A career-defining classic: Queen – A Night at the Opera

You may prefer the heaviness of the first three albums or the commercialism of the mid-eighties but with their fourth album, Queen burst into the mainstream and created (in my opinion) their masterpiece.

Image imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Image imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

  1. Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…) (Mercury)
  2. Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon (Mercury)
  3. I’m In Love With My Car (Taylor)
  4. You’re My Best Friend (Deacon)
  5. ’39 (May)
  6. Sweet Lady (May)
  7. Seaside Rendezvous (Mercury)
  8. The Prophet’s Song (May)
  9. Love of My Life (Mercury)
  10. Good Company (May)
  11. Bohemian Rhapsody (Mercury)
  12. God Save the Queen (Trad arr May)

FREDDIE MERCURY: lead vocals, piano
BRIAN MAY: guitars, stringed instruments, vocals, lead vocals on 5 and 10
ROGER TAYLOR: drums, percussion, vocals, lead vocal on 3
JOHN DEACON: bass, electric piano on 4

Produced by Queen and Roy Thomas Baker

Queen had arrived. Two hit albums and three hit singles meant they were a fixture on the scene but it took a multi-genre epic and its equally eclectic parent album to make them truly major and guarantee that they’d be staying in the public consciousness for longer than the likes of Bad Company or Mott the Hoople.

The release of Bohemian Rhapsody as a single on October 31st was one the band had had to fight for – running at just under six minutes and alternating between opera and hard rock with three or four different sections it wasn’t the kind of thing a record company chose as a single and only when Capital Radio’s Kenny Everett played short snippets did demand arise to hear the whole thing and for a single release. Four weeks later, it peaked at number one just as the album made its chart debut. But we will analyse the song and its success further down.

The album too showed a stylistic branching out. Queen had never been just any old band in terms of songwriting and had already proved themselves just as capable of writing two-minute vignettes as side-long epics but now the eclecticism that had only come out in brief gasps on songs like Bring Back That Leroy Brown was reigning supreme. Freddie Mercury’s songwriting was becoming so naturalised to English whimsy that you could barely guess that for the first 17 years of his life he had divided his time between Africa and India as Farokh Bulsara (he adopted the name Freddie at his Anglophone boarding school in India). Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon summarised a week in the life of a Victorian socialite while Seaside Rendezvous saw Mercury and Roger Taylor playing rather more than just “tiddly-om-pom-pom” on scat brass, though the opener Death on Two Legs proved he could still tear into his former manager in true rock n roll style and the piano-driven Love Of My Life, though tender, sounds like it’s being sung by a man not taking himself too seriously, a recurring hallmark of Mercury’s vocal work.

Brian May too was truly multi-faceted here providing straight-down-the-line hard rock in Sweet Lady but getting totally poetic too (“You call me sweet like I’m some kind of cheese”) and keeping to the band’s prog-metal roots in the epic Prophet’s Song. I do however find his self-sung acoustic contributions here to be somewhat ill-advised – ’39 is pretentious sci-fi under a pseudo-WW2 title (though it became a live favourite) and the ukulele-led Good Company has a somewhat throwaway feel to it.

But even Roger Taylor and John Deacon shine brighter than usual here – you wonder what producer Roy Thomas Baker was putting in their tea. Taylor’s I’m In Love With My Car took his obsession with fifties paraphernalia to a whole new level as he hollered his hymn to hubcaps and carburettors which became his live anthem and best known song for some years (the first Taylor track to make a Queen A-side was Radio Ga-Ga in 1984).

But it was bassist John Deacon who came up with the biggest surprise. You’re My Best Friend was only the second song he had contributed to a Queen album but this simple electric piano-driven tribute to his newlywed bride (forty years later they’re still together and have six children) is just that. With Deacon you often got the impression he’d really rather be off watching his kids compete in the sack race but his writing here is so unpretentious that it provides the perfect contrast to Mercury’s vocal. The fact that it was chosen as the follow-up single to Bohemian Rhapsody and followed it into the top ten speaks volumes.

Bohemian Rhapsody itself needs no introduction. Opening with a three-part harmony by Mercury, May and Taylor it laces neatly into a  two-verse piano ballad before a frenetic guitar solo showers over the sound, giving way to disconnected but highly enjoyable bits of faux-opera (perhaps this gave the album its title) then a rock anthem with more guitar than vocal finally leading back into a reprise of the piano ballad melody and the sentiment that “Nothing really matters” before a final short piano and vocal gives way to the clash of a gong.

On the album, the perfect way to follow this was with May’s guitar arrangement of the UK national anthem which was played over the speaker systems at the end of Queen concerts and which May had the privilege of playing on the roof of Buckingham Palace in 2002 at Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee rock concert.

1975 left many fine albums that have stood the test of time:

  • The Eagles’ One of These Nights where country and rock had never been so well wed.
  • Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks where the collapse of his marriage appeared to have given his creativity a long-overdue second wind.
  • Fleetwood Mac‘s self-titled first effort with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks which brought them back to success and still sounds fresh long after you’ve played Rumours to death.
  • Little Feat’s The Last Record Album which proved that although Lowell George seemed to be losing inspiration as a writer, he could still produce a fine album that brought out the best in the eclectic six-piece.
  • Thin Lizzy’s Fighting where the twin guitar sound of Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham gelled perfectly with Phil Lynott’s folk sensibilities.

But A Night at the Opera still tops them all for sheer eclecticism and colour.

SINGLE STATS: Bohemian Rhapsody pushed Billy Connolly’s parody of Tammy Wynette’s D.I.V.O.R.C.E. off the top spot on November 29th. It remained there for nine weeks tying with Paul Anka’s Diana for the most consecutive weeks at No 1. Ultimately the song with the line “Mama Mia let me go” was toppled by ABBA’s Mamma Mia with its line “Why why did I ever let you go”. Just one of life’s little ironies.

ADDITIONAL STAT: Only two other singles tied with the nine-week record before Bryan Adams broke them all with his 16-week run in 1991. They were Wings’ Mull of Kintyre and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s You’re The One That I Want.

ALBUM STATS: The album topped the UK chart for the last two weeks of 1975 supplanting Perry Como’s 40 Greatest Hits. Perry briefly got his own back the following week only for A Night at the Opera to topple him once again for another two weeks only to be supplanted for good by The Best Of Roy Orbison.

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50 years on: The Beatles – Rubber Soul

On 3rd December 1965, the Beatles unleashed an album that literally changed everything.

 

Rubber_Soul.jpg

Image imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

  1. Drive My Car (McCartney/Lennon)
  2. Norwegian Wood (Lennon/McCartney)
  3. You Won’t See Me (McCartney/Lennon) ORGAN: Mal Evans
  4. Nowhere Man (Lennon/McCartney)
  5. Think For Yourself (George Harrison)
  6. The Word (Lennon/McCartney) HARMONIUM: George Martin
  7. Michelle (McCartney/Lennon)
  8. What Goes On (Lennon/McCartney/Starkey)
  9. Girl (Lennon/McCartney)
  10. I’m Looking Through You (McCartney/Lennon)
  11. In My Life (Lennon/McCartney) SPEEDED UP PIANO: George Martin
  12. Wait (McCartney/Lennon)
  13. If I Needed Someone (George Harrison)
  14. Run For Your Life (Lennon/McCartney)

JOHN LENNON: vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboard on 5
PAUL MCCARTNEY: vocals, bass, piano, additional guitars
GEORGE HARRISON: lead guitar, guitars, vocals
RINGO STARR: drums, percussion, lead vocal on 8, Hammond organ on 10

with additional musicians as detailed above

Produced by George Martin

The Beatles’ sixth album was only their second to feature no cover versions. The first to achieve this feat was A Hard Day’s Night where John Lennon had done most of the writing and pretty formulaic it sounded too in places. After that, Beatles For Sale had regressed back to the 8:6 originals to covers ratio but Help! was a massive improvement showing a jump in quality of writing and the inclusion of no more than two covers.

But Rubber Soul showed a band in full gear with all members contributing songs and a richer and more textured sound was emerging. While the full on psychedelic sounds of Revolver and Sgt Pepper were still to come, the influence of Bob Dylan and the emergent folk-rock genre was unmistakable but while Dylan was by now applying liberal sprinklings of organ and leaving out acoustic guitar almost entirely, acoustic rhythm and electric lead complement one another to perfection on Nowhere Man, Michelle, I’m Looking Through You and In My Life while George Harrison switches to sitar for Norwegian Wood.

Many of the songs are well known enough that they need little introduction, not least because no fewer than six were included on the legendary ‘Red Album’ compilation (Beatles 1962-66).

The punning humour of the title appears to apply to songs like Drive My Car and You Won’t See Me where the bass-driven rhythms owe much to the sound of the newly formed Stax label, home to the likes of Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. The rest of the album shows more influence from Bob Dylan’s recent folk-rock crossover album Bringjng It All Back Home not only in the acoustic-electric interplay described above but also in the move away from what Lennon described as the “I love you, you love me” themes of earlier songs and towards a more narrative style. Drive My Car and Norwegian Wood are both first person narratives, the latter referencing the interior decor popular at the time while Nowhere Man sees Lennon deprecate himself in the third. Previously the only sense of geography or time generated by a Beatles song was in reference to a night out, mostly either getting stood up or betrayed by some lady or other.

The rest of the rock market had already caught up with the story song approach. The Rolling Stones, though their albums still consisted predominantly of cover versions, were coming out with songs like Play With Fire and The Under-Assistant West Coast Promotion Man and the Kinks’ A Well Respected Man pointed the way ahead more clearly than anything. The Beatles knew they had to catch up and do it magnificently here with the opener Drive My Car setting the tone straightaway.

A multi-national feeling is created by the inclusion of sitar played by George Harrison on Norwegian Wood – again the Kinks had overtaken the Fabs here with See My Friends – Parisienne cafe style plucking on Michelle, and Girl sounding highly Greek in its solos. Bob Dylan, the big influence behind much of the change on the British music scene at the time, dismissed Michelle saying that there were plenty of songs like them on Tin Pan Alley. True but the Beatles and producer George Martin were proving here that styles beyond rock n roll and from nations beyond the Anglophone countries could be fused with it to perfection. The Byrds had already proved it with American folk songs but now it was happening with other styles and nothing could ever be quite the same again.

Shades of the future appear on The Word with John getting all quasi-guru (“Say the word and be like me”) and advocating love while hinting at hinted at his lingering pain at the deaths of his mother and original Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe (In My Life) pre-Yoko adultery (Norwegian Wood) and deep frustration with writers block (Nowhere Man). The Lennon everyone thinks of and remembers now was beginning to emerge more fully.

Paul made it abundantly clear all wasn’t well between him and Jane Asher on You Won’t See Me and I’m Looking Through You but Wait (a leftover from the Help! sessions) is an underrated anthem just as much about homecoming as All My Loving was about departure and sounds for all the world like a sequel to the latter.

George Harrison contributed a song on each side here just as he did on Help! Think For Yourself was as dour and even more scathing than Don’t Bother Me and McCartney’s fuzz bass is to die for while If I Needed Someone, though it confined its lyrical flair to one line (“Carve your number on my wall”), earned the accolade of being the first Harrison number to be released as a single albeit by Mancunian beat group the Hollies on the same day as Rubber Soul’s release, peaking at No 20. It also had the distinction of being the only Harrison number that the Beatles ever played live. Harrison revived it on his 1991 tour of Japan with Eric Clapton while Clapton himself took the lead vocal on it at the posthumous Concert for George.

The only inadvisable inclusions here were the Ringo-led What Goes On (where he actually got a credit for writing “about eight words” as he put it) which sounds like a leftover from Beatles For Sale with its Carl Perkins-style jangle, and closing track Run For Your Life which relies on an opening line nicked from Elvis and a misogynistic lyric – John later said he always hated it and it’s not hard to see why.

But neither song merits hitting the track skip button or detracts from a fine album which showed a group hitting a high, not only catching up with but improving on the work of their contemporaries and saw Lennon, McCartney and Harrison harmonising more and better than ever before or since. The Stones may have had the edge on scathing and the Kinks may have held the lead on social satire but the Beatles had mastered the art of the classic album, self-composed, hanging together and undimmed with the passage of time.

ACCOMPANYING SINGLE: On the same day two tracks from the same sessions were released as a single: John’s Day Tripper and Paul’s We Can Work It Out. This was marketed as “the first ever double A-side” although similar double billings appear on earlier releases by the likes of Elvis Presley. This topped the UK chart for five weeks between The Seekers’ The Carnival Is Over and the Spencer Davis Group’s Keep On Running. It was the band’s third UK Christmas No 1 in a row and marked their sixth consecutive US No 1 – a record not tied with until the Bee Gees’ Love You Inside Out in 1979.

US VERSION: The American edition of the album omitted four tracks – effectively one from each member in Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, What Goes On and If I Needed Someone, all of which were held over for the following US LP Yesterday and Today. Two songs from the UK Help! album appeared in their place in John’s It’s Only Love and Paul’s I’ve Just Seen A Face, the former fitting the set particularly well with acoustic-electric interplay.

CHART STATS: In the UK, Rubber Soul peaked at #1 on Christmas Day 1965 remaining for an eight week period between two ten-week holds by the seemingly unstoppable soundtrack from The Sound of Music.

 

Thin Lizzy – Fighting

In the three years between Whiskey in the Jar and The Boys Are Back in Town, Thin Lizzy seemed in danger of becoming one-hit wonders. There was a chart album in between though…

220px-ThinLizzyFighting

Original cover, still used for reissues. The band hated the photograph though personally I think this has the more suitable colour scheme.

Thin_Lizzy_-_Fighting

DISCLAIMER: Images imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

  1. Rosalie (Bob Seger)
  2. For Those Who Love to Live (Lynott/Downey)
  3. Suicide (Lynott)
  4. Wild One (Lynott)
  5. Fighting My Way Back (Lynott)
  6. King’s Vengeance (Lynott/Gorham)
  7. Spirit Slips Away (Lynott)
  8. Silver Dollar (Robertson)
  9. Freedom Song (Lynott/Gorham)
  10. Ballad of a Hard Man (Gorham)

PHILIP LYNOTT: lead vocals, bass, acoustic guitar on Wild One
SCOTT GORHAM: lead guitar
BRIAN ROBERTSON: lead guitar, background vocals
BRIAN DOWNEY: drums, percussion
also featuring
IAN MACLAGAN: piano on Silver Dollar

Produced by Philip Lynott

When Thin Lizzy expanded to a four-piece in 1974 with the addition of guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson they were a band still trying to live down the stigma of one-hit wonders following the runaway success of their reworking of the traditional Irish ballad Whiskey in the Jar. To make matters worse, the four-piece lineup’s maiden voyage Nightlife suffered from poor production and, like their previous three efforts, was a commercial failure. Bassist/frontman Phil Lynott decided to take matters into his own hands and produce the next album himself.

Fighting turned out to be the perfect balance between driving twin guitars and folk rock. Engineer Keith Harwood, who had cut his teeth working with Bowie and the Stones, really did the production work here according to Brian Robertson with little bits of input from Lynott but either way the effect is undeniable for the twin guitars are given so much more to do than clash like two swords, Gorham in particular turning in some folky rhythm work that surpasses any Byrdsian jangle I’ve heard on For Those Who Love to Live, sounding almost speeded up on King’s Vengeance and salty and chunky on Silver Dollar. Lynott’s lyrics had regained some focus and Celtic spirit that they had lacked on Nightlife where Lizzy sounded more like a cocktail band, his newer numbers including tales of the downtrodden making their stand in the streets (Fighting My Way Back, King’s Vengeance), martyrs making their final declarations (Freedom Song) and even begging clemency for his drinking buddy George Best (For Those Who Love to Live) while Spirit Slips Away bids adieu to the dying with a sombre bass intro and Wild One is folk-metal if ever I heard it, an out-of-time call for the return of the legendary Wild Geese who left the Emerald Isle to join European armies in centuries past.

One number slipped in from past times however. Suicide had been performed by the original three-piece line-up with Eric Bell as far back as 1972 and while a little lyrical depth has been lost (“Don’t that make you wanna boogie” taking the sting from the tail just to lead into a guitar break) somehow it works better without Bell’s high-pitched sliding.

The album also features three non-Lynott compositions. Gorham’s Ballad of a Hard Man is best forgotten but Silver Dollar, Brian Robertson’s first composition credit, benefits from an infectious rhythm guitar track and refrain and a sprinkling of piano by Ian MacLagan from the not long disbanded Faces. But as sometimes befalls albums, the track that became the best known was a cover version. Rosalie would later become a hit for the band when released in a live version but at the time, its composer Bob Seger was, like Thin Lizzy trying desperately hard to live down a one-hit wonder reputation – success had largely eluded him even in his native US . Like Lizzy, he finally broke big in 76 but would leave most of his earlier work in mothballs, little of it even coming out on CD (unlike Lizzy all of whose albums have been digitalised) and his only commercially available recording of Rosalie now being a retrospective release of a radio broadcast. But the song remained a staple of Lizzy’s repertoire for years to come.

Fighting offered a ray of hope for Thin Lizzy when it pranged the UK album chart at #60. It was only on the chart for a week but at least it got them there unlike the first four. Musically it was a far more natural progression than its predecessor was from the folk-tinged heavy rock of Vagabonds of the Western World (1973) and set the stage for greater things to come with Jailbreak the following year.

FOOTNOTE: Keith Harwood would never sit in the producer’s chair again. He died when his car went off the road in 1977, ironically at the same spot where Marc Bolan would suffer the same fate a fortnight later.

 

Fabs turn 50: The Beatles – Help!

After a couple of albums where the Beatles seemed to be heading towards a formulaic approach, their fifth saw them include only two cover versions, Lennon and McCartney mature as songwriters and George Harrison start to bloom as one. Bart the Anorak gives it another spin.

220px-Help

DISCLAIMER: All images imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

  1. Help! (Lennon/McCartney)
  2. The Night Before (McCartney/Lennon)
  3. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (Lennon/McCartney)
  4. I Need You (George Harrison)
  5. Another Girl (McCartney/Lennon)
  6. You’re Going To Lose That Girl (Lennon/McCartney)
  7. Ticket to Ride (Lennon/McCartney)
  8. Act Naturally (Morrison/Russell)   LEAD VOCAL: Ringo Starr
  9. It’s Only Love (Lennon/McCartney)
  10. You Like Me Too Much (George Harrison)
  11. Tell Me What You See (McCartney/Lennon)
  12. I’ve Just Seen A Face (McCartney/Lennon)
  13. Yesterday (McCartney/Lennon)
  14. Dizzy Miss Lizzy (Larry Williams)   LEAD VOCAL: John Lennon

Except where stated, the lead singer/main writer’s name is the first given in the brackets

JOHN LENNON: vocals, rhythm guitar, electric piano on 2 & 10
PAUL MCCARTNEY: vocals, bass, piano, lead guitar on 2, 5 & 7, acoustic guitar on 12 & 13
GEORGE HARRISON: lead guitar, vocals, rhythm guitar on 2, additional rhythm guitar on 5 & 7
RINGO STARR: drums, percussion, lead vocal on 8
plus
JOHNNY SCOTT: flute on 3
GEORGE MARTIN: additional piano on 10, string arrangement on 12

Produced by George Martin

By the start of 1965, the Beatles, still enjoying the success of their fourth album Beatles For Sale and its companion single I Feel Fine, were committed not only to another album but also another feature film following the success of A Hard Day’s Night. As with the earlier film this second one, provisionally titled Eight Arms To Hold You, would divide the ensuing album into one side of songs from the picture and another which still consisted of strong enough material that those not looking at the sleeve (where the legend “Songs from the film Help!” adorned side one) or hadn’t seen the film could still take the album as a cohesive whole.

The first two to make it to tape were Ticket to Ride and Another Girl both of which featured Paul McCartney on lead guitar while George Harrison played additional rhythm. Both proved McCartney to be a pretty mean axeman in his own right not least his outro on the latter.

Ticket to Ride was chosen as the trailer single, its narrative scenario of “the girl that’s driving me mad” purchasing her travel away from Lennon’s wistful protagonist giving it a strength, up to that point shared only by Can’t Buy Me Love and A Hard Day’s Night, in terms of creating a ballad in the word’s true sense of a story in song.

The next song to be recorded was George Harrison’s I Need You, only his second song for the group and pretty lacklustre but for the effective use of a swell-pedal, a trick Harrison repeated for Ticket’s flip-side Yes It Is, a melancholy waltz which continued the death ballad tradition established with Baby’s in Black, Lennon’s gift for emotional overtness going one further than on I’m A Loser. These stronger tracks from the somewhat mediocre Beatles for Sale clearly had been indicative of great things to come.

Two songs from the February sessions were not included in the film and actually made their debut in July on the US collection Beatles VI. You Like Me Too Much, Harrison’s third song for the group and his first truly great one, begins with a deceptive Western saloon style piano duet played by McCartney and George Martin on a Steinway followed by the kind of acoustic rhythm/electric lead interplay that Lennon and Harrison would hone to perfection on Rubber Soul and a lyric mocking the protagonist’s lover’s fickle affection. The other was Tell Me What You See a slight McCartney ballad but featuring some nice electric piano from him. Another two were left off altogether, the Ringo Starr vocal vehicle If You Got Troubles (wisely cast aside) and a 50/50 composition That Means a Lot (wisely passed over to Billy J Kramer).

But the rest of the February tracks showed a group really hitting their stride creatively. McCartney came up with The Night Before, a night-out scenario with a morning after twist, in contrast to the earlier optimism of I Saw Her Standing There, and again featuring him on lead guitar while Lennon came out with what coincidentally became the last two songs in the Beatles catalogue alphabetically – You’re Going To Lose That Girl, a brilliantly catchy call-and-response number which beat the girl-group songs they had covered on their first two albums, and You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, another hint at deeper melancholy strummed on an acoustic a la Bob Dylan who had recently been proving that you could sing love songs as well as protest in the folk medium.

The band spent the next two months recording the film in various far-flung parts but returned to the studio in April, by which time the freshly released Ticket to Ride b/w Yes It Is was en route to number one, to record the title song and second single. Neither Lennon nor McCartney fancied turning the Eight Arms To Hold You concept into a lyric so director Richard Lester chose another title – Help! Lennon took up the challenge and came up with another heart-on-sleeve number chronicling loss of self-confidence as childhood recedes. It could have been another slow acoustic number but Lennon reluctantly made it a rocker for commercial purposes though the repeat of the opening verse at the end saw John play unaccompanied and slowly, hinting at what might have been.

Before the album proper could be completed however, there was yet another commercial demand to fulfil. Capitol, the Beatles’ American record label was demanding more material to fill out their next US album release Beatles VI. In May, the band quickly tossed off two covers of songs by Lennon’s hero Larry Williams. Bad Boy was held over for future use but Dizzy Miss Lizzy, bristling with life and positivity, was the perfect choice to close the UK album which had featured some pretty intense subject matter.

Four productive days in June saw the last numbers for side two completed. John’s It’s Only Love was another acoustic/electric gem though he always dismissed it. McCartney meanwhile had been hard at work and brought three songs along. I’ve Just Seen A Face took the acoustic theme further, probably inspired by the romantic Hispanic ballads he would have grown up hearing on the radio. Meanwhile, I’m Down, another call and response featuring Lennon on Hammond organ, was kept for the B-side of the Help! single which seems a pity considering Yesterday made the album instead.

Or does it? Yesterday has been covered to death and let’s face it that string quartet isn’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll but once you get past the rather slight opening verse, the song becomes as psychologically addled as anything – “Suddenly/I’m not half the man I used to be” a powerful reflection on falling back on one’s former and lesser self following a devastating loss, paving the way for the heart-wrenching guilt and confusion that makes up the rest of the lyric. Strings and endless covers have not done it justice but it’s small wonder that young and old alike join in when McCartney plays it live now.

And that only leaves Act Naturally. Well they had to let Ringo do one didn’t they and the goofy Buck Owens country hit was the perfect choice. Opening the second side, it served as a pleasant interlude from all the intensity.

What an album! It proved the Beatles most cohesive and diverse work since their sophomore effort With the Beatles (1963). The way was paved for even more brilliance with Rubber Soul.

SINGLE STATS: Ticket to Ride and Help! were both transatlantic chart-toppers. Yesterday was released as a single in the US. Producer George Martin wanted to credit it to McCartney as a solo artist but the group’s manager Brian Epstein vetoed the idea. It topped Billboard for four weeks between the McCoys’s Hang on Sloopy and the Rolling Stones’ Get Off Of My Cloud.

ALBUM STATS: The album topped the UK charts for a two month period, nestled between two lengthy stints for the soundtrack of The Sound of Music. The two albums alternated at the top of the recently launched Australian album chart, the tussle only broken by the release of Rubber Soul.

US EDITION: In America the seven songs from the film were released with the orchestral soundtrack pieces interspersed. This displaced the U.S. edition of the Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads before again being displaced by The Sound of Music.

 

US ALBUM RELEASES OF SIDE TWO TRACKS:

Act Naturally – Yesterday and Today
It’s Only Love – Rubber Soul (US)
You Like Me Too Much – Beatles VI
Tell Me What You See – Beatles VI
I’ve Just Seen a Face – Rubber Soul (US)
Yesterday – Yesterday and Today
Dizzy Miss Lizzy – Beatles VI

Of Swallows and Summers: Questioning the Genius Gene

Read any blurb or primer on Asperger’s Syndrome and nine times out of ten you are bound to find the writer suggesting that a plethora of famous individuals, many of them no longer here to help us, had or must have had the condition. Einstein usually seems to come out on top here. But Andy Warhol and Paul Gambaccini get it too.

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)

Image imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.


This is presumably intended to boost the condition in the eyes of those unfamiliar with it or needing to gain confidence in an afflicted acquaintance, relative or employee. I have no doubt as to the honesty and integrity of the claims. But one thing is forgotten. While it is possible that these popular figures were afflicted with the then-unnamed condition, there is little in terms of cast-iron proof for reasons I shall explain forthwith.

One symptom doesn’t make a syndrome

Before you take the above subheading at face value, it’s worth bearing in mind an oft-forgotten fact. The word syndrome means cluster.

Take AIDS for example – the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. You don’t literally die of AIDS. You die from something that would have probably not killed you had your immune system still been intact e.g. pneumonia or the common cold. The word ‘syndrome’ here refers to the cluster of diseases and infections that infect the victim because the white blood cells are not there to counteract them anymore and this is ultimately what leads to the sufferer’s death. Asperger’s is of course a picnic compared to AIDS but they are both classed as syndromes hence the analogy drawn here.

The name Asperger’s Syndrome, therefore, suggests a cluster of traits. The number of basic traits is usually counted at six or seven these days but yours truly has always abided by a list of five he was given by a careers officer in 1999. These are namely:

  • Obsessiveness.

  • Co-ordination problems

  • Communication problems

  • Addiction to routine

  • Memory of phenomenal proportions

This list may not do full justice to the condition (which your writer happens to have) but each of those deserves a blog entry in itself. The point here is that the likes of the famous individuals referred to above are generally only plugged as being undiagnosed Aspies on the grounds of their encyclopaedic knowledge of their specialist subject. Also the lack of any official diagnosis to explain would have given whoever had the privilege of interviewing them for university, their first job etc, one thing less to worry about in those pre-equal opportunities days. The minute anyone suggests they had Asperger’s, questions arise. Did their parents/guardians/nursemaids etc have the heartache with them that ours did with us in those dark days before the Asperger’s label was devised? Were they dragged from one psychiatric consultant to another to little avail? Were they constantly accused of being naughty or silly for the way they reacted to the emotional challenges life threw at them in their early years?

There are the strong degrees of interest for certain. But when does an obsession become an obsession as opposed to simply an interest that goes further than most people’s? I would say our weakness as Aspies isn’t so much our expert knowledge of something as our lack of natural ability to shut up about it, an area where I will admit to having had much struggle over the years, but that’s for another time.

As for the amazing brains, not everyone has the luxury of being able to work in a field where they excel such as Einstein or Warhol did. The more interested one is in something then the more likely they are to remember a great deal of information about it. Those of us who have the benefit of diagnosis have usually gained it partly as a result of our obsessions either being deemed eccentric by neurotypical society or spilling over even into our conversations with those who do not have the remotest interest in whichever passion we happen to be indulging at the time. As erstwhile teen prodigy writer Luke Jackson put it in his book Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome (drat, there’s that missing ‘s again!)

Q: When is an obsession not an obsession?

A: When it’s about football.

(Copyright, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2002)

A lot of the time, Aspies (we call ourselves that, it’s not an un-PC term) who succeed in careers do so because their obsession just happens to be in an area where (a) there are good job opportunities, (b) there is good nurture at academic level for school-leavers (you couldn’t do BTECs and HNDs in rock music when I left school in 1990) or (c) their condition just happens to give them a trait which is valued in their chosen field e.g. the kind of meticulous checking which some employers label ‘too precise’ would help enormously if you were an aircraft inspector. Again though don’t get to thinking that means all Aspies uncertain about their future careers should pursue such a line. We possess more or less the same range of traits but often with an exception or two (again more about this another time) and there is no point in playing up one pronounced trait just to get a job in a field where interest and ability may otherwise not exist.

One swallow does not make a summer.

One skill does not qualify for a job

Moreover, one symptom does not make a syndrome.

Controversial I know, but there it is.

There’s more to life than Rumours: A Fleetwood Mac classic

Another great album from 1975. This was the album that launched me as a record collector in 1987 for it was the first time I had bought a record that was not either (a) Beatles or one of their solo efforts (b) a compilation album or (c) the artist’s latest album. The band was Fleetwood Mac and the album was their self-titled classic from 1975 which introduced the new California soft-rock incarnation of the band to the world in general.

Fleetwood_Mac_-_Fleetwood_Mac

DISCLAIMER: All images imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

  1. Monday Morning (Lindsey Buckingham)
  2. Warm Ways (Christine McVie)
  3. Blue Letter (R & M Curtis)
  4. Rhiannon (Stevie Nicks)
  5. Over My Head (Christine McVie)
  6. Crystal (Stevie Nicks)
  7. Say You Love Me (Christine McVie)
  8. Landslide (Stevie Nicks)
  9. World Turning (L Buckingham/C McVie)
  10. Sugar Daddy (Christine McVie)
  11. I’m So Afraid (Lindsey Buckingham)

MICK FLEETWOOD: drums, percussion
JOHN MCVIE: bass
CHRISTINE MCVIE: vocals, keyboards
LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM: vocals, guitars
STEVIE NICKS: vocals

also featuring
WADDY WACHTEL: rhythm guitar on Sugar Daddy

Produced by Fleetwood Mac and Keith Olsen

THE FLOUNDERING BRITS

Fleetwood Mac had had it tough since original leading light Peter Green left. They had lost two other guitarists to a religious cult and long term drug problems respectively, had to sack another for his dalliances with Mick Fleetwood’s wife and to cap it all, their manager had put a completely different group of musicians out under the Fleetwood Msc name to finish a tour.

As the resulting lawsuits progressed, their American born singer-guitarist Bob Welch suggested they relocate to his native America, where the post-Green Fleetwood Mac already had a small degree of commercial success, to be nearer to their record company Reprise. This they did in early 1974 but the ensuing album Heroes Are Hard To Find closed a turbulent chapter for Mac as Bob Welch, exhausted from the years of hassle, quit to pursue his own projects.

THE WEST COAST LOVERS

Fortunately, not long before that, Mick Fleetwood had been introduced to the romantic and musical partnership of guitarist/vocalist Lindsey Buckingham and his girlfriend Stevie Nicks. Former members of Fritz, who had opened for the likes of Janis Joplin, they had cut Buckingham Nicks as a duo for Polydor in 1973. It stiffed but they began work on a follow-up nonetheless and it was while they were at work on this that Fleetwood was brought to Sound City Studios in LA by a mutual friend. Three things impressed him: Buckingham’s eclectic playing, the beauty of Nicks whom he saw in passing there and a track from the earlier Buckingham Nicks album called Frozen Love. He eventually asked Buckingham to replace Welch, Buckingham agreeing on the condition that Nicks be recruited too. The pair met Fleetwood and John and Christine McVie for dinner on New Year’s Eve 1974 and without even having played with them, were recruited immediately.

THE ALBUM

The chemistry was instantaneous. Buckingham and Nicks had been harmonising for as long as Fleetwood and John McVie had been locking together to make their eponymous rhythm section but all five knew they’d struck gold when the vocal duo harmonised with Christine McVie on the chorus of her Say You Love Me, showing here was a three-part harmony team on a par with John, Paul and George or Barry, Robin and Maurice. Say You Love Me, like Warm Ways and Over My Head, was written overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean. The lyrics make no mention of the change of scene but its influence is clear from the beginning, the serenity of the music belying the fact that the McVies’ marriage was in trouble even then with John’s alcoholism making him violent and unpredictable (“Your mood is like a circus wheel”) and the general lyrical tones of Warm Ways and Say You Love Me indicated that wedded bliss now only existed at bedtime. Even the more frivolous Sugar Daddy indicates the feeling someone else would be far more suited to meeting day to day emotional needs (whisky, fancy cars, a listening ear).

The two new recruits shine too, Buckingham bookending the album with Monday Morning, his clipped vocal against Fleetwood’s opening beats grabbing the listener’s ear immediately, and I’m So Afraid with anguished cries from voice and guitar alike – for all the Buckingham/Nicks era Mac’s association with California, an amazing amount of their early output is perfect for gazing out of a rain-spattered window to and I’m So Afraid is a classic example of this.

Stevie Nicks also brought two new numbers to the table, both of which became staples of the Mac repertoire. Rhiannon, inspired by Mary Leader’s ghost novel Triad, sees all five musicians in full flow and became Nicks’s onstage intro and a vehicle for her dancing and shawl-twirling as well as a major hit single. Landslide features only Stevie’s vocal against Lindsey’s guitar, one final outing for the duo before becoming fully absorbed into the band. Full of bleak imagery of snow covered hills and fear of ageing and transition, it stands as an unchallenged classic today and was covered successfully by both the Smashing Pumpkins and the Dixie Chicks.

The other three tracks consisted of a song from outside writers, a rerecording of a cut from the Buckingham Nicks LP and a rewrite of an older Mac track. Blue Letter came from Buckingham and Nicks’s friends the Curtis Brothers (ex-Crazy Horse) who would release their own recording the following year and was a perfect vehicle for Buckingham. Nicks’s Crystal had previously appeared on the Buckingham Nicks album. As on the original recording, Buckingham took the lead vocal at Keith Olsen’s behest but it is easily Nicks’s most beautiful and enchanting song, her lyrics transporting the listener with her through the mountains to the coast, Fleetwood’s swishing cymbals evoking the halcyon days of Albatross and Christine McVie proving she was never just a girl with a piano, she could Mellotron with the best of them. The rewrite was World Turning, credited to and sung by Lindsey and Christine but with a chorus freely adapted from Peter Green’s acoustic blues The World Keep On Turning from the first Fleetwood Mac album. Fleetwood’s drum riffs at the end were a mere hint at how the song would become his solo spot in concert with much rattling of African drums, vocal improvisation and even, in the late eighties, a sound-producing device cunningly concealed in his crotch.

And there you have it. A solid album from beginning to end, evocative, emotional and downright beautiful. The hard slog of trying to put Fleetwood Mac back on the commercial radar had finally paid off. The album was a smash, going top five in most of the English-speaking world and the singles Over My Head, Rhiannon and Say You Love Me introduced Mac to the Billboard Top 20.

Demand for a follow-up was unquestionable. Even the disintegrating states of the McVies’ marriage and Buckingham and Nicks’s relationship couldn’t hold it back and the resulting tensions within the band soon led to the mighty Rumours.

220px-Rhiannon45 220px-Say_You_Love_Me_cover

CHART STATS: The album merited a week at the top of Billboard in September 1976, over a year after its release. It displaced George Benson’s Breezin‘ and was toppled by Stevie Wonder’s legendary double album Songs in the Key of Life. It also had the honour of being No 2 on Billboard’s year end chart, held off only by Peter Frampton’s million-seling Frampton Comes Alive.

IN MEMORIAM: This blog entry is dedicated to the memory of Herbert Worthington (1944-2013) who took the iconic cover photography of this album as well as those of Rumours and other albums in the Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks canon.

A debatable classic: Queen – The Game

As the eighties dawned, so did a new era for Queen. Teaming up with a new producer they bid farewell to the seventies with a rockabilly US chart-topper and welcomed the eighties with “The first Queen album to feature synthesisers.

Queen_The_Game

DISCLAIMER: All images imported from Wikipedia based on their fair usage guidelines. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

  1. Play the Game (Mercury)
  2. Dragon Attack (May)
  3. Another One Bites the Dust (Deacon) JD: most of the guitars
  4. Need Your Love Tonight (Deacon)
  5. Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Mercury) FM: acoustic guitar
  6. Rock It (Prime Jive) (Taylor) RT: lead vocals, keyboards FM: vocal intro
  7. Don’t Try Suicide (Mercury)
  8. Sail Away Sweet Sister (May) BM: lead vocals, piano
  9. Coming Soon (Taylor) RT: electric guitar
  10. Save Me (May) BM: piano, keybards

FREDDIE MERCURY: lead vocals, keyboards
BRIAN MAY: lead guitar, backing vocals
ROGER TAYLOR: drums, backing vocals
JOHN DEACON: bass
except where stated

Produced by Queen and Mack

By the time Queen’s eighth studio album hit the stores on June 30th 1980, three songs had already been released as singles. The first of these was Crazy Little Thing Called Love, a rockabilly pastiche where Freddie Mercury actually strummed a guitar for pretty much the only time on record and a great example of how Queen at their best tried out styles without taking themselves too seriously (“shakes all over like a jellyfish”). This became their first US chart-topper, they had yet to achieve a second in their homeland four years after everyone had worn out the grooves of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Save Me, a Brian May piano ballad followed, alternating tender acoustically plucked verses with an explosive chorus with a deceptive pause in between. The song shows May as a talented multi-instrumentalist and whoever wrote the sleevenotes for Queen’s Greatest Hits album got it right when they said the song showed “a side of Queen rarely seen by singles buyers”.

For me the best of all the hits has to be Play the Game, where Mercury indulges his Lennon passion to the full. This came out shortly before the album. The album itself was recorded in Germany with new co-producer Reinhold Mack, only ever referred to by his surname. Mack stripped away the last vestiges of the glam band Queen had been and created a leaner sound for the new decade. The desire to break from the past seems to be exemplified by the fact that the album’s sleeve is no longer in gaudy colours but featured black/white writing (depending what edition you’ve got) against a silver background. The band photograph on the front shows a band in leather uniform clearly trying to appeal to both metalheads and the camp disco culture embodied by the likes of the Village People, though Roger Taylor’s drumkit, complete with Bo-Rhap gong, features in the background as if to remind listeners that this was still the same band. You can tell what a blast they were having from May’s Dragon Attack (“It’s gotta be Mack!”) where John Deacon’s bass is used to great atmospheric effect just as it was on the next single, which Deacon also composed.

Another One Bites the Dust was a rare (at the time) Queen attempt at disco rather than the classic rock stylings they had become familiar for. Originally just an album track, it was when Michael Jackson heard this disco number, rotating round Deacon’s pulsing bass that he strongly suggested it should be a single. His faith was justified – it became Queen’s second (and last) Billboard #1. Like Deacon’s first song Misfire (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974) it parallels love gone wrong with a crime scene but does it with a lot more style and finesse. As on Misfire, Deacon plays most of the guitars here including the great rhythm riff.

Sadly the rest is mostly filler. Need Your Love Tonight is another Deacon composition but rather than repeating the promise of Dust, it tells a holiday romance story albeit nowhere near as as well as he did on In Only Seven Days (, 1978) which ends with nothing more than the title being repeated over and over in a clear rip-off of Eight Days a Week. America got it as a single however and sent it to #44. Roger Taylor’s writing is as faux-fifties as it had been throughout the seventies, though he wisely got Mercury to sing the slow opening of Rock It (Prime Jive). And while Mercury’s Don’t Try Suicide again brings out the best in Deacon’s playing (I wonder what Mack was putting in his tea) and gives the great showman a chance to make some cool noises it doesn’t convey what it’s meant to anywhere near as well as Mercury’s later track Keep Passing the Open Windows (The Works, 1984).

Apart from the singles, the album’s value derives largely from Brian May’s contributions. The tender Sail Away Sweet Sister is definitely one of the most listenable of his lead vocal tracks and was later rewarded with live renditions by Guns ‘n’ Roses while Dragon Attack really is a full on sonic assault where for once, May’s heavy rock leanings and Deacon’s passion for the disco medium were combined to perfection. These leanings would polarise them a lot more on Hot Space (1982) but for now it was working well. The album was a chart-topper in the UK (the first since the unofficial couple of A Night at the Opera/A Day at the Races) and in the US and Canada (for the first time ever). You can’t help sensing this was largely on the strength of the two chart-topping singles. One was rockabilly, one was disco and clearly Queen had something for everyone. As for most buyers across the Atlantic this probably would have been their introduction to Queen, it’s perhaps not surprising that it got the DVD-Audio treatment along with A Night at the Opera in the early 2000s.

SINGLE STATS: As well as topping charts in the USA, Crazy Little Thing Called Love reached No 2 in the UK. The culprit holding it off the top spot was country-rock outfit Dr Hook’s disco outing When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman. It also topped charts in Australia, Canada and Mexico. Another One Bites the Dust also topped charts in Canada, Israel and Spain.

ALBUM STATS: The album topped charts in the UK, US, Netherlands and Canada. In Queen’s native UK it replaced The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue (which in turn replaced it in the Netherlands) and remained at the top for two weeks before being displaced by the Deep Purple compilation Deepest Purple.

EmotionalRescueDeepest_Purple