Category Archives: The Re-Listening Project

High-Flying Bird

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(Pictured: “Bernie, what does this mean here, ‘I saw it as you flew between my reason’?”)

I do not love Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player the way I do other albums from Elton John’s classic 1972-1977 period. Nevertheless, it found its way into the car CD player recently, so here’s a ranking of the tracks. If you haven’t heard it for a while, it’s here.

13.  “Jack Rabbit.” This was one of two songs on the B-side of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and is a bonus track on the 1995 reissue of the album. It’s a country song that runs 1:50, but there’s even less to it than that.

12.  “Texan Love Song.” Elton sings as a patriotic Texas redneck who hates communism, “fairies,” rock ‘n’ roll, and everything else brought to America by “out-of-town guys.” Despite an attempt at a drawl and an ostentatious mandolin, Elton still comes off as the exact sort of long-haired English dandy the Texan would shoot from his porch.

11.  “Midnight Creeper.” According to Wikipedia, Elton was going for a Rolling Stones-ish sound on this. News flash: Wikipedia is wrong. 

10.  “Whenever You’re Ready (We’ll Go Steady Again).” Also on the “Saturday Night’s Alright” B-side, and as crankable as the A-side. Also a reissue bonus track.

9.  “Have Mercy on the Criminal.” Big and cinematic and like nothing else Elton had done to this point. It’s easy to imagine it appearing on any of his next three albums, but not on his previous three.

8.  “I’m Gonna Be a Teenage Idol.” This feels a bit like a companion piece to Honky Chateau‘s “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself,” in which the bored teenager of the latter song bought a guitar instead of committing suicide and found a calling in life.

7.  “Teacher I Need You.” I keep thinking as I listen to this album that I like Elton’s performances and the production on this album more than I like the songs he’s singing. He and the band sound great, but the songs at the bottom of this list just kind of disappear right after I hear them.

6. “Blues for Baby and Me.” Spoiler: of the top six songs in my rankings, four of them are ballads.

5.  “Crocodile Rock.” Nobody really needs to hear this song again, but if you manage to forget being sick of it, you can’t deny how incredibly hooky it is. Its goofy extravagance—not so much in sound as in attitude—came from a well Elton would return to repeatedly over the next several years.

4.  “Elderberry Wine.” This was the B-side of “Crocodile Rock,” which is pretty good value for your 95 cents right there. Although it’s got a bit of Bernie Taupin’s reflexive misogyny (the singer is nostalgic for the woman who used to wait on him hand and foot), it also rocks like crazy.

3.  “Skyline Pigeon.” This first appeared on Empty Sky with Elton accompanying himself on harpsichord and organ. This full-band version, with Elton in much better voice than he’d been in 1969, was cut during the Don’t Shoot Me sessions but remained unreleased until 1988, when it turned up on a UK compilation, and in the States on the Rare Masters box set in 1992. (By that time, it had become famous through its association with young AIDS victim Ryan White, whom Elton befriended, and at whose 1990 funeral he performed the song.) Why it was shelved in 1973 I can’t imagine, as it’s a near-textbook example of the radio-friendly Elton sound the world couldn’t get enough of in the mid 70s. In some alternate universe, it was a #1 single for weeks and weeks.

2.  “High Flying Bird.” This is the last track on the original album, which means Don’t Shoot Me is book-ended by two of Elton’s most beautiful ballads. As so often happens, Bernie’s lyric is largely gibberish, but as so often also happens, Elton rescues it with a hook-laden melody and then sings the hell out of it.

1. ” Daniel.” This opens the album, with Elton on electric piano and Mellotron instead of acoustic piano, giving it a feel that is unique in his catalog. When he reprises the first verse right at the end (“Daniel is traveling tonight on a plane”), the sadness at the heart of the song is fully revealed, in the kind of goosebump moment that is one of the reasons we love music.

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The Real Early Seger

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(Pictured: young Bob Seger.)

We are continually frustrated around here by Bob Seger’s refusal to reissue much of anything he recorded before 1975’s Beautiful Loser. Six of his first seven albums—everything except for 1972’s Smokin’ O.P.’s—are out of print, and some of it has never been released on CD. There was an album called Early Seger: Volume 1 back in 2009, but it was a disappointment: it had one cut from Back in ’72, two from Smokin’ O.P.’s, and three from Seven, but some had been modified with new overdubs in 2009, and several previously unreleased cuts were from the mid 80s, which is hardly “early.”

