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Life at 33 1/3   By Carl Meyer


Update August 29, 2015

Music from a lost weekend

Harry Nilsson, Pussy Cats (RCA)

Blame it on the bottle, Harry Nilsson makes another phenomenal attempt to dismantle his own career. It had all been eccentric career moves and nonstop partying since “Without You” stunned the world and made him a star back in 1972. Bringing along ex-beatles John and Ringo (sometimes George and Paul stopped by as well) and a trail of thirsty celebrities (like Keith Moon) as cheerleaders, wasn’t the smartest thing to do, at least according to his doctor and his record company. RCA probably thought their star had gone insane. I don’t think “Son Of Dracula” (1974) is Mariah Carey’s favorite album (or movie), to put it that way.
“Pussy Cats” was born during John Lennon’s 18-month “lost weekend” in Los Angeles. Out on his own he turned into your drinking buddy from hell, having a lot of catching up to do. John and Harry triggered each other in their drunken stupors, feeding the gossip press with marvelous scandals. In between fistfights, heckling and being thrown out of night cubs with a sanitary pad on his head, John offered to produce Harry’s next album. Not surprisingly it turned into an open doors session, party time, drinks and drugs and a gallery of famous people who stopped by for a piece of the madness. Now and then they even created some music. In 1974 it was definitely not advisable to place Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr in the same room.
Lennon woke up during the chaos and realized that things were getting out of hand big time. So he brought the tapes and a very jagged Nilsson with him to New York to regain focus. It must have worried him that Nilsson’s voice sounded broken, but they probably didn’t discuss it. Actually it was more serious than John was aware of: Harry had ruptured one of his vocal cords during all the partying, but he didn’t dare to tell John.
Is “Pussy Cats” an underrated classic? Not at all. John Lennon was not a great producer and most of the songs suffer from his trademark narrow and clattering soundscape, his Phil Spector light. The content is eccentric, not unexpectedly. There are only four Nilsson originals (not among his most remarkable, except the beautiful “Black Sails”, a real treat), and one Lennon/Nilsson joint effort called “Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga”, which simply is disposable nonsense.
As for the five cover songs, there is no telling why they were chosen. Could be rejects from Lennon’s own “Rock’n’Roll”-project. However they weaken rather that strengthen the album. They turn “Pussy Cats” into a little of this and a little of that instead of making it sound like a coherent record.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” is absolutely horrible; the lyrics are drowned in the noise, a complete misjudgement as the lyrics are the reason for this very song’s existence. Then there’s an utterly botched and clattered “Rock Around The Clock” (Keltner, Ringo and Moon on drums, and still, what a mess!). Surprisingly the version of “Save The Last Dance For Me” is marvellous, Nilsson injects so much passion into those simple words that it sounds like the end of the world.
Lennon could have bettered the album some by replacing a couple of the covers with Nilsson’s own “Down By The Sea” and “The Flying Saucer Song”. Both songs were recorded during the sessions, but ended up as rejects (Nilsson re-recorded them later for “Duit On Mon Dei” (1975) and “Sandman” in 1976.
“Pussy Cats” was no big seller. And thus Nilsson’s time as a pop star was brought to an end. He got his voice back and recorded a number of outstanding albums later, but unfortunately they headed for the cut-out bins as soon as they were released.
As an artefact from a period in the history of rock when the heroes of the 60’s got a premature taste of midlife crisis and went temporarily bonkers, “Pussy Cats” works well. It is far better than Keith Moon’s “Two Sides Of The Moon”, holds its own compared to Ringo’s “Goodnight Vienna”, and there indeed is an affinity between “Pussy Cats” and Lennon’s “Walls And Bridges”.
None of the artists created their best work during this period. It was party time for desperate grown-ups behaving like college boys with too much money on their hands, living on a diet of dope and alcohol. They even recorded some music when they found time for it (and were able to stand up). The record sleeve of “Pussy Cats” says it all, telling its inside joke with a sledgehammer. Check out the floor under the table in the doll’s house: D + rug + S = DRUGS. Giggle, giggle, aren’t we crazy!
Released: August 19, 1974
Produced by: John Lennon.
Contents: Many Rivers to Cross/Subterranean Homesick Blues/Don’t Forget Me/All My Life/Old Forgotten Soldier/Save the Last Dance for Me/Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga/Loop De Loop/Black Sails/Rock Around the Clock
The cast of thousands:
Nathalie Altman - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Kenny Ascher - Piano, Conductor, Orchestration
Susie Bell - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Gene Cipriano - Saxophone
Jesse Ed Davis - Guitar
Chuck Findley - Trombone
Troy Germano - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Jane Getz - Piano
Jim Horn - Saxophone
Jim Keltner - Drums
Bobby Keys - Saxophone
Sneaky Pete Kleinow - Pedal Steel
Danny Kortchmar - Guitar
Trevor Lawrence - Saxophone
Keith Moon - Conga, Drums, Wood Block
Erik Mueller - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Rachel Mueller - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Harry Nilsson - Piano, Piano (Electric), Vocals, Performer, Author, Adaptation
Phylida Paterson - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Peri Prestopino - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Willie “The Lion” Smith - Organ
Ringo Starr - Drums, Maracas
David Steinberg - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Cantey Turner - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Kristin Turner - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Damon Vigiano - Choir, Chorus, Children’s Chorus
Klaus Voormann - Bass
Cynthia Webb – Marimba

