My Morning Jacket blew my head, and eardrums, off on Tuesday night. My wife and I hoped on the chuffer and caught the opening night of their UK / EU tour in the achingly glamorous Kentish Town. Two plus hours of intense and magical power (including a twenty minute ‘Dondante’) means I’ve been leaning toward a calmer soundtrack and indulging in the quiet majesty of Nick Drake’s all-too brief discography the last couple of days.
Nick Drake died at just 26. His mother, Molly, was a poet and folk musician and Nick’s love of music developed at a young age. A quiet child he was nonetheless confident and soon learnt the piano, saxophone and clarinet while his other studies suffered as a result of his love of music (how many musician’s biographies have that in similar?). He spent a chunk of time in France – studying in Provence – while pursuing both developing his guitar and smoking pot. Hey, it was the sixties after all.
When he returned to the UK he enrolled at Cambridge and was quickly got into the burgeoning folk scene, playing shows in London and Cambridge. He was signed to Island Records when he was 20 and recorded three albums Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Later (1971) and Pink Moon (1972). Lukewarm (at best) reception and poor sales – not assisted by his increasing reluctance to perform live. A troubled soul, his depression worsening, Drake returned to his parents house in 1974 where he died on November night following an overdose of an anti-depressant.
Years later with musicians such as Robert Smith, Peter Buck, Kate Bush and even The Black Crowes citing him as an influence, Nick Drake’s catalogue started to receive the praise and attention it so deserved. I think it appeared in a Volkswagen commercial Stateside. I think it was the late ’90s while at Uni I picked up Five Leaves Left and then very quickly thereafter his two other albums so, here, in no particular order or merit, are five of my favourite Nick Drake songs to lend a quietly majestic soundtrack to the day.
As it’s that kick in the pills that serves as a reminder that the weekend is over that’s also known as Monday, it feels like a fitting moment to come down from tripping the cosmos collate some of those tunes that I’ve been enjoying of late in the hope that others dig them too.
Top Drawer – Song of a Sinner
I’ve been listening to a lot of Vietnam-era tunes lately (more on which to follow) and I guess the algorithm overlords of Spotify decided I’d enjoy this. They were right. Top drawer (pun intended) garage / psych rock from 1969 of which I know nothing about other than I dig it, man.
Pink Floyd – The Gold It’s In The… (2016 remix)
On a very similar vibe – and bypassing the fact that Roger Waters has travelled so far up his arsehole he’s come out as a Russian apologist for a moment – I’ve been enjoying some of the Early Years takes from Pink Floyd lately and Obscured By Clouds being one of those albums often overlooked it’s always worth revisiting a tune where Gilmour gets to break loose for a few bars.
Blondshell – Sepsis
This is one of those examples of not judging books etc etc…. I saw the name ‘Blondshell’ in one of those ‘artists to look for in 2023’ lists at the end of last year and scrolled on as it was sandwiched between some of those rappers with ‘Lil’ or ‘Big’ and numbers in their names and I figured it was more of the same. However, I went back to the list and read ‘brutally frank, distorted guitar-driven’ and started listening. Sabrina Teitelbaum – who performs as Blondshell – was en route to becoming a pro pop music writer before dropping out and writing her own stuff on a more alt leaning which means there’s a clear songwriting sensibility stapled to that aforementioned ‘distorted guitar-driven’ vibe that makes for great listening.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – The Trip to Pirates Cove
I’ve been listening to a lot of later-period Tom Petty on the road lately. The inbuilt chill to his voice serves as a perfect counterpoint to the throb of the Ferrari’s V12* that helps take the edge off the cocaine. For reasons unknown it took me a long time to get to Mojo (well, I guess the reason was the disappointment of The Last DJ) but it’s a real resurgence of a record and I love both the overall vibe of this one but especially the lyric “she was a part of my heart, now she’s just a line in my face.”
Gretel Hänlyn – Wiggy
I’m determined not to be one of those guys that once the mid-40s arrive they adopt the ‘no music worth listening to has been made since 199X’ and I’m constantly keeping an ear out for stuff that has a vibe I can plunge into. I can’t tell you anything about Gretel Hänlyn – who I caught on the radio – other than she’s a 20 year old singer / songwriter / guitar player from London. Obviously there’s a big 90’s guitar element to this that’s probably why it caught my ear and I’ve come to terms with the fact that, given the age of a lot of current new bands I’m digging, it’s likely that they’ve been taking inspiration from their parents’ record collections.
Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lightning
The cub has some very specific requests when it comes to music to listen to and when he recently requested we pick up a 3-disc ‘Classic Blues’ comp I didn’t have any objections and this tune is always a stone-cold killer.
In what feels like a fitting post to follow my take on Springsteen’s The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, I’ve been thinking about live albums of late.
A friend and I have been debating their merits – his ‘no-thanks’ take on them driven by the fact that ‘you don’t get the same vibe as actually being there.’
I can understand that. But – is that really their purpose? I’ve got a lot of time for live albums – there are a lot of artists that really deliver the goods in concert more than others and more than they do in concert. They’ll throw their all into a show and there are plenty of live albums out there where that’s evident as well as the fact that a song performed live is often a different beast to that which graced a studio album. Not only that but there are many bands out there that I’ll never get a chance to see or shows I could never have been at.
Here I can quickly point to two staples of this blog – Springsteen and Pearl Jam, both of whom are renowned for their live shows with both (Springsteen only more recently) performing a different set list every night. Foo Fighters, by contrast, played an identical set (including the rehearsed ‘banter’) night after night.
