Albums of my years – 2020

First off – yes, I’m jumping ahead by a fair leap from the last of this series. Why? Well, the original premise was to go through each of those years leading up to my 40th. Problem is I didn’t account for my own lapse in prompt posting, the restraints such an ambitious series has on getting out other posts (I’ve still a couple more Bruce posts in the tank and countless others that were in the works) and that target drifted past last October. 2020 was a bloody weird one for me, for all of us I’m sure, and while I had more time on my hands as a result of spending the majority of it on furlough (and a small part job hunting) and coming to terms with release from a toxic work environment for some years and its impact, I simply wasn’t in the mental state needed to keep a schedule and get that target home. Plus – given that it’s now still just about January – it feels more fitting now to blast out a 2020 wrap up and fill in the gaps on an ad-hoc basis.

2020 was, understandably, a real weird one in music from February onwards. Most music news focused on the cancellation of tours, delays in releases and – most sadly – those who had died after contracting Covid-19. As we got used to the new state of things artists both decided to release albums anyway or, often, had so much time off-cycle that they were able to turn around entire albums in the lockdowns that most of the world were under (and still are, here, as I type). Music news and the presentation of new music shifted into a different phase as ‘guest spots’ on TV shows came via webcams and concerts were streamed from artists’ homes and rehearsal spaces right into those of the audience. While this served a welcome relief and distraction for music lovers including myself, I cannot overstate how damaging an impact this pandemic has had and is having on the events industry.

With the news cycle this year being one of the strangest, it’s easy to forget some of the events that took place in 2020. Hell, March 2020 seems like a decade ago so the fact that, say, Pearl Jam released their first album in seven years is almost forgotten. That they too had the anticipated rollout and tour cancelled no doubt threw a spanner in the works. While we’re still on the subject of the news cycle I think we can, all of us around the right-thinking world that is, agree that the best news to come out of 2020 was the defeat of that contemptible sack of shit and a potential end to the plain insanity and ‘alternative-fact’ delirium. Well done America and thanks.

The start of the year saw reunions and reunion tours announced for bands like Genesis and Rage Against the Machine only for them to be promptly postponed, leaving them in the odd position of being together again but not really. It would be hard for a band to be together long enough to decide to break up in 2020 – a few did but nobody that you’d call any great shakes with the exception, for me, of Milk Teeth – but we lost a lot of great musicians in 2020. Thanks to Coronavirus we said goodbye to John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Country singer and fried chicken connoisseur Kenny Rogers died at age 81 as did Bill Withers and Spencer Davis. Neil Peart, long held in high regard as one of the greatest drummers to sit on the stool, died in January, Little Richard passed away in May. We also said farewell to Peter Green, blues guitarist of choice and founder of Fleetwood Mac, Justin Townes Earle and Ennio Morricone – one of the most emotive film composers to score a film – left us in July at the ripe old age of 91. And perhaps most surprisingly, after increasing rumours of ill health, Eddie Van Halen lost his battle with cancer in October. A guitar player like no other, he was a real ‘light the fuse and watch the fireworks’ player who seemed unable to pick up an instrument without riffs and melodies falling out of him.

So what albums made it through? It was a great year for post-rock releases. Caspian’s In Circles, Toundra’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a re-imagined soundtrack for a silent German horror film), Audiolepsia’s Waves & Particles and I Hear Sirens’ Stella Mori all got a lot of ear time in 2020.

Stone Temple Pilots released their second album with singer Jeff Gutt (I always have to double check that’s actually his name) – Perdida is ‘ok’ but it’s a long way from Core. Nada Surf’s Never Not Together is pleasant enough but nothing to really stick in the mind like Lucky and Bob Dylan emerged from years of cover albums to release his first album of original songs in eight years: Rough and Rowdy Ways. If not being able to tour is affecting anyone it’s gotta be bothering Bob – not that he’s likely to be at a loss having sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal for a rumoured $350 million. I don’t think I’ve listened to the album more than once though. One I have listened to a lot and took almost as long to release is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II. Back in 2015 when The Waterfall was let loose on us, the band said they’d recorded two album’s worth of material and the second would soon follow…. since then nothing. Until Jim James took a walk during lockdown with his iPod and heard the songs again, prompting its release shortly after. It was worth the wait but I’m itching for some ‘new’ MMJ…

I started getting into Courtney Marie Matthews in 2019 and was pretty chuffed when she released Old Flowers in 2020 – a gorgeous album with lots of brooding and burning guitar leads buried in a lush atmosphere supporting her great vocals. ‘If I Told’, in particular received many a repeated listen:

In a ‘back from the past’ file you’ll find Bush – known for finding more success in the States on the back of the post-Grunge boom than in the UK – but they’ve been back together for a while and putting out music that’s pretty bloody strong considering, their 2020 album The Kingdom got a good few streams my end as did Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks which is a surprisingly strong and consistently good album given I’d almost completely tuned out of new music from Alanis for over a decade. Somewhere in there I also discovered the music of Rose City Band in 2020 – via a real vibe of an album Summerlong that you could just put on loop and drift away to somewhere else in your mind.

Milk Teeth released their second album, following a series of EPs,  a self-titled effort brimming with their mix of 90’s inspired punk and rock before calling it a day. Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was found Bright Eyes returning nine years after their last effort with a much strong effort that I was expecting though I’ve yet to part with coin for it. One I happily did part with coin for was Thurston Moore’s By The Fire – a great album that’s probably the strongest of his post-Sonic Youth and, with Steve Shelley handling a lot of the drum duty, is as close to that band’s sound as you’re gonna find on a new release. Big Thief were a big discovery for me in 2019, in the space of a year I went from not having heard of them to grabbing each of their four albums (two of which were released in 2019 alone) and getting very quickly addicted. For some reason I was a little late, then, in listening to Adrianne Lenker’s 2020 release Songs and Instrumentals but I’m glad I did – it’s my favourite of her solo work to date and very much worth a listen.

Billy Corgan decided to stop being a moaning dickhead long enough to make another Smashing Pumpkins album – Cyr is a double album in which I doubt there’s even a single good album. Someone really, really needs to tell him ‘nah’ more often.

For all that, when it comes to new music (as opposed to the discovery of new-to-me bands and older music that seemed to dominate 2020 for me listening wise), there were two albums that got the most ear time with me and it’s unlikely to be any surprise which. Both had been the subject of rumours swirling ahead of their actual drop and both proved a very welcome relief in terms of both quality and distraction from the world’s troubles.

So let’s do this:

Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 album Western Stars, his first since his residency on Braodway, was a a real outlier in his catalogue. A ‘solo’ album in the sense that it wasn’t an E Street Band affair but nonetheless bathed in sound. There was to be no tour. A ‘live’ film and soundtrack quickly followed and then the rumours started as Bruce mentioned he’d started writing for ‘the band’. And then, when we needed it most after half a year thwarted by lockdowns and pandemic, the announcement came: the new Bruce Springsteen album, backed by the E Street Band, Letter To You was coming. Not only that, but it was recorded in a matter of days, live in the studio, minimal overdubs! Could it be? Could the sound of the E Street Band in its prime – Bruce hadn’t recorded live with the band without at least demoing the material since the early 80s – without the interference of extra layers and gimmicks that had afflicted his last three albums (even Western Stars couldn’t escape it) all produced by Ron Aniello? The answer was very much ‘yes, yes and YES!’

Letter To You is Springsteen’s finest album since Magic and the sound of the E Street Band (with the Charles Giordano and Jake Clemons filling in for the faithful departed) at its glorious best in a way it hasn’t been captured on ‘tape’ in a long-ass time. The album moves with a confidence and power that I honestly didn’t expect was there anymore. There’s something both comforting and exciting about hearing that sound on new songs that just makes you want to head straight back to the start after finishing the album.

It’s a joy to hear those older (‘Janey Needs a Shooter’, ‘If I Was The Priest’ and ‘Song for Orphans’ date back to ’72) songs songs dusted off and, at last, given life. The newer songs – which all came quickly to Bruce once he started playing a guitar given to him by a fan – sit amongst his best. There’s at once a sense of ‘this is who were then and this is who we are now’ as there’s no getting around the fact that time marches on (hell, it’s there in his voice) while at the same time letting you know that there’s still gas in the tank to go.

While Western Stars was an album that wouldn’t really transfer to the world’s stadiums and arenas, Letter To You brims with songs that need to be heard live – let’s hope that tour can happen soon.

And that just leaves…

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

Once upon a time you could set your clock by Pearl Jam releases. Every 18 months or so you’d get another slab of the great stuff. But that schedule, sadly, is close to 20 years ago… gaps between albums started to get longer: nearly four years separated Riot Act and Pearl Jam, another three until Backspacer, then four again before we got Lightning Bolt and then…. the longest wait to date came to end this year with Gigaton, their first album in seven long years and their first since 2006 with a new producer; sessions and work with Brendan O’Brien not hitting the mark for the band (or fans, see ‘Can’t Deny Me’).

As a long time fan, I was growing tired of the rumours – the fake supposed track lists and titles (some better than others, most featuring ‘Of The Earth’ and ‘Can’t Deny Me’ as attempts at validity), the ‘massive tour featuring both small venues and stadiums in each city’ and claims of ‘two new albums and an Ed solo’. It would come when it would come. And then, early in 2020, there were some very real hints, snippets of a strange new sound doing the rounds, an app and map to hunt down images around the world, an album cover and, finally, the email from Ten Club arrived ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ – it was time!

Now, I’ll be honest, at first I was a little ‘do what?’ But by the end I was hooked and going back for another spin – a lot more than can be said for ‘Can’t Deny Me’. It’s definitely Pearl Jam but it’s Pearl Jam sounding more focused and engaged than they have on record for a while, working with Josh Evans had clearly allowed them to take a freer approach to their experimental side in the same way as working with Tchad Blake and Adam Kasper had. If this was a sign of what was to come on Gigaton a) sign me up and b) what’s next? Well, ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ showed that ‘DOTC’ was a deliberate left-field choice, it was a more straight-ahead song but, again, the band sounding tighter and more ‘on’. From the conversations online I saw, it did the job of shutting up those bemoaning DOTC’s ‘weird’ sound. And then came ‘Quick Escape’ and I new that Gigaton was going to be great:

It’s a belter of a song, guitars to the forefront and a scathing lyric  – “crossed the border to Morocco, Kashmir to Marrakesh, the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet”. What was I expecting – an album with the experimental textures of Riot Act with the power and engaged lyrics of Pearl Jam. What I got was exactly that and it’s fucking great – even though ‘Buckle Up’ took a lot of listens to not skip.

