Kronomyth 5.0: FOR EVERY FASHION, CHURN, CHURN, CHURN. In 1967, The Byrds were flying high. Two years later, they were struggling to stay aloft, but that’s a subject for another day. The Byrds’ Greatest Hits is a cash-in compilation from Columbia that features the most popular songs from their first four albums. You’ll find Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” here, as well as Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney,” and Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” “All I Really Want To Do” and “My Back Pages.” Maybe they should have called this Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits. I would tell you that the whole psychedelic folk thing backfired on The Byrds, but what do I know? Not nearly as much as the critics who championed the band’s work as timeless, only to turn their backs on them two years later. (In fairness, many critics continued to warmly receive their new works even amid cooling commercial interest.) What I always liked best about The Byrds was their individuality. There were those catchy Gene Clark songs, something strange and beautifully elusive from David Crosby and a weird, tuneful trip or two from Jim McGuinn, with Chris Hillman’s country contributions coming a little later. The psychedelic folk covers of Dylan and Seeger were initially electrifying, but quickly acquired a novelty factor while selling the band’s own songwriting skills short. History will, of course, remember “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It will not, however, remember “All I Really Want To Do” or “The Bells of Rhymney,” and it shouldn’t, especially when there are so many album tracks that better bespeak the band: “I See You,” “I Come And Stand At Every Door” and I can think of a dozen more.
Kronomyth 9.0: WEASELS SEIZE HELL BY THE SHORT HAIRS. A collection of live and studio recordings from the “difficult” years of 1967, 1968 and 1969 that didn’t make it onto the proper albums Lumpy Gravy, Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich et al. Frank Zappa makes a meal out of these leftovers; in fact, it’s easy to approach this as the next new Mothers record, since it’s very similar in construction and quality to Burnt Weeny Sandwich. You’ll encounter tantalizing melodies in complex classical/jazz arrangements, avant-garde experiments (e.g., “music” scored for laughter, howls and nose), smart send-ups of contemporary popular music and relatively normal blues/rock songs delivered with fire and precision. In other words, more or less the same fare as Weeny, with the caveat that nothing on Weasels is quite as clever as “Holiday In Berlin” or “Little House I Used To Live In.” In another universe, these might have ended up as outtakes added to the late-century parade of Zappa/Mothers remasters. One can envision “Oh No” as a perfect addendum to We’re Only In It For The Money, if one is inclined to envision such minute details of an alternate future at all (one would think not), or “Didja Get Any Onya” as a detour during Weeny’s “Holiday In Berlin.” Over the long and langorous years, snippets of Weasels have popped up in my mental radio as much as the other Mothers recordings, and I find myself on strange occasions silently mouthing “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” or reconstituting one of its cacophonous passages from dried memory. Weasels does feature a good amount of calculated noise (albeit meticulously scored), which can feel like having your brain poked with a stick for forty minutes if you’re not inclined toward the avant-garde.
Kronomyth 6.0: AIRPLANE AGAINST THE WORLD, MOTHERFUCKER. Click. Ah, there it is, that soothing sound as another piece is added to the Jefferson Airpuzzle. You’ll indulge me my strange obsession, I’m sure, peering over my shoulder to see what I’m scribbling while the tigers crouch in the corner and smile. Never mind the tigers, since I’m the only one who sees them anyway: the beggars’ banquet table as unholy altar, the empty banquet table of the dead, the empty rest-rooming place of a legend. We’ve talked before about the shifting spectrum of music in the late 60s, from black to rainbow to red, white and blue. You could hear it in the music of The Rolling Stones and on Volunteers too. Any conversation of Jefferson’s sixth should really begin and end with its two revolutionary anthems, “We Can Be Together” and “Volunteers.” But the conversation doesn’t end there. There are side conversations that must take place around the contributions of Nicky Hopkins, who gives their music a more serious dimension, and the inspired lead guitar work of Jorma Kaukonen, wielder of psychedelic lightning bolts. And then there’s that troublesome card facing us on the table, the mutinous lovers, who seem to wrest more control of the airplane with every album. Or we could talk about the band’s newfound affection for the country (“The Farm,” “Good Shepherd,” “A Song For All Seasons”), which effectively replaces the psychedelic experimentation of past albums and pre-figures the direction that the Dead would soon take. It’s a lot to discuss, more than I care to do really, and any discussion would omit some important detail anyway, as there are so many important details to capture. The band’s dark and stormy voyage through “Wooden Ships” could consume one thousand words alone. I could spend another thousand or more on “Eskimo Blue Day” and “Hey Fredrick” each. As we’ve already established, though, these reviews are merely the scratching of a nervous itch, a missing piece of discographical detail to be added, catalogued and applied as a soothing salve to an anxious mind. For your troubles, I’ll give you a short summation of Volunteers. It’s the best album from the band’s classic lineup and also their last, showing a newfound interest in the burgeoning country-rock scene, marked by the stellar musical contributions of Jorma and Nicky Hopkins (last seen at Beggar’s Banquet) and displaying an ever-increasing depth of songwriting from Paul Kantner and Grace Slick. It also contains the band’s most succinct counterculture anthems. You can lament the slow disintegration of Jefferson Airplane, but it’s unlikely they would have reached greater heights than Volunteers.
