Lou Reed: “Walk On The Wild Side” (1972)

I’ve always seen this as a bisexual bookend to “All The Young Dudes,” maybe because I like books and (despite that, apparently) have a limited number of analogies. In the US, the single version edited out the verse about “giving head,” as that was deemed offensive. (Oddly, calling the backup singers “colored girls” wasn’t, although I’m not offended by either. I was offended when the song was used in car commercials. If the cars in the ads were trolling for transvestite hookers, I’d have given the advertisers a free pass, but they weren’t.) The flip side is “Perfect Day,” one of my favorite tracks from Transformer. This track would have turned out a lot darker without Bowie’s glam gilding; here, it reminds me of “Life On Mars” with its pleasant piano accompaniment. The last line, “You’re going to reap just what you sow,” is pure magic. Sends chills down my spine every time, just like Radiohead’s “For a moment there…” Coincidence? Maybe that or karma.

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Lou Reed: Transformer (1972)

Whether or not you bought into the idea of Lou Reed the bisexual glam rocker, the transformation from underground hero to solo superstar was now complete. It wasn’t that the songs of Transformer were radically different from the last two Velvet Underground albums, but that fans could finally focus all their attention and adulation on Reed as author, creator and icon. Between Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, it must have seemed that David Bowie was conscripting all the old punks into his new dude army. It is an unusual alliance; Reed was never a glammer, although if the title came with Mick Ronson I’d take it too. Of course, Reed didn’t need the reflected glory of David Bowie to shine, and Transformer isn’t that much different from what he was doing before. He would have written “Vicious” and “Perfect Day” without Bowie being on the same continent, let alone in the control room, but “Satellite of Love” (a brilliant approximation of Ziggy-era Bowie), “Make Up” and “Walk On The Wild Side” would have turned out much differently (if they turned up at all) with a different producer. What’s interesting here is that Lou Reed seems to inhabit the same debauched, burned-out beau monde as Iggy. Listening to “Andy’s Chest” or “Wagon Wheel,” you have the sense that Reed might be the one sane person in a crazy world. Reed tore up his dude card soon enough and people stopped talking about whether he liked boys or girls, but we’ve never really stopped talking about Transformer. It helped cement his status as a star, healed the hurt over the Underground’s demise and introduced a new hero for people who desperately needed one. It also provides about forty minutes of intense listening pleasure, in case you care about those things.

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Stanley Clarke/George Duke: The Clarke/Duke Project (1981)

Kronomyth 8.0: GEORGE AND STANLEY MAKE A CAMEO. When George Duke and Stanley Clarke signed with Epic to record an album together, the label apparently expected a jazz fusion album. I’m with the labels this time. As a fan of Stanley Clarke’s music (with and without RTF) and Frank Zappa, I was expecting a Journey To Love. Instead, what Epic and the rest of us got was a Top 40 R&B/disco album. Now, if you’d been paying close attention, you would have heard this kind of music creeping into Stanley Clarke’s records, so the commercial direction of The Clarke/Duke Project can’t be called a complete surprise. But if you’re expecting me to heap praise upon it, I would kindly point you in the direction of a different site, perhaps one called Discoography. I listen to Stanley Clarke records to hear him cut loose on the bass, not to sing “I Just Want To Love You.” In the record’s defense, it’s only about half an album of sappy disco music; the other half features smart funk that suggests Was (Not Was) (e.g., “Finding My Way”) and Cameo (e.g., “Let’s Get Started”). As a bonus, you’ll hear what is probably the funkiest version of “Louie Louie” ever recorded. The pair’s commercial acumen paid off when the album reached the Top 40 (and topped the Jazz charts according to Billboard, the same company that gave us the Hot Black Singles chart) and scored the biggest hit of Duke’s career with “Sweet Baby.” Clarke repeated the exercise on his next album, Let Me Know You, with inferior results, so if you’re interested in his disco phase, The Clarke/Duke Project is probably the best place to start. Or you could just ignore this altogether and go back to listening to “Inca Roads.”

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The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Kronomyth 1.0: BANANA REPUBLIC. The musical revolution of the late 1960s looked more like individual battles being fought by pockets of resistance. In California, they were rejecting the controlled expression of art. In England, they were rejecting the limitations of popular art. And in Andy Warhol’s New York pop factory, they were rejecting the conventional definition of art to find beauty in the unbeautiful. Velvet Underground & Nico is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of American rock music. There isn’t a single song on here that isn’t important, powerful and prescient. You could look at Andy Warhol’s soup can and question whether it was really art. You couldn’t listen to this record without understanding that the very definition of music had been inalterably revised. The unblinking intensity of “Venus in Furs,” the harrowing urban storytelling of “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” the European art-film aesthetics of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and the sonic experimentation of “European Son” mixed with mainstream pop music like oil and water. Fifty years later, it’s still shocking to hear this music. Upon its release, the album’s shockwaves extended only to a small cadre of saboteurs and iconoclasts. It would take years for the full effect of the Velvet Underground to reach the mainstream in the form of the popular punk/alternative movement of the late 80s. You can could write a book about this record and still miss some important nuance: the deconstruction of the Beach Boys on “Run, Run, Run” and its role in the coastal culture wars, Lou Reed’s blasé imagery of violence over the years (“There She Goes Again”), the death of the lead singer during “Heroin,” etc. For a highly experimental record, it’s a nearly perfect one. Personally, I would have preferred to hear Nico take the lead on “Sunday Morning,” or the band to explore “The Black Angel’s Death Song” more deeply, but I’m really inventing flaws that don’t exist. Velvet Underground & Nico isn’t simply one of the most important records from the 60s. It’s one of the most important from the 70s and 80s. They never made another one quite like it, although you can hear some of the same ideas in the band’s later work and, to a lesser extent, in the solo music of Nico.

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Robert Hunter: Jack O’ Roses (1980)

Kronomyth 3.0: THE LONE HUNTER. This is a true solo album: Robert Hunter singing and strumming on his lonesome in a London studio. Jack O’ Roses didn’t get a wide release and will cost you some coin today to acquire, which is a shame, since it’s an album that more people should hear. I’ll admit to being less than jazzed about the idea of Hunter without any help, but it turns out that he’s been honing his craft over the years. His vocals have rarely sounded so smooth (the Johnny Cash comparisons actually hold water this time) and he strums that guitar just fine. It’s interesting to hear Hunter’s interpretations of Dead classics such as “Box of Rain,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Reuben And Cérise,” but the real revelation occurs on the “Terrapin” suite. Here, Hunter has restored some lyrics that link it back to the “Lady of Carlisle” (via the Jack O’Roses) and presents the entire piece as a cleverly stitched story that bears a striking resemblance to Jethro Tull’s “Baker St. Muse” in spots. Truth be told, I expected this album to be a vanity project. Instead, it makes a compelling case for Robert Hunter as a solo artist; I’d pay to hear him after hearing this. Given simple adornment, the lyrics shine. More importantly, Hunter finally gets his say as to how these songs should be presented. It’s strange that Jack O’Roses hasn’t been re-issued on compact disc yet, especially in lieu of the endless archival releases that have been preserved in the digital domain. Once you’ve heard it, you won’t hear Hunter or these songs in the same light again.

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Herbie Hancock: Empyrean Isles (1964)

Kronomyth 4.0: EMPIRICAL MILES. This is the first truly great Herbie Hancock record, featuring the current Miles Davis lineup with Freddie Hubbard as the newly coronated cornet. It’s a heavy benediction for Hubbard, who rises to the challenge with one of his greatest performances on the opening “One Finger Snap.” This first track is fiery stuff played at breakneck speed with precision and soul, breathtaking in execution and rich in the musical possibilities brought into its expansive vista. The influence of Miles had a remarkable effect on everyone; compare this to the performance of Hancock and Tony Williams on My Point of View from the previous year, and you’ll swear that years have passed. Williams was still developing his trademark style, but the solo on “One Finger Snap” is a quantum leap in the right direction. The second track, “Oliloqui Valley,” is one of my favorite Hancock compositions of all time. Where the opening number rushes in, this song is cautious coolness that gives Hancock the spotlight. Ron Carter’s solo during “Oliloqui Valley” is classic; he literally pulls the song apart in a slow-motion dissection of his instrument. (The alternate take of “Oliloqui Valley” included on the expanded remaster features a less radical solo.) The classic “Cantaloupe Island” joins a storied line of tasty treats to come from Hancock’s amazing melon and outswings them all. The record ends on an experimental note with “The Egg,” an avant-garde exploration of sound and musical interrelationships that couldn’t be more far removed from “Cantaloupe Island” if they were Australia and Antigua. The earlier albums from Hancock, while enjoyable, were mere sketches compared to the masterpieces of Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage and Speak Like A Child, any one of which is likely to turn up in a list of the greatest jazz albums of all time.

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Joan Armatrading: To The Limit (1978)

Joan’s third album, and first with producer Glyn Johns, was a charmer; her third album with Johns, not so much. To The Limit is the weakest of her classic albums. There are no big hits, no breathtaking melodies, no heart-melting ballads. What you will find here are quite a few near-misses: “Barefoot And Pregnant,” “Wishing,” “Bottom To The Top,” “You Rope You Tie Me.” In a different setting (say, without the lyricon, which was always a strange musical beast) and, sorry, with a different producer (so much for services rendered, Mr. Johns), To The Limit could have been a better album. Or maybe the restless feel of the record reflects the artist’s fractured state of mind; I’m just some dork speculating on a computer, right? What I do know is that the albums before and after got under my skin, and this one kind of makes my skin crawl with its ungainly and difficult arrangements. The lovely live version of “You Rope You Tie Me” from Steppin’ Out suggests that the studio arrangements are the main culprit. You want “Baby I” to flow as smooth as “Warm Love” (it’s still a pretty great song) or “Barefoot And Pregnant” to jump with joy like “Show Some Emotion.” They don’t, instead limping along some of the time (“Let It Last”) or running too fast (“Taking My Baby Up Town”). You wish Joan would slow down, stop changing speeds, let the melodies breathe. The talent on To The Limit is obviously there, even if the mood is dour. But it appears the Glyn Johns honeymoon was over, and the man seems as baffled by her musical contradictions as previous producers. This might make my top 10 Joan Armatrading albums because of the creativity behind it, but top five, no.

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Tangerine Dream: Alpha Centauri (1971)

Tangerine Dream’s second album, Alpha Centauri, marks the beginning of their classic period. It’s a substantially different record than their first, recorded with a substantially different lineup. Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler had left, leaving Froese plus new recruits Steve Schroyder and an 18-year-old drummer named Chris Franke to fill the void. And fill it they did, with a new lexicon of space sounds that prominently featured synthesizers for the first time alongside guitar, drums, organ and flute. From the opening moments of “Sunrise In The Third System,” Alpha Centauri reveals a band on a (space) mission. Instead of alien and disembodied sounds, the music moves purposefully and builds in intensity, existing as a single organism toward a shared goal. Electronic Meditation was fascinating at times but often sounded like three people doing their own thing. On Alpha Centauri, it appears that Froese has taken control of the ship, and it’s a much smoother flight for it. The first track could be seen as a kind of decompression chamber that helps the listener get acclimated to the alien landscape of Tangerine Dream’s musical world. The thirteen-minute “Fly And Collision of Comas Sola” slowly builds a heroic theme that eventually crashes into chaos via an amazing drum solo from new member Chris Franke. Its abrupt ending is one of the great mindtricks in the electronic canon. The side-long title track features very sophisticated (for their time) recording techniques that bend traditional sounds into alien shapes; gongs, synthesizers and flutes are blended into what seems like the tuning of the orchestral cosmos. It’s on this piece that the classical comparisons hold; in some ways, “Alpha Centauri” is a pastoral tone poem for the space age, the post-nuclear progeny of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony in which Pan finds himself transplanted into a new world of strange creatures. If the band’s first album had seemed better suited to a horror film, Alpha Centauri is firmly in the science fiction camp. It’s one of the first truly great electronic records, and the first of many fantastic journeys to come. Later reissues of the album included both sides of the band’s mind-blowing “rock” single, “Ultima Thule,” plus the eight-minute atmospheric, “Oszillator Planet Concert.”

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Christopher Franke: The London Concert (1992)

Christopher Franke and Richard E. Roth mounted a performance of Franke’s works at the Royal Apollo Theatre in London, showcasing recent selections from his first solo album, Pacific Coast Highway, interspersed with some old and new material, which is captured on The London Concert. As live recordings go, this is a pristine affair; other than some enthusiastic applause at the end of the performances, this could pass for a new studio recording (which, I suppose, is the advantage of making music with machines). For Tangerine Dream fans, The London Concert is probably the safest musical entry point into his solo catalog. You’ll hear that the Highway selections are lighter fare, featuring what I’ve derisively referred to in the past as frothy melodies (“Purple Waves,” “Black Garden View”). The closing “Private Diaries,” one of two “bonus” tracks included here (bonus in the sense that they don’t appear to be from the original concert), is another perky entry that probably dates from the Pacific Coast period. Fortunately, The London Concert strikes a balance between Franke’s lighter and darker halves, with the new (at least to me) “Empire of Light” and “Vermillion Sands” recalling the turbulent Dream of old. Those two tracks plus the classic “Cloudburst Flight” and more recent “Dolphin Dance” will provide enough substance to satisfy the Dreamers. What The London Concert doesn’t provide is an answer to the question of why Franke needed to leave Tangerine Dream to make music (“Purple Waves”) that sounded a lot like contemporary Tangerine Dream. As I’ve said before, none of the Franke albums are compulsory purchases unless you enjoy new age music or mid-period Vangelis, with this being more compelling than most of them.

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Nico: Chelsea Girl (1967)

Bah! A petticoated pig in lipstick, this. Nico’s first solo album out of the Underground was a powerful declaration of artistic integrity… that the record label crapped all over in the form of encroaching and annoying strings and flutes. You can hear how special Chelsea Girl should have been on the simply adorned “Eulogy To Lenny Bruce.” Now, that isn’t to say that the orchestral touches don’t have a marzipan charm to them, especially on “These Days” and “Chelsea Girls.” In fact, listeners already familiar with “The Fairest of the Seasons” and “These Days,” both prominently featured in the film The Royal Tenenbaums, might have a hard time imagining this album without strings. But the added orchestration, done without the knowledge or consent of Nico, completely obscures her original artistic vision. I mean, who would listen to a line like “excrement filters through the brain, hatred bends the spine” (from “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”) and think yeah, a flute would go great right here? The genius of Nico is like a rose in the desert. Her music depends on aridity and a certain rigidity. Her later albums capture this, but they don’t feature the standout songwriting of Chelsea Girl. Jackson Browne’s contributions in particular shine, which is pretty amazing given the fact that the album’s other songwriters are named Lou Reed, John Cale and Bob Dylan. Chelsea Girl was supposed to be Nico’s coming out party, not Nico done up as some 60s party doll like New York’s answer to Marianne Faithfull. It’s still a beautiful record because all the ugliness is audible underneath, but it’s ultimately a flawed gem for the very reason that Tom Wilson and the labels tried to cover up the flaws. Someday, someone should release this album in an expanded avec/sans orchestra mix, if only to give Nico’s debut its due.

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