Friday, July 29, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #11: Jeff Beck

The Greatest

I’ve written of Jeff Beck’s greatness many times over the years here at GNABB. I have tried to explain in words why he is the greatest living rock guitarist. What else can I say that I haven’t already? Two snapshots…

Double bill Jeff Beck / Stevie Ray Vaughan show in Houston. I am at the show with a decidedly un-rock and roll group, my parents, older brother and one of my oldest friends. SRV had the opening slot, and was predictably great. Even casual music listeners could easily grasp that this guy was a special musician. He was also such a friendly and engaging performer, gracious and giving us the requisite between song banter. Then came Jeff Back and his group. I don’t think he ever said a word to the audience (SRV had an advantage there in that he was also a singer, whereas Beck has generally always been strictly a guitar player). I recall thinking at the end of the show that SRV had bested Beck in the duel of guitar pyrotechnics (at the time, I was a huge SRV fan and only a casual admirer of Beck). I also remember having this nagging feeling that SRV may have been the more obviously impressive, but Beck’s music was a lot more interesting.

A large club in downtown Austin that is actually just a warehouse (there are no seats, just a concrete floor for people to stand on.) I got a ticket to the Jeff Beck show, and I am stoked. I have grown into a Jeff Beck fanatic since that ’89 show. I got there early, so was able to stake out a spot front and center at the stage. (I remember some chick trying to edge her way in front of me during the show, and I planted my feet, not letting her by. She was pissed. Too bad, my spot.) Just like 12 years earlier, Beck did not say a word to the audience the entire show. In fact, there was not even a microphone on the stage for him to use if he had wanted to. But his manner was warm and fun, he had a permanent grin on his face, and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, giving us exaggerated rock god poses that were clearly tongue in cheek (no wonder the Nigel Tufnel character from 'This Is Spinal Tap' was based primarily on Beck). This show was a revelation. After this show the possibilities of the guitar were forever expanded from what I previously understood. I left with the firm belief that this was the greatest guitarist that I had ever (or would ever) see. See my many previous posts as to why.

ABOVE: I may have posted this before, but it is a lovely rendition of The Beatles's "A Day In the Life." If you look closely, you can see Jimmy Page in the audience.

What To Listen To:
Beck's discography is spotty and has many gaps from when he decided to set his music career aside in exchange for his other passion, restoring old cars. His work with The Yardbirds is by far the most groundbreaking when compared to their Eric Clapton-era and Jimmy Page-era. The Yardbirds Ultimate! is a great two disc compilation covering all three eras. The first two Jeff Beck Group records, Truth and Beck-Ola, feature the most celebrated line-up (Rod Stewart on vocals, Nicky Hopkins on piano, Ron Wood on bass) and are rightfully considered landmark hard rock, blues-based records that were templates for countless 70’s rock bands to follow. Blow By Blow is a near perfect jazz/rock fusion record. Follow-up Wired is only slightly less great, but it has a harder edge to it. I have posted a full analysis of the confounding Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop. I love it, but it takes some attention to appreciate its charms. Starting in 1999, Beck had a renaissance in creativity that is still going strong today. Who Else! and You Had It Coming are the best records from this latest phase. Live at Ronnie Scott’s give you the best taste of Beck live. He has some compilations, but they are not the best introductions, and none feature anything from his most recent resurgence.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #12: The Doors

The Other Three

I am going to write a bit about The Doors without focusing on Jim Morrison. I know that hasn’t been done very often, as Morrison has been the center of Doors history since his demise, even appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in the late 1980’s (he died in 1971) in an article about his enduring popularity and sex appeal. The legion of Doors-haters out there also tends to focus on Morrison and his bad, acid-trip poetry.

But the other three guys are why I love The Doors’s music so much. When I listen to The Doors, sometimes I don't even hear Jim Morrison, because I am concentrating so closely on what they are playing behind him. The sound they created on their six studio records is quite unique in rock and roll, often imitated and very influential, but never duplicated. Ray Manzarek was the heart of their sound, playing that dizzy organ and piano that was so prominent in their best known songs, and doubling on keyboard bass duties for the first three of the six records (in the later days, they generally used session bassists). Manzarek’s musicianship is pretty remarkable (try playing the Doors keyboard parts on RockBand3!) In the studio on those first three albums and onstage throughout their career, he not only played the complex keyboard parts, but was simultaneously playing the bass parts, primarily with pedals. Robbie Krieger is a very underappreciated guitarist. Trained in flamenco and other non-rock styles, he was able to bring all of that influence into their music. Also, a killer bottleneck player as well, just listen to the bluesier material on their last couple of albums. John Densmore was trained as a jazz drummer, and his complex rhythms really open up their sound.

BELOW: I know I said I would focus on the other three, but Morrison aged pretty remarkably over five years of hard living, between their breakthough in '67 and his demise in '71...

The Doors’s music showed a remarkable progression over five years and six records. The first two records are really companion pieces, recorded within a year of each other and comprising of material that was written and perfected onstage during the same time period. They are the 60’s baroque Doors sound that most classic rock fans know. The middle two records show a period of transition where they try to grow and evolve, and are a mix of successes and embarrassing failures (especially their fourth record, the nadir of their discography, where they try to bring strings and horns into the mix). During my middle school and high school years, I focused on those first two records. But during the last year or two, I have really come to love the final two. The music and magic of the first two records could not be reproduced, and the experimentation on those middle two records led mostly to dead ends and failures. So The Doors turned themselves into an unlikely gritty, killer blues-rock band. This fit perfectly with Jim Morrison’s physical, mental and vocal state at the time. He was weary as hell and near the end of the road. This of course, was the perfect recipe for great blues-inspired rock music.

What To Listen To:
I still believe that The Doors’s debut, The Doors, is the most interesting debut record by any major rock artist. What a unique mood and sound, it is its own world. The follow-up, Strange Days, is almost as good, but it is made up of material left off of the first one. But tunes like the title track, “Love Me Two Times,” “Moonlight Drive,” “People Are Strange” and “You’re Lost Little Girl” are pretty awesome leftovers. I’ve probably listened to Morrison Hotel recently more than any other Doors record. After two albums of trying to find a new sound, they finally hit the jackpot with a gritty, no BS blues sound. This is their most hard hitting rock record. Swansong L.A. Woman is more weary and dreamy, but it is also a killer blues-based rock record. The Doors were not a great live band, so I can’t really recommend any of the plethora of live recordings that are available. It is mostly Morrison’s fault. His excesses were much more manageable in the studio. Also, for some reason, Manzarek’s keyboard sound always sounds so much fuller in the studio than live. There are more Doors compilations out there than real Doors albums (if Wikipedia is correct, I count 22 different Doors compilations that have been released). Legacy: The Absolute Best seems to be the best one out there, a full two disc set that covers most of the essential ground.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #13: Pink Floyd

Have You Got It Yet?

