Music reviews for the music of 1969.
1. The Beatles: Abbey Road (10/10)
Abbey Road was indeed an album where everyone put aside their differences and tried to make an album like they used to, even if Lennon wasn’t as involved – partly due to a car accident – for a great portion of the sessions. Though a couple recordings from around the time of the Get Back sessions were salvaged – and overdubbed – the vast majority of material was either new or developed from White Album outtakes (in new sessions). The album stands as possibly the best album the Beatles ever recorded and it is remarkable that they could go out on such a high note given the internal dissension. It found them combining various aspects of their long history to great effect: the studio and technological innovations, the suite concept of Sgt. Pepper, the filler of the White Album, all to a greater purpose than
ever before. Though it is not as innovative as Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, or as all-encompassing as the White Album, I think it is stronger musically than any of those landmarks.
There are two things that strike the listener immediately upon listening to the album. First, the second side is drastically different from the first, being dominated by a Sgt. Pepper-type suite. But whereas with Sgt. Pepper the Beatles at first attempted and then abandoned a full-blown concept and built it around tirelessly worked-out songs and arrangements, this album features a suite mostly made up of song fragments of the kind that found their way onto the White Album – and at least two of them, “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” date from that project. This time the pieces are mixed together, with reprises of songs appearing again later on in the suite – like the work of Frank Zappa or early Soft Machine, only with way stronger songwriting – and then building to a climax. (Though Pepper did build to a climax, too, with “A Day in the Life”.)
The other interesting innovation is the presence of the Moog synthesizer – the first widely available synthesizer – on more than a few tracks. Harrison had used it exclusively on his Electronic Sound album earlier that year – an electronic music album, which was an odd thing coming from the one Beatle who apparently disliked avant-garde music – and introduced the rest of the band to it. But the Beatles weren’t even remotely the first band to make use of the instrument, as it had found its way into as diverse a collection of artists as Diana Ross and the Monkees. What the Beatles did was to incorporate it fully into their sound to the point where some people – me – have mistaken it for other instruments. Though Abbey Road is hardly the first use of the Moog, it is likely the most effective use of it during the ’60s.
It is also worth mentioning that Abbey Road was the first album where the Beatles were mentioned as helping produce and mix the album, even though they definitely had performed duties associated with music production in the past – creating tape loops and manipulating these, helping arrange session musician parts, and the like – and Lennon in particular had been involved in the mixing of some of his more experimental pieces, such as “I am the Walrus” and “Revolution No. 9”. This was the first and last official acknowledgement of that role even though the Beatles’ involvement in production set the standard for all future groups’ involvement in the production of their own records. It is hard to imagine any band today so involved who would not claim, and get, a co-producer credit, at the very least. (Wilson and Zappa more properly produced their records and had more of an influence on the artist-as-dictator producer types, but the Beatles, even when they weren’t credited – as with most of their recordings – were always involved in the production process at some level, from their earliest recordings to their last recordings.)
“Come Together” was a big hit and has since become one of the Beatles’ most popular songs despite the cryptic lyrics – which, legend has it, are either referring to each individual Beatle or merely to Lennon himself, but in reality stemmed from a campaign song Lennon was writing for Timothy Leary. The song features only verses ending in a refrain with no proper chorus at all – a device they had used since ’64 – and that brief refrain comes in for the first time a quarter of the way into the song. Only the electric piano / guitar interlude breaks from the pattern. And, famously, a part of Lennon’s vocal is smothered in reverb. Perhaps its relative simplicity is the reason for its popularity. That, or the universal appeal of any one of us being able to read whatever we want into the lyrics – something that had
become a trademark of many Lennon songs since the mid ’60s.
“Something” was Harrison’s first A-side – part of a “double A-side” with “Come Together” – his first hit, and his first and only standard. Frank Sinatra apparently loved it, claiming it was the best love song of the last 50 years. It is extremely straightforward for the late Beatles and there’s nothing really unusual about it. Again, perhaps it’s the simplicity – of the lyric’s message this time, not the music, as in the case of “Come Together”. It features one of Harrison’s trademark solos, illustrating his tastefulness. Being the Beatles nerd and snob that I am, I of course prefer the Anthology demo. Were I concerned about getting in that kind of argument, I would do so. (I think I actually can win that one, as the demo’s a lot more restrained and lacks the orchestral arrangement.) But this is about the Beatles’ importance to music. So instead, contrast this ballad to its partner, “Come Together.” This is the same band performing the absurdist political rant of a rock song and the plaintive ballad that Frank Sinatra adored. And they released the songs together on a single. I think that’s kind of crazy for fall 1969, even if the Beatles had already set the template for that kind of genre-hopping for the past few years.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is another humorous McCartney story-song lyrically in the manner of “Rocky Raccoon” but musically straight out of vaudeville, complete with sound effects. If it weren’t so immaculately produced it could get annoying: it features slightly different musical backing every verse, a technique that has since become associated with alternative rock bands experimenting with so-called post-rock, and even with some Top 40 in 2013 – though it’s nowhere near as obvious here as with those more recent recordings, or with some of the other Beatles efforts utilizing this trick. It’s reasonably funny and, as I said, immaculately produced. An example of the latter is how the Moog duplicates different instruments for different parts of the song. Though I don’t normally enjoy so much as appreciate – to an extent – most of McCartney’s efforts of this kind, I find this one a lot more forgivable, for whatever reason.
“Oh! Darling” is an unusually simple song for the time, but it features one of the best performances of the Beatles career in all aspects despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity. McCartney is in fine form vocally – and if you really want to hear how good a singer he is, you should listen to the demo version on Anthology as my mother once mistook that performance for that of a woman – but the ragged guitar also emphasizes its modern yet traditional sound: it sounds like soul even though it is blues set to a pop
structure, but it is far too raw to reflect traditional versions of any of those songs. The song also eschews the trend of the day of focusing on guitar licks in between the vocals, and instead focuses on ragged arpeggio. It is a perfect example of how great the Beatles could be even when they weren’t turning the recording industry on its ear.
“Octopus’s Garden” was Starr’s second contribution to the band, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of what he contributed the previous time out – even if we may still dislike it for being a kids song. He apparently had help from Harrison on the music, which is hardly surprising as this doesn’t sound like the guy who only knows three chords. It is very good for a kids song and immaculately produced – featuring faux-honky tonk piano, sound effects and Harrison’s fine playing, for some examples – just like the other silly song on the album. Again, even if we can’t admire the lyric, we can admire the arrangement and production, and the willingness to do anything. (In this case the “anything” could be labeled “naive rock” – much like “Don’t Pass Me By” could be labeled “naive country” save the fiddle part – except for the fact that is it immaculately produced and arranged by the rest of the band.)
