Saturday, December 22, 2012

THE HOBBIT: AN EXTRANEOUS JOURNEY - A Movie Review

How so like Peter Jackson, a wizard of scanning CGI wars and panning Kiwi tors, to offer something completely unexpected in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The unexpected nature of the film will be readily apparent to anyone who has read J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic The Hobbit, a story of one Bilbo Baggins, esq., a stolid upper-middle class hobbit with not enough fight in him to tussle with a tough bit of beef. The book details his mock-epic quest for Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, wherein he not only finds adventure but the innate reserve of Tookish toughness that underlies the staid and respectable Baggins’ flab. What was unexpected in the film adaptation, you may ask? It is, sadly, that Bilbo has become a sideshow, just another bit part in a Hollywood epic, not demonstrably different from the cast of garish dwarves with limited speaking roles that surround him.

In fact, Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, retains the same confused look of irritation for most of the film, perhaps because his costume caused undue chaffing, or, more likely, because he has relatively little to do in a film ostensibly written by and detailing the exploits of his character. Freeman seems genuinely hobbitish, but not necessarily one of the Bagginses, and is certainly not of the acting caliber of the great Ian Holm (who reprises the older Bilbo Baggins role he played in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy). Looking at turns put upon and sulky does not equate to acting the part, but again, this is not necessarily Freeman’s fault; after all, the movie has more subplots than a sprawling development of tract homes plopped indecorously in the suburbs.

What is this incessant need of Peter Jackson to undermine a classic with a superfluity usually reserved for dementia patients in a hospital ward? No, I am giving Jackson too much credit, and I apologize to the dementia patients. Somewhere in the labyrinthine, cobwebbed corridors that twist and turn in his troubled brain, I believe that Mr. Jackson somehow believes that inventing plots wholesale is part of the scriptwriting process. Never mind that one has one of the endearing and supreme fantasy stories of the 20th century to work with, a tale cherished by children and adults alike, passed on reverently from generation to generation, it is just not up to snuff as far as a cinematic thrill ride for the 21st century.

Ergo, Jackson, a fan-fiction writer at heart and prone to sanguine bouts of dizzying violence, has decided to completely rewrite The Hobbit in his own image and likeness, relying on scripting culled from back when he was a struggling director spitting out B-grade horror flicks with plenty of camp, buckets of blood and enough gore to fill an abbatoir. Never accused of subtlety, Jackson hammers the audience with an onslaught of combat scenes and then hits them upside the head with slapstick comedy: belching dwarves, snotty trolls, and psychedelicized wizards addled by mushroom ingestion. The clever nature of the humor imbued in the story with philological care by Tolkien can only be seen in brief snatches in Jackson’s film, before it is buried in tumbling dwarves, collapsing bridges and skewered orcs.

Speaking of orcs, the entire subplot of the albino orc Azog, the requisite Hollywood CGI villain used to stretch the plot to interminable lengths so that it can be teased and tortured into a three-movie marathon of orkish overkill, is completely and utterly unnecessary. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins himself, the first movie of the trilogy seems to be thin and stretched, like not enough toilet paper over too much bum. Likewise, the White Council scene, featuring the lifelike mannequins of Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (as Elrond), Sir Ian McKellan (as Gandalf), and the corpse of Christopher Lee (as Saruman), is so stiff and flat one can reuse the sequence as underlayment for a bowling alley, and it pained me to listen to the fan-fictional excess of Nazgul buried in suspended animation, a plot point I am not sure a teenage writer would have the hubris to exploit.

And Radagast the Brown (wisely absent from the White Council scene, given that an annoyed Saruman would undoubtedly and justifiably throttle him - and I would gladly assist), is a caricature of a zany wizard. No, not a caricature, his appearance is a direct theft of Merlyn from T.H. White’s classic The Once and Future King, wherein Merlyn is described thusly:

“It was not that he had dirty finger-nails or anything like that, but some large bird had been nesting in his hair…with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This is the impression which he [Wart] gathered from Merlyn. The old gentleman was streaked with droppings over his shoulders…”

Oh, I could go on about the similarities of Merlyn’s disheveled cottage in comparison to Radagast’s messy treehouse, or the daft inclusion of a hedgehog named “Sebastian” (Sebastian! Seriously?); whereas, an urchin (hedgehog) plays a role in both The Once and Future King and the sequel The Book of Merlyn as well. In this case, the hedgehog has a wonderful Yorkshire accent (“Ah doan’t ‘ee nip our tender vitals, lovely Measter Brock, for ee wor a proper gennelman, ee wor, and brought us up full comely on cow’s milk an’ that, all supped out from a lorly dish.”). It works well for T.H. White, but it all seems so out of place for J.R.R. Tolkien. And a rabbit sled? Only if C.S. Lewis co-wrote the script. And this was Narnia.

Of course, Peter Jackson’s self-aggrandizing over-amplification of monumental effects goes absolutely off the deep end here. Erebor is now so grandiose a dwarvish kingdom, so ornately gilt and overlaid, that Moria looks like a shabby tin shack in comparison. And Goblin Town? There is a half-hour long movie version of “Chutes and Ladders” underground, with more bridgework than that completed by every dentist in recorded history. The GoblinKing is larger than a troll (why have Uruk-hai when Sauron could breed an army of pachydermic GoblinKings?), and the elephantine goiter swinging about its neck is probably due to Jackson’s inherent need for over-the-top accoutrements (like the WitchKing’s ridiculously oversized mace). The stone giants (primeval Transformers) make an appearance with so much destructive mayhem that one wonders how the Misty Mountains were not renamed the Misty Rubble Quarry.

There were aspects of the film I enjoyed – not surprisingly, when Jackson adhered somewhat to the original story: the dwarves dining at Bag-end, the cockney trolls, and the absolutely precious dialogue between Gollum and Bilbo during the Riddle Game (the only part of the movie where Bilbo actually seemed like Bilbo). Like The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, the best actor unfortunately is a CGI character, and Gollum once again shows more thespian ability and more range than the entire ensemble combined.

The soundtrack gave the impression that Peter Jackson was desperately trying to recapture the auld Oscar-winning magic of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Anywhere Jackson could drop in a bit of the old score to make moviegoers teary-eyed reminiscing over his one great success was dolloped liberally thoughout the movie. The highlight musically-speaking was the dwarves singing in Bag-end. The rendition of “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” sung by Thorin and Company was genuinely moving, but the song by Neil Finn for the closing credits “Song of the Lonely Mountain” was reedy and abysmal, and sounded more like a corporate decision from the marketing department than a tune worthy of Tolkien.

And what of the dwarves, you might ask? There were thirteen of them, after all, surely they made some sort of impact? Well, no, not really. Thorin is a one-dimensional dark cut-out of a rueful and vengeful man (not a dwarf, he bears no resemblance to a dwarf whatsoever). He could have been Boromir’s bitter cousin, Angrimir. Any sort of pompous humor or high-falutin’ speechifying that Tolkien gave Thorin has been removed. He is as dull as he is stereotypically vengeful. And Thorin does not age. Balin ages, but not Thorin. Thorin, the oldest of the dwarves, looks absolutely the same from the Battle of Azanulbizar up to the Quest for Erebor. Don’t let the few wisps of grey in his beard fool you, Thorin has a picture up in his attic just like Dorian Gray. Of the other dwarves, I would say Balin was the best, and poor Bombur had no lines at all that I recall - which is probably just as well, as the sophomoric scripting would require him to be the butt of some fat joke.

In the end, I would classify The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a blockbuster Hollywood action movie epic. If you go in for that sort of thing, you'll enjoy yourself and be satisfied wiling away an afternoon (an entire afternoon, mind you!); however, I was not being complimentary. Given the fan-fictionalization of the annoyingly superfluous subplots and extraneous material grafted on the original story like attaching a chrome grill and hubcaps to a racing stallion, I would say that it was not necessary to make this a movie derived from Tolkien’s book at all: any generic swords-and-sorcery fantasy world would do the job quite adequately.