Clearly Seger feels that after 1975, he was a better musician doing better songs. But we creative types are often not the best judges of our own work. I can’t tell you how often I’ve written stuff I don’t like, only to be told no, this is good, don’t be so hard on yourself. No doubt people have said that very thing to Bob Seger.

There’s an argument that many of the early Seger albums are uneven, yes. But the title track from Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man is an all-timer and its 45 B-side, “Tales of Lucy Blue,” is pretty good, too;  “2 + 2 = ?” is a rockin’ artifact of an angry time. Noah is an album Seger has explicitly disavowed; around the time it was recorded he was replaced in his own band for a while by a singer named Tom Neme, under shadowy circumstances. But “Noah” sounds like a hit single that should have been and an all-time classic that never was, and “Death Row” blazes.

Mongrel, released in 1970, is the final album under the name of the Bob Seger System, and it contains two ragers: “Lucifer” and a seven-minute version of “River Deep Mountain High” that kicks every ass in the neighborhood. The 1971 album Brand New Morning is another one Seger has promised to keep in the vault until time shall be no more; done to fulfill a contractual obligation, it’s just him with guitar and piano. (Predictably, it’s actually pretty good; hear the whole thing here.) Smokin’ O.P.’s likely remains in print because it contains two concert staples, “Let It Rock” and “Heavy Music,” the latter going back to Bob Seger and the Last Heard in 1967.

In 1973, Seger put together a new band for Back in ’72. It was the first to feature his longtime sax player Alto Reed, then still known by his given name, Tommy Cartmell. It also included guitarist Bill Mueller, percussionist Sergio Pastora, keyboard player Dick Sims, drummer Jamie Oldaker, and singers Shaun Murphy and Marcy Levy. The group was known as the Borneo Band. They aren’t the only musicians on Back in ’72; Seger is also backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section as well as a couple of Funk Brothers, among others. It’s the album with the original “Turn the Page” and “Rosalie,” Seger’s ode to Detroit radio legend Rosalie Trombley.

The Borneo Band didn’t last long. The story goes that Seger fired them “for being unreliable,” whatever that might have meant. (Sims, Oldaker, and Levy later joined Eric Clapton’s band.) Seger formed the Silver Bullet Band after that, and their first album was the last of his now-rare early albums, Seven, in 1974.

Early in 1973, Seger and the Borneo Band played in a recording studio in Cleveland, most likely for a radio show. There’s a bootleg of the session, known as The Cleveland Connection. It’s loose and rockin’ and pretty damn good. Six of its 10 songs were never recorded by Seger anywhere else. Highlights include “Higher and Higher,” Van Morrison’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” and a 13-minute jam on “Turn on Your Love Light.” The Cleveland Connection is available at the bootleg site ROIO, along with some other live Seger material from the 70s and 80s as part of a series called Transmission Impossible. Find them here.

Plausibly Related: Seger ranks #91 on Vulture’s best-to-worst rankings of all 214 artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t find much to argue with on Bill Wyman’s list. I wouldn’t rank the Ramones in the Top 10, but at least it wasn’t the Velvet Underground, and I always presume that Nirvana will rank too high for my taste on lists like this. It has lots of apples-to-oranges comparisons among vastly different genres and styles, but credit Wyman for getting #214 right, and for accurately describing Sammy Hagar’s proper place in the Hall. The article also provides a lot of insight into how the Hall works, and why. Spend time with it this weekend and you won’t be sorry.

All I Can Do

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(Pictured: the young Cars.)

Several years ago—2004 sticks in my mind, but I don’t remember precisely—I bought a CD player with a recording well. My old player had died, and this new one would let me make CDs of some of my favorite vinyl albums. But it didn’t work right often enough, and it wasn’t long before I gave up on it entirely. But I still have a few of the CDs I managed to make, and one of them ended up in my CD bag on a recent trip: the Cars’ 1979 album Candy-O.

If you asked me to name my favorite albums of all time, I suspect I’d name many albums before I got to Candy-O, if I ever got to it at all. But listening to it the other day, all I could think was damn, this is a great record. And I wondered how come I don’t listen to it more often, because it’s every bit the equal of my all-time faves. Listen to it yourself while I rank the tracks on the album:

9.  “You Can’t Hold on Too Long.” Every time I do one of these Re-Listening Project posts, I find myself apologizing to the songs at the bottom of the list, which usually end up here not because I actively dislike them, but because I like other songs more.

