2001: Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information
Tell me if this story sounds familiar: "Could have been, promising, young artist" blows his wad with overly ambitious magnum opus that goes largely ignored by the mainstream, destroying his confidence and prematurely ending the musician's budding career. Re-released 27 years later, the album enjoys a massive PR blitz and gets grouped alongside world superstars ranging from David Byrne to Fela Kuti, while the rock critics provide an unceasing parade of linguistic fellatio in order to finally give the album the credibility it has always deserved.
Well, its a story that does not seem particularly unusual given the immediacy of the internet age, the essentialness of music marketing, and the (sneeze) perpetual lack of musical talent in the "mainstream" channels. If anything, the story should seem god-damned old by now, given all the impressive and effusive praise that has been heaped upon the 2001 Luaka Bop reissue of Inspiration Information. However, even though similar tales have recently been all the rage (Nick Drake, Daniel Johnston, Bobb Trimble, etc.), very few can match the scope of the Shuggie Otis saga. This cat really should have been famous and it is truly amazing that Inspiration Information was virtually ignored for a generation.
As the son of the legendary R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie proved to be a prodigal musician at an early age, cultivating urban legends about his guitar skill, afro, and wispy mustache while he was still a preteen. As a full-teen he had the opportunity (and talent) to gig with his dad and hobnob with some of the most revered rock and blues stars of the day, playing guitar (and getting title credit) on all the tracks of Al Kooper's 1969 In Session album when he was only 15. In 1974, at the tender age of 21, Shuggie released his third solo album Inspiration Information, a musical masterwork that would have finally broken him free from his father's traditional boogie ‘n’ blues image, and it should have propelled him into the limelight on his own terms. Sadly, the album tanked.
In perfect hindsight, what makes Inspiration Information a phenomenal effort is probably what prevented it from becoming successful when it was released -- Shuggie had too many creative ideas and wanted to be all things to all people. But when you’re expecting to sell records as a commercial recording artist, you can’t please everyone! You can’t tickle the Sly and the Family Stone sound and expect to win over the partying fan base, especially when the next track is a slow, introspective blues number. So, similar to listening to Brian Wilson's SMiLE, we (as savvy, contemporary music listeners) now get pleasure both from wallowing in the overabundance of Shuggie’s musical cleverness as well as from the guilty joy of witnessing a young genius put his heart on the line, not yet seasoned with the courage to say "no" to an idea. Playing nearly every instrument on the album (except orchestral), Shuggie essentially makes a supreme pizza – sprinkling flavors of pop, psychadelic rock, blues, Detroit soul, jazz fusion, stoner jam, funk, sensitive introspection, and electronica – baked in Southern California sunshine. It’s the soundtrack to a DJ Shadow, Cee-Lo, Gilles Peterson, and Beck circle jerk.
Although touching on many of the same influences, Shuggie was careful to distance Inspiration Information from the over self-indulgence that plagued many of the other "funky" artists of the 1970s. In addition to complex chord changes, lush instrumentation, and fractional rhythms that give those who listen to a lot of music a chance to pop off, the album works best because it is simply pretty. Including the last four songs on the 2001 reissue, which were previously recorded on his Freedom Flight album, the album maintains cohesion and has a progressive, if not overly Morning Becomes Eclectic flow, shifting seamlessly between trippy meadows and lonesome dance halls. The title track (sampled by Digable Planets), "Strawberry Letter 23" (successfully covered by The Brothers Johnson and later jacked by OutKast), ""Aht Uh Mi Hed"" (the most accessible), and ""XL-30"" (early electronica) are the songs that get the most attention, but as just mentioned, this album is really best listened to as a whole album that transports you to a more mellow, more self-aware place.
Inspiration Information’s sympathy-inducing back story and the corresponding plethora of written critiques fighting for the album’s historical relevance both help the listener keep the music in perspective, but it's all superfluous fodder unneeded for the enjoyment of the album. Inspiration Information is a cheeky, pleasing album that is a perfect backdrop to driving along the Pacific Coast Highway or for stoned-unkempt-‘70s-pubic hair sex.
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.
1975: Roxy Music - Siren
It's difficult to tell if Roxy Music became so confident and full of musical bravado because they released so many fantastic records in the ‘70s or if their records were so fantastic because Roxy Music were simply confident and full of bravado to begin with. In either case, 1975's Siren is the last in the series of five near-perfect albums that Roxy Music released in just four years.
At least in Bryan Ferry's case, it appears the confidence was inborn. Ferry had always been a charismatic and appealing frontman, but on Siren, even more attention is given to him. Placed even further into the spotlight, Ferry responds to the pressure with an increased level of flair and theatricality. Though he's been given some room to try out different vocal styles, from the earnest (for Ferry at least) "Could It Happen To Me?" to the urgent "Both Ends Burning," in each track Ferry ends up sounding like no one but himself.
In consolidating its focus on Ferry, Roxy Music had to alter their approach to songwriting. With Brian Eno gone, the lengthy instrumental interludes found on their debut are almost entirely absent on Siren. While the band's newly found concision might dull the edges of their sound a little, the album's songs are still far from middle-of-the-road. In particular, the multi-segmented "She Sells" is a composition as complex as anything the band has ever written.
Arguably, Siren was the last truly great Roxy Music album (Avalon was good in its own, different way). It is a consistent, rewarding album, and all the more remarkable for satisfactorily following up such classics as Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, Stranded, and Country Life. It may be that Ferry has even more great music left in him, and if he'd stop releasing live albums and recording other people's songs, maybe we'd find out.
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.