As I mentioned previously, the parts that worked the best were taken nearly verbatim from the book; unfortunately, these seemed like forlorn set pieces, all too brief sequences of splendid and literate display hiding an empty façade, and behind that blank wall the detritus of explodey things, decapitations, manic chases, violent combat and farcical pratfalls – the very definition of a Hollywood action movie, not a Tolkien book. Thorin could have just as well spat out “This is Sparta!” and I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. The movie was nearly three hours long, and I could feel it (and it wasn’t just the $10 soft drink welling in my kidneys either!). Had it been trimmed of all the excess fat and inane, ham-handed extrapolation, and then reduced to a two-movie set, it would have been extraordinary. I am being quite honest. Had this been two movies rather than three, it would be sublime. How sad that it isn’t.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Holiday Music Special: Great Versions of Traditional Christmas Carols

So this is Christmas, or at least that's what retail establishments have been telling us since September. Or perhaps well before that. It would seem that the Christmas season now lasts for an indefinite span, eclipsing other holidays - like Thanksgiving, Halloween, and even the 4th of July - in the crass calendar of cynical secular marketing. Is it any wonder that "Santa" is an anagram for "Satan"?

I jest. No sense in bringing up Christian hagiography or demonology when referring to a holiday grafted onto the pagan celebration of Yule and other ancient Winter Solstice feasts (by Pope Julius I, who decided on 12/25 just to mess up a good pagan party). So whether you enjoy the sacred or profane, a pagan wassail (wæs hæl, in Anglo-Saxon literally "good health") or a Christian carol (from Old French carole, a circle dance or rondel, originally derived from the Latin choraula), we can all appreciate some good music. Hey, even an old heathen like myself appreciates a bit of the Christmas spirit!

But I shall eschew the season's bleatings and historical context for a more traditional take on Christmas music. This is the third annual Holiday Special article I have offered, the first being 'Tis The Season: Great Christmas & Winter Rock Songs, and the second The Worst Christmas Songs of All Time. For this year's extravaganza, I've chosen 33 carols and compositions (plus bonus tracks) that evoke the spirit of earlier times, whether that be the medieval and renaissance, the Elizabethan and Victorian, or early 20th century sacred and secular seasonal music. No, it's not all lutes and dulcimers, silly, but a goodly sprinkling of various and sundry interpretations from modern musicians and singers.


So whether you're in the mood for a sing-along with some Benedictine monks on a Gregorian chant (practice your Latin!), or you've always wanted to sing castrato in an all-male choir, there's a wide range of stylings to choose from here: everything from a jazz-infused, swinging orchestral arrangement by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, to some great a capella singing from Steeleye Span and Great Big Sea, to a bluegrass-tinged carol from Alison Krauss, to extraordinary instrumental pieces by Bela Fleck and Chris Thile. But for the moment, let us talk less and listen more:


Albion Dance Band
On Christmas Night All Christians Sing (The Sussex Carol)
This band, alternatively known as The Albion Country Band, The Albion Dance Band and The Albion Band, was led by bassist Ashley Hutchings and was made up of a hodgepodge of British folk-rockers, with many members of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span filtering through at one time or another. They also played an electric version of The Wassail Song.

Ian Anderson and Orchestra
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson swings into Christmas with an orchestra that actually seems to be having a good time.

Silly Sisters
Agincourt Carol/La Route au Beziers
British folk legends Maddy Prior and June Tabor are the Silly Sisters. Written in the 15th century, the "Agincourt Carol" is a triumphal hymn of thanks for Henry V's stunning victory over the numerically superior French at Agincourt. "Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria!" translates to "England, give thanks to God for victory!"

Eileen Ivers
Pachelbel's Frolics
I love Green Linnet Records! Here's one of their artists, Eileen Ivers, taking Pachelbel for a ride through the Irish countryside, footing it through the night, weaving olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances till the moon has taken flight. Sorry, went off on a Yeats tangent.

Blackmore's Night
Greensleeves
Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore and his latest incarnation as medieval troubadour channels Mason William's "Classical Gas" as much as he does the Tudor air "Greensleeves".

Jeff Beck
Greensleeves
A different interpretation of "Greensleeves" with the very nontraditional Jeff Beck offering a very traditional acoustic take of the melody.

The Baltimore Consort
Greensleeves
Wait! I know what you're thinking: another damn version of Greensleeves? WTF! Believe me, this is very different from the previous two, almost a different composition and melody, adapted from an English Renaissance model by The Baltimore Consort, an ensemble specializing in music from the Elizabethan Age. Trust me on this one.

Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma
The Wexford Carol
A traditional Irish carol from Wexford County. Dating back to the 12th century, it is one of the oldest carols known in Europe.

Great Big Sea
The Seven Joys of Mary
My favorite band from Newfoundland! Alright, I don't know any other bands of Newfies, but if I did, I doubt they'd be as great as Great Big Sea.

Mannheim Steamroller
We Three Kings
It's a musical battle between Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller to see which band can release the most Christmas albums. Here is an excellent version of "We Three Kings" by Mannheim.

Steeleye Span
The Boar's Head Carol
A 15th century English carol based on the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar at the Yuletide feast, and the head served on a silver platter with an apple in its mouth. Previous to that they would sacrifice a boor, like dreary uncle Aethelred the Besotted, who would yearly vomit mead onto the feast, but the practice was frowned upon by the Catholic Church.

Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos
Missa de Angelis
I would say that I'm getting downright medieval on you here, but parts of this Gregorian chant date to the 15th and 16th century. So, I guess I am going for baroque here and saying it's rococo and roll.

Phil Keaggy
Christmas Medley
The guitarist extraordinaire's one-man extravaganza of Christmas snippets. Also, one of the best versions of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlmen was performed by Keaggy and Kim Hill.

Steeleye Span
Gaudete
Composed in the 16th century, this sacred carol in exultant Latin was actually a "hit" for Steeleye Span in 1973, reaching #14 on the UK charts. Would that more such songs would chart. Here is a poorer recording but with a Latin/English translation (in case you need a refresher: amo, amas, amat).

The Punch Brothers
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
No, it technically is not Christmas music, but it is Bach, dammit! And The Punch Brothers, fronted by mandolin master Chris Thile, offer an amazing version of this timeless piece. For some reason, Bach puts me in a Christmas mood. So here's Chris Thile playing a solo version of Bach's E Major Prelude. What that guy can do with a pick!

The Chieftains and Nolwenn Monjarret
A Breton Carol
Yes, this is actually sung in Breton, the ancient language of Brittany, more akin to Welsh than French.

Elvis Costello and The Chieftains
St. Stephen's Day Murders
Okay, this one isn't traditional, it was written by Elvis and Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, but the Costello's lyrics are absolutely hilarious. And it does have the compositional qualities of an earlier epoch, don't you think?

Shadowfax
Petite Aubade
An "aubade" is a song that accompanies or evokes daybreak - a serenade to dawn, as it were. And what a composition Shadowfax has laid before us for Christmas morning! Great with coffee whilst the piles of discarded gift wrapping crinkle and rustle beneath your feet.

Loreena McKennit
Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle
"Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabelle" is a carol from Provence first published in the 1550s. Ms. McKennit does a fine instrumental adaptation.

Sting
Gabriel's Message
Sting updates a 13th century Basque carol from his excellent Christmas album If on a Winter's Night (this being the live version).

The Westminster Cathedral Choir
Missa De Beata Virgine
The choir sing Giovanni Palestrina's magnificent 16th century composition. It is 40 minutes long, so I hope you've brought a boxed lunch. One of the leaders of "The Roman School", Palestrina's works are often seen as the apotheosis of late Renaissance polyphony.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Carol of the Bells
From Late Renaissance to later rock and roll, we cater to all kinds here. This stirring piece of metal by TSO is my favorite rendering of this carol, which is also one of the newer pieces in this article, composed by Mykola Leontovych in 1904, but based on earlier Ukrainian folk chants.

Jethro Tull
Holly Herald
A larkish run through the traditional carols "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" by Tull.

Blind Blake
Lonesome Christmas Blues
Blind Arthur Blake's version of "Lonesome Christmas Blues" was recorded in 1929, and the blues can be just as traditional as European musical forms. Ya'll just go at it with a different groove.

Victoria Spivey
Christmas Morning Blues
This trad blues tune circa 1928 features the songstress Victoria Spivey, who worked with such blues and jazz greats as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson and Clarence Williams.She even recorded with a young up-and-coming folk performer named Bob Dylan!

