Archive for the ‘The Essentials’ Category

British singer, songwriter and musician Joe Jackson began life on August 11, 1954, as David Ian Jackson, and it was as Dave that he began his musical journey. He first picked up a violin, but switched to piano and, in time, began playing in bars. He eventually earned a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music; from what I gather, his goal in life at that stage was to become the next Stravinsky or Sibelius.

Around the same time, he began gigging with a pub band from Portsmouth called Edward Bear that eventually rechristened itself Arms and Legs and released three singles that went nowhere fast. Those sides are an odd mix of the old and the new; the Mark Andrews-penned tunes are somewhat ripped from the charts, while Jackson’s combine a new wave sensibility with Steely Dan. 

For those interested, here’s a playlist that features those songs:

It was during those years that Dave exited stage left. As Jackson explained to Minnesota Public Radio‘s Jim McGuinn in early 2019, he became Joe because of “a British children’s TV character called Joe 90, who was a puppet character, and he was a teenage genius. Well, I don’t know what age he was supposed to be, but he wore these big glasses and he was kind of geeky and he knew how to make anti-gravity or whatever it was. Someone or other named me after him as a nickname, and it just kind of stuck.” There was also a Peanuts connection: “[T]here was a character called Joe Piano. So that got thrown at me too, and I just ended up being Joe. I thought it was better than Dave because there’s enough Daves.” In time, he said, he legally changed his name to Joe.

Something was happening in the world beyond the Royal Academy and pub rock: punk. He explained to McGuinn that “[w]hen you’re 22 years old and you’re in London and it’s the late ’70s and this stuff is happening and it’s exciting, then of course you’re going to be influenced by it, I think.”

Although Arms and Legs went the way of most bands, one important connection was made: bassist Graham Maby, who’s been a mainstay in Jackson’s world since. After a stint playing piano at the Portsmouth Playboy Club, where he accompanied cabaret singers, Jackson – with Maby, guitarist Gary Sanford and drummer David Haughton –  entered a studio and recorded a bunch of demos that scored him a deal with A&M.

Look Sharp! was the result. Released in the U.S. on January 5th, 1979, it was home to such classic songs as the title track, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “Sunday Papers.” This Washington Post article previewing a concert that September at University of Maryland’s Ritchie Coliseum is well worth the read; he relates his love of reggae and respect for Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, the Jam and “Class” (actually the Clash). “Rock ‘n’ roll in its very nature is about the joining of the races,” he says. “There would be no rock ‘n’ roll if there hadn’t been black music. I don’t see how you could be in a rock band and not be against racism. Every white person in a rock band is going to have two or three heroes who are black.”

Like most folks my age, the first song I heard by Jackson was “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” The starkness of the music, the bass line and Jackson’s sneering delivery sounded fresh and unique in 1979 (and maybe it’s my age speaking, but it still sounds fresh and unique to me now). From there, Jackson’s career unfolded in an unlikely manner: new wave, reggae, swing and then the sophisticated, Cole Porter-styled pop of Night and Day, which was a surprise hit. Then came the off-kilter soundtrack for Mike’s Murder, which – due to the demands of the movie studio – was mostly replaced by a John Barry score. It doesn’t always jell, but when it does – such as on “Zemeo” and “Moonlight Theme” – it’s quite cool.

I share that backstory for no other reason than this: Body and Soul, which was released on March 14, 1984, is the culmination of everything that came before, integrating elements of new wave, pop, jazz and Latin. It features moody songs accented by sax solos that briefly brighten the dimly lit scenes, somewhat akin to a lone street lamp lighting an otherwise dark road. In that sense, the cover – which pays homage to Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2, a classic jazz album on the famed Blue Note label, is something of a misdirection. This ain’t hard bop, but jazz-pop with a dash of noir.

Some people live so fast
They’re so scared of getting old
Some people keep on working 
All they do is line their graves with gold
We don”t know what happens when we die
We only know we die too soon
But we have to try or else our world becomes a waiting room

Those lines are from the opening track, “The Verdict,” which finds Jackson waiting for a phone call, quavering over critics and musing on life itself.