Kronomyth 6.0: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. This is basically Frank Zappa making an orchestral jazz/rock record on Dick Bock’s dime, with wonderful results. Bock had signed French violin sensation Jean-Luc Ponty to his World Pacific Jazz label but, frankly, didn’t know what to do with him. Frank did. He assembled various Mothers and talented others into an ad hoc, all-star band and gave them some of his most daunting compositions to reinterpret in a jazz fusion and small orchestra setting. The album’s centerpiece is the nearly 20-minute “Music For Electric Violin And Low-Budget Orchestra,” on which Zappa makes his most compelling case yet for consideration as a serious modern classical composer. In fact, King Kong is the first album where Zappa casts himself primarily in the role of composer; he steps into the fray only once, for the lone Ponty original, “How Would You Like To Have A Head Like That.” Ponty, for his part, finally gets some great material to work with, not to mention some great studio musicians including Ernie Watts, John Guerin, Wilton Felder and Vince DeRosa. King Kong also marks the first collaboration between Frank Zappa and George Duke, who would go on to become a permanent fixture in the Mothers. In every way, this is a quantum leap in Ponty recordings; nothing he recorded before this was as revolutionary or mind-expanding. Ponty’s violin also brings a more melodic touch to the material; “Idiot Bastard Son” has never sounded so charming, and the version of “Twenty Small Cigars” recorded here is simply gorgeous (Zappa would revisit this on Chunga’s Revenge). King Kong is a work of musical genius, a high point in the early catalog of Ponty and Zappa. Honestly, there was little in Ponty’s previous work to suggest a convergence of styles between the jazz violin prodigy and the brooding composer, but there’s no denying that the pairing is magic. Dick Bock deserves a lot of credit for bringing the two musicians together and putting artistic ideals over commercial interests; this album is as much a part of his legacy as Zappa’s or Ponty’s.
Kronomyth 4.0: THE MASSY GATES OF PARADISE ARE THROWN WIDE OPEN, AND FORTH COME IN FRAGMENTS WILD SWEET ECHOES OF UNEARTHLY MELODIES. Rick Wakeman jumped the shark on Journey to the Center of the Earth. On No Earthly Connection, he jumps Stonehenge. Even by prog’s permissive standards, this is indulgent nonsense, purporting to be “based on a future, autobiographical look at music, the part it plays in our pre-earth, human and afterlife.” And yet, among Wakeman records, No Earthly Connection is a musically rich endeavor. It requires no small amount of faith, but in exchange you’ll be treated to a fantastic journey of sights, sounds and some surprisingly passable singing from Ashley Holt. Again, I’m reminded of the best parts of Journey (i.e., the songs) distilled and strung together into a proper album of music. The English Rock Ensemble had swelled to a solid supporting troupe, now featuring John Dunsterville on guitars, Roger Newell on bass and an actual horn section of sorts in Martyn Shields (trumpet) and Reg Brooks (trombone). Financial pressures would shrink the Ensemble with time, but on No Earthly Connection it might be said that Wakeman had his best support since Yes. The albums from Rick Wakeman through Criminal Record are ambitious and impressive, few moreso than No Earthly Connection. In fact, this may be The English Rock Ensemble’s finest moment, if you care. The array of keyboards from Wakeman also plays out nicely; no Birotronic mishaps here. Go in with an open mind and open ears, and you’ll make a connection with this album.
