Over and Out

It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”

It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.

Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.

I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.

Nirvana – In Utero

Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.

As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.

In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.

Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.

Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.

In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.

Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).

Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:

Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?

Band of Susans – Here Comes Success

Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.

Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.

Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.

Full of lush production,  pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.

 

Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.

REM – Collapse Into Now

How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is.  Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”

Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh  My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.

Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…

The Replacements – All Shook Down

The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.

As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.

The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.

Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.

Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.

Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.

There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”

Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Two quotes:

“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.

Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.

Chances of a follow-up: Nah…  While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.

 

Currently Listening

Righty ho.

There’s a lot going in my ears at present so I thought I’d drop a few on here while working on a couple of longer pieces and ahead of the inevitable ‘Holy Shitballs OKNOTOK Is Amazing’ post* and share what’s been cropping up regularly in the mix as it were.

Pearl Jam – Of the Girl (Instrumental)

I’m putting together a post about Pearl Jam, specifically their fallow period from 2000-2005 and I think Binaural often gets a bad rap. There’s a lot going on in the songs as this instrumental take of ‘Of The Girl’ from the PJ20 soundtrack shows.

The War On Drugs – Holding On

Because there is a new War On Drugs album dropping this year and this is the first single from it. Shame that the wax looks to be what I’d consider over-priced.

The Appleseed Cast – The Waking of Pertelotte/On Reflection

I don’t think I’ve touched on this band here so far. I can’t get enough of the Low Level Owl albums these days (even if they passed me by first time) and I love, LOVE Josh “Cobra” Baruth’s drumming. These are two seperate tracks that open Volume 1 but are best experienced flowing together as intended .

The Kinks – I’m Not Like Everybody Else

So many great Kinks songs to chose from…. this is a Ray song sung by Dave. It was a b-side to ‘Sunny Afternoon’ but the version I keep listening to was from their final release To The Bone and I first heard it and got hooked via ‘The Sopranos’. **

Fleetwood Mac – Albatross

Because a) this is a great tune to listen to when the sun is shining and b) early / Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac   > Rumours Fleetwood Mac.

*I dropped needle on it once and confirmed I need a new stylus. Until that arrives….

** See also: ‘Living On A Thin Line‘.

Born To Run | Chapter And Verse

I tell you, moving house knocks it out of you. Still, sometime between my birthday a couple of weeks back and popping it back up on a new shelf, I found the time to tear through Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born To Run (it was never going to be called anything else, was it?).

It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.

This being a memoir / auto-biography, the story is going to be somewhat one-sided. This is Bruce’s version. So while in Born To Run, Bruce describes the recording of Tunnel Of Love, for example, by writing that Bob Clearmountin ‘tidied up’ his playing so it sounded as if he knew what he was doing, it’s Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 Bruce that fills the picture out by pointing out that Bruce and Bob actually used samplers, drum machines and synths to create a lot of the music and then bought in members of the band to “beat the machine” – if they did the part was recorded, if not… well not every member of the E-Street featured and not every member of the band were impressed by the process but then Bruce is the Boss, a fact he gently underlines on a number of occasions in the pages of his own book; “I’d declared democracy and band names dead after Steel Mill. I was leading the band, playing, singing and writing everything we did. If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power”.

estreetband4

The part of the book that deals with the period before the release of Born In The USA is both the largest and juiciest. There’s a wealth of information about the source of Bruce’s art, his influences and his decisions. These were lean times – it wasn’t until after The River tour that Bruce had anything resembling financial success thanks to lawsuits and recording costs inflated due to his infamous perfectionism – and there’s a huge amount of detail as to what drove him to take certain choices with his music. While there’s no real breakdown of what inspired each and every song (that already exists in Songs) there’s a great amount of revelations to be found.

born-to-run-9781501141515_hrBruce is surprisingly candid when it comes to more personal elements too. I was a little surprised by some of his descriptions of his fellow E-Streeter’s – especially the late Danny Federici – but then his undeniable love for these band-members is also evident as his heartbreak at their passing.

Many of the column inches covering this book in the press have been at pains to mention that Mr Springsteen is equally revealing when it comes to his struggles with depression. Having managed to suppress what he describes as a consequence of the same mental plagues suffered by his father through years of working and touring, Bruce’s own depression came jumping up into his face . He is very open with his fight with and its effect on both him and his loved ones. As a fellow sufferer of that Black Dog it’s inspiring to read. His relationship with his father as a young man – while hinted at in song – is revealed in a much deeper and, at times, darker light and there’s a real sense of emotion and release when, post diagnosis with Paranoid Schizophrenia, Bruce’s father becomes a softer man and the two find some form of closure.

Part of not embracing the full ‘rock star lifestyle’ means that there’s not a huge amount of rock star stories to be found here and you’d be forgiven for skimming a go-nowhere Frank Sinatra story or those chapters (yep) dedicated to horse riding and Bruce’s equestrian escapades. Indeed, post-USA the structure is more vignettes than linear bio and some of those don’t really feel all that vital but, then, Bruce spent the larger part of that time period between E-Street lives building and raising his family and seeking a sense of calm that had previously alluded him so I’d hardly argue that this is a fault.

But there is still plenty to enjoy in the latter section of the book including  some real eye-openers even post-USA. Bruce shines a little more light on the ‘missing’ album from the period between ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ and Greatest Hits – it was another ‘men and women, relationships’ themed album but steeped in that minimal, loops and beats sound he’d employed for SoP. During a drive with Roy Bittan, his trusty piano player mentioned that perhaps it was the lyrical content of this new music that audiences were having trouble connecting to. Unable to find a unifying voice and sound for it, the album was shelved “and there she sits” – ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Missing’ and ‘Nothing Man’ would see the light of day. Bruce may have shot The Professor down but it dawned soon enough – he’d lost his ‘voice’.  Post Greatest Hits he went to find it and that’s why Ghost of Tom Joad is more of an important album than that subtle masterpiece may have been considered: “the songs on it added up to a reaffirmation of the best of what I do. The record was something new, but was also a reference point to the things I tried to stand for and still wanted to be about as a songwriter.”

Particularly interesting and surprising – given how logical and inevitable it must have seemed to all outside  of Bruce’s head – is that up until the last minute, he still doubted whether reuniting the E-Street Band was the best move – not feeling the fire despite the band’s force, initially building a set list that drew heavily from Tracks and eschewed hits and classics (fuck but I’d love to hear that set!) It wasn’t until the fifty or so fans that had stood outside the rehearsals trying to hear the sounds drifting out were let in to watch that Bruce felt the spark.

Given the level of detail assigned to the writing and recording of earlier works, it’s a little surprising and perhaps disappointing that the post E-Street reformation era isn’t deemed sufficiently interesting to warrant the same treatment. The Rising onwards saw Bruce’s career and popularity reborn after a lacklustre nineties yet the six albums recorded since are breezed over – with the exception of Bruce noting how disappointed he was that Wrecking Ball did not garner the impact and attention he felt these songs warranted. From my point of view and deviating slightly that’s  down to the fact that his and Ron Anellio’s attempts to sound sonically relevant and ‘now’ detracted from the quality of the song writing. That being said it was surprising to read the candour with which Bruce realised that, after years of doing so, he simply wasn’t the right person to record or produce his music any more.

Despite the slightness of its third act – I guess if he’d been as thorough here the book would’ve been simply too long as well – Born To Run is, without question, one of the best musician’s autobiogs I’ve read. Hugely insightful, informative and written with a trueness of voice that equals Bruce’s finest music, it’s an essential read for any fan and a bloody important one for anyone with even a passing interest.

brucechapterandverseReleased to accompany the album is Chapter and Verse. Given that it took close to twenty-five years and eleven albums for Bruce to release his first Greatest Hits and in the twenty years that followed there were another three such compilations to the six studio albums… it’s hard to believe that another new compilation were needed to do so, it does kinda reek of cash-grab.

Of the eighteen tracks on Chapter and Verse, thirteen have already been released many in the same order on other compilations. That’s not to say the songs aren’t required listening – any album that contains ‘The River’, ‘My Father’s House’, ‘Born To Run’ and ‘The Rising’ is easily going to stand strong. In some respects the running order here is more beneficial than other instances – lifting ‘Long Time Comin” from it’s sandwiching on Devils And Dust‘s weaker tracks really allows it to shine. But, given that fans will already have either the existing compilations, the albums these tracks are culled from or both, it’s hard to argue a case for their recompiling.

So – the big USP of Chapter and Verse comes down to this; the first five songs have not been released previously and pre-date Bruce’s recording career with Columbia. But are they worth shelling out for?  In a couple of words, sorry but not really…. These songs are notable for the progression they represent (even the jump in style between the two cuts from Springsteen’s first band The Castiles) but, ultimately are only being heard because who one of their members went on to be. The Steel Mill song ‘He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)’ is a standard southern-blues stomper recorded in San Francisco as the band tried to use California to break out of Jersey-only stardom but highlights what Bruce himself realised; for every Allman Brothers Band there were a hundred Steel Mill’s and there’s little here to distinguish them above the pack.  The exception, though, is The Bruce Springsteen Band’s ‘The Ballad of Jesse James’ which, of the five ‘new’ tracks is the keeper.

For myself, and I’d wager a few others, I’d rather the previously-unreleased material shone some light on either the E-Street Band’s take on Nebraska (that the fabled Electric Nebraska exists in its entirety is confirmed in Born To Run) or Bruce’s shelved album from the nineties… so I’ll drop one such track here – ‘Waiting On The End of the World’, written for that album and taken a stab at with the E-Street Band at the time of Greatest Hits which, for my money, is still the best Springsteen comp.

If you are still looking for music to ‘accompany’ the reading of Born To Run, there’s a Spotify playlist that Bruce (or someone on his team, most likely) put together containing all songs referenced and important:

Quick List: 2016 in 5 (Gut reaction)

While every sane and right-thinking person on this planet greets this morning’s news with a collective “WHAT THE FUCK?!” I received a “Top 5 songs that reflect 2016” message.

In the spirit of ‘think less, post more’ here are those that, in no particular order, leapt to mind.

Tool – Ænema

The lyrics… the timing signatures…

Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall

REM – It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) 

The Rolling Stones- Gimme Shelter

Has there been a better apocalyptic song than this? Or album than Let It Bleed?*

Eels – End Times 

“Crazy guy with a matted beard, standing on the corner. Shouting out “end times are near” and nobody noticed him”

 

 

*No. No there hasn’t.

Self-compiled; The Beatles

Compilations are a funny thing. You’re never going to please everyone but, in theory, you need to give a good reason for existing fans to buy (and a hastily recorded or re-recorded track not considered good enough for the previous album doesn’t count) and enough solid quality to give a career-overview for new / cursory fans to get hooked.

Some people go as far as to turn their nose up at them. Yet I’ve used a ‘Best of’ to get into a fair few bands over the years (Asides from Buffalo Tom remains one of my most-played discs).

When it comes to grabbing compilations from bands I already hold the back catalogue of, I don’t tend to go the Best Of or Introduction To route. Especially on those groups or individuals that are no longer active. Yet I’ll still want a compilation – especially for car use – for those times I don’t particularly want to listen to just one specific album. The problem is, though, that my choice of what I’d consider essential listening very rarely coincides completely with the ‘official’ compiler’s (usually because they’re doing so with a specific aim rather than just cherry picking). So that’s when the old adage “if you want a job done right do it yourself” comes into play and I’ve a fair few of these home-made comps so far.

With the use of Spotify I can even share these here.

So here we go with the first.

Oddly enough the need for a self-compiled disc of The Beatles doesn’t quite fit the ramble above. I don’t own anything from their back catalogue (with the exception of The Magical Mystery Tour). Yet their output is so large that there’s a number of different compilations out there, again each with a different purpose – 1 obviously the chart-toppers, The Past Masters and Anthology seemed too wide-ranging for a good, succinct compilation. 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 came closest but again contained a lot of stuff that I didn’t really care for and when you consider the pricing of all releases Fab Four themed… no thanks. It’s worth noting that this compilation was created before they deigned to allow their songs available via iTunes and streaming so the borrowing of CDs to create this was necessitated (and no piracy was involved) – to be honest though I’d still do so as the idea of paying the required for the whole still makes me flinch.

I’m not a huge Beatles fan. I like a lot of their songs a lot, though, and enjoy them more as I get older, yet I could quite happily never hear some of their earlier stuff again.

So, my choice of Beatles tracks, and the compilation that I’ve kept in my car for some years now also serves as a “my favourite Beatles songs” list – all wrapped around the centrepiece of the amazing While My Guitar Gently Weeps… *

*Yes; George was the best Beatle. You might argue but you’d be wrong.