Update August 22, 2015

Carnival time with The Band

The Band, Rock Of Ages (Capitol)

These excerpts from The Band’s New Year concerts in New York, 28.-31. December 1971, were released in August 1972. Spread across four album sides, and completely reshuffled from the actual playlist. The Band were in excellent shape on those evenings, delivering a summing up of their career so far, celebrating their roots and adding an inspired touch of rediscovery by trying out a whole new musical setting by fleshing out about half of the songs with horns. Say hello to Allen Toussaint.
Toussaint had already given the group the feisty horn arrangement for “Life Is A Carnival” on the 1971 album “Cahoots”. This boisterous shot of New Orleans whetted Robbie Robertson appetite. He wanted more. Toussaint was installed in a cabin up in Woodstock and wrote horn arrangements for 11 songs, all handpicked by Robertson. These would constitute the second half of the concert program. The audience was thus first served The Band as they knew them from their first three albums, and then the stage was set for the Toussaint show.
The concert on New Year’s Eve was very special as Bob Dylan surprisingly appeared and led the group through four of his songs, one of his very few live appearances between 1966 and the touring-comeback in 1974. The album sleeve contains a photo of Dylan, but none of the four songs mentioned were included on the original vinyl version.
Robertson chose to focus on the Toussaint arrangements when he programmed “Rock Of Ages”. All of Toussaint’s 11 are included among its 17 tracks. An inspired decision as it makes the album a very independent entity in the group’s discography. No other The Band record sounds like this one.
The horn arrangements suit the tunes perfectly. It’s not the blasting, powerful riffs one associates with Stax soul. This is New Orleans. Carnival time. The guys move all over the songs, curling notes around the melody lines, commenting on, answering or even teasing with certain phrases from the vocalists, firing them up, chilling them down. The horn players don’t march as an organized body, some go up, some go down, some go left, some go right, always on the move giving the music its playful swagger. Party time all over the rock solid ensemble playing of The Band, the members communicate telepathically, they know each other inside out. And when the horn players invite him in, Robbie Robertson takes off and heads for the French Quarter. What a show! And boy do I miss Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel! May they rest in peace!
I didn’t fall head over heels for “Rock Of Ages”. It took time to digest the unfamiliar Toussaint overhaul of songs I loved. To me “The Band” (1969) was the definitive sound of this wonderful group, and now I had to readjust. But “Rock Of Ages” has grown over time - to a far greater extent than “Cahoots”, which I still have problems with.
On CD, the album got the bonus tracks treatment of course. I prefer the 2001 edition which collects the original album on one CD and delivers 10 selected tracks (including the four with Dylan) on a second CD. If you are hardcore you’d go for “Live at the Academy of Music in 1971: The Rock of Ages Concerts”, four CDs and one DVD chock full of recordings from those legendary December evenings in 1971 (including the December 31 concert in its entirety).
Released: August 15, 1972
Produced by: The Band
Contents: Introduction by Robertson/Don’t Do It/King Harvest (Has Surely Come/Caledonia Mission/Get Up Jake/The W. S. Walcott Medicine Sho/Stage Fright/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down/Across the Great Divide/This Wheel’s on Fire/Rag Mama Rag” /The Weight/The Shape I’m In/The Unfaithful Servant/Life Is a Carnival/The Genetic Method/Chest Fever/(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes
The Band:
Rick Danko – vocal, bass, violin
Levon Helm – vocal, drums, mandolin
Garth Hudson – organ, piano, accordion, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone solos
Richard Manuel – vocal, piano, organ, clavinet, drums
Robbie Robertson – guitar, backing vocal, introduction
Additional Musicians:
Howard Johnson – tuba, euphonium, baritone saxophone
Snooky Young – trumpet, flugelhorn
Joe Farrell – tenor and soprano saxophones, English horn
Earl McIntyre – trombone
J. D. Parran – alto saxophone and E-flat clarinet

Update August 15, 2015

All the young dudes

Mott The Hoople, All The Young Dudes (CBS)

August 9, 1972, a little over 43 years ago, “All The Young Dudes” climbs into the New Musical Express’ Top 30 at a modest 29. Glamrock is the latest fad, Bowie rules with his “Ziggy Stardust” album and Alice Cooper tops the singles charts with “School’s Out”.
Mott The Hoople is a new name for most people, the song is written by Bowie, sounds like a mixture of the “Ziggy”-album’s opening and finale (“Five Years” and “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”), sporting a glorious singalong chorus pouring out from behind verses that are unconditionally adaptable to the frustrated post-Beatles generation. An apocalyptic hymn (that would not have been out of place in “A Clockwork Orange”) and a glam rock’s call to arms, sung by a mysterious guy who already had turned 33 and was older than all of the ex-Beatles.
It is a perfect recording from start to finish, the adrenaline burns in a whoosh of guitars and wailing backing vocals, and Ian Hunter’s flamboyant phrasing set the standard for the entire British glamrock genre and its neighbouring counties (say hello to Steve Harley).
What people didn’t know was that Mott The Hoople were an old band, a bunch of worn toilers who had soldiered through the club circuit for ages without getting anywhere. They had four albums of varying quality on their conscience, all released on the Island label. I discovered them back in 1969 on the cheap-o sampler “Nice Enough To Eat”. Mott’s mighty, forever droning version of Doug Sahm “At The Crossroads” was a true delight and whetted my appetite for more.
I bought their debut album with its fascinating Escher sleeve. At the time Hunter looked like a “Blonde On Blonde”-sleeve outtake and sounded more like Dylan on amphetamine than the androgyne whizz kid on “Dudes”. I bought all their albums the moment they were released, but Mott never managed to find the redeeming formula, although parts of their fourth album, “Brain Capers”, were close. And then they gave up.
It turned out, however, that David Bowie was a fan. When he heard that Mott was imploding, he offered them “Suffragette City” from the still not released “Ziggy” album. The group declined. A wise decision it turned out to be, as Bowie was not willing to take no for an answer. According to the myth he simply composed “All The Young Dudes” on the spot, sitting cross legged on the floor strumming his guitar, in front of a baffled Ian Hunter. And would they like him to produce their next album? The revitalized Mott The Hoople was ready for the world.
“All The Young Dudes” never got any higher than #3 on the British charts. But the recording would prove to be so durable that it sounds just as triumphant and relevant today, 43 years later. And though Bowie repeatedly tried to steal it back, Mott The Hoople’s version will forever stay the defintive one.
I am so old that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Mott The Hoople (with Mick Ronson) perform it back in 1974, and Ian Hunter doing the same thing at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1979. Back in the real old days. I guess you can call me lucky.
As for the album that took its name from that classic piece of 45 rpm vinyl, it doesn’t quite match its namesake. In fact, some of the tracks probably were meant for an aborted fifth Island- album. However the album does include a handful of strong tracks that point towards Mott’s key works, “Mott” (1973) and “The Hoople” (1974). The cleverly subdued version of Lour Reed’s “Sweet Jane” is a humdinger, and so is the call to arms “One Of The Boys”. The romantic mystic Ian Hunter delivers the dark beauty “Sea Diver”, and in “Mama’s Little Jewel” he proves yet again that as a Dylan impersonator, he is in a league of his own.
The album offers Mick Ralphs plenty of space for his Stones like riffing and tense, ringing solo-runs. He is also responsible for one of the album’s best tracks, “Ready For Love”, which he sings himself.
“All The Young Dudes” is not the best Mott The Hoople-album, far from it, but it did what it was supposed to do. It saved the band, or rather delayed their disintegration long enough for them to record two of the greatest albums ever made by a British rock’n’roll-band – and turning Mott The Hoople into a legend.
Ian Hunter is still performing (and recording excellent albums). 76 years old. God bless him.
Released: September 8, 1972
Produced by: David Bowie
Contents: Sweet Jane/Momma’s Little Jewel/All the Young Dudes/Sucker/Jerkin’ Crocus/One of the Boys/Soft Ground/Ready for Love/After Lights/Sea Diver
Mott The Hoople:
Ian Hunter – vocals, guitar, piano
Mick Ralphs – guitar, backing vocals, lead vocals on “Ready For Love / After Lights”
Verden Allen – organ, backing vocals, lead vocals on “Soft Ground”
Pete Overend Watts – bass guitar, backing vocals
Dale “Buffin” Griffin – drums, percussion, backing vocals

Update August 1, 2015

The Monkee-classic

The Monkees, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (Colgems/RCA)

Having proven beyond doubt that they were a real group capable of playing their own instruments and even composing the odd well crafted ditty, The Monkees upped their ambitions on their follow-up to the highly successfull “Headquarters”. They decided to tighten up a bit, replacing Mickey with a real drummer (the highly regarded Eddie Hoh), who, together with bass player Chip Douglas, made up the powerful and rock solid rhythm section that even allowed the four Monkees a couple of left-turns.

