Live, tonight for one album only, at Budokan…

In what feels like a fitting post to follow my take on Springsteen’s The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, I’ve been thinking about live albums of late.

A friend and I have been debating their merits – his ‘no-thanks’ take on them driven by the fact that ‘you don’t get the same vibe as actually being there.’

I can understand that. But – is that really their purpose? I’ve got a lot of time for live albums – there are a lot of artists that really deliver the goods in concert more than others and more than they do in concert. They’ll throw their all into a show and there are plenty of live albums out there where that’s evident as well as the fact that a song performed live is often a different beast to that which graced a studio album. Not only that but there are many bands out there that I’ll never get a chance to see or shows I could never have been at.

Here I can quickly point to two staples of this blog – Springsteen and Pearl Jam, both of whom are renowned for their live shows with both (Springsteen only more recently) performing a different set list every night. Foo Fighters, by contrast, played an identical set (including the rehearsed ‘banter’) night after night.

Whereas once upon a time the live album was once a staple, if contractually obligatory, of many a rock band’s discography we now find ourselves in an era of Nuggs (or whatever service they chose to use) means that almost every show from a tour and many archival individual shows are available to fill up our iPods. Does the traditional live album, then, still have value?

I reckon there’s still a place for it. At least there is within my shelves – digital and physical. While it’s great to have a document of a specific concert – especially if you were there, say – it’s also great to have a live collection from a band at the peak of their power without, say, the mistake they made in the pre-chorus of a song that forced them to restart or a location-specific anecdote, as well as the mastering (not remixing, mind – I’m looking at you Van Halen) that an official release can give. Without having to pay a fortune for a pint of piss-poor beer, swim to the toilet or wonder if you need to duck out during the encore to get the last tube.

With all this preamble in mind I thought I’d take a butchers at some of those live albums that I would say are definitely worth giving a listen to, old and new.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live 1975-85

Keeping it Boss for another moment… Bruce’s first official live album was a suitably hefty 5LP / 3 CD / 3 Cassette beast that covered Springsteen and the E Street Band’s journey from theatres to stadiums across 40 songs. Springsteen had developed a reputation as a live performer and this set delivers upon that and then some – it’s a great listen even close to forty years on, even hearing his earnest story-telling ahead of ‘The River’ as he works to instil a sense of intimacy to the stadium-sized crowd still works and while he could easily have created another similarly-sized instalment to cover the decades since I don’t think (save a few obvious titles) you could want anything more than what’s here. It remains an unimpeachably great snapshot of Bruce and the E Street Band’s powerful peak and sounds as vital now as it did then.

Nirvana – Live at Reading

Nirvana’s second visit to the Reading festival was the stuff of legend even aside from the actual show itself. This was 1992, mind, when the Kurt ‘n’ Courtney show was dominating press coverage – there were rumours that the band wouldn’t show. That the band were on the verge of breaking up, that Kurt’s heroin addiction was so bad he was close to death (both rumours sadly not that far from true)…

Playing to this, Kurt took to the stage in a wheelchair. Wheeled on and wearing a hospital gown and wig, sang a few lines of ‘The Rose’ and collapsed before getting to his feet and the band delivered one of their most intense and powerful sets to date. Yes, there’s no way to capture being at that show – I hold that for every dozen or so people I’ve met that claimed they were there only two are probably telling the truth – but, fuck me, this is one hell of an amazing live album. The band seem to be giving it everything as a middle finger to the rumours and the setlist is everything you’d want, covering nearly all of Nevermind, plenty from Bleach and a few new songs that would later grace In Utero and is the superior live Nirvana document to From The Muddy Banks of Wiskah.

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

This one’s got to be a given, right? Johnny Cash’s first live album, a career reviving release that starts with the now famous ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’ and finds the then relatively-clean Cash singing songs like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Cocaine Blues’ and ’25 Minutes to Go’ to an audience of convicts in a prison canteen that Cash would later describe as “the most enthusiastic audience I ever played” – lapping up every line like ‘I can’t forgot the day I shot that bad bitch down’ like it was written for them. While At San Quentin recorded the following year would have ‘Boy Named Sue,’ this album combines Cash’s strongest points – grit, balladry, the spiritual and humour – into one setlist that while tailor-made for his audience and became the stuff of legend.

Mogwai – Special Moves

As a live band, Mogwai are one of the loudest out there. While they shy away from being branded as post-rock, their predominantly instrumental music takes its cues from a myriad of influences including bands like Loop, My Bloody Valentine and Slint – intricate pieces that build up layers and parts and not play with the quiet-loud-quiet- FUCKING INSANELY LOUD dynamic but own it. I’ve just finished Stuart Braithwaite’s fantastic memoir ‘Spaceships Over Glasgow’ which revealed – amongst other things – the level of nervousness with which he’d play gigs, hoping that the bands head-nodded signals would work when it comes to bringing in the different parts of each song, finding a sound-guy that could sufficiently mix them at the level of noise desired and joy they take in a set when it all clicks.

The New York shows captured on Special Moves – in terms of both setlist and the power of the performance – are as ideal an introduction to and one-hit slab of Mogwai you could ask for. It’s perfectly mixed – balancing all the elements of their music with a smattering of crowd noise to let you know they’re there and capturing the extremes of their sound (the pin-drop silence to absolute wall of sound in Mogwai Fear Satan, for example) perfectly.

Neil Young and Crazy HorseWeld

Speaking of wall-of-sound…. Neil Young has got quite a few live albums out there – while Time Fades Away and Rust Never Sleeps were made up of entirely new songs and Live Rust felt like a bit of a cash-grab, Weld is the real deal for me and the more I explore Mr Young’s back catalogue the more I enjoy it. A live document of Young and Crazy Horse’s tour to promote Ragged Glory (my current favourite of Neil’s albums), it’s a ridiculously heavy document of the Horse in full gallop and blasting through some of Ragged Glory‘s highlights like ‘Fuckin’ Up’ and ‘Love To Burn’ along with storming takes on ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Powderfinger’, the then-recent ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and a blazing cover of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.