Syd Barrett is one of those shadowy cult heroes of rock and roll who burned brightly for a brief period before flaming out. In fact, he is probably the most famous rock and roll flameout. His legend looms large as the first leader of Pink Floyd, yet they only released a handful of singles and one record with Barrett before transforming into the Pink Floyd most classic rock radio listeners know.

In the late 1960’s Pink Floyd were on the vanguard of London’s psychedelic movement. Even then, they had a reputation for putting on a visually dazzling show to accompany their psychedelic experiments. Innovative back projection, lighting rigs (including using stretched condoms to shine stage lights through) and mirrors were all employed to enhance the musical trip.

Pink Floyd originally consisted of Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Richard Wright and Barrett, who was the lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter. Early Pink Floyd was Syd Barrett’s band, his vision. But very early on Barrett started to lose his grip on reality. By all accounts he was a sweet, outgoing, almost childlike character who was easy to love. But many believe that he already had some sort of neurological problem, possibly schizophrenia? When combined with a prodigious use of LSD, it was a tragic combination. He lost his mind. But before Barrett went over the cliff, he led Floyd in creating what stands, in my view, as the pinnacle of psychedelic music.

While there are some additional b-sides and Barrett-era tracks that surfaced later, Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd legacy is really two remarkable singles (“Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”) and their stunning debut record, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which is hands down the greatest psychedelic album ever made. Their music was what it was due to the unique mental state of Barrett. The songs have an unmatched combination of childlike innocence and imagery with a dark musical undercurrent, sometimes barely avoiding devolving into chaos. Syd Barrett Pink Floyd captures the psychedelic era in all of its complexity. Mind opening and playful, yet the danger of madness is always there. Since that was Syd Barrett in a nutshell, Pink Floyd’s early music is an unparalleled allegory to the psychedelic era generally. It is even present in his remarkable (not as in technically impressive, but as in idiosyncratic) guitar playing. Fragmented, but bursting forth with creative expression, even if his technique was somewhat rudimentary.

ABOVE: The brief five man line-up of Pink Floyd, with Syd Barrett (second from left) typically off in his own world

Eventually Barrett became impossible to work with. During live performances, sometimes he would stand motionless on stage, just staring down at his guitar strings. He stopped cooperating in the studio, reportedly performing perfect rehearsals but then refusing to play when the tapes were rolling. In order to survive as a band, they had to get a 5th member to play the guitar parts live and basically step in for Barrett whenever necessary. Fortunately for them (and for us), that person was David Gilmour. For a brief period, Pink Floyd was officially a five-piece, but Syd Barrett was already out the door. For a time, they considered using him like the Beach Boys used the fragile but brilliant Brian Wilson for awhile, as a non-performing songwriter. But that didn’t work for long either. One of my favorite stories is of the song “Have You Got It Yet?” Perhaps a bit upset at his obvious sidelining, Barrett brought in a new tune he called “Have You Got It Yet?” He played it through to show the group, but every time the band tried to join in with their parts, he would completely change the structure of the song, so the band could never, well, get it, as Barrett sang the chorus “Have you got it yet?,” with the band being instructed to respond “no, no.” Once Waters realized what was happening, he put down his bass, walked out of the room, and never played alongside Syd Barrett again.

But to their credit, Pink Floyd always took care of Syd Barrett. He released some fractured but beloved solo records, before withdrawing from music and public life altogether. Even through the legendary bitter legal battles between Waters and Gilmour over the future of Pink Floyd that unfolded in the 80’s, the one thing they all did agree on was that Barrett would at least be financially taken care of. They always made sure that Barrett received his royalties (and then some), all the way to Barrett’s death in 2006.

The classic Pink Floyd record Wish You Were Here was in part inspired by Syd Barrett (the gorgeous title song and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” were explicitly about him). The often told story goes that Barrett unexpectedly showed up to visit his former band in the studio as they were recording Wish You Were Here. He had put on weight and his head completely shaven, at first the band did not even recognize him. He was completely oblivious to the fact that they were in the midst of recording a classic record inspired by him.

What To Listen To:
Well, obviously, I recommend Piper at the Gates of Dawn as the best that psychedelic music has to offer. After Barrett’s departure, Pink Floyd had some rough years where they had to reinvent themselves and figure out their new identity. Some of those records are interesting, but have only a handful of actually good songs. Fortunately, Waters and Gilmour eventually found their footing as songwriters, and released a series of albums in the 70’s that stand as some of rock’s most enduring classics. Often forgotten in the wake of what came immediately after, I love Meddle. The epic “Echoes” encapsulates what was great about their most successful era. Dark Side of the Moon deserves its enormous success, selling 45 million copies and remaining on the charts from 1973 until 1988, the longest run for an album in history. Wish You Were Here is another wonderful concept record, while the underrated Animals continued the streak. The last great Pink Floyd record is The Wall, and while I think it a tad overrated, it is still essential. I really like the live version of The Wall available on Is Anybody Out There? over the studio version. While missing some essentials, the innovative compilation Echoes is worth having for novices and fans alike. It is a rare compilation which shows you the tunes in a new light, sequenced thematically, with songs edited so they fade into one another. It plays like its own album as opposed to just a collection of hits. And the edited version of “Echoes” actually makes the song stronger than its sprawling original version, and I like the edited together “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (the song originally was split into two, bookending Wish You Were Here).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #14: Van Morrison

The Live Experience

Van Morrison has released four official live records so far (although he has appeared on more as a partner with some other artists), each one in a separate decade. 1974’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now is rightly regarded as one of the greatest live records ever released. 1984’s Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast, 1994’s A Night in San Francisco and 2009’s Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl all followed. Coming at these different milestones in his long career, I think they are instructive as to his evolution as an artist.