“Cha Cha Loco,” which follows, detours into salsa, while “Not Here, Not Now” finds him sifting through the embers of a relationship on its last legs. “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” which hit No. 15 on the U.S. pop charts as the album’s first single, condenses every self-help book into a swinging tune…

…and is followed by more apt advice in the upbeat “Go For It.”

As good as the first side is, however, it’s the second that, back in the day, I played more often than not. The instrumental “Loisaida” shimmers like moonlight reflecting off waves at night, with the brass soaring into the foreground only to recede like the tide, washing away everything but the piano’s lone notes. It’s hypnotic.

“Happy Ending,” a duet with Elaine Caswell, updates the boy-meets-girl love stories of yore to an ‘80s sensibility. (“It’s not so easy/It’s 84 now…”) Here they are on Top of the Pops:

Although many songs place the protagonist in a movie, or at least makes allusions to such, nothing plays out as Hollywood confections would lead us to believe. The bittersweet “Be My Number Two,” which follows the upbeat “Happy Ending,” is a great case in point: He’s settling not for love, but companionship – and assumes the gal is, too. “And every time I look at you/You’ll be who I want you to/And I’ll do what I can do/To make a dream or two come true.”

“Heart of Ice” caps the set in perfect noir fashion; in essence, he’s killing us softy with his song – and pleading to be released from the cynicism that’s taken root in his soul: “Take a knife/Cut out this heart of ice/Hold it high/Walk into the sun…”

Given the nature of the ‘80s pop world, the album did surprisingly well, reaching No. 20 in the U.S. and No. 14 in the U.K. I picked it up on cassette a few months after its release, on June 11th, after reading Rolling Stone’s fairly positive review as well as a so-so overview (“MTV for the ears”) in Record magazine that coupled it with the Mike’s Murder soundtrack. While the cinematic allusions in the music are obvious, there’s much more to be heard in the grooves than that.

This is music of the body and soul, wearied and rundown by life. It’s my most-played Joe Jackson album by far. Go figure.

Most music fans know (or should know) the story of Gladys Knight and the Pips. For those few who don’t: in 1952, at age 7, she appeared on (and won) Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour

…aka the American Idol of its day. Not long thereafter, she joined her brother Merald (aka “Bubba”), sister Brenda and cousins William and Eleanor Guest in a music group dubbed the Pips after a cousin whose nickname was “Pip.” As the years pushed toward 1960, Brenda and Eleanor were replaced by Edward Patten and Langston George; and the group toured with, and opened for, such acts as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. They also released their first single in 1958, “Whistle My Love,” which went nowhere fast; and, as Gladys Knight and the Pips, released the Johnny Otis-penned “Every Beat of My Heart,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 6 on the pop charts. 

There were actually two versions of “Every Beat” – the one for Atlanta Huntom/Vee Jay that hit the top 10 and a re-recorded version for the Fury label that reached No. 45; Fury also released the group’s first full-length platter, Letter Full of Tears, in 1962. A string of near-hits followed and, in 1966, Gladys, Merald, William and Edward signed with Motown, where they’d remain until 1972. 

There’s far more to unpack, including a tumultuous personal life, but for the purposes of this piece I’ll skip everything save this: Gladys and the Pips were not seen as a top-tier act by Motown, which was home to such established hitmakers as the Supremes, Temptations, Miracles and Marvin Gaye. Add to that this: She was allegedly viewed as a threat by Diana Ross, who supposedly had Gladys and the guys dumped from their opening slot on a 1968 Supremes tour because they were too good (i.e. better than Diana and gals).

There were a slew of songs in that spell that could and should have been hits, but weren’t; and others that they would have done wonders with if given a chance. Yet, their version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was recorded after the Miracles and Marvin Gaye renditions but released first, reached No. 2 on the pop charts in 1967; they also scored top 10 pop singles with “If I Were Your Woman” (No. 9 in 1970) and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (No. 2 in 1972); in the same timeframe, however, they scored 11 R&B top 10 hits, including three No. 1s. I.e., with a better marketing push, a song like the funky “Friendship Train” could have topped the pop charts.