Whereas once upon a time the live album was once a staple, if contractually obligatory, of many a rock band’s discography we now find ourselves in an era of Nuggs (or whatever service they chose to use) means that almost every show from a tour and many archival individual shows are available to fill up our iPods. Does the traditional live album, then, still have value?
I reckon there’s still a place for it. At least there is within my shelves – digital and physical. While it’s great to have a document of a specific concert – especially if you were there, say – it’s also great to have a live collection from a band at the peak of their power without, say, the mistake they made in the pre-chorus of a song that forced them to restart or a location-specific anecdote, as well as the mastering (not remixing, mind – I’m looking at you Van Halen) that an official release can give. Without having to pay a fortune for a pint of piss-poor beer, swim to the toilet or wonder if you need to duck out during the encore to get the last tube.
With all this preamble in mind I thought I’d take a butchers at some of those live albums that I would say are definitely worth giving a listen to, old and new.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live 1975-85
Keeping it Boss for another moment… Bruce’s first official live album was a suitably hefty 5LP / 3 CD / 3 Cassette beast that covered Springsteen and the E Street Band’s journey from theatres to stadiums across 40 songs. Springsteen had developed a reputation as a live performer and this set delivers upon that and then some – it’s a great listen even close to forty years on, even hearing his earnest story-telling ahead of ‘The River’ as he works to instil a sense of intimacy to the stadium-sized crowd still works and while he could easily have created another similarly-sized instalment to cover the decades since I don’t think (save a few obvious titles) you could want anything more than what’s here. It remains an unimpeachably great snapshot of Bruce and the E Street Band’s powerful peak and sounds as vital now as it did then.
Nirvana – Live at Reading
Nirvana’s second visit to the Reading festival was the stuff of legend even aside from the actual show itself. This was 1992, mind, when the Kurt ‘n’ Courtney show was dominating press coverage – there were rumours that the band wouldn’t show. That the band were on the verge of breaking up, that Kurt’s heroin addiction was so bad he was close to death (both rumours sadly not that far from true)…
Playing to this, Kurt took to the stage in a wheelchair. Wheeled on and wearing a hospital gown and wig, sang a few lines of ‘The Rose’ and collapsed before getting to his feet and the band delivered one of their most intense and powerful sets to date. Yes, there’s no way to capture being at that show – I hold that for every dozen or so people I’ve met that claimed they were there only two are probably telling the truth – but, fuck me, this is one hell of an amazing live album. The band seem to be giving it everything as a middle finger to the rumours and the setlist is everything you’d want, covering nearly all of Nevermind, plenty from Bleach and a few new songs that would later grace In Utero and is the superior live Nirvana document to From The Muddy Banks of Wiskah.
Johnny Cash – At FolsomPrison
This one’s got to be a given, right? Johnny Cash’s first live album, a career reviving release that starts with the now famous ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’ and finds the then relatively-clean Cash singing songs like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Cocaine Blues’ and ’25 Minutes to Go’ to an audience of convicts in a prison canteen that Cash would later describe as “the most enthusiastic audience I ever played” – lapping up every line like ‘I can’t forgot the day I shot that bad bitch down’ like it was written for them. While At San Quentin recorded the following year would have ‘Boy Named Sue,’ this album combines Cash’s strongest points – grit, balladry, the spiritual and humour – into one setlist that while tailor-made for his audience and became the stuff of legend.
Mogwai – Special Moves
As a live band, Mogwai are one of the loudest out there. While they shy away from being branded as post-rock, their predominantly instrumental music takes its cues from a myriad of influences including bands like Loop, My Bloody Valentine and Slint – intricate pieces that build up layers and parts and not play with the quiet-loud-quiet- FUCKING INSANELY LOUD dynamic but own it. I’ve just finished Stuart Braithwaite’s fantastic memoir ‘Spaceships Over Glasgow’ which revealed – amongst other things – the level of nervousness with which he’d play gigs, hoping that the bands head-nodded signals would work when it comes to bringing in the different parts of each song, finding a sound-guy that could sufficiently mix them at the level of noise desired and joy they take in a set when it all clicks.
The New York shows captured on Special Moves – in terms of both setlist and the power of the performance – are as ideal an introduction to and one-hit slab of Mogwai you could ask for. It’s perfectly mixed – balancing all the elements of their music with a smattering of crowd noise to let you know they’re there and capturing the extremes of their sound (the pin-drop silence to absolute wall of sound in Mogwai Fear Satan, for example) perfectly.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Weld
Speaking of wall-of-sound…. Neil Young has got quite a few live albums out there – while Time Fades Away and Rust Never Sleeps were made up of entirely new songs and Live Rust felt like a bit of a cash-grab, Weld is the real deal for me and the more I explore Mr Young’s back catalogue the more I enjoy it. A live document of Young and Crazy Horse’s tour to promote Ragged Glory (my current favourite of Neil’s albums), it’s a ridiculously heavy document of the Horse in full gallop and blasting through some of Ragged Glory‘s highlights like ‘Fuckin’ Up’ and ‘Love To Burn’ along with storming takes on ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Powderfinger’, the then-recent ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and a blazing cover of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.