Van’s peak as a performer and artist was approximately 1965 (starting with his brief stint leading the raucous R&B band Them) through to the beginning of his brief self-imposed hiatus in 1974. The great Them singles and the nine solo records that he released during that ten year period stand up against anyone’s body of work over the same amount of time. Van followed his unique vision of Celtic soul music, taking that majestic voice to places few artists dared to go. It’s Too Late To Stop Now is the culmination of that journey, and over the course of two records it explores all facets of his music up to that point. While a few of the blues and R&B covers are run of the mill (“I Just Want To Make Love To You,” for instance), the others are as great as the originals, if not better. That is a bold statement, considering that he covers Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Sonny Boy Williamson. His version of “Bring It On Home To Me” is a brilliant slowburn soul number that brings new depth to the Cooke original. The real showstoppers are the extended explorations “Listen To the Lion” and “Cyprus Avenue.” It is remarkable how personal and brave these versions of these songs are, with Morrison going deeper into himself than I’ve heard any rock artist do on record. And this was in front of an arena full of people, not in some smoky, safe studio cocoon. It’s Too Late To Stop Now is one of our greatest artists at the peak of his powers. Not to be missed.

1980’s Van Morrison is challenging, no doubt. This was the height of his spiritual quest, and he went on that quest through his music, not really caring whether we (the fans) liked the music or not. It was actually during the 80’s that Van really got his reputation as a “difficult” artist. He felt outside the music that had made him famous, and gave a series of rather condescending interviews about his music being beyond rock and roll and something more. But he was kinda right. Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast is not the easiest record to get into. It does not grab you with its obvious brilliance like It’s Too Late To Stop Now does. He performs none of his hits (save the minor single “Full Force Gale”), instead focusing on his most recent three or four records. I have grown to really love this record, it is intimate and warm if you are willing to go with Van on his spiritual trip. Much of it is subtle and quiet, you have to be willing to give it its due attention, but it rewards if you do.

1994’s A Night In San Francisco gives us Van in full entertainer mode. It is probably his most joyous live record, a sprawling two disc set that unfolds like a R&B/soul revue, with many soul medleys and with Van generously giving his band space to shine. (He plays “Tupelo Honey,” but lets one of his band members sing it while he takes a breather!) Van has never sounded happier or more relaxed on record, hence this is by far his least consequential live album. He’s having fun, but he’s also going through the motions and putting on a show vs. taking his audience with him on a journey that is risky and revealing, as he had done on his previous two live records. I guess that feeds into the old cliché that happy and content people don’t often make great art.

Finally, 2009’s Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl is in interesting ride. It is not quite like other live records, because it revisits just one of his albums. Music fans know that 1968’s Astral Weeks remains one of the most gorgeous, impenetrable and mysterious records ever released. So it is interesting to see how he chooses to revisit it 40 years later. Thank God he doesn’t view it as a holy relic not to be changed. Van plays with Astral Weeks here like a great jazz musician might revisit some of his own standards onstage. He explores and tinkers and it is wonderful. He reorders the track order, slows down the fast songs, speeds up the slow ones, and uses some songs for platforms for exciting improvisations (“Slim Slow Slider”). While this record cannot replace the brilliant original (it is not meant to), fans of the original have to appreciate and enjoy what Van does with Astral Weeks here.

Interesting note: my absolute favorite live Van Morrison song does not even appear on one of his own albums. Van’s joyous rendition of “Caravan” with The Band on The Last Waltz is Van at his live best. It is fun to watch too, with his purple, glitter leisure suit.

ABOVE: "Caravan" with The Band from The Last Waltz

What To Listen To:
Man, this is tough. Van Morrison has released 40 records (not including compilations) so far, and most of them have at least a few tunes that are great. Most of them also have some filler. Which is why Van Morrison, more than anyone I can think of, really deserves the deluxe boxed set treatment. It hasn’t happened yet. Anyway, 1965-74 is essential Van. Any Them compilation will include the essentials, such as garage classic “Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Mystic Eyes,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” and their gorgeous take on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Hard to get better than Morrison singing Dylan. Astral Weeks is discussed above and stands alone in rock music, Moondance is probably his most popular record and is a tour de force of prime Van. After that, His Band and Street Choir is probably his most joyous R&B-influenced album. St. Dominic’s Preview is a personal favorite of mine, quite eclectic but excellent from start to finish, with some moments of transcendence. The mostly acoustic Veedon Fleece is a favorite amongst the Morrison faithful, but it is often forgotten by the general public. It comes the closest to Astral Weeks in feel. Things get more spotty after 1974. Into the Music is a great, great later period Van Morrison album, by turns joyful and contemplative. From the 80’s, I think that Beautiful Vision best captures his spiritual quest, and also captures some of that Celtic soul. It is a quiet record, but quite beautiful in parts. None of the available compilations do Van justice, almost all of them are randomly sequenced. I guess the two disc Still on Top – The Greatest Hits does the best job, but it just scratches the surface, really. With Morrison, some of his most compelling moments are not found in the hits. Of the live records, obviously It’s Too Late To Stop Now is a must. I would recommend Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast if you are interested in what Van was about during the 1980’s, and Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl is fun for fans of Astral Weeks.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #15: Led Zeppelin

Thievery and Flattery

Many (if not most) of the important bands of the 1960’s and 70’s trace their musical roots back to blues music. Blues is the most direct ancestor of rock and roll, although rock and roll also has country, folk, R&B and jazz in its bloodstream. But blues is the root. Blues is the music that many of the 60’s and 70’s rock gods were listening to as impressionable teens. Many British musicians especially were drawn to American blues. Like de Toqueville analyzing our democracy, sometimes it takes a foreigner to really appreciate something that is supposed to be so American.

Led Zeppelin was one of the most important blues-based rock bands of the era. Throughout their recording career, Zeppelin included blues covers on their records and in their live sets. As with most great artists who are inspired by what came before, Zeppelin did not merely ape the blues masters, but made the blues their own. The first two Zeppelin records especially are primarily turbocharged blues. The problem is that Jimmy Page and Co. did not always acknowledge (as in credit, as in royalties) their influences. To be fair, blues music itself has a long tradition of “borrowing” and “developing” songs based on what came before. Most of the original blues masters were not too concerned with copyright laws either. But Zeppelin should have known better.