8.  “Got a Lot on My Head.” See previous entry.

7.  “Since I Held You.” Ranks ahead of “You Can’t Hold on Too Long” and “Got a Lot on My Head” because it’s a little more commercial than they are. This could easily have been a single.

6.  “Lust for Kicks.” The little synthesizer hook on this isn’t so much a hook as it is ear candy. Yummy irresistible ear candy.

5.  “Nightspots.” First track, side two, jittery like everybody in the band had six cups of coffee first.

4.  “Double Life”/”Shoo-Be-Doo”/”Candy-O.” These three tracks run together for 8 1/2 minutes at the end of side one, and we often played ’em all together on my college radio station. “Double Life” is the edgiest and most futuristic track on the record; “Shoo-Be-Doo” is 96 seconds further out on the edge; “Candy-O” is the hardest-rockin’ thing the Cars ever put on vinyl.

3.  “Let’s Go.” This was one of my favorite songs of the summer in 1979, a season in which so many future staples of the classic-rock format were released that it seemed almost like a coordinated reaction to the disco era. What we didn’t really notice then was that you could dance to “Let’s Go” too.

2.  “It’s All I Can Do.” This was the second single from the album, and if I were making a list of the all-time greatest #41 singles (hey, there’s an idea), “It’s All I Can Do” would be near the top. Few records have a more pleasing introduction, and if you can keep from singing along with “It’s all I can do / To keep waiting for you,” you’re not me.

1.  “Dangerous Type.” From the bottomless low end of it to the glockenspiel flourishes as it gets ready to fade, the Cars use the whole sonic palette to make “Dangerous Type” into something ominous, intense, relentless, and the single best thing they ever did. It goes on for 4 1/2 minutes, the last couple of minutes of which are positively spellbinding—and when it’s over, you’re not ready for it to be.

If Candy-O doesn’t get the same critical praise as the Cars’ debut album from a year before, it’s largely due to the difference between hearing something that’s utterly fresh and hearing the latest iteration of something we’ve heard before. Compare the reaction to Boston vs. Don’t Look Back, for example, and consider also that like those two albums, everything the Cars had spent years creating since their formation was on The Cars, while Candy-O had to be made in a matter of months and in the wake of the first.

I was both surprised and not surprised by how much I liked Candy-O after hearing it again for the first time in a while. Also surprising: how good my vinyl copy sounded, considering it was 25 years old when I copied it to the CD.

It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Like It

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(Pictured: the Stones rehearse in 1978.)

Some of the most interesting listening on my car travels comes when I fill up the CD bag in a hurry. On a recent trip, I carried the Rolling Stones compilation Rewind: 1971-1984. It’s a best-of that came out in 1984 as one last cash grab by Warner Brothers and EMI at the end of their distribution deals with Rolling Stones Records. Two years later, it became the first official American Rolling Stones release on CD, and I’m pretty sure it was among the first CDs I ever bought. What follows is a ranking of the tracks on the album.

13.  “Undercover of the Night.” Even as I recognize that the Stones are playing the hell out of this, I can’t claim to like it.

12. “Miss You.” You’d have to go back to 1964 or 1965 to find Stones music that sounds as dated as “Miss You.”

11.  “Hang Fire.” This is fine. It’s down here because I like other things more, that’s all.

10.  “Beast of Burden.” I have nothing against this song either. This list is a numbers game.

9.  “Emotional Rescue.” When I was writing for WNEW.com a few years ago (in a post that’s no longer available online, and I have no offline copy of it), I called this one of the world’s worst songs. The only thing I remember saying about it is that Mick sings it like he’s being squeezed through a door. I wish I could remember the rest, because when it came up in the car the other day, I didn’t mind it all that much.

8. “Angie.” This song is a mess, really. The lyrics make no damn sense at all, and the way Mick turns “Angie” into three syllables–“ah-EEN-jeh”—has grated on me since 1973. But on a gray morning recently, when I wasn’t all that thrilled with the prospects of the day, it sounded different. I had never felt the pain in it quite so vividly—pain not so much in Mick’s voice, although it’s there, but in the acoustic guitar, piano, and the aching chorus of strings that underpins it—and it knocked me sideways.

7.  “Start Me Up.” If you wanted to prove to somebody that nothing else sounds like prime Rolling Stones, this might be the song to play first. And you might need only the introduction to get the point across.

