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Life at 33 1/3   By Carl Meyer

 

Update May 30, 2015

Not a classic at all

Black Sabbath, Paranoid (Vertigo)

Recorded in two days on a budget that would barely keep a goldfish alive. That didn’t stop “Black Sabbath” from becoming one of the most stunning debut-albums ever made. It was dark, it was heavy, it was scary, it was wonderful.
Arriving in February 1970 and dressed in a sleeve you could hardly ignore. That photo is not a photo, it’s alive, it’s as if you been lost in the woods and have just found a clearing; there’s a vacant mill, there’s a lake, oh, but you don’t feel any relief, because right in front of you, in the dying daylight, out of nowhere, stands a mysterious lady, clutching a black cat, she’s watching you, she’s most definitely gonna do you harm. The fonts, the words, the Vertigo logo – it’s all perfect. I knew nothing about this band when that sleeve caught my eyes, but I knew right away that I had to buy the album.
I’m not gonna argue with those who claim that it’s an uneven album, but “Black Sabbath” is not a collection of individual songs that you evaluate separately, it is a total package that resonates deep down in the Vincent Price-crypt. It was conceived just when rock records, thanks to improved studio technology, delivered better ambience and more bottom, and the guitar-players began stealing attention from the vocalists.
The cool thing was long tracks with lots of guitar, a huge, punchy bottom and the familiar doses of the electric blues. “Black Sabbath” had all that, but it simultaneously confronted the listener on a completely different level than the hippy trippy bands that were the darlings of the student communities. Black Sabbath were in your face, confrontative, they apparently sank their fangs into Christendom, it was as if Satan had bought himself an electric guitar, they sounded like doomsday and destruction.
“Black Sabbath” was the darkest record ever made. It was both extremely enjoyable and dead scary, just like a great horror movie. Highlights were the title track (those fantastic first seconds are pure cinema, the sound of thunder, the torrential rain, the chimes of a distant church bell… and then the guitar arrives, so slow, so alarmingly evil – wow!) and the album’s roaring 14-minute finale, “Sleeping Village” / “Warning”.
When the group’s second album, “Paranoid”, arrived seven months later, expectations were high. The title track had already ravaged the single charts for a few weeks, three minutes of anxiety and testosterone built on a superb, fast moving guitar riff. I was ready for great things but was greatly disappointed by its sleeve. The sword-waving figure coming out of the woods looks as if he is heading for a kindergarten-carnival, sporting a scooter helmet borrowed from his sister. The fonts aren’t very impressive either. The packaging left a lot to be desired.
A feeling of desperation came creeping as the needle worked its way through the record. Black Sabbath were equally heavy, Iommi’s guitar just as incisive and brutal, the riffs hit your cerebellum like nails from a nail gun, Ozzy’s hollering, everything sounded like it should, except that the album lacked its predecessor’s dramaturgy, and the demons had gone on vacation. And where oh where was the long one, the 14 minute thundering epic?
Many critics hold “Paranoid” as one of the greatest heavy-rock-albums of all-time. I do not understand why.
The opening track “War Pigs”, hardly gets anywhere at all, for its first six and a half minutes it’s stuck in a sequence nicked from Jimi Hendrix’ “If Six Was Nine”. The track is screaming for something, anything to release it, and Iommi eventually comes to the rescue, but unfortunately only briefly, because just when everything takes off, it’s all over. Iommi’s marvellous guitar-solo could have lasted for ever, but is cut short after one minute. Unforgiveable!