Gary Clark Jr – Live
This is one of those examples where someone comes across so much better live than on record – to my ears at least and this is my blog, after all. I’d seen the praise heaped upon this enough to be curious and since picking it up it’s been a regular spinner. Having been compared to the mightiest of guitar slingers like Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr has both that glorious blues tone and dexterity to make his performances addictive listening while also flowing in a touch of soul and hip hop. On record the combo doesn’t really come across so well with his playing taking a back seat too often to slick production. There’s none of that on 2014’s Live – a mix of originals and covers shed of gimmickry and just highlighting how great and in-focus performance he – and his band – can deliver.
My Morning Jacket – Okonokos
The band captured following the peak of the mighty Z album deliver a brilliant set to a crowd at The Fillmore in San Francisco. While the recent compilation Live Vol. 1 adds newer songs to the mix and further cements how great a live draw the band are, Okonokos captures the band in all their intense power, it’s heavy on Z material with eight of its ten songs gracing the set and showcases the band’s musicianship and a rare ability to both jam out and deliver tight, focused performances.
Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-é(Legacy Edition)
Jeff Buckley left us with just the one studio album before he took his fateful swim in 1997. His first release for Colombia, though, wasn’t Grace but the Live at Sin-é EP. The EP was just a four-song set was released to draw attention to the power of Buckley’s voice. The full set, released ten years later, instead gave us a captivating and wonderfully intimate (you can even hear the odd clink of coffee cups) performance of some twenty plus songs interspersed with monologues and jokes – we get works in progress of songs like ‘Grace’, ‘Last Goodbye’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ along with covers of Led Zeppelin, Dylan, Nina Simone, Van Morrison and, of course, his take on ‘Hallelujah’ all armed with just his voice and a guitar. For a small coffee house show, Buckley commits fully and for all the myth and mystery that’s build up over the years since his passing, it’s a beautiful document of pure talent and the enjoyment of music.
Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol.4: Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
First – it wasn’t captured at The Royal Albert Hall, it was Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It was mislabelled in the bootlegs that so pervaded before its official release. in 1998. It was so extensively bootlegged because it was both a brilliant show and, secondly, the “Judas!” concert.
All these years later it’s hard to conceive of the upset Dylan’s ‘going electric’ caused his folky faithful. Through his 1965-66 tour Dylan would perform a show of two halves: the first alone and the second with his backing band The Hawks for an electric set. Both the heckle and Dylan’s brilliant response – “I don’t believe you…. you’re a liar” – along with Dylan’s instruction to the band to “play fucking loud!” into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ are captured here along with a fantastic performance of fifteen brilliant Dylan songs that are all worth the price of admission alone and captured with brilliant sound quality.
If you don’t trust my opinion on this, take it from Jimmy Page too – he found the bootleg to be the ultimate album and would buy a whenever he found one.
Some honourable mentions and few additional thoughts in place of a tenth for the list…. I’ve only recently begun listening to the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East but it’s a mighty fine thing…. The Clash’s Live at Shea Stadium is a great listen too but a little stiff in parts, capturing them opening for The Who – who’s Live AT Leeds is pretty decent too though I’m not that big a Who fan. Dire Straits deserved better representation than the too-short Alchemy and too-sterile On The Night while one of the best bands I’ve seen live, Pearl Jam have yet to drop a live album that really captures how arse quaking they can be live though Live On Two Legs tries and the same could be said for Pink Floyd – Pulse is another case of too much gloss and The Delicate Sound of Thunder features both an excess of gloss and an excess of songs from A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
I spent a good chunk of time yesterday evening sat on the grass listening – from outside of the festival grounds – to a Sting and The Police tribute act (The Rozzers). Regular readers will know I have a fondness for them that only seems to grow as I get older. Hearing some of their classics played out at such volume by a very accomplished band was actually more of a treat than I was expecting it be and reinforced to me just how many great tunes those three chaps put to tape (we wandered away once they started with ‘Fields of Gold’ – there’s only so much vomit you can get in a bucket after all).
In their relatively short nine year original span they put out five albums of increasing depth that saw them get better with each outing before the inevitable inter-band tensions arose and Sting’s ego grew so large that it become self-aware, ate Andy Sumner and made a drumstick-kebab with Stewart Copeland and convinced The Artist Formerly Known As Gordon that jazz was the way to go (that’s if Wikipedia is to be believed). It’s often been suggested that if they’d been allowed to have a bit more time off between albums that they would’ve been around longer but there’s both that thing about hindsight and the fact that A&M had money to be made there and then.
While Sting may have struggled with truly strong lyrics – see Aphoristic’s brilliant take on this – the trio always had a knack for creating great tunes, surging out with the energy of the punk scene with genuine musicality and some brilliant song dynamics.
So, without a red dress in site, here are five crackers from The Police which, conveniently, seem. to have fallen as one from each album.
Truth Hits Everybody
Message In A Bottle
An obvious choice, perhaps, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a cracker.
Driven To Tears
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
I still think it’s the most wonderful gear change in music and, for once, Sting’s lyric ‘and ask her if she’ll marry me, in some old fashioned way’ is pretty decent. Shame about that Sandra Bollox movie
The Police’s later career is where you’ll find most of my favourite cuts. I named Synchronicity my choice for 1983 in the (currently on hiatus due to artistic differences) Albums of My Years series – for me they were at their peak and as both a title track and album opener this is a corker and shows how far they’d come.
Time keeps on slipping, slipping slipping… between posts and while I debate moving another Springsteen series from notebook to keyboard it felt an opportune moment to deposit a selection of those songs that I’ve been enjoying of late.