David Qualey
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
An exquisite acoustic rendition of J.S. Bach's enduring masterpiece.

Bruce Cockburn
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
An interesting folk version by Cockburn of the song composed in 1850 by Richard Storrs Willis around a poem written by Edmund Sears. Some brilliant guitar work.

Bruce Cockburn
Iesus Ahatonnia/The Huron Carol
A melancholy carol written early in the 1600s by the Jesuit Fr. Jean de Brebeuf, using the aboriginal Huron language. It is purportedly Canada's first indigenous Christmas hymn. Father Jean was martyred at the hands of the Iroquois Confederacy, who ceremoniously burnt him at the stake. Obviously, they didn't much care for Christmas carols.

Tori Amos
Holly, Ivy and Rose
An ingenious and beautiful mix of the carols "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" by the eccentric and ebullient Tori Amos.

Bela Fleck
The First Noel, Oh Come Let Us Adore Him, Jesus Joy of Man's Desiring, Bach 147 cantata, Joy to the World
Banjoist extraordinaire Bela Fleck jams on a series of carols. You'll never think of the banjo in the same way once you've heard Fleck play.

Bert Jansch
In the Bleak Midwinter
British folk legend Bert Jansch plays an acoustic guitar adaptation of the poem Christina Rossetti wrote circa 1872.

California Guitar Trio
Jingle Bells
Perhaps the the most intricate version of the simple "Jingle Bells" tune ever attempted.

Tom Waits
Silent Night/Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis
The song "Silent Night" is, of course, traditional and hopeful, but the Waits' tune "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" is more like how many desperate folks spend their Christmas. It would do us all well to have a moment of sober reflection during this season of making merry and overspending to remember how fortunate we are, and to remember those who are less fortunate. It doesn't matter whether or not you believe the babe born in Nazareth two-thousand years ago was the savior, because beyond the celestial choruses and divine gift-wrapping his words still hold universal Truths and his actions on earth remain a guide to selflessness and mercy. What an excellent time of the year to put those words into action, and not merely offer lip service.

Give us a kiss, precious-s-s!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!




Friday, November 2, 2012

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Endorses R&B Hall: Half of the Inductees Leave!

Most of you know my stance on the "alleged" Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: it is a sham outfit pandering to the lowest common denominator of mass-marketed demagoguery, it is more interested in filling seats for its interminable induction ceremonies at thousands of dollars a table, and it is not in the least interested in perpetuating the idea of "rock" or "rock and roll" as a distinct genre of music.

On the contrary, The Hall of Homogenized Muzak has tried for years to rewrite history, attempting to foist a contrived inclusiveness for every musical genre known to mankind under the impossibly broad umbrella of "rock and roll", offering a blanket definition of rock and roll for everything, including R&B, disco, hip-hop, gangsta rap, country and blues (the Hall originally listed blues and country performers as "early influences", which makes historical sense, but for years they've simply just rolled them in with the rock and roll inductees as one in the same, which makes no sense at all and ignores the artists' musical context altogether!).

This cynical revisionism allows The Rolling Stone Magazine and its publisher Jann Wenner (who is the evil puppet-master controlling the secret voting machinations of the Hall) to sell more magazines while giving the appearance of remaining relevant in the modern era. This is particularly important to them because the rag has lost any relevance as a rock and roll periodical decades ago. One wonders what Hunter S. Thompson would say about this tawdry magazine filled to overflowing with fashion and fragrance ads. No wonder why he blew his brains out!

So, you can imagine my delight at the delicious irony I found in reading the following headline:

Rock N Roll Hall of Fame Endorses the R&B Music Hall of Fame

Cleveland, Ohio –– The Official R&B Music Hall of Fame Museum LLC, today announced that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum President & CEO Terry Stewart is giving his support to establish the Official R&B Music Hall of Fame Museum in the City of Cleveland...
 Ummm...huh?. Now, let me get this straight. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been ignoring actual rock bands and performers for years (like Deep Purple, Rush, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dick Dale, Cat Stevens, Kiss, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Yes, King Crimson, etc.), while annually inducting performers who never considered themselves rock performers, and whose music was never considered rock and roll in the charts or by any reviewer. EVER! Wait, it gets better.

You may well ask who will be the R&B performers inducted in the inaugural ceremonies of the Official R&B Music Hall of Fame Museum (henceforth referred to here as the R&B Hall of Fame). Well, here is the list:

Michael Jackson
Whitney Houston
Aretha Franklin
James Brown
The Temptations
Otis Redding
The O'Jays
Gerald Levert

Of these eight performers, six have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall. Only Whitney Houston and Gerald Levert are not members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (but Gerald Levert's father, Eddie, is in the Hall as a member of the O'Jays). Who do you think will be inducted next year in the Second Annual R&B Hall of Fame induction? How about this list:

The Supremes
 The Four Tops
Smokey Robinson
The Jackson Five
Gladys Knight and the Pips
Martha and the Vandellas
LaVern Baker
Solomon Burke
Earth, Wind & Fire

Oh wait, this whole group of R&B performers have already been inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Does any of this make sense? Don't bother answering, it was a rhetorical question.

I don't think The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame truly comprehends the danger it is in! By endorsing the R&B Hall of Fame, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame admits that there are specific and definite differences between R&B and Rock. Imagine that! Now imagine if forty or fifty performers who were previous rock and roll inductees leave for a real Hall of Fame that actually represents the music they have played and are known for worldwide. It would leave a tremendous hole in the RRHOF (and now we know how many holes it takes to fill that asinine Hall!).

Here is a sobering consideration: I will bet any amount of inflated Internet dollars that the R&B Hall of Fame will not induct Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Why? BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT R&B PERFORMERS! Where is the logic in the RRHOF?

Good Lord! It is worse than I thought:

Beatles, Elvis, Sinatra Nominated For American Pop Music Hall of Fame 

CANONSBURG, Pa. (AP) -- The American Pop Music Hall of Fame won't be open until next summer, but the first round of nominees to be inducted into the western Pennsylvania-based hall have been announced. The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra are among the top 40 nominees.
The upstart American Pop Music Hall of Fame, located in Canonsburg, PA (a suburb of Pittsburgh and an obvious music mecca), has just announced that 20 inductees will be enshrined in their Hall of Fame next year! The list includes The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Tony Bennett, The Carpenters, Chubby Checker, Bobby Darin, Neil Diamond and Simon and Garfunkel. Please don't ask what The Beatles - who I am quite sure are British - are doing in an American Pop Music Hall with all the American acts. These Halls do have their issues.

Think of the calamity if, eventually, The Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, TN demands that the Rock and Roll Hall return Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and B.B King to their rightful Hall! They might even want dibs on Eric Clapton! Quite soon there will be no one left in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! The fact that The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so seldom inducts actual rock groups will certainly leave the pickings pretty slim for an inductee list.

Perhaps they should get a new set of parameters. Or close completely.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Halloween Special: Great Scary Songs for Samhain!

It's that time of year again! I love Autumn, and the pagan holiday that best defines the death of the year in both a figurative and literal sense, Halloween (or All Hallows' Eve, the night before All Saints Day in the Catholic calendar of feast days that no one has paid attention to since the Counter-Reformation). For this excursion into the macabre I considered the attributes of a well written scary song, the kind that causes the hair on your neck to stand up as you squirm uncomfortably in your seat: the suspenseful, the unexpected, the unnerving, the intense.

That being said, I have chosen to ignore death growls and death metal altogether. And I've decided to disqualify rock that sets out to mimic the camp theatrics of a Jaycees or Kiwanis Halloween haunted house, filled with such stale novelties as a fat guy holding a chain saw with the guard still on it, a bucket or two of pigs blood, and plastic skeletons with blinking L.E.D. lights in the eye sockets; therefore, no Slipknot, Cannibal Corpse, Rob Zombie, Slayer or Gwar. Sorry, much of it is as downright silly as the 14th sequel to a slasher movie (take your pick of titles) - much of it tries, almost desperately, to gross people out rather than truly terrify them. In that regard, I've kept Alice Cooper on the list because he was the progenitor of rock dementia and bloody stage theatrics.