Full disclosure: “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” currently holds sway as my favourite Beatles song. I love the ridiculously simple lyric meets the nearly avant garde jazz-lounge / metal fusion thing – in two times no less: the jazz parts are in 4/4 and the metal parts are in 6/8. It continues to blow my mind to this day. The song prominently features Lennon’s jazz-influenced soloing – the absolute acme of his career as a guitarist with the Beatles in my opinion – McCartney’s swooping bass – again, likely the pinnacle of his career as a bassist with the Beatles – a drawn out coda – 14 repetitions – with constantly building white noise and an ending where the tape is cut rather than ending the song properly – so ends the first side of the album. Lennon uses the same lyrical trick he utilized on “Don’t Let Me Down”: simple lyrics which change audiences from verse to refrain. Lennon and Preston both stand out on this, me thinks, though the whole thing is as solid as anything they ever made. It is the second longest recording in their canon and the longest “song.” The abrupt ending of side one – intentional in this case – was later repeated, as a happy accident, on side two (see below).
“Here Comes the Sun” is another stand-out by Harrison, again featuring the Moog. It hasn’t quite become the standard that “Something” has, but it’s nearly as famous and among their many radio staples. It features another “Leslie guitar” part – a guitar fed through a rotating speaker to give it a shimmery sound – and has become one of their most popular songs. It is famous for being written in Eric Clapton’s garden but that’s not why it should be famous. It marks perhaps the first completely upbeat song Harrison contributed to the band and completely changes the tune of things for the second side, given the rather raucous ending of the first side. There are actually a bunch of little tricks in the arrangement but that is something we have come to expect from the band and most of the ones featured here they had been trying out since their folk rock days.
“Because” is one of the major examples of the Beatles really showing off their harmony abilities – and arguably the greatest, or at least most intense, use of them, as this time there are nine voices instead of three, thanks to the wonders of multi-tracking. It features yet another Leslie guitar part and that wonder of wonders, the electric harpsichord. Apparently the song is actually Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata backwards but I don’t know enough about music to figure that out for you. (Pollack notes a similarity to Bach instead.) Like many – albeit not all – of his contributions to this particular album, it shows a completely different side to Lennon than a lot of his more avant garde works. It appears as if he was ready to contribute songs to the Beatles and leave his musique concrete noodling for his solo work of the time. It is drumless, a rather rare thing for a Beatles song not based around an acoustic guitar part.
“You Never Give Me Your Money” is like the polished version of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” – or, if you prefer, McCartney’s response to it – it is a mini-suite of unrelated musical fragments. This time the fragments are not exactly referencing traditional rock and roll, though, in the way that “Warm Gun” did. The song features some pretty innocuous lyrics but fairly significant genre-hopping, from silly ballad to faux-boogie woogie, and an absolutely bravura vocal performance from McCartney, who shows off multiple singing styles and voices. The rest of the band is also solid behind him, but he is the real star. It is like a preview of the suite to come – in form if not in content; and a section is actually featured in the “Carry That Weight” segment of the suite – and so, in a sense, is a bit of an overture.
“Sun King” is a song Lennon wrote in response to Peter Green’s “Albatross” – though that song was vocal-less. It also features the famous three-part harmonies but not to the overdubbed extent of “Because.” It has the very same first four words of “Here Comes the Sun” and was originally called “Here Comes the Sun King.” Perhaps that attests to where Lennon was in his commitment to the group. Certainly the nonsense foreign language vocals suggest he wasn’t all there. It shares many similarities to “Because” in terms of the arrangement and the harmony vocals and perhaps can be thought of somewhat of a “Because” reprise.
“Mean Mr. Mustard” is a continuation of “Sun King” as they performed the rhythm tracks together – though it doesn’t really sound like it on the finished the recording. It actually isn’t related to the next fragment, “Polythene Pam,” but a lyric was changed from the 1968 demo version of the song, so it would seem that way to the listener, who would have no idea that the two were unrelated. I have always felt the real beginning of the suite is here. I guess because this is the first of the songs in the suite that really feels like a fragment. It is at the same tempo as “Sun King,” but because of the beat it sounds significantly different, at least to my amateur ears. It segues right into “Polythene Pam,” even though it is a bit of a “jump cut” to use film parlance.
As with the previous two songs, “Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” were recorded together, saving them from having to be edited together. This time you can tell from the finished recordings, as the instrumentation is the same for each song and you can actually hear someone joking (Lennon?) about the segue as they are changing styles. Here, the tempo appears to jump considerably. “Polythene Pam” is about a girl who apparently really did wear polythene when she went out at night and it’s the second of three “portraits” as it were. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is about a deranged Beatles fans breaking into McCartney’s home. Both song fragments are from previous sessions – White Album and Get Back respectively – but both show off their composers’ strong suits. Lennon’s is insistent with silly lyrics. McCartney’s is incredibly melodic and pseudo-poetic. “Bathroom Window” is significantly less of a fragment than the two previous tracks and, despite its length, feels like a complete tune to my ears.
“Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight” are also combined by having their rhythm tracks performed together. The first song is based partially on an old poem McCartney wrote. The second fragment is supposedly about the Beatles all putting in the effort to make a better album, so it is reminiscent of “All Together Now,” only without that song’s amateurish / good-timey feel. They both feature elaborate orchestration and very similar structures, with one exception: “Carry That Weight” features pieces of “You Never Give Me Your Money” mixed in. And “Golden Slumbers” has a fairly standout vocal performance from McCartney whereas “Carry That Weight” features the entire band singing together.
“Carry That Weight” segues into the greatest finale any band has ever created for themselves – at least in the studio. “The End” is basically the band doing a climactic performance on a good night, where everyone gets acknowledged, but accompanied by an orchestra. It is a bit of a medley too, just like “You Never Give Me Your Money,” only this one is more compact. First it features the first drum solo Starr ever performed. (It is incredibly famous, with numerous people including it in their own solos, even if it is nothing much in terms of technique.) There is a bit of a jam with nonsense lyrics. Then it infamously features McCartney, Harrison and Lennon all performing two bars each of a guitar solo and repeating that order two more times. Lennon is distinguishable as the last of the three by clearly being the least competent. To this day, this part sends chills up my spine. Finally there is the mushy part accompanied by a ton of orchestration, but we don’t need to worry about that – except that Pollack notes that many John Williams scores end the same way. So there’s that.
McCartney’s solo “Her Majesty” follows fourteen seconds after “The End” concludes. This is the introduction of the so-called “hidden track” by the Beatles, which has since become a regular practice. “Her Majesty” begins with the last chord of “Mean Mr. Mustard” – where it was originally spliced into the suite – and lasts about twenty seconds, the shortest Beatles song ever. It ends abruptly, just like “I Want You” on the first side, but where “I Want You” was written that way, the ending to “Her Majesty” is a result of being excised from the spot between “Mean Mr. Mustard and “Polythene Pam.” Its intended last note was left in the intro to the “Polythene Pam” – listen for it if you can – another of the many “happy accidents” that the Beatles used to their advantage.