Built to Spill – Spiderweb
While gaps between Built To Spill albums seem to get longer each time around, When the Wind Forgets Your Name – due in September – is one I’m really looking forward to, Doug Martsch’s guitar playing continues to delight.
Big Thief – Not
Dragon Warm Mountain I Believe In You is easily one of this year’s finest but 2020’s Two Hands still rewards on repeated listens.
The Cure – Doing the Unstuck
Another instance of an anniversary reissue reminding you of the unstoppable march of time… The Cure’s unimpeachable Wish turns 30 this year. Not only does this mean I’ll be able to add the vinyl to my collection without forking out the ridiculous asking price for an original copy but it also means I’ve been joyfully spinning the CD in the car this last week.
Pink Floyd – Dogs (2018 Remix)
After seemingly setting aside their bickering (at least about this subject), the much-touted remix of Animals is almost upon us. How much it adds to an already exceptional album is gonna be one for debate by other people but I’m loving the new cover art.
Rickie Lee Jones – We Belong Together
It’s just an addictive classic. That piano, her voice, the vibe… I could soak in it on repeat all day long.
The Shipping News – Axons and Dendtrites
Flies The Fields is a brilliant album – from the wave of post-rock that was still in thrall to Slint rather than Godspeed! – but this, the album opener, remains a firm favourite that I’ve been replaying a lot recently after catching its use on screen in something that now escapes me.
Billy Joel – New York State of Mind
Speaking of ‘that piano’ and catching things in use on the screen… someone recommended The Boys to me and I ended up bingeing my way through the lot and, for those unfamiliar, Billy Joel features heavily – though not this song. This song ended up in my head after my son was spinning his The Muppet Show 2 album recently which features Floyd’s cover. From there it was a ‘now let’s hear the original’ – easily one of Joel’s finest (of which he has many).
Here we go then – down the last five, the cream of the crop, the Harrisons of the group, the Toxic Twins’ most… toxic? Aerosmith’s top five albums in my Least to Most favourite order:
I’m trying to avoid repeating what’s either well-documented or common knowledge at this point but it’s impossible to mention Permanent Vacation without mentioning that this Aerosmith’s big, balls-out, no holds barred attempt at a comeback after both the disappointing reaction and sales garnered by their first album for Geffen, Done With Mirrors.
Between the two albums lay both an unexpectedly massive cross-over hit courtesy of their Run-DMC and getting clean – a process well documented with Tyler and Perry’s books along with the band’s ‘Walk This Way’ detailing the process in surprisingly open detail for those interested.
That means Permanent Vacation was the first time the band recorded free of any drugs – they were already baby-stepping their way in on their first – and clearly working hard to get back to the top.
There are negatives to this album – the over-wrought production courtesy of Bruce Fairbairn, the plethora of outside songwriters (apparently Holly Knight’s sole contribution was changing ‘Rag Time’ to ‘Rag Doll’ – bing, bang, boom ‘hit’ and songwriting-credit)… but, but BUT. I slipped this cd into the car for the first time in a while recently and it’s still a fucking fun record. It positively stinks of fun. Maybe we don’t need to hear ‘Dude (Looks Like A Lady)’ again (especially in 2022) and the cover of ‘I’m Down’ is as pointless as a chocolate fireguard, but the album works, especially the non-singles like ‘Hearts Done Time’ (written by Perry and Desmond Child while Tyler was finishing rehab), ‘Hangman Jury’ and ‘Girl Keeps Coming Apart’ are a blast to listen to. It’s a perfectly-wrapped time capsule to 1987 when a newly invigorated Aerosmith were back on form and rediscovering the joy of making music.
Get Your Wings
Unhappy with the way album number one turned out in terms of sound and sales (no promotion, no airplay, no interviews etc), Aerosmith went at it hard for their second. Get Your Wings‘ recording was preceded by intense rehearsals and pre-production refining of songs that had begun taking shape on the road. And while Get Your Wings may initially have met a similar fate in the sales department (though it would go on to sell a few million) it was not only reviewed more widely but met positive reviews. With due reason: it’s on Get Your Wings that Aerosmith not only hit its stride but, with Jack Douglas manning the boards, managed to get the capturing of that sound right too.
Get Your Wings, then, contains some of their best songs – ‘Same Old Song and Dance’ (I’ve still not found an explanation why Joe Perry didn’t play the lead on the record’s version or ‘Train Kept A Rollin’ – in fact he plays very little lead on this one) and ‘Seasons of Wither’ should sit high on anyone’s lists – and is one of their finest moments. Still relatively fresh out of the gates as a band, the song-writing is coming together brilliantly and the band – tighter now from a lot of touring to push their first album and build their fan-base outside of Boston – bring the goods. This is where they shed the uncertainty of their first album and find the sound and formula that would propel them to the top over the next few years.
Toys In The Attic
If Get Your Wings benefited from the band’s maturation as songwriters and tightness from touring, the jump from touring behind that powered their next, Toys In The Attic even more notably from both the riffs that Brad Whitford and Joe Perry bought back from the road to the confidence they bought with them to performing in the studio.