Kronomyth 4.0: BUGGER NIGHTS. Among the sunkissed memories of my past are the two odd-dozen 8-tracks I had purchased as a youth, shortly after acquiring an all-in-one Lenoxx stereo system for my birthday. It was a candybox collection for a child: David Bowie, The Moody Blues, ELO, Iggy Pop, Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton, Genesis and, as fate would have it, The Tubes. What Do You Want From Live was my introduction to The Tubes, and it wasn’t long after listening to it that I purchased their first album. Who could resist them after hearing “Boy Crazy,” “Mondo Bondage” and “White Punks On Dope?” In fact, I’m pretty sure I played the fourth track of that cassette (a meaningless reference to anyone under forty) until it broke. At the time of its release, the concert double-album was a rite of passage for rock bands, beginning with the success of records like Kiss Alive and Frampton Comes Alive. The Tubes might have seemed an unusual choice for the honor, since they weren’t a household name and their last album, Now, had been a commercial and critical disappointment. Their live show, however, had always been a source of strength for the band: an outrageous mixture of spectacle, sarcasm and soft porn. Of course, you would never know any of this from the album cover, which inexplicably appeared as though the real cover had been scrapped at the last minute and replaced with a censored version. (As a band of artists, they were sometimes too smart for their own good.) Once purchased and opened, all was revealed, but you have to wonder how many more copies of this record would have sold if Fee, Re and the girls had appeared on the cover. Recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, What Do You Want From Live is both an excellent introduction to The Tubes and a nice supplement to their first three records that includes about half a dozen songs, covers and medleys not available elsewhere. Highlights include everything from the first album, an extended version of “Smoke” that now makes perfect sense and Roger Steen’s “Show Me A Reason.” An honorable mention goes to the Johnny Bugger performance at the end featuring a rip-roaring version of “I Saw Her Standing There” and the original “I Was A Punk Before You Were A Punk.” As a relic from a bygone era, What Do You Want From Live deserves a good remastering with some bonus tracks. Someone, anyone?
Kronomyth 1.0: CHERRYPICKING. History will show that The Beatles died with a confused whimper. The album that should have come before (Let It Be), came after, and any hopes of a peaceful afterlife were thrown into disarray by McCartney, a collection of musical sketches that offered only tantalizing glimpses of the band’s former greatness. Maybe the future wouldn’t sound like Paul screwing around in a home studio, John and Yoko screaming and George’s imaginary soundtracks, but it sure seemed that way until All Things Must Pass and John’s Plastic Ono Band arrived. It’s probably fair to say that no Paul McCartney album has been so pored over and cherrypicked as his first. The album does contain a few songs that could have easily found their way on the next Beatles album, and I suppose half the fun of listening to McCartney is imagining what “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Teddy Boy” and “Every Night” would have sounded like with the contributions of John, Paul and George. More than half of the album, however, is throwaway junk (ironically, “Junk” isn’t one of them—in fact, it might be one of his prettiest melodies ever). As an experiment in do-it-yourself home studio recording, McCartney reveals Paul to be a passable guitarist but an inept drummer (Ringo made it look easy, didn’t he?). Linda provides vocal harmonies in a few places, and if she’s not always exactly on key, just be thankful that she didn’t push for her own album (coughko). Although Paul would try harder on later albums (more or less), his career (with and without Wings) has largely been marked by its self-imposed exile and resulting stunted development. More than any of the other Beatles, Paul has sought the path of a true solo artist since leaving the group. It’s a lonely road sometimes, occasionally quiet and unremarkable, but you’ll see and hear things along the way that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Fela doesn’t seem to have as a much on his mind on Open & Close—a new dance and people who don’t do their jobs correctly dominate the discussion—but there’s a lot happening in the music. The most significant change occurs in the guitar chairs, as Fela employs two guitarists for the first time (Tutu Srunmu on rhythm guitar, Ohiri Akigbe on tenor guitar) to give the arrangements an added texture and richness. Fela also contributes a lot of musical ideas on top of the music with his loose, semaphore-styled keyboard playing. (Is it just me, or does he sound like he’s wearing mittens when he plays?) If Na Poi was a step back in terms of musical development, Open & Close is clearly a step forward. The opening moments of “Swegbe And Pako Part 1” slow down the Afrobeat sound and arrive at something completely new, before pursuing a more distinctive groove, and it’s this kind of experimentation that makes Open & Close an exciting discovery for Fela’s fans. With some lineup tweaks along the way, Africa ’70 had grown even stronger; bass player Ayo Azenabor, while not as pronounced as his predecessor, has a certain nimbleness that blends nicely with the sounds around him. The closing “Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbogodo” is the only overtly political track, recounting a military uprising against colonial rule, but even here the mood is upbeat and light on its feet. The pervading feel on Open & Close is one of confidence and professionalism. Some of Fela’s albums felt like hurried first takes. Open & Close, by contrast, feels well rehearsed and is nearly perfectly executed. Here, the music takes center stage while the politics take a brief rest, resulting in one of his most refreshing records.