6.  “It’s Only Rock and Roll.” All of these songs sound great on the radio, but if we were ranking them that way, “It’s Only Rock and Roll” would be higher than #6.

5. “Waiting on a Friend.” The best and most sincere love song the Stones ever did, and it isn’t about a woman.

4.  “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker).” Maybe the most menacing thing they ever recorded apart from “Gimme Shelter.” The introduction is what it sounds like when something is chasing you in a nightmare, and the nightmare doesn’t stop until the record is over.

3.  “Fool to Cry.” Rewind is sequenced effectively, rockin’ for seven tracks, then backing down with “Emotional Rescue” and “Beast of Burden” before getting to this. I could listen to that ghostly electric piano for half-an-hour, except the sadness of it would drive me away long before that.

2.  “Brown Sugar.” For a long time, I have ranked “Brown Sugar” as the greatest of all Rolling Stones singles. It’s everything that makes them great in three minutes and 51 seconds—a sound nobody else could get and a lyric of unparalleled sleaze, especially for a #1 song. But listening to it in the context of Rewind, I came to a different conclusion.

1. “Tumbling Dice.” Where “Brown Sugar” is the Stones rockin’ hard at full throttle, “Tumbling Dice” is the Stones, well, stoned—we’re invited to a party that’s been underway for a while, with wine and weed and girls and gambling, four things Mama told you to stay away from. It’s a groove I could live in for days. And ever since the summer of 1972, when this first hit the radio, I have wondered: what the hell did Keef do to his guitar to get the sound of that opening riff?

Rewind is a mighty enjoyable 55 minutes, although I would have included “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” the only Top 20 Stones single from the 1971-84 period missing from the disc. (Trivia footnote: the Stones would make the Top 20 of the singles chart only twice more after 1984: with “Harlem Shuffle” in 1986 and “Mixed Emotions” in 1989.) The album has become a collector’s item, out of print and long ago replaced by other Stones compilations.

A Brother or a Mother

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(Above, L to R: Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb meet the press in 1979.)

(A draft of this post has been sitting in my files for something like four years, so here it is, for the 40th anniversary of “Stayin’ Alive” hitting #1.) 

The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” is a record I have adored from the first time I heard it—and in fact, I can remember precisely where I was the first time I heard it, the street I was on and the approximate block I was in when it came blasting out of my car radio. Take your experience out of it, where you’ve been since 1978 and what you know, and try to hear it with none of that baggage attached: “Stayin’ Alive” is one damn great record.

The Bee Gees’ band doesn’t usually get much love for the work they did, but they clearly deserve it. A few years ago, the isolated vocal track for “Stayin’ Alive” surfaced online, and it’s pretty difficult listening. But when melded with the band, alchemy happens. Dismissed as disco in its time and since, it’s not, really—every rock band in the world would like to write an opening riff that arresting, or hooks so enormous.

I remember “Stayin’ Alive” as something that zoomed up the charts, but when I dug into its chart profile, I didn’t find quite what I expected to see. (We’re going full geek here, so buckle up.)  It debuted at #65 on December 10, 1977, and went to #52 the next week. It reached the Top 40 at #39 for the week of December 24. There was no chart for the week of December 31, and for January 7, 1978, it made a modest move to #28. From there, it steadily moved up: 17-10-3 and finally #1 on February 4, 1978—40 years ago this week. It would stay at #1 for four weeks before falling to #2 for a week, then to #6. But for the week of March 18, it moved back to #2, coinciding with “Night Fever”‘s move to #1, and it would stay there for five of “Night Fever”‘s eight weeks at #1. So “Stayin’ Alive” was either the #1 or #2 song in the land for 10 out of 11 weeks in the winter and spring of 1978. Another indication of its popularity was its slow move out of the Hot 100: #2 to #13 for two weeks, then 26-28-40 to #71 for two weeks to #98 (for the week of June 10) and out.

By chart guru Joel Whitburn’s accounting, based on weeks at #1, in the Top 10, Top 40, and Hot 100, “Stayin’ Alive” was the #4 song of 1978 (behind “Night Fever,” Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing,” and “Le Freak” by Chic). Other records charted longer but weren’t #1 as long: Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Andy’s “Love Is Thicker Than Water,” and “Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder. According to Whitburn, “Stayin’ Alive” ranks as the #20 song of the 1970s. If you expect it to be higher, so did I. Its four weeks at #1 put it well down the list, although only one of the records clocking in ahead of it had longer runs on the Hot 100 and and in the Top 40: Andy’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything.”