No, I've picked out genuinely riveting and disturbing songs that do not require a music video for shock value (like Marilyn Manson, for instance). The songs should be able to creep you out in the dark without the added emphasis of troubling or disgusting visuals. So, here is 37 satanic tunes, followed by 13 Halloween rock standards of somewhat lighter seasonal fare, for an even fifty songs - plus seven scary symphonies for the classical crowd. All in all, a superb Halloween mix. Trick or treat! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Oh, by the way, in a most appropriate nod to the spirit of All Hallow's revelry, the images lining either side of the selections are of Lon Chaney Sr., "Man of a Thousand Faces", the greatest make-up artist and silent film actor of his generation (aside from Charlie Chaplin). As an aside, the picture further down the page of Mr. Chaney with no legs is no camera trick or special effect. His legs are actually bound by straps behind his back and hidden beneath his overcoat. It was a very painful process, and he could only walk about for short periods on the stumps (actually his knees!).

ALAN PARSONS PROJECT
The Tell-Tale Heart
Driven by the manic vocals of Arthur Brown (from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown), Edgar Allen Poe's tale of horror is given a musical reworking by APP.

ALICE COOPER
Second Coming/Ballad of Dwight Fry
Perhaps the greatest rendition of musical madness in rock history, a display of insanity that would have made Edgar Allan Poe proud. This is well before Alice devolved into "Welcome to My Nightmare" schlock.

Black Juju
Another song from the eerie and atmospheric classic Love It to Death album.

Dead Babies/Killer
Parents and teachers lost their minds over "Dead Babies" in 1971. They still do. 

ALICE IN CHAINS
Them Bones
Jerry Cantrell's reverie on mortality and death, and how we all end up as "just a pile of bones". Unless you are a Jehovah's Witness, of course, in which case you hope to god you are one of the lucky 144,000. Considering there are approximately 19 million Witnesses alive currently, I don't care for their odds.

THE BEATLES
Revolution 9
The most debated and reviled composition of The Beatles. It is also one of the most unnerving pastiches in rock history. Forwards or backwards. And yes, the repeated words "Number nine"  played backwards are indeed "Turn me on dead man". I experimented back when I still used a turntable.

BLACK SABBATH
Black Sabbath
No one had heard such a hell storm prior to Sabbath's debut album in 1969. The eponymous song with its demonic wah-wah finale is a legendary creeper.

Into the Void
This song has the most evil chord progression in existence.

Megalomania
Ozzy's most ferocious performance, particularly when the song really kicks in at about 3:20. Love the back-tracked vocals.

DAVID BOWIE
We are the Dead
A ballad interweaving George Orwell's 1984 with allegorical asides to a "real world" Big Brother. The album Diamond Dogs is Bowie's most underrated.

KATE BUSH
Waking the Witch
Use this as your alarm song in the morning. I guarantee you will get up. Genuinely disturbing, and coming from Kate Bush, that is really saying something.

COMUS
Drip, Drip
The weird vocals are unsettling throughout the Comus album First Utterance. The acoustic guitars are remarkable, the lyrics are disturbing, but it's the damn vocals that can irritate you to violence.

THE DECEMBERISTS
The Shankhill Butchers
A true story of a gang of Protestant terrorists who murdered scores of Catholics in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, given a superb and eerie folk song/nursery rhyme approach by Colin Meloy.

The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing
Shara Worden is the malevolent queen intent on parting two lovers in the rock opera The Hazards of Love. One bitch of a mother played to the hilt by the superb Worden.

THE DOORS
Riders on the Storm
"There's a killer on the road/his brain is swirling like a toad" - the imagery and the gloomy atmospherics of the song build a vision of a desolate road in the rain, and death waiting around the next bend.

Not to Touch the Earth
A fevered delivery reaches the realms of madness by the time the words "dead president's corpse in the driver's car" are uttered.
Horse Latitudes
One of the most disturbing spoken-word recordings in rock history.

The Spy
One of the eeriest takes on stalking - before stalking was a media phenomenon. Jim Morrison provides the vocal maleficence, and his delivery of the words "I know your deepest, secret fear" is altogether evil.

EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER
Hallowed Be Thy Name
The scariest thing about this song is that Greg Lake is singing like he's serious about what he's saying. Okay, maybe that's funny.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION
Reynardine
A fair maid meets a were-fox (precursor to later werewolf tales). The insinuation in Sandy Denny's beautiful voice when she sings "his teeth did brightly shine" leads us up the mountainside and the fate of all comely maidens entrapped by vile rakes.

FLEETWOOD MAC
Green Manalishi
The blues on an occult level, dragged from Robert Johnson's grave in the gory maw of the hellhound that chased Peter Green in his troubled dreams. One of the last songs Green recorded with Fleetwood Mac before schizophrenia, hastened by overuse of LSD, caused him to drop out of music for several years.

PETER GABRIEL
Intruder
An altogether disturbing take on home invasion. Robbery is not the motive of the intruder; rather, Gabriel reveals the delight in the criminal's mind for entering a home undetected, the thrill of stealing up to the sleeping victim unaware, and then the sheer terror of the victim waking and realizing the intruder is hovering over them.

Moribund the Burgermeister
How often does a rock star sing about a medieval town afflicted with a plague of St. Vitus' Dance (Sydenham's Chorea)? Only from the warped mind of Gabriel.

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE
White Rabbit
Lewis Carroll is thrown on his ear in this metaphor that juxtaposes Alice in Wonderland with 60s psychedelia. And really, who from that era hasn't seen a hookah-smoking caterpillar at one time or another? Grace Slick at her lugubrious best.

DR. JOHN 
Loop Garoo
The Cajun legend of a bayou were-wolf (Loup Garou) is given some New Orleans bite by the growling Dr. John.

KING CRIMSON
21st Century Schizoid Man
Satan on saxophone joins Robert Fripp on guitar for a demonic duel.

LED ZEPPELIN
No Quarter
One of the proggiest of Zeppelin tunes, and it is bassist/ keyboardist John Paul Jones' magnum opus. The song itself is about, oddly enough, the term "no quarter", the military practice of taking no prisoners in battle.

NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL
Oh Comely
A campfire acoustic song for a reunion of serial murderers. Hey, who wants a Smore?

PINK FLOYD
Sheep
A harrowing ride through the vengeful minds of once sedentary sheep, who turn the tables on their canine oppressors. Using kung fu, of all things. Hey, it was the 70s.

Careful With that Axe, Eugene
One of the greatest demented song titles of all time. Love Roger Waters' screeches, and the visuals of Pompeii definitely add to the warped ambiance of the song.

THE POGUES
The Turkish Song of the Damned
I picked out a YouTube video with the lyrics. A chilling story of a drowned sailor returning from hell to wreak vengeance on the mate who left him to die.

PROCOL HARUM
Repent Walpurgis
Okay, the animation here is really stylish and I like it. But the day exactly six months prior to Halloween is Walpurgis Nacht or Night, and appears in Goethe's Faust, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. So let the witches dance!

ROBIN TROWER
Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs in Florence, Italy was purported to be the span that condemned prisoners crossed on their way to be executed.

VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR
A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers
An epic nautically-themed allegory of isolation and despair. VDGG's greatest song and truly a progressive masterpiece.

TOM WAITS
What's He Building in There?
Tom Waits is the only man who can make the word "Indonesia" sound evil.

Little Drop of Poison
You might remember a snippet of this played by Capt. Hook in Shrek II.

Cemetery Polka
What's Halloween without a completely demented polka? Betcha Jimmy Sturr couldn't play this!

13 HALLOWE'EN ROCK STANDARDS...

Boris the Spider - The Who
John Entwistle makes this song a demonic delight!

Don't Fear the Reaper - Blue Oyster Cult
Yes, I am afraid it's now obligatory.

The Black Widow - Alice Cooper
Vincent Price's campy introduction is priceless, and far better than Michael Jackson's later retake of Price on "Thriller".

Aint Superstitious - Howlin' Wolf
No, it aint rock and roll, but it's Howlin' Wolf, dammit!

Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield
Association is everything regarding this composition by Oldfield. If you ever were freaked out by the original "Exorcist", you'll know exactly what I mean.

Bad Moon Rising - Creedence Clearwater Revival
There's a baboon on your eyes! Wait, that's not the lyrics. Ummm...never mind.

War Pigs - Black Sabbath
A hundred years later, and this is still a creepy tune. Okay, I exaggerate. Forty years later. Ozzy only looks a hundred.

Fire - The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Hey, the guy's head is on fire. What more can you ask from a video?

Season of the Witch - Donovan
You've got to pick up every stitch? Check. Beatniks are out to make it rich? Sure thing. The rabbit's running in the ditch? Well, obviously, it must be the season of the witch.

Werewolves of London - Warren Zevon
The line "I'd like to meet his tailor" still cracks me up.

Frankenstein - The Edgar Winter Group
Why is it called "Frankenstein"? Rick Derringer suggested to Winter that a 20 minute-long jam they called simply "Instrumental" could be made into something. So, they got stoned in the studio and spliced and cut until tape was covering the floor. At that point, drummer Chuck Ruff sighed, "Wow, man, it’s like Frankenstein!" The rest, as they say, is history.

The End - The Doors
From the the first few guitar trills, there is perhaps no song with the fundamental creepiness and ill-intent underlying Jim Morrison and The Door's oedipal epic, particularly when he repeats the word "Kill" several times at about the 10 minute mark. Altogether unnerving in a dark room.

7 CLASSICAL HAUNTS FOR ALL HALLOWS...


In the Hall of the Mountain King - Grieg
From the fabulous Peer Gynt Suite. Imagine, if you will, the Old Man of the Mountain and his court, full of goblins, trolls and gnomish courtiers all shrieking that the Christian hero, Peer Gynt, must be slain for bewitching the Mountain King's daughter.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor - Bach
Johann Sebastian was a rock god a few centuries too early. I always imagine this profound organ composition played when Lon Chaney's hideous face is unmasked in the silent movie classic "The Phantom of the Opera".

A Night on Bald Mountain - Mussorgsky
Mussorgsky drank himself to death by age 42. One can well equate this demonic composition to one hell of a violent hangover.

Dance of the Pagan Monster - Prokofiev
From Prokofiev's Scythian Suite. Emerson, Lake & Palmer did a violent arrangement entitled 
The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits on their Works Volume 1 album.

Danse Macabre - Saint-Saëns
Full of rattling bones and ghostly moans as Death (a fiddler, it seems) makes its annual visit at midnight on Halloween to call the corpses from their graves to dance their dance of death, or as they sang in 14th and 15th century France, "Je fis de Macabré la danse" ("I did the dance of Death"). A cock's crow (an oboe in this piece) signals the coming dawn and the end of the dance.

Ride of the Valkyries - Wagner
From Act III of Die Walküre from Wagner's mammoth  Der Ring Des Nibelungen. The Valkyries were a host of Odin's shieldmaidens who gather up fallen heroes slain in battle and carry them to Valhalla.

The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 - Rachmaninoff
This symphonic poem was inspired by "Isle of the Dead", a painting by Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin. The beginning of the piece insinuates the rowing of oars as Charon's boat traverses the River Styx on the way to Hades.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Saddest Rock Songs of All Time, Part I

The greatest ability of a musical performer (musician, singer, composer, etc.) is to make you feel something even when you feel nothing at all. A song will capture you at unawares and unexpectedly steal your senses - sometimes even your heart and soul - and change your whole perspective. You may consider yourself a hard person, as tough as nails, but even so, at one time or another your eyes have watered or perhaps you've even shed a tear when a certain song is playing. That is when music is at its most powerful, and it takes a special gift to render sadness into a musical statement.

Loss, regret, remorse - the things you can't take back but wish you could, even for a moment - are what touch us the most. Sorrow can make you stronger or drag you down to the bitter dregs, but there is a beauty in sorrow, particularly when a musician composes a song about his or her own inner demons - their vulnerabilities, their fears, their loss - and shares it with the world. Sure, some songs are simply manipulative, intended to twist your emotions, but at the heart of most great sad songs is a personal experience, a mournful message that needs to be made to gain closure for the individual.

Oh, for crying out loud! Would you listen to me? I've spent far too long listening to these damn songs and now I am talking like I am a patient for Robert Burton's 1621 classic book The Anatomy of Melancholy, or the full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up (and no,I am not making this up!). In any case, before I start blubbering and get my keyboard wet, here are, in my estimation, fifty of the saddest songs in rock history (with another fifty coming in a future installement - I can only take so many sad songs at once).

The interesting thing about sad rock songs is that they may not have been originally composed to generate tears, but they become sad by association, by melancholy memories or by ironic twists of fate, as is the case of John Lennon's "Imagine" or Nick Drake's "Fruit Tree". Although some of these songs may reflect a personal troubling period in my past, I believe there are enough folks who have been miserable at one time or another that can identify with the songs I've listed.

I could have ventured further and given you Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor, or a song or two from Frank Sinatra or Billie Holliday, maybe Johnny Cash (whose version of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" is phenomenal) or other country stars boozily wallowing in their pick-up trucks, but the task at hand then becomes too convoluted and the list far too extensive for my patience. Because, as I have mentioned previously, patience is not one of my virtues. In fact, I am not even sure I have any patience. So let's just stick with rock songs. Sad ones. Listed below for your listening edification. Better get yourselves a box or two of Kleenex. And maybe a couple of beers. And call your mom.

Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
Written in separate rooms by Gilmour and Waters, the lyrics deal with alienation, the death of Water's grandmother and the loss to drugs and mental disorder of band member Syd Barrett. Perhaps the best song Floyd ever composed.

Time - Alan Parsons Project
The album The Turn of a Friendly Card tells the story of a middle-aged gambler who loses it all. The wistful and whispery ballad of time lost, "Time", marks the first single Eric Woolfson, Alan Parson Project co-founder, sang lead on (and this was their fifth album!).

Eleanor Rigby - The Beatles
A technical and compositional triumph for The Beatles. This McCartney song was shocking at the time of its release due to its unflinching look at loneliness and despair. It also has no semblance of a traditional rock tune, foregoing drums, keyboards and guitar for a double string quartet.

Without You - Harry Nilsson
Originally recorded by the band Badfinger for their album No Dice, Harry Nilsson took the song and brought it to another dimension. The heart-wrenching vocals by Nilsson are a high point in pop-rock balladry.

The Needle and the Damage Done - Neil Young
A song about the evils of heroin addiction that took two of Young's close friends, guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Young recalled, "I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men."

Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton
This about the death of Clapton's four year-old son. It doesn't get anymore poignant than this.

Cats in the Cradle - Harry Chapin
A tale of parental neglect in song form, relating a father's need to succeed in business to the detriment of his growing son. The tragedy comes home when the father realizes his now adult son has turned out to be just like him.

Layla - Derek and the Dominos
The celebrated song of the anguish of unrequited love. "Layla" is in fact Patty Harrison, Beatle George Harrison's wife (George being Clapton's best friend). Patty and George eventually divorced, and Patty married Eric. They also eventually divorced. Such are the strange ways of love.

Time in a Bottle - Jim Croce
"Time in a Bottle" was written by Croce for his infant son, A.J.; unfortunately, Jim Croce died in a plane crash within a year of writing this beautiful tune, making it all the more sad. It did not become a hit until after his death.

Vincent - Don McLean
I don't think any song better encapsulates the artistic triumphs, personal tragedies and tortured mind of an artist better than McLean's ode to Vincent Van Gogh. The lyrics are a beautifully rendered aural painting reflecting Vincent's work.

Landslide - Fleetwood Mac
Stevie Nicks anguished plaint to lost love recorded during her breakup with bandmate Lindsey Buckingham.

Don't Give Up - Peter Gabriel
A great duet between Gabriel and Kate Bush about a despairing man and the attempts of loved ones to save him.

Dust in the Wind - Kansas
One of the most depressing top ten hit songs ever written. The title says it all.

Can't You See - Marshall Tucker Band
One of the greatest country blues tunes ever written.

Me and Bobby McGee - Janis Joplin
There are so many songs sung by Joplin that mirrored the insecurity and sadness of her own life. When she sang, you knew the sentiment was real and window to her personal plight.

Fire and Rain - James Taylor
Taylor fights personal demons and tragedies, the suicide of a childhood friend, drug addiction, the breakup of his band "Flying Machines" and the shock therapy he received while in a mental istitution.

Castles Made of Sand - Jimi Hendrix
A series of sad and ironic stories intertwined in a stream-of-consciousness style with Hendrix's fluid and unmistakable guitar work.

Imagine - John Lennon
I cannot help but getting misty-eyed every time I hear this. That such beautiful and timely sentiment should be silenced by the actions of a crazed fan is the height of irony.

Yesterday - The Beatles
It's hard to imagine Paul being sad about anything at that time in his life. But even from a cynical standpoint, McCartney's ability to pull at our heartstrings is amazing.

I’m Not in Love - 10CC
A song about a man who is pretending not to be miserable. He is not very convincing in that regard.

Mother - John Lennon
Lennon's anguish over the loss of his mother and the abandonment by his father are palpable. The screaming at the end is part of Lennon's "primal therapy" that he underwent previous to recording this song.

Ticking - Elton John
One of the greatest studies of a troubled mind ever recorded. The subject matter is intense but still moving and brilliant.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps - The Beatles
The Love album acoustic version of this George Harrison song is given greater pathos with strings added by George Martin and an extra stanza of verse by Harrison that didn't make it onto the original White Album recording.

Tempted - Squeeze
Infidelity is infectious with the Motown groove of this Squeeze song. One of the best songs recorded in the misbegotten 80s.

Operator - Jim Croce
Some of you younger folks may not have ever used a pay telephone, but you may have seen a phone booth or two in the movies. The line "you can keep the dime" refers to the cost of a phone call back in the dark ages.

Candle in the Wind - Elton John
A poignant homage to Marilyn Monroe which Sir Elton eventually rewrote to cover Princess Diana's death as well. Who knows how many deaths Elton can cover with this song.

The Sounds of Silence - Simon & Garfunkel
Here's the original version without the electric guitar. Great song of societal upheaval and the silent howl of the voiceless masses.

Behind Blue Eyes - The Who
A song of anger and unfulfilled hopes. And no, Limp Bizkit didn't write this goddamned song! They couldn't even sing it.

Time - Pink Floyd
A great song of regret over time wasted and youth frittered away. Of work never done and objectives never accomplished.

Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
I used this version of this song rather than the original Leonard Cohen recording because Buckley's beautiful rendition is poignant and moreso since he died so young.

With or Without You - U2
The paradox of love gone bad, where you can't stand to be with a person, but can't stand to be apart. What a crappy feeling.

Thorn Tree in the Garden - Derek and the Dominos
While Eric Clapton and Duane Allman got most of the adulation for their contributions to Derek and the Dominos, Bobby Whitlock's rueful song and plaintive vocals are one of the highlights of the album.

How Can I Tell You - Cat Stevens
Unrequited love, or love unspoken: one of the most endearing subjects for lovelorn poets. Like Cat, for instance.

Leaving on a Jet Plane - Peter, Paul & Mary
Leaving is the hardest part, isn't it?

The River - Bruce Springsteen
More powerful than the trite "Born in the USA". Bruce's populist appeal goes beyond simple patriotic sentiment to real dreams and hopes crushed by life in this song.

America - Simon & Garfunkel
A wistful and remorseful visit to the disillusionment that filled many of the generation that grew to adulthood during the Vietnam War.

Alone Again, Naturally - Gilbert O. Sullivan
A pure piece of pop that reaches beyond pretense for actual heart-rending reflection.

To The Last Whale (Critical Mass and Wind on the Water) - Crosby & Nash
A powerful song of Man's inhumanity and the senseless waste of beautiful and intelligent creatures for our petty pleasures. That's James Taylor singing background at the end of the song.

Jeremy - Pearl Jam
One of the few MTV videos that actually affected me when I first saw it (I didn't include the video here, just the lyrics). A reflection of many of the lost teens who kill themselves or others and appear with alarming regularity on the evening news.

IrisGoo Goo Dolls
I like the guitar, 5 of 6 strings tuned to D. Oh yeah, the song is certainly sad as well.

Who Wants to Live Forever - Queen
A very moving song from Queen that I recall fondly from the great cult classic The Highlander, and a reminder that many Queen songs may be immortal, but not so Freddie Mercury.

My Immortal - Evanescence
An infinitely sad song Amy Lee wrote to her dead sister. That's all I have to say about that.

One and Only - The Young Dubliners
One of the greatest songs you never heard. This troubling song deals with incest and the dysfunction of parents that refuse to listen or help a daughter in anguish.

Don't Let It Bring You Down - Neil Young
Okay, I can offer up whole albums of sad Neil Young songs, but this one is a particular favorite. I love the stark lyrics.

Crash-Barrier Waltzer - Jethro Tull
A regretful man tries to aid an old drunk to ease his own conscience, but harsh reality in the form of a cynical policeman gets in the way.

Daylight Again/Find the Cost of Freedom - Crosby, Stills & Nash
A stunning anti-war protest from CS&N that deals more with the dead than the living.

Fruit Tree - Nick Drake
Death hung from Nick like the moss on old oak. And he was old when he was very young, and he was too soon gone and his fame came just as this song predicted.

There's Always Something There to Remind Me - Naked Eyes
Yes, this song is hopelessly lost in the 80s with its drum machines and synths, but millions mourned their loves lost over this tune by a band no one remembers.

4 + 20 - Stephen Stills
A song of utter desperation found on CSN&Y's Déjà Vu album, but which is completely a Stephen Stills production and composition.

Irene Wilde - Ian Hunter
A true story according to Ian Hunter, documenting the bittersweet teenage angst and unrequited love that we all go through. Well, at least I did. Thanks for that one, Ian.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Greatest Rock Album Covers of All Time, Part I

In this era of digitization and clouds, minimization and dollar downloads, the clarion call has sounded for the inevitable death of the album format, and I shall blow what Dylan termed the "futile horn" for a dying art now compressed into the narrow and near-illegible confines of a CD jewel case - the grave in which to bury the dearly departed.

Album art, that once ubiquitous mainstay of graphic design in the recording industry, has been reduced to a mere 12 cm x 12 cm (4.75 inches x 4.75 inches) from a more generous 12 inch x 12 inch size in ye olde days of vinyl last century. Much of the album art from the 1960s, 70s and 80s does not translate well into smaller packaging, and the clever nature of the designs has been transmuted into little pamphlets with images and liner notes condensed into small squares, the original artwork hacked into minute bits and pieces. It's rather like getting your exposure to an artistic medium from a paperback-sized art book, instead of going to a museum and seeing the works up close and in context.

So nowadays I don't buy albums for the sound fidelity (I am not an audiophile touting the gram-weight of a specific vinyl release), but for the great album covers themselves, replacing the old and damaged ones in my collection (those used as impromptu drink coasters or double albums opened wide as convenient rolling trays back in the day) with equally old but more pristine copies. It is my intention - eventually and whenever I get around to it - to have an entire wall of album covers, pending approval from my wife and depending on where I am allowed to erect such a wall (most likely in a place far from feminine habitation).

It is unfortunate to see these symbols of rock and roll slip into such a sad demise, but let us not mourn in maudlin mewling, but instead celebrate the death of album art like we were at an Irish wake. The first batch of twenty-five albums are here for your artsy-fartsy edification, and I'll add another twenty-five in a future article. These covers are in no particular order because each is arresting or interesting in their own particular way. I have tended to concentrate more on graphics than photography in this first go-round, unless the photo is in some way more intriguing or shocking than the usual picture of a band or performer schmoozing for the camera. In addition, I have tried to find covers with strange stories of their own. Enjoy.

In the Court of the Crimson King - King Crimson












Painted by Barry Godber (purportedly the only painting he ever attempted), the fearful face on the front cover is, according to Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, the 'Schizoid Man' from the first song on the album, "21st Century Schizoid Man", while the happier character on the inner jacket is that of the 'Crimson King', whose court is described in colorful poetics on the the composition that ends the album, the progressive masterwork "The Court of the Crimson King". Both faces are said to mirror the mood of the album, and this is certainly true. In any case, the look of manic paranoia on the Schizoid Man is utterly disturbing and an iconic symbol of the trouble and unrest of the late 1960s.

Brain Salad Surgery - Emerson, Lake & Palmer                         

Long before Ridley Scott directed the classic science fiction film Alien with its nightmarish acid-dripping creature prowling the Nostromo, the biomechanical horror images of H. R. Giger could be found on ELP's Brain Salad Surgery. The original album cover featured the skeletal remains of a netherworldy woman, her skull skewered by a metallic torture device. Open the sleeves and the sphinx-like woman (said to be an image of Giger's wife) with tattoo scarring and snaky, alien hair is revealed on the inner cover. The "ELP" logo Giger devised for the album has been used ever since by the band.

Abraxas - Santana

The cover of Santana's Abraxas album is a 1961 painting "The Annunciation" (wherein the angel Gabriel announces the divine conception to the Virgin Mary) by the artist Mati Klarwein, whose family fled from Nazi Germany when he was two years old to escape the persecution of Jews. Influenced by Ernst Fuchs and the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism, Klarwein's surreal imagery (with nods to Fuchs and also Gustav Klimt) meshed well with the psychedelic 1960s, and Carlos Santana, upon having seen a reproduction of the painting in a magazine and loving the Latin and African imagery, secured permission from the artist to use it as an album cover image. Klarwein's art has graced many albums, most notably the striking cover of Mile Davis' Bitches Brew.

Thick as a Brick - Jethro Tull


What does a band do when releasing a prog masterpiece composed of a single 44 minute-long song stretched across two sides of a record? Why, they design a cover masterpiece as well! The album cover for Thick as a Brick is a several page foldout of a newspaper, in this case the mythical St. Cleve Chronicle, a biting satire of shallow small town journalism that reports on the trials and tribulations of a local nine year-old prodigy Gerald "Little Milton" Bostock, whose award-winning (and subsequently disqualified) epic poem has been used by Jethro Tull as the lyrics for their latest album. The newspaper contains various articles about the scandals surrounding Gerald, band notes (and the lyrics), and newsworthy items on assorted residents of St. Cleve. In addition, there are snarky classified ads, wholly inappropriate children's puzzles and a host of inside jokes and puns.


School's Out - Alice Cooper

Speaking of wholly inappropriate, my original copy of this album was confiscated in 7th grade. Obviously, the nuns did not appreciate the pair of girl's panties that accompanied the album and acted as a record sleeve. But Alice Cooper's School's Out had more than the shock value of feminine undergarments, the cover itself was genuinely clever. Designed by Craig Braun of Wilks & Braun Inc. (who created other covers such as on George Harrison's Living in the Material World and the Stone's Sticky Fingers), the cover looked like an old wooden school desk, complete with ink well, pen slot, and the band member's names or initials carved into the wood. And just as an old school desk, the top opened upward to reveal a storage compartment which housed (in addition to the record and lingerie sleeve) such early 70's school essentials as a comic book, switchblade, coffee-stained liner notes and a picture of the boozy, bedraggled group taped at the top.

London Calling - The Clash

Using the same lettering and graphical style as Elvis's debut album, designer Ray Lowry borrowed imagery from a rock icon as well as redefined the meaning of rock and roll rebellion on The Clash's London Calling. Elvis' swiveling hips were once banned from television (he was shown on the Ed Sullivan Show from the waist up), but The Clash emphasized just how far the "devil's music" had come from the early days. The photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar was taken by Pennie Smith and is considered on the greatest rock and roll photographs of all time. Which is fitting, because the album is great as well.

Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones

What can one say about an album cover featuring the crotch of a clearly aroused man clad in a pair of jeans...with an actual metal zipper! Of course, everyone wanted to pull the zipper down to see what was there (white briefs!). The photo for Sticky Fingers (an apt title if ever there was one) was taken by Andy Warhol (who had suggested the idea to Mick Jagger), but the crotch is not Mick's but supposedly one of Warhol's friends, a street hustler named Joe Dallesandro (and one wonders if Andy did the fluffing). The album itself was designed by Craig Braun, who got into all sorts of trouble with the record label because the zipper scratched the song "Sister Morphine" when the albums were stacked during shipping. Braun's ingenious idea? Ship the albums with the zippers pulled down. And so they were.

Trout Mask Replica - Captain Beefheart

No, that is not a trout Don Van Vliet (otherwise known as Captain Beefheart) is holding in his hand. It is a catfish purchased from a farmer's market by album designer Cal Schenkel for the Trout Mask Replica photo shoot. But the bizarre image suits the bizarre album to a tee, and Captain Beefheart's green smoking jacket, matted fur wrap and absurd hat sets off the ensemble quite well. One of the most weirdly striking album images you'll ever see, and one that will remain, like the retching memory of bad smoked salmon at a dinner party, wedged in your cranium forever.

Strange Days - The Doors

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this carnivalesque image for Strange Days is that it is the only Doors album cover from their original studio releases that does not feature a photo of the band as the main image (here, there are only concert posters of the band plastered on the alley walls to the far left and right of the shot). The album image strikes the perfect pose for Jim Morrison's Theatre of the Damned Rimbaudian/Baudelairean poetics. You can almost hear the song "When You're Strange" being piped into the photo shoot. The photo was taken in an alley in Manhattan by Joel Brodsky, and due to a lack of carnie-types in the area, a cab driver was hired for $5 to pretend to play the trumpet. And yes, those indeed are twin midgets. 

Weasels Ripped My Flesh - The Mothers of Invention

 "RZZZZZ!" I couldn't have said it any better. The retro 1950s artwork found on the album Weasels Ripped My Flesh had its genesis when Frank Zappa saw the kitschy cover of a September, 1956 issue of Man's Life magazine (above). Zappa absolutely adored the picture, and enlisted the aid of artist Neon Park. Zappa showed Park the magazine cover and asked him if he could top it. Park said he could design a parody of a similarly silly add for Schick electric razors using the "weasels ripped my flesh" theme from the magazine cover. Frank approved but, of course, the record label hated the cover.


Nothing's Shocking - Jane's Addiction

What's more shocking than a naked woman with her head on fire? Naked twins with their heads on fire, of course! Upon its release, nine out of 11 major U.S. retailers refused to sell the album because of the cover. As of 2011, Facebook has banned the cover. The irony, I guess, is there are still things that are too shocking. The conjoined twins are actually a sculpture created by Jane's Addiction's resident maniac Perry Farrell (supposedly a molded and then duplicated representation of his girlfriend, who I am sure walks about the house with her head ablaze in an effort to reduce energy costs).

Peter Gabriel III (Melt) - Peter Gabriel

Never mind that this was Peter Gabriel's third straight solo effort titled simply Peter Gabriel. He would release a fourth self-titled album, but the U.S. distributor of the album demanded that it have a proper title, and thus released the record as Security in the States. Yet Gabriel was never one for lengthy titles, as later releases with such monosyllabic monikers as So and Us seem to imply. But let us forget about semantic gymnastics, it is the Dorian Gray-like dissolving portrait of Gabriel, an altered photo taken with a simple Polaroid instant camera, that is most striking. And so the album later received by unanimous accolade the title Melt, for obvious reasons. Storm Thorgeson of Hipgnosis (the album designer) can't recall whether it was he or Gabriel that altered the photo. Perhaps Peter should ask for his money back.

Diamond Dogs - David Bowie

Guy Peellaert, a Belgian artist, painted this depiction of Canis Bowieum Argenti, David Bowie as a golden sideshow dog-man for the sinfully underrated Diamond Dogs album (Peelaert also did the cover for the Stone's It's Only Rock and Roll and the poster for the film Taxi Driver). Missing from the original painting are Bowie's genitals, which were blacked-out prior to the album's release. Obviously, doggy dongs were demented in the mid-70s (perhaps, like many uninhibited dogs, Bowie might perform the hind-lick maneuver). So, here's the original painting sans the shadow hiding Bowie's censorious canine crotch:

 

The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys - Traffic

One of the most cleverly shaped album covers ever created, this reversing cube figure taken from a book on optical illusions was also voted the most difficult album cover to put a record away in while in an inebriated state (well, no one actually voted on it, but I certainly felt that way on a number of occasions). The faux three-dimensional album design was created by Tony Wright, who has designed dozens of other covers (like Bob Marley's Natty Dread, for instance). In regards to making the cover, Wright recalled, "The image for Low Spark of High Heeled Boys was made in typical 1970s fashion, from first idea to finished art in one day. There were no meetings or marketing managers, just the band, a visual artist and an inspired record company owner with his own particular genius."  