As a result, with their contract up, Gladys and the Pips went shopping for a new home – and found one in Buddah Records, a small label that was home to an odd mix of bubblegum acts and soul music. As Ron Weisner, who was with Buddah at the time (and later served as Gladys’ manager) recounts in his memoir Listen Out Loud, they didn’t have as much to offer as other labels except for one thing: enthusiasm. So, for a lower advance than she might have gotten elsewhere, Gladys and the Pips signed the dotted line…

… and Imagination, one of the greatest albums of the early ‘70s, resulted. Because Buddah didn’t have in-house writers or producers, there was a freedom about the endeavor – and it’s heard in the album’s grooves. It merges soul, gospel and country, as evidenced by “Midnight Train to Georgia” (which began life as “Midnight Plane to Houston”) and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – songs that circulate and percolate through the soul like few others.

There’s more to the album than those two tracks, however. “Storms of Troubled Times” – which, like “Midnight Train” and “Best Thing” was written by country singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly – is another highlight. Gladys’ vocals are cushioned by the Pips’ perfect harmonies.

When the world, when the world
Falls down around your shoulders
And you need a hand that’s strong and kind
Reach out for mine, reach out for mine
And I will lead you through the storms of troubled times

“Where Peaceful Waters Flow” is thematically similar to “Storms” and is no less stirring. Although she didn’t write the lyrics, it doesn’t much matter. When she sings, the words flow from her soul into ours.  

One surprising track is “I Can See Clearly Now,” an evocative cover of the Johnny Nash tune that features the Pips upfront. In fact, the only weak cut on the nine-song album is the last one, “Window Raisin’ Granny”; to my ears, it’s a so-so rewrite (by Gladys and the three Pips) of Bill Withers’ “Granny’s Hands.” Yet, even it has something to offer – a sterling vocal.

In the charts, Imagination did well – No. 9 on Billboard’s pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts – but could (and should) have done even better. 

My favorite song from the set may well be “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – and though I love the studio version, this rendition from a 1974 TV appearance (which I’ve spotlighted before) remains my favorite despite the lousy video quality…

… for a few reasons, but primarily because it reminds me of when Diane and I saw Gladys at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Pa., in the early 1990s. Though much of the specifics of the concert have long been lost to time, the passion she invested in each song lingers still. She was a dynamic stage presence.

Incidentally, at that point, I only knew Gladys (with and without the Pips) from various greatest-hits collections and anthologies. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I began to explore her specific albums, including this one, which quickly became my favorite. That said, there are other LPs that folks who only know the hits should check out, including If I Were Your Woman (which, aside from the classic title track, includes a great version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”) and Standing Ovation. I’ll be spotlighting a few of them in the weeks and months ahead.

It’s an album many Neil fans dislike, if not despise, due to the clinical rhythms and distorted vocals that accent much of the music. For me and my tastes, however, it’s a great, if eccentric set that’s well worth a few listens. As I wrote in the CSN/Y discography on the original Old Grey Cat (1997-2006) website, “if you listen past the surface, you’ll hear a strong heartbeat – and many treasures. [It] also features the mini-epic ‘Like an Inca,’ which includes this couplet from its last verse that aptly sums up Neil’s ’80s career path: ‘There’s a bridge across the river/that I have to cross alone.’” It’s not my most-played Neil album, but it’s one I’ve returned to, time and again, throughout the years.

After a lifetime with Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, in 1982 Neil Young signed with Geffen Records in a deal that reportedly guaranteed him $1 million per album. However, when he turned in his first effort, Islands in the Sun, Geffen rejected it. In 1995, Neil explained to Mojo that Islands “was a tropical thing all about sailing, ancient civilizations, islands and water”; a prototypical Neil LP, in other words. But, as he recalled in Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (page 556), “[David Geffen] didn’t think it was good enough. ‘Neil, you can do more with these songs – keep going.’ It was healthy what he was telling me. But instead of going forward, I went back – to all the stuff that had been buried. I really did all the Trans stuff at the end of Warner Bros., not at the beginning of Geffen.”

