JUST IMAGINE John Lennon on the terrace at his Tittenhurst Park home in 1971. Lennon’s music is the subject of a new box set
released by Capitol. Peter Fordham photo, © Yoko Ono
New releases recall lost art of making, packaging music
By Michael Simmons | Winter 2015
It’s 1969 and I’m 14, in the midst of an epic match of eponymous sophomore efforts with
“Led Zeppelin II” – marauding metallic machers – in one corner of the ring, while in the other is “The Band” – indelibly sepia-tinted souls. Both records were on loan from Delz, who lived with his folks a block from my family’s crib, so he knew where to find ’em. Not that they were going anywhere. I came home from school every day for my aural examination of these musically antithetical second albums by two of the big-name rock groups du jour.
FULL STORYDressed in a pristine white lab coat and wrap-around goggles, clipboard in hand, I was taking notes. My parents had been notified: “He’s engaged in a serious scientific experiment,” I fantasized them explaining to my younger siblings. “He’s not to be bothered.”
My younger brother (by five years) was befuddled. “He’s listening to rock music,” he’d cynically protest in little-brotherese, denying that there was any import to this so-called “science.” But I knew that I was determining my musical future – as musician, as listener, as fan.
I seriously entertained this scenario and proceeded, though in order to deter any potential disagreement, I kept it to myself. Any extended discussion of the issues at hand might beget skepticism. The records – as in long-playing (LP) vinyl that played at 33⅓ rpm or vinyl singles spinning at 45 rpm – at the time my primary means of home-consumption of commercially-recorded music other than radio – were nudging my taste buds. I was detecting a preference.
The Band versus Led Zep: Part One
Fast Forward: It’s August 2015 as I write this. I’ve turned 60 and, perhaps because of this arbitrary milestone, I’ve been ignoring Thomas Wolfe and going home again, so to speak. In addition to making music, I’m a professional music journalist, though without the pretense of an imaginary white lab coat. My loathing of virtually every aspect of The 20-Worst Century has me immersed in three vinyl box sets (and one double-LP) for this review – the artists are The Band, John Lennon and Simon & Garfunkel. Through the evolution of vinyl, 8-track tapes, cassettes, compact discs, digital files and streaming, I’m back where I started a half-century ago – not only with vinyl, which industry folks say is enjoying a sales revival, but with three of the very same artists that taught me well during my adolescence.
The BabeChicago – That Toddlin’ Town: This is how I remember it. I could be off by a year or three, but the heart of this story is true, even if its chronology is as skewed as the scribe’s memory. So if the raconteur is wrong here and there, for the sake of escaping the tedious boundaries of this paragraph, let’s say it’s 1991 and I’ve been away from my Los Angeles crib for months, working as a music supervisor on a film about boffo baseball batter and hedonistic mad hatter Babe Ruth, called The Babe. We shot in Chicago – that I love Chicago is an unimpeachable fact, Jack.
The Aesthetic Of Old: I was in heaven in Chi-town – getting an obese paycheck to hang out in jazz clubs, recruiting musicians for the film – my booze and grub all expense-accounted for. That I could also cover cocktails for the players with the prospect of getting them a Hollywood gig made me very popular – and guaran-damn-teed me the best weed in town.
Daylight on days-off was spent at a record store called the Jazz Record Mart (JRM) – a shop the size of an airplane hangar that specialized in jazz, blues, gospel, ragtime, hokum, rhythm & blues, soul and early rock ‘n’ roll, and whose interior/exterior was bedecked in a style I’ll call “Early 20th Century Decaying Funk.” It’s a style that continues to give Chicago a lot of its heart. Ya don’t fuck with the Pyramids, and enough Chicagoans were proud and respectful of their aged architectural heritage to refrain from completely paving it over with branded corporate parks. (I was there this past February, and fortunately Chicago’s landscape clock still moves a little more slowly than New York’s or L.A.’s.) The Jazz Record Mart was a shrine to American music – much of it homegrown in Chicago – and I practically moved in, dangerously armed with a credit card, emitting periodic oohs! and ahhs! and holy shits! at new discoveries of rarities.