With every mistake we must surely be learning

Variety is the spice of life. What constitutes a great book will vary from person to person. We all have different tastes (to this day some people still try to tell me The Da Vinci Code isn’t just something to keep at hand for when you run out of toilet roll) and some only every read within a genre. Recommending someone read The Master and Margarita won’t work if they’re only ever ‘reading’ Jojo Moyers….

But…. every now and then that rare thing will come along – a book that is so unarguably great that you find yourself telling everyone they should read it regardless of their usual choice of paperback writer. Jihadi; A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov is just such a book.

IMG_7211The main thrust of the story is set in the fictional Islamic Republic and it’s capital Islamic City – such fictionalised generalisation of geographical particulars allows Toropov a much freer hand in painting scenarios and characters that are so worryingly real that you’re left with the impression that they may well have happened without running the risk of naysayer nitpicking over such trivialities of actual place/date/official-versions-of that would have hindered his craft had he set it in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. Thelonious Liddell is an American intelligence operative captured, tortured and imprisoned by local authorities after a mission gone wrong in Islamic City. Fatima A is the young interpreter sent, initially, to assist in translation as he’s interrogated and, later, question Thelonious directly.

Jihadi: A Love Story is Liddell’s confession / memoir as written during his final months on paper smuggled to him in his cell at The Beige Motel –  a Federal Prison in Virginia. We know it doesn’t end well for Liddell but how he got to the point we find him as Ali Liddell is a hell of a story. It’s the story of how he went from senior agent to suspected terrorist, the story of Fatima and her family (how I wish I’d never learnt of flechettes), the actions of US Marine Mike Mazzoni, of the complex local information supply to the Directorate from shadowy sources, the weight of the past, marital and mental breakdowns, the rise of a new fundamentalist sect and how it all, piece by glorious piece, comes together in a gripping and though-provoking novel. All with a little help from the White Album and notations from R.L Firestone, the agent responsible for Liddell’s interrogation – one of the biggest questions the reader must face is who to believe, though as events unfold one version becomes increasingly unhinged while the other strives for clarity.

This is a book which raises some big questions. Questions about faith and love and, on a more pertinent and timely issue; questions on the West’s foreign policy and habits of wading into countries and cultures without any real awareness or consideration.

There’s also the question that Jihadi asks as to where the lines of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ lie given the actions of each – for all the accusations that Liddell is a ‘terrorist’ and has been ‘radicalised’, the only action he commits to have earned such treatment is so minimal in comparison to that of the supposed ‘heroes’ as to wonder where the distinction can be drawn, if it can – and that’s without considering Fatima’s supposed act of terrorism.  Living is easy with eyes closed, both sides are capable of atrocities yet we make the assumption that when we’re told by ‘the Directorate’ that Side A is Good and Side B is ‘Terrorism’ it’s correct because they say so. This book asks us to open our eyes and consider things from a different perspective. There’s no side-taking, finger-pointing or blame-allotting, the tone of the narrative is purely neutral, all sides have their arguments shown, allowing – in the case of Mazzoni vs Fatima – the reader to make their own mind up. Granted Firestone’s annotations argue that Liddell references events that he was not present for and cannot possibly know about so his word cannot be trusted… but, then again, Liddell is a senior agent; it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch for him to find information and piece events together for himself after the fact.

Some of those events are not for the faint at heart. The ridiculous “War on Terror” is just that – a war and one with very human consequences and casualties. Unfortunately many of those casualties are innocent civilians and characters in whom Toporov has breathed life to such an extent as to remove any possibility of not being affected by their fates. The fact that the tone is neutral and detached emotionally  means that some of the more harrowing and violent scenes hit just that much harder – it’s your own emotional responses you’re projecting onto the text, not the characters’ and all the more affecting accordingly. Many was the time that I had to put the book down and take a breath, hug my son and reflect with gratitude for the safety in which we live. There’s simply no way to read this and, if you weren’t already, not wonder just where we’re going as a species when we’re capable of such treatment of one another.

The nonlinear narrative is in keeping with the premise of these pages being from a memoir and keeps the pace ripping along and while those annotations may seem intrusive at first they soon present yet another compelling sub-plot. Toporov is able to sew in many more characters and plot arcs than a standard, linear narrative might allow for, and move between them so as to offer multiple view points and keep the reader hooked as they each near their boiling point, their moments arise and they intersperse.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been gripped so completely by such a multi-faceted novel and I simply cannot recommend Jihadi: A Love Story enough. I’ve seen references to Homeland and yes, there are echoes of such tight covert intelligence plots here, there are echoes of le Carré and even Vonnegut. But they’re only echoes, the loudest voice here is that of Toporov; a compelling new author with a style of his own delivering an exhilaratingly fresh, important and powerful novel so very much of its time.