Without the benefit of having years to work on the songs, Toys In The Attic was Aerosmith starting from scratch and working to a deadline. It worked: along with Perry and Whitford, Tom Hamilton bought two songs to the table and while I can take or leave ‘Uncle Salty’ I defy anyone to crank up ‘Sweet Emotion’ and not get a kick from it. Meanwhile ‘Toys In The Attic’, ‘Walk This Way’, ‘No More No More’ and even ‘You See Me Crying’ (in all its 70’s rock extravagance) rank among their finest songs and, with Jack Douglas now adapt at capturing the band’s sound and energy, Toys In The Attic was Aerosmith’s breakthrough and it still holds up as a cracker today.
Interesting (probably not very) side-note: Run-DMC thought the name of the band was Toys In The Attic and the album that was home to ‘Walk This Way’ was called Aerosmith.
Why is Pump number 2 on this list? Because it’s so fucking good, that’s why. It’s the highlight of their second charge – it may not have hit the same sales figures as Get A Grip did but where that album felt bloated, Pump is taught at ten tracks. You can tell this is before the era of cd-bloat as ‘The Other Side’ meant ‘Deuces Are Wild’ was canned rather than expanded to eleven tracks.
There’s a massive leap between Permanent Vacation and Pump – the band don’t sound lost in the production sheen that coated their comeback album, instead they’re positively flexing in it and sounding, well, pumped up.
There are less outside co-writes, the songs revel in their amped-up sound and on Pump the gritty, raunch-n-blues of Aerosmith’s peak is incorporated into the mix and the band are clearly powerfully focused as though to prove the point that their comeback was no fluke and they could still bring the good without song doctors – Tyler and Perry had a hand on 7 of the 10 tracks, there’s a Tyler/Whitford and Tyler / Hamilton song here and only 4 of the tracks feature non-band writers. In comparison twelve of Get A Grip‘s fourteen songs featured outside writers and the band alone were responsible for only three of Permanent Vacation‘s songs.
Everything on this album sounds right – even with all the extra horns and synths of the era ‘The Other Side’ rocks hard, ‘Young Lust’ is as good an opener as they’ve done and ‘What It Takes’ is the only of their ballads worth tuning in – it’s also the only one on the album really.
Despite the cringe-worthy Spinal Tap-isms that abounded on ‘The Making of Pump’ – this is the sound of a band firing on every cylinder. They were clean and they were tighter than a duck’s arse again after a massive tour in support of Permanent Vacation – this is only real instance where they managed to combine the ‘hit making’ formula that pervaded their later career with the best of their ‘vintage’ and it worked – great songs, great performances and not an ounce of fat.
It couldn’t really be anything else that sits at the top of the pile here but Rocks. This is the quintessential Aerosmith album – it’s the sound of them at their utter peak, managing to capture their rawest, hardest album full of great songs even in the face of massive quantities of drugs being ingested like they were training for the snortolympics.
‘Back In The Saddle’, ‘Last Child’, ‘Rats in the Cellar’, ‘Nobody’s Fault’, ‘Lick and a Promise’… not only is Rocks stuffed with more great songs than anything else they’ve done but it works as a start-to-finish album too. I mean, you’d have to be off your tits on something to come up with all the details of ‘Back In The Saddle’ – the ‘heeya’ calls and fucking hoof beats, the actual whip cracks (which were abandoned after multiple bloody attempts yielded a shit sound so replaced by whipping a microphone cord and using cap gun – as if this were the more sensible route), Tyler taping tambourines to his boots and stomping around the studio, Perry playing a six-string bass like a guitar and the yodels on the fade-out… and yet it’s fucking glorious because of all that and because it’s all underpinned by the sound of the band at their peak – screaming leads, absolute power from the rhythm and Tyler giving it all in the name of the song. Which, as it turns out, is as good a summary of the whole album as you could get from me.
Aaaand we’re back in the saddle having sorted the wheat from the chaff and lobbed out the sloppier entries of Aerosmith’s fifteen-strong studio album run. So, without further ado…
Done With Mirrors
In an ideal world, this would have been Aerosmith’s comeback album. Hell, it’s what it was meant to be. Freshly reunited and tight after some solid touring, the songs here deliver enough of the riff-and-raunch blues rock vibe to cut through the murk of Rock in a Hard Place and without the added songwriters and synthesisers that would permeate their comeback album proper in a couple of years.
The only missing ingredient was a group of killer songs. The album kicks off by repurposing the Joe Perry Project ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’ with Tyler’s licks and proceeds to rollick through a series of lukewarm tunes. While tracks like ‘My First Your Face’ and ‘The Reason A Dog’ stand out and Ted Templeman does a good job capturing the band, there’s still a lack of focus here but at least it gave them enough of a jolt of life to get them to their next album as sobriety and rebirth beckoned.
Get A Grip
By 1993 Aerosmith had conquered their addictions and the charts and become monstrously successful. Now in their forties, Get A Grip would push them to even dizzier heights as it went on to become their biggest seller and give birth to seven singles with the likes of ‘Crazy’, ‘Cryin” and ‘Living On The Edge’ becoming mainstays on MTV. There’s a lot to enjoy on Get A Grip but that’s just it: there’s a lot. Released as grunge and alt-rock were in their ascendency, Get A Grip suffers from CD bloat and being too obvious a stab at commercial success (yes, it did pay off).
You could point a finger at John Kalodner who heard a slimmer version of the album and decided it didn’t contain enough hits and sent them back to Desmond Child for another ballad or two, but it’s not like anybody really said ‘nah, you’re alright mate.’ This, then, is the album where the band were all too apparent in mining the formula that had delivered them to their new heights. While the album sounds great at times, it’s a pretty shallow affair compared to their best.