The problem is particularly acute on Led Zeppelin II. Starting off with the hard rocking, psychedelic Zeppelin standard “Whole Lotta Love.” While the music is wholly Zeppelin, Robert Plant evidently had a little writer’s block, and so he “borrowed” some verses from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love.” "Whole Lotta Love" was listed as a Led Zeppelin composition on the record, and once Dixon sued, they settled out of court. Then on “The Lemon Song,” Zeppelin borrowed alternatively from Howlin’ Wolf (“Killing Floor”), Robert Johnson and Albert King. Again, the song is credited only to Zeppelin. The closer, “Bring It On Home,” is also loosely based on Sonny Boy Williamson’s song of the same name. From Led Zeppelin III, their innovative take on “Gallow’s Pole” was nonetheless based on the Leadbelly classic. “When the Levee Breaks”? Based on the 1929 song by Memphis Minnie. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” from Presence? Based on Blind Willie Johnson’s original, yet credited to “Page/Plant” on the record.

Again, Led Zeppelin definitely takes these songs to new places and add their own music. (In fact, “When the Levee Breaks,” Zeppelin-style, has to be amongst the most ominous and scary blues ever laid down. John Bonham’s drumbeat could shift the earth’s plates. That drumbeat is also one of the most sampled beats in rap, by the way. That is a type of justice, considering how much Zeppelin borrowed from their own predecessors. Page and Plant have both pointed this fact out in defending themselves). But the credits should (and mostly do now on more recent pressings of the Zeppelin albums) be shared between Zeppelin and the original masters, where appropriate. The blues masters have been screwed enough by the industry and their record companies. They should at least be given credit (and royalties) by fellow artists. Kudos to Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf for taking Zeppelin to court on these matters.

The Evolution of a Song...
Here is a series of recordings of the traditional blues tune, "Gallow's Pole." First is one of the original recordings, by blues legend Leadbelly (his version was called "Gallis Pole.") Next is a version from the early 60's from folk artist Fred Gerlach. Jimmy Page has said that Led Zeppelin's version of "Gallow's Pole" was based on Gerlach's. If you listen to the progression, I think that you can appreciate how Zeppelin were able to take a simple blues song and really take it to a new place in complexity and mood.

Led Zeppelin is, of course, much more than just turbocharged blues. Part of what makes their music so compelling is that they put their heavy stamp upon several genres, including folk, hard rock and country. They were innovatively using world music elements before many others (“Kashmir”), experimenting with reggae (“D’yer M’ker”), and even starting to use synthesizers near the end (In Through the Out Door). So they may have leaned heavily on their influences, but they used them in the best way. They learned from them and then filtered them through their own sensibilities and talents, and then took the music to new and exciting places. But they still should have given credit where credit was due.

What To Listen To:
Their first five records are absolute essentials. The rest are good, but spotty. Led Zeppelin I laid the groundwork for taking blues-based rock to new places; Led Zeppelin II took it as far as it could logically go; Led Zeppelin III (maligned by fans and critics at the time for not sounding exactly like what came before, this record has earned a well deserved reappraisal over the decades and is now loved as much as anything else in their canon) started to dabble with acoustics and folk music; the fourth untitled record (aka 'Led Zeppelin IV', 'Four Symbols') is a Mecca for 70's hard rock fans; and Houses of the Holy is my personal favorite, lightening the mood in places, and stretching out and playing with several genres of music previously untouched by the band. The live album that they released during their tenure as a band is notoriously dull, but the live collection How the West Was Won does them justice. Get that one instead of The Song Remains the Same. There are some decent compilations out there, but Zeppelin created such a complete atmosphere with each record, you don’t get the full impact on a compilation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dez Top Rock/Pop, #16: The Beatles

John vs. Macca

While all bands should be honored to appear on Dez’s list, regardless of their position, this is The Beatles, so #16 may appear a bit low. All I can say is that while I love and admire The Beatles a great deal, I have connected more directly with some other British Invasion bands, as you shall see.

So, let’s cut to the chase. Lennon or McCartney? I have a powerpoint that I use with my AP students in teaching them how to write a certain type of essay that they will encounter on the AP Exam. The scoring for this essay is done on a 0-9 scale, with 9 being the best. In my powerpoint, I divide the quality of essays that the readers get into five categories. On each slide, I explain what elements will give you a certain score. The 0-1 essay is on a slide that I call “The Pete Best Essay.” Best was the original drummer for the Beatles who was sacked in favor of Ringo. The 2-3 essay I call the “Ringo Starr Essay,” and 4-5 is the “George Harrison Essay.” I think you can see where I am going with all of this. Obviously I had to assign the 6-7 and 8-9 essays to Lennon and McCartney. I made my choice, and generally we get sidetracked from essay writing with a 5-10 minute class discussion on whether I should have given Lennon or McCartney the top essay. I always enjoy that discussion. It is much more fun than discussing AP scoring. Who do you think I chose?

Let’s look at the candidates.

Songwriting: While all Beatles compositions not written by Harrison or Starr are credited to “Lennon/McCartney,” on the vast majority of the songs it is clear which on of them was the primary writer. The easiest indicator is who is singing the lead vocal, although that is sometimes hard to tell on the early material where they used more harmony singing. Lennon and McCartney, during their Beatles years, were two of the most important and skilled rock songwriters in the history of the music. This is akin to arguing between Lincoln or Washington as our greatest president. It is hard to lose with either of them. But, we must choose. We must. I have to go with McCartney here. Lennon has the advantage in the lyric department, but in overall songwriting, Paul McCartney is the master of the craft. I turn to his contributions to Revolver as my strongest evidence. The melodies, structures, instrumentation choices on “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “For No One” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” demonstrate the absolute peak of great pop music writing. Advantage: McCartney

Singing: Again, we are dealing with two of the most distinctive vocalists in rock, so both are at the top of the heap. I think McCartney shows more range and confidence (incredibly, Lennon was always self-conscious about his singing). But when Lennon goes full bore with his rock voice, especially, I don’t think there is a finer screamer in the music. That unique, nasally timbre just defines great rock singing. Advantage: Lennon

Musicianship: John Lennon was a good and expressive guitarist, but even within The Beatles he often deferred to Harrison to do the heavy lifting. Paul McCartney has to be one of the more influential bassists in rock history. He performs the duties of a bass player, but also bounces all over the bottom of the song, alternatively playful and innovative. While “Come Together” is considered a John Lennon classic, what is really distinctive about the song? It is McCartney’s bass line that makes it more than a standard blues. Add the fact that McCartney is a talented multi-instrumentalist (great guitarist, great pianist), and the answer is clear. Advantage: McCartney

Cultural Significance / Icon Status: The answer here is just as clear as above. Even without his martyrdom, John Lennon was a rock icon not only for music and culture and lifestyle, but also for political activism. While I think it is a bit overblown (and McCartney is a bit unfairly sidelined in this department), John Lennon is a rock icon only rivaled by Elvis and Dylan. Advantage: Lennon.