Since Binaural I’d started to consider Pearl Jam a band of second halves on their albums – from the mid point on things got tastier. ‘Light Years’ through to ‘Parting Ways’, ‘Nothing As It Seems’ through ‘All Or None’, ‘Just Breath’ onwards etc is where you found the juicier cuts of meat. But Gigaton is not only front-loaded, the mid section is dazzling – ‘Seven O’Clock’ is easily Vedder’s wordiest lyric and is powered along by a melody that has the rare distinction of being a ‘Ament, Gossard, McCready, Vedder’ composition, and ‘Take The Long Way’ is one of those great Matt Cameron composition – and closes strong with ‘Comes Then Goes’, ‘Retrograde’ and ‘River Cross’, Vedder’s touching lament on fear and the nature of doubt in life underscored by an antique pump organ (the take used retained from a 2015 demo for the song).

I’ve played this album through so many times this year I’ve lost count – I even picked up the CD too (as Pearl Jam don’t seem to grasp download codes with their vinyl) so I could spin it in the car on my new commute – and am still not tired of it. Pearl Jam haven’t sounded so consistently engaged and willing to ‘go for it’ in pushing their sound for years and it’s a joyous listen that, in a year of turmoil, managed to provide an uplifting soundtrack. It’s an easy choice for me to highlight this as my album of 2020 on so many personal levels.

Messages keeps gettin’ clearer, radio’s on and I’m movin’ ’round my place: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 3

“Much of Born In The USA was recorded live with the full band in three weeks. Then I took a break, recorded Nebraska and didn’t return to my rock album ’til later… Then brain freeze settled in.”

To read Springsteen’s biography Born To Run you’d almost believe that the writing and recording of the songs that made up Born In The USA was a relatively succinct period divided up into a couple of sessions and that the only songs that exist from the time graced the two albums it bore: Nebraska and Born In The USA.

Both Tracks, studio logs and his own Songs book tell a different story though. Between Bruce’s sitting down with “some books, a few scattered guitar picks, and a harmonica rack jostled with the crumbs of the afternoon’s lunch” and, importantly, a Paul Schrader script for a film called ‘Born In The USA’ and penning a song that he initially title ‘Vietman’ and the song hitting the airwaves were several years and a LOT of songs.

Following the decision not to release ‘Murder Incorporated’, and despite the idea of keeping studio costs down, Bruce headed back to New York’s The Hit Factory with The E Street Band from May – June of 1983, though without Van Zandt for the most part.

These final sessions were the end of an era, not realised let alone acknowledged at the time. Aside from the missing Van Zandt’s input, the last sessions for Born In The USA would be the last time Springsteen entered the studio with the full band for a long time to come and would be the last time in which songs would be written and then worked up and arranged with the band until 2020’s Letter To You. It’s also the point at which Springsteen’s prolific period of song writing began to slow and the security around the vault would tighten.

From May through June of ’83, though, Bruce and the band worked on more songs to add to the pile as Springsteen searched for the right sound and feel to make it an album. In fact, it looked like this was it and recording went straight into mixing in July and a possible track listing was born:

Side One:

Born In The USA

Cynthia

None But The Brave

Drop On Down And Cover Me

Shut Out The Light

Johnny Bye Bye

Side Two:

Sugarland

My Love Will Not Let You Down

Follow That Dream

My Hometown

Glory Days

Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart

This album doesn’t ring as cohesive as ‘Murder Incorporated’ ever did. Some of the songs come from the earliest sessions, some from Springsteen’s LA recordings and FIVE new songs from the May-June sessions all of which, as they were mastered, would either go on to serve as b-sides or  appear on Tracks. However, songs like ‘Cynthia’ and ‘Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart’ (she still needed a shooter) aren’t his strongest from this period – Janey the better of the two – and their inclusion here, to me, is indicative that he was doubting the more direct, ‘pop’ leaning of the other material as they harken back more to his work of the previous decade than anything else from this period.\

The lack of cohesion was apparent to all and this version of the album was shelved. The mix and feel of Springsteen’s LA cuts jarring too much with the rest of the cuts. It was back to the studio, again, for another period of writing and recording from the end of ’83 into early ’84. However, it was at this point that ‘brain freeze’ kicked in and work ground to a halt.

Thanks to the increasing security on sessions and the vault the fruit of these last periods of writing and recording are harder to identify. But Springsteen suggests, in ‘Born To Run’ again, that these would have included ‘Bobby Jean’ and ‘No Surrender’ and, er, ‘Refrigerator Blues’, ‘Swoop Man’ and ‘Ida Rose (No One Knows) were also written write before then end of the album’s writing and recording period.

Recognising that Springsteen was at an impasse with his album – and, presumably, with the record label chomping away at his ear – Jon Landau stepped in. He did two things. First, he compiled what he thought were the best of the songs recorded into an eleven-song track list:

Side One:

Born In The USA

I’m Goin’ Down

Cover Me

My Hometown

Bobby Jean

Side Two

My Love Will Not Let You Down

Follow That Dream

Glory Days

Protection

Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart

I’m On Fire

I don’t dig this track list anymore than that created in July of ’83. The songs here are still missing something but it seemed to do the job of giving his charge a charge, if you will. For Springsteen, armed with his newly- recorded songs, then “circled back to my original group of songs. There I found a naturalism and aliveness that couldn’t be argued with. They weren’t exactly what I’d been looking for, but they were what I had.”

They weren’t exactly what I was looking for…. but they were what he had. To me, this suggests a sense of weariness perhaps. Realisation, maybe, that whatever it was he was looking for wasn’t going to be found and he needed to get something, anything, out? Even if it meant it wasn’t as realised to him as, say, Darkness On The Edge of Town was? It’s a sensation that’s gotten across in the album’s first single:

‘Dancing in the Dark’ came from a now-famous moment when Springsteen was told the album needed a ‘hit’ single to get it on fire on the radio. Tired and weary after what was three years plus of writing and recording for the album and having already stockpiled more songs for Disc Three of Tracks to be one of the strongest, Bruce told Landau that if he wanted it so much, he should it himself.  Springsteen refers to the song as being “about my own alienation, fatigue and desire to get from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head…” It was the last song recorded for the album in February 1984.

Born In The USA changed Springsteen’s career. It pushed him from arenas to stadiums, muscle-bound and posing for the big screen projections to the cheap seats with hit after hit released from it. I’ve covered the album itself in more detail as part of my ‘Least To Most’ Springsteen series so won’t reiterate that which I’ve already covered. It may well have been his biggest but it’s far from my favourite and, with hindsight, Springsteen himself has certainly cooled toward it – it’s grab bag feel still apparent. But it did the job.

Following it would never be easy especially when you take into account the album’s arduous gestation period. Tunnel of Love, a far superior album, was a much more subdued affair and it would be another decade or two before Springsteen was comfortable finding his ‘rock’ voice again. The hesitancy and labouring over songs would also be borne out on the much-maligned Human Touch and his second-guessing over releasing albums would permeate through the next decade as there’s another rumoured album that sits abandoned in his vaults.

Perhaps it, like the wealth of songs recorded during Born In The USA‘s sessions, will see light on the in-the-works Tracks 2 project. Of those songs recorded and cut from the album we know of ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘Pink Cadillac’, ‘Shut Out The Light’, ‘Johnny Bye-Bye’, ‘Stand On It’, ‘Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart’, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)’, My Love Will Not Let You Down’, the brilliant ‘Wages of Sin’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Cynthia’, ‘Lion’s Den’, ‘Car Wash’, ‘TV Movie’, ‘Brothers Under The Bridges (’83)’, Man At The Top’, Rockaway the Days’, ‘County Fair’ and ‘None But The Brave’. That’s 20 songs, for those who are counting.

But… those that haven’t been officially released?

Here’s the list, just as indication that there’s a HUGE amount still in the vault. Each of these, in some way, went into the making of the final album and it shows just how much Springsteen put into the sessions even if he never found what he was looking for:

PROTECTION

THE KLANSMAN

SEVEN TEARS

FUGITIVE’S DREAM

ONE LOVE

BETTY JEAN

UNSATISFIED HEART

LITTLE GIRL (LIKE YOU)

DELIVERY MAN

FOLLOW THAT DREAM

SUGARLAND

DON’T BACK DOWN

JAMES LINCOLN DEAR

RICHFIELD WHISTLE

YOUR LOVE IS ALL AROUND ME

STOP THE WAR

BABY I’M SO COLD

BELLS OF SAN SALVADOR

ON THE PROWL

NEBRASKA – E STREET BAND VERSION

ATLANTIC CITY – E STREET BAND VERSION

MANSION ON THE HILL – E STREET BAND VERSION

JOHNNY 99 – E STREET BAND VERSION

HIGHWAY PATROLMAN – E STREET BAND VERSION

USED CARS – E STREET BAND VERSION

OPEN ALL NIGHT – E STREET BAND VERSION

REASON TO BELIEVE – E STREET BAND VERSION

LOSIN’ KIND

FADE TO BLACK

ROBERT FORD

WILLIAM DAVIS

GUN IN EVERY HOME

COMMON GROUND (STAY HUNGRY)

TRUE LOVE IS HARD TO COME BY

I DON’T CARE

THE MONEY WE DIDN’T MAKE

JOHNNY GO DOWN

BODY AND SOUL

SAVIN’ UP

OUT OF WORK

LOVE’S ON THE LINE

CLUB SOUL CITY

HOLD ON (TO WHAT YOU GOT)

WORKIN’ ON IT

GONE, GONE, GONE / SEEDS

KING’S HIGHWAY

JUST AROUND THE CORNER TO THE LIGHT OF DAY

INVITATION TO YOUR PARTY

BAD BOY

GLORY OF LOVE

SHUT DOWN

100 MILES FROM JACKSON

ROLL AWAY THE STONE

SWOOP MAN

UNDER THE BIG SKY

REFRIGERATOR BLUES

IDA ROSE (NO ONE KNOWS)

NOW AND FOREVER / SUMMER ON SIGNAL HILL

That’s an additional 58 songs in varying forms of completion, mastering and circulation. With those already released and the 12 that made up Born In The USA‘s final track list and that gives us…. 90 songs.  With the suggestion – that kicked off this series – from Max Weinberg that nearly 80 were recorded with the band… it’s likely that a few of these were either not recorded or never went beyond Bruce, a guitar and a basic recording.