I slip Nine Lives here ahead of Get A Grip because I go back to it most. Perhaps because it’s the first of their albums I bought on release but mainly because, while it’s certainly every bit as calculated, the rawer sound captured by Kevin Shirley suits their raunchier take on blues rock more than the sheen that Bruce Fairbairn swathed its predecessor in.
Nine Lives nearly broke the band, again. Troubles were abounding with an over-controlling manager that was spreading distrust amongst his charges and drummer Joey Kramer suffered a nervous breakdown. Tyler was enthused by Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and wanted to record with Glen Ballard – who shares writing credits on three of the eventual album’s songs -but Colombia didn’t dig the directions. With Kramer recovered the band re-recorded from scratch with Kevin Shirley (record labels seem to have had a lot of patience back then) and Nine Lives was delivered in 1997.
There may not be a single song without an outside co-write and a few that are clearly A&R men’s tick boxes but there’s more diversity to the sound, more of a willingness to try different sounds and Shirley’s sanding off of the sheen gives the album a nicer, more appropriate town that was both appropriate to the era and the band’s sound. Other songs cut during this period like ‘What Kind of Love Are You On?’ suggested more this edge would follow…
Unfortunately shortly after the album’s release Dianne Warren gave the band a song called ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ (which would be stapled to later, re-released versions of the album) and give them their first number one, something that Tyler would be trying to chase forevermore.
I can understand why some may rank this higher but for me, Aerosmith’s debut isn’t as good as it could be and I don’t revisit it anywhere near as much as anything below this point. The songs are good and the all the calling points that would fuel their later success are already in place from the get-go but it’s still very much the sound of a first album: there are some stumbles, the songs aren’t as tight as they would become, the recording is flat, the sound is muddled and Tyler’s affected vocals don’t sit right.
But, for all that, it’s still an enjoyable blast of Aerosmith at the starter’s gun. ‘Dream On’ and ‘Mama Kin’ are early masterpieces that are still in sets today for a reason, Perry and Whitford’s guitar interplay already established and the power in their sound that would push them to be one of America’s biggest rock acts of the decade are laid on the line for all to see and they’d never sound this young and fresh again. It’s just a big shame they couldn’t get recording that sound right just yet.
Draw The Line
1977: Aerosmith are riding high and few are higher than its members at this point. So let’s get the fuck outta Dodge and put them up in an old convent – away from distractions – to record their new album. What could go wrong? It’s not like they’re gonna bring their toys or their drug dealers will follow, right? Right?
Joe Perry and Steven Tyler wrote just three songs together. They no-longer “gave a fuck” to quote Perry directly. The band – minus Perry – and producer Jack Douglas put together songs like ‘The Hand That Feeds’ and ‘Kings And Queen’ with Perry adding rhythm guitar to the latter and not playing at all on the former. There were songs that came in complete – like Perry’s ‘Bright Light Fright’ and songs that Tyler would take months to write lyrics to long after the band had left the confines of their convent.
And yet, Draw The Line still has more killer than filler and works more often than it doesn’t. Jack Douglas was by now a dab hand at recording the band as they needed to sound and songs as great as the title track, ‘Kings and Queens’ and ‘I Wanna Know Why’ are beyond strong enough to make up for ‘The Hand That Feeds’ and if closing with a cover of ‘Milk Cow Blues’ could be seen as odd choice by a band lacking original material, Perry’s playing on it and his own ‘Bright Light Flash’ (a tribute to the rising punk scene) more than hit the mark.
While they were starting to run out of gas, for Draw The Line – in contrast to Night In The Ruts just two years later – they were only just off their peak and the album still proved they had enough in them to let it rip when it mattered.
The Bad Boys of Boston, the Toxic Twins: Aerosmith. They’ve been around so long that JC was probably humming ‘Dream On’ from his lofty perch and yet are still packing in the crowds. Having kicked off from 1325 Commonwealth Avenue in 1970 their career has had a couple of dizzying peaks and some very seedy* lows. You can neatly slice their output into three decades and almost dismiss the rest, given that since 2000 we’ve had just two proper studio albums and there’s not that many acts out there that have had such success in each.
I’d been mulling over how I’d rank Aerosmith’s albums in my notebook of lists for sometime but John over at 2Loud2Old Music got straight in with both an album by album review series and his own ranking. So I thought it time to sit down and spit out my own Least to Most ranking of Aerosmith’s fifteen studio albums – a number that neatly divides into three – based on nothing scientific other than personal preference.
So let’s get started with the least favourite – and there’s no prizes for guessing that we start with….
Just Push Play
I mean it’s a fucking dog of an album from its cover to its contents. It came after yet another successful decade with plenty of great tunes and the band reaching the dizzying heights of chart-topping with that tosh from Armageddon but Just Push Play was a massive misfire from which they never really recovered. Forget hitting self-destruct with drugs, this time it was self-destruct with an album that relied on computer production, co-writes galore and a huge lack of genuine band interaction.
There were no demos left at the end of this record to be able to say ‘well there are the bones of a good album here’ because everything was plugged into ProTools and layered up like a wedding cake. There’s a song called ‘Trip-Hoppin’ for fuck sake. There’s not a single Tyler / Perry joint on here that isn’t also shared with other song-writers as Tyler, by all accounts, was so desperate for another monster hit that he wouldn’t work alone with Perry. Instead of the rawer power of Nine Lives we got over-glossed balladry and over-produced, gimmicky attempts at rockers that sounded like what it was: a group of blokes in their fifties trying to appeal to a dynamic that wasn’t interested in a group of blokes in their fifties. Instead of playing to their strengths they indulged in the wrong stuff. Thankfully ‘Jaded’ did the business in the charts enough to keep them going and playing the hits to large audiences but this really killed their momentum.