So it really depends on which of the aspects above are more important to you. As a fan, I generally look to musicianship and songwriting (and I often listen to the music before really focusing on the lyrics or vocals), so I gotta go with Macca. Most of my students, by the way, feel that I made the wrong choice and that I should have given Lennon the top essay.

What To Listen To:
This is really silly to do for The Beatles. Their entire discography is like the Koran and Bible to rock and roll orthodoxy. But I can pick out my three favorite records. I divide The Beatles music into roughly three periods, Early, Middle and Late. I feel that A Hard Day’s Night is the perfection of that early pop period. Revolver towers over the Middle transitional (and possibly best) period. The Beatles (White Album) is my favorite late period record, as it really shows their fracturing and demonstrates four distinct individual approaches. It is the most interesting listen for me, and full of some killer songs. Even the filler is interesting. The famous Red Album (1962-66) and Blue Album (1967-70) were important compilations/introductions to The Beatles for me (and millions of other listeners) before I dove into the actual albums.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #17: The Tragically Hip

But They’re Big in Swaziland
There’s no accounting for taste. I’ve always found it interesting how some bands are huge in one part of the world, but are an obscurity or unheard of elsewhere. Rock and pop history is littered with examples. Take a-ha. “Take On Me,” right? One hit wonder from the 80’s with the singer with the impossibly high range and the innovative cartoon/live action music video. While a-ha’s moment Stateside was relatively shortlived and you may consider them an 80’s trivia answer, they have been releasing music for almost three decades internationally and regularly sell out arenas throughout Europe. They have an excellent and fairly deep catalogue. (If you are interested, I would recommend 2000’s Minor Earth Major Sky. So good.) Stone Roses is another example. Their life as a band was short, but they were huge in Britain, inspiring a musical revolution of sorts. Didn’t make much of a dent here. (It is funny to note that Jimi Hendrix had to go to England and break there first, and then he returned to the U.S. and we finally took notice, after he was already a sensation in England). I recall in the mid-1990’s when Men At Work reunited briefly for a tour. The dates in the U.S. were at casino lounges and small clubs. They released a live album from the tour (Brazil), that was recorded at a football (or should I say, futbol) stadium in Rio.

Which brings me around to The Tragically Hip, which has to be one of the greatest band names ever. Well, they’re huge in Canada! In fact, The Hip is one of the biggest and most successful Canadian bands of the last two decades, having won 14 Juno Awards (the Canadian version of a Grammy), and releasing an impressive 46 (and counting) singles on the Canadian charts. They have already been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (I know, insert joke here). Point is, The Hip are an institution in the Great White North, but not very well known at all here. Which says something about Canadian tastes. If we could be so lucky to have a band so, well, hip as one of our biggest acts. And they certainly don’t hide their Canadianess (?) With a song titled “The Dark Canuck” and songs referencing Canadian sports legend Bobby Orr, these guys know their roots.

ABOVE: Famous musical Canadians. You probably recognize the one on the right (Neil Young). You should also know the one on the left.

I could be mistaken, and if so, I apologize. But back when the Hip were threatening to break in the U.S. (they never really did) after the release of their second U.S. (third Canadian) album, Road Apples, my group of friends were all Hip fans. As far as I can tell, they fell off the radar of most of my compadres (except my friend Bryan G., I recently found out). That is really too bad. Because over the course of their 12 studio albums and one live record, they have remained a compelling band. The five man line-up has remained intact throughout their career, and while the band is great, the focus is frontman Gordon Downie. With his quivering vocals and often poetic lyrics (for good and sometimes for bad), he gyrates and free associates onstage, making Hip shows always intriguing, as he leads the band down musical alleyways (and sometimes rabbit holes), rarely leaving a song the same as it was before. That is about as close to real artistic exploration as you will get with rock and roll music.

What To Listen To:
This is tough with The Hip. They have released a lot of records. Every one of them has worthwhile tunes on them, but almost every one of them also has some filler. They have trouble making a killer record from start to finish, but you can cherry pick killer songs on every one of those 12 records. Up To Here and Road Apples really lay the foundation, and they are probably their two strongest records from start to finish. Amongst Hip fanatics, Road Apples is generally considered their finest release. From there, I really like the experimental (for them) Day For Night and the more recent Phantom Power. Fans and band complain about the production on Fully Completely, but many of those songs are fan favorites. Their two disc compilation, the aptly titled Yer Favourites, has great songs on it, but it is a scattered listen. They conducted an online poll and allowed their fans to choose the tracks (kind of cool), but it is haphazardly sequenced so it doesn’t present the band’s development as it should. It is almost as if they pressed “random” on an iPod for the sequencing. Plus, it is already out of date, because they have released some very good records since it came out.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dez Top Rock/Pop, #18: Stevie Ray Vaughan

Blues Savior

It is rare to come across an artist who can almost singlehandedly revitalize an entire genre of music. Stevie Ray Vaughan saved blues music in the 1980’s. Blues was considered all but dead by the time the thin ties and synth bleeps of the 80’s rolled around. Most of the original masters were dead, dying, retiring or toiling in obscurity. Rock artists played blues or bluesy music, many quite well (Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top). But they approached blues from the rock perspective.

Then out of the clubs of Austin came this blues whirlwind of a guitar player. Unlike the rock artists who played some blues, SRV was a blues player who occasionally played some rock. He lived and breathed blues history, but crucially he was not weighed down by it (vs. Eric Clapton). Vaughan’s playing is a museum of blues guitar playing. You can hear all of the great guitar players in his playing, but instead of merely aping the masters (again, see Clapton), Vaughan threw all of these influences into the blender, revved it all up for a rock audience, turned it up to 11 and blazed a new blues trail while remaining rooted in the rich blues past. He inspired an entire generation of blues-based rock guitarists, and created a wonderful but too brief body of work. Vaughan (and to be fair, Robert Cray also) brought blues out of the cutout bins and back to the mainstream, proving that you could say and play new things in this classic American musical genre.

ABOVE: SRV is always fun to watch play. Here is one of his great blues shuffles on speed, "Rude Mood."

