour was Peter Tork’s baby and it shows in good ways and bad. The jokes fall flat (‘Who the hell was that?’ ‘Get me a Prozac and gin malt!’), many of the arrangements go back to basics and the touring group is, with all respect, a pub band made up of mates that got lucky rather than the crack-team one of the biggest groups of their day deserved. However the setlist is fabulous – not just the obvious songs but real rarities the band never did again like unreleased single ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’, flop single ‘It’s Nice To Be With You’, reunion song ‘That Was Then, This Is Now’, ‘Your Auntie Grizelda’ (!) and no less than four songs from feature film ‘Head’ (an album which only ever had six songs to begin with!) The Monkees even revive their ‘solo turns’, an idea leftover from their original 1966-67 tour, with Peter’s banjo-led cover of ‘Higher and Higher’ a highlight alongside Micky doing show tune ‘If I Fell For You’ and Davy doing whatever the heck genre ‘Is You is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?’ comes under. It’s the sort of show to make forgiving fans weak at the knees and non-fans blush, full of strained notes, missed cues, awful patter and big ideas. Even though the DVD was plenty long enough at an hour to be honest, 1000 copies of the full two hour show was released at the time and it’s that uncut edition which has been given a ‘full’ release for the first time (the highlights DVD having never gone out of print). Now that the sad loss of Davy, Peter and Mike in what seemed like horribly quick succession the past ten years means that we’re probably never going to get a sequel (though watch this space for the ‘Mike and Micky Present’ shows from last year, which will surely get a release at some stage), which makes this show more special than it seemed at the time when we were just waiting for a better one. This full version is better, mostly because of those rarer songs from ‘Head’ and extra Tork - though you also get extra talk, none of which is any funnier (odd that, given how much fun almost every other Monkee tour was). Whether it’s better enough to fork out for all over again is between you and your bank balance, but if you missed it the first time and you’re prepared to accept that this the band at a (relatively) low ebb rather than on top form, then this is the way to buy the show.
And that’s that for another year dear readers. Thankyou for keeping me company for another twelve months. World crisis allowing I’ll see you in 2023 when we are promised a new Rolling Stones studio album (their first of new material in over a decade!), another Crosby studio set, Lindisfarne at the BBC and no doubt another 27 Neil Youngs. A very happy holidays and a musical new year to you all!