Music From Another Dimension
And, in two hits at the bottom of the list we’ve covered the only albums of original material the band have put out in this millennium. I was really rooting fro Music From Another Dimension when it came out – all the right ingredients were in place: the band were recording in the same room again, Jack Douglas was back on board. Hell, when it came out I really dug it…. for a while. Yet time and comparison to the rest of their catalogue doesn’t do it any favours.
There a lot more better songs on here than on Just Push Play yet there are also some utter howlers. I / you / we couldn’t expect the band to out an album this late into their career that sounded ‘like the old days’ and yet it seems they tried to do that. Only instead of going back to the 70s, say, they went for the kitchen-sink approach of Get A Grip only without the tunes or the edge. For every great riff attack like ‘Out Go The Lights’ there are two turds like ‘What Could Have Been Love’ or ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’ – featuring Carrie Underwood for fuck sake! Why? Probably because Tyler was still thinking that this is how you make a hit.
Here Aerosmith managed to both play to their strengths and their weaknesses in an effort to cover every possible base. Unfortunately there are too many of the weaknesses and a little too much filler to make this the album it could have been – at least the sound is more organic and suited to Aerosmith than it had been in a while.
Rock In A Hard Place
Come back, Joe: all is forgiven. There’s no Joe Perry on Rock In A Hard Place, he’d left to return some video tapes. Brad Whitford also left during the recording of the album. Jimmy Crespo filled in on guitar. ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ and ‘Lightning Strike’ bring home the goods and ‘Jailbait’ has got to be one of those songs Perry heard and thought ‘why the fuck am I not on this?’ – it’s a real strong Aerosmith song. There’s not a lot more though.
Crespo and, later, Rick Duffay may have tried to inject some new momentum into the band but with addiction sucking the life and creativity out of Tyler, Rock In A Hard Place feels like a plaster over a gaping wound rather than an attempt at real damage control – management pushing for another album and to keep the thing rolling as long as they could rather than taking a much-needed pause. If Night In The Ruts was sounding like the beginning of the end, Rock In A Hard Place sounds like the batteries have run dry.
There are a few pleasant surprises and what remained of the band could sting bring the power but the overall feeling is of a rudderless ship. They even put bloody Stone Henge on the cover to give Spinal Tap plenty of ammo.
Night In The Ruts
And here we go – a band running out of steam. More appropriate this is a band falling apart. Night In The Ruts was started early in 1979 with Jack Douglas and a full band. It was finished late in 1979 with Gary Lyons. In between was a lot of conflict, a lot of stalling and a whole fucking lot of drugs.
With basic tracks laid down Tyler couldn’t come up with lyrics. For months. During which time Perry discovered he owed $80,000 in room service bills (that’s a lot peanuts and cable porn, Joe) and was encouraged to cut a solo album to pay it off. The band’s management, desperate to get another hit as Draw The Line hadn’t cut the sales figures they wanted – and to get the band back on the road – and their pockets lined fuller, decided Jack Douglas couldn’t control the band and fired him. It was true; he couldn’t. But then nobody could. Substance abuse had control. This was the blow-up point for Aerosmith and by the time the album came out Perry wasn’t in the band anymore and Brad Whitford was sauntering slowly toward the exit.
But for all that – Night In The Ruts has it’s fair share of good cuts. ‘Cheese Cake’, ‘Bone to Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy)’ have all the right moves and ‘No Surprize’ is an outright Aerosmith classic. Unfortunately – and telling of Tyler’s issue with lyrics – three of the album’s nine tracks are covers, though both ‘Reefer Head Woman’ and ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ are both worth tuning in for. Night In The Ruts may be Aerosmith’s worst of their first decade but the good stuff here is still really good, giving it the riffs even as it all falls down around them.
Honkin’ On Bobo
The start of ‘the naughties’** were a weird time for Aerosmith. After serendipity lead them to the sweet spot in each of the previous three, it was eluding them in this decade. With the taste of disappointment from Just Push Play lingering even after judicious application of topical cream attempts to get back into the studio for a new Aerosmith album were failing.
Instead we got another compilation with ‘new’ songs – one of which was so bad and obviously cloying attempt at a hit the rest of the band refused to be in the video for it – and soundtrack contributions. There was talk of an album made up of previously discarded tracks (I’ve got a feeling some of them ended up on Music From Another Dimension), Tyler wouldn’t write alone with Perry. Perry didn’t want to be tied to writing with Steven’s ever-present co-writer Marti Frederikson who, like Tyler, wanted to make more attempts at pop hits. Somehow the idea of a ‘blues’ covers album was floated and jumped on. Tyler wouldn’t have to worry about writing lyrics and a sense of letting off steam can be heard in the finished result.
Jack Douglas was back on board and the sound here is a welcome step away from the polish of Just Push Play. It was never going to be a blues album proper – Aerosmith always leaned to blues rock vs pure blues so no Blue and Lonesome revelations here, just Aerosmith giving it some juice to eleven covers and one pretty tepid original. The band are tighter than a duck’s arse and while there are no big surprises on the track listing, they’ve come up trumps here.