Who's Next - The Who

One of the most iconic images of 1970s rock and roll rebellion is a fraud! Yes, members of The Who may look like they've just taken a piss on a giant concrete piling (thus thumbing their noses - or other body parts - at the establishment, allegorically speaking), but that aint piss! According to Ethan A. Russell, the photographer of the shoot, most of the band members couldn't urinate on demand, so they filled a film canister with rainwater and poured it down the concrete to get the desired...ummm...trails. The photo was taken at the Easington Colliery in County Durham, England, and the piling on a slag heap has more than a passing resemblance to the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, a film released only a few years prior to Who's Next (naturally meaning "who's next for a good pisser!").

ZoSo (Volume IV) - Led Zeppelin


It's not what is on the cover of Led Zeppelin's fourth album that makes it interesting and important, it's what is missing. Oh, the framed painting of the grizzled old geezer carrying a bundle of fags hanging on a demolished wall with decrepit wallpaper has its homely charm. No, what's different is, as Jimmy Page said, "We decided that on the fourth album, we would deliberately play down the group name, and there wouldn't be any information whatsoever on the outer jacket. Names, titles and things like that do not mean a thing." Zeppelin's press agent lost his mind! The record company called it "professional suicide"! No band had ever released an album with absolutely no identification on the album cover! Naturally, the album has sold over 32 million albums worldwide. The gatefold opened to reveal a recreation of the Rider-Waite tarot card "The Hermit", and the inner record sleeve had the four famous symbols that defined each member of the band...

And one for Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny for her stellar vocal contribution on "The Battle of Evermore"...



Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles

Photographed by Sir Peter Blake (I guess Queen Elizabeth knights just about anybody these days), this often imitated album image (see the next cover) is the holy grail of rock covers. The garishly psychedelic '67 Beatles stand front and center, and next to them are their alter-egos the "Fab Four" (made of wax - appropriate), as if to say their former selves are now museum pieces. Surrounding the band are various touchstones images of historic, literary and entertainment significance, but it is who was left off the list that may be even more interesting: Jesus Christ, because Lennon felt there may be lingering resentment to his statement that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus; Adolf Hitler, who remained in the photo but was eventually obscured by Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan); Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys, who wanted a $400 fee for his image (The Beatles declined, but his partner Huntz Hall was included without charge); Mohandas K. Gandhi, due to record company concerns that the album might be banned in India; and Mexican actor Germán Valdés (known as Tin-Tan), who was replaced by a piece of Mexican art.

We're Only in It For the Money - The Mothers of Invention

The greatest rock and roll parody required a satiric album cover as biting as its lyrics, and so Frank Zappa and the Mother decided to lampoon Sgt. Peppers in their savage indictment of Flower Power, hippies, suburbia and what Zappa viewed as the vacant culture of the late 1960s. Fearing a law suit, concerned record execs at Verve bowed to pressure from Capitol Records (The Beatles' label), and The Mothers' cover mocking Sgt. Peppers was forced onto the inner sleeves of the gatefold album. The outer cover features the band members dressed in drag. Of the Sgt. Pepperesque cover, Zappa had designer Cal Schenkel and photographer Jerry Schatzberg create the image as "a direct negative" of The Beatles' album. The Beatles had a blue sky background, while The Mothers had storm clouds, and as Schatzberg said, "Instead of flowers and wonderful dreams, Frank wanted garbage and old food and what you see around on the floor." As an added bonus to the mudshark in your mythology, Zappa's buddy Jimi Hendrix came by for the photo shoot (he's on the right hand side of the band).

Cheap Thrills - Big Brother & the Holding Company

Featuring the artwork of R. Crumb, the subversive founder of the Underground Comix movement (including his pornographic adventures of Fritz the Cat), the album cover for Cheap Thrills is vintage 1960s pop art. The members of the band originally conceived the album cover to be a mock high school yearbook, with Crumb's contribution on the back of the album (hence, all the band information in the separate comics panels); however, Crumb's artwork made the front cover when none of the band's ideas could top his. In such ways are masterpieces created.


The Magician's Birthday - Uriah Heep

So many album covers designed by Roger Dean! At one time, it seemed he was in the permanent employ of the band Yes (creating over 30 album covers between Yes and various solo projects by the band members). But I think this cover Dean did for Uriah Heep's The Magician's Birthday is the most arresting and vivid (he did another famous cover for Heep's Demons and Wizards, and a few more for some regrettable reunion albums in the 80s). Spoiler: I also liked Dean's design for Gentle Giant's Octopus, which will be appearing in the follow-up to this article.


Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd


The first image from Wish You Were Here is not a touched-up photo, the guy was actually on fire. He was a stunt man on Warner Brother's studio lot, and the wind changed direction and burnt off his moustache (the two stunt men changed positions and the shot was retaken). This image of two businessmen shaking hands indicates one of them is "getting burned" (and musicians always felt they got raw deals from record companies). The second image from the album is the black plastic wrapper with the sticker of a mechanical handshake that covered the artwork on the original releases. Designer Storm Thorgerson believed the lyrics of the album contained elements of absence, deception and concealment, and so hid the album cover. Continuing this concept, the back cover once again shows the figure of a salesman in a suit, but this businessman is faceless and without a body - an "empty suit" - who more than likely mirrors the empty-headed record sales exec so ruthlessly satirized in the song "Have a Cigar".


The Slider - T. Rex

If anything says spaced-out 1970s rock star more than this hazy photo of Marc Bolan wearing an over sized stovepipe hat, then I'd like to see it. Depending on who you believe, the photo was either taken by Ringo Starr (who received photo credits in the liner notes) or Tony Visconti, the producer of the album, who claims he snapped the iconic photo of the T. Rex frontman during a documentary Ringo Starr was doing for the band. The battle for picture credits rages to this very day, with septuagenarians Starr and Visconti beating each other with canes and walkers. I'm joking.


Nevermind - Nirvana

In the U.S., we start 'em out early chasing the almighty dollar! Actually, the dollar on the fishing hook was added later by the art department. The Kirk Weddle photo of the circumcised swimming infant (the baby must be ready for AARP benefits by now) was seen by Curt Cobain and Nirvana, who wanted it for the album cover when their record company denied in no uncertain terms their first request - a graphic photo of an underwater birth. When the record company wanted to censor the baby's penis, Curt Cobain was happy to comply, on one condition: a sticker must be placed over the offending infant projectile that read "If you're offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile." The record company changed their minds.

The Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd

One of the most recognized graphic design symbols in history - right up there with the Nike swoosh and the men and women symbols on public restrooms. It's as if Dr. Pink Floyd did the original treatise on prisms and optics (who said rock music was anti-intellectual?). Once again, it was Storm Thorgeson and Aubrey Powell of the Hipgnosis team (previously roommates of Syd Barrett, no less), who came up with the concept. "The prism was a way to talk about the fact that this band, preeminently among all bands, would do light. Light and sound," Thorgeson recalled, and Floyd truly did have one of the greatest laser light shows of all time (light, also being the antithesis of the "Dark Side of the Moon"). Also, the series of waves on the inner gatefold represents a human heartbeat. As Thorgeson said, "They had people discussing these mad little bits about their lives, and they used the heartbeat as a rhythm underneath it."


War - U2

The photograph is of Peter Rowen (the brother of one of Bono's friends), whose likeness appears at various ages on the U2 albums Boy, Three and this one on War. The photo is striking and coupled with the theme of the album "war", is an indictment of violence and the incidental casualties of strife, such as children. As Bono said, "Instead of putting tanks and guns on the cover, we've put a child's face. War can also be a mental thing, an emotional thing between loves. It doesn't have to be a physical thing." By the way, Peter Rowen is now 38 years old, and probably uses this album cover as a great way to melt the ice with women. An album cover is a lot easier to get into a bar than a puppy.