The ending medley of their career is like an onslaught of brief little melodic fragments, most of which probably wouldn’t have merited much on their own, but work together to create a palpable sense of momentum up to one of the greatest moments in the band’s history. And even though I don’t particularly like solo performances on band albums, “Her Majesty” works as an honest surprise – at least the first time – and it created a huge trend in the industry.
In the fall of 1969, there was little like Abbey Road. The only other rock musicians who had attempted anything like this were Frank Zappa and the Soft Machine. Both band’s lacked the Beatles melodicism – not to mention their fan base – and though Zappa’s approach was definitely more radical, and while the Soft Machine’s might be more musically interesting, neither had the impact on music of this Beatles suite. Everyone heard this. It was like Sgt. Pepper reigned in, polished off, and with a lot more resemblance to “rock.” Not to mention better songs.
On the whole the album is the most consistent thing they had made in some time – that being relative, obviously, since many other bands would have loved to have had the consistency of the Beatles. There were no songs that were clearly included just to push boundaries, unlike on their last few finished records, yet the album still had its share of comparatively modest innovations with the heavy use of the Moog – rare, anyway, for a British band – and with the concluding suite. I know of few mainstream pop-rock albums that compare in terms of quality, and even after all these years it still sounds great, despite the relatively ancient technology that was used to record it.
After the Beatles finished recording Abbey Road, there was talk about releasing Get Back again, before Abbey Road, but everyone agreed on the vast superiority of Abbey Road and so Get Back was shelved yet again. It was hard, no doubt, for the Beatles to think about releasing something that showed them warts and all – no matter how bold or prescient it might seem now – compared with a polished, finished product that perhaps stood as their best effort ever. In that light, Get Back just didn’t cut the mustard.
And then immediately after that decision Lennon said he would be leaving the group. The band decided that they would make no formal announcement until they worked out the details – by this point the Beatles were their own industry and had all sorts of formal and informal business and legal connections: it took them until 1975 to sort it out. In November, McCartney openly discussed the possibility of the band ending in an interview.
So ended the Beatles. Sort of.
2. King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (10/10)
3. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows this is Nowhere (10/10)
There are signs of Neil Young the solo artist on his debut – his high-pitched voice, his sense of melody, his impressionistic lyrics, even his guitar playing – but they are smothered in poor arrangement and production choices, seemingly trying to make him sound like something he’s not. Sure, the record doesn’t really sound like Buffalo Springfield but, with hindsight, we can say that it really doesn’t sound enough like mature Neil Young either. That sound begins on this record.
Everything that makes Neil Young unique and special is here on this record: his earnest, impressionistic, country-folk songs and his garage rock-like approach to amplified music, two things that not too many people thought went together in 1969. Yes, he would become a better songwriter on future albums, and the stylistic divide would become more clear, but it’s all here. Especially his infamous or legendary guitar playing, which is so out of step with every other major ’60s rock guitarist except maybe John Fogerty or Pete Townshend.
Even 50 years later, it remains one of his very best albums and probably the best studio demonstration of his (anti) technique.
4. The Grateful Dead: Live/Dead (10/10)
Before this album was released, I suspect much of the world didn’t realize what the Dead actually sounded like. Read the full review.
5. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica (10/10)
One of the interesting things about YouTube in 2019 is the number of videos explaining why a particular song or record is good. Perhaps no video (or set of videos) is likely to attract more negative attention than the video(s) arguing for why Trout Mask Replica is good. Long a sacred cow of the Rockist music critic establishment, it probably feels to some as though this is one of those records where music critics just got carried away by the times, and acclaimed something as a masterpiece that is just unlistenable dreck.
Some people believe that Great Art is like the classic definition of obscenity – you know it when you see it. And listening to this, I’m sure the first reaction is that this can’t possibly be great art. I understand the appeal of the “know it when I see it” attitude but it’s just not true. All art is contextual, though the best art transcends it’s time. Some art is completely understandable as great art without context – say Bach’s Cello Suites. But the Cello Suites are just as contextual as this record or anything else. They can’t possibly exist without everything that happened before.
Because of the nature of this music, it’s much easier to get over your initial visceral reaction to it as noise if you know the context. The context, roughly, is that the western music tradition had shattered in the early 1900s, with composers exploring areas outside of traditional tonality, tempo, form, etc. The same thing happened to jazz in the 1950s (often dated to around 1959). And in the 1960s, this atonal/post tonal music was relatively everywhere. If you went to a jazz club to see a major jazz artist, there was a chance that artist would be playing free jazz. I don’t know that Van Vliet ever saw Albert Ayler in concert, but this record sure makes it feel like he had.
Atonality had made it into art music, but it was just barely finding its way into popular music, and only at the extremes. And it was only making its way into “psychedelic” music. It hadn’t come near the blues. Under Van Vliet decided to make this record (and some of his subsequent records).
This is what “free” folk music sounds like – folk music divorced from tradition and embracing contemporary avant garde musical ideas. Whether its blues or sea shanty or what have you, the Captain and the Magic band attack traditional song forms through non-traditional means, creating something that had never been heard before. It may sound completely nonsensical, but Van Vliet (not a trained musician) was apparently a dictator about the sound of each song.
Perhaps that’s why Zappa and Van Vliet chose to incorporate elements of his process into the recording. When you hear clips of the takes you understand that his music is deliberate. This is a choice.
And the result is unlike anything else in Van Vliet’s catalogue or anything else in popular music at the time – a radical attack on traditional rhythm and tonality, incorporating surrealistic lyrical imagery, but also ancient songwriting traditions and themes.
If you give it the time it deserves, this album will change your life.
6. Tim Buckley: Happy Sad (10/10)
Full disclosure: this is the first Tim Buckley record I ever heard, it’s the one I feel in love with and it’s the one I’ve listened to the most (by far) since I became a fan. It is one of my favourite albums of the era. I cannot be unbiased about it. Sorry.
This is the record when Buckley went from being a reasonably interesting folk singer with just okay songs and contemporary arrangements and production (which have now somewhat dated) to an incredible performer and innovator, whose main appeal is his voice and the things he decides to surround it with. It’s this record and his future records that establish him as one of the great singers in “rock” history. But it’s also this record (along with Van Morrison records and some other stuff) that helped created whatever the hell the folk jazz / jazz folk genre is, where two seemingly incompatible things are married seemingly perfectly. (See also Pentangle.)
I guess Buckley’s songwriting has improved since he dropped his (co?) lyricist. His lyrics are far more personal. The songs themselves are (mostly) a lot less formal.
But for me the real draw is Buckley the performer and his band. This is just a stunning vocal performance that I would rank among the very best in-studio album-length performances by a male singer of his generation (outside of jazz perhaps). You read a lot about how jazz vocalists use their voices as instruments but, unless they are scatting, the results are often disappointing (or perhaps too subtle for my ears). But here Buckley really does use his voice as the lead melodic instrument on much of the record.
