It’s a Shame About Ray 1992, Atlantic. Producer: The Robb Brothers. In My Collection: CD, 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL:It’s a Shame About Ray is a Generation-X jangle-fest. Great melodies, cool lyrics, and even some lead guitar now and then. There’s much to love here, even though it clocks in at under 30 minutes. It’s certainly a showcase for Evan Dando’s easy facility with melodies and hooks. The songs are super short, but they’re so packed with hooks that if they were longer they’d verge on cloying. As a Gen-Xer myself, I’m proud to have Dando and The Lemonheads on our team!
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 50.
A year ago or so, the whole “OK, Boomer,” thing went wild around the internets. Teens and young adults mocked the outdated, bigoted ideas of many from the Baby Boomer generation by dismissing them with these clever two words. It’s a modern-day “Don’t trust anyone over 30” which, deliciously, targeted the originators of that 60s slogan, and I loved it. Except when my teenaged daughter would say it to me!
“Listen!” I’d say, “I don’t mind that you’re dismissing my opinion, but DON’T CALL ME A BOOMER! I was born in ’67 – I’m a Gen-X-er! I’ve been hating Boomers since at least 1989!” (Not all Boomers! Shout-out to Sandy, one of my most steadfast and engaged readers, who even helped me with my novel! She’s a great person with a terrific husband, Joe!) Collectively, the Boomers did some good things, but mostly they selfishly ravaged the planet while Kumbaya-ing all over themselves to cover up their smug, bullshit back-patting. As a true Gen-X-er, it makes me so angry that I shake my head and say, “Whatever.”
And while I agree that they listened to the greatest band ever1, the often-espoused idea that good rock and pop began and ended with the Boomers is just one more example of why I think they’re generally a bunch of whiny frauds. Every generation makes great music, and one of the touchstones for Generation X music is The Lemonheads’ 1992 release It’s a Shame About Ray.
The first song I remember hearing from It’s a Shame About Ray was the lead track, “Rockin’ Stroll,” a song about a baby in a stroller with a video about a baby in a stroller. It’s a minute-forty-five of total kick-ass.
The tumbling guitar riff is tight, and lyrics about a baby seemed so cool in 1992! The hookiness of the song can’t be denied, and it’s a characteristic of the entire album. These songs get stuck in your head, even if they can be difficult to sing along to. For a long time I sang the next song, “Confetti,” as “Hey, kindly share a soda with a lover or a cola.” My sister pointed out that the actual words, about unrequited love, were much better than that. David Ryan’s drums in the song are great, as is Dando’s guitar solo (1:45), a rarity for early-90s rock.
The songs on the album are short, all under 3:00, but they’re all such concentrated nuggets of pop charm that if they were any longer they’d overwhelm. The title track, with a video featuring another Gen-X heartthrob, fits a cool guitar riff, a great chord progression, and a note that sounds like it’s held for 12 bars (“Raa-aaa-aayy”) into a pleasing little gem. 100FaveAlbum member Juliana Hatfield plays bass on the album and sings backing vocals, as well. “Rudderless” has another great chord progression (two, actually), and more Hatfield backing vocals. Lyrically, it expresses experiencing life in a druggie malaise (“Hope in my past …”)
“My Drug Buddy,” again with Hatfield, is a flat-out celebration of the camaraderie of drug use. Its organ riff is lovely, and the singalong melody is terrific. But as “The Turnpike Down” demonstrates, melody was never a problem for The Lemonheads. I don’t know what the lyrics are about, but it’s fun to sing “Butterscotch street lamps/ Mark my path!” “Bit Part” is lyrically far more direct, as the clamorous spoken-word opening makes clear. It’s a short song asking for a role in someone’s life.
It’s not just melody that makes Dando more than a pretty face. As “Alison’s Starting to Happen” demonstrates, he can also write some great lyrics.
Couplets like “I never looked at her this way before/ Now she’s all I see,” and, one of the best lines ever, “She’s the puzzle piece behind the couch/ that makes the sky complete,” are nearly XTC-level cleverness. The drums are great throughout, and I love the clanking bottles and cans in the wordless bridge. “Hannah & Gabi,” a Country tune with unspecific lyrics3, has a really nice acoustic guitar intro from Dando and slide guitar from Steely Dan and Doobie Bros. veteran Jeff “the Skunk” Baxter. It’s a great song that breaks up the sound.
Then it’s back to the peppy jangle with “Kitchen.”
The song was recorded to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Graduate, but wasn’t on It’s a Shame About Ray. Dando didn’t want it on the album. But, once it became a hit, the Boomers in charge of Atlantic Records tacked the song onto the end of the record anyway. The creeps. I have an early edition of the CD, WITHOUT the song, and I’m proud of that. Which is a weird thing to be proud of. But whatever.
“Not Too Soon,” from the 1991 Throwing Muses album The Real Ramona. Guitars, growls, and girl-group gusto!
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
In 2018, I wrote a super-long, quite in-depth, shoulda-maybe-had-an-editor-but-I-do-this-for-free-so-bite-me piece about my obsession with certain songs. That post is about my 100 Fave Album Star, by Belly. (Go check it out! I’ll wait.) Song obsession is a jumping off point for that album because I’ve probably been obsessed with Throwing Muses’ “Not Too Soon” longer than any other song6. The song introduced me to Belly, as Belly leader Tanya Donelly wrote and sang it for Throwing Muses, her other band, the one with with her step-sister Kristin Hersh.
From the opening, furiously strummed, fuzzy electric chords, and Donelly’s committed opening word, “She …” the song has a certain distorted, singular sound that I love. It’s not just those chunky guitars and soft-but-hard voice. It’s also the drum beat, by drummer Dave Narcizo, a wizard who rarely uses cymbals. (Take a look at the video – his kit only has one cymbal, a high-hat. Or does that count as two?) It’s a modern (for 1991) take on the classic “Girl Group” sound of the 60s, in which bands with names like The Ronnettes, The Shirelles, The Shangri-las, and, of course, The Supremes would harmonize about their men over a thump like a Roman warship time-keeper.
“Not Too Soon” has multiple overdubbed guitars played by Donelly and main Muse, Hersh. They bow out during the chorus, allowing that girl-group thump (and a few haunting wails) to support the antagonist/boy in the song’s lyrics. “It’s not too soon, he said/ it’s not too soon at all/ You might as well be dead, he said/ If you’re afraid to fall.”
Then comes the killer hook: five words, stretched over four bars (“I said, ‘I know her'”) then four bars of Tanya’s growling, purring vocal riff. It’s catchy as hell, and as the songs move along, the guitar will frequently repeat that riff. In the second verse a few more guitars are added, and we hear the girl’s perspective, clearly baffled by the boy’s interest. “Why do you stare so hard/ Wrapped up like a doll in bad dreams and broken arms?”
When I wrote about the Belly album Star, I mentioned my love of Donelly’s lyrics. They’re very Steely Dan-ish, impressionist verbal paintings that give you just enough detail so your brain can fill in the rest of the story. In the case of “Not Too Soon,” it sounds as if Donelly, the narrator, is observing an interaction between a boy and a girl. And she’s clearly been in the girl’s situation before (“I know her…”) It may even be a story about herself. It’s enough to “Make these old bones shiver …”
The boy’s pressuring the girl (For sex? Commitment? As a former boy, I’d guess sex.) The girl, inexperienced (“colorblind”) yet intrigued (“her hallway aching”), is clearly not interested (“she’ll never move him – likes it that way”). The boy appears to “fall apart” in the spoken bridge. This is when the guitar really runs through that catchy-as-hell riff, sounding watery and distant and super cool. Donelly was the band’s usual lead guitarist, but a live video shows Hersh playing the riff, so I don’t know who plays it on the song. The boy offers one more plea – restating that “it’s not too soon,” and “you might as well be dead … instead of afraid to ‘fall7.'”
And then Donelly finally, in a gush of words, lets him have it: “Done your time, been in your place/ I couldn’t look you in the face/ And tell you that it turns me on/ It makes my stomach turn!/ I know her!” Look dude! I’ve been there! I know her! She’s saying “No!” It repulses her!
OR??!! Did the girl fall apart in the bridge? It’s not clear. Did the girl, against her better judgment, give in to the boy? Is Donelly’s stomach turning because she’s been there and remembers the pain of caving in? Is she saying, “Look, upon reflection, I cannot honestly say I really liked that experience!”
IN A NUTSHELL:The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a glam-rock, guitar-feast masterpiece. The songs range from ballads and cabaret to screaming rock ‘n rollers. Always melodic, David Bowie’s remarkable voice carries the album. He sells every ounce of every song about Ziggy, the space alien, bisexual, rock-star savior who put together a band to save Earth. It’s not exactly Puccini, but I saw La Boheme at The Met, and that story didn’t make much sense either.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 30.
Here’s a big shout-out to Sully, a co-worker at a biofuels lab ten years ago who told me I’d really like Ziggy Stardust. Sully is almost exactly my age, and had an eerily similar upbringing to mine. This, apparently, aligned our musical tastes as well. He was one of the first people with whom I’d shared an early version of my 100 Favorite Albums list. At that point it was a bulleted email of otherwise perfect albums ruined by one bad song8. I also emailed him a list of Unexpectedly Great Albums, including titles such as Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No and Buckcherry’s Time Bomb.
A person whose co-worker shares weird lists of albums with them and DOESN’T immediately run away or call HR is clearly a very decent human being. One who actually engages in the lists is a kindred spirit. And in recommending Ziggy Stardust to me, Sully clearly understood what I’d like in a record. It’s terrific.
As an AOR music fan in the 70s and 80s, I thought of David Bowie as the weird uncle of Classic Rock. The adults felt compelled to invite him to Christmas parties, and everyone chatted with him and smiled, but you could tell he made them all uncomfortable. He’d laugh and make jokes you didn’t understand, and ask you to come close so he could see how big you’d grown. You’d grin warily and softly answer “Fine,” when he asked you how school was going. Then he’d leave early, and everyone enthusiastically shouted “‘bye!” and breathed a sigh of relief. He was part of the family, but only sort of.
As an adult you finally realize that the uncle had switched faiths, or gone to college, or was gay, or a union leader, or didn’t go hunting, or in any case had done something that set him apart from everyone else. And whatever that something was, you also realize that the rest of your family were just as weird, or weirder than, him. You’d also want to learn more about him.
Given his weird-uncle status, I never really connected with him as a young rock fan. I enjoyed some of his songs on the radio, and I loved his Queen duet, “Under Pressure.” When he repackaged himself for MTV with 1983’s Let’s Dance album, I thought “Modern Love” was great, but I mostly liked that he hired Stevie Ray Vaughan to play guitar for him. I had a couple of his Greatest Hits cassettes, but I didn’t buy an album until Sully pointed the way.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a concept album, a sort of rock opera. I like many such projects (The Wall, American Idiot) and have even created them from albums that weren’t intended to be (Give the People What They Want). But I never get too caught up in the stories, as their narratives can often be described as disjointed, at best. In this case, Ziggy Stardust is an alien sent to Earth to save it from an apocalypse that’s described in the lyrics of the opener, “Five Years.”
Five years remain for life on Earth. No reason is given, but it’s a sufficiently sad song for such a topic. It starts and ends with a ticking-clock drumbeat, a nice touch. There’s plenty of orchestra to underpin the emotion, but it doesn’t go overboard, and Bowie uses his best “Heroes-y,” heartache-y voice. It’s a great opener.
“Soul Love” has a flamenco/tango feel, with an off-kilter time signature that keeps the song gently hiccuping along. The lyrics describe the different forms love takes, and it’s not clear, exactly, how this fits into the greater narrative (Is Ziggy singing it? Are the nearly-annihilated Earthlings?) but that’s to be expected in these rock operas. The song does set the stage for “Moonage Daydream,” the introduction of that “alligator, mama-papa, space invader, rock ‘n roll bitch,” Ziggy Stardust, who somehow will save Earth with his freak-outs. And Earth is pretty psyched, too, as “Starman” indicates. It’s a strumming folk tune, almost, with a nice, simple bass. The lyrics are short on specifics, but this savior’s plan does include letting all the children boogie. (Hey, look, when you have five years left, you’ll try anything, I guess.)
I’ve thrown a lot of snarky comments in here about the story, but let me say this: story-schmory. The songs on the album are awesome. Mick Ronson’s guitar sound is cool throughout, the songs are catchy and really well-produced. And Bowie can sell any lyric, even those extolling the Hoochie-Koochie woman who helps Ziggy get to Earth. I think that’s what “It Ain’t Easy” is about? Anyway, it has cool slide guitar that I really like. “Lady Stardust” sounds like an Elton John number, with Mick Ronson playing piano. Bowie sings about a drag queen, presumably Ziggy, who blows the audience away with her performance. I really like the sing-along “all right.”
It’s never clear how or why, but Ziggy has to form a band to save Earth. “Star,” a rocking number, perhaps my favorite on the record, describes the process. Bowie’s voice presages the new-wave stylings of Gary Numan and Devo, and there’s a cool bridge. The backing vocals are great, and drummer Mick Woodmansey really shows his skills! If “Star” isn’t my favorite song, then it’s probably “Hang Onto Yourself,” a Ramones-ish, glam-rock workout.
However, “Ziggy Stardust” pretty clearly explains that the experience is getting out of hand. Although the song is about a space alien drag queen rocker, it could probably describe any of a number of debauched, strung-out 70s rocker. It’s one of Bowie’s best-known, and coolest, songs. Mick Ronson’s guitar tone and riff are perfect, and Bolder’s ranging bass supports it brilliantly. Woodmansey’s drums sound really cool, too. And it flows perfectly into “Suffragette City,” another of Bowie’s most celebrated numbers. The story seems to have completely broken down at this point. I don’t know what a Suffragette City is10, or how it relates to Ziggy saving the world. But it’s a cool song, for sure, with nice horns and piano.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” is, musically, a perfect album closer. It’s sort of a show tune, a jazzy cabaret-style number driven by Bowie’s sparkling voice. There’s a nice 50s-style, watery guitar in the background, as the song builds to Ziggy shouting “you’re not alone!” at 2:15. It’s great, but lyrically it doesn’t really wrap up the story. It seems Ziggy is dying? But all he’s really done for Earthlings is tell them they’re not alone? (Story aside, I’m sure the lyrics have been helpful to depressive Bowie fans for the past 48 years, which is a positive thing!)
But regardless of the story, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a brilliant album. It covers a lot of territory, musically, and the sound and performances are killer. I’d like to publicly thank Sully for encouraging me to pick it up! He’s a great guy, and he still reads this blog (I think). You’ll sometime see his comments after posts!
“Freedom! ’90”, from the 1990 George Michael album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. It’s amazing how direct George Michael was in these lyrics.
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
Back in 1990, if you’d time-traveled from today to tell me about it, I’d say, “You’re lying. You’re telling me 2020 America has a rotten, infantile grifter in charge, and, having botched its response to a pandemic, is now stripped of all its global prestige, influence and esteem, and on the precipice of a fraudulent fascist takeover by a tiny minority of white people who just 5 years ago thought tyranny was a national exercise program for kids11?” But even more unbelievable to the 1990, 23-year-old me would be the fact that George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” is now a favorite ‘oldie’ of mine.
By October, 1990, George Michael was truly a pop music titan. His 5-year run on the pop charts had already produced nine American Number 1 Hits and fourteen total Top Ten Hits with both the UK act Wham!12 and as a solo artist13. All but one of those songs were written and produced by him, an impressive feat by any measure.
And despite all of his success, I could not express to you the magnitude of the fuck I did not give. (That’s a line from the amazing comedian DJ Hazard.) I was not interested in Top 40 music. I was in many ways at war with it, and I actively, aggressively, disliked any non-guitar, non-rockin’ music14.
As for Michael, I knew he was super-successful, but I hadn’t been paying attention. What I gleaned about this next smash record, “Freedom! ’90,” from watching MTV (and just being part of the US culture) was that this song was a kind of rebuke. It was supposed to express his weariness with a wretched music industry and the demands of worldwide fame. The video famously featured his iconic Faith-era accoutrements – leather jacket, Gretsch guitar, and fancy jukebox – being lit on fire and blown to bits. He, apparently, was shockingly biting the hand that had fed him, gnawing it off, even, and had no fucks left to give.
“Oh, puh-leeze,” I thought. “Waa-waa-waa.” Perhaps because of my lower-middle-class upbringing, I’m skeptical of any such complaints from wealthy folks. Upon hearing the song and watching the video in 1990, I thought, “Nobody is this upset about success. This song is bullshit.” Totally catchy, sure, and a non-guitar song that I sort of liked, but bullshit. I knew all artists grow, and change, and sure, even The Beatles came to find their early mop-top years rather embarrassing. But they weren’t setting their collarless suits ablaze15.
Still, I’ve always found the song catchy. About 15 years ago I heard it in the car and paid attention to the words, and I realized I was right all those years ago. To my ears, the song isn’t really a condemnation of showbiz hollowness and selling out. It’s partly about that, but given George Michael’s life story I think “Freedom! ’90” is a coming-out anthem from a closeted gay man.
Musically, it’s a funky groove that lifts the oft-sampled “Funky Drummer” drums from James Brown and puts them beneath a syncopated piano reminiscent of 60s Motown. Michael’s voice enters softly on a slice of the chorus, and he immediately tries to set both the listener (“I won’t let you down …”) and himself (“Gotta have some faith in the sound”) at ease. He reveals the despair that living a phony persona has brought him: he now thinks the sound is “the one good thing that I got.” He begs the listener not to abandon him: “Please don’t give me up/ … I would really love to stick around.”
If you’ve come out, or maybe especially if you’re closeted, I imagine the fear presented in this opening is familiar. “What will all the folks I’ve known think of me when they know?” If you’ve had friends or loved-ones come out, you probably recognize it, too. And if, like me, your own homophobia was thawed and evaporated by the experience, you may remember feeling a bit confused, even ashamed, as you realize this new fact has absolutely no bearing on your relationship with the other person. Throughout the song, this idea that nothing’s changed – despite everything changing – is drilled home.
As the song builds, those opening words are developed and become the refrain. Look, listener, he’s not who you think he is, okay? But he won’t let you down! Trust his sound – it worked on those 14 Top Ten hits the past 5 years, right? He doesn’t belong to you, and you don’t belong to him. He only wants the freedom (Freedom! Freedom!) to be himself, so why should that change your love for his music? The bridge (at 4:30; “Well it looks like the road to heaven …”) sums things up beautifully. It ends with a powerful “Sometimes the clothes DO NOT make the man!” and the lyrics that started as a bashful suggestion become a forceful insistence. He’s no longer asking your permission with those words, he’s telling you it’s how it’s going to be. It’s a pretty stunning feat, lyrically and musically. As the song fades he announces, “May not be what you want from me/ Just the way it’s got to be.”
The verses are great, too, a typical story of chasing a dream and making compromises along the way. He gives a nice shout-out to luckiest-man-alive-candidate Andrew Ridgeley (“what a kick, just my buddy and me”), his childhood friend and Wham! bandmate who smiled charmingly and wore cool clothes and wisely sat back and let his talented mate take over16. (Too bad John Fogerty’s bandmates in Creedence Clearwater Revival didn’t have his example back in the 70s.) Plus Michael acknowledges that it was all a lot of fun! He was living the dream and loving it (“we were living in a fantasy/ we won the race, got out of the place”). But over time it got old, and now he realizes what he really wants is happiness. He doesn’t want to pretend to be someone he’s not, and that doesn’t seem like an audacious request.
The music remains funky throughout, and Michael himself plays that bouncing bass line. During the bridge there’s a nifty wah-wah guitar from ace session man Phil Palmer. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a second to mention the video. As a heterosexual young man in 1990, it’s the reason I listened to the song so often even though I wasn’t a big fan. Seeing supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Cristy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Tatjana Patitz poutily lip-synch the song was not unenjoyable.
But you know, maybe I’m wrong about all this. Maybe the song really is as it was originally described. The early ’90s were an era when people were more skittish about sexuality. Maybe “Freedom! ’90” is simply about Michael dealing with fame and the music industry. Maybe he wasn’t coming out. After all, he didn’t come out publicly until 8 years later, when an arrest for a lewd act in Beverly Hills sort of forced him.
But to me it all adds up and makes sense. I’m a 53 year old man that never had to worry about coming out, but I still can relate to the idea of staying true to myself. “Freedom! ’90,” and the meaning I see in it, really resonates with me. It’s a song that caused my entire estimation of George Michael to rise. I still strongly prefer guitar rock to dance pop, but the song is a favorite of mine. Sadly, George Michael died in 2016 from an enlarged heart and fatty liver after years of struggling with addiction. He was 53 years old.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters 2020, Epic. Producers: Fiona Apple, Aimee Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg & David Garza. In My Collection: Spotify, 2020.
IN A NUTSHELL:Fetch the Bolt Cutters has a unique style of music – rhythms and melodies that sound almost made up on-the-spot, produced by instruments that aren’t usually considered instruments. (Instrumentation credited on the record includes, among others, “metal butterfly,” “harp thing,” “water tower,” and “breathing.”) The lyrics are wise and kick-ass and funny, and the whole thing is just really fun to listen to!
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.
There was a time I would’ve hated a record like this. I mean, just look at my 100 Favorite Albums. It’s mostly filled with dudes with guitars playing loud, melodic rock. That description (basically) works pretty well for my Top 13 Beatles albums, as well. Regarding lyrics, while it’s true that The Clash, who sit at #1, were brilliant lyricists chronicling profound cultural and socio-political issues of the day, artists such as R.E.M. and Steely Dan and Stone Roses are better known for their cool-sounding inscrutable words than for heavyweight philosophizing. Even tremendous lyricists like XTC, The Replacements and Tom Petty, generally sing about personal relationships, not the larger world.
So, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in producing this website it’s that my favorite music tends toward a definite “type.” That type is NOT a woman singing strange, percussive songs that comment brilliantly on both her personal life and the society around her, accompanied only by piano, bass, drums, weird noises and barking dogs. And that’s why this is the first record I picked after all those other ones. I like to know I can still expand my horizons even as a 53 year old man.
To be fair, Fiona Apple is certainly not an unknown quantity to me. Her 2005 album Extraordinary Machine is #73 on my Top 100. Both her 1999 album, When the Pawn …17, and her 2012 album, The Idler Wheel …18, were not far outside my Top 100 when I made the list in 2014. So when I heard she had a new record this spring, I was very interested. Apple’s always had a great sense of melody, and she mixes up styles on her albums. If there’s a second thing I’ve learned producing this website, it’s that I love melodies and variety. (That pretty well describes London Calling.)
Fetch the Bold Cutters opens with the lovely “I Want You to Love Me,” which builds on Apple’s simple, evocative piano riff. Her voice is incredible – rough and tough yet sensitive, reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s. The lyrics very much straightforwardly describe the title. On the bridge she uses the Bob Dylan/hip-hop move of heavy internal rhymes that deliver a satisfying sense of surprise to the listener. Apple puts this tactic to great effect throughout the album. The song ends with Apple’s kooky dolphin sounds, which, well, look, I guess artists just have to go for it sometimes, so good for her.
“Shameika” is the song for anybody who was a nerd and teased or bullied by the popular kids. Once again the piano underpins the song, this time a percussive riff accentuated by a brushed drum kit. The found sounds throughout the album are cool, but the star is Fiona’s incredible voice. Speaking of found sounds, they really come to the forefront on the title track. On this one, she uses the internal rhyming in a near-rap, and the lyrics do the work. They’re a reflection on her life, and where it’s led her, and her desire to move on despite it all. “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long,” she sings in a lilting, catchy melody. (Apple’s dogs, Mercy, Maddie, Leo, Alfie and Little, all credited on the album, make their first appearance on this one, but as with all backing vocalists since the dawn of recorded music, it’s really tough to distinguish who’s who).
I love “Under the Table” because it’s sung by someone who I wish I was, able to speak my mind in all situations. Her voice is amazing, and it builds in power and energy. (“I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me.” Nice!) “Relay” is sort of a summer camp chant interrupted by jazzy vocals and bass19. It expresses both an anger at the douchebags who hurt us, but also a desire to not give in to the temptation to pass that anger onto others. “Heavy Balloon” is one of my favorites, a song with a sort of jungle beat and cool harmonies. Apple’s voice hits a variety of tones, both musically and emotionally. Like “Under the Table” and “Relay,” its lyrics are all about personal strength.
But the album’s lyrics are at their best when they’re dealing with the uncomfortable, challenging issues of personal relationships. “Rack of His,” is a reference to all the guitars an ex had, guitars he treated better than her. It’s a jaunty number where Apple shows off the jazzy side of her voice. I love “Drumset,” another swirling harmony vocal workout, with lyrics that say maybe she should stop dating musicians. “Cosmonauts,” has a spare, slow groove that builds to a raucous finish. It suggests that maybe there is a hope for couples willing to accept the heaviness of commitment.
I love the set of songs that address the topic of how heterosexual women interact with one another in relationship to the men in their lives. “Newspaper” is a great song, dark, creeping and intense, with multiple voices and sounds building on each other. It’s sung from the perspective of an ex-girlfriend to the new girlfriend, saying, essentially, we should be friends – we have so much in common! (Obviously there’s more to it than that.) “Ladies” is another slow, jazzy number. (I’d love to hear her sing some standards!) It calls for unity among women, with the excellent lines to the new woman in his life: “And oh yes/ There’s a dress in the closet/ Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it/ I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine/ It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine/ She left it behind with a note, one line, it said/ ‘I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying’/ She was very kind”
The song “For Her” opens with an Andrews Sisters-style harmony, and it’s sung beautifully. Accompanied throughout by only drums, the voices swirl and build to an angelic closing. It’s about sexual assault, but calling it a ‘Me Too’ song really denigrates the power and the meaning of the song. Fetch the Bolt Cutters closes with “On I Go.” Similar to “Relay,” it’s a sort of meditation on strength and persistence. There is a vocal screw-up about 1:50 that was left in the mix. That goof adds to the song. It demonstrates that we can persevere through the bullshit that might otherwise slow us down. In fact, I think if I were to sum up the album in one word, I think it would be: Perseverance.
In those 8 years, lots has happened! I’ve gotten older, my family’s gotten older, my dad died, this whole pandemic thing … On top of all that, I’ve listened to more music! As I pointed out a while back, once I started the project, my list couldn’t change – it was 100 records only, so adding any new albums would disrupt the entire thing. That means I couldn’t write about any stuff I heard since assembling the list.
Plus, there are lots of albums I’ve loved for a long time that are NOT in the top 100. I’ve never gotten a chance to say much about those! Additionally, there are several SONGS I’d like to write about, songs that may or may not come from a write-up-worthy album, so how do I tell you about them??
So here’s the deal. From here on out, 100 Favorite Albums is going to be a lot more free-form. I expect the posts to be much shorter (you’re welcome!!), and I expect them to come more often (sorry.). I’ll put numbers next to the albums, just to keep track, but there’s no ‘order.’ It’s just going to be stuff about music that I like. I’m having too much fun doing this to just suddenly stop because I’ve written about 113 records! And I hope you’ve been having fun, too!
The Only Meaningful Memory, by Eric Riley Moore, available on Kindle or in Paperback.
Did James Nauman murder someone thirty years ago but doesn’t remember it?
Students at North High wouldn’t believe that their chubby, balding, dork of a chemistry teacher, Mr. Nauman, was a skinny, long-haired bass player called Jim Nasty in an underground punk band way back in the 80s. When an out-of-town detective, Joanne Grimes, calls him, James can’t believe something else. He’s a suspect in the decades-old, cold-case murder of a punk rock fangirl named Sherri Statler.
He’s shocked, but he can’t be sure it’s not true – there’s so much from those days he doesn’t remember. Even his wife, Dr. Jane Blanton, isn’t sure – and she knew him back in 1989. That’s when MakeFist Punch was an indie punk band with a silly name on the cusp of success, and Jim Nasty just wanted the booze and drugs to keep flowing. Band leader Mike D was going to change the silly name and make himself a star. But the drummer, Darren Devil, quit and ended it all. Then Jim met troubled med-student Jane, and the couple escaped the band turmoil, married and changed their lives.
By 2018 his past – the loud, sweaty shows, the intra-band squabbles, the long, dark rides on endless highways – is long-forgotten. But until Detective Grimes called, James had never really considered how much of that time he had, indeed, forgotten. As he goes looking for clues to prove his innocence, he realizes just how much his bandmates and wife have kept hidden from him. Now, as the law closes in, and MakeFist Punch warily rehearses for a reunion show, James Nauman isn’t sure he wants to remember any of it.
Revolver 1966, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin. Purchased Vinyl, 1988.
IN A NUTSHELL: Revolver has it all. Every song sounds new, and each has its own style. The band swerves from gentle love songs to caustic rockers; fun kids’ music to heart-wrenching grown-up songs; Byrds-ian folk-rock to experimental drone. And throughout the record, the amazing vocals – harmonies, backup, lead – guitars, drums and bass remain intact. The playground that was the modern 1966 recording studio is added to that genius, giving the record the sound of four expert musicians (and an unmatched producer) in full control of all their powers having the time of their life.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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And now: NUMBER 1!! But first – my favorite Beatles’ ALBUM COVERS, ranked, in order, from #1 to #13.
It pains me to say it, since I love love love the songs so much, but I just find this album cover … amateurish. To me it looks like a rough draft that was accidentally approved.
“What? No – there’s no time. We’re just going to use this one – as it is.”
“But all I’ve really finalized are the intricate strands of hair on the four large faces. The photos are just slapped in, the drawings are just sketches, it’s incomplete … why, I only just gave Ringo and George the photograph eyeballs, and three of them don’t have the photograph lips …”
“Thanks, Klaus. Goodbye.”
One thing that always confused me about the cover was the smaller line drawing between the larger heads of John and Paul. There are four images, four Beatles, one would presume. The bottom two are clearly John and Paul. But the top two … are they supposed to be George and Ringo?
I always thought they looked more like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger:
Starting at the bottom, Paul is gazing up and John appears self-satisfied, and then the “Mick” figure looks distressed. It’s as if he’s hearing the amazing songs on Revolver and thinking, “our songs are shit, aren’t they20?” And the dark-eyed head above “Mick” must be zombie-eyed, drug-hazed Keith, sulking against a balled-up fist, no? For years I thought this was a great knock by one talented songwriting pair on another talented pair. After all, the bands had a well-known (and completely manufactured) rivalry.
But I recently noticed something about “Mick,” something that makes it clear I’ve been wrong. It also indicates that others may have told Klaus that they dug his Glimmer Twins stunt. He made sure that the person’s namesake jewelry are clearly visible on both of “Mick’s” hands.
So I suppose it is The Fab Four after all, even though I’m not convinced the likenesses of Harrison and Starr are all that accurate. I’m especially unconvinced because I’ve seen several thousands of pictures of George and Ringo over the years, and I will bet everything I own that both men, in 1966, had, in fact, no more than two arms each. Yet, this doesn’t appear to be the case on the cover of Revolver.
And there’s one more question I have about the drawings: who the heck is popping out of Paul’s ear, apparently listening with displeasure?
When I tried googling, I came up with a phony April Fool’s column from 15 years ago, which claimed the figure is Paul. But it looks less like Paul than George and Ringo look like George and Ringo, so I don’t buy it. Others on a Beatle Fan site say the figure is artist Voorman. Perhaps? He clearly wasn’t great at drawing good likenesses of others, so one would expect a self-portrait would also be difficult. (Okay, that was a cheap shot. I can’t draw AT ALL – and he’s clearly an actual artist!) I would love to know who that is. If you know, please leave a comment!
But enough of the pictures … let’s get to the sound. Strap in for a long post, as I’ve gotta go pretty deep on Number One! And Number One on Number One is “Taxman.”
The Beatles have always known how to open an album. Please Please Me shot their canon out of a cannon with an urgent count-off. With the Beatles and Beatles For Sale opened with bare voices. A Hard Day’s Night featured the most famous chord ever, and Help!a shouted plea. Rubber Soul began with a classic guitar and bass riff. In 1966, Revolver opens with a cough, a creepy fake count-in and then the real McCoy. “Taxman” is the first Harrison song to open a Beatles album, and it is a song that is equal to the task. The bass riff by McCartney is a rock classic, and Ringo’s drumming (the fill at 0:21) and percussion (tambourine at 0:34, cowbell at 0:49) are excellent. Speaking of bass, check out what Paul does around 0:55 – he’s incredible. He also played the George-esque, raga-inflected guitar solo at 1:13. The harmonies are terrific throughout, as George complains about taxes that, at 95% for the extremely wealthy in 1965 UK, do sound rather high21. At 1:33 a guitar riff mirrors the bass, and it sounds so good! As does the outro solo. What a way to open a record!
And they follow it up with a completely different song, and a completely new pop sound: the string quartet!
Actually, it’s a double string quartet, a string octet, I suppose, and it gives the song a melancholia that perfectly captures the loneliness described in the lyrics. Paul sings lead, and the harmonies of John and George (which have their own Wikipedia section) are brilliant, as is the contrapuntal “look at all the lonely people.” I like a variety of sounds and styles on my albums, which is a big part of why my #1 non-Beatles album is London Calling. After a guitar rocker and a string quartet, it’s hard to predict what might come next.
How about a drowsy ode to … well, sleep, I guess? … that features guitar recordings played backwards?
“I’m Only Sleeping” has a phenomenal sound. From the acoustic chord that opens the tune, a millisecond before John’s lethargic voice, to the splashing thunk of Ringo’s snare and Paul’s relaxed bass line, there’s a thick feeling of doziness about the track. When George’s backwards guitar lines are added throughout, the result is a song that truly sounds like its lyrical content. The precise “ooos” and harmony backing vocals (I love Paul’s “going by my window,” at 1:16) are wonderful, and provide a dreamy sensation. When Paul yawns at 2:00, one wonders if it’s real! But the song is not boring – that’s what’s amazing. It’s an exciting, interesting song about sleeping. Genius.
Yes, yes, it’s certainly ironic that the man who just complained three songs ago about taxes would now be singing about the meaninglessness of money in the context of existence. Hey, people are complex, what can I say? As with “Within You Without You,” on Sgt. Pepper’s, “Love You To” is a song that has grown over the years into one of my favorites. George plays sitar on this song22, including the 30 second opening of the song, and all the other instruments except the tabla and tanpura. The song has a lovely, droning sound, and it’s enhanced by George and Paul’s close harmony, as at 0:53. Revolver is a record of varying sounds, all of them interesting, and it’s hard to imagine – after all this – what could possibly come next.
How about a brilliant love song, destined to become a standard?
“Here, There and Everywhere” is a song I was fascinated by for years. I’ve always loved how clever the lyrics are. Verse one begins with the word “Here,” verse two with “There,” and the bridge prominently features “Everywhere.” That kind of thing tickles my nerd brain. Often overlooked in the song are Ringo’s subtle, orchestral drums. And how about the background harmony!! Holy moley!! George’s guitar chords are lovely, as is his line that mirrors the melody in the “but to love her is to need here” lyrics. At 1:57 listen for the finger snaps that start – the kind of hidden treasure I love discovering! I’m never as big a fan of Beatles’ love songs as I am of rockers, but “Here, There and Everywhere” is an exception. (Even though I’d prefer an oxford comma in the title.)
The band keeps everyone guessing at what’s coming next on Revolver, and I’d guess that in 1966 few expected the band to release a full-on children’s song.
“Yellow Submarine” is a fun one, perfect for Ringo’s singing style. He gamely describes his seafaring experiences on the ship, and the background noises and voices of the crew have made it an ever-popular song. Of course, the band eventually made a cartoon movie out of the song. I don’t have much to say about it. The band and their friends had a lot of fun recording the song, coming up with sound effects and funny voices.
Childhood whimsy is pushed aside for the brash sounds, drug-induced words and changing meter of one of my favorite songs ever (but not my favorite on Revolver!), “She Said She Said.”
Harrison’s guitar sound on the opening riff is distinctive, even disorienting, and then the bass, also by Harrison23, plays a single note while Ringo throws in an incredible fill to open things up. Lennon’s lyrics are famously from an LSD-influenced conversation he had with actor Peter Fonda, and George provides some Paul-esque high harmonies. Check out Ringo’s drums – just in the first 30 seconds! Throughout the song he’s a monster. And what I really love are all the guitars! It sounds like there are a million. There’s some cool finger-picking (or maybe just pick-picking) during the verses, and of course Harrison’s metallic lead, and it’s all supported by a faint organ underneath. As for song structure, they deftly (Thanks, Ringo!!) shift from 4/4 to 3/4 during the “When I was a boy” bridge. This song ended an amazing Side 1 (back in the day), and one would be right to think it unlikely that Side 2 could be quite as good.
But Side 2 may even be better!! John may have lamented Paul’s “Granny” songs, but “Good Day Sunshine” is a classic number no matter how you describe it.
Lyrically, the song perfectly describes that feeling of being happily in love. The John and George harmonies are terrific, including John’s spoken “she feels good,” as is Paul’s piano. George Martin actually plays the piano solo. It’s just a happy little song, and the band does throw in the Beatley vocal outtro. Revolver just keeps getting better and better, more and more interesting.
And we’ve reached what is likely my favorite Beatles’ song of all time, “And Your Bird Can Sing.”
The dual guitar, played by George and Paul, is just amazing. Through the entire song, they create a riff that’s practically a song unto itself. It opens the song, then from 0:37 to 1:20 a descending version is played through the bridge, then the intro returns, and the bridge is played once again. And behind the entire thing, Paul’s bass is ranging far and wide, culminating in the final verse, where he plays a high triplet (1:25). This figure accents the close, three-part harmony in the third verse, the one where “your bird can swing.” The lyrics are apparently about Frank Sinatra, John’s take after reading a glowing article in Esquireon the by-then-out-of-fashion crooner. But we can never be sure because Lennon, the main songwriter, actually hated the song and barely spoke of it, except to say he disliked it. Well, John, I love it. I think you guys created a masterpiece. (If you want some laughs, listen to theBeatles Anthology 2 version, which sounds like a Byrds song, and features old pals John and Paul cracking up so bad they can’t even sing!)
This album would already be my favorite if it ended right there, but five great songs remain! And since we’ve already heard a Paul love ballad, how about we hear a Paul break-up ballad.
It’s a sad song24 about a relationship that’s ended, and it includes what is probably the best use of a French Horn in all of rock. Also of note is McCartney’s bass, which enters after two verses, at about 0:24. It’s lovely, ranging very low (I wonder if it was tuned low?) and includes slides and staccato, really showcasing his all-around ability on the instrument. Only he and Ringo appear on the piece, apart from Alan Civil, the horn player. The entire song is Classic Paul.
So, Revolver must fall off at some point, right? Well, certainly not now, not when we’re about to pay a visit to “Doctor Robert”!
Doctor Robert is clearly an over-prescriber, but that’s precisely why John is singing his praises. He sings the song with a bit of a lag25, but a different energy forms when Paul joins in verse two (0:30). And the harmonies in the “he’s a man you must believe” chorus (0:49) are outstanding! There’s a subtle dueling guitar sound to George and John’s riffing and rhythm throughout the song. I particularly love George’s guitar at about 0:56, heading into the “well, well, well” bridge, a bridge with wonderful three-part vocals. George’s guitar is great, as is his maraca playing! I couldn’t mention “Doctor Robert” without also mentioning Dr. Dave, as this song is a favorite to play in our band, JB & the So-Called Cells. It was in learning to play and sing harmony26 on this song that I first noticed the times (1:39 & 2:04) when John and Paul sing “Doc Robert!”
George Harrison was known as “the quiet Beatle,” and compared to the always-on Paul, the sarcastic John, and the quippy Ringo, he could seem shy and retiring. That persona (which from all accounts is not true) is captured int the fantastic ode to lovable-losers, “I Want to Tell You.”
Look, I’m just saying, not necessarily from personal experience, that if you were a young college-age guy with not-great self-esteem and terminal timidness around women you found attractive, then this song may have connected with you. The song’s great from the beginning, featuring a fade-in and rolling guitar riff, combined with Ringo’s authoritative snare drum. John and Paul’s backing vocals, as usual, are spot on, as is Paul’s bass. George’s voice is affecting, as he draws out the “Tee-ee-lll you …” And the dissonant piano in the second half of the verses is perfect. And how about that fill Ringo plays at 1:11! At the end (2:18), the boys sing a “melisma,” a word I just learned two minutes ago.
I hate to keep typing it, but it just seems like this record can’t get any better, any more diverse, and then an R&B number appears! Paul’s “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which, oddly enough for a song recorded in 1966, was the last U.S. top ten song the band recorded together, hitting #7 in 197627.
The first note I wrote about this song is “Ringo’s hi-hat!” I love that sound against the cool horn fanfare. This is a fun song, and Paul’s bass is terrific. It sounds like a magical, love-at-first sight number, but Paul has actually said the lyrics are an ode to pot! (Oh well – it can mean what you want it to mean!) There’s not much guitar, until George enters at 1:49 with typical George-genius! Paul sings the heck out of the song, really using his best shout-y voice, especially on that outro! By the way, I don’t love a lot of covers of Beatles’ songs, but Earth, Wind and Fire’s version of this song is pretty great (it has more guitar than the original!) and hit #9 in 1978 (and #1 on the Billboard’s Soul Chart).
Okay, okay, for a final song on Revolver, what could The Beatles do to possibly cap off all of that? If you were a music fan in ’66 and just heard all those songs, what would you expect to close the record? Could you even fathom something like “Tomorrow Never Knows”?
Ringo’s snare and tom pattern drives the song forward continuously, as does Paul’s monotone bass. Those seagull sounds are actually a tape loop of Paul laughing, distorted for the record. In fact, there are tape loops all over this song, providing an otherworldly sound that John was looking for. The lyrics are all about meditation and psychedelic drugs and way too much for me to go into here, but the title is never mentioned in the song28. It’s a simple song, structurally, but so much occurs – the violin-like tapes at 0:40, the truck horn at 0:50, the squiggly solo at 0:59, George’s backwards solo at 1:09 … I mean, I can’t keep up. It’s a sonic treat, and shows the band was – (is?) – just light-years ahead of the curve. This song had to be the final song on the album – there’s nothing else they could have done!
I’ve heard people say that this is the last song The Beatles should’ve released, that Revolver was the apex and should’ve ended it all. Many critics and music fans have called it the best album of all time29. (Or thereabouts.) I agree that the band never was better, but I sure don’t think that the remaining albums – Sgt. Pepper’s, White Album, Abbey Road, Let It Be – were extraneous! And aside from all the music I loved on them, it gave them more time to perfect their album covers!
Keep watching this space – I’ll be doing some more music writing soon! Just because The Beatles records are complete doesn’t mean I don’t have more to say!
TRACK LISTING: “Taxman” “Eleanor Rigby” “I’m Only Sleeping” “Love You To” “Here, There and Everywhere” “Yellow Submarine” “She Said, She Said” “Good Day Sunshine” “And Your Bird Can Sing” “For No One” “Doctor Robert” “I Want to Tell You” “Got to Get You Into My Life” “Tomorrow Never Knows”
Abbey Road 1969, Apple Records. Producer: George Martin. Purchased Cassette, 1986.
IN A NUTSHELL: Abbey Road fully encapsulates everything that is wonderful about The Beatles. It also recapitulates their entire career, from doo-wop (“Oh! Darling”) to psychedelia (“I Want You,” “Sun King”) to singer/songwriter balladry (“Here Comes the Sun”). As if to lay to rest any doubts about their talents, the album is chock full of amazing songwriting (from all four members!), incredible vocal harmonies, and even some knockout solos from the boys. It’s the most-perfect final album of any band ever.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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Star Wars30opened in American theaters in May 1977, a week before my tenth birthday, making me a prime member of the film’s target audience. The film had spaceships, lasers, robots, bigfoots, a swashbuckling cowboy and a princess (with no kissing!), plus a teen-ager who learns to fight with a lightsaber. It came at a time when I was young enough that I still played with GI Joes. All those Star Wars action figures were aimed directly at me, and my dad’s wallet.
But my family were targets the marketers could rarely hit. We weren’t destitute by any means, but we were definitely lower-middle class, a family of five living on a machinist’s hourly wages. We were fed and clothed, and had a few “nice things,” like bikes and church outfits and a handheld calculator that cost more than all three bikes together, and that was hidden in my mom’s desk, requiring special permission for my sisters and I to access it. But non-necessary expenditures were rare, and anything that could be found as a “hand-me-down” was. Those GI Joes that I still played with had come from my older cousins.
Also, my parents weren’t movie-people. It cost money to go see a movie. Additionally, they required leaving the house, and possible mingling with people, an experience my dad, in particular, found difficult. My parents never went out on “dates.” They were content to watch movies on TV with annoying commercial interruptions, years after they’d been released in the theaters. Throughout the 70s I only recall them going to three movies in the theater: The Sting, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, and one other.
Everyone in my fifth grade class had seen the film, and I mean everyone. John H. claimed to have seen it 30 times, probably an exaggeration, given his well-known penchant for stretching the truth, and, frankly, his family’s well-known limited financial means. However, he could, indeed, draw an astoundingly accurate version of R2-D2 in chalk on the blackboard. And this being decades before the internet, and years before DVDs and even household VHS machines, he’d had to have gone to the theater more than once to draw such a great picture.
I figured there was no way I’d get to see Star Wars until it appeared on TV. I even discussed with my buddy, Bruce F., my only ‘wealthy’ friend with HBO, whether I could come watch it at his house, without commercials, when it finally ran. I thought it was hopeless to ask my parents to take me to an actual movie theater to see it, but I decided to give it a shot.
My dad told me he’d take me32. We went to see it one evening at a theater in downtown Lebanon, PA, and it was amazing. I will never forget the first time I saw Star Wars because 1) it meant so much that my near-hermit, movie-indifferent dad took me; and 2) it was such a cool movie!
I’ve thought a lot about it, and there’s only one other work that I so clearly recall experiencing for the first time, and that’s The Beatles’ Abbey Road. And I didn’t even have all the family baggage surrounding that experience!
It was a summer evening in 1986, and I stopped to shoot hoops in an elementary school playground with a guy named Jeff. He had a boombox in his nearby car and was blasting the tape. Some of the songs I knew, some of them I didn’t, but one trip through the entire album while we played HORSE and one-on-one, and it immediately became my favorite record. The sounds, the melodies, the guitar, the feeling, the ending … it made an impression. Of all the records I love, I can’t recall my first listen as clearly or as deeply as I recall that first Abbey Road.
Abbey Road turned out to be the final album the band ever recorded. After the studio experimentation of Sgt. Pepper’s, the fraught individuality of “The White Album,” the band’s indifference to Yellow Submarine, and the awkward discomfort of filming the recording of Let it Be, (which was recorded earlier, but released after Abbey Road), it was to be a return to the camaraderie, synergy and musical focus that marked their earlier albums. Named for the recording studio in which they worked33, The Beatles’ Abbey Road is as good a final album as any band has ever recorded.
And John Lennon’s “Come Together” is as good an album opener as has ever been recorded.
The bass, the drums the whispered “Shoot me,” with the “me” obscured by echoing handclaps … it’s among the most identifiable 4 seconds in rock music history. The nonsense lyrics are fun to sing, and it’s actually John singing his own harmonies during the verses. The bass line throughout is one of the coolest ever. At 2:31 Paul plays a little curlicue at the end of a line, and you can hear a little bit of studio shouting, if you listen closely. Lennon plays the Billy Preston-like electric piano, and Harrison adds a terrific lead guitar. And the entire time Ringo proves he’s one of the most creative drummers in rock. At 3:13, a lengthy runout begins, and if you listen closely in the left side, you’ll hear Lennon’s great rhythm guitar. It’s a song that’s been played a million times that I never get tired of hearing.
“Come Together” is an obvious group effort, and teamwork is a feeling that permeates Abbey Road. Even on Harrison’s masterpiece “Something,” a certain Beatle-ness is evident that was missing on “The White Album.”
As with “Come Together,” the bass and drums are once again perfect and indelible. Paul’s widely ranging bass and Ringo’s slow tom rolls are perfection, and check out what Ringo does in the bridge (~1:14 on). Harrison’s guitar is also amazing, and his sound and slide work throughout, (on the solo, at 1:43, in particular) became a sort of template (perhaps unfortunately) for 70s lite-rock. As love songs go, the lyrics of “Something”, coupled with George’s voice, are among the best. And let’s not forget the wonderful harmonies throughout!
The collaboration among the band is even clear on songs on which part of the band is absent – for example “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which John considered “Granny music,” and so didn’t play along34.
It is a silly song, with goofy lyrics about a serial killer, but I do like the tuba-ish bass, which is played by Harrison. And it’s got that wonderful guitar throughout the choruses, pure Harrison in sound and style.
Of course, even while the boys sound like they’re playing nice together, there were still some hurt Beatle feelings. For example, John really thought Paul should’ve asked him to sing “Oh! Darling.”
But maybe those hurt feelings are why he played such amazing guitar on the song! It’s Lennon alone playing all those attacking slides in the verses and arpeggiated chords in the choruses. And it was revealed last year that Harrison actually played bass on the song! Just as Paul easily copped the “Harrison sound” in past guitar solos in, for example, “Taxman” and “Ticket to Ride,” Harrison plays a wonderfully McCartney-esque bass line throughout, changing things up every time through. (I particularly love the syncopated ascending run he throws in, about 2:28.) Paul sings the hell out of this doo-wop tune about a gal who left him, and the subtle backing vocals are perfect. Lennon finishes off the song with great harmonics.
With Harrison doing so much on the album – bass, songwriting, guitar – I find him to be the unsung hero of Abbey Road. He even helped Ringo write his second Beatles songwriting credit, “Octopus’s Garden.”
And of course, he played that super lead guitar! Lennon actually plays all the nice fingerpicking rhythm guitar. The bass is A+, of course, and I really love all the backing vocals, particularly during the great guitar solo (1:38), when they sound as though they’re under water! It’s a perfect Ringo song, his voice is great, and though the song is often criticized as just a glorified kids’ song, Harrison actually found the lyrics to be quite spiritual.
Perhaps they are. And maybe there’s something spiritual, in a mantra-way, in the minimalist lyrics of Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)35.”
Much like the way I used to dislike “Within You Without You,” on Sgt. Pepper’s, but found myself growing to love it, this song is now officially one of my favorite Beatles’ songs. There’s so much happening, from an almost jazzy beginning through a slow-building musical fire that’s repeatedly tamped down, to a droning, repetitive, wild outro, it’s a song that simply requires repeated listens. “Fifth Beatle” Billy Preston plays a terrific Hammond organ, and I noted so many times in this song where I went back and re-listened (Paul’s bass, 1:00; Preston, 2:00; harmonies, 2:05; Guitar solo with organ, 2:26; drums everywhere; Guitar 3:37, 4:05, 4:14, 4:19; studio shouting at 4:33) that, really, it would be ridiculous to list them all. Okay, so I just did, but basically I think you should go listen to this song a bunch of times in a row, on headphones. You’ll be happy you did. Listen for the extra hi-hat at 7:16, after which there are two more times through the pattern before the song abruptly cuts out.
More evidence of Harrison’s status as Album Hero on Abbey Road comes in the next song, one of the band’s most popular ever, “Here Comes the Sun.”
First off, that’s a cool video produced for the song last year. From the first notes of Harrison’s acoustic guitar, this song is perfection. Once again, McCartney’s rolling bass provides a great countermelody, and the backing instruments – a whooshing Moog synthesizer, a harmonium, electric guitar – give the song an uplifting sound. The lyrics celebrate, well, being alive, when it gets down right to it. The backing harmonies (by George and Paul – John doesn’t appear at all on the track) are brilliant. Ringo’s drumming is pretty straightforward, even through the 3/4 “it’s all right” sections. Then, from 1:30 to 2:12, during the “sun, sun, sun, here it comes” section,” he goes nuts with some of the coolest tom fills ever. It’s a tremendous song – upbeat, positive, fun to sing along to, interesting musically … I love it.
The rest of the album is unique and wonderful, and – for some people – almost as frustrating as “The White Album.” That album left some folks wondering “what if they’d truly collaborated and then pared the record down to the strongest 15 songs?” The second half of Abbey Road is made up of a medley of songs, and leaves some folks wondering “what if they’d completed all those snippets?” As for me – it’s interesting to think about, but I’m happy with the record as it is. The record builds, and packs an emotional wallop that may not have occurred with 9 more complete songs.
The beautiful “Because” is probably not part of the medley, but it melds so seamlessly with the rest of the songs, I usually think of it as the first bit.
Musicologist Walter Everett, in comparing the song to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” notes that both songs “arpeggiate triads and seventh chords in C♯minor in the baritone range of a keyboard instrument at a slow tempo, move through the submediant to ♭II and approach vii dim7/IV via a common tone36.” I think you should just listen to the beauty of the song, the voices, the sparse, hippy-ish lyrics, and not worry about all that. Then listen to this mix of vocals-only from the song, George, John and Paul (low register to high), each recorded three times to create 9 voices. Amazing.
Then comes the medley. NOTE: The Beatles(R) are very diligent in removing unofficial content from YouTube, etc. They only allow what they want floating around out there, which means … the version of The Medley that was on the original album, and the 2009 remix, is no longer available37 on YouTube as a single piece. The only full medley available is the version below, from 2019, when the band (i.e. McCartney) reshuffled things and put “Her Majesty” in between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” where it had (apparently) originally been before a last-second change (made by McCartney!) before the album release. Also, the arrangements are different, with different vocal tracks, missing orchestral tracks, fewer guitar solos … SO – I’ll have a link to each song, below, but I like to hear the medley as a medley, so I’ll leave this here, too, even though it’s not the way I’ve always heard it. Ugh. Artists. Such prima donnas. (Love you, Paul!!)
Famous for being one of the first rock songs about being screwed by the music industry, “You Never Give Me Your Money” introduces a melody on piano that will return throughout the medley. The song’s various sections are held together by the genius of Ringo. The chiming guitars (1:34) in the “magic feeling” section give me chills every time. I think it’s might be Harrison playing it, and the chiming continues (1:50) when a great guitar solo enters, maybe played by John? Either way, the dueling guitar work is stellar, and when the pair doubles on the solo (along with Paul on bass near the end of the solo, 2:12 – 2:32), with Ringo’s fills, it’s some of the best Beatles stuff on record. Every time I listen, I hear something new. It’s actually a rather sad song, particularly for a Beatles fan, and considering it’s the last album. “Step on the gas and wipe that tear away …”
Next comes “Sun King,” a kind of repeat of “Because,” vocal-wise, with awesome harmonies, this time on nonsense, faux Spanish lyrics. The guitar work of Harrison and Lennon is, once again, really sweet. And Paul plays a slightly distorted bass that sounds cool. And check out Ringo’s bongos! The song transitions quite suddenly with a nice Ringo fill into …
“Mean Mr. Mustard.” For all of Lennon’s complaints about Paul’s “granny music,” this composition of his is not too far from that description! Paul plays a fuzz bass38 and sings harmonies. This song, though short and somewhat insignificant (anyway, it’s my least-favorite part of the medley), really showcases how the voices of John and Paul blend together. It’s about a miser, with a sister named Pam, who turns out to be …
“Polythene Pam.” Those three acoustic chords that open the song are so simple and so grand next to McCartney’s swooping bass. Great harmony vocals, as usual, on a song about a particular woman (who seems much different than her brother). It’s one of Ringo’s most creative, terrific drum tracks, and George’s solo (0:49) adds so much, leading to (“Oh, Look out!) …
“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.” Actually, George’s guitar seems to continue right through into this song, with the same tone. He’s hero-George again, and his guitar work is my favorite part of this song. His guitar sound, coupled with the vocals is another place on the album where I always get chills. This is another awesome Ringo performance, too, with classic swingin’ Ringo hi-hat and Ringo-y fills, like 1:20 and 1:26. And don’t sleep on John’s 12-string acoustic, in the left channel! The song was written by Paul after an actual Beatle fan actually climbed into his house through his bathroom window.
The medley has about a 2 second break here, as the powerful “Golden Slumbers” is cued up. It’s one of Paul’s best vocal performances, fluctuating between sweet and powerful with ease on lyrics partially adapted from an old poem39. It also has some fine orchestral work (WHICH IS REMOVED FROM THE MEDLEY VERSION, ABOVE!!), arranged by George Martin. His strings never seem overdone, like the ones Phil Spector added to Let It Be, and it’s nice to hear him go out with a bang on Abbey Road, as well.
“Carry That Weight” is kind of the second half of “Golden Slumbers.” John was recuperating from a car crash, and doesn’t appear on either song (except vocals in the chorus), but hero George plays 6-string bass on both. It has a nice reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” and some nice electric guitar from George. It transitions quite suddenly into …
“The End,” is truly a bittersweet song – the final time the band played together, on the final song of the final album, and titled “The End.” And it really delivers a thrilling demonstration of the 4 lads’ musical abilities. It features (0:20) Ringo’s only recorded drum solo (unless you count those 8 bars in “Birthday,” which nobody does) and dueling guitar solos from the other three. The solos start about 0:54, and rotate, 2 bars each, in order – McCartney, Harrison and Lennon. They sound like they’re having so much fun!! I love listening to the distinctive styles of each, with Paul flashily ranging up and down the neck, George playing tricky bends and rockabilly-ish riffs, and Lennon mostly playing simple licks and dirty chords. When the solos end, about 1:30, and Paul’s piano remains, I once again feel the frisson, leading into the famous couplet from Paul: “And in the end the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make.” (I get a little misty typing it.) Somewhat lost in there is the fact that Harrison and Lennon play cool riffs behind the lyrics, and Ringo’s drums are orchestral and brilliant to close things out.
Perfection. And it wouldn’t be perfection without a little mistake: “Her Majesty.” As discussed above, this song was originally excised from the medley, then was mistakenly added to the end of the master tape, so it made it onto the record. It’s Paul on an acoustic, singing to the queen. And it’s really a song for our time, 2020: at 23 seconds long, it’s the perfect song to sing so I’m sure I wash my hands a sufficient length of time!
This was a long post – if you made it to the end, bless you. Leave a comment so I can thank you directly. But I love Abbey Road so much, I could have typed three times as many words. Long, long ago, on a playground far, far away, I had no idea it would still resonate with me as a 53 year old.
TRACK LISTING: “Come Together” “Something” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” “Oh! Darling” “Octopus’s Garden” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” “Here Comes the Sun” “Because” “You Never Give Me Your Money” “Sun King” “Mean Mr. Mustard” “Polythene Pam” “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” “Golden Slumbers” “Carry That Weight” “The End” “Her Majesty”
Rubber Soul 1965, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin. Purchased CD, ca. 1991.
IN A NUTSHELL: Rubber Soul is the record in which The Beatles established the template for guitar-based pop rock. In song after amazing song they distill everything wonderful about the guitar-bass-drums format into 2- to 3-minute bits of perfection. Each Beatle gets an opportunity to shine, and the Lennon-McCartney songwriting machine is running at peak efficiency. I can’t believe there are 2 Beatles albums I like better than this one … because Rubber Soul has everything I love!
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
Sometime around 8th grade I got into Classic Rock, the guitar-based music from the 60s and 70s. I think it was because of a Cheap Trick mirror I won by throwing darts at balloons at the Lebanon Area Fair in the summer of 1980. I’ve written before that the 70s and 80s were a very odd era in music-listening in that What You Liked really mattered to other people. You were judged by your professed musical tastes, and if you were a nerdy, sort-of-out-of-it teen with low self-esteem, it was difficult to be open and honest about your musical tastes for fear of harsh reprisals from tough kids in Iron Maiden concert jerseys, or popular kids who scoffed at everything. Classic Rock was a safe (and enjoyable!) music for which to express my appreciation. And my Classic Rock education taught me that I should be listening to blues-based music.
Songs by The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and Cream and Creedence Clearwater Revival and on and on and on demonstrated the basic model. (Even Steely Dan started with the blues, even though they took a path more toward the head than the groin.) Some of the stuff I liked in high school was very-much-not-blues-based, like Rush and Yes and U2. But these bands were guitar-oriented enough to be Classic Rock staples (even the then-new U2) so liking them wasn’t really going out on too much of a limb. But if I ever heard something new, the first test of whether to admit my fondness to my friends was whether or not I could pick out that familiar 1-4-5, verse-chorus-verse-guitar solo structure that dominated the AOR airwaves. I listened for big guitar riffs, howling vocals, and long, wailing guitar solos, and, very frequently, indirect (or direct) references to sex.
But I retained that early love of melody from my childhood. (I’m sure my fondness for Cheap Trick had as much to do with their melodies as that belt buckle.) There were lots of melodic songs that I liked on the 4 – 8 hours of MTV I watched per day. But being very attuned to others’ opinion of me, I kept it quiet when I liked something that fell outside that Classic Rock paradigm. I didn’t tell many friends about my fondness for Yaz40 or General Public or even R.E.M. The fact that I couldn’t wait to see (and hear) videos from bands like Eurythmics or JoBoxers or Romeo Void was unknown to those around me. (Well, my buddy, Dan, knew, but I tried to make it seem like I was mocking those songs I loved.)
This was also when I really started to get heavily into The Beatles. They were definitely a safe, “Classic Rock” band (and so, so much more). They had, indeed, also mined the blues and blues-based songs, particularly at the beginning of their career, so their music seemed to fall into the “typical” Classic Rock Band format41. But the longer I listened to them, and the less I cared about what others thought of my musical tastes, the more I realized that much of what I loved about the band had more in common with those artists I kept secret than the Classic Rock bands I thought I was “supposed” to like.
I purchased Rubber Soul in 1991, when I was really getting into the “alternative music” scene. I was listening to Belly and The Stone Roses and XTC and Juliana Hatfield and Pixies (and still R.E.M., of course) … When I first put on Rubber Soul to dive into its wonderful depths, it suddenly dawned on me that everything I loved about this “new” music had been done years before by my favorite band! Catchy melodies, concise structures, great – but not overbearing – guitar … it was all waiting for me right there in one album by my favorite band. And there wasn’t one big riff, howling vocal or wailing guitar in the bunch.
Okay, it’s true the album’s opener, “Drive My Car,” has a great riff, but it’s not the dominant feature of the song. It blends with everything else that’s great about the song.
First of all, there’s the most-perfect 5 seconds ever to open an album, Harrison’s guitar riff and McCartney bass line blending perfectly before Ringo’s snare roll gets the first verse underway. Lennon and McCartney sing co-lead on funny lyrics about an ambitious woman. The slide guitar solo, at 1:08, is actually played by Paul, and I love Ringo’s drums coming out of it, at 1:20. His drums and percussion are strong throughout, as he throws in both a syncopated tambourine and the second-best cowbell ever42.
On their previous album, Help!, the band brought folk music sounds into their repertoire, and on Rubber Soul they continue expanding away from bluesy pop. The biggest move coming in the sitar-based gem “Norwegian Wood.”
The sitar sits beautifully between acoustic guitars and McCartney’s rangey bass line. Lennon’s voice is terrific, supported by Paul’s brilliant harmonies in the bridge43. The lyrics tell a humorous story – until the end, when maybe he burns down the house? (Or maybe he lights a joint. I could see the mid-60s Lennon doing either.) The sitar hits a cool, droning tone coming out of the bridge (0:48) and check out the really great bass at 1:03 – you may need headphones to pick it up. Anyway, it’s perhaps the best 2 minutes in pop music. And it’s not even my favorite song on the record.
My favorite may very well be the soulful, moving “You Won’t See Me.”
Paul plays a rolling bass line that is perfectly set against the syncopated piano he also plays. Ringo’s drumming – the snare and tom fills, the tambourine – is perfect, and the “ooh-la-la” backing vocals from John and George are almost as brilliant as their harmonized “you won’t see me” (chorus) and “no I wouldn’t, no I wouldn’t” (1:31). The lyrics are a bit whiney, perhaps, and make me think that certainly Paul must have played some part in this deteriorating relationship, right? But I love the line “Though the days are few/ they’re filled with tears/ And since I lost you/ it feels like years.” But my favorite thing about the song may be the fact that it slows down! (Listen at 0:05 to 0:08 and compare to 1:50.) Ringo is well-known as one of the most reliable time-keepers in rock drumming, but on this song, Paul’s piano was the backing track, and it wasn’t as reliable as Ringo. The rest of the band, including Ringo, played along to the piano. There’s something about that slipping time that adds a feeling to the song.
“Nowhere Man,” I’m not going to lie, is a song I find to be rather ‘meh.’ But the 3-part harmonies are really terrific. The guitar solo, with it’s cool harmonic pitch finale, was played by both John and George (making it a duet, I guess?) George’s guitar is great throughout, actually. And John’s lyrics are the band’s first non-romance/relationship-oriented words. “Think For Yourself” is a Harrison song, with very Harrison lyrics (joining such titles as “Don’t Bother Me,” “You Like Me Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song” in George’s Mt. Rushmore of Crabby Songs). It features Paul on “fuzz bass,” that low, whirring lead-guitar-sounding part. Ringo’s drumming is outstanding,
By 1965, The Beatles were still in their lovable mop-top phase, still a couple albums and years away from their psychedelic hippie phase, yet John presaged those years with the love-fest beauty “The Word.”
It’s got all the classic Beatle stuff going on. The harmonies, the cool bass, and Ringo’s maracas and great fills, for example about 0:22, “so fine, sunshine” and before the second verse, 0:28. I love the guitar riff through the beginning of each verse (0:30, 1:00). It’s one of my favorite Beatles drum songs. I also love the super-high harmony the last two times through chorus. It’s got it all. And it’s followed by one of the band’s most enduring love songs, “Michelle.” Paul sings in French, the harmonies are stunning, the acoustic guitar is charming, and it deserves its status as a Standard.
A lesser-known song that should get more attention is the fun, weird, Ringo-sung “What Goes On.”
This is the only Beatles song ever credited to Lennon/McCartney/Starkey. Much like “Act Naturally,” on Help!, and “Honey Don’t,” on Beatles for Sale, Ringo finds success with a girl-done-me-wrong, country rock number, keeping things swinging on the drums and making the most of his limited vocal range. The rest of the band’s harmonies are fantastic, but what makes this song weird and wonderful are the clipped squawks and squiggles that Harrison lays down in the verses. Listen to the right channel in stereo – it’s so strange! Also cool – at 1:30, after Ringo sings “tell me why,” you can faintly hear John reply “we told you why!” You can also hear a little chatter right around Paul’s super-cool bass at 2:33.
John’s got several great slow songs on Rubber Soul, and one of the most underappreciated is “Girl.” It’s an acoustic ballad about, well, a girl, that John sings beautifully, loudly drawing breaths in the chorus. Paul and George chime in with cheeky (as the Brits might say) “tit tit” backing vocals. Another terrific John ballad44 is the wonderful “In My Life.” The music is great, and Ringo’s drumming is simple yet inventive, as is George’s guitar work. (Listen to the guitar behind George Martin’s harpsichord-like piano solo.) I’ve often thought that if John and Paul lived 200 years ago, Paul would’ve been a musician and John a poet. The lyrics from John are wonderful poetry.
It’s got a great opening acoustic riff, and features Ringo playing a matchbox instead of drums! (The Beatles were big Buddy Holly fans, and I wonder if this choice was at all influenced by Holly’s “Everyday,” in which Cricket drummer Jerry Allison slaps his thighs for percussion.) Paul’s voice has so many facets to it, and I love the version he displays here, with its frustration and hurt. I also dig the two-note organ in the chorus, because it’s played by Ringo, and also George’s riff after the organ. Actually George is great throughout, as is Lennon’s acoustic rhythm guitar. The song’s so good. Have I called a song on this album my favorite yet? If not, this is it45
The catchy “Wait,” which features Harrison on a tone pedal, changing the volume of his guitar, is a cool song with on-the-road lyrics reminiscent of “When I Get Home” and “P.S. I Love You.” Lennon and McCartney share lead vocals, and Ringo again contributes excellent, Ringo-y fills, but Harrison’s guitar steals the show.
George steals the show once again on “If I Needed Someone,” one of my favorite George songs ever.
George’s 12-string Rickenbacker riff establishes an immediate feeling, a sound I recognized in the R.E.M., Ride and XTC I was listening to in 1991. Paul’s bubbling bass line is perfect, as usual, as are Ringo’s drums. But what I really love is the three part harmony that starts in earnest just before the second verse, about 0:17. It’s called a love song from George to girlfriend Patti Boyd46, but its lyrics are rather, well, ambiguous. Explaining to a woman that if she goes to all the trouble to “carve your number on my wall” that in return “maybe you will get a call from me” is hardly Romeo Montague-level courting. “If I had some more time to spend/ then I guess I’d be with you my friend” aren’t exactly the words one whispers into a lover’s ear. But I don’t come for the lyrics, I come for the sound, and this sound is excellent.
The Beatles were always exploring and constantly reinventing what people thought about pop music. They started out playing blues and R&B, but grew into a band that could write and play almost anything. This record demonstrated that all the stuff I’d grown up listening to – from plastic AM pop to leathery Classic Rock, from crystalline MTV fare to the flannel of alternative rock – was right there in one place on Rubber Soul.
TRACK LISTING: “Drive My Car” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” “You Won’t See Me” “Nowhere Man” “Think For Yourself” “The Word” “Michelle” “What Goes On” “Girl” “I’m Looking Through You” “In My Life” “Wait” “If I Needed Someone” “Run For Your Life”
A note: The Beatles are NOT Boomers – they were born during WWII, and so are part of The Silent Generation. Boomers are generally said to have been born between 1946 and 1964.
I saw The Lemonheads in SF in ’93, and Hole opened for them. Courtney Love and Hole were absolutely fantastic. I went in thinking she and her band were sort of phony-baloney, so I was truly blown away. However, Dando was clearly not up to performing that night. He almost fell asleep while singing. By the second half it seemed like some other drug kicked in, and the final third of their set was a blast. Roles were apparently reversed in this Variety-reviewed show.
Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out in his podcast Revisionist History that Country & Western music is stereotypically sad because its lyrics are generally very specific, as opposed to Rock lyrics.
There’s a great scene in the amazing 1980-set TV show Freaks and Geeks where Seth Rogen’s character, Ken, is wondering whether he’s gay, and so listens to David Bowie albums to help himself find out.
Happy 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the USA! In a high school speech class of mine, a girl gave a talk on the Amendments to the Constitution, and when she got to the 19th, commonly described simply as “Women’s Suffrage,” she stated it was put in place so that women would no longer suffer.
The program was headed by a Black woman, so I guess it’s understandable those particular white people disliked it.
Actually, the full title is When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right.
Actually, the full title is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
The bass is by Sebastian Steinberg, a guy who grew up near where I live and who’s friends with my buddy! I’m three-degrees separated from Fiona Apple!
To be clear, I do not think the Stones’ songs are shit. (Mostly).
Then again, if Bezos lost 95% of his wealth he’d still have $9B, and maybe we’d have a decent healthcare system. Oh, but I guess he did ‘earn’ all that money himself … get the fuck outta here.
This is according to most references. Some have said it’s an Indian musician.
McCartney doesn’t appear on the track. He left the studio due to an argument.
I’ve had friends listen to it on repeat after bad breakups.
This sound is apparently achieved by Automatic Double Tracking, technology developed at Abbey Road Studios specifically for Beatles records.