Barry, Robin, Maurice, and Andy Gibb, who sang on four of the top five Hot 100 hits during a single week in March, were so ubiquitous that spring that I wonder if their proliferation of records may have tamped down the performance of any one of them. Strange to say given that the brothers spent 14 weeks at #1 in February and March alone (and 17 out of 20 weeks if you count “How Deep Is Your Love” as 1977 turned to 1978), but what if the record buyers’ Bee Gees mania had been concentrated on a single 45, instead of several? They’d likely have outdone Debby Boone for the longest-running #1 single of the 70s, and it could have been done with either “Night Fever” or “Stayin’ Alive.”

But if the Bee Gees didn’t win the battle, they won the war. Both songs, but especially “Stayin’ Alive,” have persisted from 1978 into a fifth decade as shorthand for all of 70s pop.

You Won’t Believe What the Boys Are Blowin’

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When I wrote about Walter Becker and Steely Dan in September, I said that I’d made a list of favorite Dan songs but then decided to leave it out of the post, partly because it didn’t seem like the proper place for it, but also because any list I make is likely to change depending on what day it is. But a couple of people amongst the readership said they were interested in seeing it, so here it is.

10.  “Change of the Guard.” Included for its bangin’ piano and a stereo-speaker-spanning guitar solo/shred by Skunk Baxter, this track from Can’t Buy a Thrill is the deepest cut on this list, with the possible exception of …

9.  “Snowbound.” This is a ringer; it’s a cut from Donald Fagen’s 1993 album Kamarkiriad, and co-written by Becker, who produced the album. Of all the songs Fagen has recorded as a solo artist, this feels to me like the most Steely Dan-ish, every bit as lush and beautiful as anything on Aja or Gaucho.

8.  “My Old School.” The closest Steely Dan ever got to a rave-up, “My Old School” is snide and joyful at the same time, which is not an easy daily double to hit.

7.  “Parker’s Band.” A track from Pretzel Logic, and a tribute to Charlie Parker (“Kansas City born and growin’ / You won’t believe what the boys are blowin'”) and the jazz players Becker and Fagen grew up on.

6.  “Any Major Dude With Half a Heart.” At least one Becker tribute I read (and there were a lot of them, so I can’t recall which one) labeled Steely Dan a part of the 1970s California rock scene, which doesn’t seem accurate to me. Their music is much more New York: darker, jazzier, and less obviously cocaine-dusted than what I associate with the California sound. But if you’re looking for something in their catalog that sounds like California in the 70s—something with a peaceful, easy feeling, perhaps—“Any Major Dude” is the closest you’ll get.

5. “Midnight Cruiser.” Steely Dan songs are populated by outcasts who, if they aren’t chasing the dragon, are chasing dreams they probably won’t catch. “Midnight Cruiser” finds two of them deciding to make one last run at it, but worrying that “The time of our time has come and gone / I fear we’ve been waiting too long.”

4.  “Deacon Blues.” Practically perfect in every way.

3.  “Glamour Profession.” Even though the song is about a drug dealer in sunny Los Angeles, the icy electric piano texture that’s all over it makes you feel like you’re standing on a dead-white and frozen plain in the middle of winter, accompanied by a clutch of horn players who are being strangled by a howling wind. (Walter Becker once said he wouldn’t mind not appearing on his own albums. He’s famously not on “Peg,” and he’s not on this, either.)

2.  “Doctor Wu.” Which includes my favorite Steely Dan lyric: “Katy lies / You can see it in her eyes / But imagine my surprise / When I saw you.”

1. “Black Cow.” This is the first track on Aja, so it was new to me when I dropped the needle for the first time. It took quite a while before I got past it to the rest of the album. (Becker isn’t on this, either.)

Like I said, this project is possibly a fool’s errand. But I’ve gone on those before.

It’s probably just as foolish, but perhaps more fruitful, to rank Steely Dan’s albums, which I will do below.

1.  Aja
2.  Katy Lied
3.  The Royal Scam
4.  Can’t Buy a Thrill
5.  Gaucho
6.  Pretzel Logic
7.  Countdown to Ecstasy
8.  Two Against Nature
9.  Everything Must Go
10.   Alive in America

If you disagree with me ranking Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy behind Gaucho, get in line. This is how I roll. And while the top four feel solidly locked place in today, you never know what might happen tomorrow.

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