And then there’s the band: Buckley’s 12-string acoustic, electric guitar, stand up bass, vibraphone and congas – no drums. It’s the perfect accompaniment that gives the music a singular sound. (What other folk “rock” band relied on a vibraphone this much?) It’s a singular band perfectly suited to Buckley’s voice and these loose songs. It find the platonic ideal between jazz and folk. (Okay, I should calm down a bit.)
As you can see, I love this record.
7. Led Zeppelin (10/10)
If Truth is the point at which British Blues begins to turn into Heavy Metal, this record, in many ways a blatant copycat of Truth, is the point when that process is complete. Yes, they’re still playing the blues sometimes, but it’s slower and louder than ever before in Britain – louder than Truth. Only Blue Cheer in the States had played slower and louder earlier, and Blue Cheer still had enough psychedelic effects to confuse you as to what you were listening to. (Also, this band is a lot more musically accomplished than Blue Cheer.) When they aren’t playing blues, they sometimes play fast, loud rock with virtually no precedent in British rock music – Hendrix without the effects but faster and more primitive. And then they indulge in folk, just like Jeff Beck.
The result is a clear dividing line between what came before and what comes after. You can justly quibble with calling Truth metal. You can maybe quibble with calling Blue Cheer metal. But you can’t quibble with Zeppelin being called metal. (Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who think NWOBHM invented metal, or Sabbath did on their third record, or whatever, the former of which is idiotic – it’s called the “New Wave” because it wasn’t first – and the latter is revisionist – music evolves slowly.)
Obligatory mention that Page stole many of his riffs and melodies from other songwriters and his act of pretending he can’t remember doesn’t fool anyone. Also obligatory mention that Robert Plant stole the vast majority of “his” lyrics in the early years from blues songs.
8. The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin (10/10)
I think it’s safe to say that this is the greatest country rock album of all time. It’s considerably more “rock” than The Byrds’ more famous effort the year prior and, perhaps more importantly, it’s not just rockier versions of traditional country songs, but original material, written as country and rocked up. It’s a blueprint for other bands, one of which notably became extremely famous by copying these guys and removing the rough edges.
Anyway, if you own one country rock album…
9. Miles Davis: In a Silent Way (10/10)
10. Led Zeppelin II (10/10)
11. The Soft Machine Volume Two (9/10)
The Soft Machine go Zappa (sort of) on their second record, featuring a song or two and tons of song fragments stitched together into two suites.
Once again, and especially after the departure of Ayers, the Softs manage to sound like nobody else, with their guitarless, heavily jazz-influenced music, which is too jazzy and too avant garde for psychedelia but which also doesn’t quite fit the mold of the emerging genre of prog rock (except for the suites) since none of those other bands like jazz as much as these guys.
All these years later there still isn’t much like it – far more ambitious and interesting than most of the other Canterbury Scene bands which would emerge in its wake, and far jazzier than most other (if not all) prog rock of its time.
A borderline masterpiece. A classic anyway.
12. The Who: Tommy (9/10)
Tommy is not the first rock opera, but it is the first rock opera to get a lot of attention – becoming a movie and a musical, among other things – and it was the longest narrative work within the pop rock world at the time, making it one of the most ambitious rock albums in the history of the medium. Whatever else you might think of it, it’s important and it’s iconic. That used to be another for me to give it a 10 out of 10 but the record is too flawed for that.
I think Tommy suffers from two pretty serious flaws that don’t inflict most future (actual) rock operas, including Townshend’s own Quadrophenia.
The first flaw is the sheer size of the thing, some of which is taken up by absurd repetitions of the same musical phrase over and over again, such as during the album’s nadir, the 10 minute “Underture,” perhaps the most boring track the Who ever recorded. Not because of the music – though they had reused some of the music from “Rael” it’s great when they play an abridged version of it live – but because of its absurd length. It does not need to be 10 minutes long. There is no reason for it. They do the same thing, to a lesser extent, with the coda, which doesn’t need so many repetitions, as we already hear it in a previous song. (Or they could have pulled a “Hey Jude” and given the repetitions more variation.)
The other problem is sort of related to the length as well, and that is the presence of so many plot-advancing song fragments. Critics at the time complained the plot was incomprehensible so I guess they are necessary for people who don’t know what’s happening but really, really need to know. But to me they’re just filler. Townshend learned his lesson – as did other rock opera writers – and dropped them from his later projects (that I am aware of). And I think that’s important for rock albums (as opposed to musicals) because, at the end of the day, they are about songs, not 25 second clips about the babysitter and the doctor.
All of this likely makes it sound as though I don’t like the record, and likely makes it seem like my rating is absurd. But I really do like the record, I think it is those two flaws away from being one of the best rock albums of the 1960s. I think it’s a pretty incredible accomplishment, actually.
There’s something else I want to mention about it, which I think gets overlooked: this is one of the most important records in the history of the acoustic guitar in rock music. Prior to this record, the acoustic guitar was a rhythm instrument played softly on ballads, or used for acoustic songs. Here it is a dynamic driver of rock music. From this point on, Townshend became one of the foremost players of the acoustic guitar in rock, but he also opened up the world for people who didn’t want to play electric all the time but who also didn’t want to play country or folk.
Anyway, it’s as close to an absolute classic as you can get. Cut “Underture” in half and remove some of the shortest “songs” and you have one of the best albums of its era.
13. The Stooges (9/10)
It’s probably impossible to convey how raw and aggressive the Stooges sounded on most of these tracks when this record came out. The thing is, this isn’t anything compared to their live performances and almost sells them short a little bit, at least in terms of Pop’s theatricality. But anyway, there was very little precedent for this record in music at the time – The Velvets were as noisy when live, but certainly not as aggressive, and it’s hard to imagine most of the garage bands being this loud, though some of the loudest might have done that in concert. It’s only the MC5 I can think of who compare in terms of volume and aggression but they were considerably more conventional. (Also, they had the benefit of releasing a live album.)
It’s not quite the birth of punk rock – the Stooges are just way too dam arty on this record and it’s successor to be truly “punk” in the sense of what happened in the 1970s – but it definitely the birth of something new, less arty than the Velvets and more primitive but still with intelligence behind it.
14. The Can: Monster Movie (9/10)
15. Sly and the Family Stone: Stand! (9/10)
Their best album to date. Read the review of Stand!
16. Pharaoh Sanders: Karma (10*/10)
17. Credence Clearwater Revival: Willy and the Poor Boys (9/10)
18. Fairport Convention: Liege and Lief (9/10)
19. Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left (9/10)
20. Frank Zappa: Hot Rats (9/10)
21. Johnny Cash: At San Quentin (9/10)
22. Dmitry Shostakovitch: Symphony No. 14 (9/10)
I have taken some time getting to know Shostakovitch and, on the whole, I have found him a little underwhelming, I guess because of his allegiance to the past. And I know I am coming at his symphonies backwards, by listening to the second last one first, but…
This is awesome. I am impressed by his amalgam of some pretty traditional melodic ideas with some (relatively!) radical approaches to tonality, scoring and, particularly, the form of the symphony itself. (I do not know if he was this radical in his earlier symphonies.) And, without the proper context, I must say that I listen to this as a pretty remarkable work. Not necessarily a life-changer, but among the better symphonies (I have heard) from the sixties. It’s hearing something like this that makes me want to invest more time in a composer.
