A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: July 2004
by Tom Hull
Somewhere on the way to this month's column I realized that I had an unusual concentration of music from the '60s. This started with The British Invasion box. After I complained about its many omissions, I found out that Abkco was coming out with new comps by the Animals and Herman's Hermits, so I decided to hold back what I had, and as I did more '60s records piled up. The British Invasion was the central event in popular music in the '60s: the Beatles put "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" onto the U.S. charts in January 1964, and for the next three years the U.S. charts were dominated by Brits. Dozens of British bands and singers crossed the Atlantic, some little more than novelties, some offering the same Brill Building pop they displaced, but some changed the course of rock and roll, and their secret ingredient was an uncritical love for all forms of black American music. This took many shapes, but it was as true for Tom Jones as for Eric Burdon.
The political divide in America today has us struggling again over the U.S./Vietnam war, with wags arguing that the '60s left a gash in the American soul that has never healed. As important as Vietnam was, for those who lived through the decade the real struggle was over civil rights -- over ending the institutions and attitudes of racism that were the most fundamental blight on the idea that America was a land of freedom and equality. That struggle succeeded to a point: the institutions were dismantled, and the attitudes gradually changed, but grudgingly so. The political triumphs of Nixon and Reagan fed on white racist resentment and fled into a fantasy world which from Bush to Bush has finally forgotten where it came from -- even though it was obvious to anyone who remembers where Strom Thurmond came from (as Trent Lott recently demonstrated).
Many things helped to shift attitudes, including the Vietnam War, where black Americans disproportionately fought and died. But music had a huge role. It's a commonplace today to acknowledge that popular music in America has long been dominated by black Americans, but the British Invasion reinforced this idea in a peculiar way -- not just by reintroducing forgotten Americans like the bluesmen adored by Yardbirds like Eric Clapton, but by competitively pushing American rock bands to ever higher levels. The rock universe expanded at a huge rate from 1965-1970, obliterating the racial segregation (with polite exceptions) of the '50s.
I was thirteen when the Beatles arrived, so I experienced the British Invasion first hand. I watched the bands as they popped up on Shindig and Hullabaloo (TV shows invented to cash in on the craze); I bought most of the Stones singles in the packages below; I found myself locked up for a period, with "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" running through my mind. It was my music. Unfortunately, anyone who came along later will be hard pressed to put it back in context. Part of the problem it is imagining what life was like before the Beatles, but another problem is the work it takes to get a comprehensive sense of the music itself: the British Invasion is licensing hell. There never has been a compilation of the key music half as good as The Funk Box or The R&B Box (let alone Tougher Than Tough), and there never will be as long as the owners of the Beatles, the Stones, and even the Dave Clark Five hold so dear to their property.
But really the story is much bigger than a box, and in the long run it's not just the Brits who are of interest. The late '60s saw an explosive diversification of black American music, including a strong strain of what we might call "black power music" -- as one of the sets below puts it. Much of this music was uncommercial and is only now being rediscovered -- early roots of funk, ambitious fusions of gospel and avant-garde jazz. Some of those items are reviewed below, and more are in the queue. Right on!
The Animals: Retrospective (1964-70 , Abkco). The Beatles and the Rolling Stones turned out smart covers of American R&B in their early years, but England's great cover band was the Animals. For proof you'll have to dig up The Complete Animals (EMI import, 2CD), one of the rare cases where completism drives home the genius of the hits. Keyboardist Alan Price and guitarist Hilton Valentine often found ways to add something to classic material -- cf. their breakthrough hit, "House of the Rising Sun" -- and Eric Burdon brought a dark, dank, surliness to everything he sung. However, this comp has other priorities: to survey their hits, following Burdon into his not-quite-solo career, through "When I Was Young" and "San Franciscan Nights" and "Sky Pilot" -- more effect than substance, worth having, but not at the expense of covers like "Bo Diddley." A-
Black Power: Music of a Revolution (1968-79 , Shout Factory, 2CD). The success and failure of the civil rights revolution in the '60s -- the one where civil rights came inexorably after long struggle while the failure of revolution left one with an empty pro forma feeling of plus ça change, plus c'est le même chose -- jolted black music from the timeless verities to face the challenges of an uncertain future. Black pride was in, but black power was harder to quantify -- at least outside of "Chocolate City" (where "the last percentage count is 80"). Jonathan Fine frames this trawl through the post-'68 decade with snatches of political speech -- Malcolm X, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Kathleen Cleaver -- imparting a thematic unity that isn't quite born out by the music. Violence may still be as American as cherry pie, but that doesn't make it an effective tool for challenging American injustice. But the music did mark a new and distinct chapter in the struggle to survive. Unfortunately it seems more relevant than ever, and not just for blacks. A
Shave 'Em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan (1933-35 , Columbia/Legacy). The "classic female blues" singers of the '20s were a tough bunch, but none more so than Lucille Bogan. Nor more brazen: her double entendres rarely got slier than an invitation to shop at her Piggly Wiggly, and there was no double at all to the jaw droppingly explicit porn on the the unissued versions of "Shave 'Em Dry" and "Till the Cows Come Home." Her astute sidekick, pianist Walter Roland, chips in with his own "I'm Gonna Shave You Dry," but he doesn't sing with anything approaching the Bogan's authority. A-
Whiskey Is My Habit, Cool Women Is All I Crave: The Best of Leroy Carr (1928-35 , Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). Dead of acute alcoholism (nephritis) at age 30, Carr's "I'd rather be sloppy drunk" songs aren't much more fun than the one where he swears he'll kill his cheatin' wife then throw himself at the mercy of the judge, hoping he'll just do time with his misery rather than fry in the electric chair. But since when were the blues meant to be fun? In his brief limelight, Carr recorded over 100 songs -- mostly with virtuoso guitarist Scrapper Blackwell. Carr played fine barrelhouse piano, sang in a voice midway between hokum songsters like Tampa Red who fit his style and darker delta bluesmen like Kokomo Arnold who were closer to his soul. Most of these songs have noticeable surface noise, which also dogs his few European comps. But it doesn't diminish the power or importance of his work. A-
Chicago Soul (1963-69 , Soul Jazz) The heyday of Chess Records was in the late '50s, when Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley added rock and roll to Chess' dominant position in Chicago blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, many lesser artists). In the '60s they differentiate into soul, funk, and jazz, with mixed results. Credit Soul Jazz with compiling a fascinating, utterly listenable compilation from a period when Chess was flying apart: although there are "names" here, the only cuts you're likely to have heard are two Etta James blasts. Still, this is just one slice of Chicago soul in the '60s, and hardly the most important one. For that, cf. Curtis Mayfield. A-
John Fahey and His Orchestra: Of Rivers and Religion (1972 , Collectors' Choice). Fahey was an antiquarian but hardly a folk artist. He spent most of his life recording solo guitar albums on his own Takoma label -- that singularity seemed to suit him. He liked the sharp metallic sound of Charley Patton but he was less interested in Patton's intensity. Much of Fahey's work has a laconic dolefulness that he could snap with a single stinging note. He was intriguing enough that bigger labels flirted with him -- Vanguard in the late '60s, Reprise in 1972-73. This is the first of two Reprise albums, both recorded with "his orchestra": a second guitar, banjo, mandolin, some horns which give "Lord Have Mercy" a dixieland feel. But topically this is the lighter, more pleasing alternative to his Blind Joe Death schtick: rivers and religion seems like his thing, and he fits his originals seamlessly with the tradition. A
Eddie Gale's Ghetto Music (1968 , Water). After an apprenticeship with Sun Ra in the early '60s, Gale's trumpet solo on Unit Structures got Cecil Taylor into The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, and also got him a shot to record a pair of albums for Blue Note. His trumpet play here shows the same combination of avant-guts and precise detail that he brought to Taylor, but the records were something else: he rounded up a church-trained choir and turned them loose on funk tunes. He wasn't the only avant-gardist who caught black pride and decided to raise the ghetto -- Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp made similar efforts -- but Gale blows them away. A
Herman's Hermits: Retrospective (1964-69 , Abkco) They scored six top-ten U.S. hits in 1965, second best among British Invasion bands after the Beatles, but they get little respect and it's not hard to see why. They were fronted by a child actor, still 16 when he sang their first hit, a Goffin-King song. They never wrote their own songs and they rarely played their own instruments, which left them without much claim to their own sound or persona. Their two #1 hits were recorded as jokes and came off as novelties -- "I'm Henry VIII, I Am" was an old music hall ditty penned in 1911. They faded fast as similarly contrived bands like the Byrds and the Monkees restored the balance of trade, and played out their string as sort of a second-rate Hollies -- which on "This Door Swings Both Ways" (wish it was a double entendre, but I doubt it) was still pretty good. A-
Tom Jones: Reloaded: Greatest Hits (1965-2003, Decca/UTV). The pantie panderer tackles hits by Eddie Fisher, Paul Anka, Porter Wagoner, Randy Newman, Prince, and Talking Heads. He collaborates with Van Morrison, Art of Noise, Portishead and Wyclef Jean, and more than holds his own -- he even makes Van work. He takes his two big 1965 hits, the brilliant big band "It's Not Unusual" and the silly David-Bacharach "What's New Pussycat?" and sandwiches them around one from 1999 called "Sexbomb." He's never met a hit that was beneath him, and he's never found a song he couldn't oversing, but how could he possibly string a career-spanning comp together without it separating into so many novelties? Well, for one thing this is a testament to the all-encompassing breadth of hip hop. But the main reason is probably the same one he would have offered in 1965: balls. A-
The Rolling Stones: Singles 1965-1967 (, Abkco, 11CD). Back in 1989 Abkco released Singles Collection: The London Years, 3 CDs which covered back and front of every Stones single from 1963 to 1969. This year's (projected) three box sets cover the same ground with very minor adjustments, the big difference being packaging and price. The problem with Singles Collection was that it didn't flow except through the prism of history. These boxes fix that by making flow impossible: each two-sided single makes for a 5-6 minute CD. What you get for the extra money is packaging: sleeves matching the original 45s, a nice booklet with more pictures of memorabilia. As for the music, it starts with their breakthrough hit "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," where they finally broke out of the British Invasion pack, and works through Their Satanic Majesties Request -- the dead end of the Brian Jones era, or the cusp of their legitimate claim to be "the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band." Single by single (and the mid-'60s were still an era of singles), they moved to tackle more complex subjects with more sophisticated song forms and production, paralleling while still laughing at their great rivals -- the Beach Boys as well as the Beatles. The see-sawing from A- to B-side reminds you that their hits were rarefied accomplishments. Still, the B-sides hold up fine, which they should, given that every one of the seven albums they released from 1965-67 is worth owning whole. A-
Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.