While cassette tapes and compact discs were ubiquitous in 1991, the JRM still catered to those of us who bought “records,” by which I mean those vinyl long-players, i.e. LPs. I was clueless about the degree to which we were undergoing a sea change of formats.
I Glower At Tower: Upon my return to L.A., I made my usual pilgrimage to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, a yellow big-box edifice that announced its presence in red block lettering, the total effect of which was a crime against aesthetics and typical of the-hundred-suburbs-in-search-of-a-city called Los Angeles – The Capital of Crap. Bad choices have led me to spend half my life in Los Angeles – a place I loathe – a story I’ll tell some other time. (As I’ve quipped elsewhere, I sleep in Los Angeles, but live in New York.)
Tower was part of a chain, and its L.A. outlet was a hang-out for passionate music fans, and being Tinseltown, celebrity sightings were common. Not that I cared. The Jazz Record Mart had a specific calling: red, white and blue-noted music made or influenced by black Americans. Tower’s selection was more general, though thoughtfully thorough and expansive. I wasn’t thrilled being back in Hell-Lay – I even briefly considered moving to Chicago – but my work was in the film racket and here I’d stay.
With Chicago still rhythmically beating in my heart, I entered Tower’s front door and trucked through the aisles of bins. I circled the store a few times, ambled sideways and backwards and made one last circular jaunt. Frustrated and in a state of utter confusement (to quote Dr. John), I approached a clerk.
“Excuse me,” I inquired. “But where are the records?”
“What d’ya mean?” the clerk replied, looking as befuddled as I felt, and with one wave of a right arm, indicated the hundreds of bins filled with compact discs and cassette tapes.
“Records,” I reiterated with growing impatience. “Ya know, those circular objects, usually black with grooves indicating where the song begins and ends. Those things from which Tower Records got their name.”
He now dug my reference. “Ohhhh – vinyl. We don’t sell vinyl anymore.”
“Huh?” I hadn’t gotten the press release. “Why?”
“Customers don’t buy LPs anymore,” he explained. “They want CDs. I mean, we still carry cassettes, but even those are on the way out.”
I muttered an insincere “thanks” and made one last circle round Tower, hoping in vain for a HAS-BIN stacked with vinyl. Most of my friends still bought LPs. I immediately noticed that CD prices were double that of LPs. As wise men have noted: follow the money.
LPs Versus CDs: Yeah, you can fit more music on a CD than you can on an LP. They are smaller in size and therefore easier to transport. You can listen to a CD in your car.
But, despite claims to the contrary when they were first introduced, CDs are not indestructible. They scratch easily. I’ve had more problems with unplayable CDs than I ever did with unplayable vinyl. And as I get older and my eyesight diminishes along with my patience and hairline, I need a magnifying glass to read CD credits. (Liner notes require a microscope.)
However, I missed LPs for many other reasons. To borrow from another realm – size matters. LP covers are an opportunity for artists and designers to strut their stuff in an engorged format. Compare the artistic impact of, say, the LP vs. CD covers of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In addition, the gatefold album cover was a gift to joint rollers, as anyone who’s foolishly tried to roll a spliff on a CD cover has discovered. The convergence of gatefold covers (or even single-sleeve LPs’ physical dimensions) and marijuana use indicates a seldom-discussed cultural phenomenon wherein the musical delivery format enables corollary botanical listening enhancement.
More importantly, there’s the sound quality debate. There are audiophiles on both sides of this argument. I prefer vinyl for the same reason many other vinyl-philes claim: warmth of sound. I also recognize that I’m possibly influenced by what can be called “The First Love Phenomenon” – basically we feel fondest about certain memories of our youth, e.g. food, film, fucking. (Often referred to in some circles as “The Three Fs” – these circles usually consist of people who can only count from one to three.)
My suspicion is that the rise of CDs and concomitant demise of LPs were manufactured scams to (a) sell repackaged music already owned and (b) sell new music, both at twice the price of vinyl. The repackaging gimmick was sweetened with outtakes, live tracks, singles and other bait to lure the suckers outta their cashish. This is a provable fact because every time I look in a mirror, I see the mark for whom this racket was designed. (Me to a much-wiser old girlfriend: “I know I already own all the songs, but Track Eleventeen has 14 extra seconds of the vibraphone tag deleted from the original ...”)
Boys in the Band From the cover of their second LP, from left, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson. Courtesy Capitol/UMeThe Band Versus Led Zep: Part Two
It was “Whole Lotta Love” from “Led Zep II” that finally did it. It was grating on my nerves – overblown proto-Spinal Tap. The singer’s screech, the ridiculous orgazmatronics, the thudding drums that lacked any swing, the irritating descending guitar crunch – it was a corny parody of rock designed for the prepubescent mind. As stated, I was 14 in ‘69, but I’d already been Sgt. Peppered two years earlier and head-banging held no interest for me.
Among the trio of box sets is “The Band/The Capitol Albums 1968-1977” (Capitol/UMe) – eight LPs by the quintet in which all five were virtuosos on their main axes (and others as well) and three of whom were lead singers. The second LP (the one that kicked off this rodeo – “The Band”) has the sexuality that Zeppelin play-acted at – Levon Helm could do raunch as well as anyone (“Rag Mama Rag,” “Up On Cripple Creek”) and it didn’t sound silly. As in Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends,” they sang from the viewpoint of old men (“Rockin’ Chair”) while still young men. And they could rock (“Look Out Cleveland”) without clobbering the listener with a mallet.
Primary songwriter Robbie Robertson spent most of his youth playing in bar-brawl roadhouses and became an autodidact by necessity and inclination, fascinated by filmmakers like Buñuel, John Ford and Kurosawa, and in the process learned how to tell a story. He also shared with John Lennon and Paul Simon the craft and dynamics of songwriting, the power of simple melody and how to build on simplicity – skills that are woefully missing in The 20-Worst Century, an era where great melodies are in short supply, overtaken by the primacy of rhythm. All three songwriters discussed here – Lennon, Simon, Robertson – understood how to create tension-and-release in melodic and rhythmic variation and how to beguile the listener by refraining from telling the whole story, forcing the listener to interpret the lyrics, to use his own imagination – to think.
John Lennon: The Lennon box – simply titled “Lennon” (Capitol/UMe) – is comprised of eight of John’s primary solo albums. His first album in 1970, “Plastic Ono Band,” was a stripped-down howl, as if he was discarding all Beatle remnants to cut to his very personal bone, including the tragic death of his mother, the intensity of his love for Yoko and his casting off of all human-created, ritual-based belief systems in the song “God.” That song continues to resonate with me 45 years later – as does the line in “Imagine,” from the album of the same name, where he ponders a world with “no religion too.” This was utterly subversive in the early ’70s; one shudders at the thought of the response here in The 20-Worst Century, the age of Charlie Hebdo.
Lennon’s solo work was erratic, but I love most of it, and it’s his razor’s edginess exemplified by his fierce irreverence that is a large part of its appeal for me. His collaborations with producer Phil Spector elicited an utterly distinct, unduplicated sound – a trebly-guitar hard rock contrasted with orchestral strings. As with all artists who die young, one wonders what a future that never materialized would’ve brought. If “Double Fantasy” – the last album wrapped in his lifetime – is any indication, John hadn’t lost any gifts during his five-year vacation from the public eye. “Watching The Wheels” and “Woman” are toppermost Lennon, and we can only imagine.
Simon & Garfunkel: Paul and Art were the Everly Brothers with doctorates, and Simon was both George and Ira Gershwin with an acoustic guitar replacing a Steinway. Their five studio albums plus their greatest hits collection are boxed in “Simon & Garfunkel/The Complete Columbia Albums Collection” (Columbia/Legacy), and the music herein takes me back to a time when a high IQ wasn’t deemed elitist. My favorite, their fourth album, “Bookends,” is graced with the Richard Avedon cover portrait that captures the duo’s classy demeanor. It memory-lanes me to the pads of long-lost, brainy, beautiful girlfriends. Likewise, the songs are cinematic (“America” and, of course, “Mrs. Robinson”), wry (“At The Zoo”), self-deprecating (“Fakin’ It”). The production by Paul, Art and engineer Roy Halee, is understated, imaginative, perfect. (Dig the acoustic 12-string guitar that frames the chorus in “A Hazy Shade of Winter.”)
Columbia/Legacy has also reissued their double-LP, “The Concert In Central Park.” Recorded in 1981, this is Paul and Artie performing for their hometown audience, and it is appropriately (apparently) comfortable. With a recorded audio experience, we bring our own magentas (as my malapropping grandmother would say) to set and setting. Listening 34 years later, I hear – and see – a New York that doesn’t exist anymore after being Bloombugged and Trumped, and it’s unsettling, bittersweet and yet also comforting at the same time. New York was a great city, and I feel no shame in reveling in its history.
Nostalgia is another maligned concept. To be irrevocably stuck in the past is counterproductive. But recognizing the strengths of what preceded the present, to learn from those memories, to take comfort and to utilize them as the future becomes the present, is a powerful tool. The music of Simon & Garfunkel was nostalgic even when it was current. Like Robertson, scribe Simon addressed the inevitability of aging in the prescient “Old Friends.” Like Robbie, it was that sensitivity and literary mind that I dug. And Art Garfunkel has one of the most ethereally beautiful voices of his generation.
Old Stuff Slewfoot in the day, from left, Tex S. Goldberg, Ray Monte, Michael Simmons, Mike Gold and Harvey Shapiro. John Duke Kisch photo
Sideways Into the Future: Maybe the greatest gift of getting old is not having to give a shit anymore. While trends-for-trends’-sake never appealed to me – even when popular culture and my personal taste coincided – I feel less interested than ever in what everyone else is listening to or watching or reading or thinking about. (That is, if they read anything more than a text message or think about anything more than what time the movie starts.) I proudly embrace accusations of snobbery and elitism. Fuck ’em.
As for my preferences, The Band, Lennon and the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel were all so idiosyncratic that the lesson I learned as a musician and fan was to think for myself – the same lesson I get from all great art. The Band, in particular, stopped time for me. They were steeped in history, but they also created a kind of faux history – existing in the past, present and future simultaneously. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was an explicit Civil War tale, but something like “Unfaithful Servant” implied the past without specific historical details, inventing a beguiling historical fiction. This was not a common pop music trope – to put it mildly.
By 1971, I was into Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys – the “King of Western Swing” and his hotshot posse – whose heyday was in the 1930s and ‘40s, years before I was born. I studied Wills and western swing along with other music that pre-dated my landing on Planet Earth. Elements of what I learned began to seep into songs I was writing, and something else – something new – was born.
A few years later, I was playing a county fair in New Jersey with my band Slewfoot, and we shared the bill with some serviceable local-yokel Eagles cover band. “Why d’ya play that old stuff?” one of the Eaglets asked me during a break.
I stared off into the near-distance, pondering his question and watched as fair-goers stood in an impossibly long line to venture on what was billed as the “DO YOU DARE GLIDE THE DEATH-DEFYING ROLLER COASTER RIDE?” Those on line were clearly lured by the screams of those who were already on the ride. Hell, maybe it was fun, but that line turned me off. I don’t like waiting on lines. Never have.
I turned back to the cover-band guy. “We play that old stuff because we love that old stuff,” I explained. I didn’t bother to explain that some of that “old stuff” had been written last week. I turned his question around on him: “Why do you play songs by the Eagles?” I asked. He shrugged: “That’s what people want to hear.”
He turned and scooted off to queue up for the death-defying roller coaster ride. He apparently defied death, because an hour later I saw him onstage singing the Eagles’ “Tequila Sunrise.” It’s a pretty good song, I thought. Or in any event, good enough.