23. The Velvet Underground (9/10)
A drastic left turn away from their noisy, in-your-face sound to something mostly softer and mellower, with suggestions of power pop and indie pop and naive rock and that kind of thing. It turns that Lou Reed is a really good songwriter and can write all sorts of styles. It turns out this band is more versatile that you might have expected, attempting both pop and the avant garde on the same record.
This is likely a much better point of entry than the first two records, and it’s also a strong set of songs (including some of Reed’s very best of his career). And it is mostly very different from the earlier albums, which feels like artistic growth even if it’s less revolutionary. But it’s just not as pathbreaking or as important as the first two.
24. Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking (9/10)
What We Did on Our Holidays is my favourite Fairport record but this one is undoubtedly the superior album, if only because it’s more consistent both in terms of songs and in terms of the arrangements and production.
Though a lot of people view this record as transitional to me it’s fairly clear the band had moved on from what they used to be. Yes, there are still Dylan songs, but those songs feel a little closer to their style this time, or at least “Percy’s Song” does. (I see how you could claim the two other Dylan songs are more in line with their earlier sound.) There no song fragments this time out, which is also a step forwards.
And when it comes to the arrangements, well the band just sounds much more of a piece. The vestiges of psychedelia which were all over their first record and were even on a few songs on the second are totally gone now. It feels fully Fairport in a way that the first album absolutely does not and even parts of my favourite record don’t exactly.
I still prefer the previous record for personal reasons (it was my first) but I think this is probably superior.
25. Credence Clearwater Revival: Green River (9/10)
The degree to which CCR pumped out music throughout their career, but especially in 1969, seems utterly ridiculous until you look at the albums lengths and realize they probably could have put out fewer albums at the expense of a few of the deep cuts. I’m not sure that would have been preferable but one of the things you learn when you spend way too much time listening to this band is that not every single thing Forgerty wrote (or “wrote” in the case of one or two songs) was up the level of the hit singles. Still, much if not most of it was and that is the case, for the most part, on Green River, one of the band’s very best albums, featuring four absolute classic CCR tracks and a bunch of stuff that varies from good to very good.
I used to consider this record one of the absolute classics of its era. But one thing I can’t shake, having listened to all of them way too many times, is maybe a slower pace and a little more internal editing might have created two complete masterpieces out of the material for three shorter records (for example). I don’t know why I feel that way now, all these years later, but I do.
Still, it’s between this one and the next one for their best album.
26. Fairport Convention: What We Did on Our Holidays (9/10)
This is the record that made me a Fairport fan so I have a really hard time being objective about it. To me, the whole thing is wonderful from the beginning to the end.
The problem with that view is twofold: There is definitely some material here that qualifies as filler. It might be very pleasant filler but it’s hard to argue that “The Lord Is In This Place” is much other than filler. The other issue is that there is still the odd trace of the old band, specifically on “Book Song,” which has sitar and backmasking and reminds you that it’s 1968.
But otherwise, I love this record. It contains some of Denny and Thompson’s best material and it contains definitive cover versions of some supposed throwaway songs from some major songwriters. I suspect it’s not quite deserving of this high a ranking, but I can’t help myself. (Also, it helped launch the new English version of folk rock, so that must count for something.)
27. Credence Clearwater Revival: Bayou Country (9/10)
Gone are the psychedelic touches that marred the debut album for some people. So yes, the band double down and commit to their sound, sounding like basically no other (white) band on the planet at this point in time.
And I love this record and I could listen to it over and over again, because I love CCR.
But the material is spotty after the hits and the record feels padded out by “Keep On Chooglin'” – a song I actually don’t mind but is pretty indicative of the way they put out records, three short LPs in 1969 instead of two longer ones.
Yes, this is more clearly “swamp rock” than the debut but I don’t think the substitution of 8 minute jam for psychedelic sound effects is as great as the critics make it out to be.
Still a great record.
28. The Allman Brothers Band (9/10)
29. The Rolling Stones: Let it Bleed (9/10)
30. Amon Duul II: Phallus Dei (9/10)
What initially feels like a series of nearly formless psychedelic jams with everyone doing their own thing soon reveals itself to be one of the fundamental early documents of Krautrock (the earliest?) and a huge, huge influence on later musicians, particularly post punk bands (The Fall, for example) and indie rock bands (Stereolab).
What’s perhaps even more shocking is that the music that was left off the record is just as path-breaking, perhaps even more so. (Though obviously nobody got to hear it, unless they did those tracks live.)
Basically, they take the concept of a “freak out” and add new and different things to it, from music and cultures that had virtually zero impact on British and American psychedelia. There’s really not much out there like this. And though I think they improved as a band – they learned to include the odd song, for one thing – this is still remarkable, forward-thinking music.
PS: What a great album name.
31. The Kinks: Arthur (9/10)
32. Santana (9/10)
Santana didn’t invent Latin Rock on their debut album because Latin rock and roll had existed for about a decade (at least) and Latin blues had been invented recently, weirdly enough, in the UK. But Santana take the Latin influence far further than anyone before them and, combining that with a Latin Jazz (and general Jazz) influence results in a sound that is uniquely their own, making previous Latin rock and roll sound far less sophisticated or modern and making bands like Fleetwood Mac sound faux Latin (which they were).
So many people copied what other bands did in the late ’60s that truly unique debuts are pretty hard to find outside of the most famous bands. But though you could accuse Santana of following in the steps of another band, they arguably had more right to the sound (since some of these guys are actually “Latin”) and they took it to new places, essentially establishing a subgenre that ended up influencing both rock and jazz artists.
33. The Band (9/10)
For me, the Band’s second album doesn’t have quite the same “from the ether” feel to it as their first, Yes, many of these songs do indeed sound as if they were written in another century, but a few more of them don’t (or at least sound as if they were arranged int he 1906s).
But everything that made the band utterly unique is still present and they still manage to combine a set of exceptional (seemingly ancient) songs with performances that appear to owe more to folk than they do to rock or (especially when it comes to the vocals).
I think with the benefit of 50 years hindsight we definitely see the hype machine got just a little carried away with how Great and Significant this album is, but it remains their second best album.
34. Les McCann, Eddie Harris: Swiss Movement (9/10)
The myth-making goes to hilarious extremes in the liner notes – with the writer denying the band had ever played together before this date before then detailing how they played together before the date – but that’s something that’s quite common to jazz (and to music in general) and this band still sounds fantastic for a band that hadn’t rehearsed much – and which was tackling a song they just learned that day.