Surprisingly the group didn’t write more than a couple of tracks themselves, but the tunes were handpicked by the four members, not stuffed down their throats by Colgems.

Mike Nesmith is the dominant force on this album, being the main vocalist on five of its 12 songs, leaving Mickey with only three and Davy with four. The 13th number, by the way, is a short, spoken track credited to Peter Tork.

Not many people know that The Monkees predated the Beatles by almost two years using the Moog synthesizer on a record. It’s on three of the tracks on “Pisces...”, sounding very much like a novelty I have to admit (especially in the hopelessly silly Moog rave-up “Star Collector”). It still was a remarkable hint of the future, and who would have guessed that The Monkees would be among the pioneers.

The alien sound effects of the Moog wasn’t the only thing that made this, the fourth Monkees-album (in a little over a year), different. They didn’t even try to be cuddly. The opening track, “Salesman”, was a screwball; pushy with a metallic slam attached to it, sung by Nesmith with a strained voice and lyrics that are much darker than they appears to be at first glance.

Then comes a groovy, horn driven piece called “She Hangs Out”, written by Jeff Berry and sung by Davy Jones. It’s got a sting in it and moves way off the lovable track you’d expect from him. And then Nesmith returns with “The Door Into Summer”, another uphill struggle for the teenyboppers, a semi-surrealistic social comment that both attacks materialism and the Vietnam war, not even pretending to be nice. What was going on?

Mickey Dolenz doesn’t enter until track four, “Love Is Only Sleeping”, originally meant to be their next single. Then the record company suddenly realised that the lyrics weren’t about heartbreak and love gone cold at all, but rather about slowly turning a reluctant girl on and ready for sex. At least it was possible to interpret it that way. So it ended up as an album track instead, being replaced by “Daydream Believer”, the original B-side. I guess we can all live with that. “Daydream Believer» became one of the group’s biggest hits, and “Love Is Only Sleeping”, found its perfect slot on side 1 of this eccentric and eclectic album.

Even “Cuddly Toy”, all sugar coated and a typical Davy Jones showcase, has fangs. Written by Harry Nilsson it’s actually a sarcastic homage to a girl who sleeps around… a lot.

The album doesn’t give you any relief until the stylus hits the last track on side 1, “Words”, a wonderful Dolenz/Tork duet with a refrain that sucks you in the moment you hear it.

Don’t know how the average Monkees-fan reacted first time they heard this, but I bet he or she was both bewildered and disappointed. They didn’t know it, but this was what real rock music with a country twist to it sounded like. A little psychedelia too, for good measure. If only people that didn’t like the Monkees had listened, maybe the group would’ve been saved from the rot that set in just a few months later.

I did an interview with Neil Young one evening in 1975. My photographer had bought “Pisces… “ second hand earlier that day and carried it with him in a plastic bag. When the interview was done he asked me for some paper. He wanted Neil’s autograph. I said, “Ask him to sign your Monkees-album”. My photographer found that embarrassing, but I insisted. “He’ll do it, I promise!” So he reluctantly pulled the album out of the bag. Young lightened up. “The Monkees!” he called out, enthusiastically. “That’s a damn good album! Sign it? Sure!” And so he did: “Rock’n’roll forever! Neil Young” A sure fire collector’s item was born.

The second side is an inspired extension of the first: more social comments, more quirky structures. There’s Nesmith’s “Daily Nightly” which concerns itself with the sunset strip curfew riots in 1966, a nasty put-down of groupies (“Star Collector”), the superb “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” and the forever magnificent “Pleasant Valley Sunday” zooming in on the self delusions and empty headed life style of the upper middleclass, the song taking its title from a street called Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, New Jersey.

A surprisingly strong and eclectic album it is, and all four contribute to its success as a team. Unfortunately they would never try to record an album as a group again.

“Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” is The Monkees’ strongest album, and a natural successor to the much loved “Headquarters”. Some might have forgotten how good “Pisces… “ is, some might not even have bothered to listen to it at all. It’s never too late. And you won’t regret it. As the man said, clutching this very album: rock’n’roll forever!
Released: November 6, 1967
Produced by: Chip Douglas
Contents: Salesman/She Hangs Out/The Door into Summer/Love Is Only Sleeping/Cuddly Toy/Words/Hard to Believe/What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?/Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky/Pleasant Valley Sunday/Daily Nightly/Don’t Call on Me/Star Collector


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Music from a lost weekend

Carnival time with The Band

All the young dudes

The Monkee-classic