With less songs written for Tunnel of Love – only an additional eleven on top of the album – and subsequent albums, Born In The USA was the end of Springsteen’s most prolific period of song writing, it even looks to have knackered him out for writing for some time to come. It – along with the missing album from the 90’s – represents one of the few remaining rich seams of  work that have yet to tapped. Those efforts that didn’t make his later-career albums were cherry-picked for the hotchpotch High Hopes and they weren’t anything like as strong as those that made up The Promise or The Ties That Bind collections. So, here’s hoping we get to hear from both these periods soon because there are some fucking BELTERS awaiting mastering and release in this treasure trove:

 

Unsatisfied hearts and murder, incorporated: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 2

“Halfway though recording the biggest record of my life, Steve Van Zandt left the band. I’ve always felt a combination of personal frustration, internal politics and unhappiness with some of my decisions led to Steve’s departure…. the timing must’ve felt to him like now or never. Looking back today, I think Steve would agree it didn’t have to be that way. We could’ve done it all, but we weren’t the same people then that we are today.”

In the summer of 1982, following the decision to release Nebraska as it was, Steve Van Zandt had visited Bruce in a New York City hotel room to discuss his role their creative partnership. Bruce, though, didn’t feel they were in a “partnership” and steered his ship his way, it’s how it had to be to work the way it did. Van Zandt wanted a more collaborative deal and greater involvement. It couldn’t be. So he bid farewell to E Street. Though a formal announcement wouldn’t be made until May 1984 and he’d grace the linear notes of Born In The USA, Van Zandt’s input from this point forward would be minimal.

I think Springsteen is perhaps more sensitive to feedback than he’d let on. Look at the mixed response that Human Touch and Lucky Town garnered – it meant he ended up ditching a complete album’s worth of material in the 90’s in favour of getting the band back together for a Greatest Hits, as though to remind the public of what they loved about him in the first place. The reaction to Nebraska surprised Springsteen. This quiet set of songs, so far from the sound of The River, was oft-cited as one of the year’s best albums by critics and, while many Springsteen fans were surprised by it, the positive feedback to what was essentially a series of demos meant Bruce paused in his push to Born In The USA‘s thumping beats.

After the release of Nebraska and his ‘Jersey Shore Bar Tour’, and best man duties at Van Zandt’s wedding, Bruce took off west. In search of sun and escaping the Jersey Devil over winter? Maybe. But as ’83 arrived, Bruce was already busy. Through winter he’d worked at ‘Thrill Hill Recording’ – his home studio in his Hollywood Hills studio (though in ’83 this wasn’t the ‘bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills’ bought ‘with a trunkload of hundred thousand dollar bills’) – with yet another album’s worth of material emerging. Only these weren’t of the ‘Glory Days’ ilk, these songs were closer to Nebraska in theme and approach.

Sandwiched oddly appropriately between the recently released ‘classic’ concerts and 2019’s Western Stars in my iTunes is a Springsteen bootleg called Unsatisfied Heart. These dozen songs of surprisingly good quality for something so desperately unofficial, all come from those sessions at Thrill Hill Recording over the winter of 82-83. There’s a longer, better take of ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ with ‘County Fair’ making its earliest appearance, but the rest… remain the stuff of vaults and bootlegs (and, perhaps, a Tracks 2, now we know that such a project is in development) and I’m very glad to have these in any form. Why? Well, some of these are among his most compelling to date, even 40 years on.

Take ‘The Klansman’ as an example: never performed live and only one take circulating but while the music is richer than the material on Nebraska (drum beats and synths appearing) the lyrics are pretty heavy “I was ten years old when my Pa said, “Son, some day you will see, when you grow to wear the robes like your brother and me”:

Songs like the two above along with tracks like ‘Richfield Whistle’ – a real hefty story song in the vein of some of The River‘s ‘down on their luck’ character songs – or ‘Sugarland’ are both lost for now in terms of official releases but represented a different tact for Bruce. These are more fleshed out in sounds and found him leaning more toward drum beats and synth sounds that he’d later take further, albeit after Born In The USA had died down and the E Street Band had been parked. It’s a shame but, as is often the way, Bruce was exploring every possible avenue on the road to his next album and was still in the midst of a prolific song writing period.

‘Follow That Dream’, though, seemed to stick out for Bruce and would appear on a few tentative album track lists. Springsteen took Elvis’ 1962 song, changed up the lyrics and rearranged the pacing, slowing it right down:

Having decided that a follow up to Nebraska wasn’t in the works just yet, Springsteen instead returned to the East coast with the idea of combining the work previously recorded with the E Street Band and the best of his Thrill Hill sessions and releasing an album called Murder Incorporated:

  1. Born In The USA
  2. Murder Incorporated
  3. Downbound Train
  4. My Love Will Not Let You Down
  5. Glory Days
  6. This Hard Land
  7. Johnny Bye Bye
  8. Frankie
  9. I’m Going Down
  10. Working On The Highway
  11. I’m On Fire

It’s a stellar track list and he even went so far as to list ‘Sugarland’, ‘Follow That Dream’, ‘Don’t Back Down’, ‘One Love’ and ‘Little Girl (Like You)’ as probable b-sides. Whether or not tracks like the already pretty great ‘Don’t Back Down’ from the Thrill Hill sessions would’ve been re-recorded with the full band… we’ll never know but Murder Incorporated would’ve made one hell of an album. Let’s face it, ‘Born In The USA’ aside, any album with ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Downbound Train’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ on is gonna be a knockout.

Hell, for my money, it would’ve been a more consistent and less ‘grab bag’ album and I’d have rated it a lot higher than I do Born In The USA. Not feeling me? Try it:

See? It fucking kicks.

Instead, though, Bruce decided the timing wasn’t right and – despite the original plan behind getting a four-track to reduce studio time and cost – went for some more studio sessions instead, returning to New York’s Hit Factory in May 1983. Given that Steven Van Zandt – at that point known as ‘Miami Steve’ – was busy working on his second solo album – it would be the band’s first without him and their first sessions in nearly a year.

You’d think they were nearly there but a lot more songs, doubt and writer’s block lay ahead while a good couple of album’s worth of songs lay behind.

 

I Hung My Head – 3 Versions

“Early one morning
With time to kill
I borrowed Jebb’s rifle
And sat on a hill
I saw a lone rider
Crossing the plain
I drew a bead on him
To practice my aim”

The magnificent and multi-talented Jim of Music Enthusiast (if you don’t read it, you’re missing out) has kindly permitted me to half-inch his One Song / Three Versions format for a mo so I better make sure and do this as well as I can.

I Hung My Head was originally, and this surprised me greatly, a song by Mr Gordon Sumner – or Sting as he’s been called for more decades than not. It was featured on his fine 1996 album Mercury Falling and was written from both his fondness for Westerns and his interest in country music – which is also pretty notable on one of the album’s singles, ‘I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying’.

A somewhat dark tune in narrative, it’s the story of a young man who, having borrowed his brother’s rifle, shoots a stranger while practicing his aim. Whether the shot is fired by accident / on purpose isn’t really clear but it’s about facing the consequences – “I orphaned his children, I widowed his wife” – as much as anything else. Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I’m gonna dig a song like that.

So, the original:

It’s a fine song in its writer’s hands but…. I don’t know. There’s something about the narrative vs Sting’s arrangement on record that clashes a little too much for me. The music is very much a… 90’s Hugh Padgham & Sting sound with too much bounce, synth and brass to work with the song as a western or story like this. It’s almost like Nick Cave doing a reggae version of Red Right Hand.

For a good western style song about murder and begging for God’s mercy there’s really only once voice that you think of… a voice that sounds like it was hewed from granite, gargled gravel for breakfast to wash away the pain of life itself and still carry a tune…. the Man in Black himself; Johnny Cash. American IV, the final album Johnny Cash released during his lifetime and features his own rendition of Sting’s song.

The production is minimal, the sound stripped to just an acoustic guitar, the odd sustained piano chord and Cash’s aged, world-weary voice taking the song into a different time signature and turning into a starker, more direct and hard-hitting tale.

There’s a change in lyrics here too as with some of Cash’s over readings – the rifle in Cash’s take is thrown “into the sheen” and the rider “kept on runnin’ into the south lands” rather than Sting’s “salt lands”. It so suits him that I thought this was a Cash original at first – his voice and approach means that it’s one of those rare times that a cover version feels to have more authenticity than the original. Here:

In a strange connect-the-dots way, American V, released after Cash’s death in 2003, featured his take on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Further On Up The Road’. It wasn’t the first time he’d covered Bruce – notable takes on ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’ were included on Cash’s 1983 album Johnny 99 and there’s a cracking version of ‘I’m On Fire’ on the Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album.

Springsteen and Sting are also pretty firm friends, with the two sharing a mic on many occasion and a drink on even more. So, in 2014 when Sting was made a Kennedy Center Honoree and the time came for the obligatory performance of one of his songs by another artist…. it was Bruce Springsteen that stepped up to provide a highlight and bring the house down  with ‘I Hung My Head’, a song he’d already been playing (Sting’s songs were also performed by Lady Gaga, Esperanza Spalding and Bruno Mars) with a song that seemed as perfectly suited to late-career Bruce as it did Johnny Cash.

Before I drop spill into Bruce’s version, here – for reference – is Sting’s reaction to hearing one of his songs played… perhaps not as favourably:

Thing is, I think it’s fair to say that when Bruce covers a song he kind of makes it his own and it’s certainly the case with ‘I Hung My Head’ – his reading is closer to Cash’s take and he seems to get caught up in the emotion of the narrative but then he also gives it the full band treatment and turns it into a Springsteen song much, it’s clear, to the delight of the song’s writer. Again, Bruce makes a few lyrical changes in his take – substituting “I beg their forgiveness” with “I ask no forgiveness” along with the ending “I pray for God’s mercy” giving way to “I ask for no mercy” because in Springsteen’s songs his characters own their crimes and face the consequences.