Why doesn’t it sit higher? It’s a covers album, essentially. The sole original track doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot and sounds a little contrived in the company of those that it’s clearly aping and the album feels a little overdone still in the way that they seem to have become stuck in. A blues album should’ve been the opportunity to loosen up a little, feel free to roughen up the sound and production a little and get raw, but they didn’t subscribe to that notion.
*I’m not going to go into it but convincing your under-age girlfriend’s parents to give you legal guardianship so you can take her on tour, get her addicted to drugs, pregnant and into an abortion clinic is pretty fucking seedy, Steven.
As I seem to be slipping back into the habit of posting more frequently, it feels like a fitting time to drop one of those ‘this is what I’ve been listening to’ posts that have peppered this blog previously as we head giddily into the weekend.
Pink Floyd – Hey Hey, Rise Up
Is this cheating? It only came out today but I’ve listened to it a good half dozen or so times already and it grows on me more each time. The first new Pink Floyd song in 28 years (songs from The Endless River were re-heated leftovers after all) is real grower – a gentle very-Floyd strum accompanying a powerful vocal from Ukrainian singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk giving way after a minute or so to a suitably screaming solo from David Gilmour that seems to be more an anguished scream of a protest song and keeps reaching those glorious notes so associated with the guitarist and Floyd. I’ve got a feeling that this song – a reaction to extraordinary times with added fuel as a result of Gilmour’s personal connection – is likely a one-off though.
The War On Drugs – I Don’t Wanna Wait
It took me until this year to fall head over heels with The War On Drugs’ I Don’t Live Here Anymore because Atlantic Records are one of those major labels who seem to enjoy taking the piss with prices. The album was going for close to £40 on my preferred format and the fact that I could usually pick up a double on a lesser money grabbing label for half that meant I didn’t add it to my collection until I picked up the CD for under a fiver this year. It’s a brilliant album that’s been in the car pretty solidly over the last month or three. ‘I Don’t Wanna Wait’ is both a highlight and representative of the album as a whole – it builds from a deceptively simple very-80s beat before expanding into a much more involved, seemingly boundless song that’s dripping in that sun-kissed AOR vibe circa ’87 (think Tunnel of Love) underpinned by a guitars whose tone and fluidity leave me feeling sticky and satisfied.
The Mysterines – Hung Up
I’ve mentioned this group before and have been digging every song they’ve released thus far as they were on of those bands oft-played on 6Music during my commute. I’ve been spinning and loving their debut Reeling this week after I was able to make it to my usual dealer to collect my pre-order and I’m looking forward to where they take it next.
Loop – Heaven’s End
I have to wonder if the guy that owns my usual record shop has one of those ‘I will now sell five copies of “The Three EPs” by The Beta Band’ moments before I visit because when I stopped by to pick-up The Mysterines’ record he was playing an album to which both my wife and I both said “who is this?… it’s good!” As a result Loop’s debut Heaven’s End from 1987 is nestled in my collection and has been played quite a bit since. Think raw, Detroit-punk imbued trance-rock with hypnotic, discordant guitars and you’re on the way. I thought it was early Mudhoney at first but there’s elements of shoegaze in the mix with these drone-like soundscapes. I read a review that referred to this as “sound(ing) like the soundtrack to a missing hallucination scene from Easy Rider.”
Monty Python – I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song on the Radio
My son has been discovering and generally enjoying Monty Python of late. Given that he’s only 8 there’s plenty that gets skipped or simply not shown but he was so loving ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ that the ’45 was added to the collection. This one was on the flip side and has probably been played more as it seems to hit the same mass enjoyment buttons shared by 8 and 41 year olds.
Dire Straits – News
I went to a record fair last weekend and all I got was this lousy t-shirt the only record I walked away with was Dire Strait’s Communique. A nice, clean and well-kept copy for a fiver hits about right for me. I think Communique gets a bit of a bad rap – it was a bit of a rush job after their first album took off and doesn’t have a hook akin to ‘Sultans of Swing’ and isn’t a patch on Making Movies but in ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, ‘News’, ‘Where Do You Think You’re Going?’ ‘Angel of Mercy’ and ‘Portobello Belle’ does has have five cracking Dire Straits song and it’s more laid-back, subdued style is perfect for a certain vibe.
Apparently it’s my ‘WordPress Anniversary’ today. Well, at least with this blog. I say this only to make those of you who have failed to send gifts my way feel guilty.
To mark this most important of events I thought I’d be achingly original and put together a list – Ten great Track Tens.
Ten. In the seventies some couldn’t keep it up that long whereas by the nineties’ era of CD bloat some went on much longer. Some use it as a ‘leave them wanting more’ final track while for others it’s the point at which they’re in the midst of their second wind. For many, though, it’s just filler.
Anywho, without further prattle, ceremony here’s a sweep of some pretty solid tracks that also happen to be the tenth tune on an album – while a little bit of a sausage-fest* – also serves to cover most of what this blog has in the last ten.
Pearl Jam – Present Tense
Bob Dylan – The Man In Me
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness On The Edge of Town
Noir Desir – Lost
Snail Mail – Mia
Tom Petty – Alright For Now
Pink Floyd – Lost for Words
Weezer – Only In Dreams
The Replacements – Skyway
Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
*only down to the lack of stand out tracks that happened to sit between the ninth and eleventh ones.