He had his own mini-Dylan at Newport moment when he appeared at the Montreux Blues Festival in 1982. This was a festival for blues traditionalists, and Vaughan came out blazing with his speed and volume, playing the guitar behind his back and with his teeth. You can hear the audience get angry and boo as he storms through his set. But important people were listening. In the audience that night were Jackson Browne (who offered Stevie and his band free time in his studio to record their debut) and David Bowie (who snagged him for lead guitar duties on his upcoming Let’s Dance album. SRV was due to tour with Bowie, but dropped out when Bowie refused him and his band, Double Trouble, an opening slot on the tour).

His demise is one of the real tragedies of rock and blues. After overcoming serious addictions, he was living a clean life, felt revitalized and renewed, and was riding high on his breakthrough record In Step. He perished in a helicopter crash after playing a gig with Clapton, Cray, Buddy Guy and brother Jimmie Vaughan. It would have been exciting to see where he would have gone after the near perfect blues/rock hybrid of In Step.

You know, I don’t really even listen to SRV all that often anymore, but he was one of my musical heroes growing up. In compiling this list, I tried to take the long view over my entire life as a music fan. I was fortune enough to catch him live five times, and they are some of my more memorable concert experiences. Standing outside in 100 degree weather in the Astrodome parking lot, being hosed down by the HFD, as SRV tore through a set at the Miller Lite Festival (didn’t ANCIANT collapse from the heat? I seem to remember that, or perhaps the story has grown more dramatic over the years). Later that night, Stevie opened for The Who in the Dome. A double bill with Jeff Beck (talk about guitar heaven). And a month before his death, I caught him on a double bill with Joe Cocker. Great memories. Great shows. Great man.

What To Listen To:
It is difficult to overstate the importance of SRV’s debut, Texas Flood. A rare record that created seismic shifts in a musical genre. It is his most pure blues record. I love the sophomore effort, Couldn’t Stand the Weather. I think that it contains his most successful crossover material, the humorous “Cold Shot,” the great title track, and the furious instrumental workout, “Scuttle Buttin’”. In Step was his mainstream breakthrough, his most accessible and commercial effort. But honestly, all of his records have some filler. Compilations serve SRV (and blues music in general) very well, and Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble is the best compilation of many out there.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #19: Creedence Clearwater Revival

Fogerty’s Revenge

John Fogerty is an a**hole. No question. However bitter you may be with your former bandmates, it takes a special kind of mean to get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then go perform your band’s hits at the ceremony with the house band as your former bandmates stand on the wings and look on. You figure you could mend fences at least for one night in order to honor your collective accomplishments. Nope.

Of course, rock and roll history is littered with bitter band break-ups or epic internal battles. The Band, The Kinks, Oasis, Beatles, Rolling Stones…you name the important band and they at the very least had periods of intense and bitter infighting. But John Fogerty’s disputes with his former bandmates in Creedence Clearwater Revival (and former record label) are really something special. Once older brother Tom Fogerty finally left the band in disgust in 1971, he remarked to an interviewer that CCR would never find a replacement because nobody existed who “could endure being in Creedence.”

John Fogerty’s word was law. You can see things somewhat from Fogerty’s perspective, though. CCR was one of the most successful rock bands of the late 1960’s. Their formula worked. John Fogerty wrote all of their original material, sang lead on everything, and played lead guitar. You cannot argue that CCR was John Fogerty’s band. But you also cannot dispute that the entire band had a certain unique chemistry, the rhythm section of Stu Cool on bass and Doug Clifford on drums had one of the deepest pockets in rock. It was that rhythm section, with Tom on rhythm guitar, that created that swampy world inhabited by John Fogerty’s cross-tie walkers and lodi musicians.

Tom, Stu and Doug had been demanding more say in CCR’s musical and business decisions for years. So in 1972, as the now trio prepared what was to be their final studio album, John Fogerty suddenly granted Stu and Doug their wish. Be careful what you wish for. Fogerty stunned his bandmates by telling them that CCR would now be a true democracy. Each member would contribute an equal number of songs, each member would sing on their own songs, and Fogerty would only play rhythm guitar, not lead, on his bandmates’s songs. Stu and Doug protested that this was not exactly what they were asking for, but Fogerty told them CCR would function in this way or he would quit. Hence, we have the notorious Mardi Gras (aka “Fogerty’s Revenge”) as CCR’s swansong. This is a pretty horrible album, which was exactly John Fogerty’s intent. A very public “f*ck you” to his bandmates. John’s contributions are pretty great (as expected), but his bandmates struggle mightily, and to John’s delight, fail.

But take Mardi Gras out of the equation, and CCR had a remarkable run in their four year existence as a popular band (they had been together since high school, but their seven records were recorded and released incredibly only over a four year period). As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entry for them states, they were “both progressive and anachronistic at the same time.” Their swampy rock and roll evoked such authentic images of a mysterious and haunted South, even though they were actually from San Francisco. John Fogerty was writing a remarkable string of tight, concise AM radio hits that sounded modern yet also clearly referenced an older and purer rock and roll during a time when most of the “important” bands were considerably more FM in their approach. No psychedelia, no flower power, no excess (other than the occasional jam that went on a little too long). I truly believe, and many artists such as Bruce Springsteen will back me up on this, that John Fogerty is one of the great American songwriters. While CCR was not cool amongst their peers in the late 60’s, their music has aged and stood the test of time much better. So Fogerty has the last laugh there too. And while you can throw aside most war protest tunes as relics of the era, CCR’s “Fortunate Son” still rings true and is as savage a protest today as it was in 1969.

What To Listen To:
What CCR accomplished in a four year period is simply incredible. Within the year 1969 alone, they released three (!) albums, one that is great, and two that are stone cold classics. The fact is that John Fogerty wrote very few bad (or even mediocre) songs. All of their records (save Mardi Gras) are worth having, but if you want the best of the best, go with the middle three. Those are the classics. Green River, Willy and Poor Boys and Cosmo’s Factory are all three brilliant rock records brimming with swampy, Southern Americana. If you want to go to the next step down from there, Bayou Country has some of their best songs but also some filler, and Pendulum is their most experimental record, and the experiments are hit and miss (but more hit). CCR is well represented on a good compilation, and they have many. But you need go no further than Chronicle and its companion, Chronicle, vol. 2. Chronicle is one of the greatest compilations ever released by anybody. 20 of CCR’s biggest radio hits. If some Martian landed on earth and wanted to learn about great American rock and roll, I would hand him a copy of Chronicle. Chronicle, vol. 2 presents 20 deeper album cuts that prove as strong as the hits, and is flawed only because it omits “Bootleg.” A note for CCR fans: if you are like me and bought the CDs many years ago, they have since been remastered. While many remaster projects can be skipped, CCR’s remastering job is astounding. You will discover so much more in these remasters. And they are available for download on iTunes for about 6 bucks a piece, so there is no excuse.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #20: The Cars

ABOVE: The glorious Phoebe Cates emerges from the pool in 'Fast Times At Ridgemont High' to the seductive sounds of The Cars's "Moving In Stereo"

Sophomore Slump?

The sophomore slump is a phenomenon that can occur in many walks of life. The second year of college when students relax a little too much. Film sequels that do not live up to the original. And, of course, music is littered with disappointing follow-up records. Disappointing either in the sense of quality or sales, or perhaps both, when compared to what came before (Meatloaf's Dead Ringer, Asia's Alpha, Stone Roses's Second Coming, Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish Nor Flesh...take your pick). The reason for the Slump is quite obvious. When an artist puts together their first record, they have a lifetime of material to choose from. Songs they may have been developing and perfecting for years before they got their break. But if their debut is huge, then the pressure is on to follow it up and quickly. You could have six years to work on your debut, but six months to work on the second one.

Sometimes the second record is actually quite good, but it just can't live up to the quality or sales of the first. A case of expectations that are impossible to fulfill. I'm an admirer of Thomas Dolby (don't worry, he won't appear on this list), and while his hit debut The Golden Age of Wireless (where the fun throwaway tune "She Blinded Me With Science" unfairly relegated him to novelty status here in the States) was quite good, his follow-up The Flat Earth was much better. But it did not deliver a big hit, and therefore it can be considered a "sophomore slump" that effectively ended his run in the United States, even though it is in fact a superior record to its successful predecessor.

Which brings me to the sophomore effort from The Cars, Candy-O. Their debut, The Cars, was justifiably huge. I firmly believe that The Cars is the best New Wave record ever released, and I will argue with anyone who feels otherwise. I'll take on Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo...I don't give a sh*t. Nobody released a more perfect New Wave album. Even Ric Ocasek once joked that they should have titled the debut "Greatest Hits." While it is generally well regarded, many critics will comment that Candy-O sounds like leftovers that didn't quite make the cut for The Cars. BS.

I'm not going to try and tell you that Candy-O is superior to The Cars, because it isn't. But it is damn good. In fact, it is great. To be honest, I probably spin Candy-O more often than I do The Cars (in part perhaps due to oversaturation of The Cars). Ric Ocasek's writing is just as sharp and witty, the band is just as tight, and the songs are even quirkier than the debut. "Nightspots" is a deep album cut that never gets any airplay, but for my money The Cars have never sounded better or tighter than on that tune (in fact, that may be my favorite Cars tune. It just captures their whole sound and strengths better than anything else in their repertoire. Why wasn't that a hit?) "Dangerous Type" has a great T.Rex groove to it, while "Double Life" builds seductively (I'm always a fan of clever dynamic change in songs), "Let's Go" may be their most jubilant single ("I like the night life, baby!"), and the title track is a perfect little rocker that packs such a a punch.

ABOVE: While debut The Cars rightfully gets much love, don't forget their outstanding second effort, Candy-O. By the way, The Cars have some of the best album covers in the business, for obvious reasons.

ABOVE: Here's "Nightspots." Give a close listen, it is such a well constructed New Wave rock song. And it is perfect Cars, from the jittery synth line to the layered, tight guitar riffs to Ric Ocasek's wonderfully tightly wound vocals and yelps to his cynical lyrics. Crank it up. Did New Wave (or the early 80's) ever sound so good?

What To Listen To:

Obviously I am going to recommend their first two records. The Cars is a must, the greatest New Wave record ever made. One of those rare records where they could have pushed every song as a single (the ones they did push, "Good Times Roll," "Just What I Needed," "My Best Friend's Girl," "Moving In Stereo," are all still radio staples). As I argue above, Candy-O should not be overlooked. I have come to appreciate Shake It Up this last year, that is probably their most synth-laden record. Heartbeat City can sound dated in spots and definitely contained some filler, but the singles were awesome and it was their biggest selling album. Being such a killer singles band, The Cars can be well served by a good compilation. Unfortunately, out of the five Cars compilations currently available, none of them get the tracks quite right. I guess Complete Greatest Hits is the best of the lot, but it leaves off some great cuts in favor of some more questionable choices.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #21: Uncle Tupelo

United We Stand, Divided We Are Mediocre

It is a rare thing to find a musical partner with whom you have a connection. I have played and written music with many people off and on over the years. But there has only been one person who I really had a special musical connection with, someone who’s musical strengths complemented my own, and together we created a body of work of which I am still proud. There is nothing like having that bond with someone. You can have a musical idea, a riff, a chord progression, a verse of lyrics, or whatever, and bring it to that person and they can help you make it a full song. I view songwriting as naturally a solitary exercise, but if you find that bond with someone who can instinctively complete your musical thoughts, it is beyond description.

Look at some of the great songwriting and musical teams in rock. Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Bell/Chilton (from my last entry), Evans/Long. From what I have read, John Lennon / Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger / Keith Richards worked in much the same way that I worked with my friend Dave. One person would have the root of the song or even a substantial part of it, but the songwriting partner would often be able to finish it, to make it more than it would have been had just the one writer completed it.

There is something about those two together vs. when they are apart. My favorite Big Star record is #1 Record, the one where Chris Bell was a full collaborative partner with Alex Chilton. Just look at Lennon and McCartney’s solo careers vs. The Beatles. There was obviously something special when they worked together, they were often competing with each other and pushing each other to excellence, that was lacking when they were solely in charge of their own music.

This is how I feel about Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Both have gone on to, arguably, greater acclaim after they parted ways in the bitter break-up of Uncle Tupelo. Farrar is a respected solo artist and leader of Son Volt, while Tweedy has gone on to lead critic darling Wilco. While I enjoy both Son Volt and Wilco, they don’t have the power or diversity of Uncle Tupelo. Tupelo was Farrar’s band, even Tweedy admits that. But Tweedy was crucial in his input to the songs. In fact, it was Tweedy’s burgeoning talent that caused the rift, as Tweedy started to demand more equality and Farrar simply refused to cede it to him.