Gary Clark Jr – Live

This is one of those examples where someone comes across so much better live than on record – to my ears at least and this is my blog, after all. I’d seen the praise heaped upon this enough to be curious and since picking it up it’s been a regular spinner. Having been compared to the mightiest of guitar slingers like Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr has both that glorious blues tone and dexterity to make his performances addictive listening while also flowing in a touch of soul and hip hop. On record the combo doesn’t really come across so well with his playing taking a back seat too often to slick production. There’s none of that on 2014’s Live – a mix of originals and covers shed of gimmickry and just highlighting how great and in-focus performance he – and his band – can deliver.

My Morning Jacket – Okonokos

The band captured following the peak of the mighty Z album deliver a brilliant set to a crowd at The Fillmore in San Francisco. While the recent compilation Live Vol. 1 adds newer songs to the mix and further cements how great a live draw the band are, Okonokos captures the band in all their intense power, it’s heavy on Z material with eight of its ten songs gracing the set and showcases the band’s musicianship and a rare ability to both jam out and deliver tight, focused performances.

Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-é (Legacy Edition)

Jeff Buckley left us with just the one studio album before he took his fateful swim in 1997. His first release for Colombia, though, wasn’t Grace but the Live at Sin-é EP. The EP was just a four-song set was released to draw attention to the power of Buckley’s voice. The full set, released ten years later, instead gave us a captivating and wonderfully intimate (you can even hear the odd clink of coffee cups) performance of some twenty plus songs interspersed with monologues and jokes – we get works in progress of songs like ‘Grace’, ‘Last Goodbye’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ along with covers of Led Zeppelin, Dylan, Nina Simone, Van Morrison and, of course, his take on ‘Hallelujah’ all armed with just his voice and a guitar. For a small coffee house show, Buckley commits fully and for all the myth and mystery that’s build up over the years since his passing, it’s a beautiful document of pure talent and the enjoyment of music.

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol.4: Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

First – it wasn’t captured at The Royal Albert Hall, it was Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It was mislabelled in the bootlegs that so pervaded before its official release. in 1998. It was so extensively bootlegged because it was both a brilliant show and, secondly, the “Judas!” concert.

All these years later it’s hard to conceive of the upset Dylan’s ‘going electric’ caused his folky faithful. Through his 1965-66 tour Dylan would perform a show of two halves: the first alone and the second with his backing band The Hawks for an electric set. Both the heckle and Dylan’s brilliant response – “I don’t believe you…. you’re a liar” – along with Dylan’s instruction to the band to “play fucking loud!” into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ are captured here along with a fantastic performance of fifteen brilliant Dylan songs that are all worth the price of admission alone and captured with brilliant sound quality.

If you don’t trust my opinion on this, take it from Jimmy Page too – he found the bootleg to be the ultimate album and would buy a whenever he found one.

Some honourable mentions and few additional thoughts in place of a tenth for the list…. I’ve only recently begun listening to the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East but it’s a mighty fine thing…. The Clash’s Live at Shea Stadium is a great listen too but a little stiff in parts, capturing them opening for The Who – who’s Live AT Leeds is pretty decent too though I’m not that big a Who fan. Dire Straits deserved better representation than the too-short Alchemy and too-sterile On The Night while one of the best bands I’ve seen live, Pearl Jam have yet to drop a live album that really captures how arse quaking they can be live though Live On Two Legs tries and the same could be said for Pink Floyd – Pulse is another case of too much gloss and The Delicate Sound of Thunder features both an excess of gloss and an excess of songs from A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert… Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts

In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident two things happened in the Springsteen universe.

The first immediate result was his writing of ‘Roulette’ which, while it would be the first song recorded during The River sessions, would languish in b-side status until appearing later on both Tracks and The Ties That Bind. It’s a belter.

The second was the formation of MUSE – Musicians United for Safe Energy and the organising of five ‘No Nukes’ concerts at Madison Square Garden. Not yet particularly active or even vocal when it came to politics, Bruce wasn’t among the founding members. Nor did he attend press conferences or issue a statement on nuclear energy. He did, though, agree to perform at two of the shows and for those shows to be filmed and recorded.

I’m adding this historical context for a reason. The Bruce Springsteen of 1979 was not the Springsteen today – or even of six years later following Born In The USA – in terms of status but he was very much a rising star with both Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town behind him and live shows that were already becoming the stuff of legend.

This is Springsteen before the stadium era. Before, even, The River and ‘Hungry Heart’ – in fact Bruce and The E Street Band weren’t on the road at the time, they’d spent most of the year working on an album called The Ties That Bind that Springsteen was to throw away in favour of going for the double with The River (though you wouldn’t know it from the performances captured on those evenings). Nonetheless, tickets to Bruce’s headlining nights sold out within an hour.

One final piece of context is that the full The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts recording arrived at the end of 2021. A timely reminder of the power of Springsteen and the E Street Band when any plans for touring had been on hold for two years, forty two years after the event.

Given that it arrives so long after the fact and in an era where so many entire concerts are available from Springsteen – not to mention his already extant six official*- you’d be forgiven for questioning whether this was needed. I’m here to say it is, it’s an essential piece in the canon

This isn’t so much a review because, let’s face it, I’m late in the game here and this one has already hit the high notes with the critics. This is more.. personal reflections after a good month or so of repeated listens.

One of the things that springs to mind when it comes to Springsteen’s shows these days has got to be their marathon length. Granted 1979 Bruce didn’t have quite the staying power but his shows were already clocking pretty long times. The idea, then, of condensing a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show into just ninety minutes can’t have been an easy order – hell, I reckon it must’ve been easier planning the 12 minute half-time show than making the choice for the No Nukes setlist.**

The timing restraints are kinda felt at times. Prove It All Night, for example, is shorn of its then-customary elongated intro and Born To Run particularly feels squeezed for time – it barrels past in less time than the album version*** – and there are moments where the need to keep songs tighter than a duck’s arse and keeping a proverbial eye on the time means Springsteen seems a little out of breath as the shorter-than-usual arrangements give him less opportunity to catch a breather between bars.

But these are more observances than faults because, frankly, there aren’t any to be found after repeated listens because the overall sensation is of a joyous celebration of Bruce Springsteen – and the E Street Band – being captured at full gallop on their early peak. Even a condensed blast of this power-house operating at such peak performance is better than so many others.

And while Born To Run may be sprinted through, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) gets to stretch its legs out over 12 glorious minutes complete with band introductions.

There’s a strange delight in hearing Springsteen – who’d celebrate his birthday the night following these shows – refer to himself as ‘over the fucking hill’ and that, turning the age of 30 meant he could no trust himself anymore (especially as this now reach us with Bruce in his 70s and still delivering) after delivering both the one-two-three punch of Prove It, Badlands, The Promised Land and then-new song The River.

It’s an added delight to hear The River rolled out for the first time and not have the first few blows on the harmonica not greeted by the rapturous applause they’d soon be greeted with forever out.

The setlist is pretty unimpeachable too. While, with an hour and half only to play with you could lean to wanting, say, an Adam Raised A Cain or Candy’s Room or even a 10th Avenue Freeze Out in place of the three covers that end the show but Bruce was already throwing his Detroit Medley and Quarter to Three into his sets and using them to work the crowd up into a final frenzy and in the context of making an impact and bringing the audience to its knees – they do a brilliant job.

The whole album is a blast to listen to. Peak Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will never disappoint and while there are plenty of single-show recordings out there, you’d be hard pushed to match this in terms of quality.

*as in bearing the Colombia logo vs Nuggs or whatever it is these days.

**both nights featured identical setlists save the inclusion of ‘Rave On’

***a chunk of the credited 4:59 is dedicated to applause.

Drinking to the seldom seen kid: Monday spins

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley… it seems each time I build up a head of steam on here the train falters just a few miles out of the station.

But let’s persevere, shall we, and slip back in by commencing another week with a summary of those songs that have been getting some love from my ears of late.

Exxasens – Le-Voyage, Pt2: (Back to Space)

There’s a wonderful, rich seam of post-rock in Spain. Bands like Toundra, Astralia, Audiolepsia and, of course Exxasens are regular spinners for me. I particularly love those bands from the Catalonia region – to my ears there’s something more of the melodic bent to their brand of post-rock and Exxasens, from Bareclona, typify this beautifully. Plus, a lot of their releases are space-themed and I do love a bit of the space race. This is from their gorgeous new album Le-Voyage.

M’dou Moctar – Chismiten

Thanks to tuning in to The Rough Guide to Desert Blues – courtesy of 1537’s reminder to do so – songs like this often slip into one of my Spotify play lists and this one really made me sit up and pay attention. M’dou Moctar is a mean Tuareg guitarist and his brand of Saharan rock / desert blues just soars… it blows my mind sometimes how music of this calibre comes from places you might least expect it.

James McMurtry – Canola Fields

Changing gears pretty sharply here… you know when a monarch slips this mortal coil the radio stations here have to change gears too and adopt songs from a more suitable sombre tone, pre-approved play list. The commercial stations also have to do away with adverts – whether this is a requirement or because maybe hearing that prick James Cordon enthusing about their printer’s ink coffee during a period of ‘national mourning’ isn’t the image McDonald’s wants I don’t know.
However, it does mean I both listen more to stations I wouldn’t normally and tend to hear those tunes that wouldn’t get much airplay usually. Driving back from some rave in an aircraft hanger or massive acid bender somewhere during that period I flicked the radio over and caught this one and was hooked. More specifically I caught the lyrics, the moody tone and the guitar work and was hooked. Alt.Country has often throne up some fucking great lyrics (see Bill Mallonnee and the Vigilantes of Love’s ‘Resplendent’) and this is another prime example of how to get across a novel’s worth in a song without over stuffing the sandwich – due diligence later on enjoying the album of the same name revealed the James is the son of writer Larry McMurtry so it’s clear where the story-telling gene comes from.

Cassandra Jenkins – Michelangelo

Speaking of bruising guitar tones…. the combination of Cassandra Jenkins’ vocals and that tone on this one caught my ears on one of those ‘Best of 2021’ comps that I dug out of the door bucket in the car and slipped on whilst drunkenly careening down country lanes after an all-night booze-up. Her album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is one I’d missed entirely last year but have been enjoying lately – the variety of styles, all underpinned with Jenkins’ voice and great performances – makes for a real enjoyable spin.

The Hold Steady – Denver Haircut

The Hold Steady’s return, and return to form, had kind of been unnoticed by me but I’ve been belatedly really digging their last two efforts – Open Door Policy and Thrashing Thru The Passion – and while the ‘indie’ scene seems to be overrun by sprechgesang of late it’s a timely reminder that Craig Finn had been effortlessly putting lyrically dense narratives against some blistering riffs long before it was the cool thing.

The War On Drugs – Oceans of Darkness

Last year’s I Don’t Live Here Anymore was another slab of perfection from The War On Drugs. Unfortunately they’re signed to a massive label which means that its success warrants a ‘deluxe edition’ re-release less than a year later and, as if to excuse such a step, they’ve included a new tune. Still, that’s what streaming is for. It’s a bloody belter though and shame it wasn’t included first time round.

The Beatles – Taxman (2022 mix)

Paul McCartney once said “I’m not signing that, that’s disgusting. Put it away.” He also, apparently, said no to helping George Harrison with the lyrics for ‘Taxman’ so Lennon – who wasn’t involved with either heroin or Yoko at this point – did. Since spending time with ‘Get Back’ I’ve been enjoying The Beatles more than before and while I’m not about to go out and drop any money on the upcoming massive archival release of Revolver (my favourite Beatles album) I will be enjoying nuggets like this as they pop up on the streamers. 

One fluid gesture, like stepping back in time… Five from Placebo

The French love their language and have laws to protect it. The Toubon Law, from 1994, mandates its use not just in official government comms (which you’d kind of expect) but also in the likes of adverts – most of which seem stuck in the 1989/1990 vibe anyway – and other commercial communication.

This extends to radio, with an oft-rebelled against rule that 40% of the songs that are played must be performed in the French language. I guess the thinking is that if ‘the kids’ only hear Americans singing about California they’ll forget their own language. Now this isn’t always a bad thing as there’s plenty of good French music out there lately – see my last post for an example – but it also means that if, like I did and – signal permitting still do – listen to, say, RTL2 for any protracted period you’re likely to hear too much ‘chansons’ music.

So where am I going with this…. well, the French love a bit of Placebo as Belgian-born Brian Molko speaks the language fluently. It also means they can play Placebo’s ‘Protège-moi’ as part of the aforementioned quota while also playing a contemporary international band. Hearing this version of ‘Protect Me From What I Want’ along with cuts from their latest, Never Let Me Go, has given me the impetus to run up a few of that band’s best and revisit since shaming them some time back in a ‘Then and Now‘ post.

Placebo formed in London in 1994. They’re currently made up of just the two members – singer / guitarist Brian Molko and bassist / guitarist Stefan Olsdal and missing a drummer. It wasn’t always this way: their longest-serving drummer, with whom they recorded their better albums, left in 2007.

Teenage Angst

From Placebo’s self-titled debut 1996 album.

You Don’t Care About Us

Without You I’m Nothing, Placebo’s second album remains their crowning glory if you ask me. It’s damn-near faultless and remains on regular rotation nearly 25 years on.

Without You I’m Nothing feat. David Bowie

Their second album is so good I’m throwing in another cut, the title track, albeit with a version that differs from the album version as David Bowie approached them to collaborate after the thing was recorded and released. /p>

Meds

Skipping a couple of albums – Black Market Music and Sleeping With Ghosts – where they went off the boil a bit to 2006 and the title track from their last album with drummer Steve Hewitt in which they seemed to have rediscovered some drive and consistency. While not their strongest it was their best in eight years.

Try Better Next Time

Getting in the DeLorean for an even bigger jump this time to 2022 with a song title seemingly taken from my response to the albums they’ve dropped in the last sixteen years… Never Let Me Go oddly feels closer to Meds than anything between. It would seem that the six years they’ve had between albums has allowed them to rediscover a spark that was missing for quite a while now, the songs are leaner and pack more wallop and there’s not a lyric as disastrous as ‘my computer thinks I’m gay, I threw that threw that piece of junk away, on the Champs-Elysées’ to be found anywhere, thankfully.

Bonus tune…

Johnny and Mary

Yes I’m throwing in a cover. Back in the days when singles were something other than an individual stream, Placebo would add either a couple of cracking b-sides or covers. While their take of ‘Running Up That Hill’ gets the most plays we’ve probably all heard enough versions of that one lately so I’ve gone for their cover of Robert Palmer’s classic that accompanied ‘Taste in Men’, the lead single from their third album.

The telex machine is kept so clean and it types to a waiting world… Monday spins

Time slips away… this blog has been a little abandoned again of late though this time it was down to actually taking as much of summer off and away as possible and taking a little drive down to, and around, the South of France to soak up some sun and explore.

However, as term starts and the rain is slowly filling up the pond in my front garden that had been pretty much emptied by the summer’s draught, it feels like a good moment to take stock and shake off some dust with a quick punt out of those songs that I’ve been enjoying of late.

Bruce Springsteen – Hey Blue Eyes

As I pull together some pieces for another Bruce series I find myself listening to this more and more. American Beauty was an EP put out for RSD back in 2014 and this track – an off-cut from previous sessions with Brendan O’Brien is one of those nagging, seemingly-simple songs which highlights just how effective Bruce can be with something that he decides isn’t an ‘A’ tune and ends up being released, essentially, as a b-side (think ‘Shut Out The Light’ and goodness knows how many others).

Foo Fighters – Band on the Run

On the subject of RSD releases… The Foo Fighters put out Medium Rare – a thirteen song strong collection of covers – for Record Store Day back in 2011 and I’d been after a copy for a while. The Foos were always a delight when cutting loose on a cover, combining their increasingly tight chops with their tongue-in-cheek approach makes for a cracking listen. So I was pretty chuffed to find a mint copy in a record shop in Avignon which promptly left with me. Along with the likes of ‘Darling Nikki’ and ‘Baker Street’, this is a pretty strong example and seems fitting to slip on here after this weekend’s Taylor Hawkins tribute concert.

Adé – Tout Savoir

Driving around for two weeks listening to the same radio station means you’re gonna hear a few songs played a lot especially if they’re big. Along with Sting’s ‘Rushing Water’ and a few others, Adé’s ‘Tout Savoir’ has been firmly lodged in my ears but it’s one that I continue to enjoy, it’s pretty upbeat with a decent melody and offers more than your usual pop radio fodder.

Larkin Poe – Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

Every now and then the boy will request ‘Planet Rock’ on the car radio. Sometimes I’m not in the mood as there’s only so much leather waistcoat music I can take but his recent request caught something called something called ‘The Blues Power’ show and made for a pretty decent drive and this one ended up lodged in my head. I don’t know much about Larkin Poe other than it being fronted by two sisters but I’m enjoying this one plenty of late.

Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram – Long Distance Woman

Keeping that blues crunch vibe going, I caught this guy’s name being mentioned in high esteem in various print / online music chats and was pretty impressed when I checked out his stuff – this dude can play and he’s only in his early twenties (though he could probably benefit from a salad or two). This is form his second album 662 which I’ve been joyously powering through lately. He does a great take on ‘Hey Joe’ too that’s all over YouTube. 

Ryan Adams – Rollercoaster

While the music press and industry are still keeping Ryan Adams on the naughty step, he’s remained busy with some sell-out shows and a tour on the way as well as continually releasing albums and a prolific rate with three albums, two of which are doubles, in 2022 alone, that continue to mix his stark acoustic works with that golden late-80s vibe which he’d started to perfect with Prisoner. ‘Rollercoaster’ is taken from the middle of this year’s three albums, Romeo and Juliet

Pixies – Vault of Heaven

Hey! The Pixies have got a new album coming out soon that’ll mean they’ve released as many albums since reforming as their original run. While you can’t expect another Bossanova or Doolittle, they’re sounding increasingly comfortable and stretching out with increasingly strong and consistent albums. If this song, about the time Frank Black joined Mark Knopfler’s band I think, and previous ‘There’s a Moon Out’ is anything to go by, Doggerel is gonna be another belter.

Giant steps are what you take…. Five from The Police

I spent a good chunk of time yesterday evening sat on the grass listening – from outside of the festival grounds – to a Sting and The Police tribute act (The Rozzers). Regular readers will know I have a fondness for them that only seems to grow as I get older. Hearing some of their classics played out at such volume by a very accomplished band was actually more of a treat than I was expecting it be and reinforced to me just how many great tunes those three chaps put to tape (we wandered away once they started with ‘Fields of Gold’ – there’s only so much vomit you can get in a bucket after all).

In their relatively short nine year original span they put out five albums of increasing depth that saw them get better with each outing before the inevitable inter-band tensions arose and Sting’s ego grew so large that it become self-aware, ate Andy Sumner and made a drumstick-kebab with Stewart Copeland and convinced The Artist Formerly Known As Gordon that jazz was the way to go (that’s if Wikipedia is to be believed). It’s often been suggested that if they’d been allowed to have a bit more time off between albums that they would’ve been around longer but there’s both that thing about hindsight and the fact that A&M had money to be made there and then.

While Sting may have struggled with truly strong lyrics – see Aphoristic’s brilliant take on this – the trio always had a knack for creating great tunes, surging out with the energy of the punk scene with genuine musicality and some brilliant song dynamics.

So, without a red dress in site, here are five crackers from The Police which, conveniently, seem. to have fallen as one from each album.

Truth Hits Everybody

Message In A Bottle

An obvious choice, perhaps, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a cracker.

Driven To Tears

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

I still think it’s the most wonderful gear change in music and, for once, Sting’s lyric ‘and ask her if she’ll marry me, in some old fashioned way’ is pretty decent. Shame about that Sandra Bollox movie

Synchronicity I

The Police’s later career is where you’ll find most of my favourite cuts. I named Synchronicity my choice for 1983 in the (currently on hiatus due to artistic differences) Albums of My Years series – for me they were at their peak and as both a title track and album opener this is a corker and shows how far they’d come.

Or Thursday watch the walls instead… current spins

Time keeps on slipping, slipping slipping… between posts and while I debate moving another Springsteen series from notebook to keyboard it felt an opportune moment to deposit a selection of those songs that I’ve been enjoying of late.

Built to Spill – Spiderweb

While gaps between Built To Spill albums seem to get longer each time around, When the Wind Forgets Your Name – due in September – is one I’m really looking forward to, Doug Martsch’s guitar playing continues to delight.

Big Thief – Not

Dragon Warm Mountain I Believe In You is easily one of this year’s finest but 2020’s Two Hands still rewards on repeated listens.

The Cure – Doing the Unstuck

Another instance of an anniversary reissue reminding you of the unstoppable march of time… The Cure’s unimpeachable Wish turns 30 this year. Not only does this mean I’ll be able to add the vinyl to my collection without forking out the ridiculous asking price for an original copy but it also means I’ve been joyfully spinning the CD in the car this last week.

Pink Floyd – Dogs (2018 Remix)

After seemingly setting aside their bickering (at least about this subject), the much-touted remix of Animals is almost upon us. How much it adds to an already exceptional album is gonna be one for debate by other people but I’m loving the new cover art.

Rickie Lee Jones – We Belong Together

It’s just an addictive classic. That piano, her voice, the vibe… I could soak in it on repeat all day long.

The Shipping News – Axons and Dendtrites

Flies The Fields is a brilliant album – from the wave of post-rock that was still in thrall to Slint rather than Godspeed! – but this, the album opener, remains a firm favourite that I’ve been replaying a lot recently after catching its use on screen in something that now escapes me.

Billy Joel – New York State of Mind

Speaking of ‘that piano’ and catching things in use on the screen… someone recommended The Boys to me and I ended up bingeing my way through the lot and, for those unfamiliar, Billy Joel features heavily – though not this song. This song ended up in my head after my son was spinning his The Muppet Show 2 album recently which features Floyd’s cover. From there it was a ‘now let’s hear the original’ – easily one of Joel’s finest (of which he has many).

Least to Most: Aerosmith, Part 3

Here we go then – down the last five, the cream of the crop, the Harrisons of the group, the Toxic Twins’ most… toxic? Aerosmith’s top five albums in my Least to Most favourite order:

Permanent Vacation

I’m trying to avoid repeating what’s either well-documented or common knowledge at this point but it’s impossible to mention Permanent Vacation without mentioning that this Aerosmith’s big, balls-out, no holds barred attempt at a comeback after both the disappointing reaction and sales garnered by their first album for Geffen, Done With Mirrors.

Between the two albums lay both an unexpectedly massive cross-over hit courtesy of their Run-DMC and getting clean – a process well documented with Tyler and Perry’s books along with the band’s ‘Walk This Way’ detailing the process in surprisingly open detail for those interested.

That means Permanent Vacation was the first time the band recorded free of any drugs – they were already baby-stepping their way in on their first – and clearly working hard to get back to the top.

There are negatives to this album – the over-wrought production courtesy of Bruce Fairbairn, the plethora of outside songwriters (apparently Holly Knight’s sole contribution was changing ‘Rag Time’ to ‘Rag Doll’ – bing, bang, boom ‘hit’ and songwriting-credit)… but, but BUT. I slipped this cd into the car for the first time in a while recently and it’s still a fucking fun record. It positively stinks of fun. Maybe we don’t need to hear ‘Dude (Looks Like A Lady)’ again (especially in 2022) and the cover of ‘I’m Down’ is as pointless as a chocolate fireguard, but the album works, especially the non-singles like ‘Hearts Done Time’ (written by Perry and Desmond Child while Tyler was finishing rehab), ‘Hangman Jury’ and ‘Girl Keeps Coming Apart’ are a blast to listen to. It’s a perfectly-wrapped time capsule to 1987 when a newly invigorated Aerosmith were back on form and rediscovering the joy of making music.

Get Your Wings

Unhappy with the way album number one turned out in terms of sound and sales (no promotion, no airplay, no interviews etc), Aerosmith went at it hard for their second. Get Your Wings‘ recording was preceded by intense rehearsals and pre-production refining of songs that had begun taking shape on the road. And while Get Your Wings may initially have met a similar fate in the sales department (though it would go on to sell a few million) it was not only reviewed more widely but met positive reviews. With due reason: it’s on Get Your Wings that Aerosmith not only hit its stride but, with Jack Douglas manning the boards, managed to get the capturing of that sound right too.

Get Your Wings, then, contains some of their best songs – ‘Same Old Song and Dance’ (I’ve still not found an explanation why Joe Perry didn’t play the lead on the record’s version or ‘Train Kept A Rollin’ – in fact he plays very little lead on this one) and ‘Seasons of Wither’ should sit high on anyone’s lists – and is one of their finest moments. Still relatively fresh out of the gates as a band, the song-writing is coming together brilliantly and the band – tighter now from a lot of touring to push their first album and build their fan-base outside of Boston – bring the goods. This is where they shed the uncertainty of their first album and find the sound and formula that would propel them to the top over the next few years.

Toys In The Attic

If Get Your Wings benefited from the band’s maturation as songwriters and tightness from touring, the jump from touring behind that powered their next, Toys In The Attic even more notably from both the riffs that Brad Whitford and Joe Perry bought back from the road to the confidence they bought with them to performing in the studio.

Without the benefit of having years to work on the songs, Toys In The Attic was Aerosmith starting from scratch and working to a deadline. It worked: along with Perry and Whitford, Tom Hamilton bought two songs to the table and while I can take or leave ‘Uncle Salty’ I defy anyone to crank up ‘Sweet Emotion’ and not get a kick from it. Meanwhile ‘Toys In The Attic’, ‘Walk This Way’, ‘No More No More’ and even ‘You See Me Crying’ (in all its 70’s rock extravagance) rank among their finest songs and, with Jack Douglas now adapt at capturing the band’s sound and energy, Toys In The Attic was Aerosmith’s breakthrough and it still holds up as a cracker today.

Interesting (probably not very) side-note: Run-DMC thought the name of the band was Toys In The Attic and the album that was home to ‘Walk This Way’ was called Aerosmith.

Pump

Why is Pump number 2 on this list? Because it’s so fucking good, that’s why. It’s the highlight of their second charge – it may not have hit the same sales figures as Get A Grip did but where that album felt bloated, Pump is taught at ten tracks. You can tell this is before the era of cd-bloat as ‘The Other Side’ meant ‘Deuces Are Wild’ was canned rather than expanded to eleven tracks.

There’s a massive leap between Permanent Vacation and Pump – the band don’t sound lost in the production sheen that coated their comeback album, instead they’re positively flexing in it and sounding, well, pumped up.

There are less outside co-writes, the songs revel in their amped-up sound and on Pump the gritty, raunch-n-blues of Aerosmith’s peak is incorporated into the mix and the band are clearly powerfully focused as though to prove the point that their comeback was no fluke and they could still bring the good without song doctors – Tyler and Perry had a hand on 7 of the 10 tracks, there’s a Tyler/Whitford and Tyler / Hamilton song here and only 4 of the tracks feature non-band writers. In comparison twelve of Get A Grip‘s fourteen songs featured outside writers and the band alone were responsible for only three of Permanent Vacation‘s songs.

Everything on this album sounds right – even with all the extra horns and synths of the era ‘The Other Side’ rocks hard, ‘Young Lust’ is as good an opener as they’ve done and ‘What It Takes’ is the only of their ballads worth tuning in – it’s also the only one on the album really.

Despite the cringe-worthy Spinal Tap-isms that abounded on ‘The Making of Pump’ – this is the sound of a band firing on every cylinder. They were clean and they were tighter than a duck’s arse again after a massive tour in support of Permanent Vacation – this is only real instance where they managed to combine the ‘hit making’ formula that pervaded their later career with the best of their ‘vintage’ and it worked – great songs, great performances and not an ounce of fat.

Rocks

It couldn’t really be anything else that sits at the top of the pile here but Rocks. This is the quintessential Aerosmith album – it’s the sound of them at their utter peak, managing to capture their rawest, hardest album full of great songs even in the face of massive quantities of drugs being ingested like they were training for the snortolympics.

‘Back In The Saddle’, ‘Last Child’, ‘Rats in the Cellar’, ‘Nobody’s Fault’, ‘Lick and a Promise’… not only is Rocks stuffed with more great songs than anything else they’ve done but it works as a start-to-finish album too. I mean, you’d have to be off your tits on something to come up with all the details of ‘Back In The Saddle’ – the ‘heeya’ calls and fucking hoof beats, the actual whip cracks (which were abandoned after multiple bloody attempts yielded a shit sound so replaced by whipping a microphone cord and using cap gun – as if this were the more sensible route), Tyler taping tambourines to his boots and stomping around the studio, Perry playing a six-string bass like a guitar and the yodels on the fade-out… and yet it’s fucking glorious because of all that and because it’s all underpinned by the sound of the band at their peak – screaming leads, absolute power from the rhythm and Tyler giving it all in the name of the song. Which, as it turns out, is as good a summary of the whole album as you could get from me.

Least to Most: Aerosmith, Part 2

Aaaand we’re back in the saddle having sorted the wheat from the chaff and lobbed out the sloppier entries of Aerosmith’s fifteen-strong studio album run. So, without further ado…

Done With Mirrors

In an ideal world, this would have been Aerosmith’s comeback album. Hell, it’s what it was meant to be. Freshly reunited and tight after some solid touring, the songs here deliver enough of the riff-and-raunch blues rock vibe to cut through the murk of Rock in a Hard Place and without the added songwriters and synthesisers that would permeate their comeback album proper in a couple of years.

The only missing ingredient was a group of killer songs. The album kicks off by repurposing the Joe Perry Project ‘Let The Music Do The Talking’ with Tyler’s licks and proceeds to rollick through a series of lukewarm tunes. While tracks like ‘My First Your Face’ and ‘The Reason A Dog’ stand out and Ted Templeman does a good job capturing the band, there’s still a lack of focus here but at least it gave them enough of a jolt of life to get them to their next album as sobriety and rebirth beckoned.

Get A Grip

By 1993 Aerosmith had conquered their addictions and the charts and become monstrously successful. Now in their forties, Get A Grip would push them to even dizzier heights as it went on to become their biggest seller and give birth to seven singles with the likes of ‘Crazy’, ‘Cryin” and ‘Living On The Edge’ becoming mainstays on MTV. There’s a lot to enjoy on Get A Grip but that’s just it: there’s a lot. Released as grunge and alt-rock were in their ascendency, Get A Grip suffers from CD bloat and being too obvious a stab at commercial success (yes, it did pay off).

You could point a finger at John Kalodner who heard a slimmer version of the album and decided it didn’t contain enough hits and sent them back to Desmond Child for another ballad or two, but it’s not like anybody really said ‘nah, you’re alright mate.’ This, then, is the album where the band were all too apparent in mining the formula that had delivered them to their new heights. While the album sounds great at times, it’s a pretty shallow affair compared to their best.

Nine Lives

I slip Nine Lives here ahead of Get A Grip because I go back to it most. Perhaps because it’s the first of their albums I bought on release but mainly because, while it’s certainly every bit as calculated, the rawer sound captured by Kevin Shirley suits their raunchier take on blues rock more than the sheen that Bruce Fairbairn swathed its predecessor in.

Nine Lives nearly broke the band, again. Troubles were abounding with an over-controlling manager that was spreading distrust amongst his charges and drummer Joey Kramer suffered a nervous breakdown. Tyler was enthused by Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and wanted to record with Glen Ballard – who shares writing credits on three of the eventual album’s songs -but Colombia didn’t dig the directions. With Kramer recovered the band re-recorded from scratch with Kevin Shirley (record labels seem to have had a lot of patience back then) and Nine Lives was delivered in 1997.

There may not be a single song without an outside co-write and a few that are clearly A&R men’s tick boxes but there’s more diversity to the sound, more of a willingness to try different sounds and Shirley’s sanding off of the sheen gives the album a nicer, more appropriate town that was both appropriate to the era and the band’s sound. Other songs cut during this period like ‘What Kind of Love Are You On?’ suggested more this edge would follow…

Unfortunately shortly after the album’s release Dianne Warren gave the band a song called ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ (which would be stapled to later, re-released versions of the album) and give them their first number one, something that Tyler would be trying to chase forevermore.

Aerosmith

I can understand why some may rank this higher but for me, Aerosmith’s debut isn’t as good as it could be and I don’t revisit it anywhere near as much as anything below this point. The songs are good and the all the calling points that would fuel their later success are already in place from the get-go but it’s still very much the sound of a first album: there are some stumbles, the songs aren’t as tight as they would become, the recording is flat, the sound is muddled and Tyler’s affected vocals don’t sit right.

But, for all that, it’s still an enjoyable blast of Aerosmith at the starter’s gun. ‘Dream On’ and ‘Mama Kin’ are early masterpieces that are still in sets today for a reason, Perry and Whitford’s guitar interplay already established and the power in their sound that would push them to be one of America’s biggest rock acts of the decade are laid on the line for all to see and they’d never sound this young and fresh again. It’s just a big shame they couldn’t get recording that sound right just yet.

Draw The Line

1977: Aerosmith are riding high and few are higher than its members at this point. So let’s get the fuck outta Dodge and put them up in an old convent – away from distractions – to record their new album. What could go wrong? It’s not like they’re gonna bring their toys or their drug dealers will follow, right? Right?

Joe Perry and Steven Tyler wrote just three songs together. They no-longer “gave a fuck” to quote Perry directly. The band – minus Perry – and producer Jack Douglas put together songs like ‘The Hand That Feeds’ and ‘Kings And Queen’ with Perry adding rhythm guitar to the latter and not playing at all on the former. There were songs that came in complete – like Perry’s ‘Bright Light Fright’ and songs that Tyler would take months to write lyrics to long after the band had left the confines of their convent.

And yet, Draw The Line still has more killer than filler and works more often than it doesn’t. Jack Douglas was by now a dab hand at recording the band as they needed to sound and songs as great as the title track, ‘Kings and Queens’ and ‘I Wanna Know Why’ are beyond strong enough to make up for ‘The Hand That Feeds’ and if closing with a cover of ‘Milk Cow Blues’ could be seen as odd choice by a band lacking original material, Perry’s playing on it and his own ‘Bright Light Flash’ (a tribute to the rising punk scene) more than hit the mark.

While they were starting to run out of gas, for Draw The Line – in contrast to Night In The Ruts just two years later – they were only just off their peak and the album still proved they had enough in them to let it rip when it mattered.

Least to Most: Aerosmith, Part 1

The Bad Boys of Boston, the Toxic Twins: Aerosmith. They’ve been around so long that JC was probably humming ‘Dream On’ from his lofty perch and yet are still packing in the crowds. Having kicked off from 1325 Commonwealth Avenue in 1970 their career has had a couple of dizzying peaks and some very seedy* lows. You can neatly slice their output into three decades and almost dismiss the rest, given that since 2000 we’ve had just two proper studio albums and there’s not that many acts out there that have had such success in each.

I’d been mulling over how I’d rank Aerosmith’s albums in my notebook of lists for sometime but John over at 2Loud2Old Music got straight in with both an album by album review series and his own ranking. So I thought it time to sit down and spit out my own Least to Most ranking of Aerosmith’s fifteen studio albums – a number that neatly divides into three – based on nothing scientific other than personal preference.

So let’s get started with the least favourite – and there’s no prizes for guessing that we start with….

Just Push Play

I mean it’s a fucking dog of an album from its cover to its contents. It came after yet another successful decade with plenty of great tunes and the band reaching the dizzying heights of chart-topping with that tosh from Armageddon but Just Push Play was a massive misfire from which they never really recovered. Forget hitting self-destruct with drugs, this time it was self-destruct with an album that relied on computer production, co-writes galore and a huge lack of genuine band interaction.

There were no demos left at the end of this record to be able to say ‘well there are the bones of a good album here’ because everything was plugged into ProTools and layered up like a wedding cake. There’s a song called ‘Trip-Hoppin’ for fuck sake. There’s not a single Tyler / Perry joint on here that isn’t also shared with other song-writers as Tyler, by all accounts, was so desperate for another monster hit that he wouldn’t work alone with Perry. Instead of the rawer power of Nine Lives we got over-glossed balladry and over-produced, gimmicky attempts at rockers that sounded like what it was: a group of blokes in their fifties trying to appeal to a dynamic that wasn’t interested in a group of blokes in their fifties. Instead of playing to their strengths they indulged in the wrong stuff. Thankfully ‘Jaded’ did the business in the charts enough to keep them going and playing the hits to large audiences but this really killed their momentum.

Music From Another Dimension

And, in two hits at the bottom of the list we’ve covered the only albums of original material the band have put out in this millennium. I was really rooting fro Music From Another Dimension when it came out – all the right ingredients were in place: the band were recording in the same room again, Jack Douglas was back on board. Hell, when it came out I really dug it…. for a while. Yet time and comparison to the rest of their catalogue doesn’t do it any favours.

There a lot more better songs on here than on Just Push Play yet there are also some utter howlers. I / you / we couldn’t expect the band to out an album this late into their career that sounded ‘like the old days’ and yet it seems they tried to do that. Only instead of going back to the 70s, say, they went for the kitchen-sink approach of Get A Grip only without the tunes or the edge. For every great riff attack like ‘Out Go The Lights’ there are two turds like ‘What Could Have Been Love’ or ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’ – featuring Carrie Underwood for fuck sake! Why? Probably because Tyler was still thinking that this is how you make a hit.

Here Aerosmith managed to both play to their strengths and their weaknesses in an effort to cover every possible base. Unfortunately there are too many of the weaknesses and a little too much filler to make this the album it could have been – at least the sound is more organic and suited to Aerosmith than it had been in a while.

Rock In A Hard Place

Come back, Joe: all is forgiven. There’s no Joe Perry on Rock In A Hard Place, he’d left to return some video tapes. Brad Whitford also left during the recording of the album. Jimmy Crespo filled in on guitar. ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ and ‘Lightning Strike’ bring home the goods and ‘Jailbait’ has got to be one of those songs Perry heard and thought ‘why the fuck am I not on this?’ – it’s a real strong Aerosmith song. There’s not a lot more though.

Crespo and, later, Rick Duffay may have tried to inject some new momentum into the band but with addiction sucking the life and creativity out of Tyler, Rock In A Hard Place feels like a plaster over a gaping wound rather than an attempt at real damage control – management pushing for another album and to keep the thing rolling as long as they could rather than taking a much-needed pause. If Night In The Ruts was sounding like the beginning of the end, Rock In A Hard Place sounds like the batteries have run dry.

There are a few pleasant surprises and what remained of the band could sting bring the power but the overall feeling is of a rudderless ship. They even put bloody Stone Henge on the cover to give Spinal Tap plenty of ammo.

Night In The Ruts

And here we go – a band running out of steam. More appropriate this is a band falling apart. Night In The Ruts was started early in 1979 with Jack Douglas and a full band. It was finished late in 1979 with Gary Lyons. In between was a lot of conflict, a lot of stalling and a whole fucking lot of drugs.

With basic tracks laid down Tyler couldn’t come up with lyrics. For months. During which time Perry discovered he owed $80,000 in room service bills (that’s a lot peanuts and cable porn, Joe) and was encouraged to cut a solo album to pay it off. The band’s management, desperate to get another hit as Draw The Line hadn’t cut the sales figures they wanted – and to get the band back on the road – and their pockets lined fuller, decided Jack Douglas couldn’t control the band and fired him. It was true; he couldn’t. But then nobody could. Substance abuse had control. This was the blow-up point for Aerosmith and by the time the album came out Perry wasn’t in the band anymore and Brad Whitford was sauntering slowly toward the exit.

But for all that – Night In The Ruts has it’s fair share of good cuts. ‘Cheese Cake’, ‘Bone to Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy)’ have all the right moves and ‘No Surprize’ is an outright Aerosmith classic. Unfortunately – and telling of Tyler’s issue with lyrics – three of the album’s nine tracks are covers, though both ‘Reefer Head Woman’ and ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ are both worth tuning in for. Night In The Ruts may be Aerosmith’s worst of their first decade but the good stuff here is still really good, giving it the riffs even as it all falls down around them.

Honkin’ On Bobo

The start of ‘the naughties’** were a weird time for Aerosmith. After serendipity lead them to the sweet spot in each of the previous three, it was eluding them in this decade. With the taste of disappointment from Just Push Play lingering even after judicious application of topical cream attempts to get back into the studio for a new Aerosmith album were failing.

Instead we got another compilation with ‘new’ songs – one of which was so bad and obviously cloying attempt at a hit the rest of the band refused to be in the video for it – and soundtrack contributions. There was talk of an album made up of previously discarded tracks (I’ve got a feeling some of them ended up on Music From Another Dimension), Tyler wouldn’t write alone with Perry. Perry didn’t want to be tied to writing with Steven’s ever-present co-writer Marti Frederikson who, like Tyler, wanted to make more attempts at pop hits. Somehow the idea of a ‘blues’ covers album was floated and jumped on. Tyler wouldn’t have to worry about writing lyrics and a sense of letting off steam can be heard in the finished result.

Jack Douglas was back on board and the sound here is a welcome step away from the polish of Just Push Play. It was never going to be a blues album proper – Aerosmith always leaned to blues rock vs pure blues so no Blue and Lonesome revelations here, just Aerosmith giving it some juice to eleven covers and one pretty tepid original. The band are tighter than a duck’s arse and while there are no big surprises on the track listing, they’ve come up trumps here.

Why doesn’t it sit higher? It’s a covers album, essentially. The sole original track doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot and sounds a little contrived in the company of those that it’s clearly aping and the album feels a little overdone still in the way that they seem to have become stuck in. A blues album should’ve been the opportunity to loosen up a little, feel free to roughen up the sound and production a little and get raw, but they didn’t subscribe to that notion.

*I’m not going to go into it but convincing your under-age girlfriend’s parents to give you legal guardianship so you can take her on tour, get her addicted to drugs, pregnant and into an abortion clinic is pretty fucking seedy, Steven.

**I fucking hate that phrase too