Those old sessions, also detailed in Shakey (pages 551-552), were essentially an extension of the re*ac*tor jams in 1981: 

Young continued to record with the Horse. Poncho recalls Young – all jacked up after seeing the Rolling Stones play San Francisco – coming in with a song sporting Stones-like riffs entitled ‘Computer Age.’

Around this time, Young also purchased a vocoder, an odd device that enabled him to mask his voice as a variety of characters, none of which sounded too human – imagine robotic voices from fifties science fiction movies. Young then took the mutated vocals and played them through the Synclavier keyboard, which essentially turned it into music.

‘When we got the vocoder, we started listening to Kraftwerk,” said [David] Briggs. All this would eventually become Trans. Even a version of ‘Mr. Soul’ – complete with backward guitar – got the machine treatment. And the further Neil got into the new music, the less company he took with him.

‘Trans started like we do always – two guitars, bass, drums,” said Poncho. “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff – the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth shit on it. Briggs felt no one around Young tried to understand. “Billy and Ralph and Poncho, all the other participants, they dismissed it. They played on the stuff, but didn’t think it was music.”

Thus, the resulting album mixed six tracks from the old sessions with three from the new; and Geffen Records, believing it had a dud on its hands, simply shrugged and dumped the LP in the arid sales stretch that lies between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Radio, at least as I remember it, pretty much ignored it.

The critical consensus was (and remains) decidedly mixed. In the February 3rd, 1983, Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh gave it four (out of five) stars and wrote, “In truth, once you get past its radical sonic veneer, Trans turns out to be a pretty whimsical treatise on the theme of man-meets-machine, with Young wisecracking his way through the high-tech numbers – note the wild coyotes who yowl on the computer cowboy’s range, and the mate-hunting automaton who sings. “I need a unit to sample and hold/But not the angry one, a new design, new design” – and tossing off the treacle of the straight love songs with casual disinterest.”

In the Rolling Stone offshoot magazine Record, however, Stuart Cohn was much less kind. He says “the listener is left like Dorothy in Oz, discovering there’s no wizard behind the curtain”; and sums up with: “Trans…is just a closed circuit: no future, no options. Just a man and his toys, without the songs or ideas that can make the toys so much fun to play with.” 

Neil, for his part, describes it well on the Neil Young Archives: “Trans is one of my best records, from a standpoint of being misunderstood. Trans was made with the idea of supporting it with a series of videos that went with the story. Bots of all kinds, with their digital voices sang the words and melodies of a tale of communication for the disabled, those of us who cannot speak. Here, these folks, especially my son Ben Young, were cared for by robots trying to help them learn how to communicate.” 

Looking back, I can understand why many longtime fans were (and remain) dismayed by the shift to electronica beats – but I didn’t have the same longterm connection. Re*ac*tor was my first Neil LP, which I purchased at age 16 in late 1981; Hawks & Doves was my second, which I picked up a few months later; and, in the final week of 1982 – when I was flush with Christmas cash – I picked up not one, not two, but five Neil Young albums on cassette to play in the Sanyo Mini AM/FM Stereo Cassette Recorder my parents had gifted me with.

A week later, I picked up the tape for Trans (along with Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask). I didn’t know the backstory. I just knew the beats were cool, the distorted vocals even cooler, and that “Like an Inca,” one of those prototypical Neil Young songs, soared.

In many respects, as I noted last week, McCartney II – Paul McCartney’s own eccentric electronica collection from 1980 – helped prepared me for Trans. Such off-kilter excursions, to me, were just something artists did from time to time. Maybe that’s why, from the moment I heard it, Trans just felt right to me; yeah, it’s odd, but it speaks to my heart and soul – perhaps because, as a child, I had a speech impediment that sometimes made it difficult to communicate with others.