Uncle Tupelo only lasted about four years and for four records before their break-up, but those records have been very influential in certain musical circles. They weren’t the first to bring together elements of punk and rock and mix them with folk and country sounds and themes, but they were a crucial link between what the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers were doing in the late 60’s and modern alt-country. In fact, a genre magazine and musical movement was named after Tupelo’s debut record, No Depression. I can’t help but wonder about the great music that could have been made had they stuck it out for a couple more albums.

What To Listen To:

Uncle Tupelo only released four records, but I love them all. They each have their own character and sound. Debut No Depression is the most uncompromising, pure distillation of their punk/country ethos. Still Feel Gone is generally considered their weakest, but it has always been a favorite of mine. It is the transitional bridge between the raw energy of the debut and the more polished and sophisticated sound of later Tupelo. March 16-20, 1992 is a gorgeous, stone cold folk record, with Farrar and Tweedy setting the electric guitars aside and making acoustic music. Swansong Anodyne is their most polished and was recorded with mainstream breakthrough in mind, with the former trio expanding to a five piece to add more musical textures. 89/93: An Anthology is a good intro to the band and features some great b-sides and rarities as well, but I’d stick with the actual records.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Nuge on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Readers here know that I am somewhat obsessed with the workings of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here's a great two minute rant from Ted Nugent on why he'll never be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and who he thinks should be un-inducted. I especially enjoy the vitriol directed towards Jann Wenner. The interviewer looks genuinely uncomfortable at times. Oh, and Nuge, Chuck Berry is still alive.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #22: Big Star

The Best Band You've Never Heard Of

Cult followings in pop culture are interesting phenomena. In general terms, a “cult following” for a band, movie, artistic movement, etc. means a small but extremely dedicated group of fans who are devoted to the subject, but the general masses are either ignorant of or indifferent towards it. Sometimes critics can be part the cult following. Many devout fans are proud of the obscurity of their object of affection, viewing it as validation for their own superior taste over the masses. (Of course, there are some cult followings that revel in the badness of whatever they follow. Fans of Ed Wood’s movies come to mind. So bad that it is good.)

The line between cult and mainstream can be hazy at times. Even casual rock fans have at least heard of Velvet Underground (“wasn’t that Lou Reed’s first band?”), yet casual listeners are not really familiar with VU’s work. That’s an example of a band with a cult following, but the masses have at least heard of the band and vaguely know that they are important for some reason. The film Rocky Horror Picture Show is a good example of this line straddling in the film arena.

Big Star is one of the greatest bands that you probably have never heard of. One of my favorite books, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary (by David Kamp and Steven Daly), starts their Big Star entry with this definition: “Anglophilic early-seventies American combo whose first two albums…have Koran-like status in Power-Pop circles…” I would amend that entry to say first three albums.

I know that I promised these essays would not be straightforward band histories, but Big Star's is an interesting one. Big Star is a story of bad decisions, egos clashing, bad timing, record company indifference and just plain bad luck. From the start, Big Star had big plans. Just look at the name they chose for the band, and the ambitious title of their debut, #1 Record. How ironic that title became. Formed by friends and Memphis music scenesters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell (along with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens), they had the talent to back up their claims. Chilton had already had substantial success as the teen singing sensation for The Box Tops. While most musicians out of Memphis rooted their sound in the rich blues and soul of the region (afterall, both Sun and Stax studios were out of Memphis), Chilton and Bell leaned more on their British Invasion heroes Beatles, Stones, Who and Kinks, while throwing in a healthy dose of Byrds for good measure.

Viewing themselves as the next Lennon-McCartney, Chilton-Bell wrote a set of brilliant, chiming power-pop tunes for their debut record that reverberated heavily through the decades ahead in the music of REM, The Replacements and many others. They had recorded a record that lived up to its ambitious title and deserved to be a massive hit (from “Thirteen”: “Tell your Dad to get off my back / Tell him what we said about ‘Paint It Black’”…one of my favorite lyrics ever). But Stax, primarily a soul label, had no idea how to effectively market a power-pop record. Frustrated by the commercial failure, the already fragile Chris Bell quit in frustration. Chilton soldiered on, leading Big Star as a trio, and recorded their second masterpiece, the harder edged Radio City. Columbia had taken over much of the Stax catalogue, and Radio City got lost in the shuffle and Columbia basically ignored it. Exit Hummel. In frustration and bitterness, Chilton and Stephens entered the studio to record Big Star’s third record, one which Chilton knew would receive similar treatment as the first two, no matter how good. It is a dark, shambling, “who gives a f*ck” record that wasn’t even released until years later. Many consider this to be yet another Big Star masterpiece, Third/Sister Lovers. Chilton went on to have one of the most strange, willfully uncommercial solo careers ever.

But a funny thing happened. Long after they disbanded, Big Star’s music started to get noticed, mainly by other musicians. A cult following soon gained momentum, and these days Big Star is held up as one of the great cult bands of all time. Chilton and Stephens reformed in the 90’s with Big Star acolytes Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from The Posies, and toured occasionally to ecstatic crowds. They even released a decent record with this new line-up in 2005, In Space. It is nice to see that, however belatedly, Big Star has gotten the respect they always deserved, even though Bell, Chilton and Hummel are now all deceased. As Big Star fanatic and fellow cult star Paul Westerberg sang in the Replacements song “Alex Chilton" (which Chilton himself played on), “I never travel far without a little Big Star.”

What To Listen To:
Big Star has a relatively small discography, but all three of their seventies records are essential. #1 Record and Radio City are Power Pop masterpieces, and Third/Sister Lovers is a weary but brilliant mess. Alex Chilton’s solo work is a challenge, and honestly it is hard to recommend any of it, but many devoted fans swear by it. I can recommend the one Chris Bell solo record that was released posthumously from some unfinished studio sessions, I Am the Cosmos (Bell was killed in a car accident in the late 70’s). Alex Chilton gets most of the accolades, but Chris Bell was also a huge talent taken way too soon. Some of these tracks on I Am the Cosmos are clearly still in the working stage, but transcendently great single “I Am the Cosmos / You And Your Sister” is here (with Alex Chilton playing and singing back-up on both), as is the great rocker “I Got Kinda Lost” and one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever come across, “Speed of Sound.” If you want to splurge, box set Keep an Eye on the Sky is quite good, although it cannot be considered complete because it does not touch on Chilton's solo work and does not include anything from their 2005 release.