Personally I think Bruce – in his charged and committed performance – pretty much takes the prize. But that’s just my opinion…

Albums of my years – 1995

Wow: 1995. It was like ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, and other things that weren’t actually ironic. Don’t you think?

It was the year that Bjork insisted ‘ It’s Oh, So Quiet’, that Oasis had everyone trying to figure out what the fuck a ‘Wonderwall’ was (everyone except George Harrison), Lenny Kravitz probably looked at Britpop before declaring that ‘Rock and Roll Is Dead’, Supergrass however decided that, actually, everything was ‘Alright’ and Bryan Adams asked us if we’d ever really, really ever loved a woman. But nobody could answer him because we were probably all too busy humming The Connells’ ’74-’75’.

It was the year of Batman Forever – a god awful film (which would only be surpassed in terms of ‘holy shit, Batman, what’s that smell’ when Joel Schumacher decided that Batman & Robin should also be made) with a killer soundtrack that somehow eschewed the expected and threw in great tunes from U2 (‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’), PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, The Offspring, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Sunny Day Real Estate! Oh and a song by Seal about getting hot and steamy in a florists.

It was the year Mel Gibson assured us, in a Scottish accent as good as Sean Connery’s Russian, that his freedom couldn’t be taken, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld sank to the murky depths from which it sprang, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino stalked each other in Heat and Woody met Buzz. Yup; Toy Story was released 25 years ago.

Back in music, Tommy Lee married Pamela Anderson and had a very secret and private honeymoon where they most likely stayed in and read Russian literature to each other.

Bruce Springsteen called the E Street Band for a somewhat awkward and brief reunion to record some new tracks for his Greatest Hits album – captured on the ‘Blood Brothers’ video. The group cut ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Blood Brothers’ and re-recorded earlier tunes ‘This Hard Land’ and ‘Murder Incorporated’ along with ‘High Hopes’ (much better than the version later released) and ‘Without You’ which would appear on the Blood Brothers EP. This isn’t a Bruce post but I’ll also point out that if Bruce is in a studio with a band – not just any band, mind, the E Street Band – then you can bet your arse there’s gonna be more than that recorded. There was also ‘Back In Your Arms’ which would see the light of day on Tracks, ‘Missing’ which would appear on Sean Penn’s ‘The Crossing Guard’ soundtrack, and ‘Waiting on the End of the World’ which has been punting about on YouTube etc for a while. But… there was also an early take on ‘Dry Lightning’ and other tunes which he’d tried with a smaller band in 1994 such as ‘Nothing Man’, ‘Dark and Bloody Ground’, I’m Going Back’, ‘Angelina’ and more thrown in the vaults never to be heard from again… unless there’s a Tracks 2 coming.

Jerry Garcia crashed his car in January but was uninjured. However, having relapsed into drug addiction, he checked himself into rehab later in the year though died in his room in August after suffering a heart attack. He was 53. Also lost to the music world in 1995 was Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon. Hoon was found dead after a night of binging on drugs after what he felt was a disappointing show. He was 28 and left behind a daughter who was only months old. Addiction is a terrible fucking thing. I can’t tell you how angry I get when I see children losing parents to it.

Tired of the vast scale and drama that Dire Straits had become, Mark Knopfler called it a day for his band in 1995. I’m pretty sure that, as good as one last show would be (even if you don’t push it and ask for David Knopfler to take part too), a reunion won’t happen. Sunny Day Real Estate, Slowdive and Kyuss also called it a day in ’95. However, on the flip side of that coin, it was ‘hello’ to Alabama 3, Biffy Clyro, Blonde Redhead, Cursive, Eels, Elliott, Faithless, Idlewild, Mansun, Matchbox 20, Mogwai (fuck YEAH!), Mojave 3 (formed with former Slowdive members), Semisonic, Sleater-Kinney, Slipknot, … and er… Death Vomit, who all formed in 1995. Which kind of makes up for the fact that Nickelback also chose this year to start slowly murdering music.

R.E.M were having a pretty shit time of it on their Monster tour – Michael Stipe suffered a hiatal hernia, Mike Mills needed an appendectomy and Bill Berry left the stage during a concert in Switzerland after he suffered a brain aneurysm. Still, somehow during all these they’d be finding the time to put together the songs that would form their next, and finest, album. But that’ll have to wait until the 1996 post… so what dropped in 1995? Well, sticking in this blog’s wheelhouse, Van Halen released Balance their last album with Sammy Hagar and the last time they’d hit the top spot.

Slowdive also released their final album ahead of their breakup, Pygmalion was a real solid dose of the great stuff and, thankfully, the band would eventually reunite and drop another great new album some decades later. Sunny Day Real Estate’s aforementioned break-up took place during the recording of their second album, so by the time they handed it over to Subpop the label found themselves in the unpleasant situation of having a much-anticipated album but from a band that no longer existed and had no interest in it or promoting in. The lyrics weren’t finished and the “just make it pink” direction for the artwork was taken literally by the label who released it as LP2 in 1995 and yet, somehow, it’s a bloody brilliant album and one that gets a regular play on my turntable.

Sunny Day Real Estate’s tight rhythm section of Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith weren’t idle long, though – a chap called Dave Grohl needed a band and pronto. Grohl’s self-performed Foo Fighters album was released in mid-95 and he needed a group to take it out and play the arse off it. Goldsmith’s tenure would be… troubled at best but Mendel remains in Foo Fighters to this day as does Pat Smear (albeit having left then returned a few years later) and the first album has since shifted a few million units even if Grohl still insists it was never actually meant to be an album. While its composition and recording means it sounds very much unique within the Foo’s catalogue, it’s a great album and one of the year’s best:

No post-breakup blues from Kim Deal in ’95 – following the demise of the Pixies and sister Kelley’s drug bust putting The Breeders on hold, she formed another new band and The Amps released their only album Pacer the same year. She’d also pop up on Sonic Youth’s ‘Little Trouble Girl’ from their album Washing Machine – another corker from the band packed with great tunes like ‘Becuz’ and ‘Junkie’s Promise’ though not quite up to their promise.

Meanwhile, formed out of the ‘remains’ of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco released their debut A.M and Australian teens Silverchair released their debut Frogstomp which was, correctly in this instance, seen as their attempt to sound as identical to those bands they were enamoured by as they could (they’d get better) but was still pretty decent when you consider it’s an album by three 15 year olds.

Having recorded her debut at a similar age, Alanis Morissette released an altogether different album in 1995 to her two previous Canada-only albums; Jagged Little Pill was one of those albums that seemed to define the year with singles like ‘Ironic’, ‘You Oughta Know’, ‘One Hand In My Pocket’ playing from stereos everywhere as their videos seemed just as dominant on MTV (remember – it still played music back then) on their way to becoming part of pop-culture. Reviewed in retrospect it’s still a powerful album dominated both by Alanis’ vocals but by the ‘angst’ of it, Glenn Ballard’s production and the  sheer consistency of it.

Ben Folds Five released their self-title debut in 1995 as did Garbage whose album contains some absolute belters like ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Only Happy When It Rains’. Blind Melon’s second album Soup was released just 8 weeks before singer Shannon Hoon’s death. It’s a real move forward from their debut and was received with a lot more positivity from critics – songs like ‘Galaxie’ and ‘2×4’ are always good to hear. Tindersticks released their second (and second self-titled) album in ’95 and I can never hear songs like ‘My Sister’ or ‘Tiny Tears’ enough.

Neil Young’s Mirror Ball was released in ’95 – recorded in just a couple of weeks toward the start of the year with Pearl Jam as his backing band minus Vedder who was dealing with a stalker issue though still appeared on a couple of tracks. The group – without Eddie – would tour Europe with Neil to promote the album. Bjork’s Post arrived in 1995 and, beyond the annoying ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ included the amazing ‘Hyperballad’ and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their only album with ex-Janes Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro with One Hot Minute and proved that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work. It’s not… terrible.. but the combination of Navarro and RHCP could’ve been a lot more potent than it was.

Jumping back across the Atlantic to make an abrupt change in sound and scene, one of the few positives about Britpop for me was that it – much like ‘grunge’ in the US – allowed over bands who were ‘kinda but not quite’ Britpop to get attention and success. Released at the height of it, Pulp’s Different Class remains – unlike many of that era – highly listenable with ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’ absolute classics. Meanwhile, Radiohead were preparing the nails for Britpop’s coffin…  The Bends was released in March 1995 and is a stone-cold fucking classic. The term ‘massive leap forward’ seems to have been invented just for the shift from Pablo Honey to The Bends. Yes it’s the shift in songwriting and approach that would reach perfection on OK Computer but The Bends is pretty damn perfect in its own right – ‘Just’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’… It’s just insanely good.

Popping back State-side for the last push…. Elliott Smith’s second solo album was released in 1995 too. The self-titled album, perhaps best-known for ‘Needle In The Hay’ is another favourite and is too oft-overlooked in his catalogue. Pavement released their third album, the great Wowee Zowee in April 1995 and, despite what the critics said at the time, it’s one of their best.

How do you follow-up an album as amazing as Siamese Dream? Well, if you’re Billy Corgan you go bigger, of course. Bigger and grander by far. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a monster of an album – a whopping 28 tracks covering seemingly every spectrum of the Pumpkins’ sonic sweep from tender, string-laden beauties like the perfect arrangement of ‘Tonight, Tonight’ and the gorgeous ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ to the fiercer, heads-down rippers like ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ via the all-time classic ‘1979’. It could so easily be at the ‘top’ of this list, it’s great album and a real favourite but… it’s just too fucking long, Billy; what the hell man? Talk about ‘cd bloat’…

Former poodle-haired rockers Bon Jovi have come in for a bit of slack on this blog but These Days was not like any other Bon Jovi album – shorn of over-wrought production (albeit far too temporarily) These Days struck a much more mature and cheese-free approach and deserved its surprising presence on many a ‘best of the year’ list at the end of 1995 with many suggesting that, were it recorded by anyone else, the album would’ve been ranked higher still. New Jersey’s more-famous son Bruce Springsteen had another album up his sleeve in the decade’s middle year. Having released Greatest Hits in February, complete with an E Street Band powered video for ‘Murder Incorporated’, Bruce threw a complete left at the end of the year with November’s released of The Ghost of Tom Joad. His second ‘solo’ and mainly acoustic album it’s great but… I’ve already featured The Ghost of Tom Joad so cannot sit it here at the top either…

There was another import self-titled release in 1995, the final album from the Layne Staley fronted version of Alice in Chains. Alice In Chains feels to me like a sonically different beast to AIC’s two previous albums, steering closer to the melodies of Jar of Flies than the heavy-riffing of Dirt and while the subject matter for lyrics is still pretty dark, it makes for an easier listen and is lighter in its sound with ‘Grind’, ‘Brush Away’ and ‘Heaven Beside You’ sitting amongst my favourite Alice In Chains songs.