Kronomyth 5.0: WONDEROUS STORIES. It’s a cruel madness that goads me in this Sisyphean task (another day boulder, another day wiser) and leaves me crushed by my own shortcomings as a critic. There are no new words, nor novel arrangements of them, that will tease any insight from Tale Spinnin’ not already examined, illustrated and catalogued by more clinical and patient minds than mine. Nothing I add will advance your curiosity an inch, I’m afraid. Mysterious Traveller had been a fascinating travelogue, a point I somehow never get around to mentioning in my review of it (as worthless as the common words it uses). Tale Spinnin’ is another journey of sound, sometimes through lush landscapes, ingenious and indigenous. The Shorter-Zawinul expedition expands the search party with Brazilian percussionist Alyrio Lima, drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and the mysterious presence of The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO), a towering altar to the new electronic gods of the digital jungle. The electronics prove to be nothing more than a big, expensive bug zapper, crackling and buzzing in the background, but Ngudu is an important addition, giving the rhythm section a much-needed snap not heard since, well, never. Highlights this time include “Man In The Green Shirt,” a classic in the making that invariably invites the words “joyful” and “exuberant” onto the printed page, the sexy/funky “Between The Thighs” (dreams of “Cucumber Slumber”) and the middle eastern exotica of “Badia.” For Zawinul, the creative process involved composition and re-composition; a middle might become a new beginning, for example, if it told a better story. Tale Spinnin’ is best approached as a collection of musical stories, featuring rich settings that the listener can inhabit. The dynamic between Shorter and Zawinul is interesting here, musician and mad scientist, as Z mixes all manner of sound into his alchemical creations and Shorter carries the melodies unbruised through the turbulence. The albums from Mysterious Traveller through Heavy Weather represent the band’s most fertile musical phase; all four should be collected, cherished and championed. And, now, I have a tub to clean…
Kronomyth 7.0: THE END OF THE ROAD? Start with a guitar riff that cracks like thunder. Add an irresistible beat that hits on the two and fours like a hammer. Mix in a bottom end that’s as smooth as butter. Heat it up with the hellacious vocals of Bon Scott and top it all of with a brief, brilliant guitar solo that keeps you hungry for more. Highway To Hell is the perfect formula for how to make a great rock and roll album. AC/DC had released great albums before this, but Highway took it to a higher level. The first side of music is one of the most powerful plastic faces in rock and roll history, from the breathtaking beginning of “Highway To Hell” through Bon’s sexually charged “Beating Around The Bush.” The production team of Robert Lange and Tony Platt does a stellar job of cleaning up the band’s act, at least from a sonic perspective. The space between the instruments gives the music a clarity lacking on their last album, Powerage. The record labels had less success cleaning up the band’s message; Highway To Hell is as unrepentantly dirty and profane as anything the band had recorded. (As a Christian, this would seem to present a conflict. I reconcile it by remembering that God uses all things for his glory. For more on that matter, see Proverbs 18:7.) It’s hard nowadays to separate this music from the myth of Bon Scott, who died before the band’s next album. Is Highway To Hell the best album that Bon released with the band? In some ways, yes, although I could just as easily champion his performances on Let There Be Rock or Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. But it would be a mistake to think that Bon left on a high note. His final words on record are a dated (though typically topical) reference to Robin Williams’ Mork character, his final moments were spent passed out in a car. Highway To Hell is one record where myth and music don’t intersect neatly; it’s a great rock and roll album that deserved a great encore—and got one, but with a different singer on stage.