Anyway, I enjoyed the set so much that, within a few months, I also bought it on LP – something I did on occasion. In this instance, it was to better appreciate the fascinating (to me, at least) cover art, which shows an old-school Neil and digital-age Neil hitching rides into the future and past. Oh, and though it’s listed on the album jacket and in the lyric sheet, “If You Got Love” was yanked at the last minute; the version of “Sample and Hold” on LP is three minutes shorter that the CD; and the version of “Like an Inca” on LP is a minute-and-change shorter than on CD. (Let’s hope that Islands in the Sun – which, as I write, isn’t listed in the NYA timeline – is one day released as part of Neil’s archival series; my hunch is it will be a sublime set.)

So…give Trans a go, sometime, be it on the LP (or, if you can find it, cassette) or CD. It’s not Neil’s best, by any stretch, but holds within it a lot of intriguing sounds. You may be disappointed, but you may be surprised.

 

Since beginning this occasional series in 2017, I included this italicized explanation at the top of my picks until earlier this year: “As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.” What I hoped to convey with those words was this: “essential” does not necessarily equal “great.” Sometimes they are one and the same, of course, but as often they’re simply important, but flawed, chapters in the chosen artist’s development.

Such is the case with McCartney II, which was released on May 16, 1980. It was, is and likely will forever be a love-it-or-hate-it entry in Paul McCartney’s oeuvre. Some fans consider it an eccentric delight, as the 11 songs span the gamut from synth-pop to ambient electronica to new-fangled techno to old-fashioned blues to an acoustic ballad. Others, however, find the synthesizers, electronica flourishes and vocal distortions off-putting. I’m in the former camp, myself. While I don’t consider it a great album, per se, I do think it’s an important album that features glimmers of greatness.

Most fans know the backstory of the album, but for those few who don’t: Following the wrap-up of the Back to the Egg album, which was released in June 1979, the members of Wings – Paul and Linda, long-time compadre Denny Laine, and newcomers Laurence Juber and Steve Holley – went their separate ways for a spell. With a 19-date U.K. tour slated to begin in November, and the expectation that it would expand to the rest of the world the following year, everyone had things on their to-do list that they wanted to address first.

In Paul’s case, that meant goofing off – first in Sussex and then in Scotland. In a 1980 Club Sandwich interview with rock writer Paul Gambaccini, he says that “I hired a 16-track machine and got an engineer friend, Eddie, to fix me up a thing where I just took one microphone into the back of the machine direct, so we didn’t use a big console. It’s very difficult if you’re trying to work on your own with a big console, so we bypassed it and just went directly into the back of the machine.”

In some respects, McCartney was looking to cast out the cobwebs he’d gathered during the on-and-off Back to the Egg sessions, which began in late June 1978 and didn’t end until March 1979. While BTTE was and is a fun set, it’s also flawed and formulaic – and, though it includes a nod to new wave, extremely safe. Like many of the era’s old-guard rockers, in other words, he was treading water.

For II, he changed things up. As he explained to Gambaccini, “Well, the whole thing about all these tracks was to do something different. ‘Coming Up’ was done as all the tracks were. What I did was to just go into the studio each day and just start with a drum track. Then I built it up bit by bit without any idea of how the song was going to to turn out. It’s like a reverse way of working. After laying down the drum tracks I added guitars and bass, building up the backing track.” In the interview, he equates the process to sculpture: “It is very much like sitting down with a few lumps of clay and putting down one after another until it makes itself into a face or something.”

By the time he finished the working holiday, he had enough material for a double album – but shelved everything, as the Wings tour beckoned. 

And then Japan happened.

The plans to re-conquer the world were cancelled along with the sold-out 11-date Japanese tour; and McCartney found himself listening to his previous summer’s sonic adventures. From the same Club Sandwich interview with Gambaccini: “I wasn’t even thinking of it being an album until I got all the tracks together and played them on a cassette in my car; it started to sound like an album.” Then it became a matter of figuring out how to create a coherent set from the material. Paul, apparently, wanted to release everything as a double album, but then thought better – or, more likely, was reined by his record company. Some songs were edited for length, while others were left behind.