Which, looking at my shelves, really only leaves…

Mad Season – Above

Sure there were undoubtedly bigger, more important and more well-received albums in this year and I’ve know doubt that any of those mentioned above would happily slot in here but when I think of 1995 in music now it’s Mad Season’s sole album Above that pops up almost instantly.

A ‘grunge supergroup’, Mad Season was formed by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders. During early sessions for ’94’s Vitalogy, McCready had entered into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction and had met bass player John Baker Saunders there. The two returned to Seattle and began playing with Barrett Martin. It was McCready who bought in Layne Staley to sing in the hope that being around sober musicians and having a new project would help push Layne to get clean himself.

I remember the first time I heard Above will deep-diving into my then newly discovered love for ‘grunge’ and realising it was nothing like what I was expecting. I don’t know what I thought it would be – like Layne fronting Pearl Jam perhaps…. but it’s something somehow both distinctly different to the sound of those two most famous of its ingredients yet still familiar enough to let you know where its roots lie.

Instead of AIC’s heavy riffage, there’s more of a bluesy sway to a lot of Above thanks to Mike McCready’s awesome playing. Mark Lanegan stopped by to sing on a few songs including ‘Long Gone Day’ and ‘I’m Above’ incase more was needed to apply a ‘supergroup’ tag. It’s not a perfect album but it’s still a favourite. You get a sense that the members are using the opportunity away from their main gig to try a few things out and push in a different direction – always something worth going for – and I think, for the most part it works.

But it’s also important to remember that this is a first album, it wasn’t conceived as a one-off it’s just how fate took it. I can’t help but think that they would’ve gone on to better. I mean, the music for two songs were written before Staley was recruited, the rest within a week and Layne completing his lyrics in just a few more days. All at a time when AIC were preparing their next album, Pearl Jam were coming off the back of Vitalogy… had time allowed the group to get it together again after touring and feeling each other out more as players and the group’s capabilities the next album would’ve soared.

As it was they’d play a good few shows in early ’95 to promote the album but soon their ‘day jobs’ started to call their attention and so Mad Season took a break. By the time they tried to revive the group for another go in 1997, Staley’s addiction had taken such a toll on his health that he was no longer interested or, probably, capable. His last live performance was in July 1996. The remaining members began instead working with Mark Lanegan on some new songs and adopted a new name – Disinformation – to reflect the change in lineup. Conflicting schedules would make it difficult for work to progress and then, in 1999, John Baker Saunders died after a heroin overdose. McCready continued to work with Pearl Jam, Lanegan forged a successful solo career and Martin – after Screaming Trees ended – would tour as REM’s drummer having played on their album Up along with forming Tuatara with Peter Buck. In 2002 Layne Staley would also succumb to his drug addiction.

As such, Above is that single-shot blast of greatness from Mad Season and captures a brief, fleeting moment in time when these great players were able to make it work. It also sounds so very 1995, surely this was the only time when a side-project could get such major label support and promotion.

Albums of my years – 1992

Schwing! Party on! Way! Excellent! Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt…. It’s 1992!

The year that Wayne and Garth hit cinema screens, that Aladdin showed Princess Jasmine a whole new world, that Whitney said she’d always love Kev, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W Bush in the US Presidential elections and Def Leppard asked a very, very important question:

1992 is the year Nirvana toppled Michael Jackson from the top of the chart and ‘grunge’ began its ascendancy in sales and popularity – Nevermind hit the top spot in the US on January 11th. A month and a half later Kurt Cobain would marry Courtney Love on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with just 8 guests, including Dave Grohl. Cobain wore his pyjamas for the ceremony.

1992 was the year the world was introduced to the be-mulleted turdburger Billy Ray Cyrus and his Achy Breaky Heart, the 9 million people that bought his debut album in its first year have got a lot to answer for.

In May, John Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Rolling Stone digitally removed him from the photo on their upcoming cover feature), having been overwhelmed by the band’s new level of success and becoming a little unhinged… as the band’s world tour got underway he began hearing voices in his head telling him “you won’t make it during the tour, you have to go now.” Already enjoying plenty of drugs, when he returned to California Frusciante’s depression lead to a deep dive into full-on drug addiction that would keep him in its grip until 1998 when, suffering with a lethal oral infection and arms ravaged with abscesses, he’d check into rehab and enter sobriety. However, in 92, that was a long, dark six years away.

Speaking of overindulgence  – 1992, Guns ‘N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’ clocked into the record books as the longest single to enter the Top 20 at 8 minutes and 57 seconds and its video’s budget of $1.5 million became the most expensive of all time (at that point). Similar indulgence would be applied to the video for ‘Estranged’ (which added another 40 seconds in song length)a year later when a rumoured $4 million was spent on Rose and co – ah the day’s when MTV actually played music videos to the extent that labels were willing to spend that much dosh courting airtime.

They probably needed to placate some fans – at a concert in Montreal in August, opening act Metallica’s James Hetfield was burnt by a pyrotechnics blast, he suffered second and third degree burns to the left half of his body, both arms and left hand, causing them to cancel the second hour of their show. When Guns ‘N’ Roses took the stage Axl Rose (did he ever perform a full concert on time?) decided his voice wasn’t up to it’s usual sound of a cat having its testicles removed without anaesthetic and called it quits for the night. Instead of being relieved at not being asked to “give me some reggae“, the fans were a little pissed off. So they decided a riot was in order, which spilled to the streets with overturned cars, smashed windows, looting  and setting fires.

At the end of August, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain was born after god knows how much drama and magazine reporting on the couples’ drug use during pregnancy… which, Love being Love, no doubt enjoyed stirring up for the sake of attention.  It meant that child welfare services launched an investigation into their parenting abilities and Frances was removed from her parents’ custody for a short time when she was two weeks old. There’s a real ugly and grim side to the world of celebrity and sometimes the consequences aren’t considered by its actors while they court it… but hindsight is a wonderful thing full of ‘if only’s and ‘why didn’t somebody’s… and there were times when the Courtney Love show seemed of more interest to the press than the music Nirvana made. Perhaps to remind people of the fact that there was more to Cobain than headlines, Geffen kept the momentum going with the release of Incesticide in December – a collection of b-sides, outtakes and demos that’s still better than a lot of the studio albums released in 1992.

Speaking of controversy – presumably having had enough of singing about being ‘Like a Virgin’, Madonna went full on erotic with Erotica in ’92, a concept album about bumping uglies which was accompanied by a ‘book’ of soft porn photos – ‘Sex’. It was an edgy time.

Pearl Jam rounded off a very busy 1992 – which saw Ten find its way into homes across the world, the band touring Europe, demoing songs for their next album and putting on the free ‘Drop in the Park’ concert for 33,000 fans in Seattle – with Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready joining acts including Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash and Tracy Chapman to see Sinéad O’Connor get booed by an audience still angered by her ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on SNL – who knew Dylan fans were such devoted Catholics. Oh, yeah – I mean they joined other acts at a tribute concert to mark 30 years of Bob Dylan’s recording career.

Speaking of Bob – in 1992 he released Good As I Been To You. A collection of traditional folk songs and covers that was so well received he’d follow it with another collection of covers the following year…. just wait until he’d release nothing but covers and Christmas songs for decade.

Meanwhile Bush, Built To Spill, The Cardigans, Everclear, Feeder, Silverchair, Stereophonics, Sunny Day Real Estate, Tindersticks and Weezer were all amongst those bands forming in 1992.

Making the most of studio time allocated to recording ‘Would?’ for Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles’ (also released in 1992) the previous year, Alice in Chains also recorded ‘Rooster’ and all the songs that would end up on February’s acoustic EP – Sap – the songs for which were left mostly acoustic after drummer Sean Kinney dreamed about making just such an EP with that title. I’m not sure basing career decisions on the dreams of a drummer is always the best approach (I heard Ringo dreams of murdering kittens) but Sap is a great addition to anyone’s shelves:

It’s also a much lighter listening experience than their next release of 1992. Arriving in September following the singles ‘Would?’ and ‘Them Bones’, Alice In Chains’ second album Dirt is an undeniable classic of the genre and still gets many a play on my stereo – though it’s an intensely dark and heavy listen in both sound and subject matter as Layne and Cantrell made no bones about drug addiction along with depression, pain, anger, war and death forming the inspiration for lyrics. ‘Sickman’, ‘Junkhead’ and ‘God Smack’ are the obvious contenders, all referencing heroin use while ‘Rooster’

Layne Staley would later come to change his mind on having sung so openly about his drug use –  “I wrote about drugs, and I didn’t think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them … I didn’t want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I’ve had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they’re high. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen.” Thankfully, all of these dark and potentially ‘I can’t listen to that’ lyrics were both well crafted and strapped to some fucking awesome music:

Afghan Whigs would released their third album  Congregation in 1992, The Cure gave us Wish and provided DJs the world over with an easy gimmick by playing ‘Friday I’m In Love’ at the end of each working week – though the standout track for me is ‘From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ – Manic Street Preachers dropped their debut, Generation Terrorists.

Pantera released one of the decade’s heaviest  – Vulgar Display of Power and Rage Against The Machine declared that, fuck you; they won’t do as you tell ’em on their astounding, genre-bending powerhouse self-titled debut whose iconic cover art continues to find new homes and delight to this day thanks to its sheer force and unbridled passion in the delivery. Though they’d release another two studio albums in their career (not counting covers), nothing would match Rage Against The Machine in terms of immediacy and impact, not quite a breath of fresh air but a kick in the balls with a pair of heavy boots.

On a different end of the sonic spectrum – another 1992 debut came from Tori Amos whose Little Earthquakes was her first ‘solo’ album and featured the great tune ‘Precious Things’ along with eleven other cracking songs.

The Black Crowes got together with producer George Drakoulias to make what could be considered their finest album: The Southern Harmony and Musical CompanionA much bluesier, more maturing sounding album than their debut, their second album was powered to the top of the charts thanks to its four singes and stand out tracks – ‘Remedy’, ‘Sting Me’, ‘Thorn in My Pride’ and ‘Hotel Illness’.

Two other debuts in 1992 came from Stone Temple Pilots with Core and Blind Melon whose self-titled album probably gets more repeated plays than STP’s who never really did it for me to the same degree as others of that scene (though their fifth album Shangri-La Dee Da is an exception to that rule). In Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon had a great frontman and singer. ‘No Rain’ is one thing and may have done so well that Bee Girl graced the cover of the album, Blind Melon, but songs like ‘Tones of Home’ or ‘Change’ are real keepers. Both bands would lose their singers and try and keep going but I don’t think either will ever tap the same vein again in the way in which Alice In Chains have managed to do with William Duvall… but that’s a different blog.

Nearly five years after his last album and three since telling the E Street Band members he wouldn’t be needing their services for a while, Bruce Springsteen emerged with two new albums in 1992 – the first of which, Human Town having been sparked off by three instrumental tracks written by E Street Band member Roy Bittan… who would also produce the album. While needing another song to finish Human Touch, Springsteen wrote another album instead, the superior (of the two) Lucky Town. Released on the same day, the albums… well I’ve written on both Human Touch and Lucky Town already but while they’re not his worst (that still hangs on High Hopes) they’ve not been as well-received as his other albums. As Bruce would later acknowledge that, had it not been for his father he “would have written just happy songs – and I tried it in the early ‘90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.” Still, while in the recordings for, say, Darkness On The Edge of Town, The River and even Born In The USA there was enough material for a further three or four great albums – if you cull the dross from these two there’s enough for one great album there.

Having chosen not to tour behind Out Of Time REM had gotten straight to work on new songs, including the demos for ‘Drive’, ‘Try Not To Breath’ and  ‘Nightswimming’ which had been recording during that album’s mixing at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios. Automatic For The People is one of those albums that’s been written about so many times and for good reason: it’s a fucking classic. It is chock-a-block with great songs, I don’t think there’s a bad one on it and, given that I don’t think it’s their best, that’s insane. From opener ‘Drive’ through to the closing ‘Find The River’ via the lighter radio-staple ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ (nothing to do with Jamaica, the lyric is “Call me when you try to wake her”), the gorgeous ‘Nightswimming’  and the colossal hit ‘Everybody Hurts’, it’s all gold. While clearly the same band, it stands apart from the sounds of Out Of Time and here I’ll refer to the Rolling Stone review for the album which sums it up suitably: “”This is the members of R.E.M. delving deeper than ever; grown sadder and wiser, the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty”

Which only leaves my choice for featured album of 1992…

Buffalo Tom – Let Me Come Over

Let’s hop in the DeLorean and set the time circuits for October 2000 – we were all able to go outdoors and meet people, Donald Trump was just a prick who’d tried to get the nomination of the Reform Party and I, still at uni was a regular regular reader of Uncut Magazine. An actual printed music monthly as the internet then was… different. I remember scouring their Unconditionally Guaranteed CD each month for the one or two tracks that will make me sit up and pay attention and inspire greater digging. As a side note I really should do this again as the last time I did I discovered Big Thief and a few more enjoyable tracks.

There’s only one track on the October 2000 CD though that grabbed me: Taillights Fade by Buffalo Tom, a band from Boston who were releasing a career-spanning Best Of just as they kicked off a seven year hiatus.

It meant I picked up Asides From as soon as I could and, having played it through repeatedly without skipping a song, set off rapidly exploring and collecting their back catalogue. Of the now 9 studio albums the band has put out since forming in 1986, their third album, released in 1992, Let Me Come Over is held up by many as their finest hour (well, 51 minutes) and while it’s probably their biggest seller, I doubt it’s all that known. Hell, if I asked you to name me five Boston bands I imagine the list would include Aerosmith, Pixies, Boston (real original name lads), The Cars, Dropkick Murphys or even the Lemonheads or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones before Buffalo Tom (the Buffalo is borrowed from Springfield). And I think that’s a crying shame.

On the back of their first two albums, released in ’88 and ’90, Buffalo Tom had been branded as Dinosaur Jr Jr. Given the use of fuzz in the guitar tones and the fact that the albums were produced by J Mascis himself, it was an easy tag to apply. It wasn’t entirely accurate though as their third album would show. It would also mean that the band – now supported by RCA Records as well Beggars Banquet, would get a second go around in their bid for breakthrough as ears were pricking up whenever alternative rock was played on radios around the world.

With J presumably far too busy now as Dinosaur Jr’s major label push took other and with the band’s songwriting needing a different production approach and less use of the overdrive pedal, Let Me Come Over was helmed by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade. It was a massive leap forward. The sound on Let Me Come Over is painted with a much more layered approach and subtle brush – there’s a lot less shouting, acoustic guitar overdubs, more intricate compositions that feels like the band working as a piece rather than individual instruments with more mature and insightful lyrics.

Pitchfork have said of Buffalo Tom that they “wrote sharply observed conversational lyrics because it was too hard to be obscure.” Perhaps that’s why they were never able to break through – the songs are great; they’re well written, well played and the lyrics are clever and to the point at a time when alternative music was trying to be considerably more obtuse / mysterious in its song meanings and lyrics (hell, Ten didn’t even contain the song lyrics printed in anything resembling legible). It shouldn’t, though, detract from what’s a great set of songs and easily their strongest album.

Songs like ‘Mineral’ and ‘Taillights Fade’ (which it turns out is a favourite of Eddie Vedder who bought Bill Janovitz on stage with Pearl Jam on both nights they played Boston in 2018 much to the delight of fans and Bill to run through the song) are undoubted highlights that show off the band’s improved songwriting – drummer Tom Maginnis (the ‘Tom’ in the band name) points out in Asides From: “we were beginning to find our inspiration as songwriters and a sound of our own as a band”.

But the more straight-ahead rockers on the album like ‘Stymied’, ‘Saving Grace’ and ‘Velvet Roof’ also sound significantly sharper and more focused than on both the band’s previous direction – benefiting both from the less-cluttered production,  and the band members’ improved playing after constant touring.

I read something suggesting that Buffalo Tom were ‘always the bridesmaids’ of the alternative rock movement, having never quite broken through in the way they deserved – Let Me Come Over was probably as close as they’d get but perhaps they just weren’t edgy enough for the musical climate that was brewing at the dawn of the 90s. Regardless, and perhaps even because of their underdog status, Buffalo Tom are one of my favourite bands to this day and Let Me Come Over gets a regular spin on my turntable.

Following a seven year hiatus, Buffalo Tom got back together in 2007 and put out Three Easy Pieces, followed in 2011 by Skins. Only playing select, occasional shows, it’s safe to say the band is semi-retired these days – though they put out their best album since Let Me Come Over in 2018 with Quiet and Peace. Bill Janovitz developed a side-career as a real-estate agent but has put out a couple of fine solo albums and has also written two books on The Rolling Stones. I, and I’m sure other fans, would love it if he were to chronicle his own band too.

 

 

Seven!

This one started as a joke, a throwaway comment… but then, I like the idea of a ‘theme’ or ‘write about this’ approach so took a look at seeing what I could put together for the number 7.

Well… staying within this blog’s wheelhouse, there’s ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ according to Queen and Wonders of the World for Fleetwood Mac, both decent tunes. Perhaps most famously now it apparently takes more than a ‘Seven Nation Army’ to hold back Jack White:

Aside from being ridiculously catchy, ‘Seven Nation Army’ has probably made Jack White more money than anything else he’s done. While their label was initially reluctant to release it as a single in 2003, The White Stripes’ single was moderately successful in the charts (hitting and peaking at, fittingly enough, number 7 here), its usage in about a gazillion sporting events, broadcasts and adverts has netted its writer millions on its way to becoming what’s got to be the second-most recognisable guitar phrase ever (nobody’s gonna top ‘Satisfaction’).

There are also ‘Seven Curses’ and ‘Seven Days’ on Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (now THAT is a great collection of Dylan tunes) but only ‘7 Seconds’ for Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry.

On a more recent note there’s also ‘Seven O’Clock’ one of the standout tracks on the new Pearl Jam Gigaton* and what kind of fan would I be if I didn’t take the opportunity to feature it and it’s glorious lyric ”Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse they forged the north and west, then you got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting President”:

On the subject of Pearl Jam, there’s also 7 Worlds Collide – a musical project of Neil Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz and a raft of great solo albums).  Taking its title from a line in Crowded House’s ‘Distant Sun’, the project bought Finn together with a number of other musicians for a series of shows in support of charities. The group featured contributions from Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr,  Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway, Tim Finn and many others – and a record , 7 Worlds Collide: Live at the St. James, was released in 2001 with tracks from a series of 5 shows at the venue and still gets taken off my shelves for a spin or three today. I’ve not checked out the studio album the project – with a pretty different ‘cast’ – put together a few years later but it still warrants checking out given that the set revolves around some of Finn’s strongest tunes along with a few written by his guests at the time:

Now, here’s a thing: I’ve often had a theory that the seventh track on album can often be one of the strongest. It’s not always the case, of course, and will depend on artist etc but my logic is that it’s the key point at which to drop a great tune and keep the listener’s ear into the second half of an album.  With this in mind I took a rummage through my records then realised I could save myself a huge amount of time and use Spotify… duh.

With that in mind, there are loads of albums in which the seventh track is not only bloody strong but ranks among the best on that album. Take ‘Us and Them’! Or ‘Ramble On’… easily one of Led Zep’s greatest with that seamless switch in gears… or the actual title track on Highway 61 Revisited! There’s a wealth of great track sevens and, sticking to the ‘no more than 2 per artist’ rule I’ve oft imposed upon myself on this blog, I put together a playlist of great Track Sevens, enjoy:

*Moving away from Brendan O’Brien’s production sets it in with Binaural and Riot Act in terms of the band’s embrace of different sounds and vibe but I think it’s better than both of those, it’s easily their strongest set in some time, possibly since Yield.

