1969: Alexander Spence - Oar
"There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line." -Oscar Levant
It is rather unfortunate the train-wreck magnetism mental illness creates on the works of musicians, from the took-so-much-acid-he-lost-his-shit stories of Syd Barrett, to the uncomfortable-to-watch mental breakdown documentary footage of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, along with every other stop on the crazy train you could come up with. It seems glorifying the tales of madness surrounding those unlucky enough to suffer from their psychological conditions goes hand in hand with any of the music they recorded, even giving them an enhanced mystique. Whether all these extracurricular tidbits of musician's lives serve to put their art into context, or perhaps even to overshadow it, it is almost inevitable you'll get one with the other. It may be completely cliché of me to once again exploit the saga that unfolded leading up to the recording of Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence’s Oar, but it's almost impossible not to. If you're already familiar with his sensationalistic history, bear with me while I get the rest of you up to speed on the cult of Oar.
Skip Spence found himself in San Francisco during the mid-‘60s and quickly made his way into the upper echelon of the psychedelic music scene in that city as the drummer for Jefferson Airplane on their first album and as a founding guitarist in Moby Grape. Skip took part in the cultural spirit of all that was going on at that groovy time and place, including the copious drug-ingesting hippie ethos. While Moby Grape were recording their second album in New York in ‘68, the events that allegedly unfolded went something along the lines of the following:
Skip was hanging out with a groupie who was deep into black magic. The groupie fed Spence a heavy dose of LSD, convinced him his bandmates were possessed with demons that were out to get him, and next thing you know ol' Skip is chasing the other guys with a fireman's axe, attempting to chop them into little pieces. Fast-forward to a six-month stint of staring at the white walls in the criminal ward of Bellevue Hospital where the diagnosed schizophrenic Spence must have been sautéing in his creative juices, because after being released, he bought a motorcycle and, while wearing his hospital jammies, drove to Nashville to record his one and only solo album in a two-week exploration of his fractured soul. Is this not the fantastic shit that a movie is just waiting to be made about?
Apparently, the peace-and-love generation weren't ready for such a rough-around-the-edges record rippling with dark undercurrents. The Manson Family had yet to make headlines, and the Stones had yet to play at the summer of love hangover known as Altamont. The album tanked upon release.
Listening to Oar leaves me feeling unhinged. I'd assume only the bravest explorers of mental terrain could handle the heavy unease of these songs on their psyches. It’s like a lullaby to a nightmare, a schizophrenia soundtrack, a channeling of personal fire and brimstone with analogies to angels and demons. As patronizing as putting an outsider artists on a pedestal comes across, there is an allure to being the voyeur looking into another person’s inner turmoils.
But all pomp and circumstance aside, Oar was also one of the very first albums where every vocal, instrument, and overdub were recorded by one person only. Skip did it all. It was a rare event back in the day. In the eyes of many, such a feat is nothing short of genius. Some of the lyrics contain the corny hippy dippy sentiments of the time such as "Little Hands." Others, like "Dixie Peach Promenade," feature double entendre vulgarities of lust aimed at the fairer sex that are far grittier than anything seen on an episode of Three's Company. It ranks up there with Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby as one the most misogynistic odes to sex to come out of the free-love era. "Books of Moses" overdubs the sound of a thunderstorm to the tale Charlton Heston brought to the masses, cryptically delivering it in a voice that sounds like it ate gravel and lemons for lunch.
Oar definitely isn't one you’ll play to set the mood with that special someone, nor is it going to get that party started on a Friday night. It is, however, one that brilliantly gives you a glimpse into the dark corners of humanity.
1963: Phil Spector [Various Artists] - A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector
In the early ‘60s, Phil Spector was on top of the world. His orchestral production style had become something of an industry standard for pop music, having already helmed classic songs, including The Crystals’ “He’s A Rebel” and “Da Doo Ron Ron;” Darlene Love’s “Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry;” and the unparalleled “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. By 1963, Phil Spector had a healthy roster of artists, an arsenal of musicians, and commercial credibility to burn.
So, it was perhaps inevitable that Spector would assemble these assets for a compilation record, and his usual “wall of sound” -- with sleigh bells and strings -- made a Christmas tracklist a no-brainer. A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector came out on November 22, 1963, a day on which people were more preoccupied with a president’s fatal gunshot wound than decking the halls. For this reason, the record was slow to catch on, and only in subsequent years did it become known as pop music’s best ever Christmas album.
The record assembles some of Spector’s all-stars, including The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love. The songs are largely old chestnuts, such as “White Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride,” but the Spector treatment on these familiar tracks is revelatory. It’s not until you hear these versions when you realize Spector was born to do this project, and it’s also hard to imagine what the pop world was like before this record came out. Much of what we associate with rock ‘n’ roll holiday music -- from the low baritone sax to high glockenspiel -- owes a debt of gratitude to these 13 songs. Without this record, there would be no Springsteen covering “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” no Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” In other words, this record has a lot to answer for.
As with all Phil Spector music, the production and arrangements on A Christmas Gift For You are as much the stars as his singers. Spector’s attention to detail here is nothing short of stunning, from the descending chords on The Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” to the “ring-a-ling-a-ling, ding-dong-ding” background vocals of The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride.” Just as Spector regularly imbued teenage pop music with old-fashioned melodrama, here he gives Christmas music, the epitome of schmaltz, genuine passion.
The record’s centerpiece is Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” one of pop’s most-covered songs. Though it lasts less than three minutes, it’s a breathtaking slice of heartbreak, featuring melancholy sleigh bells and Love’s forlorn voice as main attractions. Love was brought in for vocals after The Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector, a singer more accustomed to cooing than pleading, didn’t work out. Love’s delivery borders on mania, and she seems to lose all control by the time she wails “please, please, please” over Leon Russell’s piano octave runs near the song’s end. It’s one of the great moments in rock history.
The record’s lowlights are few but obvious. Spector himself shows up for a spoken message over a cloying version of “Silent Night,” which closes the album. The unnecessary sound-effect introduction of The Ronettes’ “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is equally cringe-inducing. These are rare moments when Spector doesn’t trust his audience, providing exposition instead of bells and whistles
Otherwise, A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector more than earns its reputation as a holiday and rock ‘n’ roll classic. Like Linus’ monologue and folks dressed up like Eskimos, this is what Christmas is all about. Accept no imitations.
1985: R.E.M. - Fables of the Reconstruction
“Fables sucked!” - Bill Berry
In March of 1985, R.E.M had been on the road for pretty much three years straight, and they were miserable with the prospect of another year of the same. Record label I.R.S. hated their last record, Reckoning, and were ready to assign a more “noo wave” producer. When the band hired Joe Boyd (of Nick Drake fame) and jetted off to London without permission, the record company men were predictably less than pleased. And the recording sessions were a trial, resulting in a dark and dissonant album that was, in the words of Michael Stipe, “monumentally fucked-up.” Most of the band admitted this was the closest they’d ever come to calling it quits.
A year later, for Lifes Rich Pageant, they would sign producer Don Gehman (John Mellencamp, Barbra Streisand, The Bee Gees) and make their first impenitent grab for the mainstream. Guitarist Peter Buck was sick and tired of The Byrds comparisons and was ready to really rock. And, of course, Michael was ready to start enunciating.
So Fables of the Reconstruction has come to be known as the last “classic” R.E.M. record, because the guitars are still jangly and the vocals still foggy. But it hardly fits alongside Reckoning and Murmur and Chronic Town -- it’s just so fucking dour. It’s a hard record to get through, and it really stands alone in their catalogue, not least because of its low standing with the band members themselves (later rescinded).
I’ve always had a sort of affection for it, though. Everyone remembers the spry rockers (“Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There From Here”), the cacophonous opener, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” and “Good Advices,” if only for the line: When you meet a stranger/ Look at his shoes/ Keep your money in your shoes.” But what about the mesmeric “Maps and Legends” or “Kohoutek,” which is beautiful and strange and an undeniable love song? Or “Green Grow the Rushes,” with its delicate, elliptical riff and gentle coda of “la la la la la’s”?
Stipe called Fables his “storytelling album... the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on legends and fables to the grandchildren.” On “Old Man Kensey,” an Athens man holds neighborhood dogs for ransom. “Wendell Gee” is a drunk who disappears into a tree trunk, and “Life and How to Live It” references Georgian writer Brivs Mekis.
“As formalists, they valorize the past by definition,” griped Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, “and if their latest title means anything it’s that they’re slipping inexorably into the vague comforts of regret, mythos, and nostalgia.” On the whole, however, reception was not terrible. But the Fables tour was probably the most bizarre chapter in the band’s entire history; Michael cropped his hair, gained about thirty pounds, and took to wearing granny glasses and taping posters of Ronald McDonald to the back of his suit jacket. One particularly surreal moment: after a spot on Music Convoy in Germany, the band was interviewed by a clueless and increasingly despondent emcee who, when a stray dog wandered across the stage, asked if “you guys have any animals at home?” Michael responded with, “Yes, we have animals in America, just like here. Different kinds: cats and dogs, birds, lizards.”
1987: Elvis Presley - The Complete Sun Sessions
Hank Williams had his country, Ike Turner and Little Richard had their brands of rhythm ‘n’ blues, Fats Domino had his boogie-woogie, and Chuck Berry had his rockabilly. But it took a precocious adolescent, with a wooden spoon hanging out of his curled lips, to coalesce these styles into rock ‘n’ roll. Emerging from the crossroads of Tupelo, Mississippi, he had got the devil in him, and he was going to make sure everyone else would too.
To experience The Complete Sun Sessions is to experience the birth of The King. Recorded between 1953 and 1956, these songs are sung by an anonymous Elvis Aaron Presley, before his skin color and pelvis made a repressed America express their id, before the Colonel made him into a commodity, before Hollywood made him into a dancing monkey, and before the bright lights and decadency of Vegas made him into a corpse. Too many nowadays remember the dreary-eyed Elvis dressed in white attempting to repent for his sins, as he karate chopped his way through another bombastic rendition of his seminal yesteryear classics. This album compels the listener to remember the bright-eyed Elvis dressing queer, attempting to repent for the sins of America, as he broke down color, sexual, and political barriers with a new form of artistic expression that would capture the attention of the world.
There were no conventions for rock ‘n’ roll during these sessions, so Elvis simply made them up as he fashioned another number. He was defining himself as an artist, as he birthed rock ‘n’ roll. So experimentation with disparate genres, styles, and structures is obvious on nearly every track. Whether it be Elvis playfully hiccupping on the beginning of the lusty “Baby, Let’s Play House,” sorrowfully whistling for an entire verse on the melancholy “Harbor Lights,” or his complete re-imagination of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” from a bluegrass waltz to a rock record with a jumpy rhythm and frantic tempo. But this experimentation is most lucid on “Milkcow Blues Boogie;” beginning as a generic, monotonous bluesy number, Elvis soon proclaims “Hold it fellas, it don’t move. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” With that proclamation, the song, as if infused with some kind of divine jingle and jangle, does get “real gone” from what popular music was and to what music popular could be: dynamic, unconventional, and exciting.
One of the main strengths in Elvis’ career was his voice, and on these recordings it sounds as lively, invigorating, and evocative as ever. This is not the Elvis of his Vegas years, belting out numbers like a tragic, operatic character; here his voice is more assured of itself, giving the guitars and rhythm section room to breath and then exploding with emotion when needed. This blissful concord is best showcased on the slower ballads, which is not much of a surprise as young Elvis always dreamed of a career singing teary balladry. “Blue Moon” finds Elvis literally howling to the heavens to reciprocate his love, while his vibrato – bouncing between now and then and finally into oblivion – flawlessly captures his optimism and fears about the future on “Tomorrow Night.” Whether inspired by his penurious upbringing, the incessant and cruel teasing he was assailed with, by his peers, or his unrequited apparitions of grandeur, the passion in Elvis’ voice found on this album is without equal.
The innovation displayed on The Complete Sun Sessions was not Elvis’ sole doing. Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records, and influential music producer, flawlessly complimented Elvis’ raw talent, by employing now-famous production techniques, such as using a tape echo unit, and Elvis’ voice as an instrument by moving it around the sonic landscape of the instrumental, which each gave the record and Elvis’ voice a distinctive, memorable sound. Phillips also chose guitarist Scotty Moore, whose subversively splintered guitar riffs and runs helped forge a novel style of guitar play. Elvis would eventually produce his own records, due largely to Phillips generosity with his knowledge, but this album has Phillips’ creative fingerprints all over it.
By combining black with white, past with present, imagination with rebellion, Elvis catapulted a fresh, exciting form of music to a mainstream audience, whether it be called rock ‘n’ roll or by some other moniker. Elvis Aaron Pressley would soon become The King, and rock ‘n’ roll would soon blossom into a mature musical form with infinite reinterpretations, leaving The Complete Sun Sessions as an anachronistic reminder of what became of the twinkle in a young Mississippi boy’s eye.
1982: Daniel Johnston - Don’t Be Scared
What's intriguing to me about Daniel Johnston isn't the fact that he has bipolar disorder; it's the tension that the disease implicates in his music. I can't help but feel conflicted as to whether or not my enjoyment stems from an appreciation of its actual craft or the story behind it all. Do I like his music because I associate it with some constructed sense of "authenticity"? Does being culturally uninhibited have anything to do with what people describe as "natural" or "truthful" or "real"? Would I like Daniel Johnston's music as much if it weren't equipped with the story of his bipolar disorder? These elements are difficult to ignore when attempting to negotiate an honest relationship with Daniel Johnston and his music.
Thing is, my answers are immaterial. The questions are warranted for any artist who is auto-described (ridiculously) as a "genius," credited mostly to the disease, but musical taste is fluid. What Daniel Johnston's music does for me is point to this rarely discussed, dynamic aspect of taste. As much as I have championed so-called avant-garde music, its self-imposed avoidances are actually found and embraced in Daniel Johnston's music, and it's simply refreshing to my ears. His music's actually expressive of something, and unabashedly so, helping me once again celebrate subjectivity rather than fight it. Sure, it can often be trite and predictable, and sure you could blame it on his disease, but any sort of righteousness deflates under serious challenge: the meaning of Johnston's music is and always will be malleable.
It's hard to articulate an appreciation of "simple pop songs" without resorting to surfacy observations. Since Don't Be Scared -- originally self-released on cassette and known as Johnston's second full-length release -- comes with so many endearing qualities, perhaps the artificial superficiality is really what's important. From the slapdash "The Story of an Artist," to the Dylan-borrowing "I Had Lost My Mind," to the gloomy "Going Down," what's notable is the intent, the execution, the clarity. Never mind theoretical arguments over aesthetics; this is a documentation that's actually lucid. It's vibrant, colorful, and self-indulgent in the best possible way, all elements to which pop music often aspires and would likely achieve if it weren't so invested in financial concerns.
Since virtually all the songs feature a desolate Johnston on piano, Don't Be Scared lacks the unique chord organ blues of Yip/Jump Music or the vampirific soundworld of 1990, but it showcases how Johnston's creativity and talent shouldn't automatically be attributed to his disease. And with the decidedly off-kilter intro of "Mother Mom Said," the improvised, disconnected vocals on "Stars on Parade," and the downright bizarre "Something More" -- qualities artists now adopt in order to get their albums labeled "quirky" or "idiosyncratic" -- you really begin to realize how the underlying narrative of Johnston obscures more than clarifies anything. So, what now? Do you consider these attributes transitory and ignore or dismiss them? Do you chalk it all up to his bipolar disorder? Fuck that. Daniel Johnston's musical and cultural worth cannot be reduced so simply. As much as the bipolar disorder may have hypothetically provided or denied Johnston, it can't take away the meaning that I discern from the music.
2007: The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers
These days, we think of The Modern Lovers’ self-titled 1976 album as an obvious classic. It may come as some surprise, then, that Jonathan Richman and his band were recording for five years before they found a label to release their material. Despite interest from A&M and Warner Brothers as early as 1971, The Modern Lovers’ music remained unreleased until Richman struck a deal with Beserkely Records in 1975. Even then, the resulting album was a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. Beserkely cobbled together the debut release from a series of raw-sounding demo sessions, produced mostly by John Cale in 1972. To this day, Richman doesn’t even consider The Modern Lovers a proper album.
Sanctuary Records’ expanded reissue ups the Frankenstein quotient, adding eight additional tracks to Beserkely’s nine. The new material is culled from The Modern Lovers’ first sessions, in late 1971, and later demos recorded in 1973 and 1974. While labels looking to sell fans on a reissue often dilute the original by tacking on any old outtake or B-side, Sanctuary’s choices are sound. Many of the extra songs are every bit as good as the core material, and even the three alternate versions of songs appearing on the Beserkely version (“Someone I Care About,” “Modern World,” and “Roadrunner”) are different and interesting enough to earn their keep.
The Modern Lovers’ oft-covered first track, “Roadrunner,” might be the best rock ‘n’ roll song of all time. Competitors like The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and The Who’s “My Generation” just don’t sustain multiple listens the way “Roadrunner” does. One can only take so much of Mick Jagger going on about sexual frustration, but “Roadrunner” somehow never gets old. Like the vast majority of timeless rock songs, “Roadrunner” is nothing more than a few simple guitar chords, with upbeat carnival organ harmonies elevating the singer’s slacker drawl. We find its narrator speeding down the Massachusetts highway, his blasting stereo plowing through feelings of isolation. Everyone who’s been 18 in American can identify with the pure love of freedom behind lyrics like, “I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll/ And I’ll be out all night.” When Richman says, “Now you sing, Modern Lovers,” and the entire band joins in for the scraggly but spirited chorus, “Radio on!,” it feels like a mantra, or a manifesto.
If this makes The Modern Lovers seem like something of a ‘50s throwback, that’s only part of the paradox that makes them exciting. The album mixes old-fashioned romanticism and “Roadrunner”’s brand of Rebel Without a Cause fantasy with the ironic, irreverent asides of a band known for presaging punk. The Modern Lovers contains a song called “Old World” and a song called “Modern World,” both of which were recorded during the 1972 Cale sessions. The former praises Richman’s parents and insists, “I want to keep my place in the old world/ I want to keep my place in the arcane”; in the latter, he sings, “I’m in love with the USA/ I’m in love with the modern world” and advises anyone who doesn’t agree to “Put down the cigarette/ And drop out of BU.” What Richman shares with both ‘50s rock and ‘70s punk is a deep-seated disdain for hippies and pseudo-intellectuals. He’s no philistine, as we discover on “Pablo Picasso” (“The girls would turn the color of an avocado/ And he would drive down the street in his El Dorado”), but his aesthetic is decidedly working class, and he likes it that way.
Though The Modern Lovers are best known for their raucous rock songs, their quieter moments are also worth a listen. When he slows down, Richman can be hilarious and insightful at the same time. On “I’m Straight,” a 1973-4 demo track, he vaunts his own clean lifestyle in an attempt to woo the girl he likes away from her stoner boyfriend, “Hippie Johnny.” “I’m straight,” he sings, over minimal, muted guitar and drums, “And I want to take his place.” The song is an indictment of constantly-stoned flower children, but it goes a step farther, making the emphatically uncool claim that drugs are mere escapism. “I think if these guys, if they’re really so great/ Tell me why can’t they at least take this place/ And take it straight?” he wonders in his rambling, monotone fashion. “Why always stoned?”
But Richman’s lyrical talents extend beyond humor and social critique. “Hospital” is a delicate, mournful love song that begins with the arresting words, “When you get out of the hospital/ Let me back into your life.” Richman sings slowly and earnestly, as though he doesn’t know from moment to moment what he’ll say next. Occasionally, his voice explodes in a barrage of organ-backed doubt and confusion. As in most of the band’s love songs, including “She Cracked” and “Someone I Care About” on The Modern Lovers, physical and mental illness, as well as loneliness, figure prominently.
The idea that a great album must be the product of a singular vision has produced some of the tackiest concept records of all time. The Modern Lovers, one of the most influential albums of the past 50 years, proves that something as uncomplicated as a stable of rough but inspired rock songs can be more effective than all the studio-slick song cycles in the world.