“Planet Caravan” is a slow, semi-psychedelic space walk, not much of a tune, but it does work as a breather among the more brutal sounding tracks.
“Iron Man” on the other hand, is a sure fire Sabbath-classic. It even has a storyline. Someone should base a science fiction movie on it. “Iron Man” is hooked on a massive monster riff, the drums attack in full widescreen with a bottom punch to them that make the basement rumble. Ozzy belts the story, and the whole thing is spiced with Iommi’s trademark riff-based solo-runs. What a spectacular rumble!
“Electric Funeral” glides lazily on a leaden, wah wah treated riff and could have turned into something if they had come up with a better solution than the messy change of pace midway. They use a similar structure on “Hand Of Doom” but with a much better result, the slow sections are dark and so quiet they could sneak into a blues club without anybody noticing, while the fast and hard hitting parts are fired up by some outstanding Iommi-riffing.
“Rat Salad” is Sabbath’s version of Cream’s “Toad”, i.e. an instrumental built around a drum solo. Fortunately Bill Ward restricts our suffering to two and a half minutes while Ginger Baker went on for weeks.
The album concludes with “Fairies Wear Boots”, its intro a minute long a very inspired Iommi-solo, before the band hits the turbo and takes off in a shower of sparks delivering a heavy-rock boogie where Ozzy loses himself in a lyric he must have thought up while strolling through the park high on jazz-cigarettes. What is he on about? The song fades the moment Iommi discovers what sounds like a promising detour. Annoying.
And that’s the album. A huge disappointment Of the longer tracks “War Pigs” takes a long time not getting anywhere, and when it finally decides to blast off, it stops. “Hand Of Doom” is fine craftsmanship, but has no surprises up its sleeves. And the album’s only heavy rock classic, “Iron Man” (“Paranoid” is a super-cool pop single, but it’s a ditty, not a heavy rock classic), is in turn not exploited for all it’s worth. In this song Black Sabbath had all the ingredients for a thunderous 15-minute epic, but chickened out after six.
The lyrics are not up to their debut’s standard either. The group probably felt the need to distance themselves from their undeserved, but partly self-inflicted Satanist image. The main topics are still evil and doom, but now it is the manmade versions. They dislike wars and the politicians who causes them (now who doesn’t?), they fear that final nuclear blast and they convey gloomy thoughts about drug addiction. And most of all, of course, they (or rather Ozzy) are terrified of fairies running around in boots.
With “Paranoid” Black Sabbath present themselves as social critics dressed up in silly kids-costumes, waving toy swords. Not very convincing. If only the songs had been better.
On their next album, “Master Of Reality”, they blended the best parts of the lyrics from both predecessors and nailed them to a fine-tuned heavy-rock machinery, pouring out what sounds more like movements in a dark symphony than individual songs. That album is their masterpiece, not “Paranoid”.
Released: Sepember 28, 1970
Produced by: Rodger Bain
Contents: War Pigs/Paranoid/Planet Caravan/Iron Man/Electric Funeral/Hand of Doom/Rat Salad/Fairies Wear Boots
Personnel:
Tony Iommi – guitar, flute
Geezer Butler – bass guitar
Ozzy Osbourne – vocals
Bill Ward – drums, congas
Additional personnel
Tom Allom – piano on “Planet Caravan”


Update May 23, 2015

Nothing left to prove

The Moody Blues: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (Threshold)

With “A Question Of Balance” The Moody Blues had an ever so small go at social criticism. The album’s proposed theme was global and turned its blurry focus on conflicts that pestered the planet; the balance of power, the Vietnam War, stuff like that.
They were never very specific, no reason to take any chances with the fans. This was The Moody Blues, after all, a bunch of would-be philosophers disguised as hairdressers (or Arsenal-players) looking for a guru. But the album was a conscious move towards a more basic approach.
The slightly stripped down arrangements would make it easier to reproduce the album live. The change was not as dramatic as one might fear. A mellotron is after all a mellotron, and the band were masters of harmony singing, but nevertheless, “A Question Of Balance” - except for the wonderful hit “Question” – was a tame collection of songs.
Lesson learned, with “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” they took a U-turn, immersing themselves in the laboratory of Wessex Sound Studios in London, searching for that old magic of 1968-69. The mellotron would however not dominate as much as it did on their late 60s classics. Pinder was just as active on the piano and organ, and they finally introduced the Moog synthesizer on a Moody Blues-album. In the opening collage “Procession” they even used electronic drums. Some achievement actually, both reaching out for the future and falling back on a tried and trusted formula.
The album’s title is the English mnemonic used to remember the musical notes that form the lines of the treble clef: EGBDF. E(very) G(ood) B(oy) D(eserves) F(avour), right? Beautifully captured by the cover painting.
With such a pedagogical approach to it, one would expect the album’s soluble theme to be about music, the importance of music for mankind through history, or something like that. It may also have been the group’s original intention. The opening cut “Procession”, an almost five minutes long collage of music history from the Stone Age through the mythical Orient to modern Western music, certainly points in that direction. The experiment only works while it is fresh to the listener though, after some spins it just gets on your nerves.
They probably lost interest in the plot, and we should be grateful for that. Vanilla Fudge tried something similar in 1968 with “The Beat Goes On” with disastrous results. It’s as if The Moody Blues say “enough of this” the moment “Procession” fades out, and deliver what should have been one of the biggest hit-singles of 1971, Justin Hayward’s extremely commercial and well crafted “The Story In Your Eyes”. It’s a sweet love song with a worried urgency to it, made even more explicit as it punches out after less than three minutes. For incomprehensible reasons, this potential no. 1 was not released as a single in the UK; they pressed it all right, with picture sleeve and all - but only for export! What was the record company thinking?
A messy opening, a wonderful second track, unfortunately the rest of the album is just as tame as its predecessor. They play well, the arrangements are superb, they are after all professionals, but the music doesn’t sound very inspired, it’s as if they’re sleep walking through it, drowsy, satisfied, with nothing left to prove.
Only occasionally songs of substance peer out from the laidback dullness, particularly Hayward’s other contribution, “You Can Never Go Home”. I don’t mind Lodge’s charming “Emily’s Song” or Pinder’s spectacular mellotron performance “My Song” - marking the swan song of the instrument’s omnipresence in The Moody Blues sound (Pinder switched to Chamberlin on the next album).
Is there a theme here? It should be, it’s a Moody Blues-record. Being generous one could say there’s some sort of global environmental awareness connecting the dots: tiny paper boats carrying fragile glimpses of hope across a dark sea of pessimism about the future.
It is not a record for the big events. But it’s still unmistakably The Moody Blues; the sound, the melodic beauty, the gorgeous production qualities, and on days like these that can be more than good enough. Besides, it’s got “The Story In Your Eyes” on it.
Hmm, I planned to be brief with this LP and ended up talking to myself. Blame it on the rain.
Released: July 23, 1971
Produced by: Tony Clarke
Contents: Procession/The Story in Your Eyes/Our Guessing Game/Emily’s Song/After You Came/One More Time to Live/Nice to Be Here/You Can Never Go Home/My Song
Personnel:
Justin Hayward – vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, sitar
John Lodge – vocals, bass, cello
Ray Thomas – vocals, flute, tambourine, oboe, woodwinds, harmonica
Graeme Edge – electric and acoustic drums, percussion
Mike Pinder – vocals, mellotron, harpsichord, Hammond organ, piano, keyboards, Moog synthesizer


Update May 10, 2015

The triumphant return of Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter, You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic (Chrysalis)

*From the vaults of Carl Meyer, and original album review written in May 1979.*

In 1977 Ian Hunter reached rock bottom with the awful “Overnight Angels”. Seeing him ‘live’ in Oslo at the time was so depressing. His music had turned into a mediocre noise.

Of course we all knew the real Ian Hunter would return. And now he has: inspired, on fire, high on nine brand new quality songs. He’s got blood brother Mick Ronson and members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band backing him. Ellen Foley is doing some mighty hollering. Even John Cale lends a helping hand on one of the tracks. It just can’t go wrong.

There’s slight glam traces of the Mott and Bowie of old in the fat and insistent soundscape, there’s the delightful keyboard floorboards and a rolling boogie beat. Sparks fly as Max Weinberg hits the skins and the guitars cut white gashes in the dark backdrop. And Ian is the captain, completely in control. His voice, hoarse and hungry, caresses the words and spits them out. When the band rocks, the music is a joyous and thundering celebration with a mean sneer. When it slows down, it kisses your soul.

Ian moves effortlessly between the punchy stuff and his signature elongated melancholy ballads. The lonely beauty of “Ships” is so overwhelmingly emotional it makes you wanna cry. “The Outsider”, with its cascading climaxes, is a stunning portrait of a man on the run. Then there’s the sizzling “Cleveland Rocks” and the delightful Mott-pastiche “Just Another Night”, Ian’s voice so in command that it grows legs and starts walking.

Is this his best album yet? I’m willing to stick my neck out.

Note: Later that year (November 22) I had the pleasure of seeing Ian Hunter at The Hammersmith Odeon in London. What a triumphant return! The audience went completely bananas, and towards the end of the concert Ian was so moved he gave one of his golden Gibsons away to a fan. The boy couldn’t believe his luck and headed for exit, but was overtaken by the minders who grabbed the guitar and put it back on stage. This aggravated Ian who handed it over to the guy yet again, only for the same thing to happen. That really pissed Hunter off. He told the minders to leave the boy alone, and this time they made it out, both the boy and the guitar. It was one of those nights.

He’s turning 76 in June, and he’s still out there playing, baring his soul to us. Simply amazing! Thank you Ian! - Carl Meyer, May 2015.

Released: March 27, 1979

Produced by: Mick Ronson & Ian Hunter

Contents: Just Another Night/Wild East/Cleveland Rocks/Ships/When the Daylight Comes/Life After Death/Standin’ in My Light/Bastard/The Outsider

*The deluxe CD-version released in 2009 contains 5 outtakes from the sessions plus a full 14 track live CD including 5 tracks from The Hammersmith Odeon.

Personnel:

Ian Hunter – lead vocals, guitar, piano, Moog, ARP, organ, harmony vocals, percussion

Mick Ronson – guitars, dual lead vocals on “When the Daylight Comes”, harmony vocals, percussion

Roy Bittan – ARP, organ, Moog, piano, harmony vocals

Max Weinberg – drums

Garry Tallent – bass

John Cale – piano & ARP on “Bastard”

George Young – tenor saxophone

Lew Delgatto – baritone saxophone

Ellen Foley – harmony vocals

Rory Dodd – harmony vocals

Eric Bloom – harmony vocals


Update May 2, 2015

Hermania made Ramones tick

Herman’s Hermits, 20 Greatest Hits (K-tel)