Albums of my Years – 1989

1989 saw two events that would have a massive impact on my future, though I didn’t know it at the time: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the Romanian Revolution in December. At the time, as an 8 then 9 year old, I wouldn’t have known about the importance of these events – or David Hasselhoff’s involvement*.

But the arrival of glasnost had an impact on the music news of 1989. In January, Paul McCartney Снова в СССР (Back in the USSR) – an album of covers – exclusively for release in the Soviet Union with no exports. Copies that did make their way into ‘the West’ fetched daft money for a Macca album until Paul decided to release it universally in ’91.  August’s Moscow Music Peace Festival was held in Moscow, showing the Russians exactly why Western music should be banned with acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row, Cinderella, The Scorpions and Bon Jovi doing their bit to undo decades of international politics and create a hole in the ozone layer over Russia with hairspray use.

1989 marked goodbye for The Bangles, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight & the Pips, grunge and Seattle scene forerunners The U-Men and both a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ again to The Who – who had reformed for a heavily criticised The Kids Are Alright anniversary tour and promptly called it quits again until 1996. 1989 was the year Bruce Springsteen made a few calls and told the E Street Band he would not be using their services for the foreseeable future. It was hello to The Black Crowes, The Breeders, The Cranberries, Hole, Mazzy Star, Marilyn Manson, Mercury Rev, Neutral Milk Hotel, Morphine, Pavement, Red House Painters, Slowdive,  The Stone Temple Pilots…  oh; and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, who all formed in 1989 and were (mostly) poised for some heavy action in the 90’s and presence in my music collection.

In terms of album releases, 1989 has plenty to offer. Five years on from the ‘Boys of Summer’ featuring Building The Perfect Beast, Don Henley and his ponytail released The End of the Innocence with help from Bruce Hornsby and Heartbrakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch, I still quite enjoy the title track. 1989 saw a massive return to form for The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels saw Jagger and Richards healing the rift between them and crafting an album packed with great Stones songs though was the last for both their label Columbia and to feature Bill Wyman who would leave the group at the end of the tour behind the album (though it wouldn’t be announced until ’93).

I’ll also go a little away from the expected here and say that 1989 also saw the release of an absolutely great pop album – Madonna’s Like A Prayer which mixed just under a dozen cracking songs (including one written and produced by Prince) with a classic, lush sound courtesy of Patrick Leonard’s production. Stepping back into this blog’s wheelhouse, Tom Petty released his first ‘solo’ album Full Moon Fever which went onto sell a crazy amount of records and would become his commercial peak. We all know this one – it’s packed from head to toe with pure gold: ‘Free Fallin’, ‘I Won’t Back Down’, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’, ‘Yer So Bad’, ‘Alright for Now’… they’re all on here.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s fourth album In Step arrived in June of ’89, Billy Joel released Storm Front and let the world know that while he didn’t start the fire, he could create one hell of an earworm alongside the stately ‘Leningrad’ and personal favourite ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” and Mother Love Bone released their debut EP, Shine which featured pretty much their only decent songs**:

Anything else released in 1989? Fuck… how about The Cure’s Disintegration – one of the best albums ever?

Or Nirvana’s debut album Bleach? Yes – both of these were released in 1989 along with Soundgarden’s second album and major label debut Louder Than Love which matched them with metal producer Terry Date and then lumped into the ‘heavy metal’ genre for some time much to the complete bemusement of their Seattle contemporaries and fans who knew how different they sounded usually. I think it was Mudhoney’s Mark Arm who pointed out that, pre-Nirvana, when an ‘alternative’ band signed to a major there were only two ways to go: the metal Guns ‘N’ Roses route or the REM route. Soundgarden were heavy and went the metal route.. they’d not really shake it off until 94’s Superunkown.

Meanwhile, riding high again without being high, Aerosmith decided to up the ante with their next ‘comeback’ album and knocked it clean out of the park with the best album of the second-half of their career: Pump. As strong and gleaming as Perry’s torso on the cover, Pump is an album of back-to-back GOLD, with Aerosmith’s raunchy, hard-edged riffing married to a great-sounding production. Less cheesy than Permanent Vacation and less over-worked than Get A GripPump is Aerosmith at their peak and revelling in it, better songs, more power and clearly here to kick arse:

There was also Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements in 1989. Much-maligned, the album was royally buggered up by the mix that Chris Lord-Alge decided to apply what, according to Wikipedia, he and his brother were famous for “abundant use of dynamic compression[5] for molding mixes that play well on small speakers and FM radio, thus somewhat contributing to the loudness war” to some of Paul Westerberg’s finest compositions to date. It killed the album at a time when the band were probably at the only point in their career when they coulda shoulda woulda broken through. Instead it’s one for the faithful only to really love and wouldn’t be heard as intended until last years’ Dead Man’s Pop box allowed producer Matt Wallace to release his original mix.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that Bob Dylan decided 1989 was the right time to return to his power and prominence by teaming with Daniel Lanois (who was recommended to him by someone called Bono. You may not have heard of him, he’s the singer with an obscure, little-known Irish band called U2) with the phenomenal Oh Mercy which features more than enough classic Bob Dylan songs to rank it as a vital addition to any fan’s collection:

I’m sure I’ve probably missed a few key albums from 1989 but there were so many. But if none of the above great, classic releases make it as my featured album for the month then it must be Boston’s other famous act….

Pixies – Doolittle

Album number 2 from Pixies is an out and out classic. I still hold by my statement that the band have never released a bad song, but Doolittle contains out and out classics from start to finish – ‘Debaser’, ‘Tame’, ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’… it’s just perfect.

I got into Pixies long after they called it a day, I can’t and won’t pretend I was into them when they were originally a going concern. But by the time they got back together and playing shows again in 2004 I was already way up to speed and in love with their back catalogue. When they did eventually get around to making new music (minus Kim Deal who didn’t want to be involved), I was straight on the pre-order link for EP1.

Doolittle was my, and I’m sure loads of other fans’, first Pixies albums and remains an absolute favourite – I got into them on the back of references in interviews of artists who count them as influences (amongst the many, Cobain would consistently cite them as vital) and having heard ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’. I didn’t look back and within a few weeks had quickly added their then compete works to my collection.

The band’s second album, Doolittle was the Pixies’ first international release and has continued to sell well since release (let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Pixies don’t exactly shift mega numbers) and is often placed in lists of greatest albums be it alternative, 80s or just great albums.

Doolittle marked the band’s first album with producer Gil Norton, they’d work with him on their next three albums (including Indie Cindy) but it wasn’t an instantly harmonious relationship. I’ve often read that Norton isn’t the easiest producer to work with and on Doolittle sessions he’d suggest adding to songs and changing their structure in ways that would often piss Frank Black off especially as he’d try and lengthen their songs. Apparently it got to the point that Black took Norton to a record shop and gave him a copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits as a kind of “if short songs are good enough for Buddy Holly..” point making exercise. Black would say of Doolittle “this record is him trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy”.

Whatever the process and arguments (and I’m not even gonna touch on the whole bickering between Deal and Black), the result is unarguably a classic that was critically and (for the band) commercially well received with sales up to a million units and it remains both one of the best alternative albums of the 80s and a big favourite of mine.

 

*I don’t know what’s gone wrong in the Hoff’s head or when it went wrong but the man remains convinced he played a, if not the, pivotal role in the reunification of Germany.

**Sorry, as important as the group is to Pearl Jam history they’re a little too glam / Poison cover band for the most part in my ears.

Bruce Springsteen – Live Archive Cuts

Note: I was going to call this post “Is there anybody alive out there?” but that seemed a little… off given the times we find ourselves in.

Additional note: Yes, I’ve heard Gigaton – I think it’s awesome but I’ve nowhere near enough digested it to offer a cohesive review – it’s easily better than their last two albums at least.

Once upon a time (not so long ago), there were only a couple of live Bruce Springsteen albums out there: the comprehensive and benchmark-setting Live 1975-85 and the poorly mixed Live in NYC which mashed up the reunion tour’s final nights at New York’s Madison Sq Garden. Given that Springsteen had only toured with the E Street Band once prior since the release of 75-85 there was a slight whiff of cash-in about it, albeit the vital addition of new songs ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and the still-best release of ‘American Skin’.

But – just as Pearl Jam lead the way from their 2000 tour onwards by saying ‘enough’ to the bootleggers and making every show available at a professionally-recorded quality, Springsteen has joined the ever growing list of artists to do so via sites such as Nuggs (I’m still not sure what that is to be honest) and his own Live site. Not content with capturing new shows, Springsteen and his team continue to make choice ‘classic’ concerts available to us to either download or fork over a little too much cash considering and get it on CD.

Much like I have with Pearl Jam, I’ve got quite a few of these shows in my library – a couple paid for a fair few… acquired otherwise. So with concerts everywhere currently on hold – not that The Boss was gonna hit the road this year – and a little more time on my hands (cheers for the economy fuck, Covid-19) I thought I’d cherry pick a dozen or so of my favourite cuts from Springsteen’s concert archive to lift the spirits with what the man himself refers to as “the power and the glory of rock and roll!”

There’s no Spotify links for these as they’re not label releases but if you hit me up in the comments I can sort you out for sound. I’ve also steered away from going for too many tracks officially released on the aforementioned live albums.

Point Blank – September 19, 1978; Passaic, NJ

The River was still two years away but Point Blank was already in the set list from ’78 and this version is a ‘beaut.

Prove It All Night – September 20, 1978; Passaic, NJ

The omission of ‘Prove It All Night’ from ’75-’85 was a big ‘wtf?’ from fans because, live, the song had grown beyond its original structure to become an 11-minute epic with a new, screaming guitar over piano intro and organ / drum outro. The version that was released on NYC barrels along but wasn’t the beloved version featured here from the second night at Capitol Theatre.