Thanks again to Karen at Orenda for sending me this novel and to check out the other stops on the Blog Tour – there have been some great interviews and insights along the way -and grab a copy of Jihadi: A Love Story sharpish.

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I’m a fleabit peanut monkey…

… for years I’ve been mishearing that lyric as “flea bit beat-up monkey”, what the hell is a peanut monkey?!

Anyway….

I’m not a huge Rolling Stones fan. But there’s a lot of Rolling Stones songs that I love.

Monkey Man is one of em.

Id say I have a handful of Stones albums – a couple of compilations, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Sticky Fingers and Exile… I couldn’t say that I’ve listened to them all that much – more a cherry picking of tracks. Until I read Life by Keith Richards.

But… in that imported-non-event Black Friday and the subsequent weekend of discounts, my local chain music store (if I can I still buy independent but we’re all on a budget) dropped the price on a handful of albums – going so far as to slap “1 purchase per customer” on them as if the £5 discount was as monumental as a signed cover – and I grabbed Let It Bleed.IMG_6471

It’s already been round the turn table a good three or four times. I’ve often sought it out and for three reasons: Monkey Man, Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Any album with those on it is automatically elevated to great status.

One of my favourite song writers – Mr Bill Janovitz of Bufallo Tom – is a huge Stones fan. He’s even written a couple books; a 33 1/3 on Exile On Main Street and one called “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones”. I don’t know that I could list 50 songs of theirs that I enjoy, probably a dozen or so.

review for said book in the Wall Street Journal kicks off with this:

“I used to work with a salesman who wore a Rolling Stones tongue-logo tie every day. His Stones were the Stones of “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” and even (yuck) “She Was Hot”—huge arena-rock songs with instantly recognizable guitar-riff intros. Then there is the Stones fan of the classic-rock variety—the “Under My Thumb” and “Jumping Jack Flash” fan for whom the group, and the world, ceased to matter around 1968. My Stones are more about “Moonlight Mile,” “Monkey Man,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Rocks Off”—tracks that have the rambling, wide-open blues and rock sound that the band perfected in the 1970s. All three of us will devour Bill Janovitz’s “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones.”

I fall in the middle – my favourite tracks are, for the most part, of that “rambling, wide-open blues and rock sound that the band perfected in the 1970s.”

So, in the spirit of Top 10s (if it was Top 5 there’d be very little that wasn’t on Let It Bleed) and lists…. they are, in no real order:

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

It’s not Brown Sugar, nor is it Sway or Dead Flowers… the standout track on Sticky Fingers, to my ears, is Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. I first heard this when it was used in Tedd Demme’s drug-smuggling, Scorsese-like Blow (more on Scorsese and the Stones to come of course) . I love the nasty, dirty-feeling power of that guitar riff, the breakdown and resolve of the saxophone (the hugely talented Bobby Keys appears on so much of their best work) and the fact that the breakdown happened, according to Mick Taylor because “toward the end of the song, I just felt like carrying on playing. Everybody was putting their instruments down, but the tape was still rolling, and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened, and it was a one-take thing.”

It’s a powerful, swaggering monster of a Stones song that contains every element of that blues rock sound that they nailed down so hard and perfectly in the Seventies.

Gimme Shelter

Another belter and, of course, also used in a few films – Goodfellas being the most memorable for me. Mick Jagger has said of it that “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse”. I read that Keith came up with the tune while stuck indoors as it was pissing down outdoors, meanwhile Mick was off filming Performance in which he beds down with Keith’s then-girlfriend Anita Pallengberg. Keith was just starting to use heroin and the anxiety and dread are palpable in the tune and it’s just a glorious tune that – while Satisfaction, Start Me Up or Brown Sugar might be the most well known – is undoubtedly their best.

Monkey Man

So; I’m a flea bit peanut monkey…. Whatever that means. The lyrics here are filled with snarl and bite (“I’ve been bit and I’ve been tossed around by every she-rat in this town”), the guitars even more so with Keith giving it some hard bluesy blasts, the piano is cracking and, like so much on Let It Bleed, pinned down by some ominous, urgent sense of menace. While Jagger’s line of “I hope we’re not too messianic or a trifle too satanic” is a classic, for me it’s all about the yell of “I’m a MONKEY…….”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

For me, one of the best few seconds of any tune comes 50 seconds into the last Stones song of the Sixties. The choir finishes, the acoustic guitar has a few seconds alone and then the French horn pipes in with what could easily be considered a lament to the decade and the first chapter of the band’s life – the song was essentially all Mick in creation, Keith was beginning his journey into heroin addiction and Brian Jones was practically gone. And yet… it’s hopeful. Despite the universal doom and gloom Jagger sings of the song comes across as a near-rousing song of hope. The gorgeous arrangement, the keys, the horns, the shuffle of the drums and the kiss-off of the chorus “you just might find, you get you need” sung with a joyous sounding choir.

She’s A Rainbow

This is here almost entirely for personal reasons – it’s a song loved by my wife and I and played during our wedding – but it’s still a great Stones tune. Undoubtedly the prettiest thing they ever did and really the only one on Their Satanic Majesties Request that stands up on repeated listen. The delicate, pastoral piano, the shakes of the tambourine and then the dissonant breakdown with sharp, stabs of strings and the lewd “she comes in colours…” If the album was their attempt to take on Sgt. Pepper this song shows they could have knocked the Beatles into a hat and then jumped on it.

Their Satanic Majesties was a turning point in a way probably not intended. However, from here they went into an unbroken run of classics up to and including Exile On Main Street and kicking off with Beggars Banquet, featuring…

Street Fighting Man

To me, more so than Sympathy for the Devil, this one marks the start of the next chapter for the Stones. The lyrics came after a massive anti-war protest Jagger had witnessed, there’s no electric guitar on it with Keith building layer upon layer of distorted acoustic (via a cassette recorder!) and Brian Jones adds sitar and tamboura into the mix, keeping it rooted in the Sixties.

Thru and Thru

Ah Thru and Thru… Perhaps not the most obvious choice and I’d be surprised if it turned up in too many critical lists but this is my list and I love this. I first heard it when used on an episode of the Sopranos and the subsequent soundtrack. That it’s a Keith-sung number threw me off at first as I didn’t realise it was a Stones song. I love the slow build up, the layered vocal of “waiting on a call from you…” and Keith’s bluesy growl (though the ‘love as a takeaway’ lyric might not be his best). You know the subtle strings, build up and minimal guitar is going to break, has to break – especially with the thunder-crack drums appearing around the two minute mark – and yet the build up continues perfectly for more than half of the song and when the full-band does kick in, it’s glorious.

Mother’s Little Helper

“What a drag it is getting old….” An absolute ripper of a song about pill-popping mothers all wrapped up in under three minutes with a gleeful “oi” at the end. I continually find myself singing that opening line.

Wild Horses

Yeah, yeah… but it had to be on the list really. But it’s only lately that it’s snuck in there (over, say, Honky Tonk Woman) for me. Why? Because I read that Keith had written the chorus for his infant son as they were about to head off on tour. As a father I know that sentiment all to well. That it’s also among the best examples of how Mick and Keith wrote together – Keith had the riff and chorus, Mick added the rest (supposedly his relationship with Marianne Faithful going into his lyrics) and the pair of them sharing the mic for the chorus. The music is that most Gram Parsons inspired acoustic strum Keith had down at the time andsounds like it could sit on the Almost Famous soundtrack, underpinned with some beautiful electric lines and piano and is so well known it really won’t benefit from my prattling on about it.

Paint It, Black

Of course you can’t have any kind of Best Of list for the Stones and not have this song. That drone, that sinister sitar (Brian Jones’ legacy, to me, is in how much of their early work he got that instrument into), the drums and those lyrics that would no doubt inspire only Bailey knows how many ‘moody’ emo lyrics –

“I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door I must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black”

Even if, according to Keith, it was written as a bit of a joke, they penned a classic here. Aftermath is the first Stones album to benefit entirely from the Jagger / Richards song-writing partnership, a move which meant Brian Jones got a tad bored with guitars and began exploring instruments like the sitar. This song is the perfect summation of the early-Stones’ parts.