McCann’s band brings the soul jazz and Harris (and Bailey, to a less extent) bring the modern sensibility. This is a strong record because the marriage of two sounds is so strong. I’m not sure I’d like McCann much without Harris, as he’s pretty traditional – though his band is really “soulful” for lack of a better word – but Harris is a forward-thinking player (at least relatively) and he makes this much better than your average soul jazz date.
Regardless of how this show came together, it’s a good show.
35. Fleetwood Mac: Then Play On (8/10)
I have an absolutely irrational love of this album. I know every song. I can listen to it over and over again without skipping the filler. For years, I rated it 10/10 for some reason. I don’t know why, but I found it at just the right time.
The two things I like the most are probably the contrast between Green’s and Kirwan’s songs, a contrast which shows off the band’s versatility, and the sheer lack of Jeremy Spencer. Spencer’s songs were almost always pastiches and their utter lack makes this a far stronger record, from a song-writing perspective, than their previous albums.
This record is inconsistent (there is filler!) and there are a number of songs which are not performed by the whole band; the latter is a major nitpick of mine on most albums when it happens but, for some reason, on I just don’t hold it against them. Something about the songs, I guess, and the contrast between the two-songwriters.
I cannot tell you why but it remains my favourite Fleetwood Mac album all these years later.
36. MC5: Kick out the Jams (8/10)
If you’re like me, you came to this because you read about it as a seminal step towards the creation of punk music. But listening to it many years later, it’s hard to see that. These guys are not a punk band in any way (except maybe politically); their music is louder than what would become punk, it’s more bluesy, it’s more competent – it doesn’t have a lot in common with the Dolls or Jonathan Richman or the Ramones. It doesn’t have much in common with the Stooges even. I think its role in the development of the genre has been a tad overstated. (Sure, later punk bands were political, but that was British punk not American punk.)
But the obsession of categorizing this record as “proto punk” obscures what it is: an excellent, dirty, hard, live rock album that what was about as loud and sloppy as rock music got in October 1968. This is a band that plays with a ton of energy and they’re okay if they’re not the most professional sounding band (even if they can actually play).
And yes, they did mostly get rid of jamming, which was a thing that was becoming a problem in 1968 and would continue to be a problem in coming years.
37. White Noise: An Electric Storm (8/10)
38. Julie Driscoll, Brian Auguer and the Trinity: Streetnoise (8/10)
Put aside the absurd band name for a minute.
When I first heard this record I absolutely fell in love with it. I think I fell in love with Driscoll’s voice and her range – and her supposed range – and the fact that this record is relatively unique-sounding compared to most of the music being made at the time, especially psychedelia. Anyway, I acclaimed it as a masterpiece and believed crazy things about it from reviews I read, such as it was Driscoll singing those songs sung by the male singers in the band(s). (Yes, I honestly read and believed a review insisting “Looking in the Eye of the World” was sung by her, and it just made me love her more.)
Over time I’ve come to see a lot more of the albums flaws and so I now temper my enthusiasm.
For one thing, those unique covers are not as unique. Now that I’ve heard the originals or earlier versions in many cases, I know that a number of these covers, if not all of them, are after earlier performers. That makes it much less impressive.
The other thing is I’ve come to kind of despise over-singing, and does Driscoll ever over-sing. I don’t mind because I came to this record before I cared about such things, but she could show a little restraint here and there. (I do think she’s mostly effective but there are a few notes where I’m like “Why are you singing that much?”
It’s also just a giant patchwork – as the band name suggests, they don’t exactly function as a unit a lot of the time, with Driscoll not present on a number of tracks and the Trinity not present on other tracks.
Still, it’s pretty great:
Driscoll’s own songs are very good and Auger’s pieces are decent to good as well. (As well as relatively unique.) The covers are from all over the place at a least a couple of them are relatively unique takes. (They are also uniformly good, even the derivative ones.)
Moreover the sound is utterly unique – nobody else really made a record like this at the time, combining folk (and art folk???) with such jazzy jazz rock, with the blues and gospel. Criticize this record for being a product of its time due to its excesses, but it doesn’t sound like anybody else.
And Driscoll is a fantastic singer, even if I now wish she’d tone it down a touch.
One of my favourite records from the era, even if it is far from perfect.
39. Deep Purple (8/10)
I don’t know what was going on with me when I first heard this record, but I fell in love with it the moment I heard it. I guess it sounded so far from what I expected early Purple to sound like, but with enough elements – Blackmore’s playing, “April”- to really strike a chord.
Over time I’ve come to realize it’s a little more flawed than I initially believed and it’s also hardly as progressive, given when it was released. (Lots of bands had made more “progressive” rock music by this time.)
Purple straddle a line between more conventional, vaguely progressive/psychedelic hard rock and all out ambition (limited to “April”). On previous records that ambition was sort of all over the place, but they also had to rely on covers in part. Here they have one track that feels like a unique early prog rock experiment (point in a very different direction than prog or Purple went) and the rest of it is just very competent late ’60s hard rock (featuring some searing work by Blackmore who is just getting better and better).
I love “April” to a ridiculous extent, and it’s bizarre combination of Spaghetti Western, chamber music and rock music. But I actually quite enjoy almost all of the rest of the record. Some of that is because I’ve just listened to it too many damn times, but it’s also because they didn’t really sound like anyone else at this point. (Vanilla Fudge comparisons were tired and irrelevant at this point.)
A personal favourite, even if it is far from a classic.
40. Led Zeppelin: Don’t Mess with Texas [Bootleg] (8/10)
This is a pretty strong but very early show featuring excellent versions of material from the debut, including a medley, and a couple covers as well (though obviously some of the “originals” are also covers…). Speaking of the medley, the (very brief) version of “Susie Q” is particularly bizarre (in a good way).
Everyone is one their game and the show is generally quite good. It’s a festival slot apparently, so it’s not like they play forever, but that brevity actually serves them well, as there is no insanely long and unnecessary Bonham solo, for example.
41. Crosby, Stills and Nash (8/10)
I am a huge Neil Young fan so it should come as no surprise that I greatly prefer CSNY to CSN. I think he is a better songwriter than all of these guys and I think he is at least a more interesting guitarist than Stills and a better one than Crosby. But I think my love of Neil Young has blinded me to a lot of the charms of this record, and its overall importance.
The first thing I want to say is that I think this record is one of the first times the innovations of psychedelia were fully incorporated into mainstream pop and rock, so that listeners unfamiliar with these innovations wouldn’t even notice. If you think about this record’s songs, that opening track is insanely ambitious for only a year earlier – like a catchier, longer “Happiness is a Warm Gun” but as a lead off track – but in 1969 it seems like just normal folk pop. And there are little arrangement and production touches that would have seemed radical if Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds or (especially) the Hollies had done them, but now just feel par for the course of making a rock album. That’s how much the world had changed but I’m not sure anyone had quite integrated these ideas into middle of the road folk pop and pop rock like these guys do here, aside from the Beatles. (I would argue that Abbey Road, due out in a few months, does this far more greatly and successfully, but this record was first.) What I’m trying to say is, despite how catchy this record is, these guys were not afraid of taking (relative) risks).