Night – December 31, 1975: Upper Darby, PA

’75 was a pivotal year for Bruce, the year of Born To Run and he capped it off with a New Year’s Eve show in Philadelphia. How ‘Night’ – their set opener – was omitted from live releases is beyond me.

Fade Away – December 31, 1980: Nassau Coliseum, NY

Five years later… Not all of The River‘s cuts were made to match the energy of Springsteen’s live show and you’d be forgiven for thinking the longer tracks wouldn’t work but as this version of ‘Fade Away’ shows, that album and tour were a great showcase for the band’s musicianship – I love the swirling keys on this.

Rendezvous – December 31, 1980: Nassau Coliseum, NY

It would be years before some of those cuts written for The River were properly released but tracks like ‘Rendezvous’ would often pop up in the set and would later feature on Tracks, much like other rarities such as…

The Promise – February 7, 1977: Palace Theatre, Albany NY

Both ‘The USA / AKA The Lawsuit Tour’ and ‘The Lawsuit Drags On Tour’ in late ’76 and early ’77 were Bruce’s only outlet at the time as the legal battle with former manager Mike Appel kept him out of the studio, the shows would stretch to the three or four hour mark and new songs would appear (some never to reappear) and older songs would see themselves drastically reworked. It would be decades before this much-loved cut properly saw the light of day, let alone made it back into setlists but this early version is a great take. Darkness on the Edge of Town was still over year away – this was from the ‘The Lawsuit Drags On Tour’ – and you can understand why fans were baffled not to find  it on the album when it did drop.

Something In The Night – February 7, 1977: Palace Theatre, Albany NY

Unlike this one which would make the cut but, despite its stateliness, never made the cut for a live album release. I can’t find a video of the version I have the audio for but this is nonetheless a great take.

Tunnel of Love, Roulette – March 28, 1988: Detroit, MI

One Step Up – April 23, 1988: Los Angeles, CA

Jumping forward a tour or two as much of the Born In The USA tour has been covered on 75-85. I’ve already featured one of these archival releases but it’s worth highlighting a few great cuts from it including another song written for The River – ‘Roulette’ and some of Tunnel of Love‘s greatest tunes that would very quickly disappear from regular rotation ‘Tunnel of Love’ and ‘One Step Up’.

Blood Brothers – July 1, 2000: New York, NY

Most expected it sooner in the Reunion Tour but Bruce saved ‘Blood Brothers’ for the last song of the night on the final night of the tour. It’s emotional and powerful as a set closure – he added a verse and you can see in the video that he and other members of the band are  caught up in the emotion – Bruce’s voice breaks as the final song of their first full tour together since the tour behind Tunnel of Love plays out. It’s a vital addition to the Springsteen live cannon for it’s import in the band’s history and made all the more poignant since the passing of Clarence and Danny.

Gypsy Biker – April 22, 2008. Tampa Florida

Tampa ’08 is a strange show. It was the band’s first since the passing of Danny Federici five days earlier. The band feel more like they’re playing for themselves on this show – finding comfort in making music together and the healing therein. As with all shows on The Magic tour (and the album) ‘Gypsy Biker’ is an immense centrepiece.

Kitty’s Back  – September 20, 1978; Passaic, NJ

What fucking numbskull thought it was ok to never put ‘Kitty’s Back’ on an official Springsteen live album?! Well, until they put out Hammersmith Odeon London ’75. Some people have got nothing between their ears…

 

Albums of my Years – 1986

No 2019 roundup here – if I manage to keep to schedule  on these that one should arrive in late October.  Instead we roll past the halfway mark of my first decade: 1986.

It’s an odd year for music this one. I have vivid memory of the songs of this time – given that radio still plays a lot of them it’s no real surprise. I also have a clear memory of a walk home from school (we lived about 10 minutes’ walk from my primary school) and seeing a smashed cassette on the ground and having, at the time no idea who Bon Jovi were or why someone would have stomped on Slippery When Wet (my guess, now, is that they couldn’t hear ‘Without Love’ one more time without going loco).

Jon and his hairspray-loving mates didn’t really kick in over here in the same way as the US.  ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ did hit the top ten later in the year but here the radio was ruled by songs like Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ (True Blue was released in June and went on to bonkers numbers in sales) and Surivor’s ‘Burning Heart’ or, even worse Diana Ross’ ‘Chain Reaction’ and Boris Gardiner’s ‘I Wanna Wake Up with You’ that still haunts my brain. The Communards’ take on  ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ saw off the horrors of Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ and Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ for the title of biggest single. Dark times on the radio.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony in January ’86. The ceremony took place in New York and first inductees included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry (inducted by Chuck devotee Keith Richards) along with The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and record producer Sam Phillips.

Bob Geldof picked up an award in ’86, he was awarded an Honorary Knighthood for his Band Aid / Live Aid work, though as he’s not a citizen of the Commonwealth he can never be Sir Bob…

In August, guitarist Bob Stinson was out of The Replacements, the group he founded, with the old ‘creative and personal differences’ explanation being wheeled out. Stinson preferred the faster, louder sound of the band’s earlier songs while Paul Westerberg’s growth as a songwriter was taking him down the quieter, introspective route with songs like ‘Here Comes a Regular’. Bob’s drug and alcohol abuse only made the situation worse.

Late September, Metallica were on tour in Sweden promoting Master of Puppets and members drew cards to determine which bunks on the tour bus they would sleep in. Bass player Cliff Burton won and chose to sleep in Kirk Hammett’s bunk. Next morning, as the sun rose, the driver lost control and the bus skidded and rolled over several times. The rest of the band were ok but Burton was thrown out of the window. The bus fell on him, pinning him  to the ground and killing him. While detectives would point to the lack of ice and the skid marks being exactly like ones seen when drivers fall asleep at the wheel, the driver was cleared of any fault. Burton would be replaced by Jason Newstead who would remain with the band until 2001.

It was goodnight from The Clash in ’86 as what was left of the band disbanded as did Men At Work, ELO and The Firm, the short-lived Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page supergroup. However, The Afghan Whigs, Band of Susans, Boards of Canada, Manic Street Preachers, Slint, and two of Boston’s finest – The Pixies and Buffalo Tom all formed in 1986, putting the scales firmly in the positive.

There were a lot of album releases in 1986 but, in terms of what would fall in my listening orbit, it’s a slim entry of a year. Metallica’s Master of Puppets which contained not only the stonking title track but ‘Battery’ and ‘Orion’ arrived in March and Van Halen, now fronted by an actual singer called Sammy Hagar, dropped 5150 a couple of weeks later – it was the first of their run of four albums with Hagar, all of which would hit Number 1 on the charts. The glorified strip-club MC that previously fronted their band dropped his own debut Eat ‘Em and Smile in July.  While Dickhead Dave had Steve Vai, there’s no comparing to EVH, even when he’s in ballad-mode, the guy drips riffs and tricks:

In a similar arena-bound genre, Bon Jovi unleashed Slippery When Wet in ’86 with it going on to shift something like 30 million copies.  Meanwhile debuts this year came from Bruce Hornsby and the Range who, just for fun, said ‘get a job’, Big Black, Steve Earle and Crowded House whose strong, eponymous first album featured some absolute great tunes and one of their biggest singles to date:

Having dropped two belters in 1985 you’d be forgiven for expecting Hüsker Dü to take a breather but, instead they released Candy Apple Grey via their new major label Warner Bros. and shifted ever so-slightly enough from their hardcore punk sound to create what could be considered one of the first college-rock records. Former SST label-mates Sonic Youth released EVOL in 1986. It’s a real favourite of mine, possibly in the Top 5 of their albums – it’s their first with Steve Shelley on the drum stool and marks the turning point from the whole ‘no-wave’ to the sound they’d perfect over the next few years (1988 is pretty much a done-deal).

Bruce Springsteen topped the charts toward the end of 1986 with Live 1975 – 85. This (until then) career-documenting box set broke records for pre-orders and remains an absolute must in terms of both Springsteen’s catalogue and live records.. I mean I could feature this as it wasn’t covered in the Least to Most series but going for a live album would open up the ability to include compilations and … well I don’t think it can count. So, that leave:

Lifes Rich Pageant – REM

I got into R.E.M around the release of ‘E-Bow the Letter’ single in 1996. By that time it was impossible not to know who they were, this was after ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ etc had been riding the airwaves for a few years but it was that song that properly hooked me when I heard it on the car radio one day.  From there, as with so many other bands, I went back and scouring and collecting the back catalogue and discovering R.E.M’s IRS albums was almost like finding the work of a different band.

My second-favourite R.E.M album behind New AdventuresLifes Rich Pageant was the band’s fourth and strips away the murky sound of Fables of  the Reconstruction for something dramatically more direct and punchy sounding – well, certainly in terms of early R.E.M.

The choice of Don Gheman as producer is an odd one – the dude was known for his work with John Mellencamp and you’d be hard-pushed to listen to ‘Jack and Diane’ and think ‘this is the sound those dudes who did Harborcoat need’ – but it works, even if they didn’t work together again. Songs like ‘Just a Touch’ and ‘Begin the Begin’ are the clearest beneficiaries and were the hardest the band had sounded at that point, paving the way for future tracks like ‘Drive’ and Accelerate:

Stripping away the deliberate cloud in the sound and opting for a crisper approach may have been down to the fact that Stipe was becoming increasingly confident as a singer and as a songwriter with lyrics that were now taking on political and environmental / ecological themes like the one-two punch of greatness that make up ‘Fall on Me’ and ‘Cuyahoga’, which are underpinned by Mike Mills’ harmonies and rolling bass lines:

For me this is the album where R.E.M step away from the fog and sound both contemporary and forward-thinking. While it sounds very much of the time it isn’t bound by it either. It’s riddled with the sounds and hallmarks of what would soon be pegged as the R.E.M sound but still sounds fresh and exciting some three decades plus later and when you listen to the great live albums the band have made, some of the biggest cheers are reserved for songs from early albums like Lifes Rich Pageant – because they’re brilliantly crafted nuggets written before all the weight of expectation that would soon greet every R.E.M album and remain highlights in a catalogue stuffed with great tunes.

My only issue with this album isn’t the apostrophe. It’s the fact that the track listing on the back of the album isn’t correct. It’s never been and has never been corrected either, it drove me bonkers at first and it still gets me each time I listen to it.