Talkin’ to Joey and Johnny when The Ramones visited Oslo in 1980, I was quite unprepared for their total lack of enthusiasm when questioned about punk rock and new wave. They kept interrupting me, wanting to know if I ever saw Herman’s Hermits live. At first I thought they were putting me on, but then it dawned on me that these guys were absolutely serious. They were fans. Hard core. They didn’t care much for the Sex Pistols but they adored Peter Noone.
They bought Herman’s Hermits’ “20 Greatest Hits” in a record shop downtown, beaming like schoolboys when they passed it around to the other members of the band. “All the hits are on it!”, Johnny said, cheeks blushing with excitement.
It does make sense. The Ramones were the perfect power-pop band; they never wasted time but went straight for the chorus, sticking like glue to your brain. They adopted Peter Noone’s hilarious link between verses one and two in the British music hall classic “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”: “Second verse, same as the first!”, turning it into their own proud battle cry. Check out “Judy Is A Punk”. The Ramones didn’t wanna be the snotty bad guys, they loved pop music, that’s what they were playing. And remember, they had long hair.
“20 Greatest Hits” is a no brainer released by K-tel in 1977 and advertised on TV. It didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, reaching no. 37 before it stalled. It was the year of punk, true, but 1977 was also the year of The Shadows, Slim Whitman, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Diana Ross & The Supremes and Bread, who all topped the British charts with compilations, and The Beatles reached the summit with a “live” set recorded in 1964 and 1965.
Herman’s Hermits were probably too corny for British taste at the time, and it didn’t help that the sleeve was tacky and looked every bit as cheap as the record was. Ramones didn’t care about such things when they found the album in a cut price rack in Oslo. Then again, Herman’s Hermits were always bigger in America.
Armed with the hit producer Mickie Most, the youngsters from Manchester arrived on the scene in August 1964 with their insanely commercial version of The Cookies’ minor hit “I’m Into Something Good”. Noone’s light and boyish voice, the band’s happy-go-lucky backing, the interplay between lead vocal and chorus, it was a winning formula, and they stuck to it for ever after.
Peter Noone looked good on TV, and the Americans adored him from day one. With his shy little boy lost looks and huge toothy smile he could have been a young Kennedy, and he talked funny, how charming. The girls screamed. The parents nodded. What a polite young man - nothing like that weird Lennon-guy, or horror of all horrors, The Rolling Stones.
In 1965 Herman’s Hermits were even challenging the mighty Beatles, spamming the US with seven Top 10 singles, two of them reaching no. 1, and three Top 10 albums.
Unlike other great bands of the area, they didn’t write their own hits, and that would eventually lead to their downfall. But for a while they ruled the airwaves with quality arrangements of other people’s songs. They were good at picking tunes, or rather, Mickie Most was. His uncanny knack of creating three minute classics made him one of the most successful record producers of the 60’s and 70’s. Among his clients were The Animals, The Yardbirds, Donovan, Lulu, Jeff Beck and The Nashville Teens. In 1969 he launched RAK Records, a bona fide hit factory all though the 70’s.
What he did with Herman’s Hermits was to build on the Peter Noone-image and his Englishness, keeping the main ingredients from that first hit, an intro that catches your ear immediately, a hook line that you can’t escape, a friendly sound, a quality backing – sometimes beefed up by hired hands like Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.
Herman’s Hermits’ sauntering version of doo wopers The Rays’ 1957 recording “Silhouettes” is a magnificent treat. So is their warm and freewheeling take on Sam Cooke’s 1960-chestnut “Wonderful World”. Eventually Most switched from cover versions to handpicking new songs from young and promising songwriters, like Tony Hazzard, P.F. Sloan and Graham Gouldman. Some of those recordings are as close to the classics as Herman’s Hermits ever came: “Listen People”, “A Must To Avoid”, “You Won’t Be Leaving” and the delightful “No Milk Today”.
Most was also aware of the Americans’ taste for British music hall traditions, George Formby and all things cockney. Herman’s Hermits was the perfect vehicle for this too, and scored enormously with aforementioned “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” and “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” (neither of them released as singles in the UK but both no. 1’s in the US) and to a lesser degree with “Leaning On The Lamp Post” and Ray Davies’ “Dandy” (neither of these two nor “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” are included on “20 Greatest Hits”, unfortunately).
Entering 1967 Most started pushing the Hermits into sugary territory. The quality of the songs were uneven, they stuck to your brain for all the wrong reasons, sounding like they were heading for the Eurovision Song Contest. The Hermits kept clocking up hits, but I bet those were not the ones Ramones were raving about.
Noone left the band in 1971, and his solo-career got off to a good start with David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” (Bowie even plays on the record), a Top 20 hit in Britain. But he never managed a follow-up. So this is where the “20 Greatest Hits” ends.
Is the album relevant in 2015? I’d say yes, absolutely. Of their 22 British hits only three lesser ones are missing. For a while, Herman’s Hermits (1965-1966) delivered inspired and colourful pop music, right up there with the best of them. OK, so they went fishing after that, but there are one or two gems among these later releases too, like the gloriously sad “My Sentimental Friend” and that eccentric choice of Peter’s, “Oh! You Pretty Things”.
This is summery music, perfect for late afternoons with a cold beer as company. The Ramones recommend it. Or they would, if they were still around, bless ‘em.
Released: September 1977
Produced by: Mickie Most
Contents*: I’m Into Something Good (1-13), Silhouettes (3-5),Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat (-2), Wonderful World (7-4), Just A Little Bit Better (15-7), A Must To Avoid (6-8), You Won’t Be Leaving (20-), This Door Swings Both Ways (18-12), No Milk Today (7-35), There’s A Kind Of Hush (7-4), I Can Take Or Leave Your Loving (11-22), Sleepy Joe (12-61), Sunshine Girl (8-), Something’s Happening (6-), Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter (-1), My Sentimental Friend (2-), Years May Come, Years May Go (7-), Bet Yer Life I Do (22-), Lady Barbara (13-), Oh! You Pretty Things (12-)
*Highest position on the UK and US charts in brackets after each title, UK listed first.
Members:
Peter Noone – vocals
Karl Green – vocals, bass
Derek Leckenby – lead guitar
Keith Hopwood – rhythm guitar
Barry Whitwam – drums

 


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Not a classic at all

Nothing left to prove

The triumphant return of Ian Hunter

Hermania made Ramones tick