In a sense, McCartney II is a high-tech update on the 1970 McCartney album, which is also accented by oddball instrumentals alongside a few memorable tunes. In this case, the fun begins with the catchy “Coming Up,” which was also the album’s first single.

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The flip side of the 45, I should mention, features a live rendition of the song by Wings along with the Venus & Mars castoff “Lunchbox/Odd Sox.” In the U.K., the song reached No. 2 on the pop charts, but in the U.S. the live rendition – which is what most radio listeners heard, as deejays rebelled against the sped-up vocals – went No. 1.

“Temporary Secretary” is, depending upon one’s mood, funny, maddening or the audio equivalent of a dentist’s drill. (When I saw Paul in 2015 at the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia, there was – and it may have been mine – an audible groan when, early on, he announced it as the next song.) In September 1980, it was released as a limited-edition U.K. single, believe it or not, and has supposedly taken on a life of its own in techno cubs the world over. (As I don’t frequent techno clubs, I can’t say for sure.) Its b-side was the interminable “Secret Friend,” which was added as a bonus track when II was released on CD in 1987.

The third track, “On the Way,” is a bluesy delight that was influenced by Paul having watched Alexis Korner on a TV show about the blues.

Another highlight: “Waterfalls,” which was the only song on the record that Paul wrote prior to beginning the one-man-band sessions.

It was also the second single released from the album, sneaking into the U.K.’s Top 10 while failing to crack the Top 100 in the U.S. The b-side, “Check My Machine,” is what raised the hair on the back of my neck, however; it features sped-up vocals and an absolutely killer beat – a true overlooked gem. (Like “Secret Friend,” it’s now a bonus track on the McCartney II CD.) 

Aside from “Check My Machine,” however, the album tracks I’ve featured are anomalies from the overall feel of II, which veers more toward the ambient and eccentric as it continues. For instance, “Frozen Jap” is an oddball instrumental built around a cool motif that conjures Mount Fuji.

“Darkroom” is another favorite of mine. Be forewarned, though: It’s an ear worm. One listen and you’ll be hearing it for days onward… 

The closing “One of These Days” is another overlooked gem. 

Paul told Gambaccini that he was inspired to write it after “a Hare Krishna bloke care round to see me. He was a nice fellow, very sort of gentle. After he left, I went to the studio and the vibe carried through a bit – I started writing something a bit more gentle that particular day. The song seemed right as a very simple thing, and it basically says ‘one of these days I’ll do what I’ve been meaning to do with the rest of my life.’ I think it’s something a lot of people can identify with.”

Like many U.S. fans, when I brought home the “Coming Up” single in April 1980, at age 14, I first preferred the b-side with Wings. And when the album was released a month later, I found the mix of the expected and the eccentric more of a curiosity than anything. But as the listens accrued, I began to appreciate the eccentric more and more. And, in retrospect, the synth stuff, sped-up vocals and the like led the way for me to appreciate off-kilter releases from other favorite artists, such as Neil Young, in the years to come.

We fans sometimes pigeonhole our favorites, after all, and expect their every release to build upon, or borrow from, what came before. But just as I, as a fan, enjoy a wide array of sounds, why can’t or shouldn’t a music artist expand their sonic palate, as well? In some ways, the success of the album – and it went gold in both the U.S. and U.K. – freed McCartney from the straitjacket that Wings had become to him. Ask yourself this: Would The Fireman have happened without McCartney II? I doubt it.

Anyway, in 2011, McCartney II was released alongside the original McCartney as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection (and can be heard on Apple Music). The set includes the unedited versions of many of the tracks as well as a few previously unreleased curiosities, such as the ambient “Blue Sway” (with Richard Niles orchestration) – a very cool track, that is – and the “Mr. H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby” and “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway.” Not everything jells, but that’s okay. They’re cool to hear, nonetheless.