The songs are all pretty damn catchy. I hate to say it, because I don’t like Steven Stills, but I think his stand out the best, as I would rank “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Helplessly Hoping” as the two best songs here. (Stills is also the most important person here, as he pulls a Paul McCartney and plays most of the instruments.)
The arrangements are all over the place, which adds a variety to the record it desperately needs. (It also introduces the bizarre contradiction of this band, who like quiet little songs with pretty harmonies and also like to jam past the point of sanity, a weird mix which, unsurprisingly is also very much a Neil Young thing.)
Anyway, I would prefer more muscle and I’m glad Young made the band better (on occasion) but this is still a pretty good record, even if these guys aren’t my favourite songwriters or performers.
42. The Grateful Dead: Aoxomoxoa (8/10)
This is the first Dead studio album to come after the ridiculous mindfuck that was Anthem of the Sun. This is much more representative of the Dead as a band – and, with hindsight, we can say especially as a band in the studio – but it’s far less interesting as a record than Anthem of the Sun. That’s not to say it’s bad, not at all. It’s just not crazy and life changing.
In retrospect we can view it as a transition from the psychedelia and avant rock of their early records to the country and roots of the next year. But for the most part it is better than such a description would suggest – not to mention not particularly psychedelic – though I must be listening to the remix.
The songs are, mostly, very strong. The one exception is “What’s Become of the Baby”, which is too long even though it’s a neat little experiment (for its time).
43. Mauricio Kagel: “Ludwig van” (8/10)
Ludwig van is supposedly the score to a film he made in 1969, but I have also read that it’s an unrelated piece of music with the same name. This being Kagel, either is possible. It starts out very impressionistically, which is not something I associate (exactly) with Beethoven. Voices and other instruments come in on the later movements and by the third movement, some of the music is more recognizable as classical or romantic (though it’s blended together with more avant garde ideas and in very modern ways). I don’t know that it works as a tribute to Beethoven. It does work as a provocative piece of music, breaking down our ideas of form.
44. Led Zeppelin: The Dancing Avocado (8/10)
This is an entertaining early show that mostly works in my mind, save maybe the obligatory drum solo. 5 songs in an hour, which is ridiculous but (mostly) works. They are firing on all cylinders, even during Jones’ equipment trouble, when they just ad lib a jam thing (taking the track, which they never did in studio, to nearly 20 minutes). “Killing Floor” makes you wonder why they didn’t credit “The Lemon Song” to its composers when they are recorded it for the second album later in the year. But as someone else said, details details.
Everything is well done and only the drum solo is too long. Very enjoyable stuff.
45. Silver Apples: Contact (8/10)
This feels like a step back from their debut. The presence of the banjo really grounds the music in more recognizable tradition and the songs which contain banjo do feel far less unique than the rest of their material.
And at least one of these songs feels like a demo, though it is an amusing one.
It’s still pretty damn unique music and Simeon’s songs are good enough that it doesn’t just feel like some weird experiment. (Also Simeon and Taylor are good enough and everything is musical enough.)
I still quite like this record but it’s not the landmark that the debut was. It’s more for people who listen to the debut and like it enough to want to listen to more of the band.
46. Roberta Flack: Fist Take (8/10)
47. The Byrds: The Ballad of Easy Rider (8*/10)
48. Jack Bruce: Songs for a Tailor (8*/10)
49. Johnny Winter: Second Winter (8*/10)
50. Jefferson Airplane: Volunteers (8*/10)
51. The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (8/10)
Good live version of Super Session. Read the review. .
52. Isley Brothers: It’s Our Thing (8/10)
Ignore the title track. This is a good funky soul record. Read the review of It’s Our Thing.
53. Jethro Tull: Stand up (8*/10)
54. Johnny Winter: The Progressive Blues Experiment (8*/10)
55. The Flamin Groovies: Supersnazz (8*/10)
56. Leonard Cohen: Songs From a Room (7/10)
Abandoning the excessive arrangements of his debut, exposes the weaker songs and his voice. Read the review of Songs From a Room.
57. Laura Nyro: New York Tendaberry (7/10)
58. The Incredible Kaleidoscope! (7/10)
I first listened to this record as part of their boxed set, and I’m pretty sure one reason I thought it held up to the standard of their previous records is because I never paid attention to where they ended and this one began.
This is a band I have long overrated simply because, just like for Jimmy Page, they are in some ways “my ideal band”. There are so many things I find appealing about them that when I first heard them I just wouldn’t accept that they may not be perfect.
Their biggest flaw was always a lack of consistently strong material and that’s true on this record as it is for their first two records. Their second biggest flaw, that they lacked a truly charismatic lead singer, is also still true. (Feldthouse is talented but hardly a rock star.)
The material is arguably a little weaker this time out – did we really need them to do “Killing Floor”? – though there are still some highlights like there always are, particularly the jam (as usual).
I really love this band and I wish they had just had a little more luck. This is not their best record.
59. Bob Dylan: Nashville Skyline (7/10)
Dylan leans even further into his reinvention as a country singer. both in terms of his singing voice and the straightforward nature of his songs.
Though this record has the big hit, and though it has the absolutely fantastic duet version of “Girl From the North Country,” I definitely prefer John Wesley Harding as a record overall and I also think that record is far more important, both as a departure for Dylan and as a deliberate rebuke of the musical trends of the day. (Sure, this is deliberate rebuke of those trends too, but it’s the second time.) This one is also really, really short, and I can’t help but think that someone as prolific as Dylan had more material.
It’s very pleasant and, as I said above, it contains an absolutely great duet, but it is Dylan’s least essential record since his debut.
60. Bee Gees: Odessa (7/10)
A unique combination of baroque pop and country pop. Read the review of Odessa.
61. Scott Walker: Scott 3 (7/10)
Just the first hints of what would come twenty five years later. Read the review of Scott 3.
62. Blind Faith (7*/10)
63. Blondwyn Pig: Ahead Rings Out (7/10)
62. Cream: Goodbye (7/10)
Yes, the live tracks are excellent. The studio songs are more consistent than Wheels of Fire. But this is still a flawed, half-assed record
64. Pink Floyd: Ummagumma (7/10)
65. Family: Entertainment (7/10)
66. Pink Floyd: More (7/10)
67. Led Zeppelin: Gladsaxe Teen Club (7/10)
This first ever TV appearance is pretty solid. The whole thing is pretty straight-ahead given, I would assume, they had to keep it short as this was a TV special.
The audience is hilariously uninvolved.
There are much better later shows, but it’s fun to see the band at a really early stage of their career (this occurred prior to the release of the debut).
The orgasm bit is funny if you’re male and don’t think about the groupie stories.
68. The Impressions: The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story (7/10)
Way too slick for me, but well done. Read the review of The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story.
69.Chicago Transit Authority (6/10)
A Blood, Sweat and Tears rip off that manages to be both better and worse than BST depending upon what part of the album you’re at. Too ambitious, too long, but well made. Read the review of Chicago Transit Authority.
70. The Guess Who: Canned Wheat (6/10)
For lots of critics (and some fans, I guess), this is considered the band’s best album. That is a take I used to disagree with completely, as I have long been more partial to American Woman and even Share the Land. But, with time, I’ve come to understand why, even if I don’t agree.
It contains three of their biggest songs – though one of those in an early form – which show off three different sides to the band. But, at the same time, it manages to also be basically the most musically interesting and experimental album (relatively speaking), containing all those bizarre musical interludes in place of intros and codas, which make the band feel a little more out there and risque than they actually were.
Finally, though “Key” still contains a ridiculous and unnecessary drum solo, I think it’s safe to say that it is more successful than “Friends of Mine” as it never quite descends into the lyrical absurdity (and Doors parody) of that track.
But, like virtually all Guess Who albums, this one is plagued by the lack of consistent material outside of the singles. That material is okay, I guess, but it is hardly up to the standard of most of their equally or more famous contemporaries. It’s only because this was basically Canada’s only really successful rock band at the time that these guys have gotten so much praise for something like this.
71. Dusty Sprinfield: Dusty in Memphis (6/10)
A little too much pop, not enough soul. Read the review of Dusty in Memphis.
72. The Moody Blues: On the Threshold of a Dream (6/10)
If this was actually “progressive” in April of 1969, it wasn’t for much longer. Read the review of On the Threshold of a Dream.
73. The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (6/10)
Yellow Submarine needs a bit of a disclaimer: it is not really a Beatles album per se. It was released to coincide with the animated children’s film of the same name and it only included four “new” Beatles songs in addition to Martin’s film score and two previously released hit singles. The reaction to the album was so poor that the Beatles themselves – who had little to do with the album release – came very close to releasing an EP with just the “new” material and the as-yet-unused “Across the Universe,” but it never came out – though it was mastered, which shows how serious they were. So while this is clearly the worst Beatles studio album ever – surely more than any of the botched American releases I didn’t cover in my book – it isn’t really a Beatles album.
Note: In 1999 this was “re-released” as a “songtrack” with a completely different track listing just to confuse the hell out of all of us.
Martin’s score isn’t all that interesting in terms of film scores – though I guess it is above average for ’60s film scores. I used to have a thing for “March of the Meanies” when I first heard this album in my teens, but I have long since gotten over it. The two previously released singles are, in my mind, two of their weaker singles and so really the only value at all for anyone interested in this must be found in the “new material,” which was merely a collection of pre-White Album outtakes, and as such the music is completely out of step with where the Beatles were going – especially where they were going in January of 1969, when this soundtrack was released.
“Only a Northern Song” was the other song Harrison wrote for Sgt. Pepper but which wasn’t included on the album, possibly because of its lack of tunefulness – or perhaps because the other Beatles got his joke. It has regularly been derided as one of the worst Beatles songs ever. One such reason is because it is supposedly about how the Beatles are now making weird music but we should all forgive them for it. It seems far more likely that the song – its lyrics and its music – reflect Harrison’s dissatisfaction as a member of the Northern Songs publishing company. As such I think it deserves a little more thought despite its awkward avant-garde-ness. Harrison was letting everyone know that it didn’t matter what he did, he would still only get his little share of the royalties. Apparently the group responded by not including the song on an album for two years. It’s still not catchy.
“All Together Now” is a song recorded in May 1967 during the earliest sessions for what eventually became the “Magical Mystery Tour” double EP and album. McCartney wrote this in the vein of “Yellow Submarine,” probably as a way of trying to convince the band they should embark on another one of his concepts – one that was to be far less successful than the first. It is pretty weak but it marks the production debut of McCartney, apparently, so that’s neat for those of us who care about such things.
“Hey Bulldog” is for me the stand-out outtake. Recorded as a possible B-side for “Lady Madonna” – along with “Across the Universe” – in the winter of 1968 it shows the Beatles decisively abandoning psychedelia – save the barking – to focus on the finer things in life, such as riffs. The song features one of the more memorable Beatles riffs – along with “Day Tripper” and “Birthday” and a few others – but this one is notable for being written on a piano. It’s a hard-rock song recorded at the time when they were known worldwide for psychedelic pop music. Some credit should probably go to McCartney for a co-write since he came up with the barking. Some claim that this session was the last time all four Beatles had fun recording a song. It’s really under-known because it got dumped on this pseudo-album, and that’s a shame. One of my personal favourites.
“It’s All Too Much” stands out as the other notable song on the “EP hidden in an album,” though personally I don’t think it is as strong as “Hey Bulldog.” Like “All Together Now” it was begun in spring 1967, but unlike that song it was finished that summer, during the miscellaneous sessions that eventually produced Magical Mystery Tour, though it was left off that release. The song is highly referential as it both quotes the pop standard “Sorrow” and features a trumpet quote of a baroque march. It makes use of extensive feedback – especially in the intro: compare this feedback to the feedback of “I Feel Fine” of less than 3 years earlier. I have heard all three guitarists credited with that contribution. The Beatles Bible says Harrison and Lennon but Allmusic says McCartney; and honestly it sounds a little like McCartney. It’s a nifty albeit long and somewhat directionless piece that is unlike anything else of Harrison’s The Beatles released. (A few of Harrison’s compositions were similar but were never released or were altered before release.) This is the short version of the track, apparently, and it ranks among the five longest songs they ever recorded.
Even if this music had been released as an EP, it still would have been a disappointment. To my mind “It’s Only a Northern Song” and “All Together Now” are the kinds of things I would have been into on Anthology but that’s about it. To me, a single with “Hey Bulldog” and “Across the Universe” – or, to be fairer, backed with “It’s All Too Much” – would have been a better idea, especially had it been released between “Lady Madonna” and “Hey Jude”. And this release also leads me to wonder what a different Magical Mystery Tour album-proper might have been like had it included “It’s All Too Much” and something like “Carnival of Light” instead of past singles. But this kind of thinking is hardly productive and doesn’t lead anywhere but to regret for someone else’s decisions. This album is what it is: the only completely inessential thing the Beatles ever produced.
74. Dillard and Clark: Through the Morning, Through the Night (5/10)
It’s like the band just fell off a cliff: The songs are weaker (many more are covers). They seem far more concerned with revivalism than being pioneers: much of the music is old-timey in the same way that Kaleidoscope attempted, only Kaleidoscope were way better musicians and they interspersed their old-timey ditties with other music that was actually good.
But I am being a bit too harsh. There are a few good songs. And there’s a great-if-too-safe cover of “Don’t Let Me Down”, one of my favourite Lennon songs. But really, this barely sounds like the same band.
